Thursday, August 28, 2014

General RPG Lists: Most Needed Sequels

In the world of RPGs, and just about every other video game and general form of media, sequels are not exactly hard to find. If a game sells well, it’s almost assured that there will be a sequel made for it. Hell, it may get a sequel even if it’s not especially successful. Arc the Lad, from what I’m told, has a pretty small following in Japan, and is obscure enough to be virtually unknown to the rest of the world, but somehow managed to live long enough to have 5 titles (or at least 4.5, depending on how you want to count AtL: End of Darkness). Yes, sequels and prequels are not exactly in short supply with RPGs. You can find good sequels to good games (Fallout 2 to Fallout 1), bad sequels to bad games (Megaman Star Force 2 to MMSF1), bad sequels to good games (Chrono Cross to Chrono Trigger), good sequels to bad games (Icewind Dale 2 to ID1), great sequels that are even better than the good games they come from (Shadow Hearts 2 to SH1), terrible sequels that are even worse than the bad games they come from (Xenosaga 3 to Xenosaga 2), prequels that are so great that they actually retroactively make their lousy predecessor better (Lufia 2 to Lufia 1), prequels that are so lousy that they actually retroactively make their great predecessor worse (Valkyrie Profile 2 to VP1), sequels that are absolutely necessary as a continuation of a story in progress (Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2 to SMTDDS1), sequels and prequels that are completely unnecessary, hastily tacked-on trash that adds nothing of value to their predecessor (every spinoff to Final Fantasy 7), sequels that are some of the finest games in existence (Suikoden 2), sequels that are some of the very most vile and worthless games in existence (Final Fantasy 10-2...blech, just acknowledging its existence makes me nauseous), RPG sequels to game series that aren’t typically RPGs (Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood), RPG sequels to series that aren’t even games (Sailor Moon: Another Story), RPGs that, I shit you not, are sequels to fucking Space Jam of all things (Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden), and, by far most prevalent, series continuations that have little to nothing to do with any of the games that came before them (the Grandia series, most of the Final Fantasy series, the Shining Force series, most of the Tales of series, the Wild Arms series, most of the Dragon Quest series...the list goes on).

Still, for all these countless sequels, there are still some RPGS out there that deserve, even need a sequel that they have not yet gotten. And today, I’ve put together a list of the 5 RPGS I think are highest on that list. Enjoy.

Note Before We Begin: For the purposes of this list, I’m only talking about direct, setting-and-plot-and-character-related sequels/prequels. Essentially, a game that makes use in a significant way the ideas and canon of its forebear. Additionally, I’m not counting game series that are currently still being actively worked on. I’m super excited about the prospects of additional titles in the Fallout and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series, for example, but I’m pretty sure Bethesda’s working on Fallout 4 and I know Atlus is developing SMTP5, so they’re not gonna make it onto the list. This list is for games that need a sequel and do not, at the current time, look like anyone is going to give it to them.

5. Treasure of the Rudras

One of a surprising number of nigh-unknown RPG gems produced by Squaresoft back in the days of the SNES, Treasure of the Rudras was very inventive in the way it told its story, having 3 separate world-saving quests occurring simultaneously over a few days’ period, each tying in small ways to the others, all of which culminated in a final chapter of the heroes banding together to stop the cause of all their problems. The thing is, though, that the awesome twist of the game is that after defeating the supposedly evil gods and goddess, (SPOILER ALERT) the heroes learn that these seemingly malevolent deities were acting in the interests of preparing for the return an unknown, monstrously destructive force known as the Destroyers that it took an army of gods, most of whom died in the process, to drive off. The game ends with a prophetic vision of the future, a warning of the world’s oncoming doom if its people are unprepared to meet the Destroyers’ power, and the heroes nonetheless clinging to hope that the Destroyers can be stopped without the immoral methods of the gods they just defeated.

Well, I want to see more! I want to see a sequel set in the future, in which the Destroyers make their return! The storytelling method of multiple plots and protagonists occurring at the same time is handled flawlessly, the world itself is decently creative and has some interesting concepts, and while Treasure of the Rudras is a satisfyingly complete game, that ending does set the perfect conditions for a sequel. Of course, given that it would probably be SquareEnix doing the sequel, maybe we’re better off going without. Square wasn’t even particularly good at sequels back before it lost all artistic integrity whatsoever, after all--remember, Chrono Cross was made back in the Playstation 1 days, and Final Fantasy 10-2 was almost fully developed by the company before they became SquareEnix. Still, if someone skilled were to make a sequel to TotR, some company that valued writing quality, had respect for the original, and possessed the basic self-respect as storytellers and artists that so many companies like SquareEnix lack, I would definitely welcome it.

4. Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch

I found this very obscure indie RPG to be quite entertaining. Yes, it was a bit choppy to play at times, but the humor was pretty solid, even if some of it was dated internet memes, and I enjoyed it from start to finish. But the damn thing is only half of the story! The game ends at a clear halfway point, with the journey still in progress and much left unresolved. I hate it when a story goes unfinished, so I hope that someday I’ll see this one concluded.

3. Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura

There is just so, so much more that can be done with this game’s setting. AOSaMA is a Dungeons and Dragons-style game of humans, dwarves, orcs, ogres, and the like, except with 1 very distinct difference from most D+D copies: it’s set in a D+D world’s industrial revolution. Take the classic tabletop fantasy races, themes, magic and such, put it in a steampunk setting, and you’ve got a hell of a great backdrop for whatever story you want to tell. AOSaMO created a terrifically engaging world and played it up very well, but so much more could be done with it. Despite all the fascinating ways to play the D+D-in-Victorian-style-steampunk-society-and-also-with-industrial-factories theme, the game’s focus inevitably comes back to the conventional magical D+D stuff--in many ways, AOSaMA’s main story wouldn’t change all that much if you were to just set it in a regular fantasy medieval setting, as you’d expect from D+D-styled stuff. As immensely creative and well set up a world as Arcanum’s is, it almost seems like the main plot has no interest in it. The gameplay at least makes good use of the setting--it’s very intricate, and I love that you can have an Invent Clockwork Battle Bots playstyle--but in all the ways that really matter to me, AOSaMA doesn’t make very much of its setting.

Well, I want someone to take another crack at it. Take that great steampunk D+D setting and make the most of it this time! Don’t just make the question of half-orc laborers’ rights a minor sidequest that can be skipped altogether--put it in the spotlight; it’s fascinating! Don’t just make the question of what’s lost by replacing an appreciation of the natural with an awe of the man-made a background thought occasionally lamented by small NPCs and some elves--make it a major theme of the game! Give better examination to the plight of countries that don’t modernize quickly enough! Give more emphasis to the social roles and dynamics created for gnomes, ogres, elves, half-elves, dwarves, and so on! Continue the loose end of the gnomes’ experiments to create their manservant meatshields that the original game never really went anywhere with! There are just so many ideas you can use the steampunk setting and society to explore with this concept in a sequel. I mean, hell, ANY steampunk and/or industrial revolution backdrop would be new and interesting to base an RPG around by itself, without even considering the D+D spin on it.

To me, letting Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura be the only title using its setting and ideas is as criminal as it would have been to never make another Fallout game after the first. More so, because Fallout 1 used its setting to great effect, while AOSaMO could have done so much more. Please, someone, some passionate, creative developer somewhere, indie or big studio, dig up the rights to this gem, dust’em off, and make this sequel happen.

2. Anachronox

Oh Anachronox. Fun but at times surprisingly deep, as creative with its plot as it was with its humor, filled with memorable and enjoyable characters and set in an equally memorable and interesting galaxy...the fact that Anachronox is so obscure is a damn crime, that’s what it is. Unfortunately, Anachronox ended on a cliffhanger of sorts, with the threat to the galaxy still at large and with misfit protagonist Sly Boots and his equally askew teammates striding forth to continue their journey to save reality.

Not to say that Anachronox just drops you unceremoniously with its cliffhanger, the way Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch just cuts out suddenly...Anachronox may be only part of a story, but it ends at a good stopping point, and feels like a complete game. It’s like Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1--there’s obviously more story to come, but the game’s conclusion is still a great place to cut out, a transition from one major part of the story to another.

But, good stopping place or not, the fact is that Anachronox is still an incomplete story, and what’s there is compelling and really damned neat. Now that Sly has faced his inner demons and come out ahead, I want to see him tackle his problems with new gusto, yet the same snarky mouth, and I want to see more of the nutjobs that follow him, too. Anachronox was a neat story in an interesting universe featuring a fun bunch of characters, and it’ll be a damn crime if we never get to see it concluded.

1. Threads of Fate

What a fun game Threads of Fate was. Decent story, some really heartfelt moments (in Rue’s story), and somehow, even though she was a remorseless brat and totally as much a villain as the game’s actual evil-doers, every single moment watching Mint is a ton of fun. I don’t know what it is about her, but somehow she manages to embrace the role of being insufferable and loathsome without actually being insufferable or loathsome at all. Like Princess Elise from My World, My Way, only much more. Mint is so damn lovably hilarious, dry, conniving, and bratty.

Anyway, I’d be happy under normal circumstances to see another game following Threads of Fate, but ToF ends (if you complete both stories to see the secret after-ending clip) on a slight cliffhanger. I mean, its story is ended, yes, but at the same time, there’s now the promise of a new adventure for Rue and Mint to engage in, and I’d definitely like to see it. I want to see more antics from Mint, and I’d also like to see what Rue’s like now that he has Claire back.

What makes me most anxious for that sequel, though, is that Threads of Fate is very imbalanced as a story. I’m going to get into why this is in a later rant, but suffice to say here that despite supposedly being a story equally split between Mint and Rue, the overall story focus of ToF is upon Rue, and it’s his story that we come away from the game feeling is the true, canon version of the game, and which is recognized in that final, secret after-ending clip. And hey, don’t get me wrong--if I have to choose between Mint and Rue’s stories which should be the true one, Rue’s gonna win every time, no matter how incredibly amusing Mint is. And that’s why we need a Threads of Fate 2--because now that Rue had a game which gave him the major plot spotlight (plotlight?) and fulfilled his wish, I think it’s only fair that Mint properly have her time to shine, silly villainess or not. It’s been many years since ToF was released, so it doesn’t look hopeful, but all the same, this seems to be the age of revivals, reboots, and unexpected continuations, so I’m still holding out hope for a Threads of Fate 2.

