Archive for 2012

Chrono Trigger: Goodbye and Goodnight

It took me a while to complete the side-quests to my satisfaction, and it’s entirely due to one area: a lost city peaceful reptites (humanoid dinosaur-folk, seen elsewhere as enemies) that managed to survive in a hidden valley until medieval times. What happened to them after that, I don’t know. These reptites host a seemingly endless series of fetch-quests in their hidden valley over the course of two eras, but they don’t really have enough land to support it. Consequently, they send you running through the same few areas over and over, running into the same few unavoidable encounters along the way. It seemed very much against the spirit of the game as described in my previous post, and it turns out there’s a good reason for that: this entire section is an after-the-fact addition. It’s extra content put in for the Nintendo DS version, which is apparently what the iOS port was ported from. In other words, it’s there for the True Fans who love the game so much that they just want to keep playing it indefinitely, not for newcomers like myself for whom seeing new stuff is part of the appeal. So I ditched the reptites and got on with the main quest.

I still did things the long way, mind you, going through the final dungeon known as the Black Omen to reach Lavos instead of just time-jumping directly to him. It’s a pretty long dungeon, and it leads into what has got to me some kind of record-breaker for the number of distinct stages in a single boss fight 1I guess it’s got some competition in Final Fantasy VIII, though, which essentially makes its entire final chapter into one long unbroken string of boss stages. This makes me suspect that later JRPGs which I haven’t played may take things to even greater extremes. (some of which, I understand, are skipped if you take the shortcut in). It starts with a difficult-to-survive fight with Lavos’ chief minion, then repeats every single gimmick boss you’ve fought in the entire game before pulling out a couple of new tricks. Between stages, you get to take a break and apply restorative items, like a boxer going back to his corner at the sound of the bell, but you don’t get to save the game until you’ve reached the end of the recapitulation sequence. I imagine it would be quite frustrating to lose at the final stage of that sequence and have to start it over from the beginning. That may be why the deadliest part is in the very beginning, and also may be the reason the designers let you short-circuit most of the encounter.

After winning the final encounter, there’s a certain amount of ending material, and it’s pretty satisfying stuff. Two of my favorite types of endings are ones where the story comes full circle, putting you into a similar situation as the beginning, and ones where there’s a big party in celebration of your victory. Thanks to the Millennial Fair, Chrono Trigger gets to do both at once! It’s nighttime at the fairground now, time for christmas lights and fireworks, and ultimately time to leave the fair and go to bed. Thematically, playtime is over. Even if Crono and crew deny this with their actions: playtime is never over when you have a time machine! And I suppose this is mirrored in the way that winning the game immediately opens up “New Game +” mode, even conspicuously showing a cutscene of new time rifts opening.

Speaking of bedtime, there’s a loose theme of dreaming around the whole work. The mystics of antiquity have an entire city devoted to the art of dreaming, with people asleep in beds out in public, a juxtaposition that would be dreamlike even if it weren’t specifically about dreams. Conversations in that place contain odd comments about how creatures born of dreams must return to dreams and such, which seemed at the time like it might be leading somewhere. And I didn’t much like where it seemed to be leading. The game starts with Crono waking up at home to the pealing of bells, and this is echoed a couple of times later in the game — in particular, right after defeating Magus, there’s a brief scene of Crono waking up at home in a world where he’s apparently married to Marle and trying to hold down a job instead of having adventures. Was the whole story a dream, and that moment our only glimpse of reality? It would make a certain amount of sense: with time travel, you have the possibility that most of the story will have been wiped from reality by the end, so who’s to say that it was ever more than a dream? Fortunately, the game doesn’t take it that far. The dream stuff is left vague; saving your state at the end for New Game + yields the description “Dream’s End” in the save slot, but to the extent that the story is a dream, it’s all a dream, all equally unreal.

This also explains the existence of New Game + mode.Just one more thing I’d like to note before bidding Crono goodnight: there’s more to the nostalgia factor than I was aware of when I wrote about it previously. One of the side-quests triggers a conversation about the origin of the time gates, in which it’s speculated that they were created by some entity’s desire to see “the days of its past”. It’s a hint of a mystery. What entity? Given all the folding-back of plot elements, it feels like this should be resolvable by attentive consideration of what we’ve seen. But consulting the Internet, that appears to not be the case. There are fan theories, but nothing definite, even after two sequels. I guess it’s just there to let you know that you don’t know everything, no matter how many times you’ve replayed it.

