Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Annual Summary: 2010

Well, 2010's come and gone, and I somehow haven't run out of pointless RPG subjects to ramble about. No one's more surprised than me, I assure you.

So. 2010? Good year for me with RPGs. Good, good year. Like 2009, I (amazingly enough) played very few poorly-made RPGs, and like last year, a fair few of them were pretty darned good. I also managed to once again stick to a fairly steady gaming schedule--the Nintendo DS's considerable library of RPGs and its versatility helped with that. It's quite a handy system--its charge lasts at least as long as a retail job's work shift, it fits easily into one's pockets, and it can be immediately shut to automatically pause the game to come back to later, making it easy and quick to conceal from customers and bosses without losing one's place in the game. This allows for lots of extra RPG-playing that I couldn't get done otherwise. Spunky little console could've been made with my needs in mind, for all I know--it certainly meets'em.

So what did I play this year? Well, in alphabetical order:

Arc the Lad 4
Arc the Lad 5
Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia
Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin
Dragon Quest 4
Fallout: New Vegas
Legend of Legaia 1
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
Mana Khemia 1
Mass Effect 2
Planescape: Torment
Riviera: The Promised Land
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey
Suikoden Tierkreis
Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume

Not as many as it could be, but I kept busy on a lot of stuff this year--keeping up with the shows I watch (House, Glee, The IT Crowd, and Futurama fuck yeah I can't believe it's back), watching the insanely goofy 1960s Batman show with my sister from start to finish, re-playing Fallout 2 yet again (more on that below), various add-ons released for Dragon Age 1 (not that I should have bothered), getting into the Doctor Who series and having fanboyish enthusiasm for it hit me HARD, re-playing several RPGs so my other sister could see them (Terranigma, Tales of the Abyss, Mass Effect 2, and currently Wild Arms 2), and oh yeah, still got those 2 full-time jobs going simultaneously. Plus the rants, of course. Damn have I spent a fair number of hours on these things. That SMT Persona rant I did recently alone...

Oh, and internet time-wasting. You know THAT'S gotta figure in my schedule pretty heavily.

But a reasonably productive (sort of) year, all the same. Started off very nicely--I was very pleasantly surprised by Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, Suikoden Tierkreis was not nearly as bad as everyone says--in fact, it's pretty good, as I've mentioned in a rant before. Mass Effect 2 came out early in the year, too, and I probably don't need to tell you that it was pretty awesome. It sadly lacks a lot of the appeal of the original game, trying way too hard to incorporate a darker, more edgy atmosphere into a setting which was already perfect as it was, but it's still great. I futzed around with a couple other dead average RPGs like Mana Khemia 1 and Riviera: The Promised Land for a bit, and then I finally got down to playing the legendary Planescape: Torment, and lemme tell you--it earns every single iota of praise it's ever gotten. Amazing game, maybe the first RPG I've seen outside the Shin Megami Tensei series that I can honestly call brilliant. What a work of interactive art.

Anyway, after that, I kinda hit the doldrums...played quite a few RPGs that were just not very interesting or memorable--the Legend of Zeldas weren't all that interesting, and Legend of Legaia 1 was kind of boring, too, not to mention tedious to play. And Dragon Quest 4 came in at this time, too, which lives up to its pedigree perfectly by having all the substance, flavor, and appeal of saltless crackers made soggy with rain water. Thankfully, though, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey and SMT Devil Survivor ended this dull period as the solid, intelligent games they are. I ended the year with Fallout: New Vegas, which, though lacking much of the greatness that Fallout 3 had, is a good and quite interesting addition to the Fallout series, well worthy of the franchise's respectable name.

So, general summary's done...let's get to the meat of the Annual Summary rant, hm? Let's take a look at what was best and worst this year, and what piqued my interest.

RPG Moments of Interest in 2010
1. Mass Effect 2's suicide mission (the final mission of the game) is pretty kick-ass. From start to finish, it's exciting, memorable, gripping, and just executed very well, which is quite a feat when you consider how many variables there are to it and what will happen--your decisions, actions, and even timing throughout the game up until that point all determine what will happen in ME2's final area, along with the choices you make during the mission itself. Party members can die, your ship can be torn up, you can save hostages, you can make the right or wrong choice on what to do with the technology you find at the core of the enemy base, and even Commander Shepard him/herself isn't guaranteed to survive. Yet even with dozens of different scenarios being possible, it pretty much never feels out of joint, all of these varying possibilities fitting in smoothly with one another no matter how they come about. It's like a big jigsaw puzzle where every piece fits every other piece perfectly, and even though there are dozens of ways to put them together, you'll always get a coherent picture at the end--and that picture will always be AWESOME.

2. Having the option to romance Tali in Mass Effect 2. Let's face it: ME1's Ashley was okay, and Liara was both a decent character and provided a fairly worthwhile love interest, but if players of a male Commander Shepard had been given the option in ME1 to court Tali then, just about all of us would have. She was the most interesting both in her personality and in her species's characteristics and culture, and she's goddamn adorable. I also happen to think that she has a generally better personal chemistry with Shepard than Ashley or Liara--they functioned for it, but they didn't FIT the connection, to me. So having the option to go for Tali saw me pretty quickly dropping my preference for a female Shepard* so that I could hook Shepard and Tali up as should have been possible from the very start. And while I know I'm probably biased given how much I've professed to liking Tali as a character, I have to say, the romance really is very good and touching with these 2. Maybe it's the fact that male Shepard's other options are just unappealing anyway,** but it comes off as very real, emotional, and sweet to me.

3. Mana Khemia 1 has a joke referencing Darkwing Duck. This is awesome. Granted, it's a little thing, and it doesn't actually make much sense, but still, awesome.

4. This year, the fully-realized version of Killap's Fallout 2 Restoration Project was completed and released. Basically, the Fallout 2 Restoration Project is a group of fans (but mostly 1 guy, Killap) bringing the forever excellent Fallout 2 to its full potential. The F2RP fixes all the bugs in the original game, which is good. In addition, it makes the game play smoother, and graphically improves it, which is nice. It also restores and completes all the content in the game that was meant to be included in Fallout 2, but for whatever reason, wasn't in the game--usually because it hadn't been finished or able to be implemented in time for the game's release--which is great. But most amazingly, this project, from what I understand, creates and adds content to the game that was never there at all on the original game disc, but was, rather, ideas that have been said by the Fallout 2 development team to have been ideas they had wanted to incorporate into the game, but never had the chance to. Using his best judgment, Killap provides through his Restoration Project patch a comprehensive makeover to Fallout 2 to make it the product that the developers always wanted it to be. It's not a fan just throwing new things into a game, like most fan-made game patches and mods are, but rather a fan taking up the mantle of the original development team and completing everything they didn't have a chance to. And the end result is great; I would heartily recommend to anyone who's a fan of Fallout 2 to install the Fallout 2 Restoration Project and replay the classic as it was meant to be. You can find it here:

5. So I played Planescape: Torment this year. Finally. And wow. I was stunned by how great this RPG is. Everyone who's ever harassed me to play it was 100% right, and I was a stupid doofus to have waited this long before checking it out. Just absolutely amazing, this game is.

6. Fallout: New Vegas is pretty good, and there's a lot of depth to its story if you're willing to look for it, but overall, it doesn't have the same power and epic quality that Fallout 3 did. But there IS 1 aspect of Fallout: New Vegas which is exceptionally well-done: the Vault 11 area. I won't spoil anything, but man, Vault 11 is one of the best moments of story-telling I've encountered this year--and remember, I played Planescape: Torment this year.

7. I finally came to the decision to just stop financially supporting SquareEnix, a decision that's long overdue, I think. If it weren't for Marvel Comics, I'd say SquareEnix was the most belligerent, shameless, gleefully unrepentant example of customer abuse I'd ever seen in an entertainment-providing company. See the rant before last for details.

Best Prequel/Sequel of 2010:
Winner: Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume
After the disaster that VP2 was, this prequel to VP1 is a welcome sign that there's still good to be found in the series (hell, it's a welcome sign that there's still a competent writer on SquareEnix's payroll). The game is true to the atmosphere of VP1, and it relates very well to the future events of VP1, giving some new perspective to Lenneth's history as a Valkyrie and exploring a different opinion that humans can have of the goddess of death that VP1 failed to really detail. It relates to the original VP1 very well, and further develops VP1's themes, ideas, characters, and setting, even while keeping a strong story of its own--Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume is an exemplary prequel.

Runners-Up: Arc the Lad 4, Fallout: New Vegas, Mass Effect 2
Although the best I can say about Arc the Lad 4 overall is that it's decent enough, it has a strong respect for the past of its world, and references events and characters from Arc the Lad 1, 2, and 3 throughout the game, but never seems as though it's just throwing names around just for effect. The many and varied references to previous installments in the series all have a sense of warm, nostalgic history, past events that you as the gamer remember fondly. Being able to create a sense of nostalgia as well as AtL4 does for its predecessors is, to me, pretty impressive, considering that I shouldn't be capable of feeling nostalgia for a set of games that I played for the first time last year. So props there. Fallout: New Vegas is less a sequel to Fallout 3 than it is to the older Fallout 2, though it contains a few references to Fallout 3's events, but it keeps its place and time in the Fallout universe strongly in mind as it unfolds, and continues to develop the series as a whole, setting up its own story as a part of the overall tale of Fallout. As for Mass Effect 2, well, it's the direct sequel to ME1, starting almost directly after ME1 ends, and I almost feel like I should have given it the winning spot in this category, because it goes to huge lengths to connect itself to ME1 in every major AND minor detail. The decisions Commander Shepard made in ME1 carry over to ME2 along with the major plot details, and the sequel overall carries on the story as seamlessly as Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back did for A New Hope. The only reason I don't put this one at the top is that I feel ME2, absolutely radical though it may be, is a step down in its mood, presentation, and effect from ME1, while Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume was, for its series, a step back to where it was meant to be. VPCotP lives up to its pedigree perfectly, while Mass Effect 2,'s great, it's well worthy of the title Mass Effect, but it just loses a lot of the grand science fiction feel that the first had, trading that atmosphere for a darker, more thrilling one.

