Saturday, June 11, 2016

ATTENTION READERS

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, August 28, 2015

Celestian Tales 1

Celestian Tales: Old North is a Kickstarter RPG, the first of a trilogy (which is why I refer to it as Celestian Tales 1), which has recently been completed and released. It’s one of the RPGs I’ve been a backer for, and I’m pleased to have helped it come into existence. With little-known Indie RPGs such as this (good ones, that is), I generally try to come up with a rant talking about the game’s virtues, since even the teeny-tiny publicity this blog can provide can’t help but be beneficial. So, let’s talk about Celestian Tales 1. I don’t have any 1 particular topic about the game I want to cover, just a few observations, pieces of praise, and complaints, so don’t expect a particularly organized or insightful piece today.

Actually, anyone familiar with this blog probably knows not to expect that any day, really.

So, I’m just gonna put my 3 major complaints out there first, and then we can get to recognizing the things this game does right. First of all, and this is pretty much everyone’s complaint about this game: it’s too short. You’re looking at around 10 hours from start to finish, and though you’re encouraged to see the game through the eyes of all 6 characters (which would make it more like 60 hours long), there’s not a huge amount of variation in the game’s events and scenes from one protagonist to the next. I mean, there’s some, sure, but not enough that it makes up for the lack of time in which the plot takes place. Additionally, I gotta be frank, not all of the characters are really worth following--more on that in a moment.

The reason the game is so short is that it’s the first of a trilogy, but it’s only a trilogy because, as I understand it (I should probably pay more attention to those updates Kickstarter sends me about these things), of time and money issues with the game’s developer. Originally, Celestian Tales was just meant to be a single game, not split into parts, so the ending of this title isn’t like the ending of, say, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1, where you’ve got an overall story that was intended to be split between multiple installments, and that stopping point designated a huge point of transition for the story, the end and completion of one major task and the opening of another. Basically, Celestian Tales 1 ends in a way that feels like it’s the end of a chapter within a book, not the ending of a book within a series, if you get me. The final event of Celestian Tales: Old North is actually the point at which it feels like the real meat of the story is starting, so getting cut off right then is kind of frustrating.

Still, as annoying as that is, it’s a problem that I don’t really know if there’s a solution for. The developer had their reasons for needing to split Celestian Tales into a trilogy. While I feel perfectly comfortable lambasting a well-established, fully staffed, professional game company for not allocating its resources correctly to make its product properly, I wouldn’t feel comfortable really taking Ekuator Games to task over this issue...there’s just a wide gulf between a business that has the resources and experience to do and know better, and a tiny little independent developer that’s telling their story for the first time and learning as they go.

Problem Number 2: Some of its cast. There’s a pretty wide gulf in the quality of the protagonists. Some of them are dynamic, well-written characters (Ylianne and Isaac), and that’s great, but there are also characters who seem likable but don’t really have much in the way of personality and depth (Lucienne and Camille), and those who are neither likable nor developed enough (Aria and Reynard). I kind of get the feeling that the major character development for Lucienne and Aria is simply forthcoming in later installments, but that doesn’t really help Lucienne be more interesting in this game, nor does it help Aria be less of a horrible ignorant judgmental heartless monster.

With that said, this isn’t a clear cut case of being bad characters for some of them. I mean, Camille does not seem very interesting overall, as I say...but, if you’re playing the game with her as your lead, you do see some scenes involving her which give her a little more personality (not to mention spell out a bit of the plot intrigue at the game’s end). The same is true of Aria and even Reynard, a little. Lucienne, sadly, stays pretty boring even if you’re seeing the extra scenes for her. But anyway, you have a case here where the seemingly sub-par parts of the cast really aren’t as bad as they appear at first...it’s just that the decision to show such a significant amount of their personal development through scenes only experienced in certain playthroughs makes the characters appear worse than they are. In future titles, I hope Ekuator Games will be more careful to show adeqaute character development for everyone in any playthrough, not just specific ones.

Problem Number 3: Okay, look, I know I tend to nitpick, but there are way too many typographical errors in the game’s text and dialogue. I can’t take SquareEnix to task for a dozen or so errors in a 30 hour game and then ignore and forgive thrice that number of errors in a game a third that length. It’s obvious from the speech patterns of this game’s characters that the writers are familiar with the English language and have a talent for manipulating it to distinguish dialects and different character mentalities, so the fact that there are so many errors present just comes off as sloppy. Come on, Ekuator Games, it cannot be that hard to find a proofreader or two. Dozens of fanfics are published daily whose authors have located beta readers to ensure the quality of their stories! Do you really want to seem less professional than a 14-year-old fangirl whose last creative work was summarized as “Mako is the vampire prince of the moon kingdome, can the love of the earth princess korra melt his cold heart?? wip, no-bending moon kingdom au, crossover with naruto in later chapters”?

Hell, I’d proofread the damn script if they’re so hard up for a spell check. I’d do it cheap! Anything to keep from constantly cringing at all these immersion-breaking typos.

Alright, so, that’s the bad stuff out of the way. Now for the good. Celestian Tales 1 is a good, solid RPG. Even if we’re only getting the first taste of its plot in this installment, the story becomes engaging quickly, the setting is pretty decently explained and detailed, and the general events of the plot are pleasantly Suikoden-esque, though not derivative of that series. The game clearly has several strong themes it wishes to focus on, including class distinctions, the complexity of right, wrong, and human society and customs, duties to those both above and below oneself, and the dangers of doctrines that close the mind to the possibilities and people of the world. These ideas, and the philosophies that the game wishes to convey regarding them, pop up frequently as the plot progresses, and the characters examine them thoughtfully and with gravity. This is a game that has something to say, and cares about doing so, and I appreciate that.

Another strong point in the game’s favor is its cast. Yes, that seems odd when one of my major complaints was also the cast, but give me a chance to explain. While not every one of the 6 protagonists carries his or her weight as a character on his or her own, as a group, they work very well together, providing great compliments and counterpoints to one another as their perceptions and beliefs are called to play. Yes, Lucienne may not be the most interesting or dynamic of the cast, but her basic steadfastness makes for a good influence in the superior character development of Isaac, as he is many times confronted with the fact that his black-and-white views of the nobility are not always accurate thanks to her example. Yes, Aria may be a particularly detestable harpy, but her cold, self-important intolerance serves to give the sweet Ylianne all the more opportunity to use her innocent wisdom to question the nature of humanity. There are weak characters here, to be sure, and Ekuator Games should work to improve upon them in future installments, but they nonetheless contribute to make a good team dynamic for the party, and the strong characters are all the better for having these counterpoints to work off of. And it also bears mentioning that the good characters are, well, quite good! Isaac’s view and character shifts subtly but dramatically as his eyes are opened to the complexity of the world, and I have to say that Yli, though she appears saccharine at first, is a pleasant surprise in how well her basic, sweet nature fits into the group and the plot’s events. Watching her find herself torn between her elvish understanding of what is truly Right and Wrong, and her developing human understanding of the complex intricacies of those shades of grey between Right and Wrong, is very interesting and even bittersweet.

And that’s...kind of all I really have to say about Celestian Tales: Old North. Is it good? Yeah. I know that I spent more time here talking about its problems than its virtues, but that’s the thing about critiquing in rants like this--you always wind up talking more about the negatives than the positives, because what more is there to say when something works than “it works”? Celestian Tales 1 is short, but what it’s got is good, it knows how to create a good team dynamic with its cast, and it shows a lot of potential for what we can expect from the next installment, especially since the plot seems ready to deepen dramatically.

So yes, it’s good. Then should you buy it? Well...probably, but possibly not. It doesn’t cost much, and it’s definitely decent, so I give it a recommendation, but at the same time, I can’t pretend that it ends at a satisfying place, and that means that the wait for the next installment of the story is more a case of frustration than anticipation. If you don’t think you’d do well with that, well, I’d say you should wait until the trilogy is complete before getting into it. But other than that, I say go for it, it’s a worthwhile beginning to a story that shows a lot of promise.* If you're interested, it can be purchased at GOG or Steam.












* If you do decide to play Celestian Tales: Old North, then I would very much recommend the following:

A. Play through all 6 characters’ prologues before going ahead with the story. First of all, several of the game’s best moments, like Ylianne’s talk with her mother and the choice Aria is forced to make that unfortunately goes on to define her character for the rest of the game, are contained in the prologues. Secondly, and more importantly, understanding a lot of the characters’ personality and the subtle development some of them receive really requires you to know where they’ve come from, and the prologues provide this insight.

