Trash Planet

Trash Planet is a game by the creator of HELLBOUND. It’s a very different game, taking a hard shift into post-apocalyptic science fiction and more difficult, resource-management gameplay. Much like HELLBOUND, I enjoyed a lot of it, but the gameplay was very janky and ran into a lot of standard RPG design pitfalls.

The plot is quite good and the characters are all highly enjoyable. Interestingly, its moral turns out to be the exact opposite of Symbiosis: the villain is a nut who wants to destroy humanity to let the planet heal, while the heroes are trying to preserve humanity. The grand meta-plot is that a scientist has discovered that the current generation of humans has lost the ability to reproduce, so humanity is near extinction; she wants you to find the few people who still have viable non-mutant DNA so that at least one human baby will survive. I found this rather silly, as it’s not like the baby will be immortal, so maybe you could try making more than one to actually repopulate the human race? But it works well enough to give the game structure, as you need to collect several items for her including the viable human candidates, providing you with a MacGuffin fetch quest.

Probably the most notable thing about the story is that major characters die on a regular basis. I think this is set up very well; the first character to die is someone who was just introduced, making it a textbook sacrificial lamb moment, but having established that it plays for keeps, major party members you have significant history with start dropping next. This of course runs the risk of becoming predictable and losing its shock factor, but the game cleverly skirts around this by giving you a character who can see the future at around the halfway point; she will outright tell you who’s going to die next, and the other characters will be aware of this. This changes the emotional tone of the deaths from shock to tragedy and acceptance, as the deaths shift from being cruelly and unceremoniously cut down to heroic sacrifices that let them face the end with dignity. As with HELLBOUND, though it starts off as cheap shock factor, I found it genuinely moving.

Probably my biggest criticism is that Gucchi felt criminally underutilized. Her time travel power was really intriguing, but it’s negated almost as soon as she joins by Omen’s “you can’t fight fate” power. I kept expecting it to build up to something bigger than it did. (Also, she and the rest of the gang really should have seen that coming and reacted faster. The entire final confrontation has a lot of idiot ball going around.)

Unfortunately, I think it overall isn’t as deep as HELLBOUND was. The characters’ arcs and issues felt shallower and more cliche, and never got as a real as the character studies in HELLBOUND. (I did like that it had not one but two trans characters, including one who was an old lady! But it takes the “this isn’t relevant to the plot so we’ll just mention it and not explore further” approach to representation, which is theoretically good but means it lacks the depth given to the mental issues in HELLBOUND.) It overall felt like it leaned a bit too far into the wacky comedy elements and not enough into serious social commentary. Which is a little weird when this is overtly political post-apocalyptic science fiction while HELLBOUND was campy Biblepunk.

The game plays with the idea of interactivity and choice being significant, but it’s mostly constrained to optional companion-bonding events where your only options are to say what they want to hear, which makes your bond level up, or say the wrong thing, which gets you nothing. It’s the exact same problem as with most companion mechanics, where you’re punished for roleplaying or being honest and rewarded for cynically treating friendship as transactional. The developer claims this was intentional and that the main character is supposed to be read as a sociopath, but that was not at all clear to me playing the game. I kept expecting the game to throw my choices back in my face (especially since optimal play requires cheating on two people at once), but the ending plays power-of-friendship unironically straight, with you actually getting a worse ending if you didn’t manipulate everyone into being your friend.

The gameplay is… less good. It’s ambitious, but falls into a lot of traps that seem to be common to RPG Maker games.

The biggest one is that survival horror and random encounters do not mix. Holy crap, why do I even have to say this. You cannot make every encounter a grueling drain on your limited resources and then say the amount you need to deal with is random. That makes it impossible for players to make any kind of strategical assessment of their capabilities or for the designer to balance the resource management effectively. Major areas do use fixed encounters and are thus much more manageable, but the world map uses random encounters, and is far and away the hardest part of the game because of it.

Second, and relatedly, is that survival horror and grinding don’t mix. Random encounters means infinite encounters, and if encounters give you stuff, that means infinite stuff. Once you reach the tipping point where you can grind encounters sustainably, there is nothing stopping you from grinding EXP and trivializing all future encounters. To make it worse, the game expects you to do this, because it gives a recommended level for every dungeon. By the end of the game I was several levels above recommended, and as a result the climactic final dungeon was utterly trivial. This of course exacerbates the “rich get richer” problem in survival games, where if you’re doing well you use less resources, giving you more resources to counter any setbacks, making you do even better. The early game was genuinely tense, but by the midgame I had more money and items than I knew what to do with.

