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Game Anatomy: Handsome Jack

Jack_intro

Copyright 2K Games and Gearbox Studios

I’m going to admit, even for the limited definitions I put out for Game Anatomy, Handsome Jack does stretch them, a lot.  Unlike a lot of things I’ve covered in these articles, Handsome Jack is an NPC, and I’m not talking about him as a boss fight at the end of the game.  I mean Handsome Jack, the character, and how he basically makes Borderlands 2 the game that it is, and without him, it is a much lesser game.

First of all, let’s start with the obvious: Handsome Jack is one of the most evil bastards in video games.  A murderous, sociopathic, selfish psychopath, Jack has almost nothing redeemable about him.  Worse, he goes on to declare himself the true hero of the game, and that everyone should bow down and follow him, while doing nothing but murdering people for pretty much no reason.  See, Borderlands 2 takes place on Pandora, a world with tons of bandits, lawlessness and people whose brains have been completely destroyed and mutilated by the world itself.  It’s a really, really awful place, but it’s not without its good people.  There is a civilization here.  Jack, however, wants to kill everyone on the planet and sell it off to rich people across the galaxy (also claim an ancient alien superweapon to continue doing this).  He’s not just a murderous psychopath, he’s the head of a interstellar corporation with a private army and a space station capable of firing on people from orbit.  Not only does he want to kill a bunch of people, calling them all bandits, he can do it and he does.  It’s gentrification literally weaponized.

What makes Jack work, first, is that he acts as a foil to the Vault Hunter.  It doesn’t matter which one, all of them, none of them, whatever, it’s to the player he serves as a foil.  Throughout the whole game, the player goes about murdering pretty much everyone that they meet, taking their stuff and using it to kill more people.  The justification is that those people are bandits or psychos, that they need to be put down for the good of society, and the Vault Hunter, and by definition, the player, sees almost no people aligned with them for the first several hours of the game.  Of course, once the player gets to Sanctuary and links up with Roland, this changes a bit, but it doesn’t change that the player and Jack are, on a superficial level, doing the same thing.  Jack even points this out on multiple occasions, implying that the player should be on Jack’s side, should be helping him, instead of fighting against him.  This of course is ignoring the fact the player signed up with Jack at the beginning, and he tried to kill them, to take responsibility for their actions.

Borderlands 2 is a game where the primary game loop is to kill bad guys, steal their weapons and use those weapons to kill more bad guys.  It’s got some engaging gameplay, if it’s a little simple, and said bad guys have too many hit points, but it’s very similar to a loot of other loot shooters in that regard.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of nuance, either.  The player is going to come in with the assumption that the people they’re shooting are bad, and that the player is playing a good person, just doing what they need to to survive and help out the world.  While this is literally true within the context of the game, Handsome Jack gives it the nuance.  By comparing the player to what Handsome Jack does, we can see that not only are we not just murdering everyone we see (mostly), but we’re not just doing it for selfish reasons.  Except maybe Salvador.

In addition to him acting as a foil, another thing that makes him work, is that he’s an asshole.  He’s pretty much one of the worst villains in video games.  His job is the exact same as Freeza from Dragon Ball Z, in that he kills entire populations of planets and sells them to rich people, but he’s also a man who’s had busloads of refugees murdered (refugees from a town he destroyed), personally had his daughter locked up, personally murdered several innocent people and he buys a living horse made out of diamonds.  Not a statue.  He then calls the player to tell them, then names it Butt Stallion, after the Vault Hunter.  Just to gloat.  Part of the reason Jack works so well as a foil is because he makes it very personal, pretty much for no reason.

Jack spends most of the game calling the player with a combination of gloating and taunts, often kicking them when they’re down, or blaming them for things he did.  He is hilariously petty and vindictive, at one point eating chips while calling just to prove the Vault Hunter is beneath them.   By doing this, it injects all of the flavor and context the game needs to make the core gameplay loop work, because otherwise, he’s right, you really are a psychopath.  See, one of the problems of a lot of games like Borderlands, and that can be FPS games or loot shooters, is that the player kills a truck ton of people, often for no reason.  The original Borderlands didn’t have Jack, and very early on, it’s hard to tell who the player is supposed to kill and why, and while it does give some context, it’s not the same.

