Pokemon Conquest [2012] ANALYSIS

Platform: Nintendo DS

Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns by Team

Completion Level: Initial Scenario Finished, 50+ Hours.

Pokemon Recruitment and Multiplayer 45+ Hours

Pokémon meets SRPG? When Worlds Collide!

Pokemon Conquest story 01

Pokémon Conquest was the game conceived when the respective heads of Nintendo’s Pokémon franchise and Tecmo Koei’s popular Japanese Nobunaga’s Ambition franchise decided to fashion their mutual respect into a crossover game. Play What You Like will focus on the result, encountered by non-Japanese with no knowledge of the Nobunaga’s Ambition franchise, but a considerable understanding of SRPGs.

We enjoy the Pokémon franchise including the early seasons of the show, and the combat system design in general. We enjoyed the combat oriented games like Pokémon Stadium, but the regular games, with their grinding and never-ending random encounters, were not our speed. So when Pokémon got fitted into the SRPG genre, we were pleased. The execution was not perfect, but we will take a good and fun crossover attempt like this any time over none. And fun it was.

Pokemon Conquest Oichi and Jigglypuff Cosply

Pokemon Conquest great warlord CosplyWithout expectations regarding Nobunaga’s Ambition, the feudal Japanese setting was a pleasant change-up setting. The warlords of that franchise were unfamiliar however, and in our opinion, not entirely helpful to the SRPG game. But if we are willing to put up with the gives and takes of such a crossover title, how much more those with knowledge of Nobunaga’s Ambition? Challenges occur in any game design process, and we can only imagine those were amplified in the melding of two popular franchises and the expectations that went along with them. No one’s expectations were going to be fully realized in a compromising crossover title by its very nature.

The layout of the game starts with a detailed and active world map. Cities have square, grid-based fighting areas of all sorts that are realized in full 3D and can be rotated at set 45 degree increments. Generally speaking, you will pick a team of up to six Pokémon and their trainers to battle AI Warlords or another person in multiplayer. Pokémon cannot be used without their warlords, who each have their own strengths and affinities for various Pokémon types (like grass, flying, etc.).

Pokemon Conquest male Warlords sorin

The Good:

  • Got to Develop Them All: There are like a zillion Pokémon. Conquest did a fine job including a great many in a deeper way than typical Pokémon games. This was no easy feat considering the variety in Pokémon. From types as varied as flying, fire, electric, and ghost to attack patterns, to additional abilities and attributes–let’s just say they crammed a lot of information into a DS game. The game did not scrimp when it came to the Pokémon.

Pokemon Conquest crobat golbat staravia hydreigon dragon type

  • We Want You for a New Recruit:
    If you say so, "tough guy."

    If you say so, “tough guy.”

    Recruiting is a key element in any Pokémon game. Conquest did not let you throw Pokéballs, but they did come up with a skill and timing system. In a turn-based game, this is a risk. (We almost stopped playing a classic RPG because it made us chase down some stupid rats real-time! Props to anybody who comments on what we’re referencing.) The timing element was challenging enough to prevent over-recruiting, fun enough to be satisfying, and difficulty-balanced just right so turn-based sensibilities were not offended.

  • Honorable Mentions:
    • The game displayed the strength rating of opponent groups before you attacked. It helped you advance with less frustration through the story mode.
    • In encounters where only one enemy could be attacked, the game automatically set up the aim for you. This sounds like a little thing, but times it by 1000 and you’ll quickly see its (time-saving) value.
The game threw in these little comments from your warlords, and they were a nice addition.

The game threw in these little comments from your warlords, and they were a nice addition.

  • Just pick one already.

    A Little Something Extra: It’s true that, unlike other franchise games, Conquest only gave each Pokémon one attack. However this was ameliorated by a secondary ability, and better still you could pay to change it. Most Pokémon had three abilities from which to choose out of a larger pool all the Pokémon shared. Some were stat-increasing, like improving hit percentages. Some were defensive, like preventing critical hits. The ones we found especially fun were (low-percentage) abilities that could put nearby enemy Pokémon to sleep, or confuse them, or paralyze them on a temporary basis.

Too big for a bullet point:  Dynamic Environments (that only look a little boring…)

One of the best things to happen to SRPGs was the dynamically changing battle environment. This feature was epitomized by Shining Force III in 1998 in which there was a train yard with cars that moved along different tracks every turn. You had to adjust your play, and choose your way, as new paths opened and closed.

Pokemon Conquest environments

Conquest was not so overt with its dynamic changes, but they still significantly affected gameplay. Consider the following elements the game employed:

  • Ditches that could be flooded (by a switch) and were then only passable by water type Pokémon.
  • Paths that could be blocked by flame geysers which needed to be attacked to be dispersed.
  • Ice rafts that transported Pokémon down a river.
  • Bridges that came and went.
  • A machine-themed map that forced Pokémon onto giant cog hubs which rotated to open different paths.

Environments also had a few small dynamic pieces. Trees could be destroyed to gain an item. On certain maps, otherwise nondescript grid squares actually housed (really annoying) traps (not a good example to emulate). Boulders and logs could be pushed across a battlefield to induce damage (this was surprisingly fun–and sometimes tragic). One map had teleporters. Perhaps the idea was good on paper, but we found it to be more of a nuisance.

Just say no to teleporters.

Just say no to teleporters.

All these elements (in combination with terrain types) kept the environments from being static.

  • Ash Has a Rival, Now You Can Too: Though setting up even multiplayer matches could be difficult (see “Ash Ketchum Versus the World” entry under Good and Bad), it was one of the most fun and challenging aspects of the game. We spent more hours in multiplayer, or training different Pokémon to debut in multiplayer, than we did playing the actual primary story. Unusual battlefields from story mode, with their dynamic elements, also made for excellent (but occasionally frustrating) multiplayer battlefields.
The XY generation female protagonist kicks it old school.

The XY generation female protagonist kicks it semi-old school.

  • Have it Your Way: Choosing a male or female protagonist fits the Pokémon franchise. But you were also able to determine how your main Pokémon, an eevee, would evolve. It is a rare Pokémon with multiple evolution choices. You like ice? Evolve eevee into glaceon. Fire? Flareon. Water? Vaporean. Dark? The cool-looking umbreon. And so on. It was not unlike choosing your class in a game like Final Fantasy Tactics. It was a good pillar about which to build this game.
Pokemon Conquest eevee cosplay

No matter HOW MUCH you like eevee, you have to evolve it to get far.

Ahh, that's more like it. Check out these glaceons. This ice p was favored by the game design.

Ahh, that’s more like it. Check out these glaceons. This ice Pokemon was favored by the game design.

  • More Honorable Mentions:

    • Elemental terrain like fire, water, or poison made it easier, harder, or impossible for certain Pokémon to traverse. It was a good way to add tactical variety to nearly flat terrain.
    • The renderings of the Pokémon themselves was consistently good. They were, regardless of design, faithful and true and (mostly) interesting

The Good & The Bad Conveniently Together in One Point:

Pokemon Conquest warlord group Cosply

  • Pokémon 2000 in 3D: All the playing fields were real 3D, good for the DS. However, the design was a little lackluster and the rotation clunky. Additionally, finding Pokémon occluded by 3D geometry was more difficult than necessary since the blocking geometry did not go translucent. The modern SRPG mindset expects translucency, but in this case it was likely a hardware limitation. Still, we would rather have the 3D as is than not at all.
  • Attack Pattern Delta:  The Pokémon employed a large variety of attack patterns–referring to the combined shape and number of grid squares affected. Some attacked three grid squares straight out, others a rectangular shape made up of multiple squares, etc. It was excellent for inducing tactical thinking, however some Pokémon got the short end of the Pokéball. These unfortunate ones attacked only one square directly in front of them, or one square a certain distance away. Unless these were a super-powerful attacks–and they pretty much weren’t–it was imbalancing, relegating these poor Pokémon largely to the sidelines.
We like gengar, and were pleased he was powerful, where as duskclops, another ghost type, did not win us over.

A tale of two ghost types. Surprisingly, old school, classic gengar ended up a better choice for us than this newb duskclops.

  • Let’s Face It: It was a pleasant surprise that “facing” mattered. There was some value in attempting to attack your opponent from the sides or back. But after going through the trouble to implement this system, it would’ve been better to make it more meaningful. What we’re saying is, it didn’t matter very much…
  • Pokemon Conquest Kenshin Metagross

    That’s more like it.

    Semi-Honorable Mentions:

    • The character art was high quality but inconsistent. It ran the gamut from very good, to okay, to goofy.
    • Occasionally, you could end up with opposing Pokémon immune to each other’s attacks. These rounds would automatically end anti-climatically.
    • Most battles (vs CPU) could only last 20 turns. We could understand that as a preventative against cheesy tactics, but there were longer battles where we did not appreciate the pressure.
  • “So you wanna to be a master of Pokémon…” This is the entry about Pokémon type. Type match ups, electric versus water, water versus rock, rock versus grass, etc. Every new generation of Pokémon games seem to introduce a couple new types of Pokémon. Light, dark, fairy, etc. You don’t need to be a math whiz to know that there are a lot of combinations when you consider every single type matching up with every single other type. If you cared–and you needed to for strategic play–you probably ended up looking at charts. Match-ups could be a pain, but added great depth to the game. However some of the match ups beyond the basics were not so intuitive.
charts, ChARts, CHARTS! Everybody has a take on how to lay out the information.

charts, ChARts, CHARTS! Everybody has a take!

  • One Way or the Highway: Each Pokémon only had one attack (as mentioned above). It was well implemented. But we are talking about Pokémon, a franchise built upon the creatures each having four attacks. In light of of Conquest’s depth, four may have been out of reach. But even two would have gone a long way to capture the classic feeling.
  • Click the Paint Bucket to Fill in the Square: A score of very different tile sets produced even more 3D environments. It was quite the elemental variety; from volcanic regions to icy lakes. From fertile green fields to rocky crags. The textures were decent, and there were also animated/color cycled textures for water, lava, etc. But more could have been done to prevent visual boredom. A good tile set needs extra variety.
Suggestion:

Perhaps a procedural solution could be a remedy to boring textures. Maybe a moving, translucent layer of shadow mimicking clouds on a sunny day. Consider palette swapping the same textures to change day to dusk to night. Other procedural tricks like a rain, wind, or footprints could also liven it up.

We interrupt this analysis to kick it really old school with these Pokemon Misty cosplays.

We interrupt this analysis to kick it really old school with these Misty from the Pokemon TV series cosplays.

  • Statisticians Like Stats: Both the warlords and the Pokémon had stats. For the latter, stats like attack, defense, range, and speed went with the territory. This didn’t mean the stats were vital and necessary to access often, because they wern’t. Of even less use were the warlords’ attributes. Power, wisdom, charisma, etc… We aren’t rolling up pen and paper RPG characters with dice here. While the stats added depth to the game, their execution, necessity, and ease-of-use left much to be desired. 

Pokemon Conquest female Warlords Ginchiyo

  • That's one excited Pokemon.

    That’s one happy Pokemon.

    Don’t Be so Serious, It’s Just a Cartoon: A point we often emphasize is that death needs to matter in a SRPG, otherwise battles become pointless, sometimes boring exercises in which you have no investment. There was no penalty for losing a Pokémon in battle (except perhaps not gaining some small amount of experience). But that is the way Pokémon rolls. Did it help drama? No. Did it fit the franchise? Yes.

