Wednesday, October 28, 2015


When I play through an Indie RPG, I generally try to make a rant devoted to creating awareness for the game, since most of them don’t get the press that larger developers’ works do, and also have limited options for advertising. Also, in all honesty, I’d rather support the smaller mom-and-pop type of game developer, simply because I believe they have greater potential to push the RPG as we know it into new, exciting, and meaningful directions. I certainly don’t want to see the Big Developer RPG disappear, of course, because there are things that both sides of the industry can offer that the other really just can’t. Of them, though, the Indie RPG is the one that has the greater need, so that’s the one I try to plug, when given the opportunity.

And damn, does Undertale ever give the opportunity.

So, Undertale. As Indie RPGs go, this is the new big deal, making the biggest splash I’ve seen an Indie RPG create since Bastion. It has as close to a universal appeal as an RPG can possess. A lot of people say that it should be the Game of the Year for many trusted, respectable gaming sites. And IGN, too. There are some who say that it’s their new favorite RPG, period.* So, the question is...does it live up to its underground hype?

Pretty much, yeah.

Having revealed this rant’s conclusion too early, I will now proceed to continue writing as though you have any reason to read further after the above sentence. Undertale is incredible. It’s very, very smart, it’s quite funny, it’s one of the most creative RPGs I’ve come across, it plays to nostalgia while never treading within another game’s footsteps, and it’s emotionally gripping to an extreme, able to give you rich, heartwarming enjoyment, or deeply disturb you. I really wish I had known about its Kickstarter campaign, because it’s one of those games that I would feel a tremendous pride in knowing I contributed to its existence.

But I know about it now, thanks to my longtime buddy and, it turns out, reader, Angahith. I’ve mentioned him here a few times (he was the guy who prodded me to play my first Indie RPG, Mark Leung: Revenge of the Bitch), but it bears stating that the guy is just the salt of the Earth, one of those folks you come across sometimes who you’ll just never have anything bad to say about. Or at least, I don’t. I really don’t give frequent enough praise to my friends and family who contribute to my rants, including those who point me in the direction of great RPGs to talk about here, and Anga’s one of them. Good on you, sir, if you’re reading this.

Anyway, Angahith told me about Undertale, I tried it out, and I found it to be the best Indie RPG I’ve played to date. By a significant margin. Seriously, when I do my end of the year calculations, it’s going on my Greatest RPGs List, and it won’t be occupying a low spot, either.

So, let’s get the nitty-gritty. What makes Undertale so great? Well, first of all, from start to finish, it is just incredibly creative. I mean, the creativity infuses pretty much every part of the game. The setting and world of Undertale (as much of it as we’re made privy to, at least) is thoughtful and interesting, and puts a highly creative spin on the existence of monsters in RPGs. The plot is creative, wrapping around itself in deliciously complex and thought-provoking ways, while somehow remaining appealingly simple and straightforward. Relating to that is the clever way that the most fundamental of RPG mechanics are incorporated into the game’s story, events, and lore. It is something I’ve seen before in small ways in Breath of Fire 5, and Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle incorporated some RPG mechanics into its overall plot in a similar way...but if BoF5 and EoWC take a few tentative steps forward into the concept of using conventional game mechanics within storytelling, Undertale runs a marathon with it.

The style of the game is also creative. Now, yes, it’s pretty clear that Undertale adopts more than a little of the Earthbound/Mother style, so you could say that it’s not as creative for that fact, but, well, to be quite frank, this game uses the Earthbound method and surreal quirkiness significantly better than any of the games it borrows from, even the excellent Mother 3. This is a game that out-Earthbounds Earthbound, and by a lot, so I’d say that it’s still creative for that, because it’s forging into new territory with the Earthbound formula.

