Thursday, February 20, 2020


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

Friday, October 18, 2019

Tales of Berseria's Combat System's Theme

You know what’s really kind of cool? The combat style that Tales of Berseria subtly pushes you toward.

For at least 90% of all turn-based RPGs (and quite a few even beyond turn-based systems), there’s an overall backbone to combat strategy that’s always present: have a character, or multiple characters, devoted to healing, and when your characters’ HP is low, use this/these party member(s) (or healing items, if necessary) to restore the others’ life. There’s all kinds of battle systems and strategies that can be built upon this, of course, and sometimes you can create party setups in which this isn’t necessary...but “Attacker Attacks, Healer Heals” is still the fundamental starting point on which the vast majority of RPG combat styles build, and even the strategies that get around this are usually more akin to finding loopholes than to employing methods intended to be available to you.

There are, however, a few RPGs out there that, in 1 way or another, are intentionally designed to be built on different combat foundations than the standard I’ve described above, and Tales of Berseria is an example of this. While the magic-users in the game do have a trifling few healing abilities, and of course you always want to have some healing items on hand in case things go unexpectedly south, in this game, if you’re controlling Velvet in battles (which one would assume you would be, at least on your first playthrough), going about combat in the traditional attack-and-get-healed sense isn’t very effective. It’s much more fluid and effective in Tales of Berseria to make use of her Therion mode with the Devour attack. Her HP drops constantly while in this mode, but the initial attack restores a chunk of it, and while Velvet’s in this mode, she can’t be staggered or interrupted in her attacks, making enemies’ attacks pretty insignificant as a whole. This is combined with the fact that there are multiple passive abilities to unlock in the game which restore HP when an enemy is killed, and the fact that she can enter this mode almost all the time due to a simple system of dodging attacks or stunning enemies restoring her ability to launch into Therion mode. Put all together with several other details of ToB’s combat system, and you basically have a game which is designed around the foundation of “Stay Alive By Constantly Attacking” rather than the old “Attacker Attacks, Healer Heals” standard. The traditional healing spells and items have plenty of use in certain circumstances, but the huge majority of the time, you’re keeping your party alive by being a self-sustaining whirlwind of destruction on your foes.

By itself, it’s a neat and refreshing change from the standard formula (not to mention a very unusual case of the Tales of series creating a complex system that’s actually intuitive and something approaching fun; Jesus Christ do I hate how these games usually just cram so many damn gameplay features and details down your throat that you choke on them). But it's not something I would feel the need to rant about (I still only find it slightly less boring than the average combat system). BUT: this system is more than just a clever bit of programming--it’s also quite cool for the fact that it’s thematically consistent to Tales of Berseria as a whole!

I mean, think about it: isn’t a system which pushes the player to survive through a relentless offense a perfect match to a story about an aggressive, obsessed demon of vengeance who only holds herself together through the power of her hatred and thirst for retribution? Like, holy shit, how awesome is it that Tales of Berseria is so on point in its every nuance that its developers even went so far as to redesign the fundamentals of RPG combat around its protagonist?

I mean, sure, I’ll grant you that there are plenty of RPGs out there that design themselves or come up with gimmicks according to the game they’re in--Fallout 1 and 2 adapted turn-based isometric combat to a gun-based style, as their successor Fallout 3 adapted the Elder Scrolls gameplay system to the same, while Breath of Fire 5 incorporated the ticking clock of the D-Counter that defines the game’s pace, and Legend of Dragoon involved the Dragoon thing as a mode to activate in combat, as examples. But these are all cases of the battle system adapting surface-level details of their games. The Fallouts adapted a basic fact of their setting, Breath of Fire 5 did so with a constant fact of gameplay, and Legend of Dragoon with an unavoidable part of its story lore. The most any other game does with its gameplay that I can immediately think of is reflect material components of its lore or plot, and most of the time, it’s an obvious and usually explicitly stated connection, like the use of Espers as sources of magic in combat being a clear plot point in Final Fantasy 6 that’s outright told to you.

Tales of Berseria tells you why Velvet has her Therion mode and how it works, yes, but that’s as far as it goes--it lets you take the reins and come to the obvious conclusion that the game’s set up to favor an intelligent but uninterrupted offense for your own. The inevitable strategies formed from this and several mitigating gameplay details are a subtle reflection of Velvet’s character, of her quest, of the overall plot, a case of Tales of Berseria using even its battle system as a tool of character development. And that, in my opinion, is pretty damn awesome.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Pathfinder: Kingmaker

Hey, you know what I haven’t done for a while? I haven’t made a rant encouraging you all to check out an Indie RPG I recently played. Let’s fix that!

Pathfinder: Kingmaker is an RPG I backed on Kickstarter. It’s one of those isometric-ish tabletop-styled games, like the Dungeons and Dragons classics of the 90s and 2000s, or the more recent Torment: Tides of Numenera and Pillars of Eternity. It’s based on the Pathfinder tabletop RPG, which is...basically just Dungeons and Dragons’s Third Edition. Seriously, I don’t know how Paizo Publishing legally gets away with Pathfinder, as I don’t think Wizards of the Coast is getting any money from it, yet it’s using pretty much all the same content, even down to the same spell names and deities and such. I’m someone whose only real experience with Dungeons and Dragons has been with the famous PC games set in its Third Edition like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale, and I can tell you, settling into Pathfinder: Kingmaker’s gameplay mechanics after years of experience with Third Edition D+D games was as smooth and seamless an experience for me as going from Neverwinter Nights 1 to Neverwinter Nights 2.

Anyway, that’s what Pathfinder: Kingmaker is on (pen and) paper. But what it is to us as an audience, is the most perfect PC RPG adaptation of a tabletop game to date.

This isn’t to say it’s the best tabletop-based RPG, mind you. Torment: Tides of Numenera, Shadowrun: Dragonfall, Neverwinter Nights 2’s Mask of the Betrayer DLC, and Planescape: Torment are all greater products, in some cases far greater. But, they are superior for the truly astounding quality of their storytelling elements, not necessarily for what they are as a whole. Basically, Planescape: Torment, and the others I just mentioned to lesser degrees, is utterly amazing as an intellectual and emotional experience, but that excellence only really connects to its tabletop basis in that it uses certain story concepts of the tabletop game’s lore as a basis on which to build itself. The planes of Dungeons and Dragons, its blood war, and the way that belief and divinity work within it, these are all foundations that Planescape: Torment uses to tell 1 of the greatest and most intelligent stories ever created...but the experience of guiding the Nameless One along his journey of self-discovery is a very different thing from the overall intent and experience of Dungeons and Dragons in general. And the same is true to varying degrees of the other titles I mentioned above as being better RPGs than Pathfinder: Kingmaker--they’re superior in terms of storytelling elements independent of the overall idea and experience of a tabletop game.

But as an overall adaptation of a tabletop RPG experience? Pathfinder: Kingmaker is pretty much the best title I’ve seen, by a wide margin. It rises to this lofty height of quality in 2 ways.

First, the game takes a truckload of the defining qualities and styles of the isometric RPGs that preceded it, and either recreates them, or refines and enhances them to be better. In terms of said recreation, the combat and overall gameplay mechanics are a fluid representation of the classic isometric D+D style, the dungeons and overworld capture the trademark tabletop atmospheres and aesthetics of PK’s predecessors (while also frequently having their own singular nature; the boggier parts of the Stolen Lands and the First World give the game’s settings their own identity), the spells and belief system and lineage and so on all come into play here and there in minor but satisfying ways during interactions, the lore and side-stories of the setting are all readily present and accessible, while never so overbearing that you’ll be lost without prior knowledge of the universe, a soundtrack featuring work by Inon Zur (and several others) that frequently captures the feel of several previous works of his such as Dragon Age 1 and Baldur’s Gate 2 (while still maintaining its own identity)...this game takes the signatures of its genre and brings them forth as a perfectly unified whole.

But Pathfinder: Kingmaker also recreates defining characteristics of its forebears that you wouldn’t expect, might not have even realized were there the first time until you experienced them once again! The search through the Shrike Hills for the Stag Lord in the game’s first chapter gave me the same feeling of exploring an unknown land’s wilderness that I had while traveling the forests of Baldur’s Gate 1, for example (although PK is much less frustrating thanks to having a decent map system to rely on), while the game’s use of kobolds and goblins (and, at times, party member Linzi) reminded me at times of interactions with Deekin and his tribe in Neverwinter Nights 1. Pathfinder: Kingmaker’s full of charmingly nostalgic little moments like that which you don’t expect, atmospheres and events that momentarily recapture a feeling signature to an experience from 1 of the games preceding it in this genre--but always, I want to stress, while maintaining its own identity.

But as I said, in addition to skillfully mimicking defining qualities and atmospheres of the tabletop-turned-PC RPGs that came before it, Pathfinder: Kingmaker also frequently takes signature elements from those games, and actually improves upon them, sometimes by surprisingly substantial degrees. The most notable example of this, I should think, would be the Kingdom Management portion to the game. Though not technically the first RPG to have something along these lines (Breath of Fire 2’s Township thing predated it by 5 years, and there might’ve been something older than BoF, too), Baldur’s Gate 2 introduced a little side-story of ruling over a medieval community with its de’Arnise Keep stronghold that became a big enough hit with the players that various PC RPGs for the next almost 20 years would bring the idea back over and over again, such as with Dragon Age 1’s Awakening expansion’s stronghold and Caed Nua of Pillars of Eternity 1, tweaking the idea here and there, adding mechanics like town-building and the like, but ultimately, even 18 years after, the really enjoyable and notable elements of these iterations of the community-ruling feature inevitably just come back to the idea of guiding a medieval-style community as its sovereign and settling the various domestic and governance issues that get brought before your protagonist as she/he sits upon the throne.

Well, Pathfinder: Kingmaker’s Kingdom Management component completely destroys every other game’s attempt at this idea. It’s a major, constantly present aspect of the plot (I mean, the title itself straight-out tells you the game’s about making you a ruler), never seeming like a side-venture or gimmick, and it’s got a massive wealth of content. Advisors bringing a wide variety of issues to your attention in all fields of government (from matters of community, to your lands’ economics, to local religious practices, to diplomacy and espionage in regards to neighboring countries), supplicants approach you frequently to aid in settling disputes, there are dozens of problems and opportunities of all kinds to send your advising council to deal with, you get to choose what direction to focus your resources and efforts in, you’re given the ability to determine where new towns will spring up and what services can be found in them...ruling your fledgeling kingdom is a massive undertaking, almost as big a part of the game as the actual adventuring is, yet it’s simple to pick up on and satisfying to go through with, a grander and more enjoyable stronghold experience than that of any previous game’s many times over!

