So I've been playing Sudeki (a new RPG for the XBox) quite a lot this week. And I've been enjoying it quite a lot.
I've been pretty intrigued by this title for a while now. There's a dearth of RPGs for the XBox, and there's very specifically (almost?) none in the Japanese vein. Y'know: big eyes, crazy battle systems, linear story path, save the world. The whole Final Fantasy Thang. Or even (better yet) the whole Secret of Mana Thang. This game does not come from the land of the big-eyed android ninja, but the influence is clear.
So what's to love? First, plenty of detailed and interesting environments. Beautiful skies, rippling water, every line of dialogue is voiced, etc. It's a very very pretty game. Second, cheeseball save the world story with four pals thrown together, scouring the land for baddies and for hidden treasure chests full of upgrades and new weapons. And of course, the occasional minigame. But whatever. This game is really about the real-time combat.
Before we get to that, though, a brief comment about leveling and upgrades. It's a pretty standard yadda yadda XP for monsters & quests system. But when you level, you get one (sometimes two, not clear why -- maybe I don't always notice when I level?) "point" you can spend on upgrading the character. So you can upgrade HP, SP ("magic points" if you will), or attributes that improve melee or magic attacks. Or you can buy a new magic attack from a small list (like five or six, total). So you don't just automatically get new HP every time you level -- you have to make an explicit choice about growth. That seems kind of interesting to me; you have to decide if this character needs more buffer when things get hot or heavy, or some new skill to help the team, or, or, or. But it's a small enough set that it isn't crazy insane complicated like the FF leveling systems are, where leveling seems like a weird abstract concept.
Upgrading weapons basically involves going to a blacksmith and buying an upgrade to go into a slot. Different weapons & armor have different numbers & types of slots. Some quests unveil new kinds of upgrades to go into slots. Upgrades are things like "if I hit him, I drain some HP," or "if I hit him, I increase his susceptibility to critical attacks," or other greatest hits (poison, slow, blah blah blah). The only thing funny about this is that I just completed a two hour long segment of the game where I finally managed to get all four heroes together, but couldn't find a blacksmith. So I had all these interesting weapons and was racking up the cash, but couldn't improve my general badassitude. Bleh.
OK, OK, but I said "brief," because what's really important here is the combat. The combat is in real time. You pick one of the four characters to directly control, and the rest do a pretty credible job of fighting on their own (and you can hop between them at any time). The two melee characters have a simplified third-person combo/block system that will be familiar to fans of fighting games. The two ranged characters use a first-person view that feels weirdly like Halo.
I find this tremendously compelling. The combo stuff is simple but rewarding: mash buttons too fast or too slow (or get nailed in the middle of executing it) and you lose the combo. But do it right, and you can take out a big baddie in short order. The first person view is even more fun, because it really takes you into the middle of the combat -- which is exciting once you get all four characters reasonably upgraded, because you'll see baddies get knocked over and around as you weave in and out looking for the most effective place to help.
The "spell" stuff is also nice. I use this in the sense of the meta-game mechanic, since only one character is a "spellcaster," but all four have these skills that basically function as spells. When you're in combat, you can always open up this quick menu that slows down -- but does not stop -- combat. These menus include items, party AI settings, etc, but most importantly, they include these spells/skills. There's a small number, but they cover pretty interesting ground, from various kinds of range devestation, to one that reverses any negative status effects into positive status effects + plus immunity. (Which adds the intriguing strategic dimension of trying to decide how long to wait before casting that -- better to get everyone afflicted before turning it around.)
There's also a nice sense of trying to keep track of what's going on: who's health is low? Is a ranged but weak fighter trapped in the corner trying to go one on one with someone? Is a melee fighter outflanked? It's pretty satisfying to try to make sure your actions are getting the most leverage to keep your AI compatriots up & running, and your AI compatriots do a good enough job of fending for themselves to make this rewarding instead of a chore.
Finally, there's a modestly interesting merchant system, where different merchants actually value certain stuff differently. Got a bunch of jewels? Tromp your butt over to the jewel merchant. I suspect that the plot device I just obtained will make this cheaper & easier, but it's still a nice touch.
Downsides: the standard forcing mechanisms to get you onto the path. E.g., "The whiny character decides that we should get a boat home instead of walking home, so we can't freaking stop by all the merchants and sell our stuff on the way." Also, the weird hyper-sexualized, hyper-cheesecake factor of the character designs. I know that game designers have weird notions about the shape of the human body, but this game takes it to embarrassing extremes. 12:25:35 PM ()