REPORTING FROM THE FIELD: I Spelunked as the Sun Set in Unova

REPORTING FROM THE FIELD

I Spelunked as the Sun Set in Unova

I need Drilbur. Drilbur’s a little tar-gray, pink-nosed, mole-like Pokémon with wide, denim-colored stripes of fur wrapped around its body in the accidental shape of a miner’s outfit—oh, and enormous steel claws. Huge attack stats, great speed. It’s a great, stellar little Ground Pokémon. I am in Nimbasa, training my new-caught Solosis (a.k.a. Nartlemank) to be the best it can be, and it’s off to a great, if somewhat uneven start, when it occurs to me: I need Drilbur. I forgot to get it when I had the chance, when I was in the area of the game where it was at. I suppose I was too caught up in raising Tepig (a.k.a. Uh…), Magnemite (a.k.a. Christosphere Orbin a.k.a. Orbinson), and Petilil (a.k.a. Jelridbins, which must be said aloud to be truly felt), or sometimes I get high on adventure and forget to stick to the plan, and I just start playing for “fun” and “nostalgia.” I’ll hop on my bike to make it back to where Drilbur’s at. I don’t have the ability to “Fly” just yet, (crud.), so instead I’ll have to get myself there myself, like get there get there. It will take upwards of five minutes. It’ll hurt.

But it’s a good hurt and you know it. Along the way, the feeling of the quest begins to seep back in, the urgency of the mission at hand, the duty to self. Here’s what the trip to where Drilbur’s at is like. I spray on a repel to get through the desert beneath the highway unbothered on the footpath back to Castelia City, which is a heavily buildinged, many peopled, perfectly round metropolis on the bay that takes probably sixty full seconds—and partway through, my repel wears off—to pedal all the way through, from northern tip to eastern; at which right-most point there lies a gate opening onto Skyarrow Bridge, a colossal, industrial marvel, the traversal of which even at full clip is itself another 30-second long marathon of holding down the down button, but which stands as kind of one of the more elaborate set-pieces showing off this entry’s (Version Black/White’s) birthday cakey graphical update, coming rigged with dynamic, angle-changing camera movement, and fully rendered shipping boats crossing by on whatever unnamed body of water that is down below, and semi-trucks grumbling by on the car-bound sub-level of bridgeroad just beneath me, and a couple of folks idling on the overpass who if you talk to them have nothing to say to you other than just to comment on the bridge (“I’m looking for the exact center point!”), all of this I merrily ignore but know is there as I zip along, ponytail aflail, havin’ a good old time; at Skyarrow’s end stands Pinwheel Forest, a big touristy park stuck in permanent autumn with a wide, paved walkway and these little deviations you can take into the woods should you feel inclined to be so deviated; but I need no deviations, myself, as I know the trees beyond the handrails harbor no hidden Drilburs for me; and I ride out of Pinwheel, into, and through, all 5-seconds of Nacrene City, which with its railroad tracks (no longer in service) and quaint New England aesthetic, fills its role as a blip on the side of the road quite roundly, and also homes the Normal-type Gym, which also doubles as a natural history museum, where earlier in the game there was this attempted heist that I thwarted using a pokemon that I, as it turned out, decided to stop using the moment I got to Nimbasa (Munna for Solosis [Purl for Nartlemank]); back out into the countryside; I roll soundlessly over a quiet yellow footbridge, beneath me a large, mirror-flat expanse of inverted sky, slow-floating clouds disappearing into and out of grass at pond’s edge, and I onto a gravel path that winds picket-fenced through wide fields of high green grass; around a bend, past a daycare center—no wait, backtrack a bit, just a little bit, to where I was supposed to have hung a left instead of a right, alright, and here we are: Wellspring Cave. Point being, it’s a long trip, but not a totally mundane one.

