Date: 2/28/10 11:00PM
Game time: 1 hour
Oy. The last few months have gone by so slowly, mostly thanks to unique personal life happenings. I got Shiren 3 to review right about the time it came out, but didn't get around to sticking it into the Wii until tonight. And I still haven't written the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon review.
But enough about my review procrastination. I did finish and review Strange Journey and did most of the slave labor for the 2009 Game of Year feature, so I haven't been totally worthless. Sadly, after an hour of Shiren tonight, I felt... very sleepy. Video games have the ability to put me to sleep when they're boring enough, and the opening of Shiren did the trick. I know a game is dull when I switch to the closing ceremony of the Olympics to wake myself up. A clown repairman fixed the torch and used his miming skills to pull up the 4th column. It was hilarious.
So Shiren. Starting it now, just 3 months after suffering through PMD, is going to be rough. I've found these turn-based crawlers to always be consistent from start to finish -- if the beginning is slow and boring, the end will be too, and if it's good, the end will be good too -- so allow me to jump to conclusions here and declare that Shiren will be landing on the bottom half of RPGamer's review scale.
But why is it so boring that it nearly put me to sleep on my not-that-comfortable futon a mere 8 hours after I got out of bed? The game has a terribly slow pace. I can live with a slow pace in a tactics RPG, or a traditional JRPG, or a western RPG, but in a crawler like this, it makes the game really crawl. Enemies are infrequent and pitifully weak. Dialogue is wordy, and it's one of Atlus USA's B efforts -- think Ontamarama, not Persona 4. It did make me chuckle once or twice -- it's not garbage -- but I can tell there's going to be much more dialogue in this game than I'd ever want, coupled with boring characters and a boring plot. Even though it's on the Wii, the controls are very similar to Shiren DS, which I thought had awful controls. Some buttons are used for too many things, depending on whether you tap them, hold them, and what other buttons you're pressing at the same time, and I have to think before doing any action. Also, the '1' button at the bottom of the controller -- the one that no finger can possibly press without moving the entire remote up your hand -- yeah, that has a practical use in the game. It fires projectile weapons, which I use often. So, awesome controls.
Shiren 3 abandons the series's mechanic of restarting you at level 1 when you die, which combined with the low difficulty and overall blahness is to going to make this a rough one to finish. I hope it's short. Keeping your level intact worked in Izuna 2 and Chocobo's Dungeon Wii because the gameplay was fun and the setting and charm were great. I don't think Shiren is really going to pull that off.
Above all, Shiren 3 feels like a kiddie game on the Wii, which is why 1 hour in I sound so resolute that it's not going to get better. It feels geared toward someone who stinks at dungeon crawlers, not someone who calls Baroque his 2nd favorite current gen game under Fallout 3. I'll be the first to admit it here if I'm wrong, but I'm going to make a pot of coffee before going back to it now.
Date: 3/2/10 1:30AM
Game time: 4 hours
Okay, so to be fair the game did get interesting. The exposition trickled down to nothing, which is a good thing. About the same time, the enemies went from dealing 1 HP of damage in the top floor of one dungeon to 30 HP of damage in the 1st floor of the next dungeon. This when Shiren only had around 45 HP. So that's two problems solved.
In the three hours I played between updates, there was only one lengthy plot scene, and it was so goofy I started laughing. I think I was laughing with the game, not at it, so that's good too. I do have a twisted sense of humor, so it could be that the scene was supposed to be serious, but I doubt it.
Not much else to say. It's settled into very familiar turn-based dungeon crawler territory. One thing that confuses me is who exactly the target audience is for this game. I think it has to be "gamers who already like the Shiren series." I can't see anyone else wanting to buy this game, and people with a Wii and a desire to play RPGs in this subgenre should grab Chocobo's Dungeon instead. I mean, Shiren 3 has no tutorial, no explanation of the controls, no strategic hints -- nothing. If you haven't already played a game of this type, you're going to be baffled and screwed right from the start. There are some gameplay instructions buried in a menu, and the first dungeon gives minor gameplay tips like "When you get hungry eat a riceball," but there's nothing that lets you practice with the gameplay first. Even Izuna 2 had a forced 5 minute tutorial at the start. I suppose this is why the first few dungeons in Shiren were a snoozefest: the game tries to ease you into the fire before shoving you into the heart of the furnace.
Since Baroque, which I love, did a similar thing, I should contrast the two in this regard. Baroque was more about experimentation and finding strategies that worked, and the bizarre atmosphere helped pull me along while I figured out how to play the damn thing. Once I got the hang of it, Baroque became one of the smartest strategy games I've ever played, constantly challenging me to come up with new ways to survive through the dungeon. In today's turn-based crawlers like Shiren 3, Izuna, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, and Chocobo's Dungeon, items have very specific, correct uses, and getting past a rough hump just takes some grinding and possibly making better equipment, not better thinking. At least not the type of outside the box thinking Baroque required.
