Saturday, April 18, 2015

Neverwinter Nights 1's Add-Ons

Is it pointless to look at the add-ons of a game that came out over 10 years ago and is nowadays sold with its add-ons automatically included in the purchase, removing any influence this rant could have on the reader’s purchase decisions? Yup. Has the subject being pointless ever stopped me from making a rant before? Nope. So let’s take a look at the expansions and premium modules of the original Neverwinter Nights.

Shadows of Undrentide: Meh. A cookie-cutter plot wrapped in generic Dungeons and Dragons events. People complain that the second half of this expansion is rushed in its storytelling, and they’re totally right, but I can’t find that upsetting in the least because this expansion is frankly just not interesting enough that I’d want it drawn out at all. Frankly, I had more than my liking of drawn out, tedious plot cliche from the game proper, thank you. The first 2 party members aren’t bad, I guess, but they’re not good, either. They kind of feel like unfinished prototypes of Bioware characters rather than the real thing. I’ll admit that Deekin, and the kobolds in general, do tickle my fancy, so Shadows of Undrentide isn’t a total bore. Still, one amusing henchman does not a boring plot excuse. I don’t know how much this expansion originally sold for, but I know it wasn’t worth it, because even in its role nowadays as a free addition to the game, Shadows of Undrentide still isn’t worth the time it takes to play it.

Hordes of the Underdark: Like Shadows of Undrentide and the main story of Neverwinter Nights 1, the first 2 chapters of Hordes of the Underdark is plodding, largely mindless dungeon-crawling busywork, particularly the first chapter. The first chapter is just schlepping through a big dungeon, as if that were something novel for Neverwinter Nights by this point, and while Chapter 2 does finally see fit to grace us with a plot, it’s pretty generic stuff. The return of Deekin as a companion is welcomed, the return of 4 of the main game’s henchmen is not. The latter bunch clearly had their character development explored to its limit the first time around, and add nothing to the experience here, while Deekin (though he gets only a little more development) is amusing and appealing by nature, so he helps add a chuckle here and there. The new companion Nathyrra is okay, I guess...she’s sort of like an extremely watered down version of Viconia from Baldur’s Gate 1 and particularly 2. Like, if Viconia’s character depth and personality were filet mignon, Nathyrra would be a Slim Jim. Still pleasant, but not even in the same league as what it could be. I did like the part of Chapter 2 involving the mirror-cursed town of flying elves, too, but yeah...overall the first couple chapters of Hordes of the Underdark are no better than Shadows of Undrentide was.

...But then Chapter 3 starts, and suddenly the game pulls a complete 180 on you. No longer are you just going back and forth for one minor sidequest after another, waiting for something real to happen. Now you’re traveling alongside the soul of Aribeth, a paladin blackguard seeking to regain her faith even as she walks through the frozen hell of Cania itself, as you retrace the steps of an ancient, slumbering angel who gave up paradise for the sake of love in order to find a primal being who knows every person’s True Name--the name the gods bless each person with that holds ultimate power over him or her--all while the eternal Blood War rages on closer and closer, all so you can gain control of an interdimensional reaper and confront a hell lord before he can turn your home plane into his new domain to rule over. Filled with philosophy and beauty, the draw and power of the ancient and epic, and finally a companion with some real depth, Hordes of the Underdark’s third chapter finally delivers on the promise of a grand and meaningful Dungeons and Dragons story.

Is it worth it? Well, again, I don’t know how much HotU sold for originally. But the answer would almost surely be yes either way. Despite the majority of Hordes of the Underdark being generic filler, the third chapter makes up for that lost time in a big way and gives you something substantial and epic to enjoy. My policy is that if the payoff is great, I’ll happily suffer tedium to reach it (I really don’t know how I would play most RPGs otherwise, they’re so boring gameplay-wise), so Hordes of the Underdark gets a thumbs-up from me.

Kingmaker: Kingmaker is a Premium Module for Neverwinter Nights 1, which as far as I can tell is just what people called Downloadable Content before there was any widely recognized name for the concept. It’s, uh...odd. On the one hand, it’s just too simple to be interesting--the premise is just doing some quests for people to get their vote on making you the new lord/lady of a city (and oddly, it’s a position always listed as lord/lady, never king or queen, so I don’t know where the title of this DLC comes from), and then a short romp through some bad guys set on conquering that city for bad guy reasons. Boring. And yet, it’s also too complex to be enjoyable--the truth of the protagonist’s lineage, and the identity, nature, and purpose of the individual who sets this whole conflict up, are only half explained, even though they’re the major underlying factors that drive the entire story. Too simplistic on the surface, with inadequately explored complexity as its backbone: it’s a tough line to walk, but Kingmaker manages to do so and fail you twice over. To Kingmaker’s credit, some of the party members are actually pretty decent (particularly Kaidala and Jaboli, though Trip and Calibast are fairly unique, too), and there’s a decent effort put into developing the party members both in their own right and in their connections to one another, which I certainly appreciate. And even if it’s not compelling, Kingmaker is at least short and direct. After a full game, a full expansion, and 2/3rds of another expansion that are mostly just long, drawn out generic boredom, it’s hard not to appreciate a boring story that at least doesn’t dawdle and delay on and on.

From what I can tell, Kingmaker sold for $8 originally. Oddly high price for the time, and definitely not worth it. But as it is nowadays, a bonus that comes free with the game, I would say...well, I wouldn’t recommend it, like I recommend Hordes of the Underdark, but I wouldn’t recommend against it like I do with Shadows of Undrentide, either. It’s a bit of a time waste, but not a huge one.

Witch’s Wake: Alright, finally! It took a while, but Neverwinter Nights 1 at last delivers a consistently engaging story that’s written well, has compelling atmosphere, interesting ideas, a good narrative, and some decent NPCs. Wooo!

Too bad it’s the first part of a planned series of DLC packages that was never continued.

Yes, after only the first leg of a mysterious and potentially awesome quest to remember one’s purpose and self, and to deliver a cryptic message to a king once known but now forgotten, this DLC ends, and you are left with no satisfaction whatsoever. Apparently Bioware planned to make this into a multi-part story, but the Premium Module program was shut down before Witch’s Wake could ever get past its first chapter. A damn shame.

Although I would like to express a serious level of disgust with this plan, had it come to fruition. I mean, consider this fact--back when it was released, you paid $5 for Witch’s Wake (and Shadowguard; they came in the same package), and what you were doing was paying for an unfinished story. If all had gone according to Bioware’s original plan, you would then have been paying more money for each subsequent chapter of the story! A common complaint with Downloadable Content is that if it’s handled dishonestly (and it so, so often is), it’s basically a case of consumer extortion, where you pay for a game but then have to pay an extra fee to actually play ALL of the game you ALREADY PAID FOR. Well, that’s pretty much what we would have had here, if Witch’s Wake had ever been continued. You’d have to keep paying over and over again to fully experience the product that you had already purchased! I tend to think of Bioware as having slowly descended further and further into greedy, amoral corruption over time, but finding something like this makes me wonder if perhaps the company was just always rotten, and we all just didn’t notice it as much back in the day.

Shadowguard: Oh for Phosphora’s sake! It’s Witch’s Wake all over again! While not nearly as intriguing or narratively strong as Witch’s Wake, Shadowguard nonetheless presents an interesting, engaging story with some actual personality for its protagonist...and then drops off into nothingness. Yes, as with Witch’s Wake, Shadowguard is meant to be the first part of a multi-chapter story which was never continued. As with Witch’s Wake, Shadowguard is something that’s enjoyable while it lasts and which you’d actually have some interest in seeing continued, unlike most of Neverwinter Nights 1’s content that we’ve seen so far. And as with Witch’s Wake, the intended concept of paying several times for the privilege of actually playing Shadowguard, the product you’ve purchased, to its conclusion is utterly repulsive, shameless extortion on Bioware’s part. What a load of bullshit.

Pirates of the Sword Coast: How much you get from Pirates of the Sword Coast is going to greatly vary depending on how much you like pirates and the whole swashbuckling adventure genre in general. Myself, I am pretty ambivalent towards pirates. By themselves, they are not interesting, and most stories involving them and the whole idea of seeking fortune on the high seas don’t pan out to be all that compelling. Nonetheless, there’s enough opportunity to the whole pirate thing that you can certainly get some decent plots and characters out of it if you’re a decent storyteller. So I don’t care one way or another about the pop culture pirate genre.

That said, I was surprised to find myself enjoying this DLC pretty well as it went along. Pirates of the Sword Coast isn’t kidding about being pirate-y. A jabbery, smartass parrot, recruiting a pirate crew, undead curses, being marooned on islands with (sort of) cannibal tribes, treasure map hunts, krakens, pirate-filled island towns...this side-story has pretty close to every pirate trope out there, and it plays all of them pretty well. It never feels like any of these common pirate story devices are forced, though, and the overall method of the DLC is pretty good. It’s only sparsely narrated, but what it has works, and overall the story is average, but the characters and NPCs, and the item descriptions and environmental text, are all lighthearted and even a bit clever. It’s kinda like a combination of the fun of Pirates of the Caribbean 1 (and only the first movie; none of that crummy drek that followed) and Muppet Treasure Island. So I did end up liking this one well enough, and I expect people who are more into the high seas genre of books and movies and whatnot would find it all the better.

Pirates of the Sword Coast was a bit costly for its time, selling at $10 (from what I can tell, at least; it’s been long enough since it was sold that my sources are only old forum posts about it). Nonetheless, it’s fun enough that I wouldn’t necessarily call that a waste of money, depending, again, on how much of a pirate fan you are. Maybe not worth that much to me, but I could understand why someone else would think it worth that. Moot point nowadays, of course; Bioware long ago stopped selling it and if you can find an installer for this module (or any of the ones below), it’ll authenticate itself and let you play it even though you haven’t purchased it (at least, mine did). But anyway, yeah. Decent DLC, this.

