Monday, August 1, 2011

Monday Musings - 1st Aug, 2011

More musings for your amusement. Let's talk vidya games!

Fallout 3 (Steam)

I had another session of this on Monday night. I got myself to the museum of technology, found the satellite dish, climbed to the top of the Washington monument and returned to 3-dog. I'm just not feeling it. I mean i loved saving Megaton and having that as my home (returning there always gives a sense of familiarity), and the story has some interesting hooks  (ie. the relationship with my dad), but i think it's the mechanics that are letting me down.

I remember that when i stopped playing the first time,  at level 7 or 8 i had already felt a halt of progression. I had all the weapons i needed and most encounters were a breeze. This has been confirmed as levelling up in my current playthrough really didn't feel like a step forward. It's odd because as i've stated before, one of my favourite things about RPGs is growing in power, but in Fallout 3, i had the most fun when i was underlevelled and had to be sneaky and scrounge for weapons and ammo. Back then, Super Mutants were actually a threat. They're just another enemy to kill in a gruesome way now.

I wonder if New Vegas has the same pitfalls. I definitely want to give it a shot, but i think i'm done with Fallout 3.

Persona 4 (PS2)

I've been toying with returning to this game ever since i put it down in 2009. I decided to bite the bullet this week and i am certainly glad i did. This game is just what i needed. A game i have to rationalize to myself to stop playing. A game that i want to pick back up again and play every day. A game where most of the time i have a huge smile on my face. These games are rare for me to come across and it seems the older i get, the more rare they are becoming. So let's explore just what makes this such a game.

First off is the story. It's part mystery, part supernatural thriller, and part high school drama. The most amazing thing though is how all the story and high school aspects tie directly into the gameplay. It does seem that in most RPGs the story and the game mechanics are separate entities. You level up and defeat a boss, you get some more story, then you're exploring and levelling again. Now this is the same in Persona 4. The battle system is in an entirely separate world, and the only real thing that happens in this realm is a dungeon crawl, levelling up, defeating bosses, and then continuing on with the story. What melds the story to the game however is all the social links.

Most of the game you have to live the life of an ordinary teenager. You go to school, hang out with friends, join clubs, and acquire part time jobs. The thing is many of these actions directly impact your skill in battle. Most of your friends are party members in the battle section of the game, so by spending time with them, you not only uncover more character development, but you strengthen the social link associated with them. This link pertains to a card of the tarot, and levelling up these links not only grants your party members special abilities but it gives bonuses to the creation of personas of that type.

Yeah, one other aspect of the battle system is crafting personas. They're the mythical creatures you battle with, and they level up along with your characters. All your party members are locked into one persona, but you as the main character have the ability to collect personas, switch between them in battle and fuse them together to unlock new ones. At certain level milestones the persona you have equipped will learn new abilities, and when fused, some of these will transfer over to the new persona. The main bonus levelling up your social links will have on fusion is the free exp that fused personas acquire upon being created if you have levelled up the social link of that arcana.

The only real criticism i have so far is that the actual battle system can be quite brutal. Your characters and the enemies all have weaknesses (well most of them do). If they are hit with a weakness, they are knocked down and the attacker gets another turn. If hit by the weakness twice in a row, they become dizzy and lose turns. When you exploit enemy weaknesses and can engage in an all out attack (when all enemies are down), it's great, but just as easily, a combination of enemies can wreck utter havoc on your team.

I'm currently in the 2nd dungeon of the game and the whole climb through (i saved before the boss) i felt completely underpowered, and this was after fighting every battle i came across. I constantly had to heal up after battles, and that took my precious mana which costs a lot of money to replenish. It feels like the game expected me to put in a few more hours grinding in the first dungeon (and i am tempted to go back and try to fight the optional boss that is there now just to try and get back on the levelling curve). Readers will remember from my FFXIII playthrough that i really dislike grinding, but if that's what it takes to continue, i shall acquiesce. I'm too invested in the story and characters to give up now.

Cogs (Steam)

Heh, i remember reviewing this game for the iphone a couple years back. It's a fun little sliding puzzle game based around cogs and pipes. I bought it in this year's humble indie bundle. Go purchase it. There's some great titles, you can set your own price, and you're supporting independent developers and charity. Follow the link here.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii)

Another gaming session with Mr. Mario and my friend Barrett. We hit the credits today. Normally that would mean we've completed the game, but that just opened up the special world. Plus there's all these prankster comets, comet coins, hidden stars, and extra stars to obtain. I can for see a lot more time being put into this game. The developers really had some fun in World 6 and beyond too. Some of those stars were brutal to acquire, but the sense of accomplishment was high when the level was finally defeated.

Does anyone out there actually seriously enjoy using Luigi? We both played through one level with the lanky green plumber and ever since, every time we see him at the start of a level, we get angry, even though using him is a choice and we would never willingly make that choice. He just controls too loosely.

Final Thoughts

I want to talk about story versus gameplay today. This is going to be a topic that i can probably turn to again and again but my gaming this week has two interesting examples of this.

Let's start with Mario Galaxy 2. Both at the start and end of the game, i couldn't mash the A button fast enough to skip passed the story they had thrown in. I just didn't care. To me, Mario games have never had anything to do with the story. You play them for excellent platforming and design. The story is superfluous and in my opinion it gets in the way. Mind you this attitude of mine doesn't only apply to games like Mario where the story takes a backseat, but there have been action games, and even RPGs where i've wanted the intro to just end so i could get to the gameplay.

Perhaps this has to do with knowing what you're getting into. I recently completed Metal Gear Solid 4. I love that series but one of the main criticisms of it, especially the 4th game is the overly long length of the cutscenes. Personally i didn't mind them one bit, but i think that had a lot to do with my expectations. I had played and completed the three previous titles and knew what to expect. I actually enjoyed the overly drawn out dialogue sequences, and the drawn out action sequences played out entirely without the player's input.

Then we have Persona 4. I have previously stated that i really like how they've tied in the story and character development to meld with the battle system (which is the meat of the gameplay), but still, if i had an option to just fly through those battle sequences and continue on with the plot and character development, i would take it.

Here we come to a paradox with this attitude. As much as i enjoy experiencing the stories of these games (even though the gameplay might be a necessary evil sometimes), i actually have tried to watch a Let's Play of certain titles and found myself turning off immediately. Funny huh? Even though a lot of these games i find myself wanting to speed through the gameplay, if i'm not actually playing through the game, the experience doesn't seem worthwhile. I'll have to mull on this a little more and see if i can't come up with an explanation for it.

Balance is probably the key here. I mean not every title needs motivation for its play, but quite a lot do, or feel they do. Most titles either tip the scales too much towards story or too much towards gameplay. If the game leans on the story side, players will bore easily if they cannot emotionally connect to the characters or their plight. If a game leans on the gameplay side, but still interjects story, the story will feel like an intrusion (especially if it's not told well).

I'll leave the resolution of this hanging in the air for now, but i'll mention a game that i think approached this in an interesting way; Borderlands. Aside from the unskippable intro, all the game's narrative was told through audio or video in the top right of the screen while you were still playing the game. I wasn't particularly attached to the story, but there were a couple neat hooks, and it was appreciated that my gameplay was not interrupted for the development of this tale.

As always i'd love to hear what all my readers out there have to think on these issues. Leave a comment and let's have a discussion.

Till next week, Happy Gaming all!

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