Biggest Disappointment of 2010:
Loser: Risen
When I started getting Game Informer regularly late last year as part of Gamestop's customer rewards whatever, I was understandably curious about whether the magazine would be written by the same kind of gamers that Electronic Gaming Monthly had employed, or if it would perhaps have a reviewer or 2 that actually had any taste in RPGs--doubtless you don't remember this far back, but one of my earliest rants was about how utterly moronic EGM was when it came to judging RPGs' worth. Well, Risen was my litmus test for Game Informer--the magazine raved about how amazingly complex Risen was in your ability to influence the game's environs, populace, and plot flow. It sounded pretty rad. What really sold me was the article admitting that it had nothing particularly interesting on a technical standpoint, but asking, "Is that why you play an RPG, though? Or are you in it to explore a story in which you have genuine input over the outcome?" Since this mirrors much of what I say here all the time about putting story elements above game play ones in RPGs, my hopes were set high.

Yeeeeeaaaaahhhh. I've bemoaned high hopes at least once before in these Annual Summary posts, and doubtless this won't be the last recurrence of it. While Risen is not by any means bad, it's not exactly the intricate masterpiece Game Informer paints it to be. Frankly, to be especially impressed by the level of self-determination and the cause-and-effect of your decisions in the game is to have played very few, if any, western-style RPGs for the past 10 years. Fallout, Mass Effect, Planescape: Torment, Dragon Age...they all have at LEAST the level of detail with actions' consequences as Risen has. Again, not a bad RPG, but not nearly what I was expecting from the review I read. I know that's not the fault of the game, but rather of the plague-ridden chimps at Game Informer who write any opinion the rag puts forth about RPGs, so I'm pointing out that Risen is overall fairly good, but nonetheless, I can't pretend my disappointment was not felt keenly.

Almost as Bad: Arc the Lad 5, Dragon Quest 4, Fallout: New Vegas
Arc the Lad 5 isn't particularly bad--save for its FUCKING escort missions--but at the same time, it's really not especially interesting for nearly the entirety of the plot-light game, which is a little disappointing. What's MORE disappointing is that its official game cover suggests that several prominent characters from previous Arc the Lad games will play a significant role somehow in its events--it's got the main characters from Arc the Lads 1, 2, and 4 right there with the actual main characters of this title. That creates pretty high hopes for someone who enjoyed at least some of those previous installments. But as it turns out, they're only there because the game allows some missions, which have basically no relation to the plot whatsoever, to be played with various characters from previous games instead of the main character. This basically means that the only significant influence almost any character besides a few cast members of Arc the Lad 4 has is that you can make your on-screen sprite look like them, and change up your move set very slightly to match theirs, in some missions that don't matter in the slightest. Yay. Fallout: New Vegas ain't bad by a long shot, and there's plenty below its surface for your brain to chew on regarding what it can mirror and expound upon about American culture just as there is in any Fallout, but the plot and its execution, along with many of the characters acting out the story, just don't seem as grand and powerful as Fallout 3 was--nor Fallout 1 and 2, for that matter. It's still a solid, worthwhile game, but the title of Fallout carries such an implication of greatness that anything short of excellent tends to disappoint a bit. As for Dragon Quest 4, well...I'd been told by more than one person that it was good. I didn't entirely believe them, but on the other hand, DQ8 had actually been good, so maybe this one might be okay. Well, to have even the most casual, tiny thought that there might be something even slightly interesting about a Dragon Quest is to invite at least a bit of disappointment.

Worst RPG of 2010:
Loser: Dragon Quest 4
Yeah, big surprise, a Dragon Quest game that has a boring plot in which a cast of inane characters who get 5 minutes of bland characterization before going mute drudge on through to no purpose, all to repetitive, formless tunes that drone you to sleep. Who would have thought. The most this game can offer is to help you age 30 to 40 hours.

Almost as Bad: The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
I guess TLoZPH isn't THAT's just that there's basically nothing there to it. I can at least appreciate certain aspects about The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks--some of Zelda's dialogue is pretty entertaining, seeing the new Hyrule and that it has entirely different magical devices and whatnot is mildly interesting, and the finale's pretty good. Those aren't factors of too great significance, but they're still more than I can say for Phantom Hourglass--there's just nothing there. The plot is about as average and uninteresting as can be imagined, and the characters are extremely generic and not at all memorable. Linebeck is very slightly engaging, I guess, but adds more or less nothing to the game overall, and he's probably the best personality of the lot. But like I said, it's really only mildly bad, and I can't really complain all that much, seeing that out of all the RPGs I played this year, this and DQ4 were the only ones I'd even consider bad.

Most Improved of its Series of 2010:
Winner: Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume
Like I've said, it's just damned good to have the 3rd VP title get the series back on track with its story integrity, character depth, and unique atmosphere.

Runner-Up: Suikoden Tierkreis
In spite of its bad reputation, Suikoden Tierkreis is a pretty good RPG, with a few decent characters, a fairly interesting plot, and a decent bit of creativity to it. And since the last Suikoden game (Suikoden 5) has nearly no impact on the player at all and just leaves you with a vaguely bad aftertaste, I'd say that's an improvement. I also wanted to put Mass Effect 2 on here, because it DOES make some significant improvements to the first game--a great romance option for male Shepard (Tali) and good romance options for female Shepard (Thane and Garrus), male Shepard has suddenly come to excel in his role, and, though gameplay isn't really a factor for me, I must say it's got a much better battle system and level of skill involved in it (I actually have to use some strategy now). It's just that, like I mentioned before, the overall effect of the game is just too edgy and tough...they trade a lot of the bright and entrancing sci-fi grandeur of the 1st Mass Effect for a darker tone to everything in the sequel, and even if it's still a great product, the change is still a bit detrimental. So, it's not a winner. Sorry, ME2.

Most Creative of 2010:
Winner: Planescape: Torment
A journey that's as much internal as it is external, where one man seeks the truths of himself and everything around him, forced to see, experience, and come to understand what torment is, crossing different planes of existence while an immense war between the demons of Order and those of Chaos rages in the background, in order to answer the question, "What can change the nature of a man?" and becoming a force of good, evil, order, chaos, neutrality, or some mix thereof, Planescape: Torment basically takes one of the most creativity-encouraging imagined universes ever created, Dungeons and Dragons, and makes it its bitch as an exploration of the depths of human nature is conducted. Not convinced of its creativity? The game's cast includes a scarred, immortal amnesiac who left messages for himself in the form of tattoos over a year before the movie Memento hit theaters, a chaste succubus who runs a brothel devoted to mental pleasures rather than physical ones, a being that can shape his will into a blade of unrivaled power yet is made weak by his crisis of faith, and a talking, floating skull. This game's insight and emotional power is almost matched by its creativity.

Runners-Up: Mass Effect 2, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume
ME2 further expands the insanely creative universe that ME1 set up, ever finding new and interesting science fiction elements to throw at the player, and once again, the care and enthusiasm the developers have for their creation is apparent in how well thought-out and detailed their explanatory codex entries are. SMTSJ just barely nudges Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor out here, and if SMTDS had had its theological themes and ramifications more strongly explored, it probably would have been the most creative. But an idea's only so good until you develop it, so SMTSJ comes off as more creative--and it certainly is. While the idea of choosing whether to side with God, Lucifer, or humanity as you fight through hoards of beings taken directly out of mythology from all over the world is not exactly new for the SMT series, it's still a creative idea in its own right overall, and the setting and focus of SMT Strange Journey is pretty innovative--it takes place in the near future during a mission to stop a space-time disturbance at the North Pole, and becomes a struggle to determine the fate of society and mankind--not, as in other SMT games, as much a battle ground for the war between Heaven and Hell, though, as much as a conflict born from the conclusion by both sides that humanity has destroyed its planet and itself too powerfully not to need intervention. If other SMT games ask, "Should society be changed according to the will of God or Lucifer?" and show us the pros and cons of each side's beliefs and ideals, then SMTSJ seems to modify that question as, "Shouldn't society be changed according to the will of God or Lucifer?" and show us that either side is better deserving to rule our lifestyle than we ourselves are. Very neat. And as for VPCotP, it takes on the already creative concepts outlined by VP1 of the regretful goddess who takes dying souls to be warriors of the gods, and uses them to go in a whole other, even MORE creative direction, showing the bitterness and resentment the mortals might feel toward the gods for this act. Through the protagonist Wylfred, you can see resigned acceptance for the necessity of the gods' workings, misguided yet perhaps noble moral outrage for the gods' actions, or violent outrage and unrelenting hatred for the gods' apathetic meddling, all depending on how devoted you make Wylfred to his quest. It's interesting no matter which path you take, and along the way you see all kinds of examples of the civilized yet savage human nature that makes up the mortal realm of Valkyrie Profile's world, and how it all reflects on Wylfred's perspective. Very neat and original.

Stupidest Weapon of 2010:
Loser: Bebedora's Stuffed Animal (Arc the Lad 4)
Stuffed toys do not weapons make. This ought to be pretty obvious to any common idiot, but apparently, there are a lot of uncommon idiots working in the game industry. You don't see RPG heroes beating monsters up with pillows or sponges, so why stuffed animals? They're just as soft and yielding an object. I realize it fits her character persona and all, but there are actual, real weapons that would also do that.

Almost as Bad: Diviners (Riviera: The Promised Land), Paulette's Knife on a String (Arc the Lad 4)
Ummm...yeeeeaaaahhh. It's a knife...on a string. That Paulette swings around in circles, then throws at an enemy. This is an amazingly impractical weapon--what velocity it gains from the spinning motion isn't going to significantly enhance its penetration or power when released, the way an iron ball and chain would, because with an iron ball and chain, the momentum from a spinning motion is the only way a human can realistically do damage with the ball--it's too heavy to be effectively thrown. But a knife is light, aerodynamic, and has a piercing edge and shape that makes it ideal for throwing with just a human's strength alone, so the constant momentum Paulette applies to it isn't necessary and won't add much to its potential damage. With the time it would take to master spinning it and whipping it around to the point where she wouldn't be dropping it, sending it flying willy-nilly, or accidentally stabbing and chopping up everything in her immediate vicinity (including herself), she could have mastered a much more effective, deadly, and practical weapon and had time to spare. Hell, it's not even like this weapon couldn't have been used better--throwing knives are effective enough weapons and impractical only because they have limited damage potential and can't immediately be retrieved for repeated use. If Paulette had just been throwing the knife like a regular person, the string would have actually been beneficial, since she could tug it to get her weapon back immediately--but the spinning idiocy she does makes it impractical and silly. Not to mention makes her method of attack take longer to perform than just a simple throw would. As for Diviners, they look like painted tree branches. What about them makes them an effective weapon? I don't recall any in-game explanation for why these weird little nerve-looking things would be a more effective weapon for celestial beings than a sword or something, and they look very silly, so I hope they're not being used for symbolic effect.

