Saturday, April 28, 2018

PCE Game 11 - Tengai Makyo II

Tengai Makyo II: Manji Maru (天外魔境II 卍MARU)
Released 3/26/1992, published by Hudson Soft

Tengai Makyo was a pretty good launch title for the PC Engine CD attachment, showing off what the peripheral could do with a lot of voiced dialogue and animated cutscenes (though not FMV). Three years later, a sequel arrived. This is often remembered as one of the best PCE RPGs and the best game in the Tengai Makyo series. 

It's disappointing that the system is more or less the same as Tengai Makyo 1. TM1's system wasn't bad for 1989, but it would have been nice to see them add some new features. As for the graphics, I feel like TM1's were actually better. The monsters, in particular, seemed more interesting in the first game, and for some reason TM2 took the backgrounds out of the battle sequences. However, I do think TM2 does more with the cutscenes than the first game did. The PCE tech didn't quite allow for FMV (although a few later games did it), but the cutscenes use a combination of still pictures and animation to create a feeling of movement and action that few games have. According to Wikipedia this was the most expensive game to develop at the time. It used the fairly new Super CD-ROM technology, which allowed for more RAM and possibly storage space on the CD.

It makes me wonder -- if you take out the speech and the orchestral music played off the CD, could this game have come out on the Super Famicom in 1992? I'm fairly certain that by the end of the SFC's life, studios that were making games like Star Ocean and even Tengai Makyo Zero would have been able to handle this, but maybe in 1992 they hadn't quite figured out the technology yet. Cutscenes are rare in SFC RPGs at this point -- I believe in what I've played up to now, only Light Fantasy, Villgust, 3x3 Eyes, and Elfaria did anything approaching animated cutscenes. 

Speaking of the music, the music director was Joe Hisashi, who might be familiar as the composer for many of the Miyazaki movies. Here's the overworld BGM, which does seem Miyazaki-ish:

So the game is above TM1 as far as music (TM1 had no CD tracks), cutscenes, amount of speech, and size/length of the game. I just wish they had put more time in developing the system -- I guess I shouldn't expect too much from 1992. Anyway, let's get into the game.

The opening scene has two beings, Mari and Yomi, create the land of Jipang on a certain planet. Fast forward many years to our main character, Manjimaru.
He's a silent protagonist, but he seems to cause a lot of difficulty in the village and have a number of kid followers. Right now he wants to go see the festival at a nearby town. This gives the player the first view of the battle system.
A rabid dog
I like that you can see the enemy HP, but here's a battle scene from Tengai Makyo Ziria:

Why did they get rid of the great battle backgrounds for just colored bars? Anyway the battle system is basically the same as 1 and is just the basic AMID system. Characters do have some special techniques, and the one innovation (that was also in 1) is that you can trade magic spells freely among your party -- some spells can only be used by certain characters but most of them can be used by anyone.

At the festival, Manjimaru meets a rich Tycoon and three strange doctor-like beings but then an earthquake strikes.
Messengers from Yomi (the land of the dead and the red sphere in the first picture) arrive, as do seven huge plants in various parts of the world. They begin to grow, blocking travel and causing other mayhem.
The evil vine
The demons also capture Manjimaru's mom. He goes to save her, and meets the three doctor things again.
Mysterious beings
They seem to be enemies although they don't directly attack Manjimaru. Instead, they leave him to the first boss, Tsuno-Oh.
He goes down pretty quickly, and Manjimaru saves his mother. Once they're back at home, his mother tells him that he's actually a Fire Tribe person (as Ziria was in TM1). She also tells him of the legend that his father passed down.
The fire tribe
1000 years ago, these 7 plants appeared during a war between the Fire Tribe and the Root Tribe. Seven heroes from the fire tribe collected seven sacred swords to defeat the plants. So obviously the main goal of this game is to find those seven swords again to defeat the plants one more time. Manjimaru puts on his father's costume, and the main game begins.
Manjimaru the hero
First Manjimaru sets out for Owari Province. The entire first section is just Manjimaru, although he quickly meets the next party member (who will only join later), Kabuki Danjuro.
Kabuki Danjuro
He's named after Ichikawa Danjuro, a name held by a long succession of Kabuki actors (the most recent one died in 2013). Kabuki was so popular that the next game is a side story with him as the main character. You can probably tell his personality from the image above. There are a series of fetch quests leading up to the first of the seven swords, the oddest of which is to get an old man to draw you a ship:

Add caption
Which Manjimaru presents to a jizo statue to turn it into a real boat.
Sort of a real boat.

