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Demo review: Dangerously cinematic

  • NTC3
  • 07/25/2015 01:25 PM
  • 1944 views
Beauty is in the eye of a beholder, and for some, Tristian: Lady of the Lion might well be the best RPGMaker game ever made. Their judgement would be backed up by the lush, fully custom graphics, the uniformly excellent soundtrack, extensively developed combat and levelling system, well-written, literary dialogue, and the touching bond between the two leads. In all of these areas, Tristian: LotL has more-or-less reached the developmental equilibrium, where the result is already impressive, and further improvements are now unlikely to be noticed. This makes it all the more interesting to discuss where it stumbles, heavily, where improvement is in fact needed, and quite soon.

Aesthetics (art, design and sound)

At this stage, at least, it's probably better to just experience the demo for yourselves. Soundtrack is great (especially the opening "Invasion" theme), sound effects fit, practically all the art is custom, the people are tall, and not chibi, all characters have busts with several expressions, the area mapping is consistently hard to fault, and the world map is impressively large, mountains and such truly dwarfing our protagonist (as well as containing some hidden items as a delightful small finish). Other than the strangely slow-burning fires, everything that could be criticised is more a matter of personal taste, like the complete lack of area object description (item description, though, is both present and well-done.) or the disappointing prevalence of treasure chests, which are even used to obtain herbs in caves, instead of, well, letting those herbs grow there by themselves alongside other vegetation. I suppose one could also mention the way area lighting effects always end up loading before the rest of the map, leading to sights like this:



Perhaps, it is my computer here that's at fault. Did anyone else have a similar experience?

Gameplay

No puzzles and such here, which is fine. It's all about the combat here, which is turn-based, and takes advantage of many of the VX's features. Thankfully, the gimmicky QTEs are not one of them; while they do benefit some games (i.e. OMNIS: The Erias Line) it's never a crucial element of the experience. Instead, though, we get the detailed enemy statistics, available before every attack at Shift, and which are necessary in order to take advantage of the elemental resistance/weakness system. Doing so frequently requires not just use of skills, but switching up weapons, which can be done on the fly through the equip command, without even losing a turn to do so. It's certainly quite engaging, though certainly not the most dynamic experience due to the frequent need to use sub-menus. It doesn't help that instead of letters or full words, The Lady of the Lion relies on small pictograms both for the elements and to indicate the creature's relationship with them, which can get a little confusing at times.



Luckily, there's also the extensive levelling system for the player to fall back on. Characters under your control can all be improved in several important ways. Firstly, simply gaining levels gives points that can be directly spent on increasing the base stats. Then, defeating enemies gives every character Job Points (JP), which are used to both learn active skills, and to obtain passive boosts. There's an extensive selection of both, so be wise about your choices, but don't delay for too long, as it appears impossible for any character to have more than 999 JP at any given time. Lastly, enemies like elementals also drop the so-called Chrysali, which are called "Reagents" but not actually used in crafting per se. Instead, they're applied directly to a character for a stat increase or a status/elemental resistance boost.

It's a good system, though I do wish players weren't basically left to discover it on their own through menus: after all, when a game is this atmospheric and story-driven, one naturally doesn't tend to look through the menus unless they have to. Of course, they will have to, because LotL soon becomes quite challenging in the Avernius Glade, as all the elementals have roughly as much health as your characters do (if you forgot to raise their stats), and can kill someone in a single turn if 2-3 of them happen to strike the same person, and once they're dead, there are no revives available, so tough. Because of it, I wish the whole system was explained earlier in a cave; after all, the fact that Guard slightly heals the characters and restores a little MP is explained, so why not also cover something this important? I also wish we were offered the chance to save at the start of the Glade, as one can forget about saves in menu until it's too late.

