Saturday, July 26, 2008

Breath of Fire: An Overview of the Series

Yeah, it's a rather long blog. I made anchors to try and help, because I'm aware that there's no pictures to break up the monotony of the text. Enjoy.

What Breath of Fire means to me
Critique: Breath of Fire 1
Critique: Breath of Fire 2
Summary of BoF1 & 2
Critique: Breath of Fire 3
Critique: Breath of Fire 4
Summary of BoF3 & 4
Critique: Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter
Summary of Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter
Summary of the Series
The future of Breath of Fire


Have you been paying attention to Capcom lately? It seems that in the past few years, Capcom has really started caring about the quality of their games, not to mention the quality of their games' English localizations. In the past few years, we've seen older franchises reinvented (Resident Evil, Devil May Cry); we've seen their games take off to tremendous popularity through word of mouth (Ace Attorney); we've seen fan suggestions taken very seriously, even being fully implemented in the final versions of their games (Lost Planet, SF2 HD Remix); and, we've even seen a few series revived entirely (Bionic Commando, Mega Man, Street Fighter). Yes, for Capcom, it seems like all their big franchises are doing well, and their focus on North American gamers is greater than ever.

However, there is one big Capcom series that has yet remained untouched. If you play RPGs, you've probably noticed that there has been little to no news about Capcom's flagship RPG series, Breath of Fire. This series seems to have garnered a lot of popularity in its time; however, interest in the games seemed to dwindle and die over time, their death knell being the commercial flop known as Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter.

Breath of Fire fans have been all but ignored by Capcom since about 2003, but is the series really dead? While perhaps most fans would say so, all hope is not lost. Christian Svenson, Capcom Entertainment's Vice-President of Strategic Planning & Business Development, has said before (paraphrasing) that a Capcom series never dies, it just 'rests' (apparently, BoF: Dragon Quarter's producer, Hironobu Takeshita, said the same thing about the BoF series specifically). While the Breath of Fire series rests, Capcom continues to grow more attentive to the wishes of their fans. So, now is a better time than ever for fans to unite and make their wishes known for a new installment in the Breath of Fire series!


...Except, Breath of Fire fans have no idea what the HELL they want out of their next game! Have you ever asked a Breath of Fire fan, "What do you want Breath of Fire 6 to be like?" There's plenty of answers, most of them being vague responses like "Add x feature from Breath of Fire 2, x feature from BoF3 and x feature from BoF4!" "Make it look and play like the older games!" "Make sure it has all the tribes and an epic story!"

As you can see, lots of fans really don't like the fifth, most recent outing of Breath of Fire. What I don't think they get is - and I realize I'm probably making a ton of enemies by saying this - a Breath of Fire game that rehashes the same old stuff from the first four games would fail big time, especially in the United States. In fact, three of the first four BoF games felt very dated by the time they were released, so how should we expect such a jurassic RPG to be a high seller and revive the franchise? These people are very traditional, and rooted in the old ways of doing things. While there is some merit to that, change must be accepted.

Another thing that strikes me as odd is that these gamers seem interested in only the superficial aspects of the games. Yeah, the game will have all the 'tribes' - the different anthropomorphic animal races; that's a given. But has Breath of Fire always been known for its epic storylines? Are these 'x features from Bofx' really gameplay features that would be fun and refreshing in 2008 and beyond?

Sometimes, I wonder if these such fans have ever looked back at the older Breath of Fire games without their rose-colored glasses on, and truly weighed the good and bad qualities of the series. Since I think few people truly will, I will take on the task of critiquing the entire series myself.

What Breath of Fire means to me

Breath of Fire's name already implies that it's about someone or something breathing fire; appropriately, each game incorporates dragons heavily into its storyline, usually as a part of the game world's lore. Supposedly, the first three games are supposed to have connected storylines, though I think the stories are too inconsistent to believe it; but, I digress. While the game appears to be all about Dragons and such, the main theme for the majority of the series is rooted in a decision that the hero has to make:

In each of these games, the world is either ruled or influenced by some sort of deity. By their influence/command, the fate of the world either remains static and controlled. As the heroes of the game, you have to make a decision: Should the world remain as it is, static and safe, but at the cost of the human race ('human race' is a term I use lightly, since Breath of Fire features many non-humans who are bipedal and can talk) having no control or say in its fate? Or, should the fate of the world be entrusted to the humans, regardless of the fact that they may be unprepared for what comes next? Ryu - the dragon of light - and his company represent one opinion, while the antagonist, along with a 'dark dragon', represents the contrasting perspective. Moreso than firebreathing blue-haired heroes, winged princesses, snakelike spellcasters, and anthropomorphic dogs, THIS is what Breath of Fire is all about.

Critique: Breath of Fire 1

Which is only part of the reason why I can't believe people enjoyed the original Breath of Fire so much. The story is pretty uninspired and cliche: The main character, Ryu, is part of the Dragon Clan, which almost wiped themselves out in a war with the Dark Dragon Clan long ago for the favor of a wish-granting goddess named Tyr. Well, the Dark Dragons have recieved the blessings of Tyr, and are using her powers to kick off a full-scale domination of earth. Of course, they start by burning down the village of the Dragon Clan. Ryu vows to put a stop to the Dark Dragons, and starts his trek with no idea, or even a hunch, about where to go next.

Although I've seen cliche stories pulled off well (Lunar series, anybody?), The problem is that the game's story is full of holes, lacks character development in almost any way imaginable, and is paced quite horridly. The biggest plothole in the game concerns some items called the Goddess Keys: These six keys are magical items needed to unseal the goddess. In the beginning of the game, one of the main villains claims that the Dark Dragons already have the keys. Okay, that's not too weird. I mean, they have to have them to be recieving power from Tyr, right? Oh, but wait! Ryu finds four of them not even in the possession of the Dark Dragons? WTFmate? I know this is an old-school story, but that's still a really huge plothole, no two ways about it.

Now, granted, at the time of the game's release (1993), pacing issues in RPG stories were still pretty abound. However, Breath of Fire's contemporaries had been patching up the holes in their stories and making honest-to-goodness characters with real dialogue since 1988, so what's the deal with that?

Speaking of 1988, the gameplay will surely make you feel like you're playing an RPG released in 1988. The only big 'innovation' of this game is the ability to transform some of your characters into animal. Admittedly, this is pretty cool; but most of the tranformations are just gimmicks. "Oh! Nina is the airship! This game is so innovative!"

The only two that aren't based in pure gimmickry are the ones used in combat, and their execution is very poor for their time too. It's acceptable that when you learned a new transformation with Ryu or Karn - the characters who transform in combat - their previous transformation(s) were rendered inept. What I never understood, however, is that Ryu would receive elemental Dragon transformations that rarely did elemental damage. More often than not, the snow, flame, and bolt dragons just had one attack that did a set amount of damage, with snow being the weakest and bolt being the strongest. What kind of choice is that? "Hmm, should I hit the enemy as hard as I can, or should I NOT hit the enemy as hard as I can?"

Combine that with super-slow speed, frequently having no indication of where to go next, and a clunky interface, all of which begs the question, "Just what IS good about the original Breath of Fire?"

Well, the music was pretty cool; it had a slightly jazzy and modal feel. But, there are just as many tracks that sound like generic JRPG music, so there seems to be a skewed musical vision. The day and night cycle was neat, although completely pointless. In fact, that sums up the entire experience of this game: Pointless. There were already plenty of RPGs that did everything better than Breath of Fire. It's as if when these other RPGs set the bar, Breath of Fire attempted to limbo under it rather than jump over it!

Critique: Breath of Fire 2

Breath of Fire's next outing offered previous little else. If anything, Breath of Fire 2 introduced one of the most obnoxious mainstays of the series - the completely, absurdly, ridiculously long fetch quests.

The story starts out on a very interesting note: In his youth, Ryu, our hero, takes a nap out in the grassy field behind his home town. When he returns, his family is gone, and none of the villagers recognize him. Afterwards, he leaves town with an orphan named Bow. They find a cave, where some crazy demon finds Ryu, kicks his ass, then spouts some ominous nonsense to him (I guess it's a bit cooler to play it than explain it). The game then fast-forwards to ten years later, where Ryu is employed as a 'ranger' (soldiers that do literally ANY task asked of them) with his friend, Bow, as they do all the things that rangers do.

