Posts Tagged ‘final fantasy’

As noted last time, I’ve been playing more mobile games than anything lately, so once again, I wanted to write about a few games I’ve played on my Android-equipped Samsung smartphone.  I don’t know the model, it’s never been important to me; it was one of the “free” ones at Costco when I needed a new phone.  It’s a smartphone, I use it to call my wife, text my family members and play games.  It tells time (and even automagically updates to Daylight Savings times) and takes lousy photos, too.

So, first the disclaimer, noting that I will get back to Steam PC games, this is just a mobile detour since that’s where my gaming time is at these days.  Also of note are the Humble Bundles that are all about mobile games.  I picked up the latest one, and will be writing a bit about those games when I make the time to play them.  I’ll probably need to play those on my tablet (another “free” model that came with my latest laptop… a Dell somethingorother), since it has more horsepower and screen real estate.  Anyway…


I’m going through my Steam list (and then some, as it happens) alphabetically, picking up games I own but haven’t played to see what’s there.  15 minutes each is all I’m budgeting, but I reserve the right to get sucked into a cool game.  Some I’ve played already, though, so I’ll mention them in passing here and there, giving them a rating like the other games.

I’ll be giving each of these Backlog games a rating of sorts, as follows:  Regret (uninstall and forget), Remember (uninstall but wish for more time), Revisit (leave installed for later) and Recommend (wish for more time to play this right now).  This is a squishy continuum of sorts, and deliberately imprecise.  This isn’t an in depth survey-and-review, it’s Spring Cleaning of my video game backlog.


The games I’m taking a look at this time all have some things in common, and this means I get to point out some trends about mobile gaming in general.  Some I like, some I don’t, but that’s how these things always go.  One that I should mention up front is one that I mentioned in passing last time:  The Gacha System.

I really don’t like gambling.  When it’s “just a game”, I can fairly easily ignore it, but I don’t like the psychology of it, I don’t like the monetization of the gambling impulse, and I don’t like the leverage it gives skeevy designers, like the King people and their annoying Candy Crush game and games of its ilk.  Most big mobile games use some variation of this Gacha system, where you can use in-game currency, purchased currency or simply purchase widgets that are then “opened” or cashed in to acquire a piece of gear or some other piece of the game.  There are different rarities of said pieces, with different values for gameplay.

There is often a secondary currency in these games, obtained by spending real world money.  Sometimes this currency has other uses in-game, and I’ll detail that a bit in each game, but this is also often used for the Gacha systems.  One way or another, then, you’re taking a chance at acquiring something that may or may not be useful to you in the game.  The vast majority of the time, however, the odds are very, very low for getting something good that will be useful for more than as vendor trash or upgrade fodder.

In Slingshot Braves, for instance, a game I mostly enjoyed but have since uninstalled, you could spend $5 for one of these Gacha items (a common price), and that item had about a 75% chance of being B-class gear that you would then just break down into upgrade components that were the rough equivalent of the rewards from 5 minutes of gameplay.  They were not worth upgrading since A-class gear was far more powerful, even without much investment into upgrading it, and the B-class gear couldn’t evolve into the top tier SS-class gear at all.  There was no point in sinking more than a few assets into them to make your team slightly stronger as you waited to score some useful gear.

The other 25% of the time you would get an A-class item, which could then be eventually (with a lot of in-game money and upgrade materials) upgraded to an SS-class item, which would usually last you for several weeks or more, as powerful as they are when fully upgraded.  Even then, the A-Class item might be one that you would rather not invest in, since gear is gender specific (and the game insures you have two of one gender and one of the other in your party) and tied to a specific material type (one of five, though one of those is a “wild” type that matches with anything else).  If you equip gear (you have one weapon and two armor slots) that is all the same material, you get a 20% boost to your stats, which can be crucial.  There are also five weapon types, and some of them are clearly subpar in some missions and situations, especially since maintaining a combo can often be critical and some make that significantly harder.

The value difference between the B-class items and the A-class items is absurd, and spending money on a slim chance (not just the 10%, but the small subset of that 10% that is useful to you at that moment) just doesn’t stand up to cost-benefit calculations.  This always wore at me with Slingshot Braves, but it was possible to have fun with subpar gear for a while.  When the high end gear became mandatory for high level play, I lucked out by having a couple of spears that were very nice for a while, but then the developers drastically reduced the power of spears across the board, and I simply ran out of patience with the game.

I’ve read about some people who chip in money here and there to a game that uses a Gacha system, in an effort to support the developers.  This is, to me, a bit like giving a tip to the devs.  I think that some developers are counting on this impulse, especially when the odds of useful Gacha items are so low.  They probably count much more on the gambling impulse, but it’s interesting to me that there are those who know full well that the system is rigged, but who give money anyway.  These players appreciate the games for what they are, but can’t find a better way to give the developers money.  This seems like an oversight and opportunity to me, but perhaps it’s just that there’s no good solution.

I am not opposed to giving money to game developers.  I worked in the industry for almost a decade, and we always appreciate it when we actually get paid.  What bugs me though is that there’s not really a good feedback system.  Incentives matter, and when a developer or publisher sees that players spend money on some piece of their monetization, it’s only common sense to find ways to keep that trickle of money flowing.  There’s no “tip jar” or comment field for purchases, no face to face “hey, I like that part of the game” interaction, just the Gacha purchases (or other annoying systems).

That’s why I don’t really want to give money for what I consider to be a “tip”, since it’s going into a Gacha system that I think is bad value.  I don’t want to send the signal that it’s a monetization vector that I appreciate.