By making it personal, and by acting as a direct foil, we’re able to see the Vault Hunter, who in other games would be a murder hobo, as a hero.  Yes, a lot of people are going to die, and not all of them are people whose brains have been irreparably damaged, and that is sort of weird how many people players kill in a video game, but Jack gives the player something real to fight against.  Give them something legitimate as an enemy, and turns the tables on the assumptions of the game, by making your goal not that different from the villains.  Even the means are the same, but at no point are any of the Vault Hunters murdering innocents.  In fact, because of the damage Jack causes, the Vault Hunter gets to go out of their way to help innocents.  Plus, we get to see how many settlements of “bandits” Jack has wiped out, and see that his destruction has only made Pandora worse, and that’s saying something.

Game Anatomy: The Plan

DmC_box_art

Copyright Capcom and Ninja Theory

It’s honestly surprising that I’ve never really talked much about this game, although it came out during my hiatus on this blog, so that’s probably why.  DMC: Devil May Cry is a strange beast of a game, and it’s really hard to discuss thanks to all of the baggage the game has accumulated over the past 7 years (or that the last main series game came out almost a decade ago), but ultimately, it’s not really all that bad.  I’m a bit of a strange fan, considering I hated it until the fourth game came out, which totally revised my entire view on the series (except for 2, 2 sucks), but I am a fan of the flashy, stylish, anime as Hell series, and when I got a chance to pick up the game on Playstation Plus, I really enjoyed it.  It’s sort of a better version of the first game, and that’s really good.

Yeah, it has really terrible art direction, bad character designs and the story is terrible even from the perspective of the series, but the action is really good, the platforming is really cool and the level design is the best in the series.  That last one doesn’t sound like much of a barrier, because Devil May Cry level design is terrible, but seriously, it’s really, really good here.  In fact, the levels do a great job of servicing the combat, which is admittedly a downgrade from 3 and 4, because it’s much more than a funnel to take Dante from one fight to the next.  The levels are complex and interesting, breaking into platforming and combat sections in a way that feels natural, and sometimes, if rarely, blending them in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or stupid.  It’s great, and it also allows for encounters that really utilize the weapon switching of the combat.  One level stands above the rest though, and that’s Mission 16: the Plan.

For very stupid plot reasons, Dante and Virgil are raiding the building of the main bad guy, and killing all of his elite troops.  What’s cool, but not what makes the level so good, is that it’s set up in a way so that Dante and Virgil each have their own thing going on, and while the player is Dante, it’s possible to see Virgil’s progress mirroring the player’s own.  It’s not exactly in real time, but it does feel like it’s in real time, the few times you can see Virgil doing his thing.  Also, it solidifies the relationship between the brothers in a way the game hasn’t managed to at this point, which will make their eventual falling out that much stronger at the end of the game.  However, what’s really cool is that the level is set up like a heist movie, with Kat, the kind of boring witch love interest, narrating the entire level.

See, in the cutscene before the level, the player isn’t shown what the plan is, and instead, the level is narrated all the way through by Kat, with commentary by Virgil and Dante, for what the brothers are supposed to do.  Much like the execution scenes at the end of Ocean’s Eleven, Kat explains to Dante and Virgil what they’re supposed to do while they’re doing it, complete with the drawings of her plans being superimposed over the gameplay while its being explained to the player.  What’s really cool about this, other than it being one of the few examples of this in the medium, it also does a good job of explaining to the player where to go and what to do.  Sure, the levels aren’t particularly complex or anything, but it does throw a lot of very, very difficult enemies at you, but it does also have a few places where the player can screw up and wind up having to face a horde of very difficult monsters all at once.

That happened to me.  Kat was specific about not doing something.  I could have avoided it and I wound up dodging into a hole and falling right onto the floor where I shouldn’t have been.  What’s great is is that not only did I get a little scene were Dante chastises himself for being an idiot, it was also something specifically called out to me not to do, I did it, and I got something different happening.  It’s rare that we actually get a chance to see something that interesting in a video game, but to make it in where failure can be well incorporated into the game itself.  It’s very cool.