But then, the expectation that you’d replay brings to mind the meta possibilities, such as that the “entity” is the player. This doesn’t fit the first time you play the game, of course. But even I, a person who doesn’t really intend to replay the game at all, have played about half of it twice (not counting micro-restores resulting from TPKs). This fits with the dream stuff, too: if the whole story is a dream, surely it’s the dream of any real person experiencing it.

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1. I guess it’s got some competition in Final Fantasy VIII, though, which essentially makes its entire final chapter into one long unbroken string of boss stages. This makes me suspect that later JRPGs which I haven’t played may take things to even greater extremes.

Chrono Trigger: Home Stretch

Having rescued Crono, I’m at the point now where all I have left to do is finish up any side-quests I feel like doing, then jump into the final battle.

I actually polished off a few of the side-quests before rescuing Crono, because I suspected that bringing him back might be the point of no return that leads into the endgame, but that turned out not to be the case. I was also worried about forgetting all the unfinished business I had all over the world in different eras, and was all set to lament the lack of a quest log in the classical JRPGs, but it turns out that Gaspar, the guy at the End of Time who you can go to for guidance about what to do next, keeps a list of what you haven’t done yet.

As for jumping into the final battle, this has actually been an option for most of the game. At the End of Time, where you have access to all the other portals, there’s a portal directly into a fight with Lavos. Apparently the ending you get varies according to what stage of the plot you’re at when you beat him. Now, if you try to fight him the first moment he’s available, obviously you’ll be severely underpowered, lacking the experience and equipment that the rest of the game brings. But I’m told that people have managed it, presumably by doing lots of extra grinding in the areas that are accessible beforehand. You’d really have to love the game to do that. Me, I’ve come to like the game, but one of the reasons I like it is that it’s largely grind-free. Just progressing through the story yields enough experience to keep pace with the difficulty curve without repeating fights. (So at last I have the reason that so many of the fights are avoidable: so you don’t have to repeat them if you don’t want to.) Also, rather unexpectedly for someone trained on Final Fantasy, there are no random encounters. Each dungeon has a fixed set of monsters, that don’t respawn unless you leave, at fixed locations, and the overland map doesn’t have any monsters at all. So, although you can grind if you really want to, the game doesn’t seem to expect it.

Which suits me fine. I intend to finish the game by weekend’s end.

Chrono Trigger: Twists

Yesterday yielded good progress. I’ve got to the point where, like in every Final Fantasy, you acquire a flying machine that allows easy access to the entire map. Unlike the typical Final Fantasy airship, this one is a time machine as well, meaning you don’t have to go trudging back to the rifts any more and can easily scan through the same location in different periods like it’s Time Zone or something. You actually get access to the time travel capabilities before the flight, and when the characters learn it can fly too, they’re surprised. The player is not. It looks like it should fly. I was surprised when it didn’t fly right away.

I’m pleased by the way the plot is turning out at this point, and so I’m going to spoil it heavily. (I’m also going to spoil a few Final Fantasy games for comparison purposes.) Like in the best time-travel stories, everything is folding together. Things that seemed arbitrary turn out to have histories. Characters you meet in one era turn out to be older, time-displaced versions of people you’ve met elsewhere. When an amulet that’s been in your inventory since near the beginning of the game can be charged with the same magical energies as one held by a forgotten monarch in ancient times, it’s not a coincidence: it’s the same amulet.

There are two particular twists that I want to describe. One is something that I was anticipating: Magus, the putative mid-game bad guy, joins the party. This is probably the hardest spoiler to avoid in the entire game. Any article or wiki page that even just lists the playable characters is going to give this one away. Anyway, it got me wondering: are villains who join your party a JRPG thing? FF7 and FF8 both had brief sections where you adventure with the enemy, albeit the FF7 one was in a flashback to before he went bad. It also got me wondering if Chrono Trigger was the one that did it first, but apparently the Fire Emblem series had been doing similar things for five years already. Feel free to correct me on this, though.

Magus can’t really be said to “switch sides”, though, any more than the superheroes in the classical mistake-each-other-for-criminals scenario switch sides when they team up afterward. For all his gothness, he’s really just misunderstood. Mind you, he’s mainly misunderstood by his supporters. In Chrono’s home era, in the unaltered timeline, the monsters of Monster City revere Magus as a hero for almost managing to summon Lavos, the apocalyptic monster responsible for destroying the world in the future. They talk about finishing what he started and sending Lavos to destroy humankind for them. But Magus wasn’t summoning Lavos to use it as a weapon. He was summoning it because he wanted to kill it. He understood what Lavos really is: a planetary parasite that fell to earth eons ago, burying itself underground to consume the planet’s energy from within, then controlling people who sought its stolen power.

