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.