Monday, June 11, 2018


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

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Pokemon Series's Pokemon Breeding

Many thanks to Ecclesiastes for letting me bounce ideas about this rant off him. Also to my sister, who, as she always does, generously donated a willing ear and more time than it was worth to listen to and give feedback on this. Both of you rock.

Y’know, Pokemon breeding is seriously fucked up.

Yes, this is another rant about one of those things that the Pokemon series kinda just glosses over, but is actually pretty disturbing. I know, I know, not exactly in the world do we all enjoy and accept as harmless child’s play this bizarre world of enslaved sentients, culturally encouraged dogfighting, dangerously unsupervised preteens, lethally dangerous government buildings, out of control forced domestication of wild animals, and so on? Still, as with the dangerous nature of many Gyms, this is a subject I haven’t seen critiqued often, so, here I am to do my thing. There is no easier target for logic and ethics nitpicking than Pokemon, and I’ll be damned if I’m above beating a dead Ponyta.

You like that? Ah? Pokemon joke? I’m hilarious.

Anyway. Pokemon breeding! The Pokemon games don’t usually go into much detail on the whole Pokemon breeding scene, from what I see and can recall. It’s more directly a part of the Pokemon world that the anime depicts.* In the games, the whole process is kinda just passed off as some miraculous happening, explained in a very carefully vague way. Or at least, it is in Generation 7, and I admit that I just don’t remember how it was explained prior to that...look, gimme a break, I never used the Daycare centers and even I can’t be expected to remember the wording of every RPG tutorial I’ve ever seen. I think I’m safe in assuming that the earlier games didn’t go out on a limb and supplement their audience’s sex ed classes, though.**

Nonetheless, no matter how quietly overlooked it might be, Pokemon breeding is indeed a thing in the games’ world, as evidenced by the fact that there is an entire trainer type called, clearly enough, Pokemon Breeders. And I gotta say, the concept is pretty messed up. The whole idea of animal breeding can be kinda squicky, of course, and I think there are certain aspects of its practice in the real world that just about anyone would admit are questionable. Nonetheless, even if we take a stance in which we’re A-OK with animal breeding in terms of real life, Pokemon breeding is a whole different matter.

See, here’s the thing: when you’re breeding animals, you’re making mating decisions for creatures that generally lack self-aware determination. With most animals, mating decisions are as much made through instinct as anything else they’s highly arguable how much “choice” they have in any aspect of their lives, with or without human intervention. Granted, this is still grounds for philosophical argument of ethics (on a personal level, I don’t like this practice), but the important thing is, you’re not taking a choice away from a being that can really contemplate the concept of choice enough to appreciate it anyway. But with Pokemon breeding, you’re forcing sapient creatures of human or near-human intelligence to mate according to someone else’s will, not theirs!

This isn’t deciding which chickens mate with which chickens to get the best eggs and temperament. This isn’t setting up a blind date for your stupid dog. This is forcing 2 independent, free-willed self-aware entities to reproduce according to the arbitrary whims of a third party, disregarding any and all feelings the actual participants might have on the matter! I’m no legal expert, but I do believe that’s called rape in some circles. Also eugenics, which is its own bag of unpleasantness. But more importantly, the whole robbing free-thinking self-aware individuals of their right to choose reproductive partners thing.

Oh, and yes, Pokemon (a lot of them, at least) are sentient, sapient beings. According to my ever faithful reader, friend, and sounding board Ecclesiastes, Generation 6 tried to backtrack on this issue, and make the line between human intelligence and emotion, and Pokemon intelligence and emotion, a more solid one. Figures it’d be the 1 game generation I’d skip. Nonetheless, even with my ignorance of the game’s events, I call bullshit on that. The Pokedex and general series lore disproves any notion of Pokemon all being intellectually and emotionally inferior to humans, and said dex and lore do this all over the place. Off the top of my head:

-Cubone wears the skull of its deceased mother, showing that it possess both the concept of sentimentalism for objects associated with those it cares about, and understanding of symbolism and how it relates to loss.
-Mimikyu recognizes love and accolades given to Pikachu, and feels jealousy (which is itself a complicated emotion indicative of intelligence). Its attempt to resolve this situation is to craft a costume based on Pikachu. This isn’t unconscious mimicry born from natural selection, this is a conscious decision to visually imitate Pikachu, and obviously the process of creating a costume to wear requires human-level preparation and know-how.
-Absol’s attempts to warn human civilizations of impending dangerous weather requires forethought, empathy beyond biological imperative, and selflessness to a humanlike degree. Absol has to be intelligent enough to recognize human civilization, identify that humans cannot follow weather indicators as well as it can, and devise a plan to warn them. It also must be emotionally complex enough to recognize the potential plights of nearby humans, care about them, want to help them, and choose to devote its time and energy to doing so with absolutely no possible personal gain.
-Primarina, during her (mine was female so deal with it) personal Z-move, stands and takes a bow after her operatic performance. That’s a display of personal pride in what she has done, and pride is, I’m pretty sure, an emotion only confirmed in human-level intelligence. Additionally, it shows a recognition of subtle social gestures and how they are correctly employed, and an understanding of how such gestures add flourish to a performance. This is no trained trick, done with the potential for reward treats in mind; the only motivation she can have in this bow is to acknowledge her accomplishment and performance, and share her satisfaction in it with others. In this 1 tiny motion, Primarina confirms an intelligence that understands cultural gestures, self-aware personal pride, and art.
-Uh, yeah, Rotom does, y’know, talk. And have a clear personality. Like, throughout the entirety of Pokemon: Generation 7. From the moment it possesses your Pokedex, Rotom does more than observe and recite basic Pokemon facts--it also reacts to, comments on, and poses questions about Moon and Lillie’s adventure together. Or Sun and Lillie’s adventure, whichever you went with.

And I want to emphasize again, this is off the top of my head. If I were to categorically go through Pokedex entries and rack my memory for all the details it can provide of the 5 generations I’m familiar with, I’m pretty sure there’d be a substantially longer list of Pokemon who flat-out, hands-down, beyond-question prove that Pokemon are capable of being self-aware, intelligent creatures mentally at humanity’s level (or even higher), and frequently are. But as I am not patently insane and thus have no interest in looking over...what is it now, over 800? Over 800 Pokemon’s worth of codex entries, those 5 examples will have to suffice.

Which brings us back to my point: Pokemon breeding is forcing 2 entities who, in at least some cases, are thinking, feeling, self-aware beings to reproduce together, regardless of what reproductive partner they might have otherwise chosen. And that is pretty messed up, and not okay. It’s either rape, or something really, really close.

Is this the most morally questionable part of the Pokemon world, when analyzed? Probably not; I mean, as deplorable as the idea of disregarding someone’s feelings and desires and assigning them some eugenics pet project mate to propagate with is, this is also the world which endorses pitting intelligent, self-aware individuals against each other in deadly, painful combat to satisfy the whims and vanity of their owners. That trumps even master-race-aiming rape, at least in my opinion. Still, when you think about it, the concept of Pokemon breeding is yet another extremely unsettling aspect of this cheerful children’s series that we perpetually give a free pass to.

* Sort of. The anime, if I recall correctly (be kind if you need to inform me that I’m wrong on this; I haven’t watched Pokemon since the Orange Island arc was the new big thing), depicts the breeding process more as a vague mixture of food preparation, grooming, relaxation methods, and massage (which makes the Pokemon Refresh thing in recent games even more questionable than it already is, I suppose). As far as it shows, you’d never guess that actual sex and reproduction was a part of the process at all.

Then again, are we even sure sex IS a part of Pokemon reproduction? I mean, you can still breed genderless Pokemon in the games using a Ditto as 1 of the parents (which is in itself all kinds of weird), right? So how much does gender actually matter to these things, in terms of creating new ones? And...

...Actually, you know what? I just realized what I’m trying to analyze here, and how deep I’m going with it. And I’m gonna just cut myself off right there. Not worth the cringy shudders I’m gonna eventually give myself if I keep on.

** Although given how inadequate and often negatively exclusive sexual education often is in the USA--and that’s when a school system even bothers to teach it at all--maybe it wouldn’t have been a bad thing if Pokemon games actually had gone into detail about it.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

General RPGs' AMVs 14

Yup, another one of these things. I know, I know, no one but me likes them. Well, the people who made these videos put real time and effort into their work, and someone ought to appreciate that, so you'll just have to abide until next rant for something more substantial.