The banal fetch quests waste no time getting started after this. Here's my personal favorite, which happens about an hour or two into the game, tops:

Bow gets accused of stealing something from a rich person's manor. So, you have to FIND Bow, and take him somewhere where you can hide him. After finding him a hiding place with some old fogey, Bow has no choice but to lay low while Ryu looks for the real culprit, some blue-haired girl. In looking for this girl, you:

- Strongarm your way into a fighting tournament by assailing an entrant and posing as him, only to have the party crashed by weird demon guys. Of course, Ryu and some new friends he made in this excursion - Katt and Rand - stop the weird demon guys before setting on their merry way

- Meet Nina, the winged princess of Windia, who is trying to save her sister from bandits - of course, you help her out, though it has jack to do with your agenda

- Head back to Windia, where you meet Sten - a monkey - who comes with you as you trek northwest forEVER, only to find a town with a monster problem. Big surprise: you fix it

- Head back to the place where Bow is staying for some contrived reason, only to find that the person maintaing the place needs the help of a carpenter - meaning YOU have to find one

- Travel to a new continent by boat, find a cursed frog who claims to be a prince, who asks you to find the witch who cursed him and discover how to lift the curse. Of course, you do so, find out that you already have the necesary tools - a girl - and go back to help him (I must admit, however, the fact that his normal form is still a frog made me laugh pretty hard)

- Take your new Frog prince (named Jean) friend to his hometown...only to find out that there is an imposter in his place, and no one there really cares. So, naturally, you have to prove that he's the real mccoy with (get this) a COOKING contest, which employs its own set of fetch quests.

After doing so, you find the blue-haired girl in Frog boy's castle by PURE COINCIDENCE, making it feel not much like you were ever looking for her, and more like Ryu was out having a blast while Bow had to build a three story house for some 70 year-old squatter. What the hell is up with that?

There you have it. This long series of events, which does absolutely NOTHING to expand on the story's original exposition, takes up at LEAST 1/3 of the total playing time of the game. And believe me, there's more where that came from.

As if that wasn't enough, the gameplay is no better - perhaps even worse - than the first game. For one, Ryu's dragon transformations are replaced by summon spells that use up ALL of Ryu's remaining magic points. How frickin' boring is that? Breath of Fire 2 also marks a low point for grinding: Not only does Breath of Fire 2 require the most amount of grinding to level up a character than any other game in the series, it also awards NO experience to characters not in the party. This forces you to commit to a main party very early, making it hard to experiment with all the characters without having to grind so much that your girlfriend dumps you for not paying any attention to her. Not that it happened to me, or anything!

People who love this game (all two of them) revere this game for its story. Granted, there are a few good parts; reminiscing about Sten's (the monkey's) past was a very cool part, and let's not forget the scene with Tiga and Claris later in the game (if there's one thing worth playing this game for, it's that scene...holy shit). And I'll give credit where it's due: this is probably the first game that used a prominent religious sect as the main villains' organization, which is pretty cool.

But, these minor things can't gloss over the fact that most of the main characters are static and have almost no dialogue, nor can it hide the fact that like the first game, there are way too many villains, most of them being lame and uninspired. My personal 'favorite' is Aruhamel, a very generic demon boss who reveals that he was the one behind the unfortunate events that transpired in the beginning of the story. So, you kill him, and that's pretty much that. This underwhelming trivialization of the main story exposition proved to be too hard for the game to bounce back from, and the rest of the game's story went to hell in a handbasket.

This is my experience of Breath of Fire 2. For pete's sake, it took my four tries to muster up the fortitude to start this game up and actually finish it. It's easily the lowest point of the series.

Summary of BoF1 & 2

As you can see, the original two Breath of Fire titles have precious little to offer. Not only were they severely dated gameplay experience for their time, but their storylines are awfully written, and don't even offer the thematic material of the series.

Admittedly, there are a few hints of good in here. The original Breath of Fire games established most - if not all - of the long-running aesthetic qualities, such as anthropomorphic (how many times can I use that word?) animals, rich colors, fluid, detailed animations, especially during combat sequences; and modal/jazz/fusion music. On the other hand, it also introduced many recurring pitfalls of the series that serve as detrimental to its enjoyment, such as absurd grinding and fetch questing, along with unruly high encounter rates. There are good things that came from Breath of Fire 2; the entire concept of Township (Make your own town, which doubles as your base of operations) was pretty cool and original, if poorly implemented. The next two games went on to divvy these two ideas up into the Fairy Village and Camping (more on those later). Other than that, the gameplay left a whole hell of a lot to be desired.

It's hard to believe that anything good can be taken from these games' stories that can be implemented into a new installment of the series. In those respects, save for the main antagonist being some sort of deity. These titles may better serve as an example of what NOT to do with your story, such as giving no indication of what to do next, or why; put in several villains that you only see once, making them feel unnecesary (certainly, if the game had been narrowed down to a few antagonists, they probably would have been more interesting); and throwing in a bunch of crap that is unrelated to the current plotline.

From this point on, the creative aspects of the Breath of Fire series - both in scenario writing and direction - were placed in the hands of a man named Makoto Ikehara, a 'planner' for the series since the first game (not sure what a planner does; any readers in game development wanna help me out?). With all due respect to whomever was behind the first two games (many sources cite Tokuro Fujiwara, the creator of Ghosts n' Goblins), I believe the series has truly flourished after this change was made. This is where the series' 'ethical conflict' plots begin to emerge, making the stories seem more interesting. This is also where combat begins to be more interesting, and a bit more streamlined and faster in general.

Critique: Breath of Fire 3

What came next in the series was the series' biggest commercial success, Breath of Fire 3. Ironically, it feels as if most BoF fans I know consider this the weakest of the original four, if not the weakest entry in the series. It's not hard to see the faults in the gameplay, unfortunately - combat is perhaps the slowest out of all the other games (though it certainly LOOKS the best), and the plot has a tendency to go nowhere at times, especially in the second half. Still, Breath of Fire 3 had a lot of great things going for it. It brought so many new innovations to the table, that it might make your head spin.

First and foremost was the "Master System": As your party treks through the world, they will find 'masters' who will take your party members on as 'apprentices'. By doing so, you recieve certain stat bonuses and deductions upon leveling up, as well as learning new skills if you stay with a master through a certain amount of levels. This allowed for a cool amount of character customization.

The next sweet innovation was Ryu's 'gene transformation' system. Basically, Ryu might find 'dragon genes' while he explores the world. He can combine up to three genes to make unique dragon transformations, giving them a lot of versatility and customization. For example, you can make a thunder dragon that has more physical attacks, or a thunder dragon with more magic attacks, depending on what genes you use (of course, you'll have to use the Thunder Gene!).

And beyond combat, the game had a lot of neat features. The most notable one was the Fairy Colony, where you help a group of fairies build a town. Your incentives, of course, are cool shops with some of the best weapons, a shop that gives away free items, and even a shop that makes copies of items! It was a huge improvement over Breath of Fire 2's township, where you had to find people to live in your town, and you never knew what sorts of services they would provide for you, if any. The status of the colony updates after a certain number of battles.

Besides that, there's camping, which also replaced a necesary function that BoF2's Township: A way of interacting with your party members...Except this time, you didn't need to go all the way back to Township to have a chat with your pals, who never said anything interesting anyways. In BoF3, all you need to do is press "Start" on the world map, and you could see what any of your pals had to say about what's going on at any point during the game. This provided a quick and dirty way of being able to interact with the characters, and, ALSO for the first time, it feels like your characters aren't just soulless faces tagging along with you for little to no reason at all.

There were, of course, a few other neat aspects to the gameplay, like a fleshed out fishing minigame, having battles on the world map be completely optional, having battles with no transitions into a separate screen, a la Chrono Trigger, and the ability to learn skills from your enemies by forfeiting a turn to watch them. These 'icing on the cake' features definitely helped set Breath of Fire 3 apart from its predecessors in the best way, and definitely raised the bar as far as what you could expect from a Breath of Fire game.

The only big problem with BoF3's gameplay (besides the fact that combat is admittedly VERY slow) is that it has severe game balance issues. For example, almost every character in the game has some sort of glaring deficiency that needs to be fixed by using the master system, be it poor stats or spells. It can be intimidating to use a master, though, since you have to return to them in order to learn new skills from them, or quit being their apprentice. The thing is, you can't always return to a place where a certain master is, so your character's stats might level up undesirably as a result, and there will be nothing you can do about it.

Also, Ryu's dragon powers are way too strong! You can muscle your way through the entire game with virtually no problem if you can exploit Ryu's transformations properly. I've reached the final dungeon of the game at such absurdly low levels that it's...well, absurd! It's no surprise that they didn't keep the gene system, as awesome as it was, since it broke the game's balance way too much.

...But, in all honesty, the game does function just fine, even with these design flaws. It would be nice if it were fixed, though, given that the usual BoF pitfalls of frequent random encounters, heavy grinding, and characters not in your current party gaining no experience are still present. I do have to admit for the first time in the series, I am having some real fun during combat.

And as for the story,'s easily better than the first two, though not without its flaws. The story is separated into two parts: Ryu as a kid, and Ryu as an adult. (And by the way, I'm about the spoil a thing or two, so get ready)

So, you are Ryu, an orphan that was found in the woods by two other punks, Rei and Teepo. Y'all become the tres caballeros and pull a bunch of pranks, and try to steal food to live. Eventually, the tres caballeros steal from the wrong person, and people from the criminal underworld come after them and decimate the three of them, leaving them all for dead. Ryu survives, and decides to set out on a journey to find his friends.

