The Games of 2012: Ys Origin

Ys Origin originally came out in 2006 but only in Japan, leaving poor suckers like myself who desperately wanted to play it in a language we could understand waiting for a fan translation. The fan translation finally materialized in September, 2011 but by that time there were already rumors that XSeed was getting ready to release it digitally so I decided against importing it like I done with some other Ys titles.

For those unfamiliar with the series–it is, afterall, a niche franchise beloved by gigantic nerds like me but unknown to everyone else–it’s a long running series of action RPGs with lots of remakes and ports and re-releases. Origin is the first of the games to break from telling the story of red-haired Adol having adventures all over the place and finding bits of the leftover Ys civilization while solving other, more urgent problems. Origin is not about the origins of Adol and his gang but rather the tale great civilization of Ys fell.

The gameplay in Origin is pretty similar to the titles since The Oath of Felghana. You hit things with weapons, you have some spell options and there are platforming and puzzle elements. There’s not really any level grinding required as long as you don’t just blow past enemies without bothering to defeat them, which I think of as a huge plus. Overall, Origin plays like your standard action RPG, but it is so competently made and charming that it overcomes the run-of-the-mill press-x-to-attack gameplay and enter the really fun zone. The Ys games have a formula that has been pretty much perfected and just own it completely.

The other thing Ys games always do well–and it’s an element of Origin that I enjoyed a whole lot–is giving you tough, interesting boss battles. In Origin once you are about a quarter way done with your long climb up the tower they suddenly become something like a SHMUP. The bosses have several attacks, shoot a whole lot of different stuff at you and require a tactical approach. It’s not R-Type Final, but here’s a video of the first boss that does this in the game:

I love it! There’s not a really a moment where you can just stand still (which in Ys means no healing!). It’s intense, and it’s fun. When I beat bosses in Origin I was very pleased with myself.

As it goes on the bosses become more and more like they were ripped out of a SHMUP. When you get to the final boss there is stuff all over the place and you are constantly running and reacting to whatever attack he’s queued up. The frenzied music works perfectly with what’s going on in the game. It’s just amazingly well put together.

If you don’t mind spoilers, or don’t think of a boss fight with no story context as one, here’s what that last battle looks like:

Ys: Origin is a niche game because of the market it inhabits, not its appeal to a wide audience. If you enjoy hitting monsters with weapons, sometimes setting creatures on fire and light puzzle fare then this is a game (and series) you’ll dig.

Buy Ys Origin on Steam. I get nothing out of this and you get a good game!

Very Quick Reviews – The Baconing, Costume Quest, and Sequence

I’ve had a busy, busy last few weeks and fallen behind on Dragon’s Dogma (which I was really enjoying) but I decided to sit down and finish up/play through some of the indie titles that I’d purchased from Steam.

The Baconing – The third DeathSpank game, this time with no Ron Gilbert involvement and it shows. It’s an okay game but falls kind of flat. It feels like it was written by a Gilbert fan who was trying way too hard and though the core gameplay is the same as DeathSpank 1 and 2 they ramped up the difficulty to a pretty absurd degree. Worth a pickup on sale if you like action RPGs and don’t mind dying a lot.

Time Spent: Steam says 8.6 hours and that sounds about right accounting for pausing and bathroom breaks.

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Costume Quest – Adorable short RPG from Tim Schafer and his team at Double Fine. A mean witch has kidnapped your brother (or sister if you play as the boy) on Halloween and you have to get him back. You collect candy, battle bad guys and put together costumes with new powers along the way. The battle system is simple as can be, you either attack or have a special move that depends on the costume you’re wearing (they can buff, heal or do extra damage). You can (should) also trade in your candy for battle stickers that you can equip your party with, they give your trick-or-treating pals extra boosts in battle (regeneration, do poison damage, etc).

Although Costume Quest is at face value an RPG like an adventure game the thing that keeps you chugging through is a fun story you want to see through to the end. It’s full of pop-culture references that are executed well and  the designs are charming. The price is a little steep at $15 but you are paying for the production values and it’s worth it.

