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Picked up the new Dragon Quest game yesterday, along with a new DS. My third, if you’re wondering. Thanks, Nintendo. Great build quality. Keep up the good work, you bastards.

Some thoughts:

Gosh, it’s pretty. The world’s in 3D, as are your characters, and NPCs for the most part are sprites. It works. Environments are wonderful, etc etc. I don’t like Dragon Ball, but I really like the character designs here. Look at those peeps up there! Adorable, great eyebrows and they’re far better than in say, Chrono Trigger. I’ve yet to find a character named after food or underwear, but I’m sure there’s at least one. This just wouldn’t be a Toriyama joint if there wasn’t. Basically, Level 5 can make a very good-looking DS game, even when they’re not especially good. They work better with other people’s IPs and oversight, I think, and Square Enix seem to have done a very good job, not that I think that was ever really in question. Dragon Quest is, let’s say, an important franchise for them. They can make a good game when they bother, and it all feels very expensive.

The battle system is a fairly simple turn-based affair, which is how I like it. None of this Active Time nonsense, and it hurtles along at a fair pace. Battles are well-animated, with characters running around all over, hitting things with a decent sense of impact and judicious use of slow motion. It’s a nice change from the whack-the-air routine of old, which really didn’t work in 3D games like, say, the DS Final Fantasy remakes.

Speaking of Final Fantasy, this is so much more pleasant than that. I’ve yet to get bored of fighting Cruelcumbers and Meow-gicians, the world is colourful and varied, and the translation is wonderful. The story is, so far, more straightforward than any Final Fantasy game I’ve played, but that doesn’t mean it’s not affecting. You’re an angel, cast down from heaven. There’s nothing much wrong (again, so far) with the world you’re in, it isn’t ending. Kingdoms aren’t really in peril, but something might be wrong in the world you’ve been thrown out of. So the melancholia comes from a sense of abandonment and loss, rather than danger or tragedy. It’s refreshing for a game like this. At the moment, the quest is to attract the attention of your long-gone God, which is nicely poignant. You save by going to confession. I gather that’s a Dragon Quest convention?

Religion up the bum, by the way. Such is the Square way. Up the bum.

Party members are customisable and interchangeable, which I really like. There’s something I really like about going through a game with characters I’ve made. Knowing that no-one else has quite the same Warrior as me – his name’s Caleb, by the way – really gets me. For me it absolutely makes up for an absence of character, and that’s just how I roll. I’m still getting used to all the classes. Priests seem a lot more physical than I’m used to, sort of a combination of Final Fantasy priests and monks. So healing spells and buffs, but also punching. Hitting things with a wand steals MP, which is good. It means there’s a point to hitting things as a mage, and I can also envisage using a strong melee character to neutralise magic users by getting rid of their mana. My main character’s a minstrel, although I think that’s randomly chosen. I thought perhaps that meant she was basically a bard, but I haven’t learned any, y’know, songs or stuff. I’m not really sure what the minstrel is good at, but she can breathe fire. That sir, is the absolute coolest. She’s called Dani, by the way. What? Don’t you judge me.

A few niggles. Having to go see a priest to check how much experience I need (Divination! Get it? Eh?) to level up is a pain. Just show me that stuff, people, come on. Maybe my priest will at some point be able to show that? I hope so. Also, Don’t show the experience I gain at the end of a battle on the bottom screen, and the money on the top. I tap through that stuff fast, and it doesn’t sound like it would be annoying, but trust me. It is.

My only major worry is that perhaps it’s a little easy. I’m not really sure what level of player I am, on your Amateur to Professional scale. Dilettante? Anyway, it’s all very pleasant, but I’m not being challenged. However, I am informed that, after five hours and 193 battles, I’ve only seen 8% of the enemies. Jury’s out on that one, then.

Anyway, it’s good! You have a fairy, and she drives a flying train! Yes!

I’ll admit, I still haven’t quite finished Chrono Trigger, despite how much I like it. The reason for this minor tragedy is Atlus RPG Etrian Odyssey, published here in Europe by Nintendo in June of last year (Over a year after the US release). It’s proving to be quite the  time sink.Etrian Odyssey

Etrian Odyssey is an RPG of the first person dungeon-crawler variety, in which you lead your band of adventurers down into a mysterious underground forest, to get items needed up top and to figure out why on earth the forest, dubbed the Yggdrasil Labyrinth (The “which-religion-shall-we-steal-from” wheel of fortune Japanese developers all seem to have this time apparently landing on Old Norse), is even there. Other than that, so far there’s no real story to speak of, which I don’t really regard as a bad thing in this case. I am content to be a delivery boy, fetching Holy Water for an old man who can’t really venture into the labyrinth anymore. It’s kind of refreshing not to be expected to save the world.

