Seething Cauldron of Pop Culture Talk

Irascible Analysis of Popular Culture

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.

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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

Hidden Gems: Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines

In 2004, developer Troika, made from many of the old Black Isle team members, released their first 3D title: Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines, based on White Wolf’s World of Darkness. It also proved to be their last as the game sold less than 100,000 units, possibly overshadowed by Half-Life 2, which was released on the very same day. It also suffered from a plethora of bugs, likely due to the team’s inexperience with 3D, a rushed final third, and horrid combat. Why, then, is it a feature on Hidden Gems? Well, that’s because it’s one of the greatest RPGs of the past decade.

The game tells the story of a man or woman, depending on which gender you choose, who is turned into a vampire. The character’s sire, the vampire who turned them, is killed for breaking the rules and the player character is more or less left on his or her own, except that a few vampires early on who provide some pointers on how not to get killed right off the bat. From there, the character embarks on a journey through the dark underbelly of vampire society from the orderly Camarilla and the rebellious Anarchs. There’s danger at every turn as the Prince sends you on various missions to uncover the truth about an ancient vampire sarcophagus that has appeared in Los Angeles.

What’s really striking about this game is how deep it is. There are numerous conversations choices for virtually every encounter, all of which are effected by your character’s stats and vampire clan. All the characters are fully voiced, and quite well for the most part, and there are a good number of characters to interact with. There are some NPCs that you can’t talk to, however. But I digress, this is truly an RPG in the purest sense of the word. Rather than focus on action, action, action, it concerns itself with the underlying systems that provide differing experiences based on player choice. Of course, if you truly want a different experience, choose the Nosferatu clan during character creation.

There’s a huge number of missions and side missions for the player to complete, or not complete, all of which provide little bits of insight into the workings of the vampire world, both their trials and their ambitions. That’s another aspect of the game that is truly unique. The world has so many great characters and great stories, but it’s all buoyed by a unique world that has been carefully thought out and put together. This world feels very lived-in and also as if one push might throw it all into chaos.

The graphics are pretty good for the most part, aided by some truly stunning character faces. Characters are very detailed and well animated, which is good because you’re going to be staring at some of them very closely thanks to the first-person view. There’s also a third-person view, but I wouldn’t really recommend it except for melee combat. The look of the world is another high-point, it has almost cyberpunk feel to it as you stare out at the skyline of the city at night. Although it was actually the first game to use Valve’s Source engine, it certainly doesn’t look it. However, it does become clear that it’s an early Source engine because of the lack of physics, which Half-Life 2 was famous for. It’s unfortunate, but another by-product of the team’s inexperience with 3D.

I’ve talked a lot about what the game does really well, but there’s also something that it does very poorly. For one thing, there are a number of very serious bugs, some of which can completely break the game and force you to start over. That’s not good. The few cutscenes that are scattered around in the game are very poorly handled and animated. It’s a good thing there aren’t very many because you won’t want to watch them. Another bad thing? The combat is some of the worse combat to ever appear in a 3D RPG. It’s stiff and cumbersome and feel’s like it was tacked on near the end. Speaking of the end: the final seven or eight hours is very rushed and combat-heavy. Also, if you played stealthy through the first part of the game and didn’t really spend many points on combat, then you’re in trouble. There are monsters near the end that will see you anyway. My suggestion is to switch on god mode and stroll past them. The ending is also light on RPG’ing, you know, talking to people and doing side quests and things of that nature. It’s almost pure combat, which might not be that bad if the combat weren’t so janky.

It’s got a decent length, about 15-20 hours, and features a nice range of locations to visit and explore. There’s simply a lot of things to do and find all over the place, so that you’ll rarely ever be bored. It’s even got a few instances where the game can be really creepy, even scary. It’s a dark, adult RPG.

Specs: Developed by Troika, Published by Activision, and released on November 16, 2004 for the PC.

Upsides: A dark world filled with interesting characters and a lot of missions to accomplish.

Downsides: Broken combat, rushed finale, poorly animated cutscenes, lots of bugs.

Verdict: The epitome of a flawed gem. If you can overlook the problems this game has, then you’ll be rewarded with a deep RPG that is unlike any other out there. 8.5/10

Where to Find: The retail release is out of print by now, and a bit costly used, but there’s a Steam version available now for $20.

Random Note: Most of the bugs have been ironed over the years by a series of fan patches. MAKE SURE YOU GET THE LATEST ONE BEFORE PLAYING.

April 18, 2010 Posted by | Games, Hidden Gems | , , , , | Leave a comment