Half-Minute Hero

It’s a strange game that relies heavily on feelings of nostalgia while providing gameplay that is as far removed from the source of that nostalgia as possible. Half-Minute Hero, developed by Marvelous Entertainment and published by Atlus’ long-lost publisher twin XSEED, is that strange game. It is very blatantly riffing on the era of 8-bit console RPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior/Quest. Marvelous uses these games (and the many others like them) as a deep well of material for its visual style, scenario design, and abundance of meta-humor. To divorce Half-Minute Hero of these influences is to take away so much of what makes the game so brilliant. What’s strange, though, is that this imaginary influence-divorced Half-Minute Hero game is still a cleverly-designed and surprisingly fun portable game.

Earlier this week, I cited a humorous moment with the game which resonated with me. I wanted to save a gameplay analysis for a more detailed post, though, because what intrigues me about Half-Minute Hero is that imaginary game which exists without its clever aesthetic and writing. It’s a travesty to suggest that this game ever exist without those components, but I feel so strongly about the brilliant execution of the game’s style and humor that I’m comfortable completely putting them aside for the time.

Half-Minute Hero’s primary attribute is its simplicity. That’s an odd thing to say about a game which has three distinct game modes, ad hoc online multiplayer, dozens of stages per game mode, a normal and a hard difficulty, and what appear to be unlockable game modes (that are still unknowns to me). That’s a lot of stuff, but it’s all additional content. The core of Half-Minute Hero, as far as I’m concerned, is the core gameplay loop that the Hero 30 mode provides (I have yet to really try the others). Every stage of the Hero 30 mode tasks the player with saving the world from imminent destruction. An “Evil Lord” is hellbent on destroying the world in thirty seconds. A countdown timer is displayed in the top-center of the screen at all times and unless the player is in dialogue or in a village, that timer is always counting down. The player must acquire money, kill enemies, level up, acquire items, and complete the quests necessary to defeat the Evil Lord within that thirty second time frame.

What’s amazing is that this is actually an achievable goal.

Entire stages can be completed within this thirty second window as the player dashes frantically around the world, stops in villages for a breather, and then continues on with the stage. There is wiggle room in that players can pay the Time Goddess to reset the countdown timer to thirty seconds, but there are several stages where all tasks can be completed in the initial thirty second window. A number of stages, in fact, have thirty seconds as the time-to-beat — a stat which is the bane of my existence as I try to perform all of a stage’s task quicker and quicker with every play-through. When we separate Half-Minute Hero from its visual style, writing, and village interactions, what we’re left with is, essentially, a racing game. The battles require minimal interaction, there is a “turbo” button which drains health (gas), and everything is a rush to the next waypoint in order to get to the finish line. And with each level presented as a sort of track and the game establishing a best time and mini-achievements, there is always that urge to take a different route or to go through the level faster. It’s a time-proven (ha) enjoyable inner loop with a very compelling presentation.

To separate Half-Minute Hero from its theme, though, is to do the game a disservice. It perfectly captures the absurdity the fundamental absurdity of console RPGs and makes that absurdity fun. By requiring players to first engage in a quest, complete it, and then witness the game mock the inane or illogical nature of the endeavor is a humorous approach that works remarkably well. Upon reuniting an evil lord with his cursed lover, the Time Goddess remarks “That was way too dramatic for Half-Minute Hero.” Remarking about a forest near a village, a citizen says: “Ever since the evil lord appeared, it’s been called the Evil Forest.” And after engaging in a quest where the player had to return a hammer to a carpenter in order to fix a bridge, the end-level summary reads: “The path closed off by the evil lord… Hero gave the carpenter his hammer and the bridge was reconstructed. The evil lord was then soundly defeated! He actually fixed a bridge with one hammer. He’s much more amazing than the evil lord.” The Time Goddess is scantily clad, which is somehow displayed in her iconic, pixelated form. Every fling the player has with a female NPC lasts for approximately ten seconds. Decisions to not keep previous quest items that would obviously come in handy later are constantly mocked by the Time Goddess. And so on.

