Random quote:

12/18/2014

Spoony Plays Ultima VI: The False Prophet, Part 5

Through many trials and tribulations, the nine map pieces are gathered at last.



Here's a pic of the fully assembled map:


It points us to a small uninhabited island just south of New Magincia.  From there, we'll have to follow Homer's instructions to find a hidden entrance, and then the next leg of our journey begins...

Final Fantasy XII in a Nutshell

Is it uncouth to say that my favorite game in a franchise is one its creator had absolutely nothing to do with, and that I'm glad he didn't?  Probably no more than it is to refer to a game's fans as socially retarded hate-mongering fascists and capping it off by literally burning a copy...

So what was the selling point of this game for me?  In two words: Yasumi Matsuno.  If you're not familiar with that name (and shame on you for that), he is the man who has served as a writer, designer and director on many A-class Japanese RPGs, including Ogre Battle, Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story.  All games which have since become highly acclaimed for their in-depth political storylines, complex characters and deep, involving mechanics.  His works are heavily influenced by the open-ended and customizable nature of many Western games, and as a result his titles all feature elements from those games as well, most prominently seen in their in-depth party customization and the numerous branches his stories can take; hell, Ogre Battle alone has over twenty possible endings for the player to encounter, and that was a Super Nintendo game!  He is an amazing talent in every respect, and I dare say he's the best world-builder still working in the industry today.

So you can see why I was excited that he was working on Final Fantasy.  Not only would that finally bring him some mainstream attention, but it would finally inject some much-needed invigoration into the series and push its potential to new heights.  Hell, I even dare say its fans would actually be justified in calling it "mature" and "adult-oriented" because they wouldn't have to cherry-pick around all the silly and ridiculous shit that permeates each and every game in this series.

...Mmmyeah, that didn't happen either.  I guess people are too busy heaping nostalgic worship on 4 and 6 and 7 and 10 to notice that they're completely blind to actual talent, even when it's dangled right in front of their faces.  Well regardless, Final Fantasy XII was a fantastic title, and I'm here to tell you exactly why I think that's the case.  So let's get to it.

(I'll be skipping over a lot of the details in my summery here because, being a Yasumi Matsuno plot, it has more twists, turns and intricacies than your average Stephen King novel...)

Our game begins in Dalmasca, a small city-state that's been invaded by the Archadian empire as part of a larger war effort.  We play as a young soldier named Reks under the command of captain Basch as they attempt to reach their castle's throne room and stop their king's forceful surrender.  Of course, this is made tougher by the castle having already been invaded by several Imperial troops, including a flying machine with the call sign of "Tonberry."  I see what you did there.

Unlike every prior game in the franchise (not counting its MMORPG spinoff), Final Fantasy XII exhumes random encounters and, indeed, having a separate combat screen in general.  Instead the game takes place almost entirely in real time, with enemies approaching and attacking at semi-random intervals and the action only pausing so you can select items, spells, attack targets etc. from the menu.  It actually reminds me a little bit of Baldur's Gate, which is no bad thing in my book.

Spoony: This decision caught a lot of flak from people who are cemented in the old ways of the series, but I actually applaud them for taking this direction with the gameplay.  It perfectly cements a lesson that never seem to really catch on at Square, that being that oftentimes less is more.  It gets rather frustrating when you just want to get through a dungeon and you have to stop every ten seconds, sit through an unskippable 10-second fade out and fade-in, then a pan over the battle background, then wait for your characters and the enemy to fade in, and then fight.  To say nothing of each and every combat animation taking several seconds in itself to play out, even something as basic as a normal attack.  More than anything else, it's that reason that I find the older Final Fantasy games (and in particular the PS1 games) nigh unplayable these days.  Well, that and their fans are disgusting animals with no regard for human life, etc etc.

Back to the story, though: Reks makes his way to the throne room, where Basch has struck down his allies and slain the king before turning the sword on Reks himself.  We're then told through narration that Basch was arrested and executed as a traitor and Princess Ashelia of Dalmasca had committed suicide after her husband was killed in battle.

We then cut to two years later and get introduced to Vaan, Reks' extremely effeminate (of course) younger brother who lives as an orphan and (as per RPG norms) a low-rent bounty hunter and pickpocket with his friend Penelo.  Unfortunately, this also means that one of our earliest missions is a lame cliche seen in virtually every western RPG, namely whacking rats in a sewer for a few gold coins.

Spoony: You know guys, just because a particular trope has been around since the 80s doesn't necessarily mean it's a good trope - things do become worn out and stupid after you use them too many times.  In this case, more than once was way too much.

Around here we're introduced to the game's character customization system, the License Board.  And honestly... I like it.  It reminds me a bit of the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X, except here it's actually handled rather well - you can pick and choose any abilities you want without sacrificing your ability to power up your chosen main proficiency, and the sheer variety of spells, weapons and armor licenses in the game is pretty vast, giving you plenty of options.  Each of the weapon types is also relatively well balanced - daggers are comparatively weak but have a higher chance to combo, for example, while axes and hammers are stronger but trade accuracy and combo potential   Guns are fairly weak weapons but have the unique property of ignoring defense, Measures are relatively weak weapons but give positive status effects to whatever they hit (making them useful, if unorthodox, party support) and so on.  There's also no shortage of spells to utilize, from the typical White and Black magic to Green (support), Arcane (status effects) and Time.  Sadly Blue Magic doesn't make a proper appearance, though a few of its more prominent spells do show up as usable skills.

