Saturday, October 18, 2014

Fallout 3's Tenpenny Tower Quest

Wow, this totally was not supposed to be this long a rant. Oh well, all the better with which to be controversial. This one’s probably going to replace the Fallout: New Vegas Karma rant for Anons coming out of the woodwork to tell me I’m wrong and an idiot. Even my sister, without whom this rant blog would entirely be an unreadable mass of garbage, disagrees with my stance on this issue. Ah, well. Let the anger begin!

It’s no secret that I love me some Fallout. It’s an intelligent, deep series that examines the heart and soul of the United States against the most engaging, cool example of a post-nuclear apocalypse setting you’re likely to find anywhere, with solid plots and characters who are iconic for the aspects of humanity and culture that they represent. And of the Fallout games, my favorite is Fallout 3 (though they’re all very close to one another in terms of quality). Of them all, I think it uses the setting the best, and has the most epic story and characters of the series, with the strongest thematic power. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect.

No, Fallout 3 does have its problems. The Mothership Zeta DLC is an empty time-waster of a sidequest that fails entirely in its mission to elicit even the tiniest chuckle from you. The ending, while no longer utterly horrible as it originally was thanks to the Broken Steel add-on, is a short, dissatisfying shadow of the endings for all the rest of the Fallout games. As much as I love the Capital Wasteland, much more could have been done to expand the exploration of it (why the hell are there so damn many buildings that are boarded up and thus completely unable to be explored?). And, of course, there’s the Tenpenny Tower quest.

Basic summation of this quest: there’s a place called Tenpenny Tower, which is a functioning, intact hotel tower in the wasteland, complete with walls, a gate, and a fairly competent hired security force. It also has its own power source, and merchants happen by regularly to provide it with food and other necessities. So basically, it’s one of the most attractively safe, comfortable, and stable locations in the hellhole that is the Capital Wasteland. It’s run by a guy named Tenpenny, a foppish aristocrat-type who charges residents money to let them live in this comparative paradise. There’s a pack of ghouls who want in, and have the money to pay the residence fees, but Tenpenny’s a bit of a bigot and won’t let them. The Tenpenny Tower quest in the game is basically you getting to decide whether to help the ghouls get in or to keep them out for good. If you side with Tenpenny, you go and kill the ghouls and their leader, Roy Phillips, and that’s the end of that. If you decide to help the ghouls get into Tenpenny Tower, you can either assist them in sneaking in and killing everyone, thus taking the tower for themselves by force (or even just go in and kill all the folks living there yourself), or you can go to the tower’s residents and speak on the ghouls’ behalf, convincing the people by reason or intimidation to tell Tenpenny to give the ghouls a chance.

Obviously, there is a decent, morally sound way to go about this quest, and multiple lousy, morally bankrupt alternatives. Any player who’s a jackass, or at least playing one, has the option to solve the problem with violence and the murder of innocents, to forgo the promotion of peace and unity in favor of racial cleansing. On the other hand, if you believe in peaceful unity between peoples whose differences are only surface-deep, you have the opportunity to pursue a peaceful resolution that promotes tolerance and brotherhood, that embraces diversity instead of fearing and shunning it.

If you do the right thing, things go well. Once the ghouls settle in, the residents who gave them a chance universally agree that they’re not bad folks, and the ghouls likewise seem to enjoy not only living in this rare safe haven, but also their new neighbors. Everyone’s happy. Yay!

Well, for a few days, anyway.

After a certain period of game hours, if you return to Tenpenny Tower after making peace between human and ghoul, you’ll discover that there are no longer any humans in the place. For explanation, you’re told by Roy that there was a “disagreement” of sorts between the humans and the ghouls, and that he had the ghouls get rid of the humans for it.

Oh what the hell, Fallout 3? What the hell?

Why does this happen? This is not a reasonable result! If I take the extra trouble to solve a quest in a morally acceptable way, which is almost always, appropriately, more difficult than the evil way, then I shouldn’t have it come around to bite me in the ass like that! And it’s such a sneaky, lousy way of doing it, too. You get lulled into a false sense of security, seeing the happy ending that you expect, that you were looking for, and only after the fact does the game piss on your parade by letting you know that whatever you do a group of people are going to die.

There’s no good way to finish this quest. Even though all the residents of Tenpenny Towers are shown to get along well with the ghouls once they move in, with the only disruptive element to this peace being Roy Phillips, it’s impossible. You’d think that, armed with foreknowledge, you’d be able to get a proper, happy ending to this, but it’s out of your hands--even if you initiate the ghouls moving into the tower, then sneakily kill Roy before he gets there, the massacre will still occur, even though it will still be clear from conversation with other ghouls after the fact that Roy was responsible for the carnage. Post-mortem, somehow. That’s just bad programming! Unless the game wants to actively make Roy essential (meaning that he cannot be killed), then it should properly account for his presence or lack thereof when determining plot events that directly relate to him. It’s so shortsighted that I actually think this lack of an agreeable solution should be counted as a bug!

I mean...look. I accept most cases where a player is presented with multiple ways to resolve a conflict, but none of them will result in a happy ending and/or all options are morally questionable. I don’t hold a grudge against Fallout 3’s The Pitt DLC, for example, for forcing you to choose between 2 factions that are either immoral monsters (Ashur and the raider-slavers) who will at least properly care for the baby Marie, or a faction whose leader may be no better a man, which is dedicated to pursuing a cure for one and all, but likely with little regard for Marie’s health and happiness (Wernher and the slaves). I mean, I’d have liked to have a tidy, good-or-evil choice there, but I accept that it’s more complicated than that. But the reason I accept that is that the game is up front about the moral ambiguity. The natures of the people involved are clear to you, the dilemma and the consequences of your choice in which faction to support are made clear both by basic reasoning and by the characters’ words as they each try to argue you away from their competition. This morally grey decision is on the level with you.

But as I said, the consequences of Tenpenny Tower are not on the level, at least not for the diplomatic route. It’s sneaky and underhanded. The characters on both sides are shown to, with your actions, be accepting of the situation. The immediate results lull you with the promise that everyone will get along exactly as you intended. Hell, Three Dog’s initial report on the quest before you’ve completed it is sympathetic to the ghouls’ plight and says that Tenpenny should let them in if they’re willing and able to pay, and Three Dog is, alongside James and Elder Lyons, one of the biggest, broadest icons of what’s good and right in the game, a paragon and voice for justice and morality. The game makes it very clear what the right path is supposed to be, and tricks you into thinking that it will be like every other time in the game that you choose to do the right thing, and result in a better situation for all who are decent.

And yeah, about that. This is a situation that’s very out of character for Fallout 3. I guess in some games, this unexpected turnaround of your good work might at least be consistent with the game’s narrative, but not in Fallout 3. In Fallout 3, when you go to the trouble of solving quests the paragon way, helping others, making peace, protecting the innocent, all that jazz, the reward is that you succeed in pretty much all other circumstances. If you teach the residents of Big Town how to defend themselves from their Super Mutant attackers, you watch them survive a raid, and that’s the end of the matter. You don’t find out a few days later that Big Town’s new self-defense training went awry and they all began killing each other with the weapons skills you taught them. If you save Sydney and keep her alive during the quest to acquire the Declaration of Independence, she stays alive, safe, and finds a new, better way to live her life. You don’t later come back and find out that she turned out to be a serial killer and you’ve unwittingly allowed the deaths of dozens more by saving her. If you decide to disarm the Megaton bomb instead of blowing it up and destroying the town, Megaton stays a safe, relatively prosperous community of decent people. You don’t later come back and find out that its residents are now attacking other communities and that your decision not to blow the town to bits has resulted in other communities suffering. Nowhere else in the game that I can recall do you get penalized like this for following the morally upstanding path. As a general rule, Fallout 3 is straightforward, and the results of the quests you complete properly match up to what you intended those results to be. If you intend to ruin lives, those lives are ruined. And if you intend to make the world a better place, the world is made better. This bait-and-switch bullshit is not in keeping with the game’s general style.

And of all the messages to pull this on, too! I mean, seriously? It’s not like this betrayal of your intentions in finishing a quest is happening with, say, the Blood Ties quest in Fallout 3. In Blood Ties, the peaceful, good quest solution is to negotiate an agreement between a small settlement, Arefu, and a group of outcasts who like drinking blood, wherein Arefu will get spare blood packs from merchant caravans and trade them to the poser-vampires in exchange for said posers protecting the town from the wasteland’s many dangers. That’s a good, peaceful solution that encourages acceptance of people’s differences and such, but I could much, much better understand it if a situation like that went sour. Because A, nuts who thirst for human blood and have to get together in semi-cults to teach themselves restraint, some of whom have murdered innocents in the past, are obviously not necessarily a stable, reliable bunch. And because B, it’s a solution centered around trusting the good will and self control of semi-cannibals who are essentially metaphors for alcoholics/junkies/whatever in rehab. Well, in a situation like that, showing an unintended, negative consequence of your good intentions would kind of work, a moral about exercising caution before blindly trusting those with dangerous issues. At least there would be some worth in such a lesson. I could accept such a thing, though you can bet I wouldn’t like it.

But this betrayal of your intentions in the Tenpenny Tower quest? The intent of your peaceful solution is clearly the belief that people should not be segregated by their physical appearance; it’s a message of equality and tolerance, one of the most important messages for society that can be conceived of. What does it say to have the quest’s results turn out the way they do? That you should never try to assist the less fortunate, or attempt to bring different races of people together? That no matter how close you think you are to peaceful coexistence, hate and genocide will always win out? That those of lesser means should stay that way? What kind of monstrous, bullshit lesson is that? There’s no value whatsoever to it; this quest is nothing but poison to the concept of a healthy society!

Plus, this is a Fallout game, and as such, it’s meant to tie itself strongly to the concepts, themes, history, and heart and soul of the United States of America. How does this sneaky turn-around message warning against tolerance and peace work toward that? I’ll grant you that the USA has had a shamefully spotty history of it, but one of the core principles of the USA has been the idea that it’s a melting pot of the world, that any and all are to be welcomed and embraced for their differences, that you’re free to live your life and pursue happiness regardless of what you believe in, what you look like, and where you’re from. Where the hell is that basic, core principle of the mythos of the USA here, Bethesda you jackasses?