  • That was Random: Certain items or events quite important to the advancement of story, gameplay, and/or the evolution of some Pokémon were only available randomly. We are all for fluidity and an active, unpredictable game world. But some points of importance need controlled delivery. After all, it is not too hard to end up on the wrong side of random.
  • Book Smart but Poké-stupid: Certainly, use of online resources and FAQs can add dimension to a game. That was the case for Pokémon Conquest–perhaps too much so. It’s one thing to look up codes for rare Pokémon appearances, but add the likely chance of having to look up Pokémon versus Pokémon charts. Plus the clincher that burned so much time was determining the best warlord/Pokémon matchups. Wandering the game aimlessly to find out this information (if possible) would be no fun, but it wasn’t much fun constantly referring to online charts either.
Be prepared to take your own notes, and notes... and notes.

Be prepared to take your own notes, and notes… and notes.

Too big for a bullet point:  Ash Ketchum Versus the World!

For those of us who’ve enjoyed the SRPG genre for a long time, being able to play head-to-head against another person is a rare thrill, at least as the game universe currently stands. So being able to do so wirelessly in Pokémon Conquest was something to which we were looking forward. But balancing such a system is key, and something we game developers ponder. How do you reward game experience yet still have an even match-up with someone who has played less?

"I'm gonna be the very best, that no one ever was..."

“I’m gonna be the very best, that no one ever was…”

The limiting/evening factor they came up with was “link percentage.” Some warlords could train, for example, an umbreon, all the way up to 100% of its potential, while others might only be able to take it up to 30%. Going into multiplayer, you could set a link percentage limit. Setting it to 60% brought down those higher. Those limited to a lower number could not rise to 60. The problems with this were manifold, especially if you only played the primary story and did not have the right warlords for your favorite Pokémon. They could only be recruited in the post main-story secondary quests (see entry “Two Halves…” under Bad).

"Yo yo yo kidZ! It's me, Charizard. Remember when I ruined that first tournament for Ash? Yeah, good times."

“Yo yo yo kidZ! It’s me, Charizard! Remember when I ruined that first tournament for Ash? Yeah, good times.”

But assuming you recruited the optimal warlord for the Pokémon you wanted (large assumptions in this game), “link percentage” was still more like a “battle strength suggestion.” Lower evolution Pokémon could almost never stand up to higher evolutions, which makes surface sense, but the franchise does star Ash and his Pikachu (retconned to a middle evolution from a first). This Pikachu defeats higher evolutions routinely. In Conquest, some of lower evolutions had their own cool features and were a lot of fun as is. It is too bad that they could never really be brought into a serious competition against higher evolutions regardless of link percentage or experience.

Link percentage just did not equal fighting power in too many situations.

Suggestion:

What this game needed for multiplayer–and it is an idea that would serve the entire genre well–was a point system that took into account actual fighting strength. A numerical value assigned to level, speed, toughness, hit percentage, damage dealt, number of attacks, grid squares hittable–whatever the developers could think of that really made a difference in battle. The numbers would be weighted and crunched and a real value for balancing multiplayer would be at hand. (The sad part is that the game actually did have a point system that did this. You saw it when you went to attack cities controlled by your opponents, and at the beginning of multiplayer matches–after your choices were set and the match was started…)

The Bad:

Pokemon Conquest Villain sort of Nobunaga

  • An Item For All Seasons (if by “all” you mean “barely one”): You could play this game from beginning to end without the item system and pretty much miss nothing. (The one small exception was stones needed to evolve certain Pokémon. This was uncommon.) A potion that restored 10 points of health was helpful for about the first hour of gameplay, and heavy-duty elixirs never came. Many items supposedly modified a stat, but it was so subtle as to be unnoticeable. When you have only one voluntary item slot, “unnoticeable” does not cut it. Overall the item system was unclear, unintuitive, unhelpful, and un-fun. File under, “Not the best use of developer hours.”
  • Warlord OverPOpuLAtioN: There were a finite number of cities on the map, and each could hold only six warlords. Many recruiting opportunities presented as the game progressed. In fact, the hard part was knowing to not do so early enough to keep from being overloaded. It was easy to get too many. After that, much time was wasted juggling trainers from city to city, or constantly refusing their offers to join while waiting for a particular one to ask.

Pokemon Conquest Male Warlords Cosplay

  • Pokemon cosplay Nurse Joy ClefairyPokémon Overload: Collecting Pokémon, just because you can, soon overloaded the system. (Similar to recruiting trainers.) You ended up with bloated cities, and nowhere to put trainers and Pokémon. One of the ways the bloat manifested was trying to find certain Pokémon for multiplayer. When a trainer had more than one Pokémon assigned, only the active one showed. Searching had to be done with other sorting modes. Let the challenge be in the gameplay, not in finding Pokémon in your roster.
  • Do it for the “Joy” of Training Pokémon: …because there’s not much story doled out to motivate you. Training Pokémon is fun, but in an SRPG, one does expect more story. There was the big baddie–Nobunaga (dubbed Nob-face by a player we know), who really wasn’t so bad, after all. However, aside from a few static lines of text, we really don’t know much about him for far too long. No conversations (where the bad guy threatens you or something), no cut scenes (until much later). There was just very little story motivation.
  • Vanilla Ice: We are fans of archers in classic, fantasy-based SRPGs. We are also fans of the ice element when it comes to magic, or in this case, Pokémon type. The ice element featured a number of interesting Pokémon, but aside from a couple of the game’s favorites (like Glaceon), they were a little nerfed. That is, their effectiveness was, in our opinion, purposefully reduced. In this case it was their hit percentage that was made too low. When a Pokémon hits, but not very hard it is a little frustrating. When a Pokémon misses altogether, one is left more frustrated at the complete waste of a turn. It should be minimized.
Leafeon and flareon were NOT the winners of the eevee evolution effectiveness lottery...

Leafeon and flareon were NOT the winners of the eevee evolution effectiveness lottery…

  • Olympic Heavyweight vs Middle School Featherweight: Pokémon match-ups, especially in multiplayer, are greatly influenced by type. Water is great against fire, electric is great against flying, etc. Some Pokémon seemed to have exceptional match-ups in more than their fair share of circumstances. These resulted in such one-sided encounters that they became a frustrating detraction from the game. We’re talking normally very tough Pokémon being taken out in one, overpowered, ginormous, unnecessarily powerful hit.
WE liked Haunter. This game, practically speaking, did not.

WE liked Haunter. This game, practically speaking, did not.

  • I'm looking at YOU Lucario! (Definitely one of the game's favorites...frustratingly so.)

    I’m looking at YOU Lucario! (Definitely one of the game’s favorites…frustratingly so.)

    Playing Favorites: It’s okay for players to have their favorite Pokémon, but when the game does it you either have to go with the flow, or pay the price. Pokémon Conquest had its favorites. Okay, of course, we understand that eevee and all its evolutions are going to be good, after all they are the centerpiece of the game. But the game was overly biased towards new Pokémon like chandelure. That thing attacked like 57 times in one round… Between this and the story problem (see below), the game fought against you playing your favorite Pokémon (unless it happened to be their favorite too).

  • As Time Goes By: Each warlord could fight only once per month despite being able to carry multiple Pokémon. This probably prevented some gross unbalancing exploit. However, even going to the shop used up a warlord’s action for that month. If you wanted to focus on certain warlords or Pokémon, you might find yourself advancing the months a lot. But every advancement took a sometimes annoying amount of time as the system displayed each city following its given orders. There had to be a better way to get more done without advancing the month, or making the month advancement less onerous. How about both?
Too big for a bullet point:  What’s in a Name? (uh, that sounds similar to every other name…)

Games are localized for reason, and it’s more than just making the language understandable. Sometimes certain concepts or culturally specific things are modified to be more acceptable or understandable to the new region. Strong ethnic names can be difficult to decipher for those whose ears are not tuned to them. If it’s a single character in passing, it doesn’t really make a difference. But it does become an issue, if for gameplay reasons, one must constantly pour through a long list of similar sounding, almost identically spelled names.

ert

Maxwell Smart tries to determine the Russian defector by name. (Watch at timecode 5:30 for about 30 seconds.)

Okay, we know Pokémon Conquest used the warlord names from the Nobunaga’s Ambition series, and there were scores of them. Each had their own strengths with various Pokémon. Selecting among them and knowing their stats was a sometimes laborious, but critical part of the game. A part made many times more difficult because of the naming. Take, for example, this short sampling: Kagekatsu Kanetsugu Katsuyori Kazumasu Masahide Masakage Masatoshi Masatoyo Masasuna Morichika Motochika Morikiyo Motoharu Motonari Motozane… Believe us, it goes on and on like this.

Perhaps some words of wisdom from the Warlords will relieve this naming angst.

Perhaps some words of wisdom from the Warlords will relieve this naming angst. …or maybe not…

I'm not feelin' it lady.

I’m not feelin’ it lady.

And as if all that was not enough, there were a limited number of warlord portraits. That’s right, Morichika and Motochika may have shared the same portrait… Many warlords did. Yay! The monikers seemed to have been designed by a “traditional Japanese name generator.” Take the following name components and see how many different ways you can combine them: 

  1. Muni-
  2. Naga-
  3. Mori-
  4. -hide
  5. -yori
  6. -zane

It’s like a game in itself!

Too big for a bullet point:  Two Halves Make a Broken Whole

Pokemon Conquest story 02

Probably our single biggest criticism of this otherwise quality offering was the decision to break the entire game into two unconnected parts. The first part was the “normal” SRPG story arc. You had to conquer the map, and along the way recruit Pokémon and warlords. The problem was that many Pokémon were unavailable in this mode, along with many warlords necessary to bring them to 100% link percentage. At some point while playing that first part this fact became evident. For some, it may have been after many hours of careful team building.

So then you had to determine whether you wanted to spend more hours playing the game as you had so carefully sculpted it, or finish the initial part only to have all your work wiped out. That’s right, at the completion of the first part, after you beat Nob-face, all your Pokémon and warlords were taken away and you pretty much had to start over. The second part was not like the first, either. It was dozens of unrelated quests. Were they better than grinding? Yes. Did we want to play them after spending many hours building our teams and defeating Nob-face? No.

Pokemon Conquest Luxray Metagross Samurott

The reality of how this played out was that you spent the game story not playing with all the Pokémon you wanted, nor having the warlords you needed. If you play Pokémon games, you undoubtedly have favorites. Imagine our elation at recruiting an onix, one of our favorites. Imagine our disappointment at finding out he could only be taken up to 30% experience with the trainers at hand. Imagine looking forward to recruiting a blitzle, only to find out that although it’s in the game, it’s only available at some point in the second part quests.

We at Play What You Like are big fans of Umbreon. Remember when Gary Oak and Ash had that showdown, Umbreon versus Picachu?

We at Play What You Like are big fans of Umbreon. Remember when Gary Oak and Ash had that showdown, Umbreon versus Picachu?

They could have made one seriously awesome narrative with all the material that was scattered about in the second part if they had combined it with the story arc of the first part. Instead we got an underwhelming story arc, and an underwhelming deluge of unrelated quests. We also did not get to play with all be available Pokémon we wanted, because we decided to stay with our investment of time in the first story part, and not throw it away as the game tried to force upon us.