Best Finale of 2010:
Winner: Planescape: Torment
I came up with this new category earlier this year, after Mass Effect 2's final mission blew my socks off (even if it, surprisingly enough, got trumped by Planescape: Torment). This measures final boss, final area, and generally last segments of a game's plot, along with its ending (though less significantly; endings are kind of their own entity to me).

(Spoiler Alert--tried to keep it void of significant details, but still, read this at your own risk). Planescape: Torment is an incredible game, as I've mentioned before and will be mentioning again many, many times. Throughout it is a wonderful exploration of much of humanity's condition. The finale, however, which has protagonist The Nameless One confront the greatest moments of his past, both good and terrible, in a silent fortress filled with the shadows of sins he unwittingly committed that culminates in a face-off with The Transcendent One, a being paradoxically a representation of mortality and immortality, where The Nameless One must defeat him using whatever feats of strength or the mind that The Nameless One can conjure up--and considering that The Nameless One has lived for ages beyond measure, experienced countless lives across the planes of existence, performed incredible feats, and destroyed unimaginable foes, seeing him, a potential human god of both power and intellect, bring his forces to bear upon an unbeatable foe is pretty damn awesome. Planescape: Torment's finale is worthy of the game it concludes, and that says quite enough alone.

Runners-Up: Fallout: New Vegas, Mass Effect 2, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor
Fallout: New Vegas's finale is pretty neat, a big battle between the greatest contending forces of the Mojave Wasteland for control of Hoover Dam, a hectic, exhilarating conflict that most of the game's plot has been directly leading to. SMTDS's Final Day is pretty cool, with lots of revelations of the protagonist's significance, some examination of one of the Bible's most infamous individuals, battles against great demons of old, the machinations of a trickster god revealed, and a struggle against the tangible culmination of mankind's knowledge and fact, I feel like most of the real plot of the game is all squeezed in there, and most of the game until that point is slow-paced filler. But even if the game could have been better with the extra time for story and character development that better pacing would have allowed for, the finale's still pretty darned cool on almost all of its paths (Yuzu's path's finale is lame, but then, it's meant to be, it wouldn't be good if it weren't). And finally, Mass Effect 2's finale...damn, man. Any other year, any other year, this'd be Number 1, no question. Fast, exciting, a culmination of all your choices and Shepard's efforts in the game, the Suicide Mission goes as well or poorly as Shepard's preparation, decisions, and timing allows it to, giving the player a greater feeling of involvement in the plot and the satisfaction of knowing you've done well (or the vexation of knowing you suck, and you can't blame the game for it). It is just really cool, and monumentally well-executed in using variables from the entire game before it to determine its outcomes--some RPGs will have this idea of the finale's events being altered by how the player decided to do things during the main game, but to my recollection, none of them are as involved as ME2's is.

Best Romance of 2010:
Winner: Garrus and Shepard (Mass Effect 2)
Believe me when I say that it is painful for me not to put Shepard and Tali up here. But if I force myself to be objective, I have to admit that this romance is honestly better executed. The fact that Garrus and female Shepard have known each other for some time is a nice background, since Garrus's character is established well by ME2. But unlike Tali and male Shepard, that past time together isn't the biggest factor in hooking up--the attraction and decision to act on it is introduced and developed properly with these 2. When Shepard expresses interest in Garrus, he's surprised, the idea that she would having clearly not being something he'd considered--but you get to watch him think about it and come to like the idea, his friendship and respect for Shepard easily forming the foundation for romantic affection once it's given the green light. It's well-done and sweet to see these 2 come to care for each other because you can see how and why it begins, and see that it really works. Garrus's character is portrayed well throughout, too, with his fears of messing up and ruining the whole thing both realistic for anyone in his position, and especially meaningful for him, as a character who's lost a lot of what he wanted in life through mistakes and circumstances for which he's only ever partially responsible, but always blames himself completely. It really is very well-done.

Runners-Up: Liara and Shepard (Mass Effect 2), Shepard and Tali (Mass Effect 2), Shepard and Thane (Mass Effect 2)
It's not that there weren't any other games with romance this year...but ME2 just does it better than all of them, I'm afraid. I would have liked to include Fall-From-Grace and The Nameless One from Planescape: Torment, for example, but as much as I like the pairing and as well as it works overall, the game is not focused on it at all, and you see very little development of it. That's generally how it is with the rest of the games with potential romance that didn't make the list, like Risen, Mana Khemia 1, or Riviera: The Promised Land--nice ideas, perhaps, but ME2 is the only game that really pursues romance ideas in depth. And unfortunately, it has exactly as many good romantic possibilities as there are spots on this list (1 winner and 3 runners-up)--if I did one more runner-up, then some other game would make it on here, since the ME2 romantic options for Jacob, Miranda, Kelly, and Jack ranged from kinda okay (Jack) to totally shitty (Miranda). But ah well.

Anyway. Liara's romance with either-gender Shepard isn't great or anything, but it's still pretty nice and emotional, for the short time that it has any relevance to the plot. It relies a lot on the romance from ME1 to carry its emotional factor through, but that's alright--I'll count previous games' romantic grounds if they were actually formed as romances at that time. Female Shepard and Thane's romance is decent, and has a certain emotional strength in how tragically short-lived it will be. It also does well in showing and developing Thane's character, as Garrus's romance with Shepard did, so that's a plus. And of course, we have male Shepard and Tali. This one is my actual favorite by far. Tali is adorable, sweet, and caring, and the chemistry between her and a Paragon Shepard is excellent. I like the fact that they've known each other for a fair amount of time, too, giving the impression that this isn't some whimsical attraction that will fade, but rather a strong connection formed from a great understanding of each other--although if there's any flaw to this pair, it's that it seems to rely too much on the idea that they were digging each other without saying so in ME1, which (unfortunately) we didn't have much indication of during the original game. Unlike the situation with Garrus, Tali's infatuation, while believable and sweet, is just a given from the start, rather than something that develops on-screen in any way. But that's really a very minor flaw, and easily overcome by how convincing the affection she has for Shepard is. What I really love about this romance, besides just how strong a chemistry and realism their connection has, is that there's a strong element of sacrifice involved with it...basically, a member of Tali's species is put at mortal risk when he or she removes his or her environmental suit due to their extremely weak and finicky immune system, meaning that such activities as sex (in the traditional sense, at least) are dangerous. Shepard knows all about Tali's species thanks to Tali's time in his crew in ME1, so for him to pursue a relationship with her, he's knowingly choosing a partner that he can't regularly make love to in any normal sense, so he must be choosing her because he feels that on an emotional, intellectual, and/or spiritual level, she's worth giving that up for. And of course, Tali takes a huge risk by deciding to make her and Shepard's first time natural, with her removing her suit--she does what she can to lessen the danger, but she's still endangering her life to show how much she loves Shepard. Stupid? Well, yes...but romantically stupid.

Best Voice Acting of 2010:
Winner: Mass Effect 2
Almost the entirety of ME2's cast is superbly voiced. Seth Green as Joker is, as in ME1, delightful, and the voice acting for Tali is great. Male Shepard, as I mentioned before, has a much better showing this time, and Zaeed, Garrus, Thane, Aria, Mordin, Kasumi, and Anderson are all very well done. Almost the entire rest of the cast is, at the very least, decent, as well. The only spot on the record is Miranda's voice acting--the actress clearly thought that a role as an efficient, smart, strictly-business character meant putting less warmth and humanity in her monotone line-reading than you'll find in an automated telemarketer. Hell, EDI and Legion, the 2 artificial intelligences in the game, have far more feeling and skill in their performances, and THEY'RE the ones trying (and succeeding very well) at portraying mostly emotionless machines! But aside from Miranda, the cast of Mass Effect 2 are, as a whole, very well acted, and each voice actor does a great job at communicating the character's personality, emotions, and ideas in each line.

Runners-Up: Fallout: New Vegas, Planescape: Torment, Risen
Fallout: New Vegas has a solid cast, and several characters are notably well-acted--Lily's voice acting is very good, as is Raul's, Yes Man is great, Marcus is as good as he was in Fallout 2, and Veronica's voice acting makes an already likable personality into someone you just can't help but love. It's unfortunate that so many NPC voices are recycled--I feel like anyone not of extreme plot significance in the game is voiced by 1 of maybe 6 actors on the payroll. Still, a solid game for voice acting. Planescape: Torment has limited voice acting, but its cast is terrific. Each actor delivers a great performance, and seems perfectly fitted to the role they play--Rob Paulsen, the guy who played Yakko Warner in Animaniacs, is a natural for the wise-cracking floating skull Morte, Jennifer Hale gives Fall-From-Grace a tone that is both subdued and passionate, perfect for the character, and Keith David as Vhailor...well, Keith David's one of my favorite voice actors ever (possibly THE favorite), and the man who could make you tremble at his talent as you listened to him play Goliath on Gargoyles makes a great fit to Vhailor, the berserk incarnation of unstoppable, unyielding Justice. And that's just to name some of the great cast in this game! If there'd been more instances of it, the voice acting in Planescape: Torment could have challenged Mass Effect 2 for top spot this year. Lastly, we have Risen, which has a decent, if not usually exceptional, voice cast. They deliver the lines well enough, although I rarely found myself particularly impressed (Patty's pretty good at times, though). Still, the atmosphere of Risen somehow makes me think that a solid, competent, yet perhaps not exceptional cast almost is a better fit to the game than anything else would be. I don't know why, but Risen has this oddly quiet and unassuming atmosphere to it, an adventure with epic proportions yet a strange, appealingly humble presentation. At any rate, it's good, to be sure, so it edges out its (admittedly few) other competitors this year.

Best Villain of 2010:
Winner: Wylfred (Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume) (Path B and C Versions)
It's a rarity when an RPG makes its protagonist fit the role of the story's villain--I can really only cite one previous example of this from memory, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 1. Wylfred is even better, though, because if you take him down the 2 paths where he is, indeed, fulfilling the role of a villain (Normal Ending and Bad Ending paths), you watch him evolve into 1 of 2 kinds of solid villains. Either he takes a path where the promises made and actions taken during his emotional moments of resentment for the Valkyrie leads him to a face-off with her that he in some ways regrets but feels inescapably obligated to go through with, willing to make sacrifices to achieve what he misguidedly feels is a necessary goal...or he takes a path where he loses himself to his rage and lust for revenge against the gods for the crimes he perceives them committing against humanity, maddened by a vengeful thirst to make the Valkyrie suffer and die. Either way, you get to watch the path he takes to arrive there, see him suffer or revel in his sins, see his beliefs on his goal's necessity cemented by the events he witnesses in the world. As I've said before, the best villains are usually the ones you spend time with and come to understand intimately, and seeing the progression of Wylfred through the game is another example of this.

