Monday, November 11, 2019


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

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Shadowrun Series's Calfree Trilogy Mods Are Seriously Awesome

Shadowrun Returns, Shadowrun: Dragonfall, and Shadowrun: Hong Kong are all swell RPGs (well, okay, Returns really isn’t, but 2 out of 3 ain’t bad). They do, however, come with some unfortunate baggage for me: I didn’t realize just how much I need a cyberpunk RPG adventure periodically in my life until Harebrained Schemes brought the defining franchise of the genre to RPG form. And unfortunately, HS apparently decided to call it quits on the franchise for the foreseeable future after Hong Kong, meaning that since late 2015, I’ve started jonesing for more cyberpunk goodness. Dex helped me a bit with it, but hang it all, 1 cyberpunk RPG in 3 years just wasn’t enough, and it’s at least another year until CD Projekt Red’s done with Cyberpunk 2077!

Thankfully, though, Harebrained Schemes provided some relief for junkies like me, in that the Shadowrun PC trilogy wasn’t meant to just be the single campaign story of each game. In the tradition of Neverwinter Nights, the Shadowrun games were made with the intent that fans would use the game’s engine to create their own adventures and campaigns out of it, to share with other players. It’s a great idea, really, because it worked very well with Neverwinter Nights 1, with that title becoming 1 of the first huge mod scenes of PC games, and Shadowrun, like Neverwinter Nights, is based on a tabletop RPG, so people sharing campaign ideas is already a part of the culture of the series. And so, in this terrible post-Harebrained-Schemes period of drudgery, I thankfully do have some options for getting my cyberpunk RPG fix, in the campaigns that other players have created for the Shadowrun PC trilogy.

Unfortunately, like any junkie, I have very little self-control or logic when it comes to my drug of choice, so once I started playing these mods, I just went through them all at once, like an idiot. So I’m screwed until Cyberpunk 2077, after all.

Still, if I’ve run out of new Shadowrun mods to actually play, then perhaps I can at least get a contact high from talking about them, right?

There is a decent handful at this moment of mod campaigns for the Shadowrun trilogy available for runners to enjoy, and most of them are pretty good. I like A Stitch in Time, Mercurial, and Nightmare Harvest to varying degrees, and you should check them out if you feel yourself adrift in the same cyberpunk doldrums within which I find myself floating aimlessly. But what I want to talk about today is a trilogy of mod campaigns by one Cirion, or Seberin, depending on whether you get it through Steam or Nexus. And the reason I want to talk about these 3 user-generated campaigns is because they are fucking AWESOME.

Cirion’s trilogy, which I have decided to call the Calfree Trilogy since it takes place in the California Free State of the Shadowrun universe, is expertly crafted, in all regards. It plays as smoothly as any officially published RPG might. In fact, in terms of technical prowess, it goes beyond what you could expect from an official publisher, because Cirion has actually added features to 2 of the 3 campaigns he’s made--most notably, a character Influence system, where no such thing had existed in the original schematics of the Shadowrun games. That’s a pretty damn complicated feature to add to a game not originally designed for it, I would think!

More importantly for me, the story, characters, and themes of this trilogy are smooth, natural, and skillful, to a greater extent than most “real” RPG publishers manage. Additionally, these adventures provide great side-stories and fleshing-out of the lore that Shadowrun has already canonically established for Calfree, which will provide a pleasant anchor to more intense fans of the series, while the campaigns remain standalone enough as stories that players not entirely familiar with the long history of Shadowrun (which, honestly, is mostly the case for myself) won’t have any problem keeping up.

So, to start with, we have The Antumbra Saga, a mod for Shadowrun: Dragonfall. This is an episodic story which is engaging from the start with a tiny little shadowrun underneath a nightclub, which snowballs into an all-out war for the future of the California Free State. The pacing is great, which is essential in this sort of small-adventure-turned-grand-epic, and the characters are well-written, nuanced, and fun. It’s really good as a story for the sake of the adventure and conflict, and while I don’t think you’ll be moved or find much in the way of deep ideas or wisdom, The Antumbra Saga keeps you invested throughout its course. And it obviously was a great test-run for Cirion in Shadowrun mod-making, because he took the characters he had created and adapted, and used the knowledge he had gained to make the next mod campaign even better.

If the Antumbra Saga is awesome, The Caldecott Caper, its sequel, which is a mod for Shadowrun: Hong Kong, is super awesome. I greatly enjoyed The Antumbra Saga, obviously, but it was, for me, limited by its nature of being an adventure focused upon its own events and story than upon the human element within. It’s got solid characters, and a purpose, don’t get me wrong, but The Antumbra Saga was an adventure for the sake of its adventure, where the focus was more on what was happening and how it was happening, rather than the who and why, if that makes any sense. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing! The Antumbra Saga was, obviously, very good, and there are some legendary RPGs that share that focus on the events and overall story over the individuals involved, such as Deus Ex 1, Romancing Saga 1 + 2, and Fallout 1. Still, to me, a really great story usually comes from the heart, really speaks to us on a human level, and you’ll see that reflected in my list of the greatest RPGs I’ve played: the vast majority of them put a substantial focus on the human element of their stories, making a priority of developing their characters, capturing the audience’s emotion, and making statements about us as a people.

And The Caldecott Caper does that excellently. If I were to draw a comparison between TCC and other works, I’d say that this mod feels, in many ways, like an excellent Bioware-styled game from back in the days when the company knew what the bloody fuck they were doing with themselves. The cast is exceptionally likable and interesting, not to mention well-written and dynamic, and your interactions with them are as much a part of The Caldecott Caper’s greatness as any other component of the campaign. Each team member is a unique personality, easily as skillfully written and memorable as you might expect to find in a ‘real’ game--more than that, in fact! I daresay not even half the published RPGs I’ve played have casts as solid as this mod’s ensemble. The NPCs are very good, too, and the villains are serviceable. Finally, the romance subplots are top-notch fact, as I have mentioned previously, the romance with Persi in this mod was the best love story I encountered in all the RPGs I played during 2017!

And make no mistake: Cirion did not have to compromise on the story’s quality to achieve this, because, if anything, this adventure’s plot is several steps up from The Antumbra Saga’s. It begins as a simple train heist, and, as Shadowrun stories do, develops into a bigger story of power struggles and social conflict. And the interesting thing about this one is that, though it is well-written, creative, and purposeful, it is also perfectly balanced. Things never get so grandiose in The Caldecott Caper that you lose the excitement of the simple heist story that it is, and yet, the events of preparing for said heist all unexpectedly but with subtle method coalesce into the grander schemes that the heroes suddenly find themselves intruding upon and entangled by. This mod has all the basic pleasure of a classic run through the shadows, but keeps that undercurrent of thoughtful substance strong with its musings about the society of the Shadowrun universe.

Ultimately, The Caldecott Caper is a terrific slice of Shadowrun, the kind of adventure that perfectly embodies the style of the series, and shows off the potential of user-generated content in games like this. It was, at the time I played it, second only to Shadowrun: Dragonfall in terms of quality of all the Shadowrun adventures I’ve experienced. So you can imagine my thorough delight when Cirion unexpectedly released a third and final campaign mod that was even better.

Calfree in Chains, also a mod for Shadowrun: Hong Kong, is the finale to Cirion’s trilogy, and it’s pretty fucking amazing. It honestly might be better than Shadowrun: Dragonfall, and if it’s not, then it’s at least equal to it--and I'd like to point out that Shadowrun: Dragonfall is so excellent an RPG that it frequently just barely misses getting onto my list of the greatest RPGs ever created. This mod is basically a perfect balance between The Antumbra Saga and The Caldecott Caper, in that it’s got a major, epic story much like The Antumbra Saga did, but it’s also majorly focused on the characters and human element of the players involved, as The Caldecott Caper was. Calfree in Chains is also even more than that, because this mod also has major themes running throughout its story of racial conflict and of whether it is better to respond to evil with violent or nonviolent resistance. And Calfree in Chains does a stellar job with exploring that question of violence versus nonviolence, too. Aside from Undertale, I daresay this is the best RPG I’ve played that examines the subject of nonviolence, and it’s less of a second-place and more of a good companion to Undertale, because where Undertale examines the concepts of violence and pacifism at their core and essence, Calfree in Chains examines them in terms of real-world application and conflict. It shows both the strengths and limitations of each philosophy, and the consequences of your actions and inactions are a constant aspect of the game’s environment and characters as you go along--which is, in itself, another virtue of Calfree in Chains, since western RPG players are very fond of both having choices in their games, and of those choices having consequences and weight.

As a standalone adventure, Calfree in Chains is great. The cast is solid, the romance (particularly with Arelia) is wonderful.* The story is engaging, meaningful, and natural, and it comes to have a powerful hold on its audience. It has worthwhile messages to convey and significant philosophy to explore: this is a work with purpose. And, quite frankly, there are multiple moments in this game which will hit you, and hit you hard. Some of my most powerful, emotional moments in 2018 as an RPG player have been with Calfree in Chains, in fact--I played The Witcher 3 and Bravely Default this year, and neither of those RPG titans possess moments of such emotional power as I found in Calfree in Chains. Romanced Arelia’s speech at the end of the game is just utterly beautiful.

And as a finish to this trilogy, Calfree in Chains is great, too. It brings the simmering issues of the previous 2 adventures to a head, feeling like it is, indeed, the story and conflict that Cirion’s works have been leading up to. And it uses the characters and lore established in The Antumbra Saga and The Caldecott Caper exactly as they should be used: as a foundation, as a point of familiarity to start at, without leaning on them so heavily that it can’t introduce and spotlight its new characters and lore.

I am completely serious, not exaggerating whatsoever, when I say that Cirion has crafted, in his Calfree Trilogy, the best video game Shadowrun experience to date. I’ve been a lifelong fan of the original SNES title, I really like Shadowrun: Hong Kong, and Shadowrun: Dragonfall keeps only barely missing my list of Greatest RPGs, but I say, with sincerity, that this collection of adventures that Cirion has created is the best Shadowrun experience out there. And I mean that both in terms of being the best example of a Shadowrun story, and in terms of being the best work as a whole. Shadowrun: Dragonfall might still be the best individual Shadowrun adventure, or it at least might be tied with Calfree in Chains...but if you put the actual, official Shadowrun trilogy of games that Harebrained Schemes created next to Cirion’s Calfree Trilogy, you will find, pound for pound, that Cirion’s work’s virtues outweigh Harebrained Schemes’s. I emphatically recommend the Calfree Trilogy to anyone who owns the Shadowrun PC games--and frankly, if you don’t, then you should strongly consider purchasing them, not just for their own virtues, but also for the fact that you can, through them, experience the genuinely superlative Calfree Trilogy.

