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Picross meets Phoenix Wright

I have mixed feelings about Murder by Numbers being described as Picross meets Phoenix Wright. The Picross part is accurate enough, but while there are definitely some Ace Attorney vibes here the gameplay bears only a passing resemblance.

Like, yes, there are murders, and you look around for clues and talk to people with simple dialog trees and you can show them your clues to get a reaction and sometimes this is necessary to get more information that moves things forward. But that’s common in mystery games. To me, the essence of Phoenix Wright games are the trials and especially the cross-examinations. Hearing witness testimony, finding the lie or error, and presenting the piece of evidence that proves the contradiction - it requires some actual deduction and understanding of the case’s facts, and to me it makes for the most satisfying moments of those games.

I’m enjoying Murder by Numbers, but I’ve now completed two of the game’s four cases and there’s been nothing like that.

I get that Phoenix Wright is the best-known murder mystery game series with an anime or visual novel style. The comparison would be inevitable even if the soundtrack weren’t by Masakazu Sugimori (who also did the music for the first two Phoenix Wright games). But on some level it frustrates me because it seems based on a superficial read on the series which leaves out its best strengths.

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Standalone Steam Soundtracks

Given my music purchasing habits, it’s frustrated me more than a few times that many indie games only make their soundtracks available for purchase as DLC on Steam. This was fine for games that I happened to buy on Steam, but I have had to resort to double-dipping on a game I already had on a different platform. It was worth it, but still silly.

So I’m really glad Steam finally made soundtracks available as standalone purchases a couple of months ago. And today, I finally made use of this ability for a game I’m playing on Switch. Feels good.

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Switch Fitness

Ring Fit Adventure is apparently sold out everywhere, which is bad timing for folks looking for electronically-assisted indoor fitness options during the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s worth noting that while Ring Fit Adventure requires dedicated peripherals and is thus not available digitally, there are other Switch fitness games that just use the joy-cons and can thus be bought digitally. And in my house we actually prefer one of those - Fitness Boxing - to Ring Fit Adventure.

If you aren’t familiar, Ring Fit provides a workout, but does so as part of an overarching RPG-like game. The story is very simple and has a cartoonish feel, including a companion character named Ring who is the in-game representation of the ring-con controller and is excited, friendly, and talkative - to me, the overall effect feels weirdly kid-targeted for an exercise game.

In at least the first few regions of the game, you progress through an area and have some fights along the way. Going through the area looks like a forward-facing 3D platformer (a la Crash Bandicoot) and you step in place to move your character. Along the way are opportunities to point the ring-con in a direction and squeeze it to release an air burst to break something and get coins or open a door or things like that, or point it down and squeeze to hover across gaps. The battles are turn-based and your attacks are variously categorized exercises like squats and yoga chair-pose lifts and such.

I was left feeling like the target audience for Ring Fit is someone who doesn’t want to or can’t be particularly deliberate about their exercise and is looking for a distracting framework to motivate them through it. The idea seems to be that you just play regularly and get through some levels until you’re tired or whatever, and you’ll definitely burn calories but it’s not a consistent or targeted workout. There’s always plenty of stepping, but the other actions aren’t necessarily balanced, especially if you’re optimizing for combat effectiveness instead of a better exercise, which seems likely for the sort of person who wants to play this game. The idea seems to be that the RPG is appealing and distracting and you’ll get exercise in the course of playing the RPG.

I did not find the RPG appealing, given how kid-targeted it seemed. And for me, it’s more useful to get into a consistent rhythm with my exercise so that I can just get in the zone.

Fitness Boxing is much more suited to this. It’s essentially a rhythm game that gives you instructions on the beat via scrolling icons, similar to Dance Dance Revolution. And while you can pick specific exercises if you like, you can also just have it tell you what to do. For example, I told it my fitness goals were “Strength and Cardio” and that I wanted 15-minute workouts, and then I could just start the “Daily Workout” from the menu and it would give me a 15-minute-ish workout that gets slightly harder each day based on my history and performance. I know how long it’ll take, I won’t be unpredictably changing what I’m doing along the way, I won’t have to stop and think about what attacks to use, and I can just get into the rhythm.

