Quit the Grind: Other Ways to “Level”

In many RPGs you reach a point when battles are neither novel nor challenging, when you’re just going through the motions for gold or experienceーalso known as grinding. It can kill any momentum the game had going, and it turns play into work.

The problem is that grinding is hard to avoid in the standard RPG formula where each battle pushes you closer to the big “level up.” You’re inherently rewarded for grinding, and sometimes forced to by sudden jumps in difficulty.

Many classic RPGs have explored alternatives here, tooーlet’s see how they handled “leveling up.”

LIMITED NUMBER OF ENEMIES
This is the most simple solution- you can’t grind if there aren’t any more enemies!

This is used by many Strategy RPGs (Fire Emblem, Front Mission, etc.) that they are divided into stages with a set numbers of enemies. This of course requires careful planning by developers to make sure the player doesn’t get stuck somewhere at a low level. Many offset this danger by making experience gains relativeーkilling a lower level enemy might get you only one experience point, while a powerful enemy sends your EXP skyrocketing. This keeps characters around an average level throughout the game.

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Battle in Front Mission for SNES. Great character portraits (by Tetsuya Nomura of Final Fantasy fame) and gritty atmosphere.

This way the player can keeps pushing forward without the distraction of grinding, which has always been one of my favorite things about SRPGs compared to RPGs. You never “forget where you were,” so the story is easier to follow and enjoy.

ALLOW THE PLAYER TO DIE
Sometimes you have to grind just to survive sudden jumps in difficulty, which goes against what I think RPGs are all about: exploration and discovery. Let’s say you reach an exciting new cavern to explore, but instead of going in you have to first grind through some easy battles in the woods for 30 minutes with the same old monsters you’ve seen before. Not very bold or adventurous.

So it’s nice that there’s no such thing as Game Over in SNES games like Metal Max 2, Gokinjo Boukentai, and Romancing SaGa 2. If you die, you simply start back in town and can try again. This enables you to actually explore new areas, even if you’re not sure you can survive.

In little-known-but-super-cool Metal Max 2, a mad scientist finds your corpse, drags it back to town and brings you back from the dead without penalty, which somehow suits the wild and crazy, post-apocalyptic world of the game.

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Metal Max 2: the SNES RPG version of Borderlands (an English version was also recently released… ;) )

In Gokinjo Boukentai (“Neighborhood Adventure Troop,” another virtually unknown gem), each time your party dies you actually get a stat boost, making the dungeon easier next go round. Although this basically rewards the player for dying, the game is pretty easy to start with so its not worth dying just for a minimal stat boost.

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Gokinjo Boukentai’s graphics are hyper-cute and sometimes disturbing, somehow reminiscent of Earthbound.

Romancing SaGa 2 is set up so that you play as multiple generations of emperors. If your party ever dies, you simply choose a successor and start again from the throne room. You actually benefit from playing as a variety of emperors, so it’s worth it to accept your death and move on. There are some super tough boss battles that I don’t think you’re expected to win at first, and its fun to encounter them later in a new generation. An Emperor dies in an epic battle with one of the Seven Heroes, but his successor comes back decades years later to avenge his death… It makes for an epic tale!

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A new Empress is born in Romancing Saga 2.

STORY-BASED GROWTH
The only game I know to do this is Chrono Cross (someday I’ll write a post that doesn’t bring up CC, I promise). Stat growth comes (almost) only from beating bosses and mini-bosses in the main story-line.

This keeps the story moving since there’s not much to be gained from fighting random battles. In fact, after getting the few small gains possible between bosses, I usually avoided enemies altogether and ran from any fights I accidentally engaged. Thankfully, CC is one of the few games where running away actually works 100% of the time. (“Running Away” deserves a whole post of its own, come to think of it…) Fleeing is also nice since CC’s battle song will drive you literally insane and make you want to imprison the composer.

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Chrono Cross characters get semi-random bonuses at each new star (ie after each boss battle).

I could go on, but let’s just say Chrono Cross’ star system is original, interesting, frustrating and confusingーlike the game itself.

ENEMIES MATCH PLAYER LEVEL
The only games I know of to do this are the Romancing SaGa series (sorry for also bringing RS up constantly, but hey, it and CC are super innovative, I can’t help it!). Enemies are divided into basic categories like undead, beast, and fish, which you can see from their sprite in a dungeon, but the enemies that appear in battle vary depending on how strong you are.

