Challenge mode: The beginner's guide

I can probably best do this section as a Q&A.

Q: What is Challenge mode?
A: We might as well start with the most basic question, right? ;) In a nutshell, Challenge mode is a special mode where you must progress through the areas of the game with minimal equipment utilizing teamwork and puzzle solving skills moreso than they are used in the regular game.

Q: Who can play Challenge mode? Are there requirements?
A: Anyone! Challenge is open to you no matter if you're level 1 or level 200. There are no prerequisites to play it as far as the status of your character goes. However, every stage requires at least two players. To start a Challenge stage you must have at least two people in the team. Every puzzle can be cleared with two people, but generally having three or four players makes things easier. If everyone but you disconnects during the stage, you'll get a warning that some puzzles in Challenge mode require the help of other players to complete.

Q: What's the goal of a Challenge stage? What am I trying to do?
A: The most basic goal is to get to the end as quickly as possible. Every stage is timed (with a counter that counts up like Towards the Future, not down like a Mop-up mission) and when you clear the final area, the timer stops. The faster you can do each stage, the better.

Q: So when I start a Challenge stage, what happens? If anyone can play it, can I just level up for a while and then it'll be really easy?
A: No, that won't work. =P Challenge mode has no difficulty setting, but the enemies in it are equivalent in difficulty to Normal mode. When you begin a stage you are transported directly into the stage and your level, items, Techniques, Meseta, and everything else you have acquired in the regular game is stripped from you and replaced with defaults for the stage you chose.

Q: OK, but I've been playing Very Hard and Ultimate modes, Normal mode will be easy even if I don't keep my items! How is that challenging? There must be a catch.
A: Yep, there is. When you start a stage, you can't leave it. There's no trips to Pioneer 2 for any reason, you start off with Mates, Fluids, Antis, etc. depending on your class and the stage you chose, and you only have those items to use and what you find during the stage. The other catch is you can't die. In Challenge mode there are no Moon Atomizers, no Reverser, and no Mag revivals. The only way you can be saved is by a Scape Doll. Every stage starts you off with a certain number of Dolls (the number varies depending on the stage) and those are the lives you have. If someone gets hit when they are not carrying a Doll, you'll hear a chime sound, the lower their HP the faster it beeps. If someone dies without a Doll, the stage is over and you fail, at which point you'll be transported back to the Hunter's Guild. And on a side note, Dolls also do not drop so you only have what you start with. ;)

Q: OK I'm not feeling so good now... maybe this won't be so easy. You said that Moon Atomizers and Dolls don't drop in Challenge mode, so how else are the drops different?
A: In Challenge mode Moon Atomizer, Scape Doll, Meseta, Disk: Reverser, Telepipe, and Disk: Ryuker will never drop. You can expect a great increase in the number of Materials that drop over the normal game, but healing items drop less. Challenge mode is also the only place where the elusive TP Material drops. Also since you can't go to Pioneer 2 to Tek ???? weapons, all ???? weapons drop in a Tekked state so you can utilize their special attacks right off the bat. It is possible to get negative percentages in Challenge mode though, so make sure you check the weapons you find, as a green name doesn't always mean the weapon is better than a 0% one.

Q: So since you offer maps of Challenge mode, does that mean it's the same every time I play a certain stage?
A: The layout of the rooms in each area is always the same, and the puzzles are always the same. However unlike normal quests, Challenge mode does not have set enemy spawns. Certain rooms will always contain enemies and certain rooms will always be enemy free, but the rooms that do contain enemies will be different in the number of spawns in the room, and the number and type of enemies in each spawn. For instance, the first spawn of Stage 1 in the first room might contain two Boomas, a Rag Rappy, and a Monest the first time you play it, and once they are dead the door might open. If you play it again the next day, you might encounter one Booma, two Gigoboomas, and two Savage Wolves instead.

Q: I've heard people talk about "good maps" and "bad maps", but what do they mean by this?
A: It's pretty simple. The "map" in Challenge mode refers to the spawns, because they can change even though the layout of each stage does not. Since the goal of each stage is to clear it as quickly as possible, a "good map" contains few enemies, and the enemies you do encounter should be easy to kill. A "bad map" would contain many enemies, and a large amount of enemies that are either prone to getting you killed, or take a very long time for you to take down. For example, in Stage 1 a map full of Boomas, Wolves, and Rappies would be a pretty good map as they are all easy to kill. A map with many Monests, Gigoboomas, and Hildebears would be bad as Monests and Gigoboomas take a while to kill and Hildebears are dangerous and can do quite a bit of damage to you. Thus it would take you longer to kill the enemies, and you would be more likely to die and fail as well. A map that has few spawns per room and few enemies per spawn is also good as it speeds up your ability to clear the stage.