Wyvern Crown of Cormyr: Meh. Nothing especially bad (besides the damn jousting minigame; expect that bit of annoyance to get its own rant at some point), but likewise nothing interesting, either. Not worth the time to play it, certainly not worth the $10 that Bioware originally charged for this module.

The Dark Ranger’s Treasure: This DLC is among the 3 tiny little modules that Bioware made and released for free. On the one hand, it’s hard to find fault with something a company provides completely for free. On the other hand, this brief little venture could barely even be called a boring sidequest. I’d pass on it, but if you try it and don’t like it, at least it won’t waste much of your time.

To Heir is Human: See what I just wrote for The Dark Ranger’s Treasure? It applies to this one, too.

The Winds of Eremor: Ditto.

Infinite Dungeons: If, after a full game, 2 expansions, and over half a dozen DLCs of various sizes, you are, somehow, still in the mood for running around killing things in a dungeon for hours on end, then this is definitely your module. If, however, you are someone who plays an RPG to experience storytelling in the video game medium, who has become sick to death of the repetitive gameplay mechanics after experiencing them for 100 hours and frankly was not particularly interested in them to begin with, then this DLC is a thoroughly unappealing prospect.

Darkness Over Daggerford: Bioware designed this final DLC with the intent to sell it, but apparently someone pulled the plug on the idea of continuing to produce Neverwinter Nights 1 content before it was finished. So, from what I gather, one of the employees of Bioware decided to finish DOD after he left to form his own company. Thus, Darkness Over Daggerford is legally considered to be user-created content instead of official, but since it was mostly developed by Bioware, I’m still counting it here.

Darkness Over Daggerford, decent, I suppose. Nothing special, but a little better than the par for Neverwinter Nights 1; I at least didn’t feel outright bored at any point. The party members are alright, and the plot is generic but acceptable. Being unofficial content, this was released for free, so I guess the price was right, at least.

And that’s the last of’em. There are plenty more modules for Neverwinter Nights 1, of course, but those are ones made by fans, not Bioware. So how’s it all stack up? Well, good if you look at it one way, bad if you look at it the other. I mean, Neverwinter Nights 1’s main game is a highly uninteresting venture. Almost every part of its plot is generic and doesn’t hold the attention at all, and that plot is padded out ineptly by having most of its chapters being multi-part fetch quests that take so long that you almost forget sometimes what the hell you’re doing all the run-around for. Its characters are generally only a little better, with only Aribeth having depth that stands out in the game’s cast--and despite having said depth and being vitally essential to the plot as a whole, Aribeth is only barely present in the damn game, relegated to a quest-giver in the first half, while in the second half of the game she’s a plot device whose actions and development are blandly told to you second-hand.

So compared to Neverwinter Nights 1 proper, the game’s add-ons are a cut above. Some, like Shadows of Undrentide or those 3 tiny freebies, are no better, but Pirates of the Sword Coast, Shadowguard, and especially Witch’s Wake and the third chapter of Hordes of the Underdark are certainly better. It’s inarguable that the best parts of Neverwinter Nights 1 can be found in its add-ons, and frankly there are parts of Hordes of the Underdark that are awesome and epic by any RPG’s standards. So in the context of the game itself, the add-ons are the highlights of Neverwinter Nights 1.

But speaking in a more objective sense? This is a lousy showing. Its best moments are Witch’s Wake, which is incomplete and would have been flagrantly dishonest, and Hordes of the Underdark, which is only good in its last third and requires you to just slog through a bunch of average dungeon-crawling nonsense to get to the good part. The majority of the packages just aren’t good, and almost nothing here is worth its price of time and (back in the day) money. It’s not the worst set of add-ons I’ve seen, but it’s a much further cry from being the best, that’s for sure. I suppose add-ons were still a pretty new idea at this time, at least in a sense of downloading them instead of going out to purchase physical copies of expansions, but still, not great.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Legend of Korra: A New Era Begins's Lack of Asami

Sigh. So, over my Christmas break between semesters, I went on a crazy Avatar binge, watching the entire series of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra from start to finish. I had seen neither before, but always heard only great things about them,* and with Korra having just finished its run, it seemed like a good time to finally get around to checking them out. I was not disappointed with either show; they are both excellent and well deserving of the frequent praise given them.

What I WAS disappointed with, was the Legend of Korra RPG.

“Cheap, lazy cash-in” is basically how I would describe this game. The facile plot barely manages to string itself together in between-battle cutscenes lasting all of a few seconds before the next mindless combat begins, the whole game feels like unimportant filler, and the characters are barely more than mouthpieces for a plot which almost doesn’t even exist. RPGs are a genre thankfully free from the curse of movie adaptations, but this title is clearly no less of a halfhearted, manipulative franchise-milker than any given movie-based game. And while I’m sure she would have ended up just as pale an imitation of her true self as all the rest of the characters in the game do...where the hell is Asami?

It may be a small flaw in a title that’s little more than the video game equivalent of a cheap t-shirt found in a second-rate amusement park gift shop, but the fact that Asami isn’t even in the game at all is nonetheless greatly annoying to me. I don’t deny for a moment that a lot of that annoyance is subjective, of course. I like Asami, I make no pretense otherwise. She’s an enjoyable character with subtle but significant depth who contributes a positive dynamic to the show and connects well with virtually every character and benefits their character development. She’s sharp, active, and dependable, and she rounds out Team Avatar very well. I want to see her in any and all Legend of Korra-related ventures.

But even from an objective standpoint, it doesn’t make any sense to have Asami absent from the game. There’s no plot-related reason that I can think of for her not to be present--the game takes place during a time in the show when she’s as available to be out and about with Korra as any of the rest of the gang is, and the game says and does nothing that would require her to be elsewhere. I suppose you can make the argument that just because Korra has an adventure, that doesn’t mean she always needs to have her friends present (there are plenty of times in the show where she’s going it alone, after all), but Korra’s pals Mako and Bolin are party members. What sense is there in having some members of Team Avatar on the adventure, but not all of them? It’d be like making a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game where you could play as Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo, but for some reason Donatello wasn’t available, or even present, and his absence was never explained or even brought up in passing. It’d be like if a My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic game was released where Twilight goes on an adventure with 4 out of 5 of her best friends, but leaves Applejack behind for no given reason. It’d be like if Kingdom Hearts 3 comes out and it stars Sora and Goofy, but Donald is just completely missing and no one seems to even notice.

It’s not even like party spots are being reserved only for the most essential show characters anyway. Yeah, you’d expect Mako and Bolin to be there, that’s a given, and of course Tenzin is an obvious choice, but while Lin is important in the show, she’s certainly not at the level of main character that Asami is, yet she’s a party member in this game. And Kya? The game throws freaking Kya into the party, but not Asami?

Now, I suppose you could try to make the point that Asami has no elemental bending powers, so she wouldn’t really be able to hold her own as a party member in combat alongside all the other characters who can throw elemental attacks around willy-nilly. And I could certainly understand how you would think that...if you were a blind, slobbering moron, because anyone with even the slightest shred of familiarity with the show knows that non-benders can still be fierce combatants. Lacking bending never stopped Sokka, Suki, Ty Lee, and Mai from being formidable opponents in the first Avatar series, and it sure as hell doesn’t stop Asami in The Legend of Korra. She regularly takes down trained benders and warriors on her own with ease. In fact, I’m relatively sure that if you took all the fights Asami has been in, and averaged out how many of them she won, and then took all the fights Korra the kickass Avatar has been in and averaged out her success rate, you’d find that Asami actually has a way higher win ratio!

And it’s not like the game’s elemental system wouldn’t support Asami as a team member. The game has an element for physical attacks. Plenty of enemies use it, and at one point in the game, Korra has her bending blocked temporarily and has to rely on physical attacks only. So it’s not like the developers couldn’t have just coded in a non-elemental party member if they’d cared to. Hell, it would have given the player a chance to take advantage of the strategies inherent in applying the physical elemental to combat, providing the game with a tiny bit more gameplay variety. Which it could certainly use, since the gameplay of TLoKANEB is only marginally better than its story elements.

Even if you want to take a stickler approach that the combat team has to be benders only, there’s no reason Asami couldn’t have been in the game as a team-helping NPC. There are plenty of times where she could have been driving/piloting an escape vehicle, or flying the team to their next destination, or something like that. Asami’s got mad driving and piloting skills, so she’d do great in the role of the party-helping NPC who ferries everyone around.

I know it’s not a big deal, particularly not when compared to the game’s other shortcomings, but it just strikes me as dumb to leave as major a character as Asami out of The Legend of Korra: A New Era Begins. It would have hurt nothing to include her, her absence is puzzling and conspicuous, and as a character she tends to enhance the depth and development of those around her in the show, so who knows, maybe she actually could have interacted with some of the other characters in the game and made them seem a little more like the cast of The Legend of Korra, and less like standing cardboard cut-outs of the characters that some 6-year-old crudely snipped from the back of a cereal box. Probably not, I suppose, careless writing is gonna be careless writing anyway, but still. And if nothing else, having Asami around would have allowed for at least a tiny extra bit of time she’s spent connecting with Korra (even in as limp a way as this game would no doubt portray), and maybe help make the ending of the series just a little better grounded as a result.** Ah, well. The Legend of Korra’s a pretty popular show, even if it has ended...maybe someone will make another RPG based on it, a much, much better one I hope, and Asami will be invited to the party then.

* Well, almost nothing but great things. I had heard many people mention that Korra’s romance with Mako in Season 1 is stupid, spontaneous, has no chemistry, and, by far worst of all, takes attention and time away from the important parts of the plot and characters rather than naturally work within them. This is all true, unfortunately, but at least that nonsense resolves itself by the end of Season 2, so it’s not a big deal.

** Not to say that I wasn’t pleased that Korra and Asami end up together, or that I don’t think they should. I definitely agree that Asami is the person for Korra; they have such a natural connection from the first season on that their chemistry is almost tangible when they’re on screen together, and they relate perfectly to one another and compliment each other in the best ways. It’s one of those rare times when fictional characters are built right for each other from the get-go; in most romances I see in games, cartoons, animes, comics, and so on, the people involved have to be worked up to the point where they’re a perfect fit for one another. You’re sold on how genuine most characters’ love is through the interactions that play into the romance. With Korra and Asami, the genuine connection is there, clear and easy to see, without any of that work needed.

