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Irascible Analysis of Popular Culture

Retro Night: Deception III: Dark Delusion

Tecmo’s Deception series, which began with Tecmo’s Deception: Invitation to Darkness in July 1996, is a realtime strategy RPG series which focuses on more passive combat. The latest in the series Trapt, the fourth titles, was released in June 2005 for the PS2. In between the first and the fourth came the third: Deception III: Dark Delusion, the last for the original Playstation. Unfortunately, very little information is available online regarding who the top minds behind the series are or whatever else they’ve worked on.

What sets the Deception series apart from other action/strategy-RPGs is that main character is physically weak. To make up for this, the character has a magical ability that allows them to spawn various insidious traps to deal with invaders. The third game, starring a young girl named Reina who is pursued by the forces of a tyrannical king, is mission-based, with each mision providing different locations and different types of enemies to deal with. Variety comes through in the number of different traps and situations you can engineer, and in setting up and executing a perfect series of traps that Rube Goldberg would be proud of. It does get fairly repetitive after only a few missions as the game has just one gameplay idea which is continues from start to finish, but it doesn’t necessarily make the game boring as it does that idea fairly well. Controlling Reina in the level is a bit clunky, due to the tank-like movement, but setting up and setting off the various traps is easy and intuitive. Aside from the three trap types that Reine can summon [floor, wall, and ceiling], there are also a number of environmental hazards such as a candelabra that can be dropped on enemies, a collapsible bridge, and other death-dealing devices that can be set off.

The game does have a story, told through cutscenes in-between missions, but it’s kind of hard to get a feeling for what’s really going on. In part because it probably doesn’t make much sense anyway, but also because the translation is a very poor one riddled with grammatical errors and just being badly written overall. It’s not a major issue because story isn’t too important in a game like this, but it is annoying because of how many cutscenes there are in this game. They’re also fairly simple, mainly comprised of people standing around talking about this or that. You can probably just skip them and not feel as though you’ve really missed anything important.

The graphics are nicely detailed for a PS1 game and the character models have a somewhat Vagrant Story-look about them, although that’s about as far as the comparison between the two games goes. The game has music, but I honestly can’t remember much about it. It’s at least not annoying, so that’s something.

Deception III is a darkly fun game. Some of the traps you can string together are works of brutal beauty. On the other hand, the gameplay gets a bit repetitive after only a few missions and there’s not much on offer aside from setting up traps and killing people in ingenious manners. It’s $15 on Amazon, which is probably too much.

May 12, 2010 Posted by | Games, Retro Night | , , | Leave a comment

Retro Night: Planescape: Torment

There are people who will claim that Western RPGs peaked in the late 90’s and early 00’s, with BioWare, Black Isle, New World Computing, Sir-Tech, Origin, Sierra, and other’s putting out high quality entries in the genre with regularity. There’s no denying that many of those have been placed into the annals of videogame history as classic, but were games truly better then? Well, that’s a question for another blog entry, not for this one. Here we will focus on a single game from Interplay developer Black Isle. The title in question is one Planescape: Torment, based in the titular AD&D universe and headed by Chris Avellone [who went to Obsidian after Interplay folded and is currently working with fellow Black Isle-alum Josh Sawyer on Fallout: New Vegas].

The game begins with a man waking up in a strange mortuary, with no idea how he got there. Actually, he can’t remember a thing at all, not even his name. He quickly enlists the helping a talking skull named Morte who floats in the air. The two make their way out of the mortuary and into the city, where The Nameless One hopes to discover the reasons behind his lack of memories and his seeming immortality. Along the way, you’ll discovery some truly bizarre locations and equally bizarre characters. Much of the game is very heavily based on dialog, it’s even possible to talk your way out of many encounters, rather than resorting to violence. The game even goes so far as to have no penalty for being killed in combat. The Nameless One will simply respawn at a set location. You might be tempted to think that this makes for a very easy game, but that’s really not the case at all.

