Category Archives: RPGs

The Temple of Elemental Evil is full of deadly crayfish

temple of ee crayfish death

Seems like Divinity: Original Sin from Larian Studios is the latest talk of the town this past week, especially over at Giant Bomb, my go-to for influence on trying out games I’ve never even heard of. It’s the newest and latest CRPG, which stands for computer role-playing game if you didn’t know, a genre that is not as common these days or, if it is, not as talked about. Evidently, the game’s developers used Kickstarter to help raise additional funds, acquiring over $1 million, a pretty hefty sum of cash that makes me think about just how much money Double Fine got for Broken Age, an old-school point-and-click game, another genre you don’t see in the spotlights these last few years. All it takes is support from fans, so let’s now get that Suikoden VI ball a-rollin’.

It’s been described as “hardcore overhead Skyrim,” which more or less means adding Dragon Age: Origins and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim together–you get tactics, you get openness, and you get a lot of content to devour. Alas, I’m not in the mood to buy a brand new game, even if it is only retailing for $40 on Steam, and besides, I have a massive backlog–hey now!–so surely I have something similar enough to Divinity: Original Sin in there that could quench my curiosity-limned thirst for the time being. And yes, I was right. Hello, there The Temple of Elemental Evil.

If you’ll recall, I played Icewind Dale II some seasons back, covering the first sixty minutes of gameplay for The First Hour. In the end, I liked the dialogue trees, but hated mostly everything else. I got it from Good Old Games during a  “buy one Dungeons & Dragons game, get The Temple of Elemental Evil for free” campaign. My first dip into old-school RPGing didn’t prove a great time, but since then I’ve played a few more really fun D&D sessions with friends and am more aware of some of the rules and restrictions. Plus, I promised to try The Temple of Elemental Evil at some point, so here we go.

The Temple of Elemental Evil begins, as all games did in in the early 2000s, with an epic CGI intro. It’s basically a big war scene, with wizards and soldiers and goblins and two-head trolls and even darker things amassing on the battlefield and fighting to the death, and it ends with some horrifying demon dude getting locked–and magically sealed–in a temple. If I was to refer to the game’s Wikipedia, it would say this, “An evil demoness founded a cult dedicated to exploring evil in its most elemental forms. This cult was based in a temple just outside the village of Hommlet in a vile shire known as Nulb. Soon, this cult rose to rule the region with tyranny and grim times of chaos and violence ensued. Hard-fought battles were waged and the war was eventually won by the good armies of nearby lands. The temple was razed, the villains were imprisoned, and order was restored. The temple itself faded into distant memory. Until now…”

Yeah, I never really picked up on any of that. Evidently, this is based on a famous Greyhawk adventure, using the D&D 3.5 ruleset.

But before the crystal clear story could start unfolding, I did the Tutorial section, a separate menu option. Here, the game taught me many of the basics, like how to walk, how to open doors and chests, how to loot, how to attack enemy rats, how to make friends and chat, and so on. Alas, I never comprehended how to cast Magic Missile, and so I died fast in a room full of zombies, unable to complete the Tutorial. On well, I’m sure not knowing how to properly cast magic spells won’t bite me in the ass later on. Forward, to the main meat!

Just like in Icewind Dale II, picking your party members is both the first thing you do and the most intimidating part of the adventure. I went with all lawful good people, three men and two women. I think they were all different classes, but two might have both been warriors or whatever you call those decked out in shiny armor. This is one problem I have with these large party-based RPG adventures–it can be hard to keep everyone separate, and it’s more like a mass of names and faces rather than actual personalities and such.

The very first mission has your band of merry men and women fighting off some bandits raiding a traveling caravan, and I did this with ease by simply clicking on them until they died. Next, the group traveled to the village of Hommlet, which is a quite sizable place. Here, we explored a bit, spoke to some people and got clues about other places to go, though our main mission is finding the rest of those bandits, as they kidnapped some women and children. I then mistakenly decided to look at the map and click on the Emridy Meadows, a place mentioned to me by someone in a tavern. Suddenly, my group began moving across the map, getting halfway there and stopped by a pop-up menu that said, “2X Crayfish.” I clicked okay and unfortunately found everyone in a one-sided fight against two giant crayfish. My team was able to take one down with extreme losses, and the second crayfish killed everybody left standing. Again, here is where it might have been handy to know how to properly cast magic.

