Thursday, December 15, 2011

Annual Summary: 2011

Wow. 2011's at an end, and this rant blog is still going. I must REALLY like talking.

So. 2010 was a good year for me, RPG-wise, so I figured I'd pay the piper this year and have a whole slew of crappy ones. Well, I was half right...there really weren't many RPGs I played this year that I can even call decent, let alone good. But at the same time...nearly none of them were really all that bad, either. 2011 was just a year of very...lackluster games. Run-of-the-mill RPGs that left no particular impression everywhere I turned. I had a good mix of older and newer games, tried to cover several different genres and styles of RPGs, but in the end, there just weren't very many that provoked a strong response, positive or negative.

Anyway, the games I played this year were, in alphabetical rather than chronological order:

Alundra 1
Alundra 2
Avalon Code
Baldur's Gate 1
Baldur's Gate 2
Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled
Castlevania: Lament of Innocence
Children of Mana
Dragon Age 2
Fallout Tactics
Final Fantasy 12: Revenant Wings
Fire Emblem 7
Fire Emblem 9
Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon
Glory of Heracles 5
Hero's Saga: Laevatein Tactics
Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals (Not actually counted as a new RPG played by me, as it's a remake of Lufia 2)
Mario and Luigi 1
Mario and Luigi 2
Mario and Luigi 3
Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch
Pokemon Generation 5 (AKA Black and White)
Radiant Historia
Sakura Wars 5
Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood
The World Ends with You

A fair sight more than the last couple years. I have the Nintendo DS to thank for that; nothing like getting some RPG-playing in during down-time at work or while waiting for appointments and such. I didn't even really lessen how much time I spent on other stuff--still got the 2 jobs, still watched a bunch of stuff (rewatched Batman Beyond, Doctor Who's first 4 seasons, and Torchwood's first 3 seasons, as well as watching for the first time the entire run of Star Trek: The Next Generation (which took some time, lemme tell you), all of Spectacular Spiderman, IT Crowd and A Bit of Fry and Laurie in their entirety, Doctor Who's 5th season and Seasons 1 and 2 of The Sarah Jane Adventures, and of course watching several times every episode to date of my newest obsession, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic), still played a couple non-RPG games (ICO and Shadow of the Colossus), still played previous games' add-ons (Fallout: New Vegas), and still showed my sister some RPG stuff (the ever-amazing Planescape: Torment). Plus I kept pretty consistent on 3 blog rants a month, read several books (I love Isaac Asimov and Agatha Christie), and even wrote a couple of Pony-related fanfics on the side. Goodness I kept busy.

The year didn't start out terribly boring. The first RPGs I finished were Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch and Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals, which basically meant I started 2011 with something funny and engaging (MLRotB), and something so horrible that there should be an entire special ops division created just to prevent anything like it from happening ever again (LCotS). And yet, for the first half of the year, that was basically it for games that invoked any strong response--Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled, Avalon Code, the Mario and Luigi series...I didn't have any games for several months that were particularly noteworthy, until I got around to playing Dragon Age 2, and even then, that was an odd mix of some good ideas with disappointing lack of narrative skill and a terrible ending (see previous rant on this). Thankfully, the end of summer saw me playing Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon, Radiant Historia, and The World Ends with You, all of which are really good. But from there, I again had a slew of dull titles that were okay at best, until finally I ended with Baldur's Gate 2, which was pretty good. I mean, it's not that a lot of the games didn't have some decent things about them...Glory of Heracles 5 had clever dialogue, Alundra 1 had some genuinely emotional elements, and Alundra 2 was amusing at times, for example...and it's not that some games didn't have negative aspects (Final Fantasy 12: Revenant of the Wings is even more boring and pointless than the original FF12 was, if it can be believed), but as a whole, just not a lot that was really noteworthy, good or bad, came to my attentions this year.

But anyway, let's see what interested me this year, and the best and worst aspects of this motley assortment of RPGs.

RPG Moments of Interest in 2011
1. This year was the first time I experienced an RPG entirely through a Let's Play. In keeping with my intent not to in any way support SquareEnix until they radically adjust their business plan to place even a little value on artistic integrity with their products and more importantly stop outright abusing their audience with their game content, public statements, and project decisions, I was not going to buy Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals new. And in keeping with my intent not to pay multiple times to play the same game, I wasn't thrilled with the concept of even buying it used, since it's essentially a (poor) remake of the classic game Lufia 2. So I watched the game via a Youtube Let's Play, figuring that if it turned out to be significantly new and well-made, I would buy a copy to properly show support for something decent. As it turns out, it's a good thing I chose this course of action, because I would hold a grudge against myself to my dying day if I had spent a single penny on that piece of shit. Worst remake of anything, ever, and probably one of the top 10 worst things Squaresoft/SquareEnix has ever been responsible for--and there's a LOT of contenders for a spot on that list. But yeah, first time doing a Let's Play for experiencing an RPG; may try it again (probably for another SquareEnix venture).

2. This year was also the first time I've tried an Independent RPG, in the form of Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch. The game mechanics are a bit glitchy and at times don't work as well as they should, and I can't say I liked all the jokes, but overall, that game's a riot, and it was a very good experience.

3. Played the oft-acclaimed RPG The World Ends With You this year. While it actually really is very good...the look of the game, the characters and their issues, the themes it addresses, its portrayal of afterlife junk, just makes me want to pat SquareEnix on the head in a patronizing manner and say, "No SquareEnix, it's TOTALLY not painfully obvious that you're out to clone the Shin Megami Tensei games."

4. Played a couple of Fire Emblem games. It's an RPG series with 10 or so installments. I played 1 of them, FE4, something like 8 years ago, and never touched the series again. No good reason for that, since I liked FE4. Really no idea why it took me this long to pick it up again, but at least I finally have.

5. Along with Fire Emblem, Alundra, and Mario and Luigi, another famous RPG series I tried this year that I'd had little to no experience with previously was Baldur's Gate 1 and 2. It was actually kind of interesting to see this very early RPG of Bioware's as a fan of their recent games, because there's all sorts of little references in Dragon Age and Mass Effect to elements of Baldur's Gate that I otherwise wouldn't have known about. Learning the origins of Commander Shepard's space hamster was quite amusing. It was also interesting because Baldur's Gate 1 isn't just an RPG that takes place within the Dungeons and Dragons universe--it kind of feels like an actual D+D campaign in itself, a video game version of a regular tabletop session. You've got a ton of sidequests and exploration of towns and forests and so on, a very light over-arching plot tying everything together, and the companions you can find range from those that actually take the game seriously (this amounts to characters like Jaheira and Kivan) to that one guy in every D+D group who is a complete and total nutcase and just plays an apeshit crazy person who is almost more trouble than they're worth (this amounts to characters like Tiax and Minsc...who I fucking love). Interesting experience.

6. I decided to start trying to support Nintendo as much as I can with buying decisions, after hearing that the company's CEO cut his own paycheck as well as the other highest-paid board members to cover low sales of the 3DS, and make it available at lower prices to consumers. I intend to do some decent research into the whole thing and make a proper rant out of it, but in a world where careless companies like Marvel Comics, SquareEnix, Netflix, and so many others insult, abuse, and treat with hostile disdain their customers, and other corporations so often try to cover costs by cutting salaries of their lower-paid employees or just outright firing them, it's amazingly refreshing to me to see a company trim the fat of those who can actually afford it, and admit to the problem being with their own decisions, not with the market. What OTHER company would do that? Most corporations would just send a chunk of innocent workers a pink slip rather than let their executives miss out on a bonus, and blame it all on the consumer end rather than admit to doing any wrong. Go Nintendo for being a class act.

Best Prequel/Sequel of 2011:
Actually, I really don't have enough for this category this year. There were really only a couple of RPGs I played that were particularly relevant to previous ones in their series, and of them, Baldur's Gate 2 is the only one that really ties in all that strongly to its predecessor. The others either weren't very good (Final Fantasy 12: Revenant Wings), were okay but only somewhat built off of an established canon (Mario and Luigi 2, Castlevania: Lament of Innocence), or just plain had nothing to do with the previous game(s) (Alundra 2).

Biggest Disappointment of 2011:
Loser: Dragon Age 2
It''s not that Dragon Age 2 is BAD, persay. I mean...there's a lot of good qualities to the game. I might even go so far as to say that it is, as a whole, a decent RPG. But Dragon Age 1 was just a really, really good game, and it seems like most of the really memorable areas of DA1 are so much less interesting in DA2. The story's not as grand, for one, and although I understand it's meant to be a more personal tale of a single hero, city, and culture rather than the exploits of a group of heroes saving a country and world, it just doesn't do this kind of story as well as DA1 did the world-saving brand. The cast of DA2's not bad, but the characters most deep and interesting of DA2 (Sebastian and Anders, I guess) really just can't compare to the depth and personality of nearly all of DA1's major characters. The villain of DA1 was of far greater quality than either of the major DA2 ones. Some of DA2's romantic subplots are decent enough, but again, they really just pale before most of DA1's. And the ending of DA2 is just absolute trash, an embarrassing failure of writing, while DA1's was, while admittedly fairly generic, cool and engaging. I try not to get my hopes up about games just because they come from a good series (I learned my lesson with Grandia 3 and Shadow Hearts 3, thank you), but it just seems like most everything that made DA1 so good is barely more than passable in DA2. And having a rotten ending to a game is by itself a huge factor for disappointment, so, there you go.

