Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Annual Summary 2019

Well, here we are again. Hi, everyone. How y’all doing.

I’d like to try to be a little eloquent, a bit poetic, as I bid farewell to 2019, as is my custom, but...I just can’t this year. 2019’s drawing to a close doesn’t feel so much like a year concluding as it does the end of a goddamn war, at least from the perspective of a video game enthusiast. Activision laying hundreds of people off after they made more money than they ever had before. The lazy, dishonest roadmaps created and abandoned by Bioware for their failed cash-grab so they could keep stringing along their customers. Epic Games continuing to lie about their intentions and throw money around to create an industry environment that looks out for developers at the expense of the consumer’s welfare. Bethesda putting their every creative effort into finding new and original ways to utterly disgrace themselves with Fallout 76. Indie developers breaking their promises to their loyal patrons so they can take some of the money Epic Games got from psychologically manipulating children. One Indie developer, Glumberland, doing that, while dismissing their fans’ concerns with a snide laugh and the finger. EA spearheading the industry’s fight to continue taking advantage of addicts and teaching children to gamble, ignoring the welfare of their customers with a malicious avarice in no small way alike to cigarette companies. Video game rating organizations knowingly giving a child-friendly rating to games with complex gambling simulators and the capacity to allow (and encourage!) players to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on microtransactions. Randy Pitchford continuing to be one of the least dignified or respectable human beings on Earth. The revelation that some major multi-billion-dollar game developers use loopholes to not only abstain from paying taxes, but to actually siphon money from tax break initiatives. 2K Games sending real, actual hired goons to a player’s home to intimidate him. Blizzard actively attacking its players’ right to free speech, on behalf of a government infamous for frankly horrifying violations of human rights.

The major gaming industry has been bad for a while, that’s undeniable. But what has happened and what has come to light in 2019 has made it clear that this has become one of the most toxic and terrible industries you can find, and the consumer is no longer seen as a customer: he’s seen as a target.

So yeah. 2019 was fucking exhausting as a gamer. I daren’t even imagine how Bethesda, Activision/Blizzard, EA, and the rest are going to top all this in 2020...but they will, because the only reliable quality of the AAA gaming industry seems to be that its shitshow will continue to get shittier. I know that a diatribe about the lousy state of the industry isn’t why you’re here, though, so I’ll wrap this aside up with a plea to you all to give some real thought into refusing to buy products sold by the many publishers who have violated the codes of ethics and decency to make an easy buck.

So, how was 2019 for me, personally, as an RPG enthusiast? Well...fine, I suppose. Had its ups and downs. Honestly I think the only thing that truly stood out to me about the year was the tremendous size of some of the RPGs I played, and the way that size has limited the number of games I was able to get to, listed below:

Alphadia 1
The Banner Saga 1
The Banner Saga 2
Bonds of the Skies
Etrian Odyssey 2
Etrian Odyssey 4
Fire Emblem 16
Geneforge 3
The Keep
Pathfinder: Kingmaker
The Princess’ Heart
Shin Megami Tensei: If
South Park: The Fractured But Whole
Stella Glow
Steven Universe: Attack the Light
Tales of Berseria
West of Loathing

A short list indeed, compared to most years. But have you played Fire Emblem 16 and Pathfinder: Kingmaker? Holy crap, are they fucking LONG! And frankly, Tales of Berseria and Geneforge 3 aren’t exactly jaunty little sprints, either.

I at least still got some decent variety in there, with games both old and new (a lot of new ones, actually; I don’t usually hit so many titles released in the last couple years as I did this time around), Indie and AAA, really great and really awful. This year was more about continuing experiences with previous franchises and developers than about trying new stuff--revisiting Shin Megami Tensei, Etrian Odyssey, Fire Emblem, and so on, and games whose flaws are so consistent to Kemco and Roseportal Games that it’s almost more like replaying their previous works than anything new. Hell, even a couple of the RPGs I played without any immediate predecessors in the genre were still parts of IPs I’m familiar with, those being Steven Universe and Loathing. Really, The Banner Saga, Pathfinder: Kingmaker, and Stella Glow were the only genuinely new experiences I had. Perhaps if I’d had more time to devote to my namesake, I’d have tried more new things, but as already mentioned, a couple of these games really tied up a lot of my time.

Not that I can fully blame Pathfinder: Kingmaker and Fire Emblem 16 for that. There was a lot of other stuff I got up to this year, such as...
--Anime: This year I checked out Non Non Biyori, which was relaxing and fun, and Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai, which was really very good (surprisingly, given the name), both at the recommendation of friends. I also watched the brand new Carole and Tuesday on my own initiative, and found it really good--it’s no Cowboy Bebop, sadly, but it’s also no Samurai Champloo, thankfully. I would heartily recommend all 3 of these shows.
--Books: Still didn’t read as much as I wanted to this year, but I suppose the important thing is that I keep trying, right? The works I did read this year were The Golden Ball and Other Stories (surprisingly uninteresting overall; I guess Agatha Christie’s better at longer works than short stories), The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank (Erma Bombeck is always comfortably funny), The Immortal Unicorn (I can’t believe how little of value I found in an anthology of short stories about unicorns! And by authors hand-picked by the unparalleled Peter S. Beagle, no less!), Quicker Than the Eye (it’s got some winners, but I was a little disappointed; I’d expect better from a collection of Bradbury short stories), and both Stargirl and Love, Stargirl (very good; kudos to Jerry Spinelli). Huh...looking back at it, I had a surprisingly disappointing year in terms of literature. And I’m such a fan of short stories, too! I hope 2020’s reading will be better...
--Comics: I’m not usually a sequential art kind of guy, but my coworker, who generally has excellent taste, convinced me to give Saga a try, and I got very into it very fast, an eventuality that will surprise no one familiar with the spectacular series. Of course, said coworker neglected to inform me that Saga is not only unfinished, but currently on a hiatus with no defined someday I shall unleash a truly horrible vengeance upon him for that. If you read this, Angel, I advise you sleep at work with 1 eye open.
--Non-RPG Video Games: I mean it’s not like Super Smash Brothers has stopped existing
--TV: Another coworker got me into The Good Place this year, and I’ve currently finished watching its third season and will finish it in 2020. It’s very fun, very funny, and unexpectedly engaging for a show ultimately meant to be a dummy’s guide to moral philosophy. My sister had me watch the entirety of Parks and Rec, and I found it to be a good show--certainly and easily the least of the Office-Brooklyn-99-Parks-and-Rec-Good-Place tetrad, but a darned fun watch all the same. I also watched the new She-Ra. On the plus side, it’s actually fairly good, unlike the original. Downside, it’s not nearly as gay as the original, though definitely not for lack of trying. But yeah, I do enjoy the show, although by the end of the fourth season, I’m getting a little tired of the writers’ go-to move for creating conflict and achieving necessary plot goals: essentially, that every single character always rolls a 1 on their speech checks. Also, Glimmer is the fucking worst. Finally, I checked out Netflix’s new series of sci-fi shorts, Love, Death, and Robots, which...well, some of them were fucking awesome (Sonnie’s Edge, Zima Blue, When Yogurt Took Over, and a few others), some were alright, several were fucking terrible (do yourself a faor and just don’t even bother with Shape-Shifters, Sucker of Souls, Blindspot, and The Dump), and some were just kinda meh. Still, the good shit is really good, so kudos to Netflix for it, and even the worst episodes at least have great animation.
--Other Crap: I still have a job (2 now, in fact), I still write these rants, I have a new pet to take care of because she’s the cutest little cutiepie to ever cute around a terrarium, and honestly sometimes I just don’t feel like doing stuff so yeah.

Alright, you’ve patiently indulged my babbling about my year (or you’ve long since left to do something more interesting). Let’s get to the main event: how does this random assortment of RPGs of all types, ages, and creators stack up against one another?

RPG Moments of Interest in 2019:

1. Why does Stella Glow have its cast vocalize the act of hugging someone? Has no one ever hugged an Atlus employee? Do they not understand the basics of the experience?

2. Tales of Berseria is excellent in a number of ways, but among them is the way it showcases just how far the series has come in terms of writing quality. Conversations between Eizen and Eleanor in which they speak of their minor hobby in archeology hold so much more real and interesting characterization than the entirety of Tales of Symphonia’s Raine’s painfully overplayed “Ruin Mania.” There is so much more personality and authenticity in this minor nuance of 2 ToB characters than in what amounted to half of Raine’s entire personality.

3. Either their moon is catastrophically close to their planet, or the cast of Stella Glow are INSANELY good climbers, considering that they climb a tree spanning from their world to the moon in something like a day or 2.

4. I’ve now played a Steven Universe RPG. This means I can make topics about Steven Universe at my discretion. Be afraid.

5. After Torment: Tides of Numenera and Pathfinder: Kingmaker, I think it’s safe to say that anything called “The Bloom” in a Chris Avellone game is gonna be nightmarishly disturbing.

6. I hadn’t realized how much I needed another RPG based on Norse mythology, but The Banner Saga has filled this gap that had formed in me in the years and years since my last run-in with Valkyrie Profile. And it does so in a most satisfying manner--Valkyrie Profile 1 is, when you get down to it, only tenuously Norse, and its successors even less so. The Banner Saga, by contrast, doesn’t tiptoe around: it goes all fucking in on the Viking shit, and Dundr bless it for that.

7. I know that RPGs are excessively fond of the “prove yourself to me by doing some random busywork” sidequest formula, but Geneforge 3’s rebel faction takes this to the point of absurdity.

8. Fire Emblem 16’s Bernadetta is my hero, my role model, my soulmate, and my spirit animal, all cinnamon-rolled up into 1 waifu.

9. Speaking of waifus in Fire Emblem’s latest, this game literally allows your character to marry a loli who exists only within your own head. Hitting it a bit on the nose there, eh, Nintendo?

10. ...And since we’re still on the subject, I may as well note that I am, at times, utterly astonished by the creative lengths that Fire Emblem will go to in order to invent and subsequently explore new possibilities for incestuous relationships. [SPOILER]I mean for holy hell, the whole situation with Sothis, Seiros, and Byleth is practically a goddamn Mobius Strip of maternal inter-generational fucking! And yet, somehow, it still annoys me less than the typical Since We’re Not Related It’ll Be Okay scenario, if only for the fact that FE16 at least seems willing to be honest with itself and us about what it's going for.