Fallout 3, 4, and New Vegas: Electric, by Lacryna:
The music used is Electric Worry, by Clutch. It’s not an amazing AMV, but it’s punchy and fun to watch, a good example of a song that captures an aspect of a game that’s been used appropriately. The action and attitude of the Fallout series works well with the music, and that’s all there is to it--it’s good.


Final Fantasy 7: Tales of Fantasy VII, by ZackFairZakkusuFea:
The music used is Karma, by BUMP OF CHICKEN, which is the opening song for Tales of the Abyss. I’m not sure if this really counts as an AMV so much as it does a fan animation, but it’s cool, so I’m sharing it anyway. This is basically a near identical recreation of the opening anime video to Tales of the Abyss, except using characters, concepts, and plot elements from Final Fantasy 7, instead. It’s all hand-drawn art that looks great, and it’s really cool how close it is to the source video (you can find it here if you want to compare: Very fun, well-made piece of fan work, this.

Final Fantasy 10: The Sound of Silence, by DiDiChii:
The music used is a cover of The Sound of Silence, by Simon and Garfunkel. The cover itself is done by Disturbed. The nature of Final Fantasy 10’s story lends itself well to a quiet, slow, and powerful song such as The Sound of Silence, and this AMV does well to capitalize on that, emphasizing the more somber, quiet, and so often tragic moments and characters of the game. The video raises its visuals’ intensity as the song does, but, like the song, never loses its poignancy. Powerful stuff.


Fire Emblem 14: Demons, by WolfBeil:
The music used is Demons, by Imagine Dragons. There’s not much to say about this, besides that it is a simple, well-done AMV which matches the game’s scenes up very appropriately to the lyrics of the song. Very nice job here.

Fire Emblem 14: Who Am I Living For?, by Ravioli Rose:
The music used is Who Am I Living For?, by...Katy Perry? Wait, that can’t be right. When did Katy Perry start making music that didn’t suck? Why wasn’t I informed that the end times had begun?

This is...well, it’s just an excellent AMV. Seriously, top-notch. It was really hard for me to choose the FF10 Sound of Silence AMV above as today's best video over this one. The song’s lyrics and ideas match to Fire Emblem 14 perfectly, allowing this video to tell the story of Corrin’s dilemma of her/his warring families and emphasize how much she/he loves them, to the echoing question of “Who am I living for?” The tone of the song ends up working surprisingly well with the visuals of FE14, too, which I would not have expected...yet the style that FE14 has of often (more often than you’d probably notice, in fact) switching between real time and slow motion makes it mesh very well with the slow throb of the song’s tempo. Really, it’s almost like Katy Perry wrote this song with FE14 in mind, it matches so well, or at least, it seems to after watching this quality AMV. This is a skillfully executed AMV that doesn’t settle for simply being a good tribute to the game, as most AMVs do, but rather uses its song to help tell a portion of the game’s story. Really great stuff!


Kingdom Hearts 2 + 365/2 Days: My Name, by La Habana Inc.:
The music used is My Name, by Shinedown. This AMV explores Roxas through the song, and it works darned well, the lyrics coordinating with his character as naturally as the footage is matched to the melody and changes. The simple effects used here and there are effective and never distracting, and ultimately, everything lines up to create a really good character-dedicated music video.

Kingdom Hearts Series: Call to Arms, by NekoKitkat25hug:
The music used is Vox Populi, by 30 Seconds to Mars. Fucking 30 Seconds to Mars again? At least it’s not This is War this time. This is a straightforward, well-made AMV that enjoyably recalls the KH series to us in a fun way. The pace of the song is matched well with the cinematography, and I like the overall package of this. I think it probably will mean a little more to me once I finally get around to playing that KH Birth by Sleep game, but even without knowing all the over complicated drama of Aqua and her friends, I still find this a solid AMV.

Kingdom Hearts Series: Maps, by Alexxis5954:
The music used is Maps, by Maroon 5. Can’t say I think much of the song, but the AMV that’s been made out of is pretty darned good. There’s not a lot that really jumps out at me about it to speak of here, it just works well. The lyrics are pretty good at telling a story of Sora and Kairi seeking each other, and the video is well coordinated with both the song’s lyrics and its overall tune and changes. This is just your textbook case of a good, well-made AMV.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Moon Hunters

Well, you know how I like to roll...when I encounter a decent Indie RPG, I try to share its existence with you folks, because games made by non-AAA developers tend not to get great marketing (with a few notable exceptions, like Undertale), and that’s just not right, given that they are often quite good.

Moon Hunters is such an RPG. A Kickstarter game which I’m pleased to say I helped to back, Moon Hunters is perhaps the only Roguelike game I have ever played that appeals to me. The Roguelike subgenre of RPGs is 1 which I have barely explored at all, because, quite frankly, it’s just not a setup that encourages the only thing that makes playing an RPG a worthwhile experience, the writing. Randomized dungeon-crawling is usually the beginning and end of a development team’s focus with Roguelikes, and that is, for me, about the most boredom I can have without having Ricky Gervais present in the room.

Hell, even when a developer has good intentions with a Roguelike, you’re still not likely to get much out of it...I was promised a story and cast of significance with Dragon Fin Soup, but I’ll be damned if anything of the sort materialized in the first 10 hours of the game, and at that point, even I gave up on it. And I played Lunar: Dragon Song from beginning to end, for heaven’s sake!

But anyway, enough about a game I wish I hadn’t helped fund; let's get back to talking about a game that I’m glad I did. Moon Hunters manages, for the first time I’ve personally seen, to make a plot and cast work with the Roguelike formula, by taking it in a completely different direction than the linear storytelling style that we expect from most RPGs, and even in a different direction from the more free-form storytelling style that you’ll see occasionally in games like Baroque and the original 2 Fallout titles. And it does so in an ingenious way.

See, with a game that focuses on randomized dungeons, a game’s story usually has to either find an excuse for it, or just kind of stay outside of it, only existing outside and in set areas of the randomized dungeon. Like, in the Izuna games, the fun, quirky plots happen in the scenes outside the actual dungeon gameplay, and on specific, set floors of the dungeon (the boss floors, basically). For the most part as you play, though, you’re just going silently through the random dungeon floors to get to the next plot point, rather than having that plot be present with you, as it would be in, say, a regular RPG, which can have set points in any given dungeon where conversations and story events happen.

What Moon Hunters does, though, is to make its randomization the key, focal theme of its story. You see, Moon Hunters is a game with a motif of tribal lore, with the idea that the game you’re playing is someone telling a legend about an event in the past that shaped the world--you’re basically playing out a Native American myth. The setting and theme of Native American tribal lore is by itself a draw for me (as I’ve mentioned before, it’s a cultural backdrop I want to see more often implemented in RPGs), because it’s engaging and fascinating stuff, but beyond that, it works absolutely perfectly with a primarily randomized game, because every time you replay the game and it’s a little or a lot different, the plot explanation is that the same legend is being related by another teller, who is simply telling it and interpreting it differently than the last storyteller did. So rather than having to work around the core gameplay element of a Roguelike, this story style incorporates that as a key detail--the key detail, in fact (more on that in a moment).

Additionally, the randomized dungeon-crawling is broken up frequently by randomized story events. For every dangerous area you explore, you’ll encounter enemies and traps and whatnot, sure, but you’ll also encounter various characters and events in there, as well, that typically take the form of small vignettes that provide brief but interesting side plots to your journey. So, again, the randomization element is woven into the storytelling element, as you meet people and creatures that expand the lore of the world you’re traveling through. In these ways, Moon Hunters doesn’t just escape the difficulties that its game type presents to a plot and characters, it uses those difficulties, empowers them, makes them into strengths.

