Saturday, June 11, 2016


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

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Lunar: Dragon Song's Final Showdown

Amongst the many, many accolades for atrocity one can attribute to Lunar: Dragon Song is the fact that this game may have the lamest final confrontation of all RPG history.

Here’s the deal. The sad sack villain of the game, Ignatius, is sitting in his Final Boss Castle, right? Jian, the “hero” of the game, if such he can really be called, and Jian’s faithful bland companions, must go through the castle to save Lucia, a human reincarnation of the goddess Althena who actually manages to make even Lunar 1’s Luna look interesting by comparison, from Ignatius’s clutches. Ignatius, you see, intends to awaken Althena within Lucia, and use her, as well as his powers as the Dragonmaster, to take over the world, because he’s evil, and also a transparent rip-off of previous Lunar series villain Ghaleon. It’s like the LDS writers just copy-pasted Ghaleon into the game and changed his name.

Okay, tangent here, but I’d like to note that I can still barely believe how lazy a villain Ignatius is. I mean, the Ghaleon archetype wasn’t exactly unknown in RPGs to begin with, but in Pandora’s name, Game Arts, what the hell is wrong with you? It’s one thing when a series like, say, Final Fantasy has villains that seem suspiciously similar to one another. Final Fantasy has over 30 distinct titles. The Lunar series has 4. And Ghaleon already acts as the major antagonist in half of them! How can the writers at Game Arts be so staggeringly lacking in basic human creativity that they cannot write more than one single villain?

Tangent over. So, as you can see, the stage is set at the end of Lunar: Dragon Song for a pretty standard face-off between Ignatius and Jian. Tried and true RPG formula’s in full swing. It’s not exactly creative, and given all that the player has suffered from LDS already, it sure as hell ain’t going to be enjoyable, but at least the player knows what’s coming and is prepared to ride the generic finale out. It’ll even be a bit of a relief, to finally be done with this wretched title. This is a finale to look forward to, if for all the wrong reasons. Right?


So, you go along through the final dungeon, and have another confrontation with Gideon, the large, persistent monster follower of Ignatius whom Jian and company have already had previous run-ins with. No surprise there. You beat him, and you go on for a while more, fighting through legions of lazy palette-swap copy-enemies and lazier copy-environments because hey, who wants to spend the time designing new textures and tiles? Certainly not Game Arts. You get to the last part of the castle, and have to beat Gideon yet again. Stupid git don’t stay dead.

With this most recent victory over Gideon, you move on to the final area, which is your standard divine staircase set against a background of stars and space. I’m fairly sure, being RPG players, that you are familiar with this sort of setting. And the first thing that happens is that Gideon comes up from behind the group and attacks once more. Well, it’s annoying, but eh, annoying recurring boss henchmen will be annoying recurring boss henchmen, right? So it’s time to put this monster down once and for all. It’s a tough battle, but eventually, Gideon is defeated. With Gideon dead, there is nothing between Jian and the showdown that his long, trying journey has been leading up to! Now, the party can finally confront Ignatius...Ignatius the head honcho, Antagonist Prime, Ignatius the power-hungry manipulator of the Vile Tribe who seeks in his hubris to usurp a goddess’s power for his own selfish ends!

Oh, and hey, congratulations on beating the game.

No, that’s not me expressing confidence that you can do so. No, I’m not accidentally putting that sentence too early. The game’s over. You won. Killing Gideon for good was the last battle in Lunar: Dragon Song. There is no final battle with the villain of this game. This is a game that denies the player the most basic, intrinsic aspect of a story’s finale. Lunar: Dragon Song flies in hundreds, really thousands of years of successful storytelling in order to deliver you the lamest finale possible.

But hey, hold on. Can I really say that, just from not having a final fight against Ignatius? I mean, just because the player himself does not take part in defeating the villain, that doesn’t mean Ignatius’s defeat has to be bad, right? It could still be fine just watching Jian beat Ignatius instead of taking part in it ourselves. Most of the important points and narrative of an RPG are told through cutscenes anyway. Right?

Sooner or later you’re going to wise up and stop giving this shitty game the benefit of the doubt.

You want to know how Jian takes Ignatius out? You want to know how the villain of the game, the mighty Dragonmaster* who commands violent legions of exiles and has entrapped a goddess within his clutches, is defeated?

He falls down.

In what may be the first time in history that any important RPG character actually dies from a fatal drop, Ignatius is overcome by losing his footing. See, it goes like this. Gideon’s finally beaten. Ignatius enters and shows Jian that he’s brainwashed Althena-Lucia, because apparently, as the game explains, reawakening as a goddess leaves her with no memories of her human life just like being reborn leaves her with no memories of being a goddess. Perhaps realizing that this makes no damn sense, the game hurriedly moves onto Ignatius waxing idiotic on how love only hurts people, or some such pretentious stupidity, and then offering to finally settle things with Jian, as, y’know, you’re expecting to happen. Jian makes some emotional bid to Althena-Lucia to remember him and go back home with him, which would be touching if you had any investment in their relationship, but you don’t. Ignatius decides to hit Jian with a rather underwhelming fireball which manages to drop the stupid kid to his knees, and then Jian goes...ugh, look for yourself:

“Ignatius...You still don't get it, do you? We can't solve this by fighting! I may defeat you, or you can defeat me, it does not matter! One of us will end up defeated!”

Yes, I think that’s what the man had in mind, Jian.

Captain Tautology tries a bit more to persuade Ignatius, for some reason certainly not related to anything we know about Jian’s character, Ignatius’s history, or rational thought. It doesn’t work. Ignatius, perhaps annoyed that someone else is spouting ridiculous pseudo-psychological drivel that means nothing, decides to lightly tap Jian with another fireball, and Althena-Lucia picks that moment to run out from behind Ignatius to get in the way of his attack and save Jian.

She runs out from behind Ignatius to get in the way of his attack.

Runs out from behind Ignatius to get in the way of his attack. Runs out from behind Ignatius runs out from behind runs out from behind Ignatius to get in the way of his attack.

Doesn’t use her advantage of being behind Ignatius to attack the jerk before he can shoot the fireball to begin with! Doesn’t use her power as the reawakened goddess of all of Lunar to stop the fireball in any way! Does not even push his arm a little to the left so he misses since she’s right there beside him! Runs out, from behind him--runs out ALONGSIDE the fireball as it flies! This fireball is so slow that she is able to keep pace with it and OUTRUN IT so she can throw herself in front of it! This isn’t like your standard scenario where someone throws themselves in front of someone else as a gun fires or a sword comes at them or something. In those situations, the person sacrificing him/herself is close enough that he or she actually COULD get into position to act as a body shield. Althena-Lucia is further away than the attack itself! It’s like if you had a scene where a truck is bearing down on someone in the street, and the heroic savior who wants to shove the would-be roadkill out of the way comes running from behind the truck to do it!

Sorry. Tangents. I do them. My intent was to point out how lame this finale is, but I suppose I can’t help but draw attention to the fact that it is also very, very stupid.

Anyway, Althena-Lucia’s down for the count, and Jian and company are pissed off at Ignatius. Given that this situation only came about because Jian is such a sucky fighter that he can’t anticipate and dodge an attack he was just hit with a minute ago that’s also so slow that someone wearing a ball gown can outrun it, I really think that he and Ignatius should share the blame 50-50, but no one consulted me, so whatever. Ignatius laments over losing control of Althena after all that work (if she can be taken down by a single fireball that wasn’t even enough to kill a regular human earlier, exactly how much use could she possibly have been to him?), and then Ignatius once again indicates that he’s ready to fight Jian. As she’s dying, though, Althena-Lucia tells Jian not to fight Ignatius, and urges him to remember what he learned during the Dragons’ trials,** telling Jian to instead forgive Ignatius.

Good message and all, but maybe not the right one for when a dude wants to kill you and conquer the world.

Althena-Lucia goes on to blabber about not being needed any more, a conclusion that comes from absolutely nowhere whatsoever and is utterly invalidated as a personal revelation by the previous games in the series that have existed for 20 damn years, and fades away, with Jian telling her she can’t go because he loves her. I guess it’s good that he mentions it, because she, like anyone else, would never have picked up on it otherwise.

With Althena-Lucia gone, Ignatius reaffirms his plans to rule the world, making the player once again question why he bothered taking control of her to begin with if he felt completely capable of fulfilling his plans without her. He says he’s going to kill them all now, and then the place begins to shake. Everyone is surprised by this, including the player...usually, final boss dungeons don’t start shaking themselves apart until after the villain is dead. My guess is that even the scenery is in a hurry to get this shitty game over with. The screen goes black for a second, and the next thing we see is that the floor below Ignatius apparently fell away and he’s holding onto the edge of where Jian and company are standing for dear life.

Yes, this game can’t be bothered to animate changes to the background, not even for its grand finale. Sigh. Take it away, Robot Chicken.

Jian’s holding onto Ignatius, trying to help the guy back up, while Gabby and Flora just stare mutely, probably struck dumb by the unfathomable stupidity of it all. Ignatius asserts that he doesn’t need Jian’s help, and then immediately proves himself wrong by falling to his death as Jian backs off.

