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8/24/2016

Downport Dungeon: Double Dragon

An arcade classic gets many inauspicious home ports! (And some really good ones)


Spoony Plays Persona 3 Portable, Part 10

Starring Derek Prince as Ramen Vendor

8/23/2016

All the other Final Fantasies I've Played in a Nutshell

I've been pretty harsh on the series over the years, and especially on its most popular entries, so let's take a look at some of its less-talked-about games by both myself and others!

Final Fantasy 1

A pretty solid game for 1987, giving the player free choice in customizing their party and lending it some substantial replayability.  That said, this was kind of still in the era before console RPGs (and JRPGs in general) became known for having decent narratives, so the story and characterizations overall are pretty minimal and generic.  It also lacks much balance, with the Fighter being far and away the best class for much of the game and the rest being mostly situational.  Still, it had some cool visuals for 1987 and some iconic tunes, so while it may not stand the test of time very well, I can still respect it for what it is.

Final Fantasy 2

I always felt this one was a bit of an underdog in the series, with most people writing it off for its leveling system before really giving it a chance.  Granted, the leveling system in the game is a persistent problem as it's not very well-balanced at all, which leads much of the game being either far too easy or resulting in the party being wiped before getting a single turn with almost no middle ground.  Enemies also typically don't provide enough of a threat to get you to level up, requiring your party members to sit around and attack one another to give themselves HP, attack and magic boosts, which is more than a bit silly (not to mention tedious).  Still, the game has some interesting ideas to it (having to learn and give code words to solve puzzles and advance the story - a bit like the Ultima games in that regard) and the music is honestly some of my favorite in the entirety of the series.  The storyline is also surprisingly captivating for a Famicom game, telling the tale of a group of friends drafted into a desperate guerilla war against an invading empire with plenty of twists along the way.  Not to mention that I feel the Emperor is pretty underrated as a villain; after all, who else is evil and badass enough to overthrow the devil and conquer Hell itself after you slay him and send his soul there?  No other villain I can think of!

Final Fantasy 3

Doubtlessly my favorite of the Famicom Final Fantasies, delivering top-notch visuals and some great music along with a lot of challenge.  This game, in contrast to the second, returns things to a more class-based system, giving the player a wide variety of classes (22 in total) to play with and letting them change up their characters and strategies as the game goes.  While it once again lacks a lot of the balance and fine polish of other RPGs (with some like the Bard and Scholar being almost entirely useless while others dominate much of the game), the fact that you're given so much variety is certainly commendable.  Combine that with a huge variety of vehicles, an enormous world to explore and even a pretty good storyline, and you've got a very solid world-spanning adventure.  Just avoid the stinky 3D remake, as it bogs the experience down with a lot of pointless and tedious grinding.

Mystic Quest

Intended as a "beginner RPG", and it definitely shows with the overall low difficulty level and a slightly more puzzle-based approach to its gameplay, giving it a slight Legend of Zelda bent.  Still, even RPG veterans can get some enjoyment from it thanks to its robust design, eliminating random encounters (all enemies are visible on the map!), clever puzzles and a solid soundtrack.  Not the best of its kind by any means, but worth a playthrough at least.

Final Fantasy 5

Definitely my favorite of the Super Famicom Final Fantasy games.  The story once again isn't the greatest (in fact, it's downright silly), but I always felt that early Final Fantasy's strength was more in its gameplay than in its writing.  The fifth game exemplifies this best, retaining 3's wide and varied class system while also allowing for much character customization - one can mix-and-match abilities from multiple classes to create hybrid characters.  This allows the less powerful classes to be quite useful by giving characters abilities they can use to augment other classes - for example, the Red Mage can only cast low-tier magic, but can also learn to cast two spells in one turn, which the player can utilize with other classes by changing back to them once the Red Mage's skill set is maxed out. Even the default "freelancer" class has its purpose; it has no inherent abilities, but can utilize any equipment and has two free slots to abilities from other classes, making it a good choice for the end of the game.  Really good stuff, and the high challenge level of the game definitely requires you to get good at mastering it.  So why doesn't this one get its due attention?  Oh right, it's not the perfect, infallible, ultimate incredible uber SNES RPG the "real fans" on GameFAQs told them to worship forever and is therefore trash that qualifies its defenders for execution via penile mutilation.  Way to ruin a good game for everyone, fanbrats!

