Not So Legendary After All

Tomb Raider: Legend doesn't quite live up to my fond memories of it

I've long been a Tomb Raider fan. It's a love affair that I've reiterated many times over the years, so I'll keep this version of events fairly brief. I was introduced to the series by my parents all the way back in 1998, when they bought a PlayStation along with copies of the first two games in the series. Since then I've been smitten with the franchise, sticking by it through the highs and the lows. There's just something about the way these games structure their adventures, the elegant blend of exploration, puzzle-solving and light combat, that scratches some indefinable itch within my gaming mind. Whenever somebody even mentions a Tomb Raider game, I suddenly find myself wanting to play one - a fact that has directly led to this blog being written. When fellow Giant Bomber Sparky_Buzzsaw picked up Tomb Raider: Legend and blogged about it last week, it wasn't long before the bug had gripped me and I was blowing the dust off my own copy of the game.

It's been a long time since I last played Tomb Raider: Legend. I'm pretty sure that I played the game for the first time during the summer of 2006, and came away from it feeling mighty satisfied - at least, that's the impression given by the review I wrote at the time. But as I was soon to discover, in the five-and-a-half intervening years, my memories of Legend had become faded with age, and buried under the opinions of more recent titles in the series (most notably Anniversary, which I'll touch on later). Re-playing the game on my trusty PS2 over the last few days, with more experienced hands and through more scrutinous eyes, has revealed this Legend to be not so legendary after all.

Legend still looks nice, but not as nice as I remember

The first problem that caught my attention were noticeable drops in frame-rate during many of the game's most hectic action sequences. I don't remember encountering these at all in 2006, but it must have been there, because nothing about the game has changed in the interim. Then again, I was a much less critical gamer back in those days, so I can kind of understand why it might not have stuck in my mind. At the time, I was doing all of my PS2 gaming on a compact 8-inch LCD screen - visual fidelity wasn't exactly my highest priority. I remember Legend as being a damned gorgeous game, and in a lot of ways it still is (especially with regards to its character models and environments). It's just a shame that this noticeable issue has soured that memory somewhat.

Admittedly, it never gets quite this bad... but still...

One thing I remembered Legend fondly for was its apparent refusal to treat its heroine as a sex object, something for the stereotypical male gamer to ogle at in cut-scenes. In my mind's eye, Legend had addressed this by making Lara Croft more realistically proportioned, and by covering her up somewhat - a huge leap forward from the titillation that was associated with Lara's character back in the PS1 days. Returning to it now has completely shattered that perception, though. Sure, Lara isn't quite as well-endowed in Legend, but the game still seeks to flaunt her curves at every opportunity. The neckline of her default tomb-raiding outfit plunges much lower than you'd expect it to, the dress that features in the game's Tokyo level seems to be defying every basic law of physics in actually staying on her body, and one of the most demanding unlocks is a bikini outfit. I repeat - one of the game's highest rewards is getting to see this. How, as a sixteen-year-old lad, I didn't notice any of this is mind-boggling, and it completely debunks my memories of Legend as being a genuine attempt to take Lara's character more seriously.

Ignoring my complaints about the game's aesthetics and the clear sexualisation of Lara, there are a wealth of other minor niggles that have conspired to sully my original memories of the game - some erratic checkpointing, camera control issues, a middling story that's told with about as much indifference as it deserves, a surprising dearth of proper puzzles... None of these things amounts to much individually, but when collected together, they really start to impact the overall package, and consequently tarnish my idealised memories of first playing Legend. Add them to the main problem I had with Legend even when first playing it (an incredibly short campaign), and at times I'm almost left wondering if the game has any redeeming features.

Presenting the voice behind my favourite Lara

I don't want to give the impression that Legend is a bad game, because it really isn't, and of course it has plenty of redeeming features. In spite of the complaints I've levelled at it above, it's still a solid action-adventure game and, in the context of its original release, a huge leap forward for the franchise in terms of its gameplay mechanics and presentation. I really like the environment traversal, which for the first time in the series' ten-year history finally nailed the feel of Lara's athleticism and felt challenging without ever being too unforgiving. A lot of people give the game stick for its combat, which relies heavily on lock-on targeting and lacks any real depth, but it really doesn't bother me. I've always held the belief that combat is auxiliary to the tomb-raiding experience, and I think the simplistic nature of the gunplay in Legend reflects that perfectly. Also worth mentioning is the game's voice-work, especially Keeley Hawes' performance as Lara. The previous actress responsible for Lara's voice (Jonell Elliott) really didn't sit well with me, stripping her of her quintessential British-ness and replacing it with something generic and sultry. Hawes recaptures that achetypal British vibe of Lara's earliest outings, which is consistently great to hear. It may not be as great as I thought it was, but it's still a good game - maybe not worthy of the four stars I bestowed on it all those years ago, but definitely a solid three-star adventure.

I recognise that the Tomb Raider franchise is far from critically acclaimed, and as a result a lot of my fondest memories are probably tied to my love of the series than any excellence inherent in the games themselves. Towards the end of last year I re-visited another another Tomb Raider title I had fond memories of - The Last Revelation on the original PlayStation. Much like Legend, I found that my faded memories of the game didn't quite match up with the imperfect reality of what I was playing. At this point, part of me wants to return to Anniversary and continue my path through the Crystal Dynamics trilogy, but another part of me is reluctant to do so for fear of the same thing happening with what is undoubtedly my favourite game in the franchise to date. I'm quietly confident it will live up to my expectations, as a lot of the things I remember about that game are things which remedy the complaints I've made about Legend above - a longer campaign, better-structured puzzles, no frame-rate issues (as far as I can remember), and a default outfit for Lara that doesn't show any cleavage at all.

As I said above, I don't want to give the impression I didn't enjoy Tomb Raider: Legend. I've had a lot of fun with it over the last four days. It's just unfortunate that it didn't quite meet the standards my nostalgic mind put in place for it. In any case, returning to the series has got me interested to see what Crystal Dynamics do with the upcoming series reboot. Not necessarily in a way that could be described as either positive or negative - as much as I see potential for the game to take the series in brave, meaningful new directions, I see just as much potential for the shift in focus to rob the series of what makes it unique and special. Re-visiting Legend has provided me with a great refresher of what I love most about Tomb Raider, and I'll be following the upcoming game's progression over the coming months with cautious optimism. Thanks very much for reading guys, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend (PS2)

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Enduring Final Fantasy VII - Episode Twenty-Two

Are you the kind of gamer who has fond memories of Final Fantasy VII, but is reluctant to return to it in case those memories are shattered by unremembered mediocrity? If so, then worry no longer - I'm here to do it for you! Presenting the latest instalment in the semi-cynical, semi-nostalgic, Endurance Run-inspired retrospective that is:

Episode Twenty-Two - Mideel Or No Deal

At the end of the last episode, we saw our band of adventurers escape from Shinra custody in Junon, making off with an airship in the process. In the absence of Cloud, Tifa has taken it upon herself to lead the party in their search for him.

At this point, I was just about ready to throw more criticism in Final Fantasy VII's direction for once again doing a piss-poor job of pointing the player towards their next goal. I've always remembered this point in the game as equalling (maybe even surpassing) the search for the Keystone or the City of the Ancients in its aimlessness - you're given this great airship, bringing the ability to fly anywhere in the world, and the game leaves you with absolutely no idea where to take it to progress. However, playing through it now for the sixth, I've just stumbled upon the game's attempt at player direction. Speaking to Red XIII twice reveals his knowledge of a supposed Lifestream breach in the ocean near the southern islands. This really leaves me in two minds - I feel like I should praise the developers for actually putting that sentence in there, but at the same time, I want to chastise them for tucking such a crucial piece of information away in such an obscure corner, so obscure it's taken me six playthroughs over twelve years to find.