And that’s it. That’s it! This may not be the worst finale ever (fuck you, Bioware), but it sure as hell is the lamest. Your final battle in this game isn’t with the actual villain, but his lackey. The expected fight with the villain himself is teased several times in the dialogue--dialogue that takes its sweet time to say absolutely nothing and is punctuated by sad, slow little fireballs that devastate the hero we’re supposed to believe is strong--but that fight never comes. And then, after an off-screen moment because the game can’t be bothered to animate itself properly, the villain just falls down.

That’s how Ignatius, evil Dragonmaster and self-styled overlord of all of Lunar, prominent antagonist of Lunar: Dragon Song, is defeated. Killed by scenery.

* Not that the fact that he’s a Dragonmaster is ever given any real weight in this piece of trash game. LDS clearly expects you to have played previous Lunar games to know that being a Dragonmaster is a big deal; here it’s a name drop whose significance is never explained. Look, guys, you don’t need to go into huge detail about every part of your lore in a sequel, but you can’t just assume that every player is going to have played the 20-year-old games that came before this one and not explain ANYTHING. Come on, now.

** Trials which Jian passed by fighting the Dragons.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Mass Effect 3's Weak Plot Foundation

Well, I’ve mentioned off and on for years now that I’d do this, so...let’s do this.

Mass Effect 3 is, overall, an awesome RPG. The majority of its story events are either thrilling or extremely moving, its characters are, as always with Mass Effect, almost all great, the protagonist is kickass, the themes and messages are good and worth thinking about, the voice acting’s top-notch...if only it didn’t have what is arguably the worst ending in all RPG history, this game would be among the greatest games in the genre. Sadly, Mass Effect 3’s ending is so intellectually and emotionally toxic that I’m starting to shake with rage as I write this just because I’m remembering it oh my Viridi what the FUCK Bioware WHAT THE FFFFFFUUUUUUUUUU--

I’m okay.

Still, even if we set aside the ending, which is so horrible that internet-dwellers still frequently rationalize any tragedy and disappointment they come across as “still a better ending than Mass Effect 3,” ME3 is not a perfect product. Truly excellent, yes, but it has its flaws. It continues its predecessors’ inability to make Ashley a likable or compelling character. There’s really not enough done on the front of love interests. Liara still frequently sounds like her somniloquent voice actress was recorded from the other side of the an aquarium. And Diana Allers. Dear God, Diana Allers. And you could romance her. For the first time in human history (sadly not the last, thanks a bunch, E. L. James), the phrase “still a better love story than Twilight” could not be said.

One of these flaws is, quite frankly, just the whole basis of Mass Effect 3’s plot. No, not the Reapers’ attack on galactic civilization. That part’s fine, and (arguably) what the whole series has been building up to. No, the problem with Mass Effect 3’s plot, that which weakens it as an overall structure, is the Crucible.

By itself, the logic of the Crucible is...iffy at best, and that doesn’t count all the idiotic bullshit it brings about in the game’s finale. You basically just have to take it on faith that somehow multiple completely unconnected cultures of aliens all managed to successively and successfully work on building a weapon during the cyclical armageddon of each one’s civilization, which they managed to keep hidden every single time from an enemy that can mass-brainwash individuals into becoming traitors and telling that enemy everything they know. Secrecy in the face of mass Reaper Indoctrination! Over and over again!

You just have to take it on faith that this super weapon was kept hidden for each following cycle to work on in conditions good enough that this unimaginably advanced technology could last for tens of thousands of years as it waited to be discovered, placed somewhere that the Reapers would not detect it, but where it would be found by its intended recipient society. You just have to take it on faith that the theories and concepts behind this inexplicable super technology that can beat the Reapers, which is so inscrutable to the current civilization cycle that it’s outright stated by the higher-ups within the game that they don’t actually know what the damn thing is going to do once it’s turned on, was somehow understood and worked out by these multiple separate totally different civilizations working on the problem one after the other. You just have to take it on faith that the blueprints just happened to be mostly complete by the time the Protheans (the civilization cycle before our own) had to hide it, that its plans just happened to be discovered now, right when it is needed, that they just happened to be comprehensible in their amalgamation of the technology of multiple alien civilizations set thousands of years and countless light years apart,* and, let’s not forget, that there just happens to be a convenient magical Reaper instant-kill button to begin with.

...You know, there are times when I know that something’s ridiculous, but it never really strikes me just how ridiculous it really is until I write it out in these rants. This is as nonsensical as any given Xenosaga 3 plot point. It’s a different, but completely equal kind of absurdity.

Anyway! The logistical problems of the Crucible aside, and again not counting anything involving the game’s ending because that’s just its own galaxy of putrescence, what really makes this thing a problem is that it weakens the overall plot of Mass Effect 3 and the game’s ultimate goal focus. It basically makes it into the weakest possible version of the cliched RPG formula of uncovering the secrets of the ancients in order to save the world.

I mean, think about it. How is the Crucible’s plans, utility, and existence any different from some generic fantasy RPG’s magical sword or other artifact that happens to be the sole key to defeating the game’s villain, and is housed in some ancient ruins created by some generic advanced ancient society that’s probably just outright called “The Ancients?” If the majority of a game’s plot focus is “gather the resources needed to fully construct and use the Crucible,” is that really any different from having a game where the majority of a game’s plot focus is “gather the resources needed to fully empower the Sword of Mana?” Whether it’s a mystical sword or a super advanced off switch, you’re still making the nigh-entirety of your game about running around to fix up some convenient magical plot device** that just happens to have been left to the game’s heroes to save the universe with, rather than come up with their own means to do so.

That’s not to say that making your game’s goals revolve around collecting magical crystals or unlocking seals on a magical sword can’t be done reasonably well. It can, and it usually is. Unfortunately, the Crucible represents the worst possible scenario in terms of this kind of plot. Because, you see, the Crucible is not the means by which the characters of the game are allowed the chance to fight back, it’s the entirety of their hopes. Everything is pinned on the idea that this lazy, magical plot device will just solve all the problems in a single go!

You take, say, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, by contrast. The ultimate plot goal of that game is similar--you seek out each of the ancient 4 giants of Termina to save the land from the moon crashing down onto it. Alright, so, seeking out the means to make an ancient, convenient and lazy plot device (the giants) save the day; seems like the Crucible so far. But the giants’ contribution is not the end-all, be-all of everything! Once they have halted the moon’s descent, it’s still up to Link to face off against Majora’s Mask by himself--the ultimate victory of good over evil, the triumph of the story, must still be won by the actual hero of the story, by his own hand, utilizing his own skills and resources. But the Crucible, it’s just the end of the conflict, the sweeping magical plot device that solves all problems once it’s up and running. Sure, Shepard must, in the ending, face off against The Illusive Man and personally get the Crucible started, so you could say that’s like Link handling Majora’s Mask himself...but ultimately, Shepard’s final contribution is still just to ensure that this lazy inexplicable kill switch gets flipped on. It’s just one last moment of empowering a poor plot device to do everything in the hero’s place. In the end, you feel that Link has accomplished something incredible by his own merits. But even if ME3 had had a good ending that actually made any goddamn sense at all, it’d still be a case of Shepard and all of galactic civilization relying on some piece of technology left to them by someone else to do everything for them, instead of having a story where they were all forced to come together and overcome their obstacles by their own merits.

Gee, galactic civilization relying on some piece of technology left to them by someone else rather than advance by their own efforts...that sure does sound familiar. Oh, right, that’s the trap that the Reapers laid for them to begin with! Advancement before a society has earned it and thus proven ready for it is a huge theme of the Mass Effect series, seen in both the way the Reapers entrap each civilization cycle, and the history and current state of the Krogan species. So the Crucible plot device isn’t just the worst version of a cliche, it’s also in direct contrast to major ideals of the Mass Effect series itself!

Now, to be fair, you might point out that Mass Effect 1 could be seen as weak in the same way. After all, the majority of Mass Effect 1’s plot is spent tracking down Saren, and in that pursuit, Shepard comes across various pieces of the ancient puzzle of the Reaper extinction cycle that have been left behind, which come together at the game’s finale with a plot-convenient portal to the final confrontation, which is what all these pieces of the past have been leading up to. Fair point--but it works for ME1. See, with Mass Effect 1, the uncovering of the ancient secrets, first of all, builds the lore of the series. As the first game, a major part of ME1 is to create the present and past of its universe, and incorporating these ancient puzzle pieces into the plot does just that. More importantly, though, with Mass Effect 1, these bits of the ancient past culminating at the end is not the be-all, end-all that the Crucible is. Shepard doesn’t seek to unravel the ancient mystery of the Reapers because he thinks that will somehow save the day all on its own--he does it in the hopes that it will give him the information he needs to do so HIMSELF. The idea is not putting all the pieces of the past together will stop Saren by itself, just that it will enable Shepard and company to do so; the heroes of the game actually are still expecting to have to overcome their foe themselves. And that’s how it works out--the portal that serves as a backdoor to the final confrontation doesn’t solve everything. Finding it and using it simply evens the odds so that Shepard is provided the opportunity to defeat Saren and save the day himself. Our hero is still our hero, and the good guys’ victory is still their own. Finally, though Shepard comes across the pieces of the past at each part of the story that eventually come together into the backdoor portal thingy, he’s not specifically searching for them at every step. Most of the locations Shepard finds these ancient clues at he has visited for more immediate, doing-stuff-himself reasons, following leads on Saren’s followers and activities. Shepard’s not just pursuing the past to defeat Saren. He’s pursuing ALL the leads available to him, SOME of which include digging up the galaxy’s ancient secrets. So in my eyes, Mass Effect 1 effectively uses this concept, where Mass Effect 3 ineptly leans on it.

