2024-03-12: The Secret of Varonis -- SaGa 1... 2?

The SaGa series is pretty storied at this point. A massive spanning affair with a couple dozen installments stretching back to the original Game Boy days, it has no want for different takes on its formula or options for play. It eve has a fair number of spiritual successors in the form of The Last Remnant, Alliance Alive, Legend of Legacy... However I'm not personally aware of much that throws back to the original Game Boy games as much as pays homage to the formula itself.

The Secret of Varonis sets out to do that, and does it pretty well by my book. This one kind of came out of nowhere; I discovered it on accident while checking if another game I was interested in was on sale yet. I'm glad I did though; it was a delight to play through.

At its core, Varonis is an homage to SaGas 1 thru 3, with its creative vision drawing most strongly from the first. It doesn't pretend to be entirely its own thing, throwing you immediately at the foot of a proverbial world-spearing tower (or rather a castle with teleportation gates) right from the start. It's made very clear you'll be going on a SaGa 1 style adventure again. Varonis though knows when to lean hard into the retro aesthetic and when to pull back and do things with a little more modern spin. The quality of life improvements are strong, the opaque mechanics of a SaGa game made more clear and numbers made more explicit, and an array of difficulty and accessibility options ensure you don't need to be a die-hard SaGa expert to get into the game.


2024-03-07: Shining Resonance Refrain -- Not the Shining I Knew!

I finished Shining Resonance Refrain. I'm a fan of the Shining series; I've played a couple of entries in the Force SRPG bucket, the Soul duo, both dungeon crawlers, and I've loved all those. Resonance, that's a different far more confusing story. First of all, the Shining series has clearly changed a lot since Soul II. Soul II came out in 2004, and Resonance in 2014 (though it wouldn't see an English release until Resonance Refrain in 2018), so that's 10 years of series evolution I'm not brushed up on.

My understanding of "Shining" has a lot of specific keystones: Centaurs, Dragonutes, Birdmen, Pastes, small spell/skill lists with simple one-word names like "Fire" that have selectable power levels to give them variety, extremely storybook fantasy plots with simple blank self-insert protagonists... But apparently all of that ended after Soul II. Looking through various Wikipedia articles on the series, I pin most of this on the introduction of Tony Taka to the design team.

Tony Taka is not a name I've heard of before, but he's apparently been around the block a few times. He's a character artist and video game designer who mainly focuses on harem stories and has quite a few eroge titles to his credit. I don't know how much sway he had over overall design, but his introduction to Shining coincides with a shift in focus from storybook high fantasy to something a little more earthy and base.

This is a lot of words to run up to the point that Shining Resonance is a harem story game. This is a change I certainly wasn't prepared for. "Harem" in this sense refers to a plot where you have a protagonist who ends up surrounded by love interests and a part of that story is the protagonist dealing with sorting that out. Resonance dives into this pretty deeply while running a parallel thread of an over-the-top Exalted-tier high-powered battle fantasy story. The resulting blend doesn't quite hit it for me, and I don't think results in a good match for each other.

The most typical pejorative I see in criticism of the game's plot is "stereotypical anime". I don't even know what that's supposed to mean, frankly. Artistically though there's a fair amount of exposed skin and ample bosom but it doesn't tread into the realm of eroge, as one would likely expect a Sega game to not do.


2024-01-23: Rambling About AGDQ 2024 and Speedrunning

My Relationship with Speedrunning in 2023

I don't think I kept it a secret that I've been slowly falling out of the speedrunning world. I left Best of NES for various reasons, I felt like Speedgaming kind of packed up and moved on to bigger things without me, my interactions with Edge Case Collective kind of fizzled out, I never really felt comfortable in Power Up With Pride, Handheld Heroes stopped running, and I kind of came to the conclusion that I wanted to chase new and different experiences and deepen my knowledge of the world of game design and writing rather than experience the same game over and over again. Then on top of all of that I had my growing concern that GamesDoneQuick was going somewhere I would not be able to follow.

