Saturday, June 11, 2016


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

Saturday, July 18, 2015

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

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

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

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

Energy Breaker’s Ties to the Lufia Series

July 13, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Dragon Age 2's Merrill

Merrill is a weird character for me.

There aren’t a lot of party members in Dragon Age 2 whose personalities are actually appealing. Varric, I guess, is likeable from the start, but Aveline, Fenris, Sebastian, Bethany, and Isabela don’t have much charisma going for them. What personality they have tends to be either faintly annoying (Bethany’s resentfulness), cliched (Fenris’s brooding), or both (Isabela’s self-interest). Despite that, though, they’re all actually pretty decent characters, with enough depth and core beliefs and behaviors that they come out as positive in the end. Meanwhile, Carver is a pill AND doesn’t have any worthwhile character quality to make up for it, and Anders has the personality of a close-minded jerk and turns out to be even more of a thoughtless asswipe than he comes off as.

But then there’s Merrill. Merrill's is actually an enjoyable, appealing personality. She’s cheerful and flighty, with a naivete that’s actually charming (most naive RPG characters come off as forced and/or just really dumb) and a generally nice demeanor. Aside from Varric, Merrill is the character who consistently makes party banter engaging. I like hearing from her.

Here’s what makes her weird, though: Merrill’s a terrible, selfish person and I actually really hate her.

See, Merrill’s actual character development is that of a careless, obsessed fool who toys with forces that everyone knows have a long history of being dangerous. She’s so single-mindedly focused on her goals that she consorts with a demon and is easily manipulated into doing its bidding, eventually leading to a point where, if not for the intervention and sacrifice of an innocent third party, Merrill would have found herself possessed by the demon that she had stupidly put her faith in despite the warnings of those around her.

I mean, think about this--you have a character who makes bargains with demonic forces, who arrogantly and mistakenly thinks that she possesses the ability to control that demon, and is tricked the whole time into doing the demon’s bidding, all of which leads to the event where the demon is ready to betray its plaything and reveal its true intentions. Most of the time, that character I've just described is an out and out villain in an RPG story. I mean, just how many RPG villains have we seen that do the exact same kind of shit that Merrill does? Gaidel from Arc the Lad 2, the Drow queen in the Neverwinter Nights 1 Hordes of the Underdark expansion, the many people indoctrinated by the Reapers in Mass Effect, and so on and so forth; there are plenty of examples. The only difference between Merrill and your average misguided, egotistical villain is that, as I mentioned, she never has to pay the price for her stupidity. Marethari, the leader of the elves in the area and the one who has been telling Merrill to drop this obsession since the beginning because of its danger, takes Merrill’s rightful punishment onto herself. I suppose it’s not right to resent Merrill on this point since Marethari does this without Merrill having any choice in the matter...but then, the punishment is only coming because Merrill made her choice, for years, to ignore Marethari’s wisdom, not to mention basic common sense, so I still count it against Merrill all the same.

So, Merrill is quite a unique character for me. On the one hand, she comes off like someone I like--sweet, charming, friendly, and caring. On the other hand, she’s an overconfident, obsessed fool dabbling in obviously dangerous matters and ignoring the warnings of someone who cares for her well-being, eventually getting that person killed when the obvious consequences of her careless actions come to pass. I certainly can’t think of any other RPG character I’ve seen who I instinctively want to like, but can’t because underneath a sincerely likable personality they’re actually a major asshole. I don’t know whether this makes Merrill a well-written character or not, but it does make her a unique one.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Anodyne's Surrealism

As you may have noticed, in the last few years I’ve started playing a lot of Indie RPGs. It’s been an overall positive experience, the titles often being as good as they’re touted to be (such as Bastion or Dust: An Elysian Tail), along with a few pleasant surprises (who could have known that a sexually explicit RPG that makes no pretense about its level of fanservice would actually turn out to be so damn excellent?). That’s not to say it’s all positive--Lords of Xulima was a distinct let-down in the story and characters department, and Legend of Grimrock has more or less nothing of interest to me. But as a general rule, I’m finding Indie RPGs to be good more often than those published by established companies, and when they’re not good, they at least don’t stink as bad as the regular publishers’ titles do. I’ve yet to encounter an Indie RPG anywhere near as wretched as Shadow Hearts 3, or your average Dragon Quest.

Still, even though Indie RPGs have, for me, had a very high rate of success, not every Indie RPG hits the mark perfectly, even if it’s good overall. And this is the case with Anodyne. Anodyne is a quiet, occasionally amusing, occasionally disturbing RPG that functions primarily as a work of surrealism. The problem is...surreal is really all that it is, and ironically, this single-minded dedication to surrealism actually makes it less effective than other RPGs that have tempered their surreal tone with some structure.

What I mean is...well, take another famously surreal RPG, Earthbound. It’s a game filled with irrational imagery and ideas of a subconscious style that permeate its every locale and character. Very surreal. Quirky and fun in that surrealism, too. Well, that interesting and generally amusing strangeness stays with you from the beginning of the game to its very end, and you enjoy it the whole time. There’s never a time where the abnormal aspects of Earthbound’s story and characters don’t engage your interest.

You know why I think that is? Because Earthbound provides juxtaposition to the surrealism. Even though the strange nature of Earthbound is what we remember of it, that strangeness is only able to stand out so strikingly because it’s repeatedly put against familiar, mundane, and logical backdrops. We identify with the small towns and cities that Ness visits. The culture and lifestyles of the people in these places are similar to our own. And we’re familiar with the general concept of the plot of Earthbound, which is to find plot-important locations in a quest to save the world. That’s conventional, it’s’s the integral basis of the game’s story, the foundation on which all the surreal events and people play out. And that’s why the rampant surrealism stands out--because it’s contrasted against the normalcy of much of its setting, and more importantly, the familiarity of its basic plot.

Anodyne? I don’t know where I am in Anodyne. I don’t know what the deal is. I don’t know why the protagonist must do what he does, nor the intentions and consequences of his actions. I don’t know anything about anything, and because everything in the game is strange and out there, including its plot, storytelling pace, style, and characters, I have nothing to anchor me in this sea of of strange. Without a familiar point of reference in some regard to the story, some regular logic to serve as my handhold, the surrealism is just an ongoing wave of nearly indistinguishable oddities that I can extrapolate no intellectual or emotional truth from.

Earthbound’s surrealism is kooky and fun and adds a layer of depth to the narrative because it stays tied to a core plot and setting that are familiar and upon which the surrealism actually stands out. Mother 3 takes that a step further, using a (better, more creative) plot and cast as its contrast against its surrealism, and then using its quirky, fun surrealism again as a contrast against its hard-hitting, deeply affecting emotional content. Hell, even The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening has a good method about it, seeming in most ways to be a straightforward, easily followed adventure, normal enough that the bits and pieces that are strange and out of place which pop up as you go along bring a new light to the whole adventure by contrast.

That’s how you do it. That’s how you make effective use of surrealism in your RPG. You give it the contrast to stand out. Contrast is a major part of how we understand and interpret many things, things that are primal and linked to our emotion and subconscious--in other words, linked to the parts of us that surrealism most seeks to touch and connect with. Much of your understanding of cold comes from your recognition that it is different from heat. Much of your ability to appreciate something sweet comes from knowing that food can taste bitter or sour. You only really know what darkness is because you know of the light that banishes it. Surrealism is by its very nature a primordial, irrational escape from the mundane confines of reality--and by that definition of itself, it must have those restraints to break out of for it to truly exist. The strange, sensational freedom of surrealism means nothing if we do not have the hard, bland ground against which it coils and away from which it launches into the abnormal, artistic air. With the contrast of a consistent and present plot, and/or a world with recognizable rules, surrealism can shine as it is meant to. But if all is surreal, and nothing normal, then it is lost within itself, and we are left confused and unable to glean much understanding from it.

Anodyne isn’t a bad RPG. It’s still fairly interesting, you can still piece a little something together about its deeper levels of meaning, and it still can lay a shaky claim on your emotional state. But I don’t think it will ever be the rallying point for RPG fans who appreciate surrealism the way Earthbound, Mother 3, and even The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening are. Those other, seemingly less surreal games succeed and capture our memories with their bizarre but enjoyable irrationality, but Anodyne defeats itself to some degree with its saturation of surrealism.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Shin Megami Tensei 4's Party Members' Strange Immunity

You know, the protagonist and his party in Shin Megami Tensei 4 have a rather inexplicable immunity to various plot-related obstacles.

Okay, remember early in the game, while you’re still samurai-ing it up in the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado? The party’s first encounter with Yuriko ends with her having a horde of Lilims attack them, and use their charm magic to incapacitate all the males of the party (because God forbid we ever include a gay man in our main cast!) as Yuriko escapes. Okay, fine. Standard plot-necessitated hero restraint. At least the party didn’t just stand around and watch like a bunch of ninnyhammers.

But then, later in the game, Flynn and his samurai buddies come face to face with the same bunch of Lilims guarding Yuriko. The Lilims use the same technique, and...this time it doesn’t work. Why? The game has Jonathan or Walter (or both, can't recall exactly) proclaim that the mind control spell won’t work this time, and we’re expected to content ourselves with this not-explanation and keep going. But seriously, why are all the guys suddenly completely immune to this charm spell that seriously wrecked their shit last time? No story-related reason is apparent; they didn’t get some sort of spell of protection against it or a magical "Cold Shower To Go" plot item. Is it just that they’ve gained a few levels, or something? Are we expected to believe that knowing the attack is coming is all it takes for them to be able to completely ignore it? If just some basic willpower not to give in is all that’s needed to resist the spell, you’d think that their dedication to their duty (Jonathan in particular) would have at least slowed the spell down a little the first time, but they all fell under it quite immediately then. Doesn’t really add up.