Runners-Up: Naoya (Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor), The Transcendent One (Planescape: Torment), Valfred (Suikoden Tierkreis)

Considering how rare a decent villain is in RPGs (or anything else, really), this was a pretty good year for villains. Depending on what path you take during the Final Day in SMTDS, you may be facing off against different individuals, but honestly, since Naoya manipulated most of the game's events in an attempt to get the protagonist to assist and join him for reasons Naoya won't fully divulge but involve multi-layered vengeance on those that previously did wrong by him, I have to say, he's kind of a villain no matter what. In many ways, Naoya's a fairly standard and uninteresting villain--his methods are of a diabolical standard, and it's not like the idea that he's not a nice guy is surprising, given the way he looks--it's like someone at Atlus took Homer Simpson's advice on how to make sure the audience knows someone's a villain via shifty eyes to heart. Still, his hatred for God has ties to a major biblical story, and gives an interesting perspective to one of the Bible's most infamous villains--a perspective which is very intriguing and makes sense, and even provides a certain sympathetic view you can take of him. Good stuff. The Transcendent One is purely awesome--I really can't say anything about him without spoiling a game too excellent to give anything away for, but his ties to the game's protagonist and his ambitions are creative and excellently portrayed, and his presence as a villain is very well-done, established through scenes through the game of his hunting The Nameless One and through the patently superb voice acting of Tony Jay, who played Megabyte in Reboot and Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, along with many other memorable roles. Lastly, Valfred's not especially great, but he's pretty decent all the same--his motivation for creating eternity is pretty good, along with his method of creating said eternity.

Best Character of 2010:
Winner: Mordin (Mass Effect 2)
ME2 has a lot of really good characters, but Mordin stands out head and shoulders above the rest. He's a perfect Renaissance man, a scholar of many sciences, a philosopher, a theologian, a special ops expert, a doctor, and a spy. In him you see a fascinating and extremely well-portrayed balance between the cold, hard, factual world where results and concrete data are everything, and the emotional and spiritual world where morality is greater than data and results mean nothing if you lose the virtues you fight for to get them. He knows the atrocity he's helped perpetuate in the past was necessary for the greater good of all, yet he never stops struggling with the guilt of it, retreating into both science and religion to cope with his actions and the actions of others. Mordin is the perfect mix of contradictions, the perfect master of sciences and the arts, with a powerful enough past that haunts his present that he is, quite frankly, an amazingly deep and powerful character.

Runners-Up: Fall-From-Grace (Planescape: Torment), The Nameless One (Planescape: Torment), Wylfred (Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume)

(A few Planescape: Torment spoilers for Fall-From-Grace here!) Fall-From-Grace is a creative and fascinating character, a succubus who abstains from carnal pleasure and instead cultivates her mind in every way possible, soaking up the experiences of life and pleasing the intellect and spirit at a brothel that she's founded, one which provides for its clients various mistresses of intellectual pleasures such as story-telling, games, and conversation, to name a few. Yet she leads a tortured existence, for this life of Order and Good that she's chosen flies directly against everything in her nature as a demon of Chaos and Evil, and you see times where her emotional barrier breaks and she questions whether she can ever truly be what she seeks to be, or whether it's all a lie she tells herself. Fall-From-Grace is a magnificently creative and intriguing character, and honestly, if the game had focused more time on her development and exploring her psyche, she probably would have beaten Mordin out as the best character of the year. As for The Nameless One and Wylfred...well, without spoiling much for The Nameless One, his journey to connect with his past and discover who he is and was, and why, is extremely creative and just as fascinating, and it's very impressive the way the developers managed to make a character whose general attitude and beliefs are dependent on the player's choices a deep and interesting character no matter what he becomes. As for Wylfred, well, basically, I already said it with the Villain category--no matter what path you take for him, you see him witness events and make choices that ultimately decide on what his final role will be, and what his beliefs and goals will have become. It's well-done no matter what direction you choose, and he's a realistic character from beginning to end.

Best Game of 2010:
Winner: Planescape: Torment
I was speaking to a friend of mine who goes by Cross Knight Byuu (or did; haven't seen them making internet rounds for a while now) soon after playing this game, and speaking of how amazing Planescape: Torment is, and how everyone should play it. My friend then spoke of having heard something to that effect, and wondered if I could describe it a bit, what it was about and what made it so amazing. And y'know...I was stuck then, and I'm stuck now. You really cannot sum up this game. It is too all-inclusively amazing. It has a terrifically creative story overall, and explores with amazing skill so many aspects of humanity, most of which are rarely touched with significant depth in other RPGs, in such a well-realized version of the creative setting of Dungeons and Dragons...that there's really no way to describe what it is that makes this game so intensely great. It's just brilliant in entirety, one of the best games I've ever played. Anyone who denies that video games can be a form of storytelling art clearly hasn't ever played this one.

Runners-Up: Mass Effect 2, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume
I've spoken on VPCotP several times already in this rant, and most of what I've said accounts for what makes it a really, really good RPG--a compelling plot, a malleable but powerfully-developed protagonist, and great storytelling atmosphere and creativity make this a winner. SMTDS is pretty impressively handled, a familiar yet new feel to the ever excellent SMT franchise that has quite a few seriously cool ideas and twists, along with some pretty decent characters. For a Shin Megami Tensei title, it's relatively average--but as a SMT game, that means it's pretty damn good. As for Mass Effect 2, even if I mourn the loss of much of ME1's style and atmosphere with its darker look, ME2 is nonetheless excellent, a great and largely unique science fiction epic whose cool plot is played out by a cast that is by and large a great assortment of characters with depth.

List Changes of 2010:
Greatest RPGs: Given that I've now beaten over 150 RPGs, I've increased the Greatest RPGs list to be 15 places instead of 10. Naturally, several RPGs that hadn't quite made it to the top list before have taken up the newly available spots. You should totally go check it out. In addition, Planescape: Torment has taken 5th place on the list. Also, after studying Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 closely for my rant comparing its Social Links to those of SMTP4, and re-watching several moments of it, I've come to better appreciate its value, and it's now been added to the 8th place on the list.
Greatest Heroes: On further consideration, I moved Zidane to 4th place and Ramza to 5th. I also suspect I'll soon be updating it to have 10 places rather than 5.
Greatest Villains: No changes to date, but I suspect I'll soon be updating it to have 10 places rather than 5.

And that would be it. As always, thanks for another year of listening to me rave and scream about things that maaaaaaybe don't actually matter all that much. It's been fun, and I'll see y'all in 2011.

* Which was a good thing anyway. In a total reverse of ME1, ME2's male Commander Shepard feels much more natural and suited for the role. In ME1, his voice acting made me think of a high school bully more than anything else, and his standard facial model looked the same. While ME2's female Shepard isn't anything less than she was in the first game, the male voice actor seems to have really adjusted himself to the role, and sounds exactly as Shepard should--take-charge, can-do, tough, ready, but NOT necessarily a jerk. The voice can function as a jerk, of course (the game does give the option for Shepard to be a total dick, after all), but I can actually interpret it now as the voice of the kind of uber-human warrior that Shepard is supposed to be. And the updated look and graphical complexity of the game now makes the generic male Shepard look the way the voice sounds--less like some punk and more like a tough, able leader and soldier. ME2's female Shepard...still looks and sounds like a soccer mom. Preferable to a bully, but no longer better than what the male version's become.

** Miranda you can't even CALL a romance--there's really nothing in any of the love interest stuff for her that indicates any connection beyond "hey u have girl parts and i have guy parts lets see what happens when we put them 2gether kk?" Jack's romance is a little better, I guess, but just out of place for Jack as a character--Bioware's obviously trying to give you something believable and emotionally satisfying, but it just doesn't work for Jack. Kelly doesn't even seem to have the emotional attachment that Miranda does to Shepard, nor is there much romantic conversation to go on with her. Liara's just not around in the game for long enough for her to be applicable here--even with the DLC that lets you "continue your relationship," it's a small side-note.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Tales of Series's Skits

The Tales of series has, in several installments, employed a fun little story-telling device known as Skits. Basically, every now and then as you're adventuring through a Tales of game, there'll be little message on the screen indicating that you can watch a Skit. You press whatever button the game uses to activate it, and a small conversation occurs between the characters, using little profile pictures or near-full-body official art to visually accentuate the text and/or voice acting of the scene. These side scenes are almost always optional, and only rarely have any influence on the game play.

I basically just have to give a complete thumbs-up to this system. First of all, the fundamental idea of it is one I highly approve of. Adding dialogue between characters throughout the game cannot help but cement the characters' personalities, keep them relevant and in the mind of the gamer (since there are plenty of occasions in most RPGs where certain characters can get left behind as the plot progresses without them), and provide extra opportunity for character development. Save for the rare occasions when the RPG's writing staff are clearly total incompetents in all aspects of plot and characters and every single thing they add to the game's content only makes it more heinously stupid (think Wild Arms 4, or Final Fantasy 8), adding dialogue, monologue, and/or narration to a game can only benefit it. By adding in these optional conversations, Namco (the series creator) gives us a significant amount of extra content that fleshes out the characters and their relationships with each other--and the fact that it's optional is a good idea for practical aspects, because that way gamers who don't care about such things can skip it altogether and save themselves the time.*

So the idea is good by me. But it bears mentioning that the execution of that good idea is very effective. Several of the Tales of games use the visual aspect for all they're worth. Tales of Legendia uses official game art of each character in the conversation, and changes their expressions and poses to properly match the emotions that the character is expressing, or the actions that they're taking. Tales of the Abyss and Tales of Symphonia do the same thing, only with small profile pictures, with any larger art only occasionally being used. Tales of the Abyss, however, makes more use with the profile pictures than I would have thought possible. The little profile picture box will, during the conversation, move in small ways that are strangely effective for expressing what the character's doing during the talk, and how they're feeling. For instance, during a conversation between, say, the characters Luke and Guy, a third character like Anise might have her profile picture over to the side, and it will begin to slowly move toward the other 2 talking faces in a way that perfectly indicates that Anise is creeping up on them to eavesdrop. Another example would be that if someone in a conversation is yelling about something, their profile picture may pulse a little, expanding a few times as they're hollering. This, when working with the text and facial expression, emphasizes the idea of the character's increased volume and anger/enthusiasm. With a range of very simple movements, Tales of the Abyss emphasizes the characters' actions and feelings to make the Skits seem more realistic and interesting.

