Archive for June, 2009

Zanzarah: Elements

In Zanzarah, elemental powers are key. Every fairy belongs to one element, and every element is strong against some other elements, weak against others, and indifferent to the rest. (Canonical example: water is strong against fire. Someday I’d like to see a game that reverses that just to mess with us.) A fairy can easily beat an opponent that’s twice its experience level if it’s a kind that it’s strong against, and will probably gain an experience level for doing so without the assistance of other fairies. And since gaining a level restores a fairy’s health and partially restores its mana, this is a good way to make extended explorations without spending a lot on restoratives. I can imagine catching fresh low-level fairies specifically to take advantage of this.

The elements are: Nature (plants), Stone, Water, Air, Psi, Ice, Dark, Energy (electric), Chaos, Flame, Light, and Metal. That’s not quite the same as the Pokémon element list, but there’s a substantial overlap. You can often tell what elements you’ll encounter from the terrain — for example, snowy mountain peaks abound in Stone and Ice types — but the type is pretty much an arbitrary designation with no effect on gameplay. There are exceptions, though, where attacks have special effects. For example, there are Ice attacks that temporarily slow or freeze the opponent (in addition to doing damage), and a Psychic spell that teleports its target to a random spot on the battlefield. Now, unlike in Pokémon, attacks are not specific to particular species of fairy; any attack can be bought from a spell merchant and equipped on any fairy that’s the right element and is powerful enough to use it. So I could use these special effects if I wanted to, but they never really seem worthwhile. The freeze attack would be nice, but it can only be cast five times before refueling, and that’s often insufficient for even a single fight. The teleportation attack seems outright harmful to the caster: it takes an opponent that’s in your sights and removes it. So, for me, these specials are pretty much only done by the opponent. My own fairies are just damage-dealers in different flavors.

I don’t have fairies of all the elements at my disposal yet. One really frustrating thing the game does repeatedly is withhold an element from you until you’ve managed to beat a bunch of fairies that it would be really useful against. The most recent example I’ve encountered (and haven’t overcome yet) is a Dark Elf guarding a crucial item with a team of Dark and Chaos fairies, which, unfairly, all attack you at the same time. (Although you can switch fairies mid-combat, you can have only one out at a time. Dark Elves have apparently learned to overcome this restriction.) Now, I have creatures that are strong against Dark and I have creatures that are strong against Chaos, but to survive that kind of onslaught, what you really want is something that’s strong against both. Only one element qualifies: Light. It’s possible that there’s a Light fairy hidden somewhere that I haven’t found, but more likely that I’ll gain access to my first immediately after the fight is over.

Zanzarah: Catching ’em All

The plot of Zanzarah is pretty standard fantasy-game fare: a shadow has fallen upon the land, a prophesied hero must set it right. No one knows quite what the source of the evil is, but it’s harassing the cities with posses of fairy-wielding Dark Elves (portrayed here as light-skinned but wearing dark outfits), and apparently is also responsible for getting the wild fairies so agitated. Normally they’d be peacefully flitting about and laughing and sipping nectar from flowers and replacing human children with changelings and so forth, not attacking people on the road. (Although I have to wonder if my captive fairies have something to do with that. You’re not allowed out into the wild until you have a fairy of your own, so it’s impossible to tell how they’d behave towards someone who wasn’t enslaving their people.) So your goal is to fulfill the prophecy and stop all that.

But there is of course a second goal, an implicit one: catching ’em all. One of the basic UI overlays, along with the inventory and the map, is the Pokédex-like “Fairy Book”. Since this is a PC game instead of a Gameboy game, it can fit every type of fairy on the screen at once as a nice grid of icons, with empty boxes for the ones you don’t have. Those boxes just beg to be filled in. Best of all, since this is a single-player game, it should be feasible! None of this nonsense of trying to find trading partners and failing because the game is nearly a decade old. Every species that exists can be found and caught, or evolved from something that can be found and caught.

