Monday, 18 February 2013

Ni No Kuni - The Best Bad Game I've Ever Played

Ni No Kuni is a game that for a while now has been heralded as the "great savior" of the JRPG, or some such. The fact of the matter is we don't get many triple A JRPG style games these days, it's a genre that has mostly been relegated to the indies and the handhelds. The ones we do get tend to be very strange, like they are stuck in some ugly mid-metamorphosis stage, trying to adapt and be fresh and new but not quite getting it right. So the prospect of a solid, traditional style RPG made by Level 5 and the legendary Studio Ghibli was quite tantalizing for many, myself included. Now that I have just about completed everything there is to do in the game, I thought I would talk about my thoughts on the game. 

The short version is, it's undoubtedly a good game, but it has such a ridiculously large amount of problems with it, that it doesn't come anywhere near being great in my book. Thus far I've played the game for about 65 hours, and a good 15-20 of that has been spent bored and/or angry at the game. Now I'm glad I played it, it was mostly fun, but the game designer in me aches as I play it. Aside from the amazing visuals, the likes of which we will probably never see ever again, I don't think there is a single aspect of the game that doesn't have some problems biting at it's ankles. If you are looking for a game with a good story and an interesting universe to explore, then Ni No Kuni is probably a game you will love despite it's problems. If like me, you are more interested in good combat and interesting mechanics, then Ni No Kuni will probably still be worth playing, but might be disappointing.

There are a lot of little problems that bog down the game, but there are a handful of huge, fundamental flaws as well. So let's break it down:


Let me quickly outline one of the game's mechanics. Basically, many people in Ni No Kuni are "brokenhearted". This means they are missing a piece of their heart corresponding to a specific property (love, courage, ambition, restraint, etc). As such they don't act entirely reasonably, and that's a problem. Luckily the protagonist (Oliver) has a locket which allows him to extract pieces of heart and redistribute them. So if you find someone with an excess of courage, with their permission you can take it and give it to someone lacking courage. It's an interesting mechanic, but very overused. Throughout the game there are about 80 side quests, and at a guess, about 50-60 of them involve fixing someone's heart. Not only that, but a donor for the appropriate quality is almost always just across town. It gets to the point where I literally skipped as much quest text as possible, because as soon as I saw that red word that said "Courage" or what have you, the entire point of the quest is clear. The fact that a dozen boxes of text exist where a single word is sufficient is another problem, but I'll talk more on that later.

Now the issue of brokenhearted people extends beyond sidequests, too. See the game has a very clear formula that repeats exactly 8 times, stretching through almost the entire game. Basically, almost every time you arrive at a new town, it goes something like this: I need something in this town. Oh no, the leader/important person is brokenhearted! Fight a boss (a ghost thing named "Void of whatever heart quality the person is missing"). Now we need to fix their heart. Oh, the person we met 5 seconds ago has an excess of what we need! Cool, they are better, now they can help us with the reason we are here to begin with. Time to go do a dungeon, then head to the next town! This happens almost exactly like this 8 times, once for each aspect of the heart, and it gets very old by the end. 

Now the last thing to mention on Repetition is just that, you revisit old areas a lot. Like, A TON. It's not like anything really changes in the places you visit either, so it's not a cool kind of revisiting. It's the monotonous kind. There are more issues with revisiting areas, but they fall more under future categories, so I'll leave it there for now.


Pacing is really one of the things that Ni No Kuni does quite badly. In fairness I think it's an issue that plagues almost every long epic style RPG, but it still stuck out to me while playing Ni No Kuni. The short version is simply that nothing you do is quick and easy. Every task has to be bogged down by some sort of fetch quest or some form of complication. Oh, you want to go back to town? Too bad, volcano errupted on the other side of the continent, go there first. The "formula" I described earlier is an example of this too. You can never just show up and talk to the king about what he can do to help you save the world. You have to get an audience with the king, then fix his borkenheartedness first. Some of this was acceptable at the beginning of the game, because they used it to demonstrate the game's mechanics. But then they just kept doing it...