The writing aside, though, the game still manages to mock RPG gameplay systems and, mechanically, make them enjoyable. Combat is an entirely autonomous affair where the player’s character runs at and strikes enemies until either the player or the enemy dies (or the player chooses to flee). Level-ups are earned once every two or three seconds of gameplay and new items at just a slightly more lengthy pace. A thin MacGuffin throttles the player from big, bad boss to bigger, badder boss. A credits sequence is presented at the end of every level as if every new stage is another sequel in the ‘franchise.’

There is no touch in Half-Minute Hero that represents the game better than when the player has reached a sufficient level of power to take on a level’s Evil Lord. When this happens, Half-Minute Hero simply displays one text string in the center of the screen:

Player > Evil

Soul Diary, Souls 4-20

[This post, the last of my Soul Diary, contains spoilers for the first two sections of the first world of Demon's Souls]

Life Two, Soul Four
After my triumph against the Phalanx, I had some dough (souls) to spend. The one thing that sounded particularly appealing to me is upgrading my luck to increase the frequency and quality of the items that enemies dropped. To do this, I talked to the previously mentioned cute, blind goth lady who allowed me to buy increases in my attributes with the souls that I earned. I increased my vitality a bit but, mostly, I spent all of my souls on some luck because, let’s face it, I need it.

Once I was finished in the Nexus, I activated the Archstone that would transport me back to the place where I killed the Phalanx. I had more level to get through.

The first area I went to had more of the blobby shield-head enemies. By this point, I was a pro at dispatching these little fellas. These blobs also dropped a number of what I assumed to be crafting items (they were, I would use these later, along with souls, to upgrade my equipment). This area used these spear-wielding enemies to create a surprisingly strategetic encounter space where I had to maneuver to attack a monster’s back, strike, dodge an incoming spear, attack again, and then move quickly on to another blob in order to dodge yet another spear.

After this room, I appeared to be on what looked like a subset of the Great Wall of China. There were a number of bridges in front of me (and in the distance), and a tower connecting each bridge. As I looked around, I noticed something which made my soul weep: a charred pile of bodies. I thought: oh, this again. I waited at what seemed like a safe spot — because a player message was there saying “This is a safe spot” — and, sure enough, the dragon flew by and roasted the entire bridge. This is easy, I thought, so I ran across. I also stopped to get an item thinking I had time to spare.

Life Two, Soul Five
How I thought that was a good idea is still a mystery to me. After my first roasting, I thought I was close enough to where I was originally to run back to there. I wasn’t. The second roasting killed me. And here I am, back at the Archstone. Human body number two, it was nice being reunited for those precious moments.

When I made my way back to bridge, I knew the pattern and I just had to run. And run I did. I made it to the tower, breathed a sigh of relief, and then went and explored the area this tower had to offer. I killed a few guys, picked up some additional healing items, and went back down to the base of the tower. I saw another bridge section ahead of me, except this one was filled with enemies. I wasn’t sure if the dragon would make his way back or not. I figured I was safe, the game wouldn’t put all these enemies there if a dragon was just going to burn them all to death.

Life Two, Soul Six
When I made my way back to the second bridge section, my new nemesis, I moved gingerly ahead. I was trying to find the “safe spot” that was as far forward as possible without getting flamed. When I thought I was good, I just stayed still for a few seconds and, sure enough, the dragon came. I watched with glee as every single enemy on the bridge was instantly killed by the dragon’s searing flame breath. I waited for the dragon’s next pass, then ran across the bridge. Oh, that green thing! That’s my soul. I should grab that real quick, I timed my run so perfectly there’s no way it could slow me down.

Life Two, Soul Seven
This time I managed to cross the second bridge safely. There were four crossbowmen a safe distance away from the end of the dragon’s strafing run, so I let my stamina bar refresh before taking them on, and then sliced the hell out of the group of them.

