Game Ramblings #139 – Blue Dragon

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: Xbox 360

Blue Dragon is an interesting one. It was Mistwalker’s big debut game, bringing all the hype of having a bunch of high level ex-Square folks on it. It was coming to a weird platform for the genre, but with a bunch of marketing behind it courtesy of Microsoft. It was also a distinctly classic JRPG, going with a straight turn-based approach at a time when Final Fantasy XII was moving the genre in a different direction. At the time of release I had gotten through a decent chunk of it, but kind of fell away and I wanted to re-up my memory of it in order to jump into the DS sequels. Given its age, it still plays remarkably well, though it’s not without its problems.

Being quite honest, both it aging well AND it having problems comes down to its combat. This is a classic job-class system paired with a classic turn-based combat system, so there’s not much of a barrier to entry here. Your job determines your skills, your turn order determines the strategy in terms of what you kill first, etc. Where this really works well is in the small wrinkles they brought to each system.

On the job class side, you have a typical JRPG character level AND a job rank. This had been seen before, but it was implemented well here. The rank determines what skills are available to you, for example later job ranks of the black mage class allow you to use level 1, 2, 3, etc black magic spells. However, the nice wrinkle here is that you can equip skills you’ve earned while playing a different class.

Where this worked well for me was in mix and matching my melee and ranged characters. On the melee front, I focused on a specific class for each, but also made sure they had trained to at least level 11 in monk and swordsmen. This granted them the capability to do charged attacks as well as absorb HP on melee attacks. For my two ranged, I again had a focus on white/black mage, but I also let them play some time in the opposing class, as well as mixing in some early levels of other classes to give a bit of variety in terms of my skill layout. This variety allowed me to do a really fine-tuned class structure for how I wanted to approach combat, rather than being restricted to one specific thing at a time. This definitely felt better than a lot of earlier approaches to job systems where I often felt locked into specific roles because of their importance to the overall combat structure.

The turn order system within combat was also something I ended up enjoying a lot, especially as I tuned my party setup a bit. At its basic level, turn order seems static. However, as you start gaining charge attacks – both the melee charge I was doing through the monk class, as well as magic attacks – you start gaining a lot of ability to mess with the turn order. The tl;dr here is that the longer you charge an attack, the stronger the attack is, but at the cost of the attack firing later in the turn order as well as it having a longer recovery. However, the charges each have a red zone where you gain reduced cost and increased recovery if you nail the timing just right.

Being able to hit those timed zones, as well as the ability to manipulate where in the turn order you’re attacking becomes incredibly powerful, as well as a nice thing to break up the typical monotony of turn-based JRPGs. If you’re in a large trash fight, you can mess with the turn order a bit to try and line up a bunch of damage to take out targets before they can go. Against bosses, you can decide to reduce your charge a bit or defend with the mages to make sure that you have a white mage lined up immediately. This kind of variety is really key to me about why this game has aged so well. Every fight can be its own little mini strategy session to maximize how well you come out of it. You can go through trash fights with goals of reducing damage you take, rather than just going through the motions of killing things for XP. On boss fights, you add layers of strategy that act as little mini sessions between boss turns to try and keep your party safe enough to get by. It all just works really well.

What didn’t really work well is the same sin that way too many JRPGs suffer from – the end boss run is a slog. So many JRPGs fall into a trap where they have pretty decent power curves that keep users at a relatively stable difficulty level throughout the game, then at the end of the game you get thrown in a multi-phase marathon of bosses that kind of forces you to either have the perfect party or be overpowered, and this game isn’t an exception.

The specific problem I had with the end boss in this one is that it suddenly shifted into a setup where the boss was running significant MP drain. It’s not that I dislike the mechanic, but it hadn’t really shown up much to this point so I wasn’t overly prepared to counter it. The MP heal items are next to useless at the level of MP in play at this point in the game, so the real answer is to use the black mage extraction spells. This worked great on my black mage, but didn’t work so well on my white/support mage who I hadn’t trained up to this point. A white mage without the ability to heal is kind of bad news. Ultimately I was able to get pretty far in the fight, but ran out of mana and hit the point where I wasn’t able to keep healing enough while also balancing MP extraction/MP items and wiped. In general this has a pretty easy answer – go back and grind a bit to get the class levels necessary to have the extraction. However, at that point I’d also be gaining standard levels, and more than likely instead of grinding the job class up, I’d be grinding my entire party up enough to likely overpower the boss fight just in general. This also came after over an hour of OTHER boss fights and cutscenes that I frankly didn’t have problems with and didn’t want to roll through again.

