Monday, January 25, 2016

RPG Talk: Ys Origin - Part 3: Toal Fact

Part 1 and Part 2 can be read here and here.

Toal's storyline is considered the the real one, because his ending sets the stage for Ys I more thoroughly than the others, and has the longest, most involved ending sequence, but it doesn't stand alone as well because Yunica and Hugo's actions are missing the context from their own stories. We only know what's going on because we've already seen them in previous playthroughs.

For most players I would suggest the playing order to be Yunica, Hugo, and finally Toal to get the whole story, but if only two playthroughs can be stomached, skip Yunica because Hugo and Toal's stories compliment each other. On the other hand, if only one playthrough is in the offering, do Yunica, because she's self contained (and it's impossible to play Toal without finishing one of the other two).

From a gameplay perspective Toal's playthrough works rather strangely.

Since Toal is not part of the search party like Yunica and Hugo, he doesn't begin the game at the bottom of the tower like they do. Rather, he starts at the summit as one of the Darklings and when the villains learn that the twin goddesses and the Black Pearl they carry have entered the tower, they split up to capture them.

Toal is then teleported to the bottom and has to fight his way back to the top while searching for the goddesses, who he claims don't mean anything to him anymore. After all, Toal has accepted a demonic element into his soul, and is now part-demon.

The game handwaves the fact he's killing all these monsters, who are ostensibly on the same side as he is, by letting Toal say he's been given permission to kill them so he can absorb their powers. This allows for essentially the same game structure as playing Yunica and Hugo, with minor changes.

For instance, there is one item that Toal never gets a hold of for plot reasons, so he can't use it to solve the same puzzles. The game makes sure to provide an alternate means of achieving the same goal in times like those, but these alternate routes only appear on Toal's playthrough.

Toal also frequently fights different mid-bosses than Yunica or Hugo. Battles where they would typically fight a Darkling are frequently replaced by members of the search party. Toal even fights Hugo twice.

The early part of Toal's storyline makes him a hard person to get a hold of. He's stand-offish and says very clearly, on no uncertain terms, that he is an enemy of Ys. He's thrown away his knighthood and he is now loyal to the Darklings. Toal is quite vehement about it, whether he's speaking to Darklings, the search party, or even the goddesses.

But funny thing is, even though his delivery is spot on, nobody is buying it. The search party is certainly put off and hostile for a while, but they are reluctant to give up on him, and the Darklings consider him suspect no matter how good he is at following their orders.

As the player, it's hard to figure out what's going on in his head. We don't know why he turned and became part-demon, or what his ulterior motive is, if he even has one. Since Toal doesn't share his real thoughts with anyone in the first half of the game, most of the story comes through flashbacks that play after major boss fights, where we get to see what Toal was like when he was one of the Holy Knights.

We learn that as a knight he was well liked by the people who met him, even though he rarely visited his family, which makes sense since he was disinherited for joining the knights instead of accepting his place as his father's heir.

Toal was particularly close to the goddesses, especially Reah, and he was the one who had given her the harmonica she carries. It's clear that even though nothing improper happens between the goddess and her knight, they both care deeply about each other.

When he finally catches up with Reah in game, she deduces that Toal's plan is to absorb enough energy through the demons he kills to merge himself with the Black Pearl and then destroy it, because it is the source of all the demons (as well as all the magic of Ys). She has a plan though that will not require Toal's sacrifice.

Unfortunately, it quickly becomes apparent that it will require one of her own, and it's at this point in the story that Toal's facade begins to crack, with Toal and Reah independently racing up the tower to stop the other from making the sacrifice. It's rather sweet, even though Toal is canny enough to be upset that she talks about not wanting his sacrifice when she's about to force him to accept hers.

There are side trips along the way. He meets Hugo, who is not quite as arrogant and angsty in Toal's storyline, and he meets Epona as well, which results in funny exchanges where she pretends to not be interested in Hugo, even as she's pumping his older brother for personal information about him. I love that Toal ships the two of them together.

Yunica probably fairs the worst in Toal's storyline because he didn't really know her back on Ys. Toal served under Saul Tovah, Yunica's father, so he was aware of her, but he didn't know her personally. When she shows up, she comes off as a mostly passive girl who can't really fight against him, and is even found lying unconscious at one point, due to a trap she successfully navigates on her own playthrough.

She feels a little extraneous to Toal's story, more than Toal did in her own, because he could blend in with the other villains, but she sticks out as more significant than other members of the Ys search party even though she is the least ranked among their knights.

