Sunday, February 20, 2022


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

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Bravely Series's Convenient Battle System

You all know by now that I don’t play RPGs for the visceral so-called joys of their gameplay, a genre whose interface is based roughly 90% of the time on an inherently dull, plodding foundation. It’s just not what I like about the genre. But that doesn’t mean I can’t identify and acknowledge that some RPGs manage to arrange just enough tricks and features in just the right way to make them far closer to diverting to play than their peers. Do I appreciate the fluid, intuitive complexity of the Bravely games? The skillful way that Fallout 1 and 2 broke ground and developed a battle system that actually made fire-arms based turn combat work? The ability of Bahamut Lagoon to seamlessly bring tactical and turn-based systems together into a single entity? The way most Fire Emblems manage to offset a somewhat imbalanced difficulty with patently obvious ways to cheese your way through the game? Sure. Do I enjoy them? Nah, not especially.

...Although I do have to give it up for the extremely rare occasion that a developer brilliantly manages to create a battle system that subtly underlines and expresses major dimensions of its characters, or themes of the game as a whole. Like how Tales of Berseria’s aggression-based battle system is consistent with its protagonist Velvet, or the way Lunar: Dragon Song expresses its developers’ disdain for the human race in a careful symphony of infuriating gameplay anti-features.

So even though this sort of thing doesn’t affect my estimation of how good an RPG it is, I think it’s only fair to mention that the Bravely series has got a terrifically fluid, intuitive, and useful auto-battle system, especially Bravely Second. It is, in fact, pretty much the best example I’ve seen thus far in the genre.

First of all, let’s just acknowledge that the fact Silicon Studio bothered to do anything more than the bare minimum on this matter is laudable. In like 90% of the RPGs I’ve encountered with an auto-battle function, said feature basically just has everyone in the party mindlessly attack enemies until the battle ends in either victory or defeat. It’s just a more convenient version of mindlessly mashing the confirm button for every character over and over again, a process so simplistic that even most Kemco games possess it. KEMCO, for Abadar’s sake! And don’t get me wrong, I’m still appreciative of an auto-battle feature, even in its most basic form--I’d go so far as to say it and the battle speed option are tied as the very best characteristics of just about every game from Kemco’s catalogue--but actually taking steps to make the auto-battle commands in Bravely Default and Bravely Second anything more than just mindless Attack commands in succession represents an uncommon level of effort in this genre.

And that effort is spent so effectively! Silicon Studios makes the auto-battle system in Bravely Default so natural and handy. Just because you want a little more complexity to your battle performance than “everyone just hits Attack” doesn’t mean that every damn turn you take has to be a completely new strategy than the last--most of the time in an RPG, there’s only really a handful of combinations of characters’ abilities in a single turn that you’ll use with any great frequency. So Bravely Default’s clever way of handling auto-battle is to simply have your party repeat all their actions from the last turn again. Once you’ve explored BD’s shockingly complex and yet even more shockingly intuitive battle system enough, you’ll have a general idea of what effective strategies you want to repeatedly employ in most random encounters, meaning that getting to simply press a button to repeat them for as long as you want is incredibly convenient--and yet, since you can disengage and change tactics 1 turn, then repeat those new tactics over and over again, this gives you all the convenience of an auto-battle system with none of the limitations! And possibly best of all, you can keep using this repeated-turn system even in a new battle, without having to manually create the first turn you want reiterated each time.

And then Bravely Second improves the system even further by allowing you to not only select auto-battle to repeat a turn’s actions, but also have the option to select from 3 preset turn strategies you’ve designated for repeated use. So basically, all the benefits of Bravely Default’s take on the auto-battle system, combined with the functional convenience of a battle strategy system like Dragon Age 1’s tactics system--only also smoother and better designed.* You can preset 3 strategies that’ll presumably take you through most battles and have’em ready to go at the press of 2 buttons, any time you like, giving you convenience without sacrificing the ability to explore the many nuances and possibilities of the Bravely combat system.

It’s basically like Final Fantasy 12’s Gambits, if that system had been streamlined, attached to a well-constructed combat engine, player-friendly, and actually effective. And if the FF12 developers had possessed the collective 12 brain cells necessary to know that the Gambits should be optional, because otherwise it’s less like playing a video game than it is making some meek suggestions to a video game. And if the FF12 playing experience was good in any capacity whatsoever. So...basically like Final Fantasy 12’s Gambit system, but at the same time, absolutely fucking nothing like it, really.

And although I’ve spent most of this rant talking about how great the auto-battle system is with the Bravely games, I’ll also give major appreciation to the games for the fact that they also have a battle speed-up feature, too. I’ve already made my love for this function known in a previous rant, so no need to get into it here, but the fact that Bravely Default and Second have simple, effective fast-forward options as good as any I’ve seen in the genre is as valuable to me as their having such an effective and reliable auto-battle system.

Bravely Default and Bravely Second’s developers clearly had a lot of pride in the mechanics of their games, pride which is fully justified, as valuing gameplay conventions goes. But what I really appreciate about Silicon Studio is that they didn’t let that satisfaction blind them to seeking to make the playability of their games as convenient to the player as possible--no matter how proud they were of their creation, they didn’t hesitate to give the players a uniquely efficient set of tools to hasten our way through that creation to our content. Considering that over the course of both Bravely titles, I engaged in hundreds if not over a thousand random encounters, I feel significant gratitude to the developers who put these tools of convenience together. It feels like they valued my time.

* Don’t get me wrong, though, I think the DA1 tactics system is quite thoughtful and effective overall. And in fairness, while there’s a surprising level of innovative depth to the Bravely games’ combat, Dragon Age 1 still has a lot more going on in regards to what’s happening when, under what circumstances, and to what priority, so it’s pretty understandable that its use takes a little more work.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

General RPG Lists: Funniest RPGs

Happy New Year, Y'All!

I play RPGs for the story. I want to experience new ideas, to see a tale unfold that reveals the truths of the world and our species. I play RPGs for the characters. I want to see the heart of humanity, its every facet portrayed and its complexity multiplied through the factor of interaction and relationships. I play RPGs for the chance to learn about the human condition, and to grow as a person.

And, sometimes, I play RPGs for the yuks.

RPGs devoted to humor are not common by any measure. Oh, certainly, a well-written game will usually make use of humor to an effective degree in the course of its story, as a useful way of ingratiating characters to the player, and easing tension when necessary. Tales of Berseria and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, for example, each contain no shortage of comical interludes in which the vibrant personalities of their casts bounce off one another in amusing ways, and scenarios of wacky hi-jinks (bro dat dove scene tho). And a less well-written game will also often attempt to force what it ineptly believes is a joke upon you over and over, recognizing neither the line between being funny and being pathetic, and the line between charming recurrence and obnoxious repetition. Tales of Symphonia, for example, really wants us to believe that Raine widening her eyes and babbling in a mildly comprehensible fashion about the archeological lore of its (kind of stupid) fantasy world is absolutely HILARIOUS. And Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4’s running gag of Yukiko being a fairly reserved person in general but laughing super hard when something does tickle her fancy...I think I was gracious enough to give a polite grunt that could be interpreted as a chuckle the first time I saw it, but that was about it.*

But while comedy is frequently a part of RPGs, as it is with most narratives, there aren’t a lot of games in the genre that devote a primary focus to it. Sure, there’s a lot of funny moments in The Witcher 3, but even though the scene where Geralt and his fellows get drunk is some of the funniest shit I have ever seen, it’s quite clear that The Witcher 3’s intent is to tell a serious story. Unexpected, referential, clever, and at times outright wacky moments of comedy are a defining characteristic of the Fallout series (too bad Bethesda can’t be bothered to figure this out), but even if it’s a necessary component to the Fallout formula, it’s not what the series is all about, ultimately. With most RPGs, levity is a tool, not a purpose.

But though they be rare, there certainly are some RPGs that make your laughter Job 1--or at the very least, an essentially equal part of the storytelling process as the more serious stuff. And today, we’re going to sort through them and figure out which are the greatest comedies of all, the hardest of knee-slappers, the most explosive of gut-busters, the most unruly of laugh-riots. These are the 15 Funniest RPGs!

Note: To qualify, the RPG in question has to be, like, at least about 45% devoted to “teh funneez.” It can also have more serious ambitions, too, but the comical must clearly be 1 of, if not the, most important components to the title. So, no matter how much I chuckle at Mint’s diverting shenanigans in Threads of Fate, the hilarious snark of Ryudo in Grandia 2, and the lovably amusing way Rei’s gluttonous 1-track mind keeps mishearing strange food versions of others’ statements in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q 1, none of these games is gonna make it onto the list, because even if in varying degrees they have lighthearted stretches, none can really be said to be at least half-ish about the comedy. I’d say that...lessee...Shadow Hearts 2 would be the cut-off point: SH2’s comedy is as pervasive as it can be without actually qualifying for consideration.

With that said, an RPG can be funny AND serious in decent enough mixture to qualify for this list. Secret of Evermore, for example, has a story that is primarily a straightforward adventure of a kid getting stuck in a magical other-world and having to find his way back home (the 80s and 90s certainly were very fond of this trope), but the protagonist is an idiot child who contextualizes everything he experiences against the standard of B movies, and his ever-present partner is a free-spirited dog who possesses possibly the highest disparity between “Trouble” and “What He’s Worth” that I’ve ever seen in a pet, so as a result, even though the story itself is pretty standard, the game as a whole still winds up qualifying for consideration simply because most of what these 2 idiots say and do is funny.

15. Bravely Second

You really have to hand it to Silicon Studio when it comes to Bravely Default. On so many levels, it’s the perfect Final Fantasy title, and within it, the developers seem to just effortlessly coordinate every aspect of a game into a cohesive whole. As a result, among other virtues, Bravely Default’s narrative and approach to characters had an undeniable charisma and personality.

