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...

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Dragon Age 2's Friendship/Rivalry System

6 years since I played it, Dragon Age 2 continues to confuse me, and it probably always will. Not in the way that Chrono Cross confuses me, wherein the plot is simply too needlessly and stupidly convoluted to ever be fully disentangled into a comprehensible whole, nor in the way that Lunar: Dragon Song confuses me, wherein I simply cannot fathom how such a godawful piece of rubbish was ever created by thinking, feeling human beings. No, DA2 confuses me in the sense that I am still, and probably always will be, unable to tell whether it’s a good or bad RPG. I’ve just never been able to figure out which of its ideas make it work, which are too poorly executed or fundamentally flawed to forgive, where to weigh the lopsided personalities and character developments of its cast, and whether or not the major decisions of its storytelling process and thematic focus, in the context of its being a continuation of Dragon Age 1, are a step in the right direction or a tremendous blunder. Hell, so long as I overlook its horrible finale (great job on creating 40% of the worst RPG endings I’ve ever seen, Bioware!), I’m not even sure whether I, personally, liked the game!

One such puzzling aspect of DA2 is its system of Friendship and Rivalry between protagonist Hawke and her/his party members. For most RPGs in which companions’ loyalty to the main character involves player input, things work in a pretty simple way: when you have the protagonist do/say stuff that a party member likes, that party member’s approval/affection will go up, and once you hit a certain point of approval, they’re, like, totes BFFs, for legit. It’s a functional enough system for most RPGs, and Dragon Age 1 itself had a similar linear affection system. The trick to building lifelong friendships between DA1’s Grey Warden and her/his party members boils down to giving the right gifts to the right people, speaking to them in a way they like, and not having Morrigan in the party any time you want to say or do something intelligent, or display the barest shred of human compassion.

God, Morrigan was such a pill.

Anyway, Dragon Age 2 had an idea that shook things up a little. Instead of just playing nice with each party member in the way that they most approve of, you can also forge just an ironclad bond by doing...well, basically the opposite. Yeah, you can be a flippant, careless jerk in Dragon Age 2, and Hawke’s Friendship points with Isabela will go up...but you could also choose to be selfless and demand a higher standard of dignity from your friends, including Isabela herself, and Hawke’s Rivalry points with Isabela will go up, instead. But rather than just being a measure of disapproval, Rivalry is a path of its own for Hawke’s relationships to go down, one which deepens and develops as the story progresses, just as much as the Friendship does. As one might expect, a fully developed Friendship results in an extra combat ability/bonus for each character, which has become a standard in such situations for RPGs, but a fully developed Rivalry also results in such an ability/bonus, should you decide to take that route.

It’s a truly interesting dynamic to me. First of all, it allows for the protagonist of the game to have a more concrete set of morals and personality, I think. I mean, often when playing an RPG involving party members with approval ratings, a player may bend their perception of their character slightly in selecting dialogue and actions, in order to have a chance to witness a party member’s character development in full, since that usually requires a maxed out approval rating. A good RPG will always provide you with enough chances to max a character out without absolutely needing to uncharacteristically bend a protagonist’s moral code in dialogue or actions, but it can get tricky. I recall, for example, that it’s difficult to really get in good with Kreia in Knights of the Old Republic 2 if you’re sincerely devoted to the Jedi way (and the same is true for Sith playthroughs; Kreia’s not much for falling in with either side), and it would be a damn shame to miss even a single sentence of the philosophical excellence that is Kreia. But with a dual Friendship/Rivalry system for each character’s approval of the protagonist, you can have a protagonist with a more concrete, defined set of personal ethics, and not have to give up on seeing a party member’s personal story through to completion. Is Hawke a generous, compassionate, stalwart defender of the right, uncompromisingly good and just? Well, obviously she/he will get on just fine with Aveline and probably not have any issues with Sebastian, but the shenanigans of Isabela and the selfishness of Merrill won’t sit right with Hawke. Well, thanks to the Rivalry option, they don’t have to; she/he can butt heads with Isabela and Merrill all she/he likes without sacrificing a relationship.

I also appreciate the fact that this system recognizes that strong, positive personal relationships don’t have to always be about hugs and kisses. Sometimes, the person you value most in life may very well be your polar opposite; you may even both frustrate each other more often than not! But our opposites can be our most valued companions for the fact that they challenge us, they view the world differently and offer insights we simply couldn’t have seen ourselves, and sometimes, they’re the ones we need to force us to be better than we think we can be, who drag us into the light to keep us on the straight and narrow. In this way, a Rivalry can be as valuable, or even more than, a Friendship.

And I also like the Rivalry option presented in this game for the fact that, well...good rivals, specifically ones who aren’t murderously hostile, are damn hard to find in RPGs. Frankly, I feel that most of the time in this genre, characters get put into the “rival” category not because they genuinely deserve to be there, but because the writers felt, for whatever reason, that the protagonist needed it. I mean, in Mana Khemia 1, did Roxis really feel like his personality, his values, his goals, etc., were authentically opposed enough to that of protagonist Vayne that they really should have been considered one another’s rival? To me, Roxis felt like a character who should have held a small dislike for and competitiveness with Vayne initially, and gotten the hell over it because there wasn’t really anything about either of them to sustain either negativity or especial competitiveness. The writers just twisted the character they had to fit a mold they wanted to fill, rather than accept that what they’d created really didn’t feel right for it.

With DA2, on the other hand, there’s potential for Hawke and her/his party members to be sincerely on opposite ends of certain personal values, such that, while their experiences together and reliance on one another guarantee that they share a strong bond of companionship, you can genuinely see that they stand in true disagreement with how the other lives and thinks. You can actually develop rivalries in this game that feel organic and right for the characters.

So yes, the Friendship/Rivalry system has some definite potential benefits, and on the conceptual level, it’s not only a creative and refreshing take on party member approval systems, but also perhaps ahead of its time. And the same time, it has its downsides.

One of the major downsides is that, quite frankly, it’s not a universal enough idea for the workload it’s stuck with in this game. In many cases, the possibility of 2 different paths a personal bond can take will work just fine. But at the same time, it doesn’t really work for every character, and it certainly doesn’t seem right for every member of the cast. Sure, I can totally see Isabela greatly valuing a rival who tries to force her to be a better person, just as I can see her greatly valuing a friend who just joins her for her fun and agrees with her on everything. But by contrast, the character of Aveline in DA2 is that of a hardline, black-and-white good person who does not appreciate or want challenges to her rigid, though largely adequate, view of morality. Isabela may be annoyed by selflessness and virtue, but she’s the kind of character who can reluctantly allow for it, and even be changed by it. Aveline, on the other hand, really just does not come across as a personality who can accept certain kinds of selfish behavior, and as a result, a Rivalry with her seems forced and insincere in its attempt to convince you that Aveline genuinely values a Hawke so much an opposite to herself.

Similarly, while it’s believable that a party of friends who you’ve gone out of your way to support all throughout the game will stick with you through thick and thin, it’s...kinda hard to buy the idea that you can treat everyone around you like shit enough times that they’ll be similarly devoted to you.

It’s also worth noting that the quality for these Rivalry relationships isn’t always all that great. I mean, I appreciate being able to create a Rivalry with Merrill, because for Salamando’s sake, someone has gotta be there to make sure she damn well knows that the tragedy that comes from her personal quest is entirely of her own making, and ensure that she will learn from her selfish mistakes. And honestly, I think that the Rivalry romance with Isabela is definitely the best romance in the game, creating an interesting and touching story of tough but genuine love that inspires a woman to become something better than she thought she could be for the sake of the woman/man she’s fallen in love with, culminating in a conversation that is not just a confession of love, but also a pledge to become worthy of it. Solid stuff.

But aside from those 2 cases...the Rivalry friendships and romances generally range from being a bit uninteresting, to subpar, to, at times, kind of indistinguishable in any major way from the Friendship path. I mean, hey, whether or not you’ve given Anders a big hug every time he mutters something dark and extreme, or perpetually told him to cut that revolutionary shit out, the shortsighted asshat’s still gonna become the Fereldan Unabomber, so what was the point of trying to Rivalry him into being less of a jackass? Not to mention, some of these Rivalries kinda lessen Hawke as a person. I mean, how unpleasant a person do you have to be to be the polar opposite of Aveline? In the end, not a lot of real, actual cases of character depth and value get added to the cast thanks to adding the Rivalry duality to Hawke’s relationship paths, honestly.

And yet, there’s the confusing part. It doesn’t pay off well, but is that the problem of the dynamic itself, or simply Bioware’s inability to use it effectively enough of the time? The writing quality for the game as a whole is a chaotic grab bag, so this could just be an extension of that. And even if not much good really came of it, is it still worth it, as a storytelling tool, if it did provide probably the best moment of romance and character development in the game (via Isabela)? Is the Friendship/Rivalry system truly a good idea at all, when it so clearly has limitations to how far it can extend over a whole cast, limitations which standard approval systems don’t have to worry about? Then again, isn’t it just a bit of a relief to see any system, even if it’s only viable every now and then, that can offer a more functionally complex system of approval and relationship-building than a Youtube Like/Dislike bar?

