Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Kingdom Hearts 2's Villain Problem

I'm sorry I've only been updating twice a month, fellas and fella-ettes. I work at Men's Wearhouse, and this time of year is absolute madness there, what with prom kids and wedding parties launching full-on invasions of our rental areas. Just bear with me for another month, and I'll get back to updating thrice each month, on the 5s. If I can actually keep thinking up things to yammer about, of course.

I very much liked Kingdom Hearts 2. In fact, up to and including 2, I've thought the series is pretty great. They're creative, their plots are executed well, several have neat ideas, and KH: Chain of Memories might have been tortuous to actually play, but it was certainly interesting in many regards to the power of memories and so on. I have not gone any further with the series than KH2, though, so I can't say for sure whether it's still good overall or not. I can only work with knowledge of the first 3 in the series.

If there's one problem I have with the series, though, KH2 in particular, it's with half of the original characters. Kingdom Hearts does fine with most of its characters taken from Final Fantasy (as long as you're not looking at Nomura's clumsy, careless mishandling of any character he didn't personally invent), and it does a terrific job with its interpretations for most of its characters of Disney origins. But when it comes to the characters whose origins are Kingdom Hearts alone, it's pretty split.

On the one side, you have the main characters, Sora, Kairi, Riku, Namine, and Roxas. These ones are pretty good. Riku's an annoying ass in KH1, but his character gets much better in KHCoM, and he stays decent in KH2. Sora's an engaging hero who has a fresh feel to him, and you can see him grow in many ways throughout the games, while staying himself overall. Kairi's more appealing as an ideal than a character thanks to her essential part of the games' plots yet extremely small involvement in them, but what little we see of her seems alright. And I liked Namine, though she's woefully underdeveloped as a character. Roxas is...pretty bland, honestly, but not bad, I guess. It's not HIS fault he's stuck in the 5 most boring and pointless hours of KH2, and that his deepest character development is done mostly while he's off-screen. So the main characters are good overall. And the few supporting original characters aren't bad...Ansem's kind of just there as a plot point, but it's not in any bad capacity, and Pence, Olette, and that other kid that Roxas makes friends with are all okay, for minor NPCs.

But on the other side, you have all the original villains of the Kingdom Hearts series. Not the Heartless, mind--I mean the important individuals, not the legions of goons. These are the Heartless Ansem-Mimic whose proper name I forget, Dark Riku, and Organization 13. Now, Dark Riku is the exception here, because he's actually a pretty decent villain once he starts getting all existential and such. But the Ansem-wannabe is pretty generic. And almost all of Organization 13's members are irrelevant, worthless, utterly empty characters with no significance beyond their membership, and the members that DO have something resembling characterization are worse, a collection of generic anime villains whose oppressively convoluted plans are stupid and motivated by selfish and dumb reasons that barely make any sense.

Of course, SquareEnix having a host of lousy villains is nothing new. Even in Square's heyday, they couldn't seem to make a good villain to save their corporate life. "Classic" Final Fantasy villains included a megalomaniac tree that made Snidely Whiplash look like a deep and thoughtful villain, a moon man that had to have other people do everything for him to enact a plan to destroy people that he hated for no adequately-explored reason, a future sorceress that did the same thing as the moon man only for even more vague reasons and with less sensible methods, and a lame rip-off of The Joker that had none of his depth, just going for an "I'm evil for evil's sake! ...Because I'm CRAZY!" mentality. And don't even get me started on Sephiroth and the Turks.

The real problem I have with KH2's set of pathetic, empty villains is that the game didn't HAVE to be stuck with them, at least not in such a prominent role. You get a game like, say, Final Fantasy 12, and, well, you're stuck with the lame, poorly-imagined villain that you've got. Vayne is the best villain they've got because he's the ONLY villain they've got, the only one that's been written for the game that can properly take his role. He may suck, but there's no real alternative because they didn't make one.

