Friday, April 28, 2017

Final Fantasy Tactics's Plot's Shift in Focus

Short rant today! I mean, sort of. Short for me, at least.

I do love Final Fantasy Tactics. 1 of the greatest Final Fantasy titles, hell, 1 of the greatest RPGs, period, ever made, Final Fantasy Tactics is intelligent, thoughtful, dire, critical, and inventive, telling an engrossing tale of 1 man’s forgotten heroism in the brutal and unflinchingly amoral land of Ivalice, which mimics in most significant ways Europe of the medieval ages. It’s a great tale of class warfare, the way that grief and anger can both corrupt a man and make him greater at the same time, questions of whether means can justify ends, love and loyalty between family both biological and adopted, the tragedy that war visits upon the innocent, the monstrosity of those who crave power and the havoc they wreak in their power games...all kinds of engaging, powerful stuff.

Oh, yeah, and also there’s some stuff in there about saving the world from hell demons who possess people using magical stones based on the same stuff as your horoscope.

Yeah, see, about halfway through Final Fantasy Tactics, the plot’s focus shifts from the war of succession in Ivalice and the protagonist’s place in it, to an invasion by that world’s Anti-Christ who it turns out was secretly also that world’s Christ figure. The transition isn’t immediate or anything; the Zodiac Stones only gradually start to take over the plot, and the political struggles remain at least in the background of the game for a while,’s still kind of weird, when I really look at it. FFT is well-written enough that the 2 different plot focuses aren’t unrelated, of course, the church’s power is a player in the political story and some of the political story’s figures become key players in the Zodiac Stones plot, wouldn’t be hard to completely separate Final Fantasy Tactics: the war-of-power-hungry-nobles story, and Final Fantasy Tactics: the save-the-world-from-demons story. They seem, in fact, artificially tied together, like 2 different stories that were carefully, but not naturally, welded into 1.

And the thing is, well, I think it’s to the game’s detriment. That’s not to say that Final Fantasy Tactics isn’t a terrific RPG; it definitely is. That’s not to say, even, that the story of saving the world from the threat of demons secretly tied to a false church that FFT presents isn’t good. It is quite a decent adventure, executed in a competent way. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just...well, the first major story of the game, of warring nobles and class warfare, the questions of honor and where the line lies between good and evil when you’re sinning for the sake of peace, and the juxtaposition between protagonist Ramza and the man he considers a brother as one struggles to do lasting good without compromising his principles, and the other becomes a hero king by sacrificing his better nature...that all amounts to a way better, much more compelling plot to focus on.

I mean, think about it. What are the moments that really stick with you from FFT, the parts of it that make it so memorable and speak to you? For me, there are many. The betrayal of Algus and death of Teta, of course. The spite and unrelenting resentment of Miluda, and what we see Wiegraf is reduced to afterward. Ramza managing to stop a major battle and save countless lives by flooding the battlefield. Ovelia speaking to Agrias of her doubts and concerns. Wiegraf agreeing to give his soul to Lucavi for the power to accomplish his goals. The quick, bloody, vicious betrayals of those who conspire to seize power. The complicated character of Algus, the ambition of Delita which you can’t truly say for sure is right or wrong, the plight of the commoners represented by Wiegraf and Miluda, the devotion of Agrias, the determination and despair of Ovelia, the difficulty that Ramza has in reconciling himself to his role and the man he wants to be and his conflict with Delita, as well as with his brothers, the clashing ideologies of Ramza and Gafgarion that cement who Ramza truly is. The ending scene where Ovelia betrays and kills Delita for what he’s done, and he in turn kills her, and thinks of Ramza, the man who wouldn’t do evil for the sake of good, and wonders whether things turned out better for him.

See, the thing is, of all those really memorable, powerful scenes and characters and ideas I just mentioned that really stay in my mind, only 1 involved the Zodiac Stones, and part of that was just that it was the first time we’d watched a soul corrupted by the Stones, and another part was simply what it meant for Wiegraf as a character. Nearly everything about Final Fantasy Tactics that makes the game so great is, to me at least, the overarching story of succession and class struggle, and the personal story of morality between Ramza and Delita, which feeds primarily back into the political plot. So I feel that by gradually turning its focus away from that story, and onto a tale of saving the world from magical evil stones and resurrected demons and whatnot, we kind of missed out. Final Fantasy Tactics is a terrific RPG, but so much of what makes it excellent is found in its first plot focus, not its second.

I just wonder what might have been if the game had stayed the course until the end, whether we might have gotten an even better product had the story stayed grounded in political struggles and questions of the morality of actions and intent. The Zodiac Stones story that eventually overtook the game’s focus is fine, as I said, and they fit well with the setting of Ivalice given the whole corrupt medieval church thing, but...without that, would we have had yet more really powerful moments of emotion and social examination, and raw twists and turns in the plot? Would some of the content of the game’s expansive codex, so in-depth that it feels like a third of the story’s content is locked away in its menus, have been seen in action rather than just read about?

Great though it is, I cannot help but wonder if Final Fantasy Tactics had more to offer, had it not switched its focus. I suppose we’ll just never know.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Guest Rant: In Defense of Young RPG Protagonists

It's that time again: time for me to rest on my sorry ass as though complaining about RPGs was something hard to do, and allow 1 of my readers to treat you all to a different perspective. And our guest ranter today is, once more, the esteemed and helpful Humza! Thanks yet again, buddy!

Disclaimer: As ever, I don't own Humza's words, and they don't necessarily reflect my own opinions and observations. Although I can say that his thoughts below are quite logical and compelling, and if I don't entirely agree with all of them, I do agree with most of what Humza says, and have adjusted my perceptions accordingly. He's a pretty convincing bloke.

In Defense of Young RPG Protagonists

March 22, 2017

It's a common complaint that lots of RPGs (especially Japanese ones) have protagonists that are too young to go on a journey to save the world. Most of the complaints seem to come from people that don't like JRPGs in the first place and someone like that probably wouldn't read this, but maybe it'll interest some of the readers here anyway.

The complaints seem to be centered around it being unrealistic for a group of teenagers to go on their quest* and that it would make more sense to replace the cast with a group of adults. Let's get the more boring defenses of them out of the way first...


This is probably the most common reason provided for why JRPGs commonly use young protagonists, since the main demographic of video games in Japan (and this genre in particular) are teenagers, and the players would presumably be able to relate more to the characters if both share similar ages and go through similar situations. For example, many teenagers gradually start to acquire more responsibilities (even if those responsibilities often revolve around spending more time studying and doing simple errands for parents) and young protagonists in RPGs usually have few responsibilities before their adventure. The type of responsibility differs (saving the world is a much more impactful burden in comparison), but a parallel could be drawn where the errands feel like a similarly huge burden in the players' minds, if some eisegesis is used (although I don't agree with that).

Easier to develop characters

It shouldn't be too hard to see how character development is easier to write for a younger character. In most cases, but not all, younger people are more easily swayed in their ideas and beliefs than older people. It's not profound or thought-provoking, but this quote by Miyamoto illustrates an example of that. Since older characters are more rigid, more drastic situations are needed for them to develop. This could lead to characters that finish their development earlier, as with Yuri from Tales of Vesperia, who (I'm told) becomes static around halfway into the game. It is possible to develop older protagonists well, like Stocke from Radiant Historia, but the main reason to choose an older character is used by writers seems to be (considering it's a commonality between older protagonists) so that they are more experienced in their field (both of the aforementioned characters being knights in renowned organisations), and using drastic situations to show that the character needs to progress could conflict** with the appearance of them being experienced, so it's harder to write. Stocke from Radiant Historia is portrayed that way (perhaps intentionally) when he falls to an enemy that doesn't have a huge significance to the plot.

More importantly, it's common (at least, from my experience and what I've heard from others, which is admittedly limited anecdotal evidence) for people to more actively develop their identity starting from that point, which weighs more heavily on the scale of character development than the amount of experience that characters have.

Fewer conflicts between gameplay and story

This kind of ties into the previous point about older characters normally being more experienced, but an experienced character has less reason to change and improve if they are capable of tackling the problem without a strong need for change. The traditional RPG leveling system is suited to characters progressively improving (there's probably a correlation that can be drawn between physical strength and the mental state of a character since both usually develop in RPGs) over the course of a game and this ties to characters getting more experienced (it's called EXP for a reason, so this is probably obvious...), which is hard to do with an older, more experienced character. For example, Shepard from Mass Effect is around 30 years old and one of the strongest characters in the setting, but it's easier than it should be for him to get killed by a low-level grunt during gameplay. (This isn't a knock against Mass Effect since the gameplay probably benefited from having the mission-based experience system it did and the problem isn't too noticeable, but you need to go through more mental gymnastics to make logical sense out of it).

