There is a series that is very good at one particular thing. It excels at long-term strategic planning. It embraces widespread personalization. It’s the master of modification. Customization is its middle name.
…No not Custom Robo! Customization is its first name. I am of course talking about Pokemon. Its full name is Pocket Customization Monsters. It had some weird parents. Or maybe they were just a fan of underwater creatures and stealth puns.
There’s another series that’s very good at a different thing. It shines at designing an intricate narrative. It loves crafting characters and directing dialogue. It’s the sultan of scripting. Writing is its middle name.
…No not Pokemon! Are you kidding? This stuff is serviceable at best. I am of course talking about…actually, I don’t even know what series I’m talking about. I’m sure one exists out there. Somewhere. Probably. I just know it’s not Pokemon.
Today features one of these games greatest strengths and one of their biggest unstrengths. Customization and writing, in that order. It’s almost like this entire opening could’ve been avoided if you just read the section titles! But of course, then you wouldn’t get to enjoy all my wacky hijinks. I think we all know that’s what you’re here for, right? Am I right guys? Guys? You agree, right? I’m just saying, we should hang out more. It’s not like that would kill you! I just want to spend time with you, okay?! JUST GIVE ME A CHANCE, I CAN MAKE THIS RELATIONSHIP WO-
Gameplay (Customization) – 15 points
For Pokemon and its imitators, customization is huge. In other games of the genre, the focus is deliberately on a small, set cast of characters. You can’t collect a bunch of Cloud Strifes to toss into an arena, because Cloud Strife is an individual with his own personality and backstory and okay wow I am only just realizing what a weird example I picked for that. Breezing right by that before those who haven’t played Final Fantasy 7 get confused: Most turn-based RPGs tell a specific story. They need at least some aspects of characters to be set in stone. This also bleeds into gameplay. No matter how much customization the game allows, they typically have things unique to specific characters. If wouldn’t make any sense, for story or for gameplay, for each person to behave the same in battle.
Pokemon and its ilk have no such problems. You can pile on your plate with as many marvelous monstrosities you can find. It’s right there in the catch phrase: “Pokemon: I must acquire the full amount!” Though this brings about challenges in other areas like writing, it’s one of the best things about these games. So how does each stack up in the capture and customization of collectible creatures? Let’s find out!
I’ve already described much of Pokemon customization in the previous article on combat, because the two are so intertwined it’s difficult to explain one and not the other. The gist is that there are a ridiculous number of things to customize on any given Pokemon. All those smaller, subtler systems do a great job to flesh out the existing combat without adding cruft. But the focus is on two things: The Pokemon and their moves. The hundreds upon hundreds of pocket monsters aren’t just different visually. They all have their own stats, types, and passive abilities.
For example, Magikarp’s ability is Swift Swim, so it can disappoint you even faster than normal!
Each can only know four moves at any given time. How many moves are there? I’ll give you a hint: It’s more than four. And each individual Pokemon can learn a hefty chunk of those techniques. The average pocket monster will only keep about 1/5th of the moves they learn by leveling up, and 1/20th of the moves they can learn total. And those are the conservative estimates. Effort has also been made for a wide variety of moves to be useful at a competitive level. In normal turn-based RPGs you can tear through spells like toilet paper at a Taco Bell convention. When Fire3 comes along, ya aint gonna be casting much Fire2. Pokemon does have some flat-out inferior moves, but it’s a much smaller percentage than your typical sword-and-sorcery affair. It also helps that instead of a magic or energy resource, individual moves have limited uses, which are lower for more powerful techniques. If they were all tied under one resource it’d be easy to simply spam the stronger skills.
The end result is that you and an opponent could have the exact same team of Pokemon (unlikely to begin with) and they would still be fairly different. This makes it a ton of fun to build a team and easy to get attached. The latter is even clearer when the game is combined with brutal challenge runs like Nuzlocke, or shared experiences like the infamous Twitch Plays Pokemon. Characters, narratives and entire mythologies spawn straight from the void. This doesn’t happen with every game, and it’s not just popularity that lends Pokemon to it. This game is a blank canvas uniquely personal to you.