For most of these Free to Play (F2P) games that I play, I do appreciate that I can get a taste of how the game functions without a cash investment.  Ultimately, though, I would much, much rather pay them a reasonable flat one-time purchase price, and have the gambling acquisition elements eliminated from the game design.  That’s not going to happen, but it does keep me from giving most of these developers money, despite the fact that I like their game design.  That’s undeniably stingy of me, though not spiteful.

I’m voting with my wallet, in a way, choosing to play and support games that I consider to have good core game design, like posting about them here, but with an asterisk about how I spend my money.  I’ve long since divorced my appreciation for a game from my appreciation or lack there of for its monetization.  MMOs were really the big impetus for this, since I detest the subscription model, even while I appreciate the design of some of the games.  I think it’s important to give credit where credit is due, pointing out good design and art while also noting problems as honestly as possible.


So, long-winded aside aside, it’s time to take a look at a few games that I’ve been having fun with lately.  I Recommend all of these, which is worth noting up front, so any pros and cons that I note ultimately settle out in favor of these games.  Despite my reservations about some elements of these games and annoyances with monetization, noted in each mini-review, there really are some good-to-great bits of gaming to be found here.

Pokemon Shuffle

Soul Hunters

Final Fantasy Record Keeper

Last time I grabbed screenshots from the internet, but this time I’m using screenshots from my phone.  Other images are from the internet, here and there.


Pokemon Shuffle is one of my favorite match-3 games.  Puzzle Quest is still on top, followed by Puzzle Quest: Galactrix, Bilging and Gem Spinner 2, but depending on my mood, Pokemon Shuffle can fit anywhere after those two Puzzle Quest games.

I have this on my GameBoy 3DS as well, and it’s mostly the same, though the 3DS seems to run a little faster and smoother.  Some live events are different, and the mobile version seems to be a release or two behind, but the gameplay is the same.

The beauty of this game is two-fold.  One, it layers the solid Pokemon “collect ’em all” approach and intricate element “rock-grass-steel-lightning-bug-dark-psychic-etc” web on top of the match-3 core.  This by itself would provide for a solid game, or at least a solid management layer over a bog standard match-3 design.  The real joy of this game, though, are the small design tweaks on the matching board.


First and foremost, you can swap any two Pokemon icons; you just grab the one you want to move, plunk it anywhere else on the board, and it changes places with the one you moved it to (and if you’re moving it to an empty space, the place where it was is emptied, and those above fall down).  You do still have to make a match with a move, but you no longer have to scour the board for two neighboring tiles that happen to play nice together.  You have as much time to make your move as you’d like, in turn-limited puzzles… or there are the time-limited puzzles that let you move anything anywhere except on top of obstacles.  You don’t have to make matches in these, and often benefit from setting up the perfect combo or long match, so long as you can do it quickly.

This freedom (and the enhanced freedom of placement in timed puzzles) brings fun back into the genre for me.  I’m not sure if any other games do this, but it’s really, really nice.  Yes, it makes things easier in some ways, but it also means you’re more able to optimize your moves and even plan better, since you don’t have to rely as much on the luck of the board layout.  More freedom and better planning built into a single core design change?  That’s a major bonus in my book.

Second, each Pokemon has its own special ability that can occasionally trigger when it’s matched.  Some are nice, like the ones that remove board obstacles, others are just extra damage, while others do things like boost their kin in combos/cascades or boost the “Mega evolve gauge” for the Pokemon that leads the team.  This isn’t something to plan around, really, given random activation, but it’s nice to give each unit more flavor and possibly push a team over the edge in a tight puzzle.

Third, that “Mega evolve” Pokemon system provides for a significantly more effective special move for some Pokemon.  The one that leads your (usually) four-unit team has the potential, if you have the appropriate evolution stone, to change mid-puzzle into a better version of itself.  It doesn’t get an attack power boost as far as I know, but most Mega evolved Pokemon gain the ability to clear the board in some way.  Some clear columns, others clear rows, others clear obstacles, and others simply have local or pattern-based clearing.  This is a great way to clear up logjams in the board, and often provides a bit of extra punch as the cleared icons can add to the attack power of the match that triggered the clearing.  Lucario’s vertical clears are usually very effective, for instance, clearing all rows that are in line with any match you make with its Mega evolved icons.  Gengar’s Mega form clears out all of its other icons, effectively making the other Pokemon more common on the board, meaning more combo/cascade potential.  It made a 97-hit combo happen for me once, which is equal parts absurd and awesome.

Fourth, there’s a curious little “hitch” or “hiccup” in the gravity of the game.  Icons that should fall down due to matches clearing space below them will make a brief stop in the space directly below them before falling the rest of the way.  If this brief stop means a new match is made, it triggers instead of the icon falling the rest of the way down to where it would be destined to in pretty much any other game of this type.  It’s occasionally annoying, but I’ve learned to use it on to make some matches happen that otherwise wouldn’t, and it does make extra steps happen in combos sometimes.  It’s a curious design decision, but it’s a nice little quirk that gives the game some personality.

Fifth, since it is Pokemon, you can try to catch the Pokemon that you defeat.  They are easier to catch if you solve the puzzle in fewer moves (or in less time on some levels).  This makes smarter play more satisfying beyond the score and self-directed impetus to do better, as you’re rewarded for doing better by making it easier to expand your Pokemon collection.  This collection is key to being able to field the perfect team in any given matchup, as you’ll be needing Pokemon of every type to really maximize your efforts.  …OK, “Normal” type Pokemon still get the short end of the attack web, but they still scratch that collectible itch.

