Unsung Story Still Struggling to Meet Its Kickstarter Goal

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Though not the most prolific game designer, Yasumi Matsuno is still one of the most critically acclaimed. And deservedly so, given his central creative role in classic titles like Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant story.

Now Matsuno is developing a new role-playing game called Unsung Story: Tale of the Guardians. Already set to release on iOS and Android tablet devices, Playdek, the studio behind the game, launched a Kickstarter campaign last month in order to raise the funds necessary to port Unsung Story to other platforms, including PCs, consoles, and handhelds.

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To the surprise of many (including myself), the campaign has yet to hit its $600,000 pledge objective, let alone any of its $1 million plus stretch goals, despite having less than 30 hours left to go in the funding drive. While other Kickstarted RPG projects like Double Fine’s Massive Chalice and Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity had little trouble attracting financial support, Playdek’s Unsung Story has struggled.

On The Lightning Returns Demo

I had a chance to sprint through the short demo for Lightning Returns that Square Enix released last week. While there’s not a whole lot to it, the hour spent playing left me reassured about what the final game is offering.

I wrote just over a year ago about why the game sounded so appealing, given what was revealed in previews and trailers at the time. Between the flamboyant art direction, eccentric plot premise, and the turn-based/third-person action combat hybrid it seemed like Lightning Returns would have a lot to offer despite the flawed framework in which it’s situated.

The demo basically confirms that. I analyzed it in detail with Tom Auxier at Pixels or Death (which will be posted soon), but in short

I had a lot of questions going into the demo, and while not all of them were answered (and many more cropped up along the way), overall I feel a lot more confident in what earlier previews, interviews, and trailers for the game have all been promising. It’s not going to “redeem” the Final Fantasy brand for those who feel it’s been sullied over the last console generation, nor would I recommend it to casual players without a prior interest in role-playing games. But at a time when so many new releases in the genre are either trending toward the space-marine formula or falling back on the usual menagerie  of medieval fantasy tropes, Lighting Returns is offering something unique and different with the production value and conviction to back it up.”

Bravely Default Puts A Bandage On Bad Design Rather Than Fixing It

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Random encounters began as a way to design around the limitations of past hardware. Old games couldn’t waste memory actually showing enemies on world or area maps, so instead a player’s traveling party was simply ambushed every so many steps while a screen change indicated a “random encounter” with local enemies was about to ensue.

And even as the hardware that role-playing games were designed for became more capable, and enemies could be rendered anywhere and everywhere (and not just on the battle screen), random encounters became something of a genre convention—just one in a number of peculiar idiosyncrasies fans of RPGs were accustomed to, and in some cases, even lovingly adored. 

But the visual context surrounding an enemy encounter is not nearly as important as its substance. The truth is that just because I can see the monsters waiting for me on-screen doesn’t mean it’s any more fun to battle. Especially in turn-based systems, most random encounters are a chore not because they occur without any warning, but because they are designed with little care or intention, playing out more like a trip to the laundry mat than a fight for survival.

Putting Final Fantasy’s Recent Struggles in Perspective

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Last week, Kotaku's Jason Schreier proceeded to morn the once prestigious JRPG franchise’s continued demise. Specifically, Schreier condemed the latest game to carry the Final Fantasy name, All The Bravest for iOS, and the growing trend of mediocre and heartless JRPG titles coming out of Square he feels it exemplifies,

"But Final Fantasy All The Bravest is not an anomaly. This betrayal is nothing new. Square has spent the past half-decade picking away at our passion for their ubiquitous, once-beloved series. All The Bravest is just another limb rotting off the bloated, mangled corpse that was once Final Fantasy.

As someone who grew up with the adventures of Cecil and Terra, I find it depressing to even write, but here we are. It’s 2013, and Final Fantasy is on its last legs. The 25-year-old RPG series is a shell of its former self. When we see a new Final Fantasy game, our first reaction is no longer “awesome!”—it is “shit, how are they going to ruin my childhood next?” I’ve written before about some of the problems facing Final Fantasy, and even drawn up wish lists of things I’d like to see Square Enix try to do, but All The Bravest is yet another piece of disturbing evidence that this company no longer cares about its fans.”

All the Bravest is by all accounts a train-wreck (though some have rightly pointed out that their are potentially creative ideas seemingly lingering ever so faintly at its core). The App Store cash-grab demonstrates a near total lack of understanding when it comes to: bite-sized gameplay, simplistic touchscreen controls, positive and satisfying feedback loops. The fact that this abomination of game design is skinned in Final Fantasy sprites makes the tortuous enterprise sting all the more.

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But I’m less convinced that this particular instance, and even some of the company’s controversial decisions this console generation, are in any way indicative of the franchise’s overall decline. In a piece at Gaming Vulture proper, I make the case in full,

Lightning Returns Aims to be More Than Just Another Final Fantasy Game

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Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII will be Square Enix’s second attempt to atone for the missteps of the original game three years ago. After Final Fantasy XIII made its controversial debut back in 2010, producer Yoshinori Kitase and director Motomu Toriyama were left to pick up the pieces and figure out went wrong.

With the game’s newest spin-off due out late next fall, both designers have one last chance to win back old fans, and find some new ones, before the console generation and the Fabula Nova Crystallis mythology upon which FFXIII was based come to an end. I’m usually extremely skeptical of all the buzz and positive spin that new video game previews generate, but the information that’s recently come out about Lightning Returns has even me thinking it might be a success, both critically and among hardcore Final Fantasy fans (I’m less bullish on the title’s capacity to spark interest in gamers previously unaware of the series).

Unlike past installments, what is effectively XIII-3 will border on being a third-person action game that resembles Kingdom Hearts meets Devil May Cry. Players will control Lighting, the titular character who is on a quest to save as many people in the world as possible from an approaching doomsday she herself is responsible for.

