Karen, The Gaming Goddess

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Monday 12 January 2009

Parasite Eve, Part Three: CSI:NY (megalomaniac cellular organelles division)


The last thing I ever want to do with these recaps is produce passages that read like "I picked up the Zoo key. I opened the chest and got a shotgun. Then I went through the second door on the left and fought two monkeys and a zebra." So I hope you can forgive me for being a tad light on gameplay details in most of these recaps.

Besides, I assume you're all accomplished enough gamers that you know ALL ABOUT rummaging through other people's stuff in search of keys and consumables of mysterious origin.

Trust the NYPD, Or the Terrorists Win

PE19 It's the 'actually' that just makes it.

Day 2, Resonance, starts off with the NYPD trying to figure out just what the hell went down at Carnegie Hall last night, and Parasite Eve briefly becomes a police procedural. Normally I come down hard on games with long non-playable sequences, and the first half of Day Two is almost all cutscenes, but unlike a lot of games, this stuff was legitimately interesting the first time.

A particularly interesting sequence is the press conference, where Police Chief Baker cautions Aya not to give the press anything without going through him first, and Aya infuriates him by telling the truth at the event. To this day, I'm not sure who's right here: The gut reaction is Aya, because she is Telling the Truth, however, can you imagine how that news bite would go?

''Attention citizens of NYC: This just in, superpowers are real, there is a deranged mutant opera singer on the loose who can kill hundreds of people with a thought, and the police can't approach her for fear of officers bursting into flame. The only one who MIGHT be able to stop her is a 25-year-old rookie cop who looks like she weighs about 90 pounds soaking wet, capable of casting only the spells 'Heal', 'Scan' and 'Heal 2'. Residents are advised to stay in the house, run if they hear anything that sounds like Puccini, and try not to spontaneously combust. And now back to "Dancing With the Stars.''

PE21 Aya's suspicious survival does not go unnoticed by the press. Nice touch.

Baker is right when he says that the truth, if anyone even believes it, will only cause hysteria. However, the reporters' questions make it seem as though they already have a pretty good idea just what happened at Carnegie Hall and are digging for details, in which case lying outright will accomplish nothing except making people distrust the authorities on top of everything else.

The cover story that Baker is trying to put over is that the event was a terrorist attack engineered with flammable chemicals (and you know that you might have a serious problem there when a sophisticated terrorist attack using chemical weapons has become the lie that you tell to calm people down.) In 1998, terrorism was still pretty far off the average person's radar (at least in the US), and senseless attacks on non-military targets especially, so it seemed at the time like Baker was trying to pull anything he could think of out of his ass rather than tell the truth. Let's just say that time has been kind to Baker and his cover story.

There's a subtle thing going on here with Aya, Daniel and Baker, that before this incident Aya was the untried rookie whom everybody liked but didn't quite trust or respect, and her sudden unavoidable promotion to the most prominent field agent has turned the whole chain of command on it's head. People can give Aya any kind of orders they want, but she's the only one with any real power in this situation, literally and figuratively. She's afraid of Eve's cold, survival-of-the-fittest mentality, but in some respects she exemplifies it. The subtitle of PE is "The worst foe lies within the self." To its credit, usually it does interesting things with this idea without hitting you over the head with it. Usually.

I Can't Trust You With a Gun, But Here You Go Anyway


Another fascinating thing- what can I say, Day Two is just fascinating- involves Aya going to the weapons department and getting a rifle from gun-hating cop Torres, who gets his own tiny little subplot about firearms. I wonder: how many games have addressed guns?

Now I know, guns are to video games like snowflakes are to winter and sugar is to Fruit Loops, but when was the last time you played a game that actually had anything to say, whatsoever, about guns? Usually, you collect tons of weapons and use them all with abandon, and maybe if the game considers itself progressive, there will be some kind of vague anti-war message in there somewhere, and then you go right back to shooting. That's not as hypocritical as I'm making it sound: I can go to the Arms and Armor section at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and marvel at the beauty of the elaborate swords and crossbows and lances, and completely ignore the fact that those items were designed to help commit acts of violence.

So I don't expect every game that includes guns, which is a lot of them, to address the morals or the politics. In fact, I can understand why they wouldn't want to touch any of that stuff with a ten-foot pole. Nevertheless, Parasite Eve is the only game I've ever played that actually came out and took a stance on the role of guns in personal defense, and I think that's remarkable. I'll have more to say about it when the subplot culminates in Day Three.

By the way, if I was Queen of the world, the Metropolitan Museum of Art would be the final dungeon in PE3. Actually, if I was Queen of the world, the Met would be the final dungeon everywhere.

