Sunday, June 11, 2017


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...

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Fire Emblem 14's Children

Howdy, folks. Before we get started, I'd like to just point out, in case you have somehow missed it, the button on the right there. That fun little dancing moogle button which my sister was kind enough to make for me is a link to my new Patreon page. Late to the party as always, I now have an account at Patreon through which you can, if you so choose, support my terrible ranting addiction! But I do want to make something clear: whether I get a single pledge or a thousand (odds are closer to the former than the latter, methinks), it will not have any impact on the frequency or quality of this rant blog. I didn't set up this Patreon account so I could hold something over your heads as a way to coerce you into giving me money. I've simply decided that if there actually is anyone out there who for some reason likes my rants so much that they think I deserve to be compensated for my time and effort, I'm going to give them the chance to put their money where my mouth is.

That sounded more clever in my head.

Anyway, bottom line: I would love it if you like my rants enough that you feel that they're worth a buck or 2 a month. But I don't hold any kind of expectation that you should do so, and I'm not going to push it any more than having the button and mentioning it this one time. Either way, the rants continue as they would have. And on that note...let today's ranting commence.

The way children are handled in Fire Emblem Fates is dumb.

Really dumb.

Massively dumb.

I don’t even know why I’m making a rant on this. Because we all know that it’s dumb. And we all know why. And many, many people have pointed out the ways in which this situation is dumb. But what the hell, you’re here and I’m short on rant ideas. Let’s do this.

Alright, so quick recap for anyone who doesn’t know, which is probably no one because anyone who doesn’t know this wouldn’t be reading a rant about this game anyway, but it just wouldn’t be an RPGenius rant if at least half of it weren’t superfluous garbage. In Fire Emblem 14, you can pair off a massively large number of characters with each other. There’s over 300 possible romances in this game, and the majority take place between the first generation characters (those that become available to join your party naturally through the story’s course). Some are good, a few are really good, some are bad, some are just fucking terrible, and at least half of them are spontaneous and don’t really make much sense. Well, what do you expect? The writers had to come up with over 300 love confession scenes, for Medusa’s sake. Most RPGs can’t even manage a single decent romance. On the whole, I think the writers did a lot better than one could ever reasonably expect.

Well, except with Jakob. Fuck Jakob.

Anyway. So you hook these characters up, they get married (these folks just jump right into matrimony in this game, lemme tell you; marriage proposals are like handshakes in Fire Emblem 14), and they have a kid (or 2, if the couple involves Azura or female Corrin). At this point, the game informs you that since war times aren’t good times for child-raising, the characters decided to send their little bundle of joy to a place in the Deeprealms, a bunch of little mini-dimensions “strewn across the astral plane.” Also, time passes much faster in the Deeprealms, so the children grow up super fast by the standards of the regular Fire Emblem 14 dimension. According to the Fire Emblem Wiki, “a matter of weeks” in the regular dimension is enough for the children to mature into young adults. At this point, you’re given a side-mission, in which, through varying circumstances, it’s decided that Junior is gonna join your team, since he/she is by this point more or less as much a capable adult as his/her parents. Hell, in some cases, like Rhajat and probably whoever ends up being Elise’s kid, the child is actually older than at least 1 of his/her parents.

If you didn’t stare at the screen and say, “What?” at least once during that last paragraph, there may be something wrong with you.

Alright, so, now that we’re all caught up on how this system works...what the hell? What nonsensical crap IS this?

Look, I get why Nintendo wanted there to be children characters in the game. The company’s following the high that was Fire Emblem 13’s success, and one of the things that people liked about that game was that there were characters in it that were the sons and daughters of the plot-natural party members you hooked up. With FE13 being the first, to my knowledge, Fire Emblem that really hit on a widespread audience outside of Japan, not to mention being very popular in Japan itself, they didn’t want to risk losing this audience they’d been courting for years with previously mild success at best. Understandable.

But understandable does not necessarily mean acceptable.

In Fire Emblem 13, the idea of having child characters worked, because the plot was set up to sustain it. FE13 is a story about a hero going back in time to save her world by helping her parents and their allies to stop an evil that, in her timeline, they had fallen to. Children traveling back in time to help their parents save their world is already a natural part of the plot in Fire Emblem 13. The story automatically accommodates the idea of the child of the couple who just got together showing up as an adult ready to join the party and do their part.

This idea also worked in the game it originated from, Fire Emblem 4, because, again, FE4 was set up to accommodate it. FE4’s story was multi-generational; the second half of the game takes place years and years after the first, and you take control of the children of the first half’s heroes (or a group of unrelated freedom-fighters, if you didn’t pair off the characters in the first half). Again, you’ve got a case where the story of the game is specifically designed that children characters are a legitimate part of it.

Fire Emblem 14 just ain’t set up that way. FE14’s plot happens in a straight shoot, start to finish in a normal RPG’s time frame, and there’s no time-traveling involved. There’s just nothing you can reasonably do to include children of the game’s main cast who are born during the course of the game’s events. So if you’re gonna jam these kids in there, you’ve gotta stretch.

Oh, man, do you have to stretch.

So let’s roll through this 1 thing at a time. First of all, it’s just not a good thing overall, from a general viewpoint of story structure. Multiple dimensions linked together across an astral plane is not the kind of story element you just throw in on a damn whim! Yeah, I know that the multi-dimensional thing already exists in Fire Emblem 14 peripherally (Selena, Odin, and Laslow are “secretly” (it’s not that well-kept a secret) characters from Fire Emblem 13, called from their own world to save this one), but there’s a BIG difference between having 3 characters secretly knowing there are other worlds and other civilizations of people out there, and establishing as a matter of basic knowledge for the entire cast that there are numerous other worlds beyond their own. Everyone just takes this in stride? 1 day, everyone’s concerned about their little feudal Euro- or Japanese-styled kingdoms as the center of their existence, and the next, they know that other worlds exist and that there’s life and other civilizations in them, and no one bats an eye? Sees it as a handy place to stash their kids and nothing else?

No, no, of course, it makes perfect sense. Nintendo’s figured it out. The reason we advance our scientific knowledge in the hopes of reaching new worlds? The reason we conjure every imaginable scenario about our first exposure to alien life? The reason humanity looks up at the night sky, and wonders? We’re all just searching for the perfect daycare.

To get into the more tangible details of why this is ridiculous...let’s look at the time frame of this situation. You may want to skip this paragraph for the next if you just want to get to the answer without my rambling. We start out with 2 characters getting to know each other and having conversations with one another. There are ways to increase characters’ affinity a little outside of battle, but for the most part, characters become closer as they do stuff together in battle. So from the beginning of these 2 noticing the other exists, until the moment they get married, you’re looking at...let’s be completely insane and say that they have their support conversations and fall in love over the course of a few days. The stars have aligned to make it so that they each go up an affinity rank after each battle, so they only need to be in 4 battles, and miraculously, all 4 of these battles take place over the course of like 3 days, even though most battles in the game take place in locations scattered around the game’s world that would require a lot of travel time to get to. These 2 hook up after knowing each other for a few days, because they’re idiots, and decide to get married. Let’s now suppose that this is the barest bones wedding possible, even though that’s thoroughly insane to assume of a great number of individuals in the cast (Laslow, Charlotte, any of the royal siblings, Odin, Selena, the list goes on). You’re looking at, I dunno, a couple days for the FE14 version of a town hall wedding to go through when they’re already busy with the events of the plot going on. The marriage happens, the honeymoon happens, and there’s now a bun in the oven. Human pregnancy lasts about 9 months. No, I’m not going to assume that every child character in this game was a preemie; I’m already being more than lenient. So, 9 months later, the baby pops out. Let’s say that we give the birthing process and the process of the kid and mother getting their wind back just a single day. Hey, these are RPG characters, they’re built extremely tough. Now let’s say that it takes another day to move the kid to the Deeprealms, under the assumption that the parents have already set up the living accommodations for their progeny ahead of time. Finally, let’s assume that it takes no more than 4 weeks in the regular world for an entire childhood’s worth of years to pass in the Deeprealms.

So, essentially, if we assume an absolutely ludicrous breakneck pace from the beginning of the parents’ conversations to the point where the baby’s all grown up and ready to kick ass, we’re talking about a time frame of over 10 months. How long is Fire Emblem 14 even supposed to be? What time frame does this game take place within? Because the story events don’t give any sort of impression of 10 months’ worth of time passing between Chapter 6 (which is the earliest you can start working on hooking characters up) and the game’s conclusion. Not to mention that many, many of the characters in this game join you much later than Chapter 6, so you’re not even working with the full time frame of the game’s plot, which, again, I doubt spans 10 months to start with! And let’s not forget, that 10 months I’m giving is honestly a fallacy anyway. Even at the speedy pace at which people fall in love and get hitched in FE14, it’d be much more reasonable to say that the process takes at least a full year. That just seems way, way longer than the game’s story actually takes.

The difference between time flow in the dimensions is a stumbling block, too. Most of the time, yes, the dialogue involving child characters is mindful of the circumstances regarding the kid’s upbringing--parent could only visit, not stay around, the period of the kid’s childhood took only a matter of weeks in the main world, etc. But there are times in the support conversations between parent and child that just don’t really mesh with this situation. Like I say, most of the time, the child character remembers that his/her parents were usually not around and only speaks of their presence in the sense of memories, but there are also a few conversations where it seems like the writers forgot this, and the impression you get from the dialogue is that the parent had a more permanent part of the kid’s childhood.

Much weirder, though, is the parent characters’ side of this, at times. There are some conversations between parent and child in which the parent is extremely nostalgic when remembering moments of their kid’s childhood, and how the child used to be when he/she was younger. But for the parent, these memories are only weeks old! I mean, I guess I can understand having a little regretful nostalgia about how fast your kid grew up, particularly when we’re talking about a growing up period of like 2 months at the most, but when they talk this way, it sounds just like it would if it had been a normal span of years between the moment they’re remembering and the present. It’s never like, “I remember back when you were little like it was just yesterday...actually, it really was just yesterday, I guess. Man, I feel like we’ve really missed out on something important from this whole Deeprealms situation!” It’s just like, “Oh, remember when you were little and did cute things as a kid? I do. Memories, memories...” as though these things didn’t just happen last week for the parent.

Another oddity of conversation occurs with with some of the princes’ kids. A significant amount of Shiro and Siegbert’s character development revolves around their position as heirs to their fathers’ thrones, and both they and Forrest and Kiragi are heirs to their fathers’ powerful magic weapons, a point which is mentioned more than once. This would make sense under normal circumstances, but again, the whole thing with the sped-up time of the Deeprealms makes it really weird. I mean, thanks to the Deeprealms, Shiro, Siegbert, Forrest, and Kiragi are all close to their fathers’ age, right? I wouldn’t say that any of the sons are a full 10 years younger than their fathers once they’ve left the Deeprealms and joined the FE14 party. So the question of succession of thrones and heirlooms is a bit off here.