Honorable Mention: Knights of the Old Republic 1 and 2

What happens after the end of Knights of the Old Republic 2? I think it’s safe to say that just about everyone who played KotOR2 wants to know. While an amazing game in itself, Knights of the Old Republic 2 was a true transition piece, a game whose ultimate plot goal was a preparation for the next title. In the end, it’s revealed that much of what happens in KotOR2 is meant to conclude the KotOR setting of the regular Star Wars Republic, to either give it the structure to continue to exist through its new Jedi Order sweeping the remains of the old away (if you play Light Side, or Neutral), or to seal its doom for good (if you play Dark Side), so that the next game can take place in Sith space with the question of the Republic behind one. More than that, it’s revealed that this journey of the Exile has ultimately been for the purpose of sending the Exile to follow Revan into Sith space, to be his ally in settling the matter of the Sith once and for all, and much of what we’ve seen in KotOR2 will contribute to that--the Mandalorians, the HK series, Atton, HK-47, and T3-M4 are all implied to be the force that the Exile has unwittingly rallied to assist Revan. Everything is set for Revan, the Exile, and these allies to take the fight to the Sith in an epic conclusion to the Knights of the Old Republic trilogy.

Too bad that never actually happened. But it SHOULD! We need to see the greatness of Revan and the Exile combined, we need to see them strike into the true heart of the Sith, we need to see how the intricate plans of Darth Traya to raise support for Revan turned out...everything in KotOR1 and 2 has led to the moment that we see the Sith beyond Republic space, the true threat that has been lurking in the shadows all along, and I want to see it, damn it!

The reason this is an Honorable Mention and not part of the regular list, though, is that there is 1 major caveat to my wanting to see a sequel. I would only want to see a KotOR3 that acknowledged and built off of KotOR2 as seen with the Restored Content mod, which I did a rant on a little while back. The Restored Content mod is just what it says--it brings content that was cut from the game back into it, important stuff that was meant to be in KotOR2. Without it, the ending of KotOR2 is lame and doesn’t make much sense, several plot threads are never resolved, and the game is really just incomplete. A lot of the things I mentioned above regarding KotOR2’s transition to the next game are incomplete, or missing altogether, from the vanilla (unaltered) release of Knights of the Old Republic 2, and can only be seen in their intended form with the Restored Content mod. I don’t really know how KotOR3 would accomplish this, since they’d have to make sure the audience was up to speed with this enhanced history of KotOR2, but it just wouldn’t be right to continue the series without all of KotOR2’s greatness accounted for.

Well, that’s that. Normally this is the part where I have something to say in summary of the list, some lasting note or remark to make, but...don’t really have anything today. Oh well. See you next time.

Monday, August 18, 2014

General RPGs' AMVs 11

Before we begin today--or before you skip this one altogether and just wait for the next rant--I'd like to mention that the Kickstarter for Elysian Shadows looks like a pretty promising RPG. They don't say much about the story and characters and all on the Kickstarter page itself, but I've been in contact with the team making the game, and what they've told me on that point sounds pretty exciting and interesting. Check it out; I think it's worth backing. And hey, if any of you are one of those crazy diehard Dreamcast fans, this could be the first new RPG released for your strangely beloved old crapheap in, what, over a decade? That's gotta be worth something to you.

Anyway, on with the rant.

Yes, it’s that disappointing time again--time for me to cop out of writing a real rant and instead share some AMVs with you. Suck it, people who actually like this blog! As always, if you do happen to go watch any of these, and do happen to think they’re pretty decent, then please Like the video and leave a comment on it. Reward those that put some effort into their creations, yeah?


Final Fantasy 8: Does the Lion City Still Roar?, by YuniX2:
The music used is Does the Lion City Still Roar?, by Less Than Jake. Another visual-audio pleasure by YuniX2, this AMV uses scene changes and zooms to perfectly keep the visuals up with the fast pace of the song, while also using flawless scene selection to keep all the scenes a great match to the lyrics, in ways both literal and metaphorical. This AMV really transforms Final Fantasy 8’s limited FMVs into a perfect expression of the song, and it’s always neat to see an uncommon song for AMVs used so well as this one is. Very good stuff.

Final Fantasy 9: Hanging by a Moment, by Zoeyfreeze:
The music used is Hanging by a Moment, by Lifehouse. What can I say? This is just a solid FF9 music video, an AMV focused on Dagger that explores her well through its music and uses simple but competent editing to pull the whole thing together. It’s good, plain and simple, and if you like Square’s second greatest masterpiece, then you should watch this.


Kingdom Hearts Series: Castle of Glass, by YuniX2:
The music used is Castle of Glass, by Linkin Park. If I have a hero when it comes to AMV creators, it’s got to be YuniX2. This is just 1 more in a long line of utterly excellent RPG music videos from her. What can I say here that I haven’t already said about her AMVs, multiple times? The editing’s great, flashy but never distracting and never excessive. The music choice is great and her use of it, her connecting of the game and footage to the music, is terrific. Scene selection is great, everything fits together, it’s a pleasure to watch and listen to, and there’s a sense of purpose to it. Love the little touch of having the Sorcerer’s Apprentice cartoon clip at the beginning, too. And while this isn’t all that important, I like anyone who can use KH footage in an AMV in a way that doesn’t seem tired and commonplace to me; I have mentioned that Kingdom Hearts music videos are about as common as, I dunno, air molecules, right? YuniX2 even uses KH: 365/2 Days footage so well that I almost forget what a completely pointless, snore-inducing waste of time that game was. This is definitely a real winner of an AMV, make no mistake.