I've had a weird arm's length relationship for GDQ for years. It's the kind of relationship where people tell you "We're an event for the community and we also do charity" and you believe what they're saying, but in the back of your mind you remember a system is what it does, not what it says. GDQ's system for the past five or six events has been to pump as much cash in the direction of the charity as is possible and sometimes, perceivably, at the expense of the event's presentation and execution. I don't have a problem with this; the charities they support are both super important and hit close to home to me for multiple reasons. However when it comes to places where I feel like I have a community, GDQ isn't it.

I've come out of events seeing the very tiny marks I made on the speedrunning world and saying "Part of that massive charity drive was my doing" and been proud of that. That's kind of the limits of my involvement here. However through the last few events I didn't even feel that. Those events were marred by some major signaling issues including making decisions that amounted to sacrificing a runner's entire run on the marathon in favor of pushing a donation incentive harder. That said, the reality of it is apparently more complex and backroom conversations were had, but the net result is that. I didn't want to be a part of that.


2023-09-26: Legends of Amberland -- Might & Magic III-2

I bemoan somewhat regularly that I've mostly exhausted my supply of Might & Magic gridders to play. I still have Swords of Xeen, and I suppose Legacy exists (or does it? I don't know how the Ubisoft DRM debacle ended up). Aside from that though, not much. Wizardry and Beholder are the blobbers that get spiritual successors and homages and reboots, not Might & Magic. So when I discovered someone actually did make a spiritual successor to an early Might & Magic game, I took notice.


This is Legends of Amberland, a game that starts off looking and feeling like it mugged M&M3 in a back alley before diverging off on its own path somewhat. Amberland has all the trappings of M&M3: colorful oversaturated palettes, on-field enemies that move around when you do, zany sprited enemies and overblown combat sounds, "representative" dungeon layouts that look like what they're trying to be rather than tightly packed razor wall grids, and a plot that mainly consists of collect-a-thons disguised as quests.

In fact, in the first hours as I mapped the starting world (something I didn't have to do, since Amberland has an extremely competent automap), I started getting the feeling that the dev might have even copied the general shape of the Isles of Terra. This is a feeling that goes away once you get off the starting landmass, but it's powerful in its similarity to the west islands of Terra at the start.

Amberland does set itself apart in various important ways. The main way is instead of having gear limitations per class, Amberland introduces an encumbrance system. You have a limited number of weight points per character and armor takes varying amounts to wear. In essence this just re-establishes class limitations on gear as mages have 8-10 weight points and plate mail starts at 20, but you do get some wiggle room in the form of being able to wear a really good chain mail even on a mage, at the cost of not being able to wear any other gear.


2023-08-06: The Alliance Alive -- SaGa Made More Accessible

SaGa games come with a reputation for being difficult, obtuse, and designed to punish the player for engaging in behaviors that are considered typical for other JRPGs. They punish grinding, reward sticking to one plan, but also require exploration to find the best plans and builds to use due to a combination of opaque complicated mechanics and convoluted trees of skill unlocks. Getting into them is a bit of a challenge (and one I have yet to actually fully tackle myself).

Getting started in SaGa presents a newbie with a couple options for easier experiences: SaGa 3 (preferably the DS remake), SaGa Frontier (where restarting a chapter is far less punishing if you screw up and the remake adds help systems), or Scarlet Grace (which is newer and comes with some QoL and learning options). These are all undoubtedly very "SaGa" and throw you into the deep end with their systems. This week I discovered a new option that serves as a far more mild (and charming) introduction to the SaGa systems: The Alliance Alive.

To call TAA just a softer SaGa doesn't really do it justice. TAA is a completely unique concept with an incredibly endearing aesthetic, plot, ambiance, and feel to it that just happens to weave SaGa concepts into an easier, softer package incredibly well. Originally a 3DS release, TAA has seen an HD remaster release on practically everything; with varying quality depending on platform. I played through the Steam version, which I don't necessarily recommend but I'll get into that.

A Lot of Words on TAA and SaGa Mechanics