Too much wrist action?

So when writing about what games I played in 2012, it’s pretty much impossible to get around the fact that a pretty significant majority of my time playing and thinking about games-and for that matter, money as well, once you factor in the trips to NEC and EVO-revolved around fighting games. But when there’s so much emphasis on minutiae and the tiniest nuances of game mechanics and situational interactions, I hate to judge a game off of a relatively brief time when I truly don’t feel I’m playing the same game after 20 hours compared to the first few, or after 100, or 300…

So I don’t feel like I have anything interesting to say about Soul Calibur V, which I barely understood, Street Fighter X Tekken (which I only played once), Skullgirls (which I simply found disagreeable), or anything else I played. And ultimately while I thought everything about Tekken Tag Tournament 2 was beautifully put together, and the game was really fun to play, I just wasn’t ready to put into it what I would have wanted. It’s a disappointment but with the amount of things I had to do with my free time it just hasn’t been able to fit in.

I am thou.

But there’s one game that’s gotten that second look, and that third look, and plenty more than that from me, whether or not it “deserves” it: Persona 4 Arena. I love the Persona series, and I love the Arc System Works fighting games, so this was obviously a slam dunk all along. And while I’ve been frustrated more than once by some of the bigger design decisions, like having massive amounts of invisibility on so many moves, the button mashing on overhead combos, and so on, it also gets a lot of the details right, with mechanics that tie in cleverly to the RPG series like status effects and SMT’s notorious instant death spells.

But my understanding of the mental game has really changed a lot since NEC, and while I may not be that good at applying it yet, (in fact, I’ve only played a couple sessions in the month since then) it’s definitely led me to enjoying the game a lot more. In large part it’s due to my opportunities to play a few of the better players from around the country and see Kirisame slaughter Souji after both of them demolished America’s best at the tournament, but I also saw a couple conversations on Twitter that confirmed things I had been thinking about for a while.

First, though, I have to say this doesn’t have to do with the dominance of the Japanese players over Americans, nor how much stronger Lord Knight and SKD are than virtually anyone else in the US; people really mis-estimate how much of a factor “randomness” is when the best players are involved, in any game. I don’t think I could be convinced that anyone plays better, more consistently, than ChrisG and Filipino Champ in Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3. The results from the game’s entire lifespan are just indisputable, even if each of them have had their off days at major tournaments. It’s easy to bag on the game when someone with notoriously poor basics like Andre can place “well” frequently, but placing well isn’t winning and frequently isn’t the same as consistency. Same thing here: invincible, high-damaging raw supers and stuff are “random”, but the best players have seen it all and rarely fall for them. At the same time, I can barely think of any game where the better player doesn’t usually win (when you include overall knowledge instead of trying to apply arbitrary judgments of “raw skill” just because people don’t use certain tactics or good characters), so it’s not as if this is some kind of rare achievement in the genre.

(Keeping with that anime theme, of course.)

(Kind of a sidenote, but I think the best example I can name was a brief set of Magical Drop 3 I played at EVO this year against…uhh, a kind lady. We didn’t introduce ourselves, so, sadly in many ways, I honestly have no idea who it was. I picked Strength, not just because she’s totally the coolest, but she also has the best attack pattern of the non-secret characters (who for the most part are so much more powerful that it’s not even interesting). And I won a few games, because she was playing Empress, a pretty mid-tier character. After a couple wins I explained that a few of the characters are much stronger than the others and encouraged her to try choosing Strength as well. Immediately thereafter, I was handily beaten into the ground, repeatedly. Knowledge is power!)

At any rate, the way I’m starting to see things is this: there’s generally kind of a spectrum of character fundamentals in a given fighting game, and in Persona this goes from mixup-oriented or “gimmicky” on one end, to playstyles that focus more on baiting and frametraps, or larger-scale spacing on the other. And in Persona, these lines are, for the most part, extremely clear. Chie and Aigis stand on that first side; they have a lot of ways to make you guess what’s coming next, not just because they can alternate between high and low so quickly, but they also have many ways to sneak in a dirty trick that you really just can’t see. On the other end are characters like Teddie and Elizabeth, with Teddie’s “high” options being so limited that even all of his jumping attacks can be blocked crouching. (Although the way that it should really be looked at is, his jumping attacks are so good that they absolutely HAD to make them “mid” attacks.) Instead, they have to use the threat of a throw to force the other player to react, generally by moving into throw range, backdashing, and then throwing out a longer range poke to punish the recovery. This is pretty much the core mixup for Teddie, Akihiko, and Mitsuru, and it’s quite an important option for Naoto and Yosuke as well. Due to Elizabeth and Yukiko’s low speed and difficult short-range game, they generally require the use of persona and a corner to set up the “throw” side of their game (as opposed to the “space people out and kill them without getting touched” part), after which they can try to punish the opponent’s attempts to poke out or use other escapes and get their real damage going, but the basic concept is similar. (In Yukiko’s case you’re not actually using a throw as the pressure tool but her 2D+2A unblockable setup, which demands a similar sort of response because doing nothing gives her a combo; additionally, you can’t jump out of 2D setups so the only real escape is roll…which, properly baited, gives her a throw starter analogous to other characters’ throw-bait starters. To me, it plays out very much the same.)

