Like buses

You wait for ages, and then two Chinese RPGs come along at once!

Actually that’s not true: one of the games I’m talking about, Xuan Yuan Jian Wai Zhuan: Qiong zhi Fei, came out a few months ago (March 26th, to be exact) but I’ve been so inattentive I completely missed it! The other game I’m getting in a flap over, Xian Jian Qi Xia Zhuan 6, is due out early July so I will get the chance to properly hype myself silly over that one in the traditional scour the internet for every last drop of information manner.

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If you’re wondering what the hell I’m talking about, these two RPGs are both the latest releases in similar-but-different multi-million selling series that have been going so long the first entries came on floppy discs, and to not put too fine a point on it are the sort of game that drove me to inflict a blog on everyone in the first place.

As far as sharing some genuinely useful information goes… there’s really not an awful lot I can say until my hastily-ordered copy of Qiong zhi Fei arrives. Both games appear to have switched from turn based battles to something more akin to Gu Jian Qi Tan 2's action RPG/MMO-ish cooldown/hotbar system, which admittedly sounds like an utter abomination on paper but in practise turned out to be a lot of fun.

Oh! Enemies are shown on the map was you wander around and you run into them to engage them, but characters possess various skills that can start the battle with a player advantage or allow you to sneak past them entirely – think something along the lines of later Kiseki games, where Lloyd could give enemies a bit of a clobber in the field before starting the battle proper.

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The other good news is that Qiong zhi Fei both sold and reviewed well, with sales reportedly reaching 300,000 units after the first two weeks of release. To grope around for some vague comparison with “normal” charts and to try and emphasise what a big deal these games are, The Witcher 3 hit the Japanese gaming charts top spot after selling just 67,000 copies. So it looks like the Chinese offline RPGs that are still being made are generally doing well, even if the likes of Fantasia Sango and Wind Fantasy are left to languish as browser-based F2P husks of their former selves. Here’s to a summer of epic gaming*!

If you’d like to have a poke around the official websites you’ll probably find these links handy:

Xuan Yuan Jian Wai Zhuan: Qiong zhi Fei (Taiwan)
Xuan Yuan Jian Wai Zhuan: Qiong zhi Fei (Mainland)
Xian Jian Qi Xia Zhuan 6 (Taiwan)
Xian Jian Qi Xia Zhuan 6 (Mainland)

*And inevitably lots of Twitter screenshot spam – consider this your first warning!

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Vagrant Story is an incredibly deep and complex RPG (not)

AKA: How dedicated fans can be a game’s worst enemy

Yesterday I finally finished Vagrant Story after fifteen (!!) years of false starts, general frustration, and everyone’s favourite RPG problem, putting it down for a week only to come back hopelessly lost. All the staff who helped bring this game to life should feel very, very, proud of themselves (the UI designer however needs putting over someone’s knee), and everyone else in the industry should take a long hard look at their own work and ask themselves how a relatively low budget Playstation game still has better art direction and shot framing than the vast majority of titles released afterwards. Vagrant Story should be a required reference tool for anyone involved in creating game art, it’s just that good.

Unfortunately I’m not here today to talk about Leá Monde’s crumbling architecture and masterful use of light and colour, what I want to talk about today are fans overcomplicating what is essentially a very simple process.

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I was lucky enough to play through my favourite Ivalice-flavoured game, Final Fantasy XII, around its Japanese launch - which meant there were next to no guides or FAQs available anywhere. This meant that so long as I was making progress then I thought I must be doing something right, but in the years since then I’ve often heard “help” coming in the form of detailing specific enemy chains for particular item drops or having a selection of esoteric equipment for bleeding-edge optimal play. Now for certain high-end marks and the Trial Mode in the Japan-only “International” release – sure, go nuts. But for regular I-just-want-to-get-through-the-game play? Not even close to being necessary.

Since completing Vagrant Story I’ve realised that it suffers under the same misconceptions Final Fantasy XII does, and the end result is that rather than helping people understand the mechanics at work new players are instead left struggling to make any progress in a game they might otherwise enjoy.

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I’ve looked at many Vagrant Story guides over the years, trying to put the information within to good use or even attempting to rigidly follow walkthroughs to the letter – anything to get the hang of Vagrant Story’s complex battle and crafting systems.

“Use piercing weapons against this boss’ chest”

“Make sure you’ve got a blunt weapon with beast attributes for this area”

“Attach the gem you found in a chest that’s about a million miles away from where you need to be for this next bit.”

It is true to say that in this game buffs, debuffs, and various alignments are all useful tools that can be used to your advantage, but vital to your progression? Not even close. Here’s the sort of deep RPG understanding you actually need to know:

 “Use water-based attacks when fighting a fire-based enemy”

“Cast Soil Guard to help defend against the earth boss’ spells”

“Healing undead enemies will damage them”.

That’s it, basic RPG stuff.

Could I have made things a bit easier for myself  if I’d learned and understood all these peripheral things? Oh yes, definitely. But the notion that lugging around a selection of specialised gear and constantly switching between it all is necessary for survival is absolutely false.

