Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Annual Summary: 2012

Well, the year’s over and done with, for the most part. 2012 was supposed to be the year the world ended, according to a misinterpretation of the Mayans, but since I’m betting it won’t, I guess this rant column’s gonna keep going.*

2012 reminds me a bit of 2011 in that I played a lot of RPGs this year that didn’t leave a particularly strong impression one way or another. Still, there were some particularly good ones that kept things interesting, as well as a few truly vile moments of gaming that kept me cranky enough to keep churning out rant ideas. Again, I had a good mix of RPGs here, spanning a wide range of time and styles. Here’s what I played:

Boktai 1
Borderlands 1
Fire Emblem 1
Golden Sun 3
Hoshigami Remix: Ruining Blue Earth
Icewind Dale 1
Icewind Dale 2
Infinite Space
Izuna 1
Izuna 2
Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days
Knights in the Nightmare
Legaia 2
The Legend of Zelda 2
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Mass Effect 3
Mega Man Star Force 1
My World, My Way
Orcs + Elves
Romancing Saga 1
Xenosaga 3
Xenosaga: Pied Piper

A fair number of games for the year, I’d say. The Nintendo DS and 3DS continue to be instrumental in my RPG-playing efforts, and the weekend sales of Good Old Games.com have ensured that I’ll not be wanting for more games any time soon. Kept busy with plenty of other stuff, as always, and, as always, I’ll pretend you care enough to want to read a brief summary of it all--jobs, rants, fanfiction-writing, the first season of The Colony, seasons 1 through 6 of Doctor Who (rewatching the first 5 with my sister), the second and now third seasons of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (which I still heartily recommend to anyone who has somehow managed to surf the internet up until now without encountering it), the full run of The Sarah Jane Adventures, seasons 1 and 2 of Sherlock (thank God the BBC decided to reclaim the character from the fumbling, undignified slop that Hollywood’s vomit-inducing Robert Downey Jr. movies had reduced him to), Torchwood’s first 3 seasons (rewatching them with my sister), the game Little King’s Story, the game Rock of Ages, the entire run of Scrubs, and several books and stories by Tina Fey, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, George Orwell, Mary Rinehart, Suzanne Collins, Agatha Christie, and Ray Bradbury. I do keep myself occupied.

Incidentally, and kind of off-topic, is it just me, or was this just an awesome year for movies? I mean, every year’s got some that really shine, but 2012 was just smoking hot the whole way. The Hunger Games movie was very nearly as good as the book, everybody seemed obligatorily impressed with Moonrise Kingdom, I hear that Cloud Atlas and Flight are solid, my sister tells me that Silver Linings was really good, Lincoln is great, Argo was quite good (you can barely tell it's Ben Affleck playing the role, which is a HUGE plus in a film starring Ben Affleck), it’s hard to imagine that The Hobbit won’t be a very solid work, and frankly, Wreck-It Ralph is just absolutely fantastic, one of the best animated features that Disney has ever done, and the first time I’ve ever seen Disney manage to out-Pixar Pixar. With this and Tangled under their recent belt, maybe Disney’s finally ready to reclaim their spot at the top of animated movies. Hell, if it weren’t for The Dark Knight Rises, I’d seriously say that Wreck-It Ralph was the year’s best movie. But on that note...The Dark Knight Rises. Just wow. Words fail me for how incredibly awesome it is. Maybe I’m just undervaluing previous years, but 2012 really seemed like a great movie year.

Anyway, on the RPG front, the year started out alright. I enjoyed My World, My Way quite a bit despite its repetitive nature, and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is pretty decent, for a Zelda title. I then got a short series of rather bland and uninteresting titles such as but not limited to Golden Sun 3, Boktai 1, and Icewind Dale 1, but I figured, that didn’t matter, because the amazing, spectacular, sure to be a solid winner Mass Effect 3 was coming out! And then I played Mass Effect 3 and...well, if you’ve been paying me any mind at all, you know how that went. And after that, I...well, I kinda stumbled around in a mental fog for a few months, gaming (and doing most other things) almost more out of habit than interest, until...well, actually, I’m kinda still feeling the natural depression that comes as an after-effect of Mass Effect 3’s ending. But I’m sure it’ll clear up eventually.

Anyway, the one good part of experiencing the keenest disappointment ever conceived is that after ME3’s ending, the normal terribleness of Mega Man Star Force 1 and the narrative approach of Xenosaga 3 seem almost welcome. At least the shocking incompetence of a bad JRPG is a familiar foe to me, unable to penetrate the very core of my mental being as ME3 did. And there were a fair number of good experiences afterward that I was all the more thankful for, too. The year thankfully ended on a pretty high note with Romancing Saga 1, which I was surprised to find very enjoyable and subtly masterful, and Infinite Space, which, despite clumsily jamming everything its 40-hour story had been leading up to into its last 2 hours or so and despite an annoyingly vague ending, is really pretty darned good.

But enough of vague recollections and off-topic digressions. Let’s get to the main event, here.

