Thursday, September 18, 2014

General RPGs' Town Music

Why is town music in RPGs always so insipid, annoying, and/or completely forgettable?

Think about it. With a few exceptions--notable, but few--town music is pretty much always a boring or outright unpleasant affair in RPGs. It’s either some uninspired, tired, vaguely upbeat (or gloomy, for some towns) affair that makes me roll my eyes with how lacking in creativity and feeling it is, or some obnoxious, grating ditty set on an eternal, ear-grinding loop. Or it’s just such an outright forgettable sequence of generic notes that it barely qualifies as background noise. It feels to me like basic town music is the part of every game soundtrack that the composer just outsources to whichever company it is that comes up with the background music to infomercials.

It’s kind of annoying to me, honestly. The rest of the game’s music may be excellent, with each track composed carefully to inspire a certain feeling relevant to the times of the game it plays during, to convey a mood or meaning via its notes, but everything always seems to fall apart the instant your party sets foot within city limits. At that moment, the only message the music communicates is “WELCOME TO TOWN,” its only mood, boredom. Obviously some are worse than others--sweet merciful Rempo is the standard town music for Final Fantasy 4 dull, and don’t even get me started on every generic town theme of every Dragon Quest ever--but next to no town theme is ever actually good or memorable.

Obviously, of course, there are a good handful of exceptions. Or rather, there seem to be. For example, I think the theme for the (sort of) town of Dologany, from Breath of Fire 2, is very cool and epic, and I think the same of the music for the town of Narvick in Lufia 2. The music for Windia in Breath of Fire 4 is very calming and enjoyable, as is that for the Moon Kingdom of Sailor Moon: Another Story. The music in Star Ocean 3 for Whipple Village is among my all-time favorite RPG tunes. And many themes that play during sad moments involving towns in RPGs (such as a town after it’s been burned/flooded/blown to bits/infected/whatever by the forces of evil) are quite good, too--I’m quite a fan of the ruined city theme in Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled, and the one for The Legend of Dragoon. Ahto City from Knights of the Old Republic 1, Alistel from Radiant Historia, Valua City from Skies of Arcadia Legends, Murky Waters from The Witcher 1...the list actually goes on for a while of the town themes I find to be excellent.

But here’s the thing about all those exceptions. They’re all specialized, individual themes. The music for Dologany and Narvick are ONLY heard in those towns, nowhere else in the game. Each is the final town you visit on the game’s journey, and each is a location that is hugely important to the plot. They receive special musical attention to better convey their epic finality. The actual generic town music used for most other settlements in BoF2 is bland (though admittedly above the average of RPG towns), and the actual generic town music of Lufia 2’s communities is like audible Novocaine. And so it is for all the “exceptions” I just listed. They’re all tailored specifically for 1 single location and/or a specific plot event/atmosphere of importance. In fact, some come from games where EVERY town location has its own individual tune. And that’s not a bad thing! When every town is important to that degree, when you put some actual effort into making a theme for a town that’s unique to that town and/or its place in the game’s events, when you believe it matters, you can get some good results!

But when it comes to the authentic generic town music, the stuff that gets played for the majority of towns in an RPG...meh. When we take out specialized and/or singular town themes, I come up with very few pieces of town music that I think are particularly decent and memorable. Wild Arms 1’s town theme, Legaia 2’s town theme,, I can’t even think of a third. If there’s any situation where the phrase “the exception proves the rule” applies, it’s probably the situation where you have 2 exceptions in a pool of over 250.* For the sake of not having to mildly regret every time I decide to stop by a village for an equipment upgrade and a night at the inn, I wish game composers could put a little more effort, time, and/or creativity into their town music, give it more punch, more pizzazz, more SOMETHING. Or better yet, I wish more RPGs would adopt the practice of giving each town its own musical theme. After all, what CAN you expect from a tune composed with the deliberate purpose of being vague and generic enough to be layered onto like 50 different town locations?

* Okay, for accuracy’s sake, I must admit that not ALL 250+ of the RPGs I’ve played had any generic town music (a few, as I mentioned, give individual tracks to each town). But the large majority do have a generic town theme (a few even have multiple ones), large enough that I think the slight exaggeration is still okay.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Deus Ex 2's Pequod's and Queequeg's Reveal

Deus Ex 2 has a rather accelerated pace in its storytelling, going from one major event and thematic concept to the next with very little delay, making it a much shorter game than its predecessor. In general, though, the writers handle this pace well enough that, despite its quickness, it doesn’t really come off as rushed, and you still have enough time for your mind to chew on the game’s ideas without being left behind. There is, however, 1 time in DE2 in which the brisk narrative pace has a noticeably detrimental effect: the reveal of Pequod’s and Queequeg’s.

As you progress through the events of Deus Ex 2, one of the subplots you frequently encounter is the bitter corporate rivalry between the global coffeehouse chains, Pequod’s Coffee and Queequeg’s Coffee (both of which are, of course, parodies of Starbucks, also taking their names from Moby Dick). In each city that Alex Denton, the protagonist, visits, the manager of one or both of these competitors will attempt to get Alex to help them to get a leg up on their competition, sometimes legally (getting permission for Queequeg’s to do business in the ritzier part of town, for example), sometimes not so legally (a certain Pequod’s manager subscribes to the same idea as that famous NPC from The Legend of Zelda 2: If all else fails, use fire). It’s a mildly interesting subplot, but doesn’t seem to have any real importance.

Until, that is, you come across some evidence hidden in a police station in Trier, which the local Queequeg’s manager wants Alex to find for him. This evidence reveals that Queequeg’s and Pequod’s coffee chains are, in fact, both owned by the same company. That company set each chain up to appeal to different demographics (Queequeg’s is seen as the everyman’s coffee, while Pequod’s is thought to cater to the more refined, higher class tastes), and then set them to war with one another, with the idea that the competition would cause the customers of each to become all the more loyal supporters of their preferred brand, their devotion solidified by their enmity toward the supposed rival chain. Whether people support Side A or Side B, if you’re running the war, you’re the one winning, right? It also plays on people's tendency to become nervous about monopolies and other such 1-party systems, falsely reassuring them that if either chain begins doing wrong by its customers, there's another chain that the people can flock to.

This revelation is great in 2 ways. The first is that it makes the previously seemingly unimportant coffee sidequest into a genuine, significant part of the Deus Ex theme of exposing and analyzing the ways in which a population is manipulated and controlled, in this case showing us some of the ways that businesses do so. Well-executed twist, makes sense, gives the subplot some significance, very nicely done in general.

The other great thing about this revelation is that it’s clever foreshadowing for a later, much more important plot revelation: the fact that the World Trade Organization and The Order, the 2 major world power groups that have each been vying for Alex’s assistance and attempting to gain the upper hand over the other, are actually both being run by the same people: the Illuminati. Just as with the Pequod’s and Queequeg’s coffee chains, the people on both sides of the famously hostile competition between the WTO and The Order are being manipulated into working against one another, their fervor to seize every bit of control and advantage over the “enemy” only making the puppet masters of the conflict more powerful. Great little parallel they set up here, just connected enough that you can figure out that the WTO and Order will wind up being the same as the coffee chains if you’re clever, but not obvious or anything, so it’s still a neat twist even if you guessed it.

Or at least, that’s how it should work.

But this foreshadowing idea is where the problem is with the coffee chain reveal. In theory, it should work fine, because like I said, it’s clever and it’s written well, connected but still subtle. But the pacing of the game kind of just ruins it. See, after visiting the police station in Trier where you learn the truth of the Pequod’s and Queequeg’s rivalry, the next real mission of the game is to rescue the leader of The Order...and it’s then that you discover that the Illuminati are running both the WTO and The Order.

The plot twist that the coffee subplot was foreshadowing comes right after the coffee subplot reveal! It’s the very next part of the game’s story!

Foreshadowing just doesn’t work when it’s given so little time to work with. The revelation of Pequod’s and Queequeg’s origin isn’t given the time needed to sit in the audience’s head and germinate into a deeper understanding. Done properly, the reveal of the WTO and The Order would make a little light go off in your head, would make you think, “Of course! It’s like the coffee chains from earlier! I should have seen it coming--the truth was staring at me the whole time! The writers really had this theme all worked out!” Instead, coming so soon after the coffee subquest reveal, the impression is just, “Oh, like that other thing that I only just saw like 30 minutes ago. Neat connection.” The effect is still positive, but there’s none of the impact that there might have been if the plot twist had come earlier in the game. If you’d had more time to remember it and consider it, if it had been placed earlier and thus better connected the WTO and Order reveal to the earlier events of the story, making a stronger sense of the answer always having been there...well, it would simply have been a much more effective use of the Queequeg’s and Pequod’s subplot twist. Foreshadowing should be more than just 1 single step ahead of the plot.

Anyway, it’s not a huge deal, I suppose, and overall the twist and its connection to the game’s larger events and theme is still good. It’s just a shame to me that its timing keeps it from being better.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

General RPG Lists: Most Needed Sequels

In the world of RPGs, and just about every other video game and general form of media, sequels are not exactly hard to find. If a game sells well, it’s almost assured that there will be a sequel made for it. Hell, it may get a sequel even if it’s not especially successful. Arc the Lad, from what I’m told, has a pretty small following in Japan, and is obscure enough to be virtually unknown to the rest of the world, but somehow managed to live long enough to have 5 titles (or at least 4.5, depending on how you want to count AtL: End of Darkness). Yes, sequels and prequels are not exactly in short supply with RPGs. You can find good sequels to good games (Fallout 2 to Fallout 1), bad sequels to bad games (Megaman Star Force 2 to MMSF1), bad sequels to good games (Chrono Cross to Chrono Trigger), good sequels to bad games (Icewind Dale 2 to ID1), great sequels that are even better than the good games they come from (Shadow Hearts 2 to SH1), terrible sequels that are even worse than the bad games they come from (Xenosaga 3 to Xenosaga 2), prequels that are so great that they actually retroactively make their lousy predecessor better (Lufia 2 to Lufia 1), prequels that are so lousy that they actually retroactively make their great predecessor worse (Valkyrie Profile 2 to VP1), sequels that are absolutely necessary as a continuation of a story in progress (Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2 to SMTDDS1), sequels and prequels that are completely unnecessary, hastily tacked-on trash that adds nothing of value to their predecessor (every spinoff to Final Fantasy 7), sequels that are some of the finest games in existence (Suikoden 2), sequels that are some of the very most vile and worthless games in existence (Final Fantasy 10-2...blech, just acknowledging its existence makes me nauseous), RPG sequels to game series that aren’t typically RPGs (Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood), RPG sequels to series that aren’t even games (Sailor Moon: Another Story), RPGs that, I shit you not, are sequels to fucking Space Jam of all things (Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden), and, by far most prevalent, series continuations that have little to nothing to do with any of the games that came before them (the Grandia series, most of the Final Fantasy series, the Shining Force series, most of the Tales of series, the Wild Arms series, most of the Dragon Quest series...the list goes on).

