Saturday, February 28, 2015

General RPGs' AMVs 12

Well, here we are again. You know the drill: if you watch and if you like, give the video a thumbs-up, and maybe even toss a positive comment up there. Let’s see what I’ve got today.


Final Fantasy 10: Invincible, by Armada:
The music used is a cover of Invincible, by Borgeous. The cover itself is done by Celani. Man, I hate dubstep, even its relatively less awful forms such as this song, but this AMV uses it damn well. The real draw of this AMV is just how well edited it is; Armada uses scene skips, slow downs, fast forwards, scene changes, and flashes perfectly to tie the video to the erratic pulse of the music. Beyond the technical aspects of connection, the feel of the game footage connects well with the emotion of the music, and the end result is a very strong and enjoyable AMV.

Final Fantasy 10: SINH, by Mordekhay:
The music used is Rain of Light, by Two Steps From Hell. A little different from the usual AMV, but this is just excellent. It’s slow, quiet, yet so incredibly powerful. I would go so far as to say that this is profound. All I can say is that I love it.


Jade Empire: Tribute, by Armaan Sandhu:
The music used is Idyll's End, Red Warrior, Ronin, and Taken, from The Last Samurai’s soundtrack. Clocking in at roughly 15 minutes, this is definitely the longest AMV I’ve exhibited in these rants. This music video isn’t perfect, and there are some moments which don’t seem to match up as well as they might to the music, but overall, this is an impressive work, telling the story of Jade Empire from start to finish to the compositions of the ever masterful Hans Zimmer. There are some moments in the video that don’t match up perfectly to the music, and it’s not a perfect telling of the game’s story--you wouldn’t understand it all if you didn’t already know the game--but it’s still solid and does the job well for any Jade Empire fan (who are really going to be the only people who watch it anyway). And frankly, any AMV that can manage to stay interesting, coherent, and skillful to any degree, let alone as well as this one does, during its entire 15 minute run, is definitely worth checking out.


Knights of the Old Republic 1 + 2: Star Wars of the Old Republic, by Fightwish:
The music used is Blow Me Away, by Breaking Benjamin. Not sure if that’s meant to actually be the title or whether it’s just titleless, but either way, it’s a rare treat to see a KotOR AMV, let alone one of quality. Good use of KotOR’s limited footage to go with the song’s lyrics and tone, combined with competent editing in general, make this a darned decent AMV. Maybe a little heavy on the battle footage, but it’s never so much that it’s tiresome, and everything else is generally very well done.


Mass Effect 2 + 3: In My Remains, by Aethe:
The music used is In My Remains, by Linkin Park. It really does say something about a game series when the vast majority of AMVs people make for it are meant as tributes, doesn’t it? This is another of the many I’ve shared here, and it does its job well, glorifying Commander Shepard, and reminding the audience of the greatness of the game and setting its tone well with music and video connecting as one entity. This is nothing new, really, but it’s still great.


Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and 4: Bad Persona, by...uh...刈割放送部員, I think?:
The music used is Bad Apple, by Alstroemeria Records (I think). This is rather neat. Fans of the Touhou series are probably familiar with the original Bad Apple video, which is an artsy, well-animated black-and-white animation using the silhouettes of many Touhou characters. It’s very creative and neat to watch, even if you don’t know anything about Touhou (as is the case for me). Here’s the original video, if you’re interested: The original spawned a few adaptations (I thought the MLPFiM Bad Harmony version was terrific), and Bad Persona is one of those adaptations. It’s not animated as smoothly as the original, but come on, let’s not expect more than is reasonable from fans working in their free time. There’s not much to say here about Bad Persona; it’s neat and interesting much as the original Bad Apple is neat and interesting, and it’s worth watching.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Series: Lucky Star OP Parody, by 2k11nichirin:
The music used is the opening theme for the anime Lucky Star. Huh, 2 Persona adaptations of another video style in the same rant...strange coincidence. This is an odd little video that basically takes the opening for the anime Lucky Star, and makes it about SMT Persona instead, using the Persona characters and settings instead of the Lucky Star bunch (it also, for some reason, uses Nemissa, who is from Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, not one of the SMT Persona games...and yes, I realize that pointing that out is entering dangerous territory). I’ve never watched Lucky Star so I don’t have a goddamn clue what all is supposed to be happening in this video (and honestly, the opening’s so fast and crazy that I have to wonder if people who HAVE watched the series really could have any better idea than I do), but regardless, this is an impressive bit of fan animation, and damn fun to watch.


Xenogears: Mechanical Emotions, by Jan Kusunagi:
The music used is Break Me Shake Me, by Savage Garden. Good Xenogears AMVs are hard to find (hell, it’s hard to find any Xenogears AMVs, period), so this is a pleasant surprise. Extremely effective editing with highly skillful use of visual techniques like overlays and scene flashes combine with scenes that match the song’s lyrics and tone well to make this a natural, intense AMV that brings the game and the song so well together that it’s almost like the two were made for one another.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Final Fantasy Mystic Quest as an Entry-Level RPG

Final Fantasy Mystic Quest: that infamous black mark on the Final Fantasy legacy, that really shouldn’t be so famous for being the black sheep of the franchise when Final Fantasy also encompasses equally bad titles like Final Fantasy 5 and 12, and even titles that are far worse, like Final Fantasy 8 or 10-2. Ugh, Final Fantasy 10-2. Even after all these years, just remembering it makes my brain start to dry heave. Brains aren’t even supposed to be able to do that, but mine’s trying pretty damn hard.

Anyway, FF Mystic Quest is widely viewed as pretty bad. But not everyone agrees. There are some people who argue that to judge Final Fantasy Mystic Quest poorly is to judge the game unfairly, for Final Fantasy Mystic Quest was not meant so much as a full-fledged RPG in its own right as it was meant to be an entry level game, something that newcomers to RPGs could play and use to get into the genre. It’s meant to be facile. Squaresoft made it with the idea that most of the American audience couldn’t handle the complexities of a regular RPG and needed to be eased into the genre rather than treated as equals to the primary gamer market of Japan. This line of reasoning is also why Square adjusted Final Fantasy 4 at the time (released as FF2, since the actual FF2 and 3 didn’t hit the US until many years later) to be generally simpler, with many battle commands, items, and even an entire version of the battle system removed in order to make the game far less mentally taxing for all us poor, stupid Americans who just couldn’t handle the complexity of a real JRPG.

Never mind, of course, the fact that the Japanese RPG’s origin is that it’s the hugely dumbed-down appropriation of the concept of tabletop RPGs, games which by and large are invented by and played by Americans.

Anyway, putting aside the irony of Square thinking it needed to simplify the genre for the audience that it adapted and dumbed down the genre from to begin with, this argument by FFMQ defenders is kinda bullshit. I mean, what they’re basically saying here is that we shouldn’t judge FFMQ harshly for being stupid because it was designed to be stupid out of the belief that the people playing it would be stupid. So I’m supposed to give the game a break because its entire design concept is an insult to my intelligence? Seriously?

But let’s put the insulting nature of FFMQ aside for a moment. Let’s pretend that the insult is not there, solely for the sake of argument. Should we be more accommodating to Mystic Quest’s simplicity? Should we change our expectations from an RPG if it’s specifically meant to be an entry-level RPG?

I generally try to keep a stern outlook when it comes to quality. I’m very leery of accepting inferior quality in an RPG just because of mitigating circumstances. I mean, circumstantial excuses or not, a bad game’s priced at the same general range as a good game. It may be that much of the reason that Final Fantasy 12 is a boring mess can be summed up by the phrase, “Too many cooks spoil the, it doesn’t help if you let the marketing department defecate in the pot,” but just because there’s a reason for the lack of quality, that doesn’t forgive it. I sure as hell didn’t pay any less for FF12 than I did many other Playstation 2 RPGs that WERE good games.

Still, I can understand that there are times when adjusting one’s expectations is a necessity to being fair. If an RPG comes from the early days of home consoles, I’m less demanding of its plot and cast simply because the idea of video games as a storytelling medium was still in its infancy. Given the time in which it was created, I quite respect the quality of Phantasy Star 1 as an RPG, because back in those days, a story and setting with some depth, and a halfway individualized cast, was an unexpected pushing of the envelope. If PS1 came out today, I would play it and think it was okay, but that would be all. It wouldn’t make much of an impression. Similarly, when I’m playing an RPG clearly made to be a humorous game more than anything else, I forgive a certain amount of nonsense and/or aimlessness, because the purpose is to make the audience laugh more than to convey any deeper message. As long as the game does that well enough, it doesn’t need to do too much more.*

But here’s the problem with softening your expectations for Final Fantasy Mystic Quest due to its status as an entry-level RPG: as an entry-level RPG, it’s still a shitty game.

What is an entry-level RPG supposed to do, exactly? What is this purpose it fulfills that we are meant to judge it more softly in exchange for? It’s supposed to ease a new audience into the RPG genre, get them to like the style of a Role Playing Game and entice them to buy more RPGs in the future. Well, guess what? They’re less likely to want to play more RPGs if the first one they experience bores them out of their minds!

You’re reading this blog, so I’m assuming you’re a fan of RPGs, yes? Well, what was the game that got you into the genre? Was it Chrono Trigger? Final Fantasy 4? Final Fantasy 6? Final Fantasy 7? One of the Fallouts? Dragon Age 1? One of the Kingdom Hearts series? A Phantasy Star title? Maybe it was something a little more obscure--but I’ll bet that it was enjoyable, right? You didn’t become a fan of the RPG genre based on your early experience with an RPG that you didn’t find entertaining.

I know which RPG it was for me that got me completely devoted to the genre. Chrono Trigger, all the way. I’d had some RPGs before it, like Secret of Mana and The Magic of Scheherazade, and I had enjoyed them well enough, but it was Chrono Trigger that completely drew me in with its engaging and wonderful plot, diverse and colorful characters, and terrific creativity. Also, not that it mattered to me, but Chrono Trigger is not a very difficult RPG, gameplay-wise. But that’s not because it was purposefully designed with the idea that the player was dropped as an infant, it’s just that the battle system its developers intended is easy to pick up on and work with.

That’s what makes for a good entry-level RPG: an engaging, fun game that makes you want to come back to the genre. Chrono Trigger showcased the great potential of the RPG, and seeing what good the genre was capable of through this example was what pushed me to sample more. And yes, it’s good if an entry RPG is simple enough that a newcomer can get the hang of it without struggling too much, but most RPGs just naturally are, anyway. But if you dumb down the plot just as much as you dumb down the gameplay, as FFMQ did, you’re just removing anything someone could enjoy from the damn game!

Hell, I actually did own Final Fantasy Mystic Quest before I owned Chrono Trigger, and I had no interest in it. It was easy enough to play, but by the point in the game where you meet Phoebe, I just got too bored of it to continue. I put it away and only bothered to finish the game years later, long after I was on my way to being an RPG fanatic. When I say that Final Fantasy Mystic Quest isn’t even a good entry-level RPG, that isn’t conjecture--I’m a bonafide test case to prove it! If FFMQ had been the only chance the genre had of courting my interests, “The RPGenius” would never have come into being, this rant blog would never have existed, and we’d all be doing something far more productive right now!

