Dragon’s Dogma, Dark Arisen (PS3) – A Bright Spot for Capcom

I’ve written some things about Capcom’s inability to continue the development of its major franchises. At the same time, newer series the company has created constantly appear to be  foundering (is this a screaming endorsement or what?). I’m wondering if it all comes down to development resources, particularly that we’re now in the era of the quarter-billion dollar game. Whatever the reason for Capcom’s woes, Dragon’s Dogma represents another major launch of an original title.

First off, I want to couch any positive review with some warnings that there are some huge problems with Dragon’s Dogma. Surprisingly, they don’t detract from the parts of the game that actually work well, but given the huge amounts of investment that must have been involved in the development, the number and magnitude of flaws is downright perplexing. The long and short of it is that the combat system is very good, but pretty much everything else is bad (or worse). Given that this is a PS-Plus free download for the month of November (complete with “Dark Arisen” DLC pack), I’m assuming Capcom wants to take the risk that more people playing Dragon’s Dogma will allow enough critical mass support to go forward and develop a sequel. Given the raw materials are here for a good game, I’d like to see that.

Look and Feel

Dragon’s Dogma is obviously cast in the mold of Bioware’s 2009 release, Dragon Age: Origins. The comparisons, like similar loading screens, equipment menu layouts, menu selection sound effects, and the entirely-expressionless protagonist, are simply too numerous for it to be anything other than a coincidence. Dragon Age did some things really well, but ultimately I didn’t like the combat system that much and thought it felt flat. The free-roaming world has lush colors and wilderness detail, although it’s not up to the level of Skyrim.

The story and characters are certifiably terrible. Basically at the beginning of the game a big dragon shows up and attacks your village. In the ensuing battle your heart is stolen, but you miraculously survive. Despite the complete lack of emotion expressed by the main character, and the minimal concern that this has happened among your friends and fellow townsfolk, you’re supposed to pick up that your main purpose now is to enact revenge on the dragon. This theme would better be hashed out if your character wasn’t completely mute like a 90’s Squaresoft game though. The main character thus becomes, the “Arisen,” one of many in a cycle of recurring villains and heroes that reappear to threaten, and then respectively save the world. I’m not through the story completely yet, but that’s pretty much it. Story quests do little in answering questions as to why the world is the way it is, or what factions are at play. It’s a far-cry from the narrative conflict between the Stormcloaks and Imperials in Bethesda’s Skyrim, or the million and one ethical dilemmas of Dragon Age. There is no other backstory or pathos. There are no mythology books to pour over, nor a guide giving you any more than the meager bits of story incompetently fed to you by NPCs. Major love interests can be ignored entirely (I wouldn’t even know they existed if it wasn’t for online walkthroughs). To make matters worse, the rest of your party consists of literally soulless beings who offer combat advice, but no narrative content.

With the sheer amount of effort that went into creating a very lush adventure sandbox, and then how that effort was entirely wasted on the complete lack of interesting content. Most side-quests take the form of reading a bulletin board, which generally asks you to kill a certain amount of enemies. Well, you were probably going to do this anyways, as the encounters aren’t randomized and you’re forced to do a lot of walking. There is a fast travel system that is a not explained that well and a little frustrating (although from what I’ve read online, it was improved significantly through patches and upgrades). These aren’t really quests though. NPC quests on the other hand are poorly designed. More often than not, the solution to finding where a certain item is, or where a certain person is hiding comes down to dumb luck. Because there aren’t usually any usable clues on where to proceed next, progressing in a quest usually occurs by finding a random person with a blinking icon over their head. Why would some random guy in the market know what’s going on the castle? The clues don’t even logically follow each other. The “detective” or deductive reasoning aspects are thus reduced to just tedious time-wasters. Another dumb decision is the extreme number of doors you can’t enter. I get it, you didn’t want to have to put stuff in 500 houses. I’m cool with that. But when you go to one of these doors and try to open it, the message often reads “The door is closed.” Yeah, obviously it’s closed, now tell me why I can’t go in. What it should say is that you can’t enter. It’s a pain trying to figure out which ones you CAN actually enter, because that’s seemingly random. Outside combat, music is uninspiring. 

Another big NES-style boner comes from the beautiful, yet constant and frustrating progression between night and day (this could arguably be a criticism of real life if you think about it). This is a classic criticism 1987 game Castlevania II, Simon’s Quest. With 25 years, Capcom definitely had fair warning here. Night and day are a cool concept, and the difference in Dragon’s Dogma between the two is not insignificant. Monsters are usually more powerful at night, and certain NPCs, flora, and fauna will manifest itself at certain times. Also, it’s dark at night, and having a lantern with you is not an adequate substitute for natural daylight. Alright, so this is maybe like those old Ultima games, or like Skyrim or something. Sure. The big difference is that there is no option to wait, or camp until morning, other than going to an inn. There aren’t a lot of inns though, so you’re basically stuck waiting until it’s morning again. Please, Ultima figured out how to avoid this in the 80’s. Obvious fixes other than an option to camp; make the nights shorter, or make then less frequent.

One standout area for Dragon’s Dogma, however, is the character creation system. There is no choosing alternate races, but the choices you’re given are maybe more substantive, as there is some impact on how you perform in combat and what you can carry.

Combat

Dragon’s Dogma’s combat innovations dwarf it’s other flaws. In particular, the combat takes oft-repeated premises and recasts them into a more coherent form. In particular, for a third-person action-style RPG, Dragon’s Dogma has strategic elements that make the standard fighter, rogue, mage dynamic more interesting. Each class doesn’t just have different skills, the upgrade systems impact other aspects of mobility and durability. Getting ambushed in a canyon or having the high ground can be huge disadvantages or advantages respectively. Flanking makes sense and works well, which adds a layer of validity to the genre a lot of other games don’t have. It’s an RPG, but less reliant on using stats and numbers and replacing it with more free-form control.

One aspect that heightens this experience relates to the fact that each enemy you face has a high degree of interaction with your party. This isn’t just stun, but also how groups of enemies function together. For example, one aspect of having a fighter as a pawn is allowing it to grab and pin smaller enemies down in a hold. Airborn enemies are required to be shot out of the sky. In other words, rather than just having stats, a mage, fighter, or rogue all fundamentally offer different playing experiences.

I really like that Dragon’s Dogma took the approach that it wanted fewer enemies, with a very rich interaction possible, rather than having too many enemies. I’d like to see more enemies, but the content that is in here is rich. The contributions of the AI, or “pawn” party members also makes this memorable. The team members don’t just use enemy knowledge in combat to attack, they offer advice and observations to the main character as aid. It feels like real teamwork.

