Friday, November 18, 2022

Shin Megami Tensei 5's Downloadable Content

Oh goody.  DLC for Shin Megami Tensei 5.  So let’s see, that’ add-on, an add-on for a JRPG, an add-on which was made by Atlus, and an add-on that’s part of the SMT series.  Yeah, I’m sure this is gonna be great.

A Goddess in Training: It’s not worth the price.  In fact, here, Imma save you some time and tell you right upfront: NONE of these things are worth the cost.  None of them are even close.  Columbus was closer to finding India than SMT5’s DLCs get to being worth what they cost.  Fallout 76 is closer to being a Fallout title than these things are to being a worthwhile purchase.  Kanye West is closer to being a human being who deserves to be listened to than these add-ons are to providing an adequate return for your investment.

So anyway, A Goddess in Training basically has you pay $5 to do the following:
- Walk up to Artemis, Greek goddess of the hunt
- Tell her you killed the Hydra
- Go kill a Quetzacoatl to judge whether it’s strong enough to provide training to her
- Since Quetzacoal wasn’t up to snuff, you get to be Artemis’s sparring partner instead
- Recruit Artemis once you’re done kicking the crap out of her as the next part of her training

That’s it.  That’s all.  For $5 you get to engage in 2 fights and get a single new, slightly-more-helpful-than-average medium-low level Pokemon demon, attached to a “story” about how some chick wants to train and will now do so.  I’m not even sure it qualifies as a story; there was greater conflict and purpose to the process of brushing my teeth this morning than A Goddess in Training.  The throwaway "deliver x number of items to me" sidequests in SMT5 are more involved and significant, for fuck’s sake.  It has taken me longer to write this review than it took me to play this DLC from start to finish.  It may have taken you longer to read it.

The Rage of a Queen: This is somehow even shorter than the last one.  You get the quest, you go where Cleopatra is--this, the previous, and the next DLC all take place in the first area’s map, by the way, so the process of actually getting to the quest marker is more or less instantaneous; don’t go thinking there’s any kind of new territory to pass through or anything--she decides you must be there to kill her, you fight her, and you either let her kill herself or stop her from doing so, either way allowing you to add her to your ranks.  That’s it.

It’s $3 for nothing.  Generic level-up dialogue lines express more individuality and character for the demons speaking them than this DLC provides for Cleopatra.  The Rage of a Queen is phoning it in by the standards of Shin Megami Tensei 5, a game that is already half-assing it as an RPG.

The Doctor’s Last Wish: Oh wow look how unexpected, another DLC in which you get a quest, beat a demon up, and call it a day.  Another DLC that, not counting the commute from quest-giver to quest-target and back, can wrap itself up in less than 10 minutes.  For $3.

As expected by this point, what minuscule content you get from this add-on isn’t all that great.  Basically, you track down a scientist who makes proto-fiends like Aogami, and it turns out that he’s stayed alive and youthful for a while because he made a deal with Mephisto.  This deal stipulates that Doc Dumbass gets to keep kicking until he creates a proto-fiend with a human heart and soul.  Mephisto then makes the claim that the contract is fulfilled, pointing to the protagonist as evidence.

Which I don’t think really makes any sense, by the way.  First of all, the fact that Aogami happened to fall face-first into his compatible human knowledge counterpart is an act that Professor Putz had little to nothing to do with.  It’s not like he specifically designed Aogami with the theory or hypothesis that Aogami would be capable of it; it in fact sounds rather like this guy didn’t really know about the whole Susano-o thing at all.  So can this really, contractually qualify as Scientist Stupidface achieving that which he set out to do?  Og the Caveman can’t claim to have invented fire just because the lit match I drop happens to fall into his stick pile.

Secondly, how does anyone look at the protagonist of Shin Megami Tensei 5 and see anything that remotely resembles a being with a human heart and soul?  SMT5’s hero is more of an automaton than any actual robot I can immediately recall having seen in an RPG.  He makes Fire Emblem 16’s Byleth look positively emotive!  Doctor Dipshit should’ve seen the protagonist and felt like he’d moved further from his goal.

Anyway, Mephisto demands the guy’s soul, main character steps in to stop it, fight ensues, the dude dies anyway because it was Mephisto keeping him alive, and you’re done.  How fucking thrilling.

Return of the True Demon: Oh good, Atlus is now shamelessly leveraging your nostalgia as a cheap, crass selling point.  Congratulations, Atlus, so great to see you’ve finally joined the Dignity’s Rock-Bottom Club.  Leon’s Charizard will take your coat, Todd Howard will show you to your table, and if you need anything, SquareEnix is tending bar.

So basically, Return of the True Demon lets you take on the classic Fiends of Shin Megami Tensei (like you did in Shin Megami Tensei 3), and once you’re done with that, you’re given the opportunity to fight...SMT3's protagonist, THE DEMI-FIEND!!!  OOOOOH WOW HOLY SHIT THE DEMI-FIEND WOOOO YEAH BABY HOW EXCITING, ET CETERA!  As if that’s some big fucking deal.  Serph already curb-stomped Demi-fiend in SMT Digital Devil Saga 1, and considering their substantially greater accomplishments and feats of power, it’s hard to imagine that SMT2’s Aleph and SMT4-2’s Nanashi couldn’t also whup his ass pretty tidily.  But fanboys are known neither for their capacity for rational thought nor for the accuracy of their memory, so the Demi-fiend is still the SMT main character that draws the most attention, and Atlus is looking to cash that shit in.

Now credit where it’s due: you get to interact with each of the Fiends as you encounter them, and they do share a bit of mildly interesting lore stuff regarding the SMT main series’s timeline and cycles.  A lot of the other stuff they say is just pandering hype for the Demi-Fiend and for SMT5’s protagonist, but hey, how else would we know just what a super special boy the Nahobino is if SMT5 didn’t squander its extremely limited narrative presence on constantly telling us so?  Regardless, it’s at least SOMETHING slightly interesting, and even a tiny morsel is delicious to the starving man, so what one might take for granted in a well-told RPG stands out in Shin Megami Tensei 5.   Also, even if it’s obviously fanservice, it is fun to see that the Demi-Fiend is still hanging out with his Pixie, and it’s cool that she even gets lines as the Tatl to his Link.  So yeah, I guess that in spite of how shameless this DLC is in its premise, Return of the True Demon is probably the best of these add-ons.

But it’s also 10 bucks for 10 fights and about 5 - 10 minutes of dialogue.  The fact that this is the best cost-to-content ratio of SMT5’s add-ons doesn’t make this a smart buy--it just highlights what a fucking scam Atlus is running here.  So yeah, while I’d like to match the original Uber-Pixie against my latest home-brewed version of the tiny titan, my pride as a man, and more importantly as a Megaten player, will manage to survive not purchasing this DLC.  Maybe if you see this thing go down to, I dunno, $1, it might be worth your time, but otherwise, give Return of the True Demon the same hard pass as all the others.

Well gee, what a surprise, the company with a history of bad and overpriced add-ons has made some bad, overpriced DLCs for their bad, overpriced game.  Would it kill Atlus and Nintendo and all the rest to prove me wrong every now and then?

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Tales of Vesperia Stray Thoughts

Okay, guys, know how, in my last few Annual Summary rants, I’ve had a little section for notable (by my estimation, anyway) little thoughts and reactions I’ve had while playing RPGs that year?  I just realized that I have like over half a dozen of those things all specifically for weird and/or dumb moments in Tales of Vesperia.  And that’s simply way too much stuff for that part of the already gigantic Annual Summary rant...but it IS probably enough that I could cobble together a little mishmash rant out of these pieces and leavings.  Think of it like a rant meatloaf: a bit of the stuff you actually want to eat, mashed together with some tasteless filler sentences, to the point that it’s close enough to the real thing that you may not notice until your next meal just how lesser the meatloaf really was.

I’m sure it helps that even my regular rants probably wouldn’t manage to get USDA approved anyway.

So, without further ado, some of my stray thoughts about Tales of Vesperia!

- I’m not saying that the rest of Tales of Vesperia prior to this point has been lacking in moments that are slightly nonsensical or outright dumb, but I nonetheless have to scratch my head at the fact that, when the Imperial fleet is sailing to attack the giant battle fortress Heracles, all the knights aboard the ship are in full plate armor. guys know that ship-to-ship naval engagements don’t involve much face-to-face combat, right?  There ain’t much reason to be in full combat regalia unless you manage to board your foe.  And if your ship gets sunk before that happens (which is implied to have happened to quite a few of the Empire’s vessels in this encounter),’re not PCs; you can’t magically swim in armor that weighs 100 pounds.

- Since we’re on the subject of the Heracles...I’m sorry, Tales of Vesperia, did you just say that this giant, mobile battle fortress was built in secrecy by “a handful” of skilled engineers?  A handful?  Really?  A 6- to 10-story moving armed metal battle fortress the size of a few city blocks...constructed from scratch by a handful of skilled engineers.  In a world without substantially established industrial manufacturing or power tools.


- The Heracles incident seems to be 1 of the least rational parts of this game.  So lemme get this straight, Alexei.  Your plan is to use your giant, canon-studded mobile superweapon as a decoy--great use of your resources by the way, but hey, I guess it must not have been too much trouble to cobble together if it took no more than a handful of engineers--as you make it attack the city of Zapphias.  Meanwhile, as this attack is occurring, you pursue your true goal, a matter which requires you to the city of Zapphias.  The one that you’ve sent your titanic battle fortress, which possesses a canon that can annihilate with a single shot a significant portion of the city, to attack.  The city that YOU are currently IN is the one that you are, at this moment, directing your fantasy world weapon of mass destruction to do everything in its power to eradicate with heavy artillery.  Truly a spectacular display of strategy and cunning, Commander Fuckwit.

- Look, I know that donating to a good cause isn’t about what you yourself are getting out of it.  Absolutely do not want to give even the slightest impression that I believe otherwise.  Charity is about helping another, not satisfying yourself or gaining anything material back from the giving.  100%, no arguments, end of the debate.

But even still, if I’m gonna hand over 500 grand to an orphanage, I feel like I ought at least to have the right to actually go inside the damn building.