This makes true open-ended world exploration possible. The exact order of quests doesn’t matter because enemies will always be at a challenging level. Even some bosses changeーthe Seven Heroes of RS2 have drastically different “forms” depending on which “generation” you face them in (…which is awesome).

I find this a lot more fun than games like Skyrim and Borderlands (though I love Borderlands), where quests become laughably easy if you don’t tackle them early enough, or you stumble into an area that is way over your head.

The Romancing SaGa series further limits grinding by making stat gains random and incremental. You can’t just “reach the next level” and get big boosts. Instead, you get a little HP here and another skill level with axes there, gradually becoming stronger. These incremental gains are also more likely to happen when facing bosses or otherwise dire situations, so easy-peasy random battles won’t help you much.

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Someone’s been using her axe in battle!

OTHER WAYS
It’s hard to think of approaches to “leveling” that don’t boil down to grinding for some kind of currency, whether it is experience, gold or items. But combinations and tweaks of the above approaches could lead to some fun new experiences.

For example, in the games that let the player die, death is still a bit of a setback since you lose your physical progress. But what if you could continue on afterwards? If you were not expected to win every single battle (as you are in most RPGs), the difficulty and strategy of each fight could be considerably higher. Losing might simply bring in less experience or bonuses, but not halt your journey through the dungeon.

Another possibility is for equipment to have a much greater impact on abilities than character level. If equipment were also super rare, than finding a new equipment would be a major event and potential game changer. This would focus the player on the joy of discovery as they push the story along in search of better equipment.

If you think about it, taken to the extreme, no grinding means no gains from random battles, which means random battles become pointless to a degree, which means that the solution might require doing away with random battles altogether.

On that note, what if the limited number of enemies approach of SRPGs was used in a traditional open-world RPG. What if you could actually eliminate those monsters bothering the villagers one by one, and they stay gone. You would probably feel like you actually had an impact on the world and that each battle was actually meaningful… What a wild idea!

I think this is an opportunity to be creative and liberate players from the ongoing horrors of grinding. How do YOU see it happening?

Posted in Characters, Game Design, Japanese, Playstation, RPG, Series, SNES, Western | 3 Comments

Digital Games & More: Playing at Playpublik

October 3-5 I got to play some games at Playpublik with other game designers from around the world. Playpublik is one of the many new festivals of urban games/street games/digital games/play that have popped up all over the world in the past few years (especially in Europe). Playpublik is organized by a group of German game designers called Invisible Playground, who also organize “72 Hour Interactions,” an event where groups of designers have 72 hours to construct a game along with the actual physical structure/playground it takes place on. This year Playpublik took place in Krakow, Poland.

Personally I love video games, and that’s where my background is, but Playpublik was even more broad and included all kinds of games with varying degrees of technology involved- really, it was more about playing than games.

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Tron-like hand blaster for game where you shoot things on a screen with a friend

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Something with a huge ball? Didn’t get to play this one…

Every game designer had a different space in Krakow for a “site-specific” game. One game, for example, was a life simulation in an old courtyard where people yelled down from balconies and had us perform various mini-games in different stages of life all over the courtyard in an attempt to earn the most pretend money.

Another took place in a office room, where we were led in and seated in office chairs, and it was explained to us in a business-like manner that we would be creating a new world together. It was basically a card game, but with delightful visuals mixed in between rounds via a projector.

Others were less “game,” and more just playing around. One involved walking around the city with a smart phone app that played a simple beat that you and other players could manipulate based on your location.

Another game also used the GPS to let players gradually unlock a story by visiting different parts of Krakow and logging in. (I got to draw some illustrations for this one, including a bunch of creepy cute monsters, i.e. my specialty and favorite thing to draw ♡).

Most used a mix of “real” and digital elements and spaces to create fun and playful experiences. Actually, one used technology that I didn’t even know existed. They had one player on a team wear a headset that measures concentration, and in times of emergency that player had to concentrate in order to save their teammates. I got to be the concentrator and it was awesome! I concentrated hard and totally nailed it for my team!

Others involved dancing, hopscotch, bikes, and much, much more!

The general vibe was actually really similar to when I attended Indiecade last year in Los Angeles- people walking around in good spirits looking for fun, with a laid back and playful atmosphere. In other words, I loved it.