Historical precedence

I don't think any human being or group could be attributed as having saved the world, but there is some (rare) historical precedence of young people having accomplishing great things. The most common example would probably be Jeanne d'Arc, who helped the French army in a war with the English at 18 years old, which is almost comparable to the protagonists of the first two Suikodens, since they also lead armies to victory against another country. Alexander the Great has a somewhat similar story where he started engaging in (small) warfare at 17. Those RPG protagonists are still far-fetched compared to this, but they don't seem quite as unlikely considering what young leaders have done in the past. The setting in some of those RPGs is also technologically closer to the places the aforementioned leaders came from than it is to the 21st century, so the concept of adolescence may not be a limiting factor that exists in those worlds. (It's possible the concept might limit what adolescents are likely to accomplish since most young leaders I found were before the Industrial Revolution, but that might be offset by the increased life expectancy giving people more time to do great things).

I'd be interested in any comments on this since it strays from things I've usually written in the past, and I probably overlooked or got something wrong. Thanks for reading!

*It seems arbitrary to draw the line for realism at young people helping the world become a better place, and not at more unlikely things in RPGs, like magic existing.

**Most people seem to improve aspects of themselves when it becomes a necessity since the reason behind improving is much more compelling in that case.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

AeternoBlade's Freyja's Power

AeternoBlade is a rather obscure action RPG with a decent, creative plot involving a heaping load of time travel, a fairly well-executed theme of the terrible and corrupting nature of wrath and vengeance, and a serviceable cast of characters It has an imaginative gameplay system that generally works, functional graphics, and a middling soundtrack. And it has one of the most powerful RPG protagonists of all time.

There really aren’t many other RPG characters I can think of whom Freyja would not be able to defeat, save ones like, say, Goku (Dragon Ball Z has had RPGs made about it, remember), who are just outright invulnerable to conventional attacks made with a sword. But as long as a foe can, conceivably, be defeated by being stabbed and slashed with a sword, even if it’s a case where it would take hundreds of sword strokes to do it...Freyja would invariably come out of a battle between them as the victor. Hell, even in the case of a character like Goku, where she literally can’t harm him, a fight between them would probably end in Freyja’s retreat more than an outright loss.

What makes Freyja insanely unstoppable is her sword, the Aeterno Blade,* and the way it does this is twofold. First of all, it...well, it basically lets her be Tracer from Overwatch, if you increased Tracer’s temporal powers several times over. The Aeterno Blade allows Freyja to perform a small little time-space dash forward, which basically blinks her out of time for a moment, allowing her to evade enemy attacks by invincibly passing through them in time. She can’t do this in rapid succession, but the recharge time on this is still short, like half a second, so Freyja’s ability to dodge her foes’ attacks and close a distance gap (which is kinda necessary for a sword-user) is quite effective.

More importantly from the Tracer-esque half of the Aeterno Blade’s repertoire is the ability it grants Freyja to rewind her own actions (while remaining fully conscious of their consequences), and in the process heal herself from any damage she took during that time, should she be mortally wounded. So, essentially, if an enemy manages to strike a fatal blow against Freyja, she can rewind her own timeline by half a minute or so, and bring herself back to before that fatal moment in as good condition as she was, with the knowledge of what’s going to happen and, presumably, how to avoid it. And Freyja can activate this rewind ability pretty much at the brink of, or even beyond, death. After all, any time she dies in the game, you have a few seconds as she lies there to begin rewinding her back to life. So yeah. Freyja has the ability to rewind time from even beyond the grip of death to bring herself back to life, with preternatural insight on what not to do in her immediate future.

So, already we’re talking about an individual who is extremely difficult to defeat, because if you’re fighting Freya and she’s using the powers I’ve mentioned, she’s blinking through most of your attacks and keeps seeming to know exactly how to counter the finishing strikes you might have landed on her, knowing they’re coming practically before even you do. And it’s worth noting that even beyond the powers that the Aeterno Blade confers to Freyja, she’s no slouch at combat. She has an impressive, physics-defying repertoire of sword skills, can use magic to call down meteors on her foes (which is pretty much always a high-level attack spell, regardless of which RPG you go by), and can do that double-jump thing that’s so popular in action RPGs. Already we’re talking about a pretty damned dangerous combatant...and I haven’t even gone into the details of the other half of the Aeterno Blade’s time control that Freyja possesses.

The other side of Freyja’s temporal abilities is extrapersonal time reversal. most cases, a character who can stop or incredibly slow time is almost unbeatable, such as Sailor Moon: Another Story’s Sailor Pluto, or The Flash when he’s really not kidding around. When Feena stops time in battle for a few rounds during Grandia 1, it gives her a chance to fully heal the party up, and do some damage to her enemy, all without needing fear a single attack to her person. Likewise, Sailor Pluto breaks Sailor Moon: Another Story, able to freeze time for her enemy for 3 rounds, allowing the Senshi to heal themselves and launch attacks, and then just as time for the enemy restarts, she can freeze them again. This extraordinarily broken gameplay mechanic even works on the final boss!

Very impressive stuff, to be sure. But Freyja makes even that level of power look like a joke. She can, at will, make the entirety of time and space rewind itself for several seconds (at full power, it’s roughly a full minute), starting and stopping everything around her as she pleases. She herself, however, is an outside entity to this rewinding, and can act as she wishes...which means that during this period of time marching backward, she can deal damage to an enemy, damage that will (for some reason) remain with said enemy even as it reverses back before she stabbed it. You could attack her, and before you even connected, she’d reverse you back to when you first started that attack, and stab you in the heart as she was doing it, so from your perspective, the first lurching step you take at her is suddenly, inexplicably your last as a gaping hole appears in your chest. From the viewpoint of her enemies, she can and is everywhere but where their attack is about to land, as 1 fatal slash after another instantaneously appear on them. She could spend half a minute dodging blows from you, suddenly reverse time, and deliver a fatal strike as you go back through your every action, and bam! From the perspective of the rest of the universe, you somehow got sliced in half a few seconds before you even had seen that she was there.

Also worth noting in regards to this ability is that there is an accessory that Freyja can equip to the blade that causes her to regenerate her health while she’s rewinding the world around her, so she can be constantly healing even as she’s making you do an impression of a moon-walking pincushion. There is no time during which she’s using her powers in which she can’t also be regenerating herself back to peak condition. Y’know. Just for a little extra overpowered zest.

Seriously, aside from an enemy that she just outright cannot damage with a sword or meteors, there is no individual I can think of originating from RPGs that Freyja would not be able to defeat, and even the ones she couldn’t actually harm, she could still escape from and/or stalemate. It’s too bad that AeternoBlade is so obscure, because it’s created one of the most powerful fictional characters ever to exist, and it seems kind of like it did so without even trying.

And that’s all I have to say today. Tune in next time for a rant wherein I’m not gushing about how super cool and strong some character is like I’m goddamn five years old! At least, maybe.

* Why the hell did they make it a single word for the title of the game, but put a space between “Aeterno” and “Blade” in the actual name of the weapon? I swear, sometimes I think that Japan is purposefully making titular nomenclature as confusing as they can.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Fallout Series's Madison Li's Worth

Doctor Madison Li of Fallout 3 and 4 sure does seem to draw a lot of ire from players. Really, it seems like any time the character is brought up in a discussion of the games, someone or other is going to jump in and talk about what a douchebag Dr. Li is, and/or how they’re glad she blows up with the Institute at the end of the game, and so on. And honestly? I don’t think it’s fair to find her so dislikable, nor take glee in her (uncertain, but likely) death at the end of the game. She may be kind of a pill to the player every time we see her in Fallout 3 and 4, but that doesn’t make her a bad person deserving of scorn, and it’s not hard to sympathize with the reasons for her attitude. Much like Edward and Cait Sith, Madison Li is a character who doesn’t deserve the scorn that the audience is all too eager to fling her way, and I want to use today’s rant to mount a bit of a defense for her.

Let’s start this post by looking beyond her admittedly negative personality for a moment (we’ll go back to it, no worries), and just look at her as a person overall. Doctor Li is actually quite a good person. In fact, I would say that Madison Li is unwaveringly moral, which is certainly difficult in the world of Fallout. Every time we see her in the series, she is devoting all her time and energy toward research for the sake of humanity. Early in Fallout 3, our first encounter with Li in Rivet City finds her researching ways in which fresh fruits and vegetables can be grown in the Capital Wasteland, which I would argue is a noble pursuit for her as a scientist, one which is aimed solely at the survival and betterment of all the people around her. While many scientific minds in the Fallout series pursue their fields for a variety of more self-motivated reasons (curiosity, personal survival, empowerment of themselves over others, etc), Doctor Li works with the intention of improving the lives of all.