I mean, if, say, Ryoma gets assassinated when he’s 35, no problem, his throne and weapon pass to Shiro who’s probably like 30 at that point and Shiro gets to be the lightning katana king of Hoshido for the rest of his life. So that’s fine. But what happens if all the first generation princes live full, healthy lives? By the time any of them die of old age, their children are going to be elderly, as well! If Xander lives until he’s 70 before he dies, that means Siegbert only finally inherits his father’s title and sword in his early to mid 60s! Siegbert’s been preparing all his life to rule and live up to his father’s legacy, but there’s a very good chance that the first chance he’ll ever get to claim his birthright and fulfill his reason for existence, he’ll be only a few years away from his own natural demise! Hell, with a situation like this, it wouldn’t be strange for some of the fathers to outlive their sons--I sure as hell wouldn’t be on Shiro’s lifestyle habits being as good as Ryoma’s, so barring an outside force killing Ryoma off, Shiro’s probably gonna kick the bucket before his old man. So yeah, just another way that this Deeprealms nonsense throws off character development and interrelationships as you think about it.

The whole reason given for this is silly, too. I mean, yeah, I can understand the characters of the game wanting to send their children somewhere safe to avoid the dangers of war. That’s reasonable. But they don’t need the Deeprealms for that! The party of FE14 already HAS an extra-dimensional safe haven where the fighting couldn’t reach their child: the castle headquarters for the army! Yeah, the base of operations for Corrin’s force is situated in a little pocket of its own on the astral plane, as far as I remember; it’s not actually a part of the world that FE14 takes place on. There’s no need to send the kids elsewhere. The castle already has all the defensive benefits of being in another dimension that the Deeprealms have. On top of that, it’s, y’know...a CASTLE. Filled with the members of Corrin’s army, and a handy baby dragon guardian, along with, potentially, some other defenses you can set up. The kids would actually be safer at the castle HQ than in the Deeprealms! Yes, the castle does get attacked by some of the Faceless 3 times during the game’s course, but it’s filled with defenders who are prepared to engage these enemies. Half of the side chapters that recruit the child characters to your party involve them being attacked by dangerous enemies within their Deeprealms, anyway. Why not keep the kids somewhere with better fortifications and more defenders, then?

How long were the children characters supposed to stay in the Deeprealms, anyway? I mean, what would Corrin’s merry band of deadbeat parents have done if the game’s events really had taken a long, long time to conclude? If FE14’s conflict had gone on for a couple years, was the plan to just keep the children in the Deeprealms, letting them live out their lives with nothing but intermittent visits from parents who would by then be far younger than the children? Would some of them lived and died never knowing the world they were born of, the lives they were meant to lead, the family and friends they could have had? Some of the parents have to be convinced during the child recruitment sidequests to let their kids join Corrin’s army even when those kids are now able-bodied warriors, so there’s a real possibility that at least some of the parents really were intending to keep their kids in the Deeprealms indefinitely if the regular world remained unsafe. The more you think about it, the more messed up it seems.

Speaking of messed up, Azura and Female Corrin’s actions are kinda fucked up with this whole situation. With most couples, there’s a single child resulting from the union, but in any relationship involving Azura or Female Corrin, there are 2 children: the child of the father character, and then Shigure (Azura’s son) or Kana (Female Corrin’s son). These kids are sent into the Deeprealms, same as all the others, but they’re actually separated from their sibling! Shigure will be sent to a different dimension than his brother/sister, and the same is true of Kana. What the hell? These kids aren’t already going to be lonely and miss their family enough as it is, apparently, so Azura and Corrin decide that they’re also going to be isolated from their sibling! The 1 person in the universe who could share in the child’s pain at being only able to see his/her parents during intermittent interdimensional visits, and they have to separated from him, too! Is the marginal assurance of extra safety if you split your kids up and put them in different hiding places REALLY worth forcing siblings apart, particularly in these circumstances!? How much safer from worldly dangers do Azura and Corrin need their kids to be than a single separate dimension?*

It’s really deplorable on Corrin’s end, too. I mean, think about how important the Nohr siblings were to Corrin as she grew up, how much they meant to her and how much happiness they gave her as she was kept otherwise isolated in a castle all her life. Corrin has enjoyed and appreciates the happiness of the bond between siblings more than most. She knows how vitally important it is for a lonely child to have siblings for love and support. And yet, she separates Kana from his brother/sister! He’s kept separated from his family, tended to by servants in an isolated location for his entire childhood...Corrin is putting Kana in the exact same position that she was in all her life, a position that she hated, that was hurtful, and she’s denying her son the only comfort that made the same situation bearable for her!

Yeah, there are a myriad of reasons why this issue of children and Deeprealms in Fire Emblem 14 just doesn’t work. It’s dumb, it opens small plot holes, it gets kinda disturbing at times, a lot of it just doesn’t make sense, and it involves some very uncharacteristically poor decisions on the part of Azura and Corrin as parents. People are right: this is a flaw in the game.


...Sigh. But, I would be remiss if I didn’t say, in spite of everything wrong with the system, that I can’t find it in me to hate this aspect of Fire Emblem 14 too much.

Look. It’s stupid, it’s unnecessary, it makes no sense, it puts a lot of characters in a bad light. There’s a seemingly limitless number of problems with how children characters were handled in the game. But...there is a very sizable redeeming factor, too. One that doesn’t seem to get raised very often when people discuss and diss this aspect of the game.

The children themselves.

A lot of this game’s most likable characters are the ones in the second generation. Selkie and Mitama are a goddamn hoot; I cannot get enough of Selkie’s antics, and Mitama has a special place in my heart for being as lazy as I want to be. I find the antics of Velouria and Ophelia to be more enjoyable than their fathers’ shenanigans. Dwyer, Rhajat, Sophie, and Soleil are all fun, likable characters, and I can’t help but find Nina’s fangirlish ways amusing. And Forrest...well, Forrest is pretty much just the best character in the game. Everything he does and says is great, and damn if it’s not a breath of fresh air to see a crossdressing character in an RPG treated as something more than a cheap punchline.

I’m not saying all the children characters are good, mind you. Shiro is a waste of space, Midori and Siegbert are pretty blah, and Kiragi mostly just annoys me. But if you weigh the first generation characters against the second generation, I think, pound for pound, you get a cast with more appealing and vibrant personalities from the kids. The first generation still has the advantage of character depth (for the most part, at least, although there’s precious few who can compete with Forrest on that front), but if you cut the children out of the game, you’d be losing a lot. You’d be losing fun, engaging characters, you’d be losing a really great character in Forrest, and you’d be losing some really strong support conversations between some of the parents and their children, including 1 of the game’s best moments--Selena’s interactions with her daughter (if she married Subaki) Caeldori, which are just absolutely lovely for Selena’s character.

Also Dwyer shows his dad Jakob up at being a butler, and to me, getting to see Jakob be the one feeling belittled for once is worth just about fucking anything.

Now, you can make the argument that a lot of these people didn’t need to be children characters. It wouldn’t have been difficult at all for Rhajat or Ignatius, for example, to have just been outright characters in the game. This is a fair point. But there’s still a lot of character development for several of the kids that really requires them to be children of the game’s primary cast, such as with Forrest, Velouria, and Shigure. They really do have to be second generation characters; their connections with their parents are simply too big a part of their character depth.

Are these children characters good enough that they make up for the deficit to the game caused by the means through which they exist within it?’s hard to say. There are, as I’ve gone over, a LOT of problems with the way second generation characters are forced into Fire Emblem 14. At the same time, I don’t think the game would have been as enjoyable without Selkie running amok, nor as intelligent without Forrest’s wisdom and quiet forbearance, nor as emotionally strong without Caeldori present to help Selena come to terms with parts of herself and reach a better place. In the end, for me, the positives that the children characters bring to the table are enough that I overlook the utterly ridiculous, poorly written method through which they’re brought into the game.

But for Pyrrhon’s sake, Nintendo, next time, please try a little goddamn harder to insert characters into your game in a way that makes some sense. Or recognize when the plot just doesn’t allow for it. Come fucking ON, guys.

* I focus on Corrin and Azura, but it’s worth noting that, technically, every first generation male of the cast is guilty of this exact same crime (with the exception of Corrin-only male partners like Izana, since they have no child beyond Kana). I mean, Corrin and Azura aren’t the only parent of their multiple children. Their husbands, whoever they wind up being, presumably agreed to this plan of sibling separation.

Monday, November 28, 2016

General RPGs' Preferable Non-Realism List

Realism in our video games is a good thing, in theory. After all, the more realistic the gaming experience, the better your chance, as an audience, of being pulled into the atmosphere of the title, and audience immersion’s vital to any form of storytelling. Players laud it, developers seek it, and game publishers tout it. “Realism” is a buzzword that every AAA developer in the business seems eager, even desperate, to be able to attach to their product.

There is such a thing as going too far, though.

For all that we value realism in our games, there are certain conventions to them that defy real-world logic, yet are nonetheless far better than a more authentic alternative. When we play a First Person Shooter, we usually don’t want things so real that a single bullet puts our character down for the count, as it would in real life in most situations. When we play a platformer, we usually don’t want things so real that our character can only jump like 2 feet up, making actually platforming in our platformer pretty much impossible. And, of course, there are plenty of RPG conventions in which it is far better to suspend disbelief than shoot for absolute reality, too. And, because not everyone can achieve great things with their life, I have compiled some of these situations below. Enjoy.

Short, All-Healing Inn Rests: Let’s start off with an easy one. This is a situation that people have been poking fun at for decades now. You know the deal: you drag your bruised, battered, bloody, and bereft of life party members into a town, head to an inordinately inexpensive hotel, and after 3 seconds of a dark screen and a reassuring little sleep jingle, everyone is right as rain. From the ritziest resort hotels to a single pile of straw inside an actual mud hut, there is no ill, no injury in the universe that cannot be cured completely by spending 1/30th of a minute in an RPG bed. It’s a funny quirk of the genre we all know of, so easily lampooned that there are even some RPGs that lampshade this--Undertale, for example, allows you to use the inn at the town of Snowdin for free, because the innkeeper doesn’t feel it’s right to take your money when you’re only using the bed for a few seconds at a time.

The thing is, although almost all of us are only gently ribbing at RPGs when we bring up this silliness, I have actually seen a few people online honestly criticize the lack of reality with this trope. So I’ll just say flat-out here: you do not want a more realistic sleeping-healing arrangement in the genre. You do not want to have your less than 5 second wait time be extended to more appropriately match a full night’s sleep. Hell, it bugs me in Fallout 4 when I need to have my character sit down and wait for 8 hours so I can sell some stuff to those blasted diurnal merchants, because the waiting process takes a whole 10 seconds or so. That’s just 10 measly seconds, and yet the fact that it’s over twice as long as a standard JRPG’s 8-12 hour night-to-day period makes me impatient! Trust me, strange internet people out there who have actually made sincere complaints about this, you do not want a more realistic wait time for your party’s shut-eye breaks.