In a way, Planescape: Torment is almost more of an adventure game than it is an rpg [not of the point-and-click variety, of course], in that the game has a great focus on story and characters than it does on combat. Some will no doubt see this as a negative, but I see this as a positive. There are plenty of RPGs with great combat in them, if that’s what you’re truly looking for, but there are scant few RPGs with such amazing writing. The time it would have taken to put in a more complex combat system would have taken away from that writing, or at least placed less emphasis on it.

Unlike other RPGs, there are no traditional dungeons. The game takes place almost entirely in within populated areas, it’s just that some of those areas happen to have monsters or thugs in them. Sometimes you’ll even be attacked in broad daylight by thugs, right in front of dozens of people. It’s not all that common, but it happens. The plus side to this is that there’s virtually no dungeon crawling or pointless grinding to deal with, with I see as a plus.

The gameplay is real-time, point-and-click based combat seen in many other Black Isle titles like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale. It’s possible to recruit seven different characters, but only five can accompany the main character. It’s clear from the outset that combat is not the main focus of this game, but that doesn’t mean that the combat is just thrown in with no regard. It works very well and there is some depth to it in terms of controlling a party of character in real-time and using their various talents to get through each battle you come across. The combat gets the job done and doesn’t get in the way.

Another area where the game truly shines is in the sound and music. Both of these elements are blended perfectly to create the feeling that you are actually in the places that you see on the screen. While walking through the city you can hear people talking and shouting to one another as their voices blend into a droning din, walk past a bar and you can hear the drunken patrons inside, and so on, all this is done to infuse the world with life. The music weaves through the sound in just the right way, fading when you’re just walking around and suddenly jumping to the forefront when battle is afoot. Although Black Isle was originally going to use a soundtrack by musician Lustmord, his soundtrack was pulled three weeks before the game was to be released so that Fallout-compose Mark Morgan could create an entirely new soundtrack that took the music of the game in a different direction.

The character, writing, and dialog are among the best that will find in any videogame, and the sound and music are no slouch either, Black Isle really went all out with this one and it shows. RPGs since Planescape: Torment have come out have attempted to recreate that depth and that degree of choice in the dialog trees, but most just haven’t even gotten close. Will companies like BioWare, Obsidian, and Bethesda bring RPGs back to this level of detail in the near future? Well, perhaps, but until they do, and even if they don’t, you can always keep playing the one that set the standard in the first place.

May 5, 2010 Posted by | Games, Retro Night | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Retro Night: Legend of Mana

Fourth in the Mana series, Legend of Mana takes a somewhat strange turn for the series by introducing elements and design choices that take it far from its roots and make it into something truly special. This is another of Square’s late-90’s efforts and it was directed by Koichi Ishii, who headed up the several entires in the Mana series and Final Fantasy XI as well as creating moogles and chocobos. The title was later retconned out of the main-line Mana series as Dawn of Mana was official dubbed Seiken Densetsu 4 in Japan. Well, politics aside, let’s get down to business.

One of the most obvious features of Legend of Mana is that it features not earth-shattering, apocalyptic storyline, like so many RPGs do. Here it’s a very thin thing, you choose from one of two characters and then set out in the world to meet people, go on quests, and help rebuild the world. The latter comes in the form of special items that you receive for accomplishing various things. Once the items are “planted” on the overworld map, a new location springs up for you to explore at your leisure. Leisure is a good word to use here because everything about Legend of Mana is very leisurely. There’s nothing pushing you forward with great speed, it’s all at your own pace.

Much of the “story” in the titles comes from standalone quests that you will go on with various companions. Generally you’ll find people in the various towns who need help with something and it’s up to you to help them. Some of these quests include a warrior is looking for a female friend of his who has gone missing, a merchant who is afraid of travelling the dangerous roads alone, and the many adventures of a band of pirates and their captain. There are also the three main storylines, which, upon the completion of one, the player will have the option to continue playing or to begin the final quest. It’s really up to each player to determine how much of the game they want to complete. Personally, I’d be more inclined to finish all of them first.

