I Am Setsuna – Part One

i-am-setsuna-concept-art

I’m about ten hours into I Am Setsuna, which was purposefully designed to feel very much like the classic SNES RPG Chrono Trigger. The battle system is snappy, and the writing is competent.

The scenery is all snow all the time, which has been dampening my enjoyment (so to speak). The snow is pretty but unrelenting, and there are no lighting or physics effects of the sort that made the sand in Journey interesting and dynamic. The graphics are very pretty, but every time I enter a new area I’m like, I bet it’s going to be another snowy forest, and lo and behold it is. Almost all of the enemies have the same color palette of white and gray, with occasional touches of brown or blue. This makes them less lovable than they should be, because their designs are interestingly stylized and remarkably cute.

The piano music that serves as the score is also pretty but unrelenting, and I ended up turning the in-game slider for the BGM almost all the way down. I’m still having trouble dealing with the soundtrack. There’s a discordance between the pieces that seem to be performed by an amateur musician and the pieces that sound more like a traditional MIDI file played by the computer. The overworld music for certain sections of the game is kind of catchy, I suppose.

The voice acting is embarrassing, so I turned it completely off.

In terms of the game’s characters, Setsuna is basically Yuna from Final Fantasy X, a “sacrifice” who has been sent out from her village to appease “the monsters.” She will give her life in “the Lost Lands,” and that will for some reason keep everyone else in the world safe. Setsuna is accompanied by a Rikku character and an Auron character (the allusions to these Final Fantasy X characters are obvious), and the player-protagonist is not so much Crono as he is Squall from Final Fantasy VIII. So mercenary, much angst.

Despite the tedium of the music and graphics and the anime stereotypes used to differentiate between the protagonists, the story of I Am Setsuna has started to pull me in. What I’m picking up on is that the events of the game were proceeded by one or more failed pilgrimages, and that multiple people have been at pains to cover this up. What’s going on with these pilgrimages, and why is there a conspiracy surrounding them? There are small touches of darkness scattered throughout the game, especially in the dialog of the older NPCs. For example, an unnamed old dude at a way station says something completely out of nowhere about how “spatial distortions” have been getting worse over the past ten years. Spatial distortions? I’m intrigued.

It’s fun to play the game while I’m playing it, but I never really feel compelled to pick it up. To be honest, the strongest feeling I’ve had toward I Am Setsuna is nostalgia for Final Fantasy X. I never thought I’d prefer Tidus to… anyone, really… but so far I Am Setsuna feels merely derivative and doesn’t add anything new or interesting to the genre.

Still, I’d like to see how the story turns out, so I guess I’ll just keep going.

( Header image from Trusted Reviews )

Bravely Second

Bravely Second Ending by fabledtactician

It took me a total of 85 hours, but I finally completed Bravely Second. I beat the game, I made it through the postgame content, and I saw the face of the Adventurer. It was so worth it.

There are minor spoilers in this post, but I don’t give away anything that isn’t obvious.

In Bravely Second, two young men and two young women venture forth to save the world; or rather, multiple worlds, as was the case in Bravely Default. Chapter Five (which I reached about 50 hours into the game) marks the major multiverse-related plot twist, AND WHAT A PLOT TWIST IT IS.

I was shocked, which is something that almost never happens to me during a video game. Anyone who’s played Bravely Default can probably guess what the plot twist entails, but the form it takes is brilliant. Thankfully, unlike in Bravely Default there’s no story or dialog repetition after this event, which boy howdy do I ever appreciate.

As much as I eventually ended up loving Bravely Default, Bravely Second is so much more fun to play. Grinding is significantly easier, for one, and it’s nice to be able to fast-forward though battles. The in-game bestiary works like the bestiary in Final Fantasy XII, meaning that more information is added as more creatures are defeated. I prefer grinding for story to grinding for stat increases, and grinding in this game is so satisfying and rewarding!

What I especially love about Bravely Second is that the characters are obsessed with food and talk about it all the time. They cook for themselves, they share meals with NPCs, and at least a quarter of the monster notes in the bestiary concern cooking, eating, and regional food cultures. It’s cool to see the characters interacting with each other on a friendlier and more intimate basis than “oh no there is a crisis we must do something,” which is something I’d really like to see more of in JRPGs.

Unfortunately, the end of the game takes a detour away from friendship and strikes out toward romance, a theme that it doesn’t handle with a comparable degree of success. In the closing scenes, four love stories are resolved, but I didn’t feel satisfied with any of them. There was no tension, no slow burn, no dramatic revelation, and no physical chemistry. When multiple characters suddenly decide to get married, I was like, “…okay?”

