Sunday, December 18, 2016

Annual Summary 2016

Thanks a ton for reading this over, Ecclesiastes, I appreciate it greatly!

Sweet Jesus, I have been doing this for 10 years.

...Well. Wow. Um. Here are the RPGs I played this year.

Code of Princess
Dragon Fantasy 1
Dragon Fantasy 2
Fallout 4
Fire Emblem 14
Infinite Dunamis
Justice Chronicles
Moon Hunters
Pier Solar and the Great Architects
Shin Megami Tensei 4-2
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q
Shining Force: Sword of Hajya
Valkyria Chronicles 1
Whisper of a Rose
Witch + Hero 2

Not a huge number, to be sure, but considering that I was finishing a graduate program, working as a student teacher for 4 months, working part time while both of those things were going on, and the fact that Fallout 4 is a game that takes up literal hundreds of hours, I think I did well. I also split my time with a lot of other non-RPG things, too.

Things like playing the non-RPGs Bloody Vampires, Cave Story, and the Shantae series. Things like experiencing the DLC for Pillars of Eternity (okay plot, good characters), and the extended edition’s post-game content for Shadowrun: Hong Kong (solid stuff). Things like watching Daredevil and Kimmy Schmidt’s second seasons, Gortimer Gibbons’s Life on Normal Street, and a few seasons of Are You Being Served?, and keeping up with My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Brooklyn 99, Adam Ruins Everything, and, of course, the utterly and truly amazing Steven Universe. Things like rewatching the recent Doctor Who, The Legend of Korra, Robotech’s first season, and Rurouni Kenshin’s first 2 seasons as I showed them to my mother. And finally, things like replaying Undertale and Mass Effect 3 to show them to my sister.

Oh, yeah, and sometimes I ranted here, too. There was that.

So, normally, this is the point where I kinda just give a general outline of how the year went for me, RPG-wise, but, well, that just seems like it’s not all that interesting, and this rant’s already gonna be long enough, so...let’s just skip to the (theoretically) fun part: the lists!

RPG Moments of Interest in 2016:

1. I gotta say, the character creator in Fallout 4 is just really damn impressive. The level of detail and options for customizing your character is incredible. More than maybe any other level of game design, comparing where we are today to where we were 10 years ago with character creator systems shows an incredible level of advancement in our gaming.

2. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q is my first time hearing SMTP4 protagonist’s Yu’s voice to any significant degree (didn’t play SMTP4 Arena, you see), and I find it interesting that he shares a voice actor with SMTP4’s antagonist Adachi. No real thoughts on that, just find it an interesting point.

3. In 1 of those weird coincidences (like that year I played 2 completely unrelated RPGs in which Rasputin was a major villain), I actually played 2 totally separate RPGs this year (Fallout 4 and Dex) in which the protagonist is nicknamed Blue.

4. I finally got around to playing Valkyria Chronicles 1, which multiple friends of mine have urged me to do for years. This is largely thanks to reader Humza’s generosity--thanks again, buddy! It was good. Pretty neat to see Skies of Arcadia’s Vyse and Aika again, even just in odd cameo roles.

5. This year I played Dragon Fantasy 1, and thus got to see what it would be like if a Dragon Quest game (one without an 8 in its title, that is) was actually kind of fun.

6. I experienced Pier Solar and the Great Architects this year. It’s an indie RPG created, from what I’ve read, by a forum community of 16-bit gamers which call themselves Watermelon, and is, to date, the very last game created for the Sega Genesis, having been published in 2010. In much the same way that Kung Fury, released in 2015, is the ultimate 80s movie, Watermelon has basically created the most quintessential Sega Genesis RPG you’ll ever find in its approach, structure, feel, and style. Of course, anyone with an accurate memory of how well the Genesis actually functioned with its RPGs will realize that’s not a 100% positive thing. Nonetheless, if you’re ever missing the good old days of 16-bit RPGs and have exhausted the library of games actually released for the 1990s consoles, Pier Solar and the Great Architects is what you’ve been waiting for.

7. I think I encountered the most powerful RPG character of all time this year. Seriously, I’m kinda drawing a blank on who in the RPG world would ever be able to defeat Freyja of AeternoBlade. I plan to do a very small rant (stop scoffing, it could happen) about why she's so unstoppable some time in the future, so I won't go into detail here, but against even the hardest hitters of the RPG world, and heaven knows SquareEnix has done its best to make RPG characters as a whole into the most over-the-top ultra-powered combat gods imaginable, Freyja would come out on top, and probably unscathed. Crazy how such an obscure little RPG wound up creating one of the most powerful fictional characters ever to exist, particularly when it doesn't even seem like that was really their intention.

8. You know what’s kind of interesting? For all the questioning of and potential defiance against God that the Shin Megami Tensei series is filled with, there are only, as of now, 2 games in the SMT series in which you can actually fight and kill God: Shin Megami Tensei 2, and the new Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse (which shall henceforth be known as Shin Megami Tensei 4-2). And what’s interesting about that is that each time it’s happened, it’s been in a direct sequel. SMT2 is a direct sequel to the original Shin Megami Tensei, and SMT4-2 is a sequel (mostly; it’s complicated) to Shin Megami Tensei 4. Probably a coincidence, but who knows...given that it’s Shin Megami Tensei we’re talking about, there might be some intended meaning to that.

9. Applause to Bethesda for going the extra mile by naming the protagonist's son Shaun. As any fellow resident of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts who happens to be reading this knows, this state strictly enforces a law requiring that at least 1 out of every 5 male children residing here must be named some variation of "Sean". Fallout 4's developers really went all out to sell the authenticity of the game's setting!

Best Prequel/Sequel of 2016:
Winner: Shin Megami Tensei 4-2
There was actually a good amount of competition here this year, which hasn’t happened for a little while. In the end, I give it to SMT4-2, because it builds off of the plot of SMT4-1 very naturally, expanding its main and especially side characters well to evolve the plot and purpose of SMT4-1--which honestly is a little subpar for the series and doesn’t tread new ground enough--to become a better story that has a better purpose told by a more memorable cast. SMT4-2 doesn’t just stand as a solid sequel/continuation (whatever you’d call it; it’s complicated) and as a solid game in its own right, it also retroactively betters SMT4-1 a little by association.

Runners-Up: Dragon Fantasy 2; Fallout 4; Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q
Dragon Fantasy 2 nearly perfectly executes itself--as DF1 was a part parody, part homage to some of the biggest 8-bit RPGs, DF2 is a part parody, part homage to some of the biggest 16-bit RPGs, and not just that, it expands the world of the first Dragon Fantasy exactly as much as the SNES generation expanded on the NES generation of RPGs. DF2 has more dialogue, more involved characters, a bigger plot, and retroactively adds lore to its series. It actually reminds me just a little of the way Arc the Lad 2 heavily expanded on Arc the Lad 1, although those came out in the 32-bit era and beyond. The developers of Dragon Fantasy 2 pulled off what they wanted to do flawlessly, and if SMT4-2 hadn’t actually made its predecessor better by association, then Dragon Fantasy 2 would’ve won this category. I look forward to Dragon Fantasy 3, which is going to take the next step and hits the Playstation 1 era.

Fallout 4 is a great RPG and another strong entry to a strong series. There’s not much to say about it as a sequel--it follows Fallout: New Vegas and more importantly Fallout 3 just fine, taking what it needs from them and going forward. I mean, I guess I’m still sad that Fallout 3’s Brotherhood of Steel became a self-important load of shortsighted racists, but it’s believable enough as it’s presented, so I can’t complain. As for Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q, it’s, well, it’s 75% Persona fanservice, but in its last quarter it takes a serious left turn and becomes something truly moving and great, so as a sequel to SMTP4 and (more strongly given the meaning of life element) SMTP3, it’s solid.

Biggest Disappointment of 2016:
Loser: Whisper of a Rose
Yes, yes, I know that traditionally we do the joke-that’s-not-really-a-joke about how Mass Effect 3’s ending is still the most disappointing thing ever, even years after the fact, but...well, now that the fans have provided a real ending for the Mass Effect franchise, I’m ready to finally, really move on... new disappointments! Like Whisper of a Rose. Jeez I wish I could like this game. It’s got good and interesting ideas, it’s got issues not often touched on in RPGs, and what it wants to communicate seems to be worthwhile (I think). But damn does it ever just fall flat on its face and not manage to deliver on any of its promise. I’ll be going into the details of Whisper of a Rose in a rant some time soon, but for now, just know that it’s sincerely disappointing.

I hate it when I have to rag on an Indie RPG. Makes me feel like a damn bully.

Almost as Bad: Code of Princess; Fire Emblem 14
Code of Princess is funny and lighthearted, but just...not quite enough, or maybe not in the right way. It just doesn’t really go anywhere, and it’s not quite funny enough to get by on its humor alone. Funny, but...forced, I guess. Like the writers are trying too hard to do what Nippon Ichi does effortlessly. As for Fire Emblem 14...well, it’s a fine Fire Emblem, and I don’t really have any huge problem with it, but the extremely limited amount of homosexuality is still a big enough disappointment that I think it deserves a place here. More detailed thoughts on this can be found in my previous rant on the subject.

Best Finale of 2016:
Winner: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q
Man, I did not see the latter quarter of SMTPQ coming. I mean, I knew there was something more to the plot for most of the game as I went through, but...Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q goes from a rather unimpressive, though fun, RPG about having the casts of SMTP3 and 4 team up and just having a good time with that idea, to a deeply emotionally gripping tale of what worth a life can have about 75% of the way through, and it is a fast, HARD plot twist and change in tone. The questions it raises, and the pathos of the characters involved, are just excellent stuff, and the ending to this game wound up making me weep. In public.

