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DWN. 084 Vacation Man
  June 24th, 2013

06/24- 7:00PM EST

Welcome to another all essay edition of Q&A! This is all but one of the remaing entries, the last of which I will post in August. Why August? Well, to celebrate three years of Ask Wheels I will be taking a break for the month of July! I feel like I need a little time off to refresh after giving myself a bit too many writing projects outside of Q&A. In the meantime, RPGamer's own Phillip Willis will be taking on Q&A. I'll still be around the site of course. For now, just keep sending me your questions and commentaries and I'll forward them along to Phil.

Now let's get right to it...





The Letters
SMT Vs. SMT

Spoilers for SMT I and SMT: Strange Journey

Shin Megami Tensei: A Strange Journey through 12 years of games.

The SMT Series has provided us with over a decade of RPG excellence, and has provided us with its own set of archetypes.  The last side-game from the main-line SMT series, ďStrange JourneyĒ, in addition to being a strong entry in the series in its own right, is also an exploration of these archetypes.

Among the most prominent of themes that appear in SMT is the "Hero" of a given philosophy, their transformation into a form in which they gain power from the demons of that philosophy, and the way that this hero's journey interacts with the philosophy.  Traditionally, the Chaos Hero attains this through becoming partially demonic himself, while the Law Hero is granted divine form. These reflect the philosophies behind power taken by these groups themselves - Chaotic beings seek power for themselves, and do things for their own sake, while Lawful beings seek to do the will of something greater than themselves, and are rewarded and helped in doing so.

In SMT I, the Chaos Hero fuses himself with one of your demons in order to gain enough power to control his own, fulfilling his selfish desires, while the Law Hero sacrifices himself selflessly in order to protect his friends, and this sacrifice is rewarded by God by resurrecting him as the messiah.  After attaining these powers, the others leave you on your journey, but eventually fall -either consumed by the power they sought, or abandoned by the God they served. The key thing which explored thusly is the individual vs. communal nature of these philosophies.

In Strange Journey however, these stories are switched - Jiminez, the Chaos Hero of the story, undergoes fusion with a demon not out of a selfish desire for power, but a selfless one - out of the desire to protect those close to him (in particular the demon he fuses with), while Zelenin, the Law Hero of the story, gives herself over to divine power and cleansing not out of a selfless desire, but out of fear of the demons.  In this way, we see a reversal of journeys seen in the first entry in the series - People can give themselves to a greater cause out of cowardice, or out of courage, and ambition for power can begin for the most noble of causes, indeed by reversing these plots, those who have played both can see more of how they interact with those ideals.

Indeed, for those of us who have played both games, the name "strange journey" doesn't seem quite so odd as it was at first - it is a strange journey, but not through the schwartzwelt as the game suggest, but through the philosophical ideals that the games have explored since the inception of the series.


Wheels

I couldn't read this due to Strange Journey spoilers, so have an A!

Behold the Etrian Odyssey

Well if no one else wants it... :

The contrast between Eye of the Beholder and Etrian Oddyssey is a good indicator of why everyone should stop relating new(ish) Japanese first-person dungeon crawlers to old Western ones. Also since I'm writing this essay to win a Japanese first-person dungeon crawler I figured it would be fitting.

So let's talk about the things these two games have in common. Most reviewers who say that Etrian will appeal to old-school Western RPG fans cite two similarities: the difficulty and the fact that you must create your own map. Besides these two there are also things like open-ended character creation and the fact that the two games take place entirely in a single long dungeon that relate the two. However, these similarities are passing resemblences at best.

The truth is Etrian Odyssey is nothing like the old Western PC RPGs. What did Eye of the Beholder have that none of these new Japanese games have? Puzzles. Real, honest-to-goodness headscratcher puzzles. I doubt anyone who remembers Eye of the Beholder fondly spends any time remembering the easily-exploited combat system or the great (?) story. No, they remember that feeling of figuring out all the crazy riddles and secret rooms hidden all over the game. The riddles were amazing! They made you feel like you were really lost, exploring a deep and mysterious maze.