First Trip to Museum of Natural History, Also: Crazy Man

WorldMap1 Our first introduction to the World Map: It's not exactly Manhattan, but it's definitely Manhattan-shaped.

After a harried phone call from Maeda, geeky Japanese scientist extraordinaire whom we will meet very soon, the NYPD learns of a scientist named Klamp who's researching mitochondria. Aya and Daniel take off to go talk to Klamp in the first of many trips to his lab in what will become a very memorable part of PE. As the game progresses, we get to watch Aya and Daniel get increasingly pissed and homicidal while Klamp gets increasingly batshit crazy, and the beauty of it is, he started out crazy. Eve is a memorable villain in that she's uniquely designed and the opera vocals that accompany her are a nice touch, but she's really a monster; she's only as interesting as the reactions she gets out of Aya. The most interesting villains are of course the ones whom you can understand and almost sympathize with, and Klamp fills that role. Additionally, there's a nice sense of real-world menace about him that's lacking from the more fantastical aspects of the game.

Klamp works in the Museum of Natural History, which doesn't make a helluva lot of sense considering his vocation, but it's an excuse to have the Museum as the final dungeon. The characters do comment on the strangeness of the location, which Daniel chalks up to Klamp not exactly being known for his people skills. Aya groans, anticipating what a huge pain in the ass dealing with this guy is going to be (Oh sweetheart, you have no idea), leading to a warning from Daniel not to act rashly like she did at the press conference. Now, I would just say 'Uh, Pot, Kettle, Black?', but Aya takes a different approach.

AyaDanielCar This sensible plea for moderation brought to you by Daniel "Punches Reporters in the FACE" Dollis.

AyaDanielCar2 I know that "Oh, SNAP!" is terribly overused by this point, but seriously? Oh, snap.

I'll continue with the amazing first meeting of Aya and Klamp next time, when I cover the latter half of Day Two. Now, you certainly don't want to miss that--


Tuesday 16 December 2008

FFTA2: Moogle Suicide Hotline

Moogle Hi, I'm a moogle! I'm adorable, and I enjoy music, good cooking, and putting my life in severe jeopardy with little to no provocation! Moogles do not fear death: we court her, like a lover.

I recently finished Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2. On the whole I think the first FFTA was superior: Too many of the new jobs are bland and/or redundant, the law system has become less onerous to manage but markedly less interesting, and the characters are not as likable. More importantly, the story is the most paint-by-numbers affair that I've ever seen in an RPG; It's like the developers (I hesitate to use the word "writers") sat down and wrote down a list of things that you usually see in RPG stories and made sure that they ticked all of the necessary boxes, but made no effort whatsoever to infuse any amount of spirit or charm into the game. In fact, after having experienced the story of FFTA2, I may have to re-evaluate other games that I've criticized on account of having generic stories: I don't think I truly knew what a generic story was until I played this game.

It's like when you want Honey Nut Cheerios, and your Mom comes back from the store with generic store brand "toasted oats" and tries to convince you that it's just as good as Honey Nut Cheerios. It's like, she couldn't even be bothered to get the generic equivalent of Honey Nut Cheerios, she got regular toasted oats. It's just insulting that anyone could think that you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. Anyway, there's inoffensively unoriginal, and then there's supermarket-store brand generic, and now I know the difference.

Elementalist A Viera Elementalist. Whatever qualms I might have with the game, the character art is gorgeous. I hope the next installment of this series abandons pudgy, minimalist character sprites in favor of Vanillaware-style illustrative sprites. If they make a game that looks like that, as far as I'm concerned the story could come out of a magnetic poetry set. With half the magnets missing.

Sometimes handheld RPGs in particular do better without stories. I just played the first hour of Etrian Odyssey yesterday, and was thrilled to discover that the game doesn't even put up the pretense of having a story: You get to an area with a mysterious dungeon, you create a few characters (whom you can name whatever you want, since there are no pre-existing characters because, oh yeah, there's NO STORY), and then some nice people suggest that you might like to explore the local dungeon. It's wonderful. In the first FFTA the story could be a bit intrusive, especially when you just wanted to experiment with building personalized units and you didn't really care about Mewt and Ritz and their childhood demons and whatnot, but it was actually a story that had a purpose. FFTA uses the old cliche of the characters transported into a fantasy world, but instead of giving you a morally unambiguous endorsement of the real world and the power of friendship (otherwise known as 'copping out'), Marche's friends have good reasons for wanting to stay in their fantasyland-- well, Doned does anyway. I really have no idea what was going on with Ritz' hair. Anyway, though the dialogue and plot twists never blew you away, it did provide some genuine, if limited, food for thought and added some resonance to the world of the game. The story in the sequel failed to even justify it's existence.