Runners-Up: Fallout 4; Shin Megami Tensei 4-2; Valkyria Chronicles 1
Valkyria Chronicles 1’s finale is solid; there’s not much to really say about it beyond that they close the game well. Same with Fallout 4, really--it’s big, it’s impressive, it makes you stop and reflect on yet another grand story of the post apocalyptic world that you’ve taken part in...everything you expect from the series. Well, not everything, actually...the game does lack a definitive ending narration, which IS a real problem, making it probably the weakest ending of the Fallout series, and I sure as hell hope that they don’t pull that again. Come on, Bethesda, is it THAT hard to follow Fallout tradition and give us some ending clips for important people and places, tell us what happens to them in the future because of our endings? Nonetheless, it’s still a strong finish to a great RPG. And lastly, SMT4-2 kicks up its thematic philosophies a notch in its finale (provided you’re not an asshat who sided with the hypocritical Dagda instead of your friends). The final battle against YHVH is really well-done, a battle of philosophy and humanity’s purpose and progression as much as it is of actual physical conflict, and the use of Flynn’s team was a pleasant surprise, better tying the first Shin Megami Tensei 4 into its new conclusion. The ending subsequently does a good job of both focusing on its own cast and themes, while including its predecessor’s characters and ideas so well that I actually found myself in SMT4-2’s ending caring about Jonathan, Walter, and Isabeau’s connection, which SMT4-1 sure as hell couldn’t manage to accomplish. So yeah, good job with that, Atlus.

Worst RPG of 2016:
Loser: Whisper of a Rose
Look...Whisper of a Rose has high ambitions, and I respect it for that. But that’s all that I can say about the game that’s positive (well, that, and it also has a lot of really good songs). I’m not going to go into detail here--as I said, that’s coming up in its own rant soon. But unfortunately, this was not an auspicious first step for Indie developer Roseportal Games, and rather than get me excited to play more of their works and make me look forward all the more to the Shipbreakers game that I helped Kickstart, now I find myself uninterested in their other games and concerned about whether my money has been well pledged.

Almost as Bad: N/A
You know what’s cool about 2016? I only played a single game this year that I’d consider bad! And honestly, Whisper of a Rose isn’t even all that terrible; most other years, it’d be easily outclassed by worse stinkers. So that’s cool.

Most Creative of 2016:
Winner: Moon Hunters
Oh, hey, I finally got that Native American setting RPG I wanted. Well, mostly. Moon Hunters gets props for having a theme and setting based on tribal culture and lore, but it’s also very creative with how it handles itself. See, it’s a randomized roguelike RPG. Now, I just can’t stand roguelikes, and I’m not usually a fan of randomized dungeons, but Moon Hunters actually brings the idea together. Every game you play in it is different--the map changes, the ‘dungeons’, so to speak, change, and the characters you come across change. Yet this actually comes together perfectly in terms of plot, because the game is all about a single, legendary event of multiple cultures’ past, passed on orally in legends that change with each telling. The randomization element of gameplay that keeps the game different and thus fresh each time is actually accounted for and a strong part of the story!

Beyond that, the way it’s handled is just great. You really feel just like you’re playing through some tribe’s legends, and each time you restart (the game’s only like an hour and a half long, but it encourages multiple playthroughs in having different endings and many more events and characters than you could find in a single, or even half a dozen, playthroughs), you’ll experience more little side plots and figures of the game’s mythos that feel authentically like they’re parts of a long and involved legend. Moon Hunters is an extremely creative game; I am well pleased that I could help back it.

Runners-Up: AeternoBlade; Pier Solar and the Great Architects; Whisper of a Rose
Look, just because Whisper of a Rose can’t make anything worthwhile of all its interesting ideas and starting points, that doesn’t mean that those concepts aren’t still creative. AeternoBlade is an interesting story of time travel, vengeance, redemption, and human spirit that transcends time, and while there’s nothing that stands out too greatly about it, as a whole it comes together as a pretty creative venture. Lastly, while Pier Solar and the Great Architects does seem generic as an RPG for a while, its end game introduces a few very interesting plot points regarding the Pier Solar and the true history of the game’s world that are neat and different.

Best Romance of 2016:
Winner: Aigis and Minato (Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q...and, well, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, essentially)
There’s really only a single place in the game in which romantic stuff comes into play, but as always, the love and devotion that Aigis has for Minato is compelling. This isn’t a powerful and excellent romance in SMTPQ itself, but it’s powerful and excellent inasmuch that the love between Aigis and Minato here is an additional part added to the whole that is their love in SMT Persona 3...a revisiting of something really beautiful.

Runners-Up: Alicia x Welkin (Valkyria Chronicles 1); Camilla x Corrin (Fire Emblem 14); Selena x Subaki (Fire Emblem 14)
Alicia and Welkin are a pretty by-the-numbers JRPG protagonist x main girl couple, but they do have a good chemistry, and you can see and believe in their deepening interest for one another. It works. As for the FE14 couples...I’ll refer you to my previous rant on these characters. Suffice to say, Subaki provides a support for Selena (who is one of the deeper characters of FE13 and 14) to really grow as a person, and Camilla’s love for Corrin, for all its unsettling weirdness, is undeniably, inspiringly, overwhelmingly genuine.

Best Voice Acting of 2016:
Winner: Fallout 4
What is there to say? It’s Fallout. Almost everyone’s vocal work is on point, and the game goes out of its way to go a step further and include a lot of variations on Massachusetts accents in its NPCs, which, y’know, is pretty essential when a huge focus of your game is to examine American culture, and the particular setting of that culture is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Serious props go out to the voice actress for Nora the female protagonist, who really adds a lot of character to her role and perfectly balances the levity of sarcastic responses, the genuine goodness of morally upstanding responses, and the pain, confusion, and exhaustion that Nora carries in her search for her child (and after the search is over, for that matter; some of the lines during her conversation with Father on the roof in Cambridge are hauntingly well-done). The actor for Nate is highly competent, too, don’t get me wrong, and in a lot of other games he’d be a highlight...but if you play Fallout 4 without Courtenay Taylor voicing your protagonist, you’re just doing yourself a disservice. Big props also to Stephen Russell for his role as Nick Valentine, because I never, EVER will get tired of listening to a well-cast hardboiled detective, and he does a damn fine job with the role. But really, the game’s full of great performances. Deacon, Strong, Piper, Shaun, Tinker Tom, Hancock, Codsworth, Travis (especially before he gets his confidence), Curie, Kellogg, even a lot of little NPCs like the baseball vendor and Clem, they’re all great. With a game that has as much nuance to its emotion and ideas being expressed in its dialogue as Fallout 4 possesses, you need an incredible level of vocal talent in your whole cast to make it all work, and Fallout 4 brings that.

...Okay, fine, there is Preston’s “babe” problem. Look, no game is perfect.

Runners-Up: Shin Megami Tensei 4-2; Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q; Valkyria Chronicles 1
VC1 matches its characters to its actors and actresses well, and they do their part well to draw you into the game’s story and cast. The same is true of SMT4-2--everyone’s on point and bring you into the game with personality granted almost as much by their voices as by their actual words.* And lastly, well, the voice acting for both Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and 4 was excellent through and through, so small wonder that SMTPQ, whose cast is 90% characters from those titles, is terrifically voice acted. I do so love hearing Elizabeth’s whimsical musings and Theo-abusing demands.

Funniest of 2016:
Winner: Dragon Fantasy 2
Dragon Fantasy 2 is an enjoyable little tongue-in-cheek homage to 16-bit RPGs that stays amusing throughout. That’s all there is to say, really. It’s not a laugh-a-minute sort of game, but it’s pretty consistently fun.

Runners-Up: Code of Princess; Dragon Fantasy 1; Witch + Hero 2
Witch + Hero 2 continues the same vague but lighthearted humor as its predecessor, and it works fine. Dragon Fantasy 1 is built on the same humor as DF2, it’s just a little less frequent as a natural result of having a less dialogue-heavy story. And lastly, while I did criticize Code of Princess for the fact that it’s just not quite up to par for the tone it’s trying to take, there’s still a good few chuckles to be had with it.

Best Villain of 2016:
Winner: Father (Fallout 4)
Honestly, it’s a tough call who’s the best this year; all the contenders here are competent and have their strengths. In the end, though, it’s Father who is the best. He has depth as a callously misguided person, and his connection to Nora/Nate, and Nora/Nate’s entire purpose for braving the dangers of the Commonwealth, provides great drama to the game’s final conflict.

Runners-Up: Bethina (Pier Solar and the Great Architects); Krishna (Shin Megami Tensei 4-2); Vernia (AeternoBlade)
Vernia’s a good counterpart and juxtaposition to Freyja, and embodies AeternoBlade’s plot’s purpose very well. Bethina is interesting, and in some ways, not even as much a villain as the game’s protagonists are, though I can’t really say any more without spoiling certain things. As for Krishna...well, he’s got a decent villain schtick, but he’s not all that deep, honestly. At the same time, though, he’s got a charismatic villainous bearing, he’s smart and good at plotting, and he sells himself as a smug thinks-he-knows-best evil-doer. And honestly, sometimes that’s all it really takes to fill the role well.

Best Character of 2016:
Winner: Rei (Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q)
I cannot tell you any detail of why Rei is here. Go play the game if you want to know. Sorry. But hey, it’s a good RPG; you should play it anyway.