B. If you’re going to play only 1 character, make it Ylianne. Most of the best character-specific scenes are hers, to start with, and though she seems excessively cute and sweet at first, once you get used to her you find that she’s probably the most appealing personality in the cast. Also, the fact is that Ylianne’s inexperience with the Old North and its people is similar to the player’s own, and her questions, reactions, and goals thus make her seem closer to the player and thus the natural fit for performing as the player’s specific avatar in this world. Any of the protagonists fit the idea of Main Hero well enough, of course, but Ylianne is the one I think feels most comfortable and natural as our lead. You may feel differently, of course, but like I said, she has some of the strongest character-specific scenes, so it’s still good to see her tale through.

C. With B in mind, it’s still a good idea to find a few Let’s Plays on Youtube of the other protagonists’ playthroughs, just so you can see some of the character-specific scenes of the others. To save you time, here are the moments in the game where the character-specific events occur, with as little spoilers as possible:
Chapter 1: After returning from the village and going to sleep.
Chapter 2: Deciding the bandits’ fate (only significantly different for Ylianne and Isaac)
Chapter 3: After reporting the results of the scouting mission.
Chapter 4: After the trial.
Chapter 5: Looking through the village house.
Chapter 6: NA
Chapter 7: The night before the ceremony, the decision after the final boss battle, and the scene after the credits.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Lords of Xulima's Enemy Encounter Rate

I do not, unfortunately, care very much for Lords of Xulima. I don’t doubt the care that its creators put into it, but it’s obvious that effort was directed primarily at the gameplay aspects, while the exploration of their world’s lore was a secondary concern, the game’s plot was a tertiary concern, and the depth of the cast was...whatever comes below tertiary priorities. I’ve thought about ranting about LoX’s storytelling aspects, but there’s so damn little there that I don’t even know how I’d go about it. There’s only so much one can expand upon a game that can be summed up by 2 words: “It’s boring.”

At least what Lords of Xulima cares about, it does well, I guess. I mean, the gameplay works, which is good for people who care about gameplay a lot, but not quite enough to play games that aren’t RPGs. Still, even that’s not perfect...there is, after all, the annoyance of the random encounter rate in the game.

See, here’s the thing. The encounter rate in Lords of Xulima is really, really slow. Like, the slowest I’ve ever seen in an RPG. When you’re wandering through an area where there are random enemies to be encountered, you may stroll across as much as a third of the area’s map before you hit a random encounter. Sometimes even more. And I mean the sizable maps, too, the big outdoor areas that substitute for a world map.

Now, when you first go through an area, this is not all that noticeable, because in addition to random encounters, there’s a lot of enemy encounters in fixed positions on the field waiting for you to step into their line of vision. So when you’re initially exploring an area, you won’t notice the low random encounter rate, because you’ll be frequently scrapping with the fixed, visible enemies anyway. In fact, the low encounter rate is a really good thing, because it helps ensure that you’ll have a chance to retreat to a town when you need to be healed up without being overwhelmed by random enemies during your trip back. And in a game like Lords of Xulima, built with the idea that old-school RPG fans want a return of old-school RPG difficulty, and in which even the easy mode is rather taxing (at least for a lamer like me), being able to beat feet without monsters harassing my exhausted party every step of the way is a good thing.

But after your initial foray into a new zone, once the fixed enemies are cleared out and you’ve explored the area to your satisfaction, then the plodding special encounter rate is really, really annoying, both from the game playing standpoint and the standpoint of someone who has common sense. First of all, from the gameplay-practical standpoint, it’s frustrating that you have to just walk around for so long to bait each encounter because your food supplies dwindle as you do so. Walking back and forth is traveling, traveling slowly drains your food supplies, replenishing your food supplies costs money, there is a finite amount of money to be had in this game, and that money can always be put to better use. I don’t care if this is yet another case of elaborate checks and balances in the game, it’s still annoying, and it’s not like Lords of Xulima is wanting for intricate gameplay restrictions and challenges. They could’ve upped the encounter rate and dropped the whole “spend half the money you got from the random encounters just on the food you burned through trying to make those encounters appear” thing, yet still have had more than enough player micromanagement going on.

More importantly (to me, at least), this is just an irritating gameplay choice from a common sense angle. I admit that I played Quest 64 from start to finish, but even I have better things to do with my time than to spend hours--literal hours of my life, if you add it up!--watching a character move back and forth 45 times because the invisible pack of skeletons nearby are just too damned shy to come over and say hi. I’d probably be a lousy audience for a Las Vegas night show, by this point--playing Lords of Xulima has built up my tolerance for watching an object slowly go back and forth over and over again so much, that I’m probably completely immune to being hypnotized now.

For Poseidon’s sake, the majority of RPG hours are already unnecessary filler, Numantian Games, you didn’t need to add to that! Ugh...it’s like trying to go from one island to another in Suikoden 4, just empty, repetitive travel time that puts you to sleep as it drones on and on. And, oh, have I mentioned that as you clear the random encounters out of an area, the encounter rate begins to drop even further? The longer you go about this process, the longer it takes you to continue doing so. It’s supposed to be to make the process seem more real (the more enemies you kill in an area, the fewer there are running around to bother you), but all it does is just make the process even more tedious.

A minor additional annoyance in the common sense department relates to that food angle I mentioned before. Since you will run out of your food supplies like 3 or 4 times trying to clear an area of random encounters, that means you have to keep traveling back to a town (or other spot for food supplies), and then come back to continue your exceedingly prolonged monster extermination. So you’re adding that much more time thrown away by this ordeal, thanks to the low encounter rate.

And yeah, I know what you’re thinking, at least those of you reading this who have never played Lords of Xulima (which is probably everyone): if it’s so much trouble to fight random encounters, why not just ignore them and continue on without the level-grinding? Well, the answer to that is: finite experience points. LoX is one of those RPGs in which there is a limited number of monsters you can encounter in the game, and thus a limited amount of levels you can gain. Yeah, there are a TON of enemies to take down in the game, but it’s not Final Fantasy: eventually the enemies in each area run out. And Lords of Xulima is, as I mentioned before, not a forgiving game. You need pretty much every level up you can squeeze out of it, at least for a while. Late in the game, if you planned well long-term (Hint: When leveling up, ALWAYS INCREASE SPEED), and made smart use of your resources, you may be strong enough that you don’t really need to eradicate every possible enemy any longer, but early in the game, you’ll be clawing for every advantage you can grab hold of, and can’t afford to leave experience opportunities behind. So polishing off every enemy in an area is not an activity you engage in on a completionist whim, it’s just an assumed necessity of Lords of Xulima.

It wouldn’t be hard to fix this problem. All Numantian Games would have to do would be to increase the encounter rate to a regular level, like most other RPGs. The slight benefit of providing more opportunity for a retreat from a new hostile area just does not outweigh the frustration of waiting and waiting and WAITING for the next random encounter to finally show up later on. And also, get rid of the stupid mechanic of enemies taking longer to show up as their numbers dwindle. Yeah, it’s more realistic, but so are weapon maintenance and sprint meters--it’s one of those areas where dedication to realism is the sacrifice of enjoyability. It detriments the game, while gaining nothing.

Hell, if they really didn’t want to change the encounter rate, they could still make the system more user-friendly. Lots of RPGs have items or accessories that increase or decrease random encounter rates; the Tales of series has been using such things since the get-go. Numantian Games could just incorporate some kind of “lure” item, equipment, or skill in the game, and when the player’s ready to clear an area out, they could activate it and have the enemies come at a reasonable pace. Or maybe each area could have a programming flag that activates once all the stationary, non-random enemies are defeated that increases the encounter rate, since at that point the player’s obviously ready to handle everything the area can throw at him/her. Or how about one of those items like the one from Chrono Cross, the thing you get for beating the game which allows you to speed everything in the game up several times over? Even if the encounter rate stays low, with one of those babies, you’d still cut the boring waiting time down several times over.

There are probably plenty of other ways you could improve the encounter rate situation in Lords of Xulima besides the ones above, too. All I know is that just about any other way of handling the random encounter rate in Lords of Xulima would be better than what’s there right now.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

General RPGs' Underused Settings and Styles

There’s a lot of diversity in RPGs’ settings and cultural backdrops, and I appreciate that. If I want to have science fiction, there are great options, like Mass Effect or Anachronox. If I want to have cyberpunk, there are great options, like Shadowrun or Dex. If I want to have 20th century world history, there are great options, like some of the Shadow Hearts games. If I want something modern and uncomfortably close to reality, there are great options, like Deus Ex 1. If I want horror, there are great options, like Parasite Eve 1. If I want something that explores Christianity, there are great options, like many Shin Megami Tensei titles. If I want a crapload of alchemy, there’s the Atelier games. If I want western fantasy, there’s Crimson Shroud and the Dungeons and Dragons titles. If I want post apocalyptic, there’s Fallout. Dark gothic European, Castlevania. Oriental martial arts, Jade Empire. High School, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona. Steampunk, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magicks Obscura. Sci-fi mixed with fantasy, Star Ocean or Phantasy Star. Norse mythology, Valkyrie Profile. Exploration of Hinduism and Buddhism, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga. And so on; you get the idea more than well enough, I’m sure.