11. Carole and Tuesday’s first episode totally stole from Undertale! They use the same little “You’ll laugh” “No no, it’s just that I was thinking the same thing” conversation that Undertale relates via Echo Flower in its Waterfall area! I mean, maybe this is just an anime trope I’m not familiar with, but I can’t recall ever having seen it before Undertale, nor after until now.

Best Prequel/Sequel of 2019
Winner: Tales of Berseria
A long, long time ago, I wrote a rant about the marked disparity between Lufia 1 and 2, in which I concluded that the unusually pronounced difference in quality between them was less about the actual size of that gap, than it was about the fact that the second game so thoroughly and carefully tied itself to its predecessor with an attention to lore that can only be called loving. Never before Lufia 2 had I seen a sequel quite so determined to bask and involve itself in a legacy quite so far beneath it. And never have I since...until Tales of Berseria.

Tales of Berseria has a level of care that straddles the line between loving and obsessive when it comes to connecting itself with its predecessor. Almost every location you visit, almost every major development in the plot, even a great number of inconsequential NPCs, they all relate in some way to details of the world and times of Tales of Zestiria. And that’s to say nothing of some of the major events and character development in ToB that more overtly and substantially connect to ToZ, such as the way playing Tales of Berseria gives you a much more complete and interesting perspective on ToZ’s Edna and Zaveid through the character of Eizen. Tales of Berseria didn’t have to, because it’s amazing all on its own, but it goes to uncommonly great lengths to anchor itself in every regard it can to Tales of Zestiria, and does this so well that it improves the latter retroactively. Every RPG should be so lucky as Tales of Zestiria to have a game like Tales of Berseria be its follow-up.

Runners-Up: Pathfinder: Kingmaker; South Park: The Fractured But Whole; West of Loathing
You may be surprised to see The Banner Saga 2 missing from this list, since it’s a perfect continuation of its predecessor’s story, but...well, that’s just it: it’s a continuation, not a sequel. Much like Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1 + 2, or the Millennium quintology, The Banner Saga’s installments are simply all parts of a single story being told, their stopping points more like the end of an episode of a serialized show than an actual conclusion. I really can’t count TBS1 and 2 (and 3, though I have yet to play it) as separate entities; they’re simply a whole that’s been divided into portions.

Pathfinder: Kingmaker is not a sequel, exactly, but it is a story told through a new medium for the Pathfinder franchise, and as such, it is, as far as I can tell, an outstanding, perhaps even perfect, representation of the tabletop RPG experience as a video game. You can find my rationale for that statement in my recent rant on the title, if you’re interested. South Park: The Fractured But Whole and West of Loathing are also great continuations of their respective IPs, each one offering the signature and hilarious humor one expects from the names South Park and Loathing, while also extending that humor in a natural direction past the predecessor--in SPTFBW’s case, the humor revels less in the referential call-backs that made up such a large portion of South Park: The Stick of Truth’s arsenal of jokes, and does more to be funny in its own right, while WoL takes the signature and unique absurdity and word-play of Kingdom of Loathing and gives it a vastly different thematic backdrop to work with. Each does its title proud and will have you laughing from start to finish.

Biggest Disappointment of 2019
Loser: Shin Megami Tensei: If
While not the worst of the games I played this year by any stretch of the imagination, the fact that Shin Megami Tensei: If is, narratively speaking, actually a bad RPG was kind of jarring. I mean, this is Shin Megami Tensei! Not every game in its purview fully lives up to the lofty title, but even the worst SMT (which was Devil Survivor 2) is, if not worthy of being a part of the series, then at least a decent game in its own least, that used to be the rule of thumb for me. But now I know that even SMT can produce an outright bad RPG! Truly this is a frightening world we inhabit.

Almost as Bad: Etrian Odyssey 2; The Princess’ Heart; Steven Universe: Attack the Light
I wouldn’t say that Etrian Odyssey 1 was a superlative RPG, but it had a decent plot and a party of characters who possessed enough personality to interact with each other well and form a comfortable dynamic. Etrian Odyssey 2...nothing stands out about it, positive or negative. Its story kinda just happens, and its characters are sorta just there. Their simple, single quirks are about all there is to them, and even as 1-dimensional character traits go, they’re pretty minor, and far from unique. For example, once you’ve seen Grandia 3’s Ulf, you’ve pretty much seen Chloe, and, for that matter, all characters who are solely defined by excessively carnivorous eating habits. As for the Princess’ Heart, well, I obviously haven’t been given much reason to think that a Roseportal Games title is gonna do much for me, but even so, I was kinda shocked by just how ethically repugnant its protagonist is.

As for Steven Universe: Attack the Light...nothing wrong with it, honestly, it’s a simple, light little RPG with a flavor and style very genuine to the first season of the show. And that’s fine. But, well, the idea of Steven Universe being put into an RPG, 1 of the video game genres most famously and positively associated with in-depth storytelling, I understandably had hopes that the result would be much closer to the unparalleled level of excellence that Steven Universe is known for when it gets serious. Well, perhaps the sequel will deliver.

Best Finale of 2019
Winner: Tales of Berseria
But only if “best” doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive to “your emotional state is a pinata and the birthday boy is Thor.”

Runners-Up: Pathfinder: Kingmaker; South Park: The Fractured But Whole
As a game that combines a genuine love for superhero media and culture with South Park’s talent for exaggeration, excess, excellence, and exacerbation, South Park: The Fractured But Whole had to close on a note that is equal parts epic, over the top, and absurd, all dialed up to 11. And it doesn’t disappoint. As for Pathfinder: Kingmaker, it’s got as grand, desperate, and legendary a conclusion as such a sprawling tale of classic tabletop fantasy adventure would necessitate, with a hectic and thematic struggle that unites every player of any importance from the game’s prior events together, an awesome climactic showdown with a singular and captivating villain, the potential for a perfect moment of poignant redemption, and a solid ending of the classic Western RPG style. Honestly, if anyone disputed my choice to put Tales of Berseria’s finale above Pathfinder: Kingmaker’s, I wouldn’t blame them in the slightest; I’m only truly going to know whether or not this current standing is accurate once I’ve had a good, long time to think about it.

Worst RPG of 2019
Loser: The Princess’ Heart
To put it frankly, this is a story about a truly terrible person being enabled and held completely unaccountable for her actions, culminating eventually in her achieving everything she wants out of life because she broke a contract by beating up the guy who owned it, written by someone who mistakenly viewed their character as the story’s hero, rather than its villain. Also, it’s light on actual story, and the dialogue is written with a heavy and inexperienced hand, displaying the bluntness and haste that you’d see in a middle school student’s prose. I don’t like to get on indie RPGs’ cases, but fair is fair, and awful is awful, and it’s only fair to acknowledge the fact that The Princess’ Heart is awful.

Almost as Bad: Alphadia 1; Bonds of the Skies; Etrian Odyssey 2
Bonds of the Skies is your standard Kemco venture, the gaming equivalent of mowing the lawn or putting a coat of paint on your fence. And Alphadia 1 actually manages to be worse, a flavorless time-syphon even by Kemco’s minimal standards. As for Etrian Odyssey’s blah. Just blah, nothing more. Its story is boring, and its cast are drones slowly drifting through it. I’d like to go into more detail, but just thinking about Alphadia 1 has started to put me to sleep, and no part of the process of recollecting Etrian Odyssey 2 is doing anything to counteract this sedation.

I’m not kidding. The next part of this rant will have been written a minimum of 2 hours after this paragraph. I’m actually going to go take a nap right now because I allowed myself to remember the details and the process of playing these games.

Most Creative of 2019
Winner: Tales of Berseria
It’s a tough call, because all the contestants are terrifically creative in very different ways...but I think I have to give the most appreciation to Tales of Berseria. While its overall style and world aren’t anything out of the ordinary for its series, or just JRPGs in general, I have to give it the win for simply having a message and purpose so completely its own. While I’ve played some great RPGs before that either star or can star their villains, such as Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 1, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, and a few Western RPGs that give you the option to follow an evil path and actually have a plan for that eventuality, those games are still designed to express a familiar message with their villainous mouthpieces (Marche in FFTA1 has to take on the role of a bad guy to pursue the cause of facing truth and reality even when it’s unpleasant, and Wilhelm in VPCotP, when he follows the path of a villain, embodies the game’s warning against vengeance and hatred).

ToB’s central idea, on the other hand, is completely unique to the genre as far as I can tell: it stars its villain in order to make the argument that the darker side of humanity, the negative half of its heart and soul, is necessary, and more than that, has value. In a genre absolutely saturated with stories of heroes proving that the good in humanity outshines its darkness, plots in which the main villains are powered or even outright representations of the negative emotions of mankind, and messages of hope that we can all one day fully do away with our worse natures...Tales of Berseria has the ambition, the gall, the big swinging balls* to insist that we NEED some of that negativity within us, that without at least some of our darkness, we aren’t truly human. And it’s damn persuasive about the matter, too. As Chris Avellone and his Obsidian crew crafted Knights of the Old Republic 2 to be a masterpiece of contemplation in order to tell George Lucas that his black-and-white view of the Force was stupid, so too, do I feel, did the Tales of Berseria team create this triumph of heart and humanity in order to tell the entire category of RPGs that its relentless preoccupation with negative feelings is short-sighted.

Runners-Up: The Banner Saga 1 + 2; Pathfinder: Kingmaker; West of Loathing
The Banner Saga (whose installments can only logically be counted as a single whole, thus both 1 and 2 occupying a single position here) has a style and pace all its own, and it does a great job of authentically using Norse mythology, yet keeping its story and direction very much its own. Next up, Pathfinder: Kingmaker’s singular band of main characters, the effort put into its lore, the style of its story, and the fact that it can manage to keep creating fresh new chapter scenarios that interest the player in spite of how long the game runs, all make it a great example of the classic and classy creativity that tabletop fantasy embodies. And finally, West of Loathing is engagingly and utterly bizarre and clever, as well as unexpected at every turn--you never know what ridiculous and amusing thing you’re going to stumble upon next, only that it will unerringly be accompanied by at least a half dozen witty offerings of wordplay and fun references.

