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ASK WHEELS
One Year of Madness
July 29th, 2011

07/29- 12:00PM EST

  Ask Wheels is now one year old, can you believe it? I want to thank all of you who have written in, be it one time or many, as you've all helped make this thing possible. I know in the modern realm of twitter and forums and the like, a Q&A column is a bit quaint, but I hope I've done a decent job providing you all a little bit of weekly entertainment (and the occasional chance at free stuff).

Now let's get to the good stuff!






The Letters
An Unexpected Sequel

Greetings again Wheels,

    I’ll admit, I didn’t expect my previous 6 degrees challenge to be quite so difficult and I’m thoroughly intimidated by your 7 hours trying, so I’ll let it rest.


Wheels

Well, it didn't exactly take seven hours, but it did take a good long time. No worries however! I thank you for the challenging task.

  Also, in light of the recent discussion of a giant monster RPG, I would make a brief proposal for something rather Katamari Damacy-esqe.  An action RPG where you start as a small newt (or spider or moth or etc. that could give you different classes) and get to run around eating things (after beating them up if necessary).  Eating would allow you to grow (especially the radioactive things), the equivalent of leveling.  When you grew in size you would: a) reach a new level of scale to eat new things, and b) gain new abilities, perhaps based on what you’ve been eating the most of (eat fire to gain fire breath, sticks/trees/hard things to gain armor, long metal poles to gain spines, etc).


Wheels

That actually sounds like a brilliant game! Some kind of strange Katamari-Rampage cross over? I'd buy it certainly. It sounds like it could have the addictive gameplay of Katamari and combine it with the further addictive gameplay of getting to smash things as a giant monster. This needs to happen.

Regardless, that’s not my primary motive for writing today.  I’m here to write about a sequel proposal.  Now that’s awfully open ended, no caveats or restrictions or anything, but I’ll see what I can do.

  So first a little background.  CIMA: the enemy was an obscure RPG from Natsume for the GBA with a lot of cool unique features.  The setting was a sort of sci-fi/fantasy hybrid with a strong Wild West flavor (kind of like Wild Arms).  The basic premise was that humanity was under attack by CIMA, strange, shape-shifting interdimensional beings that fed off hope.  You played as Arc-J and Ivy-H, young guardians (part of the organization devoted to fighting the CIMA) in charge of protecting a train of immigrants to the frontier.  Of course that train is sucked into a CIMA dungeon in an alternate dimension, and everyone is scattered so you must save everyone else and return to the real world (which is possible because CIMA always leave an exit to their dungeons so they can feed off the hope before killing you).  The game play was real-time rpg with almost Lemmings-like puzzle solving, except you had to save everyone, and it had a pretty neat relationship-building system with all the diverse supporting cast of characters you rescued.

Ultimately, CIMA: the enemy is ripe for a sequel (although none will ever happen) because the plot was written with a sequel planned and although the main story wrapped up, massive numbers of questions were left unanswered.  Also the game play is unique enough that even with identical mechanics it would be more original than many standalone games on the market, and with some refinement (especially to the interface) it could be amazing.


Wheels

Very interesting, I think I may have first heard of CIMA here on Q&A at some point, though I haven't yet played it. Anyway, the RPG genre could use some new types of settings, and it sounds like a CIMA sequel could provide this. I do enjoy the idea of Lemmings-like puzzles.

So without further ado, I present:

CIMA2: The Betrayal


  CIMA2 will pick up where the first game left off with Arc J and Ivy-H having overcome many obstacles, including their initial dislike for each other, to rescue their train from the CIMA dungeon and reach the frontier town of Rinton.  For the first few months life was fairly straight forward, and Arc-J and Ivy-H have been waiting a train and summons tor return to HQ for a new assignment.  But then townsfolk started to vanish, and to make things worse, many of the townsfolk started blaming Ivy and thus Arc by association when he comes to her defense (I don’t want to spoil the first game, so I won’t divulge the reason here).  It doesn’t take long to discover that the CIMA are behind it, but by then more than half the town has vanished.  As the remaining townsfolk secretly gather in city hall without the protagonists to discuss plans, the building itself vanishes before Ivy and Arc’s eyes, leaving them the only two remaining.  There is a portal left in its place; however, so Arc and Ivy dive in to do their duty and bring the townsfolk back.  The CIMA, however, have found a new emotion to draw power from: suspicion, and little do Arc and Ivy know that this abduction is more than just an ordinary CIMA attack on the frontier but could change the very nature of the war.


Wheels

A nice story setup, that almost makes it sound like you're going for a Soulblazer or Dark Cloud type setup, but we shall see if that is the case. Anyway, setting up the story this way seems like a good way to get fans of the original into it right away, but also allow those who didn't play the original to easily get into the game world.

