Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Annual Summary: 2007

Well, 2007's pretty much over and done with. It's been an interesting year for RPGs for me. I'm thinking that, assuming this blog manages to survive multiple years past this point in spite of every non-effort I make to not update it, I'll do an end of year report for the RPGs I've played that year, a sort of brief sum-up. Some'll be new. Some'll be as old as Wii = Penis jokes. I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum here, but be warned that there'll surely be some mild ones.

The RPGs I played and beat in 2007 are, ordered alphabetically rather than chronologically (cuz I didn't really think to keep track of that early on):


7th Saga (SNES)
Baten Kaitos 2 (GC)
Dark Cloud 2 (PS2)
Disgaea 1 (PS2)
Disgaea 2 (PS2)
Dragon Quest 8 (PS2)
Final Fantasy 12 (PS2)
La Pucelle Tactics (PS2)
Lagoon (SNES)
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Wii)
Makai Kingdom (PS2)
Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure (PS1)
Rogue Galaxy (PS2)
Shadow Hearts 1 (PS2)
Shadow Hearts 2 (PS2)
Shadow Hearts 3 (PS2)
Shin Megami Tensei 1 (SNES)
Shin Megami Tensei 2 (SNES)
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha Vs. The Soulless Army (PS2)
Suikoden 5 (PS2)
Tales of Symphonia (GC)
Tales of the Abyss (PS2)
Treasure of the Rudras (SNES)
Wild Arms 4 (PS2)


So, 2007 started off very well in general. I began with Suikoden 5. Admittedly, in retrospect, I don't think it's a very good RPG--it has very few really touching and emotional scenes in it, unlike 3/4 of its predecessors, and what I consider to be the most impressive and touching scene in the game (a character death that makes the character my favorite in the game) you won't even SEE if you make the right decisions. But it at least FEELS just like a real Suikoden while you're playing--just leaves an empty aftertaste.

Things got more fulfilling, though, with Baten Kaitos 2, Makai Kingdom, and Treasure of the Rudras. TotR is an obscure, challenging old SNES RPG by Square. The setup is as unique as an RPG comes (you control 3 protagonists separately over the same period of 15 days on a planet, and each of them saves all life on the planet in a different way, with the 16th day seeing a final 4th protagonist leading the other 3 to ensure that the threats they defeated never come back again), the characters are decent, the plot is very cool (though complicated; you've gotta play it a couple times and make sure to keep track of it all to really follow some of it). It was never translated officially, only through emulation, so of course I can't strongly encourage you to play it because that would be impossible without emulation, and that is evil and all that.

Baten Kaitos 2 was fantastic--long, but fantastic. As original as the first, even more compelling, and with equally likable characters. As for Makai Kingdom, damn. This has become my favorite Nippon Ichi-made RPG by far. And on the subject of that company, this has pretty much been my Nippon Ichi year--I've now played every NI-developed game released over here. Disgaea 1 is as excellent as its cult-like fans say, and Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure is a delightful, fun, cute little adventure that helped a lot in breaking up some of the seriousness of several other RPGs I was playing at the time. I was TERRIBLY disappointed with Disgaea 2, though. The humor mostly felt off, the plot's focus and goals were, for NI, shockingly unoriginal and blandly executed, and it even couldn't pull off the elements it had brought from the previous game very well (basically, Etna was 90% superfluous and boringly static). And I don't see what was up with the battle system--why the hell did NI go BACKWARDS to Disgaea 1's battle set up when it had achieved near PERFECTION with Makai Kingdom's?

Speaking of NI, I also played La Pucelle Tactics. This was even more disappointing to me than Disgaea 2 because it was so GOOD for the first half, then became a mash-up of dull anime cliches later. More on that in a later rant.

I checked out a couple series I hadn't ever touched before this year, too: Shadow Hearts and Shin Megami Tensei. SMT1 and 2 are pretty much the most brilliantly written RPGs I've come across, and I found Shin Megami Tensei: Raidou Kuzunoha Vs. The Soulless Army to be reasonably decent, if disappointingly not epic like the other two. I did like that it tied in with them at the end, though, neat little surprise there.

Shadow Hearts was odd. The first game was moderately good, and had a definitely unique feel to it that I enjoyed, being set mostly in the real world, but with a certain level of magic and mysticism that seems an interesting blend of both traditional and newer views on it. SH2 was surprising, though, in that it was pretty amazing while the predecessor had only been decent. Its plot was okay, but it really shined with the characters (the main two in particular) and the emotional impact several of its scenes had--I most definitely consider the scene of Yuri and Roger trying to use the Emigre Manuscript to be one of the most touching and heartrending moments of all the RPGs I've played. And then SH3 turned around and was as SUCKY as the second one was good. I've already said my piece about that in a previous rant, though.

Weird coincidence: this year, I had to kick Grigori Rasputin's ass in RPGs twice. He's a major villain in both SH2 and SMTRKVtSA. Not that he doesn't make a good punching bag; it's just a little odd to use him for such twice in the same year.

The end of the year was mostly disappointing to me, sadly enough. The last games I played were Lagoon for the SNES, La Pucelle Tactics, and Rogue Galaxy. LPT was disappointing, as I mentioned above, and RG was somewhat the same--very average game that had been hyped a lot by other RPGers I'd spoken to. As for Lagoon, well...there was basically a time of the SNES that I call the Awkward Age, and Lagoon is the result of it. It is just about the most clumsily controlled game you can imagine--by the swing of your sword, you can determine that the hero you control must be holding a paring knife, and his arms must be about as long as a chipmunk's. You have to be so close to an enemy just to score a hit that an observer might think you're making out with him/her/it.

Now, you may see that I am criticizing the game for its control system, rather than the things that I claim are important in RPGs (plot and character development). This is because I want to use it as a metaphor for them--the plot is as clumsy and inept as the battle system, and the character's attack reach is as lengthy and effective as his characterization.

Thankfully, I finished the year off with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. What a pleasant surprise that game is--a Zelda game with a plot AND character development! Granted, not really all that much for Link, but just the act of giving the characters around him some decent development and dialog is a pretty incredible feat for a Zelda game. And I gotta admit, the game is fun to play. Up until now, Link's always seemed to me to be a pointless hero. I mean, he never really DID much that was special--most of the time, the stuff that he did was stuff just about anyone could do, and his goals were mostly accomplished through gadgets rather than actual skill. Not to mention he was always such a sucky swordsman. With this installment, though, he's performing all kinds of neat feats of strength, agility, and skill, he's actively learning advanced sword techniques...he's actually living up to the idea of a hero being more than the Average Joe being given a sword and told to go save everything.

Alright, enough random rambling. Let's finish this up bulletin-style.


RPG Moments of Interest in 2007:

1. Beating 100 RPGs. With the completion of FF12, I had officially become a loser to the world. Well, I mean, I guess that's true of anyone who actually has the patience to see that craphole of a game through to the end, but more so for me, because it marked the 100th time I've spent circa 50 hours on a video game.

2. Beating 7th Saga. This game, which I hate more than just about every other RPG ever (that's a big maybe, there're a lot of shitfests out there), has been my nemesis for something like 7 years. Each time I tried to pick it up again, I would be defeated inevitably by my distaste and disgust for it. But this year, I finally just sat down and played the thing from start to finish. I consider that a test of endurance.

3. Tales of the Abyss. After playing Tales of Symphonia and being completely unsurprised at how unoriginal and dull it was through and through, I didn't have high expectations for the latest game in the Series That Creativity Forgot. I was also feeling a little burned out by then on Japanese RPGs; after a while, you start to get tired of seeing so many of the exact same themes and character bases reused time and time again. Tales of the Abyss was exactly what I needed. It's got a ton of anime BS, like your usual RPG from the land of sushi, but it's all mixed with a lot of creative ideas, characters which are interesting and characterized well, and a decent plot. You really feel for all of them, and unlike most games, no character's left behind--each one's developed to a great extent, and each remains an active part of the plot and party's dynamic to the very end. Jade especially is quite interesting and amusing; while I'm no stranger to my heroes being more psychologically fucked up than the very villains they face, Jade's the first time I've seen a sociopath on the heroes' team in an RPG. And he pulls it off with a delightfully dry charm.

Also, a weird note: why does Tales of the Abyss have a much, much greater recurrence of the theme of music than Tales of Symphonia does?

4. FF12 and Dragon Quest 8. I played these two back to back, and I wondered if I'd somehow slipped into Bizarro World. The latest Final Fantasy is dull as dirt, with a nonsensical and stupid plot barely dragged along by unimaginative, almost personality-less characters, while the latest Dragon Quest is decent, featuring a cast that, if not exceptional, is at least entertaining and not shallow. I'm not saying that the FF series has never made a boring and stupid game before, but it just seems like a strange reversal to have the FF be the one so boring that you consider amputating one of your toes just to liven up your day, while the DQ you actually enjoy.


Best Sequel/Prequel of 2007:
Winner: Baten Kaitos 2
Perfectly fleshing out the original BK1's plot, characters, and origins while maintaining a concrete individuality, BK2 is EVERYTHING you could ask for in a prequel. I actually think it may even have beaten out Lufia 2 as my favorite prequel ever.
Runners-Up: Shadow Hearts 2, Shin Megami Tensei 2
HEAVY competition for BK2, lemme tell you. SMT2 is a fantastic follow-up to SMT1's events: the only flaw that keeps it from being the winner is that it very quickly goes in its own direction and leaves SMT1's events behind, so as a sequel, it only builds on the original rather than builds on AND meshes with it. As for SH2, well, there it's just personal preference on my part--SH2 continues and fleshes out its world much as BK2 does for its own, and enhances pre-existing characters just as excellently. I just like a good prequel a bit more than a good sequel, just because it's harder to make a prequel stand on its own as well.


Biggest Disappointment of 2007:
Loser: La Pucelle Tactics
As I plan to make this into its own rant, I won't really get into it. Let's just leave it at this: it's one thing to be disappointed by a game that you've heard from everyone is great. It's a worse thing to be disappointed by a game that you've heard from everyone is great that showed itself to have the potential to BE as great as you'd heard for the first half.
Almost As Bad: Disgaea 2, Final Fantasy 12, Shadow Hearts 3
After a creative, heartfelt tale of love and growth like Disgaea 1, it's very saddening to see a sequel that reeks of bad cliches whose execution is sub-average and humor feels forced. As for FF12, it's a mainstream FF whose pedigree was FF Tactics and FF Tactics Advance. I think that's enough explanation right there for the disappointment. And Shadow Hearts 3 not only follows an excellent game, but it ALSO has a new setting that has the most potential to be awesome so far for the games, and it still manages to suck ass.


