Monday, June 11, 2018


The new rant, updated on every 8th, 18th, and 28th of the month, is right below this post. Enjoy! But before you do, I have a quick announcement...

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Tales of Zestiria's Downloadable Content

Hm. Should I do 1 of these add-on rants for a game when it’s only got a single DLC* to begin with? Of course I should! Because add-on rants are easy and I’m lazy. Uh, I mean, because I care about giving you as much knowledge as you can about how to spend your money! I am, you see, just a great fucking guy.™

Alisha’s Story: Hm. Should you buy this? Is it good overall? Uh...I’m not all that sure, really. In that sense, it’s sort of like Tales of Zestiria as a whole, actually.

On the 1 hand, this DLC does a lot of positive things. First of all, we get a little glimpse into what happens postgame with the characters we have (presumably) grown to care about, and that’s always nice. While not completely necessary, I guess, it’s nice that we get to see what happens when Alisha learns of Sorey’s fate, and it’s also nice to see a little of what life is like for Rose and the Seraphs after their adventure with Sorey is done. Who doesn’t appreciate some closure to their tale (of Zestiria)? Plus, it’s pretty rad that Rose is now a Shepherd in her own right! Possibly even a more qualified Shepherd than even Sorey, as she doesn’t even seem to be bothered by the burden of Alisha the way Sorey was. And hey, Alisha is an appealing character, and we get to see plenty more of Rose, who’s fucking awesome, so that’s a positive.

It’s also cool to see Alisha and Rose’s interactions. They didn’t really get a chance to have their personalities work off each other very much in-game, and it turns out that they have a pretty good chemistry together. Although Rose is the kind of character who just works well as a partner and pal to just about anyone, so that’s no surprise, I suppose. Still, their dynamic is fun to watch.

On the other hand...the DLC has its shortcomings, to be sure. First of all, its purpose is somewhat perplexing. What is the point, really? It starts out as being a small journey that Rose is going to take Alisha on to reveal what happened to Sorey--which seems unnecessary, honestly; sure, it’ll upset Alisha to know, but how is dragging her across national borders to see it a better way of educating her than just outright telling her? But then, as they’re going along, the purpose somehow and inexplicably shifts from discovering the truth of what happened to Sorey, to Alisha finding her “answer.” What question this answer is relating to, the game isn’t kind enough to tell you until Alisha actually determines what her answer is. But I’m a nice guy, so I’ll just spell it out for you ahead of time: it’s what part of Alisha is the true Alisha, and what she wants to be, going forward: the princess, the knight, the diplomat, the friend of Rose, the Shepherd’s squire, or the normal girl. I won’t spoil what her answer is, but I’ll give you a hint: it’s exactly what you think it is because this is anime goddammit.

How we get from a field trip to the Sorey Sacrifice museum, to a personal journey for self-verification, I haven’t the slightest idea. But that’s kind of Tales of Zestiria’s method, anyway, right? Its story, lore, and characters are like a guy who expresses all his ideas in a shy mumble--you’ll always get the gist and fully understand a few things, but a lot of the details are incoherent and lost.

There are a few other problems with this add-on. First of all, while I like the chemistry between Rose and Alisha, their relationship is, at the same time, kind of confusing and annoying, as Rose vacillates between being caring, considerate, and warm to Alisha, and being cold, mean, and uncaring to her, for reasons which are pretty damn vague. Like I said, they work well together as friends and comrades, so it gets frustrating to watch Rose play this little emotional back-and-forth game like a middle school girl experimenting with social dynamics, instead of just being forthright about the fact that they get along pretty well and like each other.

Also, the Seraph characters don’t get enough attention here. Lailah and Edna are present from the start, and contribute a few lines here and there, but ultimately they’re just not involved in the story of this DLC at all, and when Zaveed shows up 3/4ths of the way through, he also adds nothing. Mikleo is only seen at the very end, and likewise doesn’t really have a contribution to make, beyond saving the girls from a monster. I know this is primarily Alisha’s tale (of Zestiria), and that Rose is the central figure of making that story happen, but surely something more could have been done with the other 4 major characters of the game.

And lastly, the fact is that this just doesn’t boil down to a very compelling plotline. Ultimately, it’s just “Alisha and Rose travel through a dungeon, and Alisha learns something about herself.” It doesn’t have a lot going for it from the start. And hell, the most basically exciting part of this DLC is the fact that someone’s trying to have Alisha killed (spoiler: it’s just that annoying wolf guy again), which isn’t even resolved by the end! The attacks are stopped (I think), but the heroes don’t even find out who was behind them, and the villain exits with the threat that he’s gonna keep being a pest.

So in the end, is Alisha’s Story worth buying? I reluctantly contend that it is not. I want to like it, because it has its good points, and I like Alisha and think she could have used more time in the game proper, and I adore Rose and just want to see more of her overall,’s just not all that good. It makes its purpose that of finding an answer to a question about Alisha’s character that I just don’t think any of us were asking, and there aren’t enough positives to outweigh the negatives when the final destination of the DLC’s story just isn’t all that compelling. It’s not awful, like some add-ons are; spending $10 on this wasn’t an outright mistake for me, the way purchasing Nukaworld for Fallout 4 or any of Shin Megami Tensei 4-2’s paid DLC was. And if you’re just a huge fan of Alisha, maybe this could be worth it for you, after all. But overall, until Alisha’s Story is packaged as a free part of Tales of Zestiria, I wouldn’t bother with it.

* Not counting the paid add-on equipment, fashion items, and...Evangelion costumes? The hell?

Sunday, October 8, 2017

General RPG Lists: Greatest RPGs

This was originally a list of 10, and then I later updated it to 15. Later I expanded it to 20, after I finished playing 200 RPGs, and thought that would be it. Well, I’ve played over 300 RPGs now, and thinking about it, even though it might make this list excessively long, I feel like 20 slots still won’t cut it. So I guess I’m at a point where I’m just going to assume that I’ll be expanding this list every few years, to whatever extent feels right at the time. This thing’s never going to be more than 10% of the total number of RPGs I’ve played, and at the moment it’s not even that much, but I’m not gonna put a hard cap on its potential any more. 25 (or more, in the future) may seem at first glance to be a rather large list, and I’d say that in most cases, it is...but you gotta understand that at the moment I post this, I’ve played 324 RPGs through to completion. Even if it seems large, this list very much represents the cream of the RPG crop, the absolute best the genre has to offer, in my opinion.

So, logically, that means that if you don’t see your favorite game here, don’t yell at me. There’s an absolute TON of great RPGs that didn’t make the cut, I know. I absolutely hate that I couldn’t get Fallout 1, Tales of the Abyss, Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, Shadowrun: Dragonfall, and several other games onto the list, but it just wasn’t in the cards, no matter how close they came. Believe me, I wouldn’t begrudge anyone a spot on their Top 10 or whatever list for, say, Deus Ex 1, or Baten Kaitos 2--it’s just that with all the amazing RPGs I’ve played, even such laudable, excellent works as those can’t quite cut it.

One more note on this new, updated list: I’m going to include a second Honorable Mention. Now, if you’re familiar with my list rants, you know that for me, Honorable Mentions aren’t just a cheap way of adding an “eleventh” spot to a list, like they are for most people. That’s a pet peeve of mine; it’s like, if you want to make a list of the best 19 movies of all time, make a list of the best 19 movies of all time, don’t pussyfoot around it and make a list of the best 15 movies of all time and then just add 4 honorable mentions on because you can’t bear to cut them out.

Anyway...for me, Honorable Mentions are ways of showing off a worthwhile contender for a spot on the list in a different way than the rest of them. Like how Alice and Yuri made my Honorable Mention for my Greatest Romance List--Yuri’s love for Alice is excellently portrayed and deeply compelling in Shadow Hearts 2, but from a perspective entirely after the fact. Alice, you see, is dead by Shadow Hearts 2, and Yuri’s love is shown strictly in his mourning for her, his inability for the entirety of the game to find a purpose to live for without her, and his decision at the end of the game. Yuri’s love for Alice is shown entirely after the fact in SH2--in fact, their love story was only so-so in the first game--but it’s poignant and powerful, worthy of appreciation from the audience. So, I included it as an Honorable Mention in my Greatest Romances List--worthy of the praise of being in such a list, yet from a significantly different perspective than what’s typical for inclusion.

So anyway, the size of this list makes it deserving, I think, of more than 1 Honorable Mention if the situation calls for it, and as it so happens, there are 2 separate contenders that don’t exactly make sense to be included here in the actual 25, but have a comparable enough quality to the best of this list that they shouldn’t be left out, just appreciated with a different perspective as to what constitutes a Greatest RPG.

Okay, last note, I swear: I’ve also put in a link to Good Old Games or Steam wherever applicable for these, in case you want to experience any of these gems yourself without digging out your old Playstation or whatever. Also, I’ll list the system through which I experienced the game, since sometimes that makes a small difference regarding translations and such. I doubt, however, that any translation updates will make enough of a difference to change a game’s spot...not even that listless update they slapped Final Fantasy Tactics with.

At any rate, now that you’re all asleep before we’ve even’s the 25 best RPGs I’ve played. Enjoy!

25. Mass Effect 2 (Personal Computer)

Falsely touted as better than its predecessor, Mass Effect 2 is nonetheless a truly excellent RPG with a strong plot, terrific sci-fi creativity in expanding upon the universe established in Mass Effect 1, and an engaging, deep, memorable cast, both in terms of the creation of singularly fantastic new characters, and the skillful expansion upon characters returning from ME1. If ME1 is utterly amazing for creating a signature feel, setting, and storytelling approach for the series, ME2 is utterly amazing for adding a signature depth and personality to the characters of the series. By the end of ME2, you see the cast of Mass Effect as the heart and soul of the series just as much as its ideas and perfect sci-fi approach. Though there were some tradeoffs made to make this universe more personal, tradeoffs which I do feel made it less than its predecessor, Mass Effect 2 stands tall as a proud and worthy member of the greatest science fiction trilogy of our time.

24. Final Fantasy 10 (Playstation 2)

FF10 has its share of detractors, but it’s overall quite well-loved, and for damned good reason. This treasure of the genre boasts an emotionally powerful and intelligent story packed with themes and perspectives on religion, sacrifice, love, and purpose, several excellently dynamic characters, and some of the most moving scenes in an RPG. Both overtly and subtly, Final Fantasy 10 is enjoyable, touching, and deeply meaningful.

