How’d It Age #2 – Star Ocean: First Departure

More Info from Square-Enix

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: PSP
  • Also Available On: PS4, Switch
  • Originally On: Super Famicom

This is definitely one of those games that kind of got away. It didn’t come out in the US until the PSP, and I completely missed the boat on that. It coming out again a couple years ago on modern consoles reminded me of its gap in my library, but it still took until now for me to finally get around to picking it up.

It’s been almost 6 years since the last Star Ocean in my playlist, and the benefit of hindsight shows so much of how that game ended up where it was. My likes playing that one basically read like a laundry list of my likes here.

This is a relatively short game, clocking in at under 15 hours. Because I finished around level 75, you can get a good guess about how quickly I was leveling up. The other benefit is that this allowed me to power through the skill list extremely fast. That in particular is one of my favorite things about leveling in this game. Ya, you get your leveling stats, but the skills are key. Want to load all in to offense with random armor breaks and offensive boosts? Go nuts, load into those skills. Want your healer to just spam heals to support your glass cannon shenanigans? Go ahead and load into skills that reduce cast and cooldown times. Take all of that and load into skills that reduce your point usage and increase your EXP gain and you’re just flying through the game. The customization possibilities there are a lot of fun and really end up being the focal point of a core metagame that still really works well 25 years later.

The combat also still manages to be fun, despite its relative simplicity. There’s definitely been games that have done it better in the years since, not the least of which are newer SO titles let alone series like Tales Of. However, this works well enough to allow me to just forget about how modern action-focused JRPGs have gone. The simplicity of having movement, an attack button with a fixed chain, and a couple of skill hotkeys is such an easy thing to fall into. I’m not remembering combos and weaknesses and anything extraneous. I’m just watching out for attacks, dodging them when I can, then spamming the hell outta my attack button to kill things. It combines with some of the skill stuff above (hell ya random dodge chance!) and the short length of the game to really just be enough to keep me going.

The things I do end up missing though are some of the little modern features that just aren’t here. The first of these is really just a lack of direction, and I don’t mean that quite so literally. Every story cutscene ends with a point where you’ve kind of got a random chance that they actually tell you something useful about where to go. More often than not I was just aimlessly wandering. Sure, people will complain about being handheld, but having a blip of like just generally go around here goes a long way to letting me explore and check things out while still eventually knowing the right way to head. I also just severely miss autosaves. Again, I think a lot of people will go “well, they make the game too easy” but I would argue just the opposite. Autosaves allow games to be much harder without wasting the players time. Save often, make individual combat situations difficult, and let players die without time loss. Modern JRPGs have started leaning into this a lot and I much prefer having a quick retry / reset to just before the fight to regroup option because a lot of the general fights in this game were just needlessly easy.

This is stupid, but I also just hate the town layouts. Why are the shops and inn so far apart from each other in pretty much every town? Why are the layouts all mazes without central squares? This was made more frustrating by the fact that you run faster in straight lines than diagonals, so navigating towns was just a slow process.

So then the question is less of a did it age well, because it did. It becomes more of a is it worth playing now? I think it’s a yes, perhaps with a bit of hesitation. If you’re kind of on the edge for the genre, I’d perhaps steer you to something modern likes Tales of Arise. If you’re a heavy JRPG fan, absolutely. There’s enough here to be fun, it’s short so it won’t waste a bunch of time, and it’s still entirely modern enough in combat feel to not be distracting. I may recommend waiting a bit for a sale, but even at its current price of $21 on PSN/Nintendo eShop, that’s not too bad of a deal for a pretty solid piece of gaming history.

How’d It Age #1 – Need for Speed Carbon

More Info from EA

  • Genre: Racing
  • Platform: PS3 (via rpcs3)

I have a certain affinity for this era of Need for Speed games. They aren’t necessarily great games. The driving certainly isn’t the best. Their stories are campy as all hell. The AI is pretty frustratingly rubberbandy. However, they have an inexplicable level of fun that I can’t quite put my finger on. That fun is something that was lost for me in newer entries like Heat, where the driving was similarly intended to be arcadey but just never clicked with me. Carbon on the other hand has a few specific things that I can point at that really feed that feeling well.

The AI in these games could generously be described as unfair. You can be 10 seconds in the lead, then the AI magically gains enough speed to catch up and pass you. However, Carbon breaks that up in a way that still works well against modern games. Having an AI partner in the races just causes all sorts of wonderful chaos. Their core feature is that they can be a few different specs (blockers, drafters, and scouts), which all have their own version of wonderful chaos. Want to just clear your opponents and run free? Use a blocker to knock them all out of the race. Want to really push speed as a main motivation? Use a drafter and chain speed boost your way to victory.

These things even pretty specifically come into play in some event types. One of the most chaotic event types in the speed camera event, where you win by having the highest total MPH captured on a set of cameras. Normally this should generally just go to the first place car anyway, but with rubberbanding that isn’t exactly the case…..which is why you exploit your AI helper. I can’t tell you how many of these I won by purposefully knocking my ally into a wall at the start of the race, causing them to fall seconds behind. They would then go into a MASSIVE rubberband and easily win the events by 50-100mph. Exploit? Sure. Fun and funny as hell? Yep.

The same general idea could be used in normal races. Let your ally fall a bit behind, let them inevitably slingshot forward, then let THEM win the race. Ultimately the metagame at play here is for your crew to take over a city, so it doesn’t really matter if it’s you or the AI winning, as long as it’s your crew. It’s a great way to reinforce the whole overarching story in a way that continues to feel fresh. Seeing this kind of use of rubberbanding AI is just something I don’t think I’ve ever seen. Rubberbanding alone is something that I don’t generally see to this level of chaos in modern games, but being able to exploitatively use it to your advantage is something that I’m finding completely unique to this title.

