Author Archives: alyssamcmillion

Changing up Combat: More Zelda Talk

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One of my favorite Legend of Zelda games is Skyward Sword, something that quite a few players don’t necessarily share with me. There are a lot of reasons for this division, from the story structure to the graphics to the over-world system it uses, but I’ll be focusing on what I think is one of the biggest talking points: The motion control based combat.

What does this have to do with difficulty? The way Skyward Sword handled a mast majority of its difficulty is with motion “puzzles” formed around swordplay. Link’s sword is controlled by the wiimote and his shield by the nunchuck, and parries, lashes, and spin attacks were all mapped to actions. This allowed for a new kind of combat curve where players needed to learn how to angle and properly time their sword swings and blocks to get past an opponent’s guard, deflect projectiles, and cut objects. This buttonless attacking system threw people for a loop as they adjusted to how fast or slow they needed to move (along with a few technical difficulties for others), but after learning the basics, the way you can design fights truly opens up.

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Standard enemies each became their own challenge, requiring fake outs, dodging, and guarding to defeat them, and bosses also evolved to match the flexibility of your sword.

The first main boss even acts as a gatekeeper of sorts, forcing you to master each direction you can swing in, and how to quickly change directions on the fly. And from there, you jump from standard duels between blades, to countering a giant scorpion’s claws, to even cutting a sea monster’s tentacles apart to hit it’s eye.

Some players found this sword system tedious or unreliable, but on a personal level, I really did feel immersed with what I was doing when I swung the wiimote. Like I had really earned that victory beyond just pressing A to hack at some monster. It was one step closer to actually holding the Master Sword, and I think that’s the kind of emotion that Zelda as a series really shines at, no matter what direction they take the controls afterwards.

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-Alyssa

Difficulty Scaling: The Legend of Zelda

When it comes to difficulty settings in games, the majority have options clearly labelled as some form of Easy, Normal, Hard, and other settings on a scale like that. The differences between them were usually just easier or harder versions of the regular content, vial altering the enemies or the puzzles faced by the player.

There are a few games that take difficulty settings in a slightly different direction than this linear path, and one series that has been implementing this is The Legend of Zelda.

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An example of the methods they use to create extra difficulty in Zelda games is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Originally for the Nintendo 64 system, it was rerealeased multiple times over the years, and during it’s GameCube release, added a second version called the Master Quest. Ocarina of time-Master Quest was the equivalent of its Hard mode, something that hadn’t existed at all in the original game.

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It flipped the entire in-game world’s map to a mirrored version, and then redesigned all the dungeons to have harder sets of puzzles and tougher enemies. But the most noticeable change was introduced in the final re-release for the Nintendo 3DS. in this version of the Master Quest, all damage taken from enemies is doubled. And when poor Link stars out with only 3 hearts, double damage can kill him in about two hits in the very first dungeon.

This sudden vulnerability really makes the player think during puzzles and combat. There aren’t nearly as many times one can use trial and error when it’s so easy to die. You’re placed on the defensive, using your shield and trying to do damage as efficiently as possible without risking yourself.

Later Zelda games like Skyward Sword and The Wind Waker (HD version) also implement this double damage system in what they call Hero Mode, where naturally occurring healing items are removed at the same time. This form of difficulty feels different to me because it doesn’t quite mess with the AI of enemies, but forces the player to take what was once a simple enemy more seriously by decreasing the mistakes they are allowed to make.

I don’t necessarily think this method is the best form of difficulty I’ve seen, but I do think it’s a slightly fresher application of what Hard Mode should be.

-Alyssa

A Lesson in Early Game Difficulty

This post isn’t really going to be me pointing out a general trend in Video Game Difficulty, but an interesting difficulty spike that I recently ran into. Games start off easy and simple, and then gradually become difficult, right? Well that’s not necessarily true, especially if your resources are more limited than you expect.

I lost to the first Pokemon Gym in Pokemon White Version a couple of days ago. Not only did I lose to the first real obstacle in the game, but I lost more than once and tried multiple strategies before I won.