Still, for all these countless sequels, there are still some RPGS out there that deserve, even need a sequel that they have not yet gotten. And today, I’ve put together a list of the 5 RPGS I think are highest on that list. Enjoy.

Note Before We Begin: For the purposes of this list, I’m only talking about direct, setting-and-plot-and-character-related sequels/prequels. Essentially, a game that makes use in a significant way the ideas and canon of its forebear. Additionally, I’m not counting game series that are currently still being actively worked on. I’m super excited about the prospects of additional titles in the Fallout and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series, for example, but I’m pretty sure Bethesda’s working on Fallout 4 and I know Atlus is developing SMTP5, so they’re not gonna make it onto the list. This list is for games that need a sequel and do not, at the current time, look like anyone is going to give it to them.

5. Treasure of the Rudras

One of a surprising number of nigh-unknown RPG gems produced by Squaresoft back in the days of the SNES, Treasure of the Rudras was very inventive in the way it told its story, having 3 separate world-saving quests occurring simultaneously over a few days’ period, each tying in small ways to the others, all of which culminated in a final chapter of the heroes banding together to stop the cause of all their problems. The thing is, though, that the awesome twist of the game is that after defeating the supposedly evil gods and goddess, (SPOILER ALERT) the heroes learn that these seemingly malevolent deities were acting in the interests of preparing for the return an unknown, monstrously destructive force known as the Destroyers that it took an army of gods, most of whom died in the process, to drive off. The game ends with a prophetic vision of the future, a warning of the world’s oncoming doom if its people are unprepared to meet the Destroyers’ power, and the heroes nonetheless clinging to hope that the Destroyers can be stopped without the immoral methods of the gods they just defeated.

Well, I want to see more! I want to see a sequel set in the future, in which the Destroyers make their return! The storytelling method of multiple plots and protagonists occurring at the same time is handled flawlessly, the world itself is decently creative and has some interesting concepts, and while Treasure of the Rudras is a satisfyingly complete game, that ending does set the perfect conditions for a sequel. Of course, given that it would probably be SquareEnix doing the sequel, maybe we’re better off going without. Square wasn’t even particularly good at sequels back before it lost all artistic integrity whatsoever, after all--remember, Chrono Cross was made back in the Playstation 1 days, and Final Fantasy 10-2 was almost fully developed by the company before they became SquareEnix. Still, if someone skilled were to make a sequel to TotR, some company that valued writing quality, had respect for the original, and possessed the basic self-respect as storytellers and artists that so many companies like SquareEnix lack, I would definitely welcome it.

4. Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch

I found this very obscure indie RPG to be quite entertaining. Yes, it was a bit choppy to play at times, but the humor was pretty solid, even if some of it was dated internet memes, and I enjoyed it from start to finish. But the damn thing is only half of the story! The game ends at a clear halfway point, with the journey still in progress and much left unresolved. I hate it when a story goes unfinished, so I hope that someday I’ll see this one concluded.

3. Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura

There is just so, so much more that can be done with this game’s setting. AOSaMA is a Dungeons and Dragons-style game of humans, dwarves, orcs, ogres, and the like, except with 1 very distinct difference from most D+D copies: it’s set in a D+D world’s industrial revolution. Take the classic tabletop fantasy races, themes, magic and such, put it in a steampunk setting, and you’ve got a hell of a great backdrop for whatever story you want to tell. AOSaMO created a terrifically engaging world and played it up very well, but so much more could be done with it. Despite all the fascinating ways to play the D+D-in-Victorian-style-steampunk-society-and-also-with-industrial-factories theme, the game’s focus inevitably comes back to the conventional magical D+D stuff--in many ways, AOSaMA’s main story wouldn’t change all that much if you were to just set it in a regular fantasy medieval setting, as you’d expect from D+D-styled stuff. As immensely creative and well set up a world as Arcanum’s is, it almost seems like the main plot has no interest in it. The gameplay at least makes good use of the setting--it’s very intricate, and I love that you can have an Invent Clockwork Battle Bots playstyle--but in all the ways that really matter to me, AOSaMA doesn’t make very much of its setting.

Well, I want someone to take another crack at it. Take that great steampunk D+D setting and make the most of it this time! Don’t just make the question of half-orc laborers’ rights a minor sidequest that can be skipped altogether--put it in the spotlight; it’s fascinating! Don’t just make the question of what’s lost by replacing an appreciation of the natural with an awe of the man-made a background thought occasionally lamented by small NPCs and some elves--make it a major theme of the game! Give better examination to the plight of countries that don’t modernize quickly enough! Give more emphasis to the social roles and dynamics created for gnomes, ogres, elves, half-elves, dwarves, and so on! Continue the loose end of the gnomes’ experiments to create their manservant meatshields that the original game never really went anywhere with! There are just so many ideas you can use the steampunk setting and society to explore with this concept in a sequel. I mean, hell, ANY steampunk and/or industrial revolution backdrop would be new and interesting to base an RPG around by itself, without even considering the D+D spin on it.

To me, letting Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura be the only title using its setting and ideas is as criminal as it would have been to never make another Fallout game after the first. More so, because Fallout 1 used its setting to great effect, while AOSaMO could have done so much more. Please, someone, some passionate, creative developer somewhere, indie or big studio, dig up the rights to this gem, dust’em off, and make this sequel happen.

2. Anachronox

Oh Anachronox. Fun but at times surprisingly deep, as creative with its plot as it was with its humor, filled with memorable and enjoyable characters and set in an equally memorable and interesting galaxy...the fact that Anachronox is so obscure is a damn crime, that’s what it is. Unfortunately, Anachronox ended on a cliffhanger of sorts, with the threat to the galaxy still at large and with misfit protagonist Sly Boots and his equally askew teammates striding forth to continue their journey to save reality.

Not to say that Anachronox just drops you unceremoniously with its cliffhanger, the way Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch just cuts out suddenly...Anachronox may be only part of a story, but it ends at a good stopping point, and feels like a complete game. It’s like Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1--there’s obviously more story to come, but the game’s conclusion is still a great place to cut out, a transition from one major part of the story to another.

But, good stopping place or not, the fact is that Anachronox is still an incomplete story, and what’s there is compelling and really damned neat. Now that Sly has faced his inner demons and come out ahead, I want to see him tackle his problems with new gusto, yet the same snarky mouth, and I want to see more of the nutjobs that follow him, too. Anachronox was a neat story in an interesting universe featuring a fun bunch of characters, and it’ll be a damn crime if we never get to see it concluded.

1. Threads of Fate

What a fun game Threads of Fate was. Decent story, some really heartfelt moments (in Rue’s story), and somehow, even though she was a remorseless brat and totally as much a villain as the game’s actual evil-doers, every single moment watching Mint is a ton of fun. I don’t know what it is about her, but somehow she manages to embrace the role of being insufferable and loathsome without actually being insufferable or loathsome at all. Like Princess Elise from My World, My Way, only much more. Mint is so damn lovably hilarious, dry, conniving, and bratty.

Anyway, I’d be happy under normal circumstances to see another game following Threads of Fate, but ToF ends (if you complete both stories to see the secret after-ending clip) on a slight cliffhanger. I mean, its story is ended, yes, but at the same time, there’s now the promise of a new adventure for Rue and Mint to engage in, and I’d definitely like to see it. I want to see more antics from Mint, and I’d also like to see what Rue’s like now that he has Claire back.

What makes me most anxious for that sequel, though, is that Threads of Fate is very imbalanced as a story. I’m going to get into why this is in a later rant, but suffice to say here that despite supposedly being a story equally split between Mint and Rue, the overall story focus of ToF is upon Rue, and it’s his story that we come away from the game feeling is the true, canon version of the game, and which is recognized in that final, secret after-ending clip. And hey, don’t get me wrong--if I have to choose between Mint and Rue’s stories which should be the true one, Rue’s gonna win every time, no matter how incredibly amusing Mint is. And that’s why we need a Threads of Fate 2--because now that Rue had a game which gave him the major plot spotlight (plotlight?) and fulfilled his wish, I think it’s only fair that Mint properly have her time to shine, silly villainess or not. It’s been many years since ToF was released, so it doesn’t look hopeful, but all the same, this seems to be the age of revivals, reboots, and unexpected continuations, so I’m still holding out hope for a Threads of Fate 2.

Honorable Mention: Knights of the Old Republic 1 and 2

What happens after the end of Knights of the Old Republic 2? I think it’s safe to say that just about everyone who played KotOR2 wants to know. While an amazing game in itself, Knights of the Old Republic 2 was a true transition piece, a game whose ultimate plot goal was a preparation for the next title. In the end, it’s revealed that much of what happens in KotOR2 is meant to conclude the KotOR setting of the regular Star Wars Republic, to either give it the structure to continue to exist through its new Jedi Order sweeping the remains of the old away (if you play Light Side, or Neutral), or to seal its doom for good (if you play Dark Side), so that the next game can take place in Sith space with the question of the Republic behind one. More than that, it’s revealed that this journey of the Exile has ultimately been for the purpose of sending the Exile to follow Revan into Sith space, to be his ally in settling the matter of the Sith once and for all, and much of what we’ve seen in KotOR2 will contribute to that--the Mandalorians, the HK series, Atton, HK-47, and T3-M4 are all implied to be the force that the Exile has unwittingly rallied to assist Revan. Everything is set for Revan, the Exile, and these allies to take the fight to the Sith in an epic conclusion to the Knights of the Old Republic trilogy.

Too bad that never actually happened. But it SHOULD! We need to see the greatness of Revan and the Exile combined, we need to see them strike into the true heart of the Sith, we need to see how the intricate plans of Darth Traya to raise support for Revan turned out...everything in KotOR1 and 2 has led to the moment that we see the Sith beyond Republic space, the true threat that has been lurking in the shadows all along, and I want to see it, damn it!

