Friday, February 28, 2014

The Elder Scrolls 4's Add-Ons

Blah blah blah, same tired intro explaining that even though the game by now comes bundled with all the add-ons I’m still gonna rate them as though they were being sold separately, blah blah blah, same spiel about how I’m only rating add-ons involving actual story content, not just stupid extra accessories like horse armor and houses.

Mehrunes’ Razor: Oh, boy, a bare bones story about some jerk creating an army to take down the Empire as a flimsy pretext to have you go gallivanting through a very long, very generic dungeon for hours in order to obtain a slightly-more-powerful-than-average dagger. What a delight. Because if there’s one thing Oblivion doesn’t have enough of, it’s tedious dungeons to explore for little-to-no plot-related reason! This snore of a quest was apparently originally bundled in with another add-on package, the Knights of the Nine one, so I guess it sort of didn’t cost anything, but frankly the simple cost of your time for essentially no story at all isn’t worth it.

Orrery: This add-on was also bundled in originally with the Knights of the Nine, like Mehrunes’ Razor, and like Mehrunes’ Razor, it’s boring and tedious. The story to it is that bandits stole parts for the Imperial Orrery. You go to the bandits’ camps, kill the bandits, get the parts, and deliver them to someone, and get a special power from it. And you’re done. That’s it. Again, free, but a plot-less fetch-quest is not worth the time anyway.

Knights of the Nine: This add-on, originally sold for $20, is at least better than the ones I’ve mentioned so far in that it DOES have an actual bit of story to it that actually maintains some relevance through the add-on's course. I’ll give it that much; someone at Bethesda actually managed to give half a shit about it, unlike Orrery and Mehrunes’ Razor. But since the story is rather generic and dull, again making it not even worth the time it takes to complete it let alone the 20 bucks you paid for it (back in the day, at least), I still give it a thumbs-down.

Shivering Isles: Alright, finally we have something halfway decent! This expansion adds a slightly small new land to explore, several new sidequests, and a line of main quests involving saving the land of chaotic madness from the encroaching forces of rigid order. I wouldn’t call Shivering Isles anything amazing, and its sidequests are only slightly more interesting than the dull-as-dirt sidequests of the main game, but at least it’s got an interesting set of characters, a new setting that will catch your attention for at least a little while, and an overall plot that’s fairly worthwhile. The main figure of the expansion, Sheogorath, is quite a hoot, and the overall story of the cycle of order to madness and madness to order for this Daedric realm is kind of neat. In all honesty, Shivering Isles is the only part of the entire game that I found at all engaging. I can appreciate TES4 for the many impressive feats it accomplished as an RPG in terms of gameplay, but its story and characters were at very best average; Shivering Isles is the only part of it that stands out at all.

And that’s it for that. Not much to say, really--in terms of add-ons, Oblivion overall stays true to itself with a bunch of boring filler that wastes your time while giving you nothing of worth to experience. Shivering Isles is the one exception, and I even doubt the price for admission into that was worth the small positive experience it provided. Just as I do when comparing the main game of The Elder Scrolls 4 to that of Fallout 3, I look at these add-ons and then at the DLCs of Fallout 3, and I shake my head in confusion. Is this really the work of the same company that would go on to make such an excellent game as Fallout 3 from the same programming building blocks?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Lunar: Dragon Song's Characters

Lunar: Dragon Song. I’d say it’s garbage, but for the fact that festering carrion rats frequently use garbage as a squalid staging ground within which to uncontrollably breed both their rancid vermin spawn and the plague-ridden parasites that prey upon every filth-soaked inch of their scabby flesh, all of which gives said garbage a level of value to the world that Lunar: Dragon Song can’t possibly compare to. While it’s true that no one single aspect of this game is to blame for its being universally reviled (it’s more like every single part of the title works together in evil harmony to create its crappiness, like a twisted, masterfully horrible symphony of agony and human vice), let’s take a look at its characters for now.

Jian: Jian is of the Selfish, Bull-Headed Moron subgenre of RPG heroes. It’s a well-known fact that about 50% of all JRPG heroes are complete idiots by design, but not all idiots are created equally unintelligent. Most of the time, an idiot protagonist comes in the form of someone like Lloyd from Tales of Symphonia 1, a teenage simpleton whose heart of gold sees him through his adventure and makes up for the fact that reading his age backwards gives you his IQ. However, sometimes they make an idiot protagonist and forget to counterbalance his stupidity with a likable personality, leaving you with a self-centered dipshit like Jian. Yeah, Jian is all about racial equality and all (which is less wise and forward-thinking than it initially seems to be, when one considers that it’s HIS race that’s the one being looked down on as inferior; of COURSE the one being persecuted wants people to treat each other better), but more than that, Jian is about pursuing what HE wants and values, as impatiently and recklessly as possible. Aside from just hurling himself face-first into whatever his current objective happens to be without the slightest forethought whatsoever, he really has no personality to speak of.