Almost as Bad: Children of Mana; Fallout: Tactics; Pokemon: Generation 5
I didn't think much of Seiken Densetsu 3, and honestly, looking back at Secret of Mana, it doesn't seem all that great without nostalgia goggles on, so I didn't expect much of Children of Mana (haven't played any other Mana game besides those 2). But even so, this game is so incredibly generic and boring! It's like they went out of their way to avoid putting anything worthy of note in this title. SquareEnix might as well have just called it Filler Fantasy: Repetitive Dungeon Game We Made Between More Important Titles. I'd heard Fallout: Tactics wasn't all that interesting, so it wasn't too much of a disappointment when I found out that it definitely wasn't, but it still should be here since Fallout RPGs are traditionally engaging, amusing, knee-deep in symbolism and cultural references and analysis, and epic, and this one is just...bland. There are a couple amusing joke encounters and such, but the plot as a whole isn't interesting in the slightest, there's no characters to speak of, and there's certainly no deeper significance or food for thought about America that I can find. As for Pokemon: Generation 5...well, despite Generation 4 having some actual plot, a couple fairly okay characters, and a villain that was actually pretty good, I didn't go into Black/White with high expectations, given that the first 3 generations of Pokemon were a bunch of dull, punctuated by brief bouts of silliness. But Generation 5 actually seemed like it would be interesting early on, with the question of morality in Pokemon training, but it just let its potential sit in a corner for the whole game, alone and unloved, until it died from neglect. I'd go into specifics, but I'm planning for that to be a rant in itself.

Best Ending of 2011:
Winner: Radiant Historia (Best Ending)
As a whole, Radiant Historia's finale's pretty good, but the ending, provided you properly completed all the side quests that affect it, was really very nice. It satisfactorily tied everything up, big and small, engaged me emotionally, made the adventure as a whole seem satisfying and epic, and even threw in an unexpected twist that made it better still. Can't ask for much better than that.

Runners-Up: Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon; The World Ends with You
First year for this category; let's see if it holds up (assuming I can manage to drag rants out of me for another year hence). The World Ends with You has a positive ending that satisfies and leaves you feeling good. Not much more I can say about it. And while Fragile Dreams's ending has some aspects that are really kind of a bummer, it's handled with the same artistic grace and emotional intensity as the rest of the game, and leaves you feeling as impressed with the little RPG gem as you should be. In fact, if I didn't feel that the downer in the ending wasn't unwarranted and even arguably against the game's theme, it probably would have been the winner this year. But it's still good.

Worst RPG of 2011:
Loser: Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals
Yeah, so, I did a very long and involved rant at the beginning of the year explaining why this title is a piece of dog shit that poisons any DS it touches. Refer to that for details. Suffice to say here that this is the worst remake ever created for anything, that it is monstrously horrible both compared to the original Lufia 2 and just on its own, and that you probably couldn't harm your mind more with a self-performed Egyptian brain-removal ritual than by playing this game.

Almost as Bad: Children of Mana; Final Fantasy 12: Revenant Wings; Hero's Saga: Laevatein Tactics
Thankfully, this category was easy to determine, because these games weren't just the worst of the year, they were also the only ones that I can really say were outright bad. Anyways! The word of the day is: BOREDOM. Oh my GOD are these 3 titles ever boring. Just...Jesus Christ. On the one hand, you have Children of Mana, a game whose plot and cast were probably penned by 1 writer over the course of 10 minutes who was tired and just wanted to go home for the day. You can practically SMELL the crap that SquareEnix didn't give about this game. On the other hand, you have Hero's Saga: Laevatein Tactics, which ISN'T generic but is just as boring and meandering and totally forgettable as Children of Mana. HSLT's instruction booklet is more interesting than the game itself. And as for FF12: Revenant God, guys. I wouldn't have believed it possible, but this title actually makes the original Final Fantasy 12 look GOOD by comparison. I mean, at least in FF12, Fran had a moment that was good with Eruyt village, and the character of Balthier was done well. The trite, bland little foray into pointless boredom that FF12RW is doesn't even have that much; Balthier is just as boring as all the rest of the cast. Well...maybe that isn't fair. Yes, Balthier is boring, but most of the rest of the cast is actively annoying, so I guess he's still one of the least bad aspects, sort of. And there's certainly no part that stands out as having any compelling emotion this time around; you're lucky to find a time in the plot where everything makes a proper amount of sense and isn't weighed down by an overabundance of magical plot doohickeys and painful contrivances. Tie up that bag of suck with the fact that Vaan somehow seems just as superfluous (not to mention annoying) as he did in FF12, even though this story's plot actually does focus on him. I don't know how you manage to suck enjoyability and excitement out of a game that had none to begin with, but SquareEnix managed it somehow with FF12's sequel.

Most Improved of its Series of 2011:
Winner: Baldur's Gate 2
BG1 is a fairly decent RPG, I suppose, but its plot is ultimately kind of light and not terribly exciting, and though its cast is pretty varied and interesting, not a whole lot is done to develop them, and the villain's just plain one-dimensional. BG2 fixes just about every shortcoming of BG1--the plot is far more present and if not amazing, then at least a bit more interesting. The cast is as varied as ever, but now almost every party member has at least one mission in which they receive some decent exploration and character development, they have more lines to say during general plot events, and a few of them can be pursued romantically, the events and dialogue of which are sometimes quite good. Finally, the villains...well, actually, the villain of the main game, Shadows of Amn, is just as one-dimensional as BG1's villain was, and the villain of the Throne of Bhaal expansion is only so-so, so I guess that's a wash, BUT the former villain of BG1 does return, and NOW he gets some decent character development! So it sort of counts as better villainy. So yeah, overall, BG2 improves just about all the important areas of BG1 that could have been better, turning an okay game into a solidly good one.

Runner-Up: Mario and Luigi 3
Well, honestly, Mario and Luigi 3 isn't all that great, but it's more creative than the previous MaL games, and the plot's slightly interesting sometimes, which is an improvement on MaL2 at the very least. And I'd rather have the Mario Brothers work with Bowser than with baby versions of themselves, as the latter idea is really just pretty damn stupid. So I'd say it's an improvement.

Most Creative of 2011:
Winner: Radiant Historia
I'm pleasantly surprised that there's some real competition this year, but ultimately, I think Radiant Historia's schtick is the most creative, having its protagonist, Stocke, work his way through points in his own time line where he makes/made decisions that greatly altered the future, hopping from one alternate course of history to the other over and over to try to find the one set of countless courses of action that can lead to the salvation of his world. And that's just the premise--there's lots of neat, creative stuff in the game's twists, setting, and characters, too. Very cool!

Runners-Up: Avalon Code; Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon; The World Ends with You
Really, The World Ends with You might have had a shot at placing on top if I weren't fairly convinced that it was conceived as a way of competing with Atlus's Shin Megami Tensei series as an "edgy" modern culture RPG. Nonetheless, its premise, plot, and twists are all very unique and cool. Avalon Code doesn't do much with its creative ideas that really catches my eye, but I have to give it credit--the idea of having a game where you carry a book that can absorb the spiritual blueprints of all of creation, which allows you to craft tools of great power by mixing these spiritual components into basic blueprints of weapons and items, and to alter the strengths and weaknesses of all enemies you face by messing with their spirit bios, is pretty innovative. As for Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon...well, it's basically an interactive anime movie of great artistic quality that feels like a Japanese version of Fallout, that explores spiritual emotion rather than American culture. It's very different, in a great way.

Stupidest Weapon of 2011:
Loser: Filo's Hoverboard (Final Fantasy 12: Revenant Wings)
Blatantly stolen from Back to the Future 2, the Hoverboard in FF12RW defies one's imagination when one attempts to envision exactly how this little pink floating skateboard is capable, while being ridden by a child whose age has only barely hit double digits, of inflicting any significant harm on half of the large, sturdy, and dangerous creatures in the Final Fantasy bestiary. One's defeated imagination might turn to the question of why someone would think sending a preteen into combat against unnatural killing machines while armed only with a floating plank is good, or sensible, or even just acceptable...only to find one's mind inadequate for that task, as well.

Almost as Bad: Butterfly Net (Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon); Dual Blade (Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals); Gemini's Mech's Gunblade (Sakura Wars 5)
Gunblades are incredibly stupid, as I've detailed in that stupid weapons list rant from a while back. The Lufia 2 remake's Dual Blade is nothing short of a joke--it looks absolutely absurd, and for all appearances its balance, shape, and handling requirements make it completely impossible to wield effectively in combat. And finally...a butterfly net? Really, Namco?

Best Romance of 2011:
Winner: Good Protagonist and Viconia (Baldur's Gate 2)
BG2 goes to great lengths to develop the 4 potential romances it offers, doing so over the course of dozens of conversations during the main quest of BG2, then further exploring the relationship in the Throne of Bhaal expansion. Assuming you know what dialogue choices to make to prevent the romance from ending prematurely, that is, which can be tricky, but we'll assume here that you do and that we're looking at the completed relationship. Normally, this extra would make the game's 4 romances shoe-ins for all the slots on this list, but unfortunately, I just didn't feel like the love stories for Aerie and Anomen were all that compelling, so in those cases it wound up just being a lot of extra development for romances that didn't seem particularly noteworthy anyway.

Viconia, here's a touching love story, which fits in very well with her general character development. As a creature of Evil who unwillingly fights against her inherent nature, Viconia is a perfect candidate for a touching story of the redeeming power of love. It's interesting and touching to watch Viconia struggle with an emotional connection she cannot help but make with the main character as they travel together and become sexual partners, at first shrinking back in fear and revulsion from her growing feelings, trying to force them and the protagonist away from her with her typical venom and finding that she can't destroy her emotions so's good stuff, and when the romance picks up again during the Throne of Bhaal campaign, it only gets better. With acceptance of her love for the protagonist comes the opportunity for Viconia to better explore her own conflicting inner nature, all culminating in the protagonist helping Viconia to change herself for the better, to change her philosophy of life from Evil to Neutral, a massive achievement for her and, if my limited knowledge of Dungeons and Dragons is correct, a significant achievement by the rules of that world. It's all very touching and quite impressive to me.