But hey, that slight oddity isn’t worth any real thought, right? Just one of those little narrative hiccups that happen in practically every story, a one-time thing that we happily ignore for the sake of immersion. Except...this sort of thing happens several times.

You take Yaso Magatsuhi’s gas. The first time the party enters the underground tower that Yaso Magatsuhi guards, they immediately notice a strange, sweet smell in the air, and eventually succumb to the delirium it induces. They are told later that Yaso Magatsuhi’s gas does that to everyone and that’s why all the workers in the place were wearing gas masks. But, later on in the game, you can return to this dungeon, find Yaso Magatsuhi, and beat the crap out of it, and now the gas seems to have no effect on Flynn whatsoever. Charm magic is one thing, that’s based in your mind to begin with so I guess it’s okay, if not ideal, to explain it away as just being resisted through mental preparation, but why is it that the hallucinatory gas doesn’t work this second time? You can say that the second time through the tower, Flynn isn’t exploring the place and finding keys to proceed, so there’s less time for the gas to affect him, but on the other hand, actually facing Yaso Magatsuhi in combat means an extended period of time right at the very source of that gas. The first time around, close proximity to Yaso Magatsuhi immediately induced the delirium, so even if Flynn hasn’t been exposed for very long this second time around to the gas from afar, you’d think that being up close and personal with it for an entire battle would still do the trick. But nope, he’s just perfectly fine, no explanation offered for why.

Why can’t Medusa turn the party to stone early in the game? Her lair’s filled with stone statues that she readily identifies as people who crossed her, so obviously the traditional lore about her petrifying gaze is still relevant. Yet the most that can happen against Medusa is that Flynn might be tricked into looking at her eyes in battle and being paralyzed--paralyzed, not petrified. The legendary instant-kill of Greek mythos has been reduced to a mildly inconvenient status effect. It doesn’t really seem to be a case of nerfing Medusa, because the evidence is all throughout the area that she can turn people to stone with her gaze. It just...doesn’t happen with Flynn and company.

And what about Blasted Tokyo? It’s a major plot point that Blasted Tokyo, particularly its outdoor environs, has poison in its air, pumped out by Pluto, which is basically God’s version of a can of Raid. The people of Blasted Tokyo cover themselves completely and wear air filters at all times in order to stay alive...yet Flynn, Walter, and Jonathan go traipsing around Blasted Tokyo in their regular clothes, noses and mouths completely exposed. Does the poison that the game assures us over and over again is in the air ever affect them? Nope. Not a one of them even so much as coughs the whole time they’re in Blasted Tokyo. You can assume, I guess, that the poison is a more slow-acting thing and only deadly if you’re breathing it over a certain period of time, but the party is walking from one end of Tokyo to the other and back again. That does take a certain amount of time to do, especially if you’re stopping every few minutes to fight a random encounter and doing a bunch of side quests. And they enter Pluto’s HQ and confront the thing face to face--I can only assume that the poison in the air would be much higher that close to the source. You’d think there should be some reaction to the poisoned air after all that, but again, nothing.

It’s not really a huge deal, or anything. Shin Megami Tensei 4 certainly has bigger problems weighing it down than this. Still, after a certain number of times, the oddity of the party’s inexplicable immunities starts to grow noticeable, and the fact that the main characters are only ever affected by this stuff when it’s most convenient for the writing, instead of consistently or at least with some explanation for the inconsistency, is still detrimental in its small way.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Chrono Trigger Theory: Lavos's Emergence in 1999 A.D.

Note: I refer to Lavos as a “he” in this rant. I do this out of habit, and the fact that it’s a lot clearer when writing about “him” than speaking of Lavos as an “it” would be. Also, Lavos is automatically referred to as a “he” by a lot of people and even official sources, including the game itself, to my recollection. Still, I recognize that Lavos is much more accurately an “it” unless actually proven otherwise,* so cut me a break on the nomenclature, alright?

I’ve discussed more than once my love for Chrono Trigger and the many reasons why it’s an excellent specimen of the RPG genre: its story, its creativity, its quirks, its characters, its themes, and so on. 1 thing I’ve never mentioned before, though, is that it’s also a game that allows for its fans to theorize quite a bit, striking that difficult balance of being open and subtle enough for theory, yet never seeming vague or lacking appropriate detail and background in its storytelling. I daresay, in fact, that it was perhaps the first RPG which garnered a significant amount of fan theory attention. Nowadays, it’s nothing unusual to see a lot of fans debate the possibilities and lore of an RPG in forums dedicated to, say, Dragon Age, Fallout, Kingdom Hearts, Pillars of Eternity, Shin Megami Tensei, or even something as light as Borderlands...but back in the day, that sort of heavy intellectual response in the fan community didn’t really happen to a great degree, at least not that I saw. It was Chrono Trigger, in my observations, that got players to really think about an RPG’s lore potential for the first time in such a way as is commonplace now. I remember Icy Brian’s RPG page, which you might say was my internet place of birth, as a hub for all kinds of theories and ideas on Chrono Trigger (and other games, but CT was the sun around which the other games seemed to orbit), pursued in forum discussions, fanart, and, of course, especially fanfiction. Icy’s has sadly been defunct for quite some time now, but The Chrono Compendium is still a pretty fun place for Chrono Trigger nerds like myself to occasionally waste a couple hours reading up on theories, so the old game’s still got a community out there posing questions to itself and coming up with answers, and that’s kind of fun.

One of the many questions apparently still somewhat debated at the Chrono Compendium is just why Lavos was so damn ornery when he busted out of the ground in 1999 A.D.** Well, they have their theories, and I’ve got mine, and theirs and mine don’t reconcile too well, so hell, why not make a rant about my thoughts on the matter, right?

Oh, stop complaining. At least it’s not another DLC rant that’s over 10 years past its expiration date.

So, the answer given at Chrono Compendium about why Lavos destroyed the world in 1999 A.D. is, primarily, that the level of technology was probably approaching the point where it could be a threat to him, and he sensed this and decided to eliminate the problem of humanity before it could become dangerous to him.

The problem I have with this theory is that it assumes a few things that don’t stand up so well, at least not in my eyes. The first is that the level of technology really was getting anywhere near the point where it was dangerous to Lavos. It’s not impossible that this is true, but one has to look objectively at just how unimaginably advanced that technology would have to be to become a clear threat to him. Lavos is a creature that survived a global-extinction-level event, who in fact was at its ground zero: namely, his own arrival on the planet. He lands on the CT world with enough force to create an impact explosion of such magnitude that it leads to an ice age, much like the theoretical extinction event of our own world that wiped out the dinosaurs. The majority of Lavos’s outer shell is, therefore, able to tank an explosion that makes nuclear warheads look like those little toy bang pouches that kids throw on the ground to make a loud snap. Offensively, Lavos is capable of raining nuclear-level devastation across the globe in a matter of seconds with his spines, and the force and structural integrity of those spines is such that they can actually tear thick was the landmass of Zeal? It certainly looks like the kingdom’s floating foundation is several miles deep. Lavos’s spines sliced straight through that solid rock. To say nothing of the sheer magical and dimensional power Lavos wields--his very presence is so powerful that it warps space and time. So tell me, exactly what insane level of technological sophistication would human society have to be close to reaching in order to threaten a creature with this level of invulnerability and widespread lethality, who exists in a form of radiating power so beyond comprehension that it disrupts the fabric of reality itself?

Yes, you can argue that the head of Lavos seems to be a weak spot, which Crono and company exploit, but even that weak spot is certainly insanely dangerous, and Crono and his gang are only able to actually reach Lavos to exploit this weakness because they have a time portal that leads to the exact place and moment in time in which Lavos emerges. The window of time to reach Lavos before he can fire off his world-ending spine salvo is less than a minute--without instantaneous time and space travel, how could the people of the world possibly create an offense that would reach Lavos’s head in time? It’s not even like Lavos’s movements can be anticipated if you could somehow track him in the earth--from all evidence, he moves fast enough when he’s emerging that it only takes a minute or so for him to surface. You could have an army stationed exactly where he’s coming out and still not have enough time for them to react to stop him once he’s ready to do his thing.

You can also argue that the Epoch is able to penetrate Lavos’s shell somehow (probably through the head area, but we can’t say for sure), so clearly it IS possible to construct something that can do so. Well, I would point out that the Epoch is an implement fashioned from more than just 1999 A.D.’s technology. Belthasaur, its creator, is one of the former gurus of Zeal. He doesn’t just have access to all the records of science left from 1999 A.D. He also possesses the incredibly vast knowledge of magic and reality-altering powers of the Kingdom of Zeal, and the Epoch is a combination of these two heights of knowledge, plus his own considerable intellect (he’s the Guru of Reason, after all). The knowledge of Zeal is completely lost to the world after its fall, to the point that by 600 A.D. (and probably considerably earlier than that), it’s not even known to the world that it ever existed. And by 1000 A.D., magic itself seems practically unknown, certainly not possessed by humans. The Epoch may be able to penetrate Lavos’s shell, but it is an amalgamation of technology with arcane arts that the people of the future would never be able to duplicate. Whatever technology the future people of the world were going to create, it wasn’t going to be the Epoch, so we’re left once again with a daunting question of what level of technology they could have been headed for which would threaten Lavos.

Another problem with this idea is that it depends on Lavos even caring whether human technology is powerful enough to threaten him, assuming that it ever could be. Even if the world could pose a threat, Lavos is a secret buried within the planet. How would the people of the world even known to focus their aggression on him to start with? By 1999 A.D., Lavos hasn’t done anything for almost 1,400 years. The last time he did anything was in 600 A.D., when Magus summoned him in a failed attempt to destroy him. And even then, pretty much no one in the world even knew about that, just Ozzie and maybe his cohorts. I suppose somehow there must be SOME record of Lavos’s existence in 1999 A.D., since that director guy speaks his name during the game over sequence, but that doesn’t tell us enough to safely extrapolate anything. Is Lavos a known entity by the governments of the world? Does the director just have some ancient knowledge passed down to him from his ancestors? Is he naming his destroyer and coincidentally giving it the same title that Ayla did billions of years before? Who knows? Whatever the case, even assuming that the people of the world do somehow know about Lavos’s existence, they hadn’t attacked him and we’re given no indication that they meant to, and frankly I don’t know exactly what kind of attack they could have mounted anyway, had he stayed buried where he was.