So there you go. The Crucible is the worst example of an overused story cliche that takes the destiny of the game’s characters out of their own hands and invests all responsibility and hope instead in a magical plot device that just fell out of the damn sky. Even if all of that had not led up to one of the most sickeningly awful endings of all time, and had instead just led to a logical, decent, artistically consistent ending instead, it would still be a major weakness in Mass Effect 3’s plot. The Crucible is something that was born from carelessness or ineptitude (or both). The game-minus-the-ending is still great in spite of this, but it could have been better still without the writers’ reliance upon this half-assed storytelling crutch.

* To be fair, this is actually the least questionable part. Mathematics, upon which, ultimately, essentially all science and technology is built, is in all conceivable ways a universal language. In addition, it’s an established and extremely vital fact of the Mass Effect series that the Mass Relays and Citadel ensure that the technology of each cycle’s civilizations, once those societies have reached the point of interstellar travel, advances in a predictable way. So the Crucible blueprints would still have to mostly be written in the universal language of mathematics, which our cycle can understand, and be working with an understanding of technologies and scientific concepts only somewhat deviated from the current cycle society’s. While no mean feat, understanding the Crucible’s plans now that they’re nearly complete and (presumably) all the theoretical aspects have been determined by the Protheans or some older civilization would be much less unlikely than all the other stuff I’ve mentioned. But still a little iffy, all the same.

** I’m sorry, the Crucible isn’t magic, it’s advanced technology beyond the game’s ability to actually describe. Because there’s such a big difference between a plot device that you lazily claim is too advanced to be understood, and a plot device that you lazily claim is magic so it doesn’t need explaining.

That difference being that in the latter case, you’re at least being honest about it.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Legend of Korra: A New Era Begins's Non-Bending Element

The Legend of Korra: A New Era Begins is about as half-assed, dull, and barebones in its storytelling as the show it’s based off of is thoughtful, deep, and nuanced. I feel like I should make a rant about how much the game fails at telling its story, but, well, I’ve just said all that really can be said: it fails. It’s boring, meandering, and doesn’t bother to try. And by this point, having spoken of games like Suikoden 4 and Rune Factory 1 in my rants multiple times before, I’m starting to run low on creative ways to describe boring things. The whole problem with boring things is that they are, well, BORING. If there were any part of the experience of something dull that stood out and could be easily remembered and described, then it wouldn’t be dull. So yeah. Probably won’t ever get into any in-depth rant about The Legend of Korra: A New Era Begins’s story and characters, because there’s only so much I can do with Boring.

Stupid, though, now that’s a different matter. Stupid I can rant about all the live long day.

And stupid is how the element of Non-Bending attacks is handled in The Legend of Korra: A New Era Begins. It’s like this: In this game, there are 4-but-sort-of-5 elements. The main 4 are, as one would expect from watching the show, or really just having ever played an RPG before, Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. Their weaknesses flow in a way that is only sensible some the time (Water beats Fire, Fire beats Air, Air beats Earth, and Earth beats Water...for some reason), and actually doesn’t even make a whole lot of sense from the show’s perspective as far as I can tell...but if not always totally sensible, this cycle of elemental weaknesses is at least not all that out there, nor unfamiliar. Air elements being strong against earth ones is a common enough RPG occurrence, water beating fire is as much a staple of the genre as swords and hit points, and fire trumping air really only makes sense--fire is fueled by oxygen, after all. Again, not perfect, given that I really just don’t know how water being weak to earth works, and that the elemental interrelationships described in the show point to different conclusions, but overall, it’s a passable system.

But then you get the non-bending elemental attacks. This is stuff like Equalist shock gloves, chi-blocking strikes, and disabling gas--tools used by non-benders to even the odds against their super-powered foes in the show. Well, that’s fine, right? Plenty of RPGs have spells and attacks that are non-elemental, or separated from the regular cycle of weaknesses and strengths somehow. The obvious approach to non-bending attacks is to set them up like that--have them be a thing where they’re neither especially strong nor weak against any single other element, utilitarian but not especially advantageous. No problem.

But that’s not what the game does.

No, instead of doing anything that makes sense from a gameplay perspective, and especially instead of doing anything that makes sense from a making sense perspective, TLoKANEB decides to have non-bending attacks be super effective against the earth elemental. From the gameplay perspective, why give earth benders an extra weakness, while all the other elements retain only their 1 weakness? That’s not balanced. Further unbalanced is the fact that no other element has a strength against non-bending attacks. Also, you don’t get anyone on your team who specializes in non-bending attacks, which is further annoying and kind of unbalanced. If only there were a character from the show who would have fit that role perfectly...

More importantly, though, why, of all the elements, would earth be the one weak to non-bending attacks? I mean, just think about this for a moment. The primary attacks of the non-benders are chi-blocking strikes. As in, physical contact, of their hands upon their enemy’s person. Of the 4 bending elements, wouldn’t earth be the least vulnerable to that sort of attack? What with, I dunno, the fact that the earth benders can coat their bodies in stone or metal with the speed of thought? I’m pretty sure that one of the earth bending abilities in this game is to increase one’s armor with a rock coating. And one of the characters in the party, Lin, specializes in metal bending, and wears armor for the express purpose of having a weapon at all times! Why in the world would she, of all members of the team, be the most susceptible to physical strikes from a naked human hand!?

Okay, sure, being effective against Lin does make sense in terms of the shock gloves that the non-bending element also makes use of. It’s a glove that makes electric shocks, and she’s in metal armor. That’s a guaranteed bad time for her. But...hey, wait a minute.

Why the hell are the shock gloves considered non-bending attacks, anyway?

I mean, being technology-based, anyone can use them, and the non-bending Equalists are the ones who utilized the things in combat, sure. But the glove is delivering an electric shock. Lightning is a subset of fire bending in the Avatar universe, and there are lightning moves in this game that count as fire elemental. Electricity is electricity one way or another, so shouldn’t the shock glove attacks count as fire, not non-bending? You can’t tell me that tasing someone is the same as just punching them in the elbow or wherever those chi pressure points are.

And getting back to what I was saying before, it still doesn’t make sense, the earth weakness to it. Sure, the shock glove would be especially devastating against a metal-clad earth bender like Lin, but Bolin, another team member, can’t bend metal, only regular old rock. Just as he could coat himself with rock to avoid the chi-blocking strikes from earlier, he could do the same to defend against the shock glove.

I just don’t get the logic here. If the point of having this non-bending element be advantageous was to be symbolic of the Chi Blockers’ ability to overcome bending despite being at a theoretical disadvantage, why only make the non-bending element superior to 1 of the regular bending elements, instead of all of them? And if you’re going to pick a single element to be at a disadvantage, why pick earth, the element that logically would be the most able to shield itself from non-bending attacks? This whole thing just doesn’t make a lick of sense.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Legend of Heroes 6-1

Regular reader Humza did me a solid a little while back when he linked the inestimably awesome Chris Avellone to one of my rants here, which garnered a positive reaction from Mr. Avellone that my self-esteem still feasts upon to this day. Mr. Humza waved away my offers to thank him through (sort of) material means, instead asking me if I would play one RPG in particular, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, which I will henceforth simply refer to as The Legend of Heroes 6-1, and then rant upon it. I think Humza’s idea was that if I were to call attention to this game in a rant, it might generate some extra interest in the series and a few more sales of the game, which would further encourage XSEED Games to translate the next game in the series for a western release. This plan is ridiculous given that, A, XSEED Games had already confirmed they’d be releasing the next game in the series some time this year by the time Humza made me aware that this series even exists, and more importantly, B, the number of people reading this blog is almost as small as the number of people with a clear conscience who work for Fox News, so it’s not likely that anything I say is going to influence anything. All the same, I owed Humza a debt of great gratitude, so I purchased The Legend of Heroes 6-1, played it, and now I’m here to do a broad, unfocused review of the game. I don’t usually do overall reviews of RPGs (unless they’re so unspeakably awful that I have to attack every single facet of them for my own personal peace of mind), so bear with me--this is going to be long, barely structured, and incorporate several parts that would otherwise have been rants of their own.

So what were my impressions of The Legend of Heroes 6-1? Well, this game and I didn’t get off on the right foot, that’s for sure.

See, you may have picked up on this just from my general way of sorting titles of both rants and the games I play, but when it comes to RPGs, I very much like a neat, orderly classification. And The Legend of Heroes series...pretty much has the most annoying taxonomy in the entire RPG world. The franchise started as a spin-off of a wholly separate series (Dragon Slayer), has mini-sagas within itself (the entry we’re speaking of today, TLoH6, is the first of 3 TLoH titles in the Trails in the Sky sub-series), and had title mismatching like the Final Fantasy series did in the days of the SNES (as in, the third TLoH game was released in the west as the second, because the actual second was never translated, as well as some titles just having their numbers removed altogether once translated). To top all of that off, The Legend of Heroes series sometimes, but not always, counts entire mini-sagas as single entries in its history--today’s subject is the sixth game in the overall series, but the next 2 games, as part of the same trilogy-within-the-larger-series, also count as the sixth entry, with the series only moving onto the number 7 after the trilogy is ended, at its ninth title (thus why I’m calling this The Legend of Heroes 6-1). This is in spite of the fact that earlier in the series there was a trilogy (known as the Gagharv trilogy) in which each title was counted as separate, numbered installments of the overall franchise. It’s all madness!

