Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Deus Ex 3's Downloadable Content

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a rather great game, both in its own right and as a sequel. It’s able to successfully expand upon the lore of Deus Ex, maintain the original’s spirit and aesthetic in ways that its sequel never was able to, take new steps forward while losing nothing of DE1’s style, improve upon 1 of the original’s more glaring problems in having a protagonist with some personality and depth as a character, and bring up the same questions of conspiratorial power games and social existentialism while taking a different (admittedly smaller) direction with its plot and events. And it also overall provides a thoughtful, well-told plot that betters the audience to experience. Deus Ex 1 has never quite broken onto my Greatest RPGs list, but it’s always hovered at the fringes, and Deus Ex 3 will now join it there right at the edge--if the next expansion of that list allows for 1 of them to finally join their peers at the top, I daresay it will be difficult for me to choose which.

But as evidenced by multiple Fallouts, even great RPGs can still have crappy add-ons (although, as evidenced by Neverwinter Nights 2, the opposite can also be true). So today, let’s take a look at Deus Ex 3’s Downloadable Content, and see whether it measures up to the rest of the game.

...and let’s do so without thinking overly much about whether or not there’s any point to reviewing an add-on for a game that’s the better part of a decade old which is nowadays automatically sold at no additional cost with said DLC anyways. Hey, you know how I roll: for every significant rant I make, there has to be at least, like, 4 pointless ones.



The Missing Link: My experience with this DLC is odd. I didn’t realize it was an add-on, to start with: I played DE3 recently, so my copy just automatically came with The Missing Link, and it starts up as a part of the linear story rather than (as most DLCs do) requiring me to voluntarily elect to initiate its adventure, so I really had no idea for the majority of it that I was involved in something other than the main game’s narrative. At the same time, though, it felt from the start to be something separate from the rest of DE3, slightly out of joint. So I guess we can, first and foremost, give The Missing Link credit for having authenticity to the overall sequence of Deus Ex 3’s events, while also clearly being detached enough that the main story as a whole wasn’t incomplete without it. That has to be a tough line to walk, particularly with as smooth a gait as DE3 manages.

Now, as far as the DLC’s overall quality, it’s definitely solid stuff. Adam’s capture and prolonged escape from the clutches of Belltower’s clandestine base provides a story that expands upon the lore, particularly the conspiracy lore, of the game as a whole, introduces some decent characters in its course, and creates a microcosm tale of disrupting the grasp of the monstrous social overlords upon the innocent that reflects the style and purpose of the series as a whole, and maintains a healthy allowance for the player’s personal agency in how to overcome humanity’s secret masters--more than the main campaign does, one might argue, as there’s a little more complexity to the climactic choice in this DLC than there is to the game’s own ending.

I also think that The Missing Link shines on a couple of points in particular. First of all, it provides the player with an understanding of what the deal is with the computer mainframe of Panchea at the game’s end, which I imagine must have piqued some interest in players prior to this DLC’s release. The troubling thoughts at the end of Panchea’s internal communications and, more noticeably, the whole anime-esque white-blindfolded women connected to the machine core...it’s all a great aesthetic for an unnerving final showdown setting, but it’s a little more palatable when you know what to make of it thanks to The Missing Link’s explanation of its origins. So this DLC enhances your understanding of the details of the main game, but not in such a major way that the game would feel empty without it (I would have taken Panchea’s operating system in stride overall), which is good.

The other point on which The Missing Link really stands out, and perhaps the one I think which has the most positive effect, is the fact that this DLC actually shows us the victims of Belltower’s atrocious operation. It hadn’t occurred to me until reaching this point, but the Deus Ex series has, as far as I can recall, never before this moment really driven home the cost that the innocent, the everyday men and women of the general populace, suffer at the dark manipulations of the secretive societal masters that the DE series warns us of.

Oh, sure, we get glimpses in the series up until this point of the suffering of the human species as a whole that results from these dark conspiracies of corporations and Illuminati and so on--we interact with the impoverished and homeless in Deus Ex 1, we see the needless struggles and animosity of the working class being manipulated into hating one another rather than looking at their real problems through the coffee chain rivalry in Deus Ex 2, and DE3 presents us with the hardships of common people with a dependence on medications that bankrupt them, and so on.

But though it is vitally important to see the results of the insidious, passive methods that the governing elite use to control the people of the world, the DE series hasn’t given its audience much direct contact with the ways that humanity’s hubristic handlers more actively abuse innocent common people. The horrors inflicted on people by machinations of civilization’s rulers have always, to my recollection, been more something that the series has told of, rather than shown. The Missing Link represents the first time that the weight of what the high few will do to the lower many is shown in full, inescapable clarity to the audience in this series, as we see the rows and rows of men and women unjustly incarcerated, secretly snatched from their lives by a private police under the falsehood that they’re involved in terrorism, never to be released, used instead as test subjects for inevitably fatal experiments. Hearing the frightened, angry, and confused cries of the prisoners as you pass by their cells as they beg to be returned to their loved ones, invoke basic social rights that they don’t understand they never truly possessed, and insist that their incarceration is a mistake...coming face to face with the pain and horror inflicted on hundreds of random innocents just for the sake of a fractional number of successes...it’s a sobering moment that the Deus Ex series was lacking, a putting of faces and voices to what were before tragedies and evils only described and theoretical. The whole series benefits from personally presenting this operation in motion to the player.

While it’s unimportant overall, I suppose I will say that the gameplay premise of The Missing Link is puzzling to me. The idea with it is that you get all your augmentations and weapons taken away at the DLC’s beginning, and have to get by on what you can acquire within the DLC itself, rather than all the stuff and powers you’ve amassed in the game up until that point. This sort of thing has been done before, of course, in other add-ons. Operation: Anchorage in Fallout 3 takes place primarily in a simulation, meaning you can only work with what the simulation provides, and the Sierra Madre DLC in Fallout: New Vegas did something similar, as I recall. It’s a way for the developers to create an adventure whose technical parameters can work regardless of what stage of the game you’re in, within reason--thus players who are in the endgame by the time the DLC releases can still find a challenge within it, while newer players don’t have to wait to try it out.

