Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Chronicles of a Dark Lord: Episode II: War of the Abyss

If you haven't read my first impressions article, please do so here.
I have to say, that I've never been more disappointed by an awesome game that's a sequel in my life, aside from maybe Majora's Mask.
And hell, that's not even true. Majora's Mask was just different from Ocarina of Time, not... Almost exactly like it.
And even Metal Gear Solid 2 was a vastly different from Metal Gear Solid, despite seeming at first like a self-parody and retread. I was hoping that my mind would be changed by the time I got to the end, but it's not.
Throughout the last... Two or so years I've been a fan of NecroVMX, he and his co-host of The List Critics, Tanya Botelho have been talking up how awesome this game is going to be. They talked about what kind of music they'd composed and commissioned for the game, about how hard some of the bosses would be, how good the graphics were gonna be, and about how much better than Tides of Fate War of the Abyss would be.
And some of that is in fact true. The graphics are improved upon from their counterparts in Tides of Fate, the music is still freaking awesome, and the story is still pretty good.
But it does't sit right with me. It lacks the spark of life and epicness that Tides of Fate had.
I got into this last week when I talked about how abrupt a halt the pacing came to. And unfortunately, it never truly recovers, even after almost thirty hours of gameplay.
Yes, new enemies are introduced, and yes some of them are very hard, but the difficulty curve in this game is a little less massive than it was in Tides of Fate. And that puts the gameplay at odds with the story, which is a problem the first game didn't have. Tides of Fate was all about the pacing, despite how much it skipped at the beginning. The thing that this game gets wrong is the fact that it skips some rather critical details in the year between Tides of Fate and the opening to War of the Abyss proper. And they cut out a lot, and I mean a lot of potential for role-playing. I won't go into this too much since I have already covered it in great detail in my first impressions. Suffice it to say that quite a bit of potential was squandered. Both for story, character development, and role-playing. And if they hadn't skipped so much, there might have been a good opportunity for Magus and his party to be beaten down, have all of their equipment damaged or destroyed and their skills taken away. And then having to work their way back up to god-hood, as opposed to just resetting everyone to essentially what they were in the beginning of Tides Of Fate with barely an explanation.
Or, depending on the actions of the players, to become even closer to actual god-hood through strategy, luck and perseverance, and not lose any of your skills and equipment. Granted, you'd still start out at level one, but with all of your upgrades and stats at about what they were at the end of Tides of Fate. Yes, you'd have to add in new skills and make all of the basic enemies more powerful so that the game wouldn't be too easy, but it would still escalate the stakes.
On the subject of the gameplay being at odds with the story, I might as well mention this. I'll try to stay away from spoilers here, but I have to say some things that may ruin the game for some of you.
In Tides of Fate, some characters die. Major characters. And they can even die in the presence of the most powerful healer in the game. They can even die if you have TWENTY phoenix-downs in your inventory. And this happens no matter what is in your inventory or what spells that any of your healers have.
But that might not be an issue if they'd done... Anything. The party just sorta... Accepts that the death is going to happen. That might sound like a minor issue to some of you, but it's a big sticking point for me.
Especially considering that they have a perfectly feasible excuse they could use. The Abyss is consuming them and healing won't work on them.
But even that's reaching, considering that they brought back a character that had been completely converted into an Abyssal, through a process known as Saitherance. And then they brought back another character that had been Saitheranced for well over a hundred, and possibly much longer than a thousand years. And the worst part is that they don't even try to heal them.
I.... Don't know what's going on there. Some other RPG series do the same thing, and it doesn't make any sense in those either. When death is as cheap as the price of a single phoenix-down, there's no reason not to resurrect everyone you can. And without any story explanation as to why that won't work.... It smacks a little of carelessness.
That's an issue that Tides of Fate didn't have. Despite some of the characters coming straight the hell out of nowhere, it did have a lot of attention to detail when it came to the story. It was a pretty tight concept in the end.
Not to say that the game is bad or anything, but it's got some issues.
So, let's go into why the game is good.
There's a lot of stuff going on, and it all seems to be pretty coherent. It's a fun game, certainly. I just don't think it's as good as the first game.