Q: You said that if someone dies without a Scape Doll, the team fails and you get sent back to the Hunter's Guild. What then?
A: Once someone dies without a Scape Doll, the entire team is transported back to the Hunter's Guild. At that point, the leader is presented with three options. "Join a Chat" closes the options window so you can talk to your teammates and decide what you're going to do. "Retry" causes the stage to reset, you will be transported back into the stage from the beginning with the timer at 0 and everything exactly as it was when you started the first time. The map will be identical to the map you just failed. "Quit" ends the Challenge stage, you can talk to the Guild counter and return to the lobby. If the leader selects "Join a Chat" you can discuss why you failed and how to approach the stage better next time, then select "Retry" to play the stage again and hopefully pass. =) During the chatting period, it is not possible to move your character.

Q: I've heard people talk about graves, what are they and how do I see them?
A: When someone dies without a Scape Doll and causes a team to fail a stage, a grave marks the spot where they fell. The grave contains their name, the name of the team where they died, the enemy that killed them, the number of times they've failed the stage, and the final words the person said before they died. Mostly, graves are just kind of fun, especially the quotes you find on them. However they can serve one useful purpose, graves sometimes drop items. When you come across a grave you will sometimes find multiple Mates or Fluids on the ground next to it. Getting items is not guaranteed, but it does sometimes happen. Each character can have only one grave, if you fail a new stage your old grave is deleted from the last stage you failed and a new one appears in the most recent place you died.

Q: What do I get for beating Challenge mode, and how quickly do I have to clear the stages to get the prize?
A: The main prize from Challenge mode is obtained by getting S-Rank, and the prize is an S-Rank weapon of your choice. To obtain S-Rank, you must clear all stages under seven hours. For A-Rank you get White Ring, and for B-Rank you get Yellow Ring. (Kudos to Raganorock for reminding me which Ring is for which Rank, I can never remember. =P)

Q: How many stages are there? What is in each stage?
A: There are nine stages in total. The contents of each stage:

Q: Wait, we have to fight Dark Falz? Won't he kill us?
A: Remember, Challenge mode equates to Normal mode, so Dark Falz does not have his third form. You only have to deal with the Darvants, Form 1, and Form 2 like you would on Normal mode.

Q: Wait, each stage only contains one area except for Stage 1? How is it difficult to finish in under seven hours?
Q: Only one in-game area appears in each stage, however remember there are multiple room configurations for each in-game area. In a Challenge stage there are multiple "Areas", and each Area in a particular stage is in the same area of the game, but using a different map with different puzzles that don't appear in the regular game.

Q: OK, so then how many areas are there?
A: There are forty-six areas in total.

Q: OK then, can I play any stage at any time?
A: No. You must play each stage in order from Stage 1 to Stage 9. If you have a team of three people who have done Stage 1-8 and are planning to do Stage 9, then someone joins who has no stages cleared, Stage 2-9 will become locked and only Stage 1 will be playable until that person leaves.

Q: What if I get a bad time and I want to improve it, can I replay the stage or do I have to get a good time on my first try?
A: Replaying a stage to improve your time is perfectly fine, once you have cleared a stage you can replay it and any of the previous stages as many times as you want to try to improve your times. If you fail to get under seven hours when you clear Stage 9 and you don't get S-Rank, you can play any stage you want to try to improve your time, and once your Challenge mode clear time drops below seven hours, you will be awarded an S-Rank.

Q: So, you mentioned ranks after you clear each stage, what are those about?
A: When you clear a stage, you're given a rank for having completed it. Each stage gives you a new rank, which can be seen in the lobby and used to judge if other people have played Challenge mode, and how far they've progressed. The ranks merely indicate that you've cleared the stages, not that you got good times. ;) As I said in the previous question, on Sega's server you are forced to play the stages in order, so a specific rank means you have cleared a certain stage and every stage that came before it. For people who do the stages out of order, it is now possible that the ranks don't mean as much...