Final Thoughts

Pokemon is a marketing juggernaut.

Pokemon is a marketing juggernaut.

Let not that last entry color our entire opinion of this otherwise fine game. There was much to it, very much, and it succeeded greatly at most of it. As for expectations, though easily raised, they should be guarded. This wasn’t Ash Ketchum’s Crazy SRPG Adventure. If that were the case we surmise they would have tried to more closely follow the various Pokémon paradigms.

As with any Pokémon game, YOU have to decide how much research you are going to do. How much time you are going to sink into the match-ups. The leveling. How far down the rabbit hole are you desirous of going? If you let it, Pokémon can become a second job (that doesn’t pay the bills…). If you want to play every possible quest in this game to its completion, it can last many, many hours. Not that all the quests offer fantastic, new gameplay avenues. They don’t. But if you have opportunity, try it against another person. That will be worth the effort.

For some, Pokemon is a way of life.

For some, Pokemon is a way of life.

Was Pokémon Conquest fully satisfying to Nob-face’s Ambition devotees? Few in America can answer that question, but we think it probably did with an amusing spin. Was it satisfying to Pokémon fans? We think certainly, especially to those who have played more than one of the standard Pokémon games and are looking for more game and less repetition.

Was it satisfying to SRPG aficionados? Though it is hard to separate out our appreciation for Pokémon, we think the SRPG aspects were worthy of their own enjoyment. Was it a super serious sword and magic political drama? (No. But it did have a positive ending.) Not every SRPG has to be as serious as Final Fantasy Tactics. Nor does one have to be clownish like Disgaea to be fun. 

Pokemon cosplay Ash Rapidash

Drone Tactics [2007] ANALYSIS

Platform: Nintendo DS

Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns by Team

Completion Level: Finished, 35 Hours

Just a boy and his giant insectoid fighting machine.

Just a boy and his giant insectoid fighting machine.

SRPG_Drone_Tactics_title_screenDo you like bugs? Do you think they are the coolest thing ever? Perhaps you might enjoy being transported to a world filled with giant, sentient bugs. There, bugs are turned into giant fighting mechs! It may seem far-fetched to you, but it was how two young Japanese kids named Yamato and Tsubasa spent their summer vacation.

Okay, they’re not your average kids. After school they like going to a nearby hill where they look for bugs. And on one of those days they’re going to hear bugs talking to them, which is going to lead to the bugs transporting them across space to the far-off planet Cimexus.

Does this sound far-fetched for a game? Not really in comparison to the inane subjects around which some games and television shows are built nowadays.

SRPG_Drone_Tactics_Yamato_Tsubasa_start_heroes

Anyway, our heroes will unite with and fight against other Earthlings to free Cimexus and eventually Earth from the clutches of an academically jilted professor.

Kind of makes you rethink higher education, doesn't it?

Kind of makes you rethink higher education, doesn’t it?

SRPG_Drone_Tactics_idle_animationsThe concept does not ill serve this game, but the title does. “Drone Tactics” makes sense once you understand the game, but little when you’re reading it on the shelf of a game store or website. If one did not know better, the name would come across as boring, unimaginative, and unclear. It needed a subtitle like, “Alien Bug Mech War.” Or, “Battle of the Bug Bots.” Even if neither of those subtitles float your boat, they do add understanding. Since the word “tactics” is so often used in this genre, which in itself is fine, adding a single word as generic as “drone” did not cut it.

That’s too bad, because there’s a solid game here. Beneath the simple trappings are fun mechanics that will challenge you tactically. We also think it comes with a straightforward, cute story which was deeper and more entertaining than that offered by the popular Advance Wars.

These guys also like bugs!

These guys also like bugs!

The setup is basic and conventional. You see the square grid-based battlefield through a single angle downward. It cannot be rotated. Some of the maps are very large and require scrolling through numerous screens. There is a mini-map to help you orient. You can field a maximum of eight units.

The Good:

SRPG_Drone_Tactics_Yamato_snail_base_dock

  • Snails, Slugs, and Bugs: Your largest mech (shaped like a snail… are snails insects?) acts as a mobile docking bay/repair base. It adds a welcome dimension of tactical thinking. Should you use a special item to repair a damaged unit, or pull him out for a round by docking in the mobile base? But losing your snail means losing the battle. Should you risk bringing it closer to the front line? How much money are you going to spend upgrading so it can withstand more punishment?
  • I Did it My Way: Your bug mechs can be customized at three different hard points: The front, often used for melee. The side, often used for guns. The back, often used for armor. There are items that boost accuracy, defense, or hit points that can be fitted onto any of the three hard points if compatible. This allows great flexibility in how you decide to wage war. If you are big on melee attacks, guns, or prefer long-range bombardment, Drone Tactics accommodates.

SRPG_Drone_Tactics_vehicle_customization

  • Honorable Mentions:
  • All your units can be customized in terms of color and logo. And even the logos can be customized.
  • Customized colors are visible during attack renderings, not on the battle map. A good choice to prevent opposing forces confusion.
  • They included a small, but fitting epilogue for the characters at the end.
  • You Take the High Road… A couple times you’re asked which forking path to take. They’re described so you can choose the path that matches your style of play. Relying heavily on flying units would make movement constricting terrain easier to handle. If your force centers around slower moving melee units, you might choose the path with open spaces to take advantage of their power. Player choice and style adaptation are good things. We would have liked to see more of it.
That mammoth cannon is bigger than your vehicle. Oh the gas mileage!

That mammoth cannon is bigger than your vehicle. Oh the gas mileage!

  • Real (Accurate) Time: Real-time, 3D combat renderings reflect accurately all the modifications done to your units, including all the weapons and accessories chosen for all the hard points. The animations can be skipped, which is important. But they are not onerous, with that option. They are quick, and can be watched when you feel like it.
  • Monster Reborn:Later in the game you finally get the ability to revive a fallen unit during the battle. Although a unit’s destruction during battle means little in terms of consequences, it does add tactical options when you know the unit sent on a dangerous path can be revived to help later in the battle. But there is a catch: It can only be used on the last unit destroyed.
  • Easy Listenin': The music is what you might expect from a good title of this nature. Is it Yggdra Union or Fire Emblem? No. But it is well done, and passes the ‘hours of play’ test. There’s enough change-up in the battle music, and enough tracks for all the different activities in which you can participate.

SRPG_Drone_Tactics_sarcastic_dialogue

SRPG_Drone_Tactics_3_attack_typesToo big for a bullet point:  A Tri-Force of Mechanics

A central mechanic is the ability to choose your response to attack. We’ve hardly seen this up to now. It was tactical fun, and helps a game that could easily fly under the radar show up on the SRPG map. So how does it work? What are its ups and downs?

Once attacked you have three choices. The first is ‘counter.’ If your unit survives the attack, it will reply with the same kind of attack. This works for two out of the three attack types, melee and guns. (If one of your long-range units is attacked by a long-range unit, no counter is possible.) There is no blanket right answer. How strong is your unit’s natural defense? Is it worth it for them to take the hit to return fire?

SRPG_Drone_Tactics_janie_air_unit_missile_attackThe second choice is ‘defend.’ This comes in quite handy when trying to preserve your units, especially those with high armor and defense. The drawback is no return attack. The final choice is ‘evade.’ This is good for high-speed units, allowing the possibility to avoid being attacked completely (although still no return attack). But this is the least appealing option, especially in the later game as accuracy for all units increases. Attacks are harder to evade, and a single strong hit can take a unit out. Fast units generally have lighter armor making the price of failure-to-evade too high.

Suggestion:

Allow the long-range attackers to return fire in-kind, and not just the close range melee and gun wielders. This could lead to fun artillery bombardment duels and more tactical decisions.

The Good & The Bad Conveniently Together in One Point:

Bugs can be super heroes!

Bugs can be super heroes!

  • SRPG_Drone_Tactics_Yamato_bugs_are_coolThe Story is Not Totally Asinine!  We read the story was shallow, and the dialogue empty drivel. We expected the worst. However, what we got was a little strange, on the simpler side, but cute. Did you like the story in Advance Wars? It is more along those lines, although deeper. There is strife between the characters, offbeat characterizations, and emotional response. It all would’ve been better, though, if we were allowed to skip through the text when viewed the second time.
  • XP: Not Just About the Finishing Blow: We enjoy some control over experience distribution. If we are trying to build up a particular unit, we don’t mind arranging (sometimes with difficulty) for a particular unit to get the killing blow. Drone Tactics takes that part of experience gathering out of your hands. While XP awards still seem to be related to performance, there’s no way to game the system. After the round’s automatic points distribution, you are given opportunity to apportion extra XP to whomever you like. That small option goes a long way for player satisfaction.

SRPG_Drone_Tactics_canyon_environment

  • Grind or Get Squashed Like a… Bug: About a third of the way through you may find yourself having a difficult time. We did, but we were not grinding in their Badlands maps designed for that purpose. Skill can only make up for so much difference in forces. We did end up having to grind, but the Badlands are fun, that is the first half of those maps. At exactly halfway through they get much harder, but at that point you’re already strong enough to beat the game, so perhaps this was by design. It got a little frustrating though, not being able to beat a Badlands map in the middle of the pack. But we were not willing to pointlessly grind on previously conquered maps so that we could.

SRPG_Drone_Tactics_badlands_grind_battles

  • SRPG_Drone_Tactics_mini_mapSemi-Honorable Mentions:
  • There are advantages to various terrain types, which is a good thing. But aside from high defense tiles like woods, the rest are a non-factor.
  • The AI was surprisingly tough, and sometimes slightly frustrating. It goes for your weakest unit, the best match-ups, and surrounds of isolated troops.
  • Units that don’t deploy for a battle still get XP afterward. Yeah, it’s not fair, but it does keep units from dropping so far back they might never be used again. You may just need them later.
  • Venus Fly Trap: Sending your flying units over to get that treasure? When they introduced treasure, the first couple were massively valuable. That was to bait you in (even having the enemy pilots goad you if you missed them). A fair tactic to get the player interested. But afterward they are worth less and less. Better to learn this early and stop risking units, sending them on dangerous, isolated missions.

SRPG_Drone_Tactics_girls_beeping_noise_tsubasa

  • Bad Match-Ups, This Ain’t e-Harmony: Drone tactics is very sensitive to unit type match ups, and it’s not hard to experience a bad one by accident. The amount of damage dealt in these cases is beyond catastrophic, possibly destroying a unit with a single attack. For the most part, we are not fans of one attack deaths in SRPGs. It promotes overly cautious play which leads to boredom. While some of these unit type match-ups were obvious, other times it’s layered, when weapon types are thrown into the mix.
Suggestion:

Base match-up effectiveness on weapon type OR unit type, not a mix of both. Or at least consider reducing the numerous (sometimes unclear) factors affecting the outcome. 

Too big for a bullet point:  Special Weapons and Tactics, er, Cards
"Charge" your way to victory!

“Charge” your way to victory!