The reason this is an Honorable Mention and not part of the regular list, though, is that there is 1 major caveat to my wanting to see a sequel. I would only want to see a KotOR3 that acknowledged and built off of KotOR2 as seen with the Restored Content mod, which I did a rant on a little while back. The Restored Content mod is just what it says--it brings content that was cut from the game back into it, important stuff that was meant to be in KotOR2. Without it, the ending of KotOR2 is lame and doesn’t make much sense, several plot threads are never resolved, and the game is really just incomplete. A lot of the things I mentioned above regarding KotOR2’s transition to the next game are incomplete, or missing altogether, from the vanilla (unaltered) release of Knights of the Old Republic 2, and can only be seen in their intended form with the Restored Content mod. I don’t really know how KotOR3 would accomplish this, since they’d have to make sure the audience was up to speed with this enhanced history of KotOR2, but it just wouldn’t be right to continue the series without all of KotOR2’s greatness accounted for.

Well, that’s that. Normally this is the part where I have something to say in summary of the list, some lasting note or remark to make, but...don’t really have anything today. Oh well. See you next time.

Monday, August 18, 2014

General RPGs' AMVs 11

Before we begin today--or before you skip this one altogether and just wait for the next rant--I'd like to mention that the Kickstarter for Elysian Shadows looks like a pretty promising RPG. They don't say much about the story and characters and all on the Kickstarter page itself, but I've been in contact with the team making the game, and what they've told me on that point sounds pretty exciting and interesting. Check it out; I think it's worth backing. And hey, if any of you are one of those crazy diehard Dreamcast fans, this could be the first new RPG released for your strangely beloved old crapheap in, what, over a decade? That's gotta be worth something to you.

Anyway, on with the rant.

Yes, it’s that disappointing time again--time for me to cop out of writing a real rant and instead share some AMVs with you. Suck it, people who actually like this blog! As always, if you do happen to go watch any of these, and do happen to think they’re pretty decent, then please Like the video and leave a comment on it. Reward those that put some effort into their creations, yeah?


Final Fantasy 8: Does the Lion City Still Roar?, by YuniX2:
The music used is Does the Lion City Still Roar?, by Less Than Jake. Another visual-audio pleasure by YuniX2, this AMV uses scene changes and zooms to perfectly keep the visuals up with the fast pace of the song, while also using flawless scene selection to keep all the scenes a great match to the lyrics, in ways both literal and metaphorical. This AMV really transforms Final Fantasy 8’s limited FMVs into a perfect expression of the song, and it’s always neat to see an uncommon song for AMVs used so well as this one is. Very good stuff.

Final Fantasy 9: Hanging by a Moment, by Zoeyfreeze:
The music used is Hanging by a Moment, by Lifehouse. What can I say? This is just a solid FF9 music video, an AMV focused on Dagger that explores her well through its music and uses simple but competent editing to pull the whole thing together. It’s good, plain and simple, and if you like Square’s second greatest masterpiece, then you should watch this.


Kingdom Hearts Series: Castle of Glass, by YuniX2:
The music used is Castle of Glass, by Linkin Park. If I have a hero when it comes to AMV creators, it’s got to be YuniX2. This is just 1 more in a long line of utterly excellent RPG music videos from her. What can I say here that I haven’t already said about her AMVs, multiple times? The editing’s great, flashy but never distracting and never excessive. The music choice is great and her use of it, her connecting of the game and footage to the music, is terrific. Scene selection is great, everything fits together, it’s a pleasure to watch and listen to, and there’s a sense of purpose to it. Love the little touch of having the Sorcerer’s Apprentice cartoon clip at the beginning, too. And while this isn’t all that important, I like anyone who can use KH footage in an AMV in a way that doesn’t seem tired and commonplace to me; I have mentioned that Kingdom Hearts music videos are about as common as, I dunno, air molecules, right? YuniX2 even uses KH: 365/2 Days footage so well that I almost forget what a completely pointless, snore-inducing waste of time that game was. This is definitely a real winner of an AMV, make no mistake.


Mass Effect Series: Cassandra, by Dmli1023:
The music used is Cassandra, by Two Steps From Hell. For fun, and because there are enough to do so, today’s Mass Effect AMVs will all be ones made by a single artist, going by Dmli1023. The guy’s absolutely great, as this video clearly shows. This is put together skillfully, keeping the video and music well-coordinated and making a very fittingly touching and epic tribute to the terrific love story of Shepard and Tali.

Mass Effect Series: Hope, by Dmli1023:
The music used is Prologue - Birth, by Audiomachine. Another of the many tribute AMVs to Mass Effect 3, this one is both a tribute to the whole series, and, more importantly, to Commander Shepard him/herself. It’s put together very well--the music is mostly background, but on occasion Dmli1023 assigns certain patterns in the tune to certain types of scenes and dialogue that connect the audio and video well and help the music bring out the inspiring feeling the tribute is meant to create. I love the way that this AMV flawlessly switches back and forth between Male and Female Shepard, creating a proper tribute to the character as a whole, and the selection and placement of the characters’ dialogue is perfect to build up the message of Commander Shepard as an icon of hope. Just a darned great job on this tribute, all said.

Mass Effect Series: The Fighter, by Dmli1023:
The music used is Above and Beyond, by Audiomachine, Imperatrix Mundi, by Jo Blankenburg, and Life Chronicles, also by Audiomachine. Another damned great tribute to the Mass Effect series, doing much as the last one did in terms of skillful video editing, synchronization with the music, and just generally creating a fantastic monument to the epic excellence of Mass Effect. Once again Commander Shepard is represented in both genders, and once again the tribute is perfect for him/her, this time building up and emphasizing the overarching conflict of the series, and the difficulty that Shepard faces--and overcomes--throughout the entirety of the amazing trilogy. I love the way this video highlights the friendship and support of Shepard’s comrades, and uses it to show just how terrific a hero Shepard is. This here is about as close as an AMV comes to getting a full rant dedicated to it, without actually crossing that threshold, and it’s nice to see someone other than YuniX2 who can put forth such quality pretty consistently.


The Witcher 2: War, by Felix Schroder:
The music used is War, by Poets of the Fall. I’ve recently discovered there are rather fewer really good Witcher AMVs than I’d been expecting of the games; it seems like prime music video territory, but mostly you just get a few subpar offerings mixed in a sea of half-assed videos where someone just runs the first game’s intro, puts a song on, and has the delusional gall to call it an AMV. This one, though, is a shining gem in a bucket of dull rocks. The video meshes quite well with the song’s lyrics and tone, and Mr. Schroder skillfully manipulates his scenes to keep pace with the music’s strength to create a very solid music video. This is a strong work from all sides, no question.


The World Ends with You: New Divide, by DarkRoxas97:
The music used is New Divide, by Linkin Park. I think I’ve mentioned this in a previous Legend of Zelda AMV, but I’m always a little harder on Linkin Park AMVs than I am on most others. Still, this is a really good music video. The scene selection often perfectly matches the song’s notes and tone, the use of simple effects and scene changing is great, the meshing of lyrics and video is skillful...this is just solid work, plain and simple.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Shin Megami Tensei 4's Problems

Hey, reader peoples. Have you ever noticed how totally thoughtless I am to your convenience by never providing links in my rants to previous rants which I reference? Well, no more! I've gone through all my previous rants and updated them to include links to other rants whenever they're mentioned, and all future rants will also have this basic, simple, why-the-hell-hasn't-he-done-this-for-years-before-now feature. W00t! And now, back to the rant.

In July 2013, Shin Megami Tensei 4 was released in North America, and in celebration, I decided to do an SMT rant once a month for a year. It was actually a lot of fun--I wouldn’t have thought I’d have had 12 rants to make about the series until I pushed myself to look at it and see what stood out and what I had a particular opinion on. I enjoyed criticizing it at times, praising it at others, and sometimes just expounding on whatever theories popped into my head. It’s proper for the blog, too; before this past year, I really didn’t have enough rants here for such a large and notable RPG series. But all good things must come to an end. Last month I finished that year out with a rant on Shin Megami Tensei 4, and, well, that’s proper and good, because my excitement for SMT4 is what started the whole thing. Still, that was a rant on gameplay mechanics of the title, and while I obviously have no problem ranting about such things, anyone familiar with this blog knows that gameplay never seriously enters my mind as criteria for how good or bad an RPG is. So I thought I’d make just 1 more rant on the fourth game to properly close Shin Megami Tensei Rant Year, something of a little more significance than just my adventures in do-it-yourself hair removal with the Fiend encounter rate.

Unfortunately, that still means closing SMT Rant Year out on a negative note, because to me, the most noticeable things of significance about Shin Megami Tensei 4 tend to be negative ones.

Let’s not start off with the wrong idea, though. Shin Megami Tensei 4 is not a bad RPG. It’s actually pretty decent. No, wait, that’s not an accurate or fair assessment. By itself, SMT4 is not just decent, it’s good. But I tend to think of it as actually only being okay, and not better than that, and that’s because I’m comparing it to the rest of the Shin Megami Tensei series, a series with such consistently high standards that even a solidly good title like SMT4 seems only passable. But high standards or not, it’s not a bad RPG. There are a lot of ideas in its plot that are interesting and creative, it has purpose, it relates well to its spiritual predecessors SMT1 and 2 while standing on its own, and there are several moments in its course that are really handled well, like the atmosphere of anticipation and the unknown during the first descent from Mikado to Tokyo, the fights against the Minotaur, Xi Wangmu, and Isabeau*, the tragedy of Issachar, the sidequest with Nozomi and Black Maria, and the dungeon in which the secrets of the Ashura-kai are revealed--that’s just a fantastic one right there.

Still, for all the good things that SMT4 has going for it, it’s got some pretty heavy flaws that really lessen its power as a story and as a tool of philosophy. One of the biggest problems is understanding the game’s back history. The events of SMT4, the lands of both Mikado and Tokyo, the beliefs of The White, the current conflicts between Law and Chaos, the travel to alternate worlds, and the ultimate question of what philosophy Flynn (protagonist) will throw his lot in with, all of it hinges upon the events of 25 years in the game’s past, the cataclysmic day in Tokyo when the forces of Law and Chaos met in battle to determine Tokyo’s fate. That day and its results are what the entire game is really about; SMT4 is at least a tale about a previous story’s aftermath as it is a tale in itself.