And I must say, even though I found the whole thing to be very fun, I really appreciate that the Kingdom Management aspect of the game, in spite of how integral and sizable it is, is completely optional. You know how much I hate mandatory minigames--well, Owlcat Games was kind enough to give you the option to have the kingdom basically run itself, if you’re just not interested in that part of the Pathfinder: Kingmaker experience. I sincerely wish more RPG developers would value their players’ time, agency, and intelligence enough to give us a similar ability to opt out of shit like hauler beasts.

I’d also like to note that Pathfinder: Kingmaker also refines and better executes conventions of newer isometric RPGs, too, not just the classics. There’s been a narrative device I’ve seen in the recent Pillars of Eternity 1 and Torment: Tides of Numenera, in which certain parts of the game take place in the form of narrated, multiple-choice adventure stories similar to old text-based PC adventures from waaaaayyyy back (or, I guess, modern-day visual novels, sort of?). They were an interesting change of pace in PoE1 and TToN (and written especially well in the latter), but if I’m to be fully honest, they tended to be slightly dry and overstay their welcome in both games. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea and found them really cool most of the time, but there was room for improvement.

And that improvement was made in Pathfinder: Kingmaker! The illustrated book interludes of this game are more fun, and never seem to overstay their interest...partly because the narrator for these episodes is much more personally engaging, partly because you feel like you have more useful agency in your selections and can earn immediate rewards from making selections that successfully utilize the skills you’ve built into your characters, and partly because these little episodes actually seem relevant to the story, since they’re presented as excerpts from the book that Linzi (the party’s chronicler) is writing about the protagonist’s exploits. It ultimately ends up feeling far more natural and smooth than it did in Pillars of Eternity 1 and Torment: Tides of Numenera, at least to me. Just as PK manages to smooth over and refine many notable qualities of the old isometric RPGs, it also takes some of the features of newer entries to the genre and improves upon them, as well.

The second way that Pathfinder: Kingmaker makes itself the best example I’ve come across of a tabletop RPG adapted to the format of a video game, and perhaps the more important, is just how well it manages to impart the heart and soul of the pen-and-paper RPG experience. PK captures the spirit of its universe and the act of playing a tabletop campaign to a degree that I don’t think any other video game RPG has yet managed. I can’t pin down how, but the way that PK’s story unfolds and heightens feels in many ways like the way a long-term, many-sessioned pen-and-paper campaign would, with a lore and overall story in place, but a plot which gives a believable illusion of shifting and evolving as a result of the protagonist’s actions and successes, much like the flow of a D+D campaign whose Dungeon Master has an overall idea of the adventure and story in place, but adapts and grows that idea in response to the players’ actions and decisions as the adventure unfolds. I don’t know how to better describe it--where most RPGs feel like a writer’s story that he/she is dictating to you, Pathfinder: Kingmaker captures the feel of a game master taking you through the story of a campaign that he’s skillful enough to keep generally on track, while reshaping it as it goes according to what the story’s characters do and do not accomplish. That’s probably highly subjective and your mileage may vary, but it was how the game felt to me, at least.

Pathfinder: Kingmaker also sells its tabletop RPG theme in a variety of other ways, too, of course. There’s a tremendous amount of choices to make throughout the game whose consequences range from subtle to highly significant (and generally in appropriate measure to the choice’s weight); there was no part of the game in which I felt that my protagonist’s decisions didn’t have importance. The employment of characters’ Skills in both everyday explorations and in dialogue trees is flawlessly implemented, ensuring that every talent is important and opens up new options to the player, with a frequency similar to that which you’d find in a well-orchestrated session of pen-and-paper gaming. The map screen uses little tabletop-style figurines, and maintains an aesthetic as you move like you’re dragging a piece across a table. Details of your protagonist such as her/his patron deity or race are not brought up often, but do occasionally influence conversations to which they’d be pertinent (for example, in your early conversations with Valerie as she bad-mouths the Goddess of Beauty, Shelyn, your character can point out that she/he is a follower of Shelyn her/himself, if that was the patron deity you selected during character creation for a relevant class). The game provides a full, solid cast with which to make your party, but for those who want to have full control over the details of their entire party from the ground up, you also have the option from almost the start of the game to hire on some mercenaries, silent NPCs that you can yourself design exactly to your wishes. I find such a possibility boring and dumb, of course, because I’m all about story and character development and all this amounts to is having 6 dull silent protagonists instead of 1, but still, those who really liked that element of Icewind Dale can have it again.

The alignment system is just restrictive enough that you feel your character’s beliefs and morality matter, while being flexible enough that you can still play and make decisions mostly the way you want to, only very rarely being locked out of an action** by its consistency to your protagonist’s view on good and evil, and law and chaos. Also, your protagonist’s beliefs can change according to the morality of the decisions you have them make through the game’s course--regardless of what beliefs you initially select for your character, they will, eventually, change to better reflect the person you actually want them to be, according to your own decisions’ direction, which is a neat bit of roleplay fine-tuning.*** Also, Owlcat Games have, amusingly enough, made sure to include an option in the dialogue tree of pretty much every character not absolutely plot-essential to just go Chaotic Evil and kill whoever you’re talking to. Yes, even if you’re that guy in your tabletop friend group, Pathfinder: Kingmaker has got your roleplaying back.

It’s a ton of fine details like these that really bring Pathfinder: Kingmaker to life as an adaptation of tabletop gaming, capturing just about every possible signature to the physical role playing game experience that a single-player video game possibly can. This honestly is just the best RPG I’ve seen so far in terms of being a representation of the pen-and-paper genre.

And finally, I’d like to note that it’s a darned good RPG in the general sense, too! The story is inventive and engaging, enough so that it never felt like it was dragging, which is something impressive in a game as massively long as Pathfinder: Kingmaker--even a lot of the games I play that I really, really love have stretches where I start really feeling their length. I love Tales of Berseria, for example, but there were still moments during its course when I found myself contemplating just how extended its adventure was. The characters, while not amazing (although Nok-Nok is terrifically funny), are all solid and enjoyable personalities, and frequently quite singular. The lore and history of the game’s setting, and the ways it sets the foundation for the game’s events, is creative and fascinating. The overall themes of the story, of redemption and forgiveness, civilizational entropy, and the vital necessity of love within our souls, are all great and well-executed. The villains are captivating and unique, and while I only know for sure that he was involved in writing Nok-Nok, I daresay that the villainess Nyrissa in particular also bears the boon of Chris Avellone’s ever-masterful hand. Shelyn bless that man’s seemingly endless font of great writing and ideas!

Oh, and for what it’s worth: this may be a crowdfunded game and the first creation of its development studio, but it’s got all the polish and aesthetics of a pro, major developer’s work. Obviously an Indie RPG looking the part is not a problem for me (hell, I frequently find myself preferring an Indie game’s aesthetics and style to those of current AAA studios), but if you’re the type that usually cringes a little when you hear “Indie,” there’s no cause to let that put you off with this game.

If you like great RPGs, you should play Pathfinder: Kingmaker. If you like the experience of pen-and-paper games like Pathfinder, Dungeons and Dragons, and the like, then you really should play Pathfinder: Kingmaker. And if you like the classic isometric RPGs like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, or are a fan of newer titles of this style like Pillars of Eternity and Torment: Tides of Numenera, you absolutely should play Pathfinder: Kingmaker. My history of backing RPGs on Kickstarter is one of several ups and downs, but this particular project is a solid success that I’m pleased to have helped make possible.****

* Something which, I’d like to point out, I am quite fine with overall. As I’ve mentioned before, linear restrictions to an RPG’s storytelling method allows the writers more control and thus better ability to tell the story they want to.

** Rarely but significantly--the alignment-restricted choices are almost always big ones that affect major turns in the story’s course. But like I said, that’s the kind of uncommon but substantial restriction that makes your character’s beliefs feel important.

*** Hell, this may be a rare occasion in which a video game actually outperforms a tabletop in terms of role playing choices. DMs have a tendency, from what I’ve seen and heard, of using a character’s alignment to confine and deny a player’s choices in an unfair and frankly unrealistic manner. Stuff like, “You can’t show mercy to this vampire no matter how uncharacteristically benevolent she is, you’re a Lawful Good Paladin, it’s against your alignment” and such, as though a person’s overall beliefs can never be superseded by situational factors. PK, on the other hand, still allows an Evil character to make a Good decision most of the time, or a Chaotic character to stick up for Neutrality, and so on, simply adjusting your character’s standing on the Alignment chart accordingly. And hell, even the major options in the game that are Alignment-locked still feel more fair than the standard of real-life roleplay--the fact that your Lawful character doesn’t have access to an option to force a truce (rather than pick a side) between Brevoy and Restov almost feels, to me, like it’s simply not an option that would occur to a character who doesn’t already have a mindset of Neutrality. The result may be the same, I suppose, but PK feels to me in such situations less like it’s discarding your character’s ability to choose a moral stance, and more like it’s reflecting a character who wouldn’t have even thought of such a solution to begin with.

**** This doesn't really fit into the rant anywhere, but I would like to note that if you do follow my advice and get this game, it's worth checking out its mods at Nexus, too. There are quite a few that are good for just quality of life modifications, and I would heartily recommend the Kingdom Resolution mod, as it gives you a lot of freedom to experience all the events and eventualities that the Kingdom Management aspect of the game can provide, letting you get the most out of your experience.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Nier: Automata's Moments of Self-Deprecation

I extend a giant and heartfelt tahnks to my friends Ecclesiastes and Angel Adonis for their generous and intelligent assistance with pre-reading this rant and sharing their thoughts with me on it. It's always a great source of reassurance to know that other, greater minds can confirm that my ramblings on more intellectually complex RPGs are reasonably on the mark. You blokes are the best, you truly are!