RPG Moments of Interest in 2012:

1. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was released on the 25th anniversary of the Zelda series, and in some ways serves as a tribute to the long-lived series. For the special occasion, we’re given our earliest look into the franchise’s history, our heroes being the very first Link, what is likely to be the very first Impa, and what is essentially the very first Zelda. The game also has some references within it to previous games and characters of the series, but very little that’s actually overt about it. I kind of like this approach, as opposed to the way that Wild Arms 5 did their anniversary shout-outs, which felt kind of over numerous.

Also of interest about this game is that it’s basically the first time in the series that Zelda and Link are very plainly implied to have a romantic interest in each other (up until now, any such idea for the previous Links and Zeldas was made much more from the fancy of the player than from any substantial evidence provided by the game). What’s more interesting than even that, though, is that the game also gives Link the option to openly court and even become involved with an entirely different individual! It just seems very amusing to me that the one time the series actually will take the plunge and officially recognize an attraction between Zelda and Link, THAT’S the game where they throw in a fully-realized non-Zelda love interest for Link.

2. Mass Effect 3’s Ending. Okay, yeah, I know I harp on this a lot, but A, you have to understand that it really is so horrible that it will make anyone who holds any value for the soul of the series spiritually ill, and B, it certainly WAS a moment of interest this year. If you’ve ever harbored any doubt that it is at all possible to utterly shame, cheapen, poison something substantially beautiful instantly, to reduce to ruin in 5 minutes what took hundreds of hours to build in its telling...well, doubt no more. The Extended Cut to the game that adds to the ending definitely improves it, but it’s the equivalent of treating dismemberment with a Bandaid. Thanks a fucking lot, Bioware.

3. Played another Independent RPG this year, Bastion. Artsy, fun, very impressive. Definitely worth checking out. Hell, it was good enough that playing it after Mass Effect 3 helped to restore me a little. So far, my experience with Indie RPGs has been a staunchly positive one.

4. I finished the Xenosaga series this year, playing Xenosaga 3 from start to finish and even reading the translated script of the small side game, Xenosaga: Pied Piper (since it was never released over here). The series definitely has some creative, complex, thought-provoking content to it. It’s just a damn shame that the actual communication of this content to the player in the second and third games is so staggeringly over-complicated and nonsensical that it actually makes Chrono Cross look straightforward and logical.

5. The Knights of the Old Republic 2 Restored Content Mod had its Version 1.8 release this year, which, near as I can figure, contains more or less all the significant content that the project is going to. Basically, this is a fan-made mod for KotOR2 that, like the Fallout 2 restoration project that I was such a fan of in 2010, fixes bugs and restores much hidden, inaccessible, or outright lost content to the game that was meant to be there originally. Of course, while this was a great idea for Fallout 2, it’s FANTASTIC for KotOR2, because KotOR2 is a game whose missing content and glitchiness was noticeable throughout the entire game. This mod restores sidequests, unlocks dozens of extra conversation paths, recreates an entire area of the game that was cut but obviously meant to be there, and makes the finale far more sensible. And with a game like Knights of the Old Republic 2, which is just absolutely saturated with brilliant insight and fascinatingly powerful writing and voice acting, even the smallest of restorations can go a long way to finding new joy in and appreciation for the title. I’ll probably make a proper rant extolling the virtues of this mod at a later date, but for now, I heartily recommend you go to http://www.moddb.com/mods/the-sith-lords-restored-content-mod-tslrcm and try it out if you’re any fan of KotOR2, because it’s just a blast.

6. It strikes me as really weird that after 20 years of RPG playing during which I only ever played a single RPG with a title starting with the letter I (Illusion of Gaia), I suddenly played 5 separate I games all in the same year. Just one of those odd quirks of life.

7. I'm not sure if this counts as an actual RPG moment of interest per say, but this year some people--namely you--have actually started reading this blog. I've got like 9 people subscribing now, which is a gain of roughly infinity% since a couple years ago. I assure you, this HAS gone straight to my already bloated head.

Best Prequel/Sequel of 2012:
Winner: Icewind Dale 2
I sincerely wish I could have put Mass Effect 3 on here, because almost the entire game is a terrific conclusion to an already terrific series, but, that ending...Anyway, Icewind Dale 2 is the winner this year partly because it’s a very marked improvement on the first game. ID1 was a very, very boring by-the-numbers Dungeons and Dragons adventure, with very little of note to pull you into the game’s world and events--the story was generic fare with few embellishing characteristics, and the cast was utterly uninteresting. ID2 is not amazing, but its villains actually have some character depth, the story is told in a more engaging fashion, and there’s some actual value to said story--it’s more thoughtful, has more significance to its setting’s world and people, as well as the player. ID2 is exactly the sort of improvement that ID1 needed. But at the same time, it definitely connects very strongly to its predecessor, taking place in the same general area many years after ID1’s end, with its core plot being a result of some of the events of the first Icewind Dale. Icewind Dale 2 effectively uses ID1, pays proper respect to it, and then goes in its own direction, as a good sequel should.

Runners-Up: Izuna 2; The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Izuna 2 is a good sequel in that it keeps the whacky, characteristic style that the original Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja had, but gives it a more dynamic plot, with a cast that’s slightly expanded, but more importantly has more significant roles for its individuals. As for The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, it helps to set up a lot of the core plot devices of the Legend of Zelda series quite tidily, so it’s a definitely worthy prequel. And...that’s it. Unfortunately I don’t have a third runner-up here. The other sequels and prequels I played this year just generally weren’t very good as follow-ups to the original titles, at least not enough that they deserve recognition.