But the problem is that the exact events of that time are left too unclear, and the history and mechanics of the results of the cataclysm are sometimes tough to get a clear idea of. It’s not that it’s completely unexplained, but most of your understanding of the events of 25 years prior is going to come from sketchy references and tiny hints that still don’t give you a thorough enough explanation. There’s only one vague mention of the difference of time flow between Mikado and Tokyo that you can easily miss, for example, and I’ll be damned if I ever heard an explanation for the cause of this temporal discrepancy offered in any way. Through what you learn in the game from scattered references, mentions, and the rare direct explanation, you can piece together the major actors of the cataclysm of 25 years before (Kenji, Kiyoharu, and Flynn’s former incarnation) and how their philosophical stances shaped each of the 3 worlds that SMT4 shows, but even then things are spotty. I mean, look, I’m all for subtle storytelling, but that’s...well, think of it this way. Subtle storytelling is letting an audience connect the dots themselves to finally get the big picture and understand what everything amounts to. In regards to the cataclysm of 25 years before, SMT4 is like that, only not all of the dots you’re supposed to be connecting are numbered, and several are almost the same color as the paper they’re printed on, hard to notice and properly connect.

I have as whole an understanding of the game’s back history now as anyone can, but I’ll be honest with you, the SMT Wikipedia played majorly into that clarity, and I’m very certain that a lot of the details contained within its articles are from outside (though doubtless still official) sources, not the game itself. And while a partial and ultimately inadequate understanding of past events is usually just an annoyance to over-enthusiastic lore-hoarders like myself, well, like I said, these past events are the pivotal plot point around which everything important in the game turns. You can’t just let something like that be shrouded in halfway explanations and ambiguity. Final Fantasy 7 did eventually show us the truth of Sephiroth’s fall, Nibelheim’s destruction, and Cloud’s past, and Bastion eventually does narrate everything we need to know about the Calamity and how it relates to the Kid and Zulf’s current conflict. Because that’s what you have to do when so much of your game’s story, theme, and message revolve around 1 particular event of the past--you have to make sure your audience has a fully adequate comprehension of that event. Otherwise, the audience’s lack of understanding impedes their ability to properly appreciate and consider all the rest. Knowing what I do now, having read outside information on the subject of SMT4’s past until I’m satisfied with my knowledge, I can look at the game and really appreciate a lot of the intelligent, thought-provoking questions it raises in regards to the ongoing battle of Law, Neutral, and Chaos, can better appreciate its world-hopping and The White and much more. But before I came to comprehend it all, to be able to see how all these details and themes tie together, the game’s story made little impression on me, its themes and ideas seeming spontaneous or eluding me altogether.

Bad pacing. That’s another problem. At least, sort of. As a general rule, things flow pretty well in SMT4; nothing ever seems to be going too slowly or too quickly. It’s only when I step back and look at the whole story that something seems off. But once I do, well, I can’t help but notice that you spend a lot of time in this game’s first half involved in the question of the Ashura-kai and the Ring of Gaea, which are the human factions in Tokyo for Order and Chaos, respectively...yet when all is said and done, how important are they to the game’s second half, really? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I think that the conflict involving the factions and their leaders, the questions raised by each and their impact on you the player, is a lot more compelling than the later business with Lucifer and God’s Chariot. Really, I wish the game could have ultimately been about the battle between Lilith and Tayama (the leaders of the Ring of Gaea and the Ashura-kai). But the fact is that the really important battle in this game is between the angels and demons, to which the song and dance with Lilith and Tayama are barely even circumstantially related. The disconnect between these major conflicts of the game is so sheer as to almost be bizarre--once you finish with the Ashura-kai and the Ring of Gaea, you go on your little alternate-worlds field trip and deal with The White, and finally return to Japan, to find the game’s major conflict has begun, and honestly it didn’t really have much of anything to do with that former conflict that had such narrative focus put on it. For all the time and effort put into the question of the Ashura-kai versus the Ring of Gaea for the game’s first half, they’re both ultimately just irrelevant stepping stones. It’s almost like you spent a third of the game on a long side quest. I mean, you can argue, I guess, that the ultimate question of God vs. Demons was prepared by the question of Tayama vs. Lilith, but it’s a hell of a stretch of logic--the Law that Tayama represents is strongly different than the one that God embodies, and there are some ideological differences between Lilith and Lucifer, too. The first conflict of Tayama vs. Lilith just had stakes, goals, rationales, representatives, and methods too different from the later, true, and traditional conflict of God vs. Lucifer for the first to effectively set up the second.

Adding considerably to why this is a problem is the fact that with the pace of the game’s plot giving so much time and effort to the Ashura-kai and the Ring of Gaea, there’s a lot less set up for and explanation of the conflict between the angels and the demons. It doesn’t exactly just happen out of the blue, but it’s not really anticipated or explained, either. Its philosophy is glossed over, its significance not played up as much as it should be, and you’re forced to extrapolate too heavily from the nearly-hidden backstory if you want to flesh it out at all. With previous, better Shin Megami Tensei titles, the big conflict of the game is given its narrative due, its proper context, its thematic weight. Here, the ultimate battle for Law and Chaos almost feels like it’s being shoehorned in, and yet it’s definitely not a last minute addition to the plot; the all-important back history of the game and the dilemma of The White definitely foretell this event.

Another problem with SMT4 is that it has a pretty weak cast. Many supporting characters like Hope, Fujiwara, and Hugo ultimately don’t really contribute much to the plot, while some, like Issachar and Kaga, are interesting and serve their purpose well, but unfortunately that purpose removes them from the story very quickly. Along with that, the major characters are just...well, they’re just not very good. Honestly, one of the completely optional sidequest characters, Nozomi, has more appeal and character development than most of the characters who actually matter, and you don’t even have to necessarily meet her.

The problem’s only worse with the major characters. Jonathan and Walter...well, I want to like them, I really do, because they’re the traditional Law and Chaos Heroes of the game, but they aren’t as single-minded and inflexible as that role tends to be. Ultimately Jonathan supports the angels and Law, and ultimately Walter supports the demons and Chaos, but they’re both human enough that they’re able throughout the game’s course to question their stance, express doubts about the side they’ll eventually serve, and understand the other’s perspective to some extent. During the Passage of Ethics, both Walter and Jonathan do know where they stand, but they at least agree that the questions can be difficult and aren’t ironclad in their positions. I can appreciate these characters actually being complex enough that they’re not just blind advocates of their side of the plot.

Buuuuut, the problem with this is that they also come off like they lack conviction to their side. I know, I know, I seem like I just can’t be pleased, but honestly, Jonathan’s dedication to following his duty and the angels never seems to have any particular basis. I mean, just what IS Jonathan’s motivation? Do we ever learn anything significant about him whatsoever, hear any philosophy to his choosing to follow orders over all other possibilities? Walter’s a little better in that he does have and give a reason for his supporting Lilith and the demons, one which originates in a plot undercurrent of struggle between social classes (which, by the way, is a theme that I would have loved to see examined far more than the barest of touches that the game gives it), but he still doesn’t come off as convincingly devoted or having an especially strong opinion. They’re both kinda wishy-washy, honestly. And once you reach the dimension-hopping part of the game, Walter and Jonathan have very little problem with working together again even though they were just fighting against one another over ideological differences. I mean, there’s a little hostility between them at first, and they’re not exactly chummy (but then, they were only casually friendly before, anyway), but I’d have expected a little more. It’s like they forget they ever had a violent difference of opinion at all.

They’re both just so...dull. Like I said, I appreciate that they’re not just unreasoning advocates of the philosophy they stand for, but that one small redeeming quirk doesn’t change the fact that they’re both poorly developed, boring, and overall weak characters. When you choose sides in most SMT games, part of the difficulty is often the fact that you’re standing against characters you like or respect, that your protagonist is betraying comrades. Jimenez was a good guy in Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, and I felt bad about having to oppose him in my playthroughs of Law and Neutral--and I felt even worse standing against Zelenin on the Neutral playthrough. And when you choose sides in most SMT games, you understand how the characters you’re about to support or betray got to where they are, and how you feel about their take on the question of alignment. I don’t particularly like Chiaki and Hikawa from Shin Megami Tensei 3, and I think Isamu’s a total doofus, but I understand how each came to believe in their Reason thanks to the character development they’re given in the game, and each one makes an argument for his/her Reason that has a certain compelling logic to it (well, maybe not Isamu, but the other 2 do). Jonathan and Walter, 2 of the most important characters in SMT4 with the most screentime...well, they’re just not memorable, you just don’t feel like there’s much to them, and I personally just don’t feel any particular loyalty to either of them.

And then there’s Isabeau. Completing the alignment trio of your party, Isabeau, the last of the major characters, is the heroine of the Neutral side of the game’s thematic debate. Isabeau is a dull, indecisive twit who is utterly incapable of possessing a real, actual opinion of any kind--see my rant on the Shin Megami Tensei Series’s Recent Neutral Figureheads for the details on that. Likewise, Isabeau is equally lacking entirely any defining character trait whatsoever. Oh wait, no--she likes reading manga. Secretly--so don’t expect to see it mentioned, referenced, or even considered more than, like, 5 times. Non-specific, barely-mentioned manga reading as the single sole defining characteristic. Yup.

I think I’m gonna add that to my mental list of the most inane, meaningless, idiotic things that you could possibly make the 1 and only notable trait of your character. It’s getting tucked away right between “Has a Pirate Accent” and “Wants to Eat Cafeteria Hot Dogs.”

Last weak part of the cast: villains. The problem here isn’t that there aren’t any decent villains in the game. The problem is that the ones who stand out are the secondary ones, the relatively minor Tayama and Lilith, while the major foes of the game, Lucifer on 1 side and the angels Uriel, Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael on the other, are incredibly uninteresting and weak. You’ll see a tiny bit of Lucifer if you’re on the Chaos path during the game’s final chapter, but if you’re Neutral or Law, you’ll only see and hear from the guy as you meet him for the last battle.** Only-meeting-at-the-final-battle villains may be common enough for your standard rinky-dink half-assed RPG created by writers just out to score a quick paycheck before their lunch break, but this is fucking Shin Megami Tensei, people! Let’s aspire just a bit higher than Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, huh? You’ll see a bit of the angels earlier in the game, a bit more if you buy the overpriced, somewhat nonsensical Clipped Wings DLC, and of course Gabriel is involved reasonably well in the plot, but you’ll know virtually no more about them than you do Lucifer anyway, so it’s bad on both sides. What villains DO you get to know, though? Lilith and Tayama. What villains DO actually have some slight depth, have goals and beliefs that they have to explain instead of just relying on players’ familiarity with previous games’ incarnations to do all the explaining for them? Lilith and Tayama. Whose rivalry seems more intense? Lilith and Tayama’s. But, like I went into before, ultimately these 2 become small potatoes, just a few steps away from not having played a part in the true struggle of the game at all. And instead we get nigh-faceless entities arriving last minute to steal the show.

