Sunday, December 14, 2008

Annual Summary: 2008

Another year has come and gone, folks. I'm particularly sad about this one leaving, because 8 is totally my favorite number. But that's life. The RPGs I played this year, in alphabetical rather than chronological order, are:

Baroque (PS2)
Fallout 3 (PC)
Golden Sun 1 (GBA)
Golden Sun 2 (GBA)
Mass Effect (PC)
Phantasy Star Universe (PS2)
Pokemon Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald (GBA)
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES (PS2)
Shining Force EXA (PS2)
Suikoden 4 (PS2)
Suikoden Tactics (PS2)
Tales of Legendia (PS2)
Wild Arms 5 (PS2)

You may notice that there are significantly fewer games on that list than there were last year. There are several reasons for this. First of all, I started to work 2 full time jobs back around March, 1 related to the career I want to get into (Teaching) and the other related to the fact that I want to actually be able to pay my bills until someone hires me on as a regular teacher instead of a Substitute one. So that equals a lot of time lost. Another reason is Super Smash Brothers Brawl--those of you who know it and have it don't need an explanation on how that interrupts one's focus on other things. Third reason would be spending a lot of time with my sister, showing her awesome stuff like Wild Arms 3, Tales of Legendia (as a replay), and Futurama, along with her getting me into House M.D., 30 Rock, and, oddly enough, Ouran High School Host Club (so sue me, I can't help but love parodies of stupid fangirls and stupider anime trends). So that's a lot of time gone.

I also re-watched and re-contemplated every episode of Revolutionary Girl Utena, and the movie. This is an RPG-only blog, so I don't often say much at length on animes save the (often annoying) correlations they have with RPGs, but I gotta just make a note here: Man, if anything proves that anime can be an art form, it's RGU; I could make a blog that updates once a week just talking about that show and movie and manage to keep it going for at least 5 years. It's like one of the best classic novels ever written in visual form. So that's more time there, anyways.

And lastly, me compulsively searching every corner, bookshelf, and suspicious pile of rubble in Fallout 3. Damn that game's immense map and explorable nature. Thank heavens I'm not doing a second run of Fallout 3, or I probably wouldn't get a new RPG played until next Spring.

So yeah. Sadly not as much time this year for RPGs.

Still, it was a pretty good year. It didn't start especially auspiciously, with the first game I finished being the coma-inducing Suikoden 4, but things got better when I was happily surprised to find that Phantasy Star Universe didn't suck contrary to what Meteor9 had told me, Shining Force EXA was actually really nice despite being nearly totally unknown and looking like it would be as bland as could be, and Wild Arms 5 not sucking nearly as much as I thought it would. Also, a good friend who goes on Gaia by the name of Cross Knight Byuu recommended Tales of Legendia to me, and much to my (very reluctant) surprise, it turned out to be pretty awesome.* And of course, playing Mass Effect and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES right in the middle made the year shine very favorably for me, RPG-wise (heck, just finding out that they ended up making Mass Effect for the PC instead of keeping it exclusive to the X-Box 360 was like an early Christmas; I nearly bought that stupid system just for that one game). Ending it with Fallout 3, which is pretty darned good, also makes the year feel pretty satisfying.

One unfortunate trend of 2008 for me, though, was the Endings aspect. While Suikoden 4 having a pointless and boring ending was no surprise, given the game, Wild Arms 5's final scenes and ending are so stupid that they would actually make Wild Arms 4 look worse, let alone a WA game that isn't totally horrible. Fallout 3's ending seems to be reversely proportional in detail and length (unless we count the insanely long credits) as the game itself is. And Golden Sun 2's ending doesn't seem to know what the hell it wants to do--it introduces 3 separate problems that sound important during its course, and then almost immediately after makes each one meaningless. Here's how they break down:

1. "Oh no! Alex is unsurprisingly a bad guy! And he could do evil things with the power that we have unwittingly made available to him!"
Alex: I AM ALL POWERFUL!!!! Wait hang on, no I'm not. Well dang.

2. "Oh no! The people near the elemental towers will all be killed by them exploding and such!"
"Oh good, everyone knows to get away from them, so they will probably be okay."

3. "Oh no! My family is not within eyesight, so they must be dead! I'm finally receiving character development because of this! NOOOOOOOOOO WHYYYYYY NOOOO SOB SOB"
"Oh wait, you guys are fine! I just needed to turn my head a little to the right to notice. Silly me!"

I didn't dive into as many unknown game series this year as last time, more just sticking to ones I knew already. Golden Sun was the only totally new one for me--although maybe not in spirit, since GS tends to be pretty standard RPG fare. Still, Phantasy Star Universe, and Shining Force EXA are pretty drastic reinventions of their series, and Fallout 3's fairly different from the previous 2 Fallouts, as well, so it wasn't all just more of the same.

