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Two entertainingly subpar games

  • NTC3
  • 01/24/2015 06:23 AM
  • 1077 views
The two Fragile Hearts games (reviewed here as one since you get both in a single download) are rather difficult to score. Partially it’s because they’re trashy entertainment with dialogues that frequently cross the line from humorously fratboy to obnoxiously crass, only to cross it back soon afterwards. The other reason is that they’re riddled with flaws, and yet they know that too, and you’re even shown a Development Hell area explaining some of the design decisions. Thus, you’re never quite sure whether that’s forgivable and admirably down-to-earth or just a desperate excuse for lazy design. In the end, it’s probably both, and so I’m simultaneously pained to give the score you see above and feel entirely justified for doing so.

Fragile Hearts 1

The first game’s opening instantly breaks away from classical traditions, when our valiant knight Fergus supposedly competes with two older and more experienced knights for the hand of their princess, only for them to throw in the towel when she is not only fat and ugly, but also 13 y.o. His position soon gets even worse when a trio of random “baddies” (the actual description form the game) tries to kidnap the princess, and instead of letting them do that and thus solve his problem, our heroic idiot tries to enter the fight with a mighty swing… that decapitates the princess next to him. It’s unexpected, it’s disturbing, but it does fit in the weird rhythm of the game. Bad guys run away in terror and he’s soon hunted by the guards, and has to beg Crackers (which act as the checkpoints) to save him after they all get offended by his accidental racism. The second chapter, where you’re introduced to your young naïve mage Haddy, is similarly memorable thanks to Gulliver, a sailor-turned-cat who remains unrepentantly sexist, as well as being a specialist in breaking the fourth wall.

I won’t lie that the first two chapters of Fragile Hearts are actually quite enjoyable and colourful, both due to the “plotline” weirdness and thanks to a few design decisions. There are no random encounters; more importantly, the maps are always spacious enough to make avoiding patrolling enemies viable, and so I never felt forced into combat. There’s a lot of highly sarcastic flavour text that is often much funnier than the events on screen. The non-hostile wildlife in early levels is also a great addition, whether it’s the ADHD birds or rabbits that get instantly killed by Fergus when he walks into them, for the sake of Meat and 10 XP. Lastly, the game makes a genuine effort to avert two rather annoying rm2k3 design flaws. Fergus’s sprite will change when he picks up a sword and then a shield in the prologue; while the change is permanent and non-representative of his actual equipment, it’s better than nothing. Similarly, the game uses actual representative graphics for potions and Stat increases, instead of just filling its maps with treasure chests (a flaw that plagued games as great as A Blurred Line.)

The game hits its lowest point in the third episode, which introduces the dementia-afflicted mage Midard, who knows that the chosen one frequents brothels (ok, that’s kind of funny), and has began the search for him in …. a town literally devoted to prostitution and called Prostitown. There he offends a crippled prostitute, she tries to run over him over with her wheelchair, but then gets thrown out of the window by our generic bad guy, while Midard ends up blamed for this and has to remember where the town’s exit is (he’s teleported around the place due to his dementia), while being hunted by bunny-ears-wearing prostitutes. Are you laughing yet? According to Sbester, you should be, but my only reaction to all of the above was WTF?, since there are few actual jokes (as opposed to “Whores, lol.”) It doesn’t help that the combat begins to outright suck at this stage; Midard never gets a single offensive skill, and all fighting for him is attack mashing + healing when he’s wounded, and his victory animation is outright horrible. Similarly, enemies lacking skills is forgivable early on, but in a 3rd episode out of 8, it just feels lazy, especially when fighting, well, prostitutes. You can still avoid them, thankfully, and I’m proud to say I managed to leave that town without fighting a single one besides the scripted encounter. And of course, this episode then has to end in a frustrating pseudo-puzzle that again involves teleporters and where the key to solving it is again trial-and-error instead of any actual logical skills.

