The First Few Hours: Bravely Default

EDITOR’S NOTE:  I’ve said repeatedly I wouldn’t apologize on this blog for extended absences, but I do feel compelled to at least offer an explanation of why I’ve been quiet for the last few days; in short, over the long weekend my wife was sick, and then the baby was feverish, and then, finally, I became afflicted with a horrendous stomach virus that I’m only now finally recovering from.  

And then, of course, yesterday I finally felt OK enough to start putting some words together, and I got about 900 words into this post, but then the office internet collapsed and died.  Which is just as well; I think I needed to rethink what this post was about anyway.

CONTEXT:  I am currently a little over 12 hours into Bravely Default.  My party is all around level 30, with job levels between 7-9.  (And if you’ve already played it, I just finished the ill-fated visit with the Water Vestal.)

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I am weird when it comes to JRPGs.

Let me back up.  I’ll be the first to admit that there are some glaring holes in my gamer resume.  I missed out on the early NES systems and the PS1 and PS2, and so there’s quite a lot of classic games that I just never had the opportunity to play.  And as today’s topic concerns the JRPG, I should admit right up front that my very first one was 2000’s Skies of Arcadia on the Dreamcast – which is still one of my favorite games of all time – and then I played nothing until, probably, Blue Dragon on the Xbox 360 (which is most assuredly not one of my favorite games of all time).

I am fascinated by JRPGs, even if they do a lot of things that annoy me.  If a JRPG is announced for a platform that I own, I’ll feel compelled to seek it out; and once I get my hands on one, I’ll do my best to spend 30-60 hours with it; but I won’t necessarily feel compelled to finish it.  Of all the JRPGs I’ve played (and you can maybe count them on your fingers and toes), I think I’ve only ever finished 2 of them: Skies of Arcadia and Lost Odyssey.  [EDIT:  I just remembered that I also finished the first Final Fantasy XIII, though I only got about halfway through the second one, and didn’t bother with this most recent installment.]

At their best, they are incredibly absorbing, even if their narratives generally follow along the same lines – a rag-tag group of children, one of them possibly an amnesiac, all on a world-saving quest that usually involves finding or activating 3 or 4 magic things.  Whatever, it doesn’t matter; the production values are usually top-notch, and after 10 hours or so the turn-based combat system becomes less about survival or urgency and instead becomes a sort of zen puzzle to solve, and then there’s loot and equipment and magic and all sorts of customization rabbit holes to fall into.

But at their worst, they are tedious beyond belief.  Because if the combat system isn’t engaging, then each and every random encounter feels like a slow death; and if the story isn’t at least picking up the slack, then one begins to wonder just what the hell they’re doing with their life.  Hell, even the great JRPGs can get tedious after a while.  I loved the hell out of Lost Odyssey, but by the 70th hour I’d more or less had enough.

In any event, the common element among all JRPGs is that, above all else, they are long.  Say what you will about the value propositions of short games like Gone Home or Brothers:  A Tale of Two Sons – if the “hours played:dollars spent” ratio is meaningful to you, JRPGs give you your money’s worth and then some.  These days, though, this is a bit problematic for me.  The last console JRPG I played was Ni No Kuni on the PS3, but I never had a chance to finish it, even after sinking 20+ hours into it; the game was quite good, it’s just that my son had just been born, and I couldn’t find any time to sit down and play it.

And I suppose, then, that this is partly why I’m enjoying Bravely Default as much as I am. In this modern era, JRPGs feel tailor-made for portable gaming; if I have 20 minutes to kill, I can plow through a dungeon, or mess with some equipment loadouts, or just mindlessly grind away and level up.  And Bravely Default goes out of its way to actively encourage this sort of behavior – I mean, the game rewards you for putting it in sleep mode.

