- Valve Publications – I’ve raved about Valve’s design tips in the past, and there’s more to be found here.
- Bow Before The Worm Slayer – Will Hindmarch’s Escapist post on how low-cost, text-based achievements in Lord of the Rings Online facilitate player communication.
- Evaluating Game Mechanics For Depth – Mike Stout’s article on gameplay depth, what it really means, and how it can be increased without relying on aesthetic tricks or worrying about redundancy.
Every couple of years I find myself replaying Final Fantasy IV. Part of the reason is a steady stream of remakes coupled with a bit of nostalgia, but an even bigger part is that FF IV is actually a really good game.
Like many RPGs, FF IV is an abstraction of a fantasy world. Its planet is peppered with just a few notable locations, and each of its kingdoms comprises only a handful of houses. Beyond these somewhat awkward limitations, though, the setting is structured in a very interesting way.
The feudal world is pretty standard, but it’s also infused with numerous traces of human religion and mythology. The summoned monsters include deities from Norse, Greek, Hindu and Arabic legends, and there’s even a couple of weapons made famous for being wielded by Arthurian and Japanese heroes. None of these elements are logically tied together, but they represent iconic touchstones of many cultures, ensuring that most people who play FF IV will find aspects of it that are familiar yet mysterious.
The game’s own original mythos also revolve around crystals and the moon, both of which contain a plethora of mystical associations. While all these elements might not make for the most original setting, they do create an aura of magic and intrigue that’s more universal than the series’ later focus on hyper stylized aspects of Japanese pop culture.
FF IV’s world does not change based on the player’s choices, but its storyline fuels numerous large-scale events: Leviathan attacks and sinks a ship, dwarf tanks battle an invading force, the Giant of Babel wrecks havoc on the planet’s surface, etc. A further sense of life is added to the overworld through various modes of transportation: yellow and black chocobos, the hovercraft, and three different types of airships.
On a smaller-scale, the towns are filled with their own personal touches. The citizens of Agart ponder the legends of their subterranean ancestors while bomb shards are scattered throughout the ruined village of Mist. The towns are populated by a sparse cast of supporting characters, but each locations has its own distinct layout and overall feel. Many are also associated with individual dungeons and offer unique items for sale, promising exotic upgrades just around the corner.
Aside from facilitating a varied pace and providing background depth, towns also help to make the setting come to life. By physically travelling from one location to another, the player discovers the layout of the world and how to orient himself within it. This might not seem like a big deal, but it’s a much more immersive approach than a linear series of videogame levels. Simply put, the cohesiveness of the world anchors the player and helps to suspend his disbelief.
The dungeons are also varied, but they don’t rely on dubious one-time gameplay gimmicks common to current day JRGPs, e.g., sneaking into a guarded compound. Since the game’s story dictates which characters are in the party at any given time, the treasures in each area are also conveniently synced with the player’s troops.
In addition, the dungeons contain lots of secret passages and some unique attributes — e.g., the damaging tiles leading to Feymarch that require Float to be cast on the whole party, or the Lodestone Cavern where wielding metal equipment brings instant death — but the greatest variety comes through in the battles.
And FF IV has a great battle system.
Each character’s profession is reflected in combat, bringing together story and gameplay. Kain the Dragoon utilizes massive aerial attacks, black and white mages cast offensive and defensive spells respectively, Edward the bard-prince strums along songs of dubious usefulness, etc.
These abilities come into play against a variety of enemies, all of whom are imbued with a certain sense of personality. Some foes are resistant to magical elements, others counter physical attacks, and a few even inflict punishing status effects (like the swamp hag surrounded by giant frogs that cast toad at the end every turn, morphing the party into a group of feeble amphibians).
Since the story dictates the party’s makeup, the player is often forced to switch up his tactics. A single fighter with 3 mages must keep them all in the back row so they can safely launch their powerful spells, while 3 fighters and a single mage have to preserve MP for healing or make more liberal use of Osmose/MP restoring items. The items are also great as they represent a steady stream of collectibles that are actually useful in combat. They give each character something to do even when they’re facing a foe that’s immune to their innate abilities, providing some extra options for what would otherwise be boring battle scenarios.