The new tower had only a couple crossbowmen at the top and both were dispatched with easy. Making my way into the lower level of the tower, I heard some dogs barking. The message on one of the two doors said “Valuable item.” I followed the path to its end and, sure enough, there was an item! I picked it up and received my first ring: a ring of Gash Resistance (bleeding resistance). I turned around and came back the way I came and, ahead of me, I saw a bunch of scurrying things. I moved forward a bit to see if my light would illuminate the dark hall and, in front of me, were three dogs. I tried attacking one, but his lunge was too quick. Only a small amount of damage, so I quickly attempted to strike back, but one of his compatriots then lunged at me. Rinse and repeat, dead.

Life Two, Soul Seven
Screw the dogs, I thought as I now faced the third section of the bridge. This bit tasked me with eliminating two lower-tier enemies, each of which took only a single hit to take down. I then walked up to a player message that said “This is a safe spot.” Moments later, the dragon’s fire breath pass started just feet in front of me. Once again, the dragon roasted every enemy on the bridge. There was, once again, much rejoicing. I waited for the next pass and then ran across the bridge. As I was nearing the end point, I noticed there were three crossbowmen in very close proximity to where I guessed the end of the dragon’s strafe run was.

This was confirmed when, while running and just a few feet from the crossbowmen group, one hit me, stunned me for a moment, and I was caught in the dragon’s strafing run. Frick.

Life Two, Soul Eight
This time I was able to take out the crossbowmen. They don’t have much life, so it’s kind of an unfair fight.

And speaking of unfair fights, as soon as I felt victorious, a knight decked out in silver armor and who was wielding an actual sword — as opposed to my unwieldy slab of metal — was apparently watching the whole time. He stabbed me. It hurt.

Life Two, Soul Nine
It hurt me to death. As I was running back to that position I got greedy on the second bridge trying to nab the items of the enemies the dragon killed. I was then killed.

Life Two, Soul Ten
I made my way back to the end of the third bridge, killed all of the crossbowmen, and this time was slightly prepared for the knight. Charging him proved to be a bad idea, though, as it appeared that he had a second knight watching his back. Killed.

Life Two, Soul Eleven-Fourteen
I should try this tomorrow or something.

Life Two, Soul Fifteen
Oh! Oh! I know what I can do. I can try fighting those knights with my ever-beloved Turpentine! Yes!

So I did that and it made eliminating the crossbowmen a trivial matter (one hit, I’m a big man now). I was able to whittle down the first of the two knights to near-nothing, but my decision to attempt to parry-and-riposte was a bit overzealous.

Life Two, Soul Sixteen
Okay, screw this. I’m using the super-rare item that brings me back to life, gives me my entire health bar back, and this should be just enough to get past this part.

Life Three, Soul Sixteen
Ah, much better. Before running across the bridge to meet my nemeses, I coated my poorly-tailored slab of metal with Turpentine, gave myself a little pep talk, did a circle-strafe dance, and was ready to go. I ran across the bridge, quickly dispensed all of the Crossbowmen, danced and parried like a complete badass. I killed the first knight.

At this point, before I got close enough to the second knight to make him feel the need to go on the offensive, I was nervous. I spent my super rare item on bringing me back to life, I’m close to finally getting past this evil concoction. Similar to the boss fight from the first section of the game, the pressure was on. I approached the second knight, let him make the first strike, and went in for the kill with a series of strong attacks. He hit me in the process, but I got three solid attacks off. Only a sliver of his health was left; I retreated a bit to use some healing items. He, apparently, chose that time to aggressively rush me. The healing item registered just before the hit and I was right back where I was before using it. I said “Hey, screw you, buddy.” And in typical action movie style, I capped that clever tag line with a sword attack. He died. I rejoiced. I’m sure my neighbors hated me for it.

In what I assume was either complete luck or the game simply taunting me, one of the two knights dropped the item that brings me back to life from soul form. I rejoiced again.

Walking forward a bit, I saw a plane of fog ahead of me. I took a deep breath, walked through the fog, and was shown a cinematic of an absolutely enormous knight and his dozens of crossbowmen who had his back. Demon’s Souls called him the Tower Knight.