I guess in the end, much like the rest of the game, I just don’t know how I feel about the Friendship/Rivalry mechanic. I’d like to think it has better potential than was capitalized in Dragon Age 2, but I can’t really imagine how you could make it work for any standard-sized cast in a way that would seem realistic in general and provide worthwhile alternative friendships for all possible characters. Nonetheless, I can say that whether or not I ever determine whether the Friendship/Rivalry mechanic was a positive or negative for Dragon Age 2, it’s still an approach that was interesting to see in action, at least this 1 time.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Pokemon Generation 7's Main Character

Pokemon Generation 7, better known as Pokemon Moon and Sun, really is a great RPG. It has a thoughtful and interesting story, it has a cast of characters with personality and depth (well, some of them, at least; Hau kinda plateaus at “I like fried bread”), its villain is complex and striking, and its main character is dynamic and terrifically written.

No, I’m not talking about Moon or Sun. I’m talking about Lillie.

Yeah, in addition to having a thoughtful and well-told story, Pokemon Generation 7 is also interesting in that it takes on the challenge of an unconventional narrative form: the protagonist of the game that you control is really not the main character of it. If anything, Moon (I’m just gonna keep saying Moon because I got Pokemon Moon and the either-or thing gets tiresome; just replace “Moon” with “Sun” if that’s your preference...for some reason) is just sort of a plot device to Lillie’s journey of self-actualization and familial redemption, albeit an absolutely essential one.

Sure, the game takes you and Moon through the predictable (though pleasantly jazzed up) Pokemon paces, with the whole wandering around, challenging important trainers, and becoming Champion thing. But the overwhelmingly clear focus of this game, the main plot, is that which revolves around Lusamine, the realm of the Ultra Beasts, Nebby, and Lillie. And that plot is Lillie’s story, not Moon’s. The game's story begins only once Lillie is first introduced to Moon, and nearly every substantial plot point affects her, usually directly. The foil of the game’s main villain is clearly Lillie (and what a terrific connection and history there is between them; the depth and psychology of Lillie and Lusamine are just stellar work by the writers), and it’s her determination and desires that carry the plot forward and frequently determine its course.

Moon’s role in the plot of Pokemon Generation 7 is really just to be a vital support for Lillie--a protective guardian to her to keep her safe early in her journey, and an example to use as inspiration as time goes on. And let us not make any mistake on this point: it’s an extremely important role for Moon to play, to serve as the rock-solid example for Lillie. If she did not have Moon’s independence and unflagging strength to protect others to emulate, Lillie would not have completed her personal journey and found herself. Moon’s presence, silent though it is,* is the shoulder Lillie leans on and the foundation from which she builds herself, and that’s pretty damn important in a story of an emerging individual who has learned to value herself. But, that isn't the same as Moon actually being the plot's key figure.

Even the few major parts of Pokemon Generation 7’s course of events that seem, on the surface, to legitimately be focused on Moon and her journey often end up coming back to Lillie and her personal journey of growth and family. Take, for example, the finale of the game, in which Moon becomes the first Champion of Alola, and the region joins the rest of the world with its newly formed Pokemon League. That’s a pretty big, general event, and it certainly seems like it relates solely to Moon’s quest, in that it’s the traditional Pokemon game conclusion. But even then, this major moment in Alolan history, this crowning achievement of Moon, this final interactive event of the game’s story, is still made important by the plot not for its own sake, but for the fact that it is the final moment of Lillie and Moon’s journey together, despite Lillie’s not being present for it. For, you see, Moon’s victory and assumption of the role of Champion is a galvanizing event for Lillie to leave Alola, with the intention of emulating the girl (or boy; it could be Sun instead, I know) that she respects and, let’s face it, 80% probability loves.** This finale is not just the end of Moon’s tale, it is also the end of Lillie’s, and the beginning of her next, prompting her to leave to care for the mother she has saved and become a trainer like her hero.***

Now, yes, you could make the argument that Lillie’s not the main character of the story, but that she rather fulfills a very familiar RPG role: the Magical Plot Girl. Certainly a common RPG trope, and there’s much about Lillie that reminds one of Breath of Fire 5’s Nina, Skies of Arcadia’s Fina, Lunar 2's Lucia, Lufia 1's Lufia, and countless others. The fact that she’s on the run while trying to protect a mystical plot device from falling into the wrong hands, wrong hands which happen to be actively pursuing her, is so common a narrative trope to the genre that RPG might as well stand for Running Plot Girls.

But the difference between Pokemon Generation 7 and other RPGs is that in a game like Breath of Fire 5, or Grandia 2, or Lufia 1, or so on, the protagonist is made a significantly involved member of the story and its direction. Ryu of BoF5 is the one who makes the decision to bring Nina to the surface, Ryudo quickly becomes the key figure in the unfolding story of Grandia 2, Lunar 2's Hiro gets more or less press-ganged by the members of his party with actual personalities to man up and show Lucia that there's more than 1 way to save the world, and Unnamed Lufia 1 Hero is...well, I mean, he just drifts along with the bland plot, but that’s pretty much true of everyone in Lufia 1, because playing Lufia 1 is basically putting your brain on a crash diet for 40 - 60 hours. Generally, the protagonist actively affects and changes the Magical Plot Girl (most often using the method clinically referred to as Twoo Wuv), and influences the plot’s direction and purpose. But in Pokemon Generation 7? Moon only passively affects Lillie and helps her change, and just sails along with the plot as other people gently push her from one event to the next (although that part’s just standard for Pokemon games). Lillie pushes herself to be greater thanks to Moon’s example, but never Moon’s influence, if you follow me.

The instigator of Pokemon Generation 7’s plot is Lillie, the story’s themes and conflict center around her, the journey for discovery and value of one’s self are hers, the villain of the game is directly connected to her, and almost every major event of the game’s story is focused upon her, whether actively or inactively. She is dynamic through her own determination to be, and she defines the stakes, purpose, and direction of the game’s climax. So in my opinion, it is Lillie who is the main character of Pokemon Generation 7, and I applaud the developers of this game for not only approaching its narrative in an unusual and interesting way, but also for making that different method work so well.

* I’m not a fan of silent protagonists, as I’ve mentioned, but it seems to work adequately here, I must say. Moon’s silent, unyielding hero-ness actually meshes well with the role she’s meant to have as an example to Lillie. Like a pillar of strength who...well, talks as much as an actual pillar would.

** Yes, I’m a filthy shipper, and I don’t care who knows it. Lillie and Moon (or Sun) are meant to be, dammit!

*** Hands up if you shed tears at this game’s ending.

...Oh, you liars, get those hands up right now, you’re not fooling anyone!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Breath of Fire 1's Party Members' Battle Functionality

Time for another rant that even I admit doesn’t matter in the slightest. That's, what 3 in the last month? Or 336 in the last 11 years, depending on your perspective? But what the hell, I have thoughts and the screen has space for text. Let’s do this.

You know what’s weird? Breath of Fire 1’s cast.

Well, okay, I mean, obviously it’s weird. It’s made up of a human dragon, a winged princess who falls through time and gets amnesia (hurr hurr spoilurz for the 20+ year old game), a fox ranger, a fish man who can become a super fish, a big ox man, a naga sorceress who voluntarily spends 99% of her existence in a coma, and a tiny mole man. I think the last job the lead artist held before being hired by Capcom might’ve been an art booth at a furry convention.

So, yeah, obviously Breath of Fire 1’s cast is weird. I mean, sort of. Weird from most people’s perspectives. From the perspective of a guy who’s played over 300 titles of the gaming genre with the highest saturation of Weird Characters per capita, though...well, this motley assemblage of Deviantart refugees is just my Monday morning.

What does make them odd for even me, though, is how most of these characters function in combat. To whit: they actually just don’t. Half of the party members of Breath of Fire 1 actually don’t really serve a purpose in combat.

Here’s what I mean. On the 1 hand, you have Ryu, Nina, and Bleu (or Deis; personally I liked the original translation name better). Ryu is combat-relevant, because his special ability in combat is to turn into a big honkin’ dragon and tear enemies’ shit up. Nina is combat-relevant for the game’s entirety, because she has a whole gaggle of healing and status effect spells that she keeps learning throughout the game’s course. And Bleu/Deis is combat-relevant, because she learns combat spells over the game’s course that put the hurt on enemies nearly as much as Ryu’s dragon forms.