One more thing about this theory I don’t like is Lavos’s being able to determine an upcoming threat to begin with. Now, I actually don’t have a problem with Lavos’s being able to monitor technology. We see in the battle between his head and Crono’s team that Lavos can incorporate technology into himself just as much as he can organic creatures: of the many bosses he mimics, the Dragon Tank and the robotic guardians of the future are actually the first. Lavos seems as able to adopt technological blueprints as he is biological ones, so he must be able to somehow sense technology. But being able to sense it and incorporate it is different from being able to make judgment calls on when it’s too close to being dangerous to him. That requires a level of intelligence that we just don’t have any reason to think Lavos possesses. From all the clues that Chrono Trigger gives us, even including the lore from the remake and from that shitty sequel, Lavos could be sentient, but he could also be acting on nothing more than animal instinct. The most we have to go on is the newer game’s information that indicates that Lavos has felt rage and a desire for revenge...but animals are quite capable of feeling the emotion of anger, and frankly, we think of revenge as a concept born of intelligent understanding of emotion, but when you get right down to it, it can and often is just an instinct born of anger, so that’s really no proof, either. So in order for the theory that Lavos can anticipate levels of technology dangerous to himself to be true, you have to assume that an entirely different theory that is equally debatable is also true.

Last problem with this theory: it’s saying that Lavos was judging a potential threat from human technology in the future, and attacking in advance...yet the Kingdom of Zeal was actively using his power for their own purposes, AND were able to directly interact with him in the Ocean Palace, with the intent of controlling him. Yet Lavos only punished them for this once they had actually made their move on him! Where was this foresight then? He can anticipate a problem from a populace that’s doing absolutely nothing to him, yet a populace that’s actively feeding off him decides it wants to control him and he doesn’t lift a spiny finger until they actually go and do it? Assuming Lavos even was the one calling the shots at that point--for all we know, Queen Zeal the power-hungry psychopath was controlling Lavos at that point, and it was her idea to blast her kingdom to rubble, and he didn’t even make that decision. She clearly didn’t care for it whatsoever, so it’s not at all unlikely.

...This rant is becoming a lot longer than I thought it was going to be. Oh well, on we go.

The Chrono Compendium has one more theory to share on Lavos’s actions in 1999 A.D. under this first one that I’ve been attacking. The gist of this one is that Lavos emerges in 1999 A.D. as per a standard part of its life cycle: he’s ready to create his spawn, and he’s had 65 billion years’ worth of eating evolution so he’s probably full and doesn’t need the creatures on the surface any more, so he bursts forth to clear the planet of any potential threats to his kids (who are far less invulnerable and deadly than he is), and competitors for resources they might need.

This is a much better theory. First of all, it bases itself in known facts instead of “probably” and other unproven theories. It’s a fact that Lavos eats evolution (how he does this is, of course, considerably less clear). It’s a fact that Lavos did create spawn, as they are seen at Death Mountain in 2300 A.D., and the only reasonable recourse is to assume that he spawned after his emergence in 1999 A.D., since we don’t see Lavos Spawn any time prior to the future*** and it doesn’t seem feasible that they’d be kicking around on the surface without humanity wigging the fuck out about it. This theory does not require Lavos to be sentient, nor does it require him not to be, so it does not have to stand on top of another unproven theory. The theory is also considerably more sensible as a whole: it’s a lot more believable that Lavos would eliminate humanity because it was a threat to his children than because it was a threat to him.

In fact, I don’t really have any argument to make against this theory. It’s solid. I will, however, provide an alternate idea that I think is roughly as reasonable.

Part A: My theory begins with a question: what is the defining knowledge we have about the being known as Lavos? We know several things about what he does--the fact that he comes from space, the fact that he is so powerful that he tears holes in space-time, the fact that he can and does destroy continents and even the entire world, the fact that he creates spawn, and so on. But there is only a single, vital knowledge we have of Lavos that strikes at the core of what he is. The whats, we have lots of those, but the why, that is what matters most in understanding everything else. And that knowledge is this: we know that Lavos devours evolution. How, we do not know. What specific aspect of evolution, we do not know. All we know for sure is that Lavos’s overall behavior is significantly tied to a thirst for the mutation of life. All beyond that is a mystery. That is all we have on Lavos’s motivations, and so that is what I work with.

The theory of a natural life cycle including worldwide devastation to create a suitable playpen is a good one, as I say. It’s sensible and it fits with physical evidence. But it does still suppose a motivation that we do not have official confirmation of: an instinct (or conscious choice) of parental obligation. That theory makes the (reasonable) request that we suppose a theoretical motivation.

But mine does not. Here is my theory: Lavos erupts in 1999 A.D. and destroys the world because the world no longer provides him enough evolution for his purposes.

Part B: In 1999 A.D., human civilization is at the strongest it has ever been, save for the Kingdom of Zeal (and I’ll cover that in a second). Further, its strength lies in civilization and technology, as does our own. The Chrono Trigger world intentionally mirrors our own in several respects (dinosaurs in prehistoric times being wiped out by an extinction event, an ice age that followed, a medieval-styled era, etc), and so it’s reasonable to expect that their civilization advances in a roughly similar fashion as our own does. We conquer and expand in our own world using the power of community and knowledge, and from what we can see, this seems to occur with the civilization of CT.

Well, here’s the thing about our own world: our reckless expansion and complete disregard for nature has devastated the life diversity of the planet. It is a scientific fact that we are in the early stages of a major extinction event in our world, with entire species dying out on a daily basis. Our pollution, our wastefulness, our horrible fucking geoengineering, they have doomed our civilization, and we’re pulling down every other species with us. While evolution still works to keep some species kicking--gotta love those super bacteria we’ve been creating with antibiotic overuse--there’s nonetheless an increasingly smaller pool of diverse organisms for evolution to work with.

Even assuming that the people of Chrono Trigger’s 1999 A.D. were not so incomprehensibly stupid as to geoengineer their own climate into utter chaos, an expanding, technological civilization that in any way resembles our own is still actively altering the life diversity of its planet. By changing more and more environments into ones suited for human beings, fewer and fewer creatures and plants can exist which do not have the physical and behavioral adaptations that can survive in human-manipulated environments. As human civilization in CT advances, it is reasonable to expect less species diversity as fewer diverse, non-human-manipulated environments exist, and with fewer species to play with and fewer diverse environments to be adapted to, there is less evolution.

We can even see this, sort of, in CT’s world. In 600 A.D., there are many areas through which Crono and his friends travel, and in these places there are often many monsters taking many different forms. 400 years later, however, with civilization having advanced considerably further, we see very few areas with monsters in them, and a more limited diversity of monsters within those areas. Already diversity is lessening.****

Now, you can say that the civilization of Zeal was as successful, if not more so, as the folks of 1999 A.D., and the planet had even less diversity going on at that point, being all covered in ice. Good point. The difference there, though, is that Zeal wasn’t messing with the surface of the planet to any great extent, so for the most part, what few opportunities for evolution were there wouldn’t be hindered by Zeal. Also, the ice age is, we can assume, beyond Lavos’s ability to influence. His arrival is what initiated it, but it’s not like he can just torpedo the wind patterns of the world. It’s not a situation which he could change to suit his hunger, unlike the situation of 1999 A.D. which I have described.

You can also point out that this theory might need to imply a level of intelligence that I’ve mentioned we have no idea whether or not Lavos possesses. I would counter, however, that estimating the direction of technology is a much, much different thing for Lavos than estimating a current level of evolution. It takes much more intelligence to anticipate an impending situation than it does to assess a current one. We know for a fact that Lavos feeds on evolution, while his relationship with technology is nebulous--clearly he cannot be entirely unaware of it, as he incorporates it into his defensive behaviors, but beyond that we cannot say what his relationship to it is. It would be well within the behavior patterns of a non-self-aware creature to recognize a dwindling food source, and Lavos’s solution to this problem (blow everything the fuck up) is, for him at least, a pretty simple behavior algorithm: surface, shoot spines everywhere, dig back down. Ants have more complex instincts than that. Recognizing a current situation regarding its one food source and taking a simple action can be the act of a sentient or non sentient organism--anticipating the development of a form of intelligent culture is another story.

Alternate Part B: Lavos’s decision to emerge and rustle up some grub could tie back to that second theory on the Chrono Compendium page. Maybe the evolution of the world wasn’t slowing, as I’ve theorized, but Lavos was getting ready to spawn, and as such he needed to intake a lot more evolution than before, and/or needed to create an evolution-rich environment for his newborn children to feed well within. As I’ve stated, we know that Lavos has children in 2300 A.D., we can only reasonably assume they weren’t present before 1999 A.D., and an educated guess would say they eat evolution, too (it ain’t like it’s a solid food or something). What’s enough evolution for one Lavos throughout history may not be enough for a Lavos close to giving birth, and is even less likely to be enough for a Lavos AND its litter of hellspawn. And the side benefit, of course, is that raining spikey nukes on the world also makes for a lot fewer threats to his kids. In fact, in this possible scenario, my theory isn’t different from the better one on the Chrono Compendium so much as it is an expansion of it. Well, that works for me, so onward to the next part.

Part C: But why would he rain destruction on the world of 1999 A.D. over a case of the evolutionary munchies? Surely destroying the majority of the world’s life in a single go isn’t going to help the situation? Ahhh, but it does. Observe the evidence of 2300 A.D. What do you see? Destroyed cities, robots running amok, humans dying out, grotesque and bizarre mutants everywhere, debris everywhere, Artificial Intelligences seeking to--

Oh wait, hang on. Back up a couple of examples. Did somebody say mutants?