Special attacks, maneuvers, and almost all healing abilities are performed with cards. They are usable only once a battle, and the amount you can hold is limited. After battle you are awarded more basic ones. A fun mechanic is being able to combine the basic ones in various ‘recipes’ to make more powerful ones. The game doles out recipes sparingly, and less so if you don’t grind. It does allow you to free mix without recipes, but the conventions are not predictable enough. Free mix becomes more of an experimental time sink than successful creation endeavor.

"Charge!"

“Charge!”

SRPG_Drone_Tactics_environmental_animationsYou need a lot of level I cards to make a level II card, and you need a lot of level I cards, and some level II cards, to make a level III card. And so on, The system ramps up this way. But we found that unless you grind (excessively), you do not have sufficient cards to fuel this pyramid scheme. So unless you are awarded the most advanced cards, it’ll be hard to create them, and that is assuming you even get the recipe, which for many you won’t.

Cards bring about more frustration than they should. This creation system has potential, but misses the mark with inconsistent requirements, unintuitive mixing, and lack of raw material.

Suggestion:

Allow players to make their own custom cards. This could be accommodated with the creation of a handful of variable strength template types.

The Bad:

SRPG_Drone_Tactics_mean_dialogue

SRPG_Drone_Tactics_boss_professor_gidoh_doom_x_vehicle

  • Thanks for the Option to Waste My Turn: One drawback to the counter mechanic (mentioned above) starts with armament of only token attack value, mounted because of its strong secondary properties. (Like extra defense or hit points, etc.) With a lot of units to field, it’s difficult to remember everybody’s equipment in all three slots. You might find yourself relying on the game to tell you whether a counter is possible. (Does this unit have guns mounted?) The game is not taking into consideration the worthless value of your attack. This is an annoying aspect of an otherwise good mechanic.
  • Fat Writing With Little Words:  Since we write for games, we know how hard it is to distill dialogue down to its absolute minimum. We know the importance of minimizing button presses. These are lessons not learned on Drone Tactics. There are too many one-word responses that require a button press, which add little to the conversation. Additionally, there’s over-reliance on our favorite RPG response, the ellipse ( … ). It was used… a lot.
Did we say a lot? We meant MEGA-use.

Did we say a lot? We meant MEGA-use.

But wait, even the bugs got into the act!

But wait, even the bugs got into the act!

And if all that wasn't enough, they added punctuation to punctuation.

And if all that wasn’t enough, they added punctuation to punctuation.

  • Dishonorable Mentions:

    • Cards make powerful attacks. On occasional maps, every enemy uses a card every initial attack. That’s a cheap way to make it hard. It’s excessive, un-fun, time-consuming, and frustrating.
    • With eight units deployed, relatively slow (sometimes very slow) terrain traversal, enemy producing factories, and generally high numbers of enemies, battles get too long.
    • We like the ‘choose your response to an attack mechanic,’ but evade’s lack of usefulness in comparison to ‘defend” is imbalancing. It makes fast units less valuable, and thus slowed the game.

    Our hero (amongst others) broke out the hipster lingo.

    Our hero (amongst others) broke out the hipster lingo.

  • This is Not Mario Party: That’s the game I would play if I wanted to tap the screen repeatedly as fast as I can every time I use a certain class of card. I’m playing a turn-based strategy game because I don’t want to try to smack the fly that is racing around the screen, or frantically flick bombs above a line. This is the single biggest element dragging this game down. Additionally, if you don’t tap the screen one zillion times to their satisfaction, you don’t get the full use out of your special ability card. With only one use per battle, that is no fun, and leaves you always thinking it could have been better.
Ugh.

Ugh.

  • Return of the Moronic AI Ally: It is one of our least favorite mission types. “Protect so-and-so (the unit with the moronic AI) and see that they don’t come to harm.” Really? And generally speaking the unit you’re supposed to protect is uncooperative, and worse may charge the enemy. Even if you don’t have to protect them, which is sometimes the case, their firepower is wasted in unproductive ways. We could not use a healing card on them either.
  • Two Things Need Two Different Names: We appreciate unit customization with various weapons and accessories. However it’s not always clear what help you get. In fact, ‘ACC,’ which stands for accuracy, was really two different qualities. One for artillery, and one for guns. Sometimes one accessory has two ACC ratings. We surmise there is some sort of method to figuring out what each item’s ACC affected, but it should be clear. With just a little care and tweaking, vehicle customization could be improved.

SRPG_Drone_Tactics_vehicle_bug_model

  • Immortal Bugs: That would be an awful problem on earth, and it’s not the best way for an SRPG to handle it either. Death needs to matter in some way, as you have heard us mention before. Now admittedly, this game is not in the serious vein to include death. But that does not mean there cannot be a penalty for poor play.
Suggestion:

How about losing half your money to revive the unit? Perhaps a very expensive resurrection card needs to be purchased. What about having the fallen units sit out the next battle? Just about anything is better than nothing, which is what they chose.

Some fun designs. The moth had a great sound effect, and the centipede, as you will read, was nasty.

Fun designs. The moth has a great sound effect, and the centipede, as you will read, is nasty.

  • More Dishonorable Mentions:

    • The centipede unit has great range, and is so good against flyers, that we sometimes felt like leaving them in our hanger. Flying units did not get the love in Drone Tactics, a game based on insects!
    • The terrain is absolutely, 100% flat. Despite various terrain types, there is no elevation play. And unlike Advance Wars, we think this game could have incorporated it in some small way.
  • Are You Trying to Slow the Game Down?  With large maps taking up many screens, limiting some units to only one square of movement (or a small amount) gets old fast. Later in the game, maps were made deliberately onerous to traverse. Not necessarily strategic or tactical, just onerous. A real slog. That is not the way to make the game harder, or longer.
I need an AI to automatically move my unit one square each turn for the next twelve turns...

I need an AI to automatically move my unit one square each turn for the next twelve turns…

  • Are You Trying to Make Us Nauseous?  During the enemies turn, when the game is showing you all the enemy unit’s moves, the camera focuses on each one. But the maps are sometimes very large, and it seems the game is picking units on opposite sides of the map consistently, and on purpose. It is nauseating watching the camera bounce rapidly back and forth between fifteen to twenty units. We just turned away after a while.
Suggestion:

For goodness sake, pick the next closest unit!

SRPG_Drone_Tactics_boss_punk_heads

  • Now You’re Just Being a Jerk:  Later in the game, it has an annoying tendency to leave a few measly hit points on enemy units that should be destroyed. At first we thought it was just coincidence, or bad luck, but when it happens consistently, we know it is more. Seriously developers, this does not engender goodwill with players. Could you not round down when hit points were less than ten? Is there not a better way to regulate the difficulty level without being so overt and heavy-handed?

SRPG_Drone_Tactics_the bad_gidoh vs yamato

Final Thoughts

saban_beetleBorgs_bugs

So, there IS a market for those obsessed with insects.

After about twenty hours into Drone Tactics, you’ll have seen everything it has to offer gameplay wise. At that point you need to decide for yourself if it’s fun enough to continue. For us it was. (It might be the most fun game you ever play controlling giant robot insects!)

Like Rebelstar Tactical Command, this is not a game about visiting towns, knocking on doors, and searching people’s homes for items. (Why do they allow that anyway?) It is not about choosing cities on a world map. The game feeds you story bits between each battle. In some ways it is burden-easing, allowing you to focus on and enjoy unit customization and battle strategy.

SRPG_Drone_Tactics_the final chapter

Drone Tactics is not a budget buster. There is no voice work, and no movies. There are no cuts scenes, nor tremendous special-effects. But it doesn’t need them to be fun, and on that front it succeeds.

We enjoy uplifting endings.

We enjoy uplifting endings.

________________________________

If you like Drone Tactics, try:

Advance Wars [2001]

Rebelstar Tactical Command [2005]

Front Mission 3 [2000] 

Front Mission 4 [2004]

Brigandine: The Legend of Forsena [1998] ANALYSIS

Platform: Playstation

Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns by Party

Completion Level/Hours Played: 100% for one faction/65 Hours

Brigandine_SRPG_various_playstation_covers

Wait a minute. This fight hardly seems fair.

Wait a minute. This fight hardly seems fair.

This title is almost universally known as Brigandine, but there is the subtitle for your enjoyment (or impassive wondering). There was a lot going on in the PlayStation world in 1998. Nintendo, Sega, and Sony were all in the game business and major interests were slugging it out for your software dollar. So it is not surprising that this strategy RPG may have escaped your notice.

If you directly selected Brigandine, you may be unaware of the two preceding games I played. I will tell you to set the stage for this analysis. Vandal Hearts II was a game I had high hopes for (considering I liked the original so much). It was strange, wonky, and somewhat interesting but not captivating. Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure was the first of numerous NIS games (Disgaea, Phantom Brave, Disgaea 47, etc.) which either failed to captivate, or destroyed captivation soon after it was achieved.

Brigandine_SRPG_dialogue

Thankfully, Brigandine, a little-known, little-budget title put some wind back in the sails of my appreciation for this great genre. And it accomplished this with uniformly few assets in every category. One movie, a small number of songs, limited art assets, and a minimalist story. Also, the game took chances in being different from the norm. The turns were not by unit, or team, but rather by an interesting party system which I will discuss. Another major difference was this was not a square grid-based game, but rather hexagonal.

It was not a game about elevation and obstacles, though there were a few choke points and bodies of water.

It was not a game about elevation and obstacles, though there were a few choke points and bodies of water. (On the left you will notice they used lawn fertilizer. Not so on the right.)

So the basic layout is disputed cities on a world map, which you try to capture by defeating the defending units. Then the city is your responsibility to defend. When your forces meet the enemy, you are transported to a flat battlefield with few obstacles.

The Good:

There is not a lot of Brigandine art out there, but we found some.

Hey, we found some Brigandine fan art.

  • Upgrade to First Class: Considering the type of game this was, upgrades were handled rightly in a streamlined, but satisfying way. Your main warriors, the knights, could upgrade twice on a given specialization path that you chose. Even the monsters upgraded, which in their case was Pokémon style evolution. For example your roc could evolve into a phoenix, a ghoul into a vampire, etc. The system offered flexibility and a clear path for player buy-in, all without the burden of complication.

Brigandine_SRPG_monster_creatures_stats_gryphon_dragon_lizard_man_v2

  • Death Matters-duh: While we prefer Final Fantasy styled phoenix down death, at least there was some consequence here. Characters who fall in battle gain no experience from it. Additionally if they are chosen for the next battle they start at only half power in both hit points and mana points.
  • Fun & Fitting Art: While there was little relation to the miniature pixel art versus the painted portrait art, that is not uncommon in such games. And both were good. The portrait art was classic and quality. The pixel art had to cover a wide gamut of creatures and knights, and they did so well. Scorpions, golems, dragons, unicorns, satyr archers, etc. You will see them all. The menu art was good as well as some of the interiors shown. The only downside was the battle maps which were plain.

Brigandine_SRPG_female_warriors_knights_archers_queen

Too Big for a Bullet Point:  Six Times the Fun

This was my first experience with a hexagonal grid. I was not sure what to expect, and was fond of the classic four sided. However, it turned out to be great fun. An interesting change-up whose time had come.

With six sides to protect instead of four, I found guarding my units to be much more challenging. As a result, I tended to group them together more to cover the sides and back and leave only one or two facets open to attack. A unit leaving the pack risked getting three or more enemies against them at the same time. Space felt like it was at a premium, with your ranged attackers vying for limited protected, yet within range, spots.