With that piece of information finally come to light, I take once more to the skies and begin to fly south, in the direction of Mideel. Flying the Highwind comes pretty naturally thanks to a fairly intuitive control scheme. There are two things I want to mention about the Highwind at this juncture, the first being that it makes a pretty awesome hub for the remainder of the game. Save for shopping facilities, it's got everything the team needs - a save point, party-changing facilities, instant HP/MP restoration, the ability to talk to all the team members... it really is an ideal place for regrouping after a grinding session or an important piece of story progression, although it's still beyond me why a Shinra airship would need a chocobo stable on-board. The other thing worth mentioning is the awesome feeling of freedom that washes over you when you take to the air in the Highwind for the first time. You've got this entire world map, which you've been navigating gradually for the last thirty-or-so hours, and suddenly it's all blown wide-open for you. Even now, so long after first playing the game, I still get a thrill knowing that those previously impassable mountains suddenly don't even factor into it any more. The whole of the Planet is your playground. The fact you actually have control over the airship definitely adds to this, I think - physically flying the Highwind over the world map provides a much greater thrill than, say, the menu-based airship navigation of Final Fantasy X.

The team arrive near Mideel, and after a little bit of grinding in the surrounding forest, head into the town. It's a pretty unremarkable location aesthetically, not quite a typical JRPG town in its appearance, but at the same time not unique enough to stand out from the crowd in the same way that Midgar and Junon do. I decide to do some shopping, calling in at the weapons and Materia stores to pick up new Crystal equipment for my whole party and some extra HP/MP Plus Materia. In the middle of town, Tifa stops to pet a dog when she overhears a couple of men talking about a spikey-haired guy who washed up on the shore of the island about a week ago. Immediately thinking it must be Cloud, she rushes to the town's clinic to meet him. Sure enough, as epic narrative cliché dictates, it's Cloud, but not quite as we know him. Tifa finds him in confined to a wheelchair, babbling deliriously in a near-vegetative state.

I remember thinking this was a pretty shocking turn for the narrative to take the first time I played the game. Even though by this point the game's developers had established a pretty clear willingness to harm and even kill their main characters, I never expected Cloud to be reduced to this. I was convinced he'd already suffered enough, being consistently manipulated behind the scenes by Sephiroth and/or Jenova and even losing Aerith. After seeing all of that, this felt like a step too far back then. I do think it serves the story though, for various reasons, not all of which I'll explore in this episode to avoid too much foreshadowing. For now, I'll just say that I sort of admire the way it reduces Cloud to a position of not just powerlessness, but complete and total dependence. In a medium (and indeed, a genre) where the heroes and heroines are all-too-often abrasively confident, cocky and invincible, it's refreshing to encounter a protagonist who's so fragile, to the point where he actually breaks.

The doctor reveals to the party that Cloud's suffering from extreme Mako poisoning, after protracted exposure to Mako energy in the Lifestream. He's quite literally trapped inside his own mind, unaware of anything that's going on, and his chances of recovery are incredibly slim. Tifa makes the decision to leave the party and stay behind in Mideel with Cloud, to try and nurse him back to health while the rest of the crew continue to try and find a way of stopping Meteor from descending. Cid and Red XIII depart, and head back to the Highwind. Back on deck, Cait Sith has some information that may help to that end - President Rufus and the other higher-ups at Shinra have been busy devising plans to both stop Meteor and break through the barrier at North Crater. They're currently in the process of collecting pieces of Huge Materia (a high-density, more potent kind of Materia formed in Mako reactors) from around the world, with a view to colliding it with Meteor somehow. Their next target is the reactor at Corel, Barret's home-town.

Understandably, Barret's pretty miffed about this. Unfortunately, that's about all I can glean from the ensuing conversation, because it's one of the worst-translated sections of Final Fantasy VII's script so far (if you don't believe me, check it out for yourself - and sorry about the ridiculous names, not my video, blah-blah-blah). After the incomprehensible rambling, it's decided that Cid should be the new party leader, a somewhat humble (albeit completely unjustified) selfless act on the part of Barret, who for reasons unknown has decided he's not cut out to be a leader. Now in control of Cid, I head for the Operations Room and kit out a brand new party - Barret as a damage-dealing tank, Cid as a healer and buffer, and Red XIII as a black mage/summoner hybrid. Our next destination is Corel, so I head towards it, touch the Highwind down, and bring this episode to a close by saving my progress.

So at the close of Episode Twenty-Two, my vital statistics are:

  • Current Party - Cid (Lv 49), Barret (Lv 42), Red XIII (Lv 53)
  • Current Location - Gold Saucer Area, World Map
  • Time on the Clock - 33:37

The Story So Far...

Table of Episodes
Episode Zero - The Obligatory Back StoryEpisode One - Initial Reactors... I Mean, Reactions
Episode Two - Flower Girls And Honey BeesEpisode Three - The Valiant Rescue Effort
Episode Four - Escape From MidgarEpisode Five - All Kalm On The Eastern Continent
Episode Six - An Abundance Of Big BirdsEpisode Seven - Hitching A Ride
Episode Eight - Over The Mountain, Into The SaucerEpisode Nine - Face-Offs And Race-Offs
Episode Ten - Going GongagaEpisode Eleven - Canyons And Caverns
Episode Twelve - Just A Little NibelEpisode Thirteen - The Rocket Man
Episode Fourteen - The Great Materia HeistEpisode Fifteen - Conflict, Romance And Betrayal
Episode Sixteen - An Ancient EvilEpisode Seventeen - The Death Of An Ancient
Episode Eighteen - Story Exposition And... ...Snowboarding???Episode Nineteen - Come Rain, Sleet Or Snow
Episode Twenty - The Illusion BrokenEpisode Twenty-One - Breaking Out Of Junon

Looking for the next episode? You can find Episode Twenty-Three - Catching The Train here.

I've deliberately tried to keep this episode brief (or at least, brief by the standards of this series). The last couple of episodes have really rambled on, so I figured that a nice shorter episode would serve to break up the walls of text a bit. Speaking of breaking things up, I've decided to employ a new method of listing past episodes, in the handy-dandy table above. I think it looks a bit neater, having done away with that long, narrow list of links. Anyway, thanks as always for reading. I genuinely promise to try and leave less time between episodes from here on out, I've been a touch distracted by the demands of the novel I'm working on over the last month or so. Ideally I'd like to get a regular weekly thing going on, but we'll see how (in)effectively I (mis)manage my time in the coming weeks. For now, I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)

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A Brief Birthday Blog

Hey guys, just wanted to throw a quick blog up into this space to discuss my birthday.

I turned twenty-two yesterday. As some of you probably know, birthdays aren't really a big deal for me and haven't been for a while now. It is nice to spend quality time with friends and family though, and it never fails to astound me just how many people care enough to drop me a birthday greeting (which in itself means more to me than any gift). It was an uneventful day for me, but pleasant enough. There was one occurrence that kinda bummed me out, which was having to attend the JobCentre in the morning. As if that wasn't bad enough, it was compounded by my advisor not even wishing me a happy birthday, despite having all my personal details in front of her. Like I said, I'm not big on birthdays, but for her to not even acknowledge it came across as very rude.

