Monday, November 11, 2019

ATTENTION READERS

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...


Sunday, February 18, 2018

General RPGs' Characters' Preoccupation with Hand Warmth

Time for another rant about a trope that’s broader than just RPGs (this one’s quite popular in anime), but which does show up in them frequently enough that it annoys me. Yes, it’s time to talk about Warm Hands!

So, something that happens now and then in RPGs is that you have a character, almost invariably female, and also usually sappy and annoyingly positive, who takes someone’s hand in theirs, and from this small touch divines that the person whose hand they grasp is a good person with a good heart. What is the source of this intuition, you wonder? How have they so confidently inferred the hidden nature and plumbed the depths of the soul before them? Why, it’s very simple!

That person has warm hands.

Yup. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. The person has warm hands, so according to your oracular party member, they must be trustworthy. Background history? Discussion of one’s ethics and beliefs? Personal experience with the individual? Considering the person’s actions to this point? Even just looking them in the goddamn eye? All unnecessary. This person’s hands possess a higher temperature than the party member’s own, so they must be a trustworthy and laudable person within.

It’s just...so idiotic. I don’t even know where to start with this trope. I don’t know why I should HAVE to. Hey, uh, assorted RPG writers of companies both big and small, did you guys just...miss fourth grade science, or something? See, there’s this thing about human beings. And that is that we’re mammals. And mammals, it turns out, are warm-blooded. It means our blood--the blood that circulates through our body, including the extremities like the hands--is meant to stay at a specific, constant, regulated temperature, regardless of the environment around us. And 1 of the side effects of that usually-learned-in-elementary-school fact is that we give off body heat. Like...ALL of us. Regardless of the moral fiber of our character!

How exactly does this reasoning work, anyway? The person’s heart must be warmer if their hands are warmer, and warmer heart = better heart? Or maybe the person’s heart is extra functional, pumping their warm blood into their hands much faster than a regular person’s? Because I’m fairly sure these are less a sign of moral integrity than they are of cardiovascular diseases!

And even from the perspective of whatever bizarre reasoning RPGs have for this trope, it still doesn’t make much sense to use as a moral barometer. I mean, even if having naturally heated hands were somehow indicative of a good person, it’s still not a reliable measure to use. What if a decent person happens to just have bad circulation? What, no good human being ever got diabetes, or had a blood clot? For that matter, no evil person ever had a fever?

What about characters like Deekin from Neverwinter Nights 1, Mipha from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Frog from Chrono Trigger, Koops from Paper Mario 2, and Psybe from Cosmic Star Heroine? You’d have a hard time arguing that any of them weren’t highly decent people, but lizards, fish, amphibians, turtles, and most insects are cold-blooded; there’d be no warmth in any of their hands. Or characters like Spar from Breath of Fire 2, and Camellia from Arc the Lad 4? Pretty sure that anthropomorphic plants wouldn’t have much in the way of body heat, but that doesn’t bar either from being decent individuals. There’re plenty of ethical characters in RPGs who are aliens, like Raja from Phantasy Star 4, and Garrus and Padok from the Mass Effect series. Even if they might be warm-blooded, their physiology could be such that the warmth was less than our own. And then there are good-hearted vampires like Joachim from Shadow Hearts 2, helpful ghosts like Pamela from Mana Khemia 1, friendly skeletons like Papyrus from Undertale, and just a whole hell of a lot of nice robots. Go ahead and try to tell me Aegis from Shin Megami Tensei: Persona isn’t a truly wonderful person. Go ahead, try to say it. You’ll live the rest of your life knowing you’re a fucking liar.

And even beyond the fact that body temperature can be affected by health problems, and the problems that arise from RPGs’ trend toward especially peculiar casts, it also seems like it would be easy for a villain to dupe this format of moral checkup. All any villain needs to do is keep his hands in his armpits for a few minutes before shaking hands with the heroes he wants to dupe, and he’s golden! Or hell, why settle for his pits? He’s a villain! He can shove his hand down between his asscheeks for a bit--he passes the moral test, and gives the heroes a good stink palm at the same time! Effective, and diabolic!

It’s just a really stupid, nonsensical trope. It’s silly and dumb to anyone with common sense and even a beginner’s grasp of human biology, and even if you were to take it as somehow legitimate, it still seems absurdly unreliable and easy to fool. Thankfully, though it does pop up now and then in games from developers both mighty* and minor**, this bizarre little cliche shows up in RPGs far less frequently than it does in anime. Still, every time I come across it, the sappy stupidity of the warm hands = good heart thing just makes me groan and shake my head.

















* No, Grandia 3’s Alfina, Yuki is not a good person because his hands are warm. He is a good person because he keeps saving your stupid ass.

And maybe also because he actually has the patience to be able to put up with you. Hell, if the measure of character actually were hand heat, then that level of sainthood would require Yuki’s hands to be outright on fire.


** No, Marine from the Millennium series, Bokden showing up and proving that your faith in him was justified is an occurrence independent of the fact that his hand was a degree hotter than yours when you grabbed it.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

General RPG Valentines 2

It's that time of year again, ladies and gents! Yes, that magical, wonderful time of year in which we celebrate Love, that highest virtue of humanity, by ritually sacrificing it to our soulless corporate masters on a holiday that twists the concept of human affection into an economic obligation. In spite of my cynicism, however, I wholeheartedly love any holiday devoted to the concept of reminding others of just how important they are to you, and so, I have created for you all 20 more ways to tell someone you love them while being an RPG dork of irredeemable magnitude. Enjoy, and have a Happy Valentine's Day!












































But of course, if you're a sourpuss about Valentine's Day and want everyone to know about it, while also letting them know that you're an RPG addict beyond saving...well, I've got a few of these things for you, too!











Sunday, January 28, 2018

Tales of Zestiria's Sorey's Sacrifice

Heroic self-sacrifice is a pretty major part of storytelling, no matter which side of the ocean you’re on. 1 of the greatest and most inspiring acts of good that our heroes can perform is to give their lives for the sake of the well-being and happiness of others...it redeems villains, it cements the good and worth of minor characters, it makes unforgettable icons from our heroes. Heck, 1 of the most prevalent religions on Earth, Christianity, is based on the concept. The selfless greatness of a man or woman who gives up all he or she has for the sake of others, others whom he or she does not even personally know, is something which we are drawn to.

This fact, however, means that we may be a little too eager, sometimes, as creators and as audiences, to jump into this idea more than we should. Villain redemption through heroic sacrifice is so common that half the time it just doesn't make an impact, characters that the writers aren’t finished with can get axed off prematurely because someone wanted a dramatic moment which just means that they need to be half-assedly resurrected later, and sometimes characters kill themselves when a much simpler, non-fatal course of action was readily apparent.* And on the audience’s side, sometimes we’re too eager to get carried away and make more of heroes’ sacrifices than they’re actually worth.

Such is the case, I feel, of the sacrifice made by Sorey at the end of Tales of Zestiria (obvious spoiler alert here, by the way). From cruising through a few message boards and looking in on some conversations between Tales of fans, I’ve gotten the distinct impression that most players of ToZ view Sorey’s sacrifice as having the same gravity, tragedy, and nobility as any other RPG hero’s sacrifice possesses, like, say, Maxim in Lufia 2, or Tidus in Final Fantasy 10. And I think that may be just a tad of an overreaction to Sorey’s case.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I respect the sacrifice Sorey makes at the end of the game. He chooses to leave his friends and world, to chain his spirit to that of the god of Seraphs, so that Sorey can undertake the process of purifying said Seraph and save the world from the malevolence that has afflicted it for so long. This will take centuries to accomplish, meaning that Sorey is going to sleep through the chance to see the good that his actions have brought to the world, and will never again see his human friends again. It’s a heavy sacrifice to have to make, to be sure, and he’s a brave, heroic man to take it upon himself.

But all the same, to view this in the same lens as your typical end-of-adventure protagonist self-sacrifice is, I think, maybe to exaggerate its level of tragedy a bit. Let’s really look at what Sorey’s actually having to give up here.

First of all, the guy ain’t dying, in any sense of the word. It’s a known fact, going into the final battle, that for Sorey to do this is for him to simply be isolated for a few centuries. Barring some extreme outside event, Sorey will be waking up good as new once he’s done with this whole purification hullabaloo. And since he wouldn’t normally have lived centuries anyway, one can only conclude that this act will not shorten his lifespan in any way, like, say, going into a coma would (since one continues to age in a coma). There’s no ambiguity about this: he’s not dying. So that alone cuts down on how tragic this sacrifice can really seem--we rightly make a big deal of Yuri choosing to die for his love of Alice at the end of Shadow Hearts 2, because the understanding is that he’s, y’know, not coming back, but we rightly don’t make a big deal of Bleu/Deis going back to sleep at the end of Breath of Fire 1, because even though it won’t be for centuries, she will, eventually, wake up right as rain.

Of course, one’s simple physical and mental existence are not the only things one can give up, and the weight of Sorey’s sacrifice comes from what else he’s losing. By having to leave for centuries, as I said, it means he’ll never get to see his human friends again, and the world will be drastically different from what he knew. Well, that’s certainly a sizable loss for him, and it does make his sacrifice meaningful and heroic...but even then, I have to say, it’s not quite as heavy a thing he’s giving up as you might initially think.

Let’s look at the friends he loses in this deal. Is it tragic that he’ll never again get to hang with his BFF Rose, or see Alisha again? Absolutely! Very sad on both sides, especially for Alisha, since she doesn’t know what he’s doing in advance and thus has no chance to actually say goodbye to Sorey. But...besides Rose and Alisha, every one of Sorey’s meaningful relationships is with a Seraph. His lifelong buddy Mikleo is a Seraph. The friends he’s made on his journey, Lailah, Edna, and Zaveid, are all Seraphim. And all the people of the town in which Sorey has lived his whole life are Seraphim, too. Given Seraphim’s long, perhaps even outright endless lifespans, this means that nearly everyone in Sorey’s life that he really cares about will still be alive centuries later, when his life resumes! It’s tragic that Sorey will never again see Rose and Alisha, but this is a far cry away from giving up on all the people he loves; at least 2/3rds of them are going to be kicking around when he wakes up.