Well, no problem, I thought, I’d just reload my save and not travel to the Emridy Meadows just yet, certainly not until my party has leveled up and gotten some better armor/weapons. Alas, no. Ha ha nope. Clearly I forgot I was playing a ten-year-old videogame and I never made a manual save during my gaming time, and the only auto-save in the list is right at the start of the fight with the crayfish. Thanks, The Temple of Elemental Evil. Though maybe I’ll try again. I think I just need to really play slower and pay attention more to every move I make. Again, I love all the dialogue, and there’s some pretty good voice acting here. I think I even ran into a Scottish bard in one of Hommlet’s homes, which is enough to get me to revisit this down the line.

That said, maybe I’m not ready for Divinity: Original Sin just yet. Or I should at least wait until the game drops in price or goes on sale. I don’t know how similar they are to Icewind Dale II and The Temple of Elemental Evil, but I also have a trio of Ultima games downloaded and uninstalled at the moment. Hmm. Maybe I’ll try one of them soonish if I get that itch again for some old-school RPGing.

Doki-Doki Universe may be irreverent, but at least it’s imaginative

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There exist many great RPGs, like Suikoden II and Chrono Cross, and in these also exist little slivers of additional content lovingly called side quests. They get this name mostly because they are smaller tasks on the side put upon the hero, heroine, or group while they also handle much larger tasks like killing that evil dragon and saving the world. More often than not, a great side quest can outshine the main path; for instance, take a look at the “The Power of the Atom” quest from Fallout 3, which stands out to me more some six years later than all that water-purifying monkey business with your runaway father. Of late, I really loved London Life, a kinda large mini-game bundled with Professor Layton and the Last Specter that is all about fetch side quests and ate up many hours of my life.

Well, good news–Doki-Doki Universe is a game made up almost entirely of side quests. It’s basically them, plus a handful of personality quizzes which are not as mundane as they sound and can be quite enjoyable so long as one spaces them out between helping random planet inhabitants and riding coffee mugs with wings up into space. Y’know, be sensible about your tasks like that. It’s a lot of to- and fro-ing, but I always seem to need these rather straightforward tasks in times of brokenness, so I’m really having my fill. The game is a freebie this month for PlayStation Plus users, and I initially thought it was only for the Vita, but evidently it is a cross-play title. That’s awesome, and something we need to see more with other consoles.

There’s a story here and, just like Le Petit Prince, it is both sweet and sad. Maybe not as crude as that French children’s story though. You’re robot Model QT377665, but let’s go with QT3 for short. Turns out, your human family sucks and abandoned you and your balloon buddy on an asteroid. Flashforward 11,432 days, and Alien Jeff shows up to give you some bad news. Evidently, your model is getting recalled and scrapped because the company that made you apparently doesn’t believe it has enough “humanity.” Alien Jeff is assigned the task of discovering just how much humanity QT3 is capable of before reporting back to head-honchos.

And so off you go to different, humorously named planets to solve the myriad of problems people have–and animals and talking vegetables and sentient snowmen–to learn more about humanity and gain some perspective. Space is an open map of planets, and you can visit them in any order; in fact, you’ll often need to visit other planets for additional presents to help people with some of the trickier requests early on. Most often, QT3 just needs to summon a specific summonable to finish the quest; for example, someone on Yuckers desires a smelly item, and so QT3 just needs to make a pile of poo magically appear next to them. Quest complete. Others have you either performing a greeting with the right analog stick (waving, bowing, blowing a kiss) or throwing someone like a slingshot to a specific part of the endlessly scrolling level, which is actually a bit tricky.

Besides handling simple side quest after side quest, which despite how it sounds really does scratch a specific itch, there’s personality quizzes to take and email to read. Mmm I do love a game with email, and I’ve been tinkering away slowly at a Grinding Down post about why this is so; maybe it’ll make an appearance down the road. Anyways, the personality quizzes are cute multiple choice questions, with a quick summary of you as a person at the end. They don’t always nail my personality, but are surprisingly accurate the majority of the time. These quizzes are perfect to do before you land on a new planet, too. As you grow as a robot, Alien Jeff and friends you’ve made along the way will send you adorable little emails that are animated and colorful and keep those stories going a bit longer after they technically ended.