But if I didn't do much venturing out in terms of series, the games I did play this year were often very different themselves. Mass Effect and Fallout 3 both created a new kind of Action RPG, a mix of RPG elements with a First Person Shooter game rather than the roving beat-em-up close-combat kind of game that most Action RPGs, with their swords and other melee weapons, focus on. While Breath of Fire 5's use of player death predates Baroque's by several years, Baroque's way of telling its story is almost as unique as the story itself is. And Tales of Legendia is really odd--it has 2 major stories in it, and the first, which is what the game considers the "Main Quest," leaves many loose ends to be tied up later, isn't half as epic as the second half, isn't as interesting (I didn't even really like the game until the second half began), and almost feels more like a long prologue intended to establish the great characters (which are not the main guy and gal; game's got major Love Hina Syndrome).

Okay, that's it for the real ranting, so as with last year, let's go bulletin-style for the end.

RPG Moments of Interest in 2008:

1. After years of eager waiting by we cult-like Fallout fans, Fallout 3 has finally come out. I've seen largely mixed reception from fans, and fans on both sides of the Good or Bad issue generally seem to have completely ridiculous and illogical biases that they form their opinions from, but hey, the important thing is, Fallout 3 exists. That would be a memorable event even if the game did suck, which it doesn't.
2. Me having to officially say the following: Tales of series, I am sorry. I have often accused you of being uncreative, pointless, dumb, and so full of anime cliches that it makes me physically ill. I said this based on the fact that it is true for Tales of Phantasia and Tales of Symphonia, and dismissed Tales of the Abyss's high quality as a fluke. But now, with Tales of Legendia, half of the Tales of series that I've played has been as interesting and neat as the other half has been crappy and boring. So until I play the next Tales of game and find it to be dull, I have no ground to criticize the series as a whole. I currently apologize for my previous statements.
3. Seeing that the Shin Megami Tensei series can be almost as thorough, inventive, and fascinating in treating other beliefs and mystical cultures as it was with Christianity (see previous rant for details) with SMT Persona 3's working its plot, characters, playing style, and general flow and progression around the Tarot deck. Pretty neat.
4. Fallout 3's Liberty Prime is totally the best robot since Knights of the Old Republic's HK-47.
5. Saving Wild Arms 4's Raquel in Wild Arms 5 (WA5 has all sorts of cameos of previous games' characters) from her debilitating illness. I mean, it's nice that I can finally do it, cuz I seriously love Raquel, but...why the hell couldn't we have seen Raquel cured in the game she was actually a character for? Why the fuck did she have to, in spite of the game practically promising us otherwise, die in her very own game?

Oh, and the process of saving her in WA5 confirms my suspicions that Arnaud, AKA Captain Moron, just didn't try hard enough to do it in WA4. Because, see, the process apparently is Captain Moron sending out a random group of well-meaning, less-than-bright teens to find a magical item to do the job while he sits on his goddamn lazy ass in a restaurant doing nothing. 'She needs him there' my ASS, she needs him OUT THERE finding a CURE for the DISEASE that is GOING TO KILL HER faster than not having him around to administer chicken soup every hour! I tell you, WA4 is so bad it's revolutionary at being crap--you actually can find NEW ways to hate it retroactively by playing OTHER games!

Best Sequel/Prequel of 2008:
Winner: Golden Sun 2
I didn't really think much of Golden Sun 2 (or GS1, for that matter). However, of the real Sequels/Prequels I've played this year, it ties itself to the previous title the best--not only does the story more or less just pick up right where GS1 ended, it also allows the player to transfer his or her data from GS1 to GS2 via link cable or password, allowing the player's game of GS2 to be influenced by some of the sidequests done and decisions made in the first game, along with getting to keep all the cool stuff and hard-earned levels of GS1. That's certainly a strong connection between original and sequel, one which I appreciate.
Runners-Up: Fallout 3, Suikoden Tactics
Fallout 3 and Suikoden Tactics are both fine fare as far as sequels go, each one having direct plot ties to a game/games before them (Fallout 1 and 2, and Suikoden 4, respectively). Still, while fine continuations of their origins' universes, each is just telling a new story with pre-established concepts. There's not a great amount of further exploration of those concepts; they're mostly just launch pads for new stuff. That's fine, but it's not noteworthy.