* Though I do admit I still think Persi’s love story in The Caldecott Caper is the best of the trilogy.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Shin Megami Tensei 4-2's Navarre's Role in the Final Battle

You know what really feels like a missed opportunity in Shin Megami Tensei 4-2? Navarre’s role in the final battle.

Overall, the conclusion to SMT4-2 is pretty great. Okay, the lead-up dungeon is a little long and irritating (albeit very pretty), but the lead-in to it is solid stuff, and once you get to its end, the final battle against God is hella epic. It’s also really handled well in the sense that it really feels like the final, powerful note to the journey of not only Nanashi and his friends, the heroes of this game, but also of Flynn and his comrades, the protagonists of the original Shin Megami Tensei 4, bringing all parties to the true end of the sort-of-dual-game saga. And the battle itself is handled really nicely in that its gameplay mechanics reflect this climactic final collaboration between heroes, as you control 2 parties rather than just the standard 1, with your normal, Nanashi-led party bringing the damage, and Flynn’s providing support and opening up opportunities for attack. And then, once you’ve succeeded, the ending to the game is really heartfelt, and feels like the emotional, satisfying conclusion that a thoughtful, world-changing epic should have. It’s all just about perfect. In fact, for a while, I thought it was perfect, executed with no oversight or missing feature that could have improved it.

Then I thought about Navarre, and now that damn final battle gnaws at my mind for all it could have been.

Look, this is a small thing. It really is. But it’s 1 of those small details that really just drive you crazy. Like toast crumbs in your bedsheets. Nothing so tiny should be able to frustrate a person so much, but, unless you are a far superior breed of man or woman than I am, you cannot get comfortable so long as you know they’re there. And for me, Navarre’s place in the final battle of SMT4-2 is that way. There’s nothing wrong with that battle--it’s fucking awesome, in fact, as you would certainly hope given the circumstances--but the opportunity that Atlus missed to tie 1 last detail of character development and theme up in a neat little bow is killing me.

And what is that detail, you wonder? Or perhaps scream irritably at me, given that I’ve been leading you on for 4 paragraphs now about it. Well, it’s simply this:

Navarre should have been the support character for Flynn’s team.

Think about it. Wouldn’t that have been the absolutely perfect way to conclude Navarre’s character in Shin Megami Tensei 4-1 and 4-2? Wouldn’t that have been the perfect way to complete Flynn’s team?

Flynn’s team in the final battle is made up of himself, Isabeau, Jonathan, and Walter. This makes sense, of course, in that they’re the party of the first Shin Megami Tensei 4, and it feels really good that they get to be included in such a major way in this final battle for the destiny of the human race, that Walter and Jonathan can put aside their history and their ideologies to stand alongside Isabeau and Flynn as their allies and friends 1 last time. It’s a great way to bring Flynn and company back into a spotlight that, let’s face it, was more or less stolen from them in this second game,* and give them a final and really substantial moment of glory as co-heroes of the mini-saga.

But these 4 weren’t the only samurais of their year--cowardly failure though he turned out to be, Navarre was the last samurai chosen during the ceremony at the beginning of SMT4-1. He couldn’t handle the responsibility then, and wound up endangering them and losing his mind before meeting his untimely end. Since becoming a ghost and going with Nanashi on his quest in this game, however, Navarre has grown into his own, and redeemed himself for his shortcomings in life.

So wouldn’t it have been a really fitting, touching thing if Navarre had left Nanashi’s bunch for this final battle, in order to run support for Flynn’s group? It would have been the crowning moment for Navarre’s character--sure, Navarre has redeemed himself well enough with Flynn and Isabeau earlier in the game, but he could, in this final battle, prove himself conclusively through his actions, and stand with his 4 comrades as he was always meant to. Hell, it would put a whole, more meaningful spin on Navarre’s character arc--he makes his purpose in SMT4-2 guiding and protecting Nanashi during their voyage, but if his final decision in this saga was to stand with his fellows as he had always been meant to, then Navarre’s purpose in his afterlife, the meaning of his character arc, would retroactively shift from the nice but somewhat out-of-the-blue dedication to Nanashi to a story about Navarre growing as a person enough that he can do in death what he could not in life. And given that the whole thing with ghosts is them having unfinished business, that would make more sense, too.

Additionally, beyond Navarre’s character development being neatly concluded, having him join Flynn’s party as the support unit would have also been a nice thematic touch. Like I said, the idea of having both parties of the SMT4 duology teaming up in their entirety for the final battle is a cool and fitting way to conclude this story,** and it feels right for Isabeau to leave Nanashi’s bunch to stand along her fellows from the first game. It gives you the feeling of having the gang back together for 1 last moment of glory, you know? But it would be even more complete if Navarre were there, because, like I said, destiny also chose him to be among their band, even if he wasn’t a strong enough man to fulfill that purpose. As a team 1 last time, Flynn, Isabeau, Walter, and Jonathan are a moment of recapturing what once was--but if the narrative had allowed Navarre to take this last chance to stand with them, it would be more than what once was, it would be what should have been. Which is more epic and thematically fitting, in my eyes.

I’d also like to point out that putting Navarre in as the support unit for Flynn’s party would even have been a good move from a gameplay perspective. Flynn’s party has potential to deal out good damage, but its purpose is primarily to open up YHVH’s defenses, so that Nanashi’s party, which you’ve been developing the whole game and so of course is going to be the more capable of inflicting damage, can focus on attacking. Well, given that Navarre’s major utility as a support unit late in the game is debuffing enemies and eliminating debuffs inflicted on the party, he’d be the perfect cherry on top of Flynn’s sundae.*** And it’s not like removing him from the main party’s use would be a significant blow--yeah, it slightly lessens your options with Nanashi, but Asahi makes a superior alternative to Navarre in terms of buffs and debuffs, in that she can enhance the party’s stats and heal them, while Navarre’s more locked into managing debuffs only. As a loss to Nanashi’s party, it’s basically equivalent to the fact that Isabeau is switching over to Flynn’s bunch: what she can provide (magical damage and some healing) can be better provided by Asahi or Hallelujah.

Like I said, this isn’t a major issue, or anything. It’s not a fault of Shin Megami Tensei 4-2 that the writers didn’t think of having Navarre join Flynn’s party during the final battle. Because that showdown feels awesome and complete the way it is. But, once you think about it, even if it’s not missing, so to speak, it’s still a really great opportunity that they passed over. It makes sense from a gameplay perspective, it’s a nice thematic bookend to Flynn’s party’s role, and it would be a great way to complete Navarre’s personal journey. And so, this little detail that Atlus missed out on really does bother me substantially.

...Someone make a mod! Mod SMT4-2 to have Navarre join Flynn in the final battle as his party’s support, and add just a line or 2 of dialogue to set it up. I know 3DS modding is possible, because that marvelous Unassuming Venusaur lady has been correcting Fire Emblem 14’s oversights for a couple years now. So, readers, if any of you are tech-savvy, I charge you now to tweak Shin Megami Tensei 4-2, just a tiny little bit, and make this idea of mine a reality! I’ll buy you, like, 3 RPGs in thanks.

* Not that I for a single solitary second have any regret about this, mind you. To a man/woman, the party members of SMT4-2 are more interesting, appealing, developed characters than everyone from SMT4-1 was put together. Well, okay, Isabeau is empty and mundane, but that doesn’t count seeing as how she’s in both titles’ parties.

** Or is it 1.5 stories? This mini-saga is kind of weird, narratively.

*** You have my permission to twist this metaphor for use in whatever Flynn x Navarre smut you feel the need to write after hearing it. You’re welcome.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Millennium 5's Finale

Millennium 5 is the final part of a series, created by one Indinera Falls, which details the journey of Marine, a girl out to improve the lives of her fellow peasants, who languish unhelped and rights-less while the ruling capital, Mystrock, flourishes from their efforts. She’ll do this by allying herself with the oppressed people across the Mystland nation, and fighting in a ritual tournament spectated by thousands of the wealthy, carefree citizens of the capital city.

It is, perhaps, just possible that Indinera Falls is a fan of The Hunger Games.

The Millennium series is barely known at all, which seems to be how things usually go for games developed with RPG Maker, but it and its creator do have a small but devoted fanbase, from what I can gather, which are pretty positive on the Millennium games overall. Myself, I’m lukewarm about them, but I suppose they’re decent enough. There is, however, 1 aspect of Millennium 5 that seems to get a mixed reaction even from this small fanbase, as well as players in general: the finale to the saga. A lot of people don’t seem to like it, and those that do, nonetheless don’t seem to have especially positive feelings about it. There are a lot of criticisms levied against the tournament and ending which close out the series, and while I think that some are legitimate, I also think that some are too harsh, or, at least, made without due consideration.

So basically, that’s why you’re here today, reading about a game you’ve never played and don’t care about. Sorry, folks, unimportant and extremely obscure commentary is just my thing. Oh, and I’m talking about the final events of a 5-game series, so, y’know, spoiler alert.

Alright, let’s start by talking about what the finale of Millennium 5 does, indeed, do wrong. First of all, a minor annoyance is that none of your characters can equip accessories during the tournament. It’s bad enough that the series decided in Millennium 4 to stop letting the majority of your characters use weapons, because they needed to train in the unarmed combat thing since it’s a martial arts tournament, but that, at least, is an understandable plot thing. Annoying, especially since you still keep finding weapons as you go along with Millennium 4 and 5 that you now can’t even use (what is up with that?), but understandable. But during this period of weaponless combat, you at least get to continue using the majority of helmets and accessories in the game, because, as the games’ dialogue specifically notes many times, the rules permit them. So why are they suddenly not allowed, when you finally enter the tournament? If you’re anything like me, you set your characters up around what accessories they wear, so this totally throws things off. It’s the second most annoying gameplay decision the Millennium series makes.*

Second, and similar to the first, is the fact that the characters in the tournament lose most of their skills going in. These skills are replaced with ones specifically designed to help them in the tournament, which is good and all, but some of the lost skills would have been way, way better, and in no way violate the story of the tournament. Why’d Salome have to give up her skill that hits enemies 4 times in a row? There’s nothing about that which contradicts the tournament’s rules, since she’s just hitting them with her fists. Lame.