Probably the best thing about combat in Dragon’s Dogma though is the “bigness.” Dragon’s Dogma creates encounters with massive monsters that are exciting, but also unscripted. Action games frequently restrict gargantuan battles to being overly scripted and rote. The best example of this is the gold-standard in mythological brutality, God of War. Awesome acrobatic feats are reduced to cinematic gloss and memorized button combinations. Dragon’s Dogma lets you mount an Ogre or Cyclops and cling onto the arms while slicing it with a dagger. Attacking the weapon arm of a Cyclops can knock the club out of its hand, and, naturally, the snake tale of a Chimera can be severed, thus preventing it from poisoning the party. Hit the weak points, or, more importantly, don’t. You don’t really have to in order to win. There isn’t a single-way to beat theses enemies, just options. This freedom is what separates the large, boss-style encounters from other games. Again, this only can be supported by having great interactivity programmed. Critically, the combat experience is more satisfying when a huge monster isn’t just beaten, but is slowly worn down and weakened over the course of a long battle with a prepared party. 

The most unfortunate aspect about this is that the actual genius of the combat system isn’t revealed until you’re several hours into the endeavor. The combat in Dragon’s Dogma feels quite lame until you make it to Gran Soren, a key story location. After this though, the difficulty is raised significantly. If there were a point where I was ready to give up, it was right here.

Forced Sharing in an Online World

So many games have tried to take the MMORPG format and cast it back into a single-player format. I think the most notable of these is Final Fantasy XII, in which you took the drivers seat in creating an automated party based on a series of simple programming commands. Although FFXII worked well on paper, the system was too complex and ultimately frustrating to tweak. Dragon’s Dogma on the other hand has this aspect figured out pretty well.

Your own “pawn” serves as a customization member of your party. You can upgrade his skills and equipment accordingly. But you’re aided with two other random pawns as well. This is a novel approach, and I think it adds something unique and refreshing to the gameplay. Because two of the four “pawns” in your party aren’t your own, they is necessarily some forced interaction with the other Dragon’s Dogma community. You can either fill the remaining two slots with pawns you encounter in game, or enter an area known as the rift and use a more refined search technique. These pawns won’t level with you; they’ve been leveled and sculpted by other players.

The process is managed by restricting the level to which you can recruit certain pawns, making a rotation of supporting cast members necessary as you level and progress. It also creates party flexibility without having to start from scratch. A system is in place to force players to leave comments and rank pawns accordingly after they leave your party. I find this to be a perfect element of online gameplay.

Final Thoughts

A tutorial, particularly showing you some of the nuanced aspects of the game, like the NPC “affinity” system, or better battle guidance for beginners would be obvious improvements. But Dragon’s Dogma has the guts to be a winner. Now if only Capcom could hire some writers.

SimCity: Broader Implications

So I read this and it’s wrong.

First An Update

A month after launch SimCity is still broken.  Initially, frustrated users were unable to login, or were periodically booted out of the game.  Now a more malicious problem has appeared; cities aren’t saving.  SimCity is clearly not the first game to require a persistent internet connection, but the problem was that on EA’s side is where all the technical issues were occurring.  What is this 1995?

I can attest that this morning I logged in to discover I had lost approximately 2 hours worth of improvements in a city I was working on.  I decided to trudge ahead again and in about 25 minutes later, I received warning that the city was not syncing properly with the servers and I was given two choices; rollback the city to a stable save point, or abandon it altogether.  I selected rollback, but I have no idea what the implications of this are.  I just hope I don’t have another dead city in my region that won’t ever load again.

The extent and the severity of the technical issues is just baffling.  Progress in SimCity takes time, and crafting a city is always an iterative process.  Some sort of stability or baseline consistency is necessary for this to work.  What’s really crazy though is that there is absolutely no indication as to when the game is actually saving your work.  I though yesterday it was saving fine only to discover about two hours of work crafting and expanding were flushed down the drain.  There is no save button.  There are no save or sync options.  There is no indication when you logout that all your work might be gone.  It simply doesn’t work and there’s nothing you can do about it.  I have never seen this happen before.  And because it’s not on my hard drive  there is only one obvious party that I can blame here.  Upon login, a ticker on the bottom offers you to do some multiplayer activities.  “Join FUCKEA (this apparently is a pretty popular player created group) and play with others.”  Indeed.  Key point is that I don’t want to play this game anymore if I can’t get some sort of higher level of assurance I can actually progress.

Broader Implications

Anways, back to the Tech Dirt article.  The conclusion of the article couldn’t be more wrong.  This game is EXACTLY the reason gamers need a Bill of Rights; especially a Due Process Clause.

Granted, the issue here isn’t that I’m locked out of SimCity for being some sort of EULA deviant.  But I think not being able to access content raises the specter of who has the control here.  Even if I did own this content, I can’t possibly access it without EA.  The fact that we’re in a new world now is really starting to sink in.  The reason I’m so pissed off isn’t because I can’t login; it’s because I was able to build up a foundation for a bunch of great cities and now can’t access them.  I want MY city.  I want MY content.  It’s entirely too easy to say that if it’s a bad game, don’t buy it.  Sure, there is always a level of caveat emptor whenever you buy something new.  That’s a risk.  But after 100 hours of building cities and crafting an intricate region, does the metric change?  What about 10,000 hours over a decade accumulating loot in World of Warcraft?  You’re locked out of your account with no recourse?  At some point of user investment that can’t be the right answer.

And SimCity plans to foster more user investment.  Although modding is not available at launch, Maxis and EA have indicated it will be in the future.  I can remember downloading a user-created World Trade Center replica in SimCity 4 from the Maxis website.  Back in 2005 this was a more culturally significant event for me.  Who’s going to own this content?  It seems pretty clear the persistent online requirement isn’t so much about anti-piracy as control of the forum here.

For SimCity, the problem might actually be as simple as the Tech Dirt article states.  The press has been so bad with this game that I don’t think the hardcore super-users will want to stick around to start modding.  If things don’t improve soon I definitely won’t be trying to finish those great works.

Sim(Sh)City?

SimCity 2013

 

Saying bad things about a game that you’re admittedly addicted to sort of feels like cheating on your significant other.  As much as I complain to the world how bad our relationship is, I know where I’ll be at the end of the night.  At least until I finish my fourth “great work” that is.  That being said, SimCity (2013) is another example of a major opportunity that EA has bungled.  A great degree of anticipation was met with an initially problematic launch.  I can report that roughly two weeks later, although the game is clearly playable, it isn’t working up to its full potential.  Key game mechanics are either flawed or actually nonfunctional.  And the problem extends beyond problems playing the game; I have a dead city in my region that can’t be accessed or deleted, permanently taking up space due to some sort of corrupted server/sync issue.  You only have 16 of these spaces, however, so it’s a big problem to have one that’s just permanently out of commission.  Moreover, it’s completely unacceptable to have a game that forces you to use cloud-based storage that doesn’t work correctly.

Unfortunately, the DRM and technical problems with SimCity seem to have masked a lot of thoughtful analysis on whether this game is good or not.  It is, in many respects.  SimCity (2013) clearly has improved upon SimCity 4.  But that game came out in 2003.  That was a long time ago.  In some other ways, SimCity is a step back.