My only real complaint is that each character has the exact same pool of abilities to choose from, so your playable characters are once again fairly indistinct in that regard.  I'm aware that there was a second version of the game that gives you twelve different license boards to choose from, though unfortunately it was never given a western release (although there is a fan patch that translates it to English, so maybe I'll check it out sometime)...

The gambit system is also a welcome addition, especially if you're like me and tired of bad party AI in games.  Essentially, it allows you to program your party's AI yourself by specifying a condition, then an action to carry out once that condition is met.  For example, if your HP drops below 40%, you can then have that character automatically use a Cure spell to heal themself.  Or if Haste isn't active on that character, you can have them recast it.  Hell, you can even have characters with ranged weapons automatically target flying enemies or automatically use the Charge skill when your MP starts running too low, so it's a surprisingly versatile system.  And of course, if you want to take manual control of a character temporarily, you can elect to shut Gambits off entirely for that character or just give them a single order to carry out before going back to their usual routine.  Very useful.

Anyway, back to the game...

Thankfully the dumb rat-murdering mission doesn't last long, as our next real mission is to infiltrate the castle and loot its treasury.  This results in a halfassed (but thankfully rather short) stealth segment before we meet up with two other would-be thieves in Balthier and Fran, a pair of air pirates.  Then stuff gets even crazier as the Dalmascan Resistance invades the castle and all three of them are forced to escape through the castle waterways.  There they meet Ashe (under the alias of "Amalia", though you probably recognize her from the manual and/or game box regardless) and are quickly subdued and arrested by the Imperial Guard.

We escape from our cell rather easily (of course) and make our way out of the dungeons, encountering Basch along the way.  Turns out he wasn't executed after all.  Of course, Vaan is none too happy to see his brother's killer and assaults him, collapsing his hanging cage to a lower level of the dungeon.  Which conveniently allows all of them to escape as Basch manages to convince Balthier that he's been framed for his crimes.

Then we learn that Penelo has been abducted by the Imperials and conduct a plan to free her, which results in the game's requisite annoying minigame where you have to spend twenty minutes running around proudly proclaiming that you're Captain Bosch Fon Ronsenburg from Dalmasca and not to beleive Ondore's lies while out of earshot of the town guards.  (Thankfully it's a one-time-only thing.) Eventually you get the attention of Larsa, the younger brother of Vayne, the man who is apparently behind the whole upheaval in Dalmasca.

Spoony: It's also about here that Vaan and Penelo are kind of forgotten about for the rest of the game - the rest of the story mostly just follows Ashe and Basch as they attempt to reclaim the kingdom, with a few subplots here and there focused on Balthier.  It's a bit of a normal thing for the series, yes, but they could have found some way to work all of the party members into the main plot...

With his help, we manage to get on board one of the empire's warships and rescue Amalia Ashe from captivity.  With the entire party united at last, we then set out to get our hands on the Dawn Shard, which serves as proof of Ashe's lineage, so that the resistance can begin to take back Dalmasca.

It's also around here that you notice that the game is set up somewhat like Final Fantasy X in that there's no real world map to speak of - just a bunch of large areas that are interconnected at each end.  Unlike Final Fantasy X, however, this lends itself to nonlinear gameplay, allowing you to pretty much explore the world freely and visit optional areas and do side-quests at your leisure.  They even cut down on tedious backtracking by allowing you to immediately transport your party between any blue save crystals you've reached.  It can be a little intimidating at first to have such a massive game world to explore, particularly if you've been off-task for several hours and are struggling to remember what to do next, but all in all I applaud Square for this decision - it really does give the illusion that you're exploring a vast fictional universe when you get to see almost every location in that universe first-hand.  What a pity that they didn't keep it going for later games...

Through another dungeon (and a throwback boss from Final Fantasy IV), we get our hands on the Dawn Shard, only to promptly get captured again by the Empire and held prisoner aboard their airships.  That doesn't last long, though, as their experiments on the Dawn Shard lead to Fran going berserk, allowing the group to escape and eventually leading to the entire fleet's destruction as the Dawn Shard, a particularly powerful piece of a magical material called "Nethicite", releases a colossal amount of energy.

With that, Vayne is disgraced in the eyes of the emperor and, fearing that he'll be passed over in line for the throne, leads a coup, slaying the emperor and disbanding the senate.  Now in control of the empire, he deploys his right-hand men to stop Ashe and company, who have since resolved to destroy all of the Nethicite in the land.

The party makes their way to the Empire's city where they encounter Balthier's father, the requisite Cid.  It's revealed that he and Vayne are in league with a rogue Occuria called Venat (more on them later) who is apparently the real mastermind behind the Empire's invasion.  After a brief fight Cid escapes, allegedly retreating to the ancient city of Giruvegan to acquire more Nethicite.  The party pursues him there, entering the "great crystal" and being confronted by the Occuria.

Spoony: And here comes the plot twist!

The Occuria are the self-styled rulers of Ivalice, shaping its history from the shadows through the use of nethicite and granting the Sword of Kings to Ashe's ancestor, a blade which has the power to cut shards of Nethicite from its central source (the Sun-Cryst) for their use; in doing so, however, they also submit themselves to the Occuria's will.  They grant Ashe a second sword (the Treaty Blade) so that she can continue this legacy by using the Nethicite to destroy Archadia and the rogue Venat.  Ashe accepts the blade, but makes no statement about her intention with it.