But then you have the other half of the cast, and they’re...well, they’re really only good for attacking. Like, okay, Bo, the Ranger Rick wannabe? He seems pretty good when you get him early in the game, because he comes with a set of offensive spells, and a Cure spell. Handy! Except that, much like the Genie from Defenders of Oasis,* Bo never learns any spells beyond this initial set. For context, that’d be like a character never learning anything beyond Fire 1, Ice 1, Bolt 1, and Cure 1 in a Final Fantasy game. They’d be handy for a short amount of time, but it wouldn’t take long before they fell to the wayside, and that’s what happens with Bo as a spellcaster. Hell, it’s been a while since I played, but I seem to remember that even before the plot arc involving Bo’s hometown is finished with, his spells are starting to lag a bit. Pretty soon, Bo’s only real utility in combat is basic attacking. Which he’s good at, mind you, his physical attack stats are high. But that’s not serving a combat role that any other character couldn’t.

Similar deal with Gobi. Gobi has some attack spells that are actually pretty useful, and he learns a few more as he progresses in levels. But the problem is, they all only work underwater! I mean, okay, yes, makes a certain amount of sense, him being a fish man, but...well, there’s a decent-sized part of the plot which takes place on the ocean floor, so he gets a good amount of time in which he’s useful in combat, but once you’re done with that part of the game, you’re, well, done. From then on--and this is the substantial majority of the game--you’re encountering enemies on land only, and as such, Gobi’s only combat utility is to poke things with his trident. Like Bo, he’s only there to hit the Attack button, or maybe use an item now and then.

And it just gets worse with Mogu. Mogu’s a little mole man, and the game didn’t even try to pretend that he can do anything special in combat, like it did with Bo and Gobi. Mogu’s 1 and only ability outside of regular attacks is that he can use Dig, and dig a hole out of combat. So, basically, he can guarantee that your party can run away from battles. Uh...great. Yeah, Mogu’s 1 defining trait as a party member is to do what most games accomplish with an equippable accessory. It makes even less sense when you consider that Mogu is the final party member to join you! The guy joins, what, halfway through the game? 60% of the way through? Being able to guarantee an escape from combat is an ability for early in the game, when you’re still getting the hang of the game’s balance and battle system, and when you have fewer resources and options to draw on to survive random encounters! Unless a game has outright flaws in its balance, by the time you’re halfway done with a game, you should be pretty well past the point of needing guaranteed escape abilities! So once again, you have a character who, if he’s in the active combat party, really is just there to do basic attacks and nothing else.

And lastly, there’s Ox. Ox sort of has a use in that just being a big lug who absorbs damage and hits stuff is meant to be his thing. The tank of the team, as it were. Unfortunately, BoF1 was made back in the days where you couldn’t really do much of anything to direct your enemies to attack a specific character, so the utility of a tank character isn’t really all that impressive--having him there won’t cause the less durable characters to be hit any less. Also, he does have a couple of very useful healing spells, but he has so little MP that he can cast them like twice before he’s out of juice. So in the end, Ox seems at first like he’s sort of properly designed for a role as a basic attacker and damage sponge, but the game itself isn’t advanced enough that he’s actually substantially more than Bo, Gobi, and Mogu.

So yeah, that’s 4 members out of 8 who, in combat, don’t really have any specific role in their party. They exist solely to hit the Attack button, and nothing else. It’s very weird, honestly. Usually when you have a party whose members can be swapped out during battle and allows you to reconfigure its makeup as you like, there’s, I dunno, some difference between what they can do. In Final Fantasy 10, for example, every character has a clearly defined and unique skillset and function, at least until you’re, like, at post-endgame level of Sphere Grid unlocking. Even in Final Fantasy 6, some characters do maintain useful individual skills through to the end of the game, even if most of them let their skills fall to the side in favor of everyone getting Ultima.

And yeah, there certainly are plenty of characters in RPGs who also intentionally exist solely to use basic attacks. Aguro in Lufia 1, for example, does literally nothing but attack and use items for the entirety of the game. But this isn’t just a single boring party member in a game which doesn’t offer the player a choice in which characters to use (and frankly, Lufia 1’s not usually a good game to model yourself after in any regard, anyhow). This is half the cast who don’t have a reason to be in the active party except to fill in when Nina, Ryu, and/or Bleu get knocked out.

Also, I should just mention for the record, I’m just criticizing the cast on their value in terms of gameplay mechanics (which, if you know me, is just a minor nitpick which in no way actually affects my opinion of them or the game itself). As characters, they all have adequate reason to be on the journey, several do fulfill decent plot and interpersonal roles, and all of them do have their gameplay purpose outside of battle (Gobi is useful for traveling under the ocean without running into enemies, Mogu can dig through certain spots to find treasures and pathways, etc). Basically, what I’m saying is that this is JUST an inconsequential nitpick of an odd design decision that occurred to me.

So, it’s weird. But is it a flaw? Well...I’m not actually sure it is. See, if you’ve been doing the math, you’ll realize I’ve spoken of 8 characters, yet have only described 7. There’s 1 other member of the party named Karn. Karn’s a thief, and at first seems to be the very least combat-relevant of all of them. Even Mogu has his stupid escape ability, but Karn learns not a single spell or ability on his own! But, Karn CAN learn 4 abilities from some NPCs hidden throughout the game. Each of these abilities power Karn up (and give him some out-of-combat abilities, too), making him incredibly powerful. Sure, he’s still just a physical attacker, but with one of these abilities activated, these regular physical attacks of his are the equal of Bleu’s spells and Ryu’s dragon form!

What does this have to do with Bo, Gobi, Ox, and Mogu, you wonder? Well, Karn’s abilities are all fusion spells. Essentially, each of his 4 abilities fuses him with a combination of Bo, Gobi, and/or Ox, making them unavailable to the party, but using their stats to enhance Karn as he shapeshifts into various hybrids of fox, fish, and ox people.** Karn’s final and most powerful fusion, Puka, is a fusion of himself, Bo, Gobi, and Ox all at the same time, which effectively removes those 3 from the party, and makes Karn absurdly powerful.

Mogu is still useless.

So, you see, it’s kind of hard to say whether Bo, Ox, and Gobi’s lack of combat relevance is really a flaw, so to speak. After all, if they were actually viable combatants, it would be a tough decision, whether to risk losing their versatility in exchange for empowering Karn. But since they’re all basically just Attack machines by the time Karn can start playing with fusion, there’s no conflict--fuse the spindly little pickpocket up, and fill that fourth spot in the party with someone who can actually break some skulls! Maybe it was planned that way, or maybe Capcom just wanted to cover its own ass after it realized that half of its cast was never going to see active duty past a certain point, but in the end, it does work toward a functional purpose for 4 of the 5 otherwise useless characters (counting Karn, since he’s pointless on his own).

Still a weird way to set up your party’s combat dynamic, though.

* Somewhere, a hipster just got a boner and doesn’t know why. That’s how obscure the reference I just made is.

** Is it really any wonder why there are so many furries online these days? My generation and the generation after me were fucking bombarded with anthropomorphic animals from all media angles. You don’t put this pantsless wonder in the instruction manual for your game and then expect a kid to grow up with no interest in catgirls.

Oh, and while I’m at it, thanks a fucking lot for Bleu, Capcom. I really needed to be a lifelong snake woman enthusiast.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

General RPG Lists: Greatest Examples of Battle Systems

Kudos to Ecclesiastes for letting me shoot some ideas at him while I was writing this rant. You’re a proper righteous chap, good sir.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, then you’ve probably come to know 2 things about me. The first is that despite RPGs being my preferred gaming genre, I find the actual process of playing them invariably tedious, and see the large majority of battles in RPGs as being meaningless filler that distracts and distances the audience from the only reason to play the games at all: the story. You know that when I judge the worth of an RPG, combat is a complete non-factor, as it should be for a genre whose gameplay mechanics are so repetitive, and frequently can’t be distinguished from the process of ordering breakfast from a Denny’s menu.

But the other thing you know about me is that I like the sound of my own voice (such as it is in text form) enough that I have no problem whatsoever chattering on about things that don’t matter in the slightest. And so here we are.

Battle systems! They may not matter a lick to me, but even so, I can tell when they work and when they don’t. And even if it doesn’t make a difference to whether or not a piece of interactive art should be experienced, a programming team’s good work on making a battle system whose repetitive mediocrity is as low as possible deserves some credit. So today, I’ll be looking at the very broadly defined types of RPG combat I know of, and judging which RPGs are the very best examples of these different battle systems.

Enjoy! Or don’t. I make the same amount of $0 either way.

Turn Based
The most traditional, iconic battle system of the RPG genre, utilized in countless titles going as far back as the original Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and even Phantasy Star titles, and still going strong today in major series like Shin Megami Tensei, Pokemon, and Indie RPGs like Shadows of Adam, released just this year.

