Monday, 30 May 2011

Eternal Sonata, the JRPG puzzle and guilty gaming pleasures

Look at me. Waltzing into Well-Rendered as if I haven't neglected to post any original content for the last month. Such cheek. I've been playing Eternal Sonata this weekend. It's a JRPG set in the subconscious mind of the Polish composer Frédéric Chopin as he lies dying of tuberculosis.

Yes, you did read that correctly.

I am moved to write at this early stage (I am but four hours in) because I could barely walk three steps down one of Eternal Sonata's flower-lined paths without Well-Rendered Towers' other occupant yelling: "I can't think with that in the background, it's just too bloody cheerful!"

This happens every time I play a JRPG, which is not surprising because the JRPG is the most polarising genre in gaming, at least amongst people who actually play games. I doubt an acolyte of the cult of the Daily Mail would know JRPG if it skipped up to them and cast "THUNDARA".

Whilst those who love JRPGs salivate at the prospect of spending fifty solid hours guiding a group of hyper-stylised characters through a fantasy world, slaying monsters with numbers in exchange for other numbers, all other gamers simply fail to see the appeal.

Although I sit firmly in the former camp, I can certainly understand why the aforementioned conventions are a deterrent for many players. The most obvious of these is the way in which JRPGs (that's Japanese Role-Playing Games, Mum) explicitly use numbers to quantify what's going on within a fight. There are two ways of looking at this. One is to view the visible computerised calculation of probabilities and randomly generated numbers as a logical, labour-saving progression from the days when fantasy role-playing games took place on a table top with a twenty-sided die and a dungeon master. The other is to wonder why, when video games have evolved well past the point where they can conceal these numbers, would you want to see them? Isn't that like going to see a version of Lord of the Rings made in 2011 where all the monsters are made of papier-mâché and controlled with bits of string?

The answer is no, because the player's understanding of these statistics is what makes JRPGs so much fun. No, really. Allow me to explain.

The magnificent technology devlopers have at their disposal these days means that the gap between player input (how we control video games, for example with a joypad, mouse or motion sensor) and character output is narrowing all the time. One of my very favourite games, Bayonetta, is the polar opposite of a JRPG because what makes it fun is the tactile relationship between the buttons the player pushes on the controller and Bayonetta's fluid movements.

This means that nothing in Bayonetta is left to chance. If you're skillful enough to evade attacks at the right time and execute Bayonetta's trademark moves, you will emerge from battle unscathed. How successful you are is directly proportional to your skill with the controller. There is a definite joy in seeing your abilities so succinctly quantified on screen, and many find this joy dampened by a JRPG mechanic that rarely gives you direct control over your character, allowing you only to tell them to "spent 45 Attack Points on casting Spiral Wind".

Yet this approach creates a compulsive suspense of its own.

A JRPG battle's outcome is determined by probability and randomly-generated numbers. If you cast "Spiral Wind", you do so in the knowledge that a) the attack might not connect, b) the enemy might be invulnerable to wind c) the effectiveness of the attack might be increased or decreased depending on what clothes your character is wearing. As a player, your only "active" role is to command the characters, rather than to control their every punch, jump and dive as you might in a game like Bayonetta.

In order to command effectively however, you have to do a fair amount of thinking.

It's this thinking that appeals to me most about JRPGs. It's not puzzle solving of the kind that Portal or the early Tomb Raider games require. No, it's more a continual mental drip of evaluating risk and probability over time, and making educated guesses as to how certain decisions will alter these things. In a JRPG, you're likely to lose upwards of half an hour's worth of progress if you die, so caution and educated guesses are vital to avoid enormous frustration and countless wasted hours.

Although these numbers and probabilities are what defines a JRPG, there are certain colourful conventions which entice and repel in equal measure. The first is the often idiosyncratic design of the various monsters.

Because JRPGs must involve fighting monsters, the vast proportion of them take place in some kind of fantasy world. Even the Persona games, which technically take place in the real world, feature gateways into a human subconscious populated by many strange creatures. Because these creatures all need to have different powers and weaknesses, they all need to be, well, different. Most JRPGs contain hundreds of different monsters, and designers tend to go out of their way to ensure that each monster is as distinctive as the last.

In general, most monsters in JRPG games appear somewhere along a horizontal line, with Beanie Babies at one end and deep sea fishes at the other. In general, the more you progress through a JRPG, the more the local fauna start to look like this.

