Monday, November 11, 2019


The new rant, updated on every 8th, 18th, and 28th of the month, is right below this post. Enjoy! But before you do, I have a quick announcement...

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Bravely Default's Language

Before we begin today, I'd like to just put a Kickstarter RPG I've found on your radar, in case you, like myself, find the idea amusing enough to back: I Have Low Stats, But My Class is Leader, so I Recruited Everyone I Know to Fight the Dark Lord. Looks promising as a comical RPG, and it's got a lower-than-average pledge level at which you get the game for free when it's finished. Check it out; it might be neat!

And now, on with the rant.

There’s a lot to really like about Bravely Default. Appealing main characters with depth,* an interesting plot, an awesome conclusion, a really good supporting cast, a great villain, the fact that this game manages to pretty much be the most perfect and excellent example of a classic Final Fantasy, a good balance of levity and’s just a great RPG, no 2 ways about it, a pleasant experience that really reminds you of everything you love about the JRPG style. And I do, indeed, really like all of those aspects to this game. And so do many others: as much as a JRPG reasonably can be, Bravely Default was a big hit, and many have extolled its virtues quite eloquently before me. But there is 1 additional characteristic of this title that I’m pleased with, which I have not seen lauded by its fans: the language of BD’s dialogue. And that’s a shame, because I think it’s worth crediting the writers and translators of the game for their use of vocabulary with it.

As a general rule, I’ve found that the RPG genre is a decent one for varied and interesting word use. This is, I suppose, quite natural for an entertainment medium whose greatest focus is on its storytelling elements. It’s also quite natural for an entertainment medium whose titles seem by and large to be nonsensical jumbles of any and all fanciful and archaic buzzwords the writers could think of.** Some games are better than others in this regard, of course--you’re much more likely to learn some fancy new words and phrases from Planescape: Torment and Torment: Tides of Numenera than you are from, say, Lagoon, or Zenonia 1--but you’d probably be surprised how often even the seemingly less intellectual works of the genre can teach the player a new word or 2. A decent chunk of my own vocabulary comes from my long history of playing RPGs, and my learning of my language through the genre is still ongoing. I wouldn’t have known of the existence of the word ‘dunamis,’ let alone its meaning, without having played Infinite Dunamis a mere 2 years ago. And that’s a Kemco game, for Hyperion’s sake!

Still, Bravely Default really goes several steps beyond what you might expect of its genre. The game quite frequently makes use of all kinds of older, less common words in the English language, and really cool ones, at that, such as ‘fain’ and ‘malefic,’ among many others. It’s not like with most other RPGs, where you might, every now and then, discover a cool word or 2 you haven’t come across before in the course of the whole game--in BD, it’s common enough to come across several older, eloquent terms you’re unfamiliar with within the same conversation! And not only that, but you also get frequent occurrences of common, familiar words being used in older, less typical ways, such as the use of ‘ransom’ as a verb synonymous with ‘liberate.’

As a prospective English teacher, this is something I already approve of, but what really makes the use of all this olde language great is how easily it’s used. See, it’s easy as a reader to see new words and phrases and stumble over them due to your lack of knowledge of their meaning. Hell, it’s easy as a writer to use less common vocabulary in a way that’s halting or stiff--even when you know its definition, if you’re trying too hard to use a particular word for its flair, you can wind up making your sentence too focused upon that single term, which makes it all the more jarring to a reader who doesn’t have an instant knowledge of its meaning.

Bravely Default doesn’t have this problem. To me, at least, it uses all of its vocabulary fluidly, organically, and obviously. Each word, even if unfamiliar, is used easily by the writers, as a natural part of the sentiments being expressed, and in such a way that the meanings are easy to intuit from the context and the tone. To be able to regularly use archaic and very specific vocabulary in a fluent and flowing enough way that it never becomes a stumbling block to the audience is very impressive!

Bravely Default’s writers deserve a great deal of praise for just how good and enjoyable an RPG they crafted, and most of that praise comes from greater strengths of the game than just its use of language. Nonetheless, even if it’s a comparatively minor virtue, I also think it’s worthwhile to applaud the writers and translators for their consistent use of interesting, older, uncommon vocabulary to help create the atmosphere of their world, and also to applaud them for just how skillfully easy and natural that vocabulary’s use is for the player to read and hear. Well done, Silicon Studio!

* Well, 3 out of 4 of them, at least. Tiz never quite gains a more nuanced personality than one might find in any given lump of mud. Still, that is, sadly, the standard of RPGs.

** I would be highly surprised if the guy who titled Final Fantasy 12: Revenant Wings actually had a firm grasp on the definition of the word ‘revenant.’ I would be even more surprised if, in the unlikely scenario where he did, he could provide a compelling explanation for the title as a whole.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

General RPG Lists: Greatest Time Travel RPGs

Ahh, time travel. What an interesting concept; it seems to me that there is an almost limitless potential for thoughtful and exciting stories involving its use, if you’re creative enough to utilize it well. You can use it conventionally and come up with cool stories, like the Days of Future Past arc of X-Men comics/cartoons, and you can use it unconventionally and come up with amusing movies, like Groundhog Day. You can build a whole awesome show around it, like Doctor Who, or just employ it tactically to create awesome individual episodes of your show, like Yesterday’s Enterprise from Star Trek: The Next Generation. You can found your story upon it as your opening move, like Futurama (Fry’s 1000 year jump is essentially the same thing), or as your closing move, like Shadow Hearts 2. It’s a very versatile narrative tool, if you know how to handle it.

RPGs seem to me to have a special fondness for time travel. It pops up quite often within the genre, more often, I think, than it does in most other artistic mediums. Not always to great success, mind you--sometimes it’s silly and makes no sense (Final Fantasy 8, Robotrek, some occasions in Energy Breaker), sometimes it really didn’t even have any need to be there in the first place (Tales of Phantasia, Star Ocean 1, Sailor Moon: Another Story), and sometimes it even just outright contradicts the style and direction of the game (Valkyrie Profile 2, Final Fantasy 9, Dark Cloud 2). Nonetheless, it’s a frequently employed staple of the genre, utilized in ways both grandiose (the whole story of AeternoBlade revolves around it) and tiny (Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure uses time travel only for its Protagonist to briefly witness a day of her past as an adult).

Hell, the very first RPG I played from start to finish was all about time travel--hopping from present to past and future through hidden portals, utilizing the forces of causality and forming alliances with colorful characters of times long ago and long from now, who conquer their foes by using combination techniques, all to save the world from a dark, alien monster that threatened it. Good times.

Then a few years after I played The Magic of Scheherazade, I played Chrono Trigger. I liked that one, too.

So, with time travel being such a familiar face to RPGs, not to mention a staple of both my very first RPG, and also my very favorite RPG, I figure, why not take a look at the genre and rank the ones that use the concept the very best? So today, for your future purchase decisions, I present to you the time travel RPGs just too good to look past.

5. The Magic of Scheherazade

Ahh, The Magic of Scheherazade. Possibly the first RPG to use time travel, it also remains 1 of the best, taking you through a grand quest to save the world and rescue your beloved that requires you to journey through the past, present, and future to accumulate the allies and artifacts you’ll need. Yes, it may be a very straightforward use of time travel, but it’s done well, it uses temporal manipulation tropes competently (as expected, several times the key to overcoming an obstacle is to take an action in the past that will have ramifications later in the present, and such), and it does have a few moments that are rather interesting/inventive with it. There is, for example, a moment in the game in which you have to go so far back in time that the world is still brand new, because the demon you have to defeat is so incredibly powerful that you only stand a chance of killing him when he’s just been born (and even then, it’s a tough fight). Years before Scott Evil wondered why his father didn’t use the ability to time travel to take out Austin Powers while the guy was taking a dump, Magic of Scheherazade was using the advantages of cherry-picking moments in a timeline from which to launch an attack. So yeah, TMoS is a solid, fun time travel RPG.

4. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

What a cool premise this game has: Link has to stop the end of the world in 3 days, but there’s no possible way he can do so organically. He has neither the tools nor the allies necessary for it, and 3 days is simply not enough time to acquire it all. So, he must continue to play a song that sends him back to the beginning of the 3 days, over and over, gathering all he needs over the course of countless resets. It’s a darned good premise for a Zelda game, and it’s actually kind of crazy that Nintendo also used the whole mask premise in this game, as well, as I daresay you could get more than enough material out of the time travel alone (or the masks alone, for that matter) for a workable game theme.

What I really like about how TLoZMM handles time travel is how complex and well-navigated the repeating 3 days of Termina are, in terms of the residents of the land. Every NPC in this game has a path they follow over the course of the 3 days, which you can observe, and most of them have dilemmas which you can assist them with. It means that for every hour of the game’s 72, there are dozens of plots at work, dozens of stories waiting to be engaged in, all coinciding independently within the same land, each needing a hero’s assistance to resolve...and by using time travel, Link can be there for each and every 1 of them, a hero in a dozen different instances at once. Combine that with the overall premise of the game, and you have a really nifty and creative time travel RPG.

3. AeternoBlade

AeternoBlade has probably the most creative use of time travel that I’ve seen in an RPG, both in terms of its use in the story, and in terms of its use as a function of gameplay. I’ll admit, I’ve never played Prince of Persia or Braid, which are both famous for time puzzles, so maybe AeternoBlade’s gameplay features are old hat, but even if the game’s puzzles aren’t as new to the world as they were to me when I played it, it’s still cool the way the game uses localized, personal time travel to make the protagonist, Freyja, 1 of the most powerful RPG characters of all time.