Sixth, you can purchase boosters like five extra turns or increased attack power, or more importantly sometimes, an improved Pokeball for capture attempts after you beat a Pokemon’s puzzle.  These aren’t as powerful or interesting as the game-swaying abilities in a Puzzle Quest, but they do make some levels easier, or at least less frustrating.  They cost Coins, which are earned at a trickle through play or via exchange of the secondary currency.

Seventh, there is an Optimize function before each puzzle, which is a really nice touch, given that the attack web is fairly complex, and your collection will grow to over 100 units without much trouble.  If the Optimize doesn’t get you want you want, there are tools to search for given types of Pokemon and even a “Super Effective” tag that refines the process as well.  It’s just a nice bit of streamlining that still gives you control if you want it.  I appreciate this, though some will certainly bemoan it as an appeal to “casual” players instead of elite hardcore players who do it the right way, uphill both ways in hip-deep snow.


On the downside, there are some puzzles that are very heavily biased in favor of the enemy (Mega Mewtwo and Mega Gengar in particular were very annoying for me).  The boosters help with these, and it’s hard not to be reminded of Candy Crush’s gatekeeping levels that almost demanded boosters, pushing people to buy the secondary currency, but I was less annoyed with these levels than the equivalent in Candy Crush.  I’m not sure if that’s a pacing issue in favor of Pokemon Shuffle, the greater ease of obtaining boosters in this game, or just me mellowing out over time, but hijinks along these lines seemed less annoying in this game.

All in all, there are a lot of little things that I like in this game that add up to a very nice core design with few caveats.  Play feels more like I’m in control than most match-3 games, and I appreciate that.  Long combos can happen, and they are bonuses, but most puzzles seem to be paced so that you can get through them with smart play and only a little luck to push you over the edge if you can’t quite get there on your own.


As with so many mobile games, Pokemon Shuffle uses a Stamina system that throttles your ability to play as much as you’d like.  The Stamina system equivalent in this game is a set of 5 Hearts.  Each puzzle attempt costs one or two hearts (so far only some special event Pokemon have required two in my experience), and they regenerate at a rate of 1 per 30 minutes.  This doesn’t lend itself to marathon playing unless you buy more Hearts, so it’s really only something I play in small bits here and there, but that’s not uncommon with mobile games.

You can spend money to acquire Jewels, which can then be exchanged for Hearts or Coins.  Hearts allow you to keep playing, Coins allow you to purchase boosters or Pokeballs.  I can wait for Hearts to regenerate, and I like the challenge of playing without boosters, so I’m not too bothered by either, and neither seems too abusive.  The highly difficult puzzles seem like obvious pushes for Jewel purchases, but I ignore the impulse and try again later, trying to play smarter.

One nice touch is that Hearts that you acquire through Jewel conversion go into a separate pool of Hearts, instead of being capped at 5 like the standard regenerating pool.

All in all, the monetization isn’t all that annoying or pushy, and that’s appreciated.  It’s one that I’m more comfortable thinking of as a “tip” instead of a ridiculous Gacha system, at any rate.


Soul Hunters is a game that seems to be engaged in a curious sort of brinksmanship.  It seems to want to give away as much as it can in the form of in-game currency, gear, characters and other oddments in an effort to make the game feel more generous than its competitors.  It’s an interesting approach, and it earns some goodwill points from me.  It should be noted that I’ve only played it for a couple of hours overall, so I don’t know if the pacing crashes later on, but so far, it’s been prolific in barraging me with goodies.

As you play, at least in the early levels I’ve been through (two chapters of the campaign, of which 14 have been released), there is a small avalanche of things that happen and gifts that are given to you.  It’s the only game that I’ve played in the last year or so where I got tired of playing before its stamina system kicked in.  in fact, the game lets you bank extra stamina in the form of drumsticks (or something like it) with no limit I have reached so far.  It looks like I have a limit of 65 or so that would regenerate (I think, anyway, as I’ve never dipped into that reserve), but given all the treats the game has tossed my way, earlier today I had about 400 of these stamina-like points, and as I use them up to play through levels, I just accrue more.


The game looks like what might happen if Blizzard absorbed the Capcom Puzzle Fighter art team, then made a single-player pocket-sized WoW dungeon runner.  You control five units in combat through three waves of enemies, proceeding left to right in an effort to crush your foes and steal their stuff.  Each of your units has a special ability that charges as they deal damage, and activating them at just the right moment can mean victory in a tight spot.

To me, it feels very much like controlling a team of adventurers through a small WoW dungeon, where each unit has a single hotbar skill.  (As a minor digression, I also think that the skills might benefit from time-based activation on cooldowns, especially healing… but as most waves are finished in less than a minute, it’s not a big deal to try again if you fail.)  You have “tanks” out front, damage dealers crowding behind, and a healer tucked in the back.  This is enforced, more or less, by having each unit associated with one of the three rows (front, middle or back) simply as part of what they are.  You can’t place your fire witch in the front row, for instance.  You can shuffle around which units you’re using, but they settle into their designed rows and roles.


There are no taunts or aggro, just attacks and rows.  Foes have to cut through your front row to reach the middle, and through the middle to reach the back.  Some attacks can pierce every row and strike everyone (ballistas, for instance), some are area attacks that tend to be lobbed over the front row to hit the back, others are sneaky Rogue-like attacks that start up front but sneak around back… but most foes are just simple grunts that either have a simple melee range attack or a ranged attack.  All in all, it’s fairly balanced as far as damaging your whole team over time, even though some levels’ foes certainly pound on the front row with more vehemence… and once that front row collapses, your squishy middle and back rows die fast.  That’s a big part of why I think healing is perhaps a bit weak, but generally speaking, just playing through the game, you’ll probably only fail a few times if you pay attention to timing, especially with heals, stuns and big attacks.  You’ll need to cut through your enemies’ ranks, or use your own abilities to blast bosses hiding behind their mooks if the melee rows are clogged up.