This fact is only further cemented as we learn more about her in Fallout 3, and discover that before she was forced to take up her experiments in Rivet City, Li’s focus was on Project Purity, a grand scientific endeavor which aimed to find a way to purify the drinking water of the Washington D.C. area, providing clean, free water to all. I’ve always found Project Purity, the centerpiece of Fallout 3’s plot, to be a respectable, in fact inspiring its noble simplicity and the purely good and selfless intentions behind it is an intangible majesty, an undercurrent of the epic and deeply moving. James, the father of Fallout 3’s protagonist, is subtly but clearly put onto a pedestal by the game’s plot and characters as a paragon of virtue and nobility for his dedication to his wife’s dream, the dream of providing clean, free water, the foundation of life and civilization, to all...and yet, laudable though James certainly is, even he, the man that Fallout 3 uses as an icon of morality against which the protagonist measures her/himself, is not perfectly good and magnanimous. After the death of his wife, James gave up on Project Purity, and left so that he could raise his daughter/son in the safety of Vault 101. His decision is, of course, quite understandable as one made in grief and fear for being able to provide safety for his child when he could not even guarantee the life of the child’s mother, but nonetheless, the fact is that James, for all his generous ambition and noble belief in his wife’s dream of giving clean water to all, gave up on Project Purity. He made a decision to put his child’s welfare above that of the rest of the world’s. That’s not an act which I can decry...but at the same time, it is an act that also mars his otherwise iconic charity and overall goodness.

A marring act which is not true of Madison Li. Evidenced through the implications of her dialogue and the lore of Fallout 3, Doctor Li wanted to continue work on Project Purity, and she only stopped because the project didn’t have the expertise it needed without James’s presence, and because the Brotherhood of Steel, recognizing this fact, pulled its essential support from the doomed project. So ultimately, Li is actually a person of demonstrably greater morality than even James, the character whom Fallout 3’s plot designates as the icon for what is good, right, and noble, because she was forced to abandon their grand project of goodwill. And when she was forced to move on, she went right to working on another project whose goals were for the benefit of all people.*

And of course, it goes without saying that, when it is brought back to life during the events of Fallout 3, the fact that Madison Li resumes her efforts with Project Purity is just further evidence that she is a person who devotes her entirety to the benefit of others. Hell, she’s willing (albeit reluctantly) to drop the life that she has built for herself in Rivet City during the years of James’s absence to come and assist the project once more...and if anything, it’s all the more impressive and praiseworthy of her and the other scientists to do so this time, because this time the Brotherhood of Steel isn’t around to provide security. Madison Li and her team are willing to leave the ironclad safety of Rivet City and hole up at the Jefferson Memorial with absolutely no armed backing whatsoever, for the sake of this noble scientific endeavor. And more than any other region of America we’ve seen in the Fallout universe to date, the Capital Wasteland is NOT the kind of place you want to be out and about in without heavy armor and fire support. Super mutants and raiders are absolutely everywhere, and being surrounded by water, the Jefferson Memorial is prime territory for mirelurks (giant, highly aggressive mutant crabs, for those who aren’t in the know regarding the Fallout bestiary).

It’s worth noting that her exit from the Brotherhood of Steel between games and her work with the Institute are not any sort of black mark against her, either. Between Fallout 3 and 4, the deaths of Elder Lyons and his daughter Sarah allow for the Brotherhood of Steel’s east coast branch to transform from a proud, worthy order of tech paladins that embody the true intent of their order, into a tyrannical, self-important superpower of paranoid, xenophobic bigots who completely misunderstand the purpose of their collective. The fact that Doctor Li recognized this transformation as it occurred and got the hell away from the organization is nothing but a credit to her character.

Her subsequent acceptance into the Institute was, as with all things she involves herself in, done with only good intentions. Li was led to believe that the Institute’s single minded scientific pursuits were for the good of the human race, and you can hardly blame her for that, as most of the Institute’s other members also genuinely believe this. Hell, the Institute’s mouthpieces on the matter are convincing enough that there are even plenty of players who buy into this backwards logic that ignoring, abusing, trivializing, and replacing human lives can somehow “save” humanity (quotation marks because the nature of this salvation is laughably vague). In fact, even as she works for them, Li has enough presence of mind and healthy suspicion that if you find evidence that the Institute’s higher ups have been misleading her, she’ll leave it.

Of course, these exits from the BoS and Institute have, ridiculously enough, led some people to criticize Dr. Li for her lack of loyalty. Uh...yeah, okay, guys? Girls? All others? Being loyal to an employer/benefactor/country/whatever is a good thing, definitely. But that loyalty should NEVER, EVER trump your loyalty to your conscience. The idea that people would criticize Li’s lack of loyalty for leaving an organization that she can see is doing wrong is, no joke, terrifying to me. That is the kind of mindset that leads to whistleblowers being punished rather than praised by the very people whom they’re protecting. Anyone who turns against their corporation, social club, country, or any other kind of group for the sake of the people is a hero, to be respected. Criticizing Li for her lack of loyalty to the Institute and the emerging Fallout 4 Brotherhood of Steel...this is the kind of thinking that paves the way for fascist regimes, people!

Anyway, getting back to my first major point, her actions in Fallout 3 and 4 show beyond argument that Madison Li is an exceptionally good person. There is simply no time, save when she is outright deceived by others, in which she is not pouring herself into an effort to benefit all of humanity. She is one of the most uncompromisingly moral, virtuous individuals in the entire Fallout series. And that’s something I think deserves some respect.

But, of course, I suspect that what irks so many gamers and makes them despise Li is not a misunderstanding of her good work so much as it is her attitude. And...well, yeah. She’s kind of a pain in the ass! I mean, it seems like every time you meet Li in Fallout 3 and 4, she’s in a bad mood. She’s standoffish at best, and just plain rude the rest of the time. While I never found her attitude enragingly annoying, I can understand why it would put a person off.

But, y’know...I think that to judge her so harshly for it, to decide that you actively dislike Madison Li for the fact that she isn’t especially friendly and inviting whenever a protagonist comes across her, is really unfair. First of all, I think it’s just unfair from a general standpoint; people seem to have less enmity for many characters who outright attack or undermine the games’ protagonists than they do for this character who simply isn’t very nice. More importantly, though, I’d argue that Madison Li really has every damn right to be moody and unpleasant.

I mean, when you think about it, what exactly does Li have to be happy about? Everything, EVERYTHING in her life goes wrong. Fallout 3 implies (and for what it’s worth, the Fallout wikipedia backs this up) that Li was in love with James in her youth, but since James was married, she couldn’t act on her feelings. Then, when James’s wife Catherine died, he up and abandoned the project that they’d all put so much work and hope into. The man she loved just left the team behind, and she got to watch Project Purity fall apart before her eyes, forcing her to find a completely new life at Rivet City. She manages to make a life for herself there and finds a new way to work towards the good of humanity, and then, 19 years later, James shows up out of nowhere, and expects her to just drop everything to come back to the project that he abandoned. Whether for love for James, respect for Catherine’s dream, or simple goodwill toward humanity, Dr. Li does so, and puts her life at risk to make Project Purity happen.

And what does she get from doing so? She watches as the man she loves/loved is murdered before her eyes by the Enclave, and is forced to escape and go crawling to the Brotherhood of Steel, another group that had abandoned her in the past, to provide shelter for her and her team. And yes, by the conclusion of Fallout 3, Project Purity has finally come to fruition and the Enclave suffered retribution for their crimes...but that doesn’t bring James back, and the events surrounding the success of Project Purity give the Brotherhood of Steel a massive amount of technological power and regional success, and Li gets to watch as the changing leadership and priorities of this chapter of the Brotherhood begins to use that power and success for ignoble ends. And even when she finally finds another group that seems to be working toward the same goals as she is, the Institute, she finds that their lack of transparency is distressingly suspicious.

So let’s just summarize here: Loved a man who she could never be with. Got abandoned by him, and forced to give up on her life’s work. Spent 19 years building a new life only to be asked by the same guy to drop that life as though it didn’t matter at all, to take up the project that same guy originally abandoned. When this project finally succeeds, it comes at the cost of his life, and it led to the rise of a bunch of fascists. And when she finally joins the Institute, and rises up its ranks, she finds that its leaders are dodgy and don’t keep her in the loop about things.

Madison Li’s life, as far as we can see from the major relationships and roles she’s had in Fallout 3 and 4’s events and lore, is incredibly depressing. Her life is a story of a man she cares about making her feel unimportant, being used by others, and of paying for success with terrible tragedy.** And all of that is the reward she gets for attempting to do good for the world. So you know what? I think that it’s okay if she’s not all that cheery. Maybe it would be nice if she could rise above the lousy circumstances of her life and be nicer to people, but is it really fair to hold it against her if she can’t?

Doctor Madison Li is a woman who tirelessly works her ass off for the good of others for all her life, and she never gets rewarded for her unflagging dedication to doing what’s right. I think it’s high time that the Fallout fan community took a better look at her, and realized that her character should not be loathed and disparaged, but rather respected, even admired.

