Friday, January 29, 2010

Second Look: Glory of Heracles

So I've been playing Glory of Heracles since roughly last Friday evening, and finished it last night. Not bad, getting almost an entire week's worth of gaming (a full week, if you count the fact that I finished after midnight last night) out of a DS RPG that I wasn't expecting too much out of.

In my first impression post about this game, I had almost universally good things to say about it - along with a few nitpicks. While I don't think that my first write-up was too premature, this game somewhat altered its entertainment value down the line.Now that isn't to say that the game got bad at any point, but I think for me at least, after about hour 25 the "new" wore off. My total time played was something in the neighborhood of 40 hours.

For one thing, the plot gets a lot more convoluted, and thus a lot more yawn-worthy for this customer. It's hard to articulate without spoiling anything, but suffice it to say that you eventually end up having to destroy these "devices that go against the gods' will" and what made the story enjoyable before is that when you set out to do something, there were things to interrupt and create a sidestory before. It kept things alive and fresh, but something got botched somewhere along the line, perhaps the scenario writers got bored? The only point that actually gets injected into your journey after a while is the final boss, which seems kinda contrived, not to mention when you get towards the end, it seems like a giant Pokemon battle (if you play all the way through you'll see what I mean). The story seems to retain that feel of Greek mythos with a Japanese/modern bent, for better or worse, throughout. "Worse" being invoked in that traditionally JRPG ending, sort of way, too. But more on that later.

Some of the game's strengths manage to work against it toward the end. The whole battle-->town-->battle-->town revolving door thing that managed to keep the plot moving in the beginning, gets sort of grating, and having the old school console RPG fanboy residing inside of me still, I was semi-disappointed that this game drags you along by a yoke up until the very end. No transportation like a ship or being able to travel freely are detrimental, in my opinion. And at times, if you even try to leave a town or something to go grind or get some parts to make weapons with at the blacksmith, your party stops you and says, "Shouldn't we be looking for person X?" It does give events a sense of gravity, because really, if you're after an evil madman with the powers of a god, do you really have time to board your airship and go searching for the Rat's Tail to trade for a hunk of Adamantite? But then again, I can sit until doomsday doing nothing in the inn or weapons shop and time doesn't pass there, so.

The random battles do stay fresh and their frequency consistent enough that you don't easily just run through areas without encounters, but you don't have to keep healing yourself after every battle, either. I do have to say, however, that a lot of the later battles' enemy parties have a large disparity between their difficulties. In some battles I found myself one-shotting monsters with the normal Attack command and they did absolutely no damage to me, and in others there would be a kamikaze of "Desperate Attack" or "Inject" whereby the enemy would sacrifice themselves constantly to overkill my guys, doing 5000+ damage on a character with 4000 health. Granted, this would happen to one, maybe two characters in every 5th or 6th encounter, so it wasn't a big deal so much as a nuisance, but when one mob does 39 damage to a character, and then another in the same area does 4900 to that same one... it's just inconsistent. Another thing I noticed about this game that I had been sort of oblivious to earlier, is that the "annoying" enemies are easily a lot worse than the powerful ones, which as I said in my last post makes bosses a joke for the most part. What I mean by annoying is typical RPG enemy that is resistant to magic, or in this game there are enemies that are only susceptible to magic (unless you have a special skill called Bulldoze that makes your attacks land 100% of the time, which show you just how vulnerable to physical attacks they are when you do connect). In Heracles there is the concept of "ether" which is what everything is made of. When you kill something it doesn't disappear right away, you can "overkill" it to restore your mana pool. However, if something is considered undead, until you overkill it, it will keep coming back to life after that turn is over. I actually found a lot of these confrontations a lot harder than any boss in the game.

And those aren't the only inconsistencies in the game, either. The game sort of coddles you throughout, directing you where to go without any real path back (i.e. - super linear) as I mentioned above, it reminds you frequently to save, when you level up it restores everything to that character and it gives you upgrades every five feet. Despite all of this hand-holding, when you enter any sort of cut scene in town where in any traditional RPG you'd be restored, you never are. In fact, I can only remember about two places in the game where it throws you a bone. They let you buy "Camping Kits", but really the only places I found myself able to use them, I was near a town with an inn, it was kinda retarded. If they make another one of these using the same engine, they really need to fine tune it, too. There were points in time where the computer drops you into an obvious place and there's only one (obvious) way to go. And then there were at least two occasions where I tapped or pressed A next to the spot that eventually turned out to be correct, several times, and the "hidden entrance" or whatever didn't open until I made multiple laps around the area and apparently did the right thing (One being opening the stairway to Hades up for the last battle, I pressed the column you need to push on the touch screen at least 20 times and made several laps before I guess I pressed the right pixel/part of the 3-D model and tada!). This applies to doors and chests, too, they're either super-sensitive and open when you're half a screen away or you have to be like right on top of them.

