The Games of 2012: Tales of Graces and Tales of the Abyss

In 2012 Namco took pity on Tales fans in North America and released localized versions of both Tales of the Abyss (which was a re-release, but I don’t care) for the 3DS and Tales of Graces F for the Playstation 3. It’s an interesting contrast in games because while both of them feature fantastic battle systems, Abyss has a good coming of age story and Graces features a bunch of characters who are stuck in childhood and never grow at all during the course of the game.

The lead character in Abyss, Luke, is spoiled, self-centered and very sheltered. He is incredibly unlikable in the start, intentionally but a little over the top. He makes a really terrible mistake that in non-RPG land nobody would ever be able to make up for but luckily it’s a video game so he can go on a journey to redeem himself. It works because Luke is not instantly redeemed and he is earnest about growing up and working to make things right/better. The timeline is a accelerated but none of the other characters just go “Of course we love you, you silly town-destroying boy!”

Meanwhile in Graces the main character and his friends almost get the world destroyed because friendship is forever, even when you haven’t spoken to each other in 10 years and the friend in question has been possessed by an ancient evil and is killing people willy-nilly. The cutscenes are unbearable and the characters ridiculously shallow. Bland stories don’t bother me, you can just ignore them. Outright bad ones, however, really take away from my overall enjoyment of a game when I am constantly given story updates accompanied by horrific voice acting. It really is a shame because as I mentioned in my full write-up, Graces has the best battle system in the series to date.

I’d say that if you smooshed the battle system from Graces together with the story from Abyss you’d get an ultra-fantastic game but Abyss doesn’t really need any help to reach that level. It’s the best entry in the Tales series by a significant margin and getting to replay it right before getting my hands on Graces reinforced this for me.

I leave with with this trailer for Tales of Graces F with the hilariously misleading “Everyone Changed” tagline. Enjoy the voice acting.

Tales of Graces F: Friendship is Forever Annoying

When most people think of what an RPG is they imagine a game with a solid or better story buoying a flawed battle system. I don’t believe that this is actually the standard in the genre but it’s happened enough that it’s the stereotype. Tales of Graces is the opposite of this—a game with a really flawed story that keeps you playing because of its combat mechanics. I have played many titles like this as well but never found myself so annoyed at every character in a game and still had as much fun with it as I did here.

The theme of Graces F is friendship. They made a whole trailer about it and all the text on the back of the game talks about being buddies for all eternity. That’s a fine theme and there are many things you can do with it but there is just so much wrong with the execution.

The main characters in the story form a friendship pact as children, then a bad thing happens and they don’t see each other for something like 10 years. When people start trickling back into the picture, they are friends again (mostly) which is natural and fine.  Then it starts to go off the rails.

One of the characters as a result of the bad thing that happened is evil and is going to destroy the world. His group of friends wring their hands and cry about it and at every turn go “NO! WE CANNOT FIGHT OUR NOW EVIL FRIEND WHO WANTS TO KILL EVERY LIVING THING AND HAS ALREADY KILLED MANY PEOPLE!” We’re not even talking about killing here, even the idea of confronting their buddy is too much to bear. I was not expecting a Suikoden II style approach but this shallow idea of what friendship means—apparently loyalty and never questioning anyone—makes the characters really annoying. They do dumb things and don’t learn from the dumb things. They’re all very immature. If you’ve played Tales of the Abyss the main character is a lot like Luke if Luke didn’t grow at all. It is very annoying.

This honestly wouldn’t be so bad but there are a huge number of cutscenes (featuring mediocre to awful voice acting) in the game that appear to exist solely to show how everyone is friendly friend friends. Luckily you can skip them once you determine whether they move the not-very-good story forward (there are a lot that don’t) and get back to the thing that makes the game worth playing: the combat.

The battle system in Graces is very different from any of the other Tales games that have been released State-side, but my understanding is that they borrow a bit from PS2 remake of Tales of Destiny. It’s official fancy name is the “Style Shift Linear Motion Battle System”, which it derives from players switching between two different types of fighting styles by using different face buttons to attack.