That said, once I actually turned the game on and started playing it, The Legend of Heroes 6-1 drew me in pretty effectively. I haven’t played a good, classic old JRPG for a while now, having mostly played western RPGs and more modern JRPGs in the past couple years. TLoH6-1 was a comfortable return to a style of RPGs that I hadn’t realized how much I missed: the late Playstation 1, early Playstation 2 era. So much of the style, presentation, and atmosphere of this game reminds me of pleasant times spent with Grandia 1 and 2, Breath of Fire 3 and 4, Arc the Lad 3, and Wild Arms 2 and 3, among several other JRPG classics of the age. That’s not to say that I judge this game good because of this nostalgic atmosphere--I do my best to maintain as much objectivity with judging RPG quality as I possibly can. But I can’t lie that the feel of TLoH6-1 did make me more receptive to the possibility that this was a good game.

And it is! In an occurrence so rare that one might almost call it miraculous, XSEED Games actually picked a good RPG to translate. Last time I personally saw that happen was Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon. But there’s no denying it: this is a quality title.

First of all, the plot is quite solid. I wouldn’t say it’s incredible, but it does the job from start to finish. The story is both personal, small, and also grand and overarching, and offers several interesting and pleasantly unexpected developments throughout. The story is paced very well, developing its smaller events into the cogs of a grand quest to save a nation, and doing it effectively enough that even though you recognize the plot strings that will eventually coalesce into a greater purpose, when it finally happens you’re still struck by the gravity of what is occurring. The story never gets so slow that you lose interest, and whenever it picks up, you’re interested and excited to know what happens next.

The development of the game’s world is handled well, too. I’ll grant you that the world of TLoH6-1 is definitely standard RPG fare, but its magical, political, technological, and social details are all explained and utilized frequently as the game goes along, from its start to its finish, in a way that feels natural. There’s no huge lore dump exposition dropped on you at the beginning of the game, or at just 1 or 2 important plot points, like many other RPGs unfortunately do. You learn about the world as you go, its details surfacing when knowing them is relevant, fitting the feel of the story. For example, your first understanding of the emotional weight of the Hundred Days War, which is an integral piece of backstory to the game, is not just hastily told to you in the intro to the game--it’s instead communicated later as Estelle recalls the day her mother died during a battle in their hometown. And it’s not just thrown out there solely so you’ll know about it, though that’s part of the reason. Estelle is reminiscing about it because she’s using that memory as an emotional springboard to make her own point about something, to contextualize a current, relevant situation, feeling, and decision of hers. This piece of lore isn’t brought up just so the player can study it for later--there’s a reason in-game that Estelle is speaking of it; it’s a piece of the past that frames where the future is headed. TLoH6-1 certainly isn’t the only RPG to be able to skillfully handle world development in its narrative like this, not by a long shot, but that doesn’t make this any less a quality worthy of praise.

Speaking of storytelling quality, it’s worth noting that the translation XSEED Games has done is very good. Dialogue feels natural, and the phrasing and vocabulary feels very western overall--yet at the same time, there’s plenty about what characters say and how they say it that feels strongly tied to the communication patterns of the game’s country of origins, so it always still feels like the JRPG that it is and should be. Hard to explain, but hopefully you get the basic idea.

Also, I have to give XSEED a thumbs up for the treasure box messages. This is actually a treat that we western gamers get which Japanese players didn’t: basically, the game was programmed with all kinds of different lines of text for when you examine a treasure chest you’ve already emptied, but in the original version, all the text just said the same thing. XSEED, however, decided to make use of this strangely unused text differentiation, and put in a couple dozen different amusing messages that make examining treasure chests you’ve plundered just as fun as actually getting the treasure was, sometimes more so. It’s quite amusing to walk up to a recently looted treasure chest and have it indignantly declare, “YOU again!” or ask me when I plan to return the stuff I borrowed from it. Fun little touches like this, and a photographer during the game’s ending telling his subjects to say “Fuzzy Pickles!”, tell me that the folks at XSEED Games have a genuine enjoyment of RPGs (even if they can’t seem to find many good ones to translate), and enthusiasm for your art counts for a lot with me.

I’ll also note that all the little stuff adds up well in the game, even though none of this junk matters in the slightest as far as how good an RPG TLoH6-1 is. The music is always serviceable, and there are several themes that are pretty darned good. As RPGs go, the gameplay is fine--nothing to write home about, but certainly functional and well designed. I mean, I think it’s boring as hell, but I don’t actually remember the last time I played an RPG where that wasn’t the case, so, y’know, I’m not the best example to go by on that count. The PC port, which I played, works fine and doesn’t seem to have any bugs that I could find, which is always nice--as is the fact that offers a PC port of a game developed for a console to begin with. I definitely hope to see that happen more in the future. And lastly, as far as graphics go, they’re...fine, I guess? You can tell what you’re looking at, and that’s all that matters, as far as I’m concerned.

Next, the characters. Overall, TLoH6-1 has a strong showing here, with a memorable, colorful cast that interact well. The important NPCs are reasonably distinctive, and the game never discards any of them, giving the impression that everyone that you meet and everything they’re involved with truly was significant, which is nice. Most of the party members are likable with good personalities and an acceptable level of depth to them. I appreciate that the game actually puts a bisexual man into the main cast, but at the same time, the guy’s kind of a circus act, and his sexuality is laughed off as part of his comic relief weirdness, so it’s a wash.

I do have to say that Agate is a jackass. Yeah, yeah, he’s supposed to be filling that role as the emotionally stunted tough guy whose hostility covers up his concern for others’ welfare, and we’re supposed to look past his thorny exterior to appreciate the good man within. You’ve seen the type before, I’m sure, unless you found this blog by mistake while looking up Rocket-Propelled Grenades. Yeah, well, too fucking bad, Agate’s still an asshole. Fuck that manly-tsundere crap, Agate’s too heavy on the hostility with barely a shred of the decency that’s supposed to balance it out. I don’t care how well he may mean--when a little girl’s grandfather and sole guardian gets kidnapped before her eyes by dangerous armed men, that is NOT THE TIME to slap her, say it’s her fault for trying to help at all, and tell her to man up about it! Hey, Agate, here’s an idea: maybe if you’d let Tita (the kid in question) come along from the start, like she wanted to, her presence wouldn’t have been the unknown factor that threw your strategy off! It ain’t like she can’t pull her own weight--in fact, at that stage in the game, her AoE attack and skills make her much more useful in general combat than Agate! A child has to watch the person she loves most in the world get taken away, never knowing if she’ll see him again, and then Agate hits her, tells her she’s useless, and blames her for the whole thing. To hell with social awkwardness and gruff exteriors as excuses--Agate’s a fucking asswipe.

Sorry, I get a little carried away when it comes to ragging on jerks. Anyway. By and large, the cast is strong and memorable. The protagonist Estelle and her companion Joshua are good, too, though only to a certain extent. I like Joshua just fine, but very little about him is developed, nor is much about him known until the game’s final moments. He’s mostly a foil to Estelle. Which is fine, he fills the role well enough, but it does mean that he doesn’t stand out or compel the audience as much as I think he was supposed to. Estelle’s better, growing a bit over the course of the adventure, and possessing a distinctive and enjoyable personality. I wish we’d gotten a chance to see a few more of the smaller peripheral details of that personality--elaboration of her little quirks, like the interest in sneakers and her fishing hobby*--but overall, Estelle is a decent heroine and an enjoyable character to watch for the 50 hours or so that you spend with her.

The villain’s decent, too. I wish we had seen more of him, given him a little more chance to develop himself, but his overall motivations are strong, and supported very well by the well-developed lore and the constant hero-worship by the game’s characters and nation of Cassius Bright--more on that in a later rant. You can definitely understand where he’s coming from and sympathize to a good extent. He kinda reminds me of Dragon Age 1’s Loghain, actually, though definitely an inferior version. A good cast isn’t complete without an appropriately decent villain, and the antagonist of TLoH6-1 fits the role quite adequately.

I will say, though, that the characters department does suffer in 1 very noticeable way: the love interest angle for Estelle and Joshua is terrible. I don’t want to get into it here in any great detail, though--their romance thing is going to have to be its own rant. Let’s just say for now that this is the worst case of Since We’re Not Related It’ll Be Okay Syndrome** that I’ve ever seen. I sure hope the next installment of this trilogy can do a better job of selling their romantic love, but I’m not gonna hold my breath.

Speaking of the next installment, let’s finally get to the ending of The Legend of Heroes 6-1. The finale is fast and exciting, and the ending to the game is a perfect stopping point. This first major adventure is concluded, yes, but questions remain, and it’s clear that the heroes have uncovered a far greater threat and mystery which must be investigated. With Joshua’s revelation, which is not unexpected but nonetheless makes an impact on the player, and the foreboding of darker, grander schemes to uncover and thwart, the player is left ready and raring to see the next part of the story. It’s a transition point almost as well-constructed as the ending of Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1, combining the satisfaction and closure of a great adventure concluded and a job well done, with the thrill of knowing that it was all only a step toward the true conflict.

