Monday, February 26, 2007

Star Ocean 3's Plot's Worth

As I have mentioned before, Star Ocean 3 is pretty much the first in its series to be blessed with a plot and cast that are not obscenely boring and generally unoriginal. It's not what I'd call a fantastic RPG, but it's solidly good.

A lot of people, however, dislike this game because of the plot's big twist. For those of you unaware of Star Ocean 3's plot and still reading this (shame on you, spoiling yourselves), basically, Fayt (protagonist) and his merry band of heroes must at one point go to the 4th Dimension, where the beings who created their universe (which is ours, just very far in the future--the first in the series was pretty much the boring, badly-done Japanese equivalent to a very long Star Trek Away Mission) reside and threaten their creations in booming voices with all manners of destruction, apocalypse, and so on. When Fayt and company get there, they find a world that is strange, high-tech, but ultimately very similar to their own. They then learn from a passing 4D geek that their entire universe is nothing but a computer program, a game that people here in 4D land play and/or watch when they're bored (which seems to be more often than not).

So there it is. The big plot twist is that our existence is nothing but a higher dimension's MMORPG. Overall, the game could have done a LOT more with exploring the characters' reactions and feelings on this knowledge--you only really get Fayt's perspective on it in any depth, that being "Whatever, we all count and are important anyway! Now let's go save things like a proper bunch of RPG kids, gang! Scooby-dooby-doo!" And the others just sort of follow his lead. But, besides my annoyance that they didn't develop the potential of this idea with their cast, I say kudos to SquareEnix for a pretty interesting idea. I mean, yeah, it's been done before a few times (most notably in The Matrix), but it's still quite innovative.

Generally, though, people really, really dislike it. It seems that the only thing anyone hates about the game is this single aspect of its plot. The complaints I see about it come in 2 varieties.

First off, people don't like this because they think that, were it true, it makes their lives meaningless. Now, I don't know exactly how they reached this conclusion if they actually have played the game. Maybe they just stopped playing once they reached 4D Space, and never picked the controller up again. Because, see, the game goes to great lengths to point out that, yes, everything DOES matter, whether or not it is "real." What's important isn't which universe is real and which isn't, or whether we're all play-things of gods or not. What's important is knowing and protecting what you care about, having faith in your ideals and yourself. If you can think and trust and defend your existence, then it's as genuine as any other's. And the game goes to great lengths to emphasize this--the entire happy ending of the game hinges on the idea that, regardless of its origin or intended purpose, our existence is self-justified and significant. It can't simply be erased by the higher being that created it; in fact, the will and belief of just one young man that his life and the universe in which it exists is true is enough to prove it so. Ultimately, it's a variation of the common Creation Vs. Creator/Man Vs. God/Child Vs. Parent idea that you see in a lot of RPGs (Examples: Okage: Shadow King, Breath of Fire 3, Treasure of the Rudra, Xenogears, and Final Fantasy 12, to a lesser extent). It just has a pretty innovative way of communicating this theme in its Reality = Video Game idea. But make no mistake: that is still just a vehicle for the main theme of promoting human worth. So I really don't understand how people can be complaining about the game telling them that their supposedly artificial lives are worthless, when it goes to great lengths to say just the opposite. Maybe they played the last third of the game with their eyes closed, or something.

Secondly, there are some people who just say it's a dumb idea. The whole universe, just a program? Dumb! Yes, dumb, most certainly. Because a universe which follows concrete laws governing just about all forces, interactions, and reactions of the things within it does not in any way resemble an extremely high-level computer program.

You know what makes a LOT more sense? Believing that one big, all-powerful dude you've never seen and never will made absolutely everything for reasons that are either unknown or which boil down to Him being bored and wanting entertainment. Or heck, why just one deity? You could believe that lots of deities got together and made all creation! They were having a big old creation contest that night on who could construct the best stuff, and they got carried away and ended up creating a whole darned universe in the process. There was probably some booze involved somewhere in the process, too; how else would you account for the duck-billed platypus, or the way camels look? Or hey, here's another one that makes a ton of sense: nothing created the universe! It's just THERE. No real reason for an impossibly huge expanse of great and wonderful things and infinite possibilities. It's just the result of a big explosion--one minute stuff didn't exist, and the next minute it did, and there's no way that it could have been deliberately set up by a higher being because clearly things just randomly explode when they don't exist yet.