The thing is, that rationale doesn’t work here, because The Missing Link has a set time at which it occurs within Deus Ex 3. You can’t experience it any earlier or later than a single set spot in the game’s overall sequence of events. So everyone going into it will have had the same opportunities to build up their character and arsenal. DE3’s developers could just design The Missing Link’s difficulty level and loot output the same as they would (and did) for the next stage of the game. Forcing us to lose our entire inventory and all our upgrades--and the loss of the latter doesn’t even seem like it makes any logical sense--wasn’t even a developmental necessity! And it certainly didn’t add any fun to the adventure; I had tailored Adam’s development and inventory around a playstyle I enjoyed, and having to start that process again from scratch was a pain in the ass. It’s just an artificial and frustrating handicap that serves no purpose!

But as stated, that sort of thing doesn’t really matter all that much, and even if it did, it wouldn’t outweigh the positives of this add-on. The Missing Link is a solid and worthy part of Deus Ex 3, and while I’ve had trouble finding solid information on what it originally sold for (I think $6?), I think it’s fair to say that it was easily worth its price.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

General RPG Valentines Special Edition: Job Classes

As ever, many thanks to my sister and to Ecclesiastes for their helping me to get these things juuuuuuust right. Or at least good enough. It's not the sort of thing you shoot for the stars over, I guess.



I really like Valentine's Day. You all know this. And I also really like Bravely Default and Bravely Second. You all know this, as well. So with the recent news that a new Bravely title will be gracing us all sometime in the future, I figured, why not have a little fun, and do something special for our RPG Valentines this year? So today, in honor of the Bravely games being both awesome and the truest expression of the Final Fantasy series to date, I've got a whole heap of Job Class themed ways of telling someone special this holiday that you love them and a specific form of the turn-based combat formula of a specific video game sub-genre equally!













































And naturally, I've got some for those of you who are distinctly on the other side of the fence in regards to this holiday! I couldn't quite figure out enough ways to use the Job Class system specifically for these anti-sentiments, but I can at least keep halfway to this year's theme by sharing some general Bravely/Final Fantasy reverse-Valentines with you!















...Look, theme or not, it's just not an RPG Valentines post without Reyn and Kevin.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Fire Emblem 16's Azure Moon Route is Irrelevant

Fire Emblem 16 is a gigantic RPG. Well, sort of: any individual playthrough of the game is actually a fairly normal, even perhaps very slightly short RPG’s length. But, the game has 4 different paths to follow, with each having a very separate character focus and a relatively unique second half, and the game is set up in a way that none of these routes tell the player all the details of the game’s story, lore, and major characters--rather, it’s meant to be a collaborative effort between the paths, wherein you’ll only have a complete understanding of any substantial part of FE16 after playing through the game on multiple routes. This means that the title is massively long to play through, if fully understanding it is your aim. The damn game took me a full month and a half to finish, and I daresay I devote more time to video games in my daily life than most!

There is, however, a way to cut the colossal prospect of a full and complete experience with Fire Emblem: 3 Houses down somewhat, to reduce the sentence of its hold upon you by a whole 25%. I unfortunately only discovered this clever trick after it was too late to be of benefit to me, but perhaps in sharing it, I can save the rest of you a little time and effort better spent on other games, and air my own grievances while I’m at it. To wit:

Choosing the Blue Lions house is pretty much pointless so don’t bother.

Yes, yes, OMG HOW COULD I, SHOTS FIRED, GTFO, DIMITRI IS BAE, and so on and so forth. Sorry, but it’s the truth: no matter how much you love Dedue, how much you love Dimitri, and how much you love how much Dedue loves Dimitri, playing the Azure Moon route of Fire Emblem 16 just doesn’t really accomplish much of anything, in contrast to the other 3 options.

See, Fire Emblem: 3 Houses has been set up in such a way that you’re only supposed to really get all its lore and plot-relevant characters fully through multiple playthroughs. You’re not going to fully understand the way Fodlan works, the lore of its history, and position it has with its neighbors, without playing through the Golden Deer route. You’re not going to have a full perspective on the bad side of Rhea and Church of Seiros, and what few good qualities are possessed of the game’s first major villain, Edelgard, without playing through the Black Eagle path. And you’re not going to have a clear understanding of protagonist Byleth’s history and nature, as well as the lore of the Sacred Relics, Rhea, and Sothis, without going down the Church’s storyline. Similarly, you won’t have a full grasp on the true villains of the game, the Agarthans (or Those Who Slither in the Dark), without having played the Black Eagles and either the Golden Deer or Church scenarios. You can get a fine game out of playing FE16 only once, but you’re only going to get your full, complete knowledge of it through multiple playthroughs, and it’s clearly set up with that in mind.

Except, the thing is...the Blue Lions route doesn’t fit into all that. Oh, sure, there’s plenty of stuff you learn along a Blue Lions playthrough, but...well, it all fits into 1 of 2 categories. Either the stuff you learn A, is lore that is also present in most or all of the other paths anyway (and sometimes in better detail), or B, is lore that is only relevant within the purview of the stuff exclusive to the Blue Lions route. In other words, while all the other game’s storylines enhance your understanding of major elements relevant to FE16 as a whole, everything exclusive to the Blue Lions path also only affects your understanding of the Blue Lions path’s characters and events. The playthrough’s only relevant in and of itself! Meaning that if you completely eschew experiencing it, you’ll still be able to understand every major, relevant aspect of FE16 in entirety so long as you engage in the other 3 routes.

