Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Annual Summary: 2009

Phew! 2009's just about over and done with! Never thought I'd actually be ranting this long; hell, I thought my material would peter out within a year. Of course, I probably would have been RIGHT if I actually kept to a regular rant schedule, instead of updating twice a month or so, but...

Anyway. 2009 was a pretty good year for me with RPGs. I didn't have too many really amazing ones, but I also didn't have many that were actually bad, either, which is the first year in too long where that's been the case--hell, it's been the first year since 2005 in which I didn't play at least 1 game that made it to the list of Worst RPGs ever. And I managed to really keep myself on the ball, unlike last year, and stick to a steady schedule that allowed me to play many more than in 2008. Which were they? Well, in alphabetical order:

Arc the Lad 1
Arc the Lad 2
Arc the Lad 3
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Dragon Age Origins
Eternal Poison
Evolution Worlds
Mother 3
Paper Mario 2
Parasite Eve 1
Pokemon Platinum
Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1
Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4
Valkyrie Profile 1
Valkyrie Profile 2
Vandal Hearts 2

I've still got several sitting on my desk that I would have liked to add to that list, like Legend of Legaia and Dragon Quest 4, but 2 full-time jobs, House M.D., 30 Rock, Glee, Justice League Heroes, Fallout 3's Downloadable Content, the discovery of That Guy With The Glasses's site, and watching the entire run of Law and Order: CI from the first episode on tends to eat your time a little. Not to mention keeping up with the rants here. Those AMV rants I've been doing seem to take 3 times longer than normal ones, too, which doesn't help.

Still and all, a good year. It started well with great games like Mother 3 and Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, and ended just as well with Dragon Age Origins and the Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga series, with plenty of quality games in between. I began catching up on a bunch of legendary RPG classics I missed back in the day, such as Parasite Eve 1 and the first Castlevania RPG, kept plowing through the Shin Megami Tensei series, and found another RPG series to become familiar with, Arc the Lad. Overall, I think I did very well--managed to keep up with some of the recent popular RPGs out there (Dragon Age Origins, Pokemon Platinum), the recent obscure RPGs out there (Mother 3, Eternal Poison), the older classics (Parasite Eve 1, Valkyrie Profile 1), the obscure oldies (Evolution Worlds, Vandal Hearts 2), and of course the obscure-but-popular-at-the-same-time Shin Megami Tensei games. So this year was pretty nicely diverse, RPG-wise, with the exception being that barely any of them were actually bad (which is a lack of variety I'm okay with). In fact, it was so diverse that I really can't do the usual thing here where I mention running themes that arose over the year's course with my gaming, because, well, there weren't really any to speak of. So I guess it's on to the usual bulletin-style finish for this year's summary rant.

RPG Moments of Interest in 2009:
1. Valkyrie Profile 1 (recently rereleased as VP Lenneth on the PSP). This old PS1 RPG is a legend for the genre, and it's one of those rare games like Suikoden 2 that is ridiculously expensive to acquire.

Does it live up to the hype? Is it truly one of the greatest RPGs of all time, old Enix's one and only non-SNES RPG not to suck ass? It's great, to be sure, and quite innovative, but like many cult classics, it's not quite up to the hype its fans worship it with. Still, I was pleased overall, and glad I finally did get around to it after years of being unable to obtain it.

2. After finally obtaining and playing the mystical Valkyrie Profile 1, the game that's eluded my meager budget for years, I played Valkyrie Profile Silmeria, henceforth to always be referred to as Valkyrie Profile 2 here, and watched this prequel completely undo the entirety of VP1's plot and essence. Wow, SquareEnix. Simply wow. You've got what can only be called a legend in your pocket, whose copies are still treated like electronic gold by RPG enthusiasts all over, and what do you do the instant you make a prequel? You whiz your legend right down the leg of your pants and out of existence.

My greatest disgust in this matter is that this isn't even close to the worst ideas and decisions SquareEnix has had and made.

3. Finally experiencing Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. I'm familiar with Castlevania's old action games, but, stupidly enough for a guy calling himself The RPGenius, I'd never delved into its RPG side at all. Now that I've seen its first serious RPG offering, though, the door is open to the rest.

