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ASK OLIVER
Just Out of Reach
November 20, 2008

11/20 - 9:12 p.m. CST

First and foremost, I must apologize to all of you for the unthinkable idiocy of my underling, Ethan Pipher. Y'know, the douche bag who stepped in and hosted for me last week when I was otherwise engaged. Suffice to say, I had no idea that he intended to butcher my fine readers' letters, and such a thing will not be occurring again. Or at least, not in such a drastic fashion.

Some of the letters I receive are, indeed, very long. And while I personally have compunctions about snipping portions out, I suppose I can't fault guest-hosts who may not want to deal with eight thousands words of text. Now, Ethan went over the top last week, that much is certain. Still, perhaps it gave you all something to THINK ABOUT, eh?

In other news, Valkyria Chronicles is the finest game I have played in some time. If you have a PS3, acquire the game with all haste. If you do not have PS3, you now have a reason to start scrimping pennies.

On to the letters!





The Letters
Might as well get this out of the way


Thank you, Ethos. I was getting damn tired of reading 3 novel length letters biweekly. I will pose my question to the readers rather than the host: Can you please try write shorter letters with greater frequency? If you have more than a couple questions break it up into 2 or more letters. Maybe if there were more letters we can see the return of QNA to 3 or 5 times a week. Those were the days...

iehley

Oliver

"iehley" is hardly a proper name. Don't worry, we don't give out your contact information to any third parties. Unless they buy lots of ad space, in which case we put a bundle of names in a hat and draw out one.

Your thank-you letter to Ethos arrived in the general Q&A inbox, so I snatched it. Doubtless he will see it, and begin singing praises to himself anew. And then his head will grow so large that he will have to undergoe a surgical procedure to deflate it, else he will be unable to leave his room.

Look, I've already stated my feelings over last week's column. But I have serious issues with editing the content of people's letters. I understand that it's more of a personal quirk than anything else, so I'm not saying that it will never happen again. (e.g., Ethan will probably host the column again one day.)

Do the long letters become annoying? At times, sure, but hey; if people are taking the time to write me, I'm happy.

And until I start receiving considerably more letters, the column will remain a WEEKLY (not bi-weekly) affair.

Thank you for the short&short letter, Iehley!



Shooting in the dark


"And, I will say this till the day I die, but how could a Final Fantasy fan hate XII's battle system? It was, for all intents and purposes, the SAME ATB SYSTEM WE'D COME TO KNOW AND LOVE!"-Oliver.

Well Oliver I canít really answer that question because I'm not a fan of Final Fantasy. FFIV was my first RPG (didnít know that it was a FF for a long time) and it was almost pure chance that I ever played X. Other than that I just haven't ever really encountered the FF's and generally speaking I donít care for Square-enix plots. That said I am a fan of CTBs/ATBs and I really donít buy the argument that an ADB is the same thing. I haven't played FFXII but your question wasn't "why donít you like", it was "why wouldn't you like". Here are the ten highlighted reasons why I have yet to play FFXII's ADB and why I donít think I would enjoy it.

Oliver

So... you mean to tell me that, despite your limited experience with the Final Fantasy series, and complete lack of experience with FFXII, you plan on trashing the ADB system?

Good luck my friend, methinks you'll need it.

Firstly you lose several things when you move from an CTB/ATB to a ADB

1) random encounters: the first and main reason that I ignored FFXII is that I actually like the stop action random encounters. Having the characters stand in a row in front of each other just seems more like fun to me; However, I also think that there are some things random encounters contribute, even if you want to be able to move around in a fight, like infinite rapid respawn and that sudden jolt when they pop out of nowhere, you can't get that if you see them on the screen (no matter how well hidden they are).

Oliver

You are the first person I have ever spoken to who actually enjoys the outdated abomination that is the Random Encounter. If people lining up on one side of the screen makes you happy, more power to you I suppose. It hardly takes merit away from FFXII's ADB system, or any other system that displays enemies onscreen.

2) Cinematic Flair (in fights): In an ADB There is zero attention to individual characters and attacks. No dramatic camera angles, no awesome stop and gawk attacks, and no coliseum like atmosphere of an arena. Or If there are they are far too few.

