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
Fire Emblem 14
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...
...to 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 1...it’s just a solid, well-made JRPG, intelligent, well-written, emotional, and containing a likable and interesting cast.
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.