Simplicity is less important than just being an entertaining, enjoyable game when you’re trying to hook someone into becoming a regular customer. You have to actually impress them, show your prospective audience the highlights of your product. Think of it this way. Let’s say that you’re taking your friend out to a new restaurant that serves exotic cuisine, with the intent of getting this amigo of yours into this food style. In order to accomplish this, what do you suggest they order? Obviously, you suggest items that you know taste good and exemplify some of the signatures of this style of cuisine. You’re trying to show the unique traits of the food, in a way that’s pleasing and makes your friend want to try more later.

Well, according to Final Fantasy Mystic Quest and people who defend it as an adequate entry-level RPG, that’s doing it wrong. The right way is to order your friend the menu items that are the easiest to chew. In fact, ideally, you’d just skip the eating process altogether by sticking a needle in your friend and feeding him/her intravenously. Because the important thing in hooking a new audience isn’t that you show them that they can enjoy a sample of your product--it’s that it be as simple and mundane as possible so that it does not challenge them in any way.

So that’s why when I say Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is a lousy RPG, I mean it. Being boring, generic, facile, and entirely unengaging are not traits excused by a game being an entry-level RPG; they’re actually more damning because of it!

* It does bear mentioning, though, that a humor RPG may not HAVE to contain any deep story or meaning to be good, but there is absolutely nothing preventing it from possessing those elements. I may find Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden to be a hilarious, fun game and would heartily recommend it, but the comical Okage: Shadow King is easily a superior RPG. Why? Because while Okage: Shadow King keeps you laughing nearly as well as Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden does, it’s OSK that hides within its chuckles a sincere and inspirational story of the need for independence from parental god figures and of the worth and power of individuality. Similarly, Earthbound and Mother 3 both employ the exact same wacky, off-beat style to amuse, but it’s Mother 3 that uses that style as a way to ease you through, and yet at the same time enhance the pain of, a very emotional and difficult story of loss, deep loss of both personal and conceptual things, and so I believe Mother 3 is by far the greater RPG.

It’s like cartoons, really. You can slap together something animated for kids and have it be passable, but as Batman: The Animated Series, Gargoyles, Hey! Arnold, Avatar: The Last Airbender, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, The Legend of Korra, and several other shows prove, something that is appropriate for children does not have to be something that an adult audience can’t find value and enjoyment in. Being aimed at a young audience never stopped these cartoons I've mentioned from being quality entertainment, works of storytelling art that easily equal and surpass the huge majority of shows specifically targeted to adults.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

General RPGs' Party Member Gender Ratios

Guys, we seriously need to change up how RPGs (and most other game genres (and most other forms of storytelling)) handle gender ratios. It is bad. I mean, it is bad.

Let’s do a little counting. I’m going to list every RPG I’ve played by whether it has more female characters than male, more male than female, or has an even split. Beforehand, though, a couple ground rules. Mascots, party advisors, and other noncombatants who are a major part of the party and contribute to party relationships count. For example, in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and 4, the characters of Fuuka and Rise don’t actually participate in battle, but they do act as battle advisors to the party, and are inarguably as important to the party dynamic, in terms of story progression, plot relevance, and character interrelationships, as any of the actually controllable party members, so they count. Likewise, Fatima from Anachonox, Midna from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, and Henpecked Hou from Jade Empire are all characters that count, because they travel with the rest of the major characters and contribute to the plot and the characters’ discussions as a peer for a substantial part of the game, enough that you can’t really say that they’re not party members.

For sake of ease, animals are counted (most RPG animals are sentient, speech-capable individuals anyway, so, like I said in my old rant about them, they’re essentially just human characters for all intents and purposes anyway). Final Fantasy 7’s Red XIII counts as a male party member, Poshul from Chrono Cross counts as a female party member, etc. Similarly, robots and other technically non-gendered beings are counted if they’re referenced to and regarded as being part of a certain gender. So, Robo in Chrono Trigger counts as a male even if he’s not technically anything, while Tio from Grandia 2 and KOS-MOS of the Xenosaga games count as female characters, even if, again, they’re technically not anything. Robots will only not be counted if they’re specifically referred to in a non-gendered way (which pretty much never happens in RPGs).

Transgendered and crossdressing characters would have rules if there were any situations that really required them, but sadly, they’re basically non-entities in RPGs. I mean, they don’t not exist at all, but usually just some common sense will do the trick. Reyna from Eternal Poison, for example, spends the entire game dressed as a woman when he’s a man, but there’s a plot-related reason for this that has nothing to do with what gender Reyna identifies as. It’s just a disguise, and he clearly considers himself a man. Similarly, Faris in Final Fantasy 5 may crossdress as a man and even have lived as a man for the majority of her life, but that’s presented in a way that could easily be taken as another case of disguise more than anything else, and once she’s moved past the point where she needs to maintain that disguise, she doesn’t seem to have any doubt about being identified as a woman. And so on--there aren’t really any significant cases of transgendered individuals and crossdressers that I've encountered, at least not as party members, so there’s no particular rule to mention regarding their presence in this tally.

Lastly, faceless grunts don’t count either way. There are plenty of Einherjar to gather in Valkyrie Profile 2, but since they have no bearing on the story at all and don’t interact with the plot-relevant characters or anything like that, they don’t count. The same goes for the nameless troopers of The Magic of Scheherazade that you can hire, most demons in Shin Megami Tensei games (but story-relevant ones that specially join your party, like Cerberus in SMT1, do count), all Pokemon, random recruits in Final Fantasy Tactics, and so on.

Okay, so first of all, I’m going to list every RPG I’ve played where there have been more female party members than males.

Games With More Female Party Members: Breath of Fire 5; Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia; Disgaea 2; Dragon Quest 9; Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle; Final Fantasy 5; Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon; Grandia 3; Hero’s Saga: Laevatein Tactics; Izuna 1; Izuna 2; Lunar 2; Lunar: Dragon Song; Magic Knight Rayearth RPG; Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch; Monstania; My World, My Way; Parasite Eve 1; Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure; Riviera: The Promised Land; Sailor Moon: Another Story; Sakura Wars 5; Seiken Densetsu 3; Solatorobo: Red the Hunter; Tenchi Muyo RPG

Alright, so that’s 27 RPGs that I’ve played where there have been more female party members than males. Well that’s pretty good, right? 27? Decent number right there, yeah? Sure! So, how many RPGs have I played that star an equal number of males and females?

Games With An Even Split: Arc the Lad 4; Atelier Iris 1; Avalon Code; Baten Kaitos 1; Baten Kaitos 2; Breath of Fire 4; Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin; Children of Mana; Dark Cloud 2; Defender’s Quest 1; Deus Ex 2; Dust: An Elysian Tail; Evoland; Evolution: Worlds; Final Fantasy 8; Final Fantasy 12; Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles 1; Grandia 1; Heroes of Annihilated Empires; Icewind Dale 1; Icewind Dale 2; Legend of Grimrock 1; Legend of Mana; The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask; The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time; The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks; The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess; Lufia 1; Mana Khemia; Paper Mario 2; Phantasy Star 2; Phantom Brave; Pokemon Generation 2; Pokemon Generation 3; Pokemon Generation 4; Pokemon Generation 5; Pokemon Generation 5-2; Risen 1; The Secret of Mana; Shadowrun Returns; Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers; Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4; Star Ocean 3; Tales of Legendia; Threads of Fate; Torchlight 1; Valkyrie Profile 2; Wild Arms 2; Wild Arms 4; Wild Arms 5; Xenosaga 1

51! Well, that’s a darned good number! Always happy to see a game with equality, or 51 of them. Well, gosh, 27 female-dominated RPGs and 51 evenly split ones, maybe I was getting worked up over noth--

Games With More Male Party Members: The 7th Saga; Alundra 1; Alundra 2; Anachronox; Arc the Lad 1; Arc the Lad 2; Arc the Lad 3; Arc the Lad 5; Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura; Away: Shuffle Dungeon; Bahamut Lagoon; Baldur's Gate 1; Baldur’s Gate 2; Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden; Baroque; Bastion; Betrayal at Krondor; Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled; Boktai 1; Borderlands 1; Breath of Fire 1; Breath of Fire 2; Breath of Fire 3; Castlevania: Lament of Innocence; Castlevania: Symphony of the Night; Chrono Cross; Chrono Trigger; Crimson Shroud; Crystalis; Dark Cloud 1; Deus Ex 1; Disgaea 1; Divinity 1; Dragon Age 1; Dragon Age 2; Dragon Ball Z: Legend of the Super Saiyan; Dragon Quest 4; Dragon Quest 5; Dragon Quest 6; Dragon Quest 8; Earthbound; Eternal Poison; Fallout 1; Fallout 2; Fallout 3; Fallout New Vegas; Final Fantasy 3; Final Fantasy 4; Final Fantasy 6; Final Fantasy 7; Final Fantasy 9; Final Fantasy 10; Final Fantasy 12: Revenant Wings; Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates; Final Fantasy Mystic Quest; Final Fantasy Tactics; Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 1; Fire Emblem 1; Fire Emblem 4; Fire Emblem 7; Fire Emblem 9; Geneforge 1; Geneforge 2; Glory of Heracles 5; Golden Sun 1; Golden Sun 2; Golden Sun 3; Gothic 1; Grandia 2; Hoshigami Remix: Ruining Blue Earth; Illusion of Gaia; Infinite Space; Jade Empire; Kingdom Hearts 1; Kingdom Hearts 2; Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories; Knights of the Old Republic 1; Knights of the Old Republic 2; La Pucelle Tactics; Lagoon; The Last Story; Legaia 1; Legaia 2; The Legend of Dragoon; The Legend of Zelda 1; The Legend of Zelda 2; The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds; The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past; The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening; The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass; The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword; The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker; Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader; Live A Live; Lords of Xulima; Lufia 2; Lunar 1; The Magic of Scheherazade; Magical Starsign; Makai Kingdom; Mario and Luigi 1; Mario and Luigi 2; Mario and Luigi 3; Mass Effect 1; Mass Effect 2; Mass Effect 3; Mega Man Star Force 1; Mega Man Star Force 2; Mother 3; Nox; Okage: Shadow King; Orcs + Elves; Phantasy Star 1; Phantasy Star 4; Phantasy Star Universe; Planescape: Torment; Pokemon Generation 1; Quest 64; Radiant Historia; Return to Krondor; Robocalypse; Robotrek; Rogue Galaxy; Romancing Saga 1; Rune Factory 1; The Secret of Evermore; Shadow Hearts 1; Shadow Hearts 2; Shadow Hearts 3; Shadowrun: Dragonfall; Shadowrun Genesis; Shadowrun SNES; Shin Megami Tensei 1; Shin Megami Tensei 2; Shin Megami Tensei 3; Shin Megami Tensei 4; Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 1; Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 2; Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 1; Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2; Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1; Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2; Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3; Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey; Shining Force 1; Shining Force 2; Shining Force EXA; Silver; Skies of Arcadia; Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood; Soulblazer; Star Ocean 1; Star Ocean 2; Startropics 1; Startropics 2; Suikoden 1; Suikoden 2; Suikoden 3; Suikoden 4; Suikoden 5; Suikoden Tactics; Suikoden Tierkreis; Super Mario RPG; Tales of Destiny 1; Tales of Phantasia; Tales of Symphonia 1; Tales of the Abyss; Terranigma; Treasure of the Rudras; Valkyrie Profile 1; Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume; Vandal Hearts 1; Vandal Hearts 2; Weapon Shop de Omasse; Wild Arms 1; Wild Arms 3; The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road; The Witcher 1; The Witcher 2; The World Ends with You; Xenogears; Xenosaga 2; Xenosaga 3; Xenosaga: Pied Piper


Okay, so that’s...that’s 185. That’s almost 7 times more than the count of RPGs with more female members than male. Hell, it’s 3 times more than the female-dominant RPGs and the equal split RPGs put together!

