Pretty Colors, Pretty Lame – SaGa Frontier 2 Review

Oh, SaGa Frontier 2, why did I have such faith in you?

Maybe because SF2 is the last (I think) of those games from that era when I didn’t play games to completion; I played them to “SHINY NEW GAME RELEASED MUST PLAY NOW!”

To be fair, this game is terrible.

“But, Emperor…” you (not you you; I’m sure you’re a very nice person) whine, “it’s so – pretty! And the story! And the- the- stuff!”

Yes, it is a pretty game. Just look at that drawing at the top of this post; freakin’ gorgeous. I’d be lying if I said I don’t care about graphics, and the hand-drawn sprites and backgrounds of SF2 are the best part of this game. Similar techniques are used in Legend of Mana, and represent a (successful) attempt to show that games in the PS1 era didn’t need to be 3D to be pretty. … Of course, the PS1 had been out for about five years then, but better late than never.

The game has some memorable character models, perhaps best exemplified by Gustave’s eclectic outfit choices over the course of his life. Still, I found the graphics were sometimes blurry or otherwise instinct, and so some of the finer details were lost. This mars what otherwise would have been a gorgeous game, detracting from its beset feature.

Now, onto the meat of it…
This game is confusing. There is no tutorial, and no help screen to explain most of the terms. What are chips? What’s with the number next to WP and SP? How do you learn new moves? What’s the best way to learn new moves? What’s “Perfect Timing”? What happens to equipment when I switch between characters? When somebody goes away? I’m really only scratching the surface of questions you ought to be asking from the start of the game. I had to spend hours of research just to understand how the game’s basic mechanics worked, and it’s the kind of game where you really need that information unless you’re comfortable restarting a few times.

You are? Hah, no, you’re not. This isn’t Might & Magic or a rogue-like. You may recognize those as games with very light (or no) story; the kinds of games where you can jump in, die, and cover the past 30 minutes of gameplay in about 5 minutes. By contrast, SF2 is very story-oriented, or it’s meant to be anyway. It’s also a classic JRPG, where battles are going to take a lot of time, and you’ll be slogging through story. So, messed up? Well, hope you don’t mind losing all the tension you built up as you replay the last 10 hours. And if you think that’d be fine, well, I almost envy your naivete. Games need to balance their difficulty against the needs of the story, and SF2 does a poor job of it. By the time I had figured out how to actually play the damn game, I had lost my initial interest. Still, after a break, I slogged through it.

And the story – oh my god, it’s not that great. So, you have two different story paths you’re following: The legend of Gustave the king, and the Knights family. Superficially, these are pretty cool. The former follows the rise to power of an outcast, and the latter is a bunch of adventures. But in practice, they’re kinda lame. You will learn almost nothing about most of the characters in a game that is entirely driven by the personal motivations of its protagonists – this is inexcusable. Heck, the game actually skips over most of the lives of several characters. My favorite example is Johan the Assassin. Johan is, well, an assassin. He leaves his assassin organization because… well, I have no idea. We see the training he did to get in, but we don’t know why he leaves. He shows up in two chapters. The first is just him moving across a bunch of maps as he remembers his training, and getting picked up by Gustave at the end of the chapter. The second time he shows up is to die in a series of battles where you play as him, and him alone. Spoilers? Don’t care. You barely know the guy.

Now, there is an Ultimania guide that goes into massively more detail about the game, to my understanding. Ultimania is a series of guide books released in Japan which massively expand on the content of the games. They’re cool for getting the details that didn’t make it into the game, and packed with tons of information. But they’re in Japanese, and, more to the point, you shouldn’t have to read a 300 page book to find out salient and important facts about the video game you’re playing.

Because SF2 is so hard to get into, and its story is so disjointed, it fails to be a good game. It’s pretty as a painting, but you can get the whole picture just by doing an image search.


The Jade Cocoon Project

Recently, I reviewed Jade Cocoon. There, I mentioned that Naali_314, of GameFAQs, was a great help to me. When I suggested Naali might have some unique insights as perhaps the only person to go through 1000 levels of the post-game dungeon, he suggested it would be more efficient to link to a wiki he’s been working on. Fair enough.

The Wiki gets into a lot of technical details about the game, and has a catalog of some interesting art. It is apparently still in development, but I’m hoping it becomes a repository of information that just isn’t anywhere else. Sadly, the Jade Cocoon FAQs are sometimes sparse on important details about the game, and there doesn’t appear to be any academic research on the game’s development cycle. Maybe we’ll get something with this project.

The Frustration that is SaGa Frontier 2

SaGa Frontier 2 is one of those games that this blog was designed for. For those who don’t know, I started blogging about a decade ago on GameFAQs itself, before I knew about blogs (and possibly before blogs were a big thing, but I digress). At the time, I had about five dozen video games that I owned, but had never beaten (or, sometimes, never played). I would easily get distracted and go onto a new game.