- Why is it that when Yuri visits his room partway through the story, a kid he knows, Ted, comes in and talks about Yuri and Flynn’s long history and relationship as though the kid has seen it in its entirety?  This kid’s talking about how when Yuri and Flynn were younger they had to share everything because they were poor, including their practice sword, and so on and so forth, and it’s like...Yuri and Flynn start this game at the age of 21 years old each.  Ted looks to be, like, 9.  What, was he just very perceptive from inside the womb?

- Even good ol’ Since We’re Not Related It’ll Be Okay Syndrome is stretched near its limit when minor sidequest NPC Karen outright calls the man she aims to marry “Big Brother.”  To his face.  Come on, RPGs.

- I can’t believe I’m actually implying that Tales of Symphonia did something competently, but...why is it that back in that game, we had an entire small plot arc to explain to us why Presea, who was trapped in the body of a preteen, had enough super strength to swing around a giant ax roughly equivalent to her entire body mass, and yet 5 years of narrative evolution later, Tales of Vesperia feels not even the slightest urge to rationalize why Karol can do the exact same thing?  He’s no less in the Disney Channel’s focus age demographic than Presea appeared to be.

- What benefit was there in making Estelle a princess?  No, really, tell me.  Her position never causes any bad guy to hesitate at all when she orders people to stop their various villainies.  Flynn and other military officials already have reason to follow Yuri’s group around since he’s a wanted criminal.  The other heir to the Empire is the one who winds up taking charge of the nation and fulfilling the friend-in-high-places role whenever the plot actually needs that.  It’s not even a slight hiccup in how Estelle’s friends see her when they find out.

Just about the only things that come of her being royalty are A, a lore connection with the founders of the Empire being the same magical plot people that she winds up being, and B, her character arc of having to decide for herself what she wants to be in life.  But Point A is so easily altered it barely counts; she could just as easily be a descendent of a long-lost illegitimate child of some royal or something (which could have opened up decent avenues of character development for her to boot), or even just not have it definitively explained to start with.  No one cares about hereditary Magical Plot Importance the way writers think they do.  And as for Point B, it actually hurt my sensibilities to refer to Estelle’s brief flirtation with the question of career autonomy as a “character arc” because it’s so half-heartedly touched upon that it may as well not even be there.  Hell, ToV would’ve gotten more mileage out of a scenario where Estelle HADN’T been anyone socially important, and has to grapple with the prospect of what she wants to do with her life going forward now that she’s discovered that she was the living plot mcguffin around which the world would revolve for a moment.

But nah, much easier to just tick off the “Have a princess” box on your RPG trope list and never think about it again.

- What was even the point of Zagi?  It’s like if you mixed the contentious, obsessive antagonism of Pokemon Generation 2’s Rival with Final Fantasy 9’s Black Waltz 3’s schtick of only existing for the purpose of killing, and added Fire Emblem 16’s Death Knight’s inability to EVER SHUT THE FUCK UP about that fact.  Only, you then forgot that all 3 of those characters actually served some kind, ANY kind, of narrative purpose.  You could write him out of Tales of Vesperia entirely and change not a single solitary thing.  The only difference would be that there’d be 4 or 5 moments in the game that the player would find a little less tedious.

- You know, I appreciate the fact that there’s a conversation skit in Tales of Vesperia in which the party questions how it can be that there are still rank-and-file soldiers who have sided with Alexei and continue to aid him even though he’s shown his true colors as a tyrant and traitor.  The fact that major villains in RPGs always seem to have legions of disposable minions, ones who are self-aware and intelligent beings who have to have made a conscious choice to ally themselves with a douchebag, is not questioned nearly often enough.

Unfortunately, Namco-Bandai chose THIS moment to raise that inquiry, with 1 of their villains for whom this blind minion obedience is the least explicable.  The party comes to a conclusion of it being something of a result of Alexei’s cult of personality and a belief within the rank-and-file troops that he’s best qualified for leadership, but the game has shown us essentially nothing to explain why any of his subordinates, direct or distant, would feel that way about Alexei.  There have been no scenes prior to this of Alexei’s having taken any interest in or done anything especially respectful/considerate towards his lower underlings, there’s been no situation shown in which he displayed any leadership skills above what you could expect from an assistant manager at a Denny’s, he’s not in possession of any memorable personality, and the game sure as hell hasn’t felt any obligation to have Alexei prove the validity of, or even adequately explain, his attempt to control the world.  As with numerous other factors and nuances of characterization and motivation, Tales of Vesperia’s just telling us to take this explanation on faith, rather than go by the actual, observable evidence in the game, which would imply that the contrary should be true.

- Why do RPG bishounen always have such a hard time adequately living up to the extremely simple, straightforward wishes/spirit of their dead friends/family members?  Duke wants to fulfill the wish and will of his departed friend Elucifer.*  Elucifer's dying wish?  To protect the world and for there to be peace for all living things.  Duke's solution?  Suck the life out of every human being on the planet.  I know RPG villains are absolutely terrible at even the most fundamental levels of basic logical reasoning, but Jesus Christ, dude, come on.

* Whose idea on the Namco-Bandai staff was it to give this guy this name?

Friday, October 28, 2022

Chrono Cross's Use of a Silent Protagonist

The incompetence of Chrono Cross at every level of its writing and conception is well-documented, particularly by myself.  And yet, even though its greatest flaws are easily listed and discussed, and have been many a time by many a person, the minor mistakes it makes through the course of its story are not given all that much attention, even though they cumulatively drag the game’s quality down just as much as its infamous blunders.  In fact, even after over 20 years of hating this game, 1 of the regular-sized but nonetheless substantial mistakes of Chrono Cross only just now occurred to me: the decision to make Serge a silent protagonist.

Now I’ve criticized the concept of the RPG silent protagonist many times before, and to be sure, inflicting Serge with a permanent Mute status ailment did the storytelling of Chrono Cross no more favors than it did with Vahn in Legend of Legaia, or any given protagonist in the Etrian Odyssey series--or Chrono Trigger’s Crono himself, for that matter.  But the problems created by forcing a strict non-personality onto Serge actually go beyond that which afflict most games as a result of their mute heroes.  The thing is, you see, is that Chrono Cross is way too personal a story to Serge to be able to work without his verbal and emotional participation.

Consider the relationship between the main plot and the main character in, say, Wild Arms 1, a fairly standard example of an RPG with a silent protagonist.  Protagonist Rudy Roughknight comes from humble yet not fully understood beginnings, and, through a series of escalating circumstances, finds himself becoming gradually but inextricably involved in a sprawling quest to save the world from a great villainous threat.  There are reasons revealed to us along the way for why Rudy is especially suited for defending the world from those that threaten it, reasons involving his true origins which tie him in certain ways to the story as a whole...but though he is adequately personally involved, his participation in Wild Arms 1 is still largely a case of his having happened to get caught up in a series of major events, and his choosing to step up and do his part for the greater good.  This is the most typical case of RPG stories, particularly involving a silent protagonist--the main character has some ties to the unfolding events of the story, because being a random bystander from start to finish isn’t as compelling, but by and large, the machinations of the game’s villains and the story events set in motion do not revolve around the protagonist’s existence.

Plenty of other games, however, tell far more personal stories which are completely and totally derived from the protagonist’s existence, actions, and beliefs.  Absolutely no part of Planescape: Torment would have occurred sans The Nameless One, for example; it’s a game entirely about him, his legacy, and his personal journey to accept mortality.  Tales of Berseria, meanwhile, possesses a plot whose every fiber of emotional character and themes are iconized by protagonist Velvet Crowe, and its sequence of events are entirely her personal quest for vengeance.  Sometimes it’s more of a half-and-half situation--Dragon Age 2, for example, is a story of the social conflict and turmoil of the city of Kirkwall over a few years, as a representative sample of the simmering cultural conflicts of the land of Thedas as a whole.  But just as much as it is that overarching plot, it’s also the story of how the hero Hawke confronted and overcame these conflicts and more to become the city’s champion, and what it cost her/him to do so.  Final Fantasy 7’s another example of this mix, wherein a lot of shit goes down in its plot that amounts to larger forces at work that protagonist Cloud heroically reacts to, but also a ton of the game’s story is inextricably tied to who Cloud is and his personal psychological issues, and only moves forward through his action and presence in events specifically designed for him and him alone.

And unfortunately, this more personal story is the approach that Chrono Cross’s plot takes.  I mean, think about it.  The vast majority of the game’s events revolve around Serge in some significant capacity, as does at least half of the lore events that occur as preamble to the game’s story.  Serge isn’t just some random hero-to-be kid who finds himself transported into another reality early into Chrono Cross--once he’s in Another World, he’s almost immediately attacked by the minions of antagonist Lynx, who is specifically targeting Serge and will continue to do so for the first third of the game.  And why is that?  Because Serge’s DNA is the key to opening a door in Chronopolis, which is a fluke chance that resulted from a sequence of events in Serge’s childhood that made him a living plot mcguffin.  These events also had the result of separating Serge from his father for the rest of his childhood, and (supposedly) giving him a phobia of cats--both facts being relevant in that his father’s body is used by overarching villain FATE to create Lynx, who is only someone’s Inkbunny OC because FATE wants to take advantage of Serge’s fear of felines.

Eventually Serge finds the Frozen Flame, it swaps bodies between him and Lynx, and he winds up, eventually, back in his own home dimension (Home World) whilst in the body of a villain.  For the next 60% of the game, his task is to save his companion Kid and stop the real Lynx in his old body (since Kid is too dumb to know the difference), which, upon success, eventually leads into a bunch of poorly conceived, poorly explained, utterly pointless, and at times self-contradicting nonsense regarding multi-timeline-spanning Skynets being tricked by dinosaurs whose reality got aborted and also Schala and Baltahasar and Lavos are superfluously tacked on in the clumsiest possible way.

