Sometimes, when I go to read the SDA forum, I’ll see a post by someone who’s trying to break down a game they haven’t even played. Maybe they’ve watched most of it on youtube or read a guide written by some importer to try and suss out the mechanics before the English release, or maybe they just have a demo and are playing it over and over to try everything they can think of. I’ve certainly tried to do that myself with fighting games and Cave releases during the long wait before they hit consoles, but it’s never really crossed my mind in a speedrunning sense. I really try to walk into any non-arcade game I’m looking forward to as unspoiled as possible, because that first impression is a big deal. And even if I know how a game kinda looks at a high level before I get my first shot at it, I spend some time playing around and figuring out what feels best to me before really digging in. I’m sure that a lot of these runners take time to enjoy their first real playthrough as well (while of course at least taking mental notes on things that seem to be effective, if nothing else), but I’ve never picked up a game that I bought expecting I’d want to do serious speedruns on it. And that’s assuming you can even call my original attempts “serious”…
Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who played the Melee demo in stores and was blown away by Marth. “Who is this guy? Is he from some Zelda game?” With his shieldless sword stance and his Anime Hair (I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time, I was just twelve and thought it was cool) and his counter-attack (anyone who’s played against me or even knows my mains in most fighting games would know that I love counters) I knew right away I had my favorite character. At least, until I owned a copy years later and unlocked Mr. Game and Watch after countless hours. Anyway, I never had a GBA either so the Gamecube installment was my first crack at this mysterious series that I hadn’t gotten to play before! After playing through the game, I thought it was really cool and seemed like a pretty easy game to run. Before long I got hooked up with SDA’s resident Fire Emblem fan, Molotov. He’d played through the entire series, done or planned runs on most of the games, and was just generally cool to work with.
If you have a purely turn-based game, you’re basically looking at four distinct ways to improve your time:
- Offense. Essentially, the most effective way to defeat enemies and accomplish goals. In a game like Fire Emblem this often means blitzing an enemy boss or moving aggressively to a key capture point, while moving as few of your units as possible.
- Defense. Methods for avoiding dying (as your resources and power are often much lower than in a “regular” playthrough), or, better yet, reducing the amount of actions the enemies get to take.
- Randomness. Many of the FE games are heavily deterministic (if you make the same moves, the game will put out the same results), but as I recall PoR doesn’t do this and allows you to try the exact same suicidal moves repeatedly until they work in your favor. Additionally, there’s a significant benefit to aiming for specific stat gains, because FE assigns each unit unique chances to increase each stat on a level-up. The hero might have an 80% chance of gaining a strength point while a magic-type unit could have something more like 30%.
- Execution. Turn-based games are often derided because you rarely get combo-video type material, and while it’s true that there are often “all or nothing” scenarios in action games where being slightly off can make or break a run, the sheer amount of commands in a long game makes a huge difference over time.
As a newcomer, I viewed #1 as by far the most important. It certainly makes a bigger impact on your time than the others, but not to the extent that I treated it as. Not to mention that ignoring #3 and especially 4 makes the run just look sloppy and lazy, which is undesirable given the emphasis on a finished product at SDA.
It’s even funnier to me in retrospect because #1 is almost completely trivial. The game gives you a small number (I think you get one guaranteed, and can find a few others) of items which you can use to teach a character a unique, class-based skill. For most characters this is a creative little move that’s entertaining but won’t change your tactics much. If you give this item to Ike, the hero, instead, his attack will randomly (and frequently) turn into a double attack, with the first hit stealing an equal amount of life from the enemy and the second ignoring their armor stat, which usually just straight up kills them unless it’s one of the last couple bosses. The self-healing and his overall power also makes this strategy pretty much immune to long-term bad luck. The enemies will try to slowly chip away at him while his revenge attacks take them out of the picture and cancel out the damage that he’s taken. Since this is a speedrun though, playing for overall okay luck isn’t really that good of an idea unless you’re doing the game in one shot. If you’re playing for keeps, you want to make sure that you get those big hits against big enemies and gain good level-ups to boot. Not one of my specialties, in this case.
The other major strategic element involves the Pegasus Rider character, Marcia. She can fly over most terrain features (rocks, trees, holes, water, etc.), as well as other units, friendly or not, and carry Ike at the same time! Aggressive use often allows him to reach his targets several turns quicker than walking, but she also brings in one of the crucial defense trade-offs. Having a passenger weighs down mounted characters, lowering their effective stats. This makes it harder for them to score damage and causes them to get hit for more damage more frequently. Marcia isn’t a terribly strong character to start with, and if she dies before the last mission you have to reset (she’s just too good, all the way to the end), so using her effectively reintroduces some of the luck mitigated by Super Ike.