Best Romance of 2019
Just as a heads-up: Fire Emblem: Three Houses has, as one might expect, a TON of romance possibilities. Like, hundreds, I’d estimate. And while I have seen many, my experience with them is, ultimately, a fraction of the sum total. This is something I’m working on rectifying! But it is slow going. So, that being the case, this category will, for now, eschew all of FE16’s romances, until I have a chance to know them all. Maybe I’ll do a little retrospective bit in next year’s Annual Summary for them. Or I might not. Either way, you’ll get some of my thoughts on them (if that’s of particular importance to you) in a rant at some point in which I list the best and worst of them, as I did with FE14. As of now, though, I simply don’t know what the game’s best offerings are.

...Although it’s hard for me to imagine they’ll get better than the Dorothea x Manuela one. Those two have got a fantastic chemistry and connection, and their A Support scene is just romantically lovely. They’d almost surely have been in the winners’ circle. In fact, assuming there isn’t a better couple in FE16, Dorothea x Manuela probably would have actually won this year; a lot of what I love about the winning relationship of 2019, the growth to accept and love a flawed and even damaged person for who they are in entirety, can be seen in Dorothea’s feelings for Manuela, after all.

But anyway, let’s get back on track. The best romance of 2019!

Winner: Protagonist x Spittoon (West of Loathing)
No cruel taboo, no venomous condemnation from the ignorant, not even God’s own gag reflex can stand against true love.

...But for all you tasteless normies who can’t handle the intensity of real, irrepressible passion, here’s an alternative:

Actual Winner: Octavia x Protagonist x Regongar (Pathfinder: Kingmaker)
I think that it’s very cool that Pathfinder: Kingmaker’s writers included an option (multiple options, if you get the Wildcards DLC) to pursue a polyamorous relationship in the game, and that they not only didn’t treat it with any disdain or like it was a less legitimate relationship than the others in the game, but went out of their way to carefully design its course to be a natural and compelling development of all three characters involved. Not only is the romance that the Queen/King pursues with both Octavia and Regongar pretty solid on both sides of the relationship, but Pathfinder: Kingmaker manages to make it feel like an authentic case of three people finding one another to be mutual soulmates--Octavia and Regongar’s relationship can function without the protagonist’s presence (thankfully, since there are other romantic options and it wouldn’t be fair to hold these characters’ happiness hostage), but it’s only once the Queen/King gets involved, develops feelings for each of them, that both Octavia and Regongar come to terms with certain aspects of their own relationship by seeing it through the eyes of another who equally loves them. I’m reminded of Aika, Fina, and Vyse from Skies of Arcadia, in that any combination of 2 of them would work very well as a romantic couple, but none of them feel like they’re truly complete in love without both the others. Except whereas SoA’s trio just sort of naturally and almost surely accidentally developed that way and thus the game doesn’t ever overtly confirm (or even recognize) this, Pathfinder: Kingmaker has knowingly created such a situation. And it’s done it quite well!**

Runners-Up: Alto x Hilda (Stella Glow); Alto x Lisette (Stella Glow); Nyrissa x Protagonist (Pathfinder: Kingmaker)
I’m not exactly Hilda’s biggest fan. Still, as much of a moron as she is in the game’s first half (and the centuries leading up to that point), she’s a pretty decent character in the latter portion of Stella Glow, and her bond with Alto feels genuine and warm. Lisette’s romance with Alto is also decent, and has the benefit of getting a little extra time onscreen by showing up in the main story itself.

In regards to Nyrissa and PK’s protagonist, I actually really wanted to put them in the winning spot. I personally view this as the “true” love story for the Queen/King, and it’s sort of treated as such by the game itself, in certain ways--particularly in the sense that Nyrissa falling in love with the main character of the game ties very strongly and organically into the story of her redemption. And the game really doesn’t feel right or complete, to me at least, without said story of forgiveness and amends. It’s touching, and satisfying on a deep level, for achieving Nyrissa’s affection feels like a true achievement for love, both for the story of it, and for just how hard it is to make it happen--I don’t think anyone could seriously argue that Nyrissa isn’t the most difficult romance to pursue in an RPG to date!*** But, I do try to be as objective as I can manage about this stuff, and I have to accept the fact that while Nyrissa x Protagonist appeals deeply to me on a thematic level and feels like a story of love in the classic sense, the romance between Octavia, Regongar, and the Protagonist nonetheless has more development, a more demonstrable connection between the three of them, and develops its participants both as people and as romantic partners farther and in a more compelling capacity, so I give that one the win.

But personally, I’m still Nyrissa x Queen all the way.

Best Voice Acting of 2019
Winner: Tales of Berseria
Everyone does a great job, everyone fits their role well, most of the voice talents bring their characters to life quite well, and, of course, Christina Valenzuela, who’s got some noteworthy range as an actress,**** brings Velvet Crowe to brutal life with a performance that does the fantastic main character of the game proud. Last year, I played the old Tales of Eternia, and I mocked its terrible voice acting, so characteristic for its time. How far the series has come since those early days!

Runners-Up: Fire Emblem 16; Pathfinder: Kingmaker; South Park: The Fractured But Whole
Same exact thing as last year--the South Park RPG is a natural extension of the show it’s based on, and the full strength of a cast of actors who’ve had as many as 23 seasons to get at home with their roles is on display in this title. FE16 is a solid venture, acting-wise, with a few highs (Dorothea’s voice actress brings a level of emotional depth and soul into the character that’s a rare privilege to experience, and full credit to Bernadetta’s vocal talent for managing to keep up with a character who is basically the human personification of anxiety), a few lows (Whether it’s “Noble Prince” or “Edgiest Drama Queen Ever”, Dimitri’s overselling it, and I fully believe that all directions given to Edelgard’s actress incorporated some combination of the following words: robot, repressed, wooden, mannequin, vacant, lifeless, recently deceased, stick up your ass, text-to-speech), and otherwise, a bunch of voice actors who fit the roles and tow the line to make their character work. Finally, while Pathfinder: Kingmaker has some noticeable rough patches in its performance--Amiri’s acting reminds me of Xenosaga 3, in that her actress fits the character just fine but seems not to have been given any context of the lines she’s delivering, for example--it’s overall fine and its vocal talents give the game a valuable personality.

Funniest of 2019
Winner: West of Loathing
It’s goddamn hilarious. That’s all there is to it. Well, there’s more, but my next rant actually mentions this, so you can get the details come next year. But it will still boil down to the “goddamn hilarious” thing. If you need a good, funny pick-me-up, you need to check West of Loathing out.

Runner-Up: South Park: The Fractured But Whole
I may only have played 2 especially funny RPGs this year, but as those were Loathing and South Park, I’d say I had a damn full and rewarding experience in 2019, mirth-wise. Just as WoL was everything Kingdom of Loathing would prepare you for, SPTFBW was everything you’d hope for from an extension of the cartoon.

Best Villain of 2019
Winner: Artorius (Tales of Berseria)
As the collected, composed mastermind of humanity’s salvation, and shouldering all the horrifying burdens that such a position necessitates, Artorius would be an adequate antagonist to mirror the vicious, vengeful Velvet Crowe even as a complete stranger, but his connection to her, the history of how he came to embrace his responsibility, and the truth within his heart all make him a villain of the truly superior quality necessary to properly rival Velvet in presence, and bring the game’s purpose and thematic question to life. Great villains are unfortunately a rarity in the RPG genre, and Artorius is of a quality uncommon even in that rarity.

Runners-Up: Innominat (Tales of Berseria); The Lantern King (Pathfinder: Kingmaker); Nyrissa (Pathfinder: Kingmaker)
The Lantern King is very much reminiscent of previous tabletop RPGs’ grand, villainous masterminds who play games on a divine level, such as Myrkul from Neverwinter Nights 2’s Mask of the Betrayer DLC. He fills the role quite well, too, a prankster god of tricks and curses, sowing chaos and despair among mortals on both a personal and a wide scale as they’re caught up in his unfathomable godly whims. PK also provides a solid villain in Nyrissa, a being of unrelenting and callous cruelty matched only, perhaps, by the tragedy of why she perpetrates such terrible acts, and how she can manage to bring herself to do so. Finally, Innominat is, in his own right, an adequately villainous little jerk who stands alongside Artorius quite well, but what really makes him noteworthy is who and what he is to the protagonist, the dimensions of betrayal and tragedy that the truth of his existence adds to her story and the shift it creates in the dynamic of her enmity to Artorius. It’s intense, classic stuff.

Best Character of 2019
Winner: Velvet (Tales of Berseria)
Velvet Crowe is a truly awesome character. She’s the living embodiment of her story’s concept, she’s developed extremely well and at a pace exactly fast enough to be engaging but unhurried enough to let you fully feel each step, and she has a powerful presence as a protagonist that grips the player and draws them into her psyche. As her audience, we feel her rage and sorrow, we feel hope when she rises, we hurt for her each time she falls. A complex mix of hatred, love, ideals, and nurturer, all held together by a dominating will to pay her suffering back to he who took everything she loved, Velvect Crowe is a compelling woman whose worst nature makes her not only the villain of her time, but also the only one who can be its hero.

Runners-Up: Dorothea (Fire Emblem 16); Eleanor (Tales of Berseria); Laphicet (Tales of Berseria)
Laphicet’s growth from an emotionless automaton into a unique, personality-rich human is an excellently crafted journey whose every milestone is visible and realistically follows and leads to the other events on his route. If I were to measure quality of character solely by the breadth of distance between its beginning and ending points, he would likely have been the winner this year. Quite often, a game with as powerfully full and entrancing a protagonist as Velvet clearly takes the lion’s share of writing talent, with the rest of the cast struggling to keep pace (such as Wild Arms 3, whose supporting cast, though solid and well-written, is clearly nothing compared to its excellent protagonist Virginia), but with Tales of Berseria, that’s just not the case--Laphicet is an amazing character, and, for that matter, so is Eleanor another individual with an appealing personality that is substantially and well molded by her companions and the game’s events. And let there be no mistake, it ain’t just Velvet, Eleanor, and Laphicet--if it weren’t for FE16’s Dorothea, this year’s Best Characters would have been entirely populated by ToB cast members.

