Monday, November 11, 2019


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

Friday, December 8, 2017

General RPGs' Unusual Good Luck with Sequels

You know something? The RPG genre has an unusual lucky streak when it comes to sequels, when you think about it. I mean, with most mediums of expression, the first sequel is a tricky business. Sure, sometimes you pull off a Catching Fire, and your second book’s just as good as your first. Sure, sometimes you pull off an Empire Strikes Back, and your second movie’s not only a perfect continuation of your first, but even, arguably, a little better. And sure, sometimes you even pull off a Terminator 2, and your second movie’s actually really fucking incredible even though its predecessor was only so-so.*

But for every Catching Fire, there’s a Purgatorio.** For every Empire Strikes Back, there’s 5 Pirates of the Caribbean 2s. And, sadly, for every Terminator 2, there’s like, I dunno, at least 20 The Rats of Nimh 2s.*** While some sequels can live up to expectations or even rise above, more of them end up being superfluous, or disappointing, or a truly horrible black stain on a once laudable and beloved name.

Except, it seems to me, in the world of RPGs. Oh, sure, there are plenty of cases with this genre in which the sequel was a bad idea (Valkyrie Profile 2), or a fine (perhaps even necessary) idea that’s just not handled well (Xenosaga 2), or a godawful abomination which proves that we went wrong somewhere as a species (Final Fantasy 10-2). By no means am I saying that bad RPG sequels don’t exist. Hell, I'm not sure you could even have SquareEnix if bad RPG sequels weren't a thing; they may just be the most signature trait of the company. But I am saying that there seems to be a much higher rate of success for direct sequels in the RPG world than in most other genres and art forms. More often, it seems, you get a game that fully lives up to its predecessor’s expectations (Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2), improves upon the source material (Arc the Lad 2), or even just wildly exceeds expectations (Grandia 2). Hell, even some of the disappointing sequels in RPG Land sort of don’t even qualify as bad sequels--I maintain that though Deus Ex 2 and Alundra 2 don’t compare to the originals, they’re nonetheless still decent RPGs when judged strictly by their own merits, for example.

And that’s just talking about direct sequels. When you look at franchises which last 3 installments or longer...well, sometimes you get lucky, and you get a Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, and all 3 (or more) movies are worth seeing. But most often, series can’t sustain themselves for long past the second installment (if they can even manage that), and the longer they go, the less chance that they’ll pull off something particularly good in a later title. Unless the madman at the helm finally sells his franchise that he’s completely sunk to someone who can actually manage to do something decent with it *PRETEND-COUGH-BECAUSE-IT- DOESN’T-ACTUALLY-WORK-IN-TEXT* George Lucas *COUGH*.

But with RPGs? You can have be like 15 installments into a franchise and still have a good chance of finding a gem like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Hell, the best games of the Legend of Zelda series are all later titles in its history! Yeah, sometimes the third game in an RPG series will crash and burn in a horrible spectacle, like Grandia 3 or Shadow Hearts 3...but then again, the third title in an RPG series has a pretty decent chance of being the best of the franchise yet, like Star Ocean 3 and Wild Arms 3. I mean, I want you to just think for a moment, think really hard, and answer me this: what other form of entertainment media can you think of in which it’s not unusual for the best installment in a series to be its seventh title, like with RPGs’ Pokemon Moon and Sun? Its eighth (Dragon Quest)? Its ninth (Final Fantasy)?

And for that matter, how many non-RPG series are there to be found in which the quality can stay pretty consistently high for so many titles? Fire Emblem’s had 14 numbered titles, and having played FE games from a spattering of places in its lifetime (1, 4, 7, 9, and 14, so far), I’m led to believe that it’s stayed pretty decent from start to current day. Fallout’s on its fifth main, canon title now, and each canon part of the series has been just plain excellent, and so consistently so that 3 of its titles occupy the same area of my Greatest RPG list, with the other 2 titles only barely having missed making the list as well. And hell, you want consistent quality over a ridiculous number of different titles, you need look no further than Shin Megami Tensei. It’s, what, the second biggest RPG series on the planet now? Well over 30 titles, still frequently churning them out, and Atlus is managing to nonetheless keep the quality high--SMT4-2 was a strong RPG, and I hear almost nothing but great things about this year’s SMT Persona 5. You let me know what other genre of entertainment can show an example that’s 30+ installments into its series and still manage to be intellectually gripping, philosophically significant, and emotionally compelling.

Lastly, I feel like RPGs also have an above-average tendency to have a shitty start to their series, which is then turned around by a great sequel. Sure, it happens outside of RPGs, too--I was very excited by the prospect of DC actually turning their shit-show around and building a proper cinematic universe after Wonder Woman proved that they can make a movie that isn’t the film equivalent of rectal cancer (too bad we instead got the Justice League movie that's currently violating theaters)--but again, I don’t think it happens nearly as often as it does with RPGs. Star Ocean 1 and 2 were crap, but Star Ocean 3 was actually pretty darned decent. Lufia 1 is excessively boring, while Lufia 2 is an absolute classic. Tales of Phantasia was pretty dull and generic in spite of having some promising plot foundations, but later installments like Tales of Legendia and Tales of the Abyss**** are terrific.

At any rate, I suppose I could be wrong, and my perspective is skewed on the matter. I do eat, breathe, and crap RPGs,***** after all. I may be a leeeeettle bit biased on this. Still, looking over all the RPG sequels and franchises I’ve played, I can’t help but feel that the whole sequel experience has been unusually positive for the genre.

* Come at me, fanboys.

** Come at me, lit professors.

*** Come at me, absolutely no one in the entire fucking world.

**** Come at me, Ecclesiastes. Er, again.

***** Hey, Kemco! I'm still waiting for the royalty check for all the times you fished something out of my toilet and published it, you know!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Fallout 4's Strengths and Weaknesses as a Fallout Game

Warning: This rant is long, and it is filled with Fallout fanaticism. Like, really long, really filled. If you don’t love this series passionately, then do not expect to care a lot.

The Fallout series is, overall, a highly loved and appreciated one by gamers far and wide. And for good reason! Every (canon) installment of the series to date has been fantastic, and 3 of its 5 installments are on my list of the Greatest RPGs, with the other 2 titles very close to making said list. Every time I update that rant, they very nearly make it on there; in fact, if I were to extend it even a single spot more than its current 25, Fallout 1 would be on it to join 3, 4, and New Vegas.

Funnily enough, though, as uniformly excellent as the series is, there are still a lot of hardcore fans who will insist that a certain installment isn’t up to code, and, in fact, sucks. Some of the oldest fans hate Fallout 3 and point to New Vegas as a ‘true’ successor to the legacy Fallout 1 and 2 created. Others eschew Fallout: New Vegas for similar reasons, insisting that its feel and aesthetic is overrated, inferior to the new vision that Bethesda had for the series with Fallout 3. Others insist that the games never should have lost the turn-based grid style of the first 2 installments. And so on and so forth.

Such hotly contested debates seem wholly ridiculous to me. I mean, honestly? The quality of the Fallout series is so consistent that the differences from 1 title to the next (with the exception of the transition from 2 to 3, I guess) in terms of aesthetic, characters, and storytelling style are so small that it seems like a bunch of people screaming at each other not about whether apples are better than oranges, but rather whether red delicious apples are better than honeycrisp apples. Fallout 3 has a more epic story with more moments of greater emotional weight, Fallout: New Vegas has better characters and more meaningful choices to be made, Fallout 3 has a wider and more significant view of humanity and American culture, Fallout: New Vegas has more thoughtful themes of culture and historical metaphors, both of them lack the lonely post-apocalyptic creativity of the first Fallout, yet the true aesthetic and soul of the setting is only achieved by the later games, Fallout 2 is the one that established some of the most fundamentally essential parts of the series’s historical lore...and on, and on. But while each installment has certain aspects that it does best, what’s really important, what really makes each Fallout title excellent, remains present and powerful: the setting’s hold over us, the engaging characters and situations, the creative plots and lore, the ambient storytelling, and most importantly, the examination of American culture, and humanity as a whole. Regardless of how crisp and sweet/sour you like your apple, they’re all tasty regardless, and they all make great desserts.

So, naturally, Fallout 4 has its set of fan detractors. I work with one, in fact. The guy has logged something like 500 hours on the game, and insists that it’s the weakest installment yet. His reasons for thinking this are valid, although I disagree with him that they’re enough to put it at the bottom of the list. But while I do see some folks who say that Fallout 4 is the worst of the series for such-and-such reason, as I see folks say about every Fallout offering, I don’t actually see many people who say the opposite. Usually there’s some balance--about as many people who say Fallout 3 is the best as there are who say Fallout: New Vegas is better and that 3 was trash, about as many people who insist that the original Fallouts were the only true ones as people who say they weren’t any good, etc. But while lots of people obviously loved Fallout 4, there don’t seem to be all that many staunchly defending it or noting what it does better than its peers. Well, maybe they have better things to do with their time.

I obviously don’t.

So, what I want to do today--yes, the real rant is only now starting, a full page after you started reading it, and yes, I am a bastard--is to speak on what I think Fallout 4 does really well, and where it’s weaker than its peers. It’s been done by many for the rest of the series, so why not put something out there to give it a similar treatment? But I do this with the understanding that Fallout, every (canon) Fallout, is excellent. Fallout 4 here is not the only excellent one just because it has certain traits below that it does better than the rest. And it is not the only bad one because it has certain characteristics below that the others do better. These, to me, are just its special qualities.

Alright, so, first of all, I think Fallout 4 really raised the bar in terms of ambient storytelling. Now, ambient storytelling--as in, letting the settings and supporting data and lore tell tales as you explore, creating a litany of stories of life against which the main plot is stitched onto--is a feature of the Fallout series already, and damn if Fallout 3 and New Vegas don’t do a great job with it. But Fallout 4’s ambient storytelling is...well, it’s just frankly amazing! So much careful thought and detail went into the Commonwealth and its history in this game that it’s staggering once you start piecing it all together. And I daresay most players won’t even realize half of it as they go along, simply because it’s so subtly in the background that it’s sort of like the details of life itself--like passing a person on the street and thinking nothing of the fact that they have an entire lifetime of history propelling them forward, intersecting with your own for just a single, thoughtless moment.

It’s can gather stories of the people of the Commonwealth from the computer entries they’ve made, the vocal records they’ve left, even just their skeletal remains’ location and surroundings. That’s true of any Fallout. But this game ratchets up just how much of that occurs, and it begins to carefully interconnect the many, many tales of the Commonwealth together far more than the ambient storytelling of the Capital Wasteland or the New Vegas area did. For an example...Nick Valentine has a quest in which you track down Eddie Winters, an infamous prewar mob boss, right? And, understandably, traces of Eddie’s influence on the prewar Commonwealth can be found here and there through the game where appropriate; you don’t just encounter stuff about him for Nick’s quest and nothing else. Well, 1 of the connections Winters has to other parts of the Commonwealth is Wicked Shipping, a local shipping company whose warehouse HQ you can find as you roam around. Now, it was established (prewar, remember; this is all in the past) that Winters had an arrangement with Wicked Shipping in which they’d secretly deliver some of the radioactive waste that they were paid to transport to him, instead of where it was supposed to go. This is because, as discovered through Nick’s personal quest, Eddie figured out how to become a ghoul long before the nukes made the creatures common.