Wellspring’s only entrance and exit is a big craggy hole chomped out of the rockface. Grass stops growing just shy of its threshold, and here scattered about on the dead, tan earth are some stones. Five of them, if we’re counting, each the size of my face. I pedal over them as if they weren’t even there. Into the dark. “WellspringCave.” I enter, and the music changes to something shadowier, maybe even secretive, stark and pizzicato, with a haunted, woodwind-heavy refrain—minor tonalities abounding, of course. The light of the entrance is whitely bright, but bleeds no more than a footstep into the cave. I spray on another repel. Drilbur is in here somewhere, he’ll appear in dustclouds, which spring up occasionally if you walk around uninterrupted for a bit. You have to work up a lot of footsteps to make them appear, sometimes, hence the repel. While ambling randomly about I hunt for hidden items, which are generally always in great abundance in caves, and I wind up finding a couple things in obvious spots (brief little dead ends, nooks, crannies, etc.). I find a PP Up, for instance, which I’ll use, definitely, eventually, when I figure out who needs it, etc. I find TM46, which’ll teach any pokemon the move “Thief,” which does a little damage and has a chance to burgle an item from the opponent, and which I won’t bother teaching to any of my aboveboard team members. Moisture drips from the cave’s ceiling, constantly, causing little upside down fireworks to splish here and there about the floor. There’s murky water pooled deeply across the southern half of the cave, enough to “Surf” around on. When a dust cloud does finally stir up, its right in front of me, and I’m inside of it before I even realize it; and yet it turns out to be a Rock Gem rather than a Drilbur. Farts. I put the Rock Gem, whatever it is, into my items case and spray on another repel and keep at it.

By legitimate surprise, I stumble upon a staircase going down deeper to a basement level that, after deciding to check it out, I find is pitch black. If I had “Flash,” I could light up this basement, but I generally opt not to waste move slots on crap I don’t have to, so instead I just feel around in the dark a bit. I find a wall, another wall, the stairs I came down from, and then accidentally a corridor. Down a ways, some stairs reach even further down into the gloom, and that’s where I get the creeps—yep, the creeps, from my DS, at 5:30 PM on a Monday in St. Louis, MO—and head back up to into the now bright-seeming upstairs dim. I have to put on another repel. By now I must stink of the stuff. I continue to run about.

Drops drip. Cave music plays on loop. At one point I forget and unthinkingly try to apply another Repel, at which the game retorts: “Since a Repel’s effects still linger, you can’t use this now.” Indeed. I continue to run about.

I find a good little lane of floor that spans from wall to wall in which to just sprint back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, back and—oops, my thumb slips and I go wandering sideways for a second, but immediately get right back on course—through a few more repels. Another dustcloud surprise, this time a Grass Gem. They keep appearing right at my feet, like traps! Is this what they’re supposed to do? If it happens again, I’ll assume it is. At one point, I look into my items case and read what it is these Gem things do. Turns out they’re one-time use, and what they do is boost the power of moves that match the gem’s type, Rock moves or Grass moves in my case. Presumably they break for good, after being used? Or maybe they’re recyclable? I don’t know, whatever. Right after that, two things happen at the very same time: a dust cloud appears (several steps away this time), and a repel wears off. I have to spray on another repel, right? But then it occurs to me, that maybe the repels are why I’m only finding gems instead of Drilburs. I leave the Repel off and brave the few long, dark, perilous, potentially Woobat-filled steps to the cloud, unprotected. No Woobat swoops upon me. No Roggenrola jumps out at me. I make it to the cloud, to what turns out to be, to my growing disappointment, an Electric Gem.

Drilbur, come on. Don’t you want to join me on the adventure of a lifetime? I can, and will, make you so much better than you could ever be on your own. I will bring you to the Elite Four, and together we will smash down the door to the champion’s room and embarrass whatever is put in our way. You and me and five other awesome Pokémon, whom I’m sure you’ll grow to love, and who I’m sure will love you, too, eventually. Comrades in arms, you’ll be. Boy, the music in the cave gets kind of irritating after awhile.

To its credit, though, it takes until like the 300 da capo for me to begin to feel this way. At which point, I turn the music down, clickety-clickety, on the side of my DS. Oops, shit, I run into a Roggenrola. How did I forget a Repel? Sigh. My Solosis is out front and it’s holding a Smoke Ball, which enables it to run away unhindered every time, and which it uses promptly. I spray on my third-to-last repel. I have 300 steps’ worth of repel left. Come on, Drilbur. Alas, I drain all three in just a couple minutes. While I walk around, I look at the wall of the cave. There’s a recess in the wall that’s kind of got my eye for some reason. It's poorly rendered, unrealistic-looking. Possibly man-made. Anyway, when my last Repel wears off I run straight into a Woobat. It flaps about dumbly for a moment while I hesitate over the Run button. I do Run, and exit the cave—no, I run into another Woobat, one that’s a whole three levels higher than the previous one, but still no creature I care to own, and so I flee once more. This time, I make it outside.