The fighting styles are very simply named “A” and “B” with A being more traditional physical attacks and B being spells and special moves. Mana is tossed out the window and characters have what are called Chain Capacity points, determined by level/equipment/skills and each move uses a certain amount of CC. CC recharges rapidly when you are doing nothing and meeting certain battle conditions (critical hits, weakness, etc) will add to the gauge during a combo.

A-type skills work along trees where a combination of a direction+button press with each successive skill using more CC than the last. You can’t customize them, it’s very much a traditional combo attack system. The B-type attacks are special attacks (skills with lightning, fire, etc and in the case of  mages their spells) that you map to four direction+button matches. You unlock skills and power them up by using them a certain number of times and by equipping and mastering titles.

When you put all these elements together you feels like what the “it’s a fighting game!” system of Legendia tried to be and it is really, really fluid and fun. The only drawback is that free run isn’t really free–it costs you CC points–and so it can be hard to get away from an enemy quickly. It is so fun that it makes Graces absolutely worth playing through if you like RPGs even if you want to set all the characters on fire. I’ve always been a bit of a crazy-combo person and this just feeds into that perfectly. I haven’t gotten a 999 hit combo yet, sadly, but it’s on the agenda.

I enjoyed the combat so much that I even took the plunge into the extra dungeon for crazy people who like getting their ass kicked (some of the optional bosses are just ridiculously hard). I’m even contemplating another run-through to try and Platinum the game which is something I usually don’t even consider doing. I also figure that skipping nearly every cutscene or going to the kitchen for sandwiches frequently will help the second play-through experience quite a bit.

Tales of Graces F features the best combat of the series, hands down but on the flip side also the worst/most annoying story by a long shot. If you’ve been looking for a battle system to love then this game is for you but be prepared to roll your eyes to the heavens whenever people start talking.

Dragon’s Dogma Demo Playthrough

Please excuse my alliterative post title, I’m not the one who decided “Dragon’s Dogma” was a cool name for a video game. In any case, having just finished playing through the (short) demo I figured I’d write some brief notes:

  • The demo consists of two short levels ending in what I’d call mini-boss fights. I would guess that in the full game it takes longer than ten minutes to reach these bosses like it did here, or that the levels go on for much longer.
  • The look of the game reminds me a lot of Dark/Demon’s Souls and the controls borrow from those games but that’s where the similarities end. Dragon’s Dogma is party based and far less punishing. When your minions go down you can go press a button and revive them.
  • In the demo chapters you play as two character types: A warrior and a ranger. I assume in the full game you get to pick your character type and will be able to select the mage if you wish. They played pretty much like your standard warrior and rogue/ranger type characters.
  • Combat and controls are very intuitive and not annoying. You use the d-pad to give your minions directions if you don’t like what they’re doing and it uses the controller buttons rather than triggers for attacks.
  • You can climb on the large bosses and keep them from flying/jumping/whack them in the head and stuff which is cool. I am excited to fight a dragon because the one they show at the start of the prologue is huge.
  • I really liked the design of the griffon and chimera. They are standard for the monsters but not boring.

I didn’t mess much with the character editor because it was in-depth and you use it not only for yourself but your minions and I knew I’d get trapped in there for hours if I did. I think I spent 45 minutes making my character in Demon’s Souls. Yes, I realize this is a problem with my brain.

I put in a pre-order for Dragon’s Dogma thanks to a Newegg sale and a sudden desire to take a risk on an interesting looking game made by an interesting development team. If the demo is indicative of the quality of the full game I won’t regret the purchase.

Here’s the trailer from last year’s E3 because why not?

 

El Shaddai: Ascension of the What The Eff

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is the most interesting game I have played in some time. It loosely follows the first part of Book of Enoch and sets you on a mission to go out and dispose of some fallen angels (called Watchers) who are doing bad things to humanity. This sets up one of the most gorgeous and inspired games I have ever come across. The combat is simple but not boring and moves you smoothly through a wonderful journey of colorful surreal and abstract art.

