Thursday, December 18, 2014

Annual Summary: 2014

Weeeeellp, another year has come and gone, and I somehow keep managing to think of unimportant RPG nonsense to spout thrice a month. Crazy.

2014 was...well, it really wasn’t a big year for me with RPGs. That’s not to say that there weren’t any good ones in there, or even that I didn’t play a decent number. There were actually quite a few really good games I played this year, comparatively few bad ones, and I played 21 RPGs to finish overall, which isn’t a bad number, if not great. Here they are, in alphabetical rather than chronological order:

Away: Shuffle Dungeon
Crimson Shroud
Defender’s Quest 1
Dust: An Elysian Tail
Geneforge 2
Gothic 1
Jade Empire
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
Lords of Xulima
Magical Starsign
Pokemon Generation 5-2
Rune Factory 1
Shadowrun: Dragonfall
Shadowrun Returns
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers
Solatorobo: Red the Hunter
Threads of Fate
Weapon Shop de Omasse
The Witcher 2

The reason it wasn’t much of an RPG year is that there should have been a LOT more games on that list. It may not be a bad number, but it could have been longer by at least 10 games, I’d say. But a lot happened in the second half of 2014 that kept me from playing many new RPGs.

First of all, I decided in July to do a replay of Fallout 3, because apparently Bethesda is not going to see fit to grace us with the next Fallout for who knows how much longer. It was an absolute blast; the game is just as great as I remember, and there were a few mods that made it even better, which I’ll go into more detail about in a future rant. Fallout 3’s a pretty massive game, though, particularly if you’re as completionist a Fallout player as I am, so that took a month’s worth of gaming time right there. Then in August, my computer and my car decided to die at roughly the same time, and the process of getting a new car and computer took me, believe it or not, the whole damn month. I’m not great at car shopping, and every step of the process of replacing the computer had bizarre, unforeseen, time-wasting difficulties attached to it. Hell, I still wouldn’t have a functioning computer if not for the tireless assistance of my friend Angahith. If you read these rants, sir, let me again thank you for always coming through and being 100% pure awesome.

That all cleared up just in time for me to go back to school for graduate work, of course, and I’m sure you can imagine the effect that has on my free time (hint: not a good one). And what free time I was left with for RPGs took a nigh-fatal blow with the release of Super Smash Brothers 4, of which I own both versions and will probably be playing obsessively well into 2015. So even when I do have free time for gaming, it tends to be Smash-related. Hey, what can I do? They added Little Mac to the game this time around! Little Mac. My hands are tied.

So yeah, without that stuff happening, I’d have played many more RPGs this year. I’ve also used up potential RPG time this year on books by Sherman Alexie, Isaac Asimov, Stephen Chbosky; Agatha Christie, John Green, George R. R. Martin (which you know counts like 3 times over), and Cory O’Brien. I also spent my time discovering and obsessively watching every episode of Bravest Warriors and Brooklyn 99, both of which I heartily recommend you check out, and also checking out the old semi-anime superhero cartoon Cybersix, which seemed decent, but obviously lost a lot in transition to being kid-appropriate. I also rewatched X-Men: The Animated Series, Firefly, and Futurama. Oh, and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’s fourth season happened this year, as well, and I accordingly watched the hell out of that, because Ponies = Fucking Awesome. Actually, on that note, I also spent a bit of time playing Megapony, a rather fun Megaman-esque game starring ponies (duh), as well as the game Superbrothers: Sword + Sworcery EP, which is weird but artsy and decent. And of course, I did the same stuff I always do: write fanfiction (someday I’ll actually finish this damn story and post it), write rants, and go to my job.

Getting back to what RPGs I did manage to play, the year started out pretty well. The first game I played was The Witcher 2, which just about anyone will tell you is just a great game altogether, and I followed it up with Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, both of which are fine specimens of their series. I also found pleasant surprises early on in Away: Shuffle Dungeon and Robocalypse, games better than I had expected them to be.

After this, I had a bit of a streak of boring. Pokemon Generation 5-2 (AKA Black 2 and White 2) is dull and pointless, Silver kind of crawls along, Gothic is slow as hell and just not very interesting altogether, and Rune Factory 1 is so boring that it almost felt like playing Suikoden 4...well, okay, it’s not nearly that bad, but Rune Factory 1 is still less entertaining than seeing how many pieces of lint you can find around the house.

I got out of the boring streak with Geneforge 2, which, while not wildly entertaining, is a fine RPG. That kicked off a period of months in which I played most of the Indie titles on the list above. I’m again pleased with the consistent level of quality with Indie titles; so far the only bad one I’ve played was Weapon Shop de Omasse, and quite a few have been just terrific games.

As the Indie phase petered out, that’s when the computer and car woes I mentioned hit, so I only played a few more titles after that point, but they were all quite decent. I ended the year with Crimson Shroud, which is quite neat and singular in its storytelling approach, Lords of Xulima, the first Kickstarter RPG that I’ve funded to be completed and overall a barely so-so game, and Jade Empire, one of the few Bioware games from the days before the company lost its fucking mind which I had not played yet. It was pretty good, although I have to say, not nearly as good as most of the rest of their titles.

Anyway, enough about that crap. Let’s get on with the fun part!