* You can make the argument that, as James himself says, he never really stopped working on Project Purity, since he continued his research in Vault 101. And that is a fair point. Nonetheless, with the project proper, he had more and better minds to help him, and greater time and resources to devote to it It’s good that he stayed devoted to the project as his daughter/son was growing up, but that’s definitely not an equivalent devotion to it as staying with his team would have been.

** And not that she knows it, but that life story doesn’t have a great ending, either. After all, with the end of the Institute in Fallout 4 (assuming that Nora/Nate is a decent person and doesn’t side with those self-important monsters) being an underground nuclear explosion, there’s every chance that Li perishes by the game’s end. I personally hope that she’s 1 of the Institute’s people who manages to escape (the game does give you the choice to sound an evacuation alarm), but even then, that just means that she’s once again been torn from a life she’s set up and left with nothing, which ain’t exactly a happy circumstance, either.

It’s no better if you convince her during Fallout 4’s events to return to the Brotherhood, either. I mean, either you’re a complete asswipe and sided with the Brotherhood, meaning that she’s now stuck working for a group of tyrannical, prejudiced asswipes because you lied to her about them having changed, or she’s dead, since if you don’t side with the Brotherhood you’re required to blow them the hell up. No happy ending for Doctor Li, no matter what. It really sucks.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Shin Megami Tensei Series's Elemental Weaknesses

Well whaddaya know...a short rant. I almost forgot what these looked like. Special thanks go to Ecclesiastes, for pointing out a part of this rant in which I was, to quote the great Dr. Clayton Forrester, stupid and wrong. So incredibly stupid! And wrong! So anyway, thanks for keeping my rants up to code, sir.

Oh, also, before we begin, I just want to note that I've updated (and, in doing so, finally completed) my Undertale theory rant from over a year ago. If you read the rant before, and have a bizarrely powerful memory for the rantings of an RPG-obsessed idiot, you may recall that I couldn't figure out how Undyne served as a reflection of Alphys in terms of tying to the game's theme of dangerous depression. Well, my mind may not be of much use for anything important, but sooner or later it works through all things RPG, and I finally found the solution that made my theory properly fit. So, uh, yeah, just thought I'd mention that if you want to check out Point F of that rant now, it's finally fully baked.

Anyway! On with the rant that's relevant to today.

Y’know, elemental weaknesses in RPGs are usually a pretty basic affair. Fire is Ice’s weakness, and vice-versa, Earth and Wind are usually at the same odds, Lightning is Water’s weakness,* Light and Dark repel each other, etc. Often there are a couple extra, semi-unseen rules, like Nature-based enemies being weak to Fire,** and mechanical enemies being weak to Electricity, but overall, the majority of RPGs have a weakness system so mindlessly simple that it’s basically color-coded.

It’s actually kind of surprising, really. I mean, with all the completely unnecessary gameplay complexities that developers are so fond of heaping onto what should be a functionally simple genre, it’s shocking that there aren’t more absurdly overcomplicated systems of elemental weaknesses in RPGs. I mean, there is Pokemon, where half of the weaknesses of over a dozen elemental types make sense and actually are surprisingly thoughtful, and the other half seem like they were drawn from a hat, but that’s about it.

This state of affairs makes the Weaknesses of the various demons in the Shin Megami Tensei series stand out as praiseworthy. Now, yes, the SMT series does play by the simple elemental rules I’ve mentioned in many regards. Surprise surprise, the fire giant Surt, who can be seen wielding a giant flaming sword, is weak to Ice. Huge shocker, the Earth elemental Erthys is weak to Wind. And you’ll never guess what Hel, the goddess overseeing the frozen afterlife of Norse mythology whose lower half is literally encompassed in ice, is weak to!

BUT, what Shin Megami Tensei does in addition to the more obvious elemental weaknesses in its bestiary, is to give weaknesses to its demons that are not so obvious, but make sense if you know that mythological figure’s background. Prometheus, for example, is a titan from Greek mythology, who gave the gift of knowledge (symbolized by fire) to mankind. For this act of evening the playing field between humanity and the gods, Prometheus was punished by being chained to a rock, and tortured by having his liver devoured every day by birds...sort of a reverse foie gras situation. Since he can’t die from such a thing, being a titan, his liver just keeps growing back and getting eaten again. Not pleasant.

Well, Prometheus is, as you might expect, weak to Ice in the Shin Megami Tensei series, what with him being clearly associated with Fire. But, Prometheus also has another weakness--he is extra susceptible to the Bind status ailment! In mythology, Prometheus is chained to a rock for his so-called crime, and so SMT translates that detail of the character’s history into a gameplay weakness that a crafty player familiar with the legend can take advantage of!

And this sort of thing is present all over the Megaten bestiary. Jeanne D’Arc, though clearly having no particular affinity with Ice, is weak to Fire attacks, which traces back to the fact that she died by being burned at the stake. Lanling Wang, a fabled Chinese general, died after he drank a cup of poison sent to him by the paranoid emperor he served, and so his SMT equivalent is particularly vulnerable to the Poison status ailment. Beldr/Baldur was a figure in Norse mythology who was killed by a spear or arrow made from mistletoe, and so in SMT4-1 and 4-2, he’s weak to Gun attacks, which essentially encompass all types of piercing strikes. And so on.

You find these clever little nods to the mythological history of the demons of Shin Megami Tensei all throughout its bestiary, and it’s really quite neat. And that’s really all I wanted to say today...I just think that this little quirk, which rewards a player for their knowledge of the mythological figures they’re battling against, is worth taking note of and appreciating as just 1 more of the countless little details that make Shin Megami Tensei so awesome.

Oh also Mara the giant penis demon is weak to Ice because the cold causes shrinkage HA HA SO FUNNY.

* This is often not scientifically accurate, incidentally. Pure, basic water does not conduct electricity! It’s actually impure water, notably salt water, that conducts electricity. The reason it’s dangerous to get water and electricity together for a date is simply because human skin contains salt, so as soon as you come into contact with water, it becomes, to some degree, salt water, and thus adding electricity WILL then zap the hell out of you. So, like, in a lot of cases, water-affinity creatures in RPGs should be weak to electricity, since they themselves add impurities to whatever water essence they have...but purely H2O enemies, like water elementals and the like, actually should be completely immune to electricity.

** The reasoning, of course, being that wood burns. Which I guess makes sense. But frankly, shouldn’t most RPG characters also be weak to Fire, then? I mean, most of them are wearing clothing, which is just as flammable as wood, and have generous amounts of hair, which can also, I believe, catch fire.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Whisper of a Rose

You have probably noticed this, but I tend to pull my punches a bit with Indie RPGs. I usually temper my criticisms of crowd-funded or personally produced RPGs with the reminder that they’re usually honest attempts by people who are passionate about the stories they want to tell. That’s not to say that conventionally developed bad games can’t also be works of passion, of course--The Last Story is surprisingly bland for being a work of pride and love, for example--but still. So I tend to make rants highlighting and endorsing good Indie RPGs I find, and try not to be too much of a jerk about their shortcomings.

But fair is fair, so when an Indie RPG leaves me feeling really annoyed, there will be a negative rant.

Whisper of a Rose, an RPG by Roseportal Games, is, in a word, disappointing. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s bad, I think, but it’s certainly not good, and it just promises way, way more than it can deliver on. I want to like this game, I really do, because its ideas have so much potential, but that’s as far as any of them get: potential.

You take the cast. The protagonist, Melrose, is a prime example of Whisper of a Rose’s tendency to disappoint. Melrose, a teenager, lives with a mother and father who are shown to be mentally abusive to her, and has no friends to speak of. Now, see, this is a situation not often utilized in RPGs which has a lot of potential to create a well-developed and interesting protagonist, and to shape the story’s direction significantly...but it just doesn’t stick. When we’re shown Mel’s home situation, it seems, somehow, both exaggerated, and not nearly harsh enough to be believable. It comes off like what someone imagines an abusive home is like, more than a genuine example. And Mel’s character just doesn’t seem to gain anything interesting or worthwhile from it. I mean, you’d expect her to have a negative personality, and she does, but there’s just not really any depth to her negativity. She’s not angry at the world, she’s just sullen and selfish. Mel’s listlessly standoffish and rude personality seems less like that of a troubled young person, and more like, well, just an average teenager when she’s in a bad mood. Reminds me of Final Fantasy 8’s Squall, really, although far less frustrating and dislikable.

Don’t get me wrong, there ARE pieces of character development for Mel, and she doesn’t stay the exact same the whole game long. But the bits where we learn a little about what formed her into who she is are few and far between (pretty much just the 1 flashback to the time she tried to save a ladybug from a bully), and once she’s done being perpetually selfish and uncooperative, there really isn’t any other personality that takes the negative one’s place...she just kinda becomes a plot chess piece, moving where she has to because the plot says so. Ultimately, Melrose just never becomes a character that we can connect to or contemplate.