That changed when I set down my blog and started to post about the games that I was playing, looking for community help when I got stuck, and just enjoying talking about the game as I was going through it. I started with Lufia III, which is a mediocre game, and I’ve played a variety of games since then.

So, SaGa Frontier 2. You know, I played its prequel some years ago, and that was a bitch without the community. The problem is that effectiveness in combat relies upon learning new attacks during combat, by using other attacks, and finding combinations that make two or more attacks go off simultaneously. If you don’t know which attack will “spark” which attack, or which techniques will combo, you could quickly find yourself behind the game’s power curve, and at least one quest is practically impossible to beat without knowing four- or five-person combos.

SF 2 takes that issue and amplifies it, and tosses in a bunch of others. Now, I’m not one to complain about combat complexity; in fact, I think it’s sorely lacking in a lot of RPGs. However, I will complain about clarity. SF2 dumps a lot of information and options on the player from the get-go with no explanation, and it is overwhelming. It is easy to give your party a bad setup, choose bad tactics, and even set yourself up for long-term frustrations. Because of that, I spent an inordinate amount of time pausing the game to ask the forums to explain to me every little detail about how the game works. And it’s brilliant – just, really, they didn’t need to hide the ball.

So I got frustrated. But I must continue. It’s a great game. I just need to work through these horrid growing pains.

Still Playing Games Chronologically

As you might recall, some time ago I mentioned that I am playing through video game RPGs chronologically. I’m still at it. I had a rough go of it over the past few months, as I was preparing for the bar exam, but now I can get back into the swing of things. I’m currently sitting around the year 2000, and switching between SaGa Frontier 2 and System Shock 2. I have some games on the backburner from earlier years that I still need to get to, such as Parasite Eve. Some games I’m holding off on, in hopes that another version will be released before I cannot stand to hold out any longer: Tales of Phantasia, for example. I’m upset that the latest PSP version never got released in America. Tsk.

I’ve tried a lot of video games, many of which were terrible. I’m thinking of someday making a post that gives a quickie review of several dozen games.

I Have A Sudden Urge to Play Fallout 3: the Fallout 1 Review

Have you ever played a game, and suddenly wanted to play a different game, because of the first game? That’s exactly what happened to me when I sat down with Fallout 1. You need to understand that I played, and beat, Fallout 3 before touching Fallout 1. I can’t play this game without thinking about how much fun its distant sequel is.

I’ve asked a friend of mine why people think Fallout 3 isn’t a true successor to Fallout 1, and the answer apparently comes down to the tactical map used for combat. That’s fair, from one perspective, but I feel like the essence of the gameplay is basically the same. I mean, I really just see Fallout 3 as a first person, three-dimensional, version of the series. Same humor. Same universe. Same atmosphere. Same themes. Same gameplay (except, arguably, the combat).

I’m harping on this because I’d come into Fallout 1 expecting it to be different. Perhaps… better? I mean, I liked 3, but I was given some high expectations for this game that it didn’t meet. It’s kind of short and not so open-world as the game map makes it appear to be. It’s occasionally obtuse in the worst ways. There’s a nasty couple bugs that even the modding community hasn’t fixed in over a decade. I really hope I’m not surprising anybody when I point out the game has flaws, but I feel like it needs be said. It’s a good game, but I feel like 3 improved upon the formula.

As for the game itself, well, it’s Fallout. I think I ought to have a general “Fallout universe” review some time, because I don’t want to go through five reviews repeating how awesome power armor is or how horrifying super mutants are.

For now I’ll say that in spite of its flaws, it’s a good game. If you’re looking for a solid RPG, give it a go, especially if you like Fallout 3. It’s good to know your roots.

Unraveling the Jade Cocoon

Sometimes you love a game for what it could have been, instead of what you are playing. I would not be surprised if somebody told me that Jade Cocoon hit its release deadline far too early. It’s one of those RPGs that clocks in at well under 20 hours; brevity isn’t a sin, but it’s not always a virtue.

Ironically, the game is also too long. Lemme explain.

Basically, you go through four dungeons, then repeat three of the dungeons, and then fight the final boss.

