Yet another post-game rave

 
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Some Guy



Joined: 04 Dec 2008
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PostPosted: Thu Dec 04, 2008 5:23 am    Post subject: Yet another post-game rave Reply with quote
I got TSE2, but put it aside for a while after playing it once. I played the original Spirit Engine and found it extremely hard to get into, not for the plot or story, but the gameplay. In fact there are several people here and there who haven’t played the original simply because it was a little user unfriendly. Not and turn-based RPGs are something of a niche market, and though TSE is all about condensing the tedium of turn-based into a pure strategy affair the game still had a daunting difficulty curve, however meticulously designed it was.

It was because of my initial reaction to the first game that I put TSE2 on hold for such a long time. Although, when I actually got into it I put all the other games I was playing at the time to the side (Fallout 3 and Tales of Vesperia) just to get through it. I feel an amazing amount of pride in completing the game, but moreso that such a game can exist as, TSE2 in my opinion, is a high caliber RPG trumped only by the best of the best RPGs have had to offer over the years. It’s a shame Mark doesn’t promote the game more as, TSE2 is far better than “Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden” or the Aveyond series.

Despite my glowing praise I do have a bit of criticism, although they are mostly negligible. Psychonauts is a good parallel for TSE2 as both games are rough around the edges, but those willing to put some time, effort and thought into it will be well rewarded. That said I feel most of TSE2’s problems stem from its console RPG heritage, but I’ll be getting to that in a bit.

Presentation:
The original Spirit Engine was a very pretty game, and TSE2 is no different. The menus and UI are all easy to read and logical to use, though they seem a little plain, they get the job done and admirably, which is extremely important for an RPG as you spend a good amount of gametime navigating these menus. I think my only complaint is that I wish I could compare equipped items to buyable items.

The backgrounds are extremely beautiful and detailed, and you can definitely feel the love and polish that went into them. The animations where all unique and competent, although the running and walking animations suffer a bit (as the characters never appear to run, but lean forward and shuffle somewhat.) Also there are some anatomy issues, mostly on facial art as a characters’ eyes, nose or mouth can shift around at odd places. To Mark I would say a little more life drawing sessions will propel you into some great places, as I can see you already have a mastery of ambient lighting, shading and texture. The game has it’s own distinct style and flair that I feel suits it like a dream.

Sound:
Great music and great sound effects (although I think I found a bug with SFX not playing right somewhere around C4-5, but I don’t remember all the details sadly. Something to do with a skill chain involving Swordfaith-targeted enemy when no enemy is selected. Or maybe I’m imagining it?) Needless to say, the sound is amazing (though, sometimes Josh makes strange instrumental choices, like the song for Dragon’s Gate, which was a little confusing, but damn catchy.)

Storyline:
This is, what most will agree on, the most important part of an RPG. I knew there was a total of three sets of three characters, and that dialogues and stories for each combination. I expected that each story would be pretty identical, with only minor differences depending on which characters I chose, but I was delightfully surprised to be wrong. My initial play through was with Kaltos, Charlotte and Enshadu, and in my mind they will forever be the real heroes, and I like that. Unlike other RPGs with multiple characters and interaction; every dialogue in TSE2 feels natural and unique.

But the story started to feel weird near the end of the game, and sometimes the monologues the characters go through are a bit beginner level in my opinion, although they’re all handled with a bit of reasoning (and humor, similar to Kaltos’ final monologue at the end of the game), they still feel like a crutch. I think with a little bit of work and ingenuity you could’ve explained how the characters feel by showing us instead of the characters telling us. And I know you’re capable of it having seen how you’ve handled the rest of the game.

Although it is common in RPGs, and it is very opera-esque, it did pull me out of the experience somewhat.

Lastly, I wound up confused by a lot of key story points. For example I originally thought Batiste had two red-headed helpers, but then it turns out he had three. I also was confused about that last girl killed in the Enclave’s town, the difference between the Keepers and that other purple-robed cult, and what the hell Clay 13 is. I suppose if I played another character’s story path, or the original Spirit Engine all the way through I might know, but nevertheless it’s vital information I think.