Runners-Up: Forrest (Fire Emblem 14); Nora/Nate (Fallout 4); Zahua (Pillars of Eternity)
Zahua’s here because I experienced Pillars of Eternity’s DLC this year, and he, a DLC character, has a notable personality and a strong level of characterization. Forrest is a solid character whose wisdom and quietly friendly forbearance is really great, and I’d say he has the most depth of character out of the entirety of FE14’s cast. And it is really, really nice to see a JRPG treat a crossdresser character as something other than a cheap punchline. Lastly, the potential for character in Nora and Nate from Fallout 4 is really excellent, with the way their issues and loss stay with them and affect their decisions, and the way they react to this strange new--and yet in many ways sadly all too familiar--world around them. This is the first time that the Fallout series has had a protagonist who, while still very much in the player’s control, has a distinct origin of personality and a definable mentality which can be explored. And frankly, in spite of some players’ complaints about this, I think that this is a huge benefit to the integrity and power of the game’s story and purpose, and I really hope that future installments of the Fallout series will do the same. Look, player choice is great, open-ended approaches to RPGs can work fine, but the quality, integrity, and strength of the story and narration still comes first. The power and pathos of Fallout 4 greatly benefitted from having a more concrete protagonist than its predecessors possessed, and that makes it a positive.

Best Game of 2016:
Winner: Fallout 4
This probably isn’t a huge surprise. Fallout 4 isn’t the best of its series--Fallout 3 is still better, and maybe New Vegas and 1, as well--and it has its problems (for example, the Synth issue that the game is focused on is interesting, but in the end, a little outside the right sci-fi range for the series). But it’s still a damn fine RPG. It’s got a great cast of memorable and varied characters, a gripping story, compelling emotion, solid and thoughtful themes, and, like all Fallouts, it invites us to look at ourselves and our culture through its involvement of, spotlight on, and analysis of the history, people, trends, and common culture of the United States of America. It’s a fun, engaging, yet dark and telling look at ourselves, a grand and emotionally poignant adventure, and an invitation to appreciate and contemplate where humanity and society is and should be headed. Damn fine work again, Bethesda.

Runners-Up: Shin Megami Tensei 4-2; Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q; Valkyria Chronicles 1
It’s a happy thing when it’s hard for me to pick the best of the year. I played many worthwhile titles this year that I would recommend, and Dex, Moon Hunters, and Pier Solar and the Great Architects are all good contenders for this category. Nonetheless...SMT4-2 is just a worthwhile, good RPG from start to finish, and while some fans have (correctly) noted that it’s in some ways closer to a Persona game than a title from the main numbered SMT games...well, that’s not really a bad thing, when the Persona flavor works and makes for a quality story. SMTPQ may only be a mildly positive game for its first 2/3, but once it does finally kick its story up, it is really, REALLY powerful stuff. Lastly, Valkyria Chronicles’s just a solid, well-made JRPG, intelligent, well-written, emotional, and containing a likable and interesting cast.

List Changes:
Greatest RPGs: Mass Effect 3 (with MEHEM) has been added to the Honorable Mention; Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon has been removed. Sorry, you piece of atmospheric, after-apocalypse artistry.
Most Annoying Characters: Still Teddie, just with the addition of SMT Persona Q to the list of games he’s from. New game, same fucking idiot.
Greatest Romances: Still Aigis and Minato, just with the addition of SMT Persona Q to the list of games they’re from. It’s tiny and optional, but still heartwarming and lovely.
Greatest Swords: The Aeterno Blade has been added (to the number 1 spot, in fact); the Elsydeon has been removed. Sorry, you memory-marked metallic murderer of the millennial monster.

And that’s it for 2016. Guys, gals, everything over to the side of that, thank you so very much for reading. I’ve had a lot of fun these past 10 years writing these rants, and I hope you’ve had some fun reading them. I’m looking forward to 2017, in which I have a great many more RPGs to experience (and 1 of them looks to be Tides of Numenara, which you know I’m just absolutely giddy about!), and I hope it’ll be a good year for all of us. Thanks for your time, your comments, your guest rants, and your support. Happy holidays to you all, and I’ll see you in the new year with more pointless babbling. Cheers!

* It IS a bit of a shame that Laura Bailey didn’t return to her role as Nozomi. I have absolutely adored Bailey’s performances ever since the ill-fated dub of Kodocha. But Karen Strassman, also known for her role as Aigis in the SMT Persona series, does a high quality job, one which I have no complaints whatsoever about.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Fire Emblem 14's Children

Howdy, folks. Before we get started, I'd like to just point out, in case you have somehow missed it, the button on the right there. That fun little dancing moogle button which my sister was kind enough to make for me is a link to my new Patreon page. Late to the party as always, I now have an account at Patreon through which you can, if you so choose, support my terrible ranting addiction! But I do want to make something clear: whether I get a single pledge or a thousand (odds are closer to the former than the latter, methinks), it will not have any impact on the frequency or quality of this rant blog. I didn't set up this Patreon account so I could hold something over your heads as a way to coerce you into giving me money. I've simply decided that if there actually is anyone out there who for some reason likes my rants so much that they think I deserve to be compensated for my time and effort, I'm going to give them the chance to put their money where my mouth is.

That sounded more clever in my head.

Anyway, bottom line: I would love it if you like my rants enough that you feel that they're worth a buck or 2 a month. But I don't hold any kind of expectation that you should do so, and I'm not going to push it any more than having the button and mentioning it this one time. Either way, the rants continue as they would have. And on that note...let today's ranting commence.

The way children are handled in Fire Emblem Fates is dumb.

Really dumb.

Massively dumb.

I don’t even know why I’m making a rant on this. Because we all know that it’s dumb. And we all know why. And many, many people have pointed out the ways in which this situation is dumb. But what the hell, you’re here and I’m short on rant ideas. Let’s do this.

Alright, so quick recap for anyone who doesn’t know, which is probably no one because anyone who doesn’t know this wouldn’t be reading a rant about this game anyway, but it just wouldn’t be an RPGenius rant if at least half of it weren’t superfluous garbage. In Fire Emblem 14, you can pair off a massively large number of characters with each other. There’s over 300 possible romances in this game, and the majority take place between the first generation characters (those that become available to join your party naturally through the story’s course). Some are good, a few are really good, some are bad, some are just fucking terrible, and at least half of them are spontaneous and don’t really make much sense. Well, what do you expect? The writers had to come up with over 300 love confession scenes, for Medusa’s sake. Most RPGs can’t even manage a single decent romance. On the whole, I think the writers did a lot better than one could ever reasonably expect.

Well, except with Jakob. Fuck Jakob.

Anyway. So you hook these characters up, they get married (these folks just jump right into matrimony in this game, lemme tell you; marriage proposals are like handshakes in Fire Emblem 14), and they have a kid (or 2, if the couple involves Azura or female Corrin). At this point, the game informs you that since war times aren’t good times for child-raising, the characters decided to send their little bundle of joy to a place in the Deeprealms, a bunch of little mini-dimensions “strewn across the astral plane.” Also, time passes much faster in the Deeprealms, so the children grow up super fast by the standards of the regular Fire Emblem 14 dimension. According to the Fire Emblem Wiki, “a matter of weeks” in the regular dimension is enough for the children to mature into young adults. At this point, you’re given a side-mission, in which, through varying circumstances, it’s decided that Junior is gonna join your team, since he/she is by this point more or less as much a capable adult as his/her parents. Hell, in some cases, like Rhajat and probably whoever ends up being Elise’s kid, the child is actually older than at least 1 of his/her parents.

If you didn’t stare at the screen and say, “What?” at least once during that last paragraph, there may be something wrong with you.

Alright, so, now that we’re all caught up on how this system works...what the hell? What nonsensical crap IS this?

Look, I get why Nintendo wanted there to be children characters in the game. The company’s following the high that was Fire Emblem 13’s success, and one of the things that people liked about that game was that there were characters in it that were the sons and daughters of the plot-natural party members you hooked up. With FE13 being the first, to my knowledge, Fire Emblem that really hit on a widespread audience outside of Japan, not to mention being very popular in Japan itself, they didn’t want to risk losing this audience they’d been courting for years with previously mild success at best. Understandable.

But understandable does not necessarily mean acceptable.

In Fire Emblem 13, the idea of having child characters worked, because the plot was set up to sustain it. FE13 is a story about a hero going back in time to save her world by helping her parents and their allies to stop an evil that, in her timeline, they had fallen to. Children traveling back in time to help their parents save their world is already a natural part of the plot in Fire Emblem 13. The story automatically accommodates the idea of the child of the couple who just got together showing up as an adult ready to join the party and do their part.

This idea also worked in the game it originated from, Fire Emblem 4, because, again, FE4 was set up to accommodate it. FE4’s story was multi-generational; the second half of the game takes place years and years after the first, and you take control of the children of the first half’s heroes (or a group of unrelated freedom-fighters, if you didn’t pair off the characters in the first half). Again, you’ve got a case where the story of the game is specifically designed that children characters are a legitimate part of it.

Fire Emblem 14 just ain’t set up that way. FE14’s plot happens in a straight shoot, start to finish in a normal RPG’s time frame, and there’s no time-traveling involved. There’s just nothing you can reasonably do to include children of the game’s main cast who are born during the course of the game’s events. So if you’re gonna jam these kids in there, you’ve gotta stretch.

Oh, man, do you have to stretch.

