On other forums I have mentioned that I am a huge Nippon Ichi fanboy. Since they are a tragically little-known company I will describe a few of their games:
If you are familiar with Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre series, you’ll probably enjoy Disgaea. It’s an isometric-viewpoint tactical battle game with amusing characters and an entertaining plot. And random dungeons. And a semi-Pokemon type ability to recruit monster-type characters into your army. Disgaea 2 is their second most recent release and is a lot like DG1 but with everything improved in some way. Other Nippon Ichi games include Rhapsody, La Pucelle Tactics, Phantom Brave, Makai Kingdom and Soul Nomad. Rhapsody was released for the PS1, but the rest are all PS2 games.
Soul Nomad is their most recent game. Like all the NI games it has wonderful and memorable characters like Gig, a powerful villain of the “MUAHAHAHA! Die, puny worthless scum!” school of thought who is trapped in a sword and forced to do the bidding of the hero. It’s a bit of a departure from their previous games in two ways: Rhapsody through Disgaea 2 are all set in the same universe and feature copious cameos and references to each other, including the ability to recruit characters from earlier games. Soul Nomad is a completely new setting with a more serious plot (but still plenty of comic relief) and a very different battle system. Where Disgaea is like Final Fantasy Tactics, Soul Nomad is like a cross between Advance Wars and Ogre Battle.
This change in gameplay and story led to a very different art direction. In previous games you saw the characters move around the world (usually limited to a couple of safe areas and hundreds of battle maps) and talk to the other characters. In Soul Nomad, it’s much more abstract with characters standing on battle maps (literally: the “map screens” are hand painted maps on which the animated characters are standing) and no graphical representation of characters in town except for a few cut-scenes. This seems exceedingly odd to me as every single non-battle character* has a battle-graphic equivalent. Every single one. But towns are all completely text-based with a few paintings showing the location but none of the characters.
This is rather baffling to me. It would have improved the feel of the game to be able to face every single NPC that is in town, since there are graphics for them in battle. Just put the “standing” animation for each character on the screen! It’s easy! I just don’t understand why they didn’t do this…
On a related note, most Japanese RPGs have text-based inventory systems. Now this is fine, except that you can’t see what the items actually look like and even when the characters use the items in battle you only see the effect of the item in question. This leads to a sense of abstraction that bothered me when I first played FF7 almost as much as the lack of townsfolk-graphics bothers me in Soul Nomad. This is one thing the Nippon Ichi games get right: each kind of item has a little icon easily identifying it’s type, and many of the items (particularly weapons) you get to see the actual item in battle as well.
The bottom line is: video games are a graphical medium. Unless you are writing a text-based adventure, everything that the characters could see and possibly interact with should have a graphical representation. Even if it’s just an abstract representation like an icon or a hand-drawn map representing a battlefield, the player should get to see everything in some form. Otherwise, it’s like Michelangelo painting just the center of the Sistine Chapel and writing “Angel 1, Angel 2, Saint 1, Saint 2”, et cetera, all over the rest of it.
*Actually, one of the many new amusing features of Soul Nomad is that you can potentially fight any of the “peaceful townsfolk” as well as the ones you would normally fight in story battles and random battles. Nobody dies if you beat them. Instead you’ve “convinced” them to join your army. They stay in town, but you can summon them into battle, sort of like a magical “Gig’s Army Reserve”.
All Game Design Snippets copyright (C) 2008 Matthew Mather. Soul Nomad used for illustration. Although in retrospective this isn’t really a design snippet so much as just complaining about the way towns are portrayed in SN. I guess I’m spoiled by the colorful towns of La Pucelle and the home bases in Disgaea and Disgaea 2.