From there, a lot of things happen to Ryu, the most important of them being that he learns of his origins in a clan called The Brood - a dragon clan who apparently sought to destory the world long ago - from a mysterious person named Garr. Garr later shares with Ryu the fate of The Brood - killed by Guardians, warriors who had recieved blessings from God, such as himself. After travelling with Ryu, Garr begins to have doubts as to whether or not The Brood are truly evil, and if the genocide of The Brood was the right thing to do. So, Ryu and Garr decide to search for God in order to find the answers.

Now THIS is what I'm talking about! Right there is the makings of a truly interesting story. Granted, BoF3 still had its share of quests unrelated to the main task at hand; but it's definitely forgivable in the beginnings of the story, when your only tasks are things rooted in the present, such as "Find your friends", "Evade the mafia criminals, who discovered that you are still alive", and so on. These things, combined with the fact that you are playing as Ryu the kid right up until the main goal of the story presents itself, gives you a really thrilling feel of being a youth on an exciting adventure. It's not 'epic' by any means (at least until you get to the main goal of the story), but epic has clearly not been working for Breath of Fire. The ever-changing objective of Ryu the kid is FUN, and will excite your boyish spirit, if you still have it.

Eventually, Ryu and co. meet God, only to find out that she (!) basically controls the flow of technology into the world, and alone keeps the world safe, using her magic powers to keep the world from being swept over by barren desert. She also reveals that she had The Brood anihilated because she felt that their power was great enough to destroy the world which she worked so hard to protect. Ryu and co., admit that they are unsure of what fate lies ahead of them if they defeat God and put a halt to her strict control over the world, nor can they say for sure that they can survive without her guidance. Still, in spite of this, they believe that the fate of the human race should be entrusted to no one else but themselves, and they fight against God. Although they succeed, they have no idea what lies ahead for them.

Poetic, eh? This is when Breath of Fire's stories really began to take on a more mature light. Perhaps I owe it to the fact that BoF3 was the first game in the series I ever finished, but when I think of Breath of Fire, I think of this conflict. In the end, even though your party represents the winds of change, the case of whether or not what your party did was the right thing is left totally ambiguous. In fact, you are presented with the option of not fighting God, and the game will end right then and there. Multiple endings weren't anything new, but being burdened with the decision of picking one side of two diametrically-opposed ethical choices was pretty far out for its time.

Critique: Breath of Fire 4

Strangely enough, series director Makoto Ikehara decided he wanted to take the series in a 'new direction'. This is partly strange because Breath of Fire 3 did a great job of that, and party because Breath of Fire 4 feels like, in a lot of ways, a step back into the mind-numbing mediocrity of the first two games.

I suppose one thing that was taken in a different direction was the aesthetic qualities of the game. Breath of Fire 4's graphical and art style are a huge departure from the previous games, sporting unusually dull colors. There were a few changes in usual character design, like the Manilo - the fish people - who now look a lot more like frogs than anything else, among a few others. Also, the music takes on a more contemporary orchestral sound for the most part, almost completely abandoning the usual tunes of the first three games. I think they were trying to make Breath of Fire 4 a 'dark affair' of sorts, even though I think that the BoF games were already pretty dark (let's face it, some really messed up things happen in BoF2 and 3).

I confess: I dislike Breath of Fire 4; but, it isn't a total failure by any stretch. Breath of Fire 4 feels like a big step forward in the gameplay department. Almost every original gameplay feature of Breath of Fire 3 was improved upon in BoF4: The fishing game was more involved, the fairy village was a lot easier to build up, the master system was easier, as you had to accomplish specific tasks to learn skills, rather than level up (not to mention you could change masters or quit being an apprentice at camp), and having slightly detailed information about monsters available to you during battle - even telling you what skills you could learn from them! Of course, optional world map battles and camping make a return, though there's nothing new about them. The best things about BoF4's gameplay, though, would be the return of switching out characters on the fly, a la BoF1 (meaning all characters gain experience for battle again); along with the fact that combat in BoF4 is really fast, now. Combine that with the fact that you don't have to grind to beat the game (finally), and you've got yourself a pretty nice game to play.

Unfortunately, you might still find BoF4 a chore to play, simply because BoF4 might very well be the most boring RPG story I have ever seen. Here's the beginning story exposition, taken from my review of the game and modified slightly:

You're Nina. You're looking for your sister, Elina, with a dude named Cray. She was last seen in a town called Synesta, a town at the edge of a great desert. Your sand-traversing vehicle crashes, and you go to look for more parts while Cray makes sure no one jacks parts from the vehicle. On your way to a town, you meet some dude, Ryu, who appears to have amnesia. Nina offers to take him along for a while, and the story starts from there.

So, this brings up a lot more questions than answers, if you ask me...but, not good questions like "Who abducted Elina and where was she taken?" But rather, "Who the hell is Nina? Who is Cray, and why does he give a crap about Nina and Elina? Who the hell would even kidnap Elina, and why?" These questions are answered eventually; but they are things that maybe you should already know, Since the game portrays Nina as the main character from the beginning. Anyways.

This game marks the return of the way-too-long fetch quests. Unlike Breath of Fire 2, this game just starts you out with fetch quests immediately, all of which have their own fetch quests piled on top! The absolute worst part of all this is that many of the fetch quests you have to do are so ridiculous that it's almost insulting. For example, near the end of the game, you're trying to find a way to your final destination from your current location. So, you stop into a town, and someone tells you "oh, so-and-so knows...but, he's a little distraught right now. You see, his favorite chicken got out of his pen, and he hasn't been talking to anyone lately..." If you read that and thought "Yeah right, you have to catch some guy's chicken to figure out where to go so you can save the world?", then you were right. That's EXACTLY what you have to do.

Even more bewildering is that the game seems to eventually forget about the original exposition. The first 1/3 of the game is all about finding Elina, but after you get caught looking for Elina in an enemy country and deported, the second chapter of the game begins, and no one cares about Elina anymore. Maybe this is okay at first, because your main goal at the beginning of the second chapter is to find a way to help out Cray, who is facing a tribunal for wandering around in enemy territory during an armistice. But, by the time you've helped Cray out, you've found out that Ryu is an Endless (dragon people), and they set off to find out more about Ryu. They eventually find out that Ryu is half of an incomplete dragon, and the third chapter of the game is all about trying to find him for a variety of vague reasons that I can't even remember.

Speaking of Ryu's other half, you do get to play as him from time to time: his name is Fou-Lu, the first emperor of the 'Fou Empire' - the villains. These parts start out interesting, and are action packed at first; but, besides the fact that Fou-Lu's scenes are too scarce, sporadic and short, the intrigue of his story will eventually go down the crapper, when he eventually starts having to do little fetchy questy things that have nothing to do with HIS main goal: reach the imperial capital.

Anyways, the party eventually finds Elina, and this is actually an awesome scene - probably the best reason to play this game. But, after that, everyone just follows you as you make your way to Fou-Lu. Fou-Lu, by the way, hates humans - he wants Ryu to merge with him so that he can anihilate the human race. Like Bof3, you're given a choice to do so, but it's kind of silly; would you really want to do that? BoF3 makes a compelling argument for the opposing side, but BoF4 makes a very weak argument, making Fou-Lu seem rather childish for being a God. At the very least, the whole 'big decision' thing is there, but it just kind of sucked this time around.

Funnily enough, the game DOES have a bogus explanation for why everyone started caring more about Ryu's fate enough to forget about Elina: Ryu's 'life stream'. Eventually, the party finds a wise person, who tells them all about how each person has their own 'life steam' - a person's destiny, of sort. It was said that Ryu's stream is so large, that it picks up everyone else's that gets involved with him. Not only did I find this to be a cop-out way of changing the focus of the game from finding Elina to finding out more about Ryu, but it really skews ALL character development. Let's take a look at one character in particular: Scias.

Scias is a (dog) guard that was hired to watch your group in the second chapter, while Cray faced his tribunal. He allows you to go wherever you want ("They said to watch you guys, but they never said you couldn't go anywhere!" hah!), and watches you try a number of things to help Cray. As you do so, he asks "Why are you guys doing this? There's nothing in it for you guys..." The party responds with the usual good guy "He's our friend, and we can't sit around and do nothing." Eventually, the party opts to simply break Cray out from prison, and suddenly, Scias is missing. It is shown that Scias is reporting to his employer what happened, and where they planned on escaping to, essentially betraying your party for money. Well, as the bad guys catch up to you at the end, something really cool happens: Scias catches up, and throws the sack of money back at his employer. When asked for the reasons behind his actions, he says "I don't know...I just feel like it."