The dungeon delving is interrupted by time spent in a village, and with conversations at the end of the dungeons, which is used as an opportunity to enlighten the player about the setting. It’s fascinating stuff, but it stops almost entirely after the fourth dungeon is complete, and only kind of picks up again during the final battle. The dungeons themselves have practically no puzzles; I’ll note here that each dungeon is actually a forest, sometimes mixed with ruins. The challenge is surviving and avoiding monster battles (enemies appear on screen and collision leads to battle) and navigating the increasingly labyrinthine layouts. However, the battles have little complexity to them, and the labyrinths aren’t that difficult to memorize. The selling point of the dungeons (and the game as a whole) is how beautiful they are, even as (of the time of this writing) the PS4 is preparing to roll out. The game’s backgrounds have aged well – it’s just a shame that three of them get rehashed (with color filters) for the last half of the game, by which point the novelty has worn off. And, sadly, the character sprites and, more importantly, monster sprites have not aged nearly as well. The character portraits are still cool, and the game is almost entirely voice-acted (quality, at that), but this isn’t enough to carry the game.

So if I’m bitching about how the game basically doubles its already tiresome length, why do I think the game is too short? Because they could have filled that same time with so much more detail about the world. The setting’s mythology is fascinating, and gives the world and its characters a sense of grandeur. Also, I can’t recall the last time I played an RPG whose setting didn’t remind me of medieval fantasy or sci-fi; this one goes for a tribal forest atmosphere – points for originality. I want to know more about these people, and visit these places they’ve mentioned. I want to know more about the motivations of the characters, and spend more time learning about the people of the village, and what happened in the forests. The game tantalizes the player with snippets throughout the game, even through the ending, that suggest there is so much more going on here, and the player is left wanting. This would be okay if it was meant to be kind of mysterious, or if the story itself was solid despite all the hints of greater detail, but the game’s story is so compressed that it doesn’t work.

I can’t recommend this game to the casual gamer, but RPG fanatics should give it a try some time. The game’s setting and atmosphere have enough originality to set it apart.

My thanks to Naali_314 on the Jade Cocoon message board, who helped me figure out the game’s mechanics, and filled in some details for me.

The Random Arc the Lad Post

There will be spoilers for Arc the lad all over this post. It’s time for me to talk about some of the details of the Arc the Lad series that are really more for the people who have already played the games. The following is an assortment of random thoughts.

Velhart gets the most character development of any character in the third game. Really, he and Tosh are the only characters in all the games with much in the way of character development. Oh, other characters change, but it’s only with them that we really see anything.

Velhart looks less manly than I expected. He’s very, well, effeminate looking. I don’t think it works well with his character concept. The appearance doesn’t evoke the desperate self-esteem issues of the character. He just looks… well, pretty. And in a game where most of the characters have really cool designs, Velhart’s just looks strange. Or maybe the artist just sucks at drawing androgynous guys.

Choko got a bum deal in the third game. Mini-game mascot status isn’t a good sign.

Did Andel’s plan make any sense? I like to think that he was stringing along the heroes the whole time and fully expected he’d need to sacrifice himself at the end. I’m not sure. Some of his actions don’t make much sense in light of that theory.

Seriously, they give you an opportunity to time travel in the second game, and they go back like, what, ten years? Man, I wanted to go back 3,000 years – meet the original Braves.

Chongara. Oh man, that guy gets a bum deal. Emaciated, mentally ill, and I don’t think he’s fully recovered by the end of the third game.

Lutz talks a lot about how awesome his items are. You know what? He sucks. He never really uses items throughout the game. He talks big, and there’s some mini-games where he’s all about that, but… they don’t show a stunning display of confidence.

Do we ever find out what Cheryl’s past is? I guess she was orphaned, but it sounds like she was really hurt by someone.

Poco… oh man, he drove me crazy in the first game, talking about food all the time. Give it a rest, man.

I hate the designs of the four Guardians. They look just terribly ugly. The light guardian looks like some kind of mutated frog. And they never fixed it, in any of the games. Hell, I thought they were going somewhere when the second game featured that really badass looking version of the Fire Guardian. Sadly, no.

“Arc the Lad”. What kind of title is “the Lad”? It’s a terrible title. I wouldn’t want to be known as “the Lad”. And isn’t that what you’d really call a child. I mean, Arc is in his teens in the first game, and he doesn’t come across as especially naïve.

Iga’s temple doesn’t accept women. Why not? I’m surprised he didn’t get more worldly after traveling with female companions for two games.

Okay, you know that cave that Madame Claire’s in? The one that you have to send monsters through? That cave is some BS. “Too dangerous for humans”, right. I’m not going to believe that a few cave bats will slow down the Seven Braves.

Was Odon ever any good?

What’s my vote for saddest moment in AtL 2? It’s hard to say. I’m going to go with the ending. “We didn’t stop the end of the world. We survived it.” The corpses floating in water was pretty fucked up. A close second is the part where Elc has to kill his best friend. Tosh killing zombie dad isn’t sad – it’s awesome.

At the end of AtL 3, I stopped caring about treasure. I just ran rampant through dungeons because I had the best equipment.