Biggest Disappointment of 2008:
Loser: Golden Sun 1
Let's be clear: I don't hate GS1 and 2. And I wasn't horribly disappointed by either. They just happen to have had the bad luck to be played during a year where most games I played with low expectations turned out to be good, and the bad games I played I went into with the expectation that they'd suck. Granted, Suikoden 4 sucked way worse than I'd dreamed, but that was simply because of my lack of imagination on how boring a game could be. Golden Sun is the only series of games that I went into thinking they'd be great and came out of without having my expectations met. So...yeah. Sorry, GS1.
Almost As Bad: Golden Sun 2, Suikoden 4
See above explanation.

Worst RPG of 2008:
Loser: Suikoden 4
Yeah, okay, just...see my rant on it. And on Sailing.
Almost As Bad: Wild Arms 5
Whether by luck or simply by how few RPGs I played this year, only 2 of them I count as actually being bad. And really, WA5 isn't really that terrible. Sure, most of the characters are empty and pointless, the plot is kind of dumb most of the time, the main character only becomes tolerable after about 20 hours of gameplay, there are a lot of painfully contrived events, most of the finale is one of the stupidest I've ever seen, and the Monowheel exists, know, on second thought, I was right the first time. This game blows.

Most Improved of its Series of 2008:
Winner: Suikoden Tactics
Being that Suikoden Tactics is a sequel to Suikoden 4 that does NOT rival tranquilizer darts as a means of sedation, it is almost immeasurably improved on its series's previous installment.
Runners-Up: Tales of Legendia, Wild Arms 5
Yes, yes, I know that I said Wild Arms 5 sucks, but just by sucking in a normal way it is a HUGE improvement on Wild Arms 4. And it does have some moments that are kinda nice and good, I guess. Who knows, maybe WA6 will actually be average...or, unlikely though it might seem, good. As for ToL, well, I've mentioned my feelings on it as a part of the Tales of series already. It manages to make anime cliches into really neat characters and themes explored in new ways, while Tales of Symphonia and Tales of Phantasia make anime cliches into...cliches that have been overdone one more time.

Most Creative of 2008:
Winner: Mass Effect
Mass Effect is an incredible sci-fi RPG. It imagines its setting with great and careful detail, going to huge lengths to develop a universe that, in my opinion, has greater potential for science fiction adventures than Star Trek or even Star Wars--if only because they're already doing so much to develop it from the get-go.
Runners-Up: Baroque, Fallout 3, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES
Doubtless several people, one of them tomato-related, are going to contest that Baroque is more creative than Mass Effect. I don't blame them. It was extremely hard to choose one over the other--Baroque just slaps you right in the face with individuality and crazily original ideas. The only real reason I chose Mass Effect over Baroque for sheer creativity is that Mass Effect really, really works for every bit of the stuff it comes up with, making ideas and then detailing them fairly extensively, while Baroque, while awesome, just flings original ideas and themes at you without getting into that extreme level of detail about them, making a lot of the plot's neat ideas somewhat vague. I know that's often what the game intends, but I still better respect the author who creates and then works to detail his ideas rather than the one who creates, tosses the audience the idea, and then immediately wanders off to make another. Oh, and yes, Fallout 3 is very creative in many ways, and SMTP3FES even more so.

Stupidest Weapon of 2008:
Loser: Dean's Ridiculous Sword-Pistol Things (Wild Arms 5)
I don't know if I'll ever have this category again, but really, these things are too stupid not to say something. Aside from looking ridiculous and being totally impractical as weapons (at least with Final Fantasy 8's Squall's stupid Gunblade, the weapon could be held sort of like a real sword--the blades of Dean's pistols come out of the handle going downward. Hell, all you'd have to do is push Dean's arms down a little and his damn blades would get stuck in the ground), they're rarely even used as guns to begin with. Dean will fire at things outside of battle with them, but when an enemy actually attacks, it seems he forgets how to pull a trigger unless it's a Critical Attack. You can't even imagine that he uses the impractical blades because they do more damage like some people theorize about Squall, because his critical hits show his guns going sub-machine gun-style and do huge damage. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Almost As Bad: Grune's Vase (Tales of Legendia), Norma's Bubble Straw (Tales of Legendia), Shirley's Writing Utensils (Tales of Legendia...Again)
No goddamn wonder mages can't attack for shit. Did anyone ever consider giving a magic-user a sword or spear or SOMETHING?