More importantly, though, AeternoBlade has a well-crafted and interesting plot that warns against immersing oneself in vengeance, through a rather creative use of a time loop--although perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a time spiral--and a villain forged through self-manipulated causality. There’s a lot of creative little uses of time manipulation sprinkled throughout the game beyond the major plot flow, too, like the idea that a villain is conventionally unbeatable because he can manipulate his own timeline to erase the moment at which he was harmed (admittedly, Radiant Historia did this first, but it's still something you don't see very often, and AeternoBlade puts more focus on it). Singularly creative, you don’t get many better time travel games than AeternoBlade.

2. Chrono Trigger

Well, what is there to say, really? Chrono Trigger is fun, engaging, smooth, natural, and inventive with its use of time travel, and I think it’s fair to say that, much as the game is a cornerstone of the entire genre, CT is a foundation against which other time travel RPGs are measured.

Chrono Trigger knew how to keep time travel a fresh and interesting aspect of its story from start to finish, somehow knew how to make it an integral element of all the game’s events without overplaying it as a plot device, and knew how to use it to create a diverse and interesting cast without going too far into the oddity factor.* Time travel in Chrono Trigger wasn’t just a simple way of overcoming plot obstacles--each trip to a location in the past or future that you weren’t familiar with was a whole new adventure, a unique period of CT’s history that had its own atmosphere and story. It wasn’t like in some other games like Star Ocean 1 or Tales of Phantasia, where time travel basically means just going from one medieval fantasy setting to another very slightly more medieval fantasy setting--the eras of Chrono Trigger all had their own personalities, presenting unique new situations and challenges. By the end of this game, you feel like you know the world of Chrono Trigger as intimately as you do any of the game’s main characters, for that world has been richly developed through the history you witness.

As I mentioned in my general rant on Chrono Trigger, I also quite like that there’s a perpetual air of intrigue and mystery about the time travel in this game. In every other RPG, the source of the game’s time travel is clearly defined, be it by magic or technology, whereas Chrono Trigger retains an air of ambiguous mystique to it, while never coming off as careless. I like how I put it in that rant, so I’ll just copy-paste it here: “the game’s handling of time travel is somewhat unique as it’s hard to determine where it’s grounded--science, magic, or the spiritual? Machines like the Gate Key and the Epoch are used to open the holes in time, making it science fiction, and yet, the time gates seem to be a result of incredibly powerful magics having reactions so powerful that time’s fabric is torn, as shown by the first gate appearing from a reaction to the magic pendant, or Lavos’s powerful presence causing the one at Magus’s summoning ceremony. And yet! There is a deliberate sprinkling of the spiritual in there, as well--the CT party theorizes one evening that the true origin of these time portals comes from a regretful deity-like Entity, looking back in sorrow at the world’s history, and through its regret causing the time gates that allow for history to be changed for the better. Sounds like hogwash, I suppose, but then the theory is born out to a certain extent by the inexplicable, single-use gate that takes Lucca back to the moment of her life she regrets the most, giving her an opportunity to put it right--time travel by sheer will of the spirit, it seems, or perhaps the mercy of this Entity, which is still spiritual. And the time freeze performed to save Crono, arguably the most important act of time-warping in the entire game, seems as rooted in spirit (requiring the intense desire of his friends to return him to life) as it is in magic (requiring a magically-created clone) or science (the Chrono Trigger device itself). Chrono Trigger has a level of ambiguity to its time travel’s basis, which is fairly unique, and quite interesting.”

I can go on and on (obviously), but I think I’ve said and re-said enough at this point. Chrono Trigger is a game where time travel is inventive, intriguing, and thoughtful, while being straightforward and natural. We’ve seen precious few RPGs since that approach time travel in the sense of having a general, sprawling adventure of it, and I think that may be because everyone knows, deep down, that this game accomplished that kind of time travel epic perfectly, and that trying to match or exceed it is a futile effort.

1. Radiant Historia

Chrono Trigger may be the best at what it does, that being the general, sprawling epic of traveling to different eras as part of a grand, straightforward save-the-world deal...but that’s not the only kind of time travel story out there. There’s also the plot of time travel on a small scale, a personal one, a narrative not of affecting entire ages of history but rather of moving back and forth along a small timeline, making great changes through tiny differences in action. This is the Edge of Tomorrow sort of time travel story, one of a threat so overwhelming, a chance at victory so narrow, that the only option is to be able to relive each crisis over and over, experimenting with actions and small changes that accumulate into great effects, until the hidden, razor-thin path to success is found. Or, in Radiant Historia’s case, paths, plural.

See, part of what makes Radiant Historia such a really cool time travel story is that it sets itself apart from its own sub-genre in how it deals with the idea of having to keep going back in time over and over to do the exact right thing to succeed. In most stories like that (such as Edge of Tomorrow), the major focus is on just following a single path of events and learning the exact right place to be in, words to say, and actions to take, to do what you need to. Which is just fine, it makes for some solid stories. But Radiant Historia is really neat in that the game is basically split into 2 timelines from a choice its protagonist, Stocke, makes early on, so you get to actually play through 2 separate stories as Stocke makes his way through both timelines’ adventures, attacking the problem of saving the world from 2 separate chains of cause and effect. And what’s really creative about that is that the paths to success for Stocke through each timeline are dependent on what he has learned and gained in the other timeline. There are abilities that Stocke learns along the path of his first choice that he needs to survive and overcome obstacles in the second timeline, and vice-versa. This is a story where knowing the details of what’s about to happen only takes Stocke so far, instead of being the key to success--his precognition is not by itself enough to overcome his roadblocks, he needs more. The fact that success in either timeline depends on knowledge and skills, as well as friendships and actions' echoes, that Stocke could only possibly have acquired from having walked an entirely separate path in this conflict is singular to Radiant Historia, so far as I’m aware, and it plays with the concept of time travel in a whole new way that calls all the more attention to it as the dominant force of the story.

RH handles it well, too; it never feels like you’re having to pop back and forth over and over again just for the sake of selling the gameplay aspect. Each time you return to 1 plotline because you’ve gone as far as you can in another, you go along for a good length of time, reconnecting with the events and characters of this path, becoming immersed enough that when the next time comes that Stocke cannot continue on without a better understanding of his world or without the abilities gained from the other timeline, you’ve almost forgotten that this switch was inevitable. The story, both stories, draw you into their narrative, even as they coalesce to slowly reveal the higher truths of the game’s plot. Time travel is expertly used to uniquely creative means in Radiant Historia, better than any other RPG I’ve played.

Honorable Mention: Fallout 4

Fallout 4 is a solid time travel game, even though it doesn’t really have time travel in the sense that we usually think of it. There’s no magical musical instrument, or timespace-altering sword, or fantastic machine that allows one to go to the past and future in Fallout 4...but at the same time, it basically is a story about a time-displaced person whose existence as an anachronism, as well as the means through which that displacement occurred, defines a substantial part of the plot, in addition to underscoring 1 of the major themes of the series (that theme being that humanity doesn’t change). So it’s doing everything a story might do using a more familiar vehicle for time travel, and hey, functional cryogenic technology is about as much a fantasy at this point as an actual time machine, so we’re still talking about a sci-fi machine making the protagonist’s 1-way trip to the future a reality. Thus, I reckon it counts. And while there are other games that design themselves by a time-travel-game style without technically relying on time travel (Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, for example), I think that Fallout 4 does it best, telling a great story of a woman/man from the past journeying through a world so brutally foreign to what she/he knew, and yet, at the same time, uncomfortably familiar in its heart and soul, while also using its kinda-sorta time travel to play with parent-child dynamics and craft a really thought-provoking villain from it. It’s solid stuff, as a time travel game, even if it arguably isn’t one.

* A restraint its sequel sure as hell didn’t possess.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Undertale's Toriel's Important Lesson

If you haven’t played Undertale, then don’t read this rant. Period. If you want to spoil yourself for a lot of other games, that’s your prerogative, but I’ll not be party to anyone who lessens their eventual experience with this gem by discovering its central plot points ahead of time.

Also, as a warning, this rant was written while I was a bit feverish, and generally out of it, feels, to me, kind of spacey and unfocused. Still, I think my thoughts on the matter are worth expressing (as much as they ever are, at least), so here you go.

It’s really no exaggeration to say that Undertale is one of the most significant RPGs created in the video game industry’s 40+ years of existence, and I anticipate that it will forever be so. There are multiple claims that Undertale makes to its prominent spot in this art form’s history, but what, in my opinion, truly makes it stand out as a unique work of storytelling in its medium is that Undertale is, to my knowledge, the only game that makes a truly compelling and earnest statement on the power and vital necessity of nonviolence in resolving conflicts.

