Game Ramblings #176 – Sea of Stars

More Info from Sabotage Studio

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: Windows, Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series

This is an interesting game, not the least of which is because it’s distinctly a JRPG not developed in Japan. It very clearly takes inspiration from games like Chrono Trigger, with which it shares a composer. It also clearly leans into games like Suikoden, FF6, and Lufia. However, the one it really brings to mind to me more than any of those is Super Mario RPG.

It was pretty early on when my brain went straight to “this is SMRPG” and the video above is indicative of that. Sure, it’s not exactly the same attack but the cadence of the deflection there is the same kind of cadence in executing a super jump and getting the full combo. Those little details are all over in combat. Timing your own attack bonuses is different with each person’s basic and special attacks, giving a bit of skill in making sure you stay fresh in using everyone. Learning the attack timing of enemies is even more crucial in order to reduce incoming damage. All of that is straight SMRPG in my brain. Sure it isn’t the only game to ever do things with attack timing in a JRPG, but it is the one that stuck for me.

Sea of Stars does it all wonderfully well. The animation tells on both sides of the equation are at a level of fidelity that I could only have dreamed of 25+ years ago and really enforce learning the timing of everything well. The precision of all of it feels just right – with it rewarding the timing but not making it too loose. The rewards for successful execution beyond just normal attack+ and defense+ on an attack are also nice, with it opening up combos and ultimates quicker if you’re good at executing the timing. That set of things in particular is where SoS starts to feel like a modern take on the genre. The way combat is setup feels distinctly more active than a lot of the “classics” of the genre.

MP is regenerative via attacks, which goes a long way to enforcing actual use of skills. Since you aren’t trying to horde items, you’re instead doing what you can to mitigate attacks entirely. That ties into the little icon panel above the targeted creature in the screenshot above, where successfully executing those types of attacks before the creature’s turn effectively wipes out their turn. That then ties into the successful execution timing, where a successful hit generally instead does multiple hits instead of just being a number++. That then also ties back into the use of combo attacks, which take multiple characters and multiple types of attacks and unify them into one turn.

I suppose what I’m ultimately getting at is that each part of combat feels like it’s supportive of the rest. Unlike a lot of classics of the genre, which often leaned more into numbers games, Sea of Stars legitimately feels like you can skill your way to victory. Smart attack timing allows you to be more aggressive, because building up the combo meter quicker means that you’ll have rapid access to a large party heal. Concentrating on cancelling enemy attacks means that you’ll reduce incoming damage just by not being attacked, again encouraging aggressive play styles. Being able to swap your party on the fly like more modern games have done means that you’re always encouraged to use very specifically the exact person that is useful right now instead of trying to make best guesses as to what party setup will be most useful over time within a dungeon. I’ve mentioned it as recently as One Piece Odyssey, but hot swapping is one of my favorite things that is becoming more common, as it means that you use your entire party all the time instead of being stuck on just a subset that is convenient.

That said, there were definitely some things that didn’t hit for me as well as combat. A decent portion of the game is spent without the ability to reasonably fast travel, which is a bit of a bummer. Rather than feeling natural within the game, it ended up just kind of reducing me wanting to explore areas that I’d been to to find new things. Very late in the game you gain the ability to go anywhere you want, but it felt a bit too little too late. The game also kind of dragged by that point anyway. You open up your full arsenal in combat by probably about the midway point in the game. Up until then you’re slowly being given new capabilities that allowed me to be spending time in new dungeons experimenting with interesting combat flows. However, once I was at full capability combat kind of started to drag. Other than bosses, a lot of the trash enemies are pretty samey, which is fine when you’re trying new things but is kind of slow otherwise.

There’s also something to be said about the fact that the story is often very convenient. It’s not that I found it bad or anything, but a lot of the plot points kind of resolve themselves quickly and with little effort on the main party’s part. For example, at one point an entire city basically gets leveled by the main antagonist, but within an hour or less it’s basically rebuilt, everything is back to normal, and you move on with your life. One of the main character’s story beats revolves around him not being able to fight in some specific battles, but he’s perfectly able to tell you exactly what you should be doing. Things like that kind of keep happening throughout the game. Obviously the things need to happen, but the way in which they occur just always feels like the shortest way out, rather than the way that makes sense for the world.