Worst RPG of 2007:
Loser: Wild Arms 4
I did a rant on this. Look it up if you want to know why. I don't want to have to talk about this shit convention again.
Almost As Bad: 7th Saga, Final Fantasy 12, Lagoon
Now I hate 7th Saga more than WA4. I think. Maybe. Actually, it's hard to say. But anyways, the reasons I do are just personal taste, so I'm going to be objective and put WA4 as being the worst. But 7S is a close second. FF12 I've said enough about, and the same goes with Lagoon.


Most Improved of its Series of 2007:
Winner: Dragon Quest 8
Frankly, any Dragon Quest that can't be used as medication for insomniacs automatically wins any category involving improvement in a series.
Runners-Up: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Tales of the Abyss
Pretty much listed my reasoning for them being improvements on previous titles earlier.


Most Original of 2007:
Winner: Treasure of the Rudras
Seriously. I don't know why Square doesn't have the kind of clever ideas it had years ago with forgotten classics like TotR, Live A Live, and Bahamut Lagoon.
Runners-Up: Disgaea 1, Makai Kingdom, Shin Megami Tensei 1
It says something about Nippon Ichi that they can use the original idea and execution they had with Disgaea 1 of demons and love, and then do it again in a different way in Makai Kingdom well enough that I would think it incredibly original still. As for SMT1, well, it's the first of two games that intensely examine and use real-world beliefs and the mentalities behind those beliefs to weave an intriguing story of Heaven, Hell, and Earth, of angels, demons, humans, and everything in between.


Best RPG of 2007:
Winner: Shin Megami Tensei 2
Again, this thing is just fucking brilliant. There is no other way to describe it. It's like a great, epic work of literature.
Runners-Up: Makai Kingdom, Shadow Hearts 2, Shin Megami Tensei 1
Hard to discount Baten Kaitos 2 and Disgaea 1 from the list, but these three edge'em out. SMT1 is also brilliant, I just think SMT2 is a little more so. Makai Kingdom is a perfect blend of hilarity and emotional depth, a subtle and quiet tale of incredible love hidden behind wonderful, Nippon Ichi-brand humor. And Shadow Hearts 2, well, what can I say? It got my eyes watery. The list of games and/or animes that can get me to tear up is pretty damn small. A game that can affect me that much has some definite merit.


Phew. Well, that's all for now. Hope you're not all asleep, and all. May 2008 see many more awesome RPGs! Although I'm sure as hell not starting it off on the right foot for that--after I finish TLoZTP, it's gonna be Suikoden 4 and Suikoden Tactics for me.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

General RPGs' Minigames 6: Fishing

Thanks to Queelez for helping me with some of this rant's content.

There are a lot of minigames (mostly bad ones) that you see recur in a number of RPGs. You can find some races, be they on horseback, snowboard, or crazy future car down a mutant-infested highway against a man that is also a motorcycle (Dear Online Gaming Community: FF13's Shiva design is not a new idea. This is something Square already came up with over a decade ago). At other times with other games, you may come across DDR-ripoffs, minigames that have you, for no particular reason, enter in certain combinations of buttons to a certain rhythm (you know, I bet DDR players would kick a lot of ass at those midway boss fights that do this in Dark Cloud 1). And of course, there's always RPG Casino minigames. Those sad, simplistic little time-wasting yawn-fests just keep getting recycled from one game to another over and over again, with each new version having even fewer significant differences from the old than a SquareEnix Final Fantasy rerelease.

But no minigame theme out there is as old, overused, and totally boring as Fishing. Goddamn fishing. It's everywhere--new RPGs, old RPGs, regular RPGs, action RPGs, good RPGs, bad RPGs. I suppose that I shouldn't find it all that surprising, considering that most RPGs come out of Japan, and like half their diet consists of (mostly tasteless) seafood dishes. But really, come on, game developers. You're putting in a minigame based on a pastime where you sit around waiting, possibly for hours, for something to happen. Maybe game developers originally came up with the idea as a way of making the rest of the game's repetitive, turn-based boredom gameplay seem entertaining by comparison. But that still doesn't account for its presence in games like Dark Cloud and The Legend of Zelda, which, as action RPGs, are relatively fun to play normally anyways.

Idiotic premise aside, I admit that the idea's execution wasn't so bad in some of its earlier incarnations. I mean, in Breath of Fire 1, it wasn't even really a minigame at all--you basically just equipped a rod and bait, went to a place with fish, pressed the A button, and got a free, sometimes fairly useful, curing item fish. In Breath of Fire 2 and The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, you threw your line out, positioned it near a fish, and then just reeled it in. Simple, straightforward, a little challenging but not frustrating.

But ever since the jump to 32 Bit and beyond, it's gotten long, stupid, and frustrating. Nowadays, when you have a fishing game, it's loaded with dozens of pointless, annoying variables, over-complicated, gimmicky, and mandatory at least once in the game. You have to pick out the right lures, go to the right spot (and most of the time, you won't be able to tell what kind of fish are in each place until you catch them, which is stupid because you won't know what lures to use to get them), cast out the line, and wait for the fish to randomly go for the lure (and this can take a fair amount of time). You just sit there, waiting. Who are these game companies making the fishing minigames for, at this point? Who goes and puts in a video game so that they can sit back and not play it? Then, if and when a fish DOES bite, you either have to pull and jiggle the rod all over the place in patterns which have no rhyme or reason, and seem like they don't work at least as often as they do.* Or, even worse, there's some random meter with a Safe Zone and a Not Safe Zone on it, and rather than simulating any sort of struggle for landing the fish, you instead reel him back by keeping your cursor inside the Safe Zone and preventing it from going into the Not Safe Zone on the meter. All this crap, and you may still also have to deal with needing to pick the right fishing rod for the job as well, or, even more annoyingly, actually level-grinding for your rod's stats.

Ugh. As is the case with RPG battle systems, the more time goes on and technology improves to the point of giving programmers the freedom to engineer whatever game rules they want, the more this minigame gets tediously complex and ridiculous. It's a simple pastime, it SHOULD be a simple game activity. The game industry needs to recognize that sometimes simplicity is best--minigame fishing still wasn't exactly fun back in the days of BoF2 and TLoZ:LA, but it wasn't infuriating and loathsome like it is now, either.



*I realize this sounds extremely gay. Shut up.

Friday, November 23, 2007

General RPGs' Over-Complicated Battle Systems

The game industry seems a lot more competitive these days. I mean, it's always been competitive, no mistake about that--I was growing up around the time that Sega was still a game system company and thought it could compete with Nintendo. They were pretty into competing against each other back then; in fact, I think Sega was probably the only opponent that Nintendo's ever really taken seriously that I've seen. Ever since then, they've just cruised and done their own thing, and stayed in (or even, like now, on top of) the game just focusing on making games and systems rather than beating others at it. But Nintendo aside, things seem a lot more frenzied between game companies these days. Each new game is compared against a dozen others for how unique it is, its controls, how it looks, how it runs, and so on, and each big seller, besides Halo 3, seems to have busted its balls to provide something relatively new and exciting that's different than the others. I guess it's probably attributable partly to the fact that there are more big players in the industry than there used to be (Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft all have incredible resources to work with--Nintendo because it's got the longest history and most creative developers, Sony because it's obscenely rich, and Microsoft because it's obscenely obscenely rich), and partly to the fact that there are a lot more ways now to make games differently, with the better technologies.

Usually, this is a good thing. Game developers, in stark contrast to Hollywood, WANT to give the audience something new to lure their dollars away, rather than just keep trying to sell the same product over and over again with different titles. Well, I mean, they still do the latter, too, but that stuff is overshadowed by what's new and interesting. Thanks to all this competition for unique games and ways to play them, we get innovative products like the DS, the Wii, Guitar Hero, DDR, God of War, and so on.

But with RPGs, it's starting to irritate me a bit. The thing that RPGs do to compete with each other seems, in most cases, to be to make their battle systems ridiculously over-complicated.

Looking at some RPGs I've played lately, let's examine this. First, there's Final Fantasy 12, with its whole Gambit system. Now, I appreciate any attempt to not make me have to go through a million menus every single time I see a hostile enemy in a game. Taking the experience of actually playing the game's battles away is not something I mind at all, because it's a boring part of the game anyways. But the customization of how to set the damn thing up can be insanely complex, and if you don't have the imagination to tweak its little details in just the right way, you have a hell of a time defeating almost every side quest boss you find without a crapload of boring level-building. Thankfully, you can, for most of the game, probably get by with some basic "Heal when damaged badly, and attack/cast attack magic the rest of the time" Gambits. But if you want to get the full experience from the game? Be prepared to spend hours fine-tuning Gambits in the main menu. I thought the point of them was to LESSEN the amount of time navigating attack menus.

And the way you learn stuff in that game is just plain annoying. I mean, FF10's Sphere Grid? I could work with that. But when you have to get skill points just to equip a certain damn suit of armor, it's just plain irritating. I mean, you could have the skill to wear other, very similar sets of armor, but still somehow not know how to equip the next most powerful one, even though it would presumably take all the same, basic clothing putting-on skills as the previous one.

And that's just one of the more standard excessive innovations introduced to a recent game. There are some games that just take it to a pulling-hair-out extreme. Dark Cloud 2, for example, is just plain ridiculous. You have to keep track of your health, your weapon's health because it will break if not repaired, your robot ride's health, your weapons' experience levels (because THEY level up), the stats you'll need for them to evolve into their next form, which form you want the weapon to become, taking pictures of random crap to give your robot better parts, putting that random picture crap together to create the parts...it's like every time you clear a dungeon's floor, you have to then leave, go back to a village or whatever, get everything healed up, take about 15 minutes to figure out what you should do with your equipment, and then finally go back in and tackle the next floor, to repeat the process about 30+ times until you're at the end of the dungeon. It's needlessly complex.

