Alright, let’s wrap this up shall we? It’s been on my to do list for a long long time now (more than a month) but I finally glued my posterior to the chair and finished writing the fourth (and final) part of the Frayed Knights Pilot critique. I should warn you though, this is the longest post I’ve ever written.
After playing to completion and to death (more on that later) several times I’ve arrived at a somewhat unexpected conclusion: there’s not that much to do in this world. Being honest, this is to be expected since the whole game revolves around the “tutorial” dungeon and not much else. Content takes time, that’s a given. Besides, you don’t want to throw every single bell and whistle at the player in the first few minutes. So even if the final game starts exactly like the pilot, I don’t think too many people are going to bitch and moan about the lack of things to do in the first dungeon.
So what can we do? Well, explore, interact with some objects, participate in random and special encounters, pick up items and trigger new dialogs. But there’s something missing isn’t it? Fortunately the only one thing missing here is the one that you don’t pay much attention to in the beginning of any RPG: the leveling up mechanics. Though, once you do realise this, the random encounters become a little more annoying because they loose all their meaning. They don’t have any long term benefit, they are there to slow you down at random. Flee or fight, the game doesn’t care. You could pretty much take away the random encounters without making any impact in the rest of the game, which should be a huge worrying wake up call for the designer.
Luckily, this only applies to the Pilot, since Jay didn’t have the time to properly implement the leveling up mechanics, but I guess this goes to show how much the game suffers when there’s one of it’s main elements missing: some of the other elements can and will become meaningless.
Moving on, there’s one thing that I’ve been actively avoiding until now, and that is the Stars/”Drama points” system. For those that don’t know, this system is visualized as those three stars sitting at the top of the screen. Every time something dramatic happens the player gets a corresponding amount of drama points as a reward. Then, when the player has collected enough points he can spend them on something useful, such as reviving a party member or casting some special spells among other things. Sounds like a good idea, but there’s a catch: Your drama points are never saved. If you quit the game, they are erased.
Why the catch? Well, Jay implemented it this way to punish those gamers that don’t tolerate failure. Something bad happens? Load a previous save. Some players act this way because games like Fallout 2 and Eschalon: Book 1 actively encourage this conduct. With or without “Drama points”, if you offer random rewards and punishments then you are automatically encouraging constant quicksaving and loading.
You can’t simply apply a patch over this issue either and pretend to be done with it. The problem can’t be solved by punishing certain players and rewarding others. I know I’ve already said this but it bears to be repeated: The root of the problem lays squarely on the shoulders of the mechanics with random outcomes.
What’s more, I don’t like the drama points system because it affects everybody, not just the quickloader-happy population. It’s a system that rewards gamers for playing for extended periods of time. For people like me it’s a plus, but there are some other gamers out there that don’t have as much spare time as I do. Those people are never going to see the best rewards offered by the drama point’s system, all because some other people can’t tolerate failure. Just fantastic.
One way to kind of solve the problem is by offering the option to save only on checkpoints. But I should warn you: this solution is way worse than the problem (see: Jimmy’s story).
So, what’s the proper solution then? I don’t think there’s a perfect one. You can downsize all the random outcomes to a bare minimum, but some players are still going to abuse the saving and loading feature, even with the drama points system implemented. But! Yes, there’s a but: When only the little things are handled with random outcomes (random +-5 damage for attacks, 30-40 pieces of gold from treasure X, etc) the advantage for constantly saving and loading almost disappears. Wasn’t the point of the drama points system to level the field? To practically erase all the benefits of saving before opening a chest or disarming a trap?
I’ll leave this topic here, there are a lot of little things that can be changed in order to minimize the quick-saver benefits but I should limit myself to only suggest a general change while not expecting to see any in particular. After all, it’s not my game and Jay may see things a little differently than I do, mostly because it takes actual work to change things around. Even more so when the changes suggested are this drastic.
Still, even considering that, the Drama Points system needs to change.
I didn’t notice it at first, but the atmosphere is getting kind of heavy. I guess it’s time to address a lighter note, don’t you think? Mmmmhhh, well then, how about humor? I think I’ve talked about it before but it bears at least mentioning again.
After all, if it weren’t for the humor, Frayed Knights wouldn’t stand out as much. I can’t simply imagine it as something other than an elaborate satire on the first person RPG genre. It’s personality is so ingrained with the humor that it’s impossible to depart from it, especially when there are oh so many things to satire. The looting of dead bodies, incomprehensible leveling up mechanics where what you gain has nothing to do with what you do (kill kitties so at level up you can boost your intelligence), level caps, auto-adjusted enemies, unbelievable market prices, shop keepers that won’t give you freebies or a discount even though the universe is about to collapse, having the last boss drop the ultimate sword of ultimate power even though the player no longer needs it, etc.
Still, apart from the satire there are those moments of pure silliness. Like when all the party members mounted their recently stolen pink ponies to fight the horde of flying ostriches from space. Ahh, that moment was only magnified when the main antagonist who wasn’t even introduced yet, came by, did the macarena, saluted and ran away chasing a swarm of butterflies. It was a sight to behold.
On an unrelated note, my left shoe is telling me that I’m going crazy and should probably take a nap before continuing with my exquisite critique, which he says he loves with all his shoelaces.
