Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Annual Summary 2018

And so we reach that point yet again: the closing of the year, the transitional period between 1 moment and another, moments which we have arbitrarily decided as a species hold some distinct, separating meaning from one another. It is a time of reflection upon what has occurred since our last annual weaning, to look back upon the world’s events and ourselves, and draw some fundamental, summarizing truth from it all, while making a final, emotional bid of farewell to the year and all it has meant for us. And so it is that I say:

Burn in Hell, 2018, you fucking garbage year.

That’s a pretty subjective goodbye, admittedly. 2018 has been a righteous pain in my ass, but on a personal level. RPG-wise, it was, from what I can see, rather unremarkable. We had a few ups (SURPRISE TOBY FOX DEMO...and, uh, I heard Octopath Traveler and Kingdom Come: Deliverance were good) and a few downs (Bethesda slaps its consumers in the face and tells them to like it with Fallout 76, Legrand Legacy landed with all the grace and skill of a wet, sloppy fart at your ballet recital, and I needn’t even go into the Diablo: Immobile debacle), but overall, it’s just been a keep-your-heads-down, go-about-your-business kind of year for RPGs. Well, that’s fine with me, I guess, because 90% of the time I’m just playing catch-up to previous years’ releases anyway. The game I’m most looking forward to playing on my 2019 list was released in the fucking 90s.

For me, in terms of RPGs at least, it was a pretty darned good year. Though the current RPG crop wasn’t especially noteworthy in 2018, the preserves I consumed from previous years’ yields had some definite winners. Also some stinkers, of course, but what can you do? Anyway, the games I played this year were:

Asdivine 4
Borderlands 2
Bravely Default
Bravely Second
Conception 2
Darkblood Chronicles
Etrian Odyssey 1
Excave 1
ICY: Frostbite Edition
Legna Tactica
Legrand Legacy
Nier: Automata
Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages
Romancing Saga 2
South Park: The Stick of Truth
Star Story: The Horizon Escape
SteamWorld Heist
Tales of Eternia
Witch + Hero 3
The Witcher 3

As I’ve tried to do the past few years, I had a nicely varied RPG experience this year...plenty of Indies, of course, which these days are about the only RPGs you can rely on to actually give a shit about providing the audience a quality experience (even if, as Legrand Legacy proves, they sometimes fall short of that aim), but also some big titles of the past few years, too, and, of course, several older titles to round it out. I now can say with some confidence that I understand the Tales of series well, having seen a substantial portion of its offerings all along its history, and in that, I have confirmed what I suspected about it from the very start: as a whole, it’s kinda subpar, even if a couple of its titles were great. Continuing the Romancing Saga series is something I’ve been meaning to do, and Nintendo was kind enough to help that along with a rerelease of the second game for the Switch, and I finally got to finish up the Witcher trilogy, too. And I even dipped into a bunch of franchises I’d never tried before...some of which I’m gonna backpedal the hell away from, because dear sweet Hresvelgr was Conception 2 ever bad.

I could have played more RPGs, of course, but you know me: I do sometimes get up to other stuff, too.
Stuff like Anime: Yuru Yuri is fucking hilarious and I love it, showing my mom Noir reminded me of how good it was (while also reminding me that it’s not perfect; they really love holding shots longer than they should in that show), Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid is alright (but way, way better than it has any right to be), My Hero Academia is the best formulaic shonen anime ever made (but since that only makes it better than stuff like Naruto and Dragonball Z, it’s still low-quality trash), and A Place Further than the Universe is really good.
Stuff like Books: I failed to read as much as I’d told myself I was gonna this year, but I did check out Absent in the Spring (great; 1 of Christie’s best works), Antigone (decent), Brave New World (good), Dandelion Wine (really, really overrated and boring), Death Comes as the End (good), The Illustrated Man (very good), The Man in the Brown Suit (good), Oedipus at Colonus (okay, I guess), Once on a Time (good), and a collection of short stories from the Soviet Union (not as interesting as I’d hoped).
Stuff like Non-RPG Games: Melancholy Republic is good in a few regards but ultimately something you regret playing (more on that might be in a future rant), Metro 2033 is a solid post-apocalyptic setting (and very welcome as an alternative to Fallout 76), The Sad Story of Emmeline Burns was another strong work by Ebi-Hime, and Super Smash Brothers Ultimate...well, expect next year’s list of RPGs I played to be half the size of this year just because of this game alone.
Stuff like Replaying RPGs: I played the rerelease of Radiant Historia. S’okay. I also took Dragon Age 1 out for yet another spin, and I just can’t really explain why--for some reason, every now and then, I just like to experience DA1 over again. I really do love that game, far more than is logical.
Stuff like TV (or whatever we call its equivalent nowadays): my mother and I checked out some classic Doctor Who, from Doctors 1 - 4, and found it to be...uh...how shall I put this without inciting hardcore fans? Overrated. Just not very good. Yeah, I said it. Bite me. I also finally finished watching The Office with my sister--such a great show--and checked out Disenchantment, which is mildly humorous but honestly just not really worth the time, and the second season of American Vandal, which, in spite of my initial misgivings, turned out to be just about as fantastic as the first. Totally check that one out, guys. Also, I kept up to date with Steven Universe, and...actually, I’m way behind on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, but that is related to all the personal crap that’s been going on this year, odd as that may sound, so I’ll just have to catch up come next year.
Lastly, stuff like having a full-time job, writing rants, and dealing with, as mentioned previously, a buttload of nonsense going on in my own life that I just would like to overall be DONE with now.

Anyway, enough of all that crap. What’s the score with the RPGs I played this year? We’ll let’s see...

RPG Moments of Interest in 2018:

1. It was pretty cool to play Transistor and find out that Supergiant Games isn’t just a 1-hit wonder. In fact, it was even better than Bastion! Can’t wait to get to their third title.

2. Everyone loves The Witcher 3. I am no exception. But make no mistake: it has a flaw. A terrible, horrible flaw that in any other game would be fatal. The Witcher 3

It’s just a damn good thing that no one ever mentions this when they talk about it, or I might very well have just plain not played the damn thing.

3. Every now and then you just have a moment of pure, crystal clarity in a game, a single scene that peels away the layers of varnish on the game and tells you exactly, in no uncertain terms, what its deal really is. And every now and then you have a moment in a game that just leaves you utterly, completely, helplessly agog, the mental and emotional equivalent of being smacked across the face with a dead fish.

Conception 2’s final moments of its true ending--the ending of this harem game masquerading as an RPG in which you get to hook up with all the girls instead of choosing just 1--decides to deliver both kinds of aforementioned moments at the same time. These are the final lines from the game, transcribed as they are, no exaggeration, no summary, no editing. This is an actual quote. These are the actual fucking words this game ends on.

Fuuko (Love Interest 1): Well, Mister Pilot, make sure we get there safely!
Wake (Protagonist): You can trust me with that.
Wake: I have a responsibility to take all of you towards whatever future you wish for.
Wake: So, don't any of you worry...
Wake: And have my children!



4. The Witcher 3’s drunk scene at Kaer Morhen is comedy gold.

5. Darkest, most disturbing fucking moment of the year? It ain’t Tiny Tina’s tea party where she tortures her parent’s killer to death. It ain’t getting slammed by and taken for a ride upon your dad’s titanic balls in South Park: The Stick of Truth. It ain’t watching Yennefer defile the body and spirit of a dead man by reanimating him and then putting him through a painful interrogation, or feeding a starving, cursed werewolf his own flesh that chokes and burns him to death, or any of the other messed up shit that The Witcher 3 pulls.

No. The darkest, most disturbing moment of the year for me? It’s Bravely Default’s sidequest to help a pair of little girls find pretty hairpins for themselves. Holy shit is it fucked up.

6. As some of the titles on my list of completed RPGs may have clued you in, this was the year that I finally put an end to my boycott of SquareEnix. Yeah, I actually did pay for Nier: Automata and the Bravely games. I still have some major grievances with the company, but with the shit that companies like Bioware and EA pull nowadays, not to mention Bethesda’s shameful showing with Fallout 76, and those cow-fucking scam artists The Game Bakers selling games they never bothered to finish...well, it seems silly not to put an end to my complete ban on SquareEnix for committing lesser (although sadly more frequent) transgressions against its audience. A soft end, though, mind you. I’m only getting their games when they’re on a good sale, and only when I have strong reason to believe that they aren’t garbage. So don’t expect me to touch Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts anytime soon without some serious piracy going on.

Thankfully, the end to this boycott has been a highlight of my RPG year--Nier: Automata deserves all its acclaim, and so does Bravely Default. I mean, the company’s still clearly out of its goddamn mind, as evidenced by Final Fantasy 14 and 15 and Kingdom Hearts, a series against which the greatest insult possible is just to explain it...but Nier: Automata and Bravely Default prove that at least someone in that company seems to remember what actually brought it success. And I gotta say, I played Bravely Default just when I really needed it most--I really just had no idea how badly I needed a classic, wholly enjoyable, well-written JRPG this year that reminded me of all the things I loved about this genre in its early days. Bravely Default was like therapy for me; I came out of it just feeling so much better about everything.

7. In addition to “real” RPGs, I also played some more Shadowrun user-generated campaign mods this year, and let me tell you: the Shadowrun: Hong Kong mod Calfree in Chains is damn fine stuff. Like, better than a large majority of the published, major RPGs in existence.

8. Since We’re Not Related It’ll Be Okay Syndrome is still going strong, if Ringabel and Edea in Bravely Second are anything to go by--if you can really count that tepid, halting half-step romance to begin with.

9. This year is not the first time I have played a Christianity-reference-using, Nietzsche-inspired future story starring a female android struggling to understand her existence, an existence which is killing her partner. But it is the first time I’ve played one that had its shit together.

I sincerely hope that the creators of Xenosaga have played Nier: Automata, and that they did so while feeling a truly profound sense of embarrassment.