But aside from all the jumbled idiocy that is the core of Chrono Cross, that’s a largely personal plot to Serge.  As a house key given human form, he’s the essential crux of nearly every major plot movement for 90% of the game.  As a result of this, the kid is lost in an alternate universe that is just similar but different enough that it must surely be maddeningly frustrating, is hunted by an enemy he had no idea existed, loses his body AND is trapped within the body of an evildoer (one which ain’t exactly easy to disguise, either), loses his friends in the process, is finally able to return to his Home World but now in the body of a monster which makes him more alien here than he was in Another World, and when Miguel finally has an opportunity to dump some exposition on him by the truckload, Serge finds out that his father’s disappearance was due to his dad being transformed into Lynx, the villain that had been out to get him all along, meaning that Serge is currently hanging out in his own dad’s body.

Not only that, but the majority of the most important figures in the game have a very strong connection to him.  Lynx is, of course, a strong contender for poster child of Unnecessary Paternal Ties Syndrome, but even if Chrono Cross doesn’t seem to really actually care all that much that the villain is technically the same matter that was the protagonist’s dad, Lynx is still fixated on Serge as the necessary component of his plan.  Kid turns out to have some nebulous and weird tie to him across time and space.  Plot-vomiter Miguel was his dad’s buddy and also has been hanging out in the middle of nowhere and notime for like 15 years specifically so he could spill his lore guts to Serge and almost forget that he had his own kid.  Harle is the only significant person who isn’t stapled onto Serge by destiny, but (for some truly inexplicable reason) she becomes emotionally attached to him as she guides him to Chronopolis.

So yeah, Chrono Cross is a story where nearly every important thing that happens is centered around Serge, and he’s exposed to and undergoes events and situations which have strong personal, emotional relevance to and impact upon him, AND the most important people pushing events forward are all extremely connected to him.  And he isn’t saying a thing about any of it.

Fear from being hunted by an unknown villain?  Confusion and wonder at being in an alternate world?  Existential grappling with interacting with a world in which he died?  Homesick yearning to return to the world he knows and the people he cares about?  Deepening friendship and/or love for his ally Kid?  Personal torment at being trapped within a body not his own, one so radically different and also reviled by most who know it?  Anguish at losing his new friends as they see him only for what’s on the surface, including Kid herself?  Frustration and loss at returning home only to, thanks to his new body, be a greater stranger here than in the other world?  Forming an emotionally meaningful connection with his new ally Harle?  Amazement at discovering that there’s life on other planets, and that it’s goddamn cute as the dickens?  Learning the truth of his father’s disappearance and the reasons for all that has happened to him?  Sorrow at the fate of Miguel?  Squicky weird unsettled feeling at realizing that it’s his own dad’s scratching post and yarn balls he’s been swingin’ around for over half the game now?  Elation at finally retrieving his own form?

Not a word about any of it.  Square created 1 of the most personally-relevant-to-the-protagonist stories in its entire history, and then made that protagonist UNABLE TO ENGAGE WITH IT.

It’s bad enough when Silent Protagonist Link communicates nothing more complicated than a grunt of exertion in any given The Legend of Zelda title, but at least with those, he’s only involved inasmuch as he’s stuck in a vaguely recurring destiny, and the ways in which the plot involves his personal life (such as following his uncle in A Link to the Past, or his lifelong friend Zelda’s being taken in Skyward Sword) are usually surface-level, straightforward “Gotta Go Do Hero Stuff Now” ways.  And it’s bad enough when Silent Protagonist Ryu 2 has nothing more than a few sweat drop sprites to display as a reaction to any part of his personal obligations which move the plot forward for 35% of Breath of Fire 2, but at least the game’s story eventually dissolves into a standard “I’m Just Hero-ing For The Hell Of It Now” situation afterward.  But this?

Imagine if Velvet wasn’t able to voice the rage and pain behind her quest for vengeance, or help Laphicet form his identity as a being through hundreds of conversations.  Imagine if The Nameless One had no lines of complex, brilliant dialogue through which to refine his journey for identity and mortality.  Imagine if Cloud had no more tools through which to communicate his confusion, turmoil, and realizations of his own weaknesses than a few stiff pantomimes.  Imagine if Hawke never showed a reaction to her/his family’s and city’s ever tumultuous fortunes, if Fei could do no more than nod dumbly at the fact that he’s the centerpiece of 6 different absurdly complex world-stakes plots all going on simultaneously in Xenogears, if a story so reliant upon the strong and affectionate bonds between the protagonist and her siblings as Fire Emblem 14’s was restricted by being unable to actually show the interactions between Corrin and said family.

It doesn’t even make sense by Silent Protagonists’ own poor logic, for Nalinivati’s sake.  While a few notably excellent exceptions exist, the whole point of burdening an RPG with a silent protagonist is, traditionally, out of some misguided, functionally pointless, and usually outright wrong idea that it makes the protagonist more relatable to the player.  In spite of the evidence of literal thousands of years of human storytelling,* RPG writers cling to this absurd notion that a blank slate is easier to relate to for a human audience than a protagonist who displays, y’know, actual humanity.  But as we’ve established, Serge’s existence and role in the events of Chrono Cross is anything but a blank slate.  This ain’t some monotonous Dragon Quest hero stumbling through a tofu-only sandwich on processed white bread in narrative form, where conjuring a personality and backstory out of one’s own imagination for him is a desperate act of self-defense by the audience’s mind as it fights to stay conscious.  Serge’s circumstances and history are aggressively unique, stupidly over-complicated, and rely heavily on irrationality.  It doesn’t matter if he’s as speechless as a game industry executive asked to specifically detail how NFTs are going to improve the player’s experience; Serge is not the kind of main character that invites this imaginary scenario of the player relating to the Silent Protagonist.

While far from the game’s worst qualities, the decision to make Serge a gagged spectator to his own story is insane.**  Yeah, it’s possible to pull off a Silent Protagonist who doesn’t lower the quality of an RPG based around their personal story--Severed accomplishes this, as does Transistor, and if my old theory about Frisk is true, you could make an argument that Undertale sort of manages it, too.  But it takes a distinct level of narrative skill and knowledge of exactly what you’re doing to pull something like that off.  Chrono Cross, on the other hand, can’t even handle normal, foundational writing conventions adequately--it sure as hell didn’t need to handicap itself further.

* Yes I stole this from a Robot Chicken Halo sketch, no I’m not ashamed.

** Insane, but not unexpected.  This IS the game whose writers outsourced 90% of their job to an accent version of Babelfish in terms of the cast.

A fact which, by the way, only worsens the situation with Serge.  Under normal circumstances, the rest of the cast may be able to pick up a bit of a silent protagonist’s slack by interpreting him to the player.  For example, in Wild Arms 1, when Rudy’s true nature is revealed, there’s a moment in which Cecilia admonishes Jack for being too harsh with Rudy, pointing out how scared Rudy looks as evidence that the kid himself didn’t know.  With sprites that were somehow less sophisticated than those of the previous console generation, there was certainly no way we as the audience could have discerned that fact otherwise, but that’s the benefit of an involved and functional surrounding cast--they fill in some of the blanks that the stupid decision to go with a Silent Protagonist create.  Hell, almost the entirety of Transistor’s storytelling is based around this kind of thing.  Transistor aside, it’s not usually a great narrative device, of course--it feels a bit like that stupid thing that shows and cartoons and movies do where someone on the phone just repeats everything they’re being told so the audience can get the necessary information, even though no human in history has ever had a conversation like that.  But it’s better than nothing.

But unfortunately, even that crutch is unavailable to Serge, because the party of Chrono Cross is impersonally distant, have effectively no interactions with the plot as it goes on around them since their reactionary dialogue has to be substance-less enough for the accent system’s purposes, and each member gets essentially 2 very tiny scenes of character development to themselves, most of which don’t have any relevance to the main story.  As a result, we rarely see anyone around Serge engage with him to the point that we could glean any insight whatsoever into his feelings or mental state.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Fire Emblem 14's Unofficial Gay Fates Mod is Delightful

I’ve been trying to write this rant for a while now, and I always get stuck with it, because I keep trying to be a verbose grandstanding idiot about it, going on about the noble creative endeavors that RPG mods can be as works of love, creativity, and a desire to correct costly mistakes, and blah blah blah.  And all that is absolutely true and some of it’s even true for this particular mod, but in the end, it’s not what’s goddamn relevant.  What is, is the fact that Fire Emblem 14’s Unofficial Gay Fates mod is simple, delightful fun built on fans’ love for the game’s characters and the self-indulgence of shipping the hell out of all of them.  And damn it all, I like it for that, and so will you.

An expanded continuation of an abandoned mod that caught my eye some years ago,* the Unofficial Gay Fates Add-On mod is pretty simple and straightforward in concept: it adds social links Supports, both whole new ones altogether and also new S-Rank conversations for existing ones, written by a myriad number of fans who have collaborated on this project.  A lot of new Supports, for that matter.  And this takes many forms.

Now of course, this is most obviously represented by pairs of characters who didn’t have any kind of support connection in the original FE14 now, with this mod, able to form meaningful friendships, and even** become romantically involved.  This, of course, is going to most often be true for same-sex couples, since the characters already had a ton of heterosexual options available in the vanilla game.  Also, character pairs who had supports that had no romantic S rank before may now have this cherished Let’s Bone rank (which again is most often true for same-sex pairs), and characters who could romance Corrin heterosexually may now also get their gay on should Corrin be of their own sex, with the final romance interaction appropriately altered to represent Corrin’s gender (which in at leat 1 case involved actual re-writing beyond just pronoun switching (more on this case below)).  There’s, like, dozens of entirely new support conversation chains that the mod adds which end with romance.  FE14 was already packed full of potential love stories, but with the Unnoficial Gay Fates Add-On, you can just go absolutely hog wild with it.

Fanservicy?  Oh it’s fanservicy.  It’s fanservicy as fuck.  This is self-indulgence to an extreme within a franchise that is already unhealthily indulgent about such things.

But hang it all, it’s still fun.  This isn’t some game company gracelessly pandering in the hopes of making a cheap, sleazy buck off of its audience.  We, the audience ourselves, are the ones creating these indulgent scenarios.  Not out of some crass hope of hitting the lowest common denominator selling point, but because we actually like the work’s characters, and want to have more content of them to enjoy.  I think fanservice is a hell of a lot less deplorable when it’s massaging characters’ potential out of love than when it’s twisting characters’ essence out of greed.

