Saturday, June 11, 2016


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, November 28, 2015

The Shadowrun Series's Motto Theory

“Watch your back, shoot straight, conserve ammo, and never, ever cut a deal with a dragon.”

This is the classic motto of the Shadowrunner, a combination of survival advice and well wish that those who live outside the tyranny of corporate law in the Shadowrun universe espouse, the closest thing to a common code that those who run the shadows possess. It’s an iconic phrase of the Shadowrun franchise, which its fans recognize and hold dear the same way fans of Planescape: Torment do for the question, “What can change the nature of a man?”, and fans of Fallout do for “War. War never changes.” It’s a cool phrase, summing up the survivalist mentality and reality for a Shadowrunner in a manner that’s simple and straightforward. there something more within it?

This motto of the Shadowrunner is meant to be interpreted literally, yes. To survive as a free soldier of fortune, you must be wary and ready for attack, you must be competent and possess sharp skills, and you mustn’t be wasteful of your resources. And of course, to survive, you must not let yourself fall into the clutches of that which is too powerful and too clever for you to overcome, the mighty dragons who rule society and claim the world’s resources and people as their treasure hoards. And maybe that’s all there is to it, the literal interpretation. Still...I think that this motto, at least its final part, is also metaphorical. The motto is not just advice on how to stay alive as a’s also the guideline to how to live as a Shadowrunner.

It comes back to what dragons are in Shadowrun. On the surface, the great dragons of Shadowrun are both major characters in the overall story of the Shadowrun world, and essentially a foundational part of the series’s lore. Through one method of control or another (though most commonly via heading the mega corporations that rule and spiritually enslave humanity), the dragons have become the puppet masters of the world, using humanity and metahumanity as resources with which to play a long game of global chess against each other to see who can hoard the greatest wealth of resources.

But it might also be that we’re meant to see the dragons of Shadowrun as something other than just powerful, scaled overlords. More than just physical players in the plot, entities unto themselves and separated from humanity, dragons might also be allegories, representations of greed and covetous control in its highest form. After all, the Shadowrun dragons have, in their short time in the world of humanity, quickly positioned themselves into the places of power over countless others. They are the heads of government, they are involved in organized crime, they head social and religious organizations, and, most importantly, they head the colossal, international businesses, the “megacorps,” that control the peoples of the world over any other force. Follow the trail of any influential and powerful organization, particularly those which are for profit, and you’ll almost surely eventually find a dragon at its end, pulling the strings and consolidating the world’s resources and people as its own, its only true competitors in global manipulation its draconic peers. Sometimes, as in the case of the infamous Lofwyr, you don’t have to follow the trail for very long.

And yet, the ones who cut the trail, who pave it, who serve as its cobblestones, are humans, selfish, short-sighted, power-hungry, greedy little humans. It was no dragon that created the concept of a corporation that puts profits before people, no dragon that invented the concept of political groups and national governments, no dragon that first organized religion. These tools for holding humanity in place and subjugating the everyman were thousands of years old before the dragons arrived on the Shadowrun world scene, created, enacted, and even perfected by human beings. Dragons simply play the game better than people, and seat themselves in the throne that mankind thought it was building for itself. Or at least, its own elite.

In a sense, then, dragons are more than just the characters that the Shadowrun series’s surface presents them as. Dragons are not an alien, outside force, but a foe that lives within our own creation, our own being. I submit that the Shadowrun dragon is intended to be a representation of the extreme of certain faults within humans. They are the embodiment of greed, of corporation, of power lust...they are the embodiment of the desire for the one to make the many dance to his or her whims, and for no sake but simple, covetous want.

Having established that, then, let us look at what a Shadowrunner is. You can find a Shadowrunner in any person. The crusader against social wrongs. The narcissist desiring a bigger piece of the pie than his day job allows. The survivor trying to get out of a bad situation. The ex-soldier who’s lost her way through a combination of circumstances and bad decisions. The anarchist out to disrupt the dragons’ puppet show. A shy computer nerd. A framed cop. A light-hearted street rat with no taste. A selfless community leader. A former lead vocal from a punk band. A psychopath with a vision for humanity. From the virtuous to the deeply disturbed, for grand reasons or petty, it seems that you can find just about any kind of person running the shadows.

There is only one thing that unites them all, and that is the basic definition of a Shadowrunner: one who chooses to live outside the social system, by their own rules. Whatever else a Shadowrunner may be, at the core of their being, they refuse to live within the absolute control of another, refuse to be a cog in the machine, and desire to live free and true to themselves, with only the masters they themselves choose.

“Watch your back, shoot straight, conserve ammo, and never, ever cut a deal with a dragon.”

Thus, I think that the Shadowrunner’s motto is more than just advice or a slogan. I think that when it avows to “never, ever cut a deal with a dragon,” it’s an affirmation of the core principle of what it is to be a Shadowrunner, and thus, a free man or woman. The “dragon” is the system, the means by which the many are controlled by the few, and it is an absolute. You can give into it and be a part of it, or you can stand on your own and never relinquish your autonomy; there is no middle ground. Once you engage with the “dragon,” you are no longer a Shadowrunner, but a cog in the machine and a pawn in someone else’s manipulations, no matter what you may believe. To me, this motto does more than tell how to survive as a Shadowrunner--it also tells how to live as one.

I leave you now with Harlequin’s words of wisdom from Shadowrun Returns:

"The lesson is this - the game is rigged. The cards are stacked. The dice are loaded. It's the same as it always was. Every cycle. People in power exert power. Little people cower in their homes, think what they're told to think, and buy whatever product will help them forget how horrible their lives are for another day. And that's why we don't *play* their fragging game. We don't swallow their drek sandwich and politely ask for another. It's why we run the shadows. That's where real life is, kiddo."

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Undertale's No Mercy Let's Plays

So, for this and any future Undertale rant, I’m just gonna go on the assumption that you know most of the important lore and details of Undertale, have played the game through to its end on at least one path, and that I don’t have to censor myself of spoiler material. Fair warning.

Oh, and get ready for the heaviest load of Taking A Game Too Seriously that you’ve ever seen. Seriously, hardcore Trekkies would say, “Dude, you know this isn’t real, right?” That’s how bad this is. I mean, this rant is basically me seriously engaging in an argument with a fictional character. If you're okay with seeing just how deep the rabbit hole of Utter Pointlessness goes, though, then by all means, continue reading to watch me fall to its very bottom, and then dig that rabbit a new basement.

On with the rant!

It’s okay to watch a Let’s Play of Undertale’s No Mercy path (also known as the Genocide path), rather than play it yourself. You don’t need to feel the lesser for it.

For anyone not in the know, towards the end of a No Mercy playthrough of Undertale (as in, a playthrough in which you intentionally and systematically kill absolutely every last individual that you possibly can), Flowey starts appearing sporadically as you walk through Asgore’s castle to fill you in on some of the game’s interesting lore, most of it specifically related to him. There is a point at which he states, while speaking about how liberating it is to just freely murder those around oneself,

“At least we’re better than those sickos that stand around and WATCH it happen...
Those pathetic people that want to see it, but are too weak to do it themselves.
I bet someone like that’s watching right now, aren’t they...?”

It’s a line that probably just seems like an odd bit of dialogue that means nothing in particular to someone actually playing the game, but to someone who’s watching the No Mercy run via someone else’s gaming video, it’s pretty damn obvious that Flowey is calling him or her out. I gotta hand it to Toby Fox, creator of Undertale: the guy really does think of everything. I saw that line, and I slammed my fist onto my desk because DAMN IT, EVEN THROUGH YOUTUBE FLOWEY MANAGES TO FUCK MY SHIT UP! I swear to Thanatos I hate that little dandelion asshole so damn much!

Ahem. So, here’s the thing. I find this little “Gotcha!” moment amusing and clever, to be sure, and I admire Mr. Fox for being sharp. But I don’t actually feel bad about watching a Let’s Play instead of playing through the No Mercy run myself. And I don’t think anyone else should feel bad, either.

First of all, consider the source of this criticism. I may be being told that I’m no better for watching rather than doing, and in fact that I’m actually worse for it, but...I’m being told this by Flowey. This guy is not exactly the mouthpiece of all that is just and righteous, now, is he? It’s like being rebuked about something by Suikoden 2’s Luca Blight, or Earthbound and Mother 3’s Porky. If Emperor Palpatine started lecturing you sanctimoniously about what was and wasn’t polite, how much attention would you pay to him, really?