I really just don’t know what they were thinking with this. If Bethesda wanted to show us that welcoming newcomers who look different has some sort of danger--which, to be fair, it does, in the sense that dropping your defenses and trusting ANY other human beings always carries some risk with it--they could have had a follow-up quest involving Roy Phillips doing something unpleasant by himself and needing to be stopped. They didn’t need to have him murder absolutely every human resident offscreen with no possible way of preventing the tragedy! Someone on a forum once told me that they felt that this instance was in keeping with a theme of Hell being associated with ghouls in Fallout 3 (since the ghoul city is in an old museum exhibit dedicated to the underworld, protected by a robot named Cerberus, and your ghoul companion is named Charon), since this could be seen as an example of the road to Hell being paved with good intentions. An interesting interpretation, even kind of neat, but I think it’s too much of a stretch. There are many other ghouls in Fallout 3 where the Hell/Hades theme is not present, far more, in fact, and while Fallout 3 is not always direct with its messages and sometimes requires a little thought and interpretation to get the most out of its events, characters, and dialogue, it’s definitely not so subtle as it would need to be for this road to Hell message to be intended. And even if we were to assume for a moment that my friend was correct, that this was the message and theme the writers for Fallout 3 intended, it’s STILL not good enough to excuse the stark contrast to the rest of the game’s narrative, nor just how crappy, dissatisfying, and morally unacceptable this quest conclusion is--not to mention that this lousy conclusion’s inevitability regardless of Roy Phillips being alive or not is an example of poor programming. This is a mistake, a flaw, something that Bethesda just plain did wrong.

Thankfully for those of us using a PC, there’s a solution for Bethesda’s failure: the Tenpenny Tower Alternate Ending mod. Its creator, FMod, has created a simple work-around where, so long as you kill Roy Phillips after the peace is made between the residents and their new ghoul neighbors but before he can start the slaughter, the human residents will be safe. With that done, things stay peachy for the humans and ghouls of Tenpenny Tower, just as the unaltered game promised. It’s a small, simple change, really, but I appreciate this mod a lot, because it does what the game was clearly supposed to do until some pigheaded fool on the writing staff decided to get cute.* If you haven’t yet played Fallout 3, and ever decide to give the game a shot, I definitely recommend doing so with this mod installed. This is why I play RPGs on the PC whenever I can--because if the game’s creators fail to care enough about the game to do right by it, you can always depend on the fans themselves to love the game enough to correct its mistakes. I just feel sorry for console players of Fallout 3...they’re stuck with this stupid, poorly conceived, out of place dick move of a conclusion to Tenpenny Tower.

* Much like what the Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod does for Mass Effect 3’s ending. Man, I am chomping at the bit for that one to be finished up. I’m gonna happy rant about that mod so damn hard when it’s done!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Pokemon Series's Hidden Machines

Before we begin today's rant, I'd like you fine folks to check this out. An old internet chum of mine has made a game, and wants to have Steam distribute it. It looks pretty cute and fun. If you agree that it seems neat, then do my friend a favor and hit that Yes button, and help convince Steam to carry it.

And now, on with the rant.

NOTE: For the sake of simplicity, I only mention HMs in this rant, but technically it applies to HMs AND any TMs that fit the bill (like Flash and Rock Smash).

For the love of Rempo, Game Freak! What the hell is up with the HMs in your games?

To explain for the benefit of all none of you who have never played a Pokemon game, HM is short for Hidden Machine. HMs are items in all main Pokemon games that teach specific abilities to Pokemon and can be used as many times as you wish. HM abilities are typically used to get around more easily through the game, giving Pokemon the ability to transcend or outright destroy obstacles in your path, traverse terrain they previously could not, instantly teleport to a previously visited location, blah blah blah why am I bothering with this you all know what HMs are. They’ve been there since the start of the series, they’re still there in the 6th generation games, and I’m sure that they’ll be in the next game, too. But whyyyyyyy?

Look, I know why HMs were put in the games to start with, the role which they continue to serve. They’re present mostly as a way of cutting a player’s access to the world off until the player has been to certain places and done certain things in the game. It’s an exceptionally common method in developing an RPG. How do you limit a player’s freedom to the extent necessary to tell your linear story, while still providing some illusion that they can explore the world to their satisfaction? Protect locations that come later in the plot with obstacles. Put them across the sea, so that the player can only reach them once he or she has gotten to the point in the story where the characters get their own boat--tons of games do this. Put a forest in the way, so that the player can only reach them once the nature-elemental character who can walk through forests joins the party, like with Breath of Fire 1 and 2. Block passage with rocks that require the player to have progressed through the plot to the point that they’ve got bombs with which to blow said rocks up, as with several Legend of Zelda titles. Create fissures and gaps that require the character to have found a whip, with which to somehow pull themselves over the empty space in a process that I assume must involve the invocation of some dark satanic power beyond mortal reckoning because there’s sure as hell no way that it meets with the approval of the laws of physics, like in Secret of Mana. Or just have a stupid NPC in a dungeon refuse to let you through until you throw food at him because apparently in addition to being world savior you’re also now the pizza delivery guy (old schoolers know exactly what game I’m talking about).

Yeah, so, obstacles like those that the Pokemon HMs circumvent are a pretty staple part of the diet when it comes to linear RPGs. Hell, they’re even pretty common for a lot of relatively non-linear RPGs--explore the Fallout 3 wasteland any which way and at any pace you like, but once the Enclave have occupied the Jefferson Memorial, you’re not getting back in there to complete the game without finishing the main plot events leading up to activation of Liberty Prime, as he’s the only one that can get through the Enclave barrier.

But the problem with the HMs is that the way they get rid of the obstacles in your path is to teach Pokemon moves to do it. When you want to get past the plant blocking your path in a Pokemon game, you don’t just open your menu and select the HM to do it, you need to have your Pokemon learn Cut from said HM and then have the Pokemon use it.

What’s the difference? Well, the difference is that if the HM just cut the plant down itself, you could just go forward with no problem. But having the Pokemon use the ability means that you have to inconvenience yourself by using up 1 of the precious 4 skill slots for your Pokemon on this stupid Cut ability, which is otherwise essentially useless. Consider the following facts:

- Most of the HM moves are mediocre to useless in combat (though not all; Surf’s pretty handy as a Water attack).

- There’s always 4 or 5 HM moves for passing by obstacles in each Pokemon game.

- You never know if you’ll need the use of any or all of these HM moves at your next destination.

- Once learned, HM moves are difficult to remove from your Pokemon, usually requiring a trip to a single particular NPC.

So, since you don’t know when you’ll need to use an HM move, it’s best to make sure you bring along a party of Pokemon who know most or all of the game’s HM moves available to you every time you set out into new territory, or else you may have to waste time returning later to explore paths you had to skip, or even have to turn around and redo your party because you find you can’t even continue along the main path without Cut, or Strength, or Surf, or whatever. And because HM abilities are such a pain in the ass to get rid of once they’re on your Pokemon, you won’t want to put them on your preferred combat Pokemon, both because you’ll have to eventually make a trip to the HM-removing NPC, and because the Pokemon might level up, be ready to learn a move that you actually want, and then be unable to add it to its repertoire/remove another ability you wanted from its repertoire because the slot this new technique would have gone to is steadfastly occupied by the useless HM move.

So the work-around for most people on this issue is to make an “HM Slave,” which is basically a Pokemon that can learn most of the HMs and who gets lugged around not for its ability to actually contribute to battles or any particular affection the player has for it, but rather just so that when one of these annoying obstacles comes up, the player can bypass it without having to waste time on return trips or take the risk of deleting/preventing actually useful abilities from his/her preferred Pokemon.

And yeah, this works fine, I guess, but at the same time, doesn’t it kind of strike a blow against a major part of Pokemon’s premise and draw? I mean, a huge selling point for Pokemon is the whole team customization thing. You can make a team of any Pokemon you like out of literally hundreds of options, fine-tuning which 6 you like best/think will be most useful, and deciding which abilities they’ll use. I mean, that’s sort of the natural, implied end goal to the much-touted concept of “Gotta Catch’em All,” isn’t it? You catch’em, and you then pick the ones you like from your ensnared menagerie for personal use. Whether you do it casually,* cheaply,** obsessively,*** or somewhere in the middle,**** it’s unarguably one of the largest draws, gameplay and aesthetics-wise, to the series. This HM nonsense is forcing you to stick mostly inferior moves onto your Pokemon, and/or forcing you to lug around at least one HM Slave in your party that you probably wouldn’t have chosen to be there otherwise. It’s actually obstructing one of the major parts of whole series, one of the things that people buy these stupid games for.

Making the situation worse is that these damn HM abilities and obstacles don’t even make sense more often than not. Why the hell is Cut the only ability that can remove the small plant obstacles? You’d think the ability Slash would work just as well. I mean, it’d be different if the HM taught a move called Chop or Saw or something, y’know, used a verb that implies the plant obstacle is made of stern enough stuff that it takes persistent work to get rid of. But “Cut” implies a quick and singular incision, not a strong and repeated action, so, logically, Slash should work just as well--as well as perhaps Air Slash, Guillotine, Leaf Blade, Night Slash, Sacred Sword, Secret Sword, and X-Scissor. And what about Air Cutter, Fury Cutter, and Psycho Cut? Those attacks even have “Cut” in their damn names! And why is “cutting” the only way to get rid of the plant obstacle? Shouldn’t one of the dozens of Fire Type moves be able to burn the plant down? Why can’t some of the unimaginably physically strong Fighting Type Pokemon grab the plant with something like Seismic Toss or Vital Throw and just rip the stupid thing out by its roots and toss it aside? If I’ve got a Pokemon that knows Fly in the party, why the hell doesn’t he/she/it just fly the party over this one small obstacle? The Dig ability lets your party instantly return to the beginning of a cave dungeon, implying that the Pokemon using it creates a tunnel back to that point that the party travels through--why can’t that Pokemon dig a tunnel under or around the plant to travel through? A Blastoise can shoot water with great enough force that it can punch through solid steel, so why the hell can’t it just Hydro Pump that bush into soggy sawdust? And so on and so forth.

And keep in mind, that’s just the illogical insanity of the Cut HM situation. They all have stupid, logical inconsistencies. If you have a Pokemon with Fly, why do you have to use Surf to travel over water? Couldn’t said Pokemon just fly low over the damn water? And then, for good measure, fly high enough to reach the top of any and all waterfalls, thus negating all need for the already insanely illogical waterfall-climbing Waterfall ability?

Why is Flash the only way to light up an especially dark cave? There are like a hundred Fire Type Pokemon that are literally on fire--why the hell can’t I just have one come out and light the way, or at least hold its burny part against a stick for a few seconds? I know it’s only been around for several thousand years, but I can’t help feeling like someone at Game Freak must have heard about that inventive modern marvel called a torch. Especially considering that Delphox is holding one.*****

I can have a Pokemon in the party that can actually move a mountain--that’s word for word what some Pokedex entries say about Machamp. Yet in order to get Machamp to move some rocks around, rocks that are often inside the mountain that Machamp can move with a single hand, I have to waste one of the skill slots on the HM ability Strength. Machamp may know multiple other moves that could easily be applied to moving the rocks, like Bulldoze, Fling, Seismic Toss, or Vital Throw, but Strength is the only way allowed. Hell, there are Pokemon who can learn a move that is literally called Rock Throw, but damned if any of them can manage to move rocks in your path without Strength and Strength alone. And I could basically copy-paste the last 4 sentences and substitute only a few words to explain the problem with the HM/TM ability Rock Smash, too.

