And so another year draws to a close, and I am still, for some reason, ranting and raving here. Huh. Who would’ve figured?
Anyway. This was a pretty good year for me. I played a good number of RPGs this year, and unlike last year, there were definitely a good handful of titles that were very impressive and/or noteworthy. Not all of them, of course (why the hell do I continue to play Dragon Quest titles?), but quite a few. Once more, I hit up lots of games of various age and system of origin, and although I’m now fully engrossed in the many Western RPGs that I’ve found and purchased from GOG.com, I’ve tried to play enough JRPGs to keep a decent balance. Anyway, here’s what I played this year, in alphabetical order.
Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura
Atelier Iris 1
Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden
Betrayal at Krondor
Deus Ex 1
Deus Ex 2
Dragon Quest 9
The Elder Scrolls 4
Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates
Heroes of Annihilated Empires
The Last Story
Legend of Grimrock 1
Legend of Mana
Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader
Lunar: Dragon Song
Mega Man Star Force 2
Return to Krondor
Shin Megami Tensei 4
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 2
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2
Tales of Destiny 1
The Witcher 1
The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road
As always, all SquareEnix games were purchased used or experienced through Youtube Let’s Plays, in keeping with my oath not to support the company until it drastically improves its integrity.
Not a bad number at all, I’d say. I kept busy with other stuff, too. I read several books by authors such as Isaac Asimov, Charlotte Bronte, Agatha Christie, Jaspar Fforde, and The Harvard Lampoon, keeping up with and surpassing my goal of 1 book a month. I know that’s not as high as it should be, but with the number of people in this country who consistently manage to hit their goal of 0 books read per year, I figure I’m doing alright. I’ve continued to keep up with My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and its immense (but fully justified) fandom, and I also finally, finally watched Firefly and its movie Serenity this year, at last coming to understand why so many people consider it such a tragedy that it didn’t live longer. I also rewatched both Batman: The Animated Series and Gargoyles this year from start to finish, and doing so back-to-back has allowed me to finally conclude, once and for all, which is truly the greatest non-anime cartoon series of all time (it’s Gargoyles). I also continued fooling around with fanfiction. Oh, and both of my jobs. I guess I did spend some time with them, too.
As far as RPGs go, the year started off...not so well. The very first spoken line in the very first RPG I played this year was a space monster telling a 5th grader, “I’ll tell you about your father if you let me use your body, kid!” That is just not a good way to kick off a new year, guys. Thanks for that, Mega Man Star Force 2. And thanks also for the creepy moment that followed soon after in which the adult villain chose a 10-year-old-girl as his damsel and supposed co-ruler. Still, things soon started to look up with Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura, and Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle. I had a small series of dull games after that, but soon rebounded with the excellence that is Deus Ex 1 and The Witcher 1. Things went along fairly quietly but enjoyably up until the end after that, finishing the year out with Shin Megami Tensei 4, a good-though-not-as-good-as-it-should-be RPG, and Deus Ex 2, which was really very good, a worthy successor to the original. So, overall, everything went well enough, with only pockets of dullness or crap here and there.
I played a lot of RPG series for the first time this year, I notice. Until 2013, I’d never played any of the Atelier games (unless you count Mana Khemia, but I think it’s only tangentially related to the Atelier series, like the way Nippon Ichi games are usually vaguely connected), nor any of the titles from the Witcher, Elder Scrolls, Geneforge, Deus Ex, or Divinity series, either. I found 4 out of these 6 new forays to be at least a little rewarding, so it seems new experiences are indeed a good thing.
So, what stood out in particular this year? Let’s see.
RPG Moments of Interest in 2013:
1. I finally got around to playing Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, one of the first and best known Indie RPGs released over the web. It is gloriously ridiculous, and its glorious ridiculousness is made all the better for how seriously it takes itself. This is both the most insanely hilarious and crazy thing you’ve ever played, AND a totally awesome RPG story in its own right. I’m not sure anything has ever been quite so epic and silly at the same time before.
