Monthly Archives: May 2013

Forest Sprite Hilarity

I’ve been playing through Vanillaware’s Odin Sphere for the PS2 this week. Odin Sphere is an action RPG about a war in the fantasy world called Erion. The game takes the symbolism and ideology from Norse mythology (Vikings!) and creates a world that the player experiences through five different characters, each on opposing sides of a global conflict. It’s a game known for its lush artistic style more than it’s brawling gameplay, but what’s underplayed is the dark tone of the plot. For example, it’s not uncommon to stumble on a skeleton talking about the maggots eating his brain or an instance of patricide.

Adorable bunnies and walking skeletons AT THE SAME TIME.

Adorable bunnies and walking skeletons AT THE SAME TIME.

In spite of being a game where an entire population of characters are anthropomorphic bunnies, Odin Sphere has plenty of content meant to make you think about things and generally depress you. The game is played from the viewpoint of five different characters who each have their own set of levels. The third character is Mercedes, the Fairy Queen.

Mercedes, the Fairy Queen

The other four characters are differing degrees of tanking melee types who can take a lot of damage and kill their enemies with a standard four strike combo. Mercedes differs in that she can use her wings to fly and she uses her crossbow for ranged combat. To balance her, she can only take a couple of hits before she dies, so playing her story involves a lot of hit-and-run style combat. Her’s is a coming of age story in which she kisses a frog and finds her confidence, and while her story has as many dark elements as everyone else’s, she’s been saddled with the responsibility of providing comic relief for the middle portion of the game.

Take the shop owners interactions with Mercedes. For the other characters, the merchants just say something like, “Don’t stab me! I just want to sell you things!” They have a different tone with Mercedes though. It’s a tone that waffles between incredulity at the sight of a fairy and eagerness to take advantage of a fairy.

No one illustrates amazement and opportunism better than the first vendor you meet, who starts excited:

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And then gets down to business:

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Then there’s this guy, who is just excited to be around so many fairies:

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Or maybe you shouldn’t be sampling your supply so much.

Next we have this little bunny vendor, for whom business has apparently been slow:

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That bunny is not reflecting well on his business venture.

And finally, there’s this human merchant who seems a little presumptuous:

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Well that’s very nice.

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Maybe we should get to know each other a little first.

Mercedes has several other encounters of hilarious note, but my favorite is with the ghost of a king who destroyed his homeland with his thirst for power. Mercedes and her dwarf companion have just had an icy exchange with this ghost, who has finally decided the time for words is over:

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Oh dear. This seems threatening.

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Mercedes reflects my own disappointment at this underwhelming surprise. Her voice acting is spot on here. She could not sound more bored. That’s because this is the third time the player will have fought this boss, and he is not much of a challenge. That is to say, he’s no challenge at all. You just have stay behind him and shoot him, and he’ll never hit you. Sometimes he’ll turn around, so you’ll go to his other side and still not get hit. Ugh.

Dwarf, what do you think?

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I suppose that’s true, but you forgot to mention his eggshell. That’s quite a balancing act. Here’s a video so you can see these three lines delivered with all of the weight their creators intended:

I appreciate when developers recognize that their work is serious to the point of exhaustion, particularly in a game as long as this one that will probably end after about 35 hours of play. The humor works here because its incidental, and it fits with the character of Mercedes and the strange encounters a fairy would presumably have if she went to the supermarket. These tiny distractions also don’t take the form of a grating minigame, which is a device that RPG developers go back to all too often. I’ve played through Mercedes’ story now and am back with a depressing character in the form of Oswald the Shadow Knight, but my time with the fairy queen was a welcome oasis from all of the depressing fantasy tropes that Odin Sphere adores.

What uses of humor in video games have you appreciated? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Further Reading
Atlus’ official Odin Sphere web site
A comprehensive article about Odin Sphere on HG101
The Odin Sphere wiki, full of story related info and excellent art from the developers and fans
Developer Vanillaware’s official web site (Japanese)

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Just Let Me Wear A T-Shirt

I’ve been playing Sleeping Dogs lately and it’s quite good. It’s an open world sandbox action great time in the vein of Grand Theft Auto or Saint’s Row, and it does its job really well. As undercover police officer Wei Shen, you’re supposed to infiltrate the Chinese triad and stop it’s principal elements from engaging in criminal activity. The driving is arcade like and the combat is fluid and crunchy. Shoving a man’s head through the rear of an apartment window air conditioner never felt so cool.

I’m not going to waste any more time on the things I liked in this game though. Today, I want to complain about something that annoys me across genres: “customizable” clothing systems where the clothes improve the player’s avatar somehow.

In Sleeping Dogs, the player starts out with a default character in default clothing, but you can buy new clothes at stores or earn them as mission rewards and then change them by interacting with the wardrobe at your apartment. You can make the player character Wei Shen wear all kinds of things! There are t-shirts with t-rex skeletons on them and outfits that pay tribute to movies like Ong Bak and Kill Bill. It seems sort of exciting until clothing bonuses rear their heads.

