Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Shadow Hearts 3's Characters

Once again, my personal RPG theory (that there is no such thing as an RPG series that will not, sooner or later, terribly disappoint you) has been vindicated with the third and most recent installment of the Shadow Hearts franchise. Set in a very close alternate reality of our world's past, the first two Shadow Hearts games spanned Europe and Asia and brought two great casts through innovative plots which tied in with real world events while maintaining a very healthy amount of creativity in their general direction. You got to fight restless spirits in the Vatican, hand Rasputin his creepy evil ass, visit important locations from Hong Kong to London, and fight alongside people like Princess Anastasia Romanov and Mata Hari. They were fun, funny, and full of deep and touching ideas, moments, and characters. So, when I found out that the third installment would be set in North and South America, feature Native American characters, and at some point involve the legendary vicious gangster Al Capone, I was pretty damn psyched for the best installment yet.

One of these days I'm going to stamp out that vicious, sadistic little spark of hope in me, that without fail only shows up when the worst of disappointments is forthcoming, just to make it all the much worse. Shadow Hearts 3 is a tedious time-waster, a long-winded telling of a story which only has any real significance right near the very end, and even that being somewhat dull and anime-cliche. I mean, hell, I've played RPGs which have been uninspired and boring enough that I find myself just not caring that some mystical fantasy world is doomed to oblivion, but Shadow Hearts 3 is the first time I've ever felt total apathy toward the imminent destruction of my own world.

Nautilus, the company which created the game, seemed to have the good sense not to unleash this mediocrity on us, but XSeed decided to translate it and release it here anyways. This and Wild Arms 4 make up XSeed's record of RPGs translated and published for companies which wouldn't port them overseas themselves. Jeez. To XSeed: come on, there must be some GOOD RPG over in Japan that you could bring us instead. At this rate, I'd have to say you're a strong argument for the idea that ignorance is bliss.

But I digress. It's not outright offensively awful like Grandia 3 or Wild Arms 4 were, so I'm not going to pick apart the whole game like I did with them. I'll stick to just the usual cast ridicule method today.

Johnny: Johnny, our "hero" (I use the term loosely), is a licensed detective, who consistently needs his companions, who are not themselves terribly bright, to explain each and every extremely obvious switch and lever for each and every extremely simple, usually color-coded dungeon puzzle.

Shania: Nautilus was too busy inventing ways for her to be more naked to actually give her a character.

Natan: Also known as Chief Running Stereotype.

Lady: Lady is the main villain in the game. In a startling display of honesty, Nautilus gives her essentially no lines of dialogue, no personality, and no conscious reason to be trying to doom the world. While this makes her a boring, lackluster antagonist about as memorable as a street sign and only half as noticeable, at least they're not trying to cover up their inability to invent a decent villain with dumb motives ("HUR HUR I'LL SAVE EVERYONE FROM BEING UNHAPPY BY KILLING THEM") or something.

Frank: A middle-aged ninja from Brazil who uses cactuses, bus stop signs, and dead fish as swords. The novelty wears off pretty quickly, leaving you with a gag character who's mildly amusing at best.

Hilda: Hilda is a girl who gains weight when she eats too much and gets fat, but loses weight when she eats healthily and stays thin.


If you're waiting for a punchline, you just got it. I really, truly cannot think of a better way to ridicule Hilda's gimmick than to just tell you about it.

Ricardo: In most other RPGs, Ricardo might be the low point of the cast. In this one, the fact that he has any history and motivation at all, and that it's not completely half-assed, makes him easily the best character in the mix.

His guitar being a shotgun, flamethrower, and missile launcher kinda balance out whatever seriously redeeming qualities he had, though.

Al Capone: Al Capone is not actually a playable character, nor is he a villain, so including him is kinda a breach in protocol here, but he embodies one of the most annoying aspects of the game so perfectly that I really just had to put him in. I have exhaustively compiled a list of all the things that Nautilus got right in their representation of the infamous 1920s American gangster:

He has an accent.


Yeah. As the list above suggests, there's not a whole lot of resemblance (Hell, I can't even say for sure that the accent is right). Rather than take the ruthless, relentless, scarred pioneer of organized crime that the real Al Capone was and go somewhere with him from there, Nautilus takes the name and just does whatever the hell they want, making him into a good-hearted pretty-boy concerned for the well-being and safety of the public. They take a concept with all kinds of potential, and twist it into anime crud. This blatant disregard for accuracy is all OVER the game. Exploring the Grand Canyon? Expect no more than a short walk. Cell phones, television, security metal detectors, and robot guards in 1929? No problem! And for God's sake, I've had more trouble navigating McDonald's Playplaces than I had escaping Alcatrez.

I was expecting--hell, eagerly anticipating--a game that would make interesting, innovative, and (reasonably) accurate use of its cultural backdrop, the way the first two games did. But Nautilus just decided to take their best setting yet and whiz it down their legs here. The disclaimer at the beginning of the game isn't even needed; there's no way anyone could seriously mistake this for a portrayal of anything real.

