Sparky's Update - Dawnguard, Hearthfire, and Mechromancy

Did your girlfriend just give an involuntary gasp of pleasure? Did your wife suddenly look at the door with a sense of longing and distance? Did the electrical outlets in your house just surge and crackle? There's a reason, honey chile. Sparky's Update is back, ready and willing, and now with 80% more beard!

It's been a long, long while since I've written a real blog here on GB, so let me explain the game to those of you who are either new or haven't been around in a while. I write primarily two blog series - one is an RPG retrospective, in which I examine old RPGs with a critical, modern eye towards whether or not they're suitable for modern players. The other is a generic "what I'm playing" styled blog, called Sparky's Update. There's no real set format for the blog, but I'll usually add some small notes on what I'm also reading or watching, along with general quick thoughts on the games industry. It's a big catch-all, and I take pride in it causing a major upswing in pregnancies and amorous feelings whenever it's posted.

This week, I'll be covering a bit on Skyrim's Dawnguard and Hearthfire expansions (the skinny - both are pretty terrific) as well as Borderlands 2's Mechromancer (the skinny - if you want a great class and haven't tired of replaying the game, it's well worth it).

I've Got a Fever, and the Only Cure is More... Black Soul Gems?

Oh, yes, I forgot to mention above that I'm very fond of drudging up way outdated jokes. I'm also a fan of bad punnery. I shall try to refrain as much as possible, but you will have to suffer. My apologies.

Bethesda's track record with its DLC had been pretty spotty. Some of its expansions, like Shivering Isles, were pretty good. Some were truly awful (horse armor, the Fallout 3 alien DLC). They've been fairly cautious about releasing DLC for Skyrim, with nary a season pass, Barbie dress-up options for animals, or dull plot line in sight. Instead, they've taken it upon themselves to pop out one pretty great story experience in Dawnguard and a smaller, smart little house-builder in Hearthfire.

Let's get Hearthfire out of the way first. It's a relatively simple process - you head to Falkreach, buy a tract of land for a surprisingly cheap price, and head there to begin construction of your new house. You actually do very little besides procure building items for said house. You have a few basic options for a house plan, with most of the customization coming when you build a main hall addition. Once you've built that, you can add a couple of building options, such as an enchanting tower, a library, or bedrooms. These are constructed from a pair of workbenches outside, including one that takes new supplies found throughout the towns and mills of Skyrim. You'll have to buy or collect quarried stone, logs, and forge new items such as nails or hinges, all of which count towards your blacksmithing skill. If your blacksmithing is low, this could either prove to be a great way to quickly level up or a negative if you're trying to level up in other areas, so keep that in mind.

You can then decorate the interior with a variety of items. It doesn't ever quite end up looking any better or worse than the other houses you can purchase around Skyrim, but the customization options are a nice change and I wouldn't mind seeing this fleshed out more in future Elder Scrolls games. The quarried stone can be a bit of a game breaker, since you can mine a ton of quarried stone very quickly, fast travel, and sell it for a small tidy profit. I haven't tried to adopt children or introduce a wife to the area, and have yet to actually finish all the rooms in my house, so I'll experiment a bit more and check in later.

Dawnguard, on the other hand, is a pretty sprawling adventure. You have the option to either fight vampires with some pretty cool new weapons and spells, or you can become a vampire yourself with an all new skill tree. Me, I sided with the vampire hunters, so I haven't tried the vampire skill tree yet, but it's neat that option is there. The expansion's story is surprisingly engaging, more so than just about any other quest line in Skyrim. It also does a great job of introducing and revisiting some Elder Scrolls lore and old storylines. What's particularly cool is that you'll see parts of the expansion make its way subtly into the rest of the game. i recommend starting the questline when you can to allow for random vampire attacks (their loot is pretty great, even at low levels) and to get the crossbow, which is a pretty awesome weapon. Stores also seem to update with some new items after the expansion starts, but not before.

Gauging Gaige

Shifting now into Borderlands 2, the new mechromancer class is pretty intriguing. Her special attack unleashes