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.

Stand Back, Stand Clear

So I was going to write a big post about NEC, but then it just ended coming out on the EFL boards where everyone who I know consistently reads this blog already read it. All there would really be to add are some interstitial diversions and insanely trivial anecdotes, a small rant about Power Instinct 5 (it’s entertaining, especially after my KOF playing times), and then talking about how much better Philadelphia is than Las Vegas. As strongly as I might feel about those topics I don’t actually have that many interesting things to say about them, so maybe another time. But what is there to talk about? Oh, I know! It’s the end of the year, and everybody who writes or talks about games has to make a big list about how they still like obscure game X but AAA title Y doesn’t really hold up. It’s the law.

I haven’t played as many games over the past couple years as I did when I was in late high school/early college, so the idea of making a “top 10” list is absurd in multiple ways, the least of which being that some of the games on the list pretty much have to be ones I didn’t actually like since I don’t think I even played ten games I completely loved. But I find that given some distance I almost always feel differently about games than when I was actually playing them. Often my opinion goes down after the freshness wears off, but sometimes I appreciate elements more.

I don’t know who thought this was a good idea. They were wrong, but I love them.

The first new game I played this year was Final Fantasy XIII-2, and if all you want to see is that I think it’s bad, cool. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a bad game. We’re done here.

Wait a second…why did I even play this game in the first place? Oh right. It was because I liked the first one. I’m not really much of a fan of FF in the first place, but I got excited as soon as I heard the music in XIII was going to be by SaGa composer Masashi Hamauzu. Hearing that the battle system was much more action- and puzzle-based than in most RPGs had me even more intrigued, and in the end I rented and beat it over spring break. I really enjoyed the bizarre meta combat, in which your characters’ specific actions barely matter, and instead the way they combine is everything. For most of a battle, you had to juggle several factors, building up to hit the enemy’s weakness while keeping yourself alive and preparing for your devastating strike with stat buffs for your party or reductions for the enemy. If you kept everything moving correctly, then you could catch all the balls in one gorgeous moment, and switch from your precarious attack-defense cycles to an all-out ass-kicking to finish things off. The system wasn’t perfect (for one thing, the game doesn’t have a good way to convey the importance of potent offense, leaving many wondering why the game “suddenly” kills them after a long battle), and once the game finally just hands you all the possible options near the end things get a bit repetitive.

Also seems familiar!

My impression, though, and this was backed up by a few interviews I read, was that the team focused almost completely on the mechanics and encounter design, leaving many standard elements of Final Fantasy by the wayside so they could be honed. There are essentially no friendly towns, few open areas to explore, virtually no “sidequests” that don’t involve killing things, no mini-games…it’s certainly very reductionist, but I appreciated the philosophy.

All that said, my absolute favorite part of FF13 is when two of the main characters stumble their way into a Chocobo-themed amusement park. Like everything else, there’s not any “real” reason this happens except that they made the art assets for it, but it’s the one actual respite from constant fighting in the game. And in sharp contrast to the rest of the soundtrack, the song which plays is a tinny, diegetic jingle about how much fun it is to play with Chocobos. It’s clever, hilarious, and almost unbearably vapid at the same time. In other words, genius.

From here I feel like a review of part 2 practically writes itself, especially given how short the title’s development cycle was. The scenarios are all pieced together from art assets that got cut the first time, and the story makes even less sense. The battle system has no real mechanical additions, and the monster system is cute at first but gimmicky and really unwieldy. The boss fights are almost all trivial and half of the “roles” in the game are nearly useless, which makes combat a straightforward and boring slog with depressingly few “oh my god!” moments. Worst of all is just the developers’ attitude and lack of understanding about players’ complaints. As much as I enjoyed FFXIII, there’s simply no way its basic model would’ve held up for another 30+ hours. The structure was workable but due for additions. But 2’s open, frequently-redundant areas and arbitrarily plotted progression don’t feature anything that feels like a carefully laid course, just busywork to fill time while the designers figure out how to actually make a game.

Even though there were definitely alarms sounding all over the place, I had to play it. I just can’t resist a great soundtrack, and after its release, with the music spilling all over the internet, I couldn’t stop myself from getting hyped up. I’m sure most people heard “Crazy Chocobo,” as the backlash exploded almost instantly in many different places that I tend to visit, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. A huge portion of the music features vocals, almost always with cheesy lyrics attempting to match up with what’s going on in the game’s story and settings. Although none of them are indicated to be actually heard “in context” as with Cocoon de Chocobo above, I absolutely love it, and the effect is occasionally like some kind of really anime musical (as in the theater production), which is even better.

After all, JRPGs are no stranger to melodrama, so to me the idea that Serah, Noel, or possibly other entities are essentially “singing” bizarre songs to the audience, about how important it is to stay upbeat and fight together with your friends, or what it’s like having a ridiculously miserable and depressing backstory, is too delightful. And that’s not all! Many of the more conventional tracks are also fantastic, featuring work not just from Hamauzu but one of my personal top favorite game composers, the criminally underappreciated Mitsuto Suzuki. Originally I knew him from his time making weird, beepy techno for Konami’s rhythm games, but since moving to Square he’s gotten a couple of chances to play more of a main composing role. (As far as I know, his official job at both companies has been more in back-end sound production.)

The thing that really catapults this up to the top of my favorite soundtracks though, is something it shares with two of my other favorites, Nier and Resonance of Fate. All three feature on-the-fly, context-based track switching or (mostly in Nier’s case) blending. In FF13-2 this switching occurs when you’re moving around dungeon areas, as random enemies will appear near you and you get the option to try to run away from them or engage head on for advantages. As far as the game goes, it’s a pointless, bad compromise, and therefore clearly stands out as the worst of the three examples here. By contrast, ROF has a similar system, where the music lays low as you wander around and prepare for combat, then suddenly roars to full-on rock once you pull the trigger and start a battle. Nier’s uses are more subtle and varied, but a good example is the game’s starting town, where a woman singing in the middle fades in and out as you get close or move away. Still, even in this game the music’s sudden shift from driving and melodic to low and sinister (and usually, the sudden cutting out of lyrics) is definitely effective.

I have something of a “spoonful of sugar” outlook on a lot of things; they may be bad in obvious ways or have elements that I simply dislike, but one really strong area is enough to prevent me from being too upset with them. This is even more true when, as in FF13-2’s case, it’s the music that really carries it. But even though it’s not an aggravating game, it’s a monotonous one that doesn’t bring anything else that’s interesting to the table. In a sense, I got just what I expected from a rushed, samey cash-in. And that’s the biggest disappointment of all.