One thing that set the Shiren series apart from the rest of the pack was the old-school way it kicked you back to level 1 when you died -- which Baroque did too -- but Shiren 3 does away with that and loses itself in the cluster of turn-based crawlers that have come out over the last 4 years. Shiren 3 is now Izuna minus boob jokes, Chocobo minus job classes, Pokemon minus... pokemon. What sets it apart now? It's no longer unique.
At least the boring first hour gave way to a more enjoyable experience, even if it is a totally unoriginal one thus far. I have a feeling Shiren 3's balance will ultimately decide how much I like this game as a whole. Izuna 1 had horrible, horrible, horrible balance issues, which led to critics panning the game and me personally disliking it. On the other hand, Izuna 2 and Chocobo's Dungeon were very well balanced without any crazy difficulty spikes, and I enjoyed them. My main gripe with Izuna 2 was that outside the fun localization it did nothing new and nothing great, and that's where Shiren 3 is headed now, if it stays balanced.
Date: 3/4/10 1:20AM
Game time: 5 hours
Got my first game over. Ends up if either of the two characters die in the dungeon, it's game over. Oops. I was thinking like Izuna 2 where you can just run around with 1 dude alive. Knowing that, it means I got really close to dying earlier in a couple ridiculous boss battles.
Ah well. Lesson learned. Right now the difficulty is increased a little artificially by the lack of healing items in shops. Sure, any game can be tough if you only sell a single healing leaf and then make the player survive through an entire dungeon with it. Again, this was one of the things Izuna 2 and Chocobo's Dungeon Wii fixed (I think! I might remember wrong) and Shiren 3 feels stuck in 2007. Don't get me started on how weaponry is strengthened in the game. I'm still holding my breath that the blacksmith will wake up later and let me fix equipment up like Chocobo Wii did. Also, I have 6,000 monies in the bank and nothing to spend them on right now.
Date: 3/7/10 11:30PM
Game time: 12 hours
I had a roommate in college who was hooked on NetHack for a while. He tried to get me into it, but I couldn't get over the voluminous instructions and the fact that the game's graphics were in ASCII. When he was playing it, every now and then he'd yell "DAMN," erupt in laughter, loudly read how he died, use the hilarity as an example for why I'd love the game, then eagerly restart. He didn't play to win. As far as I know, NetHack has no ending. He played to find new, funny ways to die.
Since that was the type of game this odd Japanese subgenre originally copied, here are my last three deaths in Shiren 3:
Shiren was low on health, so I hid him in the corner of a small room and had his partner out in front to ward off bad guys. A bad guy who was off-screen (so I didn't know it was there) launched a bomb at the partner, and the explosion hit and killed Shiren.
I was low on inventory space, so I opened a Holding Jar to stick items in it. At least, I thought it was a Holding Jar. During my quick scan of inventory items, I didn't notice it was a Hiding Jar. When you open a Hiding Jar, Shiren hops in the jar to hide from enemies for a long time. During this time, the AI controls your partner. Without Shiren around to follow, she ran out of the room, down a hallway, found an enemy, missed with her first few swings and died while I watched helplessly.
Every dungeon ends with a boss. I reached the boss at the top of a dungeon just now, feeling good because I had plenty of healing items left over. Ends up, it wasn't a standard boss battle -- it was stealthily a puzzle that you have to solve before the boss kills you. I didn't figure out the puzzle in time and died.
What do these deaths have in common? Well, none were fun, or funny. After each one, I turned off the game, annoyed, rather than eagerly reloading. Two of them would have been avoided if Shiren 3 gave you decent access to healing items (it doesn't). One came by moronic AI controlling your partner. None of them taught me a valuable lesson that will make me better at the game -- death by off-screen enemy, death by misreading item name, death by puzzle-boss. And really, this is a list of things that have no place in a randomized crawler. I died and learned in Baroque. Same with Chocobo's Dungeon Wii. Not so much with Izuna 2, which wasn't that hard anyway and dying wasn't a big deal, but at least Izuna 2 was fun and had a humorous script, neither of which Shiren 3 have.
Those three game overs do highlight something that readers and forumers seem to get stuck on -- the difference between challenge and poor design. I find some games to be hard, and then other games to be frustrating and poorly designed, but not necessarily difficult. I wouldn't call Shiren 3 a challenging game, but it does have some crappy design elements that make it hard to play. I enjoy fun, hard games, not games with an average difficulty that use bad controls, bad AI, and bad design to make a game frustrating, and hence less easy.