I feel like I did when watching that episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic in which Rainbow Dash is going through the stages of grief because her pet turtle’s going to be hibernating through the winter--like I’m expected to be devastated by a tragedy that isn’t happening. It’s unfortunate when you have to be separated from someone you care about for a while, but it’s not an adequate narrative substitute for death! It’s sad, but not THAT sad. That turtle’s gonna wake up in a few months just fine, and Sorey’s still gonna be able to continue all but 2 of his meaningful relationships.**

In addition, having to give up on his world, awakening centuries later to a world of countries and societies that he knows nothing of...that could be a big loss, for most characters. A lot of protagonists are defined by a love for their world, and their dreams and ambitions in life. But, uh...Sorey’s case is actually remarkably free of tragedy, here. Sure, it kind of sucks that Sorey won’t be able to witness the kingdoms of Rolent and Hyland as they enter a new golden age thanks to the efforts of Sorey and his friends, but...how attached can he really be to the world as a whole, honestly? Guy only left his super-isolated little Seraph town a few months ago! He hasn’t seen enough of the world to be able to really miss it. The only thing he might lose is his hometown, but his attachment to it seemed more based on his relationship to the residents of his community, rather than the place itself, and as stated above, they all have the potential to still be alive and kicking. Waking up in a new era is going to be little more than just the same experience of stepping out into a new world that Sorey had early in the adventure.

And finally, Sorey doesn’t have to give up on any of his life’s ambitions or interests. Although a decent character, Sorey really only has 1 interest and life dream: to explore ruins. Well, the great thing about ruins is that they aren’t going anywhere, especially not in RPGs, in which leftover locations from lost, legendary eras are usually somehow so perfectly preserved that every damn puzzle switch in the things still works over a thousand years later. So Sorey has every chance once the world’s saved and the land is purified to go back to his life’s passion of ruin-exploring.*** Hell, a few centuries later, there’s probably MORE of the things to go spelunking in, and there’s certainly going to be more history for him to read up on. This sacrifice of his actually does his hobby a favor!

So, ultimately, is Sorey’s sacrifice at the end of Tales of Zestiria sad, noble, and meaningful? Absolutely. I don’t want to imply that it’s not. But should we see it on the same level as other heroic RPG sacrifices? Not really. A character like Lufia 2’s Maxim gives up his life, gives up on a world he’s been a part of for a substantial amount of time, gives up a chance to raise his infant son, gives up on ever seeing any of his friends again. Sorey’s sacrifice just doesn’t compare to that.












* Flash Season 1 Spoilers: Dammit, Eddie, you didn’t have to shoot yourself in the heart to save the world! You could’ve just shot yourself in the balls instead, and actually lived to see Season 2! Hell, a stern promise to get a vasectomy might’ve been enough!


** Not counting the meaningful relationships that were forcibly ended by different circumstances. Sadly, Dezel and Gramps are gone, and I feel for Sorey’s loss on both counts, but those have nothing to do with the losses associated with his end-of-game purification sacrifice.


*** Why does he even want to, though? I don’t mean that archeology and history and all that jazz isn’t interesting, mind you. I mean that just about every ruin you encounter in Tales of Zestiria is incredibly basic and boring! Even by RPG ruin standards, ToZ’s dungeons are dime-a-dozen copies of one another with little to differentiate each from the last. It’s like Bandai-Namco outsourced dungeon creation to Bioware’s Dragon Age 2 team, or those clowns who programmed the dungeons in Conception 2. Just seems ridiculous to me that ToZ would make the passion of its protagonist and his besty archeology, and then put almost no effort into more than half of the historic sites you can visit in the game.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Energy Breaker's Time Limits

You know what’s really annoying? Battles with time limits.

I mean, really. Think back to any and every RPG you’ve played in which you had to defeat your enemies within a set amount of time, or else get a game over. Which of those battles were fun? Hmm? Any of them? Certainly none that I can immediately think of.

Oh, to be sure, there are times when it’s narratively sensible to put a time limit on battles. When you’ve gotta beat a boss before a time bomb goes off, then sure, a timer on a battle makes some sense. When you’ve gotta take out some guards as part of a heist before the next part of the plan is set to start, restricting how long a battle can go on can draw the player a little more into the situation, engross us a little more in the story’s events. Shadowrun seems to do this pretty well, for example. When you’ve gotta battle hostile sewer rats who inexplicably make their home not in the sewers but in the rafters of an opera house so that you can reach a narcissistic purple talking octopus before he drops an anvil on top of a military general masquerading as a performer so that she can trick a gambler into giving her a dirigible ride...well, in a situation like that, the time limit may very well be the only part of it that makes sense. But regardless, even if it helps sell what’s happening in the game’s plot at that moment, having to work against a timer is a gameplay mechanic that’s invariably annoying.

So what in the world was Taito thinking when it put a time limit on every single battle in Energy Breaker? From bosses on down to random encounters, every battle in this game has a set number of turns in which it must be completed, or else it’s game over. It’s incredibly damn annoying; even if you’re capable of defeating your foes, you may still lose to them over and over again because you can’t do it quite fast enough.

And besides the basic irritation of it, it’s also a really stupid idea given that Energy Breaker is a tactical RPG. Now, not every tactical RPG absolutely has to have battles that take a long time complete. Live-A-Live manages to have its battles go about as long as regular battle systems take, for example. But generally, tactical RPG battles are a longer process, for the simple reason that planning out what positions and strategies of advancement you want to adopt is inherent to the system. Sometimes just finding the right position for your units is more important than actually doing anything with them immediately, like getting an evasive tank into a bottleneck spot in any given Fire Emblem title, or grabbing the high ground when you’re a Jedi in an unspeakably shitty movie. But if you put a time limit on the battle, then a huge amount of your strategy goes flying out the window! In Energy Breaker, you don’t have the luxury of creating a formation, testing enemy movement reach, seeking out advantageous positions...you have to get in there and kill your enemies pronto! The turns you have to spend only moving toward your enemy are suddenly frustrating time wastes when you know they’ve cost you 20% of your time budget!

Always having a time limit on your battles also limits a player’s interest in exploring strategies in terms of party setup. Now I’ll grant you this isn’t too big an issue with Energy Breaker, since it, early RPG as it is, doesn’t have a lot of room for party customization, but on a conceptual level, it’s a problem. Because, you see, it narrows a player’s focus on character building down to over-valuing a specific kind of team member: the glass cannon. True, I trend toward glass cannon setups myself (I’m not the patient sort), so it wouldn’t be as big a problem for me, but still, anyone who might have enjoyed experimenting with creating defense-oriented setups is going to forego all versatility possible in favor of party members who hit as hard and as fast as they possibly can to end the battle within the turn limit.

Putting a time limit on some battles can add a gameplay dimension that requires the player to explore different strategies, and it can get you more invested in a particular scenario, story-wise. It’s annoying, but it has benefits. But putting a time limit on every single battle in the game? That’s just a frustrating, pointless gimmick with no benefit, and doing so in a tactical RPG undercuts a huge portion of the strategy component to the combat, which is the entire point of having a tactical battle system to the begin with. I don’t know who thought it was a good idea to do this with Energy Breaker, but they were, quite frankly, dead wrong.

Monday, January 8, 2018

General RPGs' Unusual Good Luck with Sequels 2

Happy New Year, all! As I and so many others have mentioned, last year was a hell of a good year for RPGs, and right now, I feel like the best we could hope for from 2018 for this genre would be a sequel of 2017. And I'm willing to do my part toward this goal: by making a sequel to 1 of my 2017 rants. Specifically, the 1 about RPG sequels. Yes, this is a sequel to my sequel rant. Yo Dawg forever, suckas!



Not long ago, I wrote a rant about the unusually high success rate that RPGs have in terms of sequels, in which I pointed out that the genre is perhaps the most likely of any storytelling venue I’m familiar with to have a continuation of a series be good. Which is all fine and good, but having made this observation, the question then arises:

Why?

Is there anything we can attribute to this seemingly miraculous positive tendency? A particular aspect of RPG sequels that helps make them so much more likely than continuations of other genres’ franchises to do decently? Well, possibly. First of all, I’m sure that simple good luck plays its part. More than that, though, I’m sure that RPG sequels must more often have a large amount of genuine effort and care put into them for this to work--my suspicion is that RPG developers probably just take their creations seriously more often than the creators of sequels in Hollywood and so on. Perhaps the gaming industry, or at least this corner of it, is actually just more concerned with its art than other storytelling businesses in general. You certainly don’t get a true classic like Shadow Hearts 2, with its creative and well-paced story and its rich and compelling emotional impact, by half-assing it, while sequels in the cinematic world seem to have a 50-50 chance of being solely a cash-in on their predecessors. Disney’s done it so often with its direct-to-DVD animated sequels that it’s basically the poster child for the concept of lazy cash-grabs.

(I still think that Pocahontas 2 is better than the original, though).*

Beyond the likelihood that RPG developers more often give a shit about their sequels, though, I think that there is a factor that contributes to RPG sequels’ unusually high rate of success. See, it’s like this: I want you to think of Final Fantasy. And Grandia. And Wild Arms. And Star Ocean, Castlevania, Shadowrun, Shining Force, Fallout, Tales of, Breath of Fire, the Nippon Ichi games, and Shin Megami Tensei--to name a few RPG series in which this works. Just how much connection between titles do all the installments in these franchises have?

Some, like Shadowrun, Fallout, and Castlevania all take place in the same world, and have some characters make multiple appearances over various titles (such as Jake Armitage, Harold, and Maria Renard). The events of 1 title frequently affect that world and sequels in various ways (the events of Shadowrun Returns are mentioned in Shadowrun: Dragonfall, the Brotherhood of Steel’s victory in Fallout 3 leads to their faction role in Fallout 4, and Dracula’s unlimited respawns necessitates a family line of vampire slayers to keep taking him out, along with some far more interesting and awesome outsiders on occasion like Alucard and Shanoa). But honestly? These games, while definitely connected, are not nearly as directly tied as we tend to think of when we think of sequels. None of the protagonists for Shadowrun and Fallout are present in any but a single title, and their companions and antagonists are almost all completely new with each game, as well. The same is mostly true of Castlevania, too. The many sequels of these 3 series do build off of their predecessors in many story elements, but each one is ultimately its own story, borrowing lore and a few characters but not being shackled to what came before.

Then there are series like Breath of Fire, Star Ocean, and the Nippon Ichi titles. They’re franchises in which most or all of their titles take place within the same universe as previous ones, but ultimately only use those predecessors for lore-related purposes. Breath of Fire 2 builds on BoF1 in that its antagonist, DeathEvan, came about as a result of the battle against Miria/Tyr in the original game, and it takes place on the same world, but DeathEvan is his own evil who furthers his goals in his own way, and since BoF2 takes place centuries after the first game, the people and society of its world are tied only loosely to those found in the first game--you get cameos of some of the important characters of BoF1 here and there, such as a message Nina 1 leaves for her descendants, and admittedly the immortal Bleu is a secret party member again, but overall, BoF2 has all the space it needs to do its own thing and only take tiny bits of legend and lore from the original. Likewise, Star Ocean’s games all take place in the same universe, but its titles are frequently separated so vastly in terms of time and distance that their only real connection is lore-based, rather than anything hard and fast like recurring major characters. And while Nippon Ichi titles take pleasure in connecting to one another in fun ways, most of the time they’re still decidedly their own entities in a similar fashion.

