Tuesday, April 10, 2012

5 Things the Tales Series should do

If you didn't know I'm a pretty big fan of the Tales Series, I buy every single mothership title and import as often as I can. In fact, I've imported Tales of Veseperia, Tales of Graces f and Tales of Xillia. Every game in the franchise seems to progress the franchise to a better future - something that should be expected of a series. 


However, one thing I've noticed is that at its core the Tales Series sticks to a very formulaic archetype. The same stereotypical male lead that needs to heavily develop, the villains that have moral ambiguities who have a hurt past, and the same repetitive combat structure with little to no variations. Each Tales game might appear to be different and you can definitely make that argument. I look at it like this. Using the analogy of a human body, while the bones (core ideas and infrastructure of the game) remain the same, the outside skin and inner workings of the body (the gameplay mechanics that build around said ideas) are different.


What's so wrong about this? There's nothing wrong. In fact, the Tales games have been known to get great reviews because it's good at what it does. Even I review them with fairly good comments. Once again, it all goes back to the idea of improving though. The developers have every reason to stick to the same old tried and true formula. After all, if it ain't broke, why fix it? Well, just because it's not broken doesn't mean you can try and "fix" it. Perhaps the word fix implies a prerequisite of being broken but I look at it differently. I look at it as a way of fixing things that can possibly get broken over time. This means that everything has the potential to improve! So what can be changed? Well, below are five things that I think the series can change, add, and or remove. Some are small nitpicky stuff but others are large changes. It's not in any particular order by the way!


1. Transitions in and out of battle/Exploring the world
This first is actually two ideas - I know I'm sort of cheating but hear me out - that work with each other quite well. As of now you travel around the world and there are enemies scattered throughout your path. Once you run into them you quickly transition into a battle arena; and you exit the arena once you end the fight. This is sort of how many traditional JRPGs work. Final Fantasy, Star Ocean, The World Ends With You, and more. The battles don't happen on the map but they displace you into a battle arena. Now, this isn't bad but wouldn't it be cool if you saw the enemies in the world and as you run into them, without having a transition, you just automatically get into it like an action RPG? 


Now I understand that changing this up means reinterpreting the series entirely - I know. However, what I'm asking exactly is that. The combat can still be the same but it would be cool to have the battles and the world around you be seamlessly connected. The game can still utilize the same old combat system and make it work around this mechanic. However, this brings up another issue: the size of the world 


If we're going to make the world more combat capable then this means that the maps need to be a lot larger than it is now. Currently the paths are narrow and the maps are designed in a way so you can't fight on them. It's understandable why since the battles actually take elsewhere, why does the travel area need to be so big? It doesn't. However, the idea I proposed earlier needs to be complementary with bigger areas and maps to support such a feature. This means more vast and expansive areas that are in tradition to WRPGs, ala Skyrim? Well... maybe not exactly but something along the lines. Granted, I'm not asking for an open world Tales. I'm just asking for something refreshing.


2. More dynamic shopping/thriving economy
One aspect that I feel lacking in almost any RPG I play is the idea of buying. While combat and storytelling have evolved to be more complicated as time passed, shops have seemed to improve little. It feels somewhat gamey. It's a simple routine of go to new place, buy stuff, sell stuff, done. Nothing complicated, nothing to crazy, nothing dynamic. It's very boring. Now, I'm being vague and very general about this. I also know that there are games that are exception to this rule, but many RPGs to fall under this, especially JRPGs.

Tales of Xillia took a different approach to how shops worked. You can trade in materials to further evolve the shop. This would allow for new goods to flow in and older products would be discounted accordingly. It's a nice concept on paper but it was a very shallow system that seemed almost stripped of parts. I felt like it was meant to be something greater but the developers just hacked it to make a streamlined shopping experience. I want to game to make me feel like shopping matters and have it deliver a meaningful in-depth system. I don't have solid ideas sorry, but if it didn't change, I'm sure it would be nice - even if it fails, trying is better than nothing.

3. Change the narrative structure
Now, this one is debatable. I understand that the stories for Tales games are designed in a way to appeal to a specific audience. I respect the developer's decision on this. However, just because you change up the story doesn't mean it can't appeal to the same audience.

