Category Archives: RPGs

Final Fantasy IX’s middle ground really drags

final fantasy 9 disc 3 slow start

I am freaking out. Not in a way that anyone would know by looking at me, but on the inside, and the inside of my insides, I am freaking out. It’s October 2015, and I’ve still not completed Final Fantasy IX, a game I set out to take down in 2013 and then, upon failing that, put in the crosshairs once more for this stretch of three hundred and sixty-five days. I could present y’all with a list of excuses, of things that got in the way and stole my limited attention span away, but it doesn’t matter. I’m in charge of this ship, and I have two months and change left to see Final Fantasy IX‘s credits roll, as well as every Active Time Event unfold.

Unfortunately, after an epic finish to Final Fantasy IX‘s second disc, which saw the ragtag group of adventurers battling the Soulcage at the Iifa Tree and then witnessing the power of Bahamut, the start to the third disc really drags. It’s got a ton of great stuff in it, but it’s all turtle-pace storytelling and character development, for nearly every character, and there’s little freedom put in the player’s hands, which means a lot of reading, watching, and doing as whoever is in charge currently says.

There’s some playful–and Broadway play-like–silliness involving a found love letter, wherein everyone who comes across it misinterprets its meaning. Next, you travel to Treno to participate in a card tournament; since I’m terrible at Tetra Master, I found myself nervously saving a lot and reloading when I’d lose a rare card to an opponent. After that, there’s the fall of Alexandria, and one could get through this seeing little action, but I did at least discover a bookshelf and hidden Tantarian in it, which awards everyone with lots of AP upon defeat; it’s a tough, long-winded battle, but worth it in the end. Lastly, there’s some action and cutscenes and rebuilding of Alexandria, with the plot pushing forward to have everyone go after Kuja with a smoldering passion, but not before trying to restore Regent Cid to human form. Spoilers: it doesn’t work.

After all that, I’m back to actively controlling my party–all members, too, even Quina–and exploring the world of Final Fantasy IX. Plot-wise, we’re off to the Black Mage Village. However, I can’t head directly there just yet. I mean, technically, yes, I totally can, now that I’m riding the ocean in style on the Blue Narciss, but my brain won’t let me. See, there’s abilities to be earned for all these party members by equipping all sorts of gear, and that means a whole lot of easy, but mindless grinding to do. I can’t not do it, I’m sorry. I need for every party member to have as many options as possible when it comes to abilities and spells to cast. Sometimes this means equipping weaker armor or weapons just to permanently learn these things. I’m sure there’s a saying that relates wells here, like to go forward, one must tumble backwards for a bit.

I think what I need to do is put aside Super Mario Maker, Fantasy Life, and Pokémon Shuffle as my late night, pre-bed gaming fix this week and focus squarely–pun intended–on getting my team up to snuff so that they can move and do actual story stuff. I care about these people and what trouble concerns their land, but I also care about earning enough AP for Steiner to learn Level Up so he can constantly level up faster, as well as Dagger to get every summon locked under her belt. You never know when you’ll need to cast that Odin or Ifrit, but you’ll be glad you can when the moment arises.

Final Fantasy IX‘s credits or bust.

2015 Game Review Haiku, #51 – Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness (Episode 1)

2015 gd games completed penny arcade rain-slick episode 1

Quest of house revenge
Kill mimes, hobos, and robots
Spacebar past all text

From 2012 all through 2013, I wrote little haikus here at Grinding Down about every game I beat or completed, totaling 104 in the end. I took a break from this format last year in an attempt to get more artsy, only to realize that I missed doing it dearly. So, we’re back. Or rather, I am. Hope you enjoy my continued take on videogame-inspired Japanese poetry in three phases of 5, 7, and 5, respectively.

Thou hast done not well in playing Dragon Quest

dq gd capture

Listening to the latest Retronauts podcast, which is all about the Dragon Quest series of RPGs, I realized that my time with the franchise is actually quite limited. I’ve only played two games from the main numbered entries, specifically Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King and Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, but I put a gargantuan-size of hours into each respective adventure. As you can see, I came to this Japanese roleplaying series rather late, missing out on all things Dragon Quest numbered one through seven. Anyways, I figured I needed to brush up on some history and give the original NES game a chance, to see where this all started.