As I and countless others have stated before, Nier: Automata is filled to the brim with existential philosophy. An absolutely brilliant RPG that examines in a gaggle of ways the search for meaning to one’s existence, both on the level of individual and species, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that just about everything in this game is there for a reason, has a purpose in the grand scheme of Nier: Automata’s search for truth. And I daresay there are probably many who would agree with me on this point. As any creator does through their philosophical treatise, Yoko Taro wants us to think, long and hard, about ourselves.

And yet, at the same time, there are moments in Nier: Automata of self-awareness that seem to warn us--or perhaps it’s more accurate to say reassure us--that there are downsides to going too deep into this thoughtful realm. While Nier: Automata wants to make us question our existence and help us to find new perspectives through which we can arrive at our own truths on the matter, I think that it also, in at least a small way, wants us to confront the question of whether all these philosophical musings are even worth it.

This relates a little to some of what I spoke of in my rant about N2’s demise, so let’s start there. Recall that N2, the summation of the Machine consciousness and an otherwise unassailable opponent, is defeated by itself: once N2 has focused enough of its mental processing on the fight with A2 thanks to her following the Pod’s advice not to attack N2’s instances, N2 finds itself at odds with itself, split by indecision about how to proceed with its goals to the point that its different opinions destroy one another, just, as A2 points out, like humans destroy one another over differing viewpoints. Now, in my rant, I made the argument that this is way of NA telling us of the danger of unquestioningly following another’s path to enlightenment, and I’ll stick by that, but it’s also a tangible representation of a mind being undone by having mired itself too fully in a single matter. Becoming unavoidably preoccupied with this single battle has caused the mind that is N2 to fold in on itself, just as becoming too focused on his own pain and loss causes 9S to behave in self-destructive ways.

Now, this by itself doesn’t really act as an argument that getting too serious about existential philosophy, specifically, is a bad thing--9S’s deterioration can easily be seen as primarily emotional in nature (though I would, myself, argue that it’s half that, and half his continuing to learn the truth of YoRHa’s existence), and you can view N2’s downfall to be more of a commentary on human nature’s tendency towards indecision, and social in-fighting over trivialities of method. But it does act as supporting evidence if there’s already a case to be made for Nier: Automata possessing the intent to argue against the necessity of taking these questions of existence too seriously...and, indeed, that case is made in the game.

There are times in Nier: Automata in which the creators of the game outright poke fun at how seriously we take the questions that they themselves are exploring so diligently. I first noticed this during the sidequest involving the machine entity Jean-Paul. The gist of this venture is that Jean-Paul is a rather self-important philosopher, pondering and attempting to find high meaning (or an equally snooty lack of meaning) in existence, which has, peculiarly, made him something of a rockstar in the machine community, and it’s 2B and 9S’s job to act as courier for him, delivering to Jean-Paul love confessions from his groupies, and subsequently returning with the news of his rejection to each. While it’s a somewhat tedious sidequest, it’s also kind of amusing, because Jean-Paul has his round head so far up his shiny metal ass that his reaction to each admirer’s gift is to try to judge it on its merits as some representation of some higher purpose of thought--he seems actually incapable of viewing a basic, emotional purpose of these items, even though that would be the most obvious perspective to take toward them. Likewise, his enamoured followers are all too ready to read utter brilliance into his rejection. 2B and 9S come out of this sidequest thoroughly nonplussed at this weirdo and the nuts that hang on his every word,* and the overall purpose of this sidequest seems to first and foremost be to have a chuckle at the fact that these characters have taken their desire to contemplate existence so far that they’re actually missing the basic, overt facts of what’s in front of them.

When I played this quest through to the end, I was amused, and honestly, I respected it for being a little bit of tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation on the part of Yoko Taro and his posse, a little admission from them of perhaps taking the questions of our existence too seriously. I’ve always personally held the belief that it’s an easy pitfall for a thinker to get so wrapped up in finding deeper or grander meaning that they start to miss the obvious and find things that aren’t there, like the populists may have done with The Wizard of Oz, or as fans do for Rick and Morty to make themselves feel smart for the first time. But after feeling amused and appreciative, I simply moved on, assuming it was a one-off moment.

But it was not. There’s also a moment in the game in which we see Pascal reading one of Nietzsche’s works, and witness him reflect aloud that Nietzsche either was quite profound...or just drove straight past Profoundville and wound up in Crazy Town instead.** Additionally, there’s the post-game research report written by Jackass, in which she briefly details the now fully-revealed lore of the game, its events, and ends with a hilariously disgruntled and blunt summary of it all that points out that the whole conflict and everything they’ve all been doing is completely stupid and frustrating. It’s a remarkably straightforward, down-to-earth reaction that’s such a supremely stark contrast to the serious, earnest approach that Nier: Automata has otherwise taken with its complex and thoughtful story, that it winds up being hilarious, and even, in a way, a relief to the player, after having been caught up so deeply in the game’s conflicts and meanings for so long.

And then there’s the endings. Nier: Automata has 26 endings (sort of; A and B are actually halfway marks), 1 for every letter of the alphabet, and the substantial majority of them are joke endings! Much like several of Chrono Trigger’s alternate endings, Nier: Automata has various quick little conclusions that more or less just toss away all the weighty heft of the plot, and end things on a mildly amusing and insubstantial note...ending the game because 9S decided to just wander off in curiosity when he was supposed to stick to the mission, or because you had 2B gum up her inner workings with a fish like that scene in AI where the robot kid breaks down from trying to eat spinach,*** or because you decided in your infinite wisdom to do your own tech support and accidentally uninstalled A2’s operating system...little joke endings like these are scattered throughout NA at every turn. At practically any time, there’s an opportunity to just drop all this high-falutin’ philosophy BS and end the whole adventure on silly, surface-level terms.

That, in my estimation, is enough occurrences to warrant consideration--particularly since Jackass’s report is sort of the final words the game has to share with us, which lends them great importance. Even as Nier: Automata plunges headfirst into the greatest depths of our search to understand the meaning of our existence, it also has no problem with some lighthearted ribbing to cut through all the heavy, even at times excessive, philosophy stuff. There’s a good-natured self-awareness to it...and that might even make it better as a work of philosophy.****

I mean, look at something like, say, Dragon Ball Z Abridged. DBZA is a work by fans which founds itself upon pointing out the amusingly dumb shortcomings of DBZ and its characters, a work for comedy, and yet, it’s made by hardcore fans of the original anime who also seek to communicate the parts of the show that made them love it in their parody series, and the result is a genuinely enjoyable interpretation of DBZ that a great many people (myself included) actually, legitimately believe is the better version. The rational, self-aware humor of DBZ Abridged allows it to be a far better vehicle for the anime’s story, cutting out the endless tedium of DBZ’s original narrative methods, acknowledging the incomprehensible stupidity of so many of its devices and characters, but asking, reasonably, that we allow ourselves to admit the parts within that stupidity that are actually kind of good as a basic concept.

Yoko Taro is doing the same thing, essentially. He seems, to me, to be showing a gracious, wry humility by allowing for the possibility that this is all an unnecessary bunch of hoopla, allowing us a reliable, universal access point, humor, through which we can enter into Nier: Automata’s depth, and likewise through which we can duck out for a moment of fresh air to get a joke ending for stupidly blowing up our home base, or appreciate the fact that even these possibly superior machine consciousnesses also wonder if maybe this whole business is trying to make too much of nothing.

I’d also like to say, lastly, that this occasional bit of poking fun at the intensity of our collective pursuit of existential truth is, in itself, actually a beneficial part of that very question. When your point is to question purpose itself, it’s only right that you be thorough enough to question the purpose of your method itself. Does exploring our own existence really even mean anything, have any value, when it doesn’t change the fact or nature of the world and events around us? Jackass is no philosopher, but her blunt, crude, surface-level summary of the existence portrayed in Nier: Automata might very well be the most honest and undebatable perspective in the whole affair. The machine Jean-Paul is a tenaciously dedicated devotee to finding the hidden truth of all he experiences, yet it is clear even to our protagonists that this is the very reason he misses the point, that he can’t see the forest for the trees. For all the penetrating, far-reaching intellectual paths we explore in a search for that which defines our purpose, there are some ways in which the more down-to-Earth perspective of most people, whose concerns are with living their existence rather than mercilessly interrogating it, does have the advantage. Within Nier: Automata, Yoko Taro offers us his own perspective on existentialism, he incorporates and provides others’ famous takes, as well...but he also provides the rejection of these quests of the mind as an alternative, and, interestingly, lends this approach legitimacy through the appealing power of humor.

* Although it probably would have done 9S some good to have given Jean-Paul’s “existence precedes essence” idea some more thought, considering how things go later for the guy.

** I especially like this scene, because Pascal’s next thought is that he’d best put away the books and go out and see the world for himself, which I believe is another major intention of Yoko Taro’s: to urge us to give the works of others their due consideration as guides (even including Nier: Automata itself), but ultimately to elect to find one’s answers about existence on one’s own.

*** Insert cliched 1950s joke about kids not wanting to eat their vegetables here.

**** I should note that the many alternate endings are not necessarily only intended for humorous purposes. 1 of the 2 fine gents I had proofread this rant, Angel, believes strongly that they also represent a take on free will, in allowing one to essentially walk off the stage rather than continue to play the rigid role assigned. I rather like this idea, too, as it squares very well with the concept behind the ultimate end to this game. But the minor endings would not need to be by and large amusing to accomplish that goal, and yet they are, so I do still feel that they fit with my interpretation in this rant, too.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Nier: Automata's Downloadable Content

Nier: Automata. It’s regarded as brilliant. It’s been called by some the most philosophical game ever made. It’s as powerful an argument that video games are capable of being art as any I’ve seen. It’s received universal acclaim and praise. It’s shown that despite almost every available piece of evidence to be found in the past decade and a half, SquareEnix is still capable of publishing quality work. And it’ an add-on, proving that there is no possible work of sufficient merit and dignity to be able to escape the grasp of greedy corporate scum. I guess I should just be glad they never got around to adding lootboxes to the game.

So yeah, unlike what you’d expect from a game designed to explore and illustrate the meaning and conflicts behind one’s existence, Nier: Automata has a DLC. And yeah, exactly like what you’d expect from a dude who has no good idea of how to spend his free time, I’m here to talk about it today.

3C3C1D119440927: Goddammit, Nier: Automata, I know you’re deep and artsy and you perfectly embrace the whole artificial intelligence angle of your story, but couldn’t you have put all that on hold for just 1 freakin’ second and given your DLC package a title that I won’t have to look up and copy-paste every single time I want to refer to it by name?

