Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Pair of Fours

In the breaks between diaper changes, baths, mostly baby-related housework, and entertaining a few guests over the past four weeks, I've actually managed to get in a fair amount of gaming, almost all of it portable. I've particularly been focusing my time on the Nintendo DS remakes of Dragon Quest IV (Dragon Warrior IV, as the graybeards may still know it) and Final Fantasy IV (or II to the same crowd), both of which, yes, came out last summer and both of which I'll admit to having chipped away at gradually over the past several months.

It struck me as I switched over from FFIV to DQIV, and back again, and so forth, how very different these two games are, how different are the designers' intentions and the strategies required of the player, and I thought it might be worthwhile to put together some of my thoughts on how this has shaped my experience of these two games. I will warn you that this is one of those long posts. Sorry!

I should say at the outset that the two games do bear a certain family resemblance to each other. At the most basic level, these two games are both Japanese RPGs, which is actually a sub-genre unto itself. In general, the more "Japanese" an RPG is, the most it's like driving a train: the tracks are already in place, the train's already there; it's just a matter of moving that train from point A to point B. The alternative to a Japanese RPG is a so-called Western RPG, the most extreme example of which would be a game that is largely customizable and essentially non-linear. I guess that if we stick to the transportation metaphor, a Western RPG is sort of like setting out to go somewhere on foot. You have a general idea of the destination, though that could always change, and maybe you'll decide to turn evil before you get there, though maybe not, and you always have the option to buy a car or hitch a ride or ... okay, wait. Maybe the transportation metaphor doesn't work. To put the whole thing in its proper historical context, the Western RPG model, which came first, grew out of pen-and-paper RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, where all that's set in advance is the rules, and the experience is meant to be as much a product of the players' creativity as a product of the game leader's (Dungeon Master's) imagination. Japanese RPGs were sort of a natural response to this model that took the elements of RPGs and anchored them to a pre-written story. Some freedom was sacrificed in favor of an ideally more fully realized narrative.

That's kind of a lot to take in, but I promise there's a reason for my bringing it up, and that's basically to point out how particularly Japanese, or not, DQIV and FFIV happen to be. Both games came out of franchises inaugurated in the 1980s (1986 and 1987, respectively, in Japan); both franchises were progenitors of the JRPG model, and both of these fourth iterations were released (again, in Japan) in the very early 1990s: 1990, on the Famicom/NES, in the case of DQIV, and 1991, on the Super Famicom/SNES, in the case of FFIV.

The basic difference, which is probably what gives rise to the other differences I want to talk about, is between the two games' styles of storytelling. Final Fantasy IV is more straightforward in this respect: the player controls an adventuring party of, at most, five characters at a time. Throughout the game, the focus is primarily centered on Cecil, a knight from the land of Baron, who uncovers an evil scheme to steal the world's magic crystals and, well, you can imagine what else. In his journeys, Cecil meets up with a number of other characters who are fighting for the same cause who will join him and leave the party, sometimes multiple times, for various reasons, usually fake death. All of these characters are elaborations on basic character classes that had either already appeared in prior Final Fantasy games or would appear in Final Fantasy V.

Cecil starts the game as a Dark Knight, basically a fighter with a few special powers and abilities, and he later becomes a Paladin, a fighter with healing spells and other white magic. Cecil's girlfriend Rosa eventually joins; she's a White Mage. An old man named Tellah, who is essentially a Black Mage and can cast various destructive spells and curses, also joins in.

In the original game, at least, the player has no control over what characters are in the party or what their abilities are. Really, the player's only option is what sort of equipment to give any one character. Otherwise, the story knows right where it's going, and the player gets to come along.

Dragon Quest IV is pretty similar at first glance. A good half or more of the game focuses on a nameless (well, named by the player) Hero who is involved in a quest to keep demons from ruling the world or something. Like Cecil, the Hero meets several other characters, each with her or his own skills, who can join the Hero's four-person party and assist in the quest. The difference, though, is this: Final Fantasy IV plays out entirely from Cecil's point of view, with other characters' experiences outside the party left to asides made upon their (re-)joining the party. After a brief introduction, the first big chunk of Dragon Quest IV is divided in four pieces, each piece dedicated to telling the story of characters from one of four different regions of the world and establishing their interest in seeing the Hero's quest to completion.