Think about each of the unique parts of the Blue Lions route that aren’t available otherwise, and it becomes apparent. For starters, Dimitri. Dimitri may be the big deal in his own plot path, but the guy is otherwise pretty superfluous to the game as a whole. He doesn’t have a significant hand in the events of FE16 if you aren’t actively by his side every step of the way--in the game’s first half, he’ll just comment on recent and relevant events as they happen, and then in the second half, he’s either caught up in his own business that only intersects with the main story once (in which he dies), or he acts as an accomplice to Rhea in a role that doesn’t really amount to much more than any given Fire Emblem military general-type NPC. By contrast, Edelgard’s importance to the plot is huge as she’s its most vital and active antagonist, Rhea’s intrinsically linked to like 80% of the game’s lore and is the doorway to the player’s access to said lore...and even Claude, though his role be minor outside his own route, does hold some connection to the setting and politics of Fodlan, and maintains a level of mystery in regards to himself and his intentions for the Alliance, that draws the player in. Dimitri? The most he contributes to the Black Eagles, Church, and Golden Deer paths is to shout a few edgy things and make the player wonder how he went from looking like Draco Malfoy, to looking like Mad-Eye-Moody...and also still Draco Malfoy.*

Get to know Edelgard, you learn about the game’s most prominent villain and the (stupid, short-sighted) way she thinks. Get to know Claude, you get to learn about the social workings of Fodlan and its neighbors from coming to know the guy’s lineage and ambitions. Get to know Rhea, you get to understand Byleth’s origins, some of the truths of the Church, and some information about Seteth and Flayn, 2 more important characters. Get to know Dimitri, and all you learn about is Dimitri, relevant to his own path and no other.

Next unique part of the Blue Lions route: Dimitri and Edelgard’s past together. When throwing your lot in with the Kingdom, you get to learn about how Dimitri and Edelgard are related through some political marriage, the typical complicated gobbledegook of nations using porking as a basis for alliances, and how they spent a little time together as kids, in which they sparred, Dimitri had his first tingly feeling in his pee-pee for his sister-in-law (this is Fire Emblem, after all), and he gave her a dagger as a memento when she had to leave.

And yeah, this sure seems, at first glance, like it’d be important overall to the story of Fire Emblem 16, as Edelgard is a key figure to the game no matter what path you’re playing, but, uh...it’s just not. It becomes clear after a time that this experience was something really major for Dimitri, a foundational part of his relationship with Edelgard and the icky feelings at her betrayal that make him act like a Hot Topic employee with roid rage...but on the other side, this peek at a moment in Edelgard’s history really doesn’t tell us anything significant about her beyond the fact that she and Dimitri hung out for a little while when they were kids. Her motivations and personality don’t seem to have been in any way affected by this particular piece of her past--your understanding of Edelgard as a character and as the villain of the game is the same after witnessing her past with Dimitri as it was prior.

Hell, it doesn’t even seem like this stuff even really affects her connection to him very much, from her perspective! You can probably debate the point, but, beyond the sentimental weight of Edelgard’s still carrying the dagger around years later, she seems to regard Dimitri’s feelings about her and their history together as a curiosity more than anything especially significant. I can’t recall seeing or hearing much from her even on the Blue Lions route that suggests it’s something substantial to her, even when Dimitri has become her greatest enemy. Which is a damn shame, because Edelgard is pretty sparse (to put it politely) in the personality department, so it could have brought about a very welcome emotional response and dilemma. The character depth, the plot and interpersonal significance, they only exist on Dimitri’s side, and so, they hold no importance to Fire Emblem 16 as a whole, only to the Blue Lions route.

Another unique aspect of the Blue Lions route: you get to learn about the Tragedy of Duscur. Alluded to here and there in the game’s first half when speaking of the Kingdom and of Dedue, the Tragedy of Duscur was a disaster which destroyed Dimitri’s family, and drove the Kingdom to wreak excessive vengeance upon the neighboring country’s population. It’s the single most devastating, significant event in the lives of Dimitri, Dedue, and Gilbert.

And no one else.

Again, the relevance of the Duscur incident, and the secrets that the player can learn of it, are restricted solely to the Blue Lions route. We’ve already established that Dimitri only has relevance within his own route, and Dedue and Gilbert are characters restricted entirely to this same route, so the fact that they’re the only ones significantly affected by the Duscur incident isolates it--it’s of peripheral importance to the rest of the Blue Lions characters at most. While most of the Blue Lions house’s characters have a connection to the Duscur incident in 1 way or another, the significance of those connections can be fully understood through their Support conversations or occasional chatter, all of which is fully available on any route. Your understanding of them won’t expand in any meaningful way with the Blue Lions route’s revelations about the Duscur incident. The same is even true for Catherine, whose connection to it is considerable--again, in all ways that it affects your understanding of her character, the Tragedy of Duscur is understood more than adequately through the vague details you can get of it outside the Blue Lions route.

Hell, it’s much the same for the plot, even. While a great many secrets that you learn about Duscur have huge significance for the Kingdom and its royal family, that stuff still really only affects your perceptions of the Kingdom in ways that matter solely to the Blue Lions route’s plot. The Kingdom’s influence on the overall story of Fire Emblem 16’s other paths, which is already pretty minimal compared to the other powers of Fodlan--another reason why the Blue Lions route’s superfluous--is not something you’ll perceive any differently for this greater knowledge of the nation’s history. Likewise, Those Who Slither in the Dark’s influence over the Duscur event is understood as much as it needs to be without getting into the Blue Lions route’s revelations--they’re evil and manipulative, and they’ve manipulated lots of evil stuff into happening, including the Tragedy of Duscur. That’s it, that’s everything that actually matters to know, and it’s something you find out in other routes anyway.

Next, there’s Dedue. As the adjutant character of the Blue Lions route, Dedue’s only available to recruit and thus best to understand on this plot path. But while he’s certainly a better-written, not to mention far more appealing character than Hubert of the Black Eagles route, the vast majority of Dedue’s character is tied inextricably to Dimitri, whose significance, as mentioned above, extends no further than this route...so basically, everything that better insight into Dedue’s character can give us is still locked solely within the Blue Lions path, offering nothing to the whole of FE16. Hugo, by comparison, may also have the entirety of his character development devoted to route-specific entities (Edelgard and the Empire), but he does at least serve as a noticeable and recurring villain in the other routes, as well, so there’s some cause for a player of a non-Black Eagles route to want to find out more about what makes Hugo tick.** Dedue just doesn’t have that.

