Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones – GBA

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Ah, yes…the tropes are strong with this one.

Although Fire Emblem is quickly becoming a new favorite series for me, my efforts to charm and amuse you by saying something witty and unique about each game are stymied by the ever-present reality that reviewing individual games in a series is often as productive as reviewing individual chocolates in a bag of M&Ms. That does speak to the strengths of the industry. After all, no one wants to dig into a bag of M&Ms and find twenty chocolates, five skittles, two pennies and a clump of cat litter. Likewise, if Nintendo has established a medieval-fantasy strategy series, it does not behoove them to give players “Fire Emblem: Banjo Simulator.” That’s good for players, but for those of us who write about games, the “if it ain’t broke” approach makes reviews a little difficult to write.

Fire Emblem - The Sacred Stones - scooby doo

Zoinks! Scoob, what say you and I check out the kitchen instead?

It’s a fairly simplistic strategy game that reminds me either of Shining Force on the Sega Genesis or a game of chess played on the back of a speeding jet ski. Characters have classes such as knight, archer, paladin, mage, dancer, or insurance claims adjuster, and march into battle with nothing but their unique stats, a few class-specific characteristics (pegasus knights can fly over mountains, for example), and an assortment of weapons crafted from high-quality candy glass so that they’ll shatter after a handful of uses. Victory goes to whichever army can successfully bludgeon the gate keeper, enemy general, or living daylights out of everyone on the other team.

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Laurana, Tasslehoff and Flint will come by to pick it up later.

The story opens on a continent comprised of several kingdoms, one republic, one empire, and zero confusion about who the evil invading power will be based on the Star Wars rule of fantasy clichés. The Empire of Grado starts conquering neighboring kingdoms for no purpose other than to smash their family jewels (literally) in order to set free a long imprisoned demon king. I could make a joke about those motives being so cartoonishly villainous that its like congressmen pitching poor people into piles of burning coal just to speed up global warming, but honestly our current government daily bemoans the lack of trains in this day and age because it reduces the efficiency of tying girls to railroad tracks. Donald Trump is just a handlebar moustache away from being a cartoon villain himself. As for Fire Emblem’s primary antagonist, we get a young prince who can’t decide whether or not he’s possessed by the demon king, controlled by the demon king, or just envious of the hero, so we spend the entire second act of the game chasing around a kid more indecisive than a college student with identity issues who’s on the verge of changing his major for the third time.

Fire Emblem - The Sacred Stones-Lyon Bad-touches Ephraim

Ephraim experiences “bad touch” with his childhood friend.

The Sacred Stones ramps up the difficulty compared to Shadow Dragon by limiting funding and weapons and replacing them with enough enemies to make the Battle of Pelennor Fields look like a fair fight. Unfortunately, the game seems to have made one offset too many. In spite of names like “Steel lance” and “silver sword,” enemy weapons seem to be forged entirely from noodles of varying degree of wetness. From the beginning, I had a character who wouldn’t take damage if he played a round of golf wearing full plate armor in a lightning storm, and he found himself in good company by the end of the game. While it had its moments, especially near the end of the game, several battles felt much like the Battle of Pelennor Fields if Gandalf had arrived at Minas Tirith with a truck full of AK-47s instead of a socially awkward hobbit. At times even it felt as though the true challenge of the game was leveling up. Unlike Shadow Dragon, Sacred Stones did offer chances to fight outside of of the main story campaign, but the game’s algorithm for assigning experience points didn’t seem to follow any pattern of current level, enemy’s level, or effectiveness of actions, but rather seemed more in line with the effects of locking a chimpanzee in a room with a bottle of whiskey and a dart board.

Fire Emblem - The Sacred Stones-Animal House Ending

Sacred Stones retains the series’ traditional Animal House style endings. The good-natured thief is the one who steals a horse…and puts it in the dean’s office.

Death, in real life, is almost as unforgiving as the girls I dated in high school and college. In video games, though, it’s about as debilitating as the check engine light on my car; it’s there, it worries me, but if I can usually go a little farther without completely bursting into flames, it’ll probably go away on its own at some point. Video game death naturally applies to all characters equally, with the exception of Fire Emblem, one character in any given Final Fantasy game, and that thirtieth guy in Contra. It is a rather unique mechanic, I have to say, because the concern for a character you’ve invested time and energy into can really change the game when he suddenly goes the way of your schnauzer who died when you were in fourth grade. The biggest difference, of course, being that you wear out your reset button about as much as you’d normally wear out your B button. Okay, maybe that’s considered cheating by some…in the way that offering to motorboat your female coworkers’ enormous racks might be considered sexual harassment by some…but I prefer to think of it as forcing me to learn the absolute best strategy for the situation. Resetting the game when a character dies. Not the motorboating things.

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Fire Emblem: Fates – 3DS

Fates

Enemies on opposing sides of a bitter conflict take a moment to squeeze everyone in to the photo.