It’s also the reason I find RPGs so fucking boring to play. This is a battle system built on the same premise as navigating through the Windows operating system. How the hell this genre managed to take off with this as its starting point, I’ll sure never know.

Winner: The Shin Megami Tensei Series
Although not every SMT game employs traditional turn-based combat (SMT Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha, for example, is an Action RPG), the majority do, and, quite frankly, this series has got a simple-to-understand take on Turn Based gameplay that manages to allow for complexity and strategy without abandoning even the slightest functionality. With most RPGs, the constant addition of nuances and complexities to battle systems is a detriment, cluttering an already annoying play experience with superfluous crap that feels more like an attempt to stand out than an attempt to build something actually enjoyable to play. The press turn nuance of SMT games, which encourages you to understand enemy weaknesses by rewarding you with more attacks per turn when you exploit them and punishing you with fewer when you fail to account for enemy defenses, makes even regular battles more interesting as you play a game of balances against your opponents, seeking to maximize your turns and minimize the turns they get. In addition, beyond the press turn function, SMT games are generally made with enough care that their difficulty curve keeps you on your toes for the majority of the game, and strategy beyond manipulation of press turns is a must. To say nothing of the effort that Atlus puts into the weaknesses of its bestiary! Yes, the Shin Megami Tensei series is the best possible example of Turn Based battle systems: a straightforward, functional, intuitive system that naturally allows for complexity and strategy rather than trying to artificially inject it as a gimmick. Kudos to Atlus on this one.

Active Time Battle
It wasn’t long into Turn Based battles’ run that some bright young man or woman realized that they weren’t actually fun. In a (futile) attempt to remedy this, the ATB system evolved from traditional Turn Based games, offering ever so slightly closer an experience to actually playing a game, and not just cruising through someone’s My Documents folder. With ATB, there is no overarching turn in combat--rather, each combatant receives their turn individually, determined by how their Speed stat (or its equivalent) matches up against that of everyone else in battle. This was Squaresoft’s bread and butter during its iconic years of the SNES and first Playstation, and it, like its Turn Based predecessor, is still going strong today, particularly with Indie RPGs like the recent Cosmic Star Heroine.

Still boring as hell, though.

Winner: The Grandia Series
In a manner not entirely unlike Shin Megami Tensei, Grandia makes the most of the ATB system by implementing mechanics that encourage “juggling” your enemies as much as they do actually harming them. With Grandia, your attacks and your exploitation of weaknesses don’t just do damage to your foes, they also halt them for a moment, delaying their turns from arriving, or even stun them, outright stopping and setting back your foes’ approaching turn. Your foes can, of course, do the same to you, and so the game adds an element of strategic budgeting of your attacks to its battles that keeps you engaged. It’s a good idea that’s executed well enough that I actually, incredibly enough, found myself enjoying most of the battles in Grandia 1 and 2. And sure, there are plenty of other ATB RPGs that make some use of juggling enemy turns, to varying degrees of success...but it’s rarely so well and essentially incorporated as Grandia’s system, and certainly it’s never been as satisfying to hear see and hear you soundly smash your foes down the turn order as it was with Grandia.

First Person Slasher/Shooter
You know, we tend to think of FPS/RPG hybrids as being a newer concept, introduced by games like Fallout 3, the Elder Scrolls, and Mass Effect, but actually...this has been around in RPGs for ages, when you think about it. What else would you call all those old first person dungeon-crawling PC games from back in the day? You know, the ones that Orcs + Elves mimics? This is actually an old and storied type of RPG, which has simply gotten a facelift in the last decade.

And thank goodness for that. If Orcs + Elves is anything to go on (I don’t pretend to have played the old school hack and slash titles), FPS systems used to be boring as hell. Heck, they still can be; the Elder Scrolls titles do absolutely nothing for me. But Mass Effect and Fallout are actually legitimately fun to play, so the system has evolved in a very positive direction.

Winner: Fallout 3, 4, and New Vegas
It’s hard to believe that the engine the recent Fallout games use was developed for Elder Scrolls, and not the opposite way around. The system that just never feels quite right, a little inescapably clunky, for the series it was created for, by contrast fits Fallout like a glove. But it goes beyond just providing a good First Person Shooter experience--otherwise, Mass Effect would be here. No, what really makes the Fallout series shine is the way they incorporated the turn-based battle system of the original Fallout 1 and 2, with its great feature of targeting specific places on enemies’ bodies to cause various effects. With its VATS system, the Fallout series has become the absolute perfect blend of RPG and shooter, seamlessly letting you go back and forth between relying on your stats to turn the tide and dominate difficult battles with selective Turn Based pauses, and relying on your own capabilities in real time for the rest. Beyond Undertale’s incorporation of Bullet Hell into its menu-dependent Turn Based system, I can’t think of another RPG that even comes close to Fallout in blending substantially different combat types into a single, efficient entity

Eventually, someone somewhere figured out that there really wasn’t any law in place that said RPGs had to be patience-testing slog-fests of selecting the same commands from a DOS simulation about a thousand times per playthrough--it was, in fact, legally possible to incorporate stat-based gameplay and still have characters do things. From this groundbreaking concept that video games could actually involve movement came Action RPGs, RPGs whose battle systems allow for free and generally continuous movement. Menus may and usually are still involved, but pressing a direction button does more than just move a cursor.

This is the only RPG battle system that I find to be consistently fun. Well...mostly consistent. Lagoon still managed to be ass.

Winner: Kingdom Hearts 2
Honestly, there’s a lot of competition here. Kingdom Hearts 2 is competent, functional, and fun, incorporating stats into its free-moving gameplay well, involving menus in a simple and effective capacity while leaving the meat of combat to remain the player’s actual movement and’s solid stuff. But a lot of other RPGs can say the same, to the same degree of competence...hell, a few of them, like, say, SMT Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha 2, do it slightly better. But KH2 has 1 important feature that pushes it into the top spot for me: its triangle button actions. I covered this a while back, but a quick refresher: You don’t just have the option to fight enemies normally in KH2--with each foe, you have an opportunity in combat to react to their movements and pull off a special attack or defense that’s singular to that enemy. For normal foes, this can be as simple as a quick dash behind them, which isn’t that interesting...but when you take advantage of triangle reactions against bosses, the results are frequently exceptionally cool and fun to watch, bringing the battle to a whole different realm. Who can forget how awesome it was to have Sora ride the Heartless chandelier thing in the Beast’s castle, smashing it against the columns of the ballroom? To make him leap atop Cerberus’s heads, grab the Keyblade, and dive-bomb them? To watch Sora run up the walls of the Master Control Program’s chambers, and use the height to hurl himself straight at the giant Sark? Every boss can be unique for what strategy must be employed to beat them, but Kingdom Hearts 2 takes it a step forward, and makes the choreography of its epic battles just as singular, lending a sense that this really is a special battle of its own. Very enjoyable.

Of course, this isn’t the only RPG out there to do something like this, I should note. Recent Legend of Zelda games, for example, also have many reaction commands. Nonetheless, KH2 stands apart for how thoroughly it incorporated them, and the fun and epic nature of them is still unmatched, to me.

Action battle systems are generally fun, but even they get repetitive when you go through an RPGs’ typical hundreds of battles doing the same thing each time, even for most bosses. Kingdom Hearts 2 goes out of its way to make its epic battles a part of its cinematic experience, and that pushes it to the top.

The Fire Emblem series, Nippon Ichi’s canon, most Shining Force titles, Live A Live, the early Fallouts, the recent know the drill with Tactics battle systems. They’re sitting around, waiting for your turn, much like Turn Based and ATB, but your turn also involves moving where you are on a battlefield, and your placement affects what you can do and who you can attack. From ancient titles like Crystal Warriors and Fire Emblem 1, right on up to this year’s Torment: Tides of Numenera, Tactical RPGs have been around for ages, and they’re going nowhere anytime soon.

They range in terms of how boring they are. Some are very boring. Others engage one’s mind enough that they’re kind of less boring...until you realize that each battle takes like 20+ minutes to get through. I’m not really a fan, but I guess that they’re better than the standard battle systems of RPGs.

I originally thought I’d separate Tactical RPGs into 2 types: Turn Based, and ATB, in the sense that some RPGs (like Vandal Hearts 1 + 2, Bahamut Lagoon, and the Fire Emblems) strictly follow an order of everyone on 1 side getting to move and act, then everyone on the other side getting to move and act, back and forth like a regular Turn Based system, while other RPGs (like SMT Devil Survivor 1 + 2, Hoshigami Remix, and Project X Zone 1 + 2) are more like an ATB system, in which turn order is about individual units and their stats and actions. But honestly? I kind of feel like the differentiation doesn’t matter all that much...whereas it’s a huge thing on its own, Turn Based vs. ATB in terms of Tactical RPGs comes off as more just one of many potential features and approaches to how it works, a part instead of the focal point. The focus with Tactical systems is on the strategies of troop placement and all the details that go along with it, so I don’t see the point of splitting this category up.