So, yeah, this is terrifying. To be fair, I was warned by the player message that preceded my entrance to this area: “A terrifying foe is ahead.” Thanks guy.

When the cut scene finished, I figured the first thing I had to do was to eliminate all of the crossbowmen that were in the area. I sprinted past the knight and into the upper-levels of the castle courtyard that surrounded him. I ran around the area and killed every crossbowmen that I saw (around twelve or so). It was actually a pretty simple affair, since most of the area had walls to block the Tower Knight’s scary-looking projectile beam… thing.

Now that the knight’s medieval snipers were all dead, I realized I had to face up to the task of taking down this moving fortress. The only option I had, since I’m not a ranged character, was to run down to the courtyard and swipe at the knight’s heels. I did this. I wore the knight down to about 75% his original health, but I was then caught in a double dose of his shield stomp area-of-effect attack and, well, you know.

Life Three, Soul Seventeen-Twenty
I’m not sure if it’s the game being mean (it is) or if it’s me getting lazy (it is). Either way: death.

Life Three, Twenty
I made it back to the entrance to the courtyard that housed the Tower Knight. I saw some blue scrawls in the area immediately preceding the plane of fog. In checking these out, I discovered these were all souls for other players who were looking to help a player with the boss fight. I activated a couple because, well, I could do with not ever running that death gauntlet that preceded this area again. While I was waiting for one of my summons to succeed (none of them would, since this feature is only for players who are alive), I explored this safe zone I was in and discovered a plethora of goodies. Including another charge of the item which can bring me back to life. When all of my summons failed, which the game doesn’t indicate is because I can’t use them since I’m dead, I contemplated using it, but I didn’t. I knew the Tower Knight pattern enough to humiliate him in front of his friends (crossbowmen) with only half of my health bar.

And I did. And it was glorious. When the Tower Knight finally fell, I grasped the Archstone that was in his place.

Life Four, Soul Twenty
After I went back to the Nexus and cashed in all of the soul items I found during my gameplay — though, as an aside, one of the comments on my last entry pointed out that you should not “cash in” the boss soul items as they can be used for crafting later in the game — I returned to the Archstone in the Tower Knight’s courtyard. I walked forward, to progress onto the third section of this first world and came upon a fog plane. The criterion for getting past this fog plane, though, was that I defeat one of the major, end-world boss monsters in another world. Since I hadn’t done that yet, though, I could not pass.

And thus ended my play-through of the first world. It was an unfortunately anti-climactic end due to the arbitrary gating of what I presume to be the final section of the first world, but I did have an absolute blast fighting my way to this point. And, now, we’ve reached the end of the Souls Diary.

And now I’m going to get started with World 2.

Soul Diary, Soul 4

[This post contains spoilers for the first two sections of the first world of Demon's Souls]

Life One, Soul Four
After failing to properly heed the advice of the dead guy I watched fall off a narrow path and falling to the same fate mere moments later, my fourth soul respawned at the beginning of the world. Soul Four felt like a winner.

I retracted my steps back to the narrow path on the outer side of the castle wall, regained my soul by touching the blood splatter where I had died (gaining back the money I lost by dying earlier). I then activated the blood splatter to watch the ignorant soul that was Soul Three laughably fight an enemy and then fall off into the depths of the ravine surrounding this castle. Learning from Soul Three’s naivety, I approached the ambushing enemy with care, let him strike first, and then dispatched him with a strategic strong attack lunge.

I then declared victory on life.

As I moved carefully through the following segments of the level I paid very close attention to all environmental details, red, dead ghost replays, and the messages left by other players. I was occasionally astonished at the size of the level; there seemed to be a handful of instances where there was more than one or two equally plausible paths for progression. By the time I came across these, though, I was too afraid to really explore them and just settled on any given one. Soul Four was treating me well and had been alive for twenty-thirty minutes. Minutes. I didn’t want to jinx that by being all adventurey.