Brigandine_SRPG_heagonal_grid_battle

While hexagonal grid made formations more flexible, it was applied only in a planar fashion. While that is the primary way to get the most benefit from it, the flat terrain and lack of many tactical obstacles hindered any further strategic growth with this system.

It felt a little like marching a Roman phalanx into battle. You put your toughest warriors on the outside layer, and try to minimize their exposure. But some units, somewhere, are going to have to be the less-protected point of the formation or the corner. They are going to take some heat. Overall the tactical challenges were a real boon.

We could not find Brigandine cosplay, but we did find brigandine armor. Look how happy the red version makes people!

We could not find Brigandine cosplay, but we did find brigandine armor. Look how happy the red version makes people!

Too Big for a Bullet Point:  Being Led, Day and Knight
Quite the fight you've picked there against a fearsome, uh, fairy? Oh, very 'brave' ser knight...

Quite the fight you’ve picked there against a fearsome, uh, fairy? Oh, very ‘brave’ ser knight…

Brigandine had a well formulated, fun party system whose like we had never seen before and have yet to see again. Every army you sent forth to do battle was comprised of three parties. Each of those parties was headed by a knight. How powerful each of those knight’s parties could be was dependent upon the knight’s statistics and advancement. A point system was used to determine a knight’s and thus the party’s power, and we think that was a fair system.

A golem may have cost you 50 points to add, whereas a pixie or wolf might only cost 25. If you played well, and had a wide variety of warrior creature types to choose from, you could really fill up a knight’s entire point limit. Forming individual teams like this was one of the things we liked about Ogre Battle 64, though they did not expand the concept into armies.

Brigandine_SRPG_knight_army_roster_pt_based

This kind of mechanic encourages player buy-in and investment. You care about your teams and become familiar with their rosters, sometimes populating them in stylistic or even kooky ways. Is this the party of magic users, ranged attackers, or dragons? Is it fast-moving wolves and phoenixes? Perhaps you made a tough bruiser squad with golems and other tank-like characters.

The Good & Bad

Conveniently Together in One Point:

Somebody needs to tell that guy in gray that he's holding a ballista rather than a crossbow...

Somebody needs to tell that guy in gray that he’s holding a ballista, not a crossbow…

  • One of the few obstacles, water, did add tactical fun. Not everyone could swim.

    One of the few obstacles, water, did add tactical fun. Not everyone could swim. I say DOUBLE the lightning damage in water!

    I won’t read this menu: I give the developer a small break here considering this technology was written for 1998 PlayStation game. But I don’t give them a complete pass. Certainly the modern gamer has become accustomed too fast, quick, and efficient menus. Loading times for such interfaces is no longer acceptable. I believe the underlying programming for Brigandine’s menus was too fat, and it caused unnecessary slowdown in addition to the hardware limitations.

  • Stick Together!… or not: So the hexagonal system often compels you to group your units for mutual protection. However some knights, especially enemy knights like Cador, a level thirty deathknight, had devastating ranged, area-of-effect attacks. it was a mixed bag that could sometimes leave your units exposed to being ganged up upon, or grouped for mega-magic target practice.
This guy is also available for birthday parties. The kids love him.

This guy is also available for birthday parties. Kids love him.

  • A desert island with two songs: Normally I would zing a game here for perhaps the most limited song repertoire any PlayStation game ever brought to market. There is a main theme common to the game, and a specific theme according to which kingdom you pick. It more or less boils down to two pieces of music you hear again and again. The theme for my kingdom was quite good, though, and so was the general main map theme. I still listen to them on occasion to this day.

The Bad:

Brigandine_bad_guy_portrait_death_knight_cador_zemekis

  • There has to be a faster way…  So your army may be made up of three parties. Each party may have five or six units. Now imagine your army and the enemy separated by many great units. there is no quick way to engage. It may take you minutes to tediously, and painstakingly move unit after unit after unit. All this before the first strike has even been launched. And, it is not like the battlefield was a series of complex obstacles or unknowns. It was generally flat, and you could count every grid space you still yet to cross.

Brigandine_SRPG_formation_screens_map_hexagonal

  • I can’t see you: Since the gameplay encouraged you to group your units for protection, you often ended up with packs of closely packed armies. In many of these cases it became difficult to determine who was who, as it started to look like a pixel mishmash.
  • Don’t you know this war is over? Toward the end it got tedious. There may have been only a couple enemy cities left to conquer, but they kept sending out armies in real time. Unless you wanted to throw your carefully groomed units into a meat grinder, you kept bringing them back to a friendly city to heal. So you had to marshal many forces, in time-consuming fashion, from all across the board to try to finish the last obstacles.
Keep stretching guys, it's going to be a long war.

Feeling morose? Glum? Keep stretching guys, it’s going to be a long war.

  • 3D Battle Scenes! Remember when 3D was brand-new and all the rage? Well, loading up 3D models every time your units engage in battle becomes excessive. The folly of doing so soon becomes clear no matter how good those battle scenes may be. Brigandine was not the only game to fall victim to this lure. But I cannot help but think about all the development hours that were put into this aspect of the game better spent somewhere else.
Perhaps cool for the era, but even then how much time would this add to a playthrough?

Perhaps cool for the era, but even then how much time would this add to a playthrough? Multiply this by hundreds, perhaps thousands of encounters…

Too Big for a Bullet Point:  Multiple Story Branches, Endings, & Promise Breaking

Characters with individual side stories add depth to a game. But a game’s main story completion should not depend on who you pick at the beginning, at a time when you have been given no guidance of what faction will yield the best ending (or any ending at all). When I got to the end, a final bad guy shows up out of nowhere, he could not be engaged because I had picked a certain faction in the beginning. Are you serious? What did I just play this whole game for? And why would you allow me to pick a faction that you know I cannot complete the game with? Likely, there was some obscure hoop I did not jump through, but why should I have had to?

Brigandine_SRPG_story_set_up_dialogue

It's not like this game had a deep story. A wide story perhaps.

It’s not like this game had a deep story. A wide (and slightly boring) story perhaps.

It is hubris on a game developer’s part to think that their game is so engrossing that a player is going to want to spend many hours necessary to go through a second time (though there are always a small percentage that will, and then write FAQs). It is not like some first-person shooters where the game length may be eight hours. This is an SRPG with game play lengths of forty, fifty, or even a hundred hours. Don’t bait a player in with the promise of an ending, make them play all the way through, and then deny them.

We were not sure about the sex of Lyonesse. ...Maybe we are still not sure.

We were not sure about the sex of Lyonesse. …Maybe we are still not sure.

And as for the story itself, it was already rather lean. Further splitting it across six factions diluted it to the point of irrelevance. We only played one of the five or so kingdoms offered to you in the beginning, and likely, that was overwhelmingly common. This type of story design misses the mark and is unsatisfying to players perhaps as high as nine out of ten times.

Final Thoughts:

As you can see, the game was much more appreciated by players than professional reviewers.

As you can see, the game was much more appreciated by players than professional reviewers.

Despite this game’s drawbacks, I still regard it fondly, and apparently am not alone. When I hear a couple of the themes which became very familiar, I recall wide battle maps filled with units on the cusp of upgrading. If you have never played a game with a hexagonal grid, I can recommend this one for some hours of fun. It is unique and different. However, I am not recommending the whole package as some great game, even though I thought it was a worthy entry into the genre.

The worldmap music? Excellent. This bit of news? *yawn*

The worldmap music? Excellent. This bit of news? *yawn*

The late 1990s were an interesting time for the SRPG genre. Many studios were looking to add a title into that niche, and console games were not so outrageously big or expensive as they later became. The power, production values, and variety of talent made these ventures quality outings, even if the games were relatively small. You never knew just what you might get.

You may even get some dry humor. And look at the fabulous cosplay possibilities.

You may get some dry humor. And look at the colorific cosplay possibilities.

Studios are much more careful about the titles they greenlight now, and there is less experimentation in that regard. Things are much more focus grouped. The indie developer is the driver behind today’s small games, seen on mobile platforms or playable through internet browsers. But the small shops do not have the same wide foundation, nor varied talent pool. Making a top-level SRPG may not require the art assets or advanced visual effects of a first-person shooter, but it does require solid design and story. It needs hours of testing, and solid programmers working with designers to make the systems flawless and fair.

Brigandine is an adventure worth trying, at least for a little while. It is not a mass-popularity styled game, but it may be your cup of tea.

Which one of you is "Klaques?" A name so weird, it has to be out of history. (Because what developer would be allowed to use it otherwise?)

Which one of you is “Klauques?” A name so weird, it has to be out of history. (Because what developer would choose to use it otherwise?)

________________________________________________________________________________

 

Spectral Souls: Resurrection of the Ethereal Empires [2006] ANALYSIS

Platform: PSP

Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns by Unit

Completion Level: 40%, 20+ Hours

Spectral Souls: Resurrection of the Ethereal Empires is a port/remake of a PlayStation 2 game. I will not go into the lineage of this extensive franchise. Idea Factory has published or developed gobs of games interchangeably using a combination of “Spectral,” “Force,” and “Souls.” Some are new, some are ports, and some are sequels. I suppose when something works you stick with it, although how well this particular entry works is up for debate.

If you’re looking for a fast-paced strategy RPG gameplay experience, Spectral Souls is not the game for you. You will get a hipster opening movie featuring a song from the band “Dogschool.” It played out very much like a music video with all kinds of jump cuts and pans. It may have looked nice to some, but it did not make much sense for the game.

We went into this game with expectations neither high nor low. However we did envision something above average as we were exposed to good art and a polished initial presentation. But the more we played the more we came to the conclusion that this game was a tragic miss. The slow, monotonous progress and gameplay took its toll as well, as we struggled to maintain interest.

The game features fine 2D sprites on a 3D rotatable background. Though it appeared to be technically sound, its flaws could not hide. We went in not sure what to think. We came out with definitive knowledge that this game is flawed.

The Good:

  • Charge It: The charge and hold option integrated into the attack system added flexibility and fun combinations. It was interesting to use, and not just about damage points. It made me want to see what the related “mix” system would do.
  • Legend of the Phoenix: if you are going to copy a system for reviving fallen characters, the classic Final Fantasy Tactics system that uses Phoenix Downs to raise fallen characters within three turns is the one to copy. It is, in our opinion, the best and most exciting character retrieval system. It adds intensity, because you need to keep characters alive. Immortal characters, or ones that return after the battle, really suck out the desire to play well. This system also adds strategy as you struggle to get to a fallen character within three turns.

    “Yeah, I’m fine. I always lay down in the street this way. It’s very relaxing.”

  • Sounds Good: The sound effects were technically well done and interesting to listen to. There was a flame one we found particularly good.
  • Action on Point: The action point system was transparent and sensible. That may sound easy to say, and rather dull “good.” However, a good action point system does not just happen. Credit given where credit is due. This does not mean that the system was crucial, though. It wasn’t.
  • Following Orders: Modern incarnations of the strategy RPG genre have benefited from visual depictions of turn order ( believe me, that wasn’t the case In many of the GBA and PlayStation era games). Spectral Souls offered an easy straight order system with thumbnails as an option alongside, and a well done, dynamic linear display along the top.