Yeah, 2300 A.D. is lousy with weird, freakish monstrosities. Even the occasional “normal” creatures, like rats and frog monsters, may have evolved the ability to speak and reason. And you know how mutants come about? Evolution. And by the looks of these freaks, evolution must’ve been going at it like there was no tomorrow (which there sort of wasn’t). Lavos’s purge may have wiped out a hell of a lot of life, but what was there was left with a twisted, dire, extreme environment that required a hell of a lot of changes to adapt to. As evidenced by the state of life forms in 2300 A.D., Lavos’s eruption in 1999 A.D. led directly to an enormous, not to mention extremely rapid, explosion of evolution. 300 years of evolution is usually, what, a slightly longer beak? A different fur pattern? A new toe, if you’re super lucky? Lavos’s armageddon gave him a BUFFET of evolution to devour.

So that’s my theory. You can decide which of the middle scenarios I’ve envisioned you like the better. Or maybe you can come up with one yourself. But you do have the beginning fact that Lavos eats evolution, and you do have the ending fact that 2300 A.D. is inhabited by grotesque mutants that evolved because of an environment Lavos created, and that their evolution happened in extremes of magnitude and speed. Fill in the middle how you like, but when a creature feeds on evolution, and creates a scenario resulting in a relatively immediate explosion of evolution, chances are pretty good that those 2 facts are related.

...Man, look at the size of this rant. You know, when I started this, I set out to make something simple in an efficient amount of’d never guess I’m from Massachusetts, huh?

* This is not an invitation for Lavos Rule 34 links.

** And in 1200 B.C., too, but I should think that’s a lot simpler to answer: his awakening in 1200 B.C. was caused by a kingdom trying to directly control his power, and upon that awakening he was immediately attacked (remember, even in the pre-game timeline without Crono and company’s interference, it’s relatively safe to say that Magus was still present to make his own attack on Lavos). Seems pretty likely that Lavos’s attack on the Kingdom of Zeal was a retaliation against that aggression.

*** The Lavos Spawn seen in the Black Omen really can’t count. It’s clear that the Black Omen exists as an anomaly in time, and pretty much everything within it is separated from the regular dimension and time of CT’s reality.

**** I’m aware that it is highly unlikely that this was intentional by the creators of the game. From their perspective, there’s just fewer monsters because there aren’t many quest areas in 1000 A.D. Doesn’t change what’s there, though, intentional or not.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

General RPG Lists: Worst RPGs

Well! It has been a LONG time since I posted this one. My very first list rant...ahh, the nostalgia. Memories, memories...

Well, enough of that wallowing in the past bullshit. Let’s tear this rant apart and build it anew! This thing was hopelessly outdated, and too small to boot. 10 slots when I’ve played over 270 RPGs? Not enough. So enjoy, reader peoples, the new Worst RPG List, now 15 entries long!

Simple truth: some video games are bad. And chances are, if you're reading this, that you have encountered at least a few in your time. Hell, if you're a regular reader of these rants, I know you've at least READ about quite a few. Cuz lemme tell you, after close to 300 RPGs, I've seen my share, and probably a couple others' shares on top of it. But which are the worst? Which are the true crap of the crop, the ones that rise up the ladder to stand above their peers only so that they can take a suicide plunge downward? Which RPGs should you never, ever play because they are just irredeemable piles of putrescent trash?


15. Lufia 1 (SNES)

Ah, the perfect way to kick off this list--with a "classic." I've discovered that what the world's opinions on what RPGs are "classics" often do not mirror my own--for a while after playing Xenogears for the first time, I was convinced that the RPG-playing populace had been pulling an elaborate prank on me for years, and that I would soon get a letter or email from them all that read, "Ha ha ha! You gullible dweeb, you BELIEVED us when we said it was good! What a rube!"

Back to the so-called classic at hand, though. Lufia 1 is terrible. The characters are transparent and little more than plot-advancing automatons, and this is at the best of times--the rare times they do get what passes for character development, it's simplistic and stupid to an almost shocking degree. And the plot? Take a look--if there is any single part of this that seems original and/or interesting to you, then, uh, congratulations on your charmed existence of cliche ignorance.

1. God-powerful Bad Guys are out to destroy stuff for no adequately-explored reason.
2. Descendant of a previous hero sets out to stop them for generic reasons with a magical girl whose origins are mysterious.
3. Excessively long progression of traveling from one subplot quest to another that lead in a very, very roundabout way to stopping Bad Guys.
4. Magical girl's mysterious origins happen to be directly tied with Bad Guys and the world's fate! Who would have guessed?
5. Magical girl is confused for a little while.
6. Hero convinces her that her crush on him is way more important than her destiny, history, and/or other desires.
7. Bad Guys beaten! Ending where things seem like they might end sadly but everything winds up happy fun times after all! Yay!

Lufia 1's plot is unoriginal garbage, its characters alternate between being boring and annoying, the actual play experience of it is excruciating (level-grinding over and over in a terrible battle system is a must thanks to an excessively high difficulty level mixed with poor design making strategy nearly nonexistent), and the game leaves you with absolutely no point or theme. I have no IDEA how they managed to create Lufia 2 out of this crap, tie them together so strongly, yet somehow make the second game almost the exact opposite in quality.

14. Final Fantasy 12: Revenant Wings (DS)

Hi there, folks, and welcome back from our commercial break! I want you to picture this. You’re sitting in the gutter, stinking of stale booze and soiled pants, minding your own business, when all of a sudden, the CEO of a major video game developer comes up to you and asks you to make a game for him! You’re too polite, not to mention completely inarticulate after shooting up what you only hope was heroine, to say no, and now you’re sitting in a cubicle at his company, deadline looming, with no idea what to do!

Has this ever happened to you? Of course it has! Those Sonic the Hedgehog games have to be coming from somewhere, after all. Well, you’re not alone, and we’re here for you. So today, on Cooking with SquareEnix, we’re going to help you make that deadline by showing you how to make a bad game into a worse sequel!

Step 1: Preheat oven to 345° Fahrenheit.

Step 2: Take Final Fantasy 12.

Step 3: Remove the incomprehensible, self-important, boring, meaningless mess that is FF12’s plot. Once done, haphazardly cram a new plot in, one which can actually be followed and is a little less high and mighty, but is also twice as dull and pointless. Rub in just a pinch of stupidity, for flavor.

Warning: Be very careful that your new plot does not in any way involve the many locations from Final Fantasy 12 that your repeat audience would be familiar with and actually want to see. Instead of revisiting the visually striking but totally soulless locations of FF12 that desperately need the life and character which a new adventure could provide them, just use some stupid generic floating island.

Step 4: Take everyone in FF12’s cast except Balthier, all those boring, dumb, poorly written characters, and begin mindlessly mashing them until they’re little more than pulverized granules of the characters they used to be, even less nuanced and compelling than ever before. Put them back in, but be sure to keep them separated from your new plot by taking away virtually all personal stake any of them have in the story’s events. Your goal is to make the characters all seem more like intruders in the story than participants.

Step 5: Take the Balthier that you set aside in the last step and begin mercilessly smashing his character into atoms, as you did for the others. Since Balthier was the only good part of FF12, this will be a much more difficult process, but you must be sure to make him exactly as crappy and indistinguishable a lump of character paste as you have made his constituents. When putting this miserable, generic mush back, be sure to remember that he, too, should not have any personal connection to the plot.

Step 6: Lightly sprinkle some characters and villains who actually have any-goddamn-thing to do with the plot, but make absolutely sure only one of them is a party member. You don’t want to saturate your major cast with characters who are actually relevant in any fucking way.

Step 7: While you’re adding Step 6’s new faces, you’ll want to throw in a couple of intensely annoying, loud children whose youthful “personality” (if such it can be called) is clumsily exaggerated at every turn. If possible, use ones who were completely unimportant NPCs in the first game, so as to infuse that special why-the-hell-are-they-even-here zest. Be sure to apply them liberally to every inch of your product, from beginning to end; you wouldn’t want these obnoxious little crapwads to miss any opportunity to open their stupid mouths and make an already poor scene worse.

Step 8: Put it in the oven and let it bake for a couple weeks or however long you think they actually spent developing this miserable turd. While it’s cooking, decide on a name for your product. The name should be 2 words picked at complete random from a list of entertainment culture buzzwords. It is preferable that you not actually know the meaning of 1 of these words.

Step 9: Remove game, but keep the oven on for the moment. Set the game out to cool. Congratulations, you have made your very own Final Fantasy 12: Revenant Wings!

Step 10: Is your oven still on? Okay, good. Now, stick your head inside and slam the door shut on yourself a couple times, you wad.

13. Mega Man Star Force 1 + 2 (DS)

Okay, a little breach in protocol here, having 2 games take 1 spot, but they share virtually the same flaws and the second game is just a continuation of the first game’s monumental suck, so I don’t see the point of splitting them apart. Also, I’ll be honest: I’m going to keep an open mind, but I have a feeling that once I play Mega Man Star Force 3, this spot is going to go from being 2 games jammed in a single space to 3.

Overall, there is really only 1 thing to say about Mega Man Star Force and why it’s here. Dumb. Dumb. Duuuuuuuuuuuummmmmmmmmb. These games are so fucking dumb that I almost can’t believe they actually exist.

There are plenty of other flaws with them, of course. Flaws like the protagonist. Mega Man Star Force 1 stars Geo Stellar, a half-assed semi-emo preteen who seems to have misplaced a significant portion of his brain somewhere and is in no particular hurry to recover it. He at least stops being quite such a sad sack in the second game, but he is definitely still a complete moron. I don’t know whose great idea it was to make this completely unappealing little doofus into a Mega Man, but whoever it was should not be allowed to express a thought ever again.

