Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Criticizing and Defending Vanillaware

There's an inherent guilt I have with being a Vanillaware fanboy. It stems from the fact that I know that I give off the impression that I find everything Vanillaware does to be perfect. It's very understandable why many would think this, as I provide very little criticism towards Vanillaware, even though I provide criticism towards nearly every other developer out there, even my favored PlatinumGames and Nintendo. Well, this blog post is about addressing some criticisms I have of Vanillaware, as well as defending Vanilaware on some of the criticisms is gets from people.

First off, let me say that I do cut Vanillaware some slack when it comes to criticisms, and the reasons for this are simple: Vanillaware is a very small company. Vanillaware is composed, currently (as of early 2013), of around 29 members. That is very small for a game developer who produces non-indie titles, especially in this current game market. In fact, the quality of the games Vanillaware produces despite such a small team size is worth admiration alone, imo. But, I digress, it is because of this small team size that I look the other way on some game design aspects that would be considered poor by others, such as the fact that Odin Sphere only has around a dozen different locations. However, let's keep in mind that Odin Sphere was made only when Vanillaware had only 12 members. Now, with that said, let's move on to some criticisms I have with Vanillaware...

Now, to be honest, my criticisms are going to mainly focus on Vanillaware's current state. This is mainly due to the fact that I find Odin Sphere and Grimgrimoire nearly flawless. Sure, both Odin Sphere and Grimgrimoire lacked a great amount of content, but the games utilized their content to the fullest and provided much more depth in areas that you couldn't see; but more on that later.

One criticism I have of Vanillaware is how their two latest games, Muramasa and Grand Knights History, lacked a very potent storyline. Now, I have this criticism mainly due to how impactful I found the stories of Odin Sphere and Grimgrimoire to be. Muramasa had a storyline that was told in a similar manner to that of Odin Sphere, but it just wasn't very impactful or engaging. Grand Knights History then had story take a backseat to the online mode, resulting in a tale still being told, but one that never truly aimed to have much of an impact to begin with. So, as we see from going from Muramasa to GKH, the strong story element of Vanillaware games seems to be dwindling. I find this to be quite disheartening, as the lack of strong stories hurt the impact both Muramasa and GKH had on me, despite being great in other ways. The reason for this is the double edged sword of Vanillaware's amazing visuals. While Vanillaware's visual style works great for seeing characters, monsters, and landscapes superbly realized and animated, Odin Sphere showed that the visual style can work superbly for telling stories as well. And after seeing such storytelling prowess shown in Odin Sphere, it's disappointing to not see it realized in Vanillaware's newer games, especially since their visual talent has continued to improve. Unfortunately, Dragon's Crown doesn't look to fix this trend, as story looks to be, once again, taking a backseat to the gameplay. This doesn't mean DC will be a bad game, but it doesn't make me feel any better about the path Vanillaware is taking when it comes to the stories they present in their games; after all, the latest two Vanillaware games won't even have main characters with names. I hope that we'll see a named protagonist in a grand story in the next game, as George Kamitani has proven he can create truly amazing stories with Odin Sphere and Grimgrimoire, though he has also proven he can be a little lackluster, as shown by Muramasa.

If you're wondering why I care so much about a strong story in these games, which all have some great gameplay merit; it's because a great story can bring even greater satisfaction to the gameplay of a game. For example, the final boss fights in Odin Sphere are all extremely impactful thanks to all of them being major characters within the story who have either been fought before by other characters or alluded to in many ways. It's that powerful impact of story that I want to feel again.

