So, I’m sure you all remember this really pretentious post I made awhile back called ‘The Cardinal Sins of Game Development’ in which I blasted a whole bunch of design decisions that I cannot forgive in a modern game. And I’m sure a whole bunch of you thought “Man, what an elitist jerk. My favorite game does one of those things, but it’s still very worth playing, so why don’t you just shut up and appreciate all the good things about this game?” Well, first of all, I never said that breaking one of those rules made a game automatically unplayable, it was just something that I was going to call out every single time I saw it happen in a game nowadays. And second of all, you’re probably right.
See, I know how to take the bad with the good, and saying something bad about a game doesn’t automatically make the whole game bad. Additionally, there have been games that are universally lauded as the best games in existence that still manage to break one or two of my rules. And you know what? They’re still really good games. So in order to let you know that yes, even when I’m calling out /bad/ practices I’m still keeping the /good/ things firmly in my mind, here’s a list of games that violate things on my list but are still really, really good games.
Now, this one just skirts the line of being fair, because Shadow Hearts came out in the first couple years of the PS2 and was in a transition period when cutscenes were just becoming as prevalent as they are now. Really, the game barely had cutscenes as we know them today, and the ones it had were actually pretty short. So why does it violate this rule? Well, mostly because it actually would have /benefited/ from actual cutscenes. See, a whole bunch of the scenes in the game were the sort in which the player needed to manually advance the text, as they were in-game scenes and not proper cutscenes. And there was a notorious section of the game in which you had several of these scenes, absolutely unskippable, in a row, interspaced with something like three boss fights that were actually quite challenging. And no save points.
However, despite this and a few other flaws in the game, it’s actually really worth playing. It’s definitely unique in setting; the only other games I can think of that even remotely handle the same time period are the Raidou Kuzunoha games. And while it is clearly a role playing game, the plot takes a great deal of inspiration from the likes of Lovecraft and Poe, with little unsettling subplots and gruesome imagery. The combat is also very unique in that instead of just being a turn-based ‘attack-magic-defend-item’ sort of affair, everything you do is handled by a timing-based minigame, thus forcing you to pay attention to what’s going on. And finally, the plot, while cliche at times, features a couple of the most well-developed characters I’ve seen in video games; the main character, in particular, shows true evolution as a person throughout the course of the game and its sequel. If you can ignore a bit of…questionable humor, it’s very much a game worth playing despite its flaws.
King’s Bounty: The Legend was always meant to be a throwback to the olden days of PC turn-based RPGs. It is, in fact, a revival of a DOS/Amiga/Commodore game from 1990 whose rights had been shuffled around from company to company in the intervening years. The original was, in fact, inspiration for the Heroes of Might and Magic series, and in return, The Legend took several cues from that same series. One thing that should /not/ have been a throwback, however, was the lack of a native windowed mode within the game options. When a sequel to The Legend, Armored Princess, was announced, I had hoped that the designers would include a native windowed mode in this game, but alas that was not to be either. It should be noted that in both of these cases, windowed mode can be enabled by editing the game’s .ini file and by altering the command line launch options. However, this just means that the developers, for whatever reason, made a conscious decision to leave this mode out of the in-game options menu, a decision which is, frankly, baffling.
However, the game itself is absolutely wonderful. The writing is brilliant and, often, hilarious, and the game is a rock-solid implementation of HoMM game mechanics. It is wonderfully open-ended; you are of course given your main quest at the very beginning, but after that you are set free into the world, free to develop your character, recruit your army, and explore as you wish. The combat is easy to understand, but the game’s actual difficulty is more than a challenge to the point of being extremely unforgiving; it is entirely possible to lose your entire army by picking a fight with the wrong enemy on the map, and actually managing what is /in/ your army is often the key to success. It is a game I recommend to anyone who is a fan of turn-based strategy RPGs, or old-school RPGs in general.
Okay, okay, so there is really more than one complaint that I have about the Kingdom Hearts series as a whole. Completely inaccessible and inscrutable plot, the series spread across multiple systems, both console and mobile, and game mechanics that are a mishmash of great ideas and terrible ones are just a few of the gripes that have been leveled at the series over the years, and yes, all of those are true. However, the one thing that has always been consistently bad about the series is the camera. For some reason, and I don’t know what that reason is, the camera is always /just/ bad enough to screw me up in combat. It’s even worse on the portable entries, where you don’t even have two analog sticks so there is no dedicated camera stick like there is on consoles. Therefore, the camera controls in, say, Birth By Sleep, the PSP entry to the series, revert to a choice between a couple of equally terrible alternatives.
However, that doesn’t stop Birth By Sleep from not only being the best Kingdom Hearts game, but a really good game in general. The plot is blessedly disconnected from the clusterscrew that is the rest of the series by virtue of the fact that it’s a prequel, the non-camera controls and game mechanics are extremely tight, the game doesn’t try to shoehorn Final Fantasy characters everywhere, and the three (yes THREE) protagonists are unique in their strengths, weaknesses, and overall /feel/. Oh, and did I mention that the game features both Mark Hamill /and/ Leonard Nimoy voicing the Kingdom Hearts versions of Jedi masters? If that didn’t sell you on the game right there, I’m not sure if I want to know you.
When I specified this as a bad development practice, I specifically called out turn-based RPGs as being particularly bad about things like this for one reason alone: combat vocals. It really annoys me to hear characters shout the name of their attack every single time they perform it, in what has to be the most obnoxious voice possible, putting an emphasis on the last syllable. You know what I’m talking about. I know you do. And while Persona 4 Golden doesn’t really do this /exact/ thing too often, you /do/ have to listen to the characters calling out /something/ when they attack. Couple that with your battle support constantly chiming in with “There’s just ONE MORE enemy left!” every time there is, in fact, one more enemy left, and it really starts to drive me up a wall. You can turn off half of these things…..by turning off all the event voices, including cutscene voices, which is the only audio control the game has. Additionally, and even more annoyingly, the anime cutscenes are not subtitled at all, so if you are in a situation in which you must play the game without headphones, you don’t even get to see the dialogue in these otherwise very well-done scenes.
