Monday, December 18, 2017

Annual Summary 2017

Well, my fine friends, it seems that we’ve arrived at the curtain call for yet 1 more year.

By all accounts, 2017 was a strong year for RPGs. Quite a few big titles of great substance came out this year, 1 after another, treating the gaming world with widely-acclaimed games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nier: Automata, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 5. I, of course, am not nearly on top of things to have played any of those, but I can at least verify that 2017 was also a strong year for the lesser-known side of RPGs, too, with the fun Cosmic Star Heroine, the powerful Children of Zodiarcs, and the excellent Torment: Tides of Numenera.

Of course, the year wasn’t a perfect win for the genre--Bioware was all too eager to proudly remind us of the existence of sloppy, below-average schlock can come at any time with their latest embarrassment to the Mass Effect series, and then equally eager to remind us of what undignified fools they and EA are as they blamed the poor quality of their creation upon anyone, everyone but themselves.* Still, anyone with a passing familiarity of Bioware’s exploits in the last decade can’t possibly be surprised by this turn of events.

Amused, yes. But not surprised.

So what games DID I play this year? Take a look!

Ambition of the Slimes
Betrayal in Antara
Children of Zodiarcs
Chronus Arc
Cosmic Star Heroine
Crystal Warriors
Energy Breaker
Fairune 2
Freedom Force 1
Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole
Millennium 1
Millennium 2
Millennium 3
Millennium 4
Millennium 5
Neverwinter Nights 2
Omikron: The Nomad Soul
Pokemon Generation 7
Project X Zone 1
Project X Zone 2
Squids Odyssey
Sweet Lily Dreams
Tales of Zestiria
Torment: Tides of Numenera

Overall, a wide variety this year in terms of age, style, and quality. I played plenty of Indie RPGs, obviously, but kept a decent footing in both standard JRPGs and Western RPGs, as well, and I likewise went for a wide range of publication dates, stretching as far back as a couple of 16-bit RPGs that I’d missed the first time around, to no less than 3 titles released this very year, which must be some kind of record for me, I think. Some were great, some sucked, and most, I found, were just kind of okay.

Of course, I didn’t just play RPGs all year. I did some other stuff, too, which for some reason I’m going to tell you all about as if you could possibly be interested! I read a few books, notably War is a Racket, Buddhism for Beginners, House of Mirth, A Fine and Private Place, Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, The Pearl, and the Beyond Flesh collection of short stories. I watched My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’s seventh season (it’s starting to show its age, but it’s still a solid show), the New Game! Anime (surprisingly good!), the infamous dub of the Ghost Stories anime (hilarious stuff), the new American Vandal series on Netflix (funny as a parody, and somehow also really good in its own right), the second season of Sonic Boom (still the only decent Sonic the Hedgehog product ever created), the Amazon-exclusive show Gortimer Gibbons’ Life on Normal Street (lovely kids’ show), the few episodes of the new Tick series that Amazon has released (absolutely awesome; I have fallen in love with The Tick all over again), and I kept up with Steven Universe’s erratic and frustrating update schedule. It’s a good thing SU just continues to be the greatest piece of western animation ever created, or I dunno if I would care to keep up with it, the way Cartoon Network airs the thing. Oh, and I also started watching The Flash, and am somewhere in its second season now. I also played some non-RPG games, like Kirby: Planet Robobot (thanks for the suggestion, Queelez, it was quite fun!), both Space Channel 5 games (fully watching a Let’s Play counts, right? Look, as fun and good as the games are, rhythm games are NOT for me), the recent Metroid 2 remake (never played the original, but this remake was freakin’ awesome!), and the visual novels Strawberry Vinegar (cute and fun) and Once on a Windswept Night (highly recommended!). I rewatched several seasons of Scrubs with my sister, and I’ve been rewatching a bunch of Doctor Who and Steven Universe as I show them to my mother. And, of course, I maintained full time employment and wrote these rants. So I did have a pretty full year, I think.

But all that’s beside the point. What’d I think of the RPGs I played this year? Let’s find out!

RPG Moments of Interest in 2017:

1. Pokemon Generation 7 was good. Like, a solid RPG. A Pokemon game. Good plot, a strong cast, and genuinely skillful writing. In a Pokemon game.

What the hell.

2. After years of anticipation, Torment: Tides of Numenera was finally released this year! And...okay, well, let’s not beat around the bush: it’s no Planescape: Torment. But it’s still an amazingly thoughtful, well-constructed RPG, and if not equal to its legacy, then at least very worthy of it.

3. While we’re on the subject of TToN, it’s worth noting that it contains in its cast 1 of those incredible rarities of the genre: a child character who actually speaks and behaves like a child. Why are kids so damn hard to write in an authentic way for RPGs?

4. I spent some time this year going through the fan modules for Shadowrun Returns, Shadowrun Dragonfall, and Shadowrun Hong Kong this year. Most are what I expected from having played ‘campaign’ mods for the Fallout games, honestly--fine, I guess, but with some problems that kind of just weigh them down and inescapably separate them from the quality and feel of a real part of the game. There were, though, a few that were really awesome--like, so good that they not only rivaled Harebrained Schemes’s content, but arguably surpassed it! Gonna put out a rant sometime about them, for sure.

5. Why does everyone’s main character profile in Betrayal in Antara have the look of someone who just got told that they’re going to be on the receiving end of anal sex?

6. This was a year of very odd first moments for me. I had never, for example, come across an RPG bold enough to have a conversational interlude about cat farts, but thanks to Betrayal in Antara, I now have that experience under my belt. Nor had I ever participated in a story scenario in which a character has a fight to the death in the past with her future dad inside the womb in which she’s currently a zygote...thanks for filling that gap, Energy Breaker. And, most important of course, 2017 is the year in which I encountered the thirstiest chicken ever.

7. For God’s sake, Namco, you need to calm the fuck down with cramming gameplay features into your RPGs. Tales of Zestiria was so absurdly over-playable that I could barely play it.

8. I may not have a whole lot of positive things to say for either Project X Zone game, but I have to admit, I’m fairly impressed with just how many things Xiaomu references with her wise-cracks in the second title. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Chrono Trigger, Space Jam, Captain N...there’s even a moment in PXZ2 in which Xiaomu drops a Zoo Race reference. Fucking ZOO RACE.

9. So apparently David Bowie created several songs for the game Omikron: The Nomad Soul, and even played a couple of its minor characters. Weird but true, not to mention, pretty awesome.

Best Prequel/Sequel of 2017:
Winner: Pokemon Generation 7
It’s insane. Right? A Pokemon game with a compelling and thoughtful story? And characters with depth and soul? This actually happened?

What’s craziest, though, is not just that Pokemon’s seventh game set has added actual storytelling quality to a series that has made it a point to actively avoid just that for over a decade. What’s crazy is that it does this while tying itself, and doing so with pride, so strongly to its series. This game lives up to the occasion of release on the series’s twentieth anniversary, staying true to the series’s staples while introducing new methods and ideas, and incorporating many references and connections to the characters and events of previous games. Even while being the freshest, most outright different Pokemon in the series, Generation 7 also manages to somehow be the most classic. As sequels go, it’s quite impressive.

Runners-Up: Millennium 4; Millennium 5; Neverwinter Nights 2
The Millennium series is basically just a single continuing plot, so they all make decent sequels. I think the best of them is Millennium 4, for the fact that it has the most emotion and tension in the series, and in being the conclusion of Marine’s search for warriors, it’s basically as important as the actual conclusion to her overall quest. Millennium 5’s decent, too, and as the culmination of all that the series has led to, it’s natural for it to be good in terms of sequel-hood. Finally, Neverwinter Nights 2 isn’t a direct continuation of the first game, but it does take place in the same region of the D+D universe, and at least has some references to events and characters of NN1, so it works alright as a sequel.

Biggest Disappointment of 2017:
Loser: Squids Odyssey
By all rights, Project X Zone 1 should be here, but although you can say precious little else in its favor, at least it was actually a complete game. Had a beginning and an ending. Squids Odyssey? Not so much. Apparently not qualified enough to work in an Indian call center, the second-rate scam artists at The Game Bakers steal their living by selling a 'game' which, in the middle of its story, drops you out with no warning. No conclusion, not even the tiniest attempt at a concluding transition for a future game, just ends. Like someone up and dying in the middle of a sentence. Sometimes RPG stories are large enough that they have to be told in installments, like Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga, but when that happens, the writers are competent and responsible enough to ensure that the first installment in the story ends at a turning point, one that gives the audience a sense of closure with the part of the plot that they’ve witnessed. But that just isn’t the case here. This is just an abrupt halt that implies with no uncertainties that you’ve wasted your money paying for a game that was never finished. So as crappy and disappointing as Project X Zone 1 may be, Squids Odyssey was the biggest disappointment of my RPG year by default, because when I pay for a game, I expect a fucking game, not just a long demo.

Almost as Bad: Ambition of the Slimes; Freedom Force 1; Project X Zone 1
Freedom Force 1 just seems not to be sure whether it’s an homage or a mockery of golden age superhero comics, and ends up being neither--it’s too straightforward and earnest to appreciate its absurdity, too silly to appreciate it seriously, and frankly, not especially interesting either way. I was hoping for something silly and fun like The Tick, I would have accepted an outright old-school comic book story, but what I got wasn’t good enough to be either. Ambition of the Slimes ironically doesn’t pretend to be anything ambitious, so expecting anything notable from it is probably my fault, but damn it, a game where you play as a bunch of XP-fodder that’s had enough and rolls over human civilization should have been a lot more enjoyable! If you’re gonna flagrantly subvert the universal constants of the genre and use that as a selling point, then...well, not every game can be Undertale, but I at least expect a few cheap laughs as you poke fun, not just a flavorless slog through an uninteresting farce of a plot!

As for PXZ1...I’ll say it again: how the HELL do you compile a team of characters from Street Fighter, Megaman X, Devil May Cry, Space Channel 5, Valkyria Chronicles, Resident Evil, and like a dozen more franchises...and make it boring?! I mean, I wasn’t expecting a stirring drama of insight into the human spirit from a game that has Chun-Li kicking Ghosts'n'Goblins zombies, but I did think it would be, I dunno, entertaining! But PXZ1 is just incredibly boring, relentlessly boring, methodically boring!

