Monday, June 11, 2018


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, March 18, 2017

The Shin Megami Tensei Series's Elemental Weaknesses

Well whaddaya know...a short rant. I almost forgot what these looked like. Special thanks go to Ecclesiastes, for pointing out a part of this rant in which I was, to quote the great Dr. Clayton Forrester, stupid and wrong. So incredibly stupid! And wrong! So anyway, thanks for keeping my rants up to code, sir.

Oh, also, before we begin, I just want to note that I've updated (and, in doing so, finally completed) my Undertale theory rant from over a year ago. If you read the rant before, and have a bizarrely powerful memory for the rantings of an RPG-obsessed idiot, you may recall that I couldn't figure out how Undyne served as a reflection of Alphys in terms of tying to the game's theme of dangerous depression. Well, my mind may not be of much use for anything important, but sooner or later it works through all things RPG, and I finally found the solution that made my theory properly fit. So, uh, yeah, just thought I'd mention that if you want to check out Point F of that rant now, it's finally fully baked.

Anyway! On with the rant that's relevant to today.

Y’know, elemental weaknesses in RPGs are usually a pretty basic affair. Fire is Ice’s weakness, and vice-versa, Earth and Wind are usually at the same odds, Lightning is Water’s weakness,* Light and Dark repel each other, etc. Often there are a couple extra, semi-unseen rules, like Nature-based enemies being weak to Fire,** and mechanical enemies being weak to Electricity, but overall, the majority of RPGs have a weakness system so mindlessly simple that it’s basically color-coded.

It’s actually kind of surprising, really. I mean, with all the completely unnecessary gameplay complexities that developers are so fond of heaping onto what should be a functionally simple genre, it’s shocking that there aren’t more absurdly overcomplicated systems of elemental weaknesses in RPGs. I mean, there is Pokemon, where half of the weaknesses of over a dozen elemental types make sense and actually are surprisingly thoughtful, and the other half seem like they were drawn from a hat, but that’s about it.

This state of affairs makes the Weaknesses of the various demons in the Shin Megami Tensei series stand out as praiseworthy. Now, yes, the SMT series does play by the simple elemental rules I’ve mentioned in many regards. Surprise surprise, the fire giant Surt, who can be seen wielding a giant flaming sword, is weak to Ice. Huge shocker, the Earth elemental Erthys is weak to Wind. And you’ll never guess what Hel, the goddess overseeing the frozen afterlife of Norse mythology whose lower half is literally encompassed in ice, is weak to!

BUT, what Shin Megami Tensei does in addition to the more obvious elemental weaknesses in its bestiary, is to give weaknesses to its demons that are not so obvious, but make sense if you know that mythological figure’s background. Prometheus, for example, is a titan from Greek mythology, who gave the gift of knowledge (symbolized by fire) to mankind. For this act of evening the playing field between humanity and the gods, Prometheus was punished by being chained to a rock, and tortured by having his liver devoured every day by birds...sort of a reverse foie gras situation. Since he can’t die from such a thing, being a titan, his liver just keeps growing back and getting eaten again. Not pleasant.

Well, Prometheus is, as you might expect, weak to Ice in the Shin Megami Tensei series, what with him being clearly associated with Fire. But, Prometheus also has another weakness--he is extra susceptible to the Bind status ailment! In mythology, Prometheus is chained to a rock for his so-called crime, and so SMT translates that detail of the character’s history into a gameplay weakness that a crafty player familiar with the legend can take advantage of!

And this sort of thing is present all over the Megaten bestiary. Jeanne D’Arc, though clearly having no particular affinity with Ice, is weak to Fire attacks, which traces back to the fact that she died by being burned at the stake. Lanling Wang, a fabled Chinese general, died after he drank a cup of poison sent to him by the paranoid emperor he served, and so his SMT equivalent is particularly vulnerable to the Poison status ailment. Beldr/Baldur was a figure in Norse mythology who was killed by a spear or arrow made from mistletoe, and so in SMT4-1 and 4-2, he’s weak to Gun attacks, which essentially encompass all types of piercing strikes. And so on.

You find these clever little nods to the mythological history of the demons of Shin Megami Tensei all throughout its bestiary, and it’s really quite neat. And that’s really all I wanted to say today...I just think that this little quirk, which rewards a player for their knowledge of the mythological figures they’re battling against, is worth taking note of and appreciating as just 1 more of the countless little details that make Shin Megami Tensei so awesome.

Oh also Mara the giant penis demon is weak to Ice because the cold causes shrinkage HA HA SO FUNNY.

* This is often not scientifically accurate, incidentally. Pure, basic water does not conduct electricity! It’s actually impure water, notably salt water, that conducts electricity. The reason it’s dangerous to get water and electricity together for a date is simply because human skin contains salt, so as soon as you come into contact with water, it becomes, to some degree, salt water, and thus adding electricity WILL then zap the hell out of you. So, like, in a lot of cases, water-affinity creatures in RPGs should be weak to electricity, since they themselves add impurities to whatever water essence they have...but purely H2O enemies, like water elementals and the like, actually should be completely immune to electricity.

** The reasoning, of course, being that wood burns. Which I guess makes sense. But frankly, shouldn’t most RPG characters also be weak to Fire, then? I mean, most of them are wearing clothing, which is just as flammable as wood, and have generous amounts of hair, which can also, I believe, catch fire.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Whisper of a Rose

You have probably noticed this, but I tend to pull my punches a bit with Indie RPGs. I usually temper my criticisms of crowd-funded or personally produced RPGs with the reminder that they’re usually honest attempts by people who are passionate about the stories they want to tell. That’s not to say that conventionally developed bad games can’t also be works of passion, of course--The Last Story is surprisingly bland for being a work of pride and love, for example--but still. So I tend to make rants highlighting and endorsing good Indie RPGs I find, and try not to be too much of a jerk about their shortcomings.

But fair is fair, so when an Indie RPG leaves me feeling really annoyed, there will be a negative rant.

Whisper of a Rose, an RPG by Roseportal Games, is, in a word, disappointing. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s bad, I think, but it’s certainly not good, and it just promises way, way more than it can deliver on. I want to like this game, I really do, because its ideas have so much potential, but that’s as far as any of them get: potential.

You take the cast. The protagonist, Melrose, is a prime example of Whisper of a Rose’s tendency to disappoint. Melrose, a teenager, lives with a mother and father who are shown to be mentally abusive to her, and has no friends to speak of. Now, see, this is a situation not often utilized in RPGs which has a lot of potential to create a well-developed and interesting protagonist, and to shape the story’s direction significantly...but it just doesn’t stick. When we’re shown Mel’s home situation, it seems, somehow, both exaggerated, and not nearly harsh enough to be believable. It comes off like what someone imagines an abusive home is like, more than a genuine example. And Mel’s character just doesn’t seem to gain anything interesting or worthwhile from it. I mean, you’d expect her to have a negative personality, and she does, but there’s just not really any depth to her negativity. She’s not angry at the world, she’s just sullen and selfish. Mel’s listlessly standoffish and rude personality seems less like that of a troubled young person, and more like, well, just an average teenager when she’s in a bad mood. Reminds me of Final Fantasy 8’s Squall, really, although far less frustrating and dislikable.

Don’t get me wrong, there ARE pieces of character development for Mel, and she doesn’t stay the exact same the whole game long. But the bits where we learn a little about what formed her into who she is are few and far between (pretty much just the 1 flashback to the time she tried to save a ladybug from a bully), and once she’s done being perpetually selfish and uncooperative, there really isn’t any other personality that takes the negative one’s place...she just kinda becomes a plot chess piece, moving where she has to because the plot says so. Ultimately, Melrose just never becomes a character that we can connect to or contemplate.

The rest of the cast are no better. Hellena the witch is basically just a voice for explaining the plot lore, like Fran from Final Fantasy 12, only more one-dimensionally upbeat. Diamond is a ladybug who is, I guess, a manifestation of Mel’s memory of that ladybug from her past, or something, but there’s just nothing said or done with this idea, and by himself, Diamond isn’t interesting. Every single plot-relevant NPC is just a featureless plot device. And then there’s Christina.

On paper, Christina is an amazing character. You meet her as she’s traveling through a maze of her own insecurities while in a coma, she has a burning hatred for 1 of the villains in the game for the fact that he resulted in the loss of her baby, she’s a secret agent, and her mind created the final antagonist of the game as a mental manifestation that represents the man who raped her.

And yet, somehow, all of this is boring.

No part of this character should be less than compelling and interesting! But she just isn’t! Oh, to be sure, she’s more genuine in emotion than the other 3 party members, but not enough to sell it, and these major parts of her character are just kind of brought up, dropped, brought up again, and dropped again. Nothing is developed! None of these facets of Christina’s personality are used to explain or develop her character or her relationship to the others, nor make any particular impact on the story itself. She’s angry about it when it’s spoken of in front of her, and then the rest of the time, it’s like none of this stuff really even exists to her.

And that’s the way of this game: great ideas, being told by a writer who just isn’t equipped to execute them well enough. The ideas don’t connect to one another well enough, they don’t develop far enough, they often don’t even seem to ultimately have a point. And it’s not helped by the fact that the dialogue usually feels either clunky and unwieldy, or lacking spirit. When characters speak, it’s often like they came from an early SNES JRPG translation--it’s technically correct, but stiff, lacking feeling, or just a little awkward.

And what’s with the villain situation in this game? They just keep tossing 1 villain up after the next! Oh, the villain is the scary grunting marionette that’s attacking the fairy godmother somewhere in dreamland! Whoops, hold on, it’s the generic scary little girl who has an inadequately explained grudge against Mel! No, wait, it’s the evil witch mother, who wants to kill the wizard father and curse the protagonist! No, hold on, Farah the emotion-snubbing iron angel of rapists just escaped the dreamworld and is out to kill the world! But hold the phone, before you deal with that guy, it’s important to take down the CEO of the corporation that made the iDream, because he wants to use it to pull superweapons out of the dreamworld. No, hang on,you’re back in the dreamworld before you could do anything about that, and look, you’re cursed by that same witch as before! Better go rescue the fairy godmother from the grunting marionette that is now apparently super important! THEN deal with the witch, THEN the CEO, THEN the world-destroyer.

Multiple major villains in an RPG is a standard for the genre, and perfectly fine, but you have to PACE these things. You can’t just sub in a new villain even though you’re supposed to be dealing with something immediately important from another villain, over and over again! It just gets too damn confusing when you jam them all together like Whisper of a Rose does. It’s basically just Spider-Man 3 again. Worse, really.

