Posts Tagged combat

The Secret World Bits


Description: An MMORPG set in a current-day world, albeit with magic and secret organizations.

Conveniences: Very customizable UI.

Annoyances: Memory issues even on low settings with 4+ gigs of RAM;  lack of clarity on how to actually perform certain actions via the cluttered interface.

Standouts: Great flavour text that accompanies all quests and setting descriptions.

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Design Roundup #10


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Yakuza 2 Bits

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.

Although there's plenty of loading, the pedestrian-packed environments are quite impressive for a PS2 title.

— 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.)

The combat in Yakuza 2 is very enjoyable, although the random encounters can get tiresome. There's also no good reason for why every lowly street punk feels compelled to challenges a high-up Yakuza!

— 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.

Well, at least one character acknowledges the power of guns.

— 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.

Tag-teaming opponents is quite satisfying, and your partners always let you perform the finishing blow.

— 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 various minigames can be quite fun, but I almost quit the game when its main story required me to mess around with a UFO catcher.

— 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!

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Extending Dragon Quest IX

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.

Character customization isn't too robust, but most of the aesthetic changes come via equipable items.

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.

The online store is a new addition for the game's Western release.

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.


DQIX makes sure you can see all your characters in the overworld...

— 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.


...and in the battles.

— 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.

If you want some of the rarer items, you'll be returning here throughout the game.

— 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.

X marks the spot, but the X can be pretty difficult to find.

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.

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Persona 3 Bits

When Persona 3 came out, it was pretty universally acclaimed. I was skeptical — as I usually am when it comes to dubiously high praises of RPGs — but I was pleasantly surprised.

While definitely a budget title, Persona 3 eschews tired genre staples while successfully mixing dating sim elements with those of a dungeon crawler.

The rest of the notable bits:

Persona 3 is pretty evenly split between its combat and exploration, and its heavily scripted social elements. During the day, the protagonist attends school, hangs out with his peers, goes shopping, participates in various extra-curricular activities, and generally goes through the motions of a typical student’s life.

By night, however, he hunts dangerous demons and explores creepy dungeons.  The two parts are separated conceptually, but tend to bleed into each other: roommates join the protagonist in battle, items purchased during the day are mostly used at night, and the emotional bonds formed with peers enhance combat abilities.

Igor, a mainstay of the Persona series, in his creepy, blue-velvet room.

The game takes the player through a standard school year, with each day containing at least one unique scripted event. These range anywhere from overhearing a short bit of gossip to attending a lengthy student assembly. Regardless of the events’ scope, the quantity of these sequences is impressive, and they guarnatee that the player will encounter something new every day.

— While in school, the player is occasionally forced to sit through somewhat brief lectures. These usually result with the player being asked to answer a question based on the topic that was discussed. Sometimes it’s just a matter of relaying what was already stated, but at other times the game actually requires the player — not the player character — to be familiar with the subject matter.

One of the class lectures.

It’s an interesting twist, and answering incorrectly never punishes the player (it simply results in a missed opportunity to upgrade a social statistic).

— A typical school day is divided into various types of events that are mixed around in order to avoid a clear and repetitive pattern. For example, one day the player will sit through a lecture, while the next the lecture will be skipped and various characters will approach the protagonist with offers to hang out after school.

Social invitations also tend to reappear if initially turned down, preventing the player from fearing that rejecting an offer will result in permanently missing out on something.

— The actual progress of time is entirely player controlled, although each day only allows a small number of actions to be performed. Once the day is over, the player has the option to journey into Tartarus, the single dungeon (or rather tower) that encompasses most of the game’s more traditional RPG elements. How much time is spent in Tartarus is also up to the player, although the game will punish lengthy excursions with temporary stat decreases.

This proved somewhat controversial with fans (as did most time-handicapping systems in MMOs), but it does encourage variety in gameplay.

An optional scene viewed by accessing the dorm's security system.

— Establishing social links with peers, including romantic ones, is nicely slotted into the day-by-day progression. It’s a gradual process that builds over time, and, despite the characters’ relative simplicity, is actually used to great effect for both character progression and development.

— Although the player is only allowed to fully pursue one romantic interest at a time (there’s never any room for non-monogamy, is there?), it never becomes a permanent facet of the game. Once 10 dates go well, the chase is over and the player has “won.” The favoured girl can still be visited from time to time, but no new events are ever introduced, and the player is free — even encouraged — to start dating someone else.

Considering the amount of effort put into these social links, it seems like a bit of a missed chance that the relationships are not extended a step further.

A storyline event from one of the full-moon sequences.

— Persona 3 contains a plethora of minor but continuous changes that enhance the perceived passage of time. Bystanders are shuffled around in the shopping areas, new stores open up, roommates come and go in the dorm, various holidays are celebrated, etc. A large portion of these tweaks simply involve placing characters in different spots and giving them one or two unique pieces of dialogue, but the combined effect creates a varied and well-paced experience.

— Every 28 days during a full moon, the player must engage in a uniquely structured action sequence complete with a boss battle and linear story progression. Since the player can simply skip fighting in Tartarus, these sequences tend to quickly level-up the party if it’s inadequately prepared for the upcoming encounters.

