How’d It Age #10 – Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: Switch
  • Originally Available On: Gamecube

It’s been long enough since the original came out that I only vaguely remember the feeling of playing this game, but not so much the specifics of playing it. I can remember the feeling of the combat being good. I can remember the feeling of the characters and story being funny. What I remember more are the places where newer entries in the series felt like they “fell apart” for me. However, replaying Thousand-Year Door is making me realize that a lot of what I don’t like about modern entries already kind of existed in this one.

Now don’t get me wrong; the combat is this game is still fantastic and was really the driving force behind me playing the game. I would still argue that the core Paper Mario combat is one of leading examples of how to make turn-based RPGs heavily engaging to the player instead of a passive activity. Tying each attack to a different series of inputs for better damage gives the player that little bit of action to keep them involved in combat in a way that keeps their interest and allows it to feel more rewarding to not skip combat. Tying a defense boost to learning and remembering the various enemy attacks gives the player that little constant reward for being involved in combat that makes fighting an enemy for the tenth time more than just a chore.

It’s such a little thing but it makes the combat so much more fun. Other JRPGs have tried different things to get similar feelings. The Persona and SMT series have used type weaknesses to grant the players extra turns to achieve a similar result. The Bravely Default series allows the player to manipulate turn order to stack attacks and blow away enemies. Heck, the combat in Paper Mario was a direct evolution of the standard set by Super Mario RPG. Just giving the player something to do other than pick the attack and fall asleep is such a better result than the norm for the genre.

However, combat is one of those spots where doubt started to creep in. One of the things that really bugged me about more modern Paper Mario entries was how odd the power curve felt. It always felt like it was going in really weird jumps because the numbers were always inherently small. You’d kind of get to a new area, be beat up a bit, then be given a magic power upgrade and suddenly be effectively overpowered by only gaining one attack. That absolutely exists in TTYD, and wasn’t something I really remembered.

The places that I really started to notice it were when the jump and hammer upgrades were not in alignment. I’d suddenly be in areas where one of the two attacks effectively did 2-3 less damage, which meant that it took trash fights from one to two turns per-enemy or would do so much less damage with flower point attacks that the weaker one would be effectively useless on bosses unless mechanics of the fight required the specific attack. This was likely exacerbated by the way I was building, which was to go all-in on badge points so occasionally I would just get a HUGE upgrade swath because I would stumble upon a badge or two that added attack power that would totally change the way I tackled fights. When a boss has maybe 50 HP, suddenly being able to do 3 or 4 more damage per-turn is enormous. It felt off in a way that made me realize I honestly kind of prefer the larger numbers and slower power curve style of the Mario & Luigi series to this, because that at least feels like I’m making consistent growth throughout the game.

The other thing that I really forgot about was just how much walking there is. Holy hell do they like sending you across the same environments about 10 times per chapter for no reason. Sticker Star and Color Splash were somewhat guilty of this in that you’d be walking around a lot simply collecting the right cards for combat. Super Paper Mario was definitely guilty of making the player re-traverse areas way too often. Thousand Year Door just does it too a level that I don’t remember, or perhaps just shut out of my brain. It was so jarring at points that I’d literally put the game down for the night because I was tired of going through the same areas. The island chapter in particular was egregious for this where the hub town for the chapter and the goal for the story were on entirely different ends of the world and you had to cross it at least 4 or 5 times for different reasons.

I guess all that is to say that while this game is still good, it definitely has rough spots. The remake is definitely a strong product, and it brings the game to modern consoles in a visually gorgeous package. However, this is still a 20 year old games with 20 year old problems that at this point hadfaded from my memory. The thing is though, this came out within six months of the Super Mario RPG remake and that game has aged so much better. That one has the nice combat advantages of this series, but was a lot less quirky in the remainder of its JRPG tendencies and has much better overall environmental flow. Like the Mario & Luigi subseries, I think up against this game it ends up being the victor because its mechanics have just aged so much better.

Game Ramblings #189 – Sand Land

More Info from Bandai Namco

  • Genre: Action RPG
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: PS4, Windows, Xbox Series X|S

I don’t really know why I expected this to be more of a traditional ARPG than a tank game, but I’m glad I was wrong. The game throws you into a bit of ARPG action early on, but from there it’s almost entirely a tank game and boy did it hit far better for me because of it.

There’s just something that was so satisfying about the tank combat for me in this game. The moment-to-moment combat was solid on its own, but it wasn’t the core of what drew me in. I think ultimately it came down to how well the ARPG aspects were integrated into the tank crafting system. The core power curve of the game is the player level, based on normal XP. As the player levels, enemies in the world get stronger. However, that is not how the player gets stronger. The player’s vehicles get stronger purely through crafting.

The core vehicle levels then have some basic stat increases, but the core power curve is through vehicle parts – weapons, engines, suspensions, etc. This customization is obviously driven by the player’s need to get stronger but it also lets the player hugely modify the vehicles around their play style. Want to be a bit pray and spray? Go into fast fire with lower damage that reloads quick. Trust your aim? Go huge damage and one-shot enemies. Want to move quick at the expense of lower defense? Go ahead and be a turbocharged glass cannon. This all takes place over a whole slew of different vehicle types (tanks, walking bots, motorcycles, dune buggies, hovercraft, and more) to also fit all sorts of environment styles. The game gets a huge amount of flexibility out of the customization options available, which really drove me to experiment and constantly be crafting new things to try.

