turn-based combat

Legendary Gary Review — Meta-Masterpiece

by Jed Pressgrove

Metatexual independent games have become more popular over the last few years, but the works of this movement — The Stanley Parable, Undertale, Pony Island, and Doki Doki Literature Club!, among others — have been more egotistical and shallow than humanistic and insightful. Evan Rogers’ Legendary Gary rejects the cynicism of this trend by daring to have players empathize with a stereotypical unemployed gamer who lives with his Bible-thumping mom. In showing how video games can serve as both escapism and inspiration, Rogers offers a mature cultural perspective that transcends the manipulative tricks of his too-cool-for-school indie peers.

As Gary, you always wind up playing an RPG called Legend of the Spear. This game allows Gary to forget the commentary of his mother and girlfriend and to exist in a world that, while challenging to survive in, lacks the more serious problems of real life. But responsibility soon demands Gary to get a job to support his mother, and as he navigates the very dubious politics at his grocery-store gig, he starts to notice that the events and people in Legend of the Spear mirror those of his everyday life.

Every day after work, you move Gary into his room to resume gaming. The sense of isolation is initially freeing, but when Gary’s worlds start to clash or reflect each other, wake-up calls abound for the protagonist. During one session with Legend of the Spear, Gary abruptly quits the game when he learns his friend has had an overdose. And when Gary begins to see similarities between his boss’ questionable orders and the quests given to him by a reptile queen in Legend of the Spear, his sense of integrity is doubly called into question. Through such occurrences, Gary learns how to care about people other than himself.

This story of coincidental redemption might sound sappy, but Rogers infuses wit throughout Legendary Gary to underscore the silliness of the game’s premise and the hilarity of human behavior and thought. At one point, Gary, tired of his mother’s constant references to her faith, declares that God doesn’t make video games. His mother’s response is sharp, believable, and ridiculous: “How do you know what God makes? Are you his accountant?” In a later scene, Gary’s boss has been fired for her unprofessional approach to management, and Gary is interrogated about his dealings with her by two corporate stooges labeled Serious Man and Other Serious Man. The sliminess of the situation is beyond palpable when one of the men advises Gary, “Just remember to keep it profesh’ from here on out.”

The audiovisual approach of Legendary Gary is a perfect fit for Rogers’ blend of humor and drama. The hand-drawn art of Legendary Gary is cartoony but exquisitely detailed, highlighting both the absurdity and complexity of Gary’s life. The soundtrack is an unusual mix. When Gary engages in turn-based combat in Legend of the Spear, you hear songs that seem like they were composed by a Talking Heads cover band. At first, it feels as if you’re listening to the most unorthodox score for RPG battling ever, but the music complements the dance-like movement of the characters when they all take their turns simultaneously — half spectacle and half nonsense.

Legendary Gary’s conclusion implies that life and video games are better when they have cathartic value, as opposed to when they only seem to suck away our spirit and our time, reducing us to human shells. The final scene is in a graveyard where Gary’s father was buried. Both Gary and his mother come to grips with the massive hole in their family unit, and the newfound bond between them suggests a sense of hope for the future. At the very end, the game visually confirms that every character in Legend of the Spear is an analogue for someone in Gary’s life. Legendary Gary is as meta as they come, but more importantly, it’s far wiser than the norm for imagining a more positive relationship between art and humanity.

Advertisements

Cosmic Star Heroine Review — Turn, Turn, Turn

by Jed Pressgrove

There’s a reason Cosmic Star Heroine has an uncomplicated, unpretentious, unemotional spy plot: developer Zeboyd Games sees turn-based combat as an artform that can almost single-handedly justify the existence of a game. Sure, Cosmic Star Heroine has an interesting cast (the 11 playable characters include a nature-loving private eye, a robot who hits on both sexes, and a bounty hunter who recalls Final Fantasy VI’s Shadow and the Japanese movie alien Zeiram), as well as some well-designed settings enriched by HyperDuck’s catchy soundtrack (like the night-club location that benefits from this pop smartbomb). But all of these things ultimately amount to gift wrapping as Cosmic Star Heroine zips toward the next series of fights that demand a unique type of forward-thinking play.

On the surface, Cosmic Star Heroine is a Chrono Trigger wannabe, as seen in the way the characters run, the style of the overworld map, and the enemy encounters. The latter element in particular is a necessary rather than nostalgic design choice: unlike a traditional Final Fantasy, which randomly transports you to a stage for battle, Cosmic Star Heroine always allows you to see your foes, and once you get too close to them, you transition immediately into combat mode — your immediate surroundings are the arena. This borrowed concept complements the fast pace of the story, which, in one wittily frantic sequence, has you fend off a bounty hunter right before battling a huge mech that you then pilot to kill a city-threatening monster.

Following the lead of Zeboyd’s previous games (the best of which was Penny Arcade 3), Cosmic Star Heroine streamlines the typical turn-based RPG experience to make it more urgent and less repetitive. There are a limited number of enemies, characters automatically heal after victory, opponents become more powerful with each new set of turns, and so forth. Cosmic Star Heroine takes its predecessors’ groundwork to another meticulous level, however. Most actions, whether a simple physical attack or a healing move, can only be used once before the player is forced to defend and recharge all abilities. In order to win efficiently (which is a concern given enemies’ ever-increasing strength), you not only have to think ahead but also remember the single techniques you’ve depleted.

The need to think of your moves as perishables puts Cosmic Star Heroine on a rare strategic plane given that turn-based RPGs, even with the variable of magic/ability points, tend to encourage players to spam the most effective techniques. Zeboyd’s complication of the formula doesn’t end there. In most cases, you gain “style” as you perform moves. Because style gradually increases the effectiveness of your actions, it could be smart to avoid unleashing certain weapons until later in the battle. Characters also become “hyper” on specific turns, during which you receive a significant multiplier effect. There’s always risk with these bonuses, though, as waiting for extra attack power can be deadly if you’re fighting an enemy who is already extremely strong and will only grow stronger with each new turn.

This system is even more ingenious thanks to the numerous abilities the 11 heroes gain as they level up. In addition to the ever-present defense/recharge option, each character can only “carry” seven unique moves into battle, so your party members can serve very different purposes based on what abilities you assign. And the abilities themselves may come with catches, like a more powerful physical attack that causes you to lose a turn, a buff that goes into effect for only one turn, or a party-replenishing heal that kills the user. Integrating the various strengths of individual allies with consideration to style and “hyper” turns, while also remembering to recharge abilities and eliminate threats before they are too overpowered, shows a brand of orchestration that Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, Zeboyd’s two main influences, don’t come close to touching.