Chess is a great game for those of us who like strategy and medieval combat, simple and elegant like an inbred European princess, and as timeless as the practice of marrying cousins to keep the bloodlines pure. But as the Lannisters and the Targaryens have shown us, that kind of simplicity sometimes results in abstractions that, well, make the game kind of weird. And to those of you who resent me comparing chess to inbreeding…how else do you get bishops so cross-eyed that they can only see things at diagonal angles? Personally, I can think of few things more obtuse than chess strategy, and I am literally subbing for a high school geometry teacher as I write this. So chess is great, but do you know what would make it better? Arming your pieces and making them fight to the death, rather than just grabbing and capturing each other like a bunch of child molesters in the ball pit at McDonald’s.

Fortunately, there’s an entire genre of video games that did just that. Among that genre is Fire Emblem, my newfound favorite series. And if you’ve ever thought, “Chess is great, but I wish we could turn it into more realistic medieval combat while keeping the creepy Harvey Weinstein sex offender aspects,” you’re not alone. You’re a goddamn pervert, but fortunately for you, there’s Fire Emblem: Fates, best described as a combination tactical strategy game and dating simulator.

Fates 2

When your sister really wants a wedding ring…

So up front, Fire Emblem Fates is actually available as three separate games, two available as physical games for the 3DS with the third as DLC for either of them, or for the low-low price of at least $110 on eBay, you can buy the special edition that contains all three on the same game cartridge. Despite the fact that Fire Emblem has always produced high-quality-yet-low-quantity games, thus ensuring prices never drop, it almost feels like Nintendo is taking their business philosophy directly from Luigi’s Mansion, and their entire marketing department is now issued cash-sucking vacuum cleaners.

But that being said…the game just might be worth the price. You play as Generic Faceless Protagonist, or GFP for short, who due to character customization never appears in pre-rendered cutscenes or is mentioned by name in the voice acting, though this is not as conspicuous as in Final Fantasy X and X-2 where the protagonist is so off-puttingly jock-ish that the entire cast goes two full games without caring to ask for his name. Quite the contrary, actually, GFP begins the story on a battlefield surrounded by more people calling him “brother” than if he had joined a 13th-century English monastery populated by African American monks. (Or, if you choose to play as a female, let’s go with lesbian nuns at a women-only burning man festival.) It turns out that your character was abducted from one royal family into another, and is early on presented with the choice of which family to side with in the middle of a war between them (or the third scenario being to side with neither).

Fates 4

The smug satisfaction one only gets from knowing that the privilege of your birth gives you the funds, the training, and the equipment it takes to eviscerate peasants like you’re carving a pumpkin.

This is where the game splits off into some deep, Rick-and-Morty style discussion of alternate time lines based on a single split decision, albeit with not as many fart jokes. Without intending to, Fates follows in the grand tradition of Groundhog Day, that one episode of the X-Files where Mulder has to prevent a bank robbery from going sour, and one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where they make self-aware references to the previous two. Next to a literary cannon like that, it’s not likely we’ll be studying Fire Emblem Fates along side William Shakespeare anytime soon, but the three alternate realities all provide GFP with key aspects of characters and elements of plot that raise intriguing questions on their own, but viewed alongside each other, the three plots create one uniquely told story as a collection of alternate moments, and that’s some hardcore, Kurt Vonengut Slaughterhouse V stuff right there, and if a novel about toilet plunger aliens putting a PTSD soldier in a zoo with a porn star can make it into the ranks of fine literature, then…wait…forget Fire Emblem. Let’s talk about the porn star zoo in English class!

Fates 5

…is that a euphemism?

Okay okay…I’ll get back to the game so as not to sound like I have the attention span of a brain damaged goldfish. Fire Emblem Fates does very little to change the traditional grid-based tactical/strategy genre. Bam. Game described. Well, they did remove the concept of weapon degradation for non-healing equipment, but charging into battle with a sword made from candy glass and a lance stamped “Made in China” never seemed like a brilliant military tactic for anyone who wanted to win anything other than a battle with gangrene. But basically, you can expect almost the same game play as with any other Fire Emblem, Shining Force, or Age of Empires. Of course, in the world of video game criticism, statements like, “Didn’t change a thing” or “Completely different from its predecessors” tend to come off as ambiguous, and not even funny ambiguous like the websites for “Pen Island” and “Therapist Finder,” but frustratingly ambiguous like a politician who condemns an opponent’s marital infidelities while dodging questions about the dead hookers in their car.Think of it in terms of Mega Man: a series of awesome games each with the unique individuality of a box of 1040-EZ tax forms. Except they’re not really identical, are they? Mega Man can only really pull off using bubbles as a weapon once or twice before he starts to look like a tomboyish six-year-old at a birthday party. Fire Emblem knows how to pull it off. Gameplay is perfect. Hell, if we hadn’t perfected Medieval warfare by the battle of Agincourt, there weren’t a lot of knew ways to hit people with sharpened bits of metal left to discover. It’s the scenarios, the maps, and the individual quirks of each campaign that make the game interesting.

Fates 3

I did…but I have to say you’re doing a lot to…ahem…raise my accuracy.

Well, that and the added feature that allows you to invite your units to your tree fort for a booty call. Honestly, I’m not sure if I should suggest that’s a surprisingly lax policy that makes used-panty vending machines look like relics from a conservative past long dead (like segregation, cotton plantations and Pat Robertson), a likely attempt to recruit soldiers turned off by Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, or a symptom of the new wave of authoritarian sexual harassment culture. The game warned me that I’d be able to marry one of my units (hehe…units), but it didn’t quite prepare me for how to do that. Just be prepared guys, if a girl asks you if you want to “proceed to S rank” with her, apparently that’s the new slang for getting hitched. Fortunately, all three of my wives seemed to be fine with me continuing my booty call habit, and even seemed to like it when I’d invite others back to the tree fort for what I assume were tree-ways.

Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon – Nintendo DS

Fire Emblem Box

I have never played a Fire Emblem game before, which surprises me, considering how much I enjoy games that let me order people to run around a field while enemy soldiers patiently stand there to get slaughtered as they await their turn. As a guy who gets about as much exercise as it takes to find a charger for my DS and then subsequently lifting the DS, I often like to pretend that I could take charge of Medieval combat and not immediately find myself impaled on the tusk of an any elephant in lederhosen, and what better way to learn strategy than by moving units one at a time across a perfectly ordered grid while everyone else on the field waits patiently for you to calculate risks that you can easily erase by loading your last save file?

Fire 4Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon tells the story of Marth, a young prince forced from his kingdom when an evil sorcerer, known as the Shadow Dragon, murders his father to steal his throne and his magical sword, Falchion. Fortunately, his pursuers allow him to bring one thing with him into exile: a well-equipped army of highly trained soldiers willing to stop at nothing to restore him to the throne. So Marth launches his campaign which consists of a series of macguffins and convoluted excuses for tactical medieval combat. After a handful of victories, Marth is awarded the titular Fire Emblem, which I assumed must have been pretty important to lend its name to the series. What could this be? Is it a supreme magical macguffin like the Triforce? Perhaps it grants Marth hero powers, such as in Age of Empires? Nope. It lets our hero open up treasure chests, thus allowing a single unit on the battlefield the ability to do what any standard RPG protagonist can do automatically and free of consequence in any dragon’s cave, king’s castle or stranger’s living room.

Fire 3Bearing a strong Shining Force vibe, Fire Emblem presents a simple, no-frills strategy game with everything you’d expect to find and very little else. Noteworthy features include an insane difficulty and a perma-death system rivaled only by the real world. It is a video game, so it does include some healing magic after all, but there’s only one resurrection item. In the penultimate level. That can only be used by a single character. Once. (Which by the time this entry posts is likely to be the Republican healthcare policy) This is, I gather, supposed to make me more considerate of my actions, more mindful of the risks and more hesitant to throw away lives on crazy maneuvers like I was shooting craps with someone else’s money. However, in practice it only makes me frustrated that there’s no option to re-load save files from the battle menu. At least they had the consideration to give me two opportunities per battle to save progress, lest the dozen or so hours I wasted on resets blossom into two dozen.

The series is known for its difficulty, and Shadow Dragon sticks to that reputation like a tube of epoxy impaled on a porcupine. But the game is organically difficult. It doesn’t take cheap shots. Fire Emblem’s challenge level is being a frustrated parent trying to resolve a fight between toddlers, while other games I’ve played are more like being a bathroom attendant trying to negotiate peace between Israel and Palestine. Often times the challenge stems from trying to hold yourself back rather than charging in, mages a-blazing. Knights, which have the same offensive and defensive stats as a refrigerator, make good bait, luring enemies into your attack zone, then sweeping forward with all your characters in a slow, methodical, buffet-line style of combat.

Fire 2The problem with this, though, is that much like a buffet line, some characters tend to pull more weight than others, and they tend to get rather large, while your other combatants whither away by comparison. Early on, the units who dealt more damage began to gather more experience than the defensive units, and the gap between them grew until the endgame when I waged war with one seasoned soldier, a dozen accountants, and three nuclear bear robots with Ginsu claws and laser eyes. Later stages often became a handful of heroes pushing their way through a crowd of people milling about in the middle of a freeway. It got rather tiresome trying to stash characters in safe places, but the mages generally had the firepower of a toaster cranked up to 3, and as far as I could tell the archers were just lobbing plates of wet spaghetti at the enemies.

Fire 1While mostly just a serving of vanilla strategy game, Fire Emblem has an interesting sugar cone underneath. All chests must be opened during battle, and of course those who are easily distracted by shiny objects while under assault will necessarily need to change their strategy. Furthermore, most characters must be obtained by fulfilling certain conditions in battle, such as rescuing them from death, schmoozing with villagers, or simply not killing key enemies. Unfortunately, if you’re anything like me, approaching people for conversation tends to be far more difficult than setting them on fire from a safe distance and hoping they die before expecting you to make small talk, so my ranks tended to grow slowly. Of course, there were also the moments when the game took pity on me as I stood shoulder deep in the corpses of my loyal followers, when it conveniently sent a ragtag group of scrappy fighters to help fill out my ranks without the least bit of concern for why Marth never bothered to learn their names.

In all, I arrived at the end of the game with literally nothing that could harm one of the primary antagonists, and the wise old sage just stared at me like I should probably wear a safety helmet with my cape instead of a crown. Fortunately, my complete incompetence didn’t forever kill any hope of progress like every date I went on in high school. It just changed how I fought the last few battles. Considering, I think I’d have a lot to gain and a completely different experience if I played the game a second time, which I think is a mark of a good game. I’m still not going to play it again, but the point stands that I could if I wanted to.