And so I am very glad that XSEED Games will soon release the next installment of this story, because with a good plot, a memorable cast, strong storytelling and writing skills, and a conclusion that leaves me hankering for more, I find that I may be on my way to being an avid fan of the Legend of Heroes series. My interest is piqued, at the very least. So thank you, Humza, for having me give The Legend of Heroes 6-1 a try. And as you hoped I would, I now make my recommendation. To anyone looking to play a classic, quality JRPG with a lot of heart, you could do a lot worse than The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. Head over to Steam or GOG, or find a hard copy for your PSP, and check it out.

* Actually, on second thought, maybe not exploring Estelle’s interest in fishing was a blessing after all. The last thing I want is ANOTHER major fishing minigame to deal with.

** This is a term that I will detail in a later rant. Basically, it’s going to stand for the disturbingly frequent occasions when RPG characters who are not biologically related but have been raised in the same household for a significant period of their lives and thus are, in mind and spirit, siblings, decide they have the hots for each other.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Celestian Tales 1

Celestian Tales: Old North is a Kickstarter RPG, the first of a trilogy (which is why I refer to it as Celestian Tales 1), which has recently been completed and released. It’s one of the RPGs I’ve been a backer for, and I’m pleased to have helped it come into existence. With little-known Indie RPGs such as this (good ones, that is), I generally try to come up with a rant talking about the game’s virtues, since even the teeny-tiny publicity this blog can provide can’t help but be beneficial. So, let’s talk about Celestian Tales 1. I don’t have any 1 particular topic about the game I want to cover, just a few observations, pieces of praise, and complaints, so don’t expect a particularly organized or insightful piece today.

Actually, anyone familiar with this blog probably knows not to expect that any day, really.

So, I’m just gonna put my 3 major complaints out there first, and then we can get to recognizing the things this game does right. First of all, and this is pretty much everyone’s complaint about this game: it’s too short. You’re looking at around 10 hours from start to finish, and though you’re encouraged to see the game through the eyes of all 6 characters (which would make it more like 60 hours long), there’s not a huge amount of variation in the game’s events and scenes from one protagonist to the next. I mean, there’s some, sure, but not enough that it makes up for the lack of time in which the plot takes place. Additionally, I gotta be frank, not all of the characters are really worth following--more on that in a moment.

The reason the game is so short is that it’s the first of a trilogy, but it’s only a trilogy because, as I understand it (I should probably pay more attention to those updates Kickstarter sends me about these things), of time and money issues with the game’s developer. Originally, Celestian Tales was just meant to be a single game, not split into parts, so the ending of this title isn’t like the ending of, say, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1, where you’ve got an overall story that was intended to be split between multiple installments, and that stopping point designated a huge point of transition for the story, the end and completion of one major task and the opening of another. Basically, Celestian Tales 1 ends in a way that feels like it’s the end of a chapter within a book, not the ending of a book within a series, if you get me. The final event of Celestian Tales: Old North is actually the point at which it feels like the real meat of the story is starting, so getting cut off right then is kind of frustrating.

Still, as annoying as that is, it’s a problem that I don’t really know if there’s a solution for. The developer had their reasons for needing to split Celestian Tales into a trilogy. While I feel perfectly comfortable lambasting a well-established, fully staffed, professional game company for not allocating its resources correctly to make its product properly, I wouldn’t feel comfortable really taking Ekuator Games to task over this issue...there’s just a wide gulf between a business that has the resources and experience to do and know better, and a tiny little independent developer that’s telling their story for the first time and learning as they go.

Problem Number 2: Some of its cast. There’s a pretty wide gulf in the quality of the protagonists. Some of them are dynamic, well-written characters (Ylianne and Isaac), and that’s great, but there are also characters who seem likable but don’t really have much in the way of personality and depth (Lucienne and Camille), and those who are neither likable nor developed enough (Aria and Reynard). I kind of get the feeling that the major character development for Lucienne and Aria is simply forthcoming in later installments, but that doesn’t really help Lucienne be more interesting in this game, nor does it help Aria be less of a horrible ignorant judgmental heartless monster.

With that said, this isn’t a clear cut case of being bad characters for some of them. I mean, Camille does not seem very interesting overall, as I say...but, if you’re playing the game with her as your lead, you do see some scenes involving her which give her a little more personality (not to mention spell out a bit of the plot intrigue at the game’s end). The same is true of Aria and even Reynard, a little. Lucienne, sadly, stays pretty boring even if you’re seeing the extra scenes for her. But anyway, you have a case here where the seemingly sub-par parts of the cast really aren’t as bad as they appear at’s just that the decision to show such a significant amount of their personal development through scenes only experienced in certain playthroughs makes the characters appear worse than they are. In future titles, I hope Ekuator Games will be more careful to show adeqaute character development for everyone in any playthrough, not just specific ones.

Problem Number 3: Okay, look, I know I tend to nitpick, but there are way too many typographical errors in the game’s text and dialogue. I can’t take SquareEnix to task for a dozen or so errors in a 30 hour game and then ignore and forgive thrice that number of errors in a game a third that length. It’s obvious from the speech patterns of this game’s characters that the writers are familiar with the English language and have a talent for manipulating it to distinguish dialects and different character mentalities, so the fact that there are so many errors present just comes off as sloppy. Come on, Ekuator Games, it cannot be that hard to find a proofreader or two. Dozens of fanfics are published daily whose authors have located beta readers to ensure the quality of their stories! Do you really want to seem less professional than a 14-year-old fangirl whose last creative work was summarized as “Mako is the vampire prince of the moon kingdome, can the love of the earth princess korra melt his cold heart?? wip, no-bending moon kingdom au, crossover with naruto in later chapters”?

Hell, I’d proofread the damn script if they’re so hard up for a spell check. I’d do it cheap! Anything to keep from constantly cringing at all these immersion-breaking typos.

Alright, so, that’s the bad stuff out of the way. Now for the good. Celestian Tales 1 is a good, solid RPG. Even if we’re only getting the first taste of its plot in this installment, the story becomes engaging quickly, the setting is pretty decently explained and detailed, and the general events of the plot are pleasantly Suikoden-esque, though not derivative of that series. The game clearly has several strong themes it wishes to focus on, including class distinctions, the complexity of right, wrong, and human society and customs, duties to those both above and below oneself, and the dangers of doctrines that close the mind to the possibilities and people of the world. These ideas, and the philosophies that the game wishes to convey regarding them, pop up frequently as the plot progresses, and the characters examine them thoughtfully and with gravity. This is a game that has something to say, and cares about doing so, and I appreciate that.

Another strong point in the game’s favor is its cast. Yes, that seems odd when one of my major complaints was also the cast, but give me a chance to explain. While not every one of the 6 protagonists carries his or her weight as a character on his or her own, as a group, they work very well together, providing great compliments and counterpoints to one another as their perceptions and beliefs are called to play. Yes, Lucienne may not be the most interesting or dynamic of the cast, but her basic steadfastness makes for a good influence in the superior character development of Isaac, as he is many times confronted with the fact that his black-and-white views of the nobility are not always accurate thanks to her example. Yes, Aria may be a particularly detestable harpy, but her cold, self-important intolerance serves to give the sweet Ylianne all the more opportunity to use her innocent wisdom to question the nature of humanity. There are weak characters here, to be sure, and Ekuator Games should work to improve upon them in future installments, but they nonetheless contribute to make a good team dynamic for the party, and the strong characters are all the better for having these counterpoints to work off of. And it also bears mentioning that the good characters are, well, quite good! Isaac’s view and character shifts subtly but dramatically as his eyes are opened to the complexity of the world, and I have to say that Yli, though she appears saccharine at first, is a pleasant surprise in how well her basic, sweet nature fits into the group and the plot’s events. Watching her find herself torn between her elvish understanding of what is truly Right and Wrong, and her developing human understanding of the complex intricacies of those shades of grey between Right and Wrong, is very interesting and even bittersweet.

And that’s...kind of all I really have to say about Celestian Tales: Old North. Is it good? Yeah. I know that I spent more time here talking about its problems than its virtues, but that’s the thing about critiquing in rants like this--you always wind up talking more about the negatives than the positives, because what more is there to say when something works than “it works”? Celestian Tales 1 is short, but what it’s got is good, it knows how to create a good team dynamic with its cast, and it shows a lot of potential for what we can expect from the next installment, especially since the plot seems ready to deepen dramatically.

So yes, it’s good. Then should you buy it? Well...probably, but possibly not. It doesn’t cost much, and it’s definitely decent, so I give it a recommendation, but at the same time, I can’t pretend that it ends at a satisfying place, and that means that the wait for the next installment of the story is more a case of frustration than anticipation. If you don’t think you’d do well with that, well, I’d say you should wait until the trilogy is complete before getting into it. But other than that, I say go for it, it’s a worthwhile beginning to a story that shows a lot of promise.* If you're interested, it can be purchased at GOG or Steam.

* If you do decide to play Celestian Tales: Old North, then I would very much recommend the following:

A. Play through all 6 characters’ prologues before going ahead with the story. First of all, several of the game’s best moments, like Ylianne’s talk with her mother and the choice Aria is forced to make that unfortunately goes on to define her character for the rest of the game, are contained in the prologues. Secondly, and more importantly, understanding a lot of the characters’ personality and the subtle development some of them receive really requires you to know where they’ve come from, and the prologues provide this insight.