And that love and gentle treatment shows in this work, because honestly, the overall level of writing to be found in this mod is solid.  Now I haven’t read all of them, and there’s some variation from 1 fan writer to the next...but overall, the characters are represented well, the scenarios in which they engage with one another and become friends and lovers are decent and at times even inventive, and the emotional progression generally checks out well (within reason; we’re still talking about going from 0 - 69 in just 4 conversations).  And most of them even still feel authentic to the general method and ambiance of the game’s original material.  Not ALL of them, admittedly, because some of us just can’t help being overly verbose garrulous windbags no matter what we do, resulting in conversations that are like 3x longer than anything you’d normally have found in the game, but eh.

Yes, I contributed some of the Supports in this mod, so yes, a lot of the last 2 paragraphs was me shamelessly patting myself on the back.  I don’t care.  I like what I wrote, and I like the characters I wrote for.  The world forgives show- and game-ruining narcissism from the likes of Dan Harmon and Randy Pitchford; I think I can be forgiven a little pride here and there.  I’ve still got a ways to go before I see David Cage in the mirror.

Beyond being genuinely enjoyable and giving the player a chance to do more shipping in an afternoon than their local FedEx hub, it should be noted that this mod DOES have its higher purposes.  Yes, its draw is primarily for the simple fun of it, but I wouldn’t be making a rant about it here if that truly were all there was to it.  The Unofficial Gay Fates Add-On also fixes some mistakes that the original FE14 made.  Remember my list of Fire Emblem 14’s romances?  After I celebrated the best the game had to offer and lamented its worst, I also listed out certain love story options that really should have been available to the player, such as the popularly desired Ryoma x Scarlet (given that they have an actual personal connection in the main story, which you sure as hell can’t say about most of the various shipping possibilities in the game), or the option for characters who very clearly, canonically already have romantic and/or sexual interests in their own gender to romance Corrin regardless of gender (how insane is it that Soleil’s only able to romance Male Corrin, yet her interest in him is based on closing her eyes and pretending that he’s a girl?).  Quite obviously, this mod corrects these mistakes of negligence, allowing for several romantic relationships whose absence in FE14 was a notable error.***

Additionally, I’m just pleased overall that FE14 now (unofficially) has a good number of homosexual relationships available to its characters.  I was really annoyed over how incredibly tiny a first step FE14 was for the series (and the publisher, for that matter) into realistically representative romance options, and I sincerely think this is what Fire Emblem 14 needed. And while you can certainly make the argument that giving every character multiple same-sex relationship options is overkill, that overkill is still a hell of a lot better than the previous state of inadequacy.  It’s not like you HAVE to engage in teh gayz with every character if you don’t want to, and even if it’s obvious where the main focus of the mod is, like I said earlier, there’s plenty of new heterosexual couples added in, too.

Also, I know it’s not a huge thing, but it’s a bit of a relief that Peri now has more than just 1 single romantic option that actually helps her grow and develop past being a mental-age-stinted murder-hobo.  And just for a little extra fun, this mod also incorporates a different one which makes Lilith a playable character, complete with her own Supports, which is nice, honestly, because she kinda got dropped and forgotten by the original game, and definitely deserved better.

The Unnofficial Gay Fates Add-On mod really displays just how much its community genuinely enjoys and cares for the characters of this game in ways that go far past the self-indulgence of shipping, too.  The mod also adds quite a few unique conversations between potential mothers and children (which, in the original game, were only represented by a single stock conversation per child), unique conversations between potential same-sex fathers and their children and between siblings created through male same-sex romances (so the mod opens up and then provides an entire new branch of parent-child and sibling interaction Supports),**** and even a bunch of purely platonic Supports between various other characters, often a first generation character and a second generation character who might have cause to have interactions and a connection.  You’ll come for the shipping, but you’ll stay for the tremendous expansion on the cast’s interrelationships.  And again, while I haven’t seen them all by a long shot, what I’ve experienced has been consistently good quality.

Worth noting is also the care and skill which the leader of this project, Babysauce, or Chicken McNuggies (depending on whether they prefer their name on GameBanana or Youtube), has transcribed these conversations into the game.  Not only does Babysauce transcribe all these conversations into the game--which by itself is a huge feat, considering there is, at the time I write this, 367 Supports***** that have been added or changed by the mod, and at least a few of them are pretty damn long--but they also add textual effects where appropriate.  It’s not just 2 people standing there exchanging text boxes; there are times when the mod’s conversations are almost like a Tales of skit with how effectively they’re executed.

Additionally, Babysauce has added a feature from Fire Emblem 13 that was cut from FE14: the use of characters’ spoken lines in their Support conversations.  In FE13, conversations would apparently (I still haven’t played it) use some basic, pre-packaged vocal lines for each character that, while not actually speaking the lines in the text box, would roughly represent the intent/mood of the dialogue.  A character might say, for example, “My heart flutters when mine eyes behold thy sublime countenance, oh cherished beloved,” in the text box, while the vocal line “WOOO YEAH BRO THAT’S THE GOOD SHIT” plays over it to emphasize the character’s positive excitement.  Exaggeration for humorous effect aside, though, it’s a cute quirk of the Support conversations that does add to their quality in FE13, and the fact that Babysauce has now used FE14’s existing voice acting lines recorded for battle scenarios is just 1 more feather in this mod’s cap.

And it’s worth a decent bit of respect, too, because it means that in addition to transcribing all these dozens and dozens of new conversations, Babysauce is also taking the time to review them for appropriate moments to add these vocal effects, too.  The amount of care and effort that’s been put into this mod is staggering the more I think about it.

Now, it’s all fine and dandy and well and good and nice and spiffy and peachy that this mod exists, and is a lot of fun, and is well done, but of course, not everyone’s got the know-how and tech wherewithal to go around modding their 3DS games.  Or maybe everyone actually does, and it’s just me who’s a slack-jawed moron.  But either way, the great thing about The Unnofficial Gay Fates Add-On is that you don’t actually HAVE to install it to enjoy its content.  Because, as it turns out, Babysauce has also gone and uploaded a video of basically every Support added by the mod to Youtube!  So you can even experience the joy of your favorite ships from the comfort of your own technological disinclination!

So if you like Fire Emblem 14’s cast, but were left in any way wanting about who could hook up, or you’d be interested to see the family dynamics of its first and second generations expanded upon, or even just want to see what happens when I try my hand at silly stupid sappy fanfiction,****** you should check out The Unofficial Gay Fates Add-On mod.  It’s earnest, skillful, and a heck of a lot of fun!

* Unassuming Venusaur’s Same-Sex Marriage Patch, to give proper credit.

** Ha!  “Even.”  As though the shipping isn’t entirely the reason for it.

*** I’m quite pleased that I got to be involved in 1 of these corrections, that being (re)writing the S Support I felt was most mistakenly left out of the game, Camilla with Female Corrin.

**** Children are linked to their fathers in this game, so the child character of Mitama, for example, is always the daughter of her father Azama, while her mother could be any of Azama’s Supports that can reach S Rank.  With this mod, though, Azama could potentially get together with, say, Silas.  Mitama still exists, whether through a surrogate mother or some magical conception-to-birth means, but obviously the stock conversations she could have with her mother are not viable.  But this mod also adds a unique Support, in that case, between Mitama and her second father Silas--it really goes all in on these.  Similarly, since child characters are linked to their fathers, male same-sex pairings in this game leads to 2 child characters who are now siblings--in the example I gave, Sophie, as Silas’s daughter, is also now Mitama’s sister.  And the mod also provides a unique Support between Mitama and Sophie in this scenario which reflects their connection.

***** In fairness, I would assume that the many, many Supports that originated in Unassuming Venusaur’s progenitor to this mod had most of the work done for them.  But Babysauce has still done probably more than half of the total conversations in this mod, I would say.

****** Oh you all KNOW I’m too shameless not to share these things with you directly.  AND share my thoughts on them as if anyone cares.  Enjoy, maybe!

Camilla x Corrin (S Rank):
For most gay Corrin S conversations, a simple matter of pronoun-switching is all that’s needed, but Camilla’s specifically involves referencing a scenario--Corrin, a man, and Camilla, a woman, going on a vacation to a hot springs resort together--that just doesn’t have the same social context when it’s between 2 women, so some additional care was called for.  I know this is all a bunch of silly fanfiction, but I’m all the same very pleased with how I’ve reworked this conversation to stay generally in line with the original, but have Corrin’s concern about appearances make a bit more sense.

...And then use that slight alteration as a springboard to add juuuuust a bit of character stuff for Camilla and her obsession with Corrin.  Because Qi Jhong help me I just can’t stop myself.

Mitama x Selkie:
Mitama is my spirit animal and I fucking love her.*******  And Selkie just never ceases to amuse me.  I’m most proud of my Camilla x Corrin S rewrite, but I definitely had the most fun and personally like this Support the most of these.

Mitama x Ophelia:
I just have a certain fondness for burdening Mitama with quirky, disruptive, and arguably mildly insane characters, it seems.  Camilla x Corrin is the one I’m proudest of, and Mitama x Selkie is the one I had the most fun with (not that I didn’t enjoy writing all of these, mind you), but objectively, I think the best overall of my Supports is probably this one; it just seems to flow right and bring them together very well.


Saturday, October 8, 2022

General RPGs' Characters Walking Toward Something They're Shooting At

It is with full sincerity that I tell you that I struggled with myself over whether this rant should just begin and end with the single sentence, “It’s stupid.”

Because why should I elaborate?  You already know why it’s stupid.  And if you don’t, if you cannot already guess everything I am about to say, then the only explanation is that you’re 1 of the goons in the writer’s room who perpetuates this trope, and I know no one on any of those staffs is reading this blog.

But fuck it, we’ll do this the proper way.  I’m still not over the novelty of seeing words magically appear on a screen that say the thinky-thinky things my head makes inside, after all.  But I’m keeping it short.  Even I have better things to do than dignify something this transparently dumb with a long treatise.  And lest ye forget, I’m the guy who once wrote a critical rant about helmets in RPGs based on Dungeons and Dragons.  So just keep in mind how low that bar is.

