Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Mass Effect 1's Downloadable Content

When I did my Fallout 3 DLC rant, I thought at the time that the next game I would be giving a similar review of would be Dragon Age Origins. But as it turns out, Bioware just keeps releasing one thing for it after another, and supposedly has no intention to stop for a while. So whilst I wait for that to end so I can answer the question I ended with in the Fallout 3 DLC rant (whether or not other RPGs would be able to follow Fallout 3's example with as much, less, or more integrity), let's take a look at semi-old school RPG Downloadable Content with Mass Effect 1.

Bring Down the Sky: This is a very good DLC. First of all, it's free (to PC users, at least; X-Box gamers might have to pay for it, but I can only speak from a PC gamer's perspective here). That's always good. More importantly, though, it adds a new mission to the game that's about an hour long, and has a small but reasonably exciting plot and premise while introducing a villain and species that further expand and flesh out the Mass Effect universe interestingly, giving you a glimpse at certain aspects of galactic society and humanity's private inter-species concerns that the game proper doesn't explore. It also gives another couple opportunities for the player to further develop Shepard's personality. A solid add-on, to be sure.

Pinnacle Station: After Bring Down the Sky, Pinnacle Station is a disappointment. It's basically just a combat simulator for you to test how long you can survive a constant stream of enemies, with a few different locations and objectives to very slightly mix things up. The story to go along with the station is tiny and utterly meaningless; just calling the events of Pinnacle Station a "story" at all is an exaggeration. Bland, meaningless, not worth the cost, and disappointing. Still, I HAVE seen considerably blander, less meaningful, less monetarily worthwhile, and more disappointing DLCs by far, so I can't be too terribly harsh, I suppose. At least it wasn't outright stupid, the way Fallout 3's Mothership Zeta DLC was.

Actually, those 2 are the only add-ons released for Mass Effect 1. ME1's DLC seemed to be an experiment for Bioware in large part, testing out their ability to do DLC packages, and both gamers' immediate (Bring Down the Sky) and long-term (Pinnacle Station) interest in continuing the game. I'd say the experiment was positive on the whole--Bring Down the Sky outweighs Pinnacle Station, in my opinion, so the overall feeling I take from this game's add-ons is a good one. But once I can do a complete rant on Dragon Age Origins's add-ons, we'll see whether Bioware took this experiment's results and went in the right or wrong direction with them.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Fallout 1 and 2's Stupid Protagonists

A common trait of Western-style RPGs is the ability to choose what kind of person your protagonist is through their actions. In games like Dragon Age Origins, the Knights of the Republic series, and the Mass Effect series, you have the opportunity in most of the game's situations to choose how your character will respond to dialogue or deal with a situation. This typically boils down to your character being a super nice, understanding fellow who saves everyone always, makes everyone feel good about themselves, and walks on water, which he has turned into wine...or a complete and total douchebag who destroys everything, pees on puppies, and eats children.

It's a fairly good idea, making the games into actual Role-Playing Games by giving you some control over who your character is, and the RPGs I've played usually do a good job of it, allowing for quite a lot of distinction between the characters you can create.* But Fallout 1 and 2 gave players a 3rd option--you could be Good, Evil...and Stupid.

Basically, when you start a Fallout game, you get to choose the stat build of your character, deciding what areas he/she will be strong in, what his/her skills will be, etc. This, of course, affects the game in many ways, and a character with higher Intelligence will have more and better dialogue options in many situations. However, the Fallout designers had some fun with this idea, and made it so that having an extremely low Intelligence score (3 or below) would actually get rid of most normal dialogue options, and replace them with entirely new ones--the often meaningless babble of a complete imbecile.

And man, is it hilarious.

Although you only get a few really funny moments in Fallout 1, Fallout 2 is just full of extremely amusing situations arising from a world-saving protagonist who is dumb as a stump. Stumbling around the post-apocalyptic wasteland as a simpleton more interested in ice cream and shiny objects than with their mission and the fate of the world is just loads of fun. Granted, you don't get to do as much stuff, as many people don't want to entrust all their problems to a grinning moron, but there're still plenty of side quests available to a stupid character, and all the necessary stuff on the path to completing the game will work out for you. It's actually funny to watch a stupid character basically manage on dumb luck to do everything a regular character has to work at to save the world.