So here’s the thing: at the Wicked Shipping warehouse, you can find a manifest for the shipments they were making the morning that the bombs dropped, involving 4 trucks. And if you follow up on this manifest, you will find, indeed, that 3 of those trucks are near the areas of the Commonwealth that they were supposed to be making deliveries to, and you can loot them using the key you find in the warehouse. But, 1 of those trucks is not where it should be--it’s nowhere even near its manifest’s destination. Instead, you find this missing Wicked Shipping truck near a location in the Commonwealth that was a part of Eddie Winters’s operations! This, then, is the truck that secretly delivered the radioactive materials to him, instead of where they were supposed to go (as indicated by the manifest). No tape, document, or computer entry spells this out for you, and unless you’re familiar both with every tiny detail of Eddie Winters from Nick’s sidequest AND the details of Wicked Shipping’s manifests and history--which you have no game-given reason to be, as it’s not part of any quest--you’d never think twice about this truck’s location. And yet, here this tiny, background connection between a quest and a small part of prewar lore sits, its placement unassuming, unobtrusive, and yet carefully considered by the writers.

That’s the sort of thing I mean when I say that Fallout 4’s ambient storytelling is off-the-charts excellent. There is so much subtle detail and thought put into the stories of its locations and the way all their histories and events interconnect across this huge chunk of Massachusetts that you can explore. It’s humbling to know that the writers could keep track of themselves this thoughtfully. And the sad thing is that unless you’re looking for it--really, really looking for it--most of this care and attention to details will pass you by. Who would look upon that Wicked Shipping truck with anything more than a glance for loot upon finding it? Who would remember the missing truck on this manifest--if they bothered to search for the trucks it lists to begin with--strongly enough to realize, finding it perhaps dozens of hours later, that there is a purpose to its seeming misplacement?

And that’s just 1 connection made through Wicked Shipping! The fact that they’re transporting radioactive waste also connects to a whole branch of lore points regarding the companies that were polluting the Commonwealth before the bombs dropped. By no means is Eddie Winters the only substantial part of Fallout 4’s lore interconnected with this small company whose warehouse looks for all the world to be a one-and-done explorable location.

I’d also like to note that the thoughtful detail of the ambient storytelling of Fallout 4 isn’t just limited to side content and exploration--it does also affect and enhance the main story’s components, too, often so subtly that one might not realize it. Take, for example, the terminology of the Institute. It doesn’t take too sharp an eye and ear to realize, after listening around the Institute for a while, that these self-important dickwads use terminology as a weapon of oppression. By absolutely always insisting on referring to Synths as machines, by calling changes to their personality ‘debugging’ rather than ‘brainwashing’ and procedures to fix or better physical attributes of the Synths ‘upgrades’ rather than ‘surgeries,’ the Institute uses vocabulary to distance themselves from their creations in order to keep their members away from considering the ethical implications of their new slave race. After all, saying that a Synth’s growing wish for freedom is a bug in his code is much more palatable and less likely to raise moral red flags than expressing the exact same idea as a flaw in his personality.

Now, here’s the thing: this is an important characteristic of the Institute faction that you can easily glean from talks with Father and other Institute members, overheard conversations between Institute scientists, and journal entries you read. But there are actually a lot of small details nearby and around this specific subject that strengthen this point and support your suspicion that the Institute’s using the same trick as dirty politicians and totalitarian communities. One small, easily missed, but exceptionally significant detail relating to this idea, for example, is found in the recording of Kellogg’s operation to put the implant in his head. During the procedure, an Institute scientist mentions how pleased the group is with him for having brought them the ‘genetic material.’ Kellogg, either unsure of what they mean or, more likely, not impressed with their use of vocabulary to evade self-awareness, clarifies that what they mean is the child he kidnapped from the protagonist (Nora/Nate’s son, Shaun). The Institute scientist acknowledges that Kellogg is right, but still refers (now pointedly, I think) to Shaun only as the ‘DNA sample.’

Now, this part of the conversation accomplishes a direct purpose in giving you an idea of the time period in which the recording was made. But it also establishes very clearly that the Institute likes to morally distance itself from the things it does that are ethically questionable. Instead of admitting that they stole a child, the way Kellogg does (he, at least, is honest with himself about his monstrosity), they insist on only referring to Shaun at that time by his value, scientifically, to Kellogg. They distance themselves from the unethical actions they’ve taken, by using terms that lack humanity. It’s telling about their character overall, but it is also a very strong confirmation of any suspicion you might have that the way they refer to and regard Synths is more propaganda than it is fact. If they refused to acknowledge the humanity of the child they kidnapped in order to keep themselves from questioning their actions, they’d certainly do the same of the people they’d created to be slaves. A few little lines, contained within a different part of the lore of the Institute, provides a wealth of information and understanding to a major faction of the game, and puts the entirety of that faction’s dialogue into question, opening new avenues of understanding to us as the audience about the Synth question. Again, very skillful ambient storytelling, subtle but substantial, small enough that you might not notice it, large enough that it’s a damning piece of evidence against any theory for taking the Institute’s terminology as legitimate.

If you would like to get to know some more of Fallout 4’s unparalleled ambient storytelling excellence, I heartily recommend Oxhorn’s Youtube channel, particularly his playlist for Fallout 4 lore. The guy has put an amazing amount of time, observation, and thought into this game and series, and even though I pride myself on being meticulous in my explorations of these games, he makes me look like a bumbling doofus with his ability to suss out details and connections, extrapolate likely theories, and even explore the ethical ramifications of the game’s decisions and cast. I know his video lists look daunting, but if you love this series and want to truly know and appreciate the painstaking effort its creators put into crafting its every detail, you will want to check this guy’s channel out.

So, another thing I really appreciate about Fallout 4 is its cast. Now, I’ll definitely give Fallout: New Vegas full credit for having the best companions with the most depth and originality--almost no one in any other Fallout compares to Veronica, Boone, Raul, or the whole Dead Money bunch--but to be fair, party members are not the only part of the character equation. They’re the most important, yes, and in most games, they’re all that really matters with the cast...but in the case of Fallout, the size and importance of the Fallout world means that the NPCs who inhabit it are actually very important parts of its storytelling. And in that sense, I think that Fallout 4 is very on-point. The plot-relevant people of the Commonwealth stand out and have memorable and engaging personalities, to an extent more than any Fallout game before this. Every Fallout’s full of singular entities you meet along your travels, but it just feels like more of them are more personable and memorable in this game.

And hey, maybe Fallout: New Vegas has the best companions of the series, but Fallout 4 is actually pretty close behind. A good half of its party members are nuanced, interesting characters, and I have to say, as far as unique appeal, they’ve got all the other games put together beat. Piper, Codsworth, Hancock, and Curie are all terrifically likable individuals, and Deacon is (heresy incoming) even more appealing than Veronica was. And then there’s Nick Valentine, who is just the fucking best dude ever, and the 1 other Fallout companion who stands at the same level of quality as a character as the best that New Vegas can offer. And as far as villains...Fallout 4 has the best of the series. I’d weigh Elder Maxson against Presidents Eden and Richardson any day, Kellogg makes for a much more threatening and interesting personal antagonist than Autumn or Horrigan, and Father easily outperforms Caesar. Only The Master from the first game is as compelling as any of the Fallout 4 villains.

1 more quality to Fallout 4 that I think it stands out especially well on: the protagonist. Look, I know everyone’s got it in their heads that player choice is something inalienable and ultimately important, and everyone gets all in a tizzy the moment they don’t have a dozen different ways for their character to approach the problem of wiping his or her own ass, but...I’m sorry, it needs to be said: player choice isn’t that fucking important. In the grand scheme of things, it really isn’t! It’s great if you can have a lot of choice for who your character is and what they do, but if it gets in the way of a smooth, functional story and purpose, then it isn’t worth it!

There are plenty of RPGs which can pull off a lot of player choice without sacrificing the narrative too strongly (like Fallout: New Vegas, in fact), and that’s great. Some RPGs really bend over backward to make player choice a huge thing but still function as a coherent plot, like The Witcher 2, which is almost 2 games in 1 for allowing the plot to grow around how the player wants to play Geralt. And some RPGs actually manage to make complete player choice a core element of their story and themes, perfectly blending them together, like Undertale. Awesome. But in general, it’s easier to tell the story you want to tell when the protagonist isn’t a completely unknown element in it. That’s why even though we have some simply astonishingly excellent RPGs in the west, the lion’s share of quality RPGs are Japanese in origin (or, in recent years, indie RPGs following JRPG formulas)--because the Japanese aren’t fucking handicapping themselves to give the player the choice to play as serial killers, bigots, and tyrants in every damn title.

So yeah, in Fallout 4, you have considerably less control over what the protagonist says and does. Nowhere NEAR a lack of control, mind you; she/he can still have many different values and usually has at least 2 different ways to respond to stuff, but still, that’s a lot less than the many dialogue trees previous Fallout games have allowed for. Well,’s an improvement. Because this more concrete protagonist of Fallout 4 has actual personality traits, regardless of whether she/he is a saint or a monster, and an overall character that comes through thanks to either a great performance by Brian Delaney, or an excellent performance by Courtenay Taylor. The story tailored around the protagonist is more personal and emotionally substantial than any Fallout before, and knowing the protagonist’s history and motivations means that as we explore with her/him through the post-apocalyptic Commonwealth, the events and places we encounter have greater meaning, for we see the tragedy and relief, the regret and the joy, that they cause the protagonist, and understand why they do so. A concrete protagonist also means more compelling friendships and romances with party members, and greater substance for important supporting characters in the story that connect to her/him (notably Kellogg and Father). Whatever personal enmity there was between the Chosen One and Frank Horrigan, or the Lone Wanderer and Colonel Autumn, it had to be largely imagined, for the games were unequipped to really create any sort of emotional relationship between hero and villain. Even the Lone Wanderer’s relationship with James, though present and significant, is largely one-sided, with Liam Neeson’s character doing all the heavy lifting for establishing and selling the father-child relationship. Not the case for the enmity between the Sole Survivor and Kellogg, or the bond between Nora/Nate and Shaun. They’re real and visible from both sides.