In theory, I could buy the shop out of healing items, run through the smallest dungeon so inventories are reset, buy the shop out of healing items again, and repeat that until I had a good stash. Then I could run into the latest dungeon and breeze through it. Or, like any JRPG, I could stop and level grind for a good while before tackling the latest dungeon. Doing either of these would make Shiren 3 a very easy game.
I have a problem with games that are this mindless, and leave me bored while playing them. I'm not learning, thinking, planning, or strategizing in Shiren. I'm hitting A a lot, and sometimes I die. The sense of progress that traditional JRPGs have is missing here, in plot, setting, and character growth, and playing Shiren at level 25 is exactly the same as playing him at level 1. These are issues that were fixed in Izuna 2 and Chocobo's Dungeon Wii -- both of which had an excellent sense of progress, and rewarded good planning and strategy -- and were never present in NetHack, which crammed so much variety into the game, my roommate could play it over and over for hours every day, and still burst out laughing when he died.
Date: 3/14/10 1:40PM
Game time: 17 hours
My dad's cats put my Wii out of commission, so this is on hold for now.
In 28 years of having dogs around video game consoles, handhelds, laptops, and desktops, the number of times a dog broke one -- 0. That goes back to the Atari 2600 and the Pekingese my parents had when I was born.
It took Dad's cats 5 days to break my Wii.
Date: 4/3/10 1:10AM
Game time: 20 hours
I turned off the Wii a few minutes ago, and in the ensuing silence heard someone open a balcony door outside. The condo I live in has a balcony that faces other people's balconies, and being nosy I peeked through the drapes to see why someone would walk outside at 1am. It was a guy who lives on the first floor who went out to take a public piss on the grass. Odd. Why would someone who is inside, presumably near a perfectly functioning toilet, go through the trouble of walking through the living room, out to the patio, and out to the area between the condo buildings to piss? Don't get me wrong -- I've pissed off balconies before, but it was in my younger years, and I was out drinking on the balcony anyway and the toilet was two doors and forty feet away. Peer pressure played a role too. Ah, the awkward, alcohol-induced bonding moments in college...
I could segue this into Shiren a few ways. "Speaking of pissed off..." or "I considered tossing Shiren at him like a frisbee, hoping he'd urinate on it" or "I'm not sure who was more relieved: the guy having a beer piss or me for turning off Shiren." But I think I prefer saying that seeing some stranger urinate outside, complete with a large crotch rearrangement when he was done, was just a fitting end to the two hours I wasted on Shiren tonight.
Nothing really new to tell about the gaming session. I bought some mediocre, overpriced weapons, ran through a previous dungeon in the hopes of finding something better, didn't find anything better, ran through a previous dungeon to reset the shops' inventories so I could get an Escape Scroll, went into the current dungeon, escaped when an enemy stole all my rice balls and Shiren's hunger hit 0/100, bought an Escape Scroll and rice balls, went into the current dungeon, escaped when an enemy stole all my rice balls and Shiren's hunger hit 0 (again), saw that no shops had Escape Scrolls, ran through a previous dungeon to reset the shops' inventories, bought an Escape Scroll and some rice balls, entered the current dungeon, escaped when I walked into a Monster House, bought an Escape Scroll and rice balls, went into the current dungeon, made it to the boss, watched as the boss's first move destroyed all my healing scrolls, died, turned off the Wii, heard a noise outside and looked out to see someone piss on the lawn between the buildings. See? It fits, doesn't it?
So now when I turn on Shiren again, I'll have to rebuy weapons, a jar, rice balls, and an escape scroll and go back to tossing myself at the current dungeon until I beat it. Next time I hit the boss, I know to hide my healing scrolls in a jar so they don't get destroyed.
Again, if there were any strategy involved in the dungeons and if the interface wasn't a total train wreck, this process would be fun or at least fast. But the mechanics are simple, the items are uninspired and straightforward, and the interface is a total train wreck, so it will probably take about another two hours of mind-numbing unfun to beat this level and start on the next one.
Date: 4/10/10 5:20PM
Game time: 27 hours
So after all that whining in the last post, I beat that dungeon on my next try. On accident. I accidentally entered the dungeon without an escape scroll. Then I actually found one in the dungeon. Then, I forgot how many floors were in the dungeon and accidentally hit the boss fight with only 1 healing item. Then, the boss NEVER USED his super ability that wrecked me the last time and I easily beat him. Success in Shiren depends so deeply on luck. Had the boss used his auto-win ability at the start again, I'd have lost.
