Friday, September 28, 2018

Fallout 4's Railroad Faction: Why I Side with Them

Maybe someday I’ll write a Fallout rant that isn’t 5+ pages long. You never know. It could happen.

Definitely not today, though.

Fallout 4 allows you to select from 4 separate factions to determine the fate of the post-apocalyptic Commonwealth of Massachusetts. You can choose the Minutemen, which is basically a collaborative military force of the Commonwealth’s farmers and other common populace all pooling their resources to become a self-sufficient and protected series of communities. You can support the Brotherhood of Steel’s east coast chapter, fresh from Fallout 3’s Capital Wasteland. You can side with the Institute, who see the future of mankind in scientific advancement and replacement. Or, you can throw your lot in with the underdogs of the struggle, the Railroad, whose goal is to be the champions of Synths, helping them to live safe, sound, and most importantly, free.

This sounds like a fair number of choices, of course, as many as Fallout: New Vegas offered, and technically it is, but the less ambiguous ethics of Fallout 4’s factions means that, ultimately, it actually becomes a choice between 2 groups, instead of 4. If you’re playing an immoral, evil character, your only options are: A, the Institute, which remorselessly commits atrocities regularly against the people of the Commonwealth and values directionless scientific advancement toward some intangible, undefined ideal of future human perfection over the actual, living human beings working and suffering to make a decent, livable society in the Commonwealth, or B, the Brotherhood of Steel, which has been twisted and ruined by its current leadership, becoming a fanatical military group of bigots who define humanity by specific genetic conditions rather than valuing self-aware intelligence and empathy wherever it may be found.* And if you’re playing as a character who is not a complete asswipe, your choice is between the Minutemen and the Railroad.

Comparing the Minutemen and the Railroad, the choice seems simple enough. While it’s clear that the Railroad has a noble cause in standing up for the Synths’ freedom and wellbeing, as any organization trying to assist slaves and the downtrodden is noble, the Minutemen, pound for pound, accomplish the greater good with their cause. The Minutemen provide protection and stability to the entire region’s otherwise vulnerable settlers, farmers, and traders. They help establish and build settlements, they directly oppose hostile elements that prey on the weak like raiders and super mutants, they send armed patrols through the Commonwealth, they establish trade routes and lines of communication between settlements, and they jump to assist towns and settlements even outside of the ones who have agreed to be a part of their alliance. Well, okay, you do a lot of that stuff yourself as the protagonist, but, y’know, the idea is that the Minutemen as a whole are doing that. They oppose the Institute because it threatens the entirety of the Massachusetts populace. In essence, the Minutemen are helping pretty much everyone, by default including what Synths the Railroad has freed and established in the Commonwealth, and on top of that, they’re establishing an overall society from which higher levels of safe civilization can emerge and prosper.

The Railroad, on the other hand, just frees a very specific group of people** from slavery, and tries to keep them safe. They oppose the Institute specifically because it enslaves those people, not necessarily because it’s evil overall. Agan, this unequivocally makes the Railroad a morally good cause, and were it just them, the Brotherhood of Steel, and the Institute, there would be absolutely no question which faction was the right one to side with. And to some extent, they’re still laudable even by comparison to the Minutemen, for the people of the Railroad are putting their lives on the line by directly opposing the greatest threat (the Institute) with the least resources to do so. More than that, they are the sole voice and shield for an entire race of oppressed people. Even the Minutemen are at best ambivalent about Synths, so without the efforts of the Railroad, a great number of conscious, feeling, thinking people would be utterly helpless to escape from their enslavers. Though in some ways the Railroad can be criticized for turning its back on the regular people of the Commonwealth (although what exactly people expect this tiny, frugal coalition of mostly non-fighters to do about the grand problems the Commonwealth suffers through is beyond me), in other ways they are more noble than even the Minutemen, for the Minutemen themselves do stand to benefit from their good deeds, while the Railroad’s members risk everything completely selflessly, having nothing to gain personally from helping the Synths who cannot help themselves.