Oliver

FFXII's battles have more "cinematic flair" than any other game in the series, and this is because of the ADB system. Seeing the combatants in motion, not confined by an "arena," makes them some of the most realistic and visually engaging battles to be seen in a JRPG. And there are plenty of flashy effects to be found as well, if that's honestly such an important thing.

3) timed button hits: By far one of the most engaging features to be added to a turn based RPG, and ADBs seem to be designed to eliminate them. Actions carried out automatically or babysitting team mates, control over one character, visual cues that are difficult to spot, constantly moving characters and a passable but clunky command menu. Even if the extensive effort were taken to add timed hits, you wouldn't have time or state of mind to pull them off.

Oliver

Okay, now I just don't know what the hell you're talking about. "Timed button hits?" Please tell me you're not referring to the constant mashing of the X-button that ATB systems require. Please tell me you're trying to communicate something deeper.

4) micro management: gambits automating things pretty much eliminates the capacity or need to micromanage. Even if you turn them off the interface doesnít lend itself to this purpose considering you have to give commands from the main character. Furthermore motion control is in the left stick, while menu navigation is on the D-pad (left hand side for those who are unsure). Finally, the major "improvement" that an ADB is supposed to offer is the ability to walk around in the midst of battle, but as far as I know there isnít a command (outside of who to attack) to even suggest the NPC characters go anywhere.

Oliver

...

Due in part to the Gambit system, FFXII requires more micromanagement than any FF before it. Gambits must constantly be tweaked, rearranged, and reorganized. It usually has to be done during every boss battle, since there are different things to account for every time. The customization is allows is massive. Make no mistake, the gambit system alone requires extensive micromanagement.

Even if one was to ignore the Gambit system, he's still have to contend with the license grid, which includes every weapon, skill, and ability in the game. There is micromanaging aplenty in FFXII, my uninformed friend.

I'd like to know who first said that the ADB system's major advantage was the ability to "walk around" during battle. It was probably someone as ignorant as you. The ability to "walk" plays absolutely no role in FFXII's combat, nor was it supposed to. When you engage an enemy, your party strafes around them automatically. You can walk, but you cannot dodge, and you cannot position yourself advantageously. The ADB system was not constructed simply so players could "walk" during combat.

5) Real time and turn based don't mix: If the environment is worth interacting with or it actually effects the outcome of two colliding attacks for them to be timed correctly, waiting for a bar to fill is really not all that fun or strategic. The ATB meter has to be reworked, to fit the nuances of walking around during a fight. (this is why MMOís have specific types of moves classified under groups for different recharge times)

Oliver

FFXII's combat is not real-time in any sense of the word, nor was it intended to be. Actions are still dictated by the same 'ol ATB bar we've always known. There's hardly a "mix" to be found here.

This, you see, is the basis of my argument that FFXII's combat is essentially the same as in past iterations of the series.

6) Fast paced ? Hectic: A good ATB can be both strategic and fast paced, but ADBs are just hectic. With everything attacking simultaneously over and over again in short period of time, moving around and two small low information HUD pieces (one for characters stats and one for only a few lines of actions) it is very difficult to know what is going on or what has already taken place.

Oliver

No it isn't.

*points to the part of the letter that says "I haven't played FFXII"*

Having considered all these things that are taken from a regular CTB/ATB or don't translate to ADB, there are should probably be some things added in their place. The problem is that I either don't care about these things (walking around in a fight just doesnít do much for me) or don't think they have all the bugs out (gambits). The following are a few things that don't seem worked through enough.

7) Reinforcement of the Environment: Trees, cliffs, and boulders are not enough to make the environment relevant in a fight. In order for this sort of thing to be fun for the long haul there has to be lots of varied terrain and interactive pieces of the environment. Snow/Sand drifts that the characters walk slower on, ice that causes characters to slide, or Special zones that make characters run faster. Spells to make pillars of earth appear, spring boards to send people up to the tree tops, landslides that can be aggravated to fall on the enemies. ADBs also tend to ignore the possibility of puzzles, which is about the only thing I would want to do in the over world.

