Active Time Battle: Round-up, and Changes

Active Time Battle is a chronicle of one man’s spirit journey to play damn near every Japanese Role Playing Game ever made. It is a life’s work. It is, literally, an ongoing battle against time. I sincerely doubt I can finish what I’ve started without succumbing to madness. Viewer discretion is advised.

So, I’ve been thinking about the format of Active Time Battle lately. The mission, as it stands, is to play every supposedly-half-decent-and-thus-worth-my-time JRPG I can get my hands on, and then document my thoughts for future generations. When Video Game Archaeologists are trying to figure out what the heck a “Japanese Role Playing Game” is, in the distant future, the hope is that they may stumble upon this website, somehow kept online despite my inevitable death, and have a functioning blueprint for how to make a decent simulacrum of one.

The issue, as I see it, is that I’m approaching every single one of these as a big essay I need to bang out, covering some sort of big idea in a lot of words. This means every time I finish a JRPG, I need to spend like, a week writing about it. And, since I don’t really have a week to add on to the time I’ve spent playing, thinking and writing about games that are already longer than I reasonably have time for (but play through anyways, reason be damned), I end up putting it off and putting it off, until my memories of the game in question are somewhat faded and yellowed around the edges, and now I’ve got my big idea to tackle in a big essay, but I’ve missed the initial purpose of this whole venture.

Not to mention–inevitably, there will be games I just don’t have any big ideas about to convey. This will create a sense of unevenness and disunity in the collected posts of Active Time Battle, where one game might command several thousand words and another might only get three digits. This weakens the brand, so to speak, because you can’t know what you’re getting into when you read one of these things until you’re actually reading it.

So, I’ve decided that going forward, Active Time Battle will be a series of quick and dirty impressions and take-aways that I’ve formulated after beating a game and maybe sleeping on it for a day or three. What I liked, what I didn’t like. Get in, get out. Should I have any big ideas that I want to communicate on the back of one of these games, I’ll then illustrate that idea in a separate essay, posted afterwards.

So, let’s start things off with Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, an Atlus-developed RPG for the Wii U, a spin-off of the Fire Emblem franchise with a bit of Megami Tensei sprinkled in for fun and then thrown into the infernal Anime Nightmare machine for a spin cycle or three. If you know me at all, this game ought to be my jam.

And it kinda is! I liked it a lot. The game’s definitely a dungeon crawler, and it’s the strongest dungeon-crawling-effort out of Megaten since, I don’t know, Strange Journey? The dungeons are pretty simple, visually, though each has a unique and evocative aesthetic. They’re close to Persona 4, in that sense: a lot of reused tile work on a per-dungeon basis. Instead of using those tiles to randomly generate little corridor mazes to run through, though, they’ve been hand-placed in pre-arranged layouts to facilitate unique mechanics to each dungeon. They’re not setting the world on fire, but they were fun enough to run through each time, and rarely seemed to overstay their welcome (the final dungeon, which goes on a bit long for my tastes, notwithstanding).

The battle system adheres to the Megaten principle of “exploit the enemy’s elemental weakness for enormous gains,” but where the modern era of Megaten has dictated those enormous gains to be extra turns, #FE opts to just reward you with a bunch of extra damage by way of “session attacks” from your active party members, and, later, your benched ones too. Where this differs from a basic addition of bonus damage to your attacks is that the session attacks are chaining off of each other– hitting an enemy’s fire weakness is prompting your ally to jump in and deal ice damage, and that ice damage is triggering another ally to jump in and deal sword damage, etc. This is all governed by a set of “session skills” that each party member can learn, and you’re occasionally making choices between skills like Sword-Glacier, which will deal ice damage in response to sword damage, and Sword-Wind, which will deal wind damage in response to sword damage. Which element, between ice and wind, are you more likely to have a third party member who can jump in and combo off of? Micromanaging the session skills like that is extremely challenging to keep track of, and hardly necessary by any stretch, but it’s impossible to truly screw it up, so the potential for min-maxing your glorified critical hits is appreciated all the same.

What mixes things up a bit from any other alternate-universe Megaten spinoff is the addition of a couple of mechanics from Fire Emblem, the most prominent of which is effective damage. Effective damage in Fire Emblem is the mechanic by which bows do additional (generally, triple) damage to flying units, and certain types of weapons will do additional damage to mounted or armored units, and it’s represented here in pretty much the same fashion–some enemies are classified as being armored, mounted or flying, and are weak to the things they would be weak to in Fire Emblem, in addition to whatever weakness they have to the classic Megaten elements. Hitting an effective damage weakness will trigger sessions in the same way that hitting a normal weakness would, but will grant a pierce attribute to all subsequent session attacks– where normally an enemy that nulls fire might drop your session combo, the fire will hit him if the session combo was started with effective damage, and the combo will continue unhindered.