Things do get better afterwards, when the group finally joins up and begins to work together. You’ll soon get a lot more inter-group banter, and the plot parodies typical RPGs quite successfully, from the King Arfur giving up his kingdom to Overlord because he’s tired of ruling it to Fergus envying the role of the chosen one and getting it only after the prophesied guy turns out to have lost all his limbs in a hunting accident. The Cracker subplot also provides a few more laughs; seeing an army of a couple dozen sword-wielding Crackers assembled in Orin against our protagonists is a particular stand-out. On the whole, it’s worth playing through the game once for all this plotline weirdness, because other elements aren’t worth a closer look. The art is actually quite good, although it was apparently all taken from Battle Goddess and Sword of Mana, and some enemies even use default RMK sprites. The character portraits in cutscenes are also nice when they’re left alone, but often they get very crudely modified to express emotions; the results are uniformly shit outside of smirking Fergus and pissed-off Gulliver. The music is fine and fits the moment when it’s played, although more tracks would’ve been appreciated. Any problems on the artistic front pale in comparison to gameplay ones, however.

The main problem with FH’s gameplay is that it never really evolves from the beginning of the game. The combat is, if anything, less challenging that it was in the beginning, as the growth in your characters’ stats will soon outstrip the enemies’ one. These enemies continue to lack skills of any kind: there are poison enemies early on, Thieves who steal MP and Eviler Spirits who can inflict Paralyse, and that’s it. You party does get more skills, but there are few tactics available for them. Haddy gets tons of elemental spells, but enemies rarely have any notable vulnerabilities or immunities; with the exception of Shadows being vulnerable to Icicles for some reason, and underwater enemies/undead immune to Tide and said Icicles, it always felt like any level 2/3 spell would do the job just fine. Fergus can cripple enemies’ attack and defence: once you do that, the remainder of options is to your options is to hit, and hit harder, and once he gets the Why-Caliber sword, most of the “stronger attack” skills become weaker than regular attacks anyway. Midard’s only tactic is to press attack and use appropriate healing spell at the right time. There are also the stat increases that can only be consumed in combat, but that always felt like a gimmick, and never seemed to make much of a difference.

Finally, it’s time to round out the miscellaneous things. I’ve mentioned checkpoints before, but neglected to mention that the game already allows for saving at any time, and as a result checkpoints become absolutely useless when they stop restoring health/MP about halfway through. There’s another teleporter “puzzle” at this place’s version of Atlantis, its only purpose apparently being to waste your time. On the bright side, you do get an overpowered sword and an airship (because it wouldn’t be a complete parody RPG without it, right?) after that. Since there are no new enemies or random encounters, you’re instead allowed to get some last-ditch money and experience from three mildly amusing fetch quests. There’s also quite a lot of equipment at the shops, which is always described with a degree of sarcasm. Buying the best stuff is not necessary to win (see low difficulty above), but it will shorten the fights somewhat, so there’s that. It’s also important to note that the final boss fight consists purely of wearing down his huge health bar, since his attacks aren’t very powerful and the only skill he has is MP Steal (yes, really.) There are a couple of choices that will make that fight shorter, plus another one at the very end, all of which carry over into the sequel. Speaking of which…

Fragile Hearts 2

If its creator is to be believed, Fragile Hearts 2 is the first RMK game that actually did carry over the choices from the original instead of only intending to. I’m not sure if it’s the first, but I did get to meet Midard and his magical barrier (more on that below), wander through a large palace Haddy built for herself after becoming Head Witch and see Fergus admit to the feelings he apparently had for her after I prevented him from doing so at the end of the first game. It also has a few choices of its own that carry over into the next game (due to be released this year) so I suppose that’s an accomplishment in its own right. The question of whether you would actually want to do so after finishing FH2 is another matter entirely.

It’s hard to say that a sequel is worse than the original when creator genuinely thought of it as an improvement (as evidenced by the conversation in this game’s development hell), but it has to be said here. Graphics are the only area with notable improvement, because this time the tiles were obtained not from Battle Goddess and Sword of Mana, but from the better-drawn Tales of Destiny games (another snippet from the development hell), and that’s also where the new character sprites come from. Their animation is far more detailed, and I never got tired of watching Meera’s dress and curls of hair move slightly as she walks. The new Gulliver animation is inexplicably worse, though, and looks utterly lifeless in comparison to the first game. The level layout was one of the strengths of FH1, and some areas, like the gentrified Prostitown (it’s literally all pretty buildings and flower beds now, which is actually a cool idea given real-life gentrification of cities like Portland) are equally good, if not better. A few others, however, seem to be made for the “Biggest RMK map ever” competition. They’re literally huge, taking up dozens of screens, their size paid for with detail (there are no small touches to be found, just 1-2 tiles pasted over and over again) and navigability. There’s a reason why open-world maps generally include a map and/or a compass of some sorts. FH2 doesn’t believe in either, and you’ll get the first taste of it when wandering the huge swamp outside of Witches’ Town, where the only way to tell one turn from another is by the presence/lack of enemies and opened/unopened chests. It’s nothing in comparison to the magical barrier puzzle you get later on: I hope it’s still there if Midard is dead, because those players shouldn’t have to avoid this much torture as a result of their cruelty.