However, what also really works is the storytelling.  Like I mentioned before, the plot in his game is really bad.  It’s like a bad combination of the worst of White Wolf stuff, and when smug American comic book creators remake manga in order to prove that Japanese comics are stupid and Western comics are inherently superior.  Yes, that’s a thing, and DMC: Devil May Cry is the video game equivalent of that.  It’s disdainful of the source material and goes out of its way to actually insult the previous games, and no, I’m not talking about the infamous mop scene.  It’s a game that takes itself incredibly seriously, so certain it’s the future of the series and so much better than it’s anime bullshit predecessor, but it’s also a game that features abortion via sniper rifle and fighting an demonic Bill O’Reily (which is legitimately the best fight in the series and will be its own Game Anatomy).  However, one of the things that works really well is the relationship between Dante and Virgil, which we never actually get to see in the main series.  The way it becomes strained and fractured, mostly by Virgil’s growing fanaticism, and the brothers slowly switching their views on life and their destiny is really great, plus it’s done very organically, without Virgil suddenly becoming an asshole at the end.  The Mission does a really good job of highlighting all of it, and does a good job of both showing how much the Sons of Sparda care about each other, but also how much their relationship is falling apart.  This level does take place after Virgil shot a pregnant demon in her womb with a sniper rifle.  Jesus, that’s a sentence I’ve written.

By allowing the player to watch Virgil do what he does, and give us a few scenes where Vigil and Dante interact, plus their narration commentary while Kat is detailing the plan (as they’re doing it, I remind) does a lot for characterization without taking control away from the player.  A lot can be said about what you can do with cutscenes, but by just allowing it to work while the player is actually playing the game, that’s pretty cool.

Game Anatomy: Souls and Stats, Dark Souls Part 2

OK, so this is a direct continuation of the last post I did on this subject.  In a lot of ways, it really is the exact same post as the previous one, but I had to break it up for space reasons.  If you haven’t read it, you can read it here.  Also, I had to break it up for my own sanity.  It was getting really, really long.  Now, moving on.

DARKSOUL_facebook_mini

Image copyright From Software and Namco Bandai  Reposted for continuity’s sake.

Right, so allowing the stats to overlap, while also having their own unique properties, does a lot to make sure that the character is never going to get screwed over by how they allocate their stats, provided they make a point of specializing.  There is an argument that can be made that cost of raising stats should be based on the stat, rather than the character’s level, but From Software also wants to make sure every choice made counts.  This does mean that a wide spread of abilities will hinder tinghe character, and it’s hard for the game to communicate this directly to the player.  Still, the way the rest of the game is built, a badly made character isn’t automatically going to lose, either.  Arin’s build on Game Grumps is probably a good example of that, but there are people who have beaten the game at level 1 with no weapons, so this is probably a pointless digression.

As a personal preference, I’m a little upset it’s harder to branch out into other things, especially now that I’m on my second run through the game and would like to experiment a little bit with magic, but I can also see why the game was developed the way it was.  I want to run a Sorcerer or pyromancer for my next run, but I’d like to play with the magic a little bit, first.

Stats, however, aren’t the only thing souls are used to purchase.  Souls aren’t just experience points, they work as gold, too, since buying ammo, tools and reinforcing weapons require souls.  This makes souls that much more important, in the long run, than just existing as a means to bring up stats for the character.  It means, early on, when the player first gets 20,000 souls, should they buy that expensive key, or should they level up a few times.  It’s a good choice, which is actually kind of a microcosm for the whole risk vs. reward that the whole game is based on.  It’s not just big purchases, either.  Arrows cost money, and the better arrows require more souls, and if arrows are important to a character, it could mean the actual difference between how many times the player levels up when going back to Firelink Shrine (yes, this exact scenario happened to me, but it involved buying Dragonslayer Great Arrows, so, perhaps it’s a little bit extreme).

It’s the same for buying magic, upgrading weapons or transposing large souls into new items.  Is it worth the hard earned experience points to get better equipment now, or is it more important to wait?  This idea is a central concept to the whole game, too.

