Sunday, March 18, 2012

Now Loading.

I've spoken at length in the past about my tenacity when it comes to playing games:  That when I start something, it's enormously hard for me to give up.  I am tenacious in pursuit of my goal, and pursue it with a relentless focus until my goal is achieved:

Be it games or microwave ovens.
But even Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock was wise enough to realize when his relentless pursuit of a goal was a bit too much (for the record, it happens in season 5, without spoiling anything).  It's a rarity when it happens.  In my case, it's a signal to my friends (and hopefully you all) that a game is truly awful when, within an hour or less of playing it, I declare it a cesspool of poorly realized concepts and gameplay.

No, this isn't another review about Hyperdimension Neptunia (though amazingly enough, I heard the sequel was actually good).  This isn't even a story about a game on my personal backlog, but one I nevertheless consider backlogged.  This is a story about Mana Khemia:  Student Alliance.


Some time ago, The Enabler purchased Mana Khemia:  Student Alliance.  Like many Gust games, it featured lovely artwork, the promise of an interesting synthesis system, possibly a few interesting characters, and what would likely be an easy to play experience.  She'd enjoyed the Atelier Iris games enough, and it was cheap at the time, so why not?

Unfortunately, like some Gust / NIS games, it contained a game-breaking error:  Loading times.  It was bad enough that she could not play it for longer than an hour, and thus promptly set it down.  When she explained this to me, do you think I believed her?

Well, yes.  She's not a woman prone to exaggeration, after all (..and not one to argue with lightly).

But my belief and agreement with her was not enough.  As mentioned before, I have the masochistic patience to play through a game with glaring flaws if I really like them enough, or if they've just pissed me off enough:

An example of the former, and former poster child of bad loading times
So one day when we were hanging out at her place as I was sitting down, she handed me a copy of Mana Khlemia to pop into the PSP while she watched TV.  It was time for me to see firsthand just how bad this was.  So how did it go?  Well.. I think it's better to give a step by step process.

Locked and Loading

I pop the game into the PSP.  No problems thus far, I'm treated to your standard, nicely animated J-Pop intro.  I mean hey, judging by the action going on in this, you'd think the action is going to get pretty intense in this game.  For a brief moment, I think that perhaps it won't be as bad as it seems with the loading times, and that maybe I can power through it.

Aside from that minor little bug where a voice starts up, loops, then a loading screen happens.

This is before I get to the title screen, mind you.

Mildly perturbed, but not entirely daunted, I opt to start a new game, while the Enabler stares on curiously for a moment, then goes back to watching TV.

The introduction is what seems to be a dream-like sequence with the main character, Vayne, communicating with a creature named Sulphur:  It's fully voiced, though you only see words on a white background as wistful music plays.  My curiosity is piqued, but before the intro can go on much longer. .

Get used to seeing this.
"..Well, that was kind of abrupt"  I think, making a remark along the same lines.
"Oh, just wait.  It's not bad yet."  The Enabler remarks.

Eventually, the seen breaks to Vayne standing outside of the Al-Revis Academy, with a cat (presumably Sulphur) at his side.  In fully voiced dialogue, he makes the astute observation that "This is Al-Revis Academy.  The place where they teach alchemy".  Vayne proceeds inside, then:

"..Oh god damn it."  I mutter.  The Enabler chuckles.

A flashback scene where an instructor from Al-Revis tells Vayne and Sulpher about Al-Revis takes place, as a way of giving us some backstory.  Flash back to the present, where Vayne and Sulpher enter the academy.  The screen goes dark again and I panic, but it's only for a few moments.  At this point, the peppy sound of the Japanese Children's Death Choir plays as I'm treated to a montage of the different areas in the academy, also showing the different characters who will inevitably become part of my team.  We shift back to Vayne, who's entering what seems to be the assembly hall.

The screen goes dark again.

And stays dark for close to 10 seconds.

At this point, I'm almost starting to miss the loading screen.

I'm sorry for the mean things I said.  Please don't leave me in the dark.
"..Did the game freeze up?"  I ask.

"Nope." remarks The Enabler.

The scene shifts to the end of the orientation, with the principal and vice-principal making their closing remarks, and the students dispersing.  Vayne comes across Zeppel, the man who he met in the flashback, an instructor at the academy, and his new homeroom teacher.  The two walk off to class together.  Shortly after, the following words flash across the screen as the next scene commences:

That was just the prologue?!  It was like 3 or 4 scenes tops!  Why did it  take so long?!

By this point, the Enabler figured I would put it down.  But no, I was determined.  Certainly the game had some redeeming factor, right?  Thus I made it my mission to at least get to the first battle, to see how the combat system was.

Little did I know, that in itself would be a journey.

After some more exposition where I was introduced to various characters, I had control of Vayne.  I figured that I would explore the different areas of the academy first.  I selected my destination from the menu, and then:

..Oh, hello again.
Sigh.  I selected another destination, then:

..You're here, too.
I selected the destination that would get me out to battle, but then accidentally selected my previous location and:

Please stop following me.
"Oh god damn it, I didn't mean to select that one!"  I yell, which was met with the Enabler's laughter.

Finally, I make it to battle.  The system is certainly interesting enough, but even that has it hiccups with loading just as the battle starts.  I power down the PSP, set it down gently, then look calmly at the Enabler, who has now turned from the TV to meet my gaze knowingly.

"...I see what you mean."  I said, defeated.

Closing Thoughts

If you roam the depths of the internet (or at least, the GameFAQs message boards), you'll see differing opinions on the loading times.  Some people will insist that Mana Khemia:  Student Alliance does not have load times that are worth making a fuss over.  They will insist that the UMD caching options on the PSP Slim makes it a non-issue (the Enabler and I both have the slim PSP model -- it doesn't).  Others will argue that games like Spectral Souls and Final Fantasy Tactics:  War of the Lions are far worse.

But here's the issue:  While Spectral Souls does indeed, have atrocious loading times, you can somewhat mitigate them with the option of UMD caching and shutting off certain animations (and, if you have the ability, loading it directly onto your PSP can alleviate them).  Supposedly, the Android port of it totally resolves these loading issues.  Furthermore, Spectral Souls is, in many ways, does a bit more at the beginning to sustain your curiosity as far as what's happening.

The issues of War of the Lions are well noted with the slow down in attacks.  While it's annoying, it's nowhere near the issues that Student Alliance presents:

Even if it was, Orlandu's gamebreaking enough to speed things up.

While this game is not on my backlog, as part of The Enabler's, it might as well be.  But the atrocious loading times in Mana Khemia:  Student Alliance are enough to make this game unplayable, even for me. Perhaps its PS2 incarnation, which this is a port of, suffers from less of these issues, but I've certainly had my fill of it with its portable version.

I mentioned that I have an almost masochistic tendency to subject myself to terrible games.  The Enabler, knowing this, still insisted that Student Alliance would have been too much, even for me.  While she knows me well (perhaps better than anyone else, save one or two other people), there was a seed of doubt which whispered that maybe, just maybe I'd be able to trudge past this one.

To The Enabler:  I'm sorry that I ever doubted you.

To Mana Khemia:  Student Alliance?

Backlogged indefinitely.

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