Here's where my opinion comes in: I think that this unique approach to the game's narrative, which was completely innovative for a console RPG in 1990, both suggests and encourages a much more individualized experience than FFIV. First of all, the idea of seeing the game from four, or really five, different perspectives in itself opens up the range of experiences the player might find in the game. Yes, the focus is on the Hero for half of the game or more, but since some of these other characters will spend most of this span of time in the Hero's party, the player may find herself more vested in the story of one of the other characters. This is all the more likely considering how colorful each of these characters is, whereas the Hero is a blank slate until quite late in the game.

Secondly, by the time the player has found the other characters and assembled a full eight-person traveling party, she will find herself faced with a choice: she must pare down this group of eight to a smaller attack group of four; only these four characters will delve into caves and castles and fight with monsters. This is where DQIV's similarities to FFIV really begin to work well. Like FFIV, DQIV offers an array of useful character types. There's a seemingly frail old man who at higher level casts devastating ice-based spells, a pair of sisters who function as a healer and a fire-flinging mage, a powerful warrior who can use nearly any suit of armor and any weapon in the game, and a few more. There's even a bizarre fellow who rarely follows the player's commands but often blunders into critical hits or steals high-level weapons from unsuspecting monsters. Unlike FFIV, DQIV allows the player to select any three of these characters (as well as the Hero, whose skills are a balance of offensive magic, healing spells, and fighting ability) at any time in the game, tailoring the entire experience to her own tastes and skills.

And this mechanic is much, much better suited to the flavor of Dragon Quest. DQ games are not necessarily easy, but then, they are also the last games anyone would think to call sadistic. In DQIV, there are some mid-level random encounters with monsters that can cast spells that cause instant death, and a group of two or more of these can whittle down even a capable party in no time. But the worst that can ever happen if a fight goes wrong is that your characters lose half the gold they were carrying at the time.

The Final Fantasy games have always, um, gone a different route. In FF, a Total Party Kill is a Total Party Kill: the game is over. Hope you saved. This can be a source of real frustration, too. Whereas I don't suppose I've lost my party more than once or twice in DQIV, FFIV has some damned devious villains in it that will never go down if the player hasn't learned exactly how to kill them. DQ seems to work differently: hard work will always pay off in time, and usually just a few levels' difference can make an impossible enemy (even one with a bag full of tricks) into one that's only moderately challenging.

I'll give a couple of examples. At the end of Chapter 4 in DQIV, the player's 3-person party encounters an eight-legged lion-demon thing called the Marquis de Léon (Keeleon, old people).
The Marquis will kill the party every time during this confrontation; the average party will probably be around level 10, but the Marquis can and will kill any group of players that shows up, I think. But DQIV is the kind of game where it makes perfect sense that, about ten (quick) levels later and a bit further in the story, the Marquis goes down with surprising ease. DQIV's system makes the whole process feel rewarding; a turnaround like this becomes an incentive, and best of all, the player has several options for building a party that will be able to handle the Marquis, which makes the experience that much more rewarding.

FFIV, though, sometimes uses the player's party too much as a set of tools for advancing the story it wants to tell—to be sure, a hallmark of the JRPG model. About halfway through FFIV, Cecil and his crew confront Golbez, the villain who by all appearances is behind the shenanigans that our heroes are trying to stop.
Golbez is too strong for the party, just like the Marquis in his first appearance. However! Tellah the old wizard casts a spell called Meteor that apparently consumes both Golbez and himself. However again! Golbez isn't dead, and he shows up sometime later. In this second appearance, Golbez is ask-your-friends-for-help-at-the-playground tough. After the heroes have inflicted a little damage, he calls up a black dragon that casts an instant-kill spell on the whole party; only Cecil is spared. And although Rydia, a character who'd apparently died earlier, shows up more powerful than ever, she turns out to be useless unless you keep another character free to check Golbez' weakness, which changes after every hit Rydia scores. Attacks that don't target Golbez' weakness will actually heal him rather than damage him!