So with all these customization options as a series, how does an individual game break off from the pack? Well, the earlier games were missing some combat mechanics, like passive abilities. But Pearl is equipped with just about every one that matters, so it gets full marks there. That just leaves one customization question left: How’s the selection?
The Pokemon of Pearl are diverse…but not as much as usual. It doesn’t help that, strangely enough, a lot of the newcomers aren’t even available until after you’ve beaten the game. This is bad enough, but it could’ve been mitigated if the ranks were bolstered with the right Pokemon from previous games. Instead of that happening, we got a complete lack of balance in the type department. The worst off is fire-type, which boasts a whopping two Pokemon. One of which is a starter option you can’t get elsewhere. If you choose a different starter, I sure hope you like Ponyta!
There’s even a boss who specializes in fire-types! He has the two fire Pokemon and three who are completely unrelated. They all only have one damaging fire move. He isn’t a rare exception either. There are multiple bosses who have Pokemon outside their type specialty. Often times areas are filled with grunts that use the same couple Pokemon over and over. Fire isn’t the only bad example. Electric types only have three Pokemon lines. Meanwhile, there are 18 lines of water Pokemon.
There are two types of people in this world: Those who remember Lumineon and those who are TELLING THE TRUTH.
Pokemon Pearl is possibly the worst in terms of type diversity, and it seriously hampers your ability to build interesting teams. The customization for the game is still amazing, but the bar is set so high for the series that this flaw puts it slightly below average. Pearl earns 9/10ths of a Pokemon for customization.
Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker
With a combat system so standard and safe, the customization options in Joker are surprisingly deep. It starts out simple enough. All monsters have certain stats and passive traits. Most traits are far less useful than Pokemon’s. Things like 10% increases to certain types of damage. On the other hand, there are a few grossly overpowered traits like double the attacks or halving the cost of all spells. So traits are all over the place, but they aren’t the focus here. The focus is skills.
Every monster you recruit has two skillsets. One will be active, like Huntsman or Saboteur. The other will be passive, like Attack Boost I or Fire Ward. In both cases, the upgrades are in a set order depending on the skillset. The difference is that active skillsets teach you new skills, like spells or special attacks. Passive skillsets only give you bonuses to your stats. The skills or stat upgrades you receive aren’t exclusive to one skillset. For example, you can learn the Heal spell in the Healer skillset, but also in the Cleanser skillset, the Defender skillset and half a dozen others. You can’t customize skills on the individual case-by-case basis Pokemon provides, but there are still tons of options available to you. And what makes these options so appealing is the best feature in the game: Fusion.
Same artist, but no.
Any two monsters above level 10 can be fused together to create a new one. What monster results depends on the type and rank of both parents. You’re given a choice between three new monsters so it’s not completely predetermined. The new monster inherits some its parents stats and also half their skill points. They can choose three skillsets out of the four from their parents and their own two defaults. Certain skillsets even unlock upgraded versions if their total points are maxed. For example, Attack Boost I has a max of 50 points. If Monster A has 50 points of Attack Boost I when he fuses with Monster B, the resulting Monster C can choose Attack Boost II as one of its skillsets. The same would happen if Monster A and Monster B both had 25 points each. With passive skillsets this just means higher stat bonuses, but many of the strongest spells in the game are locked behind upgraded skillsets.
Fusing monsters is a ton of fun. You’re constantly thinking of what creations you can chain together to pass down the greatest combination of skills. When you enter a new area with fresh monsters to recruit, you’ll want to nab as many as possible because of the way fusion works. Even the weakest, ugliest mess of a monster is still useful because you can link it into the perpetual chain of breaking them down and building them up. This last point is actually something DQM has that’s better than Pokemon, because in those games there’s little point to catching more once you have a team locked in.
