All-New Saturday Summaries 2017-08-05

I'm looking forward to Vinny's new "The Exquisite Corps" idea, though I wonder how long it will take them to crash and burn on XCOM with Ironman activated. I'm hoping they move onto something that offers a lot of personal expression and difficult choices to make, like a Terraria or a Stardew Valley. In Stardew especially you often need to spend several days of farming and exploring to raise money for a specific building upgrade, and it'd be funny if Alex spent his whole turn saving up for a barn to start cattle-raising only to discover that Dan spent the whole lot on magic beans in the interim.

I could imagine Dan, Alex and Abby all pursuing different romantic interests too. Could get ethical.
I could imagine Dan, Alex and Abby all pursuing different romantic interests too. Could get ethical.

Needless to say I'm also enjoying Giant Bomb East's other big features: Blue Bombin', which is now looking at the ass-end of the original NES era Mega Man series; and Steal My Sunshine, which is tempting me to play Super Mario Sunshine for what I believe will be the fourth time. I think I can just live vicariously through their pitfalls for the time being though, since this Summer isn't helping me push through my backlog as quickly as I was hoping. (No shade meant to Giant Bomb West, incidentally. I'd like for them to start creating new features again, but the ones they have already - UPF, Game Tapes, Ranking of Fighters, Demo Derby - are still great.)

Speaking of why I don't seem to be making a dent in my backlog, it's because I keep playing games and writing about them. Here are the fruits of what I hilariously refer to as labor:

  • The Top Shelf stormed the beaches of Normandy with Medal of Honor: Frontline, the fourth game in EA's WWII FPS series. There were flashes of inspiration to be found throughout the game's level design, but I suspect after Halo: Combat Evolved the bar had been raised for console FPS games and a standard linear shooter with non-regenerating health and a dozen half-demolished European locales didn't make for a particularly compelling game back then and even less so in 2017. Even the game's vaunted introduction as the player survives the landings at Omaha Beach was disorganized and arbitrary; not unlike the real thing, I suppose. I also had some serious aiming problems on top of that, though I've yet to determine if that was the game's fault - it was an early example of dual-analog stick controls - or something inherent to this new gamepad. Maybe the next Medal of Honor, Rising Sun, will fare slightly better.
  • The Indie Game of the Week this time was the action-adventure game Jotun, which built up to a series of boss fights against the enormous titular Norse creatures. I generally liked the game, though it could be needlessly frustrating in parts due to some lousy sprite collision business. The hit boxes seemed to be all over the place, and the way you'd get pushed out of the way for the sake of an animation really didn't help when it meant losing out on some free damage after knocking the boss down (or, what often happened to me, getting shoved into a damage zone). The game looks great and its boss fights are imaginative, if overlong. I probably liked it as much as Hyper Light Drifter on the whole, with which it shares a few stylistic similarities if not its pace.
  • I also put together this list of games with a hell of a lot of incidental lore. As someone who usually gorges on that particular trough, there are times when even I have to take a step back and admit "there's no way 99% of people who play this game are ever going to read all this". My admiration and respect to any games writer who took the time to craft the elaborate encyclopedias and histories for their worlds, only to sequester that information away in a remote location and be at peace with themselves in knowing that only a fraction of the audience would bother to read it all. Not to fret; for I am within that fraction.

Tales of Zestiria

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I realize I've been playing Tales of Zestiria for over a month now - in fairness, a lot of that time has been split between Indie games and PS2 games for those respective features - and I'm as eager to move on as anyone else. That's not to say I haven't been enjoying this game (even if it's probably the second weakest of the 3D Tales games I've played so far) just that enough is probably enough. I've got other JRPGs to get around to this year, not to mention those from various other genres.

We've talked about combat, exploration and character progression. There's not a whole lot left for an in-depth examination, but I can talk about the many smaller elements and features I appreciate that don't really fit into any of the above categories:

  1. I like what they've done with a handful of series-wide mainstays, though I can't be 100% sure that these changes originated with Zestiria specifically. The way Titles now confer bonuses and can be leveled up to increase the amount of bonuses they offer. The way Skits now only play at save-points and designated areas of note, making it less likely that you'll blink and miss them while exploring or fighting encounters. The way World Skills, such as a burst of flame for lighting torches or the wind-riding to zip across chasms, can also be used to initiate fights and if you pick the right element you can even confer status effects to your foes before the fight begins. These are all new applications for older features, and I think that's a neat way to mix things up while maintaining a lot of the comfortable familiarity Tales thrives on.
  2. The new cooking system, likewise, is much better. Instead of constantly worrying about having the right ingredients on hand for a post-battle boost, the player can either eat a cooked meal at an Inn for a fixed cost - the effects of this meal last multiple fights, and can vary based on the price - or they can set members of their party to prepare snacks while on the move, which don't cost anything to prepare but are random and can sometimes fail, giving you useless "gooey thing"-type duds. Snacks can't be used as healing items in battle, but can be used before and after battles to replenish the party's health and sometimes provide one-off boons for the next fight (say, an immunity to a specific status effect, which can be invaluable if you're fighting a tough boss who keeps hitting you with it).
  3. I particularly like how the game lets you restart boss fights with a quick visit to the menu screen for some last-minute preparation, to continue with the above parenthetical scenario. It won't let you do this with regular fights - including the optional superbosses, unfortunately - but it does also let you quick save anywhere so as long as you keep that in mind you shouldn't end up losing too much progress.
  4. The weapon crafting is super elaborate, though can generally be boiled down to rewarding those who stick it out in the same high level area: this makes sense, because anyone grinding is probably doing so because they're having trouble with the local enemies or the next boss, not because they want to stick around the same area forever. The weapon drop/crafting system greatly benefits those hunting for equipment in a particular region, as you'll keep finding weapons of the same type that you can then combine into stronger variants with your preferred bonuses attached.
  5. Speaking of Support Skills, of which Snack Preparation is one, there's a lot of really convenient abilities to rely on while running around the overworld map. Treasure Detection points out nearby chests, Points of Interest Detection points out... well, points of interest, and Normin Detection helps you hunt down the little fairies that let you seek out equipment with specific skills attached. There's also Windstepping, which temporary boosts your movement speed after battles; Luring, which lets you spawn particular enemies more frequently for the sake of item farming; Remedy Preparation, which generates random consumable healing items including the permanent stat-booster herbs; Money Finding, which is self-explanatory; Stealthy Feet, which lets you sneak up on enemies easier to initiate battles with advantage; and Fusion, which lets the party fuse equipment on the field without returning back to town, and for free.
  6. Higher difficulties actually reduce experience and increase money and item drops. This sounds like a bad trade-off, but experience and levels are actually greatly devalued in this game. I've spoken before now that the only way to increase a character's stats is to either find, buy or craft better equipment for them or feed them the stat-boost herb items. You end up having better equipped (and thus better stats) characters at lower levels, which actually increases your Grade reward from defeating challenging foes: Grade, of course, is used for a great many things in the game, from increasing the number of "Lord of the Land" boons you can use to the number of special bonuses you can buy for New Game+ runs. Best of all, higher difficulties give you bigger damage bonuses for better play - say, by utilizing enemy elemental weaknesses or figuring out how and when best to use the game's "armatization" power-ups - which means that you end up doing more damage than on Normal, if your mastery of the game is high enough. It's an elegant system that encourages higher difficulty use, but doesn't necessarily punish those playing on easier settings.
  7. As if knowing that dropped items matter a great deal in a loot-oriented game like this, the game throws you all sorts of bones in that regard. You can boost drop rate by playing on higher difficulties or setting boons to that regard as well as making it so certain enemies appear more often, as we've already covered, but you also have a 2x drop rate boost for the first enemy you defeat in a fight, you get a higher overall chance of item drops if you fight multiple enemies at once (since enemies appear on the overworld, you can drag one group over to another to fight them both simultaneously), and the more enemies of a specific type you defeat the more the global drop rate for that type of enemy increases. You might say that incorporating a heavy farming element into a game and then trying to mitigate that with all these bonuses is essentially fixing a problem you yourself created, but grinding and farming have always been a facet of JRPGs. That we're seeing newer games of this genre actually address the more tedious side of this mainstay with these quality-of-life improvements is encouraging. This genre isn't quite as stuck in its ways as people might believe.

Even if I think Zestiria's a little weaker overall compared to Vesperia and Xillia because of its less interesting characters, the more chaotic combat, and the nonsensical rules of the world of seraphim and humans it's created for itself, there's no getting past how tirelessly its designers have been tweaking and evolving long-time aspects of the series and making the overall experience that much more pleasant on a micro scale. I'd like to think that the wild success of the Xenoblade Chronicles games, which I've praised in the past for its dozens of little improvements that I hoped at the time would spread to its contemporaries, had some influence on this. Many JRPG series would be happier living in the past, reliving the genre's golden era in the 90s over and over, but there's plenty more hoping to push the genre ever further forwards.

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