You know what Eye of the Beholder didn't have that all these new Japanese dungeon-crawlers have? Grind. For most people the only thing leveling in Eye of the Beholder counted for was getting a few more spells for their casters and a few more hitpoints all around. Add this to the fact that there was essentially a finite number of encounters and you've got a system that is the antithesis to the Japanese method of grind grind grind cuz' we need to pad this game out.

Finally, the biggest difference: real time battles versus turn-based battles. It's like Japan got stuck on the very first few PC dungeon crawlers and didn't notice that they evolved past turn-based battles pretty early on. All the TSR AD&D games had realtime battles that were just so much more fun than staring at menus all the time. Imagine how much more awesome Etrian could be if you could see the battles playing out in realtime. It adds a huge level of excitement to what tends to be a dull, plodding, repetitive genre.

So what am I saying? That Eye of the Beholder is better in every way than Etrian Odyssey? No. What I'm saying is we're talking about apples and oranges. Japanese first-person dungeon crawlers are not for old PC dungeon crawler fans. They do not evoke those memories. They are for fans of grind-tastic Japanese RPGs that encourage experimentation with things like skill builds and party composition. They are fun in their own right, but could we please stop attempting to lump them in the same boat?

-Ben



Wheels

Well, there's a big time issue with your premise here that you yourself seem to mention when you say "It's like Japan got stuck on the very first few PC dungeon crawlers and didn't notice that they evolved past turn-based battles pretty early on." This is exactly the case, though it should be noted that despite games like Eye of the Beholder, turn-based first-person RPGs persisted in the west longer than you suggest. If you play games such as Class of Heroes and Elminage, you can more clearly see the old Wizardry games these titles are clearly pulling from. Etrian is less clear, because that series thankfully wipes away many of the dated interfaces and other ideas that Wizardry clones cling to.

So, the issue here is you're misunderstanding which old-school PC dungeon crawlers these games are being compared to. No one is comparing these games to Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder and similar games for the most part. I'll still give you a B as it is interesting to dissect the differences between turn-based and real time first-person dungeon crawlers.

tri-Aced

Comparing two games developed within the same year by Squaresoft, SaGa Frontier's storytelling and game play mechanics develop characters better than Final Fantasy 7. The clearest illustration of this point is that all seven of SaGa Frontier's characters follow individual story lines, culminating in the true ending once all chapters are cleared. In each of these story lines the characters are brought to life with a basic three act structure. All seven main characters and most of the optional side characters have a clearly defined motive for traversing SaGa Frontier's universe, whether it be for revenge, enlightenment  or simple curiosity. Conversely, Final Fantasy 7 follows the story of only one protagonist while supporting cast is rarely given the spotlight and is provided with sparse back story.  SaGa Frontier unfolds in concise episodes while Final Fantasy 7 suffers from a meandering plot that often obfuscates the character's motivations.

Another way in which SaGa Frontier boldly differentiates itself from Final Fantasy 7 is through the character progression system. Every party member in SaGa Frontier levels up their stats through active use; total hit points will increase proportionally to damage taken. This serves to develop characters more naturally as they ostensibly grow in strength, directly contrasting Final Fantasy 7's more traditional level progression system where characters arbitrarily garner stat boots after they gain enough experience points. Watching a character's stats grow incrementally over time gives a player constant feedback about their progression and serves to produce a more cohesive tale, while an experience based system offers no insight into growth.

SaGa Frontier uses a similar system for gaining skills and magic. Each character can equip any type of weapon, usage creates an opportunity to trigger a brand new skill. During an encounter with a strong enemy new skills might manifest as a light bulb above the character's head, a visual cue that they have had a new idea about their fighting technique. Characters in Final Fantasy 7 gain the majority of their skills by attaching materia into equipment and leveling them up over time. Watching a character perform a clutch sword counter like "Kasumi" out of nowhere to narrowly avoid death is far more detailed than the cumbersome task of shuffling materia around to various party members.

