R³PG (Recommended Retro RPG) - Shadowrun - SNES

As a teenager, my capacity to waste time was a refined form of artistry. The sheer amount of things I could do to distract myself away from more important things like homework and household chores was staggering. You could hardly call my youth misspent though, I didn't hang around in parks with gangs of other teens drinking White Lightning and yelling abuse at the elderly. No sir. I would be sitting around a table with some friends playing any one of many pen and paper RPGs. Ok, so you could call it misspent and possibly a little sad, but hey.

Rifts, Heroes Unlimited, Cyberpunk, Cybergeneration, Dungeons and Dragons, all featured in our sessions. At one point I even got around to making my own pen and paper RPG up. My favourite distraction out of all of them though, was Shadowrun. Blade Runner meets Lord of the Rings is the best way to describe it and FASA Corporation had spent years building a painstakingly detailed futuristic fantasy world for us to enjoy. The recent release on Xbox 360 was unfortunately the latest in a string of damning blows to a series that had started well on SNES then gone into nosedive with releases on the Megadrive and MEGA CD, so let's focus on the positives eh?

Shadowrun - SNES

  • Buy from: eBay
  • Expect to pay: £35-£70
  • Gamerankings score: 74.5%
Shadowrun was first released in Europe on SNES back in 1994 - a year which I will always remember as the year England didn't qualify for the World Cup! - by Data East and developed by Beam Software and FASA Interactive, the latter being the studio headed up by Shadowrun creator and serial entrepreneur Jordan Weisman. What Shadowrun offered was an accurate recreation of Weisman's pen and paper creation as you took the role of Jake Armitage on a journey of deceit and self-discovery.

The game begins dramatically. A cut scene using the in-game engine shows Jake being set upon by hitmen who, for reasons you'll find out later in the game, have come to kill him. A shapeshifter intervenes as Jake is left for dead, by casting a spell. Next thing you know, Jake wakes up in the city morgue with nothing but a scrap of paper and the clothes on his back, his memory competely blank.

Shadowrun's intro. What Boromir's death would have looked like in a pixelated reinactation circa 2050.

What follows is a story of murder, double-crossing and ultimately the neutralisation of a large corporation headed up by the evil mastermind, Drake. One of the first things Jake discovers is that someone has planted a bomb in his head, nice of them wasn't it? It's a race against time early on for Jake to have the bomb deactivated and removed so he can continue with his quest. There will be guns for hire along the way who will follow you until they die (and then respawn in whatever seedy Seattle hole you picked them up in).

The Shadowrun world isn't as large as most RPGs of the same era, but then again, it was a completely different proposition. There was no world map, no airships, nothing remotely resembling a chocobo, it was all set in the city of Seattle and you would make your way around on foot and via the Metro system. The areas were portrayed as grimy, seedy looking backstreets, dark cemeteries and foreboding junk yards where trouble awaits Jake around every corner. Trouble in the form of zombies, vampires, orcs, elves, humans, dragons, spirits, robots and everything else you'd expect from a Shadowrun licensed game. Combat played out with a cursor you would have to guide over enemies before hammering the face buttons as quickly as possible to inflict damage. Later on, you learn magic which can help Jake in a variety of ways. The invisibility spell was a favourite of mine and absolutely critical at certain points in the game.

Watch out for snipers, in Shadowrun, they hide out in bins. Yes, all the snipers are homeless.

Information is a key area of the gameplay in Shadowrun and is cleverly executed. You will collect keywords as you progress through the game, starting with the scrap of paper you get at the beginning. When you talk to the right person about a keyword, another will be unlocked until you eventually clear that particular thread of the story. It's a fantastic way of keeping the player guessing and encouraging logical thought.

One of the most interesting features in Shadowrun at the time of release was 'The Matrix', or what we'd refer to in 2009 as the 'hyper-mega-inter-web-a-tron'. It was basically a minesweeper style minigame which required you to navigate a virtual representation of yourself through firewalls and file servers to procure some sort of reward. This usually came in the form of Nuyen (the in-game currency of which you'll need A LOT!) or information.

'The Matrix'. Keanu's in there somewhere, pulling the same face he's been pulling since Bill and Ted.