There are a lot of advantages to ranged weapons.  Longbows had enough power to penetrate the most advanced, heaviest armor the middle ages could produce--that’s a hell of a lot more than you could say for a guy wielding a sword.  Crossbows are so deadly that the Catholic Church actually banned them in warfare for a little while, on the grounds that they were so unfairly effective killing instruments that God Himself found them hateful--and that’s a quote.*  Spears may dull, axes may rust, clubs may break, and swords do all of those things and more, but as long as you can find some rocks, yes just goddamn rocks, a sling's gonna be a reliable armament, and damned easy to reproduce if it does break.  And of course, the typical star of ranged weapons, firearms?  Handheld ones can be easily concealed, and large-scale stuff like canons can penetrate not just armor, but even vehicles and defensive fortifications.

But the 1 most important advantage to a ranged weapon, the most basic, intrinsic virtue it possesses that even the most slack-jawed drooling dipshit on Earth ought to be able to see, is the fact that they’re, you know...ranged.  You do not have to take the time to approach someone to attack them if you have a bow.  You do not have to deal with whatever close and personal offenses the other guy has available to him when you’re holding a blowgun loaded with a poison dart.  If your opponent has a sword and you’ve got a gun, and he’s more than 7 feet away from you, then congratulations, you win the fight as long as you yourself don’t muck it up by aiming wrong.

Which is why Thane’s death in Mass Effect 3 is utterly idiotic.  Thane, armed with a pistol, is facing off against Kai Leng, who is armed with a katana.  They start off in close quarters as a matter of circumstance, but at a certain point, Thane manages to knock the glee club ninja back about 15 feet or so.  And what does Thane do then?  He fires at Kai Leng, while RUNNING TOWARD HIM.  Completely out of the range of Kai Leng’s outdated wasn’t-even-a-major-weapon-of-warfare-in-its-heyday-so-stop-jizzing-your-pants-about-it-Japan katana, got Kai Leng unobstructed in his sights, possesses a lifetime’s experience of perfect marksmanship as the galaxy’s top assassin, and knows he himself is on death’s door from a terminal illness in his lungs...and Thane intentionally moves toward his enemy.  And oh hey, what a surprise, the man whose lungs are working at 10% capacity and who isn’t armed with a close-quarters weapon gets mortally stabbed immediately thereafter.  It’s almost like throwing away the advantage of range when you have a ranged weapon wasn’t a stroke of tactical genius!

Of course, the situation wasn’t helped by Shepard and company being hit with a heavy dose of Voyeuristic Paralysis Syndrome during the whole fight.

And speaking of Shepard himself being dumb, this isn’t even the only time Mass Effect 3 pulls this idiotic shit.  As long as you don’t have the good sense to download the real ending to Mass Effect, Shepard will, in the Destroy ending, choose to walk into an explosion.  Yeah, the dumbass is faced with the task of destroying a computer console--that’s an inanimate target, mind you--with his pistol, opens fire as he walks toward it, and keeps advancing AS IT EXPLODES.  Kai Leng at least would have attempted to close the gap himself, but the only way that Shepard could suffer damage in this scenario would be to knowingly place himself within the explosion.  And that is exactly where he chooses to be.  It’s not like he doesn’t know what’s going on and doesn’t have time to turn around--the damn fool actively flinches in his pace as he sees parts shatter and bursts of flame go up from it!  And it ain’t like he could possibly think that his attack isn’t having an effect and thus he needs to get closer for more damage, because, again, he’s REACTING to the explosions from the damage that he is CAUSING to it.

Now, even if I personally love the game besides the horrible ending, a lot of people hate Mass Effect 3, so you may be thinking to yourself that this moronic cliche is only a problem for “bad” RPGs.  Yeah, not so.  I’m fairly sure that almost everyone agrees that Horizon 0 Dawn is a solid title with good writing, and it pulls this exact same stupid shit!  When Rost is squaring off against Helis, this battle starts with Rost being, I dunno, a good 20+ feet away from Helis, with Rost scoring an arrow in Helis’s back while Helis is armed with only a knife.  What’s Rost’s next move?  Why, to hurriedly scramble toward Helis, closing the gap between them so quickly that he only has time to fire off 1 more arrow (which Helis blocks) before he has to engage in hand-to-hand combat with him.  Now Rost ain’t stuck in the last stages of a terminal illness like Thane was, but for Pharasma’s sake, he’s got a chance for several more free shots before Helis can get to him!  Just because the jerk can block 1 arrow (which isn’t relevant since Rost is moving toward him even before that happens so it didn't affect his decision to do so), that doesn’t necessarily mean he could block 2 or 3 more, and even if he can, the worst that comes of that is that Rost still has to take him on with his spear after getting those free shots.  It’s not even like Rost could be worried about hitting Aloy, because Helis stupidly drops her instead of using her as a body shield.  No, he just goes as fast as he can to a distance where his enemy has a chance to kill him, and what do you know, it gives his enemy a chance to kill him.

OOOOOH but it’s so much more dramatic for Rost to rush into close quarters, so much cooler for Thane to do a shooting sprint, so much more cinematic for Shepard to stride headfirst into flaming shrapnel.  Who cares about competent storytelling or character consistency when there’s the chance for extra glittery flare in an action scene, right?

It’s not just an RPG problem.  Oh man is it ever not just an RPG problem.  This dumbass trope rears its empty head practically once a week in other video games and shows and cinema; hell, it might be more reasonable for me to get on my knees and give heartfelt thanks that it’s actually fairly infrequent in this genre.  Nonetheless, it’s a damned stupid cliche, it’s obvious that it’s damned stupid, and creators really need to stop using it.

* I’d kill to see someone crash any given stupid faux-Christian protest rally with all those “God Hates (Insert Marginalized Group Here)” signs and whatnot with his/her own sign proclaiming “God Hates Crossbows.”

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Final Fantasy 7 Remake's Cloud's Recollections

Although its DLC may not have held up, I have to admit that the remake of Final Fantasy 7 has thus far been far more carefully, intelligently, and accurately done than I had expected.  Unlike every other FF7 spin-off we’ve seen in the last 2 decades and more, it seems like the team behind the remake may, in fact, have actually played the source material at least once in their lives.  That’s not to say that there aren’t problems with it, of course, and some sizable ones at that, but hell, FF7 was far from perfect itself, and honestly, I’m so pleased that most of the remake seems to actually value the spirit, atmosphere, approach, and character integrity of the original that I can forgive a lot more than I thought I would.  Still, there are some unfortunate changes SquareEnix has taken to their most recent approach to FF7 that are worth noting.

1 that stands out to me is the way that Cloud’s recollections are handled.  In the original FF7, Cloud’s faulty mental state is shown through the game’s course in a variety of clever and intuitive methods that combined text, visuals, music, and sound effects...moments of an unknown voice within supplying answers to questions with prompting, unmarked text boxes that Cloud would then mimic, transparent ghost-images of some other self that Cloud would be trying to copy, or be unable to pull into himself as he experienced an episode, the pulsing background music that single-handedly convinced us that Sephiroth wasn’t a pathetic pushover in spite of literally every part of his history and in-game actions, a sudden, sharp sound effect of something breaking or coming undone...considering how new the Playstation 1 was at the time, and the fact that the aesthetics and style of FF7 were equally different in their own right from most of what Squaresoft had done previously, it’s almost humbling to recognize that they managed to effectively use so many different cues to create and maintain the uneasy feeling for 60% of the game that there was something unknown within Cloud’s psyche, something indefinably but inevitably wrong with his mind and self.  In many ways, the storytelling methods of Final Fantasy 7 not only worked with great skill within the limitations of the Playstation 1, they found a way to make those limitations work for them.

Unfortunately, the remake cannot, nor seems to even be trying to, recreate this mastery of showing but not making explicit Cloud’s cerebral dissonance.  Back in FF7, when Cloud has a moment in which his delusions have to prompt his responses with a false recollection, there’d be a brief flash, maybe a momentary prompting text telling him what to say, and that would be all.  You, the audience, KNEW something was wrong, that some other voice within him was feeding him an answer, but that was ALL you knew: that something was wrong.  You didn’t know where that other voice came from, save that only Cloud heard it.  You didn’t know why it was there.  You didn’t know why this was information that Cloud had to coach himself on, or be coached on.  You didn’t know that there was anything wrong with what Cloud remembered.  The ominous ambiguity kept you on your toes about it.

And what made it even more unnerving was that ONLY you could see it happening.  It was fast, and entirely internal; the people that Cloud was speaking to didn’t and wouldn’t know the difference between this disconnected recollection and any other statement Cloud made.*  Cloud clearly didn’t even seem to notice himself that something wasn’t fully correct with his ability to reach into his memory.  You were the only one who could tell that something was out of place in Cloud’s mind, adding tension to the playing experience in the same way that the audience can’t warn a horror film protagonist of an impending danger.

This deftly understated method is replaced by clumsy, obvious straight-shooting in the Remake.  While adding voice acting is in general a good idea if you can get competent actors and more importantly competent directors--which SquareEnix is almost always several steps behind on, but they generally have their shit together in FF7R--but here it’s a bit of a problem, because there’s a hell of a lot of unnerving ambiguity about a silent text box popping up from unknown origins to prompt Cloud on what to say, but barely any such disturbing sense of the unknown behind the same line being said aloud by a highly generic voice.

Meanwhile, the brief flash of Cloud recalling/inventing information in the original is replaced with the guy, to quote good sir Ecclesiastes, holding his head like he’s jacking into the Matrix.  Before, you didn’t know what was happening, only felt that something was wrong, and you didn’t know that you shouldn’t take Cloud at his word at such moments, only that what he was saying was important to keep in mind for later because something strange accompanied it.  The Remake gracelessly raises the question that perhaps Cloud’s words can’t be trusted, calls attention to it.