The only area where Final Fantasy 7 excels with characterization is in Tetsuya Nomura'a iconic designs, as evidenced by the instantly recognizable characters. The truth is that due to flat writing and dated game play mechanics they are actually far less developed than SaGa Frontier's. Final Fantasy 7 needed a compilation of side story games and films to flesh out its narrative, while SaGa Frontier successfully did so in one game. Completing a scenario in SaGa Frontier leaves the player with a clear understanding of the trials and tribulations the protagonist endured, while Final Fantasy 7 can often feel like simply going through the motions.

-tsubakisamurai


Wheels

Did... did you just show in detail how SaGa Frontier utterly destroys Final Fantasy 7 in every conceivable way? You sir, have just earned an S Rank. Well done!

All the Final Fantasy

Comparison between FFIV (DS) and FFXIII Ė How Level-Up and Stat Gains can or cannot be tied to the Narrative
(Author: Giuseppe Spinella)

FFís battle system has continuously changed (at least to a certain degree) with every iteration of the franchise. With every major overhaul of the battle system, changes to the way characters leveled up and gained their new stats took place. I want to argue that even though FFIV had a rather ordinary level-up system, it provided more connection to the gameís story than the one in FFXIII. Whereas FFXIIIís level-up and stats gain-system is merely a gameplay element, the level-ups and stat gains in FFIV create a connection between the gameís gameplay and narrative and serve as further means of characterization.

FFXIIIís level up system consists of moving on a grid called crystarium and purchasing nodes by the means of CP [Crystal Points] which provide either new abilities or stat gains for a character. CP are gained in battle, so they become a kind of currency akin to experience in other games that is needed to gain stats. However, FFXIIIís crystarium is not closely linked to the gameís story. The only link is that the player moves through different crystals. While crystals are of importance in the game, the link between the level-up system and the storyís crystals is rather loose and merely based on aesthetic connections. In addition, the game keeps the player from progressing in the crystarium after a certain point if he or she hasnít reached a specific point in the story, yet. Thus, only after beating certain bosses or reaching new places one is allowed to further develop the characters.  Yet, even though the level-up system and the story are connected by this leveling-up restriction, the restriction does not mirror any aspect of the story. It was installed as a pure gameplay element which keeps the game from getting too easy. There is no story-related reason why Lightning shouldnít be allowed to gain stats after a certain point. The only logical explanation would be the one arguing that she just gets stronger over time by defeating different enemies, yet in the game this is only implied at best.

In FFIV however, things are different. While in FFIV one simply gains EXP in fights and automatically levels up after having gained enough, there are instances in the game where the level of the characters and their stat gains during levels are used to mirror the characterís development in the story. As a first example, one could mention Cecilís conversion into a Paladin. Having become a Paladin, he starts over, freed from his sins. This starting over is mirrored in his level, which after the journey to Mount Ordeals is set to level one again. Furthermore, Tellahís stats also characterize him. He cannot go over 90MP, and since Meteor requires 99MP, his stats already point to the fact that using meteor would be an over-exertion on his part. His old age is also mirrored in his loss of stats, since when leveling up, one stat linked to physical characteristics (speed, strength or stamina) will sometimes actually decrease. As a last example one might mention FusoYa. As a Lunarian, a member of a people that is basically frozen in time and in perpetual sleep, he never gains any stats when leveling up (at least not without augments). All this shows how the levels and stat gains in FFIV (unlike in FFXIII) can be a means of characterization. And one restricted to the medium of video games at that, since neither movies nor books have any equivalent.


Wheels

Very apt comparison. Final Fantasy IV really does a great job of making its mechanics part of this story. This is best shown by the Mount Ordeals example which you brought up. I do enjoy both approaches, but there's no doubt to the special moments the Final Fantasy IV model can provide. I mean really, how cool is the whole Mount Ordeals scene? I'll give you an A+.
IN CLOSING

That's it for this week! Enjoy the crazy adventures of our brave guest host for the month of July. See you all here (I'll be around the site doing other stuff) in August!

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