Nonetheless, there are a few styles and cultural backdrops that are rarely or never explored in RPGs, at least that I have seen (and I flatter myself to think that I’m pretty well-versed in the genre), ones which could really make for some awesome Role Playing Games if someone were to make the attempt to do so.

...Someone competent, I mean. If you work at SquareEnix, or had anything to do with the development of Lunar: Dragon Song, please just stop reading this rant right now. I don’t want you people getting ideas.

So, in no particular order, here are some ideas for backdrops, overall game themes, and cultural settings that I’d like to see in more RPGs.


Arabian Mythology: Damn, game developers of the world, when are you guys gonna get on this? Old Arabian fantasy is creative, fascinating, and really kind of unique. I know a couple of RPGs have taken a stab at it, but they’re both extremely old games. Defenders of Oasis is dull and unimaginative, using the Arabian style as a backdrop for a story that really could have been told exactly the same way in any other setting; nothing actually connects it to Arabian mythos beyond the genie character. Meanwhile, I love The Magic Scheherazade, it’s inventive and interesting, as I’ve mentioned before, but the game still came out back in the days of the NES. Even if it was an impressive feat of RPG creativity and storytelling for its day, that still means it doesn’t have nearly the kind of depth and emotional and philosophical quality as can be expected from today. The RPG genre, on both sides of the ocean, has drawn decades’ worth of great ideas, stories, and characters from traditional western fantasy and mythology. I don’t think that western fantasy is tapped out by any means, but just imagine all the awesome directions RPGs could go in if a ton of game developers began to use Arabian mythos as their starting point. There’s so much that can be done with this!


Islam in Shin Megami Tensei: Kind of jumping off of the same region of the world as the last idea, here. I know I’m being specific here, but having seen what a kickass job the SMT series has done with representing, analyzing, and exploring the religions of Christianity and Hinduism and Buddhism, not to mention other forms of faith such as the Tarot and luck,* I’d really love to see that same brilliance and attention brought to another of the world’s major religions. And of those major religions, I’d most like to see Islam covered, because it has a hell of a lot of fascinating material, tradition, and ideas to cover, and, well, because a lot of the real world, at the moment, could really use an intelligent and objective perspective on the much-maligned faith. I’m generally happy for all the SMT I can get, but still, this is a subject to which I hope the series turns its unique brilliance soon.


Native American Culture: Really, I just want to see something, anything, basing itself off of the cultures of Native Americans. Their various societies and belief systems are fascinating, and essentially ignored by all forms of art and media, or at the most, just seen in relation to other cultures (mostly imperialistic white culture). It’s not that there’s nothing that relates to Native Americans in RPGs...the Shadowrun series actually makes Native Americans a big part of its lore, and some of its games reflect that to an extent, and sometimes you’ll come across a tribal culture in an RPG that give the distinct impression of being an analogue for Native Americans, like the tribes in Suikoden 3. And of course, the Fallout series, particularly Fallout 2 and New Vegas, have a lot of interesting material on the matter. Hell, you could probably argue that some elf cultures in RPGs are metaphors for Native Americans, albeit clumsy ones. And there’s always the actual inclusion of Native Americans in Shadow Hearts 3...but we shall not speak of that, for that game is terrible and should ever be shunned. Nonetheless, there’s never been an RPG, to my knowledge at least, that really just bases itself around Native American ideas, history, and culture, and as with Arabian mythology, I think there’s a lot of potential there to explore.

Which leads us to the next one:


The Wild West: Aw, man, wild west-styled stuff can make for such kickass entertainment! Desert-y environments, small and tough frontier towns, horses and six shooters, bar brawls, outlaws, sheriffs, that fascinating mix of early industrialist society both fleeing from itself and yet also fighting to bring its progress further forward, the equally fascinating war within the genre of glorification of individualism and freedom against community versus adherence to the law, manly mustaches and cool cowboy gear, an obsession with pillaging gold and hiding it which is similar to the pirate genre but at the same time way better, thrilling train heists, the continued thoroughly immoral expansion into Native American lands and treatment of their society and population as subhuman savages who make better pets than people...

...Okay, so...maybe that last tendency of the genre is not so good. Deeply disturbing, actually.

Still, so long as it manages to not promote racism and carefree cultural genocide, the American Frontier setting has a ton of really cool, fun stuff to offer that RPGs just don’t take advantage of. Oh, sure, there are bits and pieces of it here and there--aspects of it can be found in Fallout: New Vegas, and there’s a cowboy scenario in Live-A-Live that’s fun, but a real, sincere effort to use this interesting and exciting genre in RPGs is hard to find. Wild Arms 3 is pretty much the only RPG out there that does it (even though the entire Wild Arms series erroneously claims to be Old West-styled), and WA3 was one of the greatest RPGs ever created. And it’s not even like this genre is that hard to make work with other, more RPG-friendly ones. Wild Arms 3 may have committed to the setting in a way that all its predecessors and successors utterly failed at, but it nonetheless managed very competently to maintain a strong amount of the fantasy-sci-fi mix of the rest of the Wild Arms games, too, and as classics like Trigun and Firefly show, sci-fi can actually be combined with the Wild West really, really effectively. Here’s hoping the future holds more committed, great Wild West RPGs like Wild Arms 3 in the future.


Indian Culture: If it’s Shin Megami Tensei examining its social-religious aspects, great. If it’s a game just generally basing itself on the geography and society of India, great. Past India as a backdrop, present India as a backdrop, future India as a backdrop, all great. A fantasy land strongly based on Indian mythology, also great. I don’t care about how the game wants to go about it. I just want something that gives me an interesting glimpse of Indian culture that treats it with a shred of dignity. Because right now, all I’ve got to work with are ridiculous, insulting stereotypes on TV and in the movies. Although the USA entertainment industry is (for once) not entirely at fault for that...as far as I’ve seen and am told, the Indian movie industry isn’t exactly breaking its back to defy stereotypes. Well, I don’t care what side of the ocean it comes from--I just want to see something using Indian people and concepts that doesn’t treat the culture as a fucking punchline, or a mandate for a dance montage.


Film Noir: Well come on. Film noir is just plain always awesome. Hard-boiled detectives, glamorous and dangerous scenarios and people, twisted schemes by crooked fiends, the dark streets, that singularly cool internal monologue that all the best protagonists keep going the whole time...gotta love it. Yeah, you might think that this genre would lend itself more naturally to different kinds of games, like an investigation game or even a first person venture, and you’re probably right. But there’s no reason why you can’t combine those things with an RPG and get a good result. Many RPGs, like Mass Effect and Fallout, have successfully combined shooters with RPG elements, and I don’t see why you couldn’t also have a hybrid between your typical detective game and an RPG. You could do it like Sakura Wars 5 combines a dating sim and an RPG together--SW5’s RPG elements (the stats of characters during its battles) come from how well you do with the dating game portion. You could have the investigative segments inform the RPG elements in a similar fashion, where the better job you do sleuthing and following leads, the better your stats will be when a couple hitmen jump you in the alley, or something. With a strong enough set of writers behind it, it could be a primarily story-driven game with only a few fights interspersed here and there, like Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, or, again, Sakura Wars 5, so you could make investigative elements the main attraction but still draw on the RPG element. I dunno. All I know is that I love a good film noir story, and with RPGs’ strong penchant for focus on storytelling elements, it seems to me that a skilled developer could make a hell of a film noir RPG.


Real World, Modern Age: We don’t really get many RPGs that are supposed to be set in our own reality. It’s not that they don’t exist, of course, but they’re still few and far between, and even the ones that do set themselves in our world or close to it tend to set themselves apart by clearly being parallel but significantly different realities (the Fallout and Sakura Wars series), or ridiculously far in the future (the Mass Effect and Star Ocean series), to the point that they still come off to a large degree as being another world (Star Ocean doesn’t help this by constantly setting itself up on numerous alien planets that just happen to be another backwater standard magical RPG dump).