“But how?” you ask. “The first gym is built to get players used to gyms, so how can the very first one be that hard?” Sure, I was stubborn and only wanted to use a couple of Pokemon at the very beginning to cut down on grinding, but my main Pokemon was of equal level to the Gym Leader’s strongest one. The answer is a combination of a lack of plentiful EXP and the power of boosting stats at the right time.

Starting with Pokemon Black and White, EXP, or Experience Points, are no longer gained based on the level and species of the Pokemon defeated. Instead, the points gained are now altered based on how higher in level your own Pokemon is. For example, defeating a Pokemon at the same level might give you 500 EXP, but defeating one 5 levels below yourself will cause you to gain less. This drop continues until the gap grows large enough to make battles pointless. In theory, this is an anti grinding technique to try and get players to not just steamroll everything with one Pokemon. But before you defeat the first Gym in Pokemon Black and White, you are stuck in an area with finite encounters that are actually worth fighting.

Once you’ve defeated all the trainers available, your Pokemon will be stuck with fighting low level random encounters, which take far too long to realistically level up with. As an example, my main Pokemon at the time was pretty much stuck at Level 14 when I went to the Gym.

And this is where the Striaton City Gym’s strategy comes into play.

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There are three potential fights in the Striaton City Gym: Chili, Cress, and Cilan. The one you will fight is based on who you chose as your Starter Pokemon. The game always makes you face the one with a type advantage.

This gym already puts you at a disadvantage, since their strongest Pokemon will have the elemental advantage against your starter Pokemon. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but because of the EXP problems you have before this gym, it’s difficult to raise more than one Pokemon and have them at a high level. You either get a diverse team and split the EXP, or stick with a smaller party and have less options. The game does give you a Pokemon with a type advantage against the gym for free, but it’s at Level 10, meaning it won’t do a huge amount of damage unless you train it. But the thing that really adds to the difficulty is one move the gym tends to use quite a bit: Work Up.

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Both of the Gym leader’s Pokemon know Work Up, which boosts their Attack and Special Attack stats every time it’s used. Stat boosting and lowering techniques are powerful in the early game, because the player doesn’t have many attacking options, and once Work Up is used a few times, it’s very easy to get one or two hit KOed. The longer the battle goes on, the more dangerous it becomes. And since it’s nearly impossible to quickly defeat them without a lucky critical hit, the AI is nearly guaranteed enough turns to set up their stats.

And that is how I lost 5 times to the first Gym. What would be a fair fight becomes far more difficult just by restricting a few resources and giving the opponent something you don’t have access to. Later on, Gym Battles aren’t nearly this hard simply because you have more options to consider, making this very first gym one of the tougher fights. An unexpected Difficulty Spike.

-Alyssa

Quick Time Events

Let me describe a potential game scenario. You’re walking though a dark cave, exploring it slowly, a torch in one hand and your other hand trailing along the walls. Just as you’re reading some ancient text carved into the stones, a big pop up prompt appears on your screen, demanding that you press a button before some random boulders collapse on you.

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I’m looking at you, Tomb Raider reboot. What does that circle around the Y button even mean? What’s the timing? It’s a mystery.

Welcome to Quick Time Events, or to give an abbreviation, QTEs. A lot of them are completely unnecessary, yet some of otherwise fair, player controlled, games toss them in for the excitement. And then the player dies because they had zero idea they had to mash a button before an invisible timer ran out (and sometimes what exactly needs to be done isn’t even clear). This annoying variant has earned the name Press X to Not Die.

To make matters worse, many of these instant death QTEs occur in the middle of what seem to be cut-scenes, a time where the player is not expecting to have to do anything. Bayonetta games have a habit of doing these during action sequences, where one moment you’re watching her dodge attacks effortlessly, and the next moment, you have to mash your controller in less than a second or watch her get killed by a chunk of flying concrete. This kind of cheap difficulty doesn’t reward skill. Instead, it forces people to replay sections until they memorize the exact moment where they need to press a button, and that’s just repetitive and frustrating. Ironically, Bayonetta uses QTEs to increase damage on finisher moves, and they’re really fun to execute, yet still decides to do the Press X to Not Die variant within the same game. I’m honestly not sure why.