Just How Bad Are the Technical Issues?

When you have NFL players complaining about your game on Twitter, you know it’s a big deal.  Because SimCity is persistently online, high demand caused EA’s servers at the launch to crash.  This meant people who bought the game couldn’t play during peak hours, even if they never intended to do any multiplayer activities.  It also meant if you were playing that you might get kicked out for server issues periodically.  Blizzard wouldn’t have let this happen.  Steam wouldn’t let this happen.  But EA did.  That being said, if you’re making game with significant design towards multiplayer use, extensive modding, and a pretty probable stream of DLC, who cares if the first week people were inconvenienced (just think about all the kids who spent time with their families two weeks ago because they couldn’t play old SimCity)?  Well, the issue I have is that the problem wasn’t really solved…

The servers are supposed to mediate relationships between cities.  I suspect the way EA has really eliminated a bunch of the technical flaws that marred the launch is by scaling back the interaction players have with the servers.  It’s pretty well known at this point the game works pretty well when the tethered connection is separated.   But this breaks the game because certain computations aren’t being made.  These computations are made even if you’re in single player mode.  A city that’s making money should be instead updating problems.  Your progress in building a city then becomes a sort of fantasy.  The end result is that because the game isn’t updating itself as it’s supposed to be doing, figuring out periodic income and expenses are flawed.  As the game resets, there are huge budget swings, or unpredictable resource demands that make any type of long term planning impossible.

Updates from other cities frequently don’t register.  Let’s say I gift one million simoleons (Sim Currency) to a neighboring city to give a boost.  I have no guarantee that the money will ever make it there.  I’m serious too.  I can attest that I had trouble registering the shipment of resources to the construction of an international airport.  A few hours after shipping the necessary resources, the progress on the resource I was sending froze.  I switched to another city and eventually it updated, indicating the objective was 100% complete.  I switched to yet another neighboring city, and my progress was under 100% again.  What exactly is going on here?  We’re all working on the same airport, right?  This is a pretty basic question that you often can’t answer at any given time.  This type of uncertainty makes playing the game unpredictable and frustrating.  There have been large updates to this game almost every day, but these core problems haven’t been addressed.

Cloud saves are cool, but not when they’re buggy.  Getting booted off a server when you’re on a single player game is equally puzzling.  I get the distinct feeling that the bugs are not only not ironed out yet, but won’t be anytime soon.  This is discouraging if you’re planning on this being your obsession for the week/month/year.

Actually Playing

If you love freedom, you’ll hate SimCity.  Well, sort of anyway.  SimCity brings challenge of the classic 1989 version back.  It does this by eliminating the renaissance landscape of SimCity 4.

A significant number of achievements in SimCity are premised on the development of city “specializations,” of which three are premised on the development of industrial raw materials.  Players with crude under their hamlets can build oil fields, then a refinery to develop higher value petroleum products, and then eventually use those products to construct consumer electronics and massive “great works” projects which provide benefits to all cities in the region.  Creating a successful mining, drilling, or electronics empire requires significant transit and utility logistics.  High tech industry is dependent upon skilled labor.  The list of needs, coupled with the scarcity of available space is challenging and fun.  But SimCity was always about understanding and building the conditions needed to develop a successful city.  These raw materials can be exported to the broader market and will provide immediate cash upon delivery to the city coffers.  I can remember playing the original SimCity on Super Nintendo and bulldozing low-density residential slums.  No poor people in my city!  Obviously bulldozing doesn’t solve the underlying problem, either nobody could afford to live there or that nobody wanted to build a nice house like 3 tiles from a nuclear power plant.  Having the city itself own and invest in mines, oil fields, and electronics factories sort of seems a little socialist.  You don’t own the businesses in SimCity, you’re supposed to be establishing the conditions for them to thrive.  Although this feature is sort of cool, it seems to be fundamentally anathema to a key feature of the game; SimCity is about governing and not capitalism.  Not that reasonable incentives can’t be given to encourage particular developments. Maybe a state owned mine makes sense, but a state owned factory to make computers and TVs?  That’s not a core governmental function.  Maybe these SimCities are being built in the Peoples Republic of China where that sort of thing goes.

One thing that SimCity does, much to the chagrin of SimCity 4 players, is significantly limit the amount of space available to develop a particular city.  I suspect this is done intentionally.  With a low density, poor road design, and clumsy placement of key civic buildings, your city can quickly be out of space.  This is in contrast to SimCity 4, where players were presented with the opportunities to establish custom-terraformed mega-cities with thousands of tiles.  You can easily accomplish the many objectives of SimCity 4 with unlimited space.  In the new iteration, the lack of space forces some real decisions to be made.  This is a switch back to the classic SimCity style of playing, where getting to the Megalopolis was a real test in governing.  Each city in the region needs to be contributing not just something to the region, but something needed in a big way.  It’s a lesson in interdependedness, and also forces differing play styles.  My only gripe is that extreme density, or extreme specialization, seems to be the only way to proceed in the game.  SimCity 4 offered multiple objectives.  I think this is a good feature because it adds some serious challenge to the planning aspects.  Building a town in SimCity 4 based on agriculture unlocked unique rewards.  Agriculture is gone now.  SimCity 2013 is all about heavy industry and high technology.  So, although the core challenge is back, so is the linear nature of the objective.

Other design features have been dumbed down.  All structures not require roads to be built before being plopped down.  Although this prevents issues in other SimCity iterations where you would have buildings that no one could get develop or access, it also can be a pain to place large buildings in a small confined area.  Roads also now are a fiat for all civil service connections; a road is a power line, water line and sewage line, thus eliminating a lot of tedious additional construction.  I can’t think of any reason to complain about this; it eliminates a tedious aspect of prior volumes that never really served any type of purpose.

The scarcity of space is really apparent here too.  You have one highway connection leading out of your town.  This might be in addition to a train track or a waterway, but not necessarily.  That means you have to be careful to avoid gumming things up with traffic.  The point of this is to make region access, and transportation management, paramount to building.  And it’s how cities actually work too; there are basically  three highways in my state.  I would imagine 50% of the people living here take these roads to work every day. This is another way the difficulty has been upped.

Graphics are good. They are not simulated 3D but actual 3D, which can be scaled and rotated without breaking.  Music isn’t bad, but it doesn’t accelerate with the pace of the game and repeats too quickly.  Developers, take note.  If you want people to play a game for a hundred hours or so make more than 15 minutes of in game music.  Or at least try to encourage people to import from their iTunes or something.