This kind of rapid escalation at the end of the game has always felt cheap to me. It feels like it’s there just to squeeze out a few more hours of game time. Ultimately it’s just a punishment and massive interruption to the player at a point where they should be hitting the peak of the story. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth putting a game back on the shelf when it ends this way instead of remembering what had been good for the countless hours beforehand. More often than not, JRPGs I flag as my favorites of all time end with smooth difficulty and appropriate challenge instead of rapid escalation and a time extending ass kicking. It’s kind of funny playing this one now though, because one of the final bosses in Mistwalker’s latest title Fantasian had similar problems, where it was extremely difficult the first time I played it, but trivialized by equipping posion nullification equipment. Unfortunately Blue Dragon landed on the wrong side for me where it was ultimately a flip of the dice that my party was just built in a different direction that didn’t work out for the last fight.

Ultimately though, this was a fun game to play through and it got me to my goal of remembering the story well enough to move forward with the sequels. A lot of JRPGs generally haven’t aged that well (I’m looking at you PS1 Final Fantasy games), so finding one that still has far more good than bad to it is always a nice surprise. It’s also nice that this one has aged far better than my last 360 look back, so not all hope is lost for digging into my backlog a bit. This one is still floating around the Microsoft store on backwards compatibility for both the Xbox One and Xbox Series* so if JRPGs are your thing, go ahead and take a peak at what’s there.

Game Ramblings #135 – Fantasian (Part One)

More Info from Mistwalker

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: Apple Arcade

This is kind of an unusual one that ended up as a lucky confluence of a few factors. I generally don’t play mobile games anymore. After spending a bunch of time working on mobile games around 2011-14, I kind of was tired of the platform other than the necessity of owning a phone. Besides things like Pokemon Go or Fire Emblem Heroes, I really only use my phone as a web surfing device. That said, my experience on developing for Google platforms has always been overwhelmingly negative so as a result I also don’t own an Android device. Tie all that together and I have an iPhone, so when I see a company like Mistwalker release a JRPG through Apple Arcade, I’m somehow ready to enjoy it.

As it turns out, that’s a good thing in this case. Fantasian is a really good combination of things. It’s a classic turn based JRPG, but it throws in some interesting battle mechanics that keep it feeling fresh. The battle mechanics ramp up with some interesting bosses that really lean into on-the-fly strategy over simple number crunching. This is all backed by a diorama-based visual style that really evokes the PS1 era pre-rendered backgrounds in a much higher fidelity fashion.

Fantasian is at its core a spiritual sequel to early Final Fantasy games. It has a similarly silly fantasy JRPG plot. It has turn-based battles. It’s got the usual stats and buffs and debuffs typical of the genre. But it feels like more than that. It does some clever things with how it handles combat that set it apart.

The obvious one in-combat is that magic attacks can be curved while also passing through enemies. This puts a tremendous emphasis on positioning and maximizing hits to get through battle. Why take a couple of turns to kill one enemy with basic attacks when you can kill three enemies in the same amount of time with some pass through magic? This also allows for some interesting defensive mechanisms where enemies can activate a shield that blocks this pass through. As a result, bending around them to maximize your output becomes even more important. It’s a clever core mechanic that is both easy to use and incredibly effective, giving a nice layer of strategy to what are generally pretty basic trash fights.

There’s also a system called the Dimengion system that really plays into this. Once you’ve seen an enemy at least once, you can avoid it in random battles – at least temporarily. Those random battles are instead stored in a Dimengion, allowing you to cache up to 30 enemies to fight all at once. This brings a two-fold benefit. For one thing, the pace of the game is tremendously faster when you don’t have to go through as many battle start and finish transitions. However, the big benefit is that it’s a lot quicker to clear a bunch of trash at once with magic than it is battling them one at a time.

There’s been games in the past decade or so that have really tried to mitigate the typical JRPG grind – for example, Bravely Default letting you set the random battle chance – but this may be one of the most effective ones that I’ve seen. Battling a large group at once is just more fun than taking on smaller fights. Killing five or six things at the same time with a well curved fire spell is fun. Getting half a level at one time because you just cleared out 30 enemies is fun. Running through an entire world map screen without having to stop ten times for battles is fun. Ultimately, that increased level of fun ends up playing into the core mechanics of the battle anyway, so it reinforces the system while increasing engagement, which is always a win for the player.

The boss fights themselves are also setup in a way that encourages strategy with a mechanic that is specific to the fight that changes it in a way that discourages zerg rushing, and encourages careful planning of damage output. This works better in some cases than others, but I’ll outline a couple of examples.

