Thursday, October 29, 2015

Game Review - Whispering Willows (Xbox One, 2015)

I love adventure games, but they're hard to get right.  The quality of such a game comes down to its storytelling.  Adventure games can focus on developing an exciting universe to explore because that's all they do - the gameplay focuses on learning about the world, so an adventure game thrives or dies on the back of its world building.

Whispering Willows comes so close to presenting a truly enthralling world, with a beautiful art style and a decent hook, but it just misses because the story isn't quite up to snuff and the puzzles aren't very puzzling.  Here's what you can expect:

The Basics
Whispering Willows opens with one of the most rapid-fire cinematics I've ever seen.  Elena, the game's protagonist, wakes from a nightmare showing her father in danger and runs to a dilapidated mansion looking for him.  She quickly learns that her father's amulet, which she was naturally carrying with her, grants a unique power - with it, her spirit can leave her body and explore the nearby area, able to speak with other spirits along the way.

From there, Elena must uncover the history of the mansion and its occupants to find her father and, well, save the day.

The Good
That's probably one of the less enjoyable ways to go...
First off, the game looks fantastic.  The animation and art style are both nearly perfect, giving a great level of detail to the areas you'll explore and the spirits you'll meet.  In fact, one of the coolest features is that you can see how people died by examining their disembodied spirits - mangled bodies and severed limbs tell stories on their own.

The "changing forms" mechanic is also pretty cool, as it gives each area two layers of possible exploration.  It isn't exploited very much, but it was neat to have both options.

The Bad
Unfortunately, the list of the game's misses is quite a bit longer.

The biggest flaw?  Your first playthrough can easily be completed within 3 hours, and that includes a fair amount of wasted time fumbling around while looking for the next piece of a puzzle. On top of that, there is absolutely no replay value (once you've figured everything out, there's nothing left to do), so you're looking at a game worth only a couple hours of entertainment.

To be fair, a short game can still be mindblowingly good (the original Portal comes to mind), but the story doesn't have nearly the depth necessary to pass that threshold.

Yep, those are nasty, zombified arms. I'd imagine it smells pretty bad, too.
Another big problem is that there aren't really any true puzzles.  With three exceptions, every task in the game is essentially a fetch quest - you only need to find the next relevant item (which is always just sitting somewhere) to keep going.  You don't have to dive into the lore to figure out where something is hidden or piece together multiple characters' stories to find the solution to a riddle.  Of the three challenges I'd consider puzzles, two are almost trivial, and the third is frustrating in that it doesn't work quite the way I expected (though it's still very simple).

Basically, the gameplay lacks that integration into world building that makes the greatest adventure games good.

Finally, the story leaves quite a bit to be desired.  It's told almost exclusively through diary pages you find scattered throughout the game.  There's nothing wrong with that particular format, but it's pretty poorly written - probably 80% of the text is written using simple sentences, so it feels very dry and monotonous.  That simplicity in writing also means that none of the characters have different voices, so there's nothing distinguishing about the way various characters speak or write.

Suiting up.
The plot itself is fine, and I had fun trying to figure out what was going on along the way.  I think some of the major points were a little more obvious than the developers intended, but it was still decently interesting.  With better writing, though, it could have been so much better.

One final complaint: the game is riddled with unusually long loading screens.  Given that it's not graphically complex, it is downright shocking that it can take up to 10 seconds to transition from one small area to the next, and there are so many of these transitions that loading screens make up a decent chunk of the 3-hour game time.

The Neutral
Sound quality is really the only thing I haven't mentioned, and it's... fine.  The opening theme is appropriately eerie and evokes a nice supernatural feel, but nothing beyond that really stands out.  It's good enough not to detract from the experience, but it doesn't enhance it, either.

And I don't have much else to say about Whispering Willows.  If you can get the game on a dramatic sale, it might be a decent introduction to adventure games for novices of the genre.  Otherwise, it's probably best to avoid it.

My Rating: 3/10 - bad.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Game Review - Final Fantasy Type-0 HD (Xbox One, 2015)

Every longtime gamer has ample experience with the ever-growing list of cardinal sins of game design.  The most recent addition may be invasive microtransactions, but the classics are still a problem: awkward escort missions, forced level or item grinding, unskippable cutscenes, and the like.