On top of all that, the Pokemon that can and can’t learn these HM moves often make no sense, too. How does Venusaur Cut anything? It’s a big plant monster with stubby teeth and claws. I guess the implication is that since it can make leaves into razor projectiles, it can use those as the cutting implements, but then why the hell can’t a Pokemon just use Razor Leaf to get rid of the plant obstacle? Same deal with Raticate learning Cut--I guess we assume it uses its long teeth to do the cutting, but then why hell couldn’t it instead use Super Fang or Hyper Fang? Don’t ask me how an Infernape uses Cut. Are we meant to infer that it’s karate-chopping the plant or something? Because there are a half dozen karate chop moves in these games that could be used instead.

And why can’t Mewtwo learn Fly? It’s not like he isn’t shown flying around nearly every time he’s depicted in a movie/game, and he’s certainly got the power necessary to lift up whatever 10-year-old protagonist you’re playing as and float him/her wherever it is you want to go. In fact, considering the whole telekinesis thing, ANY sufficiently powerful Psychic Pokemon really ought to be able to use Fly. Plus, Mew can learn Fly! Mewtwo IS Mew, just genetically altered to be more powerful, so why can’t he learn the same move? Presumably he has whatever requisite it is that Mew possesses to fly around.

Jigglypuff is basically a living balloon, capable of inflating herself to stay an adorable little round ball of puff. Why can’t Jigglypuff learn Surf? She’s basically a walking, singing floatation device. Grabbing onto her and kicking to propel yourself might not be as ideal as traveling the waves on a Lapras’s back, but surely it’s not less feasible than having a human child be carried around by a single little Goldeen, Remoraid, Feebas, Luvdisc, Piplup, or any of the other Surf-learning Pokemon that don’t come up past a regular human’s knees. And Jigglypuff’d be a hell of a more comfortable ride than a Qwilfish, I’m sure.

Anyway, I’m rambling. Look, the point here is, the mechanics of Hidden Machines aren’t set up well. The list of which Pokemon can use them and which can’t is often nonsensical, and the issue of why these obstacles that the HM moves circumvent couldn’t be gotten by using other means is even more filled with logical inconsistencies. Making Pokemon abilities the key to getting around the obstacles just opens up all kinds of questions. Additionally, having to set aside ability slots and even team roster slots to squander on HMs is annoying and counter to the gameplay premise of Pokemon.

HMs are solely a frustration, not a feature or necessary balancing device, and it would be very, very easy to accomplish their purpose in a much less irksome fashion. Just do what a ton of other games do--have the obstacle-circumventing item just be an item you use when necessary! Replace the HM for Cut with a chainsaw or something, the HM for Surf with a small boat, etc. Simple, straightforward, with no more hassle than opening up the Items menu and clicking on what you need, when you need it! You don’t have to replace one of Ness’s powerful and useful abilities in Earthbound every time you want to get by a pencil monolith, you just use the Pencil Eraser item! You don’t have to force Fayt to forget an essential combat technique every time you need to get by an obstacle in Star Ocean 3, you just equip the Ring of Disintegration and let it rip!

I know I’m not the first person to gripe about this. In fact, I’d be fairly surprised if I’ve said anything in this rant that has not been mentioned before by some fan or another, probably considerably more than just 1. So why the hell is this always the same issue, over and over and over again, in every main Pokemon game published for the last, what, 20 years or so? Game Freak, the Hidden Machine nonsense is stupid and there is no excuse at this point for not improving it to be less of a tedious irritation. Get your shit together and get on it.

* “Go, Team of 6 Pikachus!”
** “A new Pokemon game? Time to import my 6 Arceuses!”
*** All that fucking EV Training, Nature-Breeding bullshit, with the Shiny icing on the cake.
**** This is me. My team is always 6 of my favorites, which include the cheap legendary Mewtwo, and I always plan out exactly how their moves compensate for weaknesses and make sure every Type an enemy can be is twice accounted for.
***** Okay, yes, Delphox was only introduced in Generation 6, and in Generation 6, Flash is used to see more of a single dungeon, instead of light places up. I still wanted to make the joke. Sue me.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

General RPGs' Endings' Disproportionate Importance

Before we begin, there's an RPG Kickstarter that you might be interested in: Graywalkers: Purgatory. This is actually a returning Kickstarter, in that the last time it was up, it didn't get funded in time. But as it seems to be a combination of Fallout, Shin Megami Tensei, and Shadowrun, and thus should by every right be perhaps the coolest thing ever conceived, I'm hoping that this time it'll hit its goal. Check it out, and throw it a pledge if you think it looks interesting!

Today’s rant is about a fairly general subject that really can apply to a great many things, but since it does have relevance to RPGs, and since I’ll be looking at it from that angle, I figure it’s legit.

It’s a funny thing. A few months ago, I played The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, while it was still relatively new. I was going to hold off on it until later on, once the price had dropped, but my good friend Queelez, who is super awesome, described the game to me in terms I might almost call glowing. Additionally, I’d just heard that the heads of Nintendo had decided to cover the costs of the company’s losses on the Wii U by cutting their own salaries rather than laying any of their employees off, which is what they did for the 3DS as well, and damn if that didn’t just fill me once more with incredible respect and admiration for Nintendo. How many companies in the world exist, on any level and of any size, that would do such a thing even once, let alone twice? The people running Nintendo are truly some noble and morally upstanding individuals, and I wanted to support them as much as possible, so I got the new Zelda the next day.

Anyway, my Nintendo praise aside, I played The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, and, well, it is, as I said, a funny thing. I didn’t really think that much of it. Oh, to be sure, I’d say it’s in the upper half of TLoZ titles, because its story is very slightly creative, it has a few elements of storytelling that are subtle but notable, and a few of its characters are fairly decent. It all adds up to an okay RPG, but that’s a hell of a lot better than so many other story-light, character depth-lacking TLoZ titles with utterly stagnant narrative creativity. I didn’t dislike it, anyway, but it didn’t strike me as anything particularly memorable or interesting, either. But once I’d finished the game, and the ending was over and done with, that’s when the funny thing happened: I realized that my immediate post-game impression of The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, my feelings for it immediately after finishing the title, were actually very positive, as though I had just come away from a good RPG, even a great one! I was feeling as satisfied as I had at the end of, say, Radiant Historia, or Okage: Shadow King, or Final Fantasy 6--all of which were far superior RPGs to this one.

The reason for this? Quite simply, it’s because the very best part of The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is indisputably its finale, the final confrontation of the game and its ending. The last battle is cool, the character reveal of the true villain of the game is, if not entirely unexpected, still engrossing and affecting, the return and reveal of Ravio is great, as is his dialogue with the villain, and the final part of the ending, the generous, epic act of kindness on the part of Link and Zelda toward Hilda and her all comes together as something powerful, and good, and memorable, and it makes the entire adventure seem to have been so much better, to have been worth so much more, for what it all led to. Objectively, rationally, I force myself to remember that most of the game did not impress me and judge it as merely okay. Personally, emotionally, I cannot help but reflect with pleased satisfaction upon The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.

Another story. A couple years ago, I played Mass Effect 3.* Though not perfect (weak premise of relying on a plot-convenient, inexplicable ancient doohickey like roughly 80% of all other RPGs in existence, the laziness of the Tali’s face reveal, the stupidity of Kai Leng, and goddam Diana Allers were all noticeable flaws), it was overall a great experience, filled with terrific characters, breathtakingly excellent writing, some truly amazing scenes, and emotion like you wouldn’t believe, all while maintaining the awesomeness and majesty of Mass Effect, a series which had become a true highlight in the history of science fiction. It was everything I could reasonably have wanted from a conclusion to the Mass Effect series, the perfect, mind-blowing conclusion to the epic saga. For 30+ hours, I was utterly enthralled.

When I finished the game, I was a broken, hate-filled man with a hollow feeling in my soul that persists to this day.

For the hours, days, weeks, months immediately following my completion of Mass Effect 3, I did not remember the beauty of the scenes in which the Genophage is cured. I did not recall the great coming together of Geth and Quarian, united finally and able to lay their past to rest through the the sacrifice of Legion. I did not think of the tear-inducing beauty of Charr’s poem, nor that of Thane’s final scene. I did not consider just how awesome Commander Shepard, the Chuck Norris of space, had been throughout. The countless positive parts of Mass Effect 3, both grand and tiny, that come together over the course of the game to make it so incredibly excellent as to defy description--all of that was lost to me. All I felt, looking back on it, was betrayed, and disgusted.

The reason for this? The same one that would later skew my hindsight of TLoZALBW, just in reverse: the game’s ending. I’ve spoken about this many, many times, and most of those times have been at length, but here it is again: Mass Effect 3’s ending is horrible beyond comprehension; it is poison to every moment of the series preceding it. The ending of ME3 violently throws aside the values of the series so far. It utterly destroys Shepard’s character and the ideals that he or she represents. It makes less sense than Tommy Wiseau’s The Room--in fact, if it were revealed that Tommy Wiseau had been the one to write out the explanations that the Catalyst hologram kid says, I would be exactly 0% surprised. It cheapens the power, threat, and effect of the series’s antagonists. It tries to shift the entire tone of the series away from what it is and try to make it what it isn’t--like if you ineptly pasted the ending of an abandoned first draft of an Isaac Asimov imitation book onto Star Wars. Its arguments and themes are proven wrong not only by basic rational thought, but also by the prior events of the game itself. It shifts aside all the major themes of the series and tries to convince us that one of the secondary themes was, in fact, the important one all along. It disregards the element of player choice that has been present from the beginning of Mass Effect, and for that matter, also disregards the possibility of following a Paragon course of action, since Shepard’s choices are essentially to either kill an entire sapient race, disregard all his beliefs regarding the dangers of using power greater than that which you’ve earned (which has been one of the cautionary themes of the series, too) and do exactly what he just prevented the main villain from doing, die in failure, or utterly violate every single organism in the universe’s right to bodily self-determination in order to immediately do what the antagonists essentially wanted anyway.

And by the way, I’m speaking right now of the ending as of Bioware’s attempt to fix it with the Extended Cut. Their first try was actually even worse.

Anyway, this ending is so vile that it made me forget everything great that had led up to it. It worsens all that came before it, a retroactively toxic thing that sours all one’s previous enjoyment with the realization that everything that had been good was all just leading up to this. Up until the ending, Mass Effect 3 was easily one of the greatest RPGs I’d ever played, better even than the first title...and yet all that remained in me once it was finished was hollow, hopeless distaste.