Next, I have to say that it just seems a little odd that Marine’s party is so close to evenly matched with the Mystrock warriors by the end of Millennium 5. I mean, I get that Mystrock has the best resources and training and whatnot, and that most of them have been warriors for their whole lives compared to most of Marine’s team not, but come on. 2 days before the tournament, Marine and company were slapping dinosaurs around with their bare hands. I don’t care if Merryll has hit the gym every damn day of his life, there’s no way he or any others of Lord Dragon’s crew should be able to compete with Marine’s bunch. It’d be like saying Little Mac would pose a serious combat challenge to Samus Aran--Mac’s one of my favorite Nintendo characters, but if it ain’t Super Smash Brothers, it ain’t happening.

Finally, and a lot more importantly, there’s the damn ending. Or, honestly, lack of such. You’ve gone through 5 entire games, sat through Marine’s entire continent-spanning adventure, and all that you get in the way of an ending is a few short sentences that give a far too general summary of what happened, and a bit of information letting you know that Marine and Dragon got married, for some reason. Better him than Jack, I guess, but sheesh, talk about coming out of nowhere. But you don’t get to hear any specifics on what happens to any of the 12 warriors who stood with Marine to make this all possible, nor any of the other friends she made along the way. You don’t get to hear or see much about how life goes for her and what the process of the social upheaval that’s been the whole damn focus of the series is like. You don’t get to even know whether or not her father survives and pulls out of his coma--the guy whose actions at the beginning of Millennium 1 kicked this whole thing off. I guess I can’t expect a classic Fallout-styled ending narration for every game I play, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hope for SOME form of actual closure for the characters and story that I’ve been engaged with for 5 games! If it weren’t for the fact that I played Neverwinter Nights 2 the same year I completed Millennium 5, this game would probably have wound up on my list of worst RPG endings.

So those are the problems--let’s talk about the good stuff, next. Up until that inadequate conclusion, I have to say, the finale is pretty good. First of all, it is, technically-speaking, extremely impressive. The tournament is over 150 battles as each member of the 2 teams of 13 fights against every member of the opposite team once, and almost every battle opens with the 2 fighters interacting with each other. Most of these aren’t just generic lines that would fit any match-up, either. It’s not like the beginning face-off in some 16-bit fighting game--these fighters’ dialogue frequently highlights their personalities; it’s very character-specific for the majority of matches.

To take the time to do that for over 100 fights is a pretty significant amount of effort, but what really dials it up a notch in terms of being technically impressive is that the game’s also keeping track of a lot of factors regarding the victories and losses up until that point. Frequently, the things each side’s fighter says changes to reflect which side is currently in the lead at that moment (and sometimes even changes depending on how much of a gap there is in the win-loss ratio), which is also true of the stuff that Marine, Borgon, Dragon, and some of the others on each side say before and after the matches. The post-match dialogue also, of course, reflects the winner of each round. And on top of all that, sometimes the dialogue in the fight adjusts to reflect the personal wins and losses of the character(s) fighting! I can tell you from personally witnessing it that if you just keep denying that jackass Merryll a single victory the whole tournament, he will, in fact, several times show his growing fury at the fact that these supposedly inferior people are repeatedly proving what a useless sack of shit he is. Likewise, there’s plenty of lines before and after the matches that comment on how that fighter, specifically, has been doing during the tournament. Watching Borgon’s growing frustration with Merryll’s losing streak is a joy.

So yeah, when you really stop and think about it, keeping track of that many variables over the course of potentially more than 150 matches, and staying relatively consistent with the dialogue that’s keeping track of it all...I know very little about programming, but I’m pretty sure that’s a huge feat, and would be a tall order even from a AAA publisher, let alone a tiny indie game developer that I’m pretty sure was mostly a 1-person show.

And it’s all done well enough that it’s pretty enjoyable from start to finish! Even though the tournament is essentially just 169 or so battles in a row, and even though it comes after a whole 5 games of standardly incessant RPG battles, I actually was engaged from start to finish! I mean, okay, I wasn’t on the edge of my seat or something, but the interactions between sides, as well as the dialogue between allies as they encourage or berate their teammates, is done well. It doesn’t really feel at any point like the writer got tired of the characters and seeing how they’d react to each new opponent, in spite of the daunting quantity of such meetings. Other bits of extra effort help keep the tournament interesting, too, like the rewarding feeling you get as Borgon hollers in frustration over his team’s losing streak, the halftime break where each side rallies themselves for the tournament’s conclusion, and the fact that a lot of the enemy’s team have their own battle songs (Gisele’s is pretty rad, in fact). Nothing in the Millennium series is amazing, but Indinera Falls clearly put a lot of extra effort into making the tournament a stronger moment in the saga, as it should be.

I’d also like to say that the emotion of the finale is spot-on. It definitely feels like the epic culmination of Marine’s quest, from start to finish. The night before the tournament as Marine and Jeanne talk is quiet and touching, the words of thanks and encouragement Marine gives her team are warm, the final battle between Marine and the Dragon feels as climatic and desperate as it should, and Jeanne...actually, I take what I said before back, there is an amazing moment in Millennium, and it’s the last-minute sacrifice of Jeanne in the very final battle. It’s sudden, it hits you hard, and it’s all the sadder because she doesn’t have enough time to say goodbye, to prepare herself. Somehow, it feels very real, and much more moving, for the facts that it’s immediate, it’s unexpected, and it’s something that Marine will never know the truth of. That, to me, is the most tragic part...that Marine will forever have to wonder what became of the little fairy that made her dream of an equal society possible, wonder why she never spoke to Marine again...maybe even wonder, eventually, whether Jeanne was ever real to begin with.

Anyway, yeah, the finale does a lot of stuff well, and I think most people will agree with what I’ve pointed out as its highlights, and its flaws. Here, however, is the thing that a lot of people take issue with, which I think is worth defending: how, precisely, you get the true ending. There are 3 endings, you see, of which only 1 is the good, actual ending. The first bad ending is as you would expect--you get it if you lose the tournament. The second bad ending, however, is the major stumbling block for people, because you actually get this ending if you win the tournament.

Yeah, I’m not kidding. If you win the tournament, which is the goal that you’d think you’re supposed to be shooting for, it triggers a bad ending! Being sore losers and all-around jerks, Borgon and several of Dragon’s team start an insurrection, and the people of Mystrock by and large go with it, losing their shit over the fact that some dirty old peasants beat their finest warriors. You lose the game because you won.

What you have to do to get the real ending, is lose the tournament, but by a score deficit no greater than 10. When that happens, you find out that there’s some archaic old rule of being able to challenge the result if it it was a close score, and have the leaders of each side face off 1 last time to determine who really wins the tournament.

How magnificently convenient.

So for there to be any hope at all of success, Marine has to have a rematch with Lord Dragon, even though it’s damn clear that she can’t possibly win it. But at the eleventh hour, Jeanne comes through, finding a fairy spell powerful enough to overcome the anti-magic seals on the arena, as Marine buys her time by enduring Dragon’s blows as best she can, even though she’s exhausted and barely able to withstand them. This is the scene which I mentioned as a major point in the finale’s favor, for the spell’s power comes at the cost of the caster’s life, and, I reiterate, it’s a pretty powerful scene. With Jeanne’s sacrifice, the spell hits Dragon, and knocks him out of the ring, resulting in a win for Marine. She collapses a moment later, caught and respectfully carried out of the arena by Lord Dragon. Unable to determine any other possibility, since there’s simply no way any human magic could ever overcome the arena’s seals, Mystrock by and large decides that the miraculous spell that granted Marine victory had to have been an act of their god, to show beyond any doubt that Marine is meant to take the nation in a new direction.

Well, that’s all well and good, a fine way to close out the tournament and win the game, yes, but, you wonder, why does it have to be that way? What was wrong with just having the game be won when it’s, well, won? Surely complicating matters with this hairsbreadth victory was not necessary, when the result is still that Marine wins the tournament?

I suppose that’s fair enough. Here’s the thing, though, and the reason that I actually defend this seemingly unnecessary and picky decision on Indinera Falls’s part: when you think about it, Marine’s quest isn’t supposed to be about proving her people’s superiority over the people of Mystrock. She doesn’t embark on her journey with the specific desire to rule over Mystrock (and by extension Mystland). She isn’t motivated by some belief that she’s the better qualified political leader, nor is she specifically trying to prove something to herself or to Mystrock. Marine just wants the peasants of Mystland to be treated as equals of the citizens of the capital city. She just wants her people to have the same rights and privileges of everyone else, to help end the poverty and suffering she sees all around her. She enters the tournament to become Mystrock’s new governing figure solely because being the leader is the only way she can make this dream a reality; if there had been another option presented to her, she would just as likely have pursued that, instead. Though she may become personally incensed by some of Mystrock’s cruelties along the way, ultimately Marine’s quest is about a desire for equality.

And because of this, I think that it does, in fact, make thematic sense for the ending to the Millennium series to require this eventuality of neither defeat nor victory. Just writing it so that Marine succeeds by outright winning the tournament seems at first glance to make more sense, in terms of gameplaying conventions, but nothing about that scenario really resonates with what the quest has been all about. A rout of the opposing team proves the peasants’ superiority more than their equality to the people of Mystrock, and the point is to win the rights of the commoners to be treated as equals, not betters. By contrast, the true ending has a tournament whose results are so near to even that equality is inescapably implied, decided by a match that appears to be close enough that it requires a divine third party to settle. Additionally, the events of the final match give Lord Dragon cause and opportunity to show his respect for and support of Marine’s victory, in a way both powerfully meaningful and indisputable to the citizens of Mystrock who watch. This is the sort of hard-won, miraculous victory that you can actually believe would, indeed, lay the groundwork for a revolution of social equality to come. By comparison, the idea of a happy, successful ending coming from a situation in which a population with long-held prejudices is forced to obey the woman whose victory hurt their pride, solely because the rules say they have to...maybe it makes sense from the perspective of gameplay conventions, but Indinera Falls is right: it doesn’t hold up logically.

