Thursday, January 9, 2014

I've spent more time with the Bravely Default demo than I ever will with Knack

Oh, this is lovely. See, I have this rule that I always like to finish a game before I review it. It adheres to the understanding that a review is a formal piece of writing representing an informed opinion, and you have a fuller perspective of a game if you've seen the entire thing. You don't need to follow this rule; review however you want. It just makes me feel better about myself as a critic. Ah, but I've just started a blog! One that nobody reads, probably! I have no one's standards to live up to here except for my own, meaning that I'm totally within my boundaries to play a small fraction of a game, dismiss it as a waste of time, and then criticize it!

I've only played a few hours of Knack, and I do not like it, and I am not going to play the rest of it. Wow, that was freeing. I don't even proofread this stuff.

I don't hate Knack because it's bad. I hate it because it's nothing. It has no wit, no personality, no creativity, nothing to indicative that it was made by humans as opposed to, say, a computer program that knows what a video game is but doesn't understand why people enjoy them. (I've used that analogy to describe Silicon Knights' two most recent games, which should tell you everything you need to know.) It's essentially a brawler with one-button combat, and it doesn't even make an attempt at mining depth from that setup the way El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron did. There's some "platforming," in the sense that occasionally the player is called upon to jump. There's a "visual style," in the sense that the characters all have large heads. Whoever voices the protagonist delivers lines like "Sorry!" and "I can't wait!" with cool-guy one-liner affectation. It's miserable.

It's also hard. Most enemy attacks will kill you in two hits, while most ranged attacks, in a bewildering display of poor balancing, kill you in one hit. You have a generic punch, as well as a jump attack that has zero range and does around half the damage of your standard blow, so I'm confused as to why it's there. You have a couple of (essentially) screen-clearing special moves that you rarely ever have a chance to use since your energy accumulates so slowly. The game blends a sluggish, unresponsive dodge with enemies that move swiftly and without warning. The platforming suffers from terrible collision and offers zero camera control whatsoever. Knack has the aesthetic of a kids' game, but if I'd played this as a kid, I'd be throwing a temper tantrum.

I've asked around. That Knack is difficult seems to be the general consensus. What I'm also hearing, though, is that it's excruciatingly long, and that the combat doesn't particularly change or evolve as you progress. I can't confirm whether or not that's true. But if the game is this intimidating, what exactly does it do to earn such a commitment from me? What I'm playing is dull, mechanical and completely lacking in charisma, in addition to being unreasonably demanding. Knack himself is a decent character design, but that's the only mark of creative input that I've witnessed in the first several chapters. Knack feels like a hodgepodge of industry staples cobbled together to create a nondescript "action game," one designed to move units at the launch of a hot new console that, unfortunately, doesn't have much else to offer.

It seems to have worked, because this thing apparently outsold Super Mario 3D World. I haven't played that yet, but I've already established that I'm making no attempt at professionalism here. I have no obligation to complete Knack, so I'm not going to.

So Knack is the worst thing I've played in the past week, which puts it squarely opposite the Bravely Default demo. The full version of that is already available in Japan, Europe and Australia. I am jealous of the people living in those places.

The title sounds like it graduated from the Infinite Undiscovery school of incomprehensible nonsense, but it's actually a reference to the battle system, which has characters alternating between defensive and unleash-all-hell stances (called "default" and "brave," respectively). It takes a relatively familiar job system and forces players to manage a constantly-shifting resource: time. Characters gain one BP per turn. They lose one BP whenever they do anything of importance, preserve their BP whenever they default, and can use accumulated BP to perform multiple actions in a single turn. So every turn counts; every move must be carefully considered. It's a far cry from JRPGs like (to name a frequently-cited example by me) Blue Dragon, which you can beat by essentially spamming the "attack" option while reading a magazine. Indeed, if the demo's difficulty is any indication, you'll be paying very close attention to this one.

I'll admit that the demo doesn't do a very good job of contextualizing the story, which is intention; they didn't want this to feel redundant, and thus they specifically designed the demo to be a side quest of sorts, one in which you run missions for random villagers and actually earn rewards to be used once the full game is released. So I don't have a good sense of how well-developed the plot and characters are. I'm hearing, from people lucky enough to already own this thing, and they're great.

That'd be icing on the cake, but the issue that I have with many JRPGs is that very, very few games have the breadth to hold my attention for 60-plus hours, regardless of how emotionally engaging they are. There's belief among JRPG developers (and Bravely Default reportedly doesn't buck this trend) that a game can only be classified as "epic" if it spans dozens and dozens of hours, and man, that is tough to pull off. One of my all-time favorites in the genre, Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean, couldn't have been more phoned-in from a storytelling standpoint (and beats you over the head with it, to be sure), but it offered one of the deepest and most expansive battle systems I've ever used in an RPG, and once I'd invested 50 hours in it, I could've gone on for 50 more.

That's the sort of thing that a game like Bravely Default needs, and it's the sort of thing that the full game is set to deliver, if early reviews and the demo itself are any mark. That its job system mercilessly milks my nostalgia for Final Fantasy V and Tactics doesn't hurt. Hopefully it doesn't let me down, and I'll find out as soon as possible, because this thing just jumped to the top of the list of my most anticipated games of 2014.

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