Regardless of whose ideals are truly higher, though, it’s quite clear that the Minutemen do the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. The Railroad performs a service to freedom and morality that the Minutemen do not in freeing and specially safeguarding Synths, but the Minutemen perform many more acts of good that the Railroad does not. So, ultimately, if the issue of deciding which faction to support in Fallout 4 truly was a question of which one was better, I would wholeheartedly advocate choosing the Minutemen as the faction you ally with to take down the Institute and save the Commonwealth. Completely and totally.

The thing is, though, that unlike all other faction combinations, with the Railroad and the Minutemen, it’s not an either-or scenario.*** And that being the case, the fact is that the Sole Survivor can do the most possible good for the Commonwealth, short and long term, by allying with the Railroad.

Let’s examine the goals of the Minutemen, shall we? Ultimately, the Minutemen want a safe, stable Commonwealth civilization in which everyone is free and secure to pursue a positive life. In pursuit of that end, the Minutemen need several things to happen. They need a strong and dedicated leader to take the reigns of their group. They need to retake their old base of operations, the Castle. They require settlements across the Commonwealth to pledge to support the Minutemen. By extension, the Minutemen want those settlements linked, by trade and other social relations, and built up to be strong, productive, and self-sufficient. The Minutemen want to force the predators of the weak and innocent out of the Commonwealth--the raiders, the Gunners, the super mutants, etc. They need to establish a strong and large enough force to send patrols through the Commonwealth to keep its roads and ruins secure. And, of course, the Minutemen must bring about the end of the Institute. With all of this accomplished, the Minutemen will have the strength and momentum as a military force and as a collaborative union of the people of the Commonwealth to build a greater community of the Commonwealth’s citizens.

Here’s the thing, though: all of that can be accomplished for the Minutemen, without actually choosing them as your endgame faction.

If you support the Railroad instead of the Minutemen, very little changes for the latter. Even while committed to your alliance with Deacon’s bunch of Synth-loving super spies, you can still accept the role of and act as the General of the Minutemen. You can help Preston and his Minutemen buddies retake the Castle, and then help them to reestablish it as their HQ. You can dive into radiant quests and settlement building, and thus acquire all the same settlements and support for the Minutemen from the people of the Commonwealth, and enhance them to your satisfaction. You can still return to those settlements to fight off attacks, and you still have exactly as many opportunities to eliminate raider gangs and other hazards through exploring the Commonwealth. Actually, you can do slightly more by siding with the Railroad, since a few of the post-game sidequests they give you has you hunting down a raider gang that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to attack. You can still have built up the Minutemen enough that their members are seen now and then patrolling the Commonwealth. And finally, it doesn’t really matter to the Minutemen whether they’re the ones to end the Institute, or whether it’s the Railroad that does the job--the important thing is simply to cease its threat to the people of the Commonwealth.

So you see, as long as you’re willing to dedicate the time and effort to do so, the Minutemen can have their goals accomplished even if you decide to side with the Railroad as your endgame faction. The good that the Minutemen accomplish is greater than the good the Railroad accomplishes, but it’s also not mutually exclusive to the Railroad’s good--you can support them both.

But of course, the question then becomes: isn’t the same true, in reverse? Since the Minutemen do not object to or obstruct the Railroad’s operations, couldn’t you also just choose the Minutemen as your faction to oppose the Institute, and still do the majority of the quests to help the Railroad? In fact, since the Minutemen don’t require you to act as a double agent in the Institute for so long as the Railroad does, you could argue it’s better this way around, since you won’t be forced to even mildly assist the Institute as a Minuteman the way you would as a Railroad agent.

Well, the answer is no. It’s not an equal matter on both sides, I’m afraid. If you support the Railroad, you can still accomplish every goal of the Minutemen and put them in the position to do all their good for the Commonwealth. But if you support the Minutemen, you cannot accomplish quite as much of the good the Railroad could have.

There are 2 major parts of this imbalance. The first is that in the attack on the Institute, the Railroad has specifically coordinated the captive Synths there to join the fight for their freedom and be involved in escaping from their captors. I’m sure that, during the Minutemen’s attack on the Institute, plenty of Synths use the opportunity to escape, but given that they weren’t expecting it, there’s a greater chance that many of them get caught in the middle of the fighting and perish, or don’t escape in time. And for those Synths who do escape the Institute during the Minutemen’s attack, they have no immediate protector, plan, or provider in the Commonwealth to help them, putting them at risk. The Railroad’s attack on the Institute, on the other hand, accounts for the freedom-seeking Synths of the Institute, and the Railroad has experience with guiding and safeguarding new Synths in the Commonwealth. So, ultimately, more good is done for the lives of the innocent and the free by the Railroad than the Minutemen in the final Institute attack.

