An Outsider’s Introduction to Persona

First Impressions of Persona 4 Golden

I must admit that despite calling myself a fan of the JRPG genre, I have played shockingly few (and seen through to completion even fewer). Bearing that confession in mind then perhaps you won’t be too surprised to hear that I have never played a Persona game.

For my brethren uninitiated, the Persona games are a spin-off branch of the Megami Tensei series, a popular Japanese RPG franchise. Over here in the West the Persona branch is definitely the most popular, with all the games so far having received localisation and release, mostly to high praise from critics and players alike.

Persona 4 was originally released on the PlayStation 2 in Europe back in 2009. However in early 2013 an enhanced remake was released of the game on PlayStation Vita called Persona 4: Golden (P4G for short). Frequent readers will know that it was only recently acquired a Vita of my own, so when I saw P4G on sale in the recent PlayStation 12 Days of Christmas sale I decided to finally try it out.

Two things initially struck me about the game before even hitting the main menu. The first is the art style – bright, kaleidoscopic colours and anime stylings really make the visuals stand out, especially on the Vita’s beautiful OLED screen. In actual gameplay this style is toned down slightly, hidden behind somewhat generic JRPG character models and environments, but it’s still present in the HUD, menu screens and mid-combat in battle animations.

The second aspect of the game that immediately impressed me was the music. Featuring a large and strong soundtrack composed specifically for the game, a mixture of vocalised standouts and emotionally fitting background instrumentals give the game a whole extra layer too often ignored in videogames. You might be in trouble if you can’t stand J-pop or anything similar in style, but for me at least I quickly fell in love with the music. The closest thing I can compare it to is the soundtrack from The World Ends with You. If you’re soundtrack is being compared to that game, you know it’s gone well.

The game itself started out somewhat slowly, playing out almost like a visual novel for well over the first hour. Gameplay mechanics are drip fed to the player, although little chance is initially given to actually experiment with them and try them out after they have been introduced. While this approach might infuriate some for the slow start and lack of action, it does help to mitigate any confusion caused by the wealth of gameplay nuances, and more importantly it allows the story to take centre stage. This being a JRPG of course the story is very important and can make or break the game, but I am pleased to say that so far I have found the plot interesting and well told.

Finally the visual novel railroading ends, opening up choice in the game and throwing the player into the first dungeon proper should they so choose. It’s here I still find myself, over five hours game time already racked up. The battle system of course is the other pillar that a JRPG must stand on if it needs to succeed, and luckily P4G does not disappoint. While at heart being generic turn-based battling, the system is streamlined with features such as very simple but effective elemental strengths/weaknesses, a button dedicated to everyone just hitting things very quickly until they die (that really is the best way of describing it), and some nice features overlaid on top such as the system of choosing awards at the end of the battle involving drawing cards, and being tied to your performance in battle.

There are few strange features, such as all the party members other than the main character defaulting to AI control unless you set them otherwise (which of course you really want to do), and if the main character dies it’s an instant game over. The latter is a feature that really annoys me in RPGs, but it’s forgivable in P4G when the rest of the gameplay is so fun and well made.

Overall then it has been a very positive foray into the world of Persona, and I’m sure that I have only just begun to scratch the surface of the game and all the features within it. Considering I’ve already played it for as long as some games last, that can only be a good thing.

The Difficulty of Handling Difficulty

Choose your difficulty: Easy, Normal, Hard. This is a choice that gamers are instantly familiar with – for many years now games have presented players with this question and it remains a very popular method of setting the difficulty of the game. Is it the best way though?

First and foremost that depends on how the game handles changing the difficulty. The simplest method and probably most common is also the worst, but it’s clear to see why it gets done. For any game with combat, be it an FPS or adventure game, it simply involves increasing enemy health and increasing the strength of enemy attacks (and/or decreasing the player’s damage and health). In doing so it becomes easier for the player to die, so they have to be better at avoiding taking damage, and it makes enemies harder to kill. All very simple, all directly related to the gameplay. All good, you might think.

If you do, that’s where I disagree. While it does alter the difficulty of a game, it does so in a very ham-fisted fashion. Increasing the health of an enemy might make it harder to kill, but if it isn’t fun to do so then you’ve failed in making the game. Players want higher difficulty levels to challenge themselves, but this should not be to the detriment of the gameplay. Spending an extra minute grinding down each enemy isn’t fun, it doesn’t bring anything extra to the game, and in many games can throw off the pacing, turning combat into a chore.

A better choice is to also include more enemies, but this must be done with caution and thought. Making twice as many enemies spawn on hard when compared to normal might make the game more difficulty, but it won’t necessarily do so in a way that is engaging and fun. If you simply double up the enemies with no thought as to their placement you’re just slowing down the player by forcing them to take twice as long to kill everything in the level.

The approach that should be taken when adding more enemies is to consider their placement carefully. Don’t just throw more enemies with more health and stronger attacks at the player, but challenge them on a higher level that forces them to play the game differently to match. If on normal mode there is a door that the player must reach guarded by three gunmen, don’t just replace them with six gunmen, but instead perhaps add a sniper in the distance, or give them a mounted turret to help protect against a frontal assault. Clearly the specifics change completely depending on the genre, game and exact scenario, but the basic idea remains the same.