You’d never get the tension and anger of Nora/Nate’s confrontation with Kellogg from a variable hero like the Vault Dweller. You’d never get the sweet, warm fuzzies of Piper’s confession of love for Nora or Nate with a malleable main character like the Chosen One. You’d never get the anguish and sorrow of Nora/Nate telling Shaun how disappointed they are with him atop the Cambridge rooftop out of a pliable protagonist like the Lone Wanderer. You’d never get the wistful reminiscing of Nora and Nate about the world as it was from an unknown leading figure like the Courier. Nora and Nate being distinct characters creates atmosphere, injects feeling into the game and the characters that interact with them.*

And hey, maybe it does take away some amount of the player’s ability to choose everything about his/her main character...but even if you count that as a major, core part of Fallout, there’s still a positive to this tradeoff. By establishing Nora and Nate’s personalities and history as prewar citizens, another core aspect of Fallout is enhanced--the comparison it draws between prewar and post-apocalyptic humanity. The unchangeable evil and virtue of humanity is a major part of the Fallout series, particularly its later installments, as its ambient and direct storytelling strive to show us a mirror between prewar and post-apocalyptic--how the idealized, surface-level-perfect 1950s-style society before the war was only a varnish on the darkness in humanity, and how the brutal, violent, twisted world after the apocalypse nonetheless cannot stamp out humanity’s light. Nora/Nate, having come from one and now become instrumental in the other, provides an opportunity to sell this theme of “War (Humanity). War (Humanity) never changes” better than ever before, and the game capitalizes on this quite well, with Nora/Nate having many opportunities to note the similarities and contrasts between both the evils and the virtues of the current world and the one from before.

Now, those are some of Fallout 4’s most important virtues, the ones which make it shine compared to its other family members (not necessarily shine more or less, just differently). I’d also like to point out a couple of its weaknesses, ones which the others of the series don’t suffer from.

First of all, the Synth thing. The defining conflict of Fallout 4 revolves around Synths; you can’t get away from it. Synths are a monumentally important part of the main story, the side stories, and even the ambient storytelling of the game, the heart of its conflicts--the Institute wants to base itself around them, the Minutemen oppose the Institute because of what it does with Synths, the Railroad seeks to rescue Synths, and the Brotherhood’s presence is solely motivated by a desire to destroy the Synths. Even the excellent Far Harbor DLC involves Synths almost as heavily as the main story does (although to excellent ends, creating an engaging and ethically complex story that explores the concept of truth quite interestingly). And, well, don’t get me wrong, this works just fine, but...Synths just don’t feel quite right as a part of the Fallout universe, or at least, as such a big part. It’s just a tiny bit too much of a dose of science fiction, to me, perhaps simply because the plot point of Synths so thoroughly saturates the game. I mean, obviously Super Mutants are a strong sci-fi element, and they’re essential parts of Fallout 1 and 3’s plots, but they’re not absolutely everywhere you look in terms of Fallout 1 and 3’s stories. They were something of a shocking reveal in Fallout 1, and while the main story revolved around them, the majority of the rest of the game’s storytelling did not. In Fallout 3, they’re an important part of the lore of the Capital Wasteland, but important though they are, the game eventually becomes more focused on the Enclave as an enemy. The Super Mutants don’t just inundate every storytelling angle those games had, the way Synths do in Fallout 4.

And don’t get me wrong, I understand that the Synths are useful metaphors for various aspects and themes of American culture that the game explores.** And the game does very well with them in this sense. They just feel a step removed from what’s appropriate for the series’s lore, to me. I suppose that’s subjective, though.

The other thing I think is a weakness for Fallout 4, as a part of its series, is its ties to its setting. Look, Fallout 4 does a great job with portraying and exploring Massachusetts and its people. It does. And I say that as a guy who lives in, and has always lived in, MA. They reference and use a lot of our state’s history and culture--there’s a whole faction called the Minutemen, there’s a sidequest named The Big Dig, Eddie Winters is almost surely based off of Whitey Bulger, plenty of Boston landmarks like Fenway and the Freedom Trail are prominent parts of the story, they've got location references to stuff like Filene's and Cheers, 1 of the most important characters in the game is named Shaun (although if they were really going for authenticity, it’d be more like 15% of all the game’s characters would share the name across at least 3 different spellings), and guards armor themselves in protective baseball gear and grouse about people asking them to park the car in Harvard Yard. The game does an awesome job with the Massachusetts setting.

Just...I dunno, not as awesome as it could be.

Look, this might just be home court bias here, but as great as Fallout 4 does, I still feel like some of its predecessors better capitalized on their settings. Part of Fallout 3’s great, epic feeling as a whole came from how well it utilized our nation’s capital to tell its tale. The culture and soul of Las Vegas was a present force throughout Fallout: New Vegas, and even was incorporated into much of its story’s aesthetics and themes...even the game’s plot eventually becomes an all-or-nothing gambit reminiscent of a tense card game! Fallout does so much, but there’s so much that feels like it’s missing. How can you have Salem in the game, without having anything of significance present there? College-intensive state that it is, how can MIT be the only university of importance in the game? Shouldn’t the world-famous Mass General Hospital be more than just a potential site for radiant quests and a few fetch missions?

And how in the WORLD do you make a Fallout game set in Massachusetts, and not include Plymouth?! First site and community of the pilgrims, Bethesda? You didn’t think that should be somewhere in the Massachusetts Fallout? Believe me, I appreciate that 1 of the 2 major DLCs for this game is set in Maine, since that was originally just part of Massachusetts, so it’s totally appropriate, but there really should have been a DLC that takes place in Plymouth. The thought of a theme park DLC was a great idea (even if it was executed terribly), but Plymouth really should have had precedence over a DLC concept that could have been added to any installment in the series.

Then again, I am, as I mentioned, probably biased. Anyway, that’s about it. Fallout 4 has its strengths and weaknesses as an RPG, but I thought it might be fun to recognize it for its strengths and weaknesses as a Fallout, too. And fun it was! For me, at least. You’re probably bored out of your mind. Well, sometimes a rant’s gotta be just that--a directionless collection of what’s on my mind. Thanks for bearing with me, at least, and maybe next time I’ll have something a little more solid and purposeful for you.

* This doesn’t really fit into the rant proper, but I’d like to note that the few times the Fallout series has dabbled into solidifying their protagonists at all, it’s always been a positive thing. My favorite part of Point Lookout in Fallout 3 was the fact that it actually allowed us to delve a little into the Lone Wanderer’s head, 1 of the many excellent qualities of Lonesome Road in Fallout: New Vegas was the fact that it actually gave some history to the Courier, and even just the moment in Fallout 2 where you read a plaque about the Vault Dweller on his statue is quite gratifying.

** Off the top of my head, prejudice towards and enslavement of others who are functionally and spiritually no different from you, nationalistic paranoia trends like the Red Scare, and the capacity to question our own existence, purpose, and physical identity.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Pokemon Generation 6 and 7's Traded Pokemon Obedience

The obedience level cap of traded Pokemon has always been stupid.

You know what I’m talking about: that strange gameplay limitation present in the Pokemon series since the first generation which dictates that if a Pokemon you got in a trade from someone else is at a high enough level, it won’t listen to your commands during battle unless you’ve gotten far enough in the game to earn a badge guaranteeing obedience up to an appropriate level.

Well, I think it’s stupid. What the hell does this achieve, really? Yeah, fine, it’s a balancing mechanic, making sure that anyone who gets a Level 99 Mewtwo in a trade doesn’t just sail all the way through the game without trying. Okay, sure, it works for this purpose, but, uh, who the fuck cares? Balancing mechanics are supposed to make the game more fun and properly challenging for those who want it to be. Well, for anyone who wants to keep their game properly balanced, they could just not use the damn overpowered Pokemon they got from the trade! Or is it that Nintendo doesn’t want you going from the beginning of the game to the end too fast? Because Bahamut knows you want to take the time to really savor those thoughtful, rewarding stories in the first 6 generations of Pokemon, right?

Good lord, I think I just gave myself heartburn from sarcasm overdose.

Yeah, sorry, but it’s just dumb. Trying to forcibly dictate how fast the player’s allowed to progress in the game seems pointless when it’s a 1-player venture like this, and it ain’t like the battle system of Pokemon is so complex and articulate that it would be a great loss to make it easier than it already is. Why would Nintendo want to limit the usefulness of the trading feature like this, anyway? From Day 1, the more trading goes on between Pokemon players the better, since it means more people are playing, and thus have purchased, the game.

It’s not even set up intelligently! Pokemon from trades gain more experience points from battles, so if any member of your team is going to hit a level limit earlier than they should, it’s them! The system is set up to make the traded Pokemon grow faster, and then punish them for it!

But you know what? As annoying as it might have always been, particularly for one such as myself, who attempts with each game to import his favorite Pokemon for a new adventure (it just isn’t a Pokemon game if I’m not leading the charge with Mewtwo, Gardevoir, and that wonderfully absurd flaming kung fu chicken), it’s always been a minor frustration, minor enough that even I never thought to rant about it before--and Alexander knows that says something; I've written rants complaining about stuff like the size of a game's treasure chests. It’s an unnecessary and unwelcome gameplay balance, but negligible overall.

Except now, in the sixth and seventh generations of Pokemon. Now, this mechanic is really stupid.

Regardless of all else about it, there was nothing in the games themselves that outright contradicted the concept of the disobedient trade Pokemon. The idea is just that once they get too strong, they don’t listen to you because you’re not a good enough trainer. Simple, if arbitrary.

But in Generation 6 and 7, see, Pokemon battles have been given a little more personality than ever before.* In Pokemon Moon and Sun, your Pokemon’s affection towards you has a direct influence on their combat capabilities--get them to love you enough, and they get more experience points, occasionally dodge attacks and survive otherwise lethal blows, snap out of status ailments more reliably, and so on. Along with these tangible battle benefits, there are various messages that occur during battle that give it some flavor, according to how your Pokemon feels about you. Messages like,

“Oranguru is relaxed. The sight of you might have made it feel more more secure.”
“You and Oranguru are breathing in perfect sync with one another!”
“Oranguru is looking at you with intense and determined eyes!”
“Oranguru puts on some Barry White!”
“Oranguru asks you if this is your first time...”

Maybe a higher critical hit rate ain’t the only benefit the trainer’s getting from their Affection-maxed Pokemon, know what I’m sayin’?

So here’s my question: how does it make any sense when the Pokemon you’ve brought up to the highest level of Affection by grooming and feeding it constantly suddenly decides, at the instant it passes an arbitrary boundary of experience points, that it no longer gives a rat’s ass about you? It’s not like the Affection level lowers at all, or anything. This Pokemon still absolutely worships you, even as it snubs you for the unworthy scrub you apparently are.

Hell, even the battle messages don’t change at all! I bring my traded, Affection-maxed, over-leveled Ninetales into combat, and every between-turn message is about how much she wants to make sweet disturbing Poke-love to me, while every actual turn she takes involves her pretending I don’t exist. Stop making my glorious ice fox into a subpar Tsundere, Nintendo!