Flaws like the fact that the supporting cast are one-dimensional shells who act not so much like human beings as they do like things that were written by someone who has heard of human beings. Flaws like the generic, paper-thin plots of each game. Flaws like the first game’s unsettling message that it’s wrong to want to ever have alone time and that you should completely submerge yourself in social networking. Flaws like bad writing/translations leading to remarkably bad dialogue, such as when a space monster tells a 12-year-old, “I’ll tell you about your father if you let me use your body, kid!”

But really, all of these flaws in plot and presentation and attitude and cast, it all adds up to the same, single word that represents everything that is Mega Man Star Force: Dumb. Inescapably, indescribably, intrinsically, iconically dumb.

12. Lunar: Dragon Song (DS)

Lunar: Dragon Song. I’d say it’s garbage, but for the fact that festering carrion rats frequently use garbage as a squalid staging ground within which to uncontrollably breed both their rancid vermin spawn and the plague-ridden parasites that prey upon every filth-soaked inch of their scabby flesh, all of which gives garbage a level of value to the world that Lunar: Dragon Song can’t possibly compare to.* No one who’s familiar with this game could possibly be surprised to see it on this list; its shortcomings are well documented and universally reviled.

Still, it bears noting why it takes this spot in particular. When people think of what’s wrong with Lunar: Dragon Song, the phrase “worst gameplay in the history of mankind” is probably what springs into their mind first. And to be sure, the act of playing this game is tortuous. If I gave playability any consideration in what makes an RPG good or bad, Lunar: Dragon Song would be taking the very first spot on the list with no competition whatsoever (not even from Phantasy Star 3, a game that feels like it was released in the middle of its development). But no matter how vile, gameplay is not a consideration for me when it comes to RPGs, and that’s not why Lunar: Dragon Song is here. It’s here because everything that matters in it is just as terrible. The characters are empty and vaguely dislikable. The plot’s presentation rarely rises high enough to be considered generic. Said story is completely banal, and it’s actually worse than pointless. Lunar: Dragon Song has a purpose, but the message it conveys (regarding the lack of need for the goddess Althena’s influence in the affairs of human- and beastkind) is just an extremely poor rehash of an idea that Lunar 1 and 2 already covered! And considering that Lunar 1 and 2 are already pretty subpar offerings, it’s really bad that they look positively masterful next to the spontaneous, half-assed attempt this game makes at conveying that idea.

And remember, all of that is what you get out of playing the game and dealing with its legendarily awful gameplay. Those vaguely repugnant characters and that sallow plot are the reward you get for suffering through a set of play mechanics so painfully counterintuitive and infuriating that they’re almost like some unholy miracle. There are worse RPGs out there (11 of them), but this is the one that makes you work the hardest for its worthless crap.

11. Chrono Cross (PS1)

Chrono Cross is the story of an overabundance of nothing. Over 40 characters, yet no characterization. 2 worlds (and some between-dimension stuff), yet nothing worth seeing. 12 endings, yet no satisfaction. Multiple plot viewings, yet nothing compelling. 30 - 60 hours of playing, yet nothing worth your time. It’s packed to the brim with plot details to the point that it’s almost as bafflingly convoluted as Xenosaga 3, and they all just add up to a story that does little and says even less. It’s packed to the brim with promising concepts like travel across dimensions, a future that forcibly guides its own past, and lost timelines that aren’t willing to disappear without a fight, but its pacing, general explanation style, and overcomplicated bumbling cause them all to be a confused mess of poorly assembled parts instead of a smooth narrative machine. It’s packed to the brim with party members, but can’t be bothered to give any depth or relevance to 90% of them (and the few characters the game does actually pay attention to are crappy, to boot), and just simulates individuality for them with one of the worst storytelling ideas ever conceived. It’s got all kinds of great established characters and ideas it can borrow from its widely beloved predecessor, yet everything it does to connect to Chrono Trigger seems dissatisfyingly tangential (even when those connections are an integral point of CC’s core plot!), and often it seems to just use those pre-existing concepts for the sake of destroying them (Robo was on screen for, what, 45 seconds before he was unceremoniously killed off?).

As a sequel to one of the greatest RPGs ever created, Chrono Cross is a horrible disappointment. But even on its own merit, it’s just outright awful, a rotten mess of incompetence and meaninglessness bound together by one of the most tangled and poorly executed plots I’ve encountered. Do you know what a rat king is? In case you don’t, picture a large collection of squirming, vicious rats whose tails are all so badly tangled and/or glued together with dried filth, blood, and feces, that the diseased little monsters can’t even extricate themselves, and so become a roaming, squealing, noxious vortex of entangled vermin. That’s a rat king, a snarled and snarling mass of totally inextricable plague rodents. And that’s what Chrono Cross is: the RPG version of a rat king.

10. Robotrek (SNES)

I challenge anyone to tell me that they understand the story to this game. No, seriously, I really don't think it is possible; I defy you if you say it is. Robotrek is not a game that is unnecessarily complex with a few plot holes scattered around that make it difficult to understand what's going on (Xenogears). Robotrek is a game that just does not make sense. And I don’t mean not making sense in the way that Chrono Cross makes no sense, where it’s just ridiculously over-complex and stupid but if you try VERY hard to untangle its many plot threads it actually IS possible (but certainly not rewarding) to follow them. No, I mean that Robotrek does not make sense in the way that a mentally unstable homeless man who has very liberally abused a wide assortment of narcotics improvising a surrealist poem doesn’t make sense. And yet that raving lunatic STILL is probably more coherent than this game is.

You know what? Words ain’t gonna cut it on this one. Here, let me break out The RPGenius’s Scale of Nonsensical Insanity and show you where exactly Robotrek falls on the incomprehenso-meter.

The RPGenius’s Scale of Nonsensical Insanity

Note that the scale does not begin at a normally rational, understandable point. It starts with Ghost Dad, a movie considered one of the least comprehensible works in human history. And from there, Robotrek is aaaaaall the way down near the end. That is how absurdly out of human comprehension this game is.

It’s also kind of lazy about its insanity, too. The game eventually gets so wrapped up with time traveling, vampires, aliens, and all kinds of other crap that it doesn't even try to make it plausible. It seems totally unable to untangle itself from the various paradoxes it's made and just says "Screw it" and continues forward. Robotrek is a game where everything's silly and stupid, nothing makes sense, there's little to no point, and there's really no motivation to brave the excessively steep increases in difficulty to reach the end. I can't think of a single reason to play this game whatsoever.

9. Final Fantasy 8 (PS1)

Sometimes I feel bad about ragging on FF8 so damn much around here. I mean, sure, it wasn't good, but I totally hated some other FFs more. It wasn't nearly as boring as Final Fantasy 5, for one, and unlike FF12, FF8 actually seemed to know what the hell it wanted to say and where it was going.

Then I look at the game's cast, and my guilt melts away.

FF8 was Square's first (definitely not last) truly sickening attempt to cash in on their audience by demeaning them and selling to the lowest common denominator. Sure, I can't pretend that FF5 was much more than a cheap cash-in itself, but at least with that crap heap, Square was putting little effort into a piece of trash that they hoped would sell because it imitated an RPG. With FF8, they made a cast of shockingly shallow stereotypes of their intended audience, and had them act out a silly, stupid love story clearly pandering once again to the shallow interests that Square imagined its teenage target demographic had. Squall's the caustic loner who just secretly wants someone to wuuuuuuv him but at the same time doesn't want any of the actual affection and attention that caring for people entails, Rinoa's the preppy spoiled idiot who not-so-secretly wants someone (really, anyone) to wuuuuuuuv, and the rest of the cast members meekly fall into their lunch table-inspired social roles as the main couple dominate the plot and make everything about how much they're in love after knowing each other for a few days, days during which they didn’t get along and Squall couldn’t stand her.

Not that the plot would be all that much better off without them--it's about a Sorceress in the future (what exactly makes a Sorceress, incidentally, is not really defined, since anyone in the game can use magic if they want) who decides to take control of Sorceresses in the present to enact a plan to compress time for no given reason that will involve connecting a magical pathway from the moon to the planet that will allow a huge horde of moon monsters that appear every 1000 years or something to come and ravage a technologically advanced super city that was once ruled by a mean Sorceress but now has a president whose adopted daughter can make people's brains go back in time and be in someone else's, summarizing the story is making me realize that it's even sillier than I thought, and I haven't hit on HALF of the craziness in it yet. No, really, not even half. There’s a part of this game where you get lost in space on an abandoned dragon-shaped space ship with alien dinosaurs on board, for Christ’s sake. This game’s world and story seem more like a fever dream than something intentionally imagined.**

But anyways, back on point. The game is about a poorly-written cast being involved in a tasteless and overblown romance that only vapid, bored teenagers could be so stupid as to be a part of, with the backdrop of one of the sillier time-traveling plots out there (and God knows that's saying something), with the clear hopes that the stupid teens in the game would appeal to the supposedly stupid teens playing the game and make it a financial success. FF8's here as much for the fact that it insults your intelligence while it panders, as it is for actually being terrible.