None of that would have mattered if the crafting itself was a slog, but luckily that isn’t the case. Enemies are incredibly common to find if you need something, but easy to avoid if you don’t. Every kill drops something and often multiple somethings. Side quests give rewards of all sorts. Treasure chests are available all over the place that give crafting and vehicle parts. This all really just feels tuned around the idea that they want you to play around with everything available to you without the game wanting to be in the player’s way.

It’s also worth noting how good the variety of vehicles ends up being in core gameplay. My tank was my obvious #1 in combat as it tended to have the best overall weapon set for huge damage. However, it’s a relatively slow vehicle. For large traversal I would swap out to a motorcycle. It had some weapons for taking out trash enemies but the main benefit was how fast it moved. However, the speed didn’t matter in tight spaces. For those I’d swap out for a walking bot that I had equipped with more crowd control-style weaponry to give me some strong offense that I could lob around hallways. These are then available to quick swap at any time through a clever use of the storage capsules from Dragon Ball to allow the player to “carry” a bunch of vehicles with them at all times. The game wants you to be using your full arsenal in a variety of situations and just gives you every tool imaginable to do so.

The rest of the game then just kind of falls into place. Main quest line objectives are far enough apart that you inherently explore on the way between them. Just as you’re generally finding the bulk of things in an area, the story will push you into a new region with new stuff. Just as you’re starting to feel bored of going back to old areas, you open up new vehicle types that open up new stuff in those areas. Just when you’re starting to get bored of the main Sand Land, you then open up Forest Land with entirely different environmental aspects to it. I’m not going to sit here and say that this is a blow your socks off game by any measure, but boy could it be far worse and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it the entire time. It’s just far better of a licensed game than it had any reason to be.

When I looked into the developer of the game that made incredible sense though. ILCA was also the team behind One Piece Odyssey. That game fell into a similar place for me. It wasn’t a blow your socks off game, but it had such incredibly fun core combat that I didn’t want to stop playing it. This feels like a studio who understands that they can adapt an IP to good game mechanics, rather than adapt game mechanics to an IP and it’s been hugely to the benefit of their last two titles.

This was just a pleasant surprise. It has great combat mechanics, great customization mechanics, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. It was a trim 25 hours or so for me to mostly complete everything and I enjoyed it all the way. ILCA‘s next title looks to be a new entry in the Ace Combat series after they assisted development on the incredibly fun Ace Combat 7 and boy am I now looking forward to it more than ever.

Game Ramblings #188 – A Plague Tale: Innocence

More Info from Asobo Studio

  • Genre: Action/Adventure
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: PS4, Windows, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Switch

I was going to sit here rambling about how this really did a great job of combining a solid story with solid puzzle stealth gameplay. I was going to sit here rambling about how the rat setup really did a fantastic job of tying something core to the story (the black death) to the core gameplay mechanics. But then I got to the last chapter which leaned way heavy into combat and now all I want to do is complain.

It just kills me when a game does great things for the entire length right up until the end, then leans into something that was barely used throughout the game. Combat is this game’s trip up. The core of the game is about being slow, so when the end of the game throws some sequences where you have to make relatively quick combat decisions it’s clearly not in the game’s best interest. When the game’s aim assist is about making careful locks that can be lost when the target is moving fast, it’s clearly not in the game’s best interest to have stuff running at you across elevation changes. When the stealth is best while avoiding one or two targets around a bunch of obstacles, it’s clearly not in the game’s best interest to throw a bunch of targets at you across an open arena. The last chapter did all of those things.

The sequence above is a perfect encapsulation of what I think is good to not do in a game like this. The sequence has you hiding next to an off screen moving cart while a sequence of six dudes runs at you through this little drop down. Among the ways I’ve died included: running just too fast while I couldn’t see the cart and getting one shot by an off screen arrow, missing lock-ons entirely because the guys were moving too fast, missing lock-ons entirely because I started aiming while they were too far away, losing lock-ons after releasing the fire button because the animation had to finish, early on paying attention to where the cart was and missing a dude sneak up behind me. It’s all the things that work really well when you’re being purposefully slow and considering your options in stealth that fall apart in a faster paced section.

It’s not that I don’t get needing to ramp up for the finale, but this is a frustrating one to work through. The preceding chapter introduced a new rat control mechanic that felt like it had a ton of legs, but it was then effectively lost in combat. Rather than really leaning into the puzzle solving it was used as a finishing maneuver. You’d put out whatever light sources then send in the rats, rinse and repeat. Even the final boss encounter was dodge a few things, send in the rats. It felt like it never took advantage of the puzzle solving possibilities.

I guess I just wanted this to lean into the puzzles through the finish. This game was absolutely fantastic when its goal was to hide in the grass and trick enemies into getting eaten by rats. Getting through 10 hours of gameplay only for the last hour to fall into combat feels off. I guess what I’m saying is land your game on what made it good to begin with. Don’t land it on something made purely for high drama.