So what’s the downside? Unfortunately, there are many. As neat skillsets are, I find them inferior to learning individual moves. Customization is less precise and the move sets you create are less personal. It’s also WAY less intuitive to wrap your head around than Pokemon. To be fair, there are some things you have to look up in Pokemon if you want to plan an optimal team. For example, you don’t know what moves a Pokemon will learn while leveling up. DQM has the same issue, with skillsets only displaying the first few skills in each set. Unlike in Pokemon, you have to make tactical choices in what skills to take past fusion, so you need that extra information to make decisions. Considering any given skillset can have about a dozen skills total, listing the first three is frustratingly vague.
It’d be just as easy to tell how this spell works in English.
The bigger problem is that the skills themselves don’t tell you jack shit. In Pokemon, when learning a move you know its power, accuracy, type, and any special effects it may have. The skills of Joker are as opaque as a brick wall by comparison. You don’t know how much damage moves deal, or how effective statuses are. Sometimes it’s hard by the description to even find out what the skill does. An example: Breath attacks like Fire Breath are fairly common. But it wasn’t until I was looking up unrelated info countless hours in that I found out they all do a set amount of damage. The combination of little in-game information and a less popular game means I couldn’t even find some of this on the internet. I legitimately wanted to find how moves worked and dished out damage, and nowhere could tell me.
Apart from tactical frustrations, this also has an effect on how attached you get. It was hard enough to favor certain monsters amidst generic enemies and palette swaps. Now we have an even bigger problem: No monster is going to stick around for long. The best way to advance your monsters is with fusion, and fusion straight-up destroys whatever you put into it. Even if you don’t want to reap the benefits of the perpetual monster blender, it’s extremely difficult to stick with a monster the whole game. Monsters have explicit ranks in Joker. F rank monsters found early on are noticeably, statistically inferior to the A rank monsters of end-game. It’s like if the only way to evolve your Pokemon was to destroy them and apply some of their benefits to a completely different Pokemon. In a world where any Pokemon could learn any move. You’re not attached to a creature, a party member, or a character. You’re attached to a loose collection of skills and stat bonuses.
Berserker + Attack Boost III + Poison Ward is my favorite character!
For all these faults, the system is still really engaging. But it’s not just going up against any game. It’s going up against Pokemon. Competing with Pokemon on customization is like fist fighting a cybernetic Muhammad Ali. It’s like trying to out-sprint a harrier jet. It’s like trying to surpass Final Fantasy X-2 as emetic medicine. The bar is set so high it got lodged in the ceiling tiles, broke through the roof, dinged a passing airliner and is currently being observed by beings of a distant planet as proof that they are not alone in this universe. So given these notable flaws, I can’t give Joker any higher than 7/10ths of a Pokemon.
Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals
Here is the entirety of Spectrobe customization. Each Spectrobe has two specific pieces of equipment you can find. One slightly increases attack and slightly decreases defense. The other slightly increases defense and slightly decreases attack. That’s it.
Hot damn Spectrobes, you are in some deep shit on this one.
I mean, they do have types. But there are only three types, in a very literal rock-paper-scissors arrangement. Attacks have the same type you do, so it’s just down to picking the right color Spectrobe. You bring two Spectrobes into a fight and carry six overall. So optimally, you just drag along two of each type. The only time this doesn’t work is when bosses or enemies don’t tell you what type they are beforehand, which is more an exercise in random frustration than anything else.
I guess…I guess there are the differences between the Spectrobes themselves. Granted, a lot of Spectrobes with the same style of attack (ranged, melee, charge) play very similar. But there are differences in timing and hitboxes. These are some fun messing around with. And in a feat of actual customization and strategy, the fact that you’ve got two Spectrobes on the field means you can plan around which work well together. You could have AI that works as a tank, keep a second Spectrobe you like to use in reserve or…uh, I can’t actually think of another worthwhile strategy. But I’m sure they exist! Y’know. Probably.