The lack of any substantial story extends to your characters as well. You choose everything about your party, including their names, classes, attributes and character portraits. This gives a real sense of  attachment to your group, and I felt some real discomfort watching my dorkily named avatars fall one by one to one of the super-hard enemies, or F.O.E.s that litter the forest. And believe me, this happens a lot. Etrian Odyssey is old school hard, which works well, as the only barrier to how far you can venture into the dungeon is whether or not you can actually survive, so there’s an amazing sense of accomplishment as you hack your way into a part of the dungeon through monsters who vastly out-level you, and gain some amazing loot and experience in return.

Graphics are serviceable, if not amazing, with some nice character portraits and backgrounds. The battle system is simple, but quite deep. If you’ve played Dragon Quest, you’ll know exactly how it works. A little unoriginal, sure, but DQ is certainly not a bad place to steal from. Music is very good. It’s written by Yuzo Koshiro, the composer for Ys 1&2, the Streets of Rage games, and Act Raiser 1&2, so I expected quality, and it’s certainly present.

Perhaps the most strikingly new feature of Etrian Odyssey is the mapping system. Your bottom screen is a grid, not unlike graph paper, where you are expected to map out the entire labyrinth. Spaces you have been are automatically painted onto the map, so it’s not impossibly difficult or fiddly, but placement of walls, treasure, traps and F.O.E.s is up to the player. This is one of the strongest points of Etrian Odyssey. It’s incredibly satisfying to see a dungeon floor entirely mapped out, and know that it was down to your effort. In fact, “satisfying” describes pretty much all of this game. Everything is extremely tight, and it all adds up to one of the best RPGs the Nintendo DS has seen.

On, then, to Chrono Trigger. I live in Europe, where the 1995 SNES original was never officially released. Being three years old at the time, I wasn’t quite ready to enter the import scene. So I had never seriously played Chrono Trigger until about five days ago, when the latest cynical port from Square Enix graced everyone’s favourite handheld, the DS. I have always preferred the straightforward linearity of Japanese RPGs to the wide-open choice of traditional western titles, so I was understandably excited to try out what many hail as the greatest Japanese RPG of all time.

Chrono Trigger

Upon Google Image searching “Chrono Trigger”, this image greeted me. “Oh no!” I exclaimed, “It’s a Toriyama game!”. I should explain. Akira Toriyama is the author and artist of the celebrated (?) Dragon Ball manga series, among countless others. And I hate his art. However, it’s an SNES game, so you don’t see much of it outside the boxart. There are some pretty awful animated cutscenes culled from the PS1 remake, but thankfully there’s an option to turn them off, which I heartily recommend everyone does.

The first thing I noticed upon booting the game is that the audio is perfect. With the DS remakes of the Final Fantasy games, the sound has tended to not be of the greatest quality, compressed pretty heavily to get it to fit on a cartridge along with the shiny 3D visuals. Mitsuda’s Chrono Trigger soundtrack is fantastic, so I’m glad they didn’t mess that up.

Graphically speaking, it’s a very competent 16 Bit RPG. Sprites and backgrounds are lovingly detailed, if a bit awkwardly animated. Still, the emotional range they managed to pack into these tiny sprites is pretty astounding. After playing the game on an emulator, it’s as perfect a port in this respect as I can think of, with no graphical glitches to speak off. A little has been chopped off the bottom to get the game to fit the DS screens, but not enough that I would have noticed without having been told. There is an option to move the in-battle menus to the touch screen, which unclutters the screen very well. You can use the touch screen to control the game, although I found it far easier to use the face buttons.

For the battles, the Active Time system is used, similar to that of Final Fantasy 4, which was recently remade for the DS. What sets Chrono Trigger apart is its Tech system, in which multiple characters pull off Combo Techs (Special Attacks) with each other, generally to deal damage or heal allies. This makes each new character a pleasure to try as you find out what they can do both by themselves and in conjunction with every other character. When joining battle, you are not taken to a seperate battle screen. Characters and enemies rush to different points on the screen, and menus appear. In practice, this doesn’t make a great deal of difference, but it’s a nice touch. Fights are quick and varied, and for the most part can be dodged entirely, as random battles are not employed. Instead, enemies mill about the screen, triggering battles if touched. The entire experience feels like the game Yuji Horii and Hironobu Sakaguchi wanted to make, but couldn’t while still conforming to the expectations attached to the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy series.

