Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Stella Glow's Hilda's Plan to Preserve the World

Hilda’s plan is goddamn stupid.

Let’s just summarize this, shall we? In the world of Stella Glow, Armageddon is called forth by a buildup of negative human emotions, because they are being monitored by a self-aware and frankly whiny crystal in the moon via cameras implanted into five women’s hearts that also give said women magical powers for no adequately explored reason. Hilda, as 1 of these “witches” as they are called, makes a promise to try to keep the world from collapsing while the fated hero takes a nap for a thousand years to recover from being injected with Linkin Park lyrics. As the Time Witch and thus only one who can freeze her own mortality long enough for the hero to get this beauty sleep, it’s her job to find a way to keep that ridiculous emo moon crystal from seeing enough negative emotion on the planet that it feels the need to send an army of angels to solve the Sadness Crisis through total genocide. Hello, RPG World, goodbye, Logic.

How does Hilda go about this? Well, like any sane individual, she chooses to try to save the world by turning to a magical technique called The Song of Ruin to encase entire communities in crystal and put people into stasis, and by founding a militaristic squad of terrorists who attempt to carry out assassinations upon the other witches.

There’s so much stupid here, I don’t know where to start. I guess we’ll begin with her crystallizing the world. She does this because people, when frozen in time-crystal or whatever the hell this magical gobbledegook does to them, won’t feel emotions, so they can’t contribute to the Kill Everything Meter that the moon’s got going. Nothing about this makes sense. Yeah, okay, she IS eliminating the negative emotions that the people she encases would produce...but what about the fallout of this action? The villagers of Hickburg are all tidily sealed, but what about the relatives of those villagers living in nearby Bumblefuckville, who have lost their loved ones and neighbors suddenly and tragically? The grief and anger caused by such a sudden, unfair loss would surely be so pronounced in those who care for the people crystallized that it at least evens out whatever everyday-life negativity that Hilda had managed to prevent! And then add to that the resulting public knowledge of some unreasoning, insanely powerful witch going around destroying entire towns seemingly without motive--the fear and anger of any and everyone who knows of the situation, the despair of understanding that there’s no way to avoid this terrible fate if the witch sets her sights on you, probably adds up to WAY more negative emotion than just letting things be.

It’s not like Hilda went around targeting communities with more negativity than others, either--she had no sense of priority over who did and didn’t become human rock candy. The game’s prologue has her freezing Mithra, a tiny hamlet in the middle of nowhere which, by all indications, was filled with citizens who were quite happy, yet she never makes a move to do the same to Port Noir, a larger town we see later on which, though not especially unhappy per say, is still filled with fear and hatred for their local witch, and has quite a few maddened drug addicts running around its back alleys. Granted, I suppose Hilda couldn’t be expected to know right off the bat that Port Noir had some negative emotion issues (although her group does have at least some intelligence-gathering capabilities, so this really isn’t much of an excuse), but at the very least, you’d think she’d target Port Noir just because it’s bigger and thus has more people to add to the moon’s bad feeling counter than Mithra, whose population probably only hits the triple digits if you count barnyard animals. Port Noir’s a little closer to the capital and thus theoretically better protected by the royal knights, but HIlda’s Song of Ruin only takes a few minutes to do its thing, so it can’t be any sort of safety issue--she’s just a self-important idiot hitting towns at random.

I also object to the idea of “saving” humanity and “saving” the world by throwing human civilization into chaos and indefinitely suspending people’s lives. Hilda has no way of knowing for sure that the hero’s ever gonna wake up again (in fact, she seems rather surprised by its happening), and she demonstrably doesn’t stop her plans for that awakening anyway, so...end-game, Hilda, what exactly is your plan going to accomplish? You’re going to save humanity by permanently sealing it away? I mean, if she has no way nor expectation of beating the moon crystal from which the threat of global destruction originates, then her plan has to just be to halt the countdown on human destruction by crystallizing everyone. Because as long as the stupid moon crystal is there and as long as humans are capable of feeling icky, doomsday is inevitable, so by logical extension, Hilda’s goal has to be to completely freeze all humans for an undetermined and possibly eternal period of time. Which basically boils down to wanting to save the world by ending it. Brilliant.