My point here is not to perhaps illustrate that I don't know anything beyond the basics of the Big Bang Theory (for all I know, scientists DO have a scientifically-feasible explanation for what exactly was around before the Big Bang happened that would make it possible). It's just to point out that, in the long list of proposed explanations for how everything came to exist, "It's a huge, fantastically complex computer program" is really not nearly as ludicrous or incomplete in terms of pure logic as a lot of the ones the majority of the world accept.

So yeah. I, personally, think that SO3's plot and its clever way of putting a new spin on an old theme is pretty darned neat, and I really don't see what other people's problem with it is. You didn't see geeks getting huffy over The Matrix's similar spin, and that one was a much more depressing possibility.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Wild Arms 4

Today I finished Wild Arms 4, made by Media Vision. Sweet Jesus, do I hate this game. I mean, I HATE this game. This isn't a case of thinking this game is a pile of shit like, say, Phantasy Star 3 or Quest 64. I mean, it IS, to be sure. But this is a case like Grandia 3, where I actively, wholly LOATHE it. So I'm gonna give it the special treatment I gave Grandia 3. Let's go over it, step by step. Spoilers, naturally. But you don't want to play this game anyway, trust me, so go ahead and read.

Plot: Alright, first of all, the general feeling and flow of the game reminds me of Grandia 3 a lot, because 80% of the time as I ran around in dungeons doing puzzles and killing monsters, I felt totally disconnected. I just didn't CARE; it all felt like aimless wandering. Typically, even in a bad game, I get involved in what the characters are doing and follow the plot. Here, though, I dunno, I just had no connection at all to it. I couldn't really guess why that was, though it might have something to do with how the game's length is set up--about a fourth of it is just trying to get to one single town that has trains in it. When you play a game whose plot purpose for that long is "Let's go take a train and run somewhere no one else will ever reach! Unless, of course, they also board a train and follow the same route...but that'll NEVER happen!", feeling a little disconnected from the plot is probably a natural occurence.

On the occasions where I DID care, though...good God, people, this story STINKS. Imagine if you got a whiny, rebellious 14-year-old whose parents just told to take out the trash, gave him a blank sheet of paper, and told him to write a game plot about how evil adults are. Three boxes of dialogue can't go by in this game without one of the characters talking about adults as though they were some strange alien species completely unrelated to them, not really seeming to realize that 5 years from now, THEY will be adults. I mean, maybe the game's trying to make some statement about growing up, like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance did, but I don't see how when every single person over 20 that you run into is carefully tailored to be evil. And it's not just the stupid kids, either--the theme that adults and children are entirely different races that have nothing to do with each other is driven home by all the adults in the game, too. I'm not sure I saw a whole three people who didn't make it a point to mention that they are ADULTS while your characters are CHILDREN. Wakka didn't say "Yah" as many times in all of FF10 as you see this kid-adult idea beaten to death inside 10 hours of WA4.

This is much of why I hate the game, incidentally. I hate it because I keep getting the feeling that it hates me. For my intolerable crime of having lived past 21 years of age.

Graphics: Graphics are nice enough.

Music/Sound/Voice Acting: Voice Acting's okay, though little of it is particularly interesting. I was looking forward to hearing Cam Clark's extremely awesome voice acting, but he did his characters so differently than usual that it didn't sound enough like him to give me that Robotech buzz, so that was disappointing. Music's okay, I guess. I think it tried a little too hard sometimes to get me excited, but in the end, not much was very bad or very good.

Gameplay: Not as many complaints here as a lot of people have about all the platform game elements here. Control could've been a little better with the jumping, but it wasn't as terrible as I'd been led to believe by others. It's still a little out of place in an RPG, though. The battle system is simple enough, but it really doesn't make sense. There are limitations to where you can attack that are silly--why is it that Jude, who uses a gun, can only attack people in places right next to him, but he can't hit someone just a little distance away at an angle? He's got a GUN. All he has to do is point and pull the trigger. Unless the gun only fires bullets for a distance of 4 feet, it SHOULD work.

Wild Arms Series Annoyance: As with the first two Wild Arms games, this one has just about nothing to do with the Wild West premise that the series continues to falsely claim to have. In fact, this one, with its silly anime-meets-Peter-Pan characters and themes, is probably the biggest failure to deliver the promised setting so far.

Also: Seriously, why have a plane where the pilot is in the back seat, behind a passenger? How does having the pilot unable to see the sky ahead make sense? Someone explain it to me.