And you have to then hand it to Silicon Studio again when it comes to Bravely Second, because they knew exactly how to follow up on such a grand epic as BD: they didn’t try to outdo themselves, but rather, took the strengths of the first product, and found a new way to play on those merits. And with that great personality of storytelling and characters, Silicon Studios made Bravely Second a fun mix of engaging adventure...and quirky comedy. Bravely Second uses its characters and situations to great comical effect (particularly Edea; God I love that girl), with its villains it frequently mixes dark pasts with moments or styles of levity with surprising success, it reuses supporting characters from the first game now with a comically light touch, and it wraps it all together by doubling down hard on Bravely Default’s fondness for puns. The devotion to amusing the player was an unexpected direction for the sequel to Bravely Default, but it really works, and Bravely Second will have you chuckling from start pretty much to finish.

14. Okage: Shadow King

Imagine if someone looked at Henry Selick’s career, and said to themselves, “Well, I like it, but what if, instead of a story that’s weird in an understated way about a bunch of quietly oddball characters that could’ve just as well starred in a Wes Anderson flick, we up the Quirk Meter to a 10 and everyone’s a wacky nutjob?”

When a game’s opening gambit is a girl getting cursed to speak only in pig-latin, with her parents’ reaction being to summon a self-important demonic spirit of evil to lift the curse (a deal which requires them to sell the son’s shadow as real estate to the evil spirit, which they’re more than happy to), you know you’ve found something special.

13. Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch

As time marches on, much of Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch’s jokes, which borrowed a fair bit from then-current events and internet culture, have become dated, and so it’s moved down on this list from where it might have been had I written this rant 10 years ago. In spite of that fact, however, MLRotB is still an obscure classic of comedy, following a grumpy, down-to-earth ginseng-harvester as he reluctantly travels a crazy world of memes and low-budget live-action cutscenes in order to stop a pushy cult from coercing people into eating their vegetables with the threat of turning them into cockroaches if they don’t. Incredibly silly and so heavy-handed that it can’t help but be all the more funny for it, I’ll always carry a torch for this bizarre little Indie title, and keep hope alive for a sequel no matter how unlikely.

12. Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages

Honestly, when I hear about a sci-fi combat flight sim starring space monks who bend the universe on a conceptual and spiritual level, my first thought isn’t, “That sounds like it’d be the perfect vehicle for lighthearted, random and off-beat comedy in a style not unlike Freakazoid or Monty Python.” Well, after hours spent watching my protagonist do stuff like get into a dogfight with the PTA as a tactic for aggressive salesmanship of DVORAK keyboards while a voice in their head pleads unendingly for peanut butter cups, in a galaxy where people view gun turrets as pets, all I can say is, shows what the hell I know!

11. Anachronox

Another RPG that draws you in with random weirdness in both its situations and characters, Anachronox also does a fine job of letting its characters’ amusing personalities bounce off each other and create laughs simply from working together. Additionally, the games I’ve mentioned so far are all very funny, and it’s obvious each time they’re telling a joke, but Anachronox is interesting, and perhaps a little funnier, for just how smoothly its comedy fits into its spontaneously silly universe--much of its comedy feels less like the writers maneuvered it into place, and more like these funny situations and interactions are simply the natural course.

10. Makai Kingdom

Nippon Ichi is a little bit overrated. People generally like to pretend that everything this developer’s created is gold, but only half of the NIS games I’ve played have been particularly good, and most of that inferior half’s titles were, frankly, quite bad.

But when Nippon Ichi is on point, it is on point. A story of quiet love and out-of-control egomania, Makai Kingdom brings NIS’s full talent for singular personalities and silly antics to bear, and it’s a hell of a humdinger. If the classic JRPG/anime approach to humor appeals to you at all, then Makai Kingdom’s gonna have you grinning over and over again.

9. Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle

I play RPGs all goddamn day long. Of course I’m gonna find especial enjoyment in a game filled with jokes that poke fun at the genre! So I might not be a particularly objective judge on this. But this naughty, full-hearted little Indie work of passion thoroughly charmed me, as much with its ever-present, lighthearted wit and whimsy as it did with its poignant romance and fascinatingly understated darkness.

8. South Park: The Stick of Truth

Look, it’s South Park. Do I really need to explain this?

7. South Park: The Fractured but Whole

The South Park RPGs are pretty close to equal in terms of how funny they are, but I think the sequel has the original beat just a bit. The Stick of Truth was great, but a lot of the time, it was very focused on jamming as much of the show’s history into 1 game as possible, and that meant that sometimes the joke was simply that there had been a joke at 1 point. Which is fine, honestly, because they did it mostly well enough, but still...The Fractured but Whole had only a few years’ worth of new material to do that with, so the game seemed to try harder to find new gags to pull with what it already had in place, and I think it succeeded. The Crab People as service providers in SPTFbW was funnier to me than their just existing for the hell of it in SPTSoT, for example. And at times, the sequel’s just funnier overall--I can’t remember any part of The Stick of Truth making me laugh as hard as Randy’s bit, or the raid on the police station, or the genetics lab in The Fractured but Whole.

But yeah, anyway, South Park. It’s funny shit.

6. Borderlands 2

After never getting off the ground during the original, the irreverent, off-kilter comical style of Borderlands really hits its stride in the second game, taking you across a wild planet and adventure filled with hilarious violent wackjobs constantly cracking wise at one another. It’s a real testament to Borderlands 2’s writers that this game’s as hysterical as it is, because, honestly, the format for its narrative is a huge impediment. 95% of the method of delivery for the game’s jokes (and plot, and character development, and everything else of mental substance) is, after all, just having some off-screen voices sporadically chatter at you as you wander around and shoot stuff almost entirely independently of their input. To have made that work as a storytelling design, those writers have got to be have been some high-powered comedians. But they managed it, and Borderlands 2 is an appealing off-road excursion in absurdity.

5. Disgaea 1

Nippon Ichi at its best. What more is there to say than that? There are multiple reasons why this is the game that really put them on the map, and its signature ludicrous mirth is definitely 1 of them.

4. West of Loathing

Off-kilter style. A fantastically effective use of stick figures. An utterly ridiculous (yet somehow very authentic-feeling) Wild West setting. A deeply clever narration. A perfect sprinkling of references and low-brow humor. Word play of such quantity and quality that I daresay Shakespeare himself would tip his hat. And glorious, glorious pottyspittoon-humor. You just aren’t gonna find many greater comedies in this world than West of Loathing.

3. Undertale

You know, when we think of Undertale, what we remember most is always the heavy, fascinating ideas and messages of the game. Or it’s the secretive, poignant lore. Or it’s the engaging, incredibly lovable cast. Or it might even be the chilling, disturbing other side of its coin. But what we so frequently forget--and I’m certainly as guilty of this as anyone--is that it’s also relentlessly goddamn hilarious. From dad jokes to jabs at RPG conventions, from engaging physical comedy to a gentle touch of absurdity, from funny memes** to characters so vivacious that you can’t help but laugh at their simply being themselves, Undertale is never at a loss for a way to tickle your fancy. When you see its jokes coming, you still giggle at their arrival because of just how appealingly they’re told. Frequently you’ll find yourself laughing in delighted surprise as a jape falls into your lap unexpectedly.

And it’s all so well-conveyed, so pleasingly accessible--with every other game on this list, the comedy feels as comedy usually does: like its creator is out to make you laugh (and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, of course). With Undertale, though, it feels like Toby Fox (its creator) is creating jests and hi-jinks that make him laugh, and he’s just eager to share them with us. I don’t know if that’s a good way to describe it, but the overall effect is very disarming, very much like a friend who thought of something hilarious by accident, loved it, and just has to pass that jocular appreciation on to you.

Undertale is a masterful work in a myriad of ways, and 1 of them is the effortless way it keeps you invested by putting a smile on your face with nigh every step.

2. The Kingdom of Loathing

Basically, everything positive I said about West of Loathing is true with Asymmetric’s original RPG, except that KoL is a browser-based MMORPG that has been going on for over a decade and a half now, so when you play it, you’re basically getting all the hilarity of West of Loathing in exponentially greater quantities.

1. Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden

It’s a cyberpunk RPG in which Charles Barkley, his son Hoopz, and a dwarf with a basketball for a face, among some others, fight to survive in a post-apocalyptic dystopia in which basketball has been outlawed for years, ever since Barkley performed a dunk with such power that it caused a nuclear explosion. The premise alone is a side-splitter, but what really makes this sequel to Space Jam filled with save points that write treatises to the failings of RPGs the unassailable king of comedy is that everything, everything, is played totally straight. It’s like someone wrote in earnest a solid cyberpunk adventure of regret, rebellion, and redemption, and then, when that first someone was finished, he got up to go celebrate its completion with a sandwich and a nice glass of ginger ale...and then some internet wiseguy grabbed the script, broke out a red pen and a bit of white-out, and went to town on it, changing the names and details of lore into a mad mixture of basketball and absurdity, while never altering the tone or style in any way. The end result is the most utterly, hysterically ludicrous story ever told, made all the more rich for the fact that the game’s acting as its own straight man the entire time.

Honorable Mention: Fallout: New Vegas’s Old World Blues Downloadable Content

Yeah, there are humor RPGs, but did you know there are also humor DLCs? It’s true. When I stop to think about it, there are a good handful of add-ons devoted to comedy. Mass Effect 3’s Citadel, Fallout 3’s Mothership Zeta,*** that sort of thing--and of course most DLCs for games like Borderlands, which are already devoted to comedy. So, might as well honor these, as well, right?

While not especially lacking in funny content as a whole, Fallout: New Vegas very unfortunately followed Bethesda’s lead far more than the original Fallouts’ when it came to humor’s place within it. The Old World Blues DLC, however, made up for lost time in a major way, with its goofy premise, a cast of delightfully bizarre mad scientists, and singularly hilarious supporting personalities, providing a merry experience from the moment it starts. Honestly, this add-on would win by virtue of Muggy alone.