And you definitely do not want to wait a more realistic time in terms of the healing aspect of this situation. The period of recovery from having a random encounter monster unleash a blazing inferno on you and then tearing your chest open with its claws is not one which you want to wait out in real time.

Decaying Weapons: Goddamn do I hate it when RPGs force you to constantly perform weapon maintenance. YES, developers, I know that in real life, you could not slash hundreds of rats, goblins, slimes, dragons, skeletons, zombies, and so on without, at some point, taking a moment to clean, polish, sharpen, and hammer your weapon back into working order. That doesn’t mean I want a weapon health bar hanging over my head all the damn time! Micromanaging the health of not only my characters, but my tools as well, is not fun! Especially in an RPG, a genre which has you encounter and kill enemies in the literal thousands, making any weapon repair system in place a constant annoyance.

And no, Fallout 3 and New Vegas, I do not give you both a pass on this. Yes, the concept of weapons breaking down and needing to be repaired is, indeed, very appropriate for the setting and themes of the Fallout franchise. But you know what? Just this once, the needs for smooth, enjoyable gameplay trump the higher aspects of the game, because the constant frustration of knowing that every bullet you fire makes your gun less effective makes the setting and theme less enjoyable and engaging even as it better expresses it.

Weapon- and Armor-Breaking Abilities: While we’re on the subject of frustration with mortal equipment, the occasional game you come across that allows combatants to permanently break their opponent’s weapon and armor will always, sooner or later, invoke great cursing from me. Hey, I admit, it is a lot of fun in Final Fantasy Tactics to use Meliadoul or Orlandu to render your enemies harmless by destroying their weapons. But you know what far, far outweighs that fun? When an enemy does it back to you, and ends up destroying a piece of equipment that was unique and you’ll never be able to get another. Yeah, it’s realistic that fierce combat can lead to the destruction of one’s weapons and protective clothing, but the potential for frustration with this is just too high to make it worth incorporating.

I still have nightmares about enemies breaking my equipment in Lunar: Dragon Song.

Money from Monsters: Another quirk of RPGs that has been long lampooned is that random monsters are apparently carrying some seriously stacked wallets around, just waiting for you to kill them and steal their mysteriously earned cash. This is so unrealistic in so many ways. Non-sapient creatures don’t carry money, most of these monsters don’t have a place to be carrying it to begin with, sometimes the creatures carrying the money are so small that it doesn’t even seem like they could be lugging around this much change when their world’s currency is coin- or gold-based, there is no possible way that any kind of economy could be sustained when money just grows on (monster) trees, and so on.

The thing is, as silly as this is, it’s the easiest, most direct, and least annoying way to handle money-gathering in most RPGs. An RPG with a robust and easy to use barter system, like any given Fallout title, manages well enough without monster-money, but most games that try to avoid this trope and replace it with something more realistic don’t gain much from doing so. Sometimes you’ll have a system in which you’re not taking money from enemies you defeat, but rather parts of their body, like tusks and furs and such, and then selling those parts at a merchant as your primary source of income. And that works fine, I guess, but really, all that’s happening is that you’re still just going to a shop after beating enemies to access and spend your money, except with a few extra windows and button presses each time as you sell items instead of just having the money automatically. Oh, and I guess that if you have something you need to spend money on before you can reach a merchant to sell the items, then you’re shit out of luck. Fun.

Travel Speed: Is it realistic that you can take an airship, just a big hot air balloon with some propellers, across the globe and back again within the span of 60 seconds in half the Final Fantasy titles out there, along with countless other games? Not unless the average RPG planet could fit inside my tiny hometown.*

But let me tell you something. The day you play Suikoden 4 and spend over 40 minutes sailing from 1 end of the map to the other, that is the day that you stop being at all troubled by the idea of unrealistic travel speeds in your RPGs, forever.

Running Endurance: Most RPG characters are utterly tireless running machines, it seems, capable of traversing every enterable location in the entire world at a brisk jog without a moment’s rest (so long as you hold down the Run button, that is). Myself, I get winded after just about a minute of running. Actually, it’s more like I get winded after just about a minute of thinking about running. Even for those of us who are actually in shape, though, it’s not realistic to think that we could run from 1 end of an ancient abandoned city to the other without a single break in pace, save for the occasional random battle to the death.

But I’d much rather believe that Dean Karnazes is the shared ancestor of every RPG protagonist than deal with what a lot of games do to make for a more realistic simulation of running: the dreaded, annoying as fuck Fatigue Meter, a visible (or worse, sometimes unseen) limit to how long your character can run before having to go back to walking for a moment to recharge. True, not every RPG uses this concept poorly--The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword incorporates a Fatigue Meter for Link very well into its gameplay--but as a general rule, well, I want to be able to get from Point A to Point B on a dungeon map as fast as I’m allowed to. Yeah, sorry game artists, but your dungeon backgrounds will never be so majestic and beautiful that I want to slow down and take them in rather than play the damn game. And true, not every game with a running limit is unendurable to walk through--you really only end up wanting/needing to run in Fallout 4 every now and then, for example--but by and large, imposing such limits results in an unpleasant gameplay scenario where you’re just dashing as much you can through the screen, and getting annoyed every time your endurance runs out and you have to watch the character crawl forward at his/her pathetic walking pace.

Fewer Random Enemies Remaining = Lower Encounter Rate: I’ve only encountered this problem once before, in the game Lords of Xulima, but I really hope that’ll be the only time. Sometimes you have a game in which the enemies you can randomly encounter are limited, and thus there is a finite amount of experience you can get from the game during your playthrough, making that experience much more precious. Now, realistically-speaking, the fewer enemies remain in an area, the less frequently you should encounter them, since there are fewer invisibly lounging about for you to run into (and, frankly, you’d think they’d probably start actively hiding from you after a certain point). Yes, realistically, your rate of random encounters should lower as the number of enemies left decreases. But when Lords of Xulima tried this out, all that happened was that I got bored and frustrated from running around in circles for 5 minutes straight without encountering a single enemy. LoX is the kind of RPG where every experience point you can get matters, so to make the process of gathering that XP far longer for no reason save an unnecessary bit of realism that no one asked for was a really dumb and/or mean-spirited design choice. I’ll take the convenience of steadily encountering limited enemies over the tiresome realism of long gaps between encounters indicating the recent scarcity of monsters.

Swimming with Armor On: For a bunch of guys and gals weighed down by iron plate mail and steel weaponry, not to mention hundreds of consumable items in their packs, RPG characters sure don’t exhibit much trouble with buoyancy. Hell, they usually need to go out of their way to try to sink--despite the fact that he’s carrying a sizable metal shield and multiple steel swords, not to mention a host of other weighty doohickeys like a hookshot and a hammer outright named Megaton, Link has to actively equip the Iron Boots in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time to sink to the bottom of a body of water, for example.**

Nonetheless, I’d rather suspend my disbelief about suits of armor that double as life jackets than risk a return to the other extreme, so popular in the early days of gaming--the old Water = Death days from 80s platformers and RPGs like Startropics and The Magic of Scheherazade. Having to see any random puddle as a life-threatening obstacle is not a gaming cliche I wish to return to.

Underwater Breathing Limits: Is it really all that realistic that the party of Final Fantasy 5 can hold their breath in the Sunken Tower for a full 7 minutes even though they can potentially be spending a lot of that time performing the physical activities associated with combat? FF5 would be a much more interesting game if Guybrush Threepwood was its protagonist, but sadly, we’re stuck with Butz and his prosaic posse, so the 7 minutes of holding their breaths while performing rigorous activity is a little less than realistic. Nor is it realistic that Cloud and company have a whole 20 minutes as they somehow battle on the ocean floor to kill Emerald Weapon.

However, I owned the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game for the NES. So I will never, ever, EVER criticize any game that wants to forego realistic breath-holding times in favor of just letting its heroes inexplicably take as long as they need to in underwater temples, caves, and whatnot.

Limitations to Inventory and/or Carry Weight: 99 bottles of Potion jammed into the same backpack, 99 bottles of take on out, drink it down, 98 bottles of Potion jammed into the same backpack...along with assorted other restorative agents, a few bombs, dozens of magical rings and baubles, and a few entire sets of armor. Yeah, maybe not entirely realistic. But I prefer accepting that all protagonists order their bags from the same catalogue that Mary Poppins does, to those infuriating moments when you have to throw away a rare or unique item to make room for another because your inventory’s full, or the tedium of having to slowly crawl back to your home base in a Fallout game because you’ve found more valuable salvage than your carrying capacity wants to deal with.

The Fallout World’s Decay: I love the setting of Fallout, a sentiment which I have expressed here before more than once. But let’s face it: as great as it is for depicting its post-apocalyptic world, there is no way that the ruins you find in parts of the D.C. area, near and in Las Vegas, and throughout the Boston region should be in as good condition as they are in Fallout 3, New Vegas, and 4. We are talking about 200 damn years of time! The places that haven’t been significantly inhabited or looted in these games over that period of 200 years should not just be rusty, broken, and falling apart; they should be pretty much unrecognizable rubble!

Still, the beauty of Fallout is how much it tells us about ourselves and our culture as you find and explore the remains of our civilization. So many of the great moments of Fallout come in the form of the notes, holotapes, and computer entries of the people from before the time of the Great War. Yeah, the holotapes of the woman in Fallout 4 who sacrificed herself for science in an attempt to find a new radiation-removing drug shouldn’t still be functional after sitting for 200 years in the warzone of Boston (nor, for that matter, should the house they’re located in even still be standing), and the computer in Fallout 3 which you can read the entries of a doctor trying, in the days following the bombs dropping, to keep a group of people from dying to radiation poisoning should not still be in working order when it’s just sitting out there, exposed to the elements and the curiosity of raiders, super mutants, and heaven knows what else...but without these connections to the people of the previous age, without these structures standing and waiting to be explored and understood, Fallout would not be nearly as good.

Bathroom Breaks: Credit to my sister for this one. As with movies, shows, comics, books, and everything else, video game characters are granted the blessing of only having to go take a dump when it is narratively convenient. Which, for most RPG characters, means that they'll go the entirety of an 80-hour game without even so much as a single uncomfortable, yearning glance at the bushes. And that's good! Because when the average RPG adventure involves trekking cross-continent over the course of days, weeks, and months, the last thing you want to have to do is start stopping every half hour or so to manage potty breaks. Take a road trip with a 5-year-old if you really must have that experience.

And I suppose that’s all for today. What’s the point of this rant? I dunno. Probably just that I like to talk about stuff. But I guess if I wanted you to take anything from this, it’s that realism in storytelling, video games included, needs to be tempered by what is legitimately best for the narrative and the purpose. We may rib, mock, and even criticize some of the odd quirks of RPGs, but we should keep in mind that there are certain conventions to the genre that, strange and silly though they may be, are better to accept and roll with than have replaced by a more realistic alternative.

* Well, I guess Democratus from Anachronox could...but I’m pretty sure that’s the only one.

