If memory serves, that was about a year ago, with Ultima 9. In early 2001 I finally assembled the mega-computer that Ultima 9 demanded, an 800Mhz dual-CPU beast with 768 megs of RAM, a RAID array, and the latest 64-meg ATI graphics board. I loaded up on snack foods, dimmed the lights, locked the door, and nobody saw me for a week. When I emerged -- bedraggled, malnourished, sore, and mentally unbalanced -- I promised myself that I would keep away from RPGs.
Well last weekend I was bored and wanted some escapism. And there it was, Pandora's Box. My CD binder. All these games I've never played; might as well pop one in ...
Hah. Now it's 4:55am and 40 hours later, and I'm bedraggled, malnourished, sore, and waaayy mentally unbalanced. I should not have broken my own promise. The long immersion has warped my cognitive skills. The insides of my eyelids are papered with green health bars and oozing red lava. Why did I install this damn thing? Why did I click the icon? How could this have possibly been a good idea at the time?
So what really hooked me was the music, and the menu displays. Ghoulish tiki masks, inside floating iron rings, pulsing and spinning. The music oozed right up my back and crimped my brain out of this world, and into the shadowy green RPG world of "Art of Magic". Very atmospheric and subtle; very effective. I was a goner.
I've come out of this game with a hefty respect for the developers, whose gaming company dissolved out from under them while the final version was being produced, yet still found a way to finish and release the game. I've also made a couple of amusing observations about this game and 3D games in general, which I'd like to document here. Before I quit RPG games. Again.
In a broad sense, this is one of those "explore - drama - fight - explore - drama - fight" games, which all us Final Fantasy and Dungeon Keeper players are familiar with. It's a pretty straight cross between those two, actually. The graphics and the sound have a cohesive, unified quality, and my screenshots and discussion here does not do any of it justice, but I'm not writing a review... I'd just like to make a few points.
In the anime universe, people have coined a term called "fanservice". The idea is that producers of anime are usually targeting the young teenage male demographic, and young teenage males like to see lots of bouncing cleavage and panty shots. So female characters will be drawn with oversized boobs and skimpy outfits, and photographed at invasive angles, as a "service" to those fans. Some particularly low-quality anime consists entirely of "fanservice".
Any of you who have played 3D games in the past couple years will recognize that the same phenomenon has appeared. Ever since Lara Croft backed up against a wall, and the default response of the camera was to slide straight down until it was practically looking up her ass, 3D gamers have gotten plenty of "fanservice".
So it's no surprise that there's plenty of it in this game. You walk out across the map, and when your party arrives at the next battleground, the camera does a terrific nose-dive to focus on that region. And in the words of fifth-graders everywhere, "Dude, you can see everything!"
Now don't get me wrong, the outfits are all consistent with the atmosphere and spirit of the game, and they're all nicely rendered. And let's keep it in perspective: You'll get more fanservice than this just from channel-surfing at 3:00am. But, well ... look at this picture on the right, for example. This is supposed to be an elf child running off the map, after being rescued from an enemy camp. Even the little elf-girls have cleavage that would promote scoliosis.
Here we have an interesting snapshot. This is a peasant running around in a blasted village occupied by demonic enemy forces. The cleavage suggests it's a she. The goatee suggests otherwise. This confusion is par for the course in some low-quality 3D games, but was out of place here. I mean, on this same level, rivers of translucent lava snake across the land, and ooze under charred rock bridges, and the flowing texture on every facet matches perfectly with the facets around it. No lack of quality there. One way or the other, the really compelling question is, why is this person sprinting around the map, randomly, carrying a dead rat? I have no idea.
Fanservice is everywhere in modern media. Movies, television, magazines, games. People just like looking at girlies. Here we have a bit of landscape from an Elven palace. When you're out chasing some wacky Chancellor across the courtyard, you may just rush right by this without a glance. That would be a shame, however, because in this game, the gratituous female statuary is above average. Some artist did good work here.
Incidentally, the Chancellor in this RPG does not have an actual name. We only know him by his occupation. But that's all we need to know. According to the Final Fantasy series, anyone holding the office of Chancellor is automatically a corrupt and evil character. So let's go get him!
