Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Grapes and Raisins: A Resonance of Fate Retrospective, Part 1

The special subgenre of video game known as the JRPG is suffering a decline of late. Not a decline in sales (at least, not if you include Pokemon in the category), but a decline in prestige. It's enjoyed a pretty prolonged heyday, from Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior in the States) to Final Fantasy to ... well, those are the big two franchises. Throw in the general series of Suikoden, Shin Megami Tensei, Fire Emblem, Earth Bound, etc., as you see fit, and toss in Chrono Trigger for extra value.

These games are marked by certain common traits. Stat-based experience systems that allow character customization. A battle system usually distinct from the rest of the gameplay. An epic storyline, often--in more modern incarnations--elaborate rendered cutscenes. And some not entirely definable element that makes it "Japanese," whether it's an emphasis on kawaisa (cuteness) such as the slimes in Dragon Quest or the kamikazi penguin demons in Disgaea, a focus on Japanese cuisine as in Star Ocean 2 (complete with Iron Chef parody), or a depiction of female characters that you feel embarrassed to play the game in front of other human beings (really, it applies to any game with characters that wear a battle thong, but Final Fantasy X-2 is particularly bad in this regard.)

These traits, in recent years, have become the detracting points. The experience system is time-consuming grind. The battle system is too labyrinthine to understand. The story falls under its own pretentious, ponderous weight and the cutscenes are lengthy and dull. And the cultural difference that gives it a special flavor comes only in the flavor of "creepy" and weird.

Enter Sega/Tri-Ace's Resonance of Fate, a JRPG that wears its J-Flag proud.

But before we discuss the game proper, I'd like to take a quick moment to finish the thought above. My training isn't really in cultural studies per se, but even I realize that defining a video game genre via cultural difference is an affair not to be embarked on lightly. I think it's justifiable in this case, but it also points to a general Westernization, or perhaps Americanization of the video game industry as a whole. I don't think that change means that video games will stop being made in other areas, but it does mean that they will tend to be more and more obscured, especially in Anglo-based video game study. If nothing else, JRPGs serve to remind us that the Western scholarly voice in video game studies isn't the only voice worth hearing. *steps off of soapbox.*

All right then--the game.

We'll start with story, because that's the easiest part: Essentially, I don't remember it. I can tell you the story in very broad strokes: the game takes place in a dystopic future where all of humanity resides in a tower called Basel (not to be confused with the game's Bezel point system for combat). And there's some class-based stuff going on, with the eccentric elite residing at the top of the tower, and the lower classes dwelling at its base areas. The game begins with the main character, Leanne, attempting to commit suicide, but she is saved by Zephyr and Vasheryon, and the three then embark on a career as mercenaries, because, well, why not? And after many adventures revealing that Leanne was a lab experiment, Zephyr is a mass murderer, and Vasheryon was a... knight? Or something... they travel to the upper echelons and save the world. Or extract vengeance. Maybe.

Honestly, this is the first video game I can remember where I payed zero attention to the story. It may reflect a general ennui with the Japanese RPG story telling--but then, I've been playing Radiant Historia at the same time, and found its story pretty gripping. I think it's rather that the game's plot is a fairly broad collection of cliches: corrupt clergymen, bad boys with attitude, little lost girls, tyrannical leaders, idylls that turn out to be bad... and so on. It's all very familiar, and when asked to take it seriously, I just couldn't be bothered.

Rather, the story is at its best when focusing on the random merc missions for the eclectic bunch of weirdos that make up the Basel high society. There's Cardinal Garigliano, who likes to view the world through a picture frame that he carries around with him everywhere. Cardinal Pater, a rotund, rather dim fellow who thinks that he's a superhero. And Cardinal Barbarella, who... well, I'll let the video speak for itself.

It's cutting the full picture for some reason, but I think it still conveys the main idea.
This is why JRPGs have a bad name.

At any rate, it demonstrates my point: the story is at its best when it admits it's only there to prop up the fighing system. So let's get to that--obliquely, by way of the world map.