If you have a coordinated set of clothing on, you get a bonus like “5% bonus melee damage” or “10% bonus Triad experience”. There are three tiers of each bonus: 5%, 10%, and 15%. The bonuses motivate the player to be constantly changing clothing depending on what stage of the game they’re in so that they can have the best possible bonuses. I can see two reasons for this system:

  • The developers want you to see all of the neat clothes they made for Wei, so by having different bonuses and different tiers, it motivates the player to buy and use new clothes to make use of the bonuses.
  • The game needs something that seems useful to spend the obscene a mount of money you make from missions on.

The whole things seem silly to me for a few reasons. First, metrics like your melee damage or experience gain are never measured by visible numbers in game, so the player has no point of reference for the bonuses conferred by these items. Is my Triad experience bar 10% longer because I have put Wei in an unseasonable puffy coat? I have to assume it is, but I’ve seen more than a few instances where items don’t do what they say in a game, so I can’t be sure.

The bonuses are small. This is a game where you might have to hit an enemy upwards of 10 times to knock them out, so a 10% increase to your melee damage will only save you 1 strike. That’s not a noticeable difference when you’re fighting 6 enemies at once. Since I can repeat any of the relatively short missions for 100% of the original experience, an item that gives me a 10% increase in experience is redundant.

The entire thing reeks of something that is there just to be there, but it still nibbles at the back of your mind if you’re not using it. That fight was great, but WHAT IF I WAS CAUSING 10% MORE DAMAGE WHEN I HIT PEOPLE??? That mission would have been more fulfilling if I had RECEIVED 15% MORE COP EXPERIENCE AT THE END OF IT. The idea of being able to customize your avatar is completely deflated when the game incentivizes wearing  certain clothes over others this way.

A similar, even more superficial system appeared in Need for Speed Underground 2 for the PS2, a racing game. It was another excellent game in its genre that was made a little worse than it should have been with a “clothes bonus”. In that case, you could customize your car’s insides and outsides, which was great! It makes sense that replacing the engine with a better engine would make your car go faster. However, each part on the exterior of the car came with a “visual rating”. Your visual rating plays a role in deciding if you can get magazine and dvd shoots, which are essentially free money in this context. There is never any reason not to have the parts with the best “visual rating” and you need a decent visual score for that free money, so everyone’s car will look the same by the end of the game rendering the bullet point on the back of the box about all of the ways to customize your car irrelevant.

These are small things that don’t completely ruin a game experience, but if a developer is going to put a customization system into a game, they shouldn’t be implementing barriers that hold the player back from enjoying it.

I Need to Play Resident Evil Again

I’m spending the afternoon at my in-laws creaky house on a windy day, so it seemed like a good day to watch a speedrun of the original Resident Evil on the PSX. Resident Evil was the progenitor of the survival horror genre, so there’s no better way to spend the day when the gutters are insistently banging against the side of the house.

First, you should watch the opening video if you haven’t before. To this day, it is the best opening cinematic ever created for a video game. It sets a tone for the game, and the game sticks to it come hell or high water.

The tone that is set, of course, is one of b-list hilarity. The awful writing/voice acting combo might be the best part about Resident Evil now that the clunky polygonal models aren’t so scary. If you scroll to any location in this transcript of the script, you’ll find some gold. While I was watching, I wondered if the script was as bad as it is before it was translated to English from it’s original Japanese. I know that the Japanese voice acting was so bad that there was only English voice acting in the Japanese version, but I can’t imagine that the writing was this bad in it’s original Japanese. “It’s a weapon; it’s really powerful, especially against living things,” makes so little sense that it’s hard to imagine a professional being paid to have written it.

Aside from that, I think the game seems like it’s held up pretty well. The enemy variety is impressive, especially for a game from this era, with almost 20 different enemy types in the original game. The first few games were not so much about weird tentacle monsters as they are now, either. The developers just used things like a big snake or a big spider, and that’s enough to be scary with the tight environments and clunky controls. I appreciate that simplicity and it makes me wish the newer games would go back to this design philosophy. I still strongly dislike those gaddang spiders.

It made me feel panicky watching zombies almost grab the player, and that’s really the essence of the original Resident Evil experience.  Unfortunately, I don’t think that the modern video game player is patient enough to play a game like this unless they are being pushed forward by nostalgia, so we probably won’t see a game like this one again. Surviving by the skin of your teeth in terms of maneuvering the character and ammo and health consumption is where the horror in these games come from, and these are not elements that exist in video games anymore. The modern Resident Evil games speak to this. Since Capcom created the over the shoulder camera perspective and inserted an overabundance of pistol ammo in Resident Evil 4, the rest of the series seem set to be action games rather than horror.

Further reading
Resident Evil: 15 Years Later, Still Fantastic
by VGJunk
Resident Evil speedruns on Speed Demos Archive
Longplay from Cubex
Original review on Gamespot