Frayed Knights, what can be said about it? Well, apparently a lot since once again the critique is so extensive that I have to split it up in at least two parts.
This award winning pilot episode has a lot of charm and a lot of problems in equal ammounts. It amazes me that Jay could develop something as complicated and imaginative as this in just under a year. But as he says, this pilot episode was “an unusual way for [him] to solicit feedback on where it was going and whether or not [he] was on the right track”. I have to say that mostly he nailed it, hard. The setting is rich, the characters vibrant and the dialog laugh out loud funny. But just like any other beta/demo/pilot, this one has a lot of minor problems with implementation and design that I’ll be more than glad to dig upon.
First, let’s start with the character portraits. Just like the rest of the game, they are clearly a nodge and wink at the old-school RPGs, but with modifications in order to appeal to a modern audience. Still, I’m wondering why they are there all the time since I can’t do anything with them. Clicking on a character portrait should at the very minimum bring up the inventory screen of that specific character. This would at least justify the omnipresence of the portraits. Otherwise, it’s a piece of GUI that does nothing outside conversations and battles, and just clutters the screen. If it’s always there, at least give it a function.
This leads us to the inventory screen, a finely thought out system with a less than optimum layout. There’s a party inventory, and then there’s an inventory for each character, the former being unaccessible during combat. It’s a distinction that is somewhat annoying due to the unease of use of the interface. Let’s see, a party member has been incapacitated, but I fear not because another party member has a potion of recapacitation. How this should be handled? Well, one could innocently think that a character can administrate medicine on another character, at least outside of battles. Well, no, that’s far from possible. Even trading items directly is denied, you have to go through the party inventory first. Let’s see, to use the potion I have to:
- Go to the inventory screen.
- Scroll through the characters to find the one that has the potion.
- Transfer it to the party inventory.
- Scroll through the characters again to find the one that is incapacitated.
- Transfer the potion from the party inventory to the character inventory.
- Use the potion.
Revive a character in just 6 quick steps! Be the life of the party! (I swear those puns weren’t intended).
This may not seem like too much of a hassle at first, but please think about it, you are going to naturally leave all the potions and useable stuff on the party inventory just to save a few steps for when someone needs an item. This would still be too much of a hassle when you need to move around a lot of things. On top of that, if you leave all the useable items on the party inventory, then in battle you won’t have access to them.
To solve these problems, there are a few things that can be done without changing anything important: Add a button to transfer items from characters to other characters directly, add the option to use potions and other stuff on a different character than the current one, and move the character scrolling arrows to the center of the screen, just below the descriptions.
Oh, but wait! we have more problems: One would think that comparing stats between characters and between items would be a priority. The descriptions are all nice and dandy, but knowing that this dagger was made from frozen snot does not tell me if it’s better at delivering massive damage than a sword made out of pus. The stats have priority, I shouldn’t have to scroll through the descriptions to get to the stats, at the very least put them both visible without any needs of scrolling. Alternatively, the stats could be shown by hovering the mouse over the items.
But enough inventory talk, let’s continue with an equally important topic: battles!
First of all, I have to say that I don’t like random battles. It’s a preference more than anything, so I won’t give Frayed Knights a bad rap just for using them, especially since a more organic aproach would be infinitely more difficult to implement. On the other hand though, I love turn-based battles since they give you a real sense of strategy (sometimes…), instead of a mad mashing of buttons followed by a simon says minigame.
Now, I have to confess something, I’ve played all the random battles the same way. That is, mashing the A key until everything dropped dead, with ocassionally a part of my party included. Why? I have a pretty good idea. The quickest way to end the battle is to mash constantly the A key, and since I want to end the battle as quickly as possible I end up doing exactly that. It may not be the best strategy, it may not be the best way to avoid damage, but it sure as hell goes by fast enough that I don’t get bored. Battling cannon fodder is not compelling or even interesting.
The problem here is that the attack command consumes a really small amount of time compared to any other option. There is a reason why a lot of MMOs and other games implement hotkeys attached to skills: it offers the same immediacy as the main attack button.
In this pilot episode I’ve actively avoided the use of spells because it takes a LOT more time to select a spell than to attack. It uses a scrolling menu instead of a visual set of icons, which is not that much of a problem but it adds inconvenience to the system. Either way, I shouldn’t have to go through it in the middle of the battle to cast the same spell I always use over and over again every single time. Like I said, a small hotkey system would solve the main problem. Oh, and to top it all off, I never choose which specific enemy I target since the most inmediate input, clicking on the enemies, does nothing.
In other words: The efficient way to battle is boring, it takes a lot more time than mashing the A key and there isn’t that much of a punishment for playing like a retarded monkey. Worst case scenario, I could even look away from the monitor, wish for the best, and end up with a downed character. Nothing that can’t be solved by a handy potion of recapacitation, some healing spells and a good night’s sleep. But this doesn’t mean that with a ramped up difficulty everything would be solved, the problem here is that playing strategically or even intelligently takes much more time than it should due to the design. Like casting summons in FF8, it’s the best strategy but it consumes so much god dammed time that the player avoids them at any possible opportunity.
I think that’s enough for this first part. In the next one I’ll address the controls, the story and the enviroment among other equally interesting things.