The entirety of Besel is divided into layers of hexagons. You can't walk through a hexagon until you've unlocked it with an energy hex. Each energy hex consists of four conjoined hexagons, and it unlocks the adjoining hexagons you've placed it on. (Think of them as six-sided tetris pieces.) Energy hexes are given with quests, and dropped by humanoid enemies; different enemies drop different shapes. This is essentially a means of control--there are areas of Besel you can't get to because you can't unlock the hexagons to get there without a hex of the appropriate shape.

Where it gets more complicated is that in addition to clear hexes that unlock general walking space, there are also colored hexes, with each color also having a distinct shape. once you've laid a colored hex, the hexagons it overlays turns that color. Five colored hexes can be traded for a colored save point, which allows the game to be saved outside of the main hub. Also, you can't actually lay a colored hex down unless you're using it to unlock a locked colored dungeon or town (and just about every dungeon and town is a locked colored one), or because it adjoins a hex that is already colored, such as the colored save point. So if you want to introduce a new color to a level, then you need the appropriate save point color to do so.

The reason you want to bother with colored hexes (besides creating distant save points) is the terminals. Scattered throughout the levels are terminals (which must be unlocked with clear hexes) that impose status effects on battles--fire does double damage, enemies drop more items, and so on. Once a certain quota of colored hexes (which varies depending on terminal) is adjoined to the terminal, it activates, and its effects are mapped onto every hexagon it is attached to--most significantly, to the dungeons whose base hexagons have been rendered the same color. The effects are also accumulative across multiple terminals--but as soon as you connect the area for two terminals with the same color, then the quota for activating is accumulative as well. That is, if Terminal A requires 30 colored hexes to activate a 2x drop rate and B requires 120 hexes to activate a 2x damage, then if you join A and B, you will need 150 adjoining colored hexes to activate the effects of both terminals--and until the accumulative quota is met, neither activates. So there's an element of strategy in choosing which effects you think are worth having for a particular dungeon or level.

That amount of knowledge will get you the basic use of the hexes, colored or otherwise, and is really all you need to finish the game. But if you are intent on doing the harder difficulties (the highest of which requires completion of the 60+ hour game on both normal and hard first to unlock), then you need to go a step further. And, of course, because things are not yet complex enough, there are more complications.

First, the player travels from level to level through two primary means: core lifts and elevators. The core lifts are significant because they have same damn screen for entering the upper and lower levels of them, and about 1 out of every three times I used them, I wound up on the wrong floor--but in terms of this terrain strategy, they're irrelevant. What's more important is the elevators, because you can transfer the effect of terminals onto multiple levels if the top and bottom of the elevator have the same color, and that color connects to an activated terminal. This terminal level chaining is essential for manipulating the system in the player's favor.

The next level of complexity comes with the realization of two facts: 1) every level has its own layout, its own edges and ridges and distribution of terminals. 2) every colored hex type comes in only one shape.What that means is that some colors cannot be used to activate certain terminals because the hex shape for that color can't reach the actual terminal. Similarly, some colors can't connect to certain dungeons, elevators, and so forth. More than once, my plans for multilevel effect chains were thwarted because I forgot to check if the area on the other end of the elevator allows for a straight line hex shape.

The final level of complication is that these hexes are damn annoying to get a hold of. Each one comes from a specific enemy type. And given the way the game progresses, that means that certain color combinations will be unavailable simply because the enemy that drops them won't be showing up for another few chapters or so (which is actually a reasonable way of controlling progress), or, more annoyingly, if you want to apply that color, you'll have to backtrack to a dungeon you went through a dozen hours ago, and mindlessly battle. Accumulating enough to create a dream level of colored synchronicity requires hours of battle, a level of commitment reached solely by those suffering from OCD and MMO players. At the same time, at the higher levels of difficulty, such a level of coordination is absolutely necessary to get a slight edge in battle.

And that's the real kicker. This--all of this--is just an auxiliary to the actual battle system. Note that the description of all the intricacies of this add-on feature is actually far, far long than the description of the game's entire story. That gives you an idea of where its balance lies. Now, I'm at 1700 words, and I haven't even got to the actual combat. So I'll stop the post here, and return to the rest at a later date--although frankly, I think this is enough to convey the general sense of the game.

Later Days.

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