Second to last major problem with Shin Megami Tensei 4: the theme of Law, Neutral, and Chaos. It’s...well, it’s just too overused by this point. Look, don’t get me wrong on this point: the philosophies behind SMT’s Law, Neutral, and Chaos are interesting and deep, and there’s still plenty about them left to explore in new and intriguing ways in the games. But the fact is that I have played Shin Megami Tensei 1, 2, Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 2, Devil Survivor 1, and Strange Journey. I’ve seen this concept by now a good handful of times. And I’ve enjoyed it each time, definitely! But all the same, God vs. Demons with humanity stuck in the middle, with each side representing secure order, free anarchy, and the middle road, respectively, it’s something I’m quite familiar with at this point. So for a game this late in the series to use it, it needs to be exploring some sort of new ground with the concept, have some new perspective on the matter or a setting that gives it a new angle. Like the second Raidou Kuzunoha game did--it brought the matter down to a much smaller, non-plot-vital, but no less compelling scale by focusing the question of mindless adherence to the law vs. reckless freedom onto the village of Tsukigata and the events therein. But SMT4...well, it doesn’t really do much of anything new, doesn’t delve deeper or in new ways into the philosophy of Law, Neutral, and Chaos. It’s business as usual for SMT. I’d almost call it generic. Maybe the social class conflict in Mikado was meant to be the new angle for it? Walter’s beliefs do stem from that, I guess. But like I said before, that aspect is barely examined at all, especially once the game’s first chapter is done with. There’s really only 1 significant twist put on this otherwise by-the-numbers theme, but unfortunately, it’s the last major problem of the game: the new fourth path, Nihilism.

I want to like this addition to the SMT theme. Really I do. And not just because I’ve often thought to myself that the fact that the infinite cosmos of possibility can, in its limitless stream of multitudinous eventualities without end, produce Robin Thicke, then maybe the entirety of creation and the multiverse just aren’t worth the trouble.

First of all, it’s great that they added a fourth path to the Law-Neutral-Chaos thing during SMT4. More importantly, it works so well as an alternative choice. I mean, it kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? Basically, Nihilism is the path offered in the game by The White, the path of destroying everything, all realities in a single go, in an effort to free humanity from the suffering of the perpetual cross-realities war between Law and Chaos. The White claim, quite convincingly, that no matter what choice is made in the struggle, humanity will always pay the price and suffer. If Law is chosen, we see in Blasted Tokyo that God purges the world of the majority of humanity, saving only the few pure and chosen, and letting the rest, even some who helped Him to overcome Chaos, die out in a poisoned wasteland. If Chaos is chosen, we see in Infernal Tokyo that society is destroyed, the strong dominate and abuse the weak, people live as monsters, and there’s constant battle as one fight after another keep cities ablaze and civilizations are divided between warlords like a piece of meat among feral dogs. And if Neutral is chosen, we see in the home reality that all that really happens is that the war between Law and Neutral is postponed for a few decades, before it erupts once more. Annihilation for all but the lucky few, eternally raging destruction of a species unable to maintain a society for its ferocity, or one war after another without end--those are the end results of Law, Chaos, and Neutral paths that The White show us. Their option is to simply end it all, because no side does anything but prolong suffering one way or another. It’s neat and interesting.***

The problem for me with this, though, is that even though Nihilism seems to be an official fourth path in the game, it’s not given the same importance as Law, Neutral, and Chaos. Really, it’s treated more like a Bad Ending than anything. Which it essentially IS, I suppose, but I think that it’s intended to be seen as a viable new option, a viable new philosophy--and if it’s not intended as such, then it should be, because it fits in very well with the SMT path conflict of Law, Chaos, and Neutral, and SMT4’s plot gives it an appropriate buildup for that importance. But once you reach the White in the game, well...that’s it for for this fourth option. If you decide to pursue the path of Nihilism, then the game concludes right then and there, that’s the end. But if you reject Nihilism and confirm your path to be Chaos, Law, or Neutral, then the game continues on, with you going through a dungeon to defeat the White, and then entering SMT4’s last chapter, in which you hook up with your path hero (Walter, Jonathan, or Isabeau) and go on the final quests of the game to defeat the leader(s) of the faction(s) that oppose(s) your path’s vision of the new world order.

See what I’m getting at here? You pick Nihilism, then you’re done and the game’s over. You pick 1 of the traditional SMT paths, and you go on with the tale, entering the game’s final chapter, reuniting with comrades, following through on unresolved plot threads, and generally cleaning up the story tidily. You get the most you can out of your game, out of Shin Megami Tensei 4’s story and characters, as long as you do NOT choose this supposedly equally important new path. That’s not giving equal narrative importance and treatment to this new and fascinating take on the SMT formula, in spite of it being one of the most creative and compelling aspects of this game. It wouldn’t have been hard at all to make Nihilism fit into the game in a way that you get to experience the last chapter just as well as with any of the other paths--just make up some key component of the White’s plan to erase all realities and have it be spiritual essence of Merkabah and Lucifer, or have their power standing in the White’s way and thus require them to be defeated before the Nihilism path is capable of being completed. That way you still would get the chance to go through the last part of the game with relatively the same amount of content and storyline wrap-up available to this path, and in doing so, validate it as one of the game’s major philosophical alternatives, the way that the build up and the game’s themes indicate it’s meant to be. Because as it is, abrupt and prematurely cutting off a major chapter of the game, the Nihilism choice just comes off as any regular old Bad Ending would.

And yeah, I guess you could say that cutting off the game early is thematically appropriate for a Nihilsm path, a chosen self-destruction before one's natural time of end, like a suicide precludes your experiencing the full potential of your life, but even with that in mind, Nihilism still isn't treated well enough as an option. Nearly all of its explanation and reasoning is laid out before you in one single scene of dialogue with The White; every time they contact the protagonist before then, everything they say amounts to little more than vague, foreshadow-y mumblings, like when you get scenes in RPGs of people talking in the shadows about plot-important things and characters but not referring to anyone by name so as not to spoil later twists, which of course always comes off as really awkward when just viewed as conversation between 2 people.**** While the philosophies of Chaos, Law, and Neutral are brought up over and over again in 1 way or another throughout the game, there's no long-term support structure for Nihilism given by the game. Just a single major conversation and that's it. It's not being given the same exploration as the other paths, not even close.

Poorly explained back history, bad pacing, subpar cast, uninspired exploration of theme, and inadequate showcasing of a thematic lynchpin. Honestly, it adds up to a lot of major blows against Shin Megami Tensei 4, enough that it’s actually a little surprising to me, now that I’m looking back on it, that the game managed to be pretty decent in spite of it all. I guess it’s almost an odd feather in Atlus’s cap--even when they screw up, they can produce a better title than the average work of some other developers (*fakecough*SquareEnix*fakecough*). At the very least, SMT4 is not the worst of its series; Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 is much, much worse. Still, it’s a disappointment that such a big moment in the series wasn’t handled better than this, especially considering that if they made a decent game even with this many critical faults, you can just imagine what it would’ve been like if they had been more on the ball with it. Still, for all these faults, it is, like I’ve said, a pretty good game, and even if it didn’t really live up to my hopes, I had a lot of fun challenging myself to come up with these 13 SMT rants this past year in celebration of it. Hopefully y’all had had some fun with it, too.

* Ironically, the only moment in the game where Isabeau has any worth as a character, shows herself to have a personality in any way whatsoever, and affects the player on any level, is her demise. It’s so well-done (to me, at least) that it almost made me forget that Isabeau had failed during the course of the entire game to get me to form any kind of attachment to her at all.

** Oh, I’m sorry, that’s right, Lucifer shows up a couple times in the disguise of a girl named Hikaru. He does that sort of thing in a lot of SMT games. Except this time it’s a hell (ha ha) of a good disguise, because “she” does and says exactly nothing during “her” incredibly few appearances that has any relation to Lucifer’s character or that could possibly give you the slightest hint of who “she” really is. What gives, Lucifer? You stick your nose into games you aren’t even an actual plot-related actor in, like SMT3 and SMT Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 2, and actually show up in those games more often and say much more of actual relevance to yourself! Hikaru feels like a minor character the writers originally just forgot to find a place for in the game’s finale, and had her loose end tied by a last-minute decision that she’d just happen to be Lucifer.

*** I did like it better when Owlman did it, though.

**** I should really make a term for this, like I do with things like Sailing and Voyeuristic Paralysis Syndrome.

Monday, July 28, 2014

General RPGs' Minigames 11: Hide and Seek

Ugh. Hide and seek minigames.

Hide and seek’s one of those things whose real life appeal does not translate well to video games, like fishing, auctions, and, in the case of turn-based RPGs, physical combat. In real life, you’re pitting your mind and, to an extent, your agility and flexibility against that of others, seeing who can pick the best hiding place, who can find it, who has the patience and self control to make the best use of a hiding place, who has the keen sense of sight, hearing, and, on some unfortunate occasions, smell,* to uncover those hiding. There’s usually also some sort of thrill of urgency to the game, as the longer people remain unfound, the more of a chance they have to make a break for home base or something (not that everyone plays like that, of course, there’s no real hard and fast rule about hide and seek beyond the 2 titular activities).

All of that’s pretty much out the window with a hide and seek minigame. You’re only pitting your mind against one or two (probably very bored) programmers, the same ones whom you’ve probably already matched wits with countless times before during the puzzles of various dungeons in the game. You pretty much only ever play the role of the seeker in a hide and seek minigame, cutting out half of the entirety of the game.** Oh sure, there are times in RPGs where you have to hide and stay sneaky, but those are for stealth minigames, and the ones you’re avoiding are inevitably just guards with a set movement pattern. They’re usually not actually seeking you, and in the cases where they are, they’re always doing a piss-poor job of it. There’s only one sense you’re ever using in the minigame, that being sight--there’s pretty much never any sound-based clues to your prey, as there might be in a real game. There’s no real urgency about it save the occasional arbitrary timer; those hiding just sit and wait motionlessly for you the whole time.