The rest of the cast are no better. Hellena the witch is basically just a voice for explaining the plot lore, like Fran from Final Fantasy 12, only more one-dimensionally upbeat. Diamond is a ladybug who is, I guess, a manifestation of Mel’s memory of that ladybug from her past, or something, but there’s just nothing said or done with this idea, and by himself, Diamond isn’t interesting. Every single plot-relevant NPC is just a featureless plot device. And then there’s Christina.

On paper, Christina is an amazing character. You meet her as she’s traveling through a maze of her own insecurities while in a coma, she has a burning hatred for 1 of the villains in the game for the fact that he resulted in the loss of her baby, she’s a secret agent, and her mind created the final antagonist of the game as a mental manifestation that represents the man who raped her.

And yet, somehow, all of this is boring.

No part of this character should be less than compelling and interesting! But she just isn’t! Oh, to be sure, she’s more genuine in emotion than the other 3 party members, but not enough to sell it, and these major parts of her character are just kind of brought up, dropped, brought up again, and dropped again. Nothing is developed! None of these facets of Christina’s personality are used to explain or develop her character or her relationship to the others, nor make any particular impact on the story itself. She’s angry about it when it’s spoken of in front of her, and then the rest of the time, it’s like none of this stuff really even exists to her.

And that’s the way of this game: great ideas, being told by a writer who just isn’t equipped to execute them well enough. The ideas don’t connect to one another well enough, they don’t develop far enough, they often don’t even seem to ultimately have a point. And it’s not helped by the fact that the dialogue usually feels either clunky and unwieldy, or lacking spirit. When characters speak, it’s often like they came from an early SNES JRPG translation--it’s technically correct, but stiff, lacking feeling, or just a little awkward.

And what’s with the villain situation in this game? They just keep tossing 1 villain up after the next! Oh, the villain is the scary grunting marionette that’s attacking the fairy godmother somewhere in dreamland! Whoops, hold on, it’s the generic scary little girl who has an inadequately explained grudge against Mel! No, wait, it’s the evil witch mother, who wants to kill the wizard father and curse the protagonist! No, hold on, Farah the emotion-snubbing iron angel of rapists just escaped the dreamworld and is out to kill the world! But hold the phone, before you deal with that guy, it’s important to take down the CEO of the corporation that made the iDream, because he wants to use it to pull superweapons out of the dreamworld. No, hang on,you’re back in the dreamworld before you could do anything about that, and look, you’re cursed by that same witch as before! Better go rescue the fairy godmother from the grunting marionette that is now apparently super important! THEN deal with the witch, THEN the CEO, THEN the world-destroyer.

Multiple major villains in an RPG is a standard for the genre, and perfectly fine, but you have to PACE these things. You can’t just sub in a new villain even though you’re supposed to be dealing with something immediately important from another villain, over and over again! It just gets too damn confusing when you jam them all together like Whisper of a Rose does. It’s basically just Spider-Man 3 again. Worse, really.

And while we’re on problems with the villains, here’s a question I’d really like answered: Why is it that the mental representation of Christina’s rapist is a supervillain motivated by a wish to purge the world of emotion? I mean, how does your mentality construct a representation of your RAPIST as a standard JRPG anti-emotion villain archetype? What connected these things?!

Likewise, a lot of the good ideas for the story and themes are there, but not developed far enough, or explained well enough. I get the gist of the dream world’s workings, but the explanations are shaky enough that I don’t feel I know as strongly as I should. The role of Erasers, and the notable fact that technically Christina becomes an Eraser herself toward the end of the game, need more follow-up. The fact that the monsters of the dream world are phobias is good, but nothing much is really made of this, and how each of the phobius monsters connects to Melrose is utterly ambiguous--the most connection we see on this level is that the final boss is Virginitiphobia, which makes sense since it’s the mental representation of Christina’s rapist, but that’s the most any of these phobius enemies connect to anyone.

Also, I’m sorry, but how the iDream works is completely nonsensical. So, like, once it’s connected, the iDream needs a shot of adrenaline going through your system before it activates, right?* But this plot point never makes sense when it’s relevant. The first time Mel uses the device, she’s running from the police through the city streets, and it doesn’t activate, not until the police goon shoots at her.** She’s running in a panic through the streets as the fuzz chases after her, so shouldn’t Mel already have adrenaline pumping through her system like crazy? Why isn’t the iDream activating? Are we supposed to take from this scene that the shot of adrenaline came when Melrose heard the sound of the cop firing at her? Because I am pretty damn sure that a bullet’s speed is such that the average human being cannot react to hearing the gunshot before being hit by the bullet! There’s no way Melrose should have been able to hear the gun fire and then process the fact that she was now in mortal danger fast enough to spike her adrenaline before the bullet hit.

It’s much worse later on. After defeating Farah, the villain who’s trying to destroy the real world because he doesn’t like emotion, Mel needs to get back in the dream world to finish the job, and thus needs a hit of adrenaline again. Her solution? Well, obviously, since they’re on the roof of a building, she decides to jump off. Yeah, okay, plunging to your death will surely give you a good rush of adrenaline, but there are other ways to get yourself agitated, damn it! Her friends are with her--she could just start a fight with one of them, and that would do it. Heck, getting to the edge and looking over, with the honest intention of leaping off, should have been more than enough to get the adrenaline flowing. And she’s doing this because Farah has returned to her mental landscape, meaning that she’s in mortal danger from within--shouldn’t the panic she’s clearly feeling at this moment from that fact be more than enough to provide the necessary adrenaline? For that matter, they all JUST got done with 1 of the most difficult battles in the entire game--shouldn’t her system already be drowning in adrenaline?

In fact, thinking about that...I don’t seem to recall seeing Melrose ever visibly activate the iDream after the first time, so I can only assume it’s always on, in which case, shouldn’t any and every battle she engages in while in the real world send her to the dream world? Does she just feel absolutely nothing every time she’s in life-or-death combat, or something?

This frequent lack of attention to detail does not help with the game’s tendency to not explore its ideas to any satisfactory end. And speaking of that, 1 last thing about the story overall: what’s with the fairy tale references? You’ve got a fairy godmother as a major plot NPC, and that makes sense given the abusive family element--it’s drawing off the tale of Cinderella. But that’s as far as that reference goes--there’s no parallel between the WoaR Fairy Godmother and Melrose, and the Cinderella Fairy Godmother and Cinderella, in terms of actions, relationship, relevance, or purpose. Similarly, Hellena’s parents are clearly references to the Wizard of Oz, but beyond simply having superficial similarities to the Wicked Witch and the Wizard, there’s nothing else done with it--purpose, interrelationships, theme, character traits, there’s no correlation between the Whisper of a Rose characters and the Wizard of Oz ones. It all breaks down past the basic appearance.

Anyway...I think I’ve ragged on Whisper of a Rose enough now. Look, I want to make it clear that I respect the hell out of what this game is trying to do. It’s trying to get you to think, and it has some really interesting, creative starting points for its ideas. But great ideas and good intentions just aren’t enough on their own, and Roseportal Games just didn’t have the writing talent to make good on them. It’s too bad, but the only thing that Whisper of a Rose really made me think about was how much more thought-provoking it should have been.

* Why does a device that puts you into an unconscious state to access the dream world require adrenaline, incidentally? Isn’t adrenaline usually something that, y’know, keeps you awake?

** I’d criticize how trigger-happy this cop is to be attempting to kill a fleeing teenage girl whose crime is just stealing a technical doodad from a museum display...but an idiot police officer deciding to use lethal force against an unarmed, nonviolent offender is probably the most true-to-life part of this game. Really, the only logical inconsistency here is that the helpless suspect-turned-victim that he’s trying to murder is white.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Neverwinter Nights 2's Add-Ons

What the hell are you guys doing here, reading this rant? Do you not realize that Torment: Tides of Numenera comes out TODAY? The spiritual successor to the most brilliant, thoughtful RPG ever created is out, TODAY, and you want to waste your time on my rinky-dink rant nonsense? I'm flattered and horrified. Well, to celebrate the release of what by all rights should be the greatest RPG of all time, let's make the subject of today's rant a game which employed some of the great minds behind today's masterpiece: Neverwinter Nights 2! What could be a more appropriate rant topic than that, today?

Well, probably a rant on Planescape: Torment itself. But I didn't think of that in time, so you'll just have to settle for this. Enjoy! And then get Torment: Tides of Numenera.

Let’s see, how long has it been since Neverwinter Nights 2 was released? 10 years now? Excellent. Perfect time to talk about its expansions. Another stellar job at timeliness, Me. Well, at least with this rant, I can compare it to the original NN’s add-ons, and see how the sequel did. That’s sort of interesting, right?

