Ash Arms

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been playing a certain game called Ash Arms. However, it’s not played on PC or console like most games are. Instead, it’s a mobile game and today I want to take some time to talk about it.

First what exactly is Ash Arms? The closest comparison I think of is a tactical turn based RPG. However, it’s a far stretch from having all the features of one. Instead, it’s better to think of Ash Arms as a game similar to Pokemon, and it only borrows some aspect from tactical turn based RPGs. Rather than a full map, there is instead only eight columns to move your units around. What this means is that you can only move units left and right, which is pretty limiting. The other important detail to note, is that there are two of these maps stacked on top of each other at once. The reason for this is because the game revolves around tanks and aircraft. One map represents the ground while the other is the air. Instead of thinking too deeply about it, just imagine playing two of these eight column games at once. The only thing that connect these two games are that sometimes units can attack over into another game and your turns are linked together. All in all, it’s the weirdest kind of turn based game I’ve ever scene. However, it’s still a creative way to integrate both tanks and aircraft into one game. 

This leads me to my next talking point, units. Like I said before, the game revolves around military assets without warships. However, these might not be the tanks and planes some are familiar with. Ash Arms uses an anime art style with cute girls representing these vehicles. It’s a popular trend in Japanese games and other media with some other examples being Kancolle, Azure Lane, Girl Frontline, Girls und Panzer, and Strike Witches. However, this topic is deep enough on its own and can easily be its own blog. I just wanted to touch upon the art style used as some might not understand the concept. 

Unfortunately, what I can’t touch upon deeply is the plot. Normally, I would make it a point to talk about the plot, as I really enjoy a good story. However, I can’t make heads or tails of Ash Arms plot as it’s all in Japanese and there is no translation. With the pictures in the background, you can infer there is a war against some sort of aliens or machines gone rogue. Regardless, after the first few scenes I made it a point to skip all future ones.

Like most people who pick up a Japanese mobile game, it’s for the gameplay, art, and gatcha, not so much the story. Which leads me to my next point, the gatcha. If you’re unfamiliar to the term, it is the eastern equivalent to loot boxes and a light form of gambling. In most turn based mobile games or any game that includes a form of units, they use a gatcha to have you obtain more. From a business stand point, it makes sense as it’s the easiest way to extort money out of the player but I digress. Some players don’t like this concept of obtaining new units but I don’t particular mind. Compared to other gatcha games, Ash Arms odds lean towards the more lenient side of things. In the beginning at least, it’s easy to collect the currency needed to roll for new units, and five precent odds of a rare unit are pretty good. In comparison, some games have the odds at one precent for a rare unit, or make rolling for new units extremely hard. However, from what I hear, rare units are almost a necessity to progress and no matter the odds, that’s never good. I guess only time will tell if that is true.

Overall, Ash Arms takes familiar concepts to me and turn them on their head. The gameplay is not quite simple but not overly complex either, the art is familiar but taken in a completely different direction than what I’m used too, and the gatcha is surprisingly lenient. All in all, Ash Arms is a great game and I can only hope for a global release someday. 

Gaming though Game Design

Recently, I’ve been playing some Japanese games on my iPhone. Unfortunately, I can’t understand much less read Japanese. So, how do I and many other non-Japanese people play these games? Well, you could look up a translated guide, but in my opinion game design and UI play a much bigger roll. In this blog, I want to share my thoughts on how games implement game design and organize the UI to streamline the player experience. 

At the start of almost any game, there will almost always be a start screen. The can be many reasons why a start screen is there, sometimes you can alter the settings or maybe even the language. However, for apps you’ll almost always see an iconic F or blue bird. These two icons represent Facebook and Twitter respectively. Most game uses these buttons to bind your Facebook or Twitter account to game data. What this example shows is the use of familiar icons, and having you recall prior experiences. Remember I mentioned how this example is common, how you’ll almost always see it in the start screen specifically? This kind of game design is reliant on your prior experience in recognizing how these two symbols lead to bind your account. However, once you’ve experienced it, any other developer can use this method and you as the player will recognize it immediately. This can be applied to any concept in a game like mail or accessing the settings. The use of prior experiences is not just used to bind your account. 

Another way too rationalize this example is with a fast-food drive through. Although a drive through has nothing in common with binding an account, it works on the same concept of familiarity. A McDonald drive through may differ from a Tim Hortons one, whether it be the difference in signs or maybe where the entrance is located. Regardless, once you’ve experienced going through a single drive through, you can recall on that experience. Even if the process is slightly different from franchises to franchise and the language on the signs is different, the way drive throughs operate is similar enough to each other that you’ll have little problem ordering food. 