Each unit’s skill is useful, and each also seems to have a passive effect or two that happens as they just blast away at enemies as they go through the levels.  The healer I wound up with (I’m assuming it’s the one everyone gets, though it looks like there are 30-some units to unlock and recruit later) has a second-rank (there are four ranks) passive skill that “charms” a foe and turns them on their team.  I love that skill, though I wish I had control over it.  I also want to keep playing and see what happens as my team unlocks more ranks of skills, to see just how well they feel like they grow over time.

There are a lot of characters to recruit, though not as many as the 170+ units in Pokemon Shuffle.  There are tons of loot items to collect, many of which are fodder for upgrading your units.  Some gear is crafted into other gear, so far at a ratio of 3 lower-tier gear bits to one higher-tier item.  A third tier item, then, would require 9 low-tier bits, unless you happen to pick one up from a fallen foe..  Some items are simply sold to the local vendor who randomly stocks items for you to buy if you feel so inclined.  From gear to Experience potions to character boosts, they run a decent little shop, though it doesn’t seem necessary just yet.

All in all, it’s a curious blend of almost Tower-assault sort of gameplay, filtered through a WoW sensibility and standard RPG tropes of building a team of adventurers and helping them grow over time.  Even your starting hero bears a striking resemblance to a certain Azerothian prince-later-Lich-King.  There are some bog standard mobile game monetization vectors, like a Gacha-like gear acquisition system (with a free “pull” every 48 hours, whee!), the stamina system and the ability to directly purchase the in-game gold.  None of this seems necessary, though, at least not at this point.  I’m disinclined to buy into a Gacha system, though, so it’s nice to see that there’s the periodic free hit to keep the potential acquisition of useful gear in play.  On the other hand, there’s really nothing that I would want to spend money on.  I might pay for a stamina-free offline version, but that’s about it.

Still, between the generous reward system, a fairly large selection of unlockable functions and characters, and a simple but fun core gameplay loop, it’s been fun to play the game so far.  The gameplay itself is a bit thin compared to games I have more fun with like Terra Battle, but it’s easy to pick up and have some fun with, and there are moments where smart timing matters, so I can’t fault it too much.  The passive abilities characters can earn as they progress do help keep things interesting, though I do wish the design was more ambitious, allowing for more active abilities.  Maybe they decided to just keep it simple for the learning curve’s sake, and to keep it from being too demanding.  That can be important in mobile games… even though my gaming tastes run more to the Final Fantasy Tactics vein, where there’s a bit more meat on the bones of the game.

48 hours later, and I did play a bit more of the game, and it does hit a bit of a wall around the 4th chapter, where the difficulty curve is only surmountable with grinding, so it’s not a smoothly paced game, but even then, it’s still fairly generous, even if the stamina recharge is 6 minutes per point, which is the slowest I’ve seen.  I’ve also found that there’s a really nifty little “gear finder” system that lets you select a missing bit of gear you want to upgrade a character, and the game tells you where it drops from enemies.  Two clicks later, if you’ve unlocked that area in the campaign, you can be in that dungeon, trying to collect the gear.

Also noteworthy are the “Sweep” tokens that let you go back to any level you have cleared with a maximum three-star efficiency, and just use the ticket to “finish” the level again and grab a bit of loot that you might have found if you actually played through.  It’s a nifty little time saver, though I’ve found that it’s best to use them on the elite-class levels, since they are much more generous with the item drops.


One other really nice bit is that while the game does have quests as you’d see in an MMO, they are pretty passive affairs, keeping track of you, waiting quietly on their own, and notifying you if you happen to complete them, ready to throw goodies at you.  If a mobile game can do this, why in the world can’t World of Warcraft or other AAA MMO games?


And then there’s Final Fantasy Record Keeper.  I can’t help but like this game given my long history with the series (going on 22 years now), but if you want to skip the rest of this particular review, I’d just note that it banks heavily on nostalgia while having a decent simplified bit of gameplay at its heart.  It’s not an amazing game, but it’s good fun if you’re a fan of the series.

At its heart, it’s little more than a bare bones nostalgia romp, a Pokemon-like “collect ’em all” sort of trip through most of the Final Fantasy games, grabbing characters from those games and employing them in a variant of the ATB combat engine that’s common in the series.  If you’ve ever wanted to see what would happen if you took some of the core design from early in the series and shoehorned all of the other games through that pipeline into a katamari-like mashup, this is a good game to dig into.


It plays a bit like Final Fantasy 1, with limited ability/spell usage, it looks a bit like Final Fantasy VI, with all the various characters rendered in that game’s sprite style, and sounds like, well… all of them.  If nothing else, it’s a sweet little minimalist jukebox, with tunes from all of the games.  That’s really what trips the nostalgia factor for me, since I have a lot of the game soundtracks, and often listen to them just because I like the music.

I could write at length about the nuts and bolts of the game, but, well, it’s a RPG where you use the FF ATB combat to plow through dungeons that evoke key bits from the main games, collecting characters, gear, abilities and money along the way.  It’s paced with a stamina system and monetized mainly with a Gacha system.  If you haven’t played a Final Fantasy game with the ATB system, just go play Final Fantasy VI.  It’s available on Android and in several other places, and it’s a better game in almost every way.  It’s really best with a TV and console, but it’s playable on Android.