Runners-Up: Neku and Shiki (The World Ends with You); Protagonist and Jaheira (Baldur's Gate 2); Ratchet and Shin (Sakura Wars 5)
Not a terribly inspiring year for RPG love stories for me. The winner wasn't hard to pick; everything else was mildly nice at best. I would've had Dragon Age 2's Isabela and Hawke Rivalry romance in here, as I really think that the later parts of that are very good and convincing, but honestly, pursuing a Rivalry with Isabela instead of a Friendship* gives you all the really good scenes toward the end whether or not you're factoring in the love angle--all the emotional strength of the scenes occurs whether they be platonic or romantic, so I don't really think I can count that.

Anyway! Neku and Shiki's romance is quiet, more implied than really outright stated, but it's convincingly done, showing them coming together to be stronger in emotional union than they were separately, with Shiki becoming a more self-confident and whole person with Neku's companionship, and Neku finding an emotional anchor to connect him to his social humanity and give him a reason to keep going. Admittedly, a lot of this one is simply seeing how dedicated Neku is to Shiki once she's absent and her future is in his care, rather than seeing developed feelings through a lot of interactions between them, but it's still pretty good. The romance between Jaheira and BG2's protagonist is decent, covering several bases, such as Jaheira moving on from her late husband Khalid, Jaheira questioning how far the protagonist can be trusted, Jaheira choosing to fight her fears and trust her instincts and the person she cares for even to the point of renouncing her way of life when it conflicts with her loyalty to the protagonist, and then...about 500 more discussions wherein she wonders if the protagonist truly can be trusted with so much power. Her never-ending lack of certainty that the person she loves isn't going to just up and decide to start randomly smothering babies with puppy pelts DOES kind of get repetitive a bit, but other than that, the romance is a decent one. Lastly, there's Ratchet and Shin in Sakura Wars 5. It's possible that its quality as a tale of love is exaggerated through comparison to how bad most of the other romantic options are in that game.** Nonetheless, I feel that the connection between Ratchet and Shin seems simple but genuine, and I like it. The added scenes during the finale that come from this romance sell it well. A shame the idiot developers only made it accessible in New Game+...

Best Voice Acting of 2011:
Winner: Dragon Age 2
It's got some flaws (Male Hawke never seems to sound right, and Female Hawke has trouble being convincingly mean for some dialogues), and only a couple voice actors really give a particularly ear-catching performance, but DA2 is overall a good, solid game for voice acting from start to finish--and considering how much dialogue is in this game, ALL of which is spoken, that's laudable. Particularly good are the voice actress for Merrill and the voice actor for the Arishok, and the voice actors for Varric and Fenris really help to define the characters.

Runners-Up: Baldur's Gate 1; Baldur's Gate 2; Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon
Though limited, the voice acting in BG1 and BG2 is decent, with a couple voice actors doing a notably fine job, such as the actress who plays Viconia, and Jim Cummings, who plays, in addition to like 50 minor NPCs and enemies, the unforgettably awesome and batshit crazy Minsc. Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon does an adequate job. On the one hand, I wouldn't say any part of its voice work really stuck with me, but at the same time, everyone seemed to fit their roles, and the voice acting kept up with the atmosphere and emotion of the story well, which might be harder than it sounds, given the high bar FDFRotM sets in that department.

Best Villain of 2011:
Winner: The Arishok (Dragon Age 2)
Way outshining the true villains of DA2's story, the Arishok is a leader whose orders and religious doctrine (which are basically one and the same) force him into an incredibly frustrating position for years, years in which he is surrounded by a culture that he finds revolting, cut off from his homeland until he completes a mission he cannot, and feared and hated by ignorant racists and religious zealots that he does nothing to provoke. After 4 years of such misery, it's no damn wonder he eventually loses his temper and gives the fanatics the fight they've been baiting him into for years. The Arishok is a neat villain for how he raises sympathy in the player for his plight, for his insight into the Qunari culture in Dragon Age, and for the fact that his virtues almost overpower his vices.

Runners-Up: Fawful (Mario and Luigi 1 - 3); Heiss (Radiant Historia); Melissan (Baldur's Gate 2)
Fawful's not exactly a particularly deep or threatening villain, but he is pretty amusing often enough, and really, how can you not be impressed by a hateful little bespectacled bean that delivers such hurtful taunts as, "Your lives that I spit on are now but a caricature of a cartoon drawn by a kid who is stupid!" That there is hardcore. Melissan has a back story that's a bit of a twist, and otherwise fits the bill of villain pretty well, I guess. Heiss is actually really pretty neat as a villain--he's got a history as creative and interesting as would befit any major player in the events of Radiant Historia, and he successfully keeps a lot of the unsettling mystery about his motives and machinations for most of the game, which is honestly very unusual for an RPG villain. I mean, yes, there are a LOT of RPG villains who keep you in the dark as to the aim of their game for a long, long time, but in almost all cases of this, it just gets annoying after a while to be left in the dark for so long about why and how the shadowy super-powerful evil guy is partaking in villainy. With Heiss, I never felt exasperated by how much was withheld about him, even though you don't find most of it out until the last parts of the game. I guess this is probably more due to the strength of the writing for Radiant Historia than to Heiss's character in particular, since the game's events were enthralling enough that I didn't feel the NEED to know more about Heiss before he was ready to tell, but either way, he's a very cool and layered villain.

Best Character of 2011:
Winner: Neku (The World Ends with You)
Neku's transformation from Hipster Squall to Person Who Is Not A Total Douchebag is done well, I think, and his emotions, desperation, frustration, and growing respect and need for others are convincing and effectively conveyed. Honestly, I don't have much to really say about him, aside from the fact that he's a solidly good character with strong development.

Runners-Up: Beat (The World Ends with You); Shiki (The World Ends with You); Viconia (Baldur's Gate 2)
Uh...yeah. So, of the few games I played this year that were notably good, not a lot were actually driven so much by their characters as by their plot's overall themes and events. Of the games I played this year, only The World Ends with You has a powerful personal touch to it where the characters are its driving force, and, unsurprisingly, its cast outshines that of the rest of the RPGs I saw in 2011. Beat's surprisingly deep and interesting, considering his character type, but that's part of the point, I suppose. Even though it was done with comparatively quickly, I was pretty impressed with Shiki's character development; she's both interesting, and has issues of self worth to work through whose circumstances and twist are pretty unique, at least for what you see in RPGs. As for Viconia, she's quite an interesting character for her depth--everything she was brought up to be is evil and convinced that kindness and selflessness are weak and foolish, yet there's a spark in her, her true nature it seems, that just can't quite be fully eliminated, that spark that brought her to love her brother even when she knew not what "love" was, and that led her to renounce her people and their evil goddess and flee to the surface. As her romance with BG2's protagonist develops, so does Viconia, as she discovers facets of humanity (or elf-ity, whatever) that her people acknowledge only as weakness, yet inevitably draw her in, until she is finally ready to truly cast aside what she was made to be and embrace what she wishes to be. Good stuff.

Best Game of 2011:
Winner: Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon
It's not perfect. It's got too many holes or too much conjecture (whichever you perceive it as) in its plot. But I can't deny that it's the most impressive game I've played this year, and that it is a real classic of both RPGs, and storytelling through video games in general. Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon is exceptionally artistic, seeming often to be closer to an anime movie on par with some of Japan's greatest studios than to a video game. It has remarkable atmosphere, its theme and story are gripping, the characters strong and memorable...if you've got a Wii, get it. It's great, and it's art.

Runners-Up: Baldur's Gate 2; Radiant Historia; The World Ends with You
As I said earlier, I didn't have that many RPGs this year that were particularly noteworthy. For 60% of 2011, I thought I would be putting Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch up here (not that MLRotB is bad or anything, it's funny as heck, but it ain't exactly a deep and involved story). But in the end, I did get a little handful of really great titles. BG2 is a good, solid Western RPG, with decent plot elements and a solid cast. BG1 did not impress me all that much, but BG2 really goes above and beyond its predecessor and delivers a satisfying experience. Radiant Historia is just the kind of creative, thoughtful game I've come to hopefully expect from Atlus, with a good plot, a solid cast, and a really creative premise that is executed well. RH is probably the best RPG to significantly employ time travel that I've seen since Chrono Trigger, and I certainly recommend it to any owner of a DS or 3DS. Lastly, The World Ends with You...well, as a SquareEnix game, it automatically gets a crapload of attention even when other worthy titles don't, but this one is a rarity--a modern SquareEnix title that DESERVES the attention and praise it receives. It's interesting, it's emotionally-charged, it's different, and owners of a DS or 3DS should check it out just as much as Radiant Historia.

List Changes of 2011:
Greatest RPGs: Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon (Replaced Baroque as Honorable Mention for artistic virtue).

So! That's it for 2011. Thanks again for a year of hearing me babble about RPGs. Hopefully 2012 will be a more interesting year for RPGs--in fact, I have little fear that this will be true, for Mass Effect 3 comes out this year. But we'll all see a year hence. Enjoy the holidays, and I'll see you in the new year.

* Basically, each character in DA2 can either feel friendly to you, or rivalry with you, depending on how your actions measure up to the character's general beliefs and interests. Similar to how Dragon Age 1 did it, not to mention several other western RPGs, but the difference here is that a high rivalry counts as just as strong a connection with the character as an equally high friendship would. So every romance in DA2 actually has 2 versions--1 for a romance between Friends, people who get along and agree and all, and 1 for a romance between Rivals, people who just don't see eye to eye--but nonetheless have built a sort of trust and connection through this clashing of ideals.

Isabela's philosophies are generally "Don't help anyone unless you're paid," "Don't ever have an opinion on any major issue," and "I want to do everything in my power to make sure I have no idea whose bed I wake up in tomorrow, and if I can also be lying in my own filth as that happens, then that will be lovely." With my style of game play, which is to try to have a protagonist who is not a total worthless slob, I found it much easier to maintain a Rivalry with her than a Friendship.