And don't get me started about having to do the stat-building experience for your fucking fishing rod, too. I can't believe that they actually figured out a way to make fishing minigames even MORE infuriating and idiotic.

You know, my three favorite RPGs ever are Chrono Trigger, Suikoden 2, and Grandia 2. Grandia 2 has a reasonably complex (but not overly so) system of battle, but CT and Suikoden 2 are both pretty simplistic. You fight, you level up, you have a few magical spells and such that you can use when your level goes high enough, and characters' roles in combat are pretty well-defined, so you can concentrate on leaving magic to the magic-users and putting your hard-hitting equipment on the physical attackers. Neither of these fantastic games ever suffered from having a simple, straightforward system of gameplay. They're great for the stories they tell, and the characters in them.

Try getting something pleasantly straightforward like that today, though, and your options are limited to Action RPGs (which isn't so bad, but they're still not many to choose from), or be willing to settle for a Dragon Quest game, which is the complete opposite--rather than trying to create some sort of unique gameplay identity to set itself apart from the rest, that series distinguishes itself by having its games have NO identity.

I miss the days when RPGs were content with being simple. When I buy an RPG, I'm out to see a story being told. I'm not going to have fun with the battle system either way, so why foist a ton of time-wasting nonsense on me that's going to just disrupt my ability to actually follow the game's events? I mean, I know some people are into this stuff, but does that mean every single damn game has to come out with fifteen different ways in it to get your characters ready to swing a damn sword?

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Final Fantasy 10's Tidus's Realness

Like every other large, popular series which attracts and entertains a fairly wide variety of people, Final Fantasy has some characters that, for one reason or another, a lot of people wind up hating. Most of the time, contrary to what you'd expect from a guy who uses the majority of his blog rants for RPG-related complaints, I find myself in opposition to people's opinions that so-and-so character sucks (I happen to like FF7's Cait Sith, see nothing wrong with FF9's Quina Quen, and think FF4's Edward is one of the more inspiring individuals in the entire series). Not to say that I don't sometimes agree that some characters suck, of course--FF5's X-Death is just downright lame, and there's frankly less creative talent behind the writing for FF8's Squall than there is behind See Spot Run. But in general, the FF characters who get bashed the most are ones I think are just fine.

FF10's Tidus is one of these characters. While perhaps not quite as universally mocked and denounced as the subject of my last rant, Edward, there are a lot of people out there who just plain can't stand him. Reasons for this range all over the place, although popular ones include the unreasonable and empathy-lacking "He whines too much," the shallow and stupid complaints about how he dresses and/or how he looks (some people apparently never mature past their "Middle School Cool Kids' Lunch Table" mindset for judging others), to a few--a very few--well-reasoned ones regarding aspects of his personality that indicate that the person expressing dislike was actually paying attention to the game.

Oh, yeah, and there's also people who hate Tidus (and/or Yuna) just for that one scene in the game where they're practicing how to laugh. I find this one hard to debate, because seriously, that was maybe the most fucktarded scene in the entire 20+ installment series, worse even than Odin being killed by that nitwit Seifer in FF8, or FF10-2 in general.

The reason for hating Tidus that I may hear the most often, however, and the one that I've taken 3 paragraphs to finally get around to discussing, is because he "isn't real." This view comes from the fact that Tidus is, like the Aeons you summon in that game, a manifestation of the dreams of the Fayth, put into the real world and maintained through inadequately-explored and plot-convenient magical means.

Now, there is an obvious rebuttal to this especially nonsensical reason to dislike a character: that NONE of the characters in ANY Final Fantasy game are real anyways, so for the love of sweet toast, how can it possibly matter how "real" they are in their own completely 100% imaginary worlds?

But, for the sake of having an actual rant on this, let's put aside that tidy piece of logic, and use our imaginations for a moment to pretend that a video game character's lack of realness in his/her/its own game is a legitimate complaint. Let's look at how "real" Tidus is.

First of all, in the strictest, most scientific sense, he seems real enough. He interacts with physical environments, affecting and being affected by them. He swims in water, holds and moves objects, and can physically interact with others, such as the ability to hug Yuna or strike Seymour. His body seems to work as any other real Spiran human's does--he feels physical sensations like cold, pain, and hunger. So I'm pretty sure he qualifies as being as physically real as anyone else in the game.

What about spiritually, though? What, if anything, decides whether he's "real" in terms of his humanity? I think the best way to go about determining that is to look at his existence as an emotional being, and his accomplishments and impact on others. Such things are, essentially, what verifies our existence to others, and to ourselves mentally.

So let's look at Tidus's state and development as a human being. Over the course of the game, Tidus shows (occasionally excessively) emotions of joy, sorrow, despair, determination, irritation, petulance, and enthusiasm, among many others. Over the course of the game, he develops from a somewhat selfish, very disrespectful loud-mouth to a selfless, supportive leader. He learns from experience, comes to terms with father issues he's had for many years, and falls deeply enough in love to be completely willing to give up his life so that the woman he loves and the world she inhabits will be able to live on in peace. It's pretty safe to say that he's as real a human being as any other given RPG character--hell, it's pretty safe to say that he's a lot MORE real than at least half of them.

What about accomplishments? His impact on others? Well, let's see. Tidus defeats hordes of monsters of all sizes, disrupts a global society's traditional religious views, brings a conclusion to a previously unending cycle of destruction and sacrifice, effects a complete change of thinking in several of the people who travel with him through his example and actions (teaching Wakka open-mindedness and tolerance, helping Lulu overcome some of the grief and distrust of emotions that she's had since Chappu's death, and, of course, showing Yuna what it is to live for herself and have the courage to break free and change what is wrong, rather than simply suffer it for others' sakes), and, of course, saves the world from a deranged, seemingly narcissistic nitwit out to destroy it for the most idiotic reasons imaginable (remember, it's not Final Fantasy if you don't feel like slamming your head against the wall at hearing the main villain's motivation!). Regardless of how "real" his origins are, Tidus is clearly real enough to be one of the most important figures in Spira's history.

So in the end, Tidus is real by any reasonable standard I can come up with. And even if one considers him not to be--it still obviously changes nothing about who he is and what he does, so how can it possibly be something to hate him for?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Final Fantasy 4's Edward's Worth

As I've done a couple times in the past, this rant will be a rehash of something I've said previously in conversation with others (in this case, a post on Gaia). I'm doing 60 hours at work this week, with a out-of-the-ordinary commute of 2 hours each way, so suffice to say that I am a little too tired to be really inventing new stuff. But I also feel guilty for not ranting as much as I should, so here you are. If you've already seen this before, you probably can just shake your head in disappointment at my lameness and move on to something more interesting. I recommend reading Crime and Punishment, playing Metroid Prime 3, or perhaps sending an email to J. Jaques that asks him when he plans to start making Questionable Content good again.

Anyways. Edward, or Gilbert if you're one of those people who believe that everything is better in its original Japanese form (sorry, folks, but Robotech, Nippon Ichi games' voice acting, and the renaming of Final Fantasy 6's Mash to Sabin, prove that this is not always the case), is the bard of FF4, universally ridiculed for his completely ineffective combat abilities. To sum it up real quick, he has lousy defense, mediocre HP at best, sub-average attacking abilities, and all his special abilities suck ass. He's considerably better than just not having anyone to fill a slot in the party, but that's about all you can really say for him.

Because of this, Edward suffers all kinds of unfair flak from the standard, shallow gamer whose only real concern is with how a character best serves his/her own demands. He is called useless and weak consistently.

Well, that's just not true. On either account.

First of all, on the matter of usefulness, Edward is one of the MOST important characters plot-wise. It is due entirely to Edward's help that:

Cecil gains a transportation vehicle to cross reef-ish areas.
Rosa doesn't die from fever.
The king of Fabul believes Cecil's warnings, and Fabul is at least that much more prepared for the invasion thanks to having that much more time to prepare defenses (hey, that invasion could have gone a LOT worse than it did without the entire castle ready to fight).
Cecil, Tellah, Cid, and Yang don't all die at the hands of the Dark Elf (and subsequently Rosa doesn't die because Cecil and company weren't able to complete their quest).

He also helps them in a joint effort with others several times, both in battle and out (such as the final battle, during which his prayers join with the others' to help re-energize Cecil's party).

He does a LOT to help Cecil save the world, more than quite a few of the other characters (while they all had important parts to play, the list of essential contributions to Cecil's cause that Palom, Porom, Tellah, and even Yang and Edge each has an equal or lesser number of achievements). Without his help, things just would've gone sour real quick.

But what gets me more is people calling him weak. Yes, fine, he's mostly useless in battle. I get it. But hey, here's something for people to consider: he's a prince and a bard. He's basically a guy who all his life has likely had very little need for physical training, whose talents in life are apparently crooning to a harp and impressing ladies. And when you meet him in the game, he JUST recently lost the love of his life, and she died protecting him. Plus, her father comes along to add a heaping portion of guilt to the tremendous grief and regret he already feels, after beating him senseless with a cane. Given that, I think the fact that this guy can pick himself up at ALL, and actually fight for a cause rather than just completely lose himself in grief and guilt-induced madness is remarkable. He KNOWS he's not a strong person, he says it himself, yet he's very soon after this catastrophe willing to do everything he can to prevent it from happening to another, even knowing his physical limitations.

Now I ask you all, seriously. I'm going to assume that most (certainly not all, of course, but most) of you have as little training and natural combat talent as Edward has (nothing to be ashamed of; we live in a world where it's not necessary). If, this afternoon or evening, after coming home from work or school or Social DDRing or whatever it is you do with your time, a group of people showed up and killed everyone you love, and destroyed your home, and left you in the ruins of your own life all for a family heirloom trinket...

Can you honestly tell me that you'd be even close to as strong a person as Edward is? Could you possibly pick yourself up almost immediately after it happened to help a group of strangers keep it from happening to any other? Or are you honest enough to admit that you would more than likely just sit in shock, terror, and grief beyond imagination, unable to cope with what just happened? Because I'll tell you right now, I may talk the talk, walk the walk, and balk the balk, but I'm pretty damn sure that I couldn't even hope to have the inner strength and courage to follow Edward's example.