** What makes even less sense of this situation is the fact that Link is also technically carrying those metal boots with him at all times after he finds them, yet they only actually drag him down when he’s specifically wearing them. What, do they suddenly stop weighing anything once he takes them off?

Friday, November 18, 2016

Guest Rant: Tactics Ogre and the "Power of Choice"

Guess what, folks? Today you get a break from hearing me carry on with my self-important blathering, and instead hear the opinions of someone a little fresher to the Thinking Inside the Box ranting scene! Today's rant comes to you courtesy of Mr. GrandLethal16, who has his own Tumblr dedicated to RPGs which you might want to check out. It's much more bright, cheery, and interesting than this dump, to be sure. You can also check him out at his Youtube channel, which he uses for Let's Plays and other RPG-related stuff. Thanks for the rant, sir!

Disclaimer: I don't own GrandLethal16's words below, and they don't necessarily reflect my own perceptions and opinions. Although they might, some day, when I play this game. Only time will tell.

Tactics Ogre and the “Power of Choice”

November 17, 2016

A month ago, I highlighted Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions and how it focused on two friends and how their paths diverged greatly as they tried to “right” the world. This week, it’s all about Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together and while it shares many similarities with FFT (some of the same team worked on both), the contributions it brings to the SRPG subgenre are distinctly different!

The story of Tactics Ogre: LUCT centers around three youths: Denam Pavel, his sister Catiua, and his best friend Vyce. The three of them grow up in poverty and experience cruelty that often befalls the poor. These experiences mold them into the idealistic, passionate young people we see at the beginning of the game, determined to level the scales towards justice!

Here’s some backstory for them: The game takes place on the continent of Valeria, where the Dynast-King Dorgalua, had died without any confirmed heirs (Sound similar to FFT?). There is a vying for power in the vacuum and when the dust settles, the Wallisters (Denam and Co.’s nation) are at the bottom of the social food chain beneath the Bakram (nobility) and the Galgastani (the ethnic majority with a prejudice against Wallisters). A foreign ally of the Bakram occupying Valeria attacks and kills Denam and Co’s parents and the Wallister leader, Juda Ronwey, is captured and awaiting execution at the hands of the Galgastani.

As the game begins, Denam and Co. gather allies, rescue their leader, and begin their campaign to restore the Wallisters to freedom. After a string of successful missions, they are dispatched to a mining town where many of their fellow countrymen have been held as slaves for years. They’re ordered to kill all of the remaining slaves, their brethren, and pin blame on the Galgastani to rally the rest of the Wallister together to end the conflict once and for all. This is where the game gives you your first big decision. Will you sacrifice a small group of your own countrymen as a catalyst to mobilize the whole nation and end the war in days, or risk a long, drawn-out war with little hope of victory?

Tactics Ogre challenges you to make the tough choices in pursuit of the greatest “good” attainable. You will weigh the needs of the many against the well-being of the few. You will have to make sacrifices where the collateral will be the lives of unseen masses and even former comrades you’ve met during your journey. There are a number of these decisions you must make throughout the game and they will test you! If you fortify one castle to fend off an invading force, the nearby defenseless villages will suffer unprotected. And depending on the decisions you make, people you see as your closest friends may betray you.

I appreciate this story structure because it expands upon traditional SRPG choice constructs. Typically, the most choice a protagonist will have will be between attacking the north or south gate of an enemy castle (FFT), or defeating the boss versus routing the enemy (Fire Emblem). Tactics Ogre made the player define the means they’re willing to use to better the realm overall and living with results. At first glance, some of these choices are not black and white but rather shades of grey, and all are zero-sum situations. From a big-picture view, there is no explicitly morally “right” choice, and there will be consequences regardless of the choice you make. Compare this to the larger JRPG genre, where the concept of choice may give you a slightly different dialogue response in a cutscene, but not change the narrative’s direction in any way.

If FFT explored the realness of humans and their corruptible natures, Tactics Ogre explored the realness of choice and consequences. FFT showed how two people sharing the same ideals could be lead down different paths based on their fundamental beliefs. Tactics Ogre shows how every choice the main character makes serves to form who he and those closest to him become, and how they impact the larger world in many unforeseen ways. It reminds us that the choices are not made in a vacuum; they have a ripple effect on the larger world and just because you decide not to go down one path, doesn’t mean someone else won’t take up that cause. I think many genres beyond role-playing could benefit from exploring this tool to enrich their story and create more replay value for the player. Moving away from linearity, both in gameplay and story, is essential to standing out from the pack.

I think that most of us would say that we play RPGs because we enjoy exploring these kind of choices. These less-than-linear storylines elevate the plot and require more than the simple critical thinking needed to hit a flan with magic or an aerial enemy with ranged attacks. We want to experience the “out of the ordinary” and we love a good game that stays with us well after the final credits roll (i.e. Chrono Trigger). Questioning the choices we made during a game, contemplating real-life similar scenarios, and discussing them with other gamers is possibly the best influence that games like Tactics Ogre can have on gaming discourse!

I would highly recommend Tactics Ogre to anyone who enjoys SRPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem, or Disgaea. The character customization is super-extensive (second only to Disgaea in terms of detail), the gameplay mechanics are the most complete of any game in the sub-genre, and the replay value is off-the-charts with three story path routes, numerous sidequests, and a treasure trove of post-game content (no paid DLC either)! Beating the game allows you to revisit the different pivotal choices in the explore the alternate story paths and recruit route-exclusive characters. Tactics Ogre is available on the PSN for $19.99 and is playable on PS Vita/PSP, so check it out!

Here are some other examples of impactful choices in RPGS worth checking out:
--Bravely Second (3DS) features some great examples of impactful choices within their Asterisk sidequests, where it's hard to say that either outcome is exclusively “right”.
--Shin Megami Tensei IV (3DS) does this with a number of drop-in-the-buckets decisions throughout the game that determine late game alignment and ending.
--Fire Emblem Fates (3DS) does this very early on with the allegiance choice, though all subsequent events are locked by that path.

Have you ever played Tactics Ogre: LUCT? What did you think of it? What’s another game that utilized the “Power of Choice” well?

Share your thoughts in the comments section - I’d love to hear from you!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Mass Effect 3's Best Mods

Election Day, for all my USA-based readers! Time to go out, do our civic duty, and decide which of the 2 worst human beings alive we want to fuck us all in the ass for the next 4 years. Do you prefer your lying, psychotic, tyrannical, warmongering narcissist to be Bigoted, Stupidly Aggressive, Demonstrably Incompetent Asshole flavored, or Cheating, Remorseless, Empathy-Lacking Freedom-Loathing Inhuman Monster flavored? Do you want to waste countless American lives in the Middle East, or in Russia? Do you want your freedoms revoked openly, or quietly? Let the country know!

Or you could throw away your vote (which doesn't technically have a value in the presidential election anyway, given the electoral college idiocy) voting for someone who isn't the absolute scum of the Earth. I like the Green Party, myself, but that Libertarian guy also possesses both the quality of Not Trump and the quality of Not Clinton, so he seems like a fine pick, too.

Seriously, though, do go out and vote. I don't care which self-important fucktard you prefer to be president--like I said, your vote for president technically doesn't mean anything in our system--but you can still make an actual difference today by voicing your choice of what other (actually) elected officials represent you, and what local laws and initiatives are put into effect. That stuff actually does matter, and exercising your right to decide it is important. So do vote today. Please.

Alright, that's enough of me being pissed off at politics. Let's get back to me being pissed off at RPGs!

Ah, Mass Effect 3. The conclusion to the greatest sci-fi saga since Firefly (and I would even heretically argue that ME was superior to Firefly--whoops, there go my subscribers), Mass Effect’s third installment had a daunting task. Yet despite a few flaws, Mass Effect 3 was a more than worthy finale to this grand epic...until its ending, that is. In fact, I would say that, sans ending, this is the best game in the trilogy. It has the best character depth and development, and the greatest examples of raw, powerful emotion, thrilling action and suspense, and moments to awe and inspire you. For the first 99% of the game, Mass Effect 3 is a magnificent way to finish one of the greatest RPG experiences you’ll ever have.

But that fucking ending!

If for some unfathomable reason you’ve been reading my rants since 2012 or earlier, you know that Mass Effect 3’s ending has been haunting me for over 4 years now. To have something I love so much be so thoroughly, uncaringly dirtied, cheapened, and destroyed, out of nowhere and during the moment when it should have been at its most watch Bioware take its finest work and use it to wipe its ass at the very last was rough.

But if there’s one thing fans know how to do, it’s make up for a company’s shortcomings. From Planescape: Torment’s Unfinished Business mod restoring cut/incorrectly inaccessible content to the game back in the early 2000s to a Fallout 4 mod that lets you take Dogmeat with you as an additional companion because what sadistic idiot decided that you had to choose between Dogmeat and the rest of the cast have you even played a Fallout game before Bethesda, yes, anyway, my point is, fans have been correcting creators’ shortcomings for a while now, and they’ll continue to do so for a while yet. And that’s no less true for Mass Effect 3.

And so, today we will be looking at the best mods out there for Mass Effect 3, much as I did for Fallout 3. As with that rant, these are the mods that I sincerely endorse as a way to improve your Mass Effect 3 experience, additions and changes to the game that enhance it to make it a better representation of itself and Mass Effect. These aren’t just a bit of fun, like fan-created armors or improving load times or something--these are the mods that I feel make for a truer Mass Effect game.

Restored Zaeed Conversation: This mod changes the conversation you have with Zaeed in the Citadel refugee area so that you can hear all that he has to say. This one’s a minor one, to be sure, but when you get down to it, the characters are the heart of Mass Effect, and any chance to hear all that they’re meant to say is a chance to experience the series that much more in rightful totality. And hey, this was one of Robin Sachs’s last roles before his’ll sadly get few more chances to hear that singular gruff tone again, so all the more reason why this is a good thing.

Ken and Gabby Recruitment Restoration Mod: Originally, Ken and Gabby, the lovable engineers from Mass Effect 2, were supposed to have their own recruitment scene in Mass Effect 3. For deadline-related reasons, it was cut, and they’re simply added to the Normandy by Shepard indicating he wants them on a terminal at the Citadel. This mod restores the original intention to have an actual scene in which Shepard meets up with Ken and Gabby, and recruits them by speaking with them. It uses the dialogue already recorded for the scenario, so it smoothly fits into the game exactly as it should, restoring another tiny but enjoyable bit of characterization to the game’s cast. Again, it’s not a big change, but with a cast that draws the player in as greatly as Mass Effect’s does, every tiny interaction and scene is something that a fan appreciates, even treasures.