I didn't do much, and I didn't receive much in the way of gifts either, but that's how I like my birthdays to be. My youngest sister got me a new pair of headphones, and my other sister gave me a little money. The gifts from my parents haven't arrived in the post yet, but I'm waiting on copies of Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, as well as the new album by a folk band called Phantom Limb and a few books recommended to me by long-term Giant Bomb friend Sparky_Buzzsaw. Friends and extended family gave me money too, which was nice. I spent the day in the company of my family, also finding time to read more of the book I'm currently working through (Stephen King's The Drawing of the Three) and play some video games (more on that in a bit). In the evening I went out with a few friends for a couple of drinks and a good long catch-up chat, and on Saturday I'm going to visit Colchester and see some old uni friends again. All in all it's been a pleasant day, and looks set to be a pleasant week.

While yesterday wasn't a bad day by any means, it was sobering in a lot of ways. For a start, it drove home just how far removed I currently am from where I want to be in life. I'm twenty-two, I should be beginning to carve out my own existence in this world. And yet if anything, I feel like I'm taking steps backwards rather than forwards. This time last year I was in my final year of university, in a steady relationship, living independently and doing a job that I didn't really enjoy, but something that at least gave me a sense of purpose. Right now I'm out of uni, back on my own, living with my parents and struggling to find work. I'd hoped that by now something might have happened to at least remedy the last state of affairs, and yet I keep getting knocked back from interviews left right and centre. The other thing it's done is make me realise just how long I've been a part of this website's community. This is the fourth birthday I've had in my time here on Giant Bomb, and it's pretty cool to return to those older birthday blogs and see just how much both my situation and my character have changed in the intervening years. Here's hoping that this time next year, I'll be writing about my twenty-third birthday in a more positive tone.

I'll close with a short summary of what I've been playing lately. I bought Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing last week and have played a little of that every day since. I think I've seen the vast majority of what the game has to offer, and as a consequence the praise and criticism I raised in my last blog still stand. After a few days off from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, fearing I might have been approaching my open-world RPG burnout point, I returned to it on Monday and was pleased to discover those fears were unfounded. I'm coming to the end of the Civil War quest line now, after which I plan to focus on the Mages' College and the main quest before putting it down for a good six-month stretch. Hopefully after an extended break, I'll be more willing to push for an S-rank. Hey, by that point I might even have some DLC to factor into the equation. I've also been influenced by Sparky's most recent blog into replaying Tomb Raider: Legend for the first time in about six years. I'm currently three levels in and enjoying it quite a bit. Last, but by no means least, when I've finished this blog I'm going to power up the PSP and get ready to write another episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII.

Thanks very much for reading guys. As always, I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend (PS2)

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Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing - Foundations For Future Iteration?

Sonic... in a car... ?

After reaching a point this week where I'd become genuinely scared of burning out on Skyrim, I decided to put it down for a few days and spend some of my gaming time playing something a little less demanding. Something devoid of story and complex mechanics, something that didn't expect a great deal of commitment on my part. My game of choice was Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing (Sega Racing from here onwards), a game that I picked up at my local GAME store on Tuesday. It's a game I've been wanting to get hold of for a while now, after spending a good few hours playing it at a friend's house at the end of last year. Up until this week luck and money had conspired against me, with most shops failing to stock the game at all, and those that did asking rather high prices for it. When I saw it on the shelf priced at just £10 earlier this week, I snapped it up right away.

It's been a long time since I had so much fun with a kart racing game

I've been playing Sega Racing on-and-off since Tuesday, juggling my gaming time between that and Persona 3, and after spending about five more hours with it, I think it might be the best kart racing game I've played since Crash Team Racing on the original PlayStation. Coming from somebody who played the hell out of Naughty Dog's Mario Kart-a-like back in the day, that's very high praise indeed. There's something charming about taking this roster of disparate, mismatched characters and throwing them all together under such an unexpected and outlandish premise. I also like the licence progression and unlocking/buying of extra stuff, both of which are simple but add a decent amount of incentive to continue playing. All of this is layered over a solid kart racing foundation that does so many things right - the way all the vehicle types handle differently; the nice balance between projectiles, track hazards and self-assisting power-ups; the brilliant track design; the implementation of drifting, boosting and hard-turning in ways that reward practice and experience; a well-executed split-screen multi-player mode. Most importantly of all, Sega Racing succeeds in making you feel like you're always capable of winning a race, even if you're in last place halfway through the final lap. A lot of people moan about the rubber-banding in kart racers, but I consider it an integral part of what those games are, and I'm glad it's present in Sega racing.

When checking out Sega Racing's Wiki page while adding it to my list of games I've played in 2012, I was pretty excited to see talk of a potential sequel on the Giant Bomb forums. Partly because, as I've hinted above, I'm really enjoying the game. But also partly because while I've been playing it, I've been noticing ways the package could be improved in future iterations. Most of my quibbles are minor - more predictable physics for projectile weapons; more franchises represented as tracks; the ability to run through whole cups in multi-player rather than just single races; a "select a random racer/track" button. There are, however, two major things I'd like to see addressed in the possible Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing 2.

Such an obvious opportunity, inexplicably overlooked

If we ever do see a sequel to Sega Racing, I'd like to see a little more depth added to the gameplay. Sega Racing provides a great foundation for a kart racing game, but a lot of the time it feels like just that - a foundation, something to be built upon. I'm not expecting anything crazy-complex here, more simple iterations on the established formula, attempts to get a couple more gameplay systems layered over the top of what's already there. One way I think this could be achieved is through a wider variety of All-Star power-ups. From what I've seen of the game so far, every single All-Star is basically a differently-skinned version of the same thing - speed the player up, and hit any enemy they come into contact with. With such a varied roster of racers, though, I can't help but want something a little more unique out of their supposedly character-specific power-ups. I realise it's a big ask with so many characters represented (and likely even more in a sequel), but a little thought would go a long way towards diversifying the experience. Another thing I'd love to see, and I'm really surprised Sega didn't leap on such an obvious opportunity, is the incorporation of collecting rings as a game mechanic. Maybe this is just my Crash Team Racing nostalgia showing through (I'll admit, this desire was prompted by the collectable Wumpa fruit in CTR), but I do think it would add another dimension to racing. Collecting rings could contribute towards more potent power-ups, or increase the likelihood of an All-Star, or act as a damage-cushion in much the same way as they do in traditional Sonic games... Whatever the specifics, I'd really like to see them do something with rings beyond just using them in the collect-a-thon Missions.

Crash Team Racing had a brilliant story mode, and I think a future Sega Racing game would benefit from doing something similar

More than anything, though, I want to see a lot more meat put on the game's bare-bones single-player modes. Don't get me wrong, the Grand Prix mode, Time Trials and Missions are all great inclusions, but I wish there was something more substantial going on around it all. In particular, I'd love to see the inclusion of some kind of Adventure mode, replacing the Grand Prix mode with a story-driven single-player campaign. I guess the main reason I want to see this is because I see so much potential for a crazy, self-referential, self-deprecating storyline within the concept itself. I'm also not a big fan of the Mario Kart ethos of "here are some tournaments, just do 'em because they're there". Assuming Sega could approach such a task with a sense of humour and a little light-heartedness, I'd love to see how they justified bringing all these characters together. It could even be a great way to tie the Grand Prix, Time Trial and Mission modes together, adding a little more cohesion and seamlessness to the single-player side of the game. Again, I guess my nostalgia for Crash Team Racing and its awesome single-player Adventure mode is getting the better of me here, but I do genuinely think it would improve the game, not to mention give the player a reason to feel more invested in playing alone. Plus, it would be interesting to see Sega try and justify Sonic being in a car.