Best Finale of 2017:
Winner: Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer DLC
It may not be a full game as such, but there’s no denying NN2’s Mask of the Betrayer its rightful place as king of the awesome finales this year. MotB comes together at its conclusion perfectly in accordance to everything it has built itself up to be as an epic undertaking and a personal story...a battle with allies both foul and divine in the streets of the city of the dead, against a death god’s adherents, to determine your fate and the fate of the curse of ultimate hubris, putting an end to an ancient story of love, justice, and betrayal that affects every corner of the’s a daunting labor, to create a finale powerful and rewarding enough to live up to the excellence that has led to that point, but the writers of Mask of the Betrayer are equal to the task. The finale to Mask of the Betrayer is, as with all other parts of its narrative, magnificent.

Runners-Up: Millennium 5; Pokemon Generation 7; Torment: Tides of Numenera
In another year, Pokemon Generation 7 and Torment: Tides of Numenera might each have easily taken top spot here. The final confrontation with Lusamine, the culmination of Lillie’s personal journey, is a truly powerful moment...and after the interim of mucking about with the Pokemon League, the actual ending is a heartfelt, bittersweet tearjerker. As for Torment: Tides of Numenera, similar to the finale to Mask of the Betrayer, it’s the thoughtful, epic culmination of the creative, insightful journey of grand thought and substance that has led to it. It’s of the same great matter and style as Mask of the Betrayer; MotB is simply a little better of a specimen, is all.

Oh, yeah, and Millennium 5’s finale was good. Does what it needs to do well, and there’s an unexpected level of emotion and tension to it, as well as a rather counterintuitive, yet nonetheless insightful, narrative approach to achieving the true ending. Maybe not up to the finales I’ve spoken of above, but it’s still solid stuff.

Worst RPG of 2017:
Loser: Project X Zone 1
I did a whole hate-dump rant on this crappy game, so just read that, if you’re interested. In summary, though? If RPGs were meals, then Project X Zone 1 would be a sagging, soggy heap of cornstarch bloated with rainwater.

Almost as Bad: Ambition of the Slimes; Chronus Arc; Squids Odyssey
Trying to find meaning or individuality in a Kemco RPG is akin to trying to find humanity in an airline corporate executive, so Chronus Arc’s place on this list isn’t exactly surprising. What is surprising is just how little personality Ambition of the Slimes has. You’d think a self-aware game based on an amusing turnabout of RPG conventions would be fun, but Ambition of the Slimes is just a soulless trek from 1 battle to the next with less personality and care to its below-minimal narrative than is given to your average software tutorial mascot. Seriously, there’s more heart and humanity in the suggestions of that stupid MS Word paperclip than in the dialogue for Ambition of the Slimes.

Squids Odyssey is, while it’s going on, okay. Not good, not even decent, but not outright bad. Under normal circumstances, I would have put Sweet Lily Dreams here instead of Squids Odyssey. But, as I mentioned before, this stupid game’s just not complete, and doesn’t even make the pretense of having so much of a transitioning conclusion to some prospective future title. Funny how they don’t mention this little fact on the store page, huh? So it gets a place of dishonor here this year, because Squids Odyssey is not a game, it’s a first draft.

And also because its developers, The Game Bakers, are a bunch of jerks that I hate. Seriously, fuck those guys.

Most Creative of 2017:
Winner: Torment: Tides of Numenera
The world of Numenera is 1 of nearly limitless possibilities to explore for a writer, and the team who created TToN took full advantage of that fact. If you thought Dungeons and Dragons allowed the writing team of Planescape: Torment to come up with some insanely interesting scenarios, people, and devices, then you haven’t spent 30 minutes exploring the Ninth World and talking to its residents. The main story of the game is interesting and fairly creative, but it’s the characters, settings, and lore of this game that are strikingly unique...the machines and cultures you encounter are fascinating and singular; many times, small sidequests you undertake will utilize bizarre and thoughtful ideas with such interesting potential that one could easily have derived an entire story from them alone. From the Sorrow to the Bloom, from the Tides to the Meres, from Aligern’s tattoos to Callistege’s multi-reality, Torment: Tides of Numenera is ferociously creative.

Runners-Up: Omikron: The Nomad Soul; Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer DLC; Severed
The story of the Betrayer, and how it unfolds, is innovative in that classic Chris Avellone way, and though it borrows much of its foundations from D+D lore, the thoughts and philosophies it builds upon those foundations are penetratingly inventive. Omikron: The Nomad Soul is very innovative and interesting several ways, from its core themes to its world and lore, to, most notably, its meta nature in which it includes the player him/herself in its story, a rare but interesting approach taken by only a few other RPGs (Baten Kaitos and, to a very small extent, Earthbound and Undertale). Is it just me, or do PC RPGs of OTNS’s era all seem to be very engrossing and unique? I mean, there’s this, there’s Deus Ex 1, there’s seems like a real pioneer age of RPGs.

Finally, Severed is a very creative RPG, unique in its style, approach, story, and aesthetic...I daresay that Torment: Tides of Numenera stole the winning spot that Severed would have earned most other years. I’m really glad I can include it here in at least 1 section of this year’s summary rant, too, because even if it just doesn’t stand up to the big names of the year that show up over and over here, Severed is, in its quiet way, a really great game, and I’d hate for it to get completely lost in the shuffle here.

Best Romance of 2017:
Winner: Persi and Protagonist (Shadowrun: Hong Kong: The Caldecott Caper Mod)
Right, um, so...breaking protocol in a major way here. I said earlier that I played some fan-made campaigns for the PC Shadowrun games this year, yeah? Well...1 of them, The Caldecott Caper, is just absolutely great, a truer and higher quality Shadowrun adventure than the actual, official Shadowrun: Hong Kong campaign. And, like, it’s a fan-created, unofficial thing, so I’m not really considering it for placement in these categories, but...I just can’t help it on this matter. The romance between the main character of The Caldecott Caper and Persi? It is legit, guys. Like, this is a really, really nice love story. It’s poignant, it’s really feels like a genuine portrayal of a fast-forming, but true bond between soulmates. It is seriously good. Way, way above like 80% of the romances you see in officially published RPGs. And damn it all, it’s just not honest to pretend that romancing Persi wasn’t the best story of romantic love that I’ve seen this year. So, yeah, I’m breaking the rules for this one. Sorry not sorry. If you’ve got Shadowrun: Hong Kong, you should definitely check out The Caldecott Caper, for this and many other reasons.

Runners-Up: Akachi and the Founder (Neverwinter Nights 2); Kalach-Cha and Safiya (Neverwinter Nights 2); Lillie and Moon (Pokemon Generation 7)

Okay look, I know that it’s not official that Lillie and Moon/Sun are in love, but come on. Just look at everything Moon/Sun is to Lillie, look at the way they interact late in the game. Watch the scenes on that Exeggutor island. You can’t tell me, you cannot seriously tell me, that Lillie doesn’t love Moon/Sun.

Aside from my squealy shipping needs, though, there are some romantic pairs this year that were quite good AND actually officially recognized, too. I find the romance between the protagonist of Neverwinter Nights 2 and Safiya to be very tender and natural, a compelling combination of the legacies they carry, and their own natural disposition and chemistry. The romance between Gann and the Kalach-Cha is really good, too, I should note--I just like the story and personal connection between the Kalach-Cha and Safiya a little more, and my Pokeshipping needs kinda just bumped poor Gann off the list. But it totally is really good, too. Lastly, although it’s primarily described and shown after the fact, the love story between Akachi and the Founder is a touching and truly epic tale of love, an example of that greatest human emotion that shakes the foundations of the universe itself. Powerful stuff, and a great foundation upon which to base the grand tale of insurrection against the very laws of reality.

...Man, it’s so nice to have a year where there’s a good handful of really good romances, enough that there’s actual competition for who gets on the list here. Doesn’t happen often enough.

Best Voice Acting of 2017:
Winner: Tales of Zestiria
ToZ’s just got solid vocals. I mean, not everything’s completely on point, but almost all the major performances are quite competent, and some of them, like the actresses for Rose and Edna, and the actor for Zaveed, really bring their characters to life with their talents. That’s all there is to it, really. There’s nothing amazing to be found in ToZ’s voice acting, but it does what it needs to, and it does it well.

Runners-Up: Betrayal in Antara; Neverwinter Nights 2; Torment: Tides of Numenera
As with the winner, there’s not much to say. Some performances in Betrayal in Antara are a bit questionable, but altogether, the voice actors turn in solid work that does a good job in compensating for still portraits to bring the story to life. Neverwinter Nights 2 as a whole does its work well; its main campaign’s voices, and those of its later DLCs, do their job adequately to give their casts personality, and the Mask of the Betrayer vocals adequately convey the gravity and depth of their characters and story, which is good. The same is largely true of Torment: Tides of Numenera...the characters do a good enough job to make the game’s cast and story work. You can’t say much better for them, but there’s sure as hell nothing wrong with simply being adequate enough to keep steady with your game’s high quality.

Funniest of 2017:
Winner: Cosmic Star Heroine
CSH isn’t an RPG devoted to humor, but it’s got a good dose of it, and it employs it at the right times. It also strikes a good balance between poking fun at the oddities of RPGs’ conventions, and having general in-universe jokes and comedy.

Runners-Up: Driftmoon; Project X Zone 2
Driftmoon is a pretty innocuous little romp as a whole, pleasant but never exceptional. It’s not trying to be funny, specifically, but it’s also got enough quirks and lighthearted tongue-in-cheek situations and dialogue that it’ll get a smile and perhaps even a chuckle from you fairly often. Project X Zone 2...well, it’s not a great, or good, or even okay RPG, honestly, but it’s still a huge step up from its predecessor, and a major part of that is the fact that many of the jokes it’s cracking, and some of the comical situations it creates, actually are funny, not solely tired gags repeated ad infinitum. There are repeated gags, too, and don’t get me wrong, they’re not all winners, but still, I actually did laugh here and there while playing it, so it’s alright for humor purposes. You can tell that someone on the writing team was actually putting some effort into it this time around.

