Monday, November 9, 2015

Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven First Impressions

I know I said that the first review I was going to do this month was going to be Fire Emblem Awakening, but I haven't been able to put words to paper on that one yet, so I figured I'd give you guys my first impressions on this game from Marvelous and XSeed that I got in for review a while back.
I was hoping to have been done with The Princess' Heart by now, but apparently my PS3 controller doesn't want to work on my PC anymore, so until I get a new controller for my computer, I'll be sticking with console games for a while.
After I got done with Fire Emblem, I had a hankering to play another good tactical RPG, and since this was on my review schedule, I figured I'd bump it up the list a bit so I could try and get it done. Unfortunately, I don't think that was all that good a decision. While this is by no means a bad game, when you compare the two games, you get some pretty stark contrast. It's not quite on the level of comparing Alien Isolation to Slender, but it comes pretty close.
While Maiden Heaven is technically a tactical RPG, it's a lot closer to being The Legend of Heroes: Trails In The Sky than it is to being Fire Emblem Awakening. Not that that's a bad thing, necessarily, I liked what I've played of Trails In The Sky. But do you know what it had that this game doesn't? Characters I had a reason to care about. And a reasonably expedient opening sequence as well. Take a look at this screenshot.
The time-code on the first save-file is how long it took to get to the first part of the game that was remotely interactive. The time on the second file is how long it took to get to the action.
That's right, twenty minutes of opening sequence until you get to do anything, and then another twenty minutes to get to the combat of this tactical RPG. And that's not counting the length of the FMV that plays before the title-screen, and then plays again during the opening sequence of the game!
That wouldn't even have been that big a deal if I'd been at all interested by what was going on, but one of the major flaws I've been able to notice in this game is the fact that the plot is so bloody boring.
I wasn't able to find the writing credits for any of the three writers credited on the Wikipedia page, so I don't know if they've written anything other than this, but this is one of the most generic stories I've ever had the displeasure to experience.
The plot is that one anime harem plot. You know the one. Where the male lead has little to no personality, all of the girls are based on a single archetype apiece, and worst of all, all of the girls have amnesia. And it's that convenient kind of amnesia where those who suffer from it get their memories back over the course of the game.
See, the reason Fire Emblem Awakening got away with the amnesia plot was because the characters with amnesia never got their memories back. At all. Sorry to spoil that outside of the Fire Emblem Awakening reviews, but I had to bring it up to prove my point.
Amnesia as a plot-device has been done to death in games, movies, television, comics, books, etc. By now, everyone knows about amnesia plots, everyone's seen them done to death in everything we've seen. Hell, we've got an entire series of games called Amnesia for crying out loud. There was a game called Flashback made all the way back in the '90s which had an amnesia plot. Wikipedia has one-hundred and sixty-three articles on amnesia in fiction, and about forty on memory alteration and erasure in fiction. And you know what? I'm pretty sure there's a lot more than that. Episodes of otherwise sensible (To an extent) TV series with amnesia plots shoved into them during one season in an attempt to create mystique. Heroes did it, Ghost Whisperer did it, Lois and Clark did it, and I know others have done it. Amnesia has been done to death as the main driving force of the plot. If you want to use amnesia in your story, fine. Go ahead. But you need something else to drive the plot. Fire Emblem Awakening had the Days of Future Past/Terminator style goal of circumventing the apocalypse driving most of the story, with character interaction filling in the gaps, with the rest of the players time being filled with the combat. We'll be talking about that in a bit.
Comparing the first hour of this game to the first hour of Fire Emblem Awakening, from the moment you fire the game up to the moment you set it down an hour later, we see that FEA has an attract-mode FMV comprised entirely of original material, while LoM just re-uses the anime FMV that plays during the games credits-sequence.
Fire Emblem Awakening starts with gameplay, then introduces you to the characters, introduces the premise of the plot, shows you how to play the game when mechanics are introduced (And not before) and by the time you round out that hour, you'll know plenty about the story, the characters, and the world the story takes place in.
Then we come to Lord of Magna, which spends forty minutes talking and talking and talking until you're left wondering what the hell any of this needless blithering has to do with the story the narrator laid down earlier on. This is yet another Japanese RPG that starts out with a very interesting premise, and then goes on to tell a completely different story. Final Fantasy III did this, Final Fantasy VI did this, and for all it did right, Tides of Fate did that as well (Twice in fact. War of the Abyss did it as well).
It's fine if you go on to tell an interesting story, but if you don't follow it up with the same caliber of ideas you put into the setup, you'd be better off telling the story you laid down in your premise. You have to ask yourself when writing; "Is this the most interesting part of your whole story? And if not, why aren't we seeing that?"
The reason I replaced "Protagonist" with "Story" is because what passes for the main-character in this game is utterly bland. Yeah, he cares deeply about what he's doing, but we have no idea why he cares so deeply. Neither him nor us know much about the badass girls who start showing up in his path, but he treats them like part of his family. Yes, his father told him to treat his guests like family, but there's so little that's established about him, or his father, or anything really that the player has very little reason to give a damn about the story. And that's a rather massive failing for an RPG, since they're usually pretty heavily story-based.