The other reason, and the more compelling one, I think, is quite simply a case of which of the 2 factions needs the prestige more. See, the Commonwealth knows of the Institute’s demise once it happens, and Travis Miles does a report in which he acknowledges the Sole Survivor and the appropriate faction as the ones who ended the nightmare. Thanks to the gentle urgings of Diamond City Radio and Publick Occurrences, the people of the Commonwealth know that they owe a debt of gratitude, and to whom. And that goodwill is something that will benefit the Railroad’s cause a lot more than the Minutemen’s.

Oh, make no mistake, the Minutemen require goodwill to operate. It’s incredibly vital to them, in fact. The Minutemen is an organization that can’t survive if the common man doesn’t have faith in it. People’s willingness to trust and cooperate with the Minutemen is the lifeblood of these citizen soldiers, because the Minutemen ARE the people.

But the fact is that, provided you have appropriately built the Minutemen up, they have that goodwill. Your actions prove to the settlements which join up that the Minutemen can be trusted, and the game shows clearly that the Minutemen have regained their prestige in the eyes of the Commonwealth’s people. Random NPCs can comment in passing their approval of the work you’re doing in leading the Minutemen, and some of them can even stop your companion Preston and initiate a conversation with him in which they thank him for his work as a Minuteman. Hell, there’s enough positivity about the Minutemen that you can encounter a scam artist who seeks to impersonate Preston and take advantage of people’s gratitude by extorting them for donations. So it’s safe to say that the Minutemen can garner as much goodwill from the Commonwealth as they require even without being the ones to put the Institute down.

By contrast, though, the positive publicity of being the saviors of the Commonwealth would be a really, really great boon to the Railroad. The fact of the matter is that most people in the Commonwealth associate Synths with the Institute’s evils, and thus understandably have a paranoid fear of them. That kind of paranoia could lead to many acts of violence against the newly freed Synths attempting to find a place in this new world; this isn’t the kind of fear that is going to go away overnight, death of the Institute or not. But the knowledge that the Railroad, the faction known for being the champions of Synths’ rights and wellbeing, was the one to save the Commonwealth...well, that could go a long way to convincing a lot of the Commonwealth’s people to give Synths a chance, out of respect and/or gratitude to these saviors who think that Synths are worthwhile people. And considering that, with the destruction of the Institute, there’s now a ton of new Synths that the Railroad needs to move through and out of the Commonwealth in an attempt to set them up with new lives, to such an extent that the Railroad is actually openly securing checkpoints along the routes through which they guide their Synth charges, having the approval of the citizens is an important thing. Side with the Minutemen, and the Railroad will simply have to keep to a completely underground operation, and the Synths it cares for will continue to be at risk of oppression from their neighbors if ever discovered.

Admittedly, there is, I suppose, 1 other benefit to the faction that defeats the Institute, which I just brought up a moment ago: the military checkpoints, located here and there across the map. And in that regard, the Minutemen will do more good with them than the Railroad, since the Railroad’s agents occupy these checkpoints with the intention of securing safe passage for Synths, while the Minutemen take the checkpoints simply as a means of providing greater protection to travelers through the Commonwealth. So there is that factor to take into consideration...nonetheless, since the Minutemen will send out patrols through the Commonwealth anyway, and since I think it’s fair to also count the provisioners with which you connect your settlements as an additional measure of patrolling security, giving the Minutemen the military checkpoints is sort of just a case of strengthening one of the acts of good they already perform, while the benefits the Railroad garners from being the ones to defeat the Institute are otherwise outright unavailable.

So basically, that’s why I chose to support the Railroad during my playthrough of Fallout 4. I’ve seen a lot of people criticize the Railroad, and the players who throw their lot in with it, for choosing to help the few instead of the many. And that’s just not the case, because more or less all that the Minutemen accomplish for the greater good, they can still achieve if you side with the Railroad, while the reverse is not true. Side with the Railroad in Fallout 4, and you really can have your Fancy Lads Snack Cakes and eat them too.