Extended Final Anderson Conversation: Like the mods above, this alteration to Mass Effect 3 is simply a case of restoring a small bit of dialogue to the cast. Unlike the ones above, though, this is actually a really, really big deal. The final conversation with David Anderson in Mass Effect 3 is one of the greatest highlights of the entire series, a quiet, poignant, overwhelming scene in which Anderson, father figure of Mass Effect and almost as much a representation of its soul as Shepard himself, spends his last moments sitting with Shepard and reflecting. This scene made it to number 7 on my list of the greatest deaths in RPGs, and I cannot overstate what an important, monumental moment it is for the series, for the protagonist, for the story, for the player. This is the capstone of the first and most narratively important relationship Shepard forms in the series; hell, without the mod below, this is the very last good moment in the entire series! The fact that Bioware actually shortened this scene, took lines of dialogue out of it, leaves me flabbergasted.

Thankfully, this mod restores that content, and allows you to hear everything the unparalleled Keith David recorded for Anderson to say in this scene. It’s not perfect, admittedly: during the extra lines, Anderson just kind of stares straight ahead, frozen, as he speaks, which is slightly odd. But hey, the guy’s bleeding out and his mind’s starting to unfocus, so it’s not entirely immersion-breaking. And for the impact of these extra few lines during one of the greatest interactions in the entire trilogy, it’s a small price to pay.

The Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod: And here we are, friends. This is the real reason I wanted to make this rant. Not to say that the mods above don’t make a significant positive impact on Mass Effect 3, of course. They do, and I would want anyone playing the game, whether for the first time or the thousandth, to do so with those mods installed to get the full experience. But The Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod is the fandom’s real contribution to a greater, more true Mass Effect 3, and I cannot endorse it strongly enough.

The Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod is basically just what it says: it gives us a happy ending to Mass Effect 3. Now, let me clarify something very important here: while I’m not especially pleased with the fact that Shepard didn’t get a particularly happy ending in ME3’s original conclusion, that was not anywhere near the real issues that made ME3’s ending so utterly horrible and destructive. I think you can conclude from my list of the greatest RPG endings of all time that I can appreciate endings other than “happy” ones.

What MEHEM does, however, is not just give us an ending to Mass Effect 3 which is happy. It gives us an ending to ME3 that is real. MEHEM provides an ending to this excellent space opera which is true to the heart and soul of the series. It cuts out the stupid space hologram kid, whose addition at the last second to deliver high-handed exposition by the truckload was thoroughly baffling to anyone who understands even the most rudimentary basics of storytelling. And by getting rid of the kid, and thus the spontaneous and thoroughly idiotic last-second subplot about organics and synthetics being irreconcilable and merging them together and all that hogwash, MEHEM simply removes everything wrong from Mass Effect 3’s ending in a single quick cut. No more contradictions to important themes of the game. No more philosophical and moral contradictions to the game’s actual events. No more violation of the right of every self-aware being in the galaxy to autonomy over their own body. No more pretentious notions better suited to other sci-fi styles being clumsily shoved in, notions which are so laughably poor and unexamined that they can actually be summed up, summed up perfectly, by a Yo Dawg meme. The immorality, the stupidity, the betrayal, the incompetence, all gone!

Of course, this mod is a lot more than just a surgical removal of narrative cancer. After all, it wouldn’t be especially satisfying if the game just went from Anderson’s final words to the credits. I mean, it would be still be better than the vile, reeking shit that Bioware gave us, but still. Well, Mr. Fob, the fellow who created and labors upon this mod, has also added an entirely new ending to the game. It is, if I am to speak frankly, pretty standard, predictable fare, as happy endings go. There’s action, there’s emotion, there’s suspense, there’s finality. But you know what? This is what the ending to Mass Effect 3 should have been. The final moments to your work are not about surprising and introducing new directions, they are about satisfying your audience by concluding your epic in a way that suits it. An ending is about closure. And this ending closes the Mass Effect series as it should be closed: with heroism, with excitement, with tenderness, with inspirational awe, with hope. This is not solely called the Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod because it’s what we think of a happy ending--it’s called that because it makes YOU, the player, the audience, the fan happy. Because it provides an ending to the game which is true to what Mass Effect 3 has been leading to. True to what the series itself has been leading to. This is the ending that Mass Effect 3 was meant to have, what it led you to believe it would have with every hopeful word and inspirational bit of trust given to Shepard.

In terms of technical quality, MEHEM is surprisingly good. Mr. Fob pieces together a lot of footage from the original endings that by themselves are just fine, reuses certain lines of dialogue spoken by the characters at previous points in the series, adds a few fan-recorded lines for non-established characters, and even inserts several fan-created animated scenes when necessary. Is it quite as smooth as the game normally is? Well, no. But it’s close, at times so close you might not even realize that the space battle cutscene you just saw wasn’t made by Bioware, and considering how many different parts are being pulled together, it’s actually pretty remarkably high-quality. It’s cohesive, it looks good, and it satisfies.

It’s also well thought-out, which is certainly more than you could ever say for Bioware’s original ending trash. MEHEM, too, introduces a new character at its final moment (Captain Fob, who orders his fleet to assist the Normandy with Shepard’s extraction), but this is an example of such a device actually done right. The mod adds an email to Shepard’s computer early in the game from Captain Fob, expressing gratitude for Shepard’s actions in ME2 and pledging that if they’re ever in battle together, Fob will do his best to assist Shepard however he can, so there’s actually a tiny bit of background set up to lead to Fob’s arrival. Fob also doesn’t steal the fucking show the way the damn hologram Catalyst kid does, instead just acting as a plot device, one which represents the uncounted masses of people that Shepard has impacted through his actions. And that’s actually very good thematically, this idea that when the chips are down, at the moment in which Shepard’s strength is finally spent and he has no more to give, it is the echoes of Shepard’s heroism that will bolster him and carry him through, the people he’s helped not just personally, but simply through his exploits, that will come to return the favor. Take note, Bioware: if you’re going to throw someone into your ending that the audience has never seen before, THIS is an actually functional way to do it.

Ha! As if Bioware would ever deign to consider a fan’s advice on storytelling. Their decision to close their forums and make non-sycophantic communication with them nearly impossible shows just how much they actually value what their fan base can offer.

Anyway. All of this by itself makes MEHEM an absolute must-have for any Mass Effect fan, but there’s actually a lot more to this mod than just its titular purpose. First of all, it actually also contains an unhappy ending to the game, too, although I suspect few will see it. If you finish the game with a low enough rating for galactic readiness, you actually will see a Bad Ending, instead. I gotta hand it to Mr. Fob--not only can he put together a true Mass Effect ending, but he can put together a hell of a Bad Ending, too. I mean, that’s actually one of the best Bad Endings I’ve seen! It’s almost too bad that most people won’t even know it exists. And this, of course, makes the galactic readiness score actually mean something, whereas before it just limited which shitty ending options you’d get, so from a certain perspective, MEHEM’s also fixing a major gameplay flaw, too.

Also, The Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod adds a lot of other tiny things that enhance the Mass Effect experience in ways unrelated to the ending. The mod adds a handful of emails to Shepard’s computer, delivered throughout the game, which do things like retcon Emily Wong’s off-screen, completely unnecessary and pointless death, give a subtle little implication that the original Bioware ending to the game was a Reaper trick, and expand on the game lore regarding anti-Reaper weaponry. They’re pretty neat, if I do say so myself (I use this phrase because I helped with editing them, a tiny contribution to MEHEM for which Mr. Fob generously rewarded me with my name in the mod’s credits, something which I am flattered by and proud of). MEHEM also adds audio lines of Harbinger from ME2 to the desperate run at the end of the game, at which point he’s blasting at everyone trying to make it to the Conduit. It’s a nice touch, and I’d certainly say it’s more immersive--Harbinger never missed a moment to condescendingly taunt Shepard in ME2, so it’s actually kind of weird that he’s totally silent at this part of the game. Once again, MEHEM tidies things up a bit.

Pretty much the only negative I can come up with about this mod is that it can add an alternate music track to be used for the new ending, and...well, it’s a fan-made song, and it’s not bad or anything, but it’s really just not all that right for the scene and the game, either. But this is only a theoretical downside, because when you install MEHEM, it gives you the option between using this fan-made score, or just using actual Mass Effect music, so, y’know, just pick the latter.

Anyway, that’s enough gushing from me. Bottom line is, if you’re going to play or replay Mass Effect 3, download and install The Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod. It’s the only truly legitimate way to conclude Mass Effect available to us, and as far as I’m concerned, this is how Mass Effect 3 ends. This is a case where the fans have understood the art better than the creators, and this long labor of love by Mr. Fob and those who have helped him showcases just what an excellent, meaningful story Mass Effect truly is: because nothing less than a masterpiece could have a following so devoted that they would go to lengths such as this to keep its luster bright and its artistic integrity intact.

Mr. Fob, I sincerely salute you and those who have assisted you in creating The Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod. Something important to me was lost 4 years ago...your effort and care has returned it.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Fallout 3's Elder Lyons's Understanding of the Brotherhood of Steel

One of the most unhappy parts of Fallout 4, to me, is learning what has become of the East Coast chapter of the Brotherhood of Steel since the events of Fallout 3. To see that the noble defenders of the Capital Wasteland have fallen so far, devolved into an aggressive order of bigots and bullies who begrudge the common people true, committed assistance and are back to hoarding technology from all others. The wisdom and kindness of Elder Lyons is long gone, replaced by a thoughtless puppet dictatorship based on xenophobia, arrogance, and selfishness. These were the saviors of the Washington D.C. area, a brotherhood of heroes...and now, 20 years later, they’re the most evil organization in the Commonwealth, more of a threat to common decency than even the Institute, the actual villain group of Fallout 4.

Sad though it is, there are many who believe that this is, in fact, how the Brotherhood of Steel is meant to be, or at least, closer to it than the group was in Fallout 3. It’s born of the same argument that people have about the Outcasts in Fallout 3. The Outcasts were a splinter group that broke off from Elder Lyons’s group because they believed that helping the common people of the Capital Wasteland was a pointless endeavor, that the Brotherhood’s purpose of being on the East Coast was solely to hoard away any and all pre-war technology they could find. The letter of Brotherhood doctrine does indeed seem to indicate that the Outcasts have the right idea, that the group’s interest is solely in finding and controlling technology and to hell with the rest of the world, and the Brotherhood of Steel’s role in Fallout: New Vegas seems to back this up, as the group has become enemies of the New California Republic because it sought to control a solar energy plant and keep it out of the hands of the supposedly lesser people of the NCR. On the surface, the Brotherhood of Steel does, indeed, appear to actually be only a group of self-serving technology-hoarders who are not supposed to care a whit for the common people outside their order. They’re out to save humanity from its own technology, whatever the expense.

In this, ironically, the Brotherhood of Steel is the most like their enemy in Fallout 4, the Institute, of any faction in the Fallout series I can recall. Both groups firmly believe in saving humanity, but the humanity that both the Institute and the Brotherhood of Steel are trying to save seems to be only an abstract, overall concept, “humanity” as some intangible ideal. The actual, living, struggling, feeling, thinking humanity all around them can apparently fuck off.