So it’s a bit of a shame that they messed it up. Unlike Pokémon, where every pokémon species you’ve handled goes into your Pokédex permanently, the Fairy Book only lists those species you have currently. If you evolve one of your fairies into a more powerful form, it leaves a hole in the grid where its old form was. Well, okay, you caught it once, you can catch it again if it really matters to you. Except that in some cases you can’t. There exist unique fairies. I have an “energy”-type (electric) fairy that supposedly there are only two of in the world. It evolves through at least three forms. There’s an NPC that offers a unique fairy in trade for something I haven’t got yet. Once you get it, you’re apparently expected to trade it away to another NPC. And yeah, once you’ve had and lost these things, you know that you’ve had them. But that’s not as satisfying as watching the grid in the Fairy Book fill up.

Game designers don’t always correctly anticipate how people will react to or use their designs. For elements they consider minor, even playtesting doesn’t necessarily help. I’m assuming that there are other players who shared my reaction to the fairy grid, but the designers were probably thinking of it as a reference guide to your current options, rather than as a score card. This is the sort of problem I’d expect to see addressed in a sequel, if there were any chance of one.

Zanzarah: Types of Fairy

You might think that having all the combat creatures be fairies, on both the player’s side and the opponents’, would be kind of limiting. I remember thinking something similar when playing some Western-themed game (probably either the Lucasarts FPS Outlaws or Sierra’s Freddy Pharkas): what, it’s just cowboys? How much can you do with cowboys? But “cowboy” is just a category of person, and thus gives you the entire range of human personalities and physical types (extended, in both those games, by caricature). Similarly, Zanzarah applies “fairy” as a template on a fairly wide range of creatures.

zanzarah-fishSince pretty much all the fairies do is fight, they don’t get much opportunity to express different personalities, except by grunting in pain or cheering their victory in different tones of voice. But there’s a very broad range of physical appearance. Child-like fairies and sexy fairies and fairies with animal heads, ones with chiseled musculature and ones that look like plush toys, ones with dragonfly wings or butterfly wings or bat wings or wings that look like leaves or flower petals. A few kinds don’t have wings at all, and fly by riding other creatures or mechanical vehicles. There are fairies that, contrary to expectation, are bulky and ungainly-looking, at least in comparison to the other fairies. In the extreme cases, you have fairies that don’t look like fairies per se, but like imps or gargoyles. There’s a skeletal fairy with the bones of batlike wings. There’s even one kind that’s a fish. I don’t mean it has fish-like features (although there are fairies like that too), I mean it’s indistinguishable from a fish. The color text excuses this as camouflage. Another type looks like a mushroom with eyes, and flies by flapping its cap up and down.

I suppose the fact that the designers felt the need to go so far beyond standard fairyhood is an indication that fairies actually don’t have the range needed for a game like this. All of which leads us to one question: why fairies? It seems like rather a big risk. The safe path for game design has always been to play to the power fantasies of boys. Arguably, RPG-style level advancement of the sort seen in Zanzarah is one way that this manifests. And fairies don’t fit into that very well. They’re pretty much the opposite of macho. Even if some of them look like demonic bodybuilders, you can’t help but remember that they’re tiny demonic bodybuilders. I can only assume that the developers were inspired by Pokémon‘s success in getting a cross-gender audience. After all, they took inspiration from Pokémon in just about every other aspect of the game.

But also, if fairies don’t have the required range… what does? The designers of Pokémon, in retrospect, had it easy: by creating an entirely new category of creature, they were free to populate it with whatever they felt like, including plants and ghosts and robots. Fairies are magical beings, and thus at least have some excuse to come in many and varied forms. Pretty much the only other thing I can think of that fits the bill is aliens.

Zanzarah: Comparison to Pokémon

Given the extreme and enduring popularity of Pokémon, it’s strange that it hasn’t been widely imitated, especially on other platforms. Zanzarah is the only obvious Pokémon imitation that I can think of. And when I say “obvious”, I mean really blatant, right down to the level of trivial mechanics: fairies that evolve on reaching particular experience levels, a complicated system of elemental resistances and vulnerabilities, and so forth. At the beginning, you have a choice of three fairies based on different elements: “Nature” (plants), Water, and Stone — just one element different from the Grass/Water/Fire choice that I’m told is at the beginning of every installment of the Pokémon franchise. Before you can catch your first wild fairy, you need to obtain a magical silver sphere capable of drawing it into your fairy bag. (Gold and crystal spheres become available later, allowing you to catch more powerful fairies.) At first, I wondered why I wasn’t able to catch more than one fairy. It turned out that catching a fairy actually uses up a sphere, which didn’t make intuitive sense to me — until I realized that the designers were thinking of it as a pokéball.