All that said, I did quite enjoy the game. The writers who were apparently forbidden from working on the primary narrative were allowed to develop the missions, and among the 400 possible missions there are a few gems. While the strategic potential of the law system has been reduced to a shadow of what it was, the simplified system does remove some of the tedium that plagued the original game at times. The units are a little more balanced, which means you don't have to feel like an idiot for using a unit that you like when you should be using a team of assassins and paladins. The two new races, Seeq and Gria, have some of the most interesting jobs and somehow manage to not be redundant in the already overcrowded world of Ivalice; the Gria in particular are a blast to play with. Finally, the loot system is like a gift from Square-Enix to obsessive gamers, and as a card-carrying RPG item collect-a-holic, I approve of this development. The card has a very shiny treasure chest on it, by the way.

Gria The Gria are female creatures with dragonesque wings who tend towards physical jobs. Powerful tanks that can fly? I'll take five, thanks.

But enough talk about story and gameplay and other trifles of that nature, and onto something that must be mentioned in relation to FFTA2: Suicide. This game has a ton of protect missions, which would have been fun were it not for the fact that the average guest NPC in FFTA2 seems to have a higher chance of attempting suicide than a bipolar Scandinavian with terminal cancer. Characters will attack enemies five times their level and be killed by the counter-attack, walk into a phalanx of enemy units with no weapons other than a small dirge (or possibly a musical instrument), do nothing that could possibly interpreted as trying to win the battle they are taking part in, and generally act as though they place no value on their own lives. My personal favorite incidence of this was when Penelo, armed with a flimsy wand, physically attacked a fighter, who then countered with a critical hit (300 damage), the resulting knockback from the crit pushed her off a cliff (200 damage), and the panel where she landed contained a trap with pop-up spikes (200 damage). Not only was she determined to kill herself, but the game intervened with the laws of probability to ensure that she succeeded. I would have been more impressed by Penelo's going out with a bang were it not for the fact that I failed the mission due to factors completely beyond my control.

Granted, if I was stuck with Vaan I might have suicidal tendencies too, but that was ridiculous.

On another mission, my one Viera Red Mage was tasked with protecting 5 Moogles, all of whom had jobs best suited for use in a circus environment, and their approach to the battle was more like interpretive dance than combat-- all they did was get as far away from my protective Viera as possible and perform random abilities clearly intended for the amusement of small children, while the opposing army cheerfully pummeled them to death.

Ultimately, what I have learned from the epidemic of FFTA2 character masochism is this: If you want to put tons of protect missions in your video game, great. But you'd better make damned sure that the AI doesn't absolutely suck.

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Parasite Eve, Part Two: Sewer Fun!

PEHeader My new graphic for all PE related entries. I'm rather fond of it.

I wanted to get this chunk of PE finished before moving onto other games, so as promised, here's more PE goodness-- including some new spells (yaay!), and some giant mutated frogs (boo!).

Parasite Eve is split up into 6 days; This entry covers the remainder of Day 1. The Day format is interesting in and of itself because games usually don't tell you how much "in-game time" has passed for the characters in the story. For example, in Final Fantasy X you can finish the game with 10 hours on your timer or 200, but you haven't the faintest idea how long Yuna's pilgrimage was supposed to have taken from a story perspective. A week? A month? Six months? We'll never know. PE takes a very different approach: You can spend 500 hours running around Central Park if you want to (and if for some God- forsaken reason you want to try the "300 pieces of Junk sidequest", you very well might find yourself doing just that), but you'll still be stuck in the second day. You always know precisely where you are in the story.

PE9 In this room Aya reads Melissa's diary and finds a key she needs to progress...or would have, if my inventory hadn't been completely full of crappy items at the time. I had to dump an item and then re-read the whole diary.

This may seem trivial, but typically in RPGs characters mature over some nebulous, but presumably substantial, period of time. In this game we know for a fact that Aya is dealing with a series of nightmarish scenarios that come at her one right after the other without allowing her a pause for breath. An understanding of the timeframe is essential to understanding Aya, who's desperation and anger are the hallmarks of a person under extreme stress rather than unforgivable character flaws. I mentioned last time that Aya doesn't always appear to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but in all fairness, most people would be rendered comatose halfway through Day 2 if they had to step into Aya's shiny platform shoes. Although considering the high aesthetic value and general desirability of said shoes, I might risk it anyway...okay, I think I'm getting slightly off-topic.

PE10 If you think Eve's mutated form is cool, wait until you see Aya's.

