Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Witcher 3's Add-Ons

The Witcher 3 is good. Like, it’s really good. Maybe it’s a bit overrated--I certainly wouldn’t say it’s the greatest RPG ever made, nor even that it’s the greatest RPG of 2015--but it’s still pretty damn great. And when I say a game is pretty damn great even though it has breakable weapons and the horror known as Sailing, that means something.

But even if the game proper is damn fine stuff, that doesn’t necessarily mean its DLCs and expansions will be. Fire Emblem 14, Shin Megami Tensei 4-1 and 4-2, Borderlands 2, and Fallout 4, among many others, certainly show that games of all kinds of high quality can still produce some pretty lousy add-on content. Then again, as Neverwinter Nights 2 shows, it’s also possible (though far less common) for an RPG’s add-on to completely eclipse the main game in terms of quality.

So the question is: how do the add-ons of The Witcher 3 hold up? Do they keep things going strong? Do they falter? Do they actually manage to surpass the excellent main story? And do you give even the slightest crap at all about these DLC rants of mine? Let’s discover the answers to all but 1 of those questions.

Contract: Missing Miners: When people think of the add-ons to The Witcher 3, they tend to only think of the 2 major expansions. And we’ll definitely get to them! But, there were quite a few free little DLCs released for the game, too. Some were unimportant stuff like alternate costumes and new armor, which I’m not going to bother rating because they’re meaningless cosmetic and/or gameplay changes rather than anything substantial, but there were also several new sidequests to be had, too.

The first of these, Contract: Missing Miners, is fine. That’s all there is to say about it. It’s adequate as a sidequest, fitting the lore of the game and giving Geralt yet 1 more decision to make about who he should and shouldn’t help. I do like that it adds another troll interaction with the game; I’m quite fond of Witcher series trolls. And hey, it’s free, which is always good. So, good job with this one. Moving on!

Fool’s Gold: Like Contract: Missing Miners, this DLC’s a freebie. It’s a bit longer and larger than the last, and it, too, is pretty decent, providing yet another example of the miniature adventures that Geralt just seems to stumble over the way other people sometimes trip over the occasional rock in their path. I mean, I guess I will say that I don’t like it as much as Contract: Missing Miners, because the previous DLC gives you a good feeling for doing a good turn for a troll just trying to defend his home, while in this sidequest, the people you save are a bunch of hostile, ignorant jackasses...but this is The Witcher 3. That kind of quest conclusion ain’t exactly a rarity, and fits the setting, so I certainly don’t hold it against Fool’s Gold. So yeah, overall, decent.

Skellige’s Most Wanted: Now this sidequest is really quite good! Another free DLC, Skellige’s Most Wanted sees Geralt walk into a trap set by some monsters who have heard of his deeds and want to see that he’s punished for them. What I really like about this add-on is that its climax, in which Geralt defends himself against his attackers’ accusations, really does a great job in laying out in clear terms the true nature of Geralt and the Witcher profession, as a bridge between 2 worlds, not just a slayer of 1. The nature of what is and is not a ‘monster’, and how the role of monster-slayer should be seen in an ever-evolving world of men, has been 1 of the more interesting questions posed by the Witcher trilogy, a dilemma that Geralt has puzzled at since the very first game and still grapples with balancing even now. I also like that Geralt defends himself based on your own actions and whether you, as the player, have understood the deeper levels of being a Witcher through what you’ve had Geralt do during various moments in the game. For a tiny little free sidequest, Skellige’s Most Wanted accomplishes a lot as another look at the philosophy of the series, a confirmation of Geralt’s character, and a validation of the player’s choices.

Scavenger Hunt: Wolf School Gear: Meh, I have no thoughts on this 1 either way. It’s a free DLC again, so I can’t fault it, but there’s also only barely enough story content to even give it a look. It’s the same as the rest of the armor set scavenger hunt quests: you look for some stuff, in finding it you find notes or somesuch from long ago, the end. The bit of lore you uncover with this is fine, but doesn’t really capture my attention at all. So I don’t really have anything positive to say about it, but there’s nothing negative, either. It’s just there, and free.

Where the Cat and Wolf Play: This is another good free DLC sidequest. I liked Skellige’s Most Wanted a little more, but this is definitely solid stuff. In this, Geralt discovers an almost entirely slaughtered village, and has a decision to make once he finds the culprit. As a sidequest story, it’s pretty good, not great, but what makes it stand out to me is that the decision Geralt has to make in regards to the killer is personal to him, for in many ways the killer’s situation bears similarities to certain experiences Geralt himself has had, and sins he has committed. The decision to be made is still pretty clearly a right-and-wrong situation, not as grey as most of the stuff in this game, but the fact that it personally ties to Geralt makes it compelling all the same. So Where the Cat and Wolf Play gets a thumbs-up from me.

Also, the reward the village survivor will give you if you return to her at a later time to check in with her? Love it.

Hearts of Stone: Having done with the free DLC sidequests, we can get to the add-ons most people think of first: Hearts of Stone, and Blood and Wine.

Hearts of Stone is pretty damn good. This expansion adds a sizable new quest with a good story that’s interesting, has several fun twists, and raises questions about human nature the way that The Witcher series is fond of doing. Hearts of Stone also pleasantly references and expands on the trilogy’s events and characters in ways you don’t expect--it’s nice that it brings Shani back, who we haven’t seen since the first Witcher game (although I’m not a fan of how hard it is not to sex her up during this adventure), I like that there’s a moment in which we get a little insight into Vesemir’s past, and even though I played this game long after the fan community was busily reporting to one another their ways of breaking the game’s economy, I still appreciate and chuckle at the metahumor of Geralt being accosted by a tax collector. I do so love when developers put in subtle little nods to their fanbase like that. It’s part of what made Mass Effect 3’s Citadel DLC so great.

Of course, the real stars of this DLC are its central figures, Olgierd von Everec and Gaunter O’Dimm. Olgierd’s a character whose after-the-fact development is handled well, and provides a good question of morality and redemption to us in the choice Geralt must make regarding him at the DLC’s finale. And Gaunter O’Dimm? He’s an awesome villain, far more compelling than any other in the Witcher series--as well he should be! Gaunter is a fantastic portrayal of the Devil (or a Devil-figure, at least): unique, charismatic, imposing, terrifying, able to command your attention with so little effort and fanfare. This guy definitely feels like a portrayal of an old-fashioned perception of the Devil, and CD Projekt Red very skillfully builds his mystery, his charm, and his foreboding.

The only real downside to this expansion is that Geralt himself isn’t especially important to it. I mean, he’s the essential cog that moves all things forward, as any RPG hero is (well, almost any RPG hero...Final Fantasy 12’s Vaan was pretty damn superfluous), but beyond just doing what he has to as the protagonist, Geralt as a character doesn’t really seem all that significant a part to it all. Still, that flaw is far outweighed by the rest of the add-on’s merits, so in my opinion, Hearts of Stone is well worth the $10 it cost at time of release.

Blood and Wine: Well, this is different. But nice. The Blood and Wine expansion brings Geralt to another land, the duchy of Touissant, and it is very, very different from the Witcher trilogy we’ve known so far. This place is bright, colorful, and beautiful, and its people, though they have their problems, actually seem to largely be happy. If the rest of the Witcher is an unflinching look at the gritty, dirty nature of the medieval age, then Blood and Wine gives us a much appreciated, much needed snapshot of the medieval age as we like to remember it: an exciting time of wonder and chivalry.

As jarring as the setting is, though, it’s but a tiny part of this expansion’s commanding presence. Blood and Wine is excellently crafted, managing to be a brand new and exciting adventure, while also feeling like a perfect finale to the Witcher trilogy. Its plot is a solid and engaging one of vampires and vengeance, of the power of love to be a force both of corruption and of salvation. Its characters are compelling, particularly Regis and Anna Henrietta. It’s huge, with lots to explore and do, sidequests to perform both small and large. It’s full of meta-references to the games’ fandom and audiences in general, and it has tons of callbacks and connections to the rest of the Witcher trilogy. It’s got a lot of neat extras to enjoy, from Geralt’s vineyard to the illusion land you briefly traipse that’s both an amusing and somewhat sad look at fairytales left neglected. It’s got good development for Geralt, too--the use of Regis was a really smart move by CD Projekt Red, because as a character we’ve never seen before, we get the benefit of a new, well-written personality to meet and get to know, but as a character who has a history of friendship with Geralt, we also get to see more of Geralt’s past from the novels revealed to us, and used skillfully as a way to cement Regis in our minds as a buddy of Geralt’s to the same extent as we would think of Zoltan, Dandelion, Iorveth, or Roche.

Honestly, I could go into this expansion a lot, but ultimately, there’s really only 1 thing to say about it: Blood and Wine is really good. It’s really good on its own, it’s really good as a new and refreshing adventure for Geralt, and it’s really good as a final note to the Witcher trilogy. It values the history of the trilogy even as it takes the time to reveal 1 final part of the Witcher world to us for the first time, and it feels very much like the final love letter from CD Projekt Red to both the series that brought them into the world of game development, and to the dedicated fans who have loved that series. Blood and Wine premiered at a $20 price tag, which is pretty high, but not an unusual price for a proper expansion. And I can say pretty confidently that it is, was, and will be worth that and more. As a send-off add-on to a good, long saga, you won’t find many better than Blood and Wine.

And that’s that. So how does The Witcher 3 fare overall on the add-on scene? Unsurprisingly, it’s top-notch. Rare is the RPG which not only has high quality add-ons, but has consistency in that high quality.

And you may be wondering: if that’s the case, why bother to make 1 of these rants about its DLC to begin with? I mean, if there’s no reason not to get any of its add-ons, then what purpose does this serve? Well, I wanted to make this rant for me, and for anyone who, after having read my DLC rants and/or played the add-ons of the same games as I have, feels the way that I do. See, if I had to rate my overall experience with DLCs, expansions, and the like, over the course of all the RPGs I’ve played which possess such things, I’d have to say that it’s been overall negative. There have been a lot of great side stories, true, but there have been more mediocre and poor ones, and more often an RPGs’ add-ons will disappoint than delight. Even when you find a jewel like Fallout 4’s Far Harbor or Borderlands 2’s Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, it’s frequently hidden among subpar or even outright poor-quality peers. But a game like The Witcher 3, whose developers and writers made sure to keep going the extra mile right to the bitter end with their add-ons, really gives me hope for the DLC scene and keeps me going. Great and consistent quality in add-ons like this is possible, and maybe, just maybe, this will be the standard, rather than the exception, some day. And I want to make my appreciation for this consistent level of quality, when such a thing is so much less common than it should be, publicly known. Doubtless the next game whose DLC I rant about will be back to the usual disappointing slog, but for now, I’m satisfied by The Witcher 3’s add-ons better than I have been by an RPG for quite some time.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Darkblood Chronicles

Well, I’ve recently finished playing an Indie RPG that I think is good, so you know what that means: it’s time for a rant extolling its virtues and trying to convince you that it’s worth buying and playing. Why? Because a good RPG is a good RPG, but the little guys need the attention more to keep making them..