The final character signature to the Blue Lions route is Gilbert, and here you actually do have a guy with a significant connection to something outside of this specific path...or so you’d think. Gilbert is Annette’s estranged father, and Annette is a character you can recruit in any path, you see, so there should be some potential to, at the very least, better understand her through him. Except that it doesn’t happen. Honestly, the only thing about Annette and her relationship with Gilbert that you can glean from their Support conversations and Paralogue scenario are that she has issues with the fact that he ran out on her and her mom, and she wishes they could be a family again. And that is exactly what you already could figure out in any other route! Annette and Gilbert’s Support conversations, C through A, are all heavily focused on Gilbert’s over-pronounced and frankly absurd sense of honor, and a reaffirmation that Daddy’s not gonna be home for Christmas but it’s not because of you baby it’s because he has severely self-indulgent emotional indigestion. Nothing of importance is gained in terms of Annette’s character from Gilbert’s availability for chats.

And for that matter, the same is true of his conversations with other characters, too. It always seems to come back to the fact that the Tragedy of Duscur gave Gilbert’s pride as a knight an ouchy boo-boo, the only bandaid for which is an exile based around pompous self-loathing. Nothing of substance in Gilbert’s Supports is ever gained in terms of the other characters; it all only develops him, and always with the same damn subject, making him even more 1-dimensional than a brief glance from other paths’ might suggest--character development actually lessens Gilbert’s depth.

So basically, in terms of your knowledge of the relevant lore and characters of Fire Emblem 16, the Blue Lions playthrough can safely be skipped, because it all only relates back to itself, while each of the other paths reveal much about the game’s characters, setting, and history that enhances your understanding of the other paths’ perspectives and events. And really, there isn’t even a whole lot to see on this path for its own sake, as like 75% of all its lore and character development seems to always come back to 1 particular event. Seriously, if you do not have a Crescent-Sickle-solid, 16-foot out-of-control raging boner for the Tragedy of Duscur incident, there is no goddamn point to learning anything about this damn playthrough.

And on a more subjective note, I’d also like to say that there really isn’t a whole lot of satisfaction to be had with the Blue Lions path, at least not once you have a grasp on the game’s situation as a whole. Its conclusion feels like a rushed Sorta Bad Ending, because when all is said and done, the Azure Moon finale has Edelgard defeated, but the evil manipulators behind her, Those Who Slither in the Dark, are left undefeated and entirely unknown by the game’s heroes. Sure, the Black Eagles path also doesn’t technically end in their defeat, but at least the Black Eagles playthrough ends with the (admittedly half-assed and unfulfilling) promise that the fight’s being taken to them next. When you throw your lot in with the Blue Lions, Edelgard takes her knowledge of Those Who Slither in the Dark to her grave, so in spite of some surface-level setbacks with their personnel, the baddies are free to continue to do their thing. If anything, this ending helps those jerks, because as an evil group whose main methods are about manipulation and clandestine dealings, they can only benefit from now being completely unknown by all major players in Fodlan’s politics and nobility. Not to mention that there’s now a single, centralized political power structure of the country, a far easier system to work to their whims than the previous 3-way power balance! “Winning” Fire Emblem 16 for the Blue Lions means handing the country over to the bad guys on a silver platter!

And there sure ain’t much satisfaction to be had out of the route-specific characters, as far as I’m concerned. Gilbert’s a mopey jackass for whom wounded professional pride far outweighs the happiness of his wife and daughter. Rodrigue and Cornelia*** are plot-device NPCs and little more. Dedue is...well, actually, I do like Dedue, and I guess I can give this route props for the fact that it’s the only one where Dedue can have a happily ever after getting his gay on with Dimitri...but even then, Dedue is just a decent character, no better than that, certainly not worth enough to outweigh the wankery of even Gilbert alone.

And Dimitri as the central figure of the story is terrible. I’m sorry, I know he’s the most popular character overall in this game, and I know he’s, like, so bishy, but I said it and I stick by it: Dimitri sucks as a character. He may have an actual personality, unlike Edelgard, but that personality is EDGELORD SUPREME and it gets old fast. Not only that, but his descent into Kylo Ren imitation is poorly executed and immediate. The game is happy to tell you that there’s darkness underneath his initial noble veneer, but it’s the same as the game constantly trying to tell you how much Byleth is changing as an emotional being: you just can’t fucking see it. One minute he’s Little Lord Fauntleroy, the next minute he’s Red-Wine-Drunk Squall Leonhart, and there’s no damn authenticity to it. And the change’s spontaneity isn’t helped by how laughably facile its process is (“Oh hey Edelgard is evil WELP I GUESS IT’S TIME TO BREAK OUT THE OL’ KEFKA LAUGH”) and nonsensical (why is Edelgard being his enemy such a mind-melting concept for him? Even if he was clearly way more emotionally invested in their childhood friendship than she was, nothing about Dimitri’s interactions with her in the present time have given any indication that she holds such a vital place in his world view and perception of others that her betrayal would cause a mental breakdown!).

And why the hell does he just automatically assume that Edelgard was behind the Duscur incident when he finds out she’s been the bad guy of recent events? What put that idea into his head? I honestly don’t recall any explanation for why he jumped to that conclusion, aside from finding out that she’s evil. Edelgard doesn’t even do that stupid anime/JRPG thing where someone inexplicably doesn’t correct a misunderstanding because it’s narratively convenient to let it continue; she outright tells him, multiple times, that she had nothing to do with that Duscur shit, and he just ignores it, even though she’s pretty up-front about all the other crap she’s been up to once she’s exposed so why would she lie about that 1 thing alone?