Look, just come back 10 days from now and I’ll hopefully have a proper rant for you then.

Mask of the Betrayer: Uh...okay. Wow. Um. Wow. Words fail me.

This is the greatest add-on I have ever played.

No, seriously. The Mask of the Betrayer expansion is, hands-down, the greatest addition to an RPG I have ever encountered, by a tremendous margin. I loved Fallout: New Vegas’s Dead Money and Lonely Road, Fallout 3’s Point Lookout was terrific, the last third of Neverwinter Nights 1’s Hordes of the Underdark was epic, Mass Effect 3’s Citadel was absolutely great...but none of them even come close to the quality of Mask of the Betrayer.

Mask of the Betrayer is deeply philosophical and intelligent--brilliant, really--with a fascinating plot built on the deeper, more thought-provoking aspects of Dungeons and Dragons lore. It examines concepts of divine infallibility, the justice of the afterlife, love and punishment that transcend a physical existence, the nature of masks, which of our worldly desires and hungers are damning and which can break even the will of gods, faith and the fall from it...basically, if you were to walk a gloriously insightful and epic middle ground between Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Planescape: Torment, you’d have Mask of the Betrayer. And hey, what a surprise, some of the people involved in MotB were also involved in KotOR2 and PT, including my personal hero, Chris Avellone. It shows.

Beyond the simple excellence of this add-on’s plot and the bounteous feast it provides for the mind, Mask of the Betrayer also shines in a few other ways, such as having some very strong and intensely interesting characters involved. Every member of the party is captivating,* and many of the non-party characters involved in this tale are likewise well-written, particularly the Founder, in whom there are definite echoes of some of Avellone’s other great female characters, though she certainly stands alone as her own entity. The add-on also provides a halfway decent romance for the protagonist, which sure as hell couldn’t be said for the half-assed quasi-bond you could form with Casavir or Elenaee in NN2’s main game. I mean, it’s not amazing, but it’s decent and believable, and in the case of Safiya, an appealing mix of both destiny and personal choice which I like, so yeah, that’s cool. It’s got a very effective soundtrack, reminiscent of Planescape: Torment more than a few times in its ability to set a deep and captivatingly grand mood. The villain of this expansion is great, 1 of those masterminds whose presence is legitimately felt all throughout the story even if he himself does not enter it very much. Lastly, Mask of the Betrayer helps to at least somewhat make Neverwinter Nights 2’s atrocious ending a little better by providing some concrete information (most of it positive, happily) about the fates of Ammon Jerro, Bishop, Khelgar, Neeshka, Sand, Qara, Grobnar, and the protagonist. I don’t know who at Obsidian had the genius idea to make "Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies" the actual ending of the game, but this expansion, thankfully, corrects some of that.

Just...there are so many moments in this expansion which are incredible! Seeing the Wall of the Faithless and speaking with Bishop...learning of the fate of the Betrayer through the dreams you walk with Gann...the battle within your own soul at the end as the memories of your allies, friends, and family in the main campaign stand at your side...meeting the Founder and discovering the truth of the academy of Thay and the voices of Safiya...meeting the hag mother of Gann...this story is just filled with so many awesome moments.

All in all, Mask of the Betrayer is a brilliant, truly epic story, one which completely eclipses the main campaign of Neverwinter Nights 2 (while, incidentally, building itself off of the original story and incorporating many of its plot points). This expansion, not the main story, is the reason to play Neverwinter Nights 2. I don’t know how much MotB originally cost to purchase, and I don’t need to--it was worth every damn cent, whatever the amount was.

Storm of Zehir: Okay, like, I know that Mask of the Betrayer is a hard act to follow, but I can’t help but be pretty disappointed with Storm of Zehir. Frankly, there’s just not much of interest going on in this one. The plot is just a by-the-numbers Dungeons and Dragons venture of uncovering a hidden plot by some snake people to violently infiltrate a region of Faerun, and stopping it. It’s not very compelling, just a little adventure for the sake of it...which is fine if you execute it well enough, but Storm of Zehir just doesn’t. The plot feels listless and drifting. There’s little personality to any of the party members, and likewise little for almost all the NPCs, which isn’t good when the only character who moves the plot along, Sa’Sani, is one of those boring NPCs. The villains are surprisingly absent...for all the (apparently justified) fear of the Yuan-Ti in the towns you come across, and in spite of the fact that their schemes are what drives the conflict of this story, you see remarkably little of the Yuan-Ti here. And unlike the dead god Myrkul in Mask of the Betrayer, theirs is not a presence nor influence that can dramatically sustain itself from off the stage.

Also, Storm of Zehir clinches what Dragon Quest 4 and Weapon Shop de Omasse had led me to suspect: merchant simulator gameplay in RPGs is just never a good idea.

It’s only fair to mention that it’s not all bad with SoZ. It lets you see how the Neverwinter region does after the main campaign’s events, while the original protagonist is running about in Mask of the Betrayer, which is nice. And there’s a tiny little bit of NPC interaction that indicates that Casavir managed to survive the main game’s ending, despite what Mask of the Betrayer indicated, so that’s a positive (a tiny one, mind you, Casavir isn’t all that interesting). was kind of funny to see Ribsmasher return as a party member, I guess? Funny for a minute or two, at least.

Honestly, though, those minor positive details really don’t justify the time and effort of this expansion, and it’s got little else of note. It just feels like it was made for the sake of spending more time with Neverwinter Nights 2, rather than any particular interest in storytelling or with any message to convey. I don’t know how much this was to purchase back when it was sold separately from the main game, but it doesn’t matter: it wasn’t worth the time to play, let alone any money.

Mysteries of Westgate: ...Sigh. And it had such a promising start, too.

Mysteries of Westgate is almost as generic and uninteresting as Storm of Zehir. The plot is more present, but it’s too short to do much of anything with its initially promising premise (a cursed mask through which you can see a spectral wraith which haunts and wounds you),** and in the end, it’s just another generic little adventure about stopping (or joining, I guess) the secret plans of bad guys to take stuff over. Nothing notable beyond a few plot twists forced clumsily in at the last minute...and didn’t we already do the whole thing with a city’s thief guild being a secret vampire hotbed in Baldur’s Gate 2? Didn’t need it again.

The cast is a little better than Storm of Zehir, I guess, but not as good as the main campaign of the game, and certainly nothing compared to the characters of Mask of the Betrayer. Your party members are serviceable, have some character development, but really aren’t executed very well. I mean, you take Mantides.*** He’s a former paladin who was excommunicated from his religious order for having lost his self control and gone too far in killing his enemies, and now he loses himself in drink because it dulls the pain. That’s a character with some potential, right? Sure. But that summary I just gave you? He practically tells you as much word for word when you meet him. It’s know how an amateur writer who doesn’t understand how to show character behavior and depth to a reader over time will sometimes just hurriedly sum up their character in a few sentences? It’s like Mantides is doing that for himself.

It’s like if during Episode 1 of Scrubs, the first words out of Doctor Cox’s mouth were, “I’m an emotionally damaged man who’s afraid of giving up his own pride for long enough to get ahead in the world, and even more afraid of what success would do to change me, and my attitude, inability to connect emotionally with others, and self-destructive lifestyle is a result of my abusive parents and my ex-wife cheating on me and leaving me, the latter of which I am, deep down, damn sure aware is at least as much my fault as it is hers.” Only you’d have to elongate a few of those vowels, and maybe throw in a dig at Hugh Jackman, of course. Do you see how maybe that wouldn’t have been the best way for the protagonist and the audience to be introduced to the character? Come on, Mysteries of Westgate, I know it’s great for a person to be in touch with their issues, but you could maybe try to stretch that characterization out a little longer than the first 2 minutes of meeting the guy!

In fairness, the interactions between the party members, Charissa and Mantides in particular, are pretty decent, which helps make up a bit for what’s lacking in how the cast is otherwise portrayed. And there’s a couple other good points to Mysteries of Westgate. Like a rather fun sidequest in which you help a space hamster operative stop a cult from bringing an abominable dark ferret god into the world, all of which is anywhere between 10 - 90% the result of eating hallucinogenic underground trash berries. You may recall that I, like any sane individual, am quite fond of Minsc from Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2, so I found this little bit of fun referencing Minsc’s little pal Boo quite enjoyable. Also, the conclusions for the character arcs of Charissa and Mantides are pretty decent.

But in the end, well, this add-on just doesn’t really measure up. The narrative’s amateurish in its directness part of the time, and unable to catch up to the pace at other times, the characters don’t really feel alive, the villain’s bland and doesn’t really sell the master manipulator schtick that he wants to take on...Mysteries of Westgate just isn’t good, I’m sorry to say. Like Storm of Zehir, I don’t need to find out what it originally sold for to know that it wasn’t worth it.