So, before we begin, I’ll be transparent about this: the creator of Darkblood Chronicles, Dorian Tokici, personally contacted me and asked me to play his game and write a rant about it. I haven’t been bribed or anything--he did offer me a free copy of the game, but I opted to buy it naturally--but if you’re concerned about my vanity getting in the way of my objectivity, then it’s only fair to warn you that I was very flattered to be personally asked. Subjective or not, however, my opinion is that Darkblood Chronicles is a solid, intelligent, and singular RPG, that I am better off for having played.

So what is Darkblood Chronicles? Well, I can tell you what it isn’t: what it’s advertised to be. Yeah, on its Steam page, the game’s blurb describes it as a Survival Horror JRPG, and 1 of the games this summary draws a parallel to is Parasite Eve. That ain’t true, and don’t go into Darkblood Chronicles expecting anything of the sort. It’s a dark game with an atmosphere of gloom and desolation, but it doesn’t inspire or use fear, it doesn’t use visual and audio cues to unsettle you, and it’s no more a survival situation than any other given RPG environment. That’s not to say that Darkblood Chronicles doesn’t have certain elements you can find in some survival horror games--Dorian Tokici has listed Silent Hill as 1 of this game’s inspirations, and it shows--but the elements Darkblood Chronicles takes from such titles are more of an intellectual nature, rather than visceral or emotional.

Which, frankly, is not a bad thing, if you ask me. I don’t really care much for horror as an overall genre, and while Parasite Eve 1 was, indeed, a great RPG, it hits a pretty difficult target. I think I much prefer what I perceive Darkblood Chronicles to actually be: an 80s-style dark fantasy adventure, like Labyrinth, or The Neverending Story. It’s an adventure through a dark, strange, vaguely-disturbing yet somehow uniquely appealing other realm whose existence and nature are intrinsically tied to the protagonist, a world which may not even be anything more than a manifestation of its protagonist’s psyche as she tries to work through the weight of the torments within her heart. Thus, it definitely seems to me to have more to do with Fantastica, or Jareth’s Kingdom, or even a much darker version of the Land of Oz, than it does with most survival horror settings and approaches. Which, again, I’m perfectly happy with, because not only is that a lot more palatable to me anyway, not to mention a more natural fit to the RPG genre, but it also makes Darkblood Chronicles far more unique, as I have yet to play any other RPG that really hits that particular note.

Don’t let the movies I compared it to throw you off, however: I simply use them as a way of describing its overall premise, approach, and aesthetic, to some degree. This is not a kids’ RPG. Darkblood Chronicles is an RPG that wants to describe and explore the concept of loss, show its hold over us and the destructive power it has upon those left behind to deal with it, and the game incorporates things such as ritual sacrifice, abusive family environments, and serial killers into its narrative and lore, along with a whole, heaping bunch of symbolism. Darkblood Chronicles is an RPG defined very skillfully by its theme, with the miasma of loss not only the focus of its plot and protagonist, but also permeating the environment, the visual style, and the music. The atmosphere itself is a symbol, in Darkblood Chronicles.

DC is a very intelligent RPG, that wants its audience to really think about the ideas and facts of life that it presents. Needless to say, I greatly appreciate that, because what I most love in my RPGs is food for thought, ideas and philosophies and emotions that I can carry with me and nibble ponderously upon. Essentially, what I like in an RPG is heavy storytelling art to grow myself from, and Darkblood Chronicles is 1 of many titles in the genre to provide this. But it is also, I should note, a worthwhile adventure on a surface level, as well; it does not require you to be in full analysis mode to enjoy it to some degree. Like, it's more Fallout than Planescape: Torment, if you follow.

1 thing I also find quite neat about this game is that it takes a unique approach to multiple endings. Lots of RPGs have more than 1 possible ending, of course. Some go with the standard Bad, Normal, True ending formula, like, say, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, or have different endings which are all roughly equal in quality, dependant upon what you chose to do during the game’s course, such as Knights of the Old Republic 1. But in pretty much every RPG I can recall having played, each ending is a distinctive, set entity, and the only reason to see more than 1 is curiosity at how things play out according to a different path. Darkblood Chronicles, however, takes a different approach with its 5 endings. Each 1 shows a different conclusion, as you would expect, but you’re really meant to experience all 5 to get the most out of any individual ending among them, because each ending reveals a lot about the lore and nature of the game’s setting and defining past events, which not only affect your understanding of and appreciation for the game’s story, theme, and characters, but also increases what you can get from the other endings, as they all connect to and rely on the stuff revealed in the others. It’s an interesting and engaging way to get you to put in the effort to see every possible conclusion to the game, because even if you got the ending you personally prefer, you’ll only be able to like it more by seeing the other possible paths.

I also like that Darkblood Chronicles manages to walk a very tricky line between homage and complete originality, and get the best of both sides. DC is proud of the games from which it draws inspiration, and Mr. Tokici clearly wants to pay respect to the RPGs that defined his younger days. As such, expect to see all kinds of references and aesthetic/method nods to Chrono Trigger, Suikoden, Wild Arms, Shadow Hearts, Shin Megami Tensei, and many other major titles of the SNES and 32-bit days of RPGs. Yet, Darkblood Chronicles nonetheless feels very much like an entity unto itself, rather than like it has had to lift or lean upon any of its or its creator’s influences. That’s a tough thing to manage when you have as many references as this game does, and I certainly couldn’t hope to define how it’s accomplished. But I do know that DC does it.

Now, this game does have some drawbacks, make no mistake. It takes a bit of time for its plot to really start grabbing you enough to get you thinking and connecting dots, and likewise, its protagonist, Sam, takes a while to really hold your attention, since the majority of her noteworthy traits are related to her connection to the game’s story and purpose. The dialogue is, at times, a little stiff (which oddly seems to be a common problem in RPG Maker games; what’s up with that?). Gameplay-wise, it’s not very forgiving, which may or may not be a problem for you, and if you’re not into searching for hidden passages nonstop, then you’re gonna miss a LOT of stuff. Additionally, while it’s possibly the least RPG-Maker-feeling RPG Maker game I’ve played so far, there are certain technical details and aesthetics inherent to RPG Maker that Darkblood Chronicles can’t really escape from, so if you just absolutely can’t handle this development engine, well, that’ll be a turn-off. Finally, while I appreciate a game that lets you suss stuff out for yourself rather than be completely obvious and explicit in every aspect of its lore and philosophy, I do think that Darkblood Chronicles could have benefited from a little more directness in its lore’s secrets and in its ideas. I like figuring some stuff out, peeling away hidden layers of the story and the characters, but I don’t like to feel like I’m probably missing some important stuff because not enough bread crumbs were left to follow the trail, and there are a few moments in Darkblood Chronicles where that feels like the case.

But no RPG is perfect. Even games like Grandia 2 and Planescape: Torment could be improved upon, albeit in very tiny and mostly negligible ways. And while Darkblood Chronicles may not be Grandia 2 or PT, it is definitely a good RPG, maybe even a great one, and I recommend it to you. If you’re looking to recapture some of the feeling of those old 80s Dark Fantasy worlds, and/or if you’re interested in playing an RPG that will challenge you to really think about it, then give Darkblood Chronicles a try.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Conception 2's Main Villain

If I had to pick 2 areas of improvement for RPGs in general, with regards to writing, it would probably be Romance, and Villains. Obviously there are both some truly excellent love stories and some truly excellent bad guys to be found in the genre, and a great many more romantic tales and baddies of decent or good quality, too. Nonetheless, over the course of over 300 titles, I’ve noticed that there’s a far better chance in any given RPG that the love subplot(s) and, relevant to today’s rant, antagonist(s) are going to be underwhelming, included and developed out of necessity (or imagined necessity, in romances’ case) rather than passion. To put it frankly for our purposes today: in spite of some absolutely magnificent exceptions, this is just not the genre to look to for high quality villains.

But even by the genre’s low villain standards, Enzea of Conception 2 is gobsmackingly lazily and carelessly written.

And let me tell you, my expectations for Conception 2’s writing were not high by the time that Enzea’s villainy is ‘revealed’ to us. By that late point in the game, it was patently obvious that the most generous way you could describe this game is, as a reviewer once put it, “Trashy Persona.” I’d already figured out that Atlus can’t copy other developers’ style very well when I played Code of Princess, their unremarkable attempt to replicate a Nippon Ichi formula, but you’d think that Atlus could at least competently rip itself off. But alas, this game seems more like a bootleg of Persona than a proper forgery.

Conception 2 was made for 1 purpose, and 1 purpose alone: appeal to the pathetic power fantasies of maladjusted half-men with barely-functional genitals that can only chub up at the thought of owning a doting group of female cliches (since overused female character tropes are the sole experience they have with the opposite sex). In other words: most harem game enthusiasts. So to reiterate my point, I most certainly did not expect anything more of its villain than generic copy-pastes of countless JRPG bad guy tropes of the past, from a game like this.