But let’s consider the possibility that Flowey is more than just Flowey when he says this. Let’s say that this is meant, as is often the case with lines by Flowey and some by Sans, to be a direct message from the game to you. We’ll say that this rebuke is from the game, and Toby Fox himself, simply delivered through the mouthpiece of an obnoxious little bundle of tea ingredients. Do I feel a little chastised, now that the source of the reprimand is legitimate?

Still no.

See, here’s the thing. You can call it cowardice, sure. I did sate my curiosity about certain events of the No Mercy run, while being too cowardly to make them happen myself.* My reason for watching the Let’s Play was really more about learning the lore that only comes up in the No Mercy path, than “just seeing what happens,” so maybe I’m not even the real target of this line, but let’s say I am. You can call it cowardice. But it’s not equally bad to doing the act myself. Because drawing on the knowledge and experience of others who have done wrong helps us to avoid doing wrong ourselves. It is a GOOD thing to sate your curiosity in simulation rather than in practice. Reading others’ accounts of how it feels to commit wrong helps us to understand the criminal mind, which gives us the knowledge to recognize warning signs of potential criminal acts, and to better track down those who have perpetrated such deeds. It helps us to understand how terrible war is, so that we know better than to hastily wage it without just cause and no alternatives, and seek to bring its end about as quickly as possible. It helps us to find empathy with those who have done wrong, so that we can learn how to understand and help them to become better.

We learn best from mistakes. But they don’t have to be our own. When one commits a mistake to public record, it is for the benefit of all to learn it, to lessen how many times it must be repeated. I think it’s reasonable to say that the No Mercy playthrough of Undertale is “bad.” I would feel guilty (sick, really) if I did it myself. And if no one ever did, I still wouldn’t do it, even at the expense of not knowing what happened within it. But some people have played the No Mercy run of Undertale, and they’ve posted their experience online, and I’ll watch it, and satisfy my curiosity, and I won’t feel any less for it. Regardless of what Flowey’s incomplete and unexamined philosophy on the matter may be, there’s no shame in the knowledge of evil passed on by another, only in the knowledge of evil gained through experience.

Sorry, Flowey, but I’m not gonna feel bad about NOT killing people.

* I personally would call it simply loving the characters too much to commit harm against them myself, though. Of course, that opens up a whole new can of worms about what difference that makes, whether I’m a hypocrite for it, and so on. Oh well.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Legend of Heroes 6-1's Cassius Bright's Shadow

Well, I did my positive piece on The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. My debt to Humza is paid. Now for the fun stuff. On with the complaints! At least, sort of.

Be warned, this rant contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.

Cassius Bright, the plot jack-of-all-trades for the kingdom of Liberl. Brilliant military strategist who turned the tide of the Hundred Days War! Unequaled swordsman AND peerless master of the bo staff! Internationally celebrated Bracer superstar for whom the unofficial, classified S-Rank was invented! Savior and redeemer of child assassins! Devoted father of protagonist Estelle Bright! If there’s anything important that’s happened in Liberl within the past 20 years, Cassius Bright was a key player in the event or was good friends with someone who was. He knows everyone important everywhere and has a finger in every plot pie conceivable. And that...

Gets really, really old.

If I have any complaint about the story as a whole, I think it’s probably the inescapable weight of Cassius Bright throughout the whole game. Estelle cannot go anywhere or meet anyone without being in her father’s shadow. I’d say at least 75% of the important figures in the story knew Cassius Bright and have something to say about him, and as I’ve just said, just about every important thing that happened in the past and half the ones happening in the game’s present are directly tied to the guy. Introduce herself as a Bracer in training, as a person in her own right, and Estelle barely gets a nod from any plot figure. Let them know that she’s Cassius Bright’s daughter, and suddenly she’s a celebrity by association, and everyone magically now has confidence in her abilities. Estelle somehow manages not to develop a huge anxiety disorder from all of this, but it still gets kind of tiresome to just keep hearing all the damn time.

I mean, look, I can appreciate a story where an important figure’s legacy is a constant presence whose influence is frequently felt. Done right, it can contribute to the creation of a very strong and meaningful story. I think that Shadowrun Dragonfall did this terrifically with the character of Monica. So much of the story and setting was determined by the legacy she left behind after her death, and through that ever-present influence from beyond the grave, Monica was made into as well-developed and deep a character as half of the party members who were actually alive for the game’s events.

Rose Quartz from Steven Universe is another great example of this idea of a non-present character’s legacy nonetheless shaping and influencing a huge part of the story and characters. If you’ve seen Steven Universe, then you know exactly what I mean, and if you haven’t seen Steven Universe, then why haven’t you seen Steven Universe. Stop wasting your time with this drek I’m typing and go watch Steven Universe. Seriously, it is one of the highest works of art produced by humanity to date.

But Monica and Rose Quartz are characters whose presence is always there silently, remembered, referred to directly only sparingly and when naturally appropriate. You’re allowed to mull over how much of the characters and plot you see are because of their memory, their beliefs, and their passing--the game and the show will tell you to a certain extent, but allow you a lot of room to extrapolate and contemplate on your own. But no one will goddamn shut up about Cassius Bright! Everything, everyone, comes back to this guy, and the game wants you to know that fact beyond any shadow of a doubt! It’s like the nation of Liberl is entirely populated by 6-year-olds who are at that stage where they find 1 thing in the world that they think is super cool and talk obsessively about it to anyone who will listen. I GET IT. CASSIUS BRIGHT WAS AND IS A BIG DEAL. SHUT UP.*

...But, repetitive though this does get, I can’t complain too seriously about it. See, even though I find it annoying, it...kind of is thematically important in terms of the main villain’s role. In fact, it might just be the most intelligent narrative aspect of the entire game.

See, the villain’s entire motivation for his schemes IS that he, like everyone else, saw Cassius Bright as an unequaled hero who singlehandedly saved the nation and united its leaders together for the good of all. Colonel Richard’s motivation for his evil machinations is his inability to believe that the the nation can otherwise be safe without Cassius Bright’s leadership, and thus Richard must do bad things to gain tyrannical control of his country and gain control of (what he thinks is) an ancient magical super weapon. That motivation is kind of a hard sell under normal circumstances, but I found that I completely understood Richard’s perspective when his motives were revealed, sympathizing more with him than I have with any other villain this year.

And why is that? Because the game shows you, firsthand, how much the people of Liberl depended on Cassius, how they idolized him and saw him as the sole reason for the happy outcome of the war and the current freedom and security of the nation. And that reliance on Cassius by the nation’s leaders and military heads is echoed in the present with the Bracer Guild’s adoration and dependence on the man--capable Bracers lament that their obstacles would be easily solved, or never have arisen to begin with, if Cassius weren’t away on his secret mission, powerful and renowned Bracers like Scherazard and Zane consistently refer to themselves as small potatoes by comparison...even the Bracer who seems the most self-reliant, Agate, gives the impression that a major part of his motivation is just to equal and surpass the vaunted Cassius Bright.

In the face of a nation wherein its protectors, its leaders, and even its great scientific minds all idolize Cassius in such a regard that they minimize their own accomplishments and abilities, is it any wonder that Colonel Richard attempts his coup against the queen? You can fully understand why he feels his country is helpless and vulnerable without Cassius Bright to run its military. Even though Cassius himself believes and strongly states that the salvation of Liberl during the Hundred Days War was a team effort, that no matter how great his role was, he was unable to do anything alone and even failed in some regards (such as his inability to keep his wife safe), Richard and so many others see only a war won by a single man. To some degree, nearly every major figure of the nation of Liberl has convinced themselves of their own powerlessness by comparison; Richard just believes it to a greater and more paranoid extreme than most.

Man, Knights of the Old Republic 2’s Kreia would have a field day talking about Liberl’s situation.

At any rate, that’s pretty much all I have to say on this matter, in my long, winding, and ultimately pointless way. The constant references to Cassius Bright in TLoH6-1 do get tiresome, but that’s all part of a clever, larger narrative plan to really persuade the player of the authenticity of Colonel Richard’s motivation for his villainy, and it works.

* I am joking. Please do not actually tell 6-year-olds to shut up. Who are you, Kevin Winnicot?