The end of Dimitri’s character arc is pretty weak, too. It’s not as bad as his descent into Edgelord Madness, but Dimitri’s finally realizing that the world would seem a lot less dark if he were to try looking at it with his head not shoved up within the warm confines of his own ass is still a very quick process instigated by an event that doesn’t seem like it should have quite so powerful an effect. Sure, there’s every reason why he should be deeply affected by Rodrigue’s death, and the cycle of violence that led to it, but Dimitri’s given every appearance in his tiresome teen goth phase that Rodrigue, like everyone else, is not especially important to him, compared to his thirst for vengeance and the ghosts of the past and all that other bunk he’s always on about, so its ability to actually get through to him seems awfully unexpected, based more on narrative necessity than authenticity.

Only important unto itself, and defined by lacking elements...basically, the Blue Lions route is like my pet gecko’s tail. It’s there, it’s connected to the rest of her body, and it seems, at first glance, like it’s as substantial a part of her as the rest of her. In fact, to a dumb predator easily fooled by appearances, it looks delicious, or so zoologists say. But this appearance belies the truth: the fact is that the tail can be effortlessly and cleanly disconnected at a moment’s decision, and the rest of her body will continue functioning exactly as well without it. Additionally, for all the delectable meal it appears to be, that tail is actually mostly just fat and bone, with little in the way of substance to satisfy any who would consume it. If you’re playing Fire Emblem Three Houses as you read this rant, just save yourself some time and give a hard pass on the Blue Lions story.














* And the Blue Lions route isn’t even any use for answering that! He lost the damn eye offscreen!


** But spoiler alert, said player will be disappointed. It turns out that Hubie is pretty much a douchenozzle just because he is a douchenozzle.


*** Should’ve mentioned this earlier when talking about the lore issue, but I didn’t, and don’t feel like restructuring everything, so I’ll just briefly mention here: Rodrigue doesn’t really open up any greater insight into Felix’s psyche than what Felix’s Supports with other characters will reveal, and while Cornelia spills her guts on some secrets regarding (what else?) the Duscur thing, she doesn’t provide any better understanding of Those Who Slither in the Dark. So the mostly-route-specific NPCs are, as with everything else, relevant in ways solely contained within this story path.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Bravely Series's Convenient Battle System

You all know by now that I don’t play RPGs for the visceral so-called joys of their gameplay, a genre whose interface is based roughly 90% of the time on an inherently dull, plodding foundation. It’s just not what I like about the genre. But that doesn’t mean I can’t identify and acknowledge that some RPGs manage to arrange just enough tricks and features in just the right way to make them far closer to diverting to play than their peers. Do I appreciate the fluid, intuitive complexity of the Bravely games? The skillful way that Fallout 1 and 2 broke ground and developed a battle system that actually made fire-arms based turn combat work? The ability of Bahamut Lagoon to seamlessly bring tactical and turn-based systems together into a single entity? The way most Fire Emblems manage to offset a somewhat imbalanced difficulty with patently obvious ways to cheese your way through the game? Sure. Do I enjoy them? Nah, not especially.

...Although I do have to give it up for the extremely rare occasion that a developer brilliantly manages to create a battle system that subtly underlines and expresses major dimensions of its characters, or themes of the game as a whole. Like how Tales of Berseria’s aggression-based battle system is consistent with its protagonist Velvet, or the way Lunar: Dragon Song expresses its developers’ disdain for the human race in a careful symphony of infuriating gameplay anti-features.

So even though this sort of thing doesn’t affect my estimation of how good an RPG it is, I think it’s only fair to mention that the Bravely series has got a terrifically fluid, intuitive, and useful auto-battle system, especially Bravely Second. It is, in fact, pretty much the best example I’ve seen thus far in the genre.

First of all, let’s just acknowledge that the fact Silicon Studio bothered to do anything more than the bare minimum on this matter is laudable. In like 90% of the RPGs I’ve encountered with an auto-battle function, said feature basically just has everyone in the party mindlessly attack enemies until the battle ends in either victory or defeat. It’s just a more convenient version of mindlessly mashing the confirm button for every character over and over again, a process so simplistic that even most Kemco games possess it. KEMCO, for Abadar’s sake! And don’t get me wrong, I’m still appreciative of an auto-battle feature, even in its most basic form--I’d go so far as to say it and the battle speed option are tied as the very best characteristics of just about every game from Kemco’s catalogue--but actually taking steps to make the auto-battle commands in Bravely Default and Bravely Second anything more than just mindless Attack commands in succession represents an uncommon level of effort in this genre.

And that effort is spent so effectively! Silicon Studios makes the auto-battle system in Bravely Default so natural and handy. Just because you want a little more complexity to your battle performance than “everyone just hits Attack” doesn’t mean that every damn turn you take has to be a completely new strategy than the last--most of the time in an RPG, there’s only really a handful of combinations of characters’ abilities in a single turn that you’ll use with any great frequency. So Bravely Default’s clever way of handling auto-battle is to simply have your party repeat all their actions from the last turn again. Once you’ve explored BD’s shockingly complex and yet even more shockingly intuitive battle system enough, you’ll have a general idea of what effective strategies you want to repeatedly employ in most random encounters, meaning that getting to simply press a button to repeat them for as long as you want is incredibly convenient--and yet, since you can disengage and change tactics 1 turn, then repeat those new tactics over and over again, this gives you all the convenience of an auto-battle system with none of the limitations! And possibly best of all, you can keep using this repeated-turn system even in a new battle, without having to manually create the first turn you want reiterated each time.

And then Bravely Second improves the system even further by allowing you to not only select auto-battle to repeat a turn’s actions, but also have the option to select from 3 preset turn strategies you’ve designated for repeated use. So basically, all the benefits of Bravely Default’s take on the auto-battle system, combined with the functional convenience of a battle strategy system like Dragon Age 1’s tactics system--only also smoother and better designed.* You can preset 3 strategies that’ll presumably take you through most battles and have’em ready to go at the press of 2 buttons, any time you like, giving you convenience without sacrificing the ability to explore the many nuances and possibilities of the Bravely combat system.

