Mon, 07 Mar 2005

Grandia Xtreme

Well, it's certainly not Grandia II. Grandia Xtreme took Grandia II's excellent battle system and improved on it. Unfortunately, that's the only thing it improved on. The plot is simplistic, the characters are unbelievable, the dialog is crappy, and the voice acting (with the possible exception of Kroitz, voiced by Mark Hamil) is horrid.

The main character is Evann, a Ranger with the ability to travel via Geo Stream. This allows you to teleport deep into various dungeons, after you've visited the destination the hard way, of course. In what appears to be an attempt to make the game longer, at various plot points the Geo Streams get reset and you have to go back through the areas if you want to reopen them. (Note that doing this is completely optional, for plot purposes at least. But really, you don't want to play this game for the plot.)

And then there are the corridors. At various points of the game, you must go through randomly-generated areas. Presumably the random generation is to enhance replay value. I found it annoying.

There are parts I liked. Junctioning eggs was fun for a while. Magic is contained within magic eggs; in order to cast a particular set of spells, you must have an egg that provides those spells equipped. You find eggs with only the barest minimal spells. You may then, however, junction them in pairs to get better eggs. Different combinations give different results, and the really powerful eggs are, understandably, difficult to create. (I ended up taking a chart of combinations out of a FAQ and writing a Perl script to list optimal recipes.)

I'll complain about the ending after the spoiler barrier. Just note that if you do stay with the game long enough to beat it, you should wait through the end of the credits, as with any console RPG, really.

Ultimately, I really can't recommend playing this game unless you're much more interested in gameplay than story, characterization, voice acting, and dialog.

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The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages

Oracle of Ages is one of a pair of Game Boy Color games. The other is Oracle of Seasons; each can be the sequel to the other, depending on which you play first. I started with Oracle of Ages, finished it, and got a password to enter into Oracle of Seasons. When I did so, I got a continuation of the story as the introduction to Oracle of Seasons. Apparently, there will be several points where people will give me passwords to transfer back and forth between the games, to synchronize my actions between the two. It's an interesting system.

Gameplay-wise, Oracle of Ages is much like the other Zelda games I've played (Zeldas I, II, and III). From what I've read, it has more in common with the N64 Zelda games, in terms of puzzle solving and so on, while Oracle of Seasons is more old-school. I suppose I'll see.

There were a lot of puzzles to solve, and a number of the bosses were more puzzle-based than skill-based. Many were of the "hit it with a sword and don't get hit yourself" variety, though.

One big complaint I had was that the format of the game didn't really lend itself well to the Game Boy format, mostly with respect to saving. Saving worked like the console Zelda games I've played--if you save within a dungeon, when you restore, you start back at the beginning of the dungeon. Actually, it was worse than other games, because if you saved in the overworld, when you restored you'd be back at whatever point you entered the overworld, which could suck if you'd spent some time working to a particular area. The specific reason that this is bad is that the Game Boy is a portable system--there are many cases where you might need to save and exit it quickly. I play primarily on the bus and train, and I have to stop when it gets to my stop. That sometimes meant losing some of the progress I'd made.

Oracle of Ages also contained my first real exposure to Zelda's trading games. My roommate informs me that they've been doing this a lot in more recent games, but I don't remember much along those lines from the earlier games. In order to get the Master Sword, you have to run all over the world trading key items for other key items in sometimes bizarre ways. Get old mail from someone or other. Give the mail to someone in the toilet and receive a stinky bag. Give stinky bag to someone with a stuffy nose and get something else. And so on. I did have to resort to a FAQ for a couple of the trades, sadly.

So it was a reasonably fun game, but with parts that marred the experience, especially on a Game Boy.

Skillchains

There are so many descriptions of skillchains in Final Fantasy XI, and none of them really made sense to me for the longest time. Through the help of a skillchain discussion and two skillchain charts, I finally made sense of it all. This is an explanation of that understanding; hopefully others will benefit from it.

Skillchains are the result of doing weapon skills in a particular order, with precise timing. They unleash a significant amount of additional damage. [There appear to be rough calculations on how much, but I can't find reliable numbers.] There are three levels of skillchains--the higher levels do more damage. Every skillchain has at least one elemental component--if a mage casts an elementally-appropriate spell at the same time that the skillchain occurs, you also get a magic burst for more additional damage.