Thankfully, though, cases like The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds outnumber ones like Mass Effect 3. Of the RPG finales and endings I’ve seen that have significantly changed my immediate impression of their games, most have been positive. I can think of several good cases off the top of my head (Valkyrie Profile 1, Startropics 1, and Makai Kingdom) that have altered my perspective on the game for the better, whereas the only case where the disproportionately bad ending affected my overall feelings of the game that I can recall is the example above, Mass Effect 3.

Endings are important and endings are powerful. I think a lot of people, many of them the ones writing and developing games and other forms of storytelling, underestimate just what an effect an ending can have. It doesn’t seem possible, or even right, that a small, 10 - 30 minute period of a game could so significantly alter an opinion that has been forged by a prior 20 to 50 hours of experience with the game...and yet the simple fact is that they can and they do. They’re the last experience we have with the story, and that gives them a better chance to be the part of the game we remember the most, simply for the fact that we tend to remember the recent more clearly than the long past. In addition, no matter what good or bad has happened during the course of the game, the ending to it is where it was all headed, and as such, the ending’s quality naturally is going to color how you see the game’s events. With an ending so good it’s out of place, suddenly everything leading up to the ending can seem better, not for its own sake but for the sake that we know now that it led to something worthwhile. Conversely, with an ending so bad it’s out of place, the events that lead up to it might no longer seem as good, because for all their worth on their own, you’re naturally going to see them and remember that great though this or that moment may be, ultimately they’re just leading to the lousy conclusion.

I’m not saying that every ending IS important and powerful, mind, nor even that every ending should be. The majority of RPG endings I’ve seen have not been disproportionately important to the overall quality of the game. In most cases, the endings are as good or bad as the game would lead us to expect (as examples, Chrono Trigger’s ending is excellent, but everything leading up to it is, too, and Suikoden 4 has a hellishly boring ending, but no one could possibly have expected anything else from it). All an ending NEEDS to do, really, is conclude the work while more or less maintaining the game’s status quo for quality, and that’s what they usually accomplish.

But the potential to disproportionately affect an audience is there in an ending, the potential to significantly and permanently alter the player’s opinion in a positive or negative way, to suddenly elevate the game beyond the sum of its parts or to be the moment where it trips at the finish line. And as I said, people do often seem to underestimate, or deliberately downplay, this importance of endings. As an example of that downplaying, I remember that in the case of the Mass Effect 3 ending, Bioware, utterly shameless and unrepentant, made a mighty push in its advertising of the game to emphasize that “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.”** A charming misrepresentation of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, truly an adorably transparent attempt to savagely twist his original intent to serve the dishonorable and greedy desires of the amoral, soulless automatons in Bioware’s marketing department, but all the same, I once someone respond to this Bioware misquote with a considerably wiser saying:

“Many would walk through Hell to get to Heaven. Few would walk through Heaven to get to Hell.”

* Hands up if you don’t see where I’m going with this. No hands? Yeah.

** Pictorial evidence: This is an actual, legit example of their ad campaign after the first wave of players went apeshit over the game’s ending. Can’t decide if it’s more insulting or sad, really.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

General RPGs' Town Music

Why is town music in RPGs always so insipid, annoying, and/or completely forgettable?

Think about it. With a few exceptions--notable, but few--town music is pretty much always a boring or outright unpleasant affair in RPGs. It’s either some uninspired, tired, vaguely upbeat (or gloomy, for some towns) affair that makes me roll my eyes with how lacking in creativity and feeling it is, or some obnoxious, grating ditty set on an eternal, ear-grinding loop. Or it’s just such an outright forgettable sequence of generic notes that it barely qualifies as background noise. It feels to me like basic town music is the part of every game soundtrack that the composer just outsources to whichever company it is that comes up with the background music to infomercials.

It’s kind of annoying to me, honestly. The rest of the game’s music may be excellent, with each track composed carefully to inspire a certain feeling relevant to the times of the game it plays during, to convey a mood or meaning via its notes, but everything always seems to fall apart the instant your party sets foot within city limits. At that moment, the only message the music communicates is “WELCOME TO TOWN,” its only mood, boredom. Obviously some are worse than others--sweet merciful Rempo is the standard town music for Final Fantasy 4 dull, and don’t even get me started on every generic town theme of every Dragon Quest ever--but next to no town theme is ever actually good or memorable.

Obviously, of course, there are a good handful of exceptions. Or rather, there seem to be. For example, I think the theme for the (sort of) town of Dologany, from Breath of Fire 2, is very cool and epic, and I think the same of the music for the town of Narvick in Lufia 2. The music for Windia in Breath of Fire 4 is very calming and enjoyable, as is that for the Moon Kingdom of Sailor Moon: Another Story. The music in Star Ocean 3 for Whipple Village is among my all-time favorite RPG tunes. And many themes that play during sad moments involving towns in RPGs (such as a town after it’s been burned/flooded/blown to bits/infected/whatever by the forces of evil) are quite good, too--I’m quite a fan of the ruined city theme in Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled, and the one for The Legend of Dragoon. Ahto City from Knights of the Old Republic 1, Alistel from Radiant Historia, Valua City from Skies of Arcadia Legends, Murky Waters from The Witcher 1...the list actually goes on for a while of the town themes I find to be excellent.

But here’s the thing about all those exceptions. They’re all specialized, individual themes. The music for Dologany and Narvick are ONLY heard in those towns, nowhere else in the game. Each is the final town you visit on the game’s journey, and each is a location that is hugely important to the plot. They receive special musical attention to better convey their epic finality. The actual generic town music used for most other settlements in BoF2 is bland (though admittedly above the average of RPG towns), and the actual generic town music of Lufia 2’s communities is like audible Novocaine. And so it is for all the “exceptions” I just listed. They’re all tailored specifically for 1 single location and/or a specific plot event/atmosphere of importance. In fact, some come from games where EVERY town location has its own individual tune. And that’s not a bad thing! When every town is important to that degree, when you put some actual effort into making a theme for a town that’s unique to that town and/or its place in the game’s events, when you believe it matters, you can get some good results!

But when it comes to the authentic generic town music, the stuff that gets played for the majority of towns in an RPG...meh. When we take out specialized and/or singular town themes, I come up with very few pieces of town music that I think are particularly decent and memorable. Wild Arms 1’s town theme, Legaia 2’s town theme,, I can’t even think of a third. If there’s any situation where the phrase “the exception proves the rule” applies, it’s probably the situation where you have 2 exceptions in a pool of over 250.* For the sake of not having to mildly regret every time I decide to stop by a village for an equipment upgrade and a night at the inn, I wish game composers could put a little more effort, time, and/or creativity into their town music, give it more punch, more pizzazz, more SOMETHING. Or better yet, I wish more RPGs would adopt the practice of giving each town its own musical theme. After all, what CAN you expect from a tune composed with the deliberate purpose of being vague and generic enough to be layered onto like 50 different town locations?

* Okay, for accuracy’s sake, I must admit that not ALL 250+ of the RPGs I’ve played had any generic town music (a few, as I mentioned, give individual tracks to each town). But the large majority do have a generic town theme (a few even have multiple ones), large enough that I think the slight exaggeration is still okay.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Deus Ex 2's Pequod's and Queequeg's Reveal

Deus Ex 2 has a rather accelerated pace in its storytelling, going from one major event and thematic concept to the next with very little delay, making it a much shorter game than its predecessor. In general, though, the writers handle this pace well enough that, despite its quickness, it doesn’t really come off as rushed, and you still have enough time for your mind to chew on the game’s ideas without being left behind. There is, however, 1 time in DE2 in which the brisk narrative pace has a noticeably detrimental effect: the reveal of Pequod’s and Queequeg’s.

As you progress through the events of Deus Ex 2, one of the subplots you frequently encounter is the bitter corporate rivalry between the global coffeehouse chains, Pequod’s Coffee and Queequeg’s Coffee (both of which are, of course, parodies of Starbucks, also taking their names from Moby Dick). In each city that Alex Denton, the protagonist, visits, the manager of one or both of these competitors will attempt to get Alex to help them to get a leg up on their competition, sometimes legally (getting permission for Queequeg’s to do business in the ritzier part of town, for example), sometimes not so legally (a certain Pequod’s manager subscribes to the same idea as that famous NPC from The Legend of Zelda 2: If all else fails, use fire). It’s a mildly interesting subplot, but doesn’t seem to have any real importance.

Until, that is, you come across some evidence hidden in a police station in Trier, which the local Queequeg’s manager wants Alex to find for him. This evidence reveals that Queequeg’s and Pequod’s coffee chains are, in fact, both owned by the same company. That company set each chain up to appeal to different demographics (Queequeg’s is seen as the everyman’s coffee, while Pequod’s is thought to cater to the more refined, higher class tastes), and then set them to war with one another, with the idea that the competition would cause the customers of each to become all the more loyal supporters of their preferred brand, their devotion solidified by their enmity toward the supposed rival chain. Whether people support Side A or Side B, if you’re running the war, you’re the one winning, right? It also plays on people's tendency to become nervous about monopolies and other such 1-party systems, falsely reassuring them that if either chain begins doing wrong by its customers, there's another chain that the people can flock to.

This revelation is great in 2 ways. The first is that it makes the previously seemingly unimportant coffee sidequest into a genuine, significant part of the Deus Ex theme of exposing and analyzing the ways in which a population is manipulated and controlled, in this case showing us some of the ways that businesses do so. Well-executed twist, makes sense, gives the subplot some significance, very nicely done in general.

The other great thing about this revelation is that it’s clever foreshadowing for a later, much more important plot revelation: the fact that the World Trade Organization and The Order, the 2 major world power groups that have each been vying for Alex’s assistance and attempting to gain the upper hand over the other, are actually both being run by the same people: the Illuminati. Just as with the Pequod’s and Queequeg’s coffee chains, the people on both sides of the famously hostile competition between the WTO and The Order are being manipulated into working against one another, their fervor to seize every bit of control and advantage over the “enemy” only making the puppet masters of the conflict more powerful. Great little parallel they set up here, just connected enough that you can figure out that the WTO and Order will wind up being the same as the coffee chains if you’re clever, but not obvious or anything, so it’s still a neat twist even if you guessed it.

Or at least, that’s how it should work.

But this foreshadowing idea is where the problem is with the coffee chain reveal. In theory, it should work fine, because like I said, it’s clever and it’s written well, connected but still subtle. But the pacing of the game kind of just ruins it. See, after visiting the police station in Trier where you learn the truth of the Pequod’s and Queequeg’s rivalry, the next real mission of the game is to rescue the leader of The Order...and it’s then that you discover that the Illuminati are running both the WTO and The Order.