Best Prequel/Sequel of 2018
Winner: The Witcher 3
In some ways, The Witcher 3 is just towing the line for a series already of high quality. But even if it doesn’t stand out as a huge leap up from its previous game, the way Borderlands 2 does, Geralt’s final adventure definitely deserves to top this list. It’s a great culmination of all the characters we’ve come to know in this series, it makes terrific use of its setting and lore to tell its story...and, most of all, it’s the perfect, logical conclusion that the trilogy was created to drive toward. The Witcher 1 introduced us to the true conflict of the trilogy, that of the inevitable, world-consuming White Frost which slowly but surely covers the cosmos, using its existence as the motivating factor for the game’s villain and in-game conflicts. The Witcher 2 redefined the field and current events of the setting, and reconnected Geralt to his past personality as he regained his memories. So basically, The Witcher 1 sets the Why, and The Witcher 2 sets the What...and they both lead to The Witcher 3’s story in this way, each a complete product in themselves yet ultimately serving best as a preparation for the final installment. By being that final installment and living up to every narrative expectation of the first 2 games, The Witcher 3 defines itself, to me, as the best sequel I played this year.

Runners-Up: Borderlands 2; Shadowrun: Hong Kong: Calfree in Chains Mod; South Park: The Stick of Truth
I’m reasonably sure that Nier: Automata should be on this list, too, but I never did play Nier, nor any of the Drakengards, so this is what we got. The first South Park RPG is a great treat for anyone who’s a fan of the show, containing countless references and appreciations for South Park’s long, lofty, and usually ludicrous history--and more than just a bunch of references, it perfectly embodies a major feel of the show, too, being a blend of absurdity, epic conflict, and just a bunch of kids playing around, where you start having difficulty seeing the borders between each of those perspectives. Borderlands 2 is a fucking great sequel, it really is: it manages to build on everything from the first game, using Borderlands 1’s events, setting, and characters to go forward with its own story, but it does this while actually following through with the quirky, humorous, off-kilter style that the first Borderlands promised, tried hard, but ultimately failed to deliver. Borderlands 2 is essentially the perfect embodiment of what Borderlands wants to be, and while it stands on its own just fine, having a familiarity with the first game gives you a comfortable, even reassuring connection to it that makes the time you spent on Borderlands 1 seem to actually mean something, after all.

Finally...alright, I know I shouldn’t count an unofficial, user-created mod alongside the ranks of real, published games, but frankly, the Calfree in Chains mod for Shadowrun: Hong Kong was 1 of the highlights of my RPG year, and you can see from the list I provided earlier that said year had some heavy hitters on it. And hey, if Bethesda can create a hasty, slipshod game mode mod for Fallout 4 and then have the audacity to pretend it’s a game of its own and sell it for $60...well, why can’t I count a GOOD mod as a complete product? So fuck it, I am giving Calfree in Chains its due, and part of that due is to recognize that it is not only an excellent, engaging, fulfilling story in its own right, but an accomplished and perfectly crafted piece of Shadowrun lore that should be considered canon. It deftly weaves itself into the known facts of Shadowrun’s history regarding the California Free State, and delivers an authentic, thrilling Shadowrun experience that investigates the issues of the series’s world and ties them strongly to real-world conflicts and philosophies. You can’t ask better from cyberpunk than that. Calfree in Chains fits more snugly into the Shadowrun series than quite a few of its established, published pieces of canonical literature do.

Biggest Disappointment of 2018
Loser: Legrand Legacy
It’s always a damn shame to see a game you helped Kickstart come out poorly. But even beyond the fact that it’s ultimately a bad RPG that I myself bear some responsibility for, Legrand Legacy is a disappointment in that there’s a lot about it that’s promising. Its world is a decent one, and a lot of its overall premise likewise had potential. It also captures the unique feel of a large part of the Playstation 1/Playstation 2 RPG era very well, which is a part of gaming history that you don’t see glorified with homages nearly as often as the 8-bit and 16-bit days that preceded it. Too bad the cast’s inability to interact without constant bickering over nothing and a rushed final quarter that eventually just falls flat on its face right at the end wind up being the lasting impressions of Legrand Legacy.

But hey, on the other hand, Legrand Legacy actually DOES bother to have an ending, so it’s still a hell of a step up from last year’s most disappointing RPG. I guess that’s a step in the right direction, yeah?

Almost as Bad: Conception 2; Excave 1; Tales of Eternia
Excave 1’s only real claim to being disappointing is the fact that when you buy a game, you hope that it won’t suck, and Excave 1 does indeed happen to do so. It wasn’t the only boring, passion-less waste I played this year, but I’ve come to expect nothing more from Kemco, so it’s Excave 1 that finds itself here rather than other titles that are equally poor. Meanwhile, Conception 2 kind of looked a bit like a Shin Megami Tensei: Persona game. And while it most definitely is a knockoff of SMTP, Conception 2 sure as hell gets a lot closer to Persona in its visual and gameplay aesthetic than it does with its quality of writing--it’s bad even by the standards of the harem dating sims it’s trying to pretend it’s not.

Tales of Eternia is actually an okay RPG. Well, “okay” might be overstating it a bit, but I wouldn’t call it bad, at least. I’m just disappointed with it because a friend of mine once, many years ago, recommended it to me as being really good, back when I was complaining about the series because of how bland Phantasia and Symphonia were, so I was hoping for something better than ToE ended up being. Although that no doubt has something to do with Namco stupidly removing its skits, which is an aspect of disappointment in its own right.

Best Finale of 2018
Winner: Bravely Default
When the final chapter of Bravely Default begins, things get real epic, real fast, you get hit with some kickass plot twist action regarding The Liar that’s pretty gripping regardless of whether you might have guessed it was coming, and it all comes together in a final battle that’s felt across the multiverse, cleverly incorporating the connection features of the game into the plot in a spectacular fashion that catches you up with it, that finally leads to a solid ending. Damn great conclusion to a fine RPG.

Runners-Up: Nier: Automata; Shadowrun: Hong Kong: Calfree in Chains Mod; The Witcher 3
The final battle for Ciri and her confrontation with her destiny is handled as well as you’d expect and as well as you’d hope from The Witcher 3, and (provided you made the right decisions, of course) you’re left, at the end of it all, with a deep satisfaction at having seen Geralt’s tale through to its end. Similarly, the finale to Nier: Automata is a powerful conclusion of emotion and philosophy that hits you hard, with an ending quite unlike any other in gaming history that puts the game’s existentialism and your own morality to the final, only test--spectacular, intellectually-heady stuff from 1 of the most thoughtful RPGs ever made. And finally, again, I must give the Calfree in Chains mod its due: it culminates in an emotional and thematic tour-de-force that, depending on your choices, can conclude with 1 of the most beautiful, poignant farewell speeches I’ve ever read.

Worst RPG of 2018
Loser: Conception 2
Excave 1 and Crystareino might be far more empty and bland, and Legrand Legacy may be more relentlessly grating on your patience. But Conception 2 is a low-effort, crass cash-in combination of the trashiest qualities of dating sims, the careless lack of sense of Final Fantasy 8, and the cheap fanservice of a Dead or Alive Volleyball title--and that’s a combination that’s damn hard for average old Boring and Annoying to compete with. 1 review for Conception 2 that I read a while back described it as “trashy Persona,” and I’m still unequal to the task of more perfectly describing this soulless, manipulative, base pile of refuse.

Almost as Bad: Crystareino; Excave 1; Legrand Legacy
Crystareino’s just your average Kemco title, really--if RPGs were food, then Kemco would be the nutrient slop dispenser on a Matrix ship. Excave 1 manages to be even worse than that; it’s an RPG with less story presence than Chip’s Challenge--and not nearly so well-designed. As for Legrand Legacy, well, I just recently went into the major problems with that one, so no need to go repeat myself so soon

Most Creative of 2018
Winner: Transistor
How do you describe Transistor? How do you describe its unique style and the creativity of its direction, method, messages, aesthetic, and setting? Simple: you don’t. You just acknowledge that it’s innovative to a delightful extreme, a true entity unto itself, and then tell people to go experience it for themselves.

Go experience Transistor for yourselves.

Runners-Up: Bravely Default; Nier: Automata; Romancing Saga 2
Honestly, this was THE year for creativity. In many years past, several of the games I played this year, like ICY: Frostbite Edition, Borderlands 2, and Darkblood Chronicles, would have been shoe-ins for this category, yet they haven’t even placed this year. That’s how creative the above titles are!

Bravely Default is possibly the truest Final Fantasy game ever created, yet the deeper level upon which its lore and events are built is marvelously interesting and inventive, which makes the game just about the best representation of past games possible, while paradoxically fiercely its own, distinct entity. Meanwhile, Nier: Automata...well, if you’re in any way familiar with Yoko Taro, a real-life mad and tortured genius, then it probably comes as no surprise that NA is almost as much a distinct, inventive entity as it is a philosophical one.

Finally, I gotta say, Romancing Saga 2’s got a hella creative basis, and the level of effort that went into making this SNES RPG as open-ended and event-trigger-complex as it is...well, it’s just staggering, really! Multi-generational stories are uncommon and interesting already, but to make that aspect the fundamental crux of both the story and gameplay, to build it on top of a fairly innovative lore premise, and to unite the storytelling aspects with the gameplay functions to a degree that we still find noteworthy and laudable in current games, and all on the old SNES...well, I gotta just applaud Romancing Saga 2’s creators for what had to be a truly herculean effort of creativity married to programming. Transistor is an outright work of art and it deserves top billing as a creative work, but I’ll be damned if Romancing Saga 2’s creativity doesn’t deserve equal, nay, more respect simply by sheer force of effort.

Best Romance of 2018
Winner: Arelia x Protagonist (Shadowrun: Hong Kong: Calfree in Chains Mod)
Well, official, published, AAA developers, that’s 2 years in a row now that Seberin, a random fan working for no pay on mods, has beaten the pants off you guys at writing an involved, heartfelt, inspiring romance. I would say that means either the love stories that you find in the Calfree Trilogy mods are just that amazing, beautiful connections of affection and passion that make your heart flutter in romantic sympathy, or developers need to seriously step up their game when it comes to writing romances...yes, I would say that, but actually, both are true. Seberin is just that good, and the RPG industry as a whole is just that behind where it should be on this point. At any rate, while all the romantic options of Calfree in Chains are wonderfully written, the connection between Arelia and the protagonist is truly lovely, the kind of thing that just makes you sigh happily to witness.