Wednesday, October 28, 2015


When I play through an Indie RPG, I generally try to make a rant devoted to creating awareness for the game, since most of them don’t get the press that larger developers’ works do, and also have limited options for advertising. Also, in all honesty, I’d rather support the smaller mom-and-pop type of game developer, simply because I believe they have greater potential to push the RPG as we know it into new, exciting, and meaningful directions. I certainly don’t want to see the Big Developer RPG disappear, of course, because there are things that both sides of the industry can offer that the other really just can’t. Of them, though, the Indie RPG is the one that has the greater need, so that’s the one I try to plug, when given the opportunity.

And damn, does Undertale ever give the opportunity.

So, Undertale. As Indie RPGs go, this is the new big deal, making the biggest splash I’ve seen an Indie RPG create since Bastion. It has as close to a universal appeal as an RPG can possess. A lot of people say that it should be the Game of the Year for many trusted, respectable gaming sites. And IGN, too. There are some who say that it’s their new favorite RPG, period.* So, the question is...does it live up to its underground hype?

Pretty much, yeah.

Having revealed this rant’s conclusion too early, I will now proceed to continue writing as though you have any reason to read further after the above sentence. Undertale is incredible. It’s very, very smart, it’s quite funny, it’s one of the most creative RPGs I’ve come across, it plays to nostalgia while never treading within another game’s footsteps, and it’s emotionally gripping to an extreme, able to give you rich, heartwarming enjoyment, or deeply disturb you. I really wish I had known about its Kickstarter campaign, because it’s one of those games that I would feel a tremendous pride in knowing I contributed to its existence.

But I know about it now, thanks to my longtime buddy and, it turns out, reader, Angahith. I’ve mentioned him here a few times (he was the guy who prodded me to play my first Indie RPG, Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch), but it bears stating that the guy is just the salt of the Earth, one of those folks you come across sometimes who you’ll just never have anything bad to say about. Or at least, I don’t. I really don’t give frequent enough praise to my friends and family who contribute to my rants, including those who point me in the direction of great RPGs to talk about here, and Anga’s one of them. Good on you, sir, if you’re reading this.

Anyway, Angahith told me about Undertale, I tried it out, and I found it to be the best Indie RPG I’ve played to date. By a significant margin. Seriously, when I do my end of the year calculations, it’s going on my Greatest RPGs List, and it won’t be occupying a low spot, either.

So, let’s get the nitty-gritty. What makes Undertale so great? Well, first of all, from start to finish, it is just incredibly creative. I mean, the creativity infuses pretty much every part of the game. The setting and world of Undertale (as much of it as we’re made privy to, at least) is thoughtful and interesting, and puts a highly creative spin on the existence of monsters in RPGs. The plot is creative, wrapping around itself in deliciously complex and thought-provoking ways, while somehow remaining appealingly simple and straightforward. Relating to that is the clever way that the most fundamental of RPG mechanics are incorporated into the game’s story, events, and lore. It is something I’ve seen before in small ways in Breath of Fire 5, and Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle incorporated some RPG mechanics into its overall plot in a similar way...but if BoF5 and EoWC take a few tentative steps forward into the concept of using conventional game mechanics within storytelling, Undertale runs a marathon with it.

The style of the game is also creative. Now, yes, it’s pretty clear that Undertale adopts more than a little of the Earthbound/Mother style, so you could say that it’s not as creative for that fact, but, well, to be quite frank, this game uses the Earthbound method and surreal quirkiness significantly better than any of the games it borrows from, even the excellent Mother 3. This is a game that out-Earthbounds Earthbound, and by a lot, so I’d say that it’s still creative for that, because it’s forging into new territory with the Earthbound formula.

Also, the premise is creative. This is an RPG where you can go from start to finish without killing a single enemy, if you so choose. Oh, certainly, you can choose to kill any that come across your path, or all of them, just like in a regular RPG. But you also have the choice not to kill your opponent in every scenario, which is pretty damn rare when it comes to RPGs--as far as I know, such a thing has only been made intentionally possible in the Deus Ex series before now. And, at the risk of being spoiler-y, your battle decisions make a major difference to the progression of the plot, to the ending you get, and even to what message the game has for you and what emotional impact it makes upon you--how you treat your foes has as much or more weight upon the meat of the game’s story and characters as any choice made in games touted for player decision-based plot pathways, like Dragon Age or Mass Effect. Which puts Undertale’s premise and practice of providing potential pacifist play paths in its plot pretty far past its Deus Ex peers. Which makes it all the more creative.

Lastly, and related to the premise, the battle system is creative. Now, I generally don’t care about gameplay features, as you well know, at least not to the extent that they sway my opinion on a game at all. But I can (and have) acknowledge when gameplay is done well or poorly in an RPG, and Undertale’s battle system is simple but highly effective for working around its premise. As a seamless blend of traditional turn-based RPG combat and, believe it or not, the Bullet Hell genre, Undertale’s combat is, so far as I can tell, utterly unique to RPGs even as it functions on a very traditional and generic foundation. And by making the primary mode of action in this battle system a form of Bullet Hell gameplay, Undertale very effectively accommodates the play style of pacifism that the game touts as a feature, since the gaming skills of a Bullet Hell game are, first and foremost, about dodging and surviving attacks, less than concentrating on your own offense.

So yeah, the game’s creative. Very creative. One of the most creative RPGs you’ll ever come across. But creativity alone doesn’t make an RPG great, of course. Anodyne was very creative, but ultimately underwhelming because it didn’t know how to use its creativity to any effective end, in my opinion, while Grandia 2 can be seen as incredibly uncreative since it pretty much entirely employs overused tropes in its plot and characters, yet the way they’re used is so masterful that every cliche seems fresh, thoughtful, and engaging. So what about the rest of Undertale?

Well, the plot’s really strong. Whether you’re a saint, an amoral abomination, or somewhere in between, the simple story of Undertale is engaging, particularly in its beginning and later stages, and it expands its scope and its depth with masterful subtlety. This is a story which is simple and straightforward, yet it is also layered, nuanced, and ripe with the opportunity to mentally pick it apart in minute detail, to theorize about its behind-the-scenes aspects, to recognize tiny connections and recurrences within itself that betray its storytelling artistry, to rejoice as you hit upon a private insight on subsequent playthroughs. Rarely do I see such far-sighted care in arranging even the tiniest details to have significance, whether light or heavy, that can be found later. It’s a clever, secret subtlety that you see in creations of high care, precision, and vision, things like Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, or Steven Universe. Like Planescape: Torment or Revolutionary Girl Utena, you’ll never truly know Undertale without viewing it from start to finish multiple times, even if you’re just repeating the same playthrough style. That’s not because it’s clumsily over-complex (like, say, Chrono Cross), but rather, because there’s just a lot of layers to everything, and you need time and repetition to peel them away. Mind you, it’s definitely not on the same level of brilliance as PT or RGU, but frankly, anything that’s in the ballpark enough to warrant significant comparison to either of them is doing something really, really right.

The characters are good. They’ve generally got a good level of depth and complexity, and they are extremely personable. Each makes his or her own unique bid for your affections, and I’d have some trouble conjuring up the kind of player who could resist the cast’s charms. Which is good, because this story of the value of connections and making peace with others, and/or of the disturbing, nay, horrifying repercussions of apathetic malice and self-interest, really would not work without a cast as lovable as this one. Likewise, the game’s got a good villain.** The villain has depth, performs the role really well (he will infuriate you, and also freak you the fuck out), ties strongly to the messages and themes of the game, and is a great foil for the protagonist.

Also, Undertale is funny. Or disturbing. Sometimes both. Like I said before, this game basically out-Earthbounds Earthbound. Included in that is the fact that it is terrifically funny in a quirky fashion, and the fact that it can seriously creep you out. But generally, it’s a lot of fun, and much like Mother 3 does, Undertale uses its quirky humor as an expert way to invest you all the more so that the meaningful moments have greater impact. I wouldn’t say it’s better than Mother 3 in this regard, but it’s close enough to be quite adept at playing with your joy and sorrow.

The music’s pretty nifty. Not as big a deal as the other stuff I’ve mentioned, but it sure does its part, and then some, to create the mood and underscore the emotion of whatever’s going on. If you’re really into the soundtrack of the games you play, I daresay this one is another selling point for you on the game.

Creative, funny, with a great, simple-yet-complex plot, and characters you really connect with. What else do you need from Undertale? Well, you’re the readers of an RPG blog written by a guy named The RPGenius so I’m gonna go and make the crazy assumption that you just might have some interest in RPGs, and that being the case, you’ll likely also really benefit from the interesting deconstruction of RPGs that Undertale performs. Now, it’s not exactly unknown for a game to look at and play with the conventions of its genre within its own story, but any time this happens with RPGs, it’s usually just to make lighthearted references and jokes about it. Which is fine, of course, I rarely tire of having my genre of choice poke fun at itself.