Mass Effect Series: Cassandra, by Dmli1023:
The music used is Cassandra, by Two Steps From Hell. For fun, and because there are enough to do so, today’s Mass Effect AMVs will all be ones made by a single artist, going by Dmli1023. The guy’s absolutely great, as this video clearly shows. This is put together skillfully, keeping the video and music well-coordinated and making a very fittingly touching and epic tribute to the terrific love story of Shepard and Tali.

Mass Effect Series: Hope, by Dmli1023:
The music used is Prologue - Birth, by Audiomachine. Another of the many tribute AMVs to Mass Effect 3, this one is both a tribute to the whole series, and, more importantly, to Commander Shepard him/herself. It’s put together very well--the music is mostly background, but on occasion Dmli1023 assigns certain patterns in the tune to certain types of scenes and dialogue that connect the audio and video well and help the music bring out the inspiring feeling the tribute is meant to create. I love the way that this AMV flawlessly switches back and forth between Male and Female Shepard, creating a proper tribute to the character as a whole, and the selection and placement of the characters’ dialogue is perfect to build up the message of Commander Shepard as an icon of hope. Just a darned great job on this tribute, all said.

Mass Effect Series: The Fighter, by Dmli1023:
The music used is Above and Beyond, by Audiomachine, Imperatrix Mundi, by Jo Blankenburg, and Life Chronicles, also by Audiomachine. Another damned great tribute to the Mass Effect series, doing much as the last one did in terms of skillful video editing, synchronization with the music, and just generally creating a fantastic monument to the epic excellence of Mass Effect. Once again Commander Shepard is represented in both genders, and once again the tribute is perfect for him/her, this time building up and emphasizing the overarching conflict of the series, and the difficulty that Shepard faces--and overcomes--throughout the entirety of the amazing trilogy. I love the way this video highlights the friendship and support of Shepard’s comrades, and uses it to show just how terrific a hero Shepard is. This here is about as close as an AMV comes to getting a full rant dedicated to it, without actually crossing that threshold, and it’s nice to see someone other than YuniX2 who can put forth such quality pretty consistently.


The Witcher 2: War, by Felix Schroder:
The music used is War, by Poets of the Fall. I’ve recently discovered there are rather fewer really good Witcher AMVs than I’d been expecting of the games; it seems like prime music video territory, but mostly you just get a few subpar offerings mixed in a sea of half-assed videos where someone just runs the first game’s intro, puts a song on, and has the delusional gall to call it an AMV. This one, though, is a shining gem in a bucket of dull rocks. The video meshes quite well with the song’s lyrics and tone, and Mr. Schroder skillfully manipulates his scenes to keep pace with the music’s strength to create a very solid music video. This is a strong work from all sides, no question.


The World Ends with You: New Divide, by DarkRoxas97:
The music used is New Divide, by Linkin Park. I think I’ve mentioned this in a previous Legend of Zelda AMV, but I’m always a little harder on Linkin Park AMVs than I am on most others. Still, this is a really good music video. The scene selection often perfectly matches the song’s notes and tone, the use of simple effects and scene changing is great, the meshing of lyrics and video is skillful...this is just solid work, plain and simple.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Shin Megami Tensei 4-1's Problems

Hey, reader peoples. Have you ever noticed how totally thoughtless I am to your convenience by never providing links in my rants to previous rants which I reference? Well, no more! I've gone through all my previous rants and updated them to include links to other rants whenever they're mentioned, and all future rants will also have this basic, simple, why-the-hell-hasn't-he-done-this-for-years-before-now feature. W00t! And now, back to the rant.

In July 2013, Shin Megami Tensei 4 was released in North America, and in celebration, I decided to do an SMT rant once a month for a year. It was actually a lot of fun--I wouldn’t have thought I’d have had 12 rants to make about the series until I pushed myself to look at it and see what stood out and what I had a particular opinion on. I enjoyed criticizing it at times, praising it at others, and sometimes just expounding on whatever theories popped into my head. It’s proper for the blog, too; before this past year, I really didn’t have enough rants here for such a large and notable RPG series. But all good things must come to an end. Last month I finished that year out with a rant on Shin Megami Tensei 4, and, well, that’s proper and good, because my excitement for SMT4 is what started the whole thing. Still, that was a rant on gameplay mechanics of the title, and while I obviously have no problem ranting about such things, anyone familiar with this blog knows that gameplay never seriously enters my mind as criteria for how good or bad an RPG is. So I thought I’d make just 1 more rant on the fourth game to properly close Shin Megami Tensei Rant Year, something of a little more significance than just my adventures in do-it-yourself hair removal with the Fiend encounter rate.

Unfortunately, that still means closing SMT Rant Year out on a negative note, because to me, the most noticeable things of significance about Shin Megami Tensei 4 tend to be negative ones.