But oh my Palutena, even by bad, lazy RPG standards, Enzea is awful. It’s like 15 minutes after picking Enzea’s villain motivations out of the Box of Tired Cliches, the game’s writers promptly forgot entirely what they’d decided on and couldn’t be bothered to scroll back up a few pages, so they just played a guessing game of what dialogue lines they grabbed from the Box of Equally Tired Cliches to use. For example: Enzea says he wants to create a world of equality--he doesn’t like how the poorly explained plot magic of Conception 2’s world determines the course and worth of a person’s entire life. The course and meaningfulness of one’s life should be in one’s own hands, is what Enzea believes.* But then his villainous and stupid plan is to use a different kind of poorly explained plot magic to revert everyone to their ‘primitive’ form, which just essentially means they become a monster.**

Now, as one expects of most dime-a-dozen RPG antagonists, this goal is self-contradicting on a philosophical level, in the sense that by forcing the world’s population to become a part of a new kind of world and society, Enzea is removing their agency to choose whether or not they want to be part of this new world of supposed equality, which, y’know, is directly opposed to the entire reason he’s doing this to begin with. But what really shows how little thought the writers put into this is that Enzea’s plan contradicts itself even beyond the typical paradox of making people live free by force. See, causing everyone in the world to become monsters, and letting them thus live as they wish... it is the complete opposite of this ‘equality’ that he supposedly wants to create! Because in this world vision of his, the ‘social’ standing, such as it is, will naturally be determined by one’s power as a monster, which is a set factor exactly as beyond that individual’s control as the current world’s system of Star Energy (the actual name for the first poorly explained plot magic I mentioned) determining a person’s social placement and worth. For all this dimwit espouses his disapproval of the Star God for creating people with varying levels of Star Energy that they themselves cannot change, he will be filling the exact same damn role in his dumb utopia!

Also, I think it’s worth noting that Enzea coming to this conclusion is a case of extreme careless sloth on the writers’ part. Again, even by the standards both of dumb RPG villains, and of Conception 2. This world order that he’s rebelling against? This terrible, unfair system of determining a person’s social order by a factor determined at their birth which they cannot alter? It’s only for 3 YEARS of a person’s life. See, as the game explicitly tells you and makes absolutely clear many times, a person’s Star Energy can only be used to fight monsters and protect the world and all that jazz for their high school years. It's a system not entirely unlike Final Fantasy 8's strange teen mercenary Garden concept--and I think that, when you're borrowing ideas for your game's lore from Final Fantasy Motherfucking 8, you really need to ask yourself where you went wrong as a writer, and human being. Once they hit the age of 19, it all goes bye-bye, for reasons you can damn well be sure the game isn’t going to bother explaining to you, and they have to retire from the world-protecting corps and pursue a normal life. And there’s no indication that one’s post-soldier life is limited in any way by how highly ranked one was during that time--the sister of 1 character, for example, was in her day an exceptional fighter, but now chooses a life no more ambitious than running a small cafe, while another character was nothing special while he was a soldier, but as an adult is the second highest researcher at the world’s premier tech lab. So yeah, even though this is a clearly established piece of lore for the game, noticeably a present aspect of its setting throughout the entirety of its events, somehow the writers seem to have just forgotten about it, and had Enzea go on a world revolution rampage over the fact that people’s social standing is outside of their hands for a mere 3 years of their life.

And then there’s Enzea’s last words, after losing in the final battle. So, like, Dusk is the second of the poorly explained plot magicks that I mentioned before, and it’s the one that, somehow, for some reason, transforms people into monsters, or as Enzea puts it, reverts them to their primitive forms (which is another fat load of quasi-intellectual nonsense). Basically, Dusk = Bad. So you beat Enzea, he’s dying, and he tells you that there will always be Dusk so long as the Star God is in charge, and that there’s no end to darkness as long as man exists. Yeah, okay, I suppose that’s an arguably true, and also unoriginal to the extreme, observation. But, Enzea? Bro? Did you somehow forget that you were trying to FILL the world with Dusk and darkness to bring about your new world? It’s like Enzea’s trying to imply that the heroes are in the wrong for beating him because now the world will continue having some bad stuff in it. Bitch, you wanted to bring about a world of INFINITE Dusk and darkness! You can’t use a statement that implies that even a little Dusk and darkness is bad as an argument for why you should have been allowed to fill the damn world with them! Pick a stance on the topic of unending evil and stick to it, dammit!

Conception 2 is lazy schlock through and through, it cannot be denied. But even for pandering, sloppy trash, I gotta say, its villain Enzea is a remarkably listless bit of negligence on the writers’ part.

* A concept which, incidentally, isn’t exactly ‘equality’ like the game says. You can have a system of complete equality for all that still doesn’t allow them much room to determine the course of their life--I believe that’s essentially what poorly-implemented Communism boils down to, in fact. What Enzea is (supposedly) championing is actually more just along the lines of freedom, and maybe equal opportunity. But whatever; I’ve clearly given this matter more thought in the 2.5 minutes it’s taken me to type this paragraph than any of the writers did in the months they sat around the Atlus offices drawing their salary like leeches draw blood from an animal too large to realize that it's got a bunch of useless, slimy hangers-on attached to its ass.

** Along with Equality, we can chalk Evolution up as another concept that the game’s staff don’t really understand.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Breath of Fire 2's Characters' Abilities

Yes, today I’m nitpicking a gameplay issue--something which I believe to be totally inconsequential in estimating the worth of an RPG--of a game so old that its era in gaming history can now be classified as ‘quaint.’ Again. Look, I don’t hide the fact that this blog is totally pointless. The sooner we all accept this, the better.

Y’know, it’s weird. When I wrote that rant about the oddity of Breath of Fire 1’s cast in terms of combat utility, it wasn’t even in my mind that I might make something along the lines of a continuation to it. But afterward, I started thinking about how the sequel handled combat roles for its cast far better...and then I remembered that it also had a noticeable flaw in that regard, too. So, here we are today, about to criticize the gameplay mechanics of yet another RPG so incredibly old, that Capcom wasn’t even completely and utterly evil at the time they published it.

So, Breath of Fire 2 added a little more nuance to its combat system and characters’ roles in it, improving upon the very basic battle mechanics of the first game in many ways, to the point that there was actually some strategy to be utilized in party composition, character placement, and ability use. The best party combination is no longer beyond debate as it was in the first game,* and there are even multiple approaches to combat to choose from, now. It ain’t just “Here are the only 4 characters in the game with useful spells, now go away” like it was in BoF1.

Unfortunately, though, not everything to do with BoF2’s combat is a step up from its predecessor (not the least of which being the overall feel and flow of battles; is it just me, or did Breath of Fire 1 feel way smoother and more polished in its gameplay overall?). 1 of the ways that characters are unique in combat is that each has a personal ability in combat beyond just his or her spells. Sort of like how characters in, say, Final Fantasy 6 all have their own unique talent in addition to whatever magic they’ve learned from Espers. Unlike Final Fantasy 6, however, whose character talents generally stay relevant for 95% of the game until everyone gets the chance to just learn Ultima and equip Economizers...Breath of Fire 2’s characters’ special abilities almost all just suck from the get-go.

First of all, there’s Ryu. He gets the Guts ability, which restores some of his HP during battle without needing to use magic points to do so. This sounds good, but the thing is, the amount of HP restored is greater depending on, A, his Guts stat, and B, how damaged he is. This means that it’s wildly unreliable for most of the game, as you don’t have a very high Guts stat for a while, and without that to boost it, it just doesn’t restore enough HP to be very useful--either you’re not damaged enough, and so it barely does anything, or you’re so hurt that you need something way better to do the job. And once you’re late enough in the game that Guts starts healing a decent amount, you’ve got a lot of other, more consistent healing options anyway.

And that’s actually 1 of the more useful abilities! Sten gets RIP, which lets him do an attack with less chance of enemies targeting him, but its utility is limited since party-hitting attacks aren’t uncommon and this ability doesn’t do anything to avoid them. Jean gets Stab, which hits all enemies that turn, but at such a reduced attack power that it frequently does almost no damage. Spar can call on the forces of nature to come to his aid, which is handy, but it only works outdoors, and nearly all dungeons in the game are, well...dungeons. So aside from traversing the world map, which by the time you get Spar you’re not doing a whole lot of any more, there’s very little use for it. Bow gets Shot, which either instantly kills an enemy or just deals 1 damage, but has such a damn low chance of working that I usually find I can kill the enemy faster just by having Bow attack it normally anyway.

Rand gets Wake, which can either be used to wake up a sleeping party member, or revives them at 1 HP. This sounds far more useful than it actually is. First of all, getting physically attacked wakes up a party member anyway, so there’s a good chance that the enemy is going to do it next turn, and then you’ve just wasted Rand’s chance to act. Secondly, Wake only revives dead party members sometimes, compared to revival spells and items being guaranteed to do so, so it’s really only an extremely desperate last resort.

Nina’s Will is sort of helpful, in that she can recover her Ability Points with it. AP recovery items are both uncommonly found, and annoying in Breath of Fire 2, in that most of them lessen your HP by the same amount that they restore of your AP. What the point is of this trade-off, I can’t guess; it certainly isn’t balancing the game in any useful way. So a magic-user being able to restore her AP without relying on subpar and rare items is good...but much like Wake, it’s a toss-up as to whether this is actually going to work, and it restores a small enough portion of her AP that it’s only really good for 1 spell at a time, if that.

And then there’s Katt. What the hell was the reasoning for giving Katt the Dare skill? Dare uses that turn’s action to make enemies more likely to hit her, instead of other allies. That’d be a useful ability...if it was given to Rand, or Ryu, or Bleu, or pretty much any other character in the game. But Katt is a low-HP, low-defense glass cannon whose role in the party is very specifically to kill enemies as fast as possible! I know that these were the earliest days of the aggro-control gameplay concept (for all I know, this game invented it), so one should expect a few bugs to work out, but Capcom picked the absolute worst possible party member to give this to!

The 1 character who gets a personal skill that’s actually undeniably helpful is Bleu, whose Shed power restores her to full health, no questions asked. Sure, it lowers her defense, but that mild detriment definitely doesn’t stop it from being useful now and then. Unlike every other character-specific ability, this is a case of the downsides balancing the ability’s use, rather than destroying it.

Now, there are some abilities that are unlocked by fusing characters in certain ways, and those tend to be a lot more viable in combat. Hell, some are even overpowered; Demon Katt gets an attack-enhancing ability that is absolutely devastating, and Holy Jean gets this crazy insta-kill attack that targets the entire enemy party and actually has a high success rate. And that’s great and all. But powered-up forms should have powered-up abilities; the fact that Capcom got that side of it right doesn’t make up for the fact that almost every member of the party has a shitty ability that isn’t even as useful as just the regular Attack command. And it’s not like this was some revolutionary idea on their part or anything--Final Fantasy 6 came out 8 months prior to BoF2, and Final Fantasy 4, which also featured this idea of unique abilities specific to each party member, and employed this concept quite competently, was 3 years old by the time BoF2 was published! There’s just no 2 ways about it: the character abilities of Breath of Fire 2 were poorly handled.