One of my favourite things about this game is the soundtrack. At first, it's totally cheesey, wannabe sci-fi, synthesised fluff, but after a while, it really grows on you and sticks in your head to the point where you'll be humming it as you go about your daily grind. It lends weight to the atmosphere and fits in brilliantly with the mood of the game. It was the antithesis of the score for your generic RPG at the time and while it doesn't possess the orchestral depth of Final Fantasy VI or the diversified tones of Terranigma, it does sit well in it's sci-fi niche.

It should be pointed out that this game is fairly tricky to come across these days. It's become something of a cult classic for a few reasons: it's the only good Shadowrun they ever made, the ending alluded to Shadowrun 2 (which has never seen the light of day) and for all the fans of the Shadowrun pen and paper game, it was the closest you could get to an interactive recreation of the source material. As such, you'll probably shell out at least £35 for it boxed, any less and you're doing well for a PAL copy but it really is well worth the investment. It's highly likely that this game will continue to grow in value if you can find a copy in reasonable condition.

Interestingly, Weisman's new company, Smith and Tinker, have reclaimed the rights to future Shadowrun games (and other FASA licenses such as MechWarrior) from Microsoft, so the chances of a second instalment without the threat of interference from a higher power is possible. Personally, I'd like to see a similar game produced for Wii and DS which would suit the combat system perfectly, we'll see though. In the meantime, dust off your SNES and check this out.


The Internet's Top 5 JRPG Gripes

Last night I indulged in many of our eighth wonder's wares, reading articles pertaining mainly to the downfall of JRPGs. Many writers and forum contributors have hypothesised over why and how they need to be fixed and how pretty much every other genre in gaming, particularly WRPGs, have left the JRPG floundering in their wake for a last gasp phoenix down, in an attempt to prevent them from being totally wiped out by the BioBethehemoth.

There are stats and commentary to back these claims up. PSM3 posted an article on Gamesradar back in March which told us that the Japanese software market has slumped a staggering 40% from 537 billion yen (£4 billion) to 326 billion yen (£2.5 billion) between 1997 and 2009. Whether this slump is solely down to one genre of Japanese games or the growth of the gaming market in other areas of the world is debatable. I lean towards the latter personally.

At one point the Japanese gaming market represented 50% of the global gaming market and enjoyed what many observers describe as a 'Golden Age' during the PS1 era. The thing is, Japanese developers, particularly JRPG developers, have for the most part, only ever made games they thought Japanese people would enjoy, a notion backed up by Hirokazu Hamamura, president of Enterbrain, the publisher of Famitsu, in a recent interview with Mark Cieslak of the BBC.

"The Japanese don't like shooting and war games very much. They prefer playing in fantasy worlds and battling with swords. I think there is very little interest in fighting with guns and this sort of combat game."

Catering to the Western market has only recently become a major concern for Japanese publishers as gamers and critics alike round on the JRPG genre with accusations of 'Galapagosization', and undoubtedly, some of them haven't gone about making their Western move in the best way. Square Enix being a case in point. Acquiring Eidos was hypothetically, a masterstroke as they inherited two of the most recognisable brands in the Western gaming market in Tomb Raider and Hitman. Combining Square Enix's expertise in the cinematic and emotionally attached gaming experience with Eidos' successful IPs , on paper, was a fantastic match which would allow the Japanese publisher to gain a foothold in the Western gaming market. Mixing JRPGs and Western developers together though is a tricky balancing act.

Sufficed to say, it doens't make any sense to me as a fan of Japanese games, to have a Western studio develop titles which fall into that category of IP and it doens't ring true for the fans either, this is gripe #1. Look at the backlash Ninja Theory received when it came to light they would be developing the new Devil May Cry game. Great studio, one of the few that could probably pull this off but the fans remain extremely sceptical. This is one of the internet's few JRPG gripes I can get on board with, I wouldn't want Square Enix developing Mass Effect 3 and I wouldn't want BioWare developing FFXV. Fans of JRPGs and WRPGs appreciate the differences and enjoy each for their respective strengths. There's absolutely no need to mix them up.