Runners-Up: Geralt x Triss (The Witcher 3); Geralt x Yennefer (The Witcher 3); Red x Subject Not Found (Transistor)
Well, okay, it’s not like no one can write a good love story anymore, I guess, I just wish quality like these ones was more common in RPGs. As I’ve mentioned, there’re definitely issues with Geralt’s relationship with Yennefer, and arguably more so with Triss, but at the end of the day, whichever you believe is right for him in The Witcher 3, his connection to his beloved sorceress is clear, passionate, and a love you can get behind and believe in. As for Red and the unknown man...theirs is a love that threw a world out of balance, and surpasses the desire to survive of both mortals and even newly-born goddesses. Powerful stuff.

Best Voice Acting of 2018
Winner: Tales of Eternia

Actual Winner: The Witcher 3
Perfect casting down to the smallest NPC. Perfect performances of every line. Iconic vocal work that indelibly defines the protagonist.* And all of this done over the scope of such a tremendously huge, dialogue-filled game. Yeah, The Witcher 3’s pretty damned impressive as a work of voice acting.

Runners-Up: Borderlands 2; South Park: The Stick of Truth; Transistor
I mean, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that the South Park RPG is here--it’s basically just a big, playable installment of a show whose every episode is founded on voice work to begin with. It’s business as usual, basically. And that business is very competently done. Borderlands 2 is a game whose storytelling is done almost entirely through voice-overs narrating the action and the interactions of the game’s NPCs, so it’s damned important that it have a talented cast of voice actors who are natural fits to their roles and can bring their characters alive--and that’s exactly the case. I want to give a handshake to the guy who does Handsome Jack for being an essential component to an amazing villain...and a throat lozenge to the poor bastard who plays Mr. Torgue. I hope to Ziusudra that guy ain’t a method actor, because if he is, I’m pretty sure he swallowed battery acid for the role.

As for Transistor...well, it’s like Borderlands, a game whose storytelling relies almost entirely upon narration, but in this one, it’s mostly by 1 guy. And when that’s the case, that guy has got to be an incredible vocal talent. Luckily for Supergiant Games, they’ve got Logan Cunningham in their corner, a man with a voice so talented and flexible that it makes me think impure and adulterous thoughts even though I’ve been in a happy relationship with the vocal chords of Keith David for years now. Frankly, if I weren’t impressed with the scope of The Witcher 3’s voice acting’s consistent excellence across the board, Transistor would’ve been the top this year for its superior quality.

Funniest of 2018
Winner: Borderlands 2
Flippant, appealingly irreverent, genuinely clever, outgoingly unique, and with a finger on the pulse of gaming and its audience, Borderlands 2 is as funny as it is fun, and it knows exactly how and when to sprinkle in some darker moments and depth of character to give the prevailing humor an even greater draw. There are admittedly times when it misses the mark (most of the DLCs feel forced), but overall, Borderlands 2 is sure to elicit 1 chuckle after another from you.

Runners-Up: Bravely Second; Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages; South Park: The Stick of Truth
I didn’t know what I expected, exactly, from a sci-fi combat flight sim RPG involving spiritual bending of the universe, but a wise-cracking AI sidekick with an insatiable hunger for peanut butter cups, turret rights activist groups, and homicidally aggressive salesmanship of Dvorak keyboards were not it. While there’s a decent story to be had out of Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages, it’s the game’s peculiar brand of askew humor that keeps you engaged with it and flying from galaxy to galaxy, ready to see the next oddball set of circumstances you’ll encounter.

As for the South Park RPG, well, I mean, it’s South Park, of course it’s gonna be a rather funny game. That’s the whole point; it’d be quite the failure if it didn’t make it to this list. And lastly, I gotta say, whoever decided to give Bravely Second such a markedly lighter tone was damned smart. Bravely Default was clearly the sort of perfect coming together of varied virtues that’s never gonna be replicated to anyone’s satisfaction, so going in a new direction by making its sequel just a step short of a humor RPG, filled with puns and enjoyable interpersonal antics, was a great call. This way, it stands very clearly as its own entity, maybe not quite as good as the first, but fun and enjoyable in a different way that draws the audience in with guffaws and giggles well enough that we don’t even think to complain that it’s not quite up to what we had expected.

Best Villain of 2018:
Winner: Handsome Jack (Borderlands 2)
Damn. Just...what a terrific villain personality Borderlands 2 gave us with Handsome Jack. You know how the best version of the Joker is a villain who you laugh at and enjoy seeing, even though you understand how utterly despicable he truly is? Handsome Jack is that, but better. That’s right, I’m saying it: in 1 way, at least, Handsome Jack is a better villain than the motherfuckin’ JOKER. Because there are times when you have to remind yourself that the Joker is a horrifyingly bad human being as he delights you with his clever quips and antics. Handsome Jack? You’ll be chuckling at his banter and evil ways, and you’ll be doing it often, but at no time will you forget that he’s a hateful asshole and a true monster. Handsome Jack is a perfect and utterly unique character, charismatic to an extreme and yet genuinely dislikable on a personal level for the player. The fact that he has some depth and demonstrable passion just makes him all the better as a villain...to say nothing of the atrocities he commits with careless playfulness! Yeah, this guy’s the best villain of this year, and 1 of the best I’ve seen in some time. I can’t wait to play Borderlands: The Presequel; I hear there’s stuff there that further develops his backstory and motives.

Runners-Up: Gaunter O’Dymm (The Witcher 3); N2 (Nier: Automata); The Liar (Bravely Default)
Honestly? Good year for bad guys. Damn good year. N2’s the kind of overarching mastermind that fits perfectly into the existential ponderings of Nier: Automata, and provides us with all the more insights into humanity and meaning, the perfect god-role antagonist for such a game.** The Liar of Bravely Default...I can say nothing about, save that the Liar really smacks your emotional attachment right in the nuts. I mean, honestly, months later, I’m still a little bothered about it--that’s how good the Liar is as a villain, how lasting the effect. Lastly, you just gotta love Gaunter O’Dymm. Short of Shin Megami Tensei, no RPG I’ve played has so perfectly portrayed a representation of the devil as Gaunter does, and even then, SMT’s take on Lucifer is not so much better as it is simply a differently accurate depiction, decidedly more biblical, while Gaunter’s is much more like the devil of legends and folklore. He’s got the presence, he’s got the style and the methods, and he’s got the symbolism: Gaunter O’Dymm is a terrific stand-in for the devil, and he makes an impact on the player.

Best Character of 2018
Winner: Edea (Bravely Default + Second)
Edea Lee’s just a solid character whose development believably and naturally lead her to her place in the world, and she’s got a striking and incredibly appealing attitude and personality all the way through. It’s hard not to love Edea on a personal level, and the story of her learning to stand for her principles even in the face of learning that the revered people who taught her those principles lack the conviction to follow them themselves, and in the face of having to stand against the people and country that she loves in order to do what’s right, is a well-crafted one. The same is true of her role in the second game, a story of a more subtle testing of her morals and determination, as she fits herself to the mantle of world leader that she soon must wear. Edea is just great, plain and simple.

Runners-Up: Arelia (Shadowrun: Hong Kong Calfree in Chains Mod); Geralt (The Witcher 3); Subject Not Found (Transistor)
Every party member in Seberin’s mod is good, and tied to the thematic question of violence vs. pacifism, but I think that Arelia is the one with the most depth as a character, the greatest connection to the theme, and the most to offer in terms of emotional connection and engaging personality. Regarding Subject Not Found: as I said before, when the huge majority of your storytelling relies upon a single character’s narration, that character has to have some fantastic voice acting--but he also has to be an interesting, very well-written one, too, and Transistor’s narrator is definitely that. Lastly, Geralt...well, he’s Geralt. Casual, straightforward, even basic, yet insightful, subtle, containing inner demons and angels as great as any man’s, Geralt is a great protagonist and a solid character, as iconic a hero of his franchise as Shepard is of Mass Effect.

Best RPG of 2018
Winner: Nier: Automata
What’s there to say, really? Yoko Taro wanted to make existential art using video games as his medium, and in Nier: Automata, he happened to actually get appropriate, widespread acclaim for it. Nier: Automata has been called by some the most philosophical video game created. I do think that the people who say that either are exaggerating somewhat, or simply haven’t been playing enough thoughtful RPGs...but it’s definitely up there at the top, that’s undeniable.

There have been quite a few RPGs that have in 1 way or another tackled the question of what gives existence meaning, such as Star Ocean 3, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, Planescape: Torment, and so on (SMT: Persona Q is a personal favorite of mine on the subject), but each of them has generally been tackling the subject on their own, with the intent of telling a story by itself and for itself. They’re serious about making you think and conveying a message, but they’re not serious about finding and exploring new ground of the question of our existence. Nier: Automata, on the other hand, uses its story as an excuse to penetrate existentialism and attempt to find new perspectives upon it and ourselves. The game intentionally references and builds upon the ideas and works of great philosophers who have explored this cornerstone of higher thinking, both arguing with and lauding the esteemed and recognized minds that came before it, while using the mechanics and expectations of the video game medium to illustrate and explore existentialism’s concepts and conflicts. Nier: Automata is, in my opinion, the newest great work of existential philosophy, worthy of standing amidst the classics that it directly references.

And hey, it’s also a very good RPG in its own sake, telling an interesting, exciting, and meaningful tale with creative, shocking twists, populated with memorable characters and told with singular aesthetics. Every way you look at it, Nier: Automata is golden.

Runners-Up: Shadowrun: Hong Kong: Calfree in Chains Mod; Transistor; The Witcher 3
Yeah, that’s right. All the RPGs I played this year, made by so many experienced developers, written by so many professionals, produced by companies with so many resources...and 1 of the best experiences I had was a mod created by a single fan in his free time. You want to know a secret about Calfree in Chains? C’mere and I’ll whisper it to you.

I’m glad I played Nier: Automata, because if I hadn’t, this unofficial fan mod would have been the best RPG I played in 2018.