* I say this objectively, but in my heart of hearts I know that there’s no way someone could convince me that anything other than Katt, Bleu, Rand, and Ryu is best.

Unless the game were coded so that you didn’t have to have Ryu, that is. I’d totally go Jean over him. To hell with this game’s shitty 1-and-done dragon abilities.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Millennium Series's Characters

Man, it’s been a while since I did 1 of these character rants. Let’s see if I still remember how to make them funny. Assuming they ever were to begin with.

Marine: Our protagonist Marine is a wonderful, positive, beautiful dreamer whose vision for a greater world makes everyone around her better.

She’s also the kind of person who will, in fact, set your house on fire while you’re in it if you’re in the way of that vision.

Jeanne: Say what you want to about how great Marine’s persistence and determination and positivity and whatnot is. The fact of the matter is that the success of Marine’s epic journey, her political revolution that changes the realms of Mystland forever, was only made possible by the mere happenstance that she one day just up and tripped, and fell face-first onto a fairy.

Benoit: A whiny, pessimistic martial artist whose talents could benefit countless people, yet who refuses to step up and commit to doing so for like 30 hours of game time? Great, like I didn’t get more than enough of Fei Fong Wong the first time around.

Karine: Does anybody find it odd that arguably the most down-to-earth, reasonable person in the cast is a woman who fights crocodiles for a living?

Hirado: Basically the most stereotypical monk ever. What do RPG martial-arts-practicing monastic orders have against shirts, anyway?

Merline: This 5-year-old who likes playing with dolls and whose weapons are mostly just various toys is straight up more deadly in combat than at least half the rest of the cast.

Dee: “Hihihihi” is not how you write laughter, Aldorlea Games!

Abu: Actually, real-talk? Joking aside? I like the fact that as the series goes along, Abu’s English gradually but noticeably becomes better as he spends more time around his new friends and hears them speak it. That right there is a touch of realism, not to mention respect for the character, that I’ve never seen grace an RPG before, and I like it. How long does Ayla hang out with the gang in Chrono Trigger without picking up a single auxiliary verb? Or Gau, in Final Fantasy 6? “Eyes shining with intelligence,” my ass. Learn a pronoun, kid!

Jezebel: Just...kind of a bitch, overall. The height of Jezebel’s decency as a human being is that at one point, she changes her mind about letting two of her friends climb a treacherous monster-infested mountain in a raging blizzard alone, and decides to go back and help them after all, which is what she’d agreed to do in the first place. What a saint. I actually had Jezebel lose matches in the tournament finale on purpose, just because she was so needlessly insulting to her opponents--opponents who are, I’ll remind you, the bad guys of the series.

Gravitron: As with any machine, you don’t realize how much you desperately needed Gravitron in your life until you get him, and when he inevitably stops working or isn’t available, you have to scramble madly to figure out how you were managing to get by before him.

What do you mean you don’t let axe-wielding laser-spewing steel automatons into your martial arts tournaments, Mystrock!?

Piu-Piu: Because every game needs a small fuzzy mascot, but not every game can get one that’s actually appealing.

Salome: Hold up there, friend. Let me get this straight. You’re telling me that you’re transforming into a cool-looking mermaid with exceptional physical and magical combat prowess, who apparently has no issue whatsoever navigating the land so there’s really nothing about this transformation that would prevent you from being able to still live in your village, and you...want to stop this from happening?

It almost doesn’t even make sense from the perspective of the narrative. Like, I know that the warriors Marine assembles are all supposed to be human, but Mystrock worships a sea god! Chances are pretty good that if Salome the mermaid showed up and said, “Lemme at that fighting tournament, dawgs,” they’d see her as a divine messenger and give her the A-OK. Hell, it’d probably make them take Marine’s cause more seriously!

Jack: “Isn’t it hilarious the way I think I’m a ladies’ man and harass them in a stupid manner? No? Well, how about if I do it 8000 more times?”

James: James’s entire character can be summarized by “Lazy,” and “Likes his hat.” Congrats, Aldorlea Games, you’ve managed to create a guy who makes Zell Dincht’s singular character trait of “Wants to eat cafeteria hot dogs” look legitimate by comparison!

Wolfgang: Rather than having gotten personally swept up in the plot’s events, or requiring you to fulfill some trial/quest that takes several hours of game time to complete, Wolfgang just joins your party because you ask him to and he’s a nice guy.

Is...Is that allowed? Someone better check the RPG Rulebook; there’s gotta be an infraction here.

Mom: Marine and Merline sure are quick to get over the fact that their mom left their family to go find a magic flower that grants her eternal youth. Oh, right, she was doing it “for them”, because she wanted to make sure she’d always be there for them. Yeah, okay. That’s definitely why anyone ever goes searching for eternal youth. Uh-huh.

Hey, here’s a thought, girls. Maybe if your mom’s priority really was making sure she was always there for you when you need her, she wouldn’t have gone on a cross-country trip into a life-threatening swamp while you were still children who needed her.

Bokden: Oh, man, you know your cause is getting desperate when you start recruiting NPCs whose only role up until this point is being the focus of gimmicky Where’s Waldo sidequests.

The Bear: The Bear is perhaps the only non-villain RPG character I’ve encountered in years who is so unreasonably hostile and insulting, so frustratingly devoid of any emotional state beyond anger, that Marine’s decision to try to burn his house down while he’s in it actually doesn’t seem too out of line.

Suzuki: Man, he may not look like much, and his Skill Points actually decrease on each level up to indicate that he’s losing his mind in his old age (I can’t determine whether this is in poor taste or hilarious), but give Suzuki a little decent training and a couple speed boost items, and this geriatric murder-factory might just be able to win a round at the end of the game against Lord Dragon. On Hard Mode.

Just what the hell kind of crazy super-genes are in Marine’s bloodline, anyway? I mean, between her, her sister, her mom, her cousin (Benoit), and gramps here, Marine’s family fills out a quarter of the entire party. More than a quarter, in fact, if you don’t count Jeanne as a party member!

Blondie: You know, when you think about it, the fact that the dark-skinned inhabitants of the settlement which adopted a white, fair-haired girl all decided to call her ‘Blondie’ is actually kind of messed up.

Borgon: Basically what happens when you mix Jafar and President Snow together.

Lord Dragon: Okay, I know that Millennium obviously wants us to believe that Dragon is a decent, wise ruler and an upstanding human being in general, but I contend that this guy is a moron. I mean, come on. How on-point of a ruler can he possibly be when he has no idea that the entire countryside surrounding his town, whose residents Mystrock does business with and, I think, technically rules over, is existing in crippling poverty, is overrun with monsters in like 2/3rds of its regions, and totally hates his entire town’s guts?

And how wise, just, and decent a man can he be when he staffs his government with bigots and asswipes? Not every member of his political team is evil (Mai and Giselle seem quite decent human beings, actually), but dude, come on. 1 of your most trusted generals is a scowling monosyllabic bloodthirsty troglodyte who may actually be under a spell that prevents him from opening his mouth if it’s not to either insult someone or demand more violence. The guy straight up has fucking fangs!

And even if we’re charitable enough to assume that maybe Borgon does a hell of a job hiding the fact that 75% of Lord Dragon’s staff are complete assholes, there’s still the tournament itself to consider. While Dragon has enough presence of mind to rebuke his underlings for their stream of verbal abuse during the tournament, it never seems to once enter his head that, gee, maybe the peasants are upset and saying that he and his administration are morally wrong because every word out of his administration’s mouths to these people is a prejudiced slur.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Witcher 3's Romance Choice

Relevant to today’s rant but not something that really fits in anywhere is that when playing The Witcher 3, I played Geralt as heroically as possible. Yeah, it’s a game (and series) that expertly plays to the morally murky nature of life and humanity, and in most cases, there is no ‘right’ choice so much as the one that you feel is the better alternative. But The Witcher 3 is also realistic in that there are many instances within it in which the question of how Geralt acts is cut and dry, morally, and in all cases, I tried to do what was most morally positive. I just say this because later on in this rant, Geralt’s worthiness as a person will be relevant, so you should know that my perspective on him is built upon having played him as good as possible.

And now, for the rant:

Triss or Yennefer?

Pairing preferences are a highly personal and charged topic in fandoms, generally speaking, and fans tend to be prone to extremes of temperament when it comes to who they think should be paired with who. They both feel an overwhelming, giddy warmth at the pairing that they themselves support, and an overpowering hostility towards characters and pairings that they for whatever reason disapprove of.* And of course, in both cases, they like being vocal about it.

This is as true in RPGs as it is in any other entertainment medium. People are widely split on whether Piper, Hancock, Cait, Danse, or Curie’s love for Fallout 4’s protagonist is the purest, while Corrin’s ass is just about the most sought-after commodity in the entire Fire Emblem 14 world, with fangirls and fanboys squeeing in delight at whichever of the myriad possibilities of romantic entanglement best tickles their fancy. And while the intense enthusiasm fans have for romance usually stays relatively positive, all things considered, there are some moments when things sadly turn rather negative. I have come across more than a few forum-goers and fanfiction authors who insist upon making Aeris or Tifa out to be a soulless, thieving harpy intent on destroying all possible happiness for Cloud, in spite of, y’know, every fucking thing the game shows us of their characters and relationship dynamics.

The question of romance in The Witcher 3 inspires no less heated emotion in its players’ hearts than any other, and it has its share of negativity regarding the two women Geralt must choose between, Triss Merigold and Yennefer of Vengerberg. In this case, however...I can understand why significant negativity against either of these women might arise within the player, because both Yen and Triss have some notable flaws. So, which is the better choice for Geralt? Whose love story is the superior one?

Hell if I know. But since you’ve read this far, I can at least tell you which I picked, and how I arrived at that conclusion.

At the risk of being a Negative Nancy, let’s start by looking at the downside of each contender, starting with Triss, since hers is both much simpler to explain, and far more glaring. To put it simply, Triss is a manipulative snake who shamelessly stole her best friend’s boyfriend.