Finally, the GlassBox Engine is cool, and when it’s working right.  The real cool thing about the engine is that the game is supposed to be taking a literal approach to the agents in the economy.  If your coal power plant needs coal, a truck from a global market or coal mine needs to physically drive it over.  No coal means no power.   Unlike before, where congested roads made noise and air pollution, and just made people less happy, inadequate transit can literally cripple your economy.  Power plants stop producing power, export warehouses get jammed up with goods.  Oil refineries stop producing petroleum products.  Fires burn out of control (although this is dumb because the police and fire trucks shouldn’t have to wait at red lights).  Mass chaos.  But when you can’t get from point A to B that’s how it’s supposed to work.  Unfortunately, other aspects of the algorithms in the game need some serious work.  For example, every new municipal building has a demand for workers when it opens.  One problem, though, is that once a sim person has a job, it won’t switch.  So, police station you just laid out 85K of simoleons for sits empty because there is no labor.  That doesn’t really make much sense.  I shouldn’t have to build new housing because my economy added a few jobs.  Sometimes new construction begins because the service you’re adding makes the area more desirable  but it’s frustrating to see a building you just plopped down idle because of the lack of employment.  Another big issue I have is the lack of express information regarding specific population and other metrics for buildings.  Some parts of the process are sort of obscured, although the game generally gives you a lot of cool graphical data to analyze all sorts of metrics (fire coverage, police, health).  The agent approach also is flawed with respect to power, water, and sewage services, especially when purchasing from a neighboring region.  Power comes on instantly, it doesn’t move around slowly stumbling from building to building.  What a dumb model.

End Thoughts

The region system was available in SimCity 4, however, and although it didn’t really work that well in that game.  Despite being the major update feature in the new SimCity, it somehow works worse.  I suspect the real purpose behind the persistent online experience is not so much about combating piracy, but rather is based on control of an online experience EA is banking on.  The control of the modding community certainly features into this.

Much like building a SimCity though, the first rule of developing a community is laying the ground work for a reliable infrastructure.  People want power, water, sewage, and gaming when they need it.  If they can’t get these things in a reliable fashion, you won’t have any growth.  Perhaps Electronic Arts could learn a few things about developing online games from it’s own products.

NOTE:  I’ve fallen behind on a few posts here.  Sometime in mid-April I anticipate catching up.

Now to content.  I was really surprised to see this earlier in the week.

Considering that Assassin’s Creed 3 was just released approximately four months ago, it seems a little early to be announcing a new installment to a game that is arguably Ubisoft’s crown jewel IP.  A November or late October launch seems a little ambitious.  My initial reactions were the sound of a cash register opening, but not in a good way.

My initial thoughts playing Assassin’s Creed in 2008 was that it was a brilliant endeavor.  A brilliant endeavor that was also clearly unfinished.  The first installment of the game offered a rich, detailed, open world environment with virtually nothing to do in it.  Although the core programming was there to make a great action game, combat was incredibly bland and repetitive.  For a game about assassinations, there was surprisingly little thought put into how the mechanics of the assassination system were implemented.  It’s especially irksome that there was no real penalty for being seen or spotted.  Aside from lush visuals, the real contribution this game made to the artform was demonstrating that a moving and climbing system could be both intuitive and dynamic in a complex 3D environment.

Assassin’s Creed II solved the core problem that resulted from lack of additional interactivity with the environment, but only superficially.  The side-missions and hidden finds in Assassin’s Creed II is unfulfilling and generally pointless.  For such mouth-watering environments and graphics, the story telling, directing, and voice acting appear amateurish.  Assassin’s Creed & Co. thus fell to the bottom of the queue; a “maybe I’d pay $20 for this” game.  Without the benefit of snowdays, summer breaks, or the blessings of the bachelor’s life, this is not a pile of games I’m likely to appreciate anytime soon.

I lost a more interest in this franchise when two additional Assassin’s Creed games based around the second installment were released; Brotherhood and Revelations.  The story seems to center around filling in chronological gaps that exist in the first game.  Developers, I have no problem with downloadable content or expansions.  But don’t sell me a story that skips around incoherently and expect me to pay three times as much for a bunch of lame half-sequels.  Exactly how engaged am I supposed to be in a story that tells itself out of order over a three year period?

So, my thoughts on Assassin’s Creed IV are based on those prior observations.  I applaud aggressive release deadlines a developer can impose on itself.  It’s a mark of discipline, and I guess that’s one of the things Steve Jobs was known for.  But given the incomplete and at times incoherent fit and finish of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, I really wonder if it’s a good idea to skip to the fourth installment in such a short time frame.  The world of Assassins’ Creed offers such amazing potential.  The core movement mechanics are there, and are better than any game I’ve ever seen.  But you can only make so many sequels to a parkour game.  When they are able to make an Assassin’s Creed that can make the actual sneaking and killing aspects have some sort of emotional stakes, instead of a one lame one-button press, I will jump on board.  Granted, I haven’t played Assassin’s Creed III and am more than a bit behind on what Ubisoft has been experimenting with here, but right now I see such an ambitious development schedule as being a serious impediment to the real kind of innovation this franchise needs to grow from good to great.

 

 

Ultima 7: The Lost Gem? (part 1 of 5)

I somehow came across some rants on the Ultima series from this guy.  Ah the angry video game reviewer, a genre only the internet generation could have created.  America salutes you.  The trip down memory lane put me on another detour though, and I got to wondering if Ultima 7 had made its way onto GOG.  Fast forward a little bit more to installing Exult and Ultima 7: The Black Gate again for the second time in the past five years.  I’m writing about another ancient game here, but I have such strong and conflicted emotions from Ultima, I can’t help trying to hash some of it out.

Brilliant or Flawed? Does Ultima’s future depend on whether its past stands up to scrutiny?

When I finally saw Ultima 7: The Black Gate in action in 2007, I was blown away with the complexity and care that was put into making it.  I also got an intense  jolt of deja vu.  I was just as blown away when I stumbled upon Ultima 6: The False Prophet (or a watered down SNES version of it), at a video rental store sometime during the early-90s.  I think I was about 10.  The False Prophet sadly went back to the video rental store unfinished (I think most10 year olds don’t stand a chance against that game), but the experience never left me.  That experience sat dormant in the back of my mind until I started looking up the other Ultima games, and finally discovered Exult, a fan-based plugin that makes Ultima 7 run (without using DosBox).

I have never really been able to answer the question as to why this series just seems to resonate with me, especially considering that I didn’t play most of the Ultima games when I was younger.  There has to be something here that sticks.  Anyways, my second run U7 run through has been enlightening, especially after obsessing with the series, including a walkthrough-heavy struggle with Ultima 8 (DosBox and all).

Even as a child I recognized that Ultima 6 (even the SNES version) was just light years ahead of a Final Fantasy or a Dragon Warrior.  The NPCs in Ultima got up, did a full days work, gallivant about, and then went to bed to do it all over again the next day.  Night turned to day, inventory management was realistic, health was restored not by the act of resting, but the act of eating and camping out for the night.  Logically, caves were dark inside, and so was night.  And this is on top of the virtue/karma system, or at least a stripped down version of it, carried over from Ultima 4.  You can steal pretty much everything, but not without paying a literal moral price and potentially facing a rudimentary justice system.  Compare this to the NES Zelda where apparently everyone is just sitting in the dark cave behind a rock wall waiting for you to bomb your way inside.  The depth of what the Ultima series was attempting  just can’t be compared against anything else out at the time.