There are some cool enemies, some cool bosses, and cool areas. The story itself is pretty nice as well. I just don't like the transition between games.
So, on the list of things that I actually do like I might as well put the graphics. The characters battle-sprites all look much nicer than they did in Tides of Fate. And they've got some nice motion animations in the battles as well. No such motions for the enemies unfortunately, but the sprites for the enemies look very nice.
The battle system is essentially the same as it was in Tides of Fate. It's an ATB system, we all know how that works. Same as the controls, they haven't changed either. Movement still defaults to the joystick, which from what I've heard is an issue with the engine. No real idea why Enterbrain would keep doing that (If controller support is native to the engine) or why Kisareth would keep doing that either (If controller support has been modded into the engine.) because...... Well I'll get into why this is a major issue for me in a few lines.
The big change to the game is actually the Scion Grid, a system by which you can upgrade the parties stats and gain new abilities. I don't see why this was necessary.
The Scion Grid is a pain to use. The cursor in the Grid only moves in four directions, and it's very imprecise. Especially when controlled with the joystick, and it's not much better with the arrow keys on the keyboard.
I don't really like the way it was executed. Digital movement on the Scion Grid would have been much better.
Speaking of horrible controls, there's a fighting minigame.
Yes, there is an optional fighting minigame in an RPG. As in Kisareth Studios put a 2D fighting game into a Final Fantasy IV-styled RPG.
John, I know you love fighting games. And you're not alone, I like them too. But the controls are floaty as all hell. That, and the fighting engine is kinda broken.
Let's see, there's one button for attacks, and the enemies pretty much always have the block button on. Yes, the spectacle is pretty hilarious, but the gameplay of the fighting minigame leaves quite a bit to be desired for something you've got to do to get a level ten wisdom scion, required to unlock the top-tier of skills in the scion-grid, which can make the combat and bosses easier.
Speaking of which, the boss-fights are nicely varied, but most of them seem to be a bit easy. There are quite a few awesome fights, but most of them, up to the almost-final boss are kind of easy to get through.
The awesome fights include several where you play as a ship or multiple ships and get to fight both other ships and a gigantic monster.
But most of the individual bosses are a little too easy. None of them really have the same kind of sense of difficulty as the ones in Tides of Fate did. The final boss aside, because DAMN is that a deceptive leadup, considering how easy the boss right before him is!
And this is where I get to one of my last sticking issues. While the story is different, and the graphics are improved, the formula seems to have been copied straight from the first game. Start off with an epic battle, skip a period of time,  wind up less powerful than you were in the epic battle at the start, and then you gotta work your way up to godhood and invade hell.
Yes, I'm over simplifying. Yes, there are plenty of unique and awesome moments that break up the whole formula, including an entire dungeon that literally is hell. But it seems to be built around the same set of events.
To prove my point, let's talk about the plot. Spoilers inbound, my friends.
War of the Abyss starts off with the final boss from Tides of Fate, Xe'on. After you beat him, it transitions into a somewhat revised version of the ending of Episode I. Not really necessary, but I guess it serves the purpose.
After that, Nejero The Prophet and Magus narrate about everything we already found out in the first game. It's mostly pointless if you've played the original.
After that, time flashes forward a year, and we get some awkward as all-hell exposition from Gelina and Xiria about how Xiria broke up with Magus in the intervening time, and how Magus is now apparently going to marry Gelina...
And personally, this is where my problems with the game started. The first game was all about the buildup to the war, and skipping over a massive bulk of potential character-development, gameplay, roleplay and story.
And this little issue ruined the entire game for me. No matter how hard I tried to get over it, that massive slap in the face to pacing killed my enthusiasm for this game, and I still haven't really gotten over it.
Maga'ra and Xiria were only ever in the same room with each other once at the end of Tides of Fate, and to the best of my recollection, didn't share a single line of dialogue.
I know that there was that whole strange, three-person relationship that Magus, Xiria and Gelina had, but there were no clues I picked up on that Magus was drifting away from Xiria, or vice-versa.
Granted, a lot can happen in a year, I'm no stranger to that fact. But skipping all that time takes the agency away from the player, which defeats the purpose of a role-playing game, and especially one that claims to be as open as this one does.