In all, the Avernius Glade combat is properly difficult and requires one to remember most of the system's rules, while the Cave battles before that are entertaining without being too threatening. Unfortunately, the first battle of the demo is not anywhere near as well balanced, and this heavily impacts on the overall experience. For me, it went like this: Avegin soldiers outnumber the knights 2:1. Tristian Liangale strikes twice, felling one. Knights follow suit, and claim a kill each. The remaining Avegin troops all decide to “Wait” in the face of adversity. Events repeat themselves the next turn, and the six soldiers have fallen with landing a single blow. This really sucks the drama out of the situation, and one only wonders how Avegin is even winning in the first place, if these are the men doing the fighting. I thus strongly recommend removing the "Wait" command from those soldiers, and making them more aggressive in general. The next battle against three of the same soldiers is obviously even less dramatic, and in order to keep the player interest I strongly suggest changing the encounter to a Lieutenant and perhaps two of the more elite soldiers/bodyguards, etc. instead of normal ones, so that the outcome wouldn't be quite so predictable.

Storyline



Some strong words here.

Tristian is a game that reminds me why “story” and “writing” are considered to be different things. The latter, as in the dialogue “spoken”, is generally very good. It’s quite literary in its style, it’s interesting to read and it fits the characters and the world well. There are a couple of spelling errors (“Those dastards” , “are there ones for different fiend types”, "Formiddible" (done twice), "practioner", "Fewer than 300 hundred men", etc.), but they’re irrelevant to the larger picture. I suppose I could say the dialogue in between the two battles in the opening occasionally feels too modern and detached, but it’s only a symptom of a larger problem: the overarching political story that is the reason for all conflict simply doesn’t gel at this point. I’m not sure whether it’s because it simply wasn’t thought out well enough in the first place, or because the demo’s pacing and character focus is too restrictive to allow it. Damningly, some of that looseness also affects the Tristian-Ianna relationship, dragging down many well-written moments.

Essentially, even though I’ve finished this hour-long demo, I’m still not sure why the overarching conflict is actually happening. Sure, I got the basic points: Genoa is a large power that ruled other, smaller lands for 500 years. It has encountered plenty of resistance throughout the time, and now, the most successful rebellion, led by Duke Avegin, had succeeded in storming Genoa Castle and slaying the Genoa King Auster, sending Ianna, his lone successor, and Tristian, her protector and Cerulean Order commander, into hiding. Everything else, though, is a self-contradictory mess, stemming from almost deliberately vague world-building, and what is essentially narrative flirting with moral ambiguity, yet unwilling to fully embrace it. This becomes truly apparent once we learn that Avegin’s plan relies on blaming Tristian for killing King Auster, a move that appears clever, but actually makes no sense.

Firstly, we learn that Duke Avegin has been leading the rebellion(s) against the King for years, a fact that has to be well-known, so why anybody would believe his assertions is unclear. Are the people supposed to believe that the soldiers of the King’s worst enemy just happened to be around the castle on a diplomatic mission, and then happened to see Tristian and Ianna escape after killing the King, or what? And then, of course, the fact that Tristian is now hunted by Avegin has to be the best proof of her innocence: otherwise, why wouldn’t she just join Avegin, grateful that she just dealt with his worst enemy for him? Then, of course, there’s the question of what Avegin has to benefit from this: it’s not at all clear, because the personality of the dead King is also not at all clear. Essentially, we’re told that he was a good, perhaps great King, who was, if anything, just too idealistic. Granted, it’s the obviously biased characters who tell us this, and the game page promises to show us different side of him and of his rule in due time. Nevertheless, this was still the King who managed to inspire a great rebellion against him, one that eventually succeeded. There had to be real failures under his watch, real reasons for the critical mass of people to back Avegin and his rebellion, reasons that go beyond vague ideas of freedom. Perhaps, Auster was good, but didn’t actually rule for long, and inherited a mess from his predecessors, but if so, that needs to be established.

Now, according to Avegin’s plans, the serfs, upon learning that Tristian apparently killed King, are supposed to turn against her, and then, already dispirited that its greatest supporter could do this, would lose their faith in the crown themselves. It almost makes sense, if not for one very big problem: Tristian is highly popular, not only because she’s a war heroine, but because she’s also known to have campaigned for freeing the serfs. Obviously, the serfs are not free yet, so her campaigns fell on the deaf ears of… that’s right, King Auster, the ultimate authority in the land. If the serfs believe that Tristian, who wants to liberate them, killed the King, who, for whatever reasons, kept them in serfdom, that will only make them like Tristian more, and rally around the cause of Queen Liangale so that they can finally be free. Essentially, if Avegin spreads that rumour, he ends up shooting himself in the foot.