I suppose where that ultimately ends up is that the sum of the game’s parts were more than good enough for me to want to get to the credits, but not good enough for me to really want to push for full completion. There is a true ending that I knew about having backed this on Kickstarter, but I didn’t want to go throught the tedious process to finish the checklist of things to do. Combat wasn’t going to grow and the story wasn’t going to change that much, so I confirmed that via watching it on Youtube. From a plot perspective it kind of made me wish that they had skipped the alternate ending and just made it the core plot.

That said, I think this game is absolutely one worth playing if you’re a JRPG fan. The combat mechanics alone are good enough for fans of the genre to enjoy without needing to worry about anything else, and the game surrounding it is at least good enough for a core playthrough. It took me about 25 hours or so to get through, so it’s not even a particularly long entry to the genre. It may not quite live up to the bar set by its higher budget inspirations, but it leaves me in a place where I continue to be excited about where this studio is going after its shipped this and The Messenger.

There’s also something to be said about another game giving me fishing!

How’d It Age #4 – Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg

  • Genre: Platformer
  • Platform: Gamecube via Dolphin

This is such a Sonic team game. It’s a strange concept that could seemingly only come out in the early 00s. It’s a 3D platformer that completely skips the lessons that Nintendo was giving out with their own games. It has every single problem that the Sonic Adventure games have. But despite that, it’s still surprisingly fun.

The one thing that really stood out to me was how fun the egg mechanic was. Besides eggs giving you core abilities (faster movement, jumping, attacks, etc), it was just fun to see what would come out of them. Sometimes it’s little helper dudes with elemental powers that can help traverse levels (ex: a water-based seal that can put out fires). Sometimes it’s hats that can provide additional benefits to your eggs (Ex: iron egg that increases attack power). Sometimes it’s useful items (ex: TNT that you can toss at enemies). You can learn over time what the eggs are, but because they are sort of scattered around the levels haphazardly, you’re encouraged to rapidly grow and hatch the eggs and move onto the next one so you can build your arsenal up throughout a single mission. By the end of the level, you’ll typically have some partner animal, some hat, some item, and be able to use them to achieve whatever the specific goal of the mission is.

More often than not I was kind of ignoring where I was trying to go and just looking around to find eggs for the sake of finding new things to hatch, which is an interesting change from what is otherwise a pretty standard platformer setup. Each world has a set of missions that you do one at a time, where you kind of traverse different sections of the area during a specific mission. Disconnected from the egg stuff, it’s not really all that different from a Mario 64 pattern. However, the eggs provide a distraction and thing to go after that Mario or even Sonic Adventure really didn’t have.

However, it’s pretty obvious that this is a Sonic Team game because it has all of the hallmark problems of the rest of their 3D titles of that era. The game starts out pretty manageable, with simple flowing level designs that really encourage the higher pace egg rolling, but it starts to slowly go off the rails. Levels start concentrating more on platforming, which works fine but isn’t really a strong point. In a lot of cases, it just feels like there isn’t much flex room in the platformer timing. Gaps aren’t quite forgiving enough or platforms are a little too tall for the jump height to where it doesn’t necessarily feel hard but feels unnecessarily frustrating.

In particular, you start running into wonky physics issues as things get more complicated. Sometimes it’ll be that your egg gets on top of a platform but you don’t, causing you to fall to your doom. Sometimes it’s a slightly unpredictable way that your character’s speed works that causes you to roll off the edge of a platform instead of stopping. Sometimes it’s a set of rails that you’re trying to roll onto that you instead clip through. This is all distinctly not aided by a typical Sonic Team camera. It has a habit of turning when you don’t want it to. It has a habit of not ever being focused on the boss that is attacking you. It has a habit of clipping through the environment and completely blocking your view.

However, those were all things that I was expecting. I know it sounds weird to go into a game expecting some subset of bad things to be there, but with Sonic Team that’s just kind of the experience I know I’m getting into, for better or worse. Nights had these problems. Sonic Adventure had these problems. Post-Sega games like Balan Wonderworld still had these problems. It’s just one of those things that I go in expecting, so I was annoyed but not unhappy about it. The thing that kept me playing was the rest of the stuff around the known garbage, and that was fun. The core egg stuff was all just kind of fun enough for this to still be good 20 years later. It’s a weird little 00s with all those problems, but it’s still a totally fun experience despite the issues.