But Undertale goes a considerable step further with it. While it does make a few jokes about RPG conventions, Undertale is much more interested in looking at some of the things we take for granted about RPGs, looking critically at their moral and philosophical ramifications, questioning them and what they imply about we who take part in them. It’s interesting to see the game go about this, and I’ve been privately interested, perhaps even a little concerned, for a few years now about certain aspects of RPGs that we just take for granted but seem disturbing when you think about them. So yeah, that’s another point in Undertale’s favor for me.

Also, while this is something that some players have bemoaned, I like the fact that Undertale remembers. What you choose to do in this game matters, and it stays with you. You may be surprised at just how seriously Undertale wants you to understand that actions have consequences. I don’t want to spoil things here about the game...but I know that there are players out there like me, who are capable of attaching a real, meaningful value to the fictional individuals they meet in a game, and care about what happens to them, and if that describes you, I’d feel bad if I didn’t provide proper warning to you. So here it is: in this game, think about your reasons for taking any action you think you could regret if that action stayed with you. If your only reason is “to see what happens,” just...maybe think it over a second time. All I’m saying is, Let’s Plays exist.

So...yeah. I think that’s enough of a recommendation, right? Undertale is 1 of those real gems that has pretty much no flaws (besides a lack of a run button; backtracking for dialogue completionism takes forever), and a hell of a lot of virtues. I definitely recommend it, and if that recommendation holds any weight, you can head over to the official website to buy it. You can also get it from Steam, if you prefer that, for some reason. It’s only $10, and that’s a steal for an RPG of even half the quality as Undertale. Check it out.

* Enough to be noteworthy, that is. When it comes to RPGs, there seems almost invariably to be at least a couple people for any given RPG who will say it’s the best one ever. I’ve even seen people claim that they’ve never played a better RPG than the Mega Man Star Force titles, for Hades’s sake. Still, Undertale has more people making this claim than the standard.

** Or villains, you could say. Depending on things. A lot of things. Complicated things. Play the game.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

General RPGs' Dungeons and Dragons Helmets

Why are helmets in Dungeons and Dragons based RPGs so rarely actually protective?

D+D has been the backdrop to a lot of video game RPGs, many of them extremely famous titles of the genre (such as Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and, of course, the incredibly excellent Planescape: Torment). And in each of those games, the average helmet really doesn’t do much for your defense. Until you get far enough in the game that you start encountering a ton of enchanted equipment and may then come across a helmet with some trait that’s actually useful, the only thing a helmet does is prevent critical hits. It doesn’t add to your Armor Class, or reduce damage, or anything.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s nice not to have to worry that some punk ass little goblin’s gonna roll a critical right when he’s beating otherwise ineffectually against your mage, but this setup doesn’t seem logical to me. Yeah, I can kind of see the reasoning behind it--your head’s a pretty important and vulnerable spot on you, so you could say that any critical hit is an attack on your head, and thus a helmet is protecting you from those. But your heart, your liver, your stomach, your neck, and your genitals are all extremely vulnerable areas, too. The whole human body is basically one giant weak spot, really. It’s only reasonable to assume that attacks that penetrate those areas would be critical hits, possibly even more so than several parts of your head (which does have that thick, or even utterly impenetrable if you work at SquareEnix, skull around it). The regular armor covering those areas doesn’t protect against critical hits, despite being, often, considerably thicker than a helmet--it just increases the Armor Class.

Of course, Armor Class is kind of logistically bizarre already, so I don’t know why I’d expect the helmet situation to make a whole lot of sense, either.

It’s not a big deal, I know, and the games themselves aren’t solely at fault--they’re just following the way that the armor system worked in the actual version of Dungeons and Dragons that they were based on. I’m sure that the role of helmets in D+D were determined with gameplay balance in mind more than making sense of the armor defense system. It’s just weird to see what would normally be a vital part of one’s defensive equipment relegated to such a tiny protective role, that’s all.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Lunar: Dragon Song's Final Showdown

Amongst the many, many accolades for atrocity one can attribute to Lunar: Dragon Song is the fact that this game may have the lamest final confrontation of all RPG history.

Here’s the deal. The sad sack villain of the game, Ignatius, is sitting in his Final Boss Castle, right? Jian, the “hero” of the game, if such he can really be called, and Jian’s faithful bland companions, must go through the castle to save Lucia, a human reincarnation of the goddess Althena who actually manages to make even Lunar 1’s Luna look interesting by comparison, from Ignatius’s clutches. Ignatius, you see, intends to awaken Althena within Lucia, and use her, as well as his powers as the Dragonmaster, to take over the world, because he’s evil, and also a transparent rip-off of previous Lunar series villain Ghaleon. It’s like the LDS writers just copy-pasted Ghaleon into the game and changed his name.

Okay, tangent here, but I’d like to note that I can still barely believe how lazy a villain Ignatius is. I mean, the Ghaleon archetype wasn’t exactly unknown in RPGs to begin with, but in Pandora’s name, Game Arts, what the hell is wrong with you? It’s one thing when a series like, say, Final Fantasy has villains that seem suspiciously similar to one another. Final Fantasy has over 30 distinct titles. The Lunar series has 4. And Ghaleon already acts as the major antagonist in half of them! How can the writers at Game Arts be so staggeringly lacking in basic human creativity that they cannot write more than one single villain?

Tangent over. So, as you can see, the stage is set at the end of Lunar: Dragon Song for a pretty standard face-off between Ignatius and Jian. Tried and true RPG formula’s in full swing. It’s not exactly creative, and given all that the player has suffered from LDS already, it sure as hell ain’t going to be enjoyable, but at least the player knows what’s coming and is prepared to ride the generic finale out. It’ll even be a bit of a relief, to finally be done with this wretched title. This is a finale to look forward to, if for all the wrong reasons. Right?


So, you go along through the final dungeon, and have another confrontation with Gideon, the large, persistent monster follower of Ignatius whom Jian and company have already had previous run-ins with. No surprise there. You beat him, and you go on for a while more, fighting through legions of lazy palette-swap copy-enemies and lazier copy-environments because hey, who wants to spend the time designing new textures and tiles? Certainly not Game Arts. You get to the last part of the castle, and have to beat Gideon yet again. Stupid git don’t stay dead.

With this most recent victory over Gideon, you move on to the final area, which is your standard divine staircase set against a background of stars and space. I’m fairly sure, being RPG players, that you are familiar with this sort of setting. And the first thing that happens is that Gideon comes up from behind the group and attacks once more. Well, it’s annoying, but eh, annoying recurring boss henchmen will be annoying recurring boss henchmen, right? So it’s time to put this monster down once and for all. It’s a tough battle, but eventually, Gideon is defeated. With Gideon dead, there is nothing between Jian and the showdown that his long, trying journey has been leading up to! Now, the party can finally confront Ignatius...Ignatius the head honcho, Antagonist Prime, Ignatius the power-hungry manipulator of the Vile Tribe who seeks in his hubris to usurp a goddess’s power for his own selfish ends!

Oh, and hey, congratulations on beating the game.

No, that’s not me expressing confidence that you can do so. No, I’m not accidentally putting that sentence too early. The game’s over. You won. Killing Gideon for good was the last battle in Lunar: Dragon Song. There is no final battle with the villain of this game. This is a game that denies the player the most basic, intrinsic aspect of a story’s finale. Lunar: Dragon Song flies in hundreds, really thousands of years of successful storytelling in order to deliver you the lamest finale possible.

But hey, hold on. Can I really say that, just from not having a final fight against Ignatius? I mean, just because the player himself does not take part in defeating the villain, that doesn’t mean Ignatius’s defeat has to be bad, right? It could still be fine just watching Jian beat Ignatius instead of taking part in it ourselves. Most of the important points and narrative of an RPG are told through cutscenes anyway. Right?

Sooner or later you’re going to wise up and stop giving this shitty game the benefit of the doubt.

You want to know how Jian takes Ignatius out? You want to know how the villain of the game, the mighty Dragonmaster* who commands violent legions of exiles and has entrapped a goddess within his clutches, is defeated?

He falls down.