On the flip side, there are good ways to insert QTEs, like not killing the player if they fail it. Sometimes, they are used to unlock cool cut-scene visuals, extra story paths, or more score points. This way, all it does is reward players for getting it, and positively encourages them to replay a section at their own leisure if they don’t get it. A really fun example of good QTEs that benefit the storytelling are the ones you get in the Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm fighting games.

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The Ultimate Ninja Storm series uses QTEs within story-line fights to add depth, scope, and choices to battles, making the player seem more involved with what’s happening on screen.

Playing story mode in these games lets you replay many of the high energy fight scenes in the Anime and Manga series, but instead of just making a ton of cutscenes that the player just watches, they insert controller commands to integrate the player into the moments. They have to power up the attacks, dodge, and parry. And the better the player performs, the more interesting the fight scene becomes in response. Stars gained during QTEs unlock secret battle cutscenes, and sometimes the player can choose objectives mid fight to perform to get certain endings or a better score.

Overall, I don’t really like QTEs. I feel like they drag you out of your game experience to punish you for some arbitrary reflex check. Unless more games make more effort to make them feel more integrated and fun, I don’t see much of a point to them beyond shoving in unnecessary game-play elements.

-Alyssa

Long Live the Queen: Difficulty in Choices

Some would say that there is no difficulty in the genre of Visual Novels, but I feel like that’s wrong. To be more precise, I think it’s all about the execution. With enough branching paths and game-play elements, even an interactive story can become its own challenge.

A great example of a sprawling, multi-ended Visual Novel is a PC game called Long Live the Queen.

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Developed and published by Hanako Games back in 2012, this Visual Novel is a combination of both a Choose Your Own Adventure game and an RPG.

You begin the game after the untimely death of the Queen of Nova, and you are given control of 14 year old Elodie, the now upcoming Queen. The goal is to help her survive all 40 weeks of her schooling before she can get to her coronation ceremony. And this is really, REALLY hard because it seems like every Duke, Duchess, and Lord on the Earth secretly wants her head on a platter so they can be ruler of the kingdom. The odds are that Elodie will die. A lot. There’s a special epilogue for every possible death or failure state you can stumble into, and you can even collect them like badges of honor. Cute, horrifying badges of honor.

But you as a player can (potentially) stop that! You can do more than just pick responses to story elements in this game, because this is where the RPG stuff comes in.

Every start of the week, you can (depending on Elodie’s mood) pick a couple classes for her to study. When Elodie studies, she gains points in that area and levels up, like an RPG character. And the skills you teach her will help her as the weeks go on, since the number of actions and choices you can make opens up the more skilled Elodie is. For example, if you make her study about Court Manners, she is capable of making better choices when speaking with nobles, potentially avoiding a conflict or even gaining allies. Learning some skills gives her additional outfits to boost her abilities, or unlocks new things for her to do on weekends.

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Here’s the Skills menu. They’re divided into different categories by threes, and each stat is useful for at least one situation you can possibly run into. Pick and choose wisely.

The game also does a lot of hidden “stat checks” during a week’s events, where you aren’t able to make direct choices, and Elodie can only rely on what she’s learned so far to escape a potentially bad situation. To keep the player from learning what to do in advance, it does not specifically say what Elodie potentially missed, only that she failed a certain stat’s check. This forces the player to either keep moving on, or reset the game to an earlier save to figure out what the check was about. Some of the stat checks will cause an instant death to Elodie (like the infamous Chocolate Death that almost everyone seems to trip up on their first run of the game)

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R.I.P: Rest in Reese’s Pieces

Long Live the Queen has a huge amount of paths to take for every possible play-style you want to use, it just takes a few tries to learn where all the death traps are. When I did my first play-through, Elodie ended up thrown in her own prison cell after a rebellion, but in my second run, I ended up defeating an opposing army and saving the kingdom by focusing more on military and naval tactics. And those are just two of the many, many endings hidden in this strange mix of an interactive media and point system.

-Alyssa

 

Persona 4 Vs Persona 4 Golden: Part 4

One more thing that got a huge tweak in Persona 4 Golden is the Persona Fusion system.

