Sunday, 2 March 2014

Devblog: Engalia: The Wager Is Almost Finished!

This is just a quick blog to say that I'm more-or-less finished tinkering with Engalia: The Wager because I think that I've managed to deal with most of the comments I received after the initial release. I've also managed to add all the character interaction that I wanted to add to the game, which leaves me with only a few bits of tweaking/beautification of the game to deal with; the most notable example of this would be the addition of a proper ending/credits sequence.

In any case, I feel pretty confident that the gameplay is more manageable for the average player this time around. There are still some enemy combinations that can prove tricky, but it isn't anywhere near as stupidly difficult as it was the first time around. Having been able to play through the game with more than one combination of heroes (which was all I managed to do before the initial release; god damn one-week time limit!), I'm pretty confident that most hero combinations will be viable, although there are of course some combinations that are better than the others. With 200+ different hero combinations, I'm not even going to pretend that all combinations are balanced, for that would be an incredibly difficult task and also one that I don't actually think it's possible.

So basically, there will be a v1.1 release soon and hopefully there won't be any more massive flaws that need fixing!


Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Devblog: Engalia: The Wager Changelog

I recently released a game called Engalia: The Wager as an entrant into a one-week game development contest. The gamepage can be found here, although I recently took down the download so that I could make some changes to the game based on the comments I received at the end of the contest.

The most prevalent comment I read was that the game is too difficult. I'm not surprised that this was the case given the limited amount of time I had to beta test the game after finishing its development, and a lot of the changes I've been making have been aimed at making the game more balanced in terms of difficulty. At the same time, I'm also adding new content that I didn't have time to finish during the one-week development time allowed by the contest, so there's plenty to do before releasing a "polished" version of the game. 

In any case - just to give a sense of the scale of the changes I'm making to the game - here is the current changelog. I'll release an updated changelog alongside the eventual "polished" download, and I estimate that will happen sometime next week!

  • All weapons now have the correct damage type set. This fixes a bug were normal attacks were dealing significantly more damage than they were supposed to deal.
  • Heroes with a "one star" rating in attack now have their attack stat set-up properly. This should fix problems with physical attacks being utterly useless with these characters. Note that this only really affects the "Monk" and the "Thief", as other "one star" attack heroes don't generally use physical attacks (eg. mage-type characters) 
  • Status affects should now work with the advertised accuracy. They were previously far too inaccurate, both for heroes and enemies. 
  • "Stun" has been removed from the final boss's ultimate attack, basically because a "Stun"-all attack is pretty cheap. 
  • Healing spells used by the "Cleric" now have a reduced MP cost. 
  • All heroes have been given 1.5x more MP. 
  • Enemies will no longer be able to engage the hero party with "pincer" and "back-attack" type encounters. 
  • Increased the duration of all status effects so that they actually last longer than a turn. The definition of "turn" in RM2K3 is so confusing. Status effects should be a lot more useful now, especially buffs and debuffs. 
  • The first boss, Frost Wyrm, has had his attack-list tweaked so that he is less punishing vs. parties that don't contain dedicated, single-target fire damage. It was nigh on impossible to beat him without his previously. 
  • Chests now give more potions, ethers, phoenix downs and status-effect removing items, and have a better chance of giving out items as a result. This should make the game slightly easier.
  • "Mimic chests" have been added, meaning that enemy Mimics will attack you from every 1 in 3 chests. In addition to these chests giving you a randomly generated selection of items (which is what "normal chests" do), "Mimic chests" will give you a Ring or Amulet that can be used to favourably boost your hero's abilities.
  • All enemies have had their skills renamed to add flavour. For example, the normal attack used by Goblins is now named "Goblin Hammer". This doesn't effect balance or playability, but does make the game slightly more interesting IMO. 
  • Many enemies have had their skill sets reworked so that status ailments are more prevalent. They were previously only used by a small selection of enemies, which I thought to be quite boring. 
  • Enemy damage has been reduced across the board. Enemy skills were simply set up to deal too much damage, and that has now been fixed. 
  • Normal attacks used by heroes are now properly balanced, and their listed damage falls in line with the damage skills are supposed to deal in relation to normal attacks. 
  • Intelligence and Defence-based status ailments have been changed to affect the proper stat. Previously they were mixed around, and this was due to a bug in the RM2K3 engine that lists them improperly. 
  • Status buffs (Speed Up, Attack Up etc.) no longer result in heroes being displayed with a negative animation.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Devblog: The Chaotic Design of Level Four

I've been saying for a very long time that level 4, which will essentially be the final level of the game, is planned out and ready to go. This is more or less true, I have most of the stage designs down on paper and I have more than 3/4 of the backgrounds sprited. The problem is that I've gone about working on this level in a completely different way to how I've worked on the other levels, and it's really throwing me through a loop.