   The core gameplay of a simple real-time rpg with puzzle-heavy dungeons requiring the management of numerous civilians would remain the same, as Arc and Ivy search the alternate world for the missing villagers and try to return them to town.  As in the original, the puzzles will require the proper use of each character’s unique abilities, such as the gunslinger’s gun to kill enemies at a distance, the children’s light weight to cross weak bridges, the doctor’s medical skills, or the archaeologist’s ability to dig up treasure.  The DS’s two screens would display the locations of different parties and could be quickly cycled through making managing separate the groups required by some puzzles much easier.  The other big innovation is you would be allowed to take direct control of NPCs if they trust you, giving you better control of your party.


Wheels

Sounds like a mix of Zelda type puzzle dungeons combined with a stronger RPG focus. We need more RPGs with a heavy focus on puzzle dungeons. Sounds like you have a great foundation here.

  Two gameplay elements of the original would be heavily expanded upon.  First, the relationship system.  NPCs would start with varying levels of trust depending on their personality, etc, and this would increase or decrease depending on your actions.  For example, let them be attacked, trust decreases.  Kill nearby monsters, trust increases a little.  Find their lost child, trust increases significantly.  Trust would influence a wide range of things in the game, such as their reactions to you in dialogue, how well they perform, if you can control them directly as noted above, if they will join you for missions into side dungeons, or if they will craft for you.


Wheels

You could also allow for some kind of paranoia to develop if trust gets really low with an NPC, and have that lead to stronger enemies or something along those lines, meaning that relationship status can't just be ignored.

Which brings me to the other big gameplay element to expand on.  The original game had an ambiguous but simple crafting system using crystals called majesties dropped by enemies as its primary growth system which will be greatly expanded on for CIMA2.  In CIMA2, different majesties will be associated with different emotions, such joy, anger and sorrow.  If NPCs trust you enough, they can combine different majesties to craft and improve items for you.  For example, the red anger majesty would increase weapon damage or create single-use explosives, while the white compassion majesty would be used for healing potions, and calmness would improve armor.  Further, different emotions could be combined for greater effect, such as adding sorrow and fear to a weapon so that it paralyzes enemies.


Wheels

Good crafting systems can make a good RPG feel quite incredible. Heck, the Atelier series even uses it as a primary focus. This would provide nice depth to combat, to compliment the complex puzzle dungeons featured in the game.

  Basic majesties can be acquired through killing monsters and other simple activities, but the most powerful, stronger versions are produced by scenes and character interactions involving the associated emotion.  Thus, even though the end goal is fixed, Arc-J and Ivy-H are responsible for saving everyone and will need their trust to do it, the choices you make in doing so will still matter.  If you give into a parent’s demands and rush into danger to save their child you’ll receive joy and impatience majesties, while if you wait to prepare instead, you’ll receive calmness for your own actions and anger from the parent.  You can be successful either way and still earn their trust, but your decisions will influence how they react in the meantime and how you can improve your character.

            So what do you think?

Cheers,

FriendOfAgnes


Wheels

  I think it sounds like a brilliant RPG, with enough complexity to keep things from getting stale without going too far. Without even having played the original, I'd love for someone to make this game so I could play it. There aren't enough original RPGs like this out there!

Look forward to hearing from you again.


 The (Awful) Sound of Music

I hate to sound like just another nostalgia fan whose head is still in the late nineties/first five years of the last decade, but over the last five years or so, I've noticed a sharp drop in the quality of the way music is used in rpgs.  The music itself hasn't lost much in the way of quality. There haven't really been any truly spectacular soundtracks either, but the art of using music to enhance or create the moods in an rpg seems to have been lost entirely, for the most part. 

Wheels

In this regard, you are not wrong in the slightest. There are a good number of exceptions, but for the most part something has been lost with the upgrade in music quality, which is quite strange. I actually think a lot of smaller companies haven't lost this (Falcom, Atlus, Gust), and this fits into the overall picture, as I'll get to in a bit.

My personal observation is that this failure started when voice-acting became the norm for Japanese rpgs on console.  Because the voices were there, with their tones indicating the moods of the characters and the general conversation, it is like the game-makers simply forgot about their other tool, the background music.  In particular, I notice this failure in the big-budget games like FFXII and FFXIII, as well as SO4... Square creates a technical masterpiece in terms of music, then seems to fail utterly to understand how to use it, even though games like the early FF games and the Chrono series proved that they knew very well how to do so.

Wheels

While I agree, I think the soundtracks for both FFXII and FFX were still phenomenal despite the voice acting. Obviously we disagree on FFXII, but I thought it did a brilliant job creating new themes that fit in nicely with the other Ivalice games. Now, I think the issue, in addition to problems caused by voice acting, is related to an increase in music quality. Uematsu made this point in an interview (I believe here on RPGamer), if I remember correctly, essentially saying that in the older days they had to be more creative with music due to  limited tools, disc/cartridge capacity, etc. I guess when you've got orchestras at your disposal composers are more inclined to play it safe?