Like I said, I've clocked up about five hours with Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing this week, and I'm sure I'll tally up many more over the coming weeks as I pursue the coveted Gold licence. I hope the game does see a sequel, because it certainly deserves one. I just hope that Sega can justify the '2' on the end of the title with more than just a larger roster of racers and tracks. Thanks very much for reading guys, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing (X360)

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The Social Network - Some Later Impressions Of Persona 3

- A quick note before we start - this blog is going to be a follow-up from (and in many ways a sister piece to) the Persona 3 blog I wrote last November. If you haven't already read it, I recommend doing so. It gives a pretty good impression of the first thing that made this game really resonate for me - the emphasis on time management. This blog concerns itself with the second thing - its highly memorable Social Links. It's also worth noting there will be some spoilers for the game, for both its main plot and the sub-plots of its Social Links, so if you'd rather not know how any of that pans out, I'd advise against reading this.

My time with the Journey portion of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES is drawing to a close. After starting the game about three months ago, I'm currently half-way through January (which, I've been reliably informed by both the game and a friend, is the last month in the game's calendar). The end of the world beckons, the promise of cataclysm just over two in-game weeks away. Logic dictates I should be spending near enough all my time in Tartarus, grinding levels and pushing to reach the top before the month ends. But instead of doing the sensible thing, I find myself frantically rushing around town, trying desperately to tie up the various Social Links that I haven't seen through to their conclusions yet. And not because I'm trying to fuse those top-tier Personas, either - I'm doing it purely because I want to see how each of these self-contained mini-stories ends.

It's the social side of Persona 3 I'm going to remember most

When I come away from Persona 3, it's going to be the socialising aspects that I'll remember most. Sure, the plot's been pretty neat, throwing up some genuinely surprising twists and a few incredibly dark moments. The nuances of the combat system have been fun to learn and experiment with, although it's pretty unremarkable from a mechanical standpoint. But over the course of my hundred-plus hours with the game, those things have paled beside the brilliance of the supporting cast that I've been interacting with at every possible opportunity. The characters of Persona 3, both playable and non-playable, have ingrained themselves in my mind over these last few months, and I'm sure they'll be staying there for many months (maybe even years) to come.

A big part of what I love about the Social Links in Persona 3 is the characters themselves. All of the Social Links I pursued featured characters that were well-written, believable, and full of personality without coming across as too archetypal. Take Kenji for instance - on the surface he fancies himself as something of a ladies' man, but as you spend time with him and witness the saga that unfolds between him and his teacher, you start to see the exoskeleton break apart, exposing a young man who's struggling to come to terms with his own insecurities as he has his heart broken for the first time. Another example that bears witness to the two sides of a person in conflict is the brilliantly-translated MMO Social Link. As the seemingly innocent relationship progresses you learn that the person you're talking to is actually your school teacher, revealing both the professional external appearance she puts on at Gekkoukan High and the internal battle that she faces as a flawed human being. A lot of the Social Links are like this, and every one is a joy to watch unfold. The believable, captivating character development played a major role in drawing me into the game's world and pushing to see how each sub-plot would end.

Seeing characters like Maiko coping with their losses is pretty inspiring

In my first blog about Persona 3, I speculated that my love of the game's emphasis on time management might have stemmed from a lack of structure in my own life at the time. I'm not going to suggest that the Social Links I've been cultivating in Persona 3 are substitutes for real-world friendships, but I do think there are aspects of the in-game socialising that mirror aspects of my own life, and that's been a comfort to me in my current circumstances. One thing I've noticed is that a lot of the Social Links in Persona 3 are tied to the concept of loss. This is something that I can really identify with at this point in time, having lost a great deal over the last few months. As a consequence, it was these Social Links that hit me hardest - whether it was the death of Bunkichi and Mitsuko's son, or the divorce of Maiko's parents, or the terminality of Akinari's illness, all their stories touched me in a way that I could immediately relate to. I don't think it's a coincidence that these were the first three Social Links I maxed. What's really comforting, though, is that all these stories end in a moment of hope and happiness. The old couple who run the book store learn to let go of their attachment to their son's persimmon tree. Maiko comes to accept that her parents' separation isn't her fault, and will make everybody happier in the long run. Akinari leaves this life having finished his story, and knowing that it all meant something. These heart-warming conclusions have been a firm reassurance to me that every cloud has a silver lining, and no matter how bad things might seem right now, something good will come out of it in time.

I'll get by with a little help from my friends...

At the start of Persona 3's end-game, the player is given a choice to make - whether they will kill Ryoji, the human manifestation of Death and the facilitator of the Fall, or spare his life. Killing him will not stop the world from ending, but it will rob the party of all their memories. This would leave them oblivious to the impending doom, but would also tear apart all the friendships and memories forged over the course of the game. Those who intend to see things through to the end and face Nyx choose to let him live instead. When I made that choice not to kill Ryoji, though, I wasn't doing it purely out of a desire to see things through. There was an element of that to it, but ultimately it was bigger and deeper than simply stopping the Dark Hour or saving the world. I made that choice because I didn't want all the incredible friendships I'd forged to count for nothing. I want to fight Nyx in order to preserve those friendships and safeguard those memories. They're what have really mattered to me.

When I finish the Journey, I don't plan to start playing the Answer straight away. In fact, I'm not sure if I plan to play the Answer at all - the Journey feels like a perfect self-contained story, and most of what I've heard about the Answer has been less than favourable. Perhaps the biggest deciding factor is that apparently the Answer is completely devoid of Social Links. Given how huge a part they've played in my enjoyment of Persona 3, I'm not sure I'd want to play more of the same game with that aspect stripped away. Instead, I plan to continue plodding through Skyrim. My spellsword Nord character is currently level 39, and now that I've finished the Companions quest line, I want to complete the College of Winterhold, Civil War and main quest before I put that down as well. There's also more Final Fantasy VII to endure, and I suspect I'll be putting out the next episode before the week is out. As always, thanks very much for reading guys. Catch you all around the site.

Dan

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Currently playing - Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES (PS2)

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Enduring Final Fantasy VII - Episode Twenty-One

After a delay that was slightly longer than scheduled, I'm happy to bring you another episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII - the continuing series of semi-cynical, semi-nostalgic blogs chronicling my latest run-through of arguably Square's most revered (and most loathed) JRPG.

Episode Twenty-One - Breaking Out Of Junon

Episode Twenty culminated with a pretty spectacular finale - Cloud ended up giving the Black Materia to Sephiroth at the North Crater, who used it to summon Meteor. This act woke up the Weapons sleeping within the Planet, forcing them out of the crater and tearing a fresh wound in the Planet's surface. The rest of the party escaped from the crater just in time, but Cloud and Sephiroth end up disappearing into the Lifestream, their fate uncertain. It's here that we pick things back up, with the team in the custody of the Shinra Electric Power Company.

The game resumes with Tifa experiencing a flashback, serving to put another piece in the puzzle that is Cloud's character. Supposedly he just showed up in Midgar at the Sector 7 Train Station one day, incoherent and barely recognisable. Tifa confesses, presumably to herself, that she recognised something wrong with Cloud on that day, something in the way he acted and the things he knew that made him seem like someone different, but she didn't say anything because she was just happy for him to be around again, after such a long absence. The script might be a little melodramatic and hackneyed, but I think the fact it's delivered in the form of an interior monologue makes it a lot more bearable. We're seeing and learning what's going on in Tifa's head, by the game effectively putting us inside her thoughts. That's a much better way of handling these episodes of character development than, say, Final Fantasy XIII's highly melodramatic exterior monologues, which just came across as downright obnoxious at times.

Tifa wakes up in some sterile, lab-like environment in the city of Junon, with Barret at her side. He explains that she's been out of it for about a week, and a lot of stuff has happened in the interim - a protective barrier now surrounds the North Crater, preventing anyone from accessing it, and the freed Weapons are beginning to tear up parts of the Planet. When Tifa asks about Cloud, Barret has no answer to give. To top it all off, Sephiroth's summoning of Meteor was successful - the impending apocalypse now hangs lazily in the sky, threatening the Planet with its gradual approach. Barret's refresher is interrupted by the arrival of President Rufus and Heidegger, to inform the AVALANCHE pair that they're going to be publicly executed, used as scapegoats to appease the masses. Hands bound, Tifa and Barret are led out of their cell and towards the execution chamber.