Ultima 7 continued the series trademark of offering immersive gameplay by doing all sorts of things just as big, but with some other improvements over its predecessors as well.  Ultima 7 (and I am not talking about the SNES version here), takes U6  a step further by casting off the cumbersome menus, distracting HUD-style data dumps, and rigid geometric tile grids.  These are replaced with fluid movement, greater object interaction, stackable 2D layers, and a generally simplified control schema.

In a nutshell, Ultima 7 is the Skyrim of 1992.  The world exists, with or without you.  Oddly enough, the fan base sort of exists off on its own as well.  Because Ultima is pretty much a dead series (other than MMO expansions there hasn’t been a new title since 1999, and some reboot I mentioned in recent post), there seems to be a sort of a love-it-or-never-heard-of-it dynamic going on.  And there is definitely a rabid fanbase.  Doing a Google search you’ll find as many pages with Ultima fan remake projects as pages with information about the actual games (as mentioned earlier, I’m using Exult).  But why is that?  What makes this game so appealing to some people, and at the same time so obscure?  The answer to both these questions is arguably the significant number of unique and extreme design choices.

Choice 1: Difficulty

It’s hard to determine what the right level of difficulty is.  It’s a double-edged sword; the developer can either completely alienate its potential audience or foster a rewarding sense of personal development.  Depending on which aspects of U7 you’re looking at, it’s either an incredibly easy game, or incredibly hard.

A large portion of U7 is geared towards combat.  Of course, this is unsurprising in an RPG with a medieval fantasy twist.  There is a familiar formula; kill bad guys, get loot, get/find better equipment, level up, do it all over again with tougher bad guys.   Leveling up in U7 is done by accumulating experience, then training with masters located somewhat randomly throughout Britania.  This method of increasing battle stats replaced a system where stats were increased by meditating at various “virtue” shrines.  You can buy equipment and weapons from merchants, but the best way to get great stuff is by finding it in random dungeons.  Spells must be purchased from merchants, and consume a form of MP, as well as other physical reagents that must be stocked.  With armor, there is a classic trade-off; better protection generally means less available weight to carry other items (although this is completely broken by the presence of rare Magic Armors, which are both superior in strength and have reduced weight).  There are plenty of weapons and armor to build a powerful team, which can include up to eight characters (including the player’s character, the “Avatar”).  Again, not that any of this is novel or uncommon for an RPG.

What really stands out about U7 though is the fact that the combat, the training, the awesome armor and weapons, the killer spells; all of these are just completely irrelevant.  Combat is generally absurdly easy.  The combat difficulty also fails to elevate with progression (with a few unexpected and frustrating exceptions).  The lack of escalation turns out to be a blessing though (intentionally???), because there is little control over what happens when combat starts, and there is essentially no interface available to manage it even if you wanted.  Basically you hit “c” and the AI takes you and your team over to the bad guys and just starts hacking.  I mean, really, that’s it.  There is not even a Diablo-style clicking on enemies to swing a sword, the computer just sort of does everything for you.  There are rarely as many enemies (being outnumbered by slime or rats does not count in my book) as you have companions, so you have a numeric  advantage at virtually every encounter.  Even fire-breathing dragons and fully armored paladins aren’t able to stand up to you.  If combat is so easy, why have all this other stuff in there to build up your characters?  The lack of control makes battle feel like a chore, as there is generally no need to create any sort of strategy to deal with different problems.  Some of these issues could be due to Exult, as it is an emulator using the game file, but I don’t think that’s the case.  For such a celebrated game, there is just this gigantic design hole.

As far as plot resolution though, U7 puts a great deal of emphasis, as did prior titles, on puzzle solving.  This is where the difficulty really comes in.  Fortunately, U7 disposes of many of the lever based puzzles of U6.  The reduced number of switch and maze puzzles (the ones in here are still pretty nasty) have been replaced with something either brilliantly better, or infinitely worse in the event you’re stumped though.   The plot, and uncovering it, is really the true puzzle of this game.  Although from a conceptual standpoint, I think this is a great feature that clearly is a crucial element derived from the main plot, it’s also incredibly maddening in the event that you don’t know where to go next.

After passing a well-disguised tutorial (and also an imbedded copyright check), you are immediately off on your own.   There is no channeling the player into staged events or encounters.  There are no “the only bridge out of town is closed” or invisible force fields contrivances locking things up.  You have the freedom to go off and do whatever, pretty much right off the bat.  There is a good indication that you need to talk to Lord British as far as direction goes.  Then you need to speak with Batlin, who is obviously important because he’s the author of the “guide” that comes with the game (it’s like the first day of school you’re expected to do your pre-reading).  Batlin indirectly reveals leads that lead to resolving main pieces of the Fellowship story line, but after that, things get more murky.

Case in point, a series of key plot objectives are revealed to the player by a fortune teller.  Maybe it isn’t a huge leap that you would talk to a fortune teller (seems like a Shakespearean literary device), but to even know that there is one out there, and where she is, you have to endure a frustrating and completely unrelated linguistic mini-game with Lord British’s court jester, Chuckles.  Chuckles will only answer questions if you respond with answers that are comprised of one syllable words only, but he won’t tell you that’s what “the game” is all about, leaving you guessing as to why he’s just instantly terminating the dialogue tree.  Not only do you know know what the rules to “the game” are, the TRULY frustrating part is that there is absolutely no clue anywhere telling you that you should bother to play it.  There is no logical basis to assume that Chuckles has any sort of useful advice.  Nobody tells you to speak to him.  So, the player is forced into a situation where it is stuck with a challenging riddle, and no indication that it’s even relevant to the story.  Given the open-ended nature of the game, most players rationally would just jump to another solid lead.  Because you should probably run into the fortune teller as part of another quest, and speaking to Chuckles isn’t a prerequisite to having your fortune told, I guess there is at least an argument that this is excusable.  Or possibly, the expectation is probably that you’ve played a prior Ultima, and that you know this guy is important to solving your journey, even if he’s truly a clown.  As far as strategy goes, what’s the lesson to the player though?

The logical approach to this kind of problem in U7 is to play as a perfectionist, and attempt to complete every possible objective you run into.  But this approach would also be flawed; many side quests are just totally irrelevant to the main story, so you’re likely to have lot more misses than hits.  Not only are the side quests generally irrelevant in terms of the plot, they are irrelevant in that karma is no longer a prerequisite to completing objectives.  What’s worst though, might be that the people only thank you, as opposed to offering some sort of reward.  Are all these extra side quests just false leads?  If important things don’t stand out, how are you supposed to know what to do?  Things eventually narrow and become linear as the game progresses, but the journey to that point can be very irritating.