In the Persona series, you use magic and more powerful physical skills in battle by using a Persona, which you can equip on your main character for different move-sets and strategies. You can obtain weaker Personas in random encounters, but the way to make stronger ones with better skills is by fusing two or more together in the Velvet Room area.

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In the original Persona 4 game, you fused Personae to make a higher level one, and it could potentially inherit some skills that the used Personae had, if they were compatible. The catch was that you as a player couldn’t choose exactly which moves would carry over, and you had to jump between menus to shuffle what skills you wanted. For a Persona that could inherit a lot of skills, this could take minutes or even an hour to stumble upon the perfect fusion result. This was frustrating for people who wanted a very specific set up for a Persona, but it did act as a sort of barrier to creating extremely powerful combos with the right fusion. The amount of time needed to make something “perfect” deterred most people after a while.

However, in Persona 4 Golden, this issue was removed. Now as the player previews the Persona they are about to fuse, they can hand select the skills that can be passed on. As long as the Persona can inherit the skill, it can be transferred easily.

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Here’s an example of a fusion preview screen.The dotted lines are the two open slots to select the skills that will be passed on. A Persona can inherent a fixed amount of skills, but they can still be chosen instead of randomized.

This alone I considered an improvement to the original system of Persona fusion, but only if the game compensated for this new feature. But on top of this change, Skill Cards were also introduced.

Skill Cards are items that can be extracted form Persona or found in a Dungeon, and then can be copied and sold in the Velvet Room. Using a card on a Persona would teach it a certain skill based on the card. What makes this so game breaking is that it allows you to teach skills that would be difficult or near impossible to get a Persona to learn by a regular fusion. And once you get a card, the only thing stopping a player from using them is how much money they want to spend.

Skill Cards, combined with the revised Persona Fusion system, make it way easier to create strong Personas at earlier levels simply by taking a lot of the randomness out of the process and giving players barely restricted access to other skills. Dungeons don’t really make up for this change in terms of enemy strength or improved AI, so battles become significantly easier once a good combination of skills is found.

-Alyssa

Persona 4 Vs Persona 4 Golden: Part 3

Sometimes after a well executed random battle in Persona 4, you will enter a mini game after the battle results screen where you have a chance to get extra rewards or even detriments depending on your luck and skill. This is what’s called Shuffle Time.

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In the original Persona 4, Shuffle Time’s rewards were rather limited. You either got a new Persona, nothing extra, or a penalty where you lose the money and experience points you got from winning the fight. The mini-game was structured like simple card games, where you have to select the right one after it was shuffled in front of you to get the desired prize. This got more difficult the longer you played the game, but the chances stayed random and fair for everyone because it could not be manipulated for certain awards. What you could potentially get was randomized by the floor of the dungeon you were on, and you were only allowed one prize per Shuffle Time.

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Here’s the original Shuffle Time screen, with all the cards revealed to the player.

This all changed significantly in Persona 4 Golden. The prizes were expanded to include extra EXP, money, and other beneficial and detrimental effects based on the different Tarot Card Arcana. This wouldn’t have been so bad if the cards were still shuffled and laid face down to be chosen from. Instead, you get a set of cards face up, and you can pick a certain amount out of them. Some cards give you bonus chances to pick cards up, and if the player picks them in an order that allows them to collect all five cards at once, they get a Sweep Bonus.

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An example of Persona 4 Golden’s Shuffle Time

A Sweep Bonus ensures that the following battle will result in another Shuffle Time event, where you can potentially get a Sweep Bonus again, and the cycle continues. Once a player figures out how to abuse this system, they can exponentially boost their EXP and money gains. This makes grinding for levels and spending cash much easier, and the player now can spend less time in a dungeon without being under leveled and broke. Persona 4 is all about balancing the time inside and outside of dungeons, and if the dungeon aspect becomes so easy, the player can spend even more of their free time boosting their social links and stats, further increasing their power.

This infinite loop of potential can destroy the later game difficulty, which is not quite balanced to take this strategy into account. A Persona game needs to have some kind of anti-grinding effect in place, or players can just power level to victory with little effort. Even if the solution is to make leveling slower after a certain point or more boring, that’s still better than just leaving such easy loopholes around to use.

-Alyssa