Let’s not start off with the wrong idea, though. Shin Megami Tensei 4 is not a bad RPG. It’s actually pretty decent. No, wait, that’s not an accurate or fair assessment. By itself, SMT4 is not just decent, it’s good. But I tend to think of it as actually only being okay, and not better than that, and that’s because I’m comparing it to the rest of the Shin Megami Tensei series, a series with such consistently high standards that even a solidly good title like SMT4 seems only passable. But high standards or not, it’s not a bad RPG. There are a lot of ideas in its plot that are interesting and creative, it has purpose, it relates well to its spiritual predecessors SMT1 and 2 while standing on its own, and there are several moments in its course that are really handled well, like the atmosphere of anticipation and the unknown during the first descent from Mikado to Tokyo, the fights against the Minotaur, Xi Wangmu, and Isabeau*, the tragedy of Issachar, the sidequest with Nozomi and Black Maria, and the dungeon in which the secrets of the Ashura-kai are revealed--that’s just a fantastic one right there.

Still, for all the good things that SMT4 has going for it, it’s got some pretty heavy flaws that really lessen its power as a story and as a tool of philosophy. One of the biggest problems is understanding the game’s back history. The events of SMT4, the lands of both Mikado and Tokyo, the beliefs of The White, the current conflicts between Law and Chaos, the travel to alternate worlds, and the ultimate question of what philosophy Flynn (protagonist) will throw his lot in with, all of it hinges upon the events of 25 years in the game’s past, the cataclysmic day in Tokyo when the forces of Law and Chaos met in battle to determine Tokyo’s fate. That day and its results are what the entire game is really about; SMT4 is at least a tale about a previous story’s aftermath as it is a tale in itself.

But the problem is that the exact events of that time are left too unclear, and the history and mechanics of the results of the cataclysm are sometimes tough to get a clear idea of. It’s not that it’s completely unexplained, but most of your understanding of the events of 25 years prior is going to come from sketchy references and tiny hints that still don’t give you a thorough enough explanation. There’s only one vague mention of the difference of time flow between Mikado and Tokyo that you can easily miss, for example, and I’ll be damned if I ever heard an explanation for the cause of this temporal discrepancy offered in any way. Through what you learn in the game from scattered references, mentions, and the rare direct explanation, you can piece together the major actors of the cataclysm of 25 years before (Kenji, Kiyoharu, and Flynn’s former incarnation) and how their philosophical stances shaped each of the 3 worlds that SMT4 shows, but even then things are spotty. I mean, look, I’m all for subtle storytelling, but that’s...well, think of it this way. Subtle storytelling is letting an audience connect the dots themselves to finally get the big picture and understand what everything amounts to. In regards to the cataclysm of 25 years before, SMT4 is like that, only not all of the dots you’re supposed to be connecting are numbered, and several are almost the same color as the paper they’re printed on, hard to notice and properly connect.

I have as whole an understanding of the game’s back history now as anyone can, but I’ll be honest with you, the SMT Wikipedia played majorly into that clarity, and I’m very certain that a lot of the details contained within its articles are from outside (though doubtless still official) sources, not the game itself. And while a partial and ultimately inadequate understanding of past events is usually just an annoyance to over-enthusiastic lore-hoarders like myself, well, like I said, these past events are the pivotal plot point around which everything important in the game turns. You can’t just let something like that be shrouded in halfway explanations and ambiguity. Final Fantasy 7 did eventually show us the truth of Sephiroth’s fall, Nibelheim’s destruction, and Cloud’s past, and Bastion eventually does narrate everything we need to know about the Calamity and how it relates to the Kid and Zulf’s current conflict. Because that’s what you have to do when so much of your game’s story, theme, and message revolve around 1 particular event of the past--you have to make sure your audience has a fully adequate comprehension of that event. Otherwise, the audience’s lack of understanding impedes their ability to properly appreciate and consider all the rest. Knowing what I do now, having read outside information on the subject of SMT4’s past until I’m satisfied with my knowledge, I can look at the game and really appreciate a lot of the intelligent, thought-provoking questions it raises in regards to the ongoing battle of Law, Neutral, and Chaos, can better appreciate its world-hopping and The White and much more. But before I came to comprehend it all, to be able to see how all these details and themes tie together, the game’s story made little impression on me, its themes and ideas seeming spontaneous or eluding me altogether.

Bad pacing. That’s another problem. At least, sort of. As a general rule, things flow pretty well in SMT4; nothing ever seems to be going too slowly or too quickly. It’s only when I step back and look at the whole story that something seems off. But once I do, well, I can’t help but notice that you spend a lot of time in this game’s first half involved in the question of the Ashura-kai and the Ring of Gaea, which are the human factions in Tokyo for Order and Chaos, respectively...yet when all is said and done, how important are they to the game’s second half, really? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I think that the conflict involving the factions and their leaders, the questions raised by each and their impact on you the player, is a lot more compelling than the later business with Lucifer and God’s Chariot. Really, I wish the game could have ultimately been about the battle between Lilith and Tayama (the leaders of the Ring of Gaea and the Ashura-kai). But the fact is that the really important battle in this game is between the angels and demons, to which the song and dance with Lilith and Tayama are barely even circumstantially related. The disconnect between these major conflicts of the game is so sheer as to almost be bizarre--once you finish with the Ashura-kai and the Ring of Gaea, you go on your little alternate-worlds field trip and deal with The White, and finally return to Japan, to find the game’s major conflict has begun, and honestly it didn’t really have much of anything to do with that former conflict that had such narrative focus put on it. For all the time and effort put into the question of the Ashura-kai versus the Ring of Gaea for the game’s first half, they’re both ultimately just irrelevant stepping stones. It’s almost like you spent a third of the game on a long side quest. I mean, you can argue, I guess, that the ultimate question of God vs. Demons was prepared by the question of Tayama vs. Lilith, but it’s a hell of a stretch of logic--the Law that Tayama represents is strongly different than the one that God embodies, and there are some ideological differences between Lilith and Lucifer, too. The first conflict of Tayama vs. Lilith just had stakes, goals, rationales, representatives, and methods too different from the later, true, and traditional conflict of God vs. Lucifer for the first to effectively set up the second.