It’s basically like Final Fantasy 12’s Gambits, if that system had been streamlined, attached to a well-constructed combat engine, player-friendly, and actually effective. And if the FF12 developers had possessed the collective 12 brain cells necessary to know that the Gambits should be optional, because otherwise it’s less like playing a video game than it is making some meek suggestions to a video game. And if the FF12 playing experience was good in any capacity whatsoever. So...basically like Final Fantasy 12’s Gambit system, but at the same time, absolutely fucking nothing like it, really.

And although I’ve spent most of this rant talking about how great the auto-battle system is with the Bravely games, I’ll also give major appreciation to the games for the fact that they also have a battle speed-up feature, too. I’ve already made my love for this function known in a previous rant, so no need to get into it here, but the fact that Bravely Default and Second have simple, effective fast-forward options as good as any I’ve seen in the genre is as valuable to me as their having such an effective and reliable auto-battle system.

Bravely Default and Bravely Second’s developers clearly had a lot of pride in the mechanics of their games, pride which is fully justified, as valuing gameplay conventions goes. But what I really appreciate about Silicon Studio is that they didn’t let that satisfaction blind them to seeking to make the playability of their games as convenient to the player as possible--no matter how proud they were of their creation, they didn’t hesitate to give the players a uniquely efficient set of tools to hasten our way through that creation to our content. Considering that over the course of both Bravely titles, I engaged in hundreds if not over a thousand random encounters, I feel significant gratitude to the developers who put these tools of convenience together. It feels like they valued my time.










* Don’t get me wrong, though, I think the DA1 tactics system is quite thoughtful and effective overall. And in fairness, while there’s a surprising level of innovative depth to the Bravely games’ combat, Dragon Age 1 still has a lot more going on in regards to what’s happening when, under what circumstances, and to what priority, so it’s pretty understandable that its use takes a little more work.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

General RPG Lists: Funniest RPGs

Happy New Year, Y'All!



I play RPGs for the story. I want to experience new ideas, to see a tale unfold that reveals the truths of the world and our species. I play RPGs for the characters. I want to see the heart of humanity, its every facet portrayed and its complexity multiplied through the factor of interaction and relationships. I play RPGs for the chance to learn about the human condition, and to grow as a person.

And, sometimes, I play RPGs for the yuks.

RPGs devoted to humor are not common by any measure. Oh, certainly, a well-written game will usually make use of humor to an effective degree in the course of its story, as a useful way of ingratiating characters to the player, and easing tension when necessary. Tales of Berseria and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, for example, each contain no shortage of comical interludes in which the vibrant personalities of their casts bounce off one another in amusing ways, and scenarios of wacky hi-jinks (bro dat dove scene tho). And a less well-written game will also often attempt to force what it ineptly believes is a joke upon you over and over, recognizing neither the line between being funny and being pathetic, and the line between charming recurrence and obnoxious repetition. Tales of Symphonia, for example, really wants us to believe that Raine widening her eyes and babbling in a mildly comprehensible fashion about the archeological lore of its (kind of stupid) fantasy world is absolutely HILARIOUS. And Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4’s running gag of Yukiko being a fairly reserved person in general but laughing super hard when something does tickle her fancy...I think I was gracious enough to give a polite grunt that could be interpreted as a chuckle the first time I saw it, but that was about it.*

But while comedy is frequently a part of RPGs, as it is with most narratives, there aren’t a lot of games in the genre that devote a primary focus to it. Sure, there’s a lot of funny moments in The Witcher 3, but even though the scene where Geralt and his fellows get drunk is some of the funniest shit I have ever seen, it’s quite clear that The Witcher 3’s intent is to tell a serious story. Unexpected, referential, clever, and at times outright wacky moments of comedy are a defining characteristic of the Fallout series (too bad Bethesda can’t be bothered to figure this out), but even if it’s a necessary component to the Fallout formula, it’s not what the series is all about, ultimately. With most RPGs, levity is a tool, not a purpose.

But though they be rare, there certainly are some RPGs that make your laughter Job 1--or at the very least, an essentially equal part of the storytelling process as the more serious stuff. And today, we’re going to sort through them and figure out which are the greatest comedies of all, the hardest of knee-slappers, the most explosive of gut-busters, the most unruly of laugh-riots. These are the 15 Funniest RPGs!

Note: To qualify, the RPG in question has to be, like, at least about 45% devoted to “teh funneez.” It can also have more serious ambitions, too, but the comical must clearly be 1 of, if not the, most important components to the title. So, no matter how much I chuckle at Mint’s diverting shenanigans in Threads of Fate, the hilarious snark of Ryudo in Grandia 2, and the lovably amusing way Rei’s gluttonous 1-track mind keeps mishearing strange food versions of others’ statements in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona Q 1, none of these games is gonna make it onto the list, because even if in varying degrees they have lighthearted stretches, none can really be said to be at least half-ish about the comedy. I’d say that...lessee...Shadow Hearts 2 would be the cut-off point: SH2’s comedy is as pervasive as it can be without actually qualifying for consideration.

With that said, an RPG can be funny AND serious in decent enough mixture to qualify for this list. Secret of Evermore, for example, has a story that is primarily a straightforward adventure of a kid getting stuck in a magical other-world and having to find his way back home (the 80s and 90s certainly were very fond of this trope), but the protagonist is an idiot child who contextualizes everything he experiences against the standard of B movies, and his ever-present partner is a free-spirited dog who possesses possibly the highest disparity between “Trouble” and “What He’s Worth” that I’ve ever seen in a pet, so as a result, even though the story itself is pretty standard, the game as a whole still winds up qualifying for consideration simply because most of what these 2 idiots say and do is funny.



15. Bravely Second

You really have to hand it to Silicon Studio when it comes to Bravely Default. On so many levels, it’s the perfect Final Fantasy title, and within it, the developers seem to just effortlessly coordinate every aspect of a game into a cohesive whole. As a result, among other virtues, Bravely Default’s narrative and approach to characters had an undeniable charisma and personality.