The only problem is...the romantic work isn’t needed to see that they’re right for each other, but it IS still needed to make their falling in love seem legitimate within the story itself, and Korra and Asami don’t actually spend a whole lot of time in the series together building their natural connection into something more, realizing its romantic potential. Besides the unfortunate fact that the show is skittish about outright showing their interest in one another until its famous ending, they just don’t actually have much together time on screen. What they do have is terrific, of course; I really love the scene at the end of Season 3 where Asami is trying to raise Korra’s spirits after her near death experience with Zaheer, I love the letters they exchange and the fact that Korra feels comfortable sharing herself in a letter only with Asami, I love their talk during the recap episode, and so on. But it should still be more, to warrant an ending as unambiguously about their being in love as The Legend of Korra concludes with. Korra and Asami being together is the right answer, there is no logically or emotionally rational argument to be made otherwise, but the writers rushed past a few steps getting to that correct conclusion.

How fun is it that a Korra RPG essentially gives me full freedom to rant like this on anything I want about the show? Fair warning right now, I may shamelessly abuse this privilege for more rants in the future.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Planescape: Torment's Theme of Belief and Will

It’s March 28th. March 28th, 2015. Do you know what that means?

No, of course you don’t, because you’re (probably) not fanatical Chris Avellone worshippers like I am. Well, for those of you who have not sculpted a golden calf in your mind and stuck a “C. Avellone” name tag on it, March 26th, 2 days ago, was the day on which Pillars of Eternity was released. PoE is a crowdfunded RPG developed by Obsidian Entertainment, the developers behind Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Fallout: New Vegas (and the South Park RPG, apparently, which means I really do need to check that thing out at some point), and whose many excellent writing talents include the transcendently magnificent Chris Avellone. And if what I understand is true, he’s one of the most prominent minds behind Pillars of Eternity...and as a crowdfunded game, and a wildly successfully funded one at that, PoE has had the opportunity to be developed at its own, healthy pace and with no constraints on its creators’ vision. An RPG written by Chris Avellone and his talented peers in which no whimsical but tyrannical corporate suit, no bloodsucking marketing department parasite, and no sales-dictated deadline has had a chance to muck things up? My God. People, at this very moment that you are reading these words, I may be playing the RPG to finally topple Grandia 2 from my Greatest RPGs rant.

That, or I have set myself up for the biggest disappointment of all time. Then again, I did see the ending of Mass Effect 3, so...second biggest.

Anyway, this momentous occasion deserves some sort of celebration here. I did a whole year’s worth of Shin Megami Tensei rants when SMT4 came out, after all, and that wound up not really deserving that much hooplah anyway. The least I can do now is do a rant on an RPG Mr. Avellone has previously worked on. And of all of the RPGs that have been graced by Chris Avellone’s touch, there is one which stands out the most famously. So, without further ado, let’s (finally) have a rant on the legendary, the unparalleled, Planescape: Torment.

Oh yeah, uh, major plot and character spoilers in this rant. If you have not played Planescape: Torment, then for the love of Palutena, DO NOT READ THIS RANT. If you let this shining star of magnificence which you must someday play be lessened in any way, I will be pissed like you cannot believe. DON’T SPOIL PLANESCAPE: TORMENT FOR YOURSELF. JUST. DON’T.

For all the lip service I pay to Planescape: Torment, lip service which it has richly earned of course, I’ve never actually made a rant on it before. That’s not because there’s not much to talk about regarding the game. If anything, Planescape: Torment is the most demanding for discussion and contemplation of all RPGs in existence. It’s more that I actually don’t feel qualified to take the stance of authority in a rant here for anything about the game, the way I do for most any other RPG. It’s so deep, so intelligent, so artistic, and so wise a game that my own childish forays into contemplation don’t even remotely measure up.

Still, I think I’ve actually realized something fairly neat about Planescape: Torment which few others have, something neat and interesting to share with you all at long last. And that realization relates to one of the most significant and fascinating of the many, many subjects that PT touches on: the overwhelming power of belief and will.

It’s easy to recognize how important belief is to the events and setting of Planescape: Torment. It permeates every level of the game’s course. The power of belief comes up over and over again as you travel through the game, in ways both small and large. In Dungeons and Dragons, there is a certain idea that the gods of the D+D planes are born out of people’s belief alone, empowered by it, and that they fade to oblivion if all of their worshippers die or lose faith. At least, I think this is a concept true of the D+D universe in general, and not just invented by Planescape: Torment. The unexpectedly wonderful indie RPG, Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, has one of its most touching love sidequests making use of the idea that with enough time and belief, an ordinary mortal creature can transcend and become a goddess, and it’s quite clear that EoWC uses the Dungeons and Dragons universe as its setting inspiration. At any rate, it’s an interesting idea that of course correlates thoughtfully to belief’s role in our own world and what we can accomplish with it as our inspiration.

Planescape: Torment takes this idea that belief in the D+D planes has quantifiable power and influence, and runs with it as a major theme in all levels of itself. You have small but notable events involving the power of belief in the planes, such as the possibility that if you have The Nameless One give the false alias “Adahn” enough times in the game, you can actually find an NPC late in the game named Adahn who has come into existence simply from the power of will of The Nameless One’s deception and the belief of others that the “Adahn” they’re told of actually does exist. Even if their belief that The Nameless One is Adahn is incorrect, it has been enough for them to simply believe that there is an Adahn. Belief has produced reality.

Small NPC encounters aren’t the only place where the theme shows up, of course, it’s just interesting and important to note that this theme is so important that it does not restrict itself only to the major events and characters, but is instead infused into every level of the game. Of more important note, the theme of belief’s power shows up in major characters such as Dak’kon, a githzerai warrior whose loss of faith was enough to allow the enemies of his people to destroy the city he led, and for whom regaining his faith transforms his blade into one of the most powerful weapons in the cosmos. Belief in the power of justice is what makes Vhailor the Mercykiller an unstoppable force of kharmic might, so much that even just believing himself still alive keeps him animated--and if you convince him that there is no meaning in Law, and/or that his perspective on justice is flawed and that he himself is guilty, he will kill himself, for he cannot exist without his belief.

Really, though, if you want a proper accounting of just how powerful belief is in Planescape: Torment, there’s no better advocate than the source itself. As the protagonist himself says:

“If there is anything I have learned in my travels across the Planes, it is that many things may change the nature of a man. Whether regret, or love, or revenge or fear - whatever you believe can change the nature of a man, can. I’ve seen belief move cities, make men stave off death, and turn an evil hag's heart half-circle. This entire Fortress has been constructed from belief. Belief damned a woman, whose heart clung to the hope that another loved her when he did not. Once, it made a man seek immortality and achieve it. And it has made a posturing spirit think it is something more than a part of me.”

Holy crap, I love the writing of this game. I’ve never wanted to make love to words before Planescape: Torment.

Anyway, there you have it. Belief does all of those monumentally incredible things that The Nameless One mentions, and he gives this speech at the end of the game, to the manifestation of his mortality, as a way of seguing into what I believe is the only true conclusion of Planescape: Torment: the Nameless One defeating the Transcendent One through just the threat of willing it and himself out of existence. Hell, even the very infamous question of Planescape: Torment, the one that is immortalized as its greatest question, “What can change the nature of a man?”, is answered with belief. Belief is that powerfully awesome and important to Planescape: Torment, to Dungeons and Dragons, to us as human beings.

But of course, all of that is well known in regards to Planescape: Torment. The game outright tells you most of it, and most players will already be well aware of all that I have mentioned so far. So what is my own addition to this? What have I come to realize that I have not seen others mention, in regards to this theme of belief in Planescape: Torment?

My own revelation is that there is another layer of meaning in making belief and will such an integral part of everything within Planescape: Torment: it makes this game the most true and worthy representation of Dungeons and Dragons out there. Because Dungeons and Dragons is nothing but belief.

Think about it. What is, at its core, Dungeons and Dragons? It’s a game of make believe. As is the case for essentially all tabletop RPGs, D+D exists as an exercise of imagination. The players imagine themselves to be others, imagine their surroundings, their enemies, their actions, their interactions, everything. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Dungeons and Dragons can be even more an example of belief than regular make believe! A child pretending to be a knight may do so because he has found a stick to swing as his sword, a child pretending to be a police officer may do so with a toy gun at her side, a child pretending to own a restaurant may set about making mud pies as representative of their culinary creations. The children have the stick, the toy, the mud pies to represent what they are imagining; what does the D+D player have? Dice and a character sheet. Words and numbers, themselves less corporeal than the stick, toy, and mud.*

In being a game wherein the power of will is explored as a power that can have tangible results, wherein belief is perhaps the most significant core concept of absolutely every wisdom and idea presented to the player, Planescape: Torment is the most truly symbolic game of Dungeons and Dragons of all. True, games like Neverwinter Nights 1, Baldur’s Gate 1, and the Icewind Dales much more closely emulate the actual playing experience of D+D.** But ultimately, those games are based on and never get beyond the fictions that have grown from the original truth of D+D, not the game’s core principles. Planescape: Torment of course hugely utilizes the lore that has been built around the Dungeons and Dragons planes, but while doing so, its core theme of belief and will make it a tribute to the heart of Dungeons and Dragons in a way that no other game based on the franchise which I have played accomplishes.

So yeah. Probably somebody somewhere has come up with this connection before I have, but as far as I can tell from a cursory glance online and from my small experience with online forums on which PT was discussed, this layer of meaning is at least not widely known. It’s pretty neat, though, and just one more of many, many examples of the nuanced excellence of Planescape: Torment’s writing.

* Yes, there are plenty of accessories for D+D you can acquire beyond that. Maps, figurines, and so on do add at least as much tangible representation as the children’s tools I mentioned. But at its core, Dungeons and Dragons does not need nor use such things, and that’s my point.