And let me just say, those randomized dungeon events that are like small vignettes? They really help to sell the theme of tribal legends. They often feel like authentic myths you might read in an anthology or something, side stories to your character’s heroic journey like the way various small stories from, say, ancient Greece tend to use or mention heroes (for example, Theseus, he’s in a ton of Greek myths in one way or another) and villains in several different, unconnected stories. I really liked one, for example, which has you find an accomplished singer from a nearby village practicing his craft at a lake, when out of the lake emerges a prince from a kingdom under the lake’s waters. The prince has fallen in love with the singer for his beautiful voice, and the singer asks you whether he should accept the prince’s proposal and leave the surface world to sing as king of the underwater lands. It totally feels like the kind of scenario you’d get from an old fairy tale, and it has basically nothing to do with anything else on your quest--it’s just its own, complete little myth that happened to involve the hero of this story for a moment. That’s what I mean--these momentary little side ventures feel like bits and pieces of other legends connecting with this larger one for a moment, much as a legend of ancient Greece might involve Odysseus during his journey home from the Trojan War, but not be a focal point of the actual Odyssey.

Actually, the game sells its tribal legend schtick in all regards, not just the randomized storytelling. The village settings cover a wide and interesting range of tribal styles, the consistent characters connect to the setting and style of tribal storytelling, the narration has a very old-myth-sounding style, and the way it speaks of your character after the game is finished is very legend-like, too. The involvement of celestial bodies, both in the form of the warring sun god and moon goddess and of the heroes’ and their exploits being immortalized as constellations, likewise sells the setting and theme.

And speaking of the moon goddess, let’s get back to that theme of storytelling interpretations. I absolutely love how much of a quiet, yet huge thing the idea of fluid, changing interpretations and storytelling is to Moon Hunters. It really portrays an interesting and very infrequently examined concept of oral tradition--the variation between tellers and the changes that occur to a story over time and distance--in a realistic and engaging manner. In fact, the game makes it the hinging point in its plot, not just through the randomization of playthroughs, but through the focal entity of the game, the goddess of the moon. Each of the game’s tribes worship the moon as a different entity...1 sees her as a maternal goddess, another as the arbiter of death, still another as an embodiment of nature and the wild, and so on. She has as many interpretations as the compass has directions, and yet they are all her, for her true self is only defined by the people who worship her--if you play right, and arrive at a point near the game’s end in which she speaks to you, you see that her ‘true’ self has no face, no identity save as a being of wisdom and love, the only traits which all interpretations of her share. It’s very cool, the way the game quietly speaks to its audience about the nature and value of variation in the telling of myths, while almost never going so far as to outright tell you its message. And even in the rare instance when the game is fairly direct (the postgame, final battle for the right to interpret and tell in new ways), it still seems no less artistic and skillfully understated.

And by the way, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this plot and storytelling method is all about style and theme, with no substance. Though the telling of this game is understated and its protagonist silent, there is a story to Moon Hunters, and that story has some strong moments to it. I absolutely love the small but weighted speech that the moon goddess gives to you at the end of the game, assuming you’re getting the ‘real’ ending. I mean, don’t go in expecting an ever-present, solid plot like you would from a Final Fantasy or Tales of game, but don’t misunderstand my enthusiasm for the themes and mythological element of this game to mean that it doesn’t have a real story, per say.

Other, minor good points to Moon Hunters: first of all, you know I don’t care a lick for visuals, but it must be said, this game looks terrific and perfectly represents its setting with a graphical style that...hmmm, it’s hard to explain. It looks very indie, that’s for sure, which makes sense, but beyond that, it kind of looks like what a video game might have if the graphical limitations of old PC games back in the early 90s had never been surpassed over time, but rather, refined. The music, while rarely something that makes you just sit back and pause at how good it is, is nonetheless excellent at what it’s made for, which is selling the mood and atmosphere of the game. The gameplay controls well enough; nothing notably great or poor about it, really. And hey, I’d like to say that I give a huge thumbs-up to the artist(s) for Moon Hunters, because the people of the Moon Hunters world look like, well, people. You may recall (but probably don’t, given that no one read this blog back then) that 1 of my earliest rants was my appreciation for the fact that Vandal Hearts 1 had characters who weren’t all a bunch of perfect anime caricatures, but rather employed a cast who overall looked much more realistic, less cleaned up and pretty. Looking back on that rant and that game’s cast, I can see that I was giving it more credit than it might have deserved; the characters of VH1 are only somewhat less beautified than a typical game cast, certainly not to the extent I credited it. With Moon Hunters, however, the villagers you encounter simply look like a collection of human beings as you might actually see as you stroll through a village, and I really like, and even applaud, that. Helps make it feel all the more real.

Now, Moon Hunters isn’t perfect, of course. There is the fact that, well, from start to finish, the game is like, I dunno, 2 hours long? At most? It will seem, at first, not to be worth your time. When I first started playing it, I was deeply disappointed that such a tiny RPG had come about from the funding of we backers. But, the thing is, this is not, first of all, a long story to be told. Moon Hunters takes exactly as much time as it needs to tell its story, and extending the game to be longer would mostly just be padding it out unnecessarily, I think. Secondly, and much more importantly, you are supposed to play it many times. Chrono Trigger tempts you with its many endings to play through it at least once more, but Moon Hunters requires it. There are multiple endings, but more than that, you will never be able to feel and embrace the concept of varied tellings if you do not play this game more than once, and it’s not possible to see all, or even most, of this game’s story content in a single playthrough. To see each village, a good amount of the randomized side story content, each of the endings, and the possible consequences of your choices, and overall reach a point where you can feel like you’ve experienced Moon Hunters in full, you will need to play it at least a good 5 or 6 times, I’d say, which stretches your time with the game out to a good 10 or more hours, and that is a better deal for your money.* In the end, the brevity of Moon Hunters is not because it’s poorly designed, it’s because it’s designed well in a way that you’re not expecting.

Anyway, I reckon that’s enough, and then some. If you’re in the mood for a very different RPG, a short and quiet tale that gets you caught up in ideas and a setting you rarely get to enjoy in the genre, something contemplative and calm and engulfing like the full moon in the dark sky...give Moon Hunters a try. Once your mind becomes comfortable in the game’s mindset, it’s a very enjoyable experience. You can find it on Good Old Games, Steam, or Humble Bundle. I recommend it, especially if you’re curious to see how a Roguelike can use its writing limitations to its advantage to become something really interesting and special.

* You might also be a moron like me, and play the game from start to finish like 12 times without getting the true ending because it just somehow never dawns on your tiny brain that the first area of each game is telling you exactly what direction to go in.

Here’s a hint for anyone as thick as myself: the goddess is the compass.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Final Fantasy Tactics's Plot's Shift in Focus

Short rant today! I mean, sort of. Short for me, at least.

I do love Final Fantasy Tactics. 1 of the greatest Final Fantasy titles, hell, 1 of the greatest RPGs, period, ever made, Final Fantasy Tactics is intelligent, thoughtful, dire, critical, and inventive, telling an engrossing tale of 1 man’s forgotten heroism in the brutal and unflinchingly amoral land of Ivalice, which mimics in most significant ways Europe of the medieval ages. It’s a great tale of class warfare, the way that grief and anger can both corrupt a man and make him greater at the same time, questions of whether means can justify ends, love and loyalty between family both biological and adopted, the tragedy that war visits upon the innocent, the monstrosity of those who crave power and the havoc they wreak in their power games...all kinds of engaging, powerful stuff.

Oh, yeah, and also there’s some stuff in there about saving the world from hell demons who possess people using magical stones based on the same stuff as your horoscope.

Yeah, see, about halfway through Final Fantasy Tactics, the plot’s focus shifts from the war of succession in Ivalice and the protagonist’s place in it, to an invasion by that world’s Anti-Christ who it turns out was secretly also that world’s Christ figure. The transition isn’t immediate or anything; the Zodiac Stones only gradually start to take over the plot, and the political struggles remain at least in the background of the game for a while,’s still kind of weird, when I really look at it. FFT is well-written enough that the 2 different plot focuses aren’t unrelated, of course, the church’s power is a player in the political story and some of the political story’s figures become key players in the Zodiac Stones plot, wouldn’t be hard to completely separate Final Fantasy Tactics: the war-of-power-hungry-nobles story, and Final Fantasy Tactics: the save-the-world-from-demons story. They seem, in fact, artificially tied together, like 2 different stories that were carefully, but not naturally, welded into 1.