RPG Moments of Interest in 2014:

1. Pokemon Generation 5-2 earns a unique award: Idiot Henchman of the Year. A Team Plasma grunt proudly makes the claim to the protagonist that the beds in one particular room of the Plasma headquarters don’t get used, and then, thinking somehow that the main character does not believe this and, inexplicably, caring mightily, the grunt indignantly challenges the main character to try sleeping in these beds to prove how unused they are. Taking such pride in unused beds that you tell your enemy to take a nap in them, in an RPG...yup, that is a singular kind of stupidity, there.

2. I was honestly very surprised that Away: Shuffle Dungeon turned out to be pretty good. Looking at its cutesy appearance and its gimmicky gameplay focus, you’d never expect the game to have a genuinely creative and fairly engaging story to it, but it really does. I was even more shocked when I realized that ASD was developed by Mistwalker, the company founded by Hironobu Sakaguchi (the creator of Final Fantasy). Where was this creativity in plot and concept when Sakaguchi was making his so-called ‘masterpiece,’ The Last Story?

3. Defender’s Quest 1 is the first tower defense game I’ve ever played, and I find that the concept actually works extremely well when combined with RPG elements, which is neat. I hope we’ll see more games like it in the future--especially if they have stories as solid and casts as fun as DQ1 has.

4. OH MY GOD SHADOWRUN IS BACK. Sorry, just had to get that out there. I’m an odd fan of Shadowrun in that I’ve never played and have no interest in playing Shadowrun in its true form (tabletop RPG), but I do love the Shadowrun universe and have been wanting more console RPGs based on it since the day I finished the SNES Shadowrun title. Sort of like the way I love comic book heroes and plots, but don’t actually read comic books. Shadowrun Returns came out last year, and its DLC-turned-actual-game Shadowrun: Dragonfall came out this year, all thanks to Kickstarter, and it is a glorious, glorious thing for me to be able to run the shadows once more.

5. On that note, I would like to note, for the record, that I squee’ed in fanboyish glee during Shadowrun Returns when my character opened a morgue drawer and found Jake Armitage taking a nap within. Squee’ed so. Damn. Hard.

6. Huh. Jade Empire has an option for a polyamorous relationship with Dawn Star and Silk Fox. That’s neat, I guess. It’s not all that convincing or interesting, but then, none of the romances of the game are. It had some potential, at least. Skies of Arcadia handled polyamory better, though (even if that’s just a fan interpretation (but a pretty reasonable one!)).

7. Sort of not an RPG moment, but related enough to mention. I said that I discovered the online cartoon show Bravest Warriors, right? Fun show, very Adventure Time-esque, silly and epic at the same time. Well, it turns out that the voice actor for one of the main characters, Wallow, is Ian Jones Quarterly--the guy who made the classic old webcomic RPG World! How seriously awesome is that?

8. Lords of Xulima became the first Kickstarter RPG I’ve helped fund to reach its completion, so I got to play a game this year whose existence I had an active hand in creating. Sadly, it’s...well, it’s great for folks looking for old-school PC RPG gameplay, but for someone looking for intellectual content beyond stat and skill management, it’s kinda lacking. The story’s okay, I guess, but it sure didn’t need over 100 hours to tell--hell, you could’ve fit the game’s plot into 10 hours or less. Overall, it’s not even remotely worth the time, and it’s a disappointing departure from the typical storytelling strength of indie RPGs. Ah, well...I’ll just have to hope that my patronage was more wisely given to the rest of the Kickstarter projects I’m waiting on.

9. My rant total has finally surpassed my finished RPG total this year--I have now produced more rants than I have played RPGs. Cool? Pathetic? You decide.

Best Prequel/Sequel of 2014:
Winner: The Witcher 2
Building off of the first game, The Witcher 2 continues Geralt’s roundabout journey for answers perfectly, developing Geralt and his world further and giving him new obstacles to overcome while maintaining a general progression toward the resolution of the overarching Wild Hunt plot that we will hopefully see concluded in the third game. It’s everything you’d want from a continuation and a bridge from a trilogy’s beginning to its end.

Runners-Up: Geneforge 2; The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds; Shadowrun: Dragonfall
Actually, there’s not much competition for The Witcher 2. Geneforge 2 is a good follow-up to Geneforge 1, using the world and themes introduced in the first game and developing them further, yet leaving much to come in the future (which makes sense, since the series is 5 games long). Still, it’s not nearly so directly or skillfully tied to its predecessor as The Witcher 2 is. TLoZALBW is a sequel to the old The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, while not exactly being directly related to it. It’s pretty neat overall, but really, it’s more a sequel for its connection of environment and style than for anything substantial. Similarly, Shadowrun: Dragonfall takes place at roughly the same time as Shadowrun Returns and does reference the game a few times here and there, but overall, there’s not much of a connection. Still, it’s a good game and it’s a sequel, sort of, so I’ll put it here.

Biggest Disappointment of 2014:
Loser: Mass Effect 3
If you think that I’m going to get over how vile and heinous the ending of Mass Effect 3 was any time soon, then son, you obviously have not been paying much attention.

However, if we want to be legit...

