Nobility in polarity

The discussion that cropped up in the wake of last week’s Final Fantasy VIII musings have reinforced my awareness that polarizing game design can sometimes be great game design. The idea sounds fairly stupid on the face of it, I suppose: If half the people who play a game hate it, how could it be good? Yet in revisiting the decade-long debate over FFVIII, I find that the content of the arguments surrounding the game is interesting. While the “con” team has its share of people who simply don’t like the game for perfectly good reasons, a significant percentage of people who criticize it don’t quite seem to understand the game — or, at the very least, they don’t seem to be taking it on the terms its developers intended. They approach the combat system from the wrong direction, they get bogged down by habits carried over from other RPGs which prove ineffective here, they write off the cast based on surface appearances or on general Internet hive-mind perceptions. The “pro” team has its foibles, too; there are an awful lot of people who will admit no fault in the game, or who try desperately to come up with insane rationalizations for its failings out of some misguided sense of chivalry. On the whole, though, the game’s fan base takes the game as it is, accepting its flaws while praising its strengths and reveling in its uniqueness.

So which side is right? Is FFVIII a ruinous mess of a game, or is it actually a commendable work? Obviously, my opinion falls into the latter camp, but not without justification. (Or so I’d like to think, anyway.) This seems a case where a game’s polarizing nature speaks well for it: The creators did something unconventional in the name of their collective vision for the game. Their experimental efforts didn’t always pan out for the best, but they were more successful than not. Gaming is a medium increasingly dominated by safe, complacent design in name of profitability. That Square would follow up its most successful work ever by something that broke so many accepted rules and practices was gutsy.

This is one of those things I have to keep in mind when I review games; I may not always like an off-the-wall or laterally designed game, but I think it’s important to be able to recognize the intent behind it. God Hand, for instance, isn’t necessarily something I think is fun. That’s not because it’s a lousy creation; it’s because God Hand a loving homage to a genre and style I don’t really enjoy. (See also: Bayonetta.) Just because a game bores to me to tears doesn’t mean I think it’s crappy… I just means I duck out of reviewing it.

On the other hand, you have Order of Ecclesia, a game in a genre and series I love — it bores me to tears, which is probably a sign that something about it terribly wrong. In theory, I should like Ecclesia, but in practice I find the developers’ decision to take the standard Metroidvania template and boost the difficulty to be poorly executed, since their attempt revolved around cranking up enemy stats rather than smarter level design or trickier AI. Being forced to chip away at the same stupid enemies I’ve been breezing through for two decades doesn’t make them more interesting, it just slows the pace, which in turn causes me to look around and realize how stagnant the Castlevania series’ design has become. It’s like the Wizard pulled back the curtain before Toto even arrived in the scene.

But then, some people really love the game, so who’s to say it’s badly designed? I keep digging away at it, hoping to strike the nugget of goodness its fans swear exists somewhere inside, but so far I’m panning nothing but gravel and dirt.

Which brings me to my current review conundrum, Sands of Destruction. I ducked out of the Ecclesia review without even knowing how conflicted I’d be about the game, but I volunteered to review Sands out of sheer curiosity. It’s like the mutant offspring of Xenogears, the very definition of a conflicted game. Despite my using Xenogears as a whipping boy for so long, I don’t actually hate it — I just found the flaws it possesses to be unusually infuriating. Still, I’ve always felt that the concepts laid down by the game could be revisited to create a genuine masterpiece. You know, with a little more polish and a lot less ambition that results in a rushed tumble through the second half of the story through a wall of static text. Maybe, I thought, Sands would be that masterpiece.

Turns out it’s not. It’s not even close, in fact! It is, however, a very bizarre piece of work that feels more like a distorted echo of Xenogears than an actual follow-up. At the same time, I’ve already had a debate with someone about the merits of its combat system, among other things. So, I suppose I need to keep all of this in mind as I enter the back half of the adventure. Is it a broken mess or a madly inventive work of genius that defies convention? I can’t decide just yet.