Just to add insult to injury, the game's scenes are painful (and surprisingly few of them are voice acted). Whenever you do anything you are faced with a fairly hefty amount of dialogue. Perhaps the most annoying thing about it though, is the way said dialogue is done. Quite literally it seems like they explain everything like you are 5. Simple concepts are explained at gross length, obvious plot points are slowly unravelled 10 minutes after you figure it out, and every time you need to do just about anything your companion feels the need to hint at what needs to be done and/or how to do it. The volume and quality of the dialogue make the scenes drag on dreadfully, to the point where it feels like you spend more time discussing how to save the world than actually doing it. In fact, the game's dungeons are all pretty small and really don't grow at all the further you get into the game. They get more windy, but not any bigger.

One of the other things the game seems really good at doing is introducing new mechanics several hours after  when you could have used them. You don't get the ability to start capturing familiars (one of the game's main mechanics) until about 8-10 hours in. Compare that to something like Pokemon, where you get your first pokeballs usually within 20-30 minutes. Another example is the Travel spell, which warps you back to areas you have visited. Yet, you learn it after you have already explored half the world. In a normal game that might not matter, but in Ni No Kuni revisiting old areas is the norm, whether you can warp or not. You would think maybe they would give you the warp spell before giving you quests to walk all the way back to the other end of the continent, but no. 

And of course you have weak enemies back there not worth fighting. Many of them will run from you rather than engage, but some will still charge at you. Why a level 1 boar would charge a level 99 I dunno, but you have to waste the 30 seconds killing it anyways. Even Earthbound had a solution for that, and it was released almost 20 years ago! Ni No Kuni's solution is an invisibility spell that you get ~40 hours in, and involves doing side quests. Of course you always have the option of not doing any side quests, and you would almost never have to return to old areas then. The problem with that is that, the game's difficulty is high enough that if you skip the side quests there is a good chance you won't be prepared for the next dungeon. In other words, you need to do side quests on top of all the random fluff tasks the plot has you doing if you want to make it through the next dungeon, which probably won't be longer than half an hour.


So now that difficulty has been mentioned, let's start talking about the game's AI. By now it's already pretty legendary in it's inability to do much of anything, and personally I would call it the biggest issue in the entire game. Before I go into too much detail, here's an overview of how combat works. You have a party of three characters, but only control one at a time. Each character can be assigned up to 3 familiars to control, and in combat they fight as either themselves, or one of their familiars. Each familiar can only fight for ~30 seconds before running out of stamina, and forcing the character to switch familiars, though familiars can be switched at any time. Each character shares a heath and MP bar with their familiars, though they all have different stats and abilities.

So now that's out of the way... The AI is just bad. A lot of the issue comes down to your inability to make the AI do what you want it to. You can change tactics for each party member, but they don't seem to work very well. The number of times I've seen a character burn all of their MP using attack spells when I set them to the "Keep us healthy" tactic is astounding. It also doesn't help that you can only change tactics while in battle, and while controlling one of the characters. So if you are controlling a familiar, you have to switch back to the familiar's master and then select the tactics menu from there. Changing tactics is not a fast thing, though it's less of an issue if you consider how useless they are. It's almost always best to just set everyone to not use any abilities (which thankfully, actually does what it's supposed to), and do everything yourself. That brings up other problems, but more on that later.

Now, even just doing nothing but physical attacks, the AI still manages to be terrible. The only thing they are good at is getting themselves killed. If you give someone a squishy caster familiar to be used for healing or something, you can guarantee that you will see that person up in the enemy's face attacking for 1 damage. Similarly, your companions will forego familiars and fight themselves surprisingly frequently. Which is strange, considering that the actual familiar masters are all terrible at doing physical attacks. There's no reason for them to ever fight themselves unless using one of their abilities (which the AI is forbade from doing). Even with no purpose but doing physical attacks, the AI is insufficient. If I need to switch to a different character to heal or something, you can guarantee that the AI controlling the damage dealer will spend most of their time sitting around doing nothing. Considering controlling said damage dealer usually consists of nothing but mashing X, you would think the AI could at least do that right, but alas.