The plot twist that the coffee subplot was foreshadowing comes right after the coffee subplot reveal! It’s the very next part of the game’s story!

Foreshadowing just doesn’t work when it’s given so little time to work with. The revelation of Pequod’s and Queequeg’s origin isn’t given the time needed to sit in the audience’s head and germinate into a deeper understanding. Done properly, the reveal of the WTO and The Order would make a little light go off in your head, would make you think, “Of course! It’s like the coffee chains from earlier! I should have seen it coming--the truth was staring at me the whole time! The writers really had this theme all worked out!” Instead, coming so soon after the coffee subquest reveal, the impression is just, “Oh, like that other thing that I only just saw like 30 minutes ago. Neat connection.” The effect is still positive, but there’s none of the impact that there might have been if the plot twist had come earlier in the game. If you’d had more time to remember it and consider it, if it had been placed earlier and thus better connected the WTO and Order reveal to the earlier events of the story, making a stronger sense of the answer always having been there...well, it would simply have been a much more effective use of the Queequeg’s and Pequod’s subplot twist. Foreshadowing should be more than just 1 single step ahead of the plot.

Anyway, it’s not a huge deal, I suppose, and overall the twist and its connection to the game’s larger events and theme is still good. It’s just a shame to me that its timing keeps it from being better.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

General RPG Lists: Most Needed Sequels

In the world of RPGs, and just about every other video game and general form of media, sequels are not exactly hard to find. If a game sells well, it’s almost assured that there will be a sequel made for it. Hell, it may get a sequel even if it’s not especially successful. Arc the Lad, from what I’m told, has a pretty small following in Japan, and is obscure enough to be virtually unknown to the rest of the world, but somehow managed to live long enough to have 5 titles (or at least 4.5, depending on how you want to count AtL: End of Darkness). Yes, sequels and prequels are not exactly in short supply with RPGs. You can find good sequels to good games (Fallout 2 to Fallout 1), bad sequels to bad games (Megaman Star Force 2 to MMSF1), bad sequels to good games (Chrono Cross to Chrono Trigger), good sequels to bad games (Icewind Dale 2 to ID1), great sequels that are even better than the good games they come from (Shadow Hearts 2 to SH1), terrible sequels that are even worse than the bad games they come from (Xenosaga 3 to Xenosaga 2), prequels that are so great that they actually retroactively make their lousy predecessor better (Lufia 2 to Lufia 1), prequels that are so lousy that they actually retroactively make their great predecessor worse (Valkyrie Profile 2 to VP1), sequels that are absolutely necessary as a continuation of a story in progress (Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2 to SMTDDS1), sequels and prequels that are completely unnecessary, hastily tacked-on trash that adds nothing of value to their predecessor (every spinoff to Final Fantasy 7), sequels that are some of the finest games in existence (Suikoden 2), sequels that are some of the very most vile and worthless games in existence (Final Fantasy 10-2...blech, just acknowledging its existence makes me nauseous), RPG sequels to game series that aren’t typically RPGs (Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood), RPG sequels to series that aren’t even games (Sailor Moon: Another Story), RPGs that, I shit you not, are sequels to fucking Space Jam of all things (Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden), and, by far most prevalent, series continuations that have little to nothing to do with any of the games that came before them (the Grandia series, most of the Final Fantasy series, the Shining Force series, most of the Tales of series, the Wild Arms series, most of the Dragon Quest series...the list goes on).

Still, for all these countless sequels, there are still some RPGS out there that deserve, even need a sequel that they have not yet gotten. And today, I’ve put together a list of the 5 RPGS I think are highest on that list. Enjoy.

Note Before We Begin: For the purposes of this list, I’m only talking about direct, setting-and-plot-and-character-related sequels/prequels. Essentially, a game that makes use in a significant way the ideas and canon of its forebear. Additionally, I’m not counting game series that are currently still being actively worked on. I’m super excited about the prospects of additional titles in the Fallout and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series, for example, but I’m pretty sure Bethesda’s working on Fallout 4 and I know Atlus is developing SMTP5, so they’re not gonna make it onto the list. This list is for games that need a sequel and do not, at the current time, look like anyone is going to give it to them.

5. Treasure of the Rudras

One of a surprising number of nigh-unknown RPG gems produced by Squaresoft back in the days of the SNES, Treasure of the Rudras was very inventive in the way it told its story, having 3 separate world-saving quests occurring simultaneously over a few days’ period, each tying in small ways to the others, all of which culminated in a final chapter of the heroes banding together to stop the cause of all their problems. The thing is, though, that the awesome twist of the game is that after defeating the supposedly evil gods and goddess, (SPOILER ALERT) the heroes learn that these seemingly malevolent deities were acting in the interests of preparing for the return an unknown, monstrously destructive force known as the Destroyers that it took an army of gods, most of whom died in the process, to drive off. The game ends with a prophetic vision of the future, a warning of the world’s oncoming doom if its people are unprepared to meet the Destroyers’ power, and the heroes nonetheless clinging to hope that the Destroyers can be stopped without the immoral methods of the gods they just defeated.

Well, I want to see more! I want to see a sequel set in the future, in which the Destroyers make their return! The storytelling method of multiple plots and protagonists occurring at the same time is handled flawlessly, the world itself is decently creative and has some interesting concepts, and while Treasure of the Rudras is a satisfyingly complete game, that ending does set the perfect conditions for a sequel. Of course, given that it would probably be SquareEnix doing the sequel, maybe we’re better off going without. Square wasn’t even particularly good at sequels back before it lost all artistic integrity whatsoever, after all--remember, Chrono Cross was made back in the Playstation 1 days, and Final Fantasy 10-2 was almost fully developed by the company before they became SquareEnix. Still, if someone skilled were to make a sequel to TotR, some company that valued writing quality, had respect for the original, and possessed the basic self-respect as storytellers and artists that so many companies like SquareEnix lack, I would definitely welcome it.

4. Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch

I found this very obscure indie RPG to be quite entertaining. Yes, it was a bit choppy to play at times, but the humor was pretty solid, even if some of it was dated internet memes, and I enjoyed it from start to finish. But the damn thing is only half of the story! The game ends at a clear halfway point, with the journey still in progress and much left unresolved. I hate it when a story goes unfinished, so I hope that someday I’ll see this one concluded.

3. Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura

There is just so, so much more that can be done with this game’s setting. AOSaMA is a Dungeons and Dragons-style game of humans, dwarves, orcs, ogres, and the like, except with 1 very distinct difference from most D+D copies: it’s set in a D+D world’s industrial revolution. Take the classic tabletop fantasy races, themes, magic and such, put it in a steampunk setting, and you’ve got a hell of a great backdrop for whatever story you want to tell. AOSaMO created a terrifically engaging world and played it up very well, but so much more could be done with it. Despite all the fascinating ways to play the D+D-in-Victorian-style-steampunk-society-and-also-with-industrial-factories theme, the game’s focus inevitably comes back to the conventional magical D+D stuff--in many ways, AOSaMA’s main story wouldn’t change all that much if you were to just set it in a regular fantasy medieval setting, as you’d expect from D+D-styled stuff. As immensely creative and well set up a world as Arcanum’s is, it almost seems like the main plot has no interest in it. The gameplay at least makes good use of the setting--it’s very intricate, and I love that you can have an Invent Clockwork Battle Bots playstyle--but in all the ways that really matter to me, AOSaMA doesn’t make very much of its setting.

Well, I want someone to take another crack at it. Take that great steampunk D+D setting and make the most of it this time! Don’t just make the question of half-orc laborers’ rights a minor sidequest that can be skipped altogether--put it in the spotlight; it’s fascinating! Don’t just make the question of what’s lost by replacing an appreciation of the natural with an awe of the man-made a background thought occasionally lamented by small NPCs and some elves--make it a major theme of the game! Give better examination to the plight of countries that don’t modernize quickly enough! Give more emphasis to the social roles and dynamics created for gnomes, ogres, elves, half-elves, dwarves, and so on! Continue the loose end of the gnomes’ experiments to create their manservant meatshields that the original game never really went anywhere with! There are just so many ideas you can use the steampunk setting and society to explore with this concept in a sequel. I mean, hell, ANY steampunk and/or industrial revolution backdrop would be new and interesting to base an RPG around by itself, without even considering the D+D spin on it.

To me, letting Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura be the only title using its setting and ideas is as criminal as it would have been to never make another Fallout game after the first. More so, because Fallout 1 used its setting to great effect, while AOSaMO could have done so much more. Please, someone, some passionate, creative developer somewhere, indie or big studio, dig up the rights to this gem, dust’em off, and make this sequel happen.

2. Anachronox

Oh Anachronox. Fun but at times surprisingly deep, as creative with its plot as it was with its humor, filled with memorable and enjoyable characters and set in an equally memorable and interesting galaxy...the fact that Anachronox is so obscure is a damn crime, that’s what it is. Unfortunately, Anachronox ended on a cliffhanger of sorts, with the threat to the galaxy still at large and with misfit protagonist Sly Boots and his equally askew teammates striding forth to continue their journey to save reality.

Not to say that Anachronox just drops you unceremoniously with its cliffhanger, the way Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch just cuts out suddenly...Anachronox may be only part of a story, but it ends at a good stopping point, and feels like a complete game. It’s like Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1--there’s obviously more story to come, but the game’s conclusion is still a great place to cut out, a transition from one major part of the story to another.

But, good stopping place or not, the fact is that Anachronox is still an incomplete story, and what’s there is compelling and really damned neat. Now that Sly has faced his inner demons and come out ahead, I want to see him tackle his problems with new gusto, yet the same snarky mouth, and I want to see more of the nutjobs that follow him, too. Anachronox was a neat story in an interesting universe featuring a fun bunch of characters, and it’ll be a damn crime if we never get to see it concluded.

1. Threads of Fate

What a fun game Threads of Fate was. Decent story, some really heartfelt moments (in Rue’s story), and somehow, even though she was a remorseless brat and totally as much a villain as the game’s actual evil-doers, every single moment watching Mint is a ton of fun. I don’t know what it is about her, but somehow she manages to embrace the role of being insufferable and loathsome without actually being insufferable or loathsome at all. Like Princess Elise from My World, My Way, only much more. Mint is so damn lovably hilarious, dry, conniving, and bratty.

Anyway, I’d be happy under normal circumstances to see another game following Threads of Fate, but ToF ends (if you complete both stories to see the secret after-ending clip) on a slight cliffhanger. I mean, its story is ended, yes, but at the same time, there’s now the promise of a new adventure for Rue and Mint to engage in, and I’d definitely like to see it. I want to see more antics from Mint, and I’d also like to see what Rue’s like now that he has Claire back.