Another consideration when it comes to difficulty is the enemy AI. If the game makes the actual enemies more intelligent and more capable on higher difficulties, then it’s possible there isn’t even any need for approaches such as buffing enemy stats or decreasing the player’s.  The added difficulty comes from the changes in tactics and the need for the player to perform better in order to outmatch the enemies.

AI is especially important for difficulty when it comes to strategy games. Take Civilization 5 as the perfect example of it being done wrong. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Civ 5 and have poured many, many hours into the game, but my one major complaint with the game is the way it handles difficulty. Playing at anything below normal (or ‘Prince’ as it is called in-game) simply rewards the player side with buffs that make it superior. Likewise, anything above normal will reward the computer controlled sides with buffs that make them superior to the player. This comes across as feeling very cheap and unfair. Rather than providing more of a challenge through better play, the game simply stacks the odds against you. It’s because of this that I only ever play the game on normal, as despite wanting more of a challenge, I want that challenge to not feel simply unfair.

I’ve briefly covered then just a few ways that difficulty can be better handled in gameplay, but to go back to the original question I asked, is setting difficulty at the start of the game the best way of implementing it? There are of course other ways.

First is scaling. Common in games with RPG elements this involves matching enemy stats to those of the player. The benefits are obvious – it means that in an open-ended game, missions or quests can be attempted in any order and yet will always be matched to near the capabilities of the player. However it is a system not without its flaws. Take Oblivion for example, which is one of the most notorious games for making use of difficulty scaling. By scaling everything to the player it is very easy to lose control over the finer points of game design. If enemies can change drastically depending on the player level then you can’t finely control the difficulty of each part of the game, and this is seen in Oblivion and Skyrim with the lack of obvious progression in quest and dungeon complexity. Any attempts at building a difficulty curve are then scuppered, with all hopes resting on your scaling system being up to scratch. Even if the combat is well scaled, other parts of the game won’t be – if you also include puzzles that are fixed in position and solution, like in the Elder Scrolls games, these can’t change in difficulty to match the player. Finally, scaled difficulty is open to abuse and exploitation by players, and often simply doesn’t work. In Oblivion and Skyrim, while the game attempts to scale up the difficulty, the player finds themselves running away ahead of the curve, soon becoming all-powerful and able to breeze through the later game.

The second common method other than scaling is varying difficulty that reacts to the player. In this, failing repeatedly at part of the game will result in the game responding by making it easier, while performing well in the game will result in the game becoming harder. Once again the benefits are clear – the difficulty is matched to the player naturally and it avoids player frustration or boredom. Also once again there are flaws in this approach. Some players enjoy the challenge – they like the thrill of finally completing something that has constantly defeated them. You only have to look at the appeal of games like VVVVVV and Super Meat Boy. Imagine if after failing a stage just a few times in Super Meat Boy the game put in an extra platform or assisted you in some other way. By doing so you wouldn’t feel helped, but almost cheated out of completing it properly yourself. That’s why it’s important that varying difficulty is done right. That means making it optional. In GTAV, failing part of a mission so many times will give you the option to skip forwards to the next checkpoint. While this perhaps isn’t the most elegant solution or a great example of varying difficulty implemented well, the fact that it is ultimately up to the player whether to accept the help is a welcome one. Unobtrusively presenting it as an option means that those who are frustrated can accept the help and move on to see the rest of the game, while those who want to complete the challenge are left free to do so.

Handling difficulty in games is a very deep and wide subject, and I’ve only begun to cover some parts of it here. I believe that these points are important ones, however, as the challenge that a game provides (or not) can be what makes or breaks it as a game, regardless of everything else that goes into game design. Difficulty is hard to get right, but it’s important.

Review: Tearaway (PS Vita)

Before I begin it’s worth mentioning that Tearaway is the first game that I’ve played on the Vita. In actual fact it was the game that persuaded me to purchase the handheld. That alone should tell you my thoughts on the game previous to release, and I can happily confirm that my high expectations were fully met.

Created by Media Molecule, a British game developer and creators of Little Big Planet, Tearaway is their third full game and first foray away from their flagship franchise. While there is a Little Big Planet game on both PSP and Vita, those were both mainly developed externally by other studios, so Tearaway also marks their first adventure into handheld gaming.

The Little Big Planet heritage is clear to see throughout the game, from the vibrant colours and wacky, gibberish-speaking characters to the creative opportunities the game presents you with. While Little Big Planet was very much a game about making games however, Tearaway dials back on the depth and scope of the player creation, concentrating more on delivering a fully crafted single-player experience. Unlike LBP the game has no scope for player created levels, instead focusing on being a solid 3D platforming adventure. This decision has paid off handsomely, with the level design much more refined than that found in the single-player of Little Big Planet and its sequel, creating a tight, well-crafted platformer with plenty of content and ideas crammed in.

