Sunday, November 16, 2014

Chronicles of a Dark Lord: Episode I: Tides of Fate.

Well, here's something I never expected to do. Finish a role-playing game.
Looking back, I've certainly started plenty of RPGs. Too many to count. But the most prominent of them all, has to be Final Fantasy III.
I bought the game to kill time for a road-trip, and I kept playing it for months afterwards, sinking in upwards of twenty hours into it. And I didn't finish it.
I've done that with a lot of games, mostly older ones. The first game I actually finished was Ocarina of Time.
And even the RPG I've spent the most time with, Fire Emblem: Awakening, I still haven't finished.
And this is kind of a landmark for me. It's the first RPG I've actually finished.
And it sure seems like this is the year for exhausting games, because I was completely wiped out by this game.
Chronicles of a Dark Lord: Episode I: Tides of Fate is a turn-based, Japanese style role-playing-game, developed using RPG Maker VX by the members of Kisareth Studios, and released on August 31st, 2012. The sequel, Episode II: War of the Abyss, has been in development for about two years now, seeing numerous setbacks throughout 2013. The Kisareth team lost a ton of work to a hard-drive crash, and as such, they had to push the game back an entire year. I'll get into the troubled development history of War of the Abyss next week, hopefully.
War of the Abyss came out two days ago, which was why I decided to just get down and plow through Tides of Fate.
For the last week of my life, this game dominated my time. I started playing Tides of Fate about two months ago, but it fell to the wayside thanks to a few other projects I had to complete. Then, on Monday I looked at the end of the trailer for War of the Abyss and saw the game was coming out in four days, so I figured I'd better hustle and get Tides of Fate done.
Episode I starts out by introducing you to the world, story, and characters over a panning shot of the world, similar to what Final Fantasy VI did. The story they summarized might make a pretty good prequel later on in the series, but it does what it needs to do, and set up the location, setting, and characters.
The planet is called Cora, the main character is named Magus Drakhen Lee, he's got some weird destiny, and it's set in a combination of high and low fantasy.
The gameplay opens to Magus, arguing with his father, Exodes, and his mother, Shara. Magus wants to go with his father and help him wipe out the Veranian military, but they want him to stay home and guard the family manor. He refuses, and takes his younger sister, Sabra to Verana, where they meet up with their father, and have what could easily be called a "heated conversation"
Magus gets possessed by the god Hazeezus, and wipes out both his fathers army, and the Veranian army. He then faces off with Exodes, and banishes him to a far-away land.
Over the course of the next twenty years, Magus wages a one-man world war. Until he started getting cocky and lost battle after battle, and his powers were taken away. And that spelled the end of The Magus Wars.
Magus spends the next decade negotiating peace treaties between Kisareth, and the countries he was at war with.
The unfortunate thing about this is, that this is told to us, rather than shown.
I mentioned this in my playthrough, but I feel like I should mention it again. That whole concept would make for a great game on its own, certainly. It's probable that the RMVX engine wasn't capable of doing what they wanted with it, so they skipped it until they could get ahold of a better engine. Maybe they'll cover it in the upcoming Tides of Fate novel. Personally, I'd like to play a game about Magus waging a war with the world, losing some battles, and then wind up spending the next few decades working on public relations and diplomacy. First, It'd be funny, and second it would be freaking awesome! It could have a hundred or so hours of gameplay to it, given how many years passed in-between the prologue and the main game.
But from what I've heard out of the developers in podcasts, Kisareth's next project will be remaking Tides of Fate with higher-definition graphics, more detailed art, voice-acting and a potential home-console release.
The rest of the game opens with Magus having a conversation with his twin-sister, Maga'ra about some trouble on the connecting bridge between Kisareth and the neighboring country of Ilian.
Magus and his sister rule the country of Kisareth, his sister handles the day-to-day operations, while Magus deals with the hands-on approach to everything.
Magus agrees to take his wife, Xiria with him to check out the situation.
There, they meet up with the Wizard, Zexor. He's working for the King of Valdrace, and single-handedly killed a squad of Kisareth's best.