And while we’re on problems with the villains, here’s a question I’d really like answered: Why is it that the mental representation of Christina’s rapist is a supervillain motivated by a wish to purge the world of emotion? I mean, how does your mentality construct a representation of your RAPIST as a standard JRPG anti-emotion villain archetype? What connected these things?!

Likewise, a lot of the good ideas for the story and themes are there, but not developed far enough, or explained well enough. I get the gist of the dream world’s workings, but the explanations are shaky enough that I don’t feel I know as strongly as I should. The role of Erasers, and the notable fact that technically Christina becomes an Eraser herself toward the end of the game, need more follow-up. The fact that the monsters of the dream world are phobias is good, but nothing much is really made of this, and how each of the phobius monsters connects to Melrose is utterly ambiguous--the most connection we see on this level is that the final boss is Virginitiphobia, which makes sense since it’s the mental representation of Christina’s rapist, but that’s the most any of these phobius enemies connect to anyone.

Also, I’m sorry, but how the iDream works is completely nonsensical. So, like, once it’s connected, the iDream needs a shot of adrenaline going through your system before it activates, right?* But this plot point never makes sense when it’s relevant. The first time Mel uses the device, she’s running from the police through the city streets, and it doesn’t activate, not until the police goon shoots at her.** She’s running in a panic through the streets as the fuzz chases after her, so shouldn’t Mel already have adrenaline pumping through her system like crazy? Why isn’t the iDream activating? Are we supposed to take from this scene that the shot of adrenaline came when Melrose heard the sound of the cop firing at her? Because I am pretty damn sure that a bullet’s speed is such that the average human being cannot react to hearing the gunshot before being hit by the bullet! There’s no way Melrose should have been able to hear the gun fire and then process the fact that she was now in mortal danger fast enough to spike her adrenaline before the bullet hit.

It’s much worse later on. After defeating Farah, the villain who’s trying to destroy the real world because he doesn’t like emotion, Mel needs to get back in the dream world to finish the job, and thus needs a hit of adrenaline again. Her solution? Well, obviously, since they’re on the roof of a building, she decides to jump off. Yeah, okay, plunging to your death will surely give you a good rush of adrenaline, but there are other ways to get yourself agitated, damn it! Her friends are with her--she could just start a fight with one of them, and that would do it. Heck, getting to the edge and looking over, with the honest intention of leaping off, should have been more than enough to get the adrenaline flowing. And she’s doing this because Farah has returned to her mental landscape, meaning that she’s in mortal danger from within--shouldn’t the panic she’s clearly feeling at this moment from that fact be more than enough to provide the necessary adrenaline? For that matter, they all JUST got done with 1 of the most difficult battles in the entire game--shouldn’t her system already be drowning in adrenaline?

In fact, thinking about that...I don’t seem to recall seeing Melrose ever visibly activate the iDream after the first time, so I can only assume it’s always on, in which case, shouldn’t any and every battle she engages in while in the real world send her to the dream world? Does she just feel absolutely nothing every time she’s in life-or-death combat, or something?

This frequent lack of attention to detail does not help with the game’s tendency to not explore its ideas to any satisfactory end. And speaking of that, 1 last thing about the story overall: what’s with the fairy tale references? You’ve got a fairy godmother as a major plot NPC, and that makes sense given the abusive family element--it’s drawing off the tale of Cinderella. But that’s as far as that reference goes--there’s no parallel between the WoaR Fairy Godmother and Melrose, and the Cinderella Fairy Godmother and Cinderella, in terms of actions, relationship, relevance, or purpose. Similarly, Hellena’s parents are clearly references to the Wizard of Oz, but beyond simply having superficial similarities to the Wicked Witch and the Wizard, there’s nothing else done with it--purpose, interrelationships, theme, character traits, there’s no correlation between the Whisper of a Rose characters and the Wizard of Oz ones. It all breaks down past the basic appearance.

Anyway...I think I’ve ragged on Whisper of a Rose enough now. Look, I want to make it clear that I respect the hell out of what this game is trying to do. It’s trying to get you to think, and it has some really interesting, creative starting points for its ideas. But great ideas and good intentions just aren’t enough on their own, and Roseportal Games just didn’t have the writing talent to make good on them. It’s too bad, but the only thing that Whisper of a Rose really made me think about was how much more thought-provoking it should have been.

* Why does a device that puts you into an unconscious state to access the dream world require adrenaline, incidentally? Isn’t adrenaline usually something that, y’know, keeps you awake?

** I’d criticize how trigger-happy this cop is to be attempting to kill a fleeing teenage girl whose crime is just stealing a technical doodad from a museum display...but an idiot police officer deciding to use lethal force against an unarmed, nonviolent offender is probably the most true-to-life part of this game. Really, the only logical inconsistency here is that the helpless suspect-turned-victim that he’s trying to murder is white.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Neverwinter Nights 2's Add-Ons

What the hell are you guys doing here, reading this rant? Do you not realize that Torment: Tides of Numenera comes out TODAY? The spiritual successor to the most brilliant, thoughtful RPG ever created is out, TODAY, and you want to waste your time on my rinky-dink rant nonsense? I'm flattered and horrified. Well, to celebrate the release of what by all rights should be the greatest RPG of all time, let's make the subject of today's rant a game which employed some of the great minds behind today's masterpiece: Neverwinter Nights 2! What could be a more appropriate rant topic than that, today?

Well, probably a rant on Planescape: Torment itself. But I didn't think of that in time, so you'll just have to settle for this. Enjoy! And then get Torment: Tides of Numenera.

Let’s see, how long has it been since Neverwinter Nights 2 was released? 10 years now? Excellent. Perfect time to talk about its expansions. Another stellar job at timeliness, Me. Well, at least with this rant, I can compare it to the original NN’s add-ons, and see how the sequel did. That’s sort of interesting, right?

Look, just come back 10 days from now and I’ll hopefully have a proper rant for you then.

Mask of the Betrayer: Uh...okay. Wow. Um. Wow. Words fail me.

This is the greatest add-on I have ever played.

No, seriously. The Mask of the Betrayer expansion is, hands-down, the greatest addition to an RPG I have ever encountered, by a tremendous margin. I loved Fallout: New Vegas’s Dead Money and Lonely Road, Fallout 3’s Point Lookout was terrific, the last third of Neverwinter Nights 1’s Hordes of the Underdark was epic, Mass Effect 3’s Citadel was absolutely great...but none of them even come close to the quality of Mask of the Betrayer.

Mask of the Betrayer is deeply philosophical and intelligent--brilliant, really--with a fascinating plot built on the deeper, more thought-provoking aspects of Dungeons and Dragons lore. It examines concepts of divine infallibility, the justice of the afterlife, love and punishment that transcend a physical existence, the nature of masks, which of our worldly desires and hungers are damning and which can break even the will of gods, faith and the fall from it...basically, if you were to walk a gloriously insightful and epic middle ground between Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Planescape: Torment, you’d have Mask of the Betrayer. And hey, what a surprise, some of the people involved in MotB were also involved in KotOR2 and PT, including my personal hero, Chris Avellone. It shows.

Beyond the simple excellence of this add-on’s plot and the bounteous feast it provides for the mind, Mask of the Betrayer also shines in a few other ways, such as having some very strong and intensely interesting characters involved. Every member of the party is captivating,* and many of the non-party characters involved in this tale are likewise well-written, particularly the Founder, in whom there are definite echoes of some of Avellone’s other great female characters, though she certainly stands alone as her own entity. The add-on also provides a halfway decent romance for the protagonist, which sure as hell couldn’t be said for the half-assed quasi-bond you could form with Casavir or Elenaee in NN2’s main game. I mean, it’s not amazing, but it’s decent and believable, and in the case of Safiya, an appealing mix of both destiny and personal choice which I like, so yeah, that’s cool. It’s got a very effective soundtrack, reminiscent of Planescape: Torment more than a few times in its ability to set a deep and captivatingly grand mood. The villain of this expansion is great, 1 of those masterminds whose presence is legitimately felt all throughout the story even if he himself does not enter it very much. Lastly, Mask of the Betrayer helps to at least somewhat make Neverwinter Nights 2’s atrocious ending a little better by providing some concrete information (most of it positive, happily) about the fates of Ammon Jerro, Bishop, Khelgar, Neeshka, Sand, Qara, Grobnar, and the protagonist. I don’t know who at Obsidian had the genius idea to make "Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies" the actual ending of the game, but this expansion, thankfully, corrects some of that.

Just...there are so many moments in this expansion which are incredible! Seeing the Wall of the Faithless and speaking with Bishop...learning of the fate of the Betrayer through the dreams you walk with Gann...the battle within your own soul at the end as the memories of your allies, friends, and family in the main campaign stand at your side...meeting the Founder and discovering the truth of the academy of Thay and the voices of Safiya...meeting the hag mother of Gann...this story is just filled with so many awesome moments.

All in all, Mask of the Betrayer is a brilliant, truly epic story, one which completely eclipses the main campaign of Neverwinter Nights 2 (while, incidentally, building itself off of the original story and incorporating many of its plot points). This expansion, not the main story, is the reason to play Neverwinter Nights 2. I don’t know how much MotB originally cost to purchase, and I don’t need to--it was worth every damn cent, whatever the amount was.

Storm of Zehir: Okay, like, I know that Mask of the Betrayer is a hard act to follow, but I can’t help but be pretty disappointed with Storm of Zehir. Frankly, there’s just not much of interest going on in this one. The plot is just a by-the-numbers Dungeons and Dragons venture of uncovering a hidden plot by some snake people to violently infiltrate a region of Faerun, and stopping it. It’s not very compelling, just a little adventure for the sake of it...which is fine if you execute it well enough, but Storm of Zehir just doesn’t. The plot feels listless and drifting. There’s little personality to any of the party members, and likewise little for almost all the NPCs, which isn’t good when the only character who moves the plot along, Sa’Sani, is one of those boring NPCs. The villains are surprisingly absent...for all the (apparently justified) fear of the Yuan-Ti in the towns you come across, and in spite of the fact that their schemes are what drives the conflict of this story, you see remarkably little of the Yuan-Ti here. And unlike the dead god Myrkul in Mask of the Betrayer, theirs is not a presence nor influence that can dramatically sustain itself from off the stage.

Also, Storm of Zehir clinches what Dragon Quest 4 and Weapon Shop de Omasse had led me to suspect: merchant simulator gameplay in RPGs is just never a good idea.