And it wouldn't be a true JRPG without 82 million spells, with only 10 or 15 being at all relevant. You know, 3-4 versions of charming/poisoning/sleeping/attuning and doing damage. As I said before, any offensive spell and most offensive physical arts usually give you an option to do "100% damage" or you can go for anywhere from 133% damage to 200% depending on the spell, by playing some touchscreen minigame. This is another concept I found exhausting. The minigames make battles slow as hell, but are necessary a lot of the time if you don't want to run out of MP (you'd be surprised how little the margin of damage there is between filling your MP back up with an overkill, or your enemy's corpse sitting there, laughing at you), plus I found myself getting wrist cramps when I kept having to tap the screen repeatedly, or play a glorified version of Simon or something. Your stats also grow like crazy, but you never really get to use anything useful because the "ether" in the air for each battle is limited. I never did fully understand how it worked, it's supposed to prevent you from spamming spells to kill shit is what it seems like, but the game's explanation early on is that if you don't have the MP to cast a spell, you can use the ether around to supplement your mana pool but you take HP damage by doing so. Even when I HAD the MP (and thensome!) to cast a spell, it would still subtract it from that element's ether on that battlefield and it'd threaten me with that aforementioned HP damage reflux. This usually resulted in single target spells, and anything that targeted a row or all enemies couldn't be used without killing myself, or nearly. You have a caster character, but she never learns any multi-target spells - ever. So that makes it kind of moot, because everyone who does have them doesn't have enough INT stat to do any decent amount of damage, and have much better options available to them to kill things a lot faster. You can equip her with a weapon or armor to "teach" her a multi-target spell, but that as fast as you trade equipment for others in this game, you wind up losing stats if you keep her with a staff that teaches her a magic that's useful to your party, and there's that aforementioned reflux damage.

And on that note, you can make battles way too easy in this game with a not-so-secret, secret. There are a number of De'Int (magic damage reduction) and De-physical (I forget the name, but reduces physical damage dealt) as well as reducing resistance to magic and physical damage spells that you can cast for little MP on just about any and every enemy in the game (including the last boss). ONE cast makes a spell that once did 500+ damage, do about 20 damage, or that punch in the gut your main guy just took? Take his phys damage down and he's scratching you like a kitten. The last boss was laughably easy due to this, and had I stumbled upon this trick of the trade earlier, I would've made my shitty ranged character who was always struggling to keep up, a support character. This one-cast-and-you're-neutered thing really did take all of the challenge out once I discovered it.

Your physical moves and magic share a mana pool. While this isn't that annoying early on, because everything doesn't cost that, that much, later on physical moves cost a ridiculous amount of MP while spells kinda keep it down. I guess you're supposed to take into account the overkill thing, but it's more difficult to get overkills later, and when you have a mana pool of 2400 and your moves cost 350-1000 MP each, you're wasting gas when you use something that isn't a certain (over)kill. This is compounded by the fact that if you put the right Abilities on your physical attack-centric characters, your regular Attack command can easily outdamage your Skills.

Other RPGs could learn a few things from Heracles, though, too. I always thought it was a retarded concept that even later on, weak monsters could attack you in most RPGs, and you can kill them with one stroke and all still hang on till the bitter end. In Heracles if you're doing well, there's a reward. Say your criticals proc in your first 2/3 attacks and you down a bigger, badder monster in two hits, the other monsters cower and are prone to running away, because you showed off your strength. I love that aspect. I still maintain that I love having to trade stats for moves or Abilities, it doesn't really make the game ez-mode and requires you to strategize. I think this is the result of being a post-MMO RPG, because MMOs make you make a tradeoff so as to not make everyone god in-game.

The ending is terrible, I'll just throw it out there. Most mysteries get solved before you take on the last boss, the big reveal involving your main character is disappointing and a little depressing and the characters that you started to care about before get really, terribly generic toward the 3/4-done mark.

When you beat the game, New Game+ and Survival open up. Now when a RPG has a New Game+, that usually means you start out with the same stats, work your way through to new endings, or content or whatever. Heracles makes you start over with no items and from level one. I was semi-excited to play through again, knowing I can plow through to new areas and items, but I'm not leveling my party twice. Survival pits you against groups of enemies 3-4 battles back to back and then you get auto-healed, and this is supposedly for new items. But for what? If I load my data for New Game+ and have no access to these items, what the hell is the point? And to compound this, I fought about 16 battles and got nothing new at all, just crap to build items with and sell, and older weapons, and if I'm not going shopping or there's no blacksmith in Survival mode, what's the point? Also, the battles in Survival mode are once again, incongruous. There are enemies from the beginning of the game with improved stats that are now harder to beat, but it seemed like they were only resistant to physical attacks, I was nuking in the 10000+ range with magic.

Overall, I don't view this game's completion as a waste of my time, it remained fun to the point where, even at the end when I couldn't find the faulty switch because of the shitty engine, I was still having fun with the random battles while doing laps around the screen. I was highly disappointed by the New Game+ and Survival options, and the last 10th of the game really dragged on for no reason. The grinding aspect of the game and about 3/5ths of the story were great, if only that last bit wasn't so awful, and those other modes could've been a lot better - I was really looking forward to earning new items to actually use for something.

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