This is not the FFVI you are looking for, but it will remind you of it.

If you’re familiar with the series, though, FFRK is a good little time burner comprised of a tight feedback loop of clearing dungeons for experience, money and loot (gear and orbs used to make abilities).  Gear acquisition is based on a Gacha system that has free daily pulls and awful odds of getting any significant gear.  You can earn the in-game currency at a snail’s pace playing through the highlight reels of the main games, and events allow you to earn some more.  There’s almost always a special event running, based on one of the main games, wherein there’s a subset of the Gacha system that does have better odds of getting useful gear, but it’s still all too often throwing money at a wall, hoping a flake of gold falls off.

It costs 5 Mithril (acquired one at a time through play and sometimes as login bonuses) or 100 Gems ($1, more or less) to get one bit of gear.  Gear comes in five different rarities, from almost useless one-star gear to really strong five-star gear, with the occasional character-based super awesome five-star bit of gear.  (Any character who has the ability to use that class of gear can use character-based gear, but specific characters get nifty new “soul breaks” from these spiffy pieces of gear.)  The free daily Gacha can be any rarity, but the Mithril/Gem purchases are guaranteed to be 3-star or above.  The thing is, once you’re past the first day or so of play, it’s really only good to keep four star or above gear and invest in leveling it up to make it stronger.  It’s almost never worth the investment to “combine” gear.  There just isn’t a smooth power curve, with the five-star gold gear being overwhelmingly more useful than anything else.


This is the game that really made me think of this “playing for tips” concept.  I haven’t spent any money on the two other games in this article, but I did buy $4 worth of Gacha gear attempts in FFRK, one each in four different event subGachas.  I thought for a while, as I noted someone else did earlier, that I was OK with giving these guys a bit of money for capturing a nice slice of the Final Fantasy experience and history.  It’s just… I don’t like sending the message that the Gacha system and the gear tiers are something I approve of, especially enough to signal for more.

There’s a lot to like about this game for a nostalgia-ridden FF fan like me.  The extremely limited two-ability-per-character system (five characters in a party) does grate on me now that I’m running into more complex fights, and there’s a significantly steeper curve when it comes to making your team more powerful after what I think is the midgame.  The five-star rarity system applies to abilities, too, and making four-star abilities is all but impossible for teams below the level cap, and five star abilities require a team well above the level cap.  (You can break the cap per-character if you participate in the events and acquire the right items.)  It’s one of those catch-22 sort of situations, where you really only need those abilities to get to the point where you can make those abilities.

There are awesome little niceties, like “realm synergy”, where characters and gear who belong to the worlds you’re playing through getting bonuses (your team is almost never comprised of a single game’s cast; you usually have a mix of heroes from various FF games), and the events can be fun bursts of activity.  The Optimize function is really, really nice, though I’ve hit a point where I tend to override it with item-specific vetoes more often than not to take advantage of quirks like Cloud’s extra damage from swords, since the game likes to give him knives sometimes. Overall, though, it’s a really nice little function that lets you jump in and play without endlessly navigating the slow menu system.  There’s also a nice wiki system that SquareEnix seems to be at least marginally in charge of.

FFRK brought me along for a good little romp through the ages of the series, but it buckled under the need to monetize the game with a Gacha system and the stamina system.  I do Recommend it to fans of the series or anyone with an itch for some solid-if-shallow RPG play, with the caveats that it really does benefit from nostalgia, and the Gacha system isn’t for everyone.  I’d happily pay a single purchase price for this one if it could have faster menus, more music with a Jukebox mode, a smoother power curve, and ways to alleviate the catch-22 of ability and gear progress.  I’d pay extra for a third ability slot for all of my characters.

Get used to loading screens... at least they include trivia.

Get used to loading screens… at least they include trivia.


Almost 5700 words later, and three games reviewed.  That might be a new record for me, and that’s even trying to keep some parts brief…ish.  Thank you for stopping by!  Next time, I’ll be posting again about the Tinker Plastic Dice, but then I’ll get back to some Steam games, I think.

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I’m just ruminating a bit, spurred by a pair of excellent game design posts I read last week.

First, there’s Syl’s post about Why Storytelling in MMOs is Overrated.  I love her article, and I’ve wished for a long time now that MMO devs would ease off the reins and let players tell the story.  (Tangentially, Brian “Psychochild” Green’s work on Storybricks looks like a good step in that direction.)  The developer-driven narrative in these MMO things is a mismatch for the game design from the conception, and the devs seem to cling to their sense of authorship too much.  I can understand that, as a creative sort.  I’ve done a bit of Game Master work in tabletop RPGs in my day, though, and ultimately, the game always seems to run better when the players feel like they are in control.  The GM has to keep everything together, but player agency is the heart of games.  Even if it means they do things the GM doesn’t anticipate or even desire.

Second, there’s this gem from The Rampant Coyote, From Whom Much is Given, Much Is Demanded.  The discussion there about graphics and how cutting edge technology tends to create absurd demands rings true to my experience both in games and when I got my college degree in computer animation.

Today, I stumbled across this interesting tech demo from Activision.  It’s, well… creepy.  It’s very impressive, but it’s still not quite right.  Here it is on YouTube:

That Uncanny Valley looms large.  This is one of the huge dangers of chasing the tech edge.  Yes, in theory, with enough money, processing power and artistry, it’s possible to make artificial life that can pass for the real thing.  The cost is huge, though, and that Uncanny Valley is big.