Level 1 Skillchains Let's start with level 1 skillchains. There are eight types of level 1 skillchains: Transfixion, Liquefaction, Impaction, Detonation, Compression, Scission, Reverberation, and Induration. I don't beleve that there's anything inherent in most of those names; they're just what they're called. Almost every weaponskill has at least one of those types as an attribute. There are certain pairings of attributes that will create a skillchain. See the chart at right for a graphical layout. From that chart, you can see that, for example, Impaction leads to Liquefaction. Thus, you can create a level one skillchain by chaining together, say, Flat Blade and Burning Blade, in that order. The skillchain created is named after the attributes of the final weaponskill, so this example would make a Liquefaction skillchain.

The items in the graph are also color coded to indicate their elemental attributes: Transfixion is Light, Liquefaction is Fire, Impaction is Lightning, Detonation is Wind, Compression is Dark, Scission is Earth, Reverberation is Water, and Induration is Ice. The above example is Liquefaction, so you could magic burst with any Fire spell.

Finally, some weaponskills have multiple skillchain attributes. For each skill there's an order of priority. An example is Spinning Axe, which has, in order, Liquefaction, Scission, and Impaction. If you have two weaponskills with multiple attributes, the first skillchain's priorities are more important. Let's chain Spinning Axe with Shadow of Death, which is Induration and Reverberation. The first priorities of each weaponskill are checked first, but there's no Liquefaction -> Induration skillchain. So the game goes down the list of the second weaponskill, trying Liquefaction -> Reverberation. Nothing. Now it goes to Scission on Spinning Axe and starts over with Shadow of Death, checking Induration. There are no Scission -> Induration chains, so it next checks Scission -> Reverberation. That is valid, so the two will form a Reverberation skillchain.

Skillchains themselves can be chained. You can go Scission -> Reverberation -> Induration, which will make a Reverberation skillchain followed by an Induration skillchain. When you do this, the damage multipliers are higher; the Induration skillchain would do more damage than if it had been created separately.

That covers level 1 skillchains, and is really most of the hard stuff. Now we go on to level 2.

Level 2 Skillchains Level 2 skillchains are more powerful than level 1 skillchains. In addition, each level 2 skillchain has two elemental attributes; you can magic burst with either of those elements. The level 2 skillchains are: Distortion (Water and Ice), Fusion (Fire and Light), Fragmentation (Lightning and Wind), and Gravitation (Darkness and Earth). You can see the paths to make level 2 skillchains in the graph on the right. Since the graph is not entirely clear, let me clarify a bit. Certain combinations of level 1 skillchain attributes will make a level 2 skillchain: Liquefaction -> Impaction creates a Fusion skillchain. Also, some of the highest-level weaponskills have level 2 attributes; Swift Blade, for example, has Gravitation. You can put together level 2 attribute to make a level 2 skillchain in a manner analogous to the level 1 skillchains. Fusion -> Gravitation will make a Gravitation skillchain.

As with the level 1s, you can hook together multiple level 2 skillchains. You can do things like Liquefaction -> Impaction -> Gravitation, which will make a Fusion skillchain followed by a Gravitation skillchain.

Level 3 Skillchains Finally, there are the level 3 skillchains. There are only two of these, and each has four elemental attributes. Light skillchains are Light, Fire, Lightning, and Wind, while Dark skillchains are Darkness, Earth, Water, and Ice. Level 3 skillchains can only be made by putting together two level 2 attributes, as illustrated by the chart on the right. Note that these are essentially pairings; the same two level 2 attributes will give the same results regardless of the order in which they are executed. Since at least one of the weaponskills in a level 3 skillchain must have a level 2 attribute, these are restricted to the highest-level characters in the game. The earliest that these weaponskills come available is at level 65, and some classes don't get them until 67 or so.

The usual rules of chaining apply; you can make, for example, a light skillchain with the sequence Liquefaction -> Impaction -> Fragmentation, which will first make a Fusion skillchain followed by a Dark skillchain.

Insofar as anyone knows, there are no level 4 skillchains. Following the logic from lower levels, there would only be one level 4 skillchain, and it would have all elemental attributes. It would be made by putting together a Dark type and a Light type weaponskill (possibly in the other order). It would require weaponskills that had Dark and Light type attributes, which none seem to. In short, not only do they not exist, as far as anyone can tell, they cannot exist in the game as it currently is.

For your edification, here's a full chart of the links to form the various skillchains:

All Skillchains

I don't know of any complete, up-to-date list in English of weapon skills and their skillchain attributes.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

Summary: good gameplay and game mechanics, sometimes-annoying interface, silly plot.