The battle system’s main issue is that session attacks can really drag out the attack animations, and you often spend more time watching attacks happen than you do inputting commands–a seriously un-Megaten problem to have. An option to skip the animations would have been appreciated. Beyond that, it’s functional and fun, and the only other real concern is that the game’s pretty easy, even on Hard. Considering Fire Emblem and Megaten are two of the hardest-core franchises out there in terms of difficulty, it feels a little weird that their unlikely marriage should aim so low in that regard.

Narratively, the game is pure fluff. Nobody could have seen that one coming. I really don’t have much to say about it, except that the finale is dumb in the most astronomical of ways, and I mean good-dumb here. The characters are quite flat, but the game occasionally squeezes some decent chemistry out of them when they’re goofing off together. Shouts out to Barry Goodman, the most tragic character in the history of video games–a rising metal star whose life was torn asunder by a serious anime addiction. There are some fun little conversations here and there, but they really shouldn’t be the main draw.

So, that’s Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE. I finished that one up and moved on to a new game that would surely scratch a different itch… a game called Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse.

Oops, I fell into a Megaten hole this year. This one’s a sort-of-sequel to Shin Megami Tensei IV, set during that game’s neutral ending. Some random kid’s chance encounter with an obscure Irish god-demon sets a series of events into motion that completely throw the original game’s ending off-course, and you gotta fight your way through demon-infested Tokyo once more to get it back on-course. It’s fluff of a very different sort from Tokyo Mirage Sessions, trading slice-of-life levity for the unshakable feeling that this is just a sequel for a sequel’s sake. Still, the game wins big on its characters, who beat out the casts of both Tokyo Mirage Sessions and its prequel. The gang you’re romping around Tokyo with in Apocalypse is perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the whole affair, considering I expected the rest of the game to be good anyways. They stand in stark opposition to the standard protagonists of a Shin Megami Tensei game, who are typically just stand-ins for assorted ideologies and philosophies wearing human clothing. They’re warm and fun and they grow and change. They feel more like a pretty decent Final Fantasy party than the alignment partners of old.

The game itself is, well, more Shin Megami Tensei IV, but well iterated-upon with a handful of major improvements. More of the environments feel like proper dungeons this time, big meaty spaces to explore and get lost in, without mentioning the final dungeon, which I suspect will be somewhat infamous among fans of the series going forward for its absolutely absurd length and complexity. Smirk’s been altered to be less horribly imbalanced, and, most interestingly, Hama and Mudo skills have been changed to account for the Smirk update– they now deal damage, like any spell, but have a (fairly high) chance of instant killing while a character is under the effect of Smirk. And this added-Smirk-effect mechanic applies to other skills as well. This is all coupled with new skills that will remove Smirk from a target, or apply it to yourself at will, creating all sorts of new tactical layers for Smirk in place of the Random Garbage Factory that the mechanic used to be. The difficulty curve makes way more sense than the first game’s, and as a result the midgame isn’t hurting for decently challenging bosses, as the first game’s was. Fiends are implemented in the game in a way that people might actually see, in a big optional dungeon near the endgame instead of absurdly-rare random spawns. Those delightful characters I mentioned earlier function in the same way that Walter, Jonathan and Isabeau did in IV, but this time around you select an active partner from a list (instead of having the plot/route dictate who you’re stuck with) and leverage their unique and powerful skillsets to help you out with whatever needs helped out with.

The developers on Apocalypse admitted in an interview that the game began its life as an updated rerelease for IV, before they opted to give it the sequel treatment instead, and the fact that it was budgeted as a re-release shows. Asset re-use, an Atlus trademark, is at a near-all-time-high here, and you’ll be roaming the exact same city streets you did in IV, grabbing a lot of the same demons you did in IV, and interacting with a lot of the same characters you did in IV. I could never imagine playing the two games back-to-back, and don’t recommend the same to anyone else. Still, I was far enough removed from my time with IV after a year or so for the game to feel like a quaint and generally-better reunion with the game. The music is still bangin’, Tokyo’s still drenched in bombed-out cyberpunk atmosphere, the core loop is still fun, but a lot of smaller issues have been cleaned up. It was good to be back.

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