Saturday, October 27, 2007

Game Review: Riviera: The Promised Land

Thought I'd write about this neat little GBA RPG I've been playing recently. Created by Japanese company Sting and localized by those amazing fellows at Atlus, who appear to be leading a one-company campaign to release all the awesome Japanese RPGs that the western market missed the first time, Riviera is a RPG with a turn-based battle system and cute anime graphics. But that's pretty much it for the cliche stuff. The rest of the game is very different.

For starters, the main game outside the battle system (known as the Quest Mode) is very much in the style of a "Choose Your Own Adventure" novel, where you can make decisions to explore the surroundings with various consequences or just walk on past. You may be asked to perform a reaction-based minigame to disarm a trap, or come across hidden treasure in otherwise mundane background dressing. Since you have a limited number of TPs, or Trigger Points, which are necessary to search or explore background icons, you have to choose wisely. Or simply remember which choices you made the first time and explore a different group of objects on the next playthrough. You gain TPs from the battles, with particularly well-fought battles gaining you more TP (for a maximum of 4 per battle).

As well as this intriguing Quest Mode, the battle system offers many interesting features also. For instance, all the weapons in the game bar the Angelic weapon your hero comes with has a durability limit. Though horribly constricting in earlier applications of this system (thinking of the GB Final Fantasy Legends in particular), it actually works much better here. You won't run out of 50 charges for a basic weapon any time soon, since you'll only be in about six or seven battles before something better comes along, and the super-powerful game-spoiling items have a very limited lifespan which is more than fair. A great little addition is that all five of the characters can use items in different ways. A large sword, for instance, can only be used effectively by the main fighter (this sword being his prime weapon type), though it can be used to a lesser extent by three other characters. The fifth can only throw it at the enemy, causing low damage with a low chance to hit. Other items, like magical artifacts or armour, can also only be used by certain characters. Things like potions or food tend to be usable by all five characters, though occasionally one character can do something special with them, such as turning healing herbs into a potion.

In fact, it's these different applications that present the game's level-up system. You don't gain XP for winning battles, but you do gain weapon points for using weapons continually, which eventually levels up the weapon and gives you a much more powerful attack you can perform with it. At the same time, the character gains hit points and stats like a regular level-up. This is where the game's Practice Mode comes in: A random battle system that won't use up a selected weapon's durability, allowing you to level-up weapons in peace without them breaking away from the main game.

If I have to give the game a list of cons, I guess one would be the Love/Trust system the game uses. Since all the player characters bar the hero are female, you can get one to like you more than the others by treating her better (or treating the others worse). This will effect the ending, as you will end up with your chosen girl at the end. It's a bit harem-ish and Dating Sim for my liking. Practice Mode can get a bit repetitive if you have to level several weapons at once, which can often take a while. It's necessary grinding, unfortunately, because enemies can start to get tough if you don't have the HP to survive their special attacks (called Break Outs, which occur when you've sufficiently pissed off the enemy side with constant attacks and fatalities). Otherwise, this is a fantastic game with a lot of humor and exploration elements (which I adore) and is sufficiently different to pretty much any other RPG I've played to keep me interested. The longevity is boosted by wanting to try all the things I didn't on the first playthrough, due to a lack of TP, so I imagine I'll be playing through it a few more times before I'm done with it.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Design Elements: Non-Linearity

[I figured this was more of an element than a genre thing, since non-linearity can apply to pretty much any genre.]

The concept of non-linearity is a constantly developing idea within the world of video games. In the earliest games, you didn't need to worry about plot or any kind of progress, and you'd simply repeat the same bit of addictive gameplay over and over until you died and wrote A.S.S. in the high score table. Later, as games created all these varied stages to follow, you went along for the ride to see where it would take you. Arcade staples specifically, like the Beat-Em-Ups and the Rail Shooters, would just be one long road between the start point and whenever you ran out of quarters.

Games started experimenting with the idea of having different paths to take around this time. The earliest factor, and one that is still relevant today, would be the risk vs reward element, where you could choose whether or not to go for a bonus item for a higher score, despite the increased danger that going for that bonus would present. It is non-linearity in its most basest form: the first factor besides simple endurance that allowed a skilled gamer to rise above his inferior peers score-wise. This is what I call the "Bonus" or "Basic" model of non-linearity, where you purposely go off the easier, pedestrian track for a potentially higher score or a potentially earlier "game over".

The second is the also familiar "Branch" system, where you are offered choices and dilemmas which affect the rest of your playthrough. A classic early example would be the "go right? go left?" conundrum of the original Pitfall. Other, non-stage-based platformers (so excepting Donkey Kong, Manic Miner and Lode-Runner et al) would also frequently have alternate paths to take. The Mega Man series is famous for presenting all eight of its early stages simultaneously, and asking the player which stage/robot master he wishes to take on first. There's usually a "correct" path, which would lead to you getting the weapon from one robot master that is strong against the next one in the sequence, but most players had to figure it out on their own or would otherwise experiment with their own sequences. The Branch system is by far the most prevalent form of non-linearity, though how much it can deviate from the norm will often depend on the game: having to choose between doing two levels and then doing having the level you didn't choose right after, for instance, isn't deviating a whole lot.