Exploring Tartarus.

— Tartarus itself consists of 200+ floors, each one a small, randomly generated map. The tower is also divided into visually distinct zones that are unlocked as the full-moon bosses are defeated.

A neat little touch is that the player can see a preview of the next area before defeating its corresponding boss.

— Sporadic checkpoints allow the player to return to a handful of previously visited floors, and each floor also contains a warp point that can whisk the party back to the base of Tartarus. The uneven placement of checkpoints has the added effect of imbuing the game with a certain sense of risk, i.e., do I return to the base while I still can, or do I keep pressing on so as not to replay the same levels?

— There are no random encounters as all enemies are visible in the exploration portions of the game. The enemies also behave differently based on (mostly) their strength relative to the player’s party — weaker enemies run away, while stronger ones home in on the characters.

Bosses are visible as well, but they don’t move. Instead, they appear on special floors that are devoid of other enemies and contain a checkpoint, and the bosses always block the path to the next floor.

A summoned Persona casting a spell.

— The player has the ability to split up his group and send out each character to individually explore the map. The goal of the exploration can be manually skewed towards defeating enemies or collecting treasure.

Each character’s HP/MP is always visible in the HUD, so whenever he or she enters combat, his or her display icon changes to signify the event (along with some non game-pausing audio and visual cues). The character and enemy continue to be present on the map as well, so the player has the option to join the fight if deemed necessary. Likewise, if an enemy attacks the player within the vicinity of other solitary characters, they automatically join the melee. Of course if the player doesn’t split up his party, all characters participate in every encounter.

If a separated character finds a treasure, the event is also indicated with an audio/visual cue. The treasures are only collected once the player exits the current floor, though.

Finally, any exploring character will pause the game if they stumble upon an exit point (either a set of stairs leading to the next area, or a warp point). These mechanics all combine to ease the pain of traversing previously explored locations and help to quicken the overall pace.

— One of the later characters provides a manual option to change the background music in Tartarus.

Scanning enemies reveals their strengths and weaknesses, which is fully utilized by the AI-controlled characters.

— Most enemies — and all the characters, for that matter — have elemental strengths and weaknesses. The first time a character or an enemy gets hit with a potent attack, it becomes stunned and loses a turn while the attacker gains an extra turn. If all the enemies are stunned, the player has the option to unleash a group-attack where all the characters rush in to physically attack the enemies. This wastes the extra turn of the initial attacker, but doesn’t use up the turns of the rest of the party.

— In combat, the player only controls the game’s protagonist (with one small exception mentioned below). Many fans didn’t like this, but the approach definitely made for quicker battles.

The party’s AI is also quite solid, automatically targeting the enemies’ weaknesses while preserving MP and doing a good job of staying alive.

— My personal favourite feature of Persona 3’s battle system is the auto-attack toggle.

The combat menu is circular, surrounding a triangle symbol that corresponds to the button found on the controller. At any time — no matter what’s happening on screen — the player can press this button to toggle a state where all the characters simply use their physical attacks.

The player never needs to wait to queue up this option, nor does he need to scroll through a menu to access it, and the state continues to persist until it’s toggled off. It’s a simple but well executed feature that greatly speeds up the battles, and I found myself using it in virtually every encounter.

An option to perform an all-in attack on the stunned enemies.

— Whenever a battle is finished, there’s a random chance that a card-shuffling minigame will pop-up. The minigame displays a handful of cards face up, with at least 2 to 3 representing some sort of a reward: a new item, a health recharge, an extra money bonus, or one of the titular Personas. When the player presses a button, the cards are turned over and shuffled around, and the player then picks the card that he thinks holds his desired prize.

As the game progresses, so does the complexity of the shuffling and the value of the rewards. Mysterious skulls also start to appear over some cards, along with the occasional opportunity to “double up,” i.e., gain two rewards at the risk of losing both if the wrong card is selected.

— Sticking around for too long on any floor summons the super boss Death. The player usually has more than enough time to explore the whole map, but drawing a skull-card from the shuffle minigame or entering a floor with no enemies (and only treasure chests, which is a nice bonus) reduces the amount of time it takes for Death to show up.

— Each Persona creature has its own attributes and skills, and the ability to level up. Only the protagonist can equip these, though, and only a single Persona at a time. The other characters possess Personas as well, but they’re permanently stuck with their starting selection.

The Personas tend to have strong links to the entities of various mythologies and religions, and are summoned whenever a character uses a special ability. These creatures are also obtained fairly regularly, and they can be combined to create new types of Personas. To take full advantage of this, the player needs to reference a detailed spread-sheet, but the system is still pretty rewarding. Limited previews of new Personas are shown prior to the fusions taking place, and the sheer quantity of the creatures promises something new around every corner.

Jack Frost, something of a mascot Persona that's present in many Shin Megami Tensei titles.

Lots more could be said about Persona 3’s aesthetics — its focus on Japanese culture and the bizarre designs of the Personas themselves — but what really stuck out for me were the streamlined dungeon and combat mechanics, and the constantly changing social landscape. These elements made for a lengthy and unique experience, and did a good job of providing lots of variety despite a relatively small amount of assets.

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