When Toal finds the other goddess, Feena, he manages to pull Reah's plan out of her and learns that the two goddesses plan on sacrificing their wings, the source of their divinity, to seal the demonic essence of the Black Pearl. Doing this would cause the two goddesses to enter a sleep that could last for centuries.

The strange thing about this story is that hearing Feena's words is what convinces Toal of what he needs to do, which implies that becoming a Darkling and destroying the Black Pearl by merging with it was never a grand plan of his. Toal is described as a bit short-sighted and stubborn, so I'm not surprised that he didn't have many details for his poorly contrived undercover work, but it's not clear why he would have agreed to become part-demon in the first place, and unfortunately that's never answered.

Further up the tower, Toal meets Reah again and this time drops his evil facade entirely to try to convince her that the sacrifice of either of them is completely unnecessary and that he's found a different way, but he doesn't get a chance to explain his plan (or if it was a lie to trick her out of the sacrifice) before they're discovered by the Darklings, who capture Reah and reveal that they've possessed Hugo.

Now that his true allegiance is out in the open, Toal is quickly forgiven by his former enemies, the search party, who help him up the tower. Unlike Yunica and Hugo's finales at the top of the tower, where everyone else shows up at their backs, the search party holds off various Darkling bosses for Toal so he can progress to the summit, and even Epona pitches in to try to help him bring Hugo back to his senses (it goes over better than in Hugo's storyline since Epona lives), which results in Toal facing the Darkling leader, Dalles, almost entirely alone, except for the goddesses.

As was hinted in previous storylines, we learn in Toal's that the reason the goddesses took off without telling anyone is because they suspected there was a traitor among the Six Priests of Ys, and that's how the demon infestation got out of hand. That traitor reveals himself after Dalles's defeat in Toal's storyline only, and it's Cain Fact, head of the Six Priests and the father of Toal and Hugo.

Cain Fact had engineered everything, including getting both his sons implanted with demonic elements to see how they can augment the human body (and this in turn ties into why Hugo and Toal have descendants that do not look entirely human in Ys I and II). Cain merges himself with the Black Pearl becoming Darm (the last boss of Ys II) and Toal fights him not with the claws he's been using since becoming a Darkling, but with his Cleria Sword which he had left behind after the battle where he'd become a martyr (and in turn this sword is the one that Adol uses for the last boss fight in Ys I, ironically to defeat Toal's many greats-grandnephew).

The battle between Toal and Darm takes so much out of Toal that at the end of it, he's unable to stop Reah and Feena from undertaking their ritual to bind the demonic essence, and it's an emotional kicker knowing how much Toal cares for Reah. Though I know she's trying to tell him how much he means to her, Reah does a really good job of driving in the painful reminders that this is really good-bye for them.

For the audience that has played Ys I we know that it will be 700 years before Reah wakes, and by then Toal will be long dead.

The epilogue covers the remaining story bits to line Ys Origin up with Ys I. Toal leaves his Cleria Sword at the foot of the Roda Tree where Adol will find it 700 years from now, and Hugo and Yunica decide to stay behind on the surface instead of returning to Ys (so they can become the ancestors of the characters Adol meets).

Toal himself returns to Ys to become a priest in his father's stead. It seems a little surprising at first that he wouldn't stay on the surface as well since that is where they entomb the Black Pearl and the sleeping goddesses, but his decision makes sense. Hugo never wanted to be a priest, and Toal had only given up his position because he thought Hugo was more suited to it. And Toal wants to work with the other priests to lay down the story of what happened to future generations.

In the final epilogue scene, we see him send down the six Books of Ys, which Adol will find many years later.

It was a good ending, and even though I'm disappointed that not everyone's own storyline is canon, Origin is one of the best prequels I've ever played. All the nods to the original story and how things came to be were spot on and never felt forced. Best of all, it feels like it could work even for players unfamiliar with the Ys series, because the references that do existed aren't shoehorned in there for the sake of being present. They're all made part of the story.

Monday, January 18, 2016

RPG Talk: Ys Origin - Part 2: Hugo Fact

Part 1 can be read over here.

Right off the bat, Hugo Fact's name carries baggage, so I purposely chose to play him second. Yunica's descendants are all helpful people to Adol, but Dark Fact is the final boss in Ys I, making him one of Hugo's descendants. It was an interesting move to make the ancestor of a final boss a playable protagonist.