Right now the story lacks any dramatic plot twists, themes that are cliche or somewhat childish in retrospect, and characters that fit the typical anime trope. "Hey, that guy looks suspicious. He's probably a traitor." Guess what? He is a traitor. It's hard to be surprised and wowed by the stories in the series. However, it does come with its own benefits. Because everything ties to a central overarching theme, the narratives tend to be coherent for the most part. However, the lack of originality is what I'm trying to get at.

I want a character that has a backbone rather than realizing that the foundations of his beliefs are weak. I want a cast of characters that are interesting to me and I can relate to. I want the party to not complement each other perfectly but a group of people that have to travel together because they have a common goal, despite their misfits. What I'm trying to get at is that you can take all the stereotypical anime stuff out and still get a story that will cater to the same audience. Sure you might lose some people because it's no longer anime-esque but chances are you'll get new people too.

4. Put back the title system from Graces/Leveling/Customizing
Tales of Graces f had an awesome character progression system. It had a grid of a 100+ titles. Each title had up to 5 abilities you can learn from as well as a benefit to having the title equipped to your character. However, if you only want to learn 2 of the abilities then you can just learn them and move on to a different title. It's a very unique customization system that allows for various styles of customizing. You can level up titles to unlock all the Artes first or you can level them in a way so you unlock everything. It's up to you. This dynamic encourages a deep mix and matching of different combination of titles in various orders for a unique experience.

Sadly, this system was only on Graces and it's a bit disappointing that the customization system gets changed after every new installment. Even if the new games don't adopt this customizing system, it would be extremely nice to see something drastically new for a change. Leveling nowadays feels like all numbers and I feel that it shouldn't. However, for a game that relies heavily on numbers I could be wrong...

5. Make side quests/stuff enjoyable
One thing I enjoyed about Mass Effect 3 - much to my chagrin - is the set of side quests that it offered. It immersed me into the world and made me care about my companions. Not only this but it introduced me to new characters and I also felt like I cared about them? Why? It's because it wasn't some boring old fetch quests or seeing a mini-narrative skit telling me to do some pointless task. Make the objectives more compelling and create a system where the game rewards you for taking the time to explore it. Don't make it a chore.

In addition make the skits more... enjoyable. I'm not saying that they're enjoyable now but they could be spiced up. Make them more cinematic. Present them in a way so it has more personality or style. Lastly, I'd hate to add the conversation wheel but do something so you're not just watching a segment of an anime. Engaging the player is the key.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Side quests in Majora's Mask

Earlier this week I had an article of mine posted up at Gameranx. It discusses how Majora's Mask's side quests work were unique and how it's fundamentally different from other games' side quests. Here's an excerpt and check out the full article here!

"Games nowadays have sidequests that tend to be boring, monotonous fetch quests with a little bit of action here and there. The challenge is also nonexistent. Mass Effect 3 is a great example of this. You look on the map, click the destination, see some cutscenes, kill some dudes, and that’s it. How boring is that? In fact, there’s no real way to mess up and fail the sidequest other than to just die in combat."

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Tales of Xillia Import Review

I recently won a Review of the Month contest on GameFAQs for my Tales of Xillia Import Review! The following is a revision and polished version of the one up on GameFAQs. If you'd like to read the original click here. Enjoy!

*****

The Tales of Series has been releasing games for 15 years and Tales of Xillia is its 15 Year Anniversary title. The game attempts to set itself apart from other JRPGs while moving forward from the designs that perhaps has plagued the industry for a long time. Utilizing a new combat system, a unique art style, a dual-perspective narrative, and an engine exclusively crafted for the PS3 unlike the two previous titles, is this game truly great?

Liese Maxia is a world full of people that rely on the power of Spirits to use every day goods. Whether it be for light or activating machinery, Spirits are needed. The two main protagonists are Jude Mathis, a 15 year-old male student aspiring to be a doctor studying in Il Fan, and Milla Maxwell, the Spirit Lord Maxwell in the form of a 20 year-old girl. While Jude is wandering the streets of Il Fan, he runs into Milla and both of them find themselves discovering a secret laboratory in the metropolis. As they journey together, Milla finds her powers and Spirit allies sealed away. Now proclaimed a traitor and a criminal, Jude runs away with Milla in hopes of finding out why her powers are sealed and the Spirits are declining.