All that said, I would pretty much sum up my run with a simple statistic: I recorded about 24 hours of footage, for a run that finished under 4. Don’t follow my example.
Pretty much the last time I had a chance to talk to my man Enhasa, he told me, “the better a game is for speedrunning, the better it is in general.” I had to argue a bit to suss out what he was trying to get at, but that’s not important right now. For now, all I really have to say is that as much as I love Radiata Stories, it’s a pretty goddamned terrible game. I’ve thought about this over and over through the past several years, and to date I have not come across another game in which speedrunning forces you to almost completely ignore the best parts of the game and spend the entire time suffering through the bad parts.
I guess depending on who you talk to, maybe the GTA games count? It’s the same deal here, although obviously with a much more JRPG flavor. Kicking things is the primary way of interacting with the world; it opens chests, reveals other items hidden in piles of rubbish or under rocks, and lets you pick fights with almost anyone you want. The game gives you a fairly large world to check out, filled up with a large number of NPCs who all lead their own little lives. The heart of the game is trying to hang out with these people and find out what they want so that they’ll become your “friend” and join you in battle. (If that sounds cool to you, play this game.) The game has a clock which dictates what each one does every day, so you can basically stalk them until you find out what you need to do, then try to do it. A few characters have pretty cool questlines, and my favorite plays with the system and your expectations in a really clever way.
But none of that matters, because out of about 170 characters in the game, the speedrun recruits less than ten. Hell yeah! On top of that, you can’t skip cutscenes, which basically instantly adds over an hour of holding O and mashing X to skip text as fast as possible throughout the game. The scenes themselves are generally pretty funny and engaging…the first time. But as a runner you get to get sick of them instead!
The most actively annoying system in speedrunning the game involves avoiding encounters. Like most RPGs from the past decade enemies appear on the map as you walk around, and you can try to move around them or at least avoid being put in a disadvantage by being ambushed. In most of those games this is really easy for the most part, but Radiata’s dungeons and overworld aren’t comprised of “field” areas, and instead, a spindly series of trails. As a result, you don’t have a lot of space to maneuver around them and it’s often difficult to even pull off bait and switch tactics to work around them. Obviously, there are a lot of runs on things like older Final Fantasy games where you can’t avoid “random” battles at all, but the fact that in this game you can as long as you get lucky means that you should play until you get really lucky. Or until this happens and you’re too mindfucked to continue for the day:
The battle system is really mediocre too, like a slow and super dumbed-down version of Star Ocean 2’s free-moving mashy action. You only ever get to control Jack, the main character, who has a couple of basic defensive moves and a prepared attack string plus a special move that uses your meter. You can give orders and try using formation attacks with your party members, but their effectiveness is mostly tied to how strong those party members are in the first place and otherwise just waste your meter that you could be using to kill things. Character building and equipment are also ridiculously limited so while the game is super easy playing normally there’s not much to abuse like in other tri-Ace games, where even at low levels you can get game-breaking damage if you know how. The only way to really make fights fast and easy is to recruit the best characters, and regardless of which story path you’re on, they aren’t in your small pool of applicants. You’re lucky if your allies don’t kill themselves trying to play hero too much, since often you need them to be alive so that they get hit by supers instead of Jack (whose death causes game over).
Like I mentioned before, I didn’t have to figure out much of the overall strategy in this game. A few weeks after I first beat the game, Molotov found me a Japanese Geocities page created by “ogu_dai”, in which he detailed his checkpoint times and overall strategies for each of the separate story paths. His stuff was designed for single-segment play, so it was a bit more luckproof than good segmenting strategies, but most of it was tremendously useful and saved us at least 100 hours worth of testing. In terms of resource management, there’s basically one bottleneck on the “Fairy” storyline that I was running. You want to buy the best weapon in the first half of the game as soon as possible. This basically means taking a detour in an early dungeon during the part of the game where you don’t have any choice of what to do, to get the best item in the game, so you can sell it.
By “best” I mean that it locks Jack’s non-battle movement speed at the medium range where he does a funny “power walk” animation, and does nothing else.
If that sounds cool to you, play this game.
Combined with the small amount of money you get otherwise during the opening of the game, you can head to the weapon shop as soon as the game lets you and buy a big two-handed sword! This triples your damage, which basically still means it’s godawful until the game hands you the best one-hander you can get outside of the bonus dungeon early in the second half.
