TSE-2: The best SSRPG since Ys 3

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 13, 2009 10:08 pm    Post subject: TSE-2: The best SSRPG since Ys 3 Reply with quote
First off, I just want to say to anyone out there who was like me nearly a week ago, lurking and reading the posts here, deciding whether to try the demo or just straight out buy it...try not to hesitate for too long. Buying TSE2 for $15 is an absolute steal! I had no idea it was at a higher price when I bought the 1.05 version the day it came out. I'd just assumed it was always like that until I did some forum reading after the fact. Seriously, in the golden age of gaming in the early 90s, I paid twice that, and then some for lesser games on SNES. Ys III was one of them (hence the topic title, and the closest comparison to TSE2 I can think of...SSRPG = Side-scrolling RPG).

Having just beat the game this morning, I simply had to join these forums and share my thoughts about the whole thing. I almost never write reviews for anything I try, but I'm making an exception for such an exceptional game and its outstanding creators (especially since they actually read the stuff in these forums). For each point, I'll do the bad news first (if I can think of any, lol), then give a rebuttal for why I think the awesomeness outweighs the drawbacks:

Note: First run-through w/ the "Standard" party (Kaltos, Charlotte, and Enshadu) @ Normal, unlocked (but played Normal from start to finish...honest!). Wink

Cons: Combat was difficult throughout the game (I'm actually left wondering just how insane Hard mode is, let alone Absurd...yeeesh! I'm almost too afraid to try, lol), and often times I was left wanting a Flee option during battle when things got rough. I also felt like the skill chains were more like convenient macros rather than a strategic paring up of party abilities. I never once used or saw the need for Party Chains as the individual chains were more than adequate. Being able to go into Overdrive status was nice, but unfortunately, due to its long build-up period, had rarely come into play given the sheer power most enemies had. Finally, some random monster spawn combinations, especially near the endgame, caused standard battle encounters to surprisingly be more challenging than the boss battles. Shouldn't it be the other way around?

Pros: So what if the fights were brutal and you couldn't run when things looked bad? There were generous placings of save points throughout the game to fall back on whenever I lost. Sure, skill chains are basically player-defined macros, but that's a heck of a lot better than the tired old menu-driven system of so many RPGs, especially those from Japan. The chains made battle so quick and painless while doing a dynamite job maintaining the pace and giving the player motive to monitor his battle strategies carefully until one side or the other went down.
Enemy AI was also surprisingly smart; most of the time, the opposing force knew when to swap places whenever one of their members were weak, and did a super wicked job (especially those who could teleport or attack back row allies) focusing on my weaker heroes AT THE MOST INOPPORTUNE TIMES! Razz
Pacing is simply masterful in this game. Adding such things as air-tight time limits on certain occasions and endurance sequences to a couple of key events adds a remarkable depth of variety and motivation to blast through the hordes that stand between the heroes and the salvation of Medea. It's this level of variety and intensity that had me pushing through long eye strain-filled marathons in past games like the Final Fantasies, the Lunar saga, Lufia, Ys, the Phantasy Stars, Chrono Trigger, Xenogears, and on and on.
Oh, and I can't end this section without saying how grateful I am that there is no MP (magic points) or AP, or spell slots, or whatever limits RPGs almost always force down the throats of players when it comes to such things. Having unlimited use of skills and magic while still having the battles stay challenging is a simple, yet wonderful piece of game designing revolution (not evolution). HP is still there, but thankfully there is no management of it outside of battles, making combat and dungeon crawling that much more speedy and tense (especially the collapsing glacier leading up to the institute and the battlefields near the end...the sense of urgency in these situations were exciting to behold!).

Story & Presentation
Cons: Dialogues were especially lengthy at times, even for someone like me who deeply enjoys reading long character-driven narratives (like James Clavell's 1000+ page sprawling epic Shogun for example). Sometimes, I felt like the characters were reciting from a speech they had written on a piece of paper in their hands rather than actually talking to each other. This made some dialogue feel unnecessarily awkward, especially in times of crisis or intense emotion. Please don't get me wrong, plot exposition is very important in games like these as you know, but if it gets to be a bit much to take in all at once at any given point in the unfolding story, players tend to notice that, and it does little justice to the otherwise incredible pacing of the gameplay, having the unintended consequence of turning less patient players away (especially in a world of kids and teenagers raised in an age of instant gratification and console games that too often focus on style and multi-player rather than substance and the single-player experience).