A quick note on this short sequence - the player is put in control of Barret on the way to the execution, and I think it's yet another example of how the illusion of gameplay in Final Fantasy VII is a big contributor to how immersed the player can feel in the story and world. It's such a simple little touch, but the fact you take this walk yourself, rather than just watching it, heightens the tension and impact of what's coming up. I think at this point, I genuinely wasn't sure if Barret and Tifa would find a way out of this. Hell, I didn't even know if Cloud was still alive. The developers had already proven themselves willing to kill off a prominent playable character in Aerith - what's to say they wouldn't do it again?

I also want to give a nod to Shinra's plan to use these public executions to turn attention away from the true problems the Planet is facing. It's genuinely worrying how true this seems to be, not only as a fact in itself, but also as to how much it goes on in our own world and how willing the public seem to be to just take it. In a rare attempt at topicality, I want to draw a comparison with recent events in the UK, where a prominent ex-banker was stripped of his knighthood. Call me cynical, but at the time this happened, a lot of press was being given to bankers receiving huge bonuses. The revocation of this man's knighthood ended up distracting a lot of that press, causing them to focus on him while the bankers quietly accepted their bonuses with a comparative lack of fanfare. I'm not saying there's a definite correlation, but it certainly looks to me like this act could have been a 'public execution', intended to appease the masses while the real evil continued under the radar. Witnessing this scene play out again in Final Fantasy VII makes me wonder if the game might have gone some way towards formulating my attitudes towards this issue.

Tifa is first to enter Scarlet's gas chamber and is bound to a chair. As the guard leaves and locks the door, he drops a key on the ground. I think I can see where this is going... Outside, the proceedings are brought to a halt by an alarm signifying the approach of a Weapon. As the execution witnesses flee, one of them knocks Scarlet out with sleeping gas. Beneath the disguise is none other than Cait Sith, who quickly frees Barret. Barret tries desperately to open the door to the gas chamber, but the door won't budge. Meanwhile, with Weapon fast approaching, Rufus orders Heidegger to fire the city's primary cannon. The strike misses, leaving Junon open to attack from the incoming creature while the cannon is reloaded.

Barret is unable to free Tifa from the chamber, and gas has now started pumping into the room. In a desperate bid to free her, he and Cait Sith head for the airport - the stuffed mog seems to have a plan. En route they bump into Yuffie, who looks like she's masquerading as a news reporter, or tourist, or something... the aged graphics make deciphering her disguise somewhat difficult. Anyway, she too joins the party and I'm once again rocking a party of three. I opt to make Barret my main damage-dealer and taker, assign Cait Sith as my mage, and turn Yuffie into a dedicated stats-alterer, loaded with buffs and debuffs. They're sitting quite a few levels below my old party, and their equipment isn't anything to write home about, but they still seem able to handle themselves - enough at least to cut through the Shinra guards between them and the airport. Unfortunately, Cait Sith seems to have led them to a dead end...

Back in the gas chamber, Tifa seems to have just noticed the key on the floor, and resolves to try and escape. What follows is a pretty interesting little button-based mini-game, that allows the player to actually orchestrate the escape rather than simply watching it in a cut-scene. Almost pre-meditating Assassin's Creed, each face button corresponds to a different part of Tifa's body - Triangle for her head, Square and Circle for her right and left arms respectively, and X for her legs. The process of retrieving the key is surprisingly complex, relying on some simultaneous button-presses to move two different parts of the body at the same time, but it's still much more engaging than just watching Tifa do it. It's also not timed - this is at once both a relief, giving you all the time you need to figure things out, and also a little jarring (this woman should be choking, damn it!).

Although free from the chair and now having stopped the gas flow, she's still trapped in the chamber itself. As she wrestles with the door, the attacking Weapon assaults Junon's central structure with some... mouth laser... thing. Before it can charge up another beam of energy, though, it catches a slug from Junon's cannon square in the face. What's left of the Weapon collapses into the sea. The attack has, by miraculous coincidence, opened up an alternative exit for Tifa out of the chamber. Pursued by Scarlet, she climbs down Junon's central edifice and runs to the tip of the barrel of Junon's famous cannon. There's a slapping match between the two women on the edge of the cannon, which to be honest just seems like overkill - a single interactive slap would have been enough to drive the point home, I think. Turning into another rudimentary mini-game kind of ruins the impact (not to mention playing up the underlying sexuality of this scene - two women standing on the end of a long, rod-shaped cannon, slapping each other? I'll let you extrapolate the connotations of that for yourself).

Scarlet, sick of Tifa's barrage of slaps, finally calls on the guards to come and take her away. As they approach, she hears a voice telling her to run to the end of the cannon. She does, and sure enough, there's Barret, standing on the deck of a stolen airship from the airport. Tifa runs, grabs the rope Barret throws, and is hoisted away from Junon with the rest of the crew. This airship, named the Highwind, used to belong to Cid, who's now seemingly 'reclaimed' it from Shinra for the party's use. While Cid's in charge of the ship, though, Tifa seems to have assumed leadership of the party, and her top priority is to try and find Cloud. Red XIII mentions that he's heard of places where the Lifestream kicks out of the Planet's core and into the ocean, and says it might be worth looking in those places. Unfortunately, his usefulness ends there - there's no way of knowing where those places might be. So, with a goal in mind and no idea of the destination, I decide to put the Highwind down for now, and wrap this episode up.

So at the close of Episode Twenty-One, my vital statistics are:

  • Current Party - Cid (Lv 46), Tifa (Lv 41), Red XIII (Lv 50)
  • Current Location - Junon Area, World Map
  • Time on the Clock - 32:34

The Story So Far...

Table of Episodes
Episode Zero - The Obligatory Back StoryEpisode One - Initial Reactors... I Mean, Reactions
Episode Two - Flower Girls And Honey BeesEpisode Three - The Valiant Rescue Effort
Episode Four - Escape From MidgarEpisode Five - All Kalm On The Eastern Continent
Episode Six - An Abundance Of Big BirdsEpisode Seven - Hitching A Ride
Episode Eight - Over The Mountain, Into The SaucerEpisode Nine - Face-Offs And Race-Offs
Episode Ten - Going GongagaEpisode Eleven - Canyons And Caverns
Episode Twelve - Just A Little NibelEpisode Thirteen - The Rocket Man
Episode Fourteen - The Great Materia HeistEpisode Fifteen - Conflict, Romance And Betrayal
Episode Sixteen - An Ancient EvilEpisode Seventeen - The Death Of An Ancient
Episode Eighteen - Story Exposition And... ...Snowboarding???Episode Nineteen - Come Rain, Sleet Or Snow
Episode Twenty - The Illusion Broken

Looking for the next episode? You can find Episode Twenty-Two - Mideel Or No Deal here.

And so I commit another episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII to my blogging archives. Sorry for keeping the regular readers waiting for this one for so long. My Month in Skyrim journals ended up taking a lot more of my time than I'd anticipated, and since they've finished I've done pretty much nothing games-wise except play more Skyrim and Persona 3. It's been nice coming back to Final Fantasy VII though - in fact, it always is. Hopefully I won't leave it so long next time. As always, thanks for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII (PSP)

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Looking Back On My Month In Skyrim

It's kind of sad to think this is the last time I'll ever use this blog header

Those of you who've been following me for the last month should be well aware of A Month in Skyrim, my ubiquitous series of thirty daily journal-styled blogs about my first experiences with the latest Elder Scrolls game. Those of you who don't follow me have probably had the misfortune of encountering it floating around on the Giant Bomb forums. Well, that series came to an end yesterday, and so I figured that today I'd take a look back at the last thirty days, try to articulate how the whole process made me feel, what I might have done differently, and what my plans are for Skyrim now that the journals have come to an end. It should be a fun episode of reflection, and I hope you'll join me for it.