Also, the premise is creative. This is an RPG where you can go from start to finish without killing a single enemy, if you so choose. Oh, certainly, you can choose to kill any that come across your path, or all of them, just like in a regular RPG. But you also have the choice not to kill your opponent in every scenario, which is pretty damn rare when it comes to RPGs--as far as I know, such a thing has only been made intentionally possible in the Deus Ex series before now. And, at the risk of being spoiler-y, your battle decisions make a major difference to the progression of the plot, to the ending you get, and even to what message the game has for you and what emotional impact it makes upon you--how you treat your foes has as much or more weight upon the meat of the game’s story and characters as any choice made in games touted for player decision-based plot pathways, like Dragon Age or Mass Effect. Which puts Undertale’s premise and practice of providing potential pacifist play paths in its plot pretty far past its Deus Ex peers. Which makes it all the more creative.

Lastly, and related to the premise, the battle system is creative. Now, I generally don’t care about gameplay features, as you well know, at least not to the extent that they sway my opinion on a game at all. But I can (and have) acknowledge when gameplay is done well or poorly in an RPG, and Undertale’s battle system is simple but highly effective for working around its premise. As a seamless blend of traditional turn-based RPG combat and, believe it or not, the Bullet Hell genre, Undertale’s combat is, so far as I can tell, utterly unique to RPGs even as it functions on a very traditional and generic foundation. And by making the primary mode of action in this battle system a form of Bullet Hell gameplay, Undertale very effectively accommodates the play style of pacifism that the game touts as a feature, since the gaming skills of a Bullet Hell game are, first and foremost, about dodging and surviving attacks, less than concentrating on your own offense.

So yeah, the game’s creative. Very creative. One of the most creative RPGs you’ll ever come across. But creativity alone doesn’t make an RPG great, of course. Anodyne was very creative, but ultimately underwhelming because it didn’t know how to use its creativity to any effective end, in my opinion, while Grandia 2 can be seen as incredibly uncreative since it pretty much entirely employs overused tropes in its plot and characters, yet the way they’re used is so masterful that every cliche seems fresh, thoughtful, and engaging. So what about the rest of Undertale?

Well, the plot’s really strong. Whether you’re a saint, an amoral abomination, or somewhere in between, the simple story of Undertale is engaging, particularly in its beginning and later stages, and it expands its scope and its depth with masterful subtlety. This is a story which is simple and straightforward, yet it is also layered, nuanced, and ripe with the opportunity to mentally pick it apart in minute detail, to theorize about its behind-the-scenes aspects, to recognize tiny connections and recurrences within itself that betray its storytelling artistry, to rejoice as you hit upon a private insight on subsequent playthroughs. Rarely do I see such far-sighted care in arranging even the tiniest details to have significance, whether light or heavy, that can be found later. It’s a clever, secret subtlety that you see in creations of high care, precision, and vision, things like Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, or Steven Universe. Like Planescape: Torment or Revolutionary Girl Utena, you’ll never truly know Undertale without viewing it from start to finish multiple times, even if you’re just repeating the same playthrough style. That’s not because it’s clumsily over-complex (like, say, Chrono Cross), but rather, because there’s just a lot of layers to everything, and you need time and repetition to peel them away. Mind you, it’s definitely not on the same level of brilliance as PT or RGU, but frankly, anything that’s in the ballpark enough to warrant significant comparison to either of them is doing something really, really right.

The characters are good. They’ve generally got a good level of depth and complexity, and they are extremely personable. Each makes his or her own unique bid for your affections, and I’d have some trouble conjuring up the kind of player who could resist the cast’s charms. Which is good, because this story of the value of connections and making peace with others, and/or of the disturbing, nay, horrifying repercussions of apathetic malice and self-interest, really would not work without a cast as lovable as this one. Likewise, the game’s got a good villain.** The villain has depth, performs the role really well (he will infuriate you, and also freak you the fuck out), ties strongly to the messages and themes of the game, and is a great foil for the protagonist.