And you have to then hand it to Silicon Studio again when it comes to Bravely Second, because they knew exactly how to follow up on such a grand epic as BD: they didn’t try to outdo themselves, but rather, took the strengths of the first product, and found a new way to play on those merits. And with that great personality of storytelling and characters, Silicon Studios made Bravely Second a fun mix of engaging adventure...and quirky comedy. Bravely Second uses its characters and situations to great comical effect (particularly Edea; God I love that girl), with its villains it frequently mixes dark pasts with moments or styles of levity with surprising success, it reuses supporting characters from the first game now with a comically light touch, and it wraps it all together by doubling down hard on Bravely Default’s fondness for puns. The devotion to amusing the player was an unexpected direction for the sequel to Bravely Default, but it really works, and Bravely Second will have you chuckling from start pretty much to finish.


14. Okage: Shadow King

Imagine if someone looked at Henry Selick’s career, and said to themselves, “Well, I like it, but what if, instead of a story that’s weird in an understated way about a bunch of quietly oddball characters that could’ve just as well starred in a Wes Anderson flick, we up the Quirk Meter to a 10 and everyone’s a wacky nutjob?”

When a game’s opening gambit is a girl getting cursed to speak only in pig-latin, with her parents’ reaction being to summon a self-important demonic spirit of evil to lift the curse (a deal which requires them to sell the son’s shadow as real estate to the evil spirit, which they’re more than happy to), you know you’ve found something special.


13. Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch

As time marches on, much of Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch’s jokes, which borrowed a fair bit from then-current events and internet culture, have become dated, and so it’s moved down on this list from where it might have been had I written this rant 10 years ago. In spite of that fact, however, MLRotB is still an obscure classic of comedy, following a grumpy, down-to-earth ginseng-harvester as he reluctantly travels a crazy world of memes and low-budget live-action cutscenes in order to stop a pushy cult from coercing people into eating their vegetables with the threat of turning them into cockroaches if they don’t. Incredibly silly and so heavy-handed that it can’t help but be all the more funny for it, I’ll always carry a torch for this bizarre little Indie title, and keep hope alive for a sequel no matter how unlikely.


12. Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages

Honestly, when I hear about a sci-fi combat flight sim starring space monks who bend the universe on a conceptual and spiritual level, my first thought isn’t, “That sounds like it’d be the perfect vehicle for lighthearted, random and off-beat comedy in a style not unlike Freakazoid or Monty Python.” Well, after hours spent watching my protagonist do stuff like get into a dogfight with the PTA as a tactic for aggressive salesmanship of DVORAK keyboards while a voice in their head pleads unendingly for peanut butter cups, in a galaxy where people view gun turrets as pets, all I can say is, shows what the hell I know!


11. Anachronox

Another RPG that draws you in with random weirdness in both its situations and characters, Anachronox also does a fine job of letting its characters’ amusing personalities bounce off each other and create laughs simply from working together. Additionally, the games I’ve mentioned so far are all very funny, and it’s obvious each time they’re telling a joke, but Anachronox is interesting, and perhaps a little funnier, for just how smoothly its comedy fits into its spontaneously silly universe--much of its comedy feels less like the writers maneuvered it into place, and more like these funny situations and interactions are simply the natural course.


10. Makai Kingdom

Nippon Ichi is a little bit overrated. People generally like to pretend that everything this developer’s created is gold, but only half of the NIS games I’ve played have been particularly good, and most of that inferior half’s titles were, frankly, quite bad.

But when Nippon Ichi is on point, it is on point. A story of quiet love and out-of-control egomania, Makai Kingdom brings NIS’s full talent for singular personalities and silly antics to bear, and it’s a hell of a humdinger. If the classic JRPG/anime approach to humor appeals to you at all, then Makai Kingdom’s gonna have you grinning over and over again.


9. Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle

I play RPGs all goddamn day long. Of course I’m gonna find especial enjoyment in a game filled with jokes that poke fun at the genre! So I might not be a particularly objective judge on this. But this naughty, full-hearted little Indie work of passion thoroughly charmed me, as much with its ever-present, lighthearted wit and whimsy as it did with its poignant romance and fascinatingly understated darkness.


8. South Park: The Stick of Truth

Look, it’s South Park. Do I really need to explain this?


7. South Park: The Fractured but Whole

The South Park RPGs are pretty close to equal in terms of how funny they are, but I think the sequel has the original beat just a bit. The Stick of Truth was great, but a lot of the time, it was very focused on jamming as much of the show’s history into 1 game as possible, and that meant that sometimes the joke was simply that there had been a joke at 1 point. Which is fine, honestly, because they did it mostly well enough, but still...The Fractured but Whole had only a few years’ worth of new material to do that with, so the game seemed to try harder to find new gags to pull with what it already had in place, and I think it succeeded. The Crab People as service providers in SPTFbW was funnier to me than their just existing for the hell of it in SPTSoT, for example. And at times, the sequel’s just funnier overall--I can’t remember any part of The Stick of Truth making me laugh as hard as Randy’s bit, or the raid on the police station, or the genetics lab in The Fractured but Whole.

But yeah, anyway, South Park. It’s funny shit.


6. Borderlands 2

After never getting off the ground during the original, the irreverent, off-kilter comical style of Borderlands really hits its stride in the second game, taking you across a wild planet and adventure filled with hilarious violent wackjobs constantly cracking wise at one another. It’s a real testament to Borderlands 2’s writers that this game’s as hysterical as it is, because, honestly, the format for its narrative is a huge impediment. 95% of the method of delivery for the game’s jokes (and plot, and character development, and everything else of mental substance) is, after all, just having some off-screen voices sporadically chatter at you as you wander around and shoot stuff almost entirely independently of their input. To have made that work as a storytelling design, those writers have got to be have been some high-powered comedians. But they managed it, and Borderlands 2 is an appealing off-road excursion in absurdity.