At any rate, as I say, all obvious evidence points to a single conclusion: the goodness of the Brotherhood of Steel under the leadership of Elder Lyons (and the tragically brief leadership of his daughter Sarah Lyons) was an aberration of the group. The Brotherhood of Steel were never the good guys.

But I contest this. I believe that under the leadership of Owyn Lyons and Sarah Lyons, the East Coast Brotherhood of Steel was a true representation of the order, far more so than what we’ve seen of the Brotherhood since Fallout 3.

Yes, all of the evidence presented is true, beyond debate. The doctrine of the Brotherhood of Steel is to collect, safeguard, and restrict technology from the rest of the world, as a parent hides matches from a child who has accidentally burned his fingers once already. Beyond that, there is little word of policy regarding the treatment of the outside world for the Brotherhood of Steel; certainly there is no indication in the laws of the Steel that directs the Brotherhood to intervene in the rest of mankind’s behalf beyond what is beneficial for the Brotherhood of Steel itself. Going strictly by the laws of the Brotherhood, Lyons is a renegade from the order, and the Outcasts, and even Maxson’s foolish bigots in Fallout 4, are true representations of the Brotherhood of Steel.

Here’s the problem, though, with this interpretation, one which plagues us as a species: no matter how carefully written, the letter of the law does not always convey its spirit. The rules of the Brotherhood of Steel may be clear as to the order’s priorities, but in and of themselves, they fail to convey the purpose behind that priority. Yes, the Brotherhood of Steel is supposed to collect, hoard, and restrict technology, but only as part of a process of protecting and uplifting humanity. The purpose of controlling the use of the old world’s technology is not simply the control in itself, it is in keeping the people of the world safe from themselves. The idea is to only allow the common people of the wastes access to technology they are ready for, technology that they will use correctly. Isolation from the rest of mankind as a higher order of people is NOT meant to be the goal of the Brotherhood of Steel.

In less of the abstract, the purpose of the Brotherhood of Steel is supposed to be about protecting humanity from and with the use of greater technology. To insist upon focusing solely on scavenging and hoarding technology and ignore the plight of the people around them is a case of the Brotherhood of Steel being unable to see the forest for the trees. I’m not saying that the Brotherhood of Steel is meant to engage every minor threat to everyone they come across--that’s what we’ve got game protagonists for--but the long-term goal of the order is the preservation of humanity. That’s the reason they’re out hoarding and researching all the technology. So when the Brotherhood of Steel sees a place like the Capital Wasteland, sees a place in which the people suffer so greatly and are contending with a threat that could wipe them out and then spread onward (the DC super mutants), it IS, in fact, true to the Brotherhood of Steel’s spirit to set up shop and engage in helping the population to solve problems that require the sort of power and technology that the Brotherhood can provide. Leaving the entirety of the D.C. area to die out and be overtaken by super mutants runs contrary to the long-term goal of saving humanity which the Brotherhood of Steel is meant to pursue. Elder Lyons’s heroism in staying to combat the super mutant threat and help the people of Washington, D.C. was simply a case of prioritizing the purpose of the law over its technicality.

I’d like to also point out that saying that Owyn Lyons’s actions are contrary to the “real” Brotherhood of Steel is to deny the validity of the earliest examples that we know of the order. Let’s take a look back, way back, at Fallout 1.* Specifically, let’s consider Fallout 1’s ending. 1 of the possible ending slides for the Brotherhood of Steel, specifically the ending slide which Fallout 2 and 3 later established was canon, says this:

“The Brotherhood of Steel helps the other human outposts drive the mutant armies away with minimal loss of life, on both sides of the conflict. The advanced technology of the Brotherhood is slowly reintroduced into New California, with little disruption or chaos. The Brotherhood wisely remains out of the power structure, and becomes a major research and development house.”

Well gosh, look at that. The Brotherhood of Steel in Fallout 1, which is the earliest and thus, logically, the most pure and true version of the order which we have witnessed, went out of their way to help the common people of the waste, and carefully reintroduced their hoarded technology, rather than just kept it totally for themselves. This first visible iteration of the Brotherhood of Steel was not just researching and gathering technology for its own sake, it was doing so with the intent of benefiting humanity through a controlled reintroduction. This Brotherhood of Steel understood that its goal was the preservation of humanity, that the flow of technological advancement was to be controlled for the sake of cautious advance, not as an end means of itself. This BoS understood that to stand aloof from the rest of humanity is not to ignore its plight when the humanity around the them faces threats it cannot overcome without the order’s assistance.

Let’s also look at some other important evidence from Fallout 1: the history of the Brotherhood of Steel’s formation. Without getting into too much detail, the origins of the Brotherhood are found in the days leading up to the great war that created the nuclear wastelands of Fallout. The long and short of it is, a certain group of United States soldiers were assigned to a military base in which government scientists were experimenting on live, unwilling human subjects. The soldiers, horrified by the atrocities they were witness to, put an end to the research, and wound up murdering the scientists, repaying 1 act of inhuman barbarism with another. Unable to cope with the knowledge of what his government was doing, the soldiers’ leader, Maxson, sent out an open declaration to the US government that he and his men, in this military base, were seceding from the union. They expected nothing less than to be taken and killed for treason, but as it turned out, all this was happening just around the time the nukes started falling, so obviously their little rebellion kinda got lost in the shuffle. There’s a lot more history to the Brotherhood after that, notably the actual founding of the order, but that’s the stuff that’s relevant to my point here.

Now, that there is the birth of the Brotherhood of Steel. They may not have had their name yet, they may not have known what they were gonna be about yet, but it started there. That is the founding moment of the order. And what is it? It is a moment in which some soldiers came upon something that was wrong, and could not sit by and abide it. It was a moment in which men and women ignored the orders of their superiors in order to stop the suffering of innocent people. The letter of the law for the soldiers was obedience, which in this case meant to turn a blind eye and allow the experiments to continue. But the spirit of the law for soldiers is to protect others, to forcibly end that which is wrong, and in this case, this founding moment of the Brotherhood of Steel, the soldiers knew that their orders were not compatible with their greater purpose.

This is why I believe that the Brotherhood of Steel in Fallout 3, under the leadership of Owyn Lyons, was, indeed, a true representation of the group, truer than the Outcasts in that game, truer than the fanatical bigots of Fallout 4, and truer even than the faction seen in Fallout: New Vegas. In refusing to ignore the otherwise incurable suffering of the people of the Capital Wasteland, in having his group use its power and technology to protect the common people of the D.C. area, and work with them to better their living conditions, Elder Lyons is, indeed, acting as the Brotherhood of Steel is meant to. He is looking at his group’s goals and resources in the long-term, he is doing as the elders of the past have done, and he is acting exactly as the first Elder Maxson did in the defining, founding moment that gave birth to the Brotherhood of Steel: he is going against protocol in order to pursue the goal that the protocol was only put in place to achieve. Fallout 3’s Brotherhood of Steel was the real thing, perhaps the last true representation of the order that we’ll see in the franchise.

More’s the pity.**

* Y’know, I think that if more people had studied Sesame Street thoroughly enough to realize that there are numbers that come before 3, there would be a LOT fewer arguments in the Fallout fandom. Like when people complain about how Fallout 4 shouldn’t have silly things in it and how that’s ruining the franchise. Yeah, because it’s totally not like there’s a moment in Fallout 2 in which you meet a giant talking rat with delusions of grandeur that’s a reference to Pinky and the Brain, or anything.

Hm. Maybe I should do a rant on that. Then again, I feel like I’ve already just said as much as I need to on the matter.

** This doesn’t really fit into the rant anywhere else, but I also wanted to note that even if you buy the view that the Brotherhood of Steel actually is supposed to just hoard and research technology and ignore the plight of others and all that isolationist garbage, Lyons’s Brotherhood is still a better example of the BoS than the Outcasts or the official New Vegas faction. I mean, if the priority really is just to control all the best technology possible, period, Lyons’s methods were a hell of a lot more successful. While the Outcasts are tinkering with a bunch of common laser and plasma weaponry over in their little fort, Lyons’s trust in and cooperation with outsiders nets his Brotherhood faction the science and structure of a water purifier for an entire region, the armor, weaponry, and miscellaneous tech of the previously technologically superior Enclave forces, and enough knowledge of Liberty Prime that they’ll be able to, given some time, rebuild him for their use. And hey, it turns out that when your policy is to protect the common people of the wasteland and help them to improve their livelihood, rather than try to shove them away from everything useful so you can keep it for yourself, those common people don’t attack you in overwhelming numbers and drive you away from the stuff you wanted and into hiding like scared rabbits. So I guess that Lyons’s policies are a hell of a lot more effective than the New Vegas Brotherhood’s, huh? By working with and assisting outsiders rather than shunning them entirely, Lyons got all the best technology, and those outsiders were willing to let his group keep it. So even by the shortsighted standards of the Outcasts and West Coast Brotherhood of Steel, Lyons still was doing his job, and better than them.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Fire Emblem Series's Flying Units' Weakness

I seem to be strangely over-critical of flying units in the Fire Emblem series.

One of the mainstay character classes of Fire Emblem is the flying unit. These are the ones where some fighter rides atop a pegasus, a wyvern, or, recently, a big honkin’ cockatoo in battle, and can travel over various map obstacles that other fighters can’t traverse, because, y’know, flying. Naturally, this makes these units extremely handy, particularly for accomplishing timed objectives during a battle which would otherwise be nearly impossible to get to in time. To balance these units out so that players can’t abuse their mobility too much, they always take critical damage from projectile weapons like bows.

This seems sensible enough at a glance. They’re flying units, so naturally the weapon you’d rely on to take them down would be a projectile, right? I mean, that’s how it works in real life. You need to take down a bird flying overhead, you’re gonna need something with a little more reach than a sword. But, scrutinize this system with anything lengthier than that glance, and you’ll realize that this actually doesn’t make any damn sense.

See, the problem comes back to the reasoning for why this would appear to make sense: flying enemies are outside our normal reach, so we would rely on a bow to take down, say, a pegasus knight. But the game doesn’t actually follow this logic, because a pegasus knight can be attacked using melee weapons just as any other unit can be! Get a ground-based unit with an axe up to a pegasus knight unit, and that axe grunt can attack the pegasus knight exactly as effectively as he can anyone else! The pegasus knight is no more or less evasive, takes no more or less damage from the axe, as any other unit would. The bow’s extra damage to flying units is founded on the core idea that a flying enemy can only be hit by long-range weapons, but the game doesn’t actually support this--the flying units are no less vulnerable to regular weaponry!

So why, then, should the bow be so deadly to flying units? It’s not like they’re significantly less armored than many other types of fighters in the Fire Emblem series. The regular horses that knights ride are just as vulnerable to an arrow’s damage. More, really, because any significant damage to the majority of a horse’s body is going to make the act of movement along the ground difficult or impossible for the horse, while in the case of a pegasus, a lot less of its body would need to be in perfect condition to keep moving through the air.