The boats in this game are quite annoying. If you get a game over (which doesn't force to you reload), use a warp spell, or save and quit, the boat returns to the place that you first get it. This is especially annoying in the second area. It's hard to see why they did this. The ultimate goal of this section is the demon castle.
Demon castle
Here Manjimaru has to fight all three of the skeleton bosses again, although they're the same strength as the first time they appear. The game balance is not all that great. Enemies tend to be either pushovers, or they can do huge damage. The way initiative works in this game, either you or the enemies often get two moves in a row. This makes it hard to heal in time. And once again this game makes the incredibly stupid decision to make it a game over if Manjimaru's HP reach 0 (even if other party members are alive). This should never be in a game. I don't care if it makes logical sense or even if it really fits well with the story or theme of the game. It also seems to be often combined with enemies that, if you get unlucky, can kill your character from full HP in one round (GDLeen, Jungle Wars 2, and this game all have enemies like this, and have instant game over from the main character hitting 0 HP).

Anyway, the final boss is a combination of all three of the skeleton bosses, created by those strange doctor beings.
Add caption
He's not very hard, though. Now Manjimaru gets the first of the seven swords, and can destroy the first of the "Dark Orchids".
No one can stand before me!
This also destroys the sword, which is good because inventory space is extremely limited in this game. Now with the first Orchid gone, the pathway to Ise province opens up. Here, Kabuki finally joins the team and we have a second party member. He's similar to Manjimaru in equipment but has a few special moves that aren't very useful. His MP are much higher, though. In a cutscene, the three doctors report to Yomi that Manjimaru is progressing, and they decide to try to use Kikugoro against him (Kikugoro is also named for a traditional kabuki actor).
Danjuro vs. Kikugoro
Of course Kabuki and Kikugoro don't get along.

I'm going to stop this post here -- I'm almost done with the second Orchid so I'll make a post about that for Monday or so. I think I'm going to continue playing this game if only because it's so well regarded by Japanese players. As I said, I think it's unfortunate that the system is still stuck in the NES era but the graphics and cutscenes are quite impressive.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Game 24 - Dual Orb Review

Story/Characters: The party characters barely exist -- they have names but virtually no backstories at all, and basically no dialogue in the game. Even the ones that do have backstories that sound interesting aren't really used much.

The story is probably the best part of the game, which is saying very very little. Overall it's not very good, but the Masho generals have little storylines surrounding them which involve the Pange they are keeping (e.g. jealousy, vanity). For 1993 it's an average RPG story, which means by overall standards it's not very good.

World: The world has an overworld, which is generic fantasy, and an underworld, with more steampunk style trappings. It's OK.

Game Flow: This is what sinks the game from "below average" to "terrible." Almost every decision they made in game balance was bad. There are way too many random encounters. The grunt enemies are too difficult and give too little XP and gold. Healing magic and items are limited. The dungeons are long. Your spellcasters have too few HP. The lack of strategic options means that your strategies are very limited, and mostly involve grinding or avoiding encounters.

System: This is the usual A-M-I-D. If you've played any RPG from this era you know what to expect.

Side Quests/Optional Content: None.

Interface: There's a unified use button, but the buying interface is annoying because they separated the pay counter from the shop itself, which serves no purpose. The battle interface is interesting -- you set your commands for everyone and then pick "attack"; you can just change the ones you want to change so it's a bit faster. There's also an autobattle, but getting out of the autobattle was not clear to me. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.

Graphics/Sound: As people pointed out in the threads, the graphics look like RPG Maker -- that's fine for this era, but nothing special. The music is OK.

All in all, this ranks down in the worst games I've played so far, along with Cyber Knight, Fist of the North Star 5, and Light Fantasy.