Also, it’s the meteor that killed the dinosaurs. But apart from that detail, this story reminds me a lot of Jenova in FF7. Or, to be honest, it reminds me of what I read about Jenova after the fact. When I actually played FF7, I didn’t get a very clear idea of Jenova’s backstory, and when I encountered detailed explanations elsewhere, they left me wondering just where all this information came from, whether there was stuff in the game that I had missed or whether it was all out-of-band. Right now, I’m starting to suspect that other people picked up on the story more easily than me because they had already played Chrono Trigger, which tells it much more clearly. Chrono Trigger lets you witness the backstory firsthand, including the bygone-era parts.

The other twist I want to mention is the big one: the death of the main player character. This actually took me somewhat by surprise. Oh, I knew that someone was going to die. I had seen some mentions here and there of how fans were unprepared for the death of — and then I’d turn away sharply before reading any further. Even if I hadn’t seen such things, the imminent death of an unspecified party member is prophesied within the game itself. But I was really expecting it to be Marle.

Why Marle? Largely because Lavos had got me noticing similarities with FF7, and Marle seemed similar in various ways to Aerith, FF7‘s party member who dies. Marle and Aerith are both healers, they both have a significant family background that they’re keeping secret (Marle’s a princess, Aerith is the last living descendant of the Ancients), and they’re both strangers who attach themselves to the party after meeting and flirting with the protagonist while he’s alone (and sprawled on the ground). On top of that, rescuing Marle when she’s in danger is the initial goal that sets the whole story into motion, so it seemed like her death would be the one of greatest dramatic significance. Well, except that of the protagonist, I suppose, but how likely is that?

Losing Crono is an explicitly temporary thing: no sooner is he gone than the other playable characters start trying to figure out how to resurrect him. But in the meantime, you have a sudden shift in the nature of the game. Up to this point, Crono had been a constant presence, the one character who was always available for use while others shift in and out. You come to rely on his abilities, like how he has really useful combo moves with everyone. With Crono and Marle together, I had a cheap and oft-used way to give light healing to the entire party. I kept looking for that in Marle’s combo menu for a while when it wasn’t there any more. Magus essentially replaces him in the party roster, but doesn’t get any two-person combos at all, which says a lot about their differences in character.

Chrono Trigger: Boss Tricks

I’ve finally broken new ground in Chrono Trigger, passing the point where I left it three years ago, the boss fight against the Magus the Fiendlord. Magus is a fake end boss, kind of like in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night: the story sets him up as the big bad rather than a sub-quest like most of the bosses up to that point, but there’s just too much unexplored territory for it to be believable, and indeed beating him just kicks off more story complications. Also like in Castlevania, you have to make your way through a large and spooky castle filled with undead to reach him. That, I think, is part of why I chose to stop playing there. It felt like the game’s premise, its variability of environment, had promised something fresh and interesting, but it was spending an awfully long time at being just another fantasy RPG. And it really does drag it out, making you battle three sub-bosses and multiple repetitive minion sequences before reaching Magus himself. It’s the sort of thing that really makes me appreciate how zippy the rest of the game is.

The other reason had I stopped there is that Magus is simply a really difficult fight. I may well have seen more PC deaths (or KO’s really) in this one fight than in the entire rest of the game, including a couple of boss fights that come afterward.

Boss fights in Chrono Trigger are by and large trickier than what I’m used to from Final Fantasy and the like. Those are generally pretty straightforward: all you have to do is figure out how to do the enemy enough damage to kill them before they kill you. Special resistances and vulnerabilities can affect this, of course. I recall one boss in FF4 or FF5 that kept on changing what sorts of damage it was vulnerable to, which is one of Magus’s tricks as well. But even there, the correct approach was to figure out the cycle and then repeatedly hit with the correct damage type, fast and hard. Chrono Trigger seems determined to make this approach inadvisable.

Mainly it does this with counterattacks: if you just hit the enemy as fast as you can, you just wind up dying faster yourself. And it can take a while to figure out that this is going on, because it isn’t necessarily obvious that an attack is a counterattack. You just have to take it slow and observe what happens to figure it out. Observing the enemy’s actions can be crucial in other ways as well. For example, there’s one fight against a spellcaster where you’re told in advance that you can disrupt his spellcasting with a specific one of Crono’s sword techniques. As a result, Crono spends much of that battle sitting and waiting for a spell to disrupt, even though he’s the team’s best damage-dealer.