And then, finally, we have cases like Final Fantasy, Grandia, and Tales of. These are franchises in which the majority of their titles aren’t even connected by taking place in the same universe! There’s nothing to my knowledge that suggests that Final Fantasy 4, 6, 7, and 12 have any connection whatsoever in terms of their worlds, for example. For all intents and purposes, they’re completely different stories taking place in completely different universes that have no overlap whatsoever. Likewise, there’s nothing that connects Grandia 1, 2, and 3 together at all, and while some Tales of games do connect directly to one another, most of them are distinct entities. The only thing that connects titles in franchises like these are aesthetics and style, really--Grandia’s comforting rainbow save points and lovely dinner conversations, Final Fantasy’s recurring systems of magic and summoned monsters, Tales of’s elemental creatures and skits, that sort of thing. Just connections of approaches to gameplay and story elements, rather than of lore or characters.

My point here is that RPG sequels are very frequently only loosely tied to their predecessors, if at all. And I think that helps give them the breathing room to excel. Most of the time with sequels, we expect to see most or all of the same characters returning, in the same settings, building off of the events of the preceding story. And while that can certainly work, I think it must nonetheless be more challenging to return to characters and story elements that you thought you have developed to their conclusion, and have to find something new to do with them. That’s not to say it never happens in RPGs, nor that it can’t be done quite well in them--Shadow Hearts 2 explores Yuri’s character and gives him depth and pathos beyond anything SH1 even attempted, and Knights of the Old Republic 2 finds powerfully philosophical story qualities to explore and expand on from the more basic plot of its predecessor, for example. But overall, RPG sequels tend to be almost entirely new stories, able to tell themselves without the burden of having to use anyone or anything from the previous story that isn’t useful to them. Is it any wonder, then, that they have a higher rate of success, when we do not burden them with the same expectations we have of sequels which more directly tie to their predecessors?

What’s also interesting about this is that it’s one of the only genres where this is even allowed by the audience. You can’t get away with this sort of thing in cinema, for example, at least not often. When we hear of a movie sequel, we expect to see the characters of the first movie return, we expect to see them doing their thing in the same world, and we expect the characters and world to be in a state in accordance with how the last movie ended. Sometimes a movie can trick us by using a bare minimum of its predecessor while still telling its own story--Mad Max: Fury Road, for example, is generally agreed on to be a pretty rad movie, even though the series’s titular character wavers between the roles of secondary character and unconnected observer--but generally, we go into a movie sequel with the expectation that it’s gonna be a direct continuation of its source.

And if you think I’m full of it on this point, well, hell, just look at the movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within! Now, I’m not saying it was a great flick by any means, but there’s really not a lot that’s terribly wrong with it; it’s a decent movie to watch once. Yet the thing was a staggering flop, kept Squaresoft on the verge of bankruptcy for years and years--have they, in fact, fully recovered from it even now? I remember reading only a few years back that they were still, amazingly enough, recuperating from their losses from a movie they’d released over a decade before! Real, actual shit movies like the Star Wars prequels, or the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, or the Transformers franchise have managed to make serious bank, while this mildly decent film turned into a financial black hole. Why?

Well, because Square was following its own damn formula and expecting it to work, that’s why. Well, okay, there are lots of reasons FFTSW didn’t connect with audiences, but it’s a fact that one of the most frequent criticisms I’ve heard levied against the film is that it had nothing to do with Final Fantasy. Well, yeah, it has no recurring characters from the games, doesn’t take place on any of the games’ worlds, no chocobos or moogles...all it’s got is a Cid, and his name isn’t even spelled right. But, uh, so fucking what? That’s barely any less than ANY given Final Fantasy has with its fellow titles! Practically every Final Fantasy until that point and since tells its own story with no more than aesthetic connections to its peers! And while The Spirits Within doesn’t exactly stand shoulder to shoulder with the quality of, say, Final Fantasy 10, or Tactics, or especially 9, at least it’s not so generic as FF5, or obscenely confused and boring as 12, or just an outright idiotic fucking mess like FF8! In terms of quality, I don’t think The Spirits Within is even in the lower half of the Final Fantasy series canon! And yet, we all--myself included!--scorned it for having nothing to do with its series, even though, story-wise and character-wise, that’s the standard for Final Fantasy. If anything, FFTSW would have been less true to its franchise if it HAD tried to directly connect to it.**

And why did we make this complaint? I don’t know for sure, but I personally think that maybe it was because we’re just naturally geared to expect direct ties in our sequels outside the realms of RPGs. What was never a problem for the games in Final Fantasy suddenly became a huge obstacle for the series when it made a try at cinema. What might have been given a chance in game format and recognized as a pretty okay story--again, nothing great, but okay--was dead on arrival in movie form.

So anyway, that’s my theory as to 1 of the factors of why RPG sequels have the unusually good fortune I mentioned in my previous rant: the simple fact that our expectations for what an RPG sequel can and should look like are more open than our expectations of sequels in other genres and formats. We wouldn’t want to see a fighting game sequel that had none of the previous title’s characters come back again, we wouldn’t want to see a movie sequel that had virtually none of the story elements as its predecessor, and so on...but for whatever reason, we’re totally fine with this sort of thing in our RPGs. And I think that helps give game developers the space when continuing a series to write something worthwhile, and it helps us to give that writing the chance it deserves.













* Come at me, uh...some Disney fans? Everyone? Only a few people? I actually don’t really know where Pocahontas 1 and 2 lie in terms of the public’s overall feelings.


** And frankly, going by FF12: Revenant Wings, the FF7 spinoffs, and that unspeakable abomination FF10-2, we didn’t know how good we had it back when Square wasn’t making direct FF sequels. Hell, look at that Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children garbage. I never knew how much I would miss The Spirits Within until I saw what happened when SquareEnix decided to try making a movie that was directly tied to its franchise.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Annual Summary 2017

Well, my fine friends, it seems that we’ve arrived at the curtain call for yet 1 more year.

By all accounts, 2017 was a strong year for RPGs. Quite a few big titles of great substance came out this year, 1 after another, treating the gaming world with widely-acclaimed games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nier: Automata, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 5. I, of course, am not nearly on top of things to have played any of those, but I can at least verify that 2017 was also a strong year for the lesser-known side of RPGs, too, with the fun Cosmic Star Heroine, the powerful Children of Zodiarcs, and the excellent Torment: Tides of Numenera.

Of course, the year wasn’t a perfect win for the genre--Bioware was all too eager to proudly remind us of the existence of sloppy, below-average schlock can come at any time with their latest embarrassment to the Mass Effect series, and then equally eager to remind us of what undignified fools they and EA are as they blamed the poor quality of their creation upon anyone, everyone but themselves.* Still, anyone with a passing familiarity of Bioware’s exploits in the last decade can’t possibly be surprised by this turn of events.

Amused, yes. But not surprised.

So what games DID I play this year? Take a look!



Ambition of the Slimes
Betrayal in Antara
Children of Zodiarcs
Chronus Arc
Cosmic Star Heroine
Crystal Warriors
Driftmoon
Energy Breaker
Fairune 2
Freedom Force 1
Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole
Millennium 1
Millennium 2
Millennium 3
Millennium 4
Millennium 5
Neverwinter Nights 2
Omikron: The Nomad Soul
Pokemon Generation 7
Project X Zone 1
Project X Zone 2
Severed
Squids Odyssey
Sweet Lily Dreams
Tales of Zestiria
Torment: Tides of Numenera


Overall, a wide variety this year in terms of age, style, and quality. I played plenty of Indie RPGs, obviously, but kept a decent footing in both standard JRPGs and Western RPGs, as well, and I likewise went for a wide range of publication dates, stretching as far back as a couple of 16-bit RPGs that I’d missed the first time around, to no less than 3 titles released this very year, which must be some kind of record for me, I think. Some were great, some sucked, and most, I found, were just kind of okay.

Of course, I didn’t just play RPGs all year. I did some other stuff, too, which for some reason I’m going to tell you all about as if you could possibly be interested! I read a few books, notably War is a Racket, Buddhism for Beginners, House of Mirth, A Fine and Private Place, Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, The Pearl, and the Beyond Flesh collection of short stories. I watched My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’s seventh season (it’s starting to show its age, but it’s still a solid show), the New Game! Anime (surprisingly good!), the infamous dub of the Ghost Stories anime (hilarious stuff), the new American Vandal series on Netflix (funny as a parody, and somehow also really good in its own right), the second season of Sonic Boom (still the only decent Sonic the Hedgehog product ever created), the Amazon-exclusive show Gortimer Gibbons’ Life on Normal Street (lovely kids’ show), the few episodes of the new Tick series that Amazon has released (absolutely awesome; I have fallen in love with The Tick all over again), and I kept up with Steven Universe’s erratic and frustrating update schedule. It’s a good thing SU just continues to be the greatest piece of western animation ever created, or I dunno if I would care to keep up with it, the way Cartoon Network airs the thing. Oh, and I also started watching The Flash, and am somewhere in its second season now. I also played some non-RPG games, like Kirby: Planet Robobot (thanks for the suggestion, Queelez, it was quite fun!), both Space Channel 5 games (fully watching a Let’s Play counts, right? Look, as fun and good as the games are, rhythm games are NOT for me), the recent Metroid 2 remake (never played the original, but this remake was freakin’ awesome!), and the visual novels Strawberry Vinegar (cute and fun) and Once on a Windswept Night (highly recommended!). I rewatched several seasons of Scrubs with my sister, and I’ve been rewatching a bunch of Doctor Who and Steven Universe as I show them to my mother. And, of course, I maintained full time employment and wrote these rants. So I did have a pretty full year, I think.

But all that’s beside the point. What’d I think of the RPGs I played this year? Let’s find out!



RPG Moments of Interest in 2017:

1. Pokemon Generation 7 was good. Like, a solid RPG. A Pokemon game. Good plot, a strong cast, and genuinely skillful writing. In a Pokemon game.

What the hell.

2. After years of anticipation, Torment: Tides of Numenera was finally released this year! And...okay, well, let’s not beat around the bush: it’s no Planescape: Torment. But it’s still an amazingly thoughtful, well-constructed RPG, and if not equal to its legacy, then at least very worthy of it.

3. While we’re on the subject of TToN, it’s worth noting that it contains in its cast 1 of those incredible rarities of the genre: a child character who actually speaks and behaves like a child. Why are kids so damn hard to write in an authentic way for RPGs?

4. I spent some time this year going through the fan modules for Shadowrun Returns, Shadowrun Dragonfall, and Shadowrun Hong Kong this year. Most are what I expected from having played ‘campaign’ mods for the Fallout games, honestly--fine, I guess, but with some problems that kind of just weigh them down and inescapably separate them from the quality and feel of a real part of the game. There were, though, a few that were really awesome--like, so good that they not only rivaled Harebrained Schemes’s content, but arguably surpassed it! Gonna put out a rant sometime about them, for sure.