Oliver

Uh... and why does an ADB system need springboards and other such carnival attractions to work? I think I missed something. The intent of FFXII's battle system was NOT to make the environment a key factor.

And how does the inclusion of an ADB system exclude environmental puzzles? FFXII has plenty of them. I'm so lost.

8) Motion skills: Walking around in the middle of a fight just isn't that exciting, especially if the only thing you can do to change your state of walking is hold the run button (which doesnít always effect the NPC allies and may not effect the mobs). There really needs to be a guard button, a dash move, mid fight teleportation, or (dare I say it) a jump button.

Oliver

Well it's a damn sight more exciting than watching your party arrange into a neat line and stand still.

9) no Ė1 party number limit: Random encounters isn't any more obsolete than the party limit, in fact it is less so. Even if FFXII does in fact increase the party limit to 4 it doesnít get rid of the limit all together. Were there such a negation of the limit gambits and the loss of micro management would be more tolerable because the game would play more like a squad styled RTS. If the reasoning behind keeping the character limit is because it would get way to hectic, which it would, then that means that we lose the possibility of getting rid of the party limit. Strike that as another difference from CTB/ATB (which could run very effectively with many characters).

Oliver

I have never played an RPG that allowed you to control all the members of your party at once. Three to five has always been the norm. FFXII is no different. XII goes a step further actually, allowing you to switch members out mid-battle simply by accessing the menu.

So, I'm not really sure where this complaint is coming from.

10) Gambits are flawed: Gambits do not equal Macros they are probability based, so they are not strict commands you tell one character to perform while you control another (this is only good in that it allows for adapting to circumstances). This also means that the computer is GUESSING what you MIGHT have chosen to do, I never have agreed with the computers choices in moves (under the auto function) and I doubt I will start here. Gambits are highly limited in that you can only get twelve per a character and that you have to literally find the command for a given gambit to use it. Finally, we go back to the fact that the only purpose gambits serve is eliminate the need for micro management.

Having said all of this I would like to say that while writing this I watched a video of the game being played and was actually a little impressed at how relevant positioning appeared to be. If it were just one character, and positioning is actually relevant I might enjoy it for a little while. Thisn't the case as far as I know however and I still have several problems as I mentioned above.

Oliver

What

The

HELL are you talking about?

As someone who played FFXII for over 100 hours, completed the game, and spent extensive time with the Gambit system, none of what you just said makes ANY sense. Seriously man, what version of FFXII did you pl- oh, never mind.

Now that that the rant is over I have a few questions.

In Kirby Super Star Delux (this was the name of the SNES version) there is a cave where you fight a computer and when you win it has a mock RPG experience tally. It tells you that you have accumulated so many experience points, happy points, cool points ect... Have you ever played a game of a different genre that did this sort of thing?

Oliver

No.

Also I have some Wii points laying around. What SNES (or similar period) RPGs would you suggest I look out for?

Oliver

I say we hope for the unofficial Chinese 2D remake of Final Fantasy VII to make its way to the Virtual Console at some point.

Finally, now that I've ranted about why I donít like FFXII I guess I should shout out to series I like and why.

Suikoden series - Itís not so much the fact that it is about a war (I liked III best and that was more about a guy... trying to kill destiny?) as it is I like games where there are gigantic proportions for SEVERAL things to do. Want to travel the world recruiting every other character you see: go ahead, want to force the worst possible couple to play Romeo and Juliet: right on, want to command ALL(Ok 85%) of your characters in a multi skirmish battle/war: onward to glory, want to actually buy something in one town and sell it for a boat load of cash in another: sign me up. Now that I think about itÖwhy isnít V on my Christmas list? Oh right Last Remnant, Okami, and Puzzle Quest.

Dark Cloud series- Rebuilding a world, melting down your /godmode sword and fusing it into your /godmode gun, fishing, inventions (gasp) it goes on and on. I guess I liked 2 more than 1. There are definitely flaws here but Iím willing to accept them because there is so much to do.

Paper Mario series- Hmm... Mario... I wonder why I like these? Oh and it has timed hits, cooking, a whole bunch of wonky mini games, fun with paper, and a nice laid back ridiculous story.

Oliver

Well, I'm glad you enjoy these games. Unfortunately I've never played any of them. I'd like to try them all, and I have the original Paper Mario sitting on my Wii.