Winner: Final Fantasy Tactics
As if there were ever any doubt. It takes a little while to get the hang of, but the method of Final Fantasy Tactics’s gameplay is sensible and engrossing, with a staggering level of complexity built into it. There are dozens of different ways to use dozens of different units in dozens of different scenarios of terrain, formation, stats, angles of fire, turn order, and various other interacting details. If most other Tactical RPGs are checkers, this is chess, the ultimate cumulation of tactical aspects that the genre aspires to.

The only flaw, really, is that the level of possibility and detail in the battle system is so nuanced and expansive that the developers didn’t really seem to even know what to do with it, as there are few battles that really strive to explain to you or push you to try various facets of the system’s possibilities--like they developed a supercomputer and then had no idea what to do with it beyond using it as a calculator. Still, there’s enough opportunity and different scenarios to sink your strategic teeth into this insanely detailed battle system to appreciate it.

I don’t know what else to call this style of battle system. Maybe there’s a term for it, and if so, let me know. This is that weird thing where it’s not so much characters following your direct commands, so much as it is you setting the pace for them and directing them from afar. Hard to, Final Fantasy 12, or Dragon Age 1, where it’s less you directly controlling your characters’ actions than it is pointing and clicking to set their target, and they follow a set action automatically. Setting up the gambits of FF12, auto-attacking in Xenoblade Chronicles 1 when you’re near an enemy, ramming into foes in Eternal Senia and the Fairune series, that sort of thing.

To me, this battle system has the capacity to be the most boring of all of them--and it lives up to that potential more often than not. It works out okay enough when it’s the ram-into-stuff variety, I guess, like the Witch + Hero series and Eternal Senia, but in the more common MMORPG styles of this battle system, things can get really asinine. The only thing I can imagine that’s more mind-numbing than repetitive Turn Based combat is spending 20 - 40 minutes messing around with combat command orders and priorities, and then for the rest of the game just watching every battle happen on its own, with you occasionally directing someone to use a potion. Set up your little automated combat strategies well enough in some of these systems, and you can just sit back and read a book while the game plays itself without you and Jontron freaks out. This is the only battle system so ass backwards, it’s guaranteed that the better you are at it, the less you’ll actually play. You can play some of these RPGs in the background while you’re doing something else.


...Someone did remember to tell the Final Fantasy 12 development team that video games are generally regarded as an INTERACTIVE medium, right? A memo clarifying what products SquareEnix made did circulate around the office at some point between 2001 and 2006? Then again, maybe the FF12 team designed the game the way they did as an apologetic mercy to the player. Maybe they fully realized that their game was a self-important coma-inducing wad of garbage, and in a last-ditch effort to mitigate the damage, Final Fantasy 12’s developers designed its battle system to be so excessively automated that you could actually play a different, better game while playing theirs.

Winner: Defender’s Quest 1
Okay, so, this is kinda cheating, because Defender’s Quest isn’t so much an Automated RPG as it is a Tower Defense RPG, and Tower Defense games just naturally have units which are automated. Look, I don’t know what to tell you. The best that Automated battle systems ever seem to produce are either things like Xenoblade Chronicles 1, which is functional and fine but also would have clearly worked better as an Action RPG, which isn’t something I’m gonna congratulate, or things like the Eternal Senia/Fairune/Witch + Hero thing, where you just spend the game ‘attacking’ enemies by body slamming them and hoping they die first. That works just fine, but can I really glorify something that careless and basic with a winning spot?

Anyway, cheating or not, DQ1 is an Automated RPG, and it works damn well, incorporating the RPG concepts of leveling up and stat/ability-building into the naturally addictive (if perhaps kind of stupid) Tower Defense genre’s gameplay smoothly and effectively. There’s not a lot to say about it, really. Just imagine a Tower Defense game that is an RPG, imagine that it’s done exactly as well as you’d think it should be, and you’ve got Defender’s Quest 1. I can’t for the life of me figure out why we haven’t seen more games try merging these genres since DQ1 came out, because it’s strong proof that they have a natural chemistry.

And...that’s it for now. I can’t think of any other really major RPG battle system types that aren’t just somewhat varied versions of the above, although if you can, you’re welcome to share your thoughts with me. Barring that, though, this is the end of the rant, and I have no closing thoughts to share, so have this awkward paragraph, instead! Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Tales of Legendia's Shirley's Free Pass

You know, when you think about it, Tales of Legendia’s second half really, really glossed the hell over Shirley’s actions. I mean, this cutesy flower-crown-making dame was going to straight up murder every human being in the fucking world because the guy she liked didn’t like her back!

I love Tales of Legendia, honest to Palutena I do, but when I look back on this game critically, it is frankly astounding that no one, during the second half of the game, seems to take any issue whatsoever with the fact that Shirley was moments away from drowning the entire human goddamn species because her feelings weren’t reciprocated! I think there’s, what, a moment during the second half in which the party makes a lighthearted joke about it? Ha ha, yeah, good natured ribbing, nice one guys, ha ha, you made her blush, ha ha, she was going to murder you all over a teenage crush.

And hey, look, I’ll be fair about this. I know that the catalyst for Shirley’s deciding to go forward with Maurits’s plan* to annihilate the human species is, ostensibly, the death of Shirley’s friend Fenimore. It’s quite a tragic scene, and I myself was moved by her loss, even if she was often kind of a jerk. And I also acknowledge that the influence of the raging water god thing** that Shirley was connected to probably had something to do with the matter. It’s not JUST the fact that Senel rejected Shirley’s advances that galvanize her to go forward with Maurits’s scheme.

Nonetheless, even if there are mitigating factors, I feel that we can only logically conclude that the only truly important part in Shirley’s decision to drown the human race is her desired romance with Senel. Her guiding philosophy as the Merines is that humans and Ferines can’t live together peacefully; they’re too different and historically humans have treated her people the way white people historically have treated Native Americans. It’s an idea that’s catalyzed by Fenimore’s death, but maintained by Senel’s rejection, as evidenced by the fact that the moment Senel says, “Uh, you don't need to kill us, Shirley...because...I love you. Oh, yeah, baby! I feel like doing stuff for you, and stuff,” Shirley calls off Armageddon in favor of smooch time.***

And yet, despite the fact that Shirley’s way of dealing with rejection from her personality-lacking protector is less “write bad poetry in my room” and more “untold millions of innocents must die for no reason”, no one, particularly not her new boytoy Senel (who has, in the proud tradition of Legend of Dragoon’s Dart and Final Fantasy 8’s Squall, spontaneously flipped his brain switch to love her for no particularly credible reason), calls her out after the fact on this incredibly petty rationale.

And it IS petty. So very, very petty, and selfish, not to mention illogical and stupid. Because, you see, it’s not just that Shirley’s mind could be changed by seeing love between a human and a Ferines. She, specifically, has to be the one to benefit and get a beau out of it. How do we know that she’s holding millions of lives ransom for a boyfriend, and it’s not just a philosophical matter of not believing that peace can occur between the 2 species without there being proof that they can love one another? How do we know it’s purely selfishly subjective, and not general and objective? Because Shirley already knows that humans and Ferines can love each other. She was there to witness it! Before Senel settles for this whiny silver medal, he was in love with Shirley’s sister, Stella! In fact, we see far more convincing evidence of Senel’s devotion and affection for Stella in this game, even though it’s all in her absence and after her passing, than we do of his eventual feelings for Shirley!

Oh, and by the way, real fucking considerate on Shirley’s part to get so upset over Senel’s rejection of her confession when he just lost Stella, what, a week ago? A day? Stella’s loss is still fresh and painful when Shirley makes her bid for the guy’s heart. Dyntos forbid the guy take a fucking moment to mourn the loss of the love of his life before doing a forward half somersault dive into your panties, you insensitive cow!****

And that’s not all. Senel may not immediately return Shirley’s affections, but he has been there as her steadfast friend her whole life, and throughout the entirety of the game’s first half, he is throwing himself into dozens of life-threatening situations and running himself fucking ragged trying to take care of and guard her! Say what you will of Senel’s otherwise lacking character depth, but the guy is a loyal, unrelenting protector and friend to Shirley. Forget romantic love, his mere friendship with Shirley is MORE than enough evidence for any objective observer that humanity and magical water plot people can coexist with deep, meaningful bonds!