Best Voice Acting of 2008:
Winner: Tales of Legendia
Fantastic voice acting nearly all around; everyone's voice is well-suited for their character, and many of the characters wouldn't be as convincing and endearing without the actors' skill. Moses, Norma, and Grune are especially well-played, and of course, having Cam Clarke in the cast is icing on the cake. ToL isn't perfect--Shirley's voice acting is about half of why she's unbelievably annoying, the other half being everything else there is about her--but it's darned great all the same.
Runners-Up: Mass Effect; Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES; Shining Force EXA
SMTP3FES provides major competition to ToL, frankly, and putting one above the other in terms of voice acting talent might necessarily rely more on personal preference than objective comparison of skill. Mass Effect is done very well, as seems to be the norm for RPGs created on this continent (Fallout 3's also pretty good, and the KotOR series's voice talent is excellent). SFEXA actually surprised me--not only is it actually a pretty good game, but I really, really liked a lot of the voice actors' work in it. Everyone seems very well-chosen for the role, and in many cases, the acting is exceptional. Cyrille, 1 of the 2 protagonists, was particularly surprising in how appealing her voice acting was--she has, more or less, a somewhat average-sounding teen girl voice and speaking manner (I hear multiple girls chatting in class that sound very similar quite often when I sub), yet the dialog and her distinct inflections and delivery really sell the character to me and make her voice memorable.

Best Villain of 2008:
Winner: Sovereign (Mass Effect)
Sovereign's pretty cool--a massive, living machine that serves as a harbinger of doom for the Milky Way galaxy, using an ultimately irresistible mind control over sentient beings to bring about their own downfall in a calculated, ever-repeating cycle of galactic civilizations' destruction. Older possibly than the universe itself, on a level of consciousness unlike that of mortals or even the gods they worship, Sovereign's kind is beyond understanding, beyond reasoning with, and almost beyond resistance. They are simply the end.
Runners-Up: Death (Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES), Schwartz (Tales of Legendia)
As usual, not many villains this year that I'd consider all that good--I've mentioned before that RPGs just don't seem to get all that many good villains. Death was done really well in SMTP3FES, though, I gotta say. And Schwartz's role of world-ender isn't new or different, but she pulls it off with a convincing level of style and seriousness, so kudos to her.

Best Character of 2008:
Winner: Aigis (Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES)
Y'know, Aigis's character type is not especially new--she is more or less another Unemotional Girl Who Doesn't Know Anything About Humanity--But Learns To Understand And Value It.** But Aigis is the second robot lady I've ever seen to pull it off believably, and more than just that, get me emotionally involved in her struggles, really feeling the empathy for her that I'm meant to (Tio from Grandia 2 is the first, and still the best, but darn if Aigis ain't close). Aigis's transformation is lovely to watch, as is her relationship with the main character, which I believe is by far the most touching love story in the game (even though Mitsuru's was nice). Aigis is so great that I'd say she accounts for almost half of what makes the game so damn good.
Runners-Up: Chloe (Tales of Legendia), Will (Tales of Legendia), Wrex (Mass Effect)
Although none of them compete with Aigis for character excellence, each of these three are really great characters with (often quite surprisingly) a lot of depth.

Best Game of 2008:
Winner: Mass Effect
Make some room, Knights of the Old Republic: there's a new Science Fiction RPG franchise in town from the West to shame stuff like Xenosaga and Star Ocean with superior plot, characters, and creativity. Seriously, folks: play this game. Whatever hardware upgrades you make to your computer or price you pay for a 360 are worth it.
Runners-Up: Baroque, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES, Tales of Legendia
While the actual playing experience is repetitive as anything, Baroque's pretty darned cool. And even if the first half is kinda average, Tales of Legendia ends up being a game you love with characters you're guaranteed to remember fondly. As for SMT3FES, well, it seems to have become the Final Fantasy 7 of the SMT series--it has a crapload of hype, it seems like everyone's either played it or has 5 friends who have, and you can't hear its name 3 times without someone describing it as the best RPG ever. So like FF7, I think it's overrated. But also like FF7, I don't think it's overrated by very much. If you haven't already, go get it.

And that's it for this year! On with the RPGs of 2009. Looks to have a promising start; I've got Mother 3, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, and Paper Mario to start with, and I've heard promising things about them all. See all'y'all next year, folks.

* I was reluctant to be pleasantly surprised in this case, because it means that I can no longer count Tales of the Abyss being a fluke in the series for being good. I've said several uncomplimentary things about the Tales of series based mostly on Tales of Phantasia and Tales of Symphonia, but now that half of the Tales of games I've played turned out to be really good, I can't dismiss Namco's little RPG series as unimaginative least, not until I play another of their games and it turns out to be bad. Curse you, CK Byuu!