Mao: There are two kinds of people in this world. People who think that a 6 foot, talking alcoholic cat who uses drunken martial arts and wants to be a movie star is a stupid idea, and people who work at Nautilus.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Final Fantasy 12's Characters

I have yet to figure out why, exactly, FF12 is so incredibly mediocre and uninteresting to me. There's something about it that makes it one of the least interesting RPG experiences I've ever had, beyond the usual suspects of Poor Plot and Boring Characters. The whole thing just feels like a long, tedious roadtrip, with ugly, smelly fellow tourists that you hate through places that bore you. And I just can't quite put my finger on what it is about the game that makes it feel that way. I can make some guesses (that fucking sandsea area often figures heavily into these guesses), but I can't quite explain it just yet.

However, while the main cause for my boredom with FF12 eludes me, one of the minor ones that only worsen the experience is quite blatant: the absurdly dull cast.

Vaan: Vaan is the main character of the game. Or so Square would have you believe. There's actually really nothing about him that would make you think so. His importance to the plot ceases completely about 1/4 of the way into the game, if even that. After that, he just seems to be a generic addition to your party who gets the rare occasion to speak during cutscenes, and during these times has absolutely nothing of significance to say. I guess you could actually say it's a creative new role in an RPG--a main character who is totally irrelevant and unnecessary to the game itself. It's like he's just there for the ride.

Panelo: Panelo is Vaan's friend. And that' Her development and impact on the story are limited to fulfilling that one role. She's an empty and superflous compliment to an empty and superfluous character.

Basch: Basch is a refugee from daytime television. "I didn't do it! It was my EVIL TWIN!" I expect to see this sort of thing in the soap operas my grandmother watches daily, not in my RPGs.

Ashe: "Oh goodness, what a hard thing it is, being a princess. You have all sorts of princess-concerns as you do princess-things in a princess-way at all princess-times!"

It's not that they didn't try with Ashe. They gave her a few moral dilemmas about how far she'd go for power and revenge. But it all just fell pretty flat in delivery. No one around her seemed to really care very much, besides Balthier, and she didn't do any real soul-searching to solve her moral dilemmas. Just sort of decided, "Hm, I think I'm going to be wise instead of giving in to desire for power!"

Vossler: Vossler joins your party for a little while so that he can warn Ashe that her other companions can't be trusted, right before turning her and them over to their enemies.

Larsa: I'm going to forego commenting on Larsa's dull-as-dirt personality here, and instead remark that his existence is a somewhat frightening thing. It's not him that's scary, it's the reaction he gets. Fangirls, my good readers. Squealing, obsessive fangirls. While always a disturbing phenomenon, they are particularly unnerving this time because they are all getting their panties in a twist over a well-groomed 12-year-old. One which, I might add, looks considerably more like a real-life person than most RPG anime-tastic prettyboys.

Thanks a bunch, SquareEnix. Fangirls weren't creepy enough already; we needed PEDOPHILE fangirls.

Vayne: Vayne's the bad guy. Much in the same way Basch is, Vayne is an example of Square taking a very lame and silly excuse for doing bad things ("My imaginary friend Venat made me do it!") and then trying to create a serious character out of it. He's also kind of stupid, in that his goal is to play huge games of international politics and war strategies and such to accomplish a goal (free mankind or humekind or whatever from the manipulations of a bunch of alien ghost things--yeah, every part of this game's plot sounds pretty silly when you sum it up, like that) that Ashe and her little entourage of dull servants are going to do anyway, with a lot less planning and fuss.

Reddas: Reddas is a plot-convenient guy who conveniently shows up to help you, and then even more conveniently dies to help you.

Reks: Reks is Vaan's dead brother whom you very briefly control at the start of the game. In an irony which is both hilarious and depressing, during these first 20 minutes of the game before he's killed off, he is given more development and personality than every single character listed above gets during the rest of the 60+ hour game.

Fran: You know, I have to admit that I wanted to like Fran, going into the game. I'll admit I have a thing for both Viera, and for very, very nearly naked women, and Fran is a perfect specimen of each of these things. And compared to most of the cast, her few moments of deep and interesting characterization during the Eruyt Village bit of the game makes her a shining light of characterization and skillful writing. But in the end, she is just a more shapely version of the same Sack'O'Yawn that everyone else is. She's there for the sole purpose of fanservice and having a character who can conveniently explain some of the silly, far-fetched magical bullshit that the plot's plagued with.

Balthier: When Balthier first joked about being the "leading man," I didn't realize that he was actually 100% correct in this claim. Balthier's got a charismatic and fun personality, his actions have motive and direction, he interacts and guides all his companions through their personal dilemmas, he leads them along through the story rather than just be led by the nose by whatever plot devices come up, and he takes the story's spotlight most frequently through the game from the moment he joins you until the moment the game ends (though I could be wrong on this one thing--it just SEEMED like he did to me, but that might just be because he's the only part of the cast with a personality worth paying attention to). Vaan might be the main character of FF12, but Balthier's the game's protagonist, no two ways about it. I dunno where he came from, either--he'd be a well-developed and original enough character to draw attention even in RPGs with casts known for such, but for FF12, the gap in quality between him and every other character is just absurd. Ah, well. Rock on, Balthier, you are the sole reason to play this game.