When I first started to play this DLC, I was...pessimistic, to put it politely. At the outset, this package seems to just be about adding 3 coliseums to the game, which you can enter and win several matches of varying levels of challenge within. I’ve almost never found RPG arenas all that interesting, honestly--it’s like, oh boy, in addition to the literal hundreds of repetitive battles I’ll fight during the natural course of completing the game, here’s a gameplay feature where I get to fight MORE! What an innovative delight! Ugh. So yeah, as this DLC starts out by just inviting you to a handful of arenas to battle, I wasn’t thrilled, and that feeling persisted as I took part in each one’s matches.

I will say that the coliseum angle isn’t all bad here, though. While having to schlup your way through a bunch of new battles is boring as hell, there’s some merit in the lore surrounding some of the coliseum stuff. 1 coliseum shows a rather ugly side to the Resistance, which helps to round them out a little, because the main game’s focus, even in terms of lore-expanding sidequests, tends to be more on YoRHa and the machines as groups than on the Resistance: while you get to meet a few significant members of the Resistance over the game’s course, you never get to see the light and dark side of the group as a whole the way you do the other major factions of the game. And another coliseum establishes a small culture of machines who regulate their lives with thousands of rigid, completely arbitrary rules, which actually is pretty interesting--it seems like less of a random side-story gimmick, and more like a new perspective Yoko Taro wishes to share on methods we use to deal with (or perhaps ignore and deny) our existential dilemmas and fears. It at least feels like this arena’s lore is trying to say something to the player about purpose and society, so it seems like a good fit to the game, a more natural part of it than many add-ons tend to be.

I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find that once the arenas had been cleared, this DLC isn’t over--there’s a final sidequest to get through which, while not really acknowledged or advertised very much as the content pack’s attractive features, ends up being, I think, the real point of purchasing this add-on. In this finale to 3C3C1D119440927, you’re given the opportunity to learn the story of 1 member of the machines: a somewhat defective and constantly bullied robot who found love and purpose in caring for a doll, and what his fate was. It’s a small but emotional story, told well through his perspective and then later through the eyes of another machine, and I really like the window it provides us into the everyday operations and frustrations of the machines. I particularly enjoy that fact because it seems like the overworked, underappreciated life of a single machine in an overbearing workforce may be a connection to the famous writings of Engels and Marx, whose works have, before now, not been given the same time and exploration in Nier: Automata as those of most of the other philosophers that the game has referenced.

In the end, the purpose of the tale of this lonely machine, and of the music video that concludes this DLC, are not fully apparent to me, and open to a lot of interpretation...but it’s a story that nonetheless clearly has meaning and thought to convey to its player. Which is neither unexpected, nor a flaw: this is, after all, Nier: Automata. Much of it is meant to allow the player to draw his or her own conclusions and insights from the game’s material, and the question of what this machine’s existence and legacy, and the artful music video that follows, means for us and and our existence should be something with which we grapple with the help and guidance, but not the hand-holding, of the game.

It’s hard for me to say whether or not 3C3C1D119440927 is worth the $10 that I currently see it listed for. Conventionally-speaking, it isn’t, as you’re not likely to get a full 10 hours of additional play time out of it, and much of what time you do get from it is sadly taken up by tiresome arena challenges rather than anything that matters. Conversely, though, this DLC is worthwhile and thoughtful enough, once you get to its real content, that it feels consistent to Nier: Automata as a whole, and perhaps that fact does, indeed, make it worth the cost. I suppose the matter boils down to your general experience with NA: if it’s something you’ve gotten a lot out of, and you’re interested in examining another piece of it and finding how that piece fits into the philosophical treatise as a whole, then this DLC won’t be a bad purchase for you. If it’s a game of which you’ve enjoyed the surface story layer but not had much luck in following the deeper content, then this probably won’t be worth the price, at least not right now--maybe if it ever goes on sale for, like, $5 or less. And if you just haven’t really cared for Nier: Automata overall...well, then, no, obviously don’t buy this, why is this even a question for you. I, at least, found it satisfactory, and that’s certainly more than I can say for the majority of my add-on experiences to date, so good on Nier: Automata in this matter.

Oh also it’s hard to dislike any DLC that gives me the chance to beat the ever-loving shit out of the guy in charge of SquareEnix.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Fallout 2's Temple of Trials Make No Goddamn Sense

There’s no denying that Fallout 2 is a great RPG, as one would naturally expect of a Fallout game.* But great doesn’t mean perfect, and every player’s sure to find something or other about the game that they don’t particularly like. Most of these complaints vary from 1 person to the next (I, personally, am annoyed to no end by the stupid, pointless, damaging retcon of super mutant sterility; thank Susano-o they Yo Dawg’ed that retcon later on in the series), but there are 2 parts of Fallout 2 that are pretty much universally reviled: the Temple of Trials, and Overseer Lynette. In the latter case, it’s expected, as Lynette was engineered with masterful craftsmanship to be an even more unequivocally frustrating and loathsome human being than Bobby Kotick, a man whose mere existence ironically champions the cause of nihilism. Less intentional, however, is the general irritation that players have with the Temple of Trials, which is generally (and accurately) seen as a tedious, clumsy, heavy-handed tutorial mission that’s as unnecessary as it is pointless and unwelcome. As an opening to a game, Fallout 2’s Temple of Trials is close to the worst that RPGs have to offer, for several reasons that I’ve gone into in my rant on the genre’s worst beginnings.

But you know what I just realized the other day, while talking with a friend who’s just started playing Fallout 2? I realized that we’ve only been scratching the surface of how bad the Temple of Trials is. For 20 years, we’ve been so caught up with being annoyed at the Temple of Trials for failing as a gameplay device, that we never noticed that it also fails on the far more important narrative level, too!

To whit: this temple’s existence doesn’t make sense.

To begin with, let’s just talk about thematic consistency. How does this stupid fucking dungeon fit into Fallout? This is a dungeon taken straight out of a fantasy-styled RPG, not a post-apocalyptic future RPG! This religious structure of stone walls and imposing steel doors would look perfectly at home in a western fantasy game like The Elder Scrolls or Neverwinter Nights, or countless JRPGs like Grandia or Threads of Fate, but nothing about it fits with the Fallout universe. I’m racking my brain, and coming up short: I’m fairly certain that there is not a single other location like this in the entire series. Supposedly it’s a structure that existed before the war, which the Vault Dweller just happened to stumble across during his founding of Arroyo...but it’s too archaic to fit with the many pre-war structures and locations of the modern world, even in terms of what we’ve seen of prewar structures devoted to more supernatural pursuits. It’s just totally out of place in this game and series...which just makes it all the worse that it’s the first dungeon of Fallout 2, because the first impression it’s making on a player is completely alien to every single moment of the game that will follow!

But beyond the aesthetics, it also makes no sense within the game’s own lore!

Because seriously, why the hell does the village of Arroyo exist entirely outside of the temple? They’ve got this massive, perfectly fortified stone structure with several rooms in it, and they just leave it totally and completely unused at all times, save for the 2 times in the village’s history when the village elder and the Chosen One go through it as their trial for being Arroyo’s leader and fetch-quest schmuck, respectively. In a single room, the village keeps the Vault Dweller’s clothing in a shrine, but every single other of the half-dozen rooms in this thing, along with the spacious and long hallways connecting them? Completely empty and unused. For 75 years, this thing has sat within a stone’s throw of the Arroyo village, and they’ve never so much as used it as a tool shed! And hell, even the single room being used as a laundry museum has only been that way for the last 30 years or so, since the Vault Dweller didn’t leave Arroyo for several decades after founding the village, and we can safely assume that he himself didn’t have the idea to ostentatiously immortalize his long johns there. And the temple’s use as a testing ground has been for even less time, since the village elder took the first test in it 2 years after the Vault Dweller left! That means that for like half of Arroyo’s existence, they used this giant, sturdy, safe mountain fortress for absolutely fucking literally nothing.

This is a village whose residents live in a bunch of crappy tents! These people don’t even have the luxury of a hut’s stability! No one ever looked at this colossal multi-roomed cliff-side palace and thought to themselves, “Hey, maybe we could hang out in there sometimes, instead”? There was never a particularly bad patch of weather over the course of 75 years that made the prospect of having to live in easily-destroyed, easily-blown-away tents less appealing than hanging out in an actual structure? I mean, I know the community’s all about raising brahmin and plants, and hunting-gathering, but they could still do all that during the day, and then go to sleep at night with a real, actual roof over their heads!

Hell, the Vault Dweller was a guy who lived his entire life in an enclosed structure built into a mountain, and only left it because he was forcibly exiled. After founding Arroyo, he never once got homesick enough to recreate the living experience he grew up with? The fact that this struggling little village never considered using the Temple of Trials for anything is already hard to swallow in terms of overall logic, but it also runs contrary to 1 of the few things we can safely glean about the Vault Dweller’s character!

For fuck’s sake, Arroyo, there are people in the Capital Wasteland who count themselves well off if they can secure a shack in the shade of a crumbling piece of a highway overpass. There are ghouls in the Commonwealth so hard up for a solid living space that they’ve created an entire settlement around the remains of a communal swimming pool! And you assholes are just sitting around in tents, ignoring a fortress safe haven that makes most of the actual fortresses in this series** look like rickety little cabins built by someone using Fallout 4’s Settlement Builder for the first time?! I feel like an exasperated parent scolding a picky child to appreciate his dinner because there are starving people over in such-and-such country!

Hey, Arroyo, remember that time in the middle of Fallout 2, when the Enclave showed up to kidnap your entire village’s population and savagely gun down everyone who resisted? Yeah, that was awful. Too bad you guys didn’t have a giant mountain fortress with defensible solid steel doors you could have holed up in, huh?

Screw the Temple of Trials, man. It’s a bad decision in terms of gameplay, it’s completely wrong aesthetically to the Fallout series, and it just makes no goddamn sense conceptually.

* Even if one would be dead fucking wrong 3 times on this matter.