There are four other crucial purchases in the game, but once you get going money itself is hardly an issue. One is the command to have a party member heal you. They are not always intelligent enough to do this on their own. The second is a large stock of “Flee Balls.” Like other RPGs, fighting non-bosses to level up is almost a complete waste of time. Even when a battle loads because you couldn’t avoid getting into it you lose precious seconds, and to make matters worse there’s no “retreat” command like in other games. You have to buy these items and use them whenever you get hosed over just to cut your losses. Third, you need items to poison the enemies that you do have to fight. Almost every boss is vulnerable to poison, and once an enemy is poisoned, it doesn’t go away. The poison deals damage faster than your low-level sword hits do anyway, and doesn’t build the enemy meter while doing so (like hitting or being hit by bosses does). If you can get both that’s awesome, but in many cases it’s not safe enough to do so, either because the enemy super will unavoidably kill you, or because they can just kill you in one combo anyway.
But, if you’re really outnumbered, the poison doesn’t help that much, as you put yourself at risk just trying to use the items. It’s also difficult to hit your target because you literally “throw” the poison at them, so if someone else is in the way it will never hit. That’s where the last purchase comes in, and despite it being the most broken and useful tactic in the game, it was the last one we found out about. Molotov and I investigated it on our own because ogu_dai never had to use it. (He leveled up more and actually recruited a semi-useful character instead.) There’s a command called “Earthquake” that you can buy late in the game. If you have at least one living party member, all of you fall on the ground, causing it to shake so much that all of the enemies are knocked over. Your team gets up first, so this stunlocks anyone you want, while dealing damage similar to poison (and stacking with poison if you can hit it, obviously), but it costs 4 meter per use. Every time it touches an enemy though, you gain back 1 meter, so if you hit four enemies at once, it’s an infinite. It’s so good against the hardest boss on this path that it’s actually worth using healing items on his weaker cronies just so they won’t die and force you to stop using the infinite on him. Sadly, I don’t have a video, since this is the point where I gave up on recording the run since I couldn’t get the strategy down. Now it would be easy, really the least of my worries starting over.
I know that sounds awesome, and that it is awesome, but it doesn’t change the fact that this game is really annoying and broken for speedrunning, with all of the other ways being much less interesting and hilarious. It’s unfortunate.
Don’t have nearly as much to say about this one, as I wasn’t involved in any sort of strategic development and just copied what other people had already figured out until I gave up on the game before really learning it anyway. Basically, the key feature of the Souls games is the death system. It’s kind of old-school in that it puts you back in a designated respawn point at the beginning of the current level, but you also drop all of your “souls” (which serve as the money used to buy both items and stat increases) on the spot where you were killed (or a short distance away if you jaunted into some kind of bottomless pit). You can also only have one puddle of souls on the ground at once. The idea is that you’ll figure out what you did wrong and find a way to not die in the exact same spot next time, and thereby succeed in regaining your souls (as well as keep the ones you collected working your way back to where you died in the first place). In order to make this actually dramatic, the game autosaves pretty much all the time and prevents you from backing up your save to cheat death.
“I play shmups and other games where you can’t go back all the time, so this’ll be a piece of cake, right?”
In MAME you can make save states. All of the 360 Cave ports have a training mode where you can start on any stage (and usually any boss) with perfectly calibrated parameters that match your usual/desired progress, which is basically as good as a savestate aside from the more limited starting points. Fighting games have training modes where you can try almost anything you can come up with (unless you need the dummy to do something that you can’t figure out how to record) over and over. Even beatmania IIDX has a practice mode where you can break down individual measures at ridiculously slow speed to see what’s going on.
In Demon’s Souls, you can’t reload your save to repeat a level with the same conditions. If you try to go back, you’ll have more stuff and be stronger. The bosses are dead permanently.
Most of Demon’s Souls is not a hard game when you know the easiest routes and how to build your character. Out of the hour-long run, maybe 10-15 minutes of the game at most has actual ways for you to screw up and lose a lot of time. Every time you want to practice those parts, you have to play most of the other 50 minutes too. Obviously, once it’s crunch time before the marathon, you want to get used to just going through the whole game no matter what happens, but I gave up before I could get to that point.
I’m not going to play Demon’s Souls again. I still haven’t even played the sequel, which I was looking forward to before all this happened. I probably will someday, but I’ve held contempt like this for much longer than a year before. It’s just not time.