By Mento 4 Comments
Last week I regaled you all with tales of trying out a trio of games I would've otherwise avoided and how I ended up pleasantly surprised by what I discovered on the road less travelled. This week is sort of a mirror image of that, as I found myself figuratively crawling back into bed and drawing the sheets over my head. To be a little more specific, I spent time dwelling in my old gaming haunts of the traditional JRPG, the 3D platformer, the Metroidvania and the nonpareil of gaming comfort foods that is Professor Layton on another whimsical adventure of his.
As perhaps expected given the epiphanies of last week these familiar genres and their overfamiliar beats have perhaps waned somewhat in my appreciations, though that is certainly no fault of the games themselves which remain paragons of their respective genres. Well, mostly. Let's hop into each of them and I'll discuss their finer points as well my appreciation for the genre from which they sprang. I'll try to keep the griping down to only the merest hint - I certainly don't want to turn this into "Disappointing Sequels II" (partly because a disappointing sequel to a blog about disappointing sequels is perhaps too meta even for me) - but I suspect that old adage of "too much of a good thing" may turn out to be correct once again. Spoilers?
Now, I had never heard of Scaler until relatively recently. I don't claim to be the authority on mascot platformers (and I definitely wouldn't take such a role lightly if I were), but it did strike me as unusual that something this moderately well-produced and for multiple platforms could sneak me by. Scaler is the tale of a guy who can click a highlighted wiki link and learn all about a video game from that page directly, in a nutshell. Actually I'm just being difficult, go check it out if you're interested. Fairly generic, right? But the game has a few things going for it: The writing's good if a little truncated, the world design is as wonderfully alien as anywhere you're likely to visit in the Ratchet and Clank galaxy and the ability to transform into different creatures, each with their own set of controls and unique powers, happily took me back to my time with a similar mid-tier PS2 platformer by the name of Dr. Muto. It also has those obnoxiously fast rail-riding sequences that seemed ubiquitous to platformers of that era. Other than that, there's not a whole lot more you can say about it. You collect eggs instead of stars/coins/jiggies?
As for 3D platformers in general, well. I started, like much of the rest of the world I suspect, with Super Mario 64. That game and the stable of intrepid animal adventurer titles from erstwhile Nintendo subsidiary Rare that followed it all but excused that foggy debacle of a Nintendo console in my view. I am just kidding about the N64, of course; Lord knows I loved Quest 64 as much as anyone.
No, what I find really appealing about the 3D platformer is how it panders to my latent kleptomania. A 3D platformer is hard-pressed to create an end-point because the goal of such games is to be open-ended. What's the point of having an extra dimension of directions to head off towards if there's always going to be a linear path to the goal? The solution, at least as Miyamoto had it, was to create a multitude of end points, invariably concluding with an instance of the collectible du jour and the subsequent lead-in to the next one. That way you could create a huge level with plenty to do and give people reason to scour every last corner of it for shiny things. This would eventually be compounded on in future imitators with sub-categories upon sub-categories of collectibles all the way up to the ridiculous color-coded quintuple cornucopias presented in Donkey Kong 64, after which most 3D platformer developers wisely decided to dial it down a bit. (Attentive readers might've surmised that DK64's collectathon insanity was actually the reason I adored it, simian hip-hop be damned.) A shame, then, that these days the only apparent outlet for 3D platformer shenanigans are LEGOs pretending they're people. Those soulless little plastic monsters don't fool me.
Breath of Death VII: The Beginning
BoD VII (there is no 1-6, cleverly mirroring the incredulity that met Final Fantasy VII's release in Europe) is a deliberate loving homage to 8-bit JRPGs, specifically the tropes that made no sense even back then and continue to make no sense to the genre-savvy skeletal knight Dem and his chirpy team of undead archetypes. You have the outgoing love interest, a ghost; the feisty and anachronistic tech-lover, a vampire; an inexplicably French-accented prince who happily leaves his kingdom behind to fight monsters in caves, a zombie; and the silent protagonist with a heart of gold and an entirely explicable attitude of being too old for this shit, a skeleton. While the game is gently mocking with some of the hoary tropes that have made 8-bit JPRGs almost unplayable without the necessary patience of having the same slime drawing near a hundred times before you're able to survive the forthcoming dungeon for more than a few steps, the game also (perhaps wilfully) tends to fall into the same traps in spite of how clever Zeboyd is about its many innovative improvements to the decades-old format.