4. Pokemon Platinum: What the HELL, Nintendo? Did I seriously just play a Pokemon game that had a halfway okay plot and an actual--hell, a GOOD--villain? At this time last year, if you had asked me whether I thought it more likely that a standard Pokemon game would have a decent villain and a plot with an occasional strong point, or that the next time I sneezed an octopus would come out my nose while a green hamster wearing a wizard hat materialized in my pocket and said "Bless you!", I would probably have gone with the octopus-magic-hamster sneeze. I'm sure not complaining, though.

5. Watching Leliana's serenade scene in Dragon Age Origins. While DAO almost counts as a moment of interest in itself, being an ultra-hyped offering by supreme game-smiths Bioware, the scene where Leliana sings to the main character is really something else. It comes out of nowhere, which makes it seem odd at first, but it's lovely to listen to once you're in the moment, and the simple scene it shows has an elegant presentation of emotion.

6. Getting romantic options in Dragon Age Origins for a guy-girl, girl-girl, OR guy-GUY relationship. I'll be making a quick rant on this later, but for now, I'll just say a very pleased "It's about time."

Best Sequel/Prequel of 2009:
Winner: Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2
Really, it's hard for me to even consider SMTDDS1 and 2 as separate games. SMTDDS2 builds off the first game completely, continuing the adventure that SMTDDS1 really only began. Everything is connected because it's one flowing story, and SMTDDS2 offering certain rewards and unlocked scenes during its course that depend on your actions in the first game only cements its total feel of continuation.
Runners-Up: Arc the Lad 2, Arc the Lad 3, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Honestly, any other year, any of these games might have won 1st place. Each continues its previous installment excellently--CSotN creates a new story to take place immediately after one of the previous Castlevanias, using characters and references from multiple installments of the series, which helps to pull them all together nicely. Arc the Lad 3 uses the final events of AtL2 to make a story that stars new characters, but includes the old ones. And AtL2 is almost up there with SMTDDS2--it, too, is a continuation of the plot of the first game, which ended on a cliffhanger, using the same characters and world while introducing new characters and new elements to the world. SMTDDS2 just has a slightly better feeling of fluid continuation, and has themes that carry over from one game to the next, while AtL1 and 2 kind of switch horses in the middle about what they want to say. Still, strong contenders as sequels, all.

Biggest Disappointment of 2009:
Loser: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4
After experiencing the monumentally excellent SMT Persona 3 FES last year, and being amazed not only at some of its characters (I do so love Aigis), but also impressed and touched by even its minor side-characters during many of its Social Links, I was all set for SMTP4 to be AWESOME. And it just...wasn't. I'm not saying it's a bad game, now; perish the thought. It's decent enough, and it has a couple moments that are emotionally strong--although, like Suikoden 5, I feel like the most powerful part of the game is the scene you see if you make the WRONG decisions, in this case the Bad Ending. But overall, it just didn't have the heart and soul of the previous game. The party members were more appealing overall, but no one had the shining emotional journey that SMTP3FES's Aigis did, the party didn't develop the same kind of bonds that Yukari and Mitsuru did, and SMTP4's Teddy is just an annoying fucktard from the moment he starts hitting on girls till the end of the game. The Social Links ranged from okay to pretty good, but there was nothing so powerful and gripping in this one as SMTP3FES's Sun Link, and by general comparison I found much more truth and emotion in the people and struggles of SMTP3FES's Social Links than in those of SMTP4's. And while the plot of SMTP3FES was fairly constant and had a scope of importance that you could appreciate, I feel like a lot of the time spent in SMTP4 is just kind of filler. So...pretty good game, but disappointing considering its predecessor.
Almost as Bad: Valkyrie Profile 2
Honestly, only these 2 games disappointed me this year (a couple others weren't that great, but I hadn't expected much from them), which ain't bad, especially when one of them wasn't even bad anyway. I mentioned earlier that I'm not a fan of VP2 basically rewriting canon so that VP1 never occurred, but I'd also like to stress that it still would have been on this list even without that crap. While VP2 isn't a BAD game (when you don't count the finale, I mean), it really lacks the kind of heart and emphasis that VP1 had, and even when the plot does have direction, it's not all that impressive. Decent, perhaps, but not especially noteworthy, and VP1 really was.