Thanks for the letter, mystery man, flawed as it was.



Tales, Tales, Everywhere


Hey Oliver,

I just picked up Tales of Symphonia: DotNY a few days ago, and I thought it'd be nice to report in, since I hear you may not be getting it. I have only about 15 hours under my belt, but I feel that is sufficient for my purposes.

Oliver

Ah, Cornman. Nice to hear from you.

Unfortunately, DotNW might have to accept a raincheck from me this year. Too much else to play at the moment. But let's hear what you have to say about it.

Of course I have to start with the suspect monster-wrangling feature. I must say, itís not as terrible as some of the fanboys would have you think... but at the same time it feels strangely out-of-place. Itís not that theyíre useless: itís actually quite easy to breed a monster that is far more powerful than Emil, for instance. However, the AI controlling them is a bit... stupid, and never attacks as regularly as you would like them to, so their overpoweredness is tempered by their idiocy. But hey, the variety (over 200 monsters) is staggering, and there is even an element of customization in that you can teach them artes like First Aid with special tomes.

Overall, the monsters add value to your party. But for those who just donít like it, I assure you it's not a necessity. Guest Symphonia characters filter in at a steady clip, so youíll rarely be in battle with only Emil and Marta, and even when itís just the two of you against the world, the difficulty is still very manageable. In fact, one of the biggest pitfalls of the monster feature is that unless you donít breed them at all, their power makes the game pathetically easy. (But like I said, their stupid AI counteracts this somewhat.) Fighting with human characters tips the scales back toward a fair balance, which is ultimately more fun and rewarding.

Oliver

Well, I'm glad to hear that the monster collection aspect isn't a total throwaway. Still, I'd much prefer four permanent party members, including some returning characters from the original game. Random monsters just don't cut it for me. This is probably why I've never gotten into the Pokemon series at all.

I tried the monster feature for a good ten hours, but at that point I just got tired of all the micromanagement and ditched them all. The game doesnít suffer one bit (though maybe Iíll change my tune when I run into a difficult boss). I personally donít find much enjoyment in the monster feature, for the same reasons I tend to avoid Pokemon games: there are over 2 00 monsters to "catch", so if I train too many, I feel like I'm wasting my time. Alternately, if I train too few, I feel like I'm handicapping myself. Itís circular logic at its worst, and it's incredibly frustrating when youíre concentrating on these little annoyances rather than the game itself. Which is why I ditched them.

Oliver

Heh... that paragraph made me laugh.

When a certain aspect of a game requires extensive micro-management, that's fine. When that feature hinders the gameplay experience and, ultimately, serves no purpose, that's an entirely different story. I really don't see why Namco Bandai felt the need to include such a gimmicky feature; I suppose we should all just be happy that it doesn't entirely suck.

Another reason why I personally donít like the monster feature is because it justifies the devs' decision to gimp the Symphonia cast. You may have already heard this, so bear with me for a moment: The Symphonia characters can not be (1) leveled, (2) equipped or (3) controlled. The last one is particularly painful because I feel that it eliminates one of the Tales seriesí greatest strengths: the variety in combat styles. Emil and Marta are the only characters you can control directly in battle, and while both are admittedly very dynamic and fun, itís literally a CRIME that I cannot take control of my precious Sheena in battle.

Oliver

Oh...?

RETRACTION: I've since learned that the returning Symphonia cast members actually ARE playable! The thing is, because they are "guests", you cannot move them into the 1st character slot in the pause menu, which means you can never start a battle as a guest. I simply assumed that this meant you couldn't play as them. However, I was WRONG. All you have to do is pause the game in the middle of a fight, and then switch your character there.

It's a very nonsensical workaround if you ask me, but at least the result is the same: I get to play as Sheena! Anyway, I just wanted to make sure that I wasn't spewing falsehoods on the interwebs. Thanks, Oliver!

Oliver

Heh. For those confused, Cornman sent that retraction soon after he sent the original letter.

It makes me very happy that returning characters can, in fact, be controlled. However, I will never forgive them for not bringing back at least part of the cast as permanent members. I mean, come on... the strength of Symphonia, as well as any Tales game, is in its characters. I'm more excited about seeing them again than I am about a continuation of Symphonia's plot.