Also, most importantly, it’s relatively easy these days to make artificial life look good in a still frame, but the real test is when it moves.  Motion is ridiculously hard to make, and exceptionally easy to break.  We have an instinctive understanding of how living things are supposed to move and behave, from physics to biology to exceedingly subtle emotional cues.  (See: Lie To Me, Sherlock Holmes, psychopaths, etc.)

This, perhaps more than anything, is what I really dug into when I was in college.  It’s at the heart of the Disney films I always wanted to make, The Illusion of Life that really makes animation work.  (By the way, I highly recommend that book if you have any interest in animation, along with a more recent tome, The Animator’s Survival Kit.  If you can only digest those two books, you’ll be a long way to understanding the core of animation.)  Ultimately, it’s possible for a skilled animator to make a broom or sack of flour (or even a paper airplane) seem more alive than the latest Final Fantasy CGI characters.  Or, as I noted over at Syl’s place, animators try to be conscious of the silhouette, making sure it’s readable at all times.  You can get a lot of mileage out of just the silhouette, as the XBox LIVE Game LIMBO shows:

And really, a lot of what gets communicated has to do with what isn’t seen.  (For a funny riff on this, there’s this take on what LIMBO might play like when you can see more information… but again, selective reveals are what sell the humor; it’s the juxtaposition of what you expect vs. what is “really” there that makes it humorous/scary.)

If you haven’t seen Paperman, go watch it.  Seriously, go watch it and then come back.  (Or watch the embedded one, sure.)

And then watch this, a video about some of the tech behind it.

So, for a relatively simple-looking bit of animation, there’s a lot of tech under the hood.  Some of it is obviously CG, at least to me, having spent as much time as I have watching and producing art and animation, both traditional and computer-assisted.  Still, there’s a lot of work going into this… and it’s all to make a stylized bit of art.  As with the style of The Incredibles, stylization goes a long way to making something play well.  It short-circuits our instinctive evaluation systems, and the errors in animation that pop up are kind of fudged away, filed in mental gaps that we don’t wind up caring about, largely because we have already internalized that these characters are not real, and we don’t expect them to be.

This is how we perceive motion in film and animation in the first place, per the Persistence of Vision theory.  The 24 or 30 frames per second that flicker by don’t cover the infinitely reducible time frames that reality can be split into, but they happen fast enough that our brain accepts them as continuous enough to be believable.  In fact, sometimes less information works better, as evidenced by some of the kerfluffle around the new-fangled 48FPS The Hobbit movie.  All we really need to know is enough to fool our brain into accepting something as real or believable, and then let our imagination and subconscious do the rest of the work.  Perhaps we could call it a “Persistence of Cognition” theory when it comes to storytelling and lore; the reader/viewer invests headspace in imagining the fictional world and how it works, or how they could work within it.  It’s all about leveraging the strengths of the end viewer/reader/player, making them a partner in the experience.

This is why a lot of the high end stuff fails.  It tries to do too much.  Our brain takes it at its word, holds it to a higher standard, and finds it lacking.

Most of the time, especially with art, story and anything that really hinges on the viewer getting emotionally involved and engaging the imagination, less, to a certain degree, actually is more, simply because you’re letting the viewer breathe and take a bit of ownership, which tends to be a multiplying factor in the efficacy of a presentation.  It’s part of that “willing suspension of disbelief” that’s so important to get people to buy into what you’re doing.  There really are reasons not to go into obsessive hyperdetail, not only because it’s a time and money sink, but because it’s also less effective.

Artists tend to understand this instinctively after some practice, since it’s entirely possible to put too much into a piece of art and thereby ruin it.  Hinting at detail is often far more effective than rendering it.  Even Daniel Dociu’s incredible art, which tends to look really complex, is largely suggestive, relying on the viewer to infer a ton of detail that really isn’t there.  Just look at the actual brushstrokes in one of his pieces and compare it to what you thought was there at a glance.  Dociu is a master at implying complexity.  He’s making your brain do the heavy lifting.

Similarly, as any avid reader can tell you, “head canon” and “mental visualization” of words on the page can never compare to a moviemaker’s craft.  They simply function differently.  That’s a good thing, and creative types really need to leverage the supercomputers in viewers’ brains to do a lot of the creative work for them.  It takes trust, and knowing just what to imply and what to make explicit… but there’s a lot of strength in letting the viewer in on the process, even if it’s only on a subconscious level.

They will fill the gaps, if you can learn what to leave up to them.

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Spring cleaning is traditionally done in the spring, for reasons unknown, but my family always tends to have a post-Christmas bout of cleaning as well.  We try to declutter a bit, maybe just to compensate for all the new clutter from the holidays.  I find myself doing this with gaming as well, going through my game library and either finishing games or uninstalling them and calling them “done”, mostly so I can get on with playing other games in the bits of time I get here and there to play.

…and there’s the crux of the matter; I almost never have blocks of time to play.  I get an hour here, fifteen minutes there… and that’s about it.  That’s part of why MMO subscriptions are a pathetic value for me; I simply don’t get 20+ hours a week to sink into any gaming, much less devote myself to a single game.  There are way too many good games out there to tie myself down like that.  (As my Steam library, GoG collection and Humble Bundle folders will attest.)  So, I have a large library of games, and way to little time to play them.

As a result, my gaming is more like grazing than gorging.  I nibble a little on something like Uncharted, then I go munch on Tactics Ogre, then savor a little bit of Guild Wars 2.  (By which I mean, I create my characters before the game inevitably crashes, then maybe move around the starting areas a little bit.)  The next week, I ruminate a little on Journey, then chew a little on LEGO Batman with the kids.  Once upon a time, I’d ride an exercise bike and play FFXII for a nice 45 minutes or so, but circumstances have made that indulgence obsolete.  (And I find that FFXII just doesn’t work well as a game I only play for 15 minutes in a sitting.)