Adding considerably to why this is a problem is the fact that with the pace of the game’s plot giving so much time and effort to the Ashura-kai and the Ring of Gaea, there’s a lot less set up for and explanation of the conflict between the angels and the demons. It doesn’t exactly just happen out of the blue, but it’s not really anticipated or explained, either. Its philosophy is glossed over, its significance not played up as much as it should be, and you’re forced to extrapolate too heavily from the nearly-hidden backstory if you want to flesh it out at all. With previous, better Shin Megami Tensei titles, the big conflict of the game is given its narrative due, its proper context, its thematic weight. Here, the ultimate battle for Law and Chaos almost feels like it’s being shoehorned in, and yet it’s definitely not a last minute addition to the plot; the all-important back history of the game and the dilemma of The White definitely foretell this event.

Another problem with SMT4 is that it has a pretty weak cast. Many supporting characters like Hope, Fujiwara, and Hugo ultimately don’t really contribute much to the plot, while some, like Issachar and Kaga, are interesting and serve their purpose well, but unfortunately that purpose removes them from the story very quickly. Along with that, the major characters are just...well, they’re just not very good. Honestly, one of the completely optional sidequest characters, Nozomi, has more appeal and character development than most of the characters who actually matter, and you don’t even have to necessarily meet her.

The problem’s only worse with the major characters. Jonathan and Walter...well, I want to like them, I really do, because they’re the traditional Law and Chaos Heroes of the game, but they aren’t as single-minded and inflexible as that role tends to be. Ultimately Jonathan supports the angels and Law, and ultimately Walter supports the demons and Chaos, but they’re both human enough that they’re able throughout the game’s course to question their stance, express doubts about the side they’ll eventually serve, and understand the other’s perspective to some extent. During the Passage of Ethics, both Walter and Jonathan do know where they stand, but they at least agree that the questions can be difficult and aren’t ironclad in their positions. I can appreciate these characters actually being complex enough that they’re not just blind advocates of their side of the plot.

Buuuuut, the problem with this is that they also come off like they lack conviction to their side. I know, I know, I seem like I just can’t be pleased, but honestly, Jonathan’s dedication to following his duty and the angels never seems to have any particular basis. I mean, just what IS Jonathan’s motivation? Do we ever learn anything significant about him whatsoever, hear any philosophy to his choosing to follow orders over all other possibilities? Walter’s a little better in that he does have and give a reason for his supporting Lilith and the demons, one which originates in a plot undercurrent of struggle between social classes (which, by the way, is a theme that I would have loved to see examined far more than the barest of touches that the game gives it), but he still doesn’t come off as convincingly devoted or having an especially strong opinion. They’re both kinda wishy-washy, honestly. And once you reach the dimension-hopping part of the game, Walter and Jonathan have very little problem with working together again even though they were just fighting against one another over ideological differences. I mean, there’s a little hostility between them at first, and they’re not exactly chummy (but then, they were only casually friendly before, anyway), but I’d have expected a little more. It’s like they forget they ever had a violent difference of opinion at all.

They’re both just so...dull. Like I said, I appreciate that they’re not just unreasoning advocates of the philosophy they stand for, but that one small redeeming quirk doesn’t change the fact that they’re both poorly developed, boring, and overall weak characters. When you choose sides in most SMT games, part of the difficulty is often the fact that you’re standing against characters you like or respect, that your protagonist is betraying comrades. Jimenez was a good guy in Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, and I felt bad about having to oppose him in my playthroughs of Law and Neutral--and I felt even worse standing against Zelenin on the Neutral playthrough. And when you choose sides in most SMT games, you understand how the characters you’re about to support or betray got to where they are, and how you feel about their take on the question of alignment. I don’t particularly like Chiaki and Hikawa from Shin Megami Tensei 3, and I think Isamu’s a total doofus, but I understand how each came to believe in their Reason thanks to the character development they’re given in the game, and each one makes an argument for his/her Reason that has a certain compelling logic to it (well, maybe not Isamu, but the other 2 do). Jonathan and Walter, 2 of the most important characters in SMT4 with the most screentime...well, they’re just not memorable, you just don’t feel like there’s much to them, and I personally just don’t feel any particular loyalty to either of them.

And then there’s Isabeau. Completing the alignment trio of your party, Isabeau, the last of the major characters, is the heroine of the Neutral side of the game’s thematic debate. Isabeau is a dull, indecisive twit who is utterly incapable of possessing a real, actual opinion of any kind--see my rant on the Shin Megami Tensei Series’s Recent Neutral Figureheads for the details on that. Likewise, Isabeau is equally lacking entirely any defining character trait whatsoever. Oh wait, no--she likes reading manga. Secretly--so don’t expect to see it mentioned, referenced, or even considered more than, like, 5 times. Non-specific, barely-mentioned manga reading as the single sole defining characteristic. Yup.