I generally disapprove of the idea of “stealing” someone’s significant other, since, generally speaking, that kind of implies that said significant other doesn’t have any responsibility for the affair. Humans in relationships aren’t possessions that can be stolen; they can be tempted, perhaps, and it may be morally wrong to attempt to woo someone away from the man or woman they’re with, but it’s also their decision and perhaps personal failing to be persuaded thus. In most cases of “stealing” one’s boyfriend/girlfriend, there is wrongdoing by some combination of the involved parties. Depending on the situation, the “thief” is potentially in the wrong for going after someone that’s already committed to another, the “stolen” is potentially in the wrong for choosing not to be emotionally and/or sexually faithful, and/or the “theft victim” is potentially in the wrong for treating his/her significant other poorly enough that they feel the need to seek emotional satisfaction and happiness elsewhere.

In Triss’s case, though? This really is actual, legitimate boyfriend theft. As The Witcher 1 opens, Geralt has lost most of his memories due to a plot twist revealed later in the series, and among the memories to go bye-bye was the knowledge that he’s romantically involved with Yennefer. So when Triss--who knows full damn well that Geralt and Yen are in love--starts putting the moves on Geralt and gets him to hook up with her in the first game and the majority of the second, she is straight up stealing Yennefer’s boyfriend, because the white-haired dope doesn’t know until it’s too late that he’s already taken. And that’s messed up.

On the other side of the coin, though, regardless of her immoral way of starting the relationship, Triss’s feelings for Geralt certainly give every indication of being genuine. Whether you believe this lessens its magnitude of wrong (I personally do not), Triss seems to have stolen her chance to be with Geralt out of an actual emotional affection for him, and not just for some sort of power play or because she’s just horny and wants the Butcher of Blavdickin’.** She wants to spend time with Geralt, she enjoys having conversation with him, she even tries to get a little domestic thing set up with him that really seems like an earnest attempt to have a happy little life together. Additionally, it’s clear from their interactions that the two have a real romantic chemistry with one another. They engage in playful banter and trade quips the way you see people do when they’re in love and having fun with the fact, yet at a moment’s notice can return to conversing as professionals engaged in their mutual task. They read each other’s mood in each situation well enough that they can drop in and out of affection and quips, and seriousness and concern, in a natural sync--or, when not in sync, one is working to calm and focus the other because they’ve lost their calm. Triss and Geralt connect, naturally and well, and all 3 Witcher games display this.

Just too bad it’s all a result of stabbing her best friend in the back and taking advantage of a horny amnesiac.

Let’s look now at Yennefer. First of all, I need to say that I have never read any of the Witcher novels. I’ve done a little looking into Yennefer and Geralt’s history together by perusing wikis and forums, but I have no firsthand knowledge of their interactions beyond what I have seen in The Witcher 3. So while I have gotten an impression that CD Projekt Red was, in fact, pretty faithful in their adaptation of Yennefer from Sapkowski’s books, I can’t speak with any authority on that.

So, the negative part of Yennefer and Geralt’s relationship is, er, well, their relationship. As in, how they interact and how they treat each other, mostly on the side of Yen. Yennefer doesn’t treat Geralt with respect. I mean, she does have respect for him, and I’m fairly sure that Geralt knows that, but the thing of that is, just because you do respect someone, and just because they know you respect them, that doesn’t mean it’s fine to make being disrespectful to them your standard for interaction. In their everyday interactions, Yennefer doesn’t treat Geralt like an equal, or even, really, as someone she even especially likes. She’s curt, sarcastic, patronizing, dismissive, and demanding...watching them speak and work together is like watching a master and a servant that the master clearly sees as lowly. She doesn’t tell Geralt the what or why of her actions, she simply expects him to hop to her wishes and help her perform them. Taking that problem further, she makes him an accessory to acts of wrongdoing, keeping the nature of what he’s participating in and aiding a secret to him until it’s too late for him to try to convince her to try a different method. She reads his mind without his permission, and dismisses his complaints at this staggering invasion of his personal privacy. And in fairness, there are also times when Geralt is sarcastic and mean-spirited right back, more than he needs to be.

Now, you might try to defend much of Yen’s attitude toward Geralt, and the occasionally bad attitude he returns, as being a case of their trading quips and bantering for amusement. Or perhaps you could see it, since they have been together for some time, as the way long-married couples are sometimes known to bicker, but for amusement, rather than out of genuine spite. Interpreting Yen is, I fear, highly subjective, and perhaps someone other than myself can watch and listen to her without hearing the same level of sincere aggravation. Well, perhaps that’s the case, indeed, but, myself, I just can’t say that I buy it. When Geralt and Triss make jabs at each other, it sounds and feels friendly; they’re having fun with the way their minds bounce off one another. When Yennefer and Geralt argue and snipe at each other, it feels sincere, and mean. Like a long-married couple that bickers constantly not because they find it fun, but because, even though they do love each other, they genuinely don’t like each other, if that makes any sense. There are moments where it does seem like it’s for fun and they enjoy their company, but too often, I feel like I’m watching Mom and Dad have a fight that they think I don’t notice because they’re not actually raising their voices. Knowing some of their history from their books and watching them interact in The Witcher 3, you can fully believe that these 2 are in love only because a Djinn enchanted them to be, not because they actually like each other enough to be.

Yennefer does, however, have positives. First of all, some of her actions, if not her attitude, can be forgiven in the game. A lot of what she does and drags Geralt into is motivated out of an intense and fearful love for her surrogate daughter Ciri, and the fact that Yennefer will do anything to find Ciri and keep her safe. When Yennefer does something truly distasteful and has dragged Geralt into unwittingly helping her do so, she is still disturbed and disgusted by what she has done--it’s simply that she will stop at nothing to protect Ciri. That doesn’t really absolve her, as I don’t believe that it’s okay to wrong others even for the sake of those you love, but it does make her instances of wronging others and Geralt at least far less deplorable, if not entirely forgivable. And though she does not tell Geralt what her intentions are at times, one reason she does that is because she is trying to spare him the painful conscience that she herself will have to suffer through--she’s trying to give him a way to justify their actions to himself as a case of his not knowing until it was too late what she was having him help her do. Her conscience restricts her less than Geralt’s restrains him, but she respects that fact and him enough to try to lessen what pain his sensibilities will suffer, and I can respect that. In addition, for all her haughty attitude, some of her secrecy, and perhaps even her meanness, seems born from insecurity, as she does, in fact, doubt at times that Geralt trusts her enough that he would support her as he does if he knew the full extent of what she was doing. It doesn’t answer for all of how she treats him, not by a long shot, but it nonetheless does lessen how poorly one might otherwise view her.

And finally, it’s certainly worth observing that regardless of how she treats him and takes advantage of his love for her, Yennefer does, in fact, love him. You have the option to do a side quest with Yennefer in the game in which she breaks the djinn’s spell tying their fates together, and once this happens, regardless of how Geralt feels, Yennefer finds her feelings are unchanged. Yen does love Geralt, of her own volition, and that’s important.

...Well, okay, I suppose she might just mistake lust and sense of possession of her little murder puppet for love, and that same feeling continues regardless of the djinn’s spell being broken, but let’s at least give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that it really is honest love.

So then, which is the better choice for Geralt? Should he be with a woman he loves, but who doesn’t seem to make him happy to actually be with? Or should he be with a woman he can love and who clearly makes him happy, but who is only even in the running because she took advantage of him and betrayed her best friend in an unconscionable way? Yennefer, or Triss?

When I hashed it out in my mind, it basically became a simple question of what I valued more: just reward, or just punishment?

You see, as far as I can figure it, the woman who makes Geralt the happiest in loving is Triss. To be sure, he’s willing enough in his love for Yennefer, but as Geralt himself intimates to Ciri if you do choose Triss, it’s so much better for him to be with someone who gets him, someone whose personality he’s not always at odds with. Geralt doesn’t just love Triss, he likes her, too, as a person, and she has no issues in making it clear that she feels the same way. But to choose Triss is also to reward a woman who did a truly despicable thing, to allow her to escape punishment for gross wrongdoing, regardless of whether it was out of sincere love or not.

Allow a person who has done much good a chance at greater happiness? Or ensure that a person who has done a great wrong does not enjoy the fruits of her deception?

Ultimately, my decision is this: if I must choose between rewarding a person for doing good, and punishing a person for doing bad, I shall always choose to reward he who did good.

Justice is an important concept. It is. But, if I may get pedestrian and cheesy, Wonder Woman says it best: "It’s not about what you deserve, it’s about what you believe--and I believe in love." There are times when Love and Justice cannot reconcile, times in which meting out punishment means losing an opportunity to do good, and vice-versa. And between the 2, I think it more important to us all that, when we absolutely must choose between them, we do good rather than justice.

I don’t like the fact that choosing Triss means that her selfish act of betrayal came through for her in the end with essentially no negative repercussions. I really don’t. But I do sincerely believe that being with Triss will give Geralt greater happiness, and even if she doesn’t necessarily deserve that happiness, he does. And that’s why, in spite of how this choice came to be offered in the first place, I had Geralt choose to be with Triss.

* Twilight Sparkle and Celestia are meant for each other, and all you crazy motherfuckers who pair Celestia with Discord or Twilight with Flash Sentry are going to burn in hell. Just so we’re on the same page about this.

** I’m not apologizing.

Friday, May 18, 2018

General RPGs' Dialogue Archiving

Something that a few RPGs do to varying degrees that I want to give a brief shout out for: dialogue archiving. Sometimes, an RPG will have an option for you to scroll back up through dialogue or other text that’s been said previously, so you can reread something the characters said.

This is obviously useful, particularly to a story-junkie like myself. First of all, if you have to get up and do something in the middle of a conversation in an RPG, being able to scroll back up through what’s been said gives you a chance, once you’re done with whatever distracted you, to much more easily get back into the game and situation that you left. Life is unpredictable, and RPG conversations are long--this has been very useful to me more than once. It’s also handy in the sense that if for some reason you aren’t sure what a character’s talking about, you can go back and review the text that brought you to this point in the conversation, and maybe find some clarification from it. And sometimes, an RPG conversation is heavy and dense enough that it just is useful to be able to reread parts of it over again, once you’ve finished it and have a general idea as to where it was going--sort of like rewatching a movie or anime a second time and understanding it better now that you know what it’s trying to express.

Heck, it can be useful for something as small as having found a particular exchange between characters hilarious, and wanting to read said hilarity out to your sister so she can enjoy it. This is how I first realized how useful this feature was, in fact, as I simply had to share Aegis’s comments on Yukari’s fanfiction habits in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q, and suddenly realized the utility of the button that brings up all the text you’ve seen previously.

