Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Possibly Unique Experience

I mentioned some time ago that I had picked up a used copy of Blue Dragon for a family-wide Japanese roleplaying fix. We have soldiered through the first two discs of the journey and are approaching the title's home stretch. While not a bad game, Blue Dragon does little to pull the player into its experience. The Final Fantasy X meets Shadow Hearts combat and character advancement systems are capable yet unastounding (two different genera of experience points is so 16-bit), and the plot is far from redemptive (did the villain ever actually tell us his name?). Perhaps the worst offense is the lack of sidequests; the first two thirds of the game have Tidus and Wakka scoffing at their linearity. For an explorer like myself, this is almost three strikes in one.

Blue Dragon also boasts a maddening set of Achievements, requiring flawless runs of banal minigames and outrageous amounts of experience grinding. I almost consider the awards for maxing out all job levels to be a badge of shame, but the bestiary completion is unforgivable. Some of the game's enemies only appear when summoned by other foes, and these latter opponents can be killed with one-turn simplicity. This means that, in a sense, players are punished for efficient character building and may never know where to find those missing creatures. I consider that poor, poor design. Although I do not play games for the mere sake of elevating my Gamerscore (note the absence of Yaris and Fuzion Frenzy 2 from my list of played games), Mistwalker almost seems to thumb its nose at the modern Achievement insanity, declaring that only the truly hardcore can claim its prizes.

"Where is the uniqueness here?" the gallery cries. In answer to that question, I have noticed that the most hardcore way to play Blue Dragon might not involve any of the niggling things I wrote above. In a bizarre twist of fate, a player can finish Blue Dragon, all the way to the closing credit scroll, without earning a single Achievement. I am aware of no other 'completable' game with this odd feature; heck, almost all games award a token for simply plowing to the finale.

What makes this 'zero-Gamerscore' approach hardcore? Avoiding Achievements actually makes the game harder, as you must meticulously avoid ambushing monsters and fight multiple opponents one by one by one for the title's full length. If either a back attack or a multi-monster fight occurs, the run is impossible for that particular user, as there is no way to 'relock' an earned Achievement. Experience grinding must be tempered by the inability to hit the level cap, and the player must manage his or her finances to avoid collecting one million gold. Finally, nothing in a player's Gamertag can, in any way, prove that this ridiculous event has occurred; this is a maneuver for personal pride and nothing more. I doubt Mistwalker planned it, but this anti-achievement is of NetHack proportions.

Game well, and note that my list of played games is not indicative of attempting this silliness.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Time for a Change

As is my custom, I have reached my fill of meandering about the wilds of Oblivion, and its disc gets to return to my shelf. In its place, I have begun a march through Activision's Marvel Ultimate Alliance, part of a series which has, to some extent, been able to dodge its publisher's usual modus operandi. I thoroughly enjoyed X-Men Legends, and almost brought its sequel back from North Carolina for a whirl earlier this year. Part of my purchase decision was based on its Xbox Live multiplayer component, since my brother-in-law and Too Human comrade already has a copy of the game. However, our one online session was cut short due to a muscle relaxer on his end, and he wants to pick up on a saved game several hours into the campaign. This leaves me to plow through the first couple of levels on my own -- which is posing its own problems.

Ultimate Alliance features a massive list of playable superheroes, from the Fantastic Four to the Avengers to some X-Men to, um, this guy. In case anyone wanted proof of my true dorkiness, the game's cast paralyzed me for a good hour as I tried to choose a quartet of heroes to save the world.

At least one choice was obvious -- all-time antihero Wolverine is a must, even if his default outfit makes me weep. I also wanted to add Captain America and Iron Man, to play up that whole civil war thing Marvel did a while back, but picking a fourth champion of good had me stumped. The good folks at Activision (for all I know, it was Marvel's idea, but blaming Activision is more fun) made Nightcrawler unavailable without extra funding, and I needed to pick a solid ranged attacker for the AI to manage. I went with Ms. Marvel for lack of a greater preference, until I was reminded of my wife's fondness for Storm. That choice works well, as I now have a nifty X-Men/Avengers thing going on.

By the way, the absence of Herr Wagner drove me to purchase the downloadable character pack. Blast you, Activision!