I guess I should note here that even if you haven't read any part of A Month in Skyrim, that shouldn't impede your enjoyment of this retrospective. For anybody who wants to read any of the thirty entries, though, I've thrown together links to all of them in a handy table below. I really should have done this in the blogs themselves, you know. Looks so much neater than the never-ending list the 'Previous Episodes' section became...

A Month In Skyrim - Journal Guide
Day One - Escape from HelgenDay Eleven - Old Towns, New FacesDay Twenty-One - Whiterun Errands...
Day Two - The Golden ClawDay Twelve - Counsel From the GreybeardsDay Twenty-Two - A Gray-Mane Saved...
Day Three - The Bandit, the Wife and Her LoverDay Thirteen - Treason and BetrayalDay Twenty-Three - Secrets Beneath the Sleeping...
Day Four - Duelling With a DragonDay Fourteen - A Daedra and His DogDay Twenty-Four - Fragments of a Legend
Day Five - The Companions and the Sleeping TreeDay Fifteen - The Axe and the MasqueDay Twenty-Five - Putting Spirits to Rest
Day Six - Kynareth's Will Be Done?Day Sixteen - Finding Lost Books and Lost WordsDay Twenty-Six - Giant Killer, Horn Blower
Day Seven - Wuuthrad and WerewolvesDay Seventeen - Tracking the Telvanni LineDay Twenty-Seven - Dragonborn, Dragon-Slayer
Day Eight - Azura's ChampionDay Eighteen - Two Sides of the Same SeptimDay Twenty-Eight - Tying Up Loose Ends
Day Nine - Retrieving the StarDay Nineteen - Siding With the StormcloaksDay Twenty-Nine - A Daedric Mis-Step
Day Ten - New Thu'um, New HouseDay Twenty - Search for the White PhialDay Thirty - The Last Few Pages...

It's also been brought to my attention (specifically by user Legend) that an alternative version might be more practical to those wanting to read the entire work on an e-reader, or in some other capacity away from the internet. To that end, I've compiled every journal entry into a PDF file, which can be downloaded here.

The idea for A Month in Skyrim was born out of a few different places. When the game was first announced way back at the end of 2010, I knew that I'd want to find some special way of covering my time with it on this blog - something unique, and more substantial than a standard opinions blog or even a detailed break-down. The inspiration for the journal approach came from fellow Giant Bomb blogger AndyMacneil, who began writing a series of journal-styled blogs about returning to Morrowind before (much to my chagrin) suddenly disappearing from the blogging scene. If you get a chance, be sure to check out Andy's nine Morrowind journals - their influence on my approach is pretty telling. The final piece of the puzzle came from Warming Up, a daily blog written by British comedian Richard Herring. Thought to be the second-longest-running daily blog in the world, Richard began it in the hopes that forcing himself to write something every day would increase his productivity as a writer. Given that I too was hoping to take my own writing up a gear, I decided to borrow his daily approach, forcing myself to submit a new entry every single day between January 5th and February 3rd. So I'd just like to take this opportunity to credit both of those sources - thanks very much for inspiring the project!

If I had to sum the whole ordeal up in two words, I think they'd be 'mostly pleased'. When I look back at the last month, I remember it first and foremost as an incredibly draining experience. Playing at least two hours of Skyrim every day, and then having to spend another two hours reliving that play session as I wrote about it, was a lot more taxing on my mind than I ever thought it would be. I've lived and breathed Skyrim for around four hours a day, every day, for the last thirty days - it's literally taken up a sixth of my life since January 5th. It's a wonder I'm not sick of it (more on that later). It's also been a very rewarding experience, though. Picking up readers along the way who've shared their own experiences and told me how their playthroughs differed from mine was great, and it's something I'm really going to miss. I also know for a fact that I've helped to sell at least one copy of Skyrim off the back of this endeavour - reading these entries stirred up some interest in one of my friends, who's since bought a copy of the game for himself and is loving it. That's an incredibly rewarding feeling, too.

As a writer, the project has been a resounding success in two major ways. For a start, it's been a great exercise in placing myself inside the mind of a character, and thinking about how they would react in a variety of situations. This is something I've always felt is a bit of a weakness in my writing style, as I have a tendency to place my own mind into my characters instead, and think about what I would do in any given scenario. Before embarking on this series of blogs, I outlined three key traits that defined character and made him distinctly different from myself, and challenged myself to stick to them - as a Nord, he would be patriotic without being too nationalistic, fearful of the power and influence of the gods on his life, and above all, honest without exception. I kept these attitudes in mind when writing every entry, and I think the result is, for the first time, a character who isn't just a slight variation of myself. It's a technique I plan to carry over into other writing projects, most notably the novel I'm working on.

The other thing it serves as is proof that I can commit myself to writing a substantial amount every day. There were a couple of points where I almost faltered, through illness or having to commit to other things (and on one occasion, even drunkenness), but without fail, every single one of those thirty entries made it up onto the site on the corresponding day, and I'm incredibly proud of myself for that. The majority of the blogs took me between one and two hours to write, and with the whole compiled work totalling just over 28,000 words, equate to an average of just under a thousand words each. That's an amazing work rate for me, and rock solid proof that I can write every day if I'm determined and commit myself. As with the character-development technique above, this is something that I hope to transfer back to my novel - suddenly, the prospect of finishing it by the end of June doesn't seem quite so distant any more.

Having said that, if I were to start the whole process again, there are a few things I would have done differently. One of them, highlighted by user Napalm in a comment on one of the later entries, would have been posting less frequently to avoid overkill. I definitely would have still written something every day, but I probably would have chosen to put it out in longer, weekly instalments rather than spamming the Skyrim forum and throwing up individual entries every day. In another reflective shake-up, I probably would have created a character of weaker moral fibre. Lenah'd isn't perfect, but he still endeavours to do the right thing most of the time, and a less chivalrous character might have been a bit more fun both to write and to read about. The final thing I think I would have done is stuck more rigidly to one of the quest lines, preferably one other than the main quest. I opted to do a lot of side-stuff because I wanted to see as much of the game-world as possible, and that seemed like the best way to do it. Instead, I felt like I ended up moving from ancient Nordic barrow to ancient Nordic barrow, occasionally stopping via Whiterun to empty my inventory. Perhaps if I'd stuck with the College of Winterhold, or the Civil War quest line, I would have seen a wider variety of content while also covering a decent portion of the game's map.

So now that the blog series is over, where do I go from here? Surprisingly (and trust me, I'm surprising nobody more than myself here), I think the answer is going to be 'play more Skyrim'. I'm seventy hours in at this point, and I still haven't had anywhere near my fill of Bethesda's latest fantasy epic. Despite what the journal suggests, Lenah'd's adventures are far from over - I plan to put him through the main quest, the Companions quest-line, the College of Winterhold's quest line, and the Civil War's quest line before quietly retiring him and putting the game down for a bit. By then I anticipate I'll have reached my burn-out point with Skyrim, especially if I continue to explore a healthy amount of the miscellaneous quest content as I go. Towards the end of 2012, though, I plan to return to Skyrim and create a new character (most likely an amoral Khajiit with a focus on stealth) to take through the Thieves Guild, Dark Brotherhood and Daedric quests. And don't worry - when I do make my return trip to Tamriel, I won't be embarking on another thirty-day blog series!

