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Through the Prism of Time: A doubled review of Deckiller's Carlsev Saga

  • EnderX
  • 05/29/2010 04:55 PM

I was originally given the chance to play Carlsev Saga because Deckiller was interested in getting a few members of the UI community to put his project through Beta Testing in its original version.

Please note: I’m not really good at calculating ‘values’ for stuff like this; it’s largely a subjective, not objective, skill for me. The ranking I’ve given this is my best estimate of a score for the commentary I’ve gone with.
Actually, the above isn't quite accurate any more. You see, shortly after Deckiller posted Carlsev Saga on RMN, he asked if I would be willing to upload my old review for it. I agreed, only to realize afterwards that there was a slight problem - Deckiller has been refining the game for some time since I originally reviewed it. The review I had originally written isn't quite accurate in some ways any more. I decided to replay the game for a new review. However, since I've already gone through the review process, I've got some things stuck in my mind. Since I'm not going to be able to get past those, I offer you this: A twinned review. My original, for what it's worth, with updates added to it as necessary.

There are two main points to dealing with graphics in a video game: One, they should be reasonable (as opposed to eye-watering combinations of color and pattern) and two, they should be consistent. That is, graphics of the same type (multiple chipsets, for example) should be in the same style, and sets of graphics, such as character{Charaset, Face, Battler} should have a clear and noticible relation to one another.

Map Chips: The world map was a modified RTP-style chipset. Local maps (anything not the worldmap) were mostly, although not entirely, Refmap sets - and those which weren't appear to have been chosen so as to match the Refmap style to within a reasonable degree of accuracy. The worldmap was the only one with even a slighly out-of-place feel to it, and that was minimized by the fact that Deckiller planned the maps so that the shifts which rendered it so were gradual enough not to be noticed unless specifically looked for.
I may have been wrong about the 'RTP' worldmap - the current one isn't from the RTP, although it does have a few RTP elements on it. Either the map chipset itself has been changed, or I was wrong earlier.

Character Graphics: Character graphics were, as far as I can tell, reasonably consistent in style. This is helped, no doubt, by the fact that most of the characters the player will run into at first are members of the Carlsev military, all of whom wear one of three styles of armor. The sprites are in the generic RTP style, which helps to hold them together - nothing really distracting about them.

Face Graphics: Face graphics were...unusual. This was the weakest area graphically for Carlsev Saga. While the various characters were given face graphics that went with the character design, which is a plus, these face images were drawn from so many sources that there was no real consistency-of-type among them. The face image for at least one playable character was of a style so different from any other that it jarred me every time I opened the menu while that character was in my party.

Battler: N/A, RM2k game.
Only realized after I posted this the first time that 'battler' also applies to the enemy graphics. So, here goes. The enemy graphics were drawn from a number of sources. No given set looks too 'off' together, except maybe the bee/wolf combo found in the swamp, and the muted colors tie both of them together with the background. I did recognize most of them as apparently having been drawn from the RM95 RTP package, which was interesting - the engine itself may be a bit weaker than RM2k, but the graphics were a fair bit better. There is, however, one major exception to all of this 'looks good' talk: At some points, Deckiller was using human enemies, but apparently couldn't find suitable enemy graphics. His solution was to take a frontview of the character sprites for those enemies, blow those up to massive size, and use them. This seemed strongly out of place, and is slightly jarring when it occurs, mostly due to the massive pixelization(?) of the upsized sprites.

A video game can be well-designed, and the most beautiful thing you've ever seen, but without sound, it will seem dull and lifeless. There are two kinds of sound; point-in-time (aka 'sound effects') and constant (aka 'background music').

The background music seemed to be chosen to fit in well with the areas it was playing, and the events occuring in those areas at the time. Nothing really stood out, either positively ('Wow, amazing song!'), or negatively ('Why on earth did he use that here?') about the music.
Still nothing sticking out as positive or negative, but one at a neutral tangent - I may be mistaken, but I think Deckiller was using the theme song from the movie Apollo 13 during a specific cutscene near the end. It's a strange choice, albeit fitting, for the scenario in question.

I don't recall much about the sound effects. Nothing really stood out as being out of place, but also little stood out at all. The only effect I specifically recall was a slight whistling/grating sound in the obligatory ice dungeon - it helped to give the feel the characters were, perhaps, skating across the ice rather than sliding; a nice touch. The sound chosen was a soothing one, as well: Don't let my use of the word 'grating' to describe it mislead you.

Map Layout:
Some games don't need map design. Pong, for example. But for most games, especially VRPGS, maps are critical. They don't just show the world, they are the world, and should be treated accordingly.

The map layout for Carlsev Saga was fairly well done. Chipsets were chosen appropriately, and further, were retained - even near the end of the game, any attempt to go back to new areas in old locations would use the same chipset (expected) in pretty much the same manner (not always expected). Care and attention were given to each area to hold to a feeling that this is a uniform world, even when shifting between chipset styles in order to obtain certain effects - the game habit most likely to break that uniformity. Areas were often large, but not excessively so: There was a good amount of space to wander around in, without the risk of becoming seriously lost.