Best Villain of 2017:
Winner: Lusamine (Pokemon Generation 7)
I’m really happy this year, because I got a damn fine assortment of villains from the games I played. I mean, there were plenty of boring and subpar ones, as always, but the cream of the crop was really awesome. And of them, I believe Lusamine is the greatest. She’s just got it all as a villain. She’s got a fascinating backstory (which is subtle, difficult to dig up, but rewarding to piece together) that explains how she became as she is, which is believable and seems very human. She’s got a villain angle that’s actually very refreshing and nearly unknown in RPGs, which is awesome--the schtick of a paranoid, mad need to control all that she wants love from is great and different for an RPG bad guy, and the fact that her evil acts are of a personal nature rather than some nefarious bid for global dominance or whatever make her a more relatable villain. She’s strongly connected to the heroine of the story (assuming you buy into the same view as I do regarding the protagonist of the game). And she has a presence. A good villain does all the stuff I just listed--a great villain adds to that an ability to dominate the atmosphere and the audience’s attention merely through the fact of being there. Fascinating, mad, dangerous, harmful, and overpowering, Lusamine is a terrific villain.

Runners-Up: The Changing God (Torment: Tides of Numenera); Myrkul (Neverwinter Nights 2); Zirchhoff (Children of Zodiarcs)
All excellent villains who were strong contenders against Lusamine. Myrkul is basically exactly the sort of commanding, behind-scenes presence, and the kind of icon of the sinful abuses and petty humanities of the gods, that the Mask of the Betrayer DLC needs to succeed in its ambitions and ideas. As with most significant characters in an Avellone-heavy game, you could go into Myrkul for quite a while in analysis, but in the interest of making this rant less than an all-day activity, I’ll save that for another time. Similarly, the Changing God is a powerful, overbearing presence throughout the game, and yet ultimately a frail and pitiful individual whose myriad evil acts have as much--more, even--to do with the weakness in his heart and soul as they do with good intentions gone wrong. He’s a truly remarkable villainous figure, somewhat like a combination of Myrkul and the worst parts of the Nameless One from Planescape: Torment, and I could understand anyone who would have placed the Changing God above Lusamine as best villain. Finally, Zirchhoff may not have quite the same profound power as the others this year, but he’s still a great villain, good for his complexity and purpose, and great for how perfectly he reflects the game’s protagonist, and embodies the theme and message of the game very well.

Best Character of 2017:
So, we’re gonna do things a little differently this year. See, as you may have noticed from the fact that they’re all over this rant, I played not just 1, but 2 games this year that had significant involvement with Chris Avellone. And, well...the fact is that this will make the Best Character section here a little skewed if we do things the normal way, as only a single character from any other game this year stands a chance against Torment and Betrayer’s cast. So, instead, we’re going to do this section twice: once for characters from Chris-Avellone-involved games, and then again for all the rest. Because there were quite a few really good characters this year beyond those 2 dominant games’ casts, and they ought to get some recognition, too.

Group 1 (Avellone Games) Winner: Kaelyn (Neverwinter Nights 2)
Kaelyn is just an absolutely fascinating character, with many different levels, and the concepts she represents of a justice that transcends divinity, of a nobility of spirit that is self-dooming, are great food for thought and truly impact themselves within the player’s consciousness. You can view her in so many ways, connect her to so many concepts and figures--I like to compare her to the scholar’s version of Lucifer presented by the Shin Megami Tensei series, for example--that she’s almost more a force of philosophy and human spirit than she is a fictional character. I haven’t played an actual Dungeons and Dragons session in many, many years, but if I ever decide to take it up again, I know that every character I create from this point forward will be one who follows Kaelyn in her crusade for the faithless.

Group 1 (Avellone Games) Runners-Up: Akachi (Neverwinter Nights 2); Matkina (Torment: Tides of Numenera); Rhin (Torment: Tides of Numenera)
It was hard to discount Okku, Erritis, One of Many, and Tybir, but these 3 have edged them out. Akachi is a fascinating figure in the mythological sense, his tale and legacy making him seem larger than life, and his crusade and its motives are likewise epic and compelling. Yet he’s also a well-crafted character in the smaller sense; what we see of the truth of his person is interesting, as well. Matkina is the party member that Torment: Tides of Numenera seems to spend the most time on and ties the most strongly to the plot, and it pays off with a solid character whose stake in the game’s events kept her in my party at all times. Lastly, Rhin is just a great child character, whose reliance upon the Last Castoff is genuine, touching, and dynamic. She’s got a compelling and singular personality, she develops as a person as the adventure goes on, and by the end of the game, she was by far the individual I was most attached to and emotionally invested in. Kudos to the TToN team for a really great job on not just making an authentic kid, but one that’s also a solid character in her own right.

Group 2 (Everyone Else) Winner: Lillie (Pokemon Generation 7)
This should come as little surprise to you, as I have extolled the virtues of Lillie more than once now. Lillie is a character with depth, symbolic of the greater ideas of the game’s story, highly dynamic, and, it must be said, astoundingly lovable. Even if I hadn’t split this year’s characters up into different groups, you can be Lillie would still make the list.

Group 2 (Everyone Else) Runners-Up: Edna (Tales of Zestiria); Nahmi (Children of Zodiarcs); Rose (Tales of Zestiria)
Rose is just a refreshingly unique and appealing person who manages to fill a lot of character roles at once, yet always seem very real as she does so--but then, maybe it’s because she has so many aspects of who and what she is in the game that she comes off as a genuine human being. Real humans tend to be so much more varied, with more diverse personality branches, than most fictional characters really capture, after all. Edna’s deadpan yet mischievous approach to the world is a lot of fun, and the situation with her brother, along with her more pessimistic views in general, give her some decent depth that performs well in the ToZ team’s dynamic. Finally, Nahmi’s a really well-written character, and, much like Zirchhoff, she is an excellent embodiment of the heavy theme of and messages on vengeance and suffering within Children of Zodiarcs. You can really understand who she is and how she got to be this way, commiserating with her even as you shake your head in sorrow at the terrible mistakes she makes, and watch as she grows and improves from the power of another’s kind innocence. Truly a well-written individual, Nahmi is.

Best Game of 2017:
Winner: Torment: Tides of Numenera
Being the spiritual sequel to Planescape: Torment is a heavy burden to bear...and Torment: Tides of Numenera doesn’t quite measure up to its predecessor’s genius. But even if it can’t quite fill the big shoes of its parent, TToN is still filling footwear sizable enough to give Tetsuya Nomura a tingly feeling in his pants. This is a thoughtful, intensely creative follow-up treatise on the concepts of suffering, legacies, mortality and immortality, and our actions as a people and as individuals, and 1 of the greatest RPGs I’ve had the privilege to play. Excellent from start to finish, Torment: Tides of Numenera was, to me, well worth the wait.

Runners-Up: Children of Zodiarcs; Neverwinter Nights 2; Pokemon Generation 7
I guess this isn’t much of a surprise on most counts by this point--these names just keep turning up. Well, the adulation is well-earned. For the first time, the RPG genre welcomes Pokemon as a legitimate member of its esteemed circles, as Generation 7 shows us that Game Freak actually CAN write a weighty, meaningful, and emotionally compelling story with several well-crafted characters that capture our hearts and make us think. Children of Zodiarcs is a really great RPG that explores the terrible nature of revenge, suffering, unjust society, and the ways that the pain we visit upon others continues on to harm still more people, until finally it returns to us, a grotesque spiritual cancer that has twisted all it has touched along its boomerang curve.

As for Neverwinter Nights 2...well, if we were to judge it solely on its Mask of the Betrayer DLC, it would win this year, trumping even Torment: Tides of Numenera in storytelling excellence. MotB is a truly epic, brilliant exploration into humanity and the divine, love and injustice, fealty and, of course, betrayal, and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed every moment of its narrative. Still, it’s but a part of Neverwinter Nights 2’s whole, and the rest of NN2,’s not very impressive. There are some definite positives in the original campaign, enough that I would even rate it as decent overall, and the other 2 DLCs do have a few fine moments, but ultimately, Mask of the Betrayer is the only part of the game that’s in any particular way impressive. So I can’t really rate it as the best this year...but MotB is at least excellent enough that it elevates Neverwinter Nights 2 as a whole to be deserving of being a runner-up. Definitely recommended.

List Changes:
Greatest Deaths: After some thought about it, Padok Wiks has been added as Honorable Mention; Leader has been removed. Sorry, you tragic teacher-type of techy teens.
Greatest Villains: The Changing God and Lusamine have been added; The Master and Loghain have been removed. Sorry, you misguided mutant-making monstrosity and you paranoid puppeteer pretending to be protector of your people.
Pokemon: List expanded to 10 places. Mimikyu, Ninetales (Alola Form), and Primarina have been added; Barbaracle has been removed. Sorry, you bizarre bunch of bending barnacles.
Worst Endings: Neverwinter Nights 2 has been added; Final Fantasy 7 has been removed. Congrats, you inarguably ingenious and innovative icon of interactive entertainment.
Worst RPGs: Project X Zone 1 has been added; Lufia 1 has been removed. Congrats, you console classic that’s complete crap.

And that’s the end of the story for 2017. Had its ups and downs, but overall, I’m quite satisfied with it. Any year that adds a title to the greatest 25 RPGs I’ve ever played is a good year by my book. A huge thanks to my sister and Ecclesiastes for all the help they provide me in making these rants, and another huge thanks to my patrons, Humza and Nictusempra, whose great generosity this year has helped me feel a little less like my ranting hobby is a complete waste of time, heh. And, of course, a big ol’ thanks to all of you for reading. Happy holidays! We’ll meet again come the new year.

* Quite possibly the most entertaining thing about Bioware’s newest experimentation with yawn inducement isn’t the hilarity of their initial failure to even equal the same level of facial programming for characters that they had 10 years ago. No, it’s the advertising for Mass Effect Andromeda. Remember how after the shameful debacle of Mass Effect 3’s absolutely fucking awful ending, ads for the game started prominently displaying the phrase, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey”? Well, the main ad for Mass Effect Andromeda on television and for online videos was set to Rag’n’Bone Man’s song Human, the chorus of which insists, “don’t put your blame on me.” I almost want Bioware to take another crack at the franchise, just to see how their next pathetic attempt at denying their complete failure as writers and creators is expressed through their advertising. My guess is that the advertisement theme for Bioware’s next project is going to be based around pictures of Calvin’s Dad, with text underneath them reminding us that suffering is good because it builds character.