For instance, the player is able to see how many random encounters are available in each location they visit; a gameplay mechanic that presumably exonerates itself narratively by suggesting it took that many brutal beatdowns of their allies before the rest of the unseen horde of this particular dungeon decided you weren't worth messing around with. While this initially seems like an awesome feature, promising the player that eventually onslaught of random encounters will end and they can search for treasure in peace, the fact still remains that you have to fight anywhere between 10-50 monsters per dungeon at some point, so why not grind them all out within easy reach of a MP-replenishing glowy save doodad? This may go against the spirit of the game, given how the periodic battles are supposed to liven up the exploration and vice versa, but it sure seemed like the convenient option at the time. Other interesting additions, such as filling everyone's health after every battle and having enemies get progressively stronger each round, necessitating the use of special attacks to take them down expeditiously, are interesting ways of modernizing the form without actually altering the core experience to any significant extent. But I guess being the homage that it is, it was never the point to shake things up too much. Best to keep it much as it was back then but with more jokes about Earthbound and legally-obligated sewer levels to ensure that, while they're secretly ironically above this sort of thing, Zeboyd still managed to create a goddamn bona fide 8-bit JRPG in this century.
As for JRPGs in general, well. Well, well. A while back I made a huge list of the ones I've completed over here somewhere, so it's clear I'm fond of the thrice-darned things, the occasionally incomprehensible anime-ridden timesinks they may or may not be. Followers of mine have probably grown weary and then some of my recent championing of The Last Story as it approached its US release and my grumbling of how it continues to be completely blanked out by the Bomb Crew as they instead pontificate over more important titles like the new Madden and that half-finished space 4X game, but then I'm not the type to hold a grudge against our fine hosts. Really, I don't expect many people to share a love of JRPGs, especially given how much of my own is fueled by nostalgia. However, the reason I speak highly of Xenoblade Chronicles and TLS, perhaps to the point of excess, is because I feel they are two games that demonstrably prove that JRPGs are still evolving and still have a place in this day and age. I know purists will attack me for the merest hint that other recent JRPGs can't also boast a similar advancement, but really. What has there been in recent years? A half dozen Atelier games? Tales? Some wonderful RPG ports that have been buried in the PSP wasteland? I love these series as much as you all, don't get me wrong, but it's past time for some new blood. And... yeah, OK, the Wii is probably not the place to stage this comeback, fine. Great. I concede my own argument. I'll bust out the PSP again if it'll make you happy. Just gotta set the time and date again...
Cave Story, as many have been quick to inform me in past years, was something of a revolution in the small but rabid Doujin game community. A fully-fleshed out Metroidvania with a cute pixel aesthetic and a rather intriguing gun-upgrade mechanic certainly turned some heads, both in its native land and throughout the savvier weeaboo corners of western cyber-hostelries (I'm picturing seedy bars with Futurama's green vector "internet" filter over everything). It received a fan translation patch, built up a little steam (as it were) and was eventually released in both territories in one upgraded form or another. I have the Steam version with its "plus" affix thanks to a rather well-packed Humble Indie Bundle, and I swore to myself on a Pile of Shame list - the most legally-binding method of stating one's future video game intent there is - that I would find time to visit the much-lauded Indie hit tout suite.
The fun conclusion of this little "caved-in" story of mine is that I didn't really like the game a whole lot. I generally don't appreciate getting severely depowered at my most vulnerable moment in games, whether that's in shoot-em-ups in general or in this game specifically. I also don't appreciate being told several hours after I had made a decision - that I wasn't even aware at the time was a decision I could make - that I had chosen poorly. Imagine how fulfilling it would've been if Indiana Jones got back home after The Last Crusade and then suddenly went all Ghouls N' Ghosts because it turns out you were supposed to keep drinking from the True Grail for it to work and not just leave it in a hole with that dumb dead Nazi lady. Of course, that would've prevented Crystal of the Kingdom Skull from happening, so did I just prove my point or negate it? Regardless, there's a lot I didn't like about Cave Story and not enough of what I did like to come out as an overall net gain. Clearly a personal choice, since I imagine many of those same aspects were what engendered that initial rush of instant fans. I generally prefer my sadistic games to wear their cruelty on their sleeves while affording me the privilege to restart as often and conveniently as I want, even if the use of such kid gloves in an otherwise jagged world of abject torture does occasionally feel like the game is condescendingly handing me the world's tiniest trophy with "participant" written on it and patting my head for doing my darndest.