My second, and final, criticism ties into my first criticism and lies in Vanillaware's current trend in game design: a focus on multiplayer. I have to say that I was very surprised when GKH was announced and it was shown that multiplayer would be the main focus of the game. And we see this trend continue with Dragon's Crown. When a game is focused on multiplayer, very rarely does it have an equal focus on single-player. Thus we come back around to my first criticism: the lack of an impactful story. I'm not too sure why Vanillaware has decided to put such a focus on mutliplayer lately, but my guess would be to help their games be more popular and get more sales. And result don't lie, GKH was Vanillaware's best-selling game in Japan, and Dragon's Crown has a ton of buzz around it, much of the reason being its multiplayer aspect. So, I can't say I'm disappointed about Vanillaware's recent trend of multiplayer focus, but part of me is disheartened due to the fact that a big part of why I fell in love with Vanillaware's games in the first place, a strong single-player experience, is barely present. If this trend continues with Vanillaware's next couple games, I may become disheartened enough to not even be a fanboy anymore, or at least dial back my enthusiasm for new projects; after all, Vanillaware game releases are few and far between.

And, those are my main criticisms with Vanillaware. I know their both basically the same, and to complain about story feel like a weak criticism, but it's more of a personal criticism than an actual one. Also, while I can feel disheartened at times, Vanillaware games just "click" with me so much, that its hard for me to not be excited whenever something new comes along, so I doubt I'll ever stop being a fan; though I could see myself becoming less enthusiastic over the company if their next game doesn't have a strong story element.

Now, as far as what many would call "real" criticisms, I'm going to defend Vanillaware on a few common complaints:

1) Odin Sphere only had a handful of locations and lacked content. While it's true that Odin Sphere only had around a dozen locations, a few of which don't even appear until the end of the game; the locations were imperative to the story and thus had a lot more impact and purpose than the many locations Muramasa had (not to undermine Muramasa). Odin Sphere's focus was on story, and it was Shakespearean in tone, thus, as in the plays of yore, the locations were kept few in number so that the player could build attachment to the areas. As far as the technical aspect of this complaint, as I said before, Vanillaware was just a small team of 12 at this point, as such, it's incredible we got the amount of locations and characters that we did.

2) Vanillaware games are just button-mashers without depth. I figure that this complaint mainly comes from people who have only played Odin Sphere, and probably only Gwendolyn's story at that. I say this because it is possible to get through Gwendolyn's story by playing the game like a side-scrolling action game and just hitting everything, and since many people stop playing Odin Sphere after realizing its actually a 40 hour affair, it's understandable that they never got into the game's more intricate systems. Well, despite what many think, Odin Sphere is much more of an RPG than an action game. The player is supposed to craft potions using the alchemy system, plant seeds and harvest fruits and meat to cook food at the Pooka Village, and regulate psyphers to level up in a balanced way. I won't dive much further into the game, but, in truth, Odin Sphere is quite a deep game, many just never bother trying to see what it has to offer. Muramasa is much less deep than Odin Sphere, however, it still has much more depth than the average 2D hack-n-slash, thanks in large part to the 108 different blades, their special abilities, and the fact that one can hold 3 at a time. If one actually tries, there are some really fun combos to be made in Muramasa. Then there's Grigmrimoire, which has an insanely deep RTS system, but almost nobody played it, so I doubt many consider GG when making this criticism. In the end, Vanillaware games may not be as deep as other Action-RPGs like Mass Effect or Skyrim, but it isn't trying to be. One of the best things about Vanillaware games is how accessable they are. I find that Vanillaware games offer just the right amount of depth; though I do think Muramasa could have used a secondary weapon system a la Castlevania.

3) The character design. You know, I don't even have much to say here. You either like it or you don't. If you don't like it, that's fine, but don't begin arguing that its offensive or wrong. The reason that hand-drawn art is such an interesting medium is because it gives the artist the freedom to do what they want. George Kamitani draws with a design that sometime exaggerates the human body, but it always provides an impacftul look and truly distinct feel to his art. His art is also very detailed and picturesque, evoking back to art seen during the Dark Ages. But, enough of my rant, there are hundreds of different art styles in this world, and not one is going to be liked by everyone. That's just how it is.


And that's it. I've begun to notice that Vanillaware has become quite popular through the years and really made a name for themselves. And with increased popularity comes increased criticism; so it's all part of the game. I, myself, don't find much to criticize, but others do. I just hope that even with their criticisms, they can still enjoy at least one of the great aspects of Vanillaware's games, whether it be the graphics, music, gameplay, or story.

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