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!