** 60% of the things Gemini says, does, and thinks in SW5 are already so stupid that Sarah Palin seems almost well-spoken by comparison, but the romantic parts with Gemini multiply that stupidity several times over. Watching Shin and Gemini's date could permanently disfigure you, as the human face was not designed to twist so far as yours will out of reflexive revulsion.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Hero's Saga: Laevatein Tactics's Characters

I'd be put in a difficult spot if I had to determine whether it was Hero's Saga: Laevatein Tactics's plot, characters, setting, music, or battle system that was the least engaging aspect of the extremely ignorable title. But today, for now, let us look at the characters--the ones who aren't random NPCs but actually are recruited through the plot, at least.

Ernesto: Ernesto is our "hot-blooded" hero. I put the quotation marks in there because the game tries, in a halfhearted sort of way, to convince us of how rash and impulsive Ernesto is, more at home fighting than employing strategy (the developers choosing to make him the protagonist of a Strategy RPG seems a slightly stupid decision, now that I think about it). And yeah, I guess he goes through the motions of this, saying that it's the way he is and challenging whoever is in his way to battle and whatnot, but...have you ever seen The Room? Famously bad movie; check out the Nostalgia Critic's review of it if you're not already familiar with it, because it's funny. There's a scene near the end where its main character is having a fit of rage at his cheating girlfriend having left him, and, as the Nostalgia Critic says in that review, it's appropriately over-the-top, yet strangely nonchalant. He's knocking stuff over and asking "why" a bunch, going through all the motions to convince you of his helpless anger, but his tone and expression and listless way of moving just make the whole thing look laughably relaxed. That's kind of what it's like here. Yeah, the game goes through the motions to convince you of Ernesto's one defining trait of recklessness, but it's all so bland and monotone that he just comes off as dull.

Diana: Diana's character confuses me. It SEEMS like she was originally meant to have several interesting points of development in the game, but they all kind of just drop off into nothingness and leave her an utterly generic personality. I mean, there's one point in the game where Ernesto decides that she should adopt a false name so they can better travel incognito, since she's a well-known princess--like Dagger did in Final Fantasy 9. They decide on the name of "Anna" (brilliant cover, guys, make her secret name be part of her actual name). They call her by it for a while, except for occasions where they just don't, and then eventually the need for cover is dropped, and she goes back to being Diana. Nothing really comes of it whatsoever. I admit that Dagger in FF9 didn't have too much of a deal made about her pseudo-name after choosing it, but the idea that it allowed her to move freely through places and meet people she would have been unable to get to as a princess is at least maintained by the game's events and her actions. The monicker Anna changes nothing in the story's events for Diana, does nothing to develop her or those around just fizzles out after accomplishing nothing.

The other thing about Diana that went nowhere was her relationship with Ernesto. Diana's engaged to Ernesto's brother Claudio, but she travels with Ernesto for most of the game away from Claudio. There are a few bits of dialogue at the beginning and middle of this journey that seemed to imply that the game was angling for a love triangle to develop. You know the drill, the 2 of them journeying together through danger, relying on each other, etc. You can even work in the whole thing with the Anna cover name as perhaps being meant to encourage one or both of them to consider "Anna" as a different person from Diana, one free to pursue a relationship with Ernesto...but once Claudio rejoins the party, there's nothing. The idea, if you can call it even that much, just disappears. He asks what the deal is with the Anna name, they say not to worry about it, and Diana goes back to being a dutiful fiancee. Just fizzles out. That's all Diana is, really--a character that you get the feeling was meant for actual development, but just got dropped absentmindedly by the writers.

Claudio: Claudio is the gifted strategist of the game whose clever mind devises the brilliant strategy of sending the 2 people he cares most for in the world as far away from their homes and allies as possible to take on a continent-spanning military empire's armies virtually by themselves. Thankfully for him, the plot basically seems to be making up political situations and geographical scenarios as it goes along that accommodate Claudio's under-normal-circumstances-probably-pretty-stupid plan.

Pablo: Pablo is the faithful servant Claudio sends to help Ernesto and Diana, presumably because he's annoying enough that Claudio just wants him out of his hair. Pablo is about as worthwhile and well-developed a royal servant character as Sancho from Dragon Quest 5. What's that, you say? You don't remember anything about Sancho?


Clefi and Uracca: Based on your choice partway through the game, either Clefi or Uracca will join the party. Do not feel any pressure about which one to choose. Neither will do or say anything important or interesting, ever. Unless you count Pablo's creepy, unrelenting attempts to hit on Uracca, who in addition to making it clear she isn't interested is also, if memory serves, only 15 years old, as being interesting. Then I guess there's some distinguishing characteristic of freak.

Valerie: Valerie is an unassuming girl whose connection to her plot-important father winds up not really being very important overall, leaving the most noteworthy thing about her the fact that she doesn't ever take her armor off. Not exactly prize-winning character depth, but compared to the rest of the game's cast, Valerie's decision not to change her clothes might very well be the most interesting thing this game has to offer.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon's Shin's Fate

Despite having a long, RPG mumbo-jumbo type name, Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon is quite an impressive RPG from Namco, a very artistic work that comports itself with a dignity and style more like a Hayao Miyazaki film than a regular video game. It's like a...poignant, emotionally-driven artistic anime version of Fallout. While I don't find it as amazing as several people do, and it's certainly true that too much of the details and history of the plot are left unexplained or a little too open to interpretation, I do have to say that basically every part of it seems stylistically thoughtful and laden with emotional meaning, and every step of the gamer's journey through the moonlit ruins and haunts left by a gentle apocalypse is an enjoyable one, a significant one. This is a game that grips your hand tenderly as it tells its tale of emotion, and growth, of loneliness and friendship, and you're happy to hear the story.

Oh, except for this one part which is TOTAL FUCKING BULLSHIT.

By necessity, this rant now will contain spoilers for Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon. Big ones. So, if you haven't played the game, don't read this.* Go do something else, instead. Watch an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, or read something by Mark Twain. He's better at witty writing than I am, anyway. A lot better.

Alright, so. What is bullshit about FDFRotM? I'll tell you what is bullshit about FDFRotM. What is bullshit about FDFRotM is the fate of Shin. That is 100% bullshit, and it sours the entire ending. And it pisses me off!

Alright, so, quick refresher--Shin is the main villain of FDFRotM. He is, or was in life (he's an artificial intelligence hologram-thing during the game--but since it's patterned exactly after his memories and personality, and planning to again activate the world-ending Glass Cage project, this version of Shin is as legitimate an antagonist entity as if he were the original), a scientist who achieved semi-psychic abilities to read the emotions and thoughts and whatnot of other people, by making himself the first test subject of his research to improve communication through empathy. After losing faith in humanity because of all he heard in the minds of people around him, Shin brought about (or helped bring about--if I recall correctly, it's not exactly stated that he was responsible for the negative effects of Glass Cage, but it's definitely implied that he had a huge hand in the whole fiasco) the quiet apocalypse of the Glass Cage project that left the world almost wholly without human beings. Shin gives up his quest to eliminate the last remnants of the human race at the end of the game when protagonist Seto combats him, and Seto's companion Sai, another ghost left behind from the old world, confesses that she had always secretly loved Shin. This, of course, shows Shin the error of his ways, he gives up on his plan and he and Sai fade away, happy and content thanks to their love for one another. How nice.

How very nice.


I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Namco. Did I just see that right? Did you just give the GENOCIDAL MADMAN who killed over 6 BILLION PEOPLE a HAPPY ENDING? Maybe you missed the part in your own narrative where Shin brought about the END OF CURRENT HUMAN CULTURE. Maybe you forgot that he caused 6 billion people plus to go to sleep and never wake up again. Perhaps you have not quite considered that this fellow eliminated a PLANET'S worth of sapient organisms.

I'm sorry, but come on. Maybe I don't have enough perspective, but I feel like any individual who knowingly and maliciously participates in the extermination of an entire species, one numbering 6 thousand millions, does NOT deserve to get the girl and ride off into the fucking sunset! This is not a minor lapse in judgment. This is not a child's TV show where we're going to smile and encourage Shin because he realizes he made a mistake that was hurtful to others but has now learned his lesson. Big Bird, Lambchops, and Captain Kangaroo are not going to burst into a cute little song about why it's important not to do what Shin did so we all learn a happy little lesson. Twilight Sparkle is not going to dictate a letter that starts with, "Dear Princess Celestia, today I learned that it's not good to condemn everyone everywhere to death." This is a crime against humanity that makes every previous transgression committed, every war crime conceived, look like cute misdemeanors! If your story is going to involve a guy who expunged a sentient species from all existence, there had better be some serious consequences for him! Particularly if they're offset by the reward of a love interest!

And I mean APPROPRIATE consequences, here. Yeah, Shin does die, but look at the way he goes! Happy, content, satisfied! His notion that humanity sucks is proven wrong by a chick saying she digs him--but his mind is only comprehending the "I HAS GIRLFRIEND NOW" part. What it's NOT contemplating is, "Oh shit. I guess I condemned 99.9% of my species to death based on an assumption that was wrong." You do not see a single twitch of regretful conscience from the moment Sai proves him wrong to the moment he disappears in a golden, misleadingly divine light.

My God.'s so unbelievable to me that Shin gets off virtually unpunished. A happy ending for the mass mass MASS murderer!

There are, of course, some extenuating details to this situation that make it even more stupid. Such as Shin's motivation. What was it that caused Shin to do this horrible thing? What unimaginable travesty was committed against him that could bring him to attempt to wipe out the human race? Twice? Get ready to shed some tears, guys: people weren't as nice as they should have been. When Shin became able to hear people's emotions and thoughts and such, he found out that what people think isn't always as nice and socially acceptable as what they say and act like. And so, because the people around him had petty negative thoughts in their heads, Shin decided that humanity was irredeemable and had to be eliminated, too petty to be allowed to live.

Because, y'know, finding out people aren't as nice as you want them to be isn't a petty reason to murder them, or anything.