On the other end, Aigis, Chie, Yu, and Labrys rely much more on ambiguous setups where the appropriate reaction in a situation is much more direct. Block the right move or you’ll take a combo to the face (and generally, get put right back in the same situation). In Persona 4 every character has a reversal that works in at least some of these situations, so it’s not as simple as it might sound for characters like Aigis and Chie to simply mash buttons all over everyone else once it’s their turn to play, but the risk for using a reversal that doesn’t connect (or at least return to a semi-neutral state as Teddie’s does when the player is out of range for the rage hit, or Elizabeth’s if the throw is teched) is pretty heavy. In a sense, it’s actually quite similar to the throw-teching game, except that the risk and reward for doing nothing (as the defender) is quite a bit different.

And of course a few characters sit in the middle or don’t clearly fit on either side, like Yosuke, who has a lot of good “canned” mixups but ultimately relies heavily on his 5B and 5D frametrap games to open up better opponents, Shadow Labrys, who needs space control and staggered pressure to get started and then has one of the most devastating knockdown offenses in the game, or Kanji, who has a wide variety of delayed and invincible grabs covering almost any situation…but reading the wrong situation is devastating for him. But for the most part, there’s a good balance of styles, and even more importantly, not all of the “good” characters fit the same molds. Mitsuru is an aggressive bait character who can often move in quickly and stay in for an unnervingly long time, while Teddie does better at playing hit-and-run while waiting for high points in his item selection and other options. Aigis starts matches without her crazy mixup and combo options and has to fish for chances to get started, while Chie’s pressure can begin almost immediately and work relentlessly until she wins. This isn’t much consolation for characters like Naoto and Labrys who have to work extremely hard to get hits no matter what, but for the most part the game is good at accommodating many playstyles successfully at a high level.

This is something I felt has not quite been as strong even in some other very good recent games, like King of Fighters XIII. Although, like in Persona, the large number of universal system mechanics mean that every character has access to a suite of good basic options, my experience in the game was that it’s often vastly more difficult to get results with characters lacking specialized tools like ground overheads and command grabs, even if their own specialties are quite powerful. In such a fast-paced, aggressive game, being able to force the other player to make errors quickly is extremely useful, and when it comes to this characters like Leona, Ash, Mai and Terry your risk in pressing offense (or often spacing) is much higher compared to the reward than it is for Hwa Jai, Mr. Karate, Shen Woo or j.2C. I mean Kyo. I’m not saying that it’s not a well-designed or balanced game because I still absolutely think that it is, but very few of the characters based around space control and non-consistent pressure (like Benimaru and Maxima) shine the way that most of the top characters do.

Street Fighter IV is another game that I’ve long since started to feel suffers from a similar problem, where many of the “classic” SF characters have fallen behind due to the ability of characters with vastly better okizeme to run a match off of a single hit. It may not be as noticeable in a single set, even a fairly long one, but over the course of a long tournament the need to play absolutely on point in every game places serious limitations on the ability of characters like Chun-li and Blanka to work their way to the top in larger events. Again, characters like Ryu and Adon have to play fairly straightforward games and can do so with great efficacy, but I feel that recent results, and watching players like Dieminion and Snake Eyez grind it out with characters who have several really tough matchups, say a lot about the state of the game.

