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by Ethos

Sunday Soapbox: Tradition

Monday, July 19th, 2010

No matter the context, tradition is a very interesting concept. On one end, the idea appears to be lunacy. People will make decisions that impact their (and others’) entire lives based on the fact that other people did the same acts and have been doing them for quite some time. On the other end, tradition can be a comfort. Something you expect and even look forward to. Maybe a family dinner or even just a morning coffee. But these are sprinkled pleasures and not a way of life. Even the stubborn Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof realized that the world was changing and so he must change with it. So why can’t Dragon Quest do the same?

Yes, Dragon Quest IX has some new features. The multiplayer in a large-scale JRPG is the first of its kind. Such a grand adventure has probably never been developed for a portable system, and it also takes a few steps from within the series to progress it.

But despite these evolutions, the series also has misguided inspiration about where it should keep its traditional roots. I understand the desire to keep some things the same, I really do. I don’t want every JRPG series to slowly turn into Modern Warfare. However, Dragon Quest IX’s ability to do away with random battles, but inability to change its excruciatingly slow method of displaying text or its horribly ugly and unintuitive menu screen baffles me.

The battle system, I'm okay with.

There are plenty of ways to honour traditions that make sense and move on from ones that simply don’t anymore. The turn-based battle system is a great example of a tradition to stick with. It is a system that is simple to operate, but has a lot of depth in the way it upgrades, and even the way it controls during more difficult battles. A perfect balance of stat building and strategic challenge. A great tradition of JRPGs worth keeping.

Not being able to open the main menu without vomiting? Not so much a tradition in need of keeping.

Churchs for non-quicksave save points? Being able to climb down wells? Reoccurring musical themes? Slimes, metal slimes, Toriyama’s artwork? Sure! Those are all examples of traditions that encourage nostalgia, keep Dragon Quest unique, and do not murder the experience.

Drawn out and repetitive text explanations coupled with poor item management and requiring a spell or visit to town to check experience needed to level? Those are not positive gameplay elements and serve no purpose in the series and are not at all justified by the explanation of “that’s the way Dragon Quest is”.

Tradition does not innately make a mechanic nor a design choice better. It can instill nostalgia into elements that are clever or fun to begin with, but it cannot fix anything that is broken. Perhaps most of my complaints are about the menus, but in a menu-based JRPG, it is something that should not be slow, unattractive, and unintuitive.

So how long before Dragon Quest, the traditional RPG with the most tradition, will finally realize that the world of intuitive interfaces is changing and that it – too – must change along with it?

Dragon Quest IX: The First 20 Hours

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Yes, I said the first 20 hours.

Because that’s how Dragon Quest games roll.

Looks nice.

Dragon Quest and I have a very strange relationship. I played DQVIII on the PS2 close to when it came out and I spent the entire time waiting for it to get good. I suppose I was expecting something completely different. I decided to play the DQIV remake for review when I worked at RPGamer. I was surprised that the game was actually progressive in many of its story-telling choices, but incredibly archaic with other design choices. In either case, I enjoyed it well enough to give DQV a try on the DS as well and I actually had a great time with it despite many of the same interface issues.

Armed with a better knowledge of how the series operated, I started a new playthrough of VIII during the Christmas break and enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than I did the first time. This time I found the simplicity of the game charming, and the world to be a lot more engaging. Still, after playing the hell out of it, I never missed it once I stopped.

Dragon Quest IX seems to be having a similar effect. I’ve already played over 20 hours in about half a week, and sometimes I’ll be really excited to play while other times I feel like I could put it down and never pick it up again.

The strange thing about Dragon Quest IX is that it finally introduces some new features that are quite engaging while managing to continue to refuse to progress in other ways. Being able to see enemies on screen and making them largely avoidable is massive. I can now choose when and to what degree I want to grind, and generally which monsters I prefer to fight. If I’m in need of cash, I make note of which monsters give out more coin and stick to going after those guys. The game sticks with the ability point system from VIII and adds the ability to switch vocations (see: jobs). Not a new mechanic to RPGs, perhaps, but a welcome one. Alchemy is way more accessible this time around, and equipping your characters is fun, easy, and changes the character models which actually plays into my decisions. I don’t want to equip an ugly helmet if it’s only a bit more powerful on my carefully created characters.

Decent customization

That’s the other risk DQIX has taken. There are no more set party members that you gather over time who reveal their own back stories. There is a single point near the beginning in which you are literally given the choice to go multiplayer or create up to 3 party members; gender, look, vocation, and all. I have no interest or means to play the multiplayer, so I’ve been playing with created characters. This was my largest hesitation and it’s actually been really nice so far. I never understood the appeal of a “silent hero” before, but when all four heroes silent, I’m actually warming up to the idea. It’s no longer confusing to have my party members talk while I sit in silence, because nobody says anything. I’m left alone to level up, choose which abilities and vocations to master, and how quickly to progress the story.

And the story has been interesting so far. I mean, it’s nothing incredibly engrossing, but it’s not a negative bullet-point which can actually be the case for some RPGs. There have been some intriguing moments and some cool missions, and I’ve been thankful to be an observer without the game trying to make it personal somehow.

Still, for all these positive changes, the main menu is still ugly as shit, it’s still way too difficult to check experience needed to go up a level, and lots of grinding will be required if you want to keep up with the best equipment and abilities. Also, even though it’s apparent that the game is impressively massive for a handheld title, it’s weird for zero voice acting to be present even during the rare cut scenes. Suikoden Tierkreis had lots of it, and that was also a huge game.