Night? Night. Everything is slightly darker bluer than usual, the trees, the grass, the picket fences. I bike back to Nacrene, back around that big beautiful pond, to buy more Repels, what should be a quick trip. And is. The Pokémon Center’s doors slide open for me with that brief little square-wave sound they make. The salesman at the counter tells me hello, “Welcome! May I help you?” I select, “Buy,” and purchase 7,000 gold’s worth of Repels (which turns out to be twenty, even). Despite this monster transaction he’s just handled, the cashier maintains a perfectly professional, seemngly preprogrammed manner. “Is there anything else I may do for you?” I select, “No thanks!” He tells me to come again and I am gone. On the way out the door I hesitate to consider maybe selling the Gems I racked up back in Wellspring Cave; but no. If they’re recyclable, I could see them being useful. We’ll see. I run along the Nacrene City train tracks back through the gate leading to the path along the pond, the footbridge, the picket fences, and finally that big bite-mark in the cliff side, Wellspring Cave. Another Repel, sphsssst. It takes a few moments, just running around aimlessly in the dark—I’ve turned the volume back up, so there’s that damn loop again—when all of a sudden: another dust cloud, up on a ledge. I hurry up to it.

DRILBUR ♀. How you doing there, lil lady? I’m Mr. Burger. I’m here to change your goddamn life. Solosis, GO.

Solosis is essentially a lima bean (but with a face) suspended in a bubble of green jell-o. Psychic type. Naturally excruciatingly slow. Mine has a nature that makes it even slower, but this is a deliberate choice on my part, and one made with good reason. I bred it to know the move Trick Room from birth, which, you see, “distorts the battlefield” such that the fastest Pokémon suddenly move the slowest, while the slowest Pokémon become the fastest! I happen to have one of the very slowest Pokemon in the entire Nat’l Dex. Its speed being its only naturally low stat, Solosis is otherwise monstrously predisposed to battle. It’s a little silly-looking in its current form, true, but its final form, Reuniclus, looks sweet. Like a sort of gelatinous, cactus, piñata thing, with two big muscly arms. You’ll see. My Solosis will be a hero, someday. Right now, though, it’s at Level 21, while this Drilbur is only Lv. 11, so hmm. I don’t want to murder it by accident. Ah, here we go: Hidden Power, which for Solosis is a Fire-type move, I think, and which shouldn’t hurt the little rodent too badly. Drilbur uses Scratch—note she’s zounds faster than the Solosis 10 levels older than her—and chips away five HP. Solosis, meanwhile, misses. So again with the Hidden Power. Oh crap, what’s this it’s saying: it doesn’t even effect the Drilbur? I missed that the first time. I guess that means that Solosis’s Hidden Power is Electric-type? I think? Farts. I switch to Jelridbins, who is a deceptively cute little Petilil who knows Sleep Powder (which guess what that does) and Stun Spore (which causes Paralysis). I paralyze Drilbur. Then I attempt to put him to sleep, too. This proves challenging. The game doesn’t seem to want to let me inflict two status conditions at once. But it’s not saying this explicitly. It just keeps saying “It failed,” and that Drilbur, like, “avoided the attack.” Fine. Petilil at Lv. 23 is way too strong to actually attack Drilbur, especially having the Grass v. Ground Type advantage, so I switch to Tepig. Tepig is Fire, and shouldn’t be able to hurt Drilbur too badly. I take a risk and do Flame Charge. God, I hope this doesn’t kill the little bugger. It totally does. SHIT. Okay, fine. Damaging it isn’t going to work. I need to just use a Quick Ball. Or a Dusk Ball. Just as soon as I scrounge up another Drilbur.

Outside, in the real world, in St. Louis, it’s suddenly dark. It’s 6:30 PM. I’ve been at this for maybe a little too long. I need to go grocery shopping, and have something cooking before Miriam gets home. Before that, I need to shower. Alright. Playtime’s over. Good game, Drilbur. I guess your incredible future can wait. For now.

(Satisfying screenshots courtesy of hookedgamers.com, gamesradar.com, bulbagarden.net and walkthru.pokemon.com)

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You Do Not Enjoy Playing Pokemon

You love playing Pokemon, but you hate playing Pokemon. You hate starting out on new Routes knowing there will be tall grass, dead ends, and trainer battles. You hate surfing. You hate long, winding, random-encounter-filled deviations from the main Route that should have cool items in them, like Rare Candy, PP Up, Max Revive, etc., but that instead only have items that the game seems to think are cool, like Ether, X Speed, Heal Ball, etc. You hate running back to the pokemon center every ten minutes because you refuse to use too many potions on any one outing.