But credit where it’s due, Dorothea is a truly noteworthy character. I must admit that my personal favorite of the cast is Bernadetta, but objectively, Dorothea’s the best FE16’s got by a wide margin. And it’s largely by simple virtue of her basic, terrific personality, not even so much about her character’s personal growth! A woman with such an admirably large and inviting heart, Dorothea is both endearingly outgoing and affectionate toward those around her, and heartrendingly melancholic and mournful in response to the terrible conflict she forces herself to take part in for the greater good. That latter quality really sets her above the majority of the game’s cast, who only occasionally express regret at the war they’re engaged in, and then only off the battlefield, while Dorothea is sorrowful at the death and pain around her out and in combat. In a game filled with anime waifus and husbandos of limited personal depth, Dorothea stands out as a really human character.

Best RPG of 2019
Winner: Tales of Berseria
Oh wow yeah big surprise, the game that’s been mentioned in nearly every positive category in this rant is the best game I played this year. Look, if all I’ve said to this point doesn’t give you a fairly good idea of why this game is amazing, then I don’t know what will. Berseria is the game that the Tales of series has been leading up to for 20 years, a finally-arrived justification for the franchise’s existence. All the time I halfheartedly fritted away on Phantasia, Destiny 1, Eternia, and Symphonia, and sort of Zestiria because even if Alisha was good and Rose was awesome let’s face it they can’t carry an otherwise dull pile of cliches, seems now to have been worth it, for it led me to this point. Thank you, Namco-Bandai, for this fantastic experience.

Runners-Up: Fire Emblem 16; Pathfinder: Kingmaker; West of Loathing
I’ll be honest, I’m kind of annoyed that FE16 is here, because while it’s good, it’s not THAT good. But the problem with playing a lot fewer RPGs this year than usual is that there’s a lot smaller of a pool to draw from, and while I certainly liked The Banner Saga 1 + 2 and South Park: The Fractured But Whole, as well as a few others, they’re also just good games, nothing more, and FE16 happens to be, I guess, a little more good than they are, while still not coming close to being really good. So yeah. FE16’s good, you won’t dislike playing it, but don’t mistake its place here as tremendous praise, either. FE14 and FE4 are still better installments in the franchise, in my opinion.

Now, PK and WoL, they do deserve to be here, no mistake. PK is great for a whole gaggle of reasons, and I heartily encourage you to play it if you have any love whatsoever for the classics of western RPGs. And West of Loathing...I mean, it’s just so damn fun and funny, it kind of has to get a spot here. If you’re just in a mood where you need to have a good, silly time, where you want to laugh at something funny for funny’s sake, this is the RPG to play.

List Changes:
Greatest Heroes: Velvet (Tales of Berseria) has been added as Honorable Mention; Marche (Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 1) has been removed. Sorry, you pariah and proponent of pushing past pretenses.
Greatest Deaths: Actually, I haven’t made a change to this one, but I’m considering it, and would actually like some input on it. For any readers who are ALREADY FAMILIAR WITH TALES OF BERSERIA, so basically DON’T READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU’RE NOT BECAUSE SPOILER WARNING FOR TALES OF BERSERIA: Do you think that Velvet would qualify for this list? Because, I mean, she doesn’t actually die, per say. On the 1 hand, it’s a similar scenario to death, and there’s some precedent, since I count Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3’s Minato on the list. On the other hand, even Minato’s “death” sort of has more similarity to the actual thing, because his consciousness appears, for all intents and purposes, to be subdued. Velvet, on the other hand, shares an unending dream with her brother of the kind of life they would have loved to have had if fate had been kinder. It’s as sad as any given death scene (sadder than most, really), but an eternal sleep isn’t quite death when you spend it dreaming an entire new life, and with someone else. I dunno. What’re your thoughts?
Greatest RPGs: Tales of Berseria has been added; Final Fantasy 10 has been removed. Sorry, you stirring story of sweet sentiments and selfless sacrifice.

And that’s that for 2019! Already I look forward to 2020, the year in which both The Outer Worlds and Cyberpunk 2077 will release, each of which I’m eagerly looking forward to. I’m also planning to conclude the Banner Saga, which has caught my interest, play some great Indie titles (1 of the ones I Kickstarted has just recently released, and promises to be a hoot!), and hit up some older RPGs (I plan to finally play 1 of the titles recommended to me by a loyal and very patient reader). And who knows what else the year shall bring? Besides more shockingly poor behavior from the AAA gaming publishers, I mean, because that burning barrel of trash obviously hasn’t reached the bottom of the mountain it’s rolling down yet.

Whatever comes in 2020, I’ll be able to face it and rant about it with the enjoyable comfort of knowing there’s a handful of folks who read what I’ve got to say, and some great individuals at my side. Thanks to my readers, thanks to Humza for his faithful and flattering support, and thanks to Angel Adonis, Ecclesiastes, and my sister for the time and effort they freely spare on my behalf to help these rants not completely suck. See y’all next year!

* Yeah, I was rewatching the cutscenes for Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch recently, and certain phrases do stick with you, heh. Man, I wish there’d been a sequel.

** I will say, however, that I have 1 peripheral issue with this situation. I accept that should you choose to romance only Octavia or only Regongar, rather than both, the romance is fine, but feels slightly incomplete--it should, as that incompleteness makes the perfect fit of the polyamory scenario valid. But I do not like the fact that romancing only 1 of them results, eventually, in a tragic death for the other. I’m pretty sure I’ll be doing a rant on this later on, so I’ll save the bulk of my complaint for that, but suffice to say that it’s 1 thing to withhold something to maintain the character’s depth and personality correctly, and it’s another thing to so completely needlessly punish the player for no reason!

*** Bugs and glitches notwithstanding, of course; Knights of the Old Republic 1’s Juhani is, if you want to get technical, probably more difficult to win the love of, but that’s due to bad coding making it extremely likely that 1 of the required conversations to romance her is prevented from being available to the player.

**** I was actually playing Stella Glow at the same time as I was playing Tales of Berseria, and I was agog when I IMDB’d the singular Velvet Crowe and found out her voice actress was also responsible for the squeaky-voiced, wailing doofus Nonoka in SG.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

General RPGs' Disproportionate Musical Quality

When it comes to RPGs, I have a lot of complaints. You may have noticed this. Whether it’s the faults of individual games,* game series,** recurring gameplay trends,*** developers,**** and even just the genre as a whole,***** I’m always down to dress down RPGs for their downsides. Role Playing Games are my favorites and I believe they’re the best type of video game as an expression of the medium’s capacity to be art, but they’re a far cry from perfect, that’s for damn sure.

But there’s 1 arena in which I have always been, and continue to be, frankly amazed by RPGs’ consistent quality: their soundtracks.

By and large, soundtracks are a shining cause for pride for the genre. Sure, not every RPG has a standout score from start to finish, but the worst they ever seem to get is to just be vague and forgettable background noise, which, considering how obnoxiously terrible most “real” music tends to be, is a pretty damn minor sin--I can only really think of a single RPG off the top of my head that was just outright bad with its music all around, and, well, Phantasy Star 3 is kind of its own category for obnoxiously poor quality in all regards, so I’m not sure you can even count it. And hell, a lot of the more generic, uninteresting soundtracks will have at least 1 song that stands out and really gets you into the moment--even Kemco games have something like a 50-50 chance of sneaking at least 1 quality tune into their lineup, and that’s Kemco, a company that I suspect may be entirely staffed by coma patients and certain species of jellyfish.

You’re just remarkably safe when it comes to RPG music, even in situations where you wouldn’t expect to be. Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is somewhat famous for being “the bad Final Fantasy” (as though FF5, 8, 10-2, 12, 12: Revenant Wings, and every spinoff of FF7 don’t exist), but it has got a kickin’ soundtrack, mixing it up between rocking battle and dungeon themes, and outgoing and soothing music for many of its calmer settings. Chrono Cross is the RPG that perhaps best embodies the term “hot mess,” but its music is simply lovely. Legend of Dragoon is generally a subpar title, but a few of its songs are among my most favorite in the entire genre. Xenosaga 3 is an incomprehensible shit-show, but it’s got some hauntingly beautiful music for several of its settings.

Even in cases where no particular songs really stand out to you, RPG soundtracks at the very least seem to generally be very well-suited for the telling of their story and the creation of their atmosphere. I can’t say, for example, that any song in West of Loathing really grabbed me, but as a whole, WoL’s soundtrack is damned effective at selling its setting and style of a lighthearted, exciting Old West adventure.

There’s even been a couple RPGs in which the “soundtrack” has mostly been just background noises, which you can’t really even call a soundtrack at all...and yet, that was so perfectly suited for the games (Fallout 1 and 2, specifically), that 1 of my earliest rants was dedicated to talking about how great a design decision it was.

I dunno what it is about the genre, but RPGs have a remarkable track record with their music. They’re dependable for accomplishing what they need to for setting the atmosphere and mood of the game, and bad games and bad developers are unexpectedly capable of delivering some quality music quite frequently. Even when the rest of a game’s team should cast their eyes down in shame for what they’ve wrought, the composers of this genre have cause for satisfaction and pride.

* Can you imagine the idyllic paradise the world would be if Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 had NOT had Teddy in it?

** Dear Star Ocean: If you make being a sci-fi game a selling point, then actually be science fiction.

*** God I hate Weapon Degradation so fucking much.

**** Could we please just euthanize Bioware at this point?

***** Why are legitimately good romances and solid villains so damn uncommon in RPGs?

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Fire Emblem 16's Byleth is a Moron

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Here's a rant that has absolutely nothing to do with the holiday because Palutena forbid I actually make an effort to maintain any chronological relevance whatsoever.

Note: I’ll be referring to Byleth as a female for this rant. While I usually (admittedly not always) try to acknowledge player gender choice in protagonists for whom the option is present, there are a few games whose protagonist’s gender aligns better in terms of theme, character development opportunities, or even just surface reasons like vocal talent with 1 of the gender options than the other. Like Male Shepard in Mass Effect, or Nora in Fallout 4. Given the connection Byleth has to Sothis and just her origins overall, I think it’s fair to say that Byleth’s being a woman is more logically consistent to the overall particulars of Fire Emblem 16’s story. That’s simply how I perceive the game, and it’s easier for me (not to mention a lot more fluent for my overall prose) to just go with Byleth as a woman while ranting. Hope it won’t be too big a stumbling block for y’all.

