Saturday, January 1, 2022

Crossed Swords

Name:Crossed Swords
Developer:Alpha Denshi
Time:4 hours

1991 was a weird time for FPS games. The technology we've come to expect from those early FPS titles did exist, it just wasn't very popular for actual FPS titles. We were just beginning to see it used in FPS games, as opposed to the maze games and racing games as I've recently covered. There are a few more titles I've yet to cover, even in Japan, that use it, but I don't think they had much of an effect on Japanese design philosophies. Crossed Swords sort of takes the Death Duel approach, by having all the action take place in well-drawn 2D, with the focus being more on maneuvering around a small group of enemies.

Developed by Alpha Denshi (shortened to ADK) for arcade systems, then the Neo-Geo CD. The Neo-Geo CD is possibly the most annoying system I've had to emulate, and I don't know yet if it was of much value. Its certainly very slow to load the game, which just completes the whole package. Alpha Denshi mostly did arcade games, and by this time was effectively a second party developer for SNK consoles. I don't really know how many titles of theirs are of interest, but at the very least they also did a sequel to this.

So, the game itself. Its a fantasy game. The story is a lot of fancy words for; A demon lord has been unleashed, stop him and save the kingdom. You know, maybe its not the most cliche plot in western fantasy, but I swear that nearly every Japanese fantasy title I've seen has some form of that plot. Even if the main plot is actually about something else, killing the demon lord is somewhere. Even though they're usually cliche in different ways, its usually not a demon lord that needs killing in a western game. I wonder why.
That character sprite starts out filled in, but turns into an outline when combat starts

Starting up, I get a tutorial. Left and right moves/dodges, up and down blocks high/low, the A button attacks and the B button does a magic attack. Sort of like a beat 'em up, except with an unusual perspective. The magic attack depends on which weapon I have. This is mostly smooth, however, later on I discover that A & B together does a special attack. Which is annoying since all the systems this was on have 4 buttons. I understand these limitations in systems where the developers have maxed out the use of buttons, but this is annoying.

A typical combat scene
The game starts off fairly simply in order to get one used to this control scheme. Its not terribly complex, but you do need to get used to it. Actually moving around is relatively unimportant. With exception to boss enemies, most dodges I did were just lucky. A few enemies dodge your attacks, but you can usually anticipate this. The real meat of combat is successfully blocking and then properly attacking back. Enemies do seem to have shifting if reliably shifting attack patterns, but mostly its a reflex game. Its always you reacting to one single enemy at a time, repeat until the end credits or you lose the desire to continue playing.
You'll be seeing this guy a lot

Which is the big issue. Starting out the enemies have a pretty clear way of fighting. But you can't have a short game like this be a cakewalk, at least not in 1991. The first outright change in gameplay is the introduction of enemies with ranged attacks. These are fair in the sense that you can blindside them with ranged attacks too. Its not that you can't block ranged attacks, its that's considerably difficult to do so. The breath attacks are especially brutal, since its a continuous stream, get hit once, no blocking, and if the enemy is on top of you, you're getting hit. Though I say this, and I generally did better against ranged attacks than I did against melee attacks.

You'll be seeing a lot of this too

But there's one kind of fight I really dreaded. The ones with armored sword wielders. I say like they're some single entity, but they come in everything from regular looking knights, to armored goatmen. These guys had one element that made them really annoying to fight, how they dealt damage to you. See, with most enemies, they attack you, you either block or don't, and then you can possibly counterattack and unleash a combo. The armored swordsmen broke that in two ways. So you're defending yourself successfully, but wait, he isn't open to counterattack. Counterattacking just results in getting hit. And once you get hit, you don't have an easy way to defend yourself afterward. They use multiple little attacks against you, which seemingly disables defense. You're sort of stuck here until the game decides to let you go, which can be a while.

You won't see this much, because most of the later crabs are blue
The bosses were a mixed bag. Most showed up after their boss encounter as generic enemies, not even weaker than their original counterparts. I'm going to pick on one of these exclusively, the giant crabs. As you may know, this is historically inaccurate, giant crabs only existed in Japan during the middle ages. The problem is that these giant crabs are just incredibly annoying to fight. Successfully block, then return attack, only to get blocked by the crab then hit multiple times. There's just this persistent feeling that some of the later bosses just ignore the previously established rules. The final boss has several attacks that are unblockable, but at least he's the final boss.

