This week, Samantha Nelson reviewed I Am Setsuna, the new throwback JRPG from Square Enix. It has a lot in common with the Super NES classics of the genre, and pulls a fair share of ideas, particularly the battle system, from Chrono Trigger. Samantha argued that the game has more to offer than pure nostalgia, which Jakeoti was glad to hear:
The first paragraph of this review gives me more hope than anything else I’ve seen about it, simply because Samantha says it goes beyond nostalgia. Basically everything that I’ve read has been saying “It’s like Chrono Trigger! You like and remember Chrono Trigger, right? More Chrono Trigger!” and that’s not exactly what I want. I love Chrono Trigger. It’s one of my favorite RPGs. It’s my favorite SNES game. It’s incredible! But there’s something about the idea of trying to cling to that, to sell yourself by saying that you’re like that (because even Square didn’t hold back on making the comparisons, and we’ve been hurt before when Square says they’re going back to their roots) that makes me uncomfortable. It’s like when just about every Kickstarter RPG advertises their EarthBound-influence. That often translates to “we have funny dialogue!” At the same time, I guess I should be wiling to trust Square. They did make Bravely Default, which was a throwback/love letter to the old JRPGs on its outside, but once you got to the combat and the late story, it started twisting the ideas of those old JRPGs and creating something good and new.
And Drinking_With_Skeletons points out that Chrono Trigger’s combat, which is the thing Setsuna most closely emulates (right down to the “X-Strike” combo attack you can perform), is one of its least important aspects:
I first played Chrono Trigger a few years ago, and it’s a great game, no question. But what makes it great is the tone—the music, the feel of the game. The combat mechanics of CT are pretty explicitly a crossover between Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. It’s not exactly mercenary, but it’s the most perfunctory element of the game. But you can see the enthusiasm the developers had in the story, the aesthetics, the melancholy and nostalgic air that hangs about it. There’s genuine passion there, and it’s something Square Enix’s games have mostly lacked for a long time now. (I’d say Kingdom Hearts, of all things, probably has the most behind-the-scenes love, if only from Tetsuya Nomura). As comforting as these retro RPGs are, I wish an exec at Square would hand over money to someone at the company to make some weird little passion project instead of begrudgingly releasing throwback projects to chase nostalgia money.
Shades Of Lee Everett
This week, Patrick Lee revisited Season Two of Telltale’s The Walking Dead for an On The Level about its group breakdown in a Civil War memorial. He praised the game for finding that appropriate setting and the ways it used the symbolism to manifest the survivors’ infighting as a physical space for Clementine to work through. He also mentioned how the historical significance evoked Lee Everett, star of Season One and a history professor. Shinigami Apple Merchant expanded on that thinking (plot details for Season One and Two ahead):
Lee was a history teacher and civil war enthusiast so the site evokes his memory, perhaps more so than any other time in the season. In Clementine’s subconscious search to find someone she can rely on in the same regard as Lee, she attempts to survive, but all she can find are fractured fragments of him here. Kenny is loyal but unraveling. Jane is practical but distrustful. Luke wants the group to stick together but doesn’t have the leadership experience or fortitude to keep everyone together or the acumen to formulate effective plans. The best parts of them together could keep this group stable, but they neither have the individual functionality to do that successfully nor the inclination to work with one another and make that situation a reality. (“I want to help keep us stable, Clem, but there’s just no working with this person!”) This makes Clem stuck in sort of a nightmare version of Toby’s or Pam’s dilemmas from The Office, trying to resolve an HR/office management problem.
Bonnie/Mike/Sarah seem to be “there but for the grace of God” bizarro versions of Christa/Lee/Clem. Bonnie is Christa if she’d been on her own never having had funny Omid with her. She’s a survivor with a heart, but none of Christa’s integrity, given Bonnie’s protean actions throughout Season Two. Mike’s definitely meant to remind Clem of Lee the most out of everyone, but he’s a Lee that’s only looking out for Lee. Even when he does connect with someone in the group and work to keep them safe, it isn’t Clem but Arvo with whom he sides. And Sarah is Clem if she’d been sheltered throughout all this, even prior to going up in that treehouse from the first episode of Season One.
So instead of having Lee there to rise to the challenge for Clem’s sake and use the history of that site to fuel his drive to keep everyone together, instead we have pieces of Lee there and shadow versions of more functional people we’ve met before, all just trying to survive. “Fallen but never forgotten.” Here’s to Clem getting to be her own Lee in Season Three. Take the apocalypse by storm, kid.
Elsewhere, Wolfman Jew took a closer look at how games can integrate the concept of shifting team relationships:
Without having played a Telltale game yet, this idea is incredibly exciting to me. Team dynamics have been around in games seemingly forever, in one fashion or another, and making the team just as much a threat as a support is an obvious response to that. I don’t mean in the style of a Metal sidekick turning on you, although that is important, but having betrayals and breakups or party members and people in the thick of it work as more of a gameplay function.
So you have games like This War Of Mine or XCOM that are all about the team, and you have to keep your friends alive as much as you can. But a lot of those ones are more procedurally generated, and while that isn’t bad, it can make the characters a little less “valuable” if you can spot the seams too easily. An exception is Fire Emblem, which gives you a high number of characters who can die permanently, but then you have to work to make them all comparably compelling. And you have games like Mass Effect, where the number of permutations makes it difficult for developers to have those characters undergo radical changes beyond a few choice moments. This is because either they’re so important that there’s a fear about lost content or they’re so personal that people don’t want to give up on their own favorites. Plus, there are the moments of JRPGs where party members leave for a time, but that’s the least interesting, usually just a challenge point more than a narrative one. (We all miss Paula in EarthBound when she gets abducted, but that’s mostly because she has the offensive moves that you need.)
Plus, I’m also ignoring other games like Halo Reach or Spec Ops where your squad is whittled down over the course of the story, or monster-hunting games like Pokémon where you can actively choose to dismiss members, or RTS games with “hero” units. This is all to say there’s no one perfect answer to making teammates and their fates compelling—I certainly wouldn’t want permadeath to exist in, say, Chrono Trigger beyond those specific times where it does—but it is interesting to think of teams as so central to the identity of video games, from singleplayer to co-op, and to look at how games play with this idea.
Invisible, Inc. uses a few clever tricks to make your squad feel like it comes together over the course of the game. For starters, characters have names and abilities; there is no endless grunt generator like in XCOM. You choose the two characters you start a given run with, and they actually have some text-only banter at the start of a few missions. Some characters pair together surprisingly well, commiserating over their grievances, while others don’t, thrust together by fate and common purpose alone.
As you proceed in the game, you can almost hear the characters whispering to into their comms as they inevitably must split up to find the mission target and get to the extraction point as quickly as possible. You can find other agents captured by the evil corporations in detention centers and free them, gearing them up if you can while rushing to the exit before reinforcements notice they’re missing. When someone is taken out you feel the shock of losing an invaluable agent while also calculating your ability to revive or rescue them before the entire team is trapped. Sometimes you have to leave an agent behind, and that’s the worst of all, but the game’s procedural generation has fun with that, too. You can rescue the same captured agent at a different detention center, their upgrades and gear intact. And now the story had an entire plotline you never intended that adds depth and drama to the larger tale.
That’s it for this week, Gameologerinos. Thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you next week!