5. Why does everyone’s main character profile in Betrayal in Antara have the look of someone who just got told that they’re going to be on the receiving end of anal sex?

6. This was a year of very odd first moments for me. I had never, for example, come across an RPG bold enough to have a conversational interlude about cat farts, but thanks to Betrayal in Antara, I now have that experience under my belt. Nor had I ever participated in a story scenario in which a character has a fight to the death in the past with her future dad inside the womb in which she’s currently a zygote...thanks for filling that gap, Energy Breaker. And, most important of course, 2017 is the year in which I encountered the thirstiest chicken ever.

7. For God’s sake, Namco, you need to calm the fuck down with cramming gameplay features into your RPGs. Tales of Zestiria was so absurdly over-playable that I could barely play it.

8. I may not have a whole lot of positive things to say for either Project X Zone game, but I have to admit, I’m fairly impressed with just how many things Xiaomu references with her wise-cracks in the second title. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Chrono Trigger, Space Jam, Captain N...there’s even a moment in PXZ2 in which Xiaomu drops a Zoo Race reference. Fucking ZOO RACE.

9. So apparently David Bowie created several songs for the game Omikron: The Nomad Soul, and even played a couple of its minor characters. Weird but true, not to mention, pretty awesome.


Best Prequel/Sequel of 2017:
Winner: Pokemon Generation 7
It’s insane. Right? A Pokemon game with a compelling and thoughtful story? And characters with depth and soul? This actually happened?

What’s craziest, though, is not just that Pokemon’s seventh game set has added actual storytelling quality to a series that has made it a point to actively avoid just that for over a decade. What’s crazy is that it does this while tying itself, and doing so with pride, so strongly to its series. This game lives up to the occasion of release on the series’s twentieth anniversary, staying true to the series’s staples while introducing new methods and ideas, and incorporating many references and connections to the characters and events of previous games. Even while being the freshest, most outright different Pokemon in the series, Generation 7 also manages to somehow be the most classic. As sequels go, it’s quite impressive.

Runners-Up: Millennium 4; Millennium 5; Neverwinter Nights 2
The Millennium series is basically just a single continuing plot, so they all make decent sequels. I think the best of them is Millennium 4, for the fact that it has the most emotion and tension in the series, and in being the conclusion of Marine’s search for warriors, it’s basically as important as the actual conclusion to her overall quest. Millennium 5’s decent, too, and as the culmination of all that the series has led to, it’s natural for it to be good in terms of sequel-hood. Finally, Neverwinter Nights 2 isn’t a direct continuation of the first game, but it does take place in the same region of the D+D universe, and at least has some references to events and characters of NN1, so it works alright as a sequel.


Biggest Disappointment of 2017:
Loser: Squids Odyssey
By all rights, Project X Zone 1 should be here, but although you can say precious little else in its favor, at least it was actually a complete game. Had a beginning and an ending. Squids Odyssey? Not so much. Apparently not qualified enough to work in an Indian call center, the second-rate scam artists at The Game Bakers steal their living by selling a 'game' which, in the middle of its story, drops you out with no warning. No conclusion, not even the tiniest attempt at a concluding transition for a future game, just ends. Like someone up and dying in the middle of a sentence. Sometimes RPG stories are large enough that they have to be told in installments, like Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga, but when that happens, the writers are competent and responsible enough to ensure that the first installment in the story ends at a turning point, one that gives the audience a sense of closure with the part of the plot that they’ve witnessed. But that just isn’t the case here. This is just an abrupt halt that implies with no uncertainties that you’ve wasted your money paying for a game that was never finished. So as crappy and disappointing as Project X Zone 1 may be, Squids Odyssey was the biggest disappointment of my RPG year by default, because when I pay for a game, I expect a fucking game, not just a long demo.


Almost as Bad: Ambition of the Slimes; Freedom Force 1; Project X Zone 1
Freedom Force 1 just seems not to be sure whether it’s an homage or a mockery of golden age superhero comics, and ends up being neither--it’s too straightforward and earnest to appreciate its absurdity, too silly to appreciate it seriously, and frankly, not especially interesting either way. I was hoping for something silly and fun like The Tick, I would have accepted an outright old-school comic book story, but what I got wasn’t good enough to be either. Ambition of the Slimes ironically doesn’t pretend to be anything ambitious, so expecting anything notable from it is probably my fault, but damn it, a game where you play as a bunch of XP-fodder that’s had enough and rolls over human civilization should have been a lot more enjoyable! If you’re gonna flagrantly subvert the universal constants of the genre and use that as a selling point, then...well, not every game can be Undertale, but I at least expect a few cheap laughs as you poke fun, not just a flavorless slog through an uninteresting farce of a plot!

As for PXZ1...I’ll say it again: how the HELL do you compile a team of characters from Street Fighter, Megaman X, Devil May Cry, Space Channel 5, Valkyria Chronicles, Resident Evil, and like a dozen more franchises...and make it boring?! I mean, I wasn’t expecting a stirring drama of insight into the human spirit from a game that has Chun-Li kicking Ghosts'n'Goblins zombies, but I did think it would be, I dunno, entertaining! But PXZ1 is just incredibly boring, relentlessly boring, methodically boring!


Best Finale of 2017:
Winner: Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer DLC
It may not be a full game as such, but there’s no denying NN2’s Mask of the Betrayer its rightful place as king of the awesome finales this year. MotB comes together at its conclusion perfectly in accordance to everything it has built itself up to be as an epic undertaking and a personal story...a battle with allies both foul and divine in the streets of the city of the dead, against a death god’s adherents, to determine your fate and the fate of the curse of ultimate hubris, putting an end to an ancient story of love, justice, and betrayal that affects every corner of the multiverse...it’s a daunting labor, to create a finale powerful and rewarding enough to live up to the excellence that has led to that point, but the writers of Mask of the Betrayer are equal to the task. The finale to Mask of the Betrayer is, as with all other parts of its narrative, magnificent.

Runners-Up: Millennium 5; Pokemon Generation 7; Torment: Tides of Numenera
In another year, Pokemon Generation 7 and Torment: Tides of Numenera might each have easily taken top spot here. The final confrontation with Lusamine, the culmination of Lillie’s personal journey, is a truly powerful moment...and after the interim of mucking about with the Pokemon League, the actual ending is a heartfelt, bittersweet tearjerker. As for Torment: Tides of Numenera, similar to the finale to Mask of the Betrayer, it’s the thoughtful, epic culmination of the creative, insightful journey of grand thought and substance that has led to it. It’s of the same great matter and style as Mask of the Betrayer; MotB is simply a little better of a specimen, is all.

Oh, yeah, and Millennium 5’s finale was good. Does what it needs to do well, and there’s an unexpected level of emotion and tension to it, as well as a rather counterintuitive, yet nonetheless insightful, narrative approach to achieving the true ending. Maybe not up to the finales I’ve spoken of above, but it’s still solid stuff.


Worst RPG of 2017:
Loser: Project X Zone 1
I did a whole hate-dump rant on this crappy game, so just read that, if you’re interested. In summary, though? If RPGs were meals, then Project X Zone 1 would be a sagging, soggy heap of cornstarch bloated with rainwater.

Almost as Bad: Ambition of the Slimes; Chronus Arc; Squids Odyssey
Trying to find meaning or individuality in a Kemco RPG is akin to trying to find humanity in an airline corporate executive, so Chronus Arc’s place on this list isn’t exactly surprising. What is surprising is just how little personality Ambition of the Slimes has. You’d think a self-aware game based on an amusing turnabout of RPG conventions would be fun, but Ambition of the Slimes is just a soulless trek from 1 battle to the next with less personality and care to its below-minimal narrative than is given to your average software tutorial mascot. Seriously, there’s more heart and humanity in the suggestions of that stupid MS Word paperclip than in the dialogue for Ambition of the Slimes.

Squids Odyssey is, while it’s going on, okay. Not good, not even decent, but not outright bad. Under normal circumstances, I would have put Sweet Lily Dreams here instead of Squids Odyssey. But, as I mentioned before, this stupid game’s just not complete, and doesn’t even make the pretense of having so much of a transitioning conclusion to some prospective future title. Funny how they don’t mention this little fact on the store page, huh? So it gets a place of dishonor here this year, because Squids Odyssey is not a game, it’s a first draft.

And also because its developers, The Game Bakers, are a bunch of jerks that I hate. Seriously, fuck those guys.


Most Creative of 2017:
Winner: Torment: Tides of Numenera
The world of Numenera is 1 of nearly limitless possibilities to explore for a writer, and the team who created TToN took full advantage of that fact. If you thought Dungeons and Dragons allowed the writing team of Planescape: Torment to come up with some insanely interesting scenarios, people, and devices, then you haven’t spent 30 minutes exploring the Ninth World and talking to its residents. The main story of the game is interesting and fairly creative, but it’s the characters, settings, and lore of this game that are strikingly unique...the machines and cultures you encounter are fascinating and singular; many times, small sidequests you undertake will utilize bizarre and thoughtful ideas with such interesting potential that one could easily have derived an entire story from them alone. From the Sorrow to the Bloom, from the Tides to the Meres, from Aligern’s tattoos to Callistege’s multi-reality, Torment: Tides of Numenera is ferociously creative.

Runners-Up: Omikron: The Nomad Soul; Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer DLC; Severed
The story of the Betrayer, and how it unfolds, is innovative in that classic Chris Avellone way, and though it borrows much of its foundations from D+D lore, the thoughts and philosophies it builds upon those foundations are penetratingly inventive. Omikron: The Nomad Soul is very innovative and interesting several ways, from its core themes to its world and lore, to, most notably, its meta nature in which it includes the player him/herself in its story, a rare but interesting approach taken by only a few other RPGs (Baten Kaitos and, to a very small extent, Earthbound and Undertale). Is it just me, or do PC RPGs of OTNS’s era all seem to be very engrossing and unique? I mean, there’s this, there’s Deus Ex 1, there’s Anachronox...it seems like a real pioneer age of RPGs.

Finally, Severed is a very creative RPG, unique in its style, approach, story, and aesthetic...I daresay that Torment: Tides of Numenera stole the winning spot that Severed would have earned most other years. I’m really glad I can include it here in at least 1 section of this year’s summary rant, too, because even if it just doesn’t stand up to the big names of the year that show up over and over here, Severed is, in its quiet way, a really great game, and I’d hate for it to get completely lost in the shuffle here.