Moving on: Is The Witcher 3 overrated? Hell yes. It’s the new Final Fantasy 7 in that regard. But also like FF7, just because it isn’t the second coming of Christ in video game form, that doesn’t mean it’s not a truly excellent product. It’s an epic, complex, and thoroughly enjoyable game with an engaging plot that feels like the natural, meaningful conclusion to the trilogy that it’s meant to be, a terrific protagonist and strong supporting cast, and a hell of a lot of heart. I don’t agree with the prevailing opinion of so many players that it’s the greatest RPG made--hell, it isn’t even the greatest RPG of its year; Undertale beats the pants off it--but I can certainly understand why those players came to the conclusion.

Transistor is ferociously artful, an excellent reminder that even over 30 years into this medium of expression, we’re still discovering the incredible potential video games have to tell stories in ways unlike anything else. Transistor’s got a lot to say and to ponder over, and although its greatest focus seems to be on its beautiful and unique world’s look and sound, it sure as hell doesn’t skimp on its story of love, choice, obsession, and stagnation. Truly great stuff--I had high expectations of Supergiant Games after Bastion, and they met and exceeded them. I look forward to playing Pyre.

List Changes:
Greatest RPGs: Shadowrun: Hong Kong: Calfree in Chains Mod has been added as a third (and final) Honorable Mention. Additionally, Nier: Automata has been added; Mass Effect 2 has been removed. Sorry, you superb sci-fi sequel that souped up and strengthened the series’s singular setting.
Stupidest Weapons: Serina’s Figure Skating Mecha-Pegleg has been added; Keyblades have been removed. Congrats, you ungainly, unwieldy, unbalanced, unintelligent union of axe and sword.
Also, I was gonna add Handsome Jack to the Greatest Villains list, but I think I’ll actually just update the list as a whole and re-post it sometime in the coming year.

Aaaaaand that closes the book on 2018. I may have hated it on a personal level, but I do admit, in terms of RPGs, any year I can add not just 1, but 2 games to my list of the best RPGs ever made has to be considered a pretty good one. As ever, I give the greatest of thanks for my sister and my friend Ecclesiastes for all the help they provide to me year-round in making these rants significantly less sucky than they could be, and, of course, to my patrons, who are just aces. And finally, I naturally thank you, the readers who patiently put up with my nonsense thrice a month, for your continued validation of my online existence. Much gratitude to ya, and happy holidays! I’ll see you again in 2019!

* I know that Henry Cavill’s a good actor (even if he’s squandered on DC’s miserable failure of a cinematic universe), and Netflix is usually pretty good at making shows, but...I just don’t see it ever seeming right. Apologies to Heath Ledger, but Mark Hamill will always be the Joker, apologies to Erin Fitzgerald, but Tracey Rooney will always be Chie, and apologies to Mr. Cavill, but Doug Cockle will always be Geralt of Rivia.

** Also, unrelated, but I feel like N2 is what the Architect from the second Matrix movie would look like if he were done well. Much in the way that Nier: Automata as a game is to Xenosaga, N2 is almost like a “what could have been” with the Architect, and the Matrix sequels overall.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Fallout 76 is a Failure on Every Level

Well, it’s finally happened: a bad Fallout game has been created. Yes, that which we had once, in the sunny childhood of our innocence, thought impossible, has come to pass. That which could not be, is. A bad Fallout game--the thing beyond what we could have imagined is reality! The dread eventuality that I never once believed possible, has...has...

...Ha ha ha ha ha! Okay, I can’t keep that shit up.

Yeah, I am pretty obviously a huge, diehard fan of the Fallout series, but I ain’t some naive schmuck. The idea that the vaunted name of Fallout could be sullied with a bad game, surprising? Come on, Internet! Do you people not remember Fallout Tactics? Did you somehow block Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel from your conscious minds? I mean, if you did, power to you, please teach me your mental technique because I’d like to do the same. But yeah, as much as I adore the Fallout series, it’s not like Fallout 76’s horrendous suckitude is some foray into new territory. It is, at most, an expedition that just slightly extends the boundaries of Fallout’s territory in the Land of Shitty Shit that Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel originally lay claim to. Also? I don’t know how anyone with both an understanding of storytelling methods in video games and experience with Bethesda as a developer could possibly have the slightest doubt that Fallout 76 was going to be awful upon hearing that it would be online-only.

Of course, just because I have a good enough grasp on Sesame Street benchmarks to understand that a game series starts at 1, not 3, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have major grievances against Fallout 76. I may remember that the Fallout series is quite capable of disastrously bad side ventures, but I certainly didn’t want that to come to pass again!

But hey, who doesn’t take major issue with this abhorrent, sloppy, careless cash-grab? At this point, Todd Howard’s association with the Tell Me Lies song, previously seeming like a flash-in-the-pan meme that wouldn’t last, is now pretty much permanently cemented into gaming history. As far as griping about stuff goes, Fallout 76 is low-hanging fruit. Diablo: Immortal reminded the gaming community at the beginning of November that AAA publishers will inevitably betray their creations, sell their integrity, and fuck the fans that made their success possible in the ass for a quick yuan, and then mere weeks after Blizzard had put the gaming community back on its guard, Bethesda delivered a validation of every single fear anyone and everyone had had since hearing that the game would be online-only. Fallout 76 is already a slap in the face to any man or woman foolish enough to purchase it, but it had the misfortune of coming right when people were already abuzz with annoyance over a not entirely dissimilar situation.

Still, even if everyone’s already venting their well-justified anger over it, I’d nonetheless like to throw in my own two cents on the matter, because most of the complaints about this game come back to a certain few glaring errors (which, don’t get me wrong, are irredeemably bad), and Fallout 76, in my opinion, is just so much more of a complete blunder than just these particular egregious errors. On every level, Fallout 76 is a failure.

Let’s start with the first and most important matter: Fallout 76 is a failure as a Fallout game.

Fallout is characterized by many qualities, and it can’t truly be Fallout without any of them, but at its heart, this is a series which explores, analyzes, criticizes, and lauds the culture and history of the United States, and through that, humanity itself. From its 1950s aesthetics to its old-timey musical focus, from its major stories that grapple with the USA’s foreign policy and imperialism and history of prejudice and constant struggle to find leaders who put the will of the people over their own desires and toxic capitalism and the inability of the human species to learn from its mistakes, to its subplots of baseball and comic book characters and scientologists and aliens and casinos, from its incorporation of distinctly American landmarks and products and accents to its incorporation of countless references of USA-familiar people and media for the sake of quick jokes, Fallout has made it clear from the start that it exists to be a lens through which we can view ourselves as a country, for the sake of understanding who we are and how we came to be us, of good-naturedly laughing at ourselves, of uncomfortably seeing our shameful acts, mindset, and history exposed, and of taking pride in the many traits that make us uniquely great. To both joyously celebrate and harshly critique the United States of America is to be Fallout.

Fallout 76 does not do this.

Oh, to be sure, it goes through the motions. There are West Virginia landmarks to be found. A bare few of them even are more of the local kind of landmark than stuff that’d be more well-known on a national level. The main music is...uh...well, it ain’t old-timey like it really ought to be, as a 70s song, but then, plenty of the songs appropriated for the series before have been from the 60s, so I guess it’s fine, and it certainly fits.* Some of the holotape stories left behind incorporate professions and accents and other human elements recognizably connected to the region.

But that’s all they are: motions. They have no more life or purpose than the after-death twitches of an ant after someone steps on it. What is the meaning? What are these locations and ideas supposed to convey to us about the American state, mentality, method, anything? What does any of this stuff say about us? For that matter, what does any of it say about West Virginia itself, its people, its history, its culture, etc? These references and locations and recorded diaries, none of them are put to any USE, they don’t analyze or celebrate or criticize anything! There is no thought or message behind any of it, and for that, 76 is more like a molt of Fallout than the actual beast.

The immediate and most easily visible cause of this failure is, of course, the lack of characters in this game, which is 1 of the major complaints everyone has with Fallout 76: a lack of NPCs. After all, how can you explore such a very alive, human thing as the United States without alive, human actors? Characters like Caesar, House, Arthur Maxson, Elder Lyons, Vault 13’s Overseer, and James brought to life their games’ examination of America’s history of and/or connections to culture-extinguishing genocide, dangerously narcissistic entrepreneurship, thoughtless bigotry, selfless charity, xenophobia, and dedication to providing a high quality of life to its citizens. Major organizations like the NCR, the Railroad, and the Institute likewise gave compelling, living voice to Fallout’s analysis of the USA’s ties to unfair economic imperialism, fighting and sacrifice for the sake of others’ freedom, and a harmful Us First mentality. Hell, even just very minor NPCs like Sierra, Nathaniel Vargas, and Iguana Bob allow Fallout to speak to us about American tendencies toward blind product loyalty, self-destructively unreasoning patriotism, and disregarding the rights, feelings, and health of consumers in lieu of making a profit. Fallout 76 has no one.

But with that said, it wouldn’t be impossible to make a proper Fallout narrative based entirely around postmortem stories. Very difficult, but not impossible. Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon, another post-apocalyptic RPG which I like to call Studio Ghibli Fallout, uses after-the-fact storytelling for at least half of its overall narrative, and what’s more, that’s the method that best conveys the part of FDFRotM that’s about the quiet loss of a world ended and the extraordinary palette of humanity that world contained within its every inhabitant. As powerfully emotional and beautiful as FDFRotM can get with its main story, I would contend that its best narrative feature is its postmortem stories! If Bethesda had put the proper focus on saying something about our country and ourselves, if they had put their absolute best effort into appropriately tying that message to this empty wasteland through a thoughtful, well-crafted narrative of recorded messages, it could have worked.

But they didn’t. The narrative of Fallout 76 is an afterthought. They didn’t have the slightest intention to use its landmarks and tepid flirtations with West Virginia culture toward any greater purpose. It’s clear, looking at this game, that from the beginning of the game’s development, the highest level of thought they put into these ties to WV was the equivalent of a bored tourist pointing briefly at a landmark and saying, “Oh, look at that,” checking the place off a little travel list, and then going back to doing something else.

And I knew it would be this way, from the moment they said Fallout 76 was going to be an online-only adventure, because the level of narrative control you need to make a story with deeper content like the standard for Fallout isn’t something you can achieve when you first have to accommodate and put a focus on all the gameplay angles that perpetual communal online play creates.

So that’s how Fallout 76 is a failure on the level of being a Fallout game. But it’s more than that. It’s also a failure on the level of being a Fallout game, too.