And just how far back does "always" go?

In a way, this almost gives out an impression that abolitionist beliefs were never supposed to be an important part of the story, and were simply given to Tristian to make her look better. While I haven’t yet played Enelysion, I did understand that Lady Liangale is meant to be an improvement on that game’s protagonist, and possess greater complexity. Right now, though, this just makes her look truly inconsistent, partly because of her age. At 26, she’s a General, which only works if she’s inherited it due to her House, and that would be a stretch even when taking Medieval life expectancies into account. More importantly, this then clashes with the rule that, apparently, monarchs of Genoa can only be crowned at 23, and require a regent before that. It’s very reasonable, but why then allow generals this young at the same time? In addition, Avegin’s dialogue implies that Tristian has been a General and Cerulean Order commander for a long time, as she’s thwarted not one, but several rebellions, which means she had to be occupying the position for what, 5+ years at least? And don’t forget that, at the same time, she’s been a bodyguard of Ianna for the last six years (i.e., since she was 20), which would likely eat into her rebellion-crushing and Order-leading time considerably.

Essentially, the things Tristian is supposed to have done before the start of the story would fit a character who’s 46, or, at the very least, 36, but definitely not 26. I’m honestly wary of throwing Mary Sue labels around (in fact, this is the first time I’ve done so out of the 20 reviews I’ve written so far), but it’s hard not to make this connection here. After all, in addition to all that, she’s a great fighter (understandable given the genre), and she’s highly attractive, which led to loads of suitors, all of whom were rejected by her. While the part about rejection does strengthen the whole yuri element, that whole snippet still feels self-indulgent and unnecessary. Ianna is better, but she still has few flaws besides naivety, that is meant to be shattered in due time, if the game page is to be believed. To be honest, though, I’m not sure if there’s even anything that can get to Ianna after she shrugs off the destruction of the castle, death of her father and practically everyone besides Tristian, with “There’s no use moping around”, or something of a kind. I get that one wants to avert unneeded angst, but this way too far. Unless Auster is meant to be a completely aloof, uncaring father (contradicted so far), or Ianna is actually completely sociopathic, and cares about the throne more than people, (which actually would explain why Avegin’s supporters are so determined to see her dead, among other things) this is something that requires an urgent re-write. Her “I haven’t lost everything, I still have you” (paraphrasing slightly) to Tristian at the end of that conversation is just a cherry on top. You might see Romeo and Juliet links here, but the latter was a tragedy for good reason, and never intended for its protagonists to be an example to anyone. It’s the kind of stuff Twilight gets mocked for, as at best, it signifies completely unhealthy emotional dependency (rather than true love): at worst, it’s a further sign of Ianna’s sociopathy and an intentional attempt to manipulate Tristian into a physical relationship she’s likely to reject otherwise.

As damning as the above might sound, I do think the underlying problem here is not the characters as much as it is to do with pacing. Tristian: LotL appears desperate to ensure players are not bored, but in the end it simply constrains the events until we’re no longer sure of their importance. The end of the demo, when the sanctuary of Connaught gets attacked by overwhelming Avegin forces, forcing Tristian and Ianna to flee again, is probably the best example. It has no real dramatic weight, as we don’t know much at all about that place, beyond its powerful mages, the scythe weapons of its troops and its nice leader Dante. We don’t know how big or established it actually was, and we don’t know why Avegin, who, by now, must already be busy with trying to govern the territory he’s taken from Genoa, would start yet another war with a previously neutral state when he’s obviously in a position of strength, and can afford to drag it out with negotiations. In fact, the logistics of an army, large enough to take over one well-defended castle and wipe out most of its inhabitants, being suddenly able to make it undetected towards another, better-protected castle, only a day behind just two people travelling alone, are nothing but laughable. If anything, Tristian and Ianna might as well have moved from the cave straight towards the grove, encountering Dante and Percival on their way, and the story wouldn’t have changed: if anything, it would’ve become stronger for it.



