• Add Review
  • Subscribe
  • Nominate
  • Submit Media
  • RSS

Does existence need a purpose?

  • NTC3
  • 03/19/2017 02:00 PM
  • 310 views
First with the brilliant Illusions of Loyalty, and now with The End, Aegix_Drakan proves to have an uncanny ability to create truly meaningful things while limited by the contest deadlines. The End, in particular, was made over a short span of time for the 2014 MOG event. Given the restrictions on resource use, etc. it imposes, and the somewhat esoteric premise, you would expect it to be akin to a comedy game, and at first, it kind of is. The tone gradually changes over time though, in a way that both makes sense but also leaves you unable to accept it as normal, much like the characters under your control.

Storyline



True to its name, The End begins just moments before a conventional RPG would’ve ended, with a party of our four heroes in the villain’s castle, ready to finally finish him off. Not much is in doubt now, and yet there’s a surprising amount of detail here, in all the little dialogues and descriptions, that really helps to provide context. Whether it’s the Imp, Iggy, fighting with a Master’s Glove that once belonged to an Ogre Foreman and was taken from its corpse after the successful Imp’s rebellion, or the Death Magus Ark disarming Hex traps while commenting on how much Dark Lord Orion really needed him, there’s a strong impression of a real, long storyline leading up to that concluding moment. The last encounter itself also doesn’t disappoint, as Orion is completely, utterly convinced he cannot lose, listing off all the ways in which his power is impervious and how the impending defeat is no big deal anyway, only for the group to collectively cross them all off. He tries questioning each character’s place in the world they’re about to create as well, and he actually does make good points there: they might’ve worked, if only he avoided burning all the bridges completely. It’s no real use to ask elven Hex Hunter Luna whether her tribe can live in the new world alongside the freed Imps, after you’ve had them wiped out a long time ago.

As it is, Orion gets killed off for good, and the credits roll for the first time, listing off everyone whose work had been used in the making of The End, interspersed with the short, cute scenes of characters adapting to the victorious life. At first, I even thought that it might just really end there and still be a sweet, little and forgettable game. However, it keeps on going, and greatly exceeds those expectations. Even before the true storyline is initiated, you can get a lot of wry observations about the now-pacified realm. There’s the Ark’s adopted son, Theo, who is understandably antisocial and not finding a better way to approach a girl he likes besides hexing her (to which Ark shakes his head and tells him any worthwhile hex must be subtle, before forcing him to apologise). You have Luna berating the main human protagonist, Swiftheart, for being late to their dates by noting he misses out the most due to having half the lifespan she does. The optional interactions with side characters also contain a lot of detail: from freed Imps now serving as mail carriers, up to and including a drunkard at the tavern, who finds that his habit now outlives the Demon War, which was the excuse he used to justify it all along.

Of course, staying in drunken stupor throughout was likely a fine decision on his part, as the game gradually lives up to its title, and the backstory in the prologue is tied with the present, as the characters’ search for answers, and for culprit, leads them through all the places that left an indelible impact on that unnamed world’s history. I likely shouldn’t spoil the exact nature of dialogues and interactions as the game goes from the absurd (the ridiculous transformations of the main cast, which thankfully do not affect the gameplay) to particularly dark and emotional. The ending is not unpredictable per se, but it provides considerable room for interpretation as it fully wraps up this one tale and crosses into the meta-narrative. Should the story be taken at face value, with the inevitable concerns arising from whether the same thing occurs if a sequel is set right after the original, or if the original ending was ambiguous, or if countless other qualifiers apply? Is it a cautious parable about fanfics and the like, warning how a story going beyond its intended endpoint loses first the ability to be taken seriously, then the colour and life that made it special fades, and eventually, all of its meaning disappears? Or should it be engaged purely at the emotional level, as a surprisingly effective portrayal of human psychology during swift and sudden apocalypse?