    The artwork was mostly high quality. These were pretty good and fun. But some later will be high quality misses.

The Good & Bad

Conveniently Together in One Point:

  • “Huh? Charge What?” We mentioned in the “good” section that we liked the holding charge system. It was good enough to be given its own bullet point. But, however interesting that mechanic for team play and self charging, it was not well explained in an easily understandable manner. Don’t let a good mechanic slip away with poor explanation.
  • Nice Parts, Questionably Assembled: It is an accomplishment to have richly textured environments. However, the execution of that richness was not up to the quality of the textures. Is it a bomb? A rock? Why is it covered with a grass texture? It just seemed to us poor application.

    Is this a scene from a Neo Geo game? Super Nintendo? Playstation 1? Uh… no, sadly not.

  • “I’m a Lover, Not a Fighter:” While the action point system made sense, there was an element buried within that forced you to attack up to the action point limit. It was okay perhaps in theory, but application was distorting, and this element lead to some frustration. There were times where a character just sat there and was hit four times in one turn.
  • More is Less: Double the storylines! Twice the characters! …Half the investment and caring….

    Good art? Maybe. Poor design. Yes. Ugly even. A reject from the punk movement. A girl with no color sense. Another who made a dress out of her mother’s curtains. And finally, a women who did not have enough material for her whole outfit.

  • For the Discriminating Mage: Those accustomed to the genre know that area of affect magic attacks often dole out damage with equal opportunity. In Spectral Souls, such attacks discriminate between friend and foe and thus require less tactical planning and skill to set up. Easier is not necessarily better in a strategy RPG.
  • Let’s Make Some Magic: Synthesis systems can be a lot of fun in games. Something that you think of as your unique creation adds ownership to the play experience. In the case of Spectral Souls magic combos, it was too hit or miss. Sometimes awesome, and other times ZZZZzzzz…..

    Uh, it really wasn’t.

The Bad:

Form your own opinion. It’s a game that inspires this kind of cosplay. Apparently many females found resonance with it.

  • One Hit, One Kill?  Unless you are a special forces sniper or uber powerful and facing off against a n00b, one hit kills are not game enhancers. The Special Attack system needed some adjustment. It may sound great, but it gets old.
  • SHUT UP! Spectral Souls is plagued by a dry, obtuse, dull, torpidly delivered story. There is screen after screen of slow text. They describe things we have no interest in and about which we have absolutely no caring. It is hard to “advance” a story which grows more obtuse and uninteresting by the session.

    YES, PLEASE!

  • Bad Bullets: Not worth more than a sentence to mention:
    • It was a struggle to find the next story battle!
    • Some VFX brought the game (slow to begin with) to a crawl.
    • Numbers were of the Disgaea inspired ultra-high school. More zeroes does NOT equal more fun.
    • Moves cannot be undone even before an action is determined. Hey, thanks for nothing designers!

      Uhh… a heart? Really?

  • Goofy, Phoned-In Enemies: This is not Pokemon Gold, Silver, Sapphire or Crystal. In a game like that you might expect an enemy like “Oddish,” which is pretty much a little walking onion. Or a fish like “Magicarp.” Such lame enemies look even more lame when placed in a wartorn, military-esque, sword & magic “adventure.”

    Gotta Catch ‘Em All! “I choose you crabby-chu!”

  • Programmed for Dumbness: The enemy AI was just bad. It watched ridiculously or fed enemies one by one into the maw of your units. It seemed to force overly conservative tactics, where you kept units grouped and laboriously edged them forward. It was dull play in an already time-consuming game.
  • Cut Scenes That Should Have Been Cut: This game featured the dullest cut scenes EVAR. (And that is saying something.) They were without animation or anything else that might inspire interest. They were technically sloggy too, sometimes needing excessive load and seek times. There were scenes where nothing happened at all.

    I don’t know about him, but I’m rooting for this game to end.

  • Bad Bullets: Because apparently, one set was not enough:
    • Red usually means bad. Not in this game when it came to destinations. Standard conventions anyone?
    • Battle music? You need more than one good track. Are you trying to annoy?
    • Keeping up with weapons upgrades was so much more work than fun. So easy to stop altogether. Design miss.
    • Enemies do not show their weapons until they move. Hey, thanks for NOT making weapons match-ups matter.

    How do you hide this weapon?

  • Static (Environmental) Shock: There is no technical reason for such un-fluid, static and boring environments. Nothing changes, breaks, configures differently. Remember the Shining Force III train? We do. Additionally, environmental objects that blocked the camera view did not fade. There is no longer reason for that and it should not be tolerated.

    Oh the action… The excitement… the…. yawn…

  • Not so Crafty: The item crafting system was unclear and not easy to use. We should have been given some clarifying visuals and some easy, early successes. This is especially true if you want the player to use something that is unnecessary.
  • A Hill Too Far: Area of effect magic did not hit units at any significant elevation change. Apparently the elevation change was not significant enough to us. This turned out to be more frustrating than tactical.

    Good art, ridiculous design. Looks like the middle school overflow crowd from some sort of fighting maids convention.

Too Big for a Bullet Point: Accessing Boredom & Frustration

Disc access delays can be made better or worse with clever design. This is probably not news to you or to the developer, but none-the-less it was an issue magnified by poor design choices. Doing ANYTHING caused a delay.

  • Selecting a menu.
  • Going to the worldmap.
  • Causing VFX to happen.
  • Going to the Shop.
  • Selecting something WITHIN the shop.
  • Adding new destinations to the worldmap.
  • Bringing up anything to do with turn order.
  • Zooming the camera.
  • “Would you like to access the disc?” *delay – accessing disc – delay*

    Please, for the sake of sanity, pick the direct route. Do it for the children!

What about loading text? Yes, even that amazingly difficult task for a computer (made in 1939) took time. It was exaggerated by meaningless, empty, unnecessary dialogue. Writing short pithy dialogue for games is an art. One obviously not learned here. Responses were tremendously sluggish. Load portrait, delay, load line, delay… ad infinitum. All that time for bloated, pointless lines like, “Yes sir.” “Me too.” “Sure.” Etc.

Final Thoughts:

There was a large cast of characters in Spectral Souls. Too large in our opinion. Partially because the characters were spread across two factions. You were never quite sure who you were rooting for, and sadly, why. When they introduced a THIRD faction, and it was over. No thanks. What is our mission? What are we playing for?

There were gaming systems that must have cost many development hours that added little to the game. The augment system and even the combo attacks along with the weapons upgrades. Wasted effort in our opinion for our game experience.

The game also had the unfortunate habit of lapsing into a common disease for Japanese RPGs and SRPGs: Breaking into philosophizing passages. Be it the cost of war, corruption, the nature of evil, the nature of man, the nature of nature be corrupted, King George’s tea tax, etc., etc.

Spectral Souls could have been made by a robot programmed with fun mechanics but lacking the ability to implement them in a fun fashion and with heart–or to understand delays and patience. The last especially sapped our desire to play a game which uncannily inspired zero passion. Apathy is a sad commentary on any game. This one could have been more accurately called: Spectral Time Sink.

Ugh… I think this game was more girly than I remember…

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Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure [2000] ANALYSIS

Platform: PlayStation

Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns by Unit

Completion Level: 40%? 60%? –10 hours

By the time we got around to playing Rhapsody, Disgaea was out and making waves in the SRPG world. It focused attention on Nippon Ichi Software, the developer of both titles. We decided to play their SRPGs roughly in the order made. Rhapsody offered insight into future games by NIS.

Every SRPG aficionado has reason to be knowledgeable of Rhapsody. It was the first SPRG foray into North America for NIS. But “knowledgeable” does not mean one has to log hours playing, because the target audience of this game is 11-year-old Japanese girls.

While there is nothing wrong with that, we can hardly think of a less promising demographic in terms of North American sales forecasts. Before internet games and independent publishing fully bloomed to widen the spectrum of players, we have to wonder what was going through Atlus’ mind when they decided to translate and import this Japanese game.

Despite its incredible femininity, we still played in hopes of an enjoyable tactical experience irregardless of juvenile content. NIS has many devoted fans out there. Analyzing this game started us on a journey which eventually told us whether or not this fan base was fully justified.

Check out this impressive, professional looking sculpture.

Check out this impressive, professional looking sculpture.

The design of Rhapsody built atop standard RPG traditions more than many other SRPGs. Overall look and environments stand up well or better than most similar titles on the PlayStation. The camera looks down upon a 2-D painted world for most interactions but sometimes lowers to eye-level.

The Good:

There is some coplay out there regarding Rhapsody’s lead character, the Puppet Princess herself, Cornet.

  • Lead Character Cornet’s cornet Sound Byte: There is a lovely 10 second sound byte in which Cornet plays her horn. It has stayed with us as pleasant and memorable. A pleasing soft sound. A minor thing really, but it makes our list. Hear it below at TIME INDEX 3:16.
  • Soothing Background Sounds: The stylized background music, not the vocal singing numbers. The former were enjoyable if slightly puerile. The latter, we will leave to you in the “Good and Bad” section.
  • Quality, Lots of Quality: There is a decent amount of content in this game. Some of it you may like; some of it may make you gag. However almost all of it is high quality. They developers seemed to care greatly about this product and did not let junk pass muster.

Nice sprites. Microscopic, but nice.


Too Big for a Bullet Point: Awesome Art

Apparently girls play SRPGs in decent numbers in Japan. In other countries they watch the Kardashians… ugh.

Nippon Ichi set the bar very high in every visual category (but special effects). Artist Yoshiharu Nomura crafted a series of good-looking characters including humans, puppets, and animals. His designs, whether your taste or not were of excellent quality. His portraits take a backseat to none.

Every developer wants their game to inspire such devotion. This one, apparently, succeeded. *(For a very small group)

The backgrounds were one of the first things that caught our attention. Having experienced many games on the PlayStation, we were pleasantly shocked by the rich, verdant painted backgrounds. Lush forests, colorful buildings and an overall texture that seemed lifted from the pages of a painted storybook. We do not know where all those colors came from, and have to wonder why other PlayStation game environments did not quite match up.

The menus were and text boxes were well done and readable with subtle transparency. The colors chosen for highlighted grid squares worked well. Once again, all this under the constrictions of the PlayStation.

The Good & Bad

Conveniently Together in One Point:

“You know, just another day hanging out with my buds in the park.”

  • Puppets… are your Weapons: It is an interesting enacted concept. In this game a party of puppets are amassed instead of a crew of people. It fits the property, and the puppets have some personality, but it may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Myao does not look much like a bad guy.

  • A Quick and Efficient Combat System: Button presses and combat decisions are quick and easy. However the combat system is shallow. As deep as an 11-year old Japanese girl might like.

“Yes, we actually give you the option for almost ZERO tactics. Enjoy.”

  • Musical Numbers: Broadway style singing and dancing is almost never in a video game thing. Rhapsody is the reason we have to have “almost” in that sentence. Many people who played this game recall these numbers fondly. Though we did not care much for them, they were well done and in some strange way fit this game. Review the clip below if you choose, and make your own determination.
  • Explore Your World: Like in many standard RPGs, towns are combat free zones to be explored. Rhapsody adopted this well and it was mechanically sound. However we would have preferred interaction with shops and townspeople to have  more substance and interest.