Shelved It #20 – Tunic

More Info from Isometric Corp Games

  • Genre: Action/Adventure
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series, Switch, Steam

Tunic is one of those games that just convinces me that somewhere along the way I’ve been left behind by a certain subset of games. It’s the type of game that I can see why people enjoy, but for the life of me I just cannot wrap my head around. There’s little things that annoy me that should be relatively minor, but as a whole just frustrated me to the point where I go, “nope, this isn’t for me.” I guess for me it comes down to too much Souls in a Zelda game ruins my fun.

This is absolutely the type of game that I should love since I’m a huge fan of the 2D Zelda games. It’s got a similar approach to combat. It’s got a similar approach to world design. It’s got a similar approach to exploration. However, I just could not grok any of that in the same way that I could a Zelda game. In a couple of nights of sitting here trying to suss out my frustrations playing this, I’ve been able to narrow it down to two specific things that really got under my skin – core combat delays and overworld design.

Core combat is really down to one thing for me, and it’s an inherent difficulty of the game, not necessarily because the game is hard, but because of how they handle specifically the attack animation. Anything that happens after the attack animation must wait for the animation to complete. In particular that means you can’t dodge and you can’t defend with your shield. Because of this, I found myself taking a lot of what I thought were unnecessary hits. I could start an attack, see that the enemy is about to attack themselves, and be unable to do anything about the incoming damage. I would just have to eat the damage and hope for the best. This is the same issue I have with the Souls series, which is another one that has me convinced that some part of gaming has left me behind.

Ultimately, I guess my frustration here isn’t so much that I can’t dodge when I want to and cancel the attack animation – although frankly I think that is a good option to have – but that it slows the pace down in a way that feels not fun. Rather than being in the attack and actively using my defensive measures, I’m staying back in a full defensive posture, making sure that I’m in an absolutely safe position to attack, and getting in a single swing. If I happen to notice that I knocked an enemy back I could go for a combo, but it often wasn’t worth the risk. There’s too many situations where the game has you fighting 1v3 or more, so getting a combo in on a knocked back enemy just opens you up for damage from other targets. This sort of pace of play is something that I never enjoy, and having it be because I simply can’t play at a faster pace safely is something that I really don’t enjoy in modern Souls-ish games.

The other thing that really killed a lot of my enjoyment ended up being the overworld design, and this can be traced to a culmination of a few things. The first is that there’s not really an effective map in place. You get a sort of overworld map early on, but it doesn’t show where the player is so you have to contextually know roughly where you are to make much use of it. It also doesn’t extend to the sort of dungeon areas at all, which is less helpful. The second part is that the overworld is intentionally built like a maze, so it doesn’t exactly match up with the provided map anyway. This is then tied to a distinct inconsistency in finding save points. In the main overworld area, the only one that I actually found was the one in the first picture, which I happened to accidentally keep looping back to while I wandered around lost like an idiot, or when I died running into something that I wasn’t ready to fight.

I guess ultimately I feel like you kind of have to pick your poison. If you want difficulty, I feel like you need to be consistent in the player’s ability to save their progress as they make it. If you want to avoid hand holding their progress, then you need some clarity over where the player has been. If you want to not really give an effective map, the player should have a pretty clear path through the world. It’s not like the genre has never had these things. Even the old Game Boy Zelda games had pretty clear maps, pretty clear idea of what the player needed to do (follow the dungeons in order, but we aren’t telling you precisely where they are), and pretty fair difficulty. The combination they picked is none of that, and in doing so it just kind of felt like the worst kind of 90s gameplay where you’re wasting time for the sake of wasting time in trying to figure out what you’re doing, and more often than not accidentally going the right way eventually.

As I was playing through the first sort of side dungeon area, I thought I was getting to a point where I was starting to wrap my head around the game, but getting back into the main overworld made it clear to me that it just wasn’t coming together for me. I think there’s something there when the game works, because a legitimately harder 2D Zelda I think is something I want to like, but this one just didn’t hit for me. It felt like the worst combination of things that I don’t enjoy in the sort of Souls-adjacent rush to market that’s happened in the last few years and it just left me wanting to move on.