The fight against Magus goes through two phases. In the first, he only does major damage in his counterattacks, so once you’ve figure that out, it’s easy to take control of the battle and keep your guys healed. The game plays a bit of a trick on the player there: hitting Magus with the Masamune Sword lowers his defense stat, but I didn’t realize this for a long time, because (a) it only does it on a normal melee hit, rather than the special techniques that do more damage, and (b) the only character who can wield the Masamune is also a healer, and thus often busy dealing with the aftermath of those counterattacks. After you do a certain amount of damage to Magus, he shifts into the second phase, where he drops the magical shields and just casts a very powerful damage spell at you repeatedly. I got through this by making sure my healing kept pace with the damage, but the amount of warning the game gives you whenever he starts to cast the spell makes me wonder if there was a trick that I was missing, something like that disruption effect described above.

Chrono Trigger: Nostalgia

I’m guessing that most people who bought Chrono Trigger on iOS are people who have played it before. Heck, I qualify at this point, but I’m really thinking of the people who played it as children, back when it was new. And happily for these people, Chrono Trigger, whether by accident or design, has a certain amount of nostalgia appeal baked in.

The bombastic main theme is first and most commonly heard within the game in a variant played on tinkly piano and pennywhistle, a wistful piece in a minor key suggestive of childhood memories. Which is appropriate, because the core crew consists of children. Crono, Lucca, and Marle, the first three player characters you get, all live with their parents. Crono’s mother in particular treats your adventures as if you were just going out into the yard to play with your friends, and honestly the whole story seems like the sort of thing that children at play would make up — particularly since most of it, taking place in other time periods, is unconfirmable.

Further playable characters, while not necessarily children, still have childish characteristics. Frog, we learn, was just a squire to a great knight before his transformation. Robo, a robot that Lucca repairs, is a new mind in an unfamiliar world. The first adult to join your party is the prehistoric warrior-woman Ayla, who’s still childish in her ways, particularly her emotional directness: she declares that she likes Crono seconds after meeting him. She’s definitely not the grown-up of the group, but I call her an “adult” because she looks like a Playboy model in animal skins, probably inspired by Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C.. I’m impressed, by the way, with how much distinct characterization this game manages to put into so few pixels: Crono’s rambunctious forcefulness, Lucca’s awkward grace, and Marle’s cheerleaderish enthusiasm all read very clearly in their posture and movements. With Ayla, its innocent sexiness and an improbably immaculate blonde coiffure.

Which brings us to the essential element of nostalgia: the sense that things are better in the past. Ayla and her people are strong enough to fight dinosaurs, and the equipment you can obtain from them, despite being ostensibly primitive, is far more effective than stuff from the present or future. Even a mere 400 years in the past, when the last great war against the fiends took place, was a time of valiant knights and glorious battles, which the humans ultimately won. Soldiers from the present wouldn’t stand a chance against the monsters back then. We know this because we’ve fought both. The future? The future is broken. The domed cities lie in ruins, where the scattered survivors of the human race lie slowly starving to death. Once you see what lies ahead, your goal is to prevent it. To make the future more like the past.

Chrono Trigger: Zabie Door

I keep seeing it mentioned that an experienced player can reach the ending of Chrono Trigger while skipping most of the content. I think of Myst as the extreme of this sort of thing: there, you can basically just skip straight to the ending if you know the combination to Atrus’s hidey-hole. Unless Chrono Trigger has some really non-obvious actions in the opening areas, it doesn’t look like it takes things quite that far. The first few chapters carefully shepherd the player through a set sequence of towns and dungeons, with no real power to skip ahead. It’s easy to overestimate your freedom on the first pass, because the game goes to some length to make the environment look explorable, but if you go too far off the rails, you just find there’s nothing to do out there before you hit the correct plot points. That phase of the game pretty much ends when you reach the portal hub at the End of Time, though. A lot of RPGs — JRPGs in particular, but not exclusively — seem to have a structure like this, starting linear and then fanning out at a certain point.

But just before gaining this more complete freedom, back in the ruins of the domed cities of the future, there’s a section with an obvious opportunity to skip ahead in a small way. It’s possible for the same reason that it’s possible in Myst: combination locks. There’s a “Zabie ultra high-security door”, which prompts you for a security code when used. On the consoles, the code is a sequence of buttons on your controller; iOS substitutes a translucent overlay with colored buttons. Now, the combination can be found at the end of a sequence of fights and obstacles in another room of the same dungeon, but if you already know the combination, you can skip that. And even if you don’t, there are hints right there on the door.