Worst RPG of 2009:
Loser: Valkyrie Profile 2
Yeah, pretty much already mentioned this. Just THINKING about this game's ending, which (Spoiler alert) kills off almost every decent character in the game while saying that the far superior VP1's events will never occur, gets me annoyed. What in the world POSSESSES a writing staff to do something like that? It's like a team of master chefs got together and carefully planned out the greatest cake ever created, then spent hours and hours preparing it, making sure all the details were just right...and then the night shift chefs come in, look at the cake, and come to the collective conclusion that this will serve as the prettiest group urinal ever.
Almost as Bad: NA
I'm pleased as punch to say that there really wasn't a single other bad RPG I played this year. Oh, sure, Evolution Worlds is slightly stupid and very generic, and Arc the Lad 1 was pretty simplistic, but they weren't BAD persay. After encountering exactly half of the games on my list of Worst RPGs Ever in the past 3 years, it's really, really nice to have a year off from catastrophes like Grandia 3 or Wild Arms 4.

Most Improved of its Series of 2009:
Winner: Pokemon Platinum
Okay, so, Pokemon Platinum's plot is not exactly stellar, but it DOES have some genuinely neat moments, it does seem to be trying to be coherent and cohesive, the game DOES manage to rekindle the Pokemon interests you left behind a decade ago, and the game DOES have a decent character (Cynthia's totally the best champion ever) and a villain which isn't just acceptable, but actually pretty good--which is an uncommon enough occurrence for a NORMAL RPG. Given how silly, stupid, and utterly pointless the other Pokemon generation games were in the past, the fact that this one has good qualities as an RPG at all rockets it to the top in this category.
Runners-Up: Arc the Lad 2, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Mother 3
Arc the Lad 2 really improves on AtL1 by better developing most of its characters, introducing new ones (several of which are seriously good characters), and improving its storytelling methods. CSotN is also a big step up from its predecessors, putting a significant element of plot into its game and giving both its hero and villain some development, which previous Castlevanias just don't have. And Mother, I thought for sure that it would win this category until I played the Pokemon game. Mother 3 takes the wacky, wonderful, colorful insanity of Earthbound and adds depth and poignant emotion to it, making a quality RPG that really touches the player--even while amusing him/her with its quirky antics. Light and dark, silly and brooding, upbeat and saddening, Mother 3 somehow manages to combine these opposites and give you a fantastic step up from Earthbound.

Most Creative of 2009:
Winner...s: Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1 + 2
Sorry, but I'm going to have to regard these 2 games as 1 for the sake of most lists, because they're really just 2 installments of the same story. The Digital Devil Saga part of the the Shin Megami Tensei series is basically SMT making an incredibly involved, insightful, and creative story meant to involve and examine the essence and beliefs of Hinduism and Buddhism, much as SMT1 + 2 did with Christianity, and the SMT Persona games do with Tarot Cards. Unfortunately, a lot of SMTDDS's brilliance is wasted on me, because I don't understand much more than the basics of Hinduism and Buddhism, but I can nonetheless see the creative genius laced into every aspect of these games' story. These games' events and ideas would be crazily creative even if they weren't at the same time exploring and tying in with the Hindu and Buddhist religions.
Runners-Up: Dragon Age Origins, Parasite Eve 1, Valkyrie Profile 1
I really, REALLY wanted to give top spot to Parasite Eve 1. What a truly cool foray into creative modern science-fiction it is, filled with interesting ideas. VP1's theme is that of a Norse goddess collecting the souls of the dead, both good and evil, to fight as warriors of the gods in the approaching Ragnarok--can't tell me that's not a creative idea for an RPG's basis. And as for Dragon Age Origins, as seems usual for Bioware, the creative effort that went into creating their world's culture and history is extremely impressive, particularly the ideas behind their world's main, like-Christianity-but-significantly-different religion and the ways you can see it influence their society in general. Quite cool.

