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.