Age of Empires: Age of Kings – NDS

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If you’ve kept up with me for even a few months, you’ve probably noticed a pattern. I play a game, like it, and jump immediately to another game in the series. Or, perhaps, I hate the game and want to play something better. Either way, you can expect another Onimusha entry soon. Maybe another Castlevania, too. But not this week. This week I’ll jump back into the past and re-create historical battles without the need to tolerate people who truly believe the South will rise again. You may recall a few weeks ago when I wrote about Age of Empires: Age of Kings. I felt that between juggling the tasks of deforestation, trading resources like a gambling addict at the New York Stock Exchange, whipping lazy peasants like a plantation overseer, and constantly buffing out the hoof dents in and removing arrows from the skulls of my soldiers, I didn’t feel like I had any time to enjoy the game.  So when I finished–yes, and I also read all the way through Moby Dick. I abuse myself that way–I did what I could to rectify my frustration; I played through the turn-based Age of Kings on the Nintendo DS.

Yes, “turn-based.” The words reviewers always spit out like an angry dilophosaurus, meant to imply something infantile, unrealistic and boring, while still gives them an opening for lavishing praises on Mario, which really does play as infantile, unrealistic and boring.  Reviewers use the term “turn-based” to justify abandoning a Final Fantasy game after playing for thirty minutes and not getting a Call-of-Duty-esque rush of testosterone and a story premise they can sum up into ten words or less. If you haven’t yet picked up on the tone here, I don’t necessarily think games where the enemy patiently waits for you to bash in their teeth before they do unto you actually suffer directly because of that feature. Consider this retribution for panning Assassin’s Creed; now I have to defend something no one else likes. For starters, people who play chess and go take turns, and we commonly believe that geniuses play those games. Now think back to some of the real-time games you’ve played. Kingdom Hearts–do you ever use any strategy other than mashing the X button and occasionally healing? How about Smash Brothers or other fighting games. Do you actually know how to pull off the special moves, or do you just hit buttons and hope to get lucky?

Yup. Grid-based strategy. Like chess, but with trees and rivers.

Yup. Grid-based strategy. Like chess, but with trees and rivers.

See, players will usually do the simplest, easiest thing that accomplishes their goals. Real-time games usually give you a swift, basic attack that you can execute in a pinch. Think about it this way; a spider falls on you while taking a shower. Do you rationally think out a plan to improve the situation, or do you freak the hell out? Real-time games make players freak out. I don’t like that. I constantly have to explain to friends that button-mashing never works better than actually knowing how to play the game, and they never believe me, and then they play as Gannondorf and I play as Jigglypuff and I beat them into submission within moments. The PC version of Age of Kings employed the freak-out strategy, where building a proper economy, scoping out the terrain and developing a strategy often took a back seat to giving a sword to any man, woman, child, horse or hedgehog within sight and pushing them out one at a time to get slaughtered by the hoards of enemy Rohirrim Riding into my village, smashing and hacking and destroying everything in their path.

Wait...doesn't my advisor's name mean "Toilet" in Japanese?

Wait…doesn’t my advisor’s name mean “Toilet” in Japanese?

The DS game, however (to actually discuss today’s topic), gives you both the time to plan out a strategy and the need to do so. In addition to campaigns where you build towns and mine resources to support your army, this game gives you missions with a set number of non-renewable troops and tells you, “Go get ‘em, tiger!” And of course, attacking your enemy directly inevitably results in a wall of bodies–and not the useful kind, like in “300“–and a serious reflection as to your career choice of famous historical warlord. Different missions offer different objectives–destroy a town center, defeat an enemy hero, capture relics, build a tent for Genghis Kahn and make sure no one sets it on fire–and a number of ways to accomplish those tasks.

Hero units make the game. While in the PC version, you only ever took control of Joan of Arc, every mission in the DS game gives you control of a hero, and gives those heroes a number of special powers that effect game play. Joan of Arc can heal, Richard the Lionhearted can make his archers shoot farther, and Saladin will occasionally chip in a few coins to help you save up for that camel you’ve always wanted. Regular units, while only the monks and villagers have special commands, each have their own characteristics or abilities that tailor their uses to specific strategies. Archers can attack from a distance, preventing a counterattack, but if attacked at close range they have very low defense. Pikemen have less attack power than swordsmen, but deal more damage to cavalry. Cavalry deals a lot of damage to most things, but loses strength against buildings. This keeps the gameplay variable, and the bonuses and handicaps mostly feel intuitive, but sometimes come off a little weird. While I appreciate the challenges in ripping down a castle with your bare hands from the back of a camel, I find it difficult to understand how a rock hurled from a trebuchet can rip through that castle like tin foil, but an infantry unit can take the same blow and walk it off with only minor bleeding.

The game, of course, retains its titular feature, “Aging Up.” In campaigns that require economy building, your production lines turn out shabby, brand X fighters, and only by sinking money–and for some reason, food–into research each day can you expect to give them better weapons, stronger armor, or more efficient training. With enough research, a player can advance to the next “age,” beginning in the dark age, then progressing through the feudal, castle, and into the imperial age. With each new age, new buildings become available and new research opportunities along with them. In the feudal age, for example, you can build a blacksmith, which doesn’t create any units, but can improve weapons and armor for your existing soldiers. Likewise, by the time you reach the castle age, you can found–and underfund–your very own university, just like a real national governor.