True, many RPGs are eager to loudly proclaim the importance of forgiveness, diplomacy, tolerance, open-mindedness, and various other factors that together form peaceful conflict resolution, but (again, to my knowledge) none of them actually walk the walk. Their heroes may fight for a peaceful world, they may forgive their foes and spare them, they may try to avoid overcoming their obstacles with violence, but sooner or later, it all still comes down to winning climactic battles. I’m reminded of 1 of Wild Arms 4’s last moments, in which its dimwitted protagonist Jude tells the game’s antagonist with fervent passion that one cannot solve one’s problems with violence...then immediately proceeds into the game’s final battle, during which all involved will be stabbing, shooting, burning, freezing, smashing, and performing various other violent acts upon one another, the outcome of which will, indeed, have solved the conflict definitively. Yes, not a lot of RPGs are as blatantly, immediately, and humorously self-contradictory as Wild Arms 4, which makes sense as not a lot of RPGs are written with such a galling lack of competence as that raging inferno of suck...but ultimately, RPGs still nearly always contradict their messages of lauding nonviolent resolution by having the most important moments of conflict in their course be settled by battles.*

And true, there ARE RPGs, a few of them, in which violence is not necessary. The Deus Ex games have made a point since the first installment of making it possible for a player to make it through them without actually killing anyone. Additionally, while I have never played any (unless Rune Factory counts?), I would assume that most of the farming simulator RPGs** don’t require violence. Still, there is a substantial difference between games in which pacifism has simply been made possible, or games in which there is little to no reason not to be nonviolent, and a game like Undertale, which focuses strongly upon and explores the dilemmas that a nonviolent approach faces, and bases the very heart and soul of its message and story’s course upon pacifism, and the weight and consequences of death and apathy.

In its treatise on nonviolence, Undertale involves the majority of its cast, including even many of its NPCs and monsters of lesser importance. Ultimately, however, I believe that it is Toriel’s lesson to us which is the most valuable, both as a component of Undertale’s story and message, and as a lesson to take away from the game.

For, you see, the trial Toriel presents to the player represents what I believe to be the most absolutely vital aspect of the concept of pacifism and resolving conflicts without violence: patience and determination. It is also the aspect of pacifism that I think is least emphasized by shows, movies, games, and all other storytelling mediums that advocate nonviolent approaches, sadly but not unexpectedly, since it’s hard to really sell the concept of patience without devoting more time to showing it than the limited schedules of most storytelling vehicles are willing (or even able) to commit to.

Before Toriel blocks your way in Undertale, the monsters you encounter are simple enough to get by without resorting to violence. The logic paths necessary to take in order to Spare each one are both short, and easily intuited. Toriel is the first occasion the game throws at you in which the concept of trying to resolve a conflict peacefully is a true challenge, and it is made all the more jarring to the player by the fact that they have been conditioned thus far to have few, if any, complications in Sparing their foes. There has always been a clear avenue to a nonviolent victory, until Toriel flat-out denies your Spare attempts and cannot be appealed to with dialogue. Essentially, Toriel is your first and most iconic encounter with personal conflict in which an opponent refuses to let you settle your differences peacefully.

Beyond that, she is also the only opponent I can think of in Undertale for whom determination and patience are the keys to success. Certainly you need both of those things to weather the battles against Papyrus, Undyne, the guards, and many others in the game, but in each major conflict following Toriel’s, your patience and determination comes in the form of navigating the long twists of gameplay until you have a chance to succeed in Sparing your opponent--Toriel, by contrast, is simply outright a test of whether you can be determined and patient enough to outlast someone’s enmity in spite of, initially, no sign that there will ever be any opportunity for concord. Which is by itself a thematically intelligent decision from a gameplay perspective, since Toriel, in Undertale, is meant to be linked to the concepts of video game tutorials--so of course, her boss battle itself serves as a final, educational trial run for the foundations of later boss battles, in the sense that, as I said, later major battles take the necessity for patience and persistence and add more levels of gameplay onto it.***

But while other characters in the game build upon Toriel and present different analogies for routes to peaceful resolution, I think Toriel’s is the most important to truly understanding and embracing the concept of pacifism. Yes, it’s important to learn from Undyne the value of giving up on foolish notions of pride as you outlast her through the act of running away and avoidance, which many mistake as cowardice. Yes, it’s important to learn from the dummy that rage and a refusal to forgive are so self-destructive that there is no need to harm those who feel such things toward you, for they eventually destroy themselves. Yes, it’s important to recognize and forgive the fact that hostility is often the result of misplaced feelings of obligation or self-dissatisfaction, as we learn from Papyrus and Alphys. Yes, it’s important to learn what even small-time enemies in the game can teach you, like that sometimes someone may do something injurious to you by accident, having mistakenly thought they would be helping you, as Vulkin does with what they think is healing lava.

But before you realize any of these things about other people, before you come to understand that your enemies have reasons and history for what they do, and before you can draw conclusions and begin to think about how one overcomes such obstacles to find a peaceful solution to one’s conflicts with is essential to understand first and foremost that to choose the highest road, to choose to commit to pacifism, to choose the path to solving problems between people without resorting to violence, takes time, and it takes persistence. You will encounter people in your life who do not want to work toward a positive solution. You may outlast their attempts to harm or destroy you once, but they will not give up just because you did not immediately cave in. Getting through to someone, finding a way to friendship and understanding beyond enmity and have to be willing to fight for that goal for a long time, and you have to be willing to keep trying without despair even when there just doesn’t seem to be any progress.

And that’s what Toriel represents, and teaches. There is no trick of conversation paths, no part of the bullet hell gameplay that you have to perform--there is only the patience and persistence to keep Sparing her, to keep refusing to harm her in spite of her enmity and her refusal to accept your peaceful appeals, until finally, the determination of your love outlasts the lesser power of her feeling of duty, and she gives up and accepts your desire for peace. Diplomat, therapist, teacher, parent, manager, negotiator, mediator, spiritual leader...for any and every one of the countless positions one may pursue in which communicating with people and finding resolutions to their conflicts is a component or focus, Toriel provides the fundamental groundwork for the essence of how to achieve success and greatness.

* I should clarify here that I don’t hold this as a serious flaw against these games. Yes, it is a flaw with Wild Arms 4 because of how stupidly the message is presented, but by and large, RPGs do a fine enough job at encouraging people to view the nonviolent path as the better, and using violence as a last resort. In our world, that is, perhaps, a far more realistically good approach to take. I’d much rather continue to see many RPGs show that the attempt to avoid violence, even if that attempt doesn’t work, is the right thing to do, than have the genre stop even trying out of an inability to get around its gameplay system’s necessities.

** More than 20 years later, I still cannot believe that this is a thing.

*** She also, I suppose, serves as an educational trial run of boss battles for a No Mercy player, in that she is the first time you must kill someone you’re truly emotionally attached to. A taste of the horrible guilt to come for you. And you deserve it, you monster.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Witcher 3's Add-Ons

The Witcher 3 is good. Like, it’s really good. Maybe it’s a bit overrated--I certainly wouldn’t say it’s the greatest RPG ever made, nor even that it’s the greatest RPG of 2015--but it’s still pretty damn great. And when I say a game is pretty damn great even though it has breakable weapons and the horror known as Sailing, that means something.

But even if the game proper is damn fine stuff, that doesn’t necessarily mean its DLCs and expansions will be. Fire Emblem 14, Shin Megami Tensei 4-1 and 4-2, Borderlands 2, and Fallout 4, among many others, certainly show that games of all kinds of high quality can still produce some pretty lousy add-on content. Then again, as Neverwinter Nights 2 shows, it’s also possible (though far less common) for an RPG’s add-on to completely eclipse the main game in terms of quality.

So the question is: how do the add-ons of The Witcher 3 hold up? Do they keep things going strong? Do they falter? Do they actually manage to surpass the excellent main story? And do you give even the slightest crap at all about these DLC rants of mine? Let’s discover the answers to all but 1 of those questions.

Contract: Missing Miners: When people think of the add-ons to The Witcher 3, they tend to only think of the 2 major expansions. And we’ll definitely get to them! But, there were quite a few free little DLCs released for the game, too. Some were unimportant stuff like alternate costumes and new armor, which I’m not going to bother rating because they’re meaningless cosmetic and/or gameplay changes rather than anything substantial, but there were also several new sidequests to be had, too.

The first of these, Contract: Missing Miners, is fine. That’s all there is to say about it. It’s adequate as a sidequest, fitting the lore of the game and giving Geralt yet 1 more decision to make about who he should and shouldn’t help. I do like that it adds another troll interaction with the game; I’m quite fond of Witcher series trolls. And hey, it’s free, which is always good. So, good job with this one. Moving on!

Fool’s Gold: Like Contract: Missing Miners, this DLC’s a freebie. It’s a bit longer and larger than the last, and it, too, is pretty decent, providing yet another example of the miniature adventures that Geralt just seems to stumble over the way other people sometimes trip over the occasional rock in their path. I mean, I guess I will say that I don’t like it as much as Contract: Missing Miners, because the previous DLC gives you a good feeling for doing a good turn for a troll just trying to defend his home, while in this sidequest, the people you save are a bunch of hostile, ignorant jackasses...but this is The Witcher 3. That kind of quest conclusion ain’t exactly a rarity, and fits the setting, so I certainly don’t hold it against Fool’s Gold. So yeah, overall, decent.

Skellige’s Most Wanted: Now this sidequest is really quite good! Another free DLC, Skellige’s Most Wanted sees Geralt walk into a trap set by some monsters who have heard of his deeds and want to see that he’s punished for them. What I really like about this add-on is that its climax, in which Geralt defends himself against his attackers’ accusations, really does a great job in laying out in clear terms the true nature of Geralt and the Witcher profession, as a bridge between 2 worlds, not just a slayer of 1. The nature of what is and is not a ‘monster’, and how the role of monster-slayer should be seen in an ever-evolving world of men, has been 1 of the more interesting questions posed by the Witcher trilogy, a dilemma that Geralt has puzzled at since the very first game and still grapples with balancing even now. I also like that Geralt defends himself based on your own actions and whether you, as the player, have understood the deeper levels of being a Witcher through what you’ve had Geralt do during various moments in the game. For a tiny little free sidequest, Skellige’s Most Wanted accomplishes a lot as another look at the philosophy of the series, a confirmation of Geralt’s character, and a validation of the player’s choices.