And what about wyvern units? Considering that these guys are dragons’ lesser cousins, their scales should make them far less susceptible to arrows than most regular units in the series, and the knights that sit atop them tend to be pretty heavily armored, too.

Heck, what about the issue of mobility? If anything, shouldn’t a flying unit be even harder to hit with a bow, since they have more space and distance when in the air to react and evade? Ground units are significantly more limited in their options for avoiding projectiles than those that can move through the air at will.

It just doesn’t make sense. If, in practice, everyone can attack the flying units with any weapon and not suffer any kind of damage or accuracy penalty, thus eliminating the theoretical benefit of a bow’s range in combat against a flying foe, then there’s just no logical reason why a bow’s arrows would be any more effective on a kinshi, pegasus, or especially wyvern rider than it would be on any other given fighter. I know it’s all in the name of gameplay balance (although I’m not actually sure whether this system even really balances flying units out very well to begin with), but that doesn’t mean it’s sensible on more important levels.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

General RPGs' Accessories

RPG heroes are dumb, man.

When it comes to RPGs, there are 3 mainstays of equipment: Weapon, Armor, and Accessory. Sometimes a game will differentiate separate parts of armor (Dragon Age 1, for example, has equipment slots for boots and helmets in addition to the body armor), sometimes a game will have multiple hand slots for weapons or shields determined by the player (DA1 also does this), sometimes a game will differentiate different types of accessories (to continue the example, DA1 has separate slots for equipping necklaces and rings, allowing for 2 rings and 1 necklace on every character), but in the end, it almost always comes down to these mainstays. I mean, not always, I’ll grant you (AeternoBlade, for example, has 3 slots for accessories, but Freyja’s weapon and armor are set in stone for the game’s duration...not that you’d ever want her to stop using the most insanely deadly sword in RPG history), but still, this is the case like 90+% of the time.

Accessories tend to be the most interesting and useful of these mainstays. After all, the bonuses from weapons and armors tend to just be simple increases to attack and defense. Yes, there are many weapons and armors that have other effects, and those can be exceptionally useful, but generally, accessories are the pieces of equipment that provide varied effects that can change your playstyle or be manipulated to make your characters unstoppable in 1 fashion or another. Is the deadliest part of an upcoming boss fight the enemy’s Damage-Over-Time effects? Throw on a couple rings that prevent Poison or Bleed conditions. Want to attack 8 times, that’s 8 fucking times, in a row in Final Fantasy 6? Throw an Offering and Genji Glove on a character. Want to just be actually, honestly indestructible in Lufia 2? Equip the Egg Ring (although by the time you can get the damn thing, you clearly don’t need it anyway). Accessories can cause you to regenerate health every round, increase the damage of critical strikes or attacks to hit elemental weaknesses, activate bonus skills on characters that normally have to choose between them, give immunity to status ailments and instant death attacks, increase stats, confer extra experience and money at the end of battles, lower the cost of spells and abilities, give elemental resistances, increase the amount of actions you get per turn, make healing spells and items more effective, empower attack skills and magic, and do so much more. A wide and varied number of accessories in a game can allow for party customization in RPGs which otherwise have no such opportunities.

So, of course, this begs the question of why the hell RPG characters only ever equip, at most, a few of these things at a time.

I mean, think about it. Let’s take Final Fantasy 6 as an example. If, say, protagonist Terra decides to equip both a Gem Box and an Economizer (Soul of Thamasa and Celestriad in the later translation), she can cast magic twice per turn (4 times if you abuse the Quick spell), and all spells cost her only a single MP. Being able to throw Ultima around twice (or 4 times) with no worry of running out of magical ammo for it is pretty awesome! But that’s just 2 accessories working in tandem--an orb and a necklace, it seems. Well, there’s nothing about wearing an orb (however that works) and a necklace that should stop Terra from also tying a Ribbon around her neck or wrist or wherever the Ribbon item is kept--she could have all that magical attack power, AND be immune to status ailments! For that matter, there’s no reason any of these accessories would get in the way of her wearing a White Cape, increasing her defense and magical evasion. And underneath the cape could be the wings of some Cherub Down, to ensure that she’s immune to all Earth-based attacks. And why should any of these accessories prevent her from putting on a pair of Marvel Shoes, granting herself faster actions, health regeneration, and additional protection from magic and physical damage? None of these accessories get in the way of one another, so if Terra really wants to be an unstoppable force of nature, she could equip them all. Hell, even the ones that would get in each other’s way don’t always have to be exclusive. I mean, I think the Beads accessory is supposed to be worn around one’s neck, so you’d think Terra wouldn’t be able to wear it and the Economizer at the same time, but it’s not like it’s physically impossible to wear 2 necklaces/pendants/whatevers at the same time. She could totally wear both, no problem.

Why does my protagonist in Dragon Age 1 only wear 2 rings? There are 35 different rings in the game that give beneficial effects. Just 2? Fuck that, I want a ring on every damn finger! And toe! Hell, if it means more spell resistance and critical damage, go ahead and pierce my Grey Warden’s ears with a couple of those magical rings each, and her nose, and tongue! Deck her out like a punk rocker with a fetish for costume jewelry! I like it, so I wanna put 3 dozen rings on it!

There are 39 different amulets in the game? Pile’em on! By the time I’m done with her, people are gonna be mistaking her neck for a cluttered keychain!

How many stat-boosting, effect-giving magical belts are there in Dragon Age, again? 32? Bring’em on, who said that belts are for the waist only? Throw 5 around my city elf heroine’s waist and then start strapping’em around her legs, arms, wherever they’ll go! If it means extra Cunning stats (somehow) and better health regeneration, I’ll make her look like she just came straight outta one of Tetsuya Nomura’s wet dreams!

It’s just always seemed silly to me that RPG characters have some arbitrary accessory limit imposed on them. You can only really wear 1 set of armor (maybe 2, I guess, if you have separate armors for clothing-type and real-armor-type), you can only grip 2 weapons and there are actual pros and cons to the issue of whether to go with 2 weapons, a weapon and shield, or just a weapon gripped with both hands. But nearly every RPG character has got a neck, 2 wrists, 10 fingers, 10 toes, and so on. There’s no reason they can’t wear 20 different magical rings into battle, a couple of pendants, several bracelets or at least 2 gauntlets, and so on. They’ve got access to all these incredible ability-boosting baubles, but they only ever wear 1 - 5 of them at a time! C’mon, Wild Arms 2’s Ashley, you’re trying to save your world from terrorists, an ancient demon, and an actual living universe that’s trying to eat your reality! You need to get serious about this shit! Pin the Sheriff’s Star on your chest, AND wear a pair of attack-increasing gloves! At the same time, you idiot!

And yeah, I know the reason for this from the gameplay perspective. Obviously, if you want any sort of game balance, you can’t give a character the option to load themselves down with as many accessories as they’re actually able to wear. Well, that’s great and all for design mechanics, but that doesn’t mean that it makes sense from a narrative standpoint when Hero McSwordbutt decides to take off the ring he’s been wearing because he wants to try on a new cape. Just because you have to do something to maintain game balance, that doesn’t mean it needs no explanation whatsoever to justify it, if it goes beyond the laws of common sense (I’m looking at you, Adventuring Party Size Limits). You still should do or say something to make some sense of it.

I’m telling you, the day some RPG hero realizes that she’s got more than 2 fingers, and that her neck and hands occupy different places on her body, we’re gonna have the most overpowered game character of all time.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Fallout 4's Downloadable Content

Just so you know, I have also (finally) updated my Fire Emblem 14 DLC rant to reflect the second pack of DLCs released almost immediately after I first published the rant. Didn’t figure it deserved its own rant slot a second time, but I didn’t want to let it go totally unnoticed, either, since I’m full of myself and want everyone to read every word I write.

With the recent release of Nuka World, Fallout 4’s run of Downloadable Content has come to an end, and so has come the time for me to pass judgment on the game’s add-ons. Which are good? Which aren’t? Which are actually worth the price? And how does the game’s suite of add-ons compare to the previous title of the series, Fallout: New Vegas, which was overall quite good with its DLCs? Read on, and find out.

Or just go do something more interesting. I probably would.

Note: As always, my focus is only on add-ons that involve some kind of story content. DLC that solely affects gameplay elements is ultimately unimportant, so I’m not going to talk about it here. Thus, we’ll be ignoring the Wasteland Workshop and Contraptions Workshop DLCs for Fallout 4, which do nothing whatsoever but add some new building stuff to the settlement system in the game. I like messing around with the workshop and building settlements as much as the next guy (in fact, given what some of my settlements look like in the game, I think it’s safe to say I like it way, way more than most “next guys”), but I’m certainly not going to advocate spending money on playing around with what amounts to pretend postapocalyptic Minecraft and Barbie.

Anyway, on with the show.

Automatron: Eh...not a strong start for Fallout 4’s add-ons. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing particularly wrong with Automatron. The basic idea is that you meet up with a robot named Ada who wants to avenge her recently murdered master, and you go on a quest to a few locations to locate the individual responsible for it, stopping them from enacting a plan to fill the Commonwealth with deadly robots. Ada joins you as a companion permanently, and things wrap up in a way that’s predictable, but not unenjoyable.

The thing is, although there’s nothing that stands out as bad about Automatron, there’s also nothing that stands out as really interesting, either. Ada is an alright companion (and she gets serious bonus points for being the only party member who has nothing negative to say about you picking up junk objects...I swear to Mieli, I have gotten so sick of Nick and Piper getting judgmental every time I pick up a desk fan!), with a little more personality than some of the game’s party members, a little less than others, but nothing that really makes her especially compelling. The story of this quest is straightforward and simple, and it neither introduces any really interesting ideas, nor strongly represents the series theme of United States culture, nor the themes more specific to this installment of the franchise. Really, the most notable thing about this whole quest line is that you get to fool around a little more with being the Silver Shroud during the final showdown. Which is fun, to be sure, and something Fallout 4 needs a LOT more of, but a tiny handful of conversation cues aren’t exactly a reason to fork over $10. So, I dunno...I wouldn’t really recommend this one, I guess. At least, not for the current asking price. You can do better with your time and money than “neither good nor bad.”

Far Harbor: Ah, here we go, MUCH better. Far Harbor is just great, exactly what I want from a Fallout 4 DLC. It’s got a decent story, in which you get hired to find a girl who’s gone missing in Maine and end up getting involved in a conflict between caustic fishermen, synth refugees, and crazy radiation-worshippers. The concept is cool (even if the plot-moving motivation is “find someone’s kid,” which Fallout 4 kinda overuses), there are some decent characters (Dima is particularly great), there’s some great bits of Americana (I enjoy the stuff about Vim, the Fallout equivalent of Moxie soda, quite a lot), the new companion, Old Longfellow, is alright, the atmosphere of the island is perfect (the radioactive fog concept utilizes the Fallout setting nicely), the cult of Atom actually gets some significant story attention, and the best character of Fallout 4, Nick, gets another dose of solid character development. Best of all, Far Harbor really presents some succulent mental morsels. There’s a central theme to the DLC, that being the concept of the truth: how concrete it should be, how far one should go to investigate and tout it, whether it truly is the best policy and how sometimes it isn’t so easy to even really tell what is and isn’t real to begin with. The choices you make about the future of Far Harbor at the end of this DLC excellently test your commitment to honesty, and even the happy ending (peace between all 3 major groups on the island) still has an unsettling undertone, for it may be that it sets a dangerous precedent as it favors unity, peace, and nonviolence brought about by a secret manipulation and allowing a crime to remain unknown and unpunished.