Map design in Dark Souls is based around the acquisition of souls.  Part of it is about whether or not it’s worth it to go back and pick them up after being killed, and that’s something that will get covered, but another major thing is whether the player has picked up enough of them that they’d be willing to go back to a previous bonfire, thus resetting the enemies, just to make sure they don’t lose what they’ve gotten.  Dark Souls isn’t an easy game, and sometimes, From Software likes to drop ambushes on a player (or all the time in fucking Archdragon Peak).  Without the knowledge of what’s going to happen next, a lot of the time, it might seem safer to walk back to a bonfire, just to level up, than try and venture to the next bonfire.  The whole design of the levels asks the player the question “how much is that sack of experience points you’ve got worth to you?”  Is it worth risking an ambush and burning through resources to make it through, or is heading back and resting, leveling up or picking up some more stuff, more important?  It’s the whole reason why when something dies in Souls games, they stay dead until the area gets reset when resting at a bonfire (also to encourage players to explore instead of farming “lucrative” spots near bonfires).

Souls are the game asking just what something is worth to a player, and how much it’s worth to them.  Are stats more important than weapons?  Is venturing further worth the greater risk of dying?  Is all that experience worth going back for, because that place is hard?  There’s a reason the player loses all of their experience  when they die.  It’s not a punishment, it’s a question: why did you die, and is it worth it to get back what you’ve earned?  If it is, it’s possible the player is going to walk away with even more Souls than they had when they lost them in the first place.  If not, then maybe they weren’t ready for that part of the game yet.  It’s a masterclass in level design.

The final word on souls I’m going to say, since I’m already at over 2,000 words now, is that souls also offer one of my favorite narrative, in-universe justifications for why enemies come back whenever the area gets reset.  Since everything is undead, it doesn’t matter, they’ll always come back.  It’s kind of hilarious in a way.

Game Anatomy: Z-Targeting

Z-targeting_(Ocarina_of_Time)

Image copyright Nintendo

There’s a lot to be said about the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and that could probably fill a multi-article project, but there’s one thing that it did that completely made the game as playable as it is, and that’s Z-Targeting.  See, today, 18 years after Ocarina of Time had been released, a lot of the mechanics for Z-Targeting are taken entirely for granted, and kind of seem like a “no-shit” solution, but back in the early days of 3D, it almost seemed like an insurmountable problem.  There were targeting systems in place, but a lot of them didn’t seem to take into account the camera and the ones that did didn’t really make it work within the entire spectrum of  gameplay, so it really wasn’t an intuitive solution it seems to be in retrospect.

So, Ocarina of Time shows up and it gives us Z-Targeting, and lock-on mechanics are basically fixed forever.  I mean, kind of.  I’m not too sure of the history if anyone else was working on something similar, or of anyone else got anything up and running around the same time, and while Ocarina of Time’s isn’t perfect (and really, it’s seen iterative improvements in every 3D Zelda title up through Skyward Sword), it was definitely the best in the world at the time, so everyone decided to build on it.  It’s literally among one of the most revolutionary and important mechanics in gaming, but that’s not why we’re here.

What also made Z-Targeting work was that it basically made the game what it was.  Zelda has attempted to utilize something of a Z-Axis since the first Zelda title, and they’ve done so in their 2D Zeldas to mixed success, Link Between Worlds probably being the best example.  Nintendo built all of Ocarina of Time around the Z-Targeting mechanic.  It looks like the entire game, from the ground up, is designed to work around Z-Targeting.  It does this in a few ways, most of the involving combat, but some of it involves exploration as well.

First, all of combat is built around Z-Targeting.  It’s why almost every fight is one-on-one or two-on-one.  Yes, I know there are exceptions, but since the mechanic is entirely about locking onto a single enemy and focusing on them, and concepts like splash damage and cleaves were still being worked out, it makes sense.  Imagine trying to fight off six or seven Stalfos at once.  In a post-Wind Waker world, we can do that, but this is a game where all the dodges are manual and based on player eyesight, so the game’s combat has to be pared down.  This doesn’t mean that the game isn’t without it’s epic confrontations, however.  Sure, there are a lot of enemies that are hurry up and wait kind of bad guys, but that’s not really a bad thing in this kind of game.  It doesn’t have the tension of, say, Dark Souls, but the idea behind this is to make the fights more like an intense sword duel.  It works, sometimes, and does a good job of making the combat feel less like a chore and more like something that’s fun.

