Monthly Archives: January 2016

Opinion – The Story of Dragon Quest Heroes

This is the article I wanted to write.

In my review of Dragon Quest Heroes, I noted that the story had serious issues.  This week, I’d like to discuss those issues in depth.  The narrative had a huge number of glaring narrative flaws making it ideal for dissection.  I’ll also mention why the story remained coherent despite its numerous problems.  Let’s start with the problems I mentioned in the review.

Not that anyone cares, but there will be SPOILERS.

The developers didn’t own there set up

The setup for the story is that the formerly peaceful monster denizens of Arba turned on the human population due to an evil spell.  Fun fact: this is effectively the same foundation for every zombie movie in existence.  Formerly peace people are infected by a virus which turns them on the healthy.  The popularity of the zombie setting speaks to how great it is in exploring issues of societal breakdown, wealth, class, and setting up constant drama.  There’s a lot of flexibility to the setting and all of it is dark.  At the core of every zombie flick is civilization’s collapse and the destruction of the innocent.  Dragon Quest Heroes doesn’t want to own any part of that.  Developer W-Omega wants a light, fun romp through a horde of monsters which they can’t have if those monsters a) were turned evil against their will and b) could actually be saved in the future.  In particular, the second part makes the tragedy of the setup unavoidable.  Zombie movies justify zombie execution by claiming that the zombie virus wiped out the infected’s humanity.  By introducing the possibility of redeeming the victims, Dragon Quest Heroes makes every monster killed an innocent victim that the player couldn’t save.  It’s a dark premise that W-Omega does not want to engage.  They’d have been better off with a different setup that didn’t necessitate plot elements they didn’t like.  W-Omega shouldn’t have picked a setup that took them places that they didn’t want to go.

Surprise twists require support (or why deus ex machinas suck)

Towards the end, the heroes almost escaped a crumbling island before a dying boss monster cuts off their only escape route.  At the last possible moment, they are saved by a magical flying bird who the game never showed before and only mentions again at the very end.  Watching the scene, it feels like what it is: an unnecessary cop out. The reason lies with a compact between the storyteller and the listener.  The listener agrees to accept the basic premise of a story (including unrealistic things like magic, shadowy government conspiracies, etc) while the storyteller agrees to stay within the premise they established.  The storyteller gets flexibility to explore fantastic ideas while the listener gets consistency that helps them understand the story and become immersed.   In introducing unsupported elements (new super bird that saves everyone), W-Omega refused to work within the rules they established.  The player doesn’t understand what’s happening (Where did this bird come from?  What are its goals?  How did it know they were in danger?) and the bevy of questions that arise breaks the immersion.  The developer never sets up this “twist” so the player spends more time figuring it out rather than enjoying the consequences.

Foreshadowing is a subtle art

The best way to prevent the frustration mentioned above is to foreshadow the change to come.  In its most basic form, this means hinting at future events before they occur.  Advanced foreshadowing establishes all the elements of the future events in a subtle manner so that the player isn’t aware of what’s happening until the event occurs.  Dragon Quest Heroes foreshadows with all the subtlety of a jackhammer.  The only monster to not lose their mind, Healix, prominently wears a crown which he claims is a powerful artifact.  Meanwhile, the heroes are looking for the Circle of Light, a magical artifact that can defeat evil.  Most players will quickly make the guess that the two items are one in the same, but W-Omega didn’t want to leave that to chance.  Story characters repeatedly consider the possibility that Healix’s crown is the circle of light and then reject it out of hand.  Many of the major conversations in the second half of the game mention this possibility.  The end result is that the player all but knows of the artifact’s importance well before the game “reveals” it.  This makes much of the dialogue tedious and the last 10 minutes of the story completely predictable.  A subtler approach would have worked much better.

One note characters are dull

One of the biggest flaws with fan service games is that they take well developed, beloved characters and boil them down to their most notable attribute.  In the well-reviewed Persona Q, the Persona 3 character Akihiko, who obsesses over fighting as a way to run away from facing the loss of a friend, is simplified to a guy who likes to punch stuff.  Dragon Quest Heroes not only does this with its borrowed characters, but also with its new leads.  Luceus, Aurora, Isla, and King Doric have one trait each which is repeated ad nausea.  This turns every cutscene into a variation on its predecessors through the formula of event->the-reaction-the-character-uses-for-everything.  Every event has a) Luceus ramble on about strategy, b) Aurora get tired of his ramblings, and c) Doric laugh.  The game’s 40+ hour runtime gave W-Omega plenty of time to add in more, but they chose not to.  Instead, the player knows everything about the protagonists in the first five minutes of the game and spends the rest skipping the cut scenes.

There’s a lot more going on in the story failures of Dragon Quest Heroes, but what’s surprising is how coherent the narrative is despite its quality.  Dynasty Warriors games tend to only makes sense to baboons tripping acid so the fact that Heroes has a functional narrative is a real step up for W-Omega.  The reason it all works is the underlying structure.  The beginning establishes the characters and conflict.  The middle logically escalates the conflict.  The end resolves the conflict.  By sticking to the basic structure of most storytelling, Dragon Quest Heroes maintains a consistent story, even if it’s amateurishly executed.

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Opinion – 2015 Year in Review

Because it’s an easy article to write.

We’ve gotten to the end of the year and, once again, I’m not overwhelmed by the amazing games we’ve seen this year.  Perhaps it’s because of a poor crop …though the fact that I haven’t played two of the most critically acclaimed games of this year.  Still, looking back over the year need not be just a celebration.  Consider this the official list of the good, the bad, and the confusing of the games I played this year.