That screen shows about 1/50th of the actual map. I'm not even kidding.

It starts well enough at first, but the final segment (a small slice of which is pictured above) is an open-ended maze that’s so ridiculously huge that there’s no way to memorise which path you’ve already been on, because there are so many of them, and they all look absolutely the same. I’ve spent more than half an hour at that last stretch, and if it wasn’t for the relaxing graphics and soundtrack, I would’ve likely deleted the game right there. I’m not saying that large maps shouldn’t be made, just that the player should be able to orient themselves in those. If the game had marked the entrances paths you’ve already travelled to the dead-end, or even simply changed the colour of the tiles you stepped on, I wouldn’t have had an issue. As it is, it’s awful, and the fact that SBester had implemented utterly useless 8-directional movement instead of something like that feels like a sick joke.

The new plotline gets points for originality due to having a transgender character as the new chosen one (although joking it away as a result of a birth control medication is questionable at best). Beyond that, however, it has few new ideas. Instead of the cliché evil overlord storyline it now takes “demon-angel love” storyline (i.e. Bayonetta) and “mage persecution by the paramilitary group” storyline (i.e. Dragon Age 2) and crams them together into the same runtime as the first game, and so neither is actually developed. The demon-angel one can be genuinely funny at the opening and has a standout “Meera” ending, but it stays in the background for most of the game, letting anti-mage faction take the spotlight, which they don’t deserve. In contrast, to the demon one, their story is largely played straight, and yet you never learn what their motivations are, or why they chose this particular moment only three years after a victory against Evil Overlord was led by a former Grand Witch. In fact, you don’t learn anything about the supposed human antagonists (or the demon one, for that matter), and they remain completely one-dimensional and uninteresting, when the Evil Overlord at least had a few good jokes associated with him.

Speaking of humour, it’s also both poorer and sparser this time; not because the game has become more serious, but simply because it has less writing in it. Gone are the long arguments with checkpoints, for instance, and whereas talking to NPCs in the first game often led to protracted arguments between the party members, here everything is much briefer. Gulliver still has his trademark lewdness, and Meera’s naiveté gets a few laughs along with Tobin being an asshole (a refreshing change from minority characters often characterised as flawless, BTW), but Maddy and Bazur are both pretty bland, as is the rest of the returning cast. Accidental murder is played for laughs here a lot more often then in the first, but this time there’s no real consequences to it, and it just feels like a method to get cheap laughs. Also, SBester really did get tired of describing useless crap in the first game, and so there’s a lot fewer humour to do with that as well. On the bright side, the NPCs still have their moments, and I laughed out loud at meeting young Suzanne Collins. There are also more parody enemies, such as fighting Overpriced Merchants in the Volcano, goddess of fire being called “Hot Broad” (while Earth Goddess is a “Dirty Girl”) and last but not least, guys with two-handers known simply as Some Asshole.

Yet, the gameplay in general and combat in particular has barely improved in comparison to the first game. OK, this time there are 5-6 enemy types capable of inflicting a status effect in addition to a regular attack, and this actually makes a difference when a ship you’re travelling on is attacked by pirates capable of inducing Sleep, in a section that seems added only for the sake of longer running time. Don’t even dream of meeting enemies with 2+ skills, however, as that honour is reserved for the final boss alone. He’s marginally more challenging and interesting then boss of the previous game, but his health remains his defining characteristic: he literally ran out of MP to cast anything after about 20 minutes of battle, and yet his health hasn’t run out for another 15+ minutes of fighting. Remember that the battle is also utterly unepic, lacking such basic things as a unique background or soundtrack (ALL battles in FH2 are set to the exact same track), and for the sake of your sanity, I urge you to choose the Meera ending so that you can skip that nonsense.