No, that’s not a typo. I mean that on a more detail-oriented, technical level, it still fails to be a Fallout. What I’ve said so far has argued that it’s a game trying to play a role whose script it hasn’t bothered to read. But at the same time, it’s not even wearing the right clothes for that role!

Fallout 76 is a failure as a Fallout because it can’t be bothered to don the trappings of Fallout’s lore correctly. Now, look, I recognize the fact that the history and details of the Fallout universe have been changed before, and while that’s really annoying, I’ve generally forgiven Bethesda for it. The reason for this is that previously, Bethesda’s mistakes with the Fallout series’s lore have never been too terribly damaging. I mean, while they’ve bent a few of the bigger details, the biggest outright breaking the company’s done that I’ve seen has been the whole thing with Jet--Fallout 2 clearly stated that Myron, a character in the game, creates Jet, yet Bethesda’s later Fallouts contradict this by saying that Jet is a pre-war drug. It’s possible to rationalize this retcon well enough as Myron simply taking credit for knowledge of a drug that didn’t make it to the western USA before the world’s end (it certainly fits the little slimeball’s personality well enough), but it’s a definite screw-up on Bethesda’s part. Still, even considering the large role Jet plays in Fallout 2 and its recognizable nature as a Fallout item, we’re not talking about a huge, monumentally important piece of lore, here, so I’ve never held such a thing too strongly against Bethesda. After all, Obsidian made a few lore screw-ups themselves in Fallout: New Vegas (such as forgetting who actually created the Mr. Handy, which is arguably a more significant entity of Fallout lore than Jet). And hell, nothing Bethesda did in Fallout 3 or 4 was anywhere near the level of boneheaded, pointless, anti-lore stupidity that Fallout’s own creators pulled in Fallout 2, when they decided to retcon super mutants’ sterility--a lynchpin to the plot of Fallout 1 and the downfall of its antagonist The Master--for the sake of having 1 character make a joke after banging a hooker.** Bethesda never retconned anything so terribly as that.

...Until Fallout 76, that is. Like I said, I’ll forgive relatively minor infractions on the Fallout lore like Jet, and Mr. Handy, and so on. But Bethesda was so damn determined to include every possible iconic Fallout variable, to really just scream “IT’S FALLOUT, SEE!?!? SEE!?!? SEEEEEEE!?!?!?!?!” while they shove series signatures like deathclaws and super mutants in your face, that they just utterly twisted the canon into unrecognizable shreds. For example, Fallout 76 jumps through absurd hoops to include the Brotherhood of Steel, an inclusion which retroactively makes the previous games’ lore incomplete, because you’d THINK, at some point during all the previous Fallouts in which you can learn and read about the early days and formation of the BoS, that somewhere it would have been mentioned that the order’s founding commander apparently had a fucking pen pal in West Virginia who decided she’d open a BoS franchise of her own. You’d think that might have been mentioned somewhere in the histories. Hinted at sometime in the many conversations you have with dozens of Brotherhood of Steel members about their order from Fallout 1 onwards. Implied in the smallest way! But it wasn’t, because the idea is silly, and only a soulless greedy dumbass looking to make a quick buck would greenlight it.

And the Brotherhood of Steel are far from the only major twisting and breaking of lore that 76 is guilty of. Honestly, for a game so utterly devoid of story content, it’s actually kind of astounding how much it can manage to fuck up the series lore. Super Mutants? This is the fourth independent outbreak of Forced Evolutionary Virus mutants in the series now (and by far the least believable). Did the US government just sell vats of FEV as part of some promotional package before the war?*** Why is it so damn common? This stuff was supposed to be the most insanely top secret shit in the world! Now we’re supposed to believe that the government was testing it in a lab, and also having Vault-Tec use it for their experiments in Vault 87, AND that MIT for some reason had some lying around, AND that the government decided to just infect an entire goddamn town in West Virginia with the stuff to see what would happen? All at the same time!? Fucking Nuka-Cola Quantum had a smaller distribution range in the pre-war United States than this biological super weapon!

Also, why are all the ghouls in Fallout 76 already feral? This game takes place a mere 25 years after the end of the Great War. It’s an established fact that after many, many years, most ghouls eventually lose their minds and become zombie-esque ferals, and it’s implied that this is the inevitable fate of all ghouls, although there’s really no proof of that. But even though the time it takes varies from 1 ghoul to another, there’s a substantial enough population of sane ghouls in the USA even over 200 years later that it’s irrational to think that a sizable portion of the ghouls a mere 25 years after the bombs dropped would have gone feral--and it’s ludicrous to think that ALL the ghouls in West Virginia would have succumbed! Since the game is careful to differentiate between natural ghouls and those created by the Scorched Plague, with the former apparently being completely immune to said plague, you can’t just say that the Scorched are the rest of the ghouls; they’re a separate thing. So where the hell are all the mentally functional ghouls in this damn state?

Jet’s not inconsequential to the Fallout universe, but it’s at least small enough that you can make allowances for messing up its lore. But we’re talking about the Brotherhood of Steel, the single most important and influential faction in the entire series, which plays an absolutely essential role in 3 of 5 Fallouts, and an important secondary role in the other 2! We’re talking about ghouls, the major (sort of) non-human race whose afflictions have been a crucial part of countless side stories and quests throughout the series! And we’re talking about super mutants, THE iconic bad guys of Fallout, whose very existence is the foundation of Fallout 1’s plot, an absolutely essential part of the history of Fallout 3, and a heavy indictment against the main villains of Fallout 4! In all earnesty, I cannot think of what other iconic elements of the Fallout series could possibly be worse to carelessly mess up!

So you see, Fallout 76 fails on the level of being a Fallout, not just in heart and spirit, but also in body and mind. Not only can it not be bothered to even try to accomplish the task that its name requires of it, but it mars and breaks the assets it has borrowed. And so we reach the next level: Fallout 76 is a failure as a Fallout, but what about simply as an entity of its own? As an RPG in its own right, how is it?

Bad. Really bad. Awful, in fact.

Indeed, this game might just fail harder by basic RPG standards than it does by the lofty expectations of the Fallout series! Because even if Fallout 76 is unable to (nor even tries to) say anything about America, I will give it, at least, that it’s got the quiet exploration of a post-apocalyptic world that’s another of Fallout’s staples, even if only barely (hard to maintain the tense, atmospheric interest of poking about ruins and the wastes when there’s just so comparatively little to actually find). But as just an RPG, it doesn’t get anything right! The “plot” of this game has less depth, less complexity, than a number of games from the days of the NES, and even the Sega Master System! Seriously, pit Fallout 76’s story against Phantasy Star 1, The Magic of Scheherazade, and even several non-RPGs like The Astyanax, and Fallout 76 is the inevitably the loser--this 2018 title designed to take actual dozens if not hundreds of hours to beat has less substance, less compelling human drama, and lower quality plot twists than a 1989 side-scroller that you can beat in 2 or 3 hours.

Nor is this straightened slinky of a storyline meaningful or emotionally fulfilling. Beyond being terrific commentaries on the USA, the Fallout series is, of course, a great collection of tales that speak to us of ourselves and greatness in a general sense. Even if Fallout 3 had no commentary on the generosity of the American spirit and the way that the will and welfare of the people continues to inevitably clash against the selfishness of our government leaders, it would still be an awesome story of dedicated, selfless human kindness, of the courage to stand against not only danger but also one’s own laws in order to do what is right, and of a child who embodies her/his parents’ greatest qualities and fulfills their legacy of heroism as she/he finishes the father’s work to enact the mother’s dream for the world. Even if Fallout 1 had nothing to say about the USA’s old tradition of isolationism and the importance of not losing diverse individuality in a land defined by its ideals of unity, it would still be a badass story of a man saving a harsh world from the festering wounds its past has left upon it, only to find that in leaving to fight for the sake of his home’s survival, he’s now so changed that he has no place there. Even if Fallout 4 had no investigation of our history of human exploitation, our cold war paranoia, and our recent fascination with finding and embracing our personal identity, it would still be a compelling story of both the strengths and the limits of a parent’s devotion to a child, of ordinary people banding together to stand for extraordinary ideals, and of the fascinating idea that artificial humanity could, in fact, be in some cases more truly human than many so-called “real” people. Beneath the celebrated mantle of their franchise, the major Fallout games that have come before have been excellent RPGs in their own right for their stories.

And yes, as noted before, the game does have a lot of the holotapes and so on of little mini-stories of now-dead individuals to fill you in, but, frankly, that’s just not enough. Certainly, this storytelling device can be an effective one, but, as stated above, it’s clear that Bethesda did not bring its A Game to this aspect of 76. None of the lore stories in this game reach the strength of many of those found in previous Fallouts, and anyway, just because something is an effective part of a storytelling process, that doesn’t mean it can support an entire narrative all by itself. Mustard is a great condiment to put some pep in your sandwich, but it’s not a meal in and of itself--even the terrific after-the-fact stories in Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon, which I believe are the best example of this narrative device, didn’t exist in a storytelling vacuum. They helped make it great, but there was still an actual plot and real story events in the game that defined FDFRotM’s pace and purpose. And hey, who knows, maybe that title could’ve managed to pull off a plot solely held together with such stories--it was really good at them, after all. But Fallout 76’s writing isn’t even close to Fragile Dreams’s equal, even in those rare moments when it did seem like someone at Bethesda was putting a little effort into it, and it most definitely cannot pull together a compelling narrative from these logs and vignettes.