Actual Loser: Weapon Shop de Omasse
With a creative and relatively promising concept (running a weapon shop in an RPG world), and clever tongue-in-cheek humor that draws you in, Weapon Shop de Omasse looked like it’s going to be a winner. Unfortunately, even for a game with a small scale, Weapon Shop de Omasse has a trite and unengaging plot, and while it’s funny for a while, eventually you realize that most of its jokes are just the same thing over and over again--poking fun at RPGs. The game’s good at it and has some fun references, so that’s fine for a time, but without anything substantial to back it up, sooner or later it starts getting old. Even my patience for such things is not infinite, and I daresay I have a greater interest in RPG parody than most. And what humor the game has that’s not directly RPG-related tends to fall flat, and a bit of it is actually kind of offensive--I’m so sick of tasteless jokes about big, ugly, “scary” crossdressers in anime and games, and the character of Grape is nothing but that joke told over and over again. Ugh. It really is too bad. The makers of WSdO certainly had an interesting idea and some skill with humor, but they just didn’t take it anywhere.

Almost as Bad: Lords of Xulima; Rune Factory 1
I covered LoX above--it’s just not a compelling story, there’s only a small level of depth to it, and there’s essentially no characterization worth noting. Not a bad game, but considering how long it is and that indie RPGs are usually a cut above since they’re works of love more than of paycheck, it’s nonetheless disappointing.

I’d heard that the Rune Factory games were good. I was misinformed.

Best Finale of 2014:
Winner: The Witcher 2
The ending to this game is just an extremely solid one, tying up loose ends in its final confrontation with Letho--and it says much to the game’s credit that whatever you choose to do with Letho, you feel the choice is meaningful, right, and epic--and providing a sense of satisfaction and conclusion as Geralt heads out to continue his journeys. His work isn’t done, yet there is a feeling of accomplishment and even peace with all that has happened in the game, as should be the case with the ending. And cliche though it is, the scene with Geralt peacefully examining the ladybug really is a simple but excellent way to wrap everything up. It’s a great ending to a great game.

Runners-Up: Geneforge 2; The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds; Threads of Fate
Threads of Fate’s ending for Mint is fine, but its ending for Rue is solid and meaningful, a pleasing conclusion to its tale of resisting destiny, and of course I like the bonus scene, which promises more adventures for Rue and Mint to come (now if only we could get a sequel where that did come to pass). Geneforge 2’s ending is nothing emotionally powerful, but it does summarize the results of your actions through the game and how they affected the world as a whole--no point in giving player choice in the game if you’re not going to have those choices reflected by the ending, right? And lastly, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds’s best part is its finale. Up until the game’s final moments, TLoZALBW is just standard Zelda fare, kind of okay but not really having anything to offer in terms of storytelling or characters. At its finale, however, its major twist (which I did see coming, but that didn’t diminish it) adds substantial depth to the story as a whole, and the return of Ravio is really well done. Finally, the truly epic act of generosity and goodwill by Link and Zelda during the game’s ending is terrific, really hits you with how grand a gesture of kindness and forgiveness it is, and retroactively puts the whole game into a better, more meaningful light. Kind of like the way that Startropics 1’s ending makes the otherwise light and fun adventure into something so much more important. This game’s ending is so unexpectedly impressive that I actually was inspired by it to do a rant on the power of endings, and you can hear more of my thoughts there if you like. Suffice to say here, though, that this is a very moving finale, and its quality was a very pleasant surprise.

Worst RPG of 2014:
Loser: Rune Factory 1
On the scale of boredom, Rune Factory 1 ranks somewhere between The 7th Saga and Suikoden 4, making it one of the most dull RPGs I’ve ever come across. Just thinking about it is making me want to take a nap. Ugh. There’s nothing worthwhile about this game, plain and simple. Its plot is bland and generic, and just getting to the point where the plot is actually starting to show up at all takes fucking days of repetitive busywork punctuated by subpar dungeon-crawling. Compounding this fatal flaw, the supporting cast are dull and generic, and the romance aspect is trite and unconvincing, not to mention essentially the same regardless of which character’s affections you choose to pursue. This is a game that delights in all the mind-numbing side crap that annoys me in RPGs (item maintenance, item creation, item growth management, fishing, repeated dungeon-crawling that explores the same goddamn dungeons over and over, etc) and makes actually telling a fucking story and saying anything meaningful into a secondary priority. No, scratch that, storytelling and meaning is a tertiary priority. No, scratch that, everything that actually engages your mind and imagination in any capacity is a non priority in Rune Factory 1. The game is just nothing, there’s nothing that it offers, there’s nothing that it says, there’s nothing that it does or attempts or demands or means or possesses. Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy 8, Grandia 3, Shadow Hearts 3, Mega Man Star Force 1 and 2--these are all poor RPGs, but every one of them has SOMETHING to offer, even if it’s bad, even if it annoys the hell out of me with its stupidity. I can still get something out of these dismal failures. Rune Factory 1? Nothing. Just. Nothing.

Almost as Bad: Pokemon Generation 5-2; Weapon Shop de Omasse
If there’s an upside to the severe waste of time that was Rune Factory 1, it’s that I played very few RPGs this year that were actually bad. I mean, I can’t say I thought too much of Silver, Lords of Xuilma, or Gothic 1, but even if they weren’t good, they weren’t bad, either. Still, there were a couple stinkers, and Pokemon Black 2 and White 2 was definitely one. Even for a Pokemon game, there’s not much to this game, a needless sequel that struggles and fails to find a point for its existence. Remember back in Pokemon Generation 2, you had a chance in the post-game to go back to the first generation’s region and revisit its Gym Leaders and locations, just kinda checking the old stomping grounds out for the heck of it? Well, that’s a fine idea for a post-game side journey, but it sure as hell ain’t enough to base a whole damn game around. As for Weapon Shop de Omasse, like I said, the game has an interesting premise and is pretty funny at first, but it just goes fucking nowhere with that premise and the humor is all painfully one-note.