Friday, December 8, 2017

General RPGs' Unusual Good Luck with Sequels

You know something? The RPG genre has an unusual lucky streak when it comes to sequels, when you think about it. I mean, with most mediums of expression, the first sequel is a tricky business. Sure, sometimes you pull off a Catching Fire, and your second book’s just as good as your first. Sure, sometimes you pull off an Empire Strikes Back, and your second movie’s not only a perfect continuation of your first, but even, arguably, a little better. And sure, sometimes you even pull off a Terminator 2, and your second movie’s actually really fucking incredible even though its predecessor was only so-so.*

But for every Catching Fire, there’s a Purgatorio.** For every Empire Strikes Back, there’s 5 Pirates of the Caribbean 2s. And, sadly, for every Terminator 2, there’s like, I dunno, at least 20 The Rats of Nimh 2s.*** While some sequels can live up to expectations or even rise above, more of them end up being superfluous, or disappointing, or a truly horrible black stain on a once laudable and beloved name.

Except, it seems to me, in the world of RPGs. Oh, sure, there are plenty of cases with this genre in which the sequel was a bad idea (Valkyrie Profile 2), or a fine (perhaps even necessary) idea that’s just not handled well (Xenosaga 2), or a godawful abomination which proves that we went wrong somewhere as a species (Final Fantasy 10-2). By no means am I saying that bad RPG sequels don’t exist. Hell, I'm not sure you could even have SquareEnix if bad RPG sequels weren't a thing; they may just be the most signature trait of the company. But I am saying that there seems to be a much higher rate of success for direct sequels in the RPG world than in most other genres and art forms. More often, it seems, you get a game that fully lives up to its predecessor’s expectations (Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2), improves upon the source material (Arc the Lad 2), or even just wildly exceeds expectations (Grandia 2). Hell, even some of the disappointing sequels in RPG Land sort of don’t even qualify as bad sequels--I maintain that though Deus Ex 2 and Alundra 2 don’t compare to the originals, they’re nonetheless still decent RPGs when judged strictly by their own merits, for example.

And that’s just talking about direct sequels. When you look at franchises which last 3 installments or longer...well, sometimes you get lucky, and you get a Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, and all 3 (or more) movies are worth seeing. But most often, series can’t sustain themselves for long past the second installment (if they can even manage that), and the longer they go, the less chance that they’ll pull off something particularly good in a later title. Unless the madman at the helm finally sells his franchise that he’s completely sunk to someone who can actually manage to do something decent with it *PRETEND-COUGH-BECAUSE-IT- DOESN’T-ACTUALLY-WORK-IN-TEXT* George Lucas *COUGH*.

But with RPGs? You can have be like 15 installments into a franchise and still have a good chance of finding a gem like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Hell, the best games of the Legend of Zelda series are all later titles in its history! Yeah, sometimes the third game in an RPG series will crash and burn in a horrible spectacle, like Grandia 3 or Shadow Hearts 3...but then again, the third title in an RPG series has a pretty decent chance of being the best of the franchise yet, like Star Ocean 3 and Wild Arms 3. I mean, I want you to just think for a moment, think really hard, and answer me this: what other form of entertainment media can you think of in which it’s not unusual for the best installment in a series to be its seventh title, like with RPGs’ Pokemon Moon and Sun? Its eighth (Dragon Quest)? Its ninth (Final Fantasy)?

And for that matter, how many non-RPG series are there to be found in which the quality can stay pretty consistently high for so many titles? Fire Emblem’s had 14 numbered titles, and having played FE games from a spattering of places in its lifetime (1, 4, 7, 9, and 14, so far), I’m led to believe that it’s stayed pretty decent from start to current day. Fallout’s on its fifth main, canon title now, and each canon part of the series has been just plain excellent, and so consistently so that 3 of its titles occupy the same area of my Greatest RPG list, with the other 2 titles only barely having missed making the list as well. And hell, you want consistent quality over a ridiculous number of different titles, you need look no further than Shin Megami Tensei. It’s, what, the second biggest RPG series on the planet now? Well over 30 titles, still frequently churning them out, and Atlus is managing to nonetheless keep the quality high--SMT4-2 was a strong RPG, and I hear almost nothing but great things about this year’s SMT Persona 5. You let me know what other genre of entertainment can show an example that’s 30+ installments into its series and still manage to be intellectually gripping, philosophically significant, and emotionally compelling.

Lastly, I feel like RPGs also have an above-average tendency to have a shitty start to their series, which is then turned around by a great sequel. Sure, it happens outside of RPGs, too--I was very excited by the prospect of DC actually turning their shit-show around and building a proper cinematic universe after Wonder Woman proved that they can make a movie that isn’t the film equivalent of rectal cancer (too bad we instead got the Justice League movie that's currently violating theaters)--but again, I don’t think it happens nearly as often as it does with RPGs. Star Ocean 1 and 2 were crap, but Star Ocean 3 was actually pretty darned decent. Lufia 1 is excessively boring, while Lufia 2 is an absolute classic. Tales of Phantasia was pretty dull and generic in spite of having some promising plot foundations, but later installments like Tales of Legendia and Tales of the Abyss**** are terrific.

At any rate, I suppose I could be wrong, and my perspective is skewed on the matter. I do eat, breathe, and crap RPGs,***** after all. I may be a leeeeettle bit biased on this. Still, looking over all the RPG sequels and franchises I’ve played, I can’t help but feel that the whole sequel experience has been unusually positive for the genre.

* Come at me, fanboys.

** Come at me, lit professors.

*** Come at me, absolutely no one in the entire fucking world.

**** Come at me, Ecclesiastes. Er, again.

***** Hey, Kemco! I'm still waiting for the royalty check for all the times you fished something out of my toilet and published it, you know!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Fallout 4's Strengths and Weaknesses as a Fallout Game

Warning: This rant is long, and it is filled with Fallout fanaticism. Like, really long, really filled. If you don’t love this series passionately, then do not expect to care a lot.

The Fallout series is, overall, a highly loved and appreciated one by gamers far and wide. And for good reason! Every (canon) installment of the series to date has been fantastic, and 3 of its 5 installments are on my list of the Greatest RPGs, with the other 2 titles very close to making said list. Every time I update that rant, they very nearly make it on there; in fact, if I were to extend it even a single spot more than its current 25, Fallout 1 would be on it to join 3, 4, and New Vegas.

Funnily enough, though, as uniformly excellent as the series is, there are still a lot of hardcore fans who will insist that a certain installment isn’t up to code, and, in fact, sucks. Some of the oldest fans hate Fallout 3 and point to New Vegas as a ‘true’ successor to the legacy Fallout 1 and 2 created. Others eschew Fallout: New Vegas for similar reasons, insisting that its feel and aesthetic is overrated, inferior to the new vision that Bethesda had for the series with Fallout 3. Others insist that the games never should have lost the turn-based grid style of the first 2 installments. And so on and so forth.

Such hotly contested debates seem wholly ridiculous to me. I mean, honestly? The quality of the Fallout series is so consistent that the differences from 1 title to the next (with the exception of the transition from 2 to 3, I guess) in terms of aesthetic, characters, and storytelling style are so small that it seems like a bunch of people screaming at each other not about whether apples are better than oranges, but rather whether red delicious apples are better than honeycrisp apples. Fallout 3 has a more epic story with more moments of greater emotional weight, Fallout: New Vegas has better characters and more meaningful choices to be made, Fallout 3 has a wider and more significant view of humanity and American culture, Fallout: New Vegas has more thoughtful themes of culture and historical metaphors, both of them lack the lonely post-apocalyptic creativity of the first Fallout, yet the true aesthetic and soul of the setting is only achieved by the later games, Fallout 2 is the one that established some of the most fundamentally essential parts of the series’s historical lore...and on, and on. But while each installment has certain aspects that it does best, what’s really important, what really makes each Fallout title excellent, remains present and powerful: the setting’s hold over us, the engaging characters and situations, the creative plots and lore, the ambient storytelling, and most importantly, the examination of American culture, and humanity as a whole. Regardless of how crisp and sweet/sour you like your apple, they’re all tasty regardless, and they all make great desserts.

So, naturally, Fallout 4 has its set of fan detractors. I work with one, in fact. The guy has logged something like 500 hours on the game, and insists that it’s the weakest installment yet. His reasons for thinking this are valid, although I disagree with him that they’re enough to put it at the bottom of the list. But while I do see some folks who say that Fallout 4 is the worst of the series for such-and-such reason, as I see folks say about every Fallout offering, I don’t actually see many people who say the opposite. Usually there’s some balance--about as many people who say Fallout 3 is the best as there are who say Fallout: New Vegas is better and that 3 was trash, about as many people who insist that the original Fallouts were the only true ones as people who say they weren’t any good, etc. But while lots of people obviously loved Fallout 4, there don’t seem to be all that many staunchly defending it or noting what it does better than its peers. Well, maybe they have better things to do with their time.

I obviously don’t.

So, what I want to do today--yes, the real rant is only now starting, a full page after you started reading it, and yes, I am a bastard--is to speak on what I think Fallout 4 does really well, and where it’s weaker than its peers. It’s been done by many for the rest of the series, so why not put something out there to give it a similar treatment? But I do this with the understanding that Fallout, every (canon) Fallout, is excellent. Fallout 4 here is not the only excellent one just because it has certain traits below that it does better than the rest. And it is not the only bad one because it has certain characteristics below that the others do better. These, to me, are just its special qualities.

Alright, so, first of all, I think Fallout 4 really raised the bar in terms of ambient storytelling. Now, ambient storytelling--as in, letting the settings and supporting data and lore tell tales as you explore, creating a litany of stories of life against which the main plot is stitched onto--is a feature of the Fallout series already, and damn if Fallout 3 and New Vegas don’t do a great job with it. But Fallout 4’s ambient storytelling is...well, it’s just frankly amazing! So much careful thought and detail went into the Commonwealth and its history in this game that it’s staggering once you start piecing it all together. And I daresay most players won’t even realize half of it as they go along, simply because it’s so subtly in the background that it’s sort of like the details of life itself--like passing a person on the street and thinking nothing of the fact that they have an entire lifetime of history propelling them forward, intersecting with your own for just a single, thoughtless moment.