** To their detriment, if you ask me. The closer a game is to the actual D+D playing experience, I find, the less focus it has on a strong and meaningful story carried through by characters of depth and interest. That’s why the best parts of Neverwinter Nights 1 are found in some of its add-ons, which become more focused on telling a story the way the writers want to than just giving the player carte blanche to wander around aimlessly, and why Baldur’s Gate 2, in becoming a game with a great focus on a more linear and structured story and defined characters, so surpasses BG1 in quality.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Final Fantasy Series's Odd Elemental Imbalance

Not really a complaint today, just an observation of something strange. Did you ever notice how early Final Fantasies have an odd disconnect between the plot-important elements and the actually useable magical elements?

What I mean is...alright, see, for the first couple generations of Final Fantasy titles, the plot was pretty squarely centered around the four elemental crystals of Fire, Water, Wind, and Earth. The idea was that these all-important plot devices were what infused the elements of a living, functional, and magical world into the planet and nature, and without them, the elements would either fade out (FF5) or go out of control (FF Mystic Quest) and the world would be doomed. Pretty standard stuff all around, of course; the idea of super magical sparkly special plot item crystals performing essential, mystical maintenance for a world’s life force has been a part of fantasy- and anime-styled stories for ages, and the idea of Fire, Water, Wind, and Earth being the main 4 elements of all creation has been around for a bit longer. And by that, I mean thousands of years.

So you’ve got earlier Final Fantasy games--and maybe more recent ones; I haven’t played anything more recent than FF Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates, so I couldn’t say--having these mystical elemental crystals of Water, Wind, Earth, and Fire governing all the world’s magic and essential natural functions and life force and whatnot. Okay, cool. But then what’s up with the elemental magic system?

As far as the standardized black magic of the earlier Final Fantasy games goes, the all-important crystals are barely represented. Okay, sure, Fire spells are in abundance, as you’d expect, but the other elements with the highest number of spells, practicality, and plot focus are Ice/Blizzard and Bolt/Thunder spells. Yeah, you’ll get a token Earth spell, Water spell, and Wind spell, but of the 3 major magical elements of the game’s battle system, which again tend to be the most likely to get out-of-battle use during story events, only 1 actually has anything to do with the major all-important magical plot crystal elements.

And no, Ice/Blizzard spells do not count as representations of the Water Crystal. Water and Ice/Blizzard are considered 2 different elements in the typical FF magic system. And even if you do want to count it as related to the Water Crystal, you’re still missing strong representation from half of the sources of magic in the world, so it still doesn’t make much sense, at least not to me.

And yeah, sure, Wind spells had a little more early game exposure than I’m giving credit for, in that there were a couple for White magic in FF1 and a proper 3 levels of Aero spells for Blue Magic in FF5. I guess that counts for FF1 to an extent, since White Magic is as basic and inescapable a standard for Final Fantasy as Black Magic, but Blue Magic’s kind of its own thing, an odd-ball type that doesn’t really conform to the rest of a game’s magic systems, so I don’t reckon it really counts. That could just be me being picky, I suppose. Still, it’s kind of a shaky point for Wind magic to stand on regardless.

Wouldn’t you think the basic spells of the most basic magic type would correspond to the elements established by the plot to the be major and important ones, the source of all magic? Instead of Fire-Fira-Firaga, Blizzard-Blizzara-Blizzaga, and Thunder-Thundara-Thundaga, shouldn’t it really be Fire-Fira-Firaga, Water-Watera-Waterga, Aero-Aerora-Aeroga, and Stone-Stonera-Stonega? The series later brought Earth magic properly into the mix in FF7, and Water magic in FF10, but the crystals aren’t a part of those games anyway. For the games where they would make the most sense to be the most basic building blocks of magic, most of the crystal elements are represented as only individual spells achieved late in the game, or parts of odd side-magic systems, rather than as the iconic basic spells of the iconic basic magic style of the series.

Like I said, it’s not a big deal, or anything that actually bothers me. Just a little oddity I noticed, that’s all.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Fallout 3's Best Mods

Ahh, Fallout 3. We had to wait a damn long time for the classic 1990s RPG series about post-apocalyptic America to continue, but it was worth that wait and then some. Bethesda took the game engine they had used for their subpar Elder Scrolls 4 and used it to make an intelligent, atmospheric, allegory-rich wasteland for us to explore, and it was awesome.

As awesome as Fallout 3 is by itself, though, it can, it seems, still be improved upon. The modding community had an absolute field day with Fallout 3, as it did for The Elder Scrolls 4, and created a veritable mountain of modifications that you can add to the game to tweak it into something new and different. Traditionally, I go light on mods when I play a new RPG, wanting to get the true sense of the art of the product, but there are certainly many cases of games which are better experienced with some mods, even during your first time. Planescape: Torment, for example, has a couple of mods that restore cut content to the game and fix various bugs and grammatical errors, and everyone should play the game with these mods installed. I’ve personally praised the massive restoration mods for Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Fallout 2 here on this blog before, and I sincerely think that any first-time player should experience these classics with those mods. And of course, the Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod ensures that no innocent man or woman must ever again suffer the grievous emotional injury that is Mass Effect 3’s ending. That right there is less of an enjoyable alteration and more of a great service to all humanity.*

So, here is a little list of a few mods for Fallout 3 that I think significantly improve the overall experience, enough and in such a way that I would encourage you to use them the next time you play, even if it’s your first time. There are plenty of other nifty mods for the game that I have used and enjoyed, of course, such as DC Moods, Weapon Mod Kits, and Cube Experimental, but these are the ones that I feel do more than just enjoyable tweak the game. These are the mods that capture the essence of Fallout 3 and enhance it, creating an experience truer to Fallout 3 than the game on its own could have provided.

Level 100 Cap: You know what’s just really annoying? Hitting your level cap before you’re done adventuring, even though you haven’t been purposefully level-grinding. It’s so annoying that I even did a rant about it (although I’ll do rants on just about anything, so I guess that’s not such a huge deal). Well, with this handy little mod, that irritation is over and done with! Setting the level cap over 3 times higher than the original cap means that you can explore the game to its fullest and not have to give up the satisfaction of gaining experience for your feats part of the way through. Sure, this is a small thing, but you have to realize, the setting of Fallout is a major, major aspect of the series, and even tiny details can add depth and insight into the Fallout universe and communicate a message, details small and hidden enough that you only find them if you’re rigorously exploring. Having a level cap set low enough that you’ll hit it only 60 - 90% of the way through the game means that you have less gameplay incentive to explore that last 10 - 40%. By setting a cap far beyond achievable means even considering the possibility of a bit of grinding, this mod lessens the odds that you’ll eventually lose interest in the all-important exploration aspect of the game, and that’s important.

RobCo Certified: Gameplay is not a huge factor to me in enjoying RPGs (especially since most RPGs’ gameplay, being menu-based, is inherently completely unenjoyable), but this mod that adds a new dimension to Fallout 3 gameplay deserves a mention. Why? Because Fallout takes a certain pride in offering players a chance to achieve their goals in a variety of ways, to encourage everyone to build their own style of playing, and RobCo Certified opens up a new avenue of play style that has not been present before: that of the mighty and fearsome MAD SCIENTIST! With this mod, it’s completely feasible to have a character build who has more or less no combat abilities whatsoever, which really just hasn’t been achievable (at least not in a way that’s at all fun) in Fallout 3 previously. I mean, you could build a stealth-based character in the game and avoid all the enemies, but it’s a lot of extra time to sneak by absolutely everything, and Stealth Boys are so damn expensive. This mod gives you the possibility of learning to repair broken robots with various wasteland junk, upgrade those robots, and set them loose on your enemies while you step back and watch the pretty, lethal fireworks. You can also even turn inanimate parts of the background into attack robots, too! It is rather fun to be flanked by a small army of mobile televisions and ovens, I must say. As your abilities to make killer robots improve with your aptitude for science, it’s now entirely feasible to roam the Capital Wasteland with a character whose skill points are all put toward non-combat abilities, with as much confidence as a heavy gunner character or a champion sniper or whatnot. Hell, the mod even goes so far as to give you a role in combat that has nothing to do with attacking enemies--as the bullets fly, you can just be hitting your robots with your repair tools to keep them in good repair while they’re melting the crap out of super mutants and Enclave assholes.

And hey, in case you haven’t guessed it, beyond opening up new avenues for play style, it does bear mentioning that this mod is FUN. It’s here because of its utility in expanding the gameplay of Fallout 3, but it’s a blast to collect a horde of robot minions and to repurpose innocuous wasteland junk into your own servants. This really is an impressive mod for its scope and complexity, and it’s definitely worth adding to your next Fallout 3 experience.

Ultimate Perk Pack: Well, if you increase your level cap, you’ll want enough useful perks that those additional levels feel like they mean something, right? The Ultimate Perk Pack adds a truckload of additional perks to the game that you can choose from at level up. They’re well-designed, following the same general curve of usefulness that the original perks do, and they’re creative and fun, to boot. Really, they feel very natural to the game, enough that you may not even be able to tell sometimes which perks are from the original game and which came from this mod.

More Map Markers: This mod adds a bunch more markers to the Pip-Boy world map. This is very handy for exploration, as you can fast-travel to more points in the Capital Wasteland and continue your explorations from there, but more importantly, it marks a lot of neat places in Fallout 3 that might otherwise be missed, tiny little points of interest that would be hard to find and return to without the marker. It always irked me that Rockopolis was unlisted, for example, because it’s related to the overall lore of Fallout 3 and it even contains 1 of the elusive Vault Boy bobbleheads. Additionally, what did and did not qualify for a map marker in the original game sometimes seemed strange and arbitrary; there were plenty of spots that were tiny and pointless that did get marked on the map, while other spots of equal or even greater size and importance did not. In fact, thanks to this mod, I found a handful of fun little locations that I had missed the first time I played Fallout 3--and let me tell you, I’m pretty thorough with my explorations! This mod gives you a much better chance to get the most out of your explorations of the Capital Wasteland, and thus, a better chance to get the most out of the game as a whole.

