A terrible notion lingered in my mind as I played Square-Enix's innovative tower defense WiiWare game: I might have to pay extra to beat this thing.
There may be no scarier issue in gaming than the clash of creativity and commerce. There are a range of possible problems: A great game idea doesn't get financial backing. A high price keeps a good game from selling. Or go back to Pac-Man or any other arcade classic. Witness a level of difficulty designed to ensure that you'd have to keep paying to keep playing.
Enter a game, My Life As A Darklord, that launched on day one with extra paid downloadable content. The game costs $10 and, within two weeks, has more than $50 worth of two-dollar and four-dollar purchasable add-ons — many of them designed to empower the player. When a game like that gets hard and the solution is just a "micro" payment away, it makes you wonder. It makes you mutter. And it makes it hard to just have fun.
Is there a dirty trick being played here on gamers? Who knows. There is the possibility. That stinks enough.
A Magnificent Structure: My Life As A Darklord is an inspired twist on tower-defense games that can be interpreted as an even more inspired twist on Japanese role-playing games. The player assumes the role of a female darklord who wants to stop good guys from entering the base floor of her tower and climbing an interior ladder to the top floor. You stop the heroes by building extra floors and filling them with traps and monsters, balancing the budget of points you earn for defeating heroes with the expenses of leveling up your minions. Defeat a stream of 10-30 heroes and you win the level. During a level, each hero's battle on each floor lasts a set amount of time and looks like a slice of a skirmish in a classic 3D Japanese role-playing game. Sure, Darklord is like a tower defense game, but it's also a great display of how tedious line-dancing role-playing game battles can literally be stacked and automated; a testament that thinking about how to set up those battles is more interesting than manually controlling them. In this game, you only need to set them up. The rest just happens. That's top-flight game design.
The FF-Ness: It's cliche to complain about Final Fantasy cliches, but come on. Into a tower defense game they managed to stuff a protagonist with dad issues, an excessive amount of dialogue, an overly-long quest that evolved its gameplay style too slowly and a super-tough final boss battle that requires level-grinding to beat. None of that improved the game. The worst offense here was that there were more than 40 quest levels, most of them indistinguishable from each other, a far cry from the less numerous but more distinctly laid out levels of PlayStation 3 downloadable tower defense game PixelJunk Monsters.
That Sneaking Feeling I could have ignored the fact that a ton of downloadable add-ons were available for the game, but I couldn't shake my suspicions. Darklord gets hard. And really strong spells and units are accessible for just a couple of extra bucks. That makes me uncomfortable. Which of these extra powers and minions were held out from the base game and why? I struggled to finish the game without making extra purchases, but was the game hard because Square-Enix thought that would make it more fun? Or was it hard because that would make me spend extra?
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life As A Darklord is yet another WiiWare original that was a lot of fun to play. But my enjoyment of its core design was marred by thematic and commercial issues. I spared myself the excess of buying the DLC. I wish Square-Enix could start sparing gamers the excess of maudlin plots and overwrought quests.
(Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life As A Darklord was developed and published by Square-Enix for the Nintendo Wii's WiWare service on July 20. Retails for $10 USD. Played through 48 quest levels — way too many of minimal variety.)