All that remains for me to say here at the end is a great big thank-you. Thanks to everyone who read or commented - whether you just joined me once or twice, or saw the whole thing through, I'm truly grateful and hope it brought you some enjoyment. Special thanks in particular go to Storms and Sparky_Buzzsaw, for seeing the project through with me from beginning to end and spurring me on with your regular comments - your readership, opinions and anecdotes were all very much appreciated. A quick thanks too to my friend Duncan, a non-GB user who's nonetheless been reading and offering me feedback on every entry - cheers mate! To the thirty or so users who've followed me since beginning the journals, I implore you to stick around now they're done - I do write other blogs too, and I'd like to think they're usually worth reading, if a little less regular. Take care all of you, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (X360)

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A Month In Skyrim - Day Thirty

Day Thirty - The Last Few Pages...

I found myself barely able to sleep last night. In my dreams I was visited by the faces of Vigilant Tyranus and Logrolf the Willful, their lifeless eyes blood-red, their voices not their own, replaced with the disembodied growl of Molag Bal. More than once I woke in a cold sweat, even calling out loud enough at one point to awaken Lydia, my housecarl, who thought I was being attacked. I know I am being punished for killing two innocent men, both of whom were serving in the name of causes far more just than my own selfishness and self-preservation. I am just not sure whether it is the Divines who are punishing me, or if I am punishing myself.

After a time, there came a point where my inability to sleep forced me out of bed and back onto whatever path fate has placed beneath my feet. I gathered up everything important, leaving the mace of Molag Bal locked in the chest by my bedside, and left Whiterun for Riverwood. Not wanting to travel alone, I asked Lydia if she might accompany me on the roads. The request proved to be a wise one - no sooner had we moved outside the city walls than we were set upon by an enraged cultist, carrying a book glorifying Boethia in one hand and a sharpened steel dagger in the other. Lydia ran the crazed Dunmer through before he could reach me, but whatever damage my body has been spared, I cannot say the same for my mind. I appear to have shaken off the attention of one Daedric prince, only to attract that of another.

If I must commit one more fact about myself to these pages, it is that in the affairs of the Divines and the Daedra, I am a coward. I feel allegiance to neither one group of immortals nor the other, but I fear suffering their wrath more than anything else in this world. I fear it in my indifference, and I fear it in my actions. As a consequence, I have always sought to act not in ways which please the deities, but in ways that ensure I do not upset them. Thinking of this now, my mind is cast back to restoring the Gildergreen in Whiterun, my quest to reforge Azura's Star, and my time spent adventuring with Barbas at the behest of Clavicus Vile. My entire life, I have walked on egg-shells before the gods. Now, with Boethiah presumably seeking vengeance for Logrolf, it seems those shells might finally have cracked.

At High Hrothgar, Arngeir and the Greybeards had told me that being Dragonborn was a gift bestowed upon individuals by Akatosh himself - great individuals who have changed the course of history, and always for the better. How can I be deserving of that same gift, after the events of yesterday? The only conclusion I have been able to reach is that perhaps even in the face of a supposedly fixed destiny, there are many paths one might take. Perhaps I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, swayed onto another of those myriad paths by Molag Bal, or maybe even mere circumstance. If this is the case, then perhaps I can re-join the path I'd hoped to take somewhere further down the line. In the meantime I must live with the consequences, harrowing as they might be. I must also cease this indifference and cowardice in the face of the gods. For whatever reason, Akatosh has given me the gift of the dragon blood. I therefore have a responsibility, if not to the other Divines then at least to him. No more will I allow the business of the Daedra to sway me, accident or otherwise.

Lydia and I arrived in Riverwood late in the morning, and made straight for the Sleeping Giant Inn. We found Delphine down in her hidden room, putting the finishing touches to her plan to get us into the Thalmor embassy. Supposedly parties are frequently held there, and she believes I could slip in unnoticed in the guise of a guest. Once inside, I was expected to search for any notes that might implicate the Thalmor in the dragons' return. She asked me to head for Solitude and meet with her informant, a Bosmer named Malborn who works undercover within the embassy itself. I must confess, I was reluctant to return to the road after our run-in with the Boethiah cultist, but something within me (perhaps the dragon blood, or perhaps simply an imperceptible intervention from Akatosh himself) encouraged me to steel myself and press on. Delphine told me that I would find him at the Winking Skeever, awaiting my arrival.

We left Riverwood immediately, following the path we'd already taken back towards Whiterun, then heading west and finally north through Rorikstead and Dragon Bridge, arriving in Solitude just as the evening was beginning its slow transformation to night. As Delphine had said, we found Malborn sipping tentatively at a tankard of mead in the Winking Skeever. His nervous disposition and constant glances at every corner of the room was incredibly distracting, and did little to ease my own worries about possibly being followed here from Riverwood. Malborn explained the situation to me over the top of his tankard - he would be able to slip any equipment I might need into the embassy, but once inside and armed, I would be on my own. Understanding, I handed over everything that has served me so well up to this point - my beautifully-refined Orcish sword and shield, the restored amulet of Gauldur, my pair of enchanted Orcish gauntlets that improve my skill with a blade, and a healthy stock of draughts and potions. Malborn took my valuables and left, presumably returning to the embassy, while I booked rooms for the night for Lydia and myself.

This entry brings me to the final page in this journal, and thus the end of at least this part of my chronicle. Perhaps, chance permitting, I will seek out a second empty tome through a local trader, and continue to document my travels and adventures. Or (and I fear this is more likely), perhaps the chaos that currently grips Tamriel will amplify, forcing me to abandon these nightly writings and fully commit to my destiny as a Dragonborn. No matter which of these comes to pass, I hope this journal outlives its writer and finds its way into the hands of another. That way, no matter what legends may be born out of what has passed, or what is yet to come, there will always be those who know the truth - that in the two-hundred-and-first year of the fourth era, on a snowy morning in Last Seed, a humble Nord smith returning from Cyrodiil was spared the headsman's axe and plunged into a fight not just for his homeland, but for the future of all Tamriel. Until then,

Ever Honest,

Lenah'd Retsmek

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Previous Episodes

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A Month In Skyrim - Day Twenty-Nine

Day Twenty-Nine - A Daedric Mis-Step

I left Solitude with the sun still absent from the morning sky and began my journey south towards Markarth - not to stop at the city itself, but to put me on the right path to reach Fort Sungard. During my last visit to Markarth, an Orc blacksmith by the name of Ghorza gra-Bagol had asked me to recover a copy of The Last Scabbard of Akrash, a book that she believed might spur her apprentice into improving his smithing skills. Her request had taken me back to my own apprenticeship, when I myself had been inspired by that very book, and the rekindling of that near-forgotten memory rendered me unable to refuse. Ghorza believed a copy of the book was at Fort Sungard, hence my reason for heading there.

I arrived to find the fort overrun with Forsworn bandits, and struggled to approach under a storm of arrows. In a moment of inspiration, I raised my head above cover and Shouted with Unrelenting Force, throwing the archers from the ramparts. My sword made short work of the other Forsworn as I moved into the fort's interior, where true to Ghorza's word, a copy of The Last Scabbard of Akrash sat upon a table in the sleeping quarters. I placed it into my pack and departed from the fort, running back to Markarth under the morning sun. Ghorza seemed incredibly grateful when I handed over the book, and in return for my actions taught me a tempering skill unique to the Orsimer. I wish I had known it sooner - it would have proven most useful in crafting my suit of Orcish armour.