Taking place in a world entirely made of paper – a theme not simply chosen for aesthetics but for its marriage to the gameplay – Tearaway tells the story of a sentient envelope (either the male Iota or female Atoi, depending on your choice at the start of the game) who is tasked with delivering a message to you, the player. It’s this simple concept which makes the game unique. Regularly breaking the fourth wall – quite literally on a few occasions – Tearaway makes use of the unique suite of features of the PlayStation Vita to allow the player to interact with the world in a natural and tactile way.

Tapping the rear touchpad will vibrate certain surfaces, allowing for higher jumps for example, or in specific areas where the ground appears thin you can use the rear touchpad to push your fingers up through the floor, seemingly straight through the back of the Vita and into the game world. The effect is superbly pulled off, with the rear camera filling in the gaps in the floor with exactly what’s below the Vita, and the fingers matched as well as possible to your own skin colour to fulfil the illusion.

The front touch screen too has its fair share of use, with objects scattered around that can literally be dragged and poked around by the player, or tabs that can be pulled open or closed. If you can think of a use for the touch screen in a paper craft world, it’s probably in the game.

It’s not just touch controls which get used by the game. Motion control, the front and rear camera and even the microphone all get used, although in the case of the microphone luckily the use is confined to just a couple of moments, so don’t be worried that you’ll be screaming at your console on the train. To explain how each and every unique feature of the vita is used would be to ruin much of the joy in discovery found in the game, but suffice to say that new ideas are constantly being fed to the player from start to finish, and they all work beautifully.

Underneath all the bells and whistles, Iota himself controls as you’d expect from the main character of a 3D platformer. To begin with he can simply move around using the left analogue stick, but soon he gains the ability to pick up and throw items and enemies, jump, and as the game goes on roll and more. This makes for a solid platforming foundation that the rest of the game is built upon. The camera too – often the stumbling block for many three dimensional platforming games – is well crafted and rarely, if ever, a problem. While there are a fair many areas where the player is given free control of the camera with the right analogue stick, in most parts of each level the camera is fixed by the game, placed to be unobtrusive and following the action without incident.

On the creative side Tearaway does offer a surprising amount of depth, and the game actively encourages you to make full use of the tools presented to you throughout. In actual fact it requires them for progress at many points, so the creative art-types will feel right at home. Iota (or Atoi) can be customised using a variety of stickers and decorations, much like Sackboy in Little Big Planet. This customisation is also applied to numerous other characters throughout the game who will ask you to change something about them, which essentially gives you free reign to alter them however you wish.

It doesn’t stop with the pre-made decorations however – at points the game will ask you to use the touch screen to create your own objects and decorations out of paper and will then use them in the game world. It even goes as far as creating textures from the Vita’s camera. Luckily you don’t even need that much artistic ability – although obviously you can achieve more if you do possess some – as the game doesn’t ask for anything you wouldn’t find being asked of six year olds in primary school.

What it does do though is give you a real sense of ownership over the game world that you have helped to create and alter. In this way the best of Little Big Planet’s creative joy is carried over to Tearaway without infringing on the carefully crafted adventure, and it marries perfectly into the paper craft world. For those thirsting for even more creative opportunities, the game even offers paper craft models to collect that can then be downloaded online and physically built, a lovely little bonus for those who fall in love with the game world.

Before I conclude I want to draw one final comparison of Tearaway to another game, but this one is perhaps not a comparison you were expecting. In many ways the relationship the game puts you in as a player with the messenger (be it Iota or Atoi) feels very much like the relationships forged in Journey between you and other strangers. In Journey the lack of communication of any kind – be it text or voice – meant that other players were mysterious strangers, distant and enigmatic. Journey was masterful in how by deliberately limiting that interaction it actually helped you forge a deeper bond with your partner, growing in attachment through your journey. I know personally that it created one of the most human and meaningful interactions I’ve experienced through a video game.

In Tearaway many aspects of that relationship are shared. You as a player are on a co-operative adventure with a stranger that you are incapable of communicating with. While you of course are actually in control of Iota or Atoi, it’s easy to buy into the narrative the game feeds you of being on an adventure with the messenger, guiding them and helping them along. While of course the game can’t replicate that feeling of connection that Journey gives, it perhaps does something more impressive. While Journey made you feel a real and human connection with another human, Tearaway makes you feel it with a digital character that you yourself are controlling.

Then finally, of course, there is the message that is delivered to the player, the message that you’ve spent the entire game attempting to obtain. But for that you’ll just have to play the game. All I need to say is that I really took something away from the ending on a personal level, which is something I find rare in any kind of medium, games or otherwise.

To conclude then, if you have a Vita you owe it to yourself to play Tearaway, if only to experience everything unique the console has to offer. If you don’t yet have a Vita but were hovering on the edge of purchasing one, waiting for one final push like I was, then Tearaway could well be it. It’s a wonderful and unique game only possible on the PlayStation handheld, beautifully crafted and brimming with delight. As a player you will feel involved and immersed in a way that few other games can come close to due to the fourth-wall-breaking story and gameplay. Constantly charming and full of ideas, if nothing else I guarantee that Tearaway will make you smile. And really, isn’t that what we should all be playing games for?