Not all is green and dandy in Doki-Doki Universe, as I have stumbled across some very annoying hard crashes and lock-ups. These always happened when QT3 would begin to pull up the multitude of bubbles that makes up his inventory. There’s also no great way to sort through all your consumables, a problem the closer you get to collecting 300, as you can really only view a handful at a time on screen, and so if you’re trying to hunt down one specific item, best keep hitting randomize or trying your luck with the similar button. The game will occasionally log me out of PSN, too, though I know not why and how. I might have also run into a glitch where you are supposed to return to the Home planet and speak with the red balloon; alas, for some reason, the balloon is high in the sky, and QT3 can’t reach it to begin a dialogue. Hmm.

Based on how many consumables I have and how many decorations I’ve acquired for QT3’s Home planet, I must be pretty close to the end, to seeing if this little robot that likes dressing like a lumberjack has enough humanity instead to save his steely skin from being turned into scrap. It’s not a long game, but long enough for me, and I’m looking forward to finishing it up and adding it to my never-ending list of games completed in 2014. At least this one should be relatively easy to draw a comic about, since the art is more or less on my level.

Finally live however you want this autumn with Fantasy Life

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E3 is the time to drop all those big names, like Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Far Cry 4, Mario Maker, and so on. Evidently, it’s also a great time to let some other news slip in under the cracks of the conference floor and kinda get noticed by everyone there, at least for a moment between playing AAA titles and having their soul sucked dry via those glow-in-the-dark bracelets. For instance, pretty quickly after Nintendo’s digital conference ended yesterday, news popped up that Level-5 and Brownie Brown were bringing Fantasy Life, their RPG/life sim game for the Nintendo 3DS. to North America this fall. More specifically, October.

Eeeeeeeeeeee!

You might remember me writing about Fantasy Life a few times here on Grinding Down. It’s a game I’ve long been pining for, and I’m super excited to see it heading this way. Finally. After something like five years. Must pre-order, and yes, I hope you’re listening, GameStop. I don’t want to end up in another slightly desperate situation like when I couldn’t find a retail copy of Fire Emblem: Awakening for days. Plus, getting the game day one will hopefully show its creators that they made the right decision, and I have to wonder if Bravely Default: Flying Fairy doing so well here played a part in pushing the decision-makers over the edge. Yes, Japan! Give us your strange and weirdly hard-to-market games! Heck, just look at Tomodachi Life as proof that we can handle whatever you got.

A quick reminder of what the game actually is:

“Players embark on the adventure of their dreams as they craft, cast, battle and role-play. The innovative Life system lets players change to one of 12 Life classes at virtually any time to access different abilities. The huge fantasy landscape is filled with surly dark paladins, slick pirate captains and others who share a taste for the unknown.”

Now, there’s one teeny tiny problem. I’m currently playing three life sim games on the Nintendo 3DS–all at the same time. Yup, I’m a master juggler. There’s Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Disney Magical World, and Tomodachi Life, all moving around each other in a dance of dragons, each one roaring for my attention. Granted, they are not identical, and each does something different than the others, but, more or less, I’m an avatar running around in a world measured by real time, living a life. Fantasy Life seems to merge the former two, and I’m really digging the idea of combat and loot–even if it is a little light and thin–to help mix up the daily checklist of talking to everyone I see and harvesting resource after resource. I suspect by the time Fantasy Life‘s cartridge slips into my Nintendo 3DS I’ll be mostly done with Disney Magical World and Tomodachi Life, and then it’ll just be me having to balance the load of my sad, tumultuous reality, the state of affairs in the animal-infested Arni, and whatever profession I decide to go into in this third fantasy life. Maybe a monk, yearning for internal peace.

But yeah, I’m really stoked to see this news. Shame it wasn’t flashy enough for the actual press conference, but it seemed like everything was to pale in the shadow of Smash Brothers. But how excited am I, you ask? Well, Matt Mason pretty much nailed my reaction:

Dust: An Elysian Tail is colorful, cutesy, and full of genocide

dust-5 early imps

From what I’ve read on the always trustworthy Interwebz, Dust: An Elysian Tail is a polarizing game. Meaning, there’s the people that love it, and the people that hate it. And from what I’ve played, which is maybe an hour and change, enough to have at least opened up the map and availability of a number of side quests, I think it all comes down to whether you are a big enough person on the inside to unabashedly accept a game with cutesy, colorful–and I mean that in two ways–characters that harken back to that era of safe, but satisfying Saturday morning cartoons. Because everything else seems solid, if perhaps a little perfunctory and possibly unnecessary in some areas. We’ll get there, kids.