Ultimately it all comes down to you having to do everything yourself. In short/easy fights that's fine and all is more or less well. The second a fight gets even slightly challenging though, all is lost, and things instantly become incredibly frustrating. The AI is completely incapable of doing the things that it needs to do, you end up having to switch back and forth, and said switching is not at all a fast or seamless process. Meanwhile your companions are derping about being useless and getting themselves killed, forcing you to do more switching. Or you let them die and kill stuff with one character. It works better than you might think. There are no fights in Ni No Kuni which are objectively hard. If the AI actually used the abilities you wanted when you wanted they would be easy. I honestly believe that Ni No Kuni would have been a much better game if they just made the combat turn based.


Issues with the battle system don't end there, though! While the AI is certainly a big problem, the combat itself has issues. I mentioned that I think the combat should be turn based, and this is the first problem. For whatever reason, Level 5 decided that Ni No Kuni should use this action/turn based hybrid system, similar to what we see in games like Final Fantasy XII or Xenoblade. I really don't understand why they decided this. AI issues aside, it seems like Ni No Kuni suffers all the downsides associated with action combat, but reaps none of the benefits. Navigating the battle field doesn't do much for you aside from introduce collision issues with other combatants. Positioning rarely ends up mattering, and half the time when it does the game's pathing forces you to waste time running around the enemy to some strange spot before you can even attack. There is almost never anything in the battle area to interact with at all (lava, obstacles, whatever). Sure it may feel good to evade that big attack (using the evade command, not physically moving), but because of the turn based side of things you often end up sitting around waiting for your command window to pop up, stuck in another action, etc. The negative feeling from that more than offsets the satisfaction of getting it right. Don't even get me started on trying to get your allies to also block the big attacks.

The action side of things kind of works when you are fighting one on one, but as soon as things get more chaotic everything just goes to the dogs. The game would have been better off going all action or all turn based. Choosing a path and sticking to it is not one of Ni No Kuni's strong points though. Even if the game was 100% turn based, there are just too many mechanics at play in the battle system. Since the game has the familiar catching mechanic, which is similar to Pokemon, let me explain what the appeal of Pokemon is to me. Basically, each Pokemon has an elemental Type which gives it certain strengths and weaknesses vs other Pokemon. The idea is to pick 6 Pokemon whose strengths complement each other, in an a attempt to compose a flexible team that has an answer to every situation. When you counter a grass type with your fire type, it feels satisfying . It's pretty simple, fire type has an advantage against grass type in pretty much any situation. That's not the whole story in every situation, but that's the gist of it.

In Ni No Kuni it's not so simple. You have 3 teams of 3 familiars, and when composing a single team, you have to think about the following: Element. Almost every familiar has an element that it is weak to and an element it's weak to. This is similar to Pokemon, except that a fire elemental familiar may not actually ne any good at using fire attacks, in which case it doesn't have an advantage it can exploit, it just has a weakness. Beyond that, each familiar also has an astrological sign (star, sun, moon, planet). Star/Sun/Moon has a rock paper scissors relationship, which is another thing to consider. So putting a team together you probably want a star a moon and a sun, preferably of different elements. But then you have genus. Each familiar belongs to a certain family (bug, dragon, beast, etc) and each companion has 3 familiar types that are their favorite. Using familiars of those types increases the familiar's stats by 10%. So you want a sun, a moon and a star, all of different elements, all of compatible genuses. That's not even looking at the stats on a familiar, the abilities it can use, or how this all interacts with your allies. Heck, familiars even have different growth patterns, meaning that most of the familiars you used at the start of the game will peak around the middle and pretty much just stop getting stronger. Too bad there's no way of telling (without looking it up) what each familiar's growth type is. It would be a shame if that familiar you wanted to use ended up having terrible stats in the end game.