And that’s all for the official add-ons of Neverwinter Nights 2. Not nearly so many as the first game had, but that’s certainly no disappointment, given how tiresome and superfluous NN1’s DLC started to feel after a while. So how does Neverwinter Nights 2 stack up against its predecessor in terms of additional content?

Well, favorably, I guess. I mean, yeah, Storm of Zehir and Mysteries of Westgate are absolute throwaways, not even close to worth the time it takes to play them. But the same can be said of several of Neverwinter Nights 1’s add-ons; neither SoZ nor MoW are any worse than Shadows of Undrentide or Wyvern Crown of Cormyr. And while NN1 did have its positive moments with Pirates of the Sword Coast, what little we got of Witch’s Wake, and especially the third act of Hordes of the Underdark, none of those hold the faintest candle to the excellence of Mask of the Betrayer.

In fact, as far as I’m concerned, Neverwinter Nights 2’s add-on experience was a positive success for me. SoZ and MoW might have been boring washes, but they weren’t outright bad experiences, and more importantly, Mask of the Betrayer is, as I’ve said, just thoroughly magnificent. If NN2 had contained within it every single add-on I’ve hated in the past 10 years, and Mask of the Betrayer, I’d still come out of the experience feeling damn good about it. I fully expect that when I do my Annual Summary for 2017, Mask of the Betrayer will by itself be 1 of the best RPGs I play this year, and if it weren’t for the fact that Torment: Tides of Numenera is coming out this same year, I’d even have bet that MotB would have a strong shot at the top spot.

So kudos to you, Obsidian--though you packaged it with a couple subpar peers and wrapped it in a mildly good game, you have 1 hell of a gem in Mask of the Betrayer, and I’ll keep it with me as 1 of my finest RPG experiences.

* By the way, does anyone reading this have a script for the character One of Many’s lines in this expansion? I went the good guy route, meaning that I had Okku as a follower rather than One of Many, so I didn’t really get to experience the latter very much. But the character’s concept is spectacular, and I would SO love to be as familiar with One of Many as I am with the rest of the cast. If anyone happens to know a script of One of Many’s lines, or perhaps a video specifically dedicated to conversations with One of Many, it would be so appreciated if you were to share it with me.

** Odd choice, by the way, to make a mask the focal plot item in this expansion. What with, y’know, the first expansion to the game being Mask of the Betrayer. I mean, yeah, the titular Mask of the Betrayer is more figurative than literal, but still, it almost feels like they were trying to ride the earlier expansion’s coattails somehow.

*** Pronounced, incidentally, way too close to “Man Titties” for comfort.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Guest Rant: Bravely Second's Sidquests' Failed Potential

Phew! Thinking up slightly amusing Valentine messages and slapping them on pictures of RPG stuff really took it out of me. I couldn't possibly make another rant so soon after that ordeal. Luckily, I don't have to! Today, my generous reader and friend Humza has provided me with another fine guest rant. I get to take a ranting breather, and you folks get to read something good for once. Everyone wins!

Disclaimer: As before, I don't own Humza's words, and they don't necessarily reflect my own opinions and observations. In fact, since I haven't played either of the Bravely games, it's a hard certainty that they don't. But who knows, they might someday. Time will tell.

Bravely Second’s Sidequests’ Failed Potential

November 28, 2016

I thought of writing about the sidequests from Bravely Second a while ago, but I thought it would be appropriate to submit something sooner rather than later since it shares some thematic relevance with the GrandLethal16’s submission considering how choice is a significant (maybe even the central) component of Bravely Second’s sidequests.

The basic premise is shared between all of the sidequests in Bravely Second: there are two parties (usually the asterisk holders from Bravely Default) that are in conflict, and they appoint Edea as a mediator (since she’s the daughter of the Grand Marshal and is expected to succeed her father as Eternia’s leader, which requires solving conflicts like this) to judge which side is morally superior.

The first sidequest that is available revolves around a conflict between Jackal and DeRosa, who argue about what the Wellspring Gem (which functions as a source of water) should be used for. Jackal wants to use it to sustain the people of the oasis as it traditionally has (a case that is made more compelling considering that there is currently a water shortage), while DeRosa wants to use the gem to produce somnial energy from water (which is similar to nuclear power, in its ability to produce immense amount of energy, but holds the destructive power to annihilate entire cities; DeRosa hopes that the power would help attain world peace since any aggressing country has the threat of being wiped out by other countries with the energy).

Ignoring logical errors on DeRosa’s part, this is a variation of the well-known trolley problem: would you rather save the people of the oasis at the expense of preventing any wars, or is their sacrificing a necessity for preventing even more lives from being lost?

At the same point in the story that the sidequest is made available, a city is enveloped by a wind spell cast by Norzem; those within it cannot leave and those outside it cannot enter the city. Norzem’s intent is to destroy the flying castle above the city, which also requires murdering the people inside the city. This could be interpreted as another variation of the trolley problem since the people of Ancheim would die, but many more lives would be saved as a result. This ties the sidequest neatly into the plot since both have a common theme that connects them.

The problem with Bravely Second’s sidequests is that none of the others follow suit in establishing a thematic connection to the plot. This might seem like nit-picking, but most of the other sidequests seem like short stories that the plot does not benefit from having (the game did set up these expectations itself, so it would be reasonable to expect the game to deliver on them). This is still quite good compared to most RPGs’ sidequests, which don’t provide much emotional investment to the player, but adding thematic relevance would likely make the side quests more memorable since there’s more significance attached to it (and it would also erase the feeling of disappointment from people that interpreted the first sidequest as I did, but it’s probable most others would not have cared or noticed the relevance while playing for enjoyment).

I’m aware that there would be some problems in tying each sidequest to the plot, but I think these problems would not outweigh the added benefits, and that many of them could be dealt with in some way.

The main problem is that the sidequests would need to be rewritten to some extent (or perhaps scrapped entirely), but I do not see this as a problem since some of the sidequests do not present an interesting moral problem (does anyone care about Gho summoning Amaterasu or continuing his current job, or who gets Arca Pellar’s lost song when there’s no clear positive or negative consequences on either side?) and those sidequests would likely be improved or replaced with better ones with such a rewrite, and most of the better sidequests in the game could be tied to the plot without losing any significant details. For example, the conflict between Ominas and Artemia could be moved to the point in the story where Revenant tries to avenge Geist since both involve the potential loss of a few innocent lives at the expense of [removing] a threat to more lives (I guess the writer likes trolley problems since this is another variation, albeit with the opposite outcome).

Another problem with the proposed improvement could be that the choice loses value because the plot would have reflected the “canon” choice that the player should have made, but a sidequest wouldn’t need to reflect a choice the party makes in order to establish a connection with the plot. Also, the main narrative purpose of the sidequests is to help Edea develop as a leader for Eternia (which is shown in the final sidequest) when the Grand Marshal retires, but there’s already a “best” or “canon” choice for Edea’s final choice*, which already makes it seem like the other individual choices don’t matter since the overall ending doesn’t matter (and you could make a case that the choices already have little significance since the localisation seems to have erased the bad consequences from the ending of each side quest).

I don’t know how something like this might be received on the blog since it reads more like feedback that one would send to a developer (it looks like Square Enix takes feedback seriously, at least for this series, so that might not be entirely worthless), but I’d be interested to see if others feel similarly or disagree.

*I wanted to add this as a note since it’s a significant spoiler (I tried to be vague about aspects of the plot beyond the beginning) and a spoiler warning wouldn’t flow well above (although I’d argue this criticism doesn’t really flow well in general...). For the final sidequest, Edea has the choice to use a sword or a shield to symbolise whether she rules with submission from her citizens or to protect them, and she would be judged depending on what she equipped. The decision treated as canon is if Edea were to get both the sword and the shield, but equip neither of them.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

General RPG Valentines 1

Howdy folks! It’s February! And that means that Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, the holiday all about love, joyous romance, and blowing your wallet to hell for the sake of appearances, because fuck me if we can have even a single goddamn holiday that our toxic level of capitalism doesn’t make into a cheap, crass cash grab.

Is there someone special in your life? Do you have a La Pucelle Tactics’s Priere-level disability that makes you utterly incapable of doing something so fucking simple as honestly communicating your affection to that someone special? Well, no worries, friends, The RPGenius has got you covered. Below are 20 RPG valentines guaranteed to win the heart of whomever you hand (well, copy-paste) them to! Or at least get him/her to look at you funny. But that’s still kinda like your senpai noticing you, right? Enjoy!

But hey, don’t think I’ve forgotten about you, sourpusses! Are you the sort of person who feels the need to take a holiday about romantic love as a personal attack? No worries, cuz The RPGenius has got you covered, too! Here are a few RPG anti-valentines to help you blacken someone’s day...or, as previously noted, just make them look at you funny. Ironically enjoy!