Where it really comes together, though, is in exploration.  See, one of the issues with 3D environments is that it’s hard to see, and camera controls, especially in the late 90s, were still an evolving concept.  The Dual Shock controller just came out, and wouldn’t see the light of day while Ocarina of Time was in development, so Nintendo had to come up with something to make it possible for Link to find what was needed.  Not everything that should be Z-Targeted is (nor is it still), but a lot of things are, and using Navi was a genius move of making sure the player could find what they needed, whether it was a person to talk to, or a solution to the puzzle.

See, Z-Targeting does two things: lock on to the enemy, and snap the camera to an optimal (most of the time) angle in order to allow the player to see what Link is seeing.  First, this does a great job of stealth immersion, especially since it’s Navi, an in game character, telling you the player and Link the character, what to do or how to do it.  More importantly, though, what it does is allow the camera to work without getting in the player’s way.  Even now, the ability to “snap-back” the camera behind the PC is an entirely understated boon, and is often overlooked in just how important that is.  The camera can easily get in the way, and the environment can often obscure what needs to be seen.  Allowing the camera itself to lock onto what’s important, or at least instantly get back to a default view extremely important and does a great job of conveying good information to the player, allowing them to make good decisions.

Now, Z-Targeting isn’t, and still isn’t, perfect.  However, without it, it would be extremely easy to get lost, maneuver around enemies, or solve puzzles.  It makes the game what it is, and without it, I think Ocarina of Time may have been a much poorer game, and I think 3D would have had a much more difficult transition to what it is today.

Game Anatomy: Specailizations

I’ve played a lot of World of Warcraft in the past six years.  I mean, a lot.  In an hour to hour basis, I’ve probably played World of Warcraft more than any other game, ever.  It’s not my favorite game, by any means, it wouldn’t even break the top 20.  It’s not exactly a game that would show up in these articles.  Not to say that it’s a bad game, because like all Blizzard games, it’s quite good, but it doesn’t have anything that really stands out or makes it work that is specifically related to it.  An argument can be made for raids, I could do a whole article on Siege of Orgrimmar alone, but raids are more of a genre thing than a specific game thing, and I’m starting to think that maybe raids have long since exceeded the grasp of the game.  However, there is one thing that really makes World of Warcraft that stand out more than in any other game in the genre, and that’s the various specializations of each class.

demo-warlock-demons

Copyright Endgadget

That’s my specialization, the Demonology Warlock.  It defines everything about how I play, and it’s almost an entirely different class from my other specialization, the Destruction Warlock.  Stats, spells, demons and even the basic approach to combat is completely different from the two other specializations, making my character feel completely unique.  It’s a different approach to building characters, and classes, because it makes everything different.

In most RPGs, class determines everything about a character, from better or worse, and this is definitely true for World of Warcraft.  If there is a specialization in another game, it only changes a few things or alters how a few spells of abilities are used, but in WoW, it completely defines who you are and what you do, making class more of a theme  on an idea, which is actually really cool.  It allows the developers to play around with the classes and find ways to make sure each player has their own cool toys, and to allow each fight to be played a little bit differently.  It also allows the players to be unique, which is important in a multiplayer game, since every player needs their own identity in order to not feel faceless while they’re playing.

It is, in fact, one of the reasons I keep playing, even when I don’t actually like how the game is going at the time, since I can play the game differently and try something I didn’t previously see.  Like I said, I’ve been playing for several years, and there are whole classes I haven’t played before, let alone groups of specializations.

What’s interesting is where the impetus for specializations come from.  Since the game requires the Trinity (Tank, DPS and Healer) in order to do anything other than questing, it means that certain classes need to have different approaches to the game.  Early in the game’s life cycle, a lot of specs didn’t do anything, didn’t work, or only existed to add certain bonuses to spells that were basically the signature ability for the class.  However, as they began to add more classes, starting with the Death Knight, Blizzard was sure that each class needed to be different.  They would have four tanks when the Death Knight came out, and they were going to have to make them different from the others, which started to bleed into the other classes.  If the tank specs were going to be different, than it was important they were different from their other specs as well.  This was around the time a lot of the hybrid classes were beginning to see their DPS  and tanking specs become viable, and they had to have their non Healing specs be differentiated from their other ones.