Scavenger Hunt: Wolf School Gear: Meh, I have no thoughts on this 1 either way. It’s a free DLC again, so I can’t fault it, but there’s also only barely enough story content to even give it a look. It’s the same as the rest of the armor set scavenger hunt quests: you look for some stuff, in finding it you find notes or somesuch from long ago, the end. The bit of lore you uncover with this is fine, but doesn’t really capture my attention at all. So I don’t really have anything positive to say about it, but there’s nothing negative, either. It’s just there, and free.

Where the Cat and Wolf Play: This is another good free DLC sidequest. I liked Skellige’s Most Wanted a little more, but this is definitely solid stuff. In this, Geralt discovers an almost entirely slaughtered village, and has a decision to make once he finds the culprit. As a sidequest story, it’s pretty good, not great, but what makes it stand out to me is that the decision Geralt has to make in regards to the killer is personal to him, for in many ways the killer’s situation bears similarities to certain experiences Geralt himself has had, and sins he has committed. The decision to be made is still pretty clearly a right-and-wrong situation, not as grey as most of the stuff in this game, but the fact that it personally ties to Geralt makes it compelling all the same. So Where the Cat and Wolf Play gets a thumbs-up from me.

Also, the reward the village survivor will give you if you return to her at a later time to check in with her? Love it.

Hearts of Stone: Having done with the free DLC sidequests, we can get to the add-ons most people think of first: Hearts of Stone, and Blood and Wine.

Hearts of Stone is pretty damn good. This expansion adds a sizable new quest with a good story that’s interesting, has several fun twists, and raises questions about human nature the way that The Witcher series is fond of doing. Hearts of Stone also pleasantly references and expands on the trilogy’s events and characters in ways you don’t expect--it’s nice that it brings Shani back, who we haven’t seen since the first Witcher game (although I’m not a fan of how hard it is not to sex her up during this adventure), I like that there’s a moment in which we get a little insight into Vesemir’s past, and even though I played this game long after the fan community was busily reporting to one another their ways of breaking the game’s economy, I still appreciate and chuckle at the metahumor of Geralt being accosted by a tax collector. I do so love when developers put in subtle little nods to their fanbase like that. It’s part of what made Mass Effect 3’s Citadel DLC so great.

Of course, the real stars of this DLC are its central figures, Olgierd von Everec and Gaunter O’Dimm. Olgierd’s a character whose after-the-fact development is handled well, and provides a good question of morality and redemption to us in the choice Geralt must make regarding him at the DLC’s finale. And Gaunter O’Dimm? He’s an awesome villain, far more compelling than any other in the Witcher series--as well he should be! Gaunter is a fantastic portrayal of the Devil (or a Devil-figure, at least): unique, charismatic, imposing, terrifying, able to command your attention with so little effort and fanfare. This guy definitely feels like a portrayal of an old-fashioned perception of the Devil, and CD Projekt Red very skillfully builds his mystery, his charm, and his foreboding.

The only real downside to this expansion is that Geralt himself isn’t especially important to it. I mean, he’s the essential cog that moves all things forward, as any RPG hero is (well, almost any RPG hero...Final Fantasy 12’s Vaan was pretty damn superfluous), but beyond just doing what he has to as the protagonist, Geralt as a character doesn’t really seem all that significant a part to it all. Still, that flaw is far outweighed by the rest of the add-on’s merits, so in my opinion, Hearts of Stone is well worth the $10 it cost at time of release.

Blood and Wine: Well, this is different. But nice. The Blood and Wine expansion brings Geralt to another land, the duchy of Touissant, and it is very, very different from the Witcher trilogy we’ve known so far. This place is bright, colorful, and beautiful, and its people, though they have their problems, actually seem to largely be happy. If the rest of the Witcher is an unflinching look at the gritty, dirty nature of the medieval age, then Blood and Wine gives us a much appreciated, much needed snapshot of the medieval age as we like to remember it: an exciting time of wonder and chivalry.

As jarring as the setting is, though, it’s but a tiny part of this expansion’s commanding presence. Blood and Wine is excellently crafted, managing to be a brand new and exciting adventure, while also feeling like a perfect finale to the Witcher trilogy. Its plot is a solid and engaging one of vampires and vengeance, of the power of love to be a force both of corruption and of salvation. Its characters are compelling, particularly Regis and Anna Henrietta. It’s huge, with lots to explore and do, sidequests to perform both small and large. It’s full of meta-references to the games’ fandom and audiences in general, and it has tons of callbacks and connections to the rest of the Witcher trilogy. It’s got a lot of neat extras to enjoy, from Geralt’s vineyard to the illusion land you briefly traipse that’s both an amusing and somewhat sad look at fairytales left neglected. It’s got good development for Geralt, too--the use of Regis was a really smart move by CD Projekt Red, because as a character we’ve never seen before, we get the benefit of a new, well-written personality to meet and get to know, but as a character who has a history of friendship with Geralt, we also get to see more of Geralt’s past from the novels revealed to us, and used skillfully as a way to cement Regis in our minds as a buddy of Geralt’s to the same extent as we would think of Zoltan, Dandelion, Iorveth, or Roche.

Honestly, I could go into this expansion a lot, but ultimately, there’s really only 1 thing to say about it: Blood and Wine is really good. It’s really good on its own, it’s really good as a new and refreshing adventure for Geralt, and it’s really good as a final note to the Witcher trilogy. It values the history of the trilogy even as it takes the time to reveal 1 final part of the Witcher world to us for the first time, and it feels very much like the final love letter from CD Projekt Red to both the series that brought them into the world of game development, and to the dedicated fans who have loved that series. Blood and Wine premiered at a $20 price tag, which is pretty high, but not an unusual price for a proper expansion. And I can say pretty confidently that it is, was, and will be worth that and more. As a send-off add-on to a good, long saga, you won’t find many better than Blood and Wine.

And that’s that. So how does The Witcher 3 fare overall on the add-on scene? Unsurprisingly, it’s top-notch. Rare is the RPG which not only has high quality add-ons, but has consistency in that high quality.

And you may be wondering: if that’s the case, why bother to make 1 of these rants about its DLC to begin with? I mean, if there’s no reason not to get any of its add-ons, then what purpose does this serve? Well, I wanted to make this rant for me, and for anyone who, after having read my DLC rants and/or played the add-ons of the same games as I have, feels the way that I do. See, if I had to rate my overall experience with DLCs, expansions, and the like, over the course of all the RPGs I’ve played which possess such things, I’d have to say that it’s been overall negative. There have been a lot of great side stories, true, but there have been more mediocre and poor ones, and more often an RPGs’ add-ons will disappoint than delight. Even when you find a jewel like Fallout 4’s Far Harbor or Borderlands 2’s Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, it’s frequently hidden among subpar or even outright poor-quality peers. But a game like The Witcher 3, whose developers and writers made sure to keep going the extra mile right to the bitter end with their add-ons, really gives me hope for the DLC scene and keeps me going. Great and consistent quality in add-ons like this is possible, and maybe, just maybe, this will be the standard, rather than the exception, some day. And I want to make my appreciation for this consistent level of quality, when such a thing is so much less common than it should be, publicly known. Doubtless the next game whose DLC I rant about will be back to the usual disappointing slog, but for now, I’m satisfied by The Witcher 3’s add-ons better than I have been by an RPG for quite some time.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Darkblood Chronicles

Well, I’ve recently finished playing an Indie RPG that I think is good, so you know what that means: it’s time for a rant extolling its virtues and trying to convince you that it’s worth buying and playing. Why? Because a good RPG is a good RPG, but the little guys need the attention more to keep making them..

So, before we begin, I’ll be transparent about this: the creator of Darkblood Chronicles, Dorian Tokici, personally contacted me and asked me to play his game and write a rant about it. I haven’t been bribed or anything--he did offer me a free copy of the game, but I opted to buy it naturally--but if you’re concerned about my vanity getting in the way of my objectivity, then it’s only fair to warn you that I was very flattered to be personally asked. Subjective or not, however, my opinion is that Darkblood Chronicles is a solid, intelligent, and singular RPG, that I am better off for having played.

So what is Darkblood Chronicles? Well, I can tell you what it isn’t: what it’s advertised to be. Yeah, on its Steam page, the game’s blurb describes it as a Survival Horror JRPG, and 1 of the games this summary draws a parallel to is Parasite Eve. That ain’t true, and don’t go into Darkblood Chronicles expecting anything of the sort. It’s a dark game with an atmosphere of gloom and desolation, but it doesn’t inspire or use fear, it doesn’t use visual and audio cues to unsettle you, and it’s no more a survival situation than any other given RPG environment. That’s not to say that Darkblood Chronicles doesn’t have certain elements you can find in some survival horror games--Dorian Tokici has listed Silent Hill as 1 of this game’s inspirations, and it shows--but the elements Darkblood Chronicles takes from such titles are more of an intellectual nature, rather than visceral or emotional.