So let’s roll through this 1 thing at a time. First of all, it’s just not a good thing overall, from a general viewpoint of story structure. Multiple dimensions linked together across an astral plane is not the kind of story element you just throw in on a damn whim! Yeah, I know that the multi-dimensional thing already exists in Fire Emblem 14 peripherally (Selena, Odin, and Laslow are “secretly” (it’s not that well-kept a secret) characters from Fire Emblem 13, called from their own world to save this one), but there’s a BIG difference between having 3 characters secretly knowing there are other worlds and other civilizations of people out there, and establishing as a matter of basic knowledge for the entire cast that there are numerous other worlds beyond their own. Everyone just takes this in stride? 1 day, everyone’s concerned about their little feudal Euro- or Japanese-styled kingdoms as the center of their existence, and the next, they know that other worlds exist and that there’s life and other civilizations in them, and no one bats an eye? Sees it as a handy place to stash their kids and nothing else?

No, no, of course, it makes perfect sense. Nintendo’s figured it out. The reason we advance our scientific knowledge in the hopes of reaching new worlds? The reason we conjure every imaginable scenario about our first exposure to alien life? The reason humanity looks up at the night sky, and wonders? We’re all just searching for the perfect daycare.

To get into the more tangible details of why this is ridiculous...let’s look at the time frame of this situation. You may want to skip this paragraph for the next if you just want to get to the answer without my rambling. We start out with 2 characters getting to know each other and having conversations with one another. There are ways to increase characters’ affinity a little outside of battle, but for the most part, characters become closer as they do stuff together in battle. So from the beginning of these 2 noticing the other exists, until the moment they get married, you’re looking at...let’s be completely insane and say that they have their support conversations and fall in love over the course of a few days. The stars have aligned to make it so that they each go up an affinity rank after each battle, so they only need to be in 4 battles, and miraculously, all 4 of these battles take place over the course of like 3 days, even though most battles in the game take place in locations scattered around the game’s world that would require a lot of travel time to get to. These 2 hook up after knowing each other for a few days, because they’re idiots, and decide to get married. Let’s now suppose that this is the barest bones wedding possible, even though that’s thoroughly insane to assume of a great number of individuals in the cast (Laslow, Charlotte, any of the royal siblings, Odin, Selena, the list goes on). You’re looking at, I dunno, a couple days for the FE14 version of a town hall wedding to go through when they’re already busy with the events of the plot going on. The marriage happens, the honeymoon happens, and there’s now a bun in the oven. Human pregnancy lasts about 9 months. No, I’m not going to assume that every child character in this game was a preemie; I’m already being more than lenient. So, 9 months later, the baby pops out. Let’s say that we give the birthing process and the process of the kid and mother getting their wind back just a single day. Hey, these are RPG characters, they’re built extremely tough. Now let’s say that it takes another day to move the kid to the Deeprealms, under the assumption that the parents have already set up the living accommodations for their progeny ahead of time. Finally, let’s assume that it takes no more than 4 weeks in the regular world for an entire childhood’s worth of years to pass in the Deeprealms.

So, essentially, if we assume an absolutely ludicrous breakneck pace from the beginning of the parents’ conversations to the point where the baby’s all grown up and ready to kick ass, we’re talking about a time frame of over 10 months. How long is Fire Emblem 14 even supposed to be? What time frame does this game take place within? Because the story events don’t give any sort of impression of 10 months’ worth of time passing between Chapter 6 (which is the earliest you can start working on hooking characters up) and the game’s conclusion. Not to mention that many, many of the characters in this game join you much later than Chapter 6, so you’re not even working with the full time frame of the game’s plot, which, again, I doubt spans 10 months to start with! And let’s not forget, that 10 months I’m giving is honestly a fallacy anyway. Even at the speedy pace at which people fall in love and get hitched in FE14, it’d be much more reasonable to say that the process takes at least a full year. That just seems way, way longer than the game’s story actually takes.

And as a sharp reader by the name of Dominique Marino points out, that's still not the end of the scheduling problem with this concept. To quote Dominique, "...even with the assumptions you made, a year is still way off. That, or literally every marriage happened at the same time, and the kids were all conceived within a month or so of each other. Basically, we´d not only have to assume that some of those parents are idiots who´d marry instantly and get pregnant within days, we´d have to believe that the whole of the army was in mating season and was busy fathering children like rabbits. Which also means that all the women were unable to fight for about 9 months, and yet we could use all of them in battle at any time. Heck, even if we assume that the pregnant dames sit out the battles until they give birth, if all of them are pregnant at once, that would severely weaken the army´s forces, making you question the wisdom of the army´s leaders even further." So yeah, either we have to assume an absolutely preposterous notion of half the force all needing to take maternal leave at the exact same time, or we have to believe that FE14's events somehow stretch themselves out over...I dunno, at least 2 years, considering all the child characters possible. Either way, this situation gets dumber and more unlikely by the second. Thanks for the insight, DM!

The difference between time flow in the dimensions is a stumbling block, too. Most of the time, yes, the dialogue involving child characters is mindful of the circumstances regarding the kid’s upbringing--parent could only visit, not stay around, the period of the kid’s childhood took only a matter of weeks in the main world, etc. But there are times in the support conversations between parent and child that just don’t really mesh with this situation. Like I say, most of the time, the child character remembers that his/her parents were usually not around and only speaks of their presence in the sense of memories, but there are also a few conversations where it seems like the writers forgot this, and the impression you get from the dialogue is that the parent had a more permanent part of the kid’s childhood.

Much weirder, though, is the parent characters’ side of this, at times. There are some conversations between parent and child in which the parent is extremely nostalgic when remembering moments of their kid’s childhood, and how the child used to be when he/she was younger. But for the parent, these memories are only weeks old! I mean, I guess I can understand having a little regretful nostalgia about how fast your kid grew up, particularly when we’re talking about a growing up period of like 2 months at the most, but when they talk this way, it sounds just like it would if it had been a normal span of years between the moment they’re remembering and the present. It’s never like, “I remember back when you were little like it was just yesterday...actually, it really was just yesterday, I guess. Man, I feel like we’ve really missed out on something important from this whole Deeprealms situation!” It’s just like, “Oh, remember when you were little and did cute things as a kid? I do. Memories, memories...” as though these things didn’t just happen last week for the parent.

Another oddity of conversation occurs with with some of the princes’ kids. A significant amount of Shiro and Siegbert’s character development revolves around their position as heirs to their fathers’ thrones, and both they and Forrest and Kiragi are heirs to their fathers’ powerful magic weapons, a point which is mentioned more than once. This would make sense under normal circumstances, but again, the whole thing with the sped-up time of the Deeprealms makes it really weird. I mean, thanks to the Deeprealms, Shiro, Siegbert, Forrest, and Kiragi are all close to their fathers’ age, right? I wouldn’t say that any of the sons are a full 10 years younger than their fathers once they’ve left the Deeprealms and joined the FE14 party. So the question of succession of thrones and heirlooms is a bit off here.

I mean, if, say, Ryoma gets assassinated when he’s 35, no problem, his throne and weapon pass to Shiro who’s probably like 30 at that point and Shiro gets to be the lightning katana king of Hoshido for the rest of his life. So that’s fine. But what happens if all the first generation princes live full, healthy lives? By the time any of them die of old age, their children are going to be elderly, as well! If Xander lives until he’s 70 before he dies, that means Siegbert only finally inherits his father’s title and sword in his early to mid 60s! Siegbert’s been preparing all his life to rule and live up to his father’s legacy, but there’s a very good chance that the first chance he’ll ever get to claim his birthright and fulfill his reason for existence, he’ll be only a few years away from his own natural demise! Hell, with a situation like this, it wouldn’t be strange for some of the fathers to outlive their sons--I sure as hell wouldn’t bet on Shiro’s lifestyle habits being as good as Ryoma’s, so barring an outside force killing Ryoma off, Shiro’s probably gonna kick the bucket before his old man. So yeah, just another way that this Deeprealms nonsense throws off character development and interrelationships as you think about it.

The whole reason given for this is silly, too. I mean, yeah, I can understand the characters of the game wanting to send their children somewhere safe to avoid the dangers of war. That’s reasonable. But they don’t need the Deeprealms for that! The party of FE14 already HAS an extra-dimensional safe haven where the fighting couldn’t reach their child: the castle headquarters for the army! Yeah, the base of operations for Corrin’s force is situated in a little pocket of its own on the astral plane, as far as I remember; it’s not actually a part of the world that FE14 takes place on. There’s no need to send the kids elsewhere. The castle already has all the defensive benefits of being in another dimension that the Deeprealms have. On top of that, it’s, y’know...a CASTLE. Filled with the members of Corrin’s army, and a handy baby dragon guardian, along with, potentially, some other defenses you can set up. The kids would actually be safer at the castle HQ than in the Deeprealms! Yes, the castle does get attacked by some of the Faceless 3 times during the game’s course, but it’s filled with defenders who are prepared to engage these enemies. Half of the side chapters that recruit the child characters to your party involve them being attacked by dangerous enemies within their Deeprealms, anyway. Why not keep the kids somewhere with better fortifications and more defenders, then?

How long were the children characters supposed to stay in the Deeprealms, anyway? I mean, what would Corrin’s merry band of deadbeat parents have done if the game’s events really had taken a long, long time to conclude? If FE14’s conflict had gone on for a couple years, was the plan to just keep the children in the Deeprealms, letting them live out their lives with nothing but intermittent visits from parents who would by then be far younger than the children? Would some of them have lived and died never knowing the world they were born of, the lives they were meant to lead, the family and friends they could have had? Some of the parents have to be convinced during the child recruitment sidequests to let their kids join Corrin’s army even when those kids are now able-bodied warriors, so there’s a real possibility that at least some of the parents really were intending to keep their kids in the Deeprealms indefinitely if the regular world remained unsafe. The more you think about it, the more messed up it seems.