And you know what? Before you even get to any form of combat, or even a combat tutorial you are shown the bathing,  shopping and relationship tutorials. Seriously, after the game gets done with the bizarre and unwanted maid-harem gimmick, it tosses up a bunch of one-page tutorial messages that jam a bunch of irrelevant information into your face. At this point, all I wanted to do was get down to some combat, but that was still about five-to-ten minutes away. That's almost an hour of the players time that gets wasted on a load of dialogue without any relevance to the plot.
And the worst part is that there was ample opportunity to stick a quick combat section in at the beginning of the game
Now, think back to the world-map from Fire Emblem Awakening. Can you name any landmarks? The volcano, the battle on the sea, all the spotpass areas, the arena, the snowy castle, the thieves hideout. So many cool areas that you can hardly name all of them, right?
Now, let's take a look at Lord of Magna's overworld. Keep in mind that this screenshot was taken before I unlocked a lot of the areas on the map, but I think it serves to demonstrate my point no matter what.
Oh dear lord, that's a lot of blueness. And as you can see, the continent lacks a lot of defining detail. The continent lacks texture, the ocean is just a massive dark-blue void, and the whole thing generally looks like it belongs on the title-screen of the Goldeneye remake. Not to mention the fact that the icons are incredibly generic. Plus, they get re-used numerous times around the map. Then we get to the fact that rather than allowing you to pan around the world as you wish, you have to select you destination from the menu on the left of the screen. This overworld would be more suited for a science-fiction game than a cartoony, colorful fantasy game such as this.
So if the story is bland and generic, what about the gameplay?
Well, like I mentioned before, the gameplay rather heavily resembles that of Trails In The Sky, but with a few major changes. Trails In The Sky had a rather rigid combat-system, where you could either move your characters freely, or attack enemies. If you attack an enemy in Trails In The Sky, you have to select each enemy in range without being allowed to roam around freely. Trails In The Sky's area-of-effect system functions similarly to that of LoM's, but Lord Of Magna focuses a lot more on busting up massive enemy hordes than Trails In The Sky does. For one thing, all enemies have the potential to inflict damage on their allies when they die. When mooks die, they fly a fairly long way away from their standing position, and have the capacity to either outright kill other mooks, or do some amount of damage to higher-level enemies. From what I can tell, it's like a turn-based Dynasty Warriors. I've wanted to get into Dynasty Warriors for a while now, and if it has the same focus on wanton mayhem that this does, I'd be interested in picking it up. Maybe I need to start saving up for that Wii U and pick up Hyrule Warriors. Or maybe I'll wait for the New3DS version, who knows.
Also, you can move freely around the map without using up your entire turn. And instead of mana, you get a "Tension" score after a certain point in the game. Your units accumulate Tension in combat by killing enemies.
Then we come to Action Points. As their name would suggest, they are a series of points which allow you to take certain actions, and units accumulate them by not taking any actions on their turn. I should mention that movement is not considered an action. As an avid player of Dungeons and Dragons, I would have liked the ability to exchange an action-point for more movement, or movement for another action.
Your combat-team consists of your avatar and up to three of the magical maids (Yes, seriously. This is one of the things the game spent forty minutes boring me to death with) who live in his inn. The default name of the lead-character is Luchs (Pronounced Lux) Edhuard, but since you can change his name, I decided to call him GalanDun.
As of writing, I've managed to unlock four of these magical amnesiac maids (Still not kidding) to take with me into combat. So far I've managed to identify which of the three are the most useful.
Guess which ones I like best? From left-to-right, top-to-bottom, Belatrix, Charlotte, and Elfriede. As you can tell in Gabriele's screenshot, she has very little range or field to her attack, and it does very little damage.
Then we get to her special-attack that she can perform when she has two action-points. Unlike the other three girls special attacks, it doesn't have any longer range to it, it doesn't have a wider field of attack, and it doesn't do a whole lot more damage than her normal attack. Since there are only three more magical maids to collect (Gotta catch 'em all!) I would hope that they're better in combat than Gabby is. I've already run into at least two of them, and they seem pretty damn competent. But since this is an RPG, they might get nerfed something ridiculous once they join the party.
Now we get to something which especially irked me. You see, the game is too easy on normal for my tastes. Having just come off of Fire Emblem Awakening, I wasn't expecting a game that was quite this easy. I know it's probably pretty unfair to compare the two, but this game just isn't all that challenging on the default difficulty, and it's rather unfortunate that you can't amp up the difficulty while in combat. And even on hard the game is a little too easy, made so by the fact that the AI seems to be, as we say in this business, pretty damn stupid. As long as you stay a decent distance away from large groups of enemies, they'll just stay put while you slaughter their allies.
Then there's their tendency to mob around each other and restrict their own movement enough for my squad to whip out their special-attacks and get ten or more kills per-attack. Or you could just let them restrict each other until you've managed to destroy enemy-spawners, heal your units, and boost up their stats.