* Now that I think about spite of being a very good RPG as a whole, SMT Persona 4 was absolute shit at being funny, wasn’t it? Yukiko’s schtick is tedious. Occasionally poking fun at Kanji’s sexuality and masculinity just comes off as being tacky. The camping trip shenanigans are so overused and unfunny that they offend one’s dignity just to suffer them. There’s an NPC spontaneously thrown into the game solely so the writers can make fun of fat people.

And then there’s the game’s favorite by a wide margin, Teddy trying to hook up with chicks, which is quite possibly the most exhausted, loathsome, braindead “joke” ever conceived by the human species. I swear to the Loom-mother, whoever at Atlus came up with that bit, and then insisted that it be done over and over, should know nothing but suffering until the end of their days. I want them to be put through a deboning machine. I long for their days and nights alike to be defined by varying states of incontinence. I wish that sharks would learn to walk on land to the specific aim of tracking them down.

** Interestingly, I don’t feel like Undertale will ever suffer the same problem that Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch did, with its humor fading somewhat over time because of its basis in internet comedy, which is a famously temporary and constantly-shifting entity. I can’t say for sure, of course, as Undertale’s still relatively recent, but that’s the impression I get. I think the trick of it is that MLRotB used the entire, specific details of its memes, while Undertale kind of makes its humor from the core ideas and feelings of the social media humor it works with. Will the online landscape ever change to the point that Alphys announcing she has a picture of herself and then posting a pic of a trash can ever be dated? To some extent, I’m sure it will be, but most of the joke is rooted in a lighthearted moment of self-deprecation after making a gaff on social media, and I daresay that’s a feeling and intent that’s always going to have relevance.

*** Granted, Mothership Zeta was a colossal failure at being funny, but just because Bethesda’s capacity for joviality is strictly limited to companions’ quips, that doesn’t mean that Mothership Zeta didn’t count.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Annual Summary 2019

Well, here we are again. Hi, everyone. How y’all doing.

I’d like to try to be a little eloquent, a bit poetic, as I bid farewell to 2019, as is my custom, but...I just can’t this year. 2019’s drawing to a close doesn’t feel so much like a year concluding as it does the end of a goddamn war, at least from the perspective of a video game enthusiast. Activision laying hundreds of people off after they made more money than they ever had before. The lazy, dishonest roadmaps created and abandoned by Bioware for their failed cash-grab so they could keep stringing along their customers. Epic Games continuing to lie about their intentions and throw money around to create an industry environment that looks out for developers at the expense of the consumer’s welfare. Bethesda putting their every creative effort into finding new and original ways to utterly disgrace themselves with Fallout 76. Indie developers breaking their promises to their loyal patrons so they can take some of the money Epic Games got from psychologically manipulating children. One Indie developer, Glumberland, doing that, while dismissing their fans’ concerns with a snide laugh and the finger. EA spearheading the industry’s fight to continue taking advantage of addicts and teaching children to gamble, ignoring the welfare of their customers with a malicious avarice in no small way alike to cigarette companies. Video game rating organizations knowingly giving a child-friendly rating to games with complex gambling simulators and the capacity to allow (and encourage!) players to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on microtransactions. Randy Pitchford continuing to be one of the least dignified or respectable human beings on Earth. The revelation that some major multi-billion-dollar game developers use loopholes to not only abstain from paying taxes, but to actually siphon money from tax break initiatives. 2K Games sending real, actual hired goons to a player’s home to intimidate him. Blizzard actively attacking its players’ right to free speech, on behalf of a government infamous for frankly horrifying violations of human rights.

The major gaming industry has been bad for a while, that’s undeniable. But what has happened and what has come to light in 2019 has made it clear that this has become one of the most toxic and terrible industries you can find, and the consumer is no longer seen as a customer: he’s seen as a target.

So yeah. 2019 was fucking exhausting as a gamer. I daren’t even imagine how Bethesda, Activision/Blizzard, EA, and the rest are going to top all this in 2020...but they will, because the only reliable quality of the AAA gaming industry seems to be that its shitshow will continue to get shittier. I know that a diatribe about the lousy state of the industry isn’t why you’re here, though, so I’ll wrap this aside up with a plea to you all to give some real thought into refusing to buy products sold by the many publishers who have violated the codes of ethics and decency to make an easy buck.

So, how was 2019 for me, personally, as an RPG enthusiast? Well...fine, I suppose. Had its ups and downs. Honestly I think the only thing that truly stood out to me about the year was the tremendous size of some of the RPGs I played, and the way that size has limited the number of games I was able to get to, listed below:

Alphadia 1
The Banner Saga 1
The Banner Saga 2
Bonds of the Skies
Etrian Odyssey 2
Etrian Odyssey 4
Fire Emblem 16
Geneforge 3
The Keep
Pathfinder: Kingmaker
The Princess’ Heart
Shin Megami Tensei: If
South Park: The Fractured But Whole
Stella Glow
Steven Universe: Attack the Light
Tales of Berseria
West of Loathing

A short list indeed, compared to most years. But have you played Fire Emblem 16 and Pathfinder: Kingmaker? Holy crap, are they fucking LONG! And frankly, Tales of Berseria and Geneforge 3 aren’t exactly jaunty little sprints, either.

I at least still got some decent variety in there, with games both old and new (a lot of new ones, actually; I don’t usually hit so many titles released in the last couple years as I did this time around), Indie and AAA, really great and really awful. This year was more about continuing experiences with previous franchises and developers than about trying new stuff--revisiting Shin Megami Tensei, Etrian Odyssey, Fire Emblem, and so on, and games whose flaws are so consistent to Kemco and Roseportal Games that it’s almost more like replaying their previous works than anything new. Hell, even a couple of the RPGs I played without any immediate predecessors in the genre were still parts of IPs I’m familiar with, those being Steven Universe and Loathing. Really, The Banner Saga, Pathfinder: Kingmaker, and Stella Glow were the only genuinely new experiences I had. Perhaps if I’d had more time to devote to my namesake, I’d have tried more new things, but as already mentioned, a couple of these games really tied up a lot of my time.

Not that I can fully blame Pathfinder: Kingmaker and Fire Emblem 16 for that. There was a lot of other stuff I got up to this year, such as...
--Anime: This year I checked out Non Non Biyori, which was relaxing and fun, and Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai, which was really very good (surprisingly, given the name), both at the recommendation of friends. I also watched the brand new Carole and Tuesday on my own initiative, and found it really good--it’s no Cowboy Bebop, sadly, but it’s also no Samurai Champloo, thankfully. I would heartily recommend all 3 of these shows.
--Books: Still didn’t read as much as I wanted to this year, but I suppose the important thing is that I keep trying, right? The works I did read this year were The Golden Ball and Other Stories (surprisingly uninteresting overall; I guess Agatha Christie’s better at longer works than short stories), The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank (Erma Bombeck is always comfortably funny), The Immortal Unicorn (I can’t believe how little of value I found in an anthology of short stories about unicorns! And by authors hand-picked by the unparalleled Peter S. Beagle, no less!), Quicker Than the Eye (it’s got some winners, but I was a little disappointed; I’d expect better from a collection of Bradbury short stories), and both Stargirl and Love, Stargirl (very good; kudos to Jerry Spinelli). Huh...looking back at it, I had a surprisingly disappointing year in terms of literature. And I’m such a fan of short stories, too! I hope 2020’s reading will be better...
--Comics: I’m not usually a sequential art kind of guy, but my coworker, who generally has excellent taste, convinced me to give Saga a try, and I got very into it very fast, an eventuality that will surprise no one familiar with the spectacular series. Of course, said coworker neglected to inform me that Saga is not only unfinished, but currently on a hiatus with no defined someday I shall unleash a truly horrible vengeance upon him for that. If you read this, Angel, I advise you sleep at work with 1 eye open.
--Non-RPG Video Games: I mean it’s not like Super Smash Brothers has stopped existing
--TV: Another coworker got me into The Good Place this year, and I’ve currently finished watching its third season and will finish it in 2020. It’s very fun, very funny, and unexpectedly engaging for a show ultimately meant to be a dummy’s guide to moral philosophy. My sister had me watch the entirety of Parks and Rec, and I found it to be a good show--certainly and easily the least of the Office-Brooklyn-99-Parks-and-Rec-Good-Place tetrad, but a darned fun watch all the same. I also watched the new She-Ra. On the plus side, it’s actually fairly good, unlike the original. Downside, it’s not nearly as gay as the original, though definitely not for lack of trying. But yeah, I do enjoy the show, although by the end of the fourth season, I’m getting a little tired of the writers’ go-to move for creating conflict and achieving necessary plot goals: essentially, that every single character always rolls a 1 on their speech checks. Also, Glimmer is the fucking worst. Finally, I checked out Netflix’s new series of sci-fi shorts, Love, Death, and Robots, which...well, some of them were fucking awesome (Sonnie’s Edge, Zima Blue, When Yogurt Took Over, and a few others), some were alright, several were fucking terrible (do yourself a faor and just don’t even bother with Shape-Shifters, Sucker of Souls, Blindspot, and The Dump), and some were just kinda meh. Still, the good shit is really good, so kudos to Netflix for it, and even the worst episodes at least have great animation.
--Other Crap: I still have a job (2 now, in fact), I still write these rants, I have a new pet to take care of because she’s the cutest little cutiepie to ever cute around a terrarium, and honestly sometimes I just don’t feel like doing stuff so yeah.

Alright, you’ve patiently indulged my babbling about my year (or you’ve long since left to do something more interesting). Let’s get to the main event: how does this random assortment of RPGs of all types, ages, and creators stack up against one another?

RPG Moments of Interest in 2019:

1. Why does Stella Glow have its cast vocalize the act of hugging someone? Has no one ever hugged an Atlus employee? Do they not understand the basics of the experience?