And then I saw a dragon. He was just chilling on a tower in the distance. He was probably sleeping. That said, he was a dragon. He was probably a half-mile away from me and I still felt dwarfed by this sleeping giant. And you know what they say in the kingdom of Boletaria: let sleeping dragons lie. I tepidly proceeded along my path through the level, wary of the fact that a giant behemoth was in the background and could, potentially, awaken at any moment and fry my tender soul. He didn’t, though, and I kept progressing through the level and tactically annihilating all foes who attempted to get in my way. I felt I had a handle on the game for the first time since the tutorial. I was prepared for every encounter and knew the game’s tricks.

Demon’s Souls does not consider this a healthy mindset.

A bit further into the level (still the first section of the first world), I came upon a lengthy bridge. Near where I was standing was a charred pile of bodies. I also heard a terrifying screeching noise in the background. I thought: no. Video game, don’t you dare make me fight this dragon. I tentatively walked onto the bridge and a terrifying screech echoed through the level. A message was near the ground where I was standing that said, simply, “This is a safe spot.” I had an idea forming in my head as to what it was safe from, but while it was materializing, I heard a loud screech, and flames filled the entirety of my television screen. I watched as the source of these flames came into view as the flames moved along the length of the bridge and, eventually, showed the body of an enormous dragon flying above the bridge, searing everything in his path. Once the dragon successfully roasted everything along the length of the bridge, he flew back into the air.

While I was recovering from my heart attack, I saw the dragon repeat the same pattern again. When he was finished, I had decided it was time. I waited for the dragon to come again, timing my run across the bridge like Sean Connery did the movement of the furnace flames when entering Alcatraz, and sprinted across that bridge with fury and intent. Moments before I was safe, I heard and felt the dragon’s next pass behind me, and I rolled into safety just as he would have roasted my character. It was a perfectly timed sequence that Soul Four just barely managed to execute.

Shortly after this, I found a switch which opened the front gate that I remembered seeing at the beginning of the level. While I was progressing from this point (presumably to that newly-opened gate), I encountered a new blobular enemy whose head was a giant shield. This enemy was wielding a large spear which he either threw at me (with frightening accuracy) or, as I discovered when I got close, simply jabbed me in my face. A nearby player message suggested I use fire, so I tossed a Fire Bomb on this enemy and he died. Huh. I remember thinking: that was easy. I did this five or so more times.

Eventually, I made my way back to the beginning of the level and the front gate which I saw open earlier. I walked near the gate and saw a large fog plane covering the entrance. I entered the fog plane thinking, oh, hey, neat refraction effects. As I later discovered: the fog plane signals that some serious shit is about to go down.

I entered the fog plane and saw a brief cinematic which introduced the Phalanx to me. The Phalanx is a big, cohesive mass of the aforementioned blobtastic shield-head enemies with big spears. The enemy does, in fact, move like a Greek Phalanx except, well, composed of viscous fluid masses with shields for heads and self-replenishing supplies of spears for appendages. As I ran in horror from column to column as these blob enemies were tossing spears at me (and dropping off blobs here and there to chase after me apart from the Phalanx), I remembered: oh yeah! Fire! I scrolled through my inventory for my Fire Bombs and discovered a terrifying fact.

I used all of my Fire Bombs on the individual blobeons that the game was getting me acquainted with as I made my way to this boss battle. Oops.

I resigned myself to hit-and-run tactics where I would strike one of these blobs in their shield/head, recoil from the fact that I just hit a giant shield with my unimposing slab of metal I called a broad sword, then run away utilizing serpentine escape tactics. Using this strategy I estimated that I would be done with this boss battle in approximately three hours. This would not work. I ran from player message to player message in the room, saddened by the discovery that they all said “Kill it with fire” (paraphrasing here) and “I need help, please recommend this message” (not paraphrasing and I hate anyone who put these in boss arenas).

At this point, my years of video game knowledge kicked in: behind these shield heads must be a juicy, defense-less blobby back which is weak to my sword! I serpentine’d my way behind a rogue blob that was separated from the Phalanx, tried this tactic, and was able to kill the enemy in two swift attacks. Using this strategy, I kept attempting to isolate and then kill the black blobs that were falling off the phalanx. I whittled down the Phalanx to its still enormous blob core and, then, was able to fairly easily strike at it continuously to slowly bring down its health. At one point, the Phalanx blob core did damage to me and I attempted to heal myself by using the SQUARE button to activate my healing item. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a healing item handy.