We wouldn't have seen sights like this, though, so... fair trade?

Thus, at this point in time I would really advise the creator to establish stakes of the conflict first and foremost, and let everything else follow from that. After all, people don’t go to war, unless they know, at least to some extent, what it’s about, and have a stake (or believe they have a stake) in its outcome. In Tristian, it’s not at all clear what any of this war and struggle would actually mean for people that aren’t noble like Tristian and Ianna. Yeah, sure, Tristian is an abolitionist, and Avegin probably isn’t, if he’s willing to side with slave traders to gain power. Other than that, though, what changes? Genoa rule would be over if Avegin and others win, and it would resume with Ianna as High Queen if Tristian succeeds at the end, but what does it actually mean? What, if anything, did the 500-year Genoa rule accomplish across the country? What was the price of that rule? What will the independence do for Avegin’s supporters that they feel they couldn’t get under the Genoan rule? There’s some attempt to address that by Percival at the end of the demo, but it gets everything backwards. Wars make countries poorer because maintaining armies and paying all the soldiers is expensive, and for every one fighting, several must be working to provide food and equipment for them. And as wars keep on going, being a soldier becomes much less lucrative, not more, as their employer’s wealth is drained by years of fighting. I really hope these logistical conundrums will disappear from the story down the line, but somehow, I doubt that.

Conclusion

So, should you play Tristian: The Lady of the Lion? Yes, definitely: at the very least, you'll see it establish new audiovisual benchmarks for our engine, and show an interesting example of how element-based combat can be done right. Whether you should play the finished version, however, depends entirely on whether the storyline manages to overcome its numerous shortcomings, or ends up subsumed by them.

Posts

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Solitayre
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
18722
This is really pretty.
Red_Nova
The all around prick
7542
"Dangerously Cinematic,"

Now there's two words I never would have thought would come together to describe an RPG Maker game*. Then again, I did say that It Moves was possibly too creative, so... *reevaluates personal standards*

This is a well written review. Most of what I disagree on is just nitpicking, and certainly not because I think it's wrong.

I'm curious, though: is this the first iteration of LotL you played? I had no trouble learning the mechanics in place, but that could be because I've played the previous three(?) demos that came out as well as Enelysion, from which this game borrows some mechanics (like guarding restoring HP/MP). If so, then I could kinda understand the frustration at the lack of explanation, though I don't agree that it's a flaw of the game. I like to look through menus and figure out what each thing does on my own without having it explained to me, and I felt that all it took was one look through all the menus to learn it. The one thing I agree needs some explaining is which colors mean what on the elemental status screen, since I sometimes made that mistake.

I'm also not sure how the opening dialogue feels... modern. No one today (that I'm aware of) talks about going for someone's head, or declaring someone is a stain on the earth.

That lighting effect glitch happens to me as well. I'm not sure how VX handles it, but this was also present in Enelysion, so something's screwy with the lighting script being used. Maybe the problem can be fixed by fading in/out a pure black picture on the top z layer so it covers up the lights? I don't use that script, so I can't give any kind of recommendation.

*: Yes, I'm aware of Beloved Rapture. But that's intentionally cinematic, and so my point still stands.
Well, to be honest, I just thought I needed an eye-catching title, and I was already exhausted by this 3000 word text, so this is what I quickly came up with. Probably not the best descriptor, but I guess it can stay.

Also, yes, this is the first version of the game I've played, and so the mechanics were largely new to me (technically, I first encountered Defend being used in that manner in Standstill Girl, but that was a while ago.) In a way, I would've liked further explanation more for the sake of consistency: I just assumed that if Guard was explained, then other similarly important elements would be too, which is why I didn't look through everything, when, I might've had done so otherwise.