The party then travels to the Pharos Lighthouse where the Sun-Cryst awaits.  However, Cid does as well, utilizing the Cryst's power and that of the three Shards to fuel the Empire's ultimate warship, the Bahamut.  Ashe also begins to realize that the Occuria have been manipulating her with visions of her dead husband and finally resolves to destroy the Sun-Cryst, effectively freeing Ivalice of both Nethicite and the influence of the Occuria in the process.

Spoony: Once again, just like a certain twist in Final Fantasy X, only not cringeworthy and stupid!

The Sun-Cryst is destroyed, but not before enough of its power was funneled to the Bahamut, which has launched an all-out attack against Rabanastre.  The party joins the battle and manages to get aboard the aircraft, first confronting Judge Gabranth.  It's revealed in the battle that he is Basch's twin brother and is actually the one responsible for slaying Dalmasca's king and framing him for it.

Spoony: Doesn't this violate one of Knox's Ten Commandments?  ...Yep, it does.

Gabranth is defeated and the party moves on to confront Vayne, who controls the last piece of Nethicite in the land and still has Venat on his side.  They merge into an enormous entity called the Undying and have a big fight with the party.  However, Vayne falls before their combined strength, the last piece of Nethicite is destroyed and Ivalice is finally freed from the influence of the Occuria, fulfilling both Ashe and Vayne's ultimate goals.

Basch, posing as his brother, calls off the Imperial fleet whist Balthier and Fran steer the now de-powered Bahamut away from a collision course with the city below, barely escaping at the last minute before impact.  Ashe is then crowned queen of Dalmasca, Larsa is crowned king of Archadia, Basch takes up his brother's role as Larsa's protector, and Vaan and Penelo depart on their own adventure (chronicled in a DS game that I still have yet to play).  Roll credits.

Spoony: And there you go.  Final Fantasy XII was a standout game for the franchise in many ways, but one of the major ones was that it actually managed to tell a surprisingly involved political plot that stayed as one despite introducing the series' usual supernatural elements into the mix.  It also utilizes many of the series' familiar tropes, albeit putting a clever twist on them (with a new set of summons and the Empire's airships being named after the old ones, for instance).  But most of all, the game's universe was amazingly well defined down to the last detail, with a surprisingly complex and colorful cast of characters and a very in-depth game universe with plenty of backstory for each of its towns, races, sights of interest and hell, even its generic monsters.   The game does fall back on a lot of Square's usual tropes and silly cliches (probably imposed by executive mandate), but somehow I didn't mind that as much this time around.  Perhaps because Matsuno is a talented enough guy that he can weave in said elements in a relatively seamless fashion and have them work with his vision rather than just haphazardly tacking them on and hoping for the best.  Final Fantasy XII really is a slice of Yasumi Matsuno's work at its best in just about every regard; I just wish Square wasn't so apt to wasting talent and favoring shiny aurora effects over actual storytelling...

12/16/2014

Phantasy Star (1) in a Nutshell

Another game I like but which it seems to be trendy to hate on these days!

The manual informs us that King Lassic has been corrupted by evil forces, acquiring a dark suit of armor and turning the entire Algo star system into a police state whilst evil monsters roam the world in unprecedented numbers.  In game, we see the end result of this as our heroine's brother Nero gets gunned down by some of Lassic's storm troopers and left to die, with her swearing to avenge his death.  Pretty simple premise, but for an 80s game it's pretty much par for the course of an RPG.  They can't all be Ultima 4, after all.

You'll also notice that for a game that came out in 1987, it has some very colorful graphics, large sprites and surprisingly good animation.  Even in dungeons this is apparent, with enemies that actually have animated attacks (which most other franchises wouldn't implement until the PS2 era in some cases) and even a nice rotation effect for the dungeon corridors themselves.  It was a lot better than the stuff you saw on most computer platforms of the time and hell, even the shiny new NES paled in comparison.  Sure, that system had a much larger following due to its amazing third party support, but the Master System definitely proved it could hold its own technology-wise.  Hell, even the music is surprisingly catchy despite the Master System's limited sound chip.

Anyway, the first part of the game, as with many others of the era, was largely comprised of grinding so you could get yourself some decent equipment and have a shot at surviving later encounters (Tip: buy an Iron Sword first for that extra damage output).  Then grinding a bit more to buy a fake Passport so you could leave Palma.  Then grinding even more to buy a Shortcake so the Governor will let you visit him.  In turn leading to endless complaints by coddled gamers about how "bla bla bla too much grinding the game sucks".  Yet if their beloved Final Fantasy tells them to do the same thing with materia or playing cards or fighting some shitty enemy over and over for 120 hours in order to get an item that has no practical use whatsoever, they'll bend right over and suck that game's dick without a second thought.  Double standards are an ugly thing, boys.

A more legitimate complaint comes from the game's beef gating, ie areas you're not intended to visit yet are marked by prohibitively powerful enemies that will usually wipe you out immediately if you venture into them.  And yes, that is a bit of a concern, especially early on where taking one step onto a beach tile or too far north will pit you against a giant spider (50 HP) or a huge group of sea monsters (42 HP each) that can promptly pummel you to death.  However, it's not hard to figure out where the safe zones are with a little trial and error and the game does let you save at any time, so you don't stand to lose too much progress as long as you're diligent.