8. The 7th Saga (SNES)

I used to hold that this was the worst RPG ever. While certain other RPGs I've played in the past several years have changed this sentiment (Obvious and Unnecessary Hint: they're the ones below), both in that they are worse than The 7th Saga and that they have expanded my understanding of the concept and nature of “bad,” The 7th Saga is still one of the worst RPGs out there, and below only Rune Factory 1 and Suikoden 4 in how obscenely boring it is. Unlike most bad games, you don't just get one hero with absolutely no personality, you get to choose from more than half a dozen! The game's story doesn't really change at all depending on your choice, though, and it's frustrating and requires hours of level-whoring and money-gathering no matter what, of course. It's blocky, awkward, and ugly as anything--and that doesn’t matter, but it’s worth noting because it looks and feels the same way it’s written and expresses itself. You basically spend most of the game on a long, often aimless journey to gather magic Runes. Once you have them, you are blandly betrayed and have to save the world from the evil entity who was actually after the Runes all along. And as it turns out, the secret to beating him is...the Runes! What a twist. It’s like the creators of this game took the cliched basics of like half the fantasy stories ever written, shook free absolutely every single aspect of personalization that gave those cliches any flavor, and just used that for their game. If the story of your average, by-the-numbers RPG is a loaf of white bread, then The 7th Saga’s story is just tasteless flour. Poorly made tedium incarnate, The 7th Saga has nothing good and plenty of bad.

7. Rune Factory 1 (DS)

I think I said it best in my 2014 Annual Summary rant: this is one of the most dull RPGs I’ve ever come across. Just thinking about it is making me want to take a nap. Ugh. There’s nothing worthwhile about this game, plain and simple. Its plot is bland and generic, and just getting to the point where the plot is actually starting to show up at all takes fucking days of repetitive busywork punctuated by subpar dungeon-crawling. Compounding this fatal flaw, the supporting cast are utterly lackluster, overused tropes, and the romance aspect is trite and unconvincing, not to mention essentially the same regardless of which character’s affections you choose to pursue. This is a game that delights in all the mind-numbing side crap that annoys me in RPGs (item maintenance, item creation, item growth management, fishing, repeated dungeon-crawling that explores the same goddamn dungeons over and over, etc) and makes actually telling a fucking story and saying anything meaningful into a secondary priority. No, scratch that, storytelling and meaning is a tertiary priority. No, scratch that, everything that actually engages your mind and imagination in any capacity is a non priority in Rune Factory 1.

The game is just nothing, there’s nothing that it offers, there’s nothing that it says, there’s nothing that it does or attempts or demands or means or possesses. Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy 8, Mega Man Star Force 1 and 2, and even most of the worse RPGs below--these are all abysmal titles, but every one of them has SOMETHING to offer, even if it’s bad, even if it annoys the hell out of me with its stupidity. I can still get something out of these dismal failures. Rune Factory 1? Nothing. Just. Nothing.

6. Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals (DS)

Should a botched remake even count for this list? I mean, I don’t even count it as an individual RPG that I’ve experienced. And yet, how can I not include this abominable, wretched heap of vile, vomitous refuse?

Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals is a remake of the classic Lufia 2 for the SNES, recreated by SquareEnix from the ground up. Now, allowing SquareEnix to handle your franchise is like giving a child a loaded gun: you may get lucky and no one gets hurt, but more likely than not, someone is going to end up getting shot in the face. And in this case, that someone turns out to be the unhappy soul who plays the game.

Anyway, I did a rant where I went into specific detail about everything this game does wrong, and I’m sure as hell not going to reproduce that 81-strong list of this game’s sins here. I certainly encourage you to read it if you want the full scoop on this utterly repugnant monstrosity, though. But if you want the bare bones summary, here it is. Almost every aspect of this game, every plot event, is lousy to some degree. Sometimes it’s just mildly poor, like idiotic character designs or stupid and irrational dialogue. And sometimes it’s so awful it offends your very heart and soul, like the romance between Maxim and Selan or the cowardly and artistically catastrophic changing of the ending. But whether a little or a lot, virtually every moment is bad. And if you knew the original Lufia 2, and ever held any positive feelings for it whatsoever, then Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals is all the worse. Either way, this game makes me fucking sick.

5. Shadow Hearts 3 (PS2)

I did a rant on this game's characters which also mentioned some of its other problems, so most everything you need to know is there. I'll just say here that this game hasn't even an ounce of the thoughtful story-telling, humorous and/or deep characters, and reasonable creativity that the first and especially second Shadow Hearts games had, and completely botches its attempts to tie in with its real-world settings by taking the series's traditional creative liberties with its settings about 3 steps too far. A boring and somewhat annoying protagonist, a personality-lacking villain, a cast of empty followers and perpetually-repeating gags that aren't funny, and an awful, thoroughly meaningless plot that screws up in a major way all its attempts to connect with its setting, all work in tandem to make this game one of the worst video game turds to ever be squeezed from a developer's ass out onto store shelves.

4. Suikoden 4 (PS2)

Sorry to keep copping out, but I did a whole rant on Suikoden 4, and a General RPGs rant on Sailing that largely featured the game, so I recommend you check them out for a proper take on this interactive sedative. Suffice to say here that it's not actually as horrible as most of the games on this list, but it IS probably the most boring game I've ever played, bar none. In fact, it may be the most boring experience I’ve ever had in my life, plain and simple. Suikoden 4 is more boring than just staring at a blank wall. I’m not exaggerating. I mean that. Honest to God, between spending an hour playing Suikoden 4 and spending an hour focusing intently on a bare, blank wall, you will be more entertained by the wall. Because when you stare at a blank, expressionless place for long enough, doing nothing else, your imagination will automatically begin to activate itself, and you will start thinking about other things in the meantime. It’s a natural reflex of the human mind, when you focus on nothing, to start distracting itself with ideas, questions, stray thoughts, and mental scenarios. Whereas when you play Suikoden 4, you are playing a game that is at least as monotonous and devoid of appeal and meaning as a bare, blank wall is...but the animated visual stimulus of the game is tricking your subconscious into thinking you’re actually doing something. So even though you are equally bored as, probably more bored than you would be if you were just looking at the wall, your imagination isn’t going to bail you out this time, and so the wall leads to a more enjoyable experience. That is how boring this game is.

3. Phantasy Star 3 (Sega Genesis)

This is it, folks. This is a very, very special bad game. This is the RPG that inspired my very first rant. If it weren’t for Phantasy Star 3, this blog might not even exist.*** Cheers, PS3: every single one of the literally hundreds of thousands of words I have typed here is thanks to you. You suck that much.

Basically, this game would shame an unpaid amateur game coder. It looks horrible, it plays badly, the battle system is frustrating and yet as dull as reading nutrition labels, the music is like badly synthesized elevator music...and to get to the actually important parts, the plot's shaky and somehow just seems unimportant to the whole thing, there's barely any connection to the Phantasy Star universe as a whole and what connection there is makes this game canonically null and void, and the characters are basically just walking dolls meandering their way very slowly (like, over entire generations' time) to one of several endings that range from pointless to weird and inexplicable. From the visuals to the plot, the gameplay to the characters, the negligible to the crucial, the game seems like it was released while only 40% through its development process. Of all the games on this list, Phantasy Star 3 is the only one that is so poorly made in every way that I think a person, any person, using RPG Maker for 5 hours couldn't help but make something better.

2. Grandia 3 (PS2)

3 is not the magic number where the Grandia series is concerned. Being the next (and currently last) installment of the Grandia series directly following Grandia 2, this game may be the biggest RPG disappointment I've ever had (besides the ending of Mass Effect 3, which is in its own league of let-down). But it's not just bad because it's a disgrace to its series; it's bad because it's really, really bad. The short story is, it stars a typical (for anime) stupid, airplane-obsessed teen hero as he starts a cutesy little journey to fly away from home and, through unlikely yet boringly predictable circumstances of an equally predictably boring plot, gets roped up into saving, protecting, and more or less playing nursemaid to a magical healing girl just as typical and uninteresting as he is, named Alfina. It's like an RPG that Hayao Miyazaki would make, if Hayao Miyazaki were talentless and addicted to crystal meth.

You may remember the name Alfina from a recent rant I did, incidentally. The Top 5 Most Annoying Characters of RPGs. She was number 1. Yeah.

This game is pretty much the ultimate culmination of boring, overdone cliches of anime-esque story-telling. Its plot is hackneyed and covers no new ground whatever, its themes are either vague or run-of-the-mill, and either way are executed in an idiotic manner (its attempt at "Love of Family Can Overcome Evil" is to have Alfina tell her groundlessly villainous brother that she loves him, and this simple statement makes him SEE THE LIGHT even though not 5 seconds before he was about to fucking sacrifice her to a dark god), and its cast ranges from yawn-inspiring support characters to stupid and unlikable heroes and villains. There really isn't any redeeming factor here; it's just the perfect example of bad cliches and bad execution of them making a bad game. If you want more details, see my old Grandia 3 rant; it'll break everything down for you case by case.

1: Wild Arms 4 (PS2)

Time does not make the heart grow fonder with Wild Arms 4. When I played it, I hated it, but if you had asked me what I thought was the worst RPG ever, I would have been torn between Grandia 3 and The 7th Saga. When I finished playing it, I hated it even more, and did a rant on how much I hated it, but if you had asked me what I thought the worst RPG ever was, I would have had to think hard about whether it was Grandia 3, The 7th Saga, or Wild Arms 4. But as time goes on, and I continue to remember this unspeakably wretched time-vampire, the sheer animosity I feel toward this game only grows, and now there's no question in my mind: this is the worst RPG that I've played to date--that I can officially rant on, at least (see Dishonorable Mention below for explanation). Like I said, I did a rant on this one, so I suggest you check it out for exactly what's wrong with this game.

But the general idea here is, this is a game about the stupidest kids in the world on a quest to save their friend Yulie, who is so passive and compliant that I swear someone in the group must be slipping her roofies throughout the entire journey. They use this quest as an excuse to complain about how evil adults are, how terrible the world is (because of adults), and how unfair life is (also because of adults), as well as to spout completely irrational theories about why adults do mean things, because God only knows that children are utterly incapable of doing bad things themselves. These kids would make Peter Pan want to grow up. Occasionally you get a break from their chatter when the game decides to show you what the adults are up to (hint: it's evil), or shows you the idiot pretty boy on his motorcycle feeling conflicted in ways that you don't care about and have probably already seen more appealing characters handle in better ways in superior games/animes/whatevers. Most of the time, though, it's just one inane philosophy about how hitting the age of 21 erases all your moral values completely after another.