2. One of the many hidden gems that can be found for cheap at GOG.com, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura is based on an insanely awesome idea: a Dungeons and Dragons-esque world in the midst of its industrial revolution. Victorian England-styled Steampunk is already a fascinating concept when applied to a regular real-life-esque setting, so putting it together with arcane magic and mysticism, elves and dwarves and orcs and so on, just makes for a very cool premise and setting. I also found it a fun coincidence that Chris Avellone, whom I consider basically the greatest RPG writer to ever have lived, started doing a Let’s Play of Arcanum this same year.
3. I came across a hybrid game that is both RPG and Real Time Strategy this year, Heroes of Annihilated Empires, in which you command both regular RTS units and structures on the field, AND a hero or two who level up from fighting enemies to eventually be worth an entire horde of the regular RTS units--yet limited enough that you need both to defend and attack properly. I’ve often thought to myself that you could do great things if you combined these game genres (Command and Conquer mildly dabbled with the concept at times in that some units who got enough kills could be promoted, but dabbling is as far as it went), and HoAE confirms that the mixture works as well as I thought it would. The only downside with the title’s gameplay is that the RTS elements are too simplistic and undeveloped on their own to have explored the concept as well as it should have been. Still, it worked well for what it was. Hope I see this idea come about again some time.
4. Among the unusually high number of Indie RPGs I played this year was Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle. Told by a friend to check it out, I initially thought I’d play it for an hour or so and then move along to something else, never to think of it again. EoWC is, without mincing words, a mostly-lesbian pornographic RPG, and as such I did not expect much from it. But if you read my rant on it earlier this year, you’re aware that I was happily very, very wrong--lewd it may be, but Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle is exceptionally creative, has palpable depth and emotion, and contains several really good characters, concepts, and many touching and emotionally gripping love stories within it, all culminating in a battle of the mind to awaken to the present yet keep the dreams of the future. You really can’t judge a book by its cover--what I thought for sure would be a perverse, insulting waste of time turned out to be one of the great highlights of my year.
5. I also played The Last Story this year, which is the big special masterwork of Hironobu Sakaguchi, the renowned father of the Final Fantasy series. It’s clear from the game that the guy put a lot of heart and soul into it, its setting and presentation just exuding the creative effort that went into the title. Unfortunately...well, for all that effort and care, The Last Story is not bad by any means, and it has some pretty good moments, but ultimately, I found it somewhat underwhelming, merely okay at best. Underneath all its polish, it’s a very generic JRPG story with an equally generic JRPG cast, and it does nothing to keep its archetypes fresh or appealing (unless you’re easily amused enough to be enthralled by the idea of a female character who drinks a lot of alcohol).
6. Return to Krondor wins the award for having the Best Witch Ever.
7. Here’s another entry for the list of the great tragedies of RPG history: Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader. What a sad waste of potential. An RPG by the folks behind the early Fallout games, about an alternate-timeline Europe during the Renaissance period in a world where magic and evil beasts of dark power have existed since the Crusades, featuring a ton of great figures of the past like Leonardo da Vinci, Marco Polo, Galileo, and the like? I’d be hard pressed to think of a cooler game idea than that. And early on in the game, it looks like it’s going to be everything you’d hope for and more, but damn it all, the developing company went out of business and the game had to be rushed out, a mere shell of what it would have been, becoming little more than an uninterrupted slogfest soon after leaving the game’s first city. What a damn shame; this thing could have been so great.
8. Another Indie RPG I played this year was Evoland. Great concept with the evolution of RPG game mechanics figuring into the gameplay, but I can’t help but be very disappointed nonetheless. The plot and characters are so utterly bland and simple. It would have been so much neater if they, too, had evolved as the game went along, starting out simple and barely touched upon in the earliest stages of the game while things are still blocky and 8-bit, and then gradually becoming deeper and more developed in different ways as the game evolves into later generations of game style. Sadly, everything about RPGs that really counts stays boring and childishly facile from start to finish in Evoland. It’s a game that details the evolution of only the superficial parts of RPGs. Too bad.