Most Improved of its Series of 2014:
Winner: Shadowrun: Dragonfall
I enjoyed Shadowrun Returns quite a bit, but the general consensus is right on this count: Dragonfall is far, far superior. The story is far more interesting, better crafted, more meaningful, and challenges you and requires you to really consider what you think is the better course of action, without many clear-cut examples of which decisions are right and wrong. The cast is much stronger than Shadowrun Returns, with more engaging side NPCs and party members (sorry, Jake!) with depth and great development. The setting is more interesting, too. And hell, I do have to mention it: Dragonfall does not have the truckload of spelling and grammatical issues that Returns was plagued by. The one and only thing I think Returns can stack up to its successor with is the villain--I’d say both games’ main antagonists are almost equal in quality. But yeah, overall, Shadowrun: Dragonfall really elevated the Shadowrun video game series to a new level of excellence.

Almost as Good: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds; Shadowrun Returns
Hey, just because Shadowrun: Dragonfall is a big step up from Shadowrun Returns, that doesn’t mean Returns isn’t also still a solid RPG and a step up from its SNES and Genesis predecessors. The SNES Shadowrun was a neat story and the Genesis Shadowrun was, uh, okay, I guess, but ultimately they were most enjoyable to me just for inducting me into the Shadowrun universe. Shadowrun Returns takes things a step higher with a story that has themes of the connections of family that are subtle but thought-provoking, a good villain, and a stronger base of characters. Dragonfall may beat the pants off of Returns, but that sure as hell doesn’t mean that Shadowrun Returns isn’t still laudable. As for The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, well, it’s definitely not an improvement on the last major Zelda game (Skyward Sword), but it IS most definitely better than the old Link to the Past, which is more what this title is a sequel to. I know it’s a classic and all, but there’s really just not a lot of interest about TLoZ A Link to the Past. The story is generic with only a single, gimmicky twist (the dark world thing), and there’s no character depth or development to speak of. A Link Between Worlds is a definite step up, with a plot that’s at least a little more interesting and much better expressed, and some characters who are, well, actually characters. Plus, as I said, I do love the twist and all the stuff that goes on in the ending. So yeah, I’d definitely say A Link Between Worlds is a step up from its predecessor.

Most Creative of 2014:
Winner: The Witcher 2
The Witcher 2 is extremely ambitious as a story, splitting itself halfway into 2 related, but clearly separated story directions, depending on the player’s decisions of Geralt’s priorities and whom he trusts to assist him. Lots of games depend on player input for their storytelling, like Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic, but that input usually is just determining the reasons for the character’s actions and the results of those actions, not actually changing what the actions will be. What I mean by that is, whether you have Commander Shepard in Mass Effect 3, for example, be a paragon of virtue or a monumental dickhead, either way you’ll be taking Shepard through all the same major plot events, and most of the minor ones. Your decision whether to kill or talk down Wrex in Mass Effect 1 won’t change the ME3 plot arc of having to convince the Krogan people to support you, it will just change who among them you’re appealing to. Whether you’re following the path of Jedi or Sith in Knights of the Old Republic 1, you’ll still have to visit the same planets, and follow almost identical plot paths on those planets. In The Witcher 2, however, Geralt’s actions and decisions in Chapter 1 actually do inform the events of the rest of the game, Chapter 2 in particular, and the objectives and events of the rest of the game are substantially different as a result. You could accurately say that this is 2 stories in 1 game, to a degree I can’t recall having seen accomplished before. Considering the complexity of each of these stories, the fact that either path feels natural and true to Geralt, and that it takes nothing away from the size and scope of the story to split it--either way, it feels like a full and rich game--I’d say this is quite a laudable achievement on the part of CD Projekt. It’s a creative approach, and they put in a lot of effort to make it work flawlessly.

Also significantly creative with The Witcher 2 is how naturally human the story feels. Some RPGs go out of their way to be stories of moral shades of gray, stories where there really isn’t a clear right or wrong and what you choose depends on your perspective. Shadowrun: Dragonfall is a good example of this, as well as, to a certain extent, many Shin Megami Tensei titles. The thing of this is, while these games can be terrific and force you to think about the arbitrary nature of right and wrong and how you define such always feels, I dunno, transparent, to me. I mean...I can usually tell an RPG’s purpose is to be all artsy with its shades of gray thing, it’s obvious that the game’s been set up to be that way. Which is fine, of course. But what really sets The Witcher 2 (and its predecessor, though not as much) apart in this area of moral shades of gray RPGs is that this game feels completely natural about it. You’re not playing a game crafted to show that there’s no clear-cut right and wrong when it comes to real people and issues, you’re playing a game that’s just naturally showing people and issues, and because it’s accurate, it’s morally gray. Characters in The Witcher 2 don’t come off like they were carefully constructed to have checks and balances that give them good and bad qualities--they just come off like real, honest people, and the fact that they have qualities both good and bad, sympathetic and repellant, comes as a natural result. The same with the situations that Geralt encounters in the game. Also, just as in real life, not EVERYTHING is gray--there really are some people and situations in the game which really are pretty clear-cut right and wrong. Anyway, it’s a very creative and skillful way to handle making a game of moral gray areas, subtle yet clear, and I give CD Projekt a big thumbs-up for their ability to make it all work.