23. Shadow Hearts 2 (PS2)

Ah, Shadow Hearts 2. The uniquely moody, gloomy, yet over-the-top and amusing atmosphere created with Shadow Hearts 1, which perfectly mixes the reality of Europe and Asia in the first half of the 20th century with mysticism, really hits its stride in this sequel, just in time to accompany an interesting plot whose arcs are surprisingly well-connected, given how clearly each part is defined by its setting and villains. Toss in a truly excellent and unique hero, a solid and diverse cast, a love story that’ll have you bawling like a babe, and some moments that are just plain awesome (a battle between a hell demon and Rasputin aboard a flying battleship? Hell YES), and an all-encompassing sense of quirky humor that works surprisingly well with the dark, serious tone of the game, and you have a real winner.

22. Torment: Tides of Numenera (PC)

There are 2 ways of looking at Torment: Tides of Numenera. Either you can be disappointed that it doesn’t come close to living up to its predecessor, Planescape: Torment...or you can be like me, and recognize that even just being in the same ballpark as Planescape still makes TToN absolutely amazing. The intellectual depth of this title is staggering, daunting, even, a story of purpose and immortality and analysis of the joys and suffering that is the human existence, set against a marvellously intriguing, creative world both wondrous and grotesque, brought to life through countless sidequests and NPCs with more depth than most games’ main characters. It both feels and acts like its predecessor, investigating many of the same ideas and themes, yet in new ways, going in new directions with them, finding new foundations for its concepts that allow for fresh perspectives and conclusions on the same questions and conundrums we thought were reasoned out to completion in Planescape: Torment. This is a truly spectacular work of thought and philosophy.

21. Mother 3 (Game Boy Advance)

The sequel to RPG cult favorite Earthbound (Mother 2) was heavily yearned for and anticipated for many years before Nintendo finally bit the bullet and made it. I think everyone hoped that a sequel would do the original game proud, perhaps even be as good as it, but I doubt many people would have ever imagined Mother 3 could surpass its predecessor. Yet it has, and by a lot. Earthbound was a singularly bizarre adventure, defying description with its quirky humor and presentation--it was like playing a piece of abstract art. Mother 3 manages a complete return of this same unusual and appealing style, but manages to throw a huge curveball on it with a huge injection of emotion into a plot that is jaw-dropping in how poignant it is in spite of (perhaps even because of?) all the quirky humor sown into it. And when you look past the creative nature of the game, you find an equally creative plot, too. Mother 3 will make you laugh aloud, it’ll make you think, and it’ll make you sniffle and get teary-eyed. And it’ll do all of these things in the same 5 minutes.

20. Grandia 1 (Playstation 1)

I don’t know what to say, really. I love Grandia 1. The characters are good, the plot is solid, and this game, above every other RPG I’ve ever played, creates a sensation of exploration and adventure, through its great music, strong attention to cultural and natural diversity in its setting, and the enthusiasm of its protagonist. It has a lot of truly excellent moments, such as Sue’s goodbye, and reaching the top of the End of the World, and many of its small aspects are great, too, like the dinner conversations (which became a delightful signature of the series), and one of the few turn-based RPG battle systems that’s actually kind of fun to play. Grandia 1 has great appeal and will always have a special spot in my heart.

19. Fallout 4 (PC)

Most of the Fallout series is excellent, and to be honest, it’s kind of difficult to choose one game over the other, because their excellence is very uniform. Fallout 4 is an insightful, subtly deep examination into the essence of the United States: its beliefs, its politics, its history, its culture and pop culture, its ideals, and its people...just like Fallout 1, 2, 3, and New Vegas were. It’s the Fallout series’s thing, and each game does it really damn well. The ambient storytelling in Fallout 4 is especially masterful, even for the standards of the series, and with a strong cast, an interesting plot, and a thoughtfully subtle narrative, Fallout 4 is a remarkable RPG, another fine addition to what may be the greatest RPG series out there, and my personal favorite of the franchise.

18. Fallout: New Vegas (PC)

It’s a damn close call between which is greater, but even though I personally like Fallout 4 the best, I have to hand it to Fallout: New Vegas: it’s got a plot whose relevance and heft has more for you to take away from it, and connects every so slightly more strongly to the core principle of the series: exploring and understanding ourselves as a nation (for US citizens, at least; though I daresay there’s enough universality that those playing in other countries can still gain much from this series. Even more than Fallout 4, Fallout: New Vegas has all sorts of hidden themes of, references to, and comments on the USA to find and contemplate, and you know me--I love a game that makes me think. Even on the surface, though, Fallout: New Vegas is a very cool game with a compelling cast and cool story, both open-ended, and linear enough that its plot is straightforward and clear.

17. Suikoden 1 (PS1)

Suikoden 1 takes the player through a nation-wide conflict, a civil war of epic proportions that nonetheless never loses sight of the individuals and humanity of the conflict. Good plot, good characters, good ideas, good execution, good themes...this is just a solidly good game in its every aspect.

16. Fallout 3 (PC)

The best of its series, Fallout 3 does all the same things intellectually as its fellows, and generally just as well, but its setting provides it stronger thematic power (if you’re gonna base a game’s themes around the United States of America’s essence, then you’re naturally gonna get the best and most material if you have it take place in the Washington DC area), and the plot both feels more personal and relevant to the protagonist than all of its peers but Fallout 4, and is generally more epic in its scope, purpose, and ambitions. I also have to say that I find the conflicts and characters and villains of Fallout 3 generally more compelling than Fallout: New Vegas’s and Fallout 4’s were, providing great symbolism and meaning. In addition, I think that Fallout 3 more than any other game in the series makes excellent use of the post-apocalyptic setting. That’s not to say that Fallout: New Vegas, or 4, or 1, or 2, were in any way’s simply to say that even in a series filled with such excellent titles, Fallout 3 stands out as a masterpiece.

15. Disgaea 1 (PS2)

If anyone ever tells you that a comedy cannot also be deep and meaningful, there are 2 things you should direct their attention to. The first is Futurama. And the second is Disgaea 1. Nippon Ichi's most famous offering is also, I think, its best (although I DID really like Makai Kingdom), and concrete proof that a humor RPG can still have depth and great emotion.* What starts out (and keeps on being) a very funny adventure of adorably maniacal demons and a ditzy, equally adorable angel evolves into a grand tale of friendship's enduring power, and love's irrepressible, redeeming nature. The inherently goofy air to this game is great for grabbing your attention and keeping it, and it amazingly doesn't interfere whatsoever with the story's poignancy, making this game not only the best Humor RPG I've played, but just plain one of the best RPGs I've played, period.

14. Mass Effect 1 (PC)

Lemme ask you something: did you ever watch a science-fiction show or movie, or read a science-fiction book, or something like that, and just feel completely entranced by its size, scope, and creativity? You watch/read/whatever it, and you just have this feeling that you've been taken to a place or time that has more or less infinite possibility for adventure, excitement, and general cool new experiences? Like the thing that you're watching/reading/whatevering is just the tip of the iceberg (or maybe Star Destroyer's a better term here), and there's just so much else that can be seen and explored in this sci-fi galaxy, universe, time, or whatever?

It's the feeling I got when I watched the Star Wars trilogy, played the games, and read the books during my youth--just that you could go anywhere in this entire imaginary galaxy, at practically any time in its history, and be caught up in something really cool and interesting. From watching the deathblow to an evil, galaxy-spanning Empire to just reading the random tales of a no-name bounty hunter in that same galaxy, Star Wars has always held my attention and impressed me.**

Well, when I played Mass Effect 1, that feeling swept over me for a second time. The makers of this game invested a tremendous amount of thought and care into this setting, going far beyond most sci-fi media's first offerings by not only inventing species, events, technologies, mysterious stuff, and so on, but going into huge detail on it all, as well. Just about every really cool, unique part of the Mass Effect universe is detailed for you in journal entries, should you care to know more of the imaginative science fiction all around you as you play. The game also captures the awe-inspiring feel and concept of space exploration, to me, better than anything else I've ever encountered. You know how when you were a kid, you went through a phase (or entered one and never got out of it) where you were really into real-world space exploration? Just feeling a sense of excitement and awe at the idea of exploring the infinite cosmos? Well, maybe you did and maybe you didn't, but I did, and when the map screen comes up in ME1 and begins playing that calming, yet somehow exciting music of exploration, I feel like a little kid again, looking at all these planets and stars with detailed descriptions like you'd find in an astronomy museum exhibit.

Of course, it's not just the atmosphere of the game that makes it so great. It's got about as cool a sci-fi plot as I've ever seen outside a book by Asimov, the characters are very good, the villains are decent (although Saren was a lot more interesting before I read the ME1 prequel book, honestly...but I guess that's neither here nor there), the presentation is good all around, and everything's pretty darned epic. I really love this game.

13. Final Fantasy 7 (PS1)

Okay, yeah, okay, yes, I know, okay. Yes. Fine. YES, Final Fantasy 7 is perhaps the most overrated, over-hyped RPG of the most overrated, over-hyped RPG series ever. The sheer number of mindless, utterly tasteless fanboys and fangirls of this game defies imagination--it's like Twilight, except that FF7 doesn't destroy brain cells like getting drunk while deeply inhaling gasoline fumes as you shove a blow torch up your nose. These incalculable idiots, who invariably idolize and adore Sephiroth with all their hearts yet don't have the dedication to learn how to spell his name, would have you believe that FF7 is the finest RPG ever made, heck, the finest game ever made period were it not for Call of Duty 78, and perhaps Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball.

But just because it's not God's gift to Playstation 1 games doesn't mean it's not still a great game, if you can shut your eyes and ears to Vincent x Cloud yaoi fangirls long enough to appreciate the game for its own merits. It has an interesting, involved plot that incorporates a lot of ideas that, at the time, were pretty new and creative (some still are, really), and it also has a pretty good cast of characters to enact the plot, too--sure, the villains are all boring and empty, and Vincent and Yuffie barely have enough characterization between the two of them to qualify as NPCs, but the rest of the cast have at least a fair amount of good development, particularly Tifa and Cloud. Tifa's character has a lot of depth and realism, but in a subtle way that requires some consideration to recognize. Cloud, on the other hand, has his character development right in the spotlight--and it's pretty impressive. Before Cloud, there weren't all that many RPG heroes with real, solid personalities and depth of character, and he seemed to more or less pioneer the idea of an interesting, quality hero who draws a lot of his character from his shortcomings and spiritual inadequacies--we've had plenty of fairly mentally imbalanced heroes since, as well as ones who agonize over the limitations of what they can do and the mistakes they've made in the past, but Cloud was one of the first and best to do stuff like that. Hell, he's still probably the most mentally screwed-up RPG protagonist I've seen who wasn't either a villain himself and/or got proper characterization.