Another thing that seems to piss gamers off about JRPGs are their 'cliched' storylines, gripe #2. The reluctant hero is apparently all of a sudden an alien concept to some people who presumably have grown up watching Terminator 2 on repeat to be deluded into thinking that all heroes love what they do. In many JRPG cases, you're a reluctant hero, thrown into the fray by circumstances outside of your control. A giantbomb.com blog post bemoaned this at length earlier this year. I think the thing people forget, all too often, is that this isn't a narrative device limited only to JRPGs. A reluctant hero is part and parcel of the monomyth and common to all kinds of narrative from various cultures all over the world since, well, forever.

Amnesia has become a dirty word in the JRPG despite the fact that Fallout: New Vegas uses it as a plot device as does Shadowrun from Australian developers, Beam Software for the SNES way back in 1993.

The hero's family being killed at an early age or the hero being the last of his kind for some reason in some JRPGs never happens in WRPGs because they're so cutting edge and fresh. *cough* Baldur's Gate *cough* Divinity 2.

Waking up one morning to discover you've come of age all of a sudden and were special for some reason with a duty to save the world never happened in Neverwinter Nights, or Dragon Age, or Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion or countless other WRPGs of the same ilk did it? Actually it did so I get frustrated when I hear that JRPG storylines are cliched. Most game storylines are cliched to some extent, so sorry internet, but you're going to have to come up with a better reason for hating JRPG storylines. Here's a tip: they're too melodramatic. I'll give you that one.

So what else, ah yes, gripe #3: 'uh, how cum i can juz wlk in2 sum1s house and steal dere stuff an no1 says nuffin dats juz dumb. jprgs suck lolz lolz lolz lolz. wrpgs ftw.' I'm not going to dwell on the looting point too much because it's so ludicrous but FALLOUT! ELDER SCROLLS! NEVERWINTER! BALDUR'S GATE! ETC ETC ETC ETC to INFINITY! Not only will you nick people's stuff but you will become encumbered with some of the most pointless loot EVER seen in videogames! I loved all the above games, loved them, but would frequently have to clear my inventory of cups, plates, goblets and other pointless things that I had found in chests or people's houses.

Gripe #4 is a pretty obvious one and probably the only one I'm going to categorically agree with. Random battles. They're tired, they're annoying and dozens of JRPGs have shown us a better way of doing things by having the enemies on the map for you to engage and avoid at your leisure. Some would argue that without random battles, players won't be ready to engage some challenges further down the line as they won't be levelled up enough but I think games like Demon's Souls have shown us that gamers learn through dying. It's fairly obvious that if something wipes you easily, you'll need to go and level up before trying again.

Silly haircuts. This is gripe #5. Ignoring the fact that Commander Shepherd wears pyjamas with shoulder pads in them or that everyone in Dragon Age has exactly the same pants on, I guess I can see why the Japanese aesthetic catering towards Japanese people is something that needs to be fixed in Japanese games...

This goes back to what I was saying earlier regarding Japanese developers making games for Japanese people. We are dealing with two essentially, very different cultures with a different idea of everyday entertainment.

Ryoei Mikage, president of breakaway Tales development studio, Imageepoch, sums this up nicely in a recent interview with Famitsu summarised on 1up.com regarding his new ventures and his plans to bring the JRPG up to date without losing or fixing the things that make JRPGs, JRPGs:

"Lately you see a lot of overseas gamers write on the net about the 'weird aspects' of JRPGs, but would 'fixing' those aspects make Japanese users happy? Not necessarily, no. I think you only see real quality in JRPGs when they're created by Japanese people, for Japanese people. People overseas talk about the 'Galapagosization' of the Japanese game industry, but they've been saying that for the past decade about every aspect of entertainment. Instead of getting into a panic about that, we want to lay the groundwork for what we need to grow in the future."

"We want to be in a perfect position to make JRPGs for Japan, and once we achieve that, then we can look for ways to get foreigners interested in JRPGs as well. Level-5's Professor Layton series is well-regarded worldwide for being an innovative new adventure. By several years from now, I want to see a JRPG from us that similarly breaks the mold and shows both Japan and the world that JRPGs don't have to all be fantasy RPGs."

