Monday, January 28, 2019

Bravely Second's Lousy Romance for Edea

Big thanks go to my buddy Ecclesiastes, for reading this rant through ahead of time to make sure I wasn’t completely spouting nonsense. As always, you are a champ, sir.

Bravely Default made a bit of an impact on the JRPG scene when it came out, for a few reasons. It was a well-made, well-written RPG that managed to be both a perfect representation of classic Final Fantasy and a strong title in its own right with a lot of twists that took you by surprise. It came virtually out of nowhere; I don’t think anyone had anticipated it, nor its quality. And, by far most surprising of all, it was a SquareEnix title--who could have predicted that they would actually be willing to make a good product again, after so many years? Even SquareEnix was publicly shocked by its success, a fact that I have always found absolutely hilarious. It’s like, “Oh wow! We made a game that’s like the games we used to sell back when we were well-liked and respected--and the game is well-liked and respected! WHO COULD HAVE GUESSED THAT WE COULD ACHIEVE SUCCESS BY DOING THE THINGS THAT MADE US SUCCESSFUL IN THE FIRST PLACE!?”

SquareEnix was so impressed, in fact, that they indicated that they would have to begin rethinking their overall direction and strategy as a game developer! And then, they forgot they ever said anything of the kind, and went back to making Kingdom Hearts rereleases, mobile trash Final Fantasy so-called games, and Yaoi Boy Band Camping Trip Simulator 15. But even if the slobbering knuckle-dragging executives of SquareEnix continued to refuse to respect their work, audience, or selves, they at least must have respected the potential to make more money from the Bravely title, as Bravely Second was published a few years later.

And it was...surprisingly good. Perhaps instinctively knowing that they couldn’t pull off the exact same success twice in a row, Silicon Studios took a new approach to the game’s overall feel and narrative, giving Bravely Second a far lighter tone overall, while keeping enough gravity to its story and characters to keep the audience invested and satisfied. And it worked--while Second is certainly not as good as Default, it’s skillful enough in mixing comedy into its style that it’s an overall fun title with virtually no substantial flaws.

Except, that is, for the fact that it really just kinda screws Edea over in the romance department.

Now, I can’t pretend that I like any of the major love subplots of Bravely Second (nor, for that matter, its predecessor). As a couple, Tiz and Agnes have, and have always had, the heat and passion of a bowl of plain oatmeal that’s been sitting out for several hours. They’re a piece of the nostalgic RPGs of yore that shouldn’t have been dug up for Bravely Default--the Hero x Primary Supporting Female that happens out of some imagined narrative obligation rather than any believable emotional connection. And while noticeably better than Agnes and Tiz, I can’t say that Magnolia and Yew have a particularly captivating chemistry, either--their connection feels no stronger or more romantic than their friendship with the other party members. In fact, I think there’s more demonstrable evidence of Yew having the hots for Tiz than for his having an interest in Magnolia.

But at least those romantic couplings are all just boring and lifeless. I mean, that’s not good, obviously, but it is, sadly, kind of standard fare for RPGs, which seem to view romances as a box on a list to check off more than an aspect of characterization to value and nurture. Edea’s situation, however, is not just boring, it’s outright negative.

So, here’s the deal. Through the course of Bravely Second, it is hinted here and there that Edea is carrying a torch for her former comrade from the first game, Ringabel. Why this is, your guess is as good as mine--certainly there’s no evidence to be found by any rational person of a romantic attraction on Edea’s part in the entirety of her interactions with Ringabel during Bravely Default. But hey, classic JRPG law clearly states that a female character’s life is meaningless if she’s not romantically involved with someone or other, so Bravely Second must clumsily attach her to Ringabel through some unwieldy narrative tape. And the fact that it’s a mild case of Since We’re Not Related It’ll Be Okay Syndrome is no doubt a bonus in the writers’ eyes, as Japan is so very fond of that sort of thing.

There comes a sidequest toward the game’s end, 1 which is otherwise really good, wherein Edea’s secret loneliness is exposed: she can see that the rest of her friends are all going to be boringly hooked up by the adventure’s end, while the guy she’s pining for is in another dimension. It is at this time that the Alternis Dim who’s been occasionally showing up during the game’s events to help Edea reveals that he is, in fact, Ringabel, returned to this world because he’s now some sort of interdimensional beat cop or something who’s on a job here, and he reassures Edea that she’ll never truly be alone, because any time she’s truly in danger, he’ll come to stand at her side. This appears to satisfy Edea, and the game’s writers clearly consider the matter of Edea wanting to have a significant other settled.

Well, that’s a really shitty way to treat Edea, if you ask me.