As well as all that, most of the hide and seek minigames I’ve played are illogical and dumb. You take the one in Breath of Fire 4, where you play hide and seek with some kids in a desert city near the beginning of the game (at least, I THINK this is an example of what I’m about to talk about; it’s been a long time since I played and I’m in no rush to relive it). Some of the hiding places the kids take are stupid because they’re only hidden from the player’s view of a skyward look. You’ll have to move the camera to locate them, because otherwise they’re out of your personal view. But from the perspective of the game character who is, according to the game’s story, actually looking for them, these spots at times should be very clearly visible!

And that’s the thing with these hide and seek games: so often the hiding places are just absolutely terrible, and would only be challenging for someone looking down from a bird’s eye view. Well that’s just fine and dandy for challenging the player, I suppose, but it sure as hell doesn’t make the slightest pretense at in-game realism. And if the damn minigame isn’t going to try to connect with the actual game events in any real way, why the hell should I give a crap about it? It’s just distracting and delaying me from continuing to experience the RPG’s storytelling properly, breaking immersion so I can go on what amounts, with no other actual human interaction, to a treasure hunt with no treasure.


* Yes, smell. I once played a game of hide and seek in which I located my quarry because no nook or cranny in the world could contain his unique brand of body odor. When I uncovered him and he groaned and whined, “How’d you find me!?” (because his hiding place WAS very good), I had the good grace to say, that I had “just had a feeling,” and not add that the feeling had been in my nose, and that it had been terrible pain.

** Please note that this is not to be taken as a suggestion that a hide and seek minigame SHOULD give the player the chance to be the one hiding. That’s all I need--a minigame where I just sit and wait for half an hour. My point here is only that the concept of hide and seek is irrecoverably cut in half for the minigame, a loss that there is no remedy for.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Lunar Series's Goddess Althena

Hm. Although I’ve spaced’em out pretty well, I’ve done an unusual amount of rants about the Lunar series lately. I guess it’s probably my having played Lunar: Dragon Song last year...until recently, I’d been happily content to let Lunar rest in the back of my mind in static disdain, but once the series was brought back to my attention, I started to not only recognize the unspeakable terribleness of LDS, but also really remember the previous games’ specific problems. And in this renewed attention, I have come to realize something about the series that I hadn’t particularly thought about before:

Goddess Althena sucks.

Seriously, she’s total crap. Consider this: I have played 3 of the 4 Lunar games.* She is physically present and affecting the plot in 2 of those games, and both times, she gets brainwashed to be evil and do the main villain’s bidding. So far, 100% of the time that Althena has been in a game, she’s been duped into being evil. Once, yeah, I was willing to accept that, but twice? 2 for 2? Once is acceptable for an RPG character, happens all the time. I don’t hold the brainwashing against Mary’s husband in Tales of Destiny 1, or Kain in Final Fantasy 4,** or Knights of the Old Republic 1’s Bastila. In fact, in all 3 of those cases, the brainwashing angle is beneficial to the storytelling, adding characterization or providing new, positive characteristics to the game’s plot. But when you’re getting brainwashed more than once, by 2 different people,*** and you’re a freaking goddess? That’s just pretty pathetic, lady.

Not helping that is the fact that neither villain who brainwashes Althena is a particularly compelling character or has a very well thought-out, reasonable objective. One wonders how anyone could be brainwashed by Ghaleon or Ignatius to begin with. I guess there’s some plot-convenient magic going on with it, probably, but again, why the hell is it so easy to do this to the super-powerful deity who created, maintains, and watches over all of Lunar?

That’s certainly not the only beef I’ve got with Althena, though. Here’s another big one: the endings of both Lunar: Dragon Song and Lunar 1 both contain the implication that Althena has decided, in the human forms of Lunar 1’s Luna and LDS’s Lucia, that humanity does not need her to guide them, watch over them, and serve whatever capacity she does as a goddess just sort of sitting around in a glowy chamber that people don’t regularly visit anyway. Well, okay, fine. There’s the message of her children standing for themselves and facing their future with their own strength and so on. Good message, lamely conveyed.****

Here’s the thing, though: her children not needing her to create their own future should NOT the same thing as her deciding to skip out on goddesshood forever. When Luna dies of old age after the events of Lunar 1, she doesn’t reincarnate, and so Althena the goddess is gone forever. Well, that’s fine and all, but she’s taking herself entirely out of the picture when she KNOWS that Zophar, the ungodly powerful villain of Lunar 2 whose destruction of Earth necessitated the creation of Lunar to begin with, could potentially return to threaten the inhabitants of Lunar in the future! Luna-Althena is fully aware of Zophar’s existence, of how incredibly powerful he is and that he might someday threaten Lunar’s people with extinction, and yet she makes no effort to keep herself alive in case that day may come! And you can’t even say she just stupidly forgot or something, because she left a video message for Lunar 2’s Lucia (no relation to Lunar: Dragon Song’s Lucia; why the hell did the writers have 2 separate major characters in the series named the same damn thing?) explaining that she did so.

I’m sorry, but there is a DIFFERENCE between letting your children pave their own way without your guidance or interference, and just carelessly abandoning them to let them face down a monster of pure evil that dwarfs your own goddess-level power! You can WATCH things without interfering with their destiny, you know. I may have every confidence that a child has the coordination, intelligence, common sense, and maturity to use an oven, but that confidence doesn’t mean that the first time the kid tries cooking some mac’n’cheese, I should turn off the smoke detectors, hide the list of emergency numbers, disconnect the land line, toss all cell phones in the garbage disposal, scribble out all the instructions on the mac’n’cheese box, and leave town!

It’s just stupid black-and-white reasoning with no room for the gray area of common fucking sense. If your kid is getting picked on by another kid in school, and you tell him that he should try to solve his own problems, that’s one thing. But if your child later comes running up to you in terror because he’s being chased by a vicious, possibly rabid dog, your response should obviously NOT still be to tell him to solve his own problems! That dog is dangerous enough that it poses a threat to YOU, a full-grown adult, and thus it is NOT reasonable to expect the child to deal with the problem himself. It is CONCEIVABLE that a child might just be able to protect himself successfully from the dog--the same way it’s conceivable to bulls-eye a fly with a snapped rubber band with your eyes closed--but it is horribly wrong to assume that he can and must do so. And that’s what Althena does after her permanent death after Lunar 1--she just leaves a video to whoever’s day she screwed up in the future saying, “You can do it if you believe in yourselves! Hope it all works out for you kids!” and washes her hands of her children forever.

Okay, fine, you can argue that she did, in fact, wind up being correct, and the heroes in Lunar 2 manage to find a way to stop Zophar on their own. You know what? You want to count Althena’s faith that humanity would manage just happening to come true as a point in her favor, go ahead. Just go ahead, I don’t even frickin’ care. But in my opinion, the narrow save for humanity of defeating Zophar isn’t evidence of well-placed faith, it’s just them managing to accomplish something that couldn’t possibly have been predicted or relied upon under even the best of circumstances. Lunar 2’s heroes made it happen and good on them for it, but from the perspective of Althena centuries before, she just irresponsibly rolled some dice and they happened to come up favorably. But that’s just my perspective, I suppose.

And another reason Althena is a shitty goddess: for all the big deal that’s made about her taking a mortal form and letting Lunar’s people move forward without her guidance...well, what exactly was so great about her guidance to begin with? Quite frankly, the world that Althena has only comparatively recently stopped supposedly directly guiding in Lunar: Dragon Song is a pretty bad one. The society of Lunar: Dragon Song, which again is implied to have been until recent years under the more direct guidance of Althena, is racially oppressive! Because beastmen in Lunar are (supposedly) physically superior to humans in every measurable way, they dominate the best parts of the land to live in, rule over both themselves and the humans, enjoy all the best perks of their society’s cities and technologies, and generally just look down on all humans and see them as just a superfluous, lesser species. And don’t give me crap about how Althena has, by Lunar: Dragon Song’s opening, been away in the human form of Lucia for several years now. The idea that humans are inferior creatures is one that is an ingrained part of this society’s mentality, shared and fully accepted by nearly all beastmen AND human beings. Even if we assume that some huge social order rearrangement from a previous society of equality could have happened in the time that Althena’s been Lucia, AND had time to settle down by this point into being everyday life, there’s simply no way that an entire society would so universally adopt a notion such as one race’s inferiority to another in such a comparatively short period of time.***** This is clearly a social idea that has been around for a long, long time, so the inescapable conclusion is that for a significant period of time where Althena has been directly available and supposedly influential on Lunar’s society, she has either overlooked or actively encouraged a society in which one race is looked down upon and subjugated by another one.

And by the way, just to make things clear here for the kinds of folks who think Caesar’s Legion in Fallout: New Vegas was a legitimate social force, the Lunar society, at the time of Lunar: Dragon Song, is one which is more than sufficiently advanced enough that the supposed physical strength of the beastmen does not warrant greater social respect. It’s a well-advanced civilization with political leaders, bureaucracy, the arts, and enough technological advancement that intellect must be socially valuable to some degree. It has advanced to the point where there is no defensible reason to base social worth upon physical prowess, and obviously has been at that point for a long time. So there is no rational survival-related reason for making humans second-class citizens, or anything like that. Not that it would be rational anyway, by the evidence of the series’s own games. I mean, human Jian in LDS is the physical equal of beastmen Gabby and Rufus (not even counting Jian’s ability to attack thrice at once), humans Alex and Kyle in Lunar 1 are physically superior to half-beastman Jessica, and beastman Leo in Lunar 2 is at best only physically the equal of human Hiro.

So let’s count up what we’ve got here, shall we? We have a goddess who is brainwashed into being evil every time we see her, who 100% abandons her people even though she knows that an insanely powerful and horrible monster may someday attack them on the flimsy pretext that she thinks they’re emotionally ready to take it on and have to stand on their own and so on, and she let an inarguably unnecessary racially oppressive society rise up on her watch. So far Althena is sounding like one awesome benevolent, wise, nurturing goddess that everyone loves. Do I have anything else?

You bet I do! How about that Vile Tribe, huh? According to the legends of Lunar, the Vile Tribe were a bunch of no-goodniks who were banished hundreds of years before any of the Lunar games after they rejected Althena and for the bad deeds they did. What deeds were these? Uh, the legends are pretty suspiciously vague on this point, actually, and a quick search at a couple of Wikipedias and Lunar fanpages doesn’t offer any clarification.