Uhh...yep. More screenshots. Unfortunately, you don't often see much action.

Uhh…yep. More screenshots. Unfortunately, you don’t often see much action.

Age of Kings follows a historical path–sort of–for the five main heroes; Saladin, Minamoto Yoshitsune, Genghis Kahn, Joan of Arc, and Richard the Lionhearted. Occasionally it has to include a note here and there stating that Minamoto never actually fought the Mongols, that Richard never took Jerusalem, or that Joan of Arc didn’t really win all that many battles. I understand that not a lot of people out there nerd out over Medieval history, but I do, and as much as I appreciate science fiction and fantasy, game developers rarely realize that their products don’t have to fall into one of the two default categories. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include all that many historical re-creations, and the post-game falls short of expectations so hard I think I heard all its bones shatter. By accomplishing challenge goals in the main game, you can unlock extra maps and a few scenario battles to set up hypothetical and partially randomized campaigns to play through. However, all the heroes must have suffered a few too many blows to the head in the main game because even on the hardest settings, enemies often forget to build, research, age up, or attack. Not so much battles anymore, these campaigns have all the difficulty of erasing low-quality chalk off a chalkboard (you young ‘uns should think “dried up ink on a white board.” But then go find some chalk.) These additional campaigns serve only to wean me off the game while simultaneously looking toward Age of Empires: Mythologies, but in the interest of getting through this stack of games I bought by never played, you don’t have to worry for a while.

Shining Force II – Sega Genesis

You cannot pass!

You cannot pass!

Last year around this time I decided to indulge in a bucket list game of mine: Shining Force. Given the choice between all the options released for the Sega Genesis, I randomly decided to begin with the first title that bore the name, all the while hearing over and over from sources online that the sequel blew that game out of the water. So in the mood for an old-school RPG, I pulled out Shining Force II and prepared for it to impress me with…a game almost completely indistinguishable from the first. Don’t misunderstand me, the first Shining Force more than justifies the cost of a Sega Genesis. But I had hoped that the improvements touted across the internet might include a story not ground from the same petrified chunk of mammoth shit, or a menu system a little cleaner than a congressman’s after-hours activities. Sadly, the game fails to deliver on both counts.

Davey Jones?

Davey Jones?

Shining Force II centers around tactical role-playing. As the leader of the force, the hero, dubbed “Bowie” in all media except for the game itself, commands a cast of characters with rudimentary job classes, mostly determined by species. Centaurs come equipped with all the important parts of the horse, so they make good cavalry. Dwarves make good, stout, infantry, while elves tend to work best with ranged weapons. Still, so as the king can cite examples in opposition to passing any civil rights legislation, you’ll occasionally get magic-using elves or humans, a centaur with a bow, or some other such crossover. For the most part, classes only determine what type of weapon the character will use, or in the case of magic-users, their spells and MP. The game’s primary difference involves a cast of hidden characters, each with special requirements to fulfill before they’ll join you. Furthermore, while all your characters should receive a promotion at level 20, you can promote some (apparently) to alternative classes. On both counts, I can’t say for sure whether or not I unlocked any of these, since even the main story often fails to clarify the steps you need to take to advance.

But we don't have the courtesy to do this during battle, of course.

But we don’t have the courtesy to do this during battle, of course.

The story begins with a careless thief (but one with a good heart!) unsealing an ancient Devil on Granseal island. This demon unleashes his hosts upon the world. They possess one king, try to kill another, suck the princess into an alternate dimension, and somehow embed two jewels into Bowie’s neck. Shaking off this pretty intense body modification as no more than modest bling, Bowie sails with the other survivors to the continent in order to found a new Granseal. He meets a phoenix named Peter who somehow becomes an important character, they travel around, do…stuff…and somehow they find the Peruvian Nazca drawings in this fantasy world otherwise unrelated to Earth, fly back to the island, and face off against a host of devils, demons, cliches, and WTFs.

Ah, yes, a translation to rival the works of Hemmingway, Milton, and Chaucer

Ah, yes, a translation to rival the works of Hemmingway, Milton, and Chaucer

Much like the previous game, the plot serves as an engine (albeit a badly tuned engine with a few pistons not firing and the “check” light constantly blinking on the dash) to get players from one battle to the other as fast as possible. While many games of this era can defend themselves with the “poorly translated” argument, Shining Force II has a special kind of bad writing that you only see when both the writer and the translator habitually abuse strong narcotics. The kind of writing that, while not overtly suggestive, makes dialog such as “They took my jewels” and “Don’t touch it! I’ll shake you off” sound like they lifted it right out of Leisure Suit Larry. One of the primary cliches–I mean, antagonist with a heart of gold who joins you after a major epiphany–suffers from one of the worst mistransliterations I have ever seen; rather than squaring off against the valiant Baron Ramon, the game expects you to take seriously repeated encounters with a villain named Lemon. However, I think I’ll grant my coveted Drunken Developer award to the end of the game where they can only break the curse on the sleeping princess with yet another cliche, and the characters hold a meeting to choose which one can deliver the true love’s kiss. While I never doubted for an instant that Bowie would get all the action here, they actually disappointed me by suggesting your healer–the blue-haired, sparkly-eyed elven priestess–could have possibly broken the curse, and then didn’t follow through on that.