There are even occasions where being a stupid character makes parts of the game easier, or provides a better reward. A stupid character can more or less just walk into Vault City and gain access to its Vault, where normally you have to buy or fast-talk your way into the city, and then do a long quest or have crazily good stats to get into the city's Vault. A stupid character will, in the town of Modoc, get paid with a partially eaten cookie for a pest control job, an option not open to a regular character. You wouldn't THINK that's actually a good thing, but the cookie is a very rare item that can temporarily boost how many actions you can take in combat, which is a pretty big deal in a tough fight. And in San Francisco, a stupid character who completes the Brotherhood of Steel's tasks will be rewarded as a regular character would, but be given the bonus of having the tanker ship fully fueled, something that a normal character has to do an extra quest for.

So the game does play a bit differently here and there for this third character path. More importantly, though, the dialogue is just absurdly funny quite often. In a generally dark and serious game, you get to watch a nitwit run around and...

Have his/her feelings hurt by jeering 10-year-olds, and try to get them back by telling them that he/she is going to go to a party with cake and ice cream and presents and that THEY aren't invited.
Walk off in the middle of an involved conversation because he/she becomes distracted by some nearby sand.
Obtain plot-essential computer parts only because he/she is hungry and they look like electronic Pop-Tarts.
Get electrocuted while exploring the insides of a computer, having confused an automated voice for a woman trapped inside the computer in need of rescue.

And so on. It's a really fun third alternative to the usual Good and Evil way of playing through the game, giving the game not only a lot more replay value, but also an entertaining extra perspective that helps to emphasize the games' tongue-in-cheek humor, which is almost as large and important a component to their storytelling as the serious and dark aspects. I was really disappointed that Fallout 3 eliminated the option for a stupid character, but at least the upcoming Fallout: New Vegas is supposedly bringing it back--although I'm not sure, from reading about it in Game Informer, whether or not it will be in a significant capacity. Still, here's hoping.

* Though not all of them--Risen's protagonist, while not lacking a personality, is fairly mild in general and doesn't seem to vary too much in how he acts regardless of what you choose his actions to be.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Final Fantasy 7's Cait Sith's Worth

For someone who criticizes SquareEnix's poster child series as much as I do, I sure do wind up defending its characters strangely often.

Cait Sith. If you had to list the most universally hated characters from the Final Fantasy series, he'd be up at the top with Final Fantasy 9's Quina Quen. Nobody can seem to stand him. And, as is often the case with overly disliked Final Fantasy characters, all this scorn is nearly entirely undeserved.

So, here's what I gather are the major reasons to hate Cait Sith:

1. He looks stupid.
2. He's not useful in combat.
3. He betrays the good guys at one point.
4. He's annoying.

So let's see. First off: looking stupid. I probably shouldn't even dignify this with a response--if you're a shallow enough person that how a character looks is going to be the major determining factor in your opinion about that character, then you're not worth wasting words on. Nonetheless, I would like to point out that, beyond the fact that it's moronic to judge a character's worth by how they look, this is FINAL FANTASY. Stupid-looking people are not exactly a rarity in these games. If you're going to dislike Cait Sith for not looking particularly awesome, you might as well hate the majority of the characters in the series, because most of them look ridiculous one way or another.

Next is my personal favorite, his use in combat. I actually find this to be an even less intelligent reason to dislike Cait Sith than his looks. I mean, to start with, I really don't see the point of liking or hating someone according to how immediately useful they are to me personally. But putting that aside, this opinion is wrong on multiple levels. To start with, Final Fantasy 7 is a game where differences in combat abilities between characters are so minimal that they almost don't exist--the only major skills that distinguish one character from the next are the Limit Breaks, which are only rarely available to use. Other than that, combat skills are determined by the Materia the player puts on a character. So for most regular battles, and the majority of each boss fight's duration, it's the abilities granted by Materia--most prominently, the Magic and the Summons--that determine how useful a character is. So Cait Sith's only going to be about as useless as the player is inept.

So in general, it's Materia, not Limit Breaks, that's going to determine how useful a character is going to be for the long haul. So, while the Strength stat is handy if you put on the right Ability Materia to enhance the regular attack (and the good ones for that only come late in the game), it's the Magic stat that more determines how powerful a character is going to be, since most offensive Materia provide magic spells and Summons. And hey, guess what? Cait Sith's Magic stat is one of the best in the game. So unless you're really fond of tripling how long each battle takes by just using the Attack command every time and ignoring Magic and Summon (and E. Skill, always damn handy), he's going to actually be one of the more useful characters you can get.

And about his Limit Breaks, which everyone says suck: for his Slots Limit Break, there's a tiny chance of getting a match-up known as Death Joker. Now, Death Joker is simple: it kills everything in battle. Enemies and your team both die, no questions asked, doesn't matter what enemy it is. This can be countered by the famous Materia combination of Final Attack + Phoenix (or Final Attack + Life, I guess, but that's not nearly as handy), which makes it so that when a character gets KO'd in combat, they cast a spell as they die--in this case, Phoenix, which restores them and any other party members at 0 HP to fighting condition.