Biggest Disappointment of 2012:
Loser: Mass Effect 3
I’m sure that you’re as tired of seeing me talk about this as I am of talking about it (probably more so, even), so let’s make it quick: ME3’s ending is a complete violation of nearly every major theme of the Mass Effect series, and it destroys the very essence of the game’s protagonist. The Star Wars prequels, Grandia 3, Indiana Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the Avatar: The Last Airbender movie, these are all just warm-ups in disappointment by comparison.

Almost as Bad: Borderlands 1; Mega Man Star Force 1
It’s not that Borderlands 1 is bad. I mean, it’s not GOOD, either, but it’s certainly not bad. But after hearing these guys I work with obsess over the series nonstop for like a solid month after the second game’s release, I would’ve figured it’d be better, is all. I can respect that its minimalistic storytelling is just the way it does things, and that it’s at least setting up a semi-sci-fi universe for future games to capitalize on, but I don’t have to like it, and I was expecting more. As for Mega Man Star Force 1...well, I didn’t really know what to expect from it, but I kind of did expect something NOT boring and incredibly dumb. Oh, and Mega Man. I guess I was expecting Mega Man in a Mega Man game, not some half-assed semi-emo preteen who’s clearly somehow misplaced a significant portion of his brain. Thus, I was understandably disappointed.

Best Ending of 2012
Winner: Romancing Saga 1
What you get out of RS1’s ending depends on what you put into it, so admittedly, your results may vary. But if you did most of/all of the sidequests in the game (a challenging but entirely achievable possibility), the ending is pretty darned good, showing you various scenes of the people you helped after the world-threatening crisis, and concluding with confirmation that the heroes managed to beat destiny and survive their final battle, and a personal congratulation from your chosen main hero to you for a job well-done, which is kind of fun, and nice. Assuming it’s a later playthrough than your first and that you’ve pursued the Aldora path of the Who Am I? quest, the ending also has a really nice scene for Aldora, too. All in all, it’s satisfying, and it ties things up neatly while reminding the player of the long journey through the game’s events. What more can you ask for from an ending, really?

Runners-Up: Bastion; Fire Emblem 1; The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Don’t know what to say here, really. Bastion just has a solidly good ending, regardless of what the player chooses for it. The same is true of TLoZSS--it’s properly epic and conclusive and satisfying, bringing everything together in a grand finish. Really, a good ending seems so simple a thing to achieve--just have everything wrap up, and satisfy the player. And that’s what Bastion and TLoZSS do, very well. FE1’s ending is also decent--again, not much to say about it, it’s just a decent conclusion that does well by its game.

Worst RPG of 2012
Loser: Mega Man Star Force 1
Dumb. Dumb! Dumb dumb dumb. There is just no other way to describe this meaningless turd of a game. The protagonist is an unappealing, unrealistic sad sack, his buddy is a vaguely dislikeable jerk, the supporting cast are mostly one-dimensional shells of characters, the plot is cookie-cutter at the best of times, and the whole game revolves rather unsettlingly around the idea of utterly submerging yourself in social networking, and works to devalue the idea that anyone might just want some alone time. The narrative style is infantile; I can’t decide whether it’s a case of being intentionally dumbed-down because of the misconception that young audiences are too stupid to comprehend and follow even the most rudimentary of ideas and plot threads, or if it’s just this way because the writers themselves are genuinely capable of no better storytelling style than an uneducated, inebriated 9-year-old. Either way, this game is a complete waste of time.

Almost as Bad: Boktai 1; Golden Sun 3; The Legend of Zelda 2
I really would have liked to stick it to ME3 further in this category, but I have to admit, everything up until the ending is too great for me to actually call it a bad game. Anyway. Boktai 1’s got some ideas that are basically not bad, but overall it’s got a boring and barely present story and cast. The same is true of TLoZ2, only even more so. I guess I could give it a bit of a break because of how old it is, as console RPGs back in the days of the NES had limited means to tell a story with, but y’know, that didn’t stop The Magic of Scheherazade, Phantasy Star 1, or Crystalis from being pretty decent RPGs, so TLoZ2 gets no free pass--it’s bad. As for Golden Sun 3...well, it’s the only real competition that Mega Man Star Force 1 had for the Worst RPG spot this year. GS3’s plot is generic and stuffed with filler, and its characters are almost all barely mentally-existent annoyances. I was wholly unimpressed with Golden Sun 1 and 2, but they were far superior to this crap.

Most Improved of its Series of 2012:
Winner: Icewind Dale 2
Like I said above, Icewind Dale 2 basically improves significantly upon ID1 in every aspect of storytelling, making the whole adventure into something I actually wanted to play to its end, rather than only felt obligated to.** The developers are taking the great setting of the Dungeons and Dragons universe and actually GOING somewhere with it, exploring aspects of its culture and such, and it really makes all the difference.