From there, they uncover a plot to unseal an evil that's not been hear from in millennia.
The characters proceed to travel around the world, gathering allies, gaining power, and exploring a very eclectic world of fire-demons, Elvish-Angels, regular people, an island full of books, and a country filled with sexy warrior lesbians.
Throughout, you collect a party of awesome and overpowered characters.
Here's a quick rundown of the playable characters.
There's Xiria Lee, Magus's second and current wife. She's known as "The Lady of Chaos" and from what the developers say, she's the most powerful character in the game. And I have to agree, because her most powerful attack is both an AOE, affecting all enemies, and inflicting thousands of damage.
Then there's Gelina Grey, another pretty powerful character, who I admittedly don't know a lot about. I went back and rewatched some of my gameplay footage, and I can't really figure out who she's supposed to be.
Apparently, she's got some history with Xiria and Magus, to the extent that they apparently share a three-person relationship. I'll admit that I had a hard time understanding the game at first, because of how bogged-down I was with work, but I went back through my footage and I couldn't really figure out what her history with Magus and Xiria is. So I'm just gonna chock that up to me not paying attention in the right places.
And also I don't really have the time to sift through thirty hours of footage to figure this out, so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.
The next one up is the best healer in the game, Isis. She and one of Magus's daughters, Anari, rule the aforementioned kingdom of women. Isis has probably the best range of healing, buffs, and powerful attacks of either of the healers in the game. She also has a passive skill that increases the amount of health and mana restored to herself and allies with healing items. She's also a lot faster than the other healer in the game.
Isis and Anari have a daughter named Xiara, whose origin the inhabitants of Cora have speculated as to the origin of.
Knowing what I know about the game now, I wouldn't be surprised if they just hopped over to our universe and borrowed some of our genetic engineering equipment.
There are a few more playable characters, Krysta, an Ivory Knight. She uses ally buffs, and her twin sister, Crysta, a Crimson Knight who relies on enemy debuffs.
Then there's Cadar, Magus's eldest son. He's essentially Diet Magus, with less impressive powers. He's a decent character, but not very powerful.
There's Dissan Lee, Magus and Xiria's daughter. Isis is the healer, and Dissan is the battlemage. I didn't wind up using her very much though.
Now we get to Cadar's mother, Sapphire. She's similar to Dissan and Gelina as far as gameplay goes, but she's a lot less powerful than Dissan.
Aubriel de' Crescent is a decent healer, but she's not as useful as Isis. She's one of those Elvish Angels I mentioned earlier, called "The Fae" She's got some decent holy spells, which are mainly useful in the areas that you absolutely have to use Aubriel in, but after you get Isis back, she's practically useless unless you need to resurrect Isis to save yourself some Phoenix Down.
Drea Nightshade is a pretty powerful vampiress, and I found her skill "Duchess' Wrath" and "Blood Drain" skills to be decently useful as backup damage. But I mostly kept her around to resurrect Isis when she ran out of health.
Well, that's all of the playable characters (Geez, there are a lot of women in this game), let's get back to talking about the plot.
Throughout the game, Magus and his group of awesome people uncover a conspiracy going back years to unseal the atrocity of the gods, Xe'on.
Xe'on hates life, and all living things. The gods had to band together and seal him away, similar to what, say, the Primes did to The Fallen One in Revenge of the Fallen. 
Do you want to know what I bet his reason for hating life is?
Remember Highlander?
Remember Doctor Who?
Remember Castlevania?
Well I'll bet you that either he outlived his wife, or his wife was killed by humans and he just lost it.
Magus and his allies manage to get ahold of the crystal orb that the Dark Gods used to seal away Xe'on in the past, known as "The Corinthai"
So Magus, the greatest Dark Lord to ever live, gathers together users of the light and darkness alike to march right into hell itself in a last-ditch attempt to prevent... Well essentially anti-matter from consuming the world of Cora.
And thus begins the titular War of the Abyss.
And along the way, Magus proves that "dark" does not necessarily mean "evil", because despite him being the titular Dark Lord of Chronicles of a Dark Lord. Yeah, I know your first thought when you hear "dark" is the Sith from Star Wars, or Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, or Satan even, but this is where I come back to Final Fantasy III.