And it’s also a step back in-story, too.  Before, Cloud’s discordant moments of recollection would leave no in-universe observer any the wiser.  Now, however, everyone just awkwardly stands around watching him grab his head like it’s a stress ball, and just lets it go afterward.  It’s like they’ve all already established an agreement not to say anything about Grandpa stumbling around head-in-hands because he’s sensitive about his episodes, Timmy.  Cloud’s over here stumbling around in agony like someone just showed him the ending to Mass Effect 3 for the first time, and no one’s questioning the information they’re getting from the guy?

It’s too bad, really.  I don’t know what the future holds for FF7 Remake in terms of revealing the truth of Cloud’s mind and history--I rather suspect it won’t be nearly as monumental a linchpin to the game’s plot as it was originally, which is a damn pity--but if it does still hold importance to the story that will unfold in the future (maybe**), it’s not being set up nearly as interestingly as it was in the first game.  I don’t know how avoidable this problem was, really, because a lot of the original’s methods were specifically well-suited to the aesthetic and limitations of a Playstation 1 game (no expectation of voice acting for all plot-relevant text, for example), but it doesn’t seem like SquareEnix particularly tried to lessen the Remake’s losses with this, either.

* I mean, Tifa knows, but that’s due to her having already-existing knowledge of some of the past events Cloud speaks of.  She’s not sleuthing it out from any current tells he has.

** Given how long this first chapter took, and SquareEnix’s typical level of competence, I have sincere and, I think, legitimate doubts that FF7 Remake is gonna be completed within my lifetime.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Boyfriend Dungeon's Downloadable Content

Holy shit, is this real?  The RPGenius is making a rant about a game’s DLC while it’s...still actually kind of new?  Insanity.  The world is a madcap maelstrom of chaos and confusion.  These are surely the end times!

Well, it took me the better part of 2 decades, but I've actually managed to come out with an add-on analysis that's both timely, and about a game for which there isn't already a huge amount of media coverage.  Why, the only thing that could keep this rant from being legitimately useful to a prospective customer would be if this DLC were completely free anyway!



Secret Weapons: This add-on’s stated purpose is to add 3 new weapon-people to the game to date (sort of, more on that in a moment), as well as a third dungeon, thereby fulfilling the final responsibilities of Boyfriend Dungeon’s promised rewards on Kickstarter.  And it does, indeed, do this: Jonah the Axe, Leah the Hammer, and Holmes the Whip are all new characters added with this update, as well as the Verona College dungeon.

And Secret Weapons does what it sets out to do just fine.  There is, indeed, a third dungeon to go through, and it...certainly does exist.  Honestly, Verona College is a repetitive, by-the-numbers dungeon that’s more or less indistinguishable from BD’s existing dungeons beyond its college-themed coat of paint.  But on the other hand, really, how much of that isn’t true of most dungeon crawlers’ dungeons, in the end?  Different backgrounds and a few tiny puzzle gimmicks are basically the only thing that separates any given Etrian Odyssey dungeon from the next, for example.  Still, it’s hard not to feel like this one’s an especially noticeable copy-paste of the game’s existing combat arenas.  But hey, it’s there and you can go through it waving an axe around or punching people with a cat or whatever, so promise fulfilled, I guess.

Jonah, Leah, and Holmes are, naturally, the stronger parts of this DLC’s new content.  I like the basis of Jonah’s story, which is his having issues with the fact that he’s a weapon and the inherent implication of violence being a part of his destiny thereof, despite being an extremely peaceful person.  Unfortunately, that story seems to unravel as it proceeds into more vague self-doubts and philosophical musings, enough so that by its end, it feels like Jonah hasn’t really found a conclusion to his story, just to a story.  And why is the dog Mariposa a part of this, anyway?  She comes in out of nowhere, and to me it appears that she’s just a crutch to get Jonah rebounding back to some positivity without the writer(s) having to rely on the narrative tools that were already at hand.  The damn dog comes off as having a greater, more demonstrable influence on Jonah’s story than the actual protagonist does.  Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I guess, but I think generally a sequence of conversations meant to show a romance/friendship should have most of the emotional heavy lifting done by the individuals actually engaged in and advancing that relationship.  Still, ultimately Jonah’s a sweetheart and likable enough, so I wouldn’t call him a negative addition to the cast, just neutral.

Leah’s got a less interesting basis than Jonah, just a fairly basic story about career doubts and trying to figure out where what she likes to do, what she finds rewarding to do, and what she morally should do all stand in terms of her career and hobbies, but it’s executed a lot better.  Leah’s character arc doesn’t stray into vague, tangential emotional territory the way Jonah’s does; her story stays on target, and each step of its journey feels like it’s building off the last and progressing to the conclusion.  A conclusion that feels right, and like it arrived generally at the time when it should have, for that matter.  I also buy Leah’s romance with the protagonist a little more, because while she does ultimately come to her own conclusions about what she wants to do with her career and passions, it does feel like the protagonist’s support and input was a significant part of the process of her getting there.  It’s not an amazing romance or anything, but it’s decent enough, and probably my second favorite in Boyfriend Dungeon, behind Valeria’s.*

Holmes is both the best and the most disappointing character added to the game.  Not because you don’t actually get to use them as a weapon (she’s just a dateable boss, basically)--their existence is already a bonus since it was only Jonah and Leah promised by the Kickstarter campaign, so it’s unreasonable to complain about such things.  But she’s disappointing in the fact that you don’t actually get to have a romance with them--while the game gives you the dialogue options to have the protagonist fall in love with her, Holmes themself flat-out rejects amorous intent, only wanting a friendship with the protagonist (albeit one which allows for occasional sex).  I’ll grant you that not every character in the main Boyfriend Dungeon roster was romanceable, either, but Pocket is a goddamn cat, so I feel the situation is different.

Still, while it seems like a dating game’s subjects ought to be romantically dateable in a game all about just that, it’s certainly not a big deal, and really, Holmes’s story probably wouldn’t even translate all that well to a romance anyway.  She does, however, have a pretty good character arc that feels genuine and actually interested me a decent bit--I think I might argue, in fact, that Holmes is the best-written character in the game.  I care a hell of a lot more about a well-constructed character narrative that interests and/or speaks to me than I do about whether or not they’re gonna profess undying love to my OC, so I’m definitely pleased by Holmes’s addition to the cast.

And of course, as a whole, the 3 new characters align well with the overall themes and intent of Boyfriend Dungeon.  All of them are based upon explorations of one’s identity, either within the world (Leah and Holmes) or within oneself (Jonah and Holmes).  None of them feel tacked-on the way characters added to a story after its initial publishing often do (Patty from Tales of Vesperia, Maneha from Pillars of Eternity 1, the whole Ashen Wolf bunch in Fire Emblem 16, etc), not even Holmes, in spite of your not being able to wield them in combat.

Beyond the major intent, though, Secret Weapons also adds a few little bonuses for the player.  1 of them is meeting the fiancee of Jesse, the protagonist’s cousin, and experiencing her and Jesse’s wedding.  It’s fine enough, nothing amazing, but a nice little bit of character development/conclusion for Jesse, who otherwise kinda just got stuck in Tutorial Character limbo.  Of more interest to me, Secret Weapons adds several little conversation meet-ups between the cast in groups of 2 and 3, which pop up on the world map here and there, wherein the protagonist can happen across some of his/her friends/lovers hanging out together and doing their own thing.  They’re nice little slice-of-life glimpses into the characters which round out their personalities and social identities, and generally entertaining.  I like the fact that this expands the cast beyond just being emotional and social attachments to the protagonist (as unfortunately tends to happen to characters in dating games, and sometimes even regular RPGs with wide romance options), and this feature provides a nice little bit of character development all around.  Plus, it’s even functionally positive--these also serve as little reminders of who the game’s characters are and what they’re like, which is useful for a DLC that has come out months after much of the game’s audience last played Boyfriend Dungeon.  Good bonus content, this.

So usually, my intent with an add-on rant is to determine whether the new content is worth what it costs to experience.  But Secret Weapons is actually completely free!  Good on Kitfox Games for that; they consistently behave with ethical integrity and a priority for their art over their profit, and I applaud them for it.  So, since the only way Secret Weapons wouldn’t be worth it would be if it were outright terrible, which I think I’ve made clear it isn’t, let’s wrap this rant up with a different determination.  You may recall that a few months ago, I expressed certain regrets about a general theme of shortcomings that Boyfriend Dungeon suffers from.  So rather than talking about whether Secret Weapons is worth the nonexistent price, let’s instead explore a different question: Does this DLC address and correct the problems I complained of last time about Boyfriend Dungeon?

Well, it does add another dungeon, which helps with the fact that it’s a game called Boyfriend Dungeon that only had 2 dungeons in it.  But even last time, I mentioned that a mere 3 dungeons still seems inadequate for a game that proclaims itself a dungeon-crawler, so that’s still falling somewhat short.  Additionally, said new dungeon unfortunately isn’t any better at developing the protagonist’s character than the previous ones.  And on that note, the protagonist has remained largely unexplored as a whole in this DLC, so that’s a problem that’s continued.

The next shortcoming I noted in the previous rant was that the fact that these characters’ being part person, part weapon seems remarkably unimportant to their personalities and arcs, and I am pleased that Secret Weapons addresses this with Jonah.  His existence as a weapon-person is actually a relevant, explored topic in and founding element of his story, as a guy whose physical nature as an ax is completely at odds with his emotional nature as a man of gentleness.  So that IS good!  But also not enough; we’re still talking about 1 in 10 characters for whom the game’s catch-your-attention premise of being both a person and a weapon actually matters.

Let’s see, what else?  The average romance and story quality as a whole is a bit better with the DLC characters than for the game proper.  They’re not great and certain aspects are subpar, but it’s still a higher positive ratio than before.  And the last point I made last time was that the protagonist’s presence and involvement seemed largely superfluous to most characters’ journeys, coming off like he/she is more just there for the ride than a real participant.  That much is mostly still true of Jonah’s, Holmes’s, and Leah’s stories.