Superman is a goddamn moron.

Look, I don’t read the comics. So maybe this issue isn’t a problem in the source material. But in cartoons and movies and cartoon movies? Superman may as well not even fucking HAVE heat vision, because the only damn time he ever remembers to use it is when it’s narratively convenient for him to. The guy has the ability to spit lasers from his fucking eyes, beams of pure nuclear heat almost twice the temperature of the core of the sun (seriously, that's what the Wiki says), and yet, somehow, even though this asshole can unleash unfathomable cosmic devastation with surgical precision by doing no more than moving his goddamn eyes...this Kryptonian stooge’s go-to strategy in every fight is invariably to get in close and punch something. Every time he decides to instantaneously launch the fire of God from his peepers, it’s for some non-combat support role, like welding steel beams together to keep a structure stable, or performing laser surgery, or just shaving himself. All helpful purposes for it, of course, but he doesn’t have to choose between using his gift of reverse laser eye surgery to be the celebrity chef at a boy scout wiener roast or to melt offending enemy limbs. He should be able to do both! If he ever manages to remember that he is the living personification of the expression “If looks could kill”, it’s only against specific enemies who are so impossibly strong that heat vision can’t beat them, or some stupid robot grunts that are so weak anyways that fucking Chief O’Hara, the most useless human being ever to darken DC’s or any other superhero continuity, could probably have taken them out. At least half of all the battles or other dire situations I’ve seen Superman engaged in could have been either outright won, or at the very least substantially improved, by the application of heat vision.

Remember that episode from The Animated Series where Superman’s fighting Metallo, and he’s trying to find ways to stay further away from the villain so as to stay out of Kryptonite range, like smacking him with telephones poles and stuff? Remember how at no fucking point does Superman think to maintain his combat distance by using his built in long-range super power? And remember how the kryptonite hookup in Metallo is so weak and flimsy that in a much later episode of a show in the same continuity, a power-drained Supergirl was able to cut the wires holding the kryptonite there in Metallo’s chest, not even with her own heat vision, but an honest-to-Highfather medieval knife?

Jesus Fucking Christ.

So yes. Superman is a pea-brained moron for consistently forgetting that he has a literal death-stare. I’ve always been so frustrated by how lazy and unimaginative his writers are with his powers, only bothering to fully utilize them when it’s either completely narratively convenient, or when they’ll have no effect on the situation anyway.

And now that you know how annoyed I am by Superman constantly forgetting about the superpower of heat vision for the sake of lazy can imagine my feelings on Fire Emblem 16’s Byleth and her refusal to ever use her control over time itself.

This woman has the ability to turn the hands of time back several minutes at will, multiple times in a row if she needs to. That is unequivocally 1 of the most overpowered abilities yet conceived in fiction! In some stories, a device that can allow this even just once is the most sought-after treasure in existence--Galaxy Quest very justly made ownership of a simple 13-second time-reverse plot thingy, the Omega 13, the center of its plot’s conflict. And Byleth’s version of this can go waaaaayyyyy farther back than a mere 13 seconds! This idiot has the ability to Groundhog Day herself with a single thought, several times if need be...and she SQUANDERS it!

Okay, yes, the Divine Pulse, as it’s called, is available to the player in any battle to use at any time, allowing the player to jump back any number of turns to undo a bad decision. And I’d wager it gets plenty of action in just about everyone’s playthrough of the game, regardless of difficulty setting. Sothis knows I did, although I’m certainly no Fire Emblem master.

But gameplay mechanics and in-battle actions are 1 thing, and the plot’s narrative is another thing altogether! And in terms of the latter, Byleth is just as much an incompetent goon with her abilities as Superman at his absolute worst. When she walks into a trap set by some pissy old warlock who appears to have Grade 8 brain tumors inflating his cranium, does Byleth use any of the several moments the guy spends springing his magical trap to reverse time 30 seconds and then not step into the giant magical roach motel? Nope, she just lets herself get sucked into a nether realm, the escape from which leads to the sacrifice of her mental roommate.

When Byleth is knocked into a giant chasm in the midst of battle, does her survival instinct kick in during this moment of the most primal, universal mortal fear possible and cause her to rewind reality back to a time where she was still terrestrial? Nope, she just lets herself fall into a pit that’ll damage her so badly that it’ll take 5 years of heal-napping and a plothole nearly as big as the chasm itself to get her back on her feet. An entire war might have been cut off before it could begin had Byleth just bothered to hit the ZL button.

When the enemy masterminds of the game’s conflicts stand before Byleth and then teleport away after delivering their necessary exposition, does Byleth ever consider that she could go back in time a few minutes, ask 1 of her archer pals to go stand behind a nearby tree, and take a shot while the bad guy’s busy yammering about lofty yet ill-advised social revolutions and whatnot? Nope, she just stands there as still and lifeless as a damn mannequin until the Flame Emperor has said his inevitably stupid piece and vanishes off to continue completely incorrectly prioritizing the order of which foes he’s taking on.

When an enemy decides to pull the old “Sore Loser (Who Possesses Nuclear Missiles)” card, does Byleth think to spin time back a minute or 2, so she can make even the slightest attempt to prevent said bad guy from completing his Orbital Bombardment summoning circle? Nope, she just sits back and lets the freshly-emancipated-from-years-of-torture Rhea step forward to block those missiles with her own body. Byleth may very well be angling to slip an S Rank ring on Rhea’s finger, but apparently the power of True Love stops just a hair short of being able to remind someone that they can rewrite time itself so the hottie they’re crushing on doesn’t have to take a ballistic missile to the face.

Byleth is even stupid the 1 single time she DOES think to actually use this damn superpower in a cutscene! When Monica stabs Jeralt in the back, Byleth does, miracle of miracles (literally), actually use the Divine Pulse and try to stop the tragedy from occurring. Unfortunately, her attack is blocked, and Monica kills Jeralt anyway. The scene which follows is very sad, and a nice way to show Byleth’s emotional development,* and probably the most poignant moment in the game.

But it’s also really, really dumb. Because Byleth isn’t limited to just 1 single use of the Divine Pulse at a time. Even if she hasn’t lifted a finger to develop her capacity to use it up to that point, she still has 3 charges of it by default! The emotional power of Byleth’s first tears being shed as she holds her dying father within her arms is undercut a bit when you remember that if she actually cared about the guy living, she still has at least 2 more shots at saving him!**

I guess that’s another connection we can draw between Byleth and the stupidest moments ever conceived in the history of Superman--a willingness to just sit around and watch as ol’ Pops dies a highly preventable death.

Honestly, why did Nintendo even bother giving Byleth the Divine Pulse ability? It doesn’t do anything for the story! The only plot-centric purpose this ability ever serves is the fact that its introduction is also the introduction of Sothis, when Sothis stops time during the prologue so that Byleth won’t be killed by a bandit. And that’s something that could easily have been accomplished without anything so complicated and grand as the ability to rewind time! Nintendo’s attempt to hit every box on the Waifu Checklist at once could just as easily have been introduced by having her notice out of the corner of Byleth’s eye the incoming bandit attack, and warn Byleth of it so that the latter can defend herself. This would have been just as adequate for setting up Sothis’s mysterious presence in Byleth’s mind, and Sothis’s divine power is established effectively later on with the whole nether-realm trap event anyway, so nothing significant is lost with the absence of the Divine Pulse.

And sure, it’s a helpful and very welcome gameplay mechanic...but honestly, it could have just remained that alone, a gameplay mechanic. Had the ability to go back to a previous turn in order to correct a mistake been nothing more than a new feature in FE16's combat, totally unrelated to the actual plot, no one would have questioned it.

If your character is going to have a superhuman ability, then for Sothis’s sake, actually commit to them having it. Don’t just have them forget it exists until it’s convenient for you! Either make the effort to work your plot’s requirements around their full potential, or move on to a project more appropriate to your lazy limitations as a writer. This shit gets tiresome after a while.

* A welcome rarity, that. FE16 falls over itself to tell you, over and over again, how much Byleth has developed her humanity over the course of the game’s events, but I’ll be damned if we get to actually SEE that development very often.

** You might argue that she clearly can’t save Jeralt if that bad guy is gonna show up and block her attacks against Monica, sure, but the Divine Pulse can reverse literal dozens of turns in battle--it would be easy for Byleth to simply travel far enough back that she could be at Jeralt’s side and ready long before Monica was on the scene. Hell, she could probably go back to the middle of the battle preceding this moment, and, in the chaos of the fight, attack Monica then, with Byleth’s allies by her side. Even if you want to posit that the Divine Pulse is narratively more limited in its scope than the gameplay suggests, Byleth could at the very least go back again and shout a warning to Jeralt. The guy is 1 of the greatest warriors in Fodlan; he’d surely be able to dodge Monica’s attack if he had any warning that it was coming.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Pathfinder: Kingmaker's Downloadable Content

Blah blah blah unnecessary intro, you all know what this is without me going on about it. Let’s just get to it.

The Wildcards: This DLC adds 2 new party members to the game (or 1, depending on how you look at it), Kanerah and Kalikke, a pair of sisters under the curse of a very unique and specific contract with 1 of the game’s deities, and a small set of character quests for them. Quality-wise, it’s a solid DLC. Kalikke and Kanerah are both good characters who interact well with the game’s events when they’re in your party, and their shared character arc through their personal quests is built on an interesting and creative idea, and makes for a decent story. Much like previous successful DLC characters like Mass Effect 2’s Zaeed and Dragon Age 1’s Shale, Kalikke and Kanerah skillfully tread a fine line between inclusion and separation--they’re a natural fit to the game and the party and never feel like an outside and unnecessary influence on the game’s story and cast, but at the same time, they’re kept just separate enough from the story and characters that the game couldn’t be said to be in any way incomplete without them (which is important for add-on characters; you may recall my anger with how important Sebastian was to Dragon Age 2’s core plot). The potential romance you can have with them is rewarding and genuine, and the side-characters that come along with them (the Sweet Teeth) are charmingly amusing, a welcome addition of minor humor in a game that otherwise has to lean quite heavily on Nok-Nok and the rest of his race for most of its comic interludes. I will say that I feel like Kalikke and Kanerah’s reconciliation towards the end of the game (if you’ve made the right decisions during their character quests) does seem a little spontaneous, but it’s not bad or anything, just something that could have been more developed.