Honestly, until that point, I didn’t think any of the characters had an inkling of personality behind them. They join your party out of the blue and fade into obscurity almost as quickly. To save space (presumably) on the cartridge, battle menus display character classes as four-letter abbreviations, such as RNGR, PGNT, RDBN, and SDMN, which I can only assume stand for Ringer, Pageant, Robber Barron and Sadomasochist, respectively.

Squid!!

Squid!!

 

The battle system helps this game stand on its own. Battles occur on the map, but like the first game they switch to an isometric animated environment whenever a character acts. Like any other tactics game, characters have a certain distance they can move per turn, each attack has its own range and effect areas, and different attacks seem to affect enemies differently. The limited number of attacks and the inability to customize characters make it a very rudimentary strategy game, but it plays well and forces you to think about your actions (even at one point dropping you onto a chess board and making you fight the pieces). Unlike the first game, you can freely explore the map and return to areas previously visited. Rather than having a set number of battles, they’ve introduced random encounters, which always seem to follow the same presets–kind of a nice gesture, I guess, but since you retain any experience when you die, it really makes level grinding unnecessary unless you really need some quick cash.

The system for awarding exp, though, leaves a lot to the imagination. The amount you earn after each attack seems about 10% dependent on whether the attack connected or missed, 10% on whether it defeated the enemy, and 80% on whether the game feels like giving you only 1 exp. Also on my list of criticisms, I’d like to add that I enjoyed the opportunity to explore the map (on account of having that option in every RPG released since the 1980s.), but the game didn’t always clarify where to go or what to do. At all. I felt good when I got a cannon and read that it could destroy rocks while also remembering a rock from halfway back to the beginning of the game that blocked my path. However, when I got there: nothing. Only by looking up a walkthrough did I learn it wanted me to backtrack to New Granseal and talk to a random guy outside the weapon shop in order to get ammunition. And while the game should take the blame for not giving me so much as a hint, I end up looking like a dumbass who tried to shoot a gun with no bullets.

Should I mock the mass of amalgamated hair, or the softball stuffed down her dress?

Should I mock the mass of amalgamated hair, or the softball stuffed down her dress?

But I have to look really hard for those flaws; while I appreciate a strong story, I can look past that to see the strong gameplay. I can’t comment on the music since I turned the sound off and played the game while watching seasons 3-5 of Dexter–all the while, of course, not missing out on storyline for Shining Force. Looking back at last year’s entry on the original game, I did the same thing with the sound. Losing track of how many times I compared the two games, I can say confidently that Shining Force II really stands out as an excellent jewel (hehe) of a game; I just disagree with the assessment that it surpasses the first.

Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria – PS2

Our non-valkyrie protagonist, protagonisting

Our non-valkyrie protagonist, protagonisting

Imagine the worst thing a video game has ever done to you. What games did you invest time and money in only for them to pull some dick move on you, probably leaving you swearing at the top of your lungs at the TV screen? If you finish Jurassic Park for the SNES, you get a delightful little non-ending that consists of the loading screen playing in reverse, which after a team of friends and myself spent an entire night of caffeine, headaches and dial-up internet walkthroughs to do, left me with an empty feeling, much like waking up next to a prostitute hungover and broke, except without the exciting evening to balance it out. Or one of Anne’s favorites; spending hours early on in a game going through side-quests, leveling up to the ultimate attacks, finding the ultimate weapon, and then the game murdering the character and taking with it all the equipment, experience, and precious moments of your finite life span along with it. Final Fantasy, Legend of Dragoon, take your pick. This one happens often enough. How about forced stealth, babysitting missions, or quick time events?

Full disclosure: I might give away some integral plot points of Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria, but I refuse to call them spoilers. See, to spoil something implies that it began with a certain level of freshness, but this game holds the record for most rotten-to-the-very-center-of-its-being of any game I’ve ever played.  If Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Jesus and Buddha collaborated to breath life into this game to make it human, it would still back over your cat with a humvee and then try to console you by saying, “At least it wasn’t a dog.”

Release the Kraken! Because apparently Norsemyth doesn't have enough monsters to keep us interested?

Release the Kraken! Because apparently Norsemyth doesn’t have enough monsters to keep us interested?

The first time I played this game, I swore I’d never do so again. I lived in a studio apartment and had to apologize to my neighbors for regular disturbances as I screamed profanities that would offend sailors at the top of my lungs. Hours upon hours of my life spent leveling up to plow through impossible enemies would vanish into oblivion as a clunky game mechanic would have my party trip over a blade of grass, leaving the nearby monsters to drive them into the mud like lawn darts. After figuring out from Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth that the game innovated RPG combat to stress set-up and strategy over power-leveling and high stats, I realized I simply didn’t know how to play the game right before. As it turns out, I rather enjoy the games combat system and find it highly engaging, much like the system for The World Ends With You, which I’ve found amazing ever since hoisting myself to the top of the learning curve with a few crampons and a good length of dental floss to use for rope.