Cheap Scams: You can load your data from Wild Arms: Altercode F to get bonuses in WA4. For those of you who don't know, WAAF is a recent remake of the original Wild Arms 1. Now, I have WA1. I played it back when it was new. I've been with the series since before it was popular (not that it really is right now, either), and I've been trucking along with it since. So I didn't get WAAF. Since I'd already played the game, I didn't see the need. Do I get a reward for my WA1 saved data, a symbol that I'm one of the dumb saps who've been paying for this stuff since the beginning? No. Of course not. It's only people who go out and buy a cheap, pretty remake that get extra goodies. Because, ladies and gentlemen, Media Vision is now doing business the SquareEnix way--giving you things you already have, taking as much money as they would as though they had given you something new, and, more than likely, laughing as they do.

Stupid Idea: Having a secret shop in a game which you can get the ingredients for the best equipment from...and having that shop take LEVELS from you instead of money. Yes, GREAT idea. It's not like it took me 40 hours of gameplay to get the experience for these levels or anything. Just go ahead and take'em!


Jude: Main character. Now, I've mentioned that male protagonists often seem kinda dumb and boring, right? They just meander along doing heroic things for no real reason other than that they're supposed to. Well, Jude is not like that. Oh, Jude IS very stupid, yes. Very, very stupid. 15-year-old with a mind that's about 7 years behind. But he's not BORING and stupid, he's ANNOYING and stupid. Playing the game seems almost like you're babysitting some idiot preteen who, no matter how many times you explain something to him, will never, ever understand it. You TRY to tell him that 2 + 2 = 4. You show him diagrams. You use groups of fruit to simulate the process. But no matter what you do, 2 + 2 will never be 4 for him. For him, 2 + 2 = Grown-Ups Are Evil Hellspawn.

Memorable Jude Moment: Final battle. He gives the last boss a quick lecture on why you can't stop violence by using violence. And I just think...Hello? What the hell are you doing NOW, then? You're telling this guy that you can't use violence to end violence, and to demonstrate how right you are, you and your little pack of hoodlums are going to shoot, scorch, freeze, crush, and slice the living shit out him? How does this make sense? HOW?

Arnaud: I like to affectionately call Arnaud "Captain Moron." Captain Moron's purpose in the group is to be the one with the "razor-sharp wit." This allows him to come up with exceptionally brilliant plans like, "Now that we have what we came for, we should leave, because being in an enemy base is dangerous!" and "Okay, I'm going to do something, and Jude, you come save me when it goes wrong." Through the whole game, Arnaud will not come up with any plan that you couldn't either come up with yourself because it's obvious, or that you couldn't think of something better because it's stupid.

Kresnik: Kresnik is a strong competitor for the "Most Boring Anime Cliched Character Of All Time" award. He's all emo-angsty about convictions and protecting his sister by kidnapping her and all that crap, he uses a silly and impractical weapon, and he rides on a motorcyle. If the Wild Arms series were more popular, you can bet your life that there'd be hordes of idiot fangirls for him, just like there are for all his other clones in various animes and games.

Gung-Ho Guns...I mean, Anten Seven...I mean, Juppongatana...I mean, Brionac! Brionac is what I meant: Brionac is a group of elite fighters who use gimmicks when fighting to become really tough and dangerous opponents. Naturally this is like nothing you've ever seen before, especially not animes like Trigun or Outlaw Star or Rurouni Kenshin or like a billion others. As is typical for such groups, the members are kinda all over the place in terms of power--one dude can actually stop time for a few moments, making him nearly impossible to hit or evade, which is a pretty hugely powerful and dangerous ability, while another guy's special power is...having a gatling gun. One lady can block any attack completely, while on the other hand you have...a couple living dolls who can self-destruct. It's like these groups have some quota of memberships to hand out, and when they stop finding people with genuinely useful abilities, they just recruit any weirdo they happen across on the street.

Hauser: Hauser is the final boss of the game, which is why I'm including him here. That's the only reason, though, because his contribution to the plot otherwise is just about nothing. He has about 4 minutes of screen time altogether, and each of those 4 minutes is stupid--he's basically this super-powerful jackass who wants peace among people, and to achieve that he utterly destroys entire cities and armies that apparently looked at each other the wrong way. Oh yeah, he's also Jude's father (naturally). The game wants to make this very clear, and make you think that it is somehow significant, but in the end, it...really isn't, at all. I don't think Jude even ever figures it out. Unsurprising, of course, given how incredibly stupid the kid is.