Also, Undertale is funny. Or disturbing. Sometimes both. Like I said before, this game basically out-Earthbounds Earthbound. Included in that is the fact that it is terrifically funny in a quirky fashion, and the fact that it can seriously creep you out. But generally, it’s a lot of fun, and much like Mother 3 does, Undertale uses its quirky humor as an expert way to invest you all the more so that the meaningful moments have greater impact. I wouldn’t say it’s better than Mother 3 in this regard, but it’s close enough to be quite adept at playing with your joy and sorrow.

The music’s pretty nifty. Not as big a deal as the other stuff I’ve mentioned, but it sure does its part, and then some, to create the mood and underscore the emotion of whatever’s going on. If you’re really into the soundtrack of the games you play, I daresay this one is another selling point for you on the game.

Creative, funny, with a great, simple-yet-complex plot, and characters you really connect with. What else do you need from Undertale? Well, you’re the readers of an RPG blog written by a guy named The RPGenius so I’m gonna go and make the crazy assumption that you just might have some interest in RPGs, and that being the case, you’ll likely also really benefit from the interesting deconstruction of RPGs that Undertale performs. Now, it’s not exactly unknown for a game to look at and play with the conventions of its genre within its own story, but any time this happens with RPGs, it’s usually just to make lighthearted references and jokes about it. Which is fine, of course, I rarely tire of having my genre of choice poke fun at itself.

But Undertale goes a considerable step further with it. While it does make a few jokes about RPG conventions, Undertale is much more interested in looking at some of the things we take for granted about RPGs, looking critically at their moral and philosophical ramifications, questioning them and what they imply about we who take part in them. It’s interesting to see the game go about this, and I’ve been privately interested, perhaps even a little concerned, for a few years now about certain aspects of RPGs that we just take for granted but seem disturbing when you think about them. So yeah, that’s another point in Undertale’s favor for me.

Also, while this is something that some players have bemoaned, I like the fact that Undertale remembers. What you choose to do in this game matters, and it stays with you. You may be surprised at just how seriously Undertale wants you to understand that actions have consequences. I don’t want to spoil things here about the game...but I know that there are players out there like me, who are capable of attaching a real, meaningful value to the fictional individuals they meet in a game, and care about what happens to them, and if that describes you, I’d feel bad if I didn’t provide proper warning to you. So here it is: in this game, think about your reasons for taking any action you think you could regret if that action stayed with you. If your only reason is “to see what happens,” just...maybe think it over a second time. All I’m saying is, Let’s Plays exist.

So...yeah. I think that’s enough of a recommendation, right? Undertale is 1 of those real gems that has pretty much no flaws (besides a lack of a run button; backtracking for dialogue completionism takes forever), and a hell of a lot of virtues. I definitely recommend it, and if that recommendation holds any weight, you can head over to the official website to buy it. You can also get it from Steam, if you prefer that, for some reason. It’s only $10, and that’s a steal for an RPG of even half the quality as Undertale. Check it out.

* Enough to be noteworthy, that is. When it comes to RPGs, there seems almost invariably to be at least a couple people for any given RPG who will say it’s the best one ever. I’ve even seen people claim that they’ve never played a better RPG than the Mega Man Star Force titles, for Hades’s sake. Still, Undertale has more people making this claim than the standard.

** Or villains, you could say. Depending on things. A lot of things. Complicated things. Play the game.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

General RPGs' Dungeons and Dragons Helmets

Why are helmets in Dungeons and Dragons based RPGs so rarely actually protective?