This game isn't supremely boring like Suikoden 4. It's not a complete mess like Phantasy Star 3. Its plot isn't just an assemblage of crappy cliches like Grandia 3, or completely incomprehensible like Robotrek. It's not even that it doesn't have any single redeeming quality like Shadow Hearts 3; the character of Racquel is actually pretty damn great in WA4, if not nearly great enough to justify playing it. The game is just infuriating, plain and simple, and continuously makes you hate the hell out of it as you play; there's just no escape from its grating prattle and rampant stupidity. It deserves its place as bottom of the barrel here, no question in my mind.

Dishonorable Mention: Final Fantasy 10-2 (PS2)

Here's the deal, folks: this is the only time I will ever seriously include FF10-2 in a rant of mine beyond a quick snipe or two. I generally follow the rule of shunning this game's existence. I don't include it in the list of RPGs I've beaten, and I won't officially rant on it. But I'm breaking the rule for this list and putting it in here as the Dishonorable Mention because, if I were to pay this game even the iota of respect I hold for Wild Arms 4, it would be Number 1 on this list of worst RPGs, without any competition whatsoever.

Games on the list above do many sucky things. Some are obscenely boring. Others are just unimaginative and stupid. But with the exception of Final Fantasy 8, none of them insult my intelligence, and that's largely why I hate FF10-2 above all games of all genres--because it is a slap in the face to the consumer who plays it. And unlike FF8, which was intended as a crass marketing ploy but actually had some effort put into building a game out of that foundation (failed effort, but effort nonetheless), FF10-2 is, from beginning to end, nothing whatsoever but a blatant attempt by Square to pander its way into your wallet. Square didn't put any effort into making this game at all. It was an obvious, cheap attempt to make money from the get-go. The plot is boring and stupid, the characters are either reused, yet more intense archetypes from previous games (Paine is just an even less likable Squall, if you can even believe such a thing possible, while Rikku's air-headed, high-pitched annoying nature and lack of intelligence are increased), or shallow, audience-appealing stereotypes (Look everyone! Yuna the J-Pop Anime Girl doesn't have depth any more, but she DOES have a Spice Girls-esque go-get'em girl-power attitude! And also sexier clothes! Oh boy!), and, most notably, a crapload of stuff was just reused from the previous game in the most cheap and obvious ways imaginable. And I don't just mean stuff like settings; that's to be expected in a sequel taking place in the same world. I mean to the point that they reuse character models for Wakka and Lulu while loudly noting all the fat that Wakka has put on and how pregnant Lulu is, neither of which can be seen in any way. No, seriously, look.

FF10 Lulu

FF10-2 Lulu

Clearly a woman in her last stages of pregnancy. And while that example is probably the most famous, the evidence of apathetic laziness on the part of the game's creators is just found all over the place throughout the whole game.

It's already a bad game because Square didn't try at all to make it good, but the fact that they spent so little energy on anything beyond the sparkly effects and sexy dresses just makes it that much more blatant that they're pandering to their audience with the lowest common denominators possible, hoping that playing magical dress-up with spunky, entirely predictable girlies will appeal to their female audience, and that playing magical dress-up with spunky, entirely predictable hot chicks will also appeal to their male audience so long as they add in enough revealing outfits in poor taste. They clearly expect you, their target audience, to fall for appearances and not care a lick about actual quality. So, to whit, they're hoping, nay, assuming that the people that their company owes its existence to are crude, shallow, tasteless morons.

Now granted, the general success of FF10-2, not to mention its many, many fans clearly prove that Square was entirely correct in this assumption. Nonetheless, it's just about the most insulting product that I've come across. That, combined with the fact that it's a truly abhorrent game just on its own, and that it utterly ruins a previously extremely deep and well-created character (Yuna) by making her as shallow and stupid as everything else,**** makes it the true worst RPG I've ever seen, and, hopefully, ever will see. I could go on for pages and hours about how bad this game is and how much I hate it (and I have plenty of times before through IMs and forum posts), but frankly, I don't think I'll ever find numerous and nasty enough words to fully detail how loathsome this RPG is, so I'll stop now. But yeah. Final Fantasy 10-2 is in its own league of putrescence.

* Okay, okay, so I reused this opening from the LDS Characters rant. Cut me a break, I really liked it.

** In fact, there is a theory that some people prescribe to that when Squall is impaled by the ice javelins that Edea plunges into his chest during the failed assassination attempt, it’s a fatal wound, and everything in the game after that point is actually just a hallucinatory dream he imagines as his dying mind begins shutting down, with the events and twists becoming more illogical and unlikely as his brain dies and his mind unravels. You can read the details here. The sad thing is, this is pretty much the only way that Final Fantasy 8 could ever make sense, and if this were actually the truth of the matter, and what Squaresoft intended, then this game would actually be fascinating, artistic, and I would respect the hell out of it. But of course, thoughtful and articulate though this concept is, it’s obvious that Square meant FF8 to be entirely on the level (and there was plenty of stuff before the point of Squall’s supposed death that made no sense), and this is sadly just a charming idea that will never be endorsed. It reminds me of the Indoctrination Theory that fans created about the ending of Mass Effect 3. Like the Indoctrination Theory, the Squall is Dead Theory is a case where the fans have shown infinitely more intelligence and insight than the actual creators, and provided those creators with a way to make the work something worthwhile instead of something awful...but the creators will never, ever be smart enough to go for it.

Good God, what does it say about a game when it would be immeasurably improved if 70% of its events were reduced to a dying man’s hallucinations?

*** Yeah, right, like a rant blog wasn’t inevitable for me one way or another. No one as long-winded and self-important as me could possibly avoid having a blog forever.

**** Don't even try to give me that crap about "WELL PEOPLE CAN CHANGE A LOT OVER 2 YEARS." When people change completely (and I mean COMPLETELY) due to a tremendously inspiring and touching event/person, it's not to become a careless idiot who disregards and disgraces everything they learned from and cared about the event/person that changed them.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Neverwinter Nights 1's Add-Ons

Is it pointless to look at the add-ons of a game that came out over 10 years ago and is nowadays sold with its add-ons automatically included in the purchase, removing any influence this rant could have on the reader’s purchase decisions? Yup. Has the subject being pointless ever stopped me from making a rant before? Nope. So let’s take a look at the expansions and premium modules of the original Neverwinter Nights.

Shadows of Undrentide: Meh. A cookie-cutter plot wrapped in generic Dungeons and Dragons events. People complain that the second half of this expansion is rushed in its storytelling, and they’re totally right, but I can’t find that upsetting in the least because this expansion is frankly just not interesting enough that I’d want it drawn out at all. Frankly, I had more than my liking of drawn out, tedious plot cliche from the game proper, thank you. The first 2 party members aren’t bad, I guess, but they’re not good, either. They kind of feel like unfinished prototypes of Bioware characters rather than the real thing. I’ll admit that Deekin, and the kobolds in general, do tickle my fancy, so Shadows of Undrentide isn’t a total bore. Still, one amusing henchman does not a boring plot excuse. I don’t know how much this expansion originally sold for, but I know it wasn’t worth it, because even in its role nowadays as a free addition to the game, Shadows of Undrentide still isn’t worth the time it takes to play it.

Hordes of the Underdark: Like Shadows of Undrentide and the main story of Neverwinter Nights 1, the first 2 chapters of Hordes of the Underdark is plodding, largely mindless dungeon-crawling busywork, particularly the first chapter. The first chapter is just schlepping through a big dungeon, as if that were something novel for Neverwinter Nights by this point, and while Chapter 2 does finally see fit to grace us with a plot, it’s pretty generic stuff. The return of Deekin as a companion is welcomed, the return of 4 of the main game’s henchmen is not. The latter bunch clearly had their character development explored to its limit the first time around, and add nothing to the experience here, while Deekin (though he gets only a little more development) is amusing and appealing by nature, so he helps add a chuckle here and there. The new companion Nathyrra is okay, I guess...she’s sort of like an extremely watered down version of Viconia from Baldur’s Gate 1 and particularly 2. Like, if Viconia’s character depth and personality were filet mignon, Nathyrra would be a Slim Jim. Still pleasant, but not even in the same league as what it could be. I did like the part of Chapter 2 involving the mirror-cursed town of flying elves, too, but yeah...overall the first couple chapters of Hordes of the Underdark are no better than Shadows of Undrentide was.

...But then Chapter 3 starts, and suddenly the game pulls a complete 180 on you. No longer are you just going back and forth for one minor sidequest after another, waiting for something real to happen. Now you’re traveling alongside the soul of Aribeth, a paladin blackguard seeking to regain her faith even as she walks through the frozen hell of Cania itself, as you retrace the steps of an ancient, slumbering angel who gave up paradise for the sake of love in order to find a primal being who knows every person’s True Name--the name the gods bless each person with that holds ultimate power over him or her--all while the eternal Blood War rages on closer and closer, all so you can gain control of an interdimensional reaper and confront a hell lord before he can turn your home plane into his new domain to rule over. Filled with philosophy and beauty, the draw and power of the ancient and epic, and finally a companion with some real depth, Hordes of the Underdark’s third chapter finally delivers on the promise of a grand and meaningful Dungeons and Dragons story.

Is it worth it? Well, again, I don’t know how much HotU sold for originally. But the answer would almost surely be yes either way. Despite the majority of Hordes of the Underdark being generic filler, the third chapter makes up for that lost time in a big way and gives you something substantial and epic to enjoy. My policy is that if the payoff is great, I’ll happily suffer tedium to reach it (I really don’t know how I would play most RPGs otherwise, they’re so boring gameplay-wise), so Hordes of the Underdark gets a thumbs-up from me.