Runners-Up: Izuna 2; Legaia 2; Xenosaga 3
Legaia 2 is a fairly average RPG, not particularly special but definitely not bad, but as such, it’s a definite step above Legaia 1, which was plagued with vague storytelling, a crawling pace, and a mostly unremarkable cast. Izuna 1 was enjoyable, but Izuna 2 perfectly capitalizes on its predecessor’s charm, providing more and better plot, a more significant role for its supporting cast, and just enough new characters to round the cast out nicely without overloading it. This essentially means that the quirky, enjoyable humor of the first game, which was its best and most memorable quality, is given far more opportunity to shine. And lastly, well, while Xenosaga 3’s narrative is, as I’ve said, the most incomprehensibly messy nonsense to ever be wrapped around some actually okay ideas, the fact remains that, buried deep underneath every storytelling mistake conceivable, there IS something of worth to find, which is a HELL of a lot more than you can say for Xenosaga 2.

Most Creative of 2012:
Winner: Bastion
It was actually a tough call between this and Romancing Saga 1 in some ways, but ultimately, Bastion’s gotta be the winner. The world of Bastion is not extensive, but it IS pretty unique and interesting, and given adequate explanation to make it so. The plot of Bastion is in some ways fairly standard (most of the time its focus is on finding magical plot doohickeys), but is generally quite interesting and different, as one might expect from a magical steampunk perspective on a post-apocalyptic adventure. The way the game is played and explored is fairly creative, too, being constructed before your eyes with every step you take. Most creative, though, and the real reason it’s the winner for the year, is the way its story is told, through the single voice of a character relating the adventure as it’s happening. It’s a neat method, and Bastion makes it work really, really well.

Runners-Up: Anachronox; My World, My Way; Romancing Saga 1
Anachronox is another interesting science fiction setting which seems to have a lot of neat potential, and many of its ideas are quite interestingly unique--I particularly liked the way in which the universe is threatened. It also pretty effectively adds a lot of humor to the mix, too. Overall, it’s a highly individual sci-fi adventure. My World, My Way is just a load of fun, a game about a bratty, spoiled-yet-not-really-obnoxious princess who sets out to become a great adventurer and who can basically alter reality by pouting hard enough. Half the game is actual standard RPG adventuring, the other half is her pouting until the universe itself caters to her whims. You can’t deny that’s a pretty different idea. And finally, Romancing Saga 1 is exceptionally creative, a non-linear Japanese RPG (which by itself is basically unheard of) where what you accomplish and how long you take to do it both has huge ramifications on future events, and yet at the same time can mean nothing at all, all depending on what you, the player, want to do. Its storytelling elements have a nature like that of classic mythology, and while it has no New Game+ per say, there are many elements to the game that encourage multiple playthroughs--a couple of quests can’t even be completed until a second or third playthrough (and one of them is, to me, a highlight of the game’s story). Having the option of 8 separate characters to play the game as is a neat idea, even though the actual differences to the game’s events don’t usually amount to much. And I have to give credit where it’s due--the actual mechanics of gameplay are almost as creative as they are extensive. RS1 is very creative, indeed.

Stupidest Weapon of 2012:
Loser: Battering Ram (Bastion)
Look, a battering ram is great when you’ve got dozens of people holding it and your intention is to slam your way through a barrier, but when you’re actually attacking people and you’ve only got yourself to lift it, a goddamn tree trunk is not an ideal weapon!

Almost as Bad: Dolls (Izuna 2); Keyblade (Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days)
Remember way, way back, when I made a rant about the stupidest weapons in RPGs, and both Keyblades and Dolls made it onto the list? Go read that.

Best Romance of 2012:
Winner: Shepard and Tali (Mass Effect 3)
It’s sweet, it’s touching, it’s believable, it’s done well, and in some ways it’s even epic. The romance that ME2 started is carried over into the next game well, and it continues to be great.

Runners-Up: Garrus and Shepard (Mass Effect 3); Kaidan and Shepard (Mass Effect 3); Link and Peatrice (The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword)
While Garrus and Shepard was, in ME2, an even better love story than Shepard and Tali, I feel it’s lessened a little in ME3, which does such a great job at making Garrus seem like the ultimate war-brother buddy to Shepard that it almost seems like the romance doesn’t fit right any longer. It’s still really nice, though. With Kaidan and Shepard, I have to admit, I mostly just really like the scene where they get together, provided Kaidan wasn’t romanced in ME1 (most people will see this scene with Male Shepard, since a Female Shepard probably would have already gone for Kaidan back then). It’s convincing, and nice, and it really feels very natural and mature, 2 people realizing after a long time of being comrades that there could be more, and wanting to explore the idea. As Kaidan himself says in the scene, it feels right, somehow. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot to the romance beyond that which is particularly great, but that’s still enough for me (and there wasn’t much competition for this spot, honestly). Lastly, call me crazy, but Peatrice’s transformation from an apathetic market worker (man can I ever relate) to a happy, smitten girl that clearly just adores Link is ridiculously sweet and makes me feel warm fuzzies. I mean, I’ll grant you that the romance’s origins are not exactly inspiring (she assumes Link must be interested in her since he visits her storage service so often, and starts crushing on him back, with Link eventually having to option to just go with it and say he likes her back), but like I said, actually watching her change is nice and done reasonably well, and it actually gets a positive reaction from me, which is more than I can say for most of the other love stories I saw this year, so there you go.