There are a lot of festivals popping up like this all over the world. Sometimes they are centered around video games, like Indiecade, but sometimes it is just about play in general, like Playpublik. There is “Playful Arts Festival” in Holland, “Come Out and Play” in New York and San Francisco, and Game City in England (which I’m leaving for tomorrow to play more games!), among many others (huge list here).

It seems like the indie video game movement, the street/urban games movement, and art/academic games are all merging into one mass of play that takes over entire cities. It’s exciting, and I’m looking forward to attending more of these events and seeing where it all leads!

About the blog, it will be back to the regularly scheduled program in November when I’m back from Game City, with a post about alternatives to level grinding in RPGs.

Posted in Action, American, European, Game Design, General, Western | Leave a comment

Lessons from the Classics: Rethinking Magic

Most RPGs use “fire-ice-lightning” or “fire-ice-wind-earth” elemental systems of magic, where fire is strong against ice and vice versa, ice spells freeze/slow enemies, etc. Offhand can you think of any RPG where the first offensive spell you learn is NOT “Fireball” or something similar? It’s disturbingly difficult.

In terms of using magic strategically in these systems, it is usually either a simple matter of “use fire magic against ice monster,” or else guess and check (a boss is weak against lightning for no apparent reason and with no indication, etc.).

Of course fire and ice are easy to understand as powerful forces of magic, but when the same system is used so often it starts to lose the sense of excitement and wonder that magic should have. As a powerful supernatural force, magic should also tie in with the foundations of the game’s world. Why is magic divided into fire and ice instead of star and crystal, plastic and metal, or bone and dirt?

There must be more ways to make magic fresh, original, and strategically interesting… Once again, let’s see how games have accomplished this in the past.

COLORS
I know I mentioned Chrono Cross in the last post, but CC does interesting things here, too. Characters and enemies have clearly indicated innate colors, which at first glance seem to be the typical elements of fire (red), ice (blue), air (green) and earth (yellow).

However, green is actually not only wind but everything green including plants and poison, while yellow includes earth, lightning, and the sun. Black mainly involves gravity for some reason, while white involves meteors and outer space.

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Beeba’s are yellow innate

Enemies are also clearly labeled so that you don’t have to guess what their elemental weakness is (or waste time casting a spell to find out- who has time for that?).

The catch is that, as in many other games with binary magic systems, it’s not necessarily helpful to bring a blue character to fight red enemies. Rather than strategically benefiting you, it just raises the stakes by letting you and the enemy do more damage to each other. In Chrono Cross your characters often just get killed really fast in this situation, so oddly enough it is strategic to avoid bringing characters of the opposite color to boss battles.

Speaking of which…

NON-BINARY ELEMENTAL MAGIC
Instead of Fire and Ice (or Earth and Wind, or Dark and Light) being strong against each other, Saiyuki (PSX) uses five elements- Metal, Fire, Water, Earth, and Tree- which work like an expanded version of rock-paper-scissors. Arranged in a circle, each is strong against the element on one side of it, and weak against the element on the other.

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As a water innate character, Sa Gojo is strong against fire magic and weak against earth magic. His tree magic, on the other hand, would be effective against earth innate enemies and less effective against metal enemies.

These relationships allow you to make decisions that actually give you the upper hand in battle. The challenge of course is that enemies always include an assortment of elements, so its not as simple as pitting your fire characters against a horde of metal enemies.

Categories like metal and tree also allow for some unique spells that diverge from the typical “fireball” and “ice blast.”

ORIGINAL ELEMENTAL CATEGORIES

It’s easy to grasp that fire is powerful and destructive, but I like it when a game sets its world apart with a distinct flavor like the monster summons in “Summoner: Goddess Reborn.” Although magic is basically divided into typical categories like Fire, Ice, and Energy, things get really fun with the types of monsters that can be summoned: Blood, Eye, Sand, and Tree.

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The main character Maia transforms into the Blood Summon

Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and they allow for some original monster designs. Plus, they fit the game’s mythology about trees and sand, with recurring images of eyes and masks. In other words, the unique conceptualization of magic is based upon and develops the game’s worldview.

WEATHER/ENVIRONMENTAL MAGIC
Every now and then an RPG throws in a weather mage or geomancer. In Final Fantasy, most Geomancer spells (including Mog’s dances in FF3) are random and only useful in a handful of situations. Daikaijuu Monogatari II for the SNES, however, has a super effective weather mage who was the star of my party.

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Daikaijuu Monogatari 2′s amazing bow-using weather mage is on the far right.