Essentially, I think what Mikage is saying, is that JRPGs need to go back to basics before being welcomed back into the consoles of a wider Western audience and that is what he wants to do. Go back to making JRPGs without being overly concerned by catering to Western audiences. This notion is perhaps backed up by the critical and commercial success of DQIX, a JRPG that at no point pretends it's anything other than just that.

I'm inclined to agree with him. As a long time fan of the genre I, and many others like me, will continue to consume JRPGs with the same fervour I would consume any WRPG, and in fact the more traditional (read cliched to critics) they are, the better. Providing a RPG has a well told story, interesting characters and a good combat system then it will be enjoyed regardless of the cliches and inconsistencies which run riot in both genres. I think it's just strange at the moment to see how people are rounding on JRPGs. I often see gamers say that all JRPGs are either medieval fantasy or steampunk based. I'll take that and raise you this: all FPSs are set during a 20th century war or in space. All WRPGs are set in a medieval fantasy world except Mass Effect. None of these statements are true (actually, I'm wracking my brains here...the last one might be!?).

For me, games within a specific genre, as with films will always conform to at least some of the genre coventions that make them a part of that stable in the first place. Only very rarely will a genre-busting game launch which changes the way titles in that genre are thought about, maybe Demon's Souls could be that piece of software for Japanese RPG developers or maybe, like Mikage and Imageepoch, it will be about going back to basics? Who knows, but for the time being I'll continue to enjoy any high calibre RPG, Japanese or Western, as they come.


R³PG (Recommended Retro RPGs) - Koudelka - PS1

In a previous blog, I started writing some Retro RPG reviews and patted myself on the back for coming up with R³PG (Recommended Retro RPGs) as a way of advising retro RPG lovers looking for some solid retro RPG offerings. It's not quite Retro Gamer but on a regular-ish basis I'm going to write about some of my favourite retro RPGs and why, if you're so inclined, you should play them.

Starting with...

Koudelka - Playstation One

  • Buy from: eBay, Amazon.
  • Expect to pay: No more than £9 for a used copy.
  • Released in Europe: 29th September, 2000
  • Gameranking score: 59.65%
Ok, first off, I can't tell you how wrong the gamerankings score is for this one in my opinion. Koudelka tried to do something different and did it very well. In an RPG market which was saturated at the time by second tier, flouncy, fiddly, fantasy titles trying to emulate the success of Final Fantasy VII, like The Granstream Saga and Shadow Madness, Sacnoth came along with Koudelka, a dark, gothic and often disturbing take on the genre.

Sacnoth was founded by a chap named Hiroki Kikuta who had worked previously for Squaresoft as a composer on the quite brilliant Secret of Mana series. Their aim at the time of founding was to produce darker, more adult orientated titles for a supposedly maturing RPG audience. Unfortunately, there was some fall out after Koudelka flopped both critically and commercially and Kikuta parted ways with the company he had founded.

Sacnoth became Nautilus after the release of Shadow Hearts and went on to develop Shadow Hearts 2: Covenant and Shadow Hearts: From the New World. Nautilus were then sucked into Feelplus who co-developed with Mistwalker the marvellous, Lost Odyssey for Xbox 360. That was just for anyone who was looking for a bit of RPG trivia to impress their mates down the pub with.

Koudelka's story takes place entirely within the magical fantasy wonderland of...er...Aberystwyth, Wales, circa 1898 where by chance a young gypsy girl named Koudelka, man of the cloth, James O'Flaherty and thrill seeker, Edward Plunkett are thrown together to investigate some seriously dark goings on at the Nemeton Monastery.

You see, Patrick O'Flaherty (James' brother) thought it would be a cracking idea to use an ancient text, known as the Emigre Document (referred to later in the series as the Emigre Manuscript) to bring back his deceased wife, Elaine from the dead by murdering innocents at the monastery and feeding their fresh corpses into a cauldron. As you can imagine, this went horribly wrong and Elaine was revived without a soul as an uncontrollable monster.

Elaine, she'd make a great coffee table.