In addition, FF7 sold its atmosphere with its music and setting, creating a world to draw you in far better than most other games, which complemented the plot and brought everything together. Regardless of how many stupid people happen by unfortunate chance to share my opinion, and how hard SquareEnix works to retroactively cheapen this game with every lackluster time-waster sequel/prequel that they foist on us, FF7 will always be a true classic.

12. Final Fantasy Tactics (PS1)

Ah, FFT. As much or greater a leap in a new direction for the Final Fantasy series as FF7 was, this one looked at the ideas and aspects of medieval times (like most RPGs) and, instead of just throwing a bunch of fantasy cliches together, gave us a game that realized the nonfiction of medieval Europe--warring countries, vicious slaughter, political intrigue carried out by greedy, power-hungry nobles, and a religious super power that didn't come even close to living up to its supposedly holy, peaceful philosophies (although granted, the church of medieval Europe wasn't quite so bad as to be mistakenly worshiping the Anti-Christ, but still, the core similarity's there). This was a game where the dark, fantastical nature of part of its plot, involving magic stones and hellish demons, actually kinda takes backseat in the player's interest to what would normally be background subplots of political intrigue and backstabbing (metaphorical AND literal). FFT's plot is terrific, the setting emphasizes it very well, and the cast has several key characters who are very well-created. Its quiet power over the player holds up today as well as it did when it was first released.

11. Knights of the Old Republic 2 (PC)

Yeah, it may be buggy as hell, and yes, it may seem like it's only 90% complete (because it basically is)...but Knights of the Old Republic 2 still manages to be spectacular. The game's great characters and plot not only entertain and have deep messages of humanity to convey, but also tie in very strongly to the source material, using the old and giving new perspectives on it (without just retelling a story you've already seen/read; I hate it when outside-media RPGs do that). KotOR2 has oodles of exquisite intellectual and philosophical content to tickle your brain with, particularly through the mouth of its main villain, and stays entertaining to the end, while never losing its origins' themes, settings, and atmosphere. This game may be the greatest expression of the soul of Star Wars ever made...and what an involving, nuanced soul it turns out to be.

10. Undertale (PC)

Undertale is a magnificent combination of heartwarming joy, great humor, Earthbound-styled surreal fun, sharp deconstruction and critique of RPGs, poignant emotion, creeping terror, a study of consequences, and insight into the dangers of combining godhood and boredom. With terrific characters you'll love, heartwarming scenes that'll put a tear in your eyes, creativity up the wazoo, and a unique and terrifying villain, Undertale is definitely 1 of the greatest games I've ever played. Anyone who scoffs at the idea that crowdfunded Indie RPGs can have comparable quality to what the rest of the gaming industry can produce has clearly never experienced Undertale.

9. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (PS2)

This is the first of the Shin Megami Tensei chunk of this list. SMTP3 is a refreshingly different, incredibly complex and layered story taking place in modern day Japan, all the while using the ideas and details of the Tarot Cards to provide the themes, events, and insights of the game's plot and characters. The main story is great, and the sidequest stories, known as Social Links, are even better. What I love about this game the most, though, and what really elevates it to this list, is how deep it really is when you start to look at its every aspect from the Tarot angle--there's always another level of meaning to the game's events, characters, ideas, and even gameplay to be found that goes back to connecting with the themes and insights of the Tarot deck, letting them provide ideas and meaning to the game and having the game's interpretation and employment of the cards in turn analyze and thoughtfully dissect the nature of Tarot cards and readings with the same level of depth and intelligence that other SMT titles (which you'll see below) do with more "mainstream" forms of spiritual belief. All that, AND it's still a beautiful, excellent story with some fantastic characters even at its surface level.

8. Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1 + 2 (PS2)

I honestly cannot split these two games apart to give them credit; to take either game for itself only and not count its virtues in comparison to its sequel or predecessor is to deny the game praise it deserves. SMTDDS1 + 2 share a single plot that uses concepts of Hinduism and Buddhism for its foundation, taking the religions' ideas, beliefs, and mythology and using them to tell a story that is not only a very good adventure in its own right, but is an extremely creative and brilliantly insightful look into the Buddhism and Hinduism’s tenets. These are games that you can contemplate and debate for hours at a time, over and over again for as long as you like. I think the way that SMTDDS1 + 2's creators crafted their plot and characters to work with, analyze, espouse and harmonize the fascinating concepts of Hindu and Buddhist religious thought can honestly only be called genius, easily comparable to the way the games below, Shin Megami Tensei 1 + 2, do with Christianity. In fact, SMTDDS1 + 2's genius is so comparable to SMT1 + 2's, it may be that the only reason I can put one series over the other is that I simply know more about the subject of SMT1 + 2 than I do about Hinduism and Buddhism, so I can just pick up on and more fully appreciate the former's insights than the latter's.

7. Shin Megami Tensei 1 + 2 (Super Nintendo Entertainment System)

As with the Digital Devil Saga parts of the SMT series, these games really have to be counted as 2 parts of a whole, although they aren't connected as chronologically immediately. But they tell the same overall story in 2 parts, they have the same premise, and they're both brilliant in the same ways.

Wow. Just wow. Alright, these games, more than even Earthbound, lends credence to my belief that an RPG's true worth is independent from graphics and gameplay, relying only upon its plot, characters, and any other writing-related aspects. SMT1 + 2 are annoying to play and ugly to look at, with crude 1st-Person dungeons almost no more advanced than those of Phantasy Star 1 on the Sega Master System, and with an annoying level of difficulty that inspires far more frustration than sense of challenge.

But man, the plot of these games? The general ideas? Magnificent. I stand firm in my believe that SMT1 and 2 are some of the most brilliant RPGs I've come across, closer to classic literature than they are to a Final Fantasy or other game of their genre. I did a rant on this before, so I'll be brief--SMT1 brings you to, through, and past apocalypse on Earth, to a world of warring deities and mythological creatures of every culture's legends, where you choose whether to ally yourself with God, Lucifer, or to deny both and stand for humanity alone. The game puts forth insightful ideas and philosophies on Christianity, humanity as a whole, belief, and logic vs. emotion, all while featuring a myriad group of mythological individuals that you can fight against or ally with, depending on whether you agree with the ideals of the game's take on God or Lucifer, or disagree with them entirely. Like many truly great works (heck, like most truly great works on the same subject of Christian mythology), this title is a chore to get through, but very worthwhile and intelligent.

SMT2 does pretty much everything SMT1 does, often better, while improving the character development (which was admittedly slight in the first game) and raising the stakes--while the first game's events decided whether the forces of God, Humanity, or Lucifer gained authority over the last nation of humanity, this game determines for good whether the future of the world will be based upon chaotic emotion, lawful divinity, or neutral self-determination, and you actually meet the two individuals calling each side's shots this time. There's really nothing more to say here; SMT2 is simply a logical step up in quality and scope from the already impressive SMT1, and together, both games represent incredible creativity, philosophical insight, and writing in general.

6. Final Fantasy 9 (PS1)

FF9, the best game of the RPG genre's poster series. A neat and imaginative plot combines with a great cast of deep and memorable characters to deliver an experience both new and old to any fan of the series--meant to be a nostalgic throw-back to the earlier games in the series, yet holding much of the play style and general plot progression of the (then) newer games, as well. Funny thing is, the game meant to serve as a reminder, a remix of sorts, turned out to be so well-constructed and well-written that it stands on its own better than the rest of the series does.

5. Wild Arms 3 (PS2)

Wild Arms 3. What is there to say, but that it is simply magnificent? You get a terrific protagonist by any counts who completely reworks RPG protagonist gender differences, a rival who is actually the most appealing character in the game instead of the least (and who actually has decent character depth, too!), a supporting cast that's solidly appealing and never just forgotten and pushed aside for the main people to get more development time, a long and really imaginative plot, an actual attempt by the Wild Arms series to deliver on their promise of a Wild West-themed setting (for the first and still last time!), several really interesting villains, and a never-ending sense of purpose, direction, and effort with the game's progression--no one ever just stops being developed. You get gripping characters, particularly in the case of the protagonist, to the end. I fucking LOVE Wild Arms 3, and can't recommend it enough.

4. Chrono Trigger (SNES)

For the better part of a decade, it was unthinkable to me that CT would ever be anything less than the best RPG ever made. While it was, eventually, ousted from the top spot beyond all expectations, this game remains, in my opinion, the ultimate classic RPG, a truly perfect expression of originality and fun. If you want a great set of characters that you'll remember forever having an exciting and creative adventure involving a fairly simple, adequately well-reasoned time-travel plot***, or just the best RPG the older generation of games has to offer, Chrono Trigger is it.

3. Suikoden 2 (PS1)

There are a few games from the PS1 whose copies can be sold for over $100, sometimes over $200--or, if you’re looking for an unopened copy, even 500 fucking dollars on Amazon. Suikoden 2, though, is the only one that I can say, with no personal doubt whatever, is 100% worth that price.**** This game's superb characters and epic plot pull at your emotions, give you cause to think and contemplate, and, really, probably leave you at the end a better, more understanding person than you were at its beginning. Suikoden 2 is the kind of game where if you’re not shedding tears multiple times over its course, you might just have to have someone box you up and send you in for repairs, because your Human Imitation Program is clearly malfunctioning.

2. Planescape: Torment (PC)

To play Planescape: Torment is to be amazed. There were times in this game where the masterful writing just left me stunned. And I mean that. Stunned as in sitting in my chair, staring at the screen, unmoving, utterly blown away by what I had just read, seen, contemplated, felt. This plot-heavy RPG wonder is insightful, creative, clever, entertaining, and moving, using the cool, expansive setting of the Dungeons and Dragons planes (and you KNOW you've got a cool game when a demonic war that spans across a twisted rope of connected realities for all time is just the BACKGROUND to the game's focus) to tell a story of a man that can't die, and his search for answers and identity through a complex world of truth and lies, magic and technology, reality and the formless, examining the essence of mortality, the power of torment, and asking the question infamous of this game: What can change the nature of a man? Well, Planescape: Torment is so amazing and engrossing, that you may very well find that your answer to that question is "This game."