Yulie: After the plot making it clear to me that it hates my guts, Yulie is the second reason that I really, really despise this game. She's...ah, fuck it. You know what? I'm not gonna even bother. Go back, find my rant on Grandia 3, and read up on Alfina. Yulie's basically a watered-down version of her, with the tired She's A Bad Cook joke replaced by the equally tired She's A Good Cook Because That's What It Is To Be Female idea.

Okay, and now, the two characters I LIKED. You see, although I liked them, they have the most important part of this rant, because they are the biggest reasons I hate this game. Don't get it? Read on.

Gawn: Gawn is a likeable kind of bachelor-bum dude who freeloads with you for a while, before turning out to be the best warrior on the planet. He's good-natured, he seems to escape the ADULTS WILL BURN IN HELL theme that the other game's characters seem to be stuck with, and he even makes fun of RPG Switch-Pushing Puzzles. He also has some serious and deep stuff to say, too, which is refreshingly insightful.

So what happens? They kill him off. See, it's like this. All through the game, you hear people talking about how Illsveil Prison has a defense system that shoots 10 homing missiles at you if you try to go there. Your characters, whose brains have more holes in them than Chrono Cross's plot, apparently forget this and take a plane trip up there, and are shocked to see a bunch of missiles coming at them. Gawn flies up in a fighter, shoots one down, a second destroys his craft, but he leaps out and starts shooting the incoming missiles with his revolvers, using their force to keep him up in the air. Yes, perhaps a little silly, but it's forgiven because he is pretty cool. So he gets all 10. He shoots them ALL. BUT WAIT--THERE'S SECRETLY AN 11TH MISSILE! And it crashes into him and he dies. Yes, the game hates me so much that it had to kill one of the only two characters I liked by shooting him with a missile that SHOULDN'T EXIST. Fuck you, too, WA4.

Raquel: Raquel is the last member of your party. And she is, strangely enough, AWESOME. I hate to have to sum her up because I can't do her justice, but I'm hoping for your sakes that you never play the game, so this might be your only chance to know anything about her. Raquel is a swordplay genius. A real prodigy. She was forced to train at sword fighting at an early age because of her immense potential, but in general, most of her technique is self-taught. Be that as it may, though, she doesn't really care about sword fighting. Her real interest is in painting, not battle. When Jude and company meet her, she's on a journey to find true beauty in her world, and paint it.

This by itself is a pretty damn nifty and original character idea--you don't often get the Master Swordsman/woman character who doesn't actually care for her skills, and the whole idea of the journey to find beauty has a sort of peacefully epic quality about it. But on top of that, you find out that she's on this journey because she doesn't have much time left in her life to see beauty in a world where she's only experienced ugly conflict and suffering. She's dying of an incurable condition, and at the time that the game takes place in, it seems she's getting pretty close to the end of her time--her body's cold, and her lungs are failing. Yet somehow she still manages to be your main powerhouse attacker, pulling off awesome sword fights even with an unresponsive, dying body.

So, at one point in the game, Captain Moron, who's sweet on Raquel (sadly enough, he's actually one of the BEST options she has to choose from for romantic interests in this game), promises her that once they're done with this hokey saving the world BS, he's going to find a cure for her and let her live. Even if it's Captain Moron giving the speech, it's sweet, and it makes me happy, because, hey, Raquel, who's the only thing keeping me going with this game beyond sheer stubbornness, will live on! Awesome!

Yeah, so, I watch the ending, it says what happens to everyone 10 years in the future, and hey, look at that, Raquel got married to Arnaud, had a kid, found true beauty in the form of her child...oh, yeah, and Arnaud never did find a cure for her and she died. The End!

Media Vision was looking for the perfect way to give the player a final, send-off Fuck You, and they sure as hell found it.

So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. My 99th RPG made me want to shove its makers' faces into a toilet. A toilet that's been used lately. A toilet that's been used lately that wasn't flushed. A toilet that's been used lately and wasn't flushed, and the recent user was some kind of monster that poops out razor blades. I would hold their faces down, press the handle, and my heart would be soothed. I sure as hell hope the 100th, Final Fantasy 12, is good, but really, even if it was pretty awful it'd still be enjoyable just in comparison to what I've just played.