Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What I'm Playing: Long Live the Queen

This is the third and final game in my Steam library (so far). And despite how much I love Papers, Please, it's Long Live the Queen that's seen the most play. That is not to say that it is a better game than any of the other two, or that it's more fun. No. If anything, it's the opposite: it's by far the most frustrating.

Long Live the Queen is a game in the "visual novel" genre, meaning that instead of real-time button mashing or platforming, you make narrative and strategic choices that lead to a variety of outcomes. Here, you must decide which subjects to study, which outfits to wear, and which weekend activities to participate in. This is all building towards skill checks that happen on most weeks. You win or lose the game by passing or failing certain skill checks. Do you have enough magical ability to burn a would-be dueler to ashes, or enough training in swordplay to dispatch him mundanely? Or did you solve an earlier crisis in a such a way that he never finds a reason to fight you in the first place?

So that is the gameplay: there is none as such, just a whole lot of numbers-running, planning, and strategizing, I have no idea how typical this is for a visual novel game because it's the first in the genre I've ever played (next on my list is Hatoful Boyfriend), so bear that in mind when I say:

you are so fucked.

You will not win the game on your first run-through. You will almost certainly meet with an untimely death in the 40 weeks until your coronation. Almost immediately you are faced with an onslaught of skill checks of varying levels of importance. Some don't matter at all; others open up new story choices. Sometimes success or failure is a matter of life and death. Naturally, this the kind of game you replay over and over again.

I mentioned when I talked about The Novelist that I'm Queen Metagamer Optimizer Extraordinaire. If that tendency kept me from getting immersed in the world of The Novelist, it is exactly what I needed to enjoy Long Live the Queen. After I died and realized what kind of game this was going to be, I went into hardcore "spade" mode (as we'd say in Kingdom of Loathing....any Pastamancers or Seal Clubbers out there?) and dove into the Wiki and combed Google for walkthroughs and strategy tips.

Some of you, if you are geekier/more hardcore than I am, might think to yourself right away, "Ah hah! It's another Princess Maker!" That was JV's first reaction, certainly. I never played any of the Princess Maker games, but from what I've heard from other people: no, no way in hell. There is no min-maxing. There isn't enough time to train all of your skills up to an even mediocre level. It is a game full of hard choices and not enough time.

That is why I find it so compulsively playable. (I'm able to sit down and write a review right now because I've managed to talk myself into a break after achieving a pretty good ending.) It is hard and yet not so hard that it seems impossible. It is almost-possible and that's what keeps me coming back for more. But more on that later.

You will not be able to succeed at this game (whatever your definition of "succeed" is, because you can go a variety of different ways), you will need to take a copious amount of notes (or take advantage of the list of weekly events and skill checks on the game's Wiki) and decide which tests you must pass and which ones you can comfortably fail.

I swing back and forth between "it's really fun" and "it's just too much" because of that almost-possible nature of it. On the one hand, this line from The Princess Bride is pretty apropos:

On the other hand, I'm not playing a mahou shojou anime visual novel for its realism. Besides, much of the difficulty stems (in my opinion) not from legitimate strategizing but the arbitrary boundaries of the game. When that happens, it's not a fun challenge, but just a hopeless one.

You take two classes every week. There are a ridiculous number of them; there are already a ridiculous number of fields of study (History, Intrigue, Lumen, Faith, Weapons, etc.) and then each of those fields has 3 different classes (History: World History, Novan History, Foreign Affairs; Intrigue: Internal Affairs, Foreign Intelligence, Ciphering....and on it goes). Each class corresponds to a skill, so that taking a class in "Foreign Affairs" increases your Foreign Affairs ability by anywhere from 5 to 10 points (more on that in a second).

Some of these classes are far, far more useful than others. This is not a situation where having trade and economic savvy is going to benefit you as much as knowing how to suck up to the nobles. (As that disparity in scores in the above screenshot might suggest.) Perhaps that's asking for an overly complicated game—to have a whole shitload of skills and not have one set dramatically more or less useful than everything else—but then why not just cut the useless skills entirely?

Sometimes you have a skill that is useless for 90% of the game, but then suddenly you need something like 90 or 100 points in it to pass an essential check or unlock another option, and that just seems unfair: the game has indicated to you, up until now, that there were far more important things to focus on, and suddenly you're blindsided with a high-level "singing" check. Um?

All of these complaints would be more or less irrelevant if the training system itself were different. To get any skill all the way to 100, you need to get its other two classes (which are often quite useless) up to at least 25. So in addition to the ~10 classes you need to train up that skill (assuming no mood penalties or bonuses), you need to spend ~6 ones dumping a paltry amount of points in skills you'll never actually need. Time spent in those useless classes can really add up, preventing you from training other, more important skills in other classes. For example: out of the "Faith" category you see up there, only Divination is well and truly useful. Those points in Meditation and Lore would probably do you a lot better in Foreign Affairs and Foreign Intelligence.

And yes, there are mood penalties and bonuses when it comes to your studies. I don't mind this; it adds another level of strategy. You can engage in weekend activities that will alter your mood, but events that happen during the week will mess with your mood as well. It's kind of a cheap shot in gameplay, but hey, that's how real life works so I can roll with the punches. What isn't fair is not knowing how your choices to events will affect your mood until you select them. It's not coddling the player to tell them that arresting the Lumen witch will make you angry, but that sending her away will only make you more yielding; it's vital information to managing your moods and, more importantly, it seems like information Elodie (the princess in question) would know. (As opposed to random news about a great hairy beast eating people in a forest somewhere; she's not a precog but of course she would know her own feelings about her actions!) You get to know the mood effects on (most) weekend activities beforehand, so why not these events during the week?

Why all this talk about managing moods? Because moods are important. They dictate, especially in the beginning, how well or poorly you do in certain classes. When your predominant mood is "yielding," for example, you get a bonus to the all-important "Royal Demeanor" class of skills. If you're in the right mood, you can get a skill to level 30 in 2 classes of 15 points each instead of 3 classes of 10 points each, and that often is the difference between passing a skill check by the skin of your teeth and failing utterly.

So, given all of that: I have no idea if this is how visual novel games are supposed to be. Maybe they are supposed to be this hard and metagame-y and close-shavey, in which case: well done and the genre isn't for me (except when it is, in great binge-y doses). Otherwise it needs some serious recalibration when it comes to the design to really be fun while also feeling fair.


  1. This sounds so much harder than it looks! I admit I took a look and said, "Oooh Princess Maker!" Then I kept reading and was like ".....this is definitely not Princess Maker."

    1. I will have to give Princess Maker a try at some point. It seems like it has everything I like about this game without any of the design/balance/fairness issues. To the emulator!!