Indeed, even though most JRPGs still have this archaic, old-school quality about them, Bravely Default features a ton of modern conventions and features.  More to the point, the level of customization that the game lets you have over it is quite staggering, and very much appreciated.  You can change the rate of random encounters, you can change the difficulty on the fly, you can change the animation speed during combat (except for special moves and summons…es?), you can change jobs/skills whenever you want – you can even write your own dialogue for your character’s special moves.  

(And I’m also happy that my former addictions to time-based stuff like Farmville are paying off in the “repair your village” meta-game, as most of my shops in the village are already at level 10.  I’ve got dudes toiling in there at all times, and because I have a good idea as to when my next playing opportunity will be, I’m almost always getting rewards right when I open the game back up.)

As far as JRPGs go, it does a lot of things quite well.  While there’s a lot of hubbub about this Brave/Default twist to the combat, it’s actually quite standard as far as turn-based combat goes; the Brave/Default thing basically means you have the additional option of being either really aggressive, or really defensive, depending on the situation.  As my party is generally pretty overpowered, I mostly just have Tiz and Edea go Brave 4X and set the two Mages to Default, and I’d say 90% of the battles I’ve had are over in one turn by being so hyper-aggressive.

I’m wondering why I’m so involved with it, is the thing.  Because as far as narratives go, so far this seems pretty standard.  4 children from wildly different backgrounds – one of whom is an amnesiac! – come together to save the world in a quest that involves repairing 4 crystals, etc.  And my initial concerns about the incredibly over-written, quasi-pretentious dialog have not really changed all that much; I tend to skim through the cutscenes as fast as the button presses will allow, because the writing continues to be absurdly flowery and overwrought, and the voice acting does it no favors.  (Though, to be fair, there are a few moments that have been surprisingly funny, most of which involve Ringabel’s lecherous and lewd behavior.)

I suppose I’m engaged with it because it’s the first game I’ve played on the 3DS in a long time that’s really, genuinely fun to play (all apologies to Link to the Past, which is simply not resonating with me).  And the graphics are quite stunning, which makes exploring the world and every nook and cranny of the dungeons a real pleasure.

Also?  I know this is going to sound weird, but the character Tiz kinda reminds me of my son, a little bit, if my son were older.

Tiz_v_Henry

One of the cooler aspects of the game is that you can import special moves from friends and people you meet via StreetPass.  And it occurs to me that even though I’ve had my 3DS for, what, almost a year now, I don’t have any 3DS friends!  So here’s my Friend Code:

0146-9096-2825

the first dozen hours: Etrian Odyssey 4

I’ve had my 3DS for a few weeks now, and I must say I’ve been pretty happy with the experience overall – even if the 3D does weird things to my eyes after a while.  The Streetpass feature is pretty neat.  I think I’ve mentioned that I don’t often see people using 3DSs on the subway, but clearly people are bringing them along in their bags or something, because almost every day I pick up 3 or 4 Tags, which is neat.

The game I’ve spent the most time with thus far comes as a big surprise (to me, at least) is Etrian Odyssey 4, which I’ve been playing rather obsessively for the last week or so.   I’d figured, since I’d had such a disappointing experience with Ni No Kuni, that I’d lost interest in JRPGs; but as it turns out, all I need was a breath of fresh air and a completely different context.

EO4 is a radically different experience from pretty much every other RPG I’ve ever played, even if it feels bewitchingly familiar.  It’s a first-person grid-based dungeon crawler (similar to something like Legend of Grimrock), with a turn-based random encounter battle system (much like, well, most old-school JRPGs) – but the key difference is that it also features a map-making system that encourages you to be as detailed as possible.  This comes in handy, as you might imagine, since you’ll frequently go through each maze more than once, and things that you might’ve noticed as odd or significant may end up being important on a 2nd visit.

The game also does a terrific job of making grinding as hassle-free as possible, which is something that I very much appreciate.  For one thing, you can create auto-pilot routes through each maze, which speeds things along quite nicely; for another, you can choose to auto-pilot your way through each random encounter, which makes going through easy enemies much quicker and doesn’t deplete your TP reserves (TP being what you use to activate special skills in battle).