In spite of the fact that the first time I really came to notice this feature for its merits was in SMTPQ, this is something that western RPGs seem to have a much longer history with than JRPGs. It’s actually a pretty common thing for you to be able to scroll up in a dialogue box to see an archive of everything that’s been said to you, going back in chronological order. The feature goes pretty far back--I remember finding it useful in Fallout 1 and 2 (although those little boxes also archived all battle action descriptions, too, so its utility was somewhat lessened). It’s something I especially appreciated (even if I didn’t really think about it specifically) for Planescape: Torment and Torment: Tides of Numenera, since narration and dialogue are the primary points of interest for those 2 RPGs, and just about all of it is incredibly heavy and thoughtful.

Still, props to JRPGs where it’s due--several of them have started implementing a feature that has a separate screen for keeping track of all that’s been said to date (as I mentioned, I was quite pleased with this in SMT Persona Q). Maybe not all of them are good enough to actually warrant it (can’t imagine why anyone would feel the need to reread any of Conception 2’s text), but it’s nonetheless great to see it becoming a regular JRPG feature. It’s definitely not just a western RPG thing. In fact, I think the earliest example of it I know of is from a Japanese RPG, Energy Breaker. Although the dialogue archive feature is in its infancy in EB, it is present, in the sense that, within every conversation, you have the ability to press Up as characters are talking to see everything they’ve said during that particular branch of dialogue until that point. Only good for parts of conversations rather than being a true archive, of course, but still, an early step toward this great idea.

Still, although there are a few JRPGs out there that include dialogue archiving to some extent, most do not, and I hope that more will implement this feature as time goes on. I likewise hope to see it in more western RPGs--they may have the lion’s share of games that have this handy characteristic, but they are still not nearly as common as I wish they were. For a gamer like myself, who plays specifically for the story and the humanity to be found in the genre, dialogue archiving is a great feature, and I appreciate every game that employs it.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Sweet Lily Dreams's Use of the Kingdom Hearts Method

Sweet Lily Dreams is a sequel of sorts to Whisper of a Rose, both indie RPGs created with RPG Maker. You may recall that I had several issues with WoaR, and unfortunately, it’s much the same with Sweet Lily Dreams. In some regards, SLD is a little improved, I admit, but it still suffers from the same lackluster writing that fails to bring its characters or subjects alive in any way, as well as the same difficulty in avoiding confusions in its lore and events. And unfortunately, SLD also brings a new set of problems to the table, with an even less engaging cast than WoaR, an ending more flat and lifeless than an unsalted Saltine as it abruptly ends the game’s main conflict in the most unlikely way possible* so that it can then immediately toss you into a spontaneous and unwanted sequel-bait plot twist, and some truly fucking horrible mandatory minigames (more on at least 1 of them in a future rant).

Among the issues that Sweet Lily Dreams suffers from which its predecessor did not is that it’s not using its storytelling method well. Whisper of a Rose’s was a fairly generic approach of its protagonist traveling from 1 place to another in its world (dream world, at any rate), with the story’s events motivating her to go from 1 place/plot point to the next, in typical RPG fashion. Certainly not innovative, but functional enough that you kinda can’t mess it up. Sweet Lily Dreams, on the other hand, has a setup in which the majority of the game is a large crossover, in which the game’s characters visit the settings and meet the casts of several other stories to take part in those stories’ events. Basically, it’s like Sora visiting various Disney settings in Kingdom Hearts 1 + 2, except Sweet Lily Dreams does classic old literature and movies, like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Dracula, and The Mummy. Maybe Roseportal Games intentionally used Kingdom Hearts as a template for Sweet Lily Dreams’s approach, or maybe they didn’t and it’s just a coincidence.

...But since SLD opens with its protagonist** choosing what kind of fighter she’ll be on a series of big stained glass platforms floating in a void, I’m gonna bet on the similar narrative approach to Kingdom Hearts being maybe not a complete coincidence.

Here’s the problem, though. Kingdom Hearts did this journey across familiar worlds well. Sweet Lily Dreams doesn’t. If I had to take a guess, I’d say Roseportal Games didn’t realize that there was more to making this method successful than just the act of having it at all. It’s like if you bought a car with an empty gas tank and found yourself utterly perplexed by its refusal to drive you anywhere--all the parts are there and assembled, so why doesn’t it work?

See, here’s the thing. It’s kind of cool to move along from 1 dream world to the next, hanging out with Swamp Thing, helping Dr. Jekyll conquer Mr. Hyde, and battling against Dracula, but nothing of substance comes from these adventures, story- and characters-wise. Of the few times that members of the party get developed during the course of the game, few to none of these occasions have any significant ties to the world and story they’re currently experiencing. None of these worlds have any part to play in the game’s events after you leave them; they’re solely plot obstacles that have no lingering effects--Swamp Thing isn’t going to return later to assist you in thanks for trying to help him, the Mummy’s not gonna return later for revenge, the Hypercube has no bearing on the finale’s events, etc. And even though these are worlds created by the game’s antagonist, The Writer, from his own mentality from the stories he cares most about, none of them actually tell you very much, if anything, about his character. I mean, they’re all darker stories, and he’s a pretty troubled guy, so there’s that, but that’s far too general to be considered character development. You could look at the Swamp Thing and Mummy stories as indicative of his feelings about being unable to protect someone he loved from the cruelties of the world, I guess, but since none of the other stories you visit appear to have any substantial connection to The Writer’s headspace beyond being gloomy, it seems much more like these stories only happen to connect to him out of chance, rather than design.

See, what makes Kingdom Hearts work is that, despite being a dozen different little stories in succession, they’re all strung together by a feeling and depiction as being important vignettes of a larger story. In Kingdom Hearts, the major characters, Sora in particular, learn and grow from their experiences in the worlds they visit, and their character bases and developments are solidified through the mini-adventures that each world provides. By the finales of KH1 and KH2, it feels like the experiences of Sora and company have led them to these final points and contributed to the growth of them and the plot. Additionally, several plot points and characters in the various Disney worlds visited come back to contribute to the story overall; they’re not just left behind and forgotten as though they had no actual importance. The specific events of each Disney world are relevant vehicles for the main characters’ long-term development, and the characters and plot points of those worlds frequently maintain a relevance to the overall story of Kingdom Hearts after the fact.

And Kingdom Hearts 2 did make use of Organization 13 in many of the stories of the different worlds Sora visits, which made the attempt to develop the villains of the story. I mean, KH2 failed miserably on this part, but that’s because what it was trying to develop were a bunch of 1-dimensional morons so bland they were barely distinguishable from each other, not because the game didn’t have the right idea, storytelling-wise.

That’s how this style of narrative needs to be--it needs to use the specifics of each crossover world in a way that develops the cast, that holds relevance to the overall story, and that develops the antagonist(s) of the game where possible. And Sweet Lily Dreams just doesn’t really do that, at all. Each story world you enter, you’re just there to get through it and move on, as you occasionally witness spurts of character development that could have occurred anywhere. Your goal in SLD is to get to the end of The Writer’s dream worlds to confront him, and the game handles itself in a way that makes this goal the clear focus. Each world in Sweet Lily Dreams is just an obstacle to be overcome, not a part of the greater storytelling process, and since these literary/cinematic sidestories take up the majority of the game’s play time, that makes this an RPG in which you spend most of your time just trying to get to something that matters. And that, sadly, makes for a pretty dull time.

* So, wait, the evil dream cult that wants to destroy everyone who took up residence in the central city because they consider that city part of their heritage...was actually totally fine the whole time with just sharing it? These extremists who experiment with creating out-of-control phobia monsters and have no qualms whatever about trying to destroy the psyches of other people, including those of children...these guys are just totally fine with a compromise the first time it’s offered? And no one else thought to just check with them at any point to see whether they’d be reasonable about the matter?

** At least, the game wants you to think she’s the protagonist. Given that she is the most passive and superfluous, as well as least-developed, member of the party, has the least effect upon the game’s events and other characters, and doesn’t really have any substantial connection to the plot, though, I’d say she’s no more the main character of her game than Vaan is of Final Fantasy 12. Lily’s really just along for the ride.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Fallout Series Theory: Why the End of the World Didn't Matter

Polishing up a Youtube comment of mine and selling it to you all as a rant? I really am evil.

I noted a series of videos by an individual going by Oxhorn a little way back in another Fallout rant as being thoughtful and worth watching for any diehard fan of the Fallout series. In 1 of his videos, he talks about how there have been some people who have left comments on his videos about the evils of prewar society, who have said that perhaps the great war of Fallout that brought about the end of the civilization was actually a good thing, in bringing an end to a society so filled on every level with evil. Classy guy that Oxhorn is, he uses this video to highlight the fact that the tragedy and cost of the war to good, decent, average people could never be justified no matter how much evil it also wiped away, an opinion I completely agree with--no victory over evil can ever be achieved when it comes at the sacrifice of innocent bystanders.

But I’ll go a step further than that. Because I believe that even in terms strictly of punishing the wicked, the nuclear war of the Fallout series was utterly meaningless.

You see, punishment is not, nor should it ever be seen as, a goal in and of itself. Punishment exists for the purpose preventing wrong behaviors (or at least, behaviors perceived as wrong), whether preventing them before they occur, or preventing them from occurring again.

- When your child does something wrong, you shouldn’t be punishing him solely because he did it--you should be punishing him with the intention of making sure he knows that there are negative consequences for wrongdoing, and the hope that the knowledge of these consequences will keep him from doing it again. You’ll still punish your son again if he pulls this shit once more (and probably punish him more harshly, since he now should really know better), but the purpose each time is to find a level of consequences that will prevent him from doing wrong.
- When the government warns you that there will be a fine for littering on public property, the intention isn’t supposed to just be drumming up some extra revenue for Town Hall--the purpose of the fine is to dissuade you from polluting before you have a chance to do so, preventing wrongdoing prior to its happening. They’ll still fine the shit out of you if you do it, but the expectation is that knowledge of the punishment will keep that from happening at all.
- When you’re sent to prison, the intention isn’t supposed to just be to make you miserable for months or years--the idea is to put someone whose presence is dangerous to society into a place in which he/she cannot harm that society again before learning not to do so. That’s why prison education and rehabilitation programs were so vital--they’re accomplishing what the institution is meant to do, which is to improve and preserve society’s order and welfare by removing behaviors that threaten it, and remaking those who engaged in such behaviors into potentially productive members of society. Such programs are sadly almost entirely gone, now, since corporations have made the process of incarcerating American citizens into a profitable business rather than a necessary social function, but that’s a whole other subject, for a more meaningful rant blog than mine. The point is, though, that prison is not meant to be the purpose of its own existence, it's meant to be a functioning means to the purpose of maintaining society.