I've seen versions of this idea a few times, and I have to say, every iteration I've seen has been better than Shin's experience. Take the show Torchwood. In Season 1, an alien chick gives one of the show's characters, Tosh, an artifact thingy that will let Tosh hear the thoughts of those around her. Upon bringing it to work, Tosh finds that her coworkers and friends speak and act nicely enough toward her, but think unpleasant things about her, criticizing her for her interests, her attempts to socialize with them, and even her style of dress. She's shocked and dismayed at finding out the secret vices and petty thoughts of the people around her, and it disorients her, makes her question herself, her place in Torchwood, and her beliefs.** Watching Tosh try to make the best of the situation, seeing her shocked loss of faith in people at knowing what they truly think, it all comes across as very believable. It's done well (one of the few parts of Season 1 that is, in fact). But you know what Tosh never gets around to feeling during her emotional turmoil? The desire to kill all humans. Somehow, her experiences, which for all appearances are extremely similar to Shin's, never cause her to question whether she should take an active part in destroying her species. You know why?

Because she's not a PSYCHOTIC IDIOT and the Torchwood writers were actually making an effort to create a character that could be taken seriously!

So not only is Shin homicidal on a species-wide scale, but he's that way for really stupid, selfish reasons. REALLY stupid ones, when you consider that he was a SCIENTIST who somehow thought that a specialized sample group of, say, 50 people could be trusted to be a completely accurate representation of a population of 6,000,000,000. So not only were his reasons for causing an apocalypse those of a whiny douchebag, but he didn't have any reasonable proof that these pitiful reasons were even ACCURATE.

Here's another thought to compound how stupid this scenario is. The reason Shin gives up on trying to kill everyone again is because he finds out from Sai's ghost that she always loved him. He apparently somehow didn't pick up on it. the hell could a mind-reader miss one of the most intense emotional and intellectual sensations one can feel happening in the patient he worked with every day? Particularly when the love was directed at him? This is either a disturbingly bad plot hole, or, if you want to make a stretch and fill in said hole with a quick bit of logic, it means that for whatever reason, Shin just wasn't able to hear love in people's minds, expressions, pheromones, whatever level the damn empathy power worked on. And if he couldn't hear love, who knows what other positive emotions he couldn't tune in on? No damn wonder he thought everyone around him was a jerk if he wasn't capable of hearing the parts of them that were at all decent. So not only did he murder for petty reasons, and not only were those reasons basically entirely unverified and impossible to determine whether they were actually accurate to the human race as a whole, but it's ALSO questionable now whether the experiences he had were even accurate of the handful of people he stupidly decided should be indicative of the whole human race.

We're supposed to feel any sort of sympathy for this guy? We're NOT supposed to be absolutely enraged that he finds peace and romantic fulfillment with no observable feeling of guilt?

And hey, regarding that romantic fulfillment, exactly why does Sai still love the guy, anyway? I mean, I can understand where her feelings came from during life. The game has her explain how they developed, and it's believable enough, if not particularly compelling. But honestly, I feel like Sai knowing that Shin deliberately killed everyone on Earth and is now trying to squash the few humans he missed the first time should maybe cool her passions a bit. Maybe I'm just crazy. Ladies, help me out. If you found out that the dude you'd been crushing on was the bringer of Armageddon, basically a more effective Hitler but who lacks even Hitler's (insanely misguided) wish to improve humanity, would you still have the hots on him? Or would whiny global genocide turn you off just a bit? I'd like to think that the latter would be true, and, by logical extension, I'd like to think that Sai's continued romantic interest in Shin is IDIOTIC.

Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon is a great RPG, it really is. It's compelling, it's creative, it's artistic. Overall, I highly recommend it. Nonetheless, the circumstances of Shin's defeat and demise are stupid, nonsensical, and infuriating. It really feels like an instance where the writers just couldn't be bothered to consider the character and situation for very long and just threw in a few tired cliches to get it over with, cliches that they couldn't even execute well.

* This probably will leave this rant with no one to actually read it. Oh well.

** Why it would surprise Tosh at all that Owen is thinking mean things is anyone's guess. It's not like Owen goes out of his way during Season 1 to hide the fact that he's a complete and total asswipe.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Alundra 2's Reputation

Alundra 2 has, it can be debated, a bad reputation. I say it can be debated because it's generally more accurate to say that Alundra 2 has NO reputation, being a very obscure old RPG from the Playstation 1 days that got even less attention than its already oft-forgotten/ignored predecessor, Alundra 1, did. Generally speaking, no one but the big RPG enthusiast is going to even know what Alundra 2 is, should you ask.

The obscure-RPG-playing community, however, does have a general opinion of the game, from what I've seen, and that opinion is that it's just plain bad. Where Alundra 1 is generally praised in the gaming circles where its existence is known of, Alundra 2 receives, in those same circles, scorn and avoidance.

I think the main reason that people hold such disfavor for it is that it has nearly no ties, technical or thematic, to Alundra 1. It's not surprising that gamers would hold that against Alundra 2; after all, most of the people who would be interested in seeking out and playing Alundra 2 do so, I imagine, because they're fans of Alundra 1 and want more of the same. But Alundra 2 is just nothing like Alundra 1--no common characters or plot (there's no reason to think it even takes place on the same world), the gameplay style is notably different, as is the atmosphere and general look. About the only real connection they have is the title of the games and the fact that some of Alundra 2's music sounds like some of Alundra 1's. Alundra 1 is moody, Alundra 2 is lighthearted. Alundra 1 brings about surprising emotion, Alundra 2 goes for chuckles. Alundra 1 has subtle themes and a conflict between gods and men, Alundra 2 has a straightforward save the world adventure. Alundra 1 has frustratingly difficult puzzles, Alundra 2 has frustratingly difficult controls. Alundra 1 looks okay, Alundra 2 looks like something that was dug out of the garbage bins at Naughty Dog, Inc. while it was developing the first Crash Bandicoot. And so on.

Thing of it is...well, it's not warranted, this general dislike. Alundra 2 isn't a bad RPG. Oh, it's not an especially good one, either, I'll certainly grant you, and between the 2, Alundra 1 is clearly the superior RPG. Better ideas, better characters, better story, better execution overall. But Alundra 2 is, if not outright good, certainly a decent RPG, and enjoyable enough from start to finish that you shouldn't feel your time spent with it wasted.

What you have to realize, I think, is that this game, despite obviously trying to cash in on the meager fame of Alundra 1, knows what it is and does not try to be more. What it is, is a lighthearted adventure involving pirates, evil magic keys, dungeon-crawling, and world-saving. Alundra 2 doesn't really have any ambition to provide more than that, and if you expect it to do so (likely by expecting it to live up to Alundra 1's standards), it's natural that you'll be disappointed and dislike the game. This is, for once, a real case of a sequel that should be judged by its own standards and not by those of its predecessor.*

And by its own standards...Alundra 2's alright. In lieu of deep issues and emotional depth, Alundra 2 goes for a touch of the goofy, keeping itself amusing. You're never particularly invested in or worried for its characters, but they'll make you chuckle on occasion. The events you'll witness aren't exactly inspiring or particularly novel, but they're fun enough and even quite humorous at times. It's a casual RPG, but for being such, it does it well, I think, for it knows when to throw in a bit of humor, and often you'll be caught off-guard by it enough that any cynicism you have won't have caught up by the time you let out a guffaw. There was one scene in particular in the game that made me laugh out loud, the one that shows how the king has been replaced and in what way this illusion is maintained--it basically boils down to a wooden king doll sitting in the throne with a dude hiding just behind said throne, who, when needed, reaches around to lift the king's arm in a commanding way, or adjust his head. This bit of zany humor is portrayed with just the right timing and attitude that I found it to be uncommonly funny.

I also think it's worth noting that even as a name cash-in title, Alundra 2 really isn't as bad as all that. It sure as hell isn't the only RPG to transparently use a name to help sell it, and as far as that goes, I've seen much worse. Remember Grandia 3? That game had even less to do with the series it stole its name from, making it another obvious case of adopting a name for marketing purposes, and it flat out suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucked. Maybe Alundra 2 doesn't live up to its name and maybe they didn't try for too much more than a generic adventure with it, but at least it wasn't outright heinous, so it's still a step above its name cash-in peers.

The game sure as hell isn't without its flaws, of course. As I mentioned before, the control mechanics are pretty bad, and, though it doesn't matter much, it's quite strange that Alundra 2 would look so amazingly messy and ugly when Alundra 1 actually had a graphical presentation of good quality. The challenge factor of the puzzles is much less than Alundra 1's was, although that isn't necessarily a bad thing to some players (like myself), as Alundra 1's puzzles were sometimes way more difficult than they had any right to be. And hey, I wouldn't be me if I didn't frown on the game at least a little for not striving to do better with its story and characters. They may be amusing, but you can have a game that's both amusing AND has good characters and a meaningful plot--Disgaea 1 and Okage: Shadow King managed it, no problem.

Nonetheless, the overall package of Alundra 2 is fun enough, and though it's not very impressive, it at least knows this and doesn't try to convince you that it is, the way most uninspired RPGs will. And it does provide some good amusement all along its way. Alundra 2 isn't a great RPG, but I stand by the idea that it's at least a decent one, an enjoyable one, and I don't think it deserves the bad rep it has.

* I run into this argument fairly often, most notably concerning Chrono Cross, and every time someone has brought it up, it's annoyed the crap out of me. Because yes, Chrono Cross does suck enormously when compared to Chrono Trigger and as a sequel it's absolutely goddamn fucking awful. But if you don't compare it to CT, it STILL has an incomprehensible and outright stupid plot, a lousy and mostly superfluous cast, and so on. It is STILL absolutely goddamn fucking awful, taken alone or as a sequel. But its various defenders will, in a desperate move to at least appear like they have a legitimate stance, insist that anyone detracting from Chrono Cross MUST be doing so SOLELY because they're unfairly** judging it by the standards of Chrono Trigger. This tends to be the tactic of everyone I see use this argument when defending sequels. My point here is that Alundra 2 is, I think, one of those rare occasions where it actually is true that it's decent not by comparison but by its own merits.