The Skits are a great idea that's done very well (at least, in the Tales of games that I've played). I wouldn't say they're beyond the possibility of improvement--Tales of Symphonia and Tales of the Abyss each don't have voice acting for their Skits, which is a nice addition to the Skits in Tales of Legendia, for example, and Tales of Legendia really could have had more of them--and more significant ones, too (ToL's Skits were activated less by plot events, and more by incidental things like certain things having happened in the last battle, or a character equipping a certain item). And the Tales of series aren't the only RPGs out there with a similar system--Final Fantasy 9's Active Time Event system is very similar, and perhaps even better overall. But even if they're not perfect nor completely unique, they're definitely very good and a rare treat, and I really appreciate what they add to the gaming experience.

* Although I have to say that if you don't care for plot or character development and feel like it wastes your time, your decision to play a Tales of title was not well thought-out.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

General RPGs' Minigames 8: The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass's Fishing

Hey, guys. Yeah, I know I did a rant about fishing minigames already. Sorry. In my defense, I didn't anticipate touching the subject again. I thought that one would pretty much cover the entirety of the loathsome fishing minigame experience. I mean, I did mention pretty much every terrible idea for fishing minigames in there that I could think of and had encountered. I figured it'd cover everything.

But, my friends, Nintendo is the most creative game company on Earth. And while this is usually a good also means they can find new forms of torment that none of us could have prepared for.

So here's the deal. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass has a fishing minigame. And in many ways it is just as horrible as any other modern day fishing minigame that my rant outlines. I mean, jeez, the process for reeling the damn catch in is just ridiculous. TLoZPH goes out of its way to use the DS Stylus as creatively as possible, and unfortunately, sometimes it's more trouble than it's worth. Fishing is one of those times, because as annoying as standard fishing minigames' complicated mechanisms are with a controller, they're apparently much worse when you're trying to use a stylus.

There's also the problem of finding the fish worth catching. In order to reap the benefits of doing this stupid minigame at all,* you eventually need to get rare fish, or else you're wasting your time. Unfortunately, this is one of those many minigames where acquiring the rarest target is basically left to the mercy of the game's random number generator to decide when, where, and if it's going to show up.

But you know, this is nothing the other rant wouldn't more or less have covered. I mean, it's annoying as hell, but not unexpected. So what makes TLoZPH worse than usual? Getting to the goddamn fish.

See, in most games, spots to fish at are more or less permanent. You see a little patch of lake/ocean/river/pond/swamp/stream/coast/fjord/well/sewer/spilled soft drink that has a fish swimming around in it or jumping up in the air above it, and you know you can fish there. You can fish there as soon as you see it, you can fish there the next time you come by, you can fish there 30 hours later into the game. Sometimes a location becomes inaccessible because of plot reasons (if your protagonist gets stranded in a different dimension, chances are that you've lost your chance to haul a trout out of Peaceful Swimmers' Lake Beach Resort), but in general, once a fishing location, always a fishing location.

This is not the case in The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. Each time you get onto the world map, the fish have moved to a different place, and if you're interested in wrangling an angler, you'll have to figure out where the damn fish have gotten to and haul your ass over there. This is an inconvenient enough process under normal circumstances, but keep in mind that this is TLoZ: Phantom Hourglass. Which means that going anywhere on the world map involves that intolerable boogeyman of game play infamous to Suikoden 4 and TLoZ: The Wind Waker, Sailing. As in those titles, the further you progress through Phantom Hourglass, the more time you devote to strategies to lessen the duration of your Sailing as much as possible, so this minigame's requirement for more of it is really annoying.

But it's not the worst part.

The worst part is not that you have to go to new locations all the time via the indescribably boring process of Sailing. No. The worst part is not that the fish's that they move constantly. Like, they don't just switch their locations every time you return to the world map. The fish continue to move while you travel to them. Meaning that by the time you get to where they WERE, it's no longer where they ARE. In addition to the frustrating fishing controls, in addition to the irritation of tracking down the right fish for your reward, in addition to the aggravation of having to add more Sailing to the game just to get at the fish each time you want to play the damn addition to all that, you have to CHASE these things down!

Who the fuck is the sadistic MADMAN at Nintendo who came up with this?

* Benefits which, by the way, are not NEARLY worth the trouble--when it comes to Zelda games, I've been a Find Every Heart Container Completionist for almost 20 years, and even I said "Fuck this shit," and gave up on the Heart Container you can get through this minigame.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

General RPG Maker SquareEnix: Why I'm Boycotting its Products

Squaresoft gave us a good run. It wasn't always perfect, not by a long shot--Final Fantasy 5 and Xenogears can certainly evidence that--but there was a stretch of time during the days of the Super Nintendo where Squaresoft was almost unquestionably the best RPG company out there, and it had some good offerings for the Playstation 1 era, and even a few early on for the Playstation 2 time of gaming. I daresay most RPG players grew up on Final Fantasy games, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Super Mario RPG, and other Squaresoft classics. And if you look into emulation, you can discover that there were a lot of really neat, creative titles that Square made during its golden years that never reached these shores, but have been translated by fans, games like Bahamut Lagoon and Live A Live. Squaresoft more often than not made its focus quality, and it worked. But all that has changed.

Enix, of course, always sucked.*

I don't know how much of the fall of Squaresoft can be blamed on their merger with Enix. A lot of people think that was the one and only factor in it. I'm not entirely sure about that, though. From what I understood, the 2 companies were supposedly not going to meddle too strongly in one another's affairs. And Final Fantasy 8, made way before the merger, certainly showed that Squaresoft was not above shameless pandering taking the place of competent craftsmanship. And then Final Fantasy 10-2, also made right before the merger, showed us that not only was Square not above the video game equivalent of prostitution, they were fully willing to revel in it. Giving shallow, stupid fans pretty things to distract them was apparently worth any level of lazy developing, horrible writing, and destruction of their own characters, as long as it made money. So it's not like Squaresoft didn't have it in them to be terrible.

But whether or not the merger can be blamed in entirety, or even at all, for the progression of the company past April of 2003, the fact is that SquareEnix has been worsening with increasing speed since then as a company.

It's not that it hasn't had good titles since then--I quite liked Kingdom Hearts 2 and Chain of Memories, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume was really quite good, and FF Crystal Chronicles 1 wasn't bad. And hey, they actually IMPROVED a few of the series that Enix had--Star Ocean 3 was a decent RPG, as was Dragon Quest 8, which is an amazing achievement for a game in either series. But the quality of the products they make has just generally been decreasing. Final Fantasy 12, for example, was amazing only in that it could manage to have such a confused mess of a plot yet still be very boring and utterly meaningless.

That's not really the reason I'm so furious with the company, though. I don't hold a grudge against a company for substandard games alone; hell, if I did, I would probably be too actively hunting down Media.Vision employees with a shotgun for 80% of the Wild Arms series to write this rant. But it's the WAYS that so many of SquareEnix's new products are bad that gets me irate. I'll forgive incompetence a dozen times before I forgive greed, exploitation, sloth, and apathy.

The first problem is that they are actively destroying their own creations. I mean, look at Valkyrie Profile 2. VP1 is by all accounts a legend of Role Playing Games, up there with Planescape: Torment and Suikoden 2 for how rare and famous it is amongst hardcore RPG enthusiasts. So what do they do for VP2? Not only do they change the focus of the game entirely from the gods to the far less interesting and worthwhile mortals of its Norse Mythology-based world, and make it into a far less interesting tale of world-saving than of (literal and figurative) soul-saving, but they actually remake the time line of the series in the end of VP2 and make it so that VP1 never happened. One of the most famous and well-loved works that the company owns, and one of the only good things to ever come out of Enix, and what does SquareEnix do with it? It pours a gallon of white-out on its ass and presses ham against this treasure. SquareEnix doesn't understand what made VP1 great, and in its fumbling stupidity as it tries to cash in on that greatness, it retroactively destroys it.

As much as I hate having a company take the blunt Cudgel of Incompetence to a previous creation of worth just to make a quick buck, I just as strongly loathe the pandering. As great as Final Fantasy 7 was, and as much good as it may have done for the RPG market overall, there are times when I wish that game had never existed, because in it, Squaresoft discovered 2 things: Sephiroth and The Turks. Sephiroth is a shallow character and a miserable failure as a worthwhile villain, but that doesn't matter, because he's pretty, brooding, showy, teen-heartthrobby, and have-stupidly-long-swordy enough that every fanboy and fangirl on the planet moistens their clothing in several locations at the mere mention of his name. And it doesn't matter how incompetent, lame, cowardly, stupid, and largely superfluous The Turks were in FF7--they looked cool, acted like they didn't care in that cool way, had cool music, and looked just as pretty and showy and teen-heartthrobby as Sephiroth, only in a way that was mildly masculine. And they have nearly the same following as Sephiroth.

So basically, Squaresoft and by extension SquareEnix learned from FF7 that it doesn't matter how little depth or creative ability there is behind a character or group of characters--if you make him/her appeal both visually, and on the most shallow level possible emotionally, to the unthinking masses who never look beyond surface level, you'll have a VERY profitable product there. And it's really starting to show in their products. I liked Kingdom Hearts 2 very much, but if there's one part of it I hate, it's everything having to do with Organization XIII, the spiritual successors to both Sephiroth and The Turks. Half of them are useless to the plot, none of them have any character depth whatsoever, they take violent control of half of the game despite the Disney villains and even the Heartless being far more interesting...basically, every single thing Organization XIII touches is made worse, cheapened and degraded by being associated with and having to cater to these empty husks. Nomura couldn't have made a more accurate term for them than the one he chose--Nobodies. It still is a good game, but it could have been so much better if less--MUCH less--of its time was devoted to pandering this worthless group of pretty-boys. But of course, character integrity is outweighed by marketability, so the next Kingdom Hearts games are focused on Organization XIII and other similar original characters, with the superior Final Fantasy characters and the FAR superior Disney characters, who were supposed to be the foundation of the series, playing second-fiddle. But hey, money above art, right?