So yeah. This mechanic, which was always stupid, nowadays makes no sense whatsoever. ‘Love is fickle’ doesn’t need to be a gameplay feature!

* I’m going on knowledge graced me by the esteemed Ecclesiastes in terms of Generation 6, as I didn’t play that one. But Ecc’s a pretty cool and reliable guy, so I’m assuming he’s correct on this.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Children of Zodiarcs

If playing Children of Zodiarcs, you should expect to find the following in this game:

- A simple, but engaging and worthwhile story about revenge, class divide, and the terrible consuming nature of hate.
- Emotionally charged characters whose personalities and directives are well-designed and expressed, as well as understandable to the audience.
- A final confrontation between heroine and villain that embodies the thematic shared essences of their character (those being hate and revenge), while also being symbolic of the all-important divorce between how they will choose to live with that shared emotion going forward.
- A deceptively easy-to-understand, but actually pleasantly complex battle system.

Conversely, you should not expect to find the following in this game:

- Joy.

Yeah, Children of Zodiarcs is a very good RPG, but I’m warning you up front: if you’re not prepared for a hell of a downer, then this is not the story and cast for you. I’m writing this 3 days after having finished the game, and there are elements of its tragedy that are still bothering me. Which is good, make no mistake! It means that the writers did their job really well. Just, if you play it, y’know, be aware that a lot of that job is to upset you. Not that it’s all depressing or hurtful; the game also leaves you with many strong elements of hope. But ultimately, this is a game about the terrible wake left by the wrongs of society, and by hatred and vengeance, and that kind of subject matter isn’t given to happy stories. So be warned.

Now, if you’re still interested in what Children of Zodiarcs can offer after that warning, I’ll say that I definitely recommend it. It’s a simple but honest tragedy that focuses on what atrocities can come from harmfully imbalanced society and unchecked upper classes, both directly, as we see the people crushed beneath the weight of a system that keeps the many in poverty and pain for the benefit of the few, and indirectly, as we see the protagonists and antagonist repay the suffering the world has caused them back, in the unfortunate, unfocused way that relentless anger tends to cause. Beyond that, CoZ is also focused on the concept of vengeance as a matter of its own, and provides a telling, yet somehow hands-off perspective on it. The message that vengeance is not worth what it costs you, costs paid by both your humanity and by the innocent around you, is clear, yet really never said, or even fully acknowledged. It’s done quite well. I mean, if I had to pick 1 RPG to recommend as an examination of and warning against vengeance, it would still be Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, whose excellent method is still clear in my mind even now...but Children of Zodiarcs is a damn fine second choice. And hey, one can never have too many interesting and emotionally-charged stories examining and cautioning against losing oneself to fury, right? So play them both!

Hm...Children of Zodiarcs, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, and Final Fantasy it just me, or do tactical RPGs have a disproportionate trend of being hard, downer stories? I mean, they’re obviously not the only ones (the mere memory of Eternal Senia happening to drift through my consciousness has been known to make me tear up), but still, seems like this corner of the genre has an unusual predilection for this sort of thing.

Anyway. The characters line up as excellent embodiments of what the story is trying to say, who the story is about. Admittedly, there aren’t many that I actually like on a personal level, but that isn’t necessarily the important thing, is it? I don’t personally like Kreia in Knights of the Old Republic 2, but damned if I don’t respect the hell out of her as a character and a mouthpiece of the game’s philosophy and musings. I may not have much affection for Nahmi, Brice, Zirchhoff, Argon, or Pester, but they do what they need to in the plot, and are interesting and complex characters whose perspective and feelings you can fully understand. Not much more to say than that; they’re solid characters who play their role in this game exactly as they should.

The music in this game is decent, and at times reminds one faintly of Final Fantasy Tactics (as does the overall story, for that matter), in a way that is pleasant, but never overbearing--Children of Zodiarcs is still clearly its own entity, not borrowing so much as paying homage to its inspirations through its sound. The gameplay is, as I said, quite good--there’s a lot of factors in combat and combat preparation to consider, but ultimately, combat in CoZ is a satisfying mix of skill and luck, and 1 of the few battle systems based around cards and dice that I don’t hate more than I hate RPG battle systems in general. I sort of feel like this is what Crimson Shroud’s battle system should have been.

I’d also like to mention that this game’s got a great example of Indie polish. Some indie RPGs are basic and kind of unimpressive in look, feel, and know I like Celestian Tales 1 just fine, and recommend it to you as a good RPG, but at the same time, it has that look of an Indie RPG that is finished, but basic. Some RPGs, though, are like Dust: An Elysian Tail, or Bastion, in that they do definitely look like an Indie RPG, but one that’s been carefully polished to feel and look exactly the way it was envisioned, to be unquestionably its own, singular entity. Children of Zodiarcs belongs to that latter category--it’s got a visual aesthetic that’s glaring yet dark and subtly angry, simple in looks but in a carefully tailored way. And even if it doesn’t make a showing of it, the game pays attention to detail--I was impressed by the fact that this seemingly simple, direct gameplay system accounts for the surroundings and method of destruction in combat to the point that enemies actually, in their death animations, topple off raised standpoints, fall down stairs, get knocked against’s a very tiny and unimportant visual detail, but it’s telling when a game’s creators take the time to polish their product to even such a tiny level as that. To me, of course, Children of Zodiarcs would be exactly as solid and worthy an RPG even if none of these peripherals were any good, because its plot and characters are great...but the peripherals ARE good, and for those who do care about visuals, sound, and gameplay and whatnot, I think you’ll be pleased well enough with it.

Anyway, I think I’ll wrap things up with that. I go on too long in these rants already. Children of Zodiarcs is a poignant, well-crafted tale, and I recommend it, so long as you’re prepared for a game that punches your heart more often than warms it. This is an RPG that I’m proud to have helped make possible. Check it out!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Project X Zone 1

Hey, check it out--a game has gotten me peeved enough to just do an unfocused hate-dump rant! Haven’t had 1 of these for a while.

Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. This is the behavior of both the mentally insane, and players of Project X Zone 1. Although I would suspect that these 2 categories frequently overlap.

Just...what exactly happened, here? At what point did Project X Zone go wrong? How? Why? This is the Capcom vs. SNK of RPGs (it’s even canonically tied to the Capcom vs. line of games); how do you mess that up? How do you create a cast out of Street Fighter, Tales of, Sakura Wars, .hack, Resident Evil, and a whole gaggle of other franchises, and make it boring and repetitive? This is an RPG whose cast includes Dante from Devil May Cry, Megaman X and Zero, KOS-MOS from Xenosaga, and freakin’ Ulala from Space Channel 5...and it’s boring.


Well I’ll tell you how. Because that’s what I do. I complain.

I’ll tell you how you manage to fuck up the most interesting gaming crossover concept this side of Super Smash Brothers. You give it the worst pacing of all time. No, no, don’t roll your eyes--I actually think I mean that. I can’t think of an RPG with worse pacing. I mean, I’ve had to deal with some doozies, but nothing compares to Project X Zone 1. This is a game whose pacing manages to be agonizingly slow and accomplish nothing, while at the same time, a frenzied whirlwind of nonsense events that no sane person could possibly keep track of. It’s basically like the United States senate. For half the game’s 40+ chapters, all that happens is that the growing group of heroes get thrown from one game world to another with no control of where they’re going, and no idea of why this is happening, solely for the reason that this crossover is so damn bloated with characters that it takes half the game to recruit them. There’s no advancement of what passes for a plot for half the damn game, just a repeated flurry of changing scenery and exchanges that basically go down as,

“Who are you?”
“We’re heroes from different worlds! Look, a bad guy you know, and some you don’t! Let’s join forces!”

For over 20 damn chapters! And yet, even though this is a narrative dragging of heels that makes Dragon Ball Z’s pace look brisk and logical by comparison, it still manages to come with all the downsides of a jumbled plot clusterfuck, because even though nothing actually substantial is happening, the game playing musical chairs with dozens’ of franchises’ settings, terminology, and mentions of lore quickly makes you feel as discombobulated as the heroes themselves do, even though you, presumably, actually should have some familiarity with all these new worlds they’re being dropped in.

And the second half isn’t any better, either. It takes ages before the cast is given any sort of actual clue to what’s going on, and any time they make a plan to deal with all the nonsense happening around them, they inevitably get sidetracked, lost, and split up multiple times before getting where they’re going, at which point they just discover that they need to go somewhere else anyway. Villains just keep stringing you along with non-information and promises that they’ll eventually tell you what’s happening. Only at the finale do you learn anything, ANYTHING, of what’s going on and why. And all it is is that the bad guys of this game are parts of a magical plot thingy called the Portal Stone, and want to merge all universes into 1, which is something that the magical cheerleading girl that’s sort of the protagonist--I guess?--can stop from happening because of her family’s history with the thing. Jesus Christ, over 40 chapters of aimless dimension-hopping and ominous, non-specific villain mutterings for THAT? Reed Richards couldn’t fucking stretch as far as Project X Zone 1 stretches this bare rough draft of a plot

And yeah, that kind of takes care of my next point about this game already: the plot, if you’re the kind of saint who can even call this half-formed idea a ‘plot’, is boring and pointless. Just like the people who made this game, you will not care about the plot in the slightest. And yeah, I know it’s a giant crossover game, but that doesn’t mean you can just not give a rat’s ass about it. It’s still an RPG, not some fighting game; you still need to provide a story that has a basic appeal. In fact, it’s not even fair of me to rag on fighting games’ stories, because even crossover fighting games like Super Smash Brothers (the 3rd installment, that is) and that DC/Mortal Kombat thing had more coherent, engaging plots than this crap. And that’s saying something, considering that the SSB story mode was told entirely without words, and like 30% of the major characters of Mortal Kombat are palette swaps.

Another way you screw up a giant crossover RPG like this: half-ass the writing for the dialogue. Yeah, there are admittedly a few clever quips here and there in the game (mostly thanks to Xiaomu), and I’ll even give PXZ1 credit for opening a new angle to Ulala’s character by giving her a much stronger (and amusing) reporter gimmick than in the actual games she’s from. But past an early point in the game, the writing just gets stale and straightforward. Which, of course, is naturally going to happen when you’re trying to juggle literal dozens of characters from different games and give them all a say in talking about how little they know of what’s going on. Everyone becomes a 1-note character, if even that, and they all feel completely unnatural in their interactions with one another. Every straightman character sounds like the next, and every gag character only knows 1 joke, and feels like an awkward interruption every time they say something rather than a part of the group’s conversation.