What's going on? How much do we see, how much do we learn?

Which story do you want? The overall plot to Carlsev Saga is a tale within a tale within a tale - what seems to start off as the beginnings of a military revolt in a single nation blossoms into a massive storyline invoking multiple world powers, with nicely done doses of the traditional heroism and loyalties, but also betrayals, web-within-web deceit, and a quest to stop a massive, possibly worldwide war...or, perhaps, start it.
Storyline, as noted below, is the big draw for Carlsev Saga. As such, Deckiller wisely didn't mess with it - I don't recall for certain, so a few scenes may have changed a bit, but the storyline remains the same between the original version and the current update. It's worth noting that, blurb above aside, this isn't the stereotypical 'I are teh heero gunna save teh wurld!' storyline. It's localized to within a single nation out of several at this point - to say any more would give too much away.
I will point out one thing, though - Carlsev Saga is the first in a planned series. It's planned as part of the series, not 'book 1 could stand alone' style. The story is slated to unfold through at least one more game, as Carlsev Saga 2 is already in production, and it's my understanding Deckiller is planning this as a trilogy. We'll have to see if that's enough space for him to finish off the story he's begun.

What are video game characters? Are they simply collections of pixels and statements, or are they people, with real personalities?

Major characters had full personalities. In general, the playable characters reacted in certain ways to the situations they faced, and the important non-playable characters also had specific personalities that helped to define them. Roland, the first major PC you're introduced to, has a no-nonsense attitude to everything he does; it appears that this means his teammates personalities can grate on him from time to time, which at least some of them appear to return. With the exception of the prologue, each of the playable characters had some quirk or distinctive reactions that helped to say 'yes, this is a real person'.
This also plays against 'traditional' RPG standards. It's fair to say there aren't any heroes, nor villains. There are protagonists, and antagonists, but Deckiller has tried to blur the line between the division - it might even be fair to say that almost all of the characters could qualify either way. Out of all of the characters, both playable and non, that you meet, only Roland and his assistants, your first three-person team, don't show signs of being greyscaled this way - and since Deckiller has promised we'll return to them later, I'm betting they're going to get at least some of the same treatment as well.

Similar care was lavished on the nonplayable characters as well. Even those who basically exist to get themselves killed still show signs of personality and distinctiveness, and those with larger roles do get more time to display these personalities on the screen. It's a bit disturbing how effectively Deckiller was able to define, in a small number of scattered statement blocks, the somewhat sadistic personality of the King of Carlsev...a man who brings to mind the following, paraphrased from a novel I once read. "You know how small boys sometimes pull the wings off flies? He's the king...no one ever told him it was wrong to do that."

Minor characters didn't really get that kind of treatment - reasonable ('minor' means 'joe bystander' or 'jill average' in the towns), but perhaps a bit more could have been done. From what I could tell, many of these characters seemed to exist simply as attitude foils for some of the major characters.

How well was the game designed? Do things interact nicely, or is the player likely to throw down their keyboard in disgust?

The gameplay in Carlsev Saga: Special Edition was fun for the most part, but there were a few things that weren't.

First, cash was rare, and so, in a similar way, were items that could be sold for cash. There were some times in the early game when attempts to grind only brought in enough to recover from the damage taken and MP spent during the attempt, which wasn't pleasant. This was compounded by the second item on the list.

Deckiller created a custom system of stat-increase not by leveling up, but by finding various objects to be transformed into 'Tonics' which boost a particular stat. The items used to 'purchase' these tonics were, generally, found by defeating monsters - which means they too fell prey to the above 'overgrind' problem.
Both of the above were modified in the updated version. Monster drops appear to occur far more frequently now, so it's a fair bit easier to get the ingredients and trade/sale items you need to enhance your team.

The dungeons and other diverse locations were generally easy to handle (apart from the battles), although a few could become frustrating. (I'm looking at you, invisible maze.) The only real problem was that, partway through the game, the structural style of the battles shifted. Originally, the battle style focused largely on innate character skills and regular attacks; after the shift, it focused largely on special items and skills drawn from the enemy. The shift took time to get accustomed to, and caused a major spike in difficulty until that was resolved.
No real differences here. The midgame switch mentioned above didn't throw me as much this time, but then again, I've played this before and was expecting it. I can't say for certain whether it was actually easier, or whether I simply adapted much more quickly.

Please note, these do not constitute the whole of the argument. They're just the parts that stood out to me - I was bugtesting, and something that felt off or didn't seem to mesh was more likely to catch my attention. Story, not gameplay, was and is Carlsev Saga's big draw, but the gameplay itself wasn't really lacking except for these few points, most of which corrected themselves over the course of the game.
A side note worth mentioning: Part of the gameplay problems in the original Carlsev Saga were due to the frequency of random battles. This can still be a problem on the world map, but for the most part, random battles have been replaced with touch battles in the smaller maps, and there are far, far fewer of these available than the number of random battles that used to trigger. The game still isn't 'easy', but now some parts feel more like 'challenge' than 'oh ... I'm going to die on the first map!'.

Take a break from the action. Why not try a refreshing minigame while you wait?