Best Voice Acting of 2012:
Winner: Mass Effect 3
Bastion actually gives ME3 a run for its money on this, but in the end, the continued excellence of the vocal work for such classic personalities as Mordin, Wrex, Tali, and Shepard himself, combined with the solid performances by almost the entire rest of the cast, put Mass Effect at the top once more for this category. Yeah, not every performance is good in ME3--Female Shepard still sounds like a run-down RMV worker after a double-shift, Liara still sounds like she’s talking in her sleep about a subject that bores her, and Diana Allers’s vocal work is some of the worst I’ve ever heard in my entire life, but the combined power of the rest of the cast’s positive performances far outweigh the few negatives.

Runners-Up: Anachronox; Bastion; Borderlands 1
Anachronox’s voice acting is all decent, gets the job done and properly portrays the characters. Borderlands 1 only has any significant vocal work from NPCs and the occasional villain, but it’s distinctive and quite good. As for Bastion, well, like I said in the full rant on the game, Bastion entrusts nearly every aspect of its entire plot and character development to a single narrator, so having that narrator be a hell of a great voice actor is absolutely essential--and he definitely is up to the task.

Best Villain of 2012:
Winner: The Illusive Man (Mass Effect 3)
Honestly, while I encountered a lot of decent villains this year, none of them were amazing. Of the decent ones, I’d say The Illusive Man is probably the best, a classic case of stupid pride and greedy desire for power taking him down the path of being destroyed by that which he planned to conquer. How much of The Illusive Man is his own foolishness and how much is the Reapers’ Indoctrination is difficult to say exactly, which provides for interesting speculation. His final showdown with Shepard and Anderson is good, too, even if it’s a bit too close to the showdown with Saren in Mass Effect 1 for my liking.

A lot of people will, of course, disagree with my pick here, saying that ME3 ruined The Illusive Man and Cerberus by just haphazardly crowding them into the Bad Guy role, but I’m gonna say right now, these people are short-sighted idiots. Anyone who couldn’t see where Cerberus was headed in ME2, what it was, was apparently a gullible sap, more than ready to swallow the sugar-coated bullshit that The Illusive Man and his then-sycophant spooned him/her. It was always quite obvious to me, at least, that “protecting humanity” was always just a nice spin to put on “superior power at any cost,” and ME2 had plenty of occasions where reading between the lines made this clear. So to me, The Illusive Man’s character was simply showing itself honestly in ME3, not being altered.

Runners-Up: Girahim (The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword); Isair and Madae (Icewind Dale 2), Zulf (Bastion)
Girahim’s a case where he just pulls off the villain role well, a convincingly and amusingly bad fellow out to achieve villainous goals. I mean, you gotta love a bad guy who says he’s gonna inflict such agony on someone that they’ll deafen themselves with their own screams. That’s pretty hardcore. Zulf, however, is a villain with some actual character depth, a man acting without thought at the whims of his emotions of anger and betrayal. If Bastion had put more emphasis on his character and that character’s relation to the protagonist, Zulf probably would have been top dog this year. But that’s not really how the narrative style of Bastion works. Finally, Isair and Madae are also a case where the villains had some character depth, and their goal in some ways is a noble one, the empowerment of the world’s half-breeds, beings who are made social outcasts through the unavoidable fault of their being born of parents of separate species. In fact, the game makes it sound like their goal wasn’t even all that evil to start with, and their war-making is a result of a deadly insult made by a leader of one of the “good” towns. They’ve got backstory, they’ve got interesting goals...just a little more work and they would have been really great villains. A little more development given to them as the game progressed, a better, more intellectually stimulating final exchange between them and the heroes during the final showdown...it would have really done wonders, I think. Still, they make fine, if slightly too distant, villains.

Best Character of 2012:
Winner: EDI (Mass Effect 3)
EDI’s explorations into what it means to be “human” are not exactly new ground for the most part, nor are they the best example of this idea that I’ve seen (Aigis of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and Tio of Grandia 2 put her to shame), but it’s still a compelling journey of spirit for her, and I like how her character develops over the course of the game’s events, and the way that Shepard can guide her along in this quest for understanding and self.

Runners-Up: Legion (Mass Effect 3); Padok (Mass Effect 3); Yuri (Infinite Space)
There’s a reason I loved ME3 up until it’s ending, folks. That reason is that it was awesome. Legion is as solid a character as he was in ME2, with his character being further explored through his reactions to and part in the conflict between his people and the Quarians. It’s pretty compelling. Then there’s Padok, the character who assists with the Genophage Cure plot arc if Mordin died in ME2. Padok’s a really neat character, who I don’t feel will ever be properly appreciated because he’s a stand-in for Mordin. His guiding beliefs in the fateful course of evolution are really quite neat, and give him a quirky nobility that’s somehow a bit inspiring. Finally, Yuri’s growth during Infinite Space is interesting in that you can see it happening in action for a while as he has new experiences and learns from those around him, but after the major turning point of the game, his character has become more or less fully developed, and it’s up to you to recognize the how and why of it. But it’s done well, and I would certainly say that he earns the game’s praise of his potential as a man and leader.