I can say with certainty that I don’t hate it, though. Sands feels exactly like a second-tier 32-bit RPG that fell 12 years through a time warp to land in 2010. I didn’t even realize I was nostalgic for that particular niche of gaming, but apparently I am!

24 thoughts on “Nobility in polarity

  1. What’s interesting is that I found FF8 to be guilty of what you cite in Order of Ecclesia. (Even when it comes down to swapping glyphs, it isn’t too much trouble, as the most recently used items and glyphs are near the top of the list. And it doesn’t have the copious backtracking of the first few Metroidvanias of the series.)

  2. For the record, I do admire the risks FF8 took, even though not all of them were in the right mind IMO. I’m also the sort of gamer who generally holds iconoclastic games in high regard over the safer fare.

  3. Another conflicting 32bit RPG: Chrono Cross. Inventive, original, and full of wacky character? Or completely insane and slow as molasses?

  4. I do think Ecclesia has a nugget of goodness to be found, but it’s hard to say whether it’s worth digging for. I probably had more fun in new game plus than in the entire first run.

  5. “Chrono Cross. Inventive, original, and full of wacky character?” I’d say it was too full. I feel that many of those characters added almost nothing to the game story-wise and should never have been put into the game in the first place.

  6. If you didn’t like all the characters in Chrono Cross, you didn’t have to get them. Aren’t there roughly 16 required characters, or slightly more than Final Fantasy VI?

    All Chrono Cross did was give you added variety, if you wanted it. If you didn’t, you didn’t have to go out of your way to get all those characters.

    Are choices considered a gaming flaw these days?

  7. Choices must be meaningful to have any value. Also, 45 playable characters means none of them have any personality. Game’s story dead on arrival – Soulless exercise in pretty graphics and good, if slow, RPG mechanics.

  8. But Xenogears has been revisited to create a misunderstood masterpiece called Xenosaga. :[

    I wonder what you’d have to say about Xenosaga. You share my views of Dragon Quest and FF VIII, so there is hope!

  9. I have no love for Xenosaga. The only thing good about that game was the card mini game. The rest was me sobbing softly into my hands at how stupid that game was.

    Loved that card game tho.

    On the flip side, I love FF8. I think my favorite part is how connected your items, stats, guardian forces, abilities, and Triple Triad are.

    – Eddie

  10. If memory serves I don’t think you’d be too pleased with Mr. Parish’s opinion of Xenosaga.

    Chrono Cross aside, I think Xenogears did something to its designers/writers/artists that they never recovered from. Those guys could/would not leave their anime sensibilities aside and just. Make. A video game. Too much emphasis on the “video” and almost no attention given to the “game.”

  11. If you don’t like the story, that’s fine. That’s personal taste. The other statements are just incorrect.

    “45 playable characters means none of them have any personality.”

    Most of the optional characters in CC have little development, yes, but that doesn’t mean NONE of them have it. As silent protagonists go, Serge has more motivation and backstory than Crono, for instance. The other “main” characters like Kid and Harle get their share of development as well.

    “Choices must be meaningful to have any value.”

    So… which characters you use in battle in an RPG has no value? Strange, I thought that kind of important.

  12. To clarify: I said that because I said that CC just gave you more character choice than most other games, and you implied that the character choice was meaningless. While they may not have wildly different motivations, they all have different elemental colors, different techs, and their stat distributions are far more varied than most mainstream RPGs, such as FF7 or FF8.

  13. “45 playable characters means none of them have any personality.”

    What about if there are 108…?

  14. My problem is, this is usually how it goes: Developer makes the bold decision to try something crazy and different. The resulting game usually has some aspects of it you really have to love, and some major flaws which could be ironed out if we continued with another game along these lines.

    Developer then proceeds to either default back to safe territory, or default back to a safe baseline and then try some other line of crazy experimentation. I’d love to have seen, for example, FF9 to keep the whole junction system, replace drawing magic with a less boring spell acquisition method, and see if we can get something really nice out of it. Or for PoP: Two Thrones to have kept the highly varied combat and ambitiously complex level design of Warrior Within where you pass through the same rooms from different angles needing different paths. People almost never seem to have any followthrough with these ideas.