Of course, a superlative RPG can be created from more than just a strong story--a plain or even weak story can be held up quite adequately with a great cast and an emotionally powerful narrative. I love the second half of Tales of Legendia, for example, even though its story is, taken as a whole, only average, simply because it explores a lot of memorable and deep characters, sells you on the great connections they have as a family, and is filled with human drama that speaks to you on a personal level. But here, once again, Fallout 76 fails--and this time, the failure does begin and end with Bethesda’s disastrous decision to keep its game barren of characters. Because obviously, it’s hard to have any human connection to a cast that doesn’t exist. And yes, some people have pointed out that there ARE some NPCs in the game, in fact, namely the quest-giving robots and a super mutant trader...but these “characters” really just are nothing more or less than their role in your gameplay. They no more add to the human experience of the game than do the soulless, single-minded shopkeepers in any other RPG that spend their lives in a single spot behind a desk, awaiting your decision to Buy or Sell a potion. The Fallout series has given us such memorable personalities as Harold, Myron, Lynette, Moira, Yes Man, Lily, Glory, and Codsworth, such interesting entities as Nicole, Marcus, Goris, Elder Lyons, James, Madison Li, Boone, Caesar, Piper, DiMA, and Father, and such amazing characters who are both powerfully memorable and deep as Sarah Lyons, Veronica, Ulysses, Deacon, and Nick Valentine...when that’s the sort of standards against which to measure, it’s kind of hard to even feel like Fallout 76’s lame quest-spouting and money-changing narrative automatons even qualify as NPCs.

And, of course, the facts that the protagonist of this game has no personality whatsoever, and that there’s a lack of any real antagonist figure, don’t help. Even by silent protagonist standards, your role in Fallout 76 is utterly lifeless--the Vault Dweller, the Chosen One, the Lone Wanderer, and the Courier all had honest, personal stakes in their adventures, even if the games did suffer from their lack of characterization, as did the Sole Survivor, thankfully an actual participant in the game’s story for once. In Fallout 76, you just play 1 of a bunch of nameless goons released carelessly into the wasteland for a job with no apparent personal relevance to you. No “Save your home,” no “figure out why some guy shot you in the head,” nothing--you can’t even reasonably pretend to care about what’s happening! And of course, while other RPGs are usually smart enough to make up for their mute main character’s lack of input with an involved and vocal surrounding cast, obviously Fallout 76 has no such fall-back. Likewise, the villain of this story, if so it can be called, is a silent, faceless plague.

Bethesda, when people say that a great villain should be a mirror to the hero, they don’t mean that if you’ve written a horrendously boring hero with no presence whatsoever, your villain should be the exact same!

But hey, again, none of this is a surprise. Because when you make a game for the purpose of online gameplay, this is gonna happen. The strongest reason to voluntarily play a game by yourself is because you want to experience is storytelling qualities, and control the pace and environment in which you discover them. So when Bethesda made this game online-only, it was making something quite clear: the story elements of Fallout 76 were so unimportant in the eyes of its creator that there wasn’t even a point to allowing the players to experience the game in a way that emphasized them. It was clear from the start that they weren’t going to give a shit about this game as anything more than an online cash-grab; the most surprising thing, really, is that they even bothered to include what half-hearted attempts at lore and plot are there.

So yeah, Fallout 76 is not just a failure as a specific brand of RPG, but as an RPG of any kind. I have felt more life and significance in the plot and cast of Kemco games than I have with this pile of crap. Which leaves just 1 more level for the game to try at. If it can’t be a success as a Fallout, which is a specific kind of RPG, and it can’t be a success just as an RPG, which is a specific kind of video game...can it at least be a success simply as a video game, period?

Uh, no. God no.

I’m not good at rating games for just being games, honestly. While I have my enjoyable mindless diversions (as you read this, there’s an 80% chance that I’m currently playing Super Smash Brothers Ultimate), I mostly engage with video games for the same reason I do with books, anime, shows, cartoons, movies, and so on: in the hopes that they’ll speak to me, make me think, offer insight into the human condition that I haven’t considered, and push me to explore new regions of heart and soul. So I’m not gonna go into this in depth. But in strict terms of whether this game is fun, whether it has merits in terms of simple gameplay and enjoyment? Fallout 76 fails.

As more than a few people will tell you, it’s objectively flawed in the technical sense. As in it has bugs. Tons of them. It’s buggier than a goddamn anthill! And when your priority with a game has solely been to focus on the gameplay elements--that’s the elements of just playing the game, now--that’s absolutely unacceptable. If you’re going to sacrifice everything worthwhile about an RPG to focus solely on its playability and nothing else, then the game better goddamn work! And yet Fallout 76 released with as many glitches and oversights as any of its predecessors--more, in fact, since it has all its own problems AND has inherited quite a few from Fallout 4 which after 3 years Bethesda hasn’t bothered to fix even though all it would take is stealing a few lines of code from the damn modding community that DID repair the issues years ago on their own time!

Add to that the fact that Bethesda’s decided no modders can touch the game for a year--modders being the ones who traditionally improve Bethesda’s products to the point that they’re actually playable, because God forbid this absurdly rich developer actually do their own fucking tech work and release a functional product by themselves. Add to that the fact that a significant amount of items and other content are locked away behind a manipulative, evil in-game currency system. Add to that the fact that there’s practically no protections in the game to keep people from cheating. Add to that the fact that there are areas designed so poorly that you can get yourself stuck in them without any way of escaping besides killing yourself and spawning elsewhere, as well as settlement sites that have enemy spawns right in the middle of them that stay functional even after you’ve built a base there. Add to that the fact that even the stuff that works as intended is sometimes just bad all on its own--the PVP system is designed in a way that causes most players to just ignore it because it’s not worth the time, and the HP-to-attack-power ratio makes battle with just about anything a tedious slug-fest, for example. Add to that the fact that the game lacks basic necessary functions of online games that have been standards for over a decade, such as a push-to-talk button! And finally, maybe most damningly, add to all of that the fact that the goddamn servers at Bethesda can’t handle the game consistently,**** booting you back to the main menu (what a GREAT idea to make it online-only, huh?) frequently--the servers can’t even handle some of the game’s primary features; they crash if 3 nukes go off in the same area!

Basically, if Fallout 76 was the Catholic Church, we’d need an entire clone army of Martin Luthers hammering away to accurately theses-out all the shit that’s wrong with this game. It’s like they wanted to create the western RPG equivalent of Lunar: Dragon Song.

Bethesda apologists/stockholm-syndrome-sufferers like Oxhorn (who, if a Bethesda executive whacked him in the dick with an aluminum bat, would, I think, find a way to argue that this action was not only completely acceptable, but actually a good thing), have, of course, tried to make the argument that since it’s an online game, Bethesda will naturally have no choice but to make patch after patch to fix the game’s issues until it’s actually in working order. That’s a nice thought and all, but not only does nothing in the company’s history suggest this will happen, but it’s also really not that great a defense. “Yeah, guys, it’s a abysmal maelstrom of refuse right NOW, but if you’ll just patiently twiddle your thumbs and wait for a few months, THEN it’ll be modestly acceptable! I mean, who purchases a video game and then expects to be able to play it within the same calendar year, right?”

Some people have also pointed out that Fallout 76 is better when playing with friends. This is true. And, in the interests of fairness, that IS a point in the favor of a game specifically designed around the idea of cooperative and/or competitive play. But the simple fact is that it doesn’t make up for the fundamental technical problems that will inevitably mar you experience, friends or no, and there’s absolutely nothing, besides a coat of Fallout paint, that it offers that you couldn’t get from playing a different game with your friends--and that different game is more likely to actually function correctly, too. Anything is more fun when done with people you like--are the movies that Mystery Science Theater 3000 shows somehow less objectively bad, just because watching it alongside a wisecracking guy and robots is fun? Your enjoyment with friends only lasts until they get bored and move on to better games--or in the short term, get disconnected from the server again.

Also, it’s worth noting that everything around this game seems to fail, too. Bought the game at full price? You get to feel like a fool immediately afterward, as Bethesda drops the price almost in half in a desperate attempt to sell it. Want the special edition canvas bag they promised? It takes the very real threat of litigation for false advertising for you to actually get what you paid for. Want to get a refund because you don’t like the game? Well, because Bethesda only allows digital sales through its own services, they don’t have to give you jack shit once you’ve downloaded it--the equivalent in the real world would be a store refusing to return the jeans you just bought 14 seconds before on the grounds not that you’d put them on, but simply that you’d put them in your shopping bag. Putting in a customer service request? Well, I certainly hope you enjoy the prospect of random other people being able to see and respond to your support ticket, as well as gain access to your private data. And as a bonus, expect Bethesda’s initial response to each and every one of these issues to be flippant and cheerfully dismissive.

Thus, I say that Fallout 76 is a spectacular blunder in totality. It fails on every single possible level. It fails as a Fallout game, both in soul and in body. It fails as an RPG. It even fails at simply being a video game. And Bethesda fails at everything they do in regards to it. Fallout 76 is a raging, out-of-control trash fire, like someone set flame to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for all the reasons commonly pointed out by its players--but I thought it was worth noting that it’s a failure on every level, and that the real cause of this isn’t just the immediate, glaring problems highlighted by reviews, but rather the root of those problems: a lack of interest on Bethesda’s part in giving their product substance, and a lack of competence in making it functional. Shame on every man and woman who’s had a hand in the decision-making process of this fiasco.

* Although I kinda feel like the theme song for a Fallout set in West Virginia being Take Me Home, Country Roads, a song which is just outright about West Virginia, might be a little TOO fitting. Fallout 2 didn’t feel the need to begin with Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco. Fallout 1 didn’t require the Bee Gees’ California Girls to set its stage. Fallout 4 didn’t open by slapping you in the face with the fucking Kingston Trio’s Charlie on the MTA! The signature old classics for every major Fallout title before 76 have always been concerned with the major plot points of their game, or the overall concept of the Fallout universe’s setting, rather than just blatantly wailing the name of the state they take place in.

But then, as I go into above, there IS nothing to this game beyond its scenery, no matter of substance in story nor cast, theme nor intent, so what other song could you possibly use to convey a game so genuinely lacking in intellectual or emotional matter? Will.i.am would want way too much money for any of his work. So really, a song which boils down to “West Virginia is a place THAT EXISTS” represents the apex of Fallout 76’s mental value.

** Chris Avellone has said that it was only meant as a joke, not a retcon, but--and it’s hard for me to blaspheme against the mighty Avellone, believe me--I think that’s just him trying to cover for a decision he only realized in retrospect was really dumb. This nonsense already starts with Marcus the super mutant making a joke, and then, when asked to elaborate, he says, without the slightest hint of levity or deception in his voice or words, just his regular conversational tone, that it just took some years for the “juices” to start “flowing again.” For this statement to be a joke in response to having cracked a joke would be awkward and narratively out of place, and it wouldn’t fit the voice acting nor dialogue’s wording. I’m pretty sure this scenario was originally meant to be in earnest.