Most Disappointing Game – Rebuild 3: Gangs of Deadsville

Most sites put Fallout 4 in this category, and I can’t blame them.  The game feels like Bethesda Softworks failed to develop all the mechanics that made the game stand out from Bethesda’s other open world games.  Still, for me, the greatest disappointment was Rebuild 3.  This nontraditional take on the tired zombie genre showed that restoring human civilization after an apocalypse could be just as fun as running from the zombies themselves.  Rather than improve on that idea, developer Sarah Northway doubled down on the siege aspects of the game with little understanding of the importance of scarcity to her game.  What could have been an experience of clawing back from the brink of extinction became a micromanagement snore that ended well after the result was decided. That’s a shame as there’s a ton of potential in the concept.  Let’s hope Rebuild 4 works on that.

Best Surprise – Renowned Explorers: International Society

An indie game with a unique idea?  They’re a dime a dozen.  An indie game with incredible ambition and style that also retains a high level of accessibility?  That’s a surprise.  The ambition of RE:IS combined with the developer’s knowledge of their limits makes this an exciting and fresh entry into a field of games with a lot of high concept critical darlings and dumb-as-rocks triple A shooters.  Whereas many small developers collapse under the weight of their own ideas or go for safe approaches, this game hits the sweet spot of indie gaming.  The fact that people knew about it from its Kickstarter doesn’t make RE:IS’s strong execution and great ideas any less surprising.  Well done!

Most Innovative – The Beginner’s Guide

This would also win the “Strangest” category.  In terms of game mechanics, The Beginner’s Guide is no different than Gone Home, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, or even the developer’s own The Stanley Parable.  Focus on the storytelling techniques and the level design and The Beginner’s Guide is bursting with new ideas.  Levels in particular feel otherworldly yet they clearly serve the story as the narrator brings the entire setup together for the player.  Part of what makes The Beginner’s Guide innovation so compelling is its ability to bring the player along yet still leave them with questions.

Best Game of the Year – Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void

Having not played either Undertale or The Witcher 3, it’s hard for me to get excited over this year’s offerings.  Among the many disappointing games, Blizzard’s solid execution of the final Starcraft 2 entry stands out.  The story may suffer, but the tight missions, clever new units, and quality multiplayer upgrades make Legacy of the Void one of the most compelling experiences of the year.  Longtime fans will love the return of classic units while newcomers will appreciate the tutorials and fair enemy matching.  Blizzard may be the last major player in the RTS game, but with Legacy of the Void, they prove why the genre deserves to survive.

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Review – Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below – PS4

“Man, I wish games stun locked me more!”

-No one, ever

Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below isn’t a new game.  In many ways it’s a reskin of the old Dynasty Warriors series with some Dragon Quest bits strewn about.  That doesn’t make it a bad game, but purchasers should know what they’re getting before purchasing.  You can have fun here, but only if you’re in the right mood.

The story begins in the Kingdom of Arba where man and monster live side-by-side in peace until a black fog drives the monsters mad.  This is the moment where Dragon Quest Heroes sets up on of the most unnecessary narrative contradiction I’ve ever seen and establishes a fantastically amateurish approach to storytelling in general.  The game acknowledges the obvious tension between needing to fight the rampaging monsters and knowing that they were once friends, but the gameplay didn’t seem to get the memo.  Quests in the game talk about slaughtering huge waves of monsters in retribution for them trampling a garden or making off with a pie.  Regretting monster killing doesn’t count for much if you’re going to murder them over a rose bush.  Sadly, the rest of the story is filled with these silly moments where developer W-Omega stumbles over the problems it creates.  It should then come as no surprise that characters pulled in from other Dragon Quest series aren’t supported well either.  They’re largely one note and will only satisfy their most devoted fans.  Still, there is more of a narrative than your average Dynasty Warriors game.  Given the developer’s “skills” as a storyteller, it’s a wonder that the game is coherent as it is.

The gameplay is bog standard Dynasty Warriors hack-and-slash.  Players control a party of four lead by one of two main characters.  They fight through a series of maps with effectively one of two objectives: kill all the things or protect something while killing all the things.  There isn’t much complexity anywhere, though the ability to swap characters on a whim and to invest in a skill tree for each character adds a little more interest than the usual Dynasty Warriors formula.  Mindless slashing works for most of the game, though the end stages ask for a little more strategy as they rely heavily on stun attacks which force the player to sway mindlessly for several seconds while the game plays itself.  It’s a pointless game mechanic that breaks up the monotony with frustration.  The game includes a few other features, but they’re largely designed to improve the player’s ability to smash things or give them another reason to smash things.  There really isn’t any other goal to this game.

Dragon Quest Heroes scratches the Dynasty Warriors itch.  If you’re looking for that kind of game, Dragon Quest Heroes will satisfy you as well as any of the other competent entries in the series.  Wait for a Steam sale and pick it up for 20 bucks.  Dragon Quest fans should add a little more on top of that, but not much.

 

Bonus Story Surprise!:  Remember how I said the story trips over itself?  There’s an even better example.  In most stories, the author tries to avoid a deus ex machina (where the author needs a totally unsupported plot element to get them out of the dead end that they’ve written themselves into).  This narrative technique is only called upon when the flaw in the story is buried deep and difficult to remove.  Dragon Quest Heroes included both the dead end and deus ex machina in the same scene.  Towards the end, the heroes flee a crumbling island.  They happen across a boss who, in his death throws, destroys the only way out.  Rather than have the gang saved by their flying cloud fortress, W-Omega has them saved by a magical bird from another dimension that is mentioned exactly zero times before that moment.  It’s so terrible that it’s beautiful.

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