Hugo turned out to be a lot of fun. Though his play style is unique to Ys since he's a ranged spellcaster, it's his dialogue that makes him my favorite character. Unlike Yunica, who wears her heart on her sleeve, Hugo is not the aloof badass he pretends to be, and he spends the game trying to figure out who he really is (while climbing a crazy demon-built tower to rescue goddesses).

Compared to Yunica, Hugo is mouthy and arrogant. He's been trained to take over as head of the Fact family, which means that eventually he would ascend to the priesthood and serve directly under the goddesses, and on top of that he's considered a magic prodigy. His skills are actually the result of a lot of hard work, but no one looks at it that way.

In the early part of the game Hugo talks down to enemies, which is fun, but also demonstrates his lack of social skills (due to too much time studying and not enough time socializing), which is also fun. The great part about it is that Hugo is frequently convinced he's being considerate rather than condescending.

The reality is that Hugo is a nice guy, but is saddled with crazy expectations from his father and from himself. His older brother Toal was supposed to be the heir, but ran off to join the Holy Knights and Toal didn't care about being disinherited, leaving the much younger Hugo to pick up the slack. (The game doesn't mention the age difference, but from flashbacks they're probably at least ten years apart.)

Just when Hugo had thought he'd gotten out from under his older brother's shadow, Toal was one of the two knights who stayed behind in the face of certain death to buy time for Ys to rise into the sky, making him one of the greatest heroes of Ys and a martyr besides.

So Hugo has a lot of baggage. His father's expectations. His own wanting to be like his brother while at the same time loathing his brother, especially since Toal does not turn out to actually be dead and Hugo's father has sent him on a secret mission to kill Toal while looking for the goddesses. Toal appears to be working with the Darklings, foreign humans who are able to command the demons and the main villains of the game.

It quickly becomes apparent that Hugo is tied into the story way more than Yunica was, which is a shame. While Toal shows up in her storyline, including a confrontation with Hugo, his name and background aren't explored.

Yunica's actions are predictable, as are the results of her actions, because of her character archetype, and while to a lesser degree Hugo seems to fall into the badass loner trope, the writing is savvy enough that we don't know where being a pompous jerk is going to take him.

For instance, there's one scene involving a magically sealed door. In Yunica's storyline she encounters it with a group and everyone gives it a fair assessment as bad mojo that should not be touched. They'll need to find a way to trick it.

In Hugo's storyline he encounters it alone and convinces himself that because he's the heir of House Fact he should be strong enough to be able to punch through it... and promptly gets his ass handed to him when the magic rebounds and knocks him unconscious.

It's hilarious, because that doesn't happen in most games, and it's a great way of breaking down who Hugo is trying to be versus who he really is.

In most games, when the main villain offers the hero a temporary taste of demonic power, the correct answer is no, or at least not on the villain's terms. Because of who Hugo is, his need to be powerful for his father and his inferiority complex compared to his brother, it's not quite as stupid when he lets the main villain embed a sliver of demonic essence in him.

Well, okay, it's still stupid, and he gets called out on it, but it's at least believably stupid.

Most of this calling out comes through his relationship with Epona, and this is where his story works so much better than Yunica's even when treading the same ground.

Epona is one of the Darklings, and as such, she tussles with Hugo a couple times, but she's a free spirit (even as a villain) and after he helps her out of a pinch in exchange for information about his brother, they develop this frenemy rapport where they trade smack talk with each other. Unlike Hugo's companions from Ys, she's unrestrained in her observations about him. When he protests that he is neither cocky nor dumb (adjectives no one else in the search party would ever use with him), she comes back with this zinger:

...Eloquently proving the point that for everything Hugo pretends to be, sometimes he is a cocky dumbass.

Epona shows up regularly in Hugo's storyline. While I haven't counted how many times Roy has appeared in Yunica's, Epona's visits are definitely more memorable, because it's usually just her and Hugo present, since other characters would prevent any bonding.

Because she's an outsider and is unintimidated by his reputation, she's the one who gets Hugo to realize that he still cares about his brother and that his life has revolved around trying to become someone else. Epona helps Hugo grow, whereas Roy at best does nothing to help Yunica and at worst is holding her back.

Though Hugo and Epona probably only know each other for a few days at best and Yunica and Roy have known each other for years, as the reader who knew both pairs an equal amount of time, I bought into Hugo and Epona more and felt it more when Epona was killed.

I can't really complain about the love interest being killed while/because of saving the protagonist when the plot does it for both genders, but Epona's death means more, because she means more. The writer saw to that in her banter with Hugo and because he appreciates what he learns from her, painful though it is, we know what she means to him as well.