1. Grandia 2 (PS2)

Grandia 2, to me, is to modern***** RPGs what Chrono Trigger was to the older generation. The game has an involving plot that goes from average to seriously interesting quickly but subtly, sneaking up on you with its quality and several really interesting, creative plot twists that you honestly will not see coming. It also has one of the greatest RPG casts ever assembled--not a single member of Grandia 2 is bland or badly-developed, each of them has a lot of characterization to go through, and most of them redefine their character archetype to be something new, original, and deep. Grandia 2 is not just an exceptionally fine game, it's also one that reminds you of the power of subtle creativity--so many aspects of this game's plot and characters are the kind of stuff you see in all kinds of other games, shows, animes, etc; yet Grandia 2 takes each one's cliched foundation and builds something new, different, and excellent with it that both interests you and refreshes your interest in the old cliches and what can still be done with them. Give this game a chance, and you'll love it to pieces. I don't know if I'll ever encounter a better game than this one, but if I don't, I can be well-satisfied with what I've got.

Honorable Mention 1: Mass Effect 3, with MEHEM Installed (PC)

If not for the ending, Mass Effect 3 would have been on the main list above, as it is the greatest entry in the amazing trilogy, even outclassing the original Mass Effect! Full of unparalleled emotion, a terrific cast, an engaging plot, poignant and epic moments, and a ton of really interesting ideas, Mass Effect 3 is a masterpiece...except that it ends so unimaginably badly, as I have noted countless times before, that it actually physically sickens me to think about. You never know just how horrible an ending can be, just how much it can damage your happiness and the quality of an entire series, until you play Mass Effect 3.

However, with the Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod installed, you can play Mass Effect 3 with the confidence of knowing that you're headed for a well-made, appropriate, strong ending to the series. I've done a rant on this mod's virtues, but suffice to say, it has restored ME3 to its rightful place of excellence and now I can actually put it on this list. Since it requires outside intervention to correct it and make it a real Mass Effect, I'll keep ME3 as an Honorable Mention, instead of giving it an actual place on the list, but it sure as hell is never losing its spot here. And if you're interested, I'd say Mass Effect 3 with MEHEM would qualify for 9th place here, right between Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and SMT Digital Devil Saga.

Honorable Mention 2: Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer Expansion (PC)

On its own, Neverwinter Nights 2 is no more than passable, an acceptable but largely unremarkable Dungeons and Dragons venture that ranks somewhere between the original, bland Neverwinter Nights 1, and the moderately okay Baldur’s Gate 1. I couldn’t figure out, playing through it, why everyone praised it so damn much.

Then I finished the main campaign and moved onto its sequel-expansion, Mask of the Betrayer.

You know how I have this perpetual hard-on for Chris Avellone’s works? Hell, 4 RPGs with which he’s had significant involvement occupy spots in this rant already. Except that it’s now 5, because the Mask of the Betrayer expansion for Neverwinter Nights 2 is goddamn fucking incredible. Deep, meaningful, insightful, intensely creative, Mask of the Betrayer is the reason to play Neverwinter Nights 2, make no mistake. This expansion is more fiercely thoughtful and intelligent than most of the RPGs I mention above, approaching grand ideas and concepts of humanity and our connection to one another with the same level of excellence and care that you see in Knights of the Old Republic 2, and even Planescape: Torment. It also has a great cast to help bring its weighty thoughts and themes to life.

Mask of the Betrayer isn’t a game in its own right (and it requires you to have played the lengthy, somewhat humdrum main campaign for you to appreciate it to its fullest), so it doesn’t exactly qualify for a space on the main list itself. Nonetheless, it is far too excellent not to be mentioned here in some capacity, so I’m giving it an Honorable Mention. And if you’re interested, I would say that, if I were to count this as its own game and put it on the list proper, Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer would qualify for the 11th place here, between Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Undertale.

...I swear one of these days I'm gonna have a small list rant that is faster to write than a long regular rant. It's gonna happen. Really.

* Yes, I know I mentioned, earlier on this list, that Mother 3 had a lot of great humor, and it’s true. But ultimately, it doesn't incorporate the silly and amusing so integrally into its story and characters that you could call it a comedy. Disgaea 1, on the other hand, does.

** Er, most of the time. The prequels were garbage, and the animated stuff that went with them was at best so-so. But most everything else is good!

*** Sure, there are some fair paradoxes, but, y'know, not much that doesn't come up with any other time-travel story. And frankly, RPG-wise, CT's about as good a time-travel plot as you're gonna get--most, I've noticed, are either silly and pointless (Dark Cloud 2, Final Fantasy 8, Robotrek), have the time travel stuff only be plot twists rather than serious parts of the story (Dark Cloud 1, Kingdom Hearts 2, Rogue Galaxy), or they strand the cast in the past for at least 3/4ths of the game so that the time travel aspect doesn't even seem to be present (Star Ocean 1, Tales of Phantasia). Chrono Trigger's one of a small few who do a good job with it in a major way.

**** Not that you shouldn't seek out a means to pay substantially less to play it, if possible. I'm just saying that if the only option were to pay that much for it, it'd be 1 of the few games actually worth it.

***** “Modern” clearly being a very subjective term.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Pokemon Generation 7's Significance to the Series Theory

Today’s theory is different from my others. Usually, my theories are on aspects of storytelling, or potential other perspectives on characters, which are unlikely to ever be definitively proven right or wrong. But today’s theory is a little more grounded in tangibles. We’re going to see whether I’m right or wrong--probably the latter, I’m sorry to say--on the inevitable day that Pokemon Generation 8 is released. For the sake of Pokemon’s recent, utterly unexpected venture into quality storytelling, I hope today’s theory will, in at least some part, be vindicated. But I’m not betting on it. Time will tell, I suppose. On with the rant!

There’s just no 2 ways about it: against all expectations, Pokemon Generation 7 is a good RPG. No, that’s selling it short. It’s a great RPG. It’s got a story with depth that feels like it matters, with a well-written, complex, dynamic, and so gosh darn lovable main character, and a complex, well-written, skillfully executed villain who perfectly serves as the main character’s foil. Pokemon Generation 7 has a plot with a real purpose, that poses and explores actual questions and issues, and more than once invokes genuine emotion in the player.

And the interesting thing is, some of these more thoughtful parts of Pokemon Generation 7 may not just be significant in their own right, as moments in their own story, but also as a foundation to the themes and direction of future games in the Pokemon series. For, you see, within Pokemon Moon and Pokemon Sun are seeds that could lead to a complete shake-up of the imbalanced, illogical, and morally worrying way that the Pokemon world, and indeed even its narrative, views and treats its eponymous race of dogfighting servants.

The bulk of this potential is found within the game’s true main character, Lillie. Not surprising, of course, given that Lillie already does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to inserting purpose and depth into Pokemon Generation 7. Lillie has the potential to be a graceful, subtle first real step that Nintendo and Game Freak are taking toward recognizing Pokemon as being, and deserving to be, more than battling slavepets.

To see what I mean, we must first acknowledge a certain unstated narrative decision regarding Lillie: namely, that she is, symbolically, a Pokemon. In the literal sense, Lillie is, of course, as human as any other character in the game, but she nonetheless is clearly meant to be analogous to a Pokemon. Her initial design, of course, is the most obvious giveaway of this fact, as Lillie’s clothing and hairstyle when you first meet her intentionally make her visually similar to Nihilego, the Pokemon/Unknown Beast of greatest narrative importance to the game’s story (besides Nebbie, that is).* And this decision is not just a typical but unimportant artistic choice, the way Gym Leaders will often have color schemes and hairstyles evocative of the Pokemon Type that they specialize in. The game explicitly tells us that Lillie’s mother Lusamine has intentionally made Lillie’s appearance as close to Nihilego’s as possible, for reasons that are fascinating, thought-provoking, but also irrelevant to and just too darned time-consumingly complex for this rant.

Lillie also seems to unconsciously (and perhaps even consciously) parallel herself to Pokemon, as well. Even as she eventually casts aside her mother’s control over her and begins to dress as she wants to, Lillie keeps the comparison her mother drew between her and Pokemon alive--heck, she kind of makes the analogy stronger. Because even as she shows off her new look and determination, Lillie equates this evolution of her character with an advancement of a Pokemon, calling her new outlook and fashion her “Z-Powered Form.” This is, of course, in reference to the Z Moves that Generation 7 introduces to the Pokemon battle dynamic, single-use attacks of extreme power that’re all flashy and super special awesome and such.

Of course, what exactly a “Z-Powered Form” in fact is, I couldn’t say. It’s not actually a thing for Pokemon...seems like Lillie should have called her new look her Mega Evolution, but Mega Evolution is, like, so last Generation, so I guess they just had her go with the less technically accurate analogy for the benefit of tying in with this Generation’s Z-Move gimmick.**

Regardless, though, Lillie’s obviously referencing (if perhaps ineptly) a concept unique to Pokemon in the game to describe herself. So, yeah, even when she’s broken free of the clutches of her dominating mother’s after-influence, Lillie is still meant to represent a Pokemon, by her own words.

So here’s the thing: If we look at Lillie as representative of Pokemon, the story of Pokemon Generation 7 has some very interesting implications for the future of the series. The meat of this game’s story, after all, is that of Lillie stepping out of her mother’s domination, free to be her own person and seek her own destiny. In a touching display of compassion and genuine goodness, Lillie makes the choice to return to Lusamine and save her, not because she’s obligated to, but because she still loves her mother and won’t leave Lusamine to destroy herself. It’s a great coming-of-age story, particularly when it occurs alongside the journey of Alola’s first-Champion-to-be as the island region prepares to join the rest of the world in having a Pokemon League.***

But keeping the Lillie = Pokemon metaphor in mind, the story takes on a new tone. It starts to seem like it’s an allegory for a Pokemon, any given Pokemon, escaping from the dominating, self-concerned control of her trainer, a trainer that demands unconditional obedience from the Pokemon in every regard, and expects the poor creature to shape its behavior and physical existence to suit the trainer’s whims. Which, needless to say, is exactly what we do when we play these games, to varying degrees, and even in-universe seems to be the case for a substantial portion of the trainer population. And while I’d love to say I came up with this interpretation on my own and act all smart and thoughtful, the game basically just spells it out for you as Lillie confronts her mother at the Aether Foundation. She basically tells Lusamine off for taking advantage of Lillie’s love for her, declaring that children aren’t just toys to be played with and discarded...and in the same conversation, also denounces the way that Lusamine harmed Nebby (the Cosmog Pokemon that Lillie ran away with to save from her mother’s machinations). The parallel is drawn clearly between Lusamine’s abuse of Lillie and her abuse of her Pokemon.