In the SNES version, the name “Zabie” was a hint: the combination is XABY. Ah, but this only works if you have buttons labeled A, B, X, and Y. The iOS version doesn’t. For that matter, the Playstation version doesn’t, and they didn’t change it to a “Trianglexcirclesquare ultra high security door” there. I don’t remember if there was an alternate hint for the Playstation version, but there definitely is on iOS: pressing buttons at random yields two different tones depending on whether you’re following the sequence correctly or not.

Now, this is not the first combination lock in the game. You had to go through another locked door to reach this point. But there, the game refused to even let you even try to enter a combination until you knew what it was, which reinforces the point that you were expected to at least try guessing at the Zabie door. Not only that, but the first door is kind of a tutorial for the business of the two tones, or at least it was for me. By the time I got back to the door after receiving the combination, I had forgotten the exact sequence, and had to make a few tries before getting it right. So by the time I hit the Zabie door, I knew exactly how to read the beeps.

In short, the whole “ultra high-security” business is something of a joke: the game takes pains to make the combination guessable. Whether you actually want to skip the section leading up to the combination is questionable: there’s loot and XP to be got by doing things the hard way, loot and XP which I personally went back and got after guessing my way through the Zabie door. In fact, there’s a lot of places where a skilled player can sneak past patrolling monsters, despite the fact that it’s ultimately kind of counterproductive to do so. I could see some point to avoiding encounters on the way to a boss fight if it weren’t for the fact that every boss fight is immediately preceded by a save point where you can rest up to full health and mana; as it is, avoiding fights or fleeing them seems like a kind of optional challenge, a way of showing off that you’ve mastered the mechanics enough that you can beat the game’s few unavoidable encounters without leveling up first.

Chrono Trigger: More Touchscreen UI Thoughts

By now I have found that “Save” button that I couldn’t find in my previous session, and am making copious use of it. It turned out to be offscreen, at the bottom of a swipe-to-scroll panel that certainly didn’t work that way on the original console. So let’s talk a little more about the UI changes that were made for the iOS port.

Obviously all of the menus are completely redesigned. The screen where you enter the names of player cahracters, for example, brings up the standard iOS keyboard, rather than making you select each letter with a virtual D-pad in strict imitation of the original. In the pause menu, which is where you do things like examine your character stats and equip new equipment, there are on-screen buttons for paging through your roster of characters without leaving your current sub-menu, something that was handled by the controller’s shoulder buttons on the Playstation.

But the same menus bear artifacts of the old UI. Sometimes you have to tap a button twice — for example, when selecting a save to load. Why? As near as I can tell, it’s treating the first tap as selecting the item, as you would with the D-pad, and the second tap pressing the A button. Something in the underlying code is expecting those two distinct actions, and someone decided to not rewrite things that deeply. A different but even stronger example: dialogue choices. Most dialogue doesn’t contain choices — as in most JRPGs, the protagonist’s spoken lines are for the most part merely implied by other characters’ reactions, but every once in a while you have to make a choice between two or more explicit options in response to a direct question. In the original, your choices would be displayed in a little window at the bottom of the screen, and you’d use the D-pad to move a cursor up and down between them. On iOS, your choices are displayed in big translucent buttons overlaid on the whole scene, the better to thumb them on a tiny phone screen. But the same text is still displayed, redundantly, in the little window at the bottom. Presumably because some developer decided that removing it was more trouble than it was worth.

One thing I said before turns out to be incorrect: you cannot select monsters in combat by tapping on them directly. Most of the combat interface uses tappable buttons, but targets have to be chosen by cycling through the options by either tapping left/right buttons or swiping, and that’s kind of horrible. I just didn’t notice this at first because the initial combats were too simple for it to be applicable. Facing one opponent, I tapped on it, and my tap was recognized — it was just recognized as a generic tap-anywhere-to-confirm-current-selection. I suppose that the way enemies move around makes the conversion more complicated here, but it’s nothing that would be beyond the realm of possibility for a more thorough port, so I’m disappointed with the actuality there.

But then, I feel a bit like the mere shift to tapping may fundamentally alter the feel of combat in the first place. The controller interface meant that substantial portions of combat — the bits where you just want the next guy to hit whoever’s handy — could be accomplished by pressing the button that’s already under your thumb a few times. The touchscreen UI makes this more difficult, and forces you to keep looking at your fingers, which is to say, away from the action. I feel like combat here is hectic, with all its frantic tapping, and that I’m constantly having to get a handle on what’s going on more quickly than I’m comfortable with. But then, when I think back on it, I remember having similar sentiments back on the PS2. Maybe I should just shift down from Active Battle Mode to Wait Mode, at least for a while.