One Reason Why Some RPG Narratives Hold Up

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Content degradation: the “diminishing capacity to view the objects in the game independently of the system for which they signify.”

That’s how the concept was explained to Joseph Leray by Kirk Battle. In an essay at Bit Creature from a couple weeks ago, Leray explored how certain RPGs deliver a powerful narrative punch in part because they pin battle and exploration systems to the plot,

Junctioning a Guardian Force in Final Fantasy VIII; summoning a sky-dragon in IX and X; buying a license from a government-approved vendor in XII’s Ivalice — all of these complex, Byzantine systems are pinned into their respective game’s plots, taken as literal parts of their worlds. These mechanics are only possible in the context created by each game’s narrative foundation. The content — the story, the characters, the setpieces — serve as the foundation on which the systems are built.

In other words, the content in, say, most Final Fantasy games doesn’t degrade quickly. Even in the midst of a boss fight, when the game is almost purely mechanical, players are dealing with tiny pieces of the plot and gameworld. When content is inescapable, it remains relevant.

Leray goes further and points out some specific instances in which RPGs are able to make a plot development more compelling by integrating it directly into certain gameplay systems.

The Best Console RPG of 2012 Won’t Be Mass Effect 3

Only time will tell, but if I had to guess, I’d venture that The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings will turn out to be 2011’s most overlooked game.  It wasn’t on many people’s Game of the Year lists despite overall rave reviews.  Two obvious reasons for this of course are that it was that it released on the PC and required some pretty expensive hardware to run correctly.

Fortunately, CD Projekt RED had always planned to bring it to the console, and after some delay, the masterful RPG will finally make it to the Xbox 360 on April 17, 2012.  And not only will console gamers get a chance to play one of 2011’s best games, but the Xbox 360 port will be an enhanced version with, “3+ hours of new content, and new gameplay and story elements.”

In addition, console players picking it up for the first time in April won’t have to wait, like PC gamers did, for any of The Witcher 2’s glitches or balancing issues to be addressed through a patch.  If all goes well, the console version might not be as pretty, but it’ll run just as smoothly as its PC counterpart.  And with over 4.5 million copies pirated, I’m glad I’ll have a chance to support the developer when I pick up a new copy in a couple months. 

Because all signs point to this being a tragically overlooked and serially underappreciated game.  As Shacknews noted when declaring it the best game of 2011The Wticher 2: Assasins of Kingshas combat that’s “satisfying to the point of perfection” and remains “one of the few games that genuinely offers players a choice.” Indeed, the game goes even further because, as the editors atShacknews wrote, “it offers an interesting reflection of real-world problems. It’s a political drama where those in command are governed by fear and uncertainty. It shines light on racism and sexism in ways that shows developer CD Projekt RED is unafraid to push narrative boundaries beyond most games in its class.” 

And this is where I’m hoping that The Witcher 2 gives me the experience that the Mass Effect franchise has so far failed to achieve.  I’m less interested in playing puppet master to some identity-less onscreen avatar, and more concerned with playing through a well-conceived narrative that allows player choice and plot outcomes to interact in a truly meaningful way.  Something that the first Mass Effect nearly managed, and which Mass Effect 2 didn’t even come close to doing, but that The Witcher 2 might actually accomplish.

 

BioWare has shown that they can deliver a compelling character experience, and an epic story, but not necessarily both at once.  Indeed, part of Mass Effect 2’s shortcoming arises from its attempts to do both at once, and succeeding at neither as a result.

Plus, The Witcher 2 has deep RPG elements, with item crafting, equipment, and skill trees that go far beyond anything BioWare has recently offered.  And while games like Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (which just came out today) and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim both offer complex level building, status enhancement, and inventory systems, I don’t think either one will end up providing everything in a single RPG package the way Witcher does.

But that remains to be seen.  For now I’ll be eagerly awaiting the Xbox 360 port.

60 Minute Impression: Ys Seven



I’m going to try and start doing a pseudo-segment titled like the above post headline where I play a game for approximately 60 minutes and give my play by play as well as a quick takeaway.

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So I just slid Ys Seven into the PSP (I’ve not played any other titles in the series but have been a little excited for this one ever since I came across a GI review for it. I’d share a link but it doesn’t seem to be online).

The game starts on a boat with a silent protagonist eye-balling a strange off-in-the-distance island, some jib-jab ensues, and then title and anime montage of characters unfolds before dumping me off in a port town for me to “check out shops and things.”  I can’t wait…

Why is it that characters always roll faster than they can walk/run?  No idea, but here I am rolling around city streets just like the good old days.  What’s this? A flower girl tries to panhandle me one of her blossoms?  Don’t mind if I do.

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Apparently I killed enough time tumbling from street corner to street corner.  Now some blond haired Gaston is doing his thing.  I better get some action fast.  Where is my “in medias res”?

Dialogue boxes with green text keep popping up.  I think they are narrating to me.  The game is seriously describing what’s happening on screen…

"That red hair…you must be from Europan."  HAHAHA seriously!?  Nihon Falcom apparently has it in for the gingers (that or the genre seriously needs to invest in some better translators).

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Alright, so prison cell to king’s throne room to underground temple.  Must say I like the feel of the battle, though I’m curious to see if it gets much beyond button mashing (not that applying repeated pressure to the plastic X on my PSP isn’t fun in its own right).

Just killed by a giant, duel-headed stone turtle thing (actually looks like it’d make a better pokemon than half the ones getting leaked recently).

So the hour’s up.  I quickly dismissed this most recent title in the Ys series but am having second thoughts.  So what’s my bottom line impression?  That the battle mechanic is simple (at least for now) but fluid and well paced, even if the rest (music/dialogue/etc.) is a drag.