The battles that you do choose to pay attention to, though, are a lot of fun to engage in.  It’s not just mindless button presses – that’s what the auto-pilot mode is for, after all.  Tougher enemies require strategic planning, and the variety of skills you can use mean there’s lots of different tactics you can employ.

The graphics are a little weird, I suppose.  The 3D screen makes battles look like active dioramas, with detailed monsters bobbing and weaving against rather dreary backgrounds.  Indeed, the actual 3D mazes you explore are surprisingly drab and ugly as compared to the rather crisp 2D character drawings; I’m not sure if the art style is meant to be consistent with earlier titles in the franchise (as I’ve never played them) but as an EO neophyte I’m not particularly impressed.  Still, I’m not staying with this game for the graphics.

Nor am I sticking with it for the story, although that may very well be because the story is just now – after a dozen hours of playtime – coming into focus.   In the early going, I was simply assembling my crew to go out on little missions for the local town – and that was enough, frankly.  Now – in the dungeon I literally just discovered about an hour ago – there seem to be larger, world-shaking forces at work, and I suppose I’ll need to save the world somewhere down the line.

One word of caution, in case you read this and decide to check it out – the game doesn’t explain itself particularly well in the beginning.  The very first thing you do is assemble a crew as part of a guild, and the types of crewmember are not necessarily self-explanatory.  (For example, the main melee fighter in your party is called a Landsknecht.  This is, in fact, a real thing, but I had to look it up on Wikipedia.)  Once you finish building your guild, you’ll find yourself in another set of menus – which is actually how you interact with the town.  The menus are a bit obtuse at first, but you get used to them with time.

I’d heard that one of the trademarks of this franchise is its punishing difficulty, which is why I’m grateful that there’s a “Casual” mode – which is still plenty difficult, mind you.  You can’t save mid-labyrinth without going back to town and then re-tracing your steps, which is a drag – especially as you have a limited inventory and it gets full very quickly.  (As a matter of fact, I’m about to go up against a boss, and I’m probably not going to make it – I never had a chance to go back to town, and my party has almost no TP left, and I could very much use some refreshment.)

In any event, I’m really enjoying my experience, and I’d highly recommend it if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing.

weekend recap: all tombs raided

Finished Tomb Raider.  Currently at around 93% completion, and I’m not sure I give a shit about finding the last few things there are to find.  Lara is fully leveled up, as are her weapons (not that there are that many people to fight), and the stuff that’s left (mostly GPS caches) doesn’t have much of a payoff.  Usually when I finish one of these kinds of action/adventure games, I feel compelled to go back and replay one of my favorite levels, if only to really take in the scenery and find all the hidden stuff without the pressure of combat.  But you can’t really do that in this edition of Tomb Raider, as there aren’t really any levels to speak of.  There are certainly different geographic locations on the island, but it’s not quite the same thing.

I think, overall, that it’s a very good game; that the developer’s intentions were clear, and that they were largely successful in achieving what they set out to achieve.  But it’s not perfect; there’s still too much killing (and, let me tell you – for a girl who starts out hesitant and apologetic to kill a deer in order to survive, she ends up kneecapping dudes with pickaxes and spearing dudes in the throat with arrows), and the whole 2nd act is basically one long chase sequence where everything is on fire.

There’s also something else that troubles me a little bit, though it’s a bit more subtle; they go through great lengths to make Lara Croft a real, relatable human being this time around, someone grounded in reality (even if she has an incredibly high tolerance for pain).  But without getting too spoilery, the mystery of the island is, in fact, something supernatural.  I was actually hoping for some scientific, grounded-in-reality explanation to what was going on, being that everything else was meant to evoke a real-world feeling.  The ending isn’t necessarily disappointing, but it did feel a bit… hokey.