2. Tales of Berseria is excellent in a number of ways, but among them is the way it showcases just how far the series has come in terms of writing quality. Conversations between Eizen and Eleanor in which they speak of their minor hobby in archeology hold so much more real and interesting characterization than the entirety of Tales of Symphonia’s Raine’s painfully overplayed “Ruin Mania.” There is so much more personality and authenticity in this minor nuance of 2 ToB characters than in what amounted to half of Raine’s entire personality.

3. Either their moon is catastrophically close to their planet, or the cast of Stella Glow are INSANELY good climbers, considering that they climb a tree spanning from their world to the moon in something like a day or 2.

4. I’ve now played a Steven Universe RPG. This means I can make topics about Steven Universe at my discretion. Be afraid.

5. After Torment: Tides of Numenera and Pathfinder: Kingmaker, I think it’s safe to say that anything called “The Bloom” in a Chris Avellone game is gonna be nightmarishly disturbing.

6. I hadn’t realized how much I needed another RPG based on Norse mythology, but The Banner Saga has filled this gap that had formed in me in the years and years since my last run-in with Valkyrie Profile. And it does so in a most satisfying manner--Valkyrie Profile 1 is, when you get down to it, only tenuously Norse, and its successors even less so. The Banner Saga, by contrast, doesn’t tiptoe around: it goes all fucking in on the Viking shit, and Dundr bless it for that.

7. I know that RPGs are excessively fond of the “prove yourself to me by doing some random busywork” sidequest formula, but Geneforge 3’s rebel faction takes this to the point of absurdity.

8. Fire Emblem 16’s Bernadetta is my hero, my role model, my soulmate, and my spirit animal, all cinnamon-rolled up into 1 waifu.

9. Speaking of waifus in Fire Emblem’s latest, this game literally allows your character to marry a loli who exists only within your own head. Hitting it a bit on the nose there, eh, Nintendo?

10. ...And since we’re still on the subject, I may as well note that I am, at times, utterly astonished by the creative lengths that Fire Emblem will go to in order to invent and subsequently explore new possibilities for incestuous relationships. [SPOILER]I mean for holy hell, the whole situation with Sothis, Seiros, and Byleth is practically a goddamn Mobius Strip of maternal inter-generational fucking! And yet, somehow, it still annoys me less than the typical Since We’re Not Related It’ll Be Okay scenario, if only for the fact that FE16 at least seems willing to be honest with itself and us about what it's going for.

11. Carole and Tuesday’s first episode totally stole from Undertale! They use the same little “You’ll laugh” “No no, it’s just that I was thinking the same thing” conversation that Undertale relates via Echo Flower in its Waterfall area! I mean, maybe this is just an anime trope I’m not familiar with, but I can’t recall ever having seen it before Undertale, nor after until now.

Best Prequel/Sequel of 2019
Winner: Tales of Berseria
A long, long time ago, I wrote a rant about the marked disparity between Lufia 1 and 2, in which I concluded that the unusually pronounced difference in quality between them was less about the actual size of that gap, than it was about the fact that the second game so thoroughly and carefully tied itself to its predecessor with an attention to lore that can only be called loving. Never before Lufia 2 had I seen a sequel quite so determined to bask and involve itself in a legacy quite so far beneath it. And never have I since...until Tales of Berseria.

Tales of Berseria has a level of care that straddles the line between loving and obsessive when it comes to connecting itself with its predecessor. Almost every location you visit, almost every major development in the plot, even a great number of inconsequential NPCs, they all relate in some way to details of the world and times of Tales of Zestiria. And that’s to say nothing of some of the major events and character development in ToB that more overtly and substantially connect to ToZ, such as the way playing Tales of Berseria gives you a much more complete and interesting perspective on ToZ’s Edna and Zaveid through the character of Eizen. Tales of Berseria didn’t have to, because it’s amazing all on its own, but it goes to uncommonly great lengths to anchor itself in every regard it can to Tales of Zestiria, and does this so well that it improves the latter retroactively. Every RPG should be so lucky as Tales of Zestiria to have a game like Tales of Berseria be its follow-up.

Runners-Up: Pathfinder: Kingmaker; South Park: The Fractured But Whole; West of Loathing
You may be surprised to see The Banner Saga 2 missing from this list, since it’s a perfect continuation of its predecessor’s story, but...well, that’s just it: it’s a continuation, not a sequel. Much like Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1 + 2, or the Millennium quintology, The Banner Saga’s installments are simply all parts of a single story being told, their stopping points more like the end of an episode of a serialized show than an actual conclusion. I really can’t count TBS1 and 2 (and 3, though I have yet to play it) as separate entities; they’re simply a whole that’s been divided into portions.

Pathfinder: Kingmaker is not a sequel, exactly, but it is a story told through a new medium for the Pathfinder franchise, and as such, it is, as far as I can tell, an outstanding, perhaps even perfect, representation of the tabletop RPG experience as a video game. You can find my rationale for that statement in my recent rant on the title, if you’re interested. South Park: The Fractured But Whole and West of Loathing are also great continuations of their respective IPs, each one offering the signature and hilarious humor one expects from the names South Park and Loathing, while also extending that humor in a natural direction past the predecessor--in SPTFBW’s case, the humor revels less in the referential call-backs that made up such a large portion of South Park: The Stick of Truth’s arsenal of jokes, and does more to be funny in its own right, while WoL takes the signature and unique absurdity and word-play of Kingdom of Loathing and gives it a vastly different thematic backdrop to work with. Each does its title proud and will have you laughing from start to finish.

Biggest Disappointment of 2019
Loser: Shin Megami Tensei: If
While not the worst of the games I played this year by any stretch of the imagination, the fact that Shin Megami Tensei: If is, narratively speaking, actually a bad RPG was kind of jarring. I mean, this is Shin Megami Tensei! Not every game in its purview fully lives up to the lofty title, but even the worst SMT (which was Devil Survivor 2) is, if not worthy of being a part of the series, then at least a decent game in its own least, that used to be the rule of thumb for me. But now I know that even SMT can produce an outright bad RPG! Truly this is a frightening world we inhabit.

Almost as Bad: Etrian Odyssey 2; The Princess’ Heart; Steven Universe: Attack the Light
I wouldn’t say that Etrian Odyssey 1 was a superlative RPG, but it had a decent plot and a party of characters who possessed enough personality to interact with each other well and form a comfortable dynamic. Etrian Odyssey 2...nothing stands out about it, positive or negative. Its story kinda just happens, and its characters are sorta just there. Their simple, single quirks are about all there is to them, and even as 1-dimensional character traits go, they’re pretty minor, and far from unique. For example, once you’ve seen Grandia 3’s Ulf, you’ve pretty much seen Chloe, and, for that matter, all characters who are solely defined by excessively carnivorous eating habits. As for the Princess’ Heart, well, I obviously haven’t been given much reason to think that a Roseportal Games title is gonna do much for me, but even so, I was kinda shocked by just how ethically repugnant its protagonist is.

As for Steven Universe: Attack the Light...nothing wrong with it, honestly, it’s a simple, light little RPG with a flavor and style very genuine to the first season of the show. And that’s fine. But, well, the idea of Steven Universe being put into an RPG, 1 of the video game genres most famously and positively associated with in-depth storytelling, I understandably had hopes that the result would be much closer to the unparalleled level of excellence that Steven Universe is known for when it gets serious. Well, perhaps the sequel will deliver.

Best Finale of 2019
Winner: Tales of Berseria
But only if “best” doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive to “your emotional state is a pinata and the birthday boy is Thor.”

Runners-Up: Pathfinder: Kingmaker; South Park: The Fractured But Whole
As a game that combines a genuine love for superhero media and culture with South Park’s talent for exaggeration, excess, excellence, and exacerbation, South Park: The Fractured But Whole had to close on a note that is equal parts epic, over the top, and absurd, all dialed up to 11. And it doesn’t disappoint. As for Pathfinder: Kingmaker, it’s got as grand, desperate, and legendary a conclusion as such a sprawling tale of classic tabletop fantasy adventure would necessitate, with a hectic and thematic struggle that unites every player of any importance from the game’s prior events together, an awesome climactic showdown with a singular and captivating villain, the potential for a perfect moment of poignant redemption, and a solid ending of the classic Western RPG style. Honestly, if anyone disputed my choice to put Tales of Berseria’s finale above Pathfinder: Kingmaker’s, I wouldn’t blame them in the slightest; I’m only truly going to know whether or not this current standing is accurate once I’ve had a good, long time to think about it.

Worst RPG of 2019
Loser: The Princess’ Heart
To put it frankly, this is a story about a truly terrible person being enabled and held completely unaccountable for her actions, culminating eventually in her achieving everything she wants out of life because she broke a contract by beating up the guy who owned it, written by someone who mistakenly viewed their character as the story’s hero, rather than its villain. Also, it’s light on actual story, and the dialogue is written with a heavy and inexperienced hand, displaying the bluntness and haste that you’d see in a middle school student’s prose. I don’t like to get on indie RPGs’ cases, but fair is fair, and awful is awful, and it’s only fair to acknowledge the fact that The Princess’ Heart is awful.

Almost as Bad: Alphadia 1; Bonds of the Skies; Etrian Odyssey 2
Bonds of the Skies is your standard Kemco venture, the gaming equivalent of mowing the lawn or putting a coat of paint on your fence. And Alphadia 1 actually manages to be worse, a flavorless time-syphon even by Kemco’s minimal standards. As for Etrian Odyssey’s blah. Just blah, nothing more. Its story is boring, and its cast are drones slowly drifting through it. I’d like to go into more detail, but just thinking about Alphadia 1 has started to put me to sleep, and no part of the process of recollecting Etrian Odyssey 2 is doing anything to counteract this sedation.

I’m not kidding. The next part of this rant will have been written a minimum of 2 hours after this paragraph. I’m actually going to go take a nap right now because I allowed myself to remember the details and the process of playing these games.