Weather magic spells usually end up falling into typical categories like lightning and wind, and exist alongside the traditional fire-ice system, but at least they allow for some neat new spells involving nature and animals.

ABSTRACT LOGICAL CATEGORIES
Skyrim strips away the fanciful fiction and categorizes magic by what it does (Alteration, Restoration, Destruction, etc.). It’s a blunt, no-nonsense approach, and ended up a bit dry for me. In that sense, you could say it fits Skyrim’s worldview of “extremely complex but ultimately lifeless, mechanical world”- though I did think the Dragon Shouts were a nice touch that nicely tied into the gameworld.

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Skyrim’s Dragon Shout abilities become available later in the game and involve learning “Words of Power.”

Summoner 2′s Summons and Skyrim’s Dragon Shouts tie together mythology and gameplay in original and exciting ways, but both are essentially extra elements on top of a more standard magic system. What if this originality and vision was applied to a game’s entire conceptualization of magic from the ground up?

OTHER WAYS
Of course, typical magic categories can work if they make sense in the game. Take Borderlands, for example. Fire, electricity, and poison are pretty standard categories, but they make perfect sense in this post-apocalyptic world of destruction, technology and mutation.

But, just for fun, let’s imagine what magic might look like without fire and ice…

What if Chrono Cross’ color magic was taken further? What if Red Magic controlled all red objects, from tomatoes to rubies, while Blue Magic controlled the sky, the sea, and blueberries? A red enemy wearing a yellow shirt might be strong against red with minor defense against yellow. And colors’ effectiveness could be determined by a color wheel in a non-binary system like Saiyuki’s.

Really, any categories could be used as types of magic. Take the flavors, for example. There could be spicy, salty, sweet, and bitter magic, in a world where magical power comes from food.

What about the four seasons? This would probably boil down to cold (winter) versus hot (summer), but it could at least lead to some cool new spells. What would an autumn mage look like, and what spells would she use?

Or, what if magic power was derived from the signs of the Zodiac? A character whose astrological sign is Sagitarius could use magic arrow attacks and summon centaur stampedes, while a Cancer would have snappy claw attacks.

Mages could also control different laws of the physical world- one works with gravity, one with time, another with states of matter, etc… (Of course Time Mages exist in Final Fantasy and other games, but they are usually just there to cast support magic alongside typical fire and ice.)

But what if the states of matter themselves were the source of magic- Solid, Liquid, and Gas magic! I guess Solid Magic would be weak in areas with high temperatures, while liquids would freeze and become ineffective in the cold. There could even be a rare and legendary Plasma Mage!

As always, I’d love to hear about the magic system in your games, tips for games with unique implementations, and the random idea that you’ve just been toying with in your head.

Posted in Action, American, Characters, Console, Game Design, Gamecube, Japanese, RPG, SNES, Western | 16 Comments

PS2 Red Alert

I’m afraid I have a fully functioning means of playing PS2 games… Bye bye, spare time. Magna Carta 2 didn’t seem to work, but I think it may just be the copy I have.

So that means I’m taking recommendations of PS2 games to play. I think I have played pretty much every SNES RPG ever made, and the highlights of PS1, so now it is finally time for me to move onto games released after the year 2000… Someday I will play a modern game (Skyrim is the only PS3 game I’ve ever played so far…).

Also, that MP post was fun and got an amazing number of informative replies, so I think I’ll continue with similar posts about alternative magic systems (instead of fire & ice) and leveling systems. Weee, can’t wait!

But first, Playpublik! I will be playing real life games at Playpublik October 3-5 in Krakow, and in Nottingham, UK from October 25-27 at Game City. Wish me luck and join me if you can! :)

Posted in American, Console, Game Design, General, Japanese, Playstation, RPG, Site-related, SNES, Western | 2 Comments

Lessons from the Classics: MP Alternatives

We’ve all played a game or two (or twenty) with this system: each character has a finite amount of MP used for spells, more powerful ones cost more MP, and if your MP runs out you need items (or “rest”) to replenish it.

I find many implementations pretty tedious (buying/using MP restorative items constantly, or saving all magic for the boss), but preferences aside, its just plain boring when so many games do the same thing.

Now I happen to think there’s still a lot to learn from older games, so let’s look back at some alternatives to the typical MP system and imagine exciting future possibilities. (Let’s just define “magic” and “MP” broadly as “special moves” and the “special points required to use them.”)