I played and loved Final Fantasy Tactics for the Playstation. So much so, in fact, that FFTA was the main reason I went out and got a Game Boy Advance. (And that ownership of a GBA and FFTA is what has kept me from reading anything, which is why the site hasn't been updated as much.) So it is that I kept comparing FFTA to FFT. And while FFTA is a good game, there were things I liked better about FFT. But I'll get to those.

So, gameplay/game mechanics. As with FFT, most of your time in the game is spent doing battles on isometric grids. Most aspects of the game revolve around these battles in one way or another. The overall mechanics of the battles are pretty much the same as in FFT, though it seems that many of the calculations are much simpler in FFTA. For example, the success rate of most things (physical attacks, ranged attacks, spells, etc.) seems solely dependent on the target's evade score and which way they're facing relative to the attacker. (Yep, even spells are more likely to hit if the target can't see you.) No additional considerations of zodiac/sex compatibility, Brave or Faith, mitigating abilities, relative differences in speed, or different calculations for different sorts of attacks. All abilities that reduce the effectiveness of attacks (such as Reflex, which is pretty much the equivalent of Blade Grasp) simply reduce the chance of the attack hitting to zero (compare to Blade Grasp, which reduced it to a small percentage based on your Brave). This leads to silly things like enemies walking up and hitting you, even knowing that they'll miss.

The changes to the job system are interesting. There are again job classes, but there are also five races. Different races have different available jobs, with only a few jobs being available to multiple races. Different races also have different strengths, so, for example, a Nu Mou mage will generally be better at it than a Moogle mage. Job abilities are also learned a little differently. In a manner similar to Final Fantasy 9, pieces of equipment provide the user with abilities for his or her class. Each ability has an Ability Point cost; once the user has earned that many AP toward the ability, he or she has mastered it and will always have it available to be equipped. This means that it's much more advantageous, especially early in the game, to have your characters rotating through their various classes, so they can continue learning things.

Many familiar classes have returned, including White, Black, Blue, Red, and Time Mages, Summoner, Archer, Thief, and Ninja. Some new ones have been added, such as Hunter (cross an Archer with a Mediator), Sniper (an advanced Archer with a little Ninja in them), Assassin (just fun), Illusionist (spells that target every enemy on the map; fun, but not as much so as FFT's Calculator), Gadgeteer (abilities that randomly hit all allies or all enemies), and others. (What, you thought I'd list them all?)

FFTA takes a slightly different approach to specialist classes than did FFT. In FFT, there were characters that had their own, unique, classes in place of the normal base class, Squire. (And Ramza got extra abilities as a Squire that no one else got.) These characters were often useful for their special abilities, but they could otherwise progress normally through the job hierarchy (sometimes with amusing results, like the dancing Agrias). In FFTA, there are no player-controlled characters with special abilities during the normal course of the game. Marche and Montblanc are the only special character, in that they don't change their appearance depending on their job class, but they each have exactly the same classes available to any other member of their respective races. After you beat the game other special characters can join your clan. At least one (only one so far for me) is a special class, but he comes with all of his abilities mastered, he cannot learn new abilities (there aren't any items that can provide them), and he cannot change jobs. All of which combine to make him pretty useless, especially since his unique abilities aren't special enough to warrant putting him in a battle where I could use someone more flexible.

Experience gained works pretty much the same as FFT. AP (the FFTA equivalent of Job Points) are earned only at the end of a battle, and everyone involved in the battle gains the same, fixed amount. You can also do things in battle that earn Judge Points (thanks, Square, for changing the meaning of "JP"), which are used for combos (someone uses the Combo command to initiate a combo on an enemy, everyone else with a combo range that includes that enemy joins in, and the resulting damage is much more than the sum of their regular attacks) and totema (race-specific summons that hit the entire battlefield; the only requirements for a totema are that you've unlocked it and have 10 JP).

Sorry. I'll try to cut back on the parenthetical comments.