Which, frankly, is not a bad thing, if you ask me. I don’t really care much for horror as an overall genre, and while Parasite Eve 1 was, indeed, a great RPG, it hits a pretty difficult target. I think I much prefer what I perceive Darkblood Chronicles to actually be: an 80s-style dark fantasy adventure, like Labyrinth, or The Neverending Story. It’s an adventure through a dark, strange, vaguely-disturbing yet somehow uniquely appealing other realm whose existence and nature are intrinsically tied to the protagonist, a world which may not even be anything more than a manifestation of its protagonist’s psyche as she tries to work through the weight of the torments within her heart. Thus, it definitely seems to me to have more to do with Fantastica, or Jareth’s Kingdom, or even a much darker version of the Land of Oz, than it does with most survival horror settings and approaches. Which, again, I’m perfectly happy with, because not only is that a lot more palatable to me anyway, not to mention a more natural fit to the RPG genre, but it also makes Darkblood Chronicles far more unique, as I have yet to play any other RPG that really hits that particular note.

Don’t let the movies I compared it to throw you off, however: I simply use them as a way of describing its overall premise, approach, and aesthetic, to some degree. This is not a kids’ RPG. Darkblood Chronicles is an RPG that wants to describe and explore the concept of loss, show its hold over us and the destructive power it has upon those left behind to deal with it, and the game incorporates things such as ritual sacrifice, abusive family environments, and serial killers into its narrative and lore, along with a whole, heaping bunch of symbolism. Darkblood Chronicles is an RPG defined very skillfully by its theme, with the miasma of loss not only the focus of its plot and protagonist, but also permeating the environment, the visual style, and the music. The atmosphere itself is a symbol, in Darkblood Chronicles.

DC is a very intelligent RPG, that wants its audience to really think about the ideas and facts of life that it presents. Needless to say, I greatly appreciate that, because what I most love in my RPGs is food for thought, ideas and philosophies and emotions that I can carry with me and nibble ponderously upon. Essentially, what I like in an RPG is heavy storytelling art to grow myself from, and Darkblood Chronicles is 1 of many titles in the genre to provide this. But it is also, I should note, a worthwhile adventure on a surface level, as well; it does not require you to be in full analysis mode to enjoy it to some degree. Like, it's more Fallout than Planescape: Torment, if you follow.

1 thing I also find quite neat about this game is that it takes a unique approach to multiple endings. Lots of RPGs have more than 1 possible ending, of course. Some go with the standard Bad, Normal, True ending formula, like, say, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, or have different endings which are all roughly equal in quality, dependant upon what you chose to do during the game’s course, such as Knights of the Old Republic 1. But in pretty much every RPG I can recall having played, each ending is a distinctive, set entity, and the only reason to see more than 1 is curiosity at how things play out according to a different path. Darkblood Chronicles, however, takes a different approach with its 5 endings. Each 1 shows a different conclusion, as you would expect, but you’re really meant to experience all 5 to get the most out of any individual ending among them, because each ending reveals a lot about the lore and nature of the game’s setting and defining past events, which not only affect your understanding of and appreciation for the game’s story, theme, and characters, but also increases what you can get from the other endings, as they all connect to and rely on the stuff revealed in the others. It’s an interesting and engaging way to get you to put in the effort to see every possible conclusion to the game, because even if you got the ending you personally prefer, you’ll only be able to like it more by seeing the other possible paths.

I also like that Darkblood Chronicles manages to walk a very tricky line between homage and complete originality, and get the best of both sides. DC is proud of the games from which it draws inspiration, and Mr. Tokici clearly wants to pay respect to the RPGs that defined his younger days. As such, expect to see all kinds of references and aesthetic/method nods to Chrono Trigger, Suikoden, Wild Arms, Shadow Hearts, Shin Megami Tensei, and many other major titles of the SNES and 32-bit days of RPGs. Yet, Darkblood Chronicles nonetheless feels very much like an entity unto itself, rather than like it has had to lift or lean upon any of its or its creator’s influences. That’s a tough thing to manage when you have as many references as this game does, and I certainly couldn’t hope to define how it’s accomplished. But I do know that DC does it.

Now, this game does have some drawbacks, make no mistake. It takes a bit of time for its plot to really start grabbing you enough to get you thinking and connecting dots, and likewise, its protagonist, Sam, takes a while to really hold your attention, since the majority of her noteworthy traits are related to her connection to the game’s story and purpose. The dialogue is, at times, a little stiff (which oddly seems to be a common problem in RPG Maker games; what’s up with that?). Gameplay-wise, it’s not very forgiving, which may or may not be a problem for you, and if you’re not into searching for hidden passages nonstop, then you’re gonna miss a LOT of stuff. Additionally, while it’s possibly the least RPG-Maker-feeling RPG Maker game I’ve played so far, there are certain technical details and aesthetics inherent to RPG Maker that Darkblood Chronicles can’t really escape from, so if you just absolutely can’t handle this development engine, well, that’ll be a turn-off. Finally, while I appreciate a game that lets you suss stuff out for yourself rather than be completely obvious and explicit in every aspect of its lore and philosophy, I do think that Darkblood Chronicles could have benefited from a little more directness in its lore’s secrets and in its ideas. I like figuring some stuff out, peeling away hidden layers of the story and the characters, but I don’t like to feel like I’m probably missing some important stuff because not enough bread crumbs were left to follow the trail, and there are a few moments in Darkblood Chronicles where that feels like the case.

But no RPG is perfect. Even games like Grandia 2 and Planescape: Torment could be improved upon, albeit in very tiny and mostly negligible ways. And while Darkblood Chronicles may not be Grandia 2 or PT, it is definitely a good RPG, maybe even a great one, and I recommend it to you. If you’re looking to recapture some of the feeling of those old 80s Dark Fantasy worlds, and/or if you’re interested in playing an RPG that will challenge you to really think about it, then give Darkblood Chronicles a try.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Conception 2's Main Villain

If I had to pick 2 areas of improvement for RPGs in general, with regards to writing, it would probably be Romance, and Villains. Obviously there are both some truly excellent love stories and some truly excellent bad guys to be found in the genre, and a great many more romantic tales and baddies of decent or good quality, too. Nonetheless, over the course of over 300 titles, I’ve noticed that there’s a far better chance in any given RPG that the love subplot(s) and, relevant to today’s rant, antagonist(s) are going to be underwhelming, included and developed out of necessity (or imagined necessity, in romances’ case) rather than passion. To put it frankly for our purposes today: in spite of some absolutely magnificent exceptions, this is just not the genre to look to for high quality villains.

But even by the genre’s low villain standards, Enzea of Conception 2 is gobsmackingly lazily and carelessly written.

And let me tell you, my expectations for Conception 2’s writing were not high by the time that Enzea’s villainy is ‘revealed’ to us. By that late point in the game, it was patently obvious that the most generous way you could describe this game is, as a reviewer once put it, “Trashy Persona.” I’d already figured out that Atlus can’t copy other developers’ style very well when I played Code of Princess, their unremarkable attempt to replicate a Nippon Ichi formula, but you’d think that Atlus could at least competently rip itself off. But alas, this game seems more like a bootleg of Persona than a proper forgery.

Conception 2 was made for 1 purpose, and 1 purpose alone: appeal to the pathetic power fantasies of maladjusted half-men with barely-functional genitals that can only chub up at the thought of owning a doting group of female cliches (since overused female character tropes are the sole experience they have with the opposite sex). In other words: most harem game enthusiasts. So to reiterate my point, I most certainly did not expect anything more of its villain than generic copy-pastes of countless JRPG bad guy tropes of the past, from a game like this.

But oh my Palutena, even by bad, lazy RPG standards, Enzea is awful. It’s like 15 minutes after picking Enzea’s villain motivations out of the Box of Tired Cliches, the game’s writers promptly forgot entirely what they’d decided on and couldn’t be bothered to scroll back up a few pages, so they just played a guessing game of what dialogue lines they grabbed from the Box of Equally Tired Cliches to use. For example: Enzea says he wants to create a world of equality--he doesn’t like how the poorly explained plot magic of Conception 2’s world determines the course and worth of a person’s entire life. The course and meaningfulness of one’s life should be in one’s own hands, is what Enzea believes.* But then his villainous and stupid plan is to use a different kind of poorly explained plot magic to revert everyone to their ‘primitive’ form, which just essentially means they become a monster.**

Now, as one expects of most dime-a-dozen RPG antagonists, this goal is self-contradicting on a philosophical level, in the sense that by forcing the world’s population to become a part of a new kind of world and society, Enzea is removing their agency to choose whether or not they want to be part of this new world of supposed equality, which, y’know, is directly opposed to the entire reason he’s doing this to begin with. But what really shows how little thought the writers put into this is that Enzea’s plan contradicts itself even beyond the typical paradox of making people live free by force. See, causing everyone in the world to become monsters, and letting them thus live as they wish... it is the complete opposite of this ‘equality’ that he supposedly wants to create! Because in this world vision of his, the ‘social’ standing, such as it is, will naturally be determined by one’s power as a monster, which is a set factor exactly as beyond that individual’s control as the current world’s system of Star Energy (the actual name for the first poorly explained plot magic I mentioned) determining a person’s social placement and worth. For all this dimwit espouses his disapproval of the Star God for creating people with varying levels of Star Energy that they themselves cannot change, he will be filling the exact same damn role in his dumb utopia!