The Best Zelda Minor Characters (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1

3 – Poe Collector (Ocarina of Time)

I’m not ashamed to admit that Zelda games have contained some of the most frightening moments in any game I’ve played, survival horrors included. None more so than in Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, with ReDeads all the way through to spine-chilling transformation sequences leaving a lasting impression on my child self when I played them. The Poe Collector from these two games might not quite make me want to turn off the console and turn on all the lights in the house, but he is certainly up there on the creepy and unsettling scale. Couple that with the mystery surrounding the character and he is a worthy addition to the list.

Technically two separate characters across both games, the Terminan version being the doppelganger of the one from Ocarina of Time, both are shrouded in mystery which has intrigued fans for years, with numerous fan theories bounding around the internet as to the Poe Collector’s true nature.

In Ocarina of Time Link first encounters the Poe Collector as an adult where he has set up a ghost shop in what was the guardhouse of Hyrule Castle Town. The town itself is now of course an empty, dead husk, with ReDeads roaming the streets and no living souls to be found, which instantly raises into question why the Poe Collector has decided to take up residence there. Sitting underneath a cage which contains his captive spirits, his design itself leaves much to the imagination, with most of his presumably human body (from the visible limbs) hidden under a purple cloak. His face is entirely shrouded in darkness, with all that is visible being a glowing red light in the centre of his head, appearing like some demonic eye. To add to the sense of the supernatural the symbol of the Triforce is emblazoned across his front, and altogether it creates an enigma of a character who doesn’t seem entirely natural.

His role in the game is simple, paying Link for any poes that he collects and brings back in a bottle, with extra large payouts for Big Poes. Deliver all the Big Poes and he rewards Link with an empty bottle. A simple little side quest that could have easily been forgotten in the game were it not for the other oddities surrounding the character. Talking with him reveals him to view Ganondorf’s rule as desirable, stating how he prefers a more chaotic and dark world. Something that calls into question him aiding Link until you realise that he is using Link to further that chaos by imprisoning the spirits of the dead. Good job hero! Combine this with his design and the fact that the origin of the character is unknown (he never appears in the child Link version of Hyrule, unlike most other characters) and the Poe Collector becomes a very interesting character. And that’s saying nothing about his Majora’s Mask incarnation, which makes things even weirder (and full of even more mystery).

2 – Salvatore (Wind Waker/Phantom Hourglass)

The final shop keeper in this list and my personal favourite of them all, it’s Salvatore. First appearing in The Wind Waker where he ran two mini-games – “Sinking Ships” on Windfall Island and “Barrel Shoot” on Spectacle Island – he then returned in Phantom Hourglass with the cannon game on Bannan Island. What makes Salvatore great however isn’t the mini-games themselves, but the way he introduces them. Always appearing somewhat bored with his job (his figurine in the Nintendo Gallery reveals that his true passion is in painting), his demeanour completely changes when he gets to explain the rules to Link. As something of a creative type, rather than simply state the objective of the game, he instead acts it out using a variety of props and enthusiastic over-acting. The result is something incredibly entertaining and immeasurably more memorable than the mini-games themselves. With a recurring pirate theme he uses wooden cut-outs to play the parts of Tetra or another pirate, putting on an overly-stereotypical pirate voice which comes off as comedy gold. It’s something hard to write about when really the best way to experience his character is to play the games.

His visual design itself isn’t anything particularly of note compared to many other Zelda characters, although being in the cel-shaded style of The Wind Waker he of course still looks great, with his cartoonish and exaggerated features complimenting his character. His heavy set eyebrows and semi-circled eyes serve to portray his general uninterest, as does his long nose and small, downturned mouth. His name too has thought put into it, quite possibly being a reference to the famous Italian painter Salvador Dalí – a theory supported by his similarly shaped moustache and his backstory stating his youthful desire to be a painter.

Salvatore then is a perfect example of the cartoonish, comedic and caricature-like character design so well applied in The Wind Waker and other cel-shaded Zelda games. Here’s hoping he’ll continue his business and be found with new mini-games (and accompanying skits) in Zelda games to come.

1 – Old Man (The Legend of Zelda)

Finally this list just wouldn’t be complete without arguably the most famous Zelda NPC of all, and the first Link ever met. The old man from The Legend of Zelda didn’t do much himself in game, but the impact he has had on players goes far beyond what could have ever been expected at the time. His fame transcends the entire series and has become part of pop-culture itself.

I am of course specifically talking about the old man who gives Link the wooden sword at the start of the game, as there are many identical men scattered throughout The Legend of Zelda. His one throwaway line warning the player that “it’s dangerous to go alone” has become immortalised, having spawned countless parodies, references and homages throughout the years.

The old man’s legacy continues throughout the Zelda series with similar figures appearing in the Oracle games, Four Swords Adventures and The Adventure of Link, where they were known as Wise Men. More interestingly, the sages in A Link to the Past were also called Wise Men in the original English translation. Couple that with the fact that one wise man can be found in each town in The Adventure of Link, with each town name becoming the name of a sage in Ocarina of Time, and it would appear that the humble old men found in The Legend of Zelda were the precursors to the sages of Zelda lore. That’s quite a claim for an old guy living in a cave with a poor grasp of the English language!