Now, this wouldn't be so bad, it would in fact be sort of fun, if that were all there was to it, but it isn't. In the midst of all this, you see, Golbez is inflicting devastating hits with his spells, including one that sucks out hit points at a ridiculous rate and another one that steals tons of magic points, rendering Rydia powerless. So you almost need three characters, Cecil to detect Golbez' weakness, Rydia to attack him, and Rosa to keep the other two alive. Of course, Rosa's already dead from the dragon attack, and while Cecil has items on her that can resurrect her, she only comes back to life with a few measly hit points, and if Golbez hits the whole party with a damage spell (and he seems to do this more often than not), Rosa will go down before she can be pulled back up to a decent level of health.

So fighting Golbez the second time is a lot like that old commercial with the cowboys trying to herd cats: every success begins to feel like a prelude to the next failure. Of course, if the player can get this system going, Golbez turns out to be fairly easy to kill, but getting to a point where it's possible to keep the party alive while juggling those other two spells turns out to be not the least bit easy, and FFIV pulls no punches to give you a chance to get to that point.

It's typical of FFIV, too, that when the player finishes this nasty, demoralizing, soul-crushing fight, she finds out it's time to slog straight to the enemy's fortress—conveniently located on the other side of hell. And guess what? FFIV's version of hell is filled with tricksy monsters, including these chameleons that can and will turn your whole party to stone. You lose when this happens, by the way. Really, FFIV reminds me of a story my mom once told me about a guy who lived on her street when she was a kid. Everybody in the neighborhood knew him and liked him, but there was this one kind of cruel thing he used to do: when all the kids on the street were out playing, he'd call them over to his front lawn and offer each one an Atomic Fireball. He'd challenge them to hold the Fireballs in their mouths until they'd dissolved all the way; any kid who could do it would get a prize. He made this challenge several times with no successes, until one day, one plucky little guy finally pulled it off. Guess what the prize was? Another Atomic Fireball. Yeah.

To be fair, I'm overstating my point a bit. Final Fantasy IV isn't that hard, but you get the idea.

So DQIV and FFIV are both JRPGs; both have a narrative you're tied to, and both are there to tell you their story the way they want to tell it. Still, DQIV gives the player just enough freedom to work through the game's challenges the way that works best for her; FFIV wants the player to approach challenges just so, and diversion from that method is strenuously punished. In this sense, FFIV comes off feeling much more old-school, in its way: you play and replay through a section until you figure it out, and then you advance and do the same thing again.¹ Anyway, this isn't to say that one or the other is a better game or that one or the other is too hard or not hard enough. FFIV is a classic of the SNES era that many players have fond memories of, some of those stretching back almost two decades; it may in fact be the standard that really defined what a JRPG should be, which would explain a lot about how this post came about, I guess. For its part, DQIV is one of the longest, richest console RPGs of its day, an innovator at the time and today still a superlative and wonderful game. Nevertheless, speaking from personal experience: man, I break into way fewer cold sweats when I'm playing DQIV!

¹It bears pointing out here that Americans' first experience with Final Fantasy IV, which back in the day we all thought was actually Final Fantasy II, was far less challenging than a playthrough of the new DS remake. That's because "Final Fantasy II" was actually a much watered-down version of the original Japanese edition. A later edition published in Japan, called Final Fantasy IV Easytype, was easier still. The real FFIV has always been a damn hard game, as console RPGs go.

Image credits: Final Fantasy IV logo: OMG Nintendo; Golbez battle: Gamespite; Dragon Quest IV logo: posted on the Dragon's Den boards by user Woodus; Keeleon sprite from Lord Yuan Shu's Dragon Warrior IV walkthrough (; picture of FFIV party, um, stock photo from an online store.

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