Saturday, August 01, 2009

Retro Nostalgia

Recently I acquired both Dragon Quest XI and Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor for my DS. Upon playing a bit of both of them I noticed something... Despite having actually played a few Dragon Quest titles before but never having played a Megami Tensei title before, MT seemed so much more familiar than DQ. For two, Dragon Quest has lost that "retro" feel by this incarnation - it certainly doesn't feel canon at all anymore. They've traded all of the gameplay and suck-you-in story of previous titles for really, really overreaching graphics and from what I've experienced so far - tedium. As I said, I've never played a Megami Tensei title before, although I've had lots of interest in doing so, just ultimately never bothered to. However, this game actually gave me more of a nostalgic "retro" feeling than any title in recent memory. MT has flashy graphics with hand-drawn anime/manga style characters and demons, convenient gameplay to expedite strategy to action and different gimmicks that certainly do not feel like gimmicks.

I have to say I'm fairly disappointed by DQIX, and I can honestly see why Japanese people gave it unanimously "shit-laden" reviews. Visually, the game is kinda pretty for a DS title, but I felt like the scenery was sparse at points, there was too much emphasis on character graphics and that it almost overreached on both at points. It's hard to explain, but it sort of makes me think of an overtly-ambitious N64 game. Thankfully, though, it doesn't suffer from the same affliction that the awful remakes of Dragon Quest V and VI do. And that is that they both looked like poorly-textured PS1 titles. I would rather have a translation in earnest of the original 16-bit titles, than something where every texture looks like someone pooped spinach onto the side of a building, and the characters look like pulled-apart SNES Mode 7 pixelated messes. The story seems kinda awful, too. So far I've discovered that I'm a "guardian angel" of a village and I have to take people's prayers that I've fulfilled and appease some sort of world tree with the "energy" that their thanks generates or some BS. I can only assume that at some point the world tree gets blown to smithereens or something and then my character becomes human and has to gather a band of warriors and take down retard-a-saurus or whatever.

This is precisely why I stopped playing Final Fantasy games. Why the hell do these things need to be so bloody abstract now?! It was charming when Final Fantasy Tactics Advance had some kids pulled through to another dimension to save it. When they continued with some thinly-veiled "we don't give a shit" story in the same vein in A2, it just became an awful mess. A2's story was super-blatant and straightforward, as well as extremely half-hearted. For those of you that remember the first Tactics game for the PS1, it was about, well, Tactics as well as a deeply rooted, complex story like an ancient tale come to life. I have zero objections to a story that's strange/abstract, but well-executed. Chrono Trigger is, in my opinion, one of the best games of all time and its story is amongst the most abstract I've ever seen. However! It was also well-executed (and built into a time-traveling gimmick to boot). These new games have stories that are really slap-dashed together or they smack of cliche, or worse they try something "new" with a major title (ala DQIX) where it alters the mainstays of the series to the point where I don't want to play anymore titles in the series. I used to be the biggest FF fanboy ever, now I don't own a single title. When it got to the micromanagement stage in FFVIII, I quit. With minigames and card games and all of that crap to get in the way, they were all gimmicks gone awry.

Gimmicks are fine when they're well-executed, but when the whole story becomes a collect-a-thon of weapons, where overpowering your enemy is more important than strategy, it just gets pointless. Which in these days, does not surprise me. When you can BUY cheats on XBox Live for a game, it doesn't surprise me that all it takes to beat the crap out of a strategy game is to train a character in a class that crushes everything else with no real play balancing. And I know that you have to keep things fresh, so new battle systems and play mechanics are necessary, but why should every title now be a complete overhaul? Not to genre-jump, but look at all of the gradually-changing DLC that they've released for titles like Fallout 3 and Gears of War 2? The play mechanic changes slightly, the setting changes, a few new weapons, new story. Another good example is the Castlevania series, all the way through actually. From the first title it's been a gradual, graceful evolution (except for the N64 title and the PS2 titles weren't so great, either). The GBA titles in the series added more and more without being radically different, and ended up being great. When the GBA titles grew slightly stale, the DS entries changed the system of combat, slightly. It didn't alter the play mechanic entirely so as to alienate people that actually liked the way things were. Making players that love a series jump through hoops to control an RPG/Strategy game is not most peoples' idea of a good time.

So now, instead of having a swords n' sorcery epic that I look forward to playing 10 years from now, like Chrono Trigger, I have some half-baked title where I have to feed a tree with the peoples' wishes.

Onto the good side of things... MegaTen is such a good game. Every gimmick well-executed coupled with a battle system that is slightly lopsided at times, but forces you to adapt and not just "power through" with one strong character. It has been such a long time since I've had a game that requires me to actually watch out and make my characters work as a team. The elemental affinity system requires you to strategize as to who does what, and the battle system allows you to use each character's talents in any order, and individually, which makes soooooo much sense. Much more than just about every other strategy game I've played in recent memory, anyway. In most strategy games the game's system requires you to move and then use your attack command or if you attack while stationary you forfeit your chance to move or do anything afterward. And then if you wish to heal or cure status ailments, you have to either do so in battle or do it in lieu of attacking. In MegaTen DS you can actually use your characters'/demons' individual talents every turn, in any order, in addition to attacking. This gets a little annoying when the computer has 3 of the same demon with the same skill set and cures themselves/their allies over and over if you don't kill them, but then again you can perform the same cure tanking if you set it up properly.