That concludes my list of five of the best minor Zelda characters. Given the size and quality of The Legend of Zelda series I could easily write another five lists exploring even more characters, so if you think another character should have been included here then you’re probably right! That, in essence, is evidence of just how great Nintendo are with their character design, no matter what role the character plays in the game. I for one can’t wait to see what new wonderful and wacky characters get introduced in the future.

The Best Zelda Minor Characters (Part 1)

The Legend of Zelda is a series that is known, amongst many other things, for its large cast of unique and memorable characters. While other games might deal with NPCs by making several generic models and scattering them around to give the illusion of a populated world, Zelda treats almost every character as an individual. To celebrate the release of A Link Between Worlds on Nintendo 3DS on Friday, I’ll be writing about five of the best minor characters from Zelda games for your reading pleasure. Here are numbers five and four for today, with the top three to follow on Friday.

5 – Bertie (Skyward Sword)

Poor Bertie. Overworked, timid, and desperately trying to balance a full-time job with being a full-time father, the man is certainly deserving of sympathy (and probably a weekend break too). Found in Skyloft Bazaar in Skyward Sword, Bertie is one half of the husband and wife team that runs the Potion Shop. He is very much the lesser half however, with his wife Luv being loud, confident and overpowering – everything Bertie is not.

Bertie’s character is incredibly well developed and represented not just through dialogue but through his character design and animation. While his wife stands confidently in the centre of the shop, calling out the wares and attracting custom, Bertie is stood to the side, slaving away over a cauldron with his unnamed baby strapped to his back, juggling the two tasks of mixing potions and caring for his child as it cries out for attention. His actual design is of a short, stooped man, very thin and with weary facial features reminiscent of the more cartoonish character design of Wind Waker. A design perfectly matched to his characterisation and a perfect example of the effort that gets put into every Zelda character design.

When you then speak to Bertie he trips over his words, throwing in ‘uh’s , ‘ah’s and ellipses as he modestly describes his job. A stark contrast to Luv’s dialogue which is confident, snappy and loud. All perfectly portrayed without any voice acting, another hallmark of the Zelda games. The two characters complement each other perfectly with their designs being clearly intertwined. Even the names alone of the couple when put together can be seen to be derived from ‘Lovebird’, which is an instant summary of the two characters.

Best of all, as Skyward Sword does with most characters, Bertie is further developed through an attached side quest. Acting even more tired and restless than usual late in the game, Link can discover that he is being kept awake at night by his child whose rattle has been stolen. Cue Link recovering the rattle and returning it to Bertie, earning his gratitude whilst filling out the world of Skyward Sword just that little more. For having the role of half a shopkeeper and being involved in one short and optional sidequest, Bertie is one interesting and memorable character, which earns him his place on this list.

4 – Shop Keeper (Link’s Awakening)

From one shop keeper to another, which is a trend you’ll see throughout this list. This character however couldn’t be more dissimilar to Bertie, and he is memorable for an entirely different reason.

Unnamed in game, he is the shop keeper in Mabe Village, which is the major shop in the game and the place that sells several key items for Link’s quest, such as the shovel and bow. While Link can simply pay for the items he wants and be done with the shop, remembering the shop keeper as nothing more than a slightly sinister businessman (his animation is that of constantly rubbing his hands together, the universal sign for greed), he becomes that much more interesting when the player takes a slightly unorthodox approach.

Unlike in other games where buying from a shop is as simple as talking to the shop keeper and choosing your desired goods from a list, in this particular store the goods are sitting there for the taking. You simply pick them up and carry them over to the counter to pay. Try to leave the shop whilst carrying an item and without paying, as most players presumably do, and the shop keeper will warn you and prevent you from leaving. Keen eyed players will notice however that there is a slight delay in moving past the shop keeper and him turning to face you. This can be exploited by circling around the shop keeper and dashing for the exit before he can turn and catch you. Leaving the building, the game itself speaks to the player saying “Guess what? You got it for free. Are you proud of yourself?” If you’re anything like me, you probably were proud of yourself. That pride won’t last however.

After stealing an item, the inputted player name is permanently changed to ‘THIEF’, and you are referred to as this for the rest of the game. A fair price to pay for stealing, you might think. But then you return to the shop, and the reason for the shop keeper’s inclusion in this list is revealed. Rather than standing in his usual position at the counter, the shop keeper is now directly in front of Link (or should I say THIEF) in the centre of the shop. Still gleefully rubbing his hands together with an eerie smile he declares that you will now pay the ultimate price for stealing, and then suddenly he fires a magical electrical beam straight at Link, instantly killing him. The price of thievery, apparently, is your life. It also makes the shop keeper possibly one of the most powerful characters to exist in any Zelda game – even Ganon’s attacks pale in significance when compared to his deadly magical beam. Suffice to say, it’s an encounter that any player is unlikely to forget for a long time.

That’s it for today, but be sure to come back on Friday to see my top three minor characters from Zelda!