Yeah that’s the best I can do, not much else to say. Let’s just put our heads down, toss down a quick 1/5th of a Pokemon, and keep walking before things get too awkward.
Writing – 5 points
They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but Slash only has 70 base power and a STAB Outrage from a Jolly nature Garchomp is like ten times that. Checkmate, writers. Pokemon has never put much stock in writing. It’s something they could really stand to improve. But in some ways, it’s better off for it. This is a world that encourages individual expression, and things might go poorly if they enforced a stricter narrative. A sparse story can be better than a bad one.
But even in Pokemon there is some value in writing. It still takes up a decent portion of the game, and is therefore grounds for criticism. There’s also more to writing than plot. It’s all those random NPCs, the setting and mythology, and the general tone of the world. I ultimately made it worth less since it isn’t what these games focus on, but it’s worth judging all the same. And speaking of Judgement…
Pokemon Pearl did something interesting with its world: It took Pokemon as mythology to its natural conclusion. The so-called legendary Pokemon of each game had been growing more and more grand in scale, going from epic beasts with little purpose to embodiments of the land and sea itself. Pearl took the next step and introduced the beings that created all of space and time. One was even straight up Pokemon God. In principle, I have nothing against this. It opens up potential for a lot of cool stories!
…but of course, that’s potential, and this is Pokemon. So we got a cliché villain wanting to unmake the world and a few paragraphs of myths in a library somewhere, and otherwise we gloss over the fact that we’re battling with the avatars of the universe itself. The world is as video game-y as ever, with everyone’s lives revolving solely around Pokemon and all of them being weirdly resistant to saying anything substantial. And the saddest part is, this was completely expected.
Behold, the greatest of all beings, from whom the thread of the very universe originates! You’ll see them in one scene and then they’ll cease to matter.
The games have slowly been trying for deeper plots as time goes on, with mixed success. Pearl is right in the middle of that, and so is its story. It’s annoyingly perfunctory. Dialogue is frequently stilted. You save the world 3/4ths of the way through, which makes the goal of becoming league champion a huge anticlimax. But every Pokemon game does those things. I can really only think of one game in the series that comes away notably better in the writing department. So for doing a pretty okay job, Pearl still earns one full Pokemon.
Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker
Coming off of Spectrobes, the writing in Joker was a breath of fresh air. It’s not that the plot was incredibly unique. It’s pretty dang standard for the genre. But the game had reoccurring characters with actual personality and some basic twists to unravel over the course of the game. Main characters include a distant disciplinarian dad with unknown motives, a stuck-up young taming rival, an awkward contest official, a mysterious talking monster, and several other lesser characters with individual but very mild quirks. These seem like a good basis for a story, and they are, but their situation is very similar to Pokemon: They start and end at the summary. The plot is very light and not much is done with the characters beyond the obvious. Even with the obvious, the execution is mediocre.
At one point an NPC outside the town shop says something like: “I went to the store to pick up some parmesan, but accidently bought a partisan instead. I couldn’t get a refund, so I used it to stir my pasta.” For better or worse, this is roughly the game’s best material.
That being said, the story is at least there in the first place. It gets the job done and even delivers some amusing lines now and again. NPCs have a bit of character to them, and can sometimes successfully pop out a pun. It’s never hilarious. It’s never inspiring. It never pulled any major emotion out of me. But it served to string the gameplay together and even earned a smile on a few occasions. So though I have almost nothing to say about it, it still meets the Pokemon standard. One full Pokemon.
Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals
Describing the writing in Spectrobes is going to be…difficult. Oh, not because it’s complex or controversial or anything like that. It’s…well let me put it this way: You’ll need to down several cans of Monster before reading Spectrobes. Spectrobes is getting in trouble with big pharma for being cheaper and more effective than Ambien. Reading the Spectrobes script put me in a coma so deep that my friends had to journey to the bowels of the Marsh Cave to retrieve a Crystal Eye to give to a witch to brew a Magical Potion. Only then could I be revived.