Final Fantasy 9

A lot of fans (myself included) were let down when Final Fantasy opted to drop its class system almost entirely and just turn the game into something a bit more simplistic and story driven.  9 is seemingly an attempt to reach a middle ground between the older and newer fans, retaining the cinematic experience of 7 and 8 while also returning to something more fantastic and class-based.  While the characters' classes are fixed here, they also have a touch of customization to them thanks to the ability system.  This allows characters to do things like gain resistance to certain status effects, counter physical attacks, get Trances (Limit Breaks, essentially) faster, get more HP, and so on.  One can also change up these abilities at any time by redistributing points, which results in the player frequently having to find a middle ground between raw strength and being well equipped to resist whatever the boss throws at them.  The game also provides a good challenge, giving enemies enough punch to prove a threat while not also allowing the player to become overpowered to the point of inanity.  Unfortunately the game also suffers from a lot of the problems of the other Playstation Final Fantasies - namely overly long spell animations, unskippable cutscenes and an encounter rate that can best be described as "atrocious".  Still, 9 is a pretty solid game overall and arguably the best of the PS1 games.

Final Fantasy Legend 1/2/3

I think everyone knows by now that these are actually rebranded SaGa games, but since we're talking old school Final Fantasy here, I'll mention them anyway.  SaGa was always more of an "experimental" series than Final Fantasy, attempting to combine elements of western RPGs into the mix as well as a heavy emphasis on luck based elements - to that end, stats are gained randomly after battles, your Mutant characters randomly gain and lose enemies, and your monster characters seemingly change from strong to weak forms (and vice versa) on a whim, forcing you to constantly re-adapt strategies in order to make your way through.  This is also not helped by the fact that nearly all items in the game are limited-use, forcing you to keep a hefty supply of them around and save your best stuff for when you're really, absolutely sure you need it.  Still, the strange sights and wild storylines make them worth a visit.

3 is a changeup for the series, though, doing away with much of the random elements and playing more like a traditional RPG (albeit still with some SaGa elements attached - characters can become Robots, Monsters or hybrid forms by installing parts or eating meat).  Once again, though, it's worth playing for its storyline, which feels a bit like an early precursor to Chrono Trigger thanks to its time travel elements.

All three games also have some outstanding soundtracks for the Game Boy platform, so that definitely makes them worth a look as well!

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

Tactics is easily my favorite game under the Final Fantasy label, perfectly combining elements of political intrigue, deep gameplay and challenge together into an unforgettable experience (no surprise considering it was masterminded by the extremely talented Yasumi Matsuno).  So when it came time to create a sequel, how did they botch it as badly as this?  The class system is still there, sure, but where's everything else?  The story is now cartoonishly lame, the gameplay lacks any real challenge (I played as a solo White Mage and never once came close to losing) and there's virtually no interesting characters at all.  But in a half-hearted attempt to introduce challenge, they now impose arbitrary 'rules' on matches like not using knockback moves or not casting specific spells; doing so causes that unit to be removed from the field immediately (and nets you a game over if it happens to be one of your main characters).  It doesn't add any real challenge to the game, just frustration; my one and only Game Over was when I got a critical hit, knocked an enemy back on a no-knockback rule, and got my main character removed from the field.  FFT is still one of the greatest RPGs of all time, but its sequels are simply not worth the time or the money.

Kingdom Hearts

A crossover between Disney franchises and Final Fantasy styled ones sounded good on paper, but what we ultimately got was more akin to Mary Sue Fan Fiction: The Game as your characters just step into the scripts of various Disney films and fight their villains with little variation on the original plot.  Well, except for the introduction of a vague evil force called the "Heartless" headed up by a generic evil Final Fantasy villain with no genuine character or interesting backstory.  It is a bit fun to see so many familiar characters in one place and the gameplay is decent action-RPG fare, but there's really not much else to it beyond nostalgic fan appeal.