It seems like the developers of Final Fantasy Type-0 randomly picked some of these terrible design elements and built them into their game.  Type-0 is rife with such moments, with tedious segments outnumbering the admittedly fun action RPG missions.

In short, Type-0 is baffling and frustrating.

If you're interested in hearing why it's such an annoying game, read on.

The Basics
Type-0 is absolutely not what I would have expected from a game bearing the "Final Fantasy" name.

It opens in the midst of a full-scale invasion - the Militesi Empire bears down on the Dominion of Rubrum, and the fight appears to futile.  This cinematic sets a somber tone, as corpses litter the streets and the first character to speak slowly dies in a pool of blood.  I can't remember any other Final Fantasy cutscenes that even approach this level of intensity.

You then take control of a few members of "Class Zero," an elite group of 15 Dominion cadets tasked with precision missions - the Dominion's "Special Forces," if you will.  As you repel Imperial forces, you learn that the Empire's initial dominance was due in part to magic-inhibiting crystals that bizarrely didn't affect your party.

Oh look, most of the characters are named after playing cards. Cute.
As with most games, this introductory mission sets the stage for both the story and the gameplay.

What follows is a game broken into three basic categories - action missions, real-time strategy missions, and exploration and side quests.  It is unlike typical RPGs in that these three elements are completely distinct; you cannot blend objectives together, as you can only take on one side quest at a time, and you must complete side quests before tackling the next mission.  In this sense, Type-0 feels much more like a series of levels than a real RPG experience.

The action missions make up the bulk of the game.  Before each one, you will choose which of your cadets will join the "reserve" forces, and then you'll pick three to be your primary party.  As characters fall in combat, you can call in reinforcements from your reserves, making for dynamic battles.  Like many games these days, pulling up the menu doesn't pause the action, so you have to be quick with item usage in the midst of battle.

That Trooper is screwed.
During these action missions, you control one of your active characters (though you can switch between them at will), running around the battlefield and executing up to four unique abilities, each of which are bound to a face button on the controller.  While this setup restricts your in-game abilities somewhat (no complex combat system here), there is a fair amount of customization that goes into your preparation for battle - you can unlock a ton of skills for each character, and you get to choose which four they'll take on each mission.

RTS missions are sprinkled in occasionally, though they are usually skippable, which is kind of nice.  Similar to action missions, you'll select a group of cadets for your reserves, but this time, you'll choose one active character to run around the world map.  While there, allied and enemy towns and encampments will spawn units and send them towards another outpost.  When opposing units meet, they'll fight to the death, and units approaching towns will attack to lower stationary defenses.

Using your character, you can fight enemy units to open windows for allied units to invade an outpost, or you can issue orders to a friendly encampment instructing them to make different units or send those units to a different destination (sometimes. I couldn't quite figure out what circumstances would allow me to issue these orders).  Once your units deal with a major city's defenses, you can then invade that city, transitioning to a brief action mission sequence.

Issuing orders for global domination.
All things considered, Type-0 has some interesting mechanics, but the execution is questionable at best.  Let's start by looking at some of the game's problems.

The Bad
I think the biggest and most consistent problem with Type-0 is the storyline.  Like most Final Fantasy games, it leans heavily on exposition in various cinematics, but the story is much too convoluted to be truly gripping.

Here's the problem: you have 15 main characters right from the start.  Fifteen.  This means that there is virtually no opportunity for character development, so it's hard to get invested in the conflict.

On top of that, there are dozens of secondary characters, most of which are also not given substantial screen time.  In addition to the Dominion and the Empire mentioned above (and to be honest, it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out which was which), there's an Alliance and a Kingdom, and it's rarely clear who comes from which organization.

To give a more concrete idea of the problems here, I had no idea who was friend or foe for at least half the game.  The brief appearances by generals and politicians all set off my "bad guy" detection, and they throw proper nouns around all the time.  There are dozens of relevant characters, locations, and stories, but it's all dumped on you so rapidly and with so little explanation that it's damn near impossible to keep up.

And to top it all off, the final chapter comes completely out of nowhere.  The first 30 or so hours of the game all lead up to a climax that fizzles out in favor of something else entirely.

If I had to summarize the plot in one word: baffling.  It's just terrible storytelling.

