Category: Games

Dead and Dying Hardware

Ars ran an interesting article earlier this week about ticking time-bombs in PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 hardware. The simplest explanation for this issue is that these consoles have internal batteries meant to help keep system time. If the battery is pulled and replaced, the system is programmed to phone home to the PlayStation Network to reset the clock. This process depends on Sony retaining support for the ability of these consoles to phone home – Sony could, at their discretion, ‘upgrade’ the service such that discontinued consoles can no longer sign in, which would leave a PS3 or a PS4 with a new clock battery in a state where it needs to find out what time it is but can’t.

(Side note – seems that the lifespan of these batteries is measured in tens of years. That’s quite an improvement over the Sega Saturn battery, which sometimes only lasted a few months!)

It hard sometimes with articles like these to tell where the reality ends and FUD begins because it’s a discussion of potential events that have yet to occur. Yes, the outcomes are tested, so we know how these systems respond when their clock battery is pulled and replaced, but at the same time, we don’t know if/when Sony plans to free these consoles from the requirement to phone home to validate content, or if/when Sony plans to lock them out of PSN forever.

It does raise some interesting questions about what would potentially change in some kind of firmware update. Would the system just get its time from pool.ntp.org? Or would time not matter at all anymore? When the time comes to end PSN access for PS4 hardware, do you force-feed the firmware update so users aren’t locked out, or do you just post the .PUP file to your website and tell people to sneakernet it onto their hardware when they’re good and ready? That would certainly solve the case where a PS4 gets retired from service after someone gets a PS5, then it sits in a closet for 7-8 years until somebody decides to pull it back down and give it to a relative or something, and Sony has long since retired any PlayStation Network endpoints that know how to talk to a console from the 2010s.

(Point of emphasis on that last sentence… the argument will invariably be “well leaving the server there shouldn’t cost you anything, so there’s no reason not to do it”. That’s a fair point, but I can also say from personal experience that it doesn’t take long for the knowledge of how to operate/maintain that server to evaporate as employees move on, company R&D and support dollars get prioritized elsewhere, and document libraries get upended by corporate-issued edicts for IT to lower costs and migrate everything to a cheaper solution. That’s to say nothing of the ongoing expenses that will need to be incurred in keeping security issues patched, and occasionally upgrading the entire operating system. Eventually, it becomes more trouble than it’s worth.)

Or – in the worst case scenario, which Ars was getting to – does Sony do nothing, and essentially leave 200 million consoles out in the cold when the decision is made to lock them out of the online service? It was just a few years ago that Sony got ahead of Microsoft in the eighth generation of consoles simply by staying quiet while Microsoft got hit over the head for their inability to explain whether the Xbox One would be required to be online or not.

For PS3, the damage seems limited to just downloaded content. If the system doesn’t know what time it is, it doesn’t know whether the content is valid to be played or not. This is one of the reasons why I tend to stay away from digital content in the first place. You never know when you’re going to want to play something like I am Setsuna on the Switch, for example. But, if you wanted to do that in 2031 and Nintendo’s long since binned their online storefront for the Switch (as they have for the Wii and Wii U), how/where do you get a copy? From Japan, where physical copies of the game with the English localization built in were published.

For the PS4, the consequences seem most dire – apparently this online check happens when you load any game at all, physical or digital. So if you replace the clock battery, and the PS4 can’t call home to find out what time it is, it’ll never be able to play any games again. That’s quite the end state for a game console.

As alarmist as that sounds, papering over the issue with a simple “well, the PS5 is backwards compatible” ignores the possibility that one day it might not be. Folks should remember that PS3 once had hardware-based backwards compatibility with PS2 which was then replaced with software in a cost-cutting measure, but then Sony decided later on to patch that functionality out of the platform. (Along with OtherOS functionality, which earned them a class action lawsuit, but that’s a different topic for another day…) So, even though Sony’s design decisions for the hardware of the PS5 lend themselves well to easy support for last-gen games, it’s easy to see a future where that functionality has been rolled back.

On that note, the jailbreak community for Sony’s older consoles seems pretty well-established at this point. I actually got a 60GB fat PS3 (the one with the hardware-level compatibility with PS2 games) a few years ago and jailbroke it. So now it never needs to go online, and if I want to play games on it, rather than introduce additional wear and tear on the Blu-Ray drive, I can just point the system at an .iso file on disk. It’s actually rare that I do this these days – the last game I played was Digital Devil Saga, which was about a year ago. Between wanting to focus on newer games and being busy with work, the PSX/PS2/PS3 backlog has intentionally been kept small. But as I said above, sometimes you want to go back and play these games.