The final system that is used with frequency and certainly more often in recent games, is the "Freeform" or "Sandbox" form of non-linearity, which started with the Roguelikes and continues with the ubiquitious MMORPGs of this era. In these games, you can pretty much do anything you want, or at least anything you want from a list of options that are available to you. If we're talking one-player games like GTA or Oblivion, there's usually a string of story-vital missions and quests that you must follow (eventually) to bring the game's main story to a close. Otherwise, you're free to explore the world and its many side- and sub-quests. A lot of 3D platformers are the same too, with collection subquests taking you all over the place, often extending the game's longevity in an entirely optional extent.

A concept that hasn't been explored much, or has so far only enjoyed minor success, is time non-linearity. So far in RPGs and the like, you can have a hero at level 1, follow any career path you choose, explore dungeons and missions in a random order until the hero reaches level 100 and is some kind of unbeatable super person. The many branches and paths create a strong sense of freedom, but the otherwise linear progression of time is still an ever-present ball and chain. Common narrative devices for dealing with a non-linear timeline, such as flashbacks or starting a game in media res, are accounted for, but true non-linear time hasn't really been dealt with much in the video game world. I guess for good reason too, since no-one wants to see their character suddenly become 5 years younger and 10 levels suckier. The few examples I can think of include the SaGa series, which were generally confusing as hell, and the frequent mental trips into the past with Lara Croft's younger self, when she had far less experience and acrobatic/martial ability and so you had to rely on nothing but youthful enthusiasm to escape danger.

I should probably end this article with some novel idea in the realm of non-linear gameplay. A concept that I'm tinkering around with is having episodes of a game played through in a random order, just to create a kind of jigsaw puzzle that comes together the more you play. If you have the one hero, or better yet some non-combative underling/overling that links all the episode threads together, and follow a group of heroes taking out a bandit fortress or ice dungeon or what have you in each episode. As well as receiving treasure - which you won't keep between chapters, and will probably end up going into an overall pot or some kind of "episode score" at the end of that episode - you'll also receive clues and items that will come in useful for some other episode. For instance, you may receive a Ruby Key in a crypt which actually opens a door in the volcano dungeon a few episodes ago (or a few episodes down the road). You may also see part of a combination in an abandoned mine which opens a safe in the bandit fortress.

This game would have around 50 (or maybe 49, since that works as a 7x7 grid) such episodes/dungeons, with the cast lists of each varying depending on who survived a previous episode. If you have an axe-wielding dwarf at level 10 for one such random episode and keep him alive, he may come back in a different episode at level 30. If you help one lovestruck hero find a piece of treasure to win over his potential sweetheart, she may appear alongside him as an additional hero in a later episode. Likewise, interesting things start happening if you go back in time. A hero that dies in one episode at level 40 by falling into some lava might mention during another episode (where he's younger and still alive) how much he dislikes extreme heat. Okay, that one's a little silly, but you might be able to do things that shouldn't have happened according to the timeline you're establishing, causing a red mark to appear on an episode you've already completed but somehow messed up by killing a character earlier on that was still alive when you originally did that episode. The repercussions of which I'm not too sure about yet: it may dock you on your overall score, if I decide this game has one, or it could simply allow you the choice of repeating the episode with all this new information in hand.

There are other things too, that may alter the future of some of the episodes. If you're particularly antagonistic or fail to adhere to the whims of a certain hero, he may not come back in future episodes. Inversely, treating a hero with a lot of care and attention may make him return in future episodes in which he wouldn't have otherwise appeared. If you have a favorite character, or one that you despise, you may want to keep an eye out for ways to make them want to come back or stay away. If you attempted a high-level episode but only had a bunch of weak characters and got wiped out, that high-level episode might look a bit different later on if you've befriended a bunch of power-gamer type characters in the meantime. The game really does offer all kinds of choices and decisions, plus a cast list that never stays static. You might want to aim for a hero to show up in almost every episode (which some kind of bonus for creating a regular character). Alternatively, you might keep killing heroes off to make new ones appear. There could be a collectible sidequest (there I go again) for the cast list, keeping in mind all the triggers that will cause them to eventually appear, such as finding an egg and keeping it so it'll hatch into a friendly monster player-character a few game years later.

Well, that's kind of a wild(ish) idea for a new(ish) type of non-linearity. Episodic non-linearity, I guess. If we could convince developers to stop trying to equate a gaming experience to sitting through a movie, we'd hopefully see more games that are open to weird and varied non-linear storylines just like it (I'm thinking the high sales figures of GTA and Oblivion should help).

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Game Idea: Sky Citadel

Part Sim, Part RTS and Part RPG-style exploration, Sky Citadel has you lead your own flying fortress in a world where the ground is a distant memory. There are a few floating islands around which people make their home, but they tend to be sparsely spread around the known world, making trade difficult. Most people live in flying ships of some kind: Some are new, built at great expense with the limited resources available while others are ancient relics, created in a more prosperous time, that have been recovered and recommissioned to meet demand.