Kingdom Hearts 2

Take an already thin concept and spin it out to the point of asininity?  Don't mind if I do!  That's the entire design process behind Kingdom Hearts 2, which just adapts more Disney films (and a lot of the same Disney Films from 1...) into another game.  But while the original at least had some thought put into its dungeon designs and boss battles, Kingdom Hearts 2 just quickly devolves into a button mash fest, encouraging the player to spam over-the-top cinematic attacks constantly to do heavy damage to bosses and wipe out minor enemies en masse.  The story also takes an even dumber twist as the Heartless are revealed to have humanoid counterparts called "Nobodies" who retain much of their humanity but have no feelings, causing them to be behind all of the game's events in an attempt to regain their humanity.  Oh, and Sora and Kairi have Nobodies even though they're not Heartlesses because... reasons I guess.  This was the point when Kingdom Hearts - and Square Enix as a whole - truly became a parody of themselves.

Spoony Plays One-Shot: LifeGenesis

Conway's Game of Arbitration

8/21/2016

Disgaea: Hour of Darkness in a Nutshell

Another game which loads of "RPG fans" find it trendy to shit upon but which I can actually find some appreciation for.  What are the odds?

I won't be poking a lot of fun during this nutshell either, because the game honestly does a pretty good job of that on its own.  Yes, unlike a lot of RPG companies whose scripts featuring silly and barely-sensical story elements, Disgaea's writers are definitely aware of this fact and the whole thing is played very tongue-in-cheek.  Certainly a much better alternative than trying to play it completely straight and making fools of themselves in the process...

Our story opens in the Netherworld, which at a glance appears to be a fictionalized, cutesy version of hell.  It's not an entirely inaccurate comparison either as we're also introduced to the slave class of said world, the Prinnies - squeaky-voiced penguins with peg legs who explode when thrown.  As the game goes on, we learn that they are in fact the souls of sinners, brought here to atone for their crimes by doing hard labor in hopes that they can one day buy their way into being reincarnated into a happier existence.  It's a nod to the Buddhist concept of the afterlife, albeit with a bit of an irreverent spin to it as the Prinnies are also portrayed as bumbling slackers who seem to spend most of their time getting drunk and partying, implying that they'll be here for a very long time indeed...

As for our plot, we're introduced to the prince of the Netherworld, Laharl.  His vassal Etna awakes him from a two-year nap and reveals to him his father, King Krichevskoy, is dead, and that the Netherworld has fallen into chaos in his absence.  Laharl quickly decides that he's going to take his father's place and sets out to quash all of the other pretenders to the throne.

Of course, being an impudent brat has its downside as you find out that nobody considers Laharl to be a serious threat, let alone stacking up to his father in any serious way, and even the castle's staff openly poke fun at him.

Spoony: While that summary makes this sound like one of those typical stories where the underdog protagonist rises to some sort of challenge whilst enduring all manner of mean-spirited mockery (as seen in every Disney and Dreamworks movie ever made), they take it in a much different direction here.  It also works a humorous level because Laharl is a loud, standoffish brat for much of the runtime, so you feel at least a little bit of gratification from watching him suffer for it.  The game is also smart enough not to play up this aspect of his character to the point where he becomes completely unlikable as a protagonist, as we'll see shortly.

There is also a small secret buried in the castle; by finding the two hidden switches (the skull on the shop counter and just behind the throne) you can access Etna's hidden chamber, which sets up a small subplot that will become important later.  In short, someone has stolen her memories of the past and she wants them back.  It's not strictly necessary to view these scenes since this plot point will be laid bare later, but it is a nice bit of introspect into her character.

Our first target on Laharl's quest for legitimacy is a silly character named "Vyers" whom Laharl immediately dubs "Mid-Boss", and the game follows suit by referring to him with this name throughout the rest of the story.  He doesn't prove to be especially tough, though you can trigger one of the game's many false endings if you actually lose to him during this fight.

After his defeat the castle is sacked and we get a scene of Etna consorting with some unseen person, revealing that she was the one who poisoned the prince into his two-year coma in a bid to put the unseen character on the throne.  We also briefly get introduced to the "Big Sis Prinny" among Laharl and Etna's minions (whose relevance will become clear later) and the first of many silly "next episode" bumpers that just serve as humorous skits and never actually tie into the plot (a trend which recurs throughout the series).

Chapter 2 opens in Celestia, which is appropriately this universe's equivalent to heaven.  Here we're introduced to Seraph Lamington, who tasks an angel trainee named Flonne with assassinating King Krichevskoy.  A decidedly un-angelic thing to do, but as we'll see, there's more to it than there initially appears.