Whatever item I did have selected, however, lit my sword on fire. Two sword strikes later and the core of the Phalanx gloriously died. I beat my first boss in Demon’s Souls without dying (during the boss fight, anyway). I was proud.

I went to the Archstone that appeared in the middle of the room and activated it. I received a demon’s soul for the boss I killed, which is placed in my inventory and can be used later to receive a large sum of souls (currency). The purpose of these items is to be persistent in a player’s inventory and, unlike the active quantity of souls, does not dissipate if a player dies. They can just be “used” later in exchange for whatever number of souls the item contains. It’s a handy concession to the game’s purported love of killing the player (a love I would understand in the future).

By touching the Archstone, my character was also restored to physical form. Soul Four really was a winner.

Life Two, Soul Four
I touched the Archstone again and was transported back to the Nexus. When I was transported back, the game took this time to introduce me to the more of the story and over-arching narrative. This narrative was delivered by a cute, gothic-looking blind lady. This lady then told me to go seek one of the “Monumentals” in the upper-levels of the Nexus. Six stair-cases later I came upon a row of babies in Monk clothing. Apparently, only one of these Monk Babies was alive and he told me the story of some heroes and demons and fog and stuff.

When I made my way back down to the base of the Nexus, I prepared to go back to the world I had just left to continue my trek through the level. I purchased some statistics upgrades with the souls I earned throughout Soul Four’s life, upgraded my shield, and talked to some other NPCs in the area. Then I remembered about the random item that, essentially, saved my life against the Phalanx.

Looking through my inventory, I saw I had six “Turpentine” items. This item sets your weapon on fire and adds fire damage to all of your attacks for a set period of time. Information I wish I would have known approximately, oh, before my fifteen minute boss battle: that I didn’t need Fire Bombs when I had a way to light metal on fire.

Soul Diary, Souls 1-3

[This post contains spoilers for the tutorial and first section of the first world of Demon's Souls]

This face was the face of my introduction to Demon’s Souls. Then I made him normal again and we got on well.

Life One, Soul One
I took my more normal character and walked through the tutorial, adhering to the various concise messages plastered throughout. I walked, I rolled, I sprinted, I thrust, I parried and riposted. Then I learned about strong attacks and I enjoyed running up to various enemies and strong attacking them in the face. I then laughed as they crumbled to the ground. I felt strong and in charge of this video game. I knew the score. I was then ushered into a room with the biggest, scariest demon ever and he killed me with what I assume was actually a fairly cordial hand shake gone wrong. Or a violent paw swipe. This was the end of what the game considered to be my tutorial for Demon’s Souls.

Soul Two
I was resurrected in a chamber in soul form in “The Nexus” (game hub). I was glowing and half of my health was inaccessible. I was not sure whether or not I failed the tutorial or if my death at the hands of mega-paw was intentional. I still don’t know, but I like that. I wandered around the Nexus for a bit, reading what messages the game had spread around for what I presumed to be a running tutorial and introduction to the world. Some of these messages had some awkward wording and mysterious positioning, but I chalked this up to a quirky level designer convention.

When I had enough of the Nexus, I tried to figure out what the first “level” was. A message told me that the obelisk I happened to be standing near was good for beginners, so I entered that and was transported to a bridge near the front gate of an enormous castle. I saw transparent white auras running around the area, engaging in air fighting. After watching these auras for a while, I realized that these were my game’s representations of other human players in these area. Watching these player ghosts flail about I was able to figure out where enemies were coming from, roughly how many the ghost was fighting, and where I could go from my current position. I fought through the enemies in my starting area and proceeded along the most readily-visible trails through the beginning of this area.