Best Prequel/Sequel of 2013:
Winner: The Witcher 1
The Witcher 1 is based off of the Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski, and so I think it’s safe to consider it a sequel, even if it’s the first game of the RPG series. I haven’t read the books, so I’m probably not qualified to fully judge just how faithful it is, but I can at least say that The Witcher 1 seems to be an interesting and insightful exploration into the world and characters of Sapkowski’s books and the role that his Witchers are meant to play, expanding upon these things in a way that both references and relies on the original source material, yet also is accessibly easy to follow and explanatory for those only entering the series through the game. Geralt’s amnesia is treated with surprising skill in this game, being used just enough to allow for players to be introduced to Geralt’s world as he himself re-learns it and just enough for the players’ choices for Geralt’s actions not to necessarily conflict with his personality from the books, without seeming like the cheap cop-out that amnesia almost always winds up being--Geralt keeps a definitive personality, his past continues to have relevance to him regardless of how much of it he fully remembers, and ultimately the memory loss is never flaunted as a magic wand to fix all possible writing difficulties, only expertly used as a tool to enrich the experience and make it more accessible. The Witcher 1 strikes me, and what small research I’ve done on the books has backed this perspective up, as an RPG very careful to respect its source material, but also bold enough to take some steps forward on its own to examine and expand the universe it borrows.
Runners-Up: Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden; Deus Ex 2; Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 2
Well, like The Witcher 1, Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden is a sequel to a previous non-RPG work (the movie Space Jam), so I reckon it does count as a sequel, and it’s...pretty amazingly awesome and amusing, referencing many of the events of Space Jam as it goes along, so it’s definitely a good sequel. SMTDSRK2 manages to keep the quirky atmosphere of the first Raidou Kuzunoha game, references and builds off of the original game’s events and such, but goes in its own direction with a strong independence. It’s quite good. Deus Ex 2 is a very worthy sequel to the original DE1, taking the events and ideas of DE1 and moving forward with them, providing a new understanding and idealism to DE1’s concepts that’s almost equally fascinating. I’d say that Deus Ex 1 had more going on, a much stronger tie to our actual world, and a longer and better-conceived chain of thought with the concepts it explored, but as a follow-up to all of that, DE2 is darned good and did not disappoint.
Biggest Disappointment of 2013:
Loser: Mass Effect 3
Because Mass Effect 3’s ending is so horrible that it deserves recognition for its failure for the next 20 years or so.
...Oh FINE, have it your way:
Actual Loser: Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader
Like I said above, this was a game with huge potential for being cool, interesting, and creative, and it showed it in the beginning. Sadly, it was all for naught when the developer closed its doors and the product was hurried to shelves prematurely. I almost wish they had canned the damn thing altogether instead of releasing this 10% Real RPG, 90% Wandering Around Randomly Fighting Things mess. I hate failed potential.
Almost as Bad: Evoland; Nox; The Wizard of Oz: Beyond the Yellow Brick Road
Evoland I also spoke about above--for such a creative gameplay concept of using the game itself as a demonstration of RPGs’ evolution, the important parts are terribly primitive. Nox is only a mild disappointment since I didn’t know much about it going into the game, but it still qualifies because after as entertainingly lighthearted an intro as it has, it’s rather a letdown that the game itself is such a by-the-numbers combat-heavy adventure. And I didn’t really know what to expect from the Wizard of Oz RPG, as there’s multiple takes on the world of Oz that it could go by, but I did know I was hoping for appealing and strongly involved characters, a decent plot, a memorable villain, and an ultimately heartwarming adventure. Every significant portrayal of Oz I’ve seen before has managed that much, after all. But this one is just...blah. Light on story, lighter still on character involvement and development, and the stuff it takes away from and adds to the Oz story makes no improvement whatsoever. C’mon, Media Vision, nothing about the Wizard of Oz should be bland!