Point Lookout More Map Markers: Everything I just said for the last one, except for the Point Lookout DLC map. Given that exploration is a huge aspect of the Point Lookout DLC, this is no less important for this add-on than the original More Map Markers mod is for the main game.

Tenpenny Tower Alternate Endings: I complained about the Tenpenny Tower quest in a rant a little time ago, and mentioned this mod there, so I won’t say much here. This mod corrects what I see as the only real failure of Fallout 3’s storytelling (besides the ending and Mothership Zeta), the conclusion of the Tenpenny Tower quest, making it possible to achieve a result that is more in line with your intentions and the storytelling style and themes of Fallout 3 as a whole.

GNR Enhanced: Galaxy News Radio is a significant part of Fallout 3’s plot, and listening to Three Dog’s warnings and tips for surviving the Capital Wasteland, and his recounting of your deeds, is fun for when you feel like listening to more than just the quiet background noise of the game (though that background is great for setting the mood, don’t get me wrong). The only problem with GNR is that between these fun bits of Three Dog, the songs that play are extremely repetitive. Sure, they’re not horrible to listen to (well, a couple of them are, actually), but the playlist is tiny, so it gets damn repetitive. Well, with GNR Enhanced, there’s now a ton more songs in Three Dog’s repertoire, all of which are old timey and very thematically appropriate to Fallout. The old classics are still in there, but now you won’t get sick to death of listening to GNR as you traverse the wastes, which is neat.

More importantly than that, this mod also fixes a few bugs for GNR. For starters, Three Dog will report on you past Level 20--in the original game, for some reason, he would sometimes stop running news stories about the Lone Wanderer once the character hit the original level cap, which was annoying, because those were really the only reason after 1 hour to be listening to the station (unless you just really like that hackin’ and whackin’ song, in which case you probably should see a therapist). Better still, this mod adds to the non-music material that GNR broadcasts, restoring Three Dog song intros and outros and certain news story lines. And the mod even adds a couple of fun little commercials for in-universe products like Mr. Handy and the Pip-Boy! This mod expands the entertainment value of GNR several hundreds of times, expanding this plot-important and theme-important radio station’s role in your exploration of the Capital Wasteland and strengthening its significance to the game.

Busworld: Busworld is simple, but awesome--it adds interior areas to the many buses, metro train cars, and boxcars you encounter while exploring Fallout 3. I always thought it was a major waste of potential in Fallout 3 that you could never explore the interiors of these vehicles, which are frankly just all over the place. I mean, come on, exploration is the name of the game in this RPG, and in a post-apocalyptic setting, such larger vehicles would surely be host to all sorts of interesting stuff to find and survivors seeking shelter. And this mod makes that happen! Exploring the subway system is now a lot less repetitive thanks to this mod, and it’s fun to find all these new little places to explore as you pass buses and the occasional boxcar in your travels. This mod is great, taking what was once an unimportant and even mildly disappointing background object and transforming it into another part of the Fallout experience. Big thumbs up from me on this one!

DC Interiors Project: And here we are. Of these mods that I recommend to anyone wanting to sharpen the experience of Fallout, this is the best. For some reason, a reason probably related to making deadlines, the strong majority of pre-war buildings in Fallout 3, especially those within the D.C. Ruins, are boarded up and cannot be entered and explored. As I’ve mentioned many times in the past and as you’ve probably figured out from my continued emphasis on the concept throughout this rant, exploration is a key element of the atmosphere, draw, and storytelling process of the Fallout series, and having so few extra places that you can enter and examine is a severe waste of potential, and passively detrimental to the game.

This mod fixes that problem. The DC Interiors Project adds a whole bunch of interior areas to the game, allowing you to explore nearly all the relatively intact buildings you come across in the D.C. Ruins, as well as the surrounding area. And these new areas are expertly designed, too, interesting, appropriate to the setting, very creative, and with tremendous attention to detail. There are a few puzzles to solve, lots of sights to see, scavengers to find and trade with, and overall just a lot of neat settings that fit perfectly into the wasteland and add in a positive way to your wanderings. It doesn’t exactly reinvent Fallout 3 exploration, but it sure as hell adds more personality to it and gives you fresh incentive to go poking through the crumbling ruins of a past age. And that right there is a lot of what Fallout is meant to be. Kudos to this one, it above all others is a mod to enhance the Fallout experience.

* I WILL eventually be using this mod and making a rant about it, but it’s still a couple versions away from being complete enough that I’m ready for it. Hopefully this will be the year where you will see my glowing rant praise for it, though.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

General RPGs' AMVs 12

Well, here we are again. You know the drill: if you watch and if you like, give the video a thumbs-up, and maybe even toss a positive comment up there. Let’s see what I’ve got today.


Final Fantasy 10: Invincible, by Armada:
The music used is a cover of Invincible, by Borgeous. The cover itself is done by Celani. Man, I hate dubstep, even its relatively less awful forms such as this song, but this AMV uses it damn well. The real draw of this AMV is just how well edited it is; Armada uses scene skips, slow downs, fast forwards, scene changes, and flashes perfectly to tie the video to the erratic pulse of the music. Beyond the technical aspects of connection, the feel of the game footage connects well with the emotion of the music, and the end result is a very strong and enjoyable AMV.

Final Fantasy 10: SINH, by Mordekhay:
The music used is Rain of Light, by Two Steps From Hell. A little different from the usual AMV, but this is just excellent. It’s slow, quiet, yet so incredibly powerful. I would go so far as to say that this is profound. All I can say is that I love it.


Jade Empire: Tribute, by Armaan Sandhu:
The music used is Idyll's End, Red Warrior, Ronin, and Taken, from The Last Samurai’s soundtrack. Clocking in at roughly 15 minutes, this is definitely the longest AMV I’ve exhibited in these rants. This music video isn’t perfect, and there are some moments which don’t seem to match up as well as they might to the music, but overall, this is an impressive work, telling the story of Jade Empire from start to finish to the compositions of the ever masterful Hans Zimmer. There are some moments in the video that don’t match up perfectly to the music, and it’s not a perfect telling of the game’s story--you wouldn’t understand it all if you didn’t already know the game--but it’s still solid and does the job well for any Jade Empire fan (who are really going to be the only people who watch it anyway). And frankly, any AMV that can manage to stay interesting, coherent, and skillful to any degree, let alone as well as this one does, during its entire 15 minute run, is definitely worth checking out.


Knights of the Old Republic 1 + 2: Star Wars of the Old Republic, by Fightwish:
The music used is Blow Me Away, by Breaking Benjamin. Not sure if that’s meant to actually be the title or whether it’s just titleless, but either way, it’s a rare treat to see a KotOR AMV, let alone one of quality. Good use of KotOR’s limited footage to go with the song’s lyrics and tone, combined with competent editing in general, make this a darned decent AMV. Maybe a little heavy on the battle footage, but it’s never so much that it’s tiresome, and everything else is generally very well done.


Mass Effect 2 + 3: In My Remains, by Aethe:
The music used is In My Remains, by Linkin Park. It really does say something about a game series when the vast majority of AMVs people make for it are meant as tributes, doesn’t it? This is another of the many I’ve shared here, and it does its job well, glorifying Commander Shepard, and reminding the audience of the greatness of the game and setting its tone well with music and video connecting as one entity. This is nothing new, really, but it’s still great.


Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and 4: Bad Persona, by...uh...刈割放送部員, I think?:
The music used is Bad Apple, by Alstroemeria Records (I think). This is rather neat. Fans of the Touhou series are probably familiar with the original Bad Apple video, which is an artsy, well-animated black-and-white animation using the silhouettes of many Touhou characters. It’s very creative and neat to watch, even if you don’t know anything about Touhou (as is the case for me). Here’s the original video, if you’re interested: The original spawned a few adaptations (I thought the MLPFiM Bad Harmony version was terrific), and Bad Persona is one of those adaptations. It’s not animated as smoothly as the original, but come on, let’s not expect more than is reasonable from fans working in their free time. There’s not much to say here about Bad Persona; it’s neat and interesting much as the original Bad Apple is neat and interesting, and it’s worth watching.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Series: Lucky Star OP Parody, by 2k11nichirin:
The music used is the opening theme for the anime Lucky Star. Huh, 2 Persona adaptations of another video style in the same rant...strange coincidence. This is an odd little video that basically takes the opening for the anime Lucky Star, and makes it about SMT Persona instead, using the Persona characters and settings instead of the Lucky Star bunch (it also, for some reason, uses Nemissa, who is from Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, not one of the SMT Persona games...and yes, I realize that pointing that out is entering dangerous territory). I’ve never watched Lucky Star so I don’t have a goddamn clue what all is supposed to be happening in this video (and honestly, the opening’s so fast and crazy that I have to wonder if people who HAVE watched the series really could have any better idea than I do), but regardless, this is an impressive bit of fan animation, and damn fun to watch.


Xenogears: Mechanical Emotions, by Jan Kusunagi:
The music used is Break Me Shake Me, by Savage Garden. Good Xenogears AMVs are hard to find (hell, it’s hard to find any Xenogears AMVs, period), so this is a pleasant surprise. Extremely effective editing with highly skillful use of visual techniques like overlays and scene flashes combine with scenes that match the song’s lyrics and tone well to make this a natural, intense AMV that brings the game and the song so well together that it’s almost like the two were made for one another.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Final Fantasy Mystic Quest as an Entry-Level RPG

Final Fantasy Mystic Quest: that infamous black mark on the Final Fantasy legacy, that really shouldn’t be so famous for being the black sheep of the franchise when Final Fantasy also encompasses equally bad titles like Final Fantasy 5 and 12, and even titles that are far worse, like Final Fantasy 8 or 10-2. Ugh, Final Fantasy 10-2. Even after all these years, just remembering it makes my brain start to dry heave. Brains aren’t even supposed to be able to do that, but mine’s trying pretty damn hard.