It’s can gather stories of the people of the Commonwealth from the computer entries they’ve made, the vocal records they’ve left, even just their skeletal remains’ location and surroundings. That’s true of any Fallout. But this game ratchets up just how much of that occurs, and it begins to carefully interconnect the many, many tales of the Commonwealth together far more than the ambient storytelling of the Capital Wasteland or the New Vegas area did. For an example...Nick Valentine has a quest in which you track down Eddie Winters, an infamous prewar mob boss, right? And, understandably, traces of Eddie’s influence on the prewar Commonwealth can be found here and there through the game where appropriate; you don’t just encounter stuff about him for Nick’s quest and nothing else. Well, 1 of the connections Winters has to other parts of the Commonwealth is Wicked Shipping, a local shipping company whose warehouse HQ you can find as you roam around. Now, it was established (prewar, remember; this is all in the past) that Winters had an arrangement with Wicked Shipping in which they’d secretly deliver some of the radioactive waste that they were paid to transport to him, instead of where it was supposed to go. This is because, as discovered through Nick’s personal quest, Eddie figured out how to become a ghoul long before the nukes made the creatures common.

So here’s the thing: at the Wicked Shipping warehouse, you can find a manifest for the shipments they were making the morning that the bombs dropped, involving 4 trucks. And if you follow up on this manifest, you will find, indeed, that 3 of those trucks are near the areas of the Commonwealth that they were supposed to be making deliveries to, and you can loot them using the key you find in the warehouse. But, 1 of those trucks is not where it should be--it’s nowhere even near its manifest’s destination. Instead, you find this missing Wicked Shipping truck near a location in the Commonwealth that was a part of Eddie Winters’s operations! This, then, is the truck that secretly delivered the radioactive materials to him, instead of where they were supposed to go (as indicated by the manifest). No tape, document, or computer entry spells this out for you, and unless you’re familiar both with every tiny detail of Eddie Winters from Nick’s sidequest AND the details of Wicked Shipping’s manifests and history--which you have no game-given reason to be, as it’s not part of any quest--you’d never think twice about this truck’s location. And yet, here this tiny, background connection between a quest and a small part of prewar lore sits, its placement unassuming, unobtrusive, and yet carefully considered by the writers.

That’s the sort of thing I mean when I say that Fallout 4’s ambient storytelling is off-the-charts excellent. There is so much subtle detail and thought put into the stories of its locations and the way all their histories and events interconnect across this huge chunk of Massachusetts that you can explore. It’s humbling to know that the writers could keep track of themselves this thoughtfully. And the sad thing is that unless you’re looking for it--really, really looking for it--most of this care and attention to details will pass you by. Who would look upon that Wicked Shipping truck with anything more than a glance for loot upon finding it? Who would remember the missing truck on this manifest--if they bothered to search for the trucks it lists to begin with--strongly enough to realize, finding it perhaps dozens of hours later, that there is a purpose to its seeming misplacement?

And that’s just 1 connection made through Wicked Shipping! The fact that they’re transporting radioactive waste also connects to a whole branch of lore points regarding the companies that were polluting the Commonwealth before the bombs dropped. By no means is Eddie Winters the only substantial part of Fallout 4’s lore interconnected with this small company whose warehouse looks for all the world to be a one-and-done explorable location.

I’d also like to note that the thoughtful detail of the ambient storytelling of Fallout 4 isn’t just limited to side content and exploration--it does also affect and enhance the main story’s components, too, often so subtly that one might not realize it. Take, for example, the terminology of the Institute. It doesn’t take too sharp an eye and ear to realize, after listening around the Institute for a while, that these self-important dickwads use terminology as a weapon of oppression. By absolutely always insisting on referring to Synths as machines, by calling changes to their personality ‘debugging’ rather than ‘brainwashing’ and procedures to fix or better physical attributes of the Synths ‘upgrades’ rather than ‘surgeries,’ the Institute uses vocabulary to distance themselves from their creations in order to keep their members away from considering the ethical implications of their new slave race. After all, saying that a Synth’s growing wish for freedom is a bug in his code is much more palatable and less likely to raise moral red flags than expressing the exact same idea as a flaw in his personality.

Now, here’s the thing: this is an important characteristic of the Institute faction that you can easily glean from talks with Father and other Institute members, overheard conversations between Institute scientists, and journal entries you read. But there are actually a lot of small details nearby and around this specific subject that strengthen this point and support your suspicion that the Institute’s using the same trick as dirty politicians and totalitarian communities. One small, easily missed, but exceptionally significant detail relating to this idea, for example, is found in the recording of Kellogg’s operation to put the implant in his head. During the procedure, an Institute scientist mentions how pleased the group is with him for having brought them the ‘genetic material.’ Kellogg, either unsure of what they mean or, more likely, not impressed with their use of vocabulary to evade self-awareness, clarifies that what they mean is the child he kidnapped from the protagonist (Nora/Nate’s son, Shaun). The Institute scientist acknowledges that Kellogg is right, but still refers (now pointedly, I think) to Shaun only as the ‘DNA sample.’

Now, this part of the conversation accomplishes a direct purpose in giving you an idea of the time period in which the recording was made. But it also establishes very clearly that the Institute likes to morally distance itself from the things it does that are ethically questionable. Instead of admitting that they stole a child, the way Kellogg does (he, at least, is honest with himself about his monstrosity), they insist on only referring to Shaun at that time by his value, scientifically, to Kellogg. They distance themselves from the unethical actions they’ve taken, by using terms that lack humanity. It’s telling about their character overall, but it is also a very strong confirmation of any suspicion you might have that the way they refer to and regard Synths is more propaganda than it is fact. If they refused to acknowledge the humanity of the child they kidnapped in order to keep themselves from questioning their actions, they’d certainly do the same of the people they’d created to be slaves. A few little lines, contained within a different part of the lore of the Institute, provides a wealth of information and understanding to a major faction of the game, and puts the entirety of that faction’s dialogue into question, opening new avenues of understanding to us as the audience about the Synth question. Again, very skillful ambient storytelling, subtle but substantial, small enough that you might not notice it, large enough that it’s a damning piece of evidence against any theory for taking the Institute’s terminology as legitimate.

If you would like to get to know some more of Fallout 4’s unparalleled ambient storytelling excellence, I reluctantly recommend Oxhorn’s Youtube channel, particularly his playlist for Fallout 4 lore. Although you'll find if you do a little digging that Oxhorn is not a great human being on a personal level, there's no denying that the guy has put an amazing amount of time, observation, and thought into this game and series, and even though I pride myself on being meticulous in my explorations of these games, there are a few occasions in which he makes me look like a bumbling doofus with his ability to suss out details and connections, extrapolate likely theories, and even explore the ethical ramifications of the game’s decisions and cast. I know his video lists look daunting, but if you love this series and want to truly know and appreciate the painstaking effort its creators put into crafting its every detail, you will want to check this guy’s channel out.

So, another thing I really appreciate about Fallout 4 is its cast. Now, I’ll definitely give Fallout: New Vegas full credit for having the best companions with the most depth and originality--almost no one in any other Fallout compares to Veronica, Boone, Raul, or the whole Dead Money bunch--but to be fair, party members are not the only part of the character equation. They’re the most important, yes, and in most games, they’re all that really matters with the cast...but in the case of Fallout, the size and importance of the Fallout world means that the NPCs who inhabit it are actually very important parts of its storytelling. And in that sense, I think that Fallout 4 is very on-point. The plot-relevant people of the Commonwealth stand out and have memorable and engaging personalities, to an extent more than any Fallout game before this. Every Fallout’s full of singular entities you meet along your travels, but it just feels like more of them are more personable and memorable in this game.

And hey, maybe Fallout: New Vegas has the best companions of the series, but Fallout 4 is actually pretty close behind. A good half of its party members are nuanced, interesting characters, and I have to say, as far as unique appeal, they’ve got all the other games put together beat. Piper, Codsworth, Hancock, and Curie are all terrifically likable individuals, and Deacon is (heresy incoming) even more appealing than Veronica was. And then there’s Nick Valentine, who is just the fucking best dude ever, and the 1 other Fallout companion who stands at the same level of quality as a character as the best that New Vegas can offer. And as far as villains...Fallout 4 has the best of the series. I’d weigh Elder Maxson against Presidents Eden and Richardson any day, Kellogg makes for a much more threatening and interesting personal antagonist than Autumn or Horrigan, and Father easily outperforms Caesar. Only The Master from the first game is as compelling as any of the Fallout 4 villains.

1 more quality to Fallout 4 that I think it stands out especially well on: the protagonist. Look, I know everyone’s got it in their heads that player choice is something inalienable and ultimately important, and everyone gets all in a tizzy the moment they don’t have a dozen different ways for their character to approach the problem of wiping his or her own ass, but...I’m sorry, it needs to be said: player choice isn’t that fucking important. In the grand scheme of things, it really isn’t! It’s great if you can have a lot of choice for who your character is and what they do, but if it gets in the way of a smooth, functional story and purpose, then it isn’t worth it!

There are plenty of RPGs which can pull off a lot of player choice without sacrificing the narrative too strongly (like Fallout: New Vegas, in fact), and that’s great. Some RPGs really bend over backward to make player choice a huge thing but still function as a coherent plot, like The Witcher 2, which is almost 2 games in 1 for allowing the plot to grow around how the player wants to play Geralt. And some RPGs actually manage to make complete player choice a core element of their story and themes, perfectly blending them together, like Undertale. Awesome. But in general, it’s easier to tell the story you want to tell when the protagonist isn’t a completely unknown element in it. That’s why even though we have some simply astonishingly excellent RPGs in the west, the lion’s share of quality RPGs are Japanese in origin (or, in recent years, indie RPGs following JRPG formulas)--because the Japanese aren’t fucking handicapping themselves to give the player the choice to play as serial killers, bigots, and tyrants in every damn title.