Physical ability be damned--Edward's as strong as they come.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

General RPGs' Love Hina Syndrome

I will occasionally, when talking to friends and acquaintances, talk about an RPG as having a case of Love Hina Syndrome. I don't think that I've mentioned it in these rants yet, but I know I'm sure to sooner or later (it will probably be in the first sentence of any potential rant I do on Rogue Galaxy or Legend of Dragoon). So today I'm not going to rant so much specifically on one or more RPGs as I am just going to define what I mean by Love Hina Syndrome.

First of all, I'm apparently not the only person to use the phrase--I tried Googling it a few hours ago, and was surprised to see a few results showing other people saying it here and there. But there doesn't seem to be any set definition for it (one person was using it to describe a flawed main female character, another to describe bad manga-to-animes, and so on), so I'm gonna keep using mine until someone semi-officially recognizes a concrete definition.

So, basically, there's this anime, Love Hina. Some of you have seen it. Others of you, people who are much, much more fortunate, have not. It is, pretty much, the quintessential "harem" anime. While not even close to being the worst anime I've seen, or even the worst of its genre (Hand Maid May easily wins that dishonor--and if anyone disagrees, and knows of a harem anime that is even WORSE, I heartily encourage you to keep the filthy thing to yourself and don't tell me about it), it's still a terrible, empty pile of crap. Its plot is pointless, stupid, and shallow, a mindless story of ridiculous, annoying, and predictable circumstances leading two ridiculous, annoying, and predictable characters into a ridiculous, annoying, and predictable romance. You'd have trouble finding an anime love story cliche that it doesn't squeeze into its monotony. The main character is a talentless moron with no redeeming feature whatever, the main female is a raging nitwit whose character development really never quite goes any further than "This character has boobs," and the only positive aspect about their unoriginal "Let's make it obvious from Episode 3 that we dig each other but only actually commit to any kind of relationship in the last 10 minutes of the final episode, something like 35+ episodes later" is that at least these two dysfunctional morons will be making each OTHER miserable instead of any innocent, potentially decent other character that they might otherwise of hooked up with.

Sorta like FF8's Squall and Rinoa, really--the love story is hackneyed and laughable, but you still support it because they're such terrible, worthless people that the only ones lousy enough to deserve them are each other.

Anyways, so, the plot of Love Hina is mindless garbage, less interesting and believable than a plot arc of an ABC Daytime Television soap opera. And the only time that the main characters aren't extremely boring is when they're extremely annoying. BUT, the show very oddly has one notably GOOD aspect to its writing: the supporting cast. Almost all of the secondary characters in the show are genuinely decent and reasonably deep characters. Don't get me wrong, they're not really great or anything, but they're good, at least, and that's a real abnormality for Love Hina. They have issues to deal with (REAL ones, not the stuff like "I wonder what present I can get the girl I like so maybe she'll stop putting her fist through my face!" that the main characters have), personalities that develop and grow, and lessons to learn and to teach. Shinobu's quiet trials of growing up into a young adult, Motoko's attempts to reconcile her warrior's life with her gentle nature and emotional weaknesses, Kentaro's subtle, mostly unseen, but still noticeable transition from a self-centered jerk to a pretty dependable friend, and so on...there's lots of good stuff there. Most of it is, however, sadly never developed to anywhere near its potential, because, hey, why waste time building up the characters with depth when you only have 20 more episodes to spend almost-but-not-quite getting the main fools together?

So anyways, now that I've totally ruined the RPGs Only policy of this blog thing by ranting on an anime, let me get to the point. When I say an RPG has Love Hina Syndrome, what I mean is that it, like what I described above, has a supporting cast that is mostly or entirely made up of deep and involving characters, who more than likely are underdeveloped and overshadowed by the main characters, which are tiresome and cliched. The plot being sucky is also often associated with it, although not necessarily.

And let me tell you, Love Hina Syndrome drives me nuts. I mean, you take a game like Grandia 3, or Star Ocean 1, a game where the entire cast is just boring and stupid, written by people who either don't care or whose creative skills are so dismal that they should only be qualified to write nutrition labels, and that will annoy me. A lot. But you get a game like Legend of Dragoon, or Dragon Quest 8, one that suffers from Love Hina Syndrome, and you basically have a game that shows you that its creators DID have the ability to create great characters, but nevertheless made the most important one(s) shoddy and unlikeable. It just screams "wasted potential" to me, and that's what makes me irritated at such a game way more than just at one that's terrible all around. Take Rogue Galaxy--the minor characters Steve, Jupis, Simon, and Deego (especially Deego) all have great moments that really grip you and get you emotionally involved, interest you and get you thinking. But that's all they are: moments. Deego gets a bit more than the others, but it's still not nearly enough. Meanwhile, you get Jaster and Kisala, the Main Hero and Romantic Interest respectively, and they just wander their way through a rehash of dozens of previous stereotypical Main Heroes' and Romantic Interests' situations, without a single original twist or skillful execution the entire time. You're just sitting there, seeing what you've seen countless times before, while other characters sit on the side, their intriguing stories languishing. It sucks.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Wild Arms 3's Virginia: The Male Protagonist Who's a Girl

Many thanks to my friend Jolt for taking a lot of his time to help me organize my ideas on this.



I come to you tonight after another long lapse between updates, which will doubtless be followed by yet ANOTHER long gap, to talk about the protagonist of Wild Arms 3, Virginia Maxwell. Back when I made my rant on General RPGs' Odd Protagonists, I considered mentioning her in there, but I decided Virginia was worth a whole rant by herself, and I've finally gotten around to doing it.

There're a lot of RPG main characters who are female...Marona of Phantom Brave, Terra and Celes from Final Fantasy 6, Sailor Moon from Sailor Moon: Another Story, Shion from Xenosaga 1, and so on. And they can be pretty cool.

But when they're main characters, you KNOW it's a girl that's the main character. All the issues that they deal with, and their way of handling these issues, and the situations they run into, are most often very different from the normal ones that an RPG guy protagonist will deal with. Marona deals with friendship, acceptance and kindness. Celes and Terra both mainly deal with different forms of love. Shion deals with...well, being an annoying bitch, I guess. These are main personal conflicts and goals that you don't see in the main male characters as major issues so often. With guy protagonists, these things can be there, but they usually aren't the really defining, core dilemmas and issues that the guy will deal with. Take Luke from Tales of the Abyss. Like Marona, he deals with issues of acceptance, and his friendship with Guy is a minor part of his character development, and he does have a romantic interest in Tear, so, like Celes and Terra, love is also a part of his character growth, though a very small one. But mostly, Luke deals with issues of personal worth and identity, redemption, and apprentice vs. student conflict--things that female main characters rarely touch upon in any depth. I'm not trying to seem gender-biased or anything; this is just something I've noticed. Female protagonists very definitely deal with different priorities for their development as characters.

It's obviously good to have some variety, of course, but at the same time, the fact is that the game's very plot is tailored around that character's gender, which is, in most cases, ridiculous. A good game can still come about, of course, as FF6 and Phantom Brave prove conclusively, but still, it's like there NEEDS to be a change to the working formulas for any female main character. And I frankly think that something as trivial as one character's gender, even if it's an important character, shouldn't have such an overwhelming influence on how a story unfolds.

Now, let me describe a main character to you with great potential for emotional impact with the player, and to influence the plot well without dominating it.

A hero, using a powerful and destructive weapon, sets out on a quest to find personal vindication of ideals, which unfolds into a larger journey to save the world. Along the way, the hero holds the hero's party together through good and bad, and leads them with courage and strength of character. Along the way, the hero encounters the hero's estranged father, who is very deeply involved in the plot in ways that the hero only comes to understand over time. While not the only one, the issue of the hero's relationship with the father is one which weighs heavily on the hero's mind, and develops as the journey continues, until a final climax to and resolution for it is reached. Also during the journey, the hero encounters a rival, not necessarily a villain, but certainly a problematic obstacle at multiple occasions, who helps and cultivates the hero as much as the rival does hinder the hero. The rival is similar in many ways to the hero, and it is the similarity as much as it is the difference between them that causes the semi-hostilities.

Now, I just described an RPG protagonist that we can agree has a lot of good potential for artful, worthwhile development in a game. Not to say that this potential would necessarily be realized, but only that the potential for a great character is there. Nothing in the above paragraph is something we haven't all seen before, of course, and we can apply it to literally dozens of RPG heroes, both great and crappy, with few variations to it.

But what I just described above is not just the arguably most standard formula for an RPG hero. What I described is also the formula for a hero that is NOT a female. Even though all of the above can be made realistic and easy for the audience to understand and relate to, and is good material for a character of any gender, you really just do NOT see main female characters doing any of the above stuff. As I mentioned, their focus is on much more different issues and concerns.

The ONE exception to this is Virginia. Virginia is a female in a male protagonist's position and story--in fact, everything I wrote up there for the example of a male protagonist is based off of her. And it WORKS for her. It works fantastically. It's fresh, it's believable, it's not anime-gender biased as usual, it's just a human being working through times and issues that anyone, male or female, can have. The writers of Wild Arms 3 developed a great personal story for the game's main character, one that, if not exactly original in its premise, is at least interesting and original in much of its execution. And its impact and meaning doesn't get marred or lost at all by her gender. It's really just very refreshing to see an RPG plot and protagonist's story that don't dance around and make exceptions for the fact that oh my God, it's a girl.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

General RPGs' Battle Choreography

I've mentioned many times in the past that RPGs, as a whole, are not very entertaining to actually play. Flashy spells and special attacks only distract one momentarily from the fact that each of the several hundred (possibly thousands) of battles you will fight in most RPGs amount to nothing more than moving a cursor through a menu, hitting Confirm, and watching as your characters kill enemies using special, white little numbers that magically appear above the bad guys' heads with each blow. When not actually taking action, everyone usually just stands in one place, staring at each other. And it's not like there's a whole lot of strategy involved most of the time to distract you from the fact that nothing is happening. For most of these games, there are only two strategies that you'll ever need for 99+% for your battles: Heal When You Need To, and Level Up More. If you have trouble in a normal RPG, then your problem is almost invariably solved by better applying one or both of these "strategies."