I know the folks at Kisareth are going to be reading this, so let me lay out a little business proposition right here.
If you guys want, I can write up a story-treatment of a handful of events that could fill the intervening space, because I have a lot of ideas in my head of how that year could play out, with so many branches the players could choose that it's taking over my brain and keeping me from writing the story of a couple of my own games I'm working on.
Is that done? Okay, back to the review.
Magus's marriage to Gelina is interrupted by Abyssals invading the city.
So Magus and what he can assemble of the Army of Gods split up to drive the Abyssals out of the city.
They manage to achieve this goal, and time skips forward another month.
Then we make our way to the Kisareth/Illian bridge to help out some Kisareth soldiers.
If you think back, this is exactly how Episode I started. Except that Episode I just had the boss-fight, and not a bunch of soldiers that you needed to save too.
Okay it's similar, but not identical. I suppose it's a decent setup for the first boss, it is an invasion after all.
The problem is that it has a time-limit for some reason..... No explanation whatsoever. No ticking bomb, or whatever. Maybe it's the amount of time until the next wave of enemies arrives. I don't know. I didn't stick around to find out, I just killed all the enemies and finished the area off.
After that, we wander around a bit, talking to Magus's granddaughter (Who has aged quite a bit in the last year because Lee's are apparently very strange) and finding out that both rulers of Ilian have gone missing in the Lyani forest.
After battling through spiders and phallic-slimes and all kinds of other enemies, Magus and company get to a shack in the woods that has a ladder leading down into a torture-room in the basement.
And the basement is littered with dead-bodies. People stung up by their necks, tied to the walls, and left to bleed-out on the floor.
There's a couple of reasons why I included the full plot-summary in the full review. One was to recap for those of you who haven't read my first impressions, one was to send that shout-out to the Kisareth staff earlier in the article, and the final reason is that I wanted to raise awareness of a plot-hole.
Anari dies in this area.
And Isis is right there. Right. Freaking. There.
Isis is the most powerful healer in the game, and there's no explanation given for why everyone is weaker now than they were in the end of Tides of Fate. Or even the beginning of this game.
Isis, at the end of Tides of Fate could bring people back from the dead with full health. Even here, she can heal anyone mortally wounded back to full health. Instead of taking so much time to yammer on, why didn't she try healing her? She's her wife! They had a child together! What happened to the Isis that could take her staff and bring an army back to life?
And I had more than enough phoenix-downs to bring her back to life if she had died.
So, we're in a situation where we've got enough mana to heal a small army back to maximum, and enough healing-items to do the exact same thing, and we don't use them.
No reason given why it wouldn't work, and nobody tried anything. Nothing.
That doesn't make any sense.
That. Does not. Make. Any. Sense.
If you're sitting on a medical stockpile to shame a medical-bay from Star Trek, you shouldn't be holding anything back when your daughter/wife/sister is on the brink of dying!
And not to mention that there's a healing/save crystal right outside the freaking cabin. You know, the kind of magic crystal that can resurrect the dead!
See, this is why you either write-around these kinds of things if you want a character to die, or you just don't put them in the game. Don't just ignore it. I know some games in the past that were very well-acclaimed have had similar issues, but just because they're big-budget games that everyone likes doesn't excuse poor-writing!
And it doesn't excuse that kinda thing in any kind of game. No matter the budget of the game, nothing excuses poor-writing.
And do you know what the problem with this is? This happens twice.
The most powerful healer in the game, even if she has the freaking resurrection spell!
And technically, it happens more times than that! That's just counting the amount of times that Isis was present!
Anyways, getting back to the plot summary.
Everyone who's still alive sails off to Senefarria to find out what the secret-weapon they've found there is.
Now we come to a battle with the first of the four elemental mistresses. I remember saying that this didn't make any sense at the time, and it certainly didn't, but given what we find out later, it actually kinda does.
After that, my main problem with the fight was that it was just too easy. Hell, all of the boss-fights in this game are a little too easy. Or maybe it's just that I got used to how the battles in this series flow, and it just seems a little easy to me.