Anyway, FF Mystic Quest is widely viewed as pretty bad. But not everyone agrees. There are some people who argue that to judge Final Fantasy Mystic Quest poorly is to judge the game unfairly, for Final Fantasy Mystic Quest was not meant so much as a full-fledged RPG in its own right as it was meant to be an entry level game, something that newcomers to RPGs could play and use to get into the genre. It’s meant to be facile. Squaresoft made it with the idea that most of the American audience couldn’t handle the complexities of a regular RPG and needed to be eased into the genre rather than treated as equals to the primary gamer market of Japan. This line of reasoning is also why Square adjusted Final Fantasy 4 at the time (released as FF2, since the actual FF2 and 3 didn’t hit the US until many years later) to be generally simpler, with many battle commands, items, and even an entire version of the battle system removed in order to make the game far less mentally taxing for all us poor, stupid Americans who just couldn’t handle the complexity of a real JRPG.

Never mind, of course, the fact that the Japanese RPG’s origin is that it’s the hugely dumbed-down appropriation of the concept of tabletop RPGs, games which by and large are invented by and played by Americans.

Anyway, putting aside the irony of Square thinking it needed to simplify the genre for the audience that it adapted and dumbed down the genre from to begin with, this argument by FFMQ defenders is kinda bullshit. I mean, what they’re basically saying here is that we shouldn’t judge FFMQ harshly for being stupid because it was designed to be stupid out of the belief that the people playing it would be stupid. So I’m supposed to give the game a break because its entire design concept is an insult to my intelligence? Seriously?

But let’s put the insulting nature of FFMQ aside for a moment. Let’s pretend that the insult is not there, solely for the sake of argument. Should we be more accommodating to Mystic Quest’s simplicity? Should we change our expectations from an RPG if it’s specifically meant to be an entry-level RPG?

I generally try to keep a stern outlook when it comes to quality. I’m very leery of accepting inferior quality in an RPG just because of mitigating circumstances. I mean, circumstantial excuses or not, a bad game’s priced at the same general range as a good game. It may be that much of the reason that Final Fantasy 12 is a boring mess can be summed up by the phrase, “Too many cooks spoil the, it doesn’t help if you let the marketing department defecate in the pot,” but just because there’s a reason for the lack of quality, that doesn’t forgive it. I sure as hell didn’t pay any less for FF12 than I did many other Playstation 2 RPGs that WERE good games.

Still, I can understand that there are times when adjusting one’s expectations is a necessity to being fair. If an RPG comes from the early days of home consoles, I’m less demanding of its plot and cast simply because the idea of video games as a storytelling medium was still in its infancy. Given the time in which it was created, I quite respect the quality of Phantasy Star 1 as an RPG, because back in those days, a story and setting with some depth, and a halfway individualized cast, was an unexpected pushing of the envelope. If PS1 came out today, I would play it and think it was okay, but that would be all. It wouldn’t make much of an impression. Similarly, when I’m playing an RPG clearly made to be a humorous game more than anything else, I forgive a certain amount of nonsense and/or aimlessness, because the purpose is to make the audience laugh more than to convey any deeper message. As long as the game does that well enough, it doesn’t need to do too much more.*

But here’s the problem with softening your expectations for Final Fantasy Mystic Quest due to its status as an entry-level RPG: as an entry-level RPG, it’s still a shitty game.

What is an entry-level RPG supposed to do, exactly? What is this purpose it fulfills that we are meant to judge it more softly in exchange for? It’s supposed to ease a new audience into the RPG genre, get them to like the style of a Role Playing Game and entice them to buy more RPGs in the future. Well, guess what? They’re less likely to want to play more RPGs if the first one they experience bores them out of their minds!

You’re reading this blog, so I’m assuming you’re a fan of RPGs, yes? Well, what was the game that got you into the genre? Was it Chrono Trigger? Final Fantasy 4? Final Fantasy 6? Final Fantasy 7? One of the Fallouts? Dragon Age 1? One of the Kingdom Hearts series? A Phantasy Star title? Maybe it was something a little more obscure--but I’ll bet that it was enjoyable, right? You didn’t become a fan of the RPG genre based on your early experience with an RPG that you didn’t find entertaining.

I know which RPG it was for me that got me completely devoted to the genre. Chrono Trigger, all the way. I’d had some RPGs before it, like Secret of Mana and The Magic of Scheherazade, and I had enjoyed them well enough, but it was Chrono Trigger that completely drew me in with its engaging and wonderful plot, diverse and colorful characters, and terrific creativity. Also, not that it mattered to me, but Chrono Trigger is not a very difficult RPG, gameplay-wise. But that’s not because it was purposefully designed with the idea that the player was dropped as an infant, it’s just that the battle system its developers intended is easy to pick up on and work with.

That’s what makes for a good entry-level RPG: an engaging, fun game that makes you want to come back to the genre. Chrono Trigger showcased the great potential of the RPG, and seeing what good the genre was capable of through this example was what pushed me to sample more. And yes, it’s good if an entry RPG is simple enough that a newcomer can get the hang of it without struggling too much, but most RPGs just naturally are, anyway. But if you dumb down the plot just as much as you dumb down the gameplay, as FFMQ did, you’re just removing anything someone could enjoy from the damn game!

Hell, I actually did own Final Fantasy Mystic Quest before I owned Chrono Trigger, and I had no interest in it. It was easy enough to play, but by the point in the game where you meet Phoebe, I just got too bored of it to continue. I put it away and only bothered to finish the game years later, long after I was on my way to being an RPG fanatic. When I say that Final Fantasy Mystic Quest isn’t even a good entry-level RPG, that isn’t conjecture--I’m a bonafide test case to prove it! If FFMQ had been the only chance the genre had of courting my interests, “The RPGenius” would never have come into being, this rant blog would never have existed, and we’d all be doing something far more productive right now!

Simplicity is less important than just being an entertaining, enjoyable game when you’re trying to hook someone into becoming a regular customer. You have to actually impress them, show your prospective audience the highlights of your product. Think of it this way. Let’s say that you’re taking your friend out to a new restaurant that serves exotic cuisine, with the intent of getting this amigo of yours into this food style. In order to accomplish this, what do you suggest they order? Obviously, you suggest items that you know taste good and exemplify some of the signatures of this style of cuisine. You’re trying to show the unique traits of the food, in a way that’s pleasing and makes your friend want to try more later.

Well, according to Final Fantasy Mystic Quest and people who defend it as an adequate entry-level RPG, that’s doing it wrong. The right way is to order your friend the menu items that are the easiest to chew. In fact, ideally, you’d just skip the eating process altogether by sticking a needle in your friend and feeding him/her intravenously. Because the important thing in hooking a new audience isn’t that you show them that they can enjoy a sample of your product--it’s that it be as simple and mundane as possible so that it does not challenge them in any way.

So that’s why when I say Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is a lousy RPG, I mean it. Being boring, generic, facile, and entirely unengaging are not traits excused by a game being an entry-level RPG; they’re actually more damning because of it!

* It does bear mentioning, though, that a humor RPG may not HAVE to contain any deep story or meaning to be good, but there is absolutely nothing preventing it from possessing those elements. I may find Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden to be a hilarious, fun game and would heartily recommend it, but the comical Okage: Shadow King is easily a superior RPG. Why? Because while Okage: Shadow King keeps you laughing nearly as well as Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden does, it’s OSK that hides within its chuckles a sincere and inspirational story of the need for independence from parental god figures and of the worth and power of individuality. Similarly, Earthbound and Mother 3 both employ the exact same wacky, off-beat style to amuse, but it’s Mother 3 that uses that style as a way to ease you through, and yet at the same time enhance the pain of, a very emotional and difficult story of loss, deep loss of both personal and conceptual things, and so I believe Mother 3 is by far the greater RPG.

It’s like cartoons, really. You can slap together something animated for kids and have it be passable, but as Batman: The Animated Series, Gargoyles, Hey! Arnold, Avatar: The Last Airbender, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, The Legend of Korra, and several other shows prove, something that is appropriate for children does not have to be something that an adult audience can’t find value and enjoyment in. Being aimed at a young audience never stopped these cartoons I've mentioned from being quality entertainment, works of storytelling art that easily equal and surpass the huge majority of shows specifically targeted to adults.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

General RPGs' Party Member Gender Ratios

Guys, we seriously need to change up how RPGs (and most other game genres (and most other forms of storytelling)) handle gender ratios. It is bad. I mean, it is bad.

Let’s do a little counting. I’m going to list every RPG I’ve played by whether it has more female characters than male, more male than female, or has an even split. Beforehand, though, a couple ground rules. Mascots, party advisors, and other noncombatants who are a major part of the party and contribute to party relationships count. For example, in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and 4, the characters of Fuuka and Rise don’t actually participate in battle, but they do act as battle advisors to the party, and are inarguably as important to the party dynamic, in terms of story progression, plot relevance, and character interrelationships, as any of the actually controllable party members, so they count. Likewise, Fatima from Anachonox, Midna from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, and Henpecked Hou from Jade Empire are all characters that count, because they travel with the rest of the major characters and contribute to the plot and the characters’ discussions as a peer for a substantial part of the game, enough that you can’t really say that they’re not party members.

For sake of ease, animals are counted (most RPG animals are sentient, speech-capable individuals anyway, so, like I said in my old rant about them, they’re essentially just human characters for all intents and purposes anyway). Final Fantasy 7’s Red XIII counts as a male party member, Poshul from Chrono Cross counts as a female party member, etc. Similarly, robots and other technically non-gendered beings are counted if they’re referenced to and regarded as being part of a certain gender. So, Robo in Chrono Trigger counts as a male even if he’s not technically anything, while Tio from Grandia 2 and KOS-MOS of the Xenosaga games count as female characters, even if, again, they’re technically not anything. Robots will only not be counted if they’re specifically referred to in a non-gendered way (which pretty much never happens in RPGs).