Putting aside the suspicious lack of details to what the Vile Tribe did to deserve this punishment, banishment from the settled part of Lunar is a pretty big deal. Lunar takes place on the moon (uh, spoilers, I guess?), and it seems that most of the greenery and flowing water and all those nice life-sustaining environmental conditions are a result of Althena’s magic having jumpstarted and, at least for a time, maintained them. In most cases, banishment is no laughing matter, but in the case of Lunar, banishment from Althena’s lands to the untouched Frontier is to be exiled to a harsh, very nearly lifeless wasteland. I mean, it’s essentially just the moon as we understand it, except that Althena’s magical air spills over into it, I guess. As far as I’m concerned, the following are all significantly easier to survive over long periods of time than Lunar’s Frontier lands:

The Majority of Fallout’s Wasteland
Breath of Fire 3’s Desert of Death
The Arctic
Baten Kaitos’s Earth
A Long, Thoughtful Discourse between Tommy Wiseau and Sarah Palin

So I have to wonder, what crime was it that all those who would form the Vile Tribe committed to deserve this? This isn’t just your regular banishment where you send someone away to do their own thing and stop bothering you. This is the kind of banishment where you’re sending someone away to die so you don’t have to execute them yourself. This is about a quarter of a step away from an outright mass execution. So tell me, Goddess Althena, always presented as so benevolent, good, and loving, what was this vague crime of the past that was deserving of such an extreme punishment for so many? I’d love to know what they did that could be heinous enough to warrant this.

But you know, that’s not even my point here. Here’s where my real fourth argument of Althena sucking comes in. Let’s assume for a moment that whatever the people of the Vile Tribe did, it really, undeniably WAS worthy of banishment to the edges of Lunar 500 years ago. Swallowing that, let’s consider something The beings of the Vile Tribe aren’t mentioned to be any longer-lived than regular humans and beastmen (and living out on the Frontier, one can reasonably assume that most of the Vile Tribe would actually have shorter lives than the average Lunar citizen), so that means that the people who are forced to live outside of Althena’s lands by the times of the games, forced to subsist in this wasteland to beat all wastelands, are the distant descendants of the original Vile Tribe who committed the crime that we are currently assuming actually warranted banishment.

Ummmmmmmm...yeah, uh, why are they still there?

Althena’s banishment doesn’t just punish those of the Vile Tribe who actually committed the crime, it passes that punishment down from generation to generation! By the end of Lunar 1, 500 years’ worth of generations have been suffering for the sins of their forebears, sins that these children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and so on had NO PART OF! By Althena’s decree, countless people have spent their entire lives in an agonized struggle for survival for a crime they did not commit! That’s...that’s horrifyingly unjust, outright evil!

You can try to rationalize it, sure. Here, let me help you--I already thought of some good ones:

“Ah gee, RPGenius, we don’t know that it was ALTHENA that kept them on the Frontier. Maybe she would have accepted the original Vile Tribe’s descendants back, and it was just the other people of Lunar who didn’t let them back!” Well that’s certainly possible, but I’d like to remind you that the major conflicts of both Lunar: Dragon Song and Lunar 1 revolve around the question of whether Althena should be available to guide and coddle Lunar’s civilization, with the understood implication that she has been doing just that. So even if the people of Lunar are the ones who keep the Vile Tribe exiled (due at least in part to the doctrine of Althena’s followers saying that this exile is a good thing), Althena has long been in a position up until very soon before both games’ beginnings to tell the Vile Tribe that it’s okay to come back, and to tell the rest of Lunar to suck it up and deal with it--IF she was willing to forgive the children for the sins of the fathers. But that does not happen.

“Well shucks there RPGenius, the Vile Tribe members we see in the games are mostly villains anyway. Maybe they’re still there because they’re still bad!” I think not. While Royce is shown to be pretty irredeemably evil and the possibility of Xenobia being capable of any good at all is questionable, Phacia, the third leader of the Vile Tribe at the time of Lunar 1, eventually comes to redeem herself, and from some of the things we learn during the games, the Vile Tribe of current times are doing what they’re doing because they’re justifiably pissed off at their exile and the difficult life they’ve all had because of it. But as at least some of them are capable of accepting and embracing the ideals of Lunar’s society, as seen by Phacia, they’re capable of complex thought and self-awareness of morality and emotion, and they’re capable of following a leader who promises them a better life, so I would say that the Vile Tribe are no more inherently evil than you or I. They possess the human spirit and a human-level intellect and self-awareness, and anyone who does so can, potentially, be a good, worthwhile, and acceptable person, given the chance.

“Maybe Althena doesn’t actually know they’re still out there, and would offer them the chance to come back if she did, RPGenius!” Well, I can’t remember exactly whether the Vile Tribe are a known fact to the society of Lunar in Lunar: Dragon Song and Lunar 1, or if they’re just a legend that people can’t verify or disprove, but by the end of Lunar: Dragon Song, Althena, in the form of Lucia, is very aware that the Vile Tribe exists because they factored into the whole adventure. Yeah, Lucia decides at the end of LDS that the world doesn’t need Althena’s guidance, but we know, given the later events of Lunar 1, that she at some point apparently changed her mind and went back to being a goddess who at least in SOME way had something to do with human and beastman affairs (if she truly had no part in them at all in that form, then she’d feel no need to let herself permanently die as Luna at the end of Lunar 1) for a while. Yet by the time Lunar 1 opens, the Vile Tribe is still forced to be out on the Frontier. Althena knows they’re there, and she’s not changing her mind about it.

“Maybe, RPGenius, they don’t want to go back!” They certainly do want to go back; that’s why Ghaleon is able to get them to build his Grindery in Lunar 1. Now, maybe you mean that they don’t want to go back and be presided over by Althena. That is certainly possible--the original myth of the Vile Tribe does say that they rejected Althena from the start, and if my memory serves, Xenobia and Royce reject Phacia’s idea of trying to return to Lunar peacefully under the rules of Althena. But you know what? That isn’t a reason that they can’t be given a little piece of Lunar for themselves that isn’t the horrible Frontier. So long as they were peaceful and didn’t trouble others, why not let them live somewhere reasonably habitable without having to go around worshipping Althena? They shouldn’t be forced to worship her if they don’t want to, and the punishment for not worshipping her shouldn’t be banishment to a harsh wasteland! If the current generations of Vile Tribe people are seriously being kept out just because they don’t feel like worshipping the goddess that let them suffer a painful, harsh existence as penance for their grandparents’ mistakes, then we can add “raging egomaniac” to the list of Althena’s bad qualities.

“But RPGenius, children SHOULD be forced to suffer for mistakes their parents made!” Please go and be an idiotic asshole somewhere else.

No matter how you try to rationalize it, it always comes down to the same thing: the Vile Tribe descendants unfairly suffer for someone else’s crimes, because of Althena, and are either passively or actively kept in that suffering by Althena.

So yeah. That’s the rant, folks. That’s why Goddess Althena sucks. She’s brainwashed too damn easily, she abandons her people knowing what kind of danger they might someday face and just cheerfully expects them to overcome it without any reason for such confidence, she allows groundless racism to shape and maintain an oppressive society, and she forces descendants to go through the agonizing punishment earned for crimes they themselves did not commit. So essentially, she’s easily the pawn of mortals (and bad ones, at that), she can’t be relied on, her guidance leads society astray, and regardless of her supposed benevolence, she’s actually utterly ruthless and unforgiving, and in a way that’s completely unjust. I actually think that’s a pretty comprehensive list of everything that is the exact opposite of what a deity is supposed to be! It’s a damned shame, it really is, because Althena was a solo-act goddess at a time back when RPGs involving outright gods didn’t really have many such things, only heterogenous pantheons or single male deities (or entirely male pantheons). I would have preferred to like her. But the flat fact is that she really just sucks.

* The 4 separate, actual, original Lunar games, I mean. The Lunar series is bizarre in that it has 10 different title entries in it, yet of those 10, the majority are actually just remakes and rereleases. Seriously--there’s Lunar 1 (The Silver Star), Lunar 2 (Eternal Blue), Lunar: Walking School, Lunar: Dragon Song (Lunar Genesis in Japan), and then the rest of the games in the series are 1 remake of Lunar: Walking School, 1 remake of Lunar 2, and then 4 remakes of Lunar 1. This is a series where the remakes actually outnumber the original games. Even Final Fantasy isn’t that bad...yet.

** Keep in mind that though Kain betrayed the party twice, it was only 1 single brainwashing that caused that--he simply didn’t fully snap out of it the first time. It’s not like 2 separate, successful attempts were made.

*** Er, sort of. Ignatius of Lunar: Dragon Song is supposed to be his own individual character, even if it’s pretty painfully obvious that he’s just a bad copy of Lunar 1’s Ghaleon.

**** For the sake of the rant’s integrity, we will forget, for a moment, that it’s illogical and stupid for Lunar: Dragon Song’s Lucia to come to this conclusion, when she will, some time later, be Althena doing Althena world-guiding things in time for Lunar 1’s events to occur, at which point she’ll apparently relearn the same damn lesson. If you’re going to make deity non-involvement your message for your prequel game, Game Arts, then you might want to make sure that your later, already well-established game doesn’t hinge on that message never having happened.

***** Actually, I can think of one single way that would happen in a short period of time--if Althena had herself said that beastmen were better than humans and should lead society in totality. But that possibility would just directly prove my point that she sucks, wouldn’t it?

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Shin Megami Tensei 4's Fiend Hunting

Remember the third rant I ever posted, way, way back years ago, on Rare Item Drops? Of course you don’t. None of you read my rants when I first started; it was the only time in the history of this rant blog that I’ve had fewer readers than...well, all the rest of the time. But 8 years ago, I ranted about how frustrating and utterly idiotic RPGs can be with items (and other occurrences) that only have a teeny-tiny statistically infinitesimal chance of showing up. It’s one of the few of my really early rants that I stand by 100% today and have not in any way changed or advanced my opinion on.

Well as it turns out, I jumped the gun on that rant by about 7 and a half years. I apparently should have waited until the latter half of Summer 2013 to write that one, because holy shit guys, Shin Megami Tensei 4’s Fiend encounter rates.

