A Time For Epoch Change

From A Sound of Thunder to The Terminator, I am enamoured with time travel as a concept. It’s a plot device you can probably shoe-horn anywhere into fiction – or indeed, gaming – and hear no complaints from me. Actually, it’s a good thing that we don’t use the ten-point-scale for reviews here at Ready-Up, otherwise I’d be getting more grief than Eurogamer for my scores. Time-reversal mechanic? Plus one to the review score. Innovative use of cause and effect? Plus two to the review score. References to Back to the Future? Hell, that deserves another three notches on the score. I’m only partly joking.

I guess by those calculations, I'd have to give Braid 14/10
I guess by those calculations, I'd have to give Braid 14/10

All of this time travel has led me to think a lot about the passage of time in games, specifically with regards to pacing. It’s an important issue to consider for any game of any type, but more often than not we’re talking about the classic Japanese RPG, heavy with repetitive battling and thick plot exposition. While western RPG design of late has gravitated towards non-linear games, giving players the power to craft their own adventures, Japanese RPGs remain firmly rooted in strong, pre-set narratives. The elephant in the room here is, of course, the long-awaited Final Fantasy XIII, the first “traditional” FF title in several years. It has been famously criticised for containing what is effectively a 25-hour tutorial running along a straight path. Even if it provides some interesting distractions along the way, it has left a lot of players feeling powerless and detached from the game world, a deal-breaker in many cases. Is there really an effective way to balance an immersive story and the feeling that the player has truly made a difference by taking part?

Press X to make Vanille be quiet.
Press X to listen to Vanille tell you about the sky, or hope, or her totally-not-lesbian-girlfriend or AHHHHH

After recently beating the excellent DS re-issue, I have confirmed what I already knew: Chrono Trigger may be the perfect Japanese RPG. This is a strong statement, I know, but it’s relevant to my point. Put together by a coalition of the grand masters of the genre, it manages to sacrifice neither gameplay nor story. While upon first glance the cast might look like an ensemble of time-period stereotypes missing from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, they soon reveal themselves to be anything but. What we have instead are charming characters of genuine depth and personality (like techno-whiz Lucca and the sentient Robo), of genuine desire and motivation (like fallen knight Frog and anti-hero fan-favourite Magus), whose back-stories can be expanded upon should the player so wish. The script is extremely tight (even more so in the DS release), mixing humour and serious exposition well, and the plot is surprisingly accessible considering its subject matter (yet still invites complex discussions of paradoxes and the nature of change).

Attack its weak point for massive damage! (The head)
Attack its weak point (the head) for massive damage!

Crucially, it excels at pacing. You can leave your instinctive grinding reflex at the door, as random battles are non-existent – enemies wander around the field and can be avoided for the most part without penalty. Although picking additional fights for an EXP boost won’t do you wrong, strategy is the name of the game here; tackling the inventive bosses requires more thought than brute force, so preparing your party with the right equipment and combination of techniques (did I mention the three-way special attacks?) is what will win the day. At between 15-20 hours for the core quest, Chrono Trigger never outstays its welcome, yet manages to make the player feel as though they’ve achieved a monumental amount in that time – no doubt in part because their actions are felt over centuries of time travel.

It also has, quite possibly, the greatest game-over screen in a video game. Should the player fall during battle against the primary antagonist (a fight which can be attempted at almost any point in the game for alternate endings), they will witness the consequences of their failure immediately; Armageddon occurs, everyone dies and we are left with a chilling epilogue: “But… the future refused to change”.

Nightmare fuel
Nightmare fuel

That’s an ironic statement on Japanese RPGs right there. But while critics argue for change – to bring games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest up to “modern standards” set by more mainstream titles – I’d argue that we need to look to the past, at a game which got everything right 15 years ago.







2 responses to “A Time For Epoch Change”

  1. Andy T avatar
    Andy T

    One of my favourite romps through space time continuum (well actually mostly just time) came in the form of the lesser known “Shadow of Memories” on the PS2 the premise is simple…having been murdered Eike Kusch is given a time pad by a space time gender confused Homunculus and proceeds to travel through time to prevent his murder.

    The action all takes place in one small town and begins small with the player going back in time just one day to arrange for a crowd to be present and avert his murder in the abandoned town square…(thankfully unlike Ezio this assassin is shy of crowds.) It soon escalates to baby abductions in the 60’s and telling Medieval villagers you’ll trap them in your mobile though and with 7 different possible endings it’s got variety too and thanks to its often sedate milling around town chatting to people approach it’s almost the Shenmue of Time travel…go and find a copy for £3 now I say.

  2. Michael avatar

    Goddamn, that game was awesome! I bought it twice! Yes, I traded it in but anyway… It was simple but oh man the possibilities! The branches! 😀

    You have no idea how much I love cause and effect (and, indeed, time travel) in games. Or maybe you kinda do now 😉 Shame I don’t currently own a DS or I’d be all over that.

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