Random jagoff on Motavia: Hey, I have this rare animal and I'm going to gouge you 10,000,000 Meseta for him a full ten years before eBay was even invented!
Alis: Nope.  I don't mind grinding to a point, but I'm sure not farming that much money out of the few crappy monsters available to me at this stage...
Spoony: Not to mention that the money counter is stored in a four-digit variable and thus maxes out at 65,535.  (Don't get nervous, there's nothing in the game that costs anywhere near that much...)
Motavia: Okay, then just trade me that shiny pot some random villager in the first town gave you.
Alis: Sure!

Myau: I used to travel with Odin until he got turned to stone by Medusa.  Let's go save him with this medicine I have!
Alis: You had it all along but you didn't use it on him yourself?
Myau:  Hey, you try opening a pickle jar with no thumbs, then you come back and talk to me, lady.
Alis: ...Fair enough.

Myau is our main healer, as he gets the best healing spell in the game.  However, he also has a few useful support abilities (including the ability to disarm traps, which will be necessary later on) and is a surprisingly decent fighter to boot, especially once you get the Silver Fang.  So despite looking like a creature from Jim Henson's workshop, Myau is pretty badass.

So we go back to Motavia, power up a little more and enter the game's first real dungeon, cuing even more whiny complaints from modern gamers about the lack of a minimap.  Well buds, if you can name me one other '80s console RPG that has the luxury of a mini-map feature, be sure to do so.  Otherwise you can man the fuck up, get some graph paper and draw yourself some maps.  Or hell, if that's too much work for you, just use the mighty power of the Internet look some up online.  It's not hard.

Spoony: Now why do I get the feeling that these are the same people who power through Ghosts n' Goblins in an afternoon using Game Genie codes and savestates and then go around claiming they're "great gamers"?  Oh right, because they are.

At any rate, we eventually find Arnold Schwarzenegger Odin and turn him back to flesh and blood with Myau's magical potion.  We also locate his Compass elsewhere in the dungeon so we can navigate our way through the woods to the south and advance further into the game.

I should also note that oddly, despite his appearance and stats lending themselves to him being the party tank, Odin's most valuable asset is his ability to wield guns.  They don't do as much damage as swords or axes, but they do have three important advantages over every other weapon in the game:

  • They hit all enemies on the battlefield at once
  • They do flat damage, which is useful for heavily armored foes
  • They have 100% accuracy.
Needless to say, you should always have him equipped with one, save for those rare times when their comparatively low damage just isn't enough to get you through a dungeon.

The town we locate in the middle of the woods tells us to return to the warehouse in the first town and locate the Dungeon Key, which will allow us to advance past a couple of doors we couldn't previously unlock.  Why they couldn't just have someone in this town give it to you I don't know, but whatever.  We return to our very first dungeon excursion and find a new chest there containing the key.

Then it's time to go into a new dungeon and buy a shortcake so we can visit the Governor on Motavia.  The game oddly claims that it costs 1000 Meseta, but in reality the game only charges you 280 for it.  Not that it matters much since you should have well over 1000 bucks by the time you reach the bottom of the dungeon anyway...

Spoony: And yes, it is silly that there's a cake shop at the bottom of a dungeon filled with giant spiders and ogres.  But it's hardly the dumbest thing I've seen in a video game, let alone an RPG, so I'm willing to let it slide.

We visit the Governor and get a letter of recommendation to take to our fourth and final party member, the Esper named Noah who serves as the party mage (and whom the game mistakenly refers to as female in one instance, leading to a decade-long debate about the character's gender).

Guess what's next?  More dungeons, of course!  Through a series of trials and tribulations we recruit Dr. Luveno and his assistant to build us a spaceship, trample through lava to find a pilot robot to drive it, and kill a random mad scientist to get a second Laconian Pot for later uses.  Then our spaceship is finally complete and we can at last visit the third planet in the star system, Dezolis.

The third leg of the game is mostly spent just gathering up stuff you'll need to access the final dungeon and survive therein.  Which in turn requires procuring three vehicles (a land rover, a hovercraft and an ice drilling car), exploring a lot of dungeons, and fighting a few battles to get yourself the best equipment in the game.  You can also go and kill Medusa if you want to wrap up that subplot and get Odin's strongest weapon, though it still pales in usefulness to a good Laser Gun.

Spoony: And despite all that talk about "too much grinding", the only vehicle you actually have to purchase is the Ice Digger, at 12,000 Mesetas.  Which, at this stage of the game, shouldn't be a problem at all.  Hell, you'll probably get more than double that amount over the natural course of gathering up all the items you need.

Then it's back to Palma once more to unlock another door that was mocking us since the beginning of the game so we can access the Baya Malay tower.  Then we go up thirteen floors, thwart a couple of traps and haggle with some crazy old man for the Crystal that weakens Lassic's magic so we can stand a fighting chance against him.

All that stuff we've been gathering up finally pays off at the top of the tower; we use the Prism to reveal Lassic's flying castle, use the magical Laerma Nut (acquired by burning down a tree with a magical torch) to transform Myau and fly up there,   The crystal prevents us from dying instantly upon meeting the guy, and of course all that A-class equipment we've collected helps us finish the job.