** And why, might I ask, is it so unfair to compare a sequel to the original when it is clearly meant to tie in and build off of the original? It isn't like CC is detached from CT like Alundra 2 is to Alundra 1. They're connected by vital plot events, occur on the same world (more or less; that's always a gray area with time- and dimension-traveling stories), incorporate several of the same characters...obviously you should judge a game by its own worth, but when it derives a significant part of the qualities you're judging (plot and characters) from a predecessor, how it incorporates those aspects should be a consideration, too.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

General RPGs' Minigames 9: Spheda

I really like how long a period can go by between rants on minigames. It means I haven't encountered any bad ones for a while...or at least, I haven't remembered them.

Sadly, something the other day recalled to my mind the Golf minigame of Dark Cloud 2. What a goddamn pain in the ass. I'm tempted to just end the rant right here; that assessment is really about the only thing you actually need or want to know about the minigame if you haven't already experienced it. But that'd be the easy way out, and I've never been one, well, actually, I AM usually one for the easy way out, but let's just do this anyway.

So, Golf. Even as immensely boring as any sport is to watch or especially to simulate in a video game, Golf stands out for being boring. Watching some pretentious jerk stand still for several minutes so he can judge exactly how wind and distance and such affect a trajectory so he can swing a metal stick and hit a little ball across an over-sized lawn with no eye-catching landmarks or plant life just to see whether he can get said little ball into a little hole in the dirt is not my idea of a good time. Frankly, it leaves me wishing they were swinging the metal sticks at my head instead of the ball, just so I can see if my anesthetized mind is still capable of feeling pain. It doesn't even promote the development of any primitive skill that has a rudimentary usefulness--at least Soccer builds up your ability to kick a low moving object, which will be handy if you ever need to bring the hurt to a coworker's ankles, and Football promotes the ability to be body-slammed and not die, which is a very useful skill to have if you ever decide to commit suicide by having a bull ram into you but change your mind at the last second. What the hell does Golf teach you? Perhaps some day, when we finally declare war on the world's prairie dogs, our Golf players will become our greatest heroes, gloriously sending bombs into one underground bunker of our adorably chubby, godless mammal enemies after another. On that day, I shall eat my words.

Until then? Golf is rubbish.

So I'm not particularly predisposed to having to put up with it in my RPGs.* But even a fan of the game probably wouldn't like it in Dark Cloud 2. Because, you see, DC2 doesn't just give you Golf--it gives you Spheda, which I prefer to call Dungeon Golf. Dungeon Golf, a term of my own invention, is when you play Golf in a dungeon. It's a pretty self-explanatory term. You know what a regular Golf game requires? Among other things, a lot of open space. You know what a dungeon doesn't really provide? That.

The basic premise in DC2 is to get your stupid ball to roll, fly, and ricochet around the passages of the dungeon to get into a glowing alternate-dimension-portal-looking hole. To do this within the allowed number of swings, you need to send the damn ball bouncing all over the dungeon, avoiding or knocking against various barriers, objects, and walls. Regular Golf usually involves, if I'm not mistaken, a generally straight line to the goal--you may have to get over traps and hills, you may need to double back with the ball if you overshoot things, but there's never a maze-like set of corridors to navigate. This is almost closer to Pool than it is to Golf. So there's really no reason to think that even an enthusiast in this sport is going to enjoy the Dark Cloud 2 version.

This is further cemented by the inclusion of the one thing about Golf that is universally hated even among fans of it: the impediments and traps. If you like Golf but aren't a fan of getting your ball stuck in places it's hard to hit it out of, or losing the ball altogether by hitting it into the wrong spot, you are not going to like Spheda. The dungeons in which this minigame occurs often have bodies of water that must be avoided. Then there's the Mount Gundor dungeon, where you can and, I assure you, very often will accidentally knock the damn ball off the ledge and down the abyss. And there are parts of Ocean Roar Cave submerged in an inch or 2 of water where you will sculpt a monument to profanity as you attempt to get the ball where you want it to go through the flooded cavern, impeded at every stroke by the fucking water everywhere.

Now, any normal sadistic, hateful game developer might have stopped there. He's presumably alienated his target audience of RPG players (most of us aren't avid sports fans, I think). He's alienated anyone who actually likes Golf. Any normal spiteful developer would call it a day and move on. But not the madmen working at Level-5. No sir! They decided to compound the frustration and stupidity of Dungeon Golf with the color system. See, in Spheda, it's not enough just to hit the fucking ball into the fucking hole. No, you have to make sure the ball is also the opposite color of the portal thing--if it's red, the ball must be blue, and vice versa. How do you change the ball's color? By bouncing it off something. So of course, given the narrow and twisting confines of many areas of the game, and the fact that a swing of any decent power will at the very least cause the ball to bounce off the ground itself, it's more likely than not that you'll have no idea which color it will be by the end of every swing, and by extension, by the time it gets within sight of the distortion you need to hit it into. You can--and by "can," I mean "very often will, with curses spoken loudly and teeth gnashed mightily"--find yourself lined up for a clear shot into the damn goal with 1 swing left, and find the ball sporting the shade you don't want. Maybe you'll have a wall you can ricochet off of into the goal to change the ball to the needed hue--and maybe you won't, and will have to do the whole thing over again.

Which brings me to the next "fun" part of this minigame--trying the level over again. When you fail to beat a stage in Spheda, which is going to be the majority of the time, you don't just get to try it again. That would only be a little annoying. No, to try again, you'll have to re-enter that level of the dungeon and beat all the enemies in it all over again. Because, y'know, there aren't enough repetitive fights against generic enemies in an RPG already, right? So in addition to setting you back 5 or 10 minutes for the Spheda game, any subsequent attempt after an initial failure is going to run you a good 10 - 20 minutes extra. This minigame, more than most others, was obviously designed with the belief that the player is immortal and thus places no particular worth on his or her time.**

The one thing I can't fault Spheda on too much, I suppose, is the fact that there's not much actual need to play it. The rewards for it are nice enough, but not especially important--each successful round of Dungeon Golf rewards you with some good, but not necessary, items, and a medal. Medals can be exchanged for new outfits that change the main characters' appearance, or for an item that lets you rename weapons. So overall, you're not going to be penalized by missing out on something significant if you don't indulge in your self-loathing and play Spheda. And the only time the game forces you to play it barely counts, because if you can't manage to win that mandatory round, the game just has one of the characters do it for you. So in the end, Spheda is at least not compulsory.

But stupid? Frustrating? Pointless? Unwanted? A terrible idea that demands a kick in the face be delivered to anyone and everyone involved in its creation? Oh hell yes.

* Hell, I'm not sure we should have to put up with it even in our Golf games. Seems to me that you could sneak an entirely different game into a Golf title without upsetting too many people. Is someone really going to complain that you tricked them into actually playing something fun?

** Of course, I did play Phantasy Star 3 from beginning to end, so I guess I shouldn't put on too many airs about valuing my own time too heavily.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Fallout: New Vegas's Downloadable Content

So far, I've had a mixed bag with RPG add-ons. Fallout 3's were generally very good, while Dragon Age 1's were generally lousy. Mass Effect 1's were split evenly between decent and dull. Mass Effect 2's tended to lean towards quality, while Dragon Age 2's add-ons, from what I have seen so far, have leaned away from it. So, let's see how Fallout: New Vegas measures up. While I liked FNV, and recognize much of its storytelling worth for its use of themes of Americana, I feel it didn't have as powerful a draw nor as compelling an overall tale as Fallout 3 did, so I'm not expecting anything too great. Still, FNV did have some excellent moments, so I do have a little hope for something decent.

Dead Money: At first, I was pretty skeptical of how worthwhile this DLC was going to be. Breaking into an old-world casino for a heist of a speculative treasure while under the watchful eye of a crazy, greedy jackass who could kill you at any time, by working with an untrustworthy team of individuals that are probably waiting for the first opportunity to stab you in the back...well, you take the words "old-world" out of that description, and you've basically just described Reindeer Games. So I went into this DLC expecting a story of comparable silly, pointless stupidity.

This DLC is pleasantly surprising, though. Oh, at first it doesn't seem like much, just a romp around a suburban ghost town finding stuff and doing errands, basic Fallout stuff, with a couple extra gameplay twists to keep things mildly frustrating. From a gameplay perspective, I suppose it's COULD take the extra variables of toxic clouds, regenerating enemies, confusing street layouts, hologram guards, and deadly radio beeps as a positive thing, ways to make the playing more complex. And as long as you're being thorough with your explorations (and why wouldn't you be? It's a Fallout game; scrounging for stuff is half the fun), it'll last you a good while.

As it goes along, though, one finds that the history of the casino that one is breaking into is actually pretty interesting, with simple yet compelling human drama reminiscent of famous American story tropes laced into its background. About half of the characters in Dead Money are pretty decent, too--Christine and Father Elijah aren't noteworthy, but Dean's history is good, and Dog/God's character is quite good and well-executed. The DLC's story as a whole also comes together pretty nicely, showing through the history of the Sierra Madre Casino's creator, his paramour, the antagonist, the party members, and even the gameplay itself at the end (the fact that you won't be able to make it out if you try to leave with all the gold in the vault)*, greed's many forms, that it can lead you to doom, and that sometimes the only right thing to do, for your sake and others, is to let go of what you desire, walk away from it and find a new focus. It takes a little while to get going, but once it does, this DLC's plot has the heart and the skill to make it a solid side story. $10 is a bit steep for most DLCs, but given the quality of the story of Dead Money, and how long it will take (I'd say 6 to 8 hours, if you're exploring thoroughly), it's worth it.