*** I exaggerate, of course. After all, by Bethesda’s logic, if a vat of FEV had been promised as part of some special deal, then the only thing that Vault-Tec, MIT, and West Tek would have actually received would be a bottle of Mello Yellow.

**** And keep in mind, this game has, by all indications, not sold even close to as well as Bethesda wanted it to. So if the servers can’t handle even the reduced number of forsaken, miserable souls who had the misfortune to purchase Fallout 76 right now, what the fuck was Bethesda planning to do if it had actually met its sales expectations?

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Legrand Legacy's Party Members' Disharmony

NOTE: As of the time I am uploading this rant, Legrand Legacy has received a version update which replaces the ending, and supposedly updates a substantial portion of the game's writing. I haven't been able to get a properly clear answer from the developers about whether the actual content of that writing has also been changed, so I'm still putting this rant up with the assumption that it has not, and that the problems I list below are still there, just expressed more eloquently. I will be sure to slap a retraction up here if I confirm later on that content of the game's writing no longer suffers from the problems I go into in this rant, though. Not that any of you necessarily care about super obscure indie titles like this anyway, but just in case you might be turned off from this game by a problem that they're fixing, I'll keep y'all informed.

Of course, you could ask why I don't just wait to see before uploading this rant, in case it does have to be nixed. Well, there's a very good reason for that: petty spite. The problems I examine in this rant annoyed the shit out of me, and even if the creators do end up fixing them, I still think I went through enough vexation that I deserve to vent my justifiable frustrations. If I have to later do an apologetic retraction rant, so be it.

Legrand Legacy is a Kickstarter RPG which I helped to fund, created to serve as an homage to many of the RPGs of the Playstation 1 and 2 era. It’s a pretty authentic tribute to the RPGs that inspired it, and there’s a lot to like about it.

There’s also a lot more to not like about it.

At the top of the list of this game’s shortcomings is its cast. Interestingly, though, it’s not the usual cast flaw that RPGs frustrate me with: that being the problem of most/all characters being poorly written, boring, and/or dislikable in their own right. That’s annoying in games like Lunar: Dragon Song, Final Fantasy 8, Chrono Cross, and so on, but it’s not the case here. I mean, I’m not especially fond of all the main characters of Legrand Legacy (Kael is a douchebag), but in general, they’re not awful in and of themselves. No, the problem is with how they work together as a party, and their relationship dynamics in general. To put it simply, I have never seen a cast in an RPG, or anything else, for that matter, so doggedly determined to never, ever get along.

I swear to Lir, as soon as the party has multiple members, there is not a single event that occurs in this game which doesn’t see these heroes begin bitterly bickering and bitching about it. They will find any and every possible excuse to disagree on what should be done and hold a grudge against each other at every damn turn!

I’m serious, it never stops, from the moment you get the second member of the Fatebound. The second person to join the party, Aria, is the Old Faithful of unnecessary party drama: it’s a guarantee that every hour or 2 she will erupt and start spewing a hot stream of negative emotion at 1 or more of her ‘friends.’ Aria graduates from being constantly impatient and insulting to protagonist Finn to being huffy about the fact that he cares enough about another female to want her not to die, to criticizing Kael for saving her life because he did it by encouraging slaves to fight for their freedom and that’s just too violent for precious Aria’s sensibilities, to deciding on multiple occasions that she can never again trust and work with some of her companions who have been fighting at her side and supporting her unerringly...it just goes on and on. I honestly do not think that there is a single, unbroken period of 3 minutes of dialogue in this game in which Aria is happy, or even just goddamn neutral, about what’s going on at that moment. And it sure as hell ain’t just her--Kael actually manages to be worse.

It is, frankly, EXHAUSTING to sit through, as the player. Emotionally draining! You just go from 1 moment in the story to the next, over and over, and every single time, you have to watch these idiots argue amongst themselves and criticize each other for every single action they take. Imagine having to watch a 50 hour video compilation of every single overdramatic disagreement and instance of badmouthing from any given stereotypical reality show. That’s what this is like! Bad games and bad characters, they frustrate me, they may bore me, they may drive me crazy, they may even utterly repulse me, and when I’m done playing them, I feel relieved that I don’t have to deal with their stupidity any longer. But the relief I felt at finishing Legrand Legacy swept over me like a wave; it felt like I had escaped from a cage someone had been keeping me in. This must be the sort of freedom felt by someone who has finally cut their ties with a toxic, emotional parasite that’s been ruining their life by association.

And let’s not be ambiguous about this: this is not just a flaw in the sense that it’s extremely off-putting to the audience. It’s also a serious flaw within the context of the game’s basic storytelling. It is definitely contradictory to the writers’ intentions. There are plenty of moments during the drama in Legrand Legacy in which some of the characters will assert, earnestly, that they’re all friends. Like, when Kael finds out he’s a shadow, a being born of an evil magic rather than a natural biological human, he gets all dramatic about it, and tries pushing the others away, to which 1 of them responds with conviction that it doesn’t matter because they’re his friends regardless. Later on, Kael feels all betrayed by some new drama, and remarks that he’d thought he had some real friends, but he guesses maybe he was wrong.* There’s a multitude of moments in the game in which it’s said or implied that these people are under the impression that they’re friends, but there is simply nothing we see about the way they interact and the ideas they communicate that supports this! Once again, we must retreat to the tried and true adage: Show, Don’t Tell. You can’t convince me that the members of the Fatebound think of themselves as friends when every single conversation they have seems to threaten to tear the group asunder!

This maelstrom of negative emotion is also a case of poor writing because it contradicts its own conclusions on multiple occasions. The same subject of Kael is a great example of this: early in the game, the revelation that he’s a shadow shakes him, and it causes a bunch of drama for the cast. The end result, though, is that they come to the conclusion that Kael is no more or less a person as he was before they knew his nature, and he himself seems to have accepted his origins. The matter seems dropped. But then, late in the game, it comes out that, in a twist, fellow party member Eris is the person that Kael was created from. Suddenly the issue of him being a shadow, which hasn’t been a problem for him for the last 30 hours of game time, re-emerges and causes a massive explosion of betrayal and distrust, as he turns on Eris as somehow being complicit in this and against him all along or some such nonsense, and wails about how horrible it is that he was forced to exist. Not only does his sudden anger and feelings of betrayal seem extraordinarily forced in this situation (why does this fucking matter, and why blame her for it?), a clear case of the writers inventing drama just for the sake of drama, but it seems like the emotional closure of Kael’s major character development arc earlier never happened. We already dealt with this problem, and he was supposed to be over it! Aria doubting and outright attacking people because of their pasts, Finn doubting Kael’s intentions, Aria being called on being too demanding and harsh as a leader, the same drama keeps surfacing over and over again, with no solution ever seeming to stick, no lesson ever seeming to be learned!

And speaking of this drama overload being inconsistent to its own conclusions, there’s the Roshua Tree trial. 1 of the most important moments in the game is the trial in the holy tree, whose purpose is to get the Fatebound to trust 1 another, and accept that their roles as protectors of Legrand is bigger than their own personal ambitions and opinions. The purpose of this trial is to cement them into a team with a purpose, get them to forgive one another their past mistakes and go forward together as a cohesive whole. Their successful completion of this trial, their coming together to receive the holy relic, is the first major victory that the party has as the destined heroes they’re supposed to be, and it’s clearly meant to be the first major step in a new direction for them...but, as this rant’s existence makes obvious, this lesson doesn’t stick, rendering what should be a climactic moment of the game into just 1 more broken promise of the narrative.

Also, the Roshua Tree’s trial is pretty damn pointless in another regard. It’s supposed to be about getting all the Fatebound to accept that their role in destiny is more important than their personal politics and all that jazz, and supposedly everyone learns this and completes the trial to the tree’s satisfaction. But apparently Kael wasn’t paying all that much attention, because his final act in Legrand Legacy is to try to possess the final boss’s body, with the intent of using the guy’s power to change the world’s societies to eliminate upper classes and make everyone equal. Which sort of sounds like the exact opposite of the whole “let go of your personal opinions and just focus on getting the job done” thing. Especially since it results in revitalizing the final boss and making him more powerful than ever, unable to be put down without a highly confusing and ambiguous sacrifice on Finn and maybe Eris’s part (the ending to this game sucks, by the way). So yeah, Kael’s last bit of drama in not being able to trust his comrades (because 2 of them are royalty) winds up almost destroying the world. Good job on remembering every-goddamn-thing you had the characters learn at that crucial moment in the plot, Legrand writing team.

...what kind of shit prophecy was it that put Kael in the Fatebound, anyway? How well you contribute to your team of foretold warriors may vary, but I’m pretty sure most people would agree that you shouldn’t get to be a hero of destiny if your biggest influence on your team is to make it harder to save the world. Who the hell writes a story in which it would have been beneficial to the quest if 1 of the fated heroes had just stayed home?

Oh, and another point to be clear on: you may have noticed that Aria and Kael are the ones I mention most here as causing this constant drama, but it’s definitely not them alone. Yeah, Azzam and Scatia and Eris may not instigate this crap all that often, but the most they do to mitigate it is to passively protest or reactively argue. Once an argument or other form of heated exchange has started, they may try to defuse the situation and talk the others down, but it never seems to occur to them that they should try saying, “Hey, guys, let’s just take a moment here to talk to each other and work through our issues together” in the off-times when tempers aren’t currently flaring. Halfheartedly flicking a few water droplets on each new fire is not the same as trying to convince the guy with the matches to stop lighting them. The horrendous dysfunctionality of this party may be caused primarily by a certain 2 individuals, but they’re ALL complicit in it in 1 way or another.

I understand what the writers of this game were trying for. Honestly, I do. They wanted to make sure that their characters were always evolving, always being developed and an active part of the events they were involved in. So Semisoft tried to make sure there was always something going on with them that they were reacting to, or some interaction being made between the bigger personalities of the party. And I can respect the intention, at least, because it’s really annoying and boring in an RPG when a character has had all the major development and interactions they’re going to get, and they wind up just feeling like they’re a passenger to the plot the rest of the time. Even great games do this sometimes--I’ve mentioned before how I really wish that Final Fantasy 9 had done more with Freya, who I think had the most potential of its entire cast, after the events in Burmecia and Cleyra during the early parts of the game. She never disappeared, or became a silent placeholder, but her character’s contribution to the party dynamic and plot was limited after that point, and that’s damn disappointing. And that, at the very least, does not happen with any of the party members of Legrand Legacy.