The game itself has enough of a learning curve that you won't get bored, but you won't get frustrated to the point of throwing your DS, either. Features are introduced gradually and not thrown at you all at once, and the customization options for your demons are amazing. A large chunk of the game is fusing demons to create new ones, and even the system for that seems well-thought out (and apparently is inherited from the other games of the MegaTen series). This aspect would almost seem Pokemon-y if it wasn't for the fact that the actual demons' art looks so occult/manga.

Speaking of presentation, the graphics and backgrounds are very crisp and the game on the whole looks pseudo-retro, in my opinion anyway. It feels almost nostalgic (pretty funny for a series I've never even played, eh?) with the hand-drawn graphics and such that come off somewhere between "then" and now. The story progresses by you moving throughout Tokyo trying to figure a way out before a demon lord is summoned. I won't reveal too much here, but the normal goings on, er go on. You navigate the map and talk to people, battles ensue, you help people, and there are branching points that add replay value to an already interesting and deep game. Goals other than "slaughter everything in sight" keep things good, too.

The story is intriguing without revealing too much at one time and without keeping the player in the dark so much that they don't know what's going on. As well, despite the anime characterizations the story doesn't get obnoxious with characters fighting for a whole paragraph to the extent that it detracts from the story like other games I've seen that have anime archetypes for characters. (And this one is full of em, the nerdy best friend of the hero that naturally butts heads with the typical self-reliant moe girl with big breasts type that whines a moderate amount, the self-sacrifcing stoic type with a "secret", etc), but nor does it get like survival horror scary either. It seems just dark enough, with an added element (and I suspect that this is on purpose) of naivete on the characters' part where they complain about not having cell phones or power or whatever. They complain about it like they've taken it for granted and their world has been shattered, but they don't curl up into a ball and die - they adapt gradually. And for "typical anime characterizations" these kids are sure "real". Like I said above, it has its moments where it gets silly, but for the most part they act like people that aren't total idiots, would in a crisis. And speaking of anime characterizations, whoever did the translation did an excellent job. And I say translation as opposed to localization because they want you to know that the game takes place in Japan. They leave cultural references in, they leave the word otaku in, they leave the word cosplay in, manga? anime? check. It gave me a chuckle when I saw "shut-in", I said to myself, "Not brave enough to leave hikikomori in, eh?" There is one Japanese word that they left untranslated that really blew me away and I cannot remember for the life of me what it is. FINALLY a company/translator gets that certain people play certain games and you don't have to boil everything down to the stupidest and most localized level for the dumbass masses who will chances are never even see this game let alone play it. I would rather have a game retain jokes I don't get and then have to research so I gain some cultural knowledge, over mangling it into something that's not funny to anyone and misses on all levels.

Despite being released in 2005-2009 the Phoenix Wright (even the title is over-localized) series of games have been butchered to shit in terms of J-references. I remember playing the last case of the first one, where the "lunch box girl" sells you her special "pickle box lunch" which was clearly like ika (squid) or something to that effect. And character names like "Sal Manella" or "Wendy Oldbag", as well as a lot of the dialogue just ends up sounding queer and half-baked when they try and translate it for a mass audience. I mean I don't expect them to release the game transliterated and expect people to figure everything out (like the main character's name is Naruhodo Ryuuichi. In Japanese, naruhodo equals something like "I see"), but really poor puns are, well, really poor. I've written about this before, and I guess maybe it's an unfair sort of thing for people just wanting to play a game, but that's a catch 22, too. Because this isn't Halo or Gears of War or Grand Theft Auto or Rock Band it's not getting a chunk of mass audience. You're not going to turn MORE people off than are already being turned off by the title or concept, by having "that tharr Japanese" in it. Generally the people that are buying a game like Phoenix Wright, are buying it because "it looks neat" or because it's a unique-looking game, or much more likely - they, "read about the Japanese version online and really wanna play it hehe!"

So I guess the point of this post inadvertently turned out to be one of ambivalence. I'm going on and on about how retro games are great, anything that has that retro feel, but improves on the old and does the gimmick thing well is okay, but too much new is bad. At the same time I'm bitching about how companies aren't marketing/creating correctly and it's not 10 years ago when no one heard of anything until it came out in a monthly magazine. That more culture is spread through the net and more people understand more now and that they shouldn't be afraid of "new" ways of doing things. I'm a hypocrite, lulz.

1 comment :

Faisal said...

May be because L5 ? but comparing
FF A2 to mainline don’t make any
sense :|