This necessity led to some very interesting classes, since nearly everything began to get overhauled.  Classes got Limit Breaks or their own super powers and they became more than just the black mage who turns into a demon.  Now, the Demonology Warlock is all about summoning demons, rather than just having a few demons show up to supplement the blowing shit up.  Even transforming into a demon turned into something more than a DPS cooldown, it became like its own Limit Break.  It’s totally different from when I switch to Destruction, where I have completely different resources.

Not enough games are willing to experiment with class design.  Classes have to have some rigidity to them, but too many are limited to “well, in D&D, this guy gets a sword, so sword guy is a class now” which is not a good way for video games to develop classes.  They need to have an identity, which is something Blizzard really gets.

Game Anatomy: The Back Dash

I think it’s pretty well established that I like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s my favorite game of all time.

alucard

Like, that’s some of the best art in gaming right there

The thing about Symphony of the Night is that, when it’s discussed, it’s just sort of described as this nebulous “good,” mostly because that’s a pretty good way to describe it.  There’s so little to actually criticize, that it’s kind of hard to discuss what’s good about it.  It also managed to kind of half create the Metroidvania platformer subgenre by refining a lot of the good ideas from Super Metroid (the number of words in that last clause that are red underlined…) while also making the map a little bit more accessible, if a little less complex.  However, I feel like this is something of a disservice, because there are a lot of things that Symphony of the Night does so well, and one of them is the game’s first real defensive maneuver: the back dash.

One of the many comparisons people make today in gaming is Castlevania to Dark Souls, which is something I’ve done myself, and while I think that’s a broadly true statement, there is one big thing that Dark Souls has that the old school Castlevanias don’t, and that’s defense.  Dark Souls is really big on defense, but Castlevania’s only defensive move is to get out of the way.  In a lot of the ways, Simon and Trevor are relentless in their offense, but Alucard does something different, and that’s slide out of the way.

At first, it seems kind of useless, and even later in the game, once the player gets a handle on how it works, it does kind of seem situational, especially in normal combat.  It’s fast, yes, but it’s also a bit awkward to use.  It’s on the Triangle button (or Y if you’re playing it on the X-Box), which is a weird place for a dodge button, and, like I said before, dodging isn’t really a Castlevania thing.  At least, dodging in something that is different from jumping out of the way.  It’s a weird thing.  However, after a little bit, and the player gets a good handle on what the back dash can do, it’s extremely powerful, and is kind of the linchpin on which a lot of the boss battles are based.

Sure, you can get through a lot of the game without bothering to back dash, but it also means the game is a lot harder.  The game adds a lot of thrusts and stabs that have a kind of awkward range, just slightly too long to really get out of the way, but is the perfect distance for a double back dash.  These attacks often have enough of a warm up to see and allow Alucard to get out of the way, and there’s enough of a delay between them that Alucard can close the distance and get in enough damage to either seriously hurt them, or, in the case of a normal enemy outright kill them.

Most enemy animations are actually based around this kind of movement, or, at least a lot of the new ones that were created for this game.  There are a lot of enemies that have their classic attack patterns, which don’t take the back dash, or any of Alucard’s enhanced movement abilities, into account, but for pretty much every boss (except God damn Beelzebub) and most of the new monsters, all of their animations, attacks and movements are created around this movement and what it does is create a much more dynamic combat system, which the rest of the 2D Castlevania games follow.  Even Harmony of Dissonance, which also tries to add a Mega Man X style forward dash, but that was a bad idea, since the dashes are meant to be defensive, not a travel option.

The back dash looks really cool, and it does something else that’s really important.  It plays up just how powerful and supernatural Alucard is.  Alucard moves better than any Castlevania protagonist, except possibly Soma (and, well, there’s a reason for that), and the back dash is the first example that he’s faster and more agile than any Belmont.  Sure, the Jump Stone and Gravity Boots will eventually expand on this, but there’s a reason you don’t start with those.  The game wants to show just how bad ass Alucard is if he can dodge a sword strike like it’s just no thing, cape fluttering behind him, just like in one of my Japanese animes (sorry.  I may have been playing Metal Gear again).  Alucard can’t have everything at the beginning, since the game is built on RPG mechanics (I can see why some people might dislike this, however, and I can kind of agree with them), but the game does need something to show just how fast and crazy his movements are right at the beginning, especially since the game is sort of based around it.