The combat encounters are never puzzles with a single solution. The player can simply gain enough levels to overpower the enemy, but he can also utilize various strategies that might prove effective, e.g., the undead are extremely weak to phoenix downs/elixirs/healing magic, but they’re also susceptible to fire and can be dispatched with simple physical attacks. Of course daring players can simply choose to run away from standard encounters and only fight the bosses, but it’s a bit tricky to pull off.
The internal logic of all the items, spells and abilities is quite consistent and gives depth to the world, but it also shines through in other areas of the game. My favourite example of this is how often spells are cast outside of combat (especially considering the abstract nature of the battles and how separate they are from the rest of the game): Palom and Porom use the petrifying “Break” to turn into statues and save the party from a deadly trap, Rydia melts a blockade of ice once she gets past her traumatic aversion to fire spells, the citizens of Mysidia exact revenge on the protagonist by turning him into a pig and other “polymorph” critters, etc.
FF IV is a relatively simple RPG by today’s standards, but its overall structure still holds up. In fact, I prefer its setup to most current entires in the genre, but if you want to (re)check it out, I’d first recommend reading up on the various version differences. Whichever one you choose, though, you’ll get a nice little world to explore.
After hearing all the internet-hype Yakuza, I decided to check out the second game in the series. I was actually quite surprised at how similar it was to Shenmue (considering that title’s commercial failure), but the modern-day setting seems to have helped it achieve success in Japan.
Here are the notable bits for the North American release:
— Gameplay-wise, Yakuza 2 feels very much like a Final Fight (or in Sega’s case, a Streets of Rage) RPG. Levels are gained, weapons break after a few uses, and combat takes place on a separate screen.
— The storyline of the Yakuza series has received quite a bit of praise, but it’s more of an over-the-top soap opera than a serious drama. The cast has a penchant for betrayal, characters never seem to die permanently, pro-wrestler types toss around grenades, and ancient castles transform into crime-lord fortresses.
— Unlike the first game, there is no dubbing and whole experience is subtitled. Probably for the better, too.
— The combat is fast and brutal, and filled with interactive components. The player can pick up just about anything not nailed to the ground, and the stuff he can’t pick up can often be used to execute custom moves (e.g., smashing an opponent into curbs, bike racks, etc.)
— Combat scenarios are not the only events that can happen while randomly exploring the city — side quests and even main storyline points are often initiated in this fashion.
— Leveling up is split into three categories, each one representing a linear path. Every step on a path quickly increases in cost, which does a pretty good job at balancing the player’s abilities while providing some customization options. The upgrades are not just statistical in nature either, granting all new moves to the player, e.g., the ability to drag around and attack downed a opponent.
— Somewhat predictably, firearms are relegated to the role of pesky spit-wad shooters, never posing any real threat and quickly running out of ammo without the ability to actually reload them.
— The game’s minimap is crucial to figuring out which buildings can be entered, with new areas lighting up as the narrative gives reasons to visit them. The full map is a bit of a pain to get too, though, and has a clunky interface that doesn’t showcase any of the landmarks. This proves particularly irksome in Kamurocho, which is quite a bit bigger than the relatively compact (and probably more suitable to the gameplay) Sotenbori.
— Completing side quests can have the added benefit of combat bonuses in specific areas (in addition to the regular rewards of finishing the quest itself). This is done through a quick-time event at the beginning of a battle; the people that the player has helped in the past will toss in weapons, initiating a cinematic event that usually ends with the defeat of one of the enemies.
— Throughout the game, AI partners will join and follow the player. During battles, they’ll freely engage the enemies and periodically hold them up, setting up special tag-team moves. What’s most interesting here is that they usually won’t finish off the enemies themselves, making sure that the player always feels like the hero.
— After a certain amount of enemies are defeat, optional “encounter” bosses appear in the city.
— If the game is left idling for an extended period of time, the camera zooms in on the protagonist who lights up a cigarette and ponders his current quest. Although a small touch, this is a nice way of reminding the player of his goals without breaking the suspension of disbelief.
— All boss battles are infused with special cinematic moments. These are initiated after a certain amount of damage has been dealt, and have the player rapidly tapping a button to power up his “super meter” to unleash a special attack.
— The underground coliseum contains even more twists on the combat system. Its battles are 3-fight tournaments filled with special modifiers — e.g., electrified fences, boxing-only duels, etc. — and unique enemies not encountered anywhere else in the game.