I'm not saying that all the jrpg companies have failed that way... Gust did a great job with the Ar Tonelico series on that aspect (though it had other problems, from a lot of peoples' perspectives), and Nier was a masterpiece in terms of the musical side.  However, those are glaring exceptions amongst the sea of mediocrity...  and I am greatly saddened by this. 

Wheels

Well I think mentioning Gust and Nier illustrates something interesting. Gust games are generally lower budget, and certainly Nier couldn't have had an amazing budget. Another example, look at the quality music in Atlus games, and the amazing soundtrack for Crystal Bearers. It seems that with a lower budget developers actually have a lot more freedom to be creative with their music (or in Crystal Bearers case they may have just been allowed to go crazy). That's not to say they aren't high quality soundtracks, but they also aren't, say, the fully orchestrated soundtrack of Dragon Quest VIII. Again, that's not to say that any composer with high quality tools to work with will produce only mediocrity, I just mean that low budget games seem more likely to have memorable tracks.

My final opinion is that the skill probably hasn't been lost... its just been buried by the proliferation of new tools that have fallen into video-game makers' hands over the past ten years.  Voice-acting, improved graphics that allow for more varied facial expressions, and the like have lessened the importance of properly utilizing music in the enhancement of the game experience, most likely without the game-makers being fully aware of it.  And this has led to a less-satisfying experience, even when a game's plot might have been equal to the ones of old from a simple readers' perspective.  I look forward to the day when the big companies wake up and finally take a good hard look at how they use all their tools, not just their newest ones.

Sincerely,
Clephas

Wheels

You're pretty much spot on here. It could even just be something as simple as lack of creative control. As the business has grown, I'm sure music composition has gotten more strict, just like a lot of other things in the industry. Video games of course being a creative industry, such restrictions wouldn't be good. Of course I don't know any of this for sure, I'm just speculating, but there is no doubt that something is not right.

Great letter, look forward to hearing from you again!


I Know You Are but What Am I?

DEAR WHEELS

MAJORA'S MASK IS THE BEST GAME

ALSO YOU ARE A DOODYFACE

LOVE,

BEAT

Wheels

Well, I may be a doodyface, but Majora's Mask is neither the best game, nor the best Zelda game. Now Beat, why so long since you last wrote in? We've missed your insanity. Now, this is certainly more insanity for sure. Listen, I like Majora's Mask just fine and all, but it has some pretty big issues. First and foremost is the awful intro section that is tedious and takes you forever to get to the game proper. No one wants to do fetch quests as shrub link sir! Then we get to the game proper. The dungeons in this game are brilliant, there's no doubt about that. It's what comes in-between them that has issues. The many side-quests aren't bad of course, but the game just does a terrible job directing you where to go. I'm all for games that force you to figure things out, but there still needs to be a clear bread crumb trail for players to follow so they aren't wandering around aimlessly for hours on end. There's a lot to love about Majora's Mask for sure, I mean just look at this crazy movie. Now I know I'm sounding very down on the game, but it is still a brilliant game and I just want to make the point that it is far from perfect.

The Lightning Round

Dear Wheels,

I noticed that last week you were stumped by the mention of a "Deeble" in one of your letters.  Being somewhat of an expert on Deebles, I thought I'd write in.  Deebles are scavengers found frequently in technomagical garbage dumps.  They're an unfortunate mix between a pigeon, a rat, and various pieces of animate technomagical junk, and are used in order to both guard and break down the detrius of steampunk society.  No two Deebles quite look alike, but I have sketched an example of one and attached it to this letter.  Sadly, as Deeble 3.0 has yet to be released, we'll have to make do with 2.5.  I understand that Deeble 3.0 has put some junkyard dog into the mix, as the booming value of scrap patluminoid alloy has led to increased junkyard theft.

Hope this helps!
-Ocelot

deeble


Wheels

Wow, that looks like something that wouldn't look out of place in Fraggle Rock. For those completely confused right now, go check out last week's AskWheels. I wonder, what exactly was that person talking about when he mentioned Deebles? Does he want Diablo 3 to go to a steampunk theme? Does he really love muppet-type things? This is another mystery. However at least the mystery of what exactly a Deeble is has been solved. Thank you!

@AskWheels If you had to construct a syllabi for introduction to roleplaying (as in no experience w. genre/gaming) what would be in it?