Same goes for the PSP and PS Vita, which have similarly lost support from Sony. In fact, a jailbroken PS Vita is probably the best way to play PSP games on native or native-like hardware now, due to the dwindling supply of reliable PSP batteries. A few years back I had a workflow involving both jailbroken handhelds where I could rip an .iso file off of a UMD and then sneakernet it over to the PS Vita to run inside the PSP emulator. Works great, and provides easier access to games that are on dead consoles and dead media formats. While the UMD has thankfully run its course already, some games, like Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, have never been rereleased on any other format.

(Speaking of pointing systems at .iso files, I do plan to eventually build out some kind of a file server and rip as many of the disk-based games as I can, probably as part of a larger project to build out a Plex server. Got a lot to get done before I get there, though.)

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Weekends are supposed to be fun

A rough accounting of how I spent the last four days:

  • Thursday: worked 8am-2am, owing to the previously-mentioned deployment problems
  • Friday: worked 8am-10pm
  • Saturday: commuted into town to work at the office. Left at 6am, got back at 7pm.
  • Sunday: worked 8am-4pm

But hey, at least I had a few minutes to (finally) finish up Yakuza 3 on Sunday night. I had started that one back in January or February and hadn’t been able to finish it due to work taking up too much of my time. Didn’t think it was a particularly great game, but by the time I’d made my mind up on it I was already close to the end anyway. The Yakuza series seems to be an odd one to play all the way through in order now. Yakuza 1 and 2 have both undergone full remakes to modernize the way they’re played, but Yakuza 3-5 are still stuck in ‘remaster’ zone where all they got was a fresh coat of paint. Yakuza 3 weirdly manages to look both up-to-date and out-of-date at the same time, while also having a plot that goes absolutely nowhere at times unless you’re into chasing kids from an orphanage around.

So that leaves me halfway done with the Yakuza games. I’ve already started Yakuza 4, and have higher hopes for it just based on the fact that Yakuza 3 lowered the bar from the first two.

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On Xenogears (Development Diaries – Entry 4)

When I have both good and bad things to say about something, I’m never sure which I should lead off with. If I start with the good stuff first, then that all gets forgotten by the time I’m through criticizing things. On the other hand, if I lead off with the bad, to me it seems like I went with the bad stuff first because it’s the main dish, and the good stuff afterwards is lip service to keep the intended audience from thinking I just wanted to bitch about things.

But speaking of intended audiences, there’s a 0.0000001% chance this ever gets read by anyone important, and I’m probably not saying anything anybody hasn’t already said since Xenogears came out twenty (!) years ago, so I guess it really doesn’t matter.

I unintentionally held off on playing Xenogears for years. Not because I thought it was bad or anything, but because it simply never entered into orbit. The only new Squaresoft release I played in fall of 1998 was Parasite Eve; the rest of the time I was busy playing Final Fantasy Tactics or WCW/nWo Revenge or F-Zero X or pretending to be a college student. I had an “oh yeah, I should play that” moment in 2011 or 2012 and got the PSN version of Xenogears for my PSP, but then promptly shelved it for one game or another. And then early in 2018, with a mission to knock things off of my backlog once and for all, I finally got around to it.

So there you go – decades of not playing what people call the greatest JRPG ever, and it was only because I was doing the video game equivalent of forcing myself to eat my vegetables.

I won’t rehash story elements here because it’s already been four months and I’ve already forgotten some of the finer details of the plot. The overall impression I had was that it was probably a lot edgier in 1998 than it is today. A gang of people fighting against an organized religion? If the concept of a Moral Majority had any sway left by the time 1998 rolled around, that has certainly waned even more since then. Without the urgency of modern thought to bolster the narrative, Xenogears’ story falls back to being simply another “rebels vs. empire” story; one in which two of the main characters cross the lines of battle in the name of love, one in which the younger main protagonist has a mentor named Doc, one in which your ship turns into a giant mech called the “Super Dimensional Gear Yggdrasil IV”. That is to say – not terribly original, with a side helping of rampant intellectual property theft.

The real crime in this game is what happens in the second disc. I’m no stranger to visual novels, so the idea of pressing X to read a book masquerading as a video game is nothing new. But when the entire first disc of your game is a forty or fifty hour JRPG experience, and then the second disc is another twenty hours of mashing X and doing half a dungeon here or a boss fight there, something’s seriously wrong. What was wrong in this case was laid out by the director in a Kotaku interview – a story in which a video game being developed by a staff of inexperienced game developers was cut off at the knees by the reality of software development and Squaresoft’s release schedule. The second disc had an entire game’s worth of material crammed into highlight reels and occasional bouts of actual gameplay. That’s a shame.