Continue to Part 2

First impressions… Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg

For a game released just over ten years ago (ten years and two weeks from today to be exact, in Europe), some might suggest I’m a little late with my first impressions of Billy Hatcher. They’d almost certainly be right too. But as a person with limited income whose first chance to play GameCube games was with the Wii I’m still playing catch-up on a fair few titles. Billy Hatcher, I shamefully admit, is one of them.

Created by Sonic Team, the game is clearly a SEGA one from the beginning. Bright colours and excitable, happy music immediately make you feel like you’re standing in an arcade somewhere. Despite the more involved gameplay than you’d find in most arcades, this feeling never really goes away, especially when the game rewards you for taking out enemies with a combo with the stand-out phrase ‘Nice Shoot!’, a peculiar hold-over from the games evidently Japanese origins.

So what is this game about, I hear you ask? The story, as you might expect, is simple but quirky, and centred on the world of ‘Morning Land’, a place inhabited by peaceful chickens which has been taken over and cast into perpetual darkness by an army of evil crows. Taking on the role of the titular Billy Hatcher you must explore each world to free the captured Chicken Elders and return morning to the land. You may question some of the logic, such as why the crow of a rooster causes morning and not the other way round, but it’s probably best not too. This isn’t a gritty, realistic shooter after all. Far from it, it’s a 3D platforming adventure.

The gameplay itself is quite unique, even ten years later, with Billy on his own being next to useless. He can run and he can jump, but is otherwise incapable of interacting further with the world. Luckily for Billy he is wearing a magical chicken suit (acquired at the start of the game) which allows him to roll eggs around. Find an egg and take it with you and you can use it as a weapon or tool in numerous ways, allowing you to progress. Simply rolling at enemies will allow you to crush them, or you can shoot the egg out like a cue ball to send enemies ricocheting around the environment, sometimes setting off chain reactions of as they collide further with their comrades. Jumping with an egg allows you to double jump by bouncing off the floor (no, don’t ask me how either) or to ground pound to hit switches, and dashing with the egg allows you to move quickly and perform long jumps. Eggs, then, are very versatile objects.

It doesn’t end there though. When carrying an egg around you can feed it up and make it grow in size by rolling it over food, a mechanic that leads me to believe the designers had only ever heard of eggs from vague second-hand descriptions, but a mechanic that works. Grow the egg to full size and not only is it more effective in use, but it can be hatched, revealing the importance of Billy’s surname. Different eggs hatch into different things, indicated by their colour and pattern, but this discovery is left entirely up to the player. From items to fully grown animals that will follow you around and help you out with special abilities, hatching an egg can give a real sense of discovery, at least in the early game. It remains to be seen if this can be continued throughout with more and different egg types, or if they soon become familiar. So far at least it seems promising, with my latest discovery a circus egg which on hatching gives Billy a circus hat, allowing him to stand on top of eggs and roll around a la the game Glover. For anyone who has played Billy Hatcher, that tells you exactly how far through the game I am (it’s not far).

So far then Billy Hatcher is shaping up to be a very enjoyable platforming adventure with a unique and interesting twist on the genre. For a ten year old game it still feels fresh, lacking any awkward design issues that you might expect, and still looking perfectly serviceable too. I look forward to playing more and finding out what the rest of the game has to offer.

A look back at… Klonoa: Empire of Dreams

Poor Klonoa. The possibly part rabbit, possibly part cat hero has never enjoyed much success, despite his numerous attempts beginning on the Playstation and most recently with a remake on the Wii. Sadly for the dream traveller it seems his Namco parents have all but given up on him, with nothing in recent years but a relatively obscure web comic to keep him busy. Read the reviews from the people who did play the Klonoa games however and you’ll generally find he was received well, starring in some very fun platforming adventures.

I myself am a particular fan of the floppy-eared fellow, with Empire of Dreams on the Game Boy Advance still up there as one of my favourite games of all time. Unlike the two main series games found on the PS1 and PS2 (with the first remade for Wii and currently available on the Playstation Store) which were 2.5D affairs, the GBA game is strictly two dimensional, as you’d expect from a platformer on the handheld. It also focuses more heavily on the puzzle aspect of the games which suits the mechanics well.

You see, Klonoa is a little unconventional when it comes to platforming abilities. Where most platformers can be split into those that allow you to double jump and those that don’t, Klonoa prefers to lie somewhere in between. Unable to perform that physics-defying second jump in the air that many of his contemporaries employ, instead pressing jump again while airbourne will cause him to desperately flap his wing-like ears, giving him an almost imperceptible (but often very important) increase in height and delaying the effects of gravity for a moment before he plummets back to the Earth.

Most often however you’ll find that this isn’t enough to reach the heights required for progress, which is where the main mechanic of Klonoa comes into play. He possesses a wind ring – his only weapon and main means of interaction with the world. When used on an enemy it inflates them into a comical balloon-like shape (think inflating enemies in Dig-Dug, which being an earlier Namco game probably had some influence in the design). Klonoa holds the enemy above his head, and can throw the enemy at targets or other enemies (in turn destroying it). More importantly, when jumping Klonoa can then use this inflated enemy as a springboard, propelling them down into the ground as he jumps again – the elusive double jump, reinvented and explained. What’s more, Klonoa can then grab a second enemy and perform another jump while in the air, and this can be repeated for as long as you have enemies to grab and leap off.