Who do you choose?
The premise of the game doesn’t seem particularly special. In fact, the idea of a protagonist just being thrown into the fray of things is quite common but Xillia does it quite differently. There are two main protagonists and this allows for a unique narrative, especially considering infrequency of using this style in the genre. In the beginning of the game, you can choose to Milla's or Jude's perspective of the story. While you can control either one of them in battle, the game will force Milla and Jude to split up; and you won't get the full understanding of the story unless you complete both Jude and Milla's story. 

The idea to have dual protagonists and a split narrative is quite clever but the execution is definitely not there. Most of the problems that arise in the narrative is due to Milla’s side. When progressing through the game, Milla will split up from the party a few times. During these times, Jude’s story is constantly progressing. When Milla rejoins with Jude, the story continues but it doesn't fill you in on what happened on Jude's side. As a result, this forces the you to play through Jude's side. While this doesn’t quite happen in Jude’s story, it is extremely frustrating to know that plot elements are left unanswered completely on one side of the story. It’s even more frustrating to know that the player has to play through both sides in order to understand even the basic plot. While the game attempts to craft an experience that will be unique depending on which character the player chooses, it’s not done efficiently.


The gang is all here!
On the bright side, the actual narrative is very good. In fact, the story is possibly one of the best in the series; this is due to the characters and the lack of fillers in the story. Alvin in particular is thrill to see in the cutscenes due to his nature and personality as the game constantly progresses. While the entire cast isn’t great, each character has an amazing story to tell as they tackle their own personal problems. It’s also great to note that the character backstory is perhaps one of the strongest in the game such as Leia and her issues with Jude, her childhood friend, and the decisions that led up to choosing being a nurse of sorts. Although these stories are extras, it’s a thrill to go through them moreso than its predecessors due to how enthralling each tales are. 

The somewhat lackluster villains that have plagued the franchise for a while seems to have changed since the villains in Xillia actually have a strong motive to do what they believe is right. It is rightly so then that Xillia actually doesn’t have a binary white and black moral code like Graces or Abyss. Instead, many of Xillia’s characters actions sit on the gray side. Everyone has a motive or a level of resolve that compels them to do what they do. It is this type of development in both plot and character that truly differentiates Xillia from Graces, exceeds the thematic excellence that Vesperia accomplished, and character development that Abyss pushed for.

The addictive and flashy combat returns.
Combat has always been the strongest focus for the franchise and perhaps, oddly, it’s the weakest aspect of the game when considering Xillia as an entire package. The combat uses the Double-Raid Linear Motion Battle System (DRLMBS). Veterans of the series will notice that this game plays much more like Vesperia than it does Graces due to the lack of circular style of movement and more of a linear horizontal back and forth movement. The combat almost plays exactly like Vesperia but the little differences that add up make it a unique experience. You still controls only one character but you can link up with any of the remaining three party members. This link allows you to attack a single enemy together, essentially controlling both characters but the second in a bare bones sort of way. 

Link Artes are engaging and keeps the action going.
However, the point of linking up to a character is to use special moves called Link Artes. Once you have accrued a certain amount of meter on your Overlimit Gauge, your character can use an Arte to activate the Link Arte. Depending on the character you link up with and the move you use, different Link Artes will be performed. It doesn’t end there though. If your Overlimit Gauge fills completely, the player can perform a series of Link Artes in succession until the meter depletes. This allows for you the create a method for all your Link Artes to hit effectively since certain ones blow enemies away or draw them close. It's an interesting idea one that doesn't let players get away with mindless button mashing all the time.

There is a TP system in place so whenever you uses an Arte, a certain amount is expended, however, unlike Vesperia it is much easier to regain TP in this game without the use of items. Jude in particular can replenish dozens of TP in a matter of seconds. Another difference from its predecessor is the use of a mechanic called Action Capacity (AC). Those who have played through Graces will realize that it is very similar to the CC. Each attack, whether it be an Arte or a normal one, will consume AC. In order to replenish this the character has to stand for a mere moment. While the AC is definitely an interesting addition, it’s not the best one. It’s odd that the the limitless possibility of creating combos through the various Artes would be limited by such an odd system.


