Monday, November 27, 2006

Kingdom Hearts 2's Atlantica

I bet I know what you're all expecting. You read the title of this rant, and think, "Oh, right, Arpy's gonna flame the hell out of Ariel's crappy world. It was a huge disappointment." Because, hey, if anyone's gonna hate a minigame world, it's gonna be me--and everyone else does, too. Ornery old Arp is gonna yell and scream and holler about it and give you all some good hearty laughs.

Well, you're all WRONG!

Now, don't misunderstand. I'm NOT a fan KH2's Atlantica. It's not much fun. You listen to a bunch of songs, most of which are grating and stupid, and play semi-DDR as you mash buttons in time with the music--well, sometimes in time, other times it's just there and you mash the X button for no real rhythmic reason.

While this is happening, a scene plays out, for reasons I can't quite figure out--it's not like you can take the time to watch and enjoy it when you're waiting for each little "PUSH X NOW BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE" icon to pop up. My theory is that SquareEnix actually spent a fortune on each song's visual sequence out of spite alone--FF10-2 has made it abundantly clear that they secretly loathe and detest the people who buy their games. Seeking to frustrate KH2 players, SquareEnix made these elaborate, cheerful sequences during a minigame where watching them means total failure. To add to the distraction value of these things, they decided to set this minigame in Atlantica, where players will continue to have their eyes stray from their objectives, lured away by Ariel and/or a shirtless Sora. No way can this just be a case of poor design; they're LAUGHING at you as you miss the cues because your fangirl instincts to drool at shirtless 14-year-olds cannot be denied.

"Wait a second," you're saying. "If you're saying that the minigame is stupid and annoying, along with badly-designed, then why was I wrong before?"

The reason is this: I don't hate KH2's Atlantica, even given its exceptionally annoying nature. Why not? Because it is so, so, so much better than it was in the original Kingdom Hearts. Look, as stupid and simplistic as the singing minigame might be, it's a helluva lot better than trying to navigate that stupid underwater battle system in KH1. You couldn't just move with the direction stick, no, you had to use that to steer while you held down a button to actually get there--it was annoying enough just to move regularly, let alone while trying to fight enemies that were above and below and all around you. You're trying to swim up and down to get at something and meanwhile there are Heartless smacking your face and electrocuting you with poorly-named Thunder spells and Donald and Goofy are floundering around doing just about nothing except absorbing damage as usual while Ariel's trying to make up for your incompetence at swimming and their incompetence at life and you start swearing because the Little Mermaid is more badass than you...

I'm supposed to be upset that a stupid but harmless little minigame replaced that nightmare of bad gameplay design? Not having to dick around with Heartless jellyfish and whales and whatnot was the greatest improvement they could have possibly made to the sequel. And hell, KH2's take on the world isn't too terrible at times--I mean, they actually made ERIC cool, rather than just the same kind of "Looks nice but has a mind as empty as Quina Quen's (Final Fantasy 9) refrigerator the day after Thanksgiving" character type that I so often criticize RPG heroes for being. KH2 shows HIM being willing to work to be with HER, rather than Ariel having to do and give up everything. I mean, the line:

Eric: "And to think...all this time..."
Ariel: ~LE SAD~
Eric: "...I could've practicing my swimming." ~Splash~

Adds a TON of depth to his character, and makes him pretty damn cool. Sure, it took several rounds of agonizingly dumb musical button-mashing to get to it, but it IS something good about the whole thing, at least, and more rewarding than any of the plot that you're given after the hours of underwater battle torment in KH1. All in all, KH2's Atlantica was a huge improvement, in my opinion.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

General RPGs' Minigames 3: Hauler Beasts

I don't have many serious complaints about Star Ocean 3. While still badly imbalanced in its battle system like SO2 was, taking a little too long to stop dicking around in fantasy land and get back to the plot, and also having Albel in it, overall it's a pretty good and enjoyable game. The characters are pretty good, the pacing's not bad most of the time, and the plot is really nifty once it gets going. But dear God, I loathe the Hauler Beast minigame.

Okay. Here's the basic idea. You get in a mine cart to go through a mine area. Never mind that you could just walk through it like you walk miles and miles through nearly identical other caves throughout the rest of the game--THIS one you need a mine cart for, and that's final! A Hauler Beast, which seems to sorta be some giant turtle thing of some kind which is so big that the mine tunnels only barely accomodate it, thus giving rise once again to the question of why regular people such as your characters can't walk through the tunnels when they're obviously more accomodating for humans, tugs your mine cart through the tunnels, and you give orders on what speed to go, when to stop to explore a little room in the mines, and which direction to take at forks in the path. You have to adjust your speed accordingly for traps and breaks in the track, and if your Hauler gets upset enough by the traps and bonking into walls and such, the minigame is over and you have to start from the beginning.