Also, for someone trying to save the world by eliminating sources of negative emotion within it, Hilda sure does keep some odd company. Her right hand boy Dante is an arrogant, violent jackass with a short temper; he’s not only a source of negative emotions himself, but his attitude is dislikable and thus inspires negativity in those he faces off against. And another of Hilda’s generals, Dorothy, is a hate-filled psychopath who likes to kill and uses her own pain and suffering to empower her abilities, often harming herself with her own attacks in order to become more deadly. Seriously, Hilda? You’ll go destroy a village full of quiet folks living happy, peaceful lives to lower Earth’s negative emotion emissions, but you happily keep these 2 assholes at your side? Dante’s such a self-important piece of shit that just listening to him makes me ponder whether humanity’s worth the effort, let alone this stupid moon salt lick that’s actually looking for an excuse to invade!

And what the hell is the deal with trying to kill the other witches? Hilda wants to kill each witch because the witches are the observational tool through which the moon crystal measures negative emotion levels, and because when brought together the other 4 witches could sing a song that kickstarts the end of the world. And that sounds like a logical decision on her part, right? Except that the only method known to stop the moon’s kidney stone for good is a concert sung by all 5 witches together. So...if she kills even 1 of the witches and prevents the witch’s magic heart crystal thing from finding a successor, which is what Hilda tries to do with each and every single witch in the game’s first half, then she will basically be making it impossible to save the world for good. And she KNOWS this, because she was there the first time said concert was tried!* She’s fully aware that the only way to solve this dilemma permanently is to have all 5 witches working together, and yet she’s out with her goons trying to remove them from the picture because short-term they’re a threat to her equally short-term solutions!

For that matter, why is she even spending time on all this garbage to begin with? The woman has 1000 years to work with! Instead of trying to shove humanity’s emotions in the freezer and murder 4 innocent girls (and, subsequently, at least 1 entire culture’s population, as the fire witch is required to keep a nearby volcano in check), why the hell doesn’t Hilda try initiating social programs and founding better forms of child-rearing and education, stuff that leads to better societies with fewer causes for negative emotions? You can’t even say that she didn’t have opportunities to put long-term solutions like those into effect, because there WAS a period in the history of Stella Glow’s world in which Hilda was queen of her own nation!

And why in the world would she not spend that time in close contact with Dr. Veronica (who lives for even longer than Hilda) and pressure her to develop alternative approaches to dealing with the moon crystal threat, or at least ways that humanity could better weather an angel invasion? Veronica’s plot-convenient science-y knowledge doesn’t seem to have changed much by the time of Stella Glow’s events from the conflict 1000 years prior, so obviously she wasn’t spending that millennium on anything too important. Veronica knows how to subvert angels to do her own bidding, and she has an ability that makes her do extra damage to angels in combat--why would Hilda not spend some of her hundreds of years of life checking in with Veronica here and there, urging her to make this technology/knowledge available to others for the inevitable day of destruction? Or at least learn how it’s accomplished herself, so that Hilda could incorporate these techniques into her own queendom and/or terrorist group? With ten hundred years to work with, maybe Veronica could have found an alternative way to defeat the moon crystal’s machinations, if Hilda had bothered to keep the flighty, careless doctor on task!

At the very least, Hilda could have tried the religion route. I mean, the actions of the hero are, by the time of Stella Glow’s present, already widespread legend which the current society is quite familiar with. As 1 of the witches who was actually there for the hero’s story, surely she could have guided the development of that legend, added a few warnings or prophecies to the tail end of it about being nice to each other and also not letting 4 witches sing together or else the world will end. Prophecies and legends go together like chocolate and peanut butter, thunder and lightning, Bethesda and poor decisions--it couldn’t have possibly been difficult to get a few predictions of destruction tacked onto this one.

But you know what is by far the dumbest part of Hilda’s plans and methods? The fact that she won’t goddamn fucking EXPLAIN any of it to anyone who matters. I’m not going to go into this too deeply, because this is a just another form of an RPG trope that I’ve already expressed my white-hot hatred for, but essentially, none of the unfortunate shit that goes down in Stella Glow would have happened if Hilda had actually tried being forthright about the situation and her intentions. Hilda has multiple opportunities over the course of the game’s first half to explain herself to the protagonist, or at the very least shout something like, “I have knowledge you don’t about the witches and I can explain the circumstances of why I crystallize people!” to get him to stop and listen for a second. Alto (the protagonist) is understandably upset over her having ruined his village, but he’s never shown to be an especially rageful guy, and even expresses confusion over why she does what she does at times--he clearly would listen if she actually tried telling him what the deal is. Also, the level-headed and personable Queen Anastasia would likely have at least considered Hilda’s words, too, if given the opportunity.