This game is played by summoning creatures to form an army, and leading them in battle. You summon the creatures with mana, and you get mana by placing units on "places of power", which show up as handy little stone circles all over the map. the AI of the game is scripted, to a degree, which usually means that the computer will wait for you to do a certain thing before shifting position or attacking you. Often the AI opponent starts out on patrol, but will not be checking one of the "places of power". If you can sneak a critter onto that spot, without triggering any events, you can stand around absorbing mana forever, and summon up an entire army while the AI sits on it's ass.
This tactic is, essentially, a bum-rush. When I pull this, I set the game speed to maximum, so the mana builds up fast. Then I leave it at maximum while making the attack. It's great fun leading an army of 15 hyperactive paladins through a gauntlet that was built for stealth and caution. They peel off in groups of two or three to hack apart the inoffensive wildlife, steal everything, and generally destroy their environment, until I point them all at the main baddie and they barrel off to make his or her life miserable.
When you've got your opponent near death, he gets to make a speech. This means that all action freezes. All the characters stand still. Even the dragons freeze in the process of coughing up their next fireball. The camera swings down to face the character, and his voice rolls out from the stereo. Everyone waits patiently until he's done.
Now, when you're bum-rushing someone, the effect of the camera freeze is quite amusing. Observe this fine snapshot of the chancellor making his goodbye speech. I've added a white arrow so you can see his doomed ass in the throng. "You may have caught me, but the powers of Chaos will prevail!", he's saying. Just wait 'till the action resumes, buddy. Of course, he poofs out of existence when his speech is over. Drat.
Strangely, the freezing action only affects creatures. Not projectiles. When an actor is speaking, only the actors get to move, but when the camera is making a zoom or a pan to go between conversations, fireballs and arrows resume their flight, for just an instant. I only mention this because it can have very amusing results. For example, in the picture above, you can see the blond head of an elf near the top between two blue swords. In that scene, just as the camera panned off the Chancellor so it could focus on the King, the elf got smacked by an arrow and keeled over with a loud "AAAAAaCK!" noise. Nobody else in the room moved. The effect was:
Chancellor: "I do not think so. You may have caught me, but the powers of Chaos will prevail!"
Random Elf in the back: "AAAAAaCK!" [WHUMP]
King: "We'll see about that."
If you think that picture was bad, check this shot out. The white arrow points to the dumbass wizard who is speaking. Never mind that he's facing the wrong way, he is actually addressing my character, the human standing off to the right. He's mistaken me for an elf, and while everyone stands around frozen, I explain that I'm not an elf but a wizard like he is, and furthermore his ass is toast.
Now, if you were near dead, and ringed all around by nine smug looking paladins, what would your last words be? He laughed, and said, "You amuse me boy, but today, you shall die." A quarter second later he exploded like a big red piñata.
My paladins are great. Here they are, posing at the top of a Chaos Wizard's defensive tower. The one behind the kneeling one is standing on the wizard's fresh corpse. They turned out to be the handiest critter of the lot, so I made big crews of them.
Mind you, there are dozens of creatures to summon and fight, and they're all beautifully animated. The griffin arrives in a burst of light, and squawks and preens itself. The vampires grimace and their clothing ripples in the wind. The centaur slaps at flies. Even the nonmoving structures are summoned in gorgeous bursts of activity. The Totem of Light comes drilling up out of the ground like a haunted oil derrick. The Totem of Remote Casting forms from a writhing confusion of roots. Most interesting, I'd say, is the Totem of Healing:
Now this is fanservice, emphasis on the service. Every couple seconds this water spirit with a nice ass pops out of the Totem of Healing and heals a nearby creature. Water splashes out, as a cleverly applied flat sprite. Very nicely animated, and very nice to look at. The paladins like her a lot.
So my sleep schedule is utterly wrecked. My brain is fried. My language skills have had a meltdown. Even my sense of balance has gone wonky.
Dammit, I swear I will not subject myself to this torture again!