Next up is Elnard, better known to English players as The 7th Saga. Because some changes were made in the English version I had once thought to play this to see the difference, but another blogger has already done this, so please go read their post -- it's quite interesting. That means the next game up is Dragon Squad Danzarb, although first I'll be playing the PCE classic Tengai Makyo II, often considered one of the PCE's best games.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Game 24 - Dual Orb Part 2 (Final)

After my first mandatory week of "play it as if it were on console," I pulled out most of the stops for a game this high on the crappiness scale. I'm using snes9x speedup, following a walkthrough, and I even used a cheat code for max gold. I'm hoping that will cut down some on the grinding time. There's also a "level 99 in one battle" code but I'm not going that far. I'll be interested to see that with this unlimited money code, can I beat the game without any actual grinding, just fighting the battles I encounter in the dungeons and on the world map? (Answer: no)
Recieving the Light of Lazes to open up the blocked town

After levelling up to 17 or 18 it was time to beat Gorlia, the boss of the overworld. Even at that level he casts an all-hit magic spell that does over half my HP, and the priest's healing is not enough to keep up with that. So basically we have to guard and heal until he runs out of MP. Even then his attacks do huge damage and the best I can heal is 80 HP (items only 30 HP, so useless). There's a lot of luck in this fight and boosting up defense and attack stats. Then I used a combination of attack spells and the fighters' special attacks, even though they can only use them once. Ralph and Liz only gain TP at certain points in the story, not from levelling.

Now that he's gone, it's time to head down to the underworld to defeat the 6 generals and Galba, and seal all the Panges. Once you enter the underworld you can't come back to the surface, and can never buy certain items again (most notably the Sun Shards which avoid encounters). So I stocked up with 99 Sun Shards and as many Life Winds as I could afford. I only ever ended up using about 30 of the sun shards and only 2 Life Winds.
99 sun shards, 14 life winds

In the underworld, we meet a resistance movement that wants to overthrow the Masho (generals) and Galba, but it will be up to Ralph to actually do it, of course. This is the point where I used the unlimited money code, so from this point on I was able to keep 99 of the healing items and the best equipment -- not that this helped a whole lot.
The resistance

However, this part of the game was at least reasonable. You get 80 HP healing items at this point, and with 99 of those it's actually possible to explore a dungeon while fighting the battles along the way. But you never get any better healing items, so after a while it becomes pretty much impossible. When regular grunt enemies have all-attack spells that do 120-150 to each person, or attack for 200, it doesn't take much math skill to see that 99 items that heal 80 hp aren't going to last very long with the high encounter rate. In the last third of the game, I used the technique of using Lumies' "no enemies" spell to get any treasures in the dungeon (most of which are worthless) then if there is a boss, use the Sun Shards to reach him. There's a good levelling place that works well even to the end of the game, so I would do my levelling there and then take on the bosses.

At this point I was also following a walkthrough step by step, including telling me how to get through the dungeons -- some of them are extremely long with multiple confusing passages, so this cut a lot of time off the game.

The first of the Masho is Geeter, who rebelled against Joshua castle and deposed the king. He has the "faithless" Pange; all of the generals have some emotion that matches with their Pange. The first step is to get a mine cart so we can use all the underground railroads to travel between cities. This involves some fetch quests, the worst one being a 17 floor dungeon(!!!). It's not that hard with a walkthrough, but many of the reviews of this game mention this dungeon as the breaking point for the players. With the mine cart we can now travel to other cities.
Off we go
The deposed king of Joshua Castle gives us the secret way into the palace, and Geeter is soon defeated.
Next up is a pair of masho, Badish and Radish. Their town considers them heroes, and supports them. We have to convince the townspeople that we just want to check up on the resistance base, and they finally let us through. Of course Badish and Radish are behind the attack on the base, and defeating them yields the Betrayal Pange. The strategy against these double bosses is often tricky because they can kill anyone in one round. It's a combination of luck, buff items/spells, and using the fighters' special moves to at least take out one of them before you get completely annihilated. The healing isn't really enough to keep up with the damage so it can be pretty tough.
Badish and Radish
Next up is Gash, a fake priest that has stolen girls, although it doesn't say what he's doing with them. Defeating him releases the Ambition Pange. One of the girls was dead, though, and her mother tries to kill herself when we return to tell her -- fortunately someone stops her.