For that matter, instead of just jumping straight to John Hathorne Mode, Hilda could have tried seeking the witches out and convincing them not to take part in the Anthem Program that she knows will bring about the end of humanity. All she’d have to do is convince a single witch not to cooperate, to join Hilda’s cause or at least chill at her crib for a while, and boom, problem solved! It couldn’t possibly be all that hard to get at least 1 of them on Hilda’s side: Popo, at the very least, is already predisposed to believe that her existence is dangerous and detrimental to others. But no, instead of trying to work together with anyone who isn’t a complete fucking tool, Hilda settles on attempted cold-blooded murder as her 1 and only strategy with the other witches.

Now, the game does try to mitigate all this by having Hilda occasionally talk about how no one ever listened to her warnings in the past, necessitating her more violent methods. This is narrative word of God, so we have to accept it as true that her warnings fell largely on deaf ears for quite some time, and chronologically it checks out to some degree, since if she’d been crystallizing civilization for the full thousand years, there’s no way that there’d be anything left at this point. But that doesn’t really excuse all the problems with her methods in the first half of Stella Glow.

First of all, what she’s doing still doesn’t make sense nor solve the real problems, as I outlined above, so regardless of what drove her to it, it’s still stupid. Secondly, one has to wonder how much effort she could possibly have put into communicating the dangers facing the world, given how little of an attempt she makes during the game’s own course to do so to anyone she encounters--she later accuses Alto of not listening to her, but the fact of the matter is that she gave him nothing to listen to!

There’s even a scene in the game where he outright asks her, point-blank, why she performs the Song of Ruin, and her 1 and only response to this is “...Goodbye, Alto,” after which she just teleports away! And that isn’t even the only time this happens. There’s also another scene later on in which Alto demands to know, “Why? Why would you do this? What do you have to gain?” And her response: “I am not obliged to answer that.”** That’s not just 1, but 2 scenes in which Hilda blatantly, unequivocally refuses to make an attempt to educate the protagonist on her motives even though he’s begging to know! And she has the shameless gall to later on claim that he wouldn’t listen to her!? If her warnings in the past were anything like her so-called warnings in the present, then no goddamn wonder no one listened to her; she wasn’t TELLING them anything!

And who gives a flying fuck whether no one listened to her hundreds of years ago, anyway? You don’t just give up on communication forever because it didn’t work for a while! You keep fucking trying, even if you do have to resort to your Plan B at the same time! If opening your fucking mouth is too much goddamn work for you, then maybe saving the world just isn’t for you!

Also, uh, Hilda? Call me crazy, but it might not be helpful to your communication attempts to introduce yourself as the Witch of Destruction. I know you weren’t the one to come up with the name, but you also didn’t have to adopt it so readily!

Furthermore, it’s not even correct for her to say that no one ever listened to her. The existence of her gang of terrorists proves it! If she’d never been able to convince anyone, then what the hell are all these robed spear-wielders doing following her around? Sure, at least some of them she kidnapped as kids and raised to be her private army, so in some cases it’s less a case of convincing them than it is brainwashing them in their developmental stages...but Hrodulf, 1 of her most trusted and loyal compatriots, was head of the royal knights when she convinced him to switch sides! Getting a high-profile warrior like that to join your cause would, you’d think, be a huge morale boost for you and a strong encouragement for you to keep trying to sway others, but nope, apparently the failures she suffered in the distant past to communicate her knowledge to others hold way stronger influence over her than the recent and very useful success with Hrodulf, so Hilda just doesn’t bother even trying to explain herself to Alto, the rest of the knights, the queen, the witches, or anyone else during the game’s events.

During the second half of the game, once you have a chance to see some actual interactions with her, Hilda actually becomes a fairly decent character. In fact, she’s probably my favorite in the whole cast, believe it or not. But before that, her role as antagonist is infuriating, due to the sheer imbecilic stupidity of her plans and methods. It’s just 1 of those many cases in RPGs where the writers know what they want to happen with the plot, and they’re not gonna change their minds about the matter, even if they have to support that plot with an absurdly stupid, nonsensical, out-of-character crutch like this one.

* Before you ask, no, she can’t be operating under the assumption that said concert won’t work because it didn’t the first time, because the first time’s attempt only failed due to the error of the hero, not the method itself.