Anyway, without getting too bogged down in detail, the remainder of Day One involves searching the basement of Carnegie Hall for a key that will allow you to catch up with Melissa/Eve, who drops the Melissa persona entirely and mutates into a decidedly non- human form. Another RIDICULOUSLY EASY boss fight ensues with the freshly mutated Eve, which is so easy that even the fact that I was completely distracted by trying to get a good screenshot didn't seem to matter. It's possible that after playing this game on and off for ten years I've lost all objectivity in regard to it's difficulty, but I do have to say that Day One really does seem a tad too easy. It's one of those precious tutorial stages that refuses to level with you and admit that it's a tutorial.

PE11 Oh wow Eve, now you can shoot TWO puny laser beams instead of one! Taking this screenshot was about fifty times harder than the actual battle.

Aya and Eve continue their cat and mouse game, with Eve leading Aya into the sewers beneath Carnegie Hall. I thought I would have a lot more to say about the sewer area, because it's marvelously creepy and atmospheric, but gameplay-wise it's simple. You pick up a bunch of items (which I wouldn't be so quick to pick up considering they've been sitting IN THE SEWER for God knows how long, but Aya's braver than me), and fight some more mutated rats and mutated frogs. Interestingly, while the rats only mutated to three or four times their original size, the frogs are huge behemoths. You just can't predict those wacky mitochondrial mutations.

PE13 I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume that Aya was unable to wear this dress on future occasions. I don't even want to speculate what other kinds of 'items' might be floating around in there besides the pick-ups....

Finally Aya catches up to Eve and the two of them have a fairly civil conversation at gunpoint, because Aya's little handgun is her safety blanket. Eve leaves, but not before uttering a line which I've always been impressed with: "I'm going to give you some time... some time to think and some time to evolve." Eve wants Aya on her side, but she wants Aya to realize herself that she belongs with Eve. She will abandon this idea eventually in favor of a more aggressive approach, but it's telling that she even tries. It's also really nice from a logical perspective that you don't have to spend the entire game wondering why Eve doesn't just kill Aya already if she's just so damned powerful. The "the villian tests the hero in order to recruit them" idea isn't exactly ground-breaking, but I still like it a helluva lot better than the more common "the villian doesn't kill the hero when they have the chance because apparently, they just can't be bothered."

PE14 At this point, Aya has just learned the spell "Scan", which isn't a helluva lot of use in this situation...or ever. I suppose I can't blame her for sticking with her trusty handgun. Better spells coming soon.

Let's see...gritty atmosphere, check. Massive death toll, check. Sewers, check. Hot chick with a gun, check. Now, this would be just like Resident Evil 2 if only there was a bloodthirsty ALLIGATOR in the sewers! How cool would that be? Fortunately, Eve hooks us up. We love her.

PE15 This was an awesome FMV the day I got the game, and it remains awesome today. The screenshot can't do it justice, but this monster is introduced perfectly.

Finally we get to the first real boss fight of the game, which still isn't difficult but you could conceivably lose if you're distracted. Or busy with your tax return. Or not paying any attention whatsoever. Still, the mutated Alligator has powerful attacks, and you need to take advantage of Aya's mobility to keep her out of harm's way (More on the free-movement combat system next time.)

PE16 I took this screen right when Aya's bullet hit the boss, which is why it has that cool glowing effect. I probably couldn't take this again to save my life.

Day One ends with the introduction of Aya's partner, Daniel, a 30-something cop with a more than superficial resemblance to Final Fantasy VII's Barret Wallace. Daniel rescues Aya from a persistent reporter by punching him in the face, which is the type of behavior that I guess Japanese game developers expect from hard-boiled NYC cops. As the two of them speed off in the squad car, Daniel gives Aya a backhanded compliment-- apparently, showing up at the scene of mass murder is a good indicator of latent "cop instinct"-- and we get a feel for their father-daughter dynamic. Later we will learn that Aya is the brains of this operation while Daniel is the hothead, and considering that Aya's approach to problem solving ideally involves a rocket launcher, that should tell you something about the volatility of this outfit. Really, Eve's lucky that these two didn't torch the city in the course of a botched investigation long before she got around to it.

PE17 This screen marks the beginning of the ongoing subplot of Daniel's neglected son, Ben. Unlike a lot of games that force dialogue like this on you in order to create the illusion of character depth, PE actually makes good use of this subplot later.

Next in PE, we begin Day 2 and unfortunately Aya ditches her evening gown for a more practical ensemble. On the plus side, we get a cool new gun and Aya's PE powers evolve to the point where her spells are almost useful.