Jeez. That’s just asinine. 185 to 27. The ratio of people by gender on Earth is split almost exactly evenly at 101 Males to every 100 Females, and that’s just going by the whole of Earth--if we break it down more finely, you see that most of the modern, developed countries have a larger female population than male. The countries that actually make RPGs are almost all populated with more women than men, such as the United States, Canada, every significant European nation, and Australia (country, continent, it’s both), and even Japan is an even split. Yet if you were to take a guess at what a natural gender ratio is by going on RPGs, you’d think that men outnumber women 6.8 to 1. Again, for emphasis, actual gender ratio of a global population: 1.01 Males to 1 Female. Gender ratio going by RPG major character populations: 6.8 Males to 1 Female.*

And even that’s before the extenuating circumstances. For example, should we really even count RPGs based on outside media that just lift their casts from the original? Yeah, Sailor Moon: Another Story has a completely female cast, but it’s not like that was the idea of the game developers; they’re working with the cast already determined by the source material. Taking that into consideration, we must remove Dragon Ball Z: Legend of the Super Saiyan, the Magic Knight Rayearth RPG, Sailor Moon: Another Story, the Tenchi Muyo RPG, and The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road.** That takes 2 games out of the male-dominated list, and 3 out of the female-dominated list, making it 183 to 24. And that jumps our ratio of RPG populations up to 7.6 Male to 1 Female. Things just get better and better.

Look, I don’t want to go too far into the whole gender inequality in video games thing here. Because video games, even the more intelligent genre of RPGs, are seriously ass-backwards in their usage and portrayal of females, so much that there’s no way one rant is going to cover everything that needs to be turned around and corrected in the medium as far as its treatment and perspective of gender. Maybe it’s not as bad with video games as it is with mainstream comic books,*** but it’s bad. There are plenty more avenues to explore on this issue (the number of male-led teams in female-dominant games compared to female-led teams in male-dominant games, for example, is fairly condemning). But I’m just going to keep it basic today.

And that means simply pointing out that there is a huuuuuuuuge gap in gender representation in RPGs. Way, way more than there can be reasonable cause for. I realize that, despite the grossly underestimated female gamer market, video games have a primarily male audience, but that forgives only a small discrepancy in gender representation. It does not forgive a ratio of 6.8 to 1, or anywhere near that!****

Women are half the population, developers. It’s time to wake up and accept that fact. We need more games with an equal number of male and female party members, and we need a lot more games with more female party members than male ones, just to balance out the last 30 years. Video games are one of the newest, most modern medium of artistic expression to date--maybe they should look the part, yeah?

* And this is actually worse than I’m making it out to be. I’m not actually counting each and every party member in all these games in this ratio, but instead just going by a count of which games have more of one gender or the other. But as a general rule, games with more male party members have, on average, a greater disparity in favor of the males than games with more female party members do in favor of females. What I mean is, your average male-dominated RPG is like Final Fantasy 7, in which 6 party members are male (Cloud, Barret, Cid, Red XIII, Cait Sith, and Vincent) and 3 are female (Tifa, Aeris, and Yuffie), while your average female-dominated RPG is more like Final Fantasy 5, in which the the ratio is close to even (3 females and 2 males). If I were to sit down and tabulate all the party members out, a project I’m not willing to sink the time and effort into, I’m dead certain that the male to female ratio would be even higher than 6.8 to 1.

** The Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario RPGs don’t count toward this because they have a larger source cast to pick and choose from, and more freedom to create original game characters to add to those casts (like Mallow and Geno in Super Mario RPG, and Shade from Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood).

*** I really cannot say enough detrimental things about the people who make decisions at DC and Marvel; as a whole they are truly mindless scum firmly lodged in an anachronistic masturbatory mentality that combines every shortsighted and reality-inaccurate vice to be found in spoiled 7-year-olds, chauvinistic horny frat boys, amoral marketing departments from the 1960s, and a cheerful recruitment pamphlet for the Ku Klux Klan.

**** And frankly, I don’t even know why people assume a male player must want to see male characters more than female ones, anyway. Do game developers think we’re all a bunch of xenophobic first graders whose mortal terror of cooties factors heavily into our buying decisions? A halfway intelligent man like myself has no more difficulty relating to and deeply connecting with a female character than with a male one, and a knuckle-dragging moron who hoots in dull-witted approval at T and A sure as hell isn’t going to say no to seeing more females, either. Unless we have a sudden, bizarre population boom of knuckle-dragging morons who just want eye-candy and are gay, I don’t see how putting more women in games could possibly harm your marketability to male gamers.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Threads of Fate's Imbalanced Storytelling

One of the distinguishing features of Threads of Fate is its 2-protagonist story approach. Not in the way that Final Fantasy 6 has 2 protagonists, mind; Threads of Fate handles it a different way. By that I mean that the game has 2 possible protagonists, Rue and Mint, and you choose which one to play as at the beginning of the game. The game’s plot and your perspective on that plot are then shaped by that choice. You still start at essentially the same Point A, and you still end the game’s journey at the same Point Z, but only some of the points along the way are the same. Hard to explain, but I hope you get the gist of it. This wasn’t the first RPG to try something like this. Star Ocean 2, which had come out the year before, had 2 protagonists to choose from at the start of the game, and Seiken Densetsu 3 and The 7th Saga on the SNES had a handful of protagonists to choose from. Nonetheless, this system of Threads of Fate stood out pretty well. Star Ocean 2 and The 7th Saga were virtually identical no matter which protagonist you actually chose, and Seiken Densetsu 3...well, its plot and story perspective did significantly change depending on your chosen protagonist, but one way or another, it was just a pretty generic story that featured characters that were pretty forgettable, while Threads of Fate’s got a really good story with a fun and engaging cast. So ToF is still kind of remembered as a pioneer with this idea, even if it’s not the first to try it.

Overall, Threads of Fate does this well. But there is 1 thing about it that kind of disappoints me: the 2-protagonist story approach is imbalanced. The general promise made by ToF is that both protagonists are meant to be equals in the eyes of the story, neither more or less right for the role, nor more or less important to the plot. While Rue and Mint are not similar people (not by a long, looooooong shot) and go about their quests differently, the general premise of the game is clearly supposed to be that either can be the hero with equal qualification. It’s a neat idea--but it doesn’t pan out in the end. In the end, Threads of Fate is Rue’s story, not Mint’s.

There are several points in the game that lead me to this conclusion. First of all, the game’s central themes, those of the role of destiny and of choice, are much better utilized and reflected upon in Rue’s story of discarding his intended purpose to create a new one, and of defying fate by trying to resurrect Claire (or you could interpret it as him seeing her death as something that was against destiny to start with). While Mint’s story is related to her having lost her destined role as a ruler and seeking to take it back, and thus does have ties to the whole thematic role-of-destiny-and-choice thing that ToF is going for, it’s apparent that Rue’s version of the game is by far the more in tune with the game’s deeper ideas and message.

Rue also gets better character development and exploration. Now, don’t get me wrong here. Let me make something clear:




She is hilarious. She is fun. She is charmingly clever and lovably stupid at the same time. She is unique. She is one of those rare, rare examples of a character type that I normally can’t stand (selfish, obnoxious brat who thinks everyone should bow before her) being made awesome by a character who knows how to play that normally unappealing character type up in the best possible way. Like Pinkie Pie in My Little Pony--hyperactive, bubbly, high-pitched girly-girl types usually annoy the hell out of me, but Pinkie Pie is just funny enough, just random enough, just clever enough, and just complex and noble enough that it works out to my liking her. That’s how it is with Mint--despite being a character type only a few steps away from Earthbound’s ultra-obnoxious Porky, Mint is a consistently enjoyable experience from beginning to end.*

With all that said, though, as a character, Mint cannot compete with Rue. It’s not that Mint has no character depth or development at all--it’s subtle, but it’s definitely there. But Rue is clearly the better character. He has greater and more worthwhile issues to work through, his development is clear and written well, and he’s a more heroic figure as a whole. Mint’s not a bad character and the humor attached to her does count for something, but there’s no contest between who’s a better character and a better hero.

Rue is also more significantly connected to the plot. While he and Mint are both out to obtain the same powerful relic, the Dewprism, to grant a wish, it’s Rue who has the substantial ties to the plot along the way. Rue’s past relates to the ultimate foe of the game and the sought-after relic itself, and the major antagonist of the story, Doll Master, is connected to Rue and Rue’s purpose--both his purposes, in fact, past (the Dewprism stuff) and his present (saving Claire, as Doll Master is the guy who killed her). It’s not that Mint has no connection to the major story and characters or anything, but the biggest actors on this stage, the ones who set the major events in motion and who provide the major opposition that the heroes must overcome, are tied to Rue.

Also, there’s the plain, simple mathematics of the game’s conclusion. If you play through Rue’s side of the game, at the end, Claire is saved. Rue set out to find the Dewprism to grant his wish of rescuing Claire, and though things weren’t quite that easy or straightforward, in the end Rue gets what he wanted and needed. Sadly for Mint, she doesn’t get her wish to gain the power to take over the world, but we wouldn’t exactly expect Mint’s wish to be fulfilled in Rue’s story. But if you play through the game as Mint...she still doesn’t get her wish! At the end of the game, Mint has not acquired the power necessary to rule the world. And what’s more, Rue doesn’t get to have Claire back, either! Just do the arithmetic: in Rue’s story, 1 of 2 people get what they wanted. In Mint’s story, 0 of those 2 people do. Yeah, Mint does, at the end of her version of the game’s story, have a reconciliation of sorts with her sister Maya and can go back home, and you could argue that in the end that’s what she needed more, but it’s still not what she was out for, and there’s no indication at the end of the game that her ultimate ambitions have been sated. She’s still left wanting. The family reconciliation angle is more like a bonus for her than an actual prize, just as Rue’s stronger sense of identity and peace with himself at the end of his story is a bonus for him, while the actual prize is Claire. So it’s uneven.

Even in terms of story canon, the game seems to outright favor Rue’s story by the end. Once you’ve played the game through with both characters, you unlock a final, secret scene, wherein Rue and Claire are living together in solitude, and Mint shows up to drag Rue off on another relic search so that she can get that world-conquering power she’s been hankering for. The living presence of Claire there is a clear indicator of 1 of 2 possibilities. Either the game is outright saying that the true, canon course of the game’s events was Rue’s journey, or the game’s saying that the true, canon course of the game’s events was some combination of Mint and Rue’s journeys, and Claire’s resurrection was 1 of the events of Rue’s side that did occur. The latter possibility is definitely more along the lines of a theory than an interpretation that you can really back up, though, so I’m going to say that, unless somehow proven wrong in the future, this scene is an indicator that it was Rue’s story that truly did occur, not Mint’s.