And the thing is, well, I think it’s to the game’s detriment. That’s not to say that Final Fantasy Tactics isn’t a terrific RPG; it definitely is. That’s not to say, even, that the story of saving the world from the threat of demons secretly tied to a false church that FFT presents isn’t good. It is quite a decent adventure, executed in a competent way. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just...well, the first major story of the game, of warring nobles and class warfare, the questions of honor and where the line lies between good and evil when you’re sinning for the sake of peace, and the juxtaposition between protagonist Ramza and the man he considers a brother as one struggles to do lasting good without compromising his principles, and the other becomes a hero king by sacrificing his better nature...that all amounts to a way better, much more compelling plot to focus on.

I mean, think about it. What are the moments that really stick with you from FFT, the parts of it that make it so memorable and speak to you? For me, there are many. The betrayal of Algus and death of Teta, of course. The spite and unrelenting resentment of Miluda, and what we see Wiegraf is reduced to afterward. Ramza managing to stop a major battle and save countless lives by flooding the battlefield. Ovelia speaking to Agrias of her doubts and concerns. Wiegraf agreeing to give his soul to Lucavi for the power to accomplish his goals. The quick, bloody, vicious betrayals of those who conspire to seize power. The complicated character of Algus, the ambition of Delita which you can’t truly say for sure is right or wrong, the plight of the commoners represented by Wiegraf and Miluda, the devotion of Agrias, the determination and despair of Ovelia, the difficulty that Ramza has in reconciling himself to his role and the man he wants to be and his conflict with Delita, as well as with his brothers, the clashing ideologies of Ramza and Gafgarion that cement who Ramza truly is. The ending scene where Ovelia betrays and kills Delita for what he’s done, and he in turn kills her, and thinks of Ramza, the man who wouldn’t do evil for the sake of good, and wonders whether things turned out better for him.

See, the thing is, of all those really memorable, powerful scenes and characters and ideas I just mentioned that really stay in my mind, only 1 involved the Zodiac Stones, and part of that was just that it was the first time we’d watched a soul corrupted by the Stones, and another part was simply what it meant for Wiegraf as a character. Nearly everything about Final Fantasy Tactics that makes the game so great is, to me at least, the overarching story of succession and class struggle, and the personal story of morality between Ramza and Delita, which feeds primarily back into the political plot. So I feel that by gradually turning its focus away from that story, and onto a tale of saving the world from magical evil stones and resurrected demons and whatnot, we kind of missed out. Final Fantasy Tactics is a terrific RPG, but so much of what makes it excellent is found in its first plot focus, not its second.

I just wonder what might have been if the game had stayed the course until the end, whether we might have gotten an even better product had the story stayed grounded in political struggles and questions of the morality of actions and intent. The Zodiac Stones story that eventually overtook the game’s focus is fine, as I said, and they fit well with the setting of Ivalice given the whole corrupt medieval church thing, but...without that, would we have had yet more really powerful moments of emotion and social examination, and raw twists and turns in the plot? Would some of the content of the game’s expansive codex, so in-depth that it feels like a third of the story’s content is locked away in its menus, have been seen in action rather than just read about?

Great though it is, I cannot help but wonder if Final Fantasy Tactics had more to offer, had it not switched its focus. I suppose we’ll just never know.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Guest Rant: In Defense of Young RPG Protagonists

It's that time again: time for me to rest on my sorry ass as though complaining about RPGs was something hard to do, and allow 1 of my readers to treat you all to a different perspective. And our guest ranter today is, once more, the esteemed and helpful Humza! Thanks yet again, buddy!

Disclaimer: As ever, I don't own Humza's words, and they don't necessarily reflect my own opinions and observations. Although I can say that his thoughts below are quite logical and compelling, and if I don't entirely agree with all of them, I do agree with most of what Humza says, and have adjusted my perceptions accordingly. He's a pretty convincing bloke.

In Defense of Young RPG Protagonists

March 22, 2017

It's a common complaint that lots of RPGs (especially Japanese ones) have protagonists that are too young to go on a journey to save the world. Most of the complaints seem to come from people that don't like JRPGs in the first place and someone like that probably wouldn't read this, but maybe it'll interest some of the readers here anyway.

The complaints seem to be centered around it being unrealistic for a group of teenagers to go on their quest* and that it would make more sense to replace the cast with a group of adults. Let's get the more boring defenses of them out of the way first...


This is probably the most common reason provided for why JRPGs commonly use young protagonists, since the main demographic of video games in Japan (and this genre in particular) are teenagers, and the players would presumably be able to relate more to the characters if both share similar ages and go through similar situations. For example, many teenagers gradually start to acquire more responsibilities (even if those responsibilities often revolve around spending more time studying and doing simple errands for parents) and young protagonists in RPGs usually have few responsibilities before their adventure. The type of responsibility differs (saving the world is a much more impactful burden in comparison), but a parallel could be drawn where the errands feel like a similarly huge burden in the players' minds, if some eisegesis is used (although I don't agree with that).

Easier to develop characters

It shouldn't be too hard to see how character development is easier to write for a younger character. In most cases, but not all, younger people are more easily swayed in their ideas and beliefs than older people. It's not profound or thought-provoking, but this quote by Miyamoto illustrates an example of that. Since older characters are more rigid, more drastic situations are needed for them to develop. This could lead to characters that finish their development earlier, as with Yuri from Tales of Vesperia, who (I'm told) becomes static around halfway into the game. It is possible to develop older protagonists well, like Stocke from Radiant Historia, but the main reason to choose an older character is used by writers seems to be (considering it's a commonality between older protagonists) so that they are more experienced in their field (both of the aforementioned characters being knights in renowned organisations), and using drastic situations to show that the character needs to progress could conflict** with the appearance of them being experienced, so it's harder to write. Stocke from Radiant Historia is portrayed that way (perhaps intentionally) when he falls to an enemy that doesn't have a huge significance to the plot.

More importantly, it's common (at least, from my experience and what I've heard from others, which is admittedly limited anecdotal evidence) for people to more actively develop their identity starting from that point, which weighs more heavily on the scale of character development than the amount of experience that characters have.

Fewer conflicts between gameplay and story

This kind of ties into the previous point about older characters normally being more experienced, but an experienced character has less reason to change and improve if they are capable of tackling the problem without a strong need for change. The traditional RPG leveling system is suited to characters progressively improving (there's probably a correlation that can be drawn between physical strength and the mental state of a character since both usually develop in RPGs) over the course of a game and this ties to characters getting more experienced (it's called EXP for a reason, so this is probably obvious...), which is hard to do with an older, more experienced character. For example, Shepard from Mass Effect is around 30 years old and one of the strongest characters in the setting, but it's easier than it should be for him to get killed by a low-level grunt during gameplay. (This isn't a knock against Mass Effect since the gameplay probably benefited from having the mission-based experience system it did and the problem isn't too noticeable, but you need to go through more mental gymnastics to make logical sense out of it).

Historical precedence

I don't think any human being or group could be attributed as having saved the world, but there is some (rare) historical precedence of young people having accomplishing great things. The most common example would probably be Jeanne d'Arc, who helped the French army in a war with the English at 18 years old, which is almost comparable to the protagonists of the first two Suikodens, since they also lead armies to victory against another country. Alexander the Great has a somewhat similar story where he started engaging in (small) warfare at 17. Those RPG protagonists are still far-fetched compared to this, but they don't seem quite as unlikely considering what young leaders have done in the past. The setting in some of those RPGs is also technologically closer to the places the aforementioned leaders came from than it is to the 21st century, so the concept of adolescence may not be a limiting factor that exists in those worlds. (It's possible the concept might limit what adolescents are likely to accomplish since most young leaders I found were before the Industrial Revolution, but that might be offset by the increased life expectancy giving people more time to do great things).

I'd be interested in any comments on this since it strays from things I've usually written in the past, and I probably overlooked or got something wrong. Thanks for reading!

*It seems arbitrary to draw the line for realism at young people helping the world become a better place, and not at more unlikely things in RPGs, like magic existing.

**Most people seem to improve aspects of themselves when it becomes a necessity since the reason behind improving is much more compelling in that case.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

AeternoBlade's Freyja's Power

AeternoBlade is a rather obscure action RPG with a decent, creative plot involving a heaping load of time travel, a fairly well-executed theme of the terrible and corrupting nature of wrath and vengeance, and a serviceable cast of characters It has an imaginative gameplay system that generally works, functional graphics, and a middling soundtrack. And it has one of the most powerful RPG protagonists of all time.