In what may be the first time in history that any important RPG character actually dies from a fatal drop, Ignatius is overcome by losing his footing. See, it goes like this. Gideon’s finally beaten. Ignatius enters and shows Jian that he’s brainwashed Althena-Lucia, because apparently, as the game explains, reawakening as a goddess leaves her with no memories of her human life just like being reborn leaves her with no memories of being a goddess. Perhaps realizing that this makes no damn sense, the game hurriedly moves onto Ignatius waxing idiotic on how love only hurts people, or some such pretentious stupidity, and then offering to finally settle things with Jian, as, y’know, you’re expecting to happen. Jian makes some emotional bid to Althena-Lucia to remember him and go back home with him, which would be touching if you had any investment in their relationship, but you don’t. Ignatius decides to hit Jian with a rather underwhelming fireball which manages to drop the stupid kid to his knees, and then Jian goes...ugh, look for yourself:

“Ignatius...You still don't get it, do you? We can't solve this by fighting! I may defeat you, or you can defeat me, it does not matter! One of us will end up defeated!”

Yes, I think that’s what the man had in mind, Jian.

Captain Tautology tries a bit more to persuade Ignatius, for some reason certainly not related to anything we know about Jian’s character, Ignatius’s history, or rational thought. It doesn’t work. Ignatius, perhaps annoyed that someone else is spouting ridiculous pseudo-psychological drivel that means nothing, decides to lightly tap Jian with another fireball, and Althena-Lucia picks that moment to run out from behind Ignatius to get in the way of his attack and save Jian.

She runs out from behind Ignatius to get in the way of his attack.

Runs out from behind Ignatius to get in the way of his attack. Runs out from behind Ignatius runs out from behind runs out from behind Ignatius to get in the way of his attack.

Doesn’t use her advantage of being behind Ignatius to attack the jerk before he can shoot the fireball to begin with! Doesn’t use her power as the reawakened goddess of all of Lunar to stop the fireball in any way! Does not even push his arm a little to the left so he misses since she’s right there beside him! Runs out, from behind him--runs out ALONGSIDE the fireball as it flies! This fireball is so slow that she is able to keep pace with it and OUTRUN IT so she can throw herself in front of it! This isn’t like your standard scenario where someone throws themselves in front of someone else as a gun fires or a sword comes at them or something. In those situations, the person sacrificing him/herself is close enough that he or she actually COULD get into position to act as a body shield. Althena-Lucia is further away than the attack itself! It’s like if you had a scene where a truck is bearing down on someone in the street, and the heroic savior who wants to shove the would-be roadkill out of the way comes running from behind the truck to do it!

Sorry. Tangents. I do them. My intent was to point out how lame this finale is, but I suppose I can’t help but draw attention to the fact that it is also very, very stupid.

Anyway, Althena-Lucia’s down for the count, and Jian and company are pissed off at Ignatius. Given that this situation only came about because Jian is such a sucky fighter that he can’t anticipate and dodge an attack he was just hit with a minute ago that’s also so slow that someone wearing a ball gown can outrun it, I really think that he and Ignatius should share the blame 50-50, but no one consulted me, so whatever. Ignatius laments over losing control of Althena after all that work (if she can be taken down by a single fireball that wasn’t even enough to kill a regular human earlier, exactly how much use could she possibly have been to him?), and then Ignatius once again indicates that he’s ready to fight Jian. As she’s dying, though, Althena-Lucia tells Jian not to fight Ignatius, and urges him to remember what he learned during the Dragons’ trials,** telling Jian to instead forgive Ignatius.

Good message and all, but maybe not the right one for when a dude wants to kill you and conquer the world.

Althena-Lucia goes on to blabber about not being needed any more, a conclusion that comes from absolutely nowhere whatsoever and is utterly invalidated as a personal revelation by the previous games in the series that have existed for 20 damn years, and fades away, with Jian telling her she can’t go because he loves her. I guess it’s good that he mentions it, because she, like anyone else, would never have picked up on it otherwise.

With Althena-Lucia gone, Ignatius reaffirms his plans to rule the world, making the player once again question why he bothered taking control of her to begin with if he felt completely capable of fulfilling his plans without her. He says he’s going to kill them all now, and then the place begins to shake. Everyone is surprised by this, including the player...usually, final boss dungeons don’t start shaking themselves apart until after the villain is dead. My guess is that even the scenery is in a hurry to get this shitty game over with. The screen goes black for a second, and the next thing we see is that the floor below Ignatius apparently fell away and he’s holding onto the edge of where Jian and company are standing for dear life.

Yes, this game can’t be bothered to animate changes to the background, not even for its grand finale. Sigh. Take it away, Robot Chicken.

Jian’s holding onto Ignatius, trying to help the guy back up, while Gabby and Flora just stare mutely, probably struck dumb by the unfathomable stupidity of it all. Ignatius asserts that he doesn’t need Jian’s help, and then immediately proves himself wrong by falling to his death as Jian backs off.

And that’s it. That’s it! This may not be the worst finale ever (fuck you, Bioware), but it sure as hell is the lamest. Your final battle in this game isn’t with the actual villain, but his lackey. The expected fight with the villain himself is teased several times in the dialogue--dialogue that takes its sweet time to say absolutely nothing and is punctuated by sad, slow little fireballs that devastate the hero we’re supposed to believe is strong--but that fight never comes. And then, after an off-screen moment because the game can’t be bothered to animate itself properly, the villain just falls down.

That’s how Ignatius, evil Dragonmaster and self-styled overlord of all of Lunar, prominent antagonist of Lunar: Dragon Song, is defeated. Killed by scenery.

* Not that the fact that he’s a Dragonmaster is ever given any real weight in this piece of trash game. LDS clearly expects you to have played previous Lunar games to know that being a Dragonmaster is a big deal; here it’s a name drop whose significance is never explained. Look, guys, you don’t need to go into huge detail about every part of your lore in a sequel, but you can’t just assume that every player is going to have played the 20-year-old games that came before this one and not explain ANYTHING. Come on, now.

** Trials which Jian passed by fighting the Dragons.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Mass Effect 3's Weak Plot Foundation

Well, I’ve mentioned off and on for years now that I’d do this, so...let’s do this.

Mass Effect 3 is, overall, an awesome RPG. The majority of its story events are either thrilling or extremely moving, its characters are, as always with Mass Effect, almost all great, the protagonist is kickass, the themes and messages are good and worth thinking about, the voice acting’s top-notch...if only it didn’t have what is arguably the worst ending in all RPG history, this game would be among the greatest games in the genre. Sadly, Mass Effect 3’s ending is so intellectually and emotionally toxic that I’m starting to shake with rage as I write this just because I’m remembering it oh my Viridi what the FUCK Bioware WHAT THE FFFFFFUUUUUUUUUU--

I’m okay.

Still, even if we set aside the ending, which is so horrible that internet-dwellers still frequently rationalize any tragedy and disappointment they come across as “still a better ending than Mass Effect 3,” ME3 is not a perfect product. Truly excellent, yes, but it has its flaws. It continues its predecessors’ inability to make Ashley a likable or compelling character. There’s really not enough done on the front of love interests. Liara still frequently sounds like her somniloquent voice actress was recorded from the other side of the an aquarium. And Diana Allers. Dear God, Diana Allers. And you could romance her. For the first time in human history (sadly not the last, thanks a bunch, E. L. James), the phrase “still a better love story than Twilight” could not be said.

One of these flaws is, quite frankly, just the whole basis of Mass Effect 3’s plot. No, not the Reapers’ attack on galactic civilization. That part’s fine, and (arguably) what the whole series has been building up to. No, the problem with Mass Effect 3’s plot, that which weakens it as an overall structure, is the Crucible.

By itself, the logic of the Crucible is...iffy at best, and that doesn’t count all the idiotic bullshit it brings about in the game’s finale. You basically just have to take it on faith that somehow multiple completely unconnected cultures of aliens all managed to successively and successfully work on building a weapon during the cyclical armageddon of each one’s civilization, which they managed to keep hidden every single time from an enemy that can mass-brainwash individuals into becoming traitors and telling that enemy everything they know. Secrecy in the face of mass Reaper Indoctrination! Over and over again!

You just have to take it on faith that this super weapon was kept hidden for each following cycle to work on in conditions good enough that this unimaginably advanced technology could last for tens of thousands of years as it waited to be discovered, placed somewhere that the Reapers would not detect it, but where it would be found by its intended recipient society. You just have to take it on faith that the theories and concepts behind this inexplicable super technology that can beat the Reapers, which is so inscrutable to the current civilization cycle that it’s outright stated by the higher-ups within the game that they don’t actually know what the damn thing is going to do once it’s turned on, was somehow understood and worked out by these multiple separate totally different civilizations working on the problem one after the other. You just have to take it on faith that the blueprints just happened to be mostly complete by the time the Protheans (the civilization cycle before our own) had to hide it, that its plans just happened to be discovered now, right when it is needed, that they just happened to be comprehensible in their amalgamation of the technology of multiple alien civilizations set thousands of years and countless light years apart,* and, let’s not forget, that there just happens to be a convenient magical Reaper instant-kill button to begin with.