And hey, if I have to choose between whose personal dream is the more worthwhile, I’ll certainly choose Rue’s. I’m glad Claire is alive, and I would be, honestly, very put out if everything had worked out the opposite way, with Mint getting her wish and Claire being lost forever. Mint just selfishly wants to conquer the world; Rue’s wish is to save the life of someone dear, who perished unfairly and courageously in the defense of someone she cared about. Rue’s wish just plain means more, and I’m glad that he has a chance to see it fulfilled.

My point is just that the protagonist imbalance is there, and the stories of Rue and Mint are not equal. Knowing the full story of the game, there are times during Mint’s quest that kind of feel like she’s intruding on someone else’s personal tale (which is, I guess, actually the exact sort of thing Mint would do). And it’s not a big problem, because the game through Mint’s eyes is terrifically fun and amusing, and the game through Rue’s eyes is well-written and meaningful (and still has a good dose of Mint craziness). I just think it’s kind of a shame that it wasn’t a more balanced story between the 2 protagonists, the way it was set up to be. I’m glad Rue got his wish and found himself along the way, but it would be nice for Mint to get her due, too, yeah?

Well, hopefully some day we’ll get a sequel to ToF, and that game will be focused primarily on Mint, as the first was on Rue. Hey, it may not seem likely, but this is an age where 20-year-old anime like Trigun gets a new movie, 30-year-old anime like Mysterious Cities of Gold gets continued out of the blue, and My Little Pony gets rebooted into one of the best cartoons ever made. Clearly stranger things have happened when it comes to sequels, continuations, and reboots. But until that happy day, Threads of Fate is Rue’s tale, regardless of his sharing the cover with Mint.

* Actually, what she really reminds me of is Princess Elise from My World, My Way, only about 6x better.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4's Adachi Lost the Element of Surprise

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4’s villain, Adachi, was really a very good antagonist, but he would have been a little better if SMTP4 had come out before SMT Persona 3. Not by any significant measurement, I suppose, but...well, if I had played SMTP4 first, then I think that the realization that Adachi was the murderer would have hit me with a satisfying sense of surprise, as I feel the game intends. But after the revelation of Shuji Ikutsuki as a villain in Persona 3, Adachi’s role as the villain was just, well, kind of obvious.

It’s kind of weird, because in general, there really isn’t much of a connection between Adachi and Shuji. Sure, they’re both villains, but that doesn’t mean much by itself--types of villains are as varied as types of heroes. And these 2 guys don’t really have much in common. Ikutsuki’s an insane fanatic who wants to bring forth the end of humanity for reasons that are vague and hurried past. Adachi, on the other hand, is a cold and self-satisfying murderer, a sadistic monster who kills for kicks. Adachi also may not exactly be of entirely sound mind, but there’s no question that he’s ultimately mentally competent and aware of reality and self--he’s not a villain because he’s crazy, like Shuji, but rather simply because he’s a malicious, murderous asshole.

But there is one aspect of personality where Adachi and Shuji do meet, at least somewhat: their cover identity. Shuji Ikutsuki spends most of his time in the game pretending to be a helpful leader/mentor to the protagonists, a friendly and quirky fellow who loves a good terrible pun. And Adachi, well, he’s not exactly the same, but he’s pretty similar in the regard that he’s an ever-affable, quirky, helpful guy. He always seems ready to provide a lead for the protagonists to follow, and his comical laziness and slacker attitude does for him what terrible puns did for Shuji--it sets him apart in a lightly amusing, harmless way.

And that’s what did it for me, what gave Adachi away. They’re both playing the trustworthy, peculiar adult. Even if their true selves aren’t particularly comparable, Adachi and Ikutsuki’s quirky, seemingly harmless cover personalities are similar enough in the role they fulfill and how they subvert any suspicion you might have had about them that, after seeing Shuji’s betrayal in Persona 3, I knew early into Persona 4 that there was a good chance that Adachi was up to no good.

It’s a damn shame, too, for a couple of reasons. First of all, if I had to have the surprise of either Shuji or Adachi be spoiled for me, I’d rather have seen Shuji coming than Adachi. Frankly, Shuji Ikutsuki’s betrayal is a real low point in the otherwise generally terrific SMTP3. It comes from nowhere, it’s poorly explained, it lessens his character by replacing the character we know him as with an inferior individual that we don’t have a chance to explore, and it comes off as just being conveniently inserted because the writers needed some way to characterize Aigis and add the drama for Mitsuru and whatnot. Ikutsuki’s betrayal doesn’t feel genuine, is the problem, and until the utterly absurd plot twist at the end of The Last Story, Ikutsuki’s backstab might have been the least believable, poorly done betrayal I’d seen in RPGs. With this, the surprise of Shuji being a villain just adds to the negative. Adachi, on the other hand, is well-developed in both his personas, and has many aspects of his cover personality that you can actually see connecting to his true, nasty self when you’re looking for them, so instead of feeling like a character who pulled a 180, Adachi as a villain feels like simply seeing the other half of the same coin. For him, the intended surprise of discovering that he was the murderer all along would have been a cool and enjoyable moment.

The other reason that the surprise would have benefited the SMT Persona 4 situation more is that SMTP4 is in large part a murder mystery.* In that kind of story, the major, climactic point in the tale, the huge part that everything is working up to and everyone is fixated on, is the revelation of who the dastardly dog was what did the dirty deed. It was substantially more important to the type of story Persona 4 is to be taken by surprise by the true nature of Adachi than it was for the somewhat more general storytelling style of Persona 3.

It’s not a big problem, or anything. Adachi’s still a solid villain. The revelation of him is still handled well. I can still appreciate the virtues of the story even if I saw it coming. But still, I think it would have been that much better of a twist if it had caught me by surprise as it was, I think, intended to, and I also think I wouldn’t have normally seen it coming. But after seeing Shuji Ikutsuki pull the Helpful, Amusing and Quirky Adult = Evil plot twist, it was easy to see the possibility that Adachi was up to no good just as Ikutsuki had been. Too bad.

* Although as a murder mystery it kind of sucks. Damn fine RPG, don’t get me wrong, but its presentation and process of the whole solve-the-murder aspect ain’t exactly Agatha Christie.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

General RPGs' Genre Definition

WARNING: This rant is a bunch of pointless pontificating and will probably be almost as big a waste of your time to read as it was for me to write. Read at the peril of your free time.

So, y’know, no different than every other rant on this blog, really. It may be a new year, but you'd sure as hell never know it from looking around here.

Alright. Fine. Let’s do this.

Readers are sometimes surprised (or scornful) when they discover some of the games I count as RPGs. This happens most often when I speak of The Legend of Zelda series as an RPG franchise, though it’s not the only questionable selection that people, well, question. In fact, if you ask me, The Legend of Zelda series aren’t even the games with the most shaky classification of RPG that I qualify as an RPG. I mean, I’d say TLoZ games are much more definitely RPGs than Startropics 1 and 2, or Deus Ex 2, and no one ever leaps forward to call me a braindead dipshit when I refer to them as such.

Anyway, so, here’s the subject of our rant today: What, in The RPGenius’s opinion and, yes, even expertise, is an RPG? What is the definition of an RPG? What are the concrete standards that make a title an RPG, and not simply a game of a different genre?

Actually, this is the easiest part of today’s rant. The answer is that I haven’t got the damndest idea.

No, really, I don’t. Sure, there are certain impressions, certain indicators that a game could be an RPG, certain qualities that make me say “Oh, yeah, this counts.” But an actual, solid, reliable set of criteria for this determination? I don’t have anything like that.

Whoa, whoa there. Calm down. Put those boos and hisses away, at least for now. Save them for someone who deserves them, like Electronic Arts, or Michael Bay--if you can even tell the difference between them. Look. I don’t have a specific set of guidelines for what makes an RPG, so I can’t explain my reasoning here. But I can at least explain why I don’t have such a checklist.

So here’s Reason Number 1, the biggest cause for my lack of decision: No one else knows what an RPG is. I mean, there’s really just no universal, understood consensus on this. There are individuals--intelligent, thoughtful individuals who have given the matter more than its due consideration--who have concrete ideals to which a game must adhere for it to be an RPG, but as a whole, the gaming community isn’t any better than I am. Look at the Wikipedia page for RPGs. Look at its table of contents. When you get right down to it, the large majority of that page is trying, unsuccessfully, to suss out what an RPG actually is. They list an RPG’s characteristics, but each time they start to explain those characteristics, you start seeing the same qualifiers littering their information. If you want to test this, just look at the first sentence of each paragraph describing an RPG’s characteristics. “Often.” “Typically.” “Most.” “Many.” “Frequently.” “Usually.” “Some.” Nearly every time an RPG characteristic is named, and described, some qualification is made that not all RPGs contain this element, or the following sentences will note prominent examples of when this rule is not present. Yes, not every aspect of any game genre is black and white, there’s always going to be exceptions and such, but, well, put all of that section of the Wikipedia page together, and what are you going to get? You’re going to get a general idea of what RPGs can be, usually are, but that’s as far as you can go with that. And hey, what do you know--that’s exactly where I am! I’ve played over 300 video games, the large majority of them have been RPGs to some degree and in some form, and I’m as clueless as a newcomer who’s just tried to take in that large, indecisive internet dictionary page.

The rest of the Wikipedia page isn’t any better. It’s all about the genre’s history and means of classification, but really, all that the folks at Wikipedia seem to be able to do is recite others’ opinions and criticisms about the subject, relate how perceptions of RPGs have changed from what they were, but not offer hard definition, nor official classification, nor a strong idea of what the genre has transformed into.

Compare it to the Wikipedia page for First Person Shooters. The page starts off with a clear, fairly precise, concise explanation of what an FPS is. Compare that to the opening of the RPG page: ”A role-playing video game (commonly referred to as role-playing game or RPG) is a video game genre where the player controls the actions of a protagonist (or several adventuring party members) immersed in a fictional world.” Uh, yeah, not exactly precise; they basically just described, what, 70% of all video games ever created? Plus, where the RPG page can do nothing more than launch into characteristics, which it goes back and forth on, the FPS page’s first section is a clear, informative, and largely unambiguous definition of the genre.

Wikipedia mirrors the gaming community as a whole on this issue. Anyone can easily recognize a First Person Shooter, and they can tell you exactly why they know it’s an FPS. And they can tell you why another game is not an FPS. And they can give you a pretty accurate explanation of what an FPS is. But an RPG? A gamer can probably recognize it, and they can sort of point to some aspects that probably make it an RPG. And they can maybe tell you when another game is not an RPG. But they are not likely to give you a detailed, hard explanation of what an RPG is. They have a general idea, an overall impression, but no detailed and concrete definition. Knowing an RPG, I think, is, for most gamers, and most developers, a case of intuition, not scientific classification.