Now, okay, Scias is a quiet guy (dog, actually), and his response could just be him having a hard time expressing how he feels, right? Surely, he was inspired by the group's determination, and learned that there's more to life than just money and self-gain? That's what it seemed like at first, but after you learn about the life stream baloney, it becomes more apparent that Scias's life stream just got 'caught up' in Ryu's! Wonderful - you've taken a really awesome character and trivialized them to the point where he's just a stuttering dog that doesn't say much of anything. Nice going. There are other examples of this, but Scias was by far the most painful, since he was perhaps the first honest-to-goodness dynamic character in ANY Breath of Fire game.

Summary of BoF3 & 4

Obviously, there's no denying that the gameplay of the BoF games only got better as they transitioned to the Playstation. The many new innovations (masters, learning skills from enemies, optional battles on the world map, camping) and expansions upon things that had been introduced in the first two games (fishing, create your own town) made for a fun experience. Of course, the ability to switch out characters on the fly in Breath of Fire 4 was wonderful; I can't believe it took three games for them to put this back in!

There's only two real problems with the gameplay, the first being that Ryu's Dragon Transformations still saw no particularly good implementation. BoF3's system was VERY fun, but VERY broken; and BoF4's 'find a dragon and use it + power them up by playing dumb mini games' was contrived and stupid (though admittedly better than BoF1 and 2's dragon transformations).

The second, and more important problem, is that Breath of Fire's combat is still strictly turn-based at this point. The year 2000 - BoF4's year of release - was at about the end of a time when we were okay with Turn-based RPGs that weren't named Final Fantasy. If you don't believe me, just look at Mistwalker's XBox360 RPGs, Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey. The BIGGEST complaints levied on the gameplay - especially on Lost Odyssey - was the slow and dull turn-based combat, which made the games feel like such a chore to play. Turn-based combat is still viable in this day and age, and will probably always will be; however, you HAVE to do something interesting with it (like Final Fantasy).

As for the stories, there's not very many things to garner from the PSX entries of the series, but these few things are critical:

1. Centering the game around an ethical choice that YOU have to make - and giving weight to the argument of your opposing side - was an excellent choice, and

2. 'Epic' storylines are not working for this series. BoF1 tried to be epic, and it was lame. BoF2 and 3 tried to spin a story from something lighthearted into an epic, and did a poor job at it (actually BoF2 was just poor the entire time), and BoF4 tried to be a HUGE epic adventure, and did awful. Sometimes, I wonder if scenario writers have the notion that RPGs that aren't epic aren't good, or that you can't have a story that makes a dramatic impact without it being a long adventure.

In fact, the next, and final entry to the series would try a completely different approach to making a story with a dramatic impact, and it would serve to divide fans of the series like few other games possibly could have.

Critique: Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter

Chances are, you either love it, hate it, or have never played it due to how intense the negative reactions can be for this game. However, if you're up to the task of playing it - cos believe me, it's very hard - then Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter is one of the most amazing experiences to be had with an RPG. Still, people who hate it just can't see anything good about it.

Now, big surprise: I love this game, probably beyond most reasonable limits. Since I can acknowledge my potential for bias, I'm going to critique this game in a different way: I'm going to go over the biggest list of reasons why people dislike the game, and try and give my opinions as objectively as possible. Not only does it make sense to do this with the most controversial game of the series, but from talking about all these reasons at length, I think you, the reader, can get an accurate depiction of what the game is like.

So...What is it that people hate about Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter?

1. Departure from the BoF series's aesthetic - That is, the game doesn't consist of a bunch of bright, lush environments. Dragon Quarter takes place in an subterreanian world - Deep Earth - long after a terrible catastrophe ravaged the surface world, forcing surivivors to live deep underground. As such, there aren't peppy, bright locales, but instead, metallic, gray-ish reddish factory-type places. I suppose this is a bit bewildering, in a sense; if the first four games in a series led you to expect one thing, and gave you something different the next time around, it could throw you for a loop.

On the other hand, I would like to think that RPG fans can accept change readily, especially for something that doesn't ruin the game. A drastic change does not always amount to something bad. If you don't believe me, just look at Final Fantasy 7, and how drastically different the environment was from all the previous games. Admittedly, FF6 was pretty dark, but it wasn't a cyberpunk fantasy world, for crying out loud. Fans of the genre readily accepted this, and in fact, you have Final Fantasy 7 to thank for the trillion RPGs you see getting released nowadays, since it single-handedly popularized the genre. Clearly, most RPG fans can accept change - it's time for Breath of Fire fans to be able to do so, too.

Also, for what it's worth, the character designs still have very rich colors - definitely an aspect that doesn't deviate from the norm.

2. Lack of iconography from the first four games - Specifically, people from all the varying 'tribes', and one of the recurring characters, Deis, is not present in the game (I've even heard a complaint about the lack of a FISHING mini-game!). This is a really stupid, old-fashioned reason to dislike something. I personally think that the first reason I stated was a rather old-fashioned reason to dislike something, too; but at least I can see why that bothers people. But every time I hear THIS complaint, I feel a little bit of my soul die.

This reasoning reminds me of that movie, Wag the Dog, where they showed that awful presidential election commercial where the tagline was "Don't change horses in midstream." It's completely fallacious to think that you should stick to tradition for tradition's sake. The various 'tribes' had almost no definitive character qualities or inclinations, and while Deis was a fun character, her role in the first four games was totally contrived and stupid. Regardless of the fact that they were mainstays to the series, their addition to the series was superficial, superfluous, and altogether inconsequential. If this was a reason why you disliked BoF: Dragon Quarter...get over it. The game is not called Gills of Water, Dog Breath, or Furry Frenzy. It's called Breath_Of_Fire, and a dragon man that burninates things is all the iconography that's necesary.

3. Combat is too hard - I can concede this one, to an extent. Combat in Dragon Quarter was terribly hard if you weren't expecting (or looking for) a challenge. It works something a la Paper Mario in 3D, where combat is initiated by attacking enemies that appear on the map. You can gain the first strike in battle by attacking first, and lose it if the opposite happens. As such, when walking through the dark catacombs in this game, it's easy for enemies to get the jump on you if you're not paying attention, and get easily wiped out. As you can see, combat strategy in Dragon Quarter begins before the battle even starts.

To expand upon that that, the game relies more on strategy than simple brute force. Battles are turn-based, and take place on the same map that you walk through, like Chrono Trigger. Your position matters on the map: your allies can only move so far in a turn, and can only hit things so far in front of them, not to mention they can only attack so many times during their turn. Your three characters all have very different roles in combat, as well: Ryu controls close range combat, Nina controls mid-range and does elemental damage, and Lin controls long-range combat. Your party also has a variety of different skills at their disposal, some of them being much more useful than others depending on the situation. This means, of course, that you can't just mash one button until your enemies die, like you could in all the previous Breath of Fire games.

And to top it all off, there are no random battles, enemies don't regenerate after dying, and item space is limited, all of which prevents the player from relying on grinding - hell, it prevents grinding in and of itself!

There's no denying that there's a lot of strategy to this game. Director Makoto Ikehara said that he wanted to create a feeling of 'success the struggle' as the player made their way through the game. I would say that he definitely pulled off what he set out to do; but unfortunately, it alienated people who were ill-prepared to play such a hard game.

So, what is the solution? Dragon Quarter's story actually thrived on being hard (the whole storyline is meant to make you feel like Ryu and co. should stand no chance at all), so there was probably nothing that could have been done; however, if the next game features a similar combat system, and I hope it does, a Normal/Hard mode difficulty (Hard being roughly as difficult as DQ was, to put it in vague, relative terms) would be a great idea; it would encourage people to play the hard mode after playing through normal mode and enjoying the system (I've heard from some DQ naysayers that they liked the combat system itself, but that it was altogether too difficult).

4. Hard combat is further exacerbated by the save system - In Dragon Quarter, you have to find an item called a 'Save Token' to make a hard save (if you play Resident Evil, you can compare them directly to ink ribbons). You can make a temp save at any time during the game, but it will delete itself when you load it. Since Save Tokens are limited, you are conditioned from the get-go to not make a hard save unless it's really important; but, you never know when you're gonna die. Even if you've got your wits about you, and are playing the game all hardkorr like it was meant to be played, you can still make a bad mistake or an error in judgement, and be wiped out kind of easily. While someone like me might find this thrilling, I have to admit that I still get mad when I die and lose a lot of progress. This could also be fixed really easily with the addition of a 'Normal/Hard Mode' feature, where you don't need Save Tokens in the Normal Mode.

5. Having to die in order to progress is a bad idea - This is such a terrible misconception, and it mostly comes from the way the game was advertised before its release. The Scenario Overlay System (SOL) awarded players who started over from the beginning with extra story scenes, and it allowed you to keep any stored items and equipment, as well as party experience - bonus experience gained in battle for completing fights quickly, exploiting enemy weaknesses, and other things. The misconception of HAVING to start over to beat the game is so notorious that even people who have never played the game seem to know about it, from my experiences. These people don't even seem to truly grasp the concept; they just 'know' that you have to die and start over to win.