Pros: The game runs on a stable coding foundation (as of v1.05 and run on Windows XP SP3, btw). No crashes...not a once, even with background applications constantly running around and annoying my system memory to no end.
The monolithic story and its setting is nothing less than inspired and deeply imaginative, leaving one to wonder if a man named Mark Pay, or Hironobu Sakaguchi actually wrote this game. Yes, if you recognize that latter Japanese name, then you should know that Mr. Pay's TSE2 script and his fantasy world of Medea is THAT good. Eat your heart out, Mr. Sakaguchi. Very Happy
Sure, I said that dialogues had their lengthy stretches here n' there, but honestly, I don't think I once hit the Skip button unless I was going thru a sequence that I had already seen due to having just been clobbered by enemies. I enjoyed every line, and savored the mature wisdom and clever real-world tangents of modern history and current events behind them. For the sheer amount of ambition behind the plot, I concede that the dialogues HAD to be what they were in order to fully illuminate players as to what the whole thing is all about within the playable span of the game, and as such, did so admirably.
I said nothing above about the linearity of TSE2 because it is, in essence, an interactive graphic novel along the same lines of another game with an incredible role-playing plot that few games to this day have yet to match, Planescape: Torment.
TSE2's characters are there to tell a finite story, and all in believable ways that beautifully compliment what happens around them. The near-flawless consistency of their personalities from opening to close shows outstanding care in the writing like few times ever seen before, enabling a breadth of character development and growth that easily rivals the efforts of many past RPG videogames. When I think back to Ys III, and how exciting I had thought that game was back in the day, I compare it to TSE2 and am amazed how lazy and virtually devoid of plot the so-called "classic" Ys III seemed when stacked against the story-driven tour de force of TSE2.
Finally, the blending of conventional fantasy with pre- and post-industrial tech, coupled with science fiction is seamless and never ever feels out of place throughout the story. One thing led to another so logically, and everything flowed so smoothly that not once did I ever think any of it ridiculous or disrupting to my suspension of disbelief.

Sound & Music
Cons: There is very little to say to this except that maybe I would've went for a louder or more powerful blasting sound for the firearms in the game. Often they seemed too subdued for Industrial Age flintlocks and rifles, that is if they're anything like what you would see on a History Channel special about the Revolutionary War or the Civil War.

Pros: Even if everything you do in a game is flawless, without a great soundtrack backing things up, it could still fail to be a classic. Since I'm no Patrick Gann (from RPGfan.com), I kinda suck at describing my likeness for music into words, so I will just once again place comparison of one name to another.
If you asked me where I would stack Josh Whelchel's composing talent, I would say verily unto you that he has what it takes to rival the musical likes of Nobuo Uematsu, Hitoshi Sakimoto, Michael Giacchino, and Jesper Kyd, all in the same sentence. No kidding, either. With music of Josh's caliber, I dare ask myself...is this really an independent game??? Wow, a mega awesome treat for the ears that captures the varying moods of the game in all the right ways, and at the right times too. The creative cooperation between Pay and Whelchel is evident beyond a shadow of a doubt. 'Nuff said.

Cons: Hmm...if I were one of those snotty iPod-Generation kids on Xbox Live who judged a game solely by what their eyes saw, and not by a gaming experience that was outside the realm of mindless shooting, then I'd have a lot of bad stuff to say here. But honestly, I really don't. Except maybe to make those "!" signs above the character's heads more noticeable in future releases. Smile