And actually, I make it out like he’s stupid, but he seems to be the only person in all of Lunar who has figured out that hitting an enemy once is actually, incredibly enough, less effective than hitting them more than once. Jian is, in all seriousness, the deadliest fighter in the world simply because he thinks to kick his foe three times instead of just once. So as stupid as he is, everyone else in the game is apparently even dumber.

Lucia: Oh, yeah, great idea, Japan Art Media. Name the main female character of this Lunar game the SAME NAME as the lead female character of Lunar 2. Because THAT won’t cause confusion or anything. Jesus, people, this is not the Suikoden series, you don’t have literally dozens of female characters in each title that you have to come up with names for. This is not a huge RPG series like Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy, or Shin Megami Tensei; there are only 4 Lunar titles with distinct stories and casts! You guys could not think of ANY other name to give this character than the same one as an iconic former cast member?

Anyway, Lucia is...uh...boring. Like, really boring. You thought the first game’s Luna was a boring, lackluster character utterly devoid of personality? You ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen Lucia. Along with Goddess of Lunar, Althena must also be Goddess of Ultimate Blandness, because every mortal incarnation of her has all the personality of a moist block of tofu.

Jian and Lucia’s Love: AKA Sir Not Appearing In This Game. Seriously, this romantic subplot is so irrelevant, unconvincing, and for all practical purposes nonexistent, that it actually makes Lunar 1’s love story between Alex and Luna look wildly romantic and convincing.

Gabi: The writers’ strategy when making Gabi’s character seems to have been hoping that you’ll be too enthralled by the novelty of “OMG CATGIRL KAWAII” to actually read her dull, uninspired occasionally-plot-forwarding-but-mostly-just-pointless dialogue. Unfortunately, Japan Art Media forgot that it’s not the goddamn 1980s any more and catgirls aren’t the new, adorable anime phenomenon that they were 30 years ago, so the fact that Gabi is a super boring character whose only point of depth (that whole thing where she uses her brand new friends as the next wave of cannon fodder for her dad’s army) barely makes sense anyway does not go unnoticed just because someone glued a pair of feline ears onto her head. Sadly, she’s probably still the highlight of this cast.

Rufus: Considering that Rufus is shown more prominently on the game’s cover than Gabi (the character who is, aside from Jian, with the party the longest, and does the most of importance to the plot), it’s a little puzzling that he’s only in the game for one full dungeon before getting killed off. What was the point of having Rufus in there anyway? We never learn much of anything about him, he doesn’t do anything that really affects the way the plot unfolds, he doesn’t seem to have any particular influence on Jian’s character either way, and his position as a replacement for Gabi and Flora isn’t important to the story because Jian’s forcing Gabi and Flora away was meaningless; it didn’t develop any of them or show us anything important about their characters. You take poor Rufus out the picture entirely, and Lunar: Dragon Song would proceed virtually unchanged.

Flora: “Hi! Did someone here order a conveniently-timed, obligatory generic healer?”

Ignatius: Oh, hey, an arrogant, self-righteous semi-smooth talker who plans to control Althena and abuse her powers for his poorly-reasoned, quasi-misguided but mostly just evil-in-a-dumb-way villain motives. Just like Ghaleon. The villain from Lunar 1. Bit of a one trick pony there, aren’tcha, Japan Art Media?

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Shin Megami Tensei Series's Spell Names

Well, I said I was gonna do this rant, and ain’t no man what calls me a liar, so here we go.

It’s been tough to decide where I stand, exactly, when it comes to spell names in the Shin Megami Tensei games. On the one hand, they’re very annoying to figure out and remember, at least if you’re not starting the series with some of the recent games that give little element icons and descriptions for each ability. If I want to play any SMT game, I have to remember that Agi means Fire, Bufu means Ice, Zio means Lightning, Dia means Heal, Recarm means Revive, Zan is Wind except when it’s not in which case Garu is Wind, Mudo is Death, Hama is Also Death But It’s Shinier, Megido means Non-Elemental/Holy/Almighty/Whatever, Patra means Some Status Ailment Healing, Posumudi means Some Other Status Ailment Healing, and any time I want to raise or lower stats I have to be sure I keep in mind which stats correspond with Taru, Suku, Raka, and...hell, I’ve actually forgotten the last one, which just goes to show you how annoying it is to keep all of this straight.