With enemies respawning a short while after being defeated, they turn from things to be killed into things to be used. Almost every puzzle requires their input, and so each screen in the game takes on a hybrid puzzle and platforming element. Sometimes the difficulty comes from pulling off the precise jumps (and chains of jumps) required to reach the exit, while other times you need to stop and think to progress.

Empire of Dreams has other gameplay elements too, which it gradually introduces to the player as they progress. From indestructible boxes to switches, colour-coded keys and bombs, it’s all pretty simple stuff, but it changes up the gameplay enough to keep everything feeling fresh and to allow for some interesting and occasionally thought provoking level design. The normal puzzle-platforming levels are also broken up on a regular basis by levels that auto-scroll, putting you up against the clock as you race through the obstacles presented, and by surprisingly well made hover-boarding levels.

While not the most difficult game (although 100% completion does take some effort, especially in the auto-scrolling and hover-boarding stages), it is pitched perfectly for the intended younger audience, which I should point out is exactly what I was when I first played the game, and it has a well-crafted difficulty curve. It still retains enough complexity to be interesting for even experienced gamers, and the secret unlockable levels do prove to be quite a test of pure platforming ability if you get to them.

For all the fun the gameplay provides however, it’s somewhat strangely the story that cements it as one of my favourite games of all time. Less the actual narrative, which as you’d expect is very simple and whimsical stuff, based around the outlawing of dreams by an Emperor suffering from insomnia, but the message behind it. Klonoa is an instantly likeable character, full of childlike optimism but also fiercely determined to do the right thing. When I first played the game this resonated with me greatly, and has continued to do so throughout my life. But most importantly is the message that the game ends on – “Happiness is not in dreaming, but in striving to make that dream come true”. Call it a little silly, or even pretentious, but I think those are words to live by. And that’s why I love Klonoa: Empire of Dreams.

Linear Storytelling in Games

Playing The Last of Us for the second time I veered off from the required path, taking a direction I had previously ignored. I was rewarded by reaching a billboard advertising an in-universe film which sparked up conversation between Joel and Ellie, shining a little more light onto Joel’s past and filling out both characters just that little more.

For a linear, cinematic game The Last of Us is full of optional conversations and interactions like this, and they demonstrate perfectly how storytelling in videogames differs from any other medium. In film and literature the narration is fixed, always following the same exact plan and never deviating. In games however, an inherently interactive medium, the player can control the pacing and directly engage with the story, even changing it.

With highly linear games, where the story is fixed and the player simply plays out the events without any influence, it becomes very easy for that feeling of interaction to fade. For a linear, cinematic game to remain fun and for the player to continue to feel engaged rather than feeling like they are simply watching a film, the game must be designed in such a way that it gives the illusion of the player still influencing and being involved with events. In essence, the player must lead the story, not the story lead the player.

I started with an example from The Last of Us because this is a game that achieves this, and does so very well. The Last of Us is highly linear, with the story being entirely unalterable by the player, but the game still manages to make the player feel involved.

When you decided to explore a particular abandoned house in more depth, the game incorporates this into the story. You may trigger a conversation between Joel and Ellie, or come across some form of environmental story telling like graffiti or a written note which will foreshadow future events or call back to old ones. In doing so, the player is given the illusion of being the driving force behind the story despite it being pre-determined and unalterable. In the same way, it’s entirely possible to completely miss these conversations and environmental cues and still experience the story without any detriment.

A very bad linear game will treat gameplay sections merely as bridges between cutscenes, where the entire storytelling and development is easily contained. In doing so it separates the player entirely from the story, and instead gives the impression of a film and game combined – the gameplay purely for gameplay, and the cutscenes for the narrative.

A merely bad linear game will acknowledge that player controlled sections are an important part of the narrative, but treat them entirely as set-pieces. If you play the game exactly as intended, by sticking to the one true route that the developers matched to the narrative, then you will experience a perfectly acceptable story told through a game. Deviate even slightly however, be it to search for secrets or to approach the level differently, and the game will not respond. It will make no attempt to incorporate this and hence it will feel like it’s not part of the story. As a player you will not feel in control of the narrative, but instead will feel that you are being railroaded by the game. Which, in fairness, is exactly what is happening in a linear game, but that’s not something the player should be aware of.

In contrast, a good linear game will respond to the player’s actions. If they rush through each stage without breaking step the story will keep pace and the player will happily feel like they are driving the story along. But equally if the player decides to slow down and take in all of the surroundings or search for secrets the game will respond by working this into the narrative. It won’t feel like the story has been paused until the player decides to hit the next cutscene, but that the player exploring the area is part of the story.

Pulling this off successfully is clearly much more difficult, but the results speak for themselves. Through optional dialogue or environmental storytelling the pace of the story can be made to fit the player, and the interaction which sets games apart as a medium can be preserved, whilst still allowing a linear, cinematic story to be told. Games have a unique position for storytelling, even highly linear ones, but we will only see truly great stories told through the medium when it approaches them in the right way.