Needless to say, resolving the plot without a walkthrough would be very challenging.  But not knowing what the rules are is really where U7 excels, or fails depending on how you look at it.  Take the teleporter or optical illusion puzzles.  When you first encounter these, it’s unclear what’s happening.  The fact that there are false walls, or in some cases completely transparent hidden walls, in the game is just something that probably happens as a result of trial and error for most players.  There’s no clues or cues to indicate when you should look for this sort of thing.  Again, you wouldn’t even know to expect that these things existed without playing prior Ultima games.

The minimalist approach to conveying to the player what the goals of the game are is refreshing.  It’s totally an old-school PC game thing.  In a game where you’re supposed to be a detective, even if you’re masquerading as a warrior, not having a mini-mark everything up for you is appropriate.  Contextually, you could also make an argument that the lack of direction is crucial to one of U7’s major themes; that of questioning authority.  But we’re back at the other end of the double-edged sword.  Would you rather be hand held and told what the right answer is, or would you rather risk having a defeated player return your game to the rental store with his head down (assuming this were still 1992)?  I think I know which way modern developers are going after having played Skyrim, but I wonder what the consequences are for game design integrity.  At the same time, I wonder if some of these choices were made to sell strategy guides.  That said, there are abundant walkthroughs out there, but that might just ruin U7 for you entirely.

InFamous 2

I’ve been super busy lately, but managed to sneak in some time for another free PS Plus offering; InFamous 2.  I want to first note that game developers have been trying to develop high-quality, sandbox-style superhero games for, well, since Grand Theft Auto 3 proved to everyone that a sandbox city could be done well in 3D.  Unfortunately a lot of the effort has been put into developing games that are tie-ins to already successful franchises like Spiderman or Batman.  It makes sense from a developers’ standpoint; they get to use ideas that have already been fleshed out and proven successful (really incredibly successful) in other media.  On the other hand, it’s a risky bet because gamers have had 30 years of experience being victimized by bad movie and comic tie-ins.  The only real standout has been Arkham City, which I’ve already written about.  InFamous 2 breaks from this convention and tries to take its own path.  It’s refreshing that this game isn’t about some a 60’s comic book character.

Story/Environment

Welcome to New Marais (AKA: New Orleans)!  The developers of InFamous 2 have decided to relocate the action from a New York type metropolis (Empire City), to a post-Katrina New Orleans.  Considering the social and political baggage from the 2005 hurricane that might still be out there, it’s certainly a bold move.  I appreciate the originality.  Considering the world of InFamous 2 and it’s main character, Cole MacGrath, “the electric man,” it also proves to be apt in providing a backdrop to the story and action.  Music has a creole feel to it at times, but doesn’t feel out of place in an action game.

New Marais, like it’s real life counterpart, was devastated some years earlier by a massive flood.  Although there does not appear to be any specific references to a botched federal disaster response, the flood has apparently had a big impact on the lives of the citizens.  At least that’s what you’re told.  New Marais is now an island in the figurative, as well as literal sense; it’s run by a privately operated militia, which dwarfs the police in size and power.  The power vacuum is only tangentially connected with the flood however, the real story has to do with the destablizing effects of “conduits,” people with superpowers such as the main character.  Some sort of political point or message could have been made here, but it was left out.  The only impact it seems to have made, other than making a mess of some of the territory the player navigates, was that it fostered an isolated sense of community.  There is a missed opportunity here for some sort of message perhaps.  To come so close to saying something, anything, and then use then use the flood as anything more than a canvas for more challenging battles seems a bit callous to me.  Could you imagine if there was some sort of 9/11 reference in GTA’s Liberty City?  9/11 and “Hot Coffee” mode seem to be the ONLY two things out of bounds for GTA, and there’s a case to be made Hurricane Katrina is maybe off-limits too, at least to your average New Orleans resident.

The protagonist (or perhaps not depending on some of the choices you make), Cole, is likewise carefully constructed.  The opening video, in partially-animated graphic novel style, explains that prior to acquiring his superpowers, Cole is a bike courier who dropped out of college to piss off his parents.  That one sentence is really a perfect explanation of Cole; he makes his own decisions, he doesn’t always do what’s told or what other people think is right, and he’s comfortable with himself and the choices he’s made.  Cole easily fits into the description of either a total dick, or a badass with a heart of gold.  It’s ambiguous intentionally.  Part of the noncommittal nature of Cole is necessary from a narrative perspective.  InFamous 2 requires you to make choices between good and evil alternatives in a few key missions, and again at the end of the game.  By making Cole seem morally ambiguous, or callously indifferent, the developer’s avoided having to create alternative cutscenes, or creating a branching story path.  Sadly, as I’ll discuss later , the “karma” system in place here, and presumably is where the title of the game is derived, is underutilized and not really that good.  The lack of branching story missions essentially means that the only choice that matters is the last one, and that it’s the same set of options whether you’ve spent the entire duration of the game mowing down cops or healing wounded pedestrians.  Cole lusts for power, but his motivations remain unclear until the player makes that final choice.  Physically Cole’s former life as a courier also fits into the gameplay design.  He’s athletic, good at climbing, and wears a two-way radio in a pocket that’s part of a backpack strap.  Of course every superhero needs a handy two-way communicator.  His running looks natural, and meshes well with rolling dives or big jumps.  Cole’s outfit is just a shirt and pants and some tattoos, which change color depending on which way you’ve been leaning with your karmic activities.

Cole’s powers are derived from electricity, making InFamous one of the best vampire games out there.  Electricity is loosely your life, but mostly your ammo for attacks that include throwing thunderbolts, grenades, launching cars, and creating huge vortexes of energy.  Most importantly, the environmental design seems tuned to the actual gameplay.  There are ample sources of electricity that Cole can feed off of in a pinch, but attention has also been put into the effect that dropping all this voltage has on objects; transformers and light poles conduct blasts that don’t make contact, and fuses blow out.  Plenty of rooftops around to push militia off of.  Water, naturally is lethal, which probably explains why you never see Cole take a shower, and also why later sections of the game feature flooded sections to “amp” up the difficulty.  Locked areas of the map have to be powered up by activating transformers, a neat way of keeping some areas off-limits to earlier exploration.  There is a big 3D world just begging you to mix it up.

Other characters are not so well developed, and a few are only introduced by doing some annoying “dead drop” sidequests or having familiarity with the original InFamous.  The only real character other than Cole that isn’t just some sort of ethical foil or plot stepping stone is Zeke, Cole’s best friend and Elvis look-alike.  Zeke, a former courier like Cole, thinks for himself, and  has a way of grounding Cole to his human side.

InFamous 2’s story itself is a bit uneven, and clearly draws on some old X-Men story arcs.  Not that this is terrible, but it definitely struck me as a bit derivative.  The central conflict is between the existence of the super-powered “Conduits,” and everyone else.  Predictably, Cole has the power to determine which side survives.