Runners-Up: Away: Shuffle Dungeon; Crimson Shroud; Shadowrun: Dragonfall
Man, I gotta say, Away: Shuffle Dungeon’s plot will really sneak up on you. From all appearances, it’s just gonna be a cutesy, generic little save-the-girl dungeon-crawler, and then wham, you’re suddenly ambushed by a neat, really unique sci-fi plot changing everything you thought you knew. I still can’t believe that something this charmingly different came from the same developer that birthed the by-the-numbers The Last Story. Crimson Shroud is really quite nifty in its presentation; it’s a game that really makes you feel like you’re taking part in a tabletop RPG, which is neat (only with a narrator who is way, way more excellent and eloquent than any Dungeon Master I’ve ever encountered). It also creates a pretty interesting world, kind of Final Fantasy Tactics-like...I just wish we got to see more of it. Hopefully it’ll get a sequel; it’s quite good and definitely creative enough to warrant it. And then there’s Shadowrun: Dragonfall. Great new setting for the Shadowrun games, played very well, with lots of neat twists to a complicated but well-told story. It’s fun to get everything you expect and want from a Shadowrun game, but in such a an interesting, unexpected way.

Stupidest Weapon of 2014:
Loser: Super Net (The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds)
Link, stop using a butterfly net as a weapon. I don’t care how inexplicably effective it is. You look like an idiot.

Almost as Bad: Boxing Glove Gun (Robocalypse); Dahak (Solatorobo: Red the Hunter)
A big propelled boxing glove was stupid for Tia in that pile of sloppy shit, Lufia: Curse of the Sinistrals, and it’s stupid now. Although I’ll at least give Robocalypse that it’s not actually trying to be a serious game anyway. The Dahak is just dumb--it’s a big old ridable robot attack machine, but its only real form of attack is to lift stuff up and throw it! You can’t even use its flexible, strong, long-reaching arms to hit stuff, only to lift it up and throw it! Lame.

Best Romance of 2014:
Winner: Geralt and Triss (The Witcher 2)
Uh...not much to offer in this category this year. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with the relationship between Geralt and Triss, don’t get me wrong. It feels honest and they both clearly do genuinely care for each other. But at the same time, there’s nothing especially amazing about them, either...there just wasn’t much in the way of great love stories in the RPGs I played this year.

Runners-Up: Anella and Sword (Away: Shuffle Dungeon); Flaxen and Myron (Robocalypse); Protagonist and Silk Fox (Jade Empire)
Anella and Sword have a decently believable connection, if not one that really stands out...still, it’s nice enough. Flaxen and Myron is nothing special, but at the same time, it’s kinda fun and sweet, the way it ends up, in that appealingly goofy way that Robocalypse has. And lastly, the romances in Jade Empire are all kind of basic, but of them, I think the romance with Silk Fox is probably the best, with the mild depths of her personality shown better than those of Sky or Dawn Star with their love plots. Still, nothing special, all said. I hope next year gives me some considerably more compelling love stories.

Best Voice Acting of 2014:
Winner: The Witcher 2
Solid voice acting on all fronts. Not much that really stands out, save for Geralt’s subtly excellent vocal talent, but all lines are said well and keep the story going without a hitch, and Geralt’s actor continues to quietly shine for his ability to enhance Geralt’s character despite a restrictive vocal range for him.

Runners-Up: Dust: An Elysian Tail; Jade Empire; Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers
Despite a few small subpar performances, Dust: An Elysian Tail has a good vocal cast that does the job well. Jade Empire is much the same, with the added benefit of having one of my favorite voice actors, Cam Clarke, taking on the role of Sky (and it was also neat to hear Nathan Fillion as Gao the Lesser). And SMTDSSH is also quite decent; I think that the voice acting for Nemissa is especially good.

Funniest of 2014:
Winner: Robocalypse
New category this year! I love a good, funny, lighthearted RPG, and a lot of them actually have a lot of emotional and thematic power hidden in their funny presentation (Okage: Shadow King and Mother 3, for example).

So, what’s the funniest game this year? Robocalypse! A silly venture of geeks, war machines with the brains of diabolical toasters, and self-conscious infatuated insect overlords from space, this fun little title will keep you chuckling from start to finish, and it’s even kind of sweet at the end, in a kooky sort of way. Fun times, try it out some time if you need a giggle.

Runners-Up: Defender’s Quest 1; Dust: An Elysian Tail; Threads of Fate
First of all, I’d like to say that Weapon Shop de Omasse really should have made it to this list at first glance, but the appeal of its humor just peters out so damn quickly, never growing or adding to itself. Ah well. Anyway, Defender’s Quest 1 is quite a funny little jaunt, and choosing whether it or Robocalypse was more amusing was quite difficult. DQ1 is actually a much better story with better characters than Robocalypse, but I think that as far as which is just flat-out funnier, Robocalypse just barely edges it out. Still, I had many good laughs from Defender’s Quest 1. Dust: An Elysian Tail is usually a pretty serious story, but the adorable Fidget rarely fails to find a way to lighten the mood, and keep things fun. And finally, Threads of Fate...I’ve mentioned before that Mint is a goddamn laugh riot, right?