Of course, one sees both pandering AND destruction of previous work in the horde of Final Fantasy 7 spin-offs SquareEnix has been pumping out. If averagely bad titles like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2 are turds, then the FF7 franchise is SquareEnix having the squirts. FF7: Advent Children kicked off the irritation with a flashy film that focused on all the male characters that were marketably pretty (Cloud, Sephiroth, Vincent, and the Turks) acting in equally marketable ways (brooding, being sinister and dead, also brooding, and goofing around in that boy-band teen-idol kind of way, respectively), and rather than significantly include the less profitably popular characters who were nonetheless important to the original game's events, SquareEnix brought in 3 MORE pretty boys to serve as the slightly-more-effective-than-Sephiroth-but-still-horribly-lame villains of the movie. Hell, the characters who have been dead for years get more screen time than half of the game's original cast put together. Naturally, this meant that the company was too busy animating bangs, cocky grins, and awkward leather apparel to bother including a plot, or point, to this movie.

"Movie." Right. This product has more in common with pornography than it does with cinema.

In the rare moments that one's brain can function while being force-fed feminine men, ridiculous action scenes involving swords and motorcycles in substitution of an adequately explained and logical story, and Tifa's leather-encased boobs (SquareEnix didn't ENTIRELY forget that there are brainless FF7 fanboys out there who are heterosexual to be pandered to), one might notice that SquareEnix has more or less forgotten who the hell Cloud is. See, Cloud in FF7? He wasn't ALWAYS brooding. He could crack jokes at times, he could keep an upbeat attitude often enough, and he became reasonably friendly with his comrades over the course of the game. Sure, he had plenty of introspection going on in the game, and yeah, a lot of the time he was pretty focused, intense, and unhappy. But that wasn't ALL he ever was, and a fair amount of his character development in the game involves him lightening up a bit and becoming a good leader to his team. In FF7AC, however, Cloud just broods from start to finish. Gone is half his personality, along with the progress he'd made in the game toward accepting Aeris's death and finding reason to keep going with his life. He never cheers up, never really pulls himself together, and he just goes off on his own and ignores anyone else in his life--very different from what the game established him as. Square HAD an eternally brooding asswipe and a perpetually self-doubting dumbass already--their names were Squall Leonhart and Fei Fong Wong. NOT Cloud Strife. They took a genuinely complex and deep character and ruined him.

And Cloud is just the most visible FF7 example; they've really screwed up quite a few things from the original game--Sephiroth's semi-death scene in FF7: Last Order, for example. It puts a very different view on the affair than the game did, with Sephiroth's plunge into the reactor core being of his own doing, rather than Cloud's feat of willpower and strength. In Final Fantasy 7, that scene was, honestly, more ore less amazing to me, seeing Cloud perform a feat of miraculous strength when all hope is lost and defeat Sephiroth by his own evil act. It was seriously awesome. So of course, when they decide to show it again in the anime Last Order, they completely change the purpose of the scene, making Cloud's amazing will and justice a side note to the (ridiculous) idea that Sephiroth is badass and can't be taken down. Then there's the fact that SquareEnix relatively recently stated officially that Sephiroth's got the most powerful will of anyone in the FF7 world...flying completely against what the game originally shows us, which is an obsessive minion of a greater villain (Jenova) who went insane because he read a book that implied that his parentage wasn't perfect. And on and on--the more SquareEnix expands their FF7 setting and characters, the more they destroy their own original canon, canon which was far more satisfying than what they replace it with now.

But getting back to FF7AC, they of course made a lot of money off the whole deal, so more FF7 spin-offs of a similar vein followed, poorly-written games focused on the Turks, Vincent, and Zack. Each one's presentation is cheap and meant to be as appealing on the surface level as possible, while taking no time to provide anything with intellectual substance. And of course, each one's further "exploration" into the setting of FF7 just makes the whole planet and its history more silly and nonsensical.

I hate it when people insult my intelligence by assuming I'll buy whatever looks good rather than whatever actually IS good. And I hate it when people clumsily change something that's already good for the worse for selfish, stupid reasons. So you can see why I haven't been a big fan of SquareEnix for a while.

Compounding my distaste for the way this company conducts itself and creates its products is the issue of Rereleases and Remakes. Now, a lot of people are going to disagree with me on this one, but I really do hate these things, at least when SquareEnix is doing them. I admit, if you go far enough into the founding theory of them, I don't necessarily hate the idea...sometimes acquiring an old game is difficult (although getting easier all the time), and a company releasing it a second time on a newer, more accessible system can be a good thing. I mean, I'd certainly never have experienced the excellent Skies of Arcadia or the incomparable Grandia 2 if not for their rereleases.

My problem, however, is that these rereleases are almost always priced the same as a new game. That's not fair to the consumer, and it's dirty business by the company doing the rerelease. The fact of the matter is, even if you do a substantial remake of a game, you are almost always having to do less work on all fronts than you do for making a new game altogether. You take, say, Final Fantasy 6's remake on the Gameboy Advance. The game's plot and characters are already completely set up. The music's already there. The gameplay elements are already programmed. All that SquareEnix had to do was make it work on a DS, touch up the visual aspects and translation, add in a few extra Espers, items, and spells, and put in 2 bonus dungeons. That's it. That, and the cost of actually getting it to stores. Compared to making a new game from scratch, that isn't a lot of time and effort, and thus money, to spend. It's barely ANYTHING. Yet they were selling the damn thing for a price that you'd pay for a regular new game. Hell, it's STILL over $50 if you look for a new copy on

Know how much a copy of the new remake of Final Fantasy 4 on the DS is? Around 30 bucks. Same with the DS remake of FF1, and the Chrono Trigger DS remake was closer to 40. Now, $30 - $40 is in the range of prices that you pay for a NEW DS, NEW new, developed from scratch, has not been released to the world ever before now. They're charging FULL PRICE for a game that takes HALF the effort to (re)produce. LESS than half! Even if they're redoing the graphics entirely and adding some voices like they did for the recent remake of Final Fantasy 4,** there's still significantly less time and work to put into a remake title. So why isn't the PRICE also significantly less, hm?

Oh, I'll certainly grant you that I like Final Fantasy 4 enough that I'd say it's WORTH spending 35 bucks on, absolutely. But I want to emphasize that this fact is irrelevant. A game's worth is not the determining factor in its price--the cost of developing, producing, packaging, shipping, and marketing it, basically all the stuff actually related to making it, is what should and typically does set a game's price. I didn't pay $500 for a copy of Wild Arms 3, nor did any Gamestop employee or representative of SquareEnix hand me $20 compensation and a formal written apology when I acquired a copy of Grandia 3, so the quality of a game is clearly not meant to be what sets its price.

Regardless of how good or bad the remakes are, the point here is that it's unethical for SquareEnix to charge you the same amount of money for a game they've rereleased with minor changes. They're unfairly inflating the price of a product that they've made much more cheaply than their other similarly-priced products, and hiding behind the fact that most people won't question or mind it because they're used to paying that much for a game. Several consumers know this and don't even care. Well, whether or not anyone minds paying several times more than they should by comparison to similar products and pricing standards, it's still dishonest and immoral, and it pisses me off.

The final huge reason for why I'm swearing off SquareEnix is the Chrono Trigger DS Remake debacle. I did a rant on this a little while ago, and I encourage you to go read that one for the extended explanation, but the short story is, SquareEnix released yet another remake for $40, which is not only the price you could pay for a brand new DS game, but on the HIGH side of standard DS prices. This by itself is exploitative and wrong, as I've mentioned above, but SquareEnix added a special bonus to their consumer-rape this time. Despite the CT remake selling as well in its initial year of release as many, many other RPGs that have been deemed successful (including several made by SquareEnix), the company officially stated that they refused to make a sequel that fans were asking for because of the fact that their full-priced 13-year-old game only sold 800,000 copies. Only. They insisted that they didn't care what people said was wanted, only what their skewed perception of sales charts said. I won't go into further rage-accompanied detail...suffice to say, I've rarely seen a company be so disgustingly open and honest about the fact that they don't give a shit about anything but money, and have no sense of morality, proportion, or shame.

Everything I've said, I feel, more than adequately defends my decision not to support SquareEnix any longer, and my encouragement for anyone and everyone else to boycott them as well. Yet I have to admit, I've come to this decision only recently, with the Chrono Trigger fiasco not being the clincher. I do feel, though, that it SHOULD have been the clincher, that I SHOULD have made this decision then, because SquareEnix's revolting choices as a game developer up to and including that moment more than warranted shunning them. But for me, the last straw was recently, when I found out about the existence of Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals.

I'd planned at the start of this rant to go into detail here about how much I hate Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals. But then I started to really watch a Youtube Let's Play of the game, and I realized that there is no way in hell that I can possibly do this game flaming, painful justice without making an entire separate rant for it--which I certainly will do. But until I do, I'll just have to do a quick sum-up. Basically, Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals is SquareEnix taking a true classic of the SNES era, Lufia 2, and...I don't know if you can even CALL it "remaking" the game. Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals is so heinously inferior to and transformed from its original state that SquareEnix calling it a "remake" is basically an outright lie. SquareEnix has remade Lufia 2 the same way your digestive tract remakes a slice of meat-lover's pizza--the end result does, I guess, share something with the beginning product in some tiny way, so you COULD call it a remake, but if you're sensible, you don't. You just call it shit.

That's really all the game is after SquareEnix is done with it. They change the plot's events, they change the villains, they change the characters, they change the characters' relations to each other, they change the ending, they change the look...they change everything even remotely important about an RPG with this remake, along with plenty of stuff that isn't important. And unfortunately, the changes are universally for the worse--it's painfully clear that the creative team making the changes is not nearly as talented (nor, for that matter, invested) as Lufia 2's original team was, and the end result is the complete loss of the creativity, emotion, intelligence, and subtle beauty of the original game. It's like the perfect combination of everything I said SquareEnix does that's bad in this rant so far:

It's them taking something that's already good and ruining it through incompetence, since the resulting story and characters are inferior to the original.
It's them taking something that's already good and cheapening it by pandering to their audience, changing the way characters look and interact to be more generic and shallowly appealing.
It's a remake. Although I guess this one only sort of counts, since, as I said, this thing's been completely hacked apart.
It's them caring absolutely nothing about the feelings of long-time gaming audiences compared to the allure of a cheap buck, as they completely change something great that people enjoyed into an unrecognizable, halfhearted, sloppy mess.

