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.


  1. Ha, 17 games in a year is hardly a few. Still, your point on length is an issue with modern RPGs that I like to harp on, which is that I think they too often take longer to tell stories than they need to. A lot of developers go for 50-100 play times, usually resorting to filler and padding in order to reach that length, while their stories would often be stronger if they aimed for 20-40 hour play times. Even Nier: Automata, which gets my vote for best story in a game this decade, is guilty of this padding, in my view, as Route B is like one hour of new content and nine hours of repeating what just happened with 2B. That said, almost all of my favourite RPGs this decade are really long, so I can't say I really practice what I preach here.

    There was no incest in the Fire Emblem I played this year, as I deliberately made Byleth single all four times I went through the game. There was no way I was hooking her up with Sothis or Rhea after I'd learned about their connection to Byleth (not that I wanted to hook Byleth up with anyone, since I think every single one of her romances is terrible--I am not a fan of self-insert romances).

    I can't say that I'm surprised Tales of Berseria got the win here, as it is the only game mentioned this year that snuck onto your greatest RPG list. I am surprised you liked it so much, though, as I found it a very good but not great game. While you praise their skits, I thought the characters chatted with each other too much (it was a 60-hour game that I wished was 40 hours, instead).

    Here are some games I liked this year:

    Trails of Cold Steel 3 (could've been shorter, but I'm a sucker for almost every game in this series)

    Fire Emblem: Three Houses (I played through it 3 and a half times, so it must've done something right)

    Yakuza 0 (it kind of fails at being an RPG, but it succeeds at being good, so whatever)

    Tales of Vesperia port (it's good but should be shorter)

    Various Ys games (I like these, but none were nearly as good as Ys VIII, which I played last year)

    Grandia II (the last game I finished; can't say I like it nearly as much as you do, but I had fun. The experience was severely dampened by frequent crashes on the Steam port)

    1. Yeah, a lot of RPGs' length could be trimmed down a bit, here and there...although I don't actually think Pathfinder: Kingmaker could be by too much; most everything in it is relevant to its whole. Fire Emblem 16, on the other hand...I wish I'd known ahead of time that I could just skip the entire Blue Lions playthrough and miss out on absolutely nothing important to the experience.

      Most of Byleth's romances are dull or outright bad, I certainly agree with you on that. I will say that the romances with Dorothea, Claude, and Hilda are kind of okay, though. As for avoiding incest in the can keep Byleth as far away from Sothis, Rhea, Seteth, and Flayn as you like, but there ain't nothing you can do about Seiros and Sothis, man. I have a pretty darned good relationship with my own mom, and I still can't see myself creating an entire religion devoted solely to worshiping her as a goddess. I think it's safe to say that there's more going on with Sothis's little girl than just familial affection.

      I've always had a great respect for the Tales of skit system, but I can understand finding it too overbearing with its quantity. I suppose it depends on how much you get out of the characters - I never tired of ToB's skits because most of the cast was either amazing, or at least extremely entertaining to me. And they serve a vital function as a way to flesh out the personality and nuances of the cast and their interrelationships, particularly in how they change over time - this is especially important with a character like Laphicet, whose personality being built from the ground up was executed perfectly thanks to all the time and care invested in him beyond just the main plot's scenes, primarily through the skits.

      I keep wanting to get back into the Trails of series after my brief flirtation with it, but I'm also a huge cheap-ass who's got enough games that he doesn't have any pressing need to acquire more at a faster pace, so I just keep waiting for a good enough sale on GOG for its titles. Sooner or later they HAVE to relent and hit the 65% mark, right?

      Tales of Vesperia will likely be the next game of the series I play. I'm not hoping for anything as amazing as Berseria, but it's supposed to be good, at least, so that should be nice.

      Hey, awesome! Even if you didn't get as much from it as I did, it's always great to hear that someone's played Grandia 2.

      Anyway, thanks a bunch for reading and commenting, my friend! May your holidays be great and your games generally not suck as much as most modern AAA titles. I'll see you next year, I hope!

    2. I was less impressed by Vesperia's story the second time I played it this year (like many Tales games, its strength lies more in its characters than its plot). I recommend going back to the Trails games (they don't cost that much). Also, I forgot about The Witcher 3, another great RPG I played this year, and the latest South Park game (I liked it but found it a bit middle-of-the-pack and not as good as The Stick of Truth, personally).

      I look forward to reading your posts next year, as I'm always glad to read and talk about RPGs. Even if no good new RPGs come out (but I'm sure there will be some), there are plenty of old ones I haven't gotten to yet.

  2. Do you think I would miss too much story content if I were to ignore Tales of Zestiria and go straight to Berseria? Because from all that I have seen Zestiria really doesn't interest me.

    1. Oh, goodness no. You'll lack a bit of context for 1 character, Eizen, but not so much that your understanding of or appreciation for him will be damaged - you'll probably appreciate and find interest in him more in retrospect if you end up playing ToZ after all, but it's not substantial. Oh, and I guess Zaveid, a character who shows up in both games, has a lot of stuff going on that you'll understand better by knowing him in the future...but really, I feel like ToB's actually the better way to get to know him, too, since it's ToB's past that reveals a lot about his attitude and motivations in ToZ's future.

      Besides that, I don't think there's any particular reason you'd need to play ToZ first, or at all. ToB is a fantastic prequel for how minutely it arranges everything about itself to connect to ToZ, but much like Lufia 2 to Lufia 1, there's very little you'll actually be missing out on without the predecessor's framing, mostly just little "oh, I know how this bit of history will work out" and "ah, so that's how such-and-such came about." I won't say Tales of Zestiria's an outright bad game, but nor is it an especially noteworthy one, and thankfully, this isn't a situation like Neverwinter Nights 2's main campaign and its Mask of the Betrayer DLC - you don't have to put up with the lesser adventure in order to fully appreciate the excellence of the better one.

    2. As someone who skipped Zestiria and went straight into Berseria, I'll echo TheRPGenius's point and say you'd be fine without playing Zestiria. Berseria has a lot going for it on its own merits.