If Shirley wanted any real evidence that humans and Ferines can come to live in harmony, she has only to look at the entirety of her fucking life for it. The love she witnessed all her life between her sister and Senel, and the intense devotion Senel has to her as a friend and would-have-been brother-in-law, should be far more than enough to convince her not to go through with Maurits’s genocide plans. But that’s only IF she were not just being a selfish, spoiled little twat about the whole affair, using the philosophy of Maurits as an excuse to lash out over a failed teen crush. Yes, the decision to extinguish an entire species of people comes down not to her people’s history, not to the death of Fenimore, not to a philosophical policy of “get them before they get us,” but rather the fact that her fragile feelings are fucking hurt and she’s got the opportunity to throw the biggest tantrum in history over it.

What a petty, stupid, selfish, and just outright horrible person Shirley is. At least when it comes to Fenimore and Maurits and the rest of the Ferines, their hatred for humans and harmful wishes are based on actual tragedy and atrocity witnessed by, and even inflicted onto, them. Genocide isn’t the answer, of course, but at least their lives have born witness to tragedies that you could understand leading to that kind of decision. Fenimore’s death catalyst aside, Shirley won’t snap out of her self-indulgently gloomy murder haze solely because she got friendzoned. Yeah, well, Shirley, you know what? The question of whether you can live in peace together with someone else should NOT have to depend on whether they’re willing to stick a dick in you!

I really like Tales of Legendia. Of the 5 Tales of games I’ve played, it’s my favorite, for its great cast and the terrific sense of family and home it creates among them. But the game’s not flawless, even in the areas in which it truly shines, and nothing proves that better than how quickly and inexplicably the entire cast is willing to completely forgive and forget about the fact that Shirley is a terrible person.

* Speaking of inexplicable free passes, how about that Maurits? He’s the guy who orchestrates the whole human extinction plan to start with, and unlike Shirley, there was no stage of the plan in which he wasn’t fully aware of what he was doing. And yet during the game’s second half, he’s still alive and well, and even being allowed to continue leading the Ferines village! Look, I know that vengeance is bad and many times harsh punishments don’t really solve anything, but maybe his intention to slaughter millions of people deserves at least a slap on the wrist, huh? Could we perhaps not let this guy keep a leadership role, at least? If Hitler had lived to see the end of World War II, we probably wouldn’t have reinstated him as leader of Germany, don’t you think?

** Not a euphemism for her period, I swear.

*** If anyone can actually find a link to a video of when Futurama’s Bender says this (the episode called Love and Rocket), I’d be grateful. It just isn’t as funny in text form.

**** I realize that Shirley’s also broken up about Stella’s loss, too, and I sympathize and allow her that, but that doesn’t really relate to this situation, so neither does my sympathy. Also, it doesn’t really fit in anywhere else in the rant, but I want to note--Stella’s death is not an adequate factor for Shirley wanting to drown humanity, the way Fenimore’s death is (in theory, at least). Stella may die because of human vice, but her last acts are to protect Shirley and (more importantly) Senel from harm. If anything, Stella’s death is a positive example of the love of a few outweighing the hate of many, and thus should be another reason for Shirley not to go forward with the genocide thing.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Whisper of a Rose's Hellena's Nonexistent Fire Magic

Okay, I said I was done ragging on Whisper of a Rose, but this issue only came to mind after I was done with the other rant, so...yeah. 1 more rant on this Indie RPG, and then I’m finished. Really.

...Well, until I remember something else that bugs me, anyway.

Something which occasionally occurs during story cutscenes in RPGs is that magic-using characters will use a spell from their repertoire to accomplish something or other. Most often, this comes in the form of the healers in the party trying to repair someone who just got thoroughly wrecked, actively showing their healing spells outside of combat, but it can apply to plenty of other scenarios. In Final Fantasy 4, for example, there’s a moment in which a bunch of ice is blocking the heroes’ path, and they need Rydia to get over her fear of fire so as to use fire magic to melt the ice. Rydia, of course, steps up and delivers, as she always does, and we see her use fire magic outside of battle, and find that it’s been added to her list of battle spells.

RPGs tend to be, I’ve found, surprisingly careful about this sort of thing, too. Many times, I’ve been slightly annoyed because a party member will use an attack spell in a cutscene that’s actually not nearly the best option available to them (like, say, using Fire 1 to attack an enemy outside of actual combat even though the character has access to Fire 2). This is done, of course, to make sure that other players who may not have advanced their characters’ abilities as far as I have at that point will not be seeing the party member using spells that he/she hasn’t actually unlocked yet. It’s a careful detail for the sake of accuracy, you see. Heck, Lufia 2 has several moments in its storytelling in which Selan or another spellcaster uses their magic for a purpose outside of the battle system, and the game is so meticulous about being accurate with this, that Selan in fact has in her magic list a spell called Light, which has no actual function in the game whatsoever, save for a moment at the game’s end in which she uses it to light the dark fortress of the Sinistrals. And I think that’s only there because it was shown to have happened during the beginning sequence of the first Lufia title, so to maintain accuracy, they added this otherwise unused spell to Selan’s repertoire, specifically so her ability to light up the room (in the literal sense, though I daresay Selan does it figuratively, too) is accurate. Now that’s attention to detail!

I suspect that it is because RPGs tend to be extra careful to be accurate with their use of out-of-battle spell-casting that it seems so careless and strange when a case like Hellena in Whisper of a Rose comes along.

So, in Whisper of a Rose, the first companion that protagonist Melrose meets is Hellena, the perpetually and maybe a little unrealistically cheerful and friendly witch whose control over the elements makes her your primary spellcaster for the game. There are several moments in the game in which Hellena’s powers manifest during story scenes outside of battle, such as early in the game, when she accidentally uses a lightning bolt to try to keep Mel from walking away from her, or very late in the game, when she casts a fire spell on piles of wood during a sidequest to find a pile that doesn’t burn. In fact, those 2 abilities are the ones which Hellena frequently exhibits outside of battle, the ability to throw lightning around and the ability to control fire. She has more spells, of course, but you don’t really ever see the storytelling emphasize her control over wind, hail, rain, and plant life, just the lightning and fire thing.

And that would be just fine if Hellena actually had access to a fire spell. But she actually doesn’t.

I’ve looked everywhere on her skill tree, and even checked the walkthrough for Whisper of a Rose to see what her Rose Point super-skills are, and...nope. There is not a single fire spell in the entire tree. There’s a lightning spell, so that one checks out, but no fire spell. And yes, the lightning spell is actually of the fire element in terms of which kind of damage it does, but you can’t really count it as the same fire spells that Hellena uses during cutscenes, because, well, she also clearly has separate lightning spells that she also uses in cutscenes, too, as I said.

I know this is a nitpicky detail, but how do you, as a developer, manage to overlook the fact that the mage that you show using fire magic at multiple places in the story does not, in fact, have a fire spell? I mean, the very first time you encounter Hellena in the game, she burns down an inn! Fire is not only an ability that she makes use of frequently during the story’s course, it is also the first, character-defining thing about her that we see! That bit of hotel arson is related to Hellena’s occasional inability to control her powers, which is a plot point later on regarding her wicked witch wannabe mother. It’s at the root of a scene having strongly to do with a major story detail about Hellena! How did you just FORGET that she can’t use the fire magic she uses in this and multiple other scenes, Roseportal Games? Come on!

Is it a big deal? Nah. Is it a unique problem? Well, I guess not technically (the Mass Effect series’s cutscenes are known for ignoring the various abilities and weapon preferences of Shepard in favor of generic weapons so as to keep things easier for themselves), although it certainly is unusual. But it’s details like this that can be telling of larger problems with a game, and that’s the case here, I think, because this carelessness with following up on Hellena’s details to make sure they supported the ideas that Rosepetal Games had for her is similar to the major problems what Whisper of a Rose has with not taking the time and making the effort to support, explore, and follow through on its ideas.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Shin Megami Tensei 4-2's Downloadable Content

I was not terribly impressed with the downloadable content for the original Shin Megami Tensei 4, if you remember. There wasn’t enough substance to them, they were overpriced, and the only 1 that was notable was also an example of how DLC is used for dishonest business practices. But hey, Shin Megami Tensei 4: Apocalypse, known on this blog as SMT4-2, is generally a better RPG than its predecessor, so maybe it’ll have a better bunch of add-ons, too! Let’s find out.

As always, this only rates DLC that could conceivably be worth paying for--in other words, add-ons with some form of story content. It’s your business if you want to delete your money for the sake of pointless cosmetic changes and experience/money/jewel/whatever grinding, but I’m not going to rate it myself.

Fall of Tokyo Promo Video: Does this count? Eh, I think it counts. Basically, this is a free DLC which just gives you the option to watch the original anime promotional video for the game back when it was announced as an upcoming title. It seems like it must have been made before the plot was really hammered down for the project, because it shows a vastly different scenario for how Nanashi gains his smartphone and makes a contract with Dagda. Really, after the initial part of the video that shows the creation of the Firmament over Tokyo, nothing about this has anything to do with the game’s events.

Still, it’s cool to watch and totally free, so I don’t really have any complaints on this.