There really aren’t many other RPG characters I can think of whom Freyja would not be able to defeat, save ones like, say, Goku (Dragon Ball Z has had RPGs made about it, remember), who are just outright invulnerable to conventional attacks made with a sword. But as long as a foe can, conceivably, be defeated by being stabbed and slashed with a sword, even if it’s a case where it would take hundreds of sword strokes to do it...Freyja would invariably come out of a battle between them as the victor. Hell, even in the case of a character like Goku, where she literally can’t harm him, a fight between them would probably end in Freyja’s retreat more than an outright loss.

What makes Freyja insanely unstoppable is her sword, the Aeterno Blade,* and the way it does this is twofold. First of all, it...well, it basically lets her be Tracer from Overwatch, if you increased Tracer’s temporal powers several times over. The Aeterno Blade allows Freyja to perform a small little time-space dash forward, which basically blinks her out of time for a moment, allowing her to evade enemy attacks by invincibly passing through them in time. She can’t do this in rapid succession, but the recharge time on this is still short, like half a second, so Freyja’s ability to dodge her foes’ attacks and close a distance gap (which is kinda necessary for a sword-user) is quite effective.

More importantly from the Tracer-esque half of the Aeterno Blade’s repertoire is the ability it grants Freyja to rewind her own actions (while remaining fully conscious of their consequences), and in the process heal herself from any damage she took during that time, should she be mortally wounded. So, essentially, if an enemy manages to strike a fatal blow against Freyja, she can rewind her own timeline by half a minute or so, and bring herself back to before that fatal moment in as good condition as she was, with the knowledge of what’s going to happen and, presumably, how to avoid it. And Freyja can activate this rewind ability pretty much at the brink of, or even beyond, death. After all, any time she dies in the game, you have a few seconds as she lies there to begin rewinding her back to life. So yeah. Freyja has the ability to rewind time from even beyond the grip of death to bring herself back to life, with preternatural insight on what not to do in her immediate future.

So, already we’re talking about an individual who is extremely difficult to defeat, because if you’re fighting Freya and she’s using the powers I’ve mentioned, she’s blinking through most of your attacks and keeps seeming to know exactly how to counter the finishing strikes you might have landed on her, knowing they’re coming practically before even you do. And it’s worth noting that even beyond the powers that the Aeterno Blade confers to Freyja, she’s no slouch at combat. She has an impressive, physics-defying repertoire of sword skills, can use magic to call down meteors on her foes (which is pretty much always a high-level attack spell, regardless of which RPG you go by), and can do that double-jump thing that’s so popular in action RPGs. Already we’re talking about a pretty damned dangerous combatant...and I haven’t even gone into the details of the other half of the Aeterno Blade’s time control that Freyja possesses.

The other side of Freyja’s temporal abilities is extrapersonal time reversal. most cases, a character who can stop or incredibly slow time is almost unbeatable, such as Sailor Moon: Another Story’s Sailor Pluto, or The Flash when he’s really not kidding around. When Feena stops time in battle for a few rounds during Grandia 1, it gives her a chance to fully heal the party up, and do some damage to her enemy, all without needing fear a single attack to her person. Likewise, Sailor Pluto breaks Sailor Moon: Another Story, able to freeze time for her enemy for 3 rounds, allowing the Senshi to heal themselves and launch attacks, and then just as time for the enemy restarts, she can freeze them again. This extraordinarily broken gameplay mechanic even works on the final boss!

Very impressive stuff, to be sure. But Freyja makes even that level of power look like a joke. She can, at will, make the entirety of time and space rewind itself for several seconds (at full power, it’s roughly a full minute), starting and stopping everything around her as she pleases. She herself, however, is an outside entity to this rewinding, and can act as she wishes...which means that during this period of time marching backward, she can deal damage to an enemy, damage that will (for some reason) remain with said enemy even as it reverses back before she stabbed it. You could attack her, and before you even connected, she’d reverse you back to when you first started that attack, and stab you in the heart as she was doing it, so from your perspective, the first lurching step you take at her is suddenly, inexplicably your last as a gaping hole appears in your chest. From the viewpoint of her enemies, she can and is everywhere but where their attack is about to land, as 1 fatal slash after another instantaneously appear on them. She could spend half a minute dodging blows from you, suddenly reverse time, and deliver a fatal strike as you go back through your every action, and bam! From the perspective of the rest of the universe, you somehow got sliced in half a few seconds before you even had seen that she was there.

Also worth noting in regards to this ability is that there is an accessory that Freyja can equip to the blade that causes her to regenerate her health while she’s rewinding the world around her, so she can be constantly healing even as she’s making you do an impression of a moon-walking pincushion. There is no time during which she’s using her powers in which she can’t also be regenerating herself back to peak condition. Y’know. Just for a little extra overpowered zest.

Seriously, aside from an enemy that she just outright cannot damage with a sword or meteors, there is no individual I can think of originating from RPGs that Freyja would not be able to defeat, and even the ones she couldn’t actually harm, she could still escape from and/or stalemate. It’s too bad that AeternoBlade is so obscure, because it’s created one of the most powerful fictional characters ever to exist, and it seems kind of like it did so without even trying.

And that’s all I have to say today. Tune in next time for a rant wherein I’m not gushing about how super cool and strong some character is like I’m goddamn five years old! At least, maybe.

* Why the hell did they make it a single word for the title of the game, but put a space between “Aeterno” and “Blade” in the actual name of the weapon? I swear, sometimes I think that Japan is purposefully making titular nomenclature as confusing as they can.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Fallout Series's Madison Li's Worth

Doctor Madison Li of Fallout 3 and 4 sure does seem to draw a lot of ire from players. Really, it seems like any time the character is brought up in a discussion of the games, someone or other is going to jump in and talk about what a douchebag Dr. Li is, and/or how they’re glad she blows up with the Institute at the end of the game, and so on. And honestly? I don’t think it’s fair to find her so dislikable, nor take glee in her (uncertain, but likely) death at the end of the game. She may be kind of a pill to the player every time we see her in Fallout 3 and 4, but that doesn’t make her a bad person deserving of scorn, and it’s not hard to sympathize with the reasons for her attitude. Much like Edward and Cait Sith, Madison Li is a character who doesn’t deserve the scorn that the audience is all too eager to fling her way, and I want to use today’s rant to mount a bit of a defense for her.

Let’s start this post by looking beyond her admittedly negative personality for a moment (we’ll go back to it, no worries), and just look at her as a person overall. Doctor Li is actually quite a good person. In fact, I would say that Madison Li is unwaveringly moral, which is certainly difficult in the world of Fallout. Every time we see her in the series, she is devoting all her time and energy toward research for the sake of humanity. Early in Fallout 3, our first encounter with Li in Rivet City finds her researching ways in which fresh fruits and vegetables can be grown in the Capital Wasteland, which I would argue is a noble pursuit for her as a scientist, one which is aimed solely at the survival and betterment of all the people around her. While many scientific minds in the Fallout series pursue their fields for a variety of more self-motivated reasons (curiosity, personal survival, empowerment of themselves over others, etc), Doctor Li works with the intention of improving the lives of all.

This fact is only further cemented as we learn more about her in Fallout 3, and discover that before she was forced to take up her experiments in Rivet City, Li’s focus was on Project Purity, a grand scientific endeavor which aimed to find a way to purify the drinking water of the Washington D.C. area, providing clean, free water to all. I’ve always found Project Purity, the centerpiece of Fallout 3’s plot, to be a respectable, in fact inspiring its noble simplicity and the purely good and selfless intentions behind it is an intangible majesty, an undercurrent of the epic and deeply moving. James, the father of Fallout 3’s protagonist, is subtly but clearly put onto a pedestal by the game’s plot and characters as a paragon of virtue and nobility for his dedication to his wife’s dream, the dream of providing clean, free water, the foundation of life and civilization, to all...and yet, laudable though James certainly is, even he, the man that Fallout 3 uses as an icon of morality against which the protagonist measures her/himself, is not perfectly good and magnanimous. After the death of his wife, James gave up on Project Purity, and left so that he could raise his daughter/son in the safety of Vault 101. His decision is, of course, quite understandable as one made in grief and fear for being able to provide safety for his child when he could not even guarantee the life of the child’s mother, but nonetheless, the fact is that James, for all his generous ambition and noble belief in his wife’s dream of giving clean water to all, gave up on Project Purity. He made a decision to put his child’s welfare above that of the rest of the world’s. That’s not an act which I can decry...but at the same time, it is an act that also mars his otherwise iconic charity and overall goodness.