There's just so much going on that it's pretty difficult to put together whatever you personally would consider an ideal team. Instead you just end up using whatever you have sitting around, and you don't get any of that satisfaction of each familiar serving it's role. Certainly you can put together a well planned out team. Having so many mechanics does mean you have a lot of room to experiment and differentiate yourself from how someone else plays. I found that for the most part I just ended up not care about most the mechanics, though. I built a team around stats and abilities. I couldn't give a damn about astrological signs (and in fact, the game's hardest enemies don't even have signs). Yea sure, I fought a fire boss using a familiar weak to fire. It worked just fine. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the game lacks the simple elegance of Pokemon. In fact I can't think off hand of any RPG involving putting together a team which delivers less satisfaction than Ni No Kuni. Normally a game that offers this kind of long term planning and customization is my absolute favorite. Not this time, apparently.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Thoughts on Game Length

I don't have any wordy, analytical brain dumps to do here today. Instead, I'm doing something a little bit different. Today I just want to verbalize some things that I've started to realize lately, and maybe talk a bit about my thoughts about it. Specifically I want to talk about my preferred game length. See, years ago I would have been all over the 100+ hour epic RPGs. I still like those games quite a lot, but I'm finding more and more that my preference is leaning towards the 10-20 hour games. The question is, why?

In truth, I think this is a pretty common phenomenon. The "gaming generation" is growing up, myself among them. As youngsters we had an excess of time and a small amount of money, but now the situation has reversed itself. More disposable income means that the games we buy don't have to stretch as far to keep us entertained, and we're more willing to pay for a shorter game. Or at least, this is the what conventional wisdom would tell us. Of course it's all kind of subjective, but I can't claim it doesn't hold true for myself. I don't believe that that's all there is too it though, at least in my case. Sure, I can buy more games than I could 10 years ago. I have literally hundreds of games that I haven't beaten just sitting around. That doesn't explain why shorter games seem more attractive to me, though.

I believe that a part of the reason here is just that, it's fun to beat a game and tick it off "the list". Shorter games let you do that more often. In truth though, I don't think this really strikes to the "heart" of the issue. I think it all comes down to pacing. The fact of the matter is that shorter games tend to have quicker pacing, whereas mega-long ones almost always suffer from periods of boredom here and there. A shorter game has less room for filler, and really, it's just a lot easier to have good pacing in a shorter game. Just about everything in fact, is easier to do well in a short game. There's just something really appealing about a 10 or 8, or even 2 hour game (for the right price) that has super tight design and pacing. You get in, experience something amazing, and are on to something new.

When you think of an 80+ hour game, usually it's some form of RPG that's in question. RPGs just have this stereotype of being long. In recent years I found that even they can benefit from being short. Maybe it's just my personality, but one of the things I always look forward to the most is getting awesome. I want to progress through the game so I can see how powerful I will get and face the game's biggest challenges. Needless to say, shorter games let you do this faster. It certainly beats spending 2 hours in a dungeon and not leveling up once. That just feels stagnant. It's fun seeing your party grow, and it seems to me that you don't lose much by condensing the experience down to 15 hours from 80.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, I like games that keep me on m toes. I want new things to be thrown at me frequently, I want to feel like I'm making progress constantly, and I want to always be doing something interesting. As much as big epic long games have a lot going for them too, I can't think of one that doesn't fall down in one or more of the things I just pointed out. Maybe I just don't have as much time to absorb a massive game, but I feel like there is plenty of room in the world for a solid 20 hour experience.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Good vs. Bad Difficulty

The other day I came upon a forum thread asking what the difference was between "good" and "bad" difficulty. You know, a game that makes you feel challenged and fulfilled as opposed to frustrated and cheated. At first I thought it was a bit of a silly question. Isn't it obvious what makes for good difficulty? The more I thought about it though, the more I realized that the things coming to mind were specific examples, not defining factors. It's easy to look at a single situation and say "that jump is just unfair" or "I hate this time limit". It's something else to examine why those situations feel "bad". The line between good and bad difficulty can actually be very thin, sometimes night imperceptible. So I thought I would spend some time today talking about difficulty as I see it.

Before I go anywhere with this though, I want to outline what exactly difficulty is, reason being there's more to it than you likely realize. At the most basic level, difficulty is a measure of how challenging something is. However this means more than "I'm playing on easy mode" or "that boss was really hard". Video games are in fact comprised of countless interwoven challenges of varying types, sizes and inter connectivity. For example one challenge would be beating the current level. Another challenge would be defeating the boss at the end of said level. This challenge is interconnected with beating the level, but it also it's own isolated task. This could be further broken down into the moment to moment challenges of dodging attacks, hitting the weak point, etc. These are all challenges, and each one has it's own difficulty. Dodging an attack may be easy, but defeating the boss can still be hard. Similarly a level can be relatively easy even if each of it's elements are somewhat easy. Therein lies the crux.