Thursday 13 November 2008

Parasite Eve: An Odyssey

PED1 As you may have surmised by my last rather, ahem, verbose entry, I have a lot to say about games-- at least the ones that have a special place in my heart, for lack of a better phrase. For a game like Parasite Eve (and frankly, for most games that I care enough about to cover in the first place), a single blog entry would be completely inadequate. What I've decided to do is allow for multiple entries for individual games which will be tagged accordingly, so even though they may be posted months apart, you can find all the coverage of a single game or series easily.

Where to even begin with Parasite Eve? Some things are seminal on a broad cultural, even global level, like Hamlet or the Beatles you can debate their merit or their influence on their successors, and many people devote a frightening amount of time to doing just that, but ultimately it's pointless: They are agreed upon by everyone with a functioning frontal lobe to be both very good and a huge influence on everything.

But some things are deeply influential to a specific individual, and it's not because they're better than Hamlet or the Beatles--quality has nothing to do with it. It's a certain alchemy of personality, timing, and some x-factor that I'll never be able to nail down. Parasite Eve came out when I was sixteen, and it had a huge effect on my personal aesthetics.

Keep in mind, I'm not encouraging everyone to go out and pick up a copy of the game. PS1 games from that era have aged poorly in the graphics department, and while I think the writing in PE is actually underrated, there's nothing about it that's sufficiently high quality to make it especially worth playing compared to more recent fare. However, as a startlingly ambitious combination of cop show, psychological thriller, Doctor Who-esque Science Fantasy, dungeon crawling, character building, gun collecting, and techno music put together in an RPG that celebrates an empty Manhattan that never was, it's a very unique piece of gaming history.

Oh, and yes, I know that word snobs frown on descriptions like "very unique", because unique originally meant one of a kind and therefore a thing is either unique or it is not, but I think those people should be shot because I am an activist word snob and I want their inflexible, stagnant DNA out of the gene pool. Unique originally meant "one of a kind", but in modern usage it has changed to "giving the impression of being special and important even in comparison to other things that are one of a kind as well." If your dictionary doesn't already agree with me, wait a few years and it probably will.

The protagonist of Parasite Eve is rookie NYC cop Aya Brea, proficient with every firearm under the sun and totally the women I'd fall for if I played on the other team (and err, if she weren't fictional I suppose. I sometimes forget that part.) However, I'm straight, and it does have to be said that Aya can be a little dense-- her dialogue is littered with exclamations like "What? How can that be!?" and "No!" and "What do you mean my mitochondria are evolving at an unusually accelerated rate?" People have knocked the character for that, but to be fair, I kind of like that about her. We can't all be Rhodes Scholars. Aya1 Still the best-dressed gal in video games, even after all these years--okay, except for Classic Yuna. It's a tie.

Note on the Screens: In years past I have always, always kept the default character names in RPGs out of respect for the writers' intentions, but in some of the following screens you will see that Aya's name is Karen for this playthrough. The sacrifices I make for this blog.... PE1

The game starts with Aya on a hilariously awful date, with an escort who says things like "I had my Dad get me the best seats for us tonight!" Y'know, I wonder how much the general gamer likes this opening, because being a woman probably makes it about ten thousand times better. It's like, "I've sooo been there, girl." PE2 They say this about me too.

Fortunately possessed Opera Singer Melissa (known from this point on as Eve) brings a premature end to Aya's date by lighting Carnegie Hall on fire. I used to just pretend that I had cramps.

PE3 Is Eve turning Carnegie Hall into a fiery inferno because her excess mitochondrial energy is being released as heat? Or was it because of that schmuck in the third row who couldn't be bothered to turn off his cell phone?

While the other occupants of the theater are busy burning to death, Aya's all business; she draws her gun and orders her mysteriously-not-burning date out of the theater. If I were some kind of fancy internet guru, I would make an animation of Aya body-checking her date out of the way, because that's exactly what she does here. Minor plot hole: It's repeated many times that Aya is the sole survivor of the Carnegie Hall Incident, only her boyfriend mysteriously escapes the theater and is never mentioned again. I guess some of her special mitochondria must have rubbed off on him when he was helping her with her coat. PE4

Aya approaches Eve in the name of the NYPD, and Eve starts starts demonstrating some of the problems with Japanese-to-English translation that plague this game. The Japanese use the word "body" much more often than English speakers, but a too-literal translation will often keep the word, leading to awkwardness. "I'm burning up!" has a very different connotation then "My body is getting HOT!" Guess which version this game goes with. PE5 The translation-inflicted kinkyness of the Aya and Eve dynamic persists throughout the game. Not as fun as it sounds.