SPECTROBES IS BORING!
Everything about it is bland, predictable and completely lacking in personality. The plot is a simplistic point A to point B affair. But that’s not really the problem here. It isn’t doing the game any favors, but simple plots can work. And the setting could actually be interesting if they had the slightest desire to develop it. I can’t remember a single bit of backstory or world-building to any location in the game beyond one planet with a mining town. The backstory is: It’s a town where they mine things.
Characterization is the real problem here. I have some vague idea of what personality each character should have, but that’s purely from their visual design. Bar a couple half-hearted exceptions, there isn’t a drop of personality represented through dialogue. If characterization was a three-legged foot race, the character artist would be limping along as best he could and the writer would be napping on the ground snuggling his favorite brick of lead.
Protagonist Rallen feels like a cliché shonen anime hero, but a cheap discount version all the edges shaved off. He’s got the right visual design for it and a non-sequitur foreign language catch phrase (“Iku Ze!”, which apparently is Japanese for “Let’s go!”). I think it may have also mentioned he was kinda lazy at one point? Maybe? But the fact of the matter is, the kid is really, unbearably bland. And no one else fares any better! There were exactly two characters in the dozens of hours of game with any degree of personality: The mayor of the mining town was greedy, and one of the villains was haughty. They managed to successfully show incredibly basic one-word personas through dialogue. That’s enough to put them noticeably above the rest of the cast.
The true secret to saving the world: Hair gel and angular eyeballs.
The game has zero interpersonal conflict. It has plenty of lines of dialogue, but they’re empty of purpose or character. Most of it is just overwritten instructions on where to go for your next video game level. The rest are reactive lines to the tune of “This thing is good” or “This thing is bad”. No one has an opinion about anything. No defined ideologies, no arguments, no alternate points of view. The villains are bad because they’re evil creatures and the heroes have no lives or interests beyond stopping villains. I would’ve killed for a conversation about anything other than our current objective. Talk about your hobbies, your lunch, anything.
For fun, I decided to write a dramatization of the average Spectrobes chapter:
Scene start: Protagonist RALLEN and his partner JEENA are in their spaceship, fresh off their last mission. Suddenly, they get a message from command.
COMMANDER GRANT: “Hello protagonists.”
JEENA: “COMMANDER GRANT!”
COMMANDER GRANT: “Yes, it is I, COMMANDER GRANT. We are picking up signs of evil bad guys doing bad things on the planet of SMARGLEDOO.”
RALLEN: “Oh no, this is a bad thing that has occurred, COMMANDER GRANT!”
COMMANDER GRANT: “Yes, it is a bad thing and I also agree that it is bad. You should go stop it.”
JEENA: “We will go to the place with bad guys and stop the bad guys, COMMANDER GRANT.”
COMMANDER GRANT: “Good yes, do this thing that I have asked so as to stop the bad guys. COMMANDER GRANT out.”
The USS Protagonist lands on PLANET SMARGLEDOO, which is modelled after one of several standard-issue video game biomes. Let’s just say it’s the ice planet.
JEENA: “Here we are on PLANET SMARGLEDOO. This is where the bad guys are doing things that are not good.”
RALLEN: “Yes it is. Bad guys who do bad things are bad, and so I will go and stop them.”
JEENA: “Be careful, RALLEN! Bad guys are mean and also bad, so you may have to fight them in order to prevent the happening of an unsavory event.”
RALLEN walks through several screens of outdoor box rooms filled with encounter tornados. He could walk right past them, but I stop anyway to play the same fight several times over and waste an hour of my life with a terrible paleontology mini-game. I mean uh, I don’t do that. RALLEN does that. Or something. Whatever.
RALLEN then comes across an OBSTACLE in his path.
RALLEN: “JEENA! There is an OBSTACLE in my path!”