The gameplay is a bit better but still has significant flaws.

The RTS segments are miserable.  You move uncomfortably slowly on the world map, so the entire thing feels sluggish.  It can also get frustrating as quick movements could often allow for clean sweeps of enemy bases, but you instead fall behind because you couldn't bolster allied units on the other side of the conflict.  Add the previously-mentioned unapparent conditions for issuing orders, and you end up with a frustrating mess of what could have been a cool minigame.

Why allied units are tinted red is beyond me...
Exploration and side quests are another great source of frustration.  I mentioned above that you can only take on one side quest at a time (seriously?), but the worst part of these inter-mission sequences is that they are timed: you're only allowed a certain number of interactions (including little conersations with NPCs and leaving the main town).  Putting that kind of restriction on exploration really dampens it; you have an incentive not to thoroughly explore the game's world.  Neutering exploration and discovery that way killed my desire to investigate the world.

Another problem with the intermissions is that many of the side quests are way harder than the main missions.  Yeah, some of them are called "Expert Trials," but they sometimes come with recommended levels 20 or so higher than the following story mission.  Perhaps those missions are intended to be challenges for your New Game+ playthrough, but their presence in your first go is offputting - it either feels like you're not able to access a decent chunk of the content, or it pressures you to power level.  Neither of those scenarios feels particularly good.

In fact, if you don't spend time grinding out levels between story missions, you may find yourself woefully underleveled.  The game features a particularly nice way of leveling up, which I'll get to in the "good" section of the review, but feeling like you have to grind to continue is always miserable.

I took about 35 hours to complete the game; roughly 10 of those were dedicated to grinding levels so I could progress.  I imagine you can see the problem.

For the record, Mog is only moderately less annoying than Navi.
For all the other problems, the action missions are pretty solid.  The lock-on mechanic and controlling the camera can be tricky to master, but that's pretty standard with third-person action games.  Battles can also start to get somewhat repetitive, but it's not the worst thing in the world.

Unfortunately, the list of good elements of Type-0 is quite a bit shorter.

The Good (Or Good Enough)
Camera issues aside, the action missions are decent fun. While overwhelming from a story perspective, the abundance of characters makes for a fair amount of diversity in gameplay.  Each of the 15 protagonists wields a different type of weapon and has different magical capabilities, so you get some customization by choosing the character that best fits your playstyle.  It can be exceptionally frustrating when your preferred character dies on a mission, but it's a nice angle nonetheless.

Another cool mechanic is the "killsight."  Sometimes, while locked onto an enemy, they will have an icon appear on top of them, usually during or just after they execute an attack.  If you manage to land a hit while that icon is on screen, you will immediately dispatch weaker enemies or deal massive damage to larger ones.

These killsights add a bit of ebb and flow to combat; instead of wailing indiscriminately, you are often better suited to time strikes to maximize damage.  The timing windows are often fairly narrow, which can be tricky with some of the slower characters, so there's a bit of a learning curve to get it all right, but it gives the fights a fun vibe overall.

To mitigate some of the misery of the repetitive grinding, you can replay missions from the main menu at any time.  Any items or experience you accumulate on those replays will persist in your save file, so you're not trapped balancing the between-mission timer with your attempts to avoid unspeakable defeat in the next mission.  It's annoying that such a leveling system is necessary, but it's better than any alternative.

And honestly, that's it when it comes to gameplay.  Lots of other ideas are kinda neat (like the RTS missions), but they're so poorly executed that I'm not sure if anything beyond the concept is worthwhile.

Mid-cinematic. Look at those textures!
On the superficial end of things, the audiovisuals are... ok.  The HD version of Type-0 is a remastering of a PSP game, so it's not surprising that the graphics aren't groundbreaking, but they aren't particularly chunky or garish, either.  The soundtrack is pretty good, with a few sweet tunes along the way, but nothing overly memorable.  And the voice acting is acceptable.  Each of the main characters has a fair amount of, well, character, but again, they're so poorly developed that there's not much of an opportunity for an awesome performance.

And that's it.  Type-0 doesn't even feel like a bunch of failed potential, it just seems like a ton of design mistakes that distract from otherwise decent primary gameplay.  I can't really recommend it because it requires a huge time investment for only minor returns in entertainment.

My Rating: 3/10 - bad.