What makes me most anxious for that sequel, though, is that Threads of Fate is very imbalanced as a story. I’m going to get into why this is in a later rant, but suffice to say here that despite supposedly being a story equally split between Mint and Rue, the overall story focus of ToF is upon Rue, and it’s his story that we come away from the game feeling is the true, canon version of the game, and which is recognized in that final, secret after-ending clip. And hey, don’t get me wrong--if I have to choose between Mint and Rue’s stories which should be the true one, Rue’s gonna win every time, no matter how incredibly amusing Mint is. And that’s why we need a Threads of Fate 2--because now that Rue had a game which gave him the major plot spotlight (plotlight?) and fulfilled his wish, I think it’s only fair that Mint properly have her time to shine, silly villainess or not. It’s been many years since ToF was released, so it doesn’t look hopeful, but all the same, this seems to be the age of revivals, reboots, and unexpected continuations, so I’m still holding out hope for a Threads of Fate 2.

Honorable Mention: Knights of the Old Republic 1 and 2

What happens after the end of Knights of the Old Republic 2? I think it’s safe to say that just about everyone who played KotOR2 wants to know. While an amazing game in itself, Knights of the Old Republic 2 was a true transition piece, a game whose ultimate plot goal was a preparation for the next title. In the end, it’s revealed that much of what happens in KotOR2 is meant to conclude the KotOR setting of the regular Star Wars Republic, to either give it the structure to continue to exist through its new Jedi Order sweeping the remains of the old away (if you play Light Side, or Neutral), or to seal its doom for good (if you play Dark Side), so that the next game can take place in Sith space with the question of the Republic behind one. More than that, it’s revealed that this journey of the Exile has ultimately been for the purpose of sending the Exile to follow Revan into Sith space, to be his ally in settling the matter of the Sith once and for all, and much of what we’ve seen in KotOR2 will contribute to that--the Mandalorians, the HK series, Atton, HK-47, and T3-M4 are all implied to be the force that the Exile has unwittingly rallied to assist Revan. Everything is set for Revan, the Exile, and these allies to take the fight to the Sith in an epic conclusion to the Knights of the Old Republic trilogy.

Too bad that never actually happened. But it SHOULD! We need to see the greatness of Revan and the Exile combined, we need to see them strike into the true heart of the Sith, we need to see how the intricate plans of Darth Traya to raise support for Revan turned out...everything in KotOR1 and 2 has led to the moment that we see the Sith beyond Republic space, the true threat that has been lurking in the shadows all along, and I want to see it, damn it!

The reason this is an Honorable Mention and not part of the regular list, though, is that there is 1 major caveat to my wanting to see a sequel. I would only want to see a KotOR3 that acknowledged and built off of KotOR2 as seen with the Restored Content mod, which I did a rant on a little while back. The Restored Content mod is just what it says--it brings content that was cut from the game back into it, important stuff that was meant to be in KotOR2. Without it, the ending of KotOR2 is lame and doesn’t make much sense, several plot threads are never resolved, and the game is really just incomplete. A lot of the things I mentioned above regarding KotOR2’s transition to the next game are incomplete, or missing altogether, from the vanilla (unaltered) release of Knights of the Old Republic 2, and can only be seen in their intended form with the Restored Content mod. I don’t really know how KotOR3 would accomplish this, since they’d have to make sure the audience was up to speed with this enhanced history of KotOR2, but it just wouldn’t be right to continue the series without all of KotOR2’s greatness accounted for.

Well, that’s that. Normally this is the part where I have something to say in summary of the list, some lasting note or remark to make, but...don’t really have anything today. Oh well. See you next time.

Monday, August 18, 2014

General RPGs' AMVs 11

Before we begin today--or before you skip this one altogether and just wait for the next rant--I'd like to mention that the Kickstarter for Elysian Shadows looks like a pretty promising RPG. They don't say much about the story and characters and all on the Kickstarter page itself, but I've been in contact with the team making the game, and what they've told me on that point sounds pretty exciting and interesting. Check it out; I think it's worth backing. And hey, if any of you are one of those crazy diehard Dreamcast fans, this could be the first new RPG released for your strangely beloved old crapheap in, what, over a decade? That's gotta be worth something to you.

Anyway, on with the rant.

Yes, it’s that disappointing time again--time for me to cop out of writing a real rant and instead share some AMVs with you. Suck it, people who actually like this blog! As always, if you do happen to go watch any of these, and do happen to think they’re pretty decent, then please Like the video and leave a comment on it. Reward those that put some effort into their creations, yeah?


Final Fantasy 8: Does the Lion City Still Roar?, by YuniX2:
The music used is Does the Lion City Still Roar?, by Less Than Jake. Another visual-audio pleasure by YuniX2, this AMV uses scene changes and zooms to perfectly keep the visuals up with the fast pace of the song, while also using flawless scene selection to keep all the scenes a great match to the lyrics, in ways both literal and metaphorical. This AMV really transforms Final Fantasy 8’s limited FMVs into a perfect expression of the song, and it’s always neat to see an uncommon song for AMVs used so well as this one is. Very good stuff.

Final Fantasy 9: Hanging by a Moment, by Zoeyfreeze:
The music used is Hanging by a Moment, by Lifehouse. What can I say? This is just a solid FF9 music video, an AMV focused on Dagger that explores her well through its music and uses simple but competent editing to pull the whole thing together. It’s good, plain and simple, and if you like Square’s second greatest masterpiece, then you should watch this.


Kingdom Hearts Series: Castle of Glass, by YuniX2:
The music used is Castle of Glass, by Linkin Park. If I have a hero when it comes to AMV creators, it’s got to be YuniX2. This is just 1 more in a long line of utterly excellent RPG music videos from her. What can I say here that I haven’t already said about her AMVs, multiple times? The editing’s great, flashy but never distracting and never excessive. The music choice is great and her use of it, her connecting of the game and footage to the music, is terrific. Scene selection is great, everything fits together, it’s a pleasure to watch and listen to, and there’s a sense of purpose to it. Love the little touch of having the Sorcerer’s Apprentice cartoon clip at the beginning, too. And while this isn’t all that important, I like anyone who can use KH footage in an AMV in a way that doesn’t seem tired and commonplace to me; I have mentioned that Kingdom Hearts music videos are about as common as, I dunno, air molecules, right? YuniX2 even uses KH: 365/2 Days footage so well that I almost forget what a completely pointless, snore-inducing waste of time that game was. This is definitely a real winner of an AMV, make no mistake.


Mass Effect Series: Cassandra, by Dmli1023:
The music used is Cassandra, by Two Steps From Hell. For fun, and because there are enough to do so, today’s Mass Effect AMVs will all be ones made by a single artist, going by Dmli1023. The guy’s absolutely great, as this video clearly shows. This is put together skillfully, keeping the video and music well-coordinated and making a very fittingly touching and epic tribute to the terrific love story of Shepard and Tali.

Mass Effect Series: Hope, by Dmli1023:
The music used is Prologue - Birth, by Audiomachine. Another of the many tribute AMVs to Mass Effect 3, this one is both a tribute to the whole series, and, more importantly, to Commander Shepard him/herself. It’s put together very well--the music is mostly background, but on occasion Dmli1023 assigns certain patterns in the tune to certain types of scenes and dialogue that connect the audio and video well and help the music bring out the inspiring feeling the tribute is meant to create. I love the way that this AMV flawlessly switches back and forth between Male and Female Shepard, creating a proper tribute to the character as a whole, and the selection and placement of the characters’ dialogue is perfect to build up the message of Commander Shepard as an icon of hope. Just a darned great job on this tribute, all said.

Mass Effect Series: The Fighter, by Dmli1023:
The music used is Above and Beyond, by Audiomachine, Imperatrix Mundi, by Jo Blankenburg, and Life Chronicles, also by Audiomachine. Another damned great tribute to the Mass Effect series, doing much as the last one did in terms of skillful video editing, synchronization with the music, and just generally creating a fantastic monument to the epic excellence of Mass Effect. Once again Commander Shepard is represented in both genders, and once again the tribute is perfect for him/her, this time building up and emphasizing the overarching conflict of the series, and the difficulty that Shepard faces--and overcomes--throughout the entirety of the amazing trilogy. I love the way this video highlights the friendship and support of Shepard’s comrades, and uses it to show just how terrific a hero Shepard is. This here is about as close as an AMV comes to getting a full rant dedicated to it, without actually crossing that threshold, and it’s nice to see someone other than YuniX2 who can put forth such quality pretty consistently.


The Witcher 2: War, by Felix Schroder:
The music used is War, by Poets of the Fall. I’ve recently discovered there are rather fewer really good Witcher AMVs than I’d been expecting of the games; it seems like prime music video territory, but mostly you just get a few subpar offerings mixed in a sea of half-assed videos where someone just runs the first game’s intro, puts a song on, and has the delusional gall to call it an AMV. This one, though, is a shining gem in a bucket of dull rocks. The video meshes quite well with the song’s lyrics and tone, and Mr. Schroder skillfully manipulates his scenes to keep pace with the music’s strength to create a very solid music video. This is a strong work from all sides, no question.


The World Ends with You: New Divide, by DarkRoxas97:
The music used is New Divide, by Linkin Park. I think I’ve mentioned this in a previous Legend of Zelda AMV, but I’m always a little harder on Linkin Park AMVs than I am on most others. Still, this is a really good music video. The scene selection often perfectly matches the song’s notes and tone, the use of simple effects and scene changing is great, the meshing of lyrics and video is skillful...this is just solid work, plain and simple.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Shin Megami Tensei 4's Problems

Hey, reader peoples. Have you ever noticed how totally thoughtless I am to your convenience by never providing links in my rants to previous rants which I reference? Well, no more! I've gone through all my previous rants and updated them to include links to other rants whenever they're mentioned, and all future rants will also have this basic, simple, why-the-hell-hasn't-he-done-this-for-years-before-now feature. W00t! And now, back to the rant.

In July 2013, Shin Megami Tensei 4 was released in North America, and in celebration, I decided to do an SMT rant once a month for a year. It was actually a lot of fun--I wouldn’t have thought I’d have had 12 rants to make about the series until I pushed myself to look at it and see what stood out and what I had a particular opinion on. I enjoyed criticizing it at times, praising it at others, and sometimes just expounding on whatever theories popped into my head. It’s proper for the blog, too; before this past year, I really didn’t have enough rants here for such a large and notable RPG series. But all good things must come to an end. Last month I finished that year out with a rant on Shin Megami Tensei 4, and, well, that’s proper and good, because my excitement for SMT4 is what started the whole thing. Still, that was a rant on gameplay mechanics of the title, and while I obviously have no problem ranting about such things, anyone familiar with this blog knows that gameplay never seriously enters my mind as criteria for how good or bad an RPG is. So I thought I’d make just 1 more rant on the fourth game to properly close Shin Megami Tensei Rant Year, something of a little more significance than just my adventures in do-it-yourself hair removal with the Fiend encounter rate.

