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Zero: Secret Pasts Collide 
 PostSun Jan 04, 2015 11:48 pm
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I never got tired of making those numbers go up.
That explains a lot.
Are you even looking at me?
Is this a cave or the moon?
Foreshadowing is a sign of great RPG world building.
This is a review of Zero: Secret Pasts Collide.

~The Rips~

One of the most commercially successful indie games of all time was made by a guy who, prior to his success, made a literal mario clone using actual mario graphics. His commercially successful follow up game contains graphics suspiciously similar to recolored Final Fantasy 5 sprites. I keep that guy in the back of my mind when I review this game. We like to shake our canes at people who use rips, you have to wonder how much it really matters in the end.

Rips are typically done in a haphazard fashion, especially in the OHR where palette limitations and sizes don't match that well with most games. This makes it pretty easy to dismiss any game with them as a lazy mess. This game isn't exactly a visual stunner with its mishmash of graphics from pretty much every SNES and PS1 RPG you can name, but I can't necessarily say that they're low effort. They're imported relatively cleanly, some have had their colors changed, and a few characters even seem to have undergone editing to fit character appearances. It's not cohesive, in particular the battle participants don't always feel like they're even facing each other due to the original Final Fantasy Tactic's isometric perspective. Familiar music doesn't always work either, as some times you'll be fighting a serious boss while Star Fox music blasts in the background- giving the whole thing a comical air.

What makes this game so hard to dismiss despite all that is actually the cutscenes. While ripping those graphics the author clearly paid attention to the games in question: Character sprites will blush when they're embarrassed. They will dance around, look shocked, and sweat in dangerous situations. When explosions happen you will see them, and characters will be knocked down by the aftershocks. The game never really resorts to cheap sound effects and flashing. Ironically the only real downside to the character emotes is actually one of the only original pieces of art in the game: the character portraits. They often don't sync up to the character's expressions, resulting in comical scenarios like having a character with a mirthful expression being hauled off to be executed.

The amount of effort that went into these details makes it hard to knock the game as lazy for stealing its art. It's pretty apparent that the author knew their limitations and rather than recruiting someone else or spending even more time learning multiple skills they just decided to use the rips and focus on what they enjoyed making. I don't approve of it, but you can see where they're coming from.

~The Intro~

The introduction is probably the single worst part of the entire game. The first part uses auto-advancing text boxes so there's enough time to read everything, but not comfortably. This is compounded by being the intro, the very first time a new player has ever seen these names. They're relatively unconventional English names, and there's tons of people being thrown at you at once. This is all part of a desire to launch the player straight into an exciting sequence, but it backfires and just overwhelms instead. Don't put auto-advancing text in a game unless you have voice acting to back it up, you simply can't predict player reading speeds.

The balance between gameplay and story that plagues the entire game is also probably the most obvious with the beginning. You start off with a demon attack flash back which quickly transitions to introducing several characters on the way to a knighting, and then engage in a lengthy party where the relationship between our two main characters is explored. Phew! The game is going to start now, right? Instead the game decides to introduce combat to you by having you run around a massive town looking for people rather than being directed to places. During all this running around you get introduced to the same characters as earlier in even more detail. There are only two required battle bits in this entire segment that are supposed to teach you how to play the game, though the game politely suggests you go outside for more practice. Of course you don't since there's no goal outside, and you soon find yourself locked in a cave with that town you never fully explored seemingly gone forever.

All those character introductions do end up being important to the story later on, but they're done in a way that is tone deaf to someone who is playing a video game. RPGs have a flow to them: you get some story, you play the game a bit, you get some story, you play the game a bit. In an ideal world this game would probably have thrown the player into a mini dungeon for the battle training instead of having them wander around town after having just sat through an already lengthy introduction. Players would great a break from the story, get a better grasp of combat before ending up locked out of town, and they'd enjoy meeting everyone in town more as a break from the dungeon they just did. It's a balance.

(This doesn't fit anywhere else, but I have to point out that the scream sound effect for the demons sounds a whole lot like an internet shock sound effect. I literally closed the game the first time and checked to see if I accidentally opened a joke link I forgot about, but it was just the game.)

~The Story~

The plot revolves around a radical religious movement to kill all mages that catches our protagonist and her friends in it on account of her being a mage. It actually does a great job keeping the problem local to the town, and developing it fully before spreading it out to the world wide stage. The core adventure journey may be pretty simple, but the game offers enough related mysteries to keep you guessing: why have these cultures developed a fear of wishing, what does the strange figure that controls everything actually want, what are these demons that keep showing up, what happened to part of the protagonist's memory, etc. By the end of the demo you'll have answers to part of these questions and it ends up redefining how you see much of the existing world.

And that world is actually pretty cool even before that. Most of the towns actually have a well defined reason for existing the way they do, and often contain a few interesting characters. You'll see an outwardly friendly harvest town that secretly just wants travelers to pray for a good harvest, a town where gender roles have been reversed due to a plague wiping out most of the men, an immortal prince eternally searching for an immortal bride, etc. So while the NPC dialogue in each town doesn't necessarily expand on the plot, they do expand on the background of every town which works to expand on the world itself. A lot of this background actually does end up tying into the plot later on, so it's worth reading for multiple reasons.