Best Villain of 2014:
Winner: Jessica (Shadowrun Returns)
Tough choice this year, but I think Jessica does top the rest. Jessica’s villainy stems from her family issues, most notably the negative influence her brother Sam had upon Jessica and her mother, and that foundation for her evil schemes and psychosis reflects the overall theme of family connections, biological or consciously forged, that Shadowrun Returns is all about. Jessica has some good depth--she may be a nut, but you can see how she got to be that way, and you can see what drives her. Definitely a solid antagonist.

Runners-Up: Letho (The Witcher 2); Sun Li (Jade Empire); Vauclair (Shadowrun: Dragonfall)
Sun Li’s pretty average as a villain in most ways, but he is a damn good schemer. Letho and Vauclair are very good villains, good enough that I imagine most people would put at least 1 of them, possibly both, above my choice of Jessica. Vauclair actually reminds me a little of Jessica in that he has some strong ties to the theme of family, which are also a part of Shadowrun: Dragonfall just as they were Shadowrun Returns, and he’s got good depth and motivation. If he had been given more time to develop, instead of just coming into the light at the end of the game, he might have put Jessica out, but he at least makes great use of his limited time. As for Letho, well, he’s about as awesome and layered as you might expect a major plot entity of The Witcher 2 to be, much better than the villain of the previous Witcher. I probably should have given him the top spot this year, I suppose, but I just really liked the thematic strength of Jessica’s villainy, and calling Letho a villain is kind of off-base anyway...he’s an antagonist, but he sort of isn’t, too. Definitely great either way, though.

Best Character of 2014:
Winner: Glory (Shadowrun: Dragonfall)
Shadowrun: Dragonfall has a rich cast, but even among them, Glory’s depth and history set her above the rest, as does the development she gets as she attempts to set her past right. I’m not going to go into details, because I won’t able to do her justice, but Shadowrun: Dragonfall really had a winner in the character of Glory.

Runners-Up: Dust (Dust: An Elysian Tail); Geralt (The Witcher 2); Rue (Threads of Fate)
Dust’s attempt to find himself, and how he copes with the answers he receives, is quite good, and adds a lot of weight to the game. Rue develops nicely along his journey, and as much as I love to watch Mint’s antics, it’s Rue who’s the real star, the real heart and soul, of Threads of Fate. As for Geralt, he’s great as always. I do think that The Witcher 1 did give him a little more opportunity for character depth as he struggled to determine what his position as a Witcher meant in a slowly but surely changing world, but there’s plenty of growth and complexity for him in the sequel, too.

Best RPG of 2014:
Winner: Shadowrun: Dragonfall
A great setting, a great execution of that setting, a strong cast, an engaging and powerful story, meaningful, thoughtful, emotional...Shadowrun: Dragonfall is fantastic, it really is. I could not have asked for a better return of Shadowrun to video games than this. You owe it to yourself to check this one out.

Runners-Up: Dust: An Elysian Tail; Threads of Fate; The Witcher 2
An epic tale of redemption and protecting the oppressed, Dust: An Elysian Tail is just one more example of the high quality that Indie RPGs seem to deliver regularly. Threads of Fate is surprisingly good and emotional, with a memorable cast, a neat theme of fate that it explores in various ways, and a generally enjoyable story and style. Ah, sure could make some fine RPGs. What the hell happened? Finally, The Witcher 2 is just a true RPG gem, and it was hard deciding between it and Shadowrun: Dragonfall for the top spot. Good story, good characters, great use of the Hexer universe, good themes and ideas to explore, paced and told well...there’s nothing not to like about Geralt’s continuing adventures. I can’t wait to see how it all concludes in the final Witcher game, and I’m definitely going to keep my eye out in the future for more CD Projekt RED games, because these are masters like few others of RPG storytelling.

And that’s it. Well, it wasn’t a bad year for RPGs for me, even if it wasn’t nearly as prolific as it should have been. With me being enrolled in a program that will take me at least a year and a half to finish and with Super Smash Brothers 4 continuing to exist, it’s a good bet 2015 won’t be too productive on the RPG front, either. Still, hopefully there won’t be quite as many distractions as there were this year. I’m certainly looking forward to it--several of the other Kickstarter RPGs I’ve backed are set to come out in 2015, which excites me to no end, as well as The Witcher 3 (not sure if I’ll play it while it’s new yet, but it’s fun to anticipate anyway), and given the critical acclaim for Shadowrun: Dragonfall, maybe next year will see another title for the series. Regardless, I’ll be here, ranting. Thanks for continuing to read and give these ridiculous little essays some purpose, folks. Happy holidays, and I’ll see you come January.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Final Fantasy 6's Protagonists

Y’know, the matter of who the protagonist of Final Fantasy 6 is inspires a little debate here and there. Most people, I think, agree that Terra is FF6’s protagonist, but some say it’s Celes, and a few people, who I can only assume have a sexist perspective that only men can be video game heroes or something, even argue that it’s Locke. And then there’s the camp that say that FF6 has no protagonist at all. Among this camp is SquareEnix itself, whose official stance on the matter is that the entire cast of FF6 is meant to get equal development and importance. Well, that’s fine and good if you respect the creator’s word as the 1 and only reliable source about a work, and if that’s how you feel, then good news for you: you get to finish reading today’s rant early! Seriously, that’s all for today. See you next time.