You hate catching a Level 6 something and then finding out that there are Level 9 ones in the same grass. You hate raising a pokemon that you know from the outset you're eventually going to have to replace. You hate that your pokemon hurt themselves in confusion disproportionately more often than do your opponent's.

You hate that you can't have Arceus. You hate when a sweet pokemon looks silly from behind. You hate that you only ever land critical hits when you least need them. You hate that you always have to figure out where everything is whenever you get to a new town; and you hate having to figure out which houses or buildings have nobody of any importance in them; and you hate that it always feels too soon for another gym.

You hate having to grind before pretty much any major progress-related event. You hate how fleeting it is to have all your pokemon be higher level than everybody else's in the game. You hate having to grind when all the wild pokemon near town are like 5 levels below your pokemon. You hate that the pokemon you need to grind most always has the Type that is the worst to have to grind in that area. You hate when random encounters suddenly start happening every three steps. You hate how random encounters always occur right as you're about to make it out of the grass. You hate being unable to run from a wild pokemon until after it has paralyzed/poisoned/put your guy to sleep.

You hate waiting for it to finish saying, "Wild [...] appeared!, Go [...]!, [...]'s Intimidate cut [...]'s attack!, [...]'s Anticipate made it shudder, It started to hail!" etc. You hate waiting for it to finish healing your pokemon. You hate waiting for it to let you Press Start to Begin. You hate waiting for it to finish saving (unless it's "saving a lot of data," then you feel accomplished).

You hate caves. You hate getting through a huge span of the game and then receiving the Item Finder. You hate that you can never bring yourself to actually use any of your rare candies. You hate having to waste precious move slots on mandatory HM crap. You hate that your [Type]-type pokemon only learns a good [Type]-type move every twenty levels. You hate how slow even the running shoes feel after awhile. You hate that after several hours you can't remember why you even play this stupid game.

But dear player, you must suffer to earn your contentment. The game--not your rival, not Team Whatever, not the superhuman effort needed to fill your pokedex--the game itself is the game's true antagonist. To play it is to oppose it. To complete it is to defeat it. And to discuss it with other players is, my friend, alas, to commiserate.

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How I Became Indoctrinated And But Still

When I beat Mass Effect 3, it was late into the wee hours, and so about its ending I felt: sleepy, and kind of jarred. Then I went to bed. When I woke up, I found I really wanted to read some inflammatory remarks about the ending. I wanted to try and find a comment or two or fifty that could articulate what it was I was pretty sure I disliked about that damn ending but couldn't articulate myself. I came to Giant Bomb and was not disappointed.

But somewhere along the way somebody mentioned Indoctrination Theory. Which is what the ME community has taken to calling the group effort to form a coherent interpretation of what might be a trilogy-wide, impossible-to-solidly-verify plot twist involving all that stuff that while we were playing we knew probably had to do with some kind of plot twist or other but didn't bother to keep track or make sense of in hopes that the game would just do that for us. I'll say it: I think Indoctrination Theory is about as close to correct as we can get right now, in this weird formless time between now and when this reportedly illuminating DLC is hopefully supposed to come out and actually give us some answers. The symbols themselves are baldly uncreative, (yes, and more on this in a moment) and their deployment is rote, by-the-book stuff, (if you don't "believe" the boy was a figment of Shepard's imagination, then fine, but just know I'm making this face :\ out of pity, not dissent) and so we'd have expected the ending to be, in due proportion, pretty conspicuously straightforward about, like, "Alright, here's your plot-twist (and all necessary background info)!" but damn it, no, instead they went for the noisy, weirdly dialogued, herky jerky, dangerously cheesy, over-confident, fuck-da-haters super-send-off. So bombastic, so confident, so kind of beautiful in its hideousness, its reckless hideousness.

The ending is confusing and we can't know what it means just yet. We might never get to just outright "know." My money is on Indoctrination Theory, as it's just generally consistent with the game's own standard of thoughtful, hard, sci-fi; and it will make more sense on its wiki page 10 years from now than "The franchise boasted uniformly solid, well-wrought writing and set the standard for its day, excepting of course its shitty, confusing ending."