Also, I think it’s worth noting that Enzea coming to this conclusion is a case of extreme careless sloth on the writers’ part. Again, even by the standards both of dumb RPG villains, and of Conception 2. This world order that he’s rebelling against? This terrible, unfair system of determining a person’s social order by a factor determined at their birth which they cannot alter? It’s only for 3 YEARS of a person’s life. See, as the game explicitly tells you and makes absolutely clear many times, a person’s Star Energy can only be used to fight monsters and protect the world and all that jazz for their high school years. It's a system not entirely unlike Final Fantasy 8's strange teen mercenary Garden concept--and I think that, when you're borrowing ideas for your game's lore from Final Fantasy Motherfucking 8, you really need to ask yourself where you went wrong as a writer, and human being. Once they hit the age of 19, it all goes bye-bye, for reasons you can damn well be sure the game isn’t going to bother explaining to you, and they have to retire from the world-protecting corps and pursue a normal life. And there’s no indication that one’s post-soldier life is limited in any way by how highly ranked one was during that time--the sister of 1 character, for example, was in her day an exceptional fighter, but now chooses a life no more ambitious than running a small cafe, while another character was nothing special while he was a soldier, but as an adult is the second highest researcher at the world’s premier tech lab. So yeah, even though this is a clearly established piece of lore for the game, noticeably a present aspect of its setting throughout the entirety of its events, somehow the writers seem to have just forgotten about it, and had Enzea go on a world revolution rampage over the fact that people’s social standing is outside of their hands for a mere 3 years of their life.

And then there’s Enzea’s last words, after losing in the final battle. So, like, Dusk is the second of the poorly explained plot magicks that I mentioned before, and it’s the one that, somehow, for some reason, transforms people into monsters, or as Enzea puts it, reverts them to their primitive forms (which is another fat load of quasi-intellectual nonsense). Basically, Dusk = Bad. So you beat Enzea, he’s dying, and he tells you that there will always be Dusk so long as the Star God is in charge, and that there’s no end to darkness as long as man exists. Yeah, okay, I suppose that’s an arguably true, and also unoriginal to the extreme, observation. But, Enzea? Bro? Did you somehow forget that you were trying to FILL the world with Dusk and darkness to bring about your new world? It’s like Enzea’s trying to imply that the heroes are in the wrong for beating him because now the world will continue having some bad stuff in it. Bitch, you wanted to bring about a world of INFINITE Dusk and darkness! You can’t use a statement that implies that even a little Dusk and darkness is bad as an argument for why you should have been allowed to fill the damn world with them! Pick a stance on the topic of unending evil and stick to it, dammit!

Conception 2 is lazy schlock through and through, it cannot be denied. But even for pandering, sloppy trash, I gotta say, its villain Enzea is a remarkably listless bit of negligence on the writers’ part.

* A concept which, incidentally, isn’t exactly ‘equality’ like the game says. You can have a system of complete equality for all that still doesn’t allow them much room to determine the course of their life--I believe that’s essentially what poorly-implemented Communism boils down to, in fact. What Enzea is (supposedly) championing is actually more just along the lines of freedom, and maybe equal opportunity. But whatever; I’ve clearly given this matter more thought in the 2.5 minutes it’s taken me to type this paragraph than any of the writers did in the months they sat around the Atlus offices drawing their salary like leeches draw blood from an animal too large to realize that it's got a bunch of useless, slimy hangers-on attached to its ass.

** Along with Equality, we can chalk Evolution up as another concept that the game’s staff don’t really understand.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Breath of Fire 2's Characters' Abilities

Yes, today I’m nitpicking a gameplay issue--something which I believe to be totally inconsequential in estimating the worth of an RPG--of a game so old that its era in gaming history can now be classified as ‘quaint.’ Again. Look, I don’t hide the fact that this blog is totally pointless. The sooner we all accept this, the better.

Y’know, it’s weird. When I wrote that rant about the oddity of Breath of Fire 1’s cast in terms of combat utility, it wasn’t even in my mind that I might make something along the lines of a continuation to it. But afterward, I started thinking about how the sequel handled combat roles for its cast far better...and then I remembered that it also had a noticeable flaw in that regard, too. So, here we are today, about to criticize the gameplay mechanics of yet another RPG so incredibly old, that Capcom wasn’t even completely and utterly evil at the time they published it.

So, Breath of Fire 2 added a little more nuance to its combat system and characters’ roles in it, improving upon the very basic battle mechanics of the first game in many ways, to the point that there was actually some strategy to be utilized in party composition, character placement, and ability use. The best party combination is no longer beyond debate as it was in the first game,* and there are even multiple approaches to combat to choose from, now. It ain’t just “Here are the only 4 characters in the game with useful spells, now go away” like it was in BoF1.

Unfortunately, though, not everything to do with BoF2’s combat is a step up from its predecessor (not the least of which being the overall feel and flow of battles; is it just me, or did Breath of Fire 1 feel way smoother and more polished in its gameplay overall?). 1 of the ways that characters are unique in combat is that each has a personal ability in combat beyond just his or her spells. Sort of like how characters in, say, Final Fantasy 6 all have their own unique talent in addition to whatever magic they’ve learned from Espers. Unlike Final Fantasy 6, however, whose character talents generally stay relevant for 95% of the game until everyone gets the chance to just learn Ultima and equip Economizers...Breath of Fire 2’s characters’ special abilities almost all just suck from the get-go.

First of all, there’s Ryu. He gets the Guts ability, which restores some of his HP during battle without needing to use magic points to do so. This sounds good, but the thing is, the amount of HP restored is greater depending on, A, his Guts stat, and B, how damaged he is. This means that it’s wildly unreliable for most of the game, as you don’t have a very high Guts stat for a while, and without that to boost it, it just doesn’t restore enough HP to be very useful--either you’re not damaged enough, and so it barely does anything, or you’re so hurt that you need something way better to do the job. And once you’re late enough in the game that Guts starts healing a decent amount, you’ve got a lot of other, more consistent healing options anyway.

And that’s actually 1 of the more useful abilities! Sten gets RIP, which lets him do an attack with less chance of enemies targeting him, but its utility is limited since party-hitting attacks aren’t uncommon and this ability doesn’t do anything to avoid them. Jean gets Stab, which hits all enemies that turn, but at such a reduced attack power that it frequently does almost no damage. Spar can call on the forces of nature to come to his aid, which is handy, but it only works outdoors, and nearly all dungeons in the game are, well...dungeons. So aside from traversing the world map, which by the time you get Spar you’re not doing a whole lot of any more, there’s very little use for it. Bow gets Shot, which either instantly kills an enemy or just deals 1 damage, but has such a damn low chance of working that I usually find I can kill the enemy faster just by having Bow attack it normally anyway.

Rand gets Wake, which can either be used to wake up a sleeping party member, or revives them at 1 HP. This sounds far more useful than it actually is. First of all, getting physically attacked wakes up a party member anyway, so there’s a good chance that the enemy is going to do it next turn, and then you’ve just wasted Rand’s chance to act. Secondly, Wake only revives dead party members sometimes, compared to revival spells and items being guaranteed to do so, so it’s really only an extremely desperate last resort.

Nina’s Will is sort of helpful, in that she can recover her Ability Points with it. AP recovery items are both uncommonly found, and annoying in Breath of Fire 2, in that most of them lessen your HP by the same amount that they restore of your AP. What the point is of this trade-off, I can’t guess; it certainly isn’t balancing the game in any useful way. So a magic-user being able to restore her AP without relying on subpar and rare items is good...but much like Wake, it’s a toss-up as to whether this is actually going to work, and it restores a small enough portion of her AP that it’s only really good for 1 spell at a time, if that.

And then there’s Katt. What the hell was the reasoning for giving Katt the Dare skill? Dare uses that turn’s action to make enemies more likely to hit her, instead of other allies. That’d be a useful ability...if it was given to Rand, or Ryu, or Bleu, or pretty much any other character in the game. But Katt is a low-HP, low-defense glass cannon whose role in the party is very specifically to kill enemies as fast as possible! I know that these were the earliest days of the aggro-control gameplay concept (for all I know, this game invented it), so one should expect a few bugs to work out, but Capcom picked the absolute worst possible party member to give this to!

The 1 character who gets a personal skill that’s actually undeniably helpful is Bleu, whose Shed power restores her to full health, no questions asked. Sure, it lowers her defense, but that mild detriment definitely doesn’t stop it from being useful now and then. Unlike every other character-specific ability, this is a case of the downsides balancing the ability’s use, rather than destroying it.

Now, there are some abilities that are unlocked by fusing characters in certain ways, and those tend to be a lot more viable in combat. Hell, some are even overpowered; Demon Katt gets an attack-enhancing ability that is absolutely devastating, and Holy Jean gets this crazy insta-kill attack that targets the entire enemy party and actually has a high success rate. And that’s great and all. But powered-up forms should have powered-up abilities; the fact that Capcom got that side of it right doesn’t make up for the fact that almost every member of the party has a shitty ability that isn’t even as useful as just the regular Attack command. And it’s not like this was some revolutionary idea on their part or anything--Final Fantasy 6 came out 8 months prior to BoF2, and Final Fantasy 4, which also featured this idea of unique abilities specific to each party member, and employed this concept quite competently, was 3 years old by the time BoF2 was published! There’s just no 2 ways about it: the character abilities of Breath of Fire 2 were poorly handled.

* I say this objectively, but in my heart of hearts I know that there’s no way someone could convince me that anything other than Katt, Bleu, Rand, and Ryu is best.

Unless the game were coded so that you didn’t have to have Ryu, that is. I’d totally go Jean over him. To hell with this game’s shitty 1-and-done dragon abilities.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Millennium Series's Characters

Man, it’s been a while since I did 1 of these character rants. Let’s see if I still remember how to make them funny. Assuming they ever were to begin with.