When you punish based on simply wanting to cause suffering to another who has done wrong, you lose sight of what punitive measures are meant to accomplish, and lessen yourself as a person in the process by embracing hurtful malice that doesn’t help you or anyone else. Punishment, and the threat of punishment, must exist as functions of preventing/eliminating wrong behaviors. When it becomes just about making someone who has done wrong suffer for their actions, it ceases truly being punishment, and simply becomes the useless, self-destructive concept of revenge, which serves no one, and lessens or harms everyone it touches.

So now that we’ve established how I see punishment, how I believe punishment must be seen if we are to successfully persist as a society, let’s bring it back to the topic at hand. The world of Fallout before the day of nuclear devastation is a world nearly exactly like our own, one in which corporations carelessly harm countless human beings with their policies and single-minded dedication to profits, in which politicians lie to the masses and use human lives like currency to satisfy their own vanity and lust for power, in which criminals both petty and organized prey on the weak and give into their base impulses at the expense of others, in which cultural factions attempt to divide and confuse the masses through the tools of paranoia and bigotry...and, it’s important to remember, it’s a world in which the majority of people are decent and honest, a world whose reason for being so flawed and terrible is not that most people are, but rather that the engines of capitalism and politics that rule society favor and elevate dishonesty, greed, narcissism, and psychopathy.

With this understanding in mind, with our knowledge of Fallout’s lore leading us to fully realize the terrible sins of the political and economic rulers of the prewar world, we might initially think that nuclear punishment was an acceptable, even necessary solution. Get rid of the organized crime bosses, get rid of the corporations that used and abused people on every level without a single care so long as it was profitable, get rid of the government that used the hopes and anguishes of its citizens solely to promote its own interests. Get rid of it all, give humanity the punishment it has brought on itself, and ring in a world without the complex social vices that the old one had built over the centuries.

But unfortunately, as punishment for the old world’s evils, the bombs were a complete failure. Because war never changes.

Oh, certainly, many of the horrible people of countless heartless corporations met their just ends, as did many of the evil social leaders and criminals of the world. But Fallout shows us that humanity after the bombs is, at its core, the same as humanity before the war.

What was the point of nuclear punishment for the world’s criminals? The same acts continue unabated in the new world. Raiders and organized factions like the Gunners still steal and murder for their daily needs, as surely as any petty mugger or violent thief does. Some individuals do it for even less than that--Allen Marks, of Fallout New Vegas, steals and murders from people not because he needs their resources to live, but because they have special bottle caps that he collects in the hopes of trading to a prewar machine for a fabulous treasure. Countless raiders torture and destroy people for their own twisted satisfaction as much as any prewar serial killer, like the Fens Phantom, did. And there’s only more organized crime in the Fallout world than ever before--from Junktown’s Gizmo to New Reno’s families to Diamond City’s Triggermen, with hundreds, thousands of raider groups and mercenary gangs mixed in, the nukes accomplished nothing if they were meant to punish the evils of organized crime. They simply traded the Eddie Winters of the old world for the Gizmos and Darion Khans of the new.

What was the point of nuclear punishment for the world’s evil governments? The same kinds of corrupt groups in power persist after the war. The NCR, while admittedly not outright evil just yet, uses unjust economic pressure to annex territory and force all the world around them to play by their rules, just like the US government. Cruel, horrible culture-destroying warlords still violently overtake all they come across, as evidenced by Caesar’s Legion. Fanatical, totalitarian bigots still seize control and warp the minds of entire societies, as seen with the east coast Brotherhood of Steel by Fallout 4. Self-important tyrants still decide that the rest of the world should hold their values and engage in the societies that they feel are correct, and attempt to force that new world on others violently, if The Master is anything to go by. Political leaders still lie to, manipulate, and betray those they are sworn to protect and represent the way the prewar senators did for their corporate masters, if Mayor McDonough’s sniveling ambitions to please the Institute are any indication. And those with power still seize the lives of those without, snuffing out their culture and forcing them to live as lowly workers in the conqueror’s culture, as seen by House’s transformation of the tribes near New Vegas into the 3 families running his casinos. Arrogant societies still dismiss those who are different as less than human, and look for any reason to control or destroy them, if Vault City is indicative of anything. The nukes accomplished nothing if they were meant to punish the evils of corrupt and oppressive politicians and governments. They simply traded the Genghis Khans of the old world for the Legion’s Caesar, the Adolf Hitlers for the Overseer Lynettes and Arthur Maxsons, of the new.

What was the point of nuclear punishment for the world’s self-important psychopaths who set themselves and their purposes above the good of their fellow man? The same kinds of arrogant, inhuman disregard for life and morality didn’t end. The Institute ignores the plight of the Commonwealth’s people as they pursue some intangible, undefined future of humanity that sacrifices the species’s heart and soul for technological advancement, just as Vault Tec designed horrific social experiments in its vaults to abuse those who came to them for shelter in the interests of discovering new understandings of social dynamics and ways to increase productivity. The original Brotherhood of Steel has, by the time of Fallout 3 and New Vegas, fallen so far as to mistake their purpose and ignore the plights and needs of humanity, in favor of dogmatically following the letter of their law rather than its spirit, withholding the aid and technologies that the people around them need, just as, prewar, food and other resources were withheld from the populace so that they could instead benefit the military,* whose purpose in fighting the Chinese was supposedly more important to the welfare of the USA’s citizens than having a decent meal. Ashur of the Pitt works his slaves to the bone, assisted by his violent gang of enforcers, for the sake of building an empire around his precious cure, ignoring the needs and welfare of his slaves in favor of his vision of what they and the rest of the world needs, which is much the same as countless logs we can find throughout the series that show employees being expected to work unethical hours to advance the interests of military research in the name of patriotism that would never benefit them. The nukes accomplished nothing if they were meant to punish the evils of those who use and abuse humanity in its own name. They simply traded the Stanislas Brauns and Lieutenent Governor Grahams of the old world for the Fathers and Elder McNamaras of the new.

What was the point of nuclear punishment for the greatest of mankind’s evils, the corporations? The same kind of soulless, careless pursuits of money and power at any cost continued undeterred. Tenpenny, Porter Gage and the Nuka World raider gangs, Eulogy Jones, Iguana Bob, Theodore Collins, Griffon, Talon Company, Set, Kellogg...from coast to coast, throughout the 200 year period after the bombs dropped through to Fallout 4’s events, the wasteland has no shortage of swindlers, of cheats, of those who put profit above the wellbeing of their customers, of those who will not hesitate to kill for the sake of money, who will overtake the honest work of the innocent and steal or destroy it for their own benefit, who will sell out their fellow human beings for the sake of economic gain, and who use their money and influence to destroy anything inconvenient to them, regardless of who it hurts. The nukes accomplished nothing if they were meant to punish the evils of those who bring harm to others in their pursuit of wealth. They simply traded the Nuka-Cola Quantums of the old world for the Bob’s Iguana Bits of the new.

And finally, what was the point of nuclear punishment for the evil members of humanity when so many of those sinners escaped that retribution altogether? The US government, the controlling, manipulative entity that detained citizens for their heritage and opened fire on peaceful protesters, wasn’t wiped out; it simply hunkered down and became the Enclave, re-emerging decades later to once more terrorize the people of the country from coast to coast. Bradburton, the head of Nuka-Cola who overworked employees, overcharged customers, and put money over human beings’ safety, survived for 200 years after the end of the world. So did Eddie Winters, infamous crime boss of the Commonwealth. Stanislas Braun, Professor Calvert, both powerful men whose actions and influence harmed others, continue to cause suffering after the end of the world and the beginning of the new one. If anything, Braun’s evils only bear their true fruit from the nuclear rain, as the Vaults began to perform their horrific tests upon humanity and he began to personally torment a dozen people’s minds for over a century, and Calvert’s intent to control the Maryland area only begins to move forward in the decades after the bombs drop. And even if the heads of Vault Tec are (perhaps) destroyed by the war, the evil intents and methods of the company live on in at least 1 employee who survives, Overseer Barstow. The most the nukes did to punish them was to bring on terrible boredom and loneliness for many, but even then, we see no indication that this isolation taught them anything. Winters is still an ass, Braun becomes shockingly cruel before finally becoming tired of life, and Barstow carries on Vault Tec’s mission as though nothing happened. Maybe Bradburton gained some humanity, but we’ve no indication one way or another. The nukes were such a failure as punishment for the evils of the world that they could not even wipe many of those great evils clean.

The Fallout series makes it a point to prove that the human race is flawed before AND after society’s nuclear reset button is pushed; War Never Changes because humanity never changes. I’ve always loved the fact that the series bases itself so strongly around 1950s aesthetics, because we have a tendency to idolize that age of American culture as somehow safer, more moral and upstanding, than everything that came after, while in reality it was no better. The darkness in human beings was still exactly as present as ever, before and after. And similarly, the evils of humanity before the war are those of humanity after the war, simply given new faces and new nuances of the world to twist to their vile purposes. And thus I say that anyone who views the nuclear devastation of the Fallout series as just and effective punishment for the evils of the prewar society is wrong...because to succeed, punishment must end and prevent bad behaviors. But the evils of humanity continued, as they always had, as they always do.

* Well, the military, and those high in power. Mayor Hildenbrand might’ve been doing dick all to actually benefit the people of Boston, but he sure as hell made sure he wasn’t going hungry himself.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Tales of Series's Naming Oddity

Is it just me, or is the Tales of series very weird in how they name their games? No, I don’t just mean how some of the titles lately are just nonsense words with no meaning (what the fuck is a ‘zestiria’?). Others have poked fun at that far more effectively, not to mention succinctly, than I could. I mean in the sense that every game in the series I’ve come across to date* seems like it’s been mis-titled with the name meant for another installment of the series.