D+D has been the backdrop to a lot of video game RPGs, many of them extremely famous titles of the genre (such as Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and, of course, the incredibly excellent Planescape: Torment). And in each of those games, the average helmet really doesn’t do much for your defense. Until you get far enough in the game that you start encountering a ton of enchanted equipment and may then come across a helmet with some trait that’s actually useful, the only thing a helmet does is prevent critical hits. It doesn’t add to your Armor Class, or reduce damage, or anything.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s nice not to have to worry that some punk ass little goblin’s gonna roll a critical right when he’s beating otherwise ineffectually against your mage, but this setup doesn’t seem logical to me. Yeah, I can kind of see the reasoning behind it--your head’s a pretty important and vulnerable spot on you, so you could say that any critical hit is an attack on your head, and thus a helmet is protecting you from those. But your heart, your liver, your stomach, your neck, and your genitals are all extremely vulnerable areas, too. The whole human body is basically one giant weak spot, really. It’s only reasonable to assume that attacks that penetrate those areas would be critical hits, possibly even more so than several parts of your head (which does have that thick, or even utterly impenetrable if you work at SquareEnix, skull around it). The regular armor covering those areas doesn’t protect against critical hits, despite being, often, considerably thicker than a helmet--it just increases the Armor Class.

Of course, Armor Class is kind of logistically bizarre already, so I don’t know why I’d expect the helmet situation to make a whole lot of sense, either.

It’s not a big deal, I know, and the games themselves aren’t solely at fault--they’re just following the way that the armor system worked in the actual version of Dungeons and Dragons that they were based on. I’m sure that the role of helmets in D+D were determined with gameplay balance in mind more than making sense of the armor defense system. It’s just weird to see what would normally be a vital part of one’s defensive equipment relegated to such a tiny protective role, that’s all.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Lunar: Dragon Song's Final Showdown

Amongst the many, many accolades for atrocity one can attribute to Lunar: Dragon Song is the fact that this game may have the lamest final confrontation of all RPG history.

Here’s the deal. The sad sack villain of the game, Ignatius, is sitting in his Final Boss Castle, right? Jian, the “hero” of the game, if such he can really be called, and Jian’s faithful bland companions, must go through the castle to save Lucia, a human reincarnation of the goddess Althena who actually manages to make even Lunar 1’s Luna look interesting by comparison, from Ignatius’s clutches. Ignatius, you see, intends to awaken Althena within Lucia, and use her, as well as his powers as the Dragonmaster, to take over the world, because he’s evil, and also a transparent rip-off of previous Lunar series villain Ghaleon. It’s like the LDS writers just copy-pasted Ghaleon into the game and changed his name.

Okay, tangent here, but I’d like to note that I can still barely believe how lazy a villain Ignatius is. I mean, the Ghaleon archetype wasn’t exactly unknown in RPGs to begin with, but in Pandora’s name, Game Arts, what the hell is wrong with you? It’s one thing when a series like, say, Final Fantasy has villains that seem suspiciously similar to one another. Final Fantasy has over 30 distinct titles. The Lunar series has 4. And Ghaleon already acts as the major antagonist in half of them! How can the writers at Game Arts be so staggeringly lacking in basic human creativity that they cannot write more than one single villain?

Tangent over. So, as you can see, the stage is set at the end of Lunar: Dragon Song for a pretty standard face-off between Ignatius and Jian. Tried and true RPG formula’s in full swing. It’s not exactly creative, and given all that the player has suffered from LDS already, it sure as hell ain’t going to be enjoyable, but at least the player knows what’s coming and is prepared to ride the generic finale out. It’ll even be a bit of a relief, to finally be done with this wretched title. This is a finale to look forward to, if for all the wrong reasons. Right?


So, you go along through the final dungeon, and have another confrontation with Gideon, the large, persistent monster follower of Ignatius whom Jian and company have already had previous run-ins with. No surprise there. You beat him, and you go on for a while more, fighting through legions of lazy palette-swap copy-enemies and lazier copy-environments because hey, who wants to spend the time designing new textures and tiles? Certainly not Game Arts. You get to the last part of the castle, and have to beat Gideon yet again. Stupid git don’t stay dead.