Marine: Our protagonist Marine is a wonderful, positive, beautiful dreamer whose vision for a greater world makes everyone around her better.

She’s also the kind of person who will, in fact, set your house on fire while you’re in it if you’re in the way of that vision.

Jeanne: Say what you want to about how great Marine’s persistence and determination and positivity and whatnot is. The fact of the matter is that the success of Marine’s epic journey, her political revolution that changes the realms of Mystland forever, was only made possible by the mere happenstance that she one day just up and tripped, and fell face-first onto a fairy.

Benoit: A whiny, pessimistic martial artist whose talents could benefit countless people, yet who refuses to step up and commit to doing so for like 30 hours of game time? Great, like I didn’t get more than enough of Fei Fong Wong the first time around.

Karine: Does anybody find it odd that arguably the most down-to-earth, reasonable person in the cast is a woman who fights crocodiles for a living?

Hirado: Basically the most stereotypical monk ever. What do RPG martial-arts-practicing monastic orders have against shirts, anyway?

Merline: This 5-year-old who likes playing with dolls and whose weapons are mostly just various toys is straight up more deadly in combat than at least half the rest of the cast.

Dee: “Hihihihi” is not how you write laughter, Aldorlea Games!

Abu: Actually, real-talk? Joking aside? I like the fact that as the series goes along, Abu’s English gradually but noticeably becomes better as he spends more time around his new friends and hears them speak it. That right there is a touch of realism, not to mention respect for the character, that I’ve never seen grace an RPG before, and I like it. How long does Ayla hang out with the gang in Chrono Trigger without picking up a single auxiliary verb? Or Gau, in Final Fantasy 6? “Eyes shining with intelligence,” my ass. Learn a pronoun, kid!

Jezebel: Just...kind of a bitch, overall. The height of Jezebel’s decency as a human being is that at one point, she changes her mind about letting two of her friends climb a treacherous monster-infested mountain in a raging blizzard alone, and decides to go back and help them after all, which is what she’d agreed to do in the first place. What a saint. I actually had Jezebel lose matches in the tournament finale on purpose, just because she was so needlessly insulting to her opponents--opponents who are, I’ll remind you, the bad guys of the series.

Gravitron: As with any machine, you don’t realize how much you desperately needed Gravitron in your life until you get him, and when he inevitably stops working or isn’t available, you have to scramble madly to figure out how you were managing to get by before him.

What do you mean you don’t let axe-wielding laser-spewing steel automatons into your martial arts tournaments, Mystrock!?

Piu-Piu: Because every game needs a small fuzzy mascot, but not every game can get one that’s actually appealing.

Salome: Hold up there, friend. Let me get this straight. You’re telling me that you’re transforming into a cool-looking mermaid with exceptional physical and magical combat prowess, who apparently has no issue whatsoever navigating the land so there’s really nothing about this transformation that would prevent you from being able to still live in your village, and you...want to stop this from happening?

It almost doesn’t even make sense from the perspective of the narrative. Like, I know that the warriors Marine assembles are all supposed to be human, but Mystrock worships a sea god! Chances are pretty good that if Salome the mermaid showed up and said, “Lemme at that fighting tournament, dawgs,” they’d see her as a divine messenger and give her the A-OK. Hell, it’d probably make them take Marine’s cause more seriously!

Jack: “Isn’t it hilarious the way I think I’m a ladies’ man and harass them in a stupid manner? No? Well, how about if I do it 8000 more times?”

James: James’s entire character can be summarized by “Lazy,” and “Likes his hat.” Congrats, Aldorlea Games, you’ve managed to create a guy who makes Zell Dincht’s singular character trait of “Wants to eat cafeteria hot dogs” look legitimate by comparison!

Wolfgang: Rather than having gotten personally swept up in the plot’s events, or requiring you to fulfill some trial/quest that takes several hours of game time to complete, Wolfgang just joins your party because you ask him to and he’s a nice guy.

Is...Is that allowed? Someone better check the RPG Rulebook; there’s gotta be an infraction here.

Mom: Marine and Merline sure are quick to get over the fact that their mom left their family to go find a magic flower that grants her eternal youth. Oh, right, she was doing it “for them”, because she wanted to make sure she’d always be there for them. Yeah, okay. That’s definitely why anyone ever goes searching for eternal youth. Uh-huh.

Hey, here’s a thought, girls. Maybe if your mom’s priority really was making sure she was always there for you when you need her, she wouldn’t have gone on a cross-country trip into a life-threatening swamp while you were still children who needed her.

Bokden: Oh, man, you know your cause is getting desperate when you start recruiting NPCs whose only role up until this point is being the focus of gimmicky Where’s Waldo sidequests.

The Bear: The Bear is perhaps the only non-villain RPG character I’ve encountered in years who is so unreasonably hostile and insulting, so frustratingly devoid of any emotional state beyond anger, that Marine’s decision to try to burn his house down while he’s in it actually doesn’t seem too out of line.

Suzuki: Man, he may not look like much, and his Skill Points actually decrease on each level up to indicate that he’s losing his mind in his old age (I can’t determine whether this is in poor taste or hilarious), but give Suzuki a little decent training and a couple speed boost items, and this geriatric murder-factory might just be able to win a round at the end of the game against Lord Dragon. On Hard Mode.

Just what the hell kind of crazy super-genes are in Marine’s bloodline, anyway? I mean, between her, her sister, her mom, her cousin (Benoit), and gramps here, Marine’s family fills out a quarter of the entire party. More than a quarter, in fact, if you don’t count Jeanne as a party member!

Blondie: You know, when you think about it, the fact that the dark-skinned inhabitants of the settlement which adopted a white, fair-haired girl all decided to call her ‘Blondie’ is actually kind of messed up.

Borgon: Basically what happens when you mix Jafar and President Snow together.

Lord Dragon: Okay, I know that Millennium obviously wants us to believe that Dragon is a decent, wise ruler and an upstanding human being in general, but I contend that this guy is a moron. I mean, come on. How on-point of a ruler can he possibly be when he has no idea that the entire countryside surrounding his town, whose residents Mystrock does business with and, I think, technically rules over, is existing in crippling poverty, is overrun with monsters in like 2/3rds of its regions, and totally hates his entire town’s guts?

And how wise, just, and decent a man can he be when he staffs his government with bigots and asswipes? Not every member of his political team is evil (Mai and Giselle seem quite decent human beings, actually), but dude, come on. 1 of your most trusted generals is a scowling monosyllabic bloodthirsty troglodyte who may actually be under a spell that prevents him from opening his mouth if it’s not to either insult someone or demand more violence. The guy straight up has fucking fangs!

And even if we’re charitable enough to assume that maybe Borgon does a hell of a job hiding the fact that 75% of Lord Dragon’s staff are complete assholes, there’s still the tournament itself to consider. While Dragon has enough presence of mind to rebuke his underlings for their stream of verbal abuse during the tournament, it never seems to once enter his head that, gee, maybe the peasants are upset and saying that he and his administration are morally wrong because every word out of his administration’s mouths to these people is a prejudiced slur.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Witcher 3's Romance Choice

Relevant to today’s rant but not something that really fits in anywhere is that when playing The Witcher 3, I played Geralt as heroically as possible. Yeah, it’s a game (and series) that expertly plays to the morally murky nature of life and humanity, and in most cases, there is no ‘right’ choice so much as the one that you feel is the better alternative. But The Witcher 3 is also realistic in that there are many instances within it in which the question of how Geralt acts is cut and dry, morally, and in all cases, I tried to do what was most morally positive. I just say this because later on in this rant, Geralt’s worthiness as a person will be relevant, so you should know that my perspective on him is built upon having played him as good as possible.

And now, for the rant:

Triss or Yennefer?

Pairing preferences are a highly personal and charged topic in fandoms, generally speaking, and fans tend to be prone to extremes of temperament when it comes to who they think should be paired with who. They both feel an overwhelming, giddy warmth at the pairing that they themselves support, and an overpowering hostility towards characters and pairings that they for whatever reason disapprove of.* And of course, in both cases, they like being vocal about it.

This is as true in RPGs as it is in any other entertainment medium. People are widely split on whether Piper, Hancock, Cait, Danse, or Curie’s love for Fallout 4’s protagonist is the purest, while Corrin’s ass is just about the most sought-after commodity in the entire Fire Emblem 14 world, with fangirls and fanboys squeeing in delight at whichever of the myriad possibilities of romantic entanglement best tickles their fancy. And while the intense enthusiasm fans have for romance usually stays relatively positive, all things considered, there are some moments when things sadly turn rather negative. I have come across more than a few forum-goers and fanfiction authors who insist upon making Aeris or Tifa out to be a soulless, thieving harpy intent on destroying all possible happiness for Cloud, in spite of, y’know, every fucking thing the game shows us of their characters and relationship dynamics.

The question of romance in The Witcher 3 inspires no less heated emotion in its players’ hearts than any other, and it has its share of negativity regarding the two women Geralt must choose between, Triss Merigold and Yennefer of Vengerberg. In this case, however...I can understand why significant negativity against either of these women might arise within the player, because both Yen and Triss have some notable flaws. So, which is the better choice for Geralt? Whose love story is the superior one?

Hell if I know. But since you’ve read this far, I can at least tell you which I picked, and how I arrived at that conclusion.