And as a note, I would have included Mordin from ME3 on this list, as well (in fact, he would have been the year’s winner), but for the fact that, as great as his character is in ME3, it’s essentially no different from his character in ME2. While EDI and Legion are characters from the previous game who grow in new ways in ME3, Mordin just stays the same. This still makes him probably the best character in the game, of course, because he’s just that awesome, but it does mean that I don’t really feel like I can qualify him for this list again, since he’s remaining essentially static to a personality established in a game from a previous year, y’know?

Best Game of 2012:
Winner: Romancing Saga 1
Mass Effect 3 should have won this category, easily, but Bioware chose to destroy it utterly with that ending.

Anyway. RS1 is really a very impressive game, all told, so long as you’re looking at it for its full potential (as in, you’re judging it by the full scope of its quests and events, even though you can potentially avoid some, many, or nearly all of them in any given playthrough). It pulls off a non-linear plot as well as any game can be expected, and that plot is interesting and at times pretty epic. There are several very impressive emotional moments in it (the possible final scene with Dowd in Jamil’s playthrough, for example, or the later parts of Aldora’s quest), and the general atmosphere is done well. The part of the game where you can travel into the underworld to meet Death, for example, was handled with a great epic gravity in its tone. The game is exactly as it wishes to be--a grand, epic tale, romantic in the classic sense of the word. It was a rocky start for me, but by the end, I was pleasantly surprised by it.

Runners-Up: Anachronox, Bastion, Infinite Space
Anachronox is a very cool, enjoyable tongue-in-cheek sci-fi romp that has some surprisingly dark moments and subtle forms of telling its story (particularly its backstory). It’s definitely one of those hidden gems of forgotten RPGs. As I’ve said here and in the rant on the game, Bastion is very artsy and quite good, a highlight of my year, and definitely worth checking out. Lastly, while Infinite Space kind of takes a little time to get going, has an annoying difficulty level (just do yourself a favor and get some cheat codes going), and rushes its closing events like you wouldn’t believe, it’s ultimately a very impressive, immersive science fiction story with several really powerful scenes, solid characters you really come to enjoy, and a fair helping of creativity.

List Changes of 2012:
Most Annoying Characters: This didn’t actually change, but lemme tell you, Diana Allers from Mass Effect 3 very nearly managed to replace the legendarily irritating Navi here. The single, solitary grace of Allers is that she’s ultimately optional, and not with you every second of the game, like Navi is. Even then, though, it’s really close.

And that’s that! 2012’s over and done with. I’m looking forward to 2013, I must admit, for I have several hidden gems bought at GOG.com to play through, as well as Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 (SMT just never fails to please), and I plan to play The Last Story, as well, which I’m kinda psyched about--it looks like it was made with a lot of care and effort. On the other hand, I’m sure plenty of stinkers await me (Mega Man Star Force 2, for starters), and there’s every indication that Bioware plans to keep releasing one mediocre DLC waste of money after another, so you never know how it will really go. At any rate, thanks very much for continuing to read this awful mess for another year, and I’ll see you in 2013.

Oh, and as a special bonus to any of you who actually took the time to read all the way down here, I’m gonna host a little contest with my readers (all two of you). Send up to 3 ideas for a rant topic I can use to my email (the_rpgenius, at, hotmail.com) by 01/08/13, and the person who sends the best rant idea to me I will buy 2 RPGs for, from Good Old Games.com. The first of these RPGs will be Planescape: Torment, because you all WILL submit to its excellence. The second will be an RPG of your choice, up to $10 (this gives you roughly 95% of their catalogue to choose from). If you already own and have played Planescape: Torment, I’ll throw a different first game your way. So get to it! Send me those ideas!

Incidentally, since I'm not going to rant about a game I don't know about, these are the RPGs I've played:

The 7th Saga; Alundra 1 + 2; Anachronox; Arc the Lad 1 - 5; Avalon Code; Bahamut Lagoon; Baldur's Gate 1 + 2; Baroque; Bastion; Baten Kaitos 1 + 2; Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled; Boktai 1; Borderlands 1; Breath of Fire 1 - 5; Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, Order of Ecclesia, Portrait of Ruin, and Symphony of the Night; Children of Mana; Chrono Cross and Trigger; Crystalis; Dark Cloud 1 + 2; Disgaea 1 + 2; Dragon Age 1 + 2; Dragon Ball Z: Legend of the Super Saiyen; Dragon Quest 4 - 6 + 8; Earthbound; Eternal Poison; Evolution Worlds; Fallout 1 - 3, New Vegas, and Tactics; Final Fantasy 3 - 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 12: Revenant Wings, Crystal Chronicles 1, Mystic Quest, Tactics, and Tactics Advance 1; Fire Emblem 1, 4, 7, and 9; Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon; Glory of Heracles 5; Golden Sun 1 - 3; Grandia 1, 2, + 3; Hero's Saga: Laevatein Tactics; Hoshigami Remix: Ruining Blue Earth; Icewind Dale 1 + 2; Illusion of Gaia; Infinite Space; Izuna 1 + 2; Kingdom Hearts 1, 2, 358/2 Days, and Chain of Memories; The Kingdom of Loathing; Knights of the Old Republic 1 + 2; Knights in the Nightmare; La Pucelle Tactics; Lagoon; Legaia 1 + 2; The Legend of Dragoon; The Legend of Zelda 1 + 2, A Link to the Past, Link's Awakening, Majora's Mask, Ocarina of Time, Phantom Hourglass, Skyward Sword, Spirit Tracks, The Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess; Live A Live; Lufia 1 + 2; Lunar 1 + 2; Magic Knight Rayearth RPG; The Magic of Scheherazade; Makai Kingdom; Mana Khemia 1; Mario and Luigi 1 - 3; Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch; Mass Effect 1, 2, and 3; Mega Man Star Force 1; Monstania; Mother 3; My World, My Way; Okage: Shadow King; Orcs + Elves; Paper Mario 2; Parasite Eve 1; Phantasy Star 1 - 4 and Universe; Phantom Brave; Planescape: Torment; Pokemon Generations 1 - 5; Quest 64; Radiant Historia; Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure; Risen; Riviera: The Promised Land; Robotrek; Rogue Galaxy; Sailor Moon: Another Story; Sakura Wars 5; The Secret of Evermore; The Secret of Mana; Seiken Densetsu 3; Shadow Hearts 1 - 3; Shadowrun (SNES and Genesis); Shin Megami Tensei 1 + 2, Devil Summoner 1, Devil Survivor, Digital Devil Saga 1 + 2, Nocturne, Persona 3 FES + 4, and Strange Journey; Shining Force 1, 2, and EXA; Skies of Arcadia Legend; Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood; Soulblazer; Star Ocean 1 - 3; Startropics 1 + 2; Suikoden 1, 2, 3 - 5, Tactics, and Tierkreis; Super Mario RPG; Tales of Legendia, Phantasia, Symphonia, and the Abyss; Tenchi Muyo RPG; Terranigma; Treasure of the Rudras; Valkyrie Profile 1, 2, and Covenant of the Plume; Vandal Hearts 1 + 2; Wild ARMs 1 - 3, and 4 + 5; The World Ends with You; Xenogears; Xenosaga 1 - 3 and Pied Piper

Any and all rant ideas must be about one or more of them, or about RPGs in general. Happy Holidays!

* Actually, I theorize that the Mayans were predicting 2012 as the year Daniel Tosh would get his own cartoon, and thus was simply the year when we all would want the world to end.

** Yes, I feel obligated to play my RPGs to their end, regardless of quality. It’s just an RPGenius thing. I definitely don’t recommend it as a gaming style for anyone else, though. Sometimes I like to imagine a world, a much happier world, in which I had turned off Phantasy Star 3 when I first wanted to (at the title screen).

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Suikoden Series's Casts

Suikoden’s known for a fair number of things, but I’m fairly sure that its biggest claim to fame has got to be the enormous cast of every game (besides the side-story Suikoden Tactics). In addition to whatever significant NPCs and villains are necessary to tell the story, each Suikoden game has 108 recruitable characters. In fact, it’s often more than that, since some minor recruitments (the dogs in Suikoden 3, for example) don’t actually count toward the 108 standard, and there are a few instances in the games where you have to choose between 2 different characters to fill a single roster slot (such as in Suikoden 2, when you have to decide whether you want Kasumi or Valeria, or Suikoden 5, where you have a choice between Eresh or Euram), meaning that there’s often MORE than 108 separate entities who can join the protagonist’s team in some capacity. That’s a damned big cast; the closest any other RPG (that I’ve yet seen) gets to it is Infinite Space, which as an impressive cast of a little over 80 possible party members, and then Chrono Cross, which has a little over 40 party members.

Here’s the amazing thing, though. These ridiculously huge casts? They’re generally well-characterized.* I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we’ve got a hundred+ individuals each game who’d give Virginia of Wild Arms 3 or Kreia of Knights of the Old Republic 2 a run for their money, or anything like that, but they’re all generally pretty solidly explored personalities. Hell, the minor characters of a Suikoden title can have stronger characterization than plenty of other games’ main characters. I’d have a hard time finding any of the Suikoden games’ 108 Stars who couldn’t beat out every major party member of Final Fantasy 5 for character depth, that’s for sure.

So how does Suikoden do it? Because it’s not an easy thing to achieve. Infinite Space does a pretty good job of it with its 80+ characters by having minor characters occasionally have scenes during tavern conversations, but ultimately there are a lot of characters who just fall to the wayside after a bit and get ignored (poor, poor Katida, her character had so much more to offer!). And Chrono Cross, working with less than half of a Suikoden game’s cast, couldn’t work significant character depth and development into a full dozen of its characters, nor did it even try to.** No plot could reasonably expect to include over a hundred individual characters within it in a significant enough way that you strongly connect to and have a great understanding of each one.*** But with Suikoden, somehow, you always seem to have at least a small insight into all or nearly all of its cast, despite the size. So, again, how does Suikoden do it?

Well, for the major characters in the Suikoden games, the answer’s the same as any other RPG--character development, plot interaction with them, and sometimes just simply a lot of screentime. Characters like Flik, Viktor, Chris, Hugo, Lyon, Georg, Chrodechild, and Liu, well, they each have huge roles in the stories of their respective games and lots of time to interact with the other major players in those stories, so in those cases, what’s conventional is what works.