A pathetically easy boss fight ensues, during which Aya's "Parasite Energy" awakens due to her proximity to Eve, meaning she has a green PE bar under her health from now on and will start learning spells to cast as she levels up. Technically I guess they're not "spells", they're more like "benevolent mutations" or "super-evolved mitochondrial abilities", but I'm going to use the word spell from now on because it's shorter. Anyway, Eve babbles something about a connection between her and Aya (Nooo? REALLY?), and Aya has the first of about forty flashbacks to a time she was in the hospital as a small child that she barely remembers. Eve floats offstage, and Aya follows. PE6 Okay, I'll level with you here: I friggin' hate these stupid flashbacks. The story behind them is fine, but there are way too many of them. Yes Aya, you were in the hospital when you were a wee lass! Holy freaking crap! Get over it.

At this point, the story sequences start to dwindle and you begin to experience the actual gameplay of PE, which I will save for another installment. The main event is that Aya starts ransacking the basement of Carnegie Hall while looking for a trace of Eve, and mysteriously finds lots of ammo instead. PE8

Join us next time on Parasite Eve: The Odyssey for Part II: Spelunking in the rat-infested sewers beneath Carnegie Hall is no reason not to look fabulous.

Monday 10 November 2008

Trapped in the Dungeon: Ehrgeiz Quest Mode

Ehrgeiz1 Look, it's a screenshot! Okay, so I lied about screens being for losers--it's only, um, certain screens that are for losers. This one is made of win.

This is the first entry in a series that will cover dungeon crawlers, old and new. Many people would make the argument that “dungeon crawler” is a vague term and a metric ton of games could arguably fall under that moniker, even the Zelda series or traditional RPGs. Dungeons are, after all, ubiquitous: Most games that take place in a medieval setting have at least one, and usually more like 40. The Playstation classic Parasite Eve even turned the Museum of Natural History in New York into a dungeon, and while that happens to be pretty much the coolest thing that has ever happened, the fact remains that not all games containing dungeons are dungeon-crawlers. So how can you tell whether or not a game might be featured in “Trapped in the Dungeon”? Consult the following list of criteria:
---Does it have a ridiculous quantity of collectible items, not just a lot but an abundance of shiny things to the point where it’s downright obscene?
---Are the dungeons randomly generated, so you can keep fooling yourself into thinking that you’re exploring new environs even when it’s the same damned four rooms every single time?
---Do you have to be a complete masochist to enjoy it?
---Even if you don’t have to be a masochist, does it really, really help a lot?

If you can answer in the affirmative to several of the above, then yes, the game in question is a dungeon crawler. If you can answer in the affirmative to several of the above and the game in question has driven you to the brink of suicide, it’s a roguelike. If you can answer in the affirmative and you’re not suicidal but have started some serious self-mutilation, chances are it’s a roguelike-lite. Are we clear? Onward to Ehrgeiz.

In a nutshell, Ehrgeiz: Quest Mode is a mediocre dungeon crawler hidden in a mediocre fighting game that distinguished itself by featuring characters from a seminal RPG. Released in 1998, responses to the game were mixed: Some relished the chance to simply kick ass with rather nice character models of several Final Fantasy VII characters, some enjoyed the bizarre collection of mini-games, and some lambasted the game for its schizophrenia. While it contained far more variety than most games on the original Playstation and pretty graphics (which mysteriously hold up far better today than many of Square’s other efforts from the same period) it didn’t appear to do anything particularly well. The fighting engine was too shallow to lure fans away from Tekken or any of the other popular fighters of the era, the mini-games were more of a joke than anything else (until you have seen Battle Beach, you have not seen a truly stupid mini-game) and the new Quest Mode added for the console release appeared to be a simple paint-by-numbers dungeon crawler. While the game has remained a minor cult favorite because of its ties to Final Fantasy, at the time it was considered one of Square’s admirable but less than stellar efforts, seemingly destined to fade into bargain bin obscurity.

My first experience with Ehrgeiz was probably similar to that of everyone else who cut their teeth in the realm of RPGs with Final Fantasy VII: I would pick Cloud or Tifa, and then beat the living shit out of Sephiroth in versus mode repeatedly while yelling “This is for what you did to Aeris, you bastard!” I am not proud of this behavior, but girls have been known to do weird things when a new RPG has absolutely blown their minds, so cut me a little slack. Eventually I realized that no amount of Sephiroth abuse would bring Aeris back—and frankly, I’m a Tifa girl at heart anyway—and I grew bored of the fighting game. For a goof, I tried out Quest Mode, and began my love affair with dungeon crawling.