After that, it cuts to Anto talking with his people, and then slides off to Maga'ra and some troops she took with her into the Zelonian mountains. There, they meet up with Gelina Grey, and investigate some bizarre stuff going on in the town.
The weird thing is that there's maybe one or two towns in each country, and the rest is all pretty much grasslands and desert. There seems to be about twenty to thirty people in each country. I know there are supposed to be more, because otherwise there wouldn't be enough people to stand up to The Abyss, but each country has a capitol and a town. Some of them only have a capitol.
This is an issue that a lot of RPGs seem to have, that they only let you explore towns and places that are plot-relevant. Or ones where the developers put side-quests.
Moving on.
They find out that Magus's son, Cadar has apparently turned to The Abyss, and sold out his country and his world for the sake of power.
So, they can't really do anything about that, because they've gotta go find Cadars' sister, Trinity and keep her from being taken by The Abyss.
Trinity vanishes before they can get to her, and they wind up fighting the second of the four elemental mistresses.
After that's resolved, Magara, her soldiers, and Drea are teleported to Trinity's destination. There, they make their way through a cave until they meet up with Trinity again.
Then they proceed to teleport back to exactly where they started, Zelonia. So much for teleporting Trinity to safety, eh?
Anyways, they let Trinity make her way back to Kisareth alone, while the other four of them go back to New Haven and find that it's been destroyed.
After that, they face-off with Cadar, and make their way back to the mountains, where they find that Trinity hasn't been kidnapped yet and they make their way back to Kisareth.
After that, it cuts to some stuff that Xiria and Gelina are up to.
Throughout the game, you skip from character to character, covering a lot of ground, and then finally bringing everyone together at the end, letting you choose your four characters to lay siege into The Abyss with.
Around the middle, there's a stealth-section that sucks. I won't go into as much detail as I did in my first impressions of the game, so suffice to say that it's not very good and it's pretty annoying. If I had a chance to redesign any one thing in this game, even with how much I didn't like the timeskip at the beginning, I'd redesign this section entirely. Redo the mechanics, etc.
In fact, I'll take this opportunity to compare this forced stealth section to an impromptu stealth-section that was stealth by my own choice.
Towards the end of the game, when you're invading The Abyss (Again) I decided that I needed to find a vantage-point for grinding, where I could abuse a combination of the healing/save crystals and a nearby teleporter. I ran around, using my party-members to shield Magus from enemies, looting all of the chests and trying to get through the dungeon until I found a decent vantage-point for grinding.
And I did that because I knew that if I tried to get through it normally, I'd run out of health and mana items trying to survive until the end.
The funny thing is, I didn't actually need the vast number of items I'd bought and looted in for the final-boss.
That was a bit of a running theme for me throughout the game. All of the bosses seem like they were a lot easier than the bosses in Tides of Fate were.
The problem with this is, that I can't tell if this is just because I know what to do, or if the battles really are easier. John Sierra, AKA NecroVMX, the vice-president of Kisareth and the art-director said that Anto Calias would be a lot harder than Xe'on was in Tides of Fate, and I was either over-leveled for that fight, or it was a lot easier than he said it was going to be.
And I'm not sure which of the three possibilities is the right one. I mean, I leveled the part to seventy, same as what I leveled them to in Tides of Fate for the faceoff with Xe'on. First stage Anto took about three minutes and twenty-two seconds the second time around, and the second stage fight took about eight minutes.
The first time around it took fifteen minutes to defeat Stage One Anto, so I guess I had to have been overleveled. But last time when I leveled up to seventy, I barely eeked out a win against Xe'on after an epic fourteen-minute fight. This time it took under twelve minutes. Not that that's a bad thing, it just wasn't as hard as I was expecting.
The rest of the story mostly concerns Magus and the others running around the world rebuilding The Army of Gods to lay siege onto the Abyss, again.
I won't give away any more than I already have, suffice to say that this is a pretty cool plot, despite the problems I had at the beginning.
Now, I've only just finished the game at time of writing, so I don't know what the choices you can make as Magus do to affect the story, if they do at all. I am planning a second playthrough in the future after the game gets on Steam, but at the moment I'm a little burnt-out on Episode II. I don't really feel like playing through the entire game twice in a short period of time, so I won't find some of these things out until then.