But for all the minor characters, the ones who are recruited with little to-do and have no real significance to the party and the plot? Well, the answer is that sweating the details really does matter. Each Suikoden game offers countless optional little scenes and involvements of the various dozens of denizens of the game’s HQ in a number of different ways, all of which help to show and explain their personalities to the player. There are a TON of ways this occurs, more than I really want to get into (more than I even clearly recall, for that matter), but I’ll go into a few of the best ones.

First of all and probably best of all, the Detective Agency. Starting with Suikoden 2, Suikoden games will often have a private detective character in the HQ whom you can hire to investigate any of the 100+ individuals you’ve recruited a few times, with each report giving you any and all kinds of miscellaneous information--what the character likes or hates, their relationship to certain other characters, their history, their aspirations, their personality quirks, rumors about them, etc. This is a very neat idea, and a wonderful way to flesh out the game’s cast without having it distract from the plot’s events, since this, like all the things I’ll be mentioning here, is entirely optional. It’s concise, but effective.

Then there’s the Suggestion Box. Again an invention of Suikoden 2 (I think), the Suggestion Box is just what it sounds like--a box in the game’s HQ into which any and every recruited character can place suggestions for and small communications to the game’s protagonist. These are usually mildly amusing, and don’t really tell you all that much about the character making the suggestion as compared to the detective reports, but at the same time, they keep the many incidental characters fresh in your mind and help to cement their personality quirks.

Then, of course, there’s the famous staple of the Suikoden series, the bath house. This one I’d usually be a little iffy on. See, in theory, it’s a great idea--when you take certain character combinations into the bath house at the game’s HQ, you can activate hidden scenes where the characters interact with each other in various ways. That’s a good little way to not only once again explore the personalities of various minor characters, but also to explore how the many, many party members in the game interact with one another, seeing how their personalities connect with or bounce off of one another. The reason I normally would be hesitant about this idea is...well...it’s a communal bath. In an RPG. An RPG that follows many anime-standard forms of storytelling. Thus, it’s an invitation for the stupid, tasteless “humor” that abounds in ALL such communal bath scenes in games and animes and manga and whatnot. BUT, the Suikoden series actually has enough dignity to generally avoid the obscenely stupid, overused anime cliches of communal baths--I believe there’s only 1 bath scene in the whole series where breast sizes are compared (what a shocking thought, women able to converse together for a full 3 minutes without loudly proclaiming their cup sizes to one another!), and I can’t recall ever seeing the “hilarity” of some guy making a worthless, scummy asshole of himself by trying to invade the privacy of the women’s bath for a peek. So kudos twice over to the Suikoden creators for this one, because they not only have another way of cementing their characters through minor interactions and further exploration, but they do it without lowering themselves as human beings.

And there are, of course, the various little minigames and quirky bits and pieces that each game has on its own that continue to further emphasize their minor characters and help us familiarize ourselves with them. For example, the cooking minigame in Suikoden 2. Besides being perhaps the only cooking minigame in the history of RPGs to be enjoyable in any way, the cooking minigame uses, for each round, a randomized (I think) panel of judges taken from the current residents of the game’s HQ. Okay, yeah, being told what the characters’ taste preferences are isn’t exactly Shakespearean character depth, but it does, all the same, keep its minor characters in the player’s mind and give us new information about them, no matter how small that knowledge may be. And then there’s the plays in Suikoden 3. You can choose almost any of the characters in the castle-mansion thing to play roles in a half dozen or so plays, and watch them as they act it out. Some do well, some do poorly, and some, like Viki, are just hilarious. It’s another little way of including the minor characters in something, and helping to remind you of their personality quirks while you’re at it.

And these are really only a handful of the various little, optional sidequests, minigames, and quirky features Suikoden games have that involve and flesh out minor characters who would otherwise be left behind by the game’s main events. And that’s how Suikoden does it, how the series manages to have over a hundred cast members in each game but almost never**** feel like its characters weren’t properly developed or like it had too many of them. It’s another example of the little details of character development really pulling everything together, like the skits in the Tales of series, or the campfire scenes in Legaia 2, or the wonderful dinner conversations in Grandia 1 and 2. The major plot can take care of establishing a character and the major aspects of their psyche, but little stuff on the side, that’s what really tells the player who they are, and the identity of the characters as a group. Any RPGs in the future that try to pull off an excessively large cast would do well to follow Suikoden’s example of optional, small side content for their cast, lest we get another Chrono Cross.

* As well-characterized as you could reasonably expect given the overall quality of the game, that is. I wouldn’t say Suikoden 4’s cast is particularly interesting, for example, but then, playing Suikoden 4 is about as stimulating as being in a coma (less so, in fact, given that in some comas one can supposedly have dreams), so if we grade to scale, Suikoden 4’s cast is adequately developed.

** Not that the ones who did receive any character development got anything worthwhile.

*** Well...probably. Hang on...lemme go count how many characters and NPCs there were in Planescape: Torment. There are people you meet wandering on the street in that game who have more depth and human insight than the entire cumulative cast of characters made for some game companies.

**** Again, Suikoden 4 is just crap no matter how you slice it.