...You know, there are times when I know that something’s ridiculous, but it never really strikes me just how ridiculous it really is until I write it out in these rants. This is as nonsensical as any given Xenosaga 3 plot point. It’s a different, but completely equal kind of absurdity.

Anyway! The logistical problems of the Crucible aside, and again not counting anything involving the game’s ending because that’s just its own galaxy of putrescence, what really makes this thing a problem is that it weakens the overall plot of Mass Effect 3 and the game’s ultimate goal focus. It basically makes it into the weakest possible version of the cliched RPG formula of uncovering the secrets of the ancients in order to save the world.

I mean, think about it. How is the Crucible’s plans, utility, and existence any different from some generic fantasy RPG’s magical sword or other artifact that happens to be the sole key to defeating the game’s villain, and is housed in some ancient ruins created by some generic advanced ancient society that’s probably just outright called “The Ancients?” If the majority of a game’s plot focus is “gather the resources needed to fully construct and use the Crucible,” is that really any different from having a game where the majority of a game’s plot focus is “gather the resources needed to fully empower the Sword of Mana?” Whether it’s a mystical sword or a super advanced off switch, you’re still making the nigh-entirety of your game about running around to fix up some convenient magical plot device** that just happens to have been left to the game’s heroes to save the universe with, rather than come up with their own means to do so.

That’s not to say that making your game’s goals revolve around collecting magical crystals or unlocking seals on a magical sword can’t be done reasonably well. It can, and it usually is. Unfortunately, the Crucible represents the worst possible scenario in terms of this kind of plot. Because, you see, the Crucible is not the means by which the characters of the game are allowed the chance to fight back, it’s the entirety of their hopes. Everything is pinned on the idea that this lazy, magical plot device will just solve all the problems in a single go!

You take, say, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, by contrast. The ultimate plot goal of that game is similar--you seek out each of the ancient 4 giants of Termina to save the land from the moon crashing down onto it. Alright, so, seeking out the means to make an ancient, convenient and lazy plot device (the giants) save the day; seems like the Crucible so far. But the giants’ contribution is not the end-all, be-all of everything! Once they have halted the moon’s descent, it’s still up to Link to face off against Majora’s Mask by himself--the ultimate victory of good over evil, the triumph of the story, must still be won by the actual hero of the story, by his own hand, utilizing his own skills and resources. But the Crucible, it’s just the end of the conflict, the sweeping magical plot device that solves all problems once it’s up and running. Sure, Shepard must, in the ending, face off against The Illusive Man and personally get the Crucible started, so you could say that’s like Link handling Majora’s Mask himself...but ultimately, Shepard’s final contribution is still just to ensure that this lazy inexplicable kill switch gets flipped on. It’s just one last moment of empowering a poor plot device to do everything in the hero’s place. In the end, you feel that Link has accomplished something incredible by his own merits. But even if ME3 had had a good ending that actually made any goddamn sense at all, it’d still be a case of Shepard and all of galactic civilization relying on some piece of technology left to them by someone else to do everything for them, instead of having a story where they were all forced to come together and overcome their obstacles by their own merits.

Gee, galactic civilization relying on some piece of technology left to them by someone else rather than advance by their own efforts...that sure does sound familiar. Oh, right, that’s the trap that the Reapers laid for them to begin with! Advancement before a society has earned it and thus proven ready for it is a huge theme of the Mass Effect series, seen in both the way the Reapers entrap each civilization cycle, and the history and current state of the Krogan species. So the Crucible plot device isn’t just the worst version of a cliche, it’s also in direct contrast to major ideals of the Mass Effect series itself!

Now, to be fair, you might point out that Mass Effect 1 could be seen as weak in the same way. After all, the majority of Mass Effect 1’s plot is spent tracking down Saren, and in that pursuit, Shepard comes across various pieces of the ancient puzzle of the Reaper extinction cycle that have been left behind, which come together at the game’s finale with a plot-convenient portal to the final confrontation, which is what all these pieces of the past have been leading up to. Fair point--but it works for ME1. See, with Mass Effect 1, the uncovering of the ancient secrets, first of all, builds the lore of the series. As the first game, a major part of ME1 is to create the present and past of its universe, and incorporating these ancient puzzle pieces into the plot does just that. More importantly, though, with Mass Effect 1, these bits of the ancient past culminating at the end is not the be-all, end-all that the Crucible is. Shepard doesn’t seek to unravel the ancient mystery of the Reapers because he thinks that will somehow save the day all on its own--he does it in the hopes that it will give him the information he needs to do so HIMSELF. The idea is not putting all the pieces of the past together will stop Saren by itself, just that it will enable Shepard and company to do so; the heroes of the game actually are still expecting to have to overcome their foe themselves. And that’s how it works out--the portal that serves as a backdoor to the final confrontation doesn’t solve everything. Finding it and using it simply evens the odds so that Shepard is provided the opportunity to defeat Saren and save the day himself. Our hero is still our hero, and the good guys’ victory is still their own. Finally, though Shepard comes across the pieces of the past at each part of the story that eventually come together into the backdoor portal thingy, he’s not specifically searching for them at every step. Most of the locations Shepard finds these ancient clues at he has visited for more immediate, doing-stuff-himself reasons, following leads on Saren’s followers and activities. Shepard’s not just pursuing the past to defeat Saren. He’s pursuing ALL the leads available to him, SOME of which include digging up the galaxy’s ancient secrets. So in my eyes, Mass Effect 1 effectively uses this concept, where Mass Effect 3 ineptly leans on it.

So there you go. The Crucible is the worst example of an overused story cliche that takes the destiny of the game’s characters out of their own hands and invests all responsibility and hope instead in a magical plot device that just fell out of the damn sky. Even if all of that had not led up to one of the most sickeningly awful endings of all time, and had instead just led to a logical, decent, artistically consistent ending instead, it would still be a major weakness in Mass Effect 3’s plot. The Crucible is something that was born from carelessness or ineptitude (or both). The game-minus-the-ending is still great in spite of this, but it could have been better still without the writers’ reliance upon this half-assed storytelling crutch.

* To be fair, this is actually the least questionable part. Mathematics, upon which, ultimately, essentially all science and technology is built, is in all conceivable ways a universal language. In addition, it’s an established and extremely vital fact of the Mass Effect series that the Mass Relays and Citadel ensure that the technology of each cycle’s civilizations, once those societies have reached the point of interstellar travel, advances in a predictable way. So the Crucible blueprints would still have to mostly be written in the universal language of mathematics, which our cycle can understand, and be working with an understanding of technologies and scientific concepts only somewhat deviated from the current cycle society’s. While no mean feat, understanding the Crucible’s plans now that they’re nearly complete and (presumably) all the theoretical aspects have been determined by the Protheans or some older civilization would be much less unlikely than all the other stuff I’ve mentioned. But still a little iffy, all the same.

** I’m sorry, the Crucible isn’t magic, it’s advanced technology beyond the game’s ability to actually describe. Because there’s such a big difference between a plot device that you lazily claim is too advanced to be understood, and a plot device that you lazily claim is magic so it doesn’t need explaining.

That difference being that in the latter case, you’re at least being honest about it.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Legend of Korra: A New Era Begins's Non-Bending Element

The Legend of Korra: A New Era Begins is about as half-assed, dull, and barebones in its storytelling as the show it’s based off of is thoughtful, deep, and nuanced. I feel like I should make a rant about how much the game fails at telling its story, but, well, I’ve just said all that really can be said: it fails. It’s boring, meandering, and doesn’t bother to try. And by this point, having spoken of games like Suikoden 4 and Rune Factory 1 in my rants multiple times before, I’m starting to run low on creative ways to describe boring things. The whole problem with boring things is that they are, well, BORING. If there were any part of the experience of something dull that stood out and could be easily remembered and described, then it wouldn’t be dull. So yeah. Probably won’t ever get into any in-depth rant about The Legend of Korra: A New Era Begins’s story and characters, because there’s only so much I can do with Boring.