That leads me into the cast, which is another major strike against this game--and that’s a really big problem, since the whole point of a crossover is the cast. Like I said, there’s not enough differentiation between many characters’ personality, and the humorous characters rarely feel like they’re actually involved in dialogue, instead just coming off as side punchlines that no one else pays attention to. This feels less like a bunch of heroes teaming up, than a bunch of heroes just repeatedly put into the same room and told to cooperate. But an additional problem here is that even by the game’s bland standards, some of these characters aren’t portrayed well. Toma and Cyrille, for example. Now, I’m pleasantly surprised to see the protagonists of Shining Force EXA here, since I was half convinced I was the only person who ever actually played that game, and I actually quite like Cyrille’s character and personality. Sadly, that’s missing here, and all we get is a vaguely unpleasant, standoffish duplicate of the real Cyrille.* And why the hell does KOS-MOS keep making cat noises? Right, no, I suppose that a perfect battle android struggling to awaken the soul dormant within her whose humanity shines as her creator’s impossibly dedicated guardian angel just isn’t quite enough on her own--she needs to make cute cat noises for no reason, too!

And I’m sorry, but some of the choices for who did and didn’t make this game’s roster seem idiotic. Why the hell Heihachi from Tekken, for example? I can understand including Juri from Street Fighter and Tron Bonne from Megaman Legends as party members even though they’re villains, because they’ve got personality, and large fanbases (relatively). Who the hell is it that has got such a massive boner for Heihachi’s Overwrought Martial Arts Villain Mastermind schtick that they just HAD to have him included in the heroes’ team? I admit, very happily, that I have very little knowledge of Tekken, but what little I’ve seen from people’s reviews of horrible anime adaptations have not painted Heihachi as the kind of villain that would grab any audience’s attention It’s not like he contributes to this game’s story, or helps Jin develop at all as a character, or anything like that. Even compared to the rest of the cast, Heihachi’s remarkably superfluous; all he ever does is occasionally chuckle about how interesting all the crap they run into is and how he could potentially use it for his own purposes. Uh-huh whatever nobody cares Heihachi.

For that matter, Project X Zone...You want to represent Sakura Wars 5, and you pick fucking Gemini, of all people? The sappy, dull-witted dipshit who can’t decide whether she wants to be a complete failure of a samurai or a complete failure of a cowboy? Instead of picking someone from Sakura Wars 5 who’s actually likeable--or even just picking the actual protagonist of the game--you picked Gemini. The only character to make me legitimately regret giving up the word “retard” as a pejorative! That’s who you pick.

And why the hell is T-ELOS the other representative of Xenosaga!? At least Gemini and Heihachi are actually significant, dynamic parts of their games’ plots and lore. T-ELOS has, what, an hour of screentime in the entire Xenosaga trilogy, tops? You can barely even call her a villain character; she’s more like a villain plot device! Instead of Shion, who’s the actual main character of the series, or anyone else in the series who has an actual fucking personality and was present for the entire trilogy, we get this loser? For fuck’s sake, I think THIS game actually gave T-ELOS more lines than Xenosaga 3 did!**

Oh, and the villains. The VILLAINS. Possibly the most tiresome part of this whole damn game! They’re all so goddamn boring! None of them are doing anything interesting! They’re either all just flitting about, figuring out what they can do to take advantage of this whole dimensions-merging thing, or they just plain don’t even have any damn motivation (I’m sure Skeith is supposed to be very intimidating, but if I ever watch .hack after playing this game, I’m never going to be impressed with this silent, boring hunk of stone that just wanders around purposelessly). And the same odd choices of casting I just went into seem have been applied to the bad guy roster, for that matter--unless the most intimidating, powerful villain of whatever Sakura Wars Erica’s from really is an overweight mean rabbit in a top hat who laughs strangely and pilots a large bunny robot.

But the real problem with the villains of the game is that the real, actual main villains are a trio of random bozos invented specifically for this game, who have no personality whatsoever. And on top of that, they’re completely unnecessary, as there’s already a trio of random bozos specifically invented for these crossovers, Ouma, who are in this game already! Oh, I’m sorry, not a trio, because there’s also the shadowy evil leader to the main villain trio who only reveals himself at the end of the game. He is also a random bozo invented specifically for this game, which makes the revelation of his involvement to the heroes somewhat anticlimactic. “Oh my GOD! The shadowy mastermind behind all of it was actually...SOMEONE WE DON’T KNOW! Gasp! I never saw it coming!”

I guess the game’s trying to do what Kingdom Hearts does, in having all the villains you’re familiar with be secondary to this new, original threat, but...well, frankly, Organization 13 and Xehanort are the worst parts of the KH series, the only aspects of it that are just flat-out bad. Definitely not the right part of the KH model to copy. The problem with having original villains be the ones ultimately responsible for all the trouble of the game is that you’re having to focus on characters who the player has no understanding of, meaning that they really need time and effort put into characterizing them, but have to split narrative attention between them and so many other villains that these original newcomers never end up having a damn personality to begin with. And then you’ve got these evil blocks of wood in direct competition with villains that the player IS familiar with, who have had entire games’ worth of time to cement their personalities and motivations, so the new original villains look flat by comparison, and the player is just left wondering why these idiots were given the spotlight instead of the villains who actually seem to deserve it. Like how Maleficent winds up being a second-rate foe whose contributions to the plot end halfway through Kingdom Hearts 2, yet has a more compelling personality than every member of Organization 13 put together.

And finally, what is the last thing you can do to make the ultimate crossover RPG totally unenjoyable? Well, the answer to that comes back to how I started this rant: just make everything repeat over and over and over again! Every damn chapter of the first half of the game is completely formulaic--heroes show up, wonder where they are, meet new people, deal with enemies, leave. Then it gets even MORE formulaic after that, since the “meet new people” part is taken out. It invariably goes as such: beat a few enemies, suddenly a ton more enemies show up along with 1 - 4 bosses, you beat them and the chapter ends. The bosses are all the same ones over and over again--even though you fight boss units like 90 times during the game’s course, they’re only taken from a pool of, I dunno, 15 villains or so. Those villains just happen to escape again, and again, and again, and AGAIN. You just keep slogging along, having to fight them over and over again, accomplishing nothing as each villain escapes yet again For 40 chapters. Even the way you play the game is oppressively repetitive. The battle system ain’t exactly nuanced, so it doesn’t take long for you to identify the simple, straightforward strategies that work, and the battle screen mechanics of juggling enemies look flashy and impressive, but the polish on them doesn’t last long, and you soon realize that every damn unit you control is almost indistinguishable from the next--and that is a HUGE problem since, again, the draw of a game like this is the hugely diverse cast of characters with different styles and strategies--and the actual act of playing is just a monotonous timed button-hitting minigame that you have to put up with for literal thousands of times.

Look. This is an RPG in which Street Fighter, Xenosaga, Space Channel 5, Ghosts’n’Goblins, Valkyria Chronicles, Megaman X, Resident Evil, Marvel Land, and a metric buttload of other games all come crashing together. I knew this going in. I wasn’t expecting some stirring epic of storytelling. I wasn't expecting some moving treatise on the nature and nuance of humanity. But I was expecting something that was actually FUN, and that wasn't an unreasonable expectation, and it is not something that I got. Fun is about the exact polar damn opposite of what Project X Zone 1 is. Boo on you, Bandai Namco! Boo on you, sir!

* Okay, Cyrille IS standoffish in SFEXA, but that’s not ALL she is, the way it is here.

** Lines which are actually coherent and generally straightforward, I might note. As unremarkable as Project X Zone 1’s writing is, I’ll give it credit as still being a step up from Xenosaga 3’s hot mess.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Tales of Zestiria's Downloadable Content

Hm. Should I do 1 of these add-on rants for a game when it’s only got a single DLC* to begin with? Of course I should! Because add-on rants are easy and I’m lazy. Uh, I mean, because I care about giving you as much knowledge as you can about how to spend your money! I am, you see, just a great fucking guy.™

Alisha’s Story: Hm. Should you buy this? Is it good overall? Uh...I’m not all that sure, really. In that sense, it’s sort of like Tales of Zestiria as a whole, actually.

On the 1 hand, this DLC does a lot of positive things. First of all, we get a little glimpse into what happens postgame with the characters we have (presumably) grown to care about, and that’s always nice. While not completely necessary, I guess, it’s nice that we get to see what happens when Alisha learns of Sorey’s fate, and it’s also nice to see a little of what life is like for Rose and the Seraphs after their adventure with Sorey is done. Who doesn’t appreciate some closure to their tale (of Zestiria)? Plus, it’s pretty rad that Rose is now a Shepherd in her own right! Possibly even a more qualified Shepherd than even Sorey, as she doesn’t even seem to be bothered by the burden of Alisha the way Sorey was. And hey, Alisha is an appealing character, and we get to see plenty more of Rose, who’s fucking awesome, so that’s a positive.

It’s also cool to see Alisha and Rose’s interactions. They didn’t really get a chance to have their personalities work off each other very much in-game, and it turns out that they have a pretty good chemistry together. Although Rose is the kind of character who just works well as a partner and pal to just about anyone, so that’s no surprise, I suppose. Still, their dynamic is fun to watch.

On the other hand...the DLC has its shortcomings, to be sure. First of all, its purpose is somewhat perplexing. What is the point, really? It starts out as being a small journey that Rose is going to take Alisha on to reveal what happened to Sorey--which seems unnecessary, honestly; sure, it’ll upset Alisha to know, but how is dragging her across national borders to see it a better way of educating her than just outright telling her? But then, as they’re going along, the purpose somehow and inexplicably shifts from discovering the truth of what happened to Sorey, to Alisha finding her “answer.” What question this answer is relating to, the game isn’t kind enough to tell you until Alisha actually determines what her answer is. But I’m a nice guy, so I’ll just spell it out for you ahead of time: it’s what part of Alisha is the true Alisha, and what she wants to be, going forward: the princess, the knight, the diplomat, the friend of Rose, the Shepherd’s squire, or the normal girl. I won’t spoil what her answer is, but I’ll give you a hint: it’s exactly what you think it is because this is anime goddammit.

How we get from a field trip to the Sorey Sacrifice museum, to a personal journey for self-verification, I haven’t the slightest idea. But that’s kind of Tales of Zestiria’s method, anyway, right? Its story, lore, and characters are like a guy who expresses all his ideas in a shy mumble--you’ll always get the gist and fully understand a few things, but a lot of the details are incoherent and lost.

There are a few other problems with this add-on. First of all, while I like the chemistry between Rose and Alisha, their relationship is, at the same time, kind of confusing and annoying, as Rose vacillates between being caring, considerate, and warm to Alisha, and being cold, mean, and uncaring to her, for reasons which are pretty damn vague. Like I said, they work well together as friends and comrades, so it gets frustrating to watch Rose play this little emotional back-and-forth game like a middle school girl experimenting with social dynamics, instead of just being forthright about the fact that they get along pretty well and like each other.

Also, the Seraph characters don’t get enough attention here. Lailah and Edna are present from the start, and contribute a few lines here and there, but ultimately they’re just not involved in the story of this DLC at all, and when Zaveed shows up 3/4ths of the way through, he also adds nothing. Mikleo is only seen at the very end, and likewise doesn’t really have a contribution to make, beyond saving the girls from a monster. I know this is primarily Alisha’s tale (of Zestiria), and that Rose is the central figure of making that story happen, but surely something more could have been done with the other 4 major characters of the game.