Now, in order to get all the treasures in the mines, you need to do a crapload of stop-and-go speed increases and decreases with the stupid Haulers, which is annoying. You also have to pretty much start memorizing what turns and twists you have and haven't taken so far, because the map the game gives you is utterly useless for any purpose of navigation. It would probably take you longer to properly figure out how to determine what turns to make based on the map than it would just to randomly fumble your way to the exit--which, trust me, would be a matter of solid hours. You also would have to memorize where each jump and trap is, so you can adjust your speed accordingly, because you'll never get the prizes very far in otherwise, since your turtletard will call it quits after being frightened at having to open gates (no, really).

This by itself is a huge pain in the ass, MORE than enough to guarantee it a spot on my list of Things To Kill People Over. But there's also one treasure deep in the mines that, according to an FAQ for the minigame (and my experiences back this up), you have to take out a Whimsical Hauler to reach. Now, there are 5 different kinds of Haulers. The one most likely to piss its shell and run screaming back to the beginning is also the one most likely to actually do what you tell it to. The other Haulers have different ranges of bravery against traps and willingness to not completely ignore you, but the only one who can last long enough to get this one treasure is the Whimsical Hauler, which does whatever the hell it wants without listening to any input from you. But of course, since the treasure is so far in, the Hauler has about 20 forks in the track to decide to go the wrong way on, so you can be waiting for a LONG time for the stupid thing to finally manage to accidentally bring you where you want it to go. I gave it about 10 tries before I just gave up.

Now, here comes the very best part. You may THINK that this is going to be the only time you waste hours of your life directing an uncooperative and idiotic turtle of burden through SO3's caves. And yes, it could be...but you'll miss out on a bunch of treasures if you don't come back later. Because, you see, nearly half of the treasures you find in the mines when you're forced to play this hellish minigame the first time will be out of your reach--you'll need a tool you get about 2/5 of the way through the game to get them. So if you want to actually get anything GOOD from this torture, you have to spend hours meticulously riding through the caverns AGAIN.

Well fuck you too, SquareEnix.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Knights of the Old Republic 2's Kreia

Alright, folks, if you haven't played KotOR2 and ever intend to (and you really, really should), don't read this. Too many spoilers.

I am a big fan of the Knights of the Old Republic games. They manage to flawlessly combine fan-made Star Wars (fuck Lucas--anyone who has ever read Timothy Zahn's books knows this is the best, most carefully detailed version of the SW galaxy) with the RPG genre. They've got an awesome setting (naturally), great plots, and better characters. They've got more realistic and gripping backstories and personalities than most other RPGs, and it can be hard not to like even the ones with a heart as black as Darth Vader.

Case in point for me would be Kreia. Now, I do not personally LIKE Kreia. If you've played the game, you'll know that she's not exactly the nicest or most moral person you'll ever come across. She's vicious, manipulative, and she bullies poor Atton all the time (I love Atton). She's Machiavellian to an extreme, just a bit crazy, and at least as much a servant to the Dark Side as she isn't.

But man, as a villain, Kreia is the best I've ever seen in an RPG, plain and simple.

Point One: She's tough. She's genuinely powerful. She's a master of the Force like few others, knowing its ways and using them to her advantage. She can use a lightsaber, which automatically makes her more of a force to be reckoned with than any villain using a regular weapon. She can take a hit (and by a hit, I mean have her hand cut off) and keep on truckin'. She doesn't NEED to do some quest for magic objects to give her the powers of a god. She's smart enough to set the fall for anyone who opposes her without resorting to one-winged angel crap like that. When you deal with Kreia, you deal with someone who's not going to futz around with that nonsense--she'll just either kill you, or, more likely, let you live to unwittingly do her bidding. If Kreia decides to let you live, it's not because she's being a stupid FF villain who doesn't have the good sense to kill protagonists after whupping them early in the game while their levels are low. It's because she knows she WILL make use of you, and can probably do so while making you mentally suffer.

Point Two: The game gives you ample opportunity to know Kreia. Like, KNOW Kreia. This isn't like knowing, say, Seymour of FF10. With Seymour, you know the very, very broad and general (not to mention really dumb) reasons for his villainous actions. This is true of most villains in RPGs, even the good ones--you just don't get too really involved in understanding them. A few, however, like Fou-Lu of Breath of Fire 4 or Orsted of Live-A-Live, are evil characters that you're given a really good amount of insight about, both in their personalities and the reason they do the evil things they do. Kreia, however, blows these two away. She hangs with your party for most of the game, and in that time she tells you all about herself. Her past, her ideals, the qualities she admires and the qualities she despises, her understandings of people and the ways of the universe, and eventually how and why she set everything up. Kreia is a realistic human being in a way that few characters (and of those few, just about no villains) in games are, complex in dozens of different ways that intertwine with each other. Even in a game series with such strongly defined personalities as KotOR2, she really stands out as a character whose creation and development are extraordinarily solid and deep. Folks, a great many of the classic works of literature I've read in my time at college as an English major don't have characters of this high a quality.