The path of the true finale to Millennium 5 has its issues, to be sure. It’s not quite clear enough what has to happen to achieve it, and having to keep an eye on your ranks throughout the tournament to budget your victories is somewhat annoying--particularly when there are plenty of matches whose outcome you either can’t predict with certainty, or can’t influence (you cannot force the Bear lose a match, for example, making it dangerous to hover near the edge of overall victory). Nonetheless, even though you wouldn’t think it at first, going against gaming convention to make a true ending out of a near loss instead of a victory is the right call in this game, because it’s truer to the heart of Marine’s quest, and it provides a more believable scenario of success in accordance with the game’s lore and characters. Millennium 5’s finale has its flaws, but I don’t believe the unusual requirements of the true ending is 1 of them.

* The first, of course, is that Salome gives up on being a mermaid, which I’ve noted before was pretty awesome, not to mention pleasantly overpowered! Why, Millennium 3, why? It’s not even sensible from a plot perspective; transforming into a mermaid is clearly shown not to inhibit her ability to traverse or stay on land at all, so there’s nothing she would have to give up by remaining ‘cursed’.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Bravely Default's Language

Before we begin today, I'd like to just put a Kickstarter RPG I've found on your radar, in case you, like myself, find the idea amusing enough to back: I Have Low Stats, But My Class is Leader, so I Recruited Everyone I Know to Fight the Dark Lord. Looks promising as a comical RPG, and it's got a lower-than-average pledge level at which you get the game for free when it's finished. Check it out; it might be neat!

And now, on with the rant.

There’s a lot to really like about Bravely Default. Appealing main characters with depth,* an interesting plot, an awesome conclusion, a really good supporting cast, a great villain, the fact that this game manages to pretty much be the most perfect and excellent example of a classic Final Fantasy, a good balance of levity and’s just a great RPG, no 2 ways about it, a pleasant experience that really reminds you of everything you love about the JRPG style. And I do, indeed, really like all of those aspects to this game. And so do many others: as much as a JRPG reasonably can be, Bravely Default was a big hit, and many have extolled its virtues quite eloquently before me. But there is 1 additional characteristic of this title that I’m pleased with, which I have not seen lauded by its fans: the language of BD’s dialogue. And that’s a shame, because I think it’s worth crediting the writers and translators of the game for their use of vocabulary with it.

As a general rule, I’ve found that the RPG genre is a decent one for varied and interesting word use. This is, I suppose, quite natural for an entertainment medium whose greatest focus is on its storytelling elements. It’s also quite natural for an entertainment medium whose titles seem by and large to be nonsensical jumbles of any and all fanciful and archaic buzzwords the writers could think of.** Some games are better than others in this regard, of course--you’re much more likely to learn some fancy new words and phrases from Planescape: Torment and Torment: Tides of Numenera than you are from, say, Lagoon, or Zenonia 1--but you’d probably be surprised how often even the seemingly less intellectual works of the genre can teach the player a new word or 2. A decent chunk of my own vocabulary comes from my long history of playing RPGs, and my learning of my language through the genre is still ongoing. I wouldn’t have known of the existence of the word ‘dunamis,’ let alone its meaning, without having played Infinite Dunamis a mere 2 years ago. And that’s a Kemco game, for Hyperion’s sake!

Still, Bravely Default really goes several steps beyond what you might expect of its genre. The game quite frequently makes use of all kinds of older, less common words in the English language, and really cool ones, at that, such as ‘fain’ and ‘malefic,’ among many others. It’s not like with most other RPGs, where you might, every now and then, discover a cool word or 2 you haven’t come across before in the course of the whole game--in BD, it’s common enough to come across several older, eloquent terms you’re unfamiliar with within the same conversation! And not only that, but you also get frequent occurrences of common, familiar words being used in older, less typical ways, such as the use of ‘ransom’ as a verb synonymous with ‘liberate.’

As a prospective English teacher, this is something I already approve of, but what really makes the use of all this olde language great is how easily it’s used. See, it’s easy as a reader to see new words and phrases and stumble over them due to your lack of knowledge of their meaning. Hell, it’s easy as a writer to use less common vocabulary in a way that’s halting or stiff--even when you know its definition, if you’re trying too hard to use a particular word for its flair, you can wind up making your sentence too focused upon that single term, which makes it all the more jarring to a reader who doesn’t have an instant knowledge of its meaning.

Bravely Default doesn’t have this problem. To me, at least, it uses all of its vocabulary fluidly, organically, and obviously. Each word, even if unfamiliar, is used easily by the writers, as a natural part of the sentiments being expressed, and in such a way that the meanings are easy to intuit from the context and the tone. To be able to regularly use archaic and very specific vocabulary in a fluent and flowing enough way that it never becomes a stumbling block to the audience is very impressive!

Bravely Default’s writers deserve a great deal of praise for just how good and enjoyable an RPG they crafted, and most of that praise comes from greater strengths of the game than just its use of language. Nonetheless, even if it’s a comparatively minor virtue, I also think it’s worthwhile to applaud the writers and translators for their consistent use of interesting, older, uncommon vocabulary to help create the atmosphere of their world, and also to applaud them for just how skillfully easy and natural that vocabulary’s use is for the player to read and hear. Well done, Silicon Studio!

* Well, 3 out of 4 of them, at least. Tiz never quite gains a more nuanced personality than one might find in any given lump of mud. Still, that is, sadly, the standard of RPGs.

** I would be highly surprised if the guy who titled Final Fantasy 12: Revenant Wings actually had a firm grasp on the definition of the word ‘revenant.’ I would be even more surprised if, in the unlikely scenario where he did, he could provide a compelling explanation for the title as a whole.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

General RPG Lists: Greatest Time Travel RPGs

Ahh, time travel. What an interesting concept; it seems to me that there is an almost limitless potential for thoughtful and exciting stories involving its use, if you’re creative enough to utilize it well. You can use it conventionally and come up with cool stories, like the Days of Future Past arc of X-Men comics/cartoons, and you can use it unconventionally and come up with amusing movies, like Groundhog Day. You can build a whole awesome show around it, like Doctor Who, or just employ it tactically to create awesome individual episodes of your show, like Yesterday’s Enterprise from Star Trek: The Next Generation. You can found your story upon it as your opening move, like Futurama (Fry’s 1000 year jump is essentially the same thing), or as your closing move, like Shadow Hearts 2. It’s a very versatile narrative tool, if you know how to handle it.

RPGs seem to me to have a special fondness for time travel. It pops up quite often within the genre, more often, I think, than it does in most other artistic mediums. Not always to great success, mind you--sometimes it’s silly and makes no sense (Final Fantasy 8, Robotrek, some occasions in Energy Breaker), sometimes it really didn’t even have any need to be there in the first place (Tales of Phantasia, Star Ocean 1, Sailor Moon: Another Story), and sometimes it even just outright contradicts the style and direction of the game (Valkyrie Profile 2, Final Fantasy 9, Dark Cloud 2). Nonetheless, it’s a frequently employed staple of the genre, utilized in ways both grandiose (the whole story of AeternoBlade revolves around it) and tiny (Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure uses time travel only for its Protagonist to briefly witness a day of her past as an adult).

Hell, the very first RPG I played from start to finish was all about time travel--hopping from present to past and future through hidden portals, utilizing the forces of causality and forming alliances with colorful characters of times long ago and long from now, who conquer their foes by using combination techniques, all to save the world from a dark, alien monster that threatened it. Good times.

Then a few years after I played The Magic of Scheherazade, I played Chrono Trigger. I liked that one, too.

So, with time travel being such a familiar face to RPGs, not to mention a staple of both my very first RPG, and also my very favorite RPG, I figure, why not take a look at the genre and rank the ones that use the concept the very best? So today, for your future purchase decisions, I present to you the time travel RPGs just too good to look past.

5. The Magic of Scheherazade

Ahh, The Magic of Scheherazade. Possibly the first RPG to use time travel, it also remains 1 of the best, taking you through a grand quest to save the world and rescue your beloved that requires you to journey through the past, present, and future to accumulate the allies and artifacts you’ll need. Yes, it may be a very straightforward use of time travel, but it’s done well, it uses temporal manipulation tropes competently (as expected, several times the key to overcoming an obstacle is to take an action in the past that will have ramifications later in the present, and such), and it does have a few moments that are rather interesting/inventive with it. There is, for example, a moment in the game in which you have to go so far back in time that the world is still brand new, because the demon you have to defeat is so incredibly powerful that you only stand a chance of killing him when he’s just been born (and even then, it’s a tough fight). Years before Scott Evil wondered why his father didn’t use the ability to time travel to take out Austin Powers while the guy was taking a dump, Magic of Scheherazade was using the advantages of cherry-picking moments in a timeline from which to launch an attack. So yeah, TMoS is a solid, fun time travel RPG.

4. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

What a cool premise this game has: Link has to stop the end of the world in 3 days, but there’s no possible way he can do so organically. He has neither the tools nor the allies necessary for it, and 3 days is simply not enough time to acquire it all. So, he must continue to play a song that sends him back to the beginning of the 3 days, over and over, gathering all he needs over the course of countless resets. It’s a darned good premise for a Zelda game, and it’s actually kind of crazy that Nintendo also used the whole mask premise in this game, as well, as I daresay you could get more than enough material out of the time travel alone (or the masks alone, for that matter) for a workable game theme.

What I really like about how TLoZMM handles time travel is how complex and well-navigated the repeating 3 days of Termina are, in terms of the residents of the land. Every NPC in this game has a path they follow over the course of the 3 days, which you can observe, and most of them have dilemmas which you can assist them with. It means that for every hour of the game’s 72, there are dozens of plots at work, dozens of stories waiting to be engaged in, all coinciding independently within the same land, each needing a hero’s assistance to resolve...and by using time travel, Link can be there for each and every 1 of them, a hero in a dozen different instances at once. Combine that with the overall premise of the game, and you have a really nifty and creative time travel RPG.