But with Kingdom Hearts, the company has literally dozens of great villains available to choose from. Each Disney location visited, each set of characters met, has a villain to offer. Once they'd added the Heartless into the mix, Square was all set. They didn't NEED to do any more, because with a mindless horde of baddies in place to provide power for the bad guys and EXP-fodder for the good guys, Square had many villains they could put into the spotlight that came from Disney. Who can deny the villainous charisma of grand schemers like Ursula, Jafar, Scar, Hades, and Maleficent? The petty darknesses that make individuals like Gaston, Cruella, the queen of Snow White, Tremaine, and Barbarossa such interesting and personal nemeses?

Square has access to these great villains. And Square proves throughout the series that they can not only accurately represent Disney characters, they can actually sometimes make them BETTER. Yet rather than take this opportunity to use an already great villain and make them the spotlight, Square disregards this resource and relegates it to a lesser, even unimportant role. With the exception of Maleficent and Pete, every Disney villain is confined to their single part of the game, a small-time villain rather than anything of huge significance to the plot. And while Maleficent seems for most of KH1 to be the grand villain behind everything, she's eventually one-upped by the KH-original Ansem-wannabe. Then she's made a tiny support villain KHCoM (though to be fair, the setup of the plot to that game necessitates this), and, worst of all, finally relegated to a role of lesser opposition in KH2, a mere afterthought to Organization 13 that is shown through both the story's structure and through actual events in the game not to have nearly the power or importance of these idiotic Nobodies.

I mean, are you KIDDING me? This is freaking MALEFICENT! The only Disney villain so steeped in power that the hero can only beat her by CHEATING. Had the prince in Sleeping Beauty not had the little fairies setting him free, giving him equipment, and finally enchanting the sword to basically be a 1-Hit KO Homing Missile, Maleficent would have won with EASE. You're telling me that Square thought a collection of generic pretty-boys with stupid ambitions that amount to them crying into a pillow "WHY ME WHY CAN'T I FEEEEEEL STUFF THE RIGHT WAY SNRRRK I'M SO GONNA WRITE A BAD SONG ABOUT THIS SOB" would make more compelling and powerful antagonists than the mistress of evil, a wrathful wielder of magics as dark and wicked as her vengeful spite?

And how about some of the other villains I mentioned? I'll grant you that the takeover plans of Scar, Ursula, and Hades are personal enough that they could indeed be content with just ruling their own lands and not attempting to conquer all the Disney worlds and thus become major game villains, but what about Jafar? That boy was ambitious enough that he could easily fill the role of a villain out to threaten everything. And the queen from Snow White would make a fine secondary villain; you could have her attempting to kill off the Princesses of Heart, determined to be the fairest of ALL worlds, not just her own. And how about a villain from a Disney franchise not already in the KH games? I mean, imagine what interesting motives and methods you could give Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame to be the main villain of a game with such a set-up. The guy's already a fascinating villain, hung up on his own inner demons, seeing his hatred for gypsies and his lust for Esmerelda as an internal battle between God and the Devil instead of just 2 different sides of ugly, twisted evil. Imagine all the neat stuff you could do with him in a setting like Kingdom Hearts, with small, dark demon-type things (the Heartless) spreading to every world, preying on people's emotional weaknesses...the reactions he would have, the motivations he might acquire to take control of all worlds or of the Heartless, the reasons he might have for seeking out the fabled Kingdom Hearts, and so on.

At any rate, Square had a lot of options for who could be each KH game's major villain, options that spanned every level of diabolical intent and every kind of negative emotion and desire. They've no excuse for having lackluster, annoying evil-doers as the top opposition to the heroes in these games, and frankly, restricting the villains with serious potential to tiny roles is stupid.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Dragon Age 2's The Exiled Prince Downloadable Content

When I do a rant on an RPG's add-ons, I typically list all the ones of significance out and look at them all at once, then judge the game's extra content as a whole afterwards. That was the plan with Dragon Age 2 at first, but as I wrote this out, it shaped up to be a rant in and of itself. Since it's so long, and since DA2 is still relatively new and relevant, and finally since I feel that there's a message worth conveying here, I decided I'd make this its own post. I'll probably refer back to it come the day I've finished my add-on rant for Dragon Age 2, but for now, The Exiled Prince DLC warrants some attention.