B. If you’re going to play only 1 character, make it Ylianne. Most of the best character-specific scenes are hers, to start with, and though she seems excessively cute and sweet at first, once you get used to her you find that she’s probably the most appealing personality in the cast. Also, the fact is that Ylianne’s inexperience with the Old North and its people is similar to the player’s own, and her questions, reactions, and goals thus make her seem closer to the player and thus the natural fit for performing as the player’s specific avatar in this world. Any of the protagonists fit the idea of Main Hero well enough, of course, but Ylianne is the one I think feels most comfortable and natural as our lead. You may feel differently, of course, but like I said, she has some of the strongest character-specific scenes, so it’s still good to see her tale through.

C. With B in mind, it’s still a good idea to find a few Let’s Plays on Youtube of the other protagonists’ playthroughs, just so you can see some of the character-specific scenes of the others. To save you time, here are the moments in the game where the character-specific events occur, with as little spoilers as possible:
Chapter 1: After returning from the village and going to sleep.
Chapter 2: Deciding the bandits’ fate (only significantly different for Ylianne and Isaac)
Chapter 3: After reporting the results of the scouting mission.
Chapter 4: After the trial.
Chapter 5: Looking through the village house.
Chapter 6: NA
Chapter 7: The night before the ceremony, the decision after the final boss battle, and the scene after the credits.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Lords of Xulima's Enemy Encounter Rate

I do not, unfortunately, care very much for Lords of Xulima. I don’t doubt the care that its creators put into it, but it’s obvious that effort was directed primarily at the gameplay aspects, while the exploration of their world’s lore was a secondary concern, the game’s plot was a tertiary concern, and the depth of the cast was...whatever comes below tertiary priorities. I’ve thought about ranting about LoX’s storytelling aspects, but there’s so damn little there that I don’t even know how I’d go about it. There’s only so much one can expand upon a game that can be summed up by 2 words: “It’s boring.”

At least what Lords of Xulima cares about, it does well, I guess. I mean, the gameplay works, which is good for people who care about gameplay a lot, but not quite enough to play games that aren’t RPGs. Still, even that’s not perfect...there is, after all, the annoyance of the random encounter rate in the game.

See, here’s the thing. The encounter rate in Lords of Xulima is really, really slow. Like, the slowest I’ve ever seen in an RPG. When you’re wandering through an area where there are random enemies to be encountered, you may stroll across as much as a third of the area’s map before you hit a random encounter. Sometimes even more. And I mean the sizable maps, too, the big outdoor areas that substitute for a world map.

Now, when you first go through an area, this is not all that noticeable, because in addition to random encounters, there’s a lot of enemy encounters in fixed positions on the field waiting for you to step into their line of vision. So when you’re initially exploring an area, you won’t notice the low random encounter rate, because you’ll be frequently scrapping with the fixed, visible enemies anyway. In fact, the low encounter rate is a really good thing, because it helps ensure that you’ll have a chance to retreat to a town when you need to be healed up without being overwhelmed by random enemies during your trip back. And in a game like Lords of Xulima, built with the idea that old-school RPG fans want a return of old-school RPG difficulty, and in which even the easy mode is rather taxing (at least for a lamer like me), being able to beat feet without monsters harassing my exhausted party every step of the way is a good thing.

But after your initial foray into a new zone, once the fixed enemies are cleared out and you’ve explored the area to your satisfaction, then the plodding special encounter rate is really, really annoying, both from the game playing standpoint and the standpoint of someone who has common sense. First of all, from the gameplay-practical standpoint, it’s frustrating that you have to just walk around for so long to bait each encounter because your food supplies dwindle as you do so. Walking back and forth is traveling, traveling slowly drains your food supplies, replenishing your food supplies costs money, there is a finite amount of money to be had in this game, and that money can always be put to better use. I don’t care if this is yet another case of elaborate checks and balances in the game, it’s still annoying, and it’s not like Lords of Xulima is wanting for intricate gameplay restrictions and challenges. They could’ve upped the encounter rate and dropped the whole “spend half the money you got from the random encounters just on the food you burned through trying to make those encounters appear” thing, yet still have had more than enough player micromanagement going on.

More importantly (to me, at least), this is just an irritating gameplay choice from a common sense angle. I admit that I played Quest 64 from start to finish, but even I have better things to do with my time than to spend hours--literal hours of my life, if you add it up!--watching a character move back and forth 45 times because the invisible pack of skeletons nearby are just too damned shy to come over and say hi. I’d probably be a lousy audience for a Las Vegas night show, by this point--playing Lords of Xulima has built up my tolerance for watching an object slowly go back and forth over and over again so much, that I’m probably completely immune to being hypnotized now.

For Poseidon’s sake, the majority of RPG hours are already unnecessary filler, Numantian Games, you didn’t need to add to that!’s like trying to go from one island to another in Suikoden 4, just empty, repetitive travel time that puts you to sleep as it drones on and on. And, oh, have I mentioned that as you clear the random encounters out of an area, the encounter rate begins to drop even further? The longer you go about this process, the longer it takes you to continue doing so. It’s supposed to be to make the process seem more real (the more enemies you kill in an area, the fewer there are running around to bother you), but all it does is just make the process even more tedious.

A minor additional annoyance in the common sense department relates to that food angle I mentioned before. Since you will run out of your food supplies like 3 or 4 times trying to clear an area of random encounters, that means you have to keep traveling back to a town (or other spot for food supplies), and then come back to continue your exceedingly prolonged monster extermination. So you’re adding that much more time thrown away by this ordeal, thanks to the low encounter rate.

And yeah, I know what you’re thinking, at least those of you reading this who have never played Lords of Xulima (which is probably everyone): if it’s so much trouble to fight random encounters, why not just ignore them and continue on without the level-grinding? Well, the answer to that is: finite experience points. LoX is one of those RPGs in which there is a limited number of monsters you can encounter in the game, and thus a limited amount of levels you can gain. Yeah, there are a TON of enemies to take down in the game, but it’s not Final Fantasy: eventually the enemies in each area run out. And Lords of Xulima is, as I mentioned before, not a forgiving game. You need pretty much every level up you can squeeze out of it, at least for a while. Late in the game, if you planned well long-term (Hint: When leveling up, ALWAYS INCREASE SPEED), and made smart use of your resources, you may be strong enough that you don’t really need to eradicate every possible enemy any longer, but early in the game, you’ll be clawing for every advantage you can grab hold of, and can’t afford to leave experience opportunities behind. So polishing off every enemy in an area is not an activity you engage in on a completionist whim, it’s just an assumed necessity of Lords of Xulima.

It wouldn’t be hard to fix this problem. All Numantian Games would have to do would be to increase the encounter rate to a regular level, like most other RPGs. The slight benefit of providing more opportunity for a retreat from a new hostile area just does not outweigh the frustration of waiting and waiting and WAITING for the next random encounter to finally show up later on. And also, get rid of the stupid mechanic of enemies taking longer to show up as their numbers dwindle. Yeah, it’s more realistic, but so are weapon maintenance and sprint meters--it’s one of those areas where dedication to realism is the sacrifice of enjoyability. It detriments the game, while gaining nothing.

Hell, if they really didn’t want to change the encounter rate, they could still make the system more user-friendly. Lots of RPGs have items or accessories that increase or decrease random encounter rates; the Tales of series has been using such things since the get-go. Numantian Games could just incorporate some kind of “lure” item, equipment, or skill in the game, and when the player’s ready to clear an area out, they could activate it and have the enemies come at a reasonable pace. Or maybe each area could have a programming flag that activates once all the stationary, non-random enemies are defeated that increases the encounter rate, since at that point the player’s obviously ready to handle everything the area can throw at him/her. Or how about one of those items like the one from Chrono Cross, the thing you get for beating the game which allows you to speed everything in the game up several times over? Even if the encounter rate stays low, with one of those babies, you’d still cut the boring waiting time down several times over.

There are probably plenty of other ways you could improve the encounter rate situation in Lords of Xulima besides the ones above, too. All I know is that just about any other way of handling the random encounter rate in Lords of Xulima would be better than what’s there right now.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

General RPGs' Underused Settings and Styles

There’s a lot of diversity in RPGs’ settings and cultural backdrops, and I appreciate that. If I want to have science fiction, there are great options, like Mass Effect or Anachronox. If I want to have cyberpunk, there are great options, like Shadowrun or Dex. If I want to have 20th century world history, there are great options, like some of the Shadow Hearts games. If I want something modern and uncomfortably close to reality, there are great options, like Deus Ex 1. If I want horror, there are great options, like Parasite Eve 1. If I want something that explores Christianity, there are great options, like many Shin Megami Tensei titles. If I want a crapload of alchemy, there’s the Atelier games. If I want western fantasy, there’s Crimson Shroud and the Dungeons and Dragons titles. If I want post apocalyptic, there’s Fallout. Dark gothic European, Castlevania. Oriental martial arts, Jade Empire. High School, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona. Steampunk, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magicks Obscura. Sci-fi mixed with fantasy, Star Ocean or Phantasy Star. Norse mythology, Valkyrie Profile. Exploration of Hinduism and Buddhism, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga. And so on; you get the idea more than well enough, I’m sure.