-falselogic


Wheels

Well I think I will just have to whip up a quick draft for the syllabus for RPGs 101. Here we go:

Course part the first - The Early Days:
-A look at early tabletop Dungeons & Dragons
-A study of the Ultima series, its origins and influences (Ultima I, II, or III required playing)
-The many flavors of Rogue (Any roguelike required playing)
-Wizardry and first person dungeon crawls (Any early Wizardry required)

Course part the second - The 8-bit Days:
-Dragon Quest and the birth of console RPGs (Dragon Quest IV required playing since I'm nice)
-Final Fantasy (Final Fantasy III required playing)
-RPGs go portable (SaGa II required playing)
-Phantasy Star (Phantasy Star required playing)

Course part the third - The 16-bit Days:
-Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest continue to dominate (Final Fantasy VI and Dragon Quest V required playing)
-Gold Box and more D&D goodness (Eye of the Beholder and one Gold Box game required playing)
-Action RPG goodness (Illusion of Gaia, Secret of Mana, and Landstalker required playing)
-Others (Super Mario RPG, Chrono Trigger, and Phantasy Star IV)

Course part the third - The 32-bit days and more:
-The second coming of PC RPGs ( Baldurs Gate 2 and Fallout required playing)
-Rogue for a new generation (Diablo II required plaing)
-Where did Dragon Quest go? Final Fantasy is still around! (Final Fantasy VIII  and a dabling in Dragon Quest VII required)
-The good stuff (Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics)

Course part the fifth - Select titles from more recent years:
-The Rise of Anime-style RPGs (Tales of the Abyss)
-Open-world RPGs (Fallout 3)
-Unique (Demon's Souls, Resonance of Fate, Nier, The World Ends With You, Person 3/4)
-Oh Boy (Unlimited Saga)
-So many portable titles ( I dunno man, everything by Atlus/Square-Enix/NIS/XSEED etc.)
-Bioware (All of them)
-Everything I forget

There you go, an extremely rough syllabus you'll likely think is terrible.

@AskWheels I don't know much of Tales or SaGa, so help me! Where is the best place to start on each? Abyss? Vesperia? SaGa Frontier?

-Aleanil


Wheels

As much as I am a fan of Tales of the Abyss, PS2 RPGs nowadays feel extremely slow due to long loading times. If you want to wait for the 3DS version, that will still be your best bet, otherwise go with Vesperia. Its very polished, and really represents everything good about the series. Despite what some seem to think, it is very much a complete game. You can even get it from Xbox games on demand, so you can just play it off your hard drive.
 
As far as SaGa goes, that is a much tougher nut to crack given how obtuse the series is. SaGa Frontier would be a decent starting point, with some freedom on which characters you want to start with (you don't even have to play through them all of course). However, I'd still say SaGa 2 to start with. Being an old gameboy RPG, its shorter, simpler to understand, and you can create your own party. If you have the know-how you can even play the DS remake, with a fan translation available. Just keep in mind that even the DS game will feel a bit antiquated despite the many updates. The series is worth a try, even if you don't end up liking it, so I wish you luck in this! Let me know if you end up a fan (assuming you aren't already and were just providing an awesome question for me).

@AskWheels Given its high acclaim both pre and post release, why do you think Catherine has not yet been released worldwide? You would think that if it was loved in the gaming press outside of Japan, it would be prime to release in Europe as well. Do Japanese games really have that little appeal in the face of Call of Duty and other western franchises?

-MallowTribe


Wheels

Well thankfully there is at least a European publisher in place, but it seems odd that this didn't happen sooner. Catherine is an odd game, that I'm sure many gamers wont really get, but it sure has one thing going for it: sex appeal! So the answer is I don't really know. Atlus clearly has a market for its games in Europe, as JRPGs and other Japanese games seem to be doing just fine in the region. It could be that Atlus' parent company prefers to avoid the risk inherent in creating a European branch of Atlus, so maybe a long-term publishing deal with another company would suit them best. I know Square-Enix published one (or more?) of the Persona games in Europe, and certainly that would seem to be a good match. As far as competing with western franchises, I honestly don't think they worry about the likes of Call of Duty. RPGs are a niche genre, and the Japanese variety even more so. It's just like Mac publishers back in the day (which I know all about). They certainly couldn't compete with the sales of PC games, or the sales of Blizzard games on Mac, but they could sell enough to spin a nice profit. Of course every now and then these niche games have a cross-over hit (Demon's Souls, many of Square Enix's franchises, Mario RPGs), but for the most partthese games just have a niche appeal, and that suits them just fine. I'd love it if Persona was all the rage over Call of Duty, but what are you going to do? I think I kind of went off topic, but the long and short of it is no, they do not have that little appeal! 
IN CLOSING

That's it for this week! Again, thank you all for continuing to make this column awesome. Now I will take the time to ask you to keep doing so (as my backlog is now completely empty of letters)! Oh and get those contest entries in, the deadline will be a little bit more loose, I'll give you guys until next Wednesday. Next week I'll discuss how the winner will be chosen.

See you all then!

-Wheels


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