Grave!
Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that while the fights against the grunts are really fun and thrilling, the boss fights are not. Those who found the boss fights fun and enjoyable in titles previous to Xillia will quickly realize that it is not quite the case in this game. Bosses are frustratingly difficult to fight against because they can break out of combos quite easily and can normally take 10 hits before coming free. Added to the fact that certain bosses have cheap moves or will have stats that make them ridiculously strong, you have a recipe for disaster. It’s astonishingly weird that the boss fights, one of the best things about the series, has been reduced to a disaster that become a hassle instead of an enjoyable experience. Luckily the bosses are not the ones you will be fighting against for dozens and dozens of hours throughout its 40 hour story.

The progression of each character is done through a system called the Lilial Orb. Once you open up the system, a web-like hexagon grid will appear. Each point will have a node, that contains a certain stat increase; All the nodes are interconnected in some way and once you connect the nodes to fill a certain area, you will unlock an hidden orb. However, you can’t obtain a node if you have don’t have a node already unlocked adjacent to it. This means that while the starting points for the characters will be the same, the development will be different since there will be different routes to take. Prioritizing certain moves and stats by using this unlocking method means that you’ll develop your characters in a very specialized and unique way. 

Easy to use and somewhat disappointing...
Unfortunately, while the customization seems very freeing, it’s not. Characters perform extremely well if they are developed the way they are supposed to. Jude and Alvin will benefit from Physical Attack stats while Milla and Rowen benefits from Magic Attack stats. The illusion of developing your character suddenly disappears once the flaws of this system is realized. Despite this, the idea of controlling the development of your characters in varied ways is interesting.

The audio of the game is great especially considering the MIDI-like track that Graces employed. The musical pieces are very enthusiastic and really drives you forward. The tracks range from a grandiose anthems to a very wonderful but exhilarating orchestra piece that is used in battle. All of these have great synergy and bring forth a feeling of truly wanting to care about the character troubles, the world’s suffering, and the trials overcome in each battle. It’s important to note that the voices of the characters actually seem average especially when considering how well done the soundtrack is. The voices fit each of the character quite well and they all exhibit excellent execution but it’s not until they are in a state of emotional extremes that the voices stand out. The audio package is definitely one of the finest that the series has ever seen.

It looks absolutely gorgeous.
Xillia is the first Tales games to actually be made for the PS3. This means that the graphical capability is tailored to fit the PS3 unlike Vesperia and Graces, which were ported to the PS3. Sadly, Xillia doesn’t astound technically. In a way it is disappointing due to textures often not being very detailed or just flat out plain. It is great then that the style and the artistic vision of the game is extraordinary. Using an oil-painting style, the world almost seems like a painting on the wall, expertly crafted. Each locale feels unique whether you visit the ambient city of Il Fan or the snowy recesses of the Khan Bark. 

You can also control the camera at all times, which is a first for the franchise. This means you can have a good look at each environment you comes across. Unfortunately the plains, mountains, and other lands you traverse through to go from town to town are very bland and lack personalities altogether. Often times all of the areas in-between are large, empty, and the same but with a different set of colors to make it appear like it’s different. The art direction is absolutely phenomenal and it’s too bad that it only stops a few small steps from a perfect delivery.

Well... What's there to complain about?
There is definitely a level of replayability, as with all Tales games. There are a plethora of side quests and the inclusion of a dual-protagonist means that you can clear the game twice without having to go through the same thing over again, though you need to go through each character for the full experience. There is a coliseum-esque area like previous titles in the franchise and there are many items to collect. All of this bundled together with a fun battle system makes it very enjoyable to go through the game’s extras.

Tales of Xillia is a great game, despite its flaws. It actually makes many improvements that the franchise needed to adopt in order to become more modern such as the inclusion of a movable camera, the removal of dialogue boxes, and virtually everything becoming a cutscene. These little presentation changes allow Xillia to be a great package overall and while it’s somewhat difficult to overlook the flaws it does make, the game definitely does more right than it does wrong. If you’re an avid RPG gamer looking to delve into a very interesting world with characters that are extremely well-developed and a combat system that is action packed to boot, then you should check this game out. 

NOTE: This game is only released in Japan meaning Japanese efficiency is highly recommended. It is possible to play with translations and little Japanese but you might not receive the full experience possible.