When I was working on levels 1-3, I would do everything for a given stage at the same time. I would draw out the stage, get the stage into the maker, add all the events needed for that particular stage, test that it was working as desired, and then move onto the next stage. Doing it this way, it would only take approx. two nights of free-time to complete one stage, and the procedural nature of the work made it easy to do without thinking too hard about what I was doing. It also meant that I was constantly working on different things (different image-types, different events, different minigame systems), which helped me stay familiar with everything I needed to get a given stage finished.

However, after taking a break from developing this game to work on my PhD thesis, I found it really hard to get back into the swing of things and start work on level 4. Because of this, I decided that I should make progress by working on the easiest thing to work on. I found that the easiest thing for me to work on was the spriting, as that didn't require me to open RPGMaker and look at event coding that I was no longer familiar with. After doing that, I started to get overlays working for each stage, started to link stages together using the required teleport events, and then added the "search" events to each level (the search events are by far the easiest of the minigames to understand in terms of event coding). At this moment in time, I'm adding things like enemies and other minigames to each level, so things are definitely getting closer to being done.

The problem with doing it this way is that things are no longer procedural; I am no longer working in a way that allows me to work on auto-pilot and that is a big problem for me given how draining my job sometimes is. I'm coming across minigame systems etc. that I haven't worked with for a long time and, despite the fact that I've annotated my event code pretty well, I find it difficult to work on the game for long periods of time. I guess this should serve as a cautionary tale; my punishment for taking the path of least resistance when I came back to working on the game is really backfiring now!

Anyway, have a screenshot :3

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Devblog: Replacing The Placeholders

It's been a long time since I've blogged about this game, mostly because I haven't made that much progress. Real-life and Starcraft II and playing other RPGMaker games and writing reviews have all gotten in the way. Fortunately, I'm ready to knuckle down and get this shit finished!

Now, I'm not exactly a master of pixel art but I've gotten a lot better whilst making this game, just one of the reasons that I think that forcing myself to produce custom graphics for this game has definitely been a worthwhile endeavour. Given that I have improved, I figured it was about time I replaced the placeholder graphics for the opening sequence etc. with something that actually looks the part. 

I'm going to start with the "floating heads" that are present in nearly all of the cutscenes. Although a super simplistic style works well for the charaset sprites, it does not at all look good on these much larger heads...

You can find a much larger version of the image here! Thoughts..?

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Review: Homework Salesman

Title: Homework Salesman
Developer: Star*Cadets
Genre: JRPG
Program: RPGMaker VX

Homework Salesman is a strangely named game given that it doesn't have anything to do with homework and salesmen, so hopefully no one has let the confusing name put them off. Notably, this game comes from the same people who brought us last year's Misao Star Stealing Prince and, just like that project, what you get here is a game that takes basic JRPG stock and crams it full of interesting mechanics, charming visuals and ridiculously cute characters.

One of the most important elements of this game - both in my experience and in terms of how the game is described by the developers - is how many different professions there are for your character to tackle. Adventuring, smithing, crafting, alchemy, and more mundane tasks such as cooking and foraging are all featured in this game, and each is tracked using its own level system. Although most of these professions work the same way in terms of their gameplay (collect required items, go to appropriate work-bench, create respective products), what makes the system impressive is that every profession seems to be useful no matter how you choose to develop your character. It's easy for a given system to become irrelevant when so many are present, but this game manages to avoid that, something that it achieves through a combination of making tasks a required part of quests (which are one of the best ways of simultaneously making money and earning experience), allowing money to be farmed through the sale of items produced using professions, and limiting the number of items that are cheaply sold to you by vendors in the game's main town.

On the negative side of things, I would probably point out that the limited number of actions you can take per day (you have a certain amount of energy per day, energy that is used up by battling, cooking, foraging etc.) can make things progress too slowly for my liking, because I personally believe that most actions have an energy cost that is a little too high. Should it really take one sixth of my energy to cook a meal? I don't know that it should, and I also believe that reducing the cost of some of the more basic actions would make this game a little easier to get into as it is quite slow-paced at the outset. Another minor complain I have with the profession system is how repetitive some of the quests are. I don't mind that the innkeeper always wants you to cook something, or that the smith always wants you to bring him ore, but alternating what needs to be cooked or delivered more often than is currently done would make things a lot more interesting. Ultimately, these are very minor complains, and I think that the professions system is an integral part of this game that has been very well implemented; just how well it integrates with other elements of the game will become apparent as this review progresses!

On first inspection, Homework Salesman's battle system seems to be very traditional JRPG fare, with the usual mix of elemental weaknesses, status effects, HP, MP etc. Fortunately, there are plenty of things to keep you interested. First of all, there is plenty of variety in how you can set-up your heroes to tackle the monsters you'll encounter on your journey. The heroes that you can recruit are usually capable of using more than one type of weaponry so, although these characters generally have one option that stands out from the others based on their base stats and characterisation, there's plenty of combinations to try. Importantly, a character's skills will level up independent of their overall level based on how often you choose to use the skill, which means your characters can be as one- or multi-dimensional as you're willing to put time into training them. I personally chose to keep my characters fairly one-dimensional so that I didn't have to waste too much time grinding skills, but those who are willing to put more time into grinding skills are going to have much stronger parties as a result.