A marring act which is not true of Madison Li. Evidenced through the implications of her dialogue and the lore of Fallout 3, Doctor Li wanted to continue work on Project Purity, and she only stopped because the project didn’t have the expertise it needed without James’s presence, and because the Brotherhood of Steel, recognizing this fact, pulled its essential support from the doomed project. So ultimately, Li is actually a person of demonstrably greater morality than even James, the character whom Fallout 3’s plot designates as the icon for what is good, right, and noble, because she was forced to abandon their grand project of goodwill. And when she was forced to move on, she went right to working on another project whose goals were for the benefit of all people.*

And of course, it goes without saying that, when it is brought back to life during the events of Fallout 3, the fact that Madison Li resumes her efforts with Project Purity is just further evidence that she is a person who devotes her entirety to the benefit of others. Hell, she’s willing (albeit reluctantly) to drop the life that she has built for herself in Rivet City during the years of James’s absence to come and assist the project once more...and if anything, it’s all the more impressive and praiseworthy of her and the other scientists to do so this time, because this time the Brotherhood of Steel isn’t around to provide security. Madison Li and her team are willing to leave the ironclad safety of Rivet City and hole up at the Jefferson Memorial with absolutely no armed backing whatsoever, for the sake of this noble scientific endeavor. And more than any other region of America we’ve seen in the Fallout universe to date, the Capital Wasteland is NOT the kind of place you want to be out and about in without heavy armor and fire support. Super mutants and raiders are absolutely everywhere, and being surrounded by water, the Jefferson Memorial is prime territory for mirelurks (giant, highly aggressive mutant crabs, for those who aren’t in the know regarding the Fallout bestiary).

It’s worth noting that her exit from the Brotherhood of Steel between games and her work with the Institute are not any sort of black mark against her, either. Between Fallout 3 and 4, the deaths of Elder Lyons and his daughter Sarah allow for the Brotherhood of Steel’s east coast branch to transform from a proud, worthy order of tech paladins that embody the true intent of their order, into a tyrannical, self-important superpower of paranoid, xenophobic bigots who completely misunderstand the purpose of their collective. The fact that Doctor Li recognized this transformation as it occurred and got the hell away from the organization is nothing but a credit to her character.

Her subsequent acceptance into the Institute was, as with all things she involves herself in, done with only good intentions. Li was led to believe that the Institute’s single minded scientific pursuits were for the good of the human race, and you can hardly blame her for that, as most of the Institute’s other members also genuinely believe this. Hell, the Institute’s mouthpieces on the matter are convincing enough that there are even plenty of players who buy into this backwards logic that ignoring, abusing, trivializing, and replacing human lives can somehow “save” humanity (quotation marks because the nature of this salvation is laughably vague). In fact, even as she works for them, Li has enough presence of mind and healthy suspicion that if you find evidence that the Institute’s higher ups have been misleading her, she’ll leave it.

Of course, these exits from the BoS and Institute have, ridiculously enough, led some people to criticize Dr. Li for her lack of loyalty. Uh...yeah, okay, guys? Girls? All others? Being loyal to an employer/benefactor/country/whatever is a good thing, definitely. But that loyalty should NEVER, EVER trump your loyalty to your conscience. The idea that people would criticize Li’s lack of loyalty for leaving an organization that she can see is doing wrong is, no joke, terrifying to me. That is the kind of mindset that leads to whistleblowers being punished rather than praised by the very people whom they’re protecting. Anyone who turns against their corporation, social club, country, or any other kind of group for the sake of the people is a hero, to be respected. Criticizing Li for her lack of loyalty to the Institute and the emerging Fallout 4 Brotherhood of Steel...this is the kind of thinking that paves the way for fascist regimes, people!

Anyway, getting back to my first major point, her actions in Fallout 3 and 4 show beyond argument that Madison Li is an exceptionally good person. There is simply no time, save when she is outright deceived by others, in which she is not pouring herself into an effort to benefit all of humanity. She is one of the most uncompromisingly moral, virtuous individuals in the entire Fallout series. And that’s something I think deserves some respect.

But, of course, I suspect that what irks so many gamers and makes them despise Li is not a misunderstanding of her good work so much as it is her attitude. And...well, yeah. She’s kind of a pain in the ass! I mean, it seems like every time you meet Li in Fallout 3 and 4, she’s in a bad mood. She’s standoffish at best, and just plain rude the rest of the time. While I never found her attitude enragingly annoying, I can understand why it would put a person off.

But, y’know...I think that to judge her so harshly for it, to decide that you actively dislike Madison Li for the fact that she isn’t especially friendly and inviting whenever a protagonist comes across her, is really unfair. First of all, I think it’s just unfair from a general standpoint; people seem to have less enmity for many characters who outright attack or undermine the games’ protagonists than they do for this character who simply isn’t very nice. More importantly, though, I’d argue that Madison Li really has every damn right to be moody and unpleasant.

I mean, when you think about it, what exactly does Li have to be happy about? Everything, EVERYTHING in her life goes wrong. Fallout 3 implies (and for what it’s worth, the Fallout wikipedia backs this up) that Li was in love with James in her youth, but since James was married, she couldn’t act on her feelings. Then, when James’s wife Catherine died, he up and abandoned the project that they’d all put so much work and hope into. The man she loved just left the team behind, and she got to watch Project Purity fall apart before her eyes, forcing her to find a completely new life at Rivet City. She manages to make a life for herself there and finds a new way to work towards the good of humanity, and then, 19 years later, James shows up out of nowhere, and expects her to just drop everything to come back to the project that he abandoned. Whether for love for James, respect for Catherine’s dream, or simple goodwill toward humanity, Dr. Li does so, and puts her life at risk to make Project Purity happen.

And what does she get from doing so? She watches as the man she loves/loved is murdered before her eyes by the Enclave, and is forced to escape and go crawling to the Brotherhood of Steel, another group that had abandoned her in the past, to provide shelter for her and her team. And yes, by the conclusion of Fallout 3, Project Purity has finally come to fruition and the Enclave suffered retribution for their crimes...but that doesn’t bring James back, and the events surrounding the success of Project Purity give the Brotherhood of Steel a massive amount of technological power and regional success, and Li gets to watch as the changing leadership and priorities of this chapter of the Brotherhood begins to use that power and success for ignoble ends. And even when she finally finds another group that seems to be working toward the same goals as she is, the Institute, she finds that their lack of transparency is distressingly suspicious.

So let’s just summarize here: Loved a man who she could never be with. Got abandoned by him, and forced to give up on her life’s work. Spent 19 years building a new life only to be asked by the same guy to drop that life as though it didn’t matter at all, to take up the project that same guy originally abandoned. When this project finally succeeds, it comes at the cost of his life, and it led to the rise of a bunch of fascists. And when she finally joins the Institute, and rises up its ranks, she finds that its leaders are dodgy and don’t keep her in the loop about things.

Madison Li’s life, as far as we can see from the major relationships and roles she’s had in Fallout 3 and 4’s events and lore, is incredibly depressing. Her life is a story of a man she cares about making her feel unimportant, being used by others, and of paying for success with terrible tragedy.** And all of that is the reward she gets for attempting to do good for the world. So you know what? I think that it’s okay if she’s not all that cheery. Maybe it would be nice if she could rise above the lousy circumstances of her life and be nicer to people, but is it really fair to hold it against her if she can’t?

Doctor Madison Li is a woman who tirelessly works her ass off for the good of others for all her life, and she never gets rewarded for her unflagging dedication to doing what’s right. I think it’s high time that the Fallout fan community took a better look at her, and realized that her character should not be loathed and disparaged, but rather respected, even admired.