But Semisoft seems to have mistaken constant drama, constant disagreement, and constant vitriol as character development. And not only is that not the case, but, since the lessons learned from these conflicts are disregarded several times in order to make the next melodrama possible, this never-ending torment of complaints, clashing personalities, and hurt feelings is actually the exact opposite of character development, because it keeps bringing these individuals backward to retread the same ground. By the end of Legrand Legacy, not a single 1 of the main characters feels like they’ve actually grown as a person, nor do they feel as though they’ve connected to the others as a team, because they stumble over the same character faults as they did at the beginning, and almost no part of how they speak to and regard one another appears to have moved a step forward. After dozens of hours of watching these characters, it still feels to the very end like a group of ill-tempered strangers have been thrust together at random for some especially sour RPG version of the Real World.

* Kael does this more than once, in fact. Which is a little hypocritical, because the instant he finds out that 2 of these chums that he’s so quick to accuse of not being true enough to their friendship to him are, in fact, royalty, he immediately turns around and from that point on refuses to trust or support them.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Asdivine 4's Characters

Oh, Kemco. If I were to liken you to any animal, it surely would be the mother bird, and we the gamers, your hungry chicks. We clamor constantly for a new meal, an RPG to play, and you sally forth in a frantic rush to provide, until you happen across a big, juicy RPG. You devour it, take in this succulent gaming morsel and delight in its many virtues, and then bring it back to we chicks. And then, you force-feed us the half-digested slop crammed in your gut that was once a proper, fully-formed RPG by vomiting it violently down our throats. The easier it goes down, the fewer nuances that we can experience of this basic decomposed matter that was once a distinguishable and perhaps even enjoyable game, the better.

And because your games are a mere $10 or less, we, like the chicks, settle for this method of satisfaction and cry out for more.

Asdivine Cross, the fourth game in the Asdivine series, is, admittedly, 1 of the better Kemco games I’ve played. That’s not much of a badge of pride, of course--it’s basically the same as saying that 1 soggy cracker is preferable over its kin because it happens to have a single grain of salt on it--but it does mean that its cast members are perhaps just close enough to being real characters that I can make a rant out of them, unlike Chronus Arc or Justice Chronicles or Grinsia or--actually, to save time, just find a list of all of Kemco’s games, and assume that at least half of them are so bland that even I can’t think of a witty insult for them. I mean, I haven’t played all of Kemco’s works by a long shot (and I do not intend to), but I’m willing to risk the assumption on this one.

Harvey: Harvey’s a pretty bland and uninteresting hero.

What’s that, you say? You’re tired of hearing me say that about almost every RPG protagonist I come across?

Yeah. Me, too.

Amelia: You know what’s a lot less funny than certain RPG developers think it is? Making the entire basis for your character’s personality and development the fact that they’re a well-meaning but highly ignorant moron. It’s like, yeah, this works for Fry from Futurama, or the eponymous Homestar Runner, but that’s because those guys are the main characters of comedies. But for a straightforward save-the-world fantasy RPG narrative, a perpetual bubblehead like Amelia just isn’t compelling, and her humor value doesn’t last for long, either.

Olivia: Apparently, the character artist for Olivia was so damn proud of that 1 profile pic where she’s glaring that they decided to base the entirety of her personality around it. Well, I want to complain about how empty and forgettable a character that makes her, but even a personality trait so small and meaningless as “Glares pretty well,” standing all by itself, makes her more interesting than Harvey, at least.

You think I should make a list of all the characters in RPGs I’ve come across who have exactly 1 defining trait to their personality, which is so meaningless and/or stupid that it renders them parodically absurd? Because Olivia here is far and away not the first time I’ve been reminded of Final Fantasy 8’s Zell Dincht, whose solitary memorable characteristic of wanting to eat low-quality hot dogs opened my eyes to just how low and lazy RPG writers could go to round out a cast. Maybe I could even make a list of the most utterly idiotic one-notes to base the entirety of your character around. Hey, I’ve made dumber list rants.

Lucile: Frankly, I’m pretty sure that Lucile, the tsundere loli masochist, who derives what can only be described as orgasmic pleasure from the act of receiving extreme harm, offers us way too intimate, way too accurate a window into the personal interests of at least 1 of the individuals on Kemco’s creative team.

Zig: This is not just an anime thing. Look, I know forgiveness is (As)divine and all, and I’m a strong believer in the idea that one should be allowed to seek penance for one’s prior sins, and do what one can to balance the scales against the wrongs that one has caused in the past. But everyone gets chummy with Zig awfully fast once he turns against the main bad guy, considering that Zig has spent the game wiping out half the populations of multiple villages of innocent people. Like, okay, let the guy live and give him the chance to do some good to counter the evil of his past deeds, but maybe hold enough of a grudge about the matter not to immediately hand him a fucking promotion the moment he says “Yeah, I guess random murder is wrong.”

Light Deity: I guess it’s innovative to have the being associated with light, instead of the being associated with darkness, turn out to be the main villain...

Too bad her reason for being evil turns out to be the same tired old “we gotta start over from scratch cuz humans suck” schtick that like 35% of all RPG villains go with, except somehow even more limp and flavorless than usual.

Aria and Nullus: I cannot help but feel like the huge plot twist that the creation deities you have to defeat in New Game+ are actually the Harvey and Lucile of a previous time cycle would have had just a tiny bit more of an impact on the audience if Aria and Nullus had not chosen to look exactly like they did when they were human.

Goddammit, Kemco.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

General RPGs' Frequent Use of Aliens

You know something? RPGs sure are strangely fond of including space aliens that are completely inappropriate to their narrative.

I mean, yeah, okay, you’d expect some aliens here and there in the genre, sure. No one playing the Mass Effect series is gonna be especially surprised that half the cast consists of various species of aliens. Nor will players be surprised that the same is true of Cosmic Star Heroine, the Phantasy Star series, and Anachronox. They’re all sci-fi RPGs, so it makes complete sense that they’d incorporate some aliens in their cast.*

And even in some non-sci-fi cases, it makes sense. The Fallout series, for example. Yeah, there’s nothing about a post apocalyptic nuclear wasteland that especially calls for space aliens, but Fallout’s biggest theme and purpose is an exploration of United States culture and history on all levels, and Americans have long held a fascination and affection for the idea of extraterrestrial life, so throwing in an alien here and there makes sense. A game like the first South Park RPG, or Sailor Moon: Another Story, is based on a franchise that has already incorporated aliens into its story in the past, so there’s nothing out of place with its doing so again Similarly, sometimes non-sci-fi RPGs will base a major part of their story around the concept of extraterrestrial life, such as Tales of Legendia and Final Fantasy 7, both of whose stories heavily incorporate the idea of extraterrestrial races having long ago come to an already inhabited planet, and influenced the direction of its history.

But beyond outright science fiction, and appropriate non-sci-fi settings where extraterrestrial elements are a significant part of the lore, have you noticed how common it is just to have random aliens thrown into the mix, for seemingly no reason at all?

Like, what is Starky doing in Chrono Cross? Don’t get me wrong, I actually do very mildly like the little guy (which by extension means that I guess he must be my favorite character), and Girtablulu knows that Starky is not even close to being the weirdest, most narratively inappropriate character in Chrono Cross’s cast. But what about the world and tone of Chrono Cross fits with a cute, amusingly weird little alien conqueror scout being incorporated into the plot, hm? The Chrono world might already have had some alien influence, admittedly, as Lavos is also an extraterrestrial creature, but the major difference there is, like Jenova from Final Fantasy 7, Lavos is the basis upon which the entirety of Chrono Trigger’s history and conflict is built. Starky the random alien, on the other hand, just comes from nowhere and goes nowhere.

And he is not alone. Think of the RPGs you’ve played, and all the unexpected, inexplicable aliens that come and go in them that are not only completely unnecessary to the story, but are, in fact, jarringly inappropriate to it. Why is 1 of the character choices in The 7th Saga an alien--what does it accomplish? Cute though he is, whatever purpose does Pupu in Final Fantasy 8 serve? Is it not more than a little immersion-breaking for a Legend of Zelda adventure to incorporate alien abductions into a major sidequest? How did anyone on the writing team think that the spontaneous inclusion of Muppy, possibly the most random-ass alien of them all, would be a good fit for the alchemy-themed fantasy Mana Khemia 1? I know I’ve pointed out the Wild Arms series’s typical inability to stay true to its purported setting, but even by its own loose standards, how the hell do random invading alien enemies figure into multiple installments of Wild West games?

There is someone, working somewhere in the gaming industry, who is grossly mishandling the Drake equation.

Wild Arms 2 can’t even be satisfied with the 1 random-ass alien invasion, in fact--it’s gotta have the inexplicable recurring alien enemies of the series, and a pair of random-as-fuck alien lizard-people doing mad science for the bad guys. Why couldn’t the villains of Wild Arms 2 get by with regular, human mad scientists? What about the plot of WA2 necessitated this normal role be filled by outer space scalies whose extraterrestrial nature had absolutely no relevance nor place in the game? Who was the guy/gal at Contrail who heard the phrase “Cowboy RPG” and immediately thought to themselves, “This calls for reptilian humanoids!”? Such questions are beyond our ability to answer.

I guess I don’t necessarily have something against this unusual trope of random aliens sprinkled haphazardly about, given that it at least only rarely breaks immersion badly enough that it’s actually detrimental to the storytelling process. But it is another entry in my ever-growing list of things about this genre that are really quite odd.

* In fact, what doesn’t make sense, really, is how often sci-fi RPGs don’t have proper aliens in them. Xenosaga’s civilization has managed to fill up the entire galaxy without finding a single non-human form of life that they didn’t create themselves, Borderlands appears to be much the same, and it seems like every world’s species in the Star Ocean universe is indistinguishable from humanity. It’s like you have less of a chance to see proper aliens in the sci-fi RPGs than the rest!