Speaking of messed up, Azura and Female Corrin’s actions are kinda fucked up with this whole situation. With most couples, there’s a single child resulting from the union, but in any relationship involving Azura or Female Corrin, there are 2 children: the child of the father character, and then Shigure (Azura’s son) or Kana (Female Corrin’s son). These kids are sent into the Deeprealms, same as all the others, but they’re actually separated from their sibling! Shigure will be sent to a different dimension than his brother/sister, and the same is true of Kana. What the hell? These kids aren’t already going to be lonely and miss their family enough as it is, apparently, so Azura and Corrin decide that they’re also going to be isolated from their sibling! The 1 person in the universe who could share in the child’s pain at being only able to see his/her parents during intermittent interdimensional visits, and they have to separated from him, too! Is the marginal assurance of extra safety if you split your kids up and put them in different hiding places REALLY worth forcing siblings apart, particularly in these circumstances!? How much safer from worldly dangers do Azura and Corrin need their kids to be than a single separate dimension?*

It’s really deplorable on Corrin’s end, too. I mean, think about how important the Nohr siblings were to Corrin as she grew up, how much they meant to her and how much happiness they gave her as she was kept otherwise isolated in a castle all her life. Corrin has enjoyed and appreciates the happiness of the bond between siblings more than most. She knows how vitally important it is for a lonely child to have siblings for love and support. And yet, she separates Kana from his brother/sister! He’s kept separated from his family, tended to by servants in an isolated location for his entire childhood...Corrin is putting Kana in the exact same position that she was in all her life, a position that she hated, that was hurtful, and she’s denying her son the only comfort that made the same situation bearable for her!

Yeah, there are a myriad of reasons why this issue of children and Deeprealms in Fire Emblem 14 just doesn’t work. It’s dumb, it opens small plot holes, it gets kinda disturbing at times, a lot of it just doesn’t make sense, and it involves some very uncharacteristically poor decisions on the part of Azura and Corrin as parents. People are right: this is a flaw in the game.


...Sigh. But, I would be remiss if I didn’t say, in spite of everything wrong with the system, that I can’t find it in me to hate this aspect of Fire Emblem 14 too much.

Look. It’s stupid, it’s unnecessary, it makes no sense, it puts a lot of characters in a bad light. There’s a seemingly limitless number of problems with how children characters were handled in the game. But...there is a very sizable redeeming factor, too. One that doesn’t seem to get raised very often when people discuss and diss this aspect of the game.

The children themselves.

A lot of this game’s most likable characters are the ones in the second generation. Selkie and Mitama are a goddamn hoot; I cannot get enough of Selkie’s antics, and Mitama has a special place in my heart for being as lazy as I want to be. I find the antics of Velouria and Ophelia to be more enjoyable than their fathers’ shenanigans. Dwyer, Rhajat, Sophie, and Soleil are all fun, likable characters, and I can’t help but find Nina’s fangirlish ways amusing. And Forrest...well, Forrest is pretty much just the best character in the game. Everything he does and says is great, and damn if it’s not a breath of fresh air to see a crossdressing character in an RPG treated as something more than a cheap punchline.

I’m not saying all the children characters are good, mind you. Shiro is a waste of space, Midori and Siegbert are pretty blah, and Kiragi mostly just annoys me. But if you weigh the first generation characters against the second generation, I think, pound for pound, you get a cast with more appealing and vibrant personalities from the kids. The first generation still has the advantage of character depth (for the most part, at least, although there’s precious few who can compete with Forrest on that front), but if you cut the children out of the game, you’d be losing a lot. You’d be losing fun, engaging characters, you’d be losing a really great character in Forrest, and you’d be losing some really strong support conversations between some of the parents and their children, including 1 of the game’s best moments--Selena’s interactions with her daughter (if she married Subaki) Caeldori, which are just absolutely lovely for Selena’s character.

Also Dwyer shows his dad Jakob up at being a butler, and to me, getting to see Jakob be the one feeling belittled for once is worth just about fucking anything.

Now, you can make the argument that a lot of these people didn’t need to be children characters. It wouldn’t have been difficult at all for Rhajat or Ignatius, for example, to have just been outright characters in the game. This is a fair point. But there’s still a lot of character development for several of the kids that really requires them to be children of the game’s primary cast, such as with Forrest, Velouria, and Shigure. They really do have to be second generation characters; their connections with their parents are simply too big a part of their character depth.

Are these children characters good enough that they make up for the deficit to the game caused by the means through which they exist within it?’s hard to say. There are, as I’ve gone over, a LOT of problems with the way second generation characters are forced into Fire Emblem 14. At the same time, I don’t think the game would have been as enjoyable without Selkie running amok, nor as intelligent without Forrest’s wisdom and quiet forbearance, nor as emotionally strong without Caeldori present to help Selena come to terms with parts of herself and reach a better place. In the end, for me, the positives that the children characters bring to the table are enough that I overlook the utterly ridiculous, poorly written method through which they’re brought into the game.

But for Pyrrhon’s sake, Nintendo, next time, please try a little goddamn harder to insert characters into your game in a way that makes some sense. Or recognize when the plot just doesn’t allow for it. Come fucking ON, guys.

* I focus on Corrin and Azura, but it’s worth noting that, technically, every first generation male of the cast is guilty of this exact same crime (with the exception of Corrin-only male partners like Izana, since they have no child beyond Kana). I mean, Corrin and Azura aren’t the only parent of their multiple children. Their husbands, whoever they wind up being, presumably agreed to this plan of sibling separation.

Monday, November 28, 2016

General RPGs' Preferable Non-Realism List 1

Realism in our video games is a good thing, in theory. After all, the more realistic the gaming experience, the better your chance, as an audience, of being pulled into the atmosphere of the title, and audience immersion’s vital to any form of storytelling. Players laud it, developers seek it, and game publishers tout it. “Realism” is a buzzword that every AAA developer in the business seems eager, even desperate, to be able to attach to their product.

There is such a thing as going too far, though.

For all that we value realism in our games, there are certain conventions to them that defy real-world logic, yet are nonetheless far better than a more authentic alternative. When we play a First Person Shooter, we usually don’t want things so real that a single bullet puts our character down for the count, as it would in real life in most situations. When we play a platformer, we usually don’t want things so real that our character can only jump like 2 feet up, making actually platforming in our platformer pretty much impossible. And, of course, there are plenty of RPG conventions in which it is far better to suspend disbelief than shoot for absolute reality, too. And, because not everyone can achieve great things with their life, I have compiled some of these situations below. Enjoy.

Short, All-Healing Inn Rests: Let’s start off with an easy one. This is a situation that people have been poking fun at for decades now. You know the deal: you drag your bruised, battered, bloody, and bereft of life party members into a town, head to an inordinately inexpensive hotel, and after 3 seconds of a dark screen and a reassuring little sleep jingle, everyone is right as rain. From the ritziest resort hotels to a single pile of straw inside an actual mud hut, there is no ill, no injury in the universe that cannot be cured completely by spending 1/30th of a minute in an RPG bed. It’s a funny quirk of the genre we all know of, so easily lampooned that there are even some RPGs that lampshade this--Undertale, for example, allows you to use the inn at the town of Snowdin for free, because the innkeeper doesn’t feel it’s right to take your money when you’re only using the bed for a few seconds at a time.

The thing is, although almost all of us are only gently ribbing at RPGs when we bring up this silliness, I have actually seen a few people online honestly criticize the lack of reality with this trope. So I’ll just say flat-out here: you do not want a more realistic sleeping-healing arrangement in the genre. You do not want to have your less than 5 second wait time be extended to more appropriately match a full night’s sleep. Hell, it bugs me in Fallout 4 when I need to have my character sit down and wait for 8 hours so I can sell some stuff to those blasted diurnal merchants, because the waiting process takes a whole 10 seconds or so. That’s just 10 measly seconds, and yet the fact that it’s over twice as long as a standard JRPG’s 8-12 hour night-to-day period makes me impatient! Trust me, strange internet people out there who have actually made sincere complaints about this, you do not want a more realistic wait time for your party’s shut-eye breaks.

And you definitely do not want to wait a more realistic time in terms of the healing aspect of this situation. The period of recovery from having a random encounter monster unleash a blazing inferno on you and then tearing your chest open with its claws is not one which you want to wait out in real time.

Decaying Weapons: Goddamn do I hate it when RPGs force you to constantly perform weapon maintenance. YES, developers, I know that in real life, you could not slash hundreds of rats, goblins, slimes, dragons, skeletons, zombies, and so on without, at some point, taking a moment to clean, polish, sharpen, and hammer your weapon back into working order. That doesn’t mean I want a weapon health bar hanging over my head all the damn time! Micromanaging the health of not only my characters, but my tools as well, is not fun! Especially in an RPG, a genre which has you encounter and kill enemies in the literal thousands, making any weapon repair system in place a constant annoyance.

And no, Fallout 3 and New Vegas, I do not give you both a pass on this. Yes, the concept of weapons breaking down and needing to be repaired is, indeed, very appropriate for the setting and themes of the Fallout franchise. But you know what? Just this once, the needs for smooth, enjoyable gameplay trump the higher aspects of the game, because the constant frustration of knowing that every bullet you fire makes your gun less effective makes the setting and theme less enjoyable and engaging even as it better expresses it.

Weapon- and Armor-Breaking Abilities: While we’re on the subject of frustration with mortal equipment, the occasional game you come across that allows combatants to permanently break their opponent’s weapon and armor will always, sooner or later, invoke great cursing from me. Hey, I admit, it is a lot of fun in Final Fantasy Tactics to use Meliadoul or Orlandu to render your enemies harmless by destroying their weapons. But you know what far, far outweighs that fun? When an enemy does it back to you, and ends up destroying a piece of equipment that was unique and you’ll never be able to get another. Yeah, it’s realistic that fierce combat can lead to the destruction of one’s weapons and protective clothing, but the potential for frustration with this is just too high to make it worth incorporating.