The Exiled Prince is a downloadable set of extra content for Dragon Age 2. This add-on was available for free with the DA2 Signature Edition, which was basically a premium edition of the game available to anyone who pre-ordered it before a certain date. If you didn't pre-order it in time, it costs $7.

Judging this one is hard. On its merits alone, it's a good add-on. The Exiled Prince basically adds a new character to your party, Sebastian, along with several quests and scenes pertinent to him. They don't really skimp on Sebastian at all as an addition to the party; he has roughly the same amount of character development and interaction with the plot as most of the other party members, and is a romantic interest for female protagonists. He's a long ways off from being a great character, but he's decent enough (and "decent" is as good as any DA2 character gets). So based just on that, I'd say the add-on's worth the price.

Yet I nonetheless have issues with this DLC's circumstances. Like Zaeed Massani of Mass Effect 2 and Shale of Dragon Age 1, Sebastian's package was available the day the game was, which begs the question of why it isn't just part of the game, period. If Bioware's planning to have this character be a part of their game, and have the time and resources available to do all the programming for him, then he should BE IN THE GAME. An add-on should be an ADD-ON, an extra part you can add to the game later, NOT a piece of the game that was MISSING. Look at it this way: if you buy a 100-piece jigsaw picture with a picture of a fish on the box, then when you correctly place all 100 pieces of that puzzle, you had better damn well have a complete picture of that fish. If, after you finish the puzzle, you discover that the picture of the fish is actually incomplete, and requires a separate 3 pieces sold separately from the 100 that come in the box, you have EVERY REASON to be angry, because you were RIPPED OFF. You paid for a product with the understanding that it was complete, and it wasn't. And that's not fair.

Now, I can forgive Mass Effect 2's character Zaeed (and later Kasumi). And I can forgive DA1's Shale. The reason for this forgiveness is that these characters, though seamlessly worked into the game as companions, are additions, not missing parts. Even though they can all take part in the plot and have scenes during the games' finales, the overall game's events and plot--the overall picture of the fish in the puzzle metaphor--does not require them. ME2's final mission can go as well or poorly with or without Zaeed and Kasumi, and what additions they have for the game are pretty much all strictly related to them. DA1's Shale has content to add to the game that is much the same--it's good to have, but not significant or vital to the plot proper. Basically, if you don't get Zaeed, Kasumi, or Shale, all you will really miss out on are Zaeed, Kasumi, or Shale, and a few side quests directly pertaining to them.

But here's the problem with Sebastian. Up until the game's finale, Sebastian gives every appearance of being like these previous 3 add-on characters I've mentioned. But at the game's finale's beginning, Sebastian suddenly has a very strong impact on the plot. Basically, he will force upon the protagonist the choice of either killing Anders for his fucktarded and hypocritical murderous magical warmongering, or losing Sebastian's respect and help forever. The determination of what to do with Anders is a pivotal decision for the plot's course, and having Sebastian force the issue with a threat of consequences either way increases the dramatic nature of the scene. This one scene makes Sebastian significantly engaged with Dragon Age 2's core storyline--more so even than Fenris and Merrill, 2 non-add-on party members! The presence of Sebastian adds an important aspect to the events of one of the most important moments of Dragon Age 2's plot--which means that if you don't have The Exiled Prince add-on, your DA2 experience will be incomplete. You will not just be missing out on a character and things involving him--you'll be missing out on part of the actual plot of the game.

THIS is why I am VERY angry with The Exiled Prince. The finished product of Dragon Age 2 was created with the intention that he should be part of it. Removing him and selling him separately is CHEATING THE CUSTOMER. It may be fine and dandy for me and anyone else who pre-ordered the game to get him for free, but there ARE gamers, and plenty of them, who did not pre-order and thus will have to pay extra to get a complete experience of the story of Dragon Age 2. That is NOT acceptable, and SHAME on Bioware for such dirty business.