And lastly, the fact is that this just doesn’t boil down to a very compelling plotline. Ultimately, it’s just “Alisha and Rose travel through a dungeon, and Alisha learns something about herself.” It doesn’t have a lot going for it from the start. And hell, the most basically exciting part of this DLC is the fact that someone’s trying to have Alisha killed (spoiler: it’s just that annoying wolf guy again), which isn’t even resolved by the end! The attacks are stopped (I think), but the heroes don’t even find out who was behind them, and the villain exits with the threat that he’s gonna keep being a pest.

So in the end, is Alisha’s Story worth buying? I reluctantly contend that it is not. I want to like it, because it has its good points, and I like Alisha and think she could have used more time in the game proper, and I adore Rose and just want to see more of her overall,’s just not all that good. It makes its purpose that of finding an answer to a question about Alisha’s character that I just don’t think any of us were asking, and there aren’t enough positives to outweigh the negatives when the final destination of the DLC’s story just isn’t all that compelling. It’s not awful, like some add-ons are; spending $10 on this wasn’t an outright mistake for me, the way purchasing Nukaworld for Fallout 4 or any of Shin Megami Tensei 4-2’s paid DLC was. And if you’re just a huge fan of Alisha, maybe this could be worth it for you, after all. But overall, until Alisha’s Story is packaged as a free part of Tales of Zestiria, I wouldn’t bother with it.

* Not counting the paid add-on equipment, fashion items, and...Evangelion costumes? The hell?

Sunday, October 8, 2017

General RPG Lists: Greatest RPGs

This was originally a list of 10, and then I later updated it to 15. Later I expanded it to 20, after I finished playing 200 RPGs, and thought that would be it. Well, I’ve played over 300 RPGs now, and thinking about it, even though it might make this list excessively long, I feel like 20 slots still won’t cut it. So I guess I’m at a point where I’m just going to assume that I’ll be expanding this list every few years, to whatever extent feels right at the time. This thing’s never going to be more than 10% of the total number of RPGs I’ve played, and at the moment it’s not even that much, but I’m not gonna put a hard cap on its potential any more. 25 (or more, in the future) may seem at first glance to be a rather large list, and I’d say that in most cases, it is...but you gotta understand that at the moment I post this, I’ve played 324 RPGs through to completion. Even if it seems large, this list very much represents the cream of the RPG crop, the absolute best the genre has to offer, in my opinion.

So, logically, that means that if you don’t see your favorite game here, don’t yell at me. There’s an absolute TON of great RPGs that didn’t make the cut, I know. I absolutely hate that I couldn’t get Fallout 1, Tales of the Abyss, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, Shadowrun: Dragonfall, and several other games onto the list, but it just wasn’t in the cards, no matter how close they came. Believe me, I wouldn’t begrudge anyone a spot on their Top 10 or whatever list for, say, Deus Ex 1, or Baten Kaitos 2--it’s just that with all the amazing RPGs I’ve played, even such laudable, excellent works as those can’t quite cut it.

One more note on this new, updated list: I’m going to include a second Honorable Mention. Now, if you’re familiar with my list rants, you know that for me, Honorable Mentions aren’t just a cheap way of adding an “eleventh” spot to a list, like they are for most people. That’s a pet peeve of mine; it’s like, if you want to make a list of the best 19 movies of all time, make a list of the best 19 movies of all time, don’t pussyfoot around it and make a list of the best 15 movies of all time and then just add 4 honorable mentions on because you can’t bear to cut them out.

Anyway...for me, Honorable Mentions are ways of showing off a worthwhile contender for a spot on the list in a different way than the rest of them. Like how Alice and Yuri made my Honorable Mention for my Greatest Romance List--Yuri’s love for Alice is excellently portrayed and deeply compelling in Shadow Hearts 2, but from a perspective entirely after the fact. Alice, you see, is dead by Shadow Hearts 2, and Yuri’s love is shown strictly in his mourning for her, his inability for the entirety of the game to find a purpose to live for without her, and his decision at the end of the game. Yuri’s love for Alice is shown entirely after the fact in SH2--in fact, their love story was only so-so in the first game--but it’s poignant and powerful, worthy of appreciation from the audience. So, I included it as an Honorable Mention in my Greatest Romances List--worthy of the praise of being in such a list, yet from a significantly different perspective than what’s typical for inclusion.

So anyway, the size of this list makes it deserving, I think, of more than 1 Honorable Mention if the situation calls for it, and as it so happens, there are 2 separate contenders that don’t exactly make sense to be included here in the actual 25, but have a comparable enough quality to the best of this list that they shouldn’t be left out, just appreciated with a different perspective as to what constitutes a Greatest RPG.

Okay, last note, I swear: I’ve also put in a link to Good Old Games or Steam wherever applicable for these, in case you want to experience any of these gems yourself without digging out your old Playstation or whatever. Also, I’ll list the system through which I experienced the game, since sometimes that makes a small difference regarding translations and such. I doubt, however, that any translation updates will make enough of a difference to change a game’s spot...not even that listless update they slapped Final Fantasy Tactics with.

At any rate, now that you’re all asleep before we’ve even’s the 25 best RPGs I’ve played. Enjoy!

25. Mass Effect 2 (Personal Computer)

Falsely touted as better than its predecessor, Mass Effect 2 is nonetheless a truly excellent RPG with a strong plot, terrific sci-fi creativity in expanding upon the universe established in Mass Effect 1, and an engaging, deep, memorable cast, both in terms of the creation of singularly fantastic new characters, and the skillful expansion upon characters returning from ME1. If ME1 is utterly amazing for creating a signature feel, setting, and storytelling approach for the series, ME2 is utterly amazing for adding a signature depth and personality to the characters of the series. By the end of ME2, you see the cast of Mass Effect as the heart and soul of the series just as much as its ideas and perfect sci-fi approach. Though there were some tradeoffs made to make this universe more personal, tradeoffs which I do feel made it less than its predecessor, Mass Effect 2 stands tall as a proud and worthy member of the greatest science fiction trilogy of our time.

24. Final Fantasy 10 (Playstation 2)

FF10 has its share of detractors, but it’s overall quite well-loved, and for damned good reason. This treasure of the genre boasts an emotionally powerful and intelligent story packed with themes and perspectives on religion, sacrifice, love, and purpose, several excellently dynamic characters, and some of the most moving scenes in an RPG. Both overtly and subtly, Final Fantasy 10 is enjoyable, touching, and deeply meaningful.

23. Shadow Hearts 2 (PS2)

Ah, Shadow Hearts 2. The uniquely moody, gloomy, yet over-the-top and amusing atmosphere created with Shadow Hearts 1, which perfectly mixes the reality of Europe and Asia in the first half of the 20th century with mysticism, really hits its stride in this sequel, just in time to accompany an interesting plot whose arcs are surprisingly well-connected, given how clearly each part is defined by its setting and villains. Toss in a truly excellent and unique hero, a solid and diverse cast, a love story that’ll have you bawling like a babe, and some moments that are just plain awesome (a battle between a hell demon and Rasputin aboard a flying battleship? Hell YES), and an all-encompassing sense of quirky humor that works surprisingly well with the dark, serious tone of the game, and you have a real winner.

22. Torment: Tides of Numenera (PC)

There are 2 ways of looking at Torment: Tides of Numenera. Either you can be disappointed that it doesn’t come close to living up to its predecessor, Planescape: Torment...or you can be like me, and recognize that even just being in the same ballpark as Planescape still makes TToN absolutely amazing. The intellectual depth of this title is staggering, daunting, even, a story of purpose and immortality and analysis of the joys and suffering that is the human existence, set against a marvellously intriguing, creative world both wondrous and grotesque, brought to life through countless sidequests and NPCs with more depth than most games’ main characters. It both feels and acts like its predecessor, investigating many of the same ideas and themes, yet in new ways, going in new directions with them, finding new foundations for its concepts that allow for fresh perspectives and conclusions on the same questions and conundrums we thought were reasoned out to completion in Planescape: Torment. This is a truly spectacular work of thought and philosophy.

21. Mother 3 (Game Boy Advance)

The sequel to RPG cult favorite Earthbound (Mother 2) was heavily yearned for and anticipated for many years before Nintendo finally bit the bullet and made it. I think everyone hoped that a sequel would do the original game proud, perhaps even be as good as it, but I doubt many people would have ever imagined Mother 3 could surpass its predecessor. Yet it has, and by a lot. Earthbound was a singularly bizarre adventure, defying description with its quirky humor and presentation--it was like playing a piece of abstract art. Mother 3 manages a complete return of this same unusual and appealing style, but manages to throw a huge curveball on it with a huge injection of emotion into a plot that is jaw-dropping in how poignant it is in spite of (perhaps even because of?) all the quirky humor sown into it. And when you look past the creative nature of the game, you find an equally creative plot, too. Mother 3 will make you laugh aloud, it’ll make you think, and it’ll make you sniffle and get teary-eyed. And it’ll do all of these things in the same 5 minutes.

20. Grandia 1 (Playstation 1)

I don’t know what to say, really. I love Grandia 1. The characters are good, the plot is solid, and this game, above every other RPG I’ve ever played, creates a sensation of exploration and adventure, through its great music, strong attention to cultural and natural diversity in its setting, and the enthusiasm of its protagonist. It has a lot of truly excellent moments, such as Sue’s goodbye, and reaching the top of the End of the World, and many of its small aspects are great, too, like the dinner conversations (which became a delightful signature of the series), and one of the few turn-based RPG battle systems that’s actually kind of fun to play. Grandia 1 has great appeal and will always have a special spot in my heart.

19. Fallout 4 (PC)

Most of the Fallout series is excellent, and to be honest, it’s kind of difficult to choose one game over the other, because their excellence is very uniform. Fallout 4 is an insightful, subtly deep examination into the essence of the United States: its beliefs, its politics, its history, its culture and pop culture, its ideals, and its people...just like Fallout 1, 2, 3, and New Vegas were. It’s the Fallout series’s thing, and each game does it really damn well. The ambient storytelling in Fallout 4 is especially masterful, even for the standards of the series, and with a strong cast, an interesting plot, and a thoughtfully subtle narrative, Fallout 4 is a remarkable RPG, another fine addition to what may be the greatest RPG series out there, and my personal favorite of the franchise.