USE HP INSTEAD OF MP
You may already know much I love the Paladin’s Quest/Lennus games, where MP doesn’t exist. In these two games, spells cost HP. It’s an exciting twist that changes the dynamics of casting and healing, and I wrote about it in more detail here. Considering it’s the only game I know of to do this, I think there’s still a lot to explore here.

EACH SPELL HAS LIMITED NUMBER OF USES
Rather than bothering with MP, some games just limit the number of times each individual spell can be cast. Final Fantasy 1 and Chrono Cross do this (this was one of the highlights of CC for me, personally).
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Choosing which “element” to use in Chrono Cross- only one shot for each!

In a sense, this goes for any game where items can be used to cast a spell. I always want this to be fun and functional, but for some reason items usually cast weak or “just average” spells and aren’t worth keeping track of. (However, bombs in Dark Chronicle 2 are super useful *wink*).

On this note, I always liked the concept of the “Chemist” class (from Final Fantasy 3/6 and others), who can use items more effectively. That coupled with magic/attack items that actually deal damage would be fun!
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FF’s Chemists can also “Mix” items and get special results.

The Draw system in FF 8 is a weird case where you can infinitely “Draw” the items needed to cast magic. The catch is that you infinitesimally weaken your character each time you use any Magic that is “Junctioned.” I enjoyed this, but nevertheless ending up getting frustrated as I spent hours obsessively trying to Draw Magic. In the end, I think the combination of “limited number of casts” and “infinitely available through cumbersome chore” was not such a good idea.

Fire Emblem KIND of does this… Every physical or magical attack wears down the weapon/spellbook used until it breaks. So, in practice, every attack is a “special” attack (ie limited in number), but at the same time characters generally use the same attacks all the time, so nothing is really “special.” The interesting thing is that “magic” is just another weapon, no different from swords or bows, just with its own pros and cons.
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Battle animations in the SNES and GBA Fire Emblem games are wonderful.

AVAILABLE ON LIMITED OR INFINITE BASIS, BUT IN SPECIAL SITUATIONS ONLY
I’m talking about all the Limit Breaks and Overdrives out there. They become available either when you are low on HP or have filled up a bar by taking enough damage (though Final Fantasy X lets you fill up the bar in various ways, which was neat).

Lufia 2 had an additional interesting twist on this system where the abilities are provided by equipment. That was a really fun additional consideration when equipping armor and weapons.
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When the IP bar (below MP) fills up, you can choose one of the IP techniques of your equipped items.

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The Dagger’s IP Technique!

I loved how in Final Fantasy 9, a certain combination of characters in the party makes some abilities available. I just thought it was so endearing that Steiner could use elemental Magic Swords when Vivi was there! (Unfortunately I never used Steiner…)
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Steiner performs Fire Sword with Vivi’s help.

I think there is a lot more to explore with this “special situation magic”…

What if a character could only use certain spells when their HP was above 90%? Or only when an ally was low on HPーor only when the enemies have over 50% health?! Just imagine!!

GIVE MAGES AN ATTACK THAT DOESN’T USE MP
When it comes to traditional mages, don’t you hate having to choose between a powerful spell that uses up precious MP, or totally worthless physical attacks?

Well, in Romancing Saga 3, mages generally have a relatively effective 1MP attack, but also a -1MP bonus to magic. So you get a free attack that is actually effective.

RESET/REPLENISH AFTER EVERY BATTLE
Now, the only game I know that did this with the “MP” is Romancing Saga: Minstrel Song (though they call it “BP”), where it starts at the same base level and increases throughout each battle. Breath of Fire 4 is similar, in that you start with a minimal base amount of AP that replenishes throughout the battle (but only if the character isn’t being used).

The nice thing about these systems is that you are saved (at least partially) from the tyranny of “Ethers” (cough, Final Fantasy, cough).

Romancing Saga 3 resets HP to the max after every battle, which is a huge relief and allows for consistently challenging enemies. This could be really interesting if also done with MP…

VIA BUTTON COMBINATIONS
It’s standard fare in Action RPGs, obviously, but Final Fantasy 3 also implemented it with Sabin, and Legend of Dragoon used it in a pretty fun way, too.
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You must hit buttons precisely to rack up damage in Legend of Dragoon- but if you succeed, the character yells out the name of the attack with hilarious voice acting!

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You have to memorize Sabin’s combos (what is this, Street Fighter?), but then you can use them to your heart’s content.