I love few things in gaming as much as a random dungeon with treasure in it. To me, “too much dungeon-crawling” sounds about as logical as “too many fantastic orgasms and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.” I don’t know if it’s due to the female instinct to gather things, instilled in me from humanity’s long twilight as a group of hunter-gatherers, but I love collecting stuff and looking into a dark abyss and knowing that, in all likelihood, there is lots more stuff for me down there. Most other women deal with this need by shopping, and if you could walk into a Banana Republic and beat every other customer to death with a blunt instrument before scoring a tank top I might be tempted to do so as well, but plunking down money for treasure just lacks that certain something. It is not enough for me merely to acquire treasure: I must win it. It was probably something in those formative years.

Before moving on, let’s get this out of the way: You can’t play as the Final Fantasy characters in Quest Mode. I have no idea why Square made this decision, since they already had the character models and animations from the fighting mode, and it takes away from the luster of the game that you can’t beat up some monsters with the beautiful model of Tifa Lockheart (have I mentioned that I’m a fan?), but that’s how it is. To add insult to injury, the occasional Buster Sword or Premium Heart will show up among your loot, implying that these characters have visited the dungeon, but you can’t see them or play them. Thanks a lot, you bastards. The two characters available in Quest Mode, Koji Masuda and Claire Andrews, are nothing special but they get the job done. Claire excels with fast and magical weapons while Koji handles the massive broadswords and axes, but beyond that they have few distinguishing characteristics.

Ehrgeiz2 Koji's jubilation at the vacancy at the local motel proved to be short lived.
Koji: Hey Claire, what do you say we put off going to the dungeon for a bit and, heh, push these twin beds together?
Claire: I'm not tired Koji, let's get back to DUNGEON-CRAWLING!''

Structurally, Quest Mode is simple: Your characters stumble into a dimension with a small town and a 21-level dungeon, and they enter the dungeon for the sake of finding a mystical artifact. In an amusing attempt at tying Quest Mode in with the rest of Ehrgeiz, the first few screens of the game feature the protagonists traveling through stages from the fighting game on their way to the dungeon. It fools no one, but it’s cute. The story consists of a few lines of spoken dialogue from each PC (Japanese only), and the dialogue of a few town-dwelling NPCs. The four “multiple endings” consist of a paragraph of text each. Clearly, Square did not overtax their writing department with this mode. However, and this is something that is true of most aspects of the game, what at first seems to be meager turns out to be just enough. The lack of story means that you get into the dungeon that much sooner—within the first minute of play—and the NPCs that relay the tiny story are strangely charming. I don’t know if it’s the blacksmith who will only accept booze for his services or the loyal restaurateur who waits patiently for his master chef to finally return from the dungeon after a decade (uh, good luck with that buddy), but the nameless town in Ehrgeiz has more character than many game locations that actually try to be memorable.

The dungeon is split into 7 zones, each with its own graphics and theme music. Incidentally, the music accompanying the first zone in Quest Mode is one of the most pleasant and relaxing themes I have ever heard in a video game. I could hang out on floors 1-3 of the dungeon and chill out listening to the music for hours and be a happy camper—well, I’d be killing tons of monsters too, but same difference. Gameplay-wise, the game is often described as a mini-Diablo: You kill things, level up, collect tons of weapons from defeated monsters and sell the ones you don’t need for extra cash, and try to get just a little further into the dungeon on every excursion. However, while you spend hours in Diablo hunting through piles of inferior and useless gear for a few gems, in Ehrgeiz the gem-to-crap ratio is pretty high. Not until at least halfway through the dungeon do you start to find pricey items that will net you a lot of money at the shop, but a high percentage of the stuff you find is actually worth equipping. Furthermore, since the dungeon is relatively small, you’re constantly getting a little farther and finding an upgrade to your gear, rather than spending long periods of time in similarly leveled areas and finding redundant equipment. To say that this game is better than the Diablo series would be getting carried away, but it does offer a lot of the same enjoyment on a smaller, more manageable scale. Actually I would recommend this game for long-time Diablo II players who love treasure hunting but can’t afford to spend three hours anymore to find a helmet with good mods.