Best Romance of 2017:
Winner: Persi and Protagonist (Shadowrun: Hong Kong: The Caldecott Caper Mod)
Right, um, so...breaking protocol in a major way here. I said earlier that I played some fan-made campaigns for the PC Shadowrun games this year, yeah? Well...1 of them, The Caldecott Caper, is just absolutely great, a truer and higher quality Shadowrun adventure than the actual, official Shadowrun: Hong Kong campaign. And, like, it’s a fan-created, unofficial thing, so I’m not really considering it for placement in these categories, but...I just can’t help it on this matter. The romance between the main character of The Caldecott Caper and Persi? It is legit, guys. Like, this is a really, really nice love story. It’s poignant, it’s sweet...it really feels like a genuine portrayal of a fast-forming, but true bond between soulmates. It is seriously good. Way, way above like 80% of the romances you see in officially published RPGs. And damn it all, it’s just not honest to pretend that romancing Persi wasn’t the best story of romantic love that I’ve seen this year. So, yeah, I’m breaking the rules for this one. Sorry not sorry. If you’ve got Shadowrun: Hong Kong, you should definitely check out The Caldecott Caper, for this and many other reasons.

Runners-Up: Akachi and the Founder (Neverwinter Nights 2); Kalach-Cha and Safiya (Neverwinter Nights 2); Lillie and Moon (Pokemon Generation 7)

Okay look, I know that it’s not official that Lillie and Moon/Sun are in love, but come on. Just look at everything Moon/Sun is to Lillie, look at the way they interact late in the game. Watch the scenes on that Exeggutor island. You can’t tell me, you cannot seriously tell me, that Lillie doesn’t love Moon/Sun.

Aside from my squealy shipping needs, though, there are some romantic pairs this year that were quite good AND actually officially recognized, too. I find the romance between the protagonist of Neverwinter Nights 2 and Safiya to be very tender and natural, a compelling combination of the legacies they carry, and their own natural disposition and chemistry. The romance between Gann and the Kalach-Cha is really good, too, I should note--I just like the story and personal connection between the Kalach-Cha and Safiya a little more, and my Pokeshipping needs kinda just bumped poor Gann off the list. But it totally is really good, too. Lastly, although it’s primarily described and shown after the fact, the love story between Akachi and the Founder is a touching and truly epic tale of love, an example of that greatest human emotion that shakes the foundations of the universe itself. Powerful stuff, and a great foundation upon which to base the grand tale of insurrection against the very laws of reality.

...Man, it’s so nice to have a year where there’s a good handful of really good romances, enough that there’s actual competition for who gets on the list here. Doesn’t happen often enough.


Best Voice Acting of 2017:
Winner: Tales of Zestiria
ToZ’s just got solid vocals. I mean, not everything’s completely on point, but almost all the major performances are quite competent, and some of them, like the actresses for Rose and Edna, and the actor for Zaveed, really bring their characters to life with their talents. That’s all there is to it, really. There’s nothing amazing to be found in ToZ’s voice acting, but it does what it needs to, and it does it well.

Runners-Up: Betrayal in Antara; Neverwinter Nights 2; Torment: Tides of Numenera
As with the winner, there’s not much to say. Some performances in Betrayal in Antara are a bit questionable, but altogether, the voice actors turn in solid work that does a good job in compensating for still portraits to bring the story to life. Neverwinter Nights 2 as a whole does its work well; its main campaign’s voices, and those of its later DLCs, do their job adequately to give their casts personality, and the Mask of the Betrayer vocals adequately convey the gravity and depth of their characters and story, which is good. The same is largely true of Torment: Tides of Numenera...the characters do a good enough job to make the game’s cast and story work. You can’t say much better for them, but there’s sure as hell nothing wrong with simply being adequate enough to keep steady with your game’s high quality.


Funniest of 2017:
Winner: Cosmic Star Heroine
CSH isn’t an RPG devoted to humor, but it’s got a good dose of it, and it employs it at the right times. It also strikes a good balance between poking fun at the oddities of RPGs’ conventions, and having general in-universe jokes and comedy.

Runners-Up: Driftmoon; Project X Zone 2
Driftmoon is a pretty innocuous little romp as a whole, pleasant but never exceptional. It’s not trying to be funny, specifically, but it’s also got enough quirks and lighthearted tongue-in-cheek situations and dialogue that it’ll get a smile and perhaps even a chuckle from you fairly often. Project X Zone 2...well, it’s not a great, or good, or even okay RPG, honestly, but it’s still a huge step up from its predecessor, and a major part of that is the fact that many of the jokes it’s cracking, and some of the comical situations it creates, actually are funny, not solely tired gags repeated ad infinitum. There are repeated gags, too, and don’t get me wrong, they’re not all winners, but still, I actually did laugh here and there while playing it, so it’s alright for humor purposes. You can tell that someone on the writing team was actually putting some effort into it this time around.


Best Villain of 2017:
Winner: Lusamine (Pokemon Generation 7)
I’m really happy this year, because I got a damn fine assortment of villains from the games I played. I mean, there were plenty of boring and subpar ones, as always, but the cream of the crop was really awesome. And of them, I believe Lusamine is the greatest. She’s just got it all as a villain. She’s got a fascinating backstory (which is subtle, difficult to dig up, but rewarding to piece together) that explains how she became as she is, which is believable and seems very human. She’s got a villain angle that’s actually very refreshing and nearly unknown in RPGs, which is awesome--the schtick of a paranoid, mad need to control all that she wants love from is great and different for an RPG bad guy, and the fact that her evil acts are of a personal nature rather than some nefarious bid for global dominance or whatever make her a more relatable villain. She’s strongly connected to the heroine of the story (assuming you buy into the same view as I do regarding the protagonist of the game). And she has a presence. A good villain does all the stuff I just listed--a great villain adds to that an ability to dominate the atmosphere and the audience’s attention merely through the fact of being there. Fascinating, mad, dangerous, harmful, and overpowering, Lusamine is a terrific villain.

Runners-Up: The Changing God (Torment: Tides of Numenera); Myrkul (Neverwinter Nights 2); Zirchhoff (Children of Zodiarcs)
All excellent villains who were strong contenders against Lusamine. Myrkul is basically exactly the sort of commanding, behind-scenes presence, and the kind of icon of the sinful abuses and petty humanities of the gods, that the Mask of the Betrayer DLC needs to succeed in its ambitions and ideas. As with most significant characters in an Avellone-heavy game, you could go into Myrkul for quite a while in analysis, but in the interest of making this rant less than an all-day activity, I’ll save that for another time. Similarly, the Changing God is a powerful, overbearing presence throughout the game, and yet ultimately a frail and pitiful individual whose myriad evil acts have as much--more, even--to do with the weakness in his heart and soul as they do with good intentions gone wrong. He’s a truly remarkable villainous figure, somewhat like a combination of Myrkul and the worst parts of the Nameless One from Planescape: Torment, and I could understand anyone who would have placed the Changing God above Lusamine as best villain. Finally, Zirchhoff may not have quite the same profound power as the others this year, but he’s still a great villain, good for his complexity and purpose, and great for how perfectly he reflects the game’s protagonist, and embodies the theme and message of the game very well.


Best Character of 2017:
So, we’re gonna do things a little differently this year. See, as you may have noticed from the fact that they’re all over this rant, I played not just 1, but 2 games this year that had significant involvement with Chris Avellone. And, well...the fact is that this will make the Best Character section here a little skewed if we do things the normal way, as only a single character from any other game this year stands a chance against Torment and Betrayer’s cast. So, instead, we’re going to do this section twice: once for characters from Chris-Avellone-involved games, and then again for all the rest. Because there were quite a few really good characters this year beyond those 2 dominant games’ casts, and they ought to get some recognition, too.

Group 1 (Avellone Games) Winner: Kaelyn (Neverwinter Nights 2)
Kaelyn is just an absolutely fascinating character, with many different levels, and the concepts she represents of a justice that transcends divinity, of a nobility of spirit that is self-dooming, are great food for thought and truly impact themselves within the player’s consciousness. You can view her in so many ways, connect her to so many concepts and figures--I like to compare her to the scholar’s version of Lucifer presented by the Shin Megami Tensei series, for example--that she’s almost more a force of philosophy and human spirit than she is a fictional character. I haven’t played an actual Dungeons and Dragons session in many, many years, but if I ever decide to take it up again, I know that every character I create from this point forward will be one who follows Kaelyn in her crusade for the faithless.

Group 1 (Avellone Games) Runners-Up: Akachi (Neverwinter Nights 2); Matkina (Torment: Tides of Numenera); Rhin (Torment: Tides of Numenera)
It was hard to discount Okku, Erritis, One of Many, and Tybir, but these 3 have edged them out. Akachi is a fascinating figure in the mythological sense, his tale and legacy making him seem larger than life, and his crusade and its motives are likewise epic and compelling. Yet he’s also a well-crafted character in the smaller sense; what we see of the truth of his person is interesting, as well. Matkina is the party member that Torment: Tides of Numenera seems to spend the most time on and ties the most strongly to the plot, and it pays off with a solid character whose stake in the game’s events kept her in my party at all times. Lastly, Rhin is just a great child character, whose reliance upon the Last Castoff is genuine, touching, and dynamic. She’s got a compelling and singular personality, she develops as a person as the adventure goes on, and by the end of the game, she was by far the individual I was most attached to and emotionally invested in. Kudos to the TToN team for a really great job on not just making an authentic kid, but one that’s also a solid character in her own right.

Group 2 (Everyone Else) Winner: Lillie (Pokemon Generation 7)
This should come as little surprise to you, as I have extolled the virtues of Lillie more than once now. Lillie is a character with depth, symbolic of the greater ideas of the game’s story, highly dynamic, and, it must be said, astoundingly lovable. Even if I hadn’t split this year’s characters up into different groups, you can be Lillie would still make the list.

Group 2 (Everyone Else) Runners-Up: Edna (Tales of Zestiria); Nahmi (Children of Zodiarcs); Rose (Tales of Zestiria)
Rose is just a refreshingly unique and appealing person who manages to fill a lot of character roles at once, yet always seem very real as she does so--but then, maybe it’s because she has so many aspects of who and what she is in the game that she comes off as a genuine human being. Real humans tend to be so much more varied, with more diverse personality branches, than most fictional characters really capture, after all. Edna’s deadpan yet mischievous approach to the world is a lot of fun, and the situation with her brother, along with her more pessimistic views in general, give her some decent depth that performs well in the ToZ team’s dynamic. Finally, Nahmi’s a really well-written character, and, much like Zirchhoff, she is an excellent embodiment of the heavy theme of and messages on vengeance and suffering within Children of Zodiarcs. You can really understand who she is and how she got to be this way, commiserating with her even as you shake your head in sorrow at the terrible mistakes she makes, and watch as she grows and improves from the power of another’s kind innocence. Truly a well-written individual, Nahmi is.