Nonetheless, there are a few styles and cultural backdrops that are rarely or never explored in RPGs, at least that I have seen (and I flatter myself to think that I’m pretty well-versed in the genre), ones which could really make for some awesome Role Playing Games if someone were to make the attempt to do so.

...Someone competent, I mean. If you work at SquareEnix, or had anything to do with the development of Lunar: Dragon Song, please just stop reading this rant right now. I don’t want you people getting ideas.

So, in no particular order, here are some ideas for backdrops, overall game themes, and cultural settings that I’d like to see in more RPGs.

Arabian Mythology: Damn, game developers of the world, when are you guys gonna get on this? Old Arabian fantasy is creative, fascinating, and really kind of unique. I know a couple of RPGs have taken a stab at it, but they’re both extremely old games. Defenders of Oasis is dull and unimaginative, using the Arabian style as a backdrop for a story that really could have been told exactly the same way in any other setting; nothing actually connects it to Arabian mythos beyond the genie character. Meanwhile, I love The Magic Scheherazade, it’s inventive and interesting, as I’ve mentioned before, but the game still came out back in the days of the NES. Even if it was an impressive feat of RPG creativity and storytelling for its day, that still means it doesn’t have nearly the kind of depth and emotional and philosophical quality as can be expected from today. The RPG genre, on both sides of the ocean, has drawn decades’ worth of great ideas, stories, and characters from traditional western fantasy and mythology. I don’t think that western fantasy is tapped out by any means, but just imagine all the awesome directions RPGs could go in if a ton of game developers began to use Arabian mythos as their starting point. There’s so much that can be done with this!

Islam in Shin Megami Tensei: Kind of jumping off of the same region of the world as the last idea, here. I know I’m being specific here, but having seen what a kickass job the SMT series has done with representing, analyzing, and exploring the religions of Christianity and Hinduism and Buddhism, not to mention other forms of faith such as the Tarot and luck,* I’d really love to see that same brilliance and attention brought to another of the world’s major religions. And of those major religions, I’d most like to see Islam covered, because it has a hell of a lot of fascinating material, tradition, and ideas to cover, and, well, because a lot of the real world, at the moment, could really use an intelligent and objective perspective on the much-maligned faith. I’m generally happy for all the SMT I can get, but still, this is a subject to which I hope the series turns its unique brilliance soon.

Native American Culture: Really, I just want to see something, anything, basing itself off of the cultures of Native Americans. Their various societies and belief systems are fascinating, and essentially ignored by all forms of art and media, or at the most, just seen in relation to other cultures (mostly imperialistic white culture). It’s not that there’s nothing that relates to Native Americans in RPGs...the Shadowrun series actually makes Native Americans a big part of its lore, and some of its games reflect that to an extent, and sometimes you’ll come across a tribal culture in an RPG that give the distinct impression of being an analogue for Native Americans, like the tribes in Suikoden 3. And of course, the Fallout series, particularly Fallout 2 and New Vegas, have a lot of interesting material on the matter. Hell, you could probably argue that some elf cultures in RPGs are metaphors for Native Americans, albeit clumsy ones. And there’s always the actual inclusion of Native Americans in Shadow Hearts 3...but we shall not speak of that, for that game is terrible and should ever be shunned. Nonetheless, there’s never been an RPG, to my knowledge at least, that really just bases itself around Native American ideas, history, and culture, and as with Arabian mythology, I think there’s a lot of potential there to explore.

Which leads us to the next one:

The Wild West: Aw, man, wild west-styled stuff can make for such kickass entertainment! Desert-y environments, small and tough frontier towns, horses and six shooters, bar brawls, outlaws, sheriffs, that fascinating mix of early industrialist society both fleeing from itself and yet also fighting to bring its progress further forward, the equally fascinating war within the genre of glorification of individualism and freedom against community versus adherence to the law, manly mustaches and cool cowboy gear, an obsession with pillaging gold and hiding it which is similar to the pirate genre but at the same time way better, thrilling train heists, the continued thoroughly immoral expansion into Native American lands and treatment of their society and population as subhuman savages who make better pets than people...

...Okay, so...maybe that last tendency of the genre is not so good. Deeply disturbing, actually.

Still, so long as it manages to not promote racism and carefree cultural genocide, the American Frontier setting has a ton of really cool, fun stuff to offer that RPGs just don’t take advantage of. Oh, sure, there are bits and pieces of it here and there--aspects of it can be found in Fallout: New Vegas, and there’s a cowboy scenario in Live-A-Live that’s fun, but a real, sincere effort to use this interesting and exciting genre in RPGs is hard to find. Wild Arms 3 is pretty much the only RPG out there that does it (even though the entire Wild Arms series erroneously claims to be Old West-styled), and WA3 was one of the greatest RPGs ever created. And it’s not even like this genre is that hard to make work with other, more RPG-friendly ones. Wild Arms 3 may have committed to the setting in a way that all its predecessors and successors utterly failed at, but it nonetheless managed very competently to maintain a strong amount of the fantasy-sci-fi mix of the rest of the Wild Arms games, too, and as classics like Trigun and Firefly show, sci-fi can actually be combined with the Wild West really, really effectively. Here’s hoping the future holds more committed, great Wild West RPGs like Wild Arms 3 in the future.

Indian Culture: If it’s Shin Megami Tensei examining its social-religious aspects, great. If it’s a game just generally basing itself on the geography and society of India, great. Past India as a backdrop, present India as a backdrop, future India as a backdrop, all great. A fantasy land strongly based on Indian mythology, also great. I don’t care about how the game wants to go about it. I just want something that gives me an interesting glimpse of Indian culture that treats it with a shred of dignity. Because right now, all I’ve got to work with are ridiculous, insulting stereotypes on TV and in the movies. Although the USA entertainment industry is (for once) not entirely at fault for far as I’ve seen and am told, the Indian movie industry isn’t exactly breaking its back to defy stereotypes. Well, I don’t care what side of the ocean it comes from--I just want to see something using Indian people and concepts that doesn’t treat the culture as a fucking punchline, or a mandate for a dance montage.

Film Noir: Well come on. Film noir is just plain always awesome. Hard-boiled detectives, glamorous and dangerous scenarios and people, twisted schemes by crooked fiends, the dark streets, that singularly cool internal monologue that all the best protagonists keep going the whole time...gotta love it. Yeah, you might think that this genre would lend itself more naturally to different kinds of games, like an investigation game or even a first person venture, and you’re probably right. But there’s no reason why you can’t combine those things with an RPG and get a good result. Many RPGs, like Mass Effect and Fallout, have successfully combined shooters with RPG elements, and I don’t see why you couldn’t also have a hybrid between your typical detective game and an RPG. You could do it like Sakura Wars 5 combines a dating sim and an RPG together--SW5’s RPG elements (the stats of characters during its battles) come from how well you do with the dating game portion. You could have the investigative segments inform the RPG elements in a similar fashion, where the better job you do sleuthing and following leads, the better your stats will be when a couple hitmen jump you in the alley, or something. With a strong enough set of writers behind it, it could be a primarily story-driven game with only a few fights interspersed here and there, like Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, or, again, Sakura Wars 5, so you could make investigative elements the main attraction but still draw on the RPG element. I dunno. All I know is that I love a good film noir story, and with RPGs’ strong penchant for focus on storytelling elements, it seems to me that a skilled developer could make a hell of a film noir RPG.

Real World, Modern Age: We don’t really get many RPGs that are supposed to be set in our own reality. It’s not that they don’t exist, of course, but they’re still few and far between, and even the ones that do set themselves in our world or close to it tend to set themselves apart by clearly being parallel but significantly different realities (the Fallout and Sakura Wars series), or ridiculously far in the future (the Mass Effect and Star Ocean series), to the point that they still come off to a large degree as being another world (Star Ocean doesn’t help this by constantly setting itself up on numerous alien planets that just happen to be another backwater standard magical RPG dump).

Still, there are RPGs that take place a little closer to home, and they’re often very good. Shadow Hearts 1 and 2 take place all over Europe and Asia in the first half of the 20th century, Deus Ex 1 takes place on a global scale in a near (and getting scarily nearer all the time) future, and a significant number of Shin Megami Tensei titles take place in the real world from the early 20th century on to the present and near future. All of the games I just listed are worthwhile RPGs, ranging from good to downright incredible, and some of them (Deus Ex 1 in particular) have a greater ability to comment on and provide cautionary tales for our lives, because they directly borrow from the reality that we live in. I just feel like we could use more games that do so. There’s all kinds of social and political issues in our world that the public needs exposure to, and while I’m all about documentaries and books and movies and whatnot, I’d like to see my favorite game genre step up and join the fray of telling tales of the real world with the purpose of making it and us the better for them.

Man, I can’t wait to play Unraveled: Tale of the Shipbreaker's Daughter.

* Christianity: SMT1 + 2, Devil Survivor 1, and, well, just most of the series, really.
Hinduism and Buddhism: SMT Digital Devil Saga 1 + 2
Luck: SMT Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon
Tarot: SMT Persona 3 and 4
Basic Foundations of Religions’ Behavior: SMT3

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

General RPGs' Badly Reimagined Characters

It sucks when you have to put up with a poorly-written character for a whole game. RPGs average 50 to 60 hours, and that’s a hell of a long time to be stuck with an incessantly chatty dumbass like Wild Arms 4’s Jude, a thoroughly obnoxious asshole like Star Ocean 3’s Albel Nox, a nauseating simpleton like Grandia 3’s Alfina, a self-righteous hypocritical bitch like Dragon Age 1’s Morrigan, or absolutely goddamn everyone in Mega Man Star Force 1.