Spoony: Actually, Lassic goes down pretty quickly for a rather threatening looking boss.  Just as long as you don't come into the fight too beat up to survive a few of his lightning blasts...
Alis: Well, that was... rather anticlimatic.  Oh well, let's go back to Motavia and report our success.

The party returns to Motavia to see the Governor, but surprise!  There's one last dungeon to go through, and it's full of dragons and other nasty shit.  It's also capped off by having you find a door that's invisible unless you're looking straight at it, so you have to carefully examine each square of the back wall on the bottom floor.  Yeah, it's kind of a dick move.

Darkfalz: ROAR!  I am the completely unexplained final boss!

He's given no plot explanation until the fourth game, but Darkfalz proves to be surprisingly dangerous, blasting your entire party twice a turn and being almost impossible to hit with physical attacks.  I really hope you were hoarding Burgers so you could keep your MP at full stock throughout the last dungeon, because you've got basically no chance without a relentless onslaught of magic (and Laser Gun fire) to throw at him!

After surviving Dark Force through a combination of persistence, luck and Myau constantly healing the party, it's revealed that Alis is the rightful heir of Algo and given the chance to take the throne or abandon it.  Regardless of your choice, peace is restored to Algo and the game ends.  Roll credits, which are pasted on walls in another 3D dungeon segment.

Spoony: So there you go, a standout Sega Master System RPG which, while rather primitive by today's standards, was quite a sight to behold in 1987.  Honestly, it's still a pretty fun game to play too, just as long as you don't mind a bit of detective work, puzzle solving and some overly frequent random encounters at times.  You will have to master its intricacies and quirks to fully complete it, as well as have a lot of patience at times, but its intuitive mechanics and interface mean that it's fun to do so rather than tedious.  A classic game that only led to bigger and better games in a legendary franchise.

12/15/2014

Phantasy Star II in a Nutshell

I'm tired of all these shitty RPGs.  Let's do a good one for once!

Rolf: Hi I'm Rolf, I work for the Motavian government, which is pretty much just a formality since everybody works for Mother Brain.
Governor: Rolf, there are monsters everywhere and the weather has stopped working! Find out why this is happening, we can't go on much longer like this.
Nei: I'm coming too. Oh Hi, I'm Nei. I'm apparently a hybrid of a human and a monster.
Rolf: That and you kept blocking the door until I agreed to take you along.
Nei: Yep.
Rolf: *Sigh* I knew I should have sprung for a house with a back door. Or a window at least.

The Peanut Gallery arrives to offer their assistance

Rolf: Okay, so we're not here all day, give me your credentials in 25 words or less.
Rudo: I shoot things.
Amy: Healer character the game is nearly impossible without.
Hugh: Biologist with a skill set and equipment limitations that make me all but useless after the first third of the game.
Anna: Bounty hunter who wields a kickass boomerang. TWO, even!
Kain: World's worst repairman with a side job as a Lupin III impersonator. No, I don't actually steal things.
Shir: But I do!
Rolf: That's everyone? No Obligatory Cute Girl Who Never Does Anything?
Nei: Nope, all the women here are pretty damn useful.
Rolf: Well, that's a first.

The party makes their way to the Bio Labs, which requires several detours through convoluted dungeons and bearing witness to at least one murder/suicide. Eventually they blast open some stubborn doors and acquire the logs

Governor: My god, according to this the biomonsters are multiplying so rapidly because so much power is being diverted from Climatrol!
Rolf: Well I guess that explains that. I still don't get why the floors were coated with lava though.
Governor: Rolf, you must investigate Climatrol and find out the cause of this anomaly!
Rolf: Alright, where's this next gigantic labyrinth of a building?
Governor: At the bottom of the ocean.
Rolf: So do we have a submarine handy?
Governor: No.
Rolf: Diving equipment?
Governor: No.
Rolf: A boat?
Governor: No.
Rolf: So you built a facility that controls the entire planet's weather at the bottom of the ocean and have no means of getting to or from it? Whose brainiac idea was this?
Governor: Mother Brain's.
Rolf: I'm beginning to think that leaving all of our technology and running of the government up to a spacefaring supercomputer of unknown origin was a really bad idea.

Rolf and co. end up having to borrow a jet ski from some smelly Motavians and using some magical chewing gum (yes, seriously) to get to Climatrol. After trekking through the biggest and most ridiculous teleporter maze yet they encounter Neifirst

Neifirst: (Deep breath) My name is Neifirst, I am the result of experiments with monster and human DNA. I became too beligerent so they tried to kill me, but I escaped and unleased the biomonster cataclysm upon Motavia as an act of revenge. Also, Nei and I were once the same being but she seperated from me because I'm so damn evil.
Rolf: That's... pretty messed up.
Nei: Yes. Now I must fight her alone even though she is many times more powerful than me!

For some reason, your party just lets her do this. Nei dies a tragic death

Rolf: Nei, your foolish attack will not be in vain!

Neifirst falls remarkably easily with three party members at the players' disposal

Neifirst: Surprise! Mota's flooding now.
Governor: Rolf, you must open the dams to prevent the lake from flooding and devastating the whole continent! Also the government's blaming you for this entire incident so all the enemies on the overworld are now robots after your blood.
Rolf: Man, why can't villains ever just go down easily?
Amy: Because then the plot would hit a dead end.
Rolf: Oh yeah. I sure hope future games learn from that example!