But that’s not to say that’s true for all people. Like I said, plenty of sharp folks, hardcore RPG fans, do have a set definition in their mind of what an RPG is, and they’ve shared it, and it works for them. Some people insist it’s any game where you play a role, which I guess is technically accurate going by the name. Some people have a system where each RPG quality is worth a certain number of points, and a game has to have enough of those qualities to reach a certain point threshold where it becomes an RPG. And some people are Chris Avellone, who states, "An RPG is a game that provides character progression, opportunities for exploration, the ability to confront or fight adversaries and obstacles to achieve rewards, and, most importantly, gives choice in everything from character construction to action and dialogue choices in the game, and the game reacts to those choices in measurable ways."

I’m glad if these things work for them. Hell, it’s not like they’re wrong, most of the time. I’ve seen some folks get creative enough with RPG definitions to be too nuts to get behind,* but overall, it’s all fine. If someone wants to believe that any game where you play a role is an RPG, well, I think that’s nuts because it essentially means that the genre spans like 98% of all games ever made, but on the other hand, how the hell do you argue with that logic when the name of the genre is role-playing game? The RPG Consoler, a fine blog that has a far more organized, systematic, and professional vision of RPGs than my own raving mess, has a very tidy and workable system for determining whether a game’s an RPG, and power to that, it’s good. And Chris Avellone is to RPGs what Isaac Asimov is to science fiction, Agatha Christie is to murder mysteries, Steven Hawking is to science, Fred Rogers is to morality. If RPGs were ice cream, Avellone would be the flavor Cookie Butter.** If Chris Avellone says a game’s an RPG, I’m sure as hell not gonna deny it.

Still, my perspective is just...different. Extremely broad, sweeping definitions don’t do it for me. But neither does quantifying RPG qualities and how many a game must hit before it’s an RPG. I’ve just...there’s always an exception. Almost always, there’s more than one. What I mean is, well, here, let me list out some of the ways I’ve seen people argue that a game is not an RPG, and why I think that’s not enough of a reason to bar a game from the genre.

Character Advancement: Many people claim that if you don’t advance your character’s abilities and/or stats in some way, it’s not an RPG. Typically this means leveling a character up, although something like Final Fantasy 10’s Sphere Grid or the level-it-as-you-do-it system for The Elder Scrolls 4 also qualify. This is a major argument against counting The Legend of Zelda and Startropics as RPGs--Link doesn’t increase advance his abilities/stats, and neither does Mike. Only...well, they sort of do. I mean, their hearts are essentially HP, and for Link, it goes up in 2 ways. He gets more of it when he beats a dungeon/boss, and he gets it if he explores enough and completes certain sidequests (by finding and/or earning enough Pieces of Heart to make a new Heart HP for himself). Same with Mike--hearts (HP) go up by completing objectives and by finding them through exploration.

Uh, well, that’s...RPG-like. I mean, getting more hearts = getting more HP = increasing a stat, right? Link and Mike are rewarded for beating dungeons and bosses with this stat increase, and for exploring. Well, in Mass Effect 2 and 3, Shepard only actually gets experience and levels up after the conclusion of a mission; he or she does not get experience for each enemy killed, only for the mission success itself. That’s essentially the same thing as the Pieces of Heart that you get for helping NPCs or beating minigames (and sometimes the reward requires you do both). And in Deus Ex 1, a major source of the skill points you spend on advancing JC Denton’s abilities comes from exploration, finding certain key nooks and crannies. Yeah, you get it from other, plot-advancing sources, but most non-mandatory skill points come from exploration alone. JC does not get them for killing enemies. Well, if it takes JC a few times of clever exploration to earn enough points to qualify him for upgrading one of his skills, how is that any different, really, from Link taking a few times of clever exploration to earn enough Pieces of Heart to qualify him for upgrading the only stat he can increase? And likewise, if it takes Shepard a couple small side missions to advance to a new level rather than just tallying the number of enemies he or she kills, how is that any different, really, from Link taking a few times of sidequest completion to earn enough Pieces of Heart to qualify him for upgrading that same single stat? Same with Mike, only when he’s rewarded for exploration/plot advancement, he gets a full heart each time, but that’s basically as if he just leveled up then and there. If I don’t count The Legend of Zelda games as RPGs for this issue of character advancement, I really can’t Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect 3, or Deus Ex 1, either, and those are officially recognized and seldom questioned members of the RPG genre.

Another example of that same thing--The Magic of Scheherazade. Nobody will argue that it’s not an RPG if they’re familiar with the game (though not a lot of people actually are). Well, in The Magic of Scheherazade, you can level up through defeating enemies via Experience Points, as most RPGs...BUT, if you reach the end of a chapter in the story underneath a certain level, the game will automatically level you up to that point anyway. Additionally, you can only get to a certain level in each chapter, and after that point you won’t receive any further experience, which prevents you from becoming so strong that there’s no challenge. You see, there is a little player control of what level you’re at in The Magic of Scheherazade, but the game WILL take steps to make sure you’re never too weak or too strong. Well, isn’t that sort of the case with the heart increase of Link and Mike after hitting plot objectives like beating a dungeon and moving on to the next part of their story? The mandatory increase in HP ensures that they’re never so weak that it’s impossible to win, while the hiding of optional HP increases that take exploration to find ensures that you have a chance to make them stronger, and that in itself is limited by how much of the world Link and Mike can explore at that point in the game so that neither ever become too strong.

Of course, you could argue that only giving the player 1 aspect of a character to improve (Link and Mike’s HP) does not provide enough choice to the player for how the character advances and defeats the purpose. I see where you’re coming from with that, but again, if you disqualify The Legend of Zelda for that, then I feel like you have to disqualify a lot of other games firmly cemented in their existence as RPGs. I mean, think about it--how much control over your character’s advancement do you really have in, say, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, or The Secret of Evermore? Your character abilities and stats in many RPGs are determined by little more than what level you’re at; you don’t actually have much say in what they are yourself. You can choose a character’s equipment and that makes some difference, but then, you can do the same thing in many Legend of Zelda games, and even, to a much more limited extent, in Startropics. And what about games like Fire Emblem, where character advancement at level up is determined by probability? No one questions Fire Emblem as an RPG, yet your ability to influence your character’s growth there is limited to just hitting a reset button and trying again, hoping that you’ll get what you want next time. And the same is true with some Shin Megami Tensei games’ demon level ups, only those are even more randomized than Fire Emblem’s. How can you disqualify Legend of Zelda games and Startropics because of the rigidity of their character advancement when other “true” RPGs can have just as little player choice, or even less?

Certainly character advancement is a major RPG characteristic, but a make-or-break quality? I can’t honestly think of it as such, because if it is, it disqualifies a ton of games from the genre that even officially are considered RPGs.

World Map/Exploration: Surprisingly, a major necessity for an RPG for some people is a world map, the idea that you can explore the world in a relatively free sense, traversing from one major location to the next on foot, ship, airship, or whatnot. I don’t know why this is such a big sticking point for some people, honestly, I never would have thought it would be, but as with character advancement, saying a game is not an RPG if it lacks this trait disqualifies a hell of a lot of bonafide, populace-approved RPGs from the genre. I mean, there’s no world map or world exploration in any of the Fire Emblem titles I’ve encountered. Nor in Deus Ex 1 and 2, nor in several Nippon Ichi games such as Disgaea 1, Phantom Brave, and Makai Kingdom, nor in Legend of Grimrock, nor in Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon, nor in Torchlight 1, nor in Baroque...the list goes on. I’ve not heard of anyone criticizing several of those games as not being truly RPGs; they’re all officially known as such, so far as I’m aware.

What qualifies as a world map, while we’re on the subject? Some people would say that it has to be either something along the lines of Final Fantasy 4, Lunar 1, and Lufia 2, where, outside of towns and dungeons, you walk/sail/fly around the land to your next destination, or Fallout 3, Crystalis, and Lords of Xulima, where you explore an extremely large geographic area on foot. That’s fine and good, but does that disqualify point-and-click world maps, such as those for Final Fantasy 10, Final Fantasy Tactics, Kingdom Hearts 1, Solatorobo: Red the Hunter, and Crimson Shroud? Because that would be a lot of games widely accepted as RPGs being crossed off the list. And considering that Grandia 2 and Planescape: Torment fall into this category, you’d also be losing some of the very best games ever made from the RPG genre, which’d be a damn shame. Plus, there’s the confusion of a few games whose world maps are almost the same as a point-and-click deal, like Secret of Mana and Sailor Moon: Another Story--you can fly overhead, but there are only certain set landing points for each area of the world, so it’s sort of right in between being a regular world map deal and the point-and-click setup.

The backbone of this world map question revolves around the theme of world exploration, and some people don’t quibble over world maps so much as they claim that an RPG must have exploration of its world. In fact, this is 1 of the few RPG qualities that the ambivalent Wikipedia page on RPGs seems adamant about being necessary. That seems mostly reasonable, but would that disqualify a dungeon-crawler like Baroque? Besides the central settlement of Baroque, the game is a large, randomized dungeon. You can explore each floor you come to, but is that really exploring the game’s world? I mean, if the world you explore changes every time you step foot in it, why is exploring it such an important deal? You’re not uncovering anything with specific design and thought beyond a randomized formula, no concrete world wherein your explorations mean that you know it any better. Also, there’s world exploration in plenty of titles that most everyone agrees are not RPGs. There’s plenty of it Grand Theft Auto games, and hell, even simple games like Mario titles involve a certain degree of it. I mean, you can say that just finding bonus levels and warp zones in the original Super Mario Brothers doesn’t qualify as world exploration, but then that begs the question of how far of a degree does exploration have to go to in order to be considered an RPG? The world exploration in several RPGs, such as Dust: An Elysian Tale and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, is certainly no stronger an aspect of the game than it is for many non-RPG platformers.

Combat: Oh God, combat. This one’s so damn divisive sometimes. I’m not going to get into it much. Some people claim an RPG battle system must be turn-based, like Earthbound or Breath of Fire 1, but that would disqualify a ridiculously huge amount of RPGs from the mix, including such important mainstays as Chrono Trigger, several iconic Final Fantasies, Kingdom Hearts, and the Baldur’s Gate games. Some are more lenient on what the combat system has to be, accepting action RPGs and strategy RPGs and whatnot, but insist that it be menu-based, which would eliminate a ton of great RPGs like Fallout 3, Dust: An Elysian Tale, Alundra 1, and Terranigma. Hell, just the insistence by itself that combat must be a constant component of the game seems shortsighted--it’s hard to deny that Sakura Wars 5 is an RPG (at least, a hybrid RPG), yet there are only, what, half a dozen battles in the whole game? Character advancement isn’t even related to the battles; your party gets stronger through your out-of-battle interactions with them. Similarly, Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle has only about 5 battles in its entire course, battles which are not especially long like Sakura Wars 5’s are. They’re an after-thought to the game’s true focus, which is plot and especially characters. You certainly couldn’t classify Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle anything but an RPG, but combat is almost nonexistent within the game.