Not only is this false - I've personally always finished the game on my initial runthrough, because I was too stubborn to start over - but it doesn't even give you the whole picture (I've never heard anyone talk about all the stuff you keep when you start over, unless they're people who've played and enjoyed the game). Still, the misinformation has spread like wildfire; I still discuss this game with people who think that it's LITERALLY impossible to finish the game without starting over, and still many people who think that it's unreasonably harder than it's worth to finish the game without starting over. This is a bit bothersome, since I know people who have refused to play the game based on this information. If you're that person...that's incorrect.

What definitely IS correct, though, is that the SOL system was just a bad idea. The game omits a lot of story scenes until you start the game over, which is not only a bad reason to replay the game, but it also makes the story look incomplete and rushed on your initial playthrough. Even if you KNOW that there's extra story scenes to be seen, how can you tell if they will truly fill in the gaps adequately? For all you know, it's just a bunch more scenes that may or may not fill the holes that you see the first time around. It was a neat idea, but ultimately, I think it should go. It caused problems for the game's story, and caused no end of confusion on how the game works...And for what? I still can't even tell you, and I love the damn game.

6. Not a big prescence of dragons in the game - Which I don't understand. The world is so incredibly small, yet Dragon Lore is still such a HUGE part of Dragon Quarter. In DQ, a dragon has to choose to link with a host (human). In Deep Earth, the government assigns numbers to people called D-Ratios, which is to signify a person's probability of linking with a Dragon without losing their minds. Of course, the main character and a few of the main villains link or have once linked to a Dragon before, and there's a whole ton backstory to the dragons, and the people who have met the dragons before. Just because there aren't like 10+ transformations, and a whole bunch of weird 'dragons' you can meet like in BoF4 (which, by the way, just looked like weird funky aliens), doesn't mean that Dragons don't play a huge part in it.

Perhaps I've dodged the point a bit; most people complain about this as a gameplay aspect. However, I don't really sympathize with those people, since it makes perfect sense with the story. Besides that, we've seen that the whole Dragon Tranformation system doesn't work to well, as it always tips the balance very, very heavily in your favor. So, rather than rebalance the dragon system, which has proven to produce boring results (BoF2 and BoF4), they made the Dragon form ULTRA powerful, but with a twist: Once Ryu is chosen by the dragon, Odjn, a counter appears, that starts at 1%. Any attacks you use with the dragon form raise it anywhere from 1%-2%. Walking around in a dungeon for about 10 seconds, or completing a turn in combat raises the counter 0.01%. It the counter reaches 100%, it's game over, and there is no way to lower it.

Personally, I think the "not enough transformations" complaint is right in line with some of the above "don't change horses midstream" complaints. The D-Counter is purely psychological. You can kill ANY boss in the game using no more than 6.5% of your D-Counter, and you should almost never have to use it outside of a boss fight, save for once or twice. Instead of making the bosses so powerful that you have little choice but to use your Dragon Form (see: all previous BoF games), they made it a last resort for someone who made a mistake and have no choice but to use it or die. In any case, if you used 6.5% of your D-Counter on every boss that wasn't a 'lotta enemies' boss, you still shouldn't go over 75% by the end. Hell, you can reach the last bosses at well below 30% if you don't use it at all. People are way, way too scared of this aspect of the game.

7. Story is weak/character development is poor - I can concede that Dragon Quarter's story might not be everyone's cup of tea. For starters, you don't even get the whole thing on your first playthrough, which I think was a horrible idea. Beyond that, the story's strengths are not in what you might conventionally look for in a story. The characters are mostly static, and don't have any overbearing, outstanding personality traits; for that matter, you hardly delve into ANY characters' pasts at all, except for the villains. The plot is complex, but not overly so. It definitely doesn't try to be 'epic' by any means. If these are things that you have to have in your story, then you are just not going to like the story of Dragon Quarter.

What DQ DOES do, however, is something a lot like like what the old PS2 game Ico does: It allows you to become the character by NOT giving you a lot of details. Ryu 1/8192 is a ranger who will never make it up the ranks because of his low D-Ratio; but he's a hard worker who takes his job seriously all the same. That's all you know about the main character when you start the game, and you don't know anything else of consequence about him by the end. That's not what matters. You can feel that Ryu is human (and everyone else in the game, heroes and villains) by listening to what little he has to say, and watching his mannerisms and expressions. You can see real empathy in his relationship with Nina. You can see real fear every time he has to use his power, and how scary it feels to slowly lose his humanity, the longer he is linked with Odjn. The game gives characters the chance to 'develop' by showing their reactions in the present, rather than using storied histories and cliched plot devices. In this way, the main characters of Dragon Quarter feel more real than any other characters I've seen in an RPG, period.

Again, though, while I have a lot of good things to say about it, it's definitely not for everyone. Ico was a cult classic that will probably never be realized by most gamers as a storytelling achievement. It makes sense that Dragon Quarter, which did something awfully similar (I think Ico did most things a lot better in this respect) but had an incredibly steep learning curve, will never go down in history for its story, as well-crafted as it is.

Summary of Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter

So Dragon Quarter could have done a lot of things to make it more accessible. While I don't think it would be befitting of Dragon Quarter to be easier, a new installment with a similar combat engine should definitely have an easy mode of sorts. the Scenario Overlay system needs to be almost entirely ditched. The only neat thing about it was that you could access new parts of dungeons when you restarted; But, you can do that without having to 'overlay' the 'scenario' and make people feel like they have to die to get through the game. This 'die to win' crap is never a good selling point; I can't imagine it did wonders for Baroque, which practically PIMPS the concept onto you, and it sure as hell didn't earn any points for Dragon Quarter. Otherwise, the combat was pretty excellent.

The story was wonderful, but I wonder how many people would truly appreciate it? I wonder if more people would be receptive to the idea if you didn't have to play the game twice over, or if combat wasn't exruciatingly hard? I wonder if, in the last five years, fans of the RPG genre have matured, coming to want more out of their storylines?

Summary of the series

There you have it: a full review of the entire series, with all the good and all the bad. So, worked? What didn't work? Based on the consensus of people like myself who love Dragon Quarter, and the fans of the original four games, I will try to piece together what I imagine to be the Breath of Fire game that will please all fans.

+ The rich colors were nice. It definitely makes the characters stand out. I suppose the animal designs help, too.

+ For that matter, I think most BoF fans wanna see bird people, fish people, mole people, etc.

+ Constantly developing turn-based combat into a quicker, more interesting, more stragic affair, was probably among the best things that Breath of Fire has ever done. If the next installment doesn't play like Dragon Quarter, I hope there is hard work put into coming up with something new and innovative. If combat winds up being like Dragon Quarter in the difficulty aspect, I certainly hope making a Normal/Hard mode difficulty will be mandatory.

+ Dragon Transformations are of course, awesome. Most people will not appreciate having just one Dragon; however, with multiple dragons comes a truckload of game balance problems. This is something that Breath of Fire has still never got quite right (they got close in Dragon Quarter; but that's moot, since most fans will burn Capcom's office down if there's only one Dragon Transformation in the next game).

+ Storyline-wise, giving the main goal a bit or moral ambiguity and uncertainty is great. Breath of Fire 3, as best as I know, is the first game that's ever done this, and even went the extra mile by allowing you to make the choice in the end. Though BoF4 and DQ left it up for the heroes to decide, it was still cool to see the idea implemented again.

+ Also, it would be nice to see a storyline with the direction style of DQ, with a lot of non-verbal communication, and a less-is-more approach. I understand, however, that it probably won't happen, so it would do the BoF team well to hire someone who is good at writing interesting storylines in the cookie-cutter JRPG format, since traditional character development doesn't appear to be anyone's strong point.

+ The main mini-games (fishing and the fairy village) were very fun, and only became more enjoyable as the series progressed. Keep them.

+ As for a setting, it doesn't look like anyone thinks Dragon Quarter's setting was too hot. Better make it the real world for a new Breath of Fire game. Personally, I'd like to see more varied locations - there is only one place in all five games that had snow, for crying out loud! BoF's world would be more interesting if it every location didn't look so similar.

+ If at all possible, I would love to see a return of certain aspects like the Master system, and camping. I'm sure I'm not the only one, right?

- Save-the-world epics. They're not working for Breath of Fire. The game had varying success at best when they tried to transition into an epic from something else; however, the best stories of the BoF series were the ones where Ryu and co.'s goal was not to save the world, but to find the truth.

- A regression to traditional turn-based combat. BoF is dead in the water if they try this. Unless your name is Final Fantasy X, you are not getting away with it (and still, FF10's turn-based system was damn good). Focus on something new!

- Fetch quests and overcomplicated plots seriously kill the enjoyment of these games. It can be okay to have a small set of quests where your goal is something imminent in the present (like escaping the mafia in BoF3), but having to enter a fighting tournament, kill bandits, monsters, witches, and have a cooking contest all to clear your friend of suspicion of robbery is a bad, bad idea.