  15. I really am rather curious about your opinion of Ecclesia, because I do buy it… I just didn’t feel that way at all about it.

    I played Ecclesia at around the same time as I did Final Fantasy 4 DS, and both games shared a certain design principle of reductionism and subtraction that I really appealed to.

    FF4DS was great to me as a game because it stripped down a lot of the excess fat that has crawled up around the RPG genre and made old choices valid once again. There is no extra dungeon with a hundred copy-pasted floors that just feels tepid and an excuse to pad the game’s length and justify an unchallenging ‘main game’, using the tri-Ace method of pointing everyone to the bonus content if they want difficulty.

    Instead, I found myself using old tactics I haven’t used in… like, forever, in an RPG, like running away from battles that were just not worth fighting (like the dragons in Zot).

    I felt a lot of the same things about Ecclesia. After Portrait of Ruin, which I felt was extremely gimmicky (the two-characters didn’t come across as intuitive, and the ‘multiplayer’ was disappointing) and rushed (the second set of portraits is a huge letdown), I found Ecclesia’s stripped-down design to work better in its favor.

    The breakdown of levels into a segment of locations could have been done better – many of the levels are uninspired and often don’t hold very many secrets at all, I’ll grant. But the real pinnacle of Ecclesia that charmed me so much is actually having Dracula’s Castle be a lategame area with an epic feel, and just enough of that nonlinear sprawl and even a secret *exit*. Actually being able to leave the castle felt great.

    Physical elements were something that was around in SotN (swords vs. fists, as I remember the major distinction), but had been dropped heavily until Ecclesia: In the previous games, it didn’t really matter what I used. Soma could tear through enemies with equal abandon with any of his bladed weapons. In contrast, Ecclesia’s streamlining of weapon and magic to just be different weapons period was effective in challenging me to make a choice. The system is undoubtedly simpler, yes, but certain boss designs (Eligor in particular) were great in making me really choose my weapons to tailor the situation.

  16. Here’s what I want to know about Sands Of Destruction: how’s the soundtrack (Mitsuda did it, right?) and how frequent and grating is the voice acting?

  17. “That Square would follow up its most successful work ever by something that broke so many accepted rules and practices was gutsy.”

    See also: Chrono Cross. As others have mentioned, it’s a very love/hate kind of game. But at least it’s different. They tried something new, rather than just make CT2. I still hate them for it since CC’s plot is an absolute mess, but I can’t hate them entirely.

  18. I’ve always thought that basically any game without a decent number of sincere detractors probably isn’t going to be all that interesting to me. (Which is not a 1:1 correlation with “good” or “fun,” but it’s definitely usually related) Super Metroid is the exception that proves the rule, really. But in most other games, particularly convention-breaking titles in formulaic series (like Dragon Quarter or Majora’s Mask), the things that put other people off are the unusual and often brilliant bits that keep me engaged.

  19. Oh god… Dragon Quarter… *curls into fetal position* I don’t remember playing a more punishing game…

  20. @SwimOdin: Nah, nothing’s wrong with you. Final Fantasy VIII’s claim to fame is switching out the norm of equipment and learned magic in favor of fixed upgradable weapons, stockable magic, and equippable summons that define your possible movesets and which stats you can slap your spells onto. The ATB combat is largely the same, but magic and Guardian Forces are the new weapons/armor/jobs in FFVIII.

    Dragon Quarter, on the other hand, is a much bigger shift in tone by taking the Breath of Fire series’ somewhat generic RPG trappings and nifty mechanics and throwing most of them in a garbage disposal in favor of a dungeon crawling RPG design in an enclosed underground world with emphasis on strategy and its S.O.L. system encouraging replays. If it wasn’t for Ryu, Nina, a Woren tribe character, dragons, and stealing enemy abilities, it wouldn’t be recognizable as a BoF title at all. Going outside the box so much is why I love it, though.

  21. Old BoF games might have been generic, but I kind of liked that… but that was an age and time before we got over saturated by generic JRPGs. Am I crazy for thinking BoF5 is the original Crystal Chronicles?

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