Still, there are RPGs that take place a little closer to home, and they’re often very good. Shadow Hearts 1 and 2 take place all over Europe and Asia in the first half of the 20th century, Deus Ex 1 takes place on a global scale in a near (and getting scarily nearer all the time) future, and a significant number of Shin Megami Tensei titles take place in the real world from the early 20th century on to the present and near future. All of the games I just listed are worthwhile RPGs, ranging from good to downright incredible, and some of them (Deus Ex 1 in particular) have a greater ability to comment on and provide cautionary tales for our lives, because they directly borrow from the reality that we live in. I just feel like we could use more games that do so. There’s all kinds of social and political issues in our world that the public needs exposure to, and while I’m all about documentaries and books and movies and whatnot, I’d like to see my favorite game genre step up and join the fray of telling tales of the real world with the purpose of making it and us the better for them.

Man, I can’t wait to play Unraveled: Tale of the Shipbreaker's Daughter.







* Christianity: SMT1 + 2, Devil Survivor 1, and, well, just most of the series, really.
Hinduism and Buddhism: SMT Digital Devil Saga 1 + 2
Luck: SMT Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon
Tarot: SMT Persona 3 and 4
Basic Foundations of Religions’ Behavior: SMT3

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

General RPGs' Badly Reimagined Characters

It sucks when you have to put up with a poorly-written character for a whole game. RPGs average 50 to 60 hours, and that’s a hell of a long time to be stuck with an incessantly chatty dumbass like Wild Arms 4’s Jude, a thoroughly obnoxious asshole like Star Ocean 3’s Albel Nox, a nauseating simpleton like Grandia 3’s Alfina, a self-righteous hypocritical bitch like Dragon Age 1’s Morrigan, or absolutely goddamn everyone in Mega Man Star Force 1.

But you know what’s much worse? Having to put up with a poorly-written character who was, in more capable writers’ hands, previously someone you actually liked. You know what I’m talking about: you had a cool character from a game, and then, in some sequel or spin-off, that character was used again, only this time, they were suddenly really crappy, a poor caricature of their original concept, or not even close enough to be called that. Think Samus, in Metroid: Other M. Usually this is caused by an inept idiot ruining someone else’s work, like the characters of Avatar: The Last Airbender being horribly mangled by the live action movie adaptation of the show, but not always. Sometimes, the same company can utterly misunderstand and cheapen their own characters, like what Disney does to Jack Sparrow after the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and on rare occasions, the original creator him/herself will destroy his/her creation, like George Lucas did with Darth Vader. And, well, pretty much every other part of Star Wars.

Sometimes you’ll luck out, sort of, and the damage will be relatively minor. Suikoden 4 managed against all probability to make Viki boring, but as much as I do adore Viki and her hapless antics, messing up a character whose story contribution is basically just humor isn’t a comparatively huge transgression. Plus, Viki was back to her amusing Viki-ness in the next game, and adorably voice acted at that. Or you’ll get a creator who does not, nor makes absolutely any goddamn effort to, understand the characters they’re borrowing, but is only using those characters in a small way that doesn’t have the time or importance to really damage the character, like when Tetsuya Nomura uses any Final Fantasy character not from his own games in a Kingdom Hearts title.

But more often, the damage done to a beloved character, one whose influence over the audience significantly affected their enjoyment of the game as a total, is a lot more dire. Good characters can be ruined by a stupid misunderstanding of them, the way Cloud was in Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children--his character had basically regressed back to the state it was in at the end of FF7’s first disc and then multiplied its teen angst twice over. It was like watching some self-indulgent mopey teen’s fanfic misinterpretation of the character brought to CGI life, complete with the questionable black Hot Topic ensemble. Good characters can be ruined by sheer, stupefying incompetence, like the poor cast of Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals. You’d never know it from the remake, but Maxim and his companions actually had some dignity and weren’t just laughable, illogical caricatures back in the original Lufia 2. Good characters can be ruined by some writer’s arrogant impulse to brutally twist the character to fit the writer’s needs instead of who the character actually is, leaving a personality so disfigured that the character is pretty much unrecognizable, like Bioware did to Anders in Dragon Age 2. And of course, good characters can be ruined by all of these factors coming together at once, a repulsive maelstrom of careless, incompetent arrogance that strips everything that was good and worthwhile about a character away, leaving only Final Fantasy 10-2 Yuna behind.

It’s bad enough when someone takes a great plot or setting and lore, and ruins it. It was aggravating to play Shadow Hearts 3, for example, and see the inept handling of the series’s atmospheric, gloomy, yet strangely quirky image of real world history as the game bumbled its way through a slew of crappy misconceptions of the Americas. Very aggravating. It’s one of many reasons why that game just blows. And it’s even worse when important parts of a plot are ruined. It was so disappointing to see Final Fantasy 7: Last Order retroactively cheapen one of the greatest moments in the Final Fantasy series as it changed Cloud’s inspiring victory over Sephiroth at the Nibelheim Reactor to looking like Sephiroth thinks it barely an inconvenience.*

But for a large majority of RPGs, the characters are truly the heart and soul of the game, our guides and translators of the plot and its themes, the components which invest us emotionally.** So if you fuck up a character that the audience liked, you’re not just souring that character, you’re worsening everything that character touches and contributes to, the product as a whole. When that character was written correctly, he or she (or it) was one of the paths the audience took toward enjoying the work, and now that you’ve spoiled that character, he or she (or it) will just as easily become a path for the audience to take toward disliking this new work. You’re poisoning the game from the inside out, and probably spreading that poison retroactively to the original one, too. When continuing or remaking an RPG, game creators should be careful to do well by the source material, but they should exert extra caution in the case of reusing or remaking the original’s cast. Screw up there, and they have fucked up something fierce.













* Hey, Nomura, do you think you could maybe just try to go a full 5 minutes without fellating Sephiroth? Just once? For the sake of artistic integrity? No, I guess not.


** Mind, not ALL RPGs are like this. There are some RPGs that are excellent solely by virtue of story, themes, and whatnot, without any real influence from the characters. Deus Ex 1, for example, is a terrific RPG, but it owes almost none of its quality to its cast--they all just fit their roles as needed and don’t get in the way of the gripping and thought-provoking plot. Earthbound, as another example, is a game whose main characters barely have any real narrative presence, yet there are more than a few who think it quite a decent RPG, just for other reasons. Still, most RPGs have a strong focus on their characters, and those characters being good or bad may make or break the title.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Guest Rant: Energy Breaker's Ties to the Lufia Series, by Humza

Whoo! Guest rant! Interesting new perspectives, AND less work for me! What's not to love?

Today's guest rant is authored by one Humza, a frequent reader here who I am particularly fond of, for the fact that he called the attention of one of my most revered game industry heroes, Chris Avellone, to one of my rants, which resulted in Mr. Avellone calling it “brilliant.” Yup, one of the highlights of my life right there. And now Humza does me another solid with a guest rant! What a fine gentleman he is.

Anyway, disclaimer: I make no pretense of ownership of Mr. Humza's words here, and this guest rant does not necessarily reflect my own opinions and perceptions. That said, though, I wouldn't publish it if I didn't think it was at least worth reading and contemplating, so check it out.



Energy Breaker’s Ties to the Lufia Series

Humza
July 13, 2015



This won’t make sense to anyone that’s not familiar with at least the first two installments of the Lufia series, so reading this would be a waste of time; no previous knowledge of Energy Breaker is required, though.

So there are a couple of references in Energy Breaker that relate to the Lufia series. The first of these is a quest in which the party takes a request from an NPC in order to progress the plot. The details of the request involve planting a genetically modified seed and bringing the flower to the NPC. This turns out to be the Priphea Flower, which some might remember as the type of flower which Lufia likes so much (maybe even being one of her character’s defining traits*).

This is pretty straight forward – but what’s so special and interesting about finding the origins of a flower that’s barely related to the overarching events of the series? To answer that question, we must look back at the character that loves the flowers so much. One of the game’s more memorable aspects of the character Lufia is the fact that she is Erim, the Sinistral of Death. In the opening of Lufia 2, it’s clear that Erim believes that Sinistrals are far superior to humans, and the theme of Humans vs. Sinistrals often recurs through the game.

This, I think, demonstrates the purpose of the aforementioned quest: Sinistrals can also benefit from humans, and the differences between them may not be as stark as Erim originally thought. This can also demonstrate Erim’s character development as she gradually became more accepting of humans from the beginning of Lufia 2 the end of Lufia 1 (to the point that she enjoyed their creations to a great extent).