Like, take Tales of Symphonia. Now, given the name, you’d think the game would have a major theme of music, right? Like, the symphony. Symphony --> Symphonia, right? And the game isn’t totally unrelated to music,’s not really a huge part of it, as far as I can glean. Which isn’t by itself odd or a bad thing or anything; it’s not like, say, Vandal Hearts or Legena: Union Tides have titles that really make much specific sense, nor do several dozen other RPGs. It’s kinda the genre’s thing. Still...well, wouldn’t Tales of Symphonia have been a better title for Tales of the Abyss? I mean, Tales of the Abyss makes some decent sense as a title, since the abyss is an actual plot point to the game, but after a while, said abyss is sort of not really that big a deal to the plot. Just becomes a part of the world that you take in stride. But think about it--music is a huge, thematic component to the plot of Tales of the Abyss, because the game’s central, thematic conflict revolves around the question of whether destiny can be (or even should be) resisted and broken, and in TotA, destiny takes the form of a score, as in a song, laid out by some god thing trapped in the center of the earth or some such fanciful RPG gobbledegook. Point is, wouldn’t you think that for a game whose major plot point is a song of destiny, a name like Symphonia would have been a better choice, rather than for a game whose connections to music, tangible and abstract alike, are slight, even tenuous?

And the examples just keep piling up the more I look at the series’s history. Tales of Destiny, for example. Nothing especially strong, fate-wise, in ToD’s plot. But again, Tales of the Abyss would have been a great choice for the name Destiny, since, again, its primary concern is a question of mankind’s reaction to and conflict with inevitability. For that matter, Destiny would have been a fine name for Tales of Legendia, too, since the main point of its second half is that the heroes are opposing a recurring cycle of destiny that will destroy their world. Hell, it’d still work better for ToL’s first half than for ToD’s entirety, since the first half is about whether or not different peoples can come together to work and live in peace, in spite of the conflict and suffering that seems, historically, to be their ‘destiny.’

And heck, while the Abyss might be an alright name for the game it’s given to, and relate to something real and basic in the game, it might be, from a narrative standpoint, a better name for Tales of Zestiria, since that game’s ostensibly about purifying the human heart and pulling people and society up from the malevolence of their darker instincts, which is sort of like the abyss of their hearts. A bit of a stretch, sure, but I personally would like the thematic appropriateness over the simple fact that there’s an actual abyss in Tales of the Abyss. Or Tales of Zestiria could have been more appropriately named Legendia. Legendia is an okay title for the game that actually has it, in the sense that it’s a throwaway RPG title that wouldn’t conflict with like 95% of all fantasy RPGs in existence...but Tales of Zestiria’s got a lot of emphasis on the fabled history of the Shepards, and the events of the past having led to the game’s current conflict. Which would make Legendia fit quite well to it, while the actual Tales of Legendia doesn’t really have much in the way of fact, it’s unusual for how little it has to do with legends. Most RPGs have at least a couple! And for that matter, Tales of Symphonia also has a lot of its plot focus on events of the past and various legends, so that would have been much more aptly named Legendia, too.

And it even seems weird for the games of the series that I don’t know about. Like, maybe Tales of Eternia is, in fact, appropriately named. I wouldn’t know; it’s on my To Play list. But in case it’s not, then Eternia would have been a fine title for Tales of Phantasia, since ToP involves a fair amount of time travel in its plot, and the name Eternia sort of implies a focus on time. Tales of Hearts probably is well enough named, since hearts are a vague enough thing that most RPGs that involve any sort of dynamic characters could apply, but on the off-chance that Hearts doesn’t really have much to do with that title, it sure as hell would have been a great one for Tales of Zestiria, what with ToZ’s focus being on this poorly-explained ethereal miasma that’s born of and/or infects human hearts to make people into secret invisible monsters and so on.

It’s not like it matters or anything, of course. But this unique trait that the Tales of series seems to have of giving its games titles that would have worked better for other installments in the series did seem odd enough to be worth making note of.

* In fairness, that’s less than half the series, but still.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Millennium 5's Spontaneous Attention to Romance

Yes, I know none of you have played the Millennium series. Well, too bad. How am I going to keep my Followers count’s slim figure if I start making rants that anyone wants to read?

The Millennium series is an odd little quintology in numerous ways. The dialogue’s written crudely, with a seeming prejudice against many types of punctuation, yet frequently it’s well-spoken and witty enough that it doesn’t seem like there’s any particular lack of understanding for it that might come from a non-native speaker. It’s a 5-game series, yet feels pretty strongly like it’s just a single slightly long game that’s been chopped into pieces in a very arbitrary fashion...and yet it also does feel very right as a saga rather than a single title. Its setting seems pretty haphazardly thrown together according to what the plot needs when, but at the same time, it sort of does have a decent amount of lore going on with it. Altogether, it’s not a good series, only decent, and yet I found that I came away from Millennium with distinct fondness for the series.

But 1 of the weirder things about it, which I can’t really understand and think is vaguely detrimental, is the sudden decision partway through Millennium 5 to start throwing questions of romance into the mix of the party’s dynamics.

I mean, for the span of 4 games, we’ve got no hint of romantic interests in the cast. Well, besides Jack, of course, and to a lesser extent James, but I don’t qualify “strikes out with every female he sees with every other breath he takes” as romance. Obnoxious, yes, romance, no. Everyone else in the sizable party has better things to do with their time, and there certainly doesn’t seem to be any real chemistry between anyone present. Heck, most members of the party don’t even seem to especially like each other, even by the end of the game. Which is another of those oddities I mentioned about the series; rare is the RPG in which there are multiple characters in the main cast who don’t ever start getting along. Romance is just not on anyone’s radar from Millennium 1 - 4, completely unmentioned, not even vaguely hinted at, and honestly, it’s not really missed at all, when so many members of the cast barely even manage to work together as peers.

So, for 60 - 80 hours of the series, no one’s interested in anyone else, save Jack and James wanting to screw anything that owns a vagina. And then, a third of the way through Millennium 5, Benoit spontaneously develops a crush on Karine.

There’s absolutely no lead-up to this. Like, whatsoever. Completely out of left field. I mean, I’ll grant you, Karine and Benoit have been part of the team the longest, so he’s had the most time to know and appreciate her over anyone else, but no part of their interactions for 4 entire games have given any indication that he’s been developing feelings for her. The majority of their interactions have been Karine urging him to man up and stop being so pessimistic and cowardly, which doesn’t really strike me as the sort of thing that would inspire strong feelings of affection and attraction.* The rest of the time, they’ve just been putting in their 2 cents on the situations that come up around them. Where the hell have these feelings suddenly sprung from?

But eh, alright, whatever. If Millennium wants to suddenly add a forced, nonsensical crush into the narrative, so be it. Rapid Onset Romance is an old RPG tradition, after all.

Except that that’s not the end of it. For some reason, after this point, the game seems to feel it absolutely necessary to make romantic feelings and musings a repeating focus, potentially pairing up the ladies in the cast like they’re overstock items that have to be moved out of the warehouse at all costs. Marine gives Jack a moment of actual consideration, for some odd reason, and indicates that maybe she’ll seriously consider his advances if he does well in the upcoming tournament that they need to win (which doesn’t really speak well of Marine’s character, I have to say). A quiet moment between Blondie and Marine that actually provides some much-needed lore and character development for each of them devolves into an unexpected discussion of which boys in the party are cute, with Blondie talking about how Abu is totally her type. And of all the ridiculous things, Salome actually starts acting interested in the Bear. Uh, yeah, okay. No pairing in the history of video gaming has ever stunk so badly of ‘Writer Felt Obligated to Just Pair Every Woman Up with Someone’ as that.

What was it that really got your engine running about the Bear, Salome? Was it the unending stream of verbal abuse that flows from his mouth to every single person he meets, yourself included? His constant insistence that everything you and the rest of your friends are doing is completely futile and that you’re all worthless? Maybe you’re really into men so eternally pissed off that Vegeta himself would say, “Dude, chill the fuck out”? The guy has less emotional depth than Oscar the Grouch, for Kallu’s sake!

This unexpected and out of place focus on hook-ups even goes as far as the ending of the game, in which we’re told (in the cannon, good ending) that Marine eventually falls in love with and marries Lord Dragon. Which, I mean, is fine, I guess; if anything, their brief interactions still manage to form a stronger basis for possible romantic interest than Benoit’s and Karine’s, and certainly anything is better than throwing Salome at the Bear. But it still seems odd that there’s enough time for the ending to tell us what Marine’s love life will be, but not to let us know most other standard, expected ending things. Does her father ever come out of his coma? Does her mother ever have the curse on her lifted? How does every other party member’s life go? Who does what in Marine’s new government? How about some more details about how things progress for Mystland in regards to the rights of the peasantry, and how Mystrock’s society and economy change to deal with this?

Why do I come away from this series with a more complete understanding of the course of Marine’s love life than the resolution of her entire blasted quest!?

I dunno. I know it’s a small thing, but this really does bug me, because the sudden, uncalled for attention to schoolyard crushes in this last leg of the series takes a substantial portion of what little real development of characters’ interactions we get in this game. Maybe if Salome hadn’t been busy poking the Bear about his feelings on the ladiez, and then lamenting to Karine afterward about how it didn’t go so well, we could have instead gotten a scene that actually developed Salome and/or the Bear a little (Gaia knows he could have used it) as they have an honest conversation, followed by a scene in which she and Karine interact about something actually substantial and relevant to them or their quest. Maybe if we didn’t have to make Blondie and Marine’s conversation devolve into a “Well which boy do you like?” chat, we could have gotten more of the serious lore and character solidifying that it had been providing up until that moment.

Then again, maybe not. There’s no guarantee that anything better would have replaced this sudden, inexplicable romantic attention. It’s not like adding this RPG equivalent of preteen slumber party gossip took any actual effort that might have been applied to something else. Still, I hate the RPG standard of viewing romantic feelings as no more than a box to check off, and these insubstantial and completely spontaneous little flirtations with flirtation in Millennium are certainly no more than that.

* Then again, there’s precious little that Shion says to Allen throughout most of the Xenosaga series that doesn’t boil down to the same sort of emasculating criticism, and he’s inexplicably in love with her, too. Is this just a thing? Some trope I’m not aware of in anime/RPG culture, in which a guy just falls in love with a woman for the fact that she constantly criticizes his courage and worth as a man? Because it’s stupid, and offensively unhealthy. I’m not saying that Allen and Benoit aren’t whiny little milksops that need to get their shit together for quite some time in their respective franchises, mind you--they totally are. But I am saying it’s a big problem when those criticisms form the majority of the interactions off which romantic feelings can be based.