So the tone is set and reflected by the various grotesque enemies you encounter throughout the game. Ghosts, amalgamations of tortured souls manifested as huge, slimey, bug eyed critters and reanimated corpses with twisted bodies and flapping limbs all serve to add the haunted house theme Sacnoth so carefully created. It's somewhere between Resident Evil and Final Fantasy Tactics and as you wander through Koudelka's beautifully gothic pre-rendered environments you're almost annoyed to be pulled into one of many, repetitive random battles.

Big, man-eating plants are also scary.

The combat system itself isn't amazing. Played out on an isometric grid, it's a cross between classic SRPG style combat and good old turn-based battling though unfortunately lacks the finesse of the respective system's best offerings. Encounters can be long and tedious with boss battles in particular frustrating if you're defeated. However, this is almost completely excusable as the story is so compelling with twists and turns around every corner that you will grind through with gritted teeth reloading again and again to get to the next beautifully produced cut-scene. Here's an example:

You won't have to wait long to unlock this cut-scene. It's the intro.

Spanning a massive four discs (it was massive at the time ok?), Koudelka should be praised emphatically for its wonderful CG, its strangely competent voice-acting and its alternative styled soundtrack which successfully mixes chilled out pan-flutes and tribal rhythms with dark overtures and orchestral depth to help create a perpetual atmosphere of foreboding. Ultimately, these aspects are what will keep you ploughing through the competent, yet uninspiring battle system. Be warned though, there are two endings, one is not satisfying for the investment in time you will pour into Koudelka so it's definitely worth consulting a guide to ensure you don't miss the one or two secrets which will grant you the better ending. While I strongly believe Koudelka is a genre contrasting RPG with many good points, only the most ardent fans would play through a second time to unlock the better finale.

It's worth noting that Koudelka is the prequel to cult Playstation 2 series, Shadow Hearts. While it's not essential to have played Koudelka to understand the story in the first Shadow Hearts game, those that do will be rewarded not only with a well thought out and chilling story of murder and betrayal but also with that tingly feeling of understanding when they discover who is responsible for the voices in Yuri's head towards the end of Shadow Hearts, in addition to numerous other references which I won't spoil for you.

Recognise him Shadow Hearts fans? Yeah that's right, it's your Mum.

To sum up, if you're slightly twisted and looking for a darker, more adult retro RPG offering, then I really can't recommend Koudelka highly enough. If you can look past the clunky combat system and the occasionally frustrating boss battle to the captivating story and extremely likeable, varied characters within you will have a lot of fun here for the less than the price of a small Texas BBQ Pizza from Dominos.


Why Turn-Based Combat Should Never Die!

So, you're a JRPG fan.

You've grown up with Final Fantasy, Breath of Fire, Grandia and countless other traditional JPRGs which make use of that tried and tested you hit, I hit turn based combat mechanic. You've wandered the vast expanse of numerous identikit dungeons wincing ever so slightly each time your screen swirls or explodes into yet another random battle. You've become irritable, nay, irate as your party is wiped by a boss who seems so powerful you think it must be one of those 'this boss is meant to kill me' moments, at least until the screen goes black, melancholy music kicks in and before it's even had the chance to fade in, you know the screen's going to read: 'GAME OVER'.

Yet, you load from your last save point.

You slog through the dungeon all over again, you whizz through the random battles, you find the super boss repellant item which makes that uber-boss a total doddle, you rejoice in your perseverance and you rinse, wash and repeat for 60 hours until the game is finished.

Sound familiar? If so, you are a true JRPG fan and you're part of dying breed. Search enthusiast forums and you're bound to find plenty of fans who are calling time on turn-based combat as a pre-historic gaming convention comparable to men-only voting or slavery in terms of it having no place in modern society. But I really don't understand why. Turn-based combat to me has had as much innovation over the years as shooting things in the face has, you just have to know where to look.

Rewind to 1997. On November 17th, European gamers were falling over themselves to buy a game called Final Fantasy VII. To date, according to VGchartz, FFVII has shifted 2.7 million units in Europe and a staggering 9.37 million worldwide making it the most successful turn-based JRPG of all time.