Still, other games of course offer plenty of things that Persona doesn’t, like larger, less homogenized casts, those strange moments where both players are super afraid of doing anything, and music I really like. But for me a lot of the simplicity of the game has been a huge benefit, as it’s the first game where I’ve really started to understand what I’m doing and why, even if there’s a lot I haven’t figured out how to deal with. And I still constantly wonder if I’m really playing the character I most want to. I haven’t spent tons of time on fighting games this month as I’ve been preparing for some quality time on the IIDX machine at Magfest and of course my performance at AGDQ, so once all that’s finished and we find out what this year’s tournament circuit looks like for Evo I’ll have a better idea of the areas I want to focus on. Persona is pretty fun even without huge investment in being the absolute best, but if it has NOFUTURE on the big stage then I’ll probably spend a lot more time going in on Guilty Gear (in which I actually really like playing with the stupidest characters!) and try to return more to King of Fighters despite the fact that I have a really hard time playing the game effectively, while also waiting for the new Blazblue and Jojo’s (which I hope will have a bit of a following on the poverty circuit), as well as whatever else might be announced in the months to come…

I know there’s plenty of fighting game people who don’t like the new games, just feel fatigue, or are jaded over the increasing influence of esports and money, but I’m thrilled to have the events and opportunities that are present right now, even as I’m still trying to figure out the best way to improve myself and discover what I really want.

Advertisements

Thin Red Line

Earlier this year, 1up.com published a rather unusual interview with one of the original programmers of Final Fantasy (the first one…but not just the first one), Hiroyuki Ito. I recommend reading it, but in short, Ito reveals himself to be quite a fan of the NFL, and explains that the basis of the game’s combat, in which each “side” lines up facing each other, plans their moves, then executes them all in a sequence, was inspired by the similar structure of offense (and defense) present in professional sports, particularly American football. As fascinating as I found this little revelation, I can’t say it truly changed my perspective on the game or the series, particularly since I’m not really that much of a sports fan anyway. But what it does do is underline how even concepts that seem simple or obvious in retrospect still tend to have lots of rather surprising thoughts behind them.

But what I usually find missing in FF games, and most RPGs in general, is feeling some kind of risk. There’s a lot of ways to create tense situations with risk and reward, and while I tend to disagree with a lot of the commonly used ones (like the common SMT trick of “you don’t know what these guys have until you get killed by them” or the general old-school “that last save point was an hour back”), most of them can work well enough when surrounded by an engaging setting or enjoyable mechanics. In my opinion, though, there’s a much more elegant way to cultivate these situations: you let the players make their own risk.

I’m using the word “risk,” because this is literally what the mechanic is called in Vagrant Story, one of the best and oldest examples of this idea. Although players may at first be inclined to go for big chains on the game’s timing-based combo system, as they present the most obvious path to major damage, doing so will quickly raise the main character’s “Risk” to dangerous levels, both making further combos more difficult and increasing the amount of damage taken from attacks. Increasing Risk has its benefits as well, so it’s not simply a punishment for playing well, but the tradeoffs create a mechanic for which neither increasing or decreasing is always the “best” option, and the desired consequences ultimately come down to situational factors and more importantly, player preference.

In general I feel like this idea hasn’t really caught on, which is fair enough since I think most players prefer the “your party can just become gods” approach, but at least one developer has tried pulling this out a few times: Star Ocean creators tri-Ace. Its first appearance is in Star Ocean 3, where your characters’ attacks use a special resource called Guts (Fury, in the English versions, but “Guts” is a commonly appearing mechanic name in the company’s games and “Fury” is not), with special attacks also consuming hitpoints (or magic points, in the case of spells, but since the MP bar is also a health bar, it still works out to the same thing). The Fury bar has two main purposes. First, characters (and enemies) can block “weak” attacks when their Fury is at 100%. For players, there are many ways to set up guaranteed combo situations off of blocked attacks, so it’s very helpful to block when possible. Fury is also the limit of how long your combos can be, as you have to stand still (stop attacking and moving) to regain it, so a single character can only chain moves until their Fury is too low to use the next one. The game’s “basic” combo path is Weak Normal (optional) -> Weak Special -> Strong Special -> Weak Special -> Strong Special -> etc. In other words, you can only cancel a Strong special if you have canceled it from a Weak special, and Strong normals don’t cancel into anything. (There are still ways to begin combos with Strong normals, and the main character’s ability to do this on his own is one of his biggest strengths.) There are a small number of other restrictions on the ways you can use moves together, but in general this combo system allows you to alternate any pair of moves you want…whether or not they even “combo” in a standard sense. For example, a common tactic is to have the “Weak” special be one that doesn’t physically touch the enemies (as this will prevent them from being able to block it), either because it “buffs” your character temporarily (although canceling the move usually overrides these effects) or doesn’t reach at the spacing you’re using. But in short, the system tends to create a flow in which both sides “take turns” in the battle without specifically enforcing that structure. It’s possible to focus on a “slow and steady” strategy in which you chip away at enemies in a relatively safe manner, but you can also play for a big “bait and punish” game where you wait for big openings and capitalize on them with full combos. Really, really long combos, if you can master playing multiple characters at once.