Best Game of 2017:
Winner: Torment: Tides of Numenera
Being the spiritual sequel to Planescape: Torment is a heavy burden to bear...and Torment: Tides of Numenera doesn’t quite measure up to its predecessor’s genius. But even if it can’t quite fill the big shoes of its parent, TToN is still filling footwear sizable enough to give Tetsuya Nomura a tingly feeling in his pants. This is a thoughtful, intensely creative follow-up treatise on the concepts of suffering, legacies, mortality and immortality, and our actions as a people and as individuals, and 1 of the greatest RPGs I’ve had the privilege to play. Excellent from start to finish, Torment: Tides of Numenera was, to me, well worth the wait.

Runners-Up: Children of Zodiarcs; Neverwinter Nights 2; Pokemon Generation 7
I guess this isn’t much of a surprise on most counts by this point--these names just keep turning up. Well, the adulation is well-earned. For the first time, the RPG genre welcomes Pokemon as a legitimate member of its esteemed circles, as Generation 7 shows us that Game Freak actually CAN write a weighty, meaningful, and emotionally compelling story with several well-crafted characters that capture our hearts and make us think. Children of Zodiarcs is a really great RPG that explores the terrible nature of revenge, suffering, unjust society, and the ways that the pain we visit upon others continues on to harm still more people, until finally it returns to us, a grotesque spiritual cancer that has twisted all it has touched along its boomerang curve.

As for Neverwinter Nights 2...well, if we were to judge it solely on its Mask of the Betrayer DLC, it would win this year, trumping even Torment: Tides of Numenera in storytelling excellence. MotB is a truly epic, brilliant exploration into humanity and the divine, love and injustice, fealty and, of course, betrayal, and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed every moment of its narrative. Still, it’s but a part of Neverwinter Nights 2’s whole, and the rest of NN2, well...it’s not very impressive. There are some definite positives in the original campaign, enough that I would even rate it as decent overall, and the other 2 DLCs do have a few fine moments, but ultimately, Mask of the Betrayer is the only part of the game that’s in any particular way impressive. So I can’t really rate it as the best this year...but MotB is at least excellent enough that it elevates Neverwinter Nights 2 as a whole to be deserving of being a runner-up. Definitely recommended.


List Changes:
Greatest Deaths: After some thought about it, Padok Wiks has been added as Honorable Mention; Leader has been removed. Sorry, you tragic teacher-type of techy teens.
Greatest Villains: The Changing God and Lusamine have been added; The Master and Loghain have been removed. Sorry, you misguided mutant-making monstrosity and you paranoid puppeteer pretending to be protector of your people.
Pokemon: List expanded to 10 places. Mimikyu, Ninetales (Alola Form), and Primarina have been added; Barbaracle has been removed. Sorry, you bizarre bunch of bending barnacles.
Worst Endings: Neverwinter Nights 2 has been added; Final Fantasy 7 has been removed. Congrats, you inarguably ingenious and innovative icon of interactive entertainment.
Worst RPGs: Project X Zone 1 has been added; Lufia 1 has been removed. Congrats, you console classic that’s complete crap.



And that’s the end of the story for 2017. Had its ups and downs, but overall, I’m quite satisfied with it. Any year that adds a title to the greatest 25 RPGs I’ve ever played is a good year by my book. A huge thanks to my sister and Ecclesiastes for all the help they provide me in making these rants, and another huge thanks to my patrons, Humza and Nictusempra, whose great generosity this year has helped me feel a little less like my ranting hobby is a complete waste of time, heh. And, of course, a big ol’ thanks to all of you for reading. Happy holidays! We’ll meet again come the new year.










* Quite possibly the most entertaining thing about Bioware’s newest experimentation with yawn inducement isn’t the hilarity of their initial failure to even equal the same level of facial programming for characters that they had 10 years ago. No, it’s the advertising for Mass Effect Andromeda. Remember how after the shameful debacle of Mass Effect 3’s absolutely fucking awful ending, ads for the game started prominently displaying the phrase, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey”? Well, the main ad for Mass Effect Andromeda on television and for online videos was set to Rag’n’Bone Man’s song Human, the chorus of which insists, “don’t put your blame on me.” I almost want Bioware to take another crack at the franchise, just to see how their next pathetic attempt at denying their complete failure as writers and creators is expressed through their advertising. My guess is that the advertisement theme for Bioware’s next project is going to be based around pictures of Calvin’s Dad, with text underneath them reminding us that suffering is good because it builds character.

Friday, December 8, 2017

General RPGs' Unusual Good Luck with Sequels

You know something? The RPG genre has an unusual lucky streak when it comes to sequels, when you think about it. I mean, with most mediums of expression, the first sequel is a tricky business. Sure, sometimes you pull off a Catching Fire, and your second book’s just as good as your first. Sure, sometimes you pull off an Empire Strikes Back, and your second movie’s not only a perfect continuation of your first, but even, arguably, a little better. And sure, sometimes you even pull off a Terminator 2, and your second movie’s actually really fucking incredible even though its predecessor was only so-so.*

But for every Catching Fire, there’s a Purgatorio.** For every Empire Strikes Back, there’s 5 Pirates of the Caribbean 2s. And, sadly, for every Terminator 2, there’s like, I dunno, at least 20 The Rats of Nimh 2s.*** While some sequels can live up to expectations or even rise above, more of them end up being superfluous, or disappointing, or a truly horrible black stain on a once laudable and beloved name.

Except, it seems to me, in the world of RPGs. Oh, sure, there are plenty of cases with this genre in which the sequel was a bad idea (Valkyrie Profile 2), or a fine (perhaps even necessary) idea that’s just not handled well (Xenosaga 2), or a godawful abomination which proves that we went wrong somewhere as a species (Final Fantasy 10-2). By no means am I saying that bad RPG sequels don’t exist. Hell, I'm not sure you could even have SquareEnix if bad RPG sequels weren't a thing; they may just be the most signature trait of the company. But I am saying that there seems to be a much higher rate of success for direct sequels in the RPG world than in most other genres and art forms. More often, it seems, you get a game that fully lives up to its predecessor’s expectations (Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2), improves upon the source material (Arc the Lad 2), or even just wildly exceeds expectations (Grandia 2). Hell, even some of the disappointing sequels in RPG Land sort of don’t even qualify as bad sequels--I maintain that though Deus Ex 2 and Alundra 2 don’t compare to the originals, they’re nonetheless still decent RPGs when judged strictly by their own merits, for example.

And that’s just talking about direct sequels. When you look at franchises which last 3 installments or longer...well, sometimes you get lucky, and you get a Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, and all 3 (or more) movies are worth seeing. But most often, series can’t sustain themselves for long past the second installment (if they can even manage that), and the longer they go, the less chance that they’ll pull off something particularly good in a later title. Unless the madman at the helm finally sells his franchise that he’s completely sunk to someone who can actually manage to do something decent with it *PRETEND-COUGH-BECAUSE-IT- DOESN’T-ACTUALLY-WORK-IN-TEXT* George Lucas *COUGH*.

But with RPGs? You can have be like 15 installments into a franchise and still have a good chance of finding a gem like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Hell, the best games of the Legend of Zelda series are all later titles in its history! Yeah, sometimes the third game in an RPG series will crash and burn in a horrible spectacle, like Grandia 3 or Shadow Hearts 3...but then again, the third title in an RPG series has a pretty decent chance of being the best of the franchise yet, like Star Ocean 3 and Wild Arms 3. I mean, I want you to just think for a moment, think really hard, and answer me this: what other form of entertainment media can you think of in which it’s not unusual for the best installment in a series to be its seventh title, like with RPGs’ Pokemon Moon and Sun? Its eighth (Dragon Quest)? Its ninth (Final Fantasy)?

And for that matter, how many non-RPG series are there to be found in which the quality can stay pretty consistently high for so many titles? Fire Emblem’s had 14 numbered titles, and having played FE games from a spattering of places in its lifetime (1, 4, 7, 9, and 14, so far), I’m led to believe that it’s stayed pretty decent from start to current day. Fallout’s on its fifth main, canon title now, and each canon part of the series has been just plain excellent, and so consistently so that 3 of its titles occupy the same area of my Greatest RPG list, with the other 2 titles only barely having missed making the list as well. And hell, you want consistent quality over a ridiculous number of different titles, you need look no further than Shin Megami Tensei. It’s, what, the second biggest RPG series on the planet now? Well over 30 titles, still frequently churning them out, and Atlus is managing to nonetheless keep the quality high--SMT4-2 was a strong RPG, and I hear almost nothing but great things about this year’s SMT Persona 5. You let me know what other genre of entertainment can show an example that’s 30+ installments into its series and still manage to be intellectually gripping, philosophically significant, and emotionally compelling.

Lastly, I feel like RPGs also have an above-average tendency to have a shitty start to their series, which is then turned around by a great sequel. Sure, it happens outside of RPGs, too--I was very excited by the prospect of DC actually turning their shit-show around and building a proper cinematic universe after Wonder Woman proved that they can make a movie that isn’t the film equivalent of rectal cancer (too bad we instead got the Justice League movie that's currently violating theaters)--but again, I don’t think it happens nearly as often as it does with RPGs. Star Ocean 1 and 2 were crap, but Star Ocean 3 was actually pretty darned decent. Lufia 1 is excessively boring, while Lufia 2 is an absolute classic. Tales of Phantasia was pretty dull and generic in spite of having some promising plot foundations, but later installments like Tales of Legendia and Tales of the Abyss**** are terrific.

At any rate, I suppose I could be wrong, and my perspective is skewed on the matter. I do eat, breathe, and crap RPGs,***** after all. I may be a leeeeettle bit biased on this. Still, looking over all the RPG sequels and franchises I’ve played, I can’t help but feel that the whole sequel experience has been unusually positive for the genre.














* Come at me, fanboys.


** Come at me, lit professors.


*** Come at me, absolutely no one in the entire fucking world.


**** Come at me, Ecclesiastes. Er, again.


***** Hey, Kemco! I'm still waiting for the royalty check for all the times you fished something out of my toilet and published it, you know!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Fallout 4's Strengths and Weaknesses as a Fallout Game

Warning: This rant is long, and it is filled with Fallout fanaticism. Like, really long, really filled. If you don’t love this series passionately, then do not expect to care a lot.



The Fallout series is, overall, a highly loved and appreciated one by gamers far and wide. And for good reason! Every (canon) installment of the series to date has been fantastic, and 3 of its 5 installments are on my list of the Greatest RPGs, with the other 2 titles very close to making said list. Every time I update that rant, they very nearly make it on there; in fact, if I were to extend it even a single spot more than its current 25, Fallout 1 would be on it to join 3, 4, and New Vegas.

Funnily enough, though, as uniformly excellent as the series is, there are still a lot of hardcore fans who will insist that a certain installment isn’t up to code, and, in fact, sucks. Some of the oldest fans hate Fallout 3 and point to New Vegas as a ‘true’ successor to the legacy Fallout 1 and 2 created. Others eschew Fallout: New Vegas for similar reasons, insisting that its feel and aesthetic is overrated, inferior to the new vision that Bethesda had for the series with Fallout 3. Others insist that the games never should have lost the turn-based grid style of the first 2 installments. And so on and so forth.