So yeah, in Fallout 4, you have considerably less control over what the protagonist says and does. Nowhere NEAR a lack of control, mind you; she/he can still have many different values and usually has at least 2 different ways to respond to stuff, but still, that’s a lot less than the many dialogue trees previous Fallout games have allowed for. Well,’s an improvement. Because this more concrete protagonist of Fallout 4 has actual personality traits, regardless of whether she/he is a saint or a monster, and an overall character that comes through thanks to either a great performance by Brian Delaney, or an excellent performance by Courtenay Taylor. The story tailored around the protagonist is more personal and emotionally substantial than any Fallout before, and knowing the protagonist’s history and motivations means that as we explore with her/him through the post-apocalyptic Commonwealth, the events and places we encounter have greater meaning, for we see the tragedy and relief, the regret and the joy, that they cause the protagonist, and understand why they do so. A concrete protagonist also means more compelling friendships and romances with party members, and greater substance for important supporting characters in the story that connect to her/him (notably Kellogg and Father). Whatever personal enmity there was between the Chosen One and Frank Horrigan, or the Lone Wanderer and Colonel Autumn, it had to be largely imagined, for the games were unequipped to really create any sort of emotional relationship between hero and villain. Even the Lone Wanderer’s relationship with James, though present and significant, is largely one-sided, with Liam Neeson’s character doing all the heavy lifting for establishing and selling the father-child relationship. Not the case for the enmity between the Sole Survivor and Kellogg, or the bond between Nora/Nate and Shaun. They’re real and visible from both sides.

You’d never get the tension and anger of Nora/Nate’s confrontation with Kellogg from a variable hero like the Vault Dweller. You’d never get the sweet, warm fuzzies of Piper’s confession of love for Nora or Nate with a malleable main character like the Chosen One. You’d never get the anguish and sorrow of Nora/Nate telling Shaun how disappointed they are with him atop the Cambridge rooftop out of a pliable protagonist like the Lone Wanderer. You’d never get the wistful reminiscing of Nora and Nate about the world as it was from an unknown leading figure like the Courier. Nora and Nate being distinct characters creates atmosphere, injects feeling into the game and the characters that interact with them.*

And hey, maybe it does take away some amount of the player’s ability to choose everything about his/her main character...but even if you count that as a major, core part of Fallout, there’s still a positive to this tradeoff. By establishing Nora and Nate’s personalities and history as prewar citizens, another core aspect of Fallout is enhanced--the comparison it draws between prewar and post-apocalyptic humanity. The unchangeable evil and virtue of humanity is a major part of the Fallout series, particularly its later installments, as its ambient and direct storytelling strive to show us a mirror between prewar and post-apocalyptic--how the idealized, surface-level-perfect 1950s-style society before the war was only a varnish on the darkness in humanity, and how the brutal, violent, twisted world after the apocalypse nonetheless cannot stamp out humanity’s light. Nora/Nate, having come from one and now become instrumental in the other, provides an opportunity to sell this theme of “War (Humanity). War (Humanity) never changes” better than ever before, and the game capitalizes on this quite well, with Nora/Nate having many opportunities to note the similarities and contrasts between both the evils and the virtues of the current world and the one from before.

Now, those are some of Fallout 4’s most important virtues, the ones which make it shine compared to its other family members (not necessarily shine more or less, just differently). I’d also like to point out a couple of its weaknesses, ones which the others of the series don’t suffer from.

First of all, the Synth thing. The defining conflict of Fallout 4 revolves around Synths; you can’t get away from it. Synths are a monumentally important part of the main story, the side stories, and even the ambient storytelling of the game, the heart of its conflicts--the Institute wants to base itself around them, the Minutemen oppose the Institute because of what it does with Synths, the Railroad seeks to rescue Synths, and the Brotherhood’s presence is solely motivated by a desire to destroy the Synths. Even the excellent Far Harbor DLC involves Synths almost as heavily as the main story does (although to excellent ends, creating an engaging and ethically complex story that explores the concept of truth quite interestingly). And, well, don’t get me wrong, this works just fine, but...Synths just don’t feel quite right as a part of the Fallout universe, or at least, as such a big part. It’s just a tiny bit too much of a dose of science fiction, to me, perhaps simply because the plot point of Synths so thoroughly saturates the game. I mean, obviously Super Mutants are a strong sci-fi element, and they’re essential parts of Fallout 1 and 3’s plots, but they’re not absolutely everywhere you look in terms of Fallout 1 and 3’s stories. They were something of a shocking reveal in Fallout 1, and while the main story revolved around them, the majority of the rest of the game’s storytelling did not. In Fallout 3, they’re an important part of the lore of the Capital Wasteland, but important though they are, the game eventually becomes more focused on the Enclave as an enemy. The Super Mutants don’t just inundate every storytelling angle those games had, the way Synths do in Fallout 4.

And don’t get me wrong, I understand that the Synths are useful metaphors for various aspects and themes of American culture that the game explores.** And the game does very well with them in this sense. They just feel a step removed from what’s appropriate for the series’s lore, to me. I suppose that’s subjective, though.

The other thing I think is a weakness for Fallout 4, as a part of its series, is its ties to its setting. Look, Fallout 4 does a great job with portraying and exploring Massachusetts and its people. It does. And I say that as a guy who lives in, and has always lived in, MA. They reference and use a lot of our state’s history and culture--there’s a whole faction called the Minutemen, there’s a sidequest named The Big Dig, Eddie Winters is almost surely based off of Whitey Bulger, plenty of Boston landmarks like Fenway and the Freedom Trail are prominent parts of the story, they've got location references to stuff like Filene's and Cheers, 1 of the most important characters in the game is named Shaun (although if they were really going for authenticity, it’d be more like 15% of all the game’s characters would share the name across at least 3 different spellings), and guards armor themselves in protective baseball gear and grouse about people asking them to park the car in Harvard Yard. The game does an awesome job with the Massachusetts setting.

Just...I dunno, not as awesome as it could be.

Look, this might just be home court bias here, but as great as Fallout 4 does, I still feel like some of its predecessors better capitalized on their settings. Part of Fallout 3’s great, epic feeling as a whole came from how well it utilized our nation’s capital to tell its tale. The culture and soul of Las Vegas was a present force throughout Fallout: New Vegas, and even was incorporated into much of its story’s aesthetics and themes...even the game’s plot eventually becomes an all-or-nothing gambit reminiscent of a tense card game! Fallout does so much, but there’s so much that feels like it’s missing. How can you have Salem in the game, without having anything of significance present there? College-intensive state that it is, how can MIT be the only university of importance in the game? Shouldn’t the world-famous Mass General Hospital be more than just a potential site for radiant quests and a few fetch missions?

And how in the WORLD do you make a Fallout game set in Massachusetts, and not include Plymouth?! First site and community of the pilgrims, Bethesda? You didn’t think that should be somewhere in the Massachusetts Fallout? Believe me, I appreciate that 1 of the 2 major DLCs for this game is set in Maine, since that was originally just part of Massachusetts, so it’s totally appropriate, but there really should have been a DLC that takes place in Plymouth. The thought of a theme park DLC was a great idea (even if it was executed terribly), but Plymouth really should have had precedence over a DLC concept that could have been added to any installment in the series.

Then again, I am, as I mentioned, probably biased. Anyway, that’s about it. Fallout 4 has its strengths and weaknesses as an RPG, but I thought it might be fun to recognize it for its strengths and weaknesses as a Fallout, too. And fun it was! For me, at least. You’re probably bored out of your mind. Well, sometimes a rant’s gotta be just that--a directionless collection of what’s on my mind. Thanks for bearing with me, at least, and maybe next time I’ll have something a little more solid and purposeful for you.

* This doesn’t really fit into the rant proper, but I’d like to note that the few times the Fallout series has dabbled into solidifying their protagonists at all, it’s always been a positive thing. My favorite part of Point Lookout in Fallout 3 was the fact that it actually allowed us to delve a little into the Lone Wanderer’s head, 1 of the many excellent qualities of Lonesome Road in Fallout: New Vegas was the fact that it actually gave some history to the Courier, and even just the moment in Fallout 2 where you read a plaque about the Vault Dweller on his statue is quite gratifying.

** Off the top of my head, prejudice towards and enslavement of others who are functionally and spiritually no different from you, nationalistic paranoia trends like the Red Scare, and the capacity to question our own existence, purpose, and physical identity.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Pokemon Generation 6 and 7's Traded Pokemon Obedience

The obedience level cap of traded Pokemon has always been stupid.

You know what I’m talking about: that strange gameplay limitation present in the Pokemon series since the first generation which dictates that if a Pokemon you got in a trade from someone else is at a high enough level, it won’t listen to your commands during battle unless you’ve gotten far enough in the game to earn a badge guaranteeing obedience up to an appropriate level.

Well, I think it’s stupid. What the hell does this achieve, really? Yeah, fine, it’s a balancing mechanic, making sure that anyone who gets a Level 99 Mewtwo in a trade doesn’t just sail all the way through the game without trying. Okay, sure, it works for this purpose, but, uh, who the fuck cares? Balancing mechanics are supposed to make the game more fun and properly challenging for those who want it to be. Well, for anyone who wants to keep their game properly balanced, they could just not use the damn overpowered Pokemon they got from the trade! Or is it that Nintendo doesn’t want you going from the beginning of the game to the end too fast? Because Bahamut knows you want to take the time to really savor those thoughtful, rewarding stories in the first 6 generations of Pokemon, right?

Good lord, I think I just gave myself heartburn from sarcasm overdose.

Yeah, sorry, but it’s just dumb. Trying to forcibly dictate how fast the player’s allowed to progress in the game seems pointless when it’s a 1-player venture like this, and it ain’t like the battle system of Pokemon is so complex and articulate that it would be a great loss to make it easier than it already is. Why would Nintendo want to limit the usefulness of the trading feature like this, anyway? From Day 1, the more trading goes on between Pokemon players the better, since it means more people are playing, and thus have purchased, the game.

It’s not even set up intelligently! Pokemon from trades gain more experience points from battles, so if any member of your team is going to hit a level limit earlier than they should, it’s them! The system is set up to make the traded Pokemon grow faster, and then punish them for it!