I mentioned Judge Points, which, by their name, imply the existence of judges. A big departure from FFT is the addition of laws. In any battle, there is a set of laws governing the engagement and a judge to enforce them. Each law has two parts; something that's forbidden and something that's recommended. There's tremendous variety in each: weapon types, abilities for a particular job, abilities from several different jobs, specific colored magic, any colored magic, any non-colored magic (e.g. time magic), anything that targets the whole battlefield, anything that targets an area, damage to a particular race, damage to animals, specific status ailments, any status ailments, specific elements, specific status enhancements, doing the same thing as the last unit that took a turn, and so on. If you do something that's recommended, you get one judge point. Killing someone also gains a JP, though each character can gain a maximum of one JP per turn. If you do something that's forbidden, the judge gives you a card. It's usually a yellow card, which is a warning, but if you've already gotten a yellow card or if it's a high-ranked law, you get a red card and the offending character is immediately removed from battle and sent to jail. In addition, breaking a law subjects the violator to a fine after the battle. Depending on the severity of the law, the fine could be anything from forgoing the monetary reward for that battle to a permanent reduction in one of the character's stats. At the beginning of the game, there's only one law per battle. As things progress, that number increases to three, which gets very annoying.

The gameplay is less linear than FFT's. You can go to a pub in any town and get a list of missions available. Some are dispatch missions, which work like the missions in FFT (except that character levels and abilities actually have bearing on their success this time around), while others are battle missions; you accept the mission, travel to the appropriate place, and fight whoever's there. Some of the missions advance the plot when completed; you do eventually get to the end of the game.

Which brings me to the plot. Anyone expecting a plot as intricate as FFT's will be disappointed. The basic premise is that kids from the modern world are suddenly transported into a magical world that appears to be based on a computer game some of them have played, named "Final Fantasy". The characterization isn't too bad, but some of the characters (most notably, the main character) are annoying. The main character, Marche, ends up bent on destroying the magical world so he can go home. Upon being confronted with arguments like, "I like it here, and if you destroy this world all of these people who are here will die," his response is, "This is all wrong and I want to go home." Fortunately, you'll spend much more time in battles than in worrying about the plot.

While the plot was my main complaint about the game, I have a number of issues with the game's interface. Many things have been carried over from FFT, and I felt that, by and large, the designers did a good job of compensating for the fact that the GBA has fewer controls than a Playstation controller. I did still occasionally miss the ability to rotate and tilt the map, but the designers did a good designing the maps so they didn't need to be moved around to see almost everything.

FFT also used the cells on the map grid to more effect than FFTA does. During many commands, FFT colored the squares under characters to indicate whether they were friend or foe. In FFTA, ally and enemy classes are colored slightly differently (so a friendly assassin looks a little different than an enemy one), but it's a subtle difference and take more time to learn. FFT also showed the area of effect of abilities. You'd pick an ability, it would show you the range of that ability, you picked a square as the target, it showed you the area that the ability would affect. In FFTA, you see the range, but when you pick a target it only shows you what units will be hit by the ability; you don't get to see the ability's full range. This is somewhat simplified by the fact that all area-effect abilities are a simple plus sign around the target square, but you still have to know the the ability is an area-effect one, which (as far as I could tell) cannot be learned except by trial and error. There were a couple of "Target Area Forbidden" laws I violated because I didn't actually realize that it was an area-targeting ability.

In general, the descriptions on a lot of abilities were lacking. In FFT, you could see the range, area, height tolerance, and elemental attributes of any ability (assuming they applied). FFTA shows almost none of those. Ranged weapons indicate their range, but spells and abilities don't. Nothing mentions area or height tolerance, and elements are only mentioned haphazardly. On at least one occasion, I violated a law forbidding a particular element because I didn't realize the ability had that element (the Illusionist ability Star Cross is Holy elemental; based on that, I suspect that Stardust is Dark elemental).

Both FFT and FFTA have the property that obstacles (buildings, trees, other people, etc.) can block missile weapons. (And arrows can be arced over some obstacles, but bullets cannot.) If something blocks the path in FFT, the game shows the success percentage as 0%. FFTA has no such luxury; the shot will still be blocked, but you can't tell that it will be.

Because of the nature of learning abilities and the fact that all action abilities are learned from weapons, I ended up with a lot of weapons. It took a significant amount of time to scroll through the entire list and finding particular weapons was somewhat daunting. (Though not too hard, really, thanks to automatic sorting of the list.) This is really a minor complaint, since there's really no way to avoid it and the interface does a good job of compensating.

Final stats. At the time I beat the game:

Note that the game continues after you beat it. You can save game clear data to your save game and things continue after that. I'm still working on this part, but there seems to be a little more plot and there are actually other characters that have joined my clan.

Overall, I'm very happy with the game. It works very well on a GBA and has provided me with many hours of gaming fun. I wish the plot had been better, if not as good as FFT, but it's a good game despite that.