With this most recent victory over Gideon, you move on to the final area, which is your standard divine staircase set against a background of stars and space. I’m fairly sure, being RPG players, that you are familiar with this sort of setting. And the first thing that happens is that Gideon comes up from behind the group and attacks once more. Well, it’s annoying, but eh, annoying recurring boss henchmen will be annoying recurring boss henchmen, right? So it’s time to put this monster down once and for all. It’s a tough battle, but eventually, Gideon is defeated. With Gideon dead, there is nothing between Jian and the showdown that his long, trying journey has been leading up to! Now, the party can finally confront Ignatius...Ignatius the head honcho, Antagonist Prime, Ignatius the power-hungry manipulator of the Vile Tribe who seeks in his hubris to usurp a goddess’s power for his own selfish ends!

Oh, and hey, congratulations on beating the game.

No, that’s not me expressing confidence that you can do so. No, I’m not accidentally putting that sentence too early. The game’s over. You won. Killing Gideon for good was the last battle in Lunar: Dragon Song. There is no final battle with the villain of this game. This is a game that denies the player the most basic, intrinsic aspect of a story’s finale. Lunar: Dragon Song flies in hundreds, really thousands of years of successful storytelling in order to deliver you the lamest finale possible.

But hey, hold on. Can I really say that, just from not having a final fight against Ignatius? I mean, just because the player himself does not take part in defeating the villain, that doesn’t mean Ignatius’s defeat has to be bad, right? It could still be fine just watching Jian beat Ignatius instead of taking part in it ourselves. Most of the important points and narrative of an RPG are told through cutscenes anyway. Right?

Sooner or later you’re going to wise up and stop giving this shitty game the benefit of the doubt.

You want to know how Jian takes Ignatius out? You want to know how the villain of the game, the mighty Dragonmaster* who commands violent legions of exiles and has entrapped a goddess within his clutches, is defeated?

He falls down.

In what may be the first time in history that any important RPG character actually dies from a fatal drop, Ignatius is overcome by losing his footing. See, it goes like this. Gideon’s finally beaten. Ignatius enters and shows Jian that he’s brainwashed Althena-Lucia, because apparently, as the game explains, reawakening as a goddess leaves her with no memories of her human life just like being reborn leaves her with no memories of being a goddess. Perhaps realizing that this makes no damn sense, the game hurriedly moves onto Ignatius waxing idiotic on how love only hurts people, or some such pretentious stupidity, and then offering to finally settle things with Jian, as, y’know, you’re expecting to happen. Jian makes some emotional bid to Althena-Lucia to remember him and go back home with him, which would be touching if you had any investment in their relationship, but you don’t. Ignatius decides to hit Jian with a rather underwhelming fireball which manages to drop the stupid kid to his knees, and then Jian goes...ugh, look for yourself:

“Ignatius...You still don't get it, do you? We can't solve this by fighting! I may defeat you, or you can defeat me, it does not matter! One of us will end up defeated!”

Yes, I think that’s what the man had in mind, Jian.

Captain Tautology tries a bit more to persuade Ignatius, for some reason certainly not related to anything we know about Jian’s character, Ignatius’s history, or rational thought. It doesn’t work. Ignatius, perhaps annoyed that someone else is spouting ridiculous pseudo-psychological drivel that means nothing, decides to lightly tap Jian with another fireball, and Althena-Lucia picks that moment to run out from behind Ignatius to get in the way of his attack and save Jian.

She runs out from behind Ignatius to get in the way of his attack.

Runs out from behind Ignatius to get in the way of his attack. Runs out from behind Ignatius runs out from behind runs out from behind Ignatius to get in the way of his attack.

Doesn’t use her advantage of being behind Ignatius to attack the jerk before he can shoot the fireball to begin with! Doesn’t use her power as the reawakened goddess of all of Lunar to stop the fireball in any way! Does not even push his arm a little to the left so he misses since she’s right there beside him! Runs out, from behind him--runs out ALONGSIDE the fireball as it flies! This fireball is so slow that she is able to keep pace with it and OUTRUN IT so she can throw herself in front of it! This isn’t like your standard scenario where someone throws themselves in front of someone else as a gun fires or a sword comes at them or something. In those situations, the person sacrificing him/herself is close enough that he or she actually COULD get into position to act as a body shield. Althena-Lucia is further away than the attack itself! It’s like if you had a scene where a truck is bearing down on someone in the street, and the heroic savior who wants to shove the would-be roadkill out of the way comes running from behind the truck to do it!