Best Ending of 2013:
Winner:Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura
Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura follows a tried and true formula for endings: the player gets what they put into the game. Like most Fallouts, and Romancing Saga 1, AOSaMO’s ending shows you a series of scenes that give you an idea of how things went down for various locales and people of importance which you encountered and affected during the course of the game, along with wrapping up the main plot threads. It’s a complete and proper conclusion to the game, and it rewards you with closure for the story events you cared to become involved in. Simple, interesting, and satisfying.
Runners-Up: Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle: Flight to Elstwhere Ending; Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle: Nereid Ending; Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle: True Ending
...What? It’s a great game and it has like 20 different endings; you gotta expect there to be some good ones. And good they are. The Nereid Ending is a touching story of a simple but enduring love that calls out across the boundaries of time, while the True Ending is an interesting, satisfying conclusion to Duchess Catherine’s tale of awakening that cleverly makes pretty much all the other endings possible, while giving the protagonist a chance to enact whichever one of them she pleases with her foreknowledge. And frankly, I really wanted to make the Flight to Elstwhere Ending the winner this year, above Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura’s ending, but on principle of what I think an ending should ultimately be, the latter won out. But Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle’s Flight to Elstwhere Ending is still a beautiful, bittersweet conclusion to the lovely romance of Catherine and Carmina (even if Carmina herself says she prefers one of the other endings) that fiercely tugs at the heartstrings.
Worst RPG of 2013:
Loser: Lunar: Dragon Song
I’m hesitant to place Lunar: Dragon Song here, because people are going to assume, if they have any familiarity with the game’s legendarily bad design, that it’s here for gameplay reasons. And don’t get me wrong, if I concerned myself with the actual experience of playing the game, this would definitely be the worst game I’d played this year, decade, lifetime. But I want to make it clear here that unparallelled design flaws aside, Lunar: Dragon Song is a pointless, dumb heap of crap. The characters are uninteresting and often stupid, the plot can only be described as phoned in, the villain is exceptionally poor and essentially just a shitty copy of Lunar 1’s Ghaleon, many parts of it make absolutely no goddamn sense, the game’s conclusion essentially contradicts the canon of the Lunar series, the final confrontation with the main villain is possibly the lamest ever conceived, and the plot supposedly hinges upon a love story that I was not even aware was there until the very end of the game--I’m still not convinced that Jian’s confession of love wasn’t a translation error; lord knows there are plenty of them in this time-sucking disaster! Lunar: Dragon Song is the worst game I played in 2013, not because it’s virtually unplayable, but because its story, characters, and just pretty much everything about it having to do with the writing is just as terrible as the gameplay is.
Almost as Bad: Mega Man Star Force 2; Nox; Torchlight 1
Let me just say first and foremost that I am seriously unable to believe that Dragon Quest 9 managed to avoid this list. But it got out by the narrowest of margins, for there was a single, solitary part of the otherwise uninterrupted boredom and worthlessness of DQ9 that was actually really cool and interesting (the reveal of the history of the goddess and how she became a tree). Everything else was shit, but that tiny, shining moment nonetheless puts it above Nox, which only had a few brief, tiny chuckles in its favor during its intro and ending, and Torchlight 1, which is as by-the-numbers a dungeon crawler in terms of plot and characters as you can possibly imagine. And Mega Man Star Force 2...well, it’s just as inescapably, indescribably dumb as its predecessor. I’ll grant you that there actually IS also a moment (and that is IT) in MMSF2 that I thought was halfway decent, but it doesn’t even come close to being able to balance out the utterly incredible level of pure, unfiltered Dumb the rest of the time. Honestly, it’s still hard for me to accept that I found a worse game to play this year than Mega Man Star Force 2. Just...ugh.