Honest Hearts: After Dead Money's unexpected subtle quality, Honest Hearts is kind of disappointing. The overall story to it, that of saving a peaceful tribe from the aggressions of another tribe in league with Caesar's Legion, is just not terribly interesting, just a by-the-numbers progression of quests that don't feel particularly meaningful.

The characters involved in this Downloadable Content are a huge step down from the previous one's, too. In Dead Money, we had a decent character (Christine), a decent character whose past tied interestingly into the setting and story of the add-on (Dean), a really interesting and well-done character (Dog/God), and a villain who, if not particularly interesting, at least symbolized well the underlying theme of the add-on. This DLC has no one of comparison for its major entities--Daniel, Follows-Chalk, and Waking Cloud are all highly forgettable and have little worthwhile depth, and Joshua, while okay, is not nearly as well-characterized as he should be. All of his dialogue and history is far too understated; you've got a very religious man who fell from his faith to become the legendarily successful right hand general of a tyrannical warlord, was betrayed by the warlord for failing just once, and finally reawakened to his faith and devoted himself to the salvation of others. How the hell do you make a character like that dull? Well, they managed it somehow. And lastly, there's Salt-Upon-Wounds, the villain of the add-on, who only shows up at the very end, has no character development whatsoever, and is completely forgettable.

There are some Biblical references and undertones to the setting, events, and characters of this DLC, but where the theme of Greed was subtle yet thoughtful and significant in Dead Money, here the Christian theme just seems insubstantial at most points, and clumsily pasted on at others.

Honest Hearts isn't all bad--the setting and its exploration are fairly nice, though not noteworthy, and the journal of the individual known as The Father, whose entries you can find throughout the DLC's area, is actually pretty interesting. But overall, it's fairly substandard, and definitely not worth even half the admission price.

Old World Blues: If you read my Fallout 3 DLC rant, you may remember that I was definitely not impressed with the Mothership Zeta add-on. They were apparently going for something lighthearted with it, but all it wound up being was boring, pointless, and moderately stupid. So I wasn't expecting much from Fallout: New Vegas's successor to that, Old World Blues, billed as another lighthearted DLC. But since Fallout 3, someone must have realized that "light" does not mean "lazy and without meaning," because Old World Blues is actually pretty damned funny overall. The dialogue with the Think Tank, along with Dr. Mobius, is generally clever, and consistently amusing, and I nearly bust a gut laughing at some of the personalities in the Sink area of this add-on--Muggy is one of the best things to happen, ever. The DLC also ties itself nicely to the previous Dead Money add-on, and to the upcoming final package, Lonesome Road--the ties are significant, but not overbearing, and all the hooplah about "The Big Empty" (the setting for this DLC) that Dead Money made is surprisingly effectively executed here. The way this DLC's setting had been built up, I figured any actual representation of it wouldn't be able to quite live up to the hype and mental image I had of it, so the developers' turning the whole thing into a joke reminiscent of classic mid-century B-rated science fiction was really quite ingenious, and didn't leave me feeling let down at all.

It's quite good gameplay-wise, too. This DLC's new weapons aren't that interesting, I guess, but it offers a new armor that's very handy, the difficulty's very high for all the people (not me) who wanted a challenge for their endgame levels, the DLC introduces a handy use for several until now useless background items which means more fun, rewarding exploratory looting, and most handily, this add-on provides an immediately accessible, fully-equipped home base location for the player. Up until now, there really wasn't a good one available--the only one with all the proper amenities for a home base in this game was located in a place that, idiotically enough, could not be fast-traveled to. Even when you were at the location for it, you still had to go inside and board an elevator to get to the home base location, adding to the inconvenience. All the other, smaller home bases lacked one resource or the other, and sometimes were kinda cramped. Of course, I have to say that a proper home base should have already been in the game, instead of added in this late, but eh, I guess it's just good that it's there.

The one thing I think didn't really work for this package was just the fact that it tries, towards its end, to become a little too serious. While the revelations that Dr. Mobius has to offer near the DLC's end are interesting, and even perhaps a little moving, everything after that point starts to feel like they tried to cram serious plot significance in at the last minute. It's just not the direction the whole thing was going in, and it's out of place. This one problem aside, though, Old World Blues is a solid, fun Downloadable Content, and I can't imagine anyone coming away from it feeling unsatisfied with their purchase.

Lonesome Road: And finally we come to Lonesome Road, the last Fallout: New Vegas DLC, the one that the previous 3 add-ons, not to mention many references in the game proper, have led up to. How does it hold up? Well...I was surprised to find that this really IS about as cool and epic as the build-up would have you believe. I'll grant you that there are quite a few details that could have been expounded on in more depth, questions about the DLC's antagonist Ulysses that were kind of just passed by during Lonesome Road's narrative, but overall, this side-story of the power of symbols and history does not disappoint, introducing not only a slew of philosophical angles to the conflict between NCR, Caesar's Legion, and Mr. House (and all eloquently spoken by Ulysses), but also providing some much-needed history for Fallout: New Vegas's protagonist. As a bonus, we get some character development for one of the game's party members, ED-E, which was sorely needed. Another, minor bonus is that the characterization of Ulysses through his recordings also better ties his journeys to the Honest Hearts DLC, making it seem, in retrospect, more relevant to the add-ons in general, and more important to Fallout: New Vegas's themes and events. I also appreciate the pace and execution of the story's telling to this DLC; while there's still a component of exploration to Lonesome Road, it is, generally speaking, a very linear side adventure, and there's a finite number of enemies until the DLC's end. This lessened potential for exploration and limited potential for fighting means that there's less potential for distraction from the plot and its narrative. This is a good and appropriate conclusion to Fallout: New Vegas's add-ons, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

So in the end, how did Fallout: New Vegas do with its add-ons? Pretty well, really. While each of these DLCs are a pricy $10, as long as you're going everywhere and doing everything there is to do in them, you're probably going to spend around 7 to 10 hours on each, (you can definitely do each of them faster than that, but if you're just going to rush through each area and forgo half the content and experience, then you're obviously not concerned about getting your money's worth anyway), which brings it to a rate of somewhere around a buck to a buck and a half per hour of gameplay. That's a pretty decent ratio for add-ons (certainly better than others I've dealt with--like paying a new game's price for the Dragon Age 1 Awakening expansion and getting less than half as many hours of gameplay as dollars spent on it), and 3 out of the 4 have worthwhile stories to tell and are quite enjoyable. 1 has interesting takes on a theme of human nature, one has interesting takes on a theme of human society, and one's just really funny. And even the odd one out, Honest Hearts, isn't bad, just somewhat bland, which still makes it an improvement over the worst of the Fallout 3 add-ons, Mothership Zeta, which was bland AND stupid. So Fallout: New Vegas passes with high marks for its Downloadable Content, certainly on equal ground with its predecessor, Fallout 3.

Too bad I have a feeling the next game I'll be doing one of these add-on rants for, Dragon Age 2, isn't going to be quite as satisfying...

* At least, you're not SUPPOSED to be able to. There are a couple of creative little work-around methods for getting out successfully with all the gold, which are helpfully described in several Youtube videos. But the point is that the creators obviously intended The Courier (Fallout: New Vegas's protagonist) to have to give up on most of the treasure to be able to escape the casino alive.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Final Fantasy 9's Strategy Guide

Back in the day, printed strategy guides used to be a pretty standard game accessory. You bought the game, you played it, and if you just couldn't get past a certain part and didn't have any friends to ask how to get through it (or if you just couldn't be bothered to try), you went out and bought the strategy guide. This was back in the days of the SNES and Sega Genesis.

The internet changed this. Dramatically. By the time the Playstation 1 was in full swing, "teh intarwebz," to use its scientific title, was filling with walkthroughs, FAQs, and random tips and tricks dispersed on forums. At present, there are multiple locations a mere few clicks away for any given game out there that can pretty easily tell you everything you want to know about that game. Hell, you can often find a complete walkthrough available on GameFAQs for games that haven't even come out yet, because people will write them based on the original Japanese version released months before the US gets it. Even in extreme circumstances where some aspect of the game hasn't been addressed in an official walkthrough, you have quick and easy access to other people via forums, chat programs, and God knows what else--you're never in a position where you can't find a friend who can help you with a certain part of a game.

I know there are still physical walkthroughs sold nowadays, and God bless whoever's still doing it, because I have no idea how they stay in business. I guess they must really go all out on aesthetic appeal and target games that are complex enough that they can make the whole walkthrough look impressively huge to tempt buyers--I know I saw a Final Fantasy 13 one recently that was thicker than some college textbooks. But I'm pretty certain that the business must be a lot smaller than it was, and is likely to keep dwindling.

Now, back in late 2000, the fan-made walkthrough process was not quite as streamlined as it is now. But if it's in its fully-formed adult life now, it was at least in its competent teen years then. If you needed to know specific game information about pretty much any title, particularly one as popular as, say, Final Fantasy, you could find effective information quickly and easily. There were really only 3 reasons for a person to get a walkthrough for a popular video game. They were:

1. No reliable internet access. Hey, a lot of people still weren't really online at that point. Hell, there are still a fair amount of people in the present who aren't.

2. The aesthetic and/or collector value. Some people just LIKE to look at a page more than a computer screen when they read something. In many cases, I'm one of them (though not in this one; to me a walkthrough is a walkthrough, electronic or paper). They just wanted to get their answers from a physical guide.

3. They happened to walk into a game store on the day that the store was getting rid of its old walkthroughs that weren't selling, and were offered the pretty good deal of 7 game walkthroughs for 1 cent.

That 3rd one there was considerably less common than the beginning 2 reasons, though; I can only really confirm it having happened once. But anyway, the major reasons I can think of, in 2000 AD, to buy a physical strategy guide revolved around lack of internet and preference for paper. Remember this.