I remember I was still at school when FFVII launched and going over to a friends house to watch him play it. I was blown away by the graphics and what I pieced together of the story. Immediately afterwards, a Playstation went on my Christmas list along with this game. It literally couldn't come soon enough. A lot of my friends also bought into the hype, shelling out £44.99 in order to be a part of what was being lauded by some critics as 'one of the most important games of all time.'

It was amongst these friends I encountered my first turn-based combat naysayers and retrospectively it makes me think FFVII may also have been one of the most traded in/returned games of all time (though I can't really back that up)!

"It's boring innit? You hit them, they hit you, there's no skill. I took it back to the shop" - This was back in the days of Game's 10-day no quibble money back guarantee...

"Why do I have to randomly fight shit? It doesn't make any sense and all you do is press X to win"

"Why has Cloud got stupid hair?"

"Tifa has massive tits."

I'd try to reassure them that it was about the story, that the turn-based combat was deep and tactical if they'd just give it the chance and that the anatomically unlikely appearance of Tifa was keeping in line with the Japanese aesthetic (it's possible at 16, I worded this slightly differently). For the most part though, kids in my year weren't interested. They would rather shoot things in the face and how could I argue with that. I however, fell hard and fast for the JRPG and never looked back.

This disdain for turn-based combat has reared it's ugly head many times over the past 13 years with criticisms levelled at this tried and tested JRPG convention that I've never been able to understand. I don't like FPSs (in truth, I'm just not very good at them!) but I can understand why millions of people rushed out to buy Black Ops and would never pour scorn on that game for not only being incredibly similar to Modern Warfare 2, but to my inexperienced FPS eyes, being incredibly similar to every other military shooter. I'm sure Battlefield: Bad Company and the new Medal of Honor do slightly different things to Black Ops but ultimately they're all about shooting the enemy and arguing with 13-year-olds online. Right? No. People undoubtedly enjoy these games because of the way a traditional FPS formula has been tweaked and implemented to produce an enjoyable gaming experience. It's the same for JRPGs and turn based combat.

There's a post on Destructoid (actually one of the more well-rounded criticisms of turn-based combat from a self-confessed JRPG fan) where the author cites the unrealistic nature of turn-based combat as his main reason for hating it. He talks about it being unrealistic to stand there and wait for someone to hit you only for your attacker to stand idly and wait for you to hit him back. He's got a point I guess, but I don't play games for the realism. I definitely don't play JRPGs for the realism.

Turn-based combat is about strategy, and devising and perfecting different strategies for me, is a lot of fun.

For example - and staying with FFVII for the time being - you equip your characters with the most suitable materia, items and weapons for the job ahead. If you're going to be fighting robots for a large part of a dungeon, Junon for example, you ensure you have Lightning materia equipped. You always try to stay one step ahead of your foe, anticipating it's attack pattern (this is particularly true of bosses) and ensuring your party are properly prepared for any heavy hits that might be doled out.

In comparison with some more recent JRPGs, the FFVII system, while still excellent, has become a little bit dated. Fans who called for more innovation in the genre after being hit with raft of games attempting to capitalise on the success of FFVII, eventually got it, while people who criticised JRPGs for becoming stale and repetetive in their approach to combat missed out on some wonderful tweaks to a classic system.

Shadow Hearts launched for Playstation 2 on March 29th 2002. While it never achieved critical or commercial success, largely due to poor marketing and the looming release of Final Fantasy X, it did add a couple of particularly important improvements to the system. Firstly, the introduction of Sanity Points (SP) which upon reaching zero would see your character go beserk and start tearing up everything in sight. It provided an extra element to take into consideration when planning your next move. Secondly, there was the Judgement Ring system, which for me was a revolutionary step in evolving the turn based system and countered criticisms that all you had to do in JRPGs was press X to win.

Simply put, the Judgement Ring is a circle containing a number of highlighted areas which you have to hit X on as the dial spins round to register hits with your character. The ring can be affected in a number of different ways altering the dynamic of a fight drastically. It can be slowed to make combat more precise, it can be sped up which can make it harder to hit as a negative status effect or enable you to hit twice as hard as a trade off of power and accuracy as a postive effect. Check it out:

This innovation was further expanded on in Shadow Hearts: Covenant, where a combo system was introduced allowing you to chain your characters' moves together. This would result in accessing an extremely powerful spell or ability at the end of a successful chain and made better use of the battle order mechanic which I first saw in Final Fantasy X.