It’s only fair to mention that it’s not all bad with SoZ. It lets you see how the Neverwinter region does after the main campaign’s events, while the original protagonist is running about in Mask of the Betrayer, which is nice. And there’s a tiny little bit of NPC interaction that indicates that Casavir managed to survive the main game’s ending, despite what Mask of the Betrayer indicated, so that’s a positive (a tiny one, mind you, Casavir isn’t all that interesting). was kind of funny to see Ribsmasher return as a party member, I guess? Funny for a minute or two, at least.

Honestly, though, those minor positive details really don’t justify the time and effort of this expansion, and it’s got little else of note. It just feels like it was made for the sake of spending more time with Neverwinter Nights 2, rather than any particular interest in storytelling or with any message to convey. I don’t know how much this was to purchase back when it was sold separately from the main game, but it doesn’t matter: it wasn’t worth the time to play, let alone any money.

Mysteries of Westgate: ...Sigh. And it had such a promising start, too.

Mysteries of Westgate is almost as generic and uninteresting as Storm of Zehir. The plot is more present, but it’s too short to do much of anything with its initially promising premise (a cursed mask through which you can see a spectral wraith which haunts and wounds you),** and in the end, it’s just another generic little adventure about stopping (or joining, I guess) the secret plans of bad guys to take stuff over. Nothing notable beyond a few plot twists forced clumsily in at the last minute...and didn’t we already do the whole thing with a city’s thief guild being a secret vampire hotbed in Baldur’s Gate 2? Didn’t need it again.

The cast is a little better than Storm of Zehir, I guess, but not as good as the main campaign of the game, and certainly nothing compared to the characters of Mask of the Betrayer. Your party members are serviceable, have some character development, but really aren’t executed very well. I mean, you take Mantides.*** He’s a former paladin who was excommunicated from his religious order for having lost his self control and gone too far in killing his enemies, and now he loses himself in drink because it dulls the pain. That’s a character with some potential, right? Sure. But that summary I just gave you? He practically tells you as much word for word when you meet him. It’s know how an amateur writer who doesn’t understand how to show character behavior and depth to a reader over time will sometimes just hurriedly sum up their character in a few sentences? It’s like Mantides is doing that for himself.

It’s like if during Episode 1 of Scrubs, the first words out of Doctor Cox’s mouth were, “I’m an emotionally damaged man who’s afraid of giving up his own pride for long enough to get ahead in the world, and even more afraid of what success would do to change me, and my attitude, inability to connect emotionally with others, and self-destructive lifestyle is a result of my abusive parents and my ex-wife cheating on me and leaving me, the latter of which I am, deep down, damn sure aware is at least as much my fault as it is hers.” Only you’d have to elongate a few of those vowels, and maybe throw in a dig at Hugh Jackman, of course. Do you see how maybe that wouldn’t have been the best way for the protagonist and the audience to be introduced to the character? Come on, Mysteries of Westgate, I know it’s great for a person to be in touch with their issues, but you could maybe try to stretch that characterization out a little longer than the first 2 minutes of meeting the guy!

In fairness, the interactions between the party members, Charissa and Mantides in particular, are pretty decent, which helps make up a bit for what’s lacking in how the cast is otherwise portrayed. And there’s a couple other good points to Mysteries of Westgate. Like a rather fun sidequest in which you help a space hamster operative stop a cult from bringing an abominable dark ferret god into the world, all of which is anywhere between 10 - 90% the result of eating hallucinogenic underground trash berries. You may recall that I, like any sane individual, am quite fond of Minsc from Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2, so I found this little bit of fun referencing Minsc’s little pal Boo quite enjoyable. Also, the conclusions for the character arcs of Charissa and Mantides are pretty decent.

But in the end, well, this add-on just doesn’t really measure up. The narrative’s amateurish in its directness part of the time, and unable to catch up to the pace at other times, the characters don’t really feel alive, the villain’s bland and doesn’t really sell the master manipulator schtick that he wants to take on...Mysteries of Westgate just isn’t good, I’m sorry to say. Like Storm of Zehir, I don’t need to find out what it originally sold for to know that it wasn’t worth it.

And that’s all for the official add-ons of Neverwinter Nights 2. Not nearly so many as the first game had, but that’s certainly no disappointment, given how tiresome and superfluous NN1’s DLC started to feel after a while. So how does Neverwinter Nights 2 stack up against its predecessor in terms of additional content?

Well, favorably, I guess. I mean, yeah, Storm of Zehir and Mysteries of Westgate are absolute throwaways, not even close to worth the time it takes to play them. But the same can be said of several of Neverwinter Nights 1’s add-ons; neither SoZ nor MoW are any worse than Shadows of Undrentide or Wyvern Crown of Cormyr. And while NN1 did have its positive moments with Pirates of the Sword Coast, what little we got of Witch’s Wake, and especially the third act of Hordes of the Underdark, none of those hold the faintest candle to the excellence of Mask of the Betrayer.

In fact, as far as I’m concerned, Neverwinter Nights 2’s add-on experience was a positive success for me. SoZ and MoW might have been boring washes, but they weren’t outright bad experiences, and more importantly, Mask of the Betrayer is, as I’ve said, just thoroughly magnificent. If NN2 had contained within it every single add-on I’ve hated in the past 10 years, and Mask of the Betrayer, I’d still come out of the experience feeling damn good about it. I fully expect that when I do my Annual Summary for 2017, Mask of the Betrayer will by itself be 1 of the best RPGs I play this year, and if it weren’t for the fact that Torment: Tides of Numenera is coming out this same year, I’d even have bet that MotB would have a strong shot at the top spot.

So kudos to you, Obsidian--though you packaged it with a couple subpar peers and wrapped it in a mildly good game, you have 1 hell of a gem in Mask of the Betrayer, and I’ll keep it with me as 1 of my finest RPG experiences.

* By the way, does anyone reading this have a script for the character One of Many’s lines in this expansion? I went the good guy route, meaning that I had Okku as a follower rather than One of Many, so I didn’t really get to experience the latter very much. But the character’s concept is spectacular, and I would SO love to be as familiar with One of Many as I am with the rest of the cast. If anyone happens to know a script of One of Many’s lines, or perhaps a video specifically dedicated to conversations with One of Many, it would be so appreciated if you were to share it with me.

** Odd choice, by the way, to make a mask the focal plot item in this expansion. What with, y’know, the first expansion to the game being Mask of the Betrayer. I mean, yeah, the titular Mask of the Betrayer is more figurative than literal, but still, it almost feels like they were trying to ride the earlier expansion’s coattails somehow.

*** Pronounced, incidentally, way too close to “Man Titties” for comfort.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Guest Rant: Bravely Second's Sidquests' Failed Potential

Phew! Thinking up slightly amusing Valentine messages and slapping them on pictures of RPG stuff really took it out of me. I couldn't possibly make another rant so soon after that ordeal. Luckily, I don't have to! Today, my generous reader and friend Humza has provided me with another fine guest rant. I get to take a ranting breather, and you folks get to read something good for once. Everyone wins!

Disclaimer: As before, I don't own Humza's words, and they don't necessarily reflect my own opinions and observations. In fact, since I haven't played either of the Bravely games, it's a hard certainty that they don't. But who knows, they might someday. Time will tell.

Bravely Second’s Sidequests’ Failed Potential

November 28, 2016

I thought of writing about the sidequests from Bravely Second a while ago, but I thought it would be appropriate to submit something sooner rather than later since it shares some thematic relevance with the GrandLethal16’s submission considering how choice is a significant (maybe even the central) component of Bravely Second’s sidequests.

The basic premise is shared between all of the sidequests in Bravely Second: there are two parties (usually the asterisk holders from Bravely Default) that are in conflict, and they appoint Edea as a mediator (since she’s the daughter of the Grand Marshal and is expected to succeed her father as Eternia’s leader, which requires solving conflicts like this) to judge which side is morally superior.

The first sidequest that is available revolves around a conflict between Jackal and DeRosa, who argue about what the Wellspring Gem (which functions as a source of water) should be used for. Jackal wants to use it to sustain the people of the oasis as it traditionally has (a case that is made more compelling considering that there is currently a water shortage), while DeRosa wants to use the gem to produce somnial energy from water (which is similar to nuclear power, in its ability to produce immense amount of energy, but holds the destructive power to annihilate entire cities; DeRosa hopes that the power would help attain world peace since any aggressing country has the threat of being wiped out by other countries with the energy).

Ignoring logical errors on DeRosa’s part, this is a variation of the well-known trolley problem: would you rather save the people of the oasis at the expense of preventing any wars, or is their sacrificing a necessity for preventing even more lives from being lost?

At the same point in the story that the sidequest is made available, a city is enveloped by a wind spell cast by Norzem; those within it cannot leave and those outside it cannot enter the city. Norzem’s intent is to destroy the flying castle above the city, which also requires murdering the people inside the city. This could be interpreted as another variation of the trolley problem since the people of Ancheim would die, but many more lives would be saved as a result. This ties the sidequest neatly into the plot since both have a common theme that connects them.

The problem with Bravely Second’s sidequests is that none of the others follow suit in establishing a thematic connection to the plot. This might seem like nit-picking, but most of the other sidequests seem like short stories that the plot does not benefit from having (the game did set up these expectations itself, so it would be reasonable to expect the game to deliver on them). This is still quite good compared to most RPGs’ sidequests, which don’t provide much emotional investment to the player, but adding thematic relevance would likely make the side quests more memorable since there’s more significance attached to it (and it would also erase the feeling of disappointment from people that interpreted the first sidequest as I did, but it’s probable most others would not have cared or noticed the relevance while playing for enjoyment).

I’m aware that there would be some problems in tying each sidequest to the plot, but I think these problems would not outweigh the added benefits, and that many of them could be dealt with in some way.

The main problem is that the sidequests would need to be rewritten to some extent (or perhaps scrapped entirely), but I do not see this as a problem since some of the sidequests do not present an interesting moral problem (does anyone care about Gho summoning Amaterasu or continuing his current job, or who gets Arca Pellar’s lost song when there’s no clear positive or negative consequences on either side?) and those sidequests would likely be improved or replaced with better ones with such a rewrite, and most of the better sidequests in the game could be tied to the plot without losing any significant details. For example, the conflict between Ominas and Artemia could be moved to the point in the story where Revenant tries to avenge Geist since both involve the potential loss of a few innocent lives at the expense of [removing] a threat to more lives (I guess the writer likes trolley problems since this is another variation, albeit with the opposite outcome).