— The game world is filled with the various shops and nightlife attractions, each one providing various goods and services often accompanied by a minigame. What’s really neat about them is that they’re all interconnected and tied into various side quests. Even the ridiculously expensive brand-name purses come in handy when you need to increase the morale of your club’s hostesses!
The sentiment that Dragon Quest IX can be played for hundreds of hours is a popular one, so during my playthrough I paid close attention to how I used my time. As I expected there was no single activity that dominated my experience, but rather a combination of interlocking gameplay elements.
Since DQ IX offers such a plethora of content, I have not seen all of its facets despite finishing the main quest. With that caveat in mind — which makes some of the below points conjecture — here are my notes on why it takes so long to play the game, and why people might actually want to spend so much time playing it:
— Although Dragon Quest IX has a bit of “grinding,” i.e., fighting monsters in order to gain experience and grow stronger, it’s not a must for forward progression. Players are initially rewarded with fast level-ups, but that slows down pretty quickly. In fact, in my playthrough it wasn’t uncommon to fight two bosses in a row (and the enemies leading up to them), without gaining a level.
An interesting side note about levels: characters gain experience relative to their level, with highest-level characters gaining the most experience. Although not a big issue, this means that it takes longer for lower-level characters to catch up with the rest of the party.
— Each character has a job, i.e., a class, and each job contains a series of linear ability-paths. Each of these paths can be upgraded with ability points, and these points are sporadically awarded when a character gains a level. Abilities are almost exclusively integrated into the combat system and represent new and unique battle options (complete with flashy effects).
However, maxing out a character’s level will not reward the player with enough ability points to purchase all of his or her potential abilities. As a result, the player can choose to “reset” a level 99 character back to level 1 while retaining all of the earned skills. This allows the player to collect more ability points, but forces each character to max out his or her level multiple times before mastering a single job.
— There are a total of 12 jobs in the game, and each character can take on any one of these professions. Characters that change jobs retain all of their abilities, but are forced to start off at level 1. This flexibility allows the player to thoroughly customize his party, but requires a tremendous amount of grinding.
— Money is gained alongside experience as enemies are defeated, but it takes a long time to accumulate a significant amount of cash. By the time the player has gathered enough money to outfit his party, the characters have usually gained enough levels to easily overpower the area boss even without the new equipment.
It’s also worth noting that each character’s appearance is reflected by what he or she is wearing. This sort of aesthetic customization is important to many players, and DQ IX constantly facilitates it by displaying the entire party in both the combat and the exploration mode.
— Some stores offer precious alchemy ingredients that can be rather difficult to obtain in the wild. As a result, it’s often a good idea to purchase them despite their steep price.
Alchemy also relies on regular weapons, armour and accessories as base ingredients. Most of these can only be bought in stores, which further extends the amount of money needed in order to create new items.
— Nintendo’s virtual store is updated every week day with new items for purchase. These offerings are usually quite expensive, but many are unique to the store or simply hard to find in the game.
Since items can also be shared with other players, there’s an added incentive to indulge in pack-rat behaviour.
— Sidequests are not a “cheap” way of extending a game as they typically require manually scripted events. DQ IX contains nearly 200 of these, many of which are of the “slay this monster” and “bring back this item” variety. These missions can be fairly time consuming, especially when they require the player to finish off a specific enemy with a specific ability. However, this approach does add a nice bit of variety to the combat and encourages the player to explore some of its deeper mechanics.
— The rewards for completing sidequests are rarely revealed ahead of time, but they often consist of items not readily available at the time the quest is offered. Some quests even unlock all new jobs, so the incentive to complete them as they are encountered is always there.
— The availability of quests is often based on such prerequisites as previously completed quests and grottos, character levels, and even the completion of the main game itself. This results in new quests often popping up in old areas, encouraging the player to revisit old locations. The limit of 10 active quests accentuates this even further as completing all quests as they are offered is not always possible.
— Combining various ingredients into new items is the only way to obtain certain types of items. These are also tied into combat proficiency and character aesthetic, giving the player two strong incentives to “alchemize” as often as possible.
— Unique alchemy recipes are found in each new area, encouraging the player to explore every nook and cranny and return to the alchemy screen on a regular basis.
— Various ingredients can be found in the game world, providing something new to collect virtually every time the player wanders out of a town or a dungeon. The frequency at which these items respawn and their respawn quantity varies, but not on a static basis.