Aesthetics



There’s a really wide range of stuff used for The End. At first, it’s just the typical VX Ace RTP, used well other than the unusual combination of the front-view Ace RTP monsters with the side-view battle system. Huge monsters looking directly at the screen while simultaneously being pummelled by the tiny hero battlers on the right might look quite discomforting, and you begin to question why there’s a side-view system in the first place. You only understand the reason behind it once things go deeper and the game completely abandons RTP territory: all the other MOG battlers are looking the right way, and the system makes sense even with the weird post-transformation battlers for every character under your control. The aesthetic is kind of like Evoland in reverse, and so there are multiple tilesets used to symbolise the regression of the world, even including the outright black-and-white mapping/battlers (with the ALLCAPS attack/skill messages to match). To give you an example of the work that’s gone into it: the decently-sized world map has essentially been rebuilt in a different aesthetic 3-4 times, to match the overall aesthetic every time it changes. This is to say nothing of what comes after that, with animated backgrounds changing on a dime as you move through the world. In its closing sections, The End easily rivals the dedicated “art games” in terms of weirdness, except that it has the gameplay to match.

Sound side of things is also fine; there are plenty of MOG tracks used, and they all work. Like in Illusions of Royalty, Aegix_Drakan again shows interest in the player’s convenience by including multiple battle themes, either of which could be randomly chosen when fighting a touch encounter. In fact, there are different battle theme sets as well; while early encounters have the same VX Ace RTP, later themes hew closer to the 16-bit aesthetics (including the change in the victory theme), and after a key revelation, some of the very last battles will frequently use “Shenshetta_Song_1_Stage” as their theme. In the context of those battles, this track (which I still listen to as I write the review) really sounds like it’s mocking you for even bothering to spend what’s likely your final moments on fighting and killing other unfortunates of this world.

Gameplay



The combat is the one thing that’s been reworked quite a bit from the original version I played in mid-2015, and the 1.5 build released that October and being reviewed now. (This review was supposed to happen before 2016, but well, better late than never.) In short, it still uses the same, awesome Aggression system that was first featured in the Illusions of Loyalty. It employs two gauges, where SP, the equivalent of traditional mana, recharges by 10 points each turn, but is only sufficient for basic skills. Intermediate and Advanced require both SP and Aggression, which is charged by Basic Skills and regular attacks. It all follows clear numerical ratios: + 20 AGR after basic skill/attack, -20 for Intermediate skill and - 40 for Advanced, so if you want to use one, you need to wait two turns at most, assuming there’s enough SP.

Each character also possesses 6 skills that remain unchanged throughout the game, and so each battle is more about figuring out the right way to use them, instead of simply trying to go for the most powerful ones every time. Several skills have been outright replaced with better-suited ones, and a few more have been rebalanced as the game moved to v1.5, and while I no longer have the original build to compare, I can certainly say the combat feels a lot better and more fun than it did back then. There are some obvious skill combinations, but also obvious drawbacks that might make you think twice about employing them. For instance, the most powerful offensive skill Swiftheart has will only strike at the end of the turn, and will be weaker if he’s hit as he’s charging up. You can ensure he’ll receive no damage through using Luna’s Life Link on him, but is it worth forgoing the chance for her to seal one enemy’s magic through Purity Arrows, or to do her own group attack through Sacred Squall? Perhaps, you can instead go for a less-guaranteed option and have Iggy apply Shriekwall, which won’t negate damage, but might reduce his agility to the point he’ll be charging up after all the enemies have moved already anyway. Or should you just forget that skill and try his (easily dodgeable) group slash, and hope Luna’s basic 2-shot volley will remove evasion from enough enemies to make it worthwhile? Ark’s skills are still really esoteric most of the time (there’s one that shows enemy a visage of their inevitable death, removing 10% HP, but healing it back once the turn ends), to the point I often preferred just attacking normally with him. However, his advanced Spell of Doom, which targets all enemies and has its damage amplified by the number of statuses applied to each enemy (at the cost of removing them, sure, but still) is undoubtedly the most fun thing about the game.



Goodbye.

One thing that’s changed a bit from the Illusions of Loyalty is the increased importance and prominence of equipment. The characters’ weapons all stay the same, since they are already the ones who defeated the highest evil, and have nowhere to go from something like a sword of solid dragonfire. Instead, though, you have an offensive and a defensive equipment slot for every character, and both will soon have plenty of potential options. Pretty much every time you stumble into an encounter you haven’t fought before (let alone complete a boss battle), you’ll come out of it with a new item like that. A lot of them are really esoteric though: some in a good way (Throwing Needles, which I gave to Lune after beating my first batch of Megabees, and provided her with an extra automatic attack in between turns, were awesome), others not so much. A lot of them provide various bonuses to normal attacks to make you consider using them more often, but skills are usually so good I only truly took advantage of it for Ark, by having him go through the entire game with Jacknife equipped: an item that makes any normal attack inflict 1% damage over the next 5 turns, and is actually very useful: not only can that damage stack up pretty well, but it’s also another persistent status that will amplify the Spell of Doom later on. Iggy also had the Cleaver thing that gave him double normal attack, eventually, but he was typically too busy removing statuses or debuffing enemies’ agility/attack/accuracy to do that much. Also, if you miss any item while exploring, you can buy it in the town by choosing the “Equipment” function at the shop.