No, to get to the real, black, shriveled prune of a heart of why this game laughs in the face of all who dare to play it, you have to examine the things the game designers did intentionally. For starters, for a game that claims to profile a Valkyrie, it spends very little time doing so, in favor of constantly introducing new characters with no relevance on the plot in the least. I didn’t often appreciate the half-hour long snooze-fests that introduced einherjar in VP: Lenneth, but Silmeria swung the opposite direction, introducing dozens of playable einherjar with no backstory whatever except for an entry in the status screen. They have no effect on the plot, but the game expects you to play with them and level them up anyway for the sole purpose of transferring their souls…well, maybe not to Valhalla due to Silmeria’s war with Odin…but to somewhere not nearby your party. Yes, by transferring them you get an item that permanently increases any characters stats, but it seems like time spent leveling up useless characters would help more if you spent it on the main characters of the story.

Our titular valkyrie, not valkyrie-ing

Our titular valkyrie, not valkyrie-ing

Speaking of which, you only really get two. Well, maybe one and a half, since the protagonist spends half the game possessed by the spirit of Silmeria. See, at the critical act one climax, you lose all your main characters–permanently–except for two, except Silmeria’s spirit goes on to bigger and better things. So you better hope you have some einherjar left over, especially a mage, because you never get them back!  Sure, the plot gives them back to you, but the game has changed their stats and attack patterns enough that you can’t call them the same person once you get back into combat, sort of the games way of saying, “Sorry I ran over your cat with a humvee, but I’ll give you a coupon for a free pizza to make it up to you.” Without Silmeria, you have no power to call einherjar, so if you had set them all free–like I did the first time I played–you may find yourself drastically shorthanded for the rest of the game. Then, for whatever reason, the game gives you a slew of playable characters literally in the final dungeon. In fact, by the time you actually get to see and play as Silmeria, you’ve already explored 74% of that level.

But perhaps the worst offense of all, VP: Silmeria reunites you with your trusty mage, a major playable character, a powerful magic user, and a Harry Potter impersonator, for one dramatic battle with Odin…and then leaves your party permanently to become the game’s end boss. Also, his lust for Lenneth, a character mentioned only once before, motivates everything he does. So…really, I don’t entirely know what Silmeria has to do with anything.

Just a little cranky. Apparently he lost all purpose in life after killing Voldemort

Just a little cranky. Apparently he lost all purpose in life after killing Voldemort

But really, the story lacks the cohesiveness of a wet post-it note, surpassing its predecessor for scattered, irrelevant, and unexplained plot points. It seems like Enix intended to make this sequel as they wrote the original, and they do connect a number of plot points and locations together, even if they don’t feel compelled to include explanation or reasonable motivation for characters’ actions. I could have connected with and found interest in the villain, had they ever decided to explain his obsessive crush on Lenneth, but they don’t even give us as feeble a reason as “has a thing for platinum haired vixens.” Furthermore, it seems highly unlikely that anyone crazy enough that Hannibal Lecter, Jack Torrence and the Joker want to keep a healthy distance would have the wits to put up an intelligent, rational and friendly facade for the majority of the story. Several characters from VP: Lenneth make appearances here, but the game never bothers to explain how they exist in both the Ragnarok-era of Lenneth and the ancient past of Silmeria. Near the end of the game, they throw some very elegant prose at you that I may have found slightly more moving had they ever bothered to establish some sort of theme or direction for the story. Then they try to explain some stuff about an alternate history, how these events happen after Ragnarok for Lenneth and the villain who have traveled through time, but before Ragnarok for everyone else and…honestly, they lost me.

Even a major antagonist takes priority over Silmeria on the box art.

Even a major antagonist takes priority over Silmeria on the box art.

For all its flaws, I don’t want to condemn the game to the coldest, darkest region of Hel quite as much as I did the last time I played it.  As I mentioned before, I feel they revolutionized RPG combat–or would have, had anyone figured it out. Rather than focusing on fighting enemies, gaining experience, buying stronger weapons, and fighting more enemies, the monsters throw challenges at you. You have only a few menu options, and can’t use more than a single spell or item every so often, but it gives you choices to make that you don’t commonly find in these games; do you want to split up your party into two groups to distract an enemy? Would magic or physical attacks do more damage here? Do you need to take out smaller enemies, or can you go directly to killing the leader? While the main maps, oddly enough, give the player only two dimensions to work with, combat maps switch to a 3D perspective where monsters and players alike move across terrain, trying to avoid getting taking hits.

An insipid, directionless story, but beautifully rendered.

An insipid, directionless story, but beautifully rendered.

Furthermore, the care they neglected when writing the story obviously went into rendering the characters, cut scenes, and scenery. You’ll have plenty of eye candy for those moments your attention wanders off of the vapid plot.

And, thankfully, they got rid of the sushi bars. Influenced by Norse myth or not, that just didn’t make sense.

Shining Force – Sega Genesis, Game Boy Advance

When you wish upon a copyright infringement lawsuit...

When you wish upon a copyright infringement lawsuit…

Let’s have a quick word about how to increase endgame difficulty.  You want the game to feel more challenging near the end.  That way it works toward a climax, following a natural plot arc.  Some games do this better than others.  For instance, some bosses fight with status attacks.  Others will introduce bosses as random enemy encounters.  Valkyrie Profile II demanded I use the level 64 character they introduce for the final battle when even the easy enemies can vaporize all my level 90 characters like a meteor entering the earth’s atmosphere. Still, most games will bump up the level or stats of endgame enemies to give them a slight edge over the player.