Stupidest Weapon of 2009:
Loser: Yukiko's Fan (Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4)
My fears last year that there might not be enough material for this category to stick were unfounded. Fans? Seriously? I don't care if they're bladed or whatever, which they aren't always anyway, you can't seriously tell me that a high school girl tossing a flat, flimsy fan at titanic monsters should actually cause any damage to them. Hell, it's really quite unlikely that the damn things would fly straight when thrown several feet to begin with.
Almost as Bad: Chongara's Pot (Arc the Lad 1), Poco's Cymbals (Arc the Lad 1 + 2), Sania's Cards (Arc the Lad 2)
Musical instruments, a deck of cards, and a goddamn pot. Gee, I wonder why none of these characters are good physical attackers.

Best Romance of 2009:
Winner: Leliana and Protagonist (Dragon Age Origins)
Of the four romantic options in Dragon Age Origins, the courtship between the main character and Leliana seems the most genuine to me, and gives me warm and fuzzy feelings more than the others. She's a neat character with more depth than you'd expect, and more of her dialogue in general seems to be aimed at the possible romance you can have with her. Plus, what makes her and Zevran (another of the 4 possible romances) different from Alistair and Morrigan is that Leliana and Zevran can fall in love with the protagonist regardless of the protagonist's gender--and I feel that this works to make the romance seem more valid, in the sense that Leliana and Zevran's general growth in their feelings for the protagonist will always have the potential feeling of love behind them, while with Morrigan and, though admittedly to a much smaller extent, Alistair, their character development doesn't change so much overall save for some small specific bits for the love story. This makes me feel like the development that Alistair and especially Morrigan have that can lead up to romance with a protagonist of opposite gender is less romantically compelling, because it's all more or less the same as it would be if it were leading up to friendship with a same-sex protagonist. Admittedly, once you're actually IN the relationship, Alistair has about as much romantic development as Leliana and more than Zevran, but still, the lead-up to it is largely the same. With Leliana and Zevran, you can pretty much take their growing appreciation for the protagonist as steps toward love because that's what they're always going to be (unless you specifically push the "Let's just be friends" agenda, which, probably due to some bad code, doesn't always halt Leliana's amorous intentions anyway), and of the two of them, I like Leliana's love story far better.
Runners-Up: Ai and Seta (Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4), Alistair and Protagonist (Dragon Age Origins), Lenneth and Lucian (Valkyrie Profile 1)
Kind of a lame year for romance, honestly, even considering that RPG romances are usually generic. I mean, I saw plenty of them, but I only barely had enough to fill this category. At any rate...Ai and Seta's romance is a sweet one that's nonetheless worldly and realistic, which I like, and she's the only romantic option in the whole game for whom the love aspect of her Social Link actually seems to make a difference. I mean, with Ai, the course of her Social Link events change depending on Seta's approach, whether he cares enough about her as a person not to push her and so on--you can mess up early on by paying attention to what you want instead of what Ai as a person needs, and end up just as her friend, missing out on the romance. With all the other romantic Social Links, everything's exactly the same for the first 8 or 9 out of 10 events whether you're going for romance or friendship. It's like what I mentioned above with the Dragon Age Origins romantic options--if the relationship between the characters is going to be mostly the same whether it's friendly or romantic, then I'm not really convinced that there's much of a love story. Ai's really the only option you have that's convincing. Now, while Alistair and the DAO Protagonist's romance DOES have the problem of being largely similar in its beginnings as the normal friendship would be, it DOES really take off once Alistair's genuinely interested and has a lot of development unique to the love and not the friendship angle--development which is, I should note, very sweet and cute. Lenneth and Lucian's love is very convincing and epic, so it deserves mentioning, but the plot demands that it pretty much only be realized and acknowledged at the very end part of the game, so by the point that it's anything more than one-sided, it's sadly very brief.