I was on a roll then. Beat the next two dungeons rather quickly without dying too often. Made some awesome weapons. I admit, there was a period of 3 or 4 hours where I was enjoying the game and having fun, even with a little bit of dying tossed in.
Then I died a few times in a row and now my inventory is back to square one. Lame deaths. I used a healing item and it missed. Death. An off-screen enemy attacked my partner. Death. And really, that's when I tend to update this blog and why it's always so negative. When I get annoyed and stop having fun, I run to my computer and rant and whine and emo until I feel better, then I go play Pokemon for a few days. When I'm all healed inside, I try Shiren again.
But I did better this time. Since I've been so unreliable about reviewing lately, I went ahead and wrote the Shiren review while pissed off at the game. Just now. Yes, I'm not done with the game yet and we don't post reviews until we're done -- it's just a first draft -- but I'm right about at the end of it, and if healing items don't miss and off-screen enemies keep to themselves, I could probably finish it in a few hours. Nothing is going to happen that changes my sentiments or score at this point, mainly because Shiren hasn't shown me anything new in the last 10 or 15 hours and I don't think that's going to change now.
So that means my review is, ah, more negative than usual. I'll sleep on it, reread it tomorrow, clean it up, and if it's too crotchety I'll make it sound happier or something. It also got my anger out much faster than three days of Pokemon would have, so I'm going to go make another stab at it now.
Important -- If you want to know, the Midnight Pisser struck again the night after my last post. I started thinking maybe he always walks out and pisses in the grass at midnight, but I didn't notice before because I just started keeping my drapes and balcony door open last week. But I don't think he's done it since. Maybe it was a two day in a row fluke?
Date: 4/19/10 11:20AM
Game time: 31 hours
So real life has struck again. I'm in Texas for work right now, and I won't be back home for three weeks. This puts Shiren on hold. We considered posting a review anyway, but we really do stick to the rule about completing games before reviewing them, so it'll be a few more weeks. It doesn't help that I have no idea how much longer it'll take for me to complete the game. If I knew I could finish it in three hours, I might go ahead and post a review now, but since the dungeons have gotten longer and the game is so difficult/dependent-on-luck, it might take another 30 hours to finish it. I've seen length estimates for the main quest ranging from 30 hours to 60+, and I imagine the difference comes from luck more than anything else.
For my progress, I haven't died in a while and I have some spiffy equipment, but the dungeon I'm on now has tiny floors full of enemies. When I move up a floor, I usually get dumped into a room full of monsters, and every now and then I get overwhelmed and have to escape and start over. I had hoped to finish the game before I left for Texas, but the dungeons are long and I have trouble forcing myself to play the game.
Date: 5/7/10 11:50PM
Game time: 36 hours
I'm back home for a week and a half, so I picked up Shiren today to suffer through it for a while. I assumed that I would play it until I died and lost all my equipment, which would piss me off, and then I'd finish the Mimana review I started earlier in the week. It was a good plan, but I played it for five hours and never got a game over. I haven't gone this long without losing since the game's extremely easy opening levels.
Why the sudden success? Probably 50% having awesome equipment, 40% having seen all the game's evil tricks by now and defending against them better, and 10% dumb luck. During the stretch I did have an enemy pop out at me in a dark passage and promptly destroy my uber-awesome sword, but I got a bit lucky and made another one almost immediately, so I didn't lose much time.
So I tore through 5 or 6 stages just now -- it looks like I have at least 2 left -- and the game's gotten a bit out of hand. The story went off the deep end. I don't care about the protagonists, and after the fourth or fifth twist that caused a major change in antagonists, I stopped caring about the bad guys. Like in the beginning, Shiren 3 is dull, dull, dull when it's easy, and I was bored the entire time I played today. Bosses, oddly, have become a breeze. I've been beating them without using healing items, usually in just a few attacks. What the heck happened? Sure, if I die and lose my equipment it will be a pain for a little while, but the balance seems off regardless -- the +10 equipment I ultimately needed to finish the dungeon I was on 3 weeks ago is way, way overpowered for the boss fights and dungeons I've gone through since.
Another minus -- my group is now 3 people strong, and maneuvering through stages is like a turn-based babysitting game. You'd think having 3 people in a line, walking around, would be easy to code, but the devs were not up to the task. Also, playing for so long makes the serious interface issues stick out even more. 36 hours in, I still have to think about which buttons do what before I press them. And the shop/bank/storage interface is a disaster.