Another angel named Vulcanus apparently takes exception to Flonne being sent on this task (unsurprising, considering her airy disposition) and demands to know why he wasn't sent instead.  Lamington simply brushes him off, though, which results in him launching a scheme of his own that we'll be filled in on later.

Meanwhile, Flonne gets caught almost immediately and spills that she was sent as an assassin, resulting in her fleeing the castle and Laharl giving pursuit.  They have a few battles with Flonne summoning stronger and stronger monsters each time before finally being cornered and unleashing a dragon (which is surprisingly dangerous for this stage of the game).

Spoony: This is a cutscene-only power, by the way.  She can't actually summon any monsters to the field mid-fight...

Once she is defeated, she seems rather broken up where Laharl isn't; namely that his father is dead. Reacting to this, Laharl denies that demons have any concept of love or sadness (though his inner monologue suggests otherwise) and Flonne embarks on a new mission: to discover whether demons really do feel love or not.  Laharl seems amused by this and recruits her as a new vassal, which sets up much of the rest of the plot.

Spoony:  I've seen a lot of people dismiss Flonne as being "useless", but that's actually not the case; she as a surprisingly high INT stat despite her air-headed personality, making her one of the better mage-type characters in the game.  The only problem is that her default skill set is bunk, so you'll have to give her some Mage vassals and teach her a few elemental spells to make her a legitimate threat.  Still, it's maybe twenty minutes of extra work, so it ends up being a worthy tradeoff; not that anyone who's into the hardcore aspect of the series would mind that extra time among the hundreds of hours one typically sinks into these titles.

She's also a pretty humorous character in that she's got a bit of an obsession with Super Sentai styled shows and magical girl anime, and in fact incorporates elements of both into her special moves and overall character throughout the series.  This is particularly evident in Disgaea 4, though I won't spoil that here.

In typical demonic fashion, our next mission is to sack some hapless dope's castle; in this case, a minor demon lord named Hoggmeiser; as his name suggests, he's pretty well obsessed with money.  But so is Laharl, as it appears that he's simply going to slay him and take his fortune for himself (and does so in another bad ending if you have too many ally kills at this point).  In the canon story, though, Flonne and Hoggmeiser's son manage to remind him of his father and he stops his assault, only saying that he's wasted too much time here as it is.

Spoony: The thing I like about Laharl's arc is that it's handled in a pretty clever way.  He upholds his pride as a demon by playing the tough guy and always making some excuse about why he doesn't act like a total dick, but it's pretty clear to the player (and the other characters present) what's really going on in his head.  Same for the next chapter, which I won't mention in great detail save for a scene where Laharl dives into hot lava (yes, hot lava) in an attempt to save a pendant that's necessary for Flonne's survival in the netherworld; he does it under the excuse of wanting a reward, but again, it's pretty clear what's really going on there.

This carries over once again into Chapter Five, where Laharl gets lured into a trap by one of Krichevskoy's former vassals, a vampire named Maderas.  As it turns out, he was Etna's co-conspirator in her attempt to off the Prince, though not of her own volition as he is the one who stole her memories.  With some pushing from Mid-boss, though, Laharl manages to overcome his weaknesses and Etna betrays Maderas.  At the end of it all, though, Laharl finds it in him to forgive her in his own stubborn way, stating that he was impresssed by Etna's ambition and that if he falls to her, then it's his own fault.

Spoony: Again, another clever scene, as it highlights the camaraderie between the two characters and his rationalization doesn't feel out of place for, well, a demon.

Not much to say about the next two chapters either, save that they show Laharl being his typical self.  The first entails him giving an open invitation to any and all demons in the netherworld who wish to challenge him for the throne, with one putting him in over his head.  Thankfully, Krichevskoy's vassals save the day, pummeling the challenger under the excuse that they have too much respect for the late king to see his Netherworld fall. They still don't have enough respect for Laharl to do anything other than freeload off him, though.  Vulcanus, having witnessed Flonne not only survive his assassination attempt but actively assist in Laharl's ascension, is none too pleased, escalating his plans further.

Our next major plot point comes on the night of the red moon, when several Prinnies exit the castle en masse.  Flonne has a brief conversation with the Big Sis Prinny, revealing that she's been following Laharl and Flonne's interaction since the beginning and noticed a change for the better in Laharl.