As for Metroidvanias in general, well. Well, the well of Metroidvanias in recent years has been overflowing thanks to the successes of major developers creating games like the last dozen portable Castlevanias and smaller studios putting out critical darlings like Cave Story and Aquaria, which has made the little sub-genre that could one of the few that the big boys and little guys can see eye-to-eye on. Obscure freeware games like An Untitled Story can walk arm-in-arm with well-produced XBLA gems like Shadow Complex and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet all the way up to the genre's two namesake franchises, games in which are still being produced by giants like Nintendo (via Retro Studios and Team Ninja at least) and Konami.
I find I can't play more than one Metroidvania in a row, in part because I'm a proud graduate of the Caravella Curriculum, Majoring as I did in Irrational OCD Game Completionism (with a Minor in Racism & Microphone Repair). Getting 100% in a game like that gives me some sort of temporary Ludovico-esque aversion to graph paper maps for several months at a time afterwards. That doesn't mean that I won't immediately jump into a new one once I'm able to shake myself out of quivering in the fetal position. Again, this whole paragraph probably reads more like a subconscious cry for help than an honest explanation of why I like this sort of game so much. I just wish I hadn't found the rest of Cave Story so objectionable. Maybe I'm just speciesist about rabbit people. If so, that doesn't bode well for that playthrough of Dust: An Elysian Tale I had planned.
Professor Layton and the Crumpet of Perniciousness
I don't know why I feel the need to make jabs at my own home turf like that. Whatever brief national pride that might've come over me during the Olympics soon wore off, leaving me with the same strained but begrudging admiration for this wet and windy rock that most others stuck here must also feel. Of course, to those looking in via the mediums of Harry Potter or, indeed, the good Professor, England must seem like a jolly old place full of adventures and thousands of years of crazy history buried just beneath the surface. In the Layton adventure I recently played, dubbed the Lost Future here and the Unwound Future elsewhere, we once again jump into another mystery as Layton pursues a figure that claims to be his young apprentice Luke but inexplicably from ten years into the future. What sounds like at first glance an opportunity to give Layton 'shippers a less illegal pairing to be getting on with getting them on.. with, there inevitably turns out to be more going on behind the time travel stuff than meets the eye and Layton goes about systematically solving every headscratching element of this overly complicated mystery entirely on his lonesome, leaving both Luke and the player in the dark to go play with matchsticks in the corner until he has it all sorted out in time for tea.
Whatever, the narrative elements of Layton play out exactly as they always have and always should: The player, via audience surrogate and shrill go-getter Luke, is introduced to each new plot enigma with wide-eyed naivety while Layton silently puts the pieces together, so we end up having a fun little mystery as well as the customary big "putting everything together" speech by Layton to a room full of NPCs that we had absolutely no hand in solving. It's not our job to figure out these grand conundrums; our part comes in when there's a bunch of blocks to slide around or someone needs to figure out which hypothetical urchin is lying about kicking a soccer ball through a greenhouse window.
Lost Future is perhaps the most ambitious Layton game yet, at least of all the ones I've played. There's a lot to commend it, but like the Lego games and the aforementioned Castlevania Metroidvanias, nothing ever seems to be done to improve or innovate on the core gameplay. It's perhaps not a big issue that absolutely nothing new is being done with the format - why fix something that isn't broke? - but it becomes an issue when the same annoying problems keep cropping up. I can't imagine there's a single person in the entire world who still likes sliding block puzzles, and if there is it's only a matter of time until a Jigsaw-esque serial killer justifiably decides to stick him in a morbidly germane room full of ambulatory stone cubes that attempt to crush him unless he finds a key in his scrotum or whatever gross body horror hang-ups the people behind those movies had. And yet, lo and behold, Lost Future is packed to the gills with the lamentable things. I can't imagine it's game design laziness, because the production values on everything around them suggest a keen and passionate level of craft that I've come to expect from Level-5. It's really quite inexplicable. I dearly want to one day see a Layton game that is entirely logic puzzles: The sort of instances where you figure out the clever trick hidden in the subtext or logically ascertain the answer behind a riddle, and less instances of the usual Mensa IQ test bait with folding cubes or cutting a block of wood just so to fit in a grid. And absolutely no sliding block puzzles. Expressly forbidden.
Talking of things I totally included at the time of posting this blog as far as anyone reading this now is aware, it's time for...
Breath of Death VII
Professor Layton and the Lost Future