* Also worth noting is that the Brotherhood of Steel isn’t really much better for even just the regular people of the Commonwealth. Yeah, they’ll definitely make the place safer, but they’ll have the Commonwealth’s citizens provide the Brotherhood with their food whether the citizens want to or not, and they’ll occupy and fortify whatever location strikes their fancy. The Brotherhood provides assistance by force, and independent of any wishes or stipulations that the people it supposedly protects might have. It’s basically like an organized crime protection racket, if a protection racket actually did offer protection. It ain’t the worst thing going on with the Brotherhood, but it is still a wrong.

** For the sake of this rant, we’re going to forego an argument about whether Synths are people and just jump right to the part where we all agree that they are. If you really want a rant where I lay out the reasoning behind that, then I can provide, but I daresay even the game itself isn’t too ambiguous on the matter, with party members like Nick, Curie, and Danse, characters like DIMA, Glory, and Mayor McDonough, and situations like Roger Warwick’s Synth’s slip of the tongue, the fact that the Synths are capable of wanting freedom, and the ambiguity of Synth-hood being a question for Kasumi and even the protagonist herself during the Far Harbor DLC. So yeah, we’re gonna just roll forward with the understanding here that Synths are people no more or less deserving of rights, happiness, safety, and all that jazz than any human or ghoul.

*** Okay, technically speaking, you CAN support the Minutemen without making an enemy of the Brotherhood of Steel. But members of the Brotherhood do express unease at the idea of the Minutemen being an armed peacekeeping force, and unless the BoS decide to turn around and go home--which doesn’t seem likely to happen; the game makes no indication that they will and they’ve already committed to setting up strongholds and policies in the Commonwealth--contention and conflict are pretty much a guarantee. Two rival peacekeeping forces in the same area is a recipe for problems already, and all it will take is the Brotherhood deciding it wants a particular settlement for strategic/scientific purposes, the Minutemen deciding they don’t take kindly to the BoS strong-arming their farmers into giving up their crops to the Brotherhood, the Brotherhood opening fire on innocent ghoul settlers, or some other inevitable incident of their incompatible ideologies and goals for the two factions to go to war.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Shadowrun Series's Calfree Trilogy Mods Are Seriously Awesome

Shadowrun Returns, Shadowrun: Dragonfall, and Shadowrun: Hong Kong are all swell RPGs (well, okay, Returns really isn’t, but 2 out of 3 ain’t bad). They do, however, come with some unfortunate baggage for me: I didn’t realize just how much I need a cyberpunk RPG adventure periodically in my life until Harebrained Schemes brought the defining franchise of the genre to RPG form. And unfortunately, HS apparently decided to call it quits on the franchise for the foreseeable future after Hong Kong, meaning that since late 2015, I’ve started jonesing for more cyberpunk goodness. Dex helped me a bit with it, but hang it all, 1 cyberpunk RPG in 3 years just wasn’t enough, and it’s at least another year until CD Projekt Red’s done with Cyberpunk 2077!

Thankfully, though, Harebrained Schemes provided some relief for junkies like me, in that the Shadowrun PC trilogy wasn’t meant to just be the single campaign story of each game. In the tradition of Neverwinter Nights, the Shadowrun games were made with the intent that fans would use the game’s engine to create their own adventures and campaigns out of it, to share with other players. It’s a great idea, really, because it worked very well with Neverwinter Nights 1, with that title becoming 1 of the first huge mod scenes of PC games, and Shadowrun, like Neverwinter Nights, is based on a tabletop RPG, so people sharing campaign ideas is already a part of the culture of the series. And so, in this terrible post-Harebrained-Schemes period of drudgery, I thankfully do have some options for getting my cyberpunk RPG fix, in the campaigns that other players have created for the Shadowrun PC trilogy.

Unfortunately, like any junkie, I have very little self-control or logic when it comes to my drug of choice, so once I started playing these mods, I just went through them all at once, like an idiot. So I’m screwed until Cyberpunk 2077, after all.