Transgendered and crossdressing characters would have rules if there were any situations that really required them, but sadly, they’re basically non-entities in RPGs. I mean, they don’t not exist at all, but usually just some common sense will do the trick. Reyna from Eternal Poison, for example, spends the entire game dressed as a woman when he’s a man, but there’s a plot-related reason for this that has nothing to do with what gender Reyna identifies as. It’s just a disguise, and he clearly considers himself a man. Similarly, Faris in Final Fantasy 5 may crossdress as a man and even have lived as a man for the majority of her life, but that’s presented in a way that could easily be taken as another case of disguise more than anything else, and once she’s moved past the point where she needs to maintain that disguise, she doesn’t seem to have any doubt about being identified as a woman. And so on--there aren’t really any significant cases of transgendered individuals and crossdressers that I've encountered, at least not as party members, so there’s no particular rule to mention regarding their presence in this tally.

Lastly, faceless grunts don’t count either way. There are plenty of Einherjar to gather in Valkyrie Profile 2, but since they have no bearing on the story at all and don’t interact with the plot-relevant characters or anything like that, they don’t count. The same goes for the nameless troopers of The Magic of Scheherazade that you can hire, most demons in Shin Megami Tensei games (but story-relevant ones that specially join your party, like Cerberus in SMT1, do count), all Pokemon, random recruits in Final Fantasy Tactics, and so on.

Okay, so first of all, I’m going to list every RPG I’ve played where there have been more female party members than males.

Games With More Female Party Members: Breath of Fire 5; Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia; Disgaea 2; Dragon Quest 9; Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle; Final Fantasy 5; Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon; Grandia 3; Hero’s Saga: Laevatein Tactics; Izuna 1; Izuna 2; Lunar 2; Lunar: Dragon Song; Magic Knight Rayearth RPG; Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch; Monstania; My World, My Way; Parasite Eve 1; Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure; Riviera: The Promised Land; Sailor Moon: Another Story; Sakura Wars 5; Seiken Densetsu 3; Solatorobo: Red the Hunter; Tenchi Muyo RPG

Alright, so that’s 27 RPGs that I’ve played where there have been more female party members than males. Well that’s pretty good, right? 27? Decent number right there, yeah? Sure! So, how many RPGs have I played that star an equal number of males and females?

Games With An Even Split: Arc the Lad 4; Atelier Iris 1; Avalon Code; Baten Kaitos 1; Baten Kaitos 2; Breath of Fire 4; Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin; Children of Mana; Dark Cloud 2; Defender’s Quest 1; Deus Ex 2; Dust: An Elysian Tail; Evoland; Evolution: Worlds; Final Fantasy 8; Final Fantasy 12; Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles 1; Grandia 1; Heroes of Annihilated Empires; Icewind Dale 1; Icewind Dale 2; Legend of Grimrock 1; Legend of Mana; The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask; The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time; The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks; The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess; Lufia 1; Mana Khemia; Paper Mario 2; Phantasy Star 2; Phantom Brave; Pokemon Generation 2; Pokemon Generation 3; Pokemon Generation 4; Pokemon Generation 5; Pokemon Generation 5-2; Risen 1; The Secret of Mana; Shadowrun Returns; Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers; Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4; Star Ocean 3; Tales of Legendia; Threads of Fate; Torchlight 1; Valkyrie Profile 2; Wild Arms 2; Wild Arms 4; Wild Arms 5; Xenosaga 1

51! Well, that’s a darned good number! Always happy to see a game with equality, or 51 of them. Well, gosh, 27 female-dominated RPGs and 51 evenly split ones, maybe I was getting worked up over noth--

Games With More Male Party Members: The 7th Saga; Alundra 1; Alundra 2; Anachronox; Arc the Lad 1; Arc the Lad 2; Arc the Lad 3; Arc the Lad 5; Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura; Away: Shuffle Dungeon; Bahamut Lagoon; Baldur's Gate 1; Baldur’s Gate 2; Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden; Baroque; Bastion; Betrayal at Krondor; Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled; Boktai 1; Borderlands 1; Breath of Fire 1; Breath of Fire 2; Breath of Fire 3; Castlevania: Lament of Innocence; Castlevania: Symphony of the Night; Chrono Cross; Chrono Trigger; Crimson Shroud; Crystalis; Dark Cloud 1; Deus Ex 1; Disgaea 1; Divinity 1; Dragon Age 1; Dragon Age 2; Dragon Ball Z: Legend of the Super Saiyan; Dragon Quest 4; Dragon Quest 5; Dragon Quest 6; Dragon Quest 8; Earthbound; Eternal Poison; Fallout 1; Fallout 2; Fallout 3; Fallout New Vegas; Final Fantasy 3; Final Fantasy 4; Final Fantasy 6; Final Fantasy 7; Final Fantasy 9; Final Fantasy 10; Final Fantasy 12: Revenant Wings; Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates; Final Fantasy Mystic Quest; Final Fantasy Tactics; Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 1; Fire Emblem 1; Fire Emblem 4; Fire Emblem 7; Fire Emblem 9; Geneforge 1; Geneforge 2; Glory of Heracles 5; Golden Sun 1; Golden Sun 2; Golden Sun 3; Gothic 1; Grandia 2; Hoshigami Remix: Ruining Blue Earth; Illusion of Gaia; Infinite Space; Jade Empire; Kingdom Hearts 1; Kingdom Hearts 2; Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories; Knights of the Old Republic 1; Knights of the Old Republic 2; La Pucelle Tactics; Lagoon; The Last Story; Legaia 1; Legaia 2; The Legend of Dragoon; The Legend of Zelda 1; The Legend of Zelda 2; The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds; The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past; The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening; The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass; The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword; The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker; Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader; Live A Live; Lords of Xulima; Lufia 2; Lunar 1; The Magic of Scheherazade; Magical Starsign; Makai Kingdom; Mario and Luigi 1; Mario and Luigi 2; Mario and Luigi 3; Mass Effect 1; Mass Effect 2; Mass Effect 3; Mega Man Star Force 1; Mega Man Star Force 2; Mother 3; Nox; Okage: Shadow King; Orcs + Elves; Phantasy Star 1; Phantasy Star 4; Phantasy Star Universe; Planescape: Torment; Pokemon Generation 1; Quest 64; Radiant Historia; Return to Krondor; Robocalypse; Robotrek; Rogue Galaxy; Romancing Saga 1; Rune Factory 1; The Secret of Evermore; Shadow Hearts 1; Shadow Hearts 2; Shadow Hearts 3; Shadowrun: Dragonfall; Shadowrun Genesis; Shadowrun SNES; Shin Megami Tensei 1; Shin Megami Tensei 2; Shin Megami Tensei 3; Shin Megami Tensei 4; Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 1; Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 2; Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 1; Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2; Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1; Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2; Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3; Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey; Shining Force 1; Shining Force 2; Shining Force EXA; Silver; Skies of Arcadia; Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood; Soulblazer; Star Ocean 1; Star Ocean 2; Startropics 1; Startropics 2; Suikoden 1; Suikoden 2; Suikoden 3; Suikoden 4; Suikoden 5; Suikoden Tactics; Suikoden Tierkreis; Super Mario RPG; Tales of Destiny 1; Tales of Phantasia; Tales of Symphonia 1; Tales of the Abyss; Terranigma; Treasure of the Rudras; Valkyrie Profile 1; Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume; Vandal Hearts 1; Vandal Hearts 2; Weapon Shop de Omasse; Wild Arms 1; Wild Arms 3; The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road; The Witcher 1; The Witcher 2; The World Ends with You; Xenogears; Xenosaga 2; Xenosaga 3; Xenosaga: Pied Piper


Okay, so that’s...that’s 185. That’s almost 7 times more than the count of RPGs with more female members than male. Hell, it’s 3 times more than the female-dominant RPGs and the equal split RPGs put together!

Jeez. That’s just asinine. 185 to 27. The ratio of people by gender on Earth is split almost exactly evenly at 101 Males to every 100 Females, and that’s just going by the whole of Earth--if we break it down more finely, you see that most of the modern, developed countries have a larger female population than male. The countries that actually make RPGs are almost all populated with more women than men, such as the United States, Canada, every significant European nation, and Australia (country, continent, it’s both), and even Japan is an even split. Yet if you were to take a guess at what a natural gender ratio is by going on RPGs, you’d think that men outnumber women 6.8 to 1. Again, for emphasis, actual gender ratio of a global population: 1.01 Males to 1 Female. Gender ratio going by RPG major character populations: 6.8 Males to 1 Female.*

And even that’s before the extenuating circumstances. For example, should we really even count RPGs based on outside media that just lift their casts from the original? Yeah, Sailor Moon: Another Story has a completely female cast, but it’s not like that was the idea of the game developers; they’re working with the cast already determined by the source material. Taking that into consideration, we must remove Dragon Ball Z: Legend of the Super Saiyan, the Magic Knight Rayearth RPG, Sailor Moon: Another Story, the Tenchi Muyo RPG, and The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road.** That takes 2 games out of the male-dominated list, and 3 out of the female-dominated list, making it 183 to 24. And that jumps our ratio of RPG populations up to 7.6 Male to 1 Female. Things just get better and better.

Look, I don’t want to go too far into the whole gender inequality in video games thing here. Because video games, even the more intelligent genre of RPGs, are seriously ass-backwards in their usage and portrayal of females, so much that there’s no way one rant is going to cover everything that needs to be turned around and corrected in the medium as far as its treatment and perspective of gender. Maybe it’s not as bad with video games as it is with mainstream comic books,*** but it’s bad. There are plenty more avenues to explore on this issue (the number of male-led teams in female-dominant games compared to female-led teams in male-dominant games, for example, is fairly condemning). But I’m just going to keep it basic today.

And that means simply pointing out that there is a huuuuuuuuge gap in gender representation in RPGs. Way, way more than there can be reasonable cause for. I realize that, despite the grossly underestimated female gamer market, video games have a primarily male audience, but that forgives only a small discrepancy in gender representation. It does not forgive a ratio of 6.8 to 1, or anywhere near that!****

Women are half the population, developers. It’s time to wake up and accept that fact. We need more games with an equal number of male and female party members, and we need a lot more games with more female party members than male ones, just to balance out the last 30 years. Video games are one of the newest, most modern medium of artistic expression to date--maybe they should look the part, yeah?