Stupid, though, now that’s a different matter. Stupid I can rant about all the live long day.

And stupid is how the element of Non-Bending attacks is handled in The Legend of Korra: A New Era Begins. It’s like this: In this game, there are 4-but-sort-of-5 elements. The main 4 are, as one would expect from watching the show, or really just having ever played an RPG before, Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. Their weaknesses flow in a way that is only sensible some the time (Water beats Fire, Fire beats Air, Air beats Earth, and Earth beats Water...for some reason), and actually doesn’t even make a whole lot of sense from the show’s perspective as far as I can tell...but if not always totally sensible, this cycle of elemental weaknesses is at least not all that out there, nor unfamiliar. Air elements being strong against earth ones is a common enough RPG occurrence, water beating fire is as much a staple of the genre as swords and hit points, and fire trumping air really only makes sense--fire is fueled by oxygen, after all. Again, not perfect, given that I really just don’t know how water being weak to earth works, and that the elemental interrelationships described in the show point to different conclusions, but overall, it’s a passable system.

But then you get the non-bending elemental attacks. This is stuff like Equalist shock gloves, chi-blocking strikes, and disabling gas--tools used by non-benders to even the odds against their super-powered foes in the show. Well, that’s fine, right? Plenty of RPGs have spells and attacks that are non-elemental, or separated from the regular cycle of weaknesses and strengths somehow. The obvious approach to non-bending attacks is to set them up like that--have them be a thing where they’re neither especially strong nor weak against any single other element, utilitarian but not especially advantageous. No problem.

But that’s not what the game does.

No, instead of doing anything that makes sense from a gameplay perspective, and especially instead of doing anything that makes sense from a making sense perspective, TLoKANEB decides to have non-bending attacks be super effective against the earth elemental. From the gameplay perspective, why give earth benders an extra weakness, while all the other elements retain only their 1 weakness? That’s not balanced. Further unbalanced is the fact that no other element has a strength against non-bending attacks. Also, you don’t get anyone on your team who specializes in non-bending attacks, which is further annoying and kind of unbalanced. If only there were a character from the show who would have fit that role perfectly...

More importantly, though, why, of all the elements, would earth be the one weak to non-bending attacks? I mean, just think about this for a moment. The primary attacks of the non-benders are chi-blocking strikes. As in, physical contact, of their hands upon their enemy’s person. Of the 4 bending elements, wouldn’t earth be the least vulnerable to that sort of attack? What with, I dunno, the fact that the earth benders can coat their bodies in stone or metal with the speed of thought? I’m pretty sure that one of the earth bending abilities in this game is to increase one’s armor with a rock coating. And one of the characters in the party, Lin, specializes in metal bending, and wears armor for the express purpose of having a weapon at all times! Why in the world would she, of all members of the team, be the most susceptible to physical strikes from a naked human hand!?

Okay, sure, being effective against Lin does make sense in terms of the shock gloves that the non-bending element also makes use of. It’s a glove that makes electric shocks, and she’s in metal armor. That’s a guaranteed bad time for her. But...hey, wait a minute.

Why the hell are the shock gloves considered non-bending attacks, anyway?

I mean, being technology-based, anyone can use them, and the non-bending Equalists are the ones who utilized the things in combat, sure. But the glove is delivering an electric shock. Lightning is a subset of fire bending in the Avatar universe, and there are lightning moves in this game that count as fire elemental. Electricity is electricity one way or another, so shouldn’t the shock glove attacks count as fire, not non-bending? You can’t tell me that tasing someone is the same as just punching them in the elbow or wherever those chi pressure points are.

And getting back to what I was saying before, it still doesn’t make sense, the earth weakness to it. Sure, the shock glove would be especially devastating against a metal-clad earth bender like Lin, but Bolin, another team member, can’t bend metal, only regular old rock. Just as he could coat himself with rock to avoid the chi-blocking strikes from earlier, he could do the same to defend against the shock glove.

I just don’t get the logic here. If the point of having this non-bending element be advantageous was to be symbolic of the Chi Blockers’ ability to overcome bending despite being at a theoretical disadvantage, why only make the non-bending element superior to 1 of the regular bending elements, instead of all of them? And if you’re going to pick a single element to be at a disadvantage, why pick earth, the element that logically would be the most able to shield itself from non-bending attacks? This whole thing just doesn’t make a lick of sense.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Legend of Heroes 6-1

Regular reader Humza did me a solid a little while back when he linked the inestimably awesome Chris Avellone to one of my rants here, which garnered a positive reaction from Mr. Avellone that my self-esteem still feasts upon to this day. Mr. Humza waved away my offers to thank him through (sort of) material means, instead asking me if I would play one RPG in particular, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, which I will henceforth simply refer to as The Legend of Heroes 6-1, and then rant upon it. I think Humza’s idea was that if I were to call attention to this game in a rant, it might generate some extra interest in the series and a few more sales of the game, which would further encourage XSEED Games to translate the next game in the series for a western release. This plan is ridiculous given that, A, XSEED Games had already confirmed they’d be releasing the next game in the series some time this year by the time Humza made me aware that this series even exists, and more importantly, B, the number of people reading this blog is almost as small as the number of people with a clear conscience who work for Fox News, so it’s not likely that anything I say is going to influence anything. All the same, I owed Humza a debt of great gratitude, so I purchased The Legend of Heroes 6-1, played it, and now I’m here to do a broad, unfocused review of the game. I don’t usually do overall reviews of RPGs (unless they’re so unspeakably awful that I have to attack every single facet of them for my own personal peace of mind), so bear with me--this is going to be long, barely structured, and incorporate several parts that would otherwise have been rants of their own.

So what were my impressions of The Legend of Heroes 6-1? Well, this game and I didn’t get off on the right foot, that’s for sure.

See, you may have picked up on this just from my general way of sorting titles of both rants and the games I play, but when it comes to RPGs, I very much like a neat, orderly classification. And The Legend of Heroes series...pretty much has the most annoying taxonomy in the entire RPG world. The franchise started as a spin-off of a wholly separate series (Dragon Slayer), has mini-sagas within itself (the entry we’re speaking of today, TLoH6, is the first of 3 TLoH titles in the Trails in the Sky sub-series), and had title mismatching like the Final Fantasy series did in the days of the SNES (as in, the third TLoH game was released in the west as the second, because the actual second was never translated, as well as some titles just having their numbers removed altogether once translated). To top all of that off, The Legend of Heroes series sometimes, but not always, counts entire mini-sagas as single entries in its history--today’s subject is the sixth game in the overall series, but the next 2 games, as part of the same trilogy-within-the-larger-series, also count as the sixth entry, with the series only moving onto the number 7 after the trilogy is ended, at its ninth title (thus why I’m calling this The Legend of Heroes 6-1). This is in spite of the fact that earlier in the series there was a trilogy (known as the Gagharv trilogy) in which each title was counted as separate, numbered installments of the overall franchise. It’s all madness!

That said, once I actually turned the game on and started playing it, The Legend of Heroes 6-1 drew me in pretty effectively. I haven’t played a good, classic old JRPG for a while now, having mostly played western RPGs and more modern JRPGs in the past couple years. TLoH6-1 was a comfortable return to a style of RPGs that I hadn’t realized how much I missed: the late Playstation 1, early Playstation 2 era. So much of the style, presentation, and atmosphere of this game reminds me of pleasant times spent with Grandia 1 and 2, Breath of Fire 3 and 4, Arc the Lad 3, and Wild Arms 2 and 3, among several other JRPG classics of the age. That’s not to say that I judge this game good because of this nostalgic atmosphere--I do my best to maintain as much objectivity with judging RPG quality as I possibly can. But I can’t lie that the feel of TLoH6-1 did make me more receptive to the possibility that this was a good game.

And it is! In an occurrence so rare that one might almost call it miraculous, XSEED Games actually picked a good RPG to translate. Last time I personally saw that happen was Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon. But there’s no denying it: this is a quality title.

First of all, the plot is quite solid. I wouldn’t say it’s incredible, but it does the job from start to finish. The story is both personal, small, and also grand and overarching, and offers several interesting and pleasantly unexpected developments throughout. The story is paced very well, developing its smaller events into the cogs of a grand quest to save a nation, and doing it effectively enough that even though you recognize the plot strings that will eventually coalesce into a greater purpose, when it finally happens you’re still struck by the gravity of what is occurring. The story never gets so slow that you lose interest, and whenever it picks up, you’re interested and excited to know what happens next.