Kingmaker: Kingmaker is a Premium Module for Neverwinter Nights 1, which as far as I can tell is just what people called Downloadable Content before there was any widely recognized name for the concept. It’s, uh...odd. On the one hand, it’s just too simple to be interesting--the premise is just doing some quests for people to get their vote on making you the new lord/lady of a city (and oddly, it’s a position always listed as lord/lady, never king or queen, so I don’t know where the title of this DLC comes from), and then a short romp through some bad guys set on conquering that city for bad guy reasons. Boring. And yet, it’s also too complex to be enjoyable--the truth of the protagonist’s lineage, and the identity, nature, and purpose of the individual who sets this whole conflict up, are only half explained, even though they’re the major underlying factors that drive the entire story. Too simplistic on the surface, with inadequately explored complexity as its backbone: it’s a tough line to walk, but Kingmaker manages to do so and fail you twice over. To Kingmaker’s credit, some of the party members are actually pretty decent (particularly Kaidala and Jaboli, though Trip and Calibast are fairly unique, too), and there’s a decent effort put into developing the party members both in their own right and in their connections to one another, which I certainly appreciate. And even if it’s not compelling, Kingmaker is at least short and direct. After a full game, a full expansion, and 2/3rds of another expansion that are mostly just long, drawn out generic boredom, it’s hard not to appreciate a boring story that at least doesn’t dawdle and delay on and on.

From what I can tell, Kingmaker sold for $8 originally. Oddly high price for the time, and definitely not worth it. But as it is nowadays, a bonus that comes free with the game, I would say...well, I wouldn’t recommend it, like I recommend Hordes of the Underdark, but I wouldn’t recommend against it like I do with Shadows of Undrentide, either. It’s a bit of a time waste, but not a huge one.

Witch’s Wake: Alright, finally! It took a while, but Neverwinter Nights 1 at last delivers a consistently engaging story that’s written well, has compelling atmosphere, interesting ideas, a good narrative, and some decent NPCs. Wooo!

Too bad it’s the first part of a planned series of DLC packages that was never continued.

Yes, after only the first leg of a mysterious and potentially awesome quest to remember one’s purpose and self, and to deliver a cryptic message to a king once known but now forgotten, this DLC ends, and you are left with no satisfaction whatsoever. Apparently Bioware planned to make this into a multi-part story, but the Premium Module program was shut down before Witch’s Wake could ever get past its first chapter. A damn shame.

Although I would like to express a serious level of disgust with this plan, had it come to fruition. I mean, consider this fact--back when it was released, you paid $5 for Witch’s Wake (and Shadowguard; they came in the same package), and what you were doing was paying for an unfinished story. If all had gone according to Bioware’s original plan, you would then have been paying more money for each subsequent chapter of the story! A common complaint with Downloadable Content is that if it’s handled dishonestly (and it so, so often is), it’s basically a case of consumer extortion, where you pay for a game but then have to pay an extra fee to actually play ALL of the game you ALREADY PAID FOR. Well, that’s pretty much what we would have had here, if Witch’s Wake had ever been continued. You’d have to keep paying over and over again to fully experience the product that you had already purchased! I tend to think of Bioware as having slowly descended further and further into greedy, amoral corruption over time, but finding something like this makes me wonder if perhaps the company was just always rotten, and we all just didn’t notice it as much back in the day.

Shadowguard: Oh for Phosphora’s sake! It’s Witch’s Wake all over again! While not nearly as intriguing or narratively strong as Witch’s Wake, Shadowguard nonetheless presents an interesting, engaging story with some actual personality for its protagonist...and then drops off into nothingness. Yes, as with Witch’s Wake, Shadowguard is meant to be the first part of a multi-chapter story which was never continued. As with Witch’s Wake, Shadowguard is something that’s enjoyable while it lasts and which you’d actually have some interest in seeing continued, unlike most of Neverwinter Nights 1’s content that we’ve seen so far. And as with Witch’s Wake, the intended concept of paying several times for the privilege of actually playing Shadowguard, the product you’ve purchased, to its conclusion is utterly repulsive, shameless extortion on Bioware’s part. What a load of bullshit.

Pirates of the Sword Coast: How much you get from Pirates of the Sword Coast is going to greatly vary depending on how much you like pirates and the whole swashbuckling adventure genre in general. Myself, I am pretty ambivalent towards pirates. By themselves, they are not interesting, and most stories involving them and the whole idea of seeking fortune on the high seas don’t pan out to be all that compelling. Nonetheless, there’s enough opportunity to the whole pirate thing that you can certainly get some decent plots and characters out of it if you’re a decent storyteller. So I don’t care one way or another about the pop culture pirate genre.

That said, I was surprised to find myself enjoying this DLC pretty well as it went along. Pirates of the Sword Coast isn’t kidding about being pirate-y. A jabbery, smartass parrot, recruiting a pirate crew, undead curses, being marooned on islands with (sort of) cannibal tribes, treasure map hunts, krakens, pirate-filled island towns...this side-story has pretty close to every pirate trope out there, and it plays all of them pretty well. It never feels like any of these common pirate story devices are forced, though, and the overall method of the DLC is pretty good. It’s only sparsely narrated, but what it has works, and overall the story is average, but the characters and NPCs, and the item descriptions and environmental text, are all lighthearted and even a bit clever. It’s kinda like a combination of the fun of Pirates of the Caribbean 1 (and only the first movie; none of that crummy drek that followed) and Muppet Treasure Island. So I did end up liking this one well enough, and I expect people who are more into the high seas genre of books and movies and whatnot would find it all the better.

Pirates of the Sword Coast was a bit costly for its time, selling at $10 (from what I can tell, at least; it’s been long enough since it was sold that my sources are only old forum posts about it). Nonetheless, it’s fun enough that I wouldn’t necessarily call that a waste of money, depending, again, on how much of a pirate fan you are. Maybe not worth that much to me, but I could understand why someone else would think it worth that. Moot point nowadays, of course; Bioware long ago stopped selling it and if you can find an installer for this module (or any of the ones below), it’ll authenticate itself and let you play it even though you haven’t purchased it (at least, mine did). But anyway, yeah. Decent DLC, this.

Wyvern Crown of Cormyr: Meh. Nothing especially bad (besides the damn jousting minigame; expect that bit of annoyance to get its own rant at some point), but likewise nothing interesting, either. Not worth the time to play it, certainly not worth the $10 that Bioware originally charged for this module.

The Dark Ranger’s Treasure: This DLC is among the 3 tiny little modules that Bioware made and released for free. On the one hand, it’s hard to find fault with something a company provides completely for free. On the other hand, this brief little venture could barely even be called a boring sidequest. I’d pass on it, but if you try it and don’t like it, at least it won’t waste much of your time.

To Heir is Human: See what I just wrote for The Dark Ranger’s Treasure? It applies to this one, too.

The Winds of Eremor: Ditto.

Infinite Dungeons: If, after a full game, 2 expansions, and over half a dozen DLCs of various sizes, you are, somehow, still in the mood for running around killing things in a dungeon for hours on end, then this is definitely your module. If, however, you are someone who plays an RPG to experience storytelling in the video game medium, who has become sick to death of the repetitive gameplay mechanics after experiencing them for 100 hours and frankly was not particularly interested in them to begin with, then this DLC is a thoroughly unappealing prospect.

Darkness Over Daggerford: Bioware designed this final DLC with the intent to sell it, but apparently someone pulled the plug on the idea of continuing to produce Neverwinter Nights 1 content before it was finished. So, from what I gather, one of the employees of Bioware decided to finish DOD after he left to form his own company. Thus, Darkness Over Daggerford is legally considered to be user-created content instead of official, but since it was mostly developed by Bioware, I’m still counting it here.

Darkness Over Daggerford, decent, I suppose. Nothing special, but a little better than the par for Neverwinter Nights 1; I at least didn’t feel outright bored at any point. The party members are alright, and the plot is generic but acceptable. Being unofficial content, this was released for free, so I guess the price was right, at least.

And that’s the last of’em. There are plenty more modules for Neverwinter Nights 1, of course, but those are ones made by fans, not Bioware. So how’s it all stack up? Well, good if you look at it one way, bad if you look at it the other. I mean, Neverwinter Nights 1’s main game is a highly uninteresting venture. Almost every part of its plot is generic and doesn’t hold the attention at all, and that plot is padded out ineptly by having most of its chapters being multi-part fetch quests that take so long that you almost forget sometimes what the hell you’re doing all the run-around for. Its characters are generally only a little better, with only Aribeth having depth that stands out in the game’s cast--and despite having said depth and being vitally essential to the plot as a whole, Aribeth is only barely present in the damn game, relegated to a quest-giver in the first half, while in the second half of the game she’s a plot device whose actions and development are blandly told to you second-hand.

So compared to Neverwinter Nights 1 proper, the game’s add-ons are a cut above. Some, like Shadows of Undrentide or those 3 tiny freebies, are no better, but Pirates of the Sword Coast, Shadowguard, and especially Witch’s Wake and the third chapter of Hordes of the Underdark are certainly better. It’s inarguable that the best parts of Neverwinter Nights 1 can be found in its add-ons, and frankly there are parts of Hordes of the Underdark that are awesome and epic by any RPG’s standards. So in the context of the game itself, the add-ons are the highlights of Neverwinter Nights 1.

But speaking in a more objective sense? This is a lousy showing. Its best moments are Witch’s Wake, which is incomplete and would have been flagrantly dishonest, and Hordes of the Underdark, which is only good in its last third and requires you to just slog through a bunch of average dungeon-crawling nonsense to get to the good part. The majority of the packages just aren’t good, and almost nothing here is worth its price of time and (back in the day) money. It’s not the worst set of add-ons I’ve seen, but it’s a much further cry from being the best, that’s for sure. I suppose add-ons were still a pretty new idea at this time, at least in a sense of downloading them instead of going out to purchase physical copies of expansions, but still, not great.