Most Improved of its Series of 2013:
Winner: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunhoha 2
Also known as SMT Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon. I’m not going to go into much detail about this here, because I’ve got a rant planned for the subject, but briefly, the sequel keeps the lighthearted fun and quirkiness of the original SMTDS Raidou Kuzunoha game, but also instils a major dose of meaning and traditional SMT themes to the formula, betters Raidou’s character, and introduces some good new cast members to the mix. This makes for a huge improvement from the first game, and as a result, SMTDSRK2 is a game that the prestigious Shin Megami Tensei series can take pride in.
Runners-Up: Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates; Legend of Mana; Tales of Destiny 1
FFCCRoF surprised me by having an actually halfway decent plot and some rather emotionally gripping scenes to it. It isn’t perfect and it doesn’t always make total sense, but it’s a pretty solid title, which is more than just the vaguely positive aspects of the original FF Crystal Chronicles. Legend of Mana is much the same--not perfect, doesn’t always fully make sense, but there’s a lot of good ideas and emotions to be found in many of its subplots that the Mana games I’ve played previously (Secret of Mana and Seiken Densetsu 3) don’t even come close to possessing. As for Tales of Destiny 1, well, it’s a pretty by-the-numbers JRPG without a lot to take note of (although Mary’s character is pretty great once she’s properly revealed) and several problems, but it’s the second game in the Tales of series, and as such it deserves to be here because it is at least a little better than the first Tales of game, Tales of Phantasia, thanks to Mary and a few pretty decent storytelling aspects. Sure as hell ain’t Tales of Legendia or Tales of the Abyss, but you can at least see the series starting to take its first real steps toward its later quality titles.
Most Creative of 2013:
Winner: Barkley, Shut Up and Jam Gaiden
Okay, sorry, but come on, what was possibly going to be more creative than a cyberpunk RPG sequel to the movie Space Jam about a post-apocalyptic New York City where Basketball’s been banned after a slam dunk performed by Charles Barkley 20 years earlier was so powerful that it created a nuclear blast? Goddamn nothing, that’s what. And rather than play it for its comical worth, the creators of BSUaJG played the whole thing straight, wrote the game’s events and dialogue and music and so on out like this was an honest-to-God serious, moody, post-apocalyptic sci-fi story, letting ONLY the actual subject matter and characters, the butthurt save points, and a few enemy visuals betray how utterly absurd the whole thing is meant to be; other than that, it feels and rolls forward like any sincere RPG might. Which just makes it all the more creative and unique, in my opinion.
Runners-Up: Deus Ex 1; Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle; Legend of Mana
There was actually a lot of competition for this category this year, which was a neat change of pace--any other year, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura would have been a shoe-in for this, but ultimately I feel like its storyline doesn’t take enough advantage of its mix of magic and steampunk. Deus Ex 2 was a close contender, too, only losing out because for all its creativity in going forward from DE1’s conclusion, it’s still ultimately derivative of DE1 more than its own creative enterprise (not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind, DE1 is excellent source material). And if Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader had been developed properly from start to finish, I’m sure it would have had a strong shot at a spot here, too.
Anyway. Deus Ex 1’s mix of cyberpunk and political conspiracies, with a tiny bit of Asimovian social sci-fi, is wildly creative and interesting in its presentation and ideas, and frankly, it almost won this category, save for one thing: looking at what is now common knowledge about the world at the time DE1 was made and looking at our current world political situation nowadays, a significant part of Deus Ex 1 is less “creative” than it is “an accurate assessment” and “prophetic.” Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle is very imaginative in its non-linear ability to nonetheless pursue an evolving story, in the scope of its characters, in the truth of its events as revealed by the supposed real ending and the True Ending, and for its ability to take the Dungeons and Dragons style in yet another direction. That’s not to mention that it’s a near full-length RPG with less than a dozen battles in its entirety, and hell, just the fact that it has and unashamedly uses pornographic visuals and moments in the story, yet is a strong, emotionally deep, involving, and worthwhile intellectual product. Lastly, Legend of Mana’s style and nonlinear way of telling its divided story combines with the subtle and uncommon themes running through it to provide a very unique experience to the player.