Still, if I’ve run out of new Shadowrun mods to actually play, then perhaps I can at least get a contact high from talking about them, right?

There is a decent handful at this moment of mod campaigns for the Shadowrun trilogy available for runners to enjoy, and most of them are pretty good. I like A Stitch in Time, Mercurial, and Nightmare Harvest to varying degrees, and you should check them out if you feel yourself adrift in the same cyberpunk doldrums within which I find myself floating aimlessly. But what I want to talk about today is a trilogy of mod campaigns by one Cirion, or Seberin, depending on whether you get it through Steam or Nexus. And the reason I want to talk about these 3 user-generated campaigns is because they are fucking AWESOME.

Cirion’s trilogy, which I have decided to call the Calfree Trilogy since it takes place in the California Free State of the Shadowrun universe, is expertly crafted, in all regards. It plays as smoothly as any officially published RPG might. In fact, in terms of technical prowess, it goes beyond what you could expect from an official publisher, because Cirion has actually added features to 2 of the 3 campaigns he’s made--most notably, a character Influence system, where no such thing had existed in the original schematics of the Shadowrun games. That’s a pretty damn complicated feature to add to a game not originally designed for it, I would think!

More importantly for me, the story, characters, and themes of this trilogy are smooth, natural, and skillful, to a greater extent than most “real” RPG publishers manage. Additionally, these adventures provide great side-stories and fleshing-out of the lore that Shadowrun has already canonically established for Calfree, which will provide a pleasant anchor to more intense fans of the series, while the campaigns remain standalone enough as stories that players not entirely familiar with the long history of Shadowrun (which, honestly, is mostly the case for myself) won’t have any problem keeping up.

So, to start with, we have The Antumbra Saga, a mod for Shadowrun: Dragonfall. This is an episodic story which is engaging from the start with a tiny little shadowrun underneath a nightclub, which snowballs into an all-out war for the future of the California Free State. The pacing is great, which is essential in this sort of small-adventure-turned-grand-epic, and the characters are well-written, nuanced, and fun. It’s really good as a story for the sake of the adventure and conflict, and while I don’t think you’ll be moved or find much in the way of deep ideas or wisdom, The Antumbra Saga keeps you invested throughout its course. And it obviously was a great test-run for Cirion in Shadowrun mod-making, because he took the characters he had created and adapted, and used the knowledge he had gained to make the next mod campaign even better.

If the Antumbra Saga is awesome, The Caldecott Caper, its sequel, which is a mod for Shadowrun: Hong Kong, is super awesome. I greatly enjoyed The Antumbra Saga, obviously, but it was, for me, limited by its nature of being an adventure focused upon its own events and story than upon the human element within. It’s got solid characters, and a purpose, don’t get me wrong, but The Antumbra Saga was an adventure for the sake of its adventure, where the focus was more on what was happening and how it was happening, rather than the who and why, if that makes any sense. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing! The Antumbra Saga was, obviously, very good, and there are some legendary RPGs that share that focus on the events and overall story over the individuals involved, such as Deus Ex 1, Romancing Saga 1 + 2, and Fallout 1. Still, to me, a really great story usually comes from the heart, really speaks to us on a human level, and you’ll see that reflected in my list of the greatest RPGs I’ve played: the vast majority of them put a substantial focus on the human element of their stories, making a priority of developing their characters, capturing the audience’s emotion, and making statements about us as a people.

And The Caldecott Caper does that excellently. If I were to draw a comparison between TCC and other works, I’d say that this mod feels, in many ways, like an excellent Bioware-styled game from back in the days when the company knew what the bloody fuck they were doing with themselves. The cast is exceptionally likable and interesting, not to mention well-written and dynamic, and your interactions with them are as much a part of The Caldecott Caper’s greatness as any other component of the campaign. Each team member is a unique personality, easily as skillfully written and memorable as you might expect to find in a ‘real’ game--more than that, in fact! I daresay not even half the published RPGs I’ve played have casts as solid as this mod’s ensemble. The NPCs are very good, too, and the villains are serviceable. Finally, the romance subplots are top-notch fact, as I have mentioned previously, the romance with Persi in this mod was the best love story I encountered in all the RPGs I played during 2017!