18. Fallout: New Vegas (PC)

It’s a damn close call between which is greater, but even though I personally like Fallout 4 the best, I have to hand it to Fallout: New Vegas: it’s got a plot whose relevance and heft has more for you to take away from it, and connects every so slightly more strongly to the core principle of the series: exploring and understanding ourselves as a nation (for US citizens, at least; though I daresay there’s enough universality that those playing in other countries can still gain much from this series. Even more than Fallout 4, Fallout: New Vegas has all sorts of hidden themes of, references to, and comments on the USA to find and contemplate, and you know me--I love a game that makes me think. Even on the surface, though, Fallout: New Vegas is a very cool game with a compelling cast and cool story, both open-ended, and linear enough that its plot is straightforward and clear.

17. Suikoden 1 (PS1)

Suikoden 1 takes the player through a nation-wide conflict, a civil war of epic proportions that nonetheless never loses sight of the individuals and humanity of the conflict. Good plot, good characters, good ideas, good execution, good themes...this is just a solidly good game in its every aspect.

16. Fallout 3 (PC)

The best of its series, Fallout 3 does all the same things intellectually as its fellows, and generally just as well, but its setting provides it stronger thematic power (if you’re gonna base a game’s themes around the United States of America’s essence, then you’re naturally gonna get the best and most material if you have it take place in the Washington DC area), and the plot both feels more personal and relevant to the protagonist than all of its peers but Fallout 4, and is generally more epic in its scope, purpose, and ambitions. I also have to say that I find the conflicts and characters and villains of Fallout 3 generally more compelling than Fallout: New Vegas’s and Fallout 4’s were, providing great symbolism and meaning. In addition, I think that Fallout 3 more than any other game in the series makes excellent use of the post-apocalyptic setting. That’s not to say that Fallout: New Vegas, or 4, or 1, or 2, were in any way’s simply to say that even in a series filled with such excellent titles, Fallout 3 stands out as a masterpiece.

15. Disgaea 1 (PS2)

If anyone ever tells you that a comedy cannot also be deep and meaningful, there are 2 things you should direct their attention to. The first is Futurama. And the second is Disgaea 1. Nippon Ichi's most famous offering is also, I think, its best (although I DID really like Makai Kingdom), and concrete proof that a humor RPG can still have depth and great emotion.* What starts out (and keeps on being) a very funny adventure of adorably maniacal demons and a ditzy, equally adorable angel evolves into a grand tale of friendship's enduring power, and love's irrepressible, redeeming nature. The inherently goofy air to this game is great for grabbing your attention and keeping it, and it amazingly doesn't interfere whatsoever with the story's poignancy, making this game not only the best Humor RPG I've played, but just plain one of the best RPGs I've played, period.

14. Mass Effect 1 (PC)

Lemme ask you something: did you ever watch a science-fiction show or movie, or read a science-fiction book, or something like that, and just feel completely entranced by its size, scope, and creativity? You watch/read/whatever it, and you just have this feeling that you've been taken to a place or time that has more or less infinite possibility for adventure, excitement, and general cool new experiences? Like the thing that you're watching/reading/whatevering is just the tip of the iceberg (or maybe Star Destroyer's a better term here), and there's just so much else that can be seen and explored in this sci-fi galaxy, universe, time, or whatever?

It's the feeling I got when I watched the Star Wars trilogy, played the games, and read the books during my youth--just that you could go anywhere in this entire imaginary galaxy, at practically any time in its history, and be caught up in something really cool and interesting. From watching the deathblow to an evil, galaxy-spanning Empire to just reading the random tales of a no-name bounty hunter in that same galaxy, Star Wars has always held my attention and impressed me.**

Well, when I played Mass Effect 1, that feeling swept over me for a second time. The makers of this game invested a tremendous amount of thought and care into this setting, going far beyond most sci-fi media's first offerings by not only inventing species, events, technologies, mysterious stuff, and so on, but going into huge detail on it all, as well. Just about every really cool, unique part of the Mass Effect universe is detailed for you in journal entries, should you care to know more of the imaginative science fiction all around you as you play. The game also captures the awe-inspiring feel and concept of space exploration, to me, better than anything else I've ever encountered. You know how when you were a kid, you went through a phase (or entered one and never got out of it) where you were really into real-world space exploration? Just feeling a sense of excitement and awe at the idea of exploring the infinite cosmos? Well, maybe you did and maybe you didn't, but I did, and when the map screen comes up in ME1 and begins playing that calming, yet somehow exciting music of exploration, I feel like a little kid again, looking at all these planets and stars with detailed descriptions like you'd find in an astronomy museum exhibit.

Of course, it's not just the atmosphere of the game that makes it so great. It's got about as cool a sci-fi plot as I've ever seen outside a book by Asimov, the characters are very good, the villains are decent (although Saren was a lot more interesting before I read the ME1 prequel book, honestly...but I guess that's neither here nor there), the presentation is good all around, and everything's pretty darned epic. I really love this game.

13. Final Fantasy 7 (PS1)

Okay, yeah, okay, yes, I know, okay. Yes. Fine. YES, Final Fantasy 7 is perhaps the most overrated, over-hyped RPG of the most overrated, over-hyped RPG series ever. The sheer number of mindless, utterly tasteless fanboys and fangirls of this game defies imagination--it's like Twilight, except that FF7 doesn't destroy brain cells like getting drunk while deeply inhaling gasoline fumes as you shove a blow torch up your nose. These incalculable idiots, who invariably idolize and adore Sephiroth with all their hearts yet don't have the dedication to learn how to spell his name, would have you believe that FF7 is the finest RPG ever made, heck, the finest game ever made period were it not for Call of Duty 78, and perhaps Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball.

But just because it's not God's gift to Playstation 1 games doesn't mean it's not still a great game, if you can shut your eyes and ears to Vincent x Cloud yaoi fangirls long enough to appreciate the game for its own merits. It has an interesting, involved plot that incorporates a lot of ideas that, at the time, were pretty new and creative (some still are, really), and it also has a pretty good cast of characters to enact the plot, too--sure, the villains are all boring and empty, and Vincent and Yuffie barely have enough characterization between the two of them to qualify as NPCs, but the rest of the cast have at least a fair amount of good development, particularly Tifa and Cloud. Tifa's character has a lot of depth and realism, but in a subtle way that requires some consideration to recognize. Cloud, on the other hand, has his character development right in the spotlight--and it's pretty impressive. Before Cloud, there weren't all that many RPG heroes with real, solid personalities and depth of character, and he seemed to more or less pioneer the idea of an interesting, quality hero who draws a lot of his character from his shortcomings and spiritual inadequacies--we've had plenty of fairly mentally imbalanced heroes since, as well as ones who agonize over the limitations of what they can do and the mistakes they've made in the past, but Cloud was one of the first and best to do stuff like that. Hell, he's still probably the most mentally screwed-up RPG protagonist I've seen who wasn't either a villain himself and/or got proper characterization.

In addition, FF7 sold its atmosphere with its music and setting, creating a world to draw you in far better than most other games, which complemented the plot and brought everything together. Regardless of how many stupid people happen by unfortunate chance to share my opinion, and how hard SquareEnix works to retroactively cheapen this game with every lackluster time-waster sequel/prequel that they foist on us, FF7 will always be a true classic.

12. Final Fantasy Tactics (PS1)

Ah, FFT. As much or greater a leap in a new direction for the Final Fantasy series as FF7 was, this one looked at the ideas and aspects of medieval times (like most RPGs) and, instead of just throwing a bunch of fantasy cliches together, gave us a game that realized the nonfiction of medieval Europe--warring countries, vicious slaughter, political intrigue carried out by greedy, power-hungry nobles, and a religious super power that didn't come even close to living up to its supposedly holy, peaceful philosophies (although granted, the church of medieval Europe wasn't quite so bad as to be mistakenly worshiping the Anti-Christ, but still, the core similarity's there). This was a game where the dark, fantastical nature of part of its plot, involving magic stones and hellish demons, actually kinda takes backseat in the player's interest to what would normally be background subplots of political intrigue and backstabbing (metaphorical AND literal). FFT's plot is terrific, the setting emphasizes it very well, and the cast has several key characters who are very well-created. Its quiet power over the player holds up today as well as it did when it was first released.

11. Knights of the Old Republic 2 (PC)

Yeah, it may be buggy as hell, and yes, it may seem like it's only 90% complete (because it basically is)...but Knights of the Old Republic 2 still manages to be spectacular. The game's great characters and plot not only entertain and have deep messages of humanity to convey, but also tie in very strongly to the source material, using the old and giving new perspectives on it (without just retelling a story you've already seen/read; I hate it when outside-media RPGs do that). KotOR2 has oodles of exquisite intellectual and philosophical content to tickle your brain with, particularly through the mouth of its main villain, and stays entertaining to the end, while never losing its origins' themes, settings, and atmosphere. This game may be the greatest expression of the soul of Star Wars ever made...and what an involving, nuanced soul it turns out to be.

10. Undertale (PC)

Undertale is a magnificent combination of heartwarming joy, great humor, Earthbound-styled surreal fun, sharp deconstruction and critique of RPGs, poignant emotion, creeping terror, a study of consequences, and insight into the dangers of combining godhood and boredom. With terrific characters you'll love, heartwarming scenes that'll put a tear in your eyes, creativity up the wazoo, and a unique and terrifying villain, Undertale is definitely 1 of the greatest games I've ever played. Anyone who scoffs at the idea that crowdfunded Indie RPGs can have comparable quality to what the rest of the gaming industry can produce has clearly never experienced Undertale.

9. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (PS2)

This is the first of the Shin Megami Tensei chunk of this list. SMTP3 is a refreshingly different, incredibly complex and layered story taking place in modern day Japan, all the while using the ideas and details of the Tarot Cards to provide the themes, events, and insights of the game's plot and characters. The main story is great, and the sidequest stories, known as Social Links, are even better. What I love about this game the most, though, and what really elevates it to this list, is how deep it really is when you start to look at its every aspect from the Tarot angle--there's always another level of meaning to the game's events, characters, ideas, and even gameplay to be found that goes back to connecting with the themes and insights of the Tarot deck, letting them provide ideas and meaning to the game and having the game's interpretation and employment of the cards in turn analyze and thoughtfully dissect the nature of Tarot cards and readings with the same level of depth and intelligence that other SMT titles (which you'll see below) do with more "mainstream" forms of spiritual belief. All that, AND it's still a beautiful, excellent story with some fantastic characters even at its surface level.

8. Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1 + 2 (PS2)

I honestly cannot split these two games apart to give them credit; to take either game for itself only and not count its virtues in comparison to its sequel or predecessor is to deny the game praise it deserves. SMTDDS1 + 2 share a single plot that uses concepts of Hinduism and Buddhism for its foundation, taking the religions' ideas, beliefs, and mythology and using them to tell a story that is not only a very good adventure in its own right, but is an extremely creative and brilliantly insightful look into the Buddhism and Hinduism’s tenets. These are games that you can contemplate and debate for hours at a time, over and over again for as long as you like. I think the way that SMTDDS1 + 2's creators crafted their plot and characters to work with, analyze, espouse and harmonize the fascinating concepts of Hindu and Buddhist religious thought can honestly only be called genius, easily comparable to the way the games below, Shin Megami Tensei 1 + 2, do with Christianity. In fact, SMTDDS1 + 2's genius is so comparable to SMT1 + 2's, it may be that the only reason I can put one series over the other is that I simply know more about the subject of SMT1 + 2 than I do about Hinduism and Buddhism, so I can just pick up on and more fully appreciate the former's insights than the latter's.