Welcome to the world of Falana, which is inhabited by any great number of anthropomorphic animals. You get to see the world and its people–if you can say such a thing–through the titular main character Dust as he tries to remember his past. Yup, it’s another main character suffering from short-term memory loss; at least he’s not mute. Anyways, right at the start, Dust finds a sentient sword called the Blade of Ahrah, which will be his main fighting weapon. Ahrah’s original guardian, Fidget, a flying squirrel-fox-thing, also joins the group and is able to toss magical orbs at enemies from afar. I don’t know much more about the story, except there’s monsters and a village and I think the monsters want to kill all the talking furry folks. There’s that and trying to reconnect Dust with his surroundings.

So that’s the story…kind of. Gameplay-wise, Dust: An Elysian Tail is basically a 2D side-scrolling beat-em-up of yore. Think Odin Sphere and Shadow Complex rolled into one. Or if you want something more artsy, maybe Aquaria. Basically, you move left or right across a grid-based map, fighting monsters, building high combo counts, and earning experience points for it all. Oh, and you can also acquire loot in the form of ingredients and materials. Occasionally, at least early on, Dust acquires power-ups that permanently alter how he fights and moves, such as double jumping or being able to combine Fidget’s magic with one of his attacks for more damage. The RPG elements allow Dust to level up and put points into certain stats (health, damage, defense, magic), as well as wear different types of gear and craft new equipment. And that’s more or less everything I’ve seen so far.

Honestly, I don’t have any problem with furries, though I’m finding the story a little slow and predictable at the moment…at least until the other shoe drops in relation to Dust’s past and how he factors into all this genocide. Thankfully, the fighting is a ton of fun, even if it can quickly go wrong or become chaotic and confusing. If you know what you’re doing before you start tapping buttons, you can have total control over an entire group of enemies, much like you can in Guacamelee!, which I do need to get back to soonish. I enjoy knocking enemies up into the air, juggling them for a bit, and then pile-driving them into the earth below, sometimes hitting some other enemies along the way. It’s fun if occasionally mindless.

One aspect to RPGs of all kinds that I’m finding less and less appealing as time goes on is that moment when you arrive in a town, generally your first safe spot, and everyone under the sun has a side quest to give you. For Dust: An Elysian Tail, this happens in Aurora Village, and you can’t help but collect quest after quest as you walk left to right towards the mayor’s house. I think you end up picking up around five or six additional quests before you can move on, and sure, most of them aren’t thinkers, just asking you to collect this or that while out battling monsters, but it felt a little exhausting. I remember feeling the same when arriving at Borderlands 2‘s hub of Sanctuary, as well as stepping foot in every single Skyrim town. Quantity does not always equal quality.

This always gets talked about when I come across something Dust-related to read, so I might as well join in and mention that the game was developed by independent designer Dean Dodrill…and mostly only himself. Sure, there’s voice actors and a bunch of other stuff you might not think about, but Dodrill drew, animated, programmed, test, rebuilt, and so on. I believe it took him around four years to put a cap on his furry game’s head, and that’s one amazing accomplishment, whether the game resonates with you or not. There’s a fantastic piece over at Polygon on his plight, which I suggest y’all check out.

I’m going to keep playing for sure, as the difficulty hasn’t reared its ugly head, and it feels like the kind of game I can just chink away at over the next few weeks. Here’s to finding out what dirty deeds Dust did in his past life.

2014 Game Completed Comics, #24 – Pokemon Y

 

2014 games completed 24 - pokemon y resized

Every videogame that I complete in 2014 will now get its very own wee comic here on Grinding Down. It’s about time I fused my art with my unprofessional games journalism. I can’t guarantee that these comics will be funny or even attempt to be funny. Or look the same from one to another. Some might even aim for thoughtfulness. Comics are a versatile form, so expect the unexpected.