Most Creative of 2019
Winner: Tales of Berseria
It’s a tough call, because all the contestants are terrifically creative in very different ways...but I think I have to give the most appreciation to Tales of Berseria. While its overall style and world aren’t anything out of the ordinary for its series, or just JRPGs in general, I have to give it the win for simply having a message and purpose so completely its own. While I’ve played some great RPGs before that either star or can star their villains, such as Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 1, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, and a few Western RPGs that give you the option to follow an evil path and actually have a plan for that eventuality, those games are still designed to express a familiar message with their villainous mouthpieces (Marche in FFTA1 has to take on the role of a bad guy to pursue the cause of facing truth and reality even when it’s unpleasant, and Wilhelm in VPCotP, when he follows the path of a villain, embodies the game’s warning against vengeance and hatred).

ToB’s central idea, on the other hand, is completely unique to the genre as far as I can tell: it stars its villain in order to make the argument that the darker side of humanity, the negative half of its heart and soul, is necessary, and more than that, has value. In a genre absolutely saturated with stories of heroes proving that the good in humanity outshines its darkness, plots in which the main villains are powered or even outright representations of the negative emotions of mankind, and messages of hope that we can all one day fully do away with our worse natures...Tales of Berseria has the ambition, the gall, the big swinging balls* to insist that we NEED some of that negativity within us, that without at least some of our darkness, we aren’t truly human. And it’s damn persuasive about the matter, too. As Chris Avellone and his Obsidian crew crafted Knights of the Old Republic 2 to be a masterpiece of contemplation in order to tell George Lucas that his black-and-white view of the Force was stupid, so too, do I feel, did the Tales of Berseria team create this triumph of heart and humanity in order to tell the entire category of RPGs that its relentless preoccupation with negative feelings is short-sighted.

Runners-Up: The Banner Saga 1 + 2; Pathfinder: Kingmaker; West of Loathing
The Banner Saga (whose installments can only logically be counted as a single whole, thus both 1 and 2 occupying a single position here) has a style and pace all its own, and it does a great job of authentically using Norse mythology, yet keeping its story and direction very much its own. Next up, Pathfinder: Kingmaker’s singular band of main characters, the effort put into its lore, the style of its story, and the fact that it can manage to keep creating fresh new chapter scenarios that interest the player in spite of how long the game runs, all make it a great example of the classic and classy creativity that tabletop fantasy embodies. And finally, West of Loathing is engagingly and utterly bizarre and clever, as well as unexpected at every turn--you never know what ridiculous and amusing thing you’re going to stumble upon next, only that it will unerringly be accompanied by at least a half dozen witty offerings of wordplay and fun references.

Best Romance of 2019
Just as a heads-up: Fire Emblem: Three Houses has, as one might expect, a TON of romance possibilities. Like, hundreds, I’d estimate. And while I have seen many, my experience with them is, ultimately, a fraction of the sum total. This is something I’m working on rectifying! But it is slow going. So, that being the case, this category will, for now, eschew all of FE16’s romances, until I have a chance to know them all. Maybe I’ll do a little retrospective bit in next year’s Annual Summary for them. Or I might not. Either way, you’ll get some of my thoughts on them (if that’s of particular importance to you) in a rant at some point in which I list the best and worst of them, as I did with FE14. As of now, though, I simply don’t know what the game’s best offerings are.

...Although it’s hard for me to imagine they’ll get better than the Dorothea x Manuela one. Those two have got a fantastic chemistry and connection, and their A Support scene is just romantically lovely. They’d almost surely have been in the winners’ circle. In fact, assuming there isn’t a better couple in FE16, Dorothea x Manuela probably would have actually won this year; a lot of what I love about the winning relationship of 2019, the growth to accept and love a flawed and even damaged person for who they are in entirety, can be seen in Dorothea’s feelings for Manuela, after all.

But anyway, let’s get back on track. The best romance of 2019!

Winner: Protagonist x Spittoon (West of Loathing)
No cruel taboo, no venomous condemnation from the ignorant, not even God’s own gag reflex can stand against true love.

...But for all you tasteless normies who can’t handle the intensity of real, irrepressible passion, here’s an alternative:

Actual Winner: Octavia x Protagonist x Regongar (Pathfinder: Kingmaker)
I think that it’s very cool that Pathfinder: Kingmaker’s writers included an option (multiple options, if you get the Wildcards DLC) to pursue a polyamorous relationship in the game, and that they not only didn’t treat it with any disdain or like it was a less legitimate relationship than the others in the game, but went out of their way to carefully design its course to be a natural and compelling development of all three characters involved. Not only is the romance that the Queen/King pursues with both Octavia and Regongar pretty solid on both sides of the relationship, but Pathfinder: Kingmaker manages to make it feel like an authentic case of three people finding one another to be mutual soulmates--Octavia and Regongar’s relationship can function without the protagonist’s presence (thankfully, since there are other romantic options and it wouldn’t be fair to hold these characters’ happiness hostage), but it’s only once the Queen/King gets involved, develops feelings for each of them, that both Octavia and Regongar come to terms with certain aspects of their own relationship by seeing it through the eyes of another who equally loves them. I’m reminded of Aika, Fina, and Vyse from Skies of Arcadia, in that any combination of 2 of them would work very well as a romantic couple, but none of them feel like they’re truly complete in love without both the others. Except whereas SoA’s trio just sort of naturally and almost surely accidentally developed that way and thus the game doesn’t ever overtly confirm (or even recognize) this, Pathfinder: Kingmaker has knowingly created such a situation. And it’s done it quite well!**

Runners-Up: Alto x Hilda (Stella Glow); Alto x Lisette (Stella Glow); Nyrissa x Protagonist (Pathfinder: Kingmaker)
I’m not exactly Hilda’s biggest fan. Still, as much of a moron as she is in the game’s first half (and the centuries leading up to that point), she’s a pretty decent character in the latter portion of Stella Glow, and her bond with Alto feels genuine and warm. Lisette’s romance with Alto is also decent, and has the benefit of getting a little extra time onscreen by showing up in the main story itself.

In regards to Nyrissa and PK’s protagonist, I actually really wanted to put them in the winning spot. I personally view this as the “true” love story for the Queen/King, and it’s sort of treated as such by the game itself, in certain ways--particularly in the sense that Nyrissa falling in love with the main character of the game ties very strongly and organically into the story of her redemption. And the game really doesn’t feel right or complete, to me at least, without said story of forgiveness and amends. It’s touching, and satisfying on a deep level, for achieving Nyrissa’s affection feels like a true achievement for love, both for the story of it, and for just how hard it is to make it happen--I don’t think anyone could seriously argue that Nyrissa isn’t the most difficult romance to pursue in an RPG to date!*** But, I do try to be as objective as I can manage about this stuff, and I have to accept the fact that while Nyrissa x Protagonist appeals deeply to me on a thematic level and feels like a story of love in the classic sense, the romance between Octavia, Regongar, and the Protagonist nonetheless has more development, a more demonstrable connection between the three of them, and develops its participants both as people and as romantic partners farther and in a more compelling capacity, so I give that one the win.

But personally, I’m still Nyrissa x Queen all the way.

Best Voice Acting of 2019
Winner: Tales of Berseria
Everyone does a great job, everyone fits their role well, most of the voice talents bring their characters to life quite well, and, of course, Christina Valenzuela, who’s got some noteworthy range as an actress,**** brings Velvet Crowe to brutal life with a performance that does the fantastic main character of the game proud. Last year, I played the old Tales of Eternia, and I mocked its terrible voice acting, so characteristic for its time. How far the series has come since those early days!

Runners-Up: Fire Emblem 16; Pathfinder: Kingmaker; South Park: The Fractured But Whole
Same exact thing as last year--the South Park RPG is a natural extension of the show it’s based on, and the full strength of a cast of actors who’ve had as many as 23 seasons to get at home with their roles is on display in this title. FE16 is a solid venture, acting-wise, with a few highs (Dorothea’s voice actress brings a level of emotional depth and soul into the character that’s a rare privilege to experience, and full credit to Bernadetta’s vocal talent for managing to keep up with a character who is basically the human personification of anxiety), a few lows (Whether it’s “Noble Prince” or “Edgiest Drama Queen Ever”, Dimitri’s overselling it, and I fully believe that all directions given to Edelgard’s actress incorporated some combination of the following words: robot, repressed, wooden, mannequin, vacant, lifeless, recently deceased, stick up your ass, text-to-speech), and otherwise, a bunch of voice actors who fit the roles and tow the line to make their character work. Finally, while Pathfinder: Kingmaker has some noticeable rough patches in its performance--Amiri’s acting reminds me of Xenosaga 3, in that her actress fits the character just fine but seems not to have been given any context of the lines she’s delivering, for example--it’s overall fine and its vocal talents give the game a valuable personality.

Funniest of 2019
Winner: West of Loathing
It’s goddamn hilarious. That’s all there is to it. Well, there’s more, but my next rant actually mentions this, so you can get the details come next year. But it will still boil down to the “goddamn hilarious” thing. If you need a good, funny pick-me-up, you need to check West of Loathing out.

Runner-Up: South Park: The Fractured But Whole
I may only have played 2 especially funny RPGs this year, but as those were Loathing and South Park, I’d say I had a damn full and rewarding experience in 2019, mirth-wise. Just as WoL was everything Kingdom of Loathing would prepare you for, SPTFBW was everything you’d hope for from an extension of the cartoon.

Best Villain of 2019
Winner: Artorius (Tales of Berseria)
As the collected, composed mastermind of humanity’s salvation, and shouldering all the horrifying burdens that such a position necessitates, Artorius would be an adequate antagonist to mirror the vicious, vengeful Velvet Crowe even as a complete stranger, but his connection to her, the history of how he came to embrace his responsibility, and the truth within his heart all make him a villain of the truly superior quality necessary to properly rival Velvet in presence, and bring the game’s purpose and thematic question to life. Great villains are unfortunately a rarity in the RPG genre, and Artorius is of a quality uncommon even in that rarity.