And make no mistake: Cirion did not have to compromise on the story’s quality to achieve this, because, if anything, this adventure’s plot is several steps up from The Antumbra Saga’s. It begins as a simple train heist, and, as Shadowrun stories do, develops into a bigger story of power struggles and social conflict. And the interesting thing about this one is that, though it is well-written, creative, and purposeful, it is also perfectly balanced. Things never get so grandiose in The Caldecott Caper that you lose the excitement of the simple heist story that it is, and yet, the events of preparing for said heist all unexpectedly but with subtle method coalesce into the grander schemes that the heroes suddenly find themselves intruding upon and entangled by. This mod has all the basic pleasure of a classic run through the shadows, but keeps that undercurrent of thoughtful substance strong with its musings about the society of the Shadowrun universe.

Ultimately, The Caldecott Caper is a terrific slice of Shadowrun, the kind of adventure that perfectly embodies the style of the series, and shows off the potential of user-generated content in games like this. It was, at the time I played it, second only to Shadowrun: Dragonfall in terms of quality of all the Shadowrun adventures I’ve experienced. So you can imagine my thorough delight when Cirion unexpectedly released a third and final campaign mod that was even better.

Calfree in Chains, also a mod for Shadowrun: Hong Kong, is the finale to Cirion’s trilogy, and it’s pretty fucking amazing. It honestly might be better than Shadowrun: Dragonfall, and if it’s not, then it’s at least equal to it--and I'd like to point out that Shadowrun: Dragonfall is so excellent an RPG that it frequently just barely misses getting onto my list of the greatest RPGs ever created. This mod is basically a perfect balance between The Antumbra Saga and The Caldecott Caper, in that it’s got a major, epic story much like The Antumbra Saga did, but it’s also majorly focused on the characters and human element of the players involved, as The Caldecott Caper was. Calfree in Chains is also even more than that, because this mod also has major themes running throughout its story of racial conflict and of whether it is better to respond to evil with violent or nonviolent resistance. And Calfree in Chains does a stellar job with exploring that question of violence versus nonviolence, too. Aside from Undertale, I daresay this is the best RPG I’ve played that examines the subject of nonviolence, and it’s less of a second-place and more of a good companion to Undertale, because where Undertale examines the concepts of violence and pacifism at their core and essence, Calfree in Chains examines them in terms of real-world application and conflict. It shows both the strengths and limitations of each philosophy, and the consequences of your actions and inactions are a constant aspect of the game’s environment and characters as you go along--which is, in itself, another virtue of Calfree in Chains, since western RPG players are very fond of both having choices in their games, and of those choices having consequences and weight.

As a standalone adventure, Calfree in Chains is great. The cast is solid, the romance (particularly with Arelia) is wonderful.* The story is engaging, meaningful, and natural, and it comes to have a powerful hold on its audience. It has worthwhile messages to convey and significant philosophy to explore: this is a work with purpose. And, quite frankly, there are multiple moments in this game which will hit you, and hit you hard. Some of my most powerful, emotional moments in 2018 as an RPG player have been with Calfree in Chains, in fact--I played The Witcher 3 and Bravely Default this year, and neither of those RPG titans possess moments of such emotional power as I found in Calfree in Chains. Romanced Arelia’s speech at the end of the game is just utterly beautiful.

And as a finish to this trilogy, Calfree in Chains is great, too. It brings the simmering issues of the previous 2 adventures to a head, feeling like it is, indeed, the story and conflict that Cirion’s works have been leading up to. And it uses the characters and lore established in The Antumbra Saga and The Caldecott Caper exactly as they should be used: as a foundation, as a point of familiarity to start at, without leaning on them so heavily that it can’t introduce and spotlight its new characters and lore.