*60 hours later*
Ahhh, nothing like a good two days and a half of sleep. Now, where was I? Oh, right.
Moving on, I’ve heard some cries about the party’s speed being too slow, and all I have to say is: What the hell did they expect? Last time I checked, the party didn’t consist of 4 velociraptors. I’m still wondering what were they smoking, but to be fair, there is some legitimate claim behind this: It requires too much time to go from one place to the other. You don’t move slowly but it feels like it, because of the enormous maps filled with empty space. This isn’t much of a problem in the dungeon since the feeling of being just an ant inside an enormous castle is fantastic, but once you get to the town you start to get the feeling that everything is just too big compared to you. But before I go any further I need to explore other topics first.
- INTERMISSION: Take 15 minutes off, go to the bathroom, eat something, rest your eyes and then get back, this is one long post. Seriously.
Now, changing the subject, there’s one aspect of Frayed Knights that just baffles me. It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. I can’t even think of any suitable explanation for this other than “Jay didn’t give it much thought”. Of course I’m talking about death incapacitation. It functions pretty much like in Pokemon: the characters don’t die, they just faint. They can also participate in anything outside of battle while in this state. But there’s one difference: In Frayed Knights, if all your party members become incapacitated, you loose and, well, that’s pretty much it, the game stops dead on it’s tracks. You lost; you failed; your party became unconscious in the middle of a dungeon; how dare you! You must never do that, it’s like… written or something. Hope you saved!
I hope that the reason behind the way the Frayed Knight’s Pilot handles death is exactly the same reason why there are no leveling up mechanics: It’s just a Pilot, so when you are pressed for time, some things might get quickly put together without much thought or scrapped completely. Oh well, I can’t expect it to have every single mechanic fully thought out and properly implemented, can’t I? Still, I want to critique every mechanic, I want to make sure that nothing gets a free pass, even the little things with perfectly good excuses. This way I can be at ease with myself, knowing that I did everything I could to improve the design of Frayed Knights, even if only by a bit.
Having said that, the next few paragraphs are going to appear to be somewhat evil. Why? Because I know that what I’m about to critique is the most unfinished and unpolished part of the pilot and anybody with a pair of eyes can see it. Still, I have to address each and every subject, no matter the developer’s context, so here it is:
There seems to be a lack of polish (no, not the language) in how the random battles start. When a battle takes place the enemies just appear out of nowhere and so does the music at full volume. ThereAreNoTransitions! The player jumps from exploration to battling in a split-second. As it is, it feels a little like a survival horror RPG with cheap scares disguised as random battles. I don’t know if it is intentional (I will guess that no), but it doesn’t leave a very good first impression when the random battles appear out of nowhere without even a fade to black transition. This is just a minor nitpick, but what follows is not…
It’s rather noticeable that the graphics need some tweaking in the town (see image a few paragraphs above), but I suppose that this is due to Torque not being that friendly of a platform or some bizarre hardware incompatibility. Or both. But the texture problems in some patches of terrain is the least of the graphical problems. Remember when I said that everything looked huge compared to you? Well, in the dungeon this is justified, but in the town… not so much. I don’t know, maybe it is a problem of perspective management, and the actual 3D models are normal size, but something just looks off. Yes, the characters are not animated, so they stand still staring at the void even when you talk to them, but like I said before, I’ll cut the game some slack since this part was probably rushed. Still, the mayor problem is the sense of scale:
Maybe I’m wrong, maybe this was intentional, maybe the evil wizard cast a spell of midget-doing on everybody. Maybe the guy just likes to have a humongous desk as a way to … compensate. Maybe he is vertically challenged. I don’t know, it could be so many things, and still, I’m going to go with “because the Pilot needed to meet the deadline, OK? Jeesh, give me a break!”.
Other than the twisted sense of scale, the town is unexpectedly full of details. Naturally there aren’t many houses/places where you can actually enter, but the attention to detail even at this early stage is well appreciated (Props for the waterfall hidden in the background). Things like the dock and the windmill give it credibility, as well as some diversity. I don’t know if one could say that “people would actually be able to live here” given the absence of such things as bathrooms and kitchens, but maybe that’s a little bit too much to ask for.
Mmmhhh, thinking about it, maybe it would be best to leave it as it is and hang a lampshade on it for giggles. It would be so much more comfortable to be in this place if the game itself acknowledged it’s shortcomings.
Anyways, things got really interesting here in the story department thanks to some intra-party friction. I won’t spoil the details to anyone, since it isn’t a part of the game design, but I have to say that it was really unexpected and a nice surprise. It hooks the player and gives him yet another reason to glue his rear to the chair and keep playing.
One would expect that the ending would be something akin to “Pilot ends here; leave feedback or I’ll murder your entire family… please?”, but that’s not the case. Instead, Jay goes the extra mile and gives us a full conversation between the characters, joking around, breaking the fourth wall and everything. It’s always the little details that make or brake the game, or in this case the pilot.
As a final thought, I’d like to say that I wouldn’t have written so much about Frayed Knights if I didn’t feel something strong about it’s game design. I loved it, I hated it, I laughed, I cried (okay, that one is a lie) but most of all I respected it for what it was trying to do, even if it sometimes fell short on it’s tacit promises.
Oh, and I apologize for my attempts at humor. So sorry about that… unless you enjoyed them, and in that case: your welcome.