Another problem with the proposed improvement could be that the choice loses value because the plot would have reflected the “canon” choice that the player should have made, but a sidequest wouldn’t need to reflect a choice the party makes in order to establish a connection with the plot. Also, the main narrative purpose of the sidequests is to help Edea develop as a leader for Eternia (which is shown in the final sidequest) when the Grand Marshal retires, but there’s already a “best” or “canon” choice for Edea’s final choice*, which already makes it seem like the other individual choices don’t matter since the overall ending doesn’t matter (and you could make a case that the choices already have little significance since the localisation seems to have erased the bad consequences from the ending of each side quest).

I don’t know how something like this might be received on the blog since it reads more like feedback that one would send to a developer (it looks like Square Enix takes feedback seriously, at least for this series, so that might not be entirely worthless), but I’d be interested to see if others feel similarly or disagree.

*I wanted to add this as a note since it’s a significant spoiler (I tried to be vague about aspects of the plot beyond the beginning) and a spoiler warning wouldn’t flow well above (although I’d argue this criticism doesn’t really flow well in general...). For the final sidequest, Edea has the choice to use a sword or a shield to symbolise whether she rules with submission from her citizens or to protect them, and she would be judged depending on what she equipped. The decision treated as canon is if Edea were to get both the sword and the shield, but equip neither of them.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

General RPG Valentines 1

Howdy folks! It’s February! And that means that Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, the holiday all about love, joyous romance, and blowing your wallet to hell for the sake of appearances, because fuck me if we can have even a single goddamn holiday that our toxic level of capitalism doesn’t make into a cheap, crass cash grab.

Is there someone special in your life? Do you have a La Pucelle Tactics’s Priere-level disability that makes you utterly incapable of doing something so fucking simple as honestly communicating your affection to that someone special? Well, no worries, friends, The RPGenius has got you covered. Below are 20 RPG valentines guaranteed to win the heart of whomever you hand (well, copy-paste) them to! Or at least get him/her to look at you funny. But that’s still kinda like your senpai noticing you, right? Enjoy!

But hey, don’t think I’ve forgotten about you, sourpusses! Are you the sort of person who feels the need to take a holiday about romantic love as a personal attack? No worries, cuz The RPGenius has got you covered, too! Here are a few RPG anti-valentines to help you blacken someone’s day...or, as previously noted, just make them look at you funny. Ironically enjoy!

Oh, and yes, the number in this rant’s title does indeed mean that this is gonna be a yearly thing. My only regret is that it took me this long to think of this.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Mass Effect 2's Krogan Rite of Passage Symbolism

I’ve been looking back on the greatest science fiction epic of our age lately, and appreciating once more its skillful writing, artful lore and themes, and rich and engaging characters. Ah, Mass truly is a magnificent specimen of the space opera, one of gaming’s finest works of storytelling.

Well, until Bioware violently murdered it during its last 5 minutes.

But we won’t get into that again. For now, though, let’s rewind the series a bit, back to a moment of Mass Effect 2 that I think deserves a little extra appreciation: the Krogan Rite of Passage.

This is a point in the game during which Shepard must, to earn his teammate’s loyalty, take Grunt to the homeworld of the krogan to engage in a cultural tradition of battle which will cement Grunt’s place as a krogan. Shepard, Grunt, and the party member of your choice go to a ceremonial battleground, call forth a few waves of enemies to fight, and then have to deal with a hostile krogan asshole who wants to use Grunt for political power while openly treating him as a freak. It’s straightforward, but it’s also a notable moment in the game, because each part of this trial is thoughtful and symbolic of the Krogan people.

The first part of the rite involves fighting a pack of varren, the vicious, fish-lizard-canine things frequently used as attack dogs by mercenaries in the series, while a voice talks of how the krogan mastered their lethal planet. The symbolism here is fairly obvious: varren are native to the krogan homeworld of Tuchanka, so the rite-taker is proving himself a true krogan by mastering the deadly beasts of his homeworld, as his ancestors did. The next part of the trial replaces the varren with man-sized hostile insects, while the voice goes on to talk of the way the krogan were uplifted to defeat the rachni and save the galaxy. The symbolism here is, again, pretty simple and straightforward: the rachni were huge, insect-like creatures, so in this part of the rite, Grunt is symbolically proving that he can overcome the enemies of the krogans’ past by defeating giant insect monsters as his people once did.

The third and supposedly final part of the rite has some pretty cool symbolism. The voice speaks again, this time of the current difficulty that the krogan people face: the genophage, a genetic monstrosity inflicted upon the species by the other council races which causes only 1 in 1000 births to succeed. The genophage is an unconquerable enemy, against which the only victory the krogan race can hope for is basic survival. Once this speech is finished, Shepard and Grunt are attacked by a thresher maw, a titanic, acid-spitting worm that players of Mass Effect 1 know is better engaged with heavily armored, heavily armed vehicles rather than on foot. A timer is started for this battle--the goal is not to kill the monster, simply to abide its wrath. Once again, you get the symbolism of actually fighting against the great nemesis of the krogan race, but this time, it’s not seen as a fight that can be overcome, rather just a simple battle for survival. The genophage is something beyond the krogans’ ability to confront and defeat, and so they must find a way to live with it, bear its harm and fury as a species without going extinct. How neat to have this part of the rite symbolized by a trial of survival against the seemingly unbeatable thresher maw.

Now, what I’ve been saying so far is probably not news to you. The Mass Effect fan community was always ferociously devoted, so chances are good that you heard someone talk about the symbolism of the Krogan Rite of Passage on a forum or chatboard or something at one point or another. That, or you noticed it yourself when you played the game; it’s pretty simple, though effective, as symbolism goes. But, what I haven’t seen many people notice about this mission in the game is that the symbolism of this rite actually goes deeper, in 2 distinct ways:

Way the First: The supposedly final part of the trial, the battle against the thresher maw? It CAN be won. Powerful and deadly though the beast is, it’s possible for Grunt and Shepard to kill the gargantuan worm, a feat which is noted by some krogan bystanders as having not occurred since Wrex, Shepard’s original krogan buddy from the first Mass Effect and current leader of krogan Clan Urdnot, underwent the rite.

Now, you might think, at first, that this actually weakens the strength of the rite’s symbolism. After all, if the thresher maw is supposed to symbolize the genophage, it really should be an adversary that cannot be beaten, only endured, right? That makes sense. But...think about this key fact: the only individuals who have defeated the thresher maw in recent times have been Shepard and Grunt, and Wrex.

Shepard, Grunt, and Wrex.

Wrex: the krogan whose uncommon wisdom and drive are, during ME2 and 3, bringing the krogan race back together and forcing it to think in the long term about survival. Wrex is the leader that can bring respect and honor back to the krogan, give his race a real chance at uniting and working toward a future, rather than continuing to splinter and fight themselves to death.

Grunt: a krogan bred to be a super soldier, an unparallelled specimen of his race’s strength, ferocity, and determination. Grunt is the exemplar of what his creator, Okeer, saw as the necessary next step for the krogan race.

And Shepard: the human being who, in Mass Effect 3, assuming that he isn’t a complete fucking asshole, makes possible the curing of the genophage.

So essentially, the ones who defeat the thresher maw in the Rite of Passage, the individuals who symbolically kill the genophage, and thus symbolically kill the concept of the extinction that the krogan race brought on itself, are the individual who represents the intellectual, social, spiritual hope of the krogan people, the individual who physically represents the future of the krogan people, and the individual who will be responsible for the end of the actual genophage. The icons of the krogans’ future are the ones in this rite to take down the symbol of the krogans’ demise--that’s a really cool moment of symbolism and foreshadowing!

Way the Second: I keep saying that the Rite of Passage is “supposedly” finished after the thresher maw part because after the actual rite has ended, there’s a final part of the mission. A krogan clan leader named Uvenk shows up once the rite is over to offer Grunt the opportunity to join his clan. Until now, Uvenk has dismissed Grunt as a freak at best, an abomination at worst, refusing to believe him to be true krogan because he was created, rather than naturally born. Even in his offer, Uvenk is disrespectful to Grunt, being clear that this is just a move for political power, and saying that even as the shiny mascot of Uvenk’s clan, Grunt would still not be allowed certain rights of citizenship, such as mating opportunities. Naturally, Grunt says no to this offer, in the same way that Grunt says no to anything: with his gun. A battle ensues against Uvenk and his henchmen, and it’s only after Shepard and Grunt emerge victorious that the mission ends.

Now, because this isn’t an actual part of the Krogan Rite of Passage, no one really pays too much attention to this spat with Uvenk...but I actually think that this, too, is meant to be a symbolic struggle. See, the rite is all about symbolically overcoming the nemeses of the krogan, the obstacles that they had to and have to overcome in order to survive. The first was the dangers of their planet, the second was the rachni that they were uplifted by the Council races to defeat, the third is the genophage. Yet, there is, truly, 1 more foe to the krogan, the most dangerous threat to their race’s existence by far:

The krogan themselves.

The krogan culture is violent, warlike, and self-destructive. They waged nuclear war and destroyed their planet. They refused to discipline themselves and began a war with the Council races that ended in their being cursed with the genophage. And after that, instead of banding together to ensure that the nigh-complete destruction of their fertility did not ensure the end of their species, the krogan divided into warring clans and sold themselves out as mercenaries, throwing themselves into violence and death even as the genophage made it impossible to replace their numbers. Krogan like Wrex, who see that unification and cooperation are the only way to save their species, are rare indeed.

Now, I’m not saying that the krogan are inherently violent brutes. The existence of Wrex is proof enough that this is not true, and Bakara informs us in Mass Effect 3 that they once had a real, viable culture. This self-destructive society of the krogran is something that has grown far more from their history than their nature, much the same as our own self-destructive and foolish culture of hypermasculinity which we subject the males of our society to.

But if a culture of self-destructive pride and violence is not intrinsically a part of krogan nature, it is, at least, a deeply-entrenched part of their history, and it is the origin of the extinction that the race faces during the events of the Mass Effect trilogy.

So, the battle against Uvenk is actually a final, and probably the most important, piece of symbolism. Uvenk resists Wrex’s attempts to unite the clans. He is set in the traditional mindset of the krogan, one of powerlust, thirst for battle, and self-important pomposity. He spits upon what is new and different, as symbolized by Grunt, yet at the same time wants to use it to his own barbaric ends--he sees the utility of the new only in terms of how it can benefit his self-important old ways, treating it without respect. It is much akin to a major theme of the Mass Effect universe which the krogan as a whole symbolize--the danger of being advanced to a place of technology and society that one is not ready for.

And so, Uvenk is a symbol of the greatest foe that the krogan have: their own selfish, short-sighted, vainglorious, violent culture. Though not an official part of the Krogan Rite of Passage, Uvenk is perhaps the most important component to this ritual of battle against the krogans’ enemies.