But you know what? As annoying as it might have always been, particularly for one such as myself, who attempts with each game to import his favorite Pokemon for a new adventure (it just isn’t a Pokemon game if I’m not leading the charge with Mewtwo, Gardevoir, and that wonderfully absurd flaming kung fu chicken), it’s always been a minor frustration, minor enough that even I never thought to rant about it before--and Alexander knows that says something; I've written rants complaining about stuff like the size of a game's treasure chests. It’s an unnecessary and unwelcome gameplay balance, but negligible overall.

Except now, in the sixth and seventh generations of Pokemon. Now, this mechanic is really stupid.

Regardless of all else about it, there was nothing in the games themselves that outright contradicted the concept of the disobedient trade Pokemon. The idea is just that once they get too strong, they don’t listen to you because you’re not a good enough trainer. Simple, if arbitrary.

But in Generation 6 and 7, see, Pokemon battles have been given a little more personality than ever before.* In Pokemon Moon and Sun, your Pokemon’s affection towards you has a direct influence on their combat capabilities--get them to love you enough, and they get more experience points, occasionally dodge attacks and survive otherwise lethal blows, snap out of status ailments more reliably, and so on. Along with these tangible battle benefits, there are various messages that occur during battle that give it some flavor, according to how your Pokemon feels about you. Messages like,

“Oranguru is relaxed. The sight of you might have made it feel more more secure.”
“You and Oranguru are breathing in perfect sync with one another!”
“Oranguru is looking at you with intense and determined eyes!”
“Oranguru puts on some Barry White!”
“Oranguru asks you if this is your first time...”

Maybe a higher critical hit rate ain’t the only benefit the trainer’s getting from their Affection-maxed Pokemon, know what I’m sayin’?

So here’s my question: how does it make any sense when the Pokemon you’ve brought up to the highest level of Affection by grooming and feeding it constantly suddenly decides, at the instant it passes an arbitrary boundary of experience points, that it no longer gives a rat’s ass about you? It’s not like the Affection level lowers at all, or anything. This Pokemon still absolutely worships you, even as it snubs you for the unworthy scrub you apparently are.

Hell, even the battle messages don’t change at all! I bring my traded, Affection-maxed, over-leveled Ninetales into combat, and every between-turn message is about how much she wants to make sweet disturbing Poke-love to me, while every actual turn she takes involves her pretending I don’t exist. Stop making my glorious ice fox into a subpar Tsundere, Nintendo!

So yeah. This mechanic, which was always stupid, nowadays makes no sense whatsoever. ‘Love is fickle’ doesn’t need to be a gameplay feature!

* I’m going on knowledge graced me by the esteemed Ecclesiastes in terms of Generation 6, as I didn’t play that one. But Ecc’s a pretty cool and reliable guy, so I’m assuming he’s correct on this.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Children of Zodiarcs

If playing Children of Zodiarcs, you should expect to find the following in this game:

- A simple, but engaging and worthwhile story about revenge, class divide, and the terrible consuming nature of hate.
- Emotionally charged characters whose personalities and directives are well-designed and expressed, as well as understandable to the audience.
- A final confrontation between heroine and villain that embodies the thematic shared essences of their character (those being hate and revenge), while also being symbolic of the all-important divorce between how they will choose to live with that shared emotion going forward.
- A deceptively easy-to-understand, but actually pleasantly complex battle system.

Conversely, you should not expect to find the following in this game:

- Joy.

Yeah, Children of Zodiarcs is a very good RPG, but I’m warning you up front: if you’re not prepared for a hell of a downer, then this is not the story and cast for you. I’m writing this 3 days after having finished the game, and there are elements of its tragedy that are still bothering me. Which is good, make no mistake! It means that the writers did their job really well. Just, if you play it, y’know, be aware that a lot of that job is to upset you. Not that it’s all depressing or hurtful; the game also leaves you with many strong elements of hope. But ultimately, this is a game about the terrible wake left by the wrongs of society, and by hatred and vengeance, and that kind of subject matter isn’t given to happy stories. So be warned.

Now, if you’re still interested in what Children of Zodiarcs can offer after that warning, I’ll say that I definitely recommend it. It’s a simple but honest tragedy that focuses on what atrocities can come from harmfully imbalanced society and unchecked upper classes, both directly, as we see the people crushed beneath the weight of a system that keeps the many in poverty and pain for the benefit of the few, and indirectly, as we see the protagonists and antagonist repay the suffering the world has caused them back, in the unfortunate, unfocused way that relentless anger tends to cause. Beyond that, CoZ is also focused on the concept of vengeance as a matter of its own, and provides a telling, yet somehow hands-off perspective on it. The message that vengeance is not worth what it costs you, costs paid by both your humanity and by the innocent around you, is clear, yet really never said, or even fully acknowledged. It’s done quite well. I mean, if I had to pick 1 RPG to recommend as an examination of and warning against vengeance, it would still be Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, whose excellent method is still clear in my mind even now...but Children of Zodiarcs is a damn fine second choice. And hey, one can never have too many interesting and emotionally-charged stories examining and cautioning against losing oneself to fury, right? So play them both!

Hm...Children of Zodiarcs, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, and Final Fantasy it just me, or do tactical RPGs have a disproportionate trend of being hard, downer stories? I mean, they’re obviously not the only ones (the mere memory of Eternal Senia happening to drift through my consciousness has been known to make me tear up), but still, seems like this corner of the genre has an unusual predilection for this sort of thing.

Anyway. The characters line up as excellent embodiments of what the story is trying to say, who the story is about. Admittedly, there aren’t many that I actually like on a personal level, but that isn’t necessarily the important thing, is it? I don’t personally like Kreia in Knights of the Old Republic 2, but damned if I don’t respect the hell out of her as a character and a mouthpiece of the game’s philosophy and musings. I may not have much affection for Nahmi, Brice, Zirchhoff, Argon, or Pester, but they do what they need to in the plot, and are interesting and complex characters whose perspective and feelings you can fully understand. Not much more to say than that; they’re solid characters who play their role in this game exactly as they should.

The music in this game is decent, and at times reminds one faintly of Final Fantasy Tactics (as does the overall story, for that matter), in a way that is pleasant, but never overbearing--Children of Zodiarcs is still clearly its own entity, not borrowing so much as paying homage to its inspirations through its sound. The gameplay is, as I said, quite good--there’s a lot of factors in combat and combat preparation to consider, but ultimately, combat in CoZ is a satisfying mix of skill and luck, and 1 of the few battle systems based around cards and dice that I don’t hate more than I hate RPG battle systems in general. I sort of feel like this is what Crimson Shroud’s battle system should have been.

I’d also like to mention that this game’s got a great example of Indie polish. Some indie RPGs are basic and kind of unimpressive in look, feel, and know I like Celestian Tales 1 just fine, and recommend it to you as a good RPG, but at the same time, it has that look of an Indie RPG that is finished, but basic. Some RPGs, though, are like Dust: An Elysian Tail, or Bastion, in that they do definitely look like an Indie RPG, but one that’s been carefully polished to feel and look exactly the way it was envisioned, to be unquestionably its own, singular entity. Children of Zodiarcs belongs to that latter category--it’s got a visual aesthetic that’s glaring yet dark and subtly angry, simple in looks but in a carefully tailored way. And even if it doesn’t make a showing of it, the game pays attention to detail--I was impressed by the fact that this seemingly simple, direct gameplay system accounts for the surroundings and method of destruction in combat to the point that enemies actually, in their death animations, topple off raised standpoints, fall down stairs, get knocked against’s a very tiny and unimportant visual detail, but it’s telling when a game’s creators take the time to polish their product to even such a tiny level as that. To me, of course, Children of Zodiarcs would be exactly as solid and worthy an RPG even if none of these peripherals were any good, because its plot and characters are great...but the peripherals ARE good, and for those who do care about visuals, sound, and gameplay and whatnot, I think you’ll be pleased well enough with it.

Anyway, I think I’ll wrap things up with that. I go on too long in these rants already. Children of Zodiarcs is a poignant, well-crafted tale, and I recommend it, so long as you’re prepared for a game that punches your heart more often than warms it. This is an RPG that I’m proud to have helped make possible. Check it out!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Project X Zone 1

Hey, check it out--a game has gotten me peeved enough to just do an unfocused hate-dump rant! Haven’t had 1 of these for a while.

Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. This is the behavior of both the mentally insane, and players of Project X Zone 1. Although I would suspect that these 2 categories frequently overlap.

Just...what exactly happened, here? At what point did Project X Zone go wrong? How? Why? This is the Capcom vs. SNK of RPGs (it’s even canonically tied to the Capcom vs. line of games); how do you mess that up? How do you create a cast out of Street Fighter, Tales of, Sakura Wars, .hack, Resident Evil, and a whole gaggle of other franchises, and make it boring and repetitive? This is an RPG whose cast includes Dante from Devil May Cry, Megaman X and Zero, KOS-MOS from Xenosaga, and freakin’ Ulala from Space Channel 5...and it’s boring.


Well I’ll tell you how. Because that’s what I do. I complain.

I’ll tell you how you manage to fuck up the most interesting gaming crossover concept this side of Super Smash Brothers. You give it the worst pacing of all time. No, no, don’t roll your eyes--I actually think I mean that. I can’t think of an RPG with worse pacing. I mean, I’ve had to deal with some doozies, but nothing compares to Project X Zone 1. This is a game whose pacing manages to be agonizingly slow and accomplish nothing, while at the same time, a frenzied whirlwind of nonsense events that no sane person could possibly keep track of. It’s basically like the United States senate. For half the game’s 40+ chapters, all that happens is that the growing group of heroes get thrown from one game world to another with no control of where they’re going, and no idea of why this is happening, solely for the reason that this crossover is so damn bloated with characters that it takes half the game to recruit them. There’s no advancement of what passes for a plot for half the damn game, just a repeated flurry of changing scenery and exchanges that basically go down as,

“Who are you?”
“We’re heroes from different worlds! Look, a bad guy you know, and some you don’t! Let’s join forces!”

For over 20 damn chapters! And yet, even though this is a narrative dragging of heels that makes Dragon Ball Z’s pace look brisk and logical by comparison, it still manages to come with all the downsides of a jumbled plot clusterfuck, because even though nothing actually substantial is happening, the game playing musical chairs with dozens’ of franchises’ settings, terminology, and mentions of lore quickly makes you feel as discombobulated as the heroes themselves do, even though you, presumably, actually should have some familiarity with all these new worlds they’re being dropped in.