- Grinding. The most recent two games did not require grinding in any capacity (in fact, you just couldn't grind in Dragon Quarter), so maybe someone on the team wised up; however, three out of five of the games were grind fests. If there's a sixth game, let's make it 50/50.

The future of Breath of Fire

So far, there is not a lot of news about a new installment in the series. There are only two things to go on so far:

1. Hironobu Takeshita (BoF:DQ Producer) saying that he would love to make a new BoF game, and wants to make it something 'really special' (Unfortunately, I have no source to cite for this).

2. Key members Camelot Software Planning, the Takahashi brothers (famous for essentially creating the Shining Force and Golden Sun series), saying that with their 'current deal' with Capcom (The new Capcom title 'We Love Golf!' is developed by Camelot) that a Breath of Fire series installment is a possibility.

I am happy that Camelot can makes games people enjoy, but I think that they seriously need to stay away from Breath of Fire. Camelot Software very often makes RPGs that aren't glaringly bad, but don't try to push the envelope in any way. For example, the Shining Force series is not a broken, horrible game; however, even for its time, it was so generic and 'safe' compared to its contemporaries (Fire Emblem, Ogre Battle, Warsong/Langrisser). A big part of the reason we never noticed is because we recieved so few games from the better Tactics RPG series here in the US.

And then there's Golden Sun. A colleague of mine described the Golden Sun games as "competently made, but...totally uninspired." I know people were probably killing for a 'competently made' RPG at the times that they were released, but think about what Golden Sun does that is really groundbreaking? The puzzles? You don't even realize most of the time that you're solving a puzzle; you just most stuff and the way eventually presents itself. Beyond that, you have a VERY generic combat system, with a VERY high encounter rate. You also have a VERY generic story with painfully boring dialogue that looks a lot like it was written based on what was obviously happening in the storyboards. "Help! I'm drowning in a river!" "We should help him!" "Somebody needs to find help, for we can not help him!" It's not a horrible game, but it's by no means a GOOD game.

Oh, and lastly, this might be a low blow, but let me take this time to remind everyone that Camelot made Beyond The Beyond. Point taken?

So, it is my prediction that a Breath of Fire made by Camelot will feel an awful lot like the original two games - grindy, fetchy questy, boring story...a totally generic game. It might not make you want to pull your hair out like the first two games, but it will still be a step backwards in a genre that needs to be pushed forward as much as it possibly can.


I'm not a great writer. I'm not unaware of this. I know that I don't work for any publication where an unimaginable number of people will read my article. My hope is that I show this off in the right places, to the right people. I want to get discussion going. I want to kindle a flame that will at least get fans of the series started. I hope that if I cause enough trouble with my article, writers who CAN make a difference will read this and say "Hell yeah, I agree all the way with this guy! Time to write up my own article!" or "What is this guy talking about? He's got it all wrong! I better set things right with an article!" Hopefully, what I've done here will be the beginning of the time when fans of the all-but-dead Breath of Fire community stir to life, and try to take the matter into their own hands. We need to visualize a new Breath of Fire game that all fans of the series can get excited about, and then send the message loud and clear, like a violent mob of protesters who mean business. Capcom is LISTENING, but no matter how well they listen, they can't hear us if we say nothing. So please, if you mean business, you have to strike while the iron's hot - Raise your voice.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Hotel Dusk is a HORRIBLE game.

Once upon a time - specifically, the time of the US launch of the Nintendo DS - there was a cool little game called Trace Memory. It was a game in the same vein as those PC text adventures; but, the puzzles very creatively used the DS to make very original puzzles and solutions. The story was a pretty simple mystery, and, while pretty effective, the biggest complaint that could be launched against the game was that the story was a bit underwhelming and ended abruptly.

"Aw, hell. Sounds like as good a time as
any to give up.I'm sure my dad will be just fine."

All things considered, the game was good, though.

Fast forward late January, 2007. The same development team - Cing - released another game called Hotel Dusk: Room 215. The game was in a similar vein as Trace Memory, but with less of an emphasis on puzzles and WAY more on the story and the mystery. The end result was a surprisingly engaging story. The dialogue was very well-written, the mystery was intriguing, and it was interesting to see all the different stories develop, and how they all were related to the main plot. The ambiance of the game was very well-complemented by the graphics and music.

Now, notice the keywords I used, there? Good story. Good dialogue. Good mystery. Good ambiance. These are the things that Hotel Dusk did well. There's one thing that Hotel Dusk completely messed up though: the part of the game that's, well, the GAME. Quite frankly, the gameplay in Hotel Dusk is awful; more of a hurdle or a necessary evil than an actual supplement to the game's fun factor. In the end, it does more harm than good, and that's why Hotel Dusk makes for a really bad game.

Think you're gonna get to shoot that gun
while yelling random Japanese words?
Then, you might be disappointed when you
play Hotel Dusk: Room 215.

In Hotel Dusk, you play as Kyle Hyde, and ex-cop who is searching for his ex-partner, who betrayed the force (and of course, Kyle) three years ago. Kyle's investigation leads him to Hotel Dusk, where he stays in (!!) Room 215. The game takes place over the course of the day, while Kyle's new job - a salesman - and his interaction with the other people staying at the Hotel brings him closer and closer to solving the mystery behind the motives of Kyle's ex-partner, and what kind of shady dealings he was involved in.

That being said, I can unfortunately say that the game itself is not as engaging as the story itself - not even close.

You don't even get to drive that car.
See how lame this game is?

Hotel Dusk plays out like an interactive novel - in fact, to further drive the point home, you hold the DS sideways to play it. From the moment you can control Kyle until the end of the game, you are just walking around, engaging in conversations with other people in the hotel, and trying to find random things for one reason or another. There are hardly any puzzles that use any brains - it's often just a 'puzzle' where you have to use the stylus to move an object on the screen; for example, there is one 'puzzle' where Kyle suspects something might be in a basket in the laundry room, so you use the stylus to grab and toss the sheets out of the basket. Sound pretty stupid? That's because it is.

In fact, most of the 'gameplay' elements feel completely unnecessary. Beyond there being a lot of puzzles like the one I just described, the game, just to make you use the stylus more, requires you to manually open doors. Let me try and explain...first, a picture:

Oh snap! This picture is relevant
to my case, for once!

Refer to the picture above: This is the basic interface of Hotel Dusk when you're walking around, looking at stuff. See the magnifying glass icon? It lights up when you get near something that you can examine. While examining part of a room, you're taken to a slightly different-looking, zoomed-in screen...

It doesn't get more intense than this...
at least, not at Hotel Dusk. You should
have gone to the Hotel California if
you wanted to live it up.

On this screen, you double click things with the stylus to examine them. This used in some decent ways, but they use it for a lot of pointless things too. One example is for when you are opening a door: to open a door, you press the door icon (refer to the previous photo), where it takes you to a screen similar to the above photo. You then double click on the doorknob with the stylus. I present this question to you, Hotel Dusk: Why? What's the point? Especially when you DIDN'T do that with some doors, like the door to your room? This might seem like a trivial thing; however, this example underscores a notable amount of trivial things that were thrown in to try and allow Cing to justify making you pay thirty dollars for this game when it could have been a twelve dollar paperback novel that would have been more accessible to people on EARTH - many whom do not own the $130 piece of hardware that serves as a medium for enjoying Hotel Dusk.

And for all of its trouble, you don't get much non-linearity out of the story. When you talk to people, you have two choices that you can make for a question to ask. Very often, if you pick the wrong one, the game will end. Not only does this suck, because it can happen very far into a conversation, causing you to have to redo the whole conversation (and perhaps more), but it's pointless! There's only two choices, and when the the wrong one bears such dire consequences, why even put it in the game? Is this Cing's idea of 'challenge' in a game? It's not like you don't immediately figure out the right choice after you mess up the first time - you never get more than two choices at once!

Really, now...if you're going to make the story your main focus in a video game, and COMPLETELY flub on the gameplay, why would you make the game's story so very, very linear? Why wouldn't you take advantage of the STRENGTHS that video games lend to a story as a medium for literature? Let's face it: With the game's ugly interface, still-graphics (stylish as they are), and Linearity with a capital L, it really DOESN'T. Now, granted, there are 'multiple endings', but they're all just minor variations on the main ending, which really doesn't change at all. This is hardly non-linear.

So, to Cing, I present the following question: Why is Hotel Dusk even a game?

Honestly, I am a HUGE advocate of video game appreciation - as games, as competitive sports, and as literature. Make no mistake about that! But, Hotel Dusk has no place being a game. It takes no advantage of what video games lend to literature as strengths, but in fact seems to use them all to its DISADVANTAGE. All the gameplay really gets in the way of what's good about Hotel Dusk, and being a video game makes it very inaccessible to TONS of people that might have had the pleasure of enjoying this fine Mystery story, had it not carried (technically) a $160 pricetag.