Action-based RPGs provide some relief from the RPG genre's general tedium, but it's not always much. Action RPGs can be almost as repetitive and tiresome as the normal, menu-based ones. Take, for example, several earlier ones, like Soulblazer, Illusion of Gaia, Tales of Phantasia, and, to a lesser extent, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Each of these games gives you the freedom to run around the field of battle and use a small set of abilities and tools to dispose of your foes. This allows you to create some real strategies for disposing of foes, and you have to develop some actual skill at attacking, dodging, using opportunities in combat well, etc. Still, by the time you've progressed through the game a fair amount, you often find yourself settling into a rut of doing the same old things against enemies that have long since stopped having varied attacks and patterns. And it's not just the older action RPGs where this happens, either; some fairly newer ones like the Knights of the Old Republic games, Kingdom Hears: Chain of Memories, and Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha Vs. The Soulless Army (yes, that is, indeed, a ridiculously long title) have the same problem. I can sum up your strategy for the majority of boss fights in that last one in these steps:

1. Block
2. Attack
3. Repeat
4. Profit Level Up

It's not that I can't take a battle system that's obscenely boring, and it's not like SMTRKVTSA doesn't have a good pace and need some decent skill, but after 16 years and 110 RPGs, I'm looking for a little more than that for my gaming experience.

There have been some RPGs lately, however, that have given me exactly what I've been looking for. The recent Suikodens and Dark Cloud 1 gave me tastes of it with their one-on-one battles. In each case, you get to see your characters having a battle with an enemy that actually LOOKS like a real fight, with you vaguely controlling what they do with your attack choices. They're attacking and blocking and dodging and whatnot, actually fighting, instead of just standing around doing nothing for ages while they wait for a turn. There's some neat choreography to the battles that's genuinely fun to watch.

Of course, in Dark Cloud 1's case, this enjoyment is significantly marred by the fact that you have to be watching what buttons to press to keep fighting successfully, rather than watching what's actually happening, so it's not actually so great. But a good try, at least.

What are really great examples of entertaining fight choreography, though, ones that I hope will be copied in the future in this regard, are The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, and especially Kingdom Hearts 2. In these games, not only do you have a pretty wide range of abilities to keep your strategies varied and interesting, but fighting enemies allows you to sometimes use special abilities to counter the specific attacks of the enemy you're facing. This allows for some pretty nifty moves in TLoZWW, like Link jumping forward and spinning in the air to slash enemies right across the skull, and some absolutely kickass moments in KH2 boss fights. The reaction scenes in combat are so cool and fun to watch that I found myself looking forward to boss fights for the opportunity to see what crazy stunts Sora and company would be pulling next. It's not just the same old One Sword Combo Kills All of most action RPGs; these games have battles with action and strategies that are unique to each situation. It's not that you're fighting AN enemy, you're fighting THAT enemy, and different rules apply for different dangers. And of course, as I mentioned, the general moves and attacks used in these specific circumstances are all very fun and neat to watch. And I think that's something that would really benefit RPGs in general these days: skillful, fun, and varying battle choreography. When every enemy is a different experience to fight, you get a game that stays entertaining in its gameplay through to the end. And hey, I may play RPGs for the plots and characters, but it would be nice to play something with those AND that's fun.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Shadow Hearts 3's Characters

Once again, my personal RPG theory (that there is no such thing as an RPG series that will not, sooner or later, terribly disappoint you) has been vindicated with the third and most recent installment of the Shadow Hearts franchise. Set in a very close alternate reality of our world's past, the first two Shadow Hearts games spanned Europe and Asia and brought two great casts through innovative plots which tied in with real world events while maintaining a very healthy amount of creativity in their general direction. You got to fight restless spirits in the Vatican, hand Rasputin his creepy evil ass, visit important locations from Hong Kong to London, and fight alongside people like Princess Anastasia Romanov and Mata Hari. They were fun, funny, and full of deep and touching ideas, moments, and characters. So, when I found out that the third installment would be set in North and South America, feature Native American characters, and at some point involve the legendary vicious gangster Al Capone, I was pretty damn psyched for the best installment yet.

One of these days I'm going to stamp out that vicious, sadistic little spark of hope in me, that without fail only shows up when the worst of disappointments is forthcoming, just to make it all the much worse. Shadow Hearts 3 is a tedious time-waster, a long-winded telling of a story which only has any real significance right near the very end, and even that being somewhat dull and anime-cliche. I mean, hell, I've played RPGs which have been uninspired and boring enough that I find myself just not caring that some mystical fantasy world is doomed to oblivion, but Shadow Hearts 3 is the first time I've ever felt total apathy toward the imminent destruction of my own world.

Nautilus, the company which created the game, seemed to have the good sense not to unleash this mediocrity on us, but XSeed decided to translate it and release it here anyways. This and Wild Arms 4 make up XSeed's record of RPGs translated and published for companies which wouldn't port them overseas themselves. Jeez. To XSeed: come on, there must be some GOOD RPG over in Japan that you could bring us instead. At this rate, I'd have to say you're a strong argument for the idea that ignorance is bliss.

But I digress. It's not outright offensively awful like Grandia 3 or Wild Arms 4 were, so I'm not going to pick apart the whole game like I did with them. I'll stick to just the usual cast ridicule method today.



Johnny: Johnny, our "hero" (I use the term loosely), is a licensed detective, who consistently needs his companions, who are not themselves terribly bright, to explain each and every extremely obvious switch and lever for each and every extremely simple, usually color-coded dungeon puzzle.


Shania: Nautilus was too busy inventing ways for her to be more naked to actually give her a character.


Natan: Also known as Chief Running Stereotype.


Lady: Lady is the main villain in the game. In a startling display of honesty, Nautilus gives her essentially no lines of dialogue, no personality, and no conscious reason to be trying to doom the world. While this makes her a boring, lackluster antagonist about as memorable as a street sign and only half as noticeable, at least they're not trying to cover up their inability to invent a decent villain with dumb motives ("HUR HUR I'LL SAVE EVERYONE FROM BEING UNHAPPY BY KILLING THEM") or something.


Frank: A middle-aged ninja from Brazil who uses cactuses, bus stop signs, and dead fish as swords. The novelty wears off pretty quickly, leaving you with a gag character who's mildly amusing at best.


Hilda: Hilda is a girl who gains weight when she eats too much and gets fat, but loses weight when she eats healthily and stays thin.

...

If you're waiting for a punchline, you just got it. I really, truly cannot think of a better way to ridicule Hilda's gimmick than to just tell you about it.


Ricardo: In most other RPGs, Ricardo might be the low point of the cast. In this one, the fact that he has any history and motivation at all, and that it's not completely half-assed, makes him easily the best character in the mix.

His guitar being a shotgun, flamethrower, and missile launcher kinda balance out whatever seriously redeeming qualities he had, though.


Al Capone: Al Capone is not actually a playable character, nor is he a villain, so including him is kinda a breach in protocol here, but he embodies one of the most annoying aspects of the game so perfectly that I really just had to put him in. I have exhaustively compiled a list of all the things that Nautilus got right in their representation of the infamous 1920s American gangster:

He has an accent.

...

Yeah. As the list above suggests, there's not a whole lot of resemblance (Hell, I can't even say for sure that the accent is right). Rather than take the ruthless, relentless, scarred pioneer of organized crime that the real Al Capone was and go somewhere with him from there, Nautilus takes the name and just does whatever the hell they want, making him into a good-hearted pretty-boy concerned for the well-being and safety of the public. They take a concept with all kinds of potential, and twist it into anime crud. This blatant disregard for accuracy is all OVER the game. Exploring the Grand Canyon? Expect no more than a short walk. Cell phones, television, security metal detectors, and robot guards in 1929? No problem! And for God's sake, I've had more trouble navigating McDonald's Playplaces than I had escaping Alcatrez.

I was expecting--hell, eagerly anticipating--a game that would make interesting, innovative, and (reasonably) accurate use of its cultural backdrop, the way the first two games did. But Nautilus just decided to take their best setting yet and whiz it down their legs here. The disclaimer at the beginning of the game isn't even needed; there's no way anyone could seriously mistake this for a portrayal of anything real.


Mao: There are two kinds of people in this world. People who think that a 6 foot, talking alcoholic cat who uses drunken martial arts and wants to be a movie star is a stupid idea, and people who work at Nautilus.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Final Fantasy 12's Characters

I have yet to figure out why, exactly, FF12 is so incredibly mediocre and uninteresting to me. There's something about it that makes it one of the least interesting RPG experiences I've ever had, beyond the usual suspects of Poor Plot and Boring Characters. The whole thing just feels like a long, tedious roadtrip, with ugly, smelly fellow tourists that you hate through places that bore you. And I just can't quite put my finger on what it is about the game that makes it feel that way. I can make some guesses (that fucking sandsea area often figures heavily into these guesses), but I can't quite explain it just yet.

However, while the main cause for my boredom with FF12 eludes me, one of the minor ones that only worsen the experience is quite blatant: the absurdly dull cast.


Vaan: Vaan is the main character of the game. Or so Square would have you believe. There's actually really nothing about him that would make you think so. His importance to the plot ceases completely about 1/4 of the way into the game, if even that. After that, he just seems to be a generic addition to your party who gets the rare occasion to speak during cutscenes, and during these times has absolutely nothing of significance to say. I guess you could actually say it's a creative new role in an RPG--a main character who is totally irrelevant and unnecessary to the game itself. It's like he's just there for the ride.


Panelo: Panelo is Vaan's friend. And that's...it. Her development and impact on the story are limited to fulfilling that one role. She's an empty and superflous compliment to an empty and superfluous character.


Basch: Basch is a refugee from daytime television. "I didn't do it! It was my EVIL TWIN!" I expect to see this sort of thing in the soap operas my grandmother watches daily, not in my RPGs.


Ashe: "Oh goodness, what a hard thing it is, being a princess. You have all sorts of princess-concerns as you do princess-things in a princess-way at all princess-times!"

It's not that they didn't try with Ashe. They gave her a few moral dilemmas about how far she'd go for power and revenge. But it all just fell pretty flat in delivery. No one around her seemed to really care very much, besides Balthier, and she didn't do any real soul-searching to solve her moral dilemmas. Just sort of decided, "Hm, I think I'm going to be wise instead of giving in to desire for power!"