There were a few minor quests and optional dungeons, but I do not recall any real 'minigames' in Carlsev Saga. The only thing really interesting was that, about 1/3 of the way through, a battle 'game' of sorts was implemented - it became possible to fight certain monster parties on demand, without having to wander around until they chose to show themselves. This greatly eased the difficulty level of grinding for both cash and alchemy items.
Something I'd forgotten - that monster grind battle setup has to be triggered. It is possible to miss it if you're simply following the storyline.

Custom Systems:
What kind of custom systems are there? And how well designed are they?

Scan system: The scan system was reasonably well done - useful, since it's pretty much required in order to determine what play in the elemental rock-paper-scissors game will be needed to beat the enemy. It helps that a single scan attempt will give the stats (HP Remaining and Element) for all enemies left in the battle.
Noted that some enemies, not always bosses, didn't want to scan properly (intentional)- you'd get a "couldn't scan" message if you tried. Better than it could be - my first playthrough of the original version, a busted scan wasn't handled properly and I got a free one at the beginning of the next battle. That didn't happen here, and won't.

Steal system: Only bothered with it the one required time; I dislike stealing. I suspect this may be part of the reason I had as much trouble as I did; I think Deckiller was planning on having the player gain a large amount of their 'extra' goods from this.
Less trouble this time, but because drops were more prevelant. I still didn't bother with the steal system outside of the one required time.

Tonic Alchemy system: The idea of strengthening the characters through the use of special items, rather than level grinding, was a nice one, and adds to the originality of the game. However, because of the grinding difficulties mentioned above, early-game doesn't see a good useage for this. It's not until the Monster-Grind 'game' becomes available that Tonic generation becomes effective, although once it does, the idea proves its worth quickly.
Tonic generation becomes useful long before it previously did, and it's worth spending the grind time now that it wasn't before.

Draw system: Deckiller implemented a two-prong 'draw' system into the battles; one prong can also be used during some map events. The first 'prong' was the ability to draw 'essences' into a stock of useable items (the major method of elemental attacks at this point), the other was a single character who could study the enemy to permanently learn a new skill. This system was cornerstone of midgame battles; an interesting idea, implemented well, but hampered by battle structures. (It doesn't help that your most effective healer is also the one doing the essence drawing.) What essences could be drawn appears to have been determined by enemy party, rather than actual enemies; it was possible to get rid of all of one type of enemy, but still draw the essences associated with it when making a draw attempt.
No change here, except that the party may have been rebalanced a bit for better defense. It feels a lot easier to draw and stock essences now, since you don't have to break off every other turn and spend five rounds healing.

Trigger Commands: Several important battles had Trigger Commands; special skills that took advantage of the surroundings or conditions on the battlefield for special effects. (Such as hiding behind something to avoid an otherwise unbeatable super attack.) An interesting idea, but largely only useable in boss battles or other event-triggered scenarios. Still, it was a nice touch.

Bug Count:
How well fumigated was the game? Are the bugs mostly dead, or are there still plenty of them crawling around to make problems for the player?

Which version? I was playing as a beta tester - my entire purpose for playing was to try and trigger as many bugs as I could in the game. I ran into a lot of them: most minor, some major, one gamebreaker. However, anything I ran into I logged, and handed off to Deckiller. Although I haven't played the finished version yet, from what I've heard back from Deckiller and from others who have tried the game, the bugs were pretty well fumigated...the gamebreaker, in particular, I know has been removed, simply because people were commenting on things that happened after it triggered.
This version's been pretty well fumigated, as far as I can tell. I did catch several misspellings, but other than that, only one minor note caught my attention, and it's a late-game bug in the player's favor...which may not last long, as I'm reporting it to Deckiller.

Replay value:
Is the game worth replaying? Are there places of non-linear decisions that invite a 'what if I did it this way?' mentality?

The game is largely linear. It's fun once you get past the early-game troubles (or around them), but I'm not sure it'll entice players into a second playthrough once they've done everything the first time around.
Ditto. Only real reason I went through it again was so that I could honorably post my review.


Worth the download time, worth the time to play. Carlsev Saga is a good example of how an RM2k game can and should work.

Final Score:
Carlsev Saga: Special Edition scores 8/10.


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You the practice of self-promotion
EX, I guess your review pretty much agrees with mine on several aspects evaluated. I did forget to mention the use of blown-up pixelated graphics for the non-Carlsevian enemies, which I also found disturbing the first time I saw it. To me, it almost felt to me that the intent was to somewhat make them seem as faceless and foreign, devaluing their humanity. After a few times, I guess I got used to it (as much as one can get used to that sort of thing). It would be interesting to hear what Deckiller's take on this particular choice was.
All of us get lost in the darkness; dreamers learn to steer by the stars.
It was my inability to blow up the sprites to a proper size. The sizes in Carlsev 2 are more reasonable, and I'll make sure to fix the ones in Carlsev 1 as well.
You the practice of self-promotion
Oh, I see nevermind my comment. After all, it was more the feeling I got from seeing it that I was trying to express. Made them seem more alien. I'm glad that you're taking care of that.
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