With the help of a really sexist musician they acquire the dam keys and open up the four dams. Not surprisingly, said dams are enormous, convoluted mazes of corridors and teleporters.

Army Eyes: YOU ARE UNDER ARREST FOR DAMAGING MOTHER BRAIN.
Rolf: I think she was already pretty whacked if she thought making every building on the planet into a rat maze was a good idea.
Army Eyes: SILENCE.

Despite the party's best efforts to fight them off, the Army Eyes capture them and take them to Gaira

PA: You shall stay here and await execution!
Rolf: When's that?
PA: Right now!

Gaira is set on a crash course for Palma, and despite running past a lot of enemies to reach the control room they are unable to stop it

Deus ex MachinaTyler: Hi, you don't know me and I barely know you, but I saved you from dying horribly. Too bad Palma itself was completely destroyed.
Rolf: The whole planet was blown apart?! How big was that satellite anyway?
Tyler: A whole lot bigger than it looked from the inside, that's for sure. Anyway, bye!

The team is dropped off back in Paseo without another word

Amy: That was... confusing.
Anna: How the hell would we even get enough materials to build such a huge satellite?
Rudo: Let alone enough to build hundreds of starships the size of small planets... oops, I just spoiled part of Phantasy Star 3.
Rolf: Friends, it's 1989. Logic doesn't come standard in video game plots until the middle of the next decade. Anyway, let's see if we can do something about Mother Brain, she's obviously batshit crazy.

They bum the last spaceship on the planet from the Governor and fly to Dezolis

Rudo: This spaceport's a real dump.
Amy: It says we can talk to cats if we wear a magic hat?
Rolf: Hi?
Musk Cat: Piss off!
Amy: It also says to look out for bootleg magic hats.
Rolf: Okay, I'll try this one then.
Musk Cat: All the animals on this planet mutated due to poison gas.
Rolf: Well that explains why we're fighting zombie rabbits and giant mammoths in a spaceport.
Anna: At least it's a nice break from all those damn robots.
Rolf: Don't look outside, then.
Anna: Damn it.

They get to a town of Dezolians. After a bit more trial and error with hats, they upgrade their equipment and head through the Crevice, eventually ending up at the Esper Mansion

Lutz: Hello, I am Lutz.
Rolf: No way, you're Noah from Phantasy Star 1.
Lutz: No, my name is Lutz.
Rolf: Okay, fine, whatever.
Lutz: Anyway, in order to stop Mother Brain, you must acquire Nei's weapons scattered around Dezolis.
Rolf: They're called "Nei" weapons?
Lutz: Yes.
Rudo: Wasn't Nei born like a year ago?
Rolf: Yeah. Either that's an amazing coincidence or there's a major plot paradox going on here.

(Either way, the game offers no explanation for this anomaly)

The party travels through the most convoluted dungeons yet, acquiring several Nei items. Eventually they return to the Esper Mansion

Lutz: Nope, you don't have them all yet. Come back when you do.
Rolf: Damn it.

The party finds another dungeon they missed earlier, acquiring more Nei items

Lutz: Nope, still missing some.

The party backtracks through every dungeon they've visited - twice - finding a couple more pieces they missed.

Lutz: You're still missing some.
Rolf: Well can you give us a clue at least? This is really getting annoying.
Lutz: No.
Rolf: Asshole.

After hours, possibly days, of searching and annoying trial-and-error, the party FINALLY finds everything

Rolf: That better be the last of them. If I see one more Rabigut or Cooley61 I'm going to explode.
Lutz: There's one more.
Rolf: You son of a--
Lutz: Relax! It's in that box over there.
Rolf: Oh, okay.

Rolf gets the Neisword

Lutz: That sword can dispel evil.
Rolf: Kind of like the Master Sword?
Lutz: Not really.
Rolf: Okay... anyway, we've got all the goods, now what?
Lutz: To space with you!

They are teleported to Noah, which to no one's great surprise is large, labyrinthine and full of monsters

Rudo: Mother Brain must have a serious thing for Dungeons and Dragons.
Anna: That would explain why she's become so insane and evil.

Many staircases later, they come to a treasure chest

Dark Force: ROAR, you have just opened Pandora's Box! It contains all that is evil!
Rolf: I doubt that, we ran into a hell of a lot of evil before we came here.
Dark Force: No, fools, I mean I'm going to make YOU evil!

The fight ensues, though much of it is spent with your party doing useless and annoying things like trying to run away, cowering in fear, or trying to steal each other's items. After a few turns of this nonsense, the Neisword shines and returns everyone to normal, usually just in time for Dark Force to afflict them again. After nearly half an hour of sneaking hits in between brainwashings, Dark Force eventually falls

Anna: Well, that was really obnoxious.
Amy: No shit.
Rudo: Since when do major bosses come in treasure chests, anyway?

They continue a bit further, eventually coming to Mother Brain

Mother Brain: I am the ruler of all of Algo. You dare defy me?
Rolf: Yup.
Mother Brain: Fools, you are hopelessly dependent on me! If I die Algo will fall into chaos and you will be forced to sit through a rushed and completely plot-irrelevant sequel!
Rolf: Well, I didn't come all this way to chicken out at the last minute. Die!