So it’s no surprise that I play more Plants vs. Zombies, Symphony, Triple Town and Puzzle Pirates these days.  It’s all I can sneak into the schedule.  I still haven’t finished FFXII, and I have FFXIII, FFXIII-2, FFVII: Crisis Core, Blue Dragon, Infinite Undiscovery, Lost Odyssey, Batman Arkham City, LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean, LEGO Batman 2, LEGO Harry Potter and a host of other, smaller games that I really want to dig into… but just can’t right now.  They aren’t really grazing-friendly.  Heaven help me if I get the itch to play an MMO.  I still have WoW, STORIFT and GW2 installed, and I grudgingly uninstalled LOTRO.  I want to play all of them.  I probably never will.

…there’s something sad about that.

Still, I’m not complaining.  I have a lot of gaming options, and that’s a good spot to be in.  Since I work in the industry, it behooves me to play a variety of games, and be aware of what’s out there, rather than simply be a game fan and devote my gaming time to a single or few fandoms.  And then there’s the fact that my kids and I still love Minecraft (if I only had one game for the rest of my life, that one would do), and my oldest wants to learn the Pokemon card game… yeah, my plate is full to overflowing, but it’s all I can do to nibble at the edges.

Is it any wonder why I like the Tauren, perhaps?  Moooooo

Tishtoshtesh, Tauren Druid

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…because they don’t know the words!  (OK, that’s a shameless ripoff of Gnomeageddon’s post over here, which got me thinking about a few different things.)

The Radical Dreamers song from Chrono Cross is one of my favorite pieces of music.  (To Zanarkand from Final Fantasy X is also a wonderful piece, but it doesn’t have lyrics.)  The whole soundtrack is excellent, all 3 CDs of it, but that one stands out for me because of the acoustic guitar and vocals.  But, y’see… I don’t know the words.

As I noted in the comment thread over in this discussion about Simon and Garfunkel, lyrics can be funny things.  When I was just a wee little Tesh, my mother loved to listen to Simon and Garfunkel, so I grew up on that sort of folk music sound (along with James Taylor).  Thing is, I listened to it pretty much as music with inscrutable vocals.  It was only later that I listened to the lyrics as something other than music.  That can change the meaning of songs, and dilute or enhance my appreciation of them.  John Lennon’s Imagine is a simple, dreary bit of moderately pleasant hippie music, but I find some of the lyrics rather… unappetizing.  (And, well, I can’t stand Yoko Ono.  She’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.)  I liked it a lot more when I didn’t listen to the lyrics, and just heard it as music with vocals.

In another instance, I like Suteki Da Ne from Final Fantasy X (aside from Otherworld, that game’s soundtrack is excellent).  Melodies of Life from FFIX is also really good… but I prefer both as rendered in Japanese.  The English versions are still pretty good, but suddenly, since I can understand the lyrics, they are no longer something I appreciate on a purely musical level, they are processed differently.  Not only do the meter and pacing change with the translation, subtly mangling the flow of the music, but the words are, well… subpar poetry (like a lot of music, to be fair).  Nothing really offensive, just… kinda cheesy and goofy.  Because I now know the words, I find the songs less appealing (more so for Suteki Da Ne).  I still love the Japanese versions, but I find the English versions less appealing.  Sometimes, a little knowledge has a big effect.  (And, as Jason points out, they don’t work as background music any more; since I subconsciously process the English lyrics, it divides my attention.)

Or, take the difference between this purely piano version of Skimming Stones from Sleepthief (recorded in the sadly now-destroyed Provo Tabernacle)… and this one with Kirsty Hawkshaw’s lovely vocals.  Same piano line, but the lyrics (and other audio tidbits layered in, to be fair) change the song significantly.  I actually like them both quite a bit, but they are definitely different.

Operatic music has a similar effect for me.  I can listen to bits and pieces of something like La Traviata and appreciate the musicality of the singing, but that’s because I don’t understand it.  (That I can’t stand heavy vibrato doesn’t help with a lot of opera, but that’s incidental.)  The few pieces of English opera I’ve listened to just don’t work as well for me.  (Though oddly, a musical like Fiddler on the Roof works pretty well.  Maybe it has to start in English?  And now I wonder how well Broadway musicals like The Lion King work in Japanese…)

Anyway, going back to games and Gnomeageddon, he notes that writing about World of Warcraft tends to meander in pretty similar, well-repeated circles, with authors (myself included) rehashing the same old arguments, just phrased in new ways.  Perhaps the same could be said of writing or game design in general, what with that theory that there are only a handful of “original” stories, and everything is really just a remix.

Perhaps that’s the case, and what we need to make something truly entertaining or enlightening is for it to be a bit, well, foreign to us.  That way we process it differently, and dodge the habits of familiarity and preconceived notions that can all too often taint our perception.  (Think of it as a sort of rephrased idea of “fun is learning” or Raph Koster’s “Theory of Fun“.)

I think it’s a good thing to play games (and read books, listen to music, look at art, etc.) that are foreign to us.  Not incomprehensible, incompetent games, just games that do things differently than what we’ve internalized and become accustomed to.  We can learn things that way, from game design to personal preference.  And as this interesting article notes, great artists draw from a wide variety of sources.  I think this is true for music, games and pretty much any other artistic endeavor, whether as an artist or as a consumer.

Even if it means just humming along for a while.