I was so tired of the game at this point that I didn't really get the story here -- it had something to do with two people who wanted to get married but are now dead, and some ceremonial jewels involved in their wedding. But I think I had to talk to more townspeople to get the full story. Anyway, the Masho is Sone Jina, who gives the Jealousy Pange.
Sone Jina
The last Masho is Eizel, who has the Vanity Pange. You need all the diamond equipment to fight him; I of course used a walkthrough to find the stuff but it seems hard to find without it. Maybe the townspeople gave some clues, but I wouldn't be surprised if this was yet another case where people have to buy the official guidebook to finish the game.
Now with all the Pange sealed inside Ralph's orb, Dragon Lazes calls the party to a shrine where he opens the way to the final dungeon, where Galba awaits. I used the previous dungeons to level to 38 and then used Sun Shards to go through the entire dungeon with no encounters. As the game hinted earlier, Galba is Ralph's father, and apparently also the father of Liz and Teo, although I don't know where that came from. He believes that he's been doing the will of Dragon Lazes and Dragon Digbodinon (the dark dragon). At that point, Digbodinon orders him to kill the party.
I think I was overlevelled because he wasn't very hard. I spent a few turns just increasing attack and healing, and then continued to have Lumies increase attack while the fighters used their special attacks.

Once Galba is defeated, for some reason that removes Digbadinon's influence although they don't really explain why. Lazes praises the party, and reveals that Lumies was sent with the party because Lazes didn't trust humans, since they once betrayed him. But now he sees humans are trustworthy and goes into a long sleep, leaving the world in the care of the humans. He reminds us to not just believe in what we can see. The final scene is Galba joyfully greeting his children. Why? I don't know, it just ends right there.
The family reunited

All you get from this point is the credits, and then an odd "results" screen that shows how many times you pressed each button:
X, L, R, and select do nothing in the game.
Then a more typical results screen, showing number of saves, inns, deaths, etc. 1390 is the number of encounters I had, and that's with my heavy use of "no encounter" items and spells.
188 treasure chests opened

To put it simply: this game is horrid. The developers should be ashamed for releasing this and charging money for it. My timer at the end of the game was 30:35, and that was with the unlimited money, step-by-step walkthrough, and basically bypassing a third of the dungeons with a walkthrough and "no encounter" spells/items. I can't imagine the torture of playing this game on a real console without all this help -- and without the speedup key. My timer showed 30 hours, but with snes9x's speedup I was able to do 90 minutes of levelling in about 15 minutes so the actual time I put in was far less.
Fuck you.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Game 24 - Dual Orb

Dual Orb (デュアルオーブ)
Released 4/16/1993, published by I'Max


This game was not released in English, is not a port, and I haven't played it before. Also there is no translation patch (apparently the hacking is very hard because of some issues with the text pointers). That means I have to play the game to the end. And it's one of the worst I've played so far -- probably down with Light Fantasy, Cyber Knight, and Fist of the North Star 5. It really comes down to one thing: game balance. There are too many random encounters, the monsters are too strong, and give too little XP and gold. This game has the worst balance problems of any game I've played up to now, except perhaps for Romancing SaGa. Nothing else in the game -- the story, characters, etc. do anything to lift this game from the shit heap.

So according to my rules, the first week I have to play with no emulator tricks, and minimal walkthrough use. That will be this post, then I will move to Snes9X so at least I can do a fast speedup (I can only get about 2x speed with higan, with snes9X on this game at least I get 18x speed)

The opening tells you that this is a world of fairies, dragons, talking animals, etc, although the dragons are only in myth, and everyone is scared of them. Our hero is Ralph.
Can you tell who the hero is? Probably not. It's the blond dude.
What a pathetic looking hero, with a pathetic name. I know that Western names don't have the same resonance to us that they do to Japanese people, just like a Westerner might not realize that "Nakamura Taro" is basically "John Smith" in Japan. But Ralph?