Stupidest Weapon of 2013:
Loser: Musical Instruments (Tales of Destiny 1)
I’m just gonna copy-paste a section of my rant on the stupidest RPG weapons ever here: “...then some bard managing to hurt a monster by plucking on a harp is stupid. And using musical instruments to inflict physical trauma is even worse. I'm not anything even approaching knowledgeable about musical instruments, but I'm still fairly certain that they're meant to be reasonably delicate tools relying on careful balance and structure to produce their sounds correctly, so taking your guitar and smashing people over the head with it is going to ruin it for its intended purpose of creating music, and if you don't want to use it for music, then why the hell would you carry it around instead of a club or dagger or something?” Point still stands. Karyl’s decision to use musical instruments as weapons, particularly in a party that’s regularly finding much more effective weaponry like swords and axes and such, weaponry that most of the party doesn’t even bother to use because of the Swordians they have, is dumb.
Almost as Bad: Basketball (Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden); Pot (Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates); Rings (Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle)
While large and specially-shaped ones can increase the damage of one’s punches, rings as a general rule are not really weapons by any conceivable definition. The basketball I’ll give a mulligan to because the game is supposed to be utterly absurd that way and part of that absurdity is to make Basketball some forbidden, mystical power of sorts so using a basketball as a weapon fits the bill. And lastly, for the love of Clispaeth, getting into a pot and rolling around is not an attack.
Best Romance of 2013:
Winner: Carmina and Catherine (Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle)
Granted, this one gets off to a rather...rocky start, which I do have issues with, but I absolutely adore the love story between Carmina and the protagonist of EoWC, I really do. It’s believable and well-developed, yet poetic and beautiful in an otherworldly sense, a courtship through dreams in which they bare their hearts to one another, and exposing their vulnerabilities and loving one another for them as their bond strengthens, until they each understand the other on the deepest level that we see in this entire game of romantic connections. Though Catherine fears she may simply be enthralled by this being of darkness, she trusts her feelings nonetheless, and we come to see that each would risk all and do absolutely anything to preserve the other and make her happy. It’s epic, it’s lovely, and it’s inspiring, a wonderful story of love with all the development and dialogue to make it real, and all the dramatic actions and elements of the fantastic to make it epic.
Runners-Up: Calista and Zael (The Last Story); Catherine and Louni (Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle); Catherine and the Nereid (Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle)
Much like Mass Effect 3 last year, Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle dominated this category this year. Well, it’s a game where romantic (and sexual) connections are a huge deal, and it does them darned well. The Nereid Ending of EoWC takes the Nereid’s otherwise one-dimensional character and really expands her and makes the love between her and Catherine powerful and compelling, and I do like the connection between Catherine and Louni; it’s very different, but touching all the same. And while Calista and Zael are mostly here because there weren’t really any other notable romances I saw this year (I guess Catherine and The Good Dwarf was alright, and I actually am quite fond of Alice and Catherine, but both are just too...understated), and though the initial parts of Calista and Zael’s love story are so Aladdin and Jasmine that I’m surprised Disney hasn’t hauled Sakaguchi’s ass to court over it, it all winds up being okay, as love stories go, and it balances itself well enough as a part of the overall story without suddenly attempting to supplant all other plot threads to become the story’s only focus. It doesn’t stray past its limitations but rather coordinates and meshes with the plot, and overall there’s enough chemistry and development between Zael and Calista that I buy it, so I dub this romance decent.
Best Voice Acting of 2013:
Winner: The Witcher 1
It actually took me a little bit to really get accustomed to Geralt’s voice; for some reason, it just didn’t seem right to me at first. But once I did, I found that the voice actor for him did a very good job of putting feeling into the vocal work and making Geralt sound very genuine, even though you could pretty fairly say that it sounds like he’s just using one single tone of voice for every line and situation. Still, in its subtlety, Geralt’s voice acting is top notch stuff. The rest of the game’s cast does a good job, too, though I’d say that Geralt’s the only one whose vocal work is high above mere competence.