Yes, it's a tutorial on how to press buttons.Back in Crono’s home town, there’s a motley bunch of family members and random adventurers hanging out in the mayor’s house to provide a tutorial when spoken to (the family providing basic interaction instructions, the adventurers focusing more on combat). I actually missed them the first time I played through the game’s opening, so effective was the game at steering me towards the plot. The way you interact with the game in iOS is so changed that much of this tutorial had to be altered, but I’m pleased to say that whoever wrote the new stuff managed to ape the conversational style of the original admirably, in all its goofiness.

Commencing Chrono Trigger

It was obvious what game would take slot C on the alphabetical rundown. I’ve been meaning to get back to Chrono Trigger ever since I started and failed to finish it three full years ago. It strikes me that I’ve developed a sort of second-order stack, consisting of games that I abandoned writing about for this blog about games that I had previously abandoned playing. I was suffering from something of a JRPG overload when I started Chrono Trigger, midway through both Final Fantasy VI and Recettear, and that limited my patience with it at the time. But it’s a culturally-significant enough game that I do want to finish it, if only so I can stop my futile efforts at avoiding spoilers.

But I’ve been dragging my heels at getting started at it again. I think I’ll probably be fine with playing it once I’m into it, but I’ve just been resistant to entering that mode. Mainly, I think, this is because I feel like I really would have to get started at it again, as in, start over from the beginning. It’s been so long since I last played it that I really don’t think my previous notes (which I have of course re-read) are adequate to getting me back into the swing of it. Oh, they’ll help, of course, as will mere memory. Knowing something of what’s to come, I’ll have opportunities to do things more perfectly this time around. Come to think of it, that’s more or less Crono’s attitude towards the overall plot, so this is a nice confluence of player and player-character motivation.

Also, after some consideration, I have decided that if I’m going to start over from the beginning, it is worth it to me to drop ten bucks on the recent iOS port, despite the app store reviewers’ complaints that it’s overpriced and not updated enough. I want to be able to do my grinding at idle moments while waiting on line at the grocery store or whatever. And really, I don’t want it to be too updated. The fact that it faithfully reproduces the pixels of the original is a plus for such as me, the historically-interested gamer. Touchscreen support is, however, an improvement I welcome. As in many JRPGs, combat is performed by making a series of choices: Attack/Magic/Item? Which sub-action within that category? Which target? — and being able to just tap your choice rather than D-pad to it feels much better and more natural. There are some cases where they had to superimpose new UI graphics to make the touchscreen work, mind you, and those feel like an intrusion. The biggest and most obvious such is of course the virtual joystick that you use to navigate, which takes up a horrifyingly large portion of the screen. I think I’ll learn to filter it out eventually, but I tend to feel that the graphical portion of the joystick is just unnecessary in a game like this. In a more action-oriented game, where precision is paramount, I could see it being an important part of providing enough feedback, but here, you get all the feedback you need just by seeing what direction Crono is running in.

So far, I’ve been all over the Millennial Fair that forms the game’s opening, and taken the time this time round to explore as much of the rest of the world as is available before triggering further plot. It turns out there isn’t a lot to do outside the fair, other than wandering into the houses of some NPCs who only become relevant much later, if ever. I tried to be as thorough as possible about taking advantage of the fair, engaging in optional challenges and buying extra goodies before proceeding further. Alas, all I had done was wiped out in the first combat I lost, because I hadn’t yet figured out how to save the game. Supposedly you can save anywhere when you’re at the main map (as opposed to a city or dungeon), but the menu didn’t seem to have the “Save” option that I remember from before. I’ll have to figure this out before making another serious sally. For now, that single sad experience was demoralizing enough to delay this post for another week.

The Blackwell Legacy

It seems like Wadjet Eye Games has been in the indie gaming news a lot lately, whether announcing new titles, or winning awards, or unexpectedly getting things onto Steam. And every time I read about what they’re doing lately, I think to myself that I really should try some of their stuff. I mean, I consider myself to be a fan of adventure games. I even already have some of their games, acquired via bundles and sadly neglected. Such is the Stack. So finally I’ve taken the plunge and played through the first of the flagship series by the company’s founder, the illustrious Dave Gilbert.