The Mass Effect series really is something fantastic for so many reasons, and you really see it in moments like these, where great and layered writing is both easily accessible, and also deep enough to offer rewarding insights for contemplating it at length. No damn wonder I loved this trilogy so much.

Oh also this.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Celestian Tales 1's Downloadable Content

I reviewed Celestian Tales: Old North a little while ago, and was overall pretty positive about the game. It was a Kickstarter RPG which I backed, and I’m pleased with the result and encourage you to try it out some time. Ekuator Games is at work on its continuation, and I look forward to that, but in the meantime, they’ve released an add-on for the game, called Howl of the Ravager. Well, I do DLC rants for the big developers, so I may as well do them for the little guys, too.

Howl of the Ravager is a prequel story to the game, which focuses on the early days of the knighthood of Severin Leroux, who plays a major part in the main game’s plot. It also touches on several other secondary characters of the main game, namely the king, his wife-to-be, and Niena, mother-to-be of 1 of the main game’s protagonists (the best 1, for that matter). As such, Howl of the Ravager provides a great opportunity to expand upon a significant but inadequately explored character of the game, build the Celestian Tales lore, and answer a major question of the original game: why the hell Severin acts as he does at the game’s end.

Unfortunately...well, Howl of the Ravager doesn’t really live up to much of its promise. I mean, it does develop the game’s setting somewhat, but its focus is on a part of the lore (large, sapient tree entities and their relation to the Old North) that doesn’t really have any relevance to the game proper, so while there’s nothing wrong with the lore-building, it doesn’t feel terribly significant, either. And that’s about all that can really be said in a positive way for this in terms of expectations. The king and queen-to-be are okay, but what can be learned from them that can’t already be gleaned from the main game isn’t all that interesting. Likewise, Ylianne’s mother Niena has her character developed, but it turns out that she didn’t really have much of a personality in the past; the entirety of her development as a character in Howl of the Ravager doesn’t hold a candle to the single conversation she has with Ylianne in the main game. The identity of Ylianne’s father is revealed, but it turns out that it’s not especially interesting.

Most disappointing is definitely the main character (sort of) of this DLC, Severin himself. He’s just absolutely wooden. What little real character development he receives is shaky at best--it’s left rather ambiguous how much of his ambitions and frustrations and such are really him, and how much are just the result of the influence of the magical sword he’s using. His relationship with the king is explored a little, but not any further than you could already determine from the main game. I guess Severin’s connection to the queen-to-be is new and somewhat interesting, so there is that, but that’s not a whole lot to ride on. Most frustrating to me is that the question of why Severin acts as he does at the end of the main game is still completely nebulous. Howl of the Ravager brings up the possibility that he might have been heavily under the sword’s influence, but it’s impossible to say that for sure, so all this game presents is a vague possibility of an answer to why Severin is so out of character in Celestian Tales 1’s final moments, rather than any hard facts.

Taken on its own instead of by expectations of expanding on one’s knowledge of the main game, Howl of the Ravager is...okay. Niena and Severin aren’t interesting characters, but they’re not bad ones, either, I suppose, and they do well enough as mouthpieces for lore development and plot points. The DLC’s story is fine, even fairly interesting at times. I’d say I enjoyed it overall, and I have a certain fondness for Celestian Tales 1, so learning more about its world and history was rewarding for me.

I really wish they’d done better with Pierre, though. His character is supposed to be the moderate, diplomatic voice of reason to counterbalance Severin, and this is usually a character type that I appreciate, but Pierre mostly just comes off as a wishy-washy milquetoast. And his romance with Niena is...well, it’s just crap. It’s one of those annoying love stories where attraction just seems to happen with the flip of a switch; one moment Niena is (with complete justification) put off by Pierre’s clumsy interest and advances, the next moment, she’s considering the question of whether a love between an elf and a human can be made to work. It’s made worse by the fact that the sudden about-turn only happens during a period in which she’s forcing herself to lead Pierre on a bit, at Severin’s request, in the interest of giving Pierre a reason to get his head in the game for their world-saving mission. So the point at which feigned interest becomes real suffers from being immediate and coming out of nowhere, yet is also vague enough that you can’t even pin down when it happens, so you’re left wondering for a while what’s going on as Niena starts showing earnest interest even though you thought she’s just supposed to be pretending. It’s weird, and it doesn’t work. And the final nail in the coffin is just the fact that they have absolutely no chemistry whatsoever, probably in no small part due to Pierre having an overall unappealing personality. So yeah, Pierre is a major problem with this DLC, being that a lot of its story depends on his character (more so than the supposed protagonist Severin, really) and his romance.

So, what’s the verdict, for any of you who have played Celestian Tales 1 and want to know whether they should purchase the DLC?’s not terrible. Despite its flaws and that it doesn’t really accomplish what the main game needed it to, it’s still a decent story and a decent exploration of the Celestian Tales lore. If you played Celestian Tales: Old North and didn’t really care for it, this isn’t going to change your mind, but if you enjoyed the game as I did, you’ll probably find some enjoyment in Howl of the Ravager. If it were any more than $5, I’d be hesitant to recommend it, but at less than the price of a sandwich, it’s a fair purchase. You can purchase it at GOG or Steam if you’re interested.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

General RPGs' Since We're Not Related It'll Be Okay Syndrome

Happy New Year, all! I've finally gotten around to this. Before we begin though, quick question. Reader and buddy Ecclesiastes tells me that the Patreon button over to the right there doesn't show up for him. Now, I would not be particularly shocked if I never get a single Patron pledge, given that this blog has less widespread exposure than the majority of first grade art assignments, but it would be defeating the purpose of having a Patreon to begin with if I didn't just check: can the rest of you see the hopping little Patreon moogle there? If he's not showing up for any of you, let me know, and I'll see about fixing it. Of course, considering that my technical knowledge rivals that of a squirrel's, who knows whether that'll help.

Anyway! On to the first rant of 2017. Time to set the bar low for the rest of the year's rants!

Have you ever noticed that the RPG genre is really, consistently, very inordinately fond of romantic relationships between adopted brothers and sisters? I mean, to the point that it’s basically a storytelling cliche for the genre. Seriously, if your protagonist and his/her sister/brother have been raised together in the same household by the same parents for most/all of their lives, but are not, in fact, blood-related, then it is RPG law that one or both of them want to bone the other. It is really, really weird. And common. So uncomfortably common, that I have been using a term for a while now to describe it: Since We’re Not Related It’ll Be Okay Syndrome.

Before we get into any proper detail about this phenomenon, I should note that, unlike my other Syndrome terms for RPG storytelling diseases, I have appropriated this term from someone else. “Since We’re Not Related, It’ll Be Okay” is the song title for a wildly amusing and uncomfortable fan-created song from the wildly amusing and uncomfortable My Little Pony: Friendship is Witchcraft abridged series. It makes, in fact, a great video prop for this rant, so before we continue, how about you click the link below and we’ll be pretty much on the same page for what this rant’s all about:

Since We’re Not Related, It’ll Be Okay

I do so love Friendship is Witchcraft. It truly is the perfect blend of subtle humor, blatant humor, referential humor, abstract humor, and glorious, glorious uncomfortable humor.

Anyway, we’re on the same page now, yes? Adopted sibling romance is one of those things that’s technically not wrong, but just so damn squicky. To be a brother or sister is not just a physical, hereditary fact, it’s also a mindset. Family is a connection of emotion and spirit as much as, perhaps even more than, blood relations. Like it or not, logical or not, the simple fact is that when you spend most or all of your childhood being raised in the same home, by the same parents, equally as those parents’ children, you are siblings, regardless of whose vaginas you happened to fall out of. And that makes the fact that every damn JRPG protagonist who’s got an adopted sister or brother desires, or is desired by, them really fucking weird.

What is accomplished by this plot device, exactly? Think about, say, Lunar 1, the RPG in which I first began to notice this trend. What is accomplished by having Luna be Alex’s adopted sister? Well, it gives her mysterious origins, first of all, which is an absolute must for the plot-central magical damsel-in-distress schtick. And it establishes a long shared history between both Luna and Alex, which makes it convenient for the writers, since this way their horribly inferior talents at creating and maintaining a romance between the 2 can lean on their vague, offscreen lifetime together rather than have to actually show some concrete examples of chemistry between Alex and Luna, or what draws them together, or what they like about each other, or even just 1 single real, honest conversation between them that isn’t entirely 1-sided.

Okay, so this does accomplish a few things, narratively, for Alex and Luna. So let me rephrase: what is accomplished by having Luna be Alex’s adopted sister, which couldn’t have been easily accomplished otherwise? Mysterious origins for your plot-centric magical girl ain’t exactly a hard thing to accomplish. Magical mystery girls fall out of the sky--and I do mean that both figuratively and literally, just look at Breath of Fire 5--all the damn time in RPGs. Hell, Lufia from Lufia 1 actually just fucking walks onscreen as a kid, and that’s all there was to it!* Deadbeat Master Dyne could have just as easily delivered baby Luna to be adopted by the folks nextdoor, and her origins would have been no less unknown and mysterious. And you don’t even have to sacrifice the lazy convenience of shared history that way--childhood friends is a common element in RPG romances.

So yeah, this approach to character relationships generally doesn’t actually accomplish anything that couldn’t be exactly as easily accomplished in other ways. It doesn’t even do anything unique if a personal conflict about sibling love vs. romantic love is what you want to show! And that’s for 2 reasons. First, you can accomplish the angle of conflicting feelings of sibling love and romantic love without even a situation where the obvious answer should be sibling love. Take The Legend of Dragoon, for example. Dart and Shana are childhood friends, and Shana is in love with Dart. For a while in the game, though, Dart isn’t going for it, because he sees her as a sister, not a love interest. They were NOT adopted siblings, but it’s still fully believable that a lifelong friendship would have evoked familial feelings in Dart, even if it led to romantic feelings in Shana. And both of those results are understandable and believable! Whereas if they’d been raised in the same household, specifically as siblings, then Shana’s interest in Dart would have been much less believable, not to mention pretty off-putting.

...Well, more off-putting than Shana’s clingy chattering stupidity is already, I mean. Jesus, I can’t believe I just used her and Dart’s relationship as a positive example. See what you make me do, Since We’re Not Related It’ll Be Okay Syndrome!?