5. Disgaea 1

Nippon Ichi at its best. What more is there to say than that? There are multiple reasons why this is the game that really put them on the map, and its signature ludicrous mirth is definitely 1 of them.


4. West of Loathing

Off-kilter style. A fantastically effective use of stick figures. An utterly ridiculous (yet somehow very authentic-feeling) Wild West setting. A deeply clever narration. A perfect sprinkling of references and low-brow humor. Word play of such quantity and quality that I daresay Shakespeare himself would tip his hat. And glorious, glorious pottyspittoon-humor. You just aren’t gonna find many greater comedies in this world than West of Loathing.


3. Undertale

You know, when we think of Undertale, what we remember most is always the heavy, fascinating ideas and messages of the game. Or it’s the secretive, poignant lore. Or it’s the engaging, incredibly lovable cast. Or it might even be the chilling, disturbing other side of its coin. But what we so frequently forget--and I’m certainly as guilty of this as anyone--is that it’s also relentlessly goddamn hilarious. From dad jokes to jabs at RPG conventions, from engaging physical comedy to a gentle touch of absurdity, from funny memes** to characters so vivacious that you can’t help but laugh at their simply being themselves, Undertale is never at a loss for a way to tickle your fancy. When you see its jokes coming, you still giggle at their arrival because of just how appealingly they’re told. Frequently you’ll find yourself laughing in delighted surprise as a jape falls into your lap unexpectedly.

And it’s all so well-conveyed, so pleasingly accessible--with every other game on this list, the comedy feels as comedy usually does: like its creator is out to make you laugh (and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, of course). With Undertale, though, it feels like Toby Fox (its creator) is creating jests and hi-jinks that make him laugh, and he’s just eager to share them with us. I don’t know if that’s a good way to describe it, but the overall effect is very disarming, very much like a friend who thought of something hilarious by accident, loved it, and just has to pass that jocular appreciation on to you.

Undertale is a masterful work in a myriad of ways, and 1 of them is the effortless way it keeps you invested by putting a smile on your face with nigh every step.


2. The Kingdom of Loathing

Basically, everything positive I said about West of Loathing is true with Asymmetric’s original RPG, except that KoL is a browser-based MMORPG that has been going on for over a decade and a half now, so when you play it, you’re basically getting all the hilarity of West of Loathing in exponentially greater quantities.


1. Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden

It’s a cyberpunk RPG in which Charles Barkley, his son Hoopz, and a dwarf with a basketball for a face, among some others, fight to survive in a post-apocalyptic dystopia in which basketball has been outlawed for years, ever since Barkley performed a dunk with such power that it caused a nuclear explosion. The premise alone is a side-splitter, but what really makes this sequel to Space Jam filled with save points that write treatises to the failings of RPGs the unassailable king of comedy is that everything, everything, is played totally straight. It’s like someone wrote in earnest a solid cyberpunk adventure of regret, rebellion, and redemption, and then, when that first someone was finished, he got up to go celebrate its completion with a sandwich and a nice glass of ginger ale...and then some internet wiseguy grabbed the script, broke out a red pen and a bit of white-out, and went to town on it, changing the names and details of lore into a mad mixture of basketball and absurdity, while never altering the tone or style in any way. The end result is the most utterly, hysterically ludicrous story ever told, made all the more rich for the fact that the game’s acting as its own straight man the entire time.


Honorable Mention: Fallout: New Vegas’s Old World Blues Downloadable Content

Yeah, there are humor RPGs, but did you know there are also humor DLCs? It’s true. When I stop to think about it, there are a good handful of add-ons devoted to comedy. Mass Effect 3’s Citadel, Fallout 3’s Mothership Zeta,*** that sort of thing--and of course most DLCs for games like Borderlands, which are already devoted to comedy. So, might as well honor these, as well, right?

While not especially lacking in funny content as a whole, Fallout: New Vegas very unfortunately followed Bethesda’s lead far more than the original Fallouts’ when it came to humor’s place within it. The Old World Blues DLC, however, made up for lost time in a major way, with its goofy premise, a cast of delightfully bizarre mad scientists, and singularly hilarious supporting personalities, providing a merry experience from the moment it starts. Honestly, this add-on would win by virtue of Muggy alone.













* Now that I think about it...in spite of being a very good RPG as a whole, SMT Persona 4 was absolute shit at being funny, wasn’t it? Yukiko’s schtick is tedious. Occasionally poking fun at Kanji’s sexuality and masculinity just comes off as being tacky. The camping trip shenanigans are so overused and unfunny that they offend one’s dignity just to suffer them. There’s an NPC spontaneously thrown into the game solely so the writers can make fun of fat people.

And then there’s the game’s favorite by a wide margin, Teddy trying to hook up with chicks, which is quite possibly the most exhausted, loathsome, braindead “joke” ever conceived by the human species. I swear to the Loom-mother, whoever at Atlus came up with that bit, and then insisted that it be done over and over, should know nothing but suffering until the end of their days. I want them to be put through a deboning machine. I long for their days and nights alike to be defined by varying states of incontinence. I wish that sharks would learn to walk on land to the specific aim of tracking them down.


** Interestingly, I don’t feel like Undertale will ever suffer the same problem that Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch did, with its humor fading somewhat over time because of its basis in internet comedy, which is a famously temporary and constantly-shifting entity. I can’t say for sure, of course, as Undertale’s still relatively recent, but that’s the impression I get. I think the trick of it is that MLRotB used the entire, specific details of its memes, while Undertale kind of makes its humor from the core ideas and feelings of the social media humor it works with. Will the online landscape ever change to the point that Alphys announcing she has a picture of herself and then posting a pic of a trash can ever be dated? To some extent, I’m sure it will be, but most of the joke is rooted in a lighthearted moment of self-deprecation after making a gaff on social media, and I daresay that’s a feeling and intent that’s always going to have relevance.


*** Granted, Mothership Zeta was a colossal failure at being funny, but just because Bethesda’s capacity for joviality is strictly limited to companions’ quips, that doesn’t mean that Mothership Zeta didn’t count.