** The Brotherhood’s Citadel (Pentagon), the Master’s Cathedral, and the Minutemen’s Castle, for example.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Princess' Heart's Missed Opportunities for Character Development

I just don’t know what to make of you, RosePortal Games. Every damn time I play 1 of your games, I get this vague but insistent impression that you want to include and address heavy, dark, real-world issues that rarely get as much attention as they should in this medium...and every single time, you thoroughly underwhelm me with a complete inability to portray these issues adequately, or actually do anything of significance with them. Or hell, even just tell a compelling surface-level story in the process!

I’ve made my complaints about Whisper of a Rose, and I’ve talked about how Sweet Lily Dreams failed to utilize its narrative’s structure. Well, I’ve just finished The Princess’ Heart, another of Roseportal Games’s creations, and so I’m here again. I know it must seem like I’m just picking on this developer at this point, but they just keep disappointing me in new ways! Or maybe it’s not new, so much as it is that with every additional RosePortal Games creation I experience, I realize another way in which their writing just doesn’t work.

Here’s the problem with The Princess’ Heart (and, frankly, it’s the same for Whisper of a Rose and Sweet Lily Dreams, though thankfully not quite as dire for them): RosePortal Games writes the way a fresh, inexperienced child does. You know that lesson you learn, early on in learning to write creatively, that you need to always keep in mind that your reader doesn’t know everything you do, so you need to make sure to show and describe everything adequately? The creators of The Princess’ Heart did not learn about this. They seem to assume that you’re simply going to intuit every nuance of their characters and the story’s heavier issues on your own. There’s no showing, there’s no telling. The majority of what you ever get to know about Princess Aerin, the protagonist, or any of her companions is surface-level personality stuff, nothing deeper or more complex.

Like, you learn that the priestess character had a past as a prostitute who sold her soul before she got religious, and it’s clear that Princess Aerin has a drinking problem. That’s about it. The rest of the cast are just 1-dimensional support dialogues in human form, you never get any details of why the priestess character sold her soul nor why she turned away from that life, and Aerin’s drinking problem just magically clears up between the game’s opening and its ending. I’m serious! The game opens with her launching a drunken attack on her prince boyfriend’s castle (clearly this is the red wine variety of inebriation), she briefly laments the fact that her boytoy got mad at her for her drunken brawling, she gets put in one hell of a relaxed rehab that oddly has located itself right next to a demon’s tomb, and after she goes and makes a deal with said demon, she just walks the hell out of rehab - and that is the last you hear of her alcoholism until the end of the game, when she gives her boyfriend the happy news that she spontaneously doesn’t have a drinking problem any more.

I guess Alcoholics Anonymous has been doing it wrong all this time; that 12 Step Program is highly inefficient! They should be advocating the Princess Aerin 2 Step Method:

Step 1: Have a drinking problem.
Step 2: Don’t.

The whole “romance” of this game, if such it can honestly be called, is another example of this whole thing of RosePortal Games just assuming everyone can read their minds. Basically, it goes like this: at the game’s beginning, Princess Aerin and Prince Tommy are together, but Tommy has allegedly cheated on Aerin, and doesn’t seem especially fond of her, even considering that she’s been stomping around his castle causing a mess. He boots her out, Aerin’s sent to rehab. She walks out the door completely unimpeded so that she can go to a nearby demon’s crypt, and make a deal with said demon of desire, Izdul-Kalag, to make Tommy be in love with her. A quick fetch-quest later, she’s up 1 boyfriend and down 1 soul. Experiencing immediate buyer’s remorse, as one does, Aerin goes on a quest to find a way to renege the deal and get her soul back, joined by her friends/employees, as well as an irritated priestess, a randomly promiscuous catgirl ship captain, an optional fairy party member that you goddamn better get because this game’s battles and bestiary aren’t designed well enough for you to go without her, and Tommy, who is madly in love with Aerin because he’s under Izdul-Kalag’s curse. Finally, at the end of the game, the deal is undone, Aerin’s soul is saved, and Tommy is free to hem and haw just a bit before he decides that he actually does super-duper love Aerin, and they get back together. It will work this time, the game tells us, because Tommy and Aerin have grown as people and are now more ready for a serious relationship.

...When? How? Exactly what was it that happened to make this true? Tommy was hypnotized the entire game’s course; at what point did he have a chance to mature as a person? In terms of his actual, real consciousness, he’s jumped straight from maybe cheating on Aerin at the beginning of the game to being woken up and told he’d been brainwashed for a while. Even if we buy the idea that he has had an epiphany about his feelings for Aerin, he hasn’t had time to develop himself! And when did this maturation happen with Aerin? She made a bad deal and spent the entire game trying to get out of making good on it. Trying to save your soul from a demon isn’t growing as a person, it’s basic self-interest! RosePortal Games clearly has this idea of what Aerin has learned from all this and how she grew along the way, but all they’ve actually shown us is a story of solving a contract dispute with violence!

Take what’s in your head and put it in your game, RosePortal!

Of course, there are also plenty of opportunities for this to have been an interesting game with compelling character dynamics and personalities, and a more standard failure to take advantage of any of them. Aerin’s party includes a long-time friend and a knight with a long history of service to her and her kingdom - but do you think either of them ever engage her in a real conversation about her problems, her relationships, what she’s done and is doing? Aerin flat-out murdered multiple guards during her drunken rampage at the game’s beginning, and her own knights who she ordered to assist her were executed afterwards for their part in the matter - but do you think she ever spares even a single line of text on any guilt or regret for the fact that she’s responsible for the death of these innocent men? Tommy is mind-controlled by Aerin’s deal with a demon into being madly in love with her for the rest of the game until the curse is broken at the end - do you think the staggering immorality of this situation is ever discussed or even acknowledged by anyone in the cast, beyond a single scene of Aerin gloomily acknowledging that Tommy’s current ardor is not authentic? The catgirl pirate that later joins the party makes a pass at Aerin - do you think Aerin responds in any way to a situation in which someone showed an interest in her without the coercion of a Faustian pact? Aerin’s friends are cursed by the demon that she sells her soul to simply by the fact that they’re in the same room with her when it happens - do you think any of them ever shows a natural resentment towards her for the fact that their souls are in danger because of her selfishness?

No. The answer to all of these questions is No. Because taking the slightest narrative advantage of the scenarios that they themselves have created would require the developer to be paying attention to its own work, and RosePortal Games writes The Princess’ Heart with all the care and presence that a motorist puts into driving while he carries on a text conversation on his phone.

The game can’t even make good on the character development it outright promises you. There’s a point in the game in which Princess Aerin finds out that, in order to save her soul from Izdul-Kalag, she has to confront the other 4 demons of the world, because there are parts of herself and her past that tie her to each of their domains over the negative aspects of the human mind and heart. It was at this point that I perked up and had my hopes renewed, because let’s face it, even if it’s a common narrative tool, you really can’t go wrong having your protagonist confront literal manifestations of the demons of their past and the dark parts of their soul, right? Finally, we’d get a chance to delve into the theoretically troubled psyche of Aerin, make her more than just a shallow, petty NPC who accidentally got the role of protagonist. This was where it was all going to turn around!

It astounds me, sometimes, that even after 30 years of experience with bad RPGs, I can still be so incredibly stupid.

You wanna know how the confrontation for each of these demons goes? You walk up to a coffin, Aerin warns you that you’re about to get into a boss battle, you acknowledge that this is intentional, the priestess in the party tells you the demon’s name and what sin he/she represents, you have a boss fight, you win, and you leave. That’s it. There is quite literally no more narrative involvement in this confrontation against a demon who represents the sins blackening Aerin’s soul than there is with a random forest bandit encountered earlier in the game. Aerin walks up to the manifestation of her own mortal failures, she hits it a few times, and she leaves, absolved of its claim on her. The game dropped the bombshell that Aerin’s soul is rife with the sins of all demons, it tells you she’s going to have to confront each demon and overcome its hold upon her and purify herself, and the sum total result is 4 utterly silent boss fights neither preceded nor followed by even a single line of monologue from Aerin about the matter. For this level of not even trying to deliver on what’s been promised, you usually have to get Todd Howard involved!

Just once, I’d like to play a RosePortal Games title that’s good. Or even just average! This is getting really tedious.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

General RPGs' "Losing" Battles

You know what I’ve always found to be really annoying? The--what? Oh. Yeah, I guess I have always been irritated by how hard it is to find an oatmeal cookie that hasn’t been poisoned with raisins, now that you mention it. Good point.

What I was gonna say, though, is that thing in RPGs where you can win a battle with ease, but because the plot demands it, the story acts like you just survived the fight by the skin of your teeth, or the enemy didn’t actually get damaged, or you’re gradually losing ground, or something.

Like, remember during Dragon Age 2’s finale, if you sided with the mages like a decent human being, there’s this battle where you and your allies are holding off an advancing invasion of templars in a large temple room? When I was playing through that, I had an archer-rogue build on my protagonist so incredibly broken that I was killing enemies faster than the game could keep track of. No, I’m serious--Hawke’s shots were so powerful that when each instant-death arrow hit an enemy, there’d be a pause between the damage being displayed and tallied up, and the enemy actually dying from it, a pause greater than the time it took for Hawke to shoot another arrow. My archer Hawke was so obscenely broken that I had to manually select every target for her because she’d be firing another killshot before the game could even realize she should be moving on to a new enemy. The rest of the party could’ve taken a break and had a mid-battle picnic, and everything would’ve been just fine.*

And yet, in spite of the fact that these enemies were basically dying before they’d even finished stepping through the doorway, I still eventually got interrupted by the inevitable cutscene in which Orsino loses his shit about how it’s a hopeless battle, and goes and proves what a stupid fucking hypocrite he is and what shitty writing the ending of this game had by doing his dumb necromancy nonsense. It’s like, bro, this fight earnestly could not possibly be going better for your side without ceasing to fit the definition of a battle!

Or how about all the times you very clearly win a boss battle, and yet afterwards the game acts like the bad guy’s fine and has been wrecking your party the whole time? Like that time in Xenogears when you fight Id in hand-to-hand combat. He’s not tough, even by standard Trying Too Hard Lame-Ass villain metrics. And yet, even though you can and probably are just steam-rolling this self-important little bitch-boi the whole fight long, when the battle’s over, the game acts like he’s still some dangerous threat going strong that needs a whole giant robot to subdue, even though for the last 15 minutes your characters’ fists have been extracting teeth from Id’s jaw like they want to pay off their student loans through tooth fairy bounties alone. Drives me crazy when games pull this shit, and RPGs do it all the time...hell, Xenosaga 3 overuses this frustrating trope so badly that, from a narrative perspective, its “heroes” actually lose the majority of the fights they get in!

