Friday, March 8, 2013

Tea Time with Wine & Roses

Welcome to the first article in a new ongoing series here at AristoGamer: Tea Time! Each week, we'll examine a new game during a leisurely tea break. They'll have just two hours to show us what they've got. If they can't impress us by then, they're not trying hard enough.

This week, we'll be sharing our time with Wine & Roses, an indie game constructed in RPG Maker. Wine & Roses was officially completed in early November of last year, featuring a unique soundtrack, gothic art, and a steady stream of quotes from horror writers to remind you that the lab battle music is supposed to be scary dubstep.

Mansion by Dracula Design & Construction Ltd. 

Wine & Roses wastes no time with introductions. You are thrust into the game with just a single line of dialog from a dapper skeleton man. The controls are immediately familiar because the game takes no deviations from standard RPG navigation. The first few screens approaching the fort is a good time for players to figure out the interface and to reflect fondly on Simon Belmont's leather skirt and muscled thighs.

Each character on the map is either an enemy to be fought, or a trigger for an event that shares a bit of dialog and awards a power-up of some sort. They seem to have done away with several tedious RPG traditions, which already gets this game a biscuit. The download page promised "over thirty unique battles", and now it makes sense. They've gone beyond the style of alleviating random battles by making monsters avoidable on the overworld - a feature that blew my mind when I was little. The monster encounters in Wine & Roses are distilled down to only the important ones. Each fight can be a challenge that requires a unique strategy. This is the sort of ballsy maneuver that indie games can get away with because they don't care about padding out their length.

Floating spirit woman thing doesn't know what's up with this either.

Fort Adder is graphically limited by what RPG Maker can do, but the tilesets are neat and varied. In grand dungeon-delving tradition, the fort has been split asunder into a multitude of environments. There are some really neat screens to be found here, which makes the more generic "fire world" and "ice world" areas I found that much more disappointing. I appreciated that they had enough incidental terrain to make things feel interesting. Having a treacherous frozen lake be one of your map boundaries is much more picturesque than Insert Cave Wall Here. The really weird areas were always fun to stumble upon, and the overworld music put me in the exorcising mood.

Though the lack of random encounters takes a lot of pain out of navigating the castle, you're still on foot. Wine & Roses has no fast travel option. It may look totally tacky, I would have forgiven little floating teleport crystals scattered through the fort. At the very least they could have added an obvious sprint button to make me feel like I'm getting there faster.

This is an example of the game's larger problem with map layout. Monsters seem to block access only to power-up events, never to new areas. After I found that some of the power-up events could be accessed without fighting anyone, I spent what was probably too much time wandering around looking for (and finding) more. I've seen this game described as Mega Man-esque: you're in control of where to start exorcising monsters and you can throw any logical progression out the window if you want to. I admire that philosophy. However, I feel that the game could have more structure without it being obtrusive. It may be the player's own fault if they decide to have a boring time tromping around to make sure they get all the free upgrades, but sometimes a little compassionate guidance to save those types of gamers from themselves won't hurt anything.

I've been in this castle for five minutes and this is a little above my pay grade.

All Sub-Bosses Must Die 

The real meat of this game is dragging the whips and guns and pointy things out to slay some monsters. Speaking as a person who has played a ton of RPGs over the years, it's really rare to have fun in an encounter. The structure of these games often means that the majority of your time will be spent stomping on enemies who aren't meant to be a threat - the real problem is attrition over multiple battles. Does anyone find that fun? When you do get to bosses that should beg strategy, you're often overleveled or in possession of an Armstrong-sized bag of steroids if you've been paying any sort of attention to completion and exploration. The tough bosses are often meant to be fought once you're done with the game and looking to break the system, so they lose some luster.

Wine & Roses's real gift to my sanity is giving me a steady diet of the kind of RPG fights I crave: barely holding on, desperately identifying the gimmick, and trying to exploit it while keeping your team from being dismantled and HOLY SHIT DEMI-FIEND JUST STOP FOR A SECOND, PLEASE! TRUCE! TRUCE? TRUCE DAMMIT TRUCE! I'll go back to the Mega Man comparison again to flatter this game some more: they took one of the most iconic, successful mechanics from a popular series and made it work in their game. Find boss, figure out how to beat boss, go find silver bullet to beat boss if you need to. The retreat option always succeeds, so you can instantly bail out of a battle when you know you've bitten off more than you can chew.