Might not look very threatening, but you'll have to work as a team to take it down!

Another important element of the battle system, and what really ties several elements of both the battle system and the other systems together, is the way that weapon durability is used to perform both magical skills and physical skills. On the face of it, what this does is essentially put a secondary limit on how much you can explore before you're forced to head home (in this case to either repair or replace your weapons, as opposed to requiring sleep), but it's actually has a far more reaching impact than that. For example, one way weapon durability works well in this format is by forcing you to be economic with your skills, as every overkill you perform is weapon durability that could've been better used elsewhere. This is especially prevalent for physical skills as they often cost many times more than a basic attack, so using a skill to finish off an enemy when a basic attack would've done the job is always a big misstep.

A further way that weapon durability works quite well is the way in which it makes you think carefully about your weapon upgrades and how you choose to use them. Because weapon durability depletes quite quickly relative to energy, it's often ideal to take many versions of the same weapon-type (eg. five swords, five quivers of arrows, five staves etc.) with you so that your characters don't have to trudge back to town for repairs before your energy runs out. What this goes on to mean is that, because you're unlikely to upgrade multiple weapons of the same type due to how money/time consuming it is, using your most upgraded weapons isn't always ideal. You have to pick and choose your moments because durability management really is serious business in this game! In support of the idea that this type of durability management is important, the game even allows you to change equipment during the middle of a battle, and it doesn't even cost you a turn to do so. This is cool because it means that you're allowed to you to enter a fight and then decide whether or not you want to use your +9 Baller Sword or a more basic weapon to take out the enemies that you're facing.

Of course, this function isn't just important for durability management, as it actually has a range of other possible uses that add a great amount of potential depth to the battle and skill systems. For example, given enough time and money to implement such a strategy, you could use the enchanting profession to create a range of different elemental swords for a swordsman character, which you could switch around dependent on enemy weaknesses, which you will know because of the bestiary present in the game. Another example would be the possibility of creating a "paladin" type character by switching between a stave for healing/support spells and a sword for physical attacks as you happen to require them. Although the relationships between these systems are very simple, and although the systems themselves seem quite common and cliché, they fit together quite spectacularly. In terms of gameplay, this game really is greater than the sum of its parts.

Dem professions...

Ultimately though, what this game does best from a gameplay standpoint is protecting the player from themselves. It would be easy to assume that so many professions, skills, classes and weapons being present - alongside considerations such as durability and energy - would result in the player being overwhelmed with options early on. However, the game does a good job of preventing this from happening by linking the way that new game elements are introduced and the amount of progress you're allowed to make through the game's major dungeon with how far you've progressed through the game's major storyline. By linking these things together, the game manages to time how quickly new professions etc. become important as a function of how efficiently you've been using your current professions etc. to explore, which in turn means you get used to the features you have access to prior to additional features becoming available. This is really important, because introducing all the elements this game has to offer at the same time would be a total clusterfuck! The developers have manages it really well, and without the need for any condescending tutorial sequences!

I've mentioned the storyline a few times now, so I should probably point out that the storyline is actually quite minimal and light-hearted. Although the game makes up for it through the colourful and humorous interactions Reniat has with the characters around her, it's undeniable that most of the story points are basically excuses to introduce new professions or to unlock levels of the games major dungeon. Fortunately, the gameplay more than makes up for the limited storyline depth present in this game, as do a colourful cast of entertaining - if sometimes shallow - characters for you to interact with on a day-by-day basis. This is definitely a light-hearted game and should be treated as such, so those looking for something story-driven would be beast served looking elsewhere!

Serious story content! Honest!

People who've played Star Stealing Prince probably don't need to be told that this team of developers are amazing at making their games look pretty, and this game is no different. Aside from a few tile-errors, the graphics used are very well put together and they fit in perfectly with the light-hearted nature of the game. Special mention should be made of the monster graphics for being suitably goofy; more than one of the enemy graphics made me laugh out loud, which isn't something that happens often. The only problem I had with the graphics - which is more a problem I had with the mapping than the graphics themselves - is the random way that treasure chests and other such objects (such as herbs to be picked or ore to be mined) are placed around maps. Usually it works as intended, but it can sometimes spawn items into unreachable locations or, much more annoyingly, spawn items into locations that flat-out block your path. Leaving and re-entering a map will fix this problem, and it isn't a problem that occurs very often, but it can be annoying when you have to backtrack any large amount to re-enter a map as a result of this happening. As for the music, I would say that most of the tracks are pretty well chosen, but it is true that some tracks could do with being rotated so that they don't become too repetitive. Specifically, I'd pick out the music used in the main town as a track that can be a little grating after a long period of play, but it's a very minor problem that I'm sure the developers can easily fix for future instalments (this is an episodic game, after all).

Get out of the bloody way!

This game has some niggling problems that could be improved upon in future episodes, but they don't take too much away from how well the systems this game utilises fit together. Hopefully this game will steal even more Misaos than the Misao Stealing Prince, because I personally think that it's much better. 9/10.