The Inverted Pyramid: Not a good start to the paid DLCs. Much like the DLC packages for SMT4-1, this is just a brief bit of narration, a couple of battles, and then you unlock a demon (Cleopatra) for fusion purposes. $2 might not be much money, but you’re still being overcharged for a DLC that takes, what, 20 minutes to get through? Tops?

It’s also not much to speak of in terms of the actual story. It’s just a tiny little side venture in which you investigate some missing girls, 1 of which happens to be Asahi, and find that a bunch of demons from Egyptian mythology have been trying to resurrect Cleopatra, because...well, just because, really. You fight them, you fight a 90% complete Cleopatra, you save Asahi while being given the option to say that her nose is super sexy, the end. Boring and totally superfluous. I’ll grant you that Cleopatra is actually a pretty useful minion, but unless you’ve been aching for the last 50 hours of gameplay to tell Asahi how much she appeals to your nasal fetish, I say skip this one.

Lore 1, 2, + 3: No point in separating these. These 3 DLCs simply each put a new entry into the game’s codex to read, regarding parallel universes, the concept of Observation, and a chronology of the game’s historical background. It’s useful background lore for reference, not exactly giving new information, but helpfully solidifying your knowledge of the concepts and events the game builds itself on. All 3 entries are free, and benefit the player’s understanding of the game’s story, so this set gets a thumbs-up from me.

A Trip to Hawaii: And I thought the Cleopatra DLC was poor. You meet up with a demon named Mephisto, he lets you go on a pretend beach trip with your party members, he tries to take your soul, you fight him, and once he’s defeated, you can fuse him for your own uses. At least with Cleopatra, that was an actual side adventure, small and useless though it was. This is just totally worthless.

Oh, and Japan? It seems like maybe you haven’t noticed, but the internet? It exists. I know you really want to capitalize off your horny customer base with a little bathing suit fanservice, but if I want to get my rocks off to SMT4-2’s party members, or the royals of Fire Emblem 14, or any other fictional character ever conceived, it is a single image search away. And they won’t be obscured by bathing suits, they won’t take as long to download, and they won’t cost me $2.50. Hell, said pics were created and freely available before the damn game released.

Explosive Epidemic in Mikado: This one’s a bit better, I suppose. This is a side story for the game path where you decide to be a hypocritical giant douchebag and side with Dagda, in which Nanashi goes to Mikado and kills everyone there, partially because they’re turning into demons and partially because in this route Nanashi’s just the kind of fucktard who likes genocide. You go through Mikado, fighting various residents and finding out what’s going on as you do so, until you reach Hugo and get the rest of the story as to where this epidemic came from. As a side story, it’s okay, I guess, and it at least ties a little into the plot of the game (well, 1 route of the game), unlike Cleopatra and Mephisto’s nonsense. At the same time, though, not a lot comes of this, from a story perspective, and it’s a pretty forgettable sequence of events. Not as big a waste of time and money as the previous 2 paid DLC packages, but still not worth the $2.

Messiahs in the Diamond Realm: This one’s actually kind of neat...while still not being very good. In this DLC, you’re called away to a realm between realities by Stephen, for the purpose of helping the main characters of each previous numbered Shin Megami Tensei become ready to fulfill their roles as Messiah to each of their respective realities. Whereas A Trip to Hawaii was stupid, mindless fanservice that mildly insults the player, this is the good kind of fanservice, much like Mass Effect 3’s Citadel DLC: a pandering to fans not by trying to take advantage of their base instincts, but rather by working with their love for the series and their longtime devotion to your products. It’s fun to see Nanashi help, interact with, and fight alongside the protagonists of SMT 1, 2, and 3 (and 4-1, I guess, but since that naturally happens in SMT4-2 anyway, it’s less of a big deal). It also plays to nostalgia by making the dungeon you’re going through very reminiscent of the old school first-person dungeons of SMT1 and 2, complete with the original music for them. Neat! And the DLC finishes with a very challenging boss battle against an enemy that will be kind of exciting for long-time SMT fans.

Beyond nostalgia, though...well, it’s not really all that interesting. I mean, it’s not bad, or anything, but there’s just not much that happens here. It’s fun, but not particularly meaningful, to meet up with the Demifiend, Flynn, Aleph, and Kazuya, and the battle at the end just seems to be there for the hell of it, rather than any real reason. I dunno. It’s like...I want to like this, because who doesn’t like a good hero team-up, but at the same time, objectively, and even a little subjectively, I really have to admit it’s no more meaningful and entertaining than the other paid DLCs in this game. It at least gives you a little more content than the previous packages have, but it also costs the most of all of them, so in the end...sorry to say, but I find Messiahs in the Diamond Realm about as lacking as the rest of this game’s paid DLCs.

Bah. What a disappointment. SMT4-2’s Downloadable Content is barely any better than its predecessor’s. The only DLC here that has a straightforward, untainted positive effect on the game that isn’t overpriced is the 3-part Lore update. I’m finding that JRPGs’ add-ons have an even lower success rate with me than the ones made on this side of the ocean.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Pokemon Series's Pokemon Breeding

Many thanks to Ecclesiastes for letting me bounce ideas about this rant off him. Also to my sister, who, as she always does, generously donated a willing ear and more time than it was worth to listen to and give feedback on this. Both of you rock.

Y’know, Pokemon breeding is seriously fucked up.

Yes, this is another rant about one of those things that the Pokemon series kinda just glosses over, but is actually pretty disturbing. I know, I know, not exactly in the world do we all enjoy and accept as harmless child’s play this bizarre world of enslaved sentients, culturally encouraged dogfighting, dangerously unsupervised preteens, lethally dangerous government buildings, out of control forced domestication of wild animals, and so on? Still, as with the dangerous nature of many Gyms, this is a subject I haven’t seen critiqued often, so, here I am to do my thing. There is no easier target for logic and ethics nitpicking than Pokemon, and I’ll be damned if I’m above beating a dead Ponyta.

You like that? Ah? Pokemon joke? I’m hilarious.

Anyway. Pokemon breeding! The Pokemon games don’t usually go into much detail on the whole Pokemon breeding scene, from what I see and can recall. It’s more directly a part of the Pokemon world that the anime depicts.* In the games, the whole process is kinda just passed off as some miraculous happening, explained in a very carefully vague way. Or at least, it is in Generation 7, and I admit that I just don’t remember how it was explained prior to that...look, gimme a break, I never used the Daycare centers and even I can’t be expected to remember the wording of every RPG tutorial I’ve ever seen. I think I’m safe in assuming that the earlier games didn’t go out on a limb and supplement their audience’s sex ed classes, though.**

Nonetheless, no matter how quietly overlooked it might be, Pokemon breeding is indeed a thing in the games’ world, as evidenced by the fact that there is an entire trainer type called, clearly enough, Pokemon Breeders. And I gotta say, the concept is pretty messed up. The whole idea of animal breeding can be kinda squicky, of course, and I think there are certain aspects of its practice in the real world that just about anyone would admit are questionable. Nonetheless, even if we take a stance in which we’re A-OK with animal breeding in terms of real life, Pokemon breeding is a whole different matter.

See, here’s the thing: when you’re breeding animals, you’re making mating decisions for creatures that generally lack self-aware determination. With most animals, mating decisions are as much made through instinct as anything else they’s highly arguable how much “choice” they have in any aspect of their lives, with or without human intervention. Granted, this is still grounds for philosophical argument of ethics (on a personal level, I don’t like this practice), but the important thing is, you’re not taking a choice away from a being that can really contemplate the concept of choice enough to appreciate it anyway. But with Pokemon breeding, you’re forcing sapient creatures of human or near-human intelligence to mate according to someone else’s will, not theirs!

This isn’t deciding which chickens mate with which chickens to get the best eggs and temperament. This isn’t setting up a blind date for your stupid dog. This is forcing 2 independent, free-willed self-aware entities to reproduce according to the arbitrary whims of a third party, disregarding any and all feelings the actual participants might have on the matter! I’m no legal expert, but I do believe that’s called rape in some circles. Also eugenics, which is its own bag of unpleasantness. But more importantly, the whole robbing free-thinking self-aware individuals of their right to choose reproductive partners thing.

