Saturday, May 31, 2008

Review - Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King

Let me start with the conclusion: I don't recommend this game for everyone but if you have any real interest in game design then you should play this game. It's a perfect example of how to take some great concepts and completely break them in game play. This is more than just a weak game, it's a broken one with things that should have never left the design game. It's rare that a title with such an obviously broken design makes it to the public in such a high profile manner and that turns it into a wonderful object lesson in what not to do.

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King is among the first wave of new games released through Nintendo's WiiWare service which lets users download games. Players take the role of a king with an empty town surrounding his castle. Magic gems let you build new structures instantly and from them you get adventurers and can send them out to clear dungeons around you castle so you can get more gems and repeat. There are structures to support the adventurers and townspeople. Eventually you'll clear enough dungeons that you'll be able to send them out to beat the Dark Lord (that's not me using an euphemism; that's actually the name given to him) and save the kingdom.

It's not the first game to do this but it's the only recent one that comes to mind. I liked earlier kingdom building games so I purchased this and started playing. I was having fun designing my town and slowly filling out the world. Then I hit the wall. The irritations started piling up one after the other, the fun parts slowed down for hours of pointless repetition, and the promise was lost.

The first time you play the game it starts immediately on "normal" difficulty level but normal level lacks large portions of the game. To get them you have to beat it once on normal and then you can start the game on hard with your adventurers retaining the buffs that you gave them in the first play through. Since many of my complaints have to do with the how the game play flowed I played it once on "normal" and once on "hard". The changes were not enough and I actually found new problems when playing on "hard".

Problem one: the resources are not balanced. The heart of game design is the management of resources. You have X of something to complete task Y, how do you expend resource X to maximize your opportunity? There are two key resources that the player has direct control over: crystals which are used in construction and gold which is used in developing abilities. At the beginning it's tight and you have to make choices. By midgame, however your income far outstrips your payments and the income keeps flowing in even after you have nothing you can spend things on. It removes the decisions that should be driving the player's experience.

Problem two: managing adventurers is not interesting. This isn't a big deal at the beginning of the game; you send your few adventurers out to the nearest dungeon and then get to your real work. When that work starts slowing down, though, the other set of decisions that the player has to make are not challenging. There typically is only one or two valid places to send them to so it's an effortless choice. Hard mode does improve this in the midgame by giving the player a range of locations which make the player prioritize their exploration, but then loses it in the last portion by reducing it to one long path again.

The adventurers have moral that must be maintained and again, it's difficult at the beginning and simple enough to be ignored by the midgame. Allow me to present this simple scenario; you obtain the ability to create a structure that will let you pay your adventurers more according to four levels (their pay does not come out of your resources) that you must buy. You make enough income that you can buy out those levels without putting strain on your pocketbook by the time you are one-third of the way through. Do you buy each only when you have to just barely maintaining the morale or do you buy out all four instantly and make morale something you don't have to put any thought into for the rest of the game? The designers of this game thought that the answer was the first one.

And you'll note that theme: by the midgame things are dragging and by the end it's boring as hell. Once the construction is done and the adventurers are sent on their way you can improve your kingdom by building the morale of your citizens. You do this by talking to them for the three to five minutes days. So you finish off the stuff you need to worry about in thirty seconds and then do repetitive actions with no thought involved for three minutes. And you do this two hundred times a game. So across a full game you play for roughly ten hours and eight of those are the equivalent of walking around a town in Final Fantasy and talking to the civilians who do nothing. Eighty percent of this game is not fun to play.

What's more there is no challenge. In a strategy game there must be a give and take, a cost that has meaning. There is no cost to anything. You collect so much in resources that you can't screw it up for long unless you're trying. Your adventurers always bounce back to get send out again. Even the Dark Lord doesn't recover from wounds so once you've encountered him there is no challenge; just throw bodies at him until he dies.

This could have been changed easily. The walk and talk portions of the game should have been completely dropped turning the game into a straight turn based strategy. Resources should have been balanced so that the player would have to worry about them. Costs should have been given meaning. The world should have been framed so that the adventurers had more to do. All of this should have been obvious at the paper stage long before it reached programming. And that's what makes My Life as a King interesting.