When it looks like Hugo's going to die in the cut scene before the final boss fight, the name he thinks in regret is Epona's, because he's afraid he's not going to be the person she saw in him. Tellingly, Roy is not on Yunica's mind when she goes through her version of the same cut scene.

After playing through Hugo's storyline it became glaringly obvious where the deficiencies in Yunica's were. Her story is fine for emulating an early 90s style of video game storytelling, which I had taken it for, but knowing how much more depth was in Hugo's story left me with a bad taste in my mouth because Yunica's could have been so much better.

Hugo's story probably leaves the player with the most unanswered questions though, including how he already knew his brother was alive before heading down to the surface and why his brother joined up with the Darklings, since it becomes clear that even though Toal is working with the bad guys, he's not entirely on their side either.

Fittingly, Toal is the third protagonist, and is only available after beating the game at least once as either Yunica or Hugo, though I don't think it's good idea to jump directly to Toal after playing Yunica because his story spoils a lot of what happens in Hugo's without necessarily giving all the context.

Monday, January 11, 2016

RPG Talk: Ys Origin - Part 1: Yunica Tovah

I finally broke down and got on Steam last year. I forget what exactly did it, but I had been gradually hearing about really good indie and niche games over time, and a lot of actual JRPGs have landed, so I figured, "Okay, I'll get on board, but I'm only going to buy games if I know I'm going to play them in the next two weeks. No building up a backlog!"

(So far, I'm succeeding.)

One of those games I bought was Y's Origin, which is so good in some ways and a bit disappointing in others. As with previous RPG posts, I'm going to talk about the plot, spoilers included.

But first a brief history of Ys, because Ys Origin is very much a nostalgia trip.

Ys: The Vanished Omens was the first action RPG I ever played. It was on the Sega Master System and at the time its story was better than average, because it was a mystery. Long ago the land of Ys was a mystical land of plenty, its inhabitants led by two goddesses and six priests, until one day the civilization vanished.

As wandering swordsman Aron Christian (later corrected to his original Japanese name of Adol Christin in subsequent releases) I explored the land of Esteria seeking out the cause of the recent demon outbreak and along the way discovering that they were somehow tied to the lost civilization of Ys.

The twists and turns and the real reason behind the disappearance of Ys were pretty good for its day, being gradually told through six books left behind by the six priests, each offering a piece of the puzzle. The game culminates in Aron/Adol climbing a massive tower to confront the main villain, whose identity comes as a complete surprise when he drops the sixth and final book, revealing himself as a descendant of one of the six priests. (Though sadly, no motivation for why he turned out to be a bad guy. This was the 8-bit era...)

The Ys series has never been a huge hit, but it's popular enough that it has seven mainline installments that revolve around Adol Christin and his adventures across the world, regardless of whether the land of Ys is even involved.

Ys Origin is different in that Adol isn't the main character. Released in Japan in 2006 and brought to the US on Steam in 2012, Origin is a prequel takes place 700 years before Ys I, just six months after the civilization of Ys is lifted into the sky to escape the onslaught of demons that seek to destroy it.

The demons below have been building a crazy tower (the one from the first game!) in an attempt to reach the floating sanctuary, and to make matters worse, the twin goddesses have disappeared without consulting with their six priests. In a panic, the priests send a search party of twelve down to the ruined surface to find the goddesses and bring them back. Though immortal and powerful spellcasters, the goddesses Reah and Feena are fallible and capable of being harmed (though it's not clear whether they can actually be killed).

In Origin there are three playable characters, two of which belong to the search party, with only the search party protagonists being unlocked at the start.

Yunica Tovah is the granddaughter of Priest Tovah and daughter of Saul Tovah, who was one of the two knights who stayed behind fighting the demons to buy time for Ys to rise into the sky. As an apprentice knight Yunica wants more than anything to protect the twin goddesses, who she has known since she was a little girl.

She's also unusual for being the first female protagonist in an Ys game, and there are several things the game does right by her.

Yunica is the Adol analog in this game, meaning she's the closest of the three playable characters to playing like him. If you want something similar to the mainline protagonist, you play as Yunica, not one of the two guys. She's not portrayed as an overly tough lady, or an overly girly one, and no one says a thing about her swinging a battleaxe instead of a more delicate weapon. In fact, you could genderswap a lot of her scenes, leave the dialogue alone, and she would come across as a dedicated and sincere young man.