The gameplay is simple fare—bop monsters on the head, take their stuff, fight a lethargic boss every couple of levels, and sell your extras. However, there are two systems that hugely extend the life of the game: A character leveling process that involves feeding your character in order to raise certain stats, and a weapon customization system with surprising depth. Your characters level up by receiving a predetermined amount of experience from combat, however, HOW they level up is up to you; your character’s diet affects what stats are raised per level, and by how much. For example, if you want to take advantage of Claire’s superior magical skills, you should eat lots of vegetables because veggies raise magic attack and defense. Koji, on the other hand, needs red meat and lots of it. On your first playthrough, you’re usually too busy trying to get through the game to micromanage your diet and resort to eating whatever food the dungeon throws at you, but on replays you can take advantage of the food available for purchase in town and really tweak your stats to your liking. This nutrition system was way ahead of it’s time in 1998, and it wasn’t until the recent release of The World Ends With You for DS that I encountered a similar system that was anywhere near as good (although as much as I love it, eating anything in TWEWY takes forever because your characters have the metabolism of a three-toed sloth with a glandular disorder.)

The weapon customization is interesting in that while you have a fair amount of control over what kind of stats your weapon acquires, the whole thing is strangely passive because you pray to God for stat boosts—and I’m not being facetious: You actually pray. Throughout the dungeon are alters where you can pray to a list of 12 gods, each of whom is associated with raising and lowering certain stats. Like the nutrition system, it’s entirely possible to ignore it on the first play through, especially since that while you have to eat, the game will never force you to pray. However, in order to master the game and dominate the dungeon you have to take advantage of the opportunity to build superior weaponry through devout worship of certain gods, and use this in tandem with raising the correct stats nutritionally in order to create a strong character build. Unfortunately, unlike Diablo and other similar games, there are really only three viable builds—Physical, Magical, and Defensive—but it’s still an impressive amount of character customization in a game that at first appears to have none.

One important feature that I have to mention is the fact that you can actually save when you want to, as opposed to Mysterious Dungeon type games that save for you so you can’t pull any monkey business like reloading when you die. The ability to save the game makes it a lot easier of course, however you cannot save at will: saving costs money, and the further you get in the game the more expensive it becomes. This discourages the player from saving more than necessary, and leads to saving at strategic points rather than saving after every battle and generally being a pansy about it. People have complained about the cost of saving in this game, but I vastly prefer it to either a draconian autosave or a ridiculously easy “Tee-Hee, save wherever you want!” system. In fact, I would be happy to see more games implement this middle-of-the-road approach. As Aristotle said, moderation in all things.

I could go on about this game pretty much indefinitely, but by now I’ve probably given it more attention than this game has received in a decade, and this is getting lengthy. One last thing I’ll mention is that everything I’ve written applies to Normal Mode; Hard Mode is a very different beast. In an age when even the most frivolous of games has 47 walkthroughs posted for it on the net, it took me years to actually find someone who had completed this mode and find out what it entailed; as a kid, I had an annoying tendency to die immediately whenever I tried it, so it was a mystery to me. Now, after having devoted several times the amount of hours to this little mode than I ever spent on its parent game, (including building an uber-Claire maxed out on leafy green vegetables and with a weapon blessed six times by Artemis, who could hurl fireballs like nobody’s business), I’m going to try to beat Hard Mode myself. I could be spending my time playing countless other games far more highly regarded than this one, but the truth is I just can’t wait to hear the music on floors 1-3 again. Also, it’s probably time to pray to some evil Gods and see how that works out for me.

Monday 25 August 2008

Screenshots are for LOSERS

CloudAeris.jpgAfter some investigation, I have realized that getting screenshots to illustrate my posts is going to be a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. Getting a TV tuner card so I could hook consoles up to my computer seemed like a good idea, but the logistics of it didn't work—I would have to completely reorganize my home office in order to make it comfortable to play games here, and I like it the way it is. Emulators are good for screenshots, but without getting into the whole host of potential legal and security problems they present, they’re damned inconvenient: you have to download and troubleshoot each one, and then play the games with a control scheme completely alien to the way they were designed. Furthermore, you can’t transfer any of your saves from the console version to the emulator, which isn’t a huge issue for Super Mario Brothers but a bit of a deal breaker when you’re about 80 hours into an RPG.

Given the lack of options, I have decided to either a) Make posts with no screens Or b) Use some other images in order to replace screenshots.

The obvious choice is fan art, since I do game fan art for fun anyway; however, if I go that route, blog entries may become somewhat rare. It’s one thing to write a couple of pages of text, quite another to do 47 illustrations to go along with it. For now, I’m going to try to limit myself to a couple of images per post and see how that works. Hopefully the custom art will help give this blog it’s own unique look and feel, so maybe this is a blessing in disguise—er, I certainly hope so.

Today’s image is an old pic of Cloud and Aeris from Final Fantasy VII, a game that will doubtless receive much coverage on this blog. To tell you the truth though I’ve always felt that he really belongs with Tifa, so I don’t know what must have been going through my head when I did this one many years ago. Next Time: the beginning of a potentially ridiculously huge future, Trapped in the Dungeon.