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You might think this is an attempt to brag – “Look how smart I am for managing to complete the game anyway!” - but that’s not the case at all; I just want to do something to help put this beautiful game with its abysmal menu system back in the hands of gamers, which is where it should always be.

So venture down into the wine cellars of Leá Monde and take this advice with you - hit stuff, heal Ashley when his HP gets low, and most importantly - have fun.

Virus was a game that I played

I originally wrote the awful title above just because having anything up there tends to be better than having to actually apply myself and come up with something witty, but as it turns out the sense of fantastic bewilderment that comes from playing through Hudson’s Saturn-exclusive adventure game is probably summed up best with that non-title after all.

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The world presented in Virus that Serge and Erica must navigate is a rough-n-ready cyberpunk setting where the internet has advanced to the point that it’s essentially a part-time Matrix where people willingly and knowingly immerse themselves in a digital reality for up to thirty hours at a time, only instead of this being some leather-n-guns scenario or a flawlessly white Apple-style vision of the future Hudson’s version of the net is an utterly bonkers but very much lived-in affair with its own shady bars, dodgy unlicensed “Ura-net” connections, slick company presentation areas and high-fantasy recreation lands. This leads to some nutty (charitably: “dream-like”) situations where you’re picking coconuts out of trees for talking penguins or battling girls dressed in pink rabbit outfits, but the game pulls everything off with absolute sincerity so while it certainly feels strange it somehow doesn’t feel disconnected, forced, or random-for-random’s-sake. In fact it’s very much like our modern use of the internet: one minute you’re watching cat videos on YouTube or saving Eorzea from summoned Moogle-gods, the next you’re visiting a local government website to check when your weekly bin collection’s due.

Virus doesn’t appear to have set the gaming world on fire but it did do well enough to spawn the anime Virus Buster Serge (which you can watch – legally and in English – here) which bears a vague resemblance to the general plot of the original game, and this anime then spawned the Playstation game Virus: The Battle Field that appears to be some sort of card battling…. thing.

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Underneath this extensively-realised setting (including the beautifully nineties idea of CYBERJAIL) Virus spends most of its time being a typical Japanese adventure game with the majority of your actions being of the usual look/talk/show-somebody-that-thing-you-just-found variety. You’d think the Saturn mouse compatibility mentioned on the back of the box would be a perfect fit considering the genre, but as it turns out it’s actually far more cumbersome than using a standard controller. The “problem” is that Hudson did a faultless job when they created the controller interface, every possible action is tied to a specific button so you’re essentially holding a bunch of hotkeys in your hand with no need to slowly drag a pointer between the icons along the bottom of the screen. But the real joy comes when you realise (alternatively: read the flippin’ manual) that repeatedly pressing the corresponding look/use/talk hotkey will automatically cycle through every appropriate interactive point on screen – goodbye pixel hunting!

It’s not all about talking to people so other people will talk to you and then checking a bookcase three times until Serge notices something though: The game has plenty of simple maze-like areas in both FMV and real-time 3D variants that allow you to do some light exploration and give a little freedom to a typically rigid genre.

Hudson also included a fair few mini games at set points in the three-disc story to break things up, ranging from disarming several explosives (thankfully not all at once) to analysing voice samples or even curing people of terrifying internet viruses. None of these sections are particularly long and you wouldn’t want them to be either, but they all come together to help create an adventure that feels more “hands on” than a lot of similar titles.

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Still not enough? Then how about getting your hands dirty with a little battling too? Virus features both mandatory boss fights (often, but not always, occurring at the end of a chapter) and less intensive random battles when wandering around certain areas of the net, giving Serge something to wave his (cyber)gun at and the player the opportunity to engage in some real-time cursor-pointing action.

There are two gauges to worry about when fighting, HP and AP. The AP gauge* depletes every time Serge performs an action - anything from firing a shot to using a healing item – but it will slowly recover over time. As such it’s important to take note of how much AP you’re going through as you carelessly blast away at all and sundry - it’s very easy to end up on the receiving end of an enemy’s most powerful attack and unable to do anything about it other than stand there and watch Serge die! Boss battles throw in the added complication of multiple changing (but not random) weak points that need to be hit in order to do any damage; these aren’t actually visible on screen, you have to either find them yourself with a few exploratory shots or throw a Net Bomb and see where the damage marker pops up. It’s not a great idea but at least Virus’ continue system is mercifully the sort that allows you to restart a boss fight from the beginning regardless of when you last saved.

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All-in-all Virus is a good and thoroughly nineties sci-fi adventure that was well worth the paltry £5-ish plus shipping it’s currently selling for. It could have probably been a bit shorter; not due to the quality dipping at any particular point but just because the world they meticulously created was really too much for a single game to adequately handle. The only notable black mark I can raise against it is no fault of the game’s at all and entirely typical for a text-heavy import game – unless you have some Japanese reading ability (or are so bloody-minded that you’ll methodically try everything on everything until something works) you’re likely to end up hopelessly stuck very early on, possibly even in the first room.

 

*I’m not prepared to insult your intelligence by explaining what the HP gauge is for