I’ll note right off the bat that SMT4 already has a few Random Number Generator transgressions before the Fiend business. The Incense drop rate is slightly annoying at times, although I suppose that’s not necessarily a big deal--if you’re farming Incense (or anything else in an RPG), you’ve pretty much got to have resigned yourself to wasting a lot of time on nothing important. More than that, there’s an entire line of demons in SMT4 that you can ONLY get from an accident during demon fusion, the Hero line. That’s annoying to any completionist who wants to get a full bestiary, and even annoying to someone who plays more casually like me, because Jeanne D’Arc is in the Hero line and I’ll be DAMNED if I’m going to play an RPG with a recruitable Joan of Arc and NOT have her on my team. The chances of a Fusion accident are tiny, the chances of that accident making one of the Hero demons instead of some random other one is small again (and the only way to feasibly make it happen (fusing dead and Foul-line demons) is not made known to the player), and the chances that the abilities the Hero demon inherits are ones you’d want them to have are random, too.*

Sigh. At least Atlus has finally done away with randomized skill inheritance in normal fusion, anyway. Maybe somebody in the company read my old rant about that. Or just turned on their fucking brain.

So anyway, SMT4 already has some moments where you’ll be cursing the Random Number Generator gods with some venom. But that’s child’s play compared to the ultimate of horrible randomized rate situations...the Fiend Encounter Rate. Capitalized because I think I might make that a thing, one of my special terms in this blog, like Sailing.

So here’s the deal. There are a small group of demons known as the Fiends. They are David, Chemtrail, Plasma, the Matador, the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse (The Red, Pale, Black, and White Riders, aka the infamous Famine, Pestilence, War, and Death), the Trumpeter, and Mother Harlot. They’re pretty cool because, vaguely, they kind of all represent Death in all its forms as we know it--more on that in a later, more interesting rant. In Shin Megami Tensei 4, you can encounter, defeat, and gain the ability to create and recruit David and (in the Chaos path) Mother Harlot from a couple of sidequests. If you purchase one of the especially pointless DLCs, Death has its Applications, you can also encounter, defeat, and then create and recruit Plasma. The rest (Matador, Chemtrail, the 4 Riders, and the Trumpeter) can all be just be encountered by passing by certain spots in the game and getting into a random encounter with them, and after defeating them, you can create and recruit them.

Simple, right? Yeah, ha ha ha ha, fucking no.

See, it’s like this. Let’s say you want to run into the Trumpeter. He is a super cool concept, the angel of death who announces the end of all things by the notes of his trumpet. It is he who sounds the coming of Judgment Day. Who the hell WOULDN’T want him in their mythological dream team roster? So you find out where he’s supposed to show up by looking online (because you will NEVER find out otherwise, my friend). It’s a certain spot between some trees in a certain forest. Cool. You go there (assuming you’re on the Neutral or Law path, that is; can’t get’im on the Chaos path, I think), and go to the spot. And...nothing happens.

Hm. Odd. You leave the forest and come back to it, and go over the same spot. Still nothing. Well, that’s just weird. Time to look online to see what’s wrong. Lessee...Google, GameFAQs, SMT4, Discussion, then one of the countless topics about the Fiends. Alright, let’s see...oh, here’s the problem!

You only have a 1 out of 256 encounter rate chance.

That’s right. 1 out of 256. 1. Out of. 256. Any time you cross over the one single spot where the Trumpeter, or any of the other Fiends I mentioned, is supposed to show up, the game is gonna pull up a list of 255 boxes saying NO and 1 box saying YES, and pick a single box from that list at random to decide if the guy you’re looking for is there. 1 out of 256. I would like to remind you that the Final Fantasy 4 Pink Puff enemies, those elusive fuckers who can drop the Pink Tail, are famous for how low their encounter rate is, and their encounter rate is 1 out of 64.

Now I think most of you know what I’m getting at here, but for those of my readers who are, I dunno, SquareEnix Executive-level morons, allow me to make my point clear: 64? It’s a LOT LOWER than 256. It is, in fact, 4 times less than 256. Meaning that the Pink Puffs, held up as the standard of stupidly rare enemy encounters in RPGs, mentioned in my own Rare Item Drop rant so long ago, are actually 4 times more likely to appear than one of the Fiends in Shin Megami Tensei 4.

Not fun. But not the end of the story, either. Remember what I said about that single spot that the Trumpeter might show up in? Well, you can’t just run over it back and forth for an hour or two to get him to show up. See, the chance of his showing up there is generated when you enter the area of the forest in which that spot resides. Meaning that if he’s not there the first time, that’s not going to change until you turn around and leave the area altogether, then come back to try again. So you’re not just wasting time going over this spot a few hundred times--you’re wasting time getting to the spot, going over it, then turning around and running all the way out of the area so you can do it again.** Over and over and over again.

And one more thing about the whole shows-up-on-a-single-specific-spot thing. It’s a small spot. So let me tell you something. When you’ve run over the same spot over 200 times and have yet to see results, you start to wonder. To doubt. You start to ask yourself, “Am I even running over the right place? This internet picture and map diagram is specific, but not absolutely perfect. Could I have been going over the wrong spot all this time?” You torment yourself with this doubt, making it worse with every screen reload, thinking each time louder and louder with ever growing horror, “Have I perhaps been going over the wrong spot for the last hour?! Have I actually been wasting my time this whole while!?”

(The answer is yes, yes you have, whether or not you have the right spot).

And we’re still not done. Let’s say, amazement of amazements, you run into the Trumpeter at long last. He probably kills you, but that’s okay--hell, it’s almost a GOOD thing. If you have Charon bring you back to life where you were, you’ll be right beside the encounter spot and Trumpeter is guaranteed to be waiting for you to walk over it. Just save, and you can fight him at your leisure. So you save, you get your team better prepared for the attacks that you now know he has since you fought him once already, and you try again. You beat him this time! THANK. GOD. Phew. Okay, FINALLY, since you have beaten him, you have unlocked him and can now fuse him and put him in your team. Alright, open up the menu, go to the fusion part, check out the Special Fusions...

...Um. Hm. Where is he?

Did you miss him? Go back. Back, back, yup, further,, you’re at the beginning of the list. He’s not there. What the hell. Back to the internet! Google, SMT Wiki, look up the Trumpeter, find his game-specific it is, his fusion requirements...oh, THAT’S why he hasn’t shown up on your list! In order to fuse Trumpeter, you’ll have to have the 4 Rider Fiends available to you, and since you haven’t encountered any of them, he’s not on the list. Well that’s simple enough, you’ll just have to go find them and beat them so you can...can...


Oh right. THEY’RE all Fiends, too! Yes, that’s right, reader peeps. If you want to fuse the Trumpeter, the best of the bunch, you will have to encounter ALL 4 FIEND RIDERS as well. You will have to repeat this agonizing 1/256-chance-per-screen-load-in-a-tiny-spot all over again. And you will do it 4 times.

And by the way, this does not get much better if you’re not that interested in the Trumpeter, so long as you have an interest in almost ANY of the Fiends. Yes, Chemtrail and Matador can be fused from demons you regularly have access to, so once you (finally) encounter and defeat either of them, you can immediately fuse them. BUT, the Pale Rider, White Rider, Black Rider, and Red Rider ALL have fusion requirements that require previous Fiends. One basically leads to the next in order to fuse it--in order to fuse the Pale Rider, you must have a Black Rider, in order to fuse the Black Rider, you must have a Red Rider, in order to have him, you must first have a White Rider, and to fuse a White Rider, you must have a Matador. All of them require you to have encountered and defeated them to unlock them. So actually, if you want the Trumpeter (and Mother Harlot, for that matter, since her fusion needs a Trumpeter), you’re not doing the horrible process only 5 times (1 for him, 4 for the Riders), you’re doing it 6 times, because you need that initial Matador to start the whole thing off. That’s struggling 6 times against odds of 1/256. Finding the spots, and going over them again and again hundreds, thousands of times, waiting for something to happen.

They say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Atlus is actually making its players crazy.

Okay okay OKAY, yes, obviously this is pretty clearly self-inflicted frustration for any gamer who goes into it. All the Fiends are entirely optional to encounter (even the ones who are a simple matter of going on a side quest), and though they’re very powerful, it’s not like you can’t make a huge, powerful team without them just fine (in fact, if you work the system properly, pretty much ANY demon can be a titan of pure unbridled power--when I was done with the game, my Pixie was tearing through Hard Mode’s shit like if you dropped Pinkie Pie in Sugar Rush). The only reason you’d need to go through all this bullshit for the Fiends would only be your own misguided need for completionism, or if you just really, really like 1 Fiend in particular.*** This isn’t really a case of a company outright abusing its audience, like a disturbing number of other creators do nowadays (by this point, I think you might actually be able to diagnose fans of Bioware or Spider-Man with Battered Person Syndrome--and you may think that’s just a joke made in bad taste, and it mostly is, but I’ve read some of the things fans have said on Bioware’s forums, and it’s actually kind of creepy how close some statements can sound to the BPS mentality). This is just them going too far with something that’s ultimately very unimportant. Like Game Freak does with the whole Shiny Pokemon thing--although to be fair, at least with the Shiny Pokemon, the regular, non-rare version of the damn thing is readily available to capture and recruit, while this Fiend Encounter Rate nonsense is the ONLY way to get these demons. Ultimately, I can’t hold too much of a grudge against the folks at Atlus for this nonsense; the person who decided to waste my time with getting the Trumpeter is me, not them.

But all the same...Atlus, please, for the love of everything good and just in the universe, don’t ever do anything like this ever again.

* SORT OF random. Technically speaking, you can rig it--figure out what the Hero demon is automatically going to have (their starter moves, essentially), then, using creative fusion skill inheritance, make sure that the demons you’re fusing to make the accident to create the Hero demon ONLY have the skills you want the Hero to have and that there are EXACTLY as many of those skills between the 2 parent demons together as there are free skill slots for the resulting Hero demon (FREE skill slots, as in, not the ones that will be used for the natural skills the Hero starts with anyway). This at least takes the randomization out of the skill inheritance aspect of Hero demon fusion accidents. By replacing it with tedious planning and executing of long chains of parent fusions. Joy.

** There’s a slight work around for this. If you own one of the stupid DLCs that take you to an Experience/Money/App farming area, you can stand in front of the Fiend’s encounter spot, open the DLC and go into it, quit it and come back, and that will re-generate the Fiend’s encounter area. This is incredibly tedious to do 400 times in a row, but still faster in most cases than turning around and leaving the area and then coming back again that same 400 times, particularly since you can add a complex save-reload trick to this process to shave a few more seconds off, a trick that is way more work to explain than I really think is necessary at the moment (but if you really want to know, say so). This is, however, obviously not a good enough solution that it makes the situation any more excusable, especially since not everyone wants to waste money on meaningless DLC nonsense.

*** Why oh why must I be such a sucker for the Trumpeter?