The gameplay is similar to other entries in the Mana series in that it’s realtime. You have direct control of the main character and the computer controls any companions you may have along with you. Any enemies that are defeated spew out money and experience crystals, grab the crystals as quickly as you can so that you can level up. And I say quickly because Legend of Mana supports two players and you don’t want your buddy snatching up those precious crystals instead. Think fast!

Where the titles truly shines is in the music and the graphics. The former, courtesy of Yoko Shimomura, is beautiful and filled with tracks that are perfectly designed to fit the mood of each situation they appear in. The town themes are particularly good and have a calm, soothing quality to them that’s a perfect match for the overall tone of the series. The graphics are sprite-based rather than the 3D prerendered backgrounds of many PS1 RPGs and I really think this choice compliments that game very well. The sprites are highly detailed and have a warm, inviting look to them. Many of the locations look absolutely breathtaking, in a way that the other techniques of the day simply couldn’t replicate.

Some people are going to be put off by the aimless plot and leisurely tone of this game, this certainly wasn’t an uncommon opinion when the game was first released in July 1999. While I won’t begrudge anyone their opinion and I can even understand where they might be coming from, I just don’t agree with it. I like it because of those things and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Somehow, everything about it seems so much more genuine, if that makes any sense.

May 3, 2010 Posted by | Games, Retro Night | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Retro Night: Parasite Eve

I’ve been working my way through the PS1’s massive catalog of titles for the past few days and one titles that I landed on and have gotten hooked by is Parasite Eve. This action-RPG, headed up by Takashi Tokita [known for heading Chrono Trigger, Live A Live, and The Bouncer], is based on a book of the same name by Hideaki Sena. The game, released by Square in March 1998, takes some liberties with the story, liberties which also make it a bit unique among RPGs. In Parasite Eve, rookie cop Aya Brea goes to see a play at Carnegie Hall. While there, things take a turn for the worse when opera-goers suddenly burst into flame, everyone except Aya and the lead actress in the play, a woman named Melissa. A Japanese RPG set in modern-day New York? You heard right.

The plot is a bit ridiculous, even for science-fiction. Mitochondria are trying to take over the world, apparently, because they’re tired of being slaves to humans. See, they control every aspect of life, due to their being a source of energy and evolutions and so on, but they evolve faster than people, so now they’ve evolved to the point where they’re not just going to sit back and be our slaves. Their main weapons seem to be either lighting people are fire and burning them to goo or turning them into twisted caricatures of their former selves. Most of the characters are basically cop-drama stereotypes, like the veteran cop who’s black or the overweight chief and so on. It’s better than the animu-inspired hijinks seen in later RPGs, so I suppose I won’t bag on PE’s story too much.

The gameplay is similar to Vagrant Story, which came out two years later, but is considerably more basic. Battles are random, but are a combination of real-time and turn-based. There is an active time bar, like in Final Fantasy, but the player is free to move around the battlefield while the bar fills. Often it’s possible to avoid enemies attacks altogether. Aya’s main weapons are various pistols and machine guns, although she does have a back up club in case her ammo runs out. She also has very “magic spells” that she can cast during combat to heal or call up information about monsters. Keys are also important in Parasite Eve, as the place you need to go is often behind a locked door, but it’s nowhere near as bad as in games like Resident Evil. The keys usually aren’t difficult to find. All guns and armor can be upgraded by using tools, which are found in various locations, to take the stat boosts that have been put on one piece of equipment and then transferring them to another. The piece of equipment that the stat boost is transferred from is destroyed after the transfer, so be careful. Experience is gained through battles and levelling up boosts Aya’s stats and bestows bonus points. These bonus points can be used to boost the the stats on weapons and armor or increase the speed of the auto-time battle gauge.

Parasite Eve’s overworld is the entire city of New York, although only certain locations are available to travel to through the use of your partner’s police cruiser. The hub is the precinct station, where you can take a break from fighting, get new equipment, and store items that you don’t currently need. It’s also here that mission information is handed out, which gives you an idea of where you need to go next.