Vossler: Vossler joins your party for a little while so that he can warn Ashe that her other companions can't be trusted, right before turning her and them over to their enemies.


Larsa: I'm going to forego commenting on Larsa's dull-as-dirt personality here, and instead remark that his existence is a somewhat frightening thing. It's not him that's scary, it's the reaction he gets. Fangirls, my good readers. Squealing, obsessive fangirls. While always a disturbing phenomenon, they are particularly unnerving this time because they are all getting their panties in a twist over a well-groomed 12-year-old. One which, I might add, looks considerably more like a real-life person than most RPG anime-tastic prettyboys.

Thanks a bunch, SquareEnix. Fangirls weren't creepy enough already; we needed PEDOPHILE fangirls.


Vayne: Vayne's the bad guy. Much in the same way Basch is, Vayne is an example of Square taking a very lame and silly excuse for doing bad things ("My imaginary friend Venat made me do it!") and then trying to create a serious character out of it. He's also kind of stupid, in that his goal is to play huge games of international politics and war strategies and such to accomplish a goal (free mankind or humekind or whatever from the manipulations of a bunch of alien ghost things--yeah, every part of this game's plot sounds pretty silly when you sum it up, like that) that Ashe and her little entourage of dull servants are going to do anyway, with a lot less planning and fuss.


Reddas: Reddas is a plot-convenient guy who conveniently shows up to help you, and then even more conveniently dies to help you.


Reks: Reks is Vaan's dead brother whom you very briefly control at the start of the game. In an irony which is both hilarious and depressing, during these first 20 minutes of the game before he's killed off, he is given more development and personality than every single character listed above gets during the rest of the 60+ hour game.


Fran: You know, I have to admit that I wanted to like Fran, going into the game. I'll admit I have a thing for both Viera, and for very, very nearly naked women, and Fran is a perfect specimen of each of these things. And compared to most of the cast, her few moments of deep and interesting characterization during the Eruyt Village bit of the game makes her a shining light of characterization and skillful writing. But in the end, she is just a more shapely version of the same Sack'O'Yawn that everyone else is. She's there for the sole purpose of fanservice and having a character who can conveniently explain some of the silly, far-fetched magical bullshit that the plot's plagued with.


Balthier: When Balthier first joked about being the "leading man," I didn't realize that he was actually 100% correct in this claim. Balthier's got a charismatic and fun personality, his actions have motive and direction, he interacts and guides all his companions through their personal dilemmas, he leads them along through the story rather than just be led by the nose by whatever plot devices come up, and he takes the story's spotlight most frequently through the game from the moment he joins you until the moment the game ends (though I could be wrong on this one thing--it just SEEMED like he did to me, but that might just be because he's the only part of the cast with a personality worth paying attention to). Vaan might be the main character of FF12, but Balthier's the game's protagonist, no two ways about it. I dunno where he came from, either--he'd be a well-developed and original enough character to draw attention even in RPGs with casts known for such, but for FF12, the gap in quality between him and every other character is just absurd. Ah, well. Rock on, Balthier, you are the sole reason to play this game.

Monday, May 7, 2007

General RPGs' Minigames 5

Alright, folks, gonna be a little deviation from the usual Minigames rant today. I'm in a pretty good mood because I finally beat 7th Saga today, which I'd been sporadically restarting, playing for a period ranging from 1 hour to 1 day, and then shutting it off in disgust and not touching for another 4 months+ since roughly the year 1998. Checked the file information to figure that out. And while the end part of the game and the ending was just as shitty as everything else up to that point, and I retract none of my statements in that previous rant, I'm at least pleased to finally have the Boogieman of RPGs over and done with. 7th Saga, Grandia 3, Wild Arms 4, Phantasy Star 3, Lufia 1...I've seen the worst and survived, RPG world! You ain't got shit that can take me down!

Ahem.

Now, I know I rag on minigames a lot. I make no apologies for that, because I frankly think that it's all 100% justified. RPGs don't need'em, RPGs shouldn't have'em. They're almost always pointless, stupid, boring wastes of time. The only reaction they'll usually ever get out of you is to annoy the shit out of you when their poor design or premise based on random numbers keeps you doing them again and again and a-fucking-gain dozens of times because you either HAVE to or you just really, really want the damn super special awesome (yes, I'm stealing Yu-Gi-Oh Abridged's catchphrase) prize for them. If my genre of choice could just drop the shitty, meaningless little button-mashing minute-wasters and casino slot machines and so on, I think that in almost all cases, the resulting RPG would be an at least marginally better and a more enjoyable product. And yes, this might mean that the rare, one-out-of-a-hundred minigame that's actually ENJOYABLE would also be lost, but I honestly believe that it would be a totally acceptable sacrifice to save me from having to play video poker for hours on end in order to get some special one-of-a-kind accessory.

But I'm digressing into what I DON'T want this rant to be. For today, I want to look at some examples where a minigame has been genuinely fun. Examples of minigames which I wish would become the norm, instead of the rare exception.

For starters, there's the motorcyle minigame of Final Fantasy 7. Now, I do dock points from this one due to its being mandatory. These things just shouldn't be such. You shouldn't have to learn a whole different set of skills (though in some cases, "skill" is too strong a word for it) from the ones the game normally needs just to pass through a 5-minute instance of plot advancement, never to use said skills again because they're wholly unnecessary. But aside from that, this minigame's actually really fun. I mean, it's simple--just moving to position and attacking left and right--but it's not so simplistic that it's just stupid (see: every button-mashing minigame in existence). It's fast-paced, there's a definite goal to it, but if you're not terrific at it right from the get-go, you aren't terribly penalized--your friends may end up taking some damage, which will put you at a disadvantage for the ensuing boss fight, but the amount they get hit for by enemy riders is pretty small. Doing a good job is going to make your life easier, but not being very good at the game isn't going to force you to repeat it endlessly until you improve, or give up on some desirable reward for a great performance. And the minigame clearly has a lot of work put into it--the scene shifts as you play, the controls are smooth, there's constant action in it...it's not just some half-assed RPG carnival game where a character stands still and throws a ball at a target for inconsequential rewards. Things are actually HAPPENING during this. Square put some thought and effort into the game, and it shows. It's an honestly fun thing to play.

Reminds me of Super Mario RPG's mine cart minigame, now that I think about it--another case of a mandatory minigame that wound up being actually FUN for a change. Hell, that 5-minute minigame played better than some REAL games on the system did.

What's really ideal, though, I think, is something like the Tales of Dragon Buster minigame from Tales of the Abyss. See, this minigame really is an actual GAME. It's not just some, "Press X and see if you win or not!" crap. From what I understand, Namco remade one of their early games, Dragon Buster, with new graphics, sounds, and character model (putting the Tales of the Abyss main character Luke in the game instead of the original game's hero), and just gives you the option to play it. It's a reasonably short game (though long for a minigame), but it's honestly a lot of fun to play. It controls well, it's not mandatory, it's got a fun old-school premise (beat the dragon and rescue the princess, who turns out to be one of your other Tales of the Abyss characters), there's a bunch of things to find and do in it...it's really pretty much the ideal minigame. It even has a reward system I can approve of. The stuff you can get from it are things you probably want and would find fun to have--a title for Luke that will change his costume to that of the original Dragon Buster character's, and portraits of all the main characters, if you collect the right stuff in your playthroughs. But that's it--the rewards are there for fun alone. You can't get any ultra powerful hyper bacon-topped super mega sword or accessory or something from it. So you don't feel that obligation to beat it the way you might feel for tedious casino minigames, that feeling of "God this is annoying, but on the other hand, having that Sword of Kickassedness would really make things easier for me and satisfy my completionist ways." It's a harmless, fun minigame with nice but intangible rewards (more intangible than any game's rewards, I mean) that you only play if you want to. That's how it should be. If an RPG's gonna have a minigame, it ought to be made enjoyable for the player.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

General RPGs' Post-Battle Taunts

Just a quicky today. There's something I've noticed in modern RPGs which is really kinda silly--the post-battle taunts. As more and more RPGs are made with voice acting nowadays--in fact, they nearly all are--you often find a game in which characters will before, during, and after each battle say various phrases. For example, you'll hear a party member say something like, "This won't be much of a challenge!" at the beginning of a battle with obviously hopelessly outmatched common enemies, or hear another party member say something like, "ARGH I'm...sorry..." when they get killed in battle (that's right, BE sorry! It's YOUR fault you just got stabbed through the heart! Stupid jerk!). Cute little addition to the RPG experience, even helps you keep your interest for about an extra 3-5 random battles out of the approximately 2000 you'll encounter overall in the game.

What I don't get, though, is a lot of the little taunts that characters say after battle. Like, I'm playing Tales of the Abyss right now. I just got finished smacking the ever-loving crap out of some random evil tadpole things, and as the battle ends and the menu comes up to tell me how much money and experience and such that I'm being rewarded with for cruelly murdering some unassuming animals in their own natural habitat, Jade says, in that endearingly condescending tone, "Well, you did your best." The tone, of course, implies great, smug insult, because Jade is kinda awesome like that.

What exactly is the point of this practice of post-battle taunting in so many recent RPGs? The monsters the characters taunt are already dead. They can't hear your petty characters' insults. They're DEAD. Wounds to their ego are no longer necessary, I would think. If the monsters could even understand them to begin with, which I'd bet most of them can't.

The really dumb ones are the taunts where the character says something to the tune of, "Try again when you've practiced some more!" Yeah, uh, they can't. Because they're dead. Duh. Are the people who write these scripts thinking at ALL?

Monday, April 9, 2007

General RPGs' Ancient Civilizations

If the number of RPGs you've played is above 3, you know what today's rant is about. You know it because you are intimately familiar with it, having encountered it dozens of times in your game-playing hobby life. It's like the scent of that slightly greasy, questionably employed fellow on the subway who you somehow always get stuck sitting/standing very near during your regular commute to work. You don't know his name, you don't want to know his origins, but you've been shoved up against that filthy, foodstain-spattered jacket of his in a crammed space often enough that you and his body odor have reached an "Old Friend" relationship status. You are familiar not by choice, but rather by forced exposure.