Runners-Up: Innominat (Tales of Berseria); The Lantern King (Pathfinder: Kingmaker); Nyrissa (Pathfinder: Kingmaker)
The Lantern King is very much reminiscent of previous tabletop RPGs’ grand, villainous masterminds who play games on a divine level, such as Myrkul from Neverwinter Nights 2’s Mask of the Betrayer DLC. He fills the role quite well, too, a prankster god of tricks and curses, sowing chaos and despair among mortals on both a personal and a wide scale as they’re caught up in his unfathomable godly whims. PK also provides a solid villain in Nyrissa, a being of unrelenting and callous cruelty matched only, perhaps, by the tragedy of why she perpetrates such terrible acts, and how she can manage to bring herself to do so. Finally, Innominat is, in his own right, an adequately villainous little jerk who stands alongside Artorius quite well, but what really makes him noteworthy is who and what he is to the protagonist, the dimensions of betrayal and tragedy that the truth of his existence adds to her story and the shift it creates in the dynamic of her enmity to Artorius. It’s intense, classic stuff.

Best Character of 2019
Winner: Velvet (Tales of Berseria)
Velvet Crowe is a truly awesome character. She’s the living embodiment of her story’s concept, she’s developed extremely well and at a pace exactly fast enough to be engaging but unhurried enough to let you fully feel each step, and she has a powerful presence as a protagonist that grips the player and draws them into her psyche. As her audience, we feel her rage and sorrow, we feel hope when she rises, we hurt for her each time she falls. A complex mix of hatred, love, ideals, and nurturer, all held together by a dominating will to pay her suffering back to he who took everything she loved, Velvect Crowe is a compelling woman whose worst nature makes her not only the villain of her time, but also the only one who can be its hero.

Runners-Up: Dorothea (Fire Emblem 16); Eleanor (Tales of Berseria); Laphicet (Tales of Berseria)
Laphicet’s growth from an emotionless automaton into a unique, personality-rich human is an excellently crafted journey whose every milestone is visible and realistically follows and leads to the other events on his route. If I were to measure quality of character solely by the breadth of distance between its beginning and ending points, he would likely have been the winner this year. Quite often, a game with as powerfully full and entrancing a protagonist as Velvet clearly takes the lion’s share of writing talent, with the rest of the cast struggling to keep pace (such as Wild Arms 3, whose supporting cast, though solid and well-written, is clearly nothing compared to its excellent protagonist Virginia), but with Tales of Berseria, that’s just not the case--Laphicet is an amazing character, and, for that matter, so is Eleanor another individual with an appealing personality that is substantially and well molded by her companions and the game’s events. And let there be no mistake, it ain’t just Velvet, Eleanor, and Laphicet--if it weren’t for FE16’s Dorothea, this year’s Best Characters would have been entirely populated by ToB cast members.

But credit where it’s due, Dorothea is a truly noteworthy character. I must admit that my personal favorite of the cast is Bernadetta, but objectively, Dorothea’s the best FE16’s got by a wide margin. And it’s largely by simple virtue of her basic, terrific personality, not even so much about her character’s personal growth! A woman with such an admirably large and inviting heart, Dorothea is both endearingly outgoing and affectionate toward those around her, and heartrendingly melancholic and mournful in response to the terrible conflict she forces herself to take part in for the greater good. That latter quality really sets her above the majority of the game’s cast, who only occasionally express regret at the war they’re engaged in, and then only off the battlefield, while Dorothea is sorrowful at the death and pain around her out and in combat. In a game filled with anime waifus and husbandos of limited personal depth, Dorothea stands out as a really human character.

Best RPG of 2019
Winner: Tales of Berseria
Oh wow yeah big surprise, the game that’s been mentioned in nearly every positive category in this rant is the best game I played this year. Look, if all I’ve said to this point doesn’t give you a fairly good idea of why this game is amazing, then I don’t know what will. Berseria is the game that the Tales of series has been leading up to for 20 years, a finally-arrived justification for the franchise’s existence. All the time I halfheartedly fritted away on Phantasia, Destiny 1, Eternia, and Symphonia, and sort of Zestiria because even if Alisha was good and Rose was awesome let’s face it they can’t carry an otherwise dull pile of cliches, seems now to have been worth it, for it led me to this point. Thank you, Namco-Bandai, for this fantastic experience.

Runners-Up: Fire Emblem 16; Pathfinder: Kingmaker; West of Loathing
I’ll be honest, I’m kind of annoyed that FE16 is here, because while it’s good, it’s not THAT good. But the problem with playing a lot fewer RPGs this year than usual is that there’s a lot smaller of a pool to draw from, and while I certainly liked The Banner Saga 1 + 2 and South Park: The Fractured But Whole, as well as a few others, they’re also just good games, nothing more, and FE16 happens to be, I guess, a little more good than they are, while still not coming close to being really good. So yeah. FE16’s good, you won’t dislike playing it, but don’t mistake its place here as tremendous praise, either. FE14 and FE4 are still better installments in the franchise, in my opinion.

Now, PK and WoL, they do deserve to be here, no mistake. PK is great for a whole gaggle of reasons, and I heartily encourage you to play it if you have any love whatsoever for the classics of western RPGs. And West of Loathing...I mean, it’s just so damn fun and funny, it kind of has to get a spot here. If you’re just in a mood where you need to have a good, silly time, where you want to laugh at something funny for funny’s sake, this is the RPG to play.

List Changes:
Greatest Heroes: Velvet (Tales of Berseria) has been added as Honorable Mention; Marche (Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 1) has been removed. Sorry, you pariah and proponent of pushing past pretenses.
Greatest Deaths: Actually, I haven’t made a change to this one, but I’m considering it, and would actually like some input on it. For any readers who are ALREADY FAMILIAR WITH TALES OF BERSERIA, so basically DON’T READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU’RE NOT BECAUSE SPOILER WARNING FOR TALES OF BERSERIA: Do you think that Velvet would qualify for this list? Because, I mean, she doesn’t actually die, per say. On the 1 hand, it’s a similar scenario to death, and there’s some precedent, since I count Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3’s Minato on the list. On the other hand, even Minato’s “death” sort of has more similarity to the actual thing, because his consciousness appears, for all intents and purposes, to be subdued. Velvet, on the other hand, shares an unending dream with her brother of the kind of life they would have loved to have had if fate had been kinder. It’s as sad as any given death scene (sadder than most, really), but an eternal sleep isn’t quite death when you spend it dreaming an entire new life, and with someone else. I dunno. What’re your thoughts?
Greatest RPGs: Tales of Berseria has been added; Final Fantasy 10 has been removed. Sorry, you stirring story of sweet sentiments and selfless sacrifice.

And that’s that for 2019! Already I look forward to 2020, the year in which both The Outer Worlds and Cyberpunk 2077 will release, each of which I’m eagerly looking forward to. I’m also planning to conclude the Banner Saga, which has caught my interest, play some great Indie titles (1 of the ones I Kickstarted has just recently released, and promises to be a hoot!), and hit up some older RPGs (I plan to finally play 1 of the titles recommended to me by a loyal and very patient reader). And who knows what else the year shall bring? Besides more shockingly poor behavior from the AAA gaming publishers, I mean, because that burning barrel of trash obviously hasn’t reached the bottom of the mountain it’s rolling down yet.

Whatever comes in 2020, I’ll be able to face it and rant about it with the enjoyable comfort of knowing there’s a handful of folks who read what I’ve got to say, and some great individuals at my side. Thanks to my readers, thanks to Humza for his faithful and flattering support, and thanks to Angel Adonis, Ecclesiastes, and my sister for the time and effort they freely spare on my behalf to help these rants not completely suck. See y’all next year!

* Yeah, I was rewatching the cutscenes for Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch recently, and certain phrases do stick with you, heh. Man, I wish there’d been a sequel.

** I will say, however, that I have 1 peripheral issue with this situation. I accept that should you choose to romance only Octavia or only Regongar, rather than both, the romance is fine, but feels slightly incomplete--it should, as that incompleteness makes the perfect fit of the polyamory scenario valid. But I do not like the fact that romancing only 1 of them results, eventually, in a tragic death for the other. I’m pretty sure I’ll be doing a rant on this later on, so I’ll save the bulk of my complaint for that, but suffice to say that it’s 1 thing to withhold something to maintain the character’s depth and personality correctly, and it’s another thing to so completely needlessly punish the player for no reason!

*** Bugs and glitches notwithstanding, of course; Knights of the Old Republic 1’s Juhani is, if you want to get technical, probably more difficult to win the love of, but that’s due to bad coding making it extremely likely that 1 of the required conversations to romance her is prevented from being available to the player.

**** I was actually playing Stella Glow at the same time as I was playing Tales of Berseria, and I was agog when I IMDB’d the singular Velvet Crowe and found out her voice actress was also responsible for the squeaky-voiced, wailing doofus Nonoka in SG.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

General RPGs' Disproportionate Musical Quality

When it comes to RPGs, I have a lot of complaints. You may have noticed this. Whether it’s the faults of individual games,* game series,** recurring gameplay trends,*** developers,**** and even just the genre as a whole,***** I’m always down to dress down RPGs for their downsides. Role Playing Games are my favorites and I believe they’re the best type of video game as an expression of the medium’s capacity to be art, but they’re a far cry from perfect, that’s for damn sure.

But there’s 1 arena in which I have always been, and continue to be, frankly amazed by RPGs’ consistent quality: their soundtracks.

By and large, soundtracks are a shining cause for pride for the genre. Sure, not every RPG has a standout score from start to finish, but the worst they ever seem to get is to just be vague and forgettable background noise, which, considering how obnoxiously terrible most “real” music tends to be, is a pretty damn minor sin--I can only really think of a single RPG off the top of my head that was just outright bad with its music all around, and, well, Phantasy Star 3 is kind of its own category for obnoxiously poor quality in all regards, so I’m not sure you can even count it. And hell, a lot of the more generic, uninteresting soundtracks will have at least 1 song that stands out and really gets you into the moment--even Kemco games have something like a 50-50 chance of sneaking at least 1 quality tune into their lineup, and that’s Kemco, a company that I suspect may be entirely staffed by coma patients and certain species of jellyfish.