If you're going to try and push your video game as a piece of literature, it's important to do one of two things:

1. Use the 'game' aspect to supplement your story (i.e. Metal Gear Solid series, Ace Attorney series, early Resident Evil games)

2. Allow the game to be engaging and fun without getting in the way of the story (i.e. most RPGs).

My final thoughts:

Personally, I think that the idea behind this game is great, but if it's so linear, and there are no real gameplay aspects to this GAME...then, there's no reason they couldn't just make it a movie (or, in this case, since it's long, a novel). I'd be willing to bet that it would do so-so as a novel, though...not because the story is bad, but because it's slow-paced, and there are likely better mystery novels out there.

Game reviews are heralding this game as having an AMAZING story. It's GOOD, no doubt...and I'm glad that there are games out like this that are SHOWING that video games are capable of being a valid form of literature; however, just because this is the best that gamers can fathom from a game does not make it good. Because so much literature exists in different mediums already, we KNOW that we're capable of doing better. Hell - I'd dare say that we've ALREADY DONE better in the realm of video games.

The end result of Hotel Dusk, unfortunately, is a great story, but a terrible GAME, and for this reason, I can see nothing but cons to the fact that it it was released as a video game.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Street Fighter Alpha Anthology + Strategy Guide Review

So, I picked up Street Fighter Alpha Anthology yesterday. I've already played through all the games and unlocked all the extras. I have to say, Capcom has done quite an amazing thing with this game.

First off, you have arcade perfect ports of all the Street Fighter Alpha games, plus Alpha 2 Gold (I believe this is some sort of updated special US release of SFA2? I'm not sure), and Super Gem Fighter Mini Mix, a cute little fighter featuring characters from various Capcom fighters. All the games come equipped with little survival and training modes, and an array of options, including the option to mess with any of the arcade dipswitches! They have special dipswitch settings to make the game play in accordance to certain arcade revisions, too. All in all, quite amazing.

As for unlockables, you can unlock Street Fighter Alpha 3 Upper (The Dreamcast version - changes certain gameplay features and has new characters, like Guile, T. Hawk, Fei Long, Dee Jay, and Evil Ryu). This is nice to have for completion's sake, though I imagine most people that are serious about the game will play the original Alpha 3. I know that my friends who are less into fighters, however, would better appreciate having the new characters. It works out quite well.

The last unlockable is a special game called Hyper Street Fighter Alpha, which allows you to play any character from any Alpha game, with the characteristics of any version of SFAlpha. Also, if you choose Alpha3 style, you get even more options, like the option to have a Street Fighter 3 fighting style, Marvel series fighting style, Street Fighter 2, and Darkstalkers. All in all, QUITE an impressive unlockable to have.

So basically, we got pretty much everything you could ask for: Arcade Perfect ports of all the Alpha games (This release marks the very first Arcade Perfect port of SFA3, as opposed to SFA3Upper, which people don't play in tourneys), as well as an added Gem Fighter game for kicks, A3Upper for those who enjoy the game casually, and the uber bonus of having Hyper SFA, probably the most impressive unlockable feature I've ever seen in a fighting game.

That being said, there's not really much that could be done to improve on the game. There's only a few things I could think of that would possibly make it better:

1. Allow a Counter Hit option in the Training Modes (Maybe there is one? I'll keep looking dilligently).

2. A 3-Player Dramatic Battle Mode in A3Upper. Some of the most fun times I've ever had screwing around in fighting games was when me and two other friends played "Bitch" on the Dreamcast A3. Trying to play as Dan and beat your two friends who are using Guile and Charlie is something that you just have to experience to realize how hysterically funny it is. I suppose it's not a huge deal though, since I HAVE the Dreamcast A3, but still...

3. If, perhaps in Hyper SFA, you could use the extra characters added into the handheld A3 games (Eagle, Yun, Maki, Ingrid). But, that's really icing on the cake; it's not a huge deal.

Also, if you buy it at Gamestop, you can get 20% off on the guide. Now, even if you're a veteran player, I would reccomend you buy this for various reasons:

1. Street Fighter Alpha 3 in particular is a very complicated game, and this game has lots of basic info explained very well; it's a great starting point if you want to get into the game, casually or seriously.

2. If you're already good at the Alpha games, it's really nice to show your friends, at least...

3. It was written by Kamui and Dr. Deelite, members of the boards at Basically, it was written by a fellow member of the fighting game community, and, as Derek Daniels so eloquently put it, "If it wasn't for people like him writing these guides you would get 15 pages of how to do dragon punch after you throw a fireball as a pro tip." So, for the love of god, get the guide. It's really good.

All in all, this is a step in the right direction for Fighting games. If you like fighters, go buy this game. If you play them casually, buy it; if you play them seriously; buy it. It's got something for pretty much everyone! Crazy extras, tons of games, and best of all, Arcade Perfect ports of Alpha2 and Alpha3, two of the more popular fighting games around. In my opinion, it's only a matter of time before SFA3 sees a major tourney revival. If you want to see a new fighter, or more quality products from Capcom, place your vote by buying this game. It shows Capcom you're interested. Have a nice day.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

My problem with Guilty Gear

So yeah. Not long after its release in mid-April, I picked up a copy of the newest version of Guilty Gear: "Guilty Gear XX #Reload - The Midnight Carnival: Slash." Quite a mouthful, huh? Well, I picked up "Guilty Gear Slash" as I call it, because I'm a big fan of companies making constant revisions to their fighting games (It shows a big dedication to making the game great, in my opinion), and I decided that I should learn how to play Guilty Gear once and for all, since it was the last popular 2-D fighter I had yet to play thoroughly and make an opinion on.

Well, it's now June, and I think I've reached a verdict: I enjoy it, but it's waaaaaaaaaaay too technical. There are three big assets to improving in fighting games that all work in conjunction with one another: Game-Specific Knowledge, your Mind Game (being able to outthink your opponent), and Technical Mastery (being able to perform moves, combo sequences, make opportunities for setups, etc.). I should really write a blog on this some time, but for now, just keep that fact in mind. Guilty Gear is no different from other 2-D fighters in that it requires all three of these factors to be a really great player; but, the BIG difference is that it has a huge emphasis on the last factor - the one which I think should not ultimately be a crutch - Technical Mastery.

Now, forgive me if I seem biased against that particular aspect. I should throw this out there - I think I'm a pretty damn good player; however, based on people in my equal skill level, my level of Technical Mastery is comparably bad. I make up for it because I'm very good at reading people, and playing the game. I'm also very good at recalling lots of specific knowledge.

Now, obviously, I'm not a huge blunder at all things technical - I play combo-based games like X-Men Vs Street Fighter and Vampire Savior, and I can do lots of other Technical things with ease, like Kara Cancelling and Roll-Cancelling (A Capcom Vs SNK 2 - specific glitch, where characters that can roll as an evasive manuver can cancel the roll into a special move; the end result is a special move with the invincibility of the roll) with much ease. On the other hand, I've never personally been a huge fan of combo-based characters that have to consider their opponents heights, widths, weights, and other game-specific combo safeguards in mind (All these things exist in a lot of games, and trust me, they matter a lot!). For that reason, I don't play a lot of Street Fighter Alpha 3 or Capcom Vs SNK 2, where a lot of the best fighting styles revolve around doing outrageous custom combos, or 3-D fighters, where the combos seem oddly contrived and unstandardized.

Guilty Gear Slash (and incidentally, all previous installments) are very combo-based. They have a few basic principles that are the same from character to character, but there are so many various special game-specific features that lend themselves to comboing (and various safeguards to prevent infinite combos), that every character becomes outrageously complex because of it (because every character is made with the idea in mind that no oversight of theirs will result in something extremely broken). So what does this all mean? Basically, while you have a wide variety of characters that seem to play wildly differently, what you basically have in the end are an outrageous amount of combo-based characters that are only different in their combos. This isn't really a difference in how you have to play them from a strategic standpoint; it's just a difference in what you have to do while implementing (more or less) the same strategy: Rush That Shit Down! In fact, If you don't attack enough, Guilty Gear penalizes you by taking away all the Super Meter you've built up!

In fact, one of the best games in the genre - Street Fighter 3 - is so good because you have a variety of playing styles that aren't just based on what combos the character has, but what aspect of the games are your strengths. Are you a really technical type? You'd do well with a character like Yun, Urien, or Necro - characters whose best fighting styles rely solely on being able to do tough technical setups and combos that vary depending on the opponents you face. Are you really big on the mental games? Try Elena or Ibuki, characters that go defensive or offensive based on the situation, and rely on having very rough, unpredictable repetoires of normals that most their entire strategies are based upon. Are you interested in a character that tries your hand at both? They've got that, too - Makoto has her share of amazing technical combos she can do - including a 100% stun combo! But, to get the chance to do anything like that, she needs to mount an offensive, and the only consistent weapon in her arsenal is her randomness, and her ability to psyche people out. Hugo is a slow grappler that doesn't have a particularly amazing offense or defense, but relies on one powerful, difficult-to-perform move that does a lot of damage to psyche people out. He has to use his own built-in fear factor, along with a vast amount of knowledge to discern whether or not it's a good idea to make a move.

