Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Day in the Sun, Literally

According to the in-game timer that appears when you save your game, I have now spent 24 hours playing Golden Sun: Dark Dawn.

I did the math—that's an entire day. And I'm not even finished with it yet.
I like the game well enough...but do I like it enough to justify pouring a whole day of my life into it? Will the next few hours it'll take me to finish the game do anything to drastically change my opinion one way or another? In the long run, will it be worth the couple of extra hours I added to the game by obsessively checking every. single. pot. and. crate. for apples, cookies, and cash?

I look back at Final Fantasy VIII, which took even longer to play, and I didn't come anywhere close to completing all the optional material in that game. Golden Sun: Dark Dawn has considerably less in the way of nonessential content, and most of it involves nothing more than a slight detour or an extra puzzle to solve. No card games with ever-changing rules to master; no rare monsters that rarely drop rare items. Everything I'm doing feels like a normal part of the game—it's just not mandatory.
That's what makes the sidequests of Chrono Trigger so great: instead of bloating the game with new  gameplay elements and superficial length, they offer you more areas to explore if you already like what you're doing. The rewards for continued adventuring are new challenges, more story, and items that give you a better shot at defeating the final boss—but if you're eager to be done, you can bypass them entirely and still feel like you've brought the game to a satisfactory conclusion. There are no gaping holes in your Pok√©dex; there's no smug Dr. Robotnik denying you a proper ending as he juggles the Chaos Emeralds you missed. Chrono Trigger doesn't guilt you into completing its sidequests if you're not totally in love with them.

Happily, the same is largely true of Golden Sun: Dark Dawn. There's still a tally of how many important names you've added to your journal through conversing with people, and the cute little magical Djinn creatures you collect and summon are arranged on a menu screen that makes it obvious when you're missing a few, but there's less of a pressure to find everything out of obligation. You're adding journal entries because they enhance the story, and scooping up Djinn because they make combat and character customization more fun and interesting.

Or because you're a completionist, and it's really not that much more effort to shoot for 100% completion...
The trouble with Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is that almost everything about it is "good enough" for someone of my tastes. The graphics aren't beautiful, but they're not as hideously blocky as I'd feared from the screenshots I saw before playing the game. The plot isn't blowing me away, but it's nice to see some continuity with the previous games in the series. A few of the Zelda-esque puzzles are pretty clever, but most of them are not only simple but make no effort to hide the obvious solution. Random encounters present virtually no challenge and are concluded in 1-2 turns of mashing the Attack command, but the boss battles are fun and satisfying, particularly the one I just fought...against a completely optional boss.

What gets me about Golden Sun—the whole series; not just this game—is that it's an entry-level puzzle-RPG through and through...with a handful of shining moments that lure in the seasoned veterans, teasing them just enough to believe that the series' brain-bending, tactics-demanding potential might be realized if they just keep playing. Inevitably, it's the more challenging optional content that makes this series worth my time, but if I have to slog through hours and hours of battles that require no effort and puzzles that solve themselves, is what I get out of each game truly worthwhile? 
Final Fantasy VIII was the turning point where I realized that fun needs to trump compulsion in the pursuit of 100% completion. Perhaps Golden Sun: Dark Dawn will be the turning point where I stop playing sequels in series that fail to deliver what I know I can get elsewhere.

There may be hope for me yet...

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