So, basically, Cait Sith can pull off a Limit Break that will kill a Weapon, and can be countered by a common Materia combination trick. Yeah. That's not precisely what I would call useless.*

Lastly, his betrayal. Okay, yeah, Cait Sith betrays Cloud and company. THIS is actually a legitimate strike against him. Acknowledged. That said, however, it's still not fair to hate him for it. To begin with, the betrayal isn't his final defining act. He pulls his traitor act while you're still on the first disc of the game--every moment after that, he's working to help Cloud as best he can, making sure that those dear to Aeris and Barret are safe, becoming Cloud's informant about Shinra's activities, fighting alongside the group, and so on. He makes up for his misdeed plenty times over, no mistake about it.

It also makes no sense to hold it against him when other RPG traitors rarely have such grudges held against them. I mean, just going by the Final Fantasy series, look at Kain. Kain from Final Fantasy 4 turns traitor TWICE during his game, and while mind control is involved, it's only made possible because he already has within him the negative emotions of jealousy and anger that betrayal is created from. The way I see it, that makes it a more earnest case of betrayal than Cait Sith's--with Cait Sith, he probably doesn't have much choice, given that he's employed by a company with military power that is not particularly nice to anyone who doesn't play ball with it, and Cait Sith's actions and dialogue throughout the game paint the picture of a character who wants to help people and do everything in his power to keep others safe from danger. His betrayal isn't motivated by bitterness the way Kain's is. Yet Kain nearly never receives the kind of badmouthing over his multiple betrayals that Cait Sith does about his one.

While we're on the issue of comparisons, other RPG traitors often tend to do worse things when they turn on the good guys. I mean, think about it. Cait Sith's traitorous act is to feed Shinra information for a while, and then to give the evil corporation a key item that it needs to get at the Black Materia, which Sephiroth, who both the good guys and Shinra are opposing, wants to destroy the world with. End result? Shinra keeps up-to-date with Cloud's group of do-gooders, which it basically was doing fairly well anyway before Cait Sith came along (the Turks know he's coming in the cave outside the marshes, Hojo sights Cloud in Costa del Sol, and they obviously know he's going to the Gold Saucer since they place Cait Sith there to find him), and Shinra gets a head start on obtaining the Black Materia--which, while bad, would still be better than Sephiroth getting it. Compare that to the betrayal of, say, (MAJOR BATEN KAITOS 1 SPOILERS) Kalas from BK1. Kalas is a double-agent the entire first half of the game, and his betrayal of his friends, which is motivated solely by his own selfish desires, results in the releasing of a freakish, malevolent god's power, the capture by an enemy military of the girl that was digging Kalas up to that point, and the finger being given to you, the player, as Kalas actually attempts to forcibly eject you from the game's events. Yet you never hear of people holding a major grudge against Kalas for how royally he screwed everyone over (even considering the much smaller fanbase for the Baten Kaitos series). So why the ever-lasting hatred for Cait Sith on this count?

Finally, the annoying factor. Well, frankly, I'm not sure I get it. I mean, Cait Sith's role in the general plot and dialogue of the game is on the lower side of average, and his major acts and speeches, from what I can see, are focused on his betrayal and his desire to help people and make up for his earlier deception. Not all that annoying a focus, and his personality itself is a fairly mild-mannered, yet energetic, guy who adopts a southern accent at random. And without him, Cloud and company wouldn't have gotten the Black Materia, Barret wouldn't have escaped Junon during the Weapon attack, and Elmyra and Marlene wouldn't have been kept safely away from Meteor's ground zero. He also provides intel to Cloud about Shinra's movements once his connection to them is revealed. So it's not like he was just some hanger-on; he significantly contributed to the world-saving effort, more than several other members of the party who are rarely criticized. Honestly, he doesn't have a loud enough or dull enough personality to be all that annoying. I just think that most people who say he's annoying do so because they dislike him for one of the other criteria I've mentioned.

Cait Sith gets way, way more resentment sent his way than he deserves. That's what I think, and that's what I stand by. People forgive poorer characters for worse acts, and half of the complaints people have against him are groundless, stupid, or both.

* Yes, I know, the chances of Death Joker are crazily rare. But I'm willing to bet that if you compared the time it takes to keep trying for a Death Joker to hit the Weapons against the time it takes to get the levels and the rare Materia and the levels for said Materia, along with the best weapons and armor and such, plus a goodly amount of healing items, all of which is required for the standard way to take out a Weapon, you're probably going to spend less time waiting for the Death Joker. The time it takes to get a goddamn Golden Chocobo alone...