Then comes the saddest scene in the game.  No joke; Episode 8 is surprisingly heart-wrenching considering all the game has thrown us so far.

We finally get our explanation for Laharl's aloof behavior, and it's not just because of his demonic nature; as it turns out, he fell ill when he was very young, and his mother sacrificed her life to save his, leading to him shunning the idea of love since it led to his mother's death.  The Big Sis Prinny is in fact Laharl's mother, reincarnated for her sin of suicide, and has been watching over him in secret ever since.  Having atoned for her crime and feeling that Flonne's influence has changed him for the better, her soul departs her Prinny body and is reincarnated again, leading to a genuinely moving scene as Laharl finally comes to terms with her death.

Spoony: Just... wow.  This shouldn't even work considering that 90% of this game's writing is off-the-wall goofiness, but Nippon Ichi somehow pulls it off.  Whether you care for the game's sense of humor or not is a matter of opinion, but if there's one thing that Nippon Ichi understands full well, it's that characters should be layered and have some actual depth and human emotion to them.  That's something you'll never get from those boneheads who think putting a character in a PVC suit with forty kajillion belts and zippers on is somehow a substitute for a personality.

Not to worry, though, as the game hasn't gone completely melodramatic on us.  Quite the opposite, in fact, as our next introduction to the plot is a hammy Flash Gordon equivalent appropriately named... well, Gordon.  Backed up by a hyper-intelligent yet somewhat ditzy sidekick named Jennifer and her super-robot named Thursday, no less.  They arrive on a mission from Earth to defeat the Overlord and ensure Earth's future.

Spoony: This does feel a little out of place at first (even by Disgaea's standards), but it does tie back into the overarching plot, so...

As they duke it out, it becomes clear that Gordon and company were misled into believing that the Netherworld was planning an invasion of Earth as  Laharl clearly shows no interest in an invasion (saying that he's not interested in conquering a world polluted by its own inhabitants).  It's also not the worst thing humans are shown to do in this franchise, which becomes especially evident to those who have played Disgaea 4...

Spoony: Thankfully they do refrain from any specific social commentary in both games.  It's also darkly humorous to see a story where demons aren't the most evil force in the universe and in fact seem a bit bored of their violent and greed-driven culture, if their admiration for Krichevskoy is any indication...

Vulcanus' scheme also becomes more clear at this point, as he falsely reports to Lamington that Flonne was responsible for killing a human in the Netherworld and several angels are placed under his command under the excuse that he plans to capture Flonne.

After hearing of Gordon's failure to defeat Laharl, Earth launches a full-scale invasion against the Netheworld, leading to Laharl and Gordon's camps to ally in order to get to the bottom of things.  As it turns out, the Earth Defense Force had planned all along to conquer the netherworld due to their own planet's diminishing natural resources, and that their leader, General Carter, had always intended for Gordon to be killed by the Overlord so they'd have a pretext to do just that.  He's also backed up by Kurtis, a cyborg who holds a grudge against Gordon because of an accident that claimed the lives of his family and 70% of his body.

Spoony: And also a subtle homage to the cast of Cyborg 009.

Forcing their way through the EDF's space fleet (and several fights with Kurtis), they come to the bridge of the flagship and battle Carter, with Kurtis reclaiming his humanity and sacrificing himself to free Jennifer from Carter's mind control.  Carter goes down shortly thereafter, only for us to discover the true culprit behind this invasion: the invasion was suppred on by Vulcanus, who has become convinced that Lamington is no longer fit to rule Celestia and has taken it upon himself to overthrow him and destroy the Netherworld that he can rule over all of existence.  Flonne, appropriately shocked at this development, decides to return to Celestia to find out the truth from Lamington.

Fighting our way through Vulcanus' forces, we're eventually joined by Kurtis, now reincarnated as a Prinny to atone for the sins he committed in his former life.  He does get to keep at least some of the benefits of his former existence though, retaining his cyborg implants and his special attacks, making him more useful than your average Prinny.   It is a little silly from a gameplay perspective to introduce a new playable character this late in the plot, though he does also appear as a playable character in later games in the series so I guess that makes up for it to an extent.