The graphics are similar to the PS1-era Final Fantasies, in that it features 3D characters against prerendered backgrounds. It also features a number of CG cutscenes scattered around to spice things up. Overall, it looks decent enough, about what you’d expect from a PS1 titles from 1998. The soundtrack, by Yoko Shimamura [best known for her work on Super Mario RPG, Legend of Mana, and the Kingdom Heart series], is very good, with a number of memorable tracks. There’s no voice acting and the sound effects get the job done, but aren’t anything special.

Parasite Eve isn’t particularly difficult and it’s fairly short, you could probably beat it in a day if you really set your mind to it. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting title and a unique entry into the JRPG genre. It’s worth checking out for the $20 that a used copy will warrant on Amazon.

May 3, 2010 Posted by | Games, Retro Night | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Retro Night: Vagrant Story

After a string of PS1 successes in the late 90’s with games like Final Fantasy VII and VIII, Final Fantasy Tactics, Saga Frontier 1 and 2, Einhander, Xenogears, Parasite Eve 1 and 2, Legend of Mana, Front Mission 2 and 3, Threads of Fate, and Chrono Cross, Square was at the top of their game. Just two months after the 90’s ended, they unveiled their latest RPG offering: Vagrant Story. It was a bit different from many of their other RPGs, in that it featured a semi-realtime battle system and full 3D graphics. It also took a more realistic art style for its characters and settings, rather than the anime-influenced style of previous Square RPGs. The title, headed by Yasumi Matsuno [known for his work on several Ogre Battle titles and Final Fantasy Tactics], received a perfect score from Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu and similarly high praise from American websites and magazines. However, it was somewhat overshadowed in its time by being squashed between the releases of Chrono Cross, Parasite Eve II, and Final Fantasy IX.

In terms of gameplay, Vagrant Story is a far cry from Square’s other RPGs. Rather than turn-based combat with parties of characters, the combat in Vagrant Story all takes places in near-realtime with just one player character [Ashley Riot, a member of the Valendia Knights of Peace]. To attack, the player must first enter battle mode by pressing the X button and then bring up the attack menu by pressing the O button. The attack menu displays all the opponents that Ashley can attack as well as which parts of their body that he can target. Different parts of the enemies’ bodies can result in varying amounts of damage and varying degrees of success. An opponent’s arm might be easier to hit while amounting in less damage, but an attack to the head might result in greater damage but be more difficult to land a blow. Once an attack is select, Ashley will carry it out. However, this does not mean that control is taken away from the player until the attack is finished. During the animation, the player can press either the X, O, or Square button to chain together different attacks or effects [based on which have been preselected before combat] but these must be done at exactly the right instant, otherwise the chain attack will fail. The game takes place in the dungeons and sewers of a large, Renaissance-style city and is decidedly a dungeon-crawler, as there are no towns or NPCs to interact with. Some people will looks on this as a bad thing, as most RPGs feature these two things prominently, but Vagrant Story is still able to tell a rich, dramatic story even without these things.

There’s also a bit of platforming in the game. Sometimes you’ll have to stack up and arrange boxes to access areas that are high up. It’s not really a big thing and most of these can be solved fairly quickly, but its…well…mildly interesting I suppose and something to do other than fighting all the time.

The graphics in Vagrant Story are completely in 3D and it is possible to zoom into a first-person mode and look around the room that Ashley is currently in. It definitely looks good for a PS1 game and the realistic art is a nice change from what is seen in a lot of other RPGs, but it really hasn’t aged well. The textures are heavily pixelated and there’s an abundance of texture shimmering [a common ailment of PS1 games with 3D graphics], especially in the cutscenes. There is a nice attention to detail, particularly in the environments [although they do tend to be a bit repetitive] and in the faces of the characters, which actually emote.

Item customization is a big factor in Vagrant Story, since getting new equipment is no longer as simple as finding a shop in the latest town. Weapons and armor can be broken down into their base components and then recombined to make entirely new pieces of equipment and there gems found throughout the game that can imbue equipment with various stat increases and other effects. Tweaking of equipment and making new equipment plays a major role in Vagrant Story and becomes essential as the game progresses. All the more so because there is no experience or leveling system. Sometimes after a boss fight or mid-boss fight, you’ll have a chance to get a stat bonus and fighting does unlock certain special moves, but that’s it.