You’re just remarkably safe when it comes to RPG music, even in situations where you wouldn’t expect to be. Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is somewhat famous for being “the bad Final Fantasy” (as though FF5, 8, 10-2, 12, 12: Revenant Wings, and every spinoff of FF7 don’t exist), but it has got a kickin’ soundtrack, mixing it up between rocking battle and dungeon themes, and outgoing and soothing music for many of its calmer settings. Chrono Cross is the RPG that perhaps best embodies the term “hot mess,” but its music is simply lovely. Legend of Dragoon is generally a subpar title, but a few of its songs are among my most favorite in the entire genre. Xenosaga 3 is an incomprehensible shit-show, but it’s got some hauntingly beautiful music for several of its settings.

Even in cases where no particular songs really stand out to you, RPG soundtracks at the very least seem to generally be very well-suited for the telling of their story and the creation of their atmosphere. I can’t say, for example, that any song in West of Loathing really grabbed me, but as a whole, WoL’s soundtrack is damned effective at selling its setting and style of a lighthearted, exciting Old West adventure.

There’s even been a couple RPGs in which the “soundtrack” has mostly been just background noises, which you can’t really even call a soundtrack at all...and yet, that was so perfectly suited for the games (Fallout 1 and 2, specifically), that 1 of my earliest rants was dedicated to talking about how great a design decision it was.

I dunno what it is about the genre, but RPGs have a remarkable track record with their music. They’re dependable for accomplishing what they need to for setting the atmosphere and mood of the game, and bad games and bad developers are unexpectedly capable of delivering some quality music quite frequently. Even when the rest of a game’s team should cast their eyes down in shame for what they’ve wrought, the composers of this genre have cause for satisfaction and pride.

* Can you imagine the idyllic paradise the world would be if Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 had NOT had Teddy in it?

** Dear Star Ocean: If you make being a sci-fi game a selling point, then actually be science fiction.

*** God I hate Weapon Degradation so fucking much.

**** Could we please just euthanize Bioware at this point?

***** Why are legitimately good romances and solid villains so damn uncommon in RPGs?

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Fire Emblem 16's Byleth is a Moron

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Here's a rant that has absolutely nothing to do with the holiday because Palutena forbid I actually make an effort to maintain any chronological relevance whatsoever.

Note: I’ll be referring to Byleth as a female for this rant. While I usually (admittedly not always) try to acknowledge player gender choice in protagonists for whom the option is present, there are a few games whose protagonist’s gender aligns better in terms of theme, character development opportunities, or even just surface reasons like vocal talent with 1 of the gender options than the other. Like Male Shepard in Mass Effect, or Nora in Fallout 4. Given the connection Byleth has to Sothis and just her origins overall, I think it’s fair to say that Byleth’s being a woman is more logically consistent to the overall particulars of Fire Emblem 16’s story. That’s simply how I perceive the game, and it’s easier for me (not to mention a lot more fluent for my overall prose) to just go with Byleth as a woman while ranting. Hope it won’t be too big a stumbling block for y’all.

Superman is a goddamn moron.

Look, I don’t read the comics. So maybe this issue isn’t a problem in the source material. But in cartoons and movies and cartoon movies? Superman may as well not even fucking HAVE heat vision, because the only damn time he ever remembers to use it is when it’s narratively convenient for him to. The guy has the ability to spit lasers from his fucking eyes, beams of pure nuclear heat almost twice the temperature of the core of the sun (seriously, that's what the Wiki says), and yet, somehow, even though this asshole can unleash unfathomable cosmic devastation with surgical precision by doing no more than moving his goddamn eyes...this Kryptonian stooge’s go-to strategy in every fight is invariably to get in close and punch something. Every time he decides to instantaneously launch the fire of God from his peepers, it’s for some non-combat support role, like welding steel beams together to keep a structure stable, or performing laser surgery, or just shaving himself. All helpful purposes for it, of course, but he doesn’t have to choose between using his gift of reverse laser eye surgery to be the celebrity chef at a boy scout wiener roast or to melt offending enemy limbs. He should be able to do both! If he ever manages to remember that he is the living personification of the expression “If looks could kill”, it’s only against specific enemies who are so impossibly strong that heat vision can’t beat them, or some stupid robot grunts that are so weak anyways that fucking Chief O’Hara, the most useless human being ever to darken DC’s or any other superhero continuity, could probably have taken them out. At least half of all the battles or other dire situations I’ve seen Superman engaged in could have been either outright won, or at the very least substantially improved, by the application of heat vision.

Remember that episode from The Animated Series where Superman’s fighting Metallo, and he’s trying to find ways to stay further away from the villain so as to stay out of Kryptonite range, like smacking him with telephones poles and stuff? Remember how at no fucking point does Superman think to maintain his combat distance by using his built in long-range super power? And remember how the kryptonite hookup in Metallo is so weak and flimsy that in a much later episode of a show in the same continuity, a power-drained Supergirl was able to cut the wires holding the kryptonite there in Metallo’s chest, not even with her own heat vision, but an honest-to-Highfather medieval knife?

Jesus Fucking Christ.

So yes. Superman is a pea-brained moron for consistently forgetting that he has a literal death-stare. I’ve always been so frustrated by how lazy and unimaginative his writers are with his powers, only bothering to fully utilize them when it’s either completely narratively convenient, or when they’ll have no effect on the situation anyway.

And now that you know how annoyed I am by Superman constantly forgetting about the superpower of heat vision for the sake of lazy can imagine my feelings on Fire Emblem 16’s Byleth and her refusal to ever use her control over time itself.

This woman has the ability to turn the hands of time back several minutes at will, multiple times in a row if she needs to. That is unequivocally 1 of the most overpowered abilities yet conceived in fiction! In some stories, a device that can allow this even just once is the most sought-after treasure in existence--Galaxy Quest very justly made ownership of a simple 13-second time-reverse plot thingy, the Omega 13, the center of its plot’s conflict. And Byleth’s version of this can go waaaaayyyyy farther back than a mere 13 seconds! This idiot has the ability to Groundhog Day herself with a single thought, several times if need be...and she SQUANDERS it!

Okay, yes, the Divine Pulse, as it’s called, is available to the player in any battle to use at any time, allowing the player to jump back any number of turns to undo a bad decision. And I’d wager it gets plenty of action in just about everyone’s playthrough of the game, regardless of difficulty setting. Sothis knows I did, although I’m certainly no Fire Emblem master.

But gameplay mechanics and in-battle actions are 1 thing, and the plot’s narrative is another thing altogether! And in terms of the latter, Byleth is just as much an incompetent goon with her abilities as Superman at his absolute worst. When she walks into a trap set by some pissy old warlock who appears to have Grade 8 brain tumors inflating his cranium, does Byleth use any of the several moments the guy spends springing his magical trap to reverse time 30 seconds and then not step into the giant magical roach motel? Nope, she just lets herself get sucked into a nether realm, the escape from which leads to the sacrifice of her mental roommate.

When Byleth is knocked into a giant chasm in the midst of battle, does her survival instinct kick in during this moment of the most primal, universal mortal fear possible and cause her to rewind reality back to a time where she was still terrestrial? Nope, she just lets herself fall into a pit that’ll damage her so badly that it’ll take 5 years of heal-napping and a plothole nearly as big as the chasm itself to get her back on her feet. An entire war might have been cut off before it could begin had Byleth just bothered to hit the ZL button.

When the enemy masterminds of the game’s conflicts stand before Byleth and then teleport away after delivering their necessary exposition, does Byleth ever consider that she could go back in time a few minutes, ask 1 of her archer pals to go stand behind a nearby tree, and take a shot while the bad guy’s busy yammering about lofty yet ill-advised social revolutions and whatnot? Nope, she just stands there as still and lifeless as a damn mannequin until the Flame Emperor has said his inevitably stupid piece and vanishes off to continue completely incorrectly prioritizing the order of which foes he’s taking on.

When an enemy decides to pull the old “Sore Loser (Who Possesses Nuclear Missiles)” card, does Byleth think to spin time back a minute or 2, so she can make even the slightest attempt to prevent said bad guy from completing his Orbital Bombardment summoning circle? Nope, she just sits back and lets the freshly-emancipated-from-years-of-torture Rhea step forward to block those missiles with her own body. Byleth may very well be angling to slip an S Rank ring on Rhea’s finger, but apparently the power of True Love stops just a hair short of being able to remind someone that they can rewrite time itself so the hottie they’re crushing on doesn’t have to take a ballistic missile to the face.

Byleth is even stupid the 1 single time she DOES think to actually use this damn superpower in a cutscene! When Monica stabs Jeralt in the back, Byleth does, miracle of miracles (literally), actually use the Divine Pulse and try to stop the tragedy from occurring. Unfortunately, her attack is blocked, and Monica kills Jeralt anyway. The scene which follows is very sad, and a nice way to show Byleth’s emotional development,* and probably the most poignant moment in the game.

But it’s also really, really dumb. Because Byleth isn’t limited to just 1 single use of the Divine Pulse at a time. Even if she hasn’t lifted a finger to develop her capacity to use it up to that point, she still has 3 charges of it by default! The emotional power of Byleth’s first tears being shed as she holds her dying father within her arms is undercut a bit when you remember that if she actually cared about the guy living, she still has at least 2 more shots at saving him!**

I guess that’s another connection we can draw between Byleth and the stupidest moments ever conceived in the history of Superman--a willingness to just sit around and watch as ol’ Pops dies a highly preventable death.