I think Bravely Second really missed a chance with Denys (the villain for most of the game) and Agnès (the vestal virgin he kidnaps). The revelation that Denys is Not Actually Evil – and this is not a spoiler; he’s much too attractive to be evil – makes sense as far as anime tropes are concerned, but it also comes out of nowhere. In my mind, Denys clearly crossed over the Moral Event Horizon in several major ways, so Agnès asking everyone to forgive him when the Bigger Bad appears is bizarre. If Denys and Agnès had talked to each other even once, it would have added richness and complexity to the story, not only fleshing out both of their characters but also endowing the love story between Agnès and Tiz (one of the floopy-haired moppets in your party) with a much-needed element of conflict.

The true star of Bravely Second is Edea, the bratty princess from Bravely Default who goes from being a general at the beginning of the game to becoming an empress by its end. Edea makes all of the branching-path decisions (such as they are), which are slowly set up as a way to train her to think about moral conflicts. Although she initially approaches these decisions with a nonchalant attitude, she gradually manages to achieve a video-game version of wisdom and maturity. Because of this, tacking a random eleventh-hour love story onto her growth as a character felt especially insulting.

In the end, I guess, the point of this game isn’t its story. Rather, your goal as a player is to figure out how to exploit the battle system for fun and profit. Although it was possible to set up your party in Bravely Default so that they could infinitely spam powerful attacks while taking no damage, it’s much easier to do this in Bravely Second. The game mechanics of Bravely Second remind me a bit of the Gambit system in Final Fantasy XII, which the player can tweak into creating a party of finely tuned murder machines.

Underdeveloped love stories aside, Bravely Second is a whole bunch of satisfyingly crunchy JRPG goodness, and I think we all need to take a moment to appreciate Akihiko Yoshida’s gorgeous and ridiculous character designs.

Bravely Second Denys Geneolgia

( Above image from the Final Fantasy wiki )

( Header image from fabledtactician on Tumblr )

Ni no Kuni – On “Americanness” and JRPGs

Ni no Kuni Motorville

Two things happened this past weekend. The first was that I finally got around to buying a PlayStation 4, and the second is that a sequel to the 2011 PlayStation 3 game Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was announced.

I preordered a collector’s edition of the North American release of Wrath of the White Witch back in 2012, and it’s been sitting unopened in its box in my closet like a post-postcapitalistic objet d’art.

Ni no Kuni was the final PS3 game I own but hadn’t played, and I’d put it off for so long because I haven’t had a lot of room in my heart for JRPGs since I finished Final Fantasy XIII. I felt like I couldn’t justify setting up the PS4 unless I gave it a shot, however, so yesterday evening I took it out of its (pristine and gorgeous) box and booted it up.

The game took ten minutes to initialize, and after playing it for thirty minutes I still didn’t get a chance to fight a single battle. In fact, I never even made it past the prologue.

If I’m being honest with myself, I think what turned me against the game was the Ghibli portrayal of “Motorville” (which I think is supposed to be in Michigan, although there are a few hints that it could be elsewhere in the Midwest or the South). There was something a bit too unironically wholesome and… aggressively racially homogeneous?

Motorville was like something out of The Twilight Zone, and the uncanniness of the atmosphere was exacerbated by the fact that I knew that wasn’t what they were going for. I never thought, as an American, that I would feel sullied by the gaze of a different culture on my own, but… yeah.

Also, I have seen Pet Sematary, and I know exactly where that story is going. Oliver, I promise that you don’t want to bring your mother back from the dead, just trust me.

My impatience with the story and setting aside, I was annoyed that the game didn’t give me anything to do for the first half hour, not allowing me to fight or explore or even open the menu to save my progress. I understand that the game becomes more interactive after Oliver leaves Motorville to set out on his fantasy adventure, but that sort of front-end slogging isn’t very promising as foreshadowing for mid-game slogging.

I finally started reading Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken, and it’s been resonating with my recent reevaluation of what I want from video games. At the beginning of the book, McGonigal examines the psychological and emotional experience of playing games, saying stuff like…

From zero to peak experience in thirty seconds flat – no wonder games caught on. Never before in human history could this kind of optimal, emotional activation be accessed so cheaply, so reliably, so quickly. (40)

…and…

It’s no exaggeration to say that for many gamers, it probably felt like they had been waiting their whole lives for something like this: a seemingly free and endless supply of invigorating activity and every reason in the world to feel optimistic about their own abilities. (41)

Neither of these statements applies to my first experience with Ni no Kuni, which was ten minutes of set-up and thirty minutes of enforced hand-holding.