The game is ostensibly an action title, and so there is plenty of combat. It is extremely simple but not boring. You fight with rhythmic presses of a single button, and there are three weapons you can grab off creatures and a happy little weapon triangle. That’s about it. The boss fights involve weapon matching and quick thinking but in most situations you’ll use whatever your favorite is. I mostly used the ranged weapon because it had a quick dodge, but there’s also a swift light melee weapon and a heavy melee weapon that does heavy damage and shields you.

While El Shaddai is billed as an action title, I feel that it is much more of a platformer in terms of the gameplay because of how it is incorporated into the art and design of the game. The platforming elements are used to showcase certain areas in 2D and give you a feel for the environments, and there are also some very advanced and challenging 3D platforming levels that help shape the otherworldly feel of the Watchers’ Tower.

The core of El Shaddai is its approach to art and presentation. I think that to the general gaming public “beautiful game” is equated with one that emulates real life pretty well, but that is a very narrow way to look at things. El Shaddai throws this out the window and takes its queues from the world of fine art. I’m not going to get into an argument about whether games count as art here or not, but the design work in El Shaddai is amazing and deserves tons of praise. Every floor of the Tower is distinct in style, color palette and feel and clearly influenced by the world of fine art. You can really feel and appreciate the effort that the design team put into the world they created.

A random scene from El Shaddai

Most importantly, there is an extremely well-crafted nightclub scene that segues into a fight with one of the Watchers. It is bizarre and actually fits right in with what’s going on in the level.

As I mentioned earlier, the story in El Shaddai is based on a part of the Book of Enoch. I had a vague understanding of what was going on thanks to taking Theology in college, but if you haven’t read it you won’t really understand a whole lot of what is going on. I don’t want to give the impression that I followed along exactly, either, but I got the gist of things.

Once you get past the introductory cut-scenes much of the story is related by God’s right-hand man Luciel (voiced by Jason Isaacs who does a real bang-up job) and done in two ways. There are exposition sequences where you control Enoch in a 2D environment where the background shows you the events being related and you catch bits of conversations Luciel is having with God about your mission progress.  It’s hard to follow beyond the base story, but I took it as a weird surreal experience and I don’t think it takes away from the game. If you play ugly games for the story, why not play a beautiful game for the design.

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metraton is a conventional game hidden in an unconventional shell. It has some of the most amazing art direction and graphics I’ve ever seen in a game, and is worth playing through just to take in the experience. The platforming and hitting things with weapons won’t blow your mind but it all comes together in a nice package if you don’t try to think too hard about the story.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Lords of Shadow is Konami’s third attempt at a 3D Castlevania game that makes people go “Whooaaa it’s Castlevania but 3D!!!“. Previous attempts were very concerned with feeling like Castlevania–which I thought Curse of Darkness did very well–but with Lord of Shadows they threw this out to make something different. I think is the right approach with a franchise like this, but the problem is that MercuryStream didn’t actually make something different–they lifted a bunch of elements from other successful games and smushed them together. This leaves us with a very derivative game that is tied together with a story that ranges from inconsequential to completely ridiculous.

The platforming elements are lifted from Uncharted, but dumbed down. There is no skill or problem solving involved. You are led from point to point by shiny objects. Rather than looking around trying to find that pesky ledge you need to grab you head towards a highlighted object. When you need to jump from Ledge A to Ledge B you don’t need to find it or aim at it, just press the button. The game does it all for you. The reason the platforming in Uncharted works so well is because it’s a puzzle you need to solve (this is also true in the Tomb Raider titles done by Crystal Dynamics). By taking you by the hand and doing everything except pressing the button for you, the game destroys any fun you normally find in jumping and climbing around a level. In Lords of Shadow the platforming felt the same as pressing forward on my analog stick.