Anyway. Ralph has to finish his training with Aleitos by going to the nearby holy mountain. There, he hears a voice from a great warrior, telling him that he needs to seal holy orbs to beat Pange. It turns out Ralph's father also went out adventuring 15 years ago and never came back.
Ralph, the hero
 The combat system is basic AMID.
Ralph vs slugs, I forgot to equip his weapon and got a game over
Fortunately there is an autobattle, although exiting it seems difficult -- sometimes I can get it to stop, sometimes I can't. The main difference with this system is that you first select the character's actions (by going to the bottom part of the screen, then the picture will switch to whatever they're doing, and then go to "attack". As others have pointed out, this is a pointless change that is hard to get used to. The shops are also odd -- you first pick out everything you want, then go pay for it at a separate counter. I guess they were trying to make it feel different, but why don't you spend time making parts different that actually matter?
Every time you load a save you get a little summary and reminder of what you're doing, not very helpful though
The first part of the game is not so bad. The first task is to find the other 3 party members who have the same mission as you. A starter dungeon has Ralph's father's short sword and some other good equipment in there, so that's the first destination.
Why was it stored here?
The random encounter rate is high, but healing herbs are cheap so I bought 20 or so and was able to get through without too many problems. Next up is a place where goblins have stolen all the children. After getting the second party member, Tio (a healer), it's time for the Goblin cave. This dungeon also is not too bad -- the 30 HP healing herbs quickly become too weak, but at this point in the game they're cheap enough that it provides an easy source of healing. Tio, as usual for bad games like this, has MP that are way too low. But he has a good attack.

After beating the goblin boss and rescuing the children, the third party member, Liz, joins.
Saving the children
Liz is another fighter, but not as useful as Ralph because she can't equip very strong armor. Next up is a village of fairies, who don't like humans because one stole their fairy key. Of course we offer to go find it, and once we do, the fairies now are OK with us, and one of the fairies joins as the 4th and final party member. Lumies is a magic user, and virtually useless. Her attacks do 1 damage for the most part, and MP is so limited in the game and the random encounter rate so high that it's basically impossible for her to use spells.

Now the enemy force destroys one of the towns you were at, but this opens up a tower that was in there. It hides a necklace that the mayor in another town will trade for a ship. Then, an enemy general named Golin takes over the large town of the land and there's a barrier around it. Ralph learns that this barrier went up 2000 years ago and that the Light of Lazes was used to break it down. By finding three pieces of the hero Saladin's equipment, the people who guard his grave will give us the Light.

This is where the game goes off the rails. The three dungeons with the Saladin equipment can be done in any order, but they're all difficult. The monsters here do anywhere from 1/3 - 2/3 of your HP with one hit, and many have multi-hit spells. If you get unlucky someone can be killed from full HP. Revive items are too expensive to regularly use. The dungeons are also large and have lots of encounters.
The full party

The only saving grace here is that you can buy Sun Shards for 150 g that eliminate random encounters. So I just did some grinding to buy better equipment (which doesn't help much), 99 heal herbs, and as many Sun Shards as I could. Using these I was basically able to blitz all the dungeons and recover the Saladin equipment without too many encounters. None of these dungeons have bosses, which makes that possible.
The barrier
At this point I had reached the first week point, so now I can use walkthroughs and snes9x. Apparently the next boss inside the barrier is very difficult and the site I found recommends level 17-18 (I'm at 14 right now). The first thing I did was go back to the previous dungeons and get any stat up items I missed, as well as the rare revive items and MP+ items. By the time I did that I was at level 16. The enemies inside the barrier give a fair amount of XP so I'm hoping I can grind to 17 or 18 quickly with the speedup key. One other concern is that once I beat this boss, I will never be able to buy any Sun Shards or revive items for the rest of the game. I have 99 sun shards but I want to buy as many Life Winds (revive) as I can before this point. Yet another example of annoying, pointless game design.


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

PCE Game 10 - Efera & Jiliora

Efera and Jiliora - The Emblem From Darkness (エフェラ アンド ジリオラ ジ・エンブレム フロム ダークネス)
Released 12/13/1991, published by Brain Grey

The PC Engine CD started out with two great launch (or close to launch) titles -- Tengai Makyo, and Ys I&II. I guess with any system the launch titles often deliver more than the other stuff that comes afterwards, but when you play an action RPG like Efera & Jiliora it's hard not to make comparisons to Ys, and E&J comes out on the losing end, unfortunately.