Despite having some really impressive graphical effects for 1989 and dealing a lot of damage each round, Mother Brain isn't a very difficult fight

Rolf: Well, I guess we'd better get back to Motavia and try to prevent massive panic
Lutz: Rolf, you can't return again!
Rolf: I can't return? What the hell is that supposed to mean?
Lutz: ...
Rolf: Answer me, damn it!
Lutz: ...
Rolf: *Sigh* fuck it, let's just see where this corridor goes.

They walk through Mother Brain's destroyed casing and end up in a room with hundreds of people

Rolf: Okay, who the hell are you?
Earthmen: (Deep breath) We are from a planet called Earth, which we thoughtlessly destroyed after becoming corrupted by greed and power. We built Noah and set off in search of a new home. Eventually we found Algo, built Mother Brain to lull its populace into submissiveness, and were about to finish them off to claim this system for our own. And we would have gotten away with it if not for you!
Rolf: Holy shit. Dark Force was a saint compared to you guys.
Earthmen: Pretty much. But now we're going to kill you and continue with our plan regardless!

Rolf and company clash with the Earthmen; their fate is left ambiguous for the next five years as the credits roll and sad music plays.

Spoony: While it may not have the deep, involving storylines and novel-esque characters of some RPGs today, Phantasy Star 2 was definitely a groundbreaking title for its time. It was a pretty new thing to see such a dark, nihilistic storyline in a game in those days (especially on a home video game console), and killing off a major party member central to the plot was, surprisingly, a pretty new thing then too. Granted, it's now almost a cliche of the genre, but in an era where just having the word "Kill" in your game was cause for censorship, having on on-screen character death was a pretty mature new turn for console games.

The game design is what you'd expect of a late-80s RPG - the game is actually fairly short once you know what you're doing, so they pad it out with super-convoluted dungeons and very tough enemy encounters. Still, while they can be very confusing to navigate at times (and, at other times, based on pure trial-and-error), they never become too frustrating - they annoy you just enough to make you want to keep playing and finish the game, but not so much that you give up in frustration.

In conclusion, Phantasy Star 2 is an underrated classic for the Sega Genesis platform. Track down a copy, or check out one of the numerous compilations out there that contain it if you want to see late-80s console RPGs at their finest.

Star Ocean 2 in a Nutshell

Resurrecting an old Nutshell I'd forgot I'd written

You get a choice of two characters to play at the start. This makes almost no difference since said meet up about five minutes into game, you can assume direct control of any character in your party, and their stories don't diverge from one another in any significant way.

Claude: We're on a random shitplanet. Hey look, a mysterious technological artifact!

Mysterious Artifact starts up and Claude gets teleported to Disc1

Rena: Holy shit, an enormous gorilla that isn't native to this area at all! That's not lazy writing or anything!
Claude: Time to spank this monkey!

Claude destroys the thing in three hits with his awesome beam pistol, which breaks down seconds later since even though technology has progressed to the point where humanity can create anything out of thin air, they still can't make a reliable weapon. Disc1's primitive swords, bows and axes, on the other hand, never ever break down or require maintenance in any form.

Claude: 10 points for me!
Rena: Hi, I'm Rena. If you haven't guessed by now I'm the female lead.
Claude: And the only decent healer to boot.
Rena: Yep. Too bad my AI is garbage and I spend all my MP casting shitty attack spells instead even when specifically told to do otherwise.
Claude: Yeah...

A bunch of boring stuff happens, but at least the music is pretty

Village Elder: Claude, you are the hero destined to save our world. Now you must go on some vaguely-defined quest.
Claude: Okay...

They decide to go kill a generic cave monster for no real reason

Celine: I arbitrarily decide to join you. You have no choice in this matter.
Claude: Since I'm stuck with you, what can you do?
Celine: I'm a mage, which just means I stand in one spot and waste all my MP, rendering myself useless within three battles.
Claude: Well, there's nobody else to swap you out for yet so I guess I'll have to put up with it.

They plow their way through more generic enemies, earning more of Claude's imaginary points.

Claude: ....Wait a second. There's two settings for combat. As far as I can tell, the only difference is that you need to hold down the Square button to move with one of them, while the other just lets you use the D-Pad.
Rena: Yeah. So?
Claude: So what's the point of that?
Rena: I really don't know.
Claude: While we're on the topic, why does the attack command have me randomly break off from my target, run to the top corner, touch it, and run back before actually attacking?
Rena: Shoddy programming. Wasn't the constant freezing enough of a clue?
Spoony: No kidding. Even Ultima VII running on my old piece of shit 486 Packard Bell didn't lock up this often.

Like every fight so far, the battle with the cave monster ends in about thirty seconds of button mashing.

Claude: That's uh, 80 Points!
Rena: Seriously Claude, what the hell are you talking about?
Claude: ...I don't know. I'm not convinced the writers or translators do either.

They leave and come to some other town

Rena: Oh look, a tournament!
Claude: A cheap excuse for more fights. And more points!

Claude enters, Claude gets his ass beat regardless of what equipment you bring with you, meaning the choice and the entire tournament scene was a complete waste of time. Also, the game freezes again after you lose. This results in much frustration since you have to sit through all those scenes AGAIN.

Claude: Well, that was excruciating. What's next?
Rena: There's some plot about a war but it was so uninteresting that Spoony can't recall it at all, so he's just going to discuss the recruitable characters instead.