Some JRPGs demand you grind from the get-go

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I finally got around to trying out that free and standalone-like 3DS demo for Bravely Default: Flying Fairy last night, but this post is not going to be explicably about that game. I need more time with it to both figure out my thoughts and overall opinions, as well as to decide on whether or not I’ll pick up the full retail copy, which drops today. I suspect I will, whether I love or loathe the demo to pieces, because these kind of strange JRPGs are far and few between, and my thinking is that by supporting it with a purchase, I’m helping to make strides towards a North American release for Fantasy Life. Wishful thinking, sure…but it’s better than doing nothing.

But Bravely Default got me thinking about the various RPGs and JRPGs that really make you grind for levels and money from the very start, because, at least in the demo, it downright demands you do it. The very first fight outside of town resulted in one character in my party of four dead, two badly hurt and poisoned, and the remaining member okay at half of his HP. I’m on the default–pun intended–level of difficulty, and I’m pretty good at turn-based combat, but I don’t think I have the whole brave and default techniques down just yet. That said…yowzas. The combat is brutally tough, and so for my first hour and change with the demo, I’ve just been going back and forth to the inn to heal up, fight monsters in the desert, and rinse and repeat until my eyelids grow too heavy to keep playing. It’s honestly not terrible, as I’m used to grinding, but I always find it strange when a game makes it impossible to progress without it at the very beginning of the journey. Let me list a few other examples.

One of my fondest gaming memories, just in general, always comes back to Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King. See, when I moved out of my parents’ house and up to northern New Jersey for my newly acquired post-college job, I lived off the grid for several months, relying on previously purchased videogames and DVDs for nightly entertainment while I held off on getting cable and Internet. DQVIII filled that space greatly, but it’s a slow game, and you do have to grind for a little bit in the very beginning at the Waterfall Cave section, otherwise the final boss of that area can wipe your party out quite quickly. If I recall, there’s a small section of healing water you can keep drinking from to restore your team’s health, making this place perfect for grinding, and, at the time, it certainly seemed necessary.

Dragon Fantasy (Book 1) is made up of three different storylines and a strange one-off inspired by all things Minecraft. Ignoring the latter and focusing on the former, of the three separate but connected plots, one storyline, by its very design, requires you to grind a whole bunch before you can even get to the first dungeon and safely explore it at a decent clip. In Ogden’s storyline, he is an old, washed-up man out to make a name for himself again, but that means fighting all the battles by himself, which is slower and more grindy than the other two campaigns. It meant fighting battles until Ogden was nearly out of health, run to the nearest inn, spend some gold to heal, and go back out to do it all over again. Not the most exciting time, but I ended up playing a lot of Dragon Fantasy (Book 1) while watching Netflix or Giant Bomb videos.

The first hour or so of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is both magical and devastating, and not just because something terrible happens to Oliver’s mother. I’m talking about the area just outside the Golden Grove. It still gives me the shivers to this day. The monsters here are so powerful and aggressive that your small team of nobody really doesn’t stand a chance, and so you have two options: run and hope to avoid every fight, or go back into the woods and grind a bit for levels, money, and health-restoring items. Naturally, me being me, I ran for it. Which was not very successful for the first few attempts, though I did eventually get out of the area, only to find myself in an even more dangerous spot, though much more suited for grinding.

Oh boy. Now, truthfully, I only stopped playing Phantasy Star II because the cold weather is here, and the Xbox 360 is in the living room, which gets no heat for the whole horrid season, and so it must wait until the snow melts before I can get back into it. And by it, I naturally mean grinding for levels and much-needed moolah while trying to figure out exactly where to go next. Thankfully, the music is so good that it makes grinding more pleasant than not, but it took me forever just to reach the first Bio-Systems Lab areas.

Hey, remember Eternal Sonata? I sometimes do. Beautiful grass in that game, and it’s not every day you come across an RPG so heavily themed and dedicated to that theme. I mean, really…Polka is a terrible name for a young girl. But whatever. Every now and then, I think about going back and playing it some more. But that would mean starting over because I got to that ghost ship section and found myself severely under-leveled with no hope of gaining enough levels quick enough to defeat…uh, the boss Captain Dolce. From reading up some walkthroughs, it sounds like I messed up and didn’t spend enough time aimlessly grinding when I could. Oh well.