3. AeternoBlade

AeternoBlade has probably the most creative use of time travel that I’ve seen in an RPG, both in terms of its use in the story, and in terms of its use as a function of gameplay. I’ll admit, I’ve never played Prince of Persia or Braid, which are both famous for time puzzles, so maybe AeternoBlade’s gameplay features are old hat, but even if the game’s puzzles aren’t as new to the world as they were to me when I played it, it’s still cool the way the game uses localized, personal time travel to make the protagonist, Freyja, 1 of the most powerful RPG characters of all time.

More importantly, though, AeternoBlade has a well-crafted and interesting plot that warns against immersing oneself in vengeance, through a rather creative use of a time loop--although perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a time spiral--and a villain forged through self-manipulated causality. There’s a lot of creative little uses of time manipulation sprinkled throughout the game beyond the major plot flow, too, like the idea that a villain is conventionally unbeatable because he can manipulate his own timeline to erase the moment at which he was harmed (admittedly, Radiant Historia did this first, but it's still something you don't see very often, and AeternoBlade puts more focus on it). Singularly creative, you don’t get many better time travel games than AeternoBlade.

2. Chrono Trigger

Well, what is there to say, really? Chrono Trigger is fun, engaging, smooth, natural, and inventive with its use of time travel, and I think it’s fair to say that, much as the game is a cornerstone of the entire genre, CT is a foundation against which other time travel RPGs are measured.

Chrono Trigger knew how to keep time travel a fresh and interesting aspect of its story from start to finish, somehow knew how to make it an integral element of all the game’s events without overplaying it as a plot device, and knew how to use it to create a diverse and interesting cast without going too far into the oddity factor.* Time travel in Chrono Trigger wasn’t just a simple way of overcoming plot obstacles--each trip to a location in the past or future that you weren’t familiar with was a whole new adventure, a unique period of CT’s history that had its own atmosphere and story. It wasn’t like in some other games like Star Ocean 1 or Tales of Phantasia, where time travel basically means just going from one medieval fantasy setting to another very slightly more medieval fantasy setting--the eras of Chrono Trigger all had their own personalities, presenting unique new situations and challenges. By the end of this game, you feel like you know the world of Chrono Trigger as intimately as you do any of the game’s main characters, for that world has been richly developed through the history you witness.

As I mentioned in my general rant on Chrono Trigger, I also quite like that there’s a perpetual air of intrigue and mystery about the time travel in this game. In every other RPG, the source of the game’s time travel is clearly defined, be it by magic or technology, whereas Chrono Trigger retains an air of ambiguous mystique to it, while never coming off as careless. I like how I put it in that rant, so I’ll just copy-paste it here: “the game’s handling of time travel is somewhat unique as it’s hard to determine where it’s grounded--science, magic, or the spiritual? Machines like the Gate Key and the Epoch are used to open the holes in time, making it science fiction, and yet, the time gates seem to be a result of incredibly powerful magics having reactions so powerful that time’s fabric is torn, as shown by the first gate appearing from a reaction to the magic pendant, or Lavos’s powerful presence causing the one at Magus’s summoning ceremony. And yet! There is a deliberate sprinkling of the spiritual in there, as well--the CT party theorizes one evening that the true origin of these time portals comes from a regretful deity-like Entity, looking back in sorrow at the world’s history, and through its regret causing the time gates that allow for history to be changed for the better. Sounds like hogwash, I suppose, but then the theory is born out to a certain extent by the inexplicable, single-use gate that takes Lucca back to the moment of her life she regrets the most, giving her an opportunity to put it right--time travel by sheer will of the spirit, it seems, or perhaps the mercy of this Entity, which is still spiritual. And the time freeze performed to save Crono, arguably the most important act of time-warping in the entire game, seems as rooted in spirit (requiring the intense desire of his friends to return him to life) as it is in magic (requiring a magically-created clone) or science (the Chrono Trigger device itself). Chrono Trigger has a level of ambiguity to its time travel’s basis, which is fairly unique, and quite interesting.”

I can go on and on (obviously), but I think I’ve said and re-said enough at this point. Chrono Trigger is a game where time travel is inventive, intriguing, and thoughtful, while being straightforward and natural. We’ve seen precious few RPGs since that approach time travel in the sense of having a general, sprawling adventure of it, and I think that may be because everyone knows, deep down, that this game accomplished that kind of time travel epic perfectly, and that trying to match or exceed it is a futile effort.

1. Radiant Historia

Chrono Trigger may be the best at what it does, that being the general, sprawling epic of traveling to different eras as part of a grand, straightforward save-the-world deal...but that’s not the only kind of time travel story out there. There’s also the plot of time travel on a small scale, a personal one, a narrative not of affecting entire ages of history but rather of moving back and forth along a small timeline, making great changes through tiny differences in action. This is the Edge of Tomorrow sort of time travel story, one of a threat so overwhelming, a chance at victory so narrow, that the only option is to be able to relive each crisis over and over, experimenting with actions and small changes that accumulate into great effects, until the hidden, razor-thin path to success is found. Or, in Radiant Historia’s case, paths, plural.

See, part of what makes Radiant Historia such a really cool time travel story is that it sets itself apart from its own sub-genre in how it deals with the idea of having to keep going back in time over and over to do the exact right thing to succeed. In most stories like that (such as Edge of Tomorrow), the major focus is on just following a single path of events and learning the exact right place to be in, words to say, and actions to take, to do what you need to. Which is just fine, it makes for some solid stories. But Radiant Historia is really neat in that the game is basically split into 2 timelines from a choice its protagonist, Stocke, makes early on, so you get to actually play through 2 separate stories as Stocke makes his way through both timelines’ adventures, attacking the problem of saving the world from 2 separate chains of cause and effect. And what’s really creative about that is that the paths to success for Stocke through each timeline are dependent on what he has learned and gained in the other timeline. There are abilities that Stocke learns along the path of his first choice that he needs to survive and overcome obstacles in the second timeline, and vice-versa. This is a story where knowing the details of what’s about to happen only takes Stocke so far, instead of being the key to success--his precognition is not by itself enough to overcome his roadblocks, he needs more. The fact that success in either timeline depends on knowledge and skills, as well as friendships and actions' echoes, that Stocke could only possibly have acquired from having walked an entirely separate path in this conflict is singular to Radiant Historia, so far as I’m aware, and it plays with the concept of time travel in a whole new way that calls all the more attention to it as the dominant force of the story.

RH handles it well, too; it never feels like you’re having to pop back and forth over and over again just for the sake of selling the gameplay aspect. Each time you return to 1 plotline because you’ve gone as far as you can in another, you go along for a good length of time, reconnecting with the events and characters of this path, becoming immersed enough that when the next time comes that Stocke cannot continue on without a better understanding of his world or without the abilities gained from the other timeline, you’ve almost forgotten that this switch was inevitable. The story, both stories, draw you into their narrative, even as they coalesce to slowly reveal the higher truths of the game’s plot. Time travel is expertly used to uniquely creative means in Radiant Historia, better than any other RPG I’ve played.

Honorable Mention: Fallout 4

Fallout 4 is a solid time travel game, even though it doesn’t really have time travel in the sense that we usually think of it. There’s no magical musical instrument, or timespace-altering sword, or fantastic machine that allows one to go to the past and future in Fallout 4...but at the same time, it basically is a story about a time-displaced person whose existence as an anachronism, as well as the means through which that displacement occurred, defines a substantial part of the plot, in addition to underscoring 1 of the major themes of the series (that theme being that humanity doesn’t change). So it’s doing everything a story might do using a more familiar vehicle for time travel, and hey, functional cryogenic technology is about as much a fantasy at this point as an actual time machine, so we’re still talking about a sci-fi machine making the protagonist’s 1-way trip to the future a reality. Thus, I reckon it counts. And while there are other games that design themselves by a time-travel-game style without technically relying on time travel (Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, for example), I think that Fallout 4 does it best, telling a great story of a woman/man from the past journeying through a world so brutally foreign to what she/he knew, and yet, at the same time, uncomfortably familiar in its heart and soul, while also using its kinda-sorta time travel to play with parent-child dynamics and craft a really thought-provoking villain from it. It’s solid stuff, as a time travel game, even if it arguably isn’t one.

* A restraint its sequel sure as hell didn’t possess.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Undertale's Toriel's Important Lesson

If you haven’t played Undertale, then don’t read this rant. Period. If you want to spoil yourself for a lot of other games, that’s your prerogative, but I’ll not be party to anyone who lessens their eventual experience with this gem by discovering its central plot points ahead of time.

Also, as a warning, this rant was written while I was a bit feverish, and generally out of it, feels, to me, kind of spacey and unfocused. Still, I think my thoughts on the matter are worth expressing (as much as they ever are, at least), so here you go.

It’s really no exaggeration to say that Undertale is one of the most significant RPGs created in the video game industry’s 40+ years of existence, and I anticipate that it will forever be so. There are multiple claims that Undertale makes to its prominent spot in this art form’s history, but what, in my opinion, truly makes it stand out as a unique work of storytelling in its medium is that Undertale is, to my knowledge, the only game that makes a truly compelling and earnest statement on the power and vital necessity of nonviolence in resolving conflicts.

True, many RPGs are eager to loudly proclaim the importance of forgiveness, diplomacy, tolerance, open-mindedness, and various other factors that together form peaceful conflict resolution, but (again, to my knowledge) none of them actually walk the walk. Their heroes may fight for a peaceful world, they may forgive their foes and spare them, they may try to avoid overcoming their obstacles with violence, but sooner or later, it all still comes down to winning climactic battles. I’m reminded of 1 of Wild Arms 4’s last moments, in which its dimwitted protagonist Jude tells the game’s antagonist with fervent passion that one cannot solve one’s problems with violence...then immediately proceeds into the game’s final battle, during which all involved will be stabbing, shooting, burning, freezing, smashing, and performing various other violent acts upon one another, the outcome of which will, indeed, have solved the conflict definitively. Yes, not a lot of RPGs are as blatantly, immediately, and humorously self-contradictory as Wild Arms 4, which makes sense as not a lot of RPGs are written with such a galling lack of competence as that raging inferno of suck...but ultimately, RPGs still nearly always contradict their messages of lauding nonviolent resolution by having the most important moments of conflict in their course be settled by battles.*

And true, there ARE RPGs, a few of them, in which violence is not necessary. The Deus Ex games have made a point since the first installment of making it possible for a player to make it through them without actually killing anyone. Additionally, while I have never played any (unless Rune Factory counts?), I would assume that most of the farming simulator RPGs** don’t require violence. Still, there is a substantial difference between games in which pacifism has simply been made possible, or games in which there is little to no reason not to be nonviolent, and a game like Undertale, which focuses strongly upon and explores the dilemmas that a nonviolent approach faces, and bases the very heart and soul of its message and story’s course upon pacifism, and the weight and consequences of death and apathy.