On the other hand, more practically-speaking, this DLC has its flaws. It’s sold at $8, which isn’t exorbitant, but at the same time, you’re definitely not going to get 8 hours out of their specific character quests and dialogue. And no matter how well-separated they are, I can’t help but be more and more leery as time goes on of the ethics of any DLC that isn’t distinctly additional side-content to the main game. Still...the content is worthwhile, and Owlcat Games has clearly striven to implement The Wildcards in a morally acceptable manner, so while the price keeps this from being a must-buy with or without a sale, I’ll give my endorsement to it and say that it is, indeed, worth the purchase.

Varnhold’s Lot: Varnhold’s Lot is a self-contained side-adventure which details the events in the barony of Varnhold during Chapter 3 of the main game, and sets the stage for the main story’s fourth chapter (which takes place in Varnhold). It also subsequently adds a very small dungeon in the main game’s campaign, and a minor event during Pathfinder: Kingmaker’s finale.

There’s just a lot of issues with this add-on that interfere with its value. For starters, it’s $12, and you’re not likely to get even half a dozen hours’ worth of content from it, all told. And sure, I guess I have to admit that the dollar is worth less and less with each passing year, but I think we’re still several years away from an exchange rate of 1 hour of game time per $1 spent on a DLC being an unfair expectation.

That said, DLCs are like guys in bed: it really doesn’t matter if what they’ve got comes up a little short, as long as they’ve got the skill to do something great with it. Even if Varnhold’s Lot doesn’t have as much content as its price tag is, in my opinion, obliged to provide, all is forgiven if what it does have is of sufficient quality. But unfortunately, and also like guys in bed, DLCs are usually disappointing, and Varnhold’s Lot stays true to type on this matter. The plot of this adventure isn’t particularly compelling, and whatever your level of knowledge is with the main game, it works against VL’s favor: either you’re playing it before you get to Varnhold in the main quest, in which case the slow and at times aimless pace of this package makes it feel unimportant by comparison to the crazy shit going down in the main quest, or you play it once you’re familiar with Varnhold’s fate in the main quest, and what little suspense could have been had is lost. Or, I suppose, you play this DLC before you even start the main game, and its rushed introduction and setup fails to invest you in its events.

Likewise, the cast of this add-on is wholly unremarkable. Maegar Varn is a likable enough minor NPC in the main campaign, but he sure as hell has neither the personality nor the depth to carry his major role in this side venture, and the most that the rest of the characters and villains here can aspire to is There Because The Plot Needs Them. It’s also harder to feel a connection to the protagonist you create here, because you’ve got a much stronger connection to the protagonist you’ve made for the main campaign, the latter being a character you’ve had more time and far more choices in action and dialogue to form a personality out of.

Honestly, though, I think the real problem with Varnhold’s Lot is this: no one was asking for it. The summary of the events that led to Varnhold’s part of Pathfinder: Kingmaker’s story was adequate already, and it didn’t have the narrative pull and curiosity that other, successful explanatory side-story DLCs have had. Remember Dragon Age 1? During the course of DA1, you learn certain details of your companion Leliana’s dramatic past as a lover and protege of a master spy, whose subsequent betrayal once Leliana found out a little too much set into motion the events that led Leliana to join the church and cross paths with DA1’s protagonist. It’s a tale of the intrigues of espionage, mixed with a dangerous and unequal love, culminating in bloody betrayal that completely reshaped a woman’s beliefs and views of the world, defined the life that she was to live! Even if her summary of it in the main quest is adequate enough, that’s the kind of history that’s worthy of a more in-depth look; there’s good reason for Bioware to have created Leliana’s Song, the DLC that allowed us to watch her sordid backstory play out directly. By contrast, the Vanishing of Varnhold was merely a happening that unfolded as yet another kingdom-breaking event in a game filled by design with such scenarios, anchored by Maegar Varn, a minor character whose dramatic weight shakes out to no more than a neighbor you like well enough to greet with genuine cheer in passing, and the details of how the matter went down had been more than adequately explained by Vordekai and Varn in the main game. This DLC answers a question that players simply had no real reason to ponder in the first place.

And also, it really has to be said that even if there actually are players who really did want to see the Vanishing of Varnhold firsthand, this add-on still doesn’t satisfy. Varnhold’s Lot straight-out doesn’t do what it tells you it’s going to. While VL implies that you’re going to be seeing just how Vordekai’s return to power went down, almost the entirety of this package is devoted to the protagonist dealing with some semi-related side adventures, which culminate in a large dungeon at the end that turns out to be a red herring! Your protagonist winds up fooling around with the wrong villain in the wrong lair, so the only experience with Varnhold’s Vanishing, the event this DLC specifically exists to elaborate upon, comes from others mentioning it, because you aren’t there for it. Well what the hell is the difference between that, and just having had its events summarized to you in the main campaign?!

Varnhold’s Lot simply has nothing notable about it, there was no calling for it to exist, and it fails to fulfill even its superfluous purpose. Forget even getting it on sale; just give it a pass.

There’s a third DLC for Pathfinder: Kingmaker, but it’s basically an extended dungeon crawl with no plot, and I only cover add-ons with some form of story content, so I’m not gonna bother with it. So we’re done, since Owlcat has only indicated an intention to create these add-ons...although, I dunno, the way PK’s menu and add-on content integration is set up, it feels an awful lot like games such as Neverwinter Nights and Shadowrun, which have the kind of accessible architecture that’s designed for incorporating many additional content packs. That may just be an intention to allow for user-generated campaigns (which would be welcome), but I have a sneaking suspicion that Owlcat Games will be returning to this game with more content, after all.

At any rate, to judge it by what’s here...meh, I guess PK is alright, add-on-wise. I like The Wildcards enough to give it a solid thumbs-up, and for all Varnhold’s Lot’s problems, it at least feels like the writers just made several decisions that they didn’t really think through with it, not that they weren’t trying to make something decent. I’m disappointed that such a strong RPG as Pathfinder: Kingmaker wouldn’t have a likewise strong showing for its DLCs, but at the same time, I guess one has to allow it at least a little respect, for the simple fact that just being “alright” overall seems to be an accomplishment when it comes to RPG add-ons.

But I still miss The Witcher 3’s add-ons.

Friday, November 8, 2019

General RPG Lists: Most Inaccurate Titles

As a genre, RPGs have quite a few traits more signature to them than any other gaming type. Sometimes these are good, such as RPGs’ strong focus on storytelling and compelling character development. Others are a bit more quirky such as frequent highly strange casts, and an inordinate fondness for certain annoying, lazy storytelling tropes. Of the latter, quirkier characteristics is the way that RPG titles tend to be weird, nonsensical gibberish.

It came to me the other day when I was browsing the catalogue of Good Old Games, seeing what I could find on sale, and I realized that I could tell far more often than not whether a game was an RPG just by its title alone, without having to even look at its title art, let alone its actual store page. This genre just absolutely loves its fanciful buzzwords that make a game sound much cooler than it actually is (you can’t tell me SquareEnix picked the title “Revenant Wings” in earnest for its rinky-dink little handheld FF12 sequel), its lazy use of an important character’s uncommon and interesting-sounding name as a title (such as Lufia, Arc the Lad, and Alundra), and its use of “The Legend of” as a title opener (The Legend of Dragoon, The Legend of Grimrock, The Legend of Legaia...there are so many goddamn Legend games!). Or they combine a couple of these tropes, such as with Eternal Senia. Hell, sometimes it gets so bad that an RPG will throw fanciful buzzwords, uncommon names, and Legend titles all together into a single entity (The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword)!

There’s also that tendency to just add -ia to the end of any given semi-interesting word, and call it a day, like Grandia...or add -ia to the end of something that isn’t already a word, and still call it a day (what the hell is a Zenonia, Alphadia, or a Mana Khemia?). Namco is very fond of doing this, both ways, in its Tales of series.

And then there are the RPG titles that are just too fucking stupid to belong to any other genre. What besides an RPG would want to name itself something so absurdly redundant as Divine Divinity? Or Tales of Legendia? You do realize, Namco, that you basically just named the game “stories of stories”? For that matter, who but SquareEnix would decide to be so edgy-quirky that they feel the need to name installments of their franchise with math equations and decimal fractions, as is the case with Kingdom Hearts?

And let’s not forget how long these stupid titles can get. If it means using a name to boost sales, no amount of franchise, sub-franchise, and sub-sub-franchise naming is too much! What other genre, may I ask, regularly sports titles as long as Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha Vs. The Soulless Army (that title is longer than some fanfics I’ve read), or has multiple installments of a game series that is already a numbered installment of a series, like Legend of Heroes 6 and Shin Megami Tensei 4 each having 2 games in their scope?

Still, beyond meaningless fancy vocabulary, inventing meaningless fancy vocabulary by abusing suffixes, a frankly bewildering taxonomy, more Legends than you can find in an actual book of fairy tales, outright stupidity, and a lack of creativity so profound that they just consult a list of the Most Popular Baby Names of the 1700s to come up with a title, there is 1 naming convention for RPGs that stands out as especially weird to me: the fact that they so often have absolutely nothing to do with their game. I mean, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised when so many RPG titles seem to be created by some asshole in Marketing cracking open a dictionary and picking the first unusual word he sees on the page, but there are a LOT of RPGs out there whose names are completely inaccurate for them! Not just in the “this title doesn’t actually mean anything” way, like Grinsia or Stella Glow, but in the “This title is an outright lie” sense.

So today, I’m gonna make a list of the most inaccurately titled RPGs I know of. Why, you may ask? For reasons. Secret reasons. Good reasons. Sexy reasons. Reasons that definitely have nothing to do with my completely having run out of actual ideas for rants, let me assure you.