Problems? Well, there are a few. For one thing, the game is very short. It can probably be beaten in about five or six hours, maybe a couple more if you try to find all the side rooms and such. For an RPG that’s practically miniscule. Another issue is that the underground dungeons get pretty repetitive after an hour or so. There’s just not a whole lot of variety to all the rooms and corridors, unfortunately. There’s also a spike in difficulty at around the two hour mark, when enemies suddenly see a huge boost to their defenses. Not their attack though, oddly enough. Theses are very real problems and they can make the game a bit frustrating to play.

Now, the question: is Vagrant Story still worth playing? Sure, just don’t pay a fortune for it, that’s all. It’s got its issues, that’s without question, but it’s still a fun little RPG from people who are masters of the genre.

April 29, 2010 Posted by | Retro Night | , , , , | Leave a comment

Arcades: Gunforce 2 and Dungeons & Dragons

Gunforce 2

This run-and-gun Arcade game was developed and published by Irem. The team who created eventually left Irem and formed Nazca, the company responsible for developing Metal Slug for SNK. It certainly bears the hallmarks of that later series in fast-paced, explosions-everywhere gameplay, although I think Gunforce 2 actually took the concept much farther than any of the Metal Slug games ever did. The character in Gunforce 2 has two weapons that can fired in different directions and features explosions and debris that can literally cover the entire screen and this is usually what happens all the time. There are hordes of enemies coming at you constantly as well. This is a really fun game, one of the best I’ve played from the genre, and it looks amazing.

Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom and Shadow of Mystara

These two arcade games, developed and published by Capcom in 1993 and 1996, respectively, are beat ’em up with an emphasis on fast-paced action and some RPG elements. There are a wide range of attacks and magical spells that can be used against the various enemies and bosses that you’ll face. It’s also possible to change your characters weapon and use ranged weapons, like throwing knives and bows. Shadow of Mystara also has several special attacks which are activated through a set of button presses as with Capcom’s Street Fighter series. In between levels, the players visit villages where gold and silver collect on the battlefield can be used to by items and weapons. Both of the games have really good graphics and music. Overall, they’re just really fun, fast-paced games.

April 23, 2010 Posted by | Games, Retro Night | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Retro Night: Introduction to Arcades

Arcades used to be haven for the latest and greatest in videogame technology. Fast pace, flashing lights, a 2D bullet hell with only one restriction: the number of quarters in your pocket. It was a great time to be a kid, because your parents were likely to dump you off at the arcade at the mall with a few bucks to play whatever games you could find. These days, arcades don’t really exist like they used to, not in the United States at least. Oh, you can still find them here and there, mostly relegated to Chucky Cheeses or Dave & Busters, but it’s just not the same.

With modern technology, it’s possible to relive those happy times with the MAME emulator, which basically takes all those different hardware configurations and puts them all into a single program that will play any and every arcade game you can think. That’s the purpose anyway, it doesn’t always work out in the practice since there are still a great number of classic titles that simply don’t work.

But, that’s a blog post for another day, I think. Let’s get down to the real point of this post: are the games still fun? The quick answer to that is a resounding YES. In fact, quite a few arcade games from the 90’s are still infinitely playable [thanks in part to the fact that MAME allows you to insert as many virtual quarters as you want] and very fun. Starting with the next post, and continuing into the near future with further posts, I’ll take a look at some of the better titles and give you some insight into what makes them so much fun. Enjoy!

Here’s a preliminary list of games that I’ll be looking at:

Asura Blade: Sword of Dynasty
Dangun Feveron
Darius Gaiden: Silver Hawk
Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors
Dimahoo
DonPachi
Dragon Blaze
Dragon Gun
Dungeons and Dragons: Shadow of Mystara and Tower of Doom
Final Fight
Gaia Crusaders
Giga Wing
Gunbird 2
Gunforce 2
In the Hunt
Knights of the Round
Marvel vs. Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes
Metal Slug X
Shock Troopers 2
Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa

April 23, 2010 Posted by | Games, Retro Night | , , | Leave a comment