In its treatise on nonviolence, Undertale involves the majority of its cast, including even many of its NPCs and monsters of lesser importance. Ultimately, however, I believe that it is Toriel’s lesson to us which is the most valuable, both as a component of Undertale’s story and message, and as a lesson to take away from the game.

For, you see, the trial Toriel presents to the player represents what I believe to be the most absolutely vital aspect of the concept of pacifism and resolving conflicts without violence: patience and determination. It is also the aspect of pacifism that I think is least emphasized by shows, movies, games, and all other storytelling mediums that advocate nonviolent approaches, sadly but not unexpectedly, since it’s hard to really sell the concept of patience without devoting more time to showing it than the limited schedules of most storytelling vehicles are willing (or even able) to commit to.

Before Toriel blocks your way in Undertale, the monsters you encounter are simple enough to get by without resorting to violence. The logic paths necessary to take in order to Spare each one are both short, and easily intuited. Toriel is the first occasion the game throws at you in which the concept of trying to resolve a conflict peacefully is a true challenge, and it is made all the more jarring to the player by the fact that they have been conditioned thus far to have few, if any, complications in Sparing their foes. There has always been a clear avenue to a nonviolent victory, until Toriel flat-out denies your Spare attempts and cannot be appealed to with dialogue. Essentially, Toriel is your first and most iconic encounter with personal conflict in which an opponent refuses to let you settle your differences peacefully.

Beyond that, she is also the only opponent I can think of in Undertale for whom determination and patience are the keys to success. Certainly you need both of those things to weather the battles against Papyrus, Undyne, the guards, and many others in the game, but in each major conflict following Toriel’s, your patience and determination comes in the form of navigating the long twists of gameplay until you have a chance to succeed in Sparing your opponent--Toriel, by contrast, is simply outright a test of whether you can be determined and patient enough to outlast someone’s enmity in spite of, initially, no sign that there will ever be any opportunity for concord. Which is by itself a thematically intelligent decision from a gameplay perspective, since Toriel, in Undertale, is meant to be linked to the concepts of video game tutorials--so of course, her boss battle itself serves as a final, educational trial run for the foundations of later boss battles, in the sense that, as I said, later major battles take the necessity for patience and persistence and add more levels of gameplay onto it.***

But while other characters in the game build upon Toriel and present different analogies for routes to peaceful resolution, I think Toriel’s is the most important to truly understanding and embracing the concept of pacifism. Yes, it’s important to learn from Undyne the value of giving up on foolish notions of pride as you outlast her through the act of running away and avoidance, which many mistake as cowardice. Yes, it’s important to learn from the dummy that rage and a refusal to forgive are so self-destructive that there is no need to harm those who feel such things toward you, for they eventually destroy themselves. Yes, it’s important to recognize and forgive the fact that hostility is often the result of misplaced feelings of obligation or self-dissatisfaction, as we learn from Papyrus and Alphys. Yes, it’s important to learn what even small-time enemies in the game can teach you, like that sometimes someone may do something injurious to you by accident, having mistakenly thought they would be helping you, as Vulkin does with what they think is healing lava.

But before you realize any of these things about other people, before you come to understand that your enemies have reasons and history for what they do, and before you can draw conclusions and begin to think about how one overcomes such obstacles to find a peaceful solution to one’s conflicts with is essential to understand first and foremost that to choose the highest road, to choose to commit to pacifism, to choose the path to solving problems between people without resorting to violence, takes time, and it takes persistence. You will encounter people in your life who do not want to work toward a positive solution. You may outlast their attempts to harm or destroy you once, but they will not give up just because you did not immediately cave in. Getting through to someone, finding a way to friendship and understanding beyond enmity and have to be willing to fight for that goal for a long time, and you have to be willing to keep trying without despair even when there just doesn’t seem to be any progress.

And that’s what Toriel represents, and teaches. There is no trick of conversation paths, no part of the bullet hell gameplay that you have to perform--there is only the patience and persistence to keep Sparing her, to keep refusing to harm her in spite of her enmity and her refusal to accept your peaceful appeals, until finally, the determination of your love outlasts the lesser power of her feeling of duty, and she gives up and accepts your desire for peace. Diplomat, therapist, teacher, parent, manager, negotiator, mediator, spiritual leader...for any and every one of the countless positions one may pursue in which communicating with people and finding resolutions to their conflicts is a component or focus, Toriel provides the fundamental groundwork for the essence of how to achieve success and greatness.

* I should clarify here that I don’t hold this as a serious flaw against these games. Yes, it is a flaw with Wild Arms 4 because of how stupidly the message is presented, but by and large, RPGs do a fine enough job at encouraging people to view the nonviolent path as the better, and using violence as a last resort. In our world, that is, perhaps, a far more realistically good approach to take. I’d much rather continue to see many RPGs show that the attempt to avoid violence, even if that attempt doesn’t work, is the right thing to do, than have the genre stop even trying out of an inability to get around its gameplay system’s necessities.

** More than 20 years later, I still cannot believe that this is a thing.

*** She also, I suppose, serves as an educational trial run of boss battles for a No Mercy player, in that she is the first time you must kill someone you’re truly emotionally attached to. A taste of the horrible guilt to come for you. And you deserve it, you monster.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Witcher 3's Add-Ons

The Witcher 3 is good. Like, it’s really good. Maybe it’s a bit overrated--I certainly wouldn’t say it’s the greatest RPG ever made, nor even that it’s the greatest RPG of 2015--but it’s still pretty damn great. And when I say a game is pretty damn great even though it has breakable weapons and the horror known as Sailing, that means something.

But even if the game proper is damn fine stuff, that doesn’t necessarily mean its DLCs and expansions will be. Fire Emblem 14, Shin Megami Tensei 4-1 and 4-2, Borderlands 2, and Fallout 4, among many others, certainly show that games of all kinds of high quality can still produce some pretty lousy add-on content. Then again, as Neverwinter Nights 2 shows, it’s also possible (though far less common) for an RPG’s add-on to completely eclipse the main game in terms of quality.

So the question is: how do the add-ons of The Witcher 3 hold up? Do they keep things going strong? Do they falter? Do they actually manage to surpass the excellent main story? And do you give even the slightest crap at all about these DLC rants of mine? Let’s discover the answers to all but 1 of those questions.

Contract: Missing Miners: When people think of the add-ons to The Witcher 3, they tend to only think of the 2 major expansions. And we’ll definitely get to them! But, there were quite a few free little DLCs released for the game, too. Some were unimportant stuff like alternate costumes and new armor, which I’m not going to bother rating because they’re meaningless cosmetic and/or gameplay changes rather than anything substantial, but there were also several new sidequests to be had, too.

The first of these, Contract: Missing Miners, is fine. That’s all there is to say about it. It’s adequate as a sidequest, fitting the lore of the game and giving Geralt yet 1 more decision to make about who he should and shouldn’t help. I do like that it adds another troll interaction with the game; I’m quite fond of Witcher series trolls. And hey, it’s free, which is always good. So, good job with this one. Moving on!

Fool’s Gold: Like Contract: Missing Miners, this DLC’s a freebie. It’s a bit longer and larger than the last, and it, too, is pretty decent, providing yet another example of the miniature adventures that Geralt just seems to stumble over the way other people sometimes trip over the occasional rock in their path. I mean, I guess I will say that I don’t like it as much as Contract: Missing Miners, because the previous DLC gives you a good feeling for doing a good turn for a troll just trying to defend his home, while in this sidequest, the people you save are a bunch of hostile, ignorant jackasses...but this is The Witcher 3. That kind of quest conclusion ain’t exactly a rarity, and fits the setting, so I certainly don’t hold it against Fool’s Gold. So yeah, overall, decent.

Skellige’s Most Wanted: Now this sidequest is really quite good! Another free DLC, Skellige’s Most Wanted sees Geralt walk into a trap set by some monsters who have heard of his deeds and want to see that he’s punished for them. What I really like about this add-on is that its climax, in which Geralt defends himself against his attackers’ accusations, really does a great job in laying out in clear terms the true nature of Geralt and the Witcher profession, as a bridge between 2 worlds, not just a slayer of 1. The nature of what is and is not a ‘monster’, and how the role of monster-slayer should be seen in an ever-evolving world of men, has been 1 of the more interesting questions posed by the Witcher trilogy, a dilemma that Geralt has puzzled at since the very first game and still grapples with balancing even now. I also like that Geralt defends himself based on your own actions and whether you, as the player, have understood the deeper levels of being a Witcher through what you’ve had Geralt do during various moments in the game. For a tiny little free sidequest, Skellige’s Most Wanted accomplishes a lot as another look at the philosophy of the series, a confirmation of Geralt’s character, and a validation of the player’s choices.

Scavenger Hunt: Wolf School Gear: Meh, I have no thoughts on this 1 either way. It’s a free DLC again, so I can’t fault it, but there’s also only barely enough story content to even give it a look. It’s the same as the rest of the armor set scavenger hunt quests: you look for some stuff, in finding it you find notes or somesuch from long ago, the end. The bit of lore you uncover with this is fine, but doesn’t really capture my attention at all. So I don’t really have anything positive to say about it, but there’s nothing negative, either. It’s just there, and free.

Where the Cat and Wolf Play: This is another good free DLC sidequest. I liked Skellige’s Most Wanted a little more, but this is definitely solid stuff. In this, Geralt discovers an almost entirely slaughtered village, and has a decision to make once he finds the culprit. As a sidequest story, it’s pretty good, not great, but what makes it stand out to me is that the decision Geralt has to make in regards to the killer is personal to him, for in many ways the killer’s situation bears similarities to certain experiences Geralt himself has had, and sins he has committed. The decision to be made is still pretty clearly a right-and-wrong situation, not as grey as most of the stuff in this game, but the fact that it personally ties to Geralt makes it compelling all the same. So Where the Cat and Wolf Play gets a thumbs-up from me.