** To top the stupidity of this scene off, this exchange occurs right after Hilda telling Alto that soon enough he’ll agree with her that all this is how it has to be. She claims that, and then refuses to tell him anything that might sway him to her side. Brilliant writing, Imageepoch. Just stunning.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

South Park: The Fractured But Whole's Downloadable Content

The second South Park RPG, South Park: The Fractured But Whole, is all you’d expect it would be: hilarious, gross, inventive, satirical, and bizarrely epic. But that’s the main story...are its 2 story-based DLCs also up to snuff? Let’s see.

Dusk Over Casa Bonita: This is just plain solid stuff, honestly. The humor’s on point from start to finish, and I like the irony of teaming up with Mysterion (whose whole thing is a parody of edgy loner superheroes) and Henrietta (the goth) to take down the vampire clique because they think the vampire thing is lamely edgy. Henrietta’s a fun teammate to join the main game, and they didn’t skimp out on her, either, giving her all kinds of flavor dialogue in battle that she takes into the main game when you’re done with this DLC. The overall story of the DLC is another example of how the South Park RPGs manage to seamlessly mix an epic plot line together with the silliness of kids playing around (Mysterion the vigilante recruits heroes to save his beloved sister, who has been seduced by vampires and will soon be inducted into their coven and turned to one of them...in real-world terms, Kenny’s crashing some vampire-obsessed kids’ birthday party because he’s annoyed that his sister wants to be friends with them). The bit where The Human Kite is replaced by his alternate reality version for the puzzle-solving elements is amusing. The fact that you get to beat the shit out of “Corey Haim” is more than a little satisfying. And it even all ends on a kinda sweet note, too, which is an unexpected bonus in a South Park story.

Overall, Dusk Over Casa Bonita is exactly the kind of side-story that you’d hope for from this game, related in spirit and style to the game proper, while being its own engaging adventure. Unless you don’t like South Park’s second RPG to begin with, you’re probably going to like this add-on as much as you like the main game. However, with all that said, this thing was released for $12, and is still sold for such. But it’s not gonna give you 12 hours of gameplay, or anywhere even close to that, and while it’s certainly enjoyable, it’s not so amazing that it’s worth such a steep difference between price and content provided. So I do recommend Dusk Over Casa Bonita, but only if you can get it on a good sale, as I did--I waited and bought both this and the next DLC at a discount of 75%, which I think is far more fair a price.

Bring the Crunch: This DLC, unfortunately, didn’t really hold my interest very much. Bring the Crunch is a side story in which you investigate some horror-film-style murders happening at a special needs camp in the woods and...there’s just not a lot to it, honestly. This adventure leans hard into poking fun at generic horror flicks and Scooby Doo episodes, and, well, there’s only so far a parody of those things can go. When the appeal of a slasher fic parody dries up, there’s just nothing substantial to work with here--the villain and his plot aren’t interesting, the surprise conflict at the end is forced and barely funny, the story as a whole constantly feels like it’s stopping and starting as you move it along in tiny spurts rather than a cohesive narrative, and while you can do Jimmy as the central figure in a story under the right circumstances, this doesn’t seem to be one of the times that it works. Mintberry Crunch is a decent character addition (and has an interesting gameplay mechanic), but he seems kind of shoehorned in--at least Henrietta’s addition makes sense in Dusk Over Casa Bonita’s story about conflict between edgelords. Mintberry Crunch doesn’t really have any ties to anything in this DLC besides what he himself brings to it.

With that said, there’s some decent humor here and there in Bring the Crunch (its final line is actually pretty hilarious, in fact, and a perfect South Park-style ending), so I can see a much bigger fan of South Park than myself enjoying this as much as the last DLC package--your mileage is gonna vary. Even for someone who loves everything that South Park touches, though, it’s still not worth the $12 by a wide margin--I’d recommend getting it on a major sale, if ever.

So how does the second South Park RPG do in terms of its add-ons, overall? Eh. Not great. I mean, I enjoyed Dusk Over Casa Bonita quite a bit, and Bring the Crunch has some decent moments...but neither one is worth the price, considering how short each add-on is. It’s too bad, because if Ubisoft weren’t trying to price-gouge its customers, I’d have probably rated South Park RPG 2’s add-on scene as mildly positive, overall, which is sadly far above the average. It sure as hell is a step down from the last DLC-possessing RPG I played, Nier: Automata (DLC rant on that coming in the near-ish future), although that might not be an entirely fair comparison, I suppose. Still, I’ve seen considerably worse sets of DLCs, and if you can get Dusk Over Casa Bonita for a fair price, at least, it’s worth it.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Bravely Second's Interesting Protagonist Duality