As I parted ways with Ghorza and her apprentice, I met with a vigilant of Stendarr in the city streets. He introduced himself as Vigilant Tyranus, and asked me if I'd seen anybody entering or leaving the abandoned house near the city's entrance. Supposedly there had been reports of Daedra worship there, and Tyranus had been sent by the vigil to investigate. Having nothing more to do before returning to Riverwood tomorrow, I agreed to help Tyranus explore the house. As we entered, the latch on the door clicked shut, locking us into the building. Objects began to dance around the room as if held by ghosts, and a disembodied voice began ordering Tyranus to kill me.

The vigilant left me with no choice - reluctantly, I was forced to take his life before he took mine. With Tyranus's blood spilled, the voice invited me into the house's basement. There I discovered the extent of the peril in which I'd managed to place myself - the voice was emanating from a shrine to the Daedric prince Molag Bal. Resting on the shrine was an ancient rusted mace, a Daedric artifact which Molag Bal informed me had been stripped of his power by a servant of another of the Daedra, Boethiah. He asked me to find this servant and bring him back to the shrine, that he might restore the mace to its former glory. Realising with horror that I was likely damned if I helped and certainly dead if I refused, I agreed to search for Boethiah's servant and left the shrine. When I returned upstairs, the front door of the house was unlocked once more.

Molag Bal had speculated that the servant I sought had been abducted by bandits and taken to their camp near Bruca's Leap Redoubt, so I began following the path to the north. Sure enough, I found the man I was looking for being guarded at a Forsworn encampment. As I hurriedly attempted to cut his bindings I was set upon by the Forsworn themselves, forcing me to turn my blade on them. When the area was clear and the prisoner's ties were released, he introduced himself as Logrolf the Willful and asked who had sent me. At the mention of Molag Bal's name he became quite hostile, and demanded that I accompany him to the shrine in Markarth so that he might perform his rite and keep the Daedra's mace bound and unusable.

By the time we'd arrived back within the city walls night had set in, but I was determined to see this business through to its conclusion before even thinking about sleep. I accompanied Logrolf to the house where Molag Bal resided, and followed him down to the basement. As he approached the shrine, Molag Bal trapped him within a make-shift cage. Placing the rusted mace in my hand, the Daedric prince demanded that I end Logrolf's life with it. Not seeing any other way out of the situation, save my own death, I did as Molag Bal had instructed. While I struggled to hold back the nausea, the mace in my hand took on a brilliant new lustre as if by magic. The artifact restored, Molag Bal gifted his Mace to me and dismissed me from the shrine. I hurried upstairs and out of the house, desperate to leave the whole sordid affair behind.

I did not want to stop at the Silver-Blood Inn tonight. Put simply, I just wanted to get out of Markarth, and not return for a long time. I took the southern road back to Whiterun, arriving at Breezehome just after 3:00am. I have cleared my pack of all clutter and readied my affairs for tomorrow. In the morning, I plan to meet with Delphine in Riverwood and find out if she has finished planning our inflitration of the Thalmor embassy. Until then,

Ever Honest,

Lenah'd Retsmek

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A Month In Skyrim - Day Twenty-Eight

Day Twenty-Eight - Tying Up Loose Ends

A night's rest did nothing to diminish my new-found resolve, and I awoke next morning determined to tie up as many loose ends as possible before returning to Delphine in Riverwood. My first port of call was Jorrvaskr, to speak with the Companions and see if I might extend my sabbatical indefinitely. Farkas didn't seem to mind my asking this, but he did ask one last thing of me before agreeing to grant me the leave that I sought. A man named Vulwulf Snow-Shod, residing in Riften, was my target - as with Faendal in Riverwood, I was required only to intimidate, not to kill. I accepted the contract, and left for Riften immediately.

Asking around the city soon led me to Snow-Shod, filling himself with bread and mead at the Bee and Barb. I invited him to take the brawl outside and into the streets, but he was insistent on brawling inside the inn. The old Nord had quite the punch on him, knocking me back a few times, but I was able to beat him into submission. I left the Bee and Barb dabbing blood away from my lip, the adrenaline still coursing through my veins. I thought about heading straight back to Whiterun to turn the job in to Farkas, but instead chose to peruse my journal and see if I had any outstanding business in Riften. As it happened, the Jarl of Falkreath had requested that if I ever found myself in the area, I might pick up some Black Briar Mead for him. Local connections put me in touch with a Dunmer who was able to sell me a bottle for a very modest ten gold.

I spent the rest of my evening following the southern trails through the Jerall mountains and back to Falkreath. I arrived in town very late that evening, and was concerned that perhaps I would be calling to speak with Siddgeir too late. Thankfully the Jarl was still awake, and his consorts did not seem to mind my presence in the longhouse either. I presented Siddgeir with the bottle of Black Briar Mead, and in return he offered me a small purse containing one hundred septims. Satisfied that all my important business in both Riften and Falkreath was now taken care of, I booked a room at the Dead Man's Drink and put my head down for the rest of the night.

I was somewhat slower than usual to rise in the morning, and my journey from Falkreath back to Whiterun was a slow and deliberate one. I did not arrive back in the city until after midday, but made straight for Jorrvaskr to tell Farkas I'd fulfilled what he'd asked of me. He thanked me, shook me warmly by the hand and wished me the best of luck in whatever the near future might hold for me. When all this business with the dragons is over, I hope to give more of my time to the Companions - in spite of my initial prejudices towards their darker side, they have been nothing but kind and welcoming to me, and I feel I owe them that much at least.

Consulting my journal once more, I noticed that I had a lot of unfinished business in Solitude. To tell the truth, I have been reluctant to spend any length of time in the city since siding with the Stormcloaks, but I would rather stand by my word and keep my promises to others before I become too embroiled in whatever destiny the Gods have mapped out for me. An Imperial writer named Adonato Leotelli asked me to pass on a copy of his latest work to the Bard's College, and Sorex Vinius had given me a bottle of Stros M'Kai Rum to deliver to Falk Fire-Beard, the steward at the Blue Palace. I ensured both items were in my pack and set off for Solitude to fulfil my obligations.

My trek northwest to the capital was unremarkable, and I arrived in Solitude under the beautiful orange sky of early evening. I first stopped at the Bard's College, where an instructor named Viarmo seemed very keen to enrol me. I declined politely, having never been one with a heart or head for verse. Perhaps it is for the best - I was always told by my parents that I could never sing, only shout, and so this new-found gift of the Voice might mean that becoming a bard would have dangerous consequences. I located the histories keeper, Giraud Gemane, and presented him with Adonato's newest work. He thanked me with a payment of five hundred gold coins, and we spoke for a while on the subject of musical history. As we talked, he noticed an old drum strung to my pack, and asked if he might examine it. He informed me that the drum, which I'd found locked in a chest in Halldir's Cairn weeks previously, had once belonged to a famous bard named Rjorn, and had been lost for many years. He offered to take it off my hands, and since I had no use for it, was happy to indulge his interest. He offered me some combat tips by way of reward, for which I graciously thanked him before taking my leave.

From the Bard's College I headed to the Blue Palace. Falk Fire-Beard was busy with Jarl Elisif, who was holding court when I arrived. I approached him after the Jarl's visitor had departed, and he seemed very pleased to receive the bottle of Hammerfell rum - so much so that he slipped a healthy five-hundred septims into my purse as thanks for the delivery. With all my outstanding commitments in Solitude dealt with, and the orange sky now turning a rich star-dotted black, I decided to book a room at the Winking Skeever and see the night through here in Solitude. Tomorrow I plan to return to Markarth, and settle all commitments I've made to its citizens. Hopefully by then, Delphine will have finished formulating her plan and we can take the fight to the Thalmor. Until then,

Ever Honest,

Lenah'd Retsmek

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