The other reference to the Lufia series in Energy Breaker is the Dual Blade, the legendary sword that seems to have a mind of its own (as it stabbed Lufia against the protagonist’s will at the end of the first game and has the ability to choose its wielder). This, admittedly, is shakier than the first point, but it’s also more interesting.

The Dual Blade’s appearance in Energy Breaker isn’t connected to the plot like Priphea Flowers are, but it makes an appearance as one of the strongest weapons in the game. This raises a number of questions, such as why it isn’t as strong as it was in the Lufia games, how the Dual Blade gained the strength it holds, as well as where the blade’s almost-sentient qualities originate from.

In Lufia: The Legend Returns for the GBC, Milka states that the Dual Blade was not made by humans and implies that Sinistrals could not have made the weapon either, so there must have been an event to change the Dual Blade if it turned from a strong (but not special) sword to what it is in the Lufia series.

In Energy Breaker, the only character that can wield the Dual Blade is Leon, since it fits with the weapon type he uses. After the game’s credits, Leon is shown sitting (seemingly dead?) at the bottom of an ocean, and Selphia’s spirit appears to do something to him before she teleports. My theory is that she sealed his spirit or mind into the Dual Blade, which I’ll admit is quite farfetched. But it fills the ambiguities relatively eloquently – Leon was a strong character in the game, so sealing his spirit into a sword would most likely make it stronger. It also answers the question of how the Dual Blade is able to stab Lufia on its own, or how it is able to choose the person that should wield it. The Dual Blade is also found in an underwater shrine in Lufia 2, and we last see Leon underwater. The absence of his body or its remnants can be attributed to decay or fossilization.

You would be able to poke some holes into this theory by inquiring why the Dual Blade chose Daos at first, but Leon was not always in cahoots with the party, and there’s the possibility that his mind degraded either due to time or due to the process itself.

Both of these are probably simple cameos that weren’t bestowed with any special meaning since the writer for the Lufia games didn’t appear in Energy Breaker’s credits, but canonical or not, it's still interesting to think about.









* The RPGenius Says: Yup. Admiring Priphea flowers, making cinnamon tea, and fawning over the mostly unresponsive lump that passes for a protagonist...these are the defining, and only, traits of Lufia.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Dragon Age 2's Merrill

Merrill is a weird character for me.

There aren’t a lot of party members in Dragon Age 2 whose personalities are actually appealing. Varric, I guess, is likeable from the start, but Aveline, Fenris, Sebastian, Bethany, and Isabela don’t have much charisma going for them. What personality they have tends to be either faintly annoying (Bethany’s resentfulness), cliched (Fenris’s brooding), or both (Isabela’s self-interest). Despite that, though, they’re all actually pretty decent characters, with enough depth and core beliefs and behaviors that they come out as positive in the end. Meanwhile, Carver is a pill AND doesn’t have any worthwhile character quality to make up for it, and Anders has the personality of a close-minded jerk and turns out to be even more of a thoughtless asswipe than he comes off as.

But then there’s Merrill. Merrill's is actually an enjoyable, appealing personality. She’s cheerful and flighty, with a naivete that’s actually charming (most naive RPG characters come off as forced and/or just really dumb) and a generally nice demeanor. Aside from Varric, Merrill is the character who consistently makes party banter engaging. I like hearing from her.

Here’s what makes her weird, though: Merrill’s a terrible, selfish person and I actually really hate her.

See, Merrill’s actual character development is that of a careless, obsessed fool who toys with forces that everyone knows have a long history of being dangerous. She’s so single-mindedly focused on her goals that she consorts with a demon and is easily manipulated into doing its bidding, eventually leading to a point where, if not for the intervention and sacrifice of an innocent third party, Merrill would have found herself possessed by the demon that she had stupidly put her faith in despite the warnings of those around her.

I mean, think about this--you have a character who makes bargains with demonic forces, who arrogantly and mistakenly thinks that she possesses the ability to control that demon, and is tricked the whole time into doing the demon’s bidding, all of which leads to the event where the demon is ready to betray its plaything and reveal its true intentions. Most of the time, that character I've just described is an out and out villain in an RPG story. I mean, just how many RPG villains have we seen that do the exact same kind of shit that Merrill does? Gaidel from Arc the Lad 2, the Drow queen in the Neverwinter Nights 1 Hordes of the Underdark expansion, the many people indoctrinated by the Reapers in Mass Effect, and so on and so forth; there are plenty of examples. The only difference between Merrill and your average misguided, egotistical villain is that, as I mentioned, she never has to pay the price for her stupidity. Marethari, the leader of the elves in the area and the one who has been telling Merrill to drop this obsession since the beginning because of its danger, takes Merrill’s rightful punishment onto herself. I suppose it’s not right to resent Merrill on this point since Marethari does this without Merrill having any choice in the matter...but then, the punishment is only coming because Merrill made her choice, for years, to ignore Marethari’s wisdom, not to mention basic common sense, so I still count it against Merrill all the same.

So, Merrill is quite a unique character for me. On the one hand, she comes off like someone I like--sweet, charming, friendly, and caring. On the other hand, she’s an overconfident, obsessed fool dabbling in obviously dangerous matters and ignoring the warnings of someone who cares for her well-being, eventually getting that person killed when the obvious consequences of her careless actions come to pass. I certainly can’t think of any other RPG character I’ve seen who I instinctively want to like, but can’t because underneath a sincerely likable personality they’re actually a major asshole. I don’t know whether this makes Merrill a well-written character or not, but it does make her a unique one.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Anodyne's Surrealism

As you may have noticed, in the last few years I’ve started playing a lot of Indie RPGs. It’s been an overall positive experience, the titles often being as good as they’re touted to be (such as Bastion or Dust: An Elysian Tail), along with a few pleasant surprises (who could have known that a sexually explicit RPG that makes no pretense about its level of fanservice would actually turn out to be so damn excellent?). That’s not to say it’s all positive--Lords of Xulima was a distinct let-down in the story and characters department, and Legend of Grimrock has more or less nothing of interest to me. But as a general rule, I’m finding Indie RPGs to be good more often than those published by established companies, and when they’re not good, they at least don’t stink as bad as the regular publishers’ titles do. I’ve yet to encounter an Indie RPG anywhere near as wretched as Shadow Hearts 3, or your average Dragon Quest.

Still, even though Indie RPGs have, for me, had a very high rate of success, not every Indie RPG hits the mark perfectly, even if it’s good overall. And this is the case with Anodyne. Anodyne is a quiet, occasionally amusing, occasionally disturbing RPG that functions primarily as a work of surrealism. The problem is...surreal is really all that it is, and ironically, this single-minded dedication to surrealism actually makes it less effective than other RPGs that have tempered their surreal tone with some structure.

What I mean is...well, take another famously surreal RPG, Earthbound. It’s a game filled with irrational imagery and ideas of a subconscious style that permeate its every locale and character. Very surreal. Quirky and fun in that surrealism, too. Well, that interesting and generally amusing strangeness stays with you from the beginning of the game to its very end, and you enjoy it the whole time. There’s never a time where the abnormal aspects of Earthbound’s story and characters don’t engage your interest.

You know why I think that is? Because Earthbound provides juxtaposition to the surrealism. Even though the strange nature of Earthbound is what we remember of it, that strangeness is only able to stand out so strikingly because it’s repeatedly put against familiar, mundane, and logical backdrops. We identify with the small towns and cities that Ness visits. The culture and lifestyles of the people in these places are similar to our own. And we’re familiar with the general concept of the plot of Earthbound, which is to find plot-important locations in a quest to save the world. That’s conventional, it’s logical...it’s the integral basis of the game’s story, the foundation on which all the surreal events and people play out. And that’s why the rampant surrealism stands out--because it’s contrasted against the normalcy of much of its setting, and more importantly, the familiarity of its basic plot.

Anodyne? I don’t know where I am in Anodyne. I don’t know what the deal is. I don’t know why the protagonist must do what he does, nor the intentions and consequences of his actions. I don’t know anything about anything, and because everything in the game is strange and out there, including its plot, storytelling pace, style, and characters, I have nothing to anchor me in this sea of of strange. Without a familiar point of reference in some regard to the story, some regular logic to serve as my handhold, the surrealism is just an ongoing wave of nearly indistinguishable oddities that I can extrapolate no intellectual or emotional truth from.