For those of you still here, it may be that you remember that Bioware stands by the idea that the ending of Mass Effect 3 actually is not a horrendous pile of lazy, arrogant, stupid, nonsensical bullshit. Or it may be that you are relatively familiar with SquareEnix. Either way, you’re familiar either with the fact that a game’s developer does not always know a goddamn thing about the art of their own creation, and/or with the fact that anything SquareEnix does or says has, at best, a 50-50 chance of actually being right. And it’s in this mindset that I say that FF6 has 2 protagonists, no more, and no fewer. Terra and Celes share the role of protagonist in this game.

I really can’t see calling either one the game’s protagonist without the other. I mean, think about it. The first quarter of the game’s plot revolves around Terra, from the first events of Narshe up until the battle to protect the Narshe Esper. She is at the center of almost all game events, and the plot is clearly following her. Everything is about Espers, Terra, and their connection to the Empire. Yes, there is a point during this segment of the game where the party is split in 3, and 2 scenarios (those of Locke and Sabin) occur completely absent of Terra, but when you look at those stories, they’re still revolving around a plot idea that Terra is the central figure of: getting to Narshe so that Terra can speak to the Esper there. The first quarter of the game follows Terra almost exclusively, and the plot is entirely focused on her.

In the second quarter of the game, Terra flies off, and the rest of the party go after her. True, at this point any of the party can go find her, but you can’t say that this is a moment of protagonist equality between the rest of the cast. Their goal is clearly stated: to find Terra. She may not be present, but she’s still the plot’s center. Think about Chrono Trigger, during the period of the game after Crono is killed and the rest of the team must find a way to revive him. There’s still no doubt in anyone’s mind that Crono is the protagonist, even if he’s not present with the party for this period of the game, right? The implied major focus of the plot at that point is still based around his presence in the party. If such a period of the game doesn’t make all the protagonists in CT equal, surely it does not for FF6 (especially considering that you actually CAN decide in CT not to bother saving Crono and just do the rest of the game without jerk).

Once the rest of the team finds her, it is then, finally, that the first real segment of the game comes in which the party and plot focus is not on Terra: the trip to the Empire to free the Espers.* For this quest, Celes and Locke are required to be present, with the last 2 spaces on the team being optional for who you want to be there. Of them the story has been focused on Celes--she’s leading the way because she knows the Empire, while Locke is only there as support, to act as her protector. The events in the Empire are focused on Celes’s character and dictated by her actions until the party’s escape. Now, this little quest by itself doesn’t prove anything; you can find plenty of other times in RPGs where a particular mandatory quest in the game focuses on a character other than the protagonist--but as we see later on, it IS a test run for later in the game, when Celes takes over the role of protagonist.

Anyway, after that point, Terra rejoins the party, and she’s once again the focus of the plot events. You may be able to choose not to have her in the party here and there, but for every remaining major event of Final Fantasy 6’s second quarter (roughly ending at the lifting of the floating continent), save the dinner with the Emperor, Terra is the focus. She’s necessary to continue the plot at the cave entrance to the Esper land, and she and Locke are necessary for the trip to Thamasa (and Locke is, again, only in a support role, not the focal point of the events going on around him) and all the Esper- and Kefka-related nonsense therein. Up to the floating continent, the game is once more a story in which Terra is the central figure, the key dynamic force, and the individual we’re forced to follow and watch.

So at the halfway mark, what’re the results? Well, Terra has been the key focus of the plot events and the plans of both the good and evil members of the cast, and the character who has had the longest and most frequent mandatory presence. Her presence is also the key dynamic force of the game; it’s through her actions that most of the game’s major events occur. Celes has been a mandatory character only for 1 quest, though she was, during that quest, the key figure in its events. Locke has been a required presence often, but nearly always as a support figure, more or less never outshining Terra or Celes during his times of importance. And everyone else is more or less incidental--some are required at some points of the game (like Sabin and Setzer), but inarguably in no greater a way than any secondary party member would be.

Let’s look at the third quarter of the game now. The floating continent throws a wrench in the works: Terra is entirely optional, and actually has no more connection to the events of this pivotal point of the game than any other character. In fact, until the end of the dungeon, no single member of the team seems to be leading at this moment. But that changes soon enough, much too quickly to really enter into our calculations here. By the end of the dungeon, Celes is suddenly inserted into the team if she’s not there, and the climactic events of the floating continent are focused only on her, where her loyalties lie. I mean, the scene is kind of more about Kefka and Gestahl, but of the party members, Celes is the only important character involved; all other party members are just collateral.

And of course, after the floating continent is done...the game shifts its focus to Celes. Once Celes wakes up in the World of Ruin, she is the one we’re following for the rest of the third quarter. It’s her journey to find her friends, her reactions to the harsh new world, her hope and efforts. Everything in the plot is now about her and what she does and intends. Terra is actually relegated to minor importance at this point in the game, purposefully taking herself out of the picture while she sorts herself out. It is, in fact, much like the time before, when Celes led the team to the Empire--Terra is unable to continue as protagonist, so Celes steps up to the plate. Celes goes to find survivors based on her hope, Celes finds and leaves Terra, Celes finds and rerecruits Edgar, and she and Edgar find and rerecuit Setzer, and gain the airship. That’s a whole quarter of the game in which Celes is the one leading the audience and the story along, where everything is focused on her.