So, enough introduction paragraphs. Let's actually try talking about the subject of the rant. For every major Final Fantasy game that comes out for over a decade, there has been an Official Strategy Guide released for it. In 2000, it was Final Fantasy 9's turn, and Brady Games was the one to release the official game guide for it. At first glance, it seems good enough...decent-looking cover, thick enough that it's probably pretty comprehensive, promises that it's the official strategy guide on the front, which must mean that it has everything inside you could possibly need to know about the game. Right?

Alright, so we go along...acknowledgement page, table of, what's this? 3rd page in, there's the introduction, and then a section entitled "Using This Book." A quick glance will tell the reader that the "key element" in this strategy guide is its ties with PlayOnline, a website in which you type a keyword, as indicated by the book, and get detailed information about that part of the game, be it an item, location, boss, or something else. The next page gives a visual representation of what the PlayOnline keyword boxes in the guide will look like.


Moving on, the next pages cover the basics of gameplay, expanding with superfluous jabber and charts into a half dozen pages what a tiny instruction manual managed to adequately explain already. But oh well, not important.

Ah-ha! Having done with basic information, it's time to get on with the specific info! Here come the character pages! Time to learn about the characters of the ga--wait, what? What is this?

Since you are (probably) not looking at the guide yourself, allow me to describe what I see here. The page starts with the main character, Zidane. There is a brief explanation of who he is and what kind of stuff he equips. There is then a section called "Stealing Items," which very lightly touches upon Zidane's ability to steal from enemies, and...that's it. Where's the information about his other abilities? He's got quite a few. They just mention in passing that he has other ones. But what are they? They don't list any of--oh, wait. The blue PlayOnline box on the side is saying something. It's saying that if you want to know anything substantial about what Zidane, the character you'll be using almost from start to finish in this game, can do in combat, you'll have to go to the PlayOnline site to find out. Yes, the guide whose purpose for existence is to help you to play the game effectively will not tell you of the capabilities of the character you'll be using.

Oh, no, wait. Characters, plural. ALL of the characters' pages have PlayOnline password boxes where the actual information on their skills should have been. In some cases, there are multiple instances of PlayOnline boxes withholding essential data for a single character.

Now, if you continue onwards, you'll find some pages about the abilities for each character, which DOES list out what abilities the character can learn, and what they do. But still the PlayOnline boxes are holding hostage any detailed information about these abilities, such as, for example, their power, the amount of MP they use, how/where to learn them and how much time is required for the learning process, and so on. If you want detailed information, or, to quote the guide, "a complete list of each character's abilities," you have to put the guide book down and go online for it.

It pretty much just goes downhill from this point. No matter what information you're looking to obtain from this guide, you'll only find, at most, half the story in its pages, with all the details having been kidnapped by the infernal PlayOnline blue boxes. Desire detailed locations for the game's weapons? Gotta look online. Want to know what characters learn from Accessories? Also online. Have an interest, for some unfathomable reason, to better understand the Tetra Master card minigame? Every goddamn aspect they list has had some of its information relocated to PlayOnline.

And things get REAL bad when they start the actual walkthrough itself. Want the guide to give you any information about where to upgrade your party's equipment when you reach a new town? Go to PlayOnline. Want to know where special hidden items are located in any given dungeon/town/whatever? Go to PlayOnline. Want to know anything at all about the Frog Catching and Chocobo Digging sidequests? From what I can see, you have to go to PlayOnline for any knowledge of them beyond their names. Want to know what rewards you could get from the Stellazio Coin sidequest? Go to PlayOnline. Need any strategy for dealing with a boss that's more complex than "Use strongest spells with mage, heal with healer, and steal with thief?" Go to PlayOnline.

Basically, if you want to know anything about this game more complicated than what general direction to have your character walk in next, there's a 50-50 chance that the guide's gonna tell you to go online to find out.

I'm sure you all can see the problem with this. Namely, that the STRATEGY GUIDE that you PAID for doesn't actually have the information you need and is telling you to go ONLINE to find it. There is so goddamn much wrong with this. For starters, how about the fact that you paid for NOTHING. This guide was sold at the regular rate a strategy guide was sold for, yet had consistently incomplete strategy within it. If this had been a car, you would have paid full price for a car with three quarters of its engine missing. There would be LAWS in place that this transaction would violate!

Next, how about the fact that the only reason to buy a walkthrough by the time of FF9's release, as mentioned above, was because of either an inability to go online or a choice not to? As I mentioned, online game assistance was well-established by the year 2000! People buying this strategy guide for any real purpose were doing so because they wanted to see tips INSIDE the book they were buying. So, not only is it a rip-off because it doesn't actually do what it's supposed to--give all-inclusive information about the game--but it's a rip-off twice over because the paltry substitution for the information, its PlayOnline codes, are things that the only large group of people buying it didn't want or couldn't use.

To compound this idiocy, consider the marketing strategy here. Short-term, obviously Squaresoft was hoping that this would make people come to their site in droves, which would give them easier access to fans for future marketing purposes. Long-term...hell, not even long-term, just slightly-less-short-term, BradyGames was publishing a guide book that encourages, nay, requires its readers to become more familiar with the concept of finding information online by typing phrases into search boxes. BradyGames was essentially training its customers how to FIND INFORMATION ONLINE FOR FREE. Who the HELL was it that OK'd the idea of exposing the company's dwindling audience to its greatest threat?

And lastly, to finalize all this idiocy, the goddamn PlayOnline website? It hasn't had Final Fantasy 9 information on it for years now. Yeah, after all that, the strategy guide's pass codes can't be used any longer. Not exactly a product that endured time's test, here.

Yeah, so, overall, the FF9 strategy guide is one of the more unforgivably stupid and blatantly dishonest parts of SquareEnix's history--which, considering what company we're talking about, does say quite a lot. It's a farce of a product, it's transparent that it was made without any thought whatsoever of what the consumer might want or need, it's not even worth the paper it's printed on since the site dumped the FF9 data, and it taught readers how to find their information without having to pay for a strategy guide in the future so the companies wound up screwing themselves over worse than they did the players. It's a miserable, stupid failure on all sides. There's exactly one piece of useful knowledge to be culled from this entire guide: don't trust Square.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Phantasy Star 1

I did a rant recently on The Magic of Scheherazade, and the many ways it was really noteworthy for its time (and the fact that it STILL has some aspects that are creative and different even in the present day), and it was fun. So hey, why not look at another laudable, ancient RPG? An even older one, this time!

When it comes to console RPGs, Phantasy Star 1 for the Sega Master System is one of the oldest to be found. I actually never owned a SMS, myself, and only played PS1 for the first time half a dozen years ago when it was rereleased on the Gameboy Advance. But once I finally did play it, something like 20 years late, I was reasonably impressed with it (and I didn't have to worry about the feeling coming from any sense of nostalgia)--Phantasy Star 1, I found, was quite a pioneer for RPGs in several ways.

One of the earliest RPGs to feature a world map--multiple world maps, in fact. One of the earliest RPGs to give its cast personalities shown through game dialogue. First Science Fiction RPG. All pretty important moments for RPGs. There are 2 aspects of PS1, though, that I feel were its most important contributions to the newborn genre of video game RPGs.

The first is the cut scene. While not totally unknown before the Playstation 1 era of RPGs, proper cut scenes, now a rather huge part of console RPGs, only became commonplace once RPGs hit the 32-Bit scene.* Additionally, most of the times prior to the Playstation-Saturn-N64 where an RPG had a cut scene, it was almost always just reserved for the end, which hardly qualifies it as a cut scene at all. I mean, sure, early RPGs like Startropics and Crystalis had endings with art scenes shown, but a player kind of expects that an ending should pull out all the stops, and it's just one, final place. Phantasy Star 1, on the other hand, has a small handful of cut scenes scattered throughout its adventure's span, seen during the story's most important moments. They're humble, to be sure--scenes of art depicting game events and characters that have to make do with a very limited set of colors and graphical capabilities--but they're certainly not bad, and just the fact that a game on the archaic Sega Master System has them, in multiple instances, is quite impressive. It's not that other old RPGs don't make a try at this sort of thing on occasion--as I said, I recall the endings to Crystalis and Startropics 1, both NES games, having comparable scenes in them...but to my knowledge, PS1 came before them, and was the first to actually include these scenes during the course of the actual game.

More important still to me is the fact that Phantasy Star 1 is, as far as I am aware, the first console RPG--possibly the first video game RPG, period--to star a female protagonist. In 1987, a female protagonist for any video game was almost unheard of; it had only been the year before that the gaming world was blown away by the revelation that Metroid's Samus was a woman. I'm pretty sure that having a heroine was something the RPG genre hadn't made any serious attempt at before PS1, so that's quite something. What makes it even more noteworthy is that Alis is actually a protagonist with a bit of depth, having motivations to go on her quest besides just being unable to deny the whimsical commands of the person holding the controller. A main character with any sort of personality and depth of character was uncommon back then, when RPG characters were most often standard silent protagonists. So not only did PS1 have a female protagonist, but it made her one of the best main heroes of her generation of RPGs. That's worth some recognition; it would be a while before RPGs would see any significant number of leading women, and also a bit of time before the idea of a protagonist that has any sort of plot relevance would take hold in RPGs.

That's about all I can think of, but I'd say that's certainly enough. From the smaller details to the way it pushed the envelope in quality of story telling, Phantasy Star 1 was a trailblazer for the RPG genre, and I say kudos to it for its contributions.

* This depends, of course, on how you define a cut scene. Technically speaking, you can say that any scene in an RPG where you don't have regular control is a cut scene, and so, given all the story events and dialogue of any given Role Playing Game, at least half the game is a series of cut scenes. But that perspective is lame and uninteresting. When I say a cut scene, I mean a part of the story being told in sequential art, animated FMVs, real-life video, that sort of thing. Something special, different, a part (hopefully) so important that it has to be shown as well as possible through art beyond the game's regular capacity.