Apart from the relatively minor matter of the 3D world, the one big gameplay difference is in combat mode. Where Pokémon‘s pokéfighting is turn-based JRPG-like selecting-maneuvers-from-a-menu, Zanzarah‘s is a minitature tag-team FPS. All combat is played on various floating arenas in the astral plane (a little reminiscent of like the “ethereal combat” in Etherlords), which makes me wonder what’s supposed to be going on in the material world while the player is busy controlling the fairies. Is Amy watching the combat too? Is she, in-fiction, controlling her combatants’ every action through some kind of creepy mind-meld, and if so, what’s preventing other wild fairies from attacking her while she’s outside her body?

The different types of fairy have different stats, and those stats govern things like how fast your attacks charge up and how long you can fly before resting. (Flight is done by pressing a button to flap your wings, Joust-style.) And this affects how you play. For example, one of my fairies, a rock-type called Jumjum, has a very powerful attack that takes a long time to charge up fully, so I spend a lot of time with him hiding behind cover. Even so, the astral arena sequences quickly feel samey. I don’t like to use the word “samey” in describing games, because it implies a design philosophy that repetition of any sort is to be avoided, and I disagree with that rather strongly. But there it is. When you get down to it, though, it’s no more samey than combat in Pokémon, which, in most battles, consists of just pressing the “A” button whenever you’re given the opportunity. But that seems more acceptable to me, as it requires less attention. The mind wanders while executing those button-presses. Sometimes it only wanders as far as planning out long-term in-game goals, but it certainly isn’t fully occupied by the immediate situation. Zanzarah‘s realtime battles occupy just enough of my mind to make me earnestly wish there was more to them.

Zanzarah: The Hidden Portal

zanzarah-elftownAnother random pick today. Zanzarah: The Hidden Portal has an easy three-word description: Pokémon with fairies. You play the part of Amy, an ordinary British teenager in unreasonably tight trousers (yes, this game is definitely post-Tomb Raider), whisked away to fulfill a prophecy in a magical land of elves and goblins who use their smaller winged brethren in the fantasy equivalent of cockfighting. I’ll describe the game content more fully in my next post. At the moment, I want to talk about my adventures in installing the thing.

My first problem was that the install disk was damaged and unusable, with visible abrasions on its surface. I assume this happened when I moved. Possibly it could be resurfaced: I’ve occasionally resurfaced disks in the past, with spotty success. But I didn’t do that. Instead, I turned to piracy. Now, I normally don’t pirate games. I’m aware of the arguments against copyright law in its current form, and generally agree with them, but the way I see it, that just makes it more important that I avoid behaving like a freeloader and undermining those arguments. But this situation here, copying something that I purchased legally but can no longer access, is one of those arguments. Once I had my freshly-burned CD, it was a little reassuring that the installer prompted me to type in a code from the original CD case, allowing me to assert my legal right to play it. But presumably these codes can be found on the internet as well.

Once I managed to install it, there was one more obstacle to playing it: the key configuration. Zanzarah uses the mouse/keyboard movement scheme familiar to PC gamers — mouse to turn, keyboard to move in the four cardinal directions relative to your facing. But by default, the movement keys are the arrow keys. Now, I could play it like that — certainly I played a number of games like that, before I discovered the superiority of WASD, along with the entire PC game industry — but if I could rebind the keys, it seemed worth it. And the game does in fact offer a key-rebinding menu. But on my machine, it doesn’t work. For mysterious reasons, whenever I tried to rebind something, it wound up bound to “Mouse Z Axis” instead of what I wanted to bind it to. So I had a merry time figuring out how to edit the configuration file directly, which involved blind guesswork with a hex editor. A word of advice to anyone writing a game system: Make your configuration files text-based. Someday, someone’s life will be easier if you do.