Probably the biggest reason this happens is that healing skills are incredibly overpowered and do not seem to have been balanced effectively. There is a character who can restore HP and MP simultaneously and boost EXP gain, all with the same skill, and she can cast it on herself, allowing her to restore her own MP as well. This is the tipping point I mentioned earlier; she’s a perpetual motion machine that can turn all your characters into perpetual motion machines as well, so you can grind as much as you feel like once you get her. The only parts of the game that are remotely challenging are when she’s not in your party, but the game doesn’t seem to be balanced around this fact; she’ll frequently get rotated out of your combat team in the middle of a dungeon where you’ll continue fighting the exact same enemies as before, only now they’re ten times harder because you don’t have infinite resources anymore. I’m not sure what the reasoning here was.

Another aspect is that RPG Maker’s default battle system just isn’t set up well for a resource management game where every point matters. Coming off of Darkest Dungeon, the difference in systems is really stark. DD gave you full details on every enemy’s stats and abilities, allowing you to plan your strategy and resource distribution for every encounter; here, every enemy is completely opaque, and the game doesn’t record your past knowledge about them in case you forget like DD does. Status effects have no hints, either; I’m just supposed to guess what “anxiety” does. Actions are also over in the blink of an eye, making it difficult to even notice what enemy is doing what and what their attacks do. While there’s something to be said for obscuring information to create challenge, I think this goes way too far.

Overall, it seems like the game would have been better served by breaking away from jRPG elements and removing things like EXP and random encounters entirely. Players should see fights as dangers to avoid, not pinatas to be sought out, and fixing power levels would prevent players from cheesing the game with unexpectedly high levels. No Delivery gets closer to what this game was trying to do, I think, though of course it also had the same problem of grinding trivializing the game.

The game is free, though, so try it out and form your own opinions! It’s pretty fun despite the issues. Be warned that the art is as terrible as it was in HELLBOUND, though.

7 Comments

  1. Nerem says:
    I’m actually testing a game that actually proves you can make a survival horror JRPG. I can’t give the name just yet, and it has problematic aspects to it by nature of being a porn game (because otherwise it wouldn’t sell as an RPG Maker game), but the actual gameplay is extremely solid. Gear is very expensive and difficult to come by and you have to always burn surprising amount of resources to win most fights, and leveling only helps so much. Characters have a wide variety of abilities and can build in several ways. If you’re in danger you can cut and run back to base but if you take too long you start to run into financial issues, so you have to balance just how wild you go with resources and knowing when to return to lick your wounds.
    1. I feel that grinding and leveling is inherently at odds with survival gameplay. Survival is based on the idea of limited resources; if you can continue an action indefinitely, that’s no longer true and the game just becomes a farming sim. My only idea for how to make it work would be a FFXIII-style thing where you’re on a constant forward push and can’t revisit past areas. Soul Sunder did that and I think it worked fairly well.

      1. A Wild Birb Appears says:
        I think that all survival games are a little bit in danger of becoming a farming sim, which doesn’t refute any of your points (I don’t know enough about JRPGs or survival games to say anything either ways, and have only played the latter) but I do think that farming in survival games isn’t necessarily a bad thing. My favorite thing to do in the survival games I’ve played is set up a sustainable little farm, and I like farm sims to but the dangers and consequences to death of survival games does add something even if I’ve turned the gameplay into tending my little farms and traps

        I apologize if this is utterly off topic, but I wanted to question the idea that farming stuff in survival games makes it a bad survival game (and maybe get your input)

        1. Nerem says:
          We’re talking about survival horror games, and the concept of ‘farming’ for experience. Sorry if we were unclear.

           

          You do actually something grinding away at your overall resources – your goal is to pay off your immense debt to the yakuza before the interest payments get you. And you do have very limited resources in battle, as the party can only hold a balanced amount of each item, and they are relatively expensive to replenish. It gets expensive quick if you want to plow through without any regard for your resources, which sets you back on paying your debt, and also makes you vulnerable to interest payments sucking up more cash.

           

          You don’t directly make money from battles, you only find loot to sell and unless you actually continue on with the story you won’t be making a lot of money as the biggest money-makers are Treasure items that you only get from bosses.

          1. A Wild Birb Appears says:
            I did misunderstand, that was on me ^-^ I’d been playing “survival” games just before checking this blog, and I had read this particular post in a while, so I was thinking about something else. Sorry!
        2. My issue is that if you find a loop where you gain more than you lose and can be performed indefinitely, it completely breaks the economy. You can stock up on infinite resources and the only limit is your patience. In Trash Planet, this is any battle once you have Gucci, since she can restore MP and thus allow you to heal indefinitely. There’s nothing stopping you from spending several hours grinding and then trivializing the rest of the game.

          Survival games are based around limited resources, so there has to be some limit on farming to stop it from being truly infinite. Something like a system of diminishing returns or an overarching time limit may work.

          1. Nerem says:
            Yeah it has the overall time limit for that.

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