Luminous Arc: That's a wrap

So, did I manage to pull off an Alph solo run of Luminous Arc? Well, sort of. I sure blazed through the second half of the game, polishing off twelve chapters in a mere four hours; and Alph was pretty much my sole asset on the battlefield. I occasionally took a couple of extra party members along for the ride; but being the under-levelled wimps they were, they usually died in a couple of turns, leaving Alph alone to finish the job. Not that it was a problem, mind you; my Lv. 99 Alph was more than strong enough to take care of any foe, and so I managed to reach the final boss without hassle. It was smooth, it was nice, and it was definitely fun.

The final boss battle, on the other hand, is none of these things. It's a nasty difficulty spike of Eiger proportions; and for the first time since my insane grinding marathon, I found myself in a genuine bind. Not only do the boss and his six minions hit harder than any foe before them, but they are also hell-bent on healing and buffing themselves. And since I cannot take them down in one clean hit, even with Alph's most powerful attack, I got stuck in a vicious circle of hitting them only to see them replenish their health, ruining all my efforts in the process. Add to this the necessity to heal myself on a regular basis and you get a perfect recipe for Final Fight Failure. The rest of my crew is virtually useless because of their low levels; and since I got my fill of grinding already, there is no way I'm investing a single extra minute of my time in levelling them up. And thus I'm officially giving up on Luminous Arc after 20 hours of genuinely satisfying play.

That game is not perfect, obviously. Controls are infuriatingly clunky and imprecise (I actually switched to stylus controls after a couple of minutes because they were less frustrating than button controls, which speaks volumes about the poor quality of said button controls), battles are ridiculously slow, and the story is so asinine that the game would have been better off without it. I wish the options to skip all story segments had been available, because watching said story segments felt like a complete waste of time. Heck, I didn't even bother reading the text anymore after a couple of hours. I could elaborate a lot more about how characters accept new circumstances way too fast, how they are so pure and pristine while all church officials are evil and rotten to the core and how the big baddie's ultimate goal hardly makes any sense; but I'll abstain. I've already given that story much more attention than it deserves simply by enduring its unskippable cutscenes.

Still, there's no denying that I had tons of fun playing Luminous Arc. This is the second SRPG in which I resort to over-levelling to break the game and enjoy myself; and I must admit that there is some kind of genuine thrill in subverting a game's rules and playing it in a way that was not intended by developers or by the genre itself. Relying on a single overlevelled character didn't fully work in Luminous Arc, but it sure took me far into the game; and had I been ready to pour a few extra hours into the game to level up a couple of units, I'm sure I could have beaten that cheated final boss and his minions without breaking a sweat. In the end, we always get back to the same point: the RPGs I love the most are the ones that give me the opportunity to play them my way, and Luminous Arc was definitely one of those. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Luminous Arc: Whatever works

Boy, is it good to be reunited with my beloved DS at long last! It's been nearly a whole year since I played the system last, and the wave of giddy joy that washed over me as I rediscovered the DS' unmistakable graphical style and low-fi touch made me realize that I missed the system a whole lot. Guess I should play DS games more often then — all the more so as my DS library is by a long shot the largest of all my game libraries. But I digress. This post is not about the awesomeness of the DS, but rather about how I broke, twisted and remodeled Luminous Arc's gameplay beyond recognition in an over-enthusiastic attempt to make the game work for me. And work for me it does indeed, o yes precious.

My playthrough started in a fairly normal and unremarkable way: I fought a couple of battles, noticed right away that everybody but Heath and Alph sucked big time on the battlefield, and decided thus to focus the bulk of my level-grinding efforts on the aforementioned pair and to make them my main battle assets. This worked nicely until the game viciously removed Heath from my party after a mere couple of chapters, leaving me stranded with a reasonably strong character and a bunch of under-levelled losers. Why, oh why, game? I was seriously salty after that backstabbing move, not to mention anxious about whether I would manage to progress with such an unbalanced team; fortunately, the game was kind enough to drop a couple of powerful characters into my party, allowing me to move forward without having to level-up my neglected party members. I then decided to play Luminous Arc as it was visibly intended, i.e. by using all characters and choosing the best fitted for the battle du jour.

It worked well enough and I progressed unhindered until chapter 13. However, there was one tiny problem: I was bored. I didn't use most of the characters often enough to master them all in earnest and pull off genuinely satisfying strategies. Most of the time, I used only the top dogs in my team — a.k.a. the "Fab Four" Alph, Saki, Nikolai and Lucia — leaving the rest of the crew in their underlevelled slumber. I could have levelled up that sorry bunch and gotten used to them by abusing free battles, but Luminous Arc is so stingy when it comes to XP granted in said free battles that it would have taken a million years to get decent results. But most importantly, the fighting in Luminous Arc is so unbearably slow that attempting full-party deployment will quickly turn into a complete torture for anyone who isn't a Zen monk. The more characters involved, the snappier the fighting system: this is an unwritten rule that all RPGs should abide to lest they transform into massive snoozefests.