Also, the reward the village survivor will give you if you return to her at a later time to check in with her? Love it.

Hearts of Stone: Having done with the free DLC sidequests, we can get to the add-ons most people think of first: Hearts of Stone, and Blood and Wine.

Hearts of Stone is pretty damn good. This expansion adds a sizable new quest with a good story that’s interesting, has several fun twists, and raises questions about human nature the way that The Witcher series is fond of doing. Hearts of Stone also pleasantly references and expands on the trilogy’s events and characters in ways you don’t expect--it’s nice that it brings Shani back, who we haven’t seen since the first Witcher game (although I’m not a fan of how hard it is not to sex her up during this adventure), I like that there’s a moment in which we get a little insight into Vesemir’s past, and even though I played this game long after the fan community was busily reporting to one another their ways of breaking the game’s economy, I still appreciate and chuckle at the metahumor of Geralt being accosted by a tax collector. I do so love when developers put in subtle little nods to their fanbase like that. It’s part of what made Mass Effect 3’s Citadel DLC so great.

Of course, the real stars of this DLC are its central figures, Olgierd von Everec and Gaunter O’Dimm. Olgierd’s a character whose after-the-fact development is handled well, and provides a good question of morality and redemption to us in the choice Geralt must make regarding him at the DLC’s finale. And Gaunter O’Dimm? He’s an awesome villain, far more compelling than any other in the Witcher series--as well he should be! Gaunter is a fantastic portrayal of the Devil (or a Devil-figure, at least): unique, charismatic, imposing, terrifying, able to command your attention with so little effort and fanfare. This guy definitely feels like a portrayal of an old-fashioned perception of the Devil, and CD Projekt Red very skillfully builds his mystery, his charm, and his foreboding.

The only real downside to this expansion is that Geralt himself isn’t especially important to it. I mean, he’s the essential cog that moves all things forward, as any RPG hero is (well, almost any RPG hero...Final Fantasy 12’s Vaan was pretty damn superfluous), but beyond just doing what he has to as the protagonist, Geralt as a character doesn’t really seem all that significant a part to it all. Still, that flaw is far outweighed by the rest of the add-on’s merits, so in my opinion, Hearts of Stone is well worth the $10 it cost at time of release.

Blood and Wine: Well, this is different. But nice. The Blood and Wine expansion brings Geralt to another land, the duchy of Touissant, and it is very, very different from the Witcher trilogy we’ve known so far. This place is bright, colorful, and beautiful, and its people, though they have their problems, actually seem to largely be happy. If the rest of the Witcher is an unflinching look at the gritty, dirty nature of the medieval age, then Blood and Wine gives us a much appreciated, much needed snapshot of the medieval age as we like to remember it: an exciting time of wonder and chivalry.

As jarring as the setting is, though, it’s but a tiny part of this expansion’s commanding presence. Blood and Wine is excellently crafted, managing to be a brand new and exciting adventure, while also feeling like a perfect finale to the Witcher trilogy. Its plot is a solid and engaging one of vampires and vengeance, of the power of love to be a force both of corruption and of salvation. Its characters are compelling, particularly Regis and Anna Henrietta. It’s huge, with lots to explore and do, sidequests to perform both small and large. It’s full of meta-references to the games’ fandom and audiences in general, and it has tons of callbacks and connections to the rest of the Witcher trilogy. It’s got a lot of neat extras to enjoy, from Geralt’s vineyard to the illusion land you briefly traipse that’s both an amusing and somewhat sad look at fairytales left neglected. It’s got good development for Geralt, too--the use of Regis was a really smart move by CD Projekt Red, because as a character we’ve never seen before, we get the benefit of a new, well-written personality to meet and get to know, but as a character who has a history of friendship with Geralt, we also get to see more of Geralt’s past from the novels revealed to us, and used skillfully as a way to cement Regis in our minds as a buddy of Geralt’s to the same extent as we would think of Zoltan, Dandelion, Iorveth, or Roche.

Honestly, I could go into this expansion a lot, but ultimately, there’s really only 1 thing to say about it: Blood and Wine is really good. It’s really good on its own, it’s really good as a new and refreshing adventure for Geralt, and it’s really good as a final note to the Witcher trilogy. It values the history of the trilogy even as it takes the time to reveal 1 final part of the Witcher world to us for the first time, and it feels very much like the final love letter from CD Projekt Red to both the series that brought them into the world of game development, and to the dedicated fans who have loved that series. Blood and Wine premiered at a $20 price tag, which is pretty high, but not an unusual price for a proper expansion. And I can say pretty confidently that it is, was, and will be worth that and more. As a send-off add-on to a good, long saga, you won’t find many better than Blood and Wine.

And that’s that. So how does The Witcher 3 fare overall on the add-on scene? Unsurprisingly, it’s top-notch. Rare is the RPG which not only has high quality add-ons, but has consistency in that high quality.

And you may be wondering: if that’s the case, why bother to make 1 of these rants about its DLC to begin with? I mean, if there’s no reason not to get any of its add-ons, then what purpose does this serve? Well, I wanted to make this rant for me, and for anyone who, after having read my DLC rants and/or played the add-ons of the same games as I have, feels the way that I do. See, if I had to rate my overall experience with DLCs, expansions, and the like, over the course of all the RPGs I’ve played which possess such things, I’d have to say that it’s been overall negative. There have been a lot of great side stories, true, but there have been more mediocre and poor ones, and more often an RPGs’ add-ons will disappoint than delight. Even when you find a jewel like Fallout 4’s Far Harbor or Borderlands 2’s Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, it’s frequently hidden among subpar or even outright poor-quality peers. But a game like The Witcher 3, whose developers and writers made sure to keep going the extra mile right to the bitter end with their add-ons, really gives me hope for the DLC scene and keeps me going. Great and consistent quality in add-ons like this is possible, and maybe, just maybe, this will be the standard, rather than the exception, some day. And I want to make my appreciation for this consistent level of quality, when such a thing is so much less common than it should be, publicly known. Doubtless the next game whose DLC I rant about will be back to the usual disappointing slog, but for now, I’m satisfied by The Witcher 3’s add-ons better than I have been by an RPG for quite some time.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Darkblood Chronicles

Well, I’ve recently finished playing an Indie RPG that I think is good, so you know what that means: it’s time for a rant extolling its virtues and trying to convince you that it’s worth buying and playing. Why? Because a good RPG is a good RPG, but the little guys need the attention more to keep making them..

So, before we begin, I’ll be transparent about this: the creator of Darkblood Chronicles, Dorian Tokici, personally contacted me and asked me to play his game and write a rant about it. I haven’t been bribed or anything--he did offer me a free copy of the game, but I opted to buy it naturally--but if you’re concerned about my vanity getting in the way of my objectivity, then it’s only fair to warn you that I was very flattered to be personally asked. Subjective or not, however, my opinion is that Darkblood Chronicles is a solid, intelligent, and singular RPG, that I am better off for having played.

So what is Darkblood Chronicles? Well, I can tell you what it isn’t: what it’s advertised to be. Yeah, on its Steam page, the game’s blurb describes it as a Survival Horror JRPG, and 1 of the games this summary draws a parallel to is Parasite Eve. That ain’t true, and don’t go into Darkblood Chronicles expecting anything of the sort. It’s a dark game with an atmosphere of gloom and desolation, but it doesn’t inspire or use fear, it doesn’t use visual and audio cues to unsettle you, and it’s no more a survival situation than any other given RPG environment. That’s not to say that Darkblood Chronicles doesn’t have certain elements you can find in some survival horror games--Dorian Tokici has listed Silent Hill as 1 of this game’s inspirations, and it shows--but the elements Darkblood Chronicles takes from such titles are more of an intellectual nature, rather than visceral or emotional.

Which, frankly, is not a bad thing, if you ask me. I don’t really care much for horror as an overall genre, and while Parasite Eve 1 was, indeed, a great RPG, it hits a pretty difficult target. I think I much prefer what I perceive Darkblood Chronicles to actually be: an 80s-style dark fantasy adventure, like Labyrinth, or The Neverending Story. It’s an adventure through a dark, strange, vaguely-disturbing yet somehow uniquely appealing other realm whose existence and nature are intrinsically tied to the protagonist, a world which may not even be anything more than a manifestation of its protagonist’s psyche as she tries to work through the weight of the torments within her heart. Thus, it definitely seems to me to have more to do with Fantastica, or Jareth’s Kingdom, or even a much darker version of the Land of Oz, than it does with most survival horror settings and approaches. Which, again, I’m perfectly happy with, because not only is that a lot more palatable to me anyway, not to mention a more natural fit to the RPG genre, but it also makes Darkblood Chronicles far more unique, as I have yet to play any other RPG that really hits that particular note.

Don’t let the movies I compared it to throw you off, however: I simply use them as a way of describing its overall premise, approach, and aesthetic, to some degree. This is not a kids’ RPG. Darkblood Chronicles is an RPG that wants to describe and explore the concept of loss, show its hold over us and the destructive power it has upon those left behind to deal with it, and the game incorporates things such as ritual sacrifice, abusive family environments, and serial killers into its narrative and lore, along with a whole, heaping bunch of symbolism. Darkblood Chronicles is an RPG defined very skillfully by its theme, with the miasma of loss not only the focus of its plot and protagonist, but also permeating the environment, the visual style, and the music. The atmosphere itself is a symbol, in Darkblood Chronicles.

DC is a very intelligent RPG, that wants its audience to really think about the ideas and facts of life that it presents. Needless to say, I greatly appreciate that, because what I most love in my RPGs is food for thought, ideas and philosophies and emotions that I can carry with me and nibble ponderously upon. Essentially, what I like in an RPG is heavy storytelling art to grow myself from, and Darkblood Chronicles is 1 of many titles in the genre to provide this. But it is also, I should note, a worthwhile adventure on a surface level, as well; it does not require you to be in full analysis mode to enjoy it to some degree. Like, it's more Fallout than Planescape: Torment, if you follow.