Story and Characters: Some people, myself certainly included, view RPGs as primarily being centered around plot, characters, themes, all the intellectual aspects of storytelling. Generally speaking, this is true of the genre, and it’s that fact which drew me to RPGs to begin with, and which keeps me firmly rooted in their midst. Nonetheless, even though I believe an RPG should focus on such things and I hold it against any RPG which does not deliver a satisfactory storytelling experience, my grudge does not extend so far as denying a game classification as an RPG just because it does not adequately prioritize its plot and characters. I’d much rather play an RPG with a rich and rewarding story, such as Shin Megami Tensei 1, or a rich and rewarding cast, such as Tales of Legendia, or better yet, a game with a rich and rewarding story AND cast, like Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, but that preference does not mean that a game like Lagoon, or Orcs + Elves, or Rune Factory 1, games that have barely any story to tell and/or any depth in their cast, are not still RPGs. I may not LIKE the bland, barely present nature of Legend of Grimrock’s story and its lack of any significant cast, but it’s still pretty clearly an RPG. Additionally, plot and characters are not solely the property of RPGs--Silent Hill games are heavy with such elements, as are games like The Last of Us, Full Throttle, and (sort of) Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Being story-based, having a cast with importance, these are integral parts of an RPG, but they’re not the only qualifier, nor are they strictly necessary (though if you want a GOOD RPG, they are).

And so on and so forth. I could go on, but I think you’re getting my point here. There’s really no 1 magic quality that makes a game an RPG or not, in my opinion, nor is there any specific formula or combination of aspects that do. Any time someone proposes a stern guideline for what is and is not an RPG, I invariably see exceptions to this proposed rule, games that are disqualified that people by and large agree are indeed RPGs, sometimes even the individual proposing such a rule. Likewise, these strict guidelines often let in games with most everyone agrees are not RPGs, again, sometimes including the individual proposing the rule. So for me, what is and is not an RPG is just kind of an undefined, general impression that is aided, but not dictated, by things like stats and world exploration and item shops and turn-based battles and story and characters and all that jazz. If it has some of those common traits, then I probably will categorize it as an RPG, but I keep an open mind and go with my gut feeling on the matter, too. That’s what works for me. If you disagree, that’s fine, but I’m comfortable with how I approach the matter, and I’m going to keep doing it my way.

* I had a friend a while back who could pretty eloquently argue that most racing games are RPGs. I don’t agree because that’s crazy, and he himself didn’t actually believe that either, but he did make a much better case for it than most arguments I’ve seen for why one game or another is or is not an RPG.

** If you have never had Cookie Butter Ice Cream before, for the love of God go find some and have it. Put it on some apple crisp or a pie or something. I don’t say this about anything, but I say it now: Cookie Butter Ice Cream is scrumtrulescent.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Annual Summary: 2014

Weeeeellp, another year has come and gone, and I somehow keep managing to think of unimportant RPG nonsense to spout thrice a month. Crazy.

2014 was...well, it really wasn’t a big year for me with RPGs. That’s not to say that there weren’t any good ones in there, or even that I didn’t play a decent number. There were actually quite a few really good games I played this year, comparatively few bad ones, and I played 21 RPGs to finish overall, which isn’t a bad number, if not great. Here they are, in alphabetical rather than chronological order:

Away: Shuffle Dungeon
Crimson Shroud
Defender’s Quest 1
Dust: An Elysian Tail
Geneforge 2
Gothic 1
Jade Empire
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
Lords of Xulima
Magical Starsign
Pokemon Generation 5-2
Rune Factory 1
Shadowrun: Dragonfall
Shadowrun Returns
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers
Solatorobo: Red the Hunter
Threads of Fate
Weapon Shop de Omasse
The Witcher 2

The reason it wasn’t much of an RPG year is that there should have been a LOT more games on that list. It may not be a bad number, but it could have been longer by at least 10 games, I’d say. But a lot happened in the second half of 2014 that kept me from playing many new RPGs.

First of all, I decided in July to do a replay of Fallout 3, because apparently Bethesda is not going to see fit to grace us with the next Fallout for who knows how much longer. It was an absolute blast; the game is just as great as I remember, and there were a few mods that made it even better, which I’ll go into more detail about in a future rant. Fallout 3’s a pretty massive game, though, particularly if you’re as completionist a Fallout player as I am, so that took a month’s worth of gaming time right there. Then in August, my computer and my car decided to die at roughly the same time, and the process of getting a new car and computer took me, believe it or not, the whole damn month. I’m not great at car shopping, and every step of the process of replacing the computer had bizarre, unforeseen, time-wasting difficulties attached to it. Hell, I still wouldn’t have a functioning computer if not for the tireless assistance of my friend Angahith. If you read these rants, sir, let me again thank you for always coming through and being 100% pure awesome.

That all cleared up just in time for me to go back to school for graduate work, of course, and I’m sure you can imagine the effect that has on my free time (hint: not a good one). And what free time I was left with for RPGs took a nigh-fatal blow with the release of Super Smash Brothers 4, of which I own both versions and will probably be playing obsessively well into 2015. So even when I do have free time for gaming, it tends to be Smash-related. Hey, what can I do? They added Little Mac to the game this time around! Little Mac. My hands are tied.

So yeah, without that stuff happening, I’d have played many more RPGs this year. I’ve also used up potential RPG time this year on books by Sherman Alexie, Isaac Asimov, Stephen Chbosky; Agatha Christie, John Green, George R. R. Martin (which you know counts like 3 times over), and Cory O’Brien. I also spent my time discovering and obsessively watching every episode of Bravest Warriors and Brooklyn 99, both of which I heartily recommend you check out, and also checking out the old semi-anime superhero cartoon Cybersix, which seemed decent, but obviously lost a lot in transition to being kid-appropriate. I also rewatched X-Men: The Animated Series, Firefly, and Futurama. Oh, and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’s fourth season happened this year, as well, and I accordingly watched the hell out of that, because Ponies = Fucking Awesome. Actually, on that note, I also spent a bit of time playing Megapony, a rather fun Megaman-esque game starring ponies (duh), as well as the game Superbrothers: Sword + Sworcery EP, which is weird but artsy and decent. And of course, I did the same stuff I always do: write fanfiction (someday I’ll actually finish this damn story and post it), write rants, and go to my job.

Getting back to what RPGs I did manage to play, the year started out pretty well. The first game I played was The Witcher 2, which just about anyone will tell you is just a great game altogether, and I followed it up with Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, both of which are fine specimens of their series. I also found pleasant surprises early on in Away: Shuffle Dungeon and Robocalypse, games better than I had expected them to be.

After this, I had a bit of a streak of boring. Pokemon Generation 5-2 (AKA Black 2 and White 2) is dull and pointless, Silver kind of crawls along, Gothic is slow as hell and just not very interesting altogether, and Rune Factory 1 is so boring that it almost felt like playing Suikoden 4...well, okay, it’s not nearly that bad, but Rune Factory 1 is still less entertaining than seeing how many pieces of lint you can find around the house.

I got out of the boring streak with Geneforge 2, which, while not wildly entertaining, is a fine RPG. That kicked off a period of months in which I played most of the Indie titles on the list above. I’m again pleased with the consistent level of quality with Indie titles; so far the only bad one I’ve played was Weapon Shop de Omasse, and quite a few have been just terrific games.

As the Indie phase petered out, that’s when the computer and car woes I mentioned hit, so I only played a few more titles after that point, but they were all quite decent. I ended the year with Crimson Shroud, which is quite neat and singular in its storytelling approach, Lords of Xulima, the first Kickstarter RPG that I’ve funded to be completed and overall a barely so-so game, and Jade Empire, one of the few Bioware games from the days before the company lost its fucking mind which I had not played yet. It was pretty good, although I have to say, not nearly as good as most of the rest of their titles.

Anyway, enough about that crap. Let’s get on with the fun part!

RPG Moments of Interest in 2014:

1. Pokemon Generation 5-2 earns a unique award: Idiot Henchman of the Year. A Team Plasma grunt proudly makes the claim to the protagonist that the beds in one particular room of the Plasma headquarters don’t get used, and then, thinking somehow that the main character does not believe this and, inexplicably, caring mightily, the grunt indignantly challenges the main character to try sleeping in these beds to prove how unused they are. Taking such pride in unused beds that you tell your enemy to take a nap in them, in an RPG...yup, that is a singular kind of stupidity, there.

2. I was honestly very surprised that Away: Shuffle Dungeon turned out to be pretty good. Looking at its cutesy appearance and its gimmicky gameplay focus, you’d never expect the game to have a genuinely creative and fairly engaging story to it, but it really does. I was even more shocked when I realized that ASD was developed by Mistwalker, the company founded by Hironobu Sakaguchi (the creator of Final Fantasy). Where was this creativity in plot and concept when Sakaguchi was making his so-called ‘masterpiece,’ The Last Story?

3. Defender’s Quest 1 is the first tower defense game I’ve ever played, and I find that the concept actually works extremely well when combined with RPG elements, which is neat. I hope we’ll see more games like it in the future--especially if they have stories as solid and casts as fun as DQ1 has.

4. OH MY GOD SHADOWRUN IS BACK. Sorry, just had to get that out there. I’m an odd fan of Shadowrun in that I’ve never played and have no interest in playing Shadowrun in its true form (tabletop RPG), but I do love the Shadowrun universe and have been wanting more console RPGs based on it since the day I finished the SNES Shadowrun title. Sort of like the way I love comic book heroes and plots, but don’t actually read comic books. Shadowrun Returns came out last year, and its DLC-turned-actual-game Shadowrun: Dragonfall came out this year, all thanks to Kickstarter, and it is a glorious, glorious thing for me to be able to run the shadows once more.

5. On that note, I would like to note, for the record, that I squee’ed in fanboyish glee during Shadowrun Returns when my character opened a morgue drawer and found Jake Armitage taking a nap within. Squee’ed so. Damn. Hard.

6. Huh. Jade Empire has an option for a polyamorous relationship with Dawn Star and Silk Fox. That’s neat, I guess. It’s not all that convincing or interesting, but then, none of the romances of the game are. It had some potential, at least. Skies of Arcadia handled polyamory better, though (even if that’s just a fan interpretation (but a pretty reasonable one!)).

7. Sort of not an RPG moment, but related enough to mention. I said that I discovered the online cartoon show Bravest Warriors, right? Fun show, very Adventure Time-esque, silly and epic at the same time. Well, it turns out that the voice actor for one of the main characters, Wallow, is Ian Jones Quarterly--the guy who made the classic old webcomic RPG World! How seriously awesome is that?

8. Lords of Xulima became the first Kickstarter RPG I’ve helped fund to reach its completion, so I got to play a game this year whose existence I had an active hand in creating. Sadly, it’s...well, it’s great for folks looking for old-school PC RPG gameplay, but for someone looking for intellectual content beyond stat and skill management, it’s kinda lacking. The story’s okay, I guess, but it sure didn’t need over 100 hours to tell--hell, you could’ve fit the game’s plot into 10 hours or less. Overall, it’s not even remotely worth the time, and it’s a disappointing departure from the typical storytelling strength of indie RPGs. Ah, well...I’ll just have to hope that my patronage was more wisely given to the rest of the Kickstarter projects I’m waiting on.