I used to love JRPGs, but as I play these types of games as an adult I’ve gradually ceased to experience the sort of positive feelings McGonigal describes in the above passages. I love novels, and I love Studio Ghibli movies, but if I wanted to read a novel or watch a Studio Ghibli movie I wouldn’t have paid $120 for a game.

I know that I should have given Ni no Kuni at least another half hour to get itself off the ground, but my PlayStation 4 was so new and fresh and shiny, and I could not help myself. After the thirty-minute timer I set went off, I jumped up from the couch, turned off the PlayStation 3, and started getting really excited about finally being able to play Transistor.

( Header image from The First Hour )

Bravely Default

Bravely Default by gimuniverse

I played Bravely Default around this time last year, but I recently had a conversation about it with a friend, who happily devotes endless hours to games but was annoyed by how much time this game demands from its player. For the most part I agree with him.

To begin with, Bravely Default is tailored to the Japanese market, in which meaningful high-volume public connectivity is both a normal and a privileged feature in any game.

There’s a system within Bravely Default in which the player can develop a village that eventually ends up offering the most powerful weapons and items. Each area in the village takes a certain amount of real-life time spent in the game software to clear, but this time can be drastically reduced if the player recruits more villagers. These villagers come into a player’s game via the Nintendo 3DS system’s SpotPass feature.

You’ve got to leave your machine on (with the screen closed) if you want to develop your village, but it’s not actually supposed to take that long. In Japan, where the vast majority of the population commutes by train and makes connections at stations where hundreds (if not hundreds of thousands) of people are all at the same place at the same time, something like SpotPass makes a lot of sense. As long as your 3DS is on and your SpotPass is activated for a game, you don’t even need to be playing that game to get the benefits.

I commute in DC traffic, and I always get a bunch of pings on SpotPass on the ride home from work. I think I got something like a thousand villagers within my first month playing Bravely Default.

Bravely Default still requires a ton of time from its player, however, and most of that time is occupied by grinding for character experience points and job skill points.

The late-game optional boss fights, which are increasingly masochistic team-ups of stronger versions of the earlier bosses, require some creative job class combinations, so it’s important to be able to grind efficiently. Being completely maxed out in terms of character levels doesn’t mean anything in the endgame if you don’t use your job skills and bonuses correctly.

The Vampire (ie, Blue Mage) class is extremely useful in terms of skills and combos that can pull off one-turn kills. If you outfit one of these guys properly and set them on Auto Battle, you can also grind real hard real quick, and the game gives you “one-turn kill” bonuses to help with this.

Grinding is to be expected from a JRPG, and I understand that some people find it relaxing. I understand where these people are coming from, but only to a certain extent.

The problem with the village development and grinding-related timesink elements of Bravely Default is that they are exacerbated by the structure of the game, which requires the player to go through five almost-identical versions of the story, repeating the same conversations and dungeons and boss fights. A bit of the repetition is optional, but much of it isn’t.

I temporarily quit Bravely Default about halfway through Chapter 8 (the last segment of the story). After fighting the Fire Temple boss for the fifth time and reviving the Fire Crystal for the fifth time, I noticed that the playtime clock had hit 80 hours.

This amount of backtracking and repetitiveness is uncalled for. In the game, you do the same shit over and over and never get anywhere. This sort of fruitless repetition is accompanied by a nagging sense of wasted time.

I understand what’s going on from a narrative perspective. I also understand what’s going on from the perspective of gameplay-as-narrative. The frustration the player feels is deliberate on the part of the game designers. Bravely Default can easily be read as a critique of gaming – the player is a mindless puppet manipulated into wasting time and effort to save a world that doesn’t need saving. This message is profound, but it doesn’t make the experience of playing the game any more pleasant.

Steven Poole, writing about Shadow of the Colossus in Edge Issue 193, said the following:

The aesthetic pleasures weren’t enough, for me, to outweigh the powerful regret the game so astonishingly succeeded in engineering. If a game of violence is so effective in its message of anti-violence that you actually stop playing, does that mean it was a success or a failure?

Replace “violence” with “grinding and meaningless repetition” and you more or less have my feelings about Bravely Default.

( Header image by gimuniverse on Tumblr )