UPDATE 11/24/19: An Anonymous reader pointed out that the Fire Emblem in its titular series apparently refers to whatever the hell Nintendo happens to feel like it refers to, rather than solely the original plot device from the first game's continuity, as I had originally thought the Fire Emblem to be. So the FE series can't really be inaccurate, no more than a game called "Magical Plot Device: Legend of That Time Some Stuff Happened" could be.

5. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

I mean, it’s half accurate, I guess, in that Zelda is, indeed, in this game as much as any other of the series (meaning not very much; this whole series’s accuracy is somewhat questionable when its namesake averages about 5 - 10 minutes of screen time per most installments). But “A Link to the Past”? In what way? Link travels between regular Hyrule and the magical realm where the Triforce was kept, but they exist at the same time. There’s no time travel. Is it supposed to be talking about some connection with past events or legends, or something? Because it doesn’t really have much of that, either, no more so than any other RPG, or even any other Legend of Zelda title. Nintendo obviously really wanted to use some wordplay for Link in the title, and clearly didn’t care whether it actually made any sense for the game.

4. Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon

I'm willing to play ball with the "Fragile Dreams" thing, because that's vague and fancy in the way that RPGs like to be, an immaterial enough concept that you could argue its relevance on a conceptual level to this or practically any other game. But "Farewell Ruins of the Moon"? This tale takes place entirely on Earth; the moon is neither a setting nor even an especially important entity in the game. An abundance of ruins may be found within this title, but they're purely terrestrial. And for that matter, there's no "farewell" involved with them. In fact, I think you could argue that this game's story involves only the opposite of a farewell to ruins, as the protagonist's journey starts with his encountering and traversing ruins for the first time, and ends with his leaving to search for survivors the world over, a task which will undoubtedly take him through many more ruins. This would be like naming a game, I dunno, "Fallout: So Long, Post-Apocalyptic America!", or "Shin Megami Tensei: Religious Iconography is for Chumps", or "Fire Emblem: You Definitely Don't Have Funny Feelings For Your Sister". The entire game is literally doing the exact opposite of the title.

3. Most Shin Megami Tensei Games

Well, since “Shin Megami Tensei” basically translates to “Rebirth of the True Goddess”, referring to the Goddess of Tokyo in the series, and since that only applies even on the vaguest of levels to about 5 SMT titles I know of (and I’m really being generous in that estimation), this series basically has nothing to do with itself.

2. Every Final Fantasy Besides The Latest One

Look, we all know why this is here. I’m not proud of it, but it is what it is.

1. Star Ocean 1 + 2

Why are these here at the top, and not Final Fantasy, whose title is by this point as stale a joke in the gaming world as the “Is your refrigerator running” prank? Well, for starters, because Star Ocean is, in deed, an extremely inaccurate way to describe each of these games. The title clearly promises space, interstellar travel, science fiction! And Star Ocean 1 delivers, for its first 5 minutes...then, for the rest of the game until its very final dungeon, you’re confined to a generic RPG fantasy world, and more than that, said fantasy world’s past! That’s twice as far away from the promised sea of stars as a regular fantasy RPG would get! And Star Ocean 2’s no fact, it might be worse, because while it shares the same 5 minutes of opening with science fiction, it can’t even be bothered to also give a final sci-fi dungeon. Sure, halfway through the game you finally get off the rinky-dink fantasy world you’re confined to in SO2, and go to Nede, a super-advanced world that knows about interstellar travel and whatnot...but it’s still just an advanced fantasy world! They’re still all about magic and swords and shit, isolated from the rest of the galaxy like a damn bunch of generic RPG elves!

In fact...Rena, Chisato, and Noel, who are from Nede, have long, pointed ears. Jesus Christ, I never realized it until this second, but Nedians actually ARE a bunch of stupid annoying RPG elves! They’re just isolating themselves on a magical planet instead of a magical forest! There is literally not a single damn thing of significance about Star Ocean 2 that isn’t just a normal fantasy RPG!

Anyway, back to my point. The Star Ocean title is an outright lie for its first 2 installments, so it deserves to be on this list, absolutely. But what puts it at the top, here, is that it’s an actually harmful untruth. No one bought A Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past specifically out of a hope to see Link traveling to the past, or in some other meaningful way interacting with it. No one cares so overly much about bidding bye-bye to abandoned structures that Fragile Dreams is gonna be ruined for them. I can’t think of any reason that a literal interpretation of Shin Megami Tensei would be the important selling point for a fan, nor can I imagine how one would feel negatively about being misled about the finality of the Squaresoft Fantasy.

But Star Ocean? Star Ocean is false advertising. Star Ocean is promising a setting, a theme, which it fails to deliver. Fails to deliver even more than some outright fantasy games do--there’s more time and focus, a lot more, on off-world travel in Final Fantasy 4, for example! Star Ocean 1 and 2 claimed to be science fiction adventures, stories involving the limitless boundaries of space, and there are people who bought them for that reason. The inaccuracies of every other title on this list, they’re amusing and innocuous mistakes, guilty at most of abusing a successful franchise title to get a little more attention. But the lie that is Star Ocean 1 + 2 misled players about something that actually mattered, something that affected purchase decisions, and that’s why the first and second Star Ocean are here at the top of this list of liars.

Dishonorable Mention: Character and/or Location Title Sequels

You know what’s an easy way to make a title for your game? Just base it on a major character or place in it. The main character’s name is Alundra? There’s your title. The setting is the Dungeons and Dragons location of Baldur’s Gate? Just call it that, and done. The game takes place on a bunch of tropical islands and has a theme of constellations and other star-related stuff? Startropics.

There is, however, a slight problem to doing this: you may not always be working with the same character and/or place. There’s no Zelda in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, or Link’s Awakening. Arc’s importance to the plot is done and over with by Arc the Lad 4. Baldur’s Gate 2 and Startropics 2 don’t take place in Baldur’s Gate or the tropics. Sakura’s not in Sakura Wars 5. And so on--sometimes the developers want to make a new title in a franchise, but the game they’re making has moved past what used to be its central figure. It’s not exactly a complete falsehood, since these games still take place in the same worlds and use the same lore as their predecessors, but neither is it accurate.

Well, that was fun. Pointless, but fun. Maybe next time I’ll have something more meaningful for all y’all! But knowing me, probably not.

Monday, October 28, 2019

The Princess' Heart's Characters

I enjoy these character rants of mine; they’re a lot of fun. But most of the time, I have to kind of force it for at least a few characters in a cast, really rack my brain for a way to get a quick laugh out of who and what they are as entities of the game. That’s why, comparatively speaking, I don’t do these ones all that often, even though I like them more and more as time goes on and my rants in general get less and less humor-oriented. It just ends up often feeling like I’m trying too hard.

But sometimes it’s effortless. Sometimes, I play a game like Star Ocean 2, and it’s clear that this game’s cast was made for this sort of thing. They’re all dumb enough, or dislikable enough, or involved in nonsensical enough events and/or development, that it all comes together into this beautiful coordination of dysfunction that makes mocking each and every one of them not just simple, not just obvious, but practically obligatory.

The Princess’ Heart is one such game.

Aerin: Aerin is seriously the most selfish protagonist I’ve ever encountered in an RPG. And to lend context to that fact, keep in mind that I’ve played My World, My Way, a game about a girl who literally reshapes reality by pouting about it. Princess Aerin beats that chick at being self-absorbed, and by a wide margin.

Gavin: Gavin is not so much a character, as he is what you’d get if you took the Loyal Protector Knight cliche, threw it in a blender for a bit, then used a sieve to strain all the bigger chunks of Character Depth out of it, so you were left with only the thinnest liquid cliche goo. He’s basically just a shield that says “Yes, Your Highness.”

Thony: Thony is a good friend who always has Aerin’s back, no questions asked. He’ll gladly help her to brave danger in order to win her true love’s heart, and go on a quest with Aerin to save her soul from the devil himself.

Oh, no, wait, hang on, I mistyped all that. Sorry, let me try again:

Thony is a careless enabler who never bothers to stand up to Aerin when she’s clearly in the wrong. He’ll gladly help her to ditch rehab in order to get the devil to force her ex to love her again, and go on a quest with Aerin to worm out of a deal that Thony’s negligence as a “friend” made possible in the first place.

Aerin: No but really, Roseportal Games, do you or do you not understand that you’ve created a game about a violent, alcoholic murderer who sells her own soul to the devil so that she can violate another human being’s right of consent, endangering the souls of friends and an uninvolved bystander in the process, and then embarks on a journey to beat up the devil solely to avoid ever having to face the consequences of her actions?

The game’s developer has indicated that Aerin’s story is very personal to them. I don’t think they realize just how unflattering that connection they’re drawing is.

Liquan: This guy has so little presence as a character, and even in terms of his role in combat, that I tell you, in earnest, that I forgot he existed until a few minutes ago, when I looked at a list of the game’s cast. Does this dude even have a full dozen lines of dialogue in this game? Is there a single player on the face of the Earth who opted to use Liquan in their party?

These are questions I’ll never know the answer to, because even if someone tells me, it will be too late: by the time I finish typing this sentence, I’m pretty sure I’m gonna forget Liquan’s existence entirely once more.

Serena: “Now, let’s see...where would be the best place to keep the enchanted locket containing my very soul, which the most powerful demon in existence is aching to get his hands on? I wouldn’t want to take any chances with the only thing standing between me and eternal damnation.

“Oh, I know! I’ll keep it in a completely unlocked jewelry box, sitting out in the open on top of my desk, exactly 4 steps away from the spot where I bring complete strangers who I’ve invited into my room! BRILLIANT!”

Aerin: Oh, also? She’s also completely unrepentant for everything. There is only a single time in this entire game in which Princess Aerin actually says she’s sorry for something, and that’s at the beginning, when she’s trying to get Tommy not to leave her after slapping him--far more an empty plea for another chance than an actual apology. Everything else? Not a single pardon begged. Not for killing innocent people, not for causing the death of her own loyal guards, not for making a pact with a demon, not for handing over another woman’s soul to said demon, not for brainwashing her boyfriend, nothing! The only regret Aerin experiences is near the beginning, when she laments the fact that her drunken rampage has made a situation worse, and later on, remorse when she’s a little bummed that Tommy’s profession of love for her is probably the curse talking, and not his genuine feelings.* That is the entirety of the remorse that Aerin feels over her actions. Oh, and that whopping buyer’s remorse at the prospect of actually making good on the deal she struck with the demon, of course.