So, then, the final verdict?  Secret Weapons does, indeed, take a few steps further in some of the arenas that Boyfriend Dungeon fell short on.  It provides an additional dungeon, it brings the duality of weapon-humans into question with 1 of the characters it adds, and the quality of the new cast members’ content is better on average than before.  Unfortunately, these few steps are not enough that I feel at all like my established critique of Boyfriend Dungeon doesn’t presently hold up.  Even with Secret Weapons, Boyfriend Dungeon’s major components are all still enjoyable, but noticeably lacking; the game still simply does not go far enough.

But taken on its own merits, as it certainly should be, Secret Weapons is a solid add-on.  If you enjoyed Boyfriend Dungeon--and I’d like to stress again that I did enjoy it and that it is a good RPG, despite the complaints I have raised about it--you’ll almost certainly like Secret Weapons.  It’s definitely worth your time to return to Verona Beach and hit the dating scene again, and as it’ll cost you nothing, there’s no reason not to.  Good work, Kitfox Games!

Alright, another DLC situation that’s really, substantially positive!  And to think, it’s only been a year since I last encountered an add-on that was unequivocally decent.  Why, they’re going to spoil me rotten at this rate.

* I do have some concern that maybe my own preferences are coloring my opinions on this point, though.  When it was just Valeria I wasn’t worried, but now that my 2 favorite romances in this game are both the women, in a game whose very title makes it clear that it’s men who are the relationship priority, I fear I may not be being as objective as I want and try to be on this.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Tales of Vesperia's Characters

I always enjoy it when I come across a game whose cast is just the right mix of dumb but interesting that they can make 1 of these Characters rants work.  Not as much as I enjoy playing a game whose cast is just actually good, mind you.  But an easy, fun rant is pretty decent compensation, at least.

: There’s a lot of things that Namco-Bandai wanted Yuri to be memorable for.  The way he represents the darker side of justice, for example.  Or the nuanced character arc of his grappling and coming to terms with the sins he’s committed for the greater good in a world where ideals aren’t enough, all of which Namco-Bandai forgot to actually include in the game, but sure as hell proceeded as though they had.  There’s also the way his flippant and irreverent attitude really wants to be Grandia 2’s Ryudo but can’t even get close, and the way that The Gay just wafts off his body whenever his boy Flynn is around.

Unfortunately, the only thing about Yuri Lowell that will stand the test of time in this player’s mind is the silly-ass way he carries his sword around.  Yes, too “cool” to just keep it hanging at his side or strapped to his back or any other method that would actually guarantee its reliable use, Yuri opts to haul his sword around by hand.  Willy-nilly he runs across the globe for 60 hours of game time, looking like a 5-year-old flaunting the fact that Mommy let him carry 1 of the bags of groceries like a big boy.  Thank heavens every single villain in existence is polite enough to give Yuri time for his little LOOK HOW COOL I AM FELLOW KIDS maneuver of tossing the weapon up, catching it, and throwing the sheathe aside before they attack him.

Repede: Remember that little feature in Dragon Age 1 where you could have your dog pee on a landmark in each map to mark his territory?  Remember how it was a slightly funny and enjoyable little feature?  Well, ToV’s developers don’t know jack shit about the concept of subtlety, because they decided that if a light touch of the doggy piddle joke was mildly funny, then hitting the player with the force of a fucking train with it would surely therefor be hilarious.  Thank you, Tales of Vesperia, for making the 1 and only sidequest that revolves around the already-desperate-for-character-development Repede a long, frustrating trek to fucking drown the globe in urine.

Flynn: This character was basically created with the sole purpose of making Yuri look good.  That, and yaoi-baiting...which is arguably just part of the first duty anyway.

Estelle: Estelle has a role and matching personality of Extremely Stereotypical Plot-Crucial Magical Girl, and a “Who am I and what do I want for my life?” character arc so halfhearted and uncompelling that I now realize that what I thought was a crappy version of it in Alisha’s DLC from the later Tales of Zestiria actually represents a huge improvement for Namco-Bandai’s writers.  It doesn’t add up to a very interesting or memorable character, and unlike Yuri, she can’t fall back on a try-hard failure to be cool by carrying her weapon around in a little sling like she’s trying to rock it to sleep.  As a result, probably the most interesting thing about Estelle is that, as a princess who approaches a rogue running amok in her castle and requests that he kidnap her so that she can obtain the freedom she needs to meet with and assist an important political figure on the side of good, she was the first of many indications to me that the creators of Tales of Vesperia were prone to softly plagiarizing Final Fantasy 9 here and there.

Rita: You know those Star Trek engineers whose primary role in the story is to spout a bunch of vague, entirely made-up techno-babble vocabulary as a way of explaining what’s going on without actually explaining anything at all?  Rita’s basically what would happen if you made 1 of them a violent tsundere.

Raven: The fact that Raven isn’t the worst case I’ve seen of a spontaneous betrayal with transparently inadequate rationale for the sole purpose of artificially stirring drama because the writers had no idea what else to do at that point means that the writers of Tales of Vesperia owe a deep debt to The Last Story.

Karol: Real talk?  Karol should’ve been the protagonist of this game.  He gets more in-depth AND more varied character development than anyone else in the cast, said development actually is fairly sensibly paced and explored in general, part of his character arc is his coming to terms with his worth as a leader and how to enact his ideals of justice, and while his character arcs certainly are influenced by his interactions with his companions (as they should be), the writers didn’t have to invent an entire other-side-of-the-coin character like Flynn to make any part of Karol’s personal journey work.  Karol absolutely has a multi-faceted character arc more suited to being protagonist than anything Yuri can present.  All that, and he doesn’t carry his weapon like some stupid dork hauling his suitcase as he hurries to make a train that’s about to leave.

Judy: Oh, NO!  We created an appealing character that engages the player and interacts with the rest of the cast in a way which both draws out their better traits and highlights how likable this person is...but we accidentally made this person a woman!  Quick!  Undercut every single thing about her by putting her in a bikini and having the lecherous old guy hit on her all the time!  This is Tales of Vesperia; we can’t have a female with a personality!

Patty: Good LORD do I wish this kid would blink more often.

Alexei: Oh goody, a villain who’s evil for the sake of being evil because the plot said he was evil.  Don’t have enough of them in RPGs already.  Don’t have enough of them in the Tales of series already.  Don’t have enough of them in this game already.

Duke: As bad as the franchise’s original villain Dhaos was, Alexei and Duke are even worse because they’re basically just Dhaos split in half.  Alexei is the part of Dhaos which was generic diabolical grandstanding and roundabout, inefficient world-conquest schemes, while Duke is the half of Dhaos that’s a completely inadequate, tacked-on-right-at-the-end, undeveloped sob-story motivation for his villainous deeds.  Yeah yeah, humanity isn’t fucking perfect, boo hoo hoo, an entire planet’s worth of human beings don’t all change their minds and habits overnight, I had a bad meal in a Taco Bell once so now I’m gonna nuke Mexico, blah blah blah get fucking over it you whiny prick.  Jesus Christ RPG villains suck.

But I still give Duke a partial pass.  Because as shitty as his lost-faith-in-humanity schtick is, it’s still possible that it was, in some small way, a progenitor for Artorius of the later Tales of Berseria’s extremely skillful and successful use of the same villain basis.  Yes, I know that’s a bit of a stretch, but I gotta be honest with you: most Tales of games are a hell of a lot more tolerable for me when I view them through the lens of being nothing more than fumbling practice runs for the eventual excellence of Tales of Berseria.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Tales of Berseria's Artorius's Irritation with Velvet

Great thanks once again to my friends Ecclesiastes and Angel Adonis for their assistance with proofreading and content-checking today's rant.  As always, guys, you are truly awesome!

In a game filled with excellently-written characters and iconic personalities, Artorius holds his own as a villain, being a nuanced, well-sculpted antagonist.  He acts as a conceptual reflection of protagonist Velvet, he’s got a compelling and believable backstory, and he manages to hit that elusive sweet spot of being misguided but rational and sympathetic.*  Artorius is a quality adversary all around, no doubt about it.  And he hits on smaller villain virtues, too, like his overall demeanor.  Artorius possesses an imposing and signature personality and presence that fits his methods and beliefs: rigidly logical, calm, austere.  He consistently embodies the qualities of pure reason and detachment that he desires to impose upon humanity, and he pulls it off really well--more than characters like Cyrus of Pokemon Generation 4, and Shin Megami Tensei 3’s Hikawa, who simply feel inhuman and robotic in their rejection of emotion, Artorius comports himself in a manner that seems genuine, like a real person who has driven himself to be coldly above his humanity.  ToB succeeds where other games fail to create a villainous Spock rather than just a narrative automaton.

Most of the time.

There IS an instance in which Artorius the villain’s** composure breaks which I find quite interesting.  At the end of the game, as Velvet and her team stand before Artorius and Innominat, she steps forward to give Artorius an answer to the question he asked her years before: why do birds fly?  Velvet’s answer is a reaffirmation of who she is and, by extension, who she believes humanity is, a declaration that her nature, human nature, needs no excuse and will not be restrained.  And it’s at this moment that Artorius’s aloofness finally is broken.  His reply to her is not restrained and unemotional, as all his interactions with her (and everyone else) have been prior to this moment.  Artorius is irritated.

“You were always like this.  That sort of foolishness is what creates the daemons, and plunges the world into tragedy and despair.”

He isn’t yelling it.  There’s no more than a disapproving frown upon his face, and if there’s any rage within his eyes, the camera doesn’t deign to rise high enough for us to see it.  And yet, that we can hear the annoyance in his voice at all, that he is actually making a statement that shows that he has taken her stubbornness personally, is more affecting than another villain’s screaming tantrum could ever be.

Artorius is exasperated.  He’s borne Velvet’s desire to kill him, her hatred, her determination to end his ambitions, her threats, her attacks...everything in her opposition of him and her quest for vengeance has been met with unmoved, adamant stoicism by Artorius. Until this moment.  Why?  Why is this, after everything that preceded it, the act that finally gets under his skin?

Well, there’s plenty of possible reasons, of course, and good ones, at that.  It could, for example, be because it is only now in which Velvet finally meets him not as a personal enemy, but as a philosophical one, stating her resistance to him in terms of ideology instead of vendetta, and ironically yet appropriately, the arena of doctrine IS the one which Artorius takes personally.  It could also be that he really doesn’t like his own birds-fly question schtick being thrown back at him, or at least, dislikes that the answer is better than his own.