Valkyrie Profile 2 uses a similar system, where big combos tend to leave your party open (often even more directly than in SO3) due to the resource drain limiting your available actions, but their most recent major release, Resonance of Fate, takes the concept to something of a logical conclusion. Although it’s possible to perform extremely weak actions for “free” in ROF, the standard turn involves having a character strafe the enemies while shooting a bunch, and by doing this repeatedly you can go for a big triple attack where all three characters do this at once. Both the single run and the tri-attack cost a single “turn,” and you gain back turns by destroying enemies and/or objects that may be on their bodies. For example, a common enemy is a gangster, and by shooting his bowler hat (usually by jumping over his head) you can gain back a turn. It’s very common to end up in situations where you spend all of your turns priming enemies and moving your team into position for a big tri-attack, which causes so much carnage that you regain all of your turns. Running out of turns is almost always a Game Over situation (although the game’s penalty for “dying” is quite low), and as a result that moment when you’re about to gamble everything on your last turn is almost always loaded with tension. Even if the enemies aren’t doing much, watching that critical moment where everything comes together or collapses is an exciting, rewarding situation for the player, created simply by everything they’ve done to that point.

And who says this has to be limited to RPGs? (Personally, I’d argue that generally tri-Ace’s games aren’t JRPGs in the first place; for example, SO3 is more of an action game in which the RPG elements primarily serve to change the difficulty curve in various ways, rather than “forcing” players to simply master the game…but I digress.) Fighting games already tend to create a sort of unenforced “turn” system, with one player at a disadvantage, waiting for a chance to reverse momentum and get their own turn. Powerful characters like Eddie in Guilty Gear and Arakune in Blazblue can often override a game’s “normal” cycles as they gain nearly unstoppable mixups and blockstrings, which lead into excruciating damage. But when they don’t have their extra tools they have to run away, as the alternative is to be put in pressure too intense for them to handle alone.

To me, the idea of having to reverse disadvantages, turning them into the upper hand, every fight, is almost irresistible, but those examples are a bit extreme. Arakune, in particular, practically wins games long before the last combo starts (with that last combo itself being absurdly long and damaging). I prefer to feel like there’s still some real risk on the line, even when I’m ahead, like with GG’s ABA, whose “empowered” mode lasts a long time but decreases in large portions if she ever gets knocked on the ground and leaves her incredibly vulnerable if it runs out. And sometimes you can find good cycles even without such pronounced highs and lows at all, like with Litchi in Blazblue, who fights both with and without a long staff. While holding it, she commands much more of the screen, but is limited in her options for converting combos. Barehanded, she has to play a short-range game but has more options for movement and damage. Persona 4 Arena‘s Teddie also has a constantly shifting set of options, as the items thrown by his persona go through their prescribed cycle. Although only a couple of the items are clearly weak, the variety of setups and tricks available to the character require that both players stay aware of what’s coming next or be caught unaware.

One final genre where I’ve seen this sort of thing a lot are, perhaps surprisingly, shmups. The ultimate example is Cave’s Espgaluda II, in which you can save up magical crystals, then spend them at any time you want to slow down time. The most obvious use is to slow down patterns you have a hard time dodging to make them much easier to avoid, but the game offers a number of increasingly convoluted ways to increase your score by manipulating time. Normally, destroying a slowed enemy will clean all their bullets off the screen, but there’s also a special slowdown where the bullets will reappear and reorient themselves to move in your character’s direction each time you destroy another enemy. These bullets give you points every time they disappear and respawn, but inevitably choke the screen with an unavoidable cloud of death that must be managed before it becomes too much.

Other games also allow you to save up bonuses like invincibility or powerful weapons for score or survival purposes. There’s too many to even mention, but Psyvariar is a great game where getting close to a number of bullets gives you a brief period of complete invincibility. In high level play these cycles often pass by every few seconds, while beginners will probably start by trying to sync up their shields with the most difficult bursts. In Radiant Silvergun you can capture certain bullets by touching them with the “sword” weapon, and after ten captures the next use of the sword produces a gigantic sword that gives invincibility and cuts almost everything on the screen. Like all of the other weapons, precise use of these options makes the game much easier to get through, and it all comes down to the same thing; finding the best opportunities to build the cycle.

Essentially, it all comes down to rhythm. It so happens that I’m also a huge fan of music games and have played music for a long time, and when I was thinking on all of these examples that suddenly struck me as very similar, I realized that’s what I really love: being able to find my own rhythm within a heavily structured game and play with it. While all of these games, and many more, give you the instruments and stage, it’s up to the player to find the beat and write their song.