Such hotly contested debates seem wholly ridiculous to me. I mean, honestly? The quality of the Fallout series is so consistent that the differences from 1 title to the next (with the exception of the transition from 2 to 3, I guess) in terms of aesthetic, characters, and storytelling style are so small that it seems like a bunch of people screaming at each other not about whether apples are better than oranges, but rather whether red delicious apples are better than honeycrisp apples. Fallout 3 has a more epic story with more moments of greater emotional weight, Fallout: New Vegas has better characters and more meaningful choices to be made, Fallout 3 has a wider and more significant view of humanity and American culture, Fallout: New Vegas has more thoughtful themes of culture and historical metaphors, both of them lack the lonely post-apocalyptic creativity of the first Fallout, yet the true aesthetic and soul of the setting is only achieved by the later games, Fallout 2 is the one that established some of the most fundamentally essential parts of the series’s historical lore...and on, and on. But while each installment has certain aspects that it does best, what’s really important, what really makes each Fallout title excellent, remains present and powerful: the setting’s hold over us, the engaging characters and situations, the creative plots and lore, the ambient storytelling, and most importantly, the examination of American culture, and humanity as a whole. Regardless of how crisp and sweet/sour you like your apple, they’re all tasty regardless, and they all make great desserts.

So, naturally, Fallout 4 has its set of fan detractors. I work with one, in fact. The guy has logged something like 500 hours on the game, and insists that it’s the weakest installment yet. His reasons for thinking this are valid, although I disagree with him that they’re enough to put it at the bottom of the list. But while I do see some folks who say that Fallout 4 is the worst of the series for such-and-such reason, as I see folks say about every Fallout offering, I don’t actually see many people who say the opposite. Usually there’s some balance--about as many people who say Fallout 3 is the best as there are who say Fallout: New Vegas is better and that 3 was trash, about as many people who insist that the original Fallouts were the only true ones as people who say they weren’t any good, etc. But while lots of people obviously loved Fallout 4, there don’t seem to be all that many staunchly defending it or noting what it does better than its peers. Well, maybe they have better things to do with their time.

I obviously don’t.

So, what I want to do today--yes, the real rant is only now starting, a full page after you started reading it, and yes, I am a bastard--is to speak on what I think Fallout 4 does really well, and where it’s weaker than its peers. It’s been done by many for the rest of the series, so why not put something out there to give it a similar treatment? But I do this with the understanding that Fallout, every (canon) Fallout, is excellent. Fallout 4 here is not the only excellent one just because it has certain traits below that it does better than the rest. And it is not the only bad one because it has certain characteristics below that the others do better. These, to me, are just its special qualities.

Alright, so, first of all, I think Fallout 4 really raised the bar in terms of ambient storytelling. Now, ambient storytelling--as in, letting the settings and supporting data and lore tell tales as you explore, creating a litany of stories of life against which the main plot is stitched onto--is a feature of the Fallout series already, and damn if Fallout 3 and New Vegas don’t do a great job with it. But Fallout 4’s ambient storytelling is...well, it’s just frankly amazing! So much careful thought and detail went into the Commonwealth and its history in this game that it’s staggering once you start piecing it all together. And I daresay most players won’t even realize half of it as they go along, simply because it’s so subtly in the background that it’s sort of like the details of life itself--like passing a person on the street and thinking nothing of the fact that they have an entire lifetime of history propelling them forward, intersecting with your own for just a single, thoughtless moment.

It’s like...you can gather stories of the people of the Commonwealth from the computer entries they’ve made, the vocal records they’ve left, even just their skeletal remains’ location and surroundings. That’s true of any Fallout. But this game ratchets up just how much of that occurs, and it begins to carefully interconnect the many, many tales of the Commonwealth together far more than the ambient storytelling of the Capital Wasteland or the New Vegas area did. For an example...Nick Valentine has a quest in which you track down Eddie Winters, an infamous prewar mob boss, right? And, understandably, traces of Eddie’s influence on the prewar Commonwealth can be found here and there through the game where appropriate; you don’t just encounter stuff about him for Nick’s quest and nothing else. Well, 1 of the connections Winters has to other parts of the Commonwealth is Wicked Shipping, a local shipping company whose warehouse HQ you can find as you roam around. Now, it was established (prewar, remember; this is all in the past) that Winters had an arrangement with Wicked Shipping in which they’d secretly deliver some of the radioactive waste that they were paid to transport to him, instead of where it was supposed to go. This is because, as discovered through Nick’s personal quest, Eddie figured out how to become a ghoul long before the nukes made the creatures common.

So here’s the thing: at the Wicked Shipping warehouse, you can find a manifest for the shipments they were making the morning that the bombs dropped, involving 4 trucks. And if you follow up on this manifest, you will find, indeed, that 3 of those trucks are near the areas of the Commonwealth that they were supposed to be making deliveries to, and you can loot them using the key you find in the warehouse. But, 1 of those trucks is not where it should be--it’s nowhere even near its manifest’s destination. Instead, you find this missing Wicked Shipping truck near a location in the Commonwealth that was a part of Eddie Winters’s operations! This, then, is the truck that secretly delivered the radioactive materials to him, instead of where they were supposed to go (as indicated by the manifest). No tape, document, or computer entry spells this out for you, and unless you’re familiar both with every tiny detail of Eddie Winters from Nick’s sidequest AND the details of Wicked Shipping’s manifests and history--which you have no game-given reason to be, as it’s not part of any quest--you’d never think twice about this truck’s location. And yet, here this tiny, background connection between a quest and a small part of prewar lore sits, its placement unassuming, unobtrusive, and yet carefully considered by the writers.

That’s the sort of thing I mean when I say that Fallout 4’s ambient storytelling is off-the-charts excellent. There is so much subtle detail and thought put into the stories of its locations and the way all their histories and events interconnect across this huge chunk of Massachusetts that you can explore. It’s humbling to know that the writers could keep track of themselves this thoughtfully. And the sad thing is that unless you’re looking for it--really, really looking for it--most of this care and attention to details will pass you by. Who would look upon that Wicked Shipping truck with anything more than a glance for loot upon finding it? Who would remember the missing truck on this manifest--if they bothered to search for the trucks it lists to begin with--strongly enough to realize, finding it perhaps dozens of hours later, that there is a purpose to its seeming misplacement?

And that’s just 1 connection made through Wicked Shipping! The fact that they’re transporting radioactive waste also connects to a whole branch of lore points regarding the companies that were polluting the Commonwealth before the bombs dropped. By no means is Eddie Winters the only substantial part of Fallout 4’s lore interconnected with this small company whose warehouse looks for all the world to be a one-and-done explorable location.

I’d also like to note that the thoughtful detail of the ambient storytelling of Fallout 4 isn’t just limited to side content and exploration--it does also affect and enhance the main story’s components, too, often so subtly that one might not realize it. Take, for example, the terminology of the Institute. It doesn’t take too sharp an eye and ear to realize, after listening around the Institute for a while, that these self-important dickwads use terminology as a weapon of oppression. By absolutely always insisting on referring to Synths as machines, by calling changes to their personality ‘debugging’ rather than ‘brainwashing’ and procedures to fix or better physical attributes of the Synths ‘upgrades’ rather than ‘surgeries,’ the Institute uses vocabulary to distance themselves from their creations in order to keep their members away from considering the ethical implications of their new slave race. After all, saying that a Synth’s growing wish for freedom is a bug in his code is much more palatable and less likely to raise moral red flags than expressing the exact same idea as a flaw in his personality.

Now, here’s the thing: this is an important characteristic of the Institute faction that you can easily glean from talks with Father and other Institute members, overheard conversations between Institute scientists, and journal entries you read. But there are actually a lot of small details nearby and around this specific subject that strengthen this point and support your suspicion that the Institute’s using the same trick as dirty politicians and totalitarian communities. One small, easily missed, but exceptionally significant detail relating to this idea, for example, is found in the recording of Kellogg’s operation to put the implant in his head. During the procedure, an Institute scientist mentions how pleased the group is with him for having brought them the ‘genetic material.’ Kellogg, either unsure of what they mean or, more likely, not impressed with their use of vocabulary to evade self-awareness, clarifies that what they mean is the child he kidnapped from the protagonist (Nora/Nate’s son, Shaun). The Institute scientist acknowledges that Kellogg is right, but still refers (now pointedly, I think) to Shaun only as the ‘DNA sample.’

Now, this part of the conversation accomplishes a direct purpose in giving you an idea of the time period in which the recording was made. But it also establishes very clearly that the Institute likes to morally distance itself from the things it does that are ethically questionable. Instead of admitting that they stole a child, the way Kellogg does (he, at least, is honest with himself about his monstrosity), they insist on only referring to Shaun at that time by his value, scientifically, to Kellogg. They distance themselves from the unethical actions they’ve taken, by using terms that lack humanity. It’s telling about their character overall, but it is also a very strong confirmation of any suspicion you might have that the way they refer to and regard Synths is more propaganda than it is fact. If they refused to acknowledge the humanity of the child they kidnapped in order to keep themselves from questioning their actions, they’d certainly do the same of the people they’d created to be slaves. A few little lines, contained within a different part of the lore of the Institute, provides a wealth of information and understanding to a major faction of the game, and puts the entirety of that faction’s dialogue into question, opening new avenues of understanding to us as the audience about the Synth question. Again, very skillful ambient storytelling, subtle but substantial, small enough that you might not notice it, large enough that it’s a damning piece of evidence against any theory for taking the Institute’s terminology as legitimate.

If you would like to get to know some more of Fallout 4’s unparalleled ambient storytelling excellence, I heartily recommend Oxhorn’s Youtube channel, particularly his playlist for Fallout 4 lore. The guy has put an amazing amount of time, observation, and thought into this game and series, and even though I pride myself on being meticulous in my explorations of these games, he makes me look like a bumbling doofus with his ability to suss out details and connections, extrapolate likely theories, and even explore the ethical ramifications of the game’s decisions and cast. I know his video lists look daunting, but if you love this series and want to truly know and appreciate the painstaking effort its creators put into crafting its every detail, you will want to check this guy’s channel out.

So, another thing I really appreciate about Fallout 4 is its cast. Now, I’ll definitely give Fallout: New Vegas full credit for having the best companions with the most depth and originality--almost no one in any other Fallout compares to Veronica, Boone, Raul, or the whole Dead Money bunch--but to be fair, party members are not the only part of the character equation. They’re the most important, yes, and in most games, they’re all that really matters with the cast...but in the case of Fallout, the size and importance of the Fallout world means that the NPCs who inhabit it are actually very important parts of its storytelling. And in that sense, I think that Fallout 4 is very on-point. The plot-relevant people of the Commonwealth stand out and have memorable and engaging personalities, to an extent more than any Fallout game before this. Every Fallout’s full of singular entities you meet along your travels, but it just feels like more of them are more personable and memorable in this game.