Now, I'm not saying that Street Fighter 3 is perfect (that's for another blog, probably), but if there's one thing it gets right, it's that it caters to several different fighting styles without relying on the gimmick of 'grooves' or '-Isms' (a fighting style that you pick before the match that gives your character access to certain universal features, like air blocks, evasive rolls, dash manuvers, etc.), where there's generally one best one for each character.

So, what's the point of me bringing all this crap up about Street Fighter 3 if I'm talking about Guilty Gear? Because, as David Sirlin brought up in one particular article (and he's probably right), Guilty Gear is a game that was made with so many different gameplay features in effect that there's virtually infinite freedom to make any character in any way you want. On one hand, it worked - there's quite a diverse cast, both in visual appearances, and what they can do; however, the big problem is that all characters basically revolve around doing outrageous combos and setups that they have leeway to do with all these crazy features intact.

Okay, so you might be saying "Well, Jamie, maybe Guilty Gear just isn't your game?" I don't agree. I think that the characters were intended to cater to different philosophies, similar to how Street Fighter 3 does. I think the combo-friendly features just sort of mess that up. In fact, what's worse is that this side-effect ALSO has a huge, glaring side-effect: Characters that have easy combos are generally the best characters in the game! I don't wanna sound too much like John Madden, here, but one big side-effect of having the game based around complex combos and setups is that the simplest characters in terms of combos are usually the best. Let's look at three of the best characters in the game.

"I think it's clear that the character with the
best combos is gonna come out on top, Pat."

First up: Sol Badguy. This guy has used to be notorious for one of his old combos, the 'Dust Loop', a simple, very damaging combo loop that could do a number on any character in the cast. Well, they took it out of this game, but he got something which, in my opinion, is even better: His staple move, Volcanic Viper, got increased damage. Based on the training mode in the PS2 version, where damage is represented in numerical value, I found that every character has 400 hit points; Sol Badguy's basic combos that involve Volcanic Viper do upwards to 140 damage; that's about the damage of a SUPER MOVE.

By the way, I swear it sounds like he says
"Give it up for White Power!" when he does this move.

With his bread-and-butter combos easily hitting almost every character in the game for more than 1/4th of their life, it's easy to see why Sol is one of the best.

Second on the list: Ky Kiske. Strangely enough, Sol and Ky are the Ryu and Ken of Guilty Gear, and they're definitely the best. It wasn't always this way, though; Ky used to be a rather mediocre character, because he had trouble mounting an offense, and his combos weren't exactly that devastating to begin with. The funny thing is, he's now consistently considered to be the number 1 / number 2 character of GG Slash. Are his combos now amazing and complex? No, not really; in fact, they're kind of the same as they used to be. So, what's the difference?

Better projectiles. Ky used to have one small projectile (which he could do in the air), and one large, slow-moving projectile. Now, he can do the large one in the air, which is sort of cool, but more importantly, he has two versions of the small projectile: one that recovers somewhat slow, but is outrageously fast, and his normal speed fireball, which recovers OUTRAGEOUSLY fast. Just to give you an idea, check out this video of Ky, the guy with the sword, using those fireballs to lock down his opponent, Axl, especially in the corner.

Ky had a few other positive changes, but this movie of a top level player versus one of THE best Axl players around highlights ONLY the one I'm talking about. All those combos you saw were a result of Ky being able to close in on his opponent, due to his now effective projectiles. Some of those combos might even be more difficult now - a lot of Ky's moves were actually given ADDITIONAL startup time, so his basic combos are now more difficult than they've ever been! But, now that he can actually get close to his opponent and USE them, they're good, regardless of how basic they are, or how much more difficult they might be to perform now.

Sometimes, Ky seems to say "Fuck off!"
when he throws his fireballs. You can
hear it in that movie I just linked!
Guilty Gear characters say the darndest things.

Last, but definitely not least: Potemkin. Potemkin is the grappler character of Guilty Gear. For those who don't know, grappler types are usually slow, strong fighters whose staple move is a throw attack which has a difficult motion to perform during the heat of battle; however, if you can land this attack, it does outrageous damage. Since the time that Guilty Gear started becoming a respectable competitive fighter, Potemkin has consistently been one of the top five characters in each installment. Why? My personal guess would be this: As a grappler character, Potemkin does heavy damage with all his normals, but his combos are not very advanced; even more, he really doesn't need to do combos to do damage. If you wanna get a feel for what this is like, check out how fast Potemkin rules on Dizzy in this video. I mean, seriously. The MATCH was seventy seconds. That's absurd.

In short, while I commend Guilty Gear in general for making a new, innovative game, and making several revisions of their game to try and perfect it (something I'd also like to eventually touch on), the game puts a HUGE emphasis on Technical Mastery, while lending itself to the characters that require the least amount of Technical Mastery to use. Now, maybe it's just me talking here, but I think when the best characters in the game are the ones that supercede the MAIN IDEA of the gameplay, it really defeats the purpose. Strangely enough, the characters that don't don't have complex or damaging combos don't have much of anything else either, and are low tier because of it (Robo-Ky, Order-Sol, Dizzy). The Guilty Gear series has come a long way, and I hope to see it evolve at least once or twice more before they call it quits, but when they do, I think that these are points that should be addressed.

-- Jamie (FYI, I use Axl, Ky, and Faust. GGPO.)

Friday, June 09, 2006

An introduction, of sorts?

Hi. I'm Jamie. I've been playing video games all my life; in fact, I learned to read phonetically from playing video games when I was three. I used to be the socially reclusive type who would play video games for like, thirteen (!) hours a day; but, one day at around the age of sixteen, I told myself, "Hey, video games are really cool, but I want a life, too!" So, while I've kept my hobby, I certainly don't find time to play any video game - for any amount of time - anymore. For me, balancing 'having a life' with 'playing video games' can be a rather dangerous endeavor, but I manage. In fact, not using my free time for only video games has made me appreciate truly good games even more, now. Hell, I can still remember when I would swear up and down that Final Fantasy 7 wasn't an amazing game, simply cos I could play so many damn games and consider them ALL to be a good experience; they were all I ever did, anyways! Those were some funny times.

So, to mitigate my problem of balancing my time-consuming, money-consuming hobby with being social, having friends, getting a job, and focusing on my studies, I generally narrow down the games I buy to my three favorite genres: 2-D and 3-D platformers (FYI, I consider Castlevania to be a platformer; it seems relevant to me to point that out. I'm not sure why), 2D Fighters (3-D fighters are a completely different ballgame; just as anyone that plays either one seriously), and - the WORST perpetrator of time-wasting in video games - RPGs of all different forms, be it traditional RPGs, tactics RPGs, action RPGs, or what have you. This presents a huge problem to me, as the platformer genre is waning in popularity on non-handheld consoles, 2-D fighters are practically on the verge of death in America (With Global Gaming League taking an interest in the competitive fighting scene as of late, this will hopefully change, but as of now, we're fighting an uphill battle), and RPGs are incredibly difficult to make truly good games out of, in my opinion (I plan on writing many blogs about this).

Now, perhaps I'm not the most enlightened gamer; on one hand, I own a lot of consoles, and I even take drastic measures to play imported games if I'm interested enough - Most of my friends from my hometown will remember how much I ranted and raved about a certain Tactics RPG series called Langrisser; some RPG enthusiasts will remember this series by the Genesis RPG called "Warsong," the first game of the series, and, incidentally, the only game in the series that was released stateside. On the other hand, the scope of games I've played - especially in recent years - is fairly small outside of the genres I enjoy. While I still deviate occasionally from my preferred platforms (Who's gonna pass up the newest Metal Gear Solid game, anyways?), the days of Pre-PS2, where video games were the sole joy of my life, are gone. I no longer rent and try every single game at a rental store.

And who'd want to, anyways? Games are so focused on being long and complex. Bigger graphics means bigger games means bigger headaches. I'd feel overwhelmed even if I DID still play video games for thirteen (!) hours a day. Unless you play a lot of games on handhelds, you don't get a lot of the quick and dirty fun you used to be able to get from games; but, even that is sort of out of the question, since it's hard to find places where you can rent handheld games. But I digress.

Anyways, though I'm not a 'hardcore' gamer anymore, I'd like to think I'm pretty knowledgeable in my areas of focus. I hope to talk about what makes games in my favored genres truly great, how to make them better, and how to learn from previous mistakes (and previous successes, too). These are tough times for people that are into these specific genres, but hopefully, someone will take up the cross and make something truly great out of these genres.

And, if no one does, maybe I will someday...