Gameplay

The core of the game is good, what doesn’t work every well are the RPG and sandbox elements that have been added in.  Health regenerates slowly over time, but also can be stolen from the electrical grid or incapacitated enemies.  The two brightest elements of this game are the climbing dynamics and the physics.  Although climbing is not Assassin’s Creed good, it’s head and shoulders over many other games.  It looks a lot like Assassin’s Creed, in that advancement up a wall depends on the proximity to certain grapple points.  So, obviously this works because the environment has been designed to accommodate it.  Because Cole can glide, but not fly, getting up high is a big part of strategy in InFamous 2.  Fortunately some care has been put into how exactly you’re supposed to do that.

The physics are just great.  Although good 3D physics are available in a lot of games now, they stand out in InFamous 2 because they’re used so much.  Grenades, the ability to throw a wall of force, and levitating and launching passenger cars make the action BIG.  Ragdoll effects hit enemies right away, as opposed to only popping up on a deathblow like in Skyrim.  This mass destruction is also helped by the presence of a huge number of objects present that respond to brute force.  Wooden walkways shatter with explosions, transformers and light poles get blown out, and warehouse walls and ceilings get blown out.  Actually using your powers is fast-based, as most of the enemies have deadly weapons and quick reflexes.  I should note that the melee controls stand out in the “needs improvement” category though.

Where InFamous 2 suffers is the filler content; RPG side-quest style leveling.  There are no mini-games or other styles of play in InFamous 2, so every side quest deals with more combat.  These diversions are either very easy or very hard, depending on what enemies popup.  Usually there is some NPC that tells you to do something, and then there is some combat.  These quests have no relationship to the actual main story or plot.  There’s just not enough differentiation in the styles of play here to make these side-quests meaningful.  Most importantly, there is a bizarre experience system baked into unlocking stronger versions of powers in InFamous 2.  The only way to get significant experience is by knocking out the side-quests, forcing a grinding sort of drudgery into the process.  The whole XP system is arbitrary though.  A cutscene will give you 500XP just for watching two story characters talk, whereas the hardest side-quest will only give you 100XP.  Finding a hidden package gives you 3 XP.  Finally, doing the side-quests removes the appearance of enemies from the map; making the source of additional XP harder to come by later.  There are some side-quests that force alternate play styles, such as chasing an enemy down, or grinding on a series of powerline tightropes to get to another transformer, but these aspects of the game usually aren’t very difficult and always end with fighting a small army of enemies.  At first these seem like good departures from the normal story missions, but they begin to repeat quickly once new territories are unlocked.

Other sandbox style elements include multiple exploration elements, such as picking up “hidden packages,” called blast shards, and “dead drops.”  The dead drops explain aspects of the story through short excerpts of audio recordings.  I’m reminded of the monument puzzle games in Assassin’s Creed 2.  Unfortunately there are no monuments to mark where these story points might be, and I never got much out of completing them.  Picking up blast shards is a nice diversion, but getting all of them seems like a huge waste of time as they don’t offer much benefit or XP.  The obvious influence is GTA; InFamous 2 even copies GTA’s menuless automatic loading.  Where GTA4 is very mature, however, in that it really captures the existentialism of the sandbox genre (and perhaps life itself???), InFamous 2 uses the size and breadth as a ploy to make the game longer.  All this serves to do is make the total fun per minute ratio lower; a much better approach would be side missions that lead to some sort of tangible story realization, character development, or accomplishment other than a pitiful amount of experience points.  There is just no way to feel any emotional  investment in anything other than the main missions.

Lastly, and most surprisingly, the “karma” system in InFamous 2 is simply not that great.  This is because the method of earning karma (good or bad) is broken in the context of the main game, and also because the game encourages an all-in approach.  Because differing degrees of good or bad karma unlock more powerful versions of Cole’s superpowers, there is no advantage to be gained neutral karma.  You either need to be as good as possible, or completely evil.  You can’t get both mid-tier powers.  You can patrol the city searching for random muggings, or alternatively for patrols of police to silence.  But then there are opportunities to acquire blast shards, either by defusing bombs (good karma + blast shard), or by mugging (bad karma + blast shard).  If you just want a lot of blast shards though, you’re inclined to do both.  The karmic balance your character has doesn’t really have any other impact on the story other than changing some of the powers around, and changing your appearance.  Cole will look increasingly more pale and tattooed if you’re evil, but the developer’s did not change the story at all to reflect these choices.  You don’t lose anything of substantive value by picking one particular side.  There is no dark side of the force style temptation here, good karma just gives you a different set of awesomely destructive powers.  Finally, the gaining karma is pretty arbitrary as far as the side missions go.  A pedestrian will ask you to hunt down a monster, or stop a militia rampage, but these are karma neutral events (unless you kill some civilians in the crossfire).  It just doesn’t seem that well thought out.  Obviously ethics and morality aren’t cut and dry, but in InFamous 2 the implementation of the rules seems really arbitrary.

Final Thoughts

InFamous 2 is a familiar 3D person action format in a sandbox environment.  The sandbox aspects are decent, but the action aspects significantly outshine the former.  The RPG aspects of the game should have been refined.  A solid 8 with fun dynamics.  Hey, it’s free right now too.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PS3)

Another free PlayStation Plus gem!  I’m a little ashamed I’ve played this before at least a couple of times, but I think that’s probably a plus in terms of evaluating this game critically.  Symphony of the Night is a meticulously crafted game that successfully leverages the Castlevania universe as an environmental aesthetic.  Gameplay is generally solid and also addictive, although not in the sense of the main Castlevania games that preceded it.  An odd mix of action and RPG, I’m surprised Konami let Sony give it away for free.

Environment/Art Design

In a very neat introductory sequence, you are thrust into the role of the protagonist of the prequel, who, coming to the end of his journey, is at the final door before confronting his family’s arch nemesis, Dracula.  The main reason for this sequence probably is that the actual prequel, Rondo of Blood, doesn’t seem to have been very commercially successful.  Then again, the end of any of the prior Castlevania games is probably sufficient to get the job done.  They are all the same game basically, which is what Konami was trying for SOTN to address. Alternatively, the game may be trying to setup the similarities between Dracula and the game’s true protagonist, his son Alucard.   Whatever the actual meaning of this strange end of one game as a beginning to another, the effect that it has is to bookend the traditional arcade style adventure, and separate it from Alucard’s tale.  Konami seems to be saying; hey we can still do it this way, but we’re giving you this now; that old format is history.  And, literally, the picture memorializing the old Castlevania disintegrates into flames.

A small scroll of text and some bad FMV (I’m sure it’s the best they could do for the time), set the stage for the actual game, which starts with Alucard running through a dense forest and entering the same castle a few years later.  Likely the first thing you’ll notice is the music, which has that Castlevania characteristic of somehow sounding both appropriately gothic, but having a rhythm that matches the onscreen action.  It’s a strong point in this game and has the effect of making everything seem more epic, but without being overly intense.