It would be an angel giving me the bad touch, wouldn't it?

Other RPGs could learn a few things from Wine & Roses, though I wonder if W&R's creator was inspired by my recent RPG love affair, Xenoblade. Your party begins each battle fresh and ready, removing the usually tedious RPG tradition of resource management. Battles are turn based and feature an energy system. That is, each character has a certain amount of points to spend on using their abilities. A large part of the strategy is properly organizing your actions to make the most out of your turn - like having Nynavae cast Luck Up on someone before they try to land a status effect on an enemy. Each character also has a sanity meter which serves as an MP bar for spells, among other things. Later in the game, I was informed that sanity levels also affect many other stats. I never got around to seeing what happens when it gets to 0%, but I like to think that the game will forcibly direct your browser to a Let's Play of Eternal Darkness.

The other big area for strategy is in equipment. The various spirits through the game will award you spells, character-specific items, or (more rarely) permanent upgrades. The items and spells have to be equipped to your characters; the items generally add additional passive effects to things your character can already do, while the spells give a character new abilities and upgrade their stats. At first I was just slotting everything I picked up, by near the end of the tea time I was having to think about how to best set up each character.

Either his eye patch always itches or he's trying to tell Red over there that she has something on her monocle.

You're given hints on the current fight by your helpful employer and dashing skeleton-about-town, Lord Francisco. Sometimes he takes a little fun out of figuring things out for yourself, but I appreciated his input. I must be getting soft in my old age. Francisco focused more on humorous commentary as the game went on. I'm not sure if that is because his tips are activated when you're getting your ass beat, or if the training wheels just came off.

Like Mega Man, if one area is just too damn hard for you, the player can just pick up their toys and find someone easier to bully. This is pretty cool. Unlike Mega Man, Wine & Roses has 30+ "bosses" scattered around what is almost the metaphysical opposite of a level menu. It was overwhelming at first. I didn't know if I was in the wrong area and was trying to fight things way beyond my means, or if I just couldn't figure out what the trick was. Eventually I decided to work the areas out one by one starting with the closest, but even that was a little dicey. This is another point where a little structured guidance would have helped.

I lucked out of having to deal with this the way all successful players do: I found a cheap strategy to exploit. It ruins the best of us. Somewhere along the way, I picked up a Sleep spell. I had noticed earlier that some attacks on one of my characters said that they do not wake sleeping monsters. That's practically begging me to take the coward's way out and kill someone in their sleep. They look so peaceful when they pass! It didn't work so well on fights with multiple monsters, but even then I was able to permanently lock down someone while dealing with their friends. At the very least, I could go around and take care of all the encounters that had a single monster who could be hit with Sleep, which earned me a lot of ill-gotten booty.

I'm sure that advice is really handy for people who aren't murdering the helpless.

It'll Suck When Joss Whedon Gets the Movie Rights 

Wine & Roses has the suggestion of a story rather than anything concrete. It doesn't hurt the game, actually - you get sort of an idea of what's going on in the first few minutes between dialog and being invited to look at the equip screen where there are brief character bios. Each of the exorcists has their own subtle personality hinted at between the logbook-style dialog at upgrade points and the quotes attached to their personal items.


By far the most talkative is Lord Francisco, who has both Ominous Horror Quote and Annoying Mascot duty. I was expecting a little more absurdity after seeing that "I WILL PUNCH YOU INTO OBLIVION" is uttered at one point, but Francisco lent himself more to going off on long tangents while you're struggling for your life or murdering people in their sleep. I actually appreciated the life it brought to an otherwise skeletal game, especially since his chatter requires no actual attention from you and doesn't obstruct the simple battle screen.

The music is a really lovely addition. I'm glad I can just steal the files from the game directory. I got a chance to fight mummies in a spooky lab while listening to dubstep with 2001: A Space Odyssey samples.

Overall, Wine & Roses is a lovely game that strips a lot of dumb fluff out of the standard RPG formula. Its flaws are largely superficial and do not run deeply into the fundamental design. By the end of my time, I had found that W&R highlighted what RPGs had in common with puzzle games. The most fun to be had in turn-based battles comes from discovering what series of actions best helps you arrive at your result.

Do you like boss fights, sassy skeletons, and mean girls with sharp things? Give Wine & Roses a shot over at RPG Maker Network. There's also a lot of Game of Thrones and League of Legends references if you're easily amused.

Want to suggest a guest for my next tea time? Contact me at
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