Unfortunately, sometimes the developers of a game can’t rely on familiarity. Maybe there is a game that’s revolutionary and there is nothing else like it, what will the developers do now? The answer is size and colour. There is a gag in pop-culture relating to a big red button that people aren’t supposed to touch. However, most of the time people touch it anyway. Why? The button catches your attention with its red colouring, and the size makes it easy to access. It’s designed in a way that makes you want to push the button. Game developers use this trick all the time when advertising a feature they want you to use frequently. If there is an over-world map in an RPG to enter a level, there is likely a very high chance that the start button is right in your face. Another example is the gacha, a lottery to obtain new units or some sort of desired item. The developer put this button in your face, because it easy for them to squeeze money out of you like in a casino. In fact, this in your face lottery concept ended up blowing as scandal in 2017 that scars the gaming community to this day. Of course, the main reason it blew up was because it was essentially children gambling. However, we can’t forget the developers intentionally made that lottery system easy to access through the UI. 

Finally, what if all else fails? What if the player still can’t figure out they need to do? What’s the last option a developer can employ? The answer is a visual tutorial, one with pictures and arrows galore. Although not often thought about and skipped, a tutorial can really help when there is nothing to fall back on. It will give you an experience to recall, and maybe you’ll even make sense of the UI along the way. The problem is that the developer can’t alway use this option. No one like it when a game holds your hand, and that mean the developer eventually needs to let the player roam free. 

Overall, while game design and UI is often overlooked, everything is placed there for a reason. There is always a reason why some icons are bigger than others, or why something feels vaguely familiar. All these things is to make the player feel comfortable and in control, and by extension helps me play Japanese games.

Difficulty in Games

This week, I would like to tackle the subject of difficulty in games. Recently, I started a new play through on a turn-based tactical RPG on the highest difficulty. Having only played on normal mode before, I found it very interesting how the game made itself more difficult. In this blog, I want to go over some mechanics games use to raise the difficulty, and how I think they should be applied. 

The first change usually seen in a harder difficulty, is the increased number of hit-points an enemy has. Hit-points are essentially the enemies health, when the number of hit-points reach zero they die in a sense. It’s fairly easy to see how this increase of health could make a game harder. If an enemy is hitting your character and you’re hitting back, the more hit-points an enemy has, the more they can strike you. Another example, is how a small increase can drastically change the game. Let’s say the number of hit-points haven’t raised much, and the enemies can only get one more hit on your character. If there are many enemies, that damage adds up.

However, I find that the mechanic I just mentioned, although the easiest to implement, can be the trickiest to balance. People play games to escape boredom, so what happen when you’re spending five minutes on a single enemy, trying to whittle it’s hit-point’s down to zero? That’s boring and the process of dispatching enemies can get old fast, the gameplay becomes repetitive and stagnate. If people get bored or become frustrated, they will stop playing the game. Increasing the hit-points of enemies does make a game harder, but it doesn’t make the player think. There is no added layer to this increase in difficulty, as it just wastes your time. 

In order to add that extra layer of gameplay, the developers may give the enemies a new feature they didn’t have before. What do I mean by this? A new feature can be rather broad, but generally they change up the way a player approaches a situation or make the player think about their actions. For example, in an FPS the developer could give the enemies grenades when they otherwise wouldn’t have them in a lower difficulty. It would make the player think about the type of damage or penalties grenades could inflict, and possibly have them reconsider entering cramped areas where grenades would be most potent. Adding new spins on a level the player has explored before, can turn the level into a completely new experience. 

Unfortunately, there is also a point where adding too many new features can work against a game. Sometimes the developer will add a completely new feature, and it might be unintuitive or detracts from the core gameplay. For example, in a level of an FPS your goal is to clear out all the enemies. In the more difficult versions of this level, the game may also have you protect an objective for a bonus. Suddenly because of this entirely new feature, the goal of defeating all the enemies becomes protecting this objective. Even though the objective is still to clear out all the enemies, the player becomes distracted. 

The final way to increase the difficulty of a game, would likely be to change the enemies priorities. For example, instead of having enemies wait until you approach them, allowing you to pick them off one at a time, the enemies could rush you all at once. This kind of change, makes you drastically change how you approach a level. Instead of the player going on the offensive, they’re now on the defensive. The great thing about this change is that it makes the enemies feel more intelligent or aggressive, and this is without the game feeling unfair due to hit-point increases or gaining a new advantage over the player. 