It’s a shame that the only audio control is to just turn the voices off entirely, because the out-of-battle voice work is so incredibly well-done, and the music is as well. I would never, ever put this game on mute if I could avoid it, for that reason, and I’d suffer the bad battle voices just to hear the good /everything else/ voices. Additionally, the game does so much right on so many other levels that I absolutely would recommend the game to anyone despite the one glaring flaw I’ve found in it.
The Sin: Required Always-Active Internet Connection for Single Player Mode
The Exception: Starcraft II
Okay, we all know how I feel about always-on internet connections. I blasted Diablo III over this repeatedly, and I still maintain that the inclusion of that ‘feature’ is something that’s completely unforgivable, and a lot of other people agree with me too. However, Blizzard’s always-on Battle.net connection did not start with Diablo III. It actually started with Starcraft II. The initial version of Wings of Liberty required an active internet connection at game start for DRM and version/update checking, however, the ability to play the game in ‘offline mode’ was quietly removed post-launch. Don’t believe me? Go try it.
Why does this game get a pass when Diablo III does not, though? Well, first of all, I wouldn’t say it gets a complete pass, but secondly, it all comes down to how that connection is utilized and in what setting the game has, traditionally, been played in. See, the Diablo series has always been a slightly more solitary experience or at least one in which people play it quite a bit at LAN parties rather than with strangers over the internet. Starcraft, on the other hand, is known mostly for its competitive play. A truly great player can beat the computer easily, every time, so the single player mode ceases to be a draw for this kind of person. Instead, it is the online ranked play that draws people, and that is something that, obviously, requires an internet connection anyway. Upcoming patches really elaborate on this social aspect, even going so far as to add the ability for a person to watch a replay and, at any point, hop in and take control of the game. Almost everything about the game is geared toward social and competitive online play, so given that, anything that creates a more robust and stable environment for that is quite welcome.
In my previous post, I made the claim that there should be no need for a game to require any sort of program running in the background. I specifically called out Games for Windows Live as being particularly bad, because it consumers resources and creates annoyance while not adding much discernible benefit to the gamer. I have the same complaints about Origin, as well, and it has the added drawback of not being particularly stable. The first Borderlands game used Gamespy Arcade as a matchmaking tool for internet play, and it was pretty much one of the most clunky things I have ever dealt with, to the point that it was easier to use Hamachi and LAN mode. And while I did mention that Steam wasn’t so bad, there also really isn’t, to me, much benefit to the actual Steam overlay in most cases. Certainly, it isn’t /mandatory/ for Borderlands 2, as you can definitely buy a non-Steam version on physical disc as well as through other digital distribution services. So why is it even on the list to begin with? [EDIT: I have been informed that even the box retail and, in fact, any other PC version of Borderlands 2 also require Steam because of how deeply it’s integrated in to the functionality. So this actually does justify its existence on the list.]
Well, that would be because in the case of Borderlands 2, the Steam integration is well done. Extremely well done. Seamlessly well done. Unlike the absolute mess that was Gamespy Arcade, the utilization of Steam as a matchmaking tool is perfect enough that I would actually recommend the Steam version over any other PC version of the game. Add to that the fact that the game fixes pretty much every single other complaint from the original Borderlands. More class balance? Check. More clearly-defined villain? Check times a thousand. The return of beloved (be-hated?) characters from the original? Claptrap’d. EVEN MORE BAZILLIONS OF GUNS? Yep, the game is absolutely and completely insane in all the right ways. I even debated on whether to put it on this list because it doesn’t technically break the rule I’m putting it under, but I decided to put it here because it’s such a rare example of how to do something /right/.
Dead Rising is actually one of the games that inspired this rule to begin with. In a game that is, basically, a condensed sandbox game, the decision to only have like three save points in the entire world was one that always bewildered me. Especially when it is so very, very easy to die in this game. I mean come on. You are literally stuffed in a mall with fifty thousand zombies. FIFTY THOUSAND. And even if you continue to survive for a very long time between saves, that makes it even more annoying when you die and lose HOURS of progress.
It’s ironic, then, that the game that inspired the rule is the game that I would tell you to play despite it having broken that rule. Dead Rising is, above all else, a game that undeniably delivers on its promise. The game claimed to give you hundreds of ways to kill thousands of zombies, and it absolutely lives up to that. The lack of save points is made up for by informing you pretty much immediately that you aren’t expected to beat the game the first time. You’re expected to die, quite a bit, with each death letting you carry over your stats and levels into a new playthrough. Yep, this is one of those games where death actually makes you stronger, and eventually you will be strong enough to be able to withstand enemies that would have previously been far too strong. And even after beating the game proper, you unlock an ‘extended mode’ which lets you just keep going. And while the sequel does not fix the save point problem, despite fan outcry, it expands on the things it does /right/, giving you even more ridiculous ways to turn zombies into mush.
Well there you have it, my list of games that prove me wrong. So I guess what I’m saying is that you probably shouldn’t listen to me at all, about anything, ever. Or at least realize that my opinions are just that: opinions, and that there really is no hard and fast rule on what constitutes a ‘good design decision’. I mean, yes, I call things out all the time, but sometimes things just don’t bother some people as much. So the point is, like I said before, play what you like, and remember to always take the good with the bad!
[This article originally appeared on the gaming website Attack Initiative.]