I am speaking, of course, about the Ancient Civilization plot device. You know the one--at some point in any given RPG, your party will invariably wind up exploring some ruin left behind by a long-gone culture which was, bizarrely enough, far more advanced than the current one in at least one, and usually EVERY, way. Now, true, this is an idea commonly used in ALL forms of entertainment, not just RPGs, but it's especially prevalent in them. I'd say it's maybe just a little bit less common in RPGs than Hit Points.

I mean, this theme is EVERYWHERE. If you have to have anything to do with a previous culture in an RPG, you are guaranteed to find out that they were way more advanced than any current country. This isn't just a common cliche, like some of the previous things I've ranted on, such as RPG women's stupid outfits and flying castles and whatnot. It's like a requirement for every RPG's plot to have super-advanced civilizations as its backbone. It doesn't even matter what kind of age the planet/galaxy/whatever the game takes place on/in is going through--you can run into a scattering of immensely powerful artifacts and abilities sealed deep in ancient temples in a fantasy setting, like in Final Fantasy 5, which you'd expect, but hell, you can run into devices left behind by advanced societies with technology far surpassing your own in a super futuristic sci-fi setting, too, such as in Knights of the Old Republic 1. I mean, how much sense, honestly, does it make to have a space-faring race in the Star Wars universe that existed thousands of years before the game's time, which just happens to have had a superior knowledge of both technology and the Force? It's not like technology in the Star Wars universe stands still for millenia. And with Jedi and Sith sporadically running around that whole time, seeking to understand the Force in their own ways, it seems equally silly that some bunch of technology-and-Force-combining aliens who died out hundreds of lifetimes previously would still have had better knowledge than a continuously advancing society thousands of years later.

See, that's what gets me about this cliche. It makes no sense whatsoever. Technology and knowledge do not move BACKWARDS as time passes. What would be known 5000 years ago, be it how to forge some ultimate evil-killing, time-splitting, aura-increasing blade of kickassedness, some special banishing/containing spell that can eliminate the ultimate evil, some special fever-reducing medicine's forumula, or whatever, would almost surely STILL be known, or at the VERY least, rediscovered. At the very most, if the culture had fallen somewhat recently (in RPG terms, this'd be in the last few centuries, rather than the last few millenia), then you could maybe make a case that some of its knowledge could still be lost and not yet rediscovered, since knowledge breakthroughs take time. But trying to tell me that over the course of 2500 years, no magical scholar has yet managed to stumble onto the proper chant for a more powerful attack spell that some idiots living back before the invention of cooked meat managed to master?

If it were just a rare thing, I could let it go. I mean, there're things that ancient cultures on this planet managed to do that are pretty impressive. Last I heard, we'd still have a damn hard time replicating what the Egyptians did with those pyramids, even if we were to employ our incredibly further advanced technology to do so. But every single time? Are we expected to believe in every RPG we play that for the next several centuries after the fall of such and such civilization, everyone in the world was too busy bashing their heads on rocks all day to bother trying in any way to regain the level of knowledge and power that their neighboring such and such society had recently possessed?

And for that matter, there's the matter of why all these clearly far more awesome civilizations disappeared to begin with. You'll only get an explanation of why the esteemed Ugga-Blugh Culture vanished without a trace about a third of the time, at best. The rest of the time, you're just left to imagine what happened to them, and why it is that they had time to build a full half dozen or more temples and towers and such to clumsily safeguard their secrets of destruction before pulling their vanishing act. I mean, since they were busily inventing box-pushing puzzles to hide their favorite weapons and spells and such, they clearly wanted to leave a legacy, implying that they knew they wouldn't be around for much longer. So why the hell not just write down a decent history of themselves and leave it sitting next to whatever apocalypse-causing/preventing crystal they were enshrining that day?

Hell, it's not even like the few times you DO get a reason for why the ancient, sophisticated Mezopotaromaniagyptianese are satisfying. More often than not, they'll have kicked the bucket thanks to the same evil force that you're currently facing off against. Yeah, because it makes a ton of sense for some supposed super civilization to be wiped out by an evil-doer who will by the end of the game be defeated by a group of 3 - 12 moderately stupid teenagers supported by a technologically backwards world that actually considers airships a non-laughable mode of transportation.

Frankly, folks, the whole Ancient Super Civilization plot tool is old. Really, really old. And most often, it's just writers being lazy. How does the villain plan to destroy the world? By using some ancient relic/spell/technology! How will the heroes stop the villain? By using ancient relics/spells/technologies! Where will you spend 1/5 or more of your time in dungeons? In ruins, obtaining ancient relics/spells/technologies! All these essential plot devices are just magically sitting around, waiting to be found and/or stolen, so that writers can show characters and villains and such doing what they want them to be doing, but not have to ever worry about how to get there.

And it's not a problem that's getting any better--hell, it's only seeming to get worse with certain recent games. I mean, much as I love Wild Arms 3, you're crawling around in previous cultures' ruins for something like 80% of your total dungeon experience, without a word breathed once about where the hell these things came from, who built'em, and for what purpose. And then there's Final Fantasy 12--apparently, in some timeline that Square released, FF12 occurs a long time before FFT does, possibly on the same world. Yeah, because it's so believable that people running around in a medieval setting with swords and spears and such were, less than 1300 years prior, waging war in crazy Star Wars-esque flying ships with canons and bombs and such.

Seriously, this nonsense has got to stop. Or at least cut back a little. If the writers for the games we purchase can't honestly think of a better way to advance the plot than by using a quest to obtain some random object of power from some ancient bozos' temple of miraculously preserved traps and robots, then they shouldn't be writing to begin with. Give us some material that makes SENSE.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Shin Megami Tensei 1 and 2: Christianity Done Well

I've mentioned in the past (many times) that the Japanese entertainment industry's mild obsession with Christianity is very annoying to me. Whether it's blatantly being misinterpreted by crap like the infamous Evangelion or Xenogears, or just semi-referenced and still completely misunderstood like the Church of St. Eva in Breath of Fire 2, the portrayal of Christianity in the Japanese media forms that I've experienced is just about always incompetently bungled. It's not that I'm up in arms about this because I'm some roaring fundamentalist Christian or something; it just grates on my nerves to see the same mistakes based on complete ignorance repeat over and over and OVER.

I'm told by my friend Jolt, who's pretty much my personal Japanese expert as he's studied the culture and been over there for an extended period of time before, that his take on why this is such a common phenomenon is basically because "it's something cool and shiny and neat to look at and experiment with," and since the religion is virtually nonexistant in the country, there's really no one that's local to be annoyed by the the same dumb, ignorant mistakes repeated over and over again, so no one of significance is going to complain about it.

Recently, though, I've played a couple of RPGs which prove that there's always an exception to the rule: Shin Megami Tensei 1 and 2, for the SNES, of the Megami Tensei series, which, apparently, is a pretty damn large series with a lot of installments (you may be familiar with Persona and Digital Devil Saga games, which are parts of this series). And damn, Atlus knew what it was doing when it made these games. I mean, there're parts of these games that make me wonder if the fine designers at Atlus had some psychic hotline to the ghost of John Milton (author of Paradise Lost, one of the greatest works of fiction (fanfiction, actually) ever created). At the very least, these people were doing their homework.

You play as human characters in each game who must choose one of three paths to follow:

Law, the path which endorses divine righteousness, believing in that which is holy and logical. This path follows the spirit and belief of God (even if it does not necessarily follow God Himself).
Chaos, the path which endorses lawless freedom, believing in emotion and instinct. This path follows the fallen angel Lucifer and promotes equal worship for all the lesser deities that God banished and overthrew (represented by various important theological figures from an impressive range of cultures' beliefs).
Neutral, the path which endorses humanity's self-rights, believing that the human race should be free from the interference of otherworldly beings, particularly God and Lucifer. It can be hard to keep to this alignment in the games, and the general concensus is that this is the "right" path to take, though the games go to great lengths to present each path as no more or less correct than the others, simply only seeming so from a certain point of view.

And as you go along, you come across...well, EVERYTHING. Seriously, if it's a being from myth or religion, you've got a good chance to encounter it in these games. You meet the great angel Michael, God's greatest warrior angel. You resurrect Prince Masakado, famed figure of Japanese legend. You chase Puck around at the behest of King Oberon in order to get some of his Sap of Infidelity, which you need to fix his mischief (which is an awesome little tip of the hat to Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream). You watch as Thor of Norse legends brings his hammer down on all of Tokyo. From unicorns to Jack Frost to harpies to even Beetlejuice, you'll have random encounters with so many mythical beings from across the world that you could give an entire college's Ancient Literature department hard-ons just by showing them the bestiary.

But, interestingly varied as the beings of these games are, the focus is always on a Christian basis that is astoundingly well-designed. They directly refer to the Bible, they've actually got God and Lucifer in there as characters, and the events of the plots draw direct parallels to fundamental aspects of Christianity and some of the greatest works which examine it. Adam and Eve creating a new world for humanity, a holy virgin being the mother of humanity's savior, the Ark which carries the chosen few above the disaster that God unleashes on the sinful, the Paradise Lost-ish idea of Lucifer, in being the entity who defies God, is the protector of humanity's free will...the games are seriously like an insightful, in-depth analysis of the ideals, beauties, and failures of Christian mythology, and indirectly of religion and faith itself. I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever that there will come a time when I'm in a discussion concerning some fundamental nature or aspect of Christianity, and I'll use something in these games to emphasize a point. The ideas and characters and events in these games do suffer a bit from not having a huge amount of dialogue and description, but it's enough to present plenty of food for thought if you sit down and consider it all for a little bit of time, and it's all crafted so well that I find myself over-examining some parts the way you find scholars over-examining great works of literature. You know how sometimes a teacher or professor somebody like that will talk about some tiny detail in a classic novel/poem/play/whatever, and come up with this huge, elaborate explanation for why it's hugely significant, when in reality it seems many times more likely that it's just there without any great purpose or significance? I caught myself doing that for these games already--wondering about the fact that the ultimate defensive equipment for Law-sided characters is called Jesus equipment (Jesus Armor, Jesus Greaves, Jesus Helmet, etc). Is it just called that because it's ultimate Law equipment, so obviously naming it for the son of God Himself is appropriately telling of its strength, or is there a subtle extra meaning to it--did Atlus mean to make a reference to the Christian idea that Jesus is (metaphorically) one's armor against the forces of evil, and so made that idea more literal? Probably not. Probably just coincidental. But the fact that I can wonder if such a small thing could have a subtle meaning really speaks of just how awesome and creatively diligent the writers for these games were in creating Shin Megami Tensei 1 and 2.