I’m sure if I spent some more time looking through my collection I could come up with another five to ten RPGs that are grind-heavy early on, but I need to end this post somewhere. If you have one I missed talking about, let me know about it in the chat! That is, if you can spare some time away from your efficient, but meticulous level-gaining strategy.

Ys I and its beautifully bodacious bump combat

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Let’s all laugh at the great irony that I can’t actually confidently pronounce my favorite JRPG franchise out loud. I mean, is it SOO-ECK-AH-DIN? SOO-EEK-ADIN? SUE-EE-KO-DEN? I dunno. Luckily enough, I’ve not had to talk about Suikoden too many times in public, and when I do, it’s usually with people who have no idea how it is supposed to be said and probably assume I know what I’m doing since, y’know, I’ve been playing games for all my life. Spoiler: I don’t. And now we can add the Ys franchise to my collection of games I will never be sure of, but I’m going to pronounce it like EASE and move on.

I’ve always been curious about the Ys games, but never enough to take the plunge. Heck, I even have a copy of Ys: The Ark of Napishtim in my collection, which I guess I forgot about immediately after purchasing. Anyways, there was a good deal on Ys I & II on Steam over the holidays, and so I entered my credit card info, clicked purchase, and actually installed and played a game I bought instead of just collecting stuff forever. I know, crazy talk. A little researching shows that Ys I & II are pretty old JRPGs, first releasing back in 1989 and eventually coming to all the following platforms in some form or another: PC, PlayStation 2, Virtual Console, Nintendo DS, and PSP. Ys I & II are actually enhanced remakes of the respective Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished and Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter, meant to be played one after the other. So far, I’ve completed Ys I and started the second half only a wee bit.

In both games, you play as a red-haired swordsman named Adol Christin, who, from what I can tell, is the main protagonist for every Ys game. That dude either really gets around or something else is afoot. For the first adventure, he has to collect the six Books of Ys, which contain the history of the ancient, vanished land of Ys and will give Adol the vital knowledge he needs to defeat the caped evilness sweeping the land of Esteria. This means you go from town to town and dungeon to dungeon, talking with villagers and fighting enemies, respectively, gaining clues as to where to find the next book. The last chunk of the game takes place in the astronomically tall and somewhat tedious Darm Tower, which has you ascending floor after floor of bad guys and mazes to eventually fight…um, I think people in Minea called him Dark Cape and complete the first fifty percent of Ys I & II.

If that sounds like your typical JRPG adventure, you’re right. The story and its characters are nothing to write home about, and that’s because the real charm of the Ys franchise is in its combat system. It’s called bumping, and basically, when out in the field, Adol can run into enemies to deal damage directly to them. There’s no attack button. You bump, they take damage, they explode, you gain XP. Rinse, lather, repeat until you hit the level cap and have enough gold to buy all the best armor/weapons. And yet, there’s still strategy to this, as you don’t ever want to attack anything head-on, so you must come at enemies at an angle or from behind, making you feel very ninja-like. It was definitely one of the more unique combat systems I’ve come across lately, and it, along with regenerating health, made for speedy grinding, something I always appreciate.

Despite the gloriously joyful and smile-creating combat, I still ran into some problems. Like, there’s a specific boss that transforms into a swarm of bats and then back to human form for a split second, and you have even less time than that to hit him, which made for a very frustrating boss battle. Later on, there’s a room in Darm Tower filled with poison-like music that drains Adol’s health fast, and the only way to clear out the room is by exiting, finding a specific pillar outside, and hitting it with a hammer you found a few levels down; the game does not really make this clear, and I had to look up the solution online. And speaking of not making a lot clear, I wasn’t sure what a lot of the items in my inventory did, so I mostly refrained from ever equipping any of them.

Glancing at the Steam Achievements for Ys II, I get the impression that the second part of this series is…a little weirder. Also, looks like there’s magic spells to be cast. I’m down with that, as well as some more bumping. Maybe I should change my blog’s name is Bumping Down? Maybe.

2014 Game Completed Comics, #4 – Ys I

2014 games completed 04 - ys I facebook

Every videogame that I complete in 2014 will now get its very own wee comic here on Grinding Down. It’s about time I fused my art with my unprofessional games journalism. I can’t guarantee that these comics will be funny or even attempt to be funny. Or look the same from one to another. Some might even aim for thoughtfulness. Comics are a versatile form, so expect the unexpected.