What really drives me crazy is the rare occasion when the gameplay’s even set up in a way that, if the writers had actually given a shit about a cohesive narrative instead of just barreling through it solely as was convenient for them, they could have acknowledged the fact that the heroes of the game weren’t actually having any trouble with the battle in question.

You take Stella Glow, for example. There’s a part of the plot of SG in which the good guys launch an attack on the headquarters of their enemy at the time, Hilda. Things go south fairly quickly, and the heroes find themselves ambushed by Hilda’s goons, and have to fight their way through them. No matter how well the battle goes, though, the heroes still find themselves surrounded on all sides by their enemies, including any who were actually defeated in the battle. This is super annoying, of course, even more so if 1 of the goons you beat up in the battle was Dante, because he’ll be his usual smug jackass self in this scene even though he just got done getting beaten as if he’d wandered into Chris Brown’s aggro range. But what makes it more vexing is that Stella Glow has a monitoring system in place that rewards players for doing certain things in each battle, like getting the first strike, or, most often, not having any party member get KO’d. So the game already has a system in place which it can use to determine whether a player has done well enough to keep all characters alive throughout the fight, not to mention also keep track of which enemies are defeated during a battle (as defeating or not defeating certain enemies can sometimes be a part of these reward variables), there’s really no reason, on the technical side of things, that the game couldn’t have had an alternate scenario prepared for players who did well enough that the Stella Glow heroes were obviously not having any real problem.

Hell, it wouldn’t even have been hard from a writing perspective. Hilda only shows up halfway through the post-battle scene, so the writers could’ve just had a version like we see in the game, where protagonist Alto and his bunch are on the ropes, and a version where Hilda’s bunch are the ones in dire straits, but Hilda arrives with enough reinforcements that Alto’s team wind up in need to rescue all the same. You’d easily get from Point A to Point B as needed either way, and at least not make everything that occurred in the preceding fight narratively inconsistent.

I know that the battle screen is, most of the time, only vaguely related to the actual events of an RPG’s story. Still, it’s jarring, annoyingly so, to finish a battle with the impression that the heroes have come out on top--a natural reaction, considering that even these fights which the story says were unsuccessful still usually require the player to have won them--and be presented with a scene completely contrary to the victorious situation you’ve just created. Not only that, but it can even be detrimental to the story as a whole--while few games are such chronic offenders as Xenosaga 3, the player inevitably loses any confidence or pride in the heroes of that game simply because said heroes prove themselves time and time again utterly incapable of winning a fight when it counts. This is just an outright annoying trope, all the more since it only exists because of writers’ laziness, inflexibility, and lack of creativity, as they force the story to potentially ignore its own events’ reality so that they can achieve their means in a single, direct way, rather than perform their office as creators and create alternate means to their end.

* I am not, incidentally, trying to brag or flex about what an awesome RPG player I am, or anything. I suspect, in fact, that I’m generally below average, and creating broken builds in Dragon Age is not a difficult thing to achieve.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

General RPG Lists: Greatest Villains

Well, it’s been a few years now since I expanded this from a list of 5 to a list of 10...long enough that I think it may just be time to update it once again! Especially since there’s been enough revisions in the past few years that half the work on updating this thing is already done--I can just reinstate some of the characters who got bumped off the list previously in the new spots!

But, uh, it’s not all old stuff, so...please read? Here, I’ll even give you a little guide: the brand-new stuff is in spots 12 and 6, while the somewhat-recent-but-not-exactly-new stuff is in spots 11, 10, and 9. So read on in whatever amount you prefer, and enjoy!

If there's anything that's hard to define about RPGs (and just storytelling in general), it's what constitutes a "good" villain. Everyone's got their own opinions on what a decent villain should be and do. So, a lot of this is gut feeling. I'm gonna stand by my picks pretty adamantly (unless I play games in the future and find new villains that outclass even these ones), but I admit that there's no real set of rules about what makes them great...sometimes it’s the scope or success of their evil, sometimes it’s the sympathy they can arouse within the audience, sometimes it’s how well-developed a character they are, and, hell, sometimes it’s just all about presentation! But until I or someone else manages to hammer out some absolute rules about what is and isn’t a good bad guy, here are the 15 best RPG villains I've come across by my own vague reckoning, in ascending order.

Oh, and be warned: this list obviously contains major spoilers. At this point, I'm sure you expect that sort of thing with these rants, but even so, it bears mentioning.

15. The Master (Fallout 1)

RPGs these days have an overabundance of lackluster Misguided Villains. You know the type--they come up with these big, elaborate plans to change or destroy the world that are way, way more contrived and dependent on chance and unlikely magical bullshit than is necessary, all because they believe, thanks to illogical thinking and sheer stupidity, that their fucking everyone in the world over is somehow what everyone really needs because the villain wasn't hugged enough by daddy. Like, literally, in many cases--Volsung of Wild Arms 5 and Seymour of Final Fantasy 10 come to mind. It's an old favorite of anime--Japan seems to be nuts about the sheer idiocy of having supposedly noble, pure, misguided wholesale-genocide-supporting maniacs. It's gotten old. Hell, it was old before it was in RPGs.

The Master is misguided. But he is not misguided in the way that I have mentioned. He does have a noble goal--finding a permanent solution to human nature's supposedly irrepressible urge to kill and destroy itself, leading to lasting peace. But see, The Master is misguided in a way that is fucking creepy; there's none of that Noble Pretty Boy stuff going on with him. To create world peace, he mutates regular human beings into huge, obedient mutants to serve him, creates an army of these mutants and tamed, freakish genetic monsters to sweep across the wasteland's towns and tribes, to collect more people for mutation and brutally massacre all others. He also creates a false religion to draw in unwitting believers to be experiments in mind control experiments, breaking their minds and creating utterly insane mental shells devoted to his cause. He's insane and freaky like few other villains--you find him in a hellish cathedral full of gun-toting mutants, broken-minded psychotic prisoners, and messy, grisly biological experiments on human beings, and when you talk to him, you can hear the madness in his words--literally, as he speaks with several different voices that interrupt each other.

I'm not really gifted enough verbally to properly describe it to you, a problem I had with a previous rant about Fallout's soundtrack--the series is all about the actual experience of viewing and hearing it, and reproducing that experience in text just isn't possible, I think. But trust me, once you're familiar with The Master, you can definitely agree that he's got the sheer misguided, malicious madness and chillingly creepy words, voice, appearance, goals, and methods to earn him a spot on this list.

14. Delita (Final Fantasy Tactics)

(I'm going by the names from the original FFT English translation, not the blander one released several years later).

Delita's a neat villain in that it's hard to really know exactly where he stands, what he values, how much of anything he says is genuine. He's not so much ambiguous or developed too poorly, however, as he is skillfully open to interpretation. His path to power is ruthless and calculated, and he makes a habit of using the emotions of those around him as no more than tools, killing superiors who trusted him and sacrificing allies whenever convenient...yet he inexplicably shows mercy, too, sparing some of his enemies and even having it officially reported that they perished to give them freedom and protection, as he did for Balmafula. He seems to only use Ovelia's emotions as a way to gain the throne and later control her...yet his private statements and mannerisms suggest that his feelings for her may be partly genuine. Basically, while Delita's actions and motives unquestionably make him a villain, it's hard to get a bead on just where in the villainy range he is--is he a cold, power-mad manipulator, his ability to love and trust destroyed by his sister's death at the hands of one he trusted as family? Or is he a hero at heart, villainous on the outside only because he can see no other way to take control of a country in turmoil and make it a place where the innocent will never die as his sister did, unmourned victims of endless political war? Either interpretation could be accurate, as well as many that fall in between. All you can really know for sure is that he's a well-created villain with great depth of character.

13. Loghain (Dragon Age 1)

Loghain is a very interesting and complex character, a former hero who falls to the side of villainy because of poor choice of advisers and an overpowering paranoia of former enemies. Loghain descends so far into his obsession with keeping his country safe from the imagined threat of the neighboring country whose former occupation of his country he helped lead a revolution against, he commits unspeakable atrocities and all but ignores the true threat to his nation, the army of Darkspawn spreading over his lands like a plague. While Loghain appears for most of the game to be no more than a power-mad tyrant, making certain choices during the game can allow the player to come to a better understanding of him, and see each of his poor decisions, each of his evil deeds, as more than just the acts of a mindlessly evil villain...the pieces fall into place to instead show a man who simply can't let the past rest, and lets his old paranoia color his vision of reality and blind him to true danger.

12. Father (Fallout 4)

Say what you will about Bethesda lately, but they really created a masterwork of villainy when they made Shaun. And so much of it is shown through the subtlety of scrutinizing things like his actions rather than words, environmental storytelling, and the theme of the game as a whole. Shaun is a tyrant who uses cultural tools of control, like insisting on using carefully selected words to dehumanize his victims, to stay in power and keep all his subordinates from ever really considering the ethical problems of what they do. He’s a scourge on humanity, sacrificing untold numbers of people for an undefined cause. He’s a sociopath out to satisfy his own curiosities and personal needs without any regard to how it may affect any others involved. He’s a pitiful child seeking the familial love he never had, immorally using his own parent as a plaything and tool of revenge in the process, and creating a self-aware life form doomed to an eternal childhood. He’s the enslaver of a race of conscious people, creating and destroying their bodies and minds without a second thought.

And all along the way, he’s so quietly insistent, always ready to defend everything he does with empty but oh so pretty and elegant promises that it’s for a better future (which he can’t define or set out a road map for), that there’s no other way to save humanity from itself (when the greatest threats to the humanity of the Commonwealth are the Institute itself, and its byproducts), that just because a human can be created and programmed, that makes it not a real person, no matter how much it may cry out for freedom (as though “real” humans are not also made and programmed, just by biology and environment). So eloquent that many players are taken in by the appeal of his arguments’ surface, unable to see how hollow they actually well-spoken that he can turn the protagonist her/himself down the same path, a legacy of evil to be continued after Shaun’s death for some greater tomorrow that neither he nor any other in the Institute cared to detail or put a deadline on.

I’m reminded of King Math’s words in Lloyd Alexander’s The High King:: “Is there worse evil? Is there worse evil than that which goes in the mask of good?”

