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.