Life in Phantasy Star II is peaceful until Biomonsters show up

phantasy star II early thoughts copy

How I came about playing Phantasy Star II recently probably says too much about my personality, but I’m going to explain my reasoning nonetheless. Because it is not often that I dip back into the Mega Drive/Genesis era of the early 1990s to play a 16-bit Japanese role-playing game that just about tells you nothing as you go from futuristic building to building, fight to fight. See, some time ago, somebody asked Giant Bomb‘s Jeff Gerstmann what his favorite JRPG was, and his response was a flat, non-emphasized Phantasy Star II. I’m forever always interested in people’s answers to this question and–despite that JRPGs are such a niche, often dismissed genre–preferences can surprisingly run the gamut.

First I had to see if I had a copy of Phantasy Star II somewhere in my collection. The name certainly sounded familiar, but maybe only because I’ve been hearing a lot of grumbling online about how Phantasy Star Online II–totally a different game–is probably not ever coming to U.S. shores. Evidently, Jeff’s favorite JRPG is available on a number of platforms, but it turns out it’s included in Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection, a gathering of Genesis titles for the Xbox 360/PS3 that I played through some years back, eventually unlocking all the Achievements, too. At that time, I was embarrassingly more crazy about Achievements than I am now, and I only played the games included in the collection that were tied to a ping-able digital award, and Phantasy Star II was not part of that big bunch. Either way, it was fun to discover that I already had a copy ready to go, ready to be experienced blindly.

I have no idea what happened in the first Phantasy Star and if II is an actual narrative sequel or more like the Final Fantasy franchise where every story is separate and unique. Anyways, it begins with a nightmare. The embodiment of evil called Dark Force has returned to the peaceful Algo Star System. Mother Brain, a computer system built to control and maintain order, has began to malfunction, and the main character, a blue-haired boy named Rolf, has to figure out why.

And that’s all I know so far because I’ve basically spent my first two to three hours in Phantasy Star II grinding for essential experience points and Meseta, walking back and forth between the town of Paseo and the wild grasslands just outside its walls. Rolf’s commander has ordered him to visit the Biosystems Lab where Biomonsters are created and bring back a recorder, and I’ll get there soon enough, but it seems impossible to survive the trip unless Rolf–and his purple-haired, pointy-eared friend Nei–are both around level 5 or 6. Something I wasn’t prepared for when going into this JRPG was just how little it told you: I’ve had to learn the combat, what the items do, how the menus work, who can equip what weapon and armor, and so on all by my lonesome. It’s all about self-discovery, but for those struggling, there’s also this fantastic website: http://www.phantasy-star.net/psii/psii.html. A great example of this is that Nei has a technique called RES, which I stupidly assumed had something to do with raising a character’s resistance, but it actually restores health, a spell I should have been using from the first step into the wild.

I walked away early on in Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light because I found the hands-free combat frustrating, and I’m unfortunately seeing similar trends in Phantasy Star II‘s battle system. Combat is continuous, meaning you press a button to have your party members begin attacking/defending, and they’ll keep doing that until they defeat the enemies or you step in to change something up. If you want to change any character’s actions for the next round, all you have to do is press a button before the current round ends. Right now, Rolf is my main attacker, and Nei handles healing and being a tank, taking a lot of damage. Thanks to writing this post and doing some light research across the Interwebz, now I know that Nei can attack too if you equip her with Steel Bars. Will do that pronto, for sure.

So far, the music is devilishly catchy, worming its way into my brain and looping for hours. The two tracks I’m loving and hearing the most are, naturally, Paseo’s town theme and the jams for exploring the overworld map. The bass is bouncy warm, and the cheery town tune is so dang cheery that I don’t ever want to go into a shop and have it stop playing. First-world problems, I know. However, I’m not actually sold on the battle music, and considering you are not actively involved for most of the battles and are just sitting there listening, that’s a bummer. And according to Wikipedia, everyone’s favorite website to trust, snare drums are much louder in the Japanese version of the game.