11. The Changing God (Torment: Tides of Numenera)

The Changing God is a fascinating mix of good intentions, and petty vanities and selfishness. His villainy is in his careless legacy, the fact that his creations and actions across his lifetimes have caused untold strife and chaos to the world, leaving such a profoundly damaging impact upon everything he touches that things such as the Endless Battle are regarded as an unchangeable fact of the world. To bring his daughter back to life, he has, through his abandoned projects, the engines of his plans which he has left running, and the castoffs he has created, ruined countless numbers of lives...and he doesn't really care. And that alone would make him a decent villain, but added to that is the fact that bringing his daughter to life again is eventually lost in the shuffle of his's a goal in name only, after a certain point, little more than a hobby he pretends to himself that he's still obsessed over, when, in fact, the Changing God's petty vanity and his own desire to continue surviving at any cost override the initial good intentions he had when he began his work. He reminds me of Dio, from Revolutionary Girl Utena--a former hero whose wake now only destroys those caught within it, claiming to do it all for the one he loved most, yet only lazily going through the motions of pursuing his goal, now concerned not by his failures, but by satisfying his own personal wants. Fallen heroes in RPGs are so often those who were disillusioned, those whose personal beliefs eventually drove them to extremes...the Changing God is fascinatingly genuine to us for having fallen not for such grandiose reasons, but for simple, petty human fears and self-interest.

10. Flowey (Undertale)

Flowey's a great combination of a villain who's incredibly creepy, like The Master from Fallout 1, and really annoying, like 1 of the villains below, yet he's also a villain who's got a really interesting backstory that explains very well how and why he is. It's hard not to sympathize with this infuriating little psychopath once you know how he became what he is...even though he still revolts your sensibilities. As a representation of the player of RPGs, Flowey is insightful, as a character he has depth and pathos, as an adversary he's downright disturbing, and as a concept, he's intriguing...yeah, Flowey's a pretty excellently crafted villain, no doubt about it.

9. Lusamine (Pokemon Generation 7)

Lusamine's a terrific villain. She has a striking presence, and the madness within her practically jumps out at you--she doesn't need her to dress up in some clown outfit, slaughter a town, or talk in a weird voice for your to know that Lusamine is deeply, unnervingly insane, you just have to look at her, feel it through her glares and words. And it's such a personal, compelling madness, too! When you learn of Lusamine's history, see that it was the loss of her husband that drove her to her current state, and see how this harmful madness manifests in a compulsion to seek utter emotional domination over those she desires love from, to prevent the possibility of ever feeling that same loss of love, and to see how easily this madness has corrupted and merged with her instincts of motherhood and her relationship with her's pretty fascinating stuff. And what really sells Lusamine as a villain is how personally affecting and damaging her actions are to those around her. Her plan to enter an alternate world at any cost, which puts the Alola Region at risk, is mild as villainous acts go, and her abuse of Pokemon is, of course, reprehensible...but Lusamine's real evil is the manipulation of, the stunting personal control over, her children, Lillie in particular. Lusamine takes advantage of others' love for her, tries to twist it into the unquestioning, doll-like obedience which is the only love she can accept, and uses it to emotionally abuse and stunt her daughter's growth as a person, and we see this legacy of disturbing, simple evil in everything Lillie is and says, each of her moments of awkward uncertainty and fear to advance herself. It's such a small, quiet thing, to be mad and do evil to those close to you, to have such a personal nature to one's villainy...but it makes Lusamine all the more compelling and real an antagonist.

8. The Transcendent One (Planescape: Torment)

The Transcendent One's greatness as a villain comes less from who he is and what he does than it does simply from what he is and what role he fulfills. Without spoiling too much (because I never, ever want to discourage anyone in any way from playing Planescape: Torment), I can say that The Transcendent One, as a remnant of the protagonist's past, is the perfect ultimate obstacle in a game focused on the protagonist's journey of self-discovery and recovery of that which has been forgotten. With a great presence (helped in no small way by solid voice acting), heavy philosophical weight in his mere existence, the menacing threat of an unknowable hunter slowly closing in on its prey throughout the game's course, and the fact that he's the perfect culmination of the unusual journey of a nameless man across the planes of reality in search of himself, The Transcendent One is a character of great storytelling power that should serve as an example to game developers everywhere of how excellently connected great heroes and villains should be.

7. Pokey/Porky (Earthbound and Mother 3)

Most of the evildoers on this list are here because they're deep and interesting examples of villains, giving the player insight on how a person can turn to bad ends and lose themselves to their darker emotions.

Porky is not that kind of villain. Porky is just an obnoxious little shit.

Porky is a selfish, rude, irredeemable brat. While he's not a character with any depth per say, he's nonetheless an incredibly well-made bad guy for how realistic he is and how consistently true to character he stays. He's the essential bad kid. He's spoiled, he's selfish, he jeers and taunts everyone, he's petty, he's convinced that he's the center of all creation, and he demands absolute adulation from everyone around him. Never before have I seen the nastiest traits of children portrayed so completely and convincingly. At his absolute worst, South Park’s Eric Cartman at most equals the level of obnoxious, petty, toxic self-importance that defines Porky’s every word and action. Despite the fact that he manipulates his way to the top of an evil organization, guides the embodiment of all evil, and creates an army with which he invades and corrupts what amounts to the entire world, he's never more than a rotten child.

He also deserves mention for the fact that he very successfully makes the player hate his heinous little guts. Hate. Every time he opens his pudgy little mouth, I wish I could reach through the screen and choke the life out of him. He's always arrogant, maddeningly condescending, totally unfeeling, and he has an obsession with one-upping Earthbound's main character, Ness, that leads him to insist that he's still the cooler one even when he's running away like a sniveling coward--which happens a lot. Porky flees almost as much as those gutless Turks in Final Fantasy 7, and the fact that he refuses to adjust his narcissistic self-image at all regardless of how sorely the weak, pitiful little bastard's been pummeled just adds to how irritating he is. Porky's the perfect child villain, folks--it's that simple.

6. Handsome Jack (Borderlands 2)

Handsome Jack is much like Porky, in the sense that he’s personally repellant to the player of the game, a truly vile, obnoxious jerk whose insults and flexes against Borderlands 2’s protagonist are so penetrative that they actually feel personally directed at the player him/herself. You don’t just want to stick it to the guy because he’s the enemy of the game’s good guys--you want to thwart Handsome Jack because he’s your enemy.

But the difference between Jack and Porky is that, at the same time, he’s very like the Joker: you can’t help but find him and his arrogant evil, even at his most obnoxious, honestly quite amusing. Like, you know how you can laugh as The Joker commits horrible acts because he’s so genuinely and effectively clever that you can’t help it? Handsome Jack is basically that, but even more effective. The guy never met a harmful, evil act he didn’t like, and he’ll crack wise and exult in his evil while insisting (again, much like Porky) that he’s the completely awesome hero of his own story, and you just can’t help but chuckle at it, no matter what kind of terrible evils he’s enacting, because it’s all just flippant, clever, and over-the-top enough that it amuses you even while you acknowledge how wrong it is.

Add to all that the fact that the guy has enough dimensions as a person and villain to be capable of earnest passions and tragic rage, and that he’s also a subtle and interesting mix of delusion with inferiority complex, a villain with depth, and you’ve got a hell of a great bad guy here. Overbearing tyrant, careless corporate scum, twisted sower of chaos, spiteful rival, apathetic dismisser, misguided lunatic, self-important narcissist, deluded abuser, and through it all, undeniably compelling in his charisma...Jack wears many faces as a villain, and they’re all Handsome.

5. Wylfred (Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume) (Normal and Bad Ending Versions)

The best villains are often the ones you spend time with during their fall, the ones whose turn to dark means and objectives you can see for yourself. In 2 of the 3 endings of VPCotP (including the Normal Ending, which is canonically factual), Wylfred shows us this. Chosen for his resentment against the goddess of death, Lenneth, to fight and destroy her, Wylfred can be seen throughout the game to develop as a character along the path you set for him by the actions you make him take. Along the Bad Ending path, Wylfred becomes consumed by his rage against Lenneth and the other gods, encountering situations that further infuriate him as he lets his hatred for Lenneth and her kind completely engulf him, becoming, by the end, a spiteful, wrathful man obsessed with vengeance at any cost--a goal emphasized by the player's decision to have Wylfred sacrifice his companions through the game's course to gain power for himself.

Along the Normal Ending path, Wylfred instead develops as a more tragic villain, viewing the same events that the Bad Ending path showed through different eyes. While the Bad Ending path's view of these events encouraged utter submersion into the cause of hate and revenge, the Normal Ending path shows Wylfred perspectives that emphasize inevitable necessity, proving to him that he must carry out his objective of killing the Valkyrie even if the methods for doing so are distasteful. In this path, Wylfred develops into a man resigned to the necessity of his fate, knowing that his sins have committed him to his path and trying to do something right (or at least, what he believes is right) to make the evil deeds he's done to get to the game's finale meaningful.

Whether raging or resigned, Wylfred is a very well-crafted villainous protagonist, and the fact that he can be successfully developed into either version of the bad guy role is a testament to the skill of the game's writers.

4. Orsted (Live-A-Live)

Knowing a villain's motivation and background, their personality and beliefs, is, to me, perhaps the most important aspect in separating an excellent villain from a crowd of mediocre ones. Let's face it, the number of villains we see whose writers have put any strong effort into developing is shockingly small--and of the ones who do have strong backgrounds and motives we can see, many are just those annoying Good Intentions, Stupid Methods misguided anime losers I mentioned above at number 8. Knowing the villain as a character, seeing what he/she thinks, why he/she acts as he/she does, and how he/she got to this point in the story is what can really distinguish a villain as great--because really, how great can any character be if you don't know him or her? And yet, knowing a villain well is sadly pretty uncommon--most I've seen in RPGs are empty, meaningless plot vehicles, doing evil for barely any reason because it's needed for their to be a game at all.