This being the case, then, what does the rest of Lillie’s story tell us? Lillie goes on to find her confidence and discover herself, as well as encourage Nebby to grow in new ways without her (as the companion to Moon/Sun, rather than remaining in Lillie’s care), and her story concludes with a showdown against Lusamine, in which Lillie saves her mother from her own madness, and proves herself as an independent individual, both to herself and to Lusamine. As Lusamine murmurs in questioning wonder at how beautiful Lillie has now become, the girl has proven that her love for and devotion to her mother can exist--indeed, has never been greater--as a part of her as an independent person. Not only was Lusamine mistaken when, in her madness, she believed that the only way to guarantee the consistent love and devotion of her family was to control them completely, but the love and devotion that Lillie has now voluntarily shown for her mother is greater, more ‘beautiful’, than ever before. But beyond the surface level of a coming-of-age story that deals with our fear of losing those close to us as they mature into people of their own...this is a story with interesting implications. If Lillie is also meant to represent a Pokemon, and by extension Lusamine is clearly meant to represent that Pokemon’s trainer...then this is a story very different from that cowardly slop in Generation 5. This is a story which dares to criticize the foundation of the Pokemon world: that of a domineering trainer who, as shown through the options and nuances of gameplay, gets to casually acquire, use, and discard Pokemon in accordance to his/her whims alone. Through its protagonist Lillie, Pokemon Generation 7 says that the conventions we’re so used to in these games, which we in real life poke fun at and question the ethics of, actually are morally unsound.

Yes, we know that there are cases in the Pokemon world of trainers mistreating their Pokemon--the sad sack plot of Generation 5 hinged its whole message of “KEEP UP THE STATUS QUO AND DON’T THINK ABOUT THINGS TOO MUCH” around the idea that 1 guy mistook the supposed rarity of Pokemon abuse as the norm, as I mentioned in previously. Nonetheless, until now, the concept was used only as a rare contrast that highlighted how okay it was for the regular Pokemon-human dynamic to exist. Generation 7, on the other hand, actually stars the individual who questions the ethics of the world’s hierarchy. Stars, and glorifies her.

And that by itself is impressive. But what’s really interesting is that this game does more than just having Lillie question the norms of the Pokemon world, call attention to the fact that maybe thinking, feeling, reasoning creatures shouldn’t be kept as slave pets. Yes, Pokemon Generation 7 goes beyond simple critique of its own series: it also proposes an alternative. Criticism, after all, is an absolutely essential component to human society, but it’s the easier half of a whole--the other half is actually offering a solution for the problem being highlighted.**** In having Lillie return to save Lusamine from herself, in having Lillie show her devotion even when Lusamine has turned her back to her daughter, and in having Lusamine finally, at the end of the climactic showdown, realize just how amazing Lillie truly is as her own person, Pokemon Generation 7 poses the solution to the current inequitable and ethically uncomfortable status of Pokemon and their trainers. The solution is simply to have trainers give up their supposed authority and control of their Pokemon...release them, let them be their own free beings, and let their love and devotion to the humans keep them voluntarily by the trainers’ side. Lillie has proven that she can be Lusamine’s daughter and her equal at the same time, and by metaphorical extension, that a Pokemon can be its trainer’s companion and equal at the same time.

That’s what I’ve taken from this, at least: that Pokemon Generation 7 has stood up, and proclaimed, “Let equal beings share their love and friendship as equal beings.” To me, the moral and message of Lillie’s story, when viewed through the understanding that she represents Pokemon, holds a very real possibility that the series is ready to take itself in a new direction.

Now, Lillie is my biggest piece of evidence for my thoughts that the future of the Pokemon series might involve a revolutionary change in tone and interpersonal dynamics between trainer and Pokemon, but I do want to point out that there are a few minor details of Pokemon Generation 7 that corroborate this. First of all, there’s the Pokemon Pelago feature--a pleasant, physical location for your Pokemon to go to, instead of just being cooped up in a PC storage system. Could be, and probably is, meant as nothing more than a gameplay feature, but it does nonetheless carry with it an implication that perhaps Pokemon prefer being ‘free range,’ so to speak, than being compressed into a digital box.

There’s also the fact that Alola has a noticeably more equal attitude (though obviously nowhere near actual equality) towards Pokemon, a fact which is outright stated a couple times. Pokemon are implied to have jobs in the community as their own entities (rather than just being used by trainers to perform those jobs), such as independently providing transportation services to those taking the Alola Island Challenge.***** I mean, sure, these transportation Pokemon are still having to drop whatever they’re doing to assist the human being that calls on them, but they’re doing so on their own, without some preteen owner breathing down their necks a few feet away. As a result, it feels less like a slave pet kowtowing to their master, and more like a contracted entity voluntarily fulfilling a responsibility--that is, an employee just doing their job. A region (one which seems especially glorified; I can’t recall any previous installment in the series whose characters, NPCs, and overall tone had so much enthusiasm for its setting) in which Pokemon are viewed as slightly closer to peers than in any other’s an interesting detail to call attention to.

So what does this all add up to? What’s my point? Well, it’s simply this: I theorize (and really, really hope) that Pokemon Generation 7 is intended to be a turning point in the series. Not just in the sense that we’ve finally seen a main series Pokemon RPG with a real story and well-written characters (though I am DEFINITELY down for this being the first of many quality plots and casts!). Rather, I think that this well-written, subtle story of shaking free from unfair bondage and rising up to prove the value of being free to be oneself and pursue relationships out of choice rather than obligation could be a turning point for how the Pokemon series views and implements its titular species. Born from the quiet but bold words and example of Lillie, future titles could finally begin truly exploring the questions of what’s right and just for Pokemon, the questions that have been glossed over, ignored, and at times even actively and ineptly sabotaged by the series until now. The future might hold new stories which further challenge the dynamics of the Pokemon world, even new game features that could revolutionize how Pokemon are acquired--maybe we could soon see a game in which “catching” a Pokemon is less about beating them within an inch of their life and trapping them in a tiny prison, and more about actually convincing them that you deserve their companionship and support, keeping them together as a group out of mutual respect and affection rather than an iron grip of control, as Lillie has taught us is better. I theorize that from here on, with Generation 7 as a foundation to build off of, the Pokemon series will, much as its eponymous beings do, evolve into something greater! Something of depth, that develops itself in a dynamic way with each new installment, moving toward a more worthwhile, wholesome world in which humans and Pokemon are the equals who grow as friends and family for real. A whole new series has been born with Generation 7!

Or, y’know, more likely the next games will be the same careless, uninteresting, shallow cash-grabs as always, and Nintendo will backtrack the hell away from the possibilities that Pokemon Moon and Sun opened to them. I suppose we’ll know for sure in a couple years. Even if that winds up being the case, though, I’ll always have Generation 7 much as I have Xenosaga 1: as a shining moment of glimpsed potential for something great.

* Does anyone find it interesting, incidentally, that in the Pokemon Refresh thing, touching Nihilego in the spot where her face would be (if we use Lillie as a blueprint) provokes a strong reaction? I wonder whether there’re any implications to that.

** Speaking of Mega Evolutions, is anyone else annoyed that none of Alola’s new Pokemon got any? The Z Moves are cool and all, but I’d rather see some cool powered-up forms if I have to choose.

Also, way to drop the ball and still not have a Mega Evolution of Rapidash as a totally bitchin’ fire alicorn, Nintendo. It’s like you guys don’t even read this blog.

*** Come to think of it...why hasn’t the series tried something like this before? I mean, the basic premise of Pokemon is pretty much always the same thing: a kid going on a journey that’s a socially-encouraged rite of passage. That’s basically already the foundation of a coming-of-age story anyway, so why not make an actual, honest-to-Arceus story about growing up and out of the confines of youth? It seems so damn obvious! Sheesh, Generation 7 really is the first of the series where they gave the slightest crap about what they were writing.

**** Not, for the record, that there is anything wrong about offering sincere critique even when you don’t personally have a better solution available. It’s not the diner’s responsibility to know how to make their meal palatable, but the chef’s. It is simply the diner’s privilege to expect as much, and to call attention to a situation which prevents them from having a satisfactory experience.


Monday, September 18, 2017

General RPGs' Collectathons' Bad Rewards

Who’s psyched for a short rant?

Okay, could we PLEASE get some sort of formal, written agreement across the board from RPG companies that if your game has a long and involved collectathon, the final reward for finding every single hidden little collectable object has to actually be, y’know, rewarding?

This is not fucking rocket science. If you have hidden 50 secret magical doodads throughout the game and given the player a sidequest to find them all, there should be an end reward that doesn’t make them feel like they wasted the extra hours of their time that it took to track them all down!

Most games can figure this out. Find every single Normin in Tales of Zestiria, including those rotten little bastards that are hidden in goddamn scenery? You get a final Normin with 1 of the best equipment blessing powers, AND you get him via an amusing scene that reveals a little bit of back lore for Edna, along with a couple of those delightful Tales of series skits. That’s a fairly decent reward. Go through the inordinate trouble of tracking down 4 separate sets of 8 eggs in Lufia 2? You get an ultimate boss fight with a grumpy and now overworked dragon, and then are rewarded with the best sword and accessory in the game (which honestly is not nearly worth the trouble, if you ask me, but it IS an actual reward). Find all 99 dalmatians in Kingdom Hearts 1, and your final reward is the best wind spell in the game, a grab bag of some of the best inventory stuff in the game, and a torn page (which unlocks a part of the Winnie the Pooh sidequest, which, I mean, is plot stuff, so I’m obligated to approve of it even though, as noted long ago, I can’t fucking stand that dopey, staggering heap of urine-colored lint). Oh, and a short little cutscene of all the dalmatians running around their now overcrowded home, which is either adorable and fulfilling to watch, or makes you shudder with rage and wonder if Cruella didn’t have the right idea, depending on how much trouble you had finding all the monochromatic little vermin. But, y’know, since most people are not quite as easily frustrated by small things as I am, nor quite so quick to jump to vengeful thoughts regarding puppies, Imma assume most people like the cutscene, and say that overall this collectathon has a good reward.