However, raising the enemies’ evade rates doesn’t accomplish this as much as the Shining Force developers seemed to think it did.  Watching characters swipe the air like an epileptic in a dance club feels less exciting than, say, going outside and slashing bushes with foam pool noodles or watering your lawn with a water pistol.  This contributes to slowing the pace of a tactics game in which most battles start with bottlenecking your characters or putting them so far from the enemies that, if they worked together, they could measure the speed of light.

...have we met?

…have we met?

Not that they would do that, mind you, because like many mill-ground fantasy stories, Shining Force weighs itself down with themes like “Light is good” and “Dark is bad.”  The game opens with the formulaic war-between-two-countries-with-a-supernatural-threat-looming-vaguely-on-the-horizon.  The rival military general shows up looking like he dumped a life-size Wooly Willy set over his head and kills the king.  On his deathbed, the King gives you the order to form the Shining Force and defeat the darkness.  Light good.  Dark bad.  The enemy leader calls himself Darksol and he plans to resurrect the ancient Dark Dragon (who is neither dark, nor a dragon).

Would I be asking too much for a well-written fantasy story that doesn’t draw morally unconflicted characters in a black-and-white scenario?  I thought about rewriting that last sentence to get around using the phrase “black-and-white.”  Why do we have to associate black and white with evil and good?  I don’t know about anyone else, but I find a bit of darkness rather pleasant when I’m trying to sleep, or sneak up on a ninja or get dressed in a room full of people.  A little more subtle conflict might make a more interesting story.  In fact, for most of the game I turned off the music (which didn’t prevent it from echoing in my head like The Master’s drums) and listened to a Jim Butcher audiobook in order to get a good fantasy story. The bulk of the plot just involves moving from one excuse to start a battle to the next.  In fact, at one point, after fighting a hoard of monsters outside of a town, the man at the gate casually remarks, “Sorry about that.  We thought you were someone else,” at which point I just tip my hat, wish him good morning, and waltz on by as though I’m not headed to a priest to resurrect my comrades murdered as a casualty of mistaken identity.

Shining Force-000001While it seems like they wrote the story in as much time as it took to look up a formula and transcribe it into the game, Shining Force does have strong points.  The game centers on battles–and when I say “centers,” it also rights, lefts, ups and downs on it too.  Don’t expect side quests or even random enemy encounters–all battles are programmed and static–but the strategy aspect makes up for the minimalist approach to this RPG.  I enjoyed FF Tactics more than many of Final Fantasy’s main-series installments, and Shining Force feels like a somewhat simplified version of Tactics.  Battles take place on a grid map, characters have different classes that affect their stats and the range of attacks, and while they can’t switch between them like FFT’s job system allowed, they can receive a “promotion” to a slightly better class once they reach level 10.

I can also praise the game for allowing the player to keep any exp they earned in battles they lost.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken an unexpected turn for the worst, then realized “I haven’t saved in an hour!”  Those moments make me acutely aware that time only moves in one direction, and that I’ve wasted hours careening toward death in front of the TV with nothing to show for it.  Shining Force, however, lets you stay at your new level, making the next round a little easier.  Although they probably included this to let players level-up in a game with no random encounters, I’d appreciate seeing this feature more often in RPGs.

New menu box . . . every time. . . can't stand it...but at least inventory management isn't as bad as in Skyrim.

New menu box . . . every time. . . can’t stand it…but at least inventory management isn’t as bad as in Skyrim.

While I appreciate the fast pace after playing some interminably slow Zelda games, I do have a complaint about the menu system, in which the player flips through single options box-by-box, resurrecting characters one at a time, transferring single items from character to character, purchasing and equipping items one-by-one, and needing to open a new menu and flip through all the options each time.  With Final Fantasy V already on the shelves for a full year, you’d think some of the programmers would figure out, “Wow! RPG menus don’t have to be complete shit!”

Like Final Fantasy Tactics, characters level up upon completing actions in battle, which again I mostly support.  However it leads to a common problem of healers never leveling up because they don’t act as much as any of the other characters.  Another option to gain experience might help.  At least in FF Tactics I could bounce rocks off my comrades’ heads until I had enough MP and JP to learn support spells.  Shining Force doesn’t give even that much.  I went into the final battle without effective cure spells because my healer was less than half the level of some of my other characters.

But don’t let the flaws get in the way of enjoying the game.  I made it through in about a week and a half, never feeling like the pacing dropped much, and only encountering minor frustration at whiffle battling enemies with high evade rates.  I finished the game feeling I enjoyed it very much, and look forward to the sequel.  Which I won’t play right away. Maybe some shorter games first.

Until this point in the game, they called him "Kane"

Until this point in the game, they called him “Kane”

A few notes before I leave, Shining Force has also been published for the Game Boy Advance, although it has a new subtitle, “Rise of the Dark Dragon.”  While I didn’t play that version, word on the net says they improved the translation massively and may have resolved some of the plot vacancies I mentioned earlier.