Lastly, seeing Enshadu take off his mask at the end would’ve been awesome. I feel you have your reasons, but after Charlotte and Kaltos got together I really longed for, and expected it.

Gameplay:
This is probably going to be the longest section, and it feels bad since I’ve already written so much. The game, as has been said before, is incredibly well-balanced, and that in itself is no small feat. I can only hope that my own games can be as well balanced and carefully planed out as yours.

However I found the game very hard to get into initially, despite how user-friendly GUI is, and with the tutorials, I sort of had to learn a lot of the ins and outs through touch and go. And even then I know I haven’t learned all there is about the basics. Energy confuses me, and while the system mentioned that a character can run out of energy I never saw or realized if such an event occurred. As an extra aside: I feel a full black bar for energy would be a nice addition. Like, an empty black bar that slowly fills with the green energy so I can better tell if an attack is about to go off or if I have time to change it, etc.

There’s also a lot of customization with skills and skillpoints, and the game encourages playing around with them, but I never really felt much of a difference between the skills. There are also the four damage types, but combat goes by quickly, and even on the slowest settings it’s hard to tell who’s doing what damage where. Also the inclusion of two percent values for defense still confuses me and I have no idea what they mean.

I should also state that I expected to be able to come up with a strategy ahead of time and simply plow through the battles, but this wasn’t the case. At first I was a little angry, and confused as to why it was getting harder and harder to kill enemies. I was also upset because it felt like pre-creating chains was useless later on since I didn’t know what enemies I had to face in the next battle, and by the time I knew I was already in combat and couldn’t escape.

There were many times where I would get into unending loops where the enemies would heal themselves faster than I could attack them. I feel foolish now that I know speeding up combat is usually a bad idea, but I also feel slightly cheated since I wasn’t informed combat speed doesn’t scale attack animation accurately. Once I started slowing down and just getting messy with attacks things got a lot easier and I could beat the game, though I never had to use skill chains except a single one for defense and healing. Often I would manually change attacks as battles went on, making my own chains based on what was going on in the fight. An option to create skill chains in combat would be very nice, by the by.

TSE2 functions a lot like a console RPG, but deep down it feels more like a RTS. In an RTS I can change tactics on the fly based on what’s going on in the game, but it feels a little stiff to do so in TSE.

Conclusion:
Anything else I could say would be unnecessary as they’ve been said over and over again by many before me. Congratulations on a game well done Mark, and I hope for nothing but the best in your future endeavors be they game related or otherwise.

-From
Some Guy
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Brickman
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Joined: 13 Aug 2008
Posts: 96

PostPosted: Fri Dec 05, 2008 5:19 am    Post subject: Reply with quote
In case you're wondering, the plot has no connection at all to the first aside from perhaps having a similar destination. It doesn't even take place in the same setting. There's also not much about the main plot that you'd need to play everyone to see; other than a very occasional extra conversation like Grace's comments after talking to Batiste, the characters will help shed more light on each others' plots and obviously their own but you can pick up the main storyline in one go. It was intentional that there were certain questions left unanswered by the end, such as where Clay is from (though attentive players will note he's identical to the robot that attacks you in chapter two in the Aulder Ruins). I'll admit the triplets were kinda confusing. I don't see what's confusing about the girl killed in the Enclave's town, and it seemed pretty clear to me that the keepers and the cult from chapter 3 were completely unrelated. As for Enshadu's mask, anything that could've been under there would've been a disappointment and you know it.

Also, this continues the trend of almost everyone gravitating to Kaltos, Charlotte and Enshadu as their first party, despite not being the default. Which is good, as they probably have the best-interlocking stories of all the possible choices (I've played every character once, though that obviously means I don't get a chance to see, say, what happens with Charlotte and Mericious in the party).
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Some Guy



Joined: 04 Dec 2008
Posts: 3

PostPosted: Fri Dec 05, 2008 3:06 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote
I wasn't expecting the main plot to have anything new, just the stories of the characters. I figured the rest would have their own problems they deal with and that those would be as interesting as KCE's.