9. My rant total has finally surpassed my finished RPG total this year--I have now produced more rants than I have played RPGs. Cool? Pathetic? You decide.

Best Prequel/Sequel of 2014:
Winner: The Witcher 2
Building off of the first game, The Witcher 2 continues Geralt’s roundabout journey for answers perfectly, developing Geralt and his world further and giving him new obstacles to overcome while maintaining a general progression toward the resolution of the overarching Wild Hunt plot that we will hopefully see concluded in the third game. It’s everything you’d want from a continuation and a bridge from a trilogy’s beginning to its end.

Runners-Up: Geneforge 2; The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds; Shadowrun: Dragonfall
Actually, there’s not much competition for The Witcher 2. Geneforge 2 is a good follow-up to Geneforge 1, using the world and themes introduced in the first game and developing them further, yet leaving much to come in the future (which makes sense, since the series is 5 games long). Still, it’s not nearly so directly or skillfully tied to its predecessor as The Witcher 2 is. TLoZALBW is a sequel to the old The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, while not exactly being directly related to it. It’s pretty neat overall, but really, it’s more a sequel for its connection of environment and style than for anything substantial. Similarly, Shadowrun: Dragonfall takes place at roughly the same time as Shadowrun Returns and does reference the game a few times here and there, but overall, there’s not much of a connection. Still, it’s a good game and it’s a sequel, sort of, so I’ll put it here.

Biggest Disappointment of 2014:
Loser: Mass Effect 3
If you think that I’m going to get over how vile and heinous the ending of Mass Effect 3 was any time soon, then son, you obviously have not been paying much attention.

However, if we want to be legit...

Actual Loser: Weapon Shop de Omasse
With a creative and relatively promising concept (running a weapon shop in an RPG world), and clever tongue-in-cheek humor that draws you in, Weapon Shop de Omasse looked like it’s going to be a winner. Unfortunately, even for a game with a small scale, Weapon Shop de Omasse has a trite and unengaging plot, and while it’s funny for a while, eventually you realize that most of its jokes are just the same thing over and over again--poking fun at RPGs. The game’s good at it and has some fun references, so that’s fine for a time, but without anything substantial to back it up, sooner or later it starts getting old. Even my patience for such things is not infinite, and I daresay I have a greater interest in RPG parody than most. And what humor the game has that’s not directly RPG-related tends to fall flat, and a bit of it is actually kind of offensive--I’m so sick of tasteless jokes about big, ugly, “scary” crossdressers in anime and games, and the character of Grape is nothing but that joke told over and over again. Ugh. It really is too bad. The makers of WSdO certainly had an interesting idea and some skill with humor, but they just didn’t take it anywhere.

Almost as Bad: Lords of Xulima; Rune Factory 1
I covered LoX above--it’s just not a compelling story, there’s only a small level of depth to it, and there’s essentially no characterization worth noting. Not a bad game, but considering how long it is and that indie RPGs are usually a cut above since they’re works of love more than of paycheck, it’s nonetheless disappointing.

I’d heard that the Rune Factory games were good. I was misinformed.

Best Finale of 2014:
Winner: The Witcher 2
The ending to this game is just an extremely solid one, tying up loose ends in its final confrontation with Letho--and it says much to the game’s credit that whatever you choose to do with Letho, you feel the choice is meaningful, right, and epic--and providing a sense of satisfaction and conclusion as Geralt heads out to continue his journeys. His work isn’t done, yet there is a feeling of accomplishment and even peace with all that has happened in the game, as should be the case with the ending. And cliche though it is, the scene with Geralt peacefully examining the ladybug really is a simple but excellent way to wrap everything up. It’s a great ending to a great game.

Runners-Up: Geneforge 2; The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds; Threads of Fate
Threads of Fate’s ending for Mint is fine, but its ending for Rue is solid and meaningful, a pleasing conclusion to its tale of resisting destiny, and of course I like the bonus scene, which promises more adventures for Rue and Mint to come (now if only we could get a sequel where that did come to pass). Geneforge 2’s ending is nothing emotionally powerful, but it does summarize the results of your actions through the game and how they affected the world as a whole--no point in giving player choice in the game if you’re not going to have those choices reflected by the ending, right? And lastly, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds’s best part is its finale. Up until the game’s final moments, TLoZALBW is just standard Zelda fare, kind of okay but not really having anything to offer in terms of storytelling or characters. At its finale, however, its major twist (which I did see coming, but that didn’t diminish it) adds substantial depth to the story as a whole, and the return of Ravio is really well done. Finally, the truly epic act of generosity and goodwill by Link and Zelda during the game’s ending is terrific, really hits you with how grand a gesture of kindness and forgiveness it is, and retroactively puts the whole game into a better, more meaningful light. Kind of like the way that Startropics 1’s ending makes the otherwise light and fun adventure into something so much more important. This game’s ending is so unexpectedly impressive that I actually was inspired by it to do a rant on the power of endings, and you can hear more of my thoughts there if you like. Suffice to say here, though, that this is a very moving finale, and its quality was a very pleasant surprise.

Worst RPG of 2014:
Loser: Rune Factory 1
On the scale of boredom, Rune Factory 1 ranks somewhere between The 7th Saga and Suikoden 4, making it one of the most dull RPGs I’ve ever come across. Just thinking about it is making me want to take a nap. Ugh. There’s nothing worthwhile about this game, plain and simple. Its plot is bland and generic, and just getting to the point where the plot is actually starting to show up at all takes fucking days of repetitive busywork punctuated by subpar dungeon-crawling. Compounding this fatal flaw, the supporting cast are dull and generic, and the romance aspect is trite and unconvincing, not to mention essentially the same regardless of which character’s affections you choose to pursue. This is a game that delights in all the mind-numbing side crap that annoys me in RPGs (item maintenance, item creation, item growth management, fishing, repeated dungeon-crawling that explores the same goddamn dungeons over and over, etc) and makes actually telling a fucking story and saying anything meaningful into a secondary priority. No, scratch that, storytelling and meaning is a tertiary priority. No, scratch that, everything that actually engages your mind and imagination in any capacity is a non priority in Rune Factory 1. The game is just nothing, there’s nothing that it offers, there’s nothing that it says, there’s nothing that it does or attempts or demands or means or possesses. Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy 8, Grandia 3, Shadow Hearts 3, Mega Man Star Force 1 and 2--these are all poor RPGs, but every one of them has SOMETHING to offer, even if it’s bad, even if it annoys the hell out of me with its stupidity. I can still get something out of these dismal failures. Rune Factory 1? Nothing. Just. Nothing.

Almost as Bad: Pokemon Generation 5-2; Weapon Shop de Omasse
If there’s an upside to the severe waste of time that was Rune Factory 1, it’s that I played very few RPGs this year that were actually bad. I mean, I can’t say I thought too much of Silver, Lords of Xuilma, or Gothic 1, but even if they weren’t good, they weren’t bad, either. Still, there were a couple stinkers, and Pokemon Black 2 and White 2 was definitely one. Even for a Pokemon game, there’s not much to this game, a needless sequel that struggles and fails to find a point for its existence. Remember back in Pokemon Generation 2, you had a chance in the post-game to go back to the first generation’s region and revisit its Gym Leaders and locations, just kinda checking the old stomping grounds out for the heck of it? Well, that’s a fine idea for a post-game side journey, but it sure as hell ain’t enough to base a whole damn game around. As for Weapon Shop de Omasse, like I said, the game has an interesting premise and is pretty funny at first, but it just goes fucking nowhere with that premise and the humor is all painfully one-note.

Most Improved of its Series of 2014:
Winner: Shadowrun: Dragonfall
I enjoyed Shadowrun Returns quite a bit, but the general consensus is right on this count: Dragonfall is far, far superior. The story is far more interesting, better crafted, more meaningful, and challenges you and requires you to really consider what you think is the better course of action, without many clear-cut examples of which decisions are right and wrong. The cast is much stronger than Shadowrun Returns, with more engaging side NPCs and party members (sorry, Jake!) with depth and great development. The setting is more interesting, too. And hell, I do have to mention it: Dragonfall does not have the truckload of spelling and grammatical issues that Returns was plagued by. The one and only thing I think Returns can stack up to its successor with is the villain--I’d say both games’ main antagonists are almost equal in quality. But yeah, overall, Shadowrun: Dragonfall really elevated the Shadowrun video game series to a new level of excellence.

Almost as Good: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds; Shadowrun Returns
Hey, just because Shadowrun: Dragonfall is a big step up from Shadowrun Returns, that doesn’t mean Returns isn’t also still a solid RPG and a step up from its SNES and Genesis predecessors. The SNES Shadowrun was a neat story and the Genesis Shadowrun was, uh, okay, I guess, but ultimately they were most enjoyable to me just for inducting me into the Shadowrun universe. Shadowrun Returns takes things a step higher with a story that has themes of the connections of family that are subtle but thought-provoking, a good villain, and a stronger base of characters. Dragonfall may beat the pants off of Returns, but that sure as hell doesn’t mean that Shadowrun Returns isn’t still laudable. As for The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, well, it’s definitely not an improvement on the last major Zelda game (Skyward Sword), but it IS most definitely better than the old Link to the Past, which is more what this title is a sequel to. I know it’s a classic and all, but there’s really just not a lot of interest about TLoZ A Link to the Past. The story is generic with only a single, gimmicky twist (the dark world thing), and there’s no character depth or development to speak of. A Link Between Worlds is a definite step up, with a plot that’s at least a little more interesting and much better expressed, and some characters who are, well, actually characters. Plus, as I said, I do love the twist and all the stuff that goes on in the ending. So yeah, I’d definitely say A Link Between Worlds is a step up from its predecessor.

Most Creative of 2014:
Winner: The Witcher 2
The Witcher 2 is extremely ambitious as a story, splitting itself halfway into 2 related, but clearly separated story directions, depending on the player’s decisions of Geralt’s priorities and whom he trusts to assist him. Lots of games depend on player input for their storytelling, like Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic, but that input usually is just determining the reasons for the character’s actions and the results of those actions, not actually changing what the actions will be. What I mean by that is, whether you have Commander Shepard in Mass Effect 3, for example, be a paragon of virtue or a monumental dickhead, either way you’ll be taking Shepard through all the same major plot events, and most of the minor ones. Your decision whether to kill or talk down Wrex in Mass Effect 1 won’t change the ME3 plot arc of having to convince the Krogan people to support you, it will just change who among them you’re appealing to. Whether you’re following the path of Jedi or Sith in Knights of the Old Republic 1, you’ll still have to visit the same planets, and follow almost identical plot paths on those planets. In The Witcher 2, however, Geralt’s actions and decisions in Chapter 1 actually do inform the events of the rest of the game, Chapter 2 in particular, and the objectives and events of the rest of the game are substantially different as a result. You could accurately say that this is 2 stories in 1 game, to a degree I can’t recall having seen accomplished before. Considering the complexity of each of these stories, the fact that either path feels natural and true to Geralt, and that it takes nothing away from the size and scope of the story to split it--either way, it feels like a full and rich game--I’d say this is quite a laudable achievement on the part of CD Projekt. It’s a creative approach, and they put in a lot of effort to make it work flawlessly.