The development of the game’s world is handled well, too. I’ll grant you that the world of TLoH6-1 is definitely standard RPG fare, but its magical, political, technological, and social details are all explained and utilized frequently as the game goes along, from its start to its finish, in a way that feels natural. There’s no huge lore dump exposition dropped on you at the beginning of the game, or at just 1 or 2 important plot points, like many other RPGs unfortunately do. You learn about the world as you go, its details surfacing when knowing them is relevant, fitting the feel of the story. For example, your first understanding of the emotional weight of the Hundred Days War, which is an integral piece of backstory to the game, is not just hastily told to you in the intro to the game--it’s instead communicated later as Estelle recalls the day her mother died during a battle in their hometown. And it’s not just thrown out there solely so you’ll know about it, though that’s part of the reason. Estelle is reminiscing about it because she’s using that memory as an emotional springboard to make her own point about something, to contextualize a current, relevant situation, feeling, and decision of hers. This piece of lore isn’t brought up just so the player can study it for later--there’s a reason in-game that Estelle is speaking of it; it’s a piece of the past that frames where the future is headed. TLoH6-1 certainly isn’t the only RPG to be able to skillfully handle world development in its narrative like this, not by a long shot, but that doesn’t make this any less a quality worthy of praise.

Speaking of storytelling quality, it’s worth noting that the translation XSEED Games has done is very good. Dialogue feels natural, and the phrasing and vocabulary feels very western overall--yet at the same time, there’s plenty about what characters say and how they say it that feels strongly tied to the communication patterns of the game’s country of origins, so it always still feels like the JRPG that it is and should be. Hard to explain, but hopefully you get the basic idea.

Also, I have to give XSEED a thumbs up for the treasure box messages. This is actually a treat that we western gamers get which Japanese players didn’t: basically, the game was programmed with all kinds of different lines of text for when you examine a treasure chest you’ve already emptied, but in the original version, all the text just said the same thing. XSEED, however, decided to make use of this strangely unused text differentiation, and put in a couple dozen different amusing messages that make examining treasure chests you’ve plundered just as fun as actually getting the treasure was, sometimes more so. It’s quite amusing to walk up to a recently looted treasure chest and have it indignantly declare, “YOU again!” or ask me when I plan to return the stuff I borrowed from it. Fun little touches like this, and a photographer during the game’s ending telling his subjects to say “Fuzzy Pickles!”, tell me that the folks at XSEED Games have a genuine enjoyment of RPGs (even if they can’t seem to find many good ones to translate), and enthusiasm for your art counts for a lot with me.

I’ll also note that all the little stuff adds up well in the game, even though none of this junk matters in the slightest as far as how good an RPG TLoH6-1 is. The music is always serviceable, and there are several themes that are pretty darned good. As RPGs go, the gameplay is fine--nothing to write home about, but certainly functional and well designed. I mean, I think it’s boring as hell, but I don’t actually remember the last time I played an RPG where that wasn’t the case, so, y’know, I’m not the best example to go by on that count. The PC port, which I played, works fine and doesn’t seem to have any bugs that I could find, which is always nice--as is the fact that offers a PC port of a game developed for a console to begin with. I definitely hope to see that happen more in the future. And lastly, as far as graphics go, they’re...fine, I guess? You can tell what you’re looking at, and that’s all that matters, as far as I’m concerned.

Next, the characters. Overall, TLoH6-1 has a strong showing here, with a memorable, colorful cast that interact well. The important NPCs are reasonably distinctive, and the game never discards any of them, giving the impression that everyone that you meet and everything they’re involved with truly was significant, which is nice. Most of the party members are likable with good personalities and an acceptable level of depth to them. I appreciate that the game actually puts a bisexual man into the main cast, but at the same time, the guy’s kind of a circus act, and his sexuality is laughed off as part of his comic relief weirdness, so it’s a wash.

I do have to say that Agate is a jackass. Yeah, yeah, he’s supposed to be filling that role as the emotionally stunted tough guy whose hostility covers up his concern for others’ welfare, and we’re supposed to look past his thorny exterior to appreciate the good man within. You’ve seen the type before, I’m sure, unless you found this blog by mistake while looking up Rocket-Propelled Grenades. Yeah, well, too fucking bad, Agate’s still an asshole. Fuck that manly-tsundere crap, Agate’s too heavy on the hostility with barely a shred of the decency that’s supposed to balance it out. I don’t care how well he may mean--when a little girl’s grandfather and sole guardian gets kidnapped before her eyes by dangerous armed men, that is NOT THE TIME to slap her, say it’s her fault for trying to help at all, and tell her to man up about it! Hey, Agate, here’s an idea: maybe if you’d let Tita (the kid in question) come along from the start, like she wanted to, her presence wouldn’t have been the unknown factor that threw your strategy off! It ain’t like she can’t pull her own weight--in fact, at that stage in the game, her AoE attack and skills make her much more useful in general combat than Agate! A child has to watch the person she loves most in the world get taken away, never knowing if she’ll see him again, and then Agate hits her, tells her she’s useless, and blames her for the whole thing. To hell with social awkwardness and gruff exteriors as excuses--Agate’s a fucking asswipe.

Sorry, I get a little carried away when it comes to ragging on jerks. Anyway. By and large, the cast is strong and memorable. The protagonist Estelle and her companion Joshua are good, too, though only to a certain extent. I like Joshua just fine, but very little about him is developed, nor is much about him known until the game’s final moments. He’s mostly a foil to Estelle. Which is fine, he fills the role well enough, but it does mean that he doesn’t stand out or compel the audience as much as I think he was supposed to. Estelle’s better, growing a bit over the course of the adventure, and possessing a distinctive and enjoyable personality. I wish we’d gotten a chance to see a few more of the smaller peripheral details of that personality--elaboration of her little quirks, like the interest in sneakers and her fishing hobby*--but overall, Estelle is a decent heroine and an enjoyable character to watch for the 50 hours or so that you spend with her.

The villain’s decent, too. I wish we had seen more of him, given him a little more chance to develop himself, but his overall motivations are strong, and supported very well by the well-developed lore and the constant hero-worship by the game’s characters and nation of Cassius Bright--more on that in a later rant. You can definitely understand where he’s coming from and sympathize to a good extent. He kinda reminds me of Dragon Age 1’s Loghain, actually, though definitely an inferior version. A good cast isn’t complete without an appropriately decent villain, and the antagonist of TLoH6-1 fits the role quite adequately.

I will say, though, that the characters department does suffer in 1 very noticeable way: the love interest angle for Estelle and Joshua is terrible. I don’t want to get into it here in any great detail, though--their romance thing is going to have to be its own rant. Let’s just say for now that this is the worst case of Since We’re Not Related It’ll Be Okay Syndrome** that I’ve ever seen. I sure hope the next installment of this trilogy can do a better job of selling their romantic love, but I’m not gonna hold my breath.

Speaking of the next installment, let’s finally get to the ending of The Legend of Heroes 6-1. The finale is fast and exciting, and the ending to the game is a perfect stopping point. This first major adventure is concluded, yes, but questions remain, and it’s clear that the heroes have uncovered a far greater threat and mystery which must be investigated. With Joshua’s revelation, which is not unexpected but nonetheless makes an impact on the player, and the foreboding of darker, grander schemes to uncover and thwart, the player is left ready and raring to see the next part of the story. It’s a transition point almost as well-constructed as the ending of Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1, combining the satisfaction and closure of a great adventure concluded and a job well done, with the thrill of knowing that it was all only a step toward the true conflict.

And so I am very glad that XSEED Games will soon release the next installment of this story, because with a good plot, a memorable cast, strong storytelling and writing skills, and a conclusion that leaves me hankering for more, I find that I may be on my way to being an avid fan of the Legend of Heroes series. My interest is piqued, at the very least. So thank you, Humza, for having me give The Legend of Heroes 6-1 a try. And as you hoped I would, I now make my recommendation. To anyone looking to play a classic, quality JRPG with a lot of heart, you could do a lot worse than The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. Head over to Steam or GOG, or find a hard copy for your PSP, and check it out.

* Actually, on second thought, maybe not exploring Estelle’s interest in fishing was a blessing after all. The last thing I want is ANOTHER major fishing minigame to deal with.

** This is a term that I will detail in a later rant. Basically, it’s going to stand for the disturbingly frequent occasions when RPG characters who are not biologically related but have been raised in the same household for a significant period of their lives and thus are, in mind and spirit, siblings, decide they have the hots for each other.