~The Maps~

The first area of the first dungeon has a relatively compact layout. There are a lot of minor branching paths, but you can see the walls and follow the structure just fine. The second area of the first dungeon opens into a giant open area with nothing in it. Just a a giant open void with some vague directionality. Go look at the games you got your graphics from: Do they ever do this? Have a giant screen filling area with just dirt in it that makes it easy for the player to lose their direction? Did you have fun when you went through this section of the game? What is engaging about this area for the player? Why does this area even exist when the first half was plenty long for a first dungeon and ended with a climatic boss fight? To be fair this is probably the worst map in the game. But it's emblematic of a deeper problem that most of the dungeons and battles in this game feel more compulsory than something the author wanted to make.

Of course you can't really talk about the map design without getting into the problem that surrounds it. You remember that part in Final Fantasy 6 where you buy sprinting boots and they let you hold a button to move around the map faster and then you never ever unequip them because they're too useful? This game has that, but you're always running. You also only have one accessory slot per character, and for a lengthy portion of the game you only have one character to sacrifice that slot for. To be fair by the time this item is truly required you will have two characters, but the massive maps in the game will eventually take their toll on you if you happen to miss these shoes that are tucked away in a shop. The game never points them out to you. I imagine someone going through the entire game without those shoes, and I feel for them. I wonder what happened first: the author made their maps too big and created this item to solve the problem, or the author liked the idea of the item so much that they made their maps huge just to make it useful. All I know is it gets annoying trying to talk to NPCs in towns when you're moving so fast, and it sort of makes the game look visually ridiculous.

This is just the surface of the accessory problem, though. Like I said you only have one accessory slot. There are 3 crucial things (and many others) that you can equip in this slot: an item that reveals hidden areas, the aforementioned running boots, and most cruelly an item that increases your speed in battle. What makes this so miserable is that characters are dead slow in battle. This is worst in the first section of the game when you have only one character, but even with all 3 characters those gauges crawl without the speed boosting item. The game makes you choose between being slow in combat, missing items in the world, and walking slowly on the map. I ended equipping one of each on my main characters, but it's telling that every guest character in the game comes equipped with the battle speed accessory. I understand that you don't want to overwhelm players with battle speed. I really do. But there are better options. (It's kind of funny that the origin of the ATB system, Final Fantasy, always included an option to set the overall speed of the battle system to fit the comfort of the player, but OHR games almost never include that option. This is hardly unique to Zero, so don't feel too bad author. Something for the engine developers to think about, though.)

~The Battle System~

Most JRPG gimmick systems can secretly be described as "tricking children into eating their vegetables". On those merits, Zero has a great system. It's pretty simple: every weapon has 1-3 skills associated with it, winning battles with them equipped gives characters progress towards learning those skills, and once a skill is learned characters keep it forever. The system is great because it does several things: It lets players choose what skills they're learning next which makes progression exciting which makes players want to fight more battles, and it gives players reason to be excited about new equipment every time they go to a new town so players end up proactive about updating their equipment as well as wanting to earn gold. Look at all those common OHR game problems drop like flies. On the downside most of the abilities in the game aren't that useful (spamming attack tends to work fine after the early game except for rare occasions), so in the end the system is only half there. Still, I cared more about equipment and levelling than I do in most OHR games so it kind of works despite that.

~The Conclusion~

In short this game has a great little story if you enjoy RPG stories. I could probably criticize it in a lot of little detail ways (sometimes the character's voices are a little samey for instance), but there's really no point. What's here is good. It's just introduced poorly, and sometimes paced poorly as a game. There's already a really great system for character progression in the game, the author just needs to think about the purpose of dungeons and battles a little more. I know you're excited to get this thing made so maybe you can wait to overhaul them at the end, but really stop to think about it. Are these battles fun? Are these dungeons the right length? Does it all flow well together?

~The Bug Report~
-The antidote item only targets enemies.
-Lunia can target all with her spells but ends up only targeting one...? Maybe intentional.
-I could never get the rare desert boss to show up. Might not be a bug, though.
-The chest with a rune blade in it lets you get it infinitely.
-You can walk through one of the walls in the traveler's wind god temple (desert town).
-NPCs appear underneath the chairs in the desert town.
-The part where you invade the Xartia castle is really poorly explained. The main characters should try to get an audience with the front guard, and end up rejected so the player remembers that they're supposed to be trying to talk to the kingdom. (I ended up trying to go straight to the man of the mountain to no avail before finally finding the NPC that tells you how to get into the castle, though I had forgotten that I was even supposed to go to the castle).

~The Notes~
-Having gold exclusively through treasure chests makes you real paranoid about consumables early on.
-The gold gain rate is incredibly poorly thought out. Look at the desert town for instance: enemies in it drop 80 gold while enemies in the grass nearby drop 400 gold, but the big weapon in town costs 5000 gold. Meanwhile in the very next area enemies start dropping 2000 gold? I'm guessing you intended to make gold exclusively through treasure but got cold feet and changed it at the last moment.
-The overworld map battle music is terrible. I had to mute the sound.
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