I still have nightmares about enemies breaking my equipment in Lunar: Dragon Song.

Money from Monsters: Another quirk of RPGs that has been long lampooned is that random monsters are apparently carrying some seriously stacked wallets around, just waiting for you to kill them and steal their mysteriously earned cash. This is so unrealistic in so many ways. Non-sapient creatures don’t carry money, most of these monsters don’t have a place to be carrying it to begin with, sometimes the creatures carrying the money are so small that it doesn’t even seem like they could be lugging around this much change when their world’s currency is coin- or gold-based, there is no possible way that any kind of economy could be sustained when money just grows on (monster) trees, and so on.

The thing is, as silly as this is, it’s the easiest, most direct, and least annoying way to handle money-gathering in most RPGs. An RPG with a robust and easy to use barter system, like any given Fallout title, manages well enough without monster-money, but most games that try to avoid this trope and replace it with something more realistic don’t gain much from doing so. Sometimes you’ll have a system in which you’re not taking money from enemies you defeat, but rather parts of their body, like tusks and furs and such, and then selling those parts at a merchant as your primary source of income. And that works fine, I guess, but really, all that’s happening is that you’re still just going to a shop after beating enemies to access and spend your money, except with a few extra windows and button presses each time as you sell items instead of just having the money automatically. Oh, and I guess that if you have something you need to spend money on before you can reach a merchant to sell the items, then you’re shit out of luck. Fun.

Travel Speed: Is it realistic that you can take an airship, just a big hot air balloon with some propellers, across the globe and back again within the span of 60 seconds in half the Final Fantasy titles out there, along with countless other games? Not unless the average RPG planet could fit inside my tiny hometown.*

But let me tell you something. The day you play Suikoden 4 and spend over 40 minutes sailing from 1 end of the map to the other, that is the day that you stop being at all troubled by the idea of unrealistic travel speeds in your RPGs, forever.

Running Endurance: Most RPG characters are utterly tireless running machines, it seems, capable of traversing every enterable location in the entire world at a brisk jog without a moment’s rest (so long as you hold down the Run button, that is). Myself, I get winded after just about a minute of running. Actually, it’s more like I get winded after just about a minute of thinking about running. Even for those of us who are actually in shape, though, it’s not realistic to think that we could run from 1 end of an ancient abandoned city to the other without a single break in pace, save for the occasional random battle to the death.

But I’d much rather believe that Dean Karnazes is the shared ancestor of every RPG protagonist than deal with what a lot of games do to make for a more realistic simulation of running: the dreaded, annoying as fuck Fatigue Meter, a visible (or worse, sometimes unseen) limit to how long your character can run before having to go back to walking for a moment to recharge. True, not every RPG uses this concept poorly--The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword incorporates a Fatigue Meter for Link very well into its gameplay--but as a general rule, well, I want to be able to get from Point A to Point B on a dungeon map as fast as I’m allowed to. Yeah, sorry game artists, but your dungeon backgrounds will never be so majestic and beautiful that I want to slow down and take them in rather than play the damn game. And true, not every game with a running limit is unendurable to walk through--you really only end up wanting/needing to run in Fallout 4 every now and then, for example--but by and large, imposing such limits results in an unpleasant gameplay scenario where you’re just dashing as much you can through the screen, and getting annoyed every time your endurance runs out and you have to watch the character crawl forward at his/her pathetic walking pace.

Fewer Random Enemies Remaining = Lower Encounter Rate: I’ve only encountered this problem once before, in the game Lords of Xulima, but I really hope that’ll be the only time. Sometimes you have a game in which the enemies you can randomly encounter are limited, and thus there is a finite amount of experience you can get from the game during your playthrough, making that experience much more precious. Now, realistically-speaking, the fewer enemies remain in an area, the less frequently you should encounter them, since there are fewer invisibly lounging about for you to run into (and, frankly, you’d think they’d probably start actively hiding from you after a certain point). Yes, realistically, your rate of random encounters should lower as the number of enemies left decreases. But when Lords of Xulima tried this out, all that happened was that I got bored and frustrated from running around in circles for 5 minutes straight without encountering a single enemy. LoX is the kind of RPG where every experience point you can get matters, so to make the process of gathering that XP far longer for no reason save an unnecessary bit of realism that no one asked for was a really dumb and/or mean-spirited design choice. I’ll take the convenience of steadily encountering limited enemies over the tiresome realism of long gaps between encounters indicating the recent scarcity of monsters.

Swimming with Armor On: For a bunch of guys and gals weighed down by iron plate mail and steel weaponry, not to mention hundreds of consumable items in their packs, RPG characters sure don’t exhibit much trouble with buoyancy. Hell, they usually need to go out of their way to try to sink--despite the fact that he’s carrying a sizable metal shield and multiple steel swords, not to mention a host of other weighty doohickeys like a hookshot and a hammer outright named Megaton, Link has to actively equip the Iron Boots in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time to sink to the bottom of a body of water, for example.**

Nonetheless, I’d rather suspend my disbelief about suits of armor that double as life jackets than risk a return to the other extreme, so popular in the early days of gaming--the old Water = Death days from 80s platformers and RPGs like Startropics and The Magic of Scheherazade. Having to see any random puddle as a life-threatening obstacle is not a gaming cliche I wish to return to.

Underwater Breathing Limits: Is it really all that realistic that the party of Final Fantasy 5 can hold their breath in the Sunken Tower for a full 7 minutes even though they can potentially be spending a lot of that time performing the physical activities associated with combat? FF5 would be a much more interesting game if Guybrush Threepwood was its protagonist, but sadly, we’re stuck with Butz and his prosaic posse, so the 7 minutes of holding their breaths while performing rigorous activity is a little less than realistic. Nor is it realistic that Cloud and company have a whole 20 minutes as they somehow battle on the ocean floor to kill Emerald Weapon.

However, I owned the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game for the NES. So I will never, ever, EVER criticize any game that wants to forego realistic breath-holding times in favor of just letting its heroes inexplicably take as long as they need to in underwater temples, caves, and whatnot.

Limitations to Inventory and/or Carry Weight: 99 bottles of Potion jammed into the same backpack, 99 bottles of take one out, drink it down, 98 bottles of Potion jammed into the same backpack...along with assorted other restorative agents, a few bombs, dozens of magical rings and baubles, and a few entire sets of armor. Yeah, maybe not entirely realistic. But I prefer accepting that all protagonists order their bags from the same catalogue that Mary Poppins does, to those infuriating moments when you have to throw away a rare or unique item to make room for another because your inventory’s full, or the tedium of having to slowly crawl back to your home base in a Fallout game because you’ve found more valuable salvage than your carrying capacity wants to deal with.

The Fallout World’s Decay: I love the setting of Fallout, a sentiment which I have expressed here before more than once. But let’s face it: as great as it is for depicting its post-apocalyptic world, there is no way that the ruins you find in parts of the D.C. area, near and in Las Vegas, and throughout the Boston region should be in as good condition as they are in Fallout 3, New Vegas, and 4. We are talking about 200 damn years of time! The places that haven’t been significantly inhabited or looted in these games over that period of 200 years should not just be rusty, broken, and falling apart; they should be pretty much unrecognizable rubble!

Still, the beauty of Fallout is how much it tells us about ourselves and our culture as you find and explore the remains of our civilization. So many of the great moments of Fallout come in the form of the notes, holotapes, and computer entries of the people from before the time of the Great War. Yeah, the holotapes of the woman in Fallout 4 who sacrificed herself for science in an attempt to find a new radiation-removing drug shouldn’t still be functional after sitting for 200 years in the warzone of Boston (nor, for that matter, should the house they’re located in even still be standing), and the computer in Fallout 3 which you can read the entries of a doctor trying, in the days following the bombs dropping, to keep a group of people from dying to radiation poisoning should not still be in working order when it’s just sitting out there, exposed to the elements and the curiosity of raiders, super mutants, and heaven knows what else...but without these connections to the people of the previous age, without these structures standing and waiting to be explored and understood, Fallout would not be nearly as good.

Bathroom Breaks: Credit to my sister for this one. As with movies, shows, comics, books, and everything else, video game characters are granted the blessing of only having to go take a dump when it is narratively convenient. Which, for most RPG characters, means that they'll go the entirety of an 80-hour game without even so much as a single uncomfortable, yearning glance at the bushes. And that's good! Because when the average RPG adventure involves trekking cross-continent over the course of days, weeks, and months, the last thing you want to have to do is start stopping every half hour or so to manage potty breaks. Take a road trip with a 5-year-old if you really must have that experience.

And I suppose that’s all for today. What’s the point of this rant? I dunno. Probably just that I like to talk about stuff. But I guess if I wanted you to take anything from this, it’s that realism in storytelling, video games included, needs to be tempered by what is legitimately best for the narrative and the purpose. We may rib, mock, and even criticize some of the odd quirks of RPGs, but we should keep in mind that there are certain conventions to the genre that, strange and silly though they may be, are better to accept and roll with than have replaced by a more realistic alternative.

* Well, I guess Democratus from Anachronox could...but I’m pretty sure that’s the only one.

** What makes even less sense of this situation is the fact that Link is also technically carrying those metal boots with him at all times after he finds them, yet they only actually drag him down when he’s specifically wearing them. What, do they suddenly stop weighing anything once he takes them off?

