Thursday, December 27, 2012

Chrono X Demo 4 Out: My Review

As avid followers of Chrono X may know, Demo 4 was recently released. I took this time to finally try out the game which I had only seen from time to time. They wanted a really well-made logo, so I'm expecting a well-made game. It sounded like a big deal, so why not.

So the game starts out like any Battle Network game. I must applaud them for even getting this far. Many projects have crumbled before basic systems are even in place. At more than 2 years dev time and the 4th demo, I had high hopes for them because I really want this to turn out well.

The first thing that immediately feels off is the text speed and the general slowness of those default Game Maker fades. I've played the Battle Network games for hundreds and hundreds of hours. If anything feels even slightly off, it's very obvious to me. In some cases, it seems like some parts of the game have been sped up because as the seasoned player may know, some things can be skipped. And speaking of skipping, cut-scenes can be skipped too. I'm bug checking the game for them by default for playing the demo, so I don't skip too much. The text speed in the game is maddeningly slow. Pushing A and B at the right time seems to play messages faster so I don't have to waste my keystrokes pushing buttons that don't work and reading slow messages.

The arbitrary layout could use some fixes.
Anyways, once the player actually gains control, first thing that throws me off is that Link and Save are moved. Confusing at first, and very counter-intuitive as well. Save is used 100% more often than link right now and I think it would help if Save were at the bottom so it takes less movement to get there. The rest of the menus look and feel very close to the menus from the GBA games, so I can tell they really payed attention to those parts. I'm not too cool with the artificial save times, if that was intentional. I'm on a solid-state drive, so it shouldn't take longer to save the game than to open Photoshop. Movement on the overworld is almost spot on. For some reason, running up and down is slower than diagonal directions. I'm sure that will get fixed later. Walls and all the other expected features work surprisingly well. Feels like a milestone since some games can't even get this right. Some hitboxes on NPCs are a little odd. It feels less lenient towards non-diagonal directions.
The letter I is the most difficult to get right.

Now, the text is another issue entirely. At a quick glance, it looks and operates much like it does in the GBA games. Mugshots animate and text draws very well. However, it's the kerning, leading, and widows/orphans that bother me most. I guess that time spent writing text for that old mini-series, some 4.5 stuff, and the EXE WS stuff made me realize that proper message grooming is essential. I think the GBA games did this well and didn't run into too many problems. I found too many instances in the game where letters stuck to other letters or looked really spaced apart like th i s. The widow/orphan issue could also be alleviated if proper margins are used.
Weak leading creates wasted room.
Unfortunately I started getting used to it towards the end, so that may be why it wasn't fixed before. And it's a shame too because the rest looks well-executed.

Seemingly incomplete parts stand out more. I don't know why the first enemy's chip looks like it was made in 1 minute. I thought something like that could have used some polish for a greater first impression. Also, the blue bar just looks out of place there since the vast amount of blue isn't there anymore. But again, an easy detail to overlook.

Once I got on the first Net area, a sudden feeling of "fresh new old" struck me. I think this sensation is the greatest part of the game. I find it comparable to the time I played that Super Mario 64 rom hack, Star Road. Familiar areas, yet presented in a way that is new, and there is lots of it. The maps are based on the BN3 Net areas, but are entirely new maps. I think that part really authenticates Chrono X as a continuation of the BN series. It just feels so right. Even the fading gimmicks on the map are a nice touch because it shows what kind of effects the GBA games could have realistically gotten away with.

In-battle, enemies fade in much quicker, thought with an odd pause before the custom screen. Seeing through that, I can tell the intention is to speed up repetitive parts and let the player get the repetitive tasks done faster. It works well in some cases but because of some oversights or Game Maker issues, some parts feel slower. For example, if you tap A at the results screen, it won't go away. Something about the in-battle movement speed feels unresponsive and I feel the movement is "stickier". It's almost there, but it feels faster, yet slower at the same time. Wonder how that works. The default Buster stats started out really slow which I think was tough to tolerate for at least the first chapter. I just hope this leads to more significant upgrades later on. Also on battles, hitting enemies causes them to shake a little. I think this is one of the best subtle changes they made. It makes the game feel more lively. Like the hits actually count, especially on viruses which have been historically very stiff. Because it's a very common occurrence, this change quickly establishes a new feel for the game, which is a very good trait.
Beta-testers must have not picked this one up.

Another annoying quirk is how items and names have been arbitrarily shortened to 7 characters. I mean, for the first time in the series, HP Memory is now "HPMemry", at least where it was spelled consistently. I get why it's done on the GBA which is because of limited screen space and cartridge limitations, but if I'm fighting enemies in Chrono X, I don't need another BN4 "WodMDS" situation considering BN4 was the worst translated game in the series by far. In fact, I think even BN4 used "NormlNavi" in-battle and definitely NOT "NormNav". If it were up to me, I say go past the 8 character limit and do more 9-character names like how BN6 started getting away with. And on the topic of name truncations, if Star Force has taught us anything it's that the game's "items" don't always have be called from the list verbatim. Sometimes before the shortened name is use, the full item name is used. If a Transylvanian Ticket is an important item, I don't want to see it as TrnzlvTk the first time and spoken like that every single other time. Establish the full name first. And besides, the item screen could easily fit up to 11 characters like how Star Force was doing it anyways. There is literally room for it.

Now, on the topic of boss levels, I think the second level had more thought put into it. The first one felt a lot more like a tedious rehash of AirMan/GyroMan's level. At this point, I wished there was some sort of map system like in BN5DS. The tinting on that level was a nice touch because it felt appropriate for the stage. The second stage ended up taking more time but the gimmick was more tolerable and felt fresh. Like I said before about fresh old new, this was great because now it felt like a full-fledged Battle Network game; an original, memorable level gimmick.

I can't really say much about the game's sound. I played the entire demo without sound. According to GM though, sound effects sound compressed. Sound compression is good these days so maybe a size-effective solution is still possible.

Thanks for the credit, guys!
Such a shame the demo was over at that point so if the second half of the demo is any indication, I think the next chapters will be even more well-made and well-executed. Everything that is expected is already set and what is set, like the chip trader, seems to work just as expected. Clearly, the ambition is there so I cannot wait until the Chrono X team comes up with the next demo. They've got a great game here that aside from some minor oversights, I would highly recommend playing. I don't think I've seen a full-fledged Battle Network game get this far, so if Chrono X is going to be the first, don't give up. This is some fine work here. Good job.

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