But you know what’s much worse? Having to put up with a poorly-written character who was, in more capable writers’ hands, previously someone you actually liked. You know what I’m talking about: you had a cool character from a game, and then, in some sequel or spin-off, that character was used again, only this time, they were suddenly really crappy, a poor caricature of their original concept, or not even close enough to be called that. Think Samus, in Metroid: Other M. Usually this is caused by an inept idiot ruining someone else’s work, like the characters of Avatar: The Last Airbender being horribly mangled by the live action movie adaptation of the show, but not always. Sometimes, the same company can utterly misunderstand and cheapen their own characters, like what Disney does to Jack Sparrow after the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and on rare occasions, the original creator him/herself will destroy his/her creation, like George Lucas did with Darth Vader. And, well, pretty much every other part of Star Wars.

Sometimes you’ll luck out, sort of, and the damage will be relatively minor. Suikoden 4 managed against all probability to make Viki boring, but as much as I do adore Viki and her hapless antics, messing up a character whose story contribution is basically just humor isn’t a comparatively huge transgression. Plus, Viki was back to her amusing Viki-ness in the next game, and adorably voice acted at that. Or you’ll get a creator who does not, nor makes absolutely any goddamn effort to, understand the characters they’re borrowing, but is only using those characters in a small way that doesn’t have the time or importance to really damage the character, like when Tetsuya Nomura uses any Final Fantasy character not from his own games in a Kingdom Hearts title.

But more often, the damage done to a beloved character, one whose influence over the audience significantly affected their enjoyment of the game as a total, is a lot more dire. Good characters can be ruined by a stupid misunderstanding of them, the way Cloud was in Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children--his character had basically regressed back to the state it was in at the end of FF7’s first disc and then multiplied its teen angst twice over. It was like watching some self-indulgent mopey teen’s fanfic misinterpretation of the character brought to CGI life, complete with the questionable black Hot Topic ensemble. Good characters can be ruined by sheer, stupefying incompetence, like the poor cast of Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals. You’d never know it from the remake, but Maxim and his companions actually had some dignity and weren’t just laughable, illogical caricatures back in the original Lufia 2. Good characters can be ruined by some writer’s arrogant impulse to brutally twist the character to fit the writer’s needs instead of who the character actually is, leaving a personality so disfigured that the character is pretty much unrecognizable, like Bioware did to Anders in Dragon Age 2. And of course, good characters can be ruined by all of these factors coming together at once, a repulsive maelstrom of careless, incompetent arrogance that strips everything that was good and worthwhile about a character away, leaving only Final Fantasy 10-2 Yuna behind.

It’s bad enough when someone takes a great plot or setting and lore, and ruins it. It was aggravating to play Shadow Hearts 3, for example, and see the inept handling of the series’s atmospheric, gloomy, yet strangely quirky image of real world history as the game bumbled its way through a slew of crappy misconceptions of the Americas. Very aggravating. It’s one of many reasons why that game just blows. And it’s even worse when important parts of a plot are ruined. It was so disappointing to see Final Fantasy 7: Last Order retroactively cheapen one of the greatest moments in the Final Fantasy series as it changed Cloud’s inspiring victory over Sephiroth at the Nibelheim Reactor to looking like Sephiroth thinks it barely an inconvenience.*

But for a large majority of RPGs, the characters are truly the heart and soul of the game, our guides and translators of the plot and its themes, the components which invest us emotionally.** So if you fuck up a character that the audience liked, you’re not just souring that character, you’re worsening everything that character touches and contributes to, the product as a whole. When that character was written correctly, he or she (or it) was one of the paths the audience took toward enjoying the work, and now that you’ve spoiled that character, he or she (or it) will just as easily become a path for the audience to take toward disliking this new work. You’re poisoning the game from the inside out, and probably spreading that poison retroactively to the original one, too. When continuing or remaking an RPG, game creators should be careful to do well by the source material, but they should exert extra caution in the case of reusing or remaking the original’s cast. Screw up there, and they have fucked up something fierce.

* Hey, Nomura, do you think you could maybe just try to go a full 5 minutes without fellating Sephiroth? Just once? For the sake of artistic integrity? No, I guess not.

** Mind, not ALL RPGs are like this. There are some RPGs that are excellent solely by virtue of story, themes, and whatnot, without any real influence from the characters. Deus Ex 1, for example, is a terrific RPG, but it owes almost none of its quality to its cast--they all just fit their roles as needed and don’t get in the way of the gripping and thought-provoking plot. Earthbound, as another example, is a game whose main characters barely have any real narrative presence, yet there are more than a few who think it quite a decent RPG, just for other reasons. Still, most RPGs have a strong focus on their characters, and those characters being good or bad may make or break the title.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Guest Rant: Energy Breaker's Ties to the Lufia Series, by Humza

Whoo! Guest rant! Interesting new perspectives, AND less work for me! What's not to love?

Today's guest rant is authored by one Humza, a frequent reader here who I am particularly fond of, for the fact that he called the attention of one of my most revered game industry heroes, Chris Avellone, to one of my rants, which resulted in Mr. Avellone calling it “brilliant.” Yup, one of the highlights of my life right there. And now Humza does me another solid with a guest rant! What a fine gentleman he is.

Anyway, disclaimer: I make no pretense of ownership of Mr. Humza's words here, and this guest rant does not necessarily reflect my own opinions and perceptions. That said, though, I wouldn't publish it if I didn't think it was at least worth reading and contemplating, so check it out.

Energy Breaker’s Ties to the Lufia Series

July 13, 2015

This won’t make sense to anyone that’s not familiar with at least the first two installments of the Lufia series, so reading this would be a waste of time; no previous knowledge of Energy Breaker is required, though.

So there are a couple of references in Energy Breaker that relate to the Lufia series. The first of these is a quest in which the party takes a request from an NPC in order to progress the plot. The details of the request involve planting a genetically modified seed and bringing the flower to the NPC. This turns out to be the Priphea Flower, which some might remember as the type of flower which Lufia likes so much (maybe even being one of her character’s defining traits*).

This is pretty straight forward – but what’s so special and interesting about finding the origins of a flower that’s barely related to the overarching events of the series? To answer that question, we must look back at the character that loves the flowers so much. One of the game’s more memorable aspects of the character Lufia is the fact that she is Erim, the Sinistral of Death. In the opening of Lufia 2, it’s clear that Erim believes that Sinistrals are far superior to humans, and the theme of Humans vs. Sinistrals often recurs through the game.

This, I think, demonstrates the purpose of the aforementioned quest: Sinistrals can also benefit from humans, and the differences between them may not be as stark as Erim originally thought. This can also demonstrate Erim’s character development as she gradually became more accepting of humans from the beginning of Lufia 2 the end of Lufia 1 (to the point that she enjoyed their creations to a great extent).

The other reference to the Lufia series in Energy Breaker is the Dual Blade, the legendary sword that seems to have a mind of its own (as it stabbed Lufia against the protagonist’s will at the end of the first game and has the ability to choose its wielder). This, admittedly, is shakier than the first point, but it’s also more interesting.

The Dual Blade’s appearance in Energy Breaker isn’t connected to the plot like Priphea Flowers are, but it makes an appearance as one of the strongest weapons in the game. This raises a number of questions, such as why it isn’t as strong as it was in the Lufia games, how the Dual Blade gained the strength it holds, as well as where the blade’s almost-sentient qualities originate from.

In Lufia: The Legend Returns for the GBC, Milka states that the Dual Blade was not made by humans and implies that Sinistrals could not have made the weapon either, so there must have been an event to change the Dual Blade if it turned from a strong (but not special) sword to what it is in the Lufia series.

In Energy Breaker, the only character that can wield the Dual Blade is Leon, since it fits with the weapon type he uses. After the game’s credits, Leon is shown sitting (seemingly dead?) at the bottom of an ocean, and Selphia’s spirit appears to do something to him before she teleports. My theory is that she sealed his spirit or mind into the Dual Blade, which I’ll admit is quite farfetched. But it fills the ambiguities relatively eloquently – Leon was a strong character in the game, so sealing his spirit into a sword would most likely make it stronger. It also answers the question of how the Dual Blade is able to stab Lufia on its own, or how it is able to choose the person that should wield it. The Dual Blade is also found in an underwater shrine in Lufia 2, and we last see Leon underwater. The absence of his body or its remnants can be attributed to decay or fossilization.

You would be able to poke some holes into this theory by inquiring why the Dual Blade chose Daos at first, but Leon was not always in cahoots with the party, and there’s the possibility that his mind degraded either due to time or due to the process itself.

Both of these are probably simple cameos that weren’t bestowed with any special meaning since the writer for the Lufia games didn’t appear in Energy Breaker’s credits, but canonical or not, it's still interesting to think about.

* The RPGenius Says: Yup. Admiring Priphea flowers, making cinnamon tea, and fawning over the mostly unresponsive lump that passes for a protagonist...these are the defining, and only, traits of Lufia.