Many of the same development team from the Shadow Hearts series became part of the Mistwalker/Feelplus combo responsible for the awesome, Lost Odyssey, which is easily one of the best current-gen JRPGs in my opinion. The team refined the Judgement Ring idea making each basic attack an elaborate QTE where you were required to hold the trigger down as your character ran towards the enemy, releasing it at precisely the right moment for optimum damage. This took time to master but was a fantastic way of keeping players concentrating on battles from start to finish.

Other games should be praised for adding layers to the turn-based combat mechanic, Resonance of Fate is a great example. RoF mixes turn-based combat with the kind of system we're more used to seeing in SRPGs where your position and your cooperative actions impact on the overall outcome of the fight. Final Fantasy XII has an amazingly deep combat system which is essentially turn based though acted out in 'real-time'. I preferred to have the combat stop when I wanted to select actions and as a turn-based fan appreciated the option to do so. The Gambit system in FFXII is one of the most advanced and intricate back-ends I have ever experienced in a JRPG battle system. It wasn't for everyone, but for me it was strategic heaven and I could literally spend an hour and a half designing indvidual gambits for any given situation.

Sometimes though, you don't even have to do anything particularly special to produce a winning turn based system. Dragon Quest IX: Sentinel of the Starry Skies (which is most certainly NOT a stopgap title just because it's on DS!) takes us back to the old school battle mechanics but subconciously encourages you to learn a tactic for defeating almost every kind of enemy. You are required to pay attention to enemy weaknesses and attack patterns and failure to do so will almost certainly result in frustration and death. Your characters play very specific roles and finding the correct balance (Paladin, Ranger, Sage, Armamentalist for me) is integral to progression. It's also extremely addicitve...I've clocked over 100 hours on DQIX now and it's one of the very few JRPGs I actually enjoy grinding in because of the retro, strategy heavy, no-bells and whistles combat system. Quests which encourage you to explore your abilities are a brilliant way of teaching players (especially newcomers to the genre - DQIX was marketed towards a younger audience) how to get the most enjoyment out of the system.

This video shows a player fighting Leviathan and is a great example of how DQIX makes you think about strategising. To go in gung-ho, attack, attack, attack invariably leads to death.

There are literally tons more JRPGs out there which have done something a little bit different with the system over the years. Honourable mentions to Tales of Symphonia for being the inspiration for the Gambit system in FFXII, Legend of Legaia for combining basic fighting game mechanics with traditional turn-based combat, Parasite Eve for making us dodge enemy attacks between turns, Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes of Light for being so stoically retro it stands out a mile as a nod to the classic systems we've been enjoying since the early eighties.

Love it or hate it, there's no escaping the fact that turn-based combat is to the JRPG genre what shooting things in the face is to the FPS genre. It's a genre covention and it's not going anywhere so don't expect too many drastic changes to it in the near future!

So the next time someone says to me JRPGs are boring because turn-based combat systems are so basic, I feel I've collected my thoughts on it to the extent where I can shout them back down into their COD playing hovel. Turn-based combat is here to stay and games like DQIX, Resonance of Fate and Lost Odyssey are flying its flag for a new generation of RPG fans and I for one couldn't be happier, especially in a time where it's beginning to look like this particular convention might be on the wane.

DISCLAIMER: Not all COD players live in hovels. In fact most of them come from respctable homes and contrary to BBC and Metro reports are not gun wielding psychopaths with an insatiable blood-lust.

The action-RPG is most certainly on the ascendancy with the number of quality turn-based titles limited as a result but with titles like Golden Sun 3: Dark Dawn just around the corner (Dec 10th people!) and White Knight Chronicles 2 scheduled for next year there will be good turn-based JRPGs to sink your teeth into in 2011. Happy days I say! Bring on the strategising, optimising and pulverising for many years to come, turn-based combat should never die.