Not only was I bored, but those cursed battles were harder than I expected. My fine quartet was overlevelled to some extent; but that wasn't enough to ensure a smooth ride, and fighting was slowly but surely turning into a chore. And given that Luminous Arc consists solely of battles with fixed screens and a bit of chatting in between, being sick and bored of said battles would have made the whole game pretty pointless. That's when I decided to break the mold and treat myself to a bit of easy grinding by crawling back on the world map until I reached a free battle point where foes where so undelevelled that I could take them down in one hit. And since I wasn't sure how long Saki, Nikolai and Lucia would stick around, I decided that Alph would be the sole beneficiary of my grinding efforts.

At first, I solely wanted to unwind and grind a couple of levels in a relaxing environment; but things took a different turn after I fought a few battles and realized how unbalanced the XP gain dynamics were. To put it simply, defeating strong foes gives too little XP and defeating weak foes gives too much XP. Not only that, but there is actually a minimum amount of XP given for killing a foe, regardless of your character's and the foe's levels. That amount is 6 XP; and it never gets any lower than that, even if your character towers at Lv. 99 and the foe crawls at Lv. 1. Combine this to the fact that the number of XP required to gain a level is precisely 100 and never varies, and you get the perfect set-up for a mammoth grinding marathon and a massive breaking of the game.

Heck, I'm sure you guessed what happened, dear fellow gamers. At first, I grinded a dozen of levels; then I wondered if I could grind a dozen more, just for fun. I did so, and it was so painless and pleasant that I decided to add a couple more to the mix. And then, I was hooked for good, and I just couldn't stop for the life of me. The result of that epic grinding fest can be seen on that picture: MC Alph is now Lv. 99, and I'll probably be able to blast through the rest of the game without breaking a sweat. I'm a hardcore grinding aficionado, as you all know; but I swear I never, ever planned to go that high with Alph. The fact that I got so engrossed into senseless grinding is solely due to the deliciously predictable nature of level-grinding in Luminous Arc. It took exactly the same number of foes and roughly the same amount of time to gain a level, and that regularity put me into a transe of sorts that was both relaxing and stimulating. I didn't need to put always more and more effort into climbing the level ladder, but rather the exact same amount of effort for every rung of that level ladder; and boy, was it deeply satisfying. In fact, Luminous Arc has one of the best level-grinding systems I've ever encountered, despite the imbalance of its XP gain dynamics — or maybe precisely because of them.

After having completed that heavy-duty bout of grinding, I can safely claim that the developers never intended players to take party members all the way to 99. The mere fact that only the freshest foes give decent amounts of XP was probably conceived as an encouragement to forge ever on; and the existence of the XP minimum indicates that Imageepoch didn't think for one second that players would backtrack and engage in crazy level-grinding marathons. On top of that, all characters stop gaining skills and special attacks after Lv. 46, which makes me think that the crew is probably supposed to be around Lv. 45 when the final showdown unrolls. Well, guess I broke the game then. That's your fault, Imageepoch, for making level-grinding in Luminous Arc so deliciously addictive.

I can now go back to the main story, and I'm really curious to see how things will unfold. Will I blast through the rest of the game, leaving a trail of burnt land and dead bodies after me? Will Alph's impossibly high levels be enough to ensure smooth victories over the many foes ahead? Will I manage to pull off a de facto solo run of Luminous Arc' second half? Well, we'll see, and very soon at that. Stay tuned for my next run report, dear fellow gamers! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


A bunch of games I couldn't play

To my utter dismay, I've hit a bit of a dry gaming patch lately. I've been unlucky enough to encounter not one, but three games in a row that didn't click with me and that I ditched around the three-hour mark, utterly blasé and disgusted. I'd be tempted to attribute that stroke of bad luck not to a temporary failure of my ever-dependable gaming instinct, but rather to the fact that the involved games were cheap digital-only PSN games, and such games are pretty much hit-or-miss propositions. Without further ado, here are the offenders, along with the reasons they failed to enthrall me:

Vagrant Story: I grabbed that subterranean Squaresoft cult classic for a couple of euros; and at first, it seemed like an inspired purchase. I was extremely fond of that game's claustrophobic vibe, in medias res introduction à la Dark City and vaguely menacing eroticism reminiscent of '70s exploitation films; and although the gameplay first conjured horrific memories of Tomb "Them controls are too fussy" Raider, Vagrant Story's physics were sleek and polished enough to make me quickly forget that first impression. On the other hand, I was not so enthusiastic about the fighting system, which struck me as dreadfully boring. Instead of treating us to some hack-and-slashy goodness, Squaresoft introduced a tedious extra step in the fighting process: enemies must first be locked on, after which you have to choose the body part that will get the most damage. Whether Squaresoft chose those mechanics for the sake of being original or because automatic aiming with melee weapons was not possible at the time, said mechanics take all the urgency away from combat. On top of that, killing foes is busy work: they don't grant XP and they drop loot once in a blue moon, so you're basically killing them just to clear the way. But the dealbreaker was the fact that each weapon is efficient only against a given type of foe and that weapons must be levelled-up and switched on the fly if one wants to progress smoothly. The though of spending hours of my life levelling up weapons filled me with such dread that I wisely decided to give up on the game. I really liked Vagrant Story, but I'm not sure I can ever muster the courage to touch it again.

Siralim: I had an instant crush on this game, to be honest. It boasts everything I love: nostalgia-inducing 8-bit graphics, a simple and fast-paced turn-based fighting system, randomly generated dungeons that are a joy to explore, tons of missions that give perfect incentives to roam&grind and, last but not least, the possibility to run solo. With such a perfect list of features, there was absolutely no reason for me to lose all interest in that game after a mere three hours of play, was there? And yet, that's exactly what happened, and that untimely defection can be blamed on two factors. First, the number of dungeon floors is actually infinite and there is no definitive end to the game; and that killed all my drive to crawl on the spot. If it's up to me to decide when I want to stop crawling, I might as well save myself some time and not start crawling at all, all the more so as I've never been fond of sandbox games with no grand finale: I need a goal, a challenge to keep me playing. Give your dungeon 500 floors if you want, but make it finite. Secondly and most importantly, Siralim uses level scaling, which makes level-grinding entirely pointless. This means that the only way to overcome difficulty spikes (the first one being pretty early on at floor 5) is to farm all sorts of materials to improve your weapons and spells; and I dislike farming, which I deem too random and unproductive. All in all, this game is an exercise in sheer, utter laziness. The developers dispensed themselves with implementing a balanced difficulty curve, thought-out difficulty spikes and a seamless progression towards a final boss; instead, they threw in a bunch of algorithms for random dungeon and mission generation, level scaling and difficulty spikes and called it a day. I don't see why I should play that lazy excuse for a dungeon crawler when there are dozens of better dungeon crawlers available.

Bastion: This highly praised title crystallizes everything I despise about indie games. With its anaemic, simplistic and unpolished gameplay craftily hidden under a thick coating of gimmicks and edgy aesthetic choices, Bastion is the perfect illustration of the expression "style over substance". Alas, the game's flashiness and apparent originality wear off very quickly. The gimmick of the levels assembling themselves as you progress is just like the 3DS' 3D effect: it wows you at first, but you stop noticing it entirely after five minutes. The narrator gimmick could have been a neat one, if the developers hadn't been dumb enough to reveal said narrator's identity after ten minutes of play. The baroque, colourful art style is undeniably gorgeous, but there's so little variety to the levels that it becomes boring after a while. The story is told in a disjointed way for mystery's sake and ends up being totally incomprehensible in the process; and last but not least, the bleak atmosphere à la Limbo becomes seriously depressing after a while. All this arty varnish wouldn't be an issue if the gameplay were satisfying, which is unfortunately not the case: Bastion's real-time fighting system is sloppy, unprecise and frustrating. There are often so many mobs attacking at once that the only way to progress is to slash and shoot blindy while running around, dodging and chain-healing; and while these hectic one-against-hundreds battles are undeniably thrilling at first, they quickly become irritating. Enemies also feel a bit too insubstantial to be really pleasant to slaughter, and that's all to blame on their wobbly hitboxes. Hitboxes are everything in Action-RPGs and can make or break a real-time fighting system; in the case of Bastion, they don't utterly break the fighting system, but they certainly don't help its case either. Once I got bored of the fancy gimmicks and fully realized the gameplay's utter lack of depth, there was no more hope for Bastion and I dropped it just like its two predecessors.

There's at least one good thing to be found in this series of unexciting games: if I lose access to my digital games once the PSN bails out, I won't shed a single tear for these three. Needless to say, Siralim and Bastion reinforced my natural aversion to indie games, and I don't think I'll purchase many more of these in the future. For one gem like my beloved Rainbow Moon, there are ten turds like Siralim and Bastion that rely on lazy algorithms and attention-grabbing gimmicks to get by. I have a couple of digital indies left to play, such as Titan Souls and Hotline Miami, and I wouldn't be surprised if I end up hating them as well. But hey, only play will tell! And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to dig up a REAL game from my precious collection to compensate for that festival of mediocrity. (Yeah, I know; that jibe's easy and cheap, but it feels so good). Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!