As I walked through, I noticed some blood splatters every so often. When I activated one, I saw a red aura appear and enact a set of actions before, ultimately, disappearing around a corner I hadn’t gone to yet. I decided to follow this ghost, as I was working off the assumption that it was another player guiding my way. When I rounded the corner, a group of enemies jumped me and beat me to a pulp. Their initial attack was so powerful that it drained most of my health, and the one-two combo attack the duo of enemies had going never gave me a chance to get off a counter-attack. It was around this point when I remembered a quote from Atlus: Demon’s Souls has the goal of remedying all of the bad RPG habits that players have gotten used to over the years. The game has the goal of enforcing the full set of possible player interactions: defending, parrying, evading, attacking, and counter-attacking. If players attempt to get through areas solely by hacking-and-slashing, they will die.

This was the first step in my RPG rehabilitation.

Soul Three
Taking my new knowledge of this game and working off of my assumption that the white ghosts were active players in my area, I now decided that the red ghosts were “replays” of other players who died in this given area. When I saw a white ghost, I was likely watching a player experiencing the same part of the level in the same way I am: blind to what is going to happen when moving to the next room. Now, though, I can activate a red ghost and properly determine what not to do. And when I got back to where Soul One died, I watched the red ghost more carefully, prepared for the enemy ambush, and quickly dispatched them with my systematic use of a parry-riposte and then a defend pose into a strong attack on baddie number two.

Then I realized that this was the first time the game didn’t have a message in the area to warn me about an imminent ambush. Crafty little game, I thought, it’s ramping up the difficulty slowly.

I proceeded through a bit more of the level and eventually came to a message that said “Trap!” I looked around the area and noticed nothing of the sorts. It was simply a hallway with no triggers anywhere or anything. The message had a number attached to it, 16, which I assumed meant it was for a certain difficulty level or for a certain ordered play-through of the area. I kept walking assuming the game screwed up. Moments later, I heard a “Clink” and a bunch of iron spheres fell out of a chute in the ceiling, traveled a small distance, and knocked my character on his ass. I didn’t die in this scenario, I just lost most of my health. It was a hilarious moment to me. I wasn’t sure if the game tricked me or if I’m completely blind. Neither was really out of the question.

I then was thinking about what strange placement that particular message had in the level. I went looking around at a few other messages in the area and discovered they all had different numbers attached to them. I messed around with my controller to see if there were any buttons I hadn’t really used at the time and, eventually, discovered that the SELECT button gave me the option to “Write a Message” or “Recommend a Message.” This was when I discovered that all of these messages I had been reading throughout the level were, most likely, all created by other players who learned the level’s tricks the hard way.

Huh. Clever.

I healed my character up and progressed a bit further in the level. I ended up on a narrow walkway on the outer edge of one of the castle walls. It had no barrier, so I clung to the castle wall as I carefully moved towards the door at the other end of the walkway. I came upon a blood splatter, activated it, and then watched the red ghost as he walked as carefully up the walkway as I did. He eventually struck an attack pose and then moved backwards (as if pushed) and fell off the edge of the walkway. “Haha, moron fell down,” I said aloud to my cat who was watching the game. Or sleeping. Probably watching, though. I finally made my way to the doorway and an enemy jumped out at me. I parried, as I was working off the assumption that something made that red ghost I watched earlier strike an attack pose on the walkway. I failed my counter-attack, though, and the enemy pushed me back. I didn’t feel comfortable at such close-range, so I moved backwards a bit to give myself a bit more room to operate — Oh, okay. So, I just fell to my death. Okay.

Sorry random gamer, I didn’t mean to laugh at your replay. The more you know, and all. Onward we go, Soul Four.

Mechanics 5: Vault-Tech Assisted Targeting System (V.A.T.S.)

With the development of Fallout 3, Bethesda Softworks faced a dilemma: they had to make a first-person RPG engine that was typically used for high-fantasy RPG/adventure games handle the intensity, gore, and statistical probability of the gunplay in Black Isle’s cult-legend Fallout and Fallout 2 in such a way as to not annoy either first-person shooter gamers, fans of the Fallout games, and long-time patrons of the games in The Elder Scrolls series.