Combat is lifted from God of War when you use the Blades of Chaos, complete with grabbing enemies and tearing them in half when they’re stunned (because it’s so totally bad ass or whatever) and quick-time events. You hit button combos to execute moves that you buy with experience points. It’s good enough, but obviously nothing groundbreaking. Sub-weapons are present and handled in a pretty typical manner, you are allowed to carry X type by default and can find upgrades hidden in various places around the levels. I didn’t use any other than the Holy Water (which acts as an area attack) very often. The hitting things aspect of the game is competent if not world-beating, and other than it being derivative there’s nothing really to complain about outside of my general hatred of quick-time events.

There are a few huge monster style bosses in Lords of Shadow, and they are done in the style of Shadow of the Colossus. Climbing around and hitting the weak points of the enemies is one of the more challenging parts of the game, although it only really comes across as a really fantastic fight once when you fight a giant undead dragon. I found that this battle, done mostly in the air, was executed very well and required much more problem solving than all of the platforming and boss fighting in the rest of the game.  It was a really super fun part of the game, definitely the best bit.

Lords of Shadow looks very nice, but unfortunately MercuryStream is very in love with how good a job they did here and a lot of the game is devoted to showing off their achievement. The camera angles are fixed during platforming (a cardinal sin of platforming) and there are lots of sections where you just walk in a straight line for what feels like forever for “look at our pretty graphics” purposes. For an action/platformer there is a lot of downtime. I also want to take a moment to give them props for the realistic rather than basketball breasts they gave Carmilla.

Before the end-game of the title, I am not sure that I could tell you much about the specifics of the story in Lords of Shadow. Your girlfriend (or wife maybe?) has died, you have to go kill the three Lords of Shadow to get a magical artifact and bring her back to life. A buddy of yours from the Monster Killing Corps is traveling with you and some stuff that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and honestly doesn’t matter much happens along the way. If a game is fun enough the story doesn’t really matter all that much unless it’s completely horrible in my opinion. Then suddenly there is a mega twist!!! that comes out of nowhere and is lame and the story goes from background noise to “What the eff is this crap?” Twists are fine if they are set up well but when they are done with no real setup they are pretty worthless. The actual ending of the game after the final boss further spirals downward into crazyland in what I think was an attempt to completely reboot the Castlevania franchise in five minutes or less. It…doesn’t work.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is the video game equivalent of a movie that apes popular trends competently but has nothing to say. If you like the elements that are being copied enough, you’ll probably have a good time for a while but it feels like an empty experience once it’s all over. There’s nothing wrong with a derivative game, especially one that is looking towards some of the best out there but when you take great things and make them boring that’s just sad.

The Great Ratchet And Clank Project

The Ratchet and Clank games are the reason why I own a PS3 right now. While I own both a Wii and a 360, I had a platformer shaped hole in my heart that only a Lombax and his robot best friend could fill. When the PS3 slim model came out, my boyfriend got one for me so that I would stop wistfully staring at the two Ratchet and Clank Future titles whenever we were at a game store. I really love the series.

As I am now finishing up the trophy list for A Crack in Time, I figured it is a good time to revisit all the games in the series and finishing it all off with a hard mode run of Crack. I’ll be playing them in the order that they were released:

  1. Ratchet and Clank
  2. Ratchet and Clank: Going Command
  3. Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal
  4. Ratchet: Deadlocked
  5. Ratchet and Clank: Size Matters
  6. Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction
  7. Secret Agent Clank
  8. Ratchet & Clank Future: Quest for Booty
  9. Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time

This is a lot of games, and all of them except Quest for Booty clock in between 10 and 20 hours so I’m not offering a solid timeframe on the project. I do also have new games to play and then a gigantic backlog. It’s just something I’m gonna do whenever the whim strikes me.

Size Matters and Secret Agent Clank were originally PSP titles ported to PS2 and I own the ports, not the original game. I figured that playing through platformers with the PSP nub would make me throw the device against the wall and should be avoided. They were also not made by Insomniac proper but that’s a whole other thing.

I have not played the first three R&C games in a number of years, but in my experience, good platformers (non early-Castlevania division) age really well so I don’t expect to hate them or anything. I do miss the chicken gun. I was very entertained by it way back when and am excited to turn enemies into confused hens again.