Funnily enough, while the final boss (and also the boss before him) both suffer from a huge excess of health, the so-called goddesses you fight in the middle of the game to bind them to Maddy are the exact opposite. They die in two-three turns of sustained fighting, and so it never feels like an epic battle it should be. After every victory like that, Maddy can summon an elemental AoE spell from the bound goddess with no MP price, which is actually useful for once. She can also attack twice when at full health, and so she does actually feel rather unique. Meera is also a good addition, as she can buff attack and defence of the party members, although the way her newer skills make previous ones obsolete (i.e. + 30 Attack vs. + 50 Attack) still feels overly blunt. Tobin is just Midard with better attack, however, and Bazur is the most boring character, his skills being utterly useless besides the mildly entertaining Kill Stuff.

Finally, FH2 removes the ability to save at any time, so the checkpoints are actually useful again. However, the balance is even more broken this time, due to all of your gold and inventory from the end of FH1 being carried into this game for some bizarre reason. To give you example of the scale of the problem, my party had spent everything at the shops to get the top-tier armor before the final battle in the first game, and had 7 dollars (yes, it’s so funny, isn’t it?) left. By the end of that game, I had 20,000 FHD because of the ridiculously large enemy drops in the final castle, which is all carried over into the sequel. Throw 30 High Potions/Mana Waters from that same save into the mix, and the last semblance of challenge is removed. The only way you can actually have a character die (besides final boss’s Death-inflicting ability) is if you wrongly assume that things like episode transitions will heal your characters, because surprise, surprise, they don’t, even if several in-game days have passed from on plot point to another.

Conclusion

In spite of what people might think, this review is not intended to tear Fragile Hearts and/or its creator down. In actual fact, I’m still interested where else this parody setting can go, with Fragile Hearts 3 and two further games planned later on. However, no amount of self-depreciation in the development hell section is going to change my score when issues as glaring as ones you can see above are still present in the game. I hope that this review results in actual positive changes in the now-inevitable Fragile Hearts 3, and by “changes” I mean something beyond meeting a representation of myself trapped in the reviewer’s circle.

Posts

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Wow! I never expected such a detailed summary!

First of all, thanks so much for playing both of these games and reviewing them together. That looks like it was a lot of work! I probably would've just thrown down a big empty maze instead. Much easier ;)

I can't argue with you on any of these fantastic points. Partly because it's been quite a while since I played these gems (and I can't remember if any of it is true), and partly because it's a Saturday night, and that means I'm drunk. No, wait... it's coming back to me... yes, I can vaguely remember eating many dinners and desserts while mindlessly tapping the z button as I playtested these battles. I recommend playing them that way, actually, as it's quite convenient. Anyways, as I'm sure you're well aware, these were never meant to be brilliant 'games', but rather relied more on the comedic scenes to keep players invested. Humor being such a subjective thing, some people really like it, and some don't. It's unfortunate, but it's also the reason Dane Cook is somehow still allowed to exist, and I'm sure he's thankful for that. I understand that a lot of people saw the potential for them to be great 'games' as well, and so I have tried to continue improving aspects of both games every time I play through them.

I'm going about part 3 quite differently, and hope that it truly will elevate it to being a better gaming experience. It'll be more sandboxy, won't have the exhausting mutliple routes (which were the major reason for some of the lazy maps that you saw in FH2), but it will still incorporate your choices in interesting ways. It's also my intention to do another big update for FH2 and its problems that you listed when I do finally release the third game, whenever I get the time to do that. I'm pretty heavy into writing my Mafiosi series right now, but I have started yet another playthrough of these games in the hope that it'll inspire me to dive in to development. I think enough time has gone by that the jokes will be on the level of the first game again... either that, or I've lost my knack completely and the only real joke will be the game itself. Time will tell.

Thanks again!

Well, that's certainly a more positive response than I'm used to here!

I certainly hope that FH3 will get made and will be better, although I'm rather unsure how "more sandboxy" and "no exhaustive multiple routes" ties together. Do you mean that there will be several short routes? Or that it's going to be some kind of a corridor sandbox? I suppose mostly I'm just not sure what "sandboxy" means in regards to an rm2k3 game. :)
Hmm, I guess some people just don't take criticism well. Comes with experience, methinks.

Basically, I'm taking notes from the Yakuza and Mass Effect games, where there's a main story that ends up being fairly linear (unlike FH2), but there will be a ton of sidequests that *actually* matter and will change different aspects of the game as you progress. I'll be sticking with 3 main towns and will rely less on boring, straightforward dungeons that I've been using in the past. Kinda Harvest Moony, I suppose? It's just conceptual right now, but I'll be sure to update as the game takes better shape.
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