* You can make the argument that, as James himself says, he never really stopped working on Project Purity, since he continued his research in Vault 101. And that is a fair point. Nonetheless, with the project proper, he had more and better minds to help him, and greater time and resources to devote to it It’s good that he stayed devoted to the project as his daughter/son was growing up, but that’s definitely not an equivalent devotion to it as staying with his team would have been.

** And not that she knows it, but that life story doesn’t have a great ending, either. After all, with the end of the Institute in Fallout 4 (assuming that Nora/Nate is a decent person and doesn’t side with those self-important monsters) being an underground nuclear explosion, there’s every chance that Li perishes by the game’s end. I personally hope that she’s 1 of the Institute’s people who manages to escape (the game does give you the choice to sound an evacuation alarm), but even then, that just means that she’s once again been torn from a life she’s set up and left with nothing, which ain’t exactly a happy circumstance, either.

It’s no better if you convince her during Fallout 4’s events to return to the Brotherhood, either. I mean, either you’re a complete asswipe and sided with the Brotherhood, meaning that she’s now stuck working for a group of tyrannical, prejudiced asswipes because you lied to her about them having changed, or she’s dead, since if you don’t side with the Brotherhood you’re required to blow them the hell up. No happy ending for Doctor Li, no matter what. It really sucks.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Shin Megami Tensei Series's Elemental Weaknesses

Well whaddaya know...a short rant. I almost forgot what these looked like. Special thanks go to Ecclesiastes, for pointing out a part of this rant in which I was, to quote the great Dr. Clayton Forrester, stupid and wrong. So incredibly stupid! And wrong! So anyway, thanks for keeping my rants up to code, sir.

Oh, also, before we begin, I just want to note that I've updated (and, in doing so, finally completed) my Undertale theory rant from over a year ago. If you read the rant before, and have a bizarrely powerful memory for the rantings of an RPG-obsessed idiot, you may recall that I couldn't figure out how Undyne served as a reflection of Alphys in terms of tying to the game's theme of dangerous depression. Well, my mind may not be of much use for anything important, but sooner or later it works through all things RPG, and I finally found the solution that made my theory properly fit. So, uh, yeah, just thought I'd mention that if you want to check out Point F of that rant now, it's finally fully baked.

Anyway! On with the rant that's relevant to today.

Y’know, elemental weaknesses in RPGs are usually a pretty basic affair. Fire is Ice’s weakness, and vice-versa, Earth and Wind are usually at the same odds, Lightning is Water’s weakness,* Light and Dark repel each other, etc. Often there are a couple extra, semi-unseen rules, like Nature-based enemies being weak to Fire,** and mechanical enemies being weak to Electricity, but overall, the majority of RPGs have a weakness system so mindlessly simple that it’s basically color-coded.

It’s actually kind of surprising, really. I mean, with all the completely unnecessary gameplay complexities that developers are so fond of heaping onto what should be a functionally simple genre, it’s shocking that there aren’t more absurdly overcomplicated systems of elemental weaknesses in RPGs. I mean, there is Pokemon, where half of the weaknesses of over a dozen elemental types make sense and actually are surprisingly thoughtful, and the other half seem like they were drawn from a hat, but that’s about it.

This state of affairs makes the Weaknesses of the various demons in the Shin Megami Tensei series stand out as praiseworthy. Now, yes, the SMT series does play by the simple elemental rules I’ve mentioned in many regards. Surprise surprise, the fire giant Surt, who can be seen wielding a giant flaming sword, is weak to Ice. Huge shocker, the Earth elemental Erthys is weak to Wind. And you’ll never guess what Hel, the goddess overseeing the frozen afterlife of Norse mythology whose lower half is literally encompassed in ice, is weak to!

BUT, what Shin Megami Tensei does in addition to the more obvious elemental weaknesses in its bestiary, is to give weaknesses to its demons that are not so obvious, but make sense if you know that mythological figure’s background. Prometheus, for example, is a titan from Greek mythology, who gave the gift of knowledge (symbolized by fire) to mankind. For this act of evening the playing field between humanity and the gods, Prometheus was punished by being chained to a rock, and tortured by having his liver devoured every day by birds...sort of a reverse foie gras situation. Since he can’t die from such a thing, being a titan, his liver just keeps growing back and getting eaten again. Not pleasant.

Well, Prometheus is, as you might expect, weak to Ice in the Shin Megami Tensei series, what with him being clearly associated with Fire. But, Prometheus also has another weakness--he is extra susceptible to the Bind status ailment! In mythology, Prometheus is chained to a rock for his so-called crime, and so SMT translates that detail of the character’s history into a gameplay weakness that a crafty player familiar with the legend can take advantage of!

And this sort of thing is present all over the Megaten bestiary. Jeanne D’Arc, though clearly having no particular affinity with Ice, is weak to Fire attacks, which traces back to the fact that she died by being burned at the stake. Lanling Wang, a fabled Chinese general, died after he drank a cup of poison sent to him by the paranoid emperor he served, and so his SMT equivalent is particularly vulnerable to the Poison status ailment. Beldr/Baldur was a figure in Norse mythology who was killed by a spear or arrow made from mistletoe, and so in SMT4-1 and 4-2, he’s weak to Gun attacks, which essentially encompass all types of piercing strikes. And so on.

You find these clever little nods to the mythological history of the demons of Shin Megami Tensei all throughout its bestiary, and it’s really quite neat. And that’s really all I wanted to say today...I just think that this little quirk, which rewards a player for their knowledge of the mythological figures they’re battling against, is worth taking note of and appreciating as just 1 more of the countless little details that make Shin Megami Tensei so awesome.

Oh also Mara the giant penis demon is weak to Ice because the cold causes shrinkage HA HA SO FUNNY.

* This is often not scientifically accurate, incidentally. Pure, basic water does not conduct electricity! It’s actually impure water, notably salt water, that conducts electricity. The reason it’s dangerous to get water and electricity together for a date is simply because human skin contains salt, so as soon as you come into contact with water, it becomes, to some degree, salt water, and thus adding electricity WILL then zap the hell out of you. So, like, in a lot of cases, water-affinity creatures in RPGs should be weak to electricity, since they themselves add impurities to whatever water essence they have...but purely H2O enemies, like water elementals and the like, actually should be completely immune to electricity.

** The reasoning, of course, being that wood burns. Which I guess makes sense. But frankly, shouldn’t most RPG characters also be weak to Fire, then? I mean, most of them are wearing clothing, which is just as flammable as wood, and have generous amounts of hair, which can also, I believe, catch fire.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Whisper of a Rose

You have probably noticed this, but I tend to pull my punches a bit with Indie RPGs. I usually temper my criticisms of crowd-funded or personally produced RPGs with the reminder that they’re usually honest attempts by people who are passionate about the stories they want to tell. That’s not to say that conventionally developed bad games can’t also be works of passion, of course--The Last Story is surprisingly bland for being a work of pride and love, for example--but still. So I tend to make rants highlighting and endorsing good Indie RPGs I find, and try not to be too much of a jerk about their shortcomings.

But fair is fair, so when an Indie RPG leaves me feeling really annoyed, there will be a negative rant.

Whisper of a Rose, an RPG by Roseportal Games, is, in a word, disappointing. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s bad, I think, but it’s certainly not good, and it just promises way, way more than it can deliver on. I want to like this game, I really do, because its ideas have so much potential, but that’s as far as any of them get: potential.

You take the cast. The protagonist, Melrose, is a prime example of Whisper of a Rose’s tendency to disappoint. Melrose, a teenager, lives with a mother and father who are shown to be mentally abusive to her, and has no friends to speak of. Now, see, this is a situation not often utilized in RPGs which has a lot of potential to create a well-developed and interesting protagonist, and to shape the story’s direction significantly...but it just doesn’t stick. When we’re shown Mel’s home situation, it seems, somehow, both exaggerated, and not nearly harsh enough to be believable. It comes off like what someone imagines an abusive home is like, more than a genuine example. And Mel’s character just doesn’t seem to gain anything interesting or worthwhile from it. I mean, you’d expect her to have a negative personality, and she does, but there’s just not really any depth to her negativity. She’s not angry at the world, she’s just sullen and selfish. Mel’s listlessly standoffish and rude personality seems less like that of a troubled young person, and more like, well, just an average teenager when she’s in a bad mood. Reminds me of Final Fantasy 8’s Squall, really, although far less frustrating and dislikable.