The second reason that this strange narrative decision doesn’t do anything unique for the possibility of a sibling love vs. romantic love conflict is that THEY NEVER USE IT FOR THIS! And that’s actually the first of my real, major problems with this cliche: it’s just thrown in so casually that it’s like it’s not even there. It seems like the writers’ reflex, unquestioned and unconscious. Like having the protagonist be a sword-user. Of the many RPGs that employ love interests who are also adopted siblings, almost none of them even acknowledge this connection! No one, least of all Alex or Luna themselves, gives even a passing mention to the fact that he and she were raised by the same mother and father in the same household all their lives. Asahi and Nanashi in Shin Megami Tensei 4-2** are both orphans, taken in and raised by the same man, and while he seems to have a more parental relationship with Asahi, it’s clear that the guy acts as and sees himself as parental guardian to both of the kids. Asahi and Nanashi are non-related siblings, beyond debate, yet not even the slightest acknowledgement of this is made in any regard connecting to Asahi’s clear, demonstrable romantic love for Nanashi. Nothing is made of this connection, so why have it in the first place? If making the love interest an adopted sibling does not accomplish anything that an equally simple alternative could, and if you’re not going to use it for anything anyway, then why bother with it over and over again in RPGs?

Of course, slightly hypocritically, my other major problem with this cliche is, well, when it DOES amount to something in the plot, and that something makes things really, really uncomfortable. You take Legend of Heroes 6-1, for example. The fact that Estelle and Joshua were raised as brother and sister since Joshua was mysteriously adopted (there is no such thing as a non-mysterious adoption in RPGs) when they were 11 actually IS brought up in regards to their unspoken romantic interest in each other, and IS present and utilized, unlike pretty much every other example I can think of. And given that they have only lived together as family for 5 years rather than all 16 years of their lives, you’d think this would be an example of adopted sibling love that I wouldn’t have a problem with, right?

Except that unlike the norm for this story decision, Estelle and Joshua actually act like siblings. The way they interact with one another, understand each other, share memories of home life, view their father and household dynamics...they are a perfect example of a sibling relationship. And that’s actually pretty rare for an RPG, I should note--on the off-chance that major story-important siblings aren’t long-lost and battling one another as hero and villain, siblings in RPGs rarely have a compelling, believable family dynamic. It usually winds up being a case of the game constantly telling you they’re siblings, than convincingly showing it to you. But Estelle and Joshua really create a genuine brother-sister dynamic like you rarely see in the genre! Which is why it’s extremely uncomfortable to have Estelle begin feeling and getting emotionally constipated over an inexplicable and honestly completely phony-feeling attraction to Joshua. Uncomfortable, and so damn frustrating, because an authentic, interesting, engaging relationship of siblinghood, so annoyingly uncommon in RPGs (and honestly, most other forms of media), is being forced out in favor of an unwelcome, inferior romantic relationship. I hope that when I play Legend of Heroes 6-2 and return to Estelle and Joshua, things’ll get a little more convincing, but taken at face value from LoH6-1, I am not not impressed.

Other moments where the already vaguely uncomfortable Since We’re Not Related It’ll Be Okay Syndrome gets way worse: Shin Megami Tensei 4-2, again. See, Nanashi is the reincarnation of a plot-important guy named Akira. And supposedly (I haven’t found conclusive evidence of this, but I’ve been told by multiple hardcore SMT fans), a part of the official art book for SMT4-2 that was not translated for the English release indicates that Asahi is a reincarnation of...Akira’s sister. Thanks, Atlus. Asahi wanting a VIP pass to inside her adopted brother’s pants wasn’t off-putting enough. You had to multiply the factors of Almost Incest by a power of Reincarnation.*** And the other moment: Fire Emblem 14, having Corrin hook up with any of her/his Hoshidan siblings. As I noted in a previous rant, unless you yourself have outside knowledge of the game’s lore, you go into an S Rank conversation--that’s synonymous with a confession of love, in the FE series--believing that Corrin is actually, legitimately related to her/his Hoshidan family. Corrin only finds out that the brother/sister that she/he is hot for isn’t her/his family by blood during the same conversation. The Hoshidan royalty romantic options in FE14 are Since We’re Not Related It’ll Be Okay...And Damn Is That Ever A Lucky Coincidence Syndrome.

Now, before we finish up with this rant, I do want to make something very clear: I am not automatically against the concept of adopted siblings falling in love. I’m open-minded enough that if a love story actually does really work, I’ll totally be on board for it, and this has happened with considerably more questionable pairings than this (for example, if you recall, I have mentioned that the Xenogears romance between Bart and Margie, while not especially interesting, is nonetheless better than any others in the game (definitely including the main romantic drivel between Fei and Elly), and Margie is Bart’s underage cousin). In that Fire Emblem 14 rant I mentioned earlier, I said unambiguously that I think the best romance, out of the over 300 possible ones in the game, is between Camilla and Corrin, who are adopted siblings. Camilla just really sells the audience on her complete and total adoration of Corrin, and Corrin’s return of affections is quite genuine, as well. And it’s pretty much the exact opposite of the problems I’ve spoken of so far with this plot device: Corrin’s being the adopted sister/brother of both the Nohrian and Hoshidan royal families is a vital part of the story of FE14 in that she has important ties to both sides of the conflict, and it affects her/his personality and characterization, so her position as Camilla’s non-blood-related sister provides important parts to both her character and the plot that couldn’t have been achieved through a simple alternative. The connection isn’t inexplicably ignored; Corrin’s sisterhood/brotherhood to all the game’s royals is a constantly relevant relationship (and with none more so than Camilla, for that matter). And the awkward parts of this romantic interest are put forth in the S Rank conversation, and maturely addressed in a way that makes it a lot easier to accept, namely when Camilla points out that since they’ve apparently both always loved one another in ways that go beyond familial, their union now should be looked at more as childhood sweethearts who have finally grown old enough to be together. Camilla and Corrin’s love for one another is executed well, and while I can’t deny that there’re parts of it that are weird and even perhaps a little unhealthy, that’s more related to the characters themselves (Camilla’s adoration is genuine and even heartwarming, but it is also, let’s face it, really obsessive) than the situation they’re in.

Sadly, though, Camilla and Corrin are the exception to how Since We’re Not Related It’ll Be Okay Syndrome works. Ultimately, these adopted brother-sister romance situations generally could be accomplished just as well (if not better!) without the non-blood family connection, they usually don’t even address the situation to start with, and on the off-chance that they do, it turns out to be detrimental and uncomfortable if it's not handled skilfully enough.

And even if every single 1 of these cases were as compelling, true, and acceptably executed as Camilla and Corrin, it would still be really weird and a bit distressing that this theme is just so damn common. Out of over 300 RPGs I’ve played, I can only immediately think of 2 examples in which a protagonist and his/her non-biological sibling have no romantic interest in each other: the protagonist and Duncan in Shadowrun: Hong Kong, and Kairu and Aurora from the exceptionally obscure Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled. Besides those 2 examples, it’s just some sort of unspoken understanding in RPGs that there’s going to be some sort of romantic connection between a protagonist and his/her adopted sibling...and that’s a really weird and uncomfortable norm to set.

* Although I’m not sure I should be bringing Lufia up here as an alternative example, because I think, when you consider her to any great degree, that she’s actually another example of Since We’re Not Related It’ll Be Okay Syndrome, herself. I mean, let’s consider it: the only adult figure in her life seems to be the innkeeper she meets on the day she just wanders the hell onscreen, and the innkeeper’s familiarity with Lufia later implies, I believe, that he became her parental figure. But when you consider the protagonist of the game, who Neverland Company very frustratingly went out of their way to keep unnamed...well, to my recollection, neither his father Jeros nor his mother Nameless Faceless Female are ever seen or heard from. In their absence, the only other adult who appears to have any guiding influence on the guy is...the innkeeper. So there we go. Another example.

Correct me if I’m wrong, by the way. It has been, happily, over a decade since I played that crappy game, so even my memory might not be reliable. But I’m pretty sure that what I’ve said is true.

** Proof, by the way, that it’s not just bad and/or obscure RPGs in which this cliche happens. Even genuinely excellent, huge RPG series apparently cannot escape.

*** Just in case that wasn’t weird enough for you, Asahi’s outfit coloring is designed to reference Pascal from the first Shin Megami Tensei (and this connection is further hinted at by the fact that Pascal is 1 of the hunter names Asahi considers taking on as her own). For those not in the know, SMT1’s Pascal was the protagonist’s pet dog. So Nanashi’s primary love interest is his adopted sister, the reincarnation of his past life’s outright biological sister, AND the spiritual semi-reincarnation of Megaten Dogmeat.

Still a more psychologically balanced romantic choice than Toki, though. Which in itself might just add to its disturbing factor.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Annual Summary 2016

Thanks a ton for reading this over, Ecclesiastes, I appreciate it greatly!

Sweet Jesus, I have been doing this for 10 years.

...Well. Wow. Um. Here are the RPGs I played this year.

Code of Princess
Dragon Fantasy 1
Dragon Fantasy 2
Fallout 4
Fire Emblem 14
Infinite Dunamis
Justice Chronicles
Moon Hunters
Pier Solar and the Great Architects
Shin Megami Tensei 4-2
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q
Shining Force: Sword of Hajya
Valkyria Chronicles 1
Whisper of a Rose
Witch + Hero 2

Not a huge number, to be sure, but considering that I was finishing a graduate program, working as a student teacher for 4 months, working part time while both of those things were going on, and the fact that Fallout 4 is a game that takes up literal hundreds of hours, I think I did well. I also split my time with a lot of other non-RPG things, too.

Things like playing the non-RPGs Bloody Vampires, Cave Story, and the Shantae series. Things like experiencing the DLC for Pillars of Eternity (okay plot, good characters), and the extended edition’s post-game content for Shadowrun: Hong Kong (solid stuff). Things like watching Daredevil and Kimmy Schmidt’s second seasons, Gortimer Gibbons’s Life on Normal Street, and a few seasons of Are You Being Served?, and keeping up with My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Brooklyn 99, Adam Ruins Everything, and, of course, the utterly and truly amazing Steven Universe. Things like rewatching the recent Doctor Who, The Legend of Korra, Robotech’s first season, and Rurouni Kenshin’s first 2 seasons as I showed them to my mother. And finally, things like replaying Undertale and Mass Effect 3 to show them to my sister.

Oh, yeah, and sometimes I ranted here, too. There was that.

So, normally, this is the point where I kinda just give a general outline of how the year went for me, RPG-wise, but, well, that just seems like it’s not all that interesting, and this rant’s already gonna be long enough, so...let’s just skip to the (theoretically) fun part: the lists!

RPG Moments of Interest in 2016:

1. I gotta say, the character creator in Fallout 4 is just really damn impressive. The level of detail and options for customizing your character is incredible. More than maybe any other level of game design, comparing where we are today to where we were 10 years ago with character creator systems shows an incredible level of advancement in our gaming.

2. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q is my first time hearing SMTP4 protagonist’s Yu’s voice to any significant degree (didn’t play SMTP4 Arena, you see), and I find it interesting that he shares a voice actor with SMTP4’s antagonist Adachi. No real thoughts on that, just find it an interesting point.

3. In 1 of those weird coincidences (like that year I played 2 completely unrelated RPGs in which Rasputin was a major villain), I actually played 2 totally separate RPGs this year (Fallout 4 and Dex) in which the protagonist is nicknamed Blue.

4. I finally got around to playing Valkyria Chronicles 1, which multiple friends of mine have urged me to do for years. This is largely thanks to reader Humza’s generosity--thanks again, buddy! It was good. Pretty neat to see Skies of Arcadia’s Vyse and Aika again, even just in odd cameo roles.

5. This year I played Dragon Fantasy 1, and thus got to see what it would be like if a Dragon Quest game (one without an 8 in its title, that is) was actually kind of fun.

6. I experienced Pier Solar and the Great Architects this year. It’s an indie RPG created, from what I’ve read, by a forum community of 16-bit gamers which call themselves Watermelon, and is, to date, the very last game created for the Sega Genesis, having been published in 2010. In much the same way that Kung Fury, released in 2015, is the ultimate 80s movie, Watermelon has basically created the most quintessential Sega Genesis RPG you’ll ever find in its approach, structure, feel, and style. Of course, anyone with an accurate memory of how well the Genesis actually functioned with its RPGs will realize that’s not a 100% positive thing. Nonetheless, if you’re ever missing the good old days of 16-bit RPGs and have exhausted the library of games actually released for the 1990s consoles, Pier Solar and the Great Architects is what you’ve been waiting for.

7. I think I encountered the most powerful RPG character of all time this year. Seriously, I’m kinda drawing a blank on who in the RPG world would ever be able to defeat Freyja of AeternoBlade. I plan to do a very small rant (stop scoffing, it could happen) about why she's so unstoppable some time in the future, so I won't go into detail here, but against even the hardest hitters of the RPG world, and heaven knows SquareEnix has done its best to make RPG characters as a whole into the most over-the-top ultra-powered combat gods imaginable, Freyja would come out on top, and probably unscathed. Crazy how such an obscure little RPG wound up creating one of the most powerful fictional characters ever to exist, particularly when it doesn't even seem like that was really their intention.

8. You know what’s kind of interesting? For all the questioning of and potential defiance against God that the Shin Megami Tensei series is filled with, there are only, as of now, 2 games in the SMT series in which you can actually fight and kill God: Shin Megami Tensei 2, and the new Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse (which shall henceforth be known as Shin Megami Tensei 4-2). And what’s interesting about that is that each time it’s happened, it’s been in a direct sequel. SMT2 is a direct sequel to the original Shin Megami Tensei, and SMT4-2 is a sequel (mostly; it’s complicated) to Shin Megami Tensei 4. Probably a coincidence, but who knows...given that it’s Shin Megami Tensei we’re talking about, there might be some intended meaning to that.

9. Applause to Bethesda for going the extra mile by naming the protagonist's son Shaun. As any fellow resident of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts who happens to be reading this knows, this state strictly enforces a law requiring that at least 1 out of every 5 male children residing here must be named some variation of "Sean". Fallout 4's developers really went all out to sell the authenticity of the game's setting!

Best Prequel/Sequel of 2016:
Winner: Shin Megami Tensei 4-2
There was actually a good amount of competition here this year, which hasn’t happened for a little while. In the end, I give it to SMT4-2, because it builds off of the plot of SMT4-1 very naturally, expanding its main and especially side characters well to evolve the plot and purpose of SMT4-1--which honestly is a little subpar for the series and doesn’t tread new ground enough--to become a better story that has a better purpose told by a more memorable cast. SMT4-2 doesn’t just stand as a solid sequel/continuation (whatever you’d call it; it’s complicated) and as a solid game in its own right, it also retroactively betters SMT4-1 a little by association.

Runners-Up: Dragon Fantasy 2; Fallout 4; Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q
Dragon Fantasy 2 nearly perfectly executes itself--as DF1 was a part parody, part homage to some of the biggest 8-bit RPGs, DF2 is a part parody, part homage to some of the biggest 16-bit RPGs, and not just that, it expands the world of the first Dragon Fantasy exactly as much as the SNES generation expanded on the NES generation of RPGs. DF2 has more dialogue, more involved characters, a bigger plot, and retroactively adds lore to its series. It actually reminds me just a little of the way Arc the Lad 2 heavily expanded on Arc the Lad 1, although those came out in the 32-bit era and beyond. The developers of Dragon Fantasy 2 pulled off what they wanted to do flawlessly, and if SMT4-2 hadn’t actually made its predecessor better by association, then Dragon Fantasy 2 would’ve won this category. I look forward to Dragon Fantasy 3, which is going to take the next step and hits the Playstation 1 era.

Fallout 4 is a great RPG and another strong entry to a strong series. There’s not much to say about it as a sequel--it follows Fallout: New Vegas and more importantly Fallout 3 just fine, taking what it needs from them and going forward. I mean, I guess I’m still sad that Fallout 3’s Brotherhood of Steel became a self-important load of shortsighted racists, but it’s believable enough as it’s presented, so I can’t complain. As for Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q, it’s, well, it’s 75% Persona fanservice, but in its last quarter it takes a serious left turn and becomes something truly moving and great, so as a sequel to SMTP4 and (more strongly given the meaning of life element) SMTP3, it’s solid.

Biggest Disappointment of 2016:
Loser: Whisper of a Rose
Yes, yes, I know that traditionally we do the joke-that’s-not-really-a-joke about how Mass Effect 3’s ending is still the most disappointing thing ever, even years after the fact, but...well, now that the fans have provided a real ending for the Mass Effect franchise, I’m ready to finally, really move on... new disappointments! Like Whisper of a Rose. Jeez I wish I could like this game. It’s got good and interesting ideas, it’s got issues not often touched on in RPGs, and what it wants to communicate seems to be worthwhile (I think). But damn does it ever just fall flat on its face and not manage to deliver on any of its promise. I’ll be going into the details of Whisper of a Rose in a rant some time soon, but for now, just know that it’s sincerely disappointing.

I hate it when I have to rag on an Indie RPG. Makes me feel like a damn bully.

Almost as Bad: Code of Princess; Fire Emblem 14
Code of Princess is funny and lighthearted, but just...not quite enough, or maybe not in the right way. It just doesn’t really go anywhere, and it’s not quite funny enough to get by on its humor alone. Funny, but...forced, I guess. Like the writers are trying too hard to do what Nippon Ichi does effortlessly. As for Fire Emblem 14...well, it’s a fine Fire Emblem, and I don’t really have any huge problem with it, but the extremely limited amount of homosexuality is still a big enough disappointment that I think it deserves a place here. More detailed thoughts on this can be found in my previous rant on the subject.

Best Finale of 2016:
Winner: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q
Man, I did not see the latter quarter of SMTPQ coming. I mean, I knew there was something more to the plot for most of the game as I went through, but...Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q goes from a rather unimpressive, though fun, RPG about having the casts of SMTP3 and 4 team up and just having a good time with that idea, to a deeply emotionally gripping tale of what worth a life can have about 75% of the way through, and it is a fast, HARD plot twist and change in tone. The questions it raises, and the pathos of the characters involved, are just excellent stuff, and the ending to this game wound up making me weep. In public.

Runners-Up: Fallout 4; Shin Megami Tensei 4-2; Valkyria Chronicles 1
Valkyria Chronicles 1’s finale is solid; there’s not much to really say about it beyond that they close the game well. Same with Fallout 4, really--it’s big, it’s impressive, it makes you stop and reflect on yet another grand story of the post apocalyptic world that you’ve taken part in...everything you expect from the series. Well, not everything, actually...the game does lack a definitive ending narration, which IS a real problem, making it probably the weakest ending of the Fallout series, and I sure as hell hope that they don’t pull that again. Come on, Bethesda, is it THAT hard to follow Fallout tradition and give us some ending clips for important people and places, tell us what happens to them in the future because of our endings? Nonetheless, it’s still a strong finish to a great RPG. And lastly, SMT4-2 kicks up its thematic philosophies a notch in its finale (provided you’re not an asshat who sided with the hypocritical Dagda instead of your friends). The final battle against YHVH is really well-done, a battle of philosophy and humanity’s purpose and progression as much as it is of actual physical conflict, and the use of Flynn’s team was a pleasant surprise, better tying the first Shin Megami Tensei 4 into its new conclusion. The ending subsequently does a good job of both focusing on its own cast and themes, while including its predecessor’s characters and ideas so well that I actually found myself in SMT4-2’s ending caring about Jonathan, Walter, and Isabeau’s connection, which SMT4-1 sure as hell couldn’t manage to accomplish. So yeah, good job with that, Atlus.

Worst RPG of 2016:
Loser: Whisper of a Rose
Look...Whisper of a Rose has high ambitions, and I respect it for that. But that’s all that I can say about the game that’s positive (well, that, and it also has a lot of really good songs). I’m not going to go into detail here--as I said, that’s coming up in its own rant soon. But unfortunately, this was not an auspicious first step for Indie developer Roseportal Games, and rather than get me excited to play more of their works and make me look forward all the more to the Shipbreakers game that I helped Kickstart, now I find myself uninterested in their other games and concerned about whether my money has been well pledged.

Almost as Bad: N/A
You know what’s cool about 2016? I only played a single game this year that I’d consider bad! And honestly, Whisper of a Rose isn’t even all that terrible; most other years, it’d be easily outclassed by worse stinkers. So that’s cool.

Most Creative of 2016:
Winner: Moon Hunters
Oh, hey, I finally got that Native American setting RPG I wanted. Well, mostly. Moon Hunters gets props for having a theme and setting based on tribal culture and lore, but it’s also very creative with how it handles itself. See, it’s a randomized roguelike RPG. Now, I just can’t stand roguelikes, and I’m not usually a fan of randomized dungeons, but Moon Hunters actually brings the idea together. Every game you play in it is different--the map changes, the ‘dungeons’, so to speak, change, and the characters you come across change. Yet this actually comes together perfectly in terms of plot, because the game is all about a single, legendary event of multiple cultures’ past, passed on orally in legends that change with each telling. The randomization element of gameplay that keeps the game different and thus fresh each time is actually accounted for and a strong part of the story!