From what I understand, the scarcity of ingredients is game-dependent, encouraging players to visit each other’s worlds (where some ingredients might be more common than in their own) in a co-op multiplayer mode.
— Alchemy ingredients can also be obtained by defeating enemies or stealing from them, but this doesn’t happen all that often. However, since stealing from enemies is the only way to get certain types of ingredients, this is a must for completing one’s alchemy list.
— Some forged items cannot be used or equipped as they simply serve as unique ingredient for other alchemy recipes. This often creates a long string of alchemizations that require a large amount of rare materials in order to obtain some of the more powerful items.
— Grottos are randomly generated dungeons that are completely optional but a large draw of the game. Each dungeon contains a handful of floors based on one of the core tile sets and a specific boss. These bosses are not found anywhere else, and can often be much more powerful than the final boss of the actual game.
Since grottos don’t actually contain that many treasure chests, the unique bosses (often taken from previous Dragon Quest titles) are a big incentive for exploring them.
— Grottos are not readily accessible and must be manually located by the player. Equipping a grotto map replaces the minimap with a small sub-section of the area where the grotto is located. This location is not highlighted in any way, and is only hinted at when the player walks close to it. Whenever this happens, an exclamation point appears over the protagonist’s head allowing the player to “investigate” the area and reveal a secret entrance.
Since the minimaps are not that detailed and the grotto maps represent a zoomed-in view, they can be quite difficult to discover even with the aid of online resources.
— Defeating the boss of a single grotto automatically rewards the player with a map to a new one. Bosses can also be fought multiple times, and each one has a small chance of dropping a fairly good item once defeated. This is not always a huge incentive, but it encourages the player to occasionally revisit a completed grotto.
— Once the boss of a grotto is defeated, its map can be shared with other DQ IX players. This asynchronous connectivity has proven quite popular in Japan (and occasionally in the West), especially with the maps that facilitate quick grinding.
Overall a large part of DQ IX could have been shorter and more user friendly, but the game does a good job of providing the player with incentives. In the short term, new items and abilities are always just around the corner. In the long term, full customization and numerous achievements provide extended meta-goals. All these elements are also strongly interconnected, and since there are so many of them, the player is always guaranteed a steady stream of rewards.
As the games-journalism debate of consumer evaluations vs. artistic critiques continues, it’s almost refreshing to look back on the sordid history of GameFan Magazine.
DieHard GameFan Magazine was an unabashedly fanboy-ish publication that spawned in the backroom of a videogame store. It started off as a catalogue promoting Western and import titles, but quickly grew to a widely syndicated magazine that competed with the likes of EGM and GamePro. It was filled with hyperboles, factual errors and made-up rumours, but it also had lovingly arranged layouts, superior print quality and a contagious enthusiasm for the medium.
I fondly recall pouring over GameFan’s spreads of popular games like Earthworm Jim and Street Fighter Alpha, and lesser known titles — which I didn’t hear much about in other publications but was pleased to discover — such as Dark Savior and Lucienne’s Quest. Like many young videogame enthusiasts, I eagerly awaited the treasure trove of text and colour that came with each issue, but I was oblivious to the magazine’s crazy behind-the-scenes antics:
- The company behind GameFan was perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy, resulting in re-enactments of Cannonball Run by its employees who did not want their checks to bounce.
- Review copies were burned and leaked out, much to the dismay of Capcom.
- Dubious lawsuits were launched.
- Writers took on multiple roles, including those of fans writing to the magazine, and of the Postmeister responding to said letters.
- Illegal workers were employed while magazine covers were sometimes given to the most attractive PR girl.
- Drug binges and reviews occasionally went hand in hand.
- Fake ID’s were obtained under the name of “Guile.”
- Dogs were routinely jerked off.
- Investors were swindled, with the boss allegedly breaking into company property so he could purchase expensive videogame memorabilia.
- Event budgets were spent on prostitutes.
- Racial slurs occasionally slipped through the cracks and made it into print.
It’s hard to defend GameFan after reading the above, and the magazine itself was as far from real journalism as videogame publications got, but for many it was also a labour of love. As such, it still stands heads and shoulders above all the other fanzines, and its tumultuous history is rich enough to fill a book.
If it ever does, I’d sure like to read it.