Let's get into the story. I don't want to judge DotNW by its predecessor's standards, because I felt that Symphonia's story was one of its weakest features. Which is why I was disappointed that not even an hour into the game, I had just finished my trek into an ancient elemental-themed dungeon to collect some weird artifact, and was on my way to the next one. When the story has already resorted to leaning on tired formulas in the FIRST HOUR, you know something is not right. On a more positive note, one of Symphoniaís most valuable assets - character development - seems to be doing very well so far. Emil has made neither a positive nor a negative impression so far, but I'm really liking Marta so far. Laura Bailey has done a fantastic voice acting job, almost on par with the fantastic Milliarde of Baten Kaitos Origins. However, I am a little frightened that not even five hours into the game, and her character has already fallen exaggeratedly in love with Emil! I swear it must be a world record or something. The writers seem to be using her exaggerated clinginess as a sort of endearing gimmick, and while I agree that itís very cute so far, I can see it becoming a real nuisance in twenty hours or so. So... letís hope her parents get killed or something, shall we? That ought to sober her up a little!

Oliver

Well, hey... Tales games have never been known for their original plots. Nor have JRPGs in general. Valkyria Chronicles, amazing as it is, has already introduced such tired conventions as: an ancient deceased civilization, a precious, universally-sought source of energy, a powerful artifact that will let its user rule the world, and an evil empire that's out to claim it.

You mean to say that Emil's parents aren't dead already? See, there's some originality for you. And I hate to bust your bubble, but Milliarde was voiced by some chick named Shanelle Workman. Laura Bailey is, however, the one who provided the *amazing* voicework for Lust in the Fullmetal Alchemist anime series. She made Lust truly... lustworthy.

Now... I thought I'd conclude with something non-Tales, since I feel that Tales has been at the center of my past several letters. (Like you, I'm not that devout a fan of Tales either! Why does the community think of you that way?) My question is: How do you expect The Last Remnant will be received by the Western gaming media? I myself am suspicious of the game because I believe the "new" battle system they have created is merely an aesthetic change. What I mean is, I believe the battles will be visually larger in scale, but will otherwise play exactly the same as any other turn-based RPG. Rather than four characters standing in a line waiting to get hit, it will simply be several "unions" with a collective HP bar and collective stat boosts and collective attack commands. How is that any different than controlling a single character, I ask you? I expect the Western media to notice this, and lambaste the game for it. As will I. (The story will also receive a savage beating, I'm sure.) But who knows? I may be wrong. In fact, I HOPE I'm wrong, so I can buy it and not be disappointed. (And by the time the Q&A column goes out, I expect weíll know for sure!)

Braced for disappointment,
Cornman89

Oliver

I'm expecting good things from The Last Remnant, as I've stated before. As for how the western media will react, I can't really say at this point. I feel that they will praise the battle system, just because so much attention has been given to it, and reviewers are generally happy with anything that differs even slightly from standard turn-based affair.

As for their reception of the plot, I can't really predict. I'm really wondering if Square Enix, in their attempt to win over the western market, has taken precautions against excessive use of JRPG conventions in The Last Remnant's storyline. That, in my opinion, would be one of the most effective ways to appeal to said audience. The question can really be boiled down to this: will The Last Remnant be deserving of its M rating, or will it simply feature some blood spouting from monsters here and there? If the answer is yes, the game could be very well accepted. If the game is all about ancient artifacts and the collecting thereof, lost princesses, and lost civilizations, then the answer is no. We will see, though. It may surprise you, but I'm far more concerned about how the game's plot will pan out than its battle system.

As always, thanks very much for the letter, Cornman.

IN CLOSING

For some reason, that took me quite a bit longer than usual. I must be growing slow in my old age.

The end of the semester is just out of reach... taunting me. The amount of dis-enjoyment I have experienced during my third semester in college is really quite stunning, and I really feel that I need a fresh start. A break first, and then a fresh start in January.

Until the end actually gets here, I suppose I'll just be playing Valkyria Chronicles. (You should too!)

-Oliver



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