And hey, maybe Fallout: New Vegas has the best companions of the series, but Fallout 4 is actually pretty close behind. A good half of its party members are nuanced, interesting characters, and I have to say, as far as unique appeal, they’ve got all the other games put together beat. Piper, Codsworth, Hancock, and Curie are all terrifically likable individuals, and Deacon is (heresy incoming) even more appealing than Veronica was. And then there’s Nick Valentine, who is just the fucking best dude ever, and the 1 other Fallout companion who stands at the same level of quality as a character as the best that New Vegas can offer. And as far as villains...Fallout 4 has the best of the series. I’d weigh Elder Maxson against Presidents Eden and Richardson any day, Kellogg makes for a much more threatening and interesting personal antagonist than Autumn or Horrigan, and Father easily outperforms Caesar. Only The Master from the first game is as compelling as any of the Fallout 4 villains.

1 more quality to Fallout 4 that I think it stands out especially well on: the protagonist. Look, I know everyone’s got it in their heads that player choice is something inalienable and ultimately important, and everyone gets all in a tizzy the moment they don’t have a dozen different ways for their character to approach the problem of wiping his or her own ass, but...I’m sorry, it needs to be said: player choice isn’t that fucking important. In the grand scheme of things, it really isn’t! It’s great if you can have a lot of choice for who your character is and what they do, but if it gets in the way of a smooth, functional story and purpose, then it isn’t worth it!

There are plenty of RPGs which can pull off a lot of player choice without sacrificing the narrative too strongly (like Fallout: New Vegas, in fact), and that’s great. Some RPGs really bend over backward to make player choice a huge thing but still function as a coherent plot, like The Witcher 2, which is almost 2 games in 1 for allowing the plot to grow around how the player wants to play Geralt. And some RPGs actually manage to make complete player choice a core element of their story and themes, perfectly blending them together, like Undertale. Awesome. But in general, it’s easier to tell the story you want to tell when the protagonist isn’t a completely unknown element in it. That’s why even though we have some simply astonishingly excellent RPGs in the west, the lion’s share of quality RPGs are Japanese in origin (or, in recent years, indie RPGs following JRPG formulas)--because the Japanese aren’t fucking handicapping themselves to give the player the choice to play as serial killers, bigots, and tyrants in every damn title.

So yeah, in Fallout 4, you have considerably less control over what the protagonist says and does. Nowhere NEAR a lack of control, mind you; she/he can still have many different values and usually has at least 2 different ways to respond to stuff, but still, that’s a lot less than the many dialogue trees previous Fallout games have allowed for. Well, frankly...it’s an improvement. Because this more concrete protagonist of Fallout 4 has actual personality traits, regardless of whether she/he is a saint or a monster, and an overall character that comes through thanks to either a great performance by Brian Delaney, or an excellent performance by Courtenay Taylor. The story tailored around the protagonist is more personal and emotionally substantial than any Fallout before, and knowing the protagonist’s history and motivations means that as we explore with her/him through the post-apocalyptic Commonwealth, the events and places we encounter have greater meaning, for we see the tragedy and relief, the regret and the joy, that they cause the protagonist, and understand why they do so. A concrete protagonist also means more compelling friendships and romances with party members, and greater substance for important supporting characters in the story that connect to her/him (notably Kellogg and Father). Whatever personal enmity there was between the Chosen One and Frank Horrigan, or the Lone Wanderer and Colonel Autumn, it had to be largely imagined, for the games were unequipped to really create any sort of emotional relationship between hero and villain. Even the Lone Wanderer’s relationship with James, though present and significant, is largely one-sided, with Liam Neeson’s character doing all the heavy lifting for establishing and selling the father-child relationship. Not the case for the enmity between the Sole Survivor and Kellogg, or the bond between Nora/Nate and Shaun. They’re real and visible from both sides.

You’d never get the tension and anger of Nora/Nate’s confrontation with Kellogg from a variable hero like the Vault Dweller. You’d never get the sweet, warm fuzzies of Piper’s confession of love for Nora or Nate with a malleable main character like the Chosen One. You’d never get the anguish and sorrow of Nora/Nate telling Shaun how disappointed they are with him atop the Cambridge rooftop out of a pliable protagonist like the Lone Wanderer. You’d never get the wistful reminiscing of Nora and Nate about the world as it was from an unknown leading figure like the Courier. Nora and Nate being distinct characters creates atmosphere, injects feeling into the game and the characters that interact with them.*

And hey, maybe it does take away some amount of the player’s ability to choose everything about his/her main character...but even if you count that as a major, core part of Fallout, there’s still a positive to this tradeoff. By establishing Nora and Nate’s personalities and history as prewar citizens, another core aspect of Fallout is enhanced--the comparison it draws between prewar and post-apocalyptic humanity. The unchangeable evil and virtue of humanity is a major part of the Fallout series, particularly its later installments, as its ambient and direct storytelling strive to show us a mirror between prewar and post-apocalyptic--how the idealized, surface-level-perfect 1950s-style society before the war was only a varnish on the darkness in humanity, and how the brutal, violent, twisted world after the apocalypse nonetheless cannot stamp out humanity’s light. Nora/Nate, having come from one and now become instrumental in the other, provides an opportunity to sell this theme of “War (Humanity). War (Humanity) never changes” better than ever before, and the game capitalizes on this quite well, with Nora/Nate having many opportunities to note the similarities and contrasts between both the evils and the virtues of the current world and the one from before.

Now, those are some of Fallout 4’s most important virtues, the ones which make it shine compared to its other family members (not necessarily shine more or less, just differently). I’d also like to point out a couple of its weaknesses, ones which the others of the series don’t suffer from.

First of all, the Synth thing. The defining conflict of Fallout 4 revolves around Synths; you can’t get away from it. Synths are a monumentally important part of the main story, the side stories, and even the ambient storytelling of the game, the heart of its conflicts--the Institute wants to base itself around them, the Minutemen oppose the Institute because of what it does with Synths, the Railroad seeks to rescue Synths, and the Brotherhood’s presence is solely motivated by a desire to destroy the Synths. Even the excellent Far Harbor DLC involves Synths almost as heavily as the main story does (although to excellent ends, creating an engaging and ethically complex story that explores the concept of truth quite interestingly). And, well, don’t get me wrong, this works just fine, but...Synths just don’t feel quite right as a part of the Fallout universe, or at least, as such a big part. It’s just a tiny bit too much of a dose of science fiction, to me, perhaps simply because the plot point of Synths so thoroughly saturates the game. I mean, obviously Super Mutants are a strong sci-fi element, and they’re essential parts of Fallout 1 and 3’s plots, but they’re not absolutely everywhere you look in terms of Fallout 1 and 3’s stories. They were something of a shocking reveal in Fallout 1, and while the main story revolved around them, the majority of the rest of the game’s storytelling did not. In Fallout 3, they’re an important part of the lore of the Capital Wasteland, but important though they are, the game eventually becomes more focused on the Enclave as an enemy. The Super Mutants don’t just inundate every storytelling angle those games had, the way Synths do in Fallout 4.

And don’t get me wrong, I understand that the Synths are useful metaphors for various aspects and themes of American culture that the game explores.** And the game does very well with them in this sense. They just feel a step removed from what’s appropriate for the series’s lore, to me. I suppose that’s subjective, though.

The other thing I think is a weakness for Fallout 4, as a part of its series, is its ties to its setting. Look, Fallout 4 does a great job with portraying and exploring Massachusetts and its people. It does. And I say that as a guy who lives in, and has always lived in, MA. They reference and use a lot of our state’s history and culture--there’s a whole faction called the Minutemen, there’s a sidequest named The Big Dig, Eddie Winters is almost surely based off of Whitey Bulger, plenty of Boston landmarks like Fenway and the Freedom Trail are prominent parts of the story, they've got location references to stuff like Filene's and Cheers, 1 of the most important characters in the game is named Shaun (although if they were really going for authenticity, it’d be more like 15% of all the game’s characters would share the name across at least 3 different spellings), and guards armor themselves in protective baseball gear and grouse about people asking them to park the car in Harvard Yard. The game does an awesome job with the Massachusetts setting.

Just...I dunno, not as awesome as it could be.

Look, this might just be home court bias here, but as great as Fallout 4 does, I still feel like some of its predecessors better capitalized on their settings. Part of Fallout 3’s great, epic feeling as a whole came from how well it utilized our nation’s capital to tell its tale. The culture and soul of Las Vegas was a present force throughout Fallout: New Vegas, and even was incorporated into much of its story’s aesthetics and themes...even the game’s plot eventually becomes an all-or-nothing gambit reminiscent of a tense card game! Fallout 4...it does so much, but there’s so much that feels like it’s missing. How can you have Salem in the game, without having anything of significance present there? College-intensive state that it is, how can MIT be the only university of importance in the game? Shouldn’t the world-famous Mass General Hospital be more than just a potential site for radiant quests and a few fetch missions?

And how in the WORLD do you make a Fallout game set in Massachusetts, and not include Plymouth?! First site and community of the pilgrims, Bethesda? You didn’t think that should be somewhere in the Massachusetts Fallout? Believe me, I appreciate that 1 of the 2 major DLCs for this game is set in Maine, since that was originally just part of Massachusetts, so it’s totally appropriate, but there really should have been a DLC that takes place in Plymouth. The thought of a theme park DLC was a great idea (even if it was executed terribly), but Plymouth really should have had precedence over a DLC concept that could have been added to any installment in the series.

Then again, I am, as I mentioned, probably biased. Anyway, that’s about it. Fallout 4 has its strengths and weaknesses as an RPG, but I thought it might be fun to recognize it for its strengths and weaknesses as a Fallout, too. And fun it was! For me, at least. You’re probably bored out of your mind. Well, sometimes a rant’s gotta be just that--a directionless collection of what’s on my mind. Thanks for bearing with me, at least, and maybe next time I’ll have something a little more solid and purposeful for you.












* This doesn’t really fit into the rant proper, but I’d like to note that the few times the Fallout series has dabbled into solidifying their protagonists at all, it’s always been a positive thing. My favorite part of Point Lookout in Fallout 3 was the fact that it actually allowed us to delve a little into the Lone Wanderer’s head, 1 of the many excellent qualities of Lonesome Road in Fallout: New Vegas was the fact that it actually gave some history to the Courier, and even just the moment in Fallout 2 where you read a plaque about the Vault Dweller on his statue is quite gratifying.


** Off the top of my head, prejudice towards and enslavement of others who are functionally and spiritually no different from you, nationalistic paranoia trends like the Red Scare, and the capacity to question our own existence, purpose, and physical identity.