Earthbound’s surrealism is kooky and fun and adds a layer of depth to the narrative because it stays tied to a core plot and setting that are familiar and upon which the surrealism actually stands out. Mother 3 takes that a step further, using a (better, more creative) plot and cast as its contrast against its surrealism, and then using its quirky, fun surrealism again as a contrast against its hard-hitting, deeply affecting emotional content. Hell, even The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening has a good method about it, seeming in most ways to be a straightforward, easily followed adventure, normal enough that the bits and pieces that are strange and out of place which pop up as you go along bring a new light to the whole adventure by contrast.

That’s how you do it. That’s how you make effective use of surrealism in your RPG. You give it the contrast to stand out. Contrast is a major part of how we understand and interpret many things, things that are primal and linked to our emotion and subconscious--in other words, linked to the parts of us that surrealism most seeks to touch and connect with. Much of your understanding of cold comes from your recognition that it is different from heat. Much of your ability to appreciate something sweet comes from knowing that food can taste bitter or sour. You only really know what darkness is because you know of the light that banishes it. Surrealism is by its very nature a primordial, irrational escape from the mundane confines of reality--and by that definition of itself, it must have those restraints to break out of for it to truly exist. The strange, sensational freedom of surrealism means nothing if we do not have the hard, bland ground against which it coils and away from which it launches into the abnormal, artistic air. With the contrast of a consistent and present plot, and/or a world with recognizable rules, surrealism can shine as it is meant to. But if all is surreal, and nothing normal, then it is lost within itself, and we are left confused and unable to glean much understanding from it.

Anodyne isn’t a bad RPG. It’s still fairly interesting, you can still piece a little something together about its deeper levels of meaning, and it still can lay a shaky claim on your emotional state. But I don’t think it will ever be the rallying point for RPG fans who appreciate surrealism the way Earthbound, Mother 3, and even The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening are. Those other, seemingly less surreal games succeed and capture our memories with their bizarre but enjoyable irrationality, but Anodyne defeats itself to some degree with its saturation of surrealism.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Shin Megami Tensei 4's Party Members' Strange Immunity

You know, the protagonist and his party in Shin Megami Tensei 4 have a rather inexplicable immunity to various plot-related obstacles.

Okay, remember early in the game, while you’re still samurai-ing it up in the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado? The party’s first encounter with Yuriko ends with her having a horde of Lilims attack them, and use their charm magic to incapacitate all the males of the party (because God forbid we ever include a gay man in our main cast!) as Yuriko escapes. Okay, fine. Standard plot-necessitated hero restraint. At least the party didn’t just stand around and watch like a bunch of ninnyhammers.

But then, later in the game, Flynn and his samurai buddies come face to face with the same bunch of Lilims guarding Yuriko. The Lilims use the same technique, and...this time it doesn’t work. Why? The game has Jonathan or Walter (or both, can't recall exactly) proclaim that the mind control spell won’t work this time, and we’re expected to content ourselves with this not-explanation and keep going. But seriously, why are all the guys suddenly completely immune to this charm spell that seriously wrecked their shit last time? No story-related reason is apparent; they didn’t get some sort of spell of protection against it or a magical "Cold Shower To Go" plot item. Is it just that they’ve gained a few levels, or something? Are we expected to believe that knowing the attack is coming is all it takes for them to be able to completely ignore it? If just some basic willpower not to give in is all that’s needed to resist the spell, you’d think that their dedication to their duty (Jonathan in particular) would have at least slowed the spell down a little the first time, but they all fell under it quite immediately then. Doesn’t really add up.

But hey, that slight oddity isn’t worth any real thought, right? Just one of those little narrative hiccups that happen in practically every story, a one-time thing that we happily ignore for the sake of immersion. Except...this sort of thing happens several times.

You take Yaso Magatsuhi’s gas. The first time the party enters the underground tower that Yaso Magatsuhi guards, they immediately notice a strange, sweet smell in the air, and eventually succumb to the delirium it induces. They are told later that Yaso Magatsuhi’s gas does that to everyone and that’s why all the workers in the place were wearing gas masks. But, later on in the game, you can return to this dungeon, find Yaso Magatsuhi, and beat the crap out of it, and now the gas seems to have no effect on Flynn whatsoever. Charm magic is one thing, that’s based in your mind to begin with so I guess it’s okay, if not ideal, to explain it away as just being resisted through mental preparation, but why is it that the hallucinatory gas doesn’t work this second time? You can say that the second time through the tower, Flynn isn’t exploring the place and finding keys to proceed, so there’s less time for the gas to affect him, but on the other hand, actually facing Yaso Magatsuhi in combat means an extended period of time right at the very source of that gas. The first time around, close proximity to Yaso Magatsuhi immediately induced the delirium, so even if Flynn hasn’t been exposed for very long this second time around to the gas from afar, you’d think that being up close and personal with it for an entire battle would still do the trick. But nope, he’s just perfectly fine, no explanation offered for why.

Why can’t Medusa turn the party to stone early in the game? Her lair’s filled with stone statues that she readily identifies as people who crossed her, so obviously the traditional lore about her petrifying gaze is still relevant. Yet the most that can happen against Medusa is that Flynn might be tricked into looking at her eyes in battle and being paralyzed--paralyzed, not petrified. The legendary instant-kill of Greek mythos has been reduced to a mildly inconvenient status effect. It doesn’t really seem to be a case of nerfing Medusa, because the evidence is all throughout the area that she can turn people to stone with her gaze. It just...doesn’t happen with Flynn and company.

And what about Blasted Tokyo? It’s a major plot point that Blasted Tokyo, particularly its outdoor environs, has poison in its air, pumped out by Pluto, which is basically God’s version of a can of Raid. The people of Blasted Tokyo cover themselves completely and wear air filters at all times in order to stay alive...yet Flynn, Walter, and Jonathan go traipsing around Blasted Tokyo in their regular clothes, noses and mouths completely exposed. Does the poison that the game assures us over and over again is in the air ever affect them? Nope. Not a one of them even so much as coughs the whole time they’re in Blasted Tokyo. You can assume, I guess, that the poison is a more slow-acting thing and only deadly if you’re breathing it over a certain period of time, but the party is walking from one end of Tokyo to the other and back again. That does take a certain amount of time to do, especially if you’re stopping every few minutes to fight a random encounter and doing a bunch of side quests. And they enter Pluto’s HQ and confront the thing face to face--I can only assume that the poison in the air would be much higher that close to the source. You’d think there should be some reaction to the poisoned air after all that, but again, nothing.

It’s not really a huge deal, or anything. Shin Megami Tensei 4 certainly has bigger problems weighing it down than this. Still, after a certain number of times, the oddity of the party’s inexplicable immunities starts to grow noticeable, and the fact that the main characters are only ever affected by this stuff when it’s most convenient for the writing, instead of consistently or at least with some explanation for the inconsistency, is still detrimental in its small way.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Chrono Trigger Theory: Lavos's Emergence in 1999 A.D.

Note: I refer to Lavos as a “he” in this rant. I do this out of habit, and the fact that it’s a lot clearer when writing about “him” than speaking of Lavos as an “it” would be. Also, Lavos is automatically referred to as a “he” by a lot of people and even official sources, including the game itself, to my recollection. Still, I recognize that Lavos is much more accurately an “it” unless actually proven otherwise,* so cut me a break on the nomenclature, alright?



I’ve discussed more than once my love for Chrono Trigger and the many reasons why it’s an excellent specimen of the RPG genre: its story, its creativity, its quirks, its characters, its themes, and so on. 1 thing I’ve never mentioned before, though, is that it’s also a game that allows for its fans to theorize quite a bit, striking that difficult balance of being open and subtle enough for theory, yet never seeming vague or lacking appropriate detail and background in its storytelling. I daresay, in fact, that it was perhaps the first RPG which garnered a significant amount of fan theory attention. Nowadays, it’s nothing unusual to see a lot of fans debate the possibilities and lore of an RPG in forums dedicated to, say, Dragon Age, Fallout, Kingdom Hearts, Pillars of Eternity, Shin Megami Tensei, or even something as light as Borderlands...but back in the day, that sort of heavy intellectual response in the fan community didn’t really happen to a great degree, at least not that I saw. It was Chrono Trigger, in my observations, that got players to really think about an RPG’s lore potential for the first time in such a way as is commonplace now. I remember Icy Brian’s RPG page, which you might say was my internet place of birth, as a hub for all kinds of theories and ideas on Chrono Trigger (and other games, but CT was the sun around which the other games seemed to orbit), pursued in forum discussions, fanart, and, of course, especially fanfiction. Icy’s has sadly been defunct for quite some time now, but The Chrono Compendium is still a pretty fun place for Chrono Trigger nerds like myself to occasionally waste a couple hours reading up on theories, so the old game’s still got a community out there posing questions to itself and coming up with answers, and that’s kind of fun.