I am completely serious, not exaggerating whatsoever, when I say that Cirion has crafted, in his Calfree Trilogy, the best video game Shadowrun experience to date. I’ve been a lifelong fan of the original SNES title, I really like Shadowrun: Hong Kong, and Shadowrun: Dragonfall keeps only barely missing my list of Greatest RPGs, but I say, with sincerity, that this collection of adventures that Cirion has created is the best Shadowrun experience out there. And I mean that both in terms of being the best example of a Shadowrun story, and in terms of being the best work as a whole. Shadowrun: Dragonfall might still be the best individual Shadowrun adventure, or it at least might be tied with Calfree in Chains...but if you put the actual, official Shadowrun trilogy of games that Harebrained Schemes created next to Cirion’s Calfree Trilogy, you will find, pound for pound, that Cirion’s work’s virtues outweigh Harebrained Schemes’s. I emphatically recommend the Calfree Trilogy to anyone who owns the Shadowrun PC games--and frankly, if you don’t, then you should strongly consider purchasing them, not just for their own virtues, but also for the fact that you can, through them, experience the genuinely superlative Calfree Trilogy.

* Though I do admit I still think Persi’s love story in The Caldecott Caper is the best of the trilogy.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Shin Megami Tensei 4-2's Navarre's Role in the Final Battle

You know what really feels like a missed opportunity in Shin Megami Tensei 4-2? Navarre’s role in the final battle.

Overall, the conclusion to SMT4-2 is pretty great. Okay, the lead-up dungeon is a little long and irritating (albeit very pretty), but the lead-in to it is solid stuff, and once you get to its end, the final battle against God is hella epic. It’s also really handled well in the sense that it really feels like the final, powerful note to the journey of not only Nanashi and his friends, the heroes of this game, but also of Flynn and his comrades, the protagonists of the original Shin Megami Tensei 4, bringing all parties to the true end of the sort-of-dual-game saga. And the battle itself is handled really nicely in that its gameplay mechanics reflect this climactic final collaboration between heroes, as you control 2 parties rather than just the standard 1, with your normal, Nanashi-led party bringing the damage, and Flynn’s providing support and opening up opportunities for attack. And then, once you’ve succeeded, the ending to the game is really heartfelt, and feels like the emotional, satisfying conclusion that a thoughtful, world-changing epic should have. It’s all just about perfect. In fact, for a while, I thought it was perfect, executed with no oversight or missing feature that could have improved it.

Then I thought about Navarre, and now that damn final battle gnaws at my mind for all it could have been.

Look, this is a small thing. It really is. But it’s 1 of those small details that really just drive you crazy. Like toast crumbs in your bedsheets. Nothing so tiny should be able to frustrate a person so much, but, unless you are a far superior breed of man or woman than I am, you cannot get comfortable so long as you know they’re there. And for me, Navarre’s place in the final battle of SMT4-2 is that way. There’s nothing wrong with that battle--it’s fucking awesome, in fact, as you would certainly hope given the circumstances--but the opportunity that Atlus missed to tie 1 last detail of character development and theme up in a neat little bow is killing me.

And what is that detail, you wonder? Or perhaps scream irritably at me, given that I’ve been leading you on for 4 paragraphs now about it. Well, it’s simply this:

Navarre should have been the support character for Flynn’s team.

Think about it. Wouldn’t that have been the absolutely perfect way to conclude Navarre’s character in Shin Megami Tensei 4-1 and 4-2? Wouldn’t that have been the perfect way to complete Flynn’s team?

Flynn’s team in the final battle is made up of himself, Isabeau, Jonathan, and Walter. This makes sense, of course, in that they’re the party of the first Shin Megami Tensei 4, and it feels really good that they get to be included in such a major way in this final battle for the destiny of the human race, that Walter and Jonathan can put aside their history and their ideologies to stand alongside Isabeau and Flynn as their allies and friends 1 last time. It’s a great way to bring Flynn and company back into a spotlight that, let’s face it, was more or less stolen from them in this second game,* and give them a final and really substantial moment of glory as co-heroes of the mini-saga.

But these 4 weren’t the only samurais of their year--cowardly failure though he turned out to be, Navarre was the last samurai chosen during the ceremony at the beginning of SMT4-1. He couldn’t handle the responsibility then, and wound up endangering them and losing his mind before meeting his untimely end. Since becoming a ghost and going with Nanashi on his quest in this game, however, Navarre has grown into his own, and redeemed himself for his shortcomings in life.