Best Voice Acting of 2009:
Winner: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4
While not absolutely perfect, as there are a few characters whose voices are a bit annoying to me, SMTP4 overall has a spectacularly talented crew voicing its characters, more so even than SMTP3FES did. Everyone fits their character well, and in nearly all cases the actors do a superb job of enhancing the characters' personalities through effective delivery of lines.
Runners-Up: Dragon Age Origins, Eternal Poison, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1 + 2
DAO also has terrific voice acting all around, and very nearly won this category--hell, Oghren alone would've earned the game a place here. EP is very good overall, and has a few characters whose voice talents are just great (Thage, Olifan, and Dufaston) to listen to. As for SMTDDS1 + 2, everyone's voices are spot-on in that one, and while a few characters' voices are annoying (Sera's standard anime-girl voice makes me sigh, and I'm not too big on Cielo, either), overall the voice acting helps quite a lot to sell the characters to you.

Best Villain of 2009:
Winner: Hikawa (Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne)*
While I didn't see any villains that I could honestly call great this year (unsurprising, given their rarity in general), there were several good ones. I would have to say that the calm, yet sinister vision of a man willing to cause the end of the world for the chance to remake it into one of silent, cold, logical order devoid of the emotion that brings about the worst of human nature is probably the best of what I saw this year. Hikawa is, to be sure, another misguided villain who grasps part of the truth yet not the whole (not realizing that the emotions and chaos he seeks to eradicate are also what give a person any semblance of satisfaction and happiness in life, and ergo are more or less the entire point of existing at all) and carries out diabolical schemes according to this incomplete vision, but he does so with calm flourish, and while his philosophy can be summed up as simply the rest of SMTN's villains' can, it is nonetheless a strong one and worthy of consideration, perhaps even agreement with. He and his ideas could have been fleshed out a LOT more, and deserve to be, but he's still a solidly good villain.
Runners-Up: Cyrus (Pokemon Platinum), Isamu (Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne)*, Loghain (Dragon Age Origins)
I did want to put Eve from Parasite Eve 1 up here, but Loghain just manages to edge her out. And yes, I know--a POKEMON game's villain is one of the tops for this year. As crazy as it seems, though, Cyrus earns his place. It's actually really weird--he's JUST like the villain of the year, Hikawa. He, too, is cold, valuing logic and order over emotion and chaos, things that are simply inexplicable to him, and seeks to use Legendary Pokemon to create a world without spirit. Honestly, if he had his plan explained as well and presented as philosophically as Hikawa's was, Cyrus would have been the best villain of the year instead, because he sells his lack of emotion even better than Hikawa does. I can't believe a POKEMON game villain almost upstaged a Shin Megami Tensei one. Isamu's a good villain, to be sure--you see how and why he comes to his conclusion about how and why the world needs to change, and can understand it to an extent (even though his vision is far more incomplete and fundamentally flawed, not to mention hypocritical, than Hikawa's...although you could say that just makes him a more interesting character and villain). And Loghain from Dragon Age Origins is, like Cyrus, a villain who definitely could have been this year's winner instead of Hikawa--his reasons for his villainy are simple, yet very realistic and understandable, he's a character with depth, and the game gives you an opportunity to learn about him and his motives in reasonable depth. The only problem with Loghain is that most of your understanding of him as a villain only comes when you speak to him after his defeat--which is only an option if you make a plot choice that drives the character Alistair out of your party. Since Alistair is a generally appealing guy and a good character, and having him leave on a sour note kind of has this "Wrong Decision!" feeling to it, not many people are going to have an opportunity to get to know Loghain until subsequent playthroughs of DAO. This means that the average, initial playing of DAO isn't going to have Loghain presented as much more than an "Asshole for the sake of being an Asshole" villain. So he's a good villain, but people aren't going to KNOW he is.