Sorry. Tangents. I do them. My intent was to point out how lame this finale is, but I suppose I can’t help but draw attention to the fact that it is also very, very stupid.

Anyway, Althena-Lucia’s down for the count, and Jian and company are pissed off at Ignatius. Given that this situation only came about because Jian is such a sucky fighter that he can’t anticipate and dodge an attack he was just hit with a minute ago that’s also so slow that someone wearing a ball gown can outrun it, I really think that he and Ignatius should share the blame 50-50, but no one consulted me, so whatever. Ignatius laments over losing control of Althena after all that work (if she can be taken down by a single fireball that wasn’t even enough to kill a regular human earlier, exactly how much use could she possibly have been to him?), and then Ignatius once again indicates that he’s ready to fight Jian. As she’s dying, though, Althena-Lucia tells Jian not to fight Ignatius, and urges him to remember what he learned during the Dragons’ trials,** telling Jian to instead forgive Ignatius.

Good message and all, but maybe not the right one for when a dude wants to kill you and conquer the world.

Althena-Lucia goes on to blabber about not being needed any more, a conclusion that comes from absolutely nowhere whatsoever and is utterly invalidated as a personal revelation by the previous games in the series that have existed for 20 damn years, and fades away, with Jian telling her she can’t go because he loves her. I guess it’s good that he mentions it, because she, like anyone else, would never have picked up on it otherwise.

With Althena-Lucia gone, Ignatius reaffirms his plans to rule the world, making the player once again question why he bothered taking control of her to begin with if he felt completely capable of fulfilling his plans without her. He says he’s going to kill them all now, and then the place begins to shake. Everyone is surprised by this, including the player...usually, final boss dungeons don’t start shaking themselves apart until after the villain is dead. My guess is that even the scenery is in a hurry to get this shitty game over with. The screen goes black for a second, and the next thing we see is that the floor below Ignatius apparently fell away and he’s holding onto the edge of where Jian and company are standing for dear life.

Yes, this game can’t be bothered to animate changes to the background, not even for its grand finale. Sigh. Take it away, Robot Chicken.

Jian’s holding onto Ignatius, trying to help the guy back up, while Gabby and Flora just stare mutely, probably struck dumb by the unfathomable stupidity of it all. Ignatius asserts that he doesn’t need Jian’s help, and then immediately proves himself wrong by falling to his death as Jian backs off.

And that’s it. That’s it! This may not be the worst finale ever (fuck you, Bioware), but it sure as hell is the lamest. Your final battle in this game isn’t with the actual villain, but his lackey. The expected fight with the villain himself is teased several times in the dialogue--dialogue that takes its sweet time to say absolutely nothing and is punctuated by sad, slow little fireballs that devastate the hero we’re supposed to believe is strong--but that fight never comes. And then, after an off-screen moment because the game can’t be bothered to animate itself properly, the villain just falls down.

That’s how Ignatius, evil Dragonmaster and self-styled overlord of all of Lunar, prominent antagonist of Lunar: Dragon Song, is defeated. Killed by scenery.

* Not that the fact that he’s a Dragonmaster is ever given any real weight in this piece of trash game. LDS clearly expects you to have played previous Lunar games to know that being a Dragonmaster is a big deal; here it’s a name drop whose significance is never explained. Look, guys, you don’t need to go into huge detail about every part of your lore in a sequel, but you can’t just assume that every player is going to have played the 20-year-old games that came before this one and not explain ANYTHING. Come on, now.

** Trials which Jian passed by fighting the Dragons.