The game is based on a fantasy novel series by Hikawa Reiko, which was published in 8 volumes from 1989-1995 and has an entry as recent as 2008. There was also an anime version. The story centers around Efera and Jiliora, two mercenary adventurers. You can choose to play either of them, and there's also a 2-player mode.
Efera is on the right, Jiliora on the left
The story is the same regardless of your choice, they just control differently -- Efera has magic attacks that can hit long distance whereas Jiliora focuses more on close attacks and has sword techniques. One site I found said Efera was the easier choice, so that's what I picked.
The ship hold
The game begins with Efera and Jiliora captured by slavers. The cutscenes are interesting -- they're not the typical anime style you see in these games, but look more like PC adventure games. Overall the story and cutscenes are the best part. Tengai Makyo clearly put a huge amount of effort into the story sequences, as did Cosmic Fantasy, but the other games I've played have very few of them, and don't really use the CD capacity much. E&J has frequent cutscenes, though -- I just wish they were subtitled. My Japanese is pretty good but I have a hard time hearing what the characters are saying sometimes.
Pirates take over the ship, apparently looking for a young nobleman who was also on the ship. As E&J escape with the noblemen he dies, and E&J decide to take his pendant and a lock of his hair to his family. They usually don't do this kind of service but maybe they're hoping for a reward. And now the game starts.
These kind of pictures pop up after scenes to remind you of what to do.
The game is top-down action like Ys, although you do have to swing your sword (you can hold down the button to continuously attack).
The starting map
There are two big problems with the gameplay, though, that really hampered my enjoyment of the game and made me not really want to play past the first chapter. The first problem is that unlike Ys, you cannot heal yourself by standing still. The only ways to heal are a very ineffective spell, items, or moving up a level. There are inns in the towns, but when you start there is no inn. Furthermore the opening map has a lot of damage plants and swamps, and since the enemies are fast and hone in on you it's easy to get quickly overwhelmed.
The second problem is how far you have to move on the screen to get it to scroll, which you can see on the picture above. This means that you often can't see the monsters that are close by and suddenly get swarmed by things that were off the screen. This, combined with the lack of recovery time, and the inability to recover HP, make the game frustrating to play. The monsters also quickly respawn offscreen, which gives you many places to hold down a button and grind, but is annoying when you're actually trying to progress. This blogger (in Japanese) who has played a lot of the PCE games and blogged about them said pretty much the same thing as me about the game. One of the commenters said that when you hit max level you're basically screwed if you run out of healing items because you can't level up to heal any more.

So unfortunately the main focus of the game is not very well done.
Finally I reached a town. Here is another odd game design choice -- the same button that attacks also closes the dialogue window of a townsperson, and you can attack and kill the townspeople. If you do this, all the other townspeople rush you and kill you in one hit. So you need to be very careful talking to people in town that you don't press the button too many times. There's nothing to do in this town, so it's on to the next one, where E&J seem to know a magician.
Another cut scene
The magician tells us that the pendant we have is a Dream Stone, and that the family of the slain child are in a nearby temple. The temple has a bunch of monsters although it's not clear why -- I guess we're sneaking in. This dungeon requires finding various people to lower drawbridges, and finally there's a boss fight.
The first boss
All of those crossbowmen fire at you while the boss lunges at you. I found that if you take out a few of the crossbow people on one side, you can go up and down and get the boss in an endless loop where you can hit him without any danger. After that, I was able to reach the family of the dead person, and give them the stuff.
The family
They are of course sad to hear about their brother's death. They ask E&J to do another escort mission for them, but E&J refuse and go off to another place, where they end up in a bar.
Just pay the man
They have run up a big tab and the barman is not happy, but a rich person comes in and pays their bill, but asks for escort and protection in return. This starts the second section. There's a forest you go out into but I got swarmed by insects and other monsters and after five game overs I decided that was enough for this game.

Maybe with two people it would be more fun. It's a shame because the story and setting are pretty entertaining, and a nice change from the usual "chosen hero saves the world".