Let me drop Dragon Quest‘s storyline on y’all: in the olden times, Erdrick fought demons with a mystical Ball of Light. However, the Dragonlord has recently hidden this Ball of Light, kidnapped Princess Gwaelin, destroyed the town of Hawkness, and taken over the city of Alefgard. Quite a multi-tasker. The Dragon Warrior hero is tasked with two quests: rescue Princess Gwaelin and then track down the legendary weapons and armor powerful enough to defeat this Dragonlord. Pretty simple stuff, the sort of straightforward world-saving epicness that would come to define the JRPG genre for years thereafter. Dragon Quest was also the first to combine turn-based combat, random encounters, and dynamic character leveling–all pretty groundbreaking mechanics that I certainly take for granted today.

First, you play as a descendant of Erdrick, but you can rename your character, which I immediately did to Pauly. However, the stats screen menu only has room for four characters, which brought me back down to reality as Paul. No big deal. The game wastes no time giving the hero some gold and a key and sending him out into the dangerous, monster-laden world…so long as you figure out that, to use the staircase leading out of the castle room, you must select “stairs” from the set of menu options. Yup, it’s that kind of game. Once you are out, you can speak with people for clues, search every tile possible for secrets, or start battling monsters for gold and experience points. Battles are turn-based, and your options are fight, spell, item, or run. There’s no guarantee your hit will land on the enemy, and the same can be said for their attacks, but slow-scrolling text explains everything happening in the fight.

I know that slimes are iconic to the Dragon Quest series, and now I see why–it’s all you fight for a good long while, grinding against them for money and power. They come in two variations so far: blue and red. The blue are easy to dispense of, but the red ones will cause the player grief early on, especially when you are struggling for that next level, but don’t have enough gold to stay at an inn to recover all your HP. I was hoping to see more of the classic monsters I’ve come to know, but only saw slimes and a single ghost.

I gave this about an hour. I grinded Pauly up to level 2–that sounds gross, but only out of context–which at least gave him a sporting chance against the tougher red slimes, but wandered too far away into ghost territory, where I got a massive beatdown in two turns. Thou art dead indeed, an archaic but simple message I read a few times during my short-lived spurt with Dragon Quest. Also, that first death really hurt my protagonist’s income, as dying in these games sees you losing a good chunk of your gold to be able to start again with everything else–items, experience points, etc.–still in place. I probably should’ve spent it on better armor and such before wandering out into the tall grass and mountain paths.

Perhaps I’ll tinker around some more with the original Dragon Quest, as it does seem like the sort of adventure where, so long as you keep climbing that mountain, you’ll eventually reach the top. All I need is for Pauly the warrior to be stronger than the monster in his path, and that simply requires patience and time and buying better gear. I could totally lose all the writing, however, as everybody speaks using words like thou and art and foretold. No thank you. Or perhaps I’ll dig back into Dragon Quest VIII, something I tried doing three years ago only to walk away from easily once more in favor of other stories. Also, don’t tell anyone, but I’m kind of into the idea of that Slimecraft game, especially now that I know it is set in the same war-torn land as this.

Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness is too long a title

gd impressions penny_arcade_episode1_screenshot5_bmp

I’ve gone through phases with Penny Arcade over the years. At first, I was enamored with the comic strip, hungry for each new update and over-the-top zinger. I even went back through the archives and watched as Mike Krahulik’s art and Jerry Holkins’ joke-telling evolved, sometimes in ways that made me cringe and occasionally in ways that spoke deeply and directly to me. For a while there, I tuned in for their reality style show about the behind-the-scenes stuff, as well as watched a bit of Strip Search. Plus, this is the company that puts together PAX, a powerhouse of a gaming convention I’d love to be involved in somehow, some day. Still, recently, their handling of criticism often feels too childish and dismissive, which is maybe why it’s taken me three years to click “play” on Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, bought and installed back in 2012.

I’m going to shorten that title to PAA: Rain-Slick for the purposes of keeping this blog post from being unnecessarily lengthy–or more lengthy than usual. I do ramble from time to time. Moving on, this is an episodic role-playing adventure from Hothead Games set in an alternate 1920s version of New Arcadia. You play as whoever, custom creating a man or woman in the art style of the comic. I made a dude who kinda looks like me, but is named Carl and doesn’t have a full beard. Suddenly, Carl’s home is destroyed by a giant robot. This is in fact a steampunk version of Fruit Fucker Prime, a popular little side character devil from the comic strip that….well, it likes making fruit juice, if you will. You join Tycho Brahe and Johnathan Gabriel in pursuit of this mechanical beast.