From an art concept perspective, SOTN successfully matches the Halloween-esque funness of the original Castlevania, where monsters aren’t really terrifying but are more vaguely spooky in a 1950’s monster-movie sense.  Many are comical, although the game doesn’t feel like it’s being too cute here.  The attempt at making Castlevania into a true terror series ended with Castlevania II apparently.  The character of Alucard himself is fashioned as something akin to Interview with a Vampire, having the air of nobility but also being a plausible action star.  The sprite detail for Alucard is good, although the attempts at over-animating it ultimately show some flaws in the PlayStation 1’s graphics.  In particular, the flowing hair and cape can look pixelated on bigger TVs, something that really stands out compared to the very good shading and pixel design in the backgrounds.  This is partly mitigated by having a tracing effect after movement like the Six Million Dollar Man special effect, although it doesn’t have the effect of being too distracting.  Other attempts at scaling enemy pixels for certain animations, or injecting limited 3D effects into the background are neat effects, but not for a PlayStation 1 game.  These are the same tricks developers were using in SNES games (case in point, Castlevania IV), and they do a disservice here by creating excess pixelation.  The design of sprites overall is good though, considering the game’s other strength.

The Big Death Fight

Pixelation is pretty noticeable in the flowing robes and hair, also Death is too easy.

That strength is scale.  The sheer number of items, enemies, effects, and environments makes playing through even the same parts a different experience each time.   There is something new in each room, and even the same confrontations can reveal unexpected rare loot.  The character’s morphing into mist, bat, and wolf form also are a clever way to restrict and control exploration using the vampire motif.  The map itself isn’t overwhelming large (the game probably could be completed by most players in under 15 hours); it’s large enough.  Even things like activating a lever to open a wall or remove a blockage from a passageway are all novel and different from each other, one shoots a cannon which destroys a wall, another lifts off a counter-weight and opens a gate.  It’s almost like someone on the developer team was showing off in solving the same problem in different ways.  It’s not that the game has a lot of different weapons, it’s just that each one isn’t distinct limited to being as far as having some abstract damage attribute, but also has its own custom design, speed, and unique bonus attack.

Story wise, there is not much here, but not none either.  This is mostly an action game, but Alucard’s relationship with his father is explored, and also the relationship with his mother.  The inclusion of Dracula. who is now depicted as more of an 18th century rogue than a green-faced monster, and the explanation of how Alucard came into being by Dracula’s relationship with his mother, Lisa, transform the series antagonist into a more sympathetic figure.  It also establishes exactly what the fundamental difference between Alucard and Dracula is, their views on mankind, which also explains what their conflict really is about.  This is better than using the old trick of letting the player assume he is taking the reins of a good or virtuous avatar because he is fighting something that is obviously supposed to be bad or evil.

Gameplay

Gameplay in SOTN is pretty good, although it’s not perfect.  Movement is overall very crisp and fluid, especially when coupled with the morphing dynamic and the augmentations to Alucard’s ability to jump that are introduced mid-game.  The description of these later Castlevania’s as being like Metroid is on point not just in the 2D exploration layout and the presentation of a world that feels open, but ultimately controls your first steps to build a story.  It’s also on point because the gameplay feels very smooth and has a rudimentary physics engine that is frequently used well.

The RPG elements are reasonably well integrated into the game, although arguably, they make the game too easy towards the end.  This is a game where you have a pretty basic set of commands, generally jump and attack, but the inclusion of hundreds of weapons, items, and power-ups makes each hour of playing different enough to avoid being overly repetitive.  This aspect is also helped by the fact that every area generally has very different enemies, who all of course may drop rare or helpful items randomly, making a grinding exercise slightly more bearable (although grinding isn’t really required).  Finally, by reducing the accumulation of experience later in the game through a diminishing returns system, there is obviously a cue to players to get to the point and not waste too much time rinsing and repeating.  There is a thorough stat system and menu, as well as another layer of an elemental system that shows SOTN was clearly influenced by games like Final Fantasy VI, even though the core is that of real-time action.  It’s not necessary to think about how each and every enemy responds to one of at least 6 types of elements, but the developers felt that it was worthwhile to program.  A chore that shows a commitment to attention to detail.

This choice aspect makes the game fun, but also, like a lot of RPGs, detracts from the possibility that it could be difficult.  For example, the ability to have sustained invincibility in mist form, or through use of spells that wreak havoc on all available enemies, or the overuse of helper “familiars” have the potential of being game breaking.  These examples don’t include the Duplicator item, which makes disposable items like rare health potions of devastating pentagrams unlimited, and the Gas Cloud upgrade, which makes the mist comically deadly.

The Inverted Castle

The one real area of criticism lies in the second-half of the game, which is very inconsistent break from the standard set in the first part.  The introduction of the Inverted Castle, an upside map that is a double of the first part of the game. obviously significantly extends playtime.  Unfortunately the quality also drops way off here.

The Inverted Castle feels like a chore to complete, not because it feels redundant, but because it just doesn’t seem as well-fleshed out.  You’ll notice that, now that ceiling is the floor, certain little details appear.  A sharp eye notices the Inverted Catacombs reveals a hidden “RIP” that probably was not noticed when going through the ordinary Catacombs when it was oriented right-side up.  The problem is that these little aspects aren’t enough to overcome the fact that some of the map layouts now feel claustrophobic and remove the signature mobility you’re granted in the first half.  Some parts I found myself continually resorting to the cheap mist form to avoid damage.  Maybe the point is for these areas is to be more difficult, certainly I agree that the difficulty should increase during gameplay.  Still, it feels sort of clumsy.  Although some attention was put into making designing the map for both orientations, the second part just feels like a different game in many parts.  It’s either way too easy or too hard, which historically I’ve noticed is something that longer RPGs struggle with.

The Inverted Castle portions are full of all new enemies and items, however, frequently music tracks repeat and color pallets look like they were designed using gaudy Photoshop color swaps.  Not only does a lot of the music repeats, but it’s also just bad.  Ultimately, the balancing and fine tuning in the first game seems to succumb to developer fatigue in the second half.   Bosses, in particular, are often ill-suited to be a challenge where the character by this point has the ability to turn invisible and move about the screen unmolested.  To boot, nothing significant to the story occurs in the Inverted Castle, aside from the game’s brief and obvious conclusion.

Conclusion

Although this game isn’t the precision arcade Castlevania adventures of old, it generally has enough balance to keep the player engaged, at least through the first parts of the game.  The exploration elements are well thought out (again, mostly in the first part only), and the introduction of a large assortment of weapons, armors, and upgrades augments the core jump/shoot dynamic enough to keep from getting stale.  Where it stands out is that it has a consistent art style with not-overly menacing undead bad guys, that is consistently applied to virtually all aspects of the environment.  Although the end portions betray the complete and well-thought out first half of the game, it still preserves enough of the fun to be enjoyable.  After revisiting this classic from the late 90’s, I think it might be time for me to see how many of the newer 2D Castlevanias are available on PS3/PSP.