The downside to this kind of change, is how the game can potentially feel a bit too unfair. The game can never be on the same level as the player, so it compensates with more enemies. However, if they all advance towards you at once, the player will be overwhelmed. Another example, is if a boss with an incredibly high amount of hit-points is healed even turn by some sort of healer. It would make the level feel utterly impossible to defeat the boss. What needs to happen in these instances is a check or a flag of some kind. In the former example, perhaps the boss and a few enemies won’t advance unless approached. In the latter, the healers wouldn’t heal unless the boss was under a certain threshold of hit-points. With these restrictions, the game become much harder, but still gives the player a fighting chance. 

Overall, all these changes to the gameplay will increase the difficulty. Of course some mechanics are better than others, but none of them are perfect. Each has their own flaws and when taken too far can ruin a game, this is already seen with the term bullet sponge (an enemy with an absurd amount of hit-points) being thrown around constantly in FPS games. Rather, I think a combination of all three mechanics makes for the best kind of difficulty, a game mode that makes the enemies more intimidating and causes the player to think more. 

Fire Emblem Past VS Present

If you look at my profile, I’ve frequently talked about a turn-base tactical RPG franchise called Fire Emblem. I’ve covered gameplay and story elements from different games in the franchise, but I’ve never actually compared two Fire Emblem games. Today, I’d like to remedy that as I cover how gameplay has changed over the years. For this blog, I’ll be comparing broad gameplay elements from the GBA era games and the newest instalment in the series for the Switch. However, I should mention that although I’m using the GBA era games as a reference, the history of Fire Emblem is much deeper, going as far back to Nintendo’s Super Famicom. Unfortunately, I’ve never played a Fire Emblem game prior to the GBA era and thus can’t conduct a comparison of any kind. Now, with that mention out of the way, let’s move on to the comparison. 

When you start up a game, the first thing that usually catches your eye is the graphics. It may not be surprising that graphics usually improve as time progresses and technology improves. However, that may not always be the case. In all the GBA games, the story is told through still photos and dialogue boxes, with very little animation of any kind. On the map, most units are distinguished by their classes with very few exceptions and everything is displayed through a top down isometric view camera. In comparison, the newest instalment of Fire Emblem uses a heavy amount of cutscenes and 3D animation to tell its story. When playing through the game, all units are displayed as 3D models and each unit has their own unique look. The top down still camera has also been done away with, replaced with a manoeuvrable orthographic view camera. As you can see, the two are very different in terms of art style. While I admit each side has their merits, I prefer the GBA way of telling its story. In my personal experience, I find Fire Emblem’s use of 3D models to be rather clunky, especially in the 3DS era games.  

The next big difference is the gameplay, or rather the lack of a defining feature in the Fire Emblem franchise. Since the beginning of Fire Emblem, combat revolved around a rock, paper, scissor weapon triangle. In layman’s terms weapons have weaknesses and advantages over other weapons untimely forming a triangle. For example, swords are good against axes but weak against lances. This fosters a sense of gameplay balance and coerces the player to have units specialize in different weapons. However, in the newest Fire Emblem game the weapon triangle is removed. What this means is you could have a team full of sword units and face no repercussions against facing waves of enemy lance units. Rather, everything is now based upon the individual weapons accuracy and power. For example, an axe would have higher power but less accuracy compared to a sword. This system still makes you consider have a diverse party of units, but still think including the weapon triangle wouldn’t have hurt. 

However, an ever bigger mix up to the traditional Fire Emblem formula would be the change to the promotion system. In Fire Emblem you could always make a unit stronger after a certain level by giving them a promotion item. For example, a Villager promoting to a Mercenary would give the unit more points in strength. In real life this would be equivalent to getting a promotion in your job, your pay raise being the increase in stats. Normally, there is no going back on a promotion, usually linear, and your unit’s level would reset. In previous games this had you levelling units to their max level, even if they could promote earlier to get the best stats possible. For example, if a unit can promote at level 10 but caps at 20 and they get a level of strength for each level, you would want to wait, as 20 strength is much better to 10. However, like the weapon triangle, they replace the promotion system with a completely new one. In the newest Fire Emblem game, units still need to reach a certain level to promote, but now their level doesn’t reset, they can promote to almost any class as long they fulfil the requirements, and they could go back to previous classes anytime they want. Personally, I like this change a lot as it give so much unit customization to the player. A great example of this is promoting a mage into a swordsman, though likely a terrible choice still very funny. Prior to the newest instalment, this would never had happen. As a casual player, it’s always fun to see what kind of crazy creations others have promoted their units into. 

Overall, the newest Fire Emblem game has changed many thing. The features I just discussed are only the ones that have been directly changed from previous games. I haven’t even touched upon the new features the latest Fire Emblem game introduced. Now, the question is how will future games look like? Will the weapon triangle be reintroduced or will another feature be drastically change, we just don’t know. For now, we can only speculate.