I’ll give away no more than I have, but suffice to say, Bethesda really did a great job in making their detective side-story into an examination of the concept of honesty, and the question of what the truth is really worth to us, which in itself ties strongly into some of the most important issues facing the United States today as we struggle not to give up our freedoms to our government in exchange for (false) promises of security. Good, good stuff, Bethesda. This DLC package is definitely worth iiiiittttwaitholyCRAPisthatright is Far Harbor really, actually $25!? Twen-goddamn-ty-fucking-five-pissing dollars? Jesus jumping on a jungle gym with James Earl Jones, that’s only 5 bucks shy of being half the cost of Fallout 4 altogether! Seriously? The entirety of Far Harbor is like a tenth the size of Fallout 4’s main game, if that, yet it costs almost half the price? Sheesh! 25 bucks...I’m pretty damn sure I didn’t get 25 hours out of this add-on.

Okay, well...I dunno. Far Harbor is really, really good. I’d say it’s 1 of the best parts of Fallout 4. It’s up there with Point Lookout, Dead Money, and Lonely Road as far as quality Fallout DLCs go. Is it really worth the amount of money you could pay for another game (albeit not a flashy AAA title) altogether? That’s hard to say. I don’t recommend it for its asking price, but at the same time, I don’t recommend against it, either. I guess this, like Automatron, is gonna be a case where it’s going to be worth it some day, once the costs of Fallout 4 are cut substantially, but it might not be worth your money at the moment. Too bad. Do make sure to grab it sooner or later, though!

Vault-Tec Workshop: Poor, sweet, stupid Clem. Vault-Tec Workshop is a quickie. You find a vault, its overseer decides to have you enact social experiments straight out of some foolish corporate executive’s wet dreams which focus on enhancing productivity by eliminating humanity, explore a cave a bit. I think that’s about it.

The gameplay elements of this DLC are obviously the intended focus, adding a bunch of new options to the settlement workshop, but there’s still something of merit to be found in this add-on. The story, such as it is, is quick and not terribly compelling, but there’s a little food for thought and relation to American culture in the questions being raised (though in a humorous manner) regarding how far is too far in our capitalist obsession with squeezing every possible ounce of productivity out of our citizens.

It’s not bad for what it is. But is it worth its price of $5? Meh...I dunno. Not really. It’s not unenjoyable, but there’s so little to it. Hold off until it’s 50% off or something.

Nuka-World: Wait...what? That’s it? This is the last DLC for Fallout 4? No more after this?


Sigh...alright, then. Nuka-World is a mixed bag. On the positive side, pretty much all the stuff going on on the side in this DLC is pretty solid stuff. The Grandchester Mansion is cool, the exploration elements are solid, the lore is classic Fallout material, Sierra’s sidequest is great (and just having her return from Fallout 3 was an unexpected little joy), and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t a hoot to see those Hubologist dimwits again. Didn’t realize how much I’d missed laughing at the Fallout equivalent of Scientology since the second game. I’ll even give it a point for a gameplay element, which you know is pretty damn rare for me, because damn if it isn’t a (literal) blast to use weaponized Nuka-Cola shot out of a squirtgun.

Even a bit of the raider-related stuff is enjoyable in this DLC. Raider Radio is amusing (well, for 10 minutes, anyway), and the Gauntlet and battle with Colter is good. Gage is an alright companion character, too, though short-lived.

But the issue with this DLC...well, it’s the raider-related stuff. And that’s the main storyline of Nuka-World. And that’s a problem, for several reasons. The first reason is simply that the main plot of Nuka-World is not interesting. You arrive at a theme park, you become the leader of the raiders hanging out there, you bring the entirety of the theme park under your raider gangs’ control, and then you attack the Commonwealth while settling internal disputes with your raiders. That’s it. There’s actually less intellectual exercise to be had in this DLC’s main plot than there is in the rinky-dink little Vault-Tec Workshop add-on! The main story of this whole thing can just be summed up as, “Be a raider.” Not especially compelling.

The next reason that this is a problem is that it runs counter to the protagonist’s character. Due to the nature of Fallout 4’s main plot, the protagonist is left with a decent degree of malleability with her or his personality, but not nearly as much as with previous Fallout titles. Don’t get me wrong, here, I’m not complaining about that--the trade-off is that the more rigid structure of the Sole Survivor’s character means a much more interesting personality with greater depth than any previous Fallout protagonist, which is definitely a good thing. Unfortunately for Nuka-World, though, this means that even though there have been options in the main game to make your protagonist quite evil, those options are of an organized, structured kind of evil (namely, the well-meaning but utterly conscience-lacking Institute, or the bigoted asswipes with the Brotherhood of Steel). There’s really just nothing in Fallout 4 to set a precedent for Nora or Nate becoming a raider, and it doesn’t mesh with pretty much everything we know about her or his personality, regardless of which pathways you’ve taken in the game proper. This just doesn’t work.

Hell, even the voice acting for the protagonist seems to confirm that this doesn’t jive with her/his character. Courtenay Taylor has put in a great performance for Nora in Fallout 4, allowing the character of the Sole Survivor to develop almost as much through her voice acting as through the script itself, and Brian Delaney has done a solid job as Nate, too. Yet neither of them sound even remotely right throughout this DLC when speaking for a Nora or a Nate who’s totally down with being a raider. The voices that work so well as saviors of the Commonwealth, as misguided sycophants of the Institute, as thoughtless toadies of the Brotherhood of Steel, as desperate parents, and as flippant jokesters just do not work in any way as dedicated raiders. The character that Taylor and Delaney have helped to build over thousands of lines of dialogue simply does not work in this position.

Worth noting as well is that it’s not even all that well implemented in regards to the main game. I mean, the act of raiding settlements in the Commonwealth works just fine, but if you do this before you’ve completed the main story of Fallout 4, things can get...pretty disjointed. In the main game, if you get on the bad side of all the other factions, you can still side with the Minutemen to take down the Institute--they’re basically your fall-back option, the way to complete the game which you can’t mess up. But since the Minutemen are as anti-raider as it gets, if you start raiding the Commonwealth with your Nuka-World bunch, Preston Garvey, the leader of the Minutemen, will hate your guts and refuse to have anything to do with you...except that he’s still bound by plot programming to be the failsafe option for beating the game, so you can still have him and his faction cooperate with you to take down the Institute, even as he frequently tells you what a scumbag you are and how he’s done with you. Seriously, one conversation you’ll be discussing how to take down the Institute, then the next moment he’ll be mouthing off to you about how what you’ve done is unforgivable and how he can’t work with you any more. Forget the fact that being the raider overboss doesn’t fly with the game’s themes or the protagonist’s character...more tangibly, this shit doesn’t fly with just the basics of how the game works!

Now, there is, of course, the option to just up and obliterate the raiders of Nuka-World, and free the traders they’ve subjugated. Being that I am not a complete and total loser, I took this option myself, and encourage you to do the same. But the major plot focus of the DLC is on the raider aspect, so doing the only sensible and decent thing means you’re only going to get as much out of this add-on as the exploration and sidequest aspects can provide. And by itself, this isn’t too much of a problem. You still get a decent Fallout experience even if you’re cutting off the main story of the DLC early. While it’s disappointing that it worked out this way, the Nuka-World DLC would still, under normal circumstances, come up as positive for me.

But it’s the last DLC. This is the final moment of Fallout 4, the send-off to this great game! This DLC is the one which will give you the impression you get from the game overall as you walk away from it. Heck, this is the send-off to the Fallout series for some time; from what I hear, Bethesda isn’t even going to be thinking about Fallout 5 for quite a while. Apparently they just want to sit back and focus on their inferior franchise for a bit, presumably because the content of any given Elder Scrolls game’s story, lore, and cast requires a fifth of the brainpower to write, if that. And so this is what we’re given as the final moment of Fallout 4?

This is a DLC that focuses on joining up with the bad guys! And not even bad guys of any significance to the story and themes of Fallout 4 overall! There’s only a single connection in Nuka-World to any of the major points in Fallout 4, that being the Settlement thing, in that you can, as a raider, raid the settlements in the Commonwealth. And that connection is awful! The settlements of Fallout 4 are pushed in the story as a major thing, and hell, they’ve been (rightly) touted by Bethesda as a way to keep players invested in the game over time, giving the audience something to do between DLC releases. 2 of the DLCs for Fallout 4 have absolutely no plot, they just give more settlement options, and 2 more of the game’s DLCs, Automatron and Vault-Tec Workshop, base their small plots around the use of the settlement system! Of the 6 DLC packages that Fallout 4 provides, Far Harbor and Nuka-World are the ONLY ones that aren’t specifically centered around the settlement system. So what kind of bizarre idiocy is it that this final send-off to Fallout 4 is focused on turning around and having you destroy all the settlement stuff you’ve worked on so far, that the game has pushed as a major focus?

This should have been a good final note to Fallout 4. A theme park for Nuka-Cola? The idea is perfect! Theme parks are a huge part of American culture, soda is a huge part of American culture, and I honestly don’t think that there’s anything that embodies the Fallout series as much as Nuka-Cola does. The setting was in place for a perfect Fallout experience, and the side stuff in this DLC shows that Bethesda could have really done it right. But everything good about Nuka-World is kept to the background, and instead our last moments with Fallout 4 are being pressured to betray the Commonwealth, betray the protagonist’s character, betray her/his friends, and betray some of the ideas and focus that are at the very heart of Fallout 4. What a terrible disappointment.

I think my overall verdict on Fallout 4’s add-ons is pretty obvious: a big thumbs-down. Not enough decent material in half of the DLC packages that even bother to have any sort of story content, and Nuka-World, though it has many good qualities, focuses on all the wrong things at exactly the wrong time. If only Far Harbor, which connects to the themes of Fallout 4 properly and has pretty much nothing but good content in it, had been the final would have made Nuka-World a lot easier to accept and appreciate. But even Far Harbor is marred, by that unreasonable price tag.

I thought I was safe with Fallout. I really did. Fallout 3 and New Vegas provided such great overall experiences with their add-ons...I really thought I wouldn’t regret buying the Season Pass for this game. But I do. I am, in fact, thoroughly disgusted with myself. I don’t know how many more times I’m going to let myself get taken advantage of before I finally get it through my thick skull: You cannot trust companies. Maybe between this and my foolishness with Fire Emblem 14’s DLC, I’ll finally have finally wised up.