I’ve seen some morally questionable protagonists in my time. Hell, I’ve played RPGs in which the main character is outright the villain of the story! But Aerin’s the first ethically repugnant protagonist so totally detached from empathy and a sense of decency that she just seems outright incapable of regret for anyone’s sake but her own.

Tommy: Y’know...yeah, Tommy is basically the victim in all this, forced by a curse to love Aerin without his consent, and then forced by extension to risk his life fighting against monsters and demons, but while the situation is morally wretched in the objective sense, it is, at the same time, pretty damn hard to actually feel bad for the guy. From what little we can glean of the real Tommy, he’s kind of a scummy douchebag.

Putting aside the possibility that he did cheat on his then-girlfriend at the beginning of the game (which is never verified, and it’s not like it’s hard to believe Aerin would fly into a rage over something she had no proof of), the guy outright poisons his own guards without a shred of regret, just for the sake of getting some alone time with Princess Aerin. Now sure, his intense infatuation with Aerin at that moment is a result of the curse she’s put on him, but I don’t see how that absolves him of the coldblooded murder he’s committed--he hasn’t asked to be made crazy into Aerin all of a sudden, sure, but taking “3’s a crowd” to a fatal extreme is still the decision that he has made in response to this admittedly artificial desire. If someone were to use magic to make me incredibly hungry, like I hadn’t eaten anything in an entire week, that wouldn’t absolve me of guilt if I decided to sate that hunger by gruesomely killing and devouring my neighbor’s pet cat, rather than suffer the minor inconvenience of driving over to Chipotle.

He also subsequently drugs his paramour and her friends with fortunately non-lethal sleeping potion so he can abscond with her comatose ass to a secluded cabin in the woods, which is also bad, but, in spite of being the plot of a tacky psychological horror thriller screenplay and/or documentary on the life and times of Bill Cosby, maybe not quite as bad as the aforementioned apathetic murder thing.

And even if you could prove that the curse Tommy was under was wholly responsible for his decision to assassinate innocent bystanders because he couldn’t be bothered to just hang a sock on the damn doorknob, he’s still a jackass for the fact that he just doesn’t give a shit about it. At no point at the end of the game, when he’s finally regained his senses, does he express the slightest displeasure at having killed his employees with his own hands. And it’s not like the issue doesn’t come up at all, or anything; Aerin notes that she’s in the clear for what she did to Tommy, because if he were to try to tell anyone about it, he’d have to account for what happened to his guards. And Amaterasu forbid someone actually face some consequences for their actions in this rotten story, right? So yeah, best case scenario, Tommy is an apathetic jackoff who couldn’t care less about whether he personally murdered innocent people who put their lives on the line to keep him safe.

The romance of this game is utter trash, but I’ll give it this: you really can’t argue that the conscienceless maniacs involved in it don’t completely deserve each other.

Maota: In most games’ casts, a catgirl party member whose only defining character trait is being promiscuous would be a shallow, deplorably stupid waste whose only function would be to showcase the writers’ failure. In this game’s cast, she’s practically a godsend.

Aerin: Did I mention that absolutely everything works out perfectly for this heartless monster? She gets to back out of her deal with the devil, she faces no punishment for skipping out on rehab for an entire quest’s worth of time (which was itself a punishment for her having gone on a violent rampage, so she’s basically getting out of punishment exponentially), none of her friends hold a grudge for endangering their lives and souls, and the guy she brainwashed, once free, doesn’t even manage to wait a full 24 hours before he forgives her and asks her to marry him. There is literally nothing that Princess Aerin wants that she does not get to have as a result of taking careless, utterly immoral actions that she never offers the slightest apology for.

I mean, damn, Roseportal Games, I know that lousy people come out just fine more often than they should, and I don’t need every game I play to sell me some heavy-handed moral, but maybe you could’ve told a story that withheld even just 1 single thing from the worst person in the world?

Splendora: Splendora is a fairy child, and you’re charged by her mother to find her and bring her home safely. Well, I guess you’d better resign yourself to an incomplete quest log, and add “Kidnapping a Minor” to Princess Aerin’s long list of fine personal qualities, because this kid is going nowhere. Roseportal Games decided to take a page from Bioware’s book, and make “optional” Splendora’s support abilities as utterly indispensable to the player as the equally “optional” Cream’s were in Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood. So if you want to beat this game without breaking multiple keyboards in half out of pure rage at The Princess’ Heart’s ruthless and poorly designed challenge curve, you’re gonna be holding this kid captive in your active party through to the game’s end.

Izdul-Kalag: It says something when your game’s antagonist, a demon from Hell that embodies 1 of the great sins of mankind, does not seem anywhere near as cold and evil as your game’s "heroes."

Elias and Rylm: Elias and Rylm are the faceless grunts who fill out your party at the beginning of the game just for the sake of gameplay purposes, like Wedge and Biggs in Final Fantasy 6. They’re forced, reluctantly, by order of Princess Aerin to assist her in her inebriated spree of violence, and then, once the prologue of the game is over, they’re executed for it, and never mentioned ever again. Pressed against their will to protect and indulge the demands of a selfish, berserk overlord, then put to the guillotine for fulfilling their duty.

That may seem too small a part to even warrant their inclusion here, but dammit, SOMEONE'S gotta remember these two everymen carelessly trodden over by an aristocrat and a plot that both care equally little for them. Who cries for Rylm and Elias? Not the compassionless serpent responsible for their deaths, that’s for damn sure.

* Protip: If at any point you have to ask “Is it him, or the mind-controlling curse talking?” in response to a confession of love, your relationship sucks.

Also, if simulated affection just isn’t going to be enough for you, why the hell did you brainwash him to love you to begin with?

Friday, October 18, 2019

Tales of Berseria's Combat System's Theme

You know what’s really kind of cool? The combat style that Tales of Berseria subtly pushes you toward.

For at least 90% of all turn-based RPGs (and quite a few even beyond turn-based systems), there’s an overall backbone to combat strategy that’s always present: have a character, or multiple characters, devoted to healing, and when your characters’ HP is low, use this/these party member(s) (or healing items, if necessary) to restore the others’ life. There’s all kinds of battle systems and strategies that can be built upon this, of course, and sometimes you can create party setups in which this isn’t necessary...but “Attacker Attacks, Healer Heals” is still the fundamental starting point on which the vast majority of RPG combat styles build, and even the strategies that get around this are usually more akin to finding loopholes than to employing methods intended to be available to you.

There are, however, a few RPGs out there that, in 1 way or another, are intentionally designed to be built on different combat foundations than the standard I’ve described above, and Tales of Berseria is an example of this. While the magic-users in the game do have a trifling few healing abilities, and of course you always want to have some healing items on hand in case things go unexpectedly south, in this game, if you’re controlling Velvet in battles (which one would assume you would be, at least on your first playthrough), going about combat in the traditional attack-and-get-healed sense isn’t very effective. It’s much more fluid and effective in Tales of Berseria to make use of her Therion mode with the Devour attack. Her HP drops constantly while in this mode, but the initial attack restores a chunk of it, and while Velvet’s in this mode, she can’t be staggered or interrupted in her attacks, making enemies’ attacks pretty insignificant as a whole. This is combined with the fact that there are multiple passive abilities to unlock in the game which restore HP when an enemy is killed, and the fact that she can enter this mode almost all the time due to a simple system of dodging attacks or stunning enemies restoring her ability to launch into Therion mode. Put all together with several other details of ToB’s combat system, and you basically have a game which is designed around the foundation of “Stay Alive By Constantly Attacking” rather than the old “Attacker Attacks, Healer Heals” standard. The traditional healing spells and items have plenty of use in certain circumstances, but the huge majority of the time, you’re keeping your party alive by being a self-sustaining whirlwind of destruction on your foes.

By itself, it’s a neat and refreshing change from the standard formula (not to mention a very unusual case of the Tales of series creating a complex system that’s actually intuitive and something approaching fun; Jesus Christ do I hate how these games usually just cram so many damn gameplay features and details down your throat that you choke on them). But it's not something I would feel the need to rant about (I still only find it slightly less boring than the average combat system). BUT: this system is more than just a clever bit of programming--it’s also quite cool for the fact that it’s thematically consistent to Tales of Berseria as a whole!

I mean, think about it: isn’t a system which pushes the player to survive through a relentless offense a perfect match to a story about an aggressive, obsessed demon of vengeance who only holds herself together through the power of her hatred and thirst for retribution? Like, holy shit, how awesome is it that Tales of Berseria is so on point in its every nuance that its developers even went so far as to redesign the fundamentals of RPG combat around its protagonist?

I mean, sure, I’ll grant you that there are plenty of RPGs out there that design themselves or come up with gimmicks according to the game they’re in--Fallout 1 and 2 adapted turn-based isometric combat to a gun-based style, as their successor Fallout 3 adapted the Elder Scrolls gameplay system to the same, while Breath of Fire 5 incorporated the ticking clock of the D-Counter that defines the game’s pace, and Legend of Dragoon involved the Dragoon thing as a mode to activate in combat, as examples. But these are all cases of the battle system adapting surface-level details of their games. The Fallouts adapted a basic fact of their setting, Breath of Fire 5 did so with a constant fact of gameplay, and Legend of Dragoon with an unavoidable part of its story lore. The most any other game does with its gameplay that I can immediately think of is reflect material components of its lore or plot, and most of the time, it’s an obvious and usually explicitly stated connection, like the use of Espers as sources of magic in combat being a clear plot point in Final Fantasy 6 that’s outright told to you.

Tales of Berseria tells you why Velvet has her Therion mode and how it works, yes, but that’s as far as it goes--it lets you take the reins and come to the obvious conclusion that the game’s set up to favor an intelligent but uninterrupted offense for your own. The inevitable strategies formed from this and several mitigating gameplay details are a subtle reflection of Velvet’s character, of her quest, of the overall plot, a case of Tales of Berseria using even its battle system as a tool of character development. And that, in my opinion, is pretty damn awesome.