I’d also add that some of the systems they introduce in the beginning feel unnecessary and undeveloped – like the whole survivalist thing, about needing to hunt game in order to stay alive.  Actually, once you kill that first deer mentioned above, you don’t need to kill any animals (besides the wolves that attack you) ever again; and if you do, the XP you gain is modest, at best.  I’m not saying I wanted them to introduce a hunger system, but it’s just weird that in the beginning of the game it’s presented as something important, and within 30 minutes it’s an afterthought.

Still, problems aside, I had a really good time with it; I’d give it a solid B+.  I’m just not sure if I’ll ever find myself going back to play it again, the way I have with other, similar titles.

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My 3DS experience continues to be hit-or-miss.  I’ve got 2 games on rental right now – Etrian Odyssey 4 and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate, which, if nothing else, wins the “Most Ridiculous Title of 2013” award.  I gave Castlevania about 30 minutes before sending it back; the screens are too dark to really see what’s going on, and the 3D gives me a splitting headache – even with it turned off.  And the first real boss was a bit of a dick.  I generally like Castlevania games – not necessarily for the fiction, but for the action and the map-filling and such.  But this one kinda felt like it was going nowhere, fast.

Etrian Odyssey, on the other hand, is a bit more interesting, and I’m tempted to stick with it – even if a lot of the mechanics seem needlessly convoluted.  It’s a fairly standard dungeon-crawling turn-based RPG, but there’s also this map-making feature that’s kinda fascinating, where you actually chart your progress through each dungeon’s maze.  Some of your quests actually depend on your cartography skills – you need to be able to point to something on the map in order to show your quest-giver where a given object might be.   The party management system is not very intuitive, and so I’m never sure if I’ve arranged my party correctly or if they’re as well-equipped as they need to be.  It’s tempting to think that a lot of this stuff would be familiar to people who’ve played the earlier 3 games, but I haven’t, and I don’t plan to, and so I’m stuck with a level of obtuseness that is a little intimidating.  But the actual exploring and fighting is fun enough, and the map-making aspect is certainly novel and engaging, and so I’m probably going to hang on to it for a little while longer.

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I was going to write a thing here about being conflicted about what to do about Bioshock Infinite, but it’s a very silly problem to have and I’m not sure it’s all that interesting, either.  But I’ll write it anyway.

The gist of it is that I was always planning on playing it on my 360, but there’s a few snags in that plan.  Firstly,  the release date (March 25) is right at the edge of the baby arrival window, and so if I were to pre-order a copy and the baby arrived before the 25th, then my game would be stuck at my office for 2 weeks (as I can’t really get packages delivered to my apartment).  Not that I’d be playing a game instead of taking care of my newborn child, but you understand what I mean, right?  The baby’s gotta sleep at some point, and when I’m in that weird exhausted half-sleep daze that will be as close as I can get to experiencing actual drug use, I’m going to want to unwind with some Bioshock.    Secondly, when the baby is sleeping, I’m sure my wife will want to unwind as well, and if I’m playing Bioshock on the big TV in the living room, she’s relegated to the bedroom with the smaller TV, and I always feel bad about that.

The reason why this is stupid is that the logical answer is for me to simply download the game on Steam, which is how I’ve been playing most of my games lately anyway  including Tomb Raider, actually.  I have kick-ass PC headphones which will prevent the baby from hearing all the strange noises, and the PC is in the office, which means my wife can relax in the living room.  My only concern, really, is that while my PC can run Bioshock, it can’t necessarily run it as well as it could, and so it may not look as fantastic as I’d hope.  Still, Tomb Raider looked more than OK on my PC, and so I’m sure Bioshock’s performance will suffice.

weekend recap: well, that wasn’t so bad

Firstly, some necessary meta-news to report:  the aforementioned apartment drama might very well be resolved, which is, as you might imagine,  a HUGE weight off of my shoulders.  I’m reluctant to say anything further, as we haven’t actually signed any leases or anything, and I don’t want to jinx it.  But the point is that I’m pretty sure we’re OK, and that the logistics of the move itself would be the easiest and least costly move we could possibly undergo, short of actually not having to move at all.