Unfortunately, that still means closing SMT Rant Year out on a negative note, because to me, the most noticeable things of significance about Shin Megami Tensei 4 tend to be negative ones.

Let’s not start off with the wrong idea, though. Shin Megami Tensei 4 is not a bad RPG. It’s actually pretty decent. No, wait, that’s not an accurate or fair assessment. By itself, SMT4 is not just decent, it’s good. But I tend to think of it as actually only being okay, and not better than that, and that’s because I’m comparing it to the rest of the Shin Megami Tensei series, a series with such consistently high standards that even a solidly good title like SMT4 seems only passable. But high standards or not, it’s not a bad RPG. There are a lot of ideas in its plot that are interesting and creative, it has purpose, it relates well to its spiritual predecessors SMT1 and 2 while standing on its own, and there are several moments in its course that are really handled well, like the atmosphere of anticipation and the unknown during the first descent from Mikado to Tokyo, the fights against the Minotaur, Xi Wangmu, and Isabeau*, the tragedy of Issachar, the sidequest with Nozomi and Black Maria, and the dungeon in which the secrets of the Ashura-kai are revealed--that’s just a fantastic one right there.

Still, for all the good things that SMT4 has going for it, it’s got some pretty heavy flaws that really lessen its power as a story and as a tool of philosophy. One of the biggest problems is understanding the game’s back history. The events of SMT4, the lands of both Mikado and Tokyo, the beliefs of The White, the current conflicts between Law and Chaos, the travel to alternate worlds, and the ultimate question of what philosophy Flynn (protagonist) will throw his lot in with, all of it hinges upon the events of 25 years in the game’s past, the cataclysmic day in Tokyo when the forces of Law and Chaos met in battle to determine Tokyo’s fate. That day and its results are what the entire game is really about; SMT4 is at least a tale about a previous story’s aftermath as it is a tale in itself.

But the problem is that the exact events of that time are left too unclear, and the history and mechanics of the results of the cataclysm are sometimes tough to get a clear idea of. It’s not that it’s completely unexplained, but most of your understanding of the events of 25 years prior is going to come from sketchy references and tiny hints that still don’t give you a thorough enough explanation. There’s only one vague mention of the difference of time flow between Mikado and Tokyo that you can easily miss, for example, and I’ll be damned if I ever heard an explanation for the cause of this temporal discrepancy offered in any way. Through what you learn in the game from scattered references, mentions, and the rare direct explanation, you can piece together the major actors of the cataclysm of 25 years before (Kenji, Kiyoharu, and Flynn’s former incarnation) and how their philosophical stances shaped each of the 3 worlds that SMT4 shows, but even then things are spotty. I mean, look, I’m all for subtle storytelling, but that’s...well, think of it this way. Subtle storytelling is letting an audience connect the dots themselves to finally get the big picture and understand what everything amounts to. In regards to the cataclysm of 25 years before, SMT4 is like that, only not all of the dots you’re supposed to be connecting are numbered, and several are almost the same color as the paper they’re printed on, hard to notice and properly connect.

I have as whole an understanding of the game’s back history now as anyone can, but I’ll be honest with you, the SMT Wikipedia played majorly into that clarity, and I’m very certain that a lot of the details contained within its articles are from outside (though doubtless still official) sources, not the game itself. And while a partial and ultimately inadequate understanding of past events is usually just an annoyance to over-enthusiastic lore-hoarders like myself, well, like I said, these past events are the pivotal plot point around which everything important in the game turns. You can’t just let something like that be shrouded in halfway explanations and ambiguity. Final Fantasy 7 did eventually show us the truth of Sephiroth’s fall, Nibelheim’s destruction, and Cloud’s past, and Bastion eventually does narrate everything we need to know about the Calamity and how it relates to the Kid and Zulf’s current conflict. Because that’s what you have to do when so much of your game’s story, theme, and message revolve around 1 particular event of the past--you have to make sure your audience has a fully adequate comprehension of that event. Otherwise, the audience’s lack of understanding impedes their ability to properly appreciate and consider all the rest. Knowing what I do now, having read outside information on the subject of SMT4’s past until I’m satisfied with my knowledge, I can look at the game and really appreciate a lot of the intelligent, thought-provoking questions it raises in regards to the ongoing battle of Law, Neutral, and Chaos, can better appreciate its world-hopping and The White and much more. But before I came to comprehend it all, to be able to see how all these details and themes tie together, the game’s story made little impression on me, its themes and ideas seeming spontaneous or eluding me altogether.

Bad pacing. That’s another problem. At least, sort of. As a general rule, things flow pretty well in SMT4; nothing ever seems to be going too slowly or too quickly. It’s only when I step back and look at the whole story that something seems off. But once I do, well, I can’t help but notice that you spend a lot of time in this game’s first half involved in the question of the Ashura-kai and the Ring of Gaea, which are the human factions in Tokyo for Order and Chaos, respectively...yet when all is said and done, how important are they to the game’s second half, really? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I think that the conflict involving the factions and their leaders, the questions raised by each and their impact on you the player, is a lot more compelling than the later business with Lucifer and God’s Chariot. Really, I wish the game could have ultimately been about the battle between Lilith and Tayama (the leaders of the Ring of Gaea and the Ashura-kai). But the fact is that the really important battle in this game is between the angels and demons, to which the song and dance with Lilith and Tayama are barely even circumstantially related. The disconnect between these major conflicts of the game is so sheer as to almost be bizarre--once you finish with the Ashura-kai and the Ring of Gaea, you go on your little alternate-worlds field trip and deal with The White, and finally return to Japan, to find the game’s major conflict has begun, and honestly it didn’t really have much of anything to do with that former conflict that had such narrative focus put on it. For all the time and effort put into the question of the Ashura-kai versus the Ring of Gaea for the game’s first half, they’re both ultimately just irrelevant stepping stones. It’s almost like you spent a third of the game on a long side quest. I mean, you can argue, I guess, that the ultimate question of God vs. Demons was prepared by the question of Tayama vs. Lilith, but it’s a hell of a stretch of logic--the Law that Tayama represents is strongly different than the one that God embodies, and there are some ideological differences between Lilith and Lucifer, too. The first conflict of Tayama vs. Lilith just had stakes, goals, rationales, representatives, and methods too different from the later, true, and traditional conflict of God vs. Lucifer for the first to effectively set up the second.

Adding considerably to why this is a problem is the fact that with the pace of the game’s plot giving so much time and effort to the Ashura-kai and the Ring of Gaea, there’s a lot less set up for and explanation of the conflict between the angels and the demons. It doesn’t exactly just happen out of the blue, but it’s not really anticipated or explained, either. Its philosophy is glossed over, its significance not played up as much as it should be, and you’re forced to extrapolate too heavily from the nearly-hidden backstory if you want to flesh it out at all. With previous, better Shin Megami Tensei titles, the big conflict of the game is given its narrative due, its proper context, its thematic weight. Here, the ultimate battle for Law and Chaos almost feels like it’s being shoehorned in, and yet it’s definitely not a last minute addition to the plot; the all-important back history of the game and the dilemma of The White definitely foretell this event.

Another problem with SMT4 is that it has a pretty weak cast. Many supporting characters like Hope, Fujiwara, and Hugo ultimately don’t really contribute much to the plot, while some, like Issachar and Kaga, are interesting and serve their purpose well, but unfortunately that purpose removes them from the story very quickly. Along with that, the major characters are just...well, they’re just not very good. Honestly, one of the completely optional sidequest characters, Nozomi, has more appeal and character development than most of the characters who actually matter, and you don’t even have to necessarily meet her.

The problem’s only worse with the major characters. Jonathan and Walter...well, I want to like them, I really do, because they’re the traditional Law and Chaos Heroes of the game, but they aren’t as single-minded and inflexible as that role tends to be. Ultimately Jonathan supports the angels and Law, and ultimately Walter supports the demons and Chaos, but they’re both human enough that they’re able throughout the game’s course to question their stance, express doubts about the side they’ll eventually serve, and understand the other’s perspective to some extent. During the Passage of Ethics, both Walter and Jonathan do know where they stand, but they at least agree that the questions can be difficult and aren’t ironclad in their positions. I can appreciate these characters actually being complex enough that they’re not just blind advocates of their side of the plot.

Buuuuut, the problem with this is that they also come off like they lack conviction to their side. I know, I know, I seem like I just can’t be pleased, but honestly, Jonathan’s dedication to following his duty and the angels never seems to have any particular basis. I mean, just what IS Jonathan’s motivation? Do we ever learn anything significant about him whatsoever, hear any philosophy to his choosing to follow orders over all other possibilities? Walter’s a little better in that he does have and give a reason for his supporting Lilith and the demons, one which originates in a plot undercurrent of struggle between social classes (which, by the way, is a theme that I would have loved to see examined far more than the barest of touches that the game gives it), but he still doesn’t come off as convincingly devoted or having an especially strong opinion. They’re both kinda wishy-washy, honestly. And once you reach the dimension-hopping part of the game, Walter and Jonathan have very little problem with working together again even though they were just fighting against one another over ideological differences. I mean, there’s a little hostility between them at first, and they’re not exactly chummy (but then, they were only casually friendly before, anyway), but I’d have expected a little more. It’s like they forget they ever had a violent difference of opinion at all.

They’re both just so...dull. Like I said, I appreciate that they’re not just unreasoning advocates of the philosophy they stand for, but that one small redeeming quirk doesn’t change the fact that they’re both poorly developed, boring, and overall weak characters. When you choose sides in most SMT games, part of the difficulty is often the fact that you’re standing against characters you like or respect, that your protagonist is betraying comrades. Jimenez was a good guy in Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, and I felt bad about having to oppose him in my playthroughs of Law and Neutral--and I felt even worse standing against Zelenin on the Neutral playthrough. And when you choose sides in most SMT games, you understand how the characters you’re about to support or betray got to where they are, and how you feel about their take on the question of alignment. I don’t particularly like Chiaki and Hikawa from Shin Megami Tensei 3, and I think Isamu’s a total doofus, but I understand how each came to believe in their Reason thanks to the character development they’re given in the game, and each one makes an argument for his/her Reason that has a certain compelling logic to it (well, maybe not Isamu, but the other 2 do). Jonathan and Walter, 2 of the most important characters in SMT4 with the most screentime...well, they’re just not memorable, you just don’t feel like there’s much to them, and I personally just don’t feel any particular loyalty to either of them.