Don’t get me wrong, there ARE pieces of character development for Mel, and she doesn’t stay the exact same the whole game long. But the bits where we learn a little about what formed her into who she is are few and far between (pretty much just the 1 flashback to the time she tried to save a ladybug from a bully), and once she’s done being perpetually selfish and uncooperative, there really isn’t any other personality that takes the negative one’s place...she just kinda becomes a plot chess piece, moving where she has to because the plot says so. Ultimately, Melrose just never becomes a character that we can connect to or contemplate.

The rest of the cast are no better. Hellena the witch is basically just a voice for explaining the plot lore, like Fran from Final Fantasy 12, only more one-dimensionally upbeat. Diamond is a ladybug who is, I guess, a manifestation of Mel’s memory of that ladybug from her past, or something, but there’s just nothing said or done with this idea, and by himself, Diamond isn’t interesting. Every single plot-relevant NPC is just a featureless plot device. And then there’s Christina.

On paper, Christina is an amazing character. You meet her as she’s traveling through a maze of her own insecurities while in a coma, she has a burning hatred for 1 of the villains in the game for the fact that he resulted in the loss of her baby, she’s a secret agent, and her mind created the final antagonist of the game as a mental manifestation that represents the man who raped her.

And yet, somehow, all of this is boring.

No part of this character should be less than compelling and interesting! But she just isn’t! Oh, to be sure, she’s more genuine in emotion than the other 3 party members, but not enough to sell it, and these major parts of her character are just kind of brought up, dropped, brought up again, and dropped again. Nothing is developed! None of these facets of Christina’s personality are used to explain or develop her character or her relationship to the others, nor make any particular impact on the story itself. She’s angry about it when it’s spoken of in front of her, and then the rest of the time, it’s like none of this stuff really even exists to her.

And that’s the way of this game: great ideas, being told by a writer who just isn’t equipped to execute them well enough. The ideas don’t connect to one another well enough, they don’t develop far enough, they often don’t even seem to ultimately have a point. And it’s not helped by the fact that the dialogue usually feels either clunky and unwieldy, or lacking spirit. When characters speak, it’s often like they came from an early SNES JRPG translation--it’s technically correct, but stiff, lacking feeling, or just a little awkward.

And what’s with the villain situation in this game? They just keep tossing 1 villain up after the next! Oh, the villain is the scary grunting marionette that’s attacking the fairy godmother somewhere in dreamland! Whoops, hold on, it’s the generic scary little girl who has an inadequately explained grudge against Mel! No, wait, it’s the evil witch mother, who wants to kill the wizard father and curse the protagonist! No, hold on, Farah the emotion-snubbing iron angel of rapists just escaped the dreamworld and is out to kill the world! But hold the phone, before you deal with that guy, it’s important to take down the CEO of the corporation that made the iDream, because he wants to use it to pull superweapons out of the dreamworld. No, hang on,you’re back in the dreamworld before you could do anything about that, and look, you’re cursed by that same witch as before! Better go rescue the fairy godmother from the grunting marionette that is now apparently super important! THEN deal with the witch, THEN the CEO, THEN the world-destroyer.

Multiple major villains in an RPG is a standard for the genre, and perfectly fine, but you have to PACE these things. You can’t just sub in a new villain even though you’re supposed to be dealing with something immediately important from another villain, over and over again! It just gets too damn confusing when you jam them all together like Whisper of a Rose does. It’s basically just Spider-Man 3 again. Worse, really.

And while we’re on problems with the villains, here’s a question I’d really like answered: Why is it that the mental representation of Christina’s rapist is a supervillain motivated by a wish to purge the world of emotion? I mean, how does your mentality construct a representation of your RAPIST as a standard JRPG anti-emotion villain archetype? What connected these things?!

Likewise, a lot of the good ideas for the story and themes are there, but not developed far enough, or explained well enough. I get the gist of the dream world’s workings, but the explanations are shaky enough that I don’t feel I know as strongly as I should. The role of Erasers, and the notable fact that technically Christina becomes an Eraser herself toward the end of the game, need more follow-up. The fact that the monsters of the dream world are phobias is good, but nothing much is really made of this, and how each of the phobius monsters connects to Melrose is utterly ambiguous--the most connection we see on this level is that the final boss is Virginitiphobia, which makes sense since it’s the mental representation of Christina’s rapist, but that’s the most any of these phobius enemies connect to anyone.

Also, I’m sorry, but how the iDream works is completely nonsensical. So, like, once it’s connected, the iDream needs a shot of adrenaline going through your system before it activates, right?* But this plot point never makes sense when it’s relevant. The first time Mel uses the device, she’s running from the police through the city streets, and it doesn’t activate, not until the police goon shoots at her.** She’s running in a panic through the streets as the fuzz chases after her, so shouldn’t Mel already have adrenaline pumping through her system like crazy? Why isn’t the iDream activating? Are we supposed to take from this scene that the shot of adrenaline came when Melrose heard the sound of the cop firing at her? Because I am pretty damn sure that a bullet’s speed is such that the average human being cannot react to hearing the gunshot before being hit by the bullet! There’s no way Melrose should have been able to hear the gun fire and then process the fact that she was now in mortal danger fast enough to spike her adrenaline before the bullet hit.

It’s much worse later on. After defeating Farah, the villain who’s trying to destroy the real world because he doesn’t like emotion, Mel needs to get back in the dream world to finish the job, and thus needs a hit of adrenaline again. Her solution? Well, obviously, since they’re on the roof of a building, she decides to jump off. Yeah, okay, plunging to your death will surely give you a good rush of adrenaline, but there are other ways to get yourself agitated, damn it! Her friends are with her--she could just start a fight with one of them, and that would do it. Heck, getting to the edge and looking over, with the honest intention of leaping off, should have been more than enough to get the adrenaline flowing. And she’s doing this because Farah has returned to her mental landscape, meaning that she’s in mortal danger from within--shouldn’t the panic she’s clearly feeling at this moment from that fact be more than enough to provide the necessary adrenaline? For that matter, they all JUST got done with 1 of the most difficult battles in the entire game--shouldn’t her system already be drowning in adrenaline?

In fact, thinking about that...I don’t seem to recall seeing Melrose ever visibly activate the iDream after the first time, so I can only assume it’s always on, in which case, shouldn’t any and every battle she engages in while in the real world send her to the dream world? Does she just feel absolutely nothing every time she’s in life-or-death combat, or something?

This frequent lack of attention to detail does not help with the game’s tendency to not explore its ideas to any satisfactory end. And speaking of that, 1 last thing about the story overall: what’s with the fairy tale references? You’ve got a fairy godmother as a major plot NPC, and that makes sense given the abusive family element--it’s drawing off the tale of Cinderella. But that’s as far as that reference goes--there’s no parallel between the WoaR Fairy Godmother and Melrose, and the Cinderella Fairy Godmother and Cinderella, in terms of actions, relationship, relevance, or purpose. Similarly, Hellena’s parents are clearly references to the Wizard of Oz, but beyond simply having superficial similarities to the Wicked Witch and the Wizard, there’s nothing else done with it--purpose, interrelationships, theme, character traits, there’s no correlation between the Whisper of a Rose characters and the Wizard of Oz ones. It all breaks down past the basic appearance.

Anyway...I think I’ve ragged on Whisper of a Rose enough now. Look, I want to make it clear that I respect the hell out of what this game is trying to do. It’s trying to get you to think, and it has some really interesting, creative starting points for its ideas. But great ideas and good intentions just aren’t enough on their own, and Roseportal Games just didn’t have the writing talent to make good on them. It’s too bad, but the only thing that Whisper of a Rose really made me think about was how much more thought-provoking it should have been.

* Why does a device that puts you into an unconscious state to access the dream world require adrenaline, incidentally? Isn’t adrenaline usually something that, y’know, keeps you awake?

** I’d criticize how trigger-happy this cop is to be attempting to kill a fleeing teenage girl whose crime is just stealing a technical doodad from a museum display...but an idiot police officer deciding to use lethal force against an unarmed, nonviolent offender is probably the most true-to-life part of this game. Really, the only logical inconsistency here is that the helpless suspect-turned-victim that he’s trying to murder is white.