One of the many questions apparently still somewhat debated at the Chrono Compendium is just why Lavos was so damn ornery when he busted out of the ground in 1999 A.D.** Well, they have their theories, and I’ve got mine, and theirs and mine don’t reconcile too well, so hell, why not make a rant about my thoughts on the matter, right?

Oh, stop complaining. At least it’s not another DLC rant that’s over 10 years past its expiration date.

So, the answer given at Chrono Compendium about why Lavos destroyed the world in 1999 A.D. is, primarily, that the level of technology was probably approaching the point where it could be a threat to him, and he sensed this and decided to eliminate the problem of humanity before it could become dangerous to him.

The problem I have with this theory is that it assumes a few things that don’t stand up so well, at least not in my eyes. The first is that the level of technology really was getting anywhere near the point where it was dangerous to Lavos. It’s not impossible that this is true, but one has to look objectively at just how unimaginably advanced that technology would have to be to become a clear threat to him. Lavos is a creature that survived a global-extinction-level event, who in fact was at its ground zero: namely, his own arrival on the planet. He lands on the CT world with enough force to create an impact explosion of such magnitude that it leads to an ice age, much like the theoretical extinction event of our own world that wiped out the dinosaurs. The majority of Lavos’s outer shell is, therefore, able to tank an explosion that makes nuclear warheads look like those little toy bang pouches that kids throw on the ground to make a loud snap. Offensively, Lavos is capable of raining nuclear-level devastation across the globe in a matter of seconds with his spines, and the force and structural integrity of those spines is such that they can actually tear through...how thick was the landmass of Zeal? It certainly looks like the kingdom’s floating foundation is several miles deep. Lavos’s spines sliced straight through that solid rock. To say nothing of the sheer magical and dimensional power Lavos wields--his very presence is so powerful that it warps space and time. So tell me, exactly what insane level of technological sophistication would human society have to be close to reaching in order to threaten a creature with this level of invulnerability and widespread lethality, who exists in a form of radiating power so beyond comprehension that it disrupts the fabric of reality itself?

Yes, you can argue that the head of Lavos seems to be a weak spot, which Crono and company exploit, but even that weak spot is certainly insanely dangerous, and Crono and his gang are only able to actually reach Lavos to exploit this weakness because they have a time portal that leads to the exact place and moment in time in which Lavos emerges. The window of time to reach Lavos before he can fire off his world-ending spine salvo is less than a minute--without instantaneous time and space travel, how could the people of the world possibly create an offense that would reach Lavos’s head in time? It’s not even like Lavos’s movements can be anticipated if you could somehow track him in the earth--from all evidence, he moves fast enough when he’s emerging that it only takes a minute or so for him to surface. You could have an army stationed exactly where he’s coming out and still not have enough time for them to react to stop him once he’s ready to do his thing.

You can also argue that the Epoch is able to penetrate Lavos’s shell somehow (probably through the head area, but we can’t say for sure), so clearly it IS possible to construct something that can do so. Well, I would point out that the Epoch is an implement fashioned from more than just 1999 A.D.’s technology. Belthasaur, its creator, is one of the former gurus of Zeal. He doesn’t just have access to all the records of science left from 1999 A.D. He also possesses the incredibly vast knowledge of magic and reality-altering powers of the Kingdom of Zeal, and the Epoch is a combination of these two heights of knowledge, plus his own considerable intellect (he’s the Guru of Reason, after all). The knowledge of Zeal is completely lost to the world after its fall, to the point that by 600 A.D. (and probably considerably earlier than that), it’s not even known to the world that it ever existed. And by 1000 A.D., magic itself seems practically unknown, certainly not possessed by humans. The Epoch may be able to penetrate Lavos’s shell, but it is an amalgamation of technology with arcane arts that the people of the future would never be able to duplicate. Whatever technology the future people of the world were going to create, it wasn’t going to be the Epoch, so we’re left once again with a daunting question of what level of technology they could have been headed for which would threaten Lavos.

Another problem with this idea is that it depends on Lavos even caring whether human technology is powerful enough to threaten him, assuming that it ever could be. Even if the world could pose a threat, Lavos is a secret buried within the planet. How would the people of the world even known to focus their aggression on him to start with? By 1999 A.D., Lavos hasn’t done anything for almost 1,400 years. The last time he did anything was in 600 A.D., when Magus summoned him in a failed attempt to destroy him. And even then, pretty much no one in the world even knew about that, just Ozzie and maybe his cohorts. I suppose somehow there must be SOME record of Lavos’s existence in 1999 A.D., since that director guy speaks his name during the game over sequence, but that doesn’t tell us enough to safely extrapolate anything. Is Lavos a known entity by the governments of the world? Does the director just have some ancient knowledge passed down to him from his ancestors? Is he naming his destroyer and coincidentally giving it the same title that Ayla did billions of years before? Who knows? Whatever the case, even assuming that the people of the world do somehow know about Lavos’s existence, they hadn’t attacked him and we’re given no indication that they meant to, and frankly I don’t know exactly what kind of attack they could have mounted anyway, had he stayed buried where he was.

One more thing about this theory I don’t like is Lavos’s being able to determine an upcoming threat to begin with. Now, I actually don’t have a problem with Lavos’s being able to monitor technology. We see in the battle between his head and Crono’s team that Lavos can incorporate technology into himself just as much as he can organic creatures: of the many bosses he mimics, the Dragon Tank and the robotic guardians of the future are actually the first. Lavos seems as able to adopt technological blueprints as he is biological ones, so he must be able to somehow sense technology. But being able to sense it and incorporate it is different from being able to make judgment calls on when it’s too close to being dangerous to him. That requires a level of intelligence that we just don’t have any reason to think Lavos possesses. From all the clues that Chrono Trigger gives us, even including the lore from the remake and from that shitty sequel, Lavos could be sentient, but he could also be acting on nothing more than animal instinct. The most we have to go on is the newer game’s information that indicates that Lavos has felt rage and a desire for revenge...but animals are quite capable of feeling the emotion of anger, and frankly, we think of revenge as a concept born of intelligent understanding of emotion, but when you get right down to it, it can and often is just an instinct born of anger, so that’s really no proof, either. So in order for the theory that Lavos can anticipate levels of technology dangerous to himself to be true, you have to assume that an entirely different theory that is equally debatable is also true.

Last problem with this theory: it’s saying that Lavos was judging a potential threat from human technology in the future, and attacking in advance...yet the Kingdom of Zeal was actively using his power for their own purposes, AND were able to directly interact with him in the Ocean Palace, with the intent of controlling him. Yet Lavos only punished them for this once they had actually made their move on him! Where was this foresight then? He can anticipate a problem from a populace that’s doing absolutely nothing to him, yet a populace that’s actively feeding off him decides it wants to control him and he doesn’t lift a spiny finger until they actually go and do it? Assuming Lavos even was the one calling the shots at that point--for all we know, Queen Zeal the power-hungry psychopath was controlling Lavos at that point, and it was her idea to blast her kingdom to rubble, and he didn’t even make that decision. She clearly didn’t care for it whatsoever, so it’s not at all unlikely.

...This rant is becoming a lot longer than I thought it was going to be. Oh well, on we go.

The Chrono Compendium has one more theory to share on Lavos’s actions in 1999 A.D. under this first one that I’ve been attacking. The gist of this one is that Lavos emerges in 1999 A.D. as per a standard part of its life cycle: he’s ready to create his spawn, and he’s had 65 billion years’ worth of eating evolution so he’s probably full and doesn’t need the creatures on the surface any more, so he bursts forth to clear the planet of any potential threats to his kids (who are far less invulnerable and deadly than he is), and competitors for resources they might need.

This is a much better theory. First of all, it bases itself in known facts instead of “probably” and other unproven theories. It’s a fact that Lavos eats evolution (how he does this is, of course, considerably less clear). It’s a fact that Lavos did create spawn, as they are seen at Death Mountain in 2300 A.D., and the only reasonable recourse is to assume that he spawned after his emergence in 1999 A.D., since we don’t see Lavos Spawn any time prior to the future*** and it doesn’t seem feasible that they’d be kicking around on the surface without humanity wigging the fuck out about it. This theory does not require Lavos to be sentient, nor does it require him not to be, so it does not have to stand on top of another unproven theory. The theory is also considerably more sensible as a whole: it’s a lot more believable that Lavos would eliminate humanity because it was a threat to his children than because it was a threat to him.