For me the memorization of fast-paced buttons to mash kinda clashes with the RPG vibe. I mean when you want action, you want consistent action (not light action spread awkwardly through parts of battle), and when you want RPG, you usually want atmosphere, strategy, planning, and whatnot- not to be suddenly asked to input fast buttons.

OTHER WAYS….?
Now this is a wild fantasy of mine but… what if not only did spells use HP, but HP was shared for the entire party? Different characters contribute different amounts, and their spells use different amounts. They could even KO at different points as it decreases…?!

Or, what if the stage where you fought supplied the MP- a limited amount shared by all characters? Some areas are rich in magic, others barely have a shred!? And what if this “Mana Pool” (still MP, haha) was also shared by ENEMIES?

What if performing special moves involved putting your characters in certain locations relative to enemies in a grid-based fighting game (forming an unbroken “Square of Doom” or “Healing Trapezoid,” for example)? Some kind of Geomancy/Feng Shui-based magic system…??

My fantasies are endless… And you probably have your own, too. I’d love to hear them in the comments section!

Posted in Action, Console, Game Design, Japanese, Lennus, NES, Playstation, RPG, Series, SNES, Western | Tagged , | 14 Comments

From Berlin, With Play〜

Sorry for the lack of posting lately. I moved to Berlin! Now I’m somewhat settled in and am working on the next post, though.

If you are in Europe, I’ll be playing games at Playpublik in Krakow October 3-5. Hope you’ll stop by and play with me!

Also, I completed a game recently- which is rare, ’cause usually I give up around the last dungeon out of not wanting it to end, getting tired of it, or wanting to finish up side quests (or switching computers and losing save files *looks longingly at Breath of Fire IV*)… But some games are so good I just have to finish them. And Romancing SaGa 2 is one. As soon as I finished I actually wanted to replay it with all the knowledge I gained. And there were so many things I missed… like all of the most powerful magic and skills! Whoops!

Coming up next is another experiment with new kinds of posts, looking at a few different games around a theme.

Also starting work on another article (like the “Worldbuilding and Characters” one) but super secret and under wraps for now… heh, heh, heh.

Posted in Console, Game Design, General, Japanese, RPG, Site-related, SNES, Translation | Leave a comment

Ogre Battle/Tactics Series, 1993-2001

There are five games in the “Ogre Battle Saga” series. (Four have been released in English, but there is a mysterious Japan-only fifth that I have never been able to get my hands on…) The main four that I will discuss are “Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen” (SNES, 1993), “Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together” (SNES, 1995), “Ogre Battle: Person of Lordly Caliber” (N64, 1999), and “Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis” (GBA, 2001).

Each falls into one of two different styles: A) a real-time strategy simulation where groups of characters fight together as units (“Ogre Battle” games), or B) more traditional turn-based combat on a grid where characters act individually (“Tactics Ogre” games).

But they all have a few things in common:
1) Serious tone and themes about “war” and “morality,” with multiple story-lines and endings.
2) A large number of generic characters that evolve over the course of the game based on player’s actions.
3) Strategic combat on large maps where features like terrain, time of day, and weather have an impact.

Worldview: Strategic stewardship of an army in a vast, serious world.
Your actions and decisions feel imbued with moral weight that manifests itself in the your gradually growing and evolving army.

DEAD SERIOUS TONE
The Ogre games feature stories and characters that take themselves very seriously, tackling themes like loyalty and morality with plenty of heavy-handed dialogue. The stories usually focus on characters’ helplessness in the midst of forces beyond their control, and their struggles to do the “right thing” when there is no one right choice. Since most other games have a comic relief character or at least a few jokes here and there, the serious tone in the story and dialogue is somehow refreshing and endearing.

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Dramatic cut-scene with Cybil in “Knights of Lodis”

The serious tone carries over to the realistically-rendered character portraits, which are plain, rarely smiling, and could even be called drab. Again, compared with the colorful and dynamic portraits in most other RPGs, this gives the game a distinct feel of its own.

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No smiling allowed in Zetegenia!

BIG MAPS THAT MATTER
Whether an “Ogre Battle” or “Tactics Ogre” game, the combat system involves large maps where terrain type, element, time of day, and even weather affect the battle.

Characters’ class affects how they move and which type of terrain they are most effective on, while time of day and weather affect which characters and actions are most effective. Items (as well as towns in the case of Ogre Battle) are hidden around every stage, encouraging exploration and making mobility an important factor.