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Angry Bird

Since this month’s art challenge at work was built on pop culture references, I couldn’t resist coming up with something out of left field.  I’ve not seen the Sucker Punch movie, and I probably won’t (bordello-based grrrl power doesn’t interest me, though some of the movie looks pretty awesome), so naturally, I had to build around a different kind of chick.

It may not be anything new from a game artist, but this was a lot of fun to draw and paint.  It even made my wife laugh, so that alone makes it worth doing.

Happy Friday, all!

Cloudy Sword Chick; Rambo + Cloud + Angry Bird

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Game balance is a tricky thing.  Psychochild has a good article up about it over here:

Balanced but not Equal

I’ve also been pondering the nature of Final Fantasy games and game balance.  In nearly every FF game, players have the option of outleveling the game’s difficulty, effectively toning down the challenge by investing time in lesser challenges.  (That’s also what WoW winds up doing as well, at least until the “endgame” where the core play changes anyway.)  Thankfully, the games are usually fun enough to make that sort of “grind” enjoyable, and it’s often incentivized with side quests.  Of course, this blows the designer’s carefully crafted pacing and balance out of the airlock, but one of the cardinal lessons that good designers learn is that the player’s experience (including the ability to do crazy things the designer didn’t intend) is paramount, not the designer’s ego.  Games should be about letting players play, not trying to force them into the designer’s vision.

In FFTA2, like its predecessor, there are some midgame/lategame abilities that can be learned that make for “broken” gameplay.  The prototypical example is the “Red Mage/Summoner with Doublecast and Blood Price and Juggler with Critical:Quicken and elemental absorption gear”.  It’s a rather “degenerate” combo that allows the player to use two units to take infinite turns and bounce around the map, blasting foes with elemental summons (powerful large area magic).  There are those who use that as an example that FFTA2 is “broken”.  A quick YouTube search will produce more than a few results to that effect.

I think it’s brilliant.

As Mark Rosewater of MTG fame might say, I’m a Johnny.  I love finding those sort of absurdly overpowered combos in a game, using game mechanics in synergistic and explosive ways.  It’s a bit of a metagame puzzle for me, plotting out the most interesting and effective way to completely dominate the game, or maybe just do something interesting that the good little hamsters on the designer’s wheel might not have thought of.

And who doesn’t like that at some level, anyway?  Games are many things, but close to the gamer’s heart is the desire for a power fantasy; the ability to completely bend the game to our whim and demonstrate power unheard of in our petty little “real” lives.  If we’re just actors in the designer’s little “movie”, especially if we don’t know our part, we’re not going to really enjoy playing the game.  We might enjoy the satisfaction of finally figuring things out and reading the designer’s mind, but that’s an entirely different psychological fix.

FF games allow for that sort of customized playing experience, especially in the Tactics games with their expansive stable of Jobs and abilities.  I love that they offer that sort of choice.  If I want to play the game “the purist way”, I can just suck it up like a man and beat my head against the wall until I develop a sufficiently thick cranium and neck muscles to plow my way through the challenge.  If I don’t want to deal with repeated failure and stupid “do it again, stupid” gameplay (thanks for the phrase, Shamus!), I can just go out and level up a few times and come back with more beefy avatars.

Of course, the trick is to balance things sufficiently that such game breakers don’t show up too early, and to give challenges to even the elite (hello, Ruby/Emerald Weapon, meet my Knights of the Round via WSummon).

To be fair, the FF lineage does have a penchant for “one shot” gear or items that can only be found if you don’t open a treasure chest when you can in the first three hours of the game and come back to it just before the final boss, or some other obscure set of procedures.  I’m not a fan of that sort of option, since it’s only available to those with a FAQ or replay OCD.  I’m most interested in the “toolbox” sort of design that makes all of the pieces available to players, and their skill or devotion at putting together the puzzle unlocks interesting gameplay, above and beyond what the “main story” requires for completion.

Bottom line, though, I do think that FF games strike a decent balance between allowing nearly anyone to see their lovingly-crafted stories (the quality of which can be debated, of course, but here I’m talking about gameplay access) and still offer challenge to players of all levels.  It does make for some “broken” combos, and some nonsense “optional bosses” that could have eaten the Big Bad for a snack, but when it boils down to gameplay, it’s about letting the player make choices in how they approach the game.  Those who want a challenge can try a FFX “no sphere grid” game (no upgrading the characters as they level up), and those who just want to see if Yuna and Tidus finally get over their angst  can just mosey on through the game, creating superheroes that can destroy the final boss with a glare.  That flexibility is a good thing.

(And, as should be noted, this does change between single player games and MMOs, where combos need to be kept reined in a lot more, given PvP and the inevitable whining pity parties.  Still, giving players different ways to do things and have fun playing is a good thing.)

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I stumbled onto this article over on Gamasutra:

Redefining the Gameplay Narrative Divide:  Crisis Core

I’ve admitted it before, but to reiterate, I like the Final Fantasy game line.  FFVII isn’t my favorite in the series (that would be X, then VI, then VII), but it’s still a great game.  I own and still enjoy Advent Children.  I would love to play Crisis Core, but I don’t want to pony up for a PSP.  Heck, I still might pick up Dirge of Cerberus, if I had the time.

Crisis Core is apparently a giant fractured flashback.  (Which should be obvious, since the lead character is dead by the time FFVII starts.)  Some of the CC mechanics and storytelling fudge the chronology a bit, as flashbacks are wont to do.  By so doing, they make both the gameplay and the story more interesting.

I wanted to play the game before, but now I want to play it even more.  I appreciate good game design and good storytelling, and innovations like this are right up my alley.

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