Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Legrand Legacy's Party Members' Disharmony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Asdivine 4's Characters

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah. Me, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goddammit, Kemco.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

General RPGs' Frequent Use of Aliens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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