Also significantly creative with The Witcher 2 is how naturally human the story feels. Some RPGs go out of their way to be stories of moral shades of gray, stories where there really isn’t a clear right or wrong and what you choose depends on your perspective. Shadowrun: Dragonfall is a good example of this, as well as, to a certain extent, many Shin Megami Tensei titles. The thing of this is, while these games can be terrific and force you to think about the arbitrary nature of right and wrong and how you define such always feels, I dunno, transparent, to me. I mean...I can usually tell an RPG’s purpose is to be all artsy with its shades of gray thing, it’s obvious that the game’s been set up to be that way. Which is fine, of course. But what really sets The Witcher 2 (and its predecessor, though not as much) apart in this area of moral shades of gray RPGs is that this game feels completely natural about it. You’re not playing a game crafted to show that there’s no clear-cut right and wrong when it comes to real people and issues, you’re playing a game that’s just naturally showing people and issues, and because it’s accurate, it’s morally gray. Characters in The Witcher 2 don’t come off like they were carefully constructed to have checks and balances that give them good and bad qualities--they just come off like real, honest people, and the fact that they have qualities both good and bad, sympathetic and repellant, comes as a natural result. The same with the situations that Geralt encounters in the game. Also, just as in real life, not EVERYTHING is gray--there really are some people and situations in the game which really are pretty clear-cut right and wrong. Anyway, it’s a very creative and skillful way to handle making a game of moral gray areas, subtle yet clear, and I give CD Projekt a big thumbs-up for their ability to make it all work.

Runners-Up: Away: Shuffle Dungeon; Crimson Shroud; Shadowrun: Dragonfall
Man, I gotta say, Away: Shuffle Dungeon’s plot will really sneak up on you. From all appearances, it’s just gonna be a cutesy, generic little save-the-girl dungeon-crawler, and then wham, you’re suddenly ambushed by a neat, really unique sci-fi plot changing everything you thought you knew. I still can’t believe that something this charmingly different came from the same developer that birthed the by-the-numbers The Last Story. Crimson Shroud is really quite nifty in its presentation; it’s a game that really makes you feel like you’re taking part in a tabletop RPG, which is neat (only with a narrator who is way, way more excellent and eloquent than any Dungeon Master I’ve ever encountered). It also creates a pretty interesting world, kind of Final Fantasy Tactics-like...I just wish we got to see more of it. Hopefully it’ll get a sequel; it’s quite good and definitely creative enough to warrant it. And then there’s Shadowrun: Dragonfall. Great new setting for the Shadowrun games, played very well, with lots of neat twists to a complicated but well-told story. It’s fun to get everything you expect and want from a Shadowrun game, but in such a an interesting, unexpected way.

Stupidest Weapon of 2014:
Loser: Super Net (The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds)
Link, stop using a butterfly net as a weapon. I don’t care how inexplicably effective it is. You look like an idiot.

Almost as Bad: Boxing Glove Gun (Robocalypse); Dahak (Solatorobo: Red the Hunter)
A big propelled boxing glove was stupid for Tia in that pile of sloppy shit, Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals, and it’s stupid now. Although I’ll at least give Robocalypse that it’s not actually trying to be a serious game anyway. The Dahak is just dumb--it’s a big old ridable robot attack machine, but its only real form of attack is to lift stuff up and throw it! You can’t even use its flexible, strong, long-reaching arms to hit stuff, only to lift it up and throw it! Lame.

Best Romance of 2014:
Winner: Geralt and Triss (The Witcher 2)
Uh...not much to offer in this category this year. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with the relationship between Geralt and Triss, don’t get me wrong. It feels honest and they both clearly do genuinely care for each other. But at the same time, there’s nothing especially amazing about them, either...there just wasn’t much in the way of great love stories in the RPGs I played this year.

Runners-Up: Anella and Sword (Away: Shuffle Dungeon); Flaxen and Myron (Robocalypse); Protagonist and Silk Fox (Jade Empire)
Anella and Sword have a decently believable connection, if not one that really stands out...still, it’s nice enough. Flaxen and Myron is nothing special, but at the same time, it’s kinda fun and sweet, the way it ends up, in that appealingly goofy way that Robocalypse has. And lastly, the romances in Jade Empire are all kind of basic, but of them, I think the romance with Silk Fox is probably the best, with the mild depths of her personality shown better than those of Sky or Dawn Star with their love plots. Still, nothing special, all said. I hope next year gives me some considerably more compelling love stories.

Best Voice Acting of 2014:
Winner: The Witcher 2
Solid voice acting on all fronts. Not much that really stands out, save for Geralt’s subtly excellent vocal talent, but all lines are said well and keep the story going without a hitch, and Geralt’s actor continues to quietly shine for his ability to enhance Geralt’s character despite a restrictive vocal range for him.

Runners-Up: Dust: An Elysian Tail; Jade Empire; Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers
Despite a few small subpar performances, Dust: An Elysian Tail has a good vocal cast that does the job well. Jade Empire is much the same, with the added benefit of having one of my favorite voice actors, Cam Clarke, taking on the role of Sky (and it was also neat to hear Nathan Fillion as Gao the Lesser). And SMTDSSH is also quite decent; I think that the voice acting for Nemissa is especially good.

Funniest of 2014:
Winner: Robocalypse
New category this year! I love a good, funny, lighthearted RPG, and a lot of them actually have a lot of emotional and thematic power hidden in their funny presentation (Okage: Shadow King and Mother 3, for example).

So, what’s the funniest game this year? Robocalypse! A silly venture of geeks, war machines with the brains of diabolical toasters, and self-conscious infatuated insect overlords from space, this fun little title will keep you chuckling from start to finish, and it’s even kind of sweet at the end, in a kooky sort of way. Fun times, try it out some time if you need a giggle.

Runners-Up: Defender’s Quest 1; Dust: An Elysian Tail; Threads of Fate
First of all, I’d like to say that Weapon Shop de Omasse really should have made it to this list at first glance, but the appeal of its humor just peters out so damn quickly, never growing or adding to itself. Ah well. Anyway, Defender’s Quest 1 is quite a funny little jaunt, and choosing whether it or Robocalypse was more amusing was quite difficult. DQ1 is actually a much better story with better characters than Robocalypse, but I think that as far as which is just flat-out funnier, Robocalypse just barely edges it out. Still, I had many good laughs from Defender’s Quest 1. Dust: An Elysian Tail is usually a pretty serious story, but the adorable Fidget rarely fails to find a way to lighten the mood, and keep things fun. And finally, Threads of Fate...I’ve mentioned before that Mint is a goddamn laugh riot, right?

Best Villain of 2014:
Winner: Jessica (Shadowrun Returns)
Tough choice this year, but I think Jessica does top the rest. Jessica’s villainy stems from her family issues, most notably the negative influence her brother Sam had upon Jessica and her mother, and that foundation for her evil schemes and psychosis reflects the overall theme of family connections, biological or consciously forged, that Shadowrun Returns is all about. Jessica has some good depth--she may be a nut, but you can see how she got to be that way, and you can see what drives her. Definitely a solid antagonist.

Runners-Up: Letho (The Witcher 2); Sun Li (Jade Empire); Vauclair (Shadowrun: Dragonfall)
Sun Li’s pretty average as a villain in most ways, but he is a damn good schemer. Letho and Vauclair are very good villains, good enough that I imagine most people would put at least 1 of them, possibly both, above my choice of Jessica. Vauclair actually reminds me a little of Jessica in that he has some strong ties to the theme of family, which are also a part of Shadowrun: Dragonfall just as they were Shadowrun Returns, and he’s got good depth and motivation. If he had been given more time to develop, instead of just coming into the light at the end of the game, he might have put Jessica out, but he at least makes great use of his limited time. As for Letho, well, he’s about as awesome and layered as you might expect a major plot entity of The Witcher 2 to be, much better than the villain of the previous Witcher. I probably should have given him the top spot this year, I suppose, but I just really liked the thematic strength of Jessica’s villainy, and calling Letho a villain is kind of off-base anyway...he’s an antagonist, but he sort of isn’t, too. Definitely great either way, though.

Best Character of 2014:
Winner: Glory (Shadowrun: Dragonfall)
Shadowrun: Dragonfall has a rich cast, but even among them, Glory’s depth and history set her above the rest, as does the development she gets as she attempts to set her past right. I’m not going to go into details, because I won’t able to do her justice, but Shadowrun: Dragonfall really had a winner in the character of Glory.

Runners-Up: Dust (Dust: An Elysian Tail); Geralt (The Witcher 2); Rue (Threads of Fate)
Dust’s attempt to find himself, and how he copes with the answers he receives, is quite good, and adds a lot of weight to the game. Rue develops nicely along his journey, and as much as I love to watch Mint’s antics, it’s Rue who’s the real star, the real heart and soul, of Threads of Fate. As for Geralt, he’s great as always. I do think that The Witcher 1 did give him a little more opportunity for character depth as he struggled to determine what his position as a Witcher meant in a slowly but surely changing world, but there’s plenty of growth and complexity for him in the sequel, too.

Best RPG of 2014:
Winner: Shadowrun: Dragonfall
A great setting, a great execution of that setting, a strong cast, an engaging and powerful story, meaningful, thoughtful, emotional...Shadowrun: Dragonfall is fantastic, it really is. I could not have asked for a better return of Shadowrun to video games than this. You owe it to yourself to check this one out.

Runners-Up: Dust: An Elysian Tail; Threads of Fate; The Witcher 2
An epic tale of redemption and protecting the oppressed, Dust: An Elysian Tail is just one more example of the high quality that Indie RPGs seem to deliver regularly. Threads of Fate is surprisingly good and emotional, with a memorable cast, a neat theme of fate that it explores in various ways, and a generally enjoyable story and style. Ah, sure could make some fine RPGs. What the hell happened? Finally, The Witcher 2 is just a true RPG gem, and it was hard deciding between it and Shadowrun: Dragonfall for the top spot. Good story, good characters, great use of the Hexer universe, good themes and ideas to explore, paced and told well...there’s nothing not to like about Geralt’s continuing adventures. I can’t wait to see how it all concludes in the final Witcher game, and I’m definitely going to keep my eye out in the future for more CD Projekt RED games, because these are masters like few others of RPG storytelling.

And that’s it. Well, it wasn’t a bad year for RPGs for me, even if it wasn’t nearly as prolific as it should have been. With me being enrolled in a program that will take me at least a year and a half to finish and with Super Smash Brothers 4 continuing to exist, it’s a good bet 2015 won’t be too productive on the RPG front, either. Still, hopefully there won’t be quite as many distractions as there were this year. I’m certainly looking forward to it--several of the other Kickstarter RPGs I’ve backed are set to come out in 2015, which excites me to no end, as well as The Witcher 3 (not sure if I’ll play it while it’s new yet, but it’s fun to anticipate anyway), and given the critical acclaim for Shadowrun: Dragonfall, maybe next year will see another title for the series. Regardless, I’ll be here, ranting. Thanks for continuing to read and give these ridiculous little essays some purpose, folks. Happy holidays, and I’ll see you come January.