Best Character of 2009:
Winner: Leliana (Dragon Age Origins)
Leliana has both superior depth and a dynamic nature; while almost all of the party members can have differing attitudes toward the main character depending on how he/she acts toward them and in general, Leliana's growth as a character outshines theirs, to me. Her personality is almost fascinating when you consider her inner fears and conflicts about who she was as a Bard, who she was as a Chantry Sister, and who she wants to be, who she thinks she CAN be. Her development is well-executed, deep, and believable, and her personality is likable. Most interestingly, though, is that you can choose what kind of person she ultimately will develop into--you'll see her at a moral crossroads about who she really, truly is, unsure of which life she's led was the one true to herself, and through the main character you can help determine the answer she comes to. And one's not really any more or less "right" than the other--I know which life's personality and joys I think were truly Leliana's, but you can convincingly argue either one. Definitely a good character.
Runners-Up: Alistair (Dragon Age Origins), Gruga (Arc the Lad 2 + 3 (but mostly 2)), Lenneth (Valkyrie Profile 1)
Alistair is a good character with a lot of depth that makes him stand out, which is something given that DAO's has a cast where even the drunk, crude, hilarious joke character has significant complexity if you're watching for it. In addition to his very good character development, he, too, is somewhat dynamic, like Leliana, in that his attitude can change a little bit after the culmination of his personality's progression, depending, as with Leliana, on how he is treated by the protagonist. I really liked Gruga, and felt that his conflicts were not only well-executed, but fairly uncommon and interesting. And Lenneth's growth into her humanity was very convincing and special; if nearly all of it just hadn't been so crammed into the last little segment of the game, she'd probably have topped Leliana.

Best Game of 2009:
Winner...s: Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1 + 2
What can I say? These games are absolutely brilliant. They can give an audience with even just the most rudimentary understanding of the religion of Hindu and Buddhism things to think about and consider on and on for hours, days, weeks. I'll probably be considering these games and their ideas, events, characters, stories, insights, and so on for years to come, finding new insights on both them and the religion they examine all the while. And unlike many great works that are meant to describe ideas, philosophies, and systems of belief to an audience to ponder over, these games have a genuinely interesting, engaging story to go with them. It's not JUST a ton of fascinating concepts to think about bundled up together--it's also a really cool, creative, and gripping adventure, too. Bravo to Atlus on these 2, to be sure.
Runners-Up: Arc the Lad 2, Dragon Age Origins, Mother 3
Dragon Age Origins is great and has great care given to all its aspects, some of which I've mentioned already. Its characters are great, having strong personalities and depth (except for the dog, I guess, but dogs are generally screwed over with character development...the unfortunate inevitable result of having no dialogue options, I suppose), and its plot is simple in premise (bad guys are coming, raise an army to stop them, kill their leader) but is comprised of many complex events, people, and ideas. Arc the Lad 2 is good to a surprising degree, with a strong plot that throws some neat twists here and there, several poignant emotional scenes, quite a few very good characters, a message to convey, and a satisfactory, yet surprising ending--and each one of these good qualities I've mentioned is built off Arc the Lad 1, taken from that nice but lackluster title and evolved into something really cool. And Mother 3? Damn, man, the madcap fun of Earthbound is no longer the entirety of the game, but rather the vehicle for a touching and intriguing plot of love and loss, complex pettiness and simple heroism. I played a lot of good games this year that deserve recognition--hell, in a different year, I'm sure Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, Valkyrie Profile 1, and possibly even Arc the Lad 3 would've made the Best Game list--but these ones are the cream of the crop.

List Changes of 2009:
Greatest RPGs: I've changed the list of Greatest RPGs to include Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1 + 2. It may kind of be cheating, but I basically condensed SMT1 + 2 into a single part of the list (6th place) and put SMTDDS1 + 2 into 7th place. These two sets of games really do both comprise single plot entities, though, and everything that puts each game on the great list is the same for its sequel/predecessor, so I figure it's okay.

And we're done with this year! Good year, it was, to be sure...which probably means 2010 is going to suck all kinds of hard, and the fact that I'm going to start it with a recent SquareEnix game (Valkyrie Profile 3) doesn't reassure me otherwise. Still, I've got an Arc the Lad game to follow it, which should be decent, at least, and Mass Effect 2 does come out this approaching year, so we shall see how things go. Thanks again for reading and especially commenting, all; it's gratifying to know that somebody's listening. See you in 2010!

* Yeah, I know that Isamu, Chiaki, and Hikawa could be considered just characters in SMTN, since you're given the opportunity to side with any of them and thus not have to oppose that one, but I think they're still closer to villains than anything else--no reason a hero can't join a villain in a story, and whatever your choice you'll still have to contend with at LEAST 2 as your foes, possibly all 3.

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