The other thing that still works is that the driving is just really smooth. This is where I had my biggest problem with NFS: Heat. That game felt like it was forcing you to drift, and it made the driving feel really clumsy. This game just feels extremely tighter at high speeds than is realistic. It’s a very specific style of arcade game, but it means that once I get up to speed the game feels more about timing my turning flow, and less about trying to use mechanics to keep my speed up. It’s a driving style more akin to the Burnout games than later NFS titles, which tended to lean into a heavier floaty style that pushed drifting to the max. In terms of the two, I much prefer the way this or Burnout feel.

That said, hoooooo boy the story. It was campy at release. It’s just bad now. I’m not going to sit here and say that the NFS series has ever really had a good story, but oh boy is this such a specific style of camp that just doesn’t age well. In a lot of ways it feels kind of like your typical Syfy movie, where things are a really weird mix of camp and over seriousness that just doesn’t mesh well. It’s worth zoning them out. You aren’t missing anything.

This era of NFS is such a specific type of game, and it’s surprising to me how well it still works. If you go older than this into the PS1 era, those games just feel aged – even with greats like the original Hot Pursuit. If you go newer than this, they just feel like different games – whether it’s the clear Burnout Paradise sequels that worked well or some of the more experimental titles that….just didn’t. These sorta open world tuner titles though? These are my thing. I can drop into games like Underground and have fun, and Carbon really does a decent job of still holding up that style of gameplay. They may not have ever been great but it’s hard to not just have fun with them.

Shelved It #18 – Halo Infinite

More Info from Microsoft

  • Genre: FPS
  • Platform: Xbox Series X
  • Also Available On: Windows, Xbox One

This feels like a game that was searching for an identity that it never found. It’s very clearly Halo, but it tried to push too far into the Ubisoft open world formula, and it doesn’t really feel like it made it there. While the shooter part of it works really well, it felt dragged down by the rest of the metagame in the half dozen or so hours I put into it to the point where I just didn’t feel like picking it back up.

The core mechanics of this game are still as good as ever. Ya I get if a console shooter isn’t your cup of tea, but for what it’s aiming for it’s still incredibly fun in moment to moment combat. The guns have really clear archetypes and you kind of fade into the ones that you like to play with the most. Aim assist is just present enough to reduce the frustration of aiming on a gamepad. Running enemies over in vehicles is still fun. The Ghost being as small as it is meant that I could pretty much bring it anywhere, including into encounters it didn’t belong. However, it’s the enemies that still work the best.

Halo enemies always had really clear purposes, and that still works here. Grunts are still your fodder and effectively die in one hit, but they fit the role of distracting you well. Jackals still have the pain in the ass shield, which encourages you to get into melee range or use explosives to clear them out. Larger enemies like Brutes encourage precision in order to kill them faster via headshots. New enemies like the Skimmer add a level of verticality to throw you off just scanning at ground level. In general, the encounters are built well around sprinkling a few different types of enemies to make you approach them in varied ways based on the environment. In a vacuum it works well, and in past games it’s been able to be balanced against slow growth due to the linearity of the experience. That is all gone here.

The open world nature of this entry just feels like a mistake. Rather than having crafted encounters along a relatively linear path, you’ve got random encounters that constantly pop up going between points. Rather than the core gameplay being progression through a story, you’ve got a lot of miscellaneous stuff scattered about. The problem is that there’s only so much you can do with this kind of gameplay. It’s Assassin’s Creed or Ghost of Tsushima without the variety. You don’t really have the ability to do large scale traversal puzzles like that series. You don’t really have the choice to do stealth-focused gameplay or action-heavy sequences as a distinct choice. You just have guns blazing.

Where this ends up dragging is that every encounter feels the same. As you’re going from story point to story point you’ll inevitably see a bunch of encounters. However, it all bleeds together. You’ll see your half dozen grunts, a couple jackals, and a couple brutes/hunters/elites. Rinse and repeat. Between story spots you might see a half dozen of these. You’ll also see typically a handful of side quests – rescue a squad, destroy a base, kill a target – that also just have the same combat. Because the open world just has so much ambient combat, you quickly reach a point where it becomes a chore to traverse, rather than fun to traverse.

Within a pretty short time I basically just started hijacking the first Ghost I could find and running around guns blazing. From a practical standpoint, it made encounters much easier to skip because I could just zoom right on past. When I got to an encounter I did need to engage in, it also meant that I was in a moving resource with infinite ammunition and pretty predictably high power. From a min/max standpoint it was just far more effective. However, whenever I didn’t have a Ghost the game instead just felt like a chore. At that point I knew this one wasn’t working out for me.

It also ultimately didn’t help that there’s no co-op. I’ve played almost every entry in the series exclusively in co-op, so not having that is a huge drag. I could see this style of metagame working well in co-op because I could log in with the same group of people, run around for a while doing whatever as we shoot the shit, and over time we could progress through the game. Doing repetitive things over time wouldn’t matter as much because that’s kind of not the point of just having fun playing games in that group setting. Not having co-op at launch – although it’s apparently coming soon™ – is a baffling decision for a series built on co-op stories and multiplayer gameplay.

Infinite just kind of feels open world for the sake of being open world, and it feels to me like an anchor around the game’s neck. The core shooting mechanics are still fantastic, but when you are doing repetitive ambient encounters instead of crafted linear segments, there just doesn’t feel like any sense of progression or growth. Every encounter gets kind of samey, and over time I just felt like avoiding them entirely. For a game built around combat, not engaging is a weird thing. In all likelihood I’ll revisit this when co-op finally launches, but for now this one feels like a swerve that isn’t working for me.