Postscript: There's lots more that I'd like to mention, like the ability to change equipment, abilities, and jobs while placing people onto the battlefield; the fact that you can see the battlefield before placing people; the obtaining and placing of lands that works so much like Legend of Mana; and a bunch of other things that I wanted to put in, but this will do for now.

Kingdom Hearts

I approached this game with some trepidation, for as much as I like Square, I hate Disney. (I won't go into deep reasons for either of those here. Suffice that the feelings exist.) As such, I refused to buy it, because money would make its way from that sale to Disney. I ended up playing a copy owned by a friend of a friend.

Said playing only annoyed me further, because it's a good game. Square made a good game, and Disney did its best with its characters. So we went and visited Halloween Town and Hundred Acre Wood and many other places where the lands and characters were exactly as Disney had made them. (For good or ill; Pooh was as lovable as he has been with Disney, and Tarzan was as annoying as Disney has made him.)

There are plenty of side quests in addition to the main events. You can search out all 101 dalmations, lost among the various worlds; find all of the (often hidden) trinity points to gain treasures and unique items; fight wave after wave of enemies in the Coliseum; spend time building a spaceship to fly around in (which is solely for fun--there's no bearing this has on anything else in the game); and several other things I can't think of right now.

The plot is decent. Honestly, it's nothing really extraordinary, but it was interesting and I've seen much worse.

And then there's Donald and Goofy. You play Sora, a young boy who lost his friends when his world vanished. You have to have Goofy and Donald with you as you travel around. These two are some of the most annoying traveling companions I've run across. Of the pair, Goofy's actually the intelligent one, which doesn't stop Donald from shooting his mouth off every chance he gets. And they're largely useless in battle. They tend to flail away at enemies, doing useless amounts of damage until Sora walks over to actually kill the thing. Donald likes to cast magic spells, occasionally to useful effect. And if you ever want to get rid of any items, like potions or megalixirs, just give them to Donald. Apparently, to his AI, "only use items in an emergency" means "please use up all of your items as quickly as possible".

One of my favorite sounds is the "wawawawawa" sound Donald makes when an enemy hits him.

So there's a lot of good stuff about this game, and it's a worthwhile one to play. But, even aside from my dislike of Disney, I wouldn't go out of my way to get it. Borrow it from a friend or wait a while and pick it up from some store's used games bin.

Grandia II

Wow. Grandia II is now probably one of my favorite video games.

Let's see... It's a console (Dreamcast) role playing game, one of my most-preferred genres. While the gameplay is rather overly linear, the battle system is at least interesting, and the characters and plot development are both excellent.

Linear gameplay, yes. There's pretty much none of the wandering off to do side quests that other console RPGs have, nor is there much real exploring to do. You'll see pretty much everything in the game because you have to go through it to progress. There are branchings in the paths available, but almost without fail, one branch is a dead end resulting in some treasure while the other proceeds onward.

I won't describe the battle system; there are certainly enough other places that do. Suffice it to say that it has an interesting design that I found useful and reasonably fun, both of which are important in a console RPG.

Ah, the characters. Ryudo is the main character, and he's got an attitude. He's not shy about letting people know exactly what he thinks, and he generally put things in amusing (if not necessarily so to the recipient) ways. I've a host of screenshots of amusing dialog, including stuff like, "Well, I guess you'd better get back to praying with yourself," and, "I'm sorry. Were you waiting for me to give a damn?" Many of the other central characters are equally good. Milennia is a very fun (and cute) embodiment of evil; Elena is probably the blandest, though still likeable; and Mareg's blending of rough demeanor with verbose eloquence is usually interesting. The only one I didn't really like was Roan, mostly because I found him rather annoying.

There is also a host of minor characters, most of which you don't even have to interact with (villagers, onlookers, etc.) Nevertheless, the game designers wrote several different dialogues for each one. Unlike many console RPGs I've played, it takes a number of conversations with someone before you've exhausted their dialog, and this is true for everyone you meet in the game.

And the plot. I'll try not to spoil anything until I get below the spoiler barrier. The initial presentation seems simple enough: ages ago, there was a battle between Darkness and Light. Light won, but only sealed away the Darkness. Now the Darkness is gathering again, and the heroes must gather the power of the Light to stop it. (Even if Ryudo despises the church and is only doing it because they're paying him a lot.) As things progress, however, the plot takes a number of rather unexpected twists, some of them rather unconventional for a console RPG. I played through the last eight or so hours of the game continually expecting that I was just about to the end.

All in all, a very worthwhile game, and one I am immensely glad to have played.

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Phil! Gold