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When units get near each other they have to “fight it out”!

With all the factors involved, every stage is different in terms of how each character will fare. Generally you’ll need a variety: flying characters for quick movement, characters that can move quickly on mountain terrain to reach remote locations, and water-type characters to reach islands. (Though I do feel that the water classes rarely get much of a chance to shine in any of the games… sadness).

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I love octopi, but oceans and lakes aren’t always easy to come by…

Generally you can’t just throw out the same powerful characters in every situation, and sometimes you can really get caught in a pickle by environmental factors. In “March of the Black Queen,” a lot of this is offset by a limited supply of tarot cards that can massively change the course of battle in case of emergency.

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In the unique tarot card system of March of the Black Queen, you receive a card every time you liberate a city and can use it for devastating effects in battle

STEWARDSHIP OF AN ARMY
What many fans undoubtedly enjoy most is managing the characters and units in their army. For the most part you manage generic characters that can be recruited throughout the game, and early on you will have a lot of the same starting classes (“soldier” for males, and “amazon” for female). But, due to the large number of classes they can change into, in the end you usually have only have one or two characters of the same class, so they still end up feeling one-of-a-kind and special.

New classes can be added to your army in a number of ways throughout the game, and a large part of the joy of the series is in trying to obtain a specific class through a side quest, waiting to see what a lowly soldier will become, or stumbling upon a new creature and trying to recruit it. The games even allow you to recruit enemies in the middle of battle by “persuading” them, with success dependent on the class, alignment (how good/lawful or evil/chaotic they are), and other factors of each character.

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That feeling when you persuade the enemy…

The various classes also affect each other in a number of ways. For example, all the games feature a “beast tamer” class that boosts the power of gryphons, octopi, and other beast-type allies nearby, the same being true for dragon tamers and dragons. Similarly, characters’ element, alignment and class affects the damage dealt to and chance to persuade enemies.

Actually, the way you use characters in battle alters their alignment. Attacking evil or higher level units raises a character’s alignment, while relying on high level characters to kill enemies slowly turns them evil.

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Killing ghosts and other evil characters raises your alignment

This character system makes your army feel connected to and affected by the epic battle going on around you. Your actions and playing style determine the make-up of your army, and as it develops you’ll need to assemble characters into effective groups where they can best use their unique skills. This is the joy of stewardship that has earned such a following for the Ogre Battle Saga series.

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So many units, so little rare items!

Of course, individually equipping and keeping track of 20+ units can border on tedious micro-management, but the games are generally playable with minimal attention to classes and equipment. If you want to fine-tune your army there is plenty of depth and complexity, but taking things as they come generally works fine (except in “Let Us Cling Together”…). Also, most of the games’ systems are not only complex but also somewhat hidden in that you’ll need a FAQ to really see all that the game has to offer.

SUMMARY
Though varying greatly between two gameplay systems and various consoles, the Ogre Battle Saga games focus on the joy of taking stewardship over a large army, which at the same time feels small in the vast and epic worlds and stories that the games create.

On a game-by-game breakdown, I’d say that:

“Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen” is the roughest around the edges (it’s also the first in the series). A lot of things go unexplained, and the equipment system is bare bones. Still, it has some of my favorite in-battle sprites, I love the tarot card system, and, maybe it’s because it was the first Ogre game for me, or maybe it’s because the bare-bones minimalism is strangely appealing, but March of the Black Queen is probably my favorite Ogre game.

I think “Knights of Lodis” is the stronger Tactics game, but if you like grid-based strategy games you really can’t go wrong with either one. Be warned that “Let Us Cling Together” is incredibly punishing with its perma-death system and tough enemies.

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Let Us Cling Together was remade for the PSP with beautiful character portraits

“Ogre Battle: Person of Lordly Caliber” is the weakest link for me. The battle system is super unbalanced and the graphics are not my cup of tea. Still, I played all the way through and mostly enjoyed it (the game doesn’t totally fly off the rails until the end).

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Painful graphics (IMHO) in Person of Lordly Caliber

I wish I could speak for the elusive “Prince of Zenobia: Let Us Walk on Together So As Not to Lose Our Way” for Neo Geo Pocket- let me know if you have played it! There have also been rumors of another entry in the series for awhile now… Let’s hope they come true someday.

SIDE NOTE: Apparently the title “March of the Black Queen” and other names in the series are references to songs by the British band Queen. Who knew!

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