Let’s put aside the fact that Edea x Ringabel has spontaneously materialized out of nothingness and makes no sense based on Edea’s character and her interactions with Ringabel during the first game. Let’s pretend, for a moment, that Edea and Ringabel as a couple has any sort of emotional and rational logic to it. With that perspective, we are still looking at a situation in which Edea is expected to no longer feel romantically lonely because there is a guy somewhere out in the multiverse who cares for her, who she only gets to see and spend time with when her life is in serious peril.

I don’t think the writers of Bravely Second really understand how loneliness works.

Newsflash, Silicon Studios: the first and most basic, necessary thing that most people want in a boyfriend or girlfriend isn’t just that they’ll be around at the very worst of times. It’s that they’ll be around the rest of the time, too. I mean, think about how ridiculous this is, to expect Edea to have her loneliness completely solved by a guy who can only guarantee his presence in dire circumstances. It’d be like if the only time you ever got to call your boyfriend was when you were also calling the fire department, or an ambulance.

So while Agnes gets to live out the rest of her life throwing sheep in and out of pastures with Tiz, and Magnolia gets to live the rest of her life cooking like a good little waifu for Yew,* Edea gets to sit around by herself and attempt to find the same level of fulfilling companionship solely from the knowledge that there’s a guy somewhere in some universe who’s into her. Not into her enough to try not to leer at other girls, of course, but still.

It reminds me of a common defense that fans of Rainbow Dash from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic make whenever the fact that RD is a terrible friend for most of the show’s run is brought up: that even though most of the time she’s self-centered and utterly careless about her friends’ feelings, Rainbow Dash has demonstrated that she’ll always be there when the chips are down to help save them. Well that’s great and all, but believe it or not, I think that if your greatest/only act as a friend is that you’ll try to keep your pals from being dead, you might not be all that great of a friend. Frankly, I kind of expect that all of my chums, if given the option to either help me out or just sit and watch me die, would opt to do the former. Preferring that someone not die a horrible death seems to me like it should be a given in friendship, rather than some great, laudable achievement. Likewise for Ringabel: a promise to always be there on the exceptionally rare occasions of mortal danger does not make up for not being there all the rest of the time, and frankly, I would kind of expect as much from anyone who cared about Edea to any degree, not just romantically.

Hell, it only gets worse when you really consider how often she’s likely to be in the life-threatening situations which Ringabel will show up for. I mean, by Bravely Second’s end, Edea is arguably the most powerful warrior in the entire world. Add to that the fact that she’s great friends with the next 4 most powerful warriors in the world and has but to ask their aid for them to come running to help her. Add to that the fact that she’s also now the leader of the most powerful military force in the world, situated in a nation with several natural defenses. Add to that the fact that within her military’s higher ranks are a significant portion of the rest of the world’s most powerful warriors. And then add to all that the fact that her nation shares the continent with a recovering powerful military force (the Crystal Guard) which is being restored and reshaped by a personal friend of hers, and which includes a couple more of the world’s most powerful warriors. Plus, the last major military force in the world, the Shieldbearers, are also run by a personal friend of Edea’s. Add all that together, and tell me: exactly how many times is Edea ever likely to see the guy she likes if he only ever shows up when she’s in mortal danger?

The concept of a pledge out of love that you’ll always be there to keep someone safe from danger is romantic, to be sure. But it’s not a romance in and of itself. If a love story were a cheeseburger, such an idea would be the condiment: a pleasant addition, but rather meaningless by itself. The actual meat of this metaphorical meal would be just being there for that special someone the rest of the time, when they’re able to appreciate and take comfort from your presence. And for someone who’s susceptible to romantic loneliness, that matters all the more. So for Bravely Second to arbitrarily and spontaneously decide that Edea is into Ringabel, then make her suffer from loneliness because she’s the only 1 of her friends not able to be with the person she likes, and then say her romantic problems are solved because Ringabel will be there for her in the most dire of circumstances but at no other time, is for this game to royally fuck Edea over in the worst possible way, romance-wise. It traps her in a romantic purgatory, unable to move forward to seek love with some other (probably more qualified) person, yet also unable to actually be with the object of her affections, even though she, as the only cast member specifically shown to be prone to loneliness in love, is the person who needs that companionship the most. And that really sucks.