So what about the gameplay? This in itself is a mixed bag, but it’s mostly good. Xenogears attempts some light platforming in spots, which can get frustrating. There are only so many camera angles to work with, so jumping from one ledge to another sometimes becomes a bigger chore than it needs to be. The battle system is a nice change of pace from the normal menu-driven stuff Squaresoft was mostly known for in the 1990s. Characters start their turns with a bucket of action points for the player to spend however they want – press triangle to spend one point on a light attack that’s all but guaranteed to hit the target, press square to spend two points on a medium attack, or press X to gamble three points on a heavy attack with a greater chance of whiffing. Chaining these moves together in certain combinations unleashes more powerful attacks called Deathblows. You don’t get these for free – Deathblows must be learned over time by taking certain actions a certain number of times. This feature isn’t very well documented in the game; aside from some cryptic progress bars buried in the menu and a vague directive to go out and experiment, I had no clue what I was doing and had to consult the internet for help.

The one aspect of the game I can’t find anything to complain about is the music. The soundtrack is equal parts grandiose, mysterious, and commanding of your attention. Songs like The Wind is Calling, Shevat of the Azure Sky demand replays just so you can more fully digest everything that’s going on, and The One Who Bares Fangs at God (again, I’m sure this would have been more impactful of a song title twenty years ago) calls out as a really unique spin on a final boss theme. Composer Yasunori Mitsuda really had a run going in the 1990s. Between Chrono Trigger, Xenogears, and Chrono Cross – if your favorite band put out three albums in five years that were that well received, or your favorite sports team won the championship three times in five years, you’d call it their golden age.

Overall, in the face of astronomical expectations based on decades of hype, I found myself leaving the Xenogears experience not overwhelmed, but also not underwhelmed. I think I was just whelmed. The story was only okay, the gameplay was mostly okay but occasionally annoying, the overall delivery of the game as a complete package was a 50/50 situation. At least the soundtrack gets played regularly when I need music to listen to. I think I expected to be blown away by this game the same way I was blown away by contemporary Final Fantasy games. Not only was I not blown away, the hype caused the flaws to stand out even more than they probably would have otherwise.

Sometimes creative works of art are worthy of the “flawed masterpiece” moniker. Final Fantasy VII might be one – great game, sloppy translation. Or how about Persona 3 – the storytelling and pacing of the game were fantastic, but wow, your computer-controlled allies were stupid. Xenogears doesn’t really fit the mold. It does one thing well, and the rest only kind of okay or worse than okay. 3/5.

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Development Diaries – Entry 3

Oh that’s right, I have this site. Guess I’ll update it now!

I recently experienced something of a rediscovery with the Mana series, thanks to the Playstation 4 remaster of Secret of Mana and the Seiken Densetsu collection released on Switch in Japan. Mana was never one of my favorites growing up, but it was something a high school buddy was really into, and so I was quite happy to take it up for multiplayer action.

The Secret of Mana remaster did remind me of a few things I enjoyed about the original. The core gameplay is decent enough, the environments are colorful, and after initial misgivings with the remastered soundtrack (and doing A:B testing thanks to the option to revert back to the SNES soundtrack as desired), I found plenty to enjoy in the remasters.

Secret of the Arid Sands
Danger (ARM version)

The overall execution, though… whew. I’ve never had a console game crash as frequently as this one has – ever. That was always the selling point of a console, right? Software developers could write stable code because they were targeting one specific platform, not like on Windows where they have to target generalized APIs like DirectX which in turn support an infinite number of combinations of hardware, operating systems, operating system patch levels, other software present in the machine. But no, somehow Square-Enix found a way to bungle this one to such a degree that “bungle” doesn’t even seem like the right word for it anymore.

I actually had the ending credits crash on me, forcing me to redo the final boss fight.

But the fun didn’t stop there, because I also picked up that collection on Switch – the one that was only released in Japan. That one’s a whole different animal, because the games contained within (Final Fantasy Adventure, Secret of Mana, Seiken Densetsu 3) are all the originals. No updated polygonal graphics, no fancy remastered soundtracks.

Having just completed Secret of Mana, I dove right into the successor, Seiken Densetsu 3. Man, the hype for this game was off the charts in the mid-90s. The graphics and art design were incredible. The soundtrack had plenty of memorable tracks. And the narrative followed that pattern Square really liked at the time where they would present you with a number of different lead characters and let you choose what the main story would be. They also did this in other games like Live A Live and SaGa Frontier.

