Tag Archives: RPG

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

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

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

Persona 4 vs Persona 4 Golden: Part 2

I’ll start off with one significant change that Persona 4 Golden makes: It re-balanced the difficulty of many of the story-line bosses. Some of those changes I did agree with, as the first two main dungeons in the game do have a high difficulty curve due to your limited resources and the lack of weaknesses to exploit.

Spoilers below if you plan to play these games:

The two bosses I personally felt were weakened the most were Shadow Yukiko and Shadow Kanji.

In Persona 4 for the PS2, these two were what really made some players struggle their first time around. But with good preparation (after a few deaths as learning experiences), they could be defeated reasonably with your set party of the main character, Yosuke (who’s weak to electric but strong with Wind), and Chie (weak to Fire but strong with Ice).

In the original games, neither boss had an elemental weakness to exploit for more damage, but in Persona 4 Golden, they and their summoned allies are given a weakness, along with shifts in move-sets and possibly AI behaviors.

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Shadow Yukiko is now weak to Ice attacks, which allows two out of three of your party members to hit her for extra damage and waste her turn by knocking her down a few times. She also now gives a text based cue for when she’s about to use Burn To Ashes, a really strong Fire spell that is guaranteed to do a lot of damage to the party if no one takes a turn to Block (this is even worse for Chie since it’ll knock her down or kill her if you’re caught off guard).  Now this alone I thought was acceptable as a way to even the playing field, but Golden went even beyond that. It dropped a couple of the Boss’s stats by a point or so, weakening her offensively and defensively, and even with her raised HP, the loss of defense combined with that Ice weakness means she takes way more damage and at a faster rate than before.

Shadow Yukiko also summons a helper during the fight, and while it does about the same thing in Golden as it did in the original version (debuff, buff, and occasionally heal the Boss), it’s far more beneficial to waste time killing him now, since he’s weak to Electric (something you should have access to), and when you run him off, Shadow Yukiko wastes a turn of hers trying to bring him back, and it will always fail. That’s another free turn for you to heal yourself and/or do more damage.

With all of these changes in place, it feels a bit like overkill in terms of assuring the player can win.

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Shadow Kanji is a bit more interesting in terms of changes. His stat points were also rearranged, though he gains agility and loses some points in magic damage. Agility seems like a pointless upgrade considering it doesn’t allow him to do much more. What I did notice was that his move-set shifts to remove his strongest physical move, which is certainly a nerf to him. He gains a couple of weaker ones to try and compensate, but he mostly gains new support moves and a weaker Electric spell. This means that Shadow Kanji is less likely to do as much damage per turn.

He has two helpers, Nice Guy and Tough Guy, and in the original Persona 4, One focused on healing Shadow Kanji, and the other one did extra damage with some physical attacks and removed any stat buffs you built up. Together, they could be really annoying when trying to fight the main boss, though they didn’t need to be defeated to win.

In Golden, Nice Guy no longer has any healing abilities, meaning that Shadow Kanji can’t recover, and he can be knocked down with a weakness to Ice. Tough Guy had his debuff move taken away and also gained a weakness to Fire. This combined with their lower overall endurance makes them way easier to remove from the fight earlier, as they are no longer resistant to most tactics.

Once again, I feel like this boss was stripped of a lot of the bite that made him so respectable. Maybe the stat rearranging and altered move-set for Shadow Kanji were enough, but the rest feels like piling on too much.

These two Boss examples are only the start of this game’s remake that I found unbalanced when taken into account with everything else that was streamlined.

In my next post, I’ll be talking about how the reward mechanics after battles have changed to further benefit the player, and how that fits into Persona 4 Golden’s overall difficulty problem.

-Alyssa

 

Can a Game Be Too Easy?: Persona 4 vs Persona 4 Golden

This may seem strange to some, but it is possible to streamline a game so much that it loses a lot of challenge. The correct level of difficulty is more of an opinion based thing, but I do feel like some games go overboard to be accessible, sacrificing the difficulty that makes playing so worth it in the first place. And one of the examples I’ve run into firsthand is in Persona 4.

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Persona 4 originally came out in… 2008 for the PlayStation 2 system, and I actually own a copy, as it’s still available to buy in various places in that version, which many people refer to as Persona 4 “Vanilla” to distinguish it from what came later. I’ll get to that in a second.

Persona 4 is a solid Persona game, and an indirect sequel to Persona 3, taking place in the same world but later on, in a different town. The battle system has changed quite a bit, allowing players the option of directly controlling their team just like a regular RPG instead of using AI tactics. It also toys with the battle system itself, simplifying some spells and customization aspects, and then changing the mechanics used to regain health and magic in dungeons. I may disagree with some of these shifts, including some that I haven’t listed, but overall, it was received by the majority as a balanced game. It was difficult in spots, but once you grasped how everything worked, you could make some good strategies to get past the monsters you fought, and to me, that is what makes a good Persona game. It shouldn’t be all about raw power, but the way you approach an issue that decides if you win or lose.

Now let’s talk about the remake, Persona 4 Golden.

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Even the cover looks fancier compared to the first game case.

It came out in 2012 for the PlayStation Vita, and had a number of altered features, adding in new characters and events, and even a new “Golden” ending to look for. It also tinkered with some battle and out of battle features that many found clunky or annoying, and added some new difficulties to try.

This sounds great, right? Well… it was actually too great, in an interesting twist. Newer people who played this game before the original may have thought it was okay, but if anyone upgraded from Vanilla to Golden, they would immediately begin to see just how badly the game’s balance suffered with all these changes.

To better explain my concerns, the issues were not with the changes themselves, but the fact that the game’s challenges were not redone to even the playing field again. If you give your player a brand new set of weapons and features to make getting stronger easier, then they’re going to effortlessly crush everything in front of them as soon as they learn to maximize these advantages. There was no large buffs given to enemies to compensate, and so the balance was killed.

In the next few posts, I’m going to be focusing on some of the features that served to break Persona 4 Golden so badly compared to its predecessor, despite being considered the definitive way of experiencing Persona 4’s story.

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Tune into the Midnight Channel…if you dare.

-Alyssa