If you want to really hit the writers where it hurts, (which you've already actually done, worse than anyone could ever repair, but, alas, spilled milk) then complain about their ugly, hilarious missteps: how contrived the whole dream-sequence-in-a-foggy-wood thing is, and how hamfisted the symbol of the ghostly little boy is, and how embarrassingly cheesy and overly one-linered all the major death sequences are (in a way that chafes more than endears), etc. That EA had its gun made of money and market analysts pressed to Bioware's temple the whole time they made this game is more conspicuous in how trite and shellacky the selection of story elements is than in how these elements are executed, which is almost uniformly as a masterpiece of fun and hard sci-fi, the product of passionate, titanically talented, underpaid writers trying their damnedest to make, no, contribute, something good.

And that is all I have to say about that.

Now, what, by the way, really irked me about the ending--and as far as I know these complaints have not been voiced nearly enough, if at all--are the following issues: (1) I must have zoned out for a second when the VI kid told me which path led to where in that last crucial, crucial moment, and I accidentally trudged to the Control console instead of the Destroy one, and then GET THIS: the game wouldn't let me walk away. As soon as the little prompt hologram thing appeared at the console, I was glued to the spot and couldn't go back around to the other one clearly intended for my Paragon Shepard. So I had to do the Renegade ending for my 100% Paragon Shepard. I mean, I rolled with that punch, but then came one I simply couldn't take. (2) That there was no epilogue, that I was simply sent back to before I'd invaded Cerberus, was to me an unforgivable sin. For a trilogy as massive as Mass Effect, how there could not be even the barest hint of post-completion gameplay--which is something I, yes, honestly, think is super important, and here I turn a teary eye to like Grim Fandango and Earthbound and all those magnificent games whose endings let you come back and absolutely bask in the dewy afterglow of a story well-told--is to me something Bioware can't even at this point come back and apologize for. And, erm, this is a weak argument against an incredibly, generously brilliant franchise, I know. A gentle breeze could blow it down. But it's mine, my one crucial little nitpick, and it's the number one thing I'll always hold against Mass Effect.

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At least let's just mention Radiant Historia with a sad nod

Radiant Historia came out with a whisper sometime during the empty, headlineless Winter leading up to Pokemon Black & White's Spring Twenty-Eleven North America release. What sold Radiant Historia was not any kin or kind of advertising or public presence, none at all beyond youtubable trailers and gameplay footage, but rather its anomalously high scores on aggregate review sites. What was this late 90s-looking RPG, with its review scores in the 80s and 90s despite its sort of uninteresting-looking cast and gimmicky time travel gimmick, what were its intentions, and, well, was it actually, like, anything? Could a game so seemingly identity-less at first glance actually do anything worth looking at or reading through, or, as it would so happen, playing and replaying through in small chunks over and over again throughout the course of the game probably a total of like 20 or 30 times per chunk?

Yes, it could.

Radiant Historia, despite inflicting on its players one of the most punishing gameplay mechanics in recent memory, and doing this often, is a home run, a game with objective goodness, a rewarding experience. Its intentions are innocent and ambitious and happy and smart. It's a gorgeous, albeit flawed, masterpiece of fun. The time travel stuff is beefed by weirdly tight writing and ingenious storytelling tricks, but encumbered with too many hours' just holding the fast-forward button throughout the same dozen or so text-heavy cut-scenes. So many ten minute scenes smooshed down into minute-and-a-half-long fully-automatic flurries of sifty-sounding dialog-go-by noises, visited and revisited and revisited and revisited. But goddamn if that battle system doesn' t just completely absolve the game of whatever gameplay diseases from which it may suffer. Such intense variety in the way characters handle, and such gratifying results for those who master them all. Such challenges, at certain points. Such a good battle system.

Had it come out at a better time, back in '07 or '08 when the DS was still hot and momentous, Radiant Historia probably would have gotten more of the widespread affection it deserved. Instead, it remains just a beautiful little secret told to a handful of lucky passersby. 2011, you were a banner year for the console, an exciting year for games overall, but a quiet, dust-collecting year for the Nintendo DS, Pokemon B&W notwithstanding. No, Radiant Historia probably isn't quite good enough to be anybody's GOTY, not against the inimitable console competition of 2011, but those of us who've played it, who've warmed our hands by its small fire, out there in the middle of nowhere, who've known that puzzle-flavored battle system and its thousand joys, we know what I mean when I say we should at least just mention Radiant Historia, now, with a sorry, distracted nod, it being GOTY season and there being still the issue of deciding whether Portal 2 or Arkham City was the greater sequel and whatnot and so on to attend to, and Radiant Historia being just one more small, good game worth noting amid no one knows how many.

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