Life in Los Santos – The Half Million Dollar Drop

In the last week Rockstar followed through with their promise of delivering half a million in-game dollars to players of GTA Online, as thanks for sticking out the rather shaky (and bug-filled) online launch. $500,000 is not an amount to be taken lightly (unless you’re one of those people who exploited the bug-ridden missions online for quick cash and upgrades), and there are plenty of ways to spend such a small fortune in and around Los Santos. There are just as many articles out there offering advice on how to spend your free money – I should know, I read through several before finally setting my mind on the perfect way to blow the cash.

Before anything else, I needed a house. For weeks now my Los Santos counterpart, lovingly named Daytona after the SEGA arcade game, has been living out of an electric substation, presumably sleeping in his car and cooking off the exhaust. I figured a real bed and kitchen should probably be a priority – plus I really want to be able to drink whiskey and watch cartoons (in many ways, the life I lead in GTA online is very similar to real life).

But which house to buy? Of course the most expensive and exclusive apartments were already ruled out by virtue of being way out of my $500,000 odd price range. There was always the option of saving my cash and earning enough to cover the extra cost, but such an approach felt a little too much like hard work. Most of my time in GTA Online is spent driving around hunting bounties and hanging out at the skate parks with my bmx – neither activity is particularly suited to earning lots of money, and currently even being the Mat Hoffman of Los Santos will net you nothing in financial terms.

That still left me with a substantial choice of real estate. A lot of the advice I’d seen suggested buying a house with a 10-car garage, as otherwise you’d just find yourself upgrading anyway. Many went as far as highlighting the cheapest apartment you can buy in Los Santos that comes with a 10-car garage, and I’m sure it’s a choice many people have opted for. I however found myself not too concerned with the size of my garage. What matters isn’t how big it is but what you do with it, right? With only two vehicles and a bmx to my name it’s going to be a while before I can even fill a 6-car garage. There was one apartment with a 6-car garage in particular that I had my eye on.

To explain why requires knowing what I’d decided to spend the rest of my money on. As I said, there is plenty of choice, from a brand new sports car or motorbike even to a cheap plane, or perhaps simply upgrading my weapons to make them all as powerful as possible. All very practical and tempting uses for the money.

I however decided to forgo practicality and usefulness in favour of blind decadence, and buy myself a yacht. Slow, unwieldy, and close to useless in a game where there is no reason to even enter the ocean, I knew it was exactly what I wanted to blow my fortune on. Nothing shouts wealth quite like buying something incredibly expensive and useless.

That decision therefore informed my choice of apartment, and narrowed down my selection to just one – 0115 Bay City Ave. Apt. 45. For those of you lacking an encyclopaedic knowledge of GTA Online, that’s the only apartment backing onto a harbour available. The perfect choice for a man with a luxury yacht (plus it’s right near a great place to find helicopters, which is perfect for getting around the map and chasing down bounties).

Having decided it all, I took the plunge and forked over my cash. All £500,000 plus a little more of my own savings instantly spent on an apartment and boat. After a few celebratory shots of whiskey (in-game, that is) and channel hopping on the TV, I set off on my maiden voyage.

GTA Online is probably the last game you’d expect someone to draw Wind Waker comparisons to, but that really is the perfect choice when trying to explain the leisurely joy of yacht travel. Unfortunately the sail can never be raised, so all the mast does is block any attempt at navigating under low bridges, but the engine is still enough to get you out to sea. Once there, all the troubles of life in Los Santos melt away. When you’re busy all the time with high-speed police chases and pvp action, it’s easy to miss the beauty of the world Rockstar has created. If you head out into the countryside on a bicycle ride you can begin to appreciate the natural game world around you, but it’s out at sea that I really noticed the dynamic weather effects, and even the day-night cycle. Slowly leaving the harbour in an early morning mist, hitting the open ocean as the sun rose in the distance and melted away the fog, revealing the mountains of land rising off in the distance, it really is a sight to see.

The ocean itself is not some flat expanse, but a rolling carpet of waves and spray, which really adds to the feeling of naval adventure. Topping it all off on my maiden voyage though was the radio. Tuning in to the Chattersphere, Los Santos’ talk show station, the sedateness of ocean travel gave me time to sit back and just listen. If you haven’t listened to the radio shows in GTAV yourself, it definitely is something worth doing. Funny and relevant, they make for some brilliantly comical satire and parody. Outside of the city limits the available radio stations change too, giving a whole new talk show station. If you were under the impression that GTA was biased towards making fun of liberal types, that’s only because you’ve been spending too much time in Los Santos. Outside the tables are very much turned, and it makes for great listening.

Eventually I navigated my yacht back towards shore and attempted to captain it upriver towards Sandy Shores, but I was left defeated by a bridge that blocked my way. Unable to turn around in the narrow water channel, I took out my frustration on a nearby camper and was eventually gunned down in a prolonged fire fight with the county police. So much for the peaceful escape from the usual chaos of Los Santos, but really that’s the fun in GTA Online. It’s a wonderfully well crafted sandbox with plenty to do, but at the end of the day there is no escaping the basic principles that made GTA both famous and infamous – ridiculous and over the top criminal fun.