I love the ingenuity of JRPG monsters, and I marvel at the eccentric minds that come up with them. I also love the way that a good JRPG uses consistent design so you can have a good stab at guessing an enemy's weakness just by the way it looks and its colour. If you know that a blue glass wasp will dodge all physical attacks and be weak to fire, there's a good chance that the orange glass wasp you meet further on will also dodge physical attacks and be weak to ice.

Of course, a truly well-designed JRPG will honour your predictions most of the time, but still throw you a curve-ball every now and again just to stop things getting boring. That orange glass wasps might absorb all magical attacks and use an insta-kill ray on its sixth turn. Be prepared.

With this in mind, I always enjoy firing up a new JRPG just to see how the fight system will work. You would imagine that there would be a limited number of ways you can make turn-and-number-based combat interesting, but JRPGs have so far managed to prove otherwise, although innovations in this genre are perhaps not as fast or as radical as in, say, the fighting genre. Recent years have seen grid-based fight systems (Enchanted Arms), the collection and creation of a set of helpful monsters (Persona 4) and the debatably successful removal of player control from all but one member of a party (Final Fantasy XIII).

Eternal Sonata uses elements of the real-time mechanic that emerged in the previous generation, most notably (and arguably most successfully) in Final Fantasy XII. Characters begin their turn with a bank of time which decreases as soon as they begin to move. They are free to run around the battlefield before attacking, and can make as many "moves" as they wish before the time runs out. Eternal Sonata's USP (that's "Unique Selling Point". Geeks love acronyms) is its use of the areas of light and shadow which appear on every battlefield.

Every one of the game's characters has a set of powers which work only in the dark and a set which work only in the light. The player can chose one light power and one dark power per character at any point in the game, and then use them by running between patches of light and shade on the battlefield. The player must think tactically and choose between long and short-ranged powers, destruction and healing powers, and ensure a good spread across their party.

This not only adds a rare environmental edge to a genre which often reduces surroundings to backdrop only, but it also allows for some of the most beautifully colour-saturated design on the Xbox 360. Because all the areas which contain monsters must also contain areas of light and shade, much thought has gone into how to incorporate overhanging cover into the environments. From dappled shade to glass-roofed sewers, this strange constriction breeds a gorgeous creativity on the part of the designers.

Now, I love colour. I have shelves full of books chronicling the work of Rodney Matthews, Roger Dean and Michael Whelan, science fiction and fantasy artists who created psychadelic landscapes in vivid colours that could never exist in real life. I used to buy fantasy books because I was seduced by their beautiful covers, only to be disappointed when the story inside never quite lived up to their promise.

A lot of JRPGs take place on animated versions of these landscape, and for the most part, the hyperbolic intensity of their stories tend to match them for scale, if not always in quality. I haven't got far enough through Eternal Sonata to say whether the story maintains its current level of eloquence, but the concept of setting the entire game in the subconscious of a dying composer certainly explains the saturated colour palette.

Whether or not it manages it, I have yet to see. However, I adore wandering around these worlds that are unrestrained by logic or context. The human imagination is a powerful thing, and video games can give us a unique opportunity to explore its products as we might wander through a cathedral to understand the lives that have come before us.

Or something like that. I had a glass of wine with lunch.

Anyway, key to the JRPG experience is the party. Unlike the majority of narrative-based games, where you only control one character at a time, the JRPG requires that you take command of a rag-tag bunch of characters, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, motives and haircuts.

By and large, these characters are as stylised as the environments they explore. They may as well be. The fantasy setting means that designers don't need to worry about gravity, practicality, or whether or not the character in question is at risk of catching a chill.

Further to this, JRPG characters all tend to excel in different skills, be it physical offensives, healing, tactics or destruction magic. Most RPGs allow the player to choose which direction to take the characters' skills in as they level up, but in general, gameplay depends upon the diverse spread of strengths and weaknesses across the cast. Consequently, their design should reflect their diversity.

This appeals to me because I spent large swathes of my childhood drawing pictures of people in different outfits, trying out different colour schemes (with my meticulously organised colouring pencils) for every one.

I haven't met the entire cast of Eternal Sonata yet, and I have yet to discover how the light-and-shade battle mechanic functions at a higher level. For now, I shall wallow in the game's saturation of colour, smooth visuals and unusual story. I'm playing the game with the original Japanese vocals, which are almost universally preferable to any American dub.

So far, it's ticking all my JRPG happy-boxes, whilst sketching a few more in down the margin. It's also given me some much-needed new ideas for posts, so watch this space.

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