Q: So then what are the ranks, and how do I see them?
A: If you're on DC, press the R trigger to rotate through information displayed over players' heads. If you're on PC, press the Control key. You cycle through player name, player name+language setting+level, Battle wins+disconnects, Challenge rank, nothing, then back to player name. If a user has not completed any stages, their rank space will be blank. The ranks are:

Stage 1 clear: Ra-GOU
Stage 2 clear: Gi-GOU
Stage 3 clear: Bu-GOU
Stage 4 clear: Ra-ZAN
Stage 5 clear: Gi-ZAN
Stage 6 clear: Bu-ZAN
Stage 7 clear: Ra-EI
Stage 8 clear: Gi-EI
Stage 9 clear: Bu-EI

And yes, I tried to match the font colour to the colour of the rank in game. ;)

Q: You mentioned the prize for S-Rank is a S-Rank weapon. What's that and why is it special?
A: S-Ranks are weapons, there is an S-Rank version of nearly every type of weapon in the game. When you clear all the stages you get a pop-up list of weapons to choose from, as well as a "No Type" option, which picks a weapon randomly for you. S-Ranks can be named with anything you choose, up to 8 letters including spaces. (No symbols are allowed, only capital letters and spaces.) For example, if you pick Saber and name it death you would have a DEATH SABER. If you pick the "No Type" option, the weapon you get will feature only the name you chose, so instead of DEATH SABER you would have a weapon named just DEATH. S-Rank weapons also boast the following features:

The special attack of an S-Rank weapon changes every time you attack, for example if you have a Mechgun you can fire nine bullets, and each bullet is charged with a different special attack, picked randomly from a pool of available specials. The specials available are:

Note that all of these specials are applied to the enemy you attack, so yes it is possible to Shifta, Deband, and heal enemies with an S-Rank. It's worthy to note that the level of Shifta, Deband, Jellen, Zalure, and Resta from S-Ranks seems to be approximately level 91. Thus if you afflict an enemy with Shifta or Deband you can expect to get 1 hit KOed or do 0 damage respectively, but if you Jellen or Zalure enemies they can no longer hurt you (their ATP becomes 0 so you can DFP block every attack) or do insane amounts of damage (their DFP becomes 0) respectively. Note that these numbers may not be correct as they are just from my calculations and based off how strong Shifta/Deband/Jellen/Zalure/Resta become according to one chart I read, but I'm pretty sure they're close if not right.

Also something noteworthy about S-Rank specials is that they are not based on ATA and thus they cannot miss. Even if you don't have enough ATA to normally be able to land special attacks, you can use the S-Rank special. The only thing that seems to miss is the 1 hit KO ability, which may still be based on enemy EDK.

Q: Can I get multiple S-Ranks per character?
A: No, you cannot. To get more than one S-Rank, you must clear Challenge mode again with a different character. Many people who wish to have multiple S-Ranks on their main characters will create Challenge mode mules, new characters who are never leveled up in the regular game, but merely play Challenge mode, get an S-Rank, transfer it to a main character, and are then deleted for a new mule or left unplayed.

Q: Is Challenge mode cross platform with Dreamcast and PC?
A: Yes, under certain conditions. Stage 1-8 are cross platform compatible in their original forms, but Stage 9 is not. The quest is not identical on DC and PC, which causes a bug that can FSOD Dreamcast users or crash PC users. To remedy this, the English language Stage 9 for PC has been modified to be cross platform with the DC quest on Schthack's server. If PC players use the English language setting they will be fine, but the non-English logs have not been modified. This means that PC players must always use English to play with Dreamcast players on Stage 9. To play Stage 9 PC only English does not have to be used, but languages cannot be mixed. The fix to make the English PC Stage 9 compatible with DC also makes the English PC Stage 9 incompatible with the non-English PC Stage 9 logs. In a nutshell, always play the game in English when you do Stage 9 and you'll be fine. =P

There is one bug that occurs in cross platform Challenge mode, but it is not severe. Since the Dreamcast takes much longer to load than the PC, PSO PC players enter the stage 15 seconds earlier than DC players. This means the stage timer is 15 seconds behind for DC players throughout the entire stage. When the stage ends and the timer stops, the timer will jump forward by 15 seconds for DC players to synchronize with the time displayed for PC players.

The Stage 9 fix for PSO PC also causes one minor bug, when you enter the stage the blue quest loading bar is still displayed on the screen on the bottom of the action pallete. It stays there for 15 seconds, then disappears. Most likely this has something to do with directly importing the DC maps into the PC quest to make Stage 9 the same on both platforms. Since 15 seconds is exactly how long it takes for DC players to enter the stage, the loading bar is probably displayed on PSO DC as well, but hidden by the quest load screen. Since PC doesn't use that screen, the bar is visible since you enter the stage 15 seconds earlier. Since it goes away and causes no known adverse effects, it doesn't seem to be a problem.

Q: If I get S-Rank when I clear Stage 9, can I still get the A and B-Rank prizes?
A: Yes, you can. If you get S-Rank when you clear all the stages, simply replay a stage and when you complete it you'll be awarded A-Rank and the White Ring. Then replay another stage and when you complete it you'll be awarded B-Rank and the Yellow Ring. The most common way to do this is to play Stage 1 twice, as it's the shortest stage and you can clear it twice in a row in less than half an hour.