Runners-Up: Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura; Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates; Shin Megami Tensei 4
Honestly, I don’t have a lot to say about SMT4 or FFCCRoF. They all have voice acting that does the job adequately with few to 0 low moments, kudos to them. Arcanum is much the same, although I’d say that it does have a few characters, like Virgil, who have some pretty noteworthy voice acting at times. Overall, though, not a particularly interesting year for me as far as vocal work goes.
Best Villain of 2013:
Winner: Greyghast (Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle)
It really says something for Greyghast to be the winner here, considering that he’s (sort of) dead from the very start of the game on, and never actually serves in the role of antagonist. But though Bad King Greyghast the Terrible is only shown in memories and referenced in the postmortem sense, what glimpses we get at his actions are enough to paint the picture of a monstrously evil and sick tyrant, whose horrifying actions are a legacy that follow Duchess Catherine throughout the game to its very end. The way Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle shows Greyghast’s intense evil is expertly subtle and understated, letting inferences and its traumatic aftershocks that the protagonist will never fully escape from tell the story as much as outright explanation and details do. I’m usually more of a stickler for character depth and having an understanding of a villain’s motivation (which is why Shinado almost won this spot), but sometimes the force and effect of a skilled writer’s villain is too overwhelming to ignore. In Greyghast, we see, even if only in glimpses, some of the darkest, most cruel evil that humanity can offer, and the lasting damage it can cause.
Runners-Up: Dahn (Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 2); Jacques de Aldersberg (The Witcher 1); Shinado (Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 2)
SMTDSRK2 offers us 2 solid villains in Dahn, a hothead out to break a bad system to save his sister at any cost, who is quite easy to empathize with (in fact, he kind of isn’t even really a villain overall, but he’s great for the time that he’s in the role), and Shinado, a dangerous god of misfortune whose conclusions about humanity, hope, and the role Luck plays in them are quite interesting to hear and consider. Shinado perfectly serves as the game’s major antagonist and provides the thematic and philosophical backdrops for the events and obstacles of the story. Jacques de Aldesberg is a decent villain with a goal very similar to that of Suikoden 3’s villain Luc, saving the world from a terrible future he has foreseen by taking steps in the present to prevent it, but doing so through immoral means that cause strife and havoc. I wish the game had explored him and his goals a little more thoroughly--it’s all kind of jammed in at the game’s conclusion--but what’s there is good, and he becomes more interesting when you figure out just who the game is implying he is--puts an interesting twist on some of the scenes and conversations you see in the game with a particular character that you wouldn’t think too deeply upon otherwise.
Best Character of 2013:
Winner: Duchess Catherine (Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle)
Dammit, Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, stop winning everything! Well, what can you do? I’m gonna do a cop-out and copy-paste what I said about her in my review of the game, because it pretty efficiently sums up my thoughts on her: “Catherine at first seems very simplistic, very damsel-in-distress-esque, very...princess-y, but as you progress through the game, you can begin to recognize some strong depth to her, along with some subtle but solid character development. Her exceptionally dark, tormented back history, her craftiness and more than adept skill at political maneuvering and diplomacy, her enthusiasm and wish to form a positive connection with all those around her, the interesting ambiguity about whether she is, in the end, a good or evil character, her insecurities about her future and related subconscious resentment against princesses, her fleeing from the title of being Greyghast’s heir and whether or not there might be some truth to it...there’s a lot of angles to Catherine’s character, a lot of fronts that she grows as a person on, and nigh all of them are pretty interesting.”