Point Three: The voice acting for Kreia is pretty much perfect. Not a big deal, I know, but still, when most of the game's more insightful and thought-provoking content comes from her, it really helps that it's delivered by a voice actress who can get just the right inflections of aged, dark wisdom to match Kreia's personality and words.

Point Four: Kreia wins. Everything. She's the most successful villain of any RPG ever, because she accomplishes every single goal she has. Kill off the remaining survivors of the old Jedi order? Check. Revenge on the Sith Lords who betrayed her? Check (no easy task, either--one regenerates all wounds done him, and the other one is such an unnatural horror that he could very likely defeat every single normal Jedi who ever lived--Yoda, Palpatine, Vader, Luke, EVERYONE). Set the stage for several new Jedi, who know what it is to be human first and foremost and Jedi after that, to create a new order which has a chance not to make all the mistakes the old one did? Check. Bring some balance to the force? All of the above work towards this one. Help prepare the galaxy for the inevitable and fast-approaching day when the Sith finally strike? Check. Send Revan a powerful ally to aid him in fighting the Sith on their own turf? Check. Just about no major move of the Light Side or Dark Side in this game is made without Kreia's making sure it works to further her goals. I mean, even when you kill her at the end of the game, you're STILL doing exactly what she wants--one of her goals is to train her greatest apprentice of all, and that apprentice having the strength of body, Force, and will to kill her will be the way to prove that she has succeeded, her final triumph. How many villains can you think of for whom their final defeat (not just I'm-Dying-But-Not-Really, like Seymour) is an essential part of their plan? Not many.

Point Five: You identify with Kreia. Understanding her isn't just a case of knowing where she's coming from, it's also a case of empathizing with her at times, acknowledging that there's wisdom in her ways regardless of whether they're good or evil. Villains aren't characters you can very often really connect with, and if they are, then you probably have a few issues. Kreia, though, you could argue the merits and weaknesses of her philosophies and insights on humanity, society, karma, and life for hours on end.

In the end, there's really no villain crafted with quite as much care and expertise as Kreia is. Buggy and unfinished as KotOR2 may be, the presence of a villain of Kreia's caliber alone makes it a great RPG.

Monday, November 6, 2006

Seiken Densetsu 3's Characters

After over a month-long absence, I give you...a lame post. Awesome.

I'll admit right now: doing a cast list for Seiken Desnsetsu 3 is a daunting task. Not because I don't think this game's cast deserves to be ridiculed for being shoddy and poorly-conceived characters there to be personality-less drones who forward the plot. Rather, because this cast is so incredibly boring that it's really hard to find a decent characteristic in any one of them that significantly sets them apart from the others.

Duran: You know, I know I harp on the fact that RPG hero dudes are very often boring, featureless blocks of wood that you could randomly switch around between games, and no one could tell the difference. I really wish I could think of new and funny ways to express just how blandly heroic these sword-wielding idiots like Duran are, but I just don't have the imagination. Suffice to say, there's really nothing about Duran that sets him apart from Claude (Star Ocean 2), or Cless (Tales of Phantasia), or Dart (Legend of Dragoon), or Lufia 1's hero, or Ratix (Star Ocean 1), or dozens upon dozens of other such faceless do-gooders.

Angela: Angela suffers a tortured existence as one small and limited sprite shouldered with the heavy destiny of being her game's entire share of T and A.

Kevin: Okay, now, I'm not saying that the loss of a pet isn't a sad thing, folks. I understand it hurts. I've kept some wonderful little creatures of my own in my time, and they've all passed on when it's their time, and it always makes me tear up at least a little to part with them.

But when you have a character whose entire motive for his heroic actions in the game is to avenge the death of his dog, you have done something wrong as a writer.

Lise: "My little brother's been kidnapped! Am I a bad enough Amazon dudette to slowly meander my way through the plot to rescue him?"

Fairy: This little semi-mascot for the team has the unenviable task of constantly having to remind these idiots that they actually have a job to do and should cut their aimless wanderings short to get it done.

Hawk: Being a thief using daggers motivated out of a need to save the chick he's into, Hawk reminds me suspiciously of Locke (Final Fantasy 6) at times, particularly given the name similarity and the fact that they're both Square characters. Aside from the aspects of his personality where this comparison can be drawn, though, there's not much of interest about Hawk.

Carlie: Carlie is a half-elf with the mind of a child who has the hots for a priest dude who stands about 5 feet taller than her. This jonesing for some hot priest-on-midget-half-elf-child action is what keeps her going for at least most of the quest.

Seriously, people. What is with these half-elf kids in RPGs?

You know, this game is just screaming to be made into a porno. Duran's the big muscular guy, Angela's the woman with the enormous boobs who wears scanty clothing regardless of setting (I mean, she IS wearing an over-glorified bathing suit while living in an arctic queendom), Hawk is there as an extra just because there needs to be another guy, Lise is there for the lesbian scene (she's in an all-girl amazon army, and all), Kevin the werewolf's there to please furries, and Carlie is the half-human nymphomaniac midget. Tell me this isn't the perfect cast for a porn flick.