I think I’m gonna add that to my mental list of the most inane, meaningless, idiotic things that you could possibly make the 1 and only notable trait of your character. It’s getting tucked away right between “Has a Pirate Accent” and “Wants to Eat Cafeteria Hot Dogs.”

Last weak part of the cast: villains. The problem here isn’t that there aren’t any decent villains in the game. The problem is that the ones who stand out are the secondary ones, the relatively minor Tayama and Lilith, while the major foes of the game, Lucifer on 1 side and the angels Uriel, Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael on the other, are incredibly uninteresting and weak. You’ll see a tiny bit of Lucifer if you’re on the Chaos path during the game’s final chapter, but if you’re Neutral or Law, you’ll only see and hear from the guy as you meet him for the last battle.** Only-meeting-at-the-final-battle villains may be common enough for your standard rinky-dink half-assed RPG created by writers just out to score a quick paycheck before their lunch break, but this is fucking Shin Megami Tensei, people! Let’s aspire just a bit higher than Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, huh? You’ll see a bit of the angels earlier in the game, a bit more if you buy the overpriced, somewhat nonsensical Clipped Wings DLC, and of course Gabriel is involved reasonably well in the plot, but you’ll know virtually no more about them than you do Lucifer anyway, so it’s bad on both sides. What villains DO you get to know, though? Lilith and Tayama. What villains DO actually have some slight depth, have goals and beliefs that they have to explain instead of just relying on players’ familiarity with previous games’ incarnations to do all the explaining for them? Lilith and Tayama. Whose rivalry seems more intense? Lilith and Tayama’s. But, like I went into before, ultimately these 2 become small potatoes, just a few steps away from not having played a part in the true struggle of the game at all. And instead we get nigh-faceless entities arriving last minute to steal the show.

Second to last major problem with Shin Megami Tensei 4: the theme of Law, Neutral, and Chaos. It’s...well, it’s just too overused by this point. Look, don’t get me wrong on this point: the philosophies behind SMT’s Law, Neutral, and Chaos are interesting and deep, and there’s still plenty about them left to explore in new and intriguing ways in the games. But the fact is that I have played Shin Megami Tensei 1, 2, Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 2, Devil Survivor 1, and Strange Journey. I’ve seen this concept by now a good handful of times. And I’ve enjoyed it each time, definitely! But all the same, God vs. Demons with humanity stuck in the middle, with each side representing secure order, free anarchy, and the middle road, respectively, it’s something I’m quite familiar with at this point. So for a game this late in the series to use it, it needs to be exploring some sort of new ground with the concept, have some new perspective on the matter or a setting that gives it a new angle. Like the second Raidou Kuzunoha game did--it brought the matter down to a much smaller, non-plot-vital, but no less compelling scale by focusing the question of mindless adherence to the law vs. reckless freedom onto the village of Tsukigata and the events therein. But SMT4...well, it doesn’t really do much of anything new, doesn’t delve deeper or in new ways into the philosophy of Law, Neutral, and Chaos. It’s business as usual for SMT. I’d almost call it generic. Maybe the social class conflict in Mikado was meant to be the new angle for it? Walter’s beliefs do stem from that, I guess. But like I said before, that aspect is barely examined at all, especially once the game’s first chapter is done with. There’s really only 1 significant twist put on this otherwise by-the-numbers theme, but unfortunately, it’s the last major problem of the game: the new fourth path, Nihilism.

I want to like this addition to the SMT theme. Really I do. And not just because I’ve often thought to myself that the fact that the infinite cosmos of possibility can, in its limitless stream of multitudinous eventualities without end, produce Robin Thicke, then maybe the entirety of creation and the multiverse just aren’t worth the trouble.

First of all, it’s great that they added a fourth path to the Law-Neutral-Chaos thing during SMT4. More importantly, it works so well as an alternative choice. I mean, it kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? Basically, Nihilism is the path offered in the game by The White, the path of destroying everything, all realities in a single go, in an effort to free humanity from the suffering of the perpetual cross-realities war between Law and Chaos. The White claim, quite convincingly, that no matter what choice is made in the struggle, humanity will always pay the price and suffer. If Law is chosen, we see in Blasted Tokyo that God purges the world of the majority of humanity, saving only the few pure and chosen, and letting the rest, even some who helped Him to overcome Chaos, die out in a poisoned wasteland. If Chaos is chosen, we see in Infernal Tokyo that society is destroyed, the strong dominate and abuse the weak, people live as monsters, and there’s constant battle as one fight after another keep cities ablaze and civilizations are divided between warlords like a piece of meat among feral dogs. And if Neutral is chosen, we see in the home reality that all that really happens is that the war between Law and Neutral is postponed for a few decades, before it erupts once more. Annihilation for all but the lucky few, eternally raging destruction of a species unable to maintain a society for its ferocity, or one war after another without end--those are the end results of Law, Chaos, and Neutral paths that The White show us. Their option is to simply end it all, because no side does anything but prolong suffering one way or another. It’s neat and interesting.***

