What makes a good sequel?
It’s a question that every developer and every publisher ask themselves more often than they should. What makes a game a good game in a series? A careful balance of the core aspects of the old and new to make the ideas seem fresh, an intelligent person would tell you. Get rid of the bad, and add a couple new things, some good, some, eventually, not so good, and you’ve probably got a good follow-up.
Change too many things, though, and you’ll be reviled for destroying a franchise. Change too little, and you’re doomed to be called copycats of the previous game. Look at Dead Rising 2. It’s the same game as Dead Rising 1, but without the game crippling flaws. And reviewers are docking it left and right for that. They wanted dramatic changes to a winning formula.
Dead Rising is interesting, because the team that made Dead Rising made another game before that. A game which literally skullfucked a respected franchise, and in turn made one of the greatest games of all time. A game which everyone despised at release, because it wasn’t the same as the four relatively bland and generic games that came before it.
I speak, of course, of Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter.
And, like Dead Rising, it had a very concrete limiter: the D-Ratio. While Dead Rising limits you directly by time, Dragon Quarter limits you in the form of a small counter that is ticking up in the upper right hand corner every 10 steps or so. It’s rise is gradual, but if it reaches 100, your character dies.
This wouldn’t be much of a limitation if that was the only bit, since there’s enough D Ratio to walk around the entire world twice or thrice. No, the kicker is this: the game is quite difficult, with a very tactical combat system, overwhelming numbers of enemies, and a limited inventory. The only real ace in your whole is Ryu’s transformations, where he gains obscenely overpowered draconic attacks which can overwhelm even the toughest battles. Using these attacks, however, raises the D Ratio by jumps. Use it too much, and you doom yourself.
This creates the central conflict of the game. Enemies lay on you thick and furious, and you know you have this devastating solution in your back pocket, but you can’t use it. It’s a very different way to process combat. In most Japanese RPGs, you win by overwhelming strength, or you die and are forced to go grind in the wilderness (a strange perversion of the trope of heroes spending years in isolation, to be sure). In Dragon Quarter, all the levels in the world don’t matter. If you rush in unplanned, you die. Simple as that. There are too many enemies who do too much damage to brute force. You need to use tactics, lines of sight, and traps to win battles.
Let’s have a brief interlude for how much Dragon Quarter failed as a sequel, because it is intimately related. I was a big fan of the previous Breath of Fire games. Breath of Fire the first was an integral game of my childhood, Fire 2 even more so. Breath of Fire 3 is definitely among the top five Playstation era RPGs, probably higher than you think; it had a brilliant combination of subtle character development, interesting wrinkles in the battle system, exciting playable characters, and a convincing story. Breath of Fire 4 was more of the same with few wrinkles, but it was a great game nonetheless. It did what a good sequel should do: it took the previous successful game, it ironed out the creases in the gameplay, and it added onto that an even more interesting plot and some new concepts.
Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter took all of these ideas and threw them out the window. Which made fans very, very angry. Personally, I hated it when it came out. While a massively different sequel could work when there’s a lot of time between games (see: Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross*), Dragon Quarter came out only a couple years later. Gamers could make direct comparisons, and direct comparisons are the worst thing a game can have.
It’s interesting how Makoto Ikehara’s first thought in making Dragon Quarter was, First and foremostâ€¦let’s change Breath of Fire. (http://www.rpgfan.com/features/creatorstalk/index3.html) It’s not the traditional ways sequels are done, and it’s emblematic of the game itself. It’s not a traditional JRPG. It’s one of those games which you feel could be very much like the Velvet Underground: no one heard of them, but everyone who bought their record back in the 60’s started a band. Dragon Quarter is a game that most people who don’t care about games on a deep, fundamental level won’t get. They won’t get it not because it’s bad, but because it does different things. It’s like Demon’s Souls in that respect: the way it is played is not the same as its contemporaries, and it’s only now we’re beginning to see games with the same influence coming out. For instance, read this description of The Last Story’s battle system (http://www.andriasang.com/e/blog/2010/10/05/last_story_battle_sample/). While not a copy, the same ideas are there that Dragon Quarter championed: more action, more strategy in the traditional JRPG battle.
The strategy is predicated on that kill condition, though, which most games would not touch. Dead Rising did, in having one save file; Dead Rising 2, developed by different folks, removes this dedication to one save state. All outlets are hailing this as a immense improvement, but Dead Rising 2 has scored 5 points less on average than Dead Rising (http://www.metacritic.com/search/all/Dead+Rising/results). It’s easier, too. People have commented on Dead Rising 2 being a fun playground of zombie killing, and how the time element is interesting, but that the game, as a whole, isn’t great.
Dead Rising, on the other hand, was often remarked on as a tense, nail-biting experience. Sure, people talked about how having a massive zombie playground was quite exciting, but more comments were on the tough, tense campaign. These elements have been neutered from the sequel, because it gave gamers some consternation; as a result, the new game is toothless and not tense. The difficulty of the psychopaths in the original game was not that they were difficult, but that they took precious minutes to defeat. In the new game, they are widely regarded as the worst element, because the time delay doesn’t make the fight tense. My favorite moment in the original game was the massive death march to save Carlito from the Butcher. The Butcher himself wasn’t a difficult fight, but every second you saw the clock ticking slowly down, realizing that all would be for naught if you didn’t try to rush the simple combat puzzle. It gave the game a real tension.
That was the element Dragon Quarter gave Dead Rising: tension. Dragon Quarter is one of the tensest games imaginable. It hums like a taut rope when you pluck it. Battles are difficult because every tactic you use contributes to the slowly ticking ratio counter: sure, you could execute a tactic that could easily win the battle against 10 goblin men, butâ€¦that would take 10 turns, your ratio would increase, and your limited supply of healing items would deplete. You could make Ryu into a dragon, which would keep you in the healing items, but would increase your ratio dramatically. Or you could rush in foolishly, waste all your healing items, but keep your ratio low.
It’s choices like these that make video games into fascinating things. Space Invaders wouldn’t be fun if the enemies couldn’t shoot you in specific spots, if the barriers were permanent. But they aren’t. The way to the enemy is through the barriers: if you tunnel through your defenses, you get a defensible way to attack the enemy, but put yourself in potential danger. It’s a balance, and it’s that balance that makes games action packed: the balance of safety and danger. All danger is overwhelming. All safety is boring.
And that’s why so many modern games fail despite their cinematic flash and their compelling stories: they choose to prevent the game from being broken up by deaths, an excess of safety, to even some danger. Danger, tension, is what makes games more than long movies, and there’s rarely enough of it.
Dragon Quarter had tension. It had the balls to challenge the player, to demand a degree of perfection. So did the original Dead Rising. And that’s why they’re games I’ll play again, while I’ll never play a lot of so-called modern masterpieces again. Because they just aren’t intense once you know the set piece can’t actually kill you. And that’s one thing Dragon Quarter wasn’t shy about: killing you.
*Mini essay supplement: yes, I know, you hated Chrono Cross. Here’s the thing. Chrono Trigger was the game development equivalent of someone who never played darts before throwing 100 darts at a board and having *all* of them hit 20. Of falling down a mile high mountain and not having any injuries on landing. Chrono Trigger was the biggest dumb luck success of any video game ever; I mean, the same guys didn’t even get the same things right in Blue Dragon. Of course they wouldn’t make everything as perfect in Chrono Cross. So they tried to make an entirely different game, to throw all the darts at a different board instead of the same one. And I think more darts hit than missed.