I was hoping for more with Diekbeck. His story in AtL 2 is… eh. I’m glad he gets his own dungeon at the end, but it’s not quite enough.

The reveal at the end of AtL3, about the hunter who rescued Alec was… underwhelming. “Oh, hey, we fought once, and I used to be a hunter and hi, and now we fight, okay, I’m dead, cya x.x”

I regret doing the 1,000 battles in the Arena. Not worth it.

Choko’s asura form is cool, but I wish she could keep using her other special moves. Also, Stimulant is a weird name for transforming.

Why did AtL2 think it was a good idea to still have chests you have to jump to get to? It’s used so rarely that it becomes strange.

Speaking of chests, it wasn’t worth it to pick up chests in the first game.

I do kinda miss the way speed worked in AtL1. Extra turns up the wazoo.

My favorite Chongara outfit is in AtL 2. He looks good in blue and dark glasses. Definitely a costume change for a better.

Really, Elc is astoundingly competent. In the second game, I’m pretty sure he’s a teenager. But he’s cool, collected, confident, and he flies a badass little airship. Hell, he’s driven enough to nearly kill himself trying to catch Arc when he thinks Arc is a villain. I really felt for the guy. And in the third game, he’s even cooler: he’s like a god of fire, slagging anything that stands in his way.

Of course, Alec comes pretty far too. He starts out as a nobody from a little village at the beginning of the game, and by the end he is giving commands to guilds across the world.

But you know who doesn’t develop much? Arc. The guy the series is named after. I mean, the game implies that he’s grown, but we don’t really know much about him other than he wants to do good and he loves Kukuru (which I insist comes out of nowhere).

Shu, combining everything that is good about ninjas and machine guns.

Diekbeck is kind of an ass in the third game. Then again, it’s still better than “I am generic helper bot”, which was his personality in the second game.

Don’t you wish Paundit counted as a first tier cast member?

I’m really uncomfortable with how things leave off with Anriette in the third game. Sure, she’s a stuck-up brat, but I don’t feel like there’s a satisfying moral lesson with her: you can take her with you, in which case she’s a brat who gets what she wants. Or you can leave her behind, and she talks about how it’s her proper place in the world and, well…

Also, the lady at the orphanage, refusing Anriette’s charity. I get that Anriette’s motives for being charitable were questionable, but the caretaker’s response is along the lines of, “it’s not fair to take money we didn’t earn for ourselves”. I get the moral lesson there, but this isn’t the kind of situation where you refuse a handout: you’re living in a postapocalyptic world, in its worst city, trying to care for half a dozen children. I think the childrens’ immediate welfare is the bigger concern.

Coming back to it ten years later, the Arc the Lad Bible (i.e. the 500+ page strategy guide) is not as funny as I remember. The same goes for lots of the writing in Working Designs’ instruction manuals and strategy guides. I mean, it’s all still kinda funny, but it’s not the comedy gold I thought it was when I was younger.

I wish I could reorganize Diekbeck’s skills in the second game. Because they’re tied to units, the game won’t let the player do that.

Despite how creepy Spicy is as a character, I do think the final mission involving him is pretty funny: the triplets thing caught me by surprise.

So what exactly was the weapon that the King of Romalia used in the second game? The third game seems to imply that it was the Dark Lord, but I’m not certain.

Speaking of which, the Dark Lord is… a dead king? Honestly, the series’ ancient mythology is fundamentally important to understanding the nature of the modern world, but it gets glossed over so badly.

I wish the Beast Lord stuff had been tied more into the games’ plot.

Seriously, this is a good example of a game that would have benefitted from at least an in-game journal explaining bits of history about the world that the player might want to know.

I call the villain the dark lord, because subconsciously, I don’t’ want to admit that his name is the Dark One. It’s a terribly stupid name on the level of The Bad Guy.

Remember that plan where Tosh wanted to take the townsfolk north to Gislem? That was a stupid plan. Three reasons: 1) They have to go through a dangerous cave; 2) Gislem is the most dangerous city in the world; 3) there is literally another city just south of them.

I don’t think we ever learned how Yoshua managed to delay the end of the world by 10 years.

I was a little weirded out when I saw Andel’s hair for the first time. I guess I’d always assumed he’d be gray or bald.

I don’t understand why they had to unseal the arc at the end of the first game. Which is important; that was a big deal.

When I got to the house of endless treasures in AtL2, I was surprised to find some treasure chests were empty. I suspect they are filled only if you didn’t import data from AtL1.

I don’t know why the team didn’t fight back at AtL 1. Sure, there were a lot of enemy soldiers there. But they’re the Seven Braves, and they just fought demons. This is the fate of the world we’re talking about.

Most developed character in AtL 2: Gruga.