Dias: I'm apparently supposed to be the HARDCORE character since I have a gruff voice and treat everyone like shit. I'm also completely useless in combat because I insist on running up and then stopping dead FOR A FULL FUCKING SECOND before I swing, leaving myself wide open to attack.
Claude: Yeah, you suck hardcore. Back row for the rest of the game.

Bowflex: I shoot tornadoes out of my hands.
Claude: Awesome!
Bowflex: I should also add that my voice clips all sound like they were recorded on a low-quality microphone from 1939 while my actor was shouting through a pillow, but that's nothing new with this game.

Leon: I'm another crappy mage character, but at least I spice it up a little by wielding books that shoot demons that shoot swords.
Claude: Neat.

There's probably more, but I didn't care enough to check. However, I will say that (Enco)Precis' voice is probably what you'd hear if Satan had cross-bred a fire alarm with Gilbert Gottfried; it was so completely awful that I restarted the whole game just to get her the hell out of my party. I'm not even kidding.

More boring stuff happens and they decide to climb up a tower.

Evil Circlejerk: Boo! We are the main villains!
Claude: This game has villains? That's surprising.
Evil Circlejerk: We are a not-so-subtle reference to the twelve Apostles, and our minions are all vaguely angelic! Beware our clichedom!
Claude: Yeah, we have to put up with heavy-handed Christian symbolism in every work of art Japan will produce for the next twenty years because some hack included it in his terrible giant robot manga and everyone mistook it for being "groundbreaking" and "edgy". Thanks a million for that one, Evangelion.

The villains are all invincible and can crush the characters' rib cages with one finger flick, so Claude's just forced to run circles around them until they get bored and call off the fight. With no explanation the party gets dumped onto some other planet

Claude: Okay, where are we now?
Stooge: Planet Disc2. Disc1 was destroyed.
Claude: Destroyed?!
Stooge: Disc2 crashed into Disc1 and somehow emerged completely unharmed.
Claude: That makes no sense whatsoever.
Stooge: Tell it to the writing staff. Anyway I'm done talking, go to the lab and get your requisite airship... err, fetus creature.

For no particular reason, the fetus creature escapes and you're forced to beat it into submission first, which proves suprisingly difficult. But after being pelted with a relentless barrage of spells and sword skills for fifteen minutes, the beast submits

Claude: Finally, we won!

The game freezes yet again

Spoony: GODDAMNIT. GOD FUCKING SHIT DAMN CUNT LUMPS! CAN'T THESE IDIOTS PROGRAM A FUCKING GAME?!

The CD gets frisbeed across the room and left untouched for two months. Due to either boredom or severe masochism it eventually gets dug out from under a pile of old homework and the story (I use the term loosely) continues

Claude: Okay, the bosses on Disc1 were all really easy, so they're making up for it by making all of Disc2's bosses ridiculously cheap and giving you no good places to level.
Rena: Claude, you're supposed to use your technical skills.
Claude: No, screw that. I've thrown away so many skill points and raw materials and at best I always end up with a basic, shitty dagger that barely costs a third of what I spent on the ore. The only useful thing I've gotten of these is the stat boosts.
Rena: Well then steal something decent.
Claude: Unlike Ultima, where theft is the key to the universe, everyone in these games either carries bad checks, scribbled-on pieces of paper or just barely enough gold for one measly health potion, so that skill's also a waste.
Rena: Fine, back to more tedious grinding.

A lot of other boring stuff happens, Rena and Claude get some mediocre weapons with flashy names like "Fallen Hope" and "Crescent Moon" and they're off to the Evil Circlejerk's tower, where EVERY SINGLE ENEMY is more powerful than Jesus.*   Since just one of these assholes can wipe out the entire party in a matter of seconds, Claude and company just end up running past them all.

*Just to put it in perspective, imagine Final Fantasy VII's final dungeon, but every single random encounter pits you against monsters on par with Emerald Weapon.  Yes, it's that ridiculous.

Flamecunt: WE MUST FIGHT!

Flamecunt wipes out the entire party by spamming a move where he covers the entire battlefield in flames while shrieking "OH-HO-HO IT'S HOT!" at ear-splitting volume. The party is unable to defeat him and between the frequent crashes and the overpowered enemies, they're unable to get back out and grind some more. Spoony declares this a victory for the forces of extremely lame evil, not really knowing or caring what their motives were, and goes back to playing SaGa Frontier.  A game which, while it also has some issues with character balance, at least never locked up on me and had the common courtesy to not shovel-feed me some of the most painfully dry and banal dialog this side of Twilight.

----

Spoony: Bad writing, bland characters, terrible voice acting, stories that make absolutely no sense, combat that consists of little more than brainless button mashing, and an item crafting system that, while an interesting idea, doesn't really work in practice. That's this whole series in a nutshell. Oh, and don't forget graphical technology that always looks at least three years behind the current technological curb. Star Ocean 3 looks like a first-gen Dreamcast game, yet it's a fucking mid-gen Playstation 2 game. How did this franchise ever become popular?

But hey, at least it's a more tolerable game than Star Ocean 3, even if it is only because they don't give their characters pretentious names like "Fayt Leingod."

12/13/2014

Spoony Plays Soul Blazer, Part 5

Dr. Leo's laboratory is restored, but the good doctor is nowhere to be found. We'll have to go deeper into the breach...

(And yes, this is actually Part 5.  I have no idea why the preview image says "Part 4"...)