On that note I want to talk a little bit about death, or more specifically failure states. What happens when you fail a challenge. When you are jumping from platform to platform, there are a variety of things that can happen if you fail to make one of those jumps. You could fall to your death, you could take fall damage, you could have to make your way back up and retry the jump, you could magically be teleported back up to the previous platform, etc. These are all failure states of various levels of punishment/inconvenience. However they don't interact with difficulty the way you might think. No matter what happens when you fail to make that jump, the difficulty of making said jump won't get any harder next time around (barring any shenanigans with powerups and such). Where difficulty does come in to play however is in regards to how many challenges must be completed in sequence. If you fall to your death and have to repeat the entire level, that's clearly more difficult than if you only have to retry that single jump. The more challenges you have to complete in a row the more likely you are to mess up one of them. The reason I bring all this up is partly because I think it's interesting. It's also partly to dispel the concept that a game's difficulty is directly tied to death. Just because a game like Kirby's Epic Yarn has no death doesn't mean there aren't challenges or failure states. Not having played it I can't comment on the actual difficulty of the game, so I'm just going to move on.

Now that we know what exactly difficulty is, let's take a look at what determines the severity of the challenge. This can essentially be broken down into 2 parts. Firstly, how much skill does it take to complete the given task? This encompasses both the physical requirements (reflexes, timing, coordination, etc) as well as mental requirements (critical thinking, memory, lateral thinking, etc). Beyond that, we have the window of time in which we have to complete said challenge. If you have to jump over an obstacle that shoots flames, it's going to be a lot easier if it shoots said flames every 10 seconds than if it shot every 2 seconds. The actual difficulty of jumping over the obstacle is no harder in the second instance, but having a smaller window of opportunity does make it more difficult on the whole. Now, beyond these two things there is one more element that I think is very important, but I don't see mentioned very often. That is, how your challenges interact. Dodging away from a boss' attacks might be easy. Dodging falling debris might be easy. Doing them both at the same time could be hard. This is where balancing difficulty can be very hard. I consider it integral that challenges work together to be more than the sum of their parts, but not to the point of it being frustrating.

So what exactly determines good difficulty from bad? Well, the idea is obviously to provide the player with a challenge that is going to... well, challenge them, without frustrating them. This essentially comes down to providing them with a difficult task, while also giving them all of the tools and information required to conquer it. It also means that failure shouldn't be overly punished, because that is a large contributor to the aforementioned frustration factor. Failure needs a consequence, but the most fun games often seem to be the ones that allow the player to get right back into the action. People hate redoing challenges they have already completed. The problem is that so much of this is subjective to the player. Different people are going to have different levels of skill, experience, different thought patterns, etc. One player may get a puzzle more quickly than another. However something like a jump where you can't see the landing point from where you jump is a straight up no-no. This is an example of a challenge wherein you don't have all the required information to complete it. This is also why weak points, switches and everything else tends to be giant and glowy. As trite as it is, people are dumb. Or at least, a game designer has to assume they are. Compared to the one who designed the game, every player in existence is dumb. They don't have the intimate knowledge the designer does, and so certain things have to be made obvious. An enemy's attack pattern may be more challenging and realistic if it's unpredictable, but that's probably also going to be less fun. The player probably isn't going to get any joy out of failure.

If it seems I'm rambling, that's for two reasons. One, I probably am, that's just what I do. Two, there just really doesn't seem to be a good answer to the initial question. The easy answer is that "good difficulty" has to be hard but fair. The player has to work for it to feel fulfilled, but they shouldn't get frustrated. It's incredibly hard to hone in on the sweet spot when the potential user base is so large and diverse. There are plenty examples of "don't do this" and best practices, but the rules are going to vary by game. So long as the challenges feel fair the player probably isn't going to feel cheated. What it takes to achieve that, I guess I would say I have no real idea.