There are a lot of reasons why this game works so well, but I’ve always felt the back dash was sort of the unsung hero of it.  It’s not the most important element, but it is pretty close, and it’s filtered all throughout the game.  Kind of like how the entire castle is designed so you can walk on the floor and the ceiling, and it’s a different, but similar experience.  What I’m getting at, I think, is that Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a very, very smart game.

Game Anatomy: Second Seals

So, for the past, I don’t know, several months, I’ve been locked into playing the past two Fire Emblem games.  I didn’t actually like Fire Emblem Awakening at first, at least until my friend got me to continue playing it, but I’m glad she pushed me, because I discovered my favorite tactical RPG since Shining Force II.  Actually, I think it did the impossible and knocked Shining Force II off of the top spot, something even Final Fantasy Tactics couldn’t do (although, well, I’ll talk about FFT one day).  Now, I’m slogging through Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest, and I’m stuck on Chapter 13, because the Hoshidan bastards outnumber me, manage to have better movement and just generally fuck me up every attempt I take.

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Image Copyright Nintendo

That game is my Hell right now.  I love it though.

One of the things that really works for Awakening, though, was the class system.  Yes, it did require grinding, but much like Shining Force and Final Fantasy Tactics before it, grinding meant playing more of the game, so it actually feels more like play than work.  Kind of like playing online on a first person shooter or something like that.  Anyway, the real kicker to the game was being able to build crazy characters kitted out with broken ass skills in order to build crazy powerful people.  It was a lot like Final Fantasy Tactics’s class system, but done in a more simple manner.  That means it lacks some of the depth of Tactics, but it also lacks a lot of the complexity as well, and in my world, that is definitely a plus.

This was facilitated by the Second Seal, which allowed players to reclass their soldiers into a different base class, which would allow them new skills, and new options for promotions.  What this means is that characters can go in directions the game doesn’t make completely apparent all at once, and it means you can have your characters become some very, very cool things.  I wound up with Lucina turning into a magic knight for most of the game, which made her quite different from her father, who got up on a horse and started impaling people and protecting his wife.

This works in a lot of cool ways, but mostly, it allows for the game to really revel in its customization.  Now, while it’s not as in depth as Final Fantasy Tactics, that doesn’t mean it’s easy, and it can get overwhelming, but this, combined with the child system, allows for certain characters to be very different from playthrough to playthrough.  For example, My Owain wound up as a Paladin, but I could have easily given him a different father, had him class into Dark Mage and made him into something completely different.  Considering it’s Owain and his stat growth is phenomenal, he would have rocked just as many faces as a Sorcerer as he did as a Paladin.

This also ties in with the plot, which utilizes time travel and multiple timelines and universe, in a very cool way.  The game does this in a lot of subtle ways, like the hair color of the children or their stat progression, but it also works as a huge part of the class system.  Second Seals allow your timeline to be different than any other time line in every way.  In my game, Robin became a Dark Flyer (ostensibly to learn the crazy broken Galeforce ability), which was different from my brother’s game, or my friend’s games, which made my Robin a completely different hero from any one else, and that altered the story in a very subtle way.

It’s an example of integrating the gameplay in with the story in a very cool way, and one that isn’t immediately obvious.  At its core, the Second Seal really is a way to give the player a lot of customization, but it really only exists in Awakening as a means to diverge one player’s story from another.  This means every experience of the game, even with it’s somewhat simplistic (and sometimes disappointingly boring) storyline, is going to feel different each time you play.  There’s no reason to play each game the same way, which means each time, your army is going to look different.

Yes, there is an optimal way to play the game, and how to build certain units, and which ways to go.  However, it’s important to note that there are multiple optimal ways, and since the game isn’t competitive, the optimal method really doesn’t matter all that much, allow the game to have tons of cool experiences for each player, each time through.  Already, I’m planning on which direction I’m going to take my PCs, who they will marry and what kind of classes I want them to do.  It already looks a whole lot different than my last game.