A rather large point of the plot of Final Fantasy III was that users of light had once tried to take over the world, and the four chosen of darkness had to prevent them from completely destroying it. This game and that one made the point that power is not inherently evil, and that it all depends on who's using the power.
No matter how good a power may seem, it can always be used for evil.
So, since we're done talking about how insane the premise of this game got, I feel like I should talk about the origin of this game.
Thanks to some information I found on the Kisareth Studios website, I know the concept and universe spent about twenty years as a text-based role-playing game through the AOL role-playing community.
And that's about the time you realize that this series is going to last for a freaking long time. They've already announced the title of the third game, Rise of Nihility. When you have twenty years of lore and story to work from, I'll bet you that they haven't covered even a single year of the source material.
Now, let's get into some deductive reasoning.
Twenty years before now, this year, was November 16, 1994, and twenty years before the initial release of Tides of Fate was around the middle of 1991.
I don't know when this game started development, or when the CEO of Kisareth retired from the AOL roleplaying community, so I can't pinpoint the exact span of time that the initial concepts of the game and characters were created and developed over, but considering that AOL changed their name from CVC to QCS in the mid-to-late eighties, and then to AOL in '89, coupled with the fact that they didn't start offering chat rooms until about '91 (According to Wikipedia), I'd bet that the timespan was between '91 and '11, give or take a few months to a year depending on how long the concept was kicking around in the participants heads.
And with the sheer amount of thought that's been put into this game alone, I wouldn't be surprised if this series becomes one of the defining RPG franchises of the decade.
So, after that little tangent I'm going to start talking about the most important part of a game, the gameplay.
Please note that the version I was playing was the Enhanced Edition, distributed through Desura, with the Nightmare Vision DLC installed. Which means I will be reviewing the gameplay as it has been modified by Nightmare Vision.
The camera shows the world from a top-down perspective, similar to games such as The Legend of Zelda, and Final Fantasy. In the upper left-hand corner of the screen there's a meter that lets you know how likely you are to encounter a monster, with the meter increasing as you walk around, and decreasing when you stand still, which is a feature introduced by the Nightmare Vision DLC.
If you have a controller connected to your PC, you can configure the buttons to your liking. I use a PS3 controller for PC games, so I bound the menu button to the circle button, run to the square button, and enter to the X button. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to rebind the movement controls to the d-pad. Movement defaults to the joystick, and 2D games aren't meant to be controlled with a multi-directional analog joystick, most of the time. And this is one of those times. You can always use Joytokey and remap the movement to your controllers D-pad though.
The battle-system is a variation on the classic turn-based system, known as the ATB, or Active Time Battle system. As the RPG fans in the audience might remember, the ATB system, like many things that became standard in RPGs, was introduced in the Final Fantasy series. Specifically, Final Fantasy IV.
The way ATB works, in case anyone out there doesn't know, is that the participants in a combat sequence have an initiative bar, and when it fills up, they get to perform an action. They can use that action to attack, defend, attempt to escape, or use a skill.
As the battles become more difficult, you have to time each characters actions to compliment the actions of the rest of the party.
Let's take a little peak behind the scenes of the RMVX engine. I've looked into the RMVX engine in the past, so I know a little bit about it. Gleaned from Wikipedia, and not from hands-on experience, but I know something about the engine.
For instance, the default battle-system is a Dragon Quest-style first-person view, which has to be modified through scripting into the side-view ATB system with character sprites appearing on-screen that this game uses.
There are other parts of the engine that can be modified through the Ruby Game System Scripting System 2 language. I haven't worked with Ruby, but I've done some scripting and programming, and I can imagine how difficult some of these modifications might have been.
I like the ATB system, it adds some variety to the standard turn-based system. A problem I had with Final Fantasy III was that the combat didn't have a whole lot of variety. Your party goes, their party goes.
In this, one of your party-members goes, then if you're lucky another one of yours goes.
The initiative bar that each character has is filled up based on their agility score. That score can be temporarily buffed up by allies, or debuffed by enemies. You can also cast a debuff on the enemies to prevent them from going as often as your allies, and the enemies can buff their agility up to be strike faster.