But, see, while most games can manage to come up with something actually fucking decent to reward a player’s detailed exploration to find all 80 fabled mystical hot dogs scattered about the land or whatever other crap the collectible mcguffin of the day happens to be, some apparently can’t be bothered. Illusion of Gaia, for example. 50 Red Gems there are, scattered throughout the course of Illusion of Gaia from start to finish. That’s a lot of hidden locations to find, and some are rather challengingly hidden. Not helping matters is the fact that a lot of these are permanently missable--there are a lot of locations in IoG which you cannot return to after certain points in the game. So you go to all this trouble, and what’s your reward? You get to run through a short and frankly pretty uninteresting bonus dungeon, learn that the Red Gem collector was secretly the first boss of Soulblazer all along, and then fight him. That’s fucking it. No actual reward for your effort, just a tiny extra dungeon that’s boring, a fight that’s just a remix of the first boss from a previous game, and, like, I dunno, 5 lines of dialogue? Is the reward just supposed to be the satisfaction of knowing the secret of the Red Gem guy, and the fate of Soulblazer’s first boss? Because I’m gonna be blunt: I didn’t give a damn about the former, and I hadn’t even realized I was supposed to give a damn about the latter.

Or, worse yet, what about The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time? Where was the vaunted Nintendo polish when it came to those fucking Gold Skulltulas, huh!? This massive (for its time; still sizable today) land of twisty dungeons and obscure hiding places, and you’re asked to search it for 100, that’s one-flippin’-hundred, giant spiders* peppered all throughout Hyrule. And if you do stay the course, put in the time and effort, and actually uncover every last damn Gold Skulltula? Your prize is 200 rupees. Now, granted, you can keep coming back and getting 200 more rupees each time, so it's actually infinite money, so this seems, on paper, like it's a pretty good reward. But tell me: what the hell is there, by the point that you can reach every Gold Skulltula, to even buy any more? 200 rupees or 2 billion, it means nothing at the point of the game where there's nothing substantial left to purchase! I'd wager most players' wallets are completely full by the time they even get this reward, having had nothing important to buy for hours and hours already! At least Illusion of Gaia’s programmers went to the trouble to whip up a little bonus dungeon and a rehashed boss fight. They might have been mistaken about what an adequate reward for their collectathon would be, but they TRIED. Nintendo just doesn’t even bother pretending that it didn’t just put you through hours of busywork to artificially inflate the length of the game.

And don’t even get me started on Energy Breaker’s Shiny Pebble situation. At least Illusion of Gaia and Ocarina of Time actually did give you something for finishing their collectathons, terrible though the rewards may have been. Energy Breaker rewards you periodically for finding enough of the Shiny Pebbles scattered throughout the game, but if you actually manage to find all 50, which is no small feat, what happens? NOTHING. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say this, but here should actually be a reward for the player completing the collection quest you asked of them!**

Look, bottom line, if any budding game developers ever happen across this: please, make sure that the game-long collectathon actually has a worthwhile reward for its conclusion. Don’t make the ‘reward’ an extra chore that answers a question no one was asking, don’t make it a condescending pat on the head and some money they don’t need, don’t just forego rewarding them altogether...the players have put effort into finding all that you’ve hidden, so reciprocate with some effort in thinking about and creating a reward they’ll feel satisfied with, yeah?

* Who was the genius at Nintendo that decided to make the collectibles for this quest a bunch of giant fucking spiders, anyway? Giant fucking spiders whose bodies are skulls? Other RPG collectathons have you searching for precious jewels, cute puppies or other mascots, ancient artifacts, special coins, collectible bottle caps...things that you want to find, or at least don’t mind doing so. What’s Nintendo have you scouring every inch of the world for? Abominations. It’s like they were determined that absolutely no part of this sidequest should be appealing.

** I admit that on this point, I’m going on other people’s reports, not personal experience. I didn’t find all 50 myself when I played through Energy Breaker. Nonetheless, multiple other players have reported getting nothing for going to the trouble of locating every single Shiny Pebble in the game, and no one has contradicted these statements, so I’m assuming they are correct.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Cosmic Star Heroine

You know the drill at this point: I play an Indie RPG, I make a rant about it...assuming it doesn’t suck, of course. Or even if it does suck, sometimes. Cosmic Star Heroine was the...I think third Kickstarter RPG I backed, so it was pretty rad to finally see it finished and play what I’d helped make a reality. Here’s what I think:

Cosmic Star Heroine is fun.

Honestly, that is what Cosmic Star Heroine ultimately boils down to. It’s a good time from the word go. If you want a recommendation but don’t want to have to wade through another long, meandering rant, that’s it right there: It’s fun, so go and play it.

For any among you who like hearing me blather on, for some reason, let’s look at the game with a little more detail. First of all, let’s start with an examination into what it’s promised, and what it delivers on. Cosmic Star Heroine proudly proclaimed itself to be an RPG created with 16-bit-era RPGs in mind, most notably Chrono Trigger and Phantasy Star 4 (seriously, I don’t think there was a single promotional ad, article, video, or what have you for the game prior to release that didn’t name drop those 2 titles as its guiding influences). Well, in terms of drumming up interest among lifelong gamers for it, you sure can’t go wrong with dropping the names of the greatest SNES RPG* and the greatest Genesis RPG** every chance you can get. But, that does set a damn high bar for Cosmic Star Heroine to hit, too. Does it do so?

Well, not really, but also sort of yes.

Allow me to explain what I mean by this ambiguous standalone statement (I use those a lot, don’t I?). If you’re going to just compare the 3 titles together on total merit as RPGs, well, Cosmic Star Heroine doesn’t stand a fucking chance. It hasn’t got the emotional power nor the plot substance of Phantasy Star 4 alone, let alone Chrono Trigger. It lacks the narrative genius and creativity of Chrono Trigger, and much of CSH’s novelty in lore and world building is similar enough to Phantasy Star’s that it doesn’t seem especially unique when the comparison to PS has already been drawn. CSH’s cast in general doesn’t hold a candle to CT’s or PS4’s, and its villains are serviceable, but unimpressive when compared to Magus, Zio, Zeal, Dark Force, and Lavos. If you look at Cosmic Star Heroine’s frequent claims of a spiritual tie to Chrono Trigger and Phantasy Star 4 as a promise to equal their quality, well, you’re gonna be disappointed.

From a different perspective, however, Cosmic Star Heroine does deliver on its claims. The setting and narrative methods of CSH emulate Phantasy Star very well, capturing the series’s core atmosphere and style in a way that’s enjoyable, nostalgic, authentic, and yet never uninterestingly derivative. It’s even got PS4-styled cutscene semi-animations (in fact, they’re better quality than PS4’s iconic ones, while seeming to be on the same technological level). Honestly, this game is far more true to Phantasy Star than the actual Phantasy Star series itself has been for many years. Heck, the protagonist’s first name is even Alyssa, which isn’t too far from the names of Phantasy Star 1 and 4’s main characters.*** There’s also a lot of the game’s style of play and dialogue/monologue interactions that feels...well, maybe not directly related to Chrono Trigger, but definitely like a cousin to it. There’s also various bits and pieces scattered throughout the game that are little nods at CT and PS, such as sentient talking multi-tailed cats showing up here and there (as a nod to Myau of PS1...and honestly, Random Cats was sort of a CT thing, too), and a festival in the middle of the first planet’s city that feels more than a little like CT’s iconic Millennial Fair. So while CSH doesn’t really compare to PS4 and CT, it does in some ways capture a lot of their feel, and I’d be surprised if, while playing it, there was anyone who didn’t have at least a single moment of nostalgia for those classics.

The thing with Cosmic Star Heroine is, though, that it’s very much its own entity, more than it’s an homage or spiritual successor, and I think that it should be judged as such first and foremost. And as its own entity, it’s...well, as I said, it’s fun. Sorry, but I don’t have a whole lot else I can really call it that makes sense. To say more of it wouldn’t be accurate, but to say less would also be wrong.

Now, you might think that just saying that Cosmic Star Heroine is “fun” doesn’t really mean much, and that it doesn’t highly recommend it. But I do want to clarify that, to me, this actually means that CSH is a rather rare RPG experience. Because, well, “fun” isn’t really something that the stories, characters, and atmospheres of RPGs actually reach for very often. That’s not to say anything against the genre, of course; if anything, it speaks well of it. RPGs, plot-based as they are meant to be, are almost always far more concerned with telling a story that conveys a message, or provokes thought and consideration, or analyzes an aspect of our consciousness, or evokes strong emotions. RPGs usually have a direction they want their story to go in, and simple, surface-level fun is rarely it. That’s not to say that one does not enjoy the games, that one does not have fun with this genre that comports itself somewhat more seriously than most...but that’s not the same thing as a game that’s just out strictly to be an enjoyable, light romp. Only a handful of RPGs successfully choose this latter course, titles like Super Mario RPG, Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch, Startropics, and Paper Mario 2. And hell, sometimes an RPG that seems like it’s meant to be a lighthearted bit of fun ends up ambushing you with meaning and strong emotion just when you think you’re safe, like Okage: Shadow King, Disgaea 1, Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, and Makai Kingdom.

And don’t get me wrong: I am extremely happy with this situation. I have no complaints whatsoever that RPGs almost always carry themselves with the intent to be serious, meaningful, and poignant.**** The result is a genre where the storytelling quality of, say, Final Fantasy 4, which is just a solidly well-written venture all around, is the average, rather than a high note. And I’m also extremely pleased when an RPG that has an approach that seems lighthearted turns out to be deep, meaningful, and/or emotionally complex, too. In fact, looking at Undertale, Okage: Shadow King, Disgaea 1, Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, Makai Kingdom, and Mother 3, it seems to be a remarkably consistent way to craft an excellent and compelling story. It seems in many cases that a lighthearted hook, premise, and/or cast can actually make the heavier content to come all the more gripping, somehow. I can only think immediately of 1 example where it failed (Disgaea 2), where it just seemed to be trying too damn hard on all fronts of humor and emotion.