Honestly, why did Nintendo even bother giving Byleth the Divine Pulse ability? It doesn’t do anything for the story! The only plot-centric purpose this ability ever serves is the fact that its introduction is also the introduction of Sothis, when Sothis stops time during the prologue so that Byleth won’t be killed by a bandit. And that’s something that could easily have been accomplished without anything so complicated and grand as the ability to rewind time! Nintendo’s attempt to hit every box on the Waifu Checklist at once could just as easily have been introduced by having her notice out of the corner of Byleth’s eye the incoming bandit attack, and warn Byleth of it so that the latter can defend herself. This would have been just as adequate for setting up Sothis’s mysterious presence in Byleth’s mind, and Sothis’s divine power is established effectively later on with the whole nether-realm trap event anyway, so nothing significant is lost with the absence of the Divine Pulse.

And sure, it’s a helpful and very welcome gameplay mechanic...but honestly, it could have just remained that alone, a gameplay mechanic. Had the ability to go back to a previous turn in order to correct a mistake been nothing more than a new feature in FE16's combat, totally unrelated to the actual plot, no one would have questioned it.

If your character is going to have a superhuman ability, then for Sothis’s sake, actually commit to them having it. Don’t just have them forget it exists until it’s convenient for you! Either make the effort to work your plot’s requirements around their full potential, or move on to a project more appropriate to your lazy limitations as a writer. This shit gets tiresome after a while.

* A welcome rarity, that. FE16 falls over itself to tell you, over and over again, how much Byleth has developed her humanity over the course of the game’s events, but I’ll be damned if we get to actually SEE that development very often.

** You might argue that she clearly can’t save Jeralt if that bad guy is gonna show up and block her attacks against Monica, sure, but the Divine Pulse can reverse literal dozens of turns in battle--it would be easy for Byleth to simply travel far enough back that she could be at Jeralt’s side and ready long before Monica was on the scene. Hell, she could probably go back to the middle of the battle preceding this moment, and, in the chaos of the fight, attack Monica then, with Byleth’s allies by her side. Even if you want to posit that the Divine Pulse is narratively more limited in its scope than the gameplay suggests, Byleth could at the very least go back again and shout a warning to Jeralt. The guy is 1 of the greatest warriors in Fodlan; he’d surely be able to dodge Monica’s attack if he had any warning that it was coming.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Pathfinder: Kingmaker's Downloadable Content

Blah blah blah unnecessary intro, you all know what this is without me going on about it. Let’s just get to it.

The Wildcards: This DLC adds 2 new party members to the game (or 1, depending on how you look at it), Kanerah and Kalikke, a pair of sisters under the curse of a very unique and specific contract with 1 of the game’s deities, and a small set of character quests for them. Quality-wise, it’s a solid DLC. Kalikke and Kanerah are both good characters who interact well with the game’s events when they’re in your party, and their shared character arc through their personal quests is built on an interesting and creative idea, and makes for a decent story. Much like previous successful DLC characters like Mass Effect 2’s Zaeed and Dragon Age 1’s Shale, Kalikke and Kanerah skillfully tread a fine line between inclusion and separation--they’re a natural fit to the game and the party and never feel like an outside and unnecessary influence on the game’s story and cast, but at the same time, they’re kept just separate enough from the story and characters that the game couldn’t be said to be in any way incomplete without them (which is important for add-on characters; you may recall my anger with how important Sebastian was to Dragon Age 2’s core plot). The potential romance you can have with them is rewarding and genuine, and the side-characters that come along with them (the Sweet Teeth) are charmingly amusing, a welcome addition of minor humor in a game that otherwise has to lean quite heavily on Nok-Nok and the rest of his race for most of its comic interludes. I will say that I feel like Kalikke and Kanerah’s reconciliation towards the end of the game (if you’ve made the right decisions during their character quests) does seem a little spontaneous, but it’s not bad or anything, just something that could have been more developed.

On the other hand, more practically-speaking, this DLC has its flaws. It’s sold at $8, which isn’t exorbitant, but at the same time, you’re definitely not going to get 8 hours out of their specific character quests and dialogue. And no matter how well-separated they are, I can’t help but be more and more leery as time goes on of the ethics of any DLC that isn’t distinctly additional side-content to the main game. Still...the content is worthwhile, and Owlcat Games has clearly striven to implement The Wildcards in a morally acceptable manner, so while the price keeps this from being a must-buy with or without a sale, I’ll give my endorsement to it and say that it is, indeed, worth the purchase.

Varnhold’s Lot: Varnhold’s Lot is a self-contained side-adventure which details the events in the barony of Varnhold during Chapter 3 of the main game, and sets the stage for the main story’s fourth chapter (which takes place in Varnhold). It also subsequently adds a very small dungeon in the main game’s campaign, and a minor event during Pathfinder: Kingmaker’s finale.

There’s just a lot of issues with this add-on that interfere with its value. For starters, it’s $12, and you’re not likely to get even half a dozen hours’ worth of content from it, all told. And sure, I guess I have to admit that the dollar is worth less and less with each passing year, but I think we’re still several years away from an exchange rate of 1 hour of game time per $1 spent on a DLC being an unfair expectation.

That said, DLCs are like guys in bed: it really doesn’t matter if what they’ve got comes up a little short, as long as they’ve got the skill to do something great with it. Even if Varnhold’s Lot doesn’t have as much content as its price tag is, in my opinion, obliged to provide, all is forgiven if what it does have is of sufficient quality. But unfortunately, and also like guys in bed, DLCs are usually disappointing, and Varnhold’s Lot stays true to type on this matter. The plot of this adventure isn’t particularly compelling, and whatever your level of knowledge is with the main game, it works against VL’s favor: either you’re playing it before you get to Varnhold in the main quest, in which case the slow and at times aimless pace of this package makes it feel unimportant by comparison to the crazy shit going down in the main quest, or you play it once you’re familiar with Varnhold’s fate in the main quest, and what little suspense could have been had is lost. Or, I suppose, you play this DLC before you even start the main game, and its rushed introduction and setup fails to invest you in its events.

Likewise, the cast of this add-on is wholly unremarkable. Maegar Varn is a likable enough minor NPC in the main campaign, but he sure as hell has neither the personality nor the depth to carry his major role in this side venture, and the most that the rest of the characters and villains here can aspire to is There Because The Plot Needs Them. It’s also harder to feel a connection to the protagonist you create here, because you’ve got a much stronger connection to the protagonist you’ve made for the main campaign, the latter being a character you’ve had more time and far more choices in action and dialogue to form a personality out of.

Honestly, though, I think the real problem with Varnhold’s Lot is this: no one was asking for it. The summary of the events that led to Varnhold’s part of Pathfinder: Kingmaker’s story was adequate already, and it didn’t have the narrative pull and curiosity that other, successful explanatory side-story DLCs have had. Remember Dragon Age 1? During the course of DA1, you learn certain details of your companion Leliana’s dramatic past as a lover and protege of a master spy, whose subsequent betrayal once Leliana found out a little too much set into motion the events that led Leliana to join the church and cross paths with DA1’s protagonist. It’s a tale of the intrigues of espionage, mixed with a dangerous and unequal love, culminating in bloody betrayal that completely reshaped a woman’s beliefs and views of the world, defined the life that she was to live! Even if her summary of it in the main quest is adequate enough, that’s the kind of history that’s worthy of a more in-depth look; there’s good reason for Bioware to have created Leliana’s Song, the DLC that allowed us to watch her sordid backstory play out directly. By contrast, the Vanishing of Varnhold was merely a happening that unfolded as yet another kingdom-breaking event in a game filled by design with such scenarios, anchored by Maegar Varn, a minor character whose dramatic weight shakes out to no more than a neighbor you like well enough to greet with genuine cheer in passing, and the details of how the matter went down had been more than adequately explained by Vordekai and Varn in the main game. This DLC answers a question that players simply had no real reason to ponder in the first place.

And also, it really has to be said that even if there actually are players who really did want to see the Vanishing of Varnhold firsthand, this add-on still doesn’t satisfy. Varnhold’s Lot straight-out doesn’t do what it tells you it’s going to. While VL implies that you’re going to be seeing just how Vordekai’s return to power went down, almost the entirety of this package is devoted to the protagonist dealing with some semi-related side adventures, which culminate in a large dungeon at the end that turns out to be a red herring! Your protagonist winds up fooling around with the wrong villain in the wrong lair, so the only experience with Varnhold’s Vanishing, the event this DLC specifically exists to elaborate upon, comes from others mentioning it, because you aren’t there for it. Well what the hell is the difference between that, and just having had its events summarized to you in the main campaign?!

Varnhold’s Lot simply has nothing notable about it, there was no calling for it to exist, and it fails to fulfill even its superfluous purpose. Forget even getting it on sale; just give it a pass.

There’s a third DLC for Pathfinder: Kingmaker, but it’s basically an extended dungeon crawl with no plot, and I only cover add-ons with some form of story content, so I’m not gonna bother with it. So we’re done, since Owlcat has only indicated an intention to create these add-ons...although, I dunno, the way PK’s menu and add-on content integration is set up, it feels an awful lot like games such as Neverwinter Nights and Shadowrun, which have the kind of accessible architecture that’s designed for incorporating many additional content packs. That may just be an intention to allow for user-generated campaigns (which would be welcome), but I have a sneaking suspicion that Owlcat Games will be returning to this game with more content, after all.

At any rate, to judge it by what’s here...meh, I guess PK is alright, add-on-wise. I like The Wildcards enough to give it a solid thumbs-up, and for all Varnhold’s Lot’s problems, it at least feels like the writers just made several decisions that they didn’t really think through with it, not that they weren’t trying to make something decent. I’m disappointed that such a strong RPG as Pathfinder: Kingmaker wouldn’t have a likewise strong showing for its DLCs, but at the same time, I guess one has to allow it at least a little respect, for the simple fact that just being “alright” overall seems to be an accomplishment when it comes to RPG add-ons.

But I still miss The Witcher 3’s add-ons.