Oh, and yes, Pokemon (a lot of them, at least) are sentient, sapient beings. According to my ever faithful reader, friend, and sounding board Ecclesiastes, Generation 6 tried to backtrack on this issue, and make the line between human intelligence and emotion, and Pokemon intelligence and emotion, a more solid one. Figures it’d be the 1 game generation I’d skip. Nonetheless, even with my ignorance of the game’s events, I call bullshit on that. The Pokedex and general series lore disproves any notion of Pokemon all being intellectually and emotionally inferior to humans, and said dex and lore do this all over the place. Off the top of my head:

-Cubone wears the skull of its deceased mother, showing that it possess both the concept of sentimentalism for objects associated with those it cares about, and understanding of symbolism and how it relates to loss.
-Mimikyu recognizes love and accolades given to Pikachu, and feels jealousy (which is itself a complicated emotion indicative of intelligence). Its attempt to resolve this situation is to craft a costume based on Pikachu. This isn’t unconscious mimicry born from natural selection, this is a conscious decision to visually imitate Pikachu, and obviously the process of creating a costume to wear requires human-level preparation and know-how.
-Absol’s attempts to warn human civilizations of impending dangerous weather requires forethought, empathy beyond biological imperative, and selflessness to a humanlike degree. Absol has to be intelligent enough to recognize human civilization, identify that humans cannot follow weather indicators as well as it can, and devise a plan to warn them. It also must be emotionally complex enough to recognize the potential plights of nearby humans, care about them, want to help them, and choose to devote its time and energy to doing so with absolutely no possible personal gain.
-Primarina, during her (mine was female so deal with it) personal Z-move, stands and takes a bow after her operatic performance. That’s a display of personal pride in what she has done, and pride is, I’m pretty sure, an emotion only confirmed in human-level intelligence. Additionally, it shows a recognition of subtle social gestures and how they are correctly employed, and an understanding of how such gestures add flourish to a performance. This is no trained trick, done with the potential for reward treats in mind; the only motivation she can have in this bow is to acknowledge her accomplishment and performance, and share her satisfaction in it with others. In this 1 tiny motion, Primarina confirms an intelligence that understands cultural gestures, self-aware personal pride, and art.
-Uh, yeah, Rotom does, y’know, talk. And have a clear personality. Like, throughout the entirety of Pokemon: Generation 7. From the moment it possesses your Pokedex, Rotom does more than observe and recite basic Pokemon facts--it also reacts to, comments on, and poses questions about Moon and Lillie’s adventure together. Or Sun and Lillie’s adventure, whichever you went with.

And I want to emphasize again, this is off the top of my head. If I were to categorically go through Pokedex entries and rack my memory for all the details it can provide of the 5 generations I’m familiar with, I’m pretty sure there’d be a substantially longer list of Pokemon who flat-out, hands-down, beyond-question prove that Pokemon are capable of being self-aware, intelligent creatures mentally at humanity’s level (or even higher), and frequently are. But as I am not patently insane and thus have no interest in looking over...what is it now, over 800? Over 800 Pokemon’s worth of codex entries, those 5 examples will have to suffice.

Which brings us back to my point: Pokemon breeding is forcing 2 entities who, in at least some cases, are thinking, feeling, self-aware beings to reproduce together, regardless of what reproductive partner they might have otherwise chosen. And that is pretty messed up, and not okay. It’s either rape, or something really, really close.

Is this the most morally questionable part of the Pokemon world, when analyzed? Probably not; I mean, as deplorable as the idea of disregarding someone’s feelings and desires and assigning them some eugenics pet project mate to propagate with is, this is also the world which endorses pitting intelligent, self-aware individuals against each other in deadly, painful combat to satisfy the whims and vanity of their owners. That trumps even master-race-aiming rape, at least in my opinion. Still, when you think about it, the concept of Pokemon breeding is yet another extremely unsettling aspect of this cheerful children’s series that we perpetually give a free pass to.

* Sort of. The anime, if I recall correctly (be kind if you need to inform me that I’m wrong on this; I haven’t watched Pokemon since the Orange Island arc was the new big thing), depicts the breeding process more as a vague mixture of food preparation, grooming, relaxation methods, and massage (which makes the Pokemon Refresh thing in recent games even more questionable than it already is, I suppose). As far as it shows, you’d never guess that actual sex and reproduction was a part of the process at all.

Then again, are we even sure sex IS a part of Pokemon reproduction? I mean, you can still breed genderless Pokemon in the games using a Ditto as 1 of the parents (which is in itself all kinds of weird), right? So how much does gender actually matter to these things, in terms of creating new ones? And...

...Actually, you know what? I just realized what I’m trying to analyze here, and how deep I’m going with it. And I’m gonna just cut myself off right there. Not worth the cringy shudders I’m gonna eventually give myself if I keep on.

** Although given how inadequate and often negatively exclusive sexual education often is in the USA--and that’s when a school system even bothers to teach it at all--maybe it wouldn’t have been a bad thing if Pokemon games actually had gone into detail about it.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

General RPGs' AMVs 14

Yup, another one of these things. I know, I know, no one but me likes them. Well, the people who made these videos put real time and effort into their work, and someone ought to appreciate that, so you'll just have to abide until next rant for something more substantial.


Fallout 3, 4, and New Vegas: Electric, by Lacryna:
The music used is Electric Worry, by Clutch. It’s not an amazing AMV, but it’s punchy and fun to watch, a good example of a song that captures an aspect of a game that’s been used appropriately. The action and attitude of the Fallout series works well with the music, and that’s all there is to it--it’s good.


Final Fantasy 7: Tales of Fantasy VII, by ZackFairZakkusuFea:
The music used is Karma, by BUMP OF CHICKEN, which is the opening song for Tales of the Abyss. I’m not sure if this really counts as an AMV so much as it does a fan animation, but it’s cool, so I’m sharing it anyway. This is basically a near identical recreation of the opening anime video to Tales of the Abyss, except using characters, concepts, and plot elements from Final Fantasy 7, instead. It’s all hand-drawn art that looks great, and it’s really cool how close it is to the source video (you can find it here if you want to compare: Very fun, well-made piece of fan work, this.

Final Fantasy 10: The Sound of Silence, by DiDiChii:
The music used is a cover of The Sound of Silence, by Simon and Garfunkel. The cover itself is done by Disturbed. The nature of Final Fantasy 10’s story lends itself well to a quiet, slow, and powerful song such as The Sound of Silence, and this AMV does well to capitalize on that, emphasizing the more somber, quiet, and so often tragic moments and characters of the game. The video raises its visuals’ intensity as the song does, but, like the song, never loses its poignancy. Powerful stuff.


Fire Emblem 14: Demons, by WolfBeil:
The music used is Demons, by Imagine Dragons. There’s not much to say about this, besides that it is a simple, well-done AMV which matches the game’s scenes up very appropriately to the lyrics of the song. Very nice job here.

Fire Emblem 14: Who Am I Living For?, by Ravioli Rose:
The music used is Who Am I Living For?, by...Katy Perry? Wait, that can’t be right. When did Katy Perry start making music that didn’t suck? Why wasn’t I informed that the end times had begun?

This is...well, it’s just an excellent AMV. Seriously, top-notch. It was really hard for me to choose the FF10 Sound of Silence AMV above as today's best video over this one. The song’s lyrics and ideas match to Fire Emblem 14 perfectly, allowing this video to tell the story of Corrin’s dilemma of her/his warring families and emphasize how much she/he loves them, to the echoing question of “Who am I living for?” The tone of the song ends up working surprisingly well with the visuals of FE14, too, which I would not have expected...yet the style that FE14 has of often (more often than you’d probably notice, in fact) switching between real time and slow motion makes it mesh very well with the slow throb of the song’s tempo. Really, it’s almost like Katy Perry wrote this song with FE14 in mind, it matches so well, or at least, it seems to after watching this quality AMV. This is a skillfully executed AMV that doesn’t settle for simply being a good tribute to the game, as most AMVs do, but rather uses its song to help tell a portion of the game’s story. Really great stuff!


Kingdom Hearts 2 + 365/2 Days: My Name, by La Habana Inc.:
The music used is My Name, by Shinedown. This AMV explores Roxas through the song, and it works darned well, the lyrics coordinating with his character as naturally as the footage is matched to the melody and changes. The simple effects used here and there are effective and never distracting, and ultimately, everything lines up to create a really good character-dedicated music video.

Kingdom Hearts Series: Call to Arms, by NekoKitkat25hug:
The music used is Vox Populi, by 30 Seconds to Mars. Fucking 30 Seconds to Mars again? At least it’s not This is War this time. This is a straightforward, well-made AMV that enjoyably recalls the KH series to us in a fun way. The pace of the song is matched well with the cinematography, and I like the overall package of this. I think it probably will mean a little more to me once I finally get around to playing that KH Birth by Sleep game, but even without knowing all the over complicated drama of Aqua and her friends, I still find this a solid AMV.

Kingdom Hearts Series: Maps, by Alexxis5954:
The music used is Maps, by Maroon 5. Can’t say I think much of the song, but the AMV that’s been made out of is pretty darned good. There’s not a lot that really jumps out at me about it to speak of here, it just works well. The lyrics are pretty good at telling a story of Sora and Kairi seeking each other, and the video is well coordinated with both the song’s lyrics and its overall tune and changes. This is just your textbook case of a good, well-made AMV.