Friday, November 18, 2016

Guest Rant: Tactics Ogre and the "Power of Choice", by GrandLethal16

Guess what, folks? Today you get a break from hearing me carry on with my self-important blathering, and instead hear the opinions of someone a little fresher to the Thinking Inside the Box ranting scene! Today's rant comes to you courtesy of Mr. GrandLethal16, who has his own Tumblr dedicated to RPGs which you might want to check out. It's much more bright, cheery, and interesting than this dump, to be sure. You can also check him out at his Youtube channel, which he uses for Let's Plays and other RPG-related stuff. Thanks for the rant, sir!

Disclaimer: I don't own GrandLethal16's words below, and they don't necessarily reflect my own perceptions and opinions. Although they might, some day, when I play this game. Only time will tell.

Tactics Ogre and the “Power of Choice”

November 17, 2016

A month ago, I highlighted Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions and how it focused on two friends and how their paths diverged greatly as they tried to “right” the world. This week, it’s all about Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together and while it shares many similarities with FFT (some of the same team worked on both), the contributions it brings to the SRPG subgenre are distinctly different!

The story of Tactics Ogre: LUCT centers around three youths: Denam Pavel, his sister Catiua, and his best friend Vyce. The three of them grow up in poverty and experience cruelty that often befalls the poor. These experiences mold them into the idealistic, passionate young people we see at the beginning of the game, determined to level the scales towards justice!

Here’s some backstory for them: The game takes place on the continent of Valeria, where the Dynast-King Dorgalua, had died without any confirmed heirs (Sound similar to FFT?). There is a vying for power in the vacuum and when the dust settles, the Wallisters (Denam and Co.’s nation) are at the bottom of the social food chain beneath the Bakram (nobility) and the Galgastani (the ethnic majority with a prejudice against Wallisters). A foreign ally of the Bakram occupying Valeria attacks and kills Denam and Co’s parents and the Wallister leader, Juda Ronwey, is captured and awaiting execution at the hands of the Galgastani.

As the game begins, Denam and Co. gather allies, rescue their leader, and begin their campaign to restore the Wallisters to freedom. After a string of successful missions, they are dispatched to a mining town where many of their fellow countrymen have been held as slaves for years. They’re ordered to kill all of the remaining slaves, their brethren, and pin blame on the Galgastani to rally the rest of the Wallister together to end the conflict once and for all. This is where the game gives you your first big decision. Will you sacrifice a small group of your own countrymen as a catalyst to mobilize the whole nation and end the war in days, or risk a long, drawn-out war with little hope of victory?

Tactics Ogre challenges you to make the tough choices in pursuit of the greatest “good” attainable. You will weigh the needs of the many against the well-being of the few. You will have to make sacrifices where the collateral will be the lives of unseen masses and even former comrades you’ve met during your journey. There are a number of these decisions you must make throughout the game and they will test you! If you fortify one castle to fend off an invading force, the nearby defenseless villages will suffer unprotected. And depending on the decisions you make, people you see as your closest friends may betray you.

I appreciate this story structure because it expands upon traditional SRPG choice constructs. Typically, the most choice a protagonist will have will be between attacking the north or south gate of an enemy castle (FFT), or defeating the boss versus routing the enemy (Fire Emblem). Tactics Ogre made the player define the means they’re willing to use to better the realm overall and living with results. At first glance, some of these choices are not black and white but rather shades of grey, and all are zero-sum situations. From a big-picture view, there is no explicitly morally “right” choice, and there will be consequences regardless of the choice you make. Compare this to the larger JRPG genre, where the concept of choice may give you a slightly different dialogue response in a cutscene, but not change the narrative’s direction in any way.

If FFT explored the realness of humans and their corruptible natures, Tactics Ogre explored the realness of choice and consequences. FFT showed how two people sharing the same ideals could be lead down different paths based on their fundamental beliefs. Tactics Ogre shows how every choice the main character makes serves to form who he and those closest to him become, and how they impact the larger world in many unforeseen ways. It reminds us that the choices are not made in a vacuum; they have a ripple effect on the larger world and just because you decide not to go down one path, doesn’t mean someone else won’t take up that cause. I think many genres beyond role-playing could benefit from exploring this tool to enrich their story and create more replay value for the player. Moving away from linearity, both in gameplay and story, is essential to standing out from the pack.

I think that most of us would say that we play RPGs because we enjoy exploring these kind of choices. These less-than-linear storylines elevate the plot and require more than the simple critical thinking needed to hit a flan with magic or an aerial enemy with ranged attacks. We want to experience the “out of the ordinary” and we love a good game that stays with us well after the final credits roll (i.e. Chrono Trigger). Questioning the choices we made during a game, contemplating real-life similar scenarios, and discussing them with other gamers is possibly the best influence that games like Tactics Ogre can have on gaming discourse!

I would highly recommend Tactics Ogre to anyone who enjoys SRPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem, or Disgaea. The character customization is super-extensive (second only to Disgaea in terms of detail), the gameplay mechanics are the most complete of any game in the sub-genre, and the replay value is off-the-charts with three story path routes, numerous sidequests, and a treasure trove of post-game content (no paid DLC either)! Beating the game allows you to revisit the different pivotal choices in the explore the alternate story paths and recruit route-exclusive characters. Tactics Ogre is available on the PSN for $19.99 and is playable on PS Vita/PSP, so check it out!

Here are some other examples of impactful choices in RPGS worth checking out:
--Bravely Second (3DS) features some great examples of impactful choices within their Asterisk sidequests, where it's hard to say that either outcome is exclusively “right”.
--Shin Megami Tensei IV (3DS) does this with a number of drop-in-the-buckets decisions throughout the game that determine late game alignment and ending.
--Fire Emblem Fates (3DS) does this very early on with the allegiance choice, though all subsequent events are locked by that path.

Have you ever played Tactics Ogre: LUCT? What did you think of it? What’s another game that utilized the “Power of Choice” well?

Share your thoughts in the comments section - I’d love to hear from you!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Mass Effect 3's Best Mods

Election Day, for all my USA-based readers! Time to go out, do our civic duty, and decide which of the 2 worst human beings alive we want to fuck us all in the ass for the next 4 years. Do you prefer your lying, psychotic, tyrannical, warmongering narcissist to be Bigoted, Stupidly Aggressive, Demonstrably Incompetent Asshole flavored, or Cheating, Remorseless, Empathy-Lacking Freedom-Loathing Inhuman Monster flavored? Do you want to waste countless American lives in the Middle East, or in Russia? Do you want your freedoms revoked openly, or quietly? Let the country know!

Or you could throw away your vote (which doesn't technically have a value in the presidential election anyway, given the electoral college idiocy) voting for someone who isn't the absolute scum of the Earth. I like the Green Party, myself, but that Libertarian guy also possesses both the quality of Not Trump and the quality of Not Clinton, so he seems like a fine pick, too.

Seriously, though, do go out and vote. I don't care which self-important fucktard you prefer to be president--like I said, your vote for president technically doesn't mean anything in our system--but you can still make an actual difference today by voicing your choice of what other (actually) elected officials represent you, and what local laws and initiatives are put into effect. That stuff actually does matter, and exercising your right to decide it is important. So do vote today. Please.

Alright, that's enough of me being pissed off at politics. Let's get back to me being pissed off at RPGs!

Ah, Mass Effect 3. The conclusion to the greatest sci-fi saga since Firefly (and I would even heretically argue that ME was superior to Firefly--whoops, there go my subscribers), Mass Effect’s third installment had a daunting task. Yet despite a few flaws, Mass Effect 3 was a more than worthy finale to this grand epic...until its ending, that is. In fact, I would say that, sans ending, this is the best game in the trilogy. It has the best character depth and development, and the greatest examples of raw, powerful emotion, thrilling action and suspense, and moments to awe and inspire you. For the first 99% of the game, Mass Effect 3 is a magnificent way to finish one of the greatest RPG experiences you’ll ever have.

But that fucking ending!

If for some unfathomable reason you’ve been reading my rants since 2012 or earlier, you know that Mass Effect 3’s ending has been haunting me for over 4 years now. To have something I love so much be so thoroughly, uncaringly dirtied, cheapened, and destroyed, out of nowhere and during the moment when it should have been at its most watch Bioware take its finest work and use it to wipe its ass at the very last was rough.

But if there’s one thing fans know how to do, it’s make up for a company’s shortcomings. From Planescape: Torment’s Unfinished Business mod restoring cut/incorrectly inaccessible content to the game back in the early 2000s to a Fallout 4 mod that lets you take Dogmeat with you as an additional companion because what sadistic idiot decided that you had to choose between Dogmeat and the rest of the cast have you even played a Fallout game before Bethesda, yes, anyway, my point is, fans have been correcting creators’ shortcomings for a while now, and they’ll continue to do so for a while yet. And that’s no less true for Mass Effect 3.

And so, today we will be looking at the best mods out there for Mass Effect 3, much as I did for Fallout 3. As with that rant, these are the mods that I sincerely endorse as a way to improve your Mass Effect 3 experience, additions and changes to the game that enhance it to make it a better representation of itself and Mass Effect. These aren’t just a bit of fun, like fan-created armors or improving load times or something--these are the mods that I feel make for a truer Mass Effect game.

Restored Zaeed Conversation: This mod changes the conversation you have with Zaeed in the Citadel refugee area so that you can hear all that he has to say. This one’s a minor one, to be sure, but when you get down to it, the characters are the heart of Mass Effect, and any chance to hear all that they’re meant to say is a chance to experience the series that much more in rightful totality. And hey, this was one of Robin Sachs’s last roles before his’ll sadly get few more chances to hear that singular gruff tone again, so all the more reason why this is a good thing.