JEENA: “Be careful, RALLEN! An OBSTACLE is undesirable due to its obstruction of progress! It looks like it’s a CHERRY-FLAVORED OBSTACLE. You’ll need a VANILLA SWIRL SPECTROBE to bypass this CHERRY-FLAVORED OBSTACLE.”
RALLEN: “Okay, I will acquire a VANILLA SWIRL SPECTROBE to bypass the CHERRY-FLAVORED OBSTACLE.”
RALLEN acquires a VANILLA SWIRL SPECTROBE to bypass this CHERRY-FLAVORED OBSTACLE. This almost certainly involves walking all the way back to the ship to switch yours out and pad the running time. This will be half of all the games ‘puzzles’.
RALLEN: “I am back with a VANILLA SWIRL SPECTROBE. Now I can use it to bypass the CHERRY-FLAVORED OBSTACLE!”
RALLEN does the thing I just said. There are some more tornado box rooms. Then a room has a bad guy in it.
JEENA: “Be careful, RALLEN! That looks like a bad guy!”
RALLEN: “Hey you! Are you a bad guy?!”
BAD GUY: “Hahaha! I am a bad guy!”
RALLEN: “I do not like bad guys, because they are bad and do bad things.”
BAD GUY: “Hahaha! Yes I do bad things and will continue to do them.”
RALLEN: “I do not want you to do that!”
BAD GUY: “Hahaha! I acknowledge your discomfort in my doing of bad things, but I will nonetheless resume my doing of these bad things because I am bad!”
RALLEN: “Curse you BAD GUY! I will beat you and stop you from doing bad things!”
BAD GUY: “Hahaha! No, you will not beat me! I am stronger than you, which is the inverse of the desired power balance to result in your victory!”
RALLEN: “I shall prove you wrong regarding the point about my abilities relative to your own! I will beat you!”
BAD GUY: “Hahaha! Now we must fight and you will lose the fight because I will beat you and secure my continued future in bad thing doing!”
RALLEN: “Now I will fight you and I will not lose because I will win! Iku ze!”
RALLEN fights BAD GUY. He wins.
RALLEN: “JEENA, I have defeated BAD GUY!”
JEENA: “That is a good thing that has just happened, RALLEN! Now that we have defeated BAD GUY, you should come back to the ship to see if COMMANDER GRANT has anything else for us to do.”
RALLEN: “Hey JEENA, do you ever think we’re just a pair of hollow cardboard cutouts in the shape of vaguely recognizable character archetypes cobbled together by an enthusiastic but inexperienced designer of electronic entertainment and leading to a large team of artists, programmers, designers, musicians and translators spending thousands of hours and millions of dollars on an empty lifeless narrative that fails to understand the most basic principles of characterization and storytelling?”
RALLEN: “Haha yeah, me neither. Iku ze!”
This just goes to show how much the superficial details of writing don’t matter. In Spectrobes, you play an elite member of the interstellar police who travels the galaxy, visits strange and unique worlds, fights aliens with a laser rifle and energy sword, and revives ancient, powerful monsters to do battle with beings of shadow summoned from magical tornados. And it sucks! The lesson here is that it doesn’t matter how cool your setting or plot outline appears. Maybe these things can help determine the potential for an interesting story, but without proper execution those details mean nothing*.
* If you want an example of this, you should try reading some bad fanfiction. Or don’t. Depends how much your brain cells have it coming.
You could write a story about skateboarding dragons having dance-offs on the moon, it doesn’t matter. If you can’t write engaging dialogue, can’t characterize people or give them arcs, and can’t nail the fundamentals of any particular story structure? You’re hosed. And unfortunately, Spectrobes is a good example of that. 2/5ths of a Pokemon.
And with that, we’re at the home stretch! The final post in this series will deal with all miscellaneous points not covered in these first four articles, followed by some wrapping up. I’m planning on the finale going up next Wenesday, because the folly of man is vast as the deep ocean. Also because no one is gonna read long articles about Pokemon when they could be playing it. Myself included.
See ya next time!