The Blackwell games are essentially supernatural detective stories. Like the kid in The Sixth Sense, Rosangela Blackwell sees dead people, and it’s her inherited responsibility to help them move on, with the help of her hard-boiled spirit guide, Joey Mallone. But she needs to know things about the deceased to help them, and their shades are too scatterbrained or hostile to provide the necessary information themselves, so that’s where the detectiving comes in. This is the sort of adventure game where dialogue is the dominant mode of interaction, and that uses a notebook of gathered conversation topics more than it uses its object inventory. It even lets you try to combine topics the way you combine inventory items, dragging them onto each other in an attempt to create new insights or to point out contradictions. The last time I saw this mechanic used was in Discworld Noir, which is apparently where Gilbert got the idea from. I honestly didn’t think it worked very well there: the necessary combinations were sometimes far from obvious (because they were puzzles), and the combinatorial explosion meant that you had to wade through a great many fruitless pairings to find them. The Blackwell Legacy solves this problem by aggressively pruning the topic list. Sure, a shorter list is an invitation to brute-forcing your way to plot-essential revelations, but when you’re dealing with topics rather than physical things, that’s actually kind of mimetic. Imagining Rosangela iterating over everything in her notes, racking her brains for possible connections, makes sense in a way that a typical adventure hero trying to combine everything in their inventory doesn’t.

The Blackwell Legacy also seems like something of a Sierra homage. The whole supernatural detective thing brings Gabriel Knight to mind, as does the loving depiction of real places in a real city (New York in this case), as does the division of the game content into “days” (there are only two, but the game is careful to point them out to us), as does the art style in some of the dialogue cameos (the close-ups of character faces superimposed on the screen while that character is speaking). For that matter, the fact that it uses dialogue cameos at all is something of a Gabriel-Knight-ism; the more-often-fondly-remembered games from Lucasarts never bothered with them. Part of the reason for them was to convey facial expressions, allowing a degree of emotional expression that would be difficult or impossible to pull off at the limited resolution of the in-scene figures without doing everything in broad, theatrical gestures. Now, Blackwell was made in 2006. There might still be readability concerns due to the fact that the characters’ faces simply occupy a small area on the screen, but the need to compensate for big blocky pixels is gone. Can you spot the two ghosts in this picture?Blackwell uses big blocky pixels anyway, which by this point in history has to be a deliberate artistic choice. The map screen — yes, of course there’s a map screen, that’s how detective games work — uses fuzzy antialiasing in a way that makes it clear that when the other screens use dithering for gradients or fill patterns, it’s not because they didn’t have a sufficient range of hues. It’s so you can admire the artistry of the dithering, like a cobblestone walk in a city of blacktop. And just look at the pixel-spray foliage in the screenshot. There’s a definite nostalgia element there. And today we have a fifth-anniversary special edition of the game, making even the nostalgia nostalgic in its own right.

There’s one other chief thing that The Blackwell Legacy is, and that’s an origin story. Apparently it was intended from the beginning to be the first of several episodes (currently four), and it shows. Much of the game is spent explaining the Blackwell family history, leading up to Rosangela meeting Joey for the first time, learning of her new abilities and obligations as a medium, and reluctantly coming to terms with the whole deal. After that, you get one typical “case” in which you get to use the abilities that have just been explained to you once or twice, and that’s it. It’s pretty short, all told. It’s essentially an introduction to being a Blackwell, practically a tutorial.

And yet, it took me four or five days to complete what should have been a one-sitting game. Why?

Mainly because I kept forgetting what my options were. This game provides just enough different forms of interaction, and spaces them out with enough dialogue (its dominant mode), that it’s easy to miss the one that you need to make the story progress at a given moment. For example, if you’ve forgotten that you can combine topics in your notebook, you’ll get stuck. At one point I even forgot about right-clicking. This game has a general scheme of left-click to perform actions, right-click to examine. So for a couple of sessions, I was left-clicking on things like posters on the walls expecting to read them, only to have Rosangela tell me that she didn’t want to take them, leaving me confusedly wondering what kind of game designer makes “take” be the only verb applicable to a poster. The visual resemblance to the classic Sierra games probably hurt me here, because the interface isn’t Sierra’s at all. (Heck, you can’t even use inventory items on the environment directly here, as in Sierra’s dominant mode; everything you pick up either gets applied automatically when appropriate or just adds an option to a conversation menu.) In the Sierra games, right-clicking was just a sort of UI shortcut, and never necessary, probably because they were designing with one-button mice in mind. So there’s an ingrained habit of mind there that I had to ditch hard.