In fact, I don’t really have any argument to make against this theory. It’s solid. I will, however, provide an alternate idea that I think is roughly as reasonable.

Part A: My theory begins with a question: what is the defining knowledge we have about the being known as Lavos? We know several things about what he does--the fact that he comes from space, the fact that he is so powerful that he tears holes in space-time, the fact that he can and does destroy continents and even the entire world, the fact that he creates spawn, and so on. But there is only a single, vital knowledge we have of Lavos that strikes at the core of what he is. The whats, we have lots of those, but the why, that is what matters most in understanding everything else. And that knowledge is this: we know that Lavos devours evolution. How, we do not know. What specific aspect of evolution, we do not know. All we know for sure is that Lavos’s overall behavior is significantly tied to a thirst for the mutation of life. All beyond that is a mystery. That is all we have on Lavos’s motivations, and so that is what I work with.

The theory of a natural life cycle including worldwide devastation to create a suitable playpen is a good one, as I say. It’s sensible and it fits with physical evidence. But it does still suppose a motivation that we do not have official confirmation of: an instinct (or conscious choice) of parental obligation. That theory makes the (reasonable) request that we suppose a theoretical motivation.

But mine does not. Here is my theory: Lavos erupts in 1999 A.D. and destroys the world because the world no longer provides him enough evolution for his purposes.

Part B: In 1999 A.D., human civilization is at the strongest it has ever been, save for the Kingdom of Zeal (and I’ll cover that in a second). Further, its strength lies in civilization and technology, as does our own. The Chrono Trigger world intentionally mirrors our own in several respects (dinosaurs in prehistoric times being wiped out by an extinction event, an ice age that followed, a medieval-styled era, etc), and so it’s reasonable to expect that their civilization advances in a roughly similar fashion as our own does. We conquer and expand in our own world using the power of community and knowledge, and from what we can see, this seems to occur with the civilization of CT.

Well, here’s the thing about our own world: our reckless expansion and complete disregard for nature has devastated the life diversity of the planet. It is a scientific fact that we are in the early stages of a major extinction event in our world, with entire species dying out on a daily basis. Our pollution, our wastefulness, our horrible fucking geoengineering, they have doomed our civilization, and we’re pulling down every other species with us. While evolution still works to keep some species kicking--gotta love those super bacteria we’ve been creating with antibiotic overuse--there’s nonetheless an increasingly smaller pool of diverse organisms for evolution to work with.

Even assuming that the people of Chrono Trigger’s 1999 A.D. were not so incomprehensibly stupid as to geoengineer their own climate into utter chaos, an expanding, technological civilization that in any way resembles our own is still actively altering the life diversity of its planet. By changing more and more environments into ones suited for human beings, fewer and fewer creatures and plants can exist which do not have the physical and behavioral adaptations that can survive in human-manipulated environments. As human civilization in CT advances, it is reasonable to expect less species diversity as fewer diverse, non-human-manipulated environments exist, and with fewer species to play with and fewer diverse environments to be adapted to, there is less evolution.

We can even see this, sort of, in CT’s world. In 600 A.D., there are many areas through which Crono and his friends travel, and in these places there are often many monsters taking many different forms. 400 years later, however, with civilization having advanced considerably further, we see very few areas with monsters in them, and a more limited diversity of monsters within those areas. Already diversity is lessening.****

Now, you can say that the civilization of Zeal was as successful, if not more so, as the folks of 1999 A.D., and the planet had even less diversity going on at that point, being all covered in ice. Good point. The difference there, though, is that Zeal wasn’t messing with the surface of the planet to any great extent, so for the most part, what few opportunities for evolution were there wouldn’t be hindered by Zeal. Also, the ice age is, we can assume, beyond Lavos’s ability to influence. His arrival is what initiated it, but it’s not like he can just torpedo the wind patterns of the world. It’s not a situation which he could change to suit his hunger, unlike the situation of 1999 A.D. which I have described.

You can also point out that this theory might need to imply a level of intelligence that I’ve mentioned we have no idea whether or not Lavos possesses. I would counter, however, that estimating the direction of technology is a much, much different thing for Lavos than estimating a current level of evolution. It takes much more intelligence to anticipate an impending situation than it does to assess a current one. We know for a fact that Lavos feeds on evolution, while his relationship with technology is nebulous--clearly he cannot be entirely unaware of it, as he incorporates it into his defensive behaviors, but beyond that we cannot say what his relationship to it is. It would be well within the behavior patterns of a non-self-aware creature to recognize a dwindling food source, and Lavos’s solution to this problem (blow everything the fuck up) is, for him at least, a pretty simple behavior algorithm: surface, shoot spines everywhere, dig back down. Ants have more complex instincts than that. Recognizing a current situation regarding its one food source and taking a simple action can be the act of a sentient or non sentient organism--anticipating the development of a form of intelligent culture is another story.

Alternate Part B: Lavos’s decision to emerge and rustle up some grub could tie back to that second theory on the Chrono Compendium page. Maybe the evolution of the world wasn’t slowing, as I’ve theorized, but Lavos was getting ready to spawn, and as such he needed to intake a lot more evolution than before, and/or needed to create an evolution-rich environment for his newborn children to feed well within. As I’ve stated, we know that Lavos has children in 2300 A.D., we can only reasonably assume they weren’t present before 1999 A.D., and an educated guess would say they eat evolution, too (it ain’t like it’s a solid food or something). What’s enough evolution for one Lavos throughout history may not be enough for a Lavos close to giving birth, and is even less likely to be enough for a Lavos AND its litter of hellspawn. And the side benefit, of course, is that raining spikey nukes on the world also makes for a lot fewer threats to his kids. In fact, in this possible scenario, my theory isn’t different from the better one on the Chrono Compendium so much as it is an expansion of it. Well, that works for me, so onward to the next part.

Part C: But why would he rain destruction on the world of 1999 A.D. over a case of the evolutionary munchies? Surely destroying the majority of the world’s life in a single go isn’t going to help the situation? Ahhh, but it does. Observe the evidence of 2300 A.D. What do you see? Destroyed cities, robots running amok, humans dying out, grotesque and bizarre mutants everywhere, debris everywhere, Artificial Intelligences seeking to--

Oh wait, hang on. Back up a couple of examples. Did somebody say mutants?

Yeah, 2300 A.D. is lousy with weird, freakish monstrosities. Even the occasional “normal” creatures, like rats and frog monsters, may have evolved the ability to speak and reason. And you know how mutants come about? Evolution. And by the looks of these freaks, evolution must’ve been going at it like there was no tomorrow (which there sort of wasn’t). Lavos’s purge may have wiped out a hell of a lot of life, but what was there was left with a twisted, dire, extreme environment that required a hell of a lot of changes to adapt to. As evidenced by the state of life forms in 2300 A.D., Lavos’s eruption in 1999 A.D. led directly to an enormous, not to mention extremely rapid, explosion of evolution. 300 years of evolution is usually, what, a slightly longer beak? A different fur pattern? A new toe, if you’re super lucky? Lavos’s armageddon gave him a BUFFET of evolution to devour.

So that’s my theory. You can decide which of the middle scenarios I’ve envisioned you like the better. Or maybe you can come up with one yourself. But you do have the beginning fact that Lavos eats evolution, and you do have the ending fact that 2300 A.D. is inhabited by grotesque mutants that evolved because of an environment Lavos created, and that their evolution happened in extremes of magnitude and speed. Fill in the middle how you like, but when a creature feeds on evolution, and creates a scenario resulting in a relatively immediate explosion of evolution, chances are pretty good that those 2 facts are related.

...Man, look at the size of this rant. You know, when I started this, I set out to make something simple in an efficient amount of time...you’d never guess I’m from Massachusetts, huh?














* This is not an invitation for Lavos Rule 34 links.


** And in 1200 B.C., too, but I should think that’s a lot simpler to answer: his awakening in 1200 B.C. was caused by a kingdom trying to directly control his power, and upon that awakening he was immediately attacked (remember, even in the pre-game timeline without Crono and company’s interference, it’s relatively safe to say that Magus was still present to make his own attack on Lavos). Seems pretty likely that Lavos’s attack on the Kingdom of Zeal was a retaliation against that aggression.


*** The Lavos Spawn seen in the Black Omen really can’t count. It’s clear that the Black Omen exists as an anomaly in time, and pretty much everything within it is separated from the regular dimension and time of CT’s reality.


**** I’m aware that it is highly unlikely that this was intentional by the creators of the game. From their perspective, there’s just fewer monsters because there aren’t many quest areas in 1000 A.D. Doesn’t change what’s there, though, intentional or not.