The last quarter of FF6 is more lax. Once you have the airship, and more than 4 characters, then who goes where and why is loose. You can bring anyone along to find Sabin, Relm, Cyan, Gau, Mog, Gogo, Shadow, Locke, and Terra, and Strago and Umaro only need a specific party member (Relm and Mog, respectively) there for a moment of recruitment. Some of the other sidequests have character requirements, such as Cyan for Cyan’s dream (duh) and Strago and Relm for defeating Hidon, but that stuff is, at most, character sidequest material, so their mandatory presence can’t logically be seen as any shot at a protagonist’s role. However, I do not think this should be seen as evidence of SquareEnix’s statement that everyone is a protagonist. True, for this last section of the game, everyone in the party IS as important as everyone else--but only because they are all essentially unimportant. It’s not that the role of protagonist is being shared, it’s that the role just isn’t there at all. It’s all optional (you can beat the game with only Celes, Setzer, and Edgar, though it’s quite a challenge), there’s little or no party member interaction...the only thing you could really say about this quarter is that finding the rest of the team and getting them all back together is the task that Celes set out to do originally in the World of Ruin, the quest that she took upon herself, so I guess that she’s the one and only person you could really call the protagonist at this point in the game. It’s shaky, since Celes doesn’t actually have to be present for any of these recruitment quests, but it’s either Celes or just plain nobody.

So, on to the finale. Regardless of whether she was brought back onto the team, Terra will join the final battle. This is appropriate--this game began with her, and it ends with her, no matter what. She is here because this final fight is hers; she is the protagonist of this game. Yet at the same time, this final battle is only happening because of Celes. For all of Terra’s essential importance to this moment which all things have led to, it was not Terra’s willpower, her heroic desire, that led here. It was Celes who had faith that she could find her friends, Celes who convinced Edgar and Setzer to help her round everyone up again for one last attempt to save their world. From the narrative view, Celes is the one who has led the second half of the game to this point, just as Terra led the first half of the game (although I’d say Celes is far more proactive about it). The fact that this final battle is happening at all, is all Celes.

So let’s review. For the first half of the game, Terra is, 90% of the time, the central figure of the story and its unfolding events, necessary to move the plot forward, and the character around whom the rest of the party congregates. The only 2 points of the first half of the game where Terra is not the major, important focus of the plot for a moment are the journey to the Empire and the floating continent, and both of those times, Celes has become the central figure. Then, for the second half of the game, Celes leads the plot entirely, until the point where no one in the party leads overall, until the finale, in which the team, thanks to Celes’s intent to reunite them, fights Kefka, and Terra will show up for this final battle and the ending whether or not she was recruited.

I put forth to you once more, looking over the game as a whole, that Terra and Celes are both the protagonists of Final Fantasy 6. To say that Terra is not the protagonist of the game is absurd; she’s its central figure from the start and ultimately the game will wrap around to be about her at its end. Yet at the same time, how can you say that Celes is not the protagonist of the game, as well? Terra is out of the spotlight for half of the entire game, and during this half, it’s Celes who is leading, her will and journey that the plot now focuses on, and her character, that of hope and redemption, that now holds the greatest significance to the story and setting. Even if the last quarter of the game has less of a concrete connection to Celes, she’s still the dynamic force behind the party’s actions at that point.

Additionally, I say that no one else in the game is in the running for the role. The closest is Locke, as he is the character most often required to be present after Terra and Celes, and he has the most connection to the events that transpire, but all the same, Locke is just not the one on whom the game is focused, and while his influence on Celes is certainly a huge factor in her actions in the second half of the game, that’s not the same as actually directing the plot himself. He is, ultimately, just an important secondary character, no more a protagonist to the game than Tear in Tales of the Abyss, Alistair in Dragon Age 1, Alice in Shadow Hearts 1, or Marle in Chrono Trigger.** And after Locke, there are some fairly important characters, but no one you could make a case for being a protagonist. Edgar and Setzer have their important moments in the story, but certainly no more than a plethora of other RPGs’ secondary characters. And as for SquareEnix’s assertion that everyone in the game has equal importance and development, well, that’s just idiotic. Can you really pretend that Gau or Strago had as much importance to the events of Final Fantasy 6 as Terra or Locke? Or that Mog and Relm had as much character depth and development as Celes or Edgar? To say nothing of Umaro and Gogo--they’re 100% optional and unimportant to the plot, and so lacking development and depth that even calling them characters to begin with is kind of a stretch. I have to wonder sometimes whether SquareEnix plays its own games.

Anyway. Terra and Celes are both Final Fantasy 6’s protagonists. Obviously some people have different perspectives on this, but I just haven’t met anyone yet who can make a compelling argument for those views. They’re the only characters whose presence, connection to the plot, and central importance to the events, themes, and characters of the game warrant the title, and to try to claim that 1 or the other is the only protagonist is to discard simple facts of the other’s involvement.

* I suppose you could say that this is still Terra-centric since it’s during this quest that you encounter Terra’s father, who will soon after bring Terra back to the fore of the game’s events, and the whole premise of this quest is that it’s basically something to do while Terra’s pulling herself together, but at that point you’re reaching a bit, I think.

** Actually, Marle’s way closer to a protagonist than Locke is. It’s she who convinces her friends to try to stop Lavos and save the world--the entire heroic quest of Chrono Trigger is actually her idea!