And then there’s Isabeau. Completing the alignment trio of your party, Isabeau, the last of the major characters, is the heroine of the Neutral side of the game’s thematic debate. Isabeau is a dull, indecisive twit who is utterly incapable of possessing a real, actual opinion of any kind--see my rant on the Shin Megami Tensei Series’s Recent Neutral Figureheads for the details on that. Likewise, Isabeau is equally lacking entirely any defining character trait whatsoever. Oh wait, no--she likes reading manga. Secretly--so don’t expect to see it mentioned, referenced, or even considered more than, like, 5 times. Non-specific, barely-mentioned manga reading as the single sole defining characteristic. Yup.

I think I’m gonna add that to my mental list of the most inane, meaningless, idiotic things that you could possibly make the 1 and only notable trait of your character. It’s getting tucked away right between “Has a Pirate Accent” and “Wants to Eat Cafeteria Hot Dogs.”

Last weak part of the cast: villains. The problem here isn’t that there aren’t any decent villains in the game. The problem is that the ones who stand out are the secondary ones, the relatively minor Tayama and Lilith, while the major foes of the game, Lucifer on 1 side and the angels Uriel, Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael on the other, are incredibly uninteresting and weak. You’ll see a tiny bit of Lucifer if you’re on the Chaos path during the game’s final chapter, but if you’re Neutral or Law, you’ll only see and hear from the guy as you meet him for the last battle.** Only-meeting-at-the-final-battle villains may be common enough for your standard rinky-dink half-assed RPG created by writers just out to score a quick paycheck before their lunch break, but this is fucking Shin Megami Tensei, people! Let’s aspire just a bit higher than Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, huh? You’ll see a bit of the angels earlier in the game, a bit more if you buy the overpriced, somewhat nonsensical Clipped Wings DLC, and of course Gabriel is involved reasonably well in the plot, but you’ll know virtually no more about them than you do Lucifer anyway, so it’s bad on both sides. What villains DO you get to know, though? Lilith and Tayama. What villains DO actually have some slight depth, have goals and beliefs that they have to explain instead of just relying on players’ familiarity with previous games’ incarnations to do all the explaining for them? Lilith and Tayama. Whose rivalry seems more intense? Lilith and Tayama’s. But, like I went into before, ultimately these 2 become small potatoes, just a few steps away from not having played a part in the true struggle of the game at all. And instead we get nigh-faceless entities arriving last minute to steal the show.

Second to last major problem with Shin Megami Tensei 4: the theme of Law, Neutral, and Chaos. It’s...well, it’s just too overused by this point. Look, don’t get me wrong on this point: the philosophies behind SMT’s Law, Neutral, and Chaos are interesting and deep, and there’s still plenty about them left to explore in new and intriguing ways in the games. But the fact is that I have played Shin Megami Tensei 1, 2, Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 2, Devil Survivor 1, and Strange Journey. I’ve seen this concept by now a good handful of times. And I’ve enjoyed it each time, definitely! But all the same, God vs. Demons with humanity stuck in the middle, with each side representing secure order, free anarchy, and the middle road, respectively, it’s something I’m quite familiar with at this point. So for a game this late in the series to use it, it needs to be exploring some sort of new ground with the concept, have some new perspective on the matter or a setting that gives it a new angle. Like the second Raidou Kuzunoha game did--it brought the matter down to a much smaller, non-plot-vital, but no less compelling scale by focusing the question of mindless adherence to the law vs. reckless freedom onto the village of Tsukigata and the events therein. But SMT4...well, it doesn’t really do much of anything new, doesn’t delve deeper or in new ways into the philosophy of Law, Neutral, and Chaos. It’s business as usual for SMT. I’d almost call it generic. Maybe the social class conflict in Mikado was meant to be the new angle for it? Walter’s beliefs do stem from that, I guess. But like I said before, that aspect is barely examined at all, especially once the game’s first chapter is done with. There’s really only 1 significant twist put on this otherwise by-the-numbers theme, but unfortunately, it’s the last major problem of the game: the new fourth path, Nihilism.

I want to like this addition to the SMT theme. Really I do. And not just because I’ve often thought to myself that the fact that the infinite cosmos of possibility can, in its limitless stream of multitudinous eventualities without end, produce Robin Thicke, then maybe the entirety of creation and the multiverse just aren’t worth the trouble.

First of all, it’s great that they added a fourth path to the Law-Neutral-Chaos thing during SMT4. More importantly, it works so well as an alternative choice. I mean, it kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? Basically, Nihilism is the path offered in the game by The White, the path of destroying everything, all realities in a single go, in an effort to free humanity from the suffering of the perpetual cross-realities war between Law and Chaos. The White claim, quite convincingly, that no matter what choice is made in the struggle, humanity will always pay the price and suffer. If Law is chosen, we see in Blasted Tokyo that God purges the world of the majority of humanity, saving only the few pure and chosen, and letting the rest, even some who helped Him to overcome Chaos, die out in a poisoned wasteland. If Chaos is chosen, we see in Infernal Tokyo that society is destroyed, the strong dominate and abuse the weak, people live as monsters, and there’s constant battle as one fight after another keep cities ablaze and civilizations are divided between warlords like a piece of meat among feral dogs. And if Neutral is chosen, we see in the home reality that all that really happens is that the war between Law and Neutral is postponed for a few decades, before it erupts once more. Annihilation for all but the lucky few, eternally raging destruction of a species unable to maintain a society for its ferocity, or one war after another without end--those are the end results of Law, Chaos, and Neutral paths that The White show us. Their option is to simply end it all, because no side does anything but prolong suffering one way or another. It’s neat and interesting.***

The problem for me with this, though, is that even though Nihilism seems to be an official fourth path in the game, it’s not given the same importance as Law, Neutral, and Chaos. Really, it’s treated more like a Bad Ending than anything. Which it essentially IS, I suppose, but I think that it’s intended to be seen as a viable new option, a viable new philosophy--and if it’s not intended as such, then it should be, because it fits in very well with the SMT path conflict of Law, Chaos, and Neutral, and SMT4’s plot gives it an appropriate buildup for that importance. But once you reach the White in the game, well...that’s it for for this fourth option. If you decide to pursue the path of Nihilism, then the game concludes right then and there, that’s the end. But if you reject Nihilism and confirm your path to be Chaos, Law, or Neutral, then the game continues on, with you going through a dungeon to defeat the White, and then entering SMT4’s last chapter, in which you hook up with your path hero (Walter, Jonathan, or Isabeau) and go on the final quests of the game to defeat the leader(s) of the faction(s) that oppose(s) your path’s vision of the new world order.

See what I’m getting at here? You pick Nihilism, then you’re done and the game’s over. You pick 1 of the traditional SMT paths, and you go on with the tale, entering the game’s final chapter, reuniting with comrades, following through on unresolved plot threads, and generally cleaning up the story tidily. You get the most you can out of your game, out of Shin Megami Tensei 4’s story and characters, as long as you do NOT choose this supposedly equally important new path. That’s not giving equal narrative importance and treatment to this new and fascinating take on the SMT formula, in spite of it being one of the most creative and compelling aspects of this game. It wouldn’t have been hard at all to make Nihilism fit into the game in a way that you get to experience the last chapter just as well as with any of the other paths--just make up some key component of the White’s plan to erase all realities and have it be spiritual essence of Merkabah and Lucifer, or have their power standing in the White’s way and thus require them to be defeated before the Nihilism path is capable of being completed. That way you still would get the chance to go through the last part of the game with relatively the same amount of content and storyline wrap-up available to this path, and in doing so, validate it as one of the game’s major philosophical alternatives, the way that the build up and the game’s themes indicate it’s meant to be. Because as it is, abrupt and prematurely cutting off a major chapter of the game, the Nihilism choice just comes off as any regular old Bad Ending would.

And yeah, I guess you could say that cutting off the game early is thematically appropriate for a Nihilsm path, a chosen self-destruction before one's natural time of end, like a suicide precludes your experiencing the full potential of your life, but even with that in mind, Nihilism still isn't treated well enough as an option. Nearly all of its explanation and reasoning is laid out before you in one single scene of dialogue with The White; every time they contact the protagonist before then, everything they say amounts to little more than vague, foreshadow-y mumblings, like when you get scenes in RPGs of people talking in the shadows about plot-important things and characters but not referring to anyone by name so as not to spoil later twists, which of course always comes off as really awkward when just viewed as conversation between 2 people.**** While the philosophies of Chaos, Law, and Neutral are brought up over and over again in 1 way or another throughout the game, there's no long-term support structure for Nihilism given by the game. Just a single major conversation and that's it. It's not being given the same exploration as the other paths, not even close.

Poorly explained back history, bad pacing, subpar cast, uninspired exploration of theme, and inadequate showcasing of a thematic lynchpin. Honestly, it adds up to a lot of major blows against Shin Megami Tensei 4, enough that it’s actually a little surprising to me, now that I’m looking back on it, that the game managed to be pretty decent in spite of it all. I guess it’s almost an odd feather in Atlus’s cap--even when they screw up, they can produce a better title than the average work of some other developers (*fakecough*SquareEnix*fakecough*). At the very least, SMT4 is not the worst of its series; Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 is much, much worse. Still, it’s a disappointment that such a big moment in the series wasn’t handled better than this, especially considering that if they made a decent game even with this many critical faults, you can just imagine what it would’ve been like if they had been more on the ball with it. Still, for all these faults, it is, like I’ve said, a pretty good game, and even if it didn’t really live up to my hopes, I had a lot of fun challenging myself to come up with these 13 SMT rants this past year in celebration of it. Hopefully y’all had had some fun with it, too.

* Ironically, the only moment in the game where Isabeau has any worth as a character, shows herself to have a personality in any way whatsoever, and affects the player on any level, is her demise. It’s so well-done (to me, at least) that it almost made me forget that Isabeau had failed during the course of the entire game to get me to form any kind of attachment to her at all.

** Oh, I’m sorry, that’s right, Lucifer shows up a couple times in the disguise of a girl named Hikaru. He does that sort of thing in a lot of SMT games. Except this time it’s a hell (ha ha) of a good disguise, because “she” does and says exactly nothing during “her” incredibly few appearances that has any relation to Lucifer’s character or that could possibly give you the slightest hint of who “she” really is. What gives, Lucifer? You stick your nose into games you aren’t even an actual plot-related actor in, like SMT3 and SMT Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 2, and actually show up in those games more often and say much more of actual relevance to yourself! Hikaru feels like a minor character the writers originally just forgot to find a place for in the game’s finale, and had her loose end tied by a last-minute decision that she’d just happen to be Lucifer.

*** I did like it better when Owlman did it, though.

**** I should really make a term for this, like I do with things like Sailing and Voyeuristic Paralysis Syndrome.