And as for the opening dialogue, you're right that most of it is very authentic: I was referring explicitly to the moment when Tristian replies to soldiers' insults by saying "While the late King may have made some fateful decisions which led to the last civil war, he clearly tried to make amends!" That line is what rang hollow for me: it's just too muted, too detached, as if they're arguing about events that happened decades ago while sipping tea. Someone who's there in the thick of things would never use that language to justify the actions of her dead sovereign to hostile soldiers, immediately after battling their comrades.
Thank you for taking the time to write this wordy review, NTC3. =)

You really brought to light some of the game's more pressing issues. I do agree with the fact that I tried to do too much within the demo's time-frame to hold the player's interest, so certain events will appear disjointed and/or convoluted.

I'm just wondering if I should take a character-orientated approach rather than a larger over-arching narrative, because my strengths clearly lie in writing actual dialogue ( I had more fun writing Tristian and Ianna than with any other in Enelysion ) and this is my first attempt at trying a politically-geared plot than the usual 'stop the evil man from taking over the world' hash that has been around since 1986.

I was playing/toying with moral ambiguity, but I guess it fell flat here. One sometimes does not know where to cross the line to stop your protagonists and antagonists from looking like complete monsters aka Moral Event Horizon.

If anything, I really would welcome the addition of a writer who is well-versed in political intrigue to really bring this project together. =)
If I might interject, I would say your strong point is defs in character interaction, especially the mundane interpersonal stuff! A political plot needs a lot of care and tending to be 1) interesting and 2) engaging, and it also needs to be centre stage. And really? I see the centre stage of this game being the relationship between Tristian and Ianna, not the political turmoil they find themselves wrapped up in.

Basically, if a plot is happening to characters simply to propel the characters forward, why bother having it at all? A good plot should challenge and enrich the characters involved. And hey, a good plot doesn't have to be huge in scope! Some of my favourite stories are based around interpersonal conflict. I think you could make an entire game based around the evolution of Tristian and Ianna's relationship, especially if it stays a visual novel. Heck, you could even make an rpg that focused around character relationships because HA HA HA I KNOW I SURE AM~~~

Really, if I were you going forward, I would try to focus in on the strengths of this game and find a way to really highlight that. There's a lot of choice stuff in here ;w;
Yes, Em, you are right in that. I do have a lot of fun writing Tristianna ( and even the other characters like Darcy and Trabant, who still have to appear ) and it shows ( ahem, the yuri is a bonus, mind you XD ).

The game might require another slight rewrite ( this will be the 3rd time I'm doing it, but I'm not too fussed; after all Tolkien wrote LoTR 11 times before he was happy with his manuscript, and I always wanted to just write about you know, character relationships.

I'm also pulling out of the IGMC. 11 days in and I'm really not having much fun with it. So it is in my best interests to take a bow and wait until next year. =)
nhubi
Liberté, égalité, fraternité
11099
NTC one small nitpick, dastard is a word, it means someone who is dishonourable. It's the right word to use in that scenario.
author=Red_Nova
"Dangerously Cinematic,"

Now there's two words I never would have thought would come together to describe an RPG Maker game*. Then again, I did say that It Moves was possibly too creative, so... *reevaluates personal standards**:

...

Yes, I'm aware of Beloved Rapture. But that's intentionally cinematic, and so my point still stands.


Lol..

(In seriousness, nicely written review here. xD)

I have to confess, I've yet to play Tristian. But I've always quietly admired its ambitiousness from afar, as sort of a "spiritual cousin" to BR in its obvious commitment to the visual storytelling. IMO, what Luchino achieved for this game's visuals is truly impressive in its own right, considering her relative inexperience with pixel art prior to making this project.

I was holding off to play a completed version, but considering the polish on this demo, perhaps I'll shoot up a review soon. ;-)
@BM: Well, if you're doing a rated-review score, I wouldn't say no. :p But I am in the midst of a slight rewrite because things are a little... all over the show atm due to 'demo compression'.

And yes, regarding my pixel art, I only started around Jan last year. Actually, in comparison to Accelerated World ( also did in a pixel-art style ) the difference is quite noticeable. Granted, I was going for a more minimalist approach there, but I am happy so far with what I've achieved ( trees are tricky to get right though, as are cliff tiles >< ).
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