** I hear there's a fine that Japanese writers have to pay if they write a female robot who DOESN'T fit this archetype.***

*** I wonder what Phantasy Star 4's creators had to pay for Demi.****

**** Because she was so vapid and meaningless a character that even the laziest minimum of Wanting To Be Human characterization would have quadrupled her near-nonexistent personality, Hand Maid May's writers got off the hook with mandated Community Service.*****

***** Which was 3 dozen panty shots per episode.******

****** This will be the last time I abuse these page-bottom note thingies this rant. Promise.*******

******* I lied.


  1. Shining Force EXA was actually by Neverland, the team behind Lufia 1-3. It's probably worth trying out some of their other games if you enjoyed these.

    1. Well, so far I'm not so sure about the company. I enjoyed Shining Force EXA, but Rune Factory is a complete, and LARGE, waste of time with no redeeming writing-related qualities whatsoever. Lufia 2 was great, but Lufia 1 was generic drivel. And even Lufia 2 seems more like a fluke than anything--their remake of it with Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals is so horrible that I don't even think it's right to throw it in the garbage, because I wouldn't want it thinking that it's as high in terms of worth to the universe as the rest of the trash in there. While I probably will continue periodically playing their games, I'm currently quite wary of the Neverland company's works.

    2. I'll agree with you regarding the Rune Factory series, but the original Lufia was just a huge waste of potential. It could have been better if it didn't go through everything it did (more on that below).

      - Lufia 2 was originally meant to be the first game in the series. It was originally called Esteel, and for the PC9801 rather than the SNES.
      -I think Taito decided to fund Neverland and got them to move their games to the SNES (can't find a clear source about this)
      -Neverland began to develop Lufia 2 for the SNES, but Taito demanded a new game to be released, so they decided to rush out Fortress of Doom first rather than finish Rise of the Sinistrals (what kind of logic is that?).

      Neverland definitely had a lot of ideas for it (they dropped things like the Ancient Cave and moved them to Lufia 2, and the games might not tie in as well together with the presence of things like Priphea flowers had the sequel not been made first), but they probably couldn't cram it all in due to time constraints.

      Anyway, regarding Neverland, I agree that most of their localised games aren't special. They have made some unique RPG, like CIMA: The Enemy and Chaos Seed. Energy Breaker isn't quite as unique, but it's a strategy RPG with a story on par with Lufia 2's.

      Anyway, I'm getting preachy here, so I'll let you check out the games and decide whether they're worth playing.

    3. Interesting information. I was always impressed with just how well Lufia 2 tied itself to Lufia 1 in so many small but important details of plot, characters, and lore (in fact, I made a rant about it), how it used them all so well that it actually made Lufia 1 seem retroactively better. It makes so much more sense now--all these thoughtful, well-placed, enjoyable details of the Lufia world found in Lufia 2 actually originated there, and it's Lufia 1 that was taking already established ideas and going forward with them. I almost wish you hadn't told me; it was so much fun to think that Neverland had taken generic and lackluster ideas in Lufia 1 and managed to reverse-engineer them into creative, engaging points of plot and weave them together in such an intuitive way. This takes a little of the magic out of it...although good writing is good writing 1 way or the other, so it doesn't really matter.

      Energy Breaker's on the list of 30-something RPGs I own and haven't gotten to yet, so sooner or later I'll come around to it. As for the others, well, the goal is to play every RPG in existence, impossible though that goal seems, so sooner or later they'll come up, I'm sure.

      Thanks for the information, though, it's interesting stuff.

  2. Lufia 2 was still in development when Lufia 1 was released, so it's possible that the first still influenced the second. For example, the subplot about Jeros being born may not have happened if the developers didn't plan Maxim's descendant as Lufia 1's protagonist (Maxim's blood line would be cut off if they didn't have Jeros and that would cause a plot hole with Maxim dying and all). The side quest about Priphea in Lufia 2 and other things could have been added because of Lufia 1, but this is all conjecture and there isn't much evidence to talk about.

    Out to play every RPG that exists? That explains why you go through bad and mediocre games like 7th Saga and Curse of the Sinistrals (the rant about it gave a few good laughs about some of the more ridiculous changes).

    Do you still play games like Grandia Xtreme where the story is basically thrown out the window and the gameplay is the main focus (since the point of most RPGs are the stories)? The list would probably cut down quite a bit if you skip games like those.

    1. Yeah, all of'em, good or bad. You can't always appreciate the good without knowing just how bad things can be, so it gives me perspective? Maybe?

      Anyway, I haven't played Grandia Xtreme just yet, but I know what you mean by that--Torchlight 1 comes to mind. Well, I do, yes, because even in a game that's supposed to primarily be dungeon-crawling and gameplay, you can still come away with something halfway decent--I think you could say that Baroque qualifies as an example. Not usually a fan of them, though, as you'd expect.