And the second half isn’t any better, either. It takes ages before the cast is given any sort of actual clue to what’s going on, and any time they make a plan to deal with all the nonsense happening around them, they inevitably get sidetracked, lost, and split up multiple times before getting where they’re going, at which point they just discover that they need to go somewhere else anyway. Villains just keep stringing you along with non-information and promises that they’ll eventually tell you what’s happening. Only at the finale do you learn anything, ANYTHING, of what’s going on and why. And all it is is that the bad guys of this game are parts of a magical plot thingy called the Portal Stone, and want to merge all universes into 1, which is something that the magical cheerleading girl that’s sort of the protagonist--I guess?--can stop from happening because of her family’s history with the thing. Jesus Christ, over 40 chapters of aimless dimension-hopping and ominous, non-specific villain mutterings for THAT? Reed Richards couldn’t fucking stretch as far as Project X Zone 1 stretches this bare rough draft of a plot

And yeah, that kind of takes care of my next point about this game already: the plot, if you’re the kind of saint who can even call this half-formed idea a ‘plot’, is boring and pointless. Just like the people who made this game, you will not care about the plot in the slightest. And yeah, I know it’s a giant crossover game, but that doesn’t mean you can just not give a rat’s ass about it. It’s still an RPG, not some fighting game; you still need to provide a story that has a basic appeal. In fact, it’s not even fair of me to rag on fighting games’ stories, because even crossover fighting games like Super Smash Brothers (the 3rd installment, that is) and that DC/Mortal Kombat thing had more coherent, engaging plots than this crap. And that’s saying something, considering that the SSB story mode was told entirely without words, and like 30% of the major characters of Mortal Kombat are palette swaps.

Another way you screw up a giant crossover RPG like this: half-ass the writing for the dialogue. Yeah, there are admittedly a few clever quips here and there in the game (mostly thanks to Xiaomu), and I’ll even give PXZ1 credit for opening a new angle to Ulala’s character by giving her a much stronger (and amusing) reporter gimmick than in the actual games she’s from. But past an early point in the game, the writing just gets stale and straightforward. Which, of course, is naturally going to happen when you’re trying to juggle literal dozens of characters from different games and give them all a say in talking about how little they know of what’s going on. Everyone becomes a 1-note character, if even that, and they all feel completely unnatural in their interactions with one another. Every straightman character sounds like the next, and every gag character only knows 1 joke, and feels like an awkward interruption every time they say something rather than a part of the group’s conversation.

That leads me into the cast, which is another major strike against this game--and that’s a really big problem, since the whole point of a crossover is the cast. Like I said, there’s not enough differentiation between many characters’ personality, and the humorous characters rarely feel like they’re actually involved in dialogue, instead just coming off as side punchlines that no one else pays attention to. This feels less like a bunch of heroes teaming up, than a bunch of heroes just repeatedly put into the same room and told to cooperate. But an additional problem here is that even by the game’s bland standards, some of these characters aren’t portrayed well. Toma and Cyrille, for example. Now, I’m pleasantly surprised to see the protagonists of Shining Force EXA here, since I was half convinced I was the only person who ever actually played that game, and I actually quite like Cyrille’s character and personality. Sadly, that’s missing here, and all we get is a vaguely unpleasant, standoffish duplicate of the real Cyrille.* And why the hell does KOS-MOS keep making cat noises? Right, no, I suppose that a perfect battle android struggling to awaken the soul dormant within her whose humanity shines as her creator’s impossibly dedicated guardian angel just isn’t quite enough on her own--she needs to make cute cat noises for no reason, too!

And I’m sorry, but some of the choices for who did and didn’t make this game’s roster seem idiotic. Why the hell Heihachi from Tekken, for example? I can understand including Juri from Street Fighter and Tron Bonne from Megaman Legends as party members even though they’re villains, because they’ve got personality, and large fanbases (relatively). Who the hell is it that has got such a massive boner for Heihachi’s Overwrought Martial Arts Villain Mastermind schtick that they just HAD to have him included in the heroes’ team? I admit, very happily, that I have very little knowledge of Tekken, but what little I’ve seen from people’s reviews of horrible anime adaptations have not painted Heihachi as the kind of villain that would grab any audience’s attention It’s not like he contributes to this game’s story, or helps Jin develop at all as a character, or anything like that. Even compared to the rest of the cast, Heihachi’s remarkably superfluous; all he ever does is occasionally chuckle about how interesting all the crap they run into is and how he could potentially use it for his own purposes. Uh-huh whatever nobody cares Heihachi.

For that matter, Project X Zone...You want to represent Sakura Wars 5, and you pick fucking Gemini, of all people? The sappy, dull-witted dipshit who can’t decide whether she wants to be a complete failure of a samurai or a complete failure of a cowboy? Instead of picking someone from Sakura Wars 5 who’s actually likeable--or even just picking the actual protagonist of the game--you picked Gemini. The only character to make me legitimately regret giving up the word “retard” as a pejorative! That’s who you pick.

And why the hell is T-ELOS the other representative of Xenosaga!? At least Gemini and Heihachi are actually significant, dynamic parts of their games’ plots and lore. T-ELOS has, what, an hour of screentime in the entire Xenosaga trilogy, tops? You can barely even call her a villain character; she’s more like a villain plot device! Instead of Shion, who’s the actual main character of the series, or anyone else in the series who has an actual fucking personality and was present for the entire trilogy, we get this loser? For fuck’s sake, I think THIS game actually gave T-ELOS more lines than Xenosaga 3 did!**

Oh, and the villains. The VILLAINS. Possibly the most tiresome part of this whole damn game! They’re all so goddamn boring! None of them are doing anything interesting! They’re either all just flitting about, figuring out what they can do to take advantage of this whole dimensions-merging thing, or they just plain don’t even have any damn motivation (I’m sure Skeith is supposed to be very intimidating, but if I ever watch .hack after playing this game, I’m never going to be impressed with this silent, boring hunk of stone that just wanders around purposelessly). And the same odd choices of casting I just went into seem have been applied to the bad guy roster, for that matter--unless the most intimidating, powerful villain of whatever Sakura Wars Erica’s from really is an overweight mean rabbit in a top hat who laughs strangely and pilots a large bunny robot.

But the real problem with the villains of the game is that the real, actual main villains are a trio of random bozos invented specifically for this game, who have no personality whatsoever. And on top of that, they’re completely unnecessary, as there’s already a trio of random bozos specifically invented for these crossovers, Ouma, who are in this game already! Oh, I’m sorry, not a trio, because there’s also the shadowy evil leader to the main villain trio who only reveals himself at the end of the game. He is also a random bozo invented specifically for this game, which makes the revelation of his involvement to the heroes somewhat anticlimactic. “Oh my GOD! The shadowy mastermind behind all of it was actually...SOMEONE WE DON’T KNOW! Gasp! I never saw it coming!”

I guess the game’s trying to do what Kingdom Hearts does, in having all the villains you’re familiar with be secondary to this new, original threat, but...well, frankly, Organization 13 and Xehanort are the worst parts of the KH series, the only aspects of it that are just flat-out bad. Definitely not the right part of the KH model to copy. The problem with having original villains be the ones ultimately responsible for all the trouble of the game is that you’re having to focus on characters who the player has no understanding of, meaning that they really need time and effort put into characterizing them, but have to split narrative attention between them and so many other villains that these original newcomers never end up having a damn personality to begin with. And then you’ve got these evil blocks of wood in direct competition with villains that the player IS familiar with, who have had entire games’ worth of time to cement their personalities and motivations, so the new original villains look flat by comparison, and the player is just left wondering why these idiots were given the spotlight instead of the villains who actually seem to deserve it. Like how Maleficent winds up being a second-rate foe whose contributions to the plot end halfway through Kingdom Hearts 2, yet has a more compelling personality than every member of Organization 13 put together.

And finally, what is the last thing you can do to make the ultimate crossover RPG totally unenjoyable? Well, the answer to that comes back to how I started this rant: just make everything repeat over and over and over again! Every damn chapter of the first half of the game is completely formulaic--heroes show up, wonder where they are, meet new people, deal with enemies, leave. Then it gets even MORE formulaic after that, since the “meet new people” part is taken out. It invariably goes as such: beat a few enemies, suddenly a ton more enemies show up along with 1 - 4 bosses, you beat them and the chapter ends. The bosses are all the same ones over and over again--even though you fight boss units like 90 times during the game’s course, they’re only taken from a pool of, I dunno, 15 villains or so. Those villains just happen to escape again, and again, and again, and AGAIN. You just keep slogging along, having to fight them over and over again, accomplishing nothing as each villain escapes yet again For 40 chapters. Even the way you play the game is oppressively repetitive. The battle system ain’t exactly nuanced, so it doesn’t take long for you to identify the simple, straightforward strategies that work, and the battle screen mechanics of juggling enemies look flashy and impressive, but the polish on them doesn’t last long, and you soon realize that every damn unit you control is almost indistinguishable from the next--and that is a HUGE problem since, again, the draw of a game like this is the hugely diverse cast of characters with different styles and strategies--and the actual act of playing is just a monotonous timed button-hitting minigame that you have to put up with for literal thousands of times.

Look. This is an RPG in which Street Fighter, Xenosaga, Space Channel 5, Ghosts’n’Goblins, Valkyria Chronicles, Megaman X, Resident Evil, Marvel Land, and a metric buttload of other games all come crashing together. I knew this going in. I wasn’t expecting some stirring epic of storytelling. I wasn't expecting some moving treatise on the nature and nuance of humanity. But I was expecting something that was actually FUN, and that wasn't an unreasonable expectation, and it is not something that I got. Fun is about the exact polar damn opposite of what Project X Zone 1 is. Boo on you, Bandai Namco! Boo on you, sir!

* Okay, Cyrille IS standoffish in SFEXA, but that’s not ALL she is, the way it is here.

** Lines which are actually coherent and generally straightforward, I might note. As unremarkable as Project X Zone 1’s writing is, I’ll give it credit as still being a step up from Xenosaga 3’s hot mess.