So wouldn’t it have been a really fitting, touching thing if Navarre had left Nanashi’s bunch for this final battle, in order to run support for Flynn’s group? It would have been the crowning moment for Navarre’s character--sure, Navarre has redeemed himself well enough with Flynn and Isabeau earlier in the game, but he could, in this final battle, prove himself conclusively through his actions, and stand with his 4 comrades as he was always meant to. Hell, it would put a whole, more meaningful spin on Navarre’s character arc--he makes his purpose in SMT4-2 guiding and protecting Nanashi during their voyage, but if his final decision in this saga was to stand with his fellows as he had always been meant to, then Navarre’s purpose in his afterlife, the meaning of his character arc, would retroactively shift from the nice but somewhat out-of-the-blue dedication to Nanashi to a story about Navarre growing as a person enough that he can do in death what he could not in life. And given that the whole thing with ghosts is them having unfinished business, that would make more sense, too.

Additionally, beyond Navarre’s character development being neatly concluded, having him join Flynn’s party as the support unit would have also been a nice thematic touch. Like I said, the idea of having both parties of the SMT4 duology teaming up in their entirety for the final battle is a cool and fitting way to conclude this story,** and it feels right for Isabeau to leave Nanashi’s bunch to stand along her fellows from the first game. It gives you the feeling of having the gang back together for 1 last moment of glory, you know? But it would be even more complete if Navarre were there, because, like I said, destiny also chose him to be among their band, even if he wasn’t a strong enough man to fulfill that purpose. As a team 1 last time, Flynn, Isabeau, Walter, and Jonathan are a moment of recapturing what once was--but if the narrative had allowed Navarre to take this last chance to stand with them, it would be more than what once was, it would be what should have been. Which is more epic and thematically fitting, in my eyes.

I’d also like to point out that putting Navarre in as the support unit for Flynn’s party would even have been a good move from a gameplay perspective. Flynn’s party has potential to deal out good damage, but its purpose is primarily to open up YHVH’s defenses, so that Nanashi’s party, which you’ve been developing the whole game and so of course is going to be the more capable of inflicting damage, can focus on attacking. Well, given that Navarre’s major utility as a support unit late in the game is debuffing enemies and eliminating debuffs inflicted on the party, he’d be the perfect cherry on top of Flynn’s sundae.*** And it’s not like removing him from the main party’s use would be a significant blow--yeah, it slightly lessens your options with Nanashi, but Asahi makes a superior alternative to Navarre in terms of buffs and debuffs, in that she can enhance the party’s stats and heal them, while Navarre’s more locked into managing debuffs only. As a loss to Nanashi’s party, it’s basically equivalent to the fact that Isabeau is switching over to Flynn’s bunch: what she can provide (magical damage and some healing) can be better provided by Asahi or Hallelujah.

Like I said, this isn’t a major issue, or anything. It’s not a fault of Shin Megami Tensei 4-2 that the writers didn’t think of having Navarre join Flynn’s party during the final battle. Because that showdown feels awesome and complete the way it is. But, once you think about it, even if it’s not missing, so to speak, it’s still a really great opportunity that they passed over. It makes sense from a gameplay perspective, it’s a nice thematic bookend to Flynn’s party’s role, and it would be a great way to complete Navarre’s personal journey. And so, this little detail that Atlus missed out on really does bother me substantially.

...Someone make a mod! Mod SMT4-2 to have Navarre join Flynn in the final battle as his party’s support, and add just a line or 2 of dialogue to set it up. I know 3DS modding is possible, because that marvelous Unassuming Venusaur lady has been correcting Fire Emblem 14’s oversights for a couple years now. So, readers, if any of you are tech-savvy, I charge you now to tweak Shin Megami Tensei 4-2, just a tiny little bit, and make this idea of mine a reality! I’ll buy you, like, 3 RPGs in thanks.

* Not that I for a single solitary second have any regret about this, mind you. To a man/woman, the party members of SMT4-2 are more interesting, appealing, developed characters than everyone from SMT4-1 was put together. Well, okay, Isabeau is empty and mundane, but that doesn’t count seeing as how she’s in both titles’ parties.

** Or is it 1.5 stories? This mini-saga is kind of weird, narratively.

*** You have my permission to twist this metaphor for use in whatever Flynn x Navarre smut you feel the need to write after hearing it. You’re welcome.