Ultimately, I’m not going to review this game because I doubt I’ll finish it in time, and I also won’t be able to check out the multiplayer, which is a very big part of the game. Dragon Quest IX confirms that I’m a fan of the series now, proving that the series gets better as it ages with you. However, the game also proves that despite its initial addicting nature, the series will never be anything transcendent nor make a big impact in storytelling or gameplay. Jeremy Parish may claim that the game is actually quite progressive, but despite new ideas and an impressive handheld design, the fact is that these new – and welcome – things are still crammed into the archaic Dragon Quest design that desperately needs more change than just multiplayer, a job system, and lots of costumes.

Scatter Storming. Issue #034

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

It hasn’t been a month, but it has been half of one, so it’s time to bring back this sucker. I’m writing this while listening to Eminem’s Recovery, so let’s see if that has an effect.

First up, I played a butt-load of FFIX -
It went up on the PSN and it instantly went on my PSP. I’m so glad to have it on a portable device because I feel like I can finally beat it again. Whenever I attempt to beat it on my PS2, I always end up wanting to play consoles titles that I haven’t beat yet. My PSP lets me play it bit by bit in the control room at work, or on the subway, or even the bathroom. Yes, I toilet-game. Any true gamer does. Anyway, the game is amazing still. Incredibly human characters and reactions. I love how many scenes are just dedicated to getting to know characters and how they interact. I’m surprised with how often I’m genuinely smiling and giggling at the script.

I recently read over Riddlethos.com’s The Final Fantasy Week and I don’t think I did a good job explaining and defending the title. I think because I thought people were sick of my praise of the game, but fuck that shit, this replay is just confirming my praise! And believe it or not, I would be the first to criticize if things didn’t live up to my memory.

Like Kuja’s script. It’s hit or miss. He’s got some fantastic lines, but also the biggest duds. So let me leave you with a non-Kuja quote.

The woman she thought was her mother became someone else. And her real mother was already dead. Dagger has lost two mothers…

Poignant stuff, Zidane!

Damn, Recovery ended -
It’s not as varied as Relapse, but the rhymes are undeniably stronger. Too bad that no other track lives up to Not Afraid, the first single.

Dragon Quest IX -
I’ve played 20 hours already. How the Olicaust did that happen? I don’t want to go into full detail here because I’ll write full impressions later, but let’s just say that I’m greatly appreciating the lack of random battles, the – albeit not intuitive – ability to check experience needed to level up without going to a church, and improved equipment screen. Also, the fact that my party members have no back stories nor personalities doesn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. Because let’s be honest, the only two party members people cared about from Dragon Quest VIII were Jessica’s left breast and Jessica’s right breast.

I played the Deathspank demo -
I want to buy it. But I don’t even have the $15. Anybody here tried it? The demo was fun.

I would weigh in on the changes to Dragon Age and – more importantly – to Pok√©mon, but my apathy toward the subjects just barely outweighs my desire to spark controversy. So that’s that.

How are you guys enjoying the return to content? I knows I am!

Welcome to Dragon Quest IX Week!

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

I was going to quickly make this banner and then throw up the long awaited new Spam Comment Roundup, but that banner took an embarrassingly long time for me to make. I suppose effort has to go into these things to make them look good.

Or in my case, make them look not completely shitty.

Anyway, I’ve been playing the fuck out of Dragon Quest IX and I have the week off, so I’ll be reporting back to you kids soon.

Speaking of, do you guys have it yet?

Quickie Impression: Dragon Quest IX

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Unfortunately I had the least amount of time with the DS games, but I was able to try 3 of them out. All games that I’m extremely excited for. First up, DQIX.

Dragon Quest IX

I’ve mentioned many times before that I think the handheld space is perfect for the Dragon Quest series. The classic series might be epic in some regards, but is mostly too rooted in old school tradition to make good use of the power of modern home consoles. I’ve quite enjoyed the remakes of IV and V on the DS, so I’ve had my eager eye on Dragon Quest IX for a while.

I couldn’t have played more than 5 minutes of it, but from that I gleamed that there seem to be some incremental improvements with some disappointing – if not slightly expected – standbys. First off, the visual style is simple but appealing. It looks more like a notably upgraded version of the classic DS remakes than a recreation of the PS2’s DQVIII. Gameplay seems thankfully more the like DS remakes as well, which means quicker exploration and jar smashing. Much more friendly for longer play sessions or loot-binges. Another improvement is the axing of random battles. The game incorporates the now genre-standard enemy models on the overworld so you can engage or avoid to your heart’s delight.

The downside? The menu system seems to be ripped out of the IV and V remakes. Those menus were actually the worst part of those games. I can deal with simplistic, but not only do they lack good presentation, but they lack any sort of intuitive layout. I didn’t get to check them out too deeply before moving on to other things, but I notice a glimmer of hope. When I selected “equip” I was brought to a far more attractive screen that seemed to be way more user-friendly, so maybe it’s just the initial screen that’s bad.

I only engaged in one battle, but it was the same battle system you’ve seen in Dragon Quest for every single entry. I didn’t get a chance to explore or investigate the upgrading or leveling up mechanics.

You’ll hear more when I buy and review the title in mid-July.