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Last year, I embarked on a daring mission: to play through as much of my PSX backlog as I could, one game a day, while deciding on what to keep and what to sell. I was moving apartments soon, and I didn't want a lot of dead weight. The forum thread got interesting enough that some members of staff suggested I make a feature of it. Unfortunately that came around the end of both the project and my list of leftover PSX titles.
This is now. Again, I find myself with a lot of games that I haven't finished, and might not ever unless I really get on with it. Most of them are DS cartridges, but I've got a burgeoning Steam collection to winnow down as well. This feature isn't about whether to keep or toss, however. It's simply Why I Will Never Finish This Game.
We're starting today with a Steam title. Lionheart was developed by a Japanese game studio called Shiisanmei, and got a western release on Steam over the summer courtesy of Fruitbat Factory. The redundantly titular hero of the game, Leon Lionheart, has set out with his friend and mentor to challenge the Libra Corridor, the magical labyrinth that claimed his father's life many years before. Leon's particular and peculiar magical knack allows him to create linked portals, which he and his allies plan to utilize in their ongoing conquest of the Corridor's many sections.
Why I'm not finishing it: While it sounds like it could make for a decent dungeon-crawler, this game isn't one. Instead, it's more of a dungeon-crawl management simulator. Progress through a level is shown by a simple bar with the party's icon moving across its length, and events such as battles or item discovery just happen as it goes. Bad adjectives to describe the combat include slow, clunky, and clicky, which is three too many to describe something at the core of a game's experience.
Even better/worse, while there's a calendar system in place to determine story progression, regular trips through areas (for item acquisition, most often) don't count towards the passage of time, so it's not only possible to do the same minor quest a stupid number of times, it's halfway necessary in order to get the materials needed to upgrade arms and armor to a level that will survive the next story sequence. Mix this with the aforementioned syrupy pace of battle, and you've got a recipe for a mess. The one thing this game really needed was a good auto-battle option, to help clear the tedium of clearing out minor areas ad nauseum.
Beyond that, it could also have done with some better writing. The localization by Fruitbat is quite serviceable and without any real flaws, but it's obvious that the source material was about as stereotypically Japanese anime fantasy as could be, and the original authors of the text made some awful big assumptions on what was and was not considered a normal human reaction to regular social situations. What it really needed was some spicing up, if not the full gonzo treatment, to make the plot interesting enough to rationalize enduring the game. That is a lot more than one could expect of a niche Steam release, however.
Summon Night by Flight Plan started out as a series on the original PlayStation, but amazingly the game adapts itself quite well to the DS as well. Not enough to continue playing, but it's got its own sort of charm, a decent variation on the graphical style pioneered by Tactics Ogre, and generally good writing.
Why I will never finish it: Flight Plan makes good tactical systems, but (at least in this early example) it sucks at keeping everything balanced. Most chapters in this game consist of one, maybe two, battles, but the difficulty curve ramps up faster than the experience curve does. There are free battles available, but the variety there is lacking. Only a few are available at any given time, often hanging around far longer than their welcome, and in order to amass enough cash to fully kit out all the party members one will have to see the same set of monsters over and over again.
Equipment is very important because of how Summon Night the original handles one of its main gimmicks: the Brave system. The player is encouraged to "Fight with Brave!" to earn party points, which can then be used to install party abilities to aid in item collection or other bonuses. It's supposed to be the carrot to get the player to embrace challenge and be innovative. Each plot battle has a Brave level that is essentially a par for that map, and if any regular party member is above that level of experience, then no bonus. Also, if anyone is knocked out, no bonus. Also-also, most plot battles feature enemies two, three, or even four levels higher than par. This leads to extreme frustration as the game's carrot frequently beats one over the head.
The game's other gimmick is the monster summoning. Only the protagonist and his/her summoner companion can do this, and it takes a special mineral called summonite to forge a contract with a summoned beast. Specifically, summoned beasts are tied to different accessories, and these accessories react differently depending on which of the five flavors of summonite one uses. The summoner characters can call on the contracts of their own accessories directly, but all others require more summonite for each use. The big problem here is that there is absolutely no clue given as to which combination summons what monster, if it summons one at all, even after the initial contract has been made. The player has to take quick notes manually in a notebook if they wish to keep it all straight and not waste a ton of summonite in the process of figuring out how to get that shining blade attack again.
And just for the DS version, there's a new system in place for increasing monster affection — a clunky, unintuitive setup that requires a particular consumable item that is often only available by wasting more summonite.
Summon Night is a game that handles a lot of basic things right, only trip itself up on the clever gimmicks. In short, it's a Flight Plan game. Hopefully the later games of the series dealt with these issues. I don't think I'll be checking to see if they did, however.
I really do try to finish everything. Honest. It's just that with life, work, and toddler, there's little time to press through with some games, especially if they're as bad as some of the worst stinkers on my review list.
That said, this is sure to be a recurring feature at some point. I've got too much of a backlog with not nearly enough free time for it to be otherwise. We'll see what turns up in future. They may not all be bad games, but they're not going to be worth the effort for me.
Your man in Japan,
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