Also, there's no unit perma-death, or even an option for it in the menu, so you wind up with the typical RPG issue of death being irrelevant, while restoring your units to full-health after the battle ends. So even if there's another battle right afterwards, they can still fight in it.
Another thing that makes the game a little easier than it probably should be is the fact that if you fail a mission, you keep all of the experience and items you gained while playing through the level. Unfortunately, this also means that any items you used during the mission are consumed forever. You can get around this by returning to the title-screen and reloading a save, but then you have to play through everything leading up to the point where you were, and I don't have enough patience to do that.
On the one hand, it allows you to gain strength and overcome the mission that's causing you problems while allowing you to grind in the level itself. But on the other hand, instead of forcing you to come up with a new strategy and approach to the situation at hand, it lets you keep throwing yourself at the problem until you manage to get to a high enough level that you can steamroll the program, even if you don't want to grind your levels up.
Once you retry a mission, your entire squad is locked-in, even if you chose them all by hand before the mission started, so you can't change them out for other members of your magical maiden army. Not that you'd necessarily want to in the first ten hours of the game, since I only had three that I liked.
That's another complaint I have. Ten hours in, and this game has a ton of dialogue, but very little that resembled a plot. In ten hours I could have finished Metal Gear Solid, and I probably would have had a lot more fun, because MGS actually has characters that are worth caring about, and a story that is actually interesting, original, and well-written.
Ten hours in this game leaves me just as perplexed as I was when the game started. This is something that tends to irritate me about a lot of RPGs, the fact that they seem to have a minimal amount of story that gets stretched across twenty to a hundred hours of gameplay.
In a lot of cases, the dialogue is anything from bland, to outright hilarious. Take a look at the gif to the left. That's some comedy gold, there. If I hadn't turned the irritating voice-acting off, it probably would have been even funnier to hear what they were saying.
That's the problem with voice-acting, if you don't have it spot-on, you're better off not using it at all. The random interjections of sounds and words, with the occasional use of full voice-over that usually comes straight out of nowhere.
Since we're discussing cutscenes right now, let's talk about the character portraits. They're beautifully drawn, and very well-animated. If characters shift from one pose to another, it's animated smoothly, rather than shifting from one pose frame to another the way games like Fire Emblem Awakening, Sonic Rush, Iron Man 2, and others do. It looks nice, and it's a nice touch. But the points it gains for that, it loses as soon as you look at the animation on the 3D models. Remember that comparison I made to Trails In The Sky earlier? Do you guys remember how smoothly animated the pre-rendered sprites they used for the characters and enemies were?
Well, all of the non-static models in this game have really choppy animation. Rather than moving smoothly from one pose to the next, the models tend to jump stiffly from pose to pose. Final Fantasy VII had better model rigging than this, and it's almost twenty years old!
And I don't buy for a second that it's because of any kind of technical limitations. The 3DS pulled off Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, Tales of the Abyss, Metal Gear Solid 3, Sonic Generations, and Resident Evil; Revelations, among other games with extremely smooth animation. Then you've got all of the games on the DS with smooth animation, so it's either a stylistic choice, or a product of bad animation. Either way, I don't care for it.
You remember how smooth the portrait animation is? Well, that carries over into the animated FMVs.
Unfortunately, the cinematics are few and far-between. I was under the impression that full-motion video was included in games to get around graphical limitations, but the FMVs in this game are at most around two seconds long.
I don't really understand this. Considering how bad the 3D animation is, you'd think that all of the cutscenes in the game would have been animated like this. But they're not. All they do is flash up a few seconds of animation before cutting back to the boring, chibi graphics.
This brings me to the chaotic nature of the battles. In most of the cutscenes, there's hardly anything on the screen. At most, you see at least four or five characters in the environment on one screen. During animated FMVs, the environment is usually a lot more detailed than it is in the game, and there are usually more characters present.
Then we get to the battles, where we can have upwards of fifty characters, NPCs and enemies at any one point in time. Sometimes this causes slowdown, sometimes the game freezes for a second or two, or sometimes nobody moves at all. I don't know if this is fixed on the New3DS, since I don't have one yet, but considering the nature of the graphics and environments, there shouldn't be all that much going on under the hood for it to slow down this badly. If slowdown is this bad, you should limit the amount of enemies that can spawn on the screen. As far as I can tell, the only limit the game has on the amount of enemies it can spawn is the amount it can fit onto any given map.
But, I will say this for the game. There are some awesome moments that can be had during combat, and it's pretty damn thrilling to fight out of a losing battle with only one character. It's somewhat diminished by the fact that the AI is a little dopey, but it's still a lot of fun in most cases.
So, what do I think of the game so far?
Well, all in all I like it so far. The story is pretty lame, and the AI is sometimes too stupid for its own good, but it's still fun. Here's hoping the story starts to get interesting later on in the game.
Thus concludes my review of the first ten-or-so hours of the game. Here's hoping I don't take three years to finish this game. Hopefully next weeks review will be on-time.

Game, cover image and a few screenshots provided by XSeed. Almost all of the screenshots were taken by me.