A Brief History of Ivalice - Part Two

Last week, I made a concerted effort to wrap my head around the ever-changing geography of Ivalice. The conclusion was that, well, there wasn't really one. The maps are deliberately inconsistent and the information in the public domain is scarce. While many fans have tried to fit the maps of each Ivalice Alliance title together, only the FFXII, FFXII: Revenant Wings and overlaying Ivalice map fit together properly which is cause for much heated fan speculation as I found when researching forums for other people's theories.

Thankfully, the Ivalice timeline (barring some descrepancies) is a lot more consistent. Recurring characters are fairly common and references to particular deities (Occuria, Faram, Ajora etc) and historical events are either obviously thrust upon you or subtly referenced to throughout the series.

For me, the main point of interest is the Great Cataclysm which took place sometime between the Age of Technology (FFXII, Revenant Wings etc) and the Age of Ajora (about 1200 years before Final Fantasy Tactics and the War of the Lions). Bearing in mind that FFXII and FFTA: Grimoire of the Rift feature Moogles, Viera, Bangaa and numerous other minor races whereas Tactics does not, it's safe to assume that this Cataclysm was pretty darn cataclysmic, wiping at least the Moogles off the face of the planet and dispensing with numerous landmarks.

It could also explain the Ivalice peninsula which appears to border Ordallia (or Ordalia) in Final Fantasy Tactics but doesn't fit into any existing map of Ivalice seen previously in the timeline. It's not unlike a Final Fantasy game to throw in a new continent or dramatically alter a landscape to suit some kind of dramatic story arc as we saw in Final Fantasy VI and indeed Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings.

The extinction of whole races though, this suggests not only a massive geological disaster but also some kind of cull or disease. However, with Final Fantasy Tactics taking place on a peninsula, it's plausible that the other races simply migrated to other areas of the world. All that's for certain is that Moogles are definitely extinct and that could point to a severe case of Moogleitus. Kupo.

On the other hand there's the strong theological theme that runs through the entire series, and a genocidal crusade isn't out of the question but this is never referred to in any of the games. Lending weight perhaps to this theory though is the rise of Ajora (posessed by the Lucavi, Ultima in Final Fantasy Tactics) who is a Jesus-like relgious figure hung by Pharist priests (Pharism being the pre-existing theological condition) as he prophesised the coming of Paradise.

Upon his death an Earthquake wiped Ydora, the centre of the Pharist regime, off the map prompting speculation amongst the people that Ajora was indeed a child of the gods and the disaster was an act of their will. So rose a new religious force in Ivalice, the Church of Glabados who glorified 'Saint' Ajora Glabados as their Messiah. Of course, he was corrupt, as was the religion he spawned as we discover in Final Fantasy Tactics but if indeed Ultima and other Espers/Lucavi/Eidolons were involved in that disaster (Titan and Leviathan could serve up a tasty tremor/tsunami combo) then perhaps a joint effort from the whole Pantheon could have caused the bigger, more cataclysmic cataclysm referred to as the Great Cataclysm of which I speak.

The way the Cataclysm is described and how the time before is referred to as the Golden Age, it reminds me almost of a reverse RIFTS timeline from the old Palladium Games pen and paper RPG. The modern world in RIFTS was always described as the Golden Age and then came the Rifts drastically changing the world's landscape, bringing back lost continents like Atlantis and introducing numerous new races to Earth. Given the series' recurring references to the Grimoire of the Rift which allowed Balthier to time travel and Marche to visit a 'dreamworld', another theory could be magically induced tears in space-time which cut off parts of the world and drew a whole race into another dimension.

Wild speculation. The fact of the matter is, we just don't know and it's up to Square Enix to release a game which fills in these gaps for us. Potentially, it's an exciting premise for a new game. Exciting for me.

If you're into a bit of further reading, since this is supposed to be a brief history, each independent title in the series has had it's own Ultimania. By using these and in-game information there's a pretty comprehensive breakdown of the timeline over at Final Fantasy Wikia.

This was a bit longer than I was going for, so I'll leave the characters until next week I think. Check out the timeline those guys have pieced together though as it helps you to see where some of the real-world influences have been drawn from.