* Is it just me, or do the women of Bravely Second’s romances always seem to do all the heavy lifting and sacrifice-making in their relationships? Magnolia leaves everyone she knew and cared about at her home so she could be with Yew, while all Yew has to do on his end is actually tell Magnolia that he loves her (although to watch him struggle with it, you’d think that actually was something really difficult). Agnes gives up a fulfilling career doing work she believes in just so that Tiz can pursue his halfhearted ambitions of fondling sheep without having to relocate to a different country, even though the destruction of Norende means it would emotionally cost him absolutely nothing to simply move closer to Agnes so she could be with him AND continue doing things that actually matter to her. Edea’s situation, as currently being illustrated, is garbage. Vega’s memories and love for Altair are the majority of the ammunition used by a dark god to torment her for centuries. And Aimee not only gets stuck with Chef Boyardouché, truly a terrible fate by itself, but is just expected to be totally cool with him keeping his female groupies around, while all she gets out of it are some pancakes. The man wasn’t even good enough to introduce her to waffles.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Tales of Eternia's Skits

Welcome back and happy new year to all of ya! Here's hoping 2019 is a great one! At the very least, let's hope it doesn't trip at the finish line with a ridiculous shit-show of AAA and indie developers alike trying to fuck over their customers every conceivable way they can think of, like 2018.

No game company can make good decisions all the time. Not even respectable developers like Nintendo, CD Projekt Red, and Supergiant Games, developers who are paragons of consistent quality and artistic integrity in the RPG business, are without the capability of missteps. Nintendo’s had its share of flub-ups, CD Projekt Red (from what I am told) significantly misrepresented Yennefer in The Witcher 3, and Supergiant, I’m sure they’ll do something wrong at some point. I’ve played Bastion and Transistor, but haven’t played Pyre yet--maybe they get something wrong there?

Look, my point is, even the most respectable game creators in the business aren’t above making some errors here and there. And Namco’s certainly no different with its Tales of series. Of the 7 Tales of titles I’ve played,* the slight majority were boring and/or outright bad, and even the 1 that I personally like best (Tales of Legendia) only really turns into a good RPG during its second plot. Beyond the overall problems with most of the titles in the series, it’s also plagued at times by absurd over-abundances of gameplay features and mechanics, there’s only a single well-crafted protagonist in the whole series (Luke from Tales of the Abyss), the villains of the series are by and large just terrible, and so on and so forth.

But these are the regular mistakes made by a developer simply not having the talent to properly execute its vision, or not putting in the effort to make its story/characters work better. Or, in the case of the idiotic level of gameplay features by the time of Tales of Zestiria, putting in way, way too much effort on stuff that doesn’t matter. Namco’s mistakes with the Tales of series, many though they are, are just normal ones, errors which annoy me, but take a huge number for me to truly resent the company for them. They are not mistakes that are outright stupid, that are ignorant decisions made by low-quality human beings that are just outright the clearly wrong idea and direction to take--that kind of poor choice is more Bioware’s and SquareEnix’s department, or whatever depraved lunatics are to blame for Lunar: Dragon Song and Xenosaga 3’s Kevin Winnicot. No, this latter kind of mistake, the bad decision that even a moron should know better than to make, is something I hadn’t seen from Namco in the Tales of series.

That is, until recently, when I finally got around to playing Tales of Eternia, for the Playstation 1 (incorrectly named Tales of Destiny 2 in the USA).

Although Tales of Eternia was recommended to me highly by an old friend some time ago, I’ve found the game extremely middle of the road. Not as boring as Phantasia or Destiny 1, and thankfully not as annoying and dumb as Symphonia, but slightly less interesting than Zestiria, and nowhere near Legendia or the Abyss. The plot overall is okay but unremarkable, and the pacing of the game seems lazy and meandering--which is especially odd since I’m fairly sure, looking at it altogether, that this game is technically much faster and more direct in taking the party through the plot’s necessary steps than most of its peers. But it still somehow feels just as slow and frequently aimless as many RPGs that actually DO take you through pointless padding quests instead of getting to the point. Worst of all, the cast of Tales of Eternia is just nothing to write home about--even the likable characters are appealing solely for their surface personality; there’s no real profoundness to anyone in the game save Farah, and what little depth other characters attempt to capitalize on is handicapped by voice acting that was subpar even by Playstation 1 era standards.

But what’s truly vexing is that this didn’t have to be the case!

See, you know those little character skits that are a beloved staple to the Tales of series? The ones about which I’ve made a rant extolling my appreciation? Tales of Eternia had dozens of them. Just scattered all over the game, voice acted and everything, skits with all the major cast members interacting over a range of subjects, from the main quest on down to food preferences. Tons of little party interaction vignettes that cemented characters’ personalities and quirks, increased the scope of their individual development, and established, explored, and enhanced the party’s interpersonal relationships. A solid quantity of the skits that the series so skillfully uses to gently and enjoyably improve its overall narrative.

And Namco fucking cut them.

Choosing not to give Dhaos any proper motivation or personality until a 2-minute post-mortem conversation during the game’s ending? Someone on the Tales of Phantasia staff clearly didn’t know where else to shove in his villainous history. Tales of Legendia’s Shirley being totally forgiven by everyone even though she’s actually a horrible person? The ToL writers clearly just were paying more attention to what they wanted from Shirley as a character than what they’d actually made of her. Tales of Zestiria’s choice to use Sorey as the protagonist, instead of Alisha or better yet Rose? Someone at Namco didn’t want to disrupt the Tales of tradition of giving the starring role to the least worthwhile, most tedious character in the cast. These are basic mistakes, perhaps even dumb mistakes. But cutting Tales of Eternia’s skits? That’s flat-out, unequivocal head-up-your-ass stupidity.