Pros: I'll bet people have complained about the resolution already, but c'mon, what it is now is MORE than enough for a slightly grey-haired gaming vet like m'self. Seriously, you folks didn't buy a shareware game thinking it was gonna have some crazy high-def resolution, did you? The hand-crafted visuals are wondrous already!
It's easy to see, from the menu screen to the final line in the Credits why the game took years to develop. You can spot careful attention to every little pixel of detail and color. Symmetry and alignment is perfect in city and dungeon settings, and very natural looking in the forests and jungles. Animations are complex and expertly timed, and you see more expressions on the character portraits and avatars in dialogues than any three or four Square-Enix games combined.
Simply put, when you talk about the gameplay and story, and then know that all that was done by the same guy who also did ALL of the graphics himself, you can do no less than realize you've played a game made by a modern-day polymath. I didn't think people like Mark Pay even existed still...
...Nah, he's gotta be some sentient AI digitally floating in the top secret network under the NSA building or something with a huge self-realized creative streak. That would explain Darak! Razz

I think I've been writing this for...omg, 2 hours??? Incredible! That's a new record for me on any forum ever. So much to say, but all so happily true! I am so glad I discovered this game (via Game Tunnel's Game of the Year article, btw). I was on the verge of deciding between TSE2 and several other, more expensive games I saw, and man I am so glad I settled with TSE2 instead. I grew up in the 80s and 90s, and it was such a pleasure to have the privilege to play something new that paid such truly amazing tribute to past role-playing gems that gamers once took for granted in the grand old age of 8- and 16-bit gaming. Thank you, sirs, so much for the truly marvelous work you've given to gamers like me everywhere! I look forward to your future gaming endeavours. Smile
"Appreciation is a wonderful thing: It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well." -- Voltaire
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Musical Maestro

Joined: 17 Aug 2006
Posts: 156

PostPosted: Sat Mar 14, 2009 12:28 am    Post subject: Reply with quote
I don't think I've ever been so flattered. Thank you so, SO much for your kind words and thoughts. I'm glad you enjoyed your experience, and I'm sure Mark will be equally pleased to read all of this.

Thank you, again, so much.
~ Josh
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Mark Pay
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Joined: 09 Aug 2006
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Location: Margate, UK

PostPosted: Sat Mar 14, 2009 2:15 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Wow, I should probably type something besides the shock emoticon! Thank-you very much for your review Hylanvahr. I shall try and respond to some of your points.

I'd strongly considered a flee option. It wouldn't have made much story sense for a number of the encounters so I decided against it in general. But I'm in favour of including it in any future games.
The random spawn difficulties is a issue raised by some other users. Some variation in difficulty is nice to keep players on their toes - too much is bad though. The boss fights were intentionally kept similar in scale and difficulty to regular combat in most cases.
Writing AI for a game like TSE1 and 2 is a joy! It's very easy to make it behave 'correctly' because its choices are so limited. No pathfinding required! I hope that a lot of the party management cut out was indeed not missed. Having to go back to town to buy more health potions isn't much fun.

I fully agree with your criticisms on the dialogue. It was a lot of hard work, with a great many edits, and the whole process was a significant learning experience for me. A lot of it remains somewhat awkward still.
Multimedia Fusion presents an extremely stable platform for development. The only real danger comes from custom extensions written in C++ and Josh did a superb job of writing the code for music playback.
Your comments on the firearm volume level were interesting. We did some ( slightly rushed ) tweaking of sound levels close to release. These were complicated by using MMF 1.5 instead of 2 for so long, which makes sfx replacement more difficult. Because the sfx come from so many sources, it can be difficult to get them on a similar volume level. In the end, we knocked down all sound levels by 30% to correct some issues with very loud effects without individual edits.

On the visuals - when I started I was using MMF 1.5, which had no native alpha channel support ( which sounds crazy looking back on it ) I was also inexperienced with working hi-res in Photoshop and I was very nervous of limitations with previous versions of MMF for object counts and rendering speed, which is why the menus are all so minimalist. The resolution was chosen partly to decrease the work required on pixel-drawn assets and partly because MMF was ( and still is ) very bad at scrolling large screen areas. Its hardware acceleration support is still in beta ( albeit a very functional and stable beta ) I'd be able to correct a lot of visual shortcomings if I were starting from scratch now.

Thank-you for saying such kind things about the game! It makes Josh and I very happy to hear that you enjoyed it so much. Very Happy
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