But… the record will show that the game never received an official translation into English. Sure, a fan translation was wrapped up years ago, when Square was still sketchy about getting all their games localized. I may have played Neil Corlett’s translation on a ROM a long time ago, but I don’t recall specifics. At any rate, between then and now I took enough college level Japanese to be able to get myself through the game with occasional help from a dictionary. Those who know Mana know it isn’t especially well known for having intricate, high-minded plots like a Final Fantasy game would. I chose Hawkeye as my main character and was treated to a fairly boilerplate story about revenge for the murder of a friend and how the Mana Beasts were coming back to give everyone a really bad day.

The challenges of getting an official translation for Seiken Densetsu 3 seem to be fairly well documented by this point. They couldn’t have done it in 1996 because they would have had to sell a potential Secret of Mana 2 game in the US for $120 to cover the cost of cartridge manufacturing. With 3D polygonal graphics being the new hotness at the time, it would have been silly to expect people to be willing to pay through the nose for last-gen tech. As for now, who knows – people aren’t exactly clamoring for Mana these days. There’s a reason that Switch collection only had the first three games on it.

I think you’d have to convince Square-Enix that it’s worth it to invest a bunch of time and money into localizing the game and also launching it on a modern platform. Might be a tough sell. In other news, I’m planning to update this site a little more frequently now that I have a better idea of how I want it to develop. Originally I thought I’d make a text-based RPG environment using Twine, but I could never get the results to look exactly the way I wanted them to look. I was hoping I could just plug the Twine output into an existing layout so that it looks like it belongs here naturally, but instead it looks like I’d need to trash this layout and build everything directly into Twine. Nice idea, though not what I really wanted.

[Historical note 2021-03-31: Publish date approximated]

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Review: Valkyria Chronicles

Every once in awhile a game comes along that challenges what you know about gaming. This can be on any front – storyline, gameplay, presentation, or any combination of the three – and it leaves such a lasting impression that you can easily see yourself playing it again a decade down the road, long after homogenized imitators on newer, faster, and shinier consoles take over the spotlight. With its fresh approach to the strategy RPG paradigm and compelling narrative, Valkyria Chronicles is one such game that we will hopefully look back on with such esteem. It’s different in ways that make sense. It’s a powerful blend of emotional storytelling, high-stakes combat, and next-gen presentation. It’s a work of art.

The narrative is set in an alternative 1930s Europe (called Europa), with tensions between the Atlantic Federation and the Eastern European Imperial Alliance threatening to spark another conflict in a series of devastating wars. Caught in the middle of the struggle is Gallia, a small and independent country with an abundance of a do-it-all resource known as ragnite which is coveted by both powers. The game begins in the border town of Bruhl just as the Empire launches its invasion of Gallia. After fending off a group of Imperials, Welkin, his adopted sister Isara, and newfound friend Alicia head for Gallia’s capital of Randgriz to join the militia. They are assigned to Squad 7, a ragtag bunch of citizens from all walks of life who saw their hometowns or lives ruined by the Empire and are looking to defend their homeland (or in some cases, exact revenge) in whatever way they can. Although relationships between the members are rocky and distrustful at first, as the game progresses Squad 7 begins to gel both as part of the Gallian militia and as a family, and a core set of characters are developed to a satisfying conclusion. The player should expect to identify with at least one of the main characters, as many different emotional and ethical issues are tackled in a mature manner throughout the course of the game. The narrative is executed similar to an anime series – the first few chapters are spent introducing the characters and the back story, then from there the primary arc is delivered in the midst of “problem a week” episodes resulting in Welkin calling on Squad 7 to move out and complete the assigned operation.

The narrative’s episodic nature is delivered through a book called On the Gallian Front. Each chapter is illustrated with a series of pictures and maps, which the player selects to either trigger a story event or start a mission. The book is intended to serve as the game’s interface while not in combat and performs its functions adequately, but makes the game extremely linear with very little to do in between operations. During story events the player simply sits and advances the dialogue. Personally, I might have liked to see points in the story where I’m given a decision of some sort to make that would for example change the operation parameters. On the Gallian Front also includes a series of tabs which the player accesses for game-related tasks that are peripheral to the progression of the game. This includes technical information on all the weapons the characters have access to, dossiers of all the characters in the game, an extraordinarily-detailed glossary explaining who the Federation and the Empire are as well as Europa’s history, and a display of all the decorations Squad 7 receives for its service to Gallia. While some of this is optional, those who are interested in the characters or Europa’s history will enjoy the reading.