7. Shin Megami Tensei 1 + 2 (Super Nintendo Entertainment System)

As with the Digital Devil Saga parts of the SMT series, these games really have to be counted as 2 parts of a whole, although they aren't connected as chronologically immediately. But they tell the same overall story in 2 parts, they have the same premise, and they're both brilliant in the same ways.

Wow. Just wow. Alright, these games, more than even Earthbound, lends credence to my belief that an RPG's true worth is independent from graphics and gameplay, relying only upon its plot, characters, and any other writing-related aspects. SMT1 + 2 are annoying to play and ugly to look at, with crude 1st-Person dungeons almost no more advanced than those of Phantasy Star 1 on the Sega Master System, and with an annoying level of difficulty that inspires far more frustration than sense of challenge.

But man, the plot of these games? The general ideas? Magnificent. I stand firm in my believe that SMT1 and 2 are some of the most brilliant RPGs I've come across, closer to classic literature than they are to a Final Fantasy or other game of their genre. I did a rant on this before, so I'll be brief--SMT1 brings you to, through, and past apocalypse on Earth, to a world of warring deities and mythological creatures of every culture's legends, where you choose whether to ally yourself with God, Lucifer, or to deny both and stand for humanity alone. The game puts forth insightful ideas and philosophies on Christianity, humanity as a whole, belief, and logic vs. emotion, all while featuring a myriad group of mythological individuals that you can fight against or ally with, depending on whether you agree with the ideals of the game's take on God or Lucifer, or disagree with them entirely. Like many truly great works (heck, like most truly great works on the same subject of Christian mythology), this title is a chore to get through, but very worthwhile and intelligent.

SMT2 does pretty much everything SMT1 does, often better, while improving the character development (which was admittedly slight in the first game) and raising the stakes--while the first game's events decided whether the forces of God, Humanity, or Lucifer gained authority over the last nation of humanity, this game determines for good whether the future of the world will be based upon chaotic emotion, lawful divinity, or neutral self-determination, and you actually meet the two individuals calling each side's shots this time. There's really nothing more to say here; SMT2 is simply a logical step up in quality and scope from the already impressive SMT1, and together, both games represent incredible creativity, philosophical insight, and writing in general.

6. Final Fantasy 9 (PS1)

FF9, the best game of the RPG genre's poster series. A neat and imaginative plot combines with a great cast of deep and memorable characters to deliver an experience both new and old to any fan of the series--meant to be a nostalgic throw-back to the earlier games in the series, yet holding much of the play style and general plot progression of the (then) newer games, as well. Funny thing is, the game meant to serve as a reminder, a remix of sorts, turned out to be so well-constructed and well-written that it stands on its own better than the rest of the series does.

5. Wild Arms 3 (PS2)

Wild Arms 3. What is there to say, but that it is simply magnificent? You get a terrific protagonist by any counts who completely reworks RPG protagonist gender differences, a rival who is actually the most appealing character in the game instead of the least (and who actually has decent character depth, too!), a supporting cast that's solidly appealing and never just forgotten and pushed aside for the main people to get more development time, a long and really imaginative plot, an actual attempt by the Wild Arms series to deliver on their promise of a Wild West-themed setting (for the first and still last time!), several really interesting villains, and a never-ending sense of purpose, direction, and effort with the game's progression--no one ever just stops being developed. You get gripping characters, particularly in the case of the protagonist, to the end. I fucking LOVE Wild Arms 3, and can't recommend it enough.

4. Chrono Trigger (SNES)

For the better part of a decade, it was unthinkable to me that CT would ever be anything less than the best RPG ever made. While it was, eventually, ousted from the top spot beyond all expectations, this game remains, in my opinion, the ultimate classic RPG, a truly perfect expression of originality and fun. If you want a great set of characters that you'll remember forever having an exciting and creative adventure involving a fairly simple, adequately well-reasoned time-travel plot***, or just the best RPG the older generation of games has to offer, Chrono Trigger is it.

3. Suikoden 2 (PS1)

There are a few games from the PS1 whose copies can be sold for over $100, sometimes over $200--or, if you’re looking for an unopened copy, even 500 fucking dollars on Amazon. Suikoden 2, though, is the only one that I can say, with no personal doubt whatever, is 100% worth that price.**** This game's superb characters and epic plot pull at your emotions, give you cause to think and contemplate, and, really, probably leave you at the end a better, more understanding person than you were at its beginning. Suikoden 2 is the kind of game where if you’re not shedding tears multiple times over its course, you might just have to have someone box you up and send you in for repairs, because your Human Imitation Program is clearly malfunctioning.

2. Planescape: Torment (PC)

To play Planescape: Torment is to be amazed. There were times in this game where the masterful writing just left me stunned. And I mean that. Stunned as in sitting in my chair, staring at the screen, unmoving, utterly blown away by what I had just read, seen, contemplated, felt. This plot-heavy RPG wonder is insightful, creative, clever, entertaining, and moving, using the cool, expansive setting of the Dungeons and Dragons planes (and you KNOW you've got a cool game when a demonic war that spans across a twisted rope of connected realities for all time is just the BACKGROUND to the game's focus) to tell a story of a man that can't die, and his search for answers and identity through a complex world of truth and lies, magic and technology, reality and the formless, examining the essence of mortality, the power of torment, and asking the question infamous of this game: What can change the nature of a man? Well, Planescape: Torment is so amazing and engrossing, that you may very well find that your answer to that question is "This game."

1. Grandia 2 (PS2)

Grandia 2, to me, is to modern***** RPGs what Chrono Trigger was to the older generation. The game has an involving plot that goes from average to seriously interesting quickly but subtly, sneaking up on you with its quality and several really interesting, creative plot twists that you honestly will not see coming. It also has one of the greatest RPG casts ever assembled--not a single member of Grandia 2 is bland or badly-developed, each of them has a lot of characterization to go through, and most of them redefine their character archetype to be something new, original, and deep. Grandia 2 is not just an exceptionally fine game, it's also one that reminds you of the power of subtle creativity--so many aspects of this game's plot and characters are the kind of stuff you see in all kinds of other games, shows, animes, etc; yet Grandia 2 takes each one's cliched foundation and builds something new, different, and excellent with it that both interests you and refreshes your interest in the old cliches and what can still be done with them. Give this game a chance, and you'll love it to pieces. I don't know if I'll ever encounter a better game than this one, but if I don't, I can be well-satisfied with what I've got.

Honorable Mention 1: Mass Effect 3, with MEHEM Installed (PC)

If not for the ending, Mass Effect 3 would have been on the main list above, as it is the greatest entry in the amazing trilogy, even outclassing the original Mass Effect! Full of unparalleled emotion, a terrific cast, an engaging plot, poignant and epic moments, and a ton of really interesting ideas, Mass Effect 3 is a masterpiece...except that it ends so unimaginably badly, as I have noted countless times before, that it actually physically sickens me to think about. You never know just how horrible an ending can be, just how much it can damage your happiness and the quality of an entire series, until you play Mass Effect 3.

However, with the Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod installed, you can play Mass Effect 3 with the confidence of knowing that you're headed for a well-made, appropriate, strong ending to the series. I've done a rant on this mod's virtues, but suffice to say, it has restored ME3 to its rightful place of excellence and now I can actually put it on this list. Since it requires outside intervention to correct it and make it a real Mass Effect, I'll keep ME3 as an Honorable Mention, instead of giving it an actual place on the list, but it sure as hell is never losing its spot here. And if you're interested, I'd say Mass Effect 3 with MEHEM would qualify for 9th place here, right between Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and SMT Digital Devil Saga.

Honorable Mention 2: Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer Expansion (PC)

On its own, Neverwinter Nights 2 is no more than passable, an acceptable but largely unremarkable Dungeons and Dragons venture that ranks somewhere between the original, bland Neverwinter Nights 1, and the moderately okay Baldur’s Gate 1. I couldn’t figure out, playing through it, why everyone praised it so damn much.

Then I finished the main campaign and moved onto its sequel-expansion, Mask of the Betrayer.

You know how I have this perpetual hard-on for Chris Avellone’s works? Hell, 4 RPGs with which he’s had significant involvement occupy spots in this rant already. Except that it’s now 5, because the Mask of the Betrayer expansion for Neverwinter Nights 2 is goddamn fucking incredible. Deep, meaningful, insightful, intensely creative, Mask of the Betrayer is the reason to play Neverwinter Nights 2, make no mistake. This expansion is more fiercely thoughtful and intelligent than most of the RPGs I mention above, approaching grand ideas and concepts of humanity and our connection to one another with the same level of excellence and care that you see in Knights of the Old Republic 2, and even Planescape: Torment. It also has a great cast to help bring its weighty thoughts and themes to life.

Mask of the Betrayer isn’t a game in its own right (and it requires you to have played the lengthy, somewhat humdrum main campaign for you to appreciate it to its fullest), so it doesn’t exactly qualify for a space on the main list itself. Nonetheless, it is far too excellent not to be mentioned here in some capacity, so I’m giving it an Honorable Mention. And if you’re interested, I would say that, if I were to count this as its own game and put it on the list proper, Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer would qualify for the 11th place here, between Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Undertale.

...I swear one of these days I'm gonna have a small list rant that is faster to write than a long regular rant. It's gonna happen. Really.

* Yes, I know I mentioned, earlier on this list, that Mother 3 had a lot of great humor, and it’s true. But ultimately, it doesn't incorporate the silly and amusing so integrally into its story and characters that you could call it a comedy. Disgaea 1, on the other hand, does.

** Er, most of the time. The prequels were garbage, and the animated stuff that went with them was at best so-so. But most everything else is good!

*** Sure, there are some fair paradoxes, but, y'know, not much that doesn't come up with any other time-travel story. And frankly, RPG-wise, CT's about as good a time-travel plot as you're gonna get--most, I've noticed, are either silly and pointless (Dark Cloud 2, Final Fantasy 8, Robotrek), have the time travel stuff only be plot twists rather than serious parts of the story (Dark Cloud 1, Kingdom Hearts 2, Rogue Galaxy), or they strand the cast in the past for at least 3/4ths of the game so that the time travel aspect doesn't even seem to be present (Star Ocean 1, Tales of Phantasia). Chrono Trigger's one of a small few who do a good job with it in a major way.

**** Not that you shouldn't seek out a means to pay substantially less to play it, if possible. I'm just saying that if the only option were to pay that much for it, it'd be 1 of the few games actually worth it.

***** “Modern” clearly being a very subjective term.