All of that is bad enough, but it gets far worse when the prefixes and suffixes come into play. If an ability hits all enemies/allies, then it gets the prefix Ma- if it’s an attack spell or Me- if it’s a healing spell (an all-enemy hitting ice spell, for example, is Mabufu, and an all-ally healing spell is Media). Unless it’s Agi, in which case the prefix is Mar- because Agi already starts with an A and for some reason Maagi or just Magi isn’t okay. Oh, and Megido is an exception, too, because it starts with Me- but isn’t a healing spell. And the stat-adjusting spells usually target groups but they don’t get the prefixes. Then the suffix tells you how powerful the spell is, except that mid-tier spell suffixes don’t have any concrete rules because -nga makes Zio mid-tier but it’s -la for Bufu, Megido, and Garu and -ma for Zan and -zi for Tera in that one game and -on for both Death spells except their mid-tier is also their high-tier, and even when you get the seeming simplicity of the high-tier suffixes all being -dyne, some spells still buck the trend with -rahan instead, or have the prefix sama- put in front of them instead, and then there was that whole -rama business for all the spells for a little while. Then there’s -kunda and -kaja to denote whether stat spells are increasing or decreasing stats, and -dra for that one Recarm spell that kills its user for no reason, and -laon for the Megido spells...oh, and I forgot to mention the Deka spells for elimination stat buffs, and how Taka and Maka make the difference in reflection spells, and...guh, what a mess!

It’s by no means impossible to figure out and memorize, but what a hassle all the same. Maybe I’m just an idiot (I did play Lunar: Dragon Song from start to finish, so it’s a strong possibility), but it took me until about my sixth SMT game to really get it all straight. And while I can finally easily recognize and know the spells when I see them in the games, even now I can’t always recall to mind the exact spell name myself.

But, on the other hand...there IS a purpose to all this, I’ve discovered. In one way or another, pretty much all these spell-naming conventions have ties to one culture or another. Mudo, the instant death spell, is Spanish for Silent and Japanese for Curse, while Megido, a spell name that some well-played RPG enthusiasts have probably seen at least a few times before in other series, is named for Megiddo, the mountain at which Armageddon will take place according to some Christian views. Agi is very close to Agni, a Hindu god of fire. There’s even something to those confusing prefixes and suffixes. For example, the prefix Ma- can be traced to Maha, which in Sanskrit means Great, which makes sense as Ma- spells are ones that hit all targets instead of just one. The suffix -Dyne is Greek for Power or Force, which fits for a suffix indicating the most powerful version of a spell. And so on and so forth; there seems to be an explanation for nearly every spell name in the SMT series. This video covers a lot of them pretty well, if you’re interested.

It seems that these strange spell names and confusing syntax rules are a coming together of words and ideas from many cultures, not just a bunch of nonsense words or a few haphazard references. But why should that make a difference, you might wonder. After all, I gave no special consideration to the Final Fantasy series during my rant on its -Ara and -Aga suffixes many years ago even though they apparently do have some meaning in Japanese. Why should Shin Megami Tensei get away with it?

Well, because it’s thematically appropriate for SMT to do it. Every SMT game creates its story by taking a huge sampling from mythologies, religions, and superstitions the world over, those both recent and (much more often) ancient. They’re games in which Norse deities, central figures of Buddhist lore, Biblical icons, fairy tale animals and heroes of lore, along with entities of a hundred other origins, are all present, and usually important characters to the plot. In any given SMT, you may find the game’s characters interacting with Shiva, the Archangels, Lucifer, Thor, the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, fairies straight from Shakespeare’s works, a Minotaur...the list goes on and on. So, since the SMT series’s schtick is to tell its stories, illustrate its points and theories, and explore its thoughts on humanity and belief by drawing from the ideas of human culture from all over the place, it actually fits with SMT’s storytelling methods for its spell-naming system to be the same, particularly since a lot of the sources for these spell names (India, the Bible, ancient Greece, and so on) are particularly important contributors to SMT’s pool of mythologies. While Final Fantasy’s stories and characters generally have no particular tie to Japan more than that which comes as a consequence of being made in the country, and thus no legitimate reason to keep the Japanese suffixes when translated if a more sensible, less-silly-in-this-new-language-it’s-being-translated-into option is available, for SMT this whole multi-cultural spell naming thing is a way to tie the game’s mechanics themselves into the thematic package. There’s method to this madness.

So in the end, is it a good thing or a bad thing? Is it really worth making the games’ magic so much less comprehensible just because it happens to connect with the story in a roundabout way? Well...for me, I’ll have to say yes. My policy’s always pretty adamantly been that when it comes to RPGs, I value them for their intellectual worth, not the small details like gameplay, so whatever irritations this spell naming system has caused me, I must reluctantly admit that it’s ultimately a positive for its adding to the multicultural identity of the SMT games. That said, though, I sure as hell begrudge no one the right to hate it.