I really am truly impressed with these games. I'm going to make it a point to find and play more games in this series, though, from the little research I've done on the series, it seems that the rest of the games are plot-wise unrelated to these ones, and shift focus from Christian foundations to more general stories. Regardless, though, Shin Megami Tensei 1 and 2 are games so intricate and brilliant in their exploration of Christianity that I wouldn't have even expected any such Western-culture-based game of this quality to come from North America or Europe, let alone Japan. Definitely hidden gems, these two.

PS: 2 other points about these games that I just couldn't really relevantly fit into the rest of the rant: A, they have Stephen Hawking in them as a major character, and that is awesome, and B, in Shin Megami Tensei 2, Atlus totally came up with the idea for the Matrix way before the Wachowski brothers did.

Monday, March 12, 2007

General RPGs' Women's Clothing

Yeah, yeah, I know. Not exactly an original topic. People have been pointing out the insanity of Chrono Trigger's Ayla ascending the windy, ice-covered Death Peak mountain in a fur bikini for over 10 years now. I'll do my best to go in a slightly new direction, though.

So, since RPGs came into existance, their characters have worn ridiculous and stupid outfits on their adventures. This is a simple fact of characters of both genders (or, in some cases, neither). I mean, from Link's never-changing Peter Pan cosplay in the Legend of Zelda series to every character Nomura has ever designed, RPG characters wear things that look absurd and are totally impractical about 90% of the time. Go ahead and ask a FF10 cosplayer how long it took just to create a cheap imitation of Lulu's ridiculous belt dress, and then decide how much sense it makes to get and wear clothes like that on a regular basis. It's like every RPG-making company in Japan has some yearly bet going on who can design the character with the weirdest combination of odd clothing mixed with random household crap aimlessly sewn/tied/taped onto it.

With female characters, though, the idiocy of what they wear seems more noticeable. Not necessarily because it looks especially sillier than their male companions' clothes--sure, Legend of Dragoon's Rose's protective armor seems to be made under the assumption that her legs are totally expendable, but on the other hand, her companion Kongol is wearing steel underpants with a huge horned demon face carved into them right over his crotch. No, really.

The true reason Kongol's race is extinct? No mystery there. I'd be fuckin' afraid to copulate with a guy who adorns his junk with a huge steel grinning devil skull if I were a girl, too.

No, the reason that the stupidity of what RPG characters wear seems more apparent for the women is because they invariably are wearing far less than their male companions, even when, often without complaint, they are travelling through frigid, frozen landscapes that Eskimos would wince at.

Now, as I've mentioned before, people have been noting how weird this is for a while. Celes defending Narshe's frozen fields while wearing a swimsuit in FF6, Phantasy Star 4's Rika wearing nearly the same thing exploring an entire ice planet, Tifa climbing up the FF7 equivalent of Mount Everest wearing a white T-shirt and a pair of shorts that would make Lindsey Lohan blush to wear...folks, I live in Massachusetts. I know what cold weather is. I have felt it myself. It is an unpleasant thing. People do not run around when the temperature drops below freezing wearing clothes they might play beach volleyball in. They stop and put on MORE CLOTHES so that they stop chattering and shaking and wishing they were dead because holy frozen fuck it's cold out. And if they don't have the warmer clothes on them (RPG pockets or backpacks or whatever can somehow carry 99 bottles of magical healing potions, but not a spare change of clothes), they turn around, head back to the nearest area of civilization, and purchase some.

But you know, for most games, I forgive them this. No, not because I think it's hot or whatever. I'd only ever make that exception for Breath of Fire 2's Katt, and I don't have to in this case, because I don't think she ever took her totally-not-wearing-pants self through any particularly cold areas. The reason I don't hold the costume nonsense with Celes and Rika and Ayla and so on against the games' creators is that, in many cases, there really wasn't a lot to work with technically. Old games on the SNES and Genesis and further down the evolutionary chain were pretty small, without a lot of space for extra graphics and such. While I think it would certainly have been possible for Square to make a sprite set of Celes wearing a damn coat when she's running around the frigid caves of Narshe, I can concede that back then it would have been a lot of extra work and money to fit in a whole new sprite set for an ultimately trivial purpose.

But come on. This is STILL going on. Nowadays, it's just getting ridiculous. Are you trying to tell me that SquareEnix, the biggest name in the RPG business, cannot find the time, money, and space on a Playstation 2 game to have FF12's Fran change out of her half-armor half-bondage gear outfit into something that at the very least covers more skin than it doesn't when she's traveling through a mountain blizzard? How damn hard could it possibly be for Nippon Ichi to have Phantom Brave's Marona put a jacket on over her little island sundress thing when she's dying of exposure on a fuckin' ice island? I KNOW that the colorful little advanced sprites that make up that game's characters can't be taking up so much room on a PS2 disc that one or two of her wearing some mittens and a scarf are going to push it too far. RPG makers have really gotta stop fretting over what completely unnecessary complications they can add to battle systems that are going to be boring anyway, and start thinking about what little things could make their games make SENSE.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Star Ocean 3's Plot's Worth

As I have mentioned before, Star Ocean 3 is pretty much the first in its series to be blessed with a plot and cast that are not obscenely boring and generally unoriginal. It's not what I'd call a fantastic RPG, but it's solidly good.

A lot of people, however, dislike this game because of the plot's big twist. For those of you unaware of Star Ocean 3's plot and still reading this (shame on you, spoiling yourselves), basically, Fayt (protagonist) and his merry band of heroes must at one point go to the 4th Dimension, where the beings who created their universe (which is ours, just very far in the future--the first in the series was pretty much the boring, badly-done Japanese equivalent to a very long Star Trek Away Mission) reside and threaten their creations in booming voices with all manners of destruction, apocalypse, and so on. When Fayt and company get there, they find a world that is strange, high-tech, but ultimately very similar to their own. They then learn from a passing 4D geek that their entire universe is nothing but a computer program, a game that people here in 4D land play and/or watch when they're bored (which seems to be more often than not).

So there it is. The big plot twist is that our existence is nothing but a higher dimension's MMORPG. Overall, the game could have done a LOT more with exploring the characters' reactions and feelings on this knowledge--you only really get Fayt's perspective on it in any depth, that being "Whatever, we all count and are important anyway! Now let's go save things like a proper bunch of RPG kids, gang! Scooby-dooby-doo!" And the others just sort of follow his lead. But, besides my annoyance that they didn't develop the potential of this idea with their cast, I say kudos to SquareEnix for a pretty interesting idea. I mean, yeah, it's been done before a few times (most notably in The Matrix), but it's still quite innovative.

Generally, though, people really, really dislike it. It seems that the only thing anyone hates about the game is this single aspect of its plot. The complaints I see about it come in 2 varieties.

First off, people don't like this because they think that, were it true, it makes their lives meaningless. Now, I don't know exactly how they reached this conclusion if they actually have played the game. Maybe they just stopped playing once they reached 4D Space, and never picked the controller up again. Because, see, the game goes to great lengths to point out that, yes, everything DOES matter, whether or not it is "real." What's important isn't which universe is real and which isn't, or whether we're all play-things of gods or not. What's important is knowing and protecting what you care about, having faith in your ideals and yourself. If you can think and trust and defend your existence, then it's as genuine as any other's. And the game goes to great lengths to emphasize this--the entire happy ending of the game hinges on the idea that, regardless of its origin or intended purpose, our existence is self-justified and significant. It can't simply be erased by the higher being that created it; in fact, the will and belief of just one young man that his life and the universe in which it exists is true is enough to prove it so. Ultimately, it's a variation of the common Creation Vs. Creator/Man Vs. God/Child Vs. Parent idea that you see in a lot of RPGs (Examples: Okage: Shadow King, Breath of Fire 3, Treasure of the Rudra, Xenogears, and Final Fantasy 12, to a lesser extent). It just has a pretty innovative way of communicating this theme in its Reality = Video Game idea. But make no mistake: that is still just a vehicle for the main theme of promoting human worth. So I really don't understand how people can be complaining about the game telling them that their supposedly artificial lives are worthless, when it goes to great lengths to say just the opposite. Maybe they played the last third of the game with their eyes closed, or something.

Secondly, there are some people who just say it's a dumb idea. The whole universe, just a program? Dumb! Yes, dumb, most certainly. Because a universe which follows concrete laws governing just about all forces, interactions, and reactions of the things within it does not in any way resemble an extremely high-level computer program.

You know what makes a LOT more sense? Believing that one big, all-powerful dude you've never seen and never will made absolutely everything for reasons that are either unknown or which boil down to Him being bored and wanting entertainment. Or heck, why just one deity? You could believe that lots of deities got together and made all creation! They were having a big old creation contest that night on who could construct the best stuff, and they got carried away and ended up creating a whole darned universe in the process. There was probably some booze involved somewhere in the process, too; how else would you account for the duck-billed platypus, or the way camels look? Or hey, here's another one that makes a ton of sense: nothing created the universe! It's just THERE. No real reason for an impossibly huge expanse of great and wonderful things and infinite possibilities. It's just the result of a big explosion--one minute stuff didn't exist, and the next minute it did, and there's no way that it could have been deliberately set up by a higher being because clearly things just randomly explode when they don't exist yet.

My point here is not to perhaps illustrate that I don't know anything beyond the basics of the Big Bang Theory (for all I know, scientists DO have a scientifically-feasible explanation for what exactly was around before the Big Bang happened that would make it possible). It's just to point out that, in the long list of proposed explanations for how everything came to exist, "It's a huge, fantastically complex computer program" is really not nearly as ludicrous or incomplete in terms of pure logic as a lot of the ones the majority of the world accept.

So yeah. I, personally, think that SO3's plot and its clever way of putting a new spin on an old theme is pretty darned neat, and I really don't see what other people's problem with it is. You didn't see geeks getting huffy over The Matrix's similar spin, and that one was a much more depressing possibility.