In terms of story, it’s a treat. The contrast behind the light-hearted and horribly dark strikes a nice balance, and dialogue is for the most part enjoyable, with the exception of some incredibly irritating cave-speak (Me sorry Ayla!). There are some pretty brilliant plot twists that I won’t spoil here, and the whole thing feels very deliberate and complete in terms of pacing.

All in all, I much preferred this thirteen year old game to the hight tech flashiness of Fallout’s third installment. The environments are much more colourful and imaginative, and the battle system feels much more refined than Bethesda’s VATS. The directness of being lead by the nose from encounter to encounter felt downright refreshing after sitting in Megaton, groaning at the travel times involved with any of the missions. Chrono Trigger’s linearity improves it, at least to my mind.

And I still love RPGs.

I love RPGs, in theory. I love the idea of embarking on some grand adventure, whether it be to recover a lost magical crystal, or to replace a broken water chip. With each new release I find myself planning far in advance how my character (or characters) will be kitted out in their quest to save their world/hometown. Will they be magic users, or will they live by the sword? I envisage myself so immersed, engrossed in the dance my tiny avatars carry out as they destroy the latest in an endless supply of randomly spawned enemies. I love RPGs. In theory.

In reality, more often than not, I find myself not immersed, but bored. The tale is not as nuanced and finely spun as I was sure it would be when all I had to go on were screenshots. I am bogged down in how artificial the world is. It isn’t a world. It’s a game-world. I find myself disconnected from my avatar. Hit Points? They don’t make sense, when you think about it. I almost always end up disappointed.

But it was still with boundless enthusiasm that I approached my two most anticipated games of this season, Fallout 3, and Chrono Trigger (remade for the Nintendo DS). Fallout is a western-developed game, and is made for the current generation of consoles and PCs. Chrono Trigger is a handheld port of the Super Nintendo original. Each offers very different styles of role-playing. First then, to Fallout 3.

Bethesda’s Wasteland

f3screenshot1

I was really looking forward to Fallout 3. The Interplay developed originals are some of my favourite games, with their darkly comic atmosphere and superbly realised vision of life after the apocalypse. When I saw how Bethesda had turned the lovingly detailed 2D world into a possibly even more lovingly detailed 3D world, I was ready to spend however many hundreds of pounds on a new PC just to play this game. And when I finally saved enough, and the game came out, I hurriedly obtained a copy and delved straight into the ruins of Washington D.C. I wanted the old games wrapped up in a souped up Oblivion engine, and that was by and large what I got.

But I don’t really like it all that much. Why? Well, I’m just daunted by the sheer size of the game, mostly. The sheer amount of stuff to do isn’t that much more than the original Fallout, so the difference is psychological. Faced with all this choice, I’m finding myself choosing nothing. Exacerbating this problem for me is the travel system. Almost all the missions would be far more interesting to me if to get to them I didn’t have to wander for several minutes across a uniformly grey wasteland with almost nothing in it. In the Interplay games, going from one town to another took all of three seconds, whereas in Fallout 3 that journey is more likely to take 5 to 10 minutes of walking. There is a fast travel system, but it only allows you to travel to locations you have already visited. I really feel it would be much improved if there were a few locations unlocked from the beginning, allowing for shortened travel times.

In fact, there are a lot of reasons I don’t like the game. The game’s much vaunted opening started to grate after my third go at creating a character. I would really like an option to create my entire character on one screen and begin. If this is available, it certainly wasn’t made clear. Characters haven’t made the best transition into the 3D realm. As with the Elder Scrolls games, the way everyone just looks straight at you and don’t move anything save their mouth is just plain unnerving, and ruins any sense of immersion I had. Equally illusion-busting is the level of violence in this game. Watching someone’s head being taken off by a baseball bat is amusing the first couple of times, but it quickly becomes tiresome. In 2D, it was necessary to over-stylise things. In taking the franchise to 3D, however, Bethesda should perhaps have employed a little subtlety. Another problem with the switch to 3D is that environments I had no problem traversing before now feel dark and oppressing, creating a game world I really have no desire to spend much time in.

But I shouldn’t end this on the bad parts. The game is beautiful, if a little monotonous. The combat system makes fighting far more enjoyable than the painfully slow turn-based system of yesteryear (No more patient waiting for vagrants to run away in panic). Sound design is also spectacular, and dialogue is serviceable. Plus, there’s all that choice. What puts me off others will no doubt love. I wish them all the best, but I couldn’t leave Megaton.

Until I blew it up.

Stay tuned for impressions of Chrono Trigger DS

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