A lot of questions might've been intentionally left unanswered, but from a storytelling standpoint I don't see them as all that wise decisions. Usually an author will leave a questioned unanswered if it has nothing to do with the main plot and if the question is irrelevant. I think Clay is an important enough character since all the major characters interact with him at some point, and unlike the twins or Batiste's tutor he's obviously different and that's why I think an answer is needed instead of no answer. I think Mark might not've had time to implement that explanation, and if he did I'd say it's a critique against his writing.

There's another thread where people discuss the confusing nature of the girl killed in the enclave town and Mark mentioned possibly fixing this. As for the cult in chapter three it does become apparent that they aren't related to the Keepers, but cults in RPGs are a dime a dozen and I think a little more clarity wouldn't hurt.

I think you're approaching the Enshadu identity thing with great expectations for a plot twist or something, I'm not. I'm not expecting a Samus Aran or anything, but the question will always be there, and it does lend itself greatly to the notion of closure. Furthermore the style of TSE2 doesn't lend itself to wild plot-twists, so it's not as if the players would be expecting to find out "Enshadu's actually... A woman!!" or anything.
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Mark Pay
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Joined: 09 Aug 2006
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PostPosted: Sun Dec 07, 2008 3:44 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote
Hi Some Guy. Very Happy Thanks for making such a detailed post, critiques are always welcome. I'm sorry that it has taken me a few days to get back to you. I needed to set aside some time to write a decent response.
I'll try and use the ever-so-slightly rude quote/response format here.

Quote:
That said I feel most of TSE2’s problems stem from its console RPG heritage

( Possibly of interest ), I think that Seiken Densetsu 3 is the only console RPG I had properly played before making TSE-2. I'm not quite sure what does says about the end result.

Quote:
although the running and walking animations suffer a bit (as the characters never appear to run, but lean forward and shuffle somewhat.) Also there are some anatomy issues, mostly on facial art as a characters’ eyes, nose or mouth can shift around at odd places. To Mark I would say a little more life drawing sessions will propel you into some great places


Yeah, this is where the absense of a formal art education becomes a problem. All of the movement animations are 4-frame too, and some of the walk animations, especially NPC, are abysmal. I tried to eliminate inconsistency between concurrent character portraits, but as with most elements, the time to do it rigorously was short. I really hate drawing from reference, even for educational purposes. It makes me feel like a human photocopier. I like to draw largely by trial & error iteration - error-prone and time consuming but much more fun.

Quote:
although I think I found a bug with SFX not playing right somewhere around C4-5, but I don’t remember all the details sadly.

The upgrade to MMF2 was actually made because it would give us better sound control. Unfortunately, it bollocksed up some of the sample playbacks, though I haven't heard that one myself. I've never understood why audio tends to cause more technical problems than visuals ( at least for good old rasterized 2D ), which have an extra dimension to deal with.

Quote:
But the story started to feel weird near the end of the game, and sometimes the monologues the characters go through are a bit beginner level in my opinion, although they’re all handled with a bit of reasoning (and humor, similar to Kaltos’ final monologue at the end of the game), they still feel like a crutch. I think with a little bit of work and ingenuity you could’ve explained how the characters feel by showing us instead of the characters telling us. And I know you’re capable of it having seen how you’ve handled the rest of the game.


I agree on the writing. It was a struggle for me and probably the most time-intensive part of development. I learnt a lot in the process, but it's still not something that comes naturally to me. The logical exposition requirements and overall flow are surprisingly difficult to integrate.
It's also really, really hard to do subtle storytelling with 68px tall 2D sprites, no voice-acting and a fixed camera. It's hard to even tell what a character is holding in their hands at that scale without explicitly spelling it out. Then there's budget again. Contrary to the old saying that 'a picture is worth a thousand words', sometimes a sentence can save you from a thousand pictures.
I certainly could have done better but there's some hard limits.

Quote:
Lastly, I wound up confused by a lot of key story points. For example I originally thought Batiste had two red-headed helpers, but then it turns out he had three. I also was confused about that last girl killed in the Enclave’s town, the difference between the Keepers and that other purple-robed cult, and what the hell Clay 13 is. I suppose if I played another character’s story path, or the original Spirit Engine all the way through I might know, but nevertheless it’s vital information I think.