Look around and find deep, “scintillating” plots…


The Bad:

  • Failure of Message: A great pitfall in any video game when a player gets the point of saying, “I just don’t know what to do next.” Then they proceed to wander around aimlessly, draining there desire to play, and goodwill towards the game. In our opinion it went beyond the occasional missing of a clue.

Not only is Crowdia cosplayed well here, but also… Burdy?

  • Static Experience:  We have no need to pull punches and deliver our analyses as we see them. You can play this game for two hours or twenty hours, but aside from some inane story elements and characters your experience will change very little.

  • Get a Compass: One reason people play SRPGs as opposed to RPGs is they enjoy streamlined navigation. There is a world map and there are locations of interest. There is not a lot of wasted time or movement. Rhapsody got us lost in senseless mazes like caves. Save it for RPGs please.

These caves were so much fun! *This statement not approved by the Truth Squad.

  • That was Random: Abuse of the random encounter can destroy the enjoyment of a game. Final Fantasy Tactics limited them to stops on the world map. It was tough, but fair. It seems Rhapsody can lapse into a random (and meaningless) time-sinking encounter every time we sideways scroll to another screen. Ugh.

Yup. Stuffed sidekick cosplay. Burdy.

  • The (lack of) Tactics: This is a strategy role-playing game. Sometimes called a tactical role-playing game. Note the words “strategy” and “tactical”. We know the combat system was simplified for the target audience, but we saw little progression and got tired of mashing. An 11-year old Japanese girl might too.

Pretty, but also pretty flat. There were no elevation decisions.

  • Pies…: Sure, it is funny picking a certain spell to deal vicious damage to your enemies. You can choose candy, or flan, or pies. Yes, it sort-of makes sense for the property, however huge out-of-scale pie slices flying past the scree break the game reality. It reinforced a sentiment like, “Oh, we are playing a silly video game.”

Oh look, isn’t it funny?


Final Thoughts:

Maybe you can explain to us what is fun about wandering around, lost in a maze, and subjected to random encounters? You have to keep exploring to find your way through, but every bit of exploration done opens up another random encounter. That was not fun. That was the opposite of fun.

More fourth wall breaking.

If judged solely on art and overall quality, Rhapsody is an excellent game and portends good things for NIS. However once you factor in design and content choices, the future becomes more muddled. We learned just about all we were going to after ten hours, and without the enjoyment factor there was no reason to play on.

Okay, so we like happy endings. We would recommend Grandia (PSOne). It has more well rounded appeal and is a better game overall.

It is a 99.9% certainty that 11-year-old Japanese girls, or even an 11-year-old American girls are not reading this analysis. But one were, we might, might recommend this game to them. But to everyone else who enjoys this genre, you can do better than this shallow experience. That is of course unless you are looking for Broadway style numbers.

If you say so.

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Vandal Hearts II [1999] ANALYSIS

Platform: Playstation

Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns-Simultaneous?

Completion Level: Campaign Completed 100 Hours

We are not pleased to have spent this amount of time playing VH2. The game is not worth that investment. We do not doubt much time was spent staring at the screen trying to determine who the AI was going to move next and what we should do about it. You will understand that more when you read the “Dual Turn System” entry under “Good”.

This game does not engender the passion of  its predecessor Vandal Hearts. From some games, not much is expected. If they are good it is a pleasant surprise. However from VH2 something was expected. It was the sequel to a stylish well known forerunner, it had a decent budget, and it came during those heady days of Playstation SRPGs. Final Fantasy Tactics widened the appeal of this genre, exposing many through its famous IP.

What? Vandal Hearts II begins with a village burning? Shocking!

VH2 did not stay true to its roots. There is little connection to VH1. Some key mechanics were changed, the art direction was different, the story and characters were unrelated. Most of the things one may have liked about VH1 were not reflected in its sequel. How does the sequel stand up on its own? For a big budget, mainline game, not terribly, but not exactly well either.

The slightly faded environments are rendered in 3D and the camera can rotate its view upon them. Vandal Hearts as a franchise allows you to bring a large party to battle. Between battles there is opportunity to shop and talk to townsfolk for mostly unnecessary information.

The Good:

Lira and Agress were kick-butt female warriors. Since we could find no Vandal Hearts cosplay, we have decided to use pictures of other cosplayed female warriors.

  • Many Story In-Game Cut Scenes: No one can fault this game for lack of conversations overheard, and human dramas played out, sometimes interactively, right before our eyes.
  • Fighting Uphill: Elevation played a role, but not in the classic sense of putting an archer on the high ground. It was more about having to traverse huge steps in order to complete a battle. however we do recall having more fun fighting uphill. Assaulting the enemy on a slope was an interesting change up.

Fighting uphill in VH2 was a challenging but fun experience.

  • A Humorous Quote: This game is not going to overflow the “Good” category. So we will include a point about a line that made us laugh: “That’s a load of crock!” Uh, is that not a mixed colloquial metaphor?
  • Bosses: You do not see many SRPGs tackle large boss encounters. So we definitely give props to VH2 for attempting it and mostly succeeding.

Giant bugs. Starship Troopers go!

  • A Character of Few-ah, One Word: “Agress” spoke in single word answers, or with no words at all. Exclamation points were sometimes all she needed. It was humorous. Is it surprising she had some quirks with a name like Agress?

Too Big for a Bullet Point: The Dual Turn System

Imagine getting together with a couple buds to try out your new game, Vandal Hearts II. One of those guys, like you, was a fan of the original. All of you are a little curious and filled with anticipation about what you shall see.

Yes, this screen is split right down the middle!

We skipped hurriedly through the opening cut scenes (which went from stereotypical to mildly interesting to dippy). Although curious, this game was going to be carefully played later. This session was all about getting to the meat of the game, the combat.

So here was, our first encounter versus gigaslugs. Okay, not the most fearsome or powerful enemy, but we were armed with a wooden stick. We selected our warrior and selected our target and pressed go. But instead of going the game focused on one of the enemies and what it wanted to do. And then out of nowhere the screen split. One side showed our warrior moving to the position we selected and striking while the other side similarly showed the enemy gigaslug.

This unexpected, astounding and unique game experience caught us by jaw-dropping surprise. Eyes bulging, we exclaimed, “What the heck,” to each other. After calming down we realized that our targeted gigaslug moved at the same time as our warrior. So yes, we swung at empty air. Thus was the nature of combat for the entire game.

We found ourselves staring at battle setups for long minutes throughout the game, trying to figure which unit the AI would move next, and who they would target. There were many attacks on empty spaces, accidental interceptions (which stop an attack), and just general hijinks associated with this mechanic. Sometimes it had the strange effect of making battles feel like one continuous turn.

The Dual Turn System was unique and daring, and not un-fun. It kept us playing this game longer both for its unique challenge and by the sheer fact that it required extra brain time. If legitimate challenge is fun, this mechanic qualifies. We understand that putting this in the “Good” section may be considered controversial by some. However there is no doubt in our mind that it was the most memorable and clever aspect of this game.

The Good & Bad

Conveniently Together in One Point:

Uh, R2D2?

  • Level Layout Roulette: For whatever reason, a few level layout misses were sprinkled into the mix. In some cases it was difficult to see where a unit could step. This game did not need that kind of additional challenge.
  • Art ‘Direction?’ It’s aiming sideways: The special effects varied. Some were eye catching. Others were what we considered ugly. This game needed consistent art direction.

Some visually interesting visual effects. We especially are fond of ice magic.

Also some hallucinogen inspired effects from 1974 and another style we thought ugly.

  • Open Sesame… or Not: To open a treasure chest a party member with a dagger and the unlock skill was necessary. Those are valuable weapon and skill slots. It became an unnecessary challenge. They do want us to get the prize, don’t they?
  • Unusual Environments: VH2 took us through many varied environments. We fought battles not only on open land, but on a train, a ship, and even a giant plane. However the actual affect on the battle these environments could have offered were not realized. These were not the train yard battle of Shining Force III.

The Bad:

  • Story: You want us to care, right?  It can be argued that there was not enough deep story to keep players engaged. It started off okay in our mind but quickly went downhill. Less arguable is that it was somber, slow, depressing and most critically, boring.
  • Characters: Bags of Dry Bones. The characters were dry. We felt no real sympathy for them, nor their slides to doom.

There was something a little “off” about the environments in regards to the scale. It was a little like “Land of the Giants.”

  • Tactical Change Up, or Lack Thereof: Interest is often maintained by creating new situations for your existing characters. Outside of bosses, the Dual Turn system and a few select situations, the game lacked.
  • Perhaps the Ugliest Portraits-Ever: Vandal Hearts one did not wow us with its character art direction. This game made us long for it. We were not thrilled by the digitized and modified photo likenesses.

Ugh. Can it not be done better? Who are those last two? Bono and Chuck Norris?

However, some good art was painted for various backgrounds.

  • Move Fest: The number in your party could reach the double digits, likewise the opposing force. That is a lot of units. Between sometimes distant starting positions and the Dual Turn System, it became a cavalcade of moves.
  • Boring Items: This is a more complicated issue considering items were used to delineate and empower the character roles. That issue aside, we found them to be snoozers. Remember the days when items were special?

  • You Can’t Always Get What You Want: You thought you could reach that treasure chest? You were wrong. Some sort of deformation spell is required. And honestly, even if retrieved, the contents are not going to be so great.
  • Serious Plot Point Multiple Endings: Not just the little stuff like romances or wrapping up the story of Fred the Blacksmith from level 17. No, life and death for major characters. 6 endings. We appreciated the customization, but branching was based on answers in seemingly casual conversations. At least the overall “war” was won and there is no total loser ending.

Final Thoughts:

We had too many Silvanus Windrunner cosplay pictures left over to not add this montage.

Despite the unusual Dual Turn System, this game was the first to dull our desire to play SRPGs. Quite a sad indictment coming from Play What You Like. It is not that the game was horrible, just that it got stale and let falter our will to stay engaged. A mediocre game that we knew was so right from the start would not be given that benefit of the doubt.

The Dual Turn System created tactical conundrums that enamored us for far too long. Eventually and thankfully the novelty wore off. After that, what was left proved insufficient to leave this game sitting well in our memories. Quality? Yes. Bold? Yes. A satisfying SRPG experience we would heartily recommend? Sadly, no.

When your game is part of a franchise, it is wise to build upon the previous entry. We felt no connection to the memorable first entry in this series. It is fine to go your own way as they did with the Dual Turn System, but in other ways either draw upon the connection to the previous game or start a new franchise.

Uh, are those giant, strange-looking rats? We need a cat.

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The Vandal Hearts Games:

Vandal Hearts [1997]

Vandal Hearts II [1999]

Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment [2010]


Yu Yu Hakusho – Ghost Files: Tournament Tactics [2004] ANALYSIS

Platform: Gameboy Advance

Turn-Based Strategy Role Playing Game: Turns by Unit

Completion Level: 90%, 28 Hours

We have not watched Yu Yu Hakusho. We know nothing about the franchise. Apparently it is quite popular and rather venerable. There is indeed no shortage of games based upon it. The list is surprisingly extensive digging all way back to the early 1990s. One of these many games is an SRPG. That one is in our wheelhouse. We will judge its SRPG value, not being unduly swayed by the larger franchise.