We finally end up duking it out with Vulcanus and defeating him, causing him to plead to Lamington for aid; of course, Lamington was aware of his plot all along and punishes him by turning him into a flower.  Flonne, accepting her punishment for having harmed both humans and angels, undergoes the same transformation, leading to Laharl attacking Lamington in a fit of rage and cuing the final battle.  However, this is part of Lamington's plan as well, serving as his "atonement" for allowing Vulcanus' plan to advance this far, and this is reflected in the ending you receive afterwards.
  • If you've killed any allies in your current playthrough, Laharl will slay Lamington and, mirroring his mother's sacrifice, give up his life to resurrect Flonne.  It's then implied that he followed in her footsteps by being resurrected as a Prinny.
  • If you've gone through the game with no ally kills, however, Laharl will stay his hand before landing the finishing blow, saying that killing him won't bring Flonne back.  He then prepares to make the sacrifice, but is stopped when Flonne is suddenly resurrected, albeit as a fallen angel. Mid-Boss then explains that this was all a part of Lamington's scheme to build a bridge between the angelic, human and demon races.
Spoony: They still have a long way to go, of course, but every game in the series does have camaraderie between the races in some form, indicating that all of them are capable of cooperating and changing themselves for the better.  I like this development as it ends the game on an optimistic note, yet retains a touch of realism as well, acknowledging that tensions between different races and cultures (especially ones as drastically different as angels and demons) can't just be settled overnight.

This also leads to our discovery of the true role of this character.  It's hinted at up to this scene, but the ending all but confirms that Mid-Boss is actually a reincarnated Krichevskoy.  The game never outright states this, but it becomes clear who he is due to his continued interest in Laharl and his kinship with Lamington, not to mention that the two bearing an uncanny resemblance to one another.  So throughout the game he was watching over son in secret, helping him to awaken his emotions after his mother's death and subtly pushing him to build a bridge between the races.  Again, it's a pretty clever twist and one that I felt was very well executed.

I also like that Vulcanus' fate is left somewhat ambiguous; he's not seen again in later games, but he is (possibly) shown among a crowd of demons in an ending scene, being lectured by Flonne about the nature of love.

Perhaps that's Lamington's way of having him atone?

Of course, the game doesn't end there; as is tradition for Nippon Ichi titles, there is plenty of extra content to see and unlock.  There are numerous alternate endings and many hidden characters and classes, usually in the form of cameos from other Nippon Ichi games.  In this case, Marjoly and Prier from Nippon Ichi's Marl Kingdom and La Pucelle: Tactics, respectively.  The PSP and DS remakes also include some other cameos characters including Zetta from Makai Kingdom, Adell and Rozalin from Disgaea 2, and the ever-popular Pleinair.  Truly devoted fans can also opt to seek out every item in the game and face the franchise's recurring uber-boss Baal who, once defeated, returns as a Prinny and becomes even more powerful to add an even greater challenge.  That's part of the genius of Nippon Ichi's games - if you just want to experience the story, you can just casually play through it as you would any standard RPG.  But if you want to truly master the game, you can expect to run up the play time counter with hours well into the triple digits.  Deep enough to appeal to hardcore gamers, but accessible to those who just want to finish it and move on as well.

Spoony: And that's Disgaea, a sleeper hit from the early days of the Playstation 2 that has since gone on to become a fan favorite and a major component in launching Nippon Ichi's considerable following outside of Japan.  It's not hard to see why either, as the game is a combination of deep turn-based strategy mechanics with a puzzle bent, legitimately funny humor and surprisingly well-written characters backed by some solid voice acting.  The story's arc is also handled in a very clever way, showing Laharl's gradual character shift at the influence of those around him (in spite of his stubborn pride) and the overall theme of unlikely unity among races.  It's essentially to RPGs what Total Recall is to action films - a competent one in its own right that's made entertaining by its over-the-top elements, but which is also heavily steeped in self-referential satire and with some underlying themes portrayed in a subtle but surprisingly effective manner. Nippon Ichi definitely has a great amount of passion for what they do as a company, and Disgaea in particular stands as definite proof that making a game largely silly and irreverent doesn't mean that it can't also have some intelligent subtext and a strong story to go along with it.  The fact that it manages to avoid falling into the common RPG pitfall of becoming self-indulgent and preachy whilst doing all this is just another cherry on the cake.