Runners-Up: Geralt (The Witcher 1); Mary (Tales of Destiny 1); Virgil (Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura)
Mary’s history and character development is kind of all dumped on us at the same time, but it’s very good stuff, surprisingly deep and emotionally effective for a game whose cast is otherwise very standard and unremarkable. Most of the party members in Arcanum have some decent depth, but Virgil definitely stands out for his subplot concerning his past. Geralt is a very well-written protagonist in his musings of where he and other Witchers must stand in the more civilized world and the conclusions he draws as the player guides him to whichever side of the game’s political conflict that Geralt eventually stands on, managing to be interesting and true to himself no matter what he comes to believe. I have to say I find myself straddling boredom and annoyance when it comes to Geralt’s James Bond-esque sexual escapades, something that seems completely superfluous, but in general, the guy’s a great and involving character.
Best Game of 2013:
Winner: Deus Ex 1
Bet y’all thought Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle was gonna win this one, too, huh? Well, almost, but not quite. Deus Ex 1’s greatest virtue is in its plot and purpose, an extremely creative, realistic cyberpunk game of conspiracies and tyrannical secret agencies, a gripping adventure and a fascinating look into the subjects of human rights to privacy, freedom vs. security, and the dangers of shadowy tyrants and corporations, all with a heavy dose of philosophy on how these subjects relate to human nature and a mild sprinkling of Christianity symbolism, which is present enough to be interesting, but background enough not to become cumbersome to the narrative. It’s also an excellent cautionary tale which has only become more sharply relevant as time has passed--it’s not just good for people to experience and think upon this game, it’s important for them to do so. Terrific stuff, something everyone should play.
Runners-Up: Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle; Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 2; The Witcher 1
As I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle is a hidden gem amongst hidden gems, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who can look beyond its perverse exterior to appreciate the many fine qualities within--and it’s a simple, free download, to boot. The second Raidou Kuzunoha title in the SMT series is leaps and bounds above its predecessor, to the point where SMTDSRK2 is, to me, as true and worthy an SMT title as any other. I could go into detail here about it, but I won’t, because I plan to spend my next rant on nothing but discussing this great game. Finally, The Witcher 1 is perhaps slightly overrated, but I can certainly understand how so many people can hold this game and its sequel up as some of the greatest RPGs ever made--its storyline is deep and involving, yet completely accessible to those who have no experience with the novels it’s based on, the cast is solid, it does a terrific job with juggling its numerous subplots and how the player’s decisions can affect the story, and it’s overall just a terrifically engrossing fantasy epic.
List Changes of 2013:
Greatest Romances: Carmina and Catherine from Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle have been added to the list of Greatest Romances, bumping the Grey Warden and Leliana from Dragon Age 1 off.
And that’s all, folks, 2013’s over and done with. I’m actually very much looking forward to 2014. Several of the crowdfunded RPGs I’ve backed will be coming out in 2014, including the sequel to Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, the NPC RPG You Are Not the Hero, possibly Cosmic Star Heroine, and even Chris Avellone’s baby Project Eternity and possibly the spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment, Torment: Tides of Numenera. THAT is the kind of gaming that could make 2014 one of the greatest RPG years of my life, right there. On top of that, the Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod, the mod that seeks to give ME3 the good, artistically consistent ending it sorely needs, is set to have its final major update occur some time in 2014, and considering the amazing work that has gone into it already, it is likely going to blow my mind. You can be damn sure I’ll be making a rant about it at that time.
And speaking of rants, I kind of look forward to 2014’s rants, too. I’ve decided that I’m going to make my Shin Megami Tensei Year project into a full year, which means continuing to do an SMT rant every month until July, if I can. So far it’s been quite fun to challenge myself to come up with SMT subjects to rant about, and to make sure those rants are halfway decent. I also look forward to continuing, and concluding, my series of rants about Xenosaga 3, the game with the most numerous flaws of all RPG time. Should be a blast.
At any rate, thanks for bearing with me for another year, you proud, incredibly bored few who actually read these things. Special thanks to my buddy Ecclesiastes and especially my sister for their great contributions to many and most of these rants! Happy holidays, and here’s to seeing you all again in 2014!