Stay here, I gotta take a leak

One of the more interesting mechanics of the game is the way in which rewards are distributed after operations are completed. Unlike in most other games where experience is awarded individually for a character’s participation in combat, Squad 7 is awarded a lump sum of experience and DCT points which the player spends in whatever manner they see fit. The experience points are used for leveling classes, as opposed to leveling individual characters. DCT points serve in the role of currency for the game, to two ends. First, they are used at the R&D Department of Headquarters to upgrade Squad 7’s weapons, armor, and tanks. Second, they are also used to purchase Reports from Squad 7’s embedded journalist, Ellet. Completion of a character’s respective Report unlocks a unique Potential.

So how do you really differentiate between characters if they’re all the same levels and they all get the same gear from R&D? That is another point where Valkyria Chronicles separates itself from the pack. Each character has a unique set of Potentials which randomly trigger a positive or negative status effect in combat based on certain situations, for example being around a certain character or standing on a city street or a grassy field. Each character also has a list of characters they work well with. For example moving Alicia close to Dallas and attacking a target will cause Dallas to start attacking the same target as well. This is a nice aspect to keep in mind when determining who to put into combat. As a bonus, upgraded gear which is superior to what comes from R&D is available in limited quantities. This allows the player to fit a few characters with even better weapons.

Typically what separates strategy RPGs from their traditional brethren is the combat system. That is, a character is selected and moved a certain number of spaces on the grid, and the option of taking some sort of action is allowed throughout. Valkyria Chronicles challenges this by taking the grid off the map and adding a third-person action mode, using a system termed by Sega as BLITZ (Battle of LIve Tactical Zones). At the start of each phase, the player is allotted a certain number of Command Points to use however they see fit, including using a unit multiple times in the same phase. Unit movement and actions are handled through a third-person interface in which buildings become shelters from enemy fire and sneaking up behind enemy units gives you a decided advantage. The camera is freely rotatable around the active unit and rarely (if ever) gets in the way of the player playing the game. BLITZ is a thoroughly enjoyable take on the strategy element of the game.

Part of what makes BLITZ (and indeed, the game’s visual presentation as a whole) successful is Sega’s other fancy marketing buzzword for this game, the CANVAS engine. From the moment you turn on the game you see an outline of a tank being drawn, colored, and being brought to life with Welkin and Alicia riding atop. The game’s unique artistic feel is presented in such a way that it’s literally like watching an interactive water-colored animation. It is vibrant, the colors are well-defined, and the framerate is steady throughout, save for the odd spot in combat where there is heavy traffic.

The girl or the tank?

Accompanying the game’s impressive visuals is a fully-voiced script and a stellar soundtrack. I chose to listen to the Japanese dialogue through most of the game and found it loaded with appropriately-cast voices – Welkin is the boyish protagonist, Largo is the gruff veteran, Emperor Maximilian is a pompous bastard, and so on. In spots where I listened to the English dialogue, I found it to be more than passable. Chatter coming in over the radio during combat isn’t subtitled for the benefit of those who don’t speak Japanese, but it is useless stuff like “Leave it to me!” or “Enemy spotted!” The soundtrack is composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto, who should require no introduction for soundtrack aficionados. His signature orchestral flair is in fine form, with soaring wind and brass leads taking point ahead of string backings. The battle themes convey a sense of dramatic urgency and the theme at the graveyard is absolutely beautiful.

As with other strategy RPGs, the difficulty of the game is linked to how well the player understands the AI. Unfortunately for Valkyria Chronicles, the AI is incredibly stupid. Scouts across the map routinely circle all the way around buildings with no clear objective, tanks leave their weak points exposed, and in rare incidents I’ve seen enemy units take each other out with friendly fire. Getting through an operation successfully is a matter of understanding how the operation is supposed to play out, not recklessly leaving characters exposed to focused fire, and not presenting an enemy with a clear look at the radiator on the back of Welkin’s tank. Still, the operations do take time to finish and completing the game can take a good 35-50 hours, depending on how much time is spent stopping to smell the flowers along the way. A new game plus mode is available for the completionist who wants to go back and get all the unlockable goodies after finishing the game.

To measure Valkyria Chronicles as the sum of its individual parts is to sell it short. Any game can boast a sparkly 3D engine or any of the other features mentioned above, but putting all of the elements that this game has to offer into one package turns it into an experience that has to be played to believe. While not without its faults, Valkyria Chronicles takes a powerful narrative with all the political intrigue that’s expected of strategy games and melds it with the pacing and character development of an extremely well-done anime series. Addictingly fun gameplay is matched with top-notch visuals and audio, keeping all but the most restless of players glued to their seats for hours on end. This game is a strong argument to take into consideration for those who can’t decide between the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3, and those who do own a Playstation 3 should not think twice about at least checking the demo out, if not just running to the store and getting a copy. I for one can only hope that future strategy RPGs are anywhere near this good.

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