In the fight above, the boss will occasionally go into a charge mode where his arms prepare lasers with large damage output. You’ve got two choices – use your turn to keep damaging the main boss and try to tank through the damage or damage the arms before they fire, thereby eliminating the threat. The more effective boss fights in Fantasian all work like that. Some mechanic will give you a few turns to react and let you take the choice of shifting your damage output in a way that prevents the boss’ attack, or try to push through – especially if you’re near the end of the fight.

This example above is one that didn’t work as well. Once this boss reached 50%, it throws a permanent poison field effect down, causing permanent poison to the party. The boss then eats the poison off the party members, and after a few turns throws a large AoE damage. You can only really tank through the damage, putting your party in a heavy heal rotation.

….unless you equip poison nullification gems, thereby eliminating the entire mechanic.

The boss fights that are trivialized via passive mechanics tended to be the ones that were less fun. You’d go in, sometimes win, and sometimes lose. If you lose, you now know the mechanic to watch for, equip to avoid it, and cheese your way through. Luckily, unlike Persona 5, this was pretty rare and wasn’t a thing that every boss had occur.

This game was a tremendous treat, or at least the first half of it was. The second half is supposed to be out by the end of the year, and move in more of a pseudo open-world quest-based direction. Given what I’ve played so far, I’m definitely looking forward to getting my hands on more Fantasian. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t hoping to see this come out in physical form on a more accessible platform once that second half is done, but until then if you’ve got an Apple device, this is the kind of content that proves the value of Apple Arcade, and is a must play.

Shelved It #10 – Infinite Undiscovery

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: Xbox 360 via Series X compatibility

This is one that was sort of floating around in the ether for me for a long time. It’s a JRPG from a company (tri-Ace) that I’ve tended to like, but historically has had a lot of ups and downs. Critically, this one was definitely one of their down moments. It has decent combat, but the mechanics around it are often pretty questionable leading to a vague, if not frustrating experience that ends up feeling less like skill and more like trial and error grinding.

The core combat of this one typically would be fine for me to keep wanting to play. It’s action-based, but distinctly a JRPG in terms of stats, buffs, debuffs, etc. Where there’s simplicity in controls, there’s a lot of depth in their use. For example, different combos (A-B, A-A-B, etc) can have different results. Some are knockups, allowing you to juggle your enemy in the air. Some are knockdowns. Some are AoE attacks. Learning which to use at the right time is core to effective combat and has really good overall combat rhythm. You can also link with your active party members and use skills related to them. It can be a bit awkward in the 15+ year old game sense, but more often than not it works well.

Where the game really falls apart is in the specific mechanics often tied to a dungeon.

For example, the first dungeon in the game requires you to mind control two specific enemies to a door as sacrifices to unlock it. In isolation, that’s a really cool idea. However, it requires a few things – the knowledge that one of your party members has an ability that can mind control enemies, the knowledge that it can be used to do more than talk to NPC animals, and then the luck to have them actually hit the ability. There’s a bunch of things in that list of things that you just kind of have to accidentally stumble upon, because they don’t teach you.

However, the fight that ultimately did me in was one that I thought was obvious, but just downright frustrating – and as it turned out, was not obvious. I was fighting a boss that could go in and out of visibility on a timer that could lead to my failure. Of note, this was only the second time I was fighting one of these types of battles. The main character has a flute that could bring the boss out of the invis state, allowing the party to attack….except the main character could not attack him. I figured this was intended, and was just frustrated at my AI characters inconsistently attacking. Due to AI issues, I ran out of time and hit a game over, losing me a bunch of time of backtracking in the process. Looking online afterwards, it turns out that my main character had gained a skill that allowed him to attack these shifting enemies, and I had gained it almost 20 levels earlier. Didn’t know it had that secret power, sure as hell never saw it in the description or had any reason to care about it when I earned it 5+ hours ago. Now that I knew about the mechanic? Trivial fight.

It’s that level of inconsistency that follows with other tri-Ace releases. Games like the previous Star Ocean, which had really fun combat but was mechanically inconsistent surrounding it. Games like Resonance of Fate, that had interesting weapon mechanics, but pretty rough story and visuals. This one shows its bad side in those forced mechanics. They don’t make the game more fun or interesting or better. They don’t bring a level of inherent skill to the fights. They simply provide a guessing game of which thing you have in your possession that you never quite read the description of, or never quite saw the meaning of, or got hours ago and forgot existed. Once you figure out the mechanic, it’s easy, but until then it’s a wild guess, and honestly just not worth playing.