With that said, though? We all need a little pure, basic levity, now and then. We cannot survive on drama and tragedy forever; every now and then we must sprinkle some comedy and simple, straightforward action and excitement into our mental diet. I don’t really advocate things that turn your brain off altogether, mind you, since the implication with that phrase is that the thing you’re watching or playing or whatever doesn’t have to try at all. But if not outright turning it off, we at least all need to give our brain a chance now and then to sit back on a comfortable recliner and take a load off its cerebellum for a bit.

And when that time comes, that even your RPG hobby could use a slight break to loosen up a bit and just have fun? Cosmic Star Heroine’s the game for you. It has a consistent, enjoyable undercurrent of tongue-in-cheek humor throughout its course. It’s got a fun, exciting feel to it. It’s paced very well so that any time it might start to feel a bit repetitive, it throws a quick new event your way (like a brief break to pilot a giant mech suit in a classic anime/monster movie battle, or a mission to infiltrate a social event held by a mobster) to break things up and keep them fresh. It’s funny, without having to actually be a comedy RPG. It has a generally exciting and engaging stride with a lot of action and adventure. It’s got a cast which may not be especially deep or dynamic, but is weird and creative in that classic Genesis RPG way--between psychic gun monks, giant ant cyborgs, and an alien ghost detective, you’re never wanting for a colorful and weird character to adventure with. And, well, I mean, it’s a game about a science fiction secret agent superstar going rogue to save her star system from a mysterious alien mind control device! What can I really say about the game that its own premise doesn’t effectively communicate?

In the end, Cosmic Star Heroine is a fun RPG. It’s made to be an exciting, enjoyable adventure from the start, and its writers know how to keep it that way through to its end. Do I encourage you to give it a try? Sure! I’ll of course more strongly advocate for other, more compelling Indie RPGs first, ones like Celestian Tales 1 or Dust: An Elysian Tail, but as a simple, fun break from the typical, serious approach of the genre, Cosmic Star Heroine can’t be beat. I’d be surprised if you didn’t find it an appealing, pleasing venture.

* Sorry, Shin Megami Tensei 1 and 2, Final Fantasy 6, and Lufia 2.

** Sorry, uh...Pier Solar and the Great Architects, I guess? Wow, the only competition Phantasy Star 4 has for the title of greatest Genesis RPG is a game that came out over a decade after the system was dead. 16-bit-era Sega really just didn’t have a whole lot going for it RPG-wise, did it?

*** Yeah, okay, Chaz turned out to be the protagonist of Phantasy Star 4, not Alys. Well, much like Hot Ice Hilda to Outlaw Star, Alys feels like the cooler potential hero whose story was stolen from her by a narrative mistake. I really feel like the game up until Alys’s death feels much more like the story was designed with her as the lead in mind. Hell, even afterwards, Chaz’s role as leader somehow feels off more than a few times, like the result of a script that’s been altered from its original, intended vision.

Not that I dislike Chaz, you understand. He’s fine. PS4 just never felt to me like it was supposed to have been his story, that’s all.

**** This intent does not always work out, of course. Still, I’m glad that misguided efforts like Xenosaga aimed high and missed, rather than missing while not trying to do anything meaningful. Hell, even complete fucking garbage like Wild Arms 4 and Shadow Hearts 3 acted like they had something say with their stories, even if they were gravely mistaken.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Fire Emblem 14's Peri is Toxic

Huge thanks to Ecclesiastes, for giving this a read-over and helping me shape it into something halfway readable. And, of course, also to my sister, who does the same with every single rant I do. You’re both aces, chums.

I like Fire Emblem 14. It’s a good RPG. Not great, but its story is decent, at least, and its cast stands out somewhat for having some compelling interpersonal dynamics (Corrin’s familial bonds with the Nohr and Hoshido siblings, Effie’s devotion to Elise, Leo and Forrest’s father-son relationship, etc), and a few individuals who are legitimately deep and compelling characters, such as Camilla, Selena,* and Forrest. The game’s got some notable flaws, but even those flaws generally have silver linings, or are a case of trying, but just not hard enough. Flaws, yes, but normal ones, ones that could be worse.

There is, however, one problem with this game that is just negative no matter how you look at her: Peri.

As a character, Peri actually isn’t without some depth, in that her mental disorders have a cause and explanation in the game--her mother was murdered when Peri was a young girl by one of her family’s servants, and as a result, Peri never mentally developed as an adult, and remorselessly murdered the servants of her home whenever the whim struck her. That’s actually not a terrible concept for a character to explore.

But what IS terrible, what makes Peri overall damaging to the cast of this game, is how she and her situation are handled, on every damn front. First of all, her presence in Corrin’s army is an ethical contradiction. The fact that Peri is allowed to serve Corrin’s forces and fight for their cause is incompatible with everything the game shows and tells us about Corrin’s character and ethics. Corrin is an overall kind woman/man, who values life to the point that she/he is willing to jeopardize her/his own life, her/his reputation and respect, and her/his relationship with Corrin’s family to preserve the lives of the people of both Nohr and Hoshido, seeking a way to end war as quickly and bloodlessly as possible, and eliminate the ones who pull the strings to start war in the first place. There is no mistake to be made in Fire Emblem 14’s eyes: Corrin is the hero of the story and a highly ethical person.

So how, exactly, does it make any sense that Corrin accepts, without a word of complaint, Peri into her/his army? Peri, who murders innocent and completely helpless people around her the moment they commit even the tiniest offense, and sometimes just for fun? Peri, whose body count, if we count all the servants in her household that she’s murdered over the years, has to be a fairly even split between foe and friend? Peri, who actually, I shit you not, brags to Corrin about taking baths in the blood of the people she’s murdered. I mean, you can say that Corrin has no choice in the matter, that Peri comes along with Xander as a package deal because she’s his retainer, but that doesn’t excuse Corrin from never even protesting it! The most we get in that sense is, during their B rank conversation, Corrin realizing that Peri is seriously out of her fucking mind and regretting letting her into the army...but these natural reservations about having a mass murderer running around your camp are all forgotten by the next support conversation, because OH-MA-GURRD, PERI BAKED FOOD LIKE A GOOD LITTLE WAIFU, ALL IS FORGIVEN.

And it’s not just Corrin’s character integrity that Peri’s position damages, either. Why the hell is she Xander’s retainer to begin with? How does this jive with anything we know about Xander? I mean, we know that Xander recognizes the occasional necessity of doing bad things when it comes to being a ruler and a warrior, but the overall picture that Fire Emblem 14 paints of the guy is of a noble, dutiful man who is characterized by dignified reserve and iron focus. Why the FUCK would Xander of all people take Peri on as his personal bodyguard? Sure, she’s highly competent at combat, and he says herself in his support conversations with her that that’s what initially drew his attention, but surely that can’t be the absolute only qualification that a man like Xander would have for his servants? Surely at some point, Xander should have noticed Peri running around gutting the castle staff, and thought to himself, “Hmmm, now where does Dad keep the pink slips?” Not to mention that if combat prowess really was the only factor that would ever matter, you’d think Xander would have taken Beruka, or Selena, who I’m fairly certain most would agree are, story-wise, superior fighters. Or waited until Effie had finished turning herself into the goddamn She Hulk of Fire Emblem and taken her instead. Effie would fucking annihilate Peri.

The most I can guess is that maybe Xander figures that this is a way to keep an eye on Peri and keep her from causing too much damage on her own. Sort of like how, on the other side of the continent, Hinoka has somehow become the one who watches over her retainer Setsuna. Except that that reason doesn’t really make any sense, because it would be easier to just have Peri locked away where she can’t harm anyone, and again, she’s a good combatant, not an irreplaceable one. So it just comes back to a puzzling case of an otherwise responsible and decent ruler choosing to contradict every part of his character and employ a psychotic murder doll.

And no, it doesn’t stop there. Peri is directly damaging to the character integrity of Xander and Corrin, to be sure, but she’s also indirectly damaging to the character integrity of...well, pretty much the rest of the army! At least, almost everyone who she can have support conversations with. No one ever calls her out on this shit! Some characters, like Corrin or Laslow, will be perturbed by Peri’s penchant for slaughtering any helpless innocents within reach, but not once does anyone in the cast have the basic human decency to just come out and say, “Cut that shit out, you fucking maniac!”** Additionally, practically no one in the cast cares enough about this matter to actually try to get to the cause of Peri’s behavior and solve the problem. I think Laslow is the only one who can be bothered to. The closest any others seem to come to trying to fix this problem which is killing people is to get Peri to distract herself by baking shit instead, like Corrin does. This entire dozens-strong cast of heroes just collectively shrug their shoulders and look the other way as Peri brags over and over about murdering everyone who annoys her in the smallest way!

Making Peri one of the heroes of the game was just the wrong move. A villain, she would have worked as. But as someone who stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Corrin, Azura, Xander, Effie, Elise, Sakura, Arthur, Hinoka, Ryoma, and countless others in the army who are genuinely good people? This does not work. I realize that the cast has its ethical gray areas--there are thieves, professional killers, and individuals with a massive bloodlust on this team. But Shura the thief and kidnapper was doing what he had to for the sake of his people, and he at least has the presence of mind to know that what he does isn’t respectable, and to even have guilt over some of his past actions. Beruka and Saizo the assassins kill precisely and purposefully, not indiscriminately, and they can even, in their support conversations, come to mutually realize the futility of what they do, and recognize that it does not ultimately serve to create a better world. Camilla has an interest in death and has absolutely no qualms about killing anyone who threatens the happiness and safety of those she cares about, but up until you give her cause to eliminate you, she’s a warm and caring person who can welcome and make a beloved ally of even those who sought to destroy her. Keaton finds himself drawn to bloodshed, and Charlotte and Reina are both maniac berserkers who, once they’re going, can’t contain their bloodlust...but all 3 of these characters have enough control and ethics to strictly limit their crazed violence to the battlefield. In all other morally questionable members of Corrin’s army, you can find restraint, purpose, and/or codes of ethics or professionalism. None are wanton murderers of innocents, save Peri.