I’m definitely going to keep playing Phantasy Star II because I don’t think I’m still seeing it. Whatever it is. I mean, in truth, I’ve barely started this sci-fi journey to save a realm from monster invasion. I just hope I neither find myself overleveling the characters or stuck grinding to make it safely ten steps across the map. I guess once more people join my party and I can better equip everyone, progress will be much smoother, but until then I have to take things slow because I have no clue what anything is, money is tight, the threats are real, and without coddling learning is a poky process.

Mixing items with items to make more items in Ni no Kuni

ni-no-kuni alchemy pot update

Of all the videogame-based alchemy systems, I can confidently say that I like the one in Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch the least. Which is a shame, as Level-5 generally knows what its doing with its item synthesizing mechanics, a gameplay element that warms me greatly. Seriously, I love it. You take one item, mix it with another, and get something–more often than not–greater than the sum of its parts. My feverish appreciation probably all dates back to mixing herbs together for stronger health potions in Resident Evil 2, but if a game has any kind of alchemy element, I’m in. Heck, I bought Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny solely on this reasoning, even though its very name scares the life out of me and I’ve not played it yet.

In Dragon Quest VIII and Dragon Quest IX, you have a magical pot for all your brewing needs. In the former, it travels with you, riding on the princess-drawn carriage with her goblin father. In the latter, it stays put at the Quester’s Rest inn, which you must visit to do your mixing thing. Either way, you put items together and hope for the best, or you can pick up recipes (or clues) along your journey for killer gear. In VIII, you had to wait a bit for the pot to create the item–maybe about ten or fifteen minutes–which made grinding more bearable, as you battled for XP while waiting to hear that salivating ding that indicated your item was done. They took this away for IX, probably because it was on the DS and meant to be played in short, portable bursts, so waiting was not an option.

In Rogue Galaxy, you have two different ways to create new items: Weapon Fusion and the Factory. Basically, all weapons gain XP from battle until they are maxed out, wherein they can then be synthesized along with a similar weapon to create something new. Toady, a strange frog monster, helps with this by swallowing both weapons and spitting out something new; one could argue it is an alchemy pot. However, you don’t really know if something is going to turn out great and just have to chance it, though Toady will also warn you if the results are really negative. For the Factory, it’s more of a puzzle system, where you have to line up machine parts to get it running properly to create a special item from a set of blueprints.

For non-Level-5 joints with alchemy-based systems, it’s a mixed bag, with most alchemy systems fairly uninteresting or just bad altogether.

Odin Sphere has the player combining two items to generate a new item during gameplay, which is then stored in a “Material” bottle. These bottles can be improved as well by alchemizing two of them together to get a material bottle valued at the multiplicative product of the two original bottles (e.g., Material 2 combined with Material 3 results in a Material 6 bottle). It’s a bit complicated, and I don’t even remember getting to it during my first hour with the game, and I’ve not gone back since. I remember more about various plants you grow during battle than the alchemy, which says a lot, I guess.

And then there’s Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen, all of which with systems that are nothing more than perfunctory.

However, in Ni no Kuni, the alchemy system is unnecessarily clunky. You have two options once you obtain the alchemy pot and its genie master Al-Khemi in Castaway Cove: use a recipe or mix and match. If you have all the right ingredients, simply click “use a recipe” and Al-Khemi with automatically take care of it for you. For mixing and matching, you are either guessing or looking up the select few recipes available in your Wizard’s Tome, a tedious process that involves you backing out of the alchemy menu, into the tome menu, zooming down on the page for alchemy, zooming in more to find the recipe you want, mumble it to yourself a few times so you don’t forget, exiting back out to the main menu, back into the alchemy menu, and trying to create something based off of what you were mumbling to yourself.

The sad part of all that? Even if you are successful and create an item, the recipe does not appear in your list of “acquired” recipes; you can only get ones added there from completing errands or earning ‘em as the story progresses. That means, even though I successfully made a Fishburger from White Bread (x2), a Dumbflounder, and Crispy Lettuce, I can’t quickly select it again down the line from my recipes list; I have to either remember how to do it from scratch or go back into my tome to remind myself of what is actually in a Fishburger. In short–I really don’t like this. All it means is that I now have to play Ni on Kuni with my laptop next to me open to some recipe wiki page, instead of staying immersed in the game.

What a bummer. At this point, I’d rather just have a repeat of Dragon Quest IX‘s system.