Time Spent: About 5 hours to get everything in the normal game, have not done the (free!) DLC yet.

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Sequence – A rhythm action game I grabbed for something like $2.50 during one of the big Steam sales. This game is definitely worth the $5 it normally goes for but is flawed. First, it’s very repetitive because the way the game is structured you fight a small number of enemies over and over for materials to craft items. Second, you will want to set the game’s main characters on fire because they are really smarmy.

The battle system is the core of the game and works like this: Each enemy has a song attached to him which plays during the battle and sets the time limit. During the fight you flip between three boards while fighting enemies big and small hitting notes to the rhythm of the music. One board recharges mana, one board is where notes for the spells you cast show up and one is the enemy’s board where you hit notes to avoid damage. It works pretty well, but like I said fighting the enemies over and over to get drops and level up is very grindy and makes it nigh impossible to play for long periods at one time.

Time Spent: 15 hours, this is bloated by a few long pause and wander out of the rooms and having to start the game over after a bug. I’m currently attempting to get the true ending, I would guess it really tops out at more like 10 hours if you want all the spells/achievements/etc.

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?


The Dragon Knight Saga, or Larian Gets Something Right Finally

Like many other games in my (digital) collection, I picked up Divinity 2: The Dragon Knight Saga on a whim from Steam because it was on sale at a heavily discounted price. Not really expecting much from it after the other Divinity games by Larian Studios I found myself pleasantly surprised to be playing a competent, not boring action RPG with some interesting concepts.

You start off the game training to become a Dragon Slayer, an order of warriors devoted to tracking down and killing Evil Dragon Knights. Very early on this all gets turned on its head and you become a Dragon Knight yourself and learn that–surprise!–they’re not really evil. In fact, they fight the real evil out there. And so begins your quest to save the world, because that’s what happens in RPGs.

The combat and character building is pretty standard. You pick from one of three classes (mage, warrior or ranger) but don’t really have to stick to it. In addition to these skills there are two other trees: priest, which focuses on summoning mainly and “Dragon Slayer” which offers general skills like lockpicking. The skills are not stat-dependent and allow for a decent level of customization but nothing too wild. My character was focused on ranged combat with summoning skills to keep enemies off my back. It’s not a crazy forked tree so you can skip around as you please and only need to hit a certain level to put points into skills.

The skill tree, click to make big!
The skill tree, click to make big!

You get the standard handful of stat points to allocate to the usual categories (vitality, strength, dexterity, etc) as well as a skill point per level. You can hoard them or spend them right away or spend some and save some. I found myself leveling up so fast that I’d spend them in bunches when I got around to it and that it didn’t make real huge impact on the game if I waited a bit.

Becoming a Dragon Knight gives you the perk of being able to turn into a dragon. You can’t do this all the time, and most of the parts where you fly around in dragon form are game events where you don’t have any choice. The dragon has separate skills from your human form but you don’t get points as you level up to use on them. Any changes to the base levels of your dragon skills come from finding books that when used give you a point to spend in them or equipping different dragon armor.

Flying around as a the dragon controls very well though dodging attacks is kind of tricky, and most of the time you’re a dragon you are getting attacked by all sorts of stuff. A few times I lost track of my health and died because I forgot to heal but this was no fault of the game.

So what we have here is a solid action RPG with some unique elements that makes for a pretty good time. Unfortunately there are some annoying problems with the game.

First, I will refer you to one of the worst boss battles of all time. It really is that bad. I’m not going to recount it here in full but it is really badly designed and made artificially hard by being completely unfair to the player.

The game is built to be a pretty straight-forward action RPG but from time-to-time there are platform elements thrown in. Now, I love platformers a whole lot but they are really just shoved into The Dragon Knight Saga and done very badly. I thought developers learned a long time ago not to shove out of place badly executed jumping puzzles into games but apparently I was wrong. The jumping in the game is simply not precise enough to shoehorn them in, I am all for puzzling but they need to work within the game’s construct.