Also, as I mentioned in my previous rant about the best and worst romances of Fire Emblem 14, Peri is just as damaging a part of the game from the angle of romance. The fact of the matter is that she has the mind of a child, frozen in its development from the moment she saw her mother’s bloody corpse on the floor during her childhood. Now, before I continue, I must say that I give a pass here to Laslow and Peri’s romance. Laslow’s support conversations with Peri result in him helping her to understand the pain and suffering of others when she kills innocents, and realize the source of her psychosis, and so, his influence causes her to become a better person, but also helps her begin to mentally catch up, and begin to become an adult. During their confession of love, Peri has grown to the point that she can will herself to speak and think as a woman, instead of a child, and she takes a moment to tell Laslow what he means to her, as a mature, emotionally aware woman. Granted, she slips back into her little girl mentality a moment later, as it’s more comfortable for her, but the fact that she CAN, at will, function as an adult thanks to him is enough.

But, aside from Laslow? Every single romance that the game’s characters have with Peri is extremely disturbing. And not just because most of them are knowingly getting married to a careless murder machine (although that’s certainly another significantly distressing part of it). No, it’s because, again, SHE IS MENTALLY A CHILD. These rational, reasonably well-adjusted adult men are getting married and sexing up a severely imbalanced woman whose mental development halted prior to puberty!

Look. When we take the time to actually question and contemplate the concept of age of consent, it’s never quite as cut-and-dry as society likes to pretend it is. Most of the civilized world says it’s 16, a lot of the USA says it’s 18, some places are insane and think it has to be 21, some places are insane and think that it can be...a lot lower, let’s say. The only constant is that it’s pretty damn arbitrary. Additionally, the ‘why’ of the matter is also hard to really fully pin down. Obviously, there are ages in which the body is not physically ready for physical intimacy of that nature, and it is wholly immoral to try to push it into that. At the same time, though, the body is nearly always sure as hell more than ready for sex before age 18, or even 16, for that matter, so the question can’t be entirely one of physical readiness. In fact, since the potential long term harm of having sex at an inappropriate age is mostly mental, I think it’s fair to say that the matter is mostly a case of protecting young people from the mental harm that sexual relations can bring before one is ready for them, particularly with a partner whose experience as an adult gives them a dangerously unfair emotional advantage. But that, of course, just makes a hardline number of 16 or 18 or 21 or whatever all the more arbitrary, because we all develop emotionally and intellectually at different speeds, and furthermore, a lot of our being properly ready to pursue a physical relationship comes down to whether our parents, teachers, and other experienced contacts have properly talked to us about the matter.

Now, all of this is a very roundabout and awkward way for me to say that, in the end, the concept of age of consent is both physical AND mental, and that, frankly, I think that it’s more about the mental side. Peri may have an adult’s body, but she is no more emotionally developed than a child, and a really damaged child, at that. To me, a regular adult pursuing a physical relationship with Peri is a violation of the fundamental spirit upon which we have built the concept of age of consent: the idea that physical relations with someone who has not had the experience and mental development to be able to handle the emotional weight of romance and sex is wrong. With the exception of Laslow, because, again, he’s actually helped Peri mentally connect to her adulthood, every single S support romance with Peri in this game is unhealthy, imbalanced, and highly disturbing.

Not every character in an RPG can be a winner. Some are uninteresting, or annoying, or poorly conceived. But there are a few individuals who go beyond just being a bad character, who are faulty enough that their presence is significantly damaging to the integrity of everything around them. Peri is one such character. She is so toxic that her position in the story lessens the rest of the cast by association, particularly Corrin and Xander. And all but 1 of her romances are, franky, ethically reprehensible, and lessen the characters who marry her because it says that they’re men of loose enough moral code that they neither mind falling in love with and marrying a careless killer of the helpless and innocent, nor mind falling in love with and marrying someone with the mind and spirit of a child. Bottom line, Peri is an awful person, and the writers really fucked up by including her in Fire Emblem 14.

* Hot buttered Buddha on a biscuit, a textbook Tsundere who has personality, depth, and mental complexes that actually rationally support her attitude? I had no idea that this was actually a possible thing!

** Well, Leo sort of does, I first. But then Peri starts questioning why one kind of killing is better than the other, and Leo gets caught up in the ethical implications of the matter--which I am not opposed to, mind you; I think that the way we rationalize killing on the battlefield as ‘okay’ is a major problem with our cultural mindset. What I do have a problem with is that by the end of the A rank conversation, Leo’s happy to have her around to make him question stuff, and it no longer seems like he’s going to keep her from doing her thing.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Final Fantasy 8 AMV: Take My Hand

It’s been quite some time (over 4 years, in fact), but I have finally happened across another RPG AMV of such high quality that I feel compelled to make a full-on rant about it! And it’s...about Final Fantasy 8.

Damn it all.

Nonetheless, the fact is that, personal tastes notwithstanding, Argol has created a damn fine music video that deserves exposure and praise. And today, we’re gonna check it out and appreciate the merits of Argol’s work.

Final Fantasy 8: Take My Hand:

Look. Look With Your Special Eyes: The visual quality here is quite high, which is nice, since most FF8 AMVs tend to be a bit grainy. Through no fault of the AMV creators, of course; it’s just a fact of graphics meant to be depicted by the Playstation 1. With the high-resolution rerelease of Final Fantasy 8 for the PC, however, music video editors have access to FMV clips of the highest quality now, and Argol is obviously using those here.

The visual effects in this AMV are used well, just flashy enough to grab attention and help convey ideas, without ever getting distracting and messy. Scenes and changes between them are well-paced to give the video a fast, restless sense of energy, even when using the slower footage, keeping in tune with the active pace of the song, and recalling the action and excitement that Final Fantasy 8...well, didn’t really possess, but did try to convince us it had.

Beyond that, Argol also overlays some scenes and objects over the changing scenes, which can help emphasize the ideas presented by the video and song. For example, you see such an effect at 0:58 through 1:04, in which the floating rings that symbolize Rinoa and Squall’s connection and faith in one another are skillfully overlayed over the scene of Rinoa finding Squall’s body and getting upset over his seeming death, right before the clouds are cleared away for the sunlight and the setting becomes a wildflower field in full bloom that couldn’t be more clumsily overt in screaming “resurrection” at the player if it was a scene of Jesus and Jack Harkness dual-juggling Dragon Balls. FF8 never is found lacking for ways to underestimate its audience. Anyway! The overlay of those symbolic rings creates the idea that their love and connection is powerful enough to overcome death, which, of course, connects perfectly to the music at the moment, which proclaims that “our love will never die.” Argol employs several such overlays throughout the video, many of which add or enhance a layer of meaning.

Of course, sometimes the overlays seem to just be simply for fun visual effect, and there’s nothing wrong with that, either, since it helps convey a sense of interest and enjoyment which is well suited for a tribute AMV. I like overlay effect at 2:50, for example, where we see Squall’s face faintly in the background as the feather comes to a rest, and the way Squall moves in the original scene seems to suggest that he suddenly notices the feather as it reaches the ground. It’s a small, but interesting visual trick, and those make their contribution to an AMV’s quality, too.

If Music be the Food of Love, Play On: The song used in this AMV is Take My Hand, by Simple Plan. I’ve heard it before, but I wouldn’t say I’m familiar with it, nor the group. Personally, I’m pretty ambivalent about the music...doesn’t do much for me, but I also have no objection to it. Which I guess is actually close to a thumbs-up from me, given how inordinately picky I am about music.

I think that the music is the most powerful factor of this video, although the visual component is obviously not left far behind. True, the AMV does come off like the music was selected based on what the video was intended to be and convey, so it could seem like a secondary force, but the fact is that the tempo, mood, lyrics, and volume of this song largely dictate the video’s pace and content. And in that regard, Argol does a terrific job of combining audio and visual together into a single, moving entity. When the song opens, the images and scene transitions used are fast-paced and active, as the music is, and this is true frequently throughout the video, keeping the pace with the quick and energized tune, while the slightly more drawn out moments of the song are given scenes that last a little longer and have less movement--although, as is appropriate for the song, it never really feels like it slows down. Likewise, the lyrics dictate the scenes that play, as appropriate video is matched to each line--you gotta love an AMV whose first lyrics, “Sometimes I feel like everybody’s got a problem,” are paired with a full-on shot of Seifer. Hard to think of a better song lyric to describe that dingus.

Worth noting is also that the lyrics-to-video match-up is sometimes intuitive rather than simply obvious, which is another plus. What I mean is, quite often, AMVs that match scene to lyrics tend to lean heavily on the literal--the lyrics talk about running, you show a scene of characters running, the lyrics talk about the singer’s heart flying, you show a scene of someone or other flying. And there is plenty of that here, to be sure (I’d never have realized just how often in FF8’s cinematics someone reaches their hand out or joins hands with another character, without the chorus of this song). But I like it when an AMV maker thinks creatively enough to take it a step forward, showing video clips that don’t literally visualize the lyrics, but require a quick (but simple) intuitive leap to connect them, and Argol does this. For an example, take 0:48, in which we see Squall driving at a breakneck pace down the road, to the lyrics “Let’s not think about tomorrow.” Not a literal representation of them, but it’s an easy logical step to connect the concept to a symbolic image of a lone driver traveling down the road, living in the moment, which seems portrayed by Squall in this scene. This kind of little moment of mental exercise not only keeps the video and music well-connected, but also keeps the watcher’s attention more active.

Guy, You Explain: I think the purpose that this AMV serves is as a tribute to Final Fantasy 8 as a whole. It’s not as focused and interesting a calling as exploring Yuna’s journey or analyzing the relationship between Shepard and the Illusive Man, I suppose, but as nice as it is when you can get an AMV that reaches for (and achieves) a deeper purpose, it’s not a requirement for a solid RPG music video. Sometimes, all an AMV really needs to be trying to do is to show its game off, to convey a great enthusiasm and appreciation for its subject matter and remind you of how great it was.* Plenty of my other favorite AMVs aspire to no higher purpose than glorifying their subject, after all.

And so, as a labor of love for Final Fantasy 8, I have to say, this is a pretty great AMV. It’s fun and exciting to watch, and uses FF8’s cutscenes expertly to portray the game as fast-paced, engaging, sincere, and even deep. The reality of SquareEnix’s plodding, pandering, pointless, preposterous fever dream could not be more different, of course, but even I found myself momentarily nostalgic for Final Fantasy 8 thanks to the great way this AMV presents the game. This is simply an excellently crafted send-up to FF8 that’s fun and worth spending a few minutes to watch.

* Or, in cases like this, less reminding you of its greatness, than deceiving you into thinking it was great at all.