All in all, the combat system gets a passing grade from me. It works, and it's not boring.
So, onto the soundtrack.
I might as well start with the song that everyone will probably hear the most, the battle-music.
This song is titled "Proud and Destructive" and it's performed by Sketchy Logic. It's a decent enough tune, with some pretty good blending of flute and electric-guitar, but after about thirty hours of gameplay it started getting on my nerves. It's not bad, but given the amount of random-battles an average player will probably get into, it would have been nice if there had been another piece of battle-music. No, I don't dislike it.
The regular boss theme is called "Taste my blade," and it plays during most boss-fights in Tides of Fate.
Like Proud and Destructive, it's one of the most-played songs in the game, but by the end of the game I wasn't as tired of it as I was of P&D. I don't hate this, either. I just got a little bit tired of it after a while. Although, credit where credit's due, it took me longer tire of these tunes than it took me to get sick of the music in Fire Emblem: Awakening.
The Dark Mistresses is a song that plays when you fight the titular Dark Mistresses of the elements, and it's gotta be one of my favorite songs in the game. I just wish it hadn't been so short.
There are all kinds of songs strewn throughout, as area-themes, stings, and whatnot. They're all pretty good. The overworld and town themes especially capture the majesty and peacefulness of the world and town, respectively.
But I figure it's best that I talk about the pieces that really stood out to me.
The Anathema of Life is a song plays during the next-to-last boss-fight. And it's possibly better than The Dark Mistresses. It's got a choir singing, some large, heavy drumbeats, and an electric guitar squealing in the background. This song is the word "epic" turned into a song.
And now we come the the final-boss theme, Genesis of Destruction: Act One.
And it's tense, it is effort as portrayed by music, it's facing incalculable odds and fighting through anyways personified.
It is by far, the most fitting piece of music in the entire game, and it's one of my favorite songs from the soundtrack.
And now, we get to the ending theme. Day to Fall, by Marielle Thomas.
After the exhausting final boss-fight, and the gut-punch cliffhanger ending, this sad and peaceful song is probably the best way for them to cap off the freaking insane depth and darkness of Tides of Fate.
And Day to Fall is a great way to end a game.
Now, the DLC added to the main-game something I mentioned earlier, the battle-bar. It allows you to control the frequency of random encounters. It can be heavily abused, meaning you can use to avoid battles, and wind up being heavily under-leveled, or use it to seek out battles and become very over-leveled. But it can also be used to legitimate ends when you're trying to get back to the healing crystal without having to reload your last save, because you got killed by the Ginar'i or other monsters which happened to be roaming about.
The biggest addition that I could find was the post-game dungeon. Magus goes to sleep in a weird house in the Fae realn, and has a nightmare. The nightmare scenario is one of my favorite parts of the experience, because it delves into Magus' psyche. It's surreal, bizarre, and is a nice little bite-sized interquel to the CoaDL story. And the best part is? It's less than a dollar.
All in all, taking into account the soundtrack, the awesome story, the pretty sweet-looking SNES style graphics, the fact that you can sink almost thirty hours into the game and still have things left over to find in your next playthrough, and the fact that this game costs two dollars on Desura, I give Chronicles of a Dark Lord: Episode I: Tides of Fate a 10.1* rating. And to be honest, I would have given this game a perfect score based on the epic ending and music alone, much less the sheer depth of the story and insane amount of attention to detail that went into building the world.
Now, for a .99 expansion-pack with some invaluable additions to the main game, Nightmare Vision is a great little chunk that delves into the main characters head, exploring his actions and explaining some of his reactions throughout the game. It's also got some pretty sweet music added to the soundtrack, so there is that as well.
I give Nightmare Vision a 9.9* rating. It's got some good music, a great two-hour story, and some awesome moments in it. For less than a dollar,you get a load of awesome.
I'll see you next week with Chronicles of a Dark Lord: Episode II: War of the Abyss if I can get it finished by then. If not, I'll have a review of Elysium up that week, and War of the Abyss will be out the week after!