(There’s also Just Dance, but those workouts are not progressive in the same way.)

So, you know. There are other options besides Ring Fit Adventure - ones that can’t sell out. And for many players those other options are better anyway.

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Breaking the World

This is a post about why I stopped playing Lost Sphear. It contains plot spoilers for the first few hours of the game. They are behind the cut. You have been warned.

I wanted to like Lost Sphear. I considered I Am Setsuna to be underrated, with much of the criticism levied against it unfair, so I had plenty of benefit of the doubt to give Lost Sphear. And at first, I really did enjoy it! Like I Am Setsuna, Lost Sphear has beautiful visuals and music. I immediately found its world comforting, its characters likable, and its storytelling compelling. The initial group of characters, their relationships, and their role in their town are well established and feel real enough to invest in.

But after a few hours, the story started going in strange directions that felt less grounded and less plausible.

Read more...

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Breaking Momentum

This is a petty complaint, but I’m gonna whine about it anyway.

I Am Setsuna has an active time battle system very reminiscent of Chrono Trigger. One wrinkle added on top is the momentum system - your characters gradually build up “momentum” over the course of combat and can store up to three full “charges”. When taking an action, a character can expend a stored momentum charge to enhance that action, with the nature of the enhancement depending on the action. This increases the strategic complexity of combat - if you almost have a full charge, you might delay an action slightly in order to finish out the charge and then perform the better version of that action. And depending on the state of the combatants, you might want to spend your momentum charges to hit the enemy harder or save them for improved healing spells. And so on.

That’s great. The problem is how momentum is activated. If a character has any momentum charges, right before they perform their selected action, there’s a quick burst of light around them. If you press the Y button (on Switch; I assume it’s Square on PlayStation) during that burst, they’ll use one of their charges and enhance the action.

That probably sounds fine in isolation, but keep in mind that this is real-time menu-driven combat. The way this sort of system is supposed to work is that you keep an eye on the state of combat and plan ahead, making quick decisions and issuing commands rapidly without burning a lot of time in menus. As implemented, the momentum system breaks that flow, because commanding a character to use momentum becomes a delayed, multi-step process. You might decide to attack with momentum, but you can’t just pick “Attack with momentum” from the menu and move on to the next character. You have to pick “Attack” and then keep an eye on that character so you can react quickly and hit the momentum button when they flash. The flash is very quick so as not to delay battle, and in my experience if I stop watching the character and start thinking about what I want the next one to do, when the flash comes I don’t react quickly enough and don’t get to use the momentum as planned. And it’s unwise to just train yourself to hit the button for every flash, because sometimes it’s very important to save charges.

This is frustrating and incoherent. Turn-based RPG combat is about preparation, strategy, and tactics - not action. It’s one thing to add some action flavor via timed hits like in Mario RPGs - those are fully turn-based and don’t split your attention. But a system like this adds the action in a way that directly interferes with the tactics that you signed up for, and in an uninteresting way - you’ve already made the decision to use momentum, and the execution is just about noticing the flash and hitting the button quickly enough. It’s a failure to ensure that what’s hard about combat is also what’s interesting about it.

It’s also totally unnecessary. The Y button is otherwise unused during combat (which is why it’s safe to use for this purpose even when you have another character’s menu up). Why not just attach it to the actual command? Normally you hit A to issue a command - why not just make it so that hitting Y instead means that same command, but with momentum? This would have no effect on the actual strategic depth of combat and is no harder to learn, but would make issuing the command single-step and immediate, allowing you to immediately move on to the next character and keep the flow going without having to pause and waste time on an uninteresting reflex test.

Ultimately it’s not that big of a deal, and overall I still liked I Am Setsuna just fine. But little touches like this can make surprisingly large impressions. Recently I got around to starting Lost Sphear, the next game by the same team, and was disappointed to discover that while the momentum system has been somewhat refined and improved, you still activate momentum the exact same way. I found myself immediately (and unfairly) assuming that this meant that Lost Sphear had failed to learn the right lessons from its predecessor and wasn’t going to resolve its flaws. I’ve played a few hours now and I don’t think that impression is accurate, but I still wish they’d changed this.

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