And so, in the midst of continued purging of apartment stuff, and the various frantic callings and emailings and textings of assorted realtors and landlords and such, I found that I needed to blow off some steam.  And so I dabbled in a bunch of games.

First off:  I finished 1 playthrough of The Cave, Ron Gilbert’s long-awaited new adventure joint with DoubleFine.  (My playthrough was with the Knight, the Time Traveler, and the Adventurer.)  Considering the pedigree of those involved in its creation, I feel a little cheap reducing my opinion of it to a 7-word sentence, but what follows sums up the experience pretty accurately:  it is equal parts charming and tedious.  The writing is certainly humorous but very rarely laugh-out-loud hilarious; the puzzles are, for the most part, straightforward and free of old-school obtuseness, but they can be exceedingly tedious to execute, requiring you to move three characters independently, all of whom move just slowly enough for it to become annoying after a while, especially when a puzzle requires frequent backtracking.  I still found the experience worthwhile, and I’m sure I’ll get around to seeing the other characters’ individual stories, but it’s a hard package to heartily recommend.

On the console front, I played a few levels of Devil May Cry.  I don’t really know how to talk about it; I’ve never been much of a DmC fan, and I don’t really know anything about the franchise or the character or the legacy or how radically different this particular reboot is.  I’m not necessarily all that good at these kinds of games, either; I rented it purely based on the review scores, which have been, more or less, exceedingly positive.  But what I can say is that, if nothing else, it features some rather astonishing visual design – some of the levels seems straight out of a Terry Gilliam fever dream, and I mean that as one of the highest compliments I can bestow.   So while I don’t particularly give a shit about what’s going to happen next, I do very much want to see what happens next, if you know what I mean.

I also reconnected my PS3 to my living room TV* so that I could get some time in with Ni No Kuni and The Unfinished Swan, the latter of which is currently only $3 or $4 on PSN for Plus subscribers.

Ni No Kuni is very charming, very beautiful, and very much a JRPG, with all the good/bad that goes along with it – the bad, in this case, specifically referring to a certain pet peeve of mine.  Lots of Japanese games do this particular thing, by the way, not just JRPGs, but JRPGs do it the most – where every single movement of a character, no matter how arduous, is vocalized.  You can be climbing up a mountain, or simply running along a shady lane, but every step of the way is grunted and oomphed and aahed and it’s very distracting and weird.  That aside, the game is as lovely and charming as you might expect a Level 5 / Studio Ghibli collaboration to be.   I can’t yet tell if the battle system is overly complicated or not; there appear to be a lot of mechanics that you need to be paying attention to at any one time, but the game does a rather wonderful job of showing you how it works.  I’m only an hour or two into it, but I’m definitely looking forward to spending more time with it, especially during this pre-baby, slow-release-calendar window we’re currently in.

As for The Unfinished Swan, I’m not sure what to make of it.   It’s an astonishingly well executed visual trick, and I certainly appreciate the attempt at an engaging narrative.   That being said, I’m currently in the blueprint level, and I’m a bit stuck; the controls are kind of terrible, all of a sudden.  I wonder if it’s because I’m not using a Move controller; I certainly hope not, because up until this point the game was controlling just fine.

I’m also sort-of still dabbling in Hitman Absolution; I’ve started to figure out how the game is supposed to work, even though I still find myself getting impatient.  I also find the game rather distasteful; all the characters are horrible (on purpose), and the world is really seedy and disgusting, and it’s a hard world to want to stay engaged in.  I can really only play for, like, 10 or 20 minutes at a time before I need to turn it off and cleanse my palate.  It makes me feel unclean.

 

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* Because my wife was a recent Fringe fan and needed to binge very quickly on the first 4 seasons to get caught up for the current (and last) season, we’d had to move the PS3 into the bedroom and our other Blu-Ray player over to the living room, as the other Blu-Ray player didn’t have a wi-fi connection.   Suffice it to say, I hadn’t really missed the PS3 in the interim until this week.

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