At the risk of being a Negative Nancy, let’s start by looking at the downside of each contender, starting with Triss, since hers is both much simpler to explain, and far more glaring. To put it simply, Triss is a manipulative snake who shamelessly stole her best friend’s boyfriend.

I generally disapprove of the idea of “stealing” someone’s significant other, since, generally speaking, that kind of implies that said significant other doesn’t have any responsibility for the affair. Humans in relationships aren’t possessions that can be stolen; they can be tempted, perhaps, and it may be morally wrong to attempt to woo someone away from the man or woman they’re with, but it’s also their decision and perhaps personal failing to be persuaded thus. In most cases of “stealing” one’s boyfriend/girlfriend, there is wrongdoing by some combination of the involved parties. Depending on the situation, the “thief” is potentially in the wrong for going after someone that’s already committed to another, the “stolen” is potentially in the wrong for choosing not to be emotionally and/or sexually faithful, and/or the “theft victim” is potentially in the wrong for treating his/her significant other poorly enough that they feel the need to seek emotional satisfaction and happiness elsewhere.

In Triss’s case, though? This really is actual, legitimate boyfriend theft. As The Witcher 1 opens, Geralt has lost most of his memories due to a plot twist revealed later in the series, and among the memories to go bye-bye was the knowledge that he’s romantically involved with Yennefer. So when Triss--who knows full damn well that Geralt and Yen are in love--starts putting the moves on Geralt and gets him to hook up with her in the first game and the majority of the second, she is straight up stealing Yennefer’s boyfriend, because the white-haired dope doesn’t know until it’s too late that he’s already taken. And that’s messed up.

On the other side of the coin, though, regardless of her immoral way of starting the relationship, Triss’s feelings for Geralt certainly give every indication of being genuine. Whether you believe this lessens its magnitude of wrong (I personally do not), Triss seems to have stolen her chance to be with Geralt out of an actual emotional affection for him, and not just for some sort of power play or because she’s just horny and wants the Butcher of Blavdickin’.** She wants to spend time with Geralt, she enjoys having conversation with him, she even tries to get a little domestic thing set up with him that really seems like an earnest attempt to have a happy little life together. Additionally, it’s clear from their interactions that the two have a real romantic chemistry with one another. They engage in playful banter and trade quips the way you see people do when they’re in love and having fun with the fact, yet at a moment’s notice can return to conversing as professionals engaged in their mutual task. They read each other’s mood in each situation well enough that they can drop in and out of affection and quips, and seriousness and concern, in a natural sync--or, when not in sync, one is working to calm and focus the other because they’ve lost their calm. Triss and Geralt connect, naturally and well, and all 3 Witcher games display this.

Just too bad it’s all a result of stabbing her best friend in the back and taking advantage of a horny amnesiac.

Let’s look now at Yennefer. First of all, I need to say that I have never read any of the Witcher novels. I’ve done a little looking into Yennefer and Geralt’s history together by perusing wikis and forums, but I have no firsthand knowledge of their interactions beyond what I have seen in The Witcher 3. So while I have gotten an impression that CD Projekt Red was, in fact, pretty faithful in their adaptation of Yennefer from Sapkowski’s books, I can’t speak with any authority on that.

So, the negative part of Yennefer and Geralt’s relationship is, er, well, their relationship. As in, how they interact and how they treat each other, mostly on the side of Yen. Yennefer doesn’t treat Geralt with respect. I mean, she does have respect for him, and I’m fairly sure that Geralt knows that, but the thing of that is, just because you do respect someone, and just because they know you respect them, that doesn’t mean it’s fine to make being disrespectful to them your standard for interaction. In their everyday interactions, Yennefer doesn’t treat Geralt like an equal, or even, really, as someone she even especially likes. She’s curt, sarcastic, patronizing, dismissive, and demanding...watching them speak and work together is like watching a master and a servant that the master clearly sees as lowly. She doesn’t tell Geralt the what or why of her actions, she simply expects him to hop to her wishes and help her perform them. Taking that problem further, she makes him an accessory to acts of wrongdoing, keeping the nature of what he’s participating in and aiding a secret to him until it’s too late for him to try to convince her to try a different method. She reads his mind without his permission, and dismisses his complaints at this staggering invasion of his personal privacy. And in fairness, there are also times when Geralt is sarcastic and mean-spirited right back, more than he needs to be.

Now, you might try to defend much of Yen’s attitude toward Geralt, and the occasionally bad attitude he returns, as being a case of their trading quips and bantering for amusement. Or perhaps you could see it, since they have been together for some time, as the way long-married couples are sometimes known to bicker, but for amusement, rather than out of genuine spite. Interpreting Yen is, I fear, highly subjective, and perhaps someone other than myself can watch and listen to her without hearing the same level of sincere aggravation. Well, perhaps that’s the case, indeed, but, myself, I just can’t say that I buy it. When Geralt and Triss make jabs at each other, it sounds and feels friendly; they’re having fun with the way their minds bounce off one another. When Yennefer and Geralt argue and snipe at each other, it feels sincere, and mean. Like a long-married couple that bickers constantly not because they find it fun, but because, even though they do love each other, they genuinely don’t like each other, if that makes any sense. There are moments where it does seem like it’s for fun and they enjoy their company, but too often, I feel like I’m watching Mom and Dad have a fight that they think I don’t notice because they’re not actually raising their voices. Knowing some of their history from their books and watching them interact in The Witcher 3, you can fully believe that these 2 are in love only because a Djinn enchanted them to be, not because they actually like each other enough to be.

Yennefer does, however, have positives. First of all, some of her actions, if not her attitude, can be forgiven in the game. A lot of what she does and drags Geralt into is motivated out of an intense and fearful love for her surrogate daughter Ciri, and the fact that Yennefer will do anything to find Ciri and keep her safe. When Yennefer does something truly distasteful and has dragged Geralt into unwittingly helping her do so, she is still disturbed and disgusted by what she has done--it’s simply that she will stop at nothing to protect Ciri. That doesn’t really absolve her, as I don’t believe that it’s okay to wrong others even for the sake of those you love, but it does make her instances of wronging others and Geralt at least far less deplorable, if not entirely forgivable. And though she does not tell Geralt what her intentions are at times, one reason she does that is because she is trying to spare him the painful conscience that she herself will have to suffer through--she’s trying to give him a way to justify their actions to himself as a case of his not knowing until it was too late what she was having him help her do. Her conscience restricts her less than Geralt’s restrains him, but she respects that fact and him enough to try to lessen what pain his sensibilities will suffer, and I can respect that. In addition, for all her haughty attitude, some of her secrecy, and perhaps even her meanness, seems born from insecurity, as she does, in fact, doubt at times that Geralt trusts her enough that he would support her as he does if he knew the full extent of what she was doing. It doesn’t answer for all of how she treats him, not by a long shot, but it nonetheless does lessen how poorly one might otherwise view her.

And finally, it’s certainly worth observing that regardless of how she treats him and takes advantage of his love for her, Yennefer does, in fact, love him. You have the option to do a side quest with Yennefer in the game in which she breaks the djinn’s spell tying their fates together, and once this happens, regardless of how Geralt feels, Yennefer finds her feelings are unchanged. Yen does love Geralt, of her own volition, and that’s important.

...Well, okay, I suppose she might just mistake lust and sense of possession of her little murder puppet for love, and that same feeling continues regardless of the djinn’s spell being broken, but let’s at least give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that it really is honest love.

So then, which is the better choice for Geralt? Should he be with a woman he loves, but who doesn’t seem to make him happy to actually be with? Or should he be with a woman he can love and who clearly makes him happy, but who is only even in the running because she took advantage of him and betrayed her best friend in an unconscionable way? Yennefer, or Triss?

When I hashed it out in my mind, it basically became a simple question of what I valued more: just reward, or just punishment?

You see, as far as I can figure it, the woman who makes Geralt the happiest in loving is Triss. To be sure, he’s willing enough in his love for Yennefer, but as Geralt himself intimates to Ciri if you do choose Triss, it’s so much better for him to be with someone who gets him, someone whose personality he’s not always at odds with. Geralt doesn’t just love Triss, he likes her, too, as a person, and she has no issues in making it clear that she feels the same way. But to choose Triss is also to reward a woman who did a truly despicable thing, to allow her to escape punishment for gross wrongdoing, regardless of whether it was out of sincere love or not.

Allow a person who has done much good a chance at greater happiness? Or ensure that a person who has done a great wrong does not enjoy the fruits of her deception?

Ultimately, my decision is this: if I must choose between rewarding a person for doing good, and punishing a person for doing bad, I shall always choose to reward he who did good.

Justice is an important concept. It is. But, if I may get pedestrian and cheesy, Wonder Woman says it best: "It’s not about what you deserve, it’s about what you believe--and I believe in love." There are times when Love and Justice cannot reconcile, times in which meting out punishment means losing an opportunity to do good, and vice-versa. And between the 2, I think it more important to us all that, when we absolutely must choose between them, we do good rather than justice.

I don’t like the fact that choosing Triss means that her selfish act of betrayal came through for her in the end with essentially no negative repercussions. I really don’t. But I do sincerely believe that being with Triss will give Geralt greater happiness, and even if she doesn’t necessarily deserve that happiness, he does. And that’s why, in spite of how this choice came to be offered in the first place, I had Geralt choose to be with Triss.

* Twilight Sparkle and Celestia are meant for each other, and all you crazy motherfuckers who pair Celestia with Discord or Twilight with Flash Sentry are going to burn in hell. Just so we’re on the same page about this.

** I’m not apologizing.