Lufia 2 was elegant and a high-quality RPG. Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals is a shabby mess that kind of embodies everything wrong with SquareEnix today. Really, there's not much more to say on the matter.

So yeah. There you go. The way I see it, SquareEnix has proven through its games, selling strategies, and even official statements that it just plain holds no respect for its customers and has no qualms about taking advantage of them in any way conceivable for a quick, cheap buck. And the company has proven through these same acts and products that it has little to no pride in its creations or sense of artistic integrity, only a relentless greed. I recognize the vital need for a company to turn a profit, but I refuse to accept that company doing so at the sacrifice of ethics, intellectual dignity, and/or respect for its audience. And so, I am no longer going to support SquareEnix by purchasing any product they profit from. Whether or not any of you want to join me on this is your choice, of course--I'd appreciate the company, but I'm content to stand alone, too. But either way, I'm not going to take it any more.

* Okay, fine, the Soulblazer Trilogy and Valkyrie Profile 1 were good, in varying degrees. But they're single shiny coins in the murky, muck-mired bog ditch of Dragon Quest games, Star Ocean 1 and 2, 7th Saga, Robotrek...the list of mind-numbing time-wasters just goes on and on.

** Features that, of course, were entirely unnecessary to begin with.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

General RPG Lists: Greatest Vehicles

Over the course of an RPG, the main characters are going to be using at least 2 forms of transportation besides their legs and magic. Whether by land, air, sea, underwater, or space, there are a LOT of options out there in RPGs for machines and animals to get you from one place to another. Sometimes these are stylish. Most often they are definitely not. But today we ask ourselves: out of all the RPGs out there, which rides are the slickest, the sickest, the quickest, the ass-kickest to get you from Point A to Point B in the most awesome way possible?

The answer sheet is below.

(Note: This list assumes the final and/or best upgraded version of all vehicles it lists).

10. Mech Suits (General RPGs)

Yeah, okay, let's face it: anime's got the right idea. Giant battle robots that you pilot are pretty kickass. The Sun Giant in Dark Cloud 1, Buriki Daioh in Live A Live, and pretty much every Mech in Xenogears all kick a lot of ass and look awesome doing it. After all, if you're going to go somewhere, why not do it in a giant robot armed to the teeth with missiles, beam cannons, fists, and whatnot? The only reason Mech Suits don't rate higher on this list is the sad fact that there ARE a few RPG Mechs that actually kind of suck, such as Asgard from Wild Arms 5, which is a pain in the ass to get around in, and has some Generic Giant Mech Action Battles!!!!! that are just trying way, way too hard. But in general, Mech Suits kick butt.

9. Pegasus (General RPGs)

Alright, really, what besides a unicorn is a more elegant, majestic mode of single-person transportation than a Pegasus? Nothing says class like gliding across the air on a winged steed.

8. The Ragnarok (Final Fantasy 8)

The act of saying something positive about FF8 pains me, but even I have to admit that the Ragnarok is a pretty cool ride. A air-to-space vessel with lasers and machine guns, made to resemble a red dragon, complete with grasping claws? Functional, deadly, AND stylish. I may be able to count the aspects of FF8 that didn't suck on 1 hand and have fingers left over, but the Ragnarok's definitely 1 of those used digits--a big thumbs-up.

7. The M-44 Hammerhead (Mass Effect 2)

A smooth-controlling hovercraft that glides along the ground, can blast itself up and over obstacles and fly several dozen feet above the ground for a short time, capable of scanning for and obtaining any objects of interest, armed with an inexhaustible supply of missiles that punch through obstructions and enemies alike. This thing slides along the ground like a dream and kicks ass while doing so.

6. The Sandcraft (Wild Arms 3)

Okay, big transports for crossing endless seas of sand are a pretty common thing in science fiction, and RPGs have adopted a few. But Wild Arms 3's Sandcraft is more than just a way to avoid getting sand in your sock. The Sandcraft is a huge, insanely powerful (once customized) tank that can and will obliterate absolutely anything stupid enough to be in its way. Armed with a big cannon and a huge harpoon, and capable of doing massive amounts of damage to any enemy within eyesight, the Sandcraft is just fucking COOL.

5. The Excerion (Lufia 2)

As RPG ships go, the Excerion doesn't look like much. It also doesn't sport any combat abilities. But man, if you need to get anywhere other than outer space, this ship will get you there. Not only is it a seafaring vessel, but it can also, whenever you like, become an airship. That by itself is pretty handily functional, but the thing also can turn into a submarine and go underwater! That, my friends, is a multi-purpose vehicle.

"But Arpy!" you say, in my whimsical imagination where blog-readers talk out loud to their computer screens. "The ship from Final Fantasy 5 does that, too! Surely you should give this spot to both of them."

Well, yes, the FF5 ship also does that. But the Excerion has one more handy function that puts it above FF5's transport. In the event that the Excerion's big balloon is shot in mid-flight, the ship converts to a giant hang-glider, letting it safely ride the air currents down to the ground instead of being completely destroyed in a crash. Considering how often RPG vehicles are in combat situations, that really is a great contingency to have on a ship that relies on a balloon to keep it in the air. Multi-purpose, AND (presumably) safer than your average RPG airship.

4. Lombardia (Wild Arms 3)

Lombardia is a flying dragon cyborg that can shoot missiles and energy blasts. What more is there to say?

3. The Normandy SR-2 (Mass Effect 2 + 3)

The Normandy is a state-of-the-art spacecraft that can fly in all manners of nasty, otherworldly atmospheres, is armed to the teeth with the exceptionally deadly firepower of the Mass Effect universe, looks awesome, has great armor and shields, and has a stealth feature that makes it completely untraceable to all known forms of sensors and monitoring systems. It's big enough that a full crew of RPG characters can comfortably fit in for long voyages, it can scan planets for helpful resources, it has a fully-equipped kitchen, science lab, medical bay, and armory, a friendly and insanely advanced AI system to help everything run smoothly, and a cargo bay for holding the M-44 Hammerhead I mentioned earlier, as well as a handy transport shuttle. This ship is 100% awesome.

2. The Epoch (Chrono Trigger)

The Epoch is a sleek, small flying machine with some impressive laser weaponry, which is all pretty cool. More importantly, though, it is also a time machine. Any vehicle that can travel through time is already a handy enough ride to warrant consideration for the list, and how often do you come across a time machine as classy and cool-looking as this one, that can also take you to different PLACES in the time you've chosen? The Epoch takes you wherever and whenever you need to go in style.

1. The Delphinus (Skies of Arcadia Legends)

Oh YEAH. Forget riding the skies--this is how you rule them. Cannons, missiles, magic, lasers, the Delphinus is a huge, unstoppable battleship of the air. Flying this thing and taking it into battle makes you feel INVINCIBLE. The Delphinus is pure and utter win in a hull.

Honorable Mention: Pokemon (Pokemon Series)

Trainers can ride their Pokemon through the waves and across the sky, which is darned handy, and pretty cool. I mean, how awesome is it to imagine your trainer tearing across the sky on a huge Aerodactyl, or the burning Moltres? How stylish would it be to part the waves atop an elegant Dragonair, or clinging to a stylish Vaporeon? Very cool.

Of course, the reason why Pokemon don't make the actual list is the same reason that they'd be considered for it--you're using Pokemon for a ride. And yes, this is awesome in some cases, like the ones I mentioned above. On the other hand, it has equal potential to be ridiculous and lame. How awkward would it be to be clumsily pulled along through the water by a Psyduck? Trying to ride or hold onto a Qwilfish as it swims would just be painful. Grasping for dear life to a tiny, scruffy Spearow while it struggles to drag you across the sky isn't exactly a majestic image. So, I credit Pokemon with a mention for having potential for some really cool riding buddies...but I also deny it a real list spot for having equal potential for stupid vehicular choices, too.

And that's that, another list down. Tune in next time, when I go back to making rants with substance!


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dragon Age 1's Add-Ons

So, I did a rant on the various DLCs for Fallout 3, and at the end of it, I wondered how DLC would affect other PC RPGs in the future, and whether companies could be as responsible with it as Bethesda had been with Fallout 3, saying that the then-upcoming Dragon Age would provide a good litmus test. Well, the results are in.

(Take note that I don't really pay attention to little DLC things, like individual items or the Feastday gift/prank items. I'm only really interested in the substantial add-on packages that add quests and locations and such to the game).

The Stone Prisoner: This DLC came free along with the game, so I can't argue the price. A pretty good add-on, too. It added a new, pretty nifty character, Shale the Golem, to the party, and provided not only a small new area and set of mini-quests to obtain Shale, but also another small area and mini-quest later on related to Shale's past. All in all, this was good--Shale is interesting and fun, not to mention integrated well into the main plot, and the side-quests are engaging and have some neat story to them. Definitely a good addition.

Warden's Keep: Y'know, it's funny. Warden's Keep was available for download more or less immediately after DAO's release for $5. Now, that's a pretty small amount of cash, but it's a pretty small extra quest that you get for it. I think it would have made more sense to make Warden's Keep the free DLC with new purchases, and have The Stone Prisoner be the add-on you buy, because with the Stone Prisoner, you get 2 small quest areas instead of 1, and the addition of Shale involves several extra dialogue options and a new character throughout the game. That, to me, would have been worth paying for more than Warden's Keep. Regardless, Warden's Keep provides a new side-quest in a medium-sized new area that fleshes out the history of the Grey Wardens in Ferelden a little. It's fairly informative and interesting. So, good overall.

Return to Ostagar: This is where things kind of fall apart. See, it's like this. Return to Ostagar was originally announced in November 2009 with a release date of "the holiday season." Then, during the holiday season, it didn't come out due to technical issues, and was delayed until early January. Then it was delayed again for a couple weeks due to bugs. Then, when they released it mid-January, it caused all kind of technical difficulties and was recalled and delayed once more. It finally came out at the very end of January.

You know what it was that gamers got after the add-on was 2 months late? About an hour and a half, maybe 2 hours of gameplay with barely any story elements whatsoever. It was basically $5 for the privilege of 2 hours of battling enemies and getting a few new items. THAT'S what took 2 months to make work.