The game still has a balancing problem of sorts. Like IoL, it begins with the choice of 3 difficulties, and a warning about choosing the highest, alongside with a difficulty drop item in the menu in case you have second thoughts about it. I still chose it, however, and all the characters got the Maniac’s Proof trinket as a result. Even so, the battles were somewhat easier then IoL’s ones at its own highest difficulty: while a few battles did leave me with dead characters, I never felt like I needed to reload in the middle of the fight here, for instance. That’s more of an observation then a real mark against the game. What should be addressed, though, is the way the healing system doesn’t quite cohere with the consumable item/encounter system used. Essentially, you are fully restored at the end of every victory, unless you are playing on the mid-range Rebel mode, in which case the restoration is a little less-then-complete (yes, ironically, the hardest Maniac mode heals you more then the Rebel one does right now). First, this means that the Rations item (restores everything, but only out of battle) is only needed if you wind up fleeing the encounter, as that’s the only way post-battle injuries will persist. Second, the encounter system appears designed for a more traditional dungeon crawling where the battles are supposed to wear you down. In that system, fighting the same kind of encounter again is forgivable, as you’ll presumably be going into it the second time in a worse state and with fewer items to help you out.



An optional Mimic fight. An example of both the monochrome part of the game, and the potential buffs.

When you are fully restored after each victory, though, fighting the same battle again is no more challenging, and is in fact easier, since you already know the quirks that the enemies have. (And nearly all of them do have a cool trick or two: one thing I certainly hasn’t felt while playing is that the enemies might need more skills, which is rare for me.) Thus, the approach The End takes right now falls short a little. It has pre-existing patrolling encounters that can be dodged on map, (sometimes there are little side “corridors” just small enough for your entire party to fit in past the encounter), and each area usually has 3 enemy types, 3-4 encounter compositions and around a dozen encounters in total, so that each fight is repeated 3 times or so. I understand that MOG conditions restrict the enemy type count and I’m fine with that. However, I feel that there could’ve been a lot more mix-and-matching done with the current enemy types to make every, or nearly every encounter different from each other. 2 Bloodthirsters and a Death Magus, 2 Bloodthirsters + 3 weak Orc Minions, or 2 Ghosts + 2 Orc Minions are just some potential suggestions for the Orion’s castle, which is also notable for making you fight a powerful demon first as a surprise ambush, and then again, unchanged. Perhaps flank him with a Death Magus or 2 for the second time around? Latter areas could also do with similar changes. (An encounter that would have 2 Wolves and a Golem, perhaps? 2 Slimes and a Wolf? 2 Golems and a Psychoslime? 2 Leviathans and a Lizard/Maneater? 2 Lizards and a Maneater? Etc, etc.) I would say playing around with such encounters would be more important than fixing the HP/SP regeneration, and might even make it unnecessary.

Conclusion

In all, The End is still an intelligent, memorable game that deserves much wider recognition. While I have some misgivings about the combat structure, it’s still much, much better then what I usually see, and everything else functions remarkably well.

Posts

Pages: 1
Oh yeah, I remember this game was updated after I played it. I still need to give the new version a try some time...

A very in-depth and fair review, I have to say. I remember that I, too, was surprised by how cleverly structured yet touching the story was. Anyone interested in metafiction and breaking tropes should definitely try this game out. I agree it deserves more attention, especially considering the background of its production.
:o Oh wow. You came back and reviewed this one. Thanks for the 4 stars!

...Wait...WAIT WHAT YOU FULLY HEALED ON MANIAC MODE?! *checks common events and swears* DAMMIT THAT WAS NOT INTENDED AUGH.

Well, between that, the fact I want to implement toggle-sprint and your interesting suggestion about mixing and matching the monsters up to make more diverse encounters, I think that once I have time to revisit this game, I'll have more than enough stuff to upgrade to be worth doing an update to the game.
Pages: 1