Beyond that, the way it’s handled is just great. You really feel just like you’re playing through some tribe’s legends, and each time you restart (the game’s only like an hour and a half long, but it encourages multiple playthroughs in having different endings and many more events and characters than you could find in a single, or even half a dozen, playthroughs), you’ll experience more little side plots and figures of the game’s mythos that feel authentically like they’re parts of a long and involved legend. Moon Hunters is an extremely creative game; I am well pleased that I could help back it.

Runners-Up: AeternoBlade; Pier Solar and the Great Architects; Whisper of a Rose
Look, just because Whisper of a Rose can’t make anything worthwhile of all its interesting ideas and starting points, that doesn’t mean that those concepts aren’t still creative. AeternoBlade is an interesting story of time travel, vengeance, redemption, and human spirit that transcends time, and while there’s nothing that stands out too greatly about it, as a whole it comes together as a pretty creative venture. Lastly, while Pier Solar and the Great Architects does seem generic as an RPG for a while, its end game introduces a few very interesting plot points regarding the Pier Solar and the true history of the game’s world that are neat and different.

Best Romance of 2016:
Winner: Aigis and Minato (Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q...and, well, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, essentially)
There’s really only a single place in the game in which romantic stuff comes into play, but as always, the love and devotion that Aigis has for Minato is compelling. This isn’t a powerful and excellent romance in SMTPQ itself, but it’s powerful and excellent inasmuch that the love between Aigis and Minato here is an additional part added to the whole that is their love in SMT Persona 3...a revisiting of something really beautiful.

Runners-Up: Alicia x Welkin (Valkyria Chronicles 1); Camilla x Corrin (Fire Emblem 14); Selena x Subaki (Fire Emblem 14)
Alicia and Welkin are a pretty by-the-numbers JRPG protagonist x main girl couple, but they do have a good chemistry, and you can see and believe in their deepening interest for one another. It works. As for the FE14 couples...I’ll refer you to my previous rant on these characters. Suffice to say, Subaki provides a support for Selena (who is one of the deeper characters of FE13 and 14) to really grow as a person, and Camilla’s love for Corrin, for all its unsettling weirdness, is undeniably, inspiringly, overwhelmingly genuine.

Best Voice Acting of 2016:
Winner: Fallout 4
What is there to say? It’s Fallout. Almost everyone’s vocal work is on point, and the game goes out of its way to go a step further and include a lot of variations on Massachusetts accents in its NPCs, which, y’know, is pretty essential when a huge focus of your game is to examine American culture, and the particular setting of that culture is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Serious props go out to the voice actress for Nora the female protagonist, who really adds a lot of character to her role and perfectly balances the levity of sarcastic responses, the genuine goodness of morally upstanding responses, and the pain, confusion, and exhaustion that Nora carries in her search for her child (and after the search is over, for that matter; some of the lines during her conversation with Father on the roof in Cambridge are hauntingly well-done). The actor for Nate is highly competent, too, don’t get me wrong, and in a lot of other games he’d be a highlight...but if you play Fallout 4 without Courtenay Taylor voicing your protagonist, you’re just doing yourself a disservice. Big props also to Stephen Russell for his role as Nick Valentine, because I never, EVER will get tired of listening to a well-cast hardboiled detective, and he does a damn fine job with the role. But really, the game’s full of great performances. Deacon, Strong, Piper, Shaun, Tinker Tom, Hancock, Codsworth, Travis (especially before he gets his confidence), Curie, Kellogg, even a lot of little NPCs like the baseball vendor and Clem, they’re all great. With a game that has as much nuance to its emotion and ideas being expressed in its dialogue as Fallout 4 possesses, you need an incredible level of vocal talent in your whole cast to make it all work, and Fallout 4 brings that.

...Okay, fine, there is Preston’s “babe” problem. Look, no game is perfect.

Runners-Up: Shin Megami Tensei 4-2; Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q; Valkyria Chronicles 1
VC1 matches its characters to its actors and actresses well, and they do their part well to draw you into the game’s story and cast. The same is true of SMT4-2--everyone’s on point and bring you into the game with personality granted almost as much by their voices as by their actual words.* And lastly, well, the voice acting for both Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and 4 was excellent through and through, so small wonder that SMTPQ, whose cast is 90% characters from those titles, is terrifically voice acted. I do so love hearing Elizabeth’s whimsical musings and Theo-abusing demands.

Funniest of 2016:
Winner: Dragon Fantasy 2
Dragon Fantasy 2 is an enjoyable little tongue-in-cheek homage to 16-bit RPGs that stays amusing throughout. That’s all there is to say, really. It’s not a laugh-a-minute sort of game, but it’s pretty consistently fun.

Runners-Up: Code of Princess; Dragon Fantasy 1; Witch + Hero 2
Witch + Hero 2 continues the same vague but lighthearted humor as its predecessor, and it works fine. Dragon Fantasy 1 is built on the same humor as DF2, it’s just a little less frequent as a natural result of having a less dialogue-heavy story. And lastly, while I did criticize Code of Princess for the fact that it’s just not quite up to par for the tone it’s trying to take, there’s still a good few chuckles to be had with it.

Best Villain of 2016:
Winner: Father (Fallout 4)
Honestly, it’s a tough call who’s the best this year; all the contenders here are competent and have their strengths. In the end, though, it’s Father who is the best. He has depth as a callously misguided person, and his connection to Nora/Nate, and Nora/Nate’s entire purpose for braving the dangers of the Commonwealth, provides great drama to the game’s final conflict.

Runners-Up: Bethina (Pier Solar and the Great Architects); Krishna (Shin Megami Tensei 4-2); Vernia (AeternoBlade)
Vernia’s a good counterpart and juxtaposition to Freyja, and embodies AeternoBlade’s plot’s purpose very well. Bethina is interesting, and in some ways, not even as much a villain as the game’s protagonists are, though I can’t really say any more without spoiling certain things. As for Krishna...well, he’s got a decent villain schtick, but he’s not all that deep, honestly. At the same time, though, he’s got a charismatic villainous bearing, he’s smart and good at plotting, and he sells himself as a smug thinks-he-knows-best evil-doer. And honestly, sometimes that’s all it really takes to fill the role well.

Best Character of 2016:
Winner: Rei (Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q)
I cannot tell you any detail of why Rei is here. Go play the game if you want to know. Sorry. But hey, it’s a good RPG; you should play it anyway.

Runners-Up: Forrest (Fire Emblem 14); Nora/Nate (Fallout 4); Zahua (Pillars of Eternity)
Zahua’s here because I experienced Pillars of Eternity’s DLC this year, and he, a DLC character, has a notable personality and a strong level of characterization. Forrest is a solid character whose wisdom and quietly friendly forbearance is really great, and I’d say he has the most depth of character out of the entirety of FE14’s cast. And it is really, really nice to see a JRPG treat a crossdresser character as something other than a cheap punchline. Lastly, the potential for character in Nora and Nate from Fallout 4 is really excellent, with the way their issues and loss stay with them and affect their decisions, and the way they react to this strange new--and yet in many ways sadly all too familiar--world around them. This is the first time that the Fallout series has had a protagonist who, while still very much in the player’s control, has a distinct origin of personality and a definable mentality which can be explored. And frankly, in spite of some players’ complaints about this, I think that this is a huge benefit to the integrity and power of the game’s story and purpose, and I really hope that future installments of the Fallout series will do the same. Look, player choice is great, open-ended approaches to RPGs can work fine, but the quality, integrity, and strength of the story and narration still comes first. The power and pathos of Fallout 4 greatly benefitted from having a more concrete protagonist than its predecessors possessed, and that makes it a positive.

Best Game of 2016:
Winner: Fallout 4
This probably isn’t a huge surprise. Fallout 4 isn’t the best of its series--Fallout 3 is still better, and maybe New Vegas and 1, as well--and it has its problems (for example, the Synth issue that the game is focused on is interesting, but in the end, a little outside the right sci-fi range for the series). But it’s still a damn fine RPG. It’s got a great cast of memorable and varied characters, a gripping story, compelling emotion, solid and thoughtful themes, and, like all Fallouts, it invites us to look at ourselves and our culture through its involvement of, spotlight on, and analysis of the history, people, trends, and common culture of the United States of America. It’s a fun, engaging, yet dark and telling look at ourselves, a grand and emotionally poignant adventure, and an invitation to appreciate and contemplate where humanity and society is and should be headed. Damn fine work again, Bethesda.

Runners-Up: Shin Megami Tensei 4-2; Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q; Valkyria Chronicles 1
It’s a happy thing when it’s hard for me to pick the best of the year. I played many worthwhile titles this year that I would recommend, and Dex, Moon Hunters, and Pier Solar and the Great Architects are all good contenders for this category. Nonetheless...SMT4-2 is just a worthwhile, good RPG from start to finish, and while some fans have (correctly) noted that it’s in some ways closer to a Persona game than a title from the main numbered SMT games...well, that’s not really a bad thing, when the Persona flavor works and makes for a quality story. SMTPQ may only be a mildly positive game for its first 2/3, but once it does finally kick its story up, it is really, REALLY powerful stuff. Lastly, Valkyria Chronicles’s just a solid, well-made JRPG, intelligent, well-written, emotional, and containing a likable and interesting cast.

List Changes:
Greatest RPGs: Mass Effect 3 (with MEHEM) has been added to the Honorable Mention; Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon has been removed. Sorry, you piece of atmospheric, after-apocalypse artistry.
Most Annoying Characters: Still Teddie, just with the addition of SMT Persona Q to the list of games he’s from. New game, same fucking idiot.
Greatest Romances: Still Aigis and Minato, just with the addition of SMT Persona Q to the list of games they’re from. It’s tiny and optional, but still heartwarming and lovely.
Greatest Swords: The Aeterno Blade has been added (to the number 1 spot, in fact); the Elsydeon has been removed. Sorry, you memory-marked metallic murderer of the millennial monster.

And that’s it for 2016. Guys, gals, everything over to the side of that, thank you so very much for reading. I’ve had a lot of fun these past 10 years writing these rants, and I hope you’ve had some fun reading them. I’m looking forward to 2017, in which I have a great many more RPGs to experience (and 1 of them looks to be Tides of Numenara, which you know I’m just absolutely giddy about!), and I hope it’ll be a good year for all of us. Thanks for your time, your comments, your guest rants, and your support. Happy holidays to you all, and I’ll see you in the new year with more pointless babbling. Cheers!

* It IS a bit of a shame that Laura Bailey didn’t return to her role as Nozomi. I have absolutely adored Bailey’s performances ever since the ill-fated dub of Kodocha. But Karen Strassman, also known for her role as Aigis in the SMT Persona series, does a high quality job, one which I have no complaints whatsoever about.