Ken and Gabby Recruitment Restoration Mod: Originally, Ken and Gabby, the lovable engineers from Mass Effect 2, were supposed to have their own recruitment scene in Mass Effect 3. For deadline-related reasons, it was cut, and they’re simply added to the Normandy by Shepard indicating he wants them on a terminal at the Citadel. This mod restores the original intention to have an actual scene in which Shepard meets up with Ken and Gabby, and recruits them by speaking with them. It uses the dialogue already recorded for the scenario, so it smoothly fits into the game exactly as it should, restoring another tiny but enjoyable bit of characterization to the game’s cast. Again, it’s not a big change, but with a cast that draws the player in as greatly as Mass Effect’s does, every tiny interaction and scene is something that a fan appreciates, even treasures.

Extended Final Anderson Conversation: Like the mods above, this alteration to Mass Effect 3 is simply a case of restoring a small bit of dialogue to the cast. Unlike the ones above, though, this is actually a really, really big deal. The final conversation with David Anderson in Mass Effect 3 is one of the greatest highlights of the entire series, a quiet, poignant, overwhelming scene in which Anderson, father figure of Mass Effect and almost as much a representation of its soul as Shepard himself, spends his last moments sitting with Shepard and reflecting. This scene made it to number 7 on my list of the greatest deaths in RPGs, and I cannot overstate what an important, monumental moment it is for the series, for the protagonist, for the story, for the player. This is the capstone of the first and most narratively important relationship Shepard forms in the series; hell, without the mod below, this is the very last good moment in the entire series! The fact that Bioware actually shortened this scene, took lines of dialogue out of it, leaves me flabbergasted.

Thankfully, this mod restores that content, and allows you to hear everything the unparalleled Keith David recorded for Anderson to say in this scene. It’s not perfect, admittedly: during the extra lines, Anderson just kind of stares straight ahead, frozen, as he speaks, which is slightly odd. But hey, the guy’s bleeding out and his mind’s starting to unfocus, so it’s not entirely immersion-breaking. And for the impact of these extra few lines during one of the greatest interactions in the entire trilogy, it’s a small price to pay.

The Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod: And here we are, friends. This is the real reason I wanted to make this rant. Not to say that the mods above don’t make a significant positive impact on Mass Effect 3, of course. They do, and I would want anyone playing the game, whether for the first time or the thousandth, to do so with those mods installed to get the full experience. But The Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod is the fandom’s real contribution to a greater, more true Mass Effect 3, and I cannot endorse it strongly enough.

The Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod is basically just what it says: it gives us a happy ending to Mass Effect 3. Now, let me clarify something very important here: while I’m not especially pleased with the fact that Shepard didn’t get a particularly happy ending in ME3’s original conclusion, that was not anywhere near the real issues that made ME3’s ending so utterly horrible and destructive. I think you can conclude from my list of the greatest RPG endings of all time that I can appreciate endings other than “happy” ones.

What MEHEM does, however, is not just give us an ending to Mass Effect 3 which is happy. It gives us an ending to ME3 that is real. MEHEM provides an ending to this excellent space opera which is true to the heart and soul of the series. It cuts out the stupid space hologram kid, whose addition at the last second to deliver high-handed exposition by the truckload was thoroughly baffling to anyone who understands even the most rudimentary basics of storytelling. And by getting rid of the kid, and thus the spontaneous and thoroughly idiotic last-second subplot about organics and synthetics being irreconcilable and merging them together and all that hogwash, MEHEM simply removes everything wrong from Mass Effect 3’s ending in a single quick cut. No more contradictions to important themes of the game. No more philosophical and moral contradictions to the game’s actual events. No more violation of the right of every self-aware being in the galaxy to autonomy over their own body. No more pretentious notions better suited to other sci-fi styles being clumsily shoved in, notions which are so laughably poor and unexamined that they can actually be summed up, summed up perfectly, by a Yo Dawg meme. The immorality, the stupidity, the betrayal, the incompetence, all gone!

Of course, this mod is a lot more than just a surgical removal of narrative cancer. After all, it wouldn’t be especially satisfying if the game just went from Anderson’s final words to the credits. I mean, it would be still be better than the vile, reeking shit that Bioware gave us, but still. Well, Mr. Fob, the fellow who created and labors upon this mod, has also added an entirely new ending to the game. It is, if I am to speak frankly, pretty standard, predictable fare, as happy endings go. There’s action, there’s emotion, there’s suspense, there’s finality. But you know what? This is what the ending to Mass Effect 3 should have been. The final moments to your work are not about surprising and introducing new directions, they are about satisfying your audience by concluding your epic in a way that suits it. An ending is about closure. And this ending closes the Mass Effect series as it should be closed: with heroism, with excitement, with tenderness, with inspirational awe, with hope. This is not solely called the Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod because it’s what we think of a happy ending--it’s called that because it makes YOU, the player, the audience, the fan happy. Because it provides an ending to the game which is true to what Mass Effect 3 has been leading to. True to what the series itself has been leading to. This is the ending that Mass Effect 3 was meant to have, what it led you to believe it would have with every hopeful word and inspirational bit of trust given to Shepard.

In terms of technical quality, MEHEM is surprisingly good. Mr. Fob pieces together a lot of footage from the original endings that by themselves are just fine, reuses certain lines of dialogue spoken by the characters at previous points in the series, adds a few fan-recorded lines for non-established characters, and even inserts several fan-created animated scenes when necessary. Is it quite as smooth as the game normally is? Well, no. But it’s close, at times so close you might not even realize that the space battle cutscene you just saw wasn’t made by Bioware, and considering how many different parts are being pulled together, it’s actually pretty remarkably high-quality. It’s cohesive, it looks good, and it satisfies.

It’s also well thought-out, which is certainly more than you could ever say for Bioware’s original ending trash. MEHEM, too, introduces a new character at its final moment (Captain Fob, who orders his fleet to assist the Normandy with Shepard’s extraction), but this is an example of such a device actually done right. The mod adds an email to Shepard’s computer early in the game from Captain Fob, expressing gratitude for Shepard’s actions in ME2 and pledging that if they’re ever in battle together, Fob will do his best to assist Shepard however he can, so there’s actually a tiny bit of background set up to lead to Fob’s arrival. Fob also doesn’t steal the fucking show the way the damn hologram Catalyst kid does, instead just acting as a plot device, one which represents the uncounted masses of people that Shepard has impacted through his actions. And that’s actually very good thematically, this idea that when the chips are down, at the moment in which Shepard’s strength is finally spent and he has no more to give, it is the echoes of Shepard’s heroism that will bolster him and carry him through, the people he’s helped not just personally, but simply through his exploits, that will come to return the favor. Take note, Bioware: if you’re going to throw someone into your ending that the audience has never seen before, THIS is an actually functional way to do it.

Ha! As if Bioware would ever deign to consider a fan’s advice on storytelling. Their decision to close their forums and make non-sycophantic communication with them nearly impossible shows just how much they actually value what their fan base can offer.

Anyway. All of this by itself makes MEHEM an absolute must-have for any Mass Effect fan, but there’s actually a lot more to this mod than just its titular purpose. First of all, it actually also contains an unhappy ending to the game, too, although I suspect few will see it. If you finish the game with a low enough rating for galactic readiness, you actually will see a Bad Ending, instead. I gotta hand it to Mr. Fob--not only can he put together a true Mass Effect ending, but he can put together a hell of a Bad Ending, too. I mean, that’s actually one of the best Bad Endings I’ve seen! It’s almost too bad that most people won’t even know it exists. And this, of course, makes the galactic readiness score actually mean something, whereas before it just limited which shitty ending options you’d get, so from a certain perspective, MEHEM’s also fixing a major gameplay flaw, too.

Also, The Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod adds a lot of other tiny things that enhance the Mass Effect experience in ways unrelated to the ending. The mod adds a handful of emails to Shepard’s computer, delivered throughout the game, which do things like retcon Emily Wong’s off-screen, completely unnecessary and pointless death, give a subtle little implication that the original Bioware ending to the game was a Reaper trick, and expand on the game lore regarding anti-Reaper weaponry. They’re pretty neat, if I do say so myself (I use this phrase because I helped with editing them, a tiny contribution to MEHEM for which Mr. Fob generously rewarded me with my name in the mod’s credits, something which I am flattered by and proud of). MEHEM also adds audio lines of Harbinger from ME2 to the desperate run at the end of the game, at which point he’s blasting at everyone trying to make it to the Conduit. It’s a nice touch, and I’d certainly say it’s more immersive--Harbinger never missed a moment to condescendingly taunt Shepard in ME2, so it’s actually kind of weird that he’s totally silent at this part of the game. Once again, MEHEM tidies things up a bit.

Pretty much the only negative I can come up with about this mod is that it can add an alternate music track to be used for the new ending, and...well, it’s a fan-made song, and it’s not bad or anything, but it’s really just not all that right for the scene and the game, either. But this is only a theoretical downside, because when you install MEHEM, it gives you the option between using this fan-made score, or just using actual Mass Effect music, so, y’know, just pick the latter.

Anyway, that’s enough gushing from me. Bottom line is, if you’re going to play or replay Mass Effect 3, download and install The Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod. It’s the only truly legitimate way to conclude Mass Effect available to us, and as far as I’m concerned, this is how Mass Effect 3 ends. This is a case where the fans have understood the art better than the creators, and this long labor of love by Mr. Fob and those who have helped him showcases just what an excellent, meaningful story Mass Effect truly is: because nothing less than a masterpiece could have a following so devoted that they would go to lengths such as this to keep its luster bright and its artistic integrity intact.

Mr. Fob, I sincerely salute you and those who have assisted you in creating The Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod. Something important to me was lost 4 years ago...your effort and care has returned it.