The problem with mixing a first-person shooter with a role-playing game is that they are, basically, as diametrically opposed as two genres can get. The cornerstone of an FPS is in the feel of its gunplay and player movement; the questions players subconsciously ask themselves while playing are: how does shooting feel? How accurate are the weapons and are the bullet spray, recoil, and weapon damage consistent with what a player would expect from the weapon? Is weapon behavior relatively reliable? Are the player’s skills in targeting his own or is the game modifying them to an unexpected degree? A first-person shooter places the gamer at the helm of the game; the more a player feels like he/she is in charge of his in-game avatar, the better. With this preconception at the forefront of the game experience, players enter into a game world with expected grounded in their reality and expect somewhat realistic or reliable behavior. Shooters that have unrealistically-behaving real-world weapons will seem immediately “off” to any gamer whether he has real-life weapon experience or not; a shotgun which behaves like a sniper rifle will seem strange to anyone while a sniper rifle that has a large box of possible inaccuracy around a gamer’s targeting reticule will be a source of future gamer rage-quitting.

At the other end of the gaming spectrum are the more measured and cerebral gaming experiences found in role-playing games. The genre is practically defined by its prolific character building design that has a player’s character(s) advance in level through experience points achieved in various battles. With every level, a character’s stats increase and this, in turn, makes him more powerful. The original Black Isle-developed Fallout games are no exception to this as all of the combat encounters in the games were handled as turn-based affairs steeped in a player’s allocation of action points.

These are, as can be expected, game designs that are inherently at odds with each other.

Bethesda managed it, though. Much to the chagrin of the world’s mutants, the death of super-mutants in Fallout 3 is handled in a way that is not only consistent with the original duo of games but manages to be a fun setpiece of Fallout 3 throughout the entirety of the game. The mechanic is introduced to denizens of Vault 101 as the Vault-Tech Assisted Targeting System (V.A.T.S.) and served as a time-independent targeting system to aid a player in blowing off specific enemy limbs (screenshots below). When the player is ready to shoot something a mere button is pressed and the game enters its targeting mode and the player can queue up body parts to shoot and once the sleection is finished the game goes into a stylized camera that depicts the macabre explosion of blood, organs, and limbs in slow-motion. Once the process is done the player is, most likely, out of action points to spend on V.A.T.S. targeting and is forced to rely on his skills as an FPS gamer to finish off remaining enemies or find cover until his action points have recharged enough to allow for more V.A.T.S. shots.

V.A.T.S. at times seems like little more than a compromise made for RPG-minded gamers to eliminate traditional skill-based first-person shooter mechanics (which would make Fallout 3 more shooter than RPG). It does give the player a seemingly unfair advantage in the game world; when I had the opportunity to use VATS on any enemy in the game, save for one boss-like encounter, I always had the upper hand and, what’s more, rarely took more than a shot or two while my character performed my V.A.T.S.-dictated actions. This mode of combat appears to give players a very high likelihood of both critical hits and, in some instances, a separate timeline than the one enemies were acting on when V.A.T.S. was used in combat as opposed to an entirely real-time encounter. It’s also a greatly more effective form of combat than choosing to avoid the use of V.A.T.S. throughout the entire game and rely on the game’s somewhat flawed implementation of traditional first-person shooter mechanics. Bethesda avoids the pitfalls of past hybrid games in that, for the most part, what a player points and shoots at with any decent gun in the game is reliably hit but the feedback the player receives for a successful hit is vastly inferior to the kind of feedback that V.A.T.S. provides with its slow-motion gory cinema of death.

The faults of the real-time combat in Fallout 3 really don’t matter. The blend of V.A.T.S and real-time shooting is what Fallout 3 seems made for and, when that path of play is chosen the game’s combat shines in a way that I never thought would be possible. In fact, the game positively revels in its existence as both a real-time shooter and pseudo-turn-based RPG game because, when played the way that Bethesda seems to encourage, Fallout 3 manages to feel like a Fallout game.