You'll be seeing a lot of the fishmen, but not so much the guy in the back
As a result, its fairly obvious this isn't a hidden gem. Its very hard to shake off that whiff of arcade-style, "You've had your fun, now feed me some quarters". Pretty sure if I was spending actual quarters I would have spent a dollar or two on the final boss alone. There's so much cheap stuff in the game that it never really felt like I had a fair shot at it. And I've been playing on the normal setting.

You'll be having a lot of desperate fights

Despite these issues, I played through most of the game twice. It feels too long for what it is. The game is about 7 stages long, with each stage being divided into several smaller areas. Even when you're fighting the easiest enemies, and a small number of them, it feels slow. Everything takes much longer than it needs to take, which is funny considering that its also very intense. While there are some interludes between the combat, those are over very quickly.

You'll only see this twice, and once it really doesn't matter
Some of these levels have different paths, but honestly, they're mostly pointless. Outside of one path, that gets you what nearly amounts to a cheat sword. You might think I'm joking, but no, there's a weapon you in one path that turns most non-boss enemies into scarecrows. Its almost cheating, except you still have a spell limit, it doesn't work on everything, and it drains the amount of XP you get.
You can chose whether or not you see this a lot

A not really interesting aspect of the game is the RPG elements. You get XP and different weapons. I say different weapons, well, they're really just straight upgrades with different special attacks. The two I found most useful were the scarecrow spell, and a shield spell that automatically blocks all attacks for a few seconds. Levelling up is really bland, get a certain amount of points, you get a half bar more life. Repeat until you have 10 bars of health. Because of this everyone now slaps action RPG on the game, making a somewhat meaningless label even more meaningless.

You get new shields semi-frequently
I want to point out that I'm primarily playing the Neo-Geo CD release, which despite being a x1 speed CDROM drive, should at least have better music? No, its generic fantasy game music. Even the original is generic fantasy music. It doesn't really sound any better than the original's soundtrack and this is where most of the CD's space went towards. I can't actually tell you why this game needed to be on CD, because it doesn't look like there's any changes beyond minor palette ones.

Can you spot which of these don't belong?
Of course, the aspect of the game that's unarguably nice is the graphics. There are a few things worth criticizing, namely, certain characters, of which I'm sure one right now springs to mind. Then there's the reuse. Obviously, all games reuse character models, but it feels obvious in these fighting style games where you have to kill a dude who looks the same twenty times. They're in armor here, and everyone who isn't is a skeleton or an orc, so its not that bad. Then there's the expected reuse in the parts of the background that don't matter, like walls and metal reinforcement in doors.

Compared to most games I've covered, this is the farthest I've gotten from a shooting game. This is a beat 'em up game, not a third-person shooter. While I'm not exactly a fan of the genre, I don't mind it. This seems less-than-stellar even in that category.

I have mixed feelings, because while the weapons get better the more you spend on them, I actually prefer the special attacks of the weaker weapons than the ultimate weapon, which is a really crap firewall spell. 2/10

Its a really weird situation, because you have a good variety of enemies, who require different (if annoying approaches). Even excluding color variants there are plenty. It just feels like there are too few of them. Perhaps its just the way its set-up makes the whole thing more obvious. 3/10


Basically just a series of fancy backgrounds and a series of enemies you fight in sequence. 0/10

Player Agency:
It doesn't really feel like you've moved whenever you've moved, if that makes sense. For the most part, it works, though I have that issue with pressing two buttons together when I have two other buttons that aren't used at all. 4/10


In addition to feeling very obviously like a game, I also felt the joy being sucked out of me every time I actually had joy. 0/10

Very stunning and well-animated. 8/10

Shows up throughout the game, even if its the simplest plot imaginable. 1/10

The sound effects are about average. Feels more low-impact than it should. The music, outside of a few special stings, is completely generic. 3/10

And subtracting 2 points for the difficulty issue, we get 19. Which is starting to feel like the score range I put all the really hard games, the ones that are distractingly bad in.

I do not know if I'm going to play the sequel to this. While I do account for games like Witchaven, where its clearly a FPS focused on melee combat, this isn't really the third-person equivalent of that. It is as I said, a beat 'em up game with a fancy perspective.

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