Here's some food for thought. Fallout 3's Downloadable Content packages cost 15 bucks each, and added, on average, about 7 hours of gameplay for me (probably a little less for the average player, I suppose, because I'm given to scavenging for every little thing). Over half of them made for much more time added than that; I probably spent 10 hours playing through the Point Lookout DLC alone. The delays for Fallout 3's DLC add-ons were measured in days, to my recollection. The areas they added were all very large, and I can only assume, with my limited knowledge of programming, that locations, events, and individuals in Fallout 3 must be harder to properly program than in Dragon Age Origins, simply because there's more detail to the world in general and more that can be done within it. So Bethesda charged, if you average it all out, less for a bigger add-on with more to do in it that added more game time that probably involved more work to program, and managed to do so more or less on time.

Even without having Fallout 3's DLCs up for comparison, Return to Ostagar's pretty bland and doesn't add enough to the game to make it worth even a measly 5 dollars. And with the Fallout 3 example to compare's quite frankly something Bioware should feel embarrassed about.

Awakening: Awakening isn't technically a DLC, as you buy it in a store and install it from a disc, but what the hell, I'll count expansions. Awakening isn't bad. The new adventure is moderately good, although I wound up feeling like the main character is a secondary player in Awakening's events. It seems like everything about the plot that would have been really interesting, creative, and notable is all happening just above the protagonist's head, and as a result, you never get to see most of the important parts of the damn plot. The new characters are generally okay, but no one save Oghren has the kind of depth that most of the characters did in the main Dragon Age Origins quest--and Oghren's a returning comedy relief character from there, so he only sort of counts. In fact, only half of them have depth at all, now that I'm really considering it. I take it back; the new cast can't be called "generally okay" if only half of them have any depth worth mentioning, and if that character depth isn't all that great.

And I once again have to look at the ratio of cost to game play here. When it was released, Awakening cost about, what, 40 bucks? That's just about the price for a new RPG. I didn't get 40 dollars' worth of content. From start to finish, with me doing and getting just about every damn thing in the expansion, I played Awakening for a few minutes less than 19. People are saying that Awakening takes about 25 hours to complete, so I dunno what THEY were doing that took them so long, but for me, the complete experience came to 18 hours and 51 minutes--and again, I was pretty thorough. To draw once again on Fallout 3 as an example, the Broken Steel DLC package for Fallout 3 extended the game past its ending to include several new quests, areas, and stuff to do while continuing the story line, not to mention optional small sidequests. I spent, oh, say maybe 10 hours playing that one. You know how much it cost? $15, like all the other Fallout 3 DLCs. 15 bucks for 10 hours of game play that extends the plot in a cool and engaging way as opposed to 40 bucks for 19 hours that creates a new but rather mediocre adventure? I didn't need the comparison to Fallout 3 to know this, but putting it out there helps cement this simple fact: Dragon Age Origins's Awakening expansion is a rip-off. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

Darkspawn Chronicles: Back to regular DLC packages with this one. I feel like Bioware was honestly trying with this one, coming up with a decent idea for this one: play through an alternate universe version of the final battle, in a reality where the main character never existed...and for that matter, play through as one of the bad guys. Sounds good, right? Well, it would be, in a lot of RPGs. Unfortunately, Bioware forgot one important detail: the main bad guys of Dragon Age Origins are Darkspawn.

Here's the deal. I love it when I get to play as the villain for a while and see things from their perspective in an RPG. The majority of characters on my list of the best RPG villains ever fit this--Fou-Lu (Breath of Fire 4) and Orsted (Live-A-Live) you directly control as they form the conclusions that bring them to their roles as villains, and Darth Traya (Knights of the Old Republic 2) is in your party for most of the game. The more time you, the player, spend with a villain, the better chance the villain has of being developed into a deep and excellent bad guy.

The problem in this instance is that the villain you're spending time with in this DLC is a Darkspawn. A Darkspawn commander, yes, but a Darkspawn. Darkspawn, for those unfamiliar with DAO (although I don't know why you'd have read this far if that's the case), are...basically, zombie orcs, I would describe them as. Take the orcs from The Lord of the Rings, take away their ability to speak or perform any complex reasoning, make it so that hanging around them for too long can kill you and/or make you into one, make'em look ever so slightly zombie-ish, and you have a Darkspawn.

So you're not really controlling a proper villain, or even a bad guy with the power of speech. You're just controlling a semi-mindless goon, with the only dialogue in the entire add-on being your boss's psychic commands, which are short, to the point, and not terribly interesting. And as for the whole alternate-reality-where-the-main-character-didn't-exist thing, all the information on it that you get are brief entries in your journal that provide tidbits about the game's events and how they were different. Yay.

I realize that it wouldn't be realistic to have a bunch of Darkspawn have deep, involved characters, given what the Darkspawn are supposed to be. But accepting that there's no way to make the idea work in a meaningful and compelling way doesn't excuse it; it just means that they should have dropped it and moved on to another idea that they COULD make worthwhile. Sometimes an idea just can't work. And this is an example of that. All you're paying for are a few extra battles under slightly different circumstances than usual. There's nothing of substance here. This DLC isn't worth the cost. Hell, even if it were free, it wouldn't be worth your time.

Leliana's Song: After the the Darkspawn Chronicles DLC, it's a relief to see that Bioware CAN make a side-story DLC that actually incorporates a plot. While I wouldn't call it amazing, and I think many aspects of the conflict in Leliana's past shown in this DLC deserved more attention than they got (I would have liked to see more involvement of the Chantry with Leliana, seen a little more evidence of its eventual importance in her life...and I wish we had seen more of Marjolaine's perception and paranoia of Leliana's similarities to herself), this one's definitely a solid DLC package. It gives a glimpse into the past of my favorite character in the game, developing her a little further, and also provides a few tidbits of interest about Dragon Age's world's history and politics.

Golems of Amgarrak: Aaaaand after our brief dalliance with some quality, we're back to unimpressive, rather pointless DLCs. Sigh. There's nothing especially wrong with Golems of Amgarrak, but there's certainly nothing noteworthy about it. The self-contained plot is underdeveloped and frankly cliche as hell ("Yes, you had to give up on what you thought you wanted...but you've learned that family is the most important thing of all!"), not to mention seems largely irrelevant to anything else related to Dragon Age's world and events, and the characters are a perfect match to the plot--underdeveloped and bland.

Witch Hunt: So...let me get this straight. You've got a post-game DLC where they bring back one party member from the game proper to join you, and it's the Mabari Hound...and they once AGAIN spend no effort to make him anything more than a drooling, peeing lummox, repeating a mistake they made for 50 hours or so already for another 2 or 3 extra. You've got a post-game DLC where the 2 new characters actually seem to have some mild potential to be interesting characters...and the DLC is too short to flesh them out properly, so they're quirky, incidental personalities at the very most. You've got a post-game DLC whose official description indicates that it's there to answer why Morrigan left at the end of the main Dragon Age 1 game's events, and, to quote the official Bioware site for this DLC, "tie up this last loose end once and for all," finding out what her intentions were and what she plans to do now and so on...and you get a 2-to-3-hour-long investigation that concludes with a 5-minute talk with Morrigan that tells you nothing you didn't already know, answers no questions at all, and only poses new ones. Seriously, Morrigan basically says, "Hey sup. I know you tracked me down to find out about the baby and all, but it's, like, super magic special and stuff, my evil mom's not dead and is evil, I'm leaving you guys behind--for REALZ this time, dawg--and you can't follow me, and basically there are a bunch of mystical magical divine mumbo-jumbo Dungeons and Dragons things at work that I can't tell you about at all. So basically, everything I already said the last time I saw you, just with a little extra flourish. Kthx bye."

There are basically 2 ways I can respond to this DLC. I am going to be very charitable, and conclude that this was a case of incompetence. They wanted to make suspenseful, interesting implications about things that will (maybe) come up in later games, and they just couldn't figure out a way to do that while properly answering our questions and revealing plot points to us. They planned poorly, and didn't have the writing talent to pull off what they'd intended without giving either too much or too little.

The other way I could respond to this DLC is to imagine it as the result not of incompetence, but of dishonest, abusive greed, a disingenuous case of them dangling an alluring carrot in front of their fans' noses, with no intention of giving it to them, only of lightening the fans' wallets to the tune of 7 bucks each. As I said, I'm going to be charitable and assume that this is a case of incompetence rather than despicable exploitation...for now. But as I play and pay for more and more add-ons from Bioware, it gets harder and harder to see their business practices and development decisions as having any more integrity than those of the Patron Saint of crooked, dishonest RPG companies, SquareEnix.

And that's that--according to Bioware, Witch Hunt was the last additional content Bioware for Dragon Age 1. So, back to the progenitor of this rant--after Fallout 3's brief but periodic add-ons, how does Dragon Age hold up?

Not very well. Not very damn well, at all. The first 2 packages were good, and I enjoyed Leliana's Song, but the rest of it? A sad collection of drivel, is all it is. We get packages that are:

Boring and Insignificant (Golems of Amgarrak)
100% Irrelevant (Darkspawn Chronicles)
A Huge Rip-Off (Awakening)
Outright Stupid (Witch Hunt)
So Late and Lacking That it's Shameful (Return to Ostagar)

And most of these crappy add-ons can apply to more than one category, too.

So what's the verdict? Well, when I left my Fallout 3 DLC rant, I was optimistic about how Bioware would handle Add-Ons, but wary that they might not use them responsibly. In the end, I was obviously right to be wary--there just seems to be a lack of competence here on the part of the writers AND, at times, the programmers that really hurts DA1's offerings of Add-Ons. And there are times, which I've mentioned, where these packages of extra content are such bad deals (especially when compared to Fallout 3's) that it looks suspiciously like exploitative, undignified business practices. Still, I'm not entirely angry or disappointed about this collection. It's bad, but as I said at the end of the Fallout 3 rant, DLCs could easily be abused to intentionally withhold content from gamers from the start until they pay more money--basically, holding legitimate parts of the game hostage as extras. And it really doesn't feel like Bioware did this--the Add-Ons of Dragon Age 1 almost all really do feel like extras.*

So in the end, Dragon Age 1's Add-Ons as a whole are pretty poor...but they don't come off to me as being the result of dishonest business practices so much as being early mistakes made by a company trying to figure out how to do them regularly. Once they're finished with Mass Effect 2's DLC packages, I suppose we'll see whether they were learning from their mistakes or not.

* The Stone Prisoner would be the exception to the rule. But it came free with a new copy of the game, so no harm, no foul.