To put it bluntly, when Shiren 3 is easy, it's a bad game because it's boring. When Shiren 3 is hard, its a bad game because it's frustrating. There is nothing in between. And the interface is bad all the time. There are a couple RPGs I've played that I disliked in a way that felt so objective, I doubt the sanity of people who list them as great games. Tales of Legendia is one of them -- aside from being inferior to Symphonia and Abyss in every way, it was a game that bored the heck out of me with boring characters, a boring plot, a boring setting, a boring battle system, and boring dungeon layouts, and when I see someone claim its one of the best PS2 RPGs, I make a mental note not to trust that person's RPG opinions on anything else. The only other objectively awful game I've played that I see people give props to every now and then is DQ7. That's mainly it in Glenn's List of Objectively Bad Games that Other People Love -- just Legendia and DQ7.
Shiren 3 is probably going to be the third game to fall in that category, and I have already read a couple reviews that praised some of its obvious weaknesses -- namely, the horrid interface and difficulty that punishes you for doing nothing wrong. I want to grab Gann and Parish in a friendly headlock and give them noogies while yelling "WHY DOES YOUR SHIREN 3 REVIEW PRAISE THE INTERFACE, PATRICK?!" "JEREMY, WHY DO YOU CALL THIS ACCESSIBLE RIGHT BEFORE SAYING HARDCORE FANS WILL BE PLEASED, SAY IT IS SIMILAR TO DEMON'S SOULS, CLAIM EVERY RPG FAN SHOULD ENJOY IT WHILE ADMITTING IT HAS A NICHE AUDIENCE, WRITE THAT HAVING BOSSES IS DISTINCTIVE WHEN IZUNA 1, IZUNA 2, AND CHOCOBO'S DUNGEON ALL HAD BOSS BATTLES~~" Okay. I have too many questions about Jeremy's review to get them out in one yelling breath while rubbing his scalp with my knuckles, but I would certainly try.
There are so many better Japanese randomized crawlers out there. Try Izuna 2 to see how a roguelike can have a fun plot. Try Chocobo's Dungeon to see one with fun gameplay. Try Baroque to see one that can be hard in ways that make you think rather than numbing your brain. Objectively, I don't see how someone can claim to enjoy this subgenre, play several of them over the course of a couple years (like I have), and call Shiren 3 the best of the group on any criteria. It's the worst Wii game I've played (which doesn't say much, really) and the worst randomized crawler I've played (which does say much). I'd rather replay Izuna 1 and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon back to back than even look at the Shiren 3 cover again. Years from now, I'll hear generic traditional Japanese music playing in a movie, get stomach cramps and start vomiting, and not remember why my mind is causing this reaction. I'll have nightmares of talking ferrets and party members who wander off instead of following the leader. You get the drift...
Despite all the negativity, Shiren isn't exactly *awful* awful. This is one of the few game's I'm reviewing where I really, really wanted to stop playing it a long time ago. Yeah, I gave VK2 a 1/5, and it WAS awful awful, but it was during the NFL season, I could watch ESPN while playing it, and at the time my employer had been paying me to sit at home and do nothing for three months and I was very bored. Master of the Monster Lair and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon were also games I had to force myself to play, but they were handhelds and I was bored then too. My bitterness at Shiren 3 comes from the fact that my life has been busy for the last few months and I haven't been home much, it's a console game so I can't do anything else while playing it, and I wanted to stop bad at the 12 hour mark. That, and the game's been out for a while and I've read some reviews for it that make me go "whaaaa?!"
Also, the meat of my Shiren review was done a month ago, and since I can't add 4,000 words of rage to it, I'm venting here.
Date: 5/8/10 6:40PM
Game time: 39 hours
It's completed. There were actually some interesting plot ideas at the very end of the game -- and way too much exposition -- but it's a shame the story planners couldn't build up to them right. Essentially, the first 3/4 of the story builds a world with characters and mysteries that continually don't get explained. Then, to pull off the ending, every time something weird happened, it was explained as "magic" of some kind.
There was dream magic, god magic, ancestor's blood magic, moon magic, eternal life magic, rage magic, demonic possession magic... The ending scenes were a series of someone glowing, and someone else saying "She's drawing power from her godhood/dreams/eternal life/etc." Then, two scenes later, the same person would turn into a magical ball of energy and someone would say the same line, only swapping which source she drew the power from this time. It made no sense at all.
Thanks to the characters sorta explaining the plot repeatedly, I understand what was SUPPOSED to be happening in the finale, but it was executed very sloppily and came across as ridiculous. There were some cool setpieces and even a touch of pretty CGI. Why Chunsoft waited until the 11th hour to make the game visually interesting, I don't know, but it was a nice surprise.
I touched up the review, added a couple points, changed the score, and when I get the thumbs up from the boss it'll be on the site.
The lesson here is that dreams inevitably lead to hideous implosions.