Beyond level design, the main game ends very abruptly. I seriously had no idea the game was ending until the credits started rolling. If I only owned Ego Draconis, I would have been pissed, and I feel bad for anyone who bought it standalone since you cannot buy the Flames of Vengeance expansion separately. It’s worse than the infamous Halo 2 cliffhanger because that was an actual cliffhanger rather than a SHOW’S OVER FOLKS, GO HOME moment.

After I got over the initial shock of the game pulling the plug suddenly, I started up the expansion. Flames of Vengeance isn’t bad, but it is a lot less fun than Ego Draconis. Due to certain circumstances you are stuck in one city the whole time and while there is some variance, most of the place feels and looks exactly the same. Which is unsurprising since it’s a city and all. That said, it does do its job which is finish up the damn story from the main game. Really, they shouldn’t be seperate pieces at all but I think that Larian maybe realized that when they smooshed it all together and released it in a bundle in this manner.

The Dragon Knight Saga is really the first time Larian executed well on their interesting ideas, and is well worth the sticker price. You might need to take a break now and then to power down from jumping puzzle rage but overall it’s a really solid game for action RPG fans. Just make sure that you pick up Divinity 2: The Dragon Knight Saga and not Divinity 2: Ego Draconis.

A Study In Terrible Boss Design

I have played a lot of video games of varying quality, and many of them have had bad or aggravating boss battles. But I have never played one that is as badly designed as General Raze in Divinity 2: The Dragon Knight Saga.

Here is the scenario you are thrown into:

In the small room where you fight General Raze there are two transporters toward the front that just ceaselessly spawn enemies. They don’t stop at two or four or ten, they might stop at fifty but I didn’t count. All I know is that if you don’t keep killing them the place becomes full of them. They’re not high-level but goddamn are they annoying. Especially when you are surrounded by a zillion of them or they come out of nowhere and hit you from behind and interrupt whatever it was you were trying to do.

Once you get General Raze down to about 50% of his health he runs into a healing room–there are two at opposite sites of the room in the back–and he goes back up to 100%. You can turn these rooms off using levers in front of them for a whole 15 seconds! If you time it right and Raze goes to a shutdown room he runs over to the other side to give the other one a try. He goes back and forth until he finds one that works so you have to simultaneously keep the spawned creatures at bay, try to hit Raze and run around trying to keep the rooms turned off.

You may think that you can use the legion of enemies against Raze and corner him or lure them into blocking the healing rooms, but if you try this you’ll find that he just…magically teleports into the room and is healed. There is no creative option available to the player, you must beat this boss exactly as the game designers decided was appropriate. Several times when Raze’s health was low my creatures and I were pounded him and the scene that shows him in the rooms captured him not standing up but getting knocked around by blows that weren’t happening.

On top of the annoying design and heavy-handedness of the fight, there was a particular technical problem that drive me nuts. After you  use a level it cuts into a short movie of the room turning off (and it does this every time, not just the first to let you know what your action does). When the game cuts back from the movie, there is a slight delay before you can move but not before all the enemies around can. This cuts down the already short time that you have to run back and forth by precious seconds, and also gives any enemies nearby the chance to get in your way. I am playing through on PC so I didn’t have a controller to throw but I sort of wish I did.

Hard boss battles do not bother me, at all. The whole point of a boss battle as far as I can tell is to give the player something different/harder than the other parts of the game. So hard is fine. I’ve dug in and beaten plenty of excruciatingly hard bosses in the past, and I generally find it pretty satisfying as long as we’re not talking about Hoshigami levels of difficulty here. But when the whole thing is muddled up with questionable design and takes out most of the creativity these battles usually ask for it makes me wonder why I bother.

The good news is that Raze is not a mandatory battle. Yay! The bad news is that to upgrade your Battle Tower and get a set of good armor you have to beat him. Boo! Since I am a crazy person who couldn’t possibly not upgrade her base all the way, I did eventually defeat Raze hours later after doing almost everything else possible, at about six levels higher than him and re-adjusting all my skill points to suit the battle as much as possible.