We went into this game with very low expectations. In fact we believe this is the only SRPG Sensor Sweep Studios has made. They appear to be a studio whose repertoire is licensed titles. Yes they even did a Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi game. But we know what it is like to have to pay the bills as a company, and will not hold it against them.

With all that said you can imagine our surprise at finding out what a solid game this turned out to be. We did not say incredibly deep, but we did say solid. There are no deal breaking flaws, and the majority of the gameplay is built around solid mechanics. It is a rather pure SRPG experience that moves along quickly, not bogged down by excessive button presses, cut scenes or story.

As one might expect in a GBA game, the terrain is non-rotatable 2D with implied elevation. The game’s overall path is linear, with only minor order choice within sections. You can field up to five characters of your choosing as your roster grows to about twice that.

The Good:

  • Kurama is supposed to be, male?

    Face it: From which direction a unit is attacked makes a difference in damage and potentially dodging. While most high-end SRPGs include this mechanic, we were pleasantly surprised to see it here. Enemies did not dodge much or at all, so this mechanic was underutilized.

  • Death Matters-duh: while we prefer Final Fantasy styled phoenix down death, at least there was some consequence here. Characters who fall in battle gain no experience from it. Additionally if they are chosen for the next battle they start at only half power in both hit points and mana points.
  • Easy on the Controls: The button the economy of the control scheme was pleasantly lean. The menus were fast and shallow. An SRPG needs minimal inputs for its numerous repetitive actions. Here Yu Yu Hakusho succeeded with a pleasantly navigable game.

The worldmap above and the first two sub-areas below.

  • Rare but Satisfying Counters: Counterattacks (melee only) occurred a small percentage of the time, and almost exclusively with your units. When they did happen, highlighted by a red exclamation point, it was surprisingly satisfying. They could never be counted upon.
  • Acting or Directing: There is flexibility in the choice of whether to move or act first. Regardless of which you do, the other is still open afterward. There are many games out there that will not let you move after you act, so don’t take this point lightly.

She’s so encouraging!

  • It’s Smarter Than It Looks: There are SRPGs that suffer from serious empty head syndrome. Yu Yu surprised us with a decent AI that was neither one-dimensional nor foolish. Enemy units concentrated their fire, withdrew when wounded and healed themselves. The AI successfully made us split the team at times when it was safer to stay together. Bravo.
  • Dodging an Attack or Just Hanging Out: The variously tailored idle animations for the characters were fun. We were especially fond of the individualized dodge animations. One character floated upward, one sat back down on the ground, and one seemed to fade out in horizontal teleport. It was entertaining.

A simple but visually pleasing background and-wait, isn’t that enemy an Ostro from Super Mario Bros.?

  • Taunting the Enemy: We did not expect to use the “taunt” command often, but during the course of the game it came in handy. Not very often, but when it was needed to take the heat off a wounded character we were grateful. Most nearby enemies reacted to taunts and only attacked that person.

The Good & Bad

Conveniently Together in One Point:

  • Taking the “Initiative:” Yu Yu used an action point system they called “initiative” to determine turn order. Heavy duty actions took more points leaving a unit to wait longer before acting again. Action point systems are fair, but this one could have been more transparent. One had to select a separate screen to see who had the next five turns. Additionally duplicate enemies like “Wolf” could not be identified individually.
  • Hiding in the Weeds: We did not expect a Gameboy Advance title to fade terrain objects like trees when they interfered with the view of a unit. We would think most similar titles avoid this by minimizing the occurrences altogether. Yu Yu did not fade such objects, and while occlusion did not happen often it was not unusual. It did not bother us much however, and in some cases even made enemy units seem sneaky when they hid.

  • A Slightly Opaque Role-Playing System: Experience in battle earned ability points spent in four different categories. Advancement in them determined available special attacks. However there was no way to tell the target levels you needed in order to achieve greater specials. Experience is precious and many times may have been spent inefficiently. We do not like reliance on FAQs.

  • You’re Leaving? As Capt. Kirk once said, “A no-win scenario is something everyone may have to face.” This game forced you into one which you may have frustratingly tried to win. We are of mixed opinion as such a scenario does add to the drama. However we were not pleased to lose a character in which we had spent much of our precious experience.
  • Three Squares a Day: Attacks that covered multiple grid squares were few, and they were introduced too late in the game. trying to match the patterns to enemy formations added tactical fund. But generally speaking the attacks were not powerful enough to warrant there cost in mana or action points.

Too Big for a Bullet Point:  Self Contained Mana System

Units have a “Focus” menu that provides interesting additional action choices beyond physical attacks. Likewise they also take action point time. “Charge” is one of the Focus options. It fills a unit’s SE (Spirit Energy) meter, or what we are calling mana for the sake of consistency. As a unit develops spirit power the meter is filled to a greater extent with one charge action. See all four choices in the cap below:

Defend we thought practical, but in practice did not use it. Taunt is mentioned in “Good”. Mend and charge together made for an unusual but solid game mechanic. A dedicated healer was unnecessary. In fact, when one came along only her highest level, late game abilities were of real use. The drawback of course is that a fighting unit is spending turns charging, and turns mending. These are not turns spent damaging the enemy, and battles can get drawn out because of it.

The drawbacks of turns spent not fighting are highlighted in encounters featuring enemy generators. When time is of the essence you are spending it doing something else. Also, some units had no zero mana attacks, and were forced out of the action when empty. We suggest every character have at least one. Overall, we found the mechanic versatile and fun, but it did not foster team composition strategy. With every unit able to take care of themselves, specialties were superfluous.

This enemy generator battle was well laid out and a fun challenge. One down, and one still to go in the upper right.

Some games give you X amount of mana at the start of encounter. When it runs out it must be supplemented with items. Some games start you at zero and let your mana build up every turn. The self-sufficiency of this system was appreciated, and perhaps matches the IP, but its pros came with some cons.

Too Big for a Bullet Point:  Mission Types

This encounter ended the game for us. A three generator map. The third still generating at the top. The enemies not only look like rabbits but they multiplied like them.

Yu Yu should have made encounters that required party numbers other than five. However the mission types upon which your team embarked had decent variety. The game in this area made wide use of its core mechanics by changing up the objectives:

  1. Destroy all enemies.
  2. Destroy all enemies as we beam in more through generators.
  3. Destroy all enemies within a time limit.
  4. Reach a destination in a time limit.
  5. Keep an enemy unit from reaching a destination.
  6. Timed floodgates.

If that last one sounds unclear it was to us too. With only a hint that the next encounter was different, we plunged into a multi generator map. Our units were being worn down and generators for the first time took no direct attack damage. We had to resort to a FAQ to get the answer (after some experimental time wasting and frustrating play), which means the game failed to explain properly.

Time limits are not our favorite thing, because they sometimes force you to sacrifice units. This game was generous with the time, but that undermined the significance of the mission type. Enemy generators are potentially great gameplay additions but are dangerous. Yu Yu used them well until the last section where numbers replaced better difficulty mechanisms.

There are no lifeguards posted on this beach. Fight at your own risk.

The Bad:

  • You Call That a Story?  Perhaps it makes more sense to those with knowledge of the show. For the rest of us it was simple, even understandable, but weird. Also the Yu Yu Hakusho universe was not well explained. We never felt any great or pressing need to find out more or beat this game.

Uh, that’s pretty much the story as told by this game.

  • Who’s Next? Turns by individual unit can add a whole dimension of strategic gameplay. Not only the actions of who is up need to be considered but those of the next few. Later games display turn order on screen to make it easier to incorporate into strategic thought. Here it was buried on a separate screen and was rarely important enough to check.
  • Take the High Road: The designers took advantage of obstacles like water, swamp, rocks and even holes in the land. However they failed to make significant use elevation. There seemed no advantage or disadvantage to it. Additionally climbing costs were onerous and fun-sucking. There was no joy in taking the high ground, nor any kind of archer class to take advantage of it.

  • Goofy Enemies: Once again, maybe this is an IP thing, but most of the enemies were not very intimidating or exciting. You met a few humans of like ability in the area end arenas, but most of the time the battle were against humanoid animals. Walking house cats and pony-ish looking wolves? Come on. This is not My Little Pony.

Are you kidding? We do not know who looks goofier, Rinku or that unicorn-horned Sesame Street lion.

  • Ramping: The difficulty level was generally too easy, except for the arenas (experienced only once per area). Aside from a few well designed maps, the designers did not make genuinely harder challenges. In the end they resorted to numerous enemy generators. That is a cop out, and a frustrating one.

One of the few arenas—not a board for playing “go,” nor Madison SQUARE Garden…

  • UNDERdrive: A special meter called “overdrive” filled upon successful attacks. It did not yield special overdrive attacks when full, but rather allowed you an extra powerful version of any regular attack. The powered versions were not so powerful. The whole overdrive system was underwhelming. Resources used, but potential unrealized.
  • Tune Out: Ugh. There were few music tracks. The little experienced was simple and repetitive. Do not tell us it is the platform. Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, and others have made fine music on the GBA.

  • Useless Items: For the first half of the game the items restored so little health or spirit energy that they were not worth taking up one of your battle actions to use. Later in the game when you got better items your units progressed to the point where they can do much the same with the focus menu. Attack items were even more useless.
  • Occasional Inconsistency: Sometimes an enemy with a ranged attack of a certain strength could melee attack with significantly more. It was surprising and many times felt a cheap shot. There was a subtle undertone of inconsistency amongst certain attacks with the added variable of your unit’s vulnerabilities.
  • Friendly Fire: The unit dedicated to healing had that ability listed under the attack menu. Yes, under the ATTACK menu. You can see where this is going since that unit also had an attack under the attack menu. Ouch. Sorry.

The secrets at the top of the Dark Arena will remain hidden. Much like the Ark of the Covenant and Roswell Aliens, hidden in government warehouses.

Final Thoughts:

Just when we thought we were done with the Gameboy Advance category this little game appeared on our radar. It was not a diamond in the rough, but we are glad we played. It was an informative and educational experience for the self-contained mana system alone.

We still have no idea what Yu Yu Hakusho means. It wasn’t anybody’s name. We just have to chalk that one along with numerous other points to the fact that we don’t know what the anime is all about. However a game should endeavor to give players familiar and unfamiliar with the IP incentive to play. Yu Yu needed to do better on that front.

The art direction did not stand out enough to warrant laud or ding. Some characters did look of indeterminate sex. A “guy” who smells roses, uses a whip and throws some sort of flower bomb?

In a game of this type where you want the player to have investment in the characters, it is important to know for sure their sex. However this is likely not the game’s fault, but rather the IP. So is the fact that the cast was almost completely male… We think.

Look at all these, males?

Yu Yu succeeded in making a fluid battlefield where a lot of maneuvering was necessary. The game moved along well and was not sluggish. Until the end we did not have to grind for which we give the game props. However the problem of shallow gameplay was revealed at the end when they threw large numbers of enemies at your team to keep the challenge up.

The solid mechanics of Yu Yu Hakusho kept us playing for quite some time. But in the end monotonous play and lack of interest in the near nonexistent storyline did not warrant further investment. It is not a wast of time, but know what you are getting into.

Oh the romance!

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If you like Yu Yu Hakusho – Ghost Files, try:

Tactics Ogre: Knight of the Lodis GBA

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance GBA

Saiyuki Journey West PS1