* And this is actually worse than I’m making it out to be. I’m not actually counting each and every party member in all these games in this ratio, but instead just going by a count of which games have more of one gender or the other. But as a general rule, games with more male party members have, on average, a greater disparity in favor of the males than games with more female party members do in favor of females. What I mean is, your average male-dominated RPG is like Final Fantasy 7, in which 6 party members are male (Cloud, Barret, Cid, Red XIII, Cait Sith, and Vincent) and 3 are female (Tifa, Aeris, and Yuffie), while your average female-dominated RPG is more like Final Fantasy 5, in which the the ratio is close to even (3 females and 2 males). If I were to sit down and tabulate all the party members out, a project I’m not willing to sink the time and effort into, I’m dead certain that the male to female ratio would be even higher than 6.8 to 1.

** The Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario RPGs don’t count toward this because they have a larger source cast to pick and choose from, and more freedom to create original game characters to add to those casts (like Mallow and Geno in Super Mario RPG, and Shade from Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood).

*** I really cannot say enough detrimental things about the people who make decisions at DC and Marvel; as a whole they are truly mindless scum firmly lodged in an anachronistic masturbatory mentality that combines every shortsighted and reality-inaccurate vice to be found in spoiled 7-year-olds, chauvinistic horny frat boys, amoral marketing departments from the 1960s, and a cheerful recruitment pamphlet for the Ku Klux Klan.

**** And frankly, I don’t even know why people assume a male player must want to see male characters more than female ones, anyway. Do game developers think we’re all a bunch of xenophobic first graders whose mortal terror of cooties factors heavily into our buying decisions? A halfway intelligent man like myself has no more difficulty relating to and deeply connecting with a female character than with a male one, and a knuckle-dragging moron who hoots in dull-witted approval at T and A sure as hell isn’t going to say no to seeing more females, either. Unless we have a sudden, bizarre population boom of knuckle-dragging morons who just want eye-candy and are gay, I don’t see how putting more women in games could possibly harm your marketability to male gamers.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Threads of Fate's Imbalanced Storytelling

One of the distinguishing features of Threads of Fate is its 2-protagonist story approach. Not in the way that Final Fantasy 6 has 2 protagonists, mind; Threads of Fate handles it a different way. By that I mean that the game has 2 possible protagonists, Rue and Mint, and you choose which one to play as at the beginning of the game. The game’s plot and your perspective on that plot are then shaped by that choice. You still start at essentially the same Point A, and you still end the game’s journey at the same Point Z, but only some of the points along the way are the same. Hard to explain, but I hope you get the gist of it. This wasn’t the first RPG to try something like this. Star Ocean 2, which had come out the year before, had 2 protagonists to choose from at the start of the game, and Seiken Densetsu 3 and The 7th Saga on the SNES had a handful of protagonists to choose from. Nonetheless, this system of Threads of Fate stood out pretty well. Star Ocean 2 and The 7th Saga were virtually identical no matter which protagonist you actually chose, and Seiken Densetsu 3...well, its plot and story perspective did significantly change depending on your chosen protagonist, but one way or another, it was just a pretty generic story that featured characters that were pretty forgettable, while Threads of Fate’s got a really good story with a fun and engaging cast. So ToF is still kind of remembered as a pioneer with this idea, even if it’s not the first to try it.

Overall, Threads of Fate does this well. But there is 1 thing about it that kind of disappoints me: the 2-protagonist story approach is imbalanced. The general promise made by ToF is that both protagonists are meant to be equals in the eyes of the story, neither more or less right for the role, nor more or less important to the plot. While Rue and Mint are not similar people (not by a long, looooooong shot) and go about their quests differently, the general premise of the game is clearly supposed to be that either can be the hero with equal qualification. It’s a neat idea--but it doesn’t pan out in the end. In the end, Threads of Fate is Rue’s story, not Mint’s.

There are several points in the game that lead me to this conclusion. First of all, the game’s central themes, those of the role of destiny and of choice, are much better utilized and reflected upon in Rue’s story of discarding his intended purpose to create a new one, and of defying fate by trying to resurrect Claire (or you could interpret it as him seeing her death as something that was against destiny to start with). While Mint’s story is related to her having lost her destined role as a ruler and seeking to take it back, and thus does have ties to the whole thematic role-of-destiny-and-choice thing that ToF is going for, it’s apparent that Rue’s version of the game is by far the more in tune with the game’s deeper ideas and message.

Rue also gets better character development and exploration. Now, don’t get me wrong here. Let me make something clear:




She is hilarious. She is fun. She is charmingly clever and lovably stupid at the same time. She is unique. She is one of those rare, rare examples of a character type that I normally can’t stand (selfish, obnoxious brat who thinks everyone should bow before her) being made awesome by a character who knows how to play that normally unappealing character type up in the best possible way. Like Pinkie Pie in My Little Pony--hyperactive, bubbly, high-pitched girly-girl types usually annoy the hell out of me, but Pinkie Pie is just funny enough, just random enough, just clever enough, and just complex and noble enough that it works out to my liking her. That’s how it is with Mint--despite being a character type only a few steps away from Earthbound’s ultra-obnoxious Porky, Mint is a consistently enjoyable experience from beginning to end.*

With all that said, though, as a character, Mint cannot compete with Rue. It’s not that Mint has no character depth or development at all--it’s subtle, but it’s definitely there. But Rue is clearly the better character. He has greater and more worthwhile issues to work through, his development is clear and written well, and he’s a more heroic figure as a whole. Mint’s not a bad character and the humor attached to her does count for something, but there’s no contest between who’s a better character and a better hero.

Rue is also more significantly connected to the plot. While he and Mint are both out to obtain the same powerful relic, the Dewprism, to grant a wish, it’s Rue who has the substantial ties to the plot along the way. Rue’s past relates to the ultimate foe of the game and the sought-after relic itself, and the major antagonist of the story, Doll Master, is connected to Rue and Rue’s purpose--both his purposes, in fact, past (the Dewprism stuff) and his present (saving Claire, as Doll Master is the guy who killed her). It’s not that Mint has no connection to the major story and characters or anything, but the biggest actors on this stage, the ones who set the major events in motion and who provide the major opposition that the heroes must overcome, are tied to Rue.

Also, there’s the plain, simple mathematics of the game’s conclusion. If you play through Rue’s side of the game, at the end, Claire is saved. Rue set out to find the Dewprism to grant his wish of rescuing Claire, and though things weren’t quite that easy or straightforward, in the end Rue gets what he wanted and needed. Sadly for Mint, she doesn’t get her wish to gain the power to take over the world, but we wouldn’t exactly expect Mint’s wish to be fulfilled in Rue’s story. But if you play through the game as Mint...she still doesn’t get her wish! At the end of the game, Mint has not acquired the power necessary to rule the world. And what’s more, Rue doesn’t get to have Claire back, either! Just do the arithmetic: in Rue’s story, 1 of 2 people get what they wanted. In Mint’s story, 0 of those 2 people do. Yeah, Mint does, at the end of her version of the game’s story, have a reconciliation of sorts with her sister Maya and can go back home, and you could argue that in the end that’s what she needed more, but it’s still not what she was out for, and there’s no indication at the end of the game that her ultimate ambitions have been sated. She’s still left wanting. The family reconciliation angle is more like a bonus for her than an actual prize, just as Rue’s stronger sense of identity and peace with himself at the end of his story is a bonus for him, while the actual prize is Claire. So it’s uneven.

Even in terms of story canon, the game seems to outright favor Rue’s story by the end. Once you’ve played the game through with both characters, you unlock a final, secret scene, wherein Rue and Claire are living together in solitude, and Mint shows up to drag Rue off on another relic search so that she can get that world-conquering power she’s been hankering for. The living presence of Claire there is a clear indicator of 1 of 2 possibilities. Either the game is outright saying that the true, canon course of the game’s events was Rue’s journey, or the game’s saying that the true, canon course of the game’s events was some combination of Mint and Rue’s journeys, and Claire’s resurrection was 1 of the events of Rue’s side that did occur. The latter possibility is definitely more along the lines of a theory than an interpretation that you can really back up, though, so I’m going to say that, unless somehow proven wrong in the future, this scene is an indicator that it was Rue’s story that truly did occur, not Mint’s.

And hey, if I have to choose between whose personal dream is the more worthwhile, I’ll certainly choose Rue’s. I’m glad Claire is alive, and I would be, honestly, very put out if everything had worked out the opposite way, with Mint getting her wish and Claire being lost forever. Mint just selfishly wants to conquer the world; Rue’s wish is to save the life of someone dear, who perished unfairly and courageously in the defense of someone she cared about. Rue’s wish just plain means more, and I’m glad that he has a chance to see it fulfilled.

My point is just that the protagonist imbalance is there, and the stories of Rue and Mint are not equal. Knowing the full story of the game, there are times during Mint’s quest that kind of feel like she’s intruding on someone else’s personal tale (which is, I guess, actually the exact sort of thing Mint would do). And it’s not a big problem, because the game through Mint’s eyes is terrifically fun and amusing, and the game through Rue’s eyes is well-written and meaningful (and still has a good dose of Mint craziness). I just think it’s kind of a shame that it wasn’t a more balanced story between the 2 protagonists, the way it was set up to be. I’m glad Rue got his wish and found himself along the way, but it would be nice for Mint to get her due, too, yeah?

Well, hopefully some day we’ll get a sequel to ToF, and that game will be focused primarily on Mint, as the first was on Rue. Hey, it may not seem likely, but this is an age where 20-year-old anime like Trigun gets a new movie, 30-year-old anime like Mysterious Cities of Gold gets continued out of the blue, and My Little Pony gets rebooted into one of the best cartoons ever made. Clearly stranger things have happened when it comes to sequels, continuations, and reboots. But until that happy day, Threads of Fate is Rue’s tale, regardless of his sharing the cover with Mint.

* Actually, what she really reminds me of is Princess Elise from My World, My Way, only about 6x better.