I wonder, though, if perhaps this moment finally draws real irritation from Artorius because of something else.

Consider this.  While not any official, dedicated tutorship, it’s clear at the beginning of the game that Artorius is the one that taught Velvet at least some of her skills at fighting, back when he was simply Arthur to her.  More importantly, however, he also taught her the discipline of combat, the rules by which one self-governs his or her feelings and decisions in battle to be at one’s most effective.  Velvet can quote the full range of Arthur’s maxims of combat, and does so many times over the course of Tales of Berseria, both in relation to her own actions, and when explaining her knowledge of how and why Artorius acts.  Velvet knows how Artorius fights and she knows how he thinks, because she learned his lessons well.  You cannot deny that she was a good student, in the sense that she learned the material.  But she did not take it to heart, she did not internalize and embrace the maxims and doctrine of Artorius herself, even if she learned it.

Velvet was Arthur’s student, his only protege.  He imparted to her his doctrine of logic and order, encouraged her to embrace it, gave practical examples of why she should.  And yet the lessons never took hold in Velvet’s mind and heart.  It wasn’t a problem of her simply not understanding.  She learned what he had to teach--she simply rejected it, or at least, the part of it that mattered most, in his eyes.  In spite of he himself guiding her, Arthur could not get Velvet to give up her passionate and emotional nature.  Velvet could not be convinced or cajoled to stop letting her feelings dictate her purpose and actions.

And now consider this: for much of the time that Arthur was training Velvet, he was grappling with his despair that humanity could not be saved from its own base instincts and emotions, the ones which caused the Daemonblight which was destroying human civilization.

I’m not saying that she was an instrumental part of Arthur’s descent to become Artorius.  Obviously the major factor in his losing himself to despair over the hopelessness of humanity was the loss of his wife and child, as shown in the game.  But all the same...could it be that Velvet played an unwitting role in Artorius’s decision that humanity must be changed by force?  Here she was, a willing student, a learner who would listen to his counsel voluntarily, and yet she would not change!  The guidance of the enlightened one himself, given to a learner who wanted to receive it, and still Velvet could not and would not cease to be a person ruled by her instincts and emotions more than her rationality.

Considering that...even if she wasn’t the core cause of Artorius coming to the conclusion that humanity could not be saved from itself without force, did Velvet help convince him that said conclusion was right?  Was her example proof, to Artorius, that even a well-meaning human being with the right knowledge could not help themselves but to indulge in the many facets of human nature that would lead to daemonhood?  And proof that no matter how revered he might be when he became the world’s Shepherd, his own example would still not be enough to inspire humanity to rise above itself as he had?

Is the vexation that Artorius shows with Velvet’s affirmation that human beings cannot and will not cease to behave as human beings simply a case of an old, long-felt disappointment finally being shown?  Is this aggravation with Velvet’s eternal inability and refusal to live any differently an old wound, a personal failure that still galls him?  Is Artorius so frustrated because Velvet does not understand that she is what convinced him that there was no other way to begin with?

* More than any other medium I’ve come across, RPGs seem to struggle with creating decent villains whose motives are misguided attempts to do right by the world.  I mean, I know writing a solid character isn’t necessarily easy, but I swear for every 1 Artorius, there’s a solid 20 or more bullheaded, irrational, outright stupid jackasses like Fire Emblem 16’s Edelgard, Pokemon Generation 3’s Teams Magma and especially Aqua, Enzea from Conception 2, Wild Arms 5’s Volsung, Hilda in the first half of Stella Glow, the Light Deity in Asdivine 4, Linear in the second half of Evolution Worlds, Caesar in Fallout: New Vegas...morons who wouldn’t know a rational solution to their problems if it bit them in their pompous asses are a dime a dozen in this genre.

** By which I make the distinction of the period of time after Laphicet’s sacrifice and before Artorius’s defeat and death.  Before he committed himself fully to his path to save the world, and once he has failed and can release his hold on his own despair and grief, he’s shown to feel emotions.  But for most of the story, we see him in the role of emotionless savior to the world and villain, and that’s the period of time I’m referring to.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

The Shadowrun Series's PC Titles' Running

Just as a warning, today's rant has not had the benefit of having been proofread by my sister.  She was quite ill recently, and I didn't want to worsen her condition by exposing her to my ramblings while she was in a weakened state.

Picture this: you’re playing an isometric RPG where more or less every action and interaction is handled by selecting stuff with the mouse.  You want to choose your response from a list of dialogue options whilst having a conversation with a random bystander?  Select it with the mouse.  You want to bring the pain to some security goon so pathetically stricken with Stockholm Syndrome for his corporate overlords that the last thing he was doing before this fight broke out was defending Diablo Immortal on Twitter?  Make with the clicky-clicky on the bullet icon in the menu, then another clickety-clicker on the Kotick apologist.  You want to get from 1 side of the map to the other?  Scroll on over and plant that pointer right where you aim to be.

So you’re doing this.  Playing the point-and-click game, and doing it like a pro, or an amateur, because let’s face it, putting a cursor over something and hitting a button has a very low ceiling for mastery so there’s little discernible difference between an expert and a first timer.  In the first scenario, your character delivers a witty 1-liner to the NPC, and the conversation moves along.  The second, you fire a round into the corporate stan, and now Wyatt Cheng’s back to ineptly fighting his own battles. And in the last, you start making your way to your destination, sprinting so fast that an observer might think they’re witnessing a SquareEnix executive fleeing in terror from a good idea.

All’s well, right?  Expected results all around.  Great.  But oh, hey, here’s a fun idea.  Having efficiently run from 1 side of the map to the other as speedily as I move toward most things that involve ground beef, let’s now set our sights on a destination just about, say, half a screen away.  Considering the brisk pace at which we traversed the full scope of this entire area, it’ll surely be the work of a moment to cross a distance equivalent to the average driveway, right?

Wrong.  Because for some reason, any time you want to get somewhere that’s actually close by, this game reduces your pace down to about as fast as I move toward most things that don’t involve ground beef.

The game?  Shadowrun Returns.  And Shadowrun: Dragonfall.  Also Shadowrun: Hong Kong.  Basically, every PC-based Shadowrun.  They all run on the same engine, and thus all regulate your party’s sprinting based on how far away the destination is from them.

It’s 1 of those gameplay ideas that looks deceptively alright on paper, like the Tales of series’s cooking feature, or Pokemon’s HM system.  I mean, it sounds completely reasonable in theory: make the characters in the game move the fastest when they’ve got more ground to cover, and a “normal” pace over short distances.  That’ll make the travel time relatively equal each time you want to move somewhere, and equality is a good thing, right?

Unfortunately, in practice, it’s just frustrating and makes the process of moving through these games seem plodding for no reason.  First of all, the majority of your non-combat movements in the PC Shadowrun trilogy are generally going to be over more moderate distances--while crossing the entirety of the map is certainly not uncommon to be doing at any given time, most of the time you’re gonna be moving towards spots that are much closer, so the majority of your experience with your characters’ running speed is gonna be of the slow variety, so the balance of paces for which the developers seemed to be aiming is skewed noticeably, and not to the player’s benefit.  

Secondly, the glaring divide between the paces of the fastest run, and the “normal” speed, does not help matters.  Even if the majority of your commute wasn’t spent on crossing small distances and thus going at the slower jog, it’d still be at least a little annoying to see the sprinting that the game CAN provide, and yet have it frequently deny that pace to you for basically no reason.  I’M the one playing the damn game, so why am I not the one deciding how much hustle to apply to any given situation?  You’ve shown me that you CAN move my characters faster, so why am I not allowed to?

Third, I gotta say, even outside of the perception of slowness created by the first 2 issues, the basic pace of Shadowrun characters is objectively too damn slow.  I feel like the game industry moves toward ethical standards of conduct faster than a Shadowrun protagonist crosses the street.  These damn games take place in major urban centers, in the gritty, fast-paced setting of cyberpunk corporate dystopia; where the fuck is the hurried, frenzied lifestyle that this setting implies?  For the love of Kofusachi, I’ve seen characters in slice-of-life animes glorifying the relaxed, peaceful existence of rural Japan comport themselves with greater overall speed than these constantly endangered urbanite mercenaries do in Shadowrun!

And fourth, beyond these errors in execution, the whole idea is honestly just flawed from the start.  I don’t want equity in travel times in my game.  The time it takes to get from downtown to the city limits shouldn’t be comparable to the time required to cover a city block.  Players crossing larger distances in a game expect and accept that it’s going to take a longer time because that’s how distance works.  Lowering that travel time via use of a running feature is certainly encouraged and should absolutely be mandatory, but that shouldn’t come at the cost of making other traveling longer!

There are ways to work around this whilst playing, I admit.  When playing Shadowrun titles and mods for them, I’ll generally just quickly scroll over to whatever side of the map is in the general direction that I want to go in, and let the game think I’m telling the protagonist to emulate Forrest Gump’s cross-country trek, then just have the characters cease their Usain Bolt-ing when they get to the spot I actually want them at.  But am I really supposed to be less annoyed by this situation because there’s a work-around?  Now I’m spending the entire game dragging my pointer to every corner of the map and back like I’m trying to reenact 1 of those stupid Family Circus strips following Billy’s path while also being drunk.  The fact that I can counteract 1 inconvenience by engaging in a less severe inconvenience isn’t an excuse.

Like a lot things I rant about, this doesn’t really matter, of course.  The important things about Shadowrun’s PC trilogy are their stories, characters, purposes, themes, explorations of their setting, and so on.  And on those terms, the trilogy is decent, great, and pretty good, in that order.  Still, it IS annoying, and also, just honestly really weird.  It’s not some oversight; it requires conscious effort from the developers to code a system like this, and more of that effort, for that matter, than it would have been just to create a damn run button, or a single sprinting pace.  They chose to do this, and I don’t get why, because it couldn’t have taken very long into the testing phase for it to become clear that this wasn’t a very functional system.

Shadowrun?  More like Shadowstroll.  Shadowmeander.  Shadowtoddle.