The one major bit of non-UI-related stuckage I encountered was, however, very Sierra-ish. It had to do with a certain action only being available if you’ve talked to Joey about a certain thing while back in Rosangela’s apartment. Now, the author admits that this is a place where lots of people get stuck, because a lot of people haven’t bothered to talk to Joey about the necessary thing by that point, and there’s no obvious reason to go back to the apartment just then. But my experience was a little different from that, and I have to wonder how common my version is. I had in fact talked to Joey about the necessary thing, but then I quit without saving, because I didn’t think I had made any significant changes to the game state since my last save. So even though I, the player, had the necessary information, in my next session, Rosangela did not. To some extent, I blame the notebook, which lulled me into thinking that I could distinguish between significant conversations and insignificant ones.

Beyond that, my chief gripe is that despite its recent fifth-anniversary revamp, the game still has some major bugs — for example, I had to force-quit when I was unable to dismiss the menu after bringing it up in the endgame. But for all my plaint, I still think it was worth playing, mainly because the characters are engaging. Rosangela herself is socially awkward, practically a recluse (the very first obstacle in the game hinges on the fact that she doesn’t know anyone else in her building), but combatively defensive about it in a very New York way that I think a lot of introverted gamer geeks will find appealing. From that base, the story gives her a permanent unwanted companion (Joey) and a fate that forces her to get out and interact with people more than she’s comfortable with. The fact that some of those people are restless spirits just heightens the anxiety that’s already in the character — and the detail that several characters have been driven to suicide by a lost soul’s incessant pleas for help casts a spotlight on the downside of her unseverable relationship with Joey.

Plus, if you’re into developer commentary tracks (which you probably are, given that you read blogs like this one), the current version of the game contains not one but two: the commentary from the game’s original release, and additional notes for the fifth anniversary edition. It’s interesting to compare them, to see where Gilbert’s opinions have changed and where they haven’t. My chief takeaway here is that, like all artists, his esteem for his own earlier works has plummeted over time. He keeps on apologizing for things that didn’t even register as faults for me. The one criticism of his that I really agree with is that the noninteractive dialogue frequently runs overlong, a fairly common failing of new designers. Ironic that the only way to hear this confession is to turn on the commentary, which makes the game even more longwinded, and even specifically extends a few of the longer talky bits with complaints about their length.

Bugdom Beaten

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most games go unfinished. Or at least, that’s how it used to be — I don’t know if modern trends have changed this or not. On the one hand, shorter games have come into vogue, but on the other hand, there are a lot more of them, and they’re available for cheap, and often in bundles. It’s certainly the case that more games go unstarted these days.

Anyway, I don’t have figures to back this up, but I suspect that Bugdom is one of the games more frequently left uncompleted, simply on the basis that probably most of the people who had it got it bundled with their iMacs, and that those who tried it at all probably didn’t play past the first two levels. To these people, I say: It is a better game than you think it is, with a decent variety of action. But it is probably not worth your time all the same. I’m proud to now be among the few people to have played the game to completion, but I’m also glad to have it behind me. So eager to finish was I that I did finally abandon the pursuit of collectibles for the last few levels, ending the game with only three of the game’s four gold clovers.

I might have been more patient if it weren’t for the glitches. I already mentioned one major glitch — the failure to occlude particle effects (both fire and splashing water, it turns out) — but there are more serious ones. For one thing, whenever I loaded a game started in another session, it started with my health at zero. The first part of every new level was thus a frantic search for a health item to keep me from getting killed by the merest pinprick. But there was one more glitch that the game was saving up for the endgame. It has to do with the save system.

Imagine you’re powering through level 9, the fire ant tunnels. You’ve been through most of it several times, but you keep missing your timing in the rope-swinging sections and falling into the lava. Finally, though, you get to the end with a reasonable number of lives in reserve. As usual, the game asks if you want to save. You do. Now, there are ten levels, which means that in a complete playthrough, you get nine opportunities to save. But for some reason the save screen has only eight slots. No problem, you think, I’ll just overwrite the first one. You try this. The game crashes.

It does this consistently. My first thought was to delete the file for save slot 1, but when I did this, it stopped recognizing all my saves. Well, it only let you save to the first of the empty slots, so under normal operation, there wouldn’t be any occupied slots after the first empty one. Experiment proved that it would find saves up to the first empty one, then give up. My save for level 9 was of course in the very last slot, but renaming the file was enough to shift it up to slot 1 and leave slot 8 empty. Anyway, the lack of complaints about this problem on the Internet lends weight to my guess that few people even tried to play the game to completion.

Anyway, beating the end boss was a cinch compared to that. So much for Bugdom, then, until I do the sequel, which is already on the Stack. Did you know there was a sequel? It’s even been ported to iOS, which is something they didn’t bother to do with the original.

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