The main issue I have with the choices is that the story seems to be a little too linear, and that there aren't enough options given to the player for role-playing.
Some of my readers might say that I'm being too harsh on it, because it's an indie-game, but I know the developers want indie games to be held to the same standards as expensive titles from big developers, and I'd like to respect those wishes.
Again, I don't know exactly how much the choices the players are given actually affect the outcome of the game, but I do know where I, as a developer would have put more options for the players.
For instance, It'd be nice to have an option to force Gelina to come back into the victory party with Xiria after the awesome naval-battle.
Or an option to choose which of the two Nexus towers to attack first. I looked for an option, and I couldn't find it.
There are a handful of other places where I felt like there should have been some option to do something else, but I unfortunately can't think of them at the moment.
Granted, certain aspects might have been cut-down because of the somewhat troubled development history.
I might as well take this opportunity to talk about that subject, or rather, what I know of it.
War of the Abyss was original scheduled to see a release about a year ago, but the company experienced a hard-drive crash and lost what I can assume was most of the assets related to the game, considering that the release was delayed by about a year. So they redid a lot of it.
And they also modified the engine quite a bit to do what they wanted it to. Again.
Since there's no complete list of basic features for RPG Maker VX Ace that I can find, so I'll just go over some of the things that I know about the engine from Wikipedia and my own personal experience with the defaults.
First off, they've changed the height of the character sprites, to make the characters look a little more natural. Second, they've changed the battle-system from the default first-person view to a side-view, as they did for the first game.
Third, they've added a fighting-minigame. It sucks. If you want a rundown, check out my first impressions.
Fourth, they've added an option to upscale the graphics in the options. Unfortunately there's no option to change it after you start the game, but you can change it before you start. Selecting 1920x1080 fills your screen (At least it does for me) to maximum. There's no fullscreen option, but you can fill the entire screen with the game. I'd have liked an option to just expand the field-of-view so that the graphics didn't get stretched out, but I can put up with that I suppose. From what I can tell through my research, there isn't a way to make RMVXA expand the field-of-view with scripting.
That't all I know off the top of my head. They've probably done a lot of things behind the scenes that wouldn't be obvious to someone who hasn't taken a peek at the source of the game.
Now, onto the music.
The soundtrack rocks. It's good, just as good as the music in the last game, if not better, because it has Eric Calderone on it. And honestly, when I heard that Eric was performing music for the soundtrack, that was what sold me on the series as a whole.
Something that I'd like to note, is that according to a comment made by the Kisareth Studios official Steam account, this series will have at least ten games.
Apparently they're planning three trilogies, with the series concluding with the ninth game in the series. And they've already announced the prequel, Shenandor'ah: Zero Chronicle.
And according to that same post on Steam, they're planning on "spin-offs, interquels, new IPs, and genre-specific games that will cover the spectrum of the CoaDL universe"
Remember what I said about this potentially becoming one of the defining franchises of the decade? Considering they've already got plans to outnumber the entire Final Fantasy franchise, and they're only on the second game, that's looking like more and more of a reality.
Considering the amount of positive praise this series is getting from gamers and critics alike, I wouldn't be surprised if Magus Drakhen Lee and Chronicles of a Dark Lord become household names soon.
Admittedly, even though I didn't like this game as much as the first one, and even though I think it's a step in the wrong direction for the series, I like what this game represents for the industry. It's the culminated efforts of a group with a vision, as opposed to the delegated efforts of a boardroom of executives wanting more money to wallpaper their houses with.
So, despite my lukewarm reception of this game, I do have to admit that it's fun, and that it's got its share of good moments.
Hell, when I actually finished it, I realized I'd been having a lot more fun than I thought I was.
So while everything I said still stands, I don't think anyone shouldn't buy this game. If you want to continue the story of Magus Drakhen Lee, I'd recommend getting this game. It's on Desura, and Kisareth has put the game up on Greenlight.
In the end, I give it a 9.8* rating. I'll see Sunday with my top five games of 2014!