1 thing I also find quite neat about this game is that it takes a unique approach to multiple endings. Lots of RPGs have more than 1 possible ending, of course. Some go with the standard Bad, Normal, True ending formula, like, say, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, or have different endings which are all roughly equal in quality, dependant upon what you chose to do during the game’s course, such as Knights of the Old Republic 1. But in pretty much every RPG I can recall having played, each ending is a distinctive, set entity, and the only reason to see more than 1 is curiosity at how things play out according to a different path. Darkblood Chronicles, however, takes a different approach with its 5 endings. Each 1 shows a different conclusion, as you would expect, but you’re really meant to experience all 5 to get the most out of any individual ending among them, because each ending reveals a lot about the lore and nature of the game’s setting and defining past events, which not only affect your understanding of and appreciation for the game’s story, theme, and characters, but also increases what you can get from the other endings, as they all connect to and rely on the stuff revealed in the others. It’s an interesting and engaging way to get you to put in the effort to see every possible conclusion to the game, because even if you got the ending you personally prefer, you’ll only be able to like it more by seeing the other possible paths.

I also like that Darkblood Chronicles manages to walk a very tricky line between homage and complete originality, and get the best of both sides. DC is proud of the games from which it draws inspiration, and Mr. Tokici clearly wants to pay respect to the RPGs that defined his younger days. As such, expect to see all kinds of references and aesthetic/method nods to Chrono Trigger, Suikoden, Wild Arms, Shadow Hearts, Shin Megami Tensei, and many other major titles of the SNES and 32-bit days of RPGs. Yet, Darkblood Chronicles nonetheless feels very much like an entity unto itself, rather than like it has had to lift or lean upon any of its or its creator’s influences. That’s a tough thing to manage when you have as many references as this game does, and I certainly couldn’t hope to define how it’s accomplished. But I do know that DC does it.

Now, this game does have some drawbacks, make no mistake. It takes a bit of time for its plot to really start grabbing you enough to get you thinking and connecting dots, and likewise, its protagonist, Sam, takes a while to really hold your attention, since the majority of her noteworthy traits are related to her connection to the game’s story and purpose. The dialogue is, at times, a little stiff (which oddly seems to be a common problem in RPG Maker games; what’s up with that?). Gameplay-wise, it’s not very forgiving, which may or may not be a problem for you, and if you’re not into searching for hidden passages nonstop, then you’re gonna miss a LOT of stuff. Additionally, while it’s possibly the least RPG-Maker-feeling RPG Maker game I’ve played so far, there are certain technical details and aesthetics inherent to RPG Maker that Darkblood Chronicles can’t really escape from, so if you just absolutely can’t handle this development engine, well, that’ll be a turn-off. Finally, while I appreciate a game that lets you suss stuff out for yourself rather than be completely obvious and explicit in every aspect of its lore and philosophy, I do think that Darkblood Chronicles could have benefited from a little more directness in its lore’s secrets and in its ideas. I like figuring some stuff out, peeling away hidden layers of the story and the characters, but I don’t like to feel like I’m probably missing some important stuff because not enough bread crumbs were left to follow the trail, and there are a few moments in Darkblood Chronicles where that feels like the case.

But no RPG is perfect. Even games like Grandia 2 and Planescape: Torment could be improved upon, albeit in very tiny and mostly negligible ways. And while Darkblood Chronicles may not be Grandia 2 or PT, it is definitely a good RPG, maybe even a great one, and I recommend it to you. If you’re looking to recapture some of the feeling of those old 80s Dark Fantasy worlds, and/or if you’re interested in playing an RPG that will challenge you to really think about it, then give Darkblood Chronicles a try.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Conception 2's Main Villain

If I had to pick 2 areas of improvement for RPGs in general, with regards to writing, it would probably be Romance, and Villains. Obviously there are both some truly excellent love stories and some truly excellent bad guys to be found in the genre, and a great many more romantic tales and baddies of decent or good quality, too. Nonetheless, over the course of over 300 titles, I’ve noticed that there’s a far better chance in any given RPG that the love subplot(s) and, relevant to today’s rant, antagonist(s) are going to be underwhelming, included and developed out of necessity (or imagined necessity, in romances’ case) rather than passion. To put it frankly for our purposes today: in spite of some absolutely magnificent exceptions, this is just not the genre to look to for high quality villains.

But even by the genre’s low villain standards, Enzea of Conception 2 is gobsmackingly lazily and carelessly written.

And let me tell you, my expectations for Conception 2’s writing were not high by the time that Enzea’s villainy is ‘revealed’ to us. By that late point in the game, it was patently obvious that the most generous way you could describe this game is, as a reviewer once put it, “Trashy Persona.” I’d already figured out that Atlus can’t copy other developers’ style very well when I played Code of Princess, their unremarkable attempt to replicate a Nippon Ichi formula, but you’d think that Atlus could at least competently rip itself off. But alas, this game seems more like a bootleg of Persona than a proper forgery.

Conception 2 was made for 1 purpose, and 1 purpose alone: appeal to the pathetic power fantasies of maladjusted half-men with barely-functional genitals that can only chub up at the thought of owning a doting group of female cliches (since overused female character tropes are the sole experience they have with the opposite sex). In other words: most harem game enthusiasts. So to reiterate my point, I most certainly did not expect anything more of its villain than generic copy-pastes of countless JRPG bad guy tropes of the past, from a game like this.

But oh my Palutena, even by bad, lazy RPG standards, Enzea is awful. It’s like 15 minutes after picking Enzea’s villain motivations out of the Box of Tired Cliches, the game’s writers promptly forgot entirely what they’d decided on and couldn’t be bothered to scroll back up a few pages, so they just played a guessing game of what dialogue lines they grabbed from the Box of Equally Tired Cliches to use. For example: Enzea says he wants to create a world of equality--he doesn’t like how the poorly explained plot magic of Conception 2’s world determines the course and worth of a person’s entire life. The course and meaningfulness of one’s life should be in one’s own hands, is what Enzea believes.* But then his villainous and stupid plan is to use a different kind of poorly explained plot magic to revert everyone to their ‘primitive’ form, which just essentially means they become a monster.**

Now, as one expects of most dime-a-dozen RPG antagonists, this goal is self-contradicting on a philosophical level, in the sense that by forcing the world’s population to become a part of a new kind of world and society, Enzea is removing their agency to choose whether or not they want to be part of this new world of supposed equality, which, y’know, is directly opposed to the entire reason he’s doing this to begin with. But what really shows how little thought the writers put into this is that Enzea’s plan contradicts itself even beyond the typical paradox of making people live free by force. See, causing everyone in the world to become monsters, and letting them thus live as they wish... it is the complete opposite of this ‘equality’ that he supposedly wants to create! Because in this world vision of his, the ‘social’ standing, such as it is, will naturally be determined by one’s power as a monster, which is a set factor exactly as beyond that individual’s control as the current world’s system of Star Energy (the actual name for the first poorly explained plot magic I mentioned) determining a person’s social placement and worth. For all this dimwit espouses his disapproval of the Star God for creating people with varying levels of Star Energy that they themselves cannot change, he will be filling the exact same damn role in his dumb utopia!

Also, I think it’s worth noting that Enzea coming to this conclusion is a case of extreme careless sloth on the writers’ part. Again, even by the standards both of dumb RPG villains, and of Conception 2. This world order that he’s rebelling against? This terrible, unfair system of determining a person’s social order by a factor determined at their birth which they cannot alter? It’s only for 3 YEARS of a person’s life. See, as the game explicitly tells you and makes absolutely clear many times, a person’s Star Energy can only be used to fight monsters and protect the world and all that jazz for their high school years. It's a system not entirely unlike Final Fantasy 8's strange teen mercenary Garden concept--and I think that, when you're borrowing ideas for your game's lore from Final Fantasy Motherfucking 8, you really need to ask yourself where you went wrong as a writer, and human being. Once they hit the age of 19, it all goes bye-bye, for reasons you can damn well be sure the game isn’t going to bother explaining to you, and they have to retire from the world-protecting corps and pursue a normal life. And there’s no indication that one’s post-soldier life is limited in any way by how highly ranked one was during that time--the sister of 1 character, for example, was in her day an exceptional fighter, but now chooses a life no more ambitious than running a small cafe, while another character was nothing special while he was a soldier, but as an adult is the second highest researcher at the world’s premier tech lab. So yeah, even though this is a clearly established piece of lore for the game, noticeably a present aspect of its setting throughout the entirety of its events, somehow the writers seem to have just forgotten about it, and had Enzea go on a world revolution rampage over the fact that people’s social standing is outside of their hands for a mere 3 years of their life.

And then there’s Enzea’s last words, after losing in the final battle. So, like, Dusk is the second of the poorly explained plot magicks that I mentioned before, and it’s the one that, somehow, for some reason, transforms people into monsters, or as Enzea puts it, reverts them to their primitive forms (which is another fat load of quasi-intellectual nonsense). Basically, Dusk = Bad. So you beat Enzea, he’s dying, and he tells you that there will always be Dusk so long as the Star God is in charge, and that there’s no end to darkness as long as man exists. Yeah, okay, I suppose that’s an arguably true, and also unoriginal to the extreme, observation. But, Enzea? Bro? Did you somehow forget that you were trying to FILL the world with Dusk and darkness to bring about your new world? It’s like Enzea’s trying to imply that the heroes are in the wrong for beating him because now the world will continue having some bad stuff in it. Bitch, you wanted to bring about a world of INFINITE Dusk and darkness! You can’t use a statement that implies that even a little Dusk and darkness is bad as an argument for why you should have been allowed to fill the damn world with them! Pick a stance on the topic of unending evil and stick to it, dammit!

Conception 2 is lazy schlock through and through, it cannot be denied. But even for pandering, sloppy trash, I gotta say, its villain Enzea is a remarkably listless bit of negligence on the writers’ part.

* A concept which, incidentally, isn’t exactly ‘equality’ like the game says. You can have a system of complete equality for all that still doesn’t allow them much room to determine the course of their life--I believe that’s essentially what poorly-implemented Communism boils down to, in fact. What Enzea is (supposedly) championing is actually more just along the lines of freedom, and maybe equal opportunity. But whatever; I’ve clearly given this matter more thought in the 2.5 minutes it’s taken me to type this paragraph than any of the writers did in the months they sat around the Atlus offices drawing their salary like leeches draw blood from an animal too large to realize that it's got a bunch of useless, slimy hangers-on attached to its ass.

** Along with Equality, we can chalk Evolution up as another concept that the game’s staff don’t really understand.