The triplets were meant to be initially confusing, but the opportunity never arose to explain their status, so they mostly stayed that way. I agree on the Chapter 7 stuff and I remain generally unhappy with the presentation of plot logic in that area. I didn't want to do what I did in the first game and run cutscenes far outside the point of view of the main characters, so the victim character is never seen and can be easily confused. At the point where I get to a 1.05 patch for general improvements, I may simply change it to a boy. I hadn't really considered confusion between the two cults.
Clay 13 is a leftover machine that has either developed a personality or gone a little senile. The same model can be seen in the diary images near the end of Chapter 9.

Quote:
Lastly, seeing Enshadu take off his mask at the end would’ve been awesome. I feel you have your reasons, but after Charlotte and Kaltos got together I really longed for, and expected it.


Definate no! It'd be like ( future prediction ) the last episode of LOST. Guarenteed to disappoint regardless of how crazy or conventional you go.

Quote:
However I found the game very hard to get into initially, despite how user-friendly GUI is, and with the tutorials, I sort of had to learn a lot of the ins and outs through touch and go.


Eh, the tutorials aren't terribly good. I think most developers hate doing them, and I share the feeling. Sad

Quote:
Energy confuses me, and while the system mentioned that a character can run out of energy I never saw or realized if such an event occurred. As an extra aside: I feel a full black bar for energy would be a nice addition. Like, an empty black bar that slowly fills with the green energy so I can better tell if an attack is about to go off or if I have time to change it, etc.


I did consider changing the energy bar to be more explicit, but I liked the "come on! come on!" nature of not knowing exactly how long you have until your character has recharged enough for you to trigger its next skill.

Quote:
There’s also a lot of customization with skills and skillpoints, and the game encourages playing around with them, but I never really felt much of a difference between the skills. There are also the four damage types, but combat goes by quickly, and even on the slowest settings it’s hard to tell who’s doing what damage where. Also the inclusion of two percent values for defense still confuses me and I have no idea what they mean.


I'm not really sure what to say in defense of skill variety. The requirement that they all keep the same energy cost to simplify gameplay meant removing the notion of any super-spells - no meteor summoning or timestop. I wanted to downplay magical elements as well. In retrospect I'm not sure whether I went too far with this, or not far enough.
The details of defense values are unfortunately only explained fully in the html manual. The first number is a straight subtraction, the second is a percentage reduction.

Quote:
I should also state that I expected to be able to come up with a strategy ahead of time and simply plow through the battles, but this wasn’t the case. At first I was a little angry, and confused as to why it was getting harder and harder to kill enemies. I was also upset because it felt like pre-creating chains was useless later on since I didn’t know what enemies I had to face in the next battle, and by the time I knew I was already in combat and couldn’t escape.
There were many times where I would get into unending loops where the enemies would heal themselves faster than I could attack them. I feel foolish now that I know speeding up combat is usually a bad idea, but I also feel slightly cheated since I wasn’t informed combat speed doesn’t scale attack animation accurately. Once I started slowing down and just getting messy with attacks things got a lot easier and I could beat the game, though I never had to use skill chains except a single one for defense and healing. Often I would manually change attacks as battles went on, making my own chains based on what was going on in the fight. An option to create skill chains in combat would be very nice, by the by.
TSE2 functions a lot like a console RPG, but deep down it feels more like a RTS. In an RTS I can change tactics on the fly based on what’s going on in the game, but it feels a little stiff to do so in TSE.


In confession, by the end of development I had virtually abandoned multi-skill chains in favour of micromanaging single-skill chains and then, near the end, the quickselect radial menu. Which was a problem, because the initial design philosophy emphasised them. Unfortunately, updating applications made in MMF2 is terribly hard and time consuming and overhauls like this were not a viable consideration.
The game is indeed intended to be played on the slowest speed nearly all the time, but I feared starting off at this speed would alienate players much as the initial pace of the first game did.

Thanks again for the post. I'm glad that you enjoyed the game so much in spite of the flaws.
I really like critiques, they're a lot more interesting to respond to. Very Happy
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Some Guy



Joined: 04 Dec 2008
Posts: 3

PostPosted: Wed Dec 10, 2008 6:20 am    Post subject: Reply with quote
Actually, I apologize for waiting a while to post this. I don't mind the quote/response system at all, so no worries. d Very Happy

To me, TSE feels inspired by console RPGs, but that's probably I've played more console RPGs than PC ones, however I've been making up for lost time as I haven't played a single console RPG in ages, but I've gone through NwN, Arcanum, Vampire, Fallout 1/2/3, etc.