Game well, and may you enjoy each imagined conversation . . . or argument.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

When Bugs Attack

I completed a job for the Thieves' Guild last week in my ongoing drive to ignore the greater needs of Cyrodiil. The mission was actually rather exciting, as I had to make my way through a quite populated cavern system whilst on the lookout for a crystal ball. I find stealthy gameplay to be right up my ridiculously methodical alley, which makes me really excited about this, but I digress. After obtaining the orb in question, I fled the scene post haste and delivered the goods to my honcho-boss.

It should be noted at this stage that Thieves' Guild jobs require increasing amounts of fenced goods (for those of you fearing the loss of my paladin powers, these items have been culled from the homes of those whose evil required the business end of my lightning spells). I returned to my safehouse to collect a bunch of swag for this purpose, and I happened to see a colleague. I spoke to him, only to be given the next job in the guild sequence without the proper fencing tally. I proceeded to sell my loot before attending the meeting . . . only to find the quest-giver absent. I had no choice but to revert to a prior save, obtain the crystal ball again, and make certain to ignore the messenger until I had done things through 'proper' channels. Way to break the immersion, Bethesda!

Technically, my stealth skills had already done that to some extent. My cavern run came to its end in a chamber with a single guard, standing right in front of the target item. I could find no way to approach without his spotting me, but I could get quite close to him without attracting his attention. I did, on the other hand, attract the attention of a magical crystal which began peppering me with bolts of painful cold. The only sanctuary I could find was directly behind the still-unaware sentinel -- who proceeded to get blasted by the crystal. Honestly, the dude stood there like one of these guys as his own defense mechanism killed him. Sure, he healed himself a bit, but would you not have thought to, you know, move in a scenario like this?

My wife spent the evening revisiting the world of Dragon Quest VII, so I dove back into Wyvern for the evening. I recommend the experience, provided you can look fondly on roleplaying titles from the late eighties.

Game well in the days to come, and may your QA catch moments such as these.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Dramatic Conclusions

Having decided that one hundred seventy hours is more than enough to devote to a game when others await completion, we drove Final Fantasy XII through its plot's closing arc. In a move highly atypical for our journeys through Square Enix epics, much of the non-essential content was left unseen. I will probably wander back to explore most of it, although even a rabid completionist like myself is unsure about this guy.

I remember reading in an old issue of Game Informer that the conclusion of a Final Fantasy title can leave the player with an empty feeling. I cannot say why Andrew Reiner wrote those words back in the day, but I think the vacuum comes from the acknowledgment that you will likely never revisit that world and those characters. As much as I adored Vivi Orunitia and his compatriots from Final Fantasy IX (well, mainly Vivi), part of me knew that my time with him was over when the credits rolled. Second playthroughs of massive roleplaying games are simply not an option for many of us. That emptiness is, perhaps, the greatest testament that can be given for the brilliant work the Squaresoft/Square Enix folks do in crafting their characters. Even when their respective worlds have been saved, we want more time with Cecil . . . with Red XIII . . . with Vivi . . . with Balthier.

Or maybe not. Who knows?

Game well this week, and if you get the previous line, you know whereof I speak.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Aspirations Continue

In the face of new releases all over the video game universe, I have stuck to my current collection. Of late, I have hurled myself bodily back into Cyrodiil, plowing through large chunks of both the Thieves' Guild and Mages' Guild quest lines. I have also helped out undercover city guards, battled a lich to unhaunt a house, discovered the true lineage of the game-world's most famous athlete, and scoured the countryside for poisonous herbs. At some point, I suppose I should get back to that whole 'the world needs saving' thing, but priorities must be set in order.

As some sort of special offer from GameStop, I participate in online market research for fun and profit. While I figure most everyone who has ever shopped at a GameStop and given them an e-mail address has been the recipient of this same exclusive privilege, the chance to earn gaming money at a minimal impact on my own temporal reserves was not to be missed. Watching a pilot for a new Kelsey Grammer comedy finally put me over the top to earn my first gift card, which is held in reserve for the purchase of Street Fighter IV. By the time I have the rest of the money, its price might end up dropping. Ah, the irony.

Game well this weekend, and may you always be invited to a further research study.