Let’s start with the most basic reason this was a terrible decision: it’s denying the players more story content, more scenes using characters that the player (hopefully) likes. Cutting the skits from the game means cutting a substantial portion of the entire point of playing an RPG. Story and dialogue are what make an RPG’s hundreds of repetitive, meaningless random encounters bearable. No damn wonder Tales of Eternia frequently felt like such a damn slog to me even when it’s comparatively straightforward as typical RPG plots go: I wasn’t able to access a lot of the content that could have kept me more engaged in it!

Which brings us to the next reason why this was such a boneheaded move: Tales of Eternia isn’t just a lesser game for the skits that are missing. Their absence also is actively harmful to the content that’s left! As I said, the cast for this game is 1 of its sorest disappointments--it is, at best, functional. The party never really feels like a cohesive group of people who have grown into their relationships, most of the characters don’t get enough time to develop, few of them even seem to have any real depth to explore anyway...and honestly, there are times when it almost feels like they just take certain events in stride and move onto the next plot point without giving enough reaction to what has just happened. Playing through the game, I chalked this up to less-than-competent writing, but apparently, the true cause is far less forgivable. Of course the cast is going to come off this way--the audience’s perception is based on only 60% of what was intended to be seen! Skits may be optional as a rule in the Tales of series, but Namco clearly writes with the assumption that you’re watching at least some of them, and thus concentrates less on flavor interactions than plot-moving ones during the dialogue of the game proper. But without the skits, everything else suffers, because you’re less invested in the characters as they deal with the main plot since you’ve never seen their party dynamic crystallize over a few dozen small conversations, never seen Keele behave in any way other than as a sour drip, never seen Meredy endear herself to them all individually, and so on.

And lastly, this was a really stupid move because the removal of Tales of Eternia’s skits basically outright deprives you of several characters in the game. See, the party acquires Greater Craymels, which is what Tales of Eternia stupidly calls its elemental summoned monsters, early in the game, and these master elementals will, on rare plot occasions, appear and/or speak, usually when the party is meeting and attempting to recruit other elementals. Scenes with them are brief and generally focused on the process of acquiring the new Greater Craymels, so by and large, you can really only count these beings as story-progressing entities, just plot points that happen to occasionally talk.

But apparently, a slew of the skits that were removed involve conversations with all the Greater Craymels, either between themselves or with party members. They’re given personalities and quirks of interaction, essentially adding about half a dozen separate characters to the major cast of the game and allowing for much more human nature exploration in the game. Undine even has this whole series of skits in which she reads a bunch of letters posted from several years in the past. So taking out the skits not only harms the characters you know are supposed to be important, but it even more or less removes an entire portion of the cast who had their own personalities and effect on the rest of the cast.

I don’t know why Namco took the skits out of Tales of Eternia. A few people online have said that it was simply because they were too cheap to keep the voice actors on the payroll for long enough to record these extra lines, which seems plausible (and incredibly stupid; no one would’ve complained if they just hadn’t had the skits voice acted at all), but none of those were authoritative sources on the matter. Maybe the reason was something else--some misguided thought that western audiences wouldn’t care for the skits, perhaps, or maybe some of them had content that didn’t line up with how the localization team wanted to portray certain characters (Max, for example, actually seems to say and do things in the skits at times, which sure as hell doesn’t line up with the guy as portrayed in the rest of the translated game, who’s such a lazily-written entity that 1 of his exactly 2 personality traits is saying the word “Yeah”). I can’t say for sure. What I can say is that no matter the reason, be it based on budget, localization, or something else, it was a pure, 100%, no-holds-barred stupid call on Namco’s part. It wasn’t just a poorly reasoned or poorly executed decision, a mistake that led to a momentary negative impact on the product. Whoever chose to have the skits removed from Tales of Eternia when porting it overseas was a moron who substantially lowered the quality of the entire game, irreparably damaging what it was and what it could be to all who played it.

If you’re a Tales of Eternia fan of old, and you’re interested in seeing what you missed out on, there’s a Youtube channel that’s been decent enough to translate the skits and put them up online to enjoy. You can find the playlist here.

* Phantasia, Destiny 1, Eternia, Symphonia, Legendia, the Abyss, and Zestiria.

** Although I will admit, even with the skits, Reid is still a wooden, humdrum meathead. Tales of skits can do a lot, but they can’t fix what’s fundamentally broken and boring.