You are one of the lucky few to have discovered a Sky Citadel, an entire floating city supported by elaborate engines and propellers: A true treasure of the ancient era. Fortunately, for your benefit, the citadel is also heavily fortified from the constant attacks you'll suffer as you defend your prize from jealous rivals. As well as maintaining the citadel, you can also upgrade it, build on it and house a large population of citizens looking for a home to call their own. The citadel also has various means to be self-sufficient, including a massive grappling hook for salvaging all sorts of items from the unseen depths.

This is pretty much how the game goes: Chase down rumours of treasure below the skyline or hunt after pirates that have gotten rich off the suffering of others, make money, expand on your citadel and continue to grow as a presence. Explore the world in your own way and collect any refugees that appear like they could be of some use to your operation. There'll be an overall plot involving an evil empire, with their own sky citadels, but the main plot won't be as obtrusive and railroad as in other games of this caliber. Get around to it whenever.

Just to go over the three game modes:
Overworld mode, which is where you'll move your citadel to the next destination, or look for treasure with the grappling hook.
Citadel mode, where you'll build all the additions, when they become available and when you have the resources/cash to build them. You can also configure the existing populance, assigning them quarters inside the citadel and jobs to perform (such as Repair or Engineering).
Battle mode, when you find yourself attacked by enemies. You can actually fight back in two ways: by assigning NPCs with a high accuracy score to the citadel's cannons and letting them take down the enemy as you move the citadel around for best coverage, or you can assign yourself to a cannon turret and take down the enemy personally in a FPS mode. There are also other ways to fight back, including magic and occasionally with the grappling hook, if you wanted to capture crippled enemy ships for their valuable resources.

There'll also be a captain's log for keeping up to date on your recent exploits, plus rumors and clues you find that will tell you where to head next. There's also a giant ancient map of the world that you'll be able to follow - and often need to edit as you discover changes made since the citadel was originally created.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Game Idea: Abyss Divers

Back to good ol' traditional, long-winded game ideas this week. This one is another experiment in combining RPG features with a separate genre that rarely, if ever, employs them.

Set a moderate amount of time into the future (wow, how non-committal) and mankind is exploring the galaxy with faster than light travel. Which is possible in the future. But it wasn't an easy ride to get from light speed to faster than light speed, and we kind of goofed up a few times along the way with mad scientist-esque techniques involving powering through alternate dimensions and creating warps in the fragile space-time continuum. As such, there remains many, many minute tears and anomalies throughout the explored universe from that turbulent time. Occasionally, these tears manifest themselves as dangerous portals to universes we'd rather not have any encounters with. Which is where you come in.

You lead a squadron of starfighters, specially-shielded from the bizarre energy signals and various cosmic radiations created by these fabric tears, whose task it is to reconnoiter these rambunctious irregularities and find a way to close and/or repair them before too much undesirable alternate-dimension "warp-product" finds itself in our galaxy. This generally involves travelling to the anomaly as a group, defeating all the elements that managed to escape, heading inside and splitting up into two teams: one to fix the tear from the inside with some kind of laser (I guess) and the other to defend the repair team from outside interference from that universe's usually hostile (but not always) natives. Once the tear has been repaired sufficiently enough, it starts repairing itself on its own and this is your cue to get out of there. After which, you need to eliminate all the entities that escaped into our universe during the mission.

Gameplay-wise, I want it to be one of those old-school PC space-sims where it's all in first-person. I expect the various alternate universes and their inhabitants to be as bizarre and unsettling as possible, and this effect would be exponentially increased if you were seeing it all first person from your miniscule starcraft. As well as the usual hell dimensions, pink whirly dimensions, eldritch elder alien dimensions and "everything is the same but evil and with moustaches" dimensions, I also want to occasionally go all the way to crazytown. Like one dimension is a colossal recreation of Pee-Wee's Playhouse, where Chairy is several thousand miles tall and
Globey is actually the size of a planet. Or another dimension is made out of chocolate, with chocolate starships and starfighters. Big mystery with that universe is how their ships can use a propulsion system that won't melt them.

I mentioned RPG elements, so I'd better deliver. Basically, we're following the "make money to spend on improvements" system, which can increase your fire power, shielding, and also buy various luxuries like a fuel funneller (to refuel your ship on the cheap using natural sources like suns or whatever weird energy things the alterno-verses use) and a tractor beam. The tractor beam opens up a secondary means to earn money: collecting souvenirs. Rare altero-verses items can fetch high prices with collectors, though poaching these items are generally looked down upon by the various space authorities out there, what with their desire to close these things as quickly as possible to stop their content leaking into our own. But then you have to pay for these upgrades somehow. As your department gets better equipped and gains more renown, more pilots (far better ones than the "darn it, they're trying"-level volunteers you start with) will ask to join you. You'll eventually start getting famous explorers, bounty hunters and even space pirates of the universe accompanying your team to help out, some with their own specially-equipped starfighters. Find the best combination to use when heading out to a new anomaly.