Every now and then you get an RPG which thinks a little outside the box as far as its protagonist goes. Sometimes it’s a case of having a protagonist who basically fulfills the role of a traditional RPG villain even though he is, indeed, in the right, like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 1’s Marche. Sometimes it’s a game which has more than 1 character serve as the story’s protagonist, like Final Fantasy 6’s Terra and Celes. Sometimes it’s a game in which many of the game’s characters could be the hero of the story, and it’s up to you to determine who shall fill that role, like with Live-A-Live or Romancing Saga 1. And sometimes it’s an RPG in which the protagonist is actually a completely superfluous entity who could have been removed entirely without affecting the story whatsoever because every important event and action is instigated and performed by the supporting cast, as with Final Fantasy 12’s Vaan (hey, I didn't say they were all good ideas). And then there's Velvet, from Tales of Berseria, who's so chaotically spread across the spectrum of tragedy and heroism and villainy that you just don't know what to make of her.

Bravely Second has introduced me to another interesting take on the protagonist role in RPGs: a separate duality to its protagonist. Like Final Fantasy 6, Bravely Second essentially has 2 characters share the role of main character rather than the traditional 1--but whereas FF6 has Terra and Celes split the role of protagonist to the main plot of the game, Bravely Second’s main story is straightforward in having Yew as its protagonist. But BS does have a substantial number of sidequests, almost all of which turn out to be interconnected as events in a single, personal story--and the central figure of that side story is most definitely Edea.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game take this approach before. Oh, sure, plenty of RPGs have many sidequests whose central figure is 1 of the supporting cast--that is, in fact, 1 of the most tried and true methods for creating character depth and development for a game’s secondary major characters. But this is a case in which all the sidequests specifically make 1 supporting character their central figure, and, as revealed during the final installment of this running side-story, are specifically geared toward telling a narrative of that character developing into a leader and more complete person. The sidequests of Bravely Second constitute less a collection of minor ancillary adventures and more a second, independent adventure simply occurring at the same time as the main quest. So basically, Bravely Second is a game with a protagonist for its main story (Yew), but also another protagonist for its second story (Edea).

What’s also kind of interesting about this is that of the 2 of them, Edea’s actually a way more important protagonist of the game’s side story than Yew is of its primary plot. I doubt it was intentional, but Edea’s far more active in her leadership duties during the game’s sidequests than Yew is during the rest of the game’s course. While at least half the time Bravely Second’s plot events carry its heroes along with it, requiring little to no direct input from Yew and making him even seem incidental for much of its course, each sidequest directly requires Edea to take an active, deciding role for it. At first, it does seem like she’s just a tiebreaker for the sidequests’ decisions more often by accident than by design, true. But the final sidequest of this series, in which Edea must face her father and determine what kind of leader she will be to the world, retroactively gives each sidequest before it a significance, because each decision Edea makes as arbiter is shaping her view on what matters most in conflicts of human interest. As such, she’s a constantly active protagonist of her story, whereas Yew goes in and out of specific importance to moving Bravely Second’s plot forward.

Beyond being a more active protagonist than Yew, Edea is also, equally interestingly, a far more important hero for her story. Culminating in her meeting with her father and his handing the duchy over to her, the entirety of Bravely Second’s sidequests until and including this final point have been formed specifically to tell the story of Edea’s rise to leadership, and to determine what kind of ruler she’s going to be. Every decision Edea makes about which side to support in each sidequest isn’t just a case of her being the essential arbiter--it is, more importantly, also conflict representative of the kind of dilemmas she will have to face as a ruler, and her decisions characterize the leadership and values that Edea will hold as future Grand Marshall. While Yew does hold some essential personal relevance to the main story of Bravely Second, Edea is the key figure of the game’s secondary story, a story which is specifically about her.

Do I have a point to all this? Not really. I just thought it was an interesting situation with Bravely Second, having a protagonist for the plot proper, but setting up almost all the sidequests to be a separate, concurrent story with its own side protagonist. And then, having made note of that, I found it amusing that Edea, as the hero of this secondary story, was so much more prominent, effective, dynamic, and essential to it than Yew was to the primary storyline. It’s like 1 of the writers came up with this interesting dual-story dual-protagonist idea, but it worked out too well, creating such a strong and fulfilling story for Edea that suddenly Yew and his main quest were found wanting by comparison.

* Although, honestly, at least half the time it kind of just progresses on its own, with no one in the party acting as the sole narrative leader. But that’s not an especially infrequent situation in RPGs.