The problem for me with this, though, is that even though Nihilism seems to be an official fourth path in the game, it’s not given the same importance as Law, Neutral, and Chaos. Really, it’s treated more like a Bad Ending than anything. Which it essentially IS, I suppose, but I think that it’s intended to be seen as a viable new option, a viable new philosophy--and if it’s not intended as such, then it should be, because it fits in very well with the SMT path conflict of Law, Chaos, and Neutral, and SMT4’s plot gives it an appropriate buildup for that importance. But once you reach the White in the game, well...that’s it for for this fourth option. If you decide to pursue the path of Nihilism, then the game concludes right then and there, that’s the end. But if you reject Nihilism and confirm your path to be Chaos, Law, or Neutral, then the game continues on, with you going through a dungeon to defeat the White, and then entering SMT4’s last chapter, in which you hook up with your path hero (Walter, Jonathan, or Isabeau) and go on the final quests of the game to defeat the leader(s) of the faction(s) that oppose(s) your path’s vision of the new world order.

See what I’m getting at here? You pick Nihilism, then you’re done and the game’s over. You pick 1 of the traditional SMT paths, and you go on with the tale, entering the game’s final chapter, reuniting with comrades, following through on unresolved plot threads, and generally cleaning up the story tidily. You get the most you can out of your game, out of Shin Megami Tensei 4’s story and characters, as long as you do NOT choose this supposedly equally important new path. That’s not giving equal narrative importance and treatment to this new and fascinating take on the SMT formula, in spite of it being one of the most creative and compelling aspects of this game. It wouldn’t have been hard at all to make Nihilism fit into the game in a way that you get to experience the last chapter just as well as with any of the other paths--just make up some key component of the White’s plan to erase all realities and have it be spiritual essence of Merkabah and Lucifer, or have their power standing in the White’s way and thus require them to be defeated before the Nihilism path is capable of being completed. That way you still would get the chance to go through the last part of the game with relatively the same amount of content and storyline wrap-up available to this path, and in doing so, validate it as one of the game’s major philosophical alternatives, the way that the build up and the game’s themes indicate it’s meant to be. Because as it is, abrupt and prematurely cutting off a major chapter of the game, the Nihilism choice just comes off as any regular old Bad Ending would.

And yeah, I guess you could say that cutting off the game early is thematically appropriate for a Nihilsm path, a chosen self-destruction before one's natural time of end, like a suicide precludes your experiencing the full potential of your life, but even with that in mind, Nihilism still isn't treated well enough as an option. Nearly all of its explanation and reasoning is laid out before you in one single scene of dialogue with The White; every time they contact the protagonist before then, everything they say amounts to little more than vague, foreshadow-y mumblings, like when you get scenes in RPGs of people talking in the shadows about plot-important things and characters but not referring to anyone by name so as not to spoil later twists, which of course always comes off as really awkward when just viewed as conversation between 2 people.**** While the philosophies of Chaos, Law, and Neutral are brought up over and over again in 1 way or another throughout the game, there's no long-term support structure for Nihilism given by the game. Just a single major conversation and that's it. It's not being given the same exploration as the other paths, not even close.

Poorly explained back history, bad pacing, subpar cast, uninspired exploration of theme, and inadequate showcasing of a thematic lynchpin. Honestly, it adds up to a lot of major blows against Shin Megami Tensei 4, enough that it’s actually a little surprising to me, now that I’m looking back on it, that the game managed to be pretty decent in spite of it all. I guess it’s almost an odd feather in Atlus’s cap--even when they screw up, they can produce a better title than the average work of some other developers (*fakecough*SquareEnix*fakecough*). At the very least, SMT4 is not the worst of its series; Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 is much, much worse. Still, it’s a disappointment that such a big moment in the series wasn’t handled better than this, especially considering that if they made a decent game even with this many critical faults, you can just imagine what it would’ve been like if they had been more on the ball with it. Still, for all these faults, it is, like I’ve said, a pretty good game, and even if it didn’t really live up to my hopes, I had a lot of fun challenging myself to come up with these 13 SMT rants this past year in celebration of it. Hopefully y’all had had some fun with it, too.

* Ironically, the only moment in the game where Isabeau has any worth as a character, shows herself to have a personality in any way whatsoever, and affects the player on any level, is her demise. It’s so well-done (to me, at least) that it almost made me forget that Isabeau had failed during the course of the entire game to get me to form any kind of attachment to her at all.

** Oh, I’m sorry, that’s right, Lucifer shows up a couple times in the disguise of a girl named Hikaru. He does that sort of thing in a lot of SMT games. Except this time it’s a hell (ha ha) of a good disguise, because “she” does and says exactly nothing during “her” incredibly few appearances that has any relation to Lucifer’s character or that could possibly give you the slightest hint of who “she” really is. What gives, Lucifer? You stick your nose into games you aren’t even an actual plot-related actor in, like SMT3 and SMT Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 2, and actually show up in those games more often and say much more of actual relevance to yourself! Hikaru feels like a minor character the writers originally just forgot to find a place for in the game’s finale, and had her loose end tied by a last-minute decision that she’d just happen to be Lucifer.

*** I did like it better when Owlman did it, though.

**** I should really make a term for this, like I do with things like Sailing and Voyeuristic Paralysis Syndrome.