Oh, and yes, the number in this rant’s title does indeed mean that this is gonna be a yearly thing. My only regret is that it took me this long to think of this.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Mass Effect 2's Krogan Rite of Passage Symbolism

I’ve been looking back on the greatest science fiction epic of our age lately, and appreciating once more its skillful writing, artful lore and themes, and rich and engaging characters. Ah, Mass truly is a magnificent specimen of the space opera, one of gaming’s finest works of storytelling.

Well, until Bioware violently murdered it during its last 5 minutes.

But we won’t get into that again. For now, though, let’s rewind the series a bit, back to a moment of Mass Effect 2 that I think deserves a little extra appreciation: the Krogan Rite of Passage.

This is a point in the game during which Shepard must, to earn his teammate’s loyalty, take Grunt to the homeworld of the krogan to engage in a cultural tradition of battle which will cement Grunt’s place as a krogan. Shepard, Grunt, and the party member of your choice go to a ceremonial battleground, call forth a few waves of enemies to fight, and then have to deal with a hostile krogan asshole who wants to use Grunt for political power while openly treating him as a freak. It’s straightforward, but it’s also a notable moment in the game, because each part of this trial is thoughtful and symbolic of the Krogan people.

The first part of the rite involves fighting a pack of varren, the vicious, fish-lizard-canine things frequently used as attack dogs by mercenaries in the series, while a voice talks of how the krogan mastered their lethal planet. The symbolism here is fairly obvious: varren are native to the krogan homeworld of Tuchanka, so the rite-taker is proving himself a true krogan by mastering the deadly beasts of his homeworld, as his ancestors did. The next part of the trial replaces the varren with man-sized hostile insects, while the voice goes on to talk of the way the krogan were uplifted to defeat the rachni and save the galaxy. The symbolism here is, again, pretty simple and straightforward: the rachni were huge, insect-like creatures, so in this part of the rite, Grunt is symbolically proving that he can overcome the enemies of the krogans’ past by defeating giant insect monsters as his people once did.

The third and supposedly final part of the rite has some pretty cool symbolism. The voice speaks again, this time of the current difficulty that the krogan people face: the genophage, a genetic monstrosity inflicted upon the species by the other council races which causes only 1 in 1000 births to succeed. The genophage is an unconquerable enemy, against which the only victory the krogan race can hope for is basic survival. Once this speech is finished, Shepard and Grunt are attacked by a thresher maw, a titanic, acid-spitting worm that players of Mass Effect 1 know is better engaged with heavily armored, heavily armed vehicles rather than on foot. A timer is started for this battle--the goal is not to kill the monster, simply to abide its wrath. Once again, you get the symbolism of actually fighting against the great nemesis of the krogan race, but this time, it’s not seen as a fight that can be overcome, rather just a simple battle for survival. The genophage is something beyond the krogans’ ability to confront and defeat, and so they must find a way to live with it, bear its harm and fury as a species without going extinct. How neat to have this part of the rite symbolized by a trial of survival against the seemingly unbeatable thresher maw.

Now, what I’ve been saying so far is probably not news to you. The Mass Effect fan community was always ferociously devoted, so chances are good that you heard someone talk about the symbolism of the Krogan Rite of Passage on a forum or chatboard or something at one point or another. That, or you noticed it yourself when you played the game; it’s pretty simple, though effective, as symbolism goes. But, what I haven’t seen many people notice about this mission in the game is that the symbolism of this rite actually goes deeper, in 2 distinct ways:

Way the First: The supposedly final part of the trial, the battle against the thresher maw? It CAN be won. Powerful and deadly though the beast is, it’s possible for Grunt and Shepard to kill the gargantuan worm, a feat which is noted by some krogan bystanders as having not occurred since Wrex, Shepard’s original krogan buddy from the first Mass Effect and current leader of krogan Clan Urdnot, underwent the rite.

Now, you might think, at first, that this actually weakens the strength of the rite’s symbolism. After all, if the thresher maw is supposed to symbolize the genophage, it really should be an adversary that cannot be beaten, only endured, right? That makes sense. But...think about this key fact: the only individuals who have defeated the thresher maw in recent times have been Shepard and Grunt, and Wrex.

Shepard, Grunt, and Wrex.

Wrex: the krogan whose uncommon wisdom and drive are, during ME2 and 3, bringing the krogan race back together and forcing it to think in the long term about survival. Wrex is the leader that can bring respect and honor back to the krogan, give his race a real chance at uniting and working toward a future, rather than continuing to splinter and fight themselves to death.

Grunt: a krogan bred to be a super soldier, an unparallelled specimen of his race’s strength, ferocity, and determination. Grunt is the exemplar of what his creator, Okeer, saw as the necessary next step for the krogan race.

And Shepard: the human being who, in Mass Effect 3, assuming that he isn’t a complete fucking asshole, makes possible the curing of the genophage.

So essentially, the ones who defeat the thresher maw in the Rite of Passage, the individuals who symbolically kill the genophage, and thus symbolically kill the concept of the extinction that the krogan race brought on itself, are the individual who represents the intellectual, social, spiritual hope of the krogan people, the individual who physically represents the future of the krogan people, and the individual who will be responsible for the end of the actual genophage. The icons of the krogans’ future are the ones in this rite to take down the symbol of the krogans’ demise--that’s a really cool moment of symbolism and foreshadowing!

Way the Second: I keep saying that the Rite of Passage is “supposedly” finished after the thresher maw part because after the actual rite has ended, there’s a final part of the mission. A krogan clan leader named Uvenk shows up once the rite is over to offer Grunt the opportunity to join his clan. Until now, Uvenk has dismissed Grunt as a freak at best, an abomination at worst, refusing to believe him to be true krogan because he was created, rather than naturally born. Even in his offer, Uvenk is disrespectful to Grunt, being clear that this is just a move for political power, and saying that even as the shiny mascot of Uvenk’s clan, Grunt would still not be allowed certain rights of citizenship, such as mating opportunities. Naturally, Grunt says no to this offer, in the same way that Grunt says no to anything: with his gun. A battle ensues against Uvenk and his henchmen, and it’s only after Shepard and Grunt emerge victorious that the mission ends.

Now, because this isn’t an actual part of the Krogan Rite of Passage, no one really pays too much attention to this spat with Uvenk...but I actually think that this, too, is meant to be a symbolic struggle. See, the rite is all about symbolically overcoming the nemeses of the krogan, the obstacles that they had to and have to overcome in order to survive. The first was the dangers of their planet, the second was the rachni that they were uplifted by the Council races to defeat, the third is the genophage. Yet, there is, truly, 1 more foe to the krogan, the most dangerous threat to their race’s existence by far:

The krogan themselves.

The krogan culture is violent, warlike, and self-destructive. They waged nuclear war and destroyed their planet. They refused to discipline themselves and began a war with the Council races that ended in their being cursed with the genophage. And after that, instead of banding together to ensure that the nigh-complete destruction of their fertility did not ensure the end of their species, the krogan divided into warring clans and sold themselves out as mercenaries, throwing themselves into violence and death even as the genophage made it impossible to replace their numbers. Krogan like Wrex, who see that unification and cooperation are the only way to save their species, are rare indeed.

Now, I’m not saying that the krogan are inherently violent brutes. The existence of Wrex is proof enough that this is not true, and Bakara informs us in Mass Effect 3 that they once had a real, viable culture. This self-destructive society of the krogran is something that has grown far more from their history than their nature, much the same as our own self-destructive and foolish culture of hypermasculinity which we subject the males of our society to.

But if a culture of self-destructive pride and violence is not intrinsically a part of krogan nature, it is, at least, a deeply-entrenched part of their history, and it is the origin of the extinction that the race faces during the events of the Mass Effect trilogy.

So, the battle against Uvenk is actually a final, and probably the most important, piece of symbolism. Uvenk resists Wrex’s attempts to unite the clans. He is set in the traditional mindset of the krogan, one of powerlust, thirst for battle, and self-important pomposity. He spits upon what is new and different, as symbolized by Grunt, yet at the same time wants to use it to his own barbaric ends--he sees the utility of the new only in terms of how it can benefit his self-important old ways, treating it without respect. It is much akin to a major theme of the Mass Effect universe which the krogan as a whole symbolize--the danger of being advanced to a place of technology and society that one is not ready for.

And so, Uvenk is a symbol of the greatest foe that the krogan have: their own selfish, short-sighted, vainglorious, violent culture. Though not an official part of the Krogan Rite of Passage, Uvenk is perhaps the most important component to this ritual of battle against the krogans’ enemies.

The Mass Effect series really is something fantastic for so many reasons, and you really see it in moments like these, where great and layered writing is both easily accessible, and also deep enough to offer rewarding insights for contemplating it at length. No damn wonder I loved this trilogy so much.

Oh also this.