This is why Orsted is so extraordinary. In Orsted's chapter of Live-A-Live, the player controls him as any of the other 7 (or 9, depending on how you view it) protagonists of LAL as he goes through a small, personal quest as the rest of them do. Thus, the player has a front row seat to all the events that result in Orsted falling from a national hero to a hated, pitiable fiend. Orsted loses everything important to him thanks to the petty vices of the people he trusted most--his fame, his honor, his hero, his friend, his love, and his aspirations. In the space of two days, the man who had everything to live for instead has everything he wanted and cared for, everything he desired to be a hero for, either taken violently from him, or worse, turned against him. By the time this horrible series of events conclude, you find no surprise at all as he bitterly curses the human race for its sin and weakness, and pledges to become a demon and eradicate it from existence utterly. This is a more powerful fall than Wylfred's was--Wylfred's descent into villainy is begun by his own feelings of bitterness and resentment against the deity of mortality; he was already facing the wrong moral direction before fate gave him the push down the villain's path. Orsted's fall is sheer and shocking, knocking him from the top of the world down to the very bottom and then rubbing his face in the dirt. You know exactly why he's doing this, but more than that, you even feel a great degree of sympathy to his position--because you've seen all that led him to this moment, and it was tragically unfair. Square very uncharacteristically* takes the time to show and develop their villain in Live-A-Live, and it really pays off with one of the best to grace the genre to date.

3. Luca Blight (Suikoden 2)

Now, I value creativity a lot. This is tied in with viewing villains as better when they're well-developed characters--it is, after all, a lot more creative to see a villain with a story than just some empty idiot who does bad things for the sake of it. As a rule of thumb, I want to see originality in my plots and characters first and foremost. But, as casts of games like Grandia 2 and Tales of Legendia have taught me, excellence really is all in the execution. Sometimes, if you do a damn fine job of portraying something well-known and typical, you still can make it excellent.

This is the case of Luca Blight. Luca is a power-hungry, war-mongering, bloodthirsty, genocidal madman out to personally kill everything he can--in other words, nothing new to the world of video games. He doesn't really have much character development, you don't know much about his back story that has any significance (even Final Fantasy 6's Kefka gets more background, and Square certainly didn't even put in their usual minimal efforts on villain background with him), and goals for his conquests certainly don't seem much more evolved than those of typical character-lacking RPG villains like Star Ocean 2's Wise Men, or Pokemon Generation 1's Giovanni.

But Luca is very, very different. Because Konami really sells you on how nasty this guy is, how great and terrible his rage and hatred is. You don't just get vague acts of destruction out of him. The game doesn't just show you some pretty cinemas of towns burning, things blowing up, maybe an NPC or two getting tidily struck down or laser beamed. You see him doing his thing, and you feel a chill at how utterly, unmistakably evil he is. He doesn't just order the slaughter of helpless civilians he's captured, he lines them up and personally kills each one with his own hand, laughing at them, insulting them, brutally humiliating them in their last, terrified moments. They mean nothing to him, yet he all the same makes their murders into a personal joy--even the self-satisfied enjoyment that Handsome Jack gets out of his own cruelties don’t stack up to the pure, chilling delight that Luca Blight derives from others’ suffering. He's vicious, willing to kill youths of his own army for his gain, and has the general demeanor when speaking, even to his own allies, of a rabid dog only barely held back by his leash.

He's also insanely powerful, and it seems that his power comes from nothing more than his all-consuming hatred and rage. In a world where magical Runes are more or less the be-all end-all of high power, Luca Blight surpasses most holders of True Runes with his strength of will and sheer evil alone. His death comes after:

1. Archers send a volley of arrows into him.
2. Archers send more arrows into him.
3. 6 of the best warriors that the good guys have attack him with all their might.
4. Archers shoot him a bunch more.
5. 6 more of the good guys' best fighters hit'im with all they've got.
6. He attracts another wave of arrows.
7. Another 6 of the good guys' best fighters give him all they have.
9. Riou, the main character, has to finish him off in a one-on-one duel.

It's crazy. This kind of evil-fueled immortality would do Rasputin proud. And after all that, he still has the strength left to him to stand, laugh insanely, and deliver this immortal quote that shows you just how remorseless he is:

"Listen, Riou!!!!!!!!! It took hundreds to kill me, but I killed humans by the thousands!!!!! Look at me!!!! I am sublime!!!!!! I am the true face of evil!!!!"

Indeed he is.

2. Fou-Lu (Breath of Fire 4)

Honestly, it's hard for me to decide on who's the greater villain, Fou-Lu or Luca. But in the end, I think it has to be Fou-Lu.

Like Orsted, the major aspect of Fou-Lu that makes him such a remarkable RPG villain is how well you know him. Although most of BoF4 has you playing as Ryu, the hero, the game also has you often control Fou-Lu as he makes his own journey. As with Orsted, you come to understand Fou-Lu by his actions and words, and to understand why he comes to his beliefs and resolution, for you experience the events that drive him to his path as they happen, instead of just in some rushed flashback or spoken back story.

What sets Fou-Lu apart as a superior villain to even Orsted, though, is another aspect of what I believe really makes a great villain: the reflection he is to the main hero. Orsted is a villain in and of himself; Fou-Lu, however, is a villain who stands directly opposed to the hero, linked with him as two parts of a whole. Both Fou-Lu and Ryu see good examples of human nature in their travels--yet each also sees many tragedies brought on by the ugly parts of the human spirit. In the end, what Fou-Lu takes from his experiences is that humanity is too fundamentally corrupt and dark to deserve to live, while Ryu sees the good of some of the people he's met that surpasses the evil of the others (well, presumably; you actually have the option to choose how Ryu feels in the end, but the "real" ending has Ryu stand against Fou-Lu). Fou-Lu is great because the player can understand him and perhaps even sympathize with him, but the fact that you can see the contrast between his perspective and Ryu's over virtually the same experiences and evidence adds an extra aspect of excellence to him.

1. Kreia (Knights of the Old Republic 2)

Actually, sorry to disappoint you, but I don't really have much to say here--I already did a rant on Kreia a while back that had pretty much all I needed to say about her here. Check back on it if you want to know the scoop on the best RPG Villain of all. Suffice to say, Kreia has unparalleled character development, brilliant execution as a villain, and is pretty much a step up in every significant way from just about every other villain I know of, RPG or not.

Honorable Mention: Lavos (Chrono Trigger)

We're all familiar with the more humanized RPG villain, the one that talks and plots and menaces, but there's a whole other category of major RPG villains that I haven't gone into--the big, unnatural disaster-type villains. These are the huge, world-threatening catastrophic world-ending villains that quite often aren't even sentient--huge beasts like Gaia in Grandia 1 or the Archdemon in Dragon Age 1, godlike avatars of destruction like Nyx of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 or Malpercio of the Baten Kaitos series, and otherworldly menaces like Dark Force from the Phantasy Star series or Sulpher from Phantom Brave. They're world-ending monsters that often don't even seem self-aware, going about their destructive business by instinct or unconscious obedience to another villain's demands. As such, they're not that interesting as villains, being more like obstacles than any significant part of the story's intellectual aspect, but they deserve some mention all the same.

Of these doomsday beasts, Lavos is the best to me. For starters, once it gets started destroying, Lavos gets the job done in record time, bringing the ruin of the entire world about in, what, hours? Minutes? There's no steady progressing destruction like with Grandia 1's Gaia or anything. It's just over as soon as it begins. I also think Lavos's design is really pretty neat and appropriate, because it really LOOKS like the alien monstrosity it's supposed to be. Method of world-destroying's pretty neat, too, shooting out explosive spines so fast, high, and wide that they rain absolute destruction across the globe.

What makes Lavos stand out to me, though, is its motivation for its habits. From what little can be gleaned about this beast, it's a member of some immense alien species for whom the destruction of the world it infests is simply a natural part of the life cycle. It lands on a planet, digs deep down within its surface, and simply waits for aeons, somehow feeding on the evolutionary changes of the world's life over countless years, perhaps even directing some of them itself. Eventually it rises from the ground to bring about apocalyptic doom to the world's life (presumably to spark a huge feast of evolutionary energy in the world's few surviving organisms as they have to adapt to a radically different environment), and soon after spawns its own offspring (perhaps fertilized by the combined genetic data of all the planet's biological history) which will eventually leave the dead planet to find another and begin the cycle anew.

A planetary parasite that drains, affects, and kills an entire world's life like a plague-ridden tick spreads Lyme Disease to the host it sucks blood out of, so immensely powerful and steeped in the life essence of its planetary host that it distorts and rips the fabric of time itself--and never any indication or even hint that this could be anything but a non-self-aware animal acting solely on instinct. You can't tell me that isn't a damn cool idea.

...Remember how I thought at first that List Rants would be shorter than regular ones? Man, can I ever pull one over on me.

* Yes, I know, Squaresoft/SquareEnix DOES actually have 4 villains on this list, so my comment here doesn't appear very fair, but I'd like to stress that these good villains are VERY much the exception to the rule with the company. While really good villains are rare all around, few RPG makers so consistently make terrible villains as Square does. Yeah, you've got Delita, Lavos, Wylfred, and Orsted on one side...but the other side has maniacal idiots with less character depth than a Care Bears villain (X-Death of Final Fantasy 5, Ultimecia of Final Fantasy 8, Magic Emperor of Final Fantasy Mystic Quest), misguided nitwits who have the most idiotic reasoning for their actions that you can possibly conceive (Seymour of Final Fantasy 10, Feolthanos of Final Fantasy 12: Revenant Wings, Krelian of Xenogears), and puzzling dolts whose motivations and methods are so ridiculously complicated, contrived, and outright dumb that they just come off as silly and annoying (Vayne of Final Fantasy 12, Mydia of Final Fantasy 12: Revenant Wings, every single original villain of the Kingdom Hearts series besides Dark Riku), or so bizarrely non-authentic that you wonder if a largely misinformed space alien came up with them (Emelious of Grandia 3, Violetta of Grandia 3, Lezard of Valkyrie Profile 2). And there's also Sephiroth, who is basically a combination of all of those types. Oh, and don’t forget the groups of completely ineffectual, lame, and annoying minor villains that never shut the hell up and remain cocky despite having never succeeded at anything, ever (The Turks of Final Fantasy 7, Organization 13 of Kingdom Hearts 2, Id of Xenogears--okay, he's not a group, but he does the same thing). With Square, you breathe a sigh of relief when you just get a standard bland, uninteresting villain whose motivations are never adequately explored (Carltron of The Secret of Evermore, Thanatos of The Secret of Mana, the Omnidragon of Chrono Cross) because you know it could have been so much worse.