There's a lot to be said for that, especially coming from a Japanese RPG, which tends to have trouble putting female characters on equal footing with male ones. (See the head scratching reasons why Final Fantasy XV has an all male cast and why you can't play as a female character in Tri Force Heroes.)

By virtue of being the player controlled character, Yunica gets to do everything that a male protagonist does, including being the leading vanguard in exploring a tower full of demons while other members of the search party regroup after their disastrous landing on the surface.

She gets taunted by the villains and gives them guff back. Though she has her moments where she oversteps her limits to her detriment, it's not anything that I haven't seen before with male characters; even the part where she's moping about being useless (which is one scene and then gotten over with).

Yunica bounces back, and has key moments like where she takes up her father's sword and when she becomes a full-fledged knight. They're all things I would have wanted as a kid if I had a girl for my protagonist. Yunica is strong without her strength being the end of all things.

True, her storyline isn't that original, but Origin is a love letter to fans of the original game, and playing Yunica in particular is like playing an older game with similar story expectations. She scales the crazy demon tower, saves the goddesses, discovers the real origin of the demons, and the game ends with the stage having been set for Ys I 700 years down the road, including Yunica choosing to remain on the surface instead of returning to the floating land of Ys (which explains why her descendants are NPCs in Ys I).

It's so incredibly rare to see a female protagonist in this kind of medium, in this particular storytelling style, and it was nice to see her hit many of the same tropes her progenitors had, but the one trope I didn't expect to hit was the death of the love interest.

This is the part of Yunica's story that worked least for me, and it's made harder by the fact that Yunica and Roy have almost zero chemistry.

Roy is introduced as a friend who grew up with Yunica and looks after her like a teasing older brother. He doesn't have her back so much as he's trying to keep her in check because she's still an apprentice and not as experienced as the other knights. It's clear he's doing this because he cares, but she never asked him to do so and she's annoyed that he does.

In the second half of the game though, she saves all the other knights, including Roy, who finally seems inclined to believe she can take care of herself, and reveals that he has something to ask her after all this is over. From context this can only be a marriage proposal, which feels really weird considering that Yunica does not appear to be into him as anything other than a friend.

The people she's most concerned with the entire game are the two goddesses and to a lesser degree discovering the fate of her father. If Roy is not immediately present she doesn't think about him at all. He narratively occupies the same space as every other knight in the game.

Then came my least favorite scene, though it makes sense from the villain's perspective so I couldn't say remove it.

Yunica has absolutely no magic ability, coming from a land where magic is bountiful and plenty. She's not an outcast for not having any. People love her just fine. But one of the villains lays a magic trap knowing that Yunica lacks the means to escape.

Roy comes to the rescue, and at the cost of his life, manages to concentrate long enough to break the spell so Yunica can properly kick the villain's butt.

There is naturally a sad scene afterwards where Yunica comforts the dying Roy. He doesn't break out any deathbed love confessions, but he does put his remaining magic in a necklace that he gives her since she doesn't have any magic of her own. Yunica also says something about having always known what he was thinking, but it feels rather hollow because as the player that's not possible from what we see.

I can't help suspecting that we had a male writer who was unsure how to write a romance with a female lead that he left too much implied, or perhaps the player was expected to view Yunica through Roy's eyes. In any case I ended up feeling more sorry for Yunica losing a friend than feeling sad myself since my connection with Roy was not that strong.

Roy barely had any interaction with her when they weren't with the other knights, rendering him as simply one of the group, plus a little more because he'd known Yunica longer, but he didn't stand out. It might not have bothered me at all if Yunica's storyline had been the only one included in the game, and barring an unanswered question or two it works fine as a stand alone.

But Yunica isn't the only playable character, and for everything Yunica's storyline does right, it's a pale shadow of the two. Nowhere do we see that clearer than in Hugo's story, my second playthrough.

Monday, January 4, 2016

"Confidence Game" Now Live in Galaxy's Edge #18

Nothing like starting off the new year with a new publication! Set in Galaxy's Edge's shared Sargasso universe, "Confidence Game" is the story of ex-con man turned stage magician Daryl Yagami, who gets roped into the sort of illegal shenanigans he thought he was done with years ago.

This was super fun to write. Usually I dislike rereading my stories after I've sold them, but "Confidence Game" is one of the few that I don't mind coming back to.

All of the January/February issue of Galaxy's Edge is available free on the web until the March issue goes live, and if you enjoy the other stories as well, please consider a subscription.