I suppose being able to choose who you want to play through the game as in the beginning is PCRPGish, but the way in which the game takes the tedium out of turn-based combat (seen mostly on consoles) is what reminds me of console RPGs when I play TSE and TSE2. Sorry for assuming however.

Luckily, I have had formal art training actually, and I highly suggest you draw from reference if you get the chance. It is semi-remedial, but perhaps you might try some life drawing sessions or still life if you haven't? It's really the fastest and best way to learn, and once you get used to it it becomes really fun. You should've feel bad about using reference unless you're outright tracing the art or what have you.

As for the animations, 4-frames is actually fine, but you need to tweak your extremes (the key parts of the animation cycle) more. I think you'll find this page extremely useful, as it's been very helpful for me.

I've come into the same problem (storytelling with small character sprites) in my game. I thought TSE2 handled storytelling particularly well, and I was countless surprised by a sort of sly tongue-in-cheek nature surrounding those moments.

One thing I would suggest though, is that when you want there to be specific actions you remove dialogue entirely, pause before action starts and begins, and maybe consider a different message layout. My thoughts are that I found myself going back and forth from looking at the character portrait are to looking at what the characters where doing on the screen. If you have portraits that show off character emotion you have to cut back on in-game action, but if you have both then the player might find themselves going back and forth from the portrait to the character acting. I thought the character's individual actions where more emotive and interesting than the character portraits most of the time, so maybe switching to a dialogue balloon setup would be better, or maybe animated portraits with less action from the character sprites.

For me, when I need to show something small or subtle acting I go the SNES route and show the object glinting, have some secondary narration or remove the dialogue balloons for the characters to act with a slight pause before the action to allow the player to move their eyes back to the center of the screen. Using other visual cues to draw the players eye around the screen also helps.

As for Clay uhh... I don't remember any diary images at all in the game. :S ? I think I missed something. Concerning Enshadu, it could very well be a Halo 1 type moment, where he removes his mask and the camera pans up at that exact moment. Somehow I feel as if he'll always have that mask on, forever. It's true some things are best left hidden, but I feel that Enshadu's story about identity felt strongly withheld until the last chapter where it was succinctly resolved with little tension.

I don't mind making tutorials so long as I can find a way to include them with the story in some manner (also including a way to skip them if necessary.) Try seeing how Valve handles tutorials and teaching players, as I think they're the masters of the art.

As for energy cost I didn't even know how much energy some skills required, or how that all worked out at all.
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Nillo
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Joined: 25 Jul 2008
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Location: Sweden

PostPosted: Fri Dec 12, 2008 12:18 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote
I agree with Mark and Brickman that having Enshadu take off his mask would be less interesting. Some things are better left to the player's imagination. On a side note, have you played Planescape: Torment? The final scene where you use the "bronze sphere" is a good analogue to this.

Still, although I do prefer Enshadu with the mask on, I would've liked just a little more details on his story. I felt cheated when the game ended and I still didn't know anything about him. Razz
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euthanatos
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Joined: 03 Jan 2009
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PostPosted: Wed Jan 07, 2009 9:54 am    Post subject: Reply with quote
I played through w/ Kaltos, Charlotte, and Enshandu too and beat the game my first time just now!

17 hours playtime
8.5 hours battle time
lol

(normal difficulty)

I assume Enshandu removes his mask after the ending and was glad his face wasn't revealed. For a long time I felt he truly was that black-faced demon (his doppleganger in the space-ship) but not after the Institute caught up with him and it was clear he just used to be some serial killer or something.

I want to argue that the audio, graphical, and visual quality is far superior to any other independent game I've played. I really, really enjoy the Geneforge series by Spiderweb Software--which like this game have awesome dramatic storylines and lengthy [turn-based] combat---but SE2 clearly outdoes any Spiderweb title in graphics, sound, etc.
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