PAA: Rain-Slick is a mix of genres actually. It’s got some point-and-click action happening where you can click on nearly any item for a description, as well as that active time battle system from Final Fantasy when battling menacing, fruit-loving robots, creepy mimes, and smelly hobos. One must also consider QTE button prompts when attacking or blocking for extra damage, similar to actions in Paper Mario: Sticker Star, and the timing on these all differ based upon the enemy. If you’re good enough, you’ll score a free counterattack. Spoiler: I’m never good enough. There’s a variety of items to use to boost attacks, weaken defenses, and distract enemies for a bit, and knowing what to use when is vital to staying alive. I will say here and now that I’m a big fan of RPGs that heal your entire party after every fight, as it lessens the amount of time one spends in a menu every few minutes to keep everybody healthy and hearty. Yes, Final Fantasy IX, you’re a mega-culprit of this.

PAA: Rain-Slick is mostly linear, just like Costume Quest, but you can devote extra time to search out all the little robots or collectibles. There’s no grinding, however, as there’s a set number of enemies in the game to defeat, which means you are never over- or under-powered for any fight. You are always right where the developers want you to be, but this means there is little customization for your party, other than spending scrap to upgrade their individual weapons for more damage. I was hoping to collect a bunch of goofy weapons, especially when you consider your created avatar wields a rake from the get-go. It’s also quite contained, limited to three smallish areas to explore, and a safehouse to gather information via Anne Claire and upgrade your weapons. I’m not terribly opposed to back-tracking, but it does feel somewhat limiting here.

Sometimes a relatively short, straightforward RPG is good for the soul, and even though I’m not in love with all the jokes or writing or gameplay mechanics here, it’s sating my thirst. I’ll most likely move on to Episode Two of PAA: Rain-Slick after polishing this first adventure off, and I hope to see some changes down the road. Like more customization or better timing clues in combat. Also, no more quest lines based around urination.

Alas, a JRPG is still a JRPG in Like Clockwork

like clockwork final impressions gd ArXigN

Look, I’m well aware of the numerous shortcomings when it comes to Japanese role-playing games. If for some reason you don’t know about any of them, allow me to recommend The Grand List of Console Roleplaying Game Clichés, which does not specifically target Japanese-only RPGS, but many of the elements on the list do overlap. Also, if you ever want to lose yourself in the Internet for a couple hours, check out the trope pages simply for Chrono Trigger, Breath of Fire, or Final Fantasy VII. You’re welcome, and I’m sorry.

Like Clockwork is a comedy RPG that likes to take these well-known tropes, bash them in the face repeatedly, wave them around victoriously for all to see, and then do things differently. It opens with the Sleepyhead Rule, wherein the main character is awoken by his mother to start his quest. However, he is quickly killed in a freak accident involving a police car, resulting in his female companion taking up the flag to finish the hero’s quest. Yup, instead of playing as the brooding, sulking introvert that everyone loves and champions because whatever, you instead play as a young woman who happened to be in the right place at the right time. And she wears actual battle armor, not a metal bikini. This is just the start of spinning those known tropes on their heads.

Made for Fuck this Jam 2014 by John Roberts and created in RPGMaker, which also birthed such interesting things like Starbot and The Stoneville Mystery, Like Clockwork looks exactly as you imagined it might, compiled of a number of recognizable sprites and shapes. To the point that uncommon elements, like a cop car or massively large troll, look instantly out of place. Either way, it’s a bright, colorful RPG world spread across a handful of screens, though more time was obviously spent on the opening town area than anywhere else. Similar to other games created in RPGMaker, you can access a pause menu for stats, skills, and other things that might not even matter, though it does make more sense in this type of environment.

As you go through the early motions of Like Clockwork, your cop car companion Tam McGleish, a rather angry Scottish Detective Inspector, will complain with every breath he takes about JRPG trope after trope, calling them out right on the spot. Eventually, he even breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the developer–and, on one occasion, cause him physical harm–in order to see things change for the better. Like when the random encounters become too much. Also, in good ol’ silly fashion, the main heroine passes out when having to make a moral choice, as if the decision is too much to handle for her frail frame. There are several other fun moments to discover that I will spill now.

All that said, it’s still a JRPG, just one that points out all the annoying bits. You must go through the annoying bits, at least once, for them to get taken away and changed into something more streamlined, modern. I found Like Clockwork to be lightly amusing, though I guess I’m not used to reading the c-word so many times, as it’s been a bit since I reread my A Song of Ice and Fire books. In actuality, I would’ve liked to play more, to get into a few more battles and level up my party, but that’s not the point here–it’s not a full game, just a snapshot of the tiresome elements of the genre. A riff. It works fine enough, but now I want to load up my years-old save data for Eternal Sonata and get my true JRPG-ing on.

2015 Game Review Haiku, #42 – Like Clockwork

2015 games completed gd like clockwork

Don’t be the hero
You start as, twist this genre
Fear the angry Scot

From 2012 all through 2013, I wrote little haikus here at Grinding Down about every game I beat or completed, totaling 104 in the end. I took a break from this format last year in an attempt to get more artsy, only to realize that I missed doing it dearly. So, we’re back. Or rather, I am. Hope you enjoy my continued take on videogame-inspired Japanese poetry in three phases of 5, 7, and 5, respectively.

Press select to witness other events in Final Fantasy IX

ff9 ate no yummies impressions

As expected, I drifted away from Final Fantasy IX on disc two, like I always do, though I partially have a good reason: I moved. Like, physically, from one abode to another. That meant, for a few days or so, my PlayStation 2 was not hooked up to a television, packed away in some box that sat in a family of cluttered boxes, unable to differentiate itself to me. Hands down, that is a solid reason why I stopped playing; however, after hooking everything up, I still didn’t give it my undivided love and attention for over two months, mostly because I got stuck on the Soulcage boss at the Iifa Tree, and I was never seemingly in the mood to grind everyone up three or four levels.

The good news is that I finally showed the Soulcage who is the true boss, thanks to grinding while listening to a podcast and then spamming Bio and summoning Ramuh a few times. Now I can continue on in this fifteen-year-old RPG that I’ve never beaten. If you’re curious, I’m at the beginning of disc three currently, and it’s actually a miracle I made the leap from disc two. I may have talked about this before, but another common reason I often walked away from Final Fantasy IX as a young gaming lad was because my disc two is scratched or damaged internally, which causes the FMV to glitch out and, occasionally, freeze. The clips after you clear away the Mist from the Iifa Tree and Kaju and Garnet’s second mother duke it out certainly skipped and stuttered, but thankfully never locked up.

Anyways, originally, I opened this post with paragraph below, but it’s been in my drafts folder for so long I felt like I needed to explain–more to myself than y’all–why I’ve been so quiet on my quest to beat Final Fantasy IX in 2015.

This might be a bold claim, but I feel pretty safe in my assumptions: the stories told in Final Fantasy IX‘s Active Time Events are more enthralling than the main plot. The even crazier thing? They are entirely miss-able, though I do not suggest you miss any of ’em.

Commonly abbreviated to ATE in the same fashion that Active Time Battle is also referred to as ATB in any roleplaying game forum, Active Time Events is a system that gives the player the ability to view short, optional scenes in Final Fantasy IX that are happening at the same time, either nearby the main cast or elsewhere in the Mist-shrouded world. The system was created by Hiroyuki Ito, the game’s director, and, possibly next to the mechanic where you level up passive and active abilities to earn them permanently, this is my favorite aspect from 2000’s throw-back entry to the Final Fantasy series.

Unlike a number of other RPGs, when you often arrive in a town, the party splits up instead of walking around together in one long line like a bunch of children in school heading out for recess. This makes logical sense in a fantasy world where there is so much to see–Vivi wants to explore, Quina is in search of new cuisine to try, and Steiner must ensure there is no danger for the princess-in-hiding up ahead. So on and so on. You’ll mostly be in control of Zidane, moving from screen to screen, and as you do, ATE will activate, prompting you to view a side story scene by title only. These titles are generally a few words long, but intriguing nonetheless, such as “Do As I Say, Not As I Do,” “Dagger Tries,” and, of course, “No Yummy-Yummies!” Watch the scene and then get back to doing what you were originally doing.

Honestly, I can’t imagine someone playing Final Fantasy IX and not viewing these additional scenes. Sure, a few are goofy and less than vital, like the ones involving Moogles or NPCs you don’t really interact with much, but the majority are staggering in the amount of info and details they reveal. Such as when Dagger tries to learn how to speak like a commoner or Vivi’s quizzical time in the Black Mage Village. Without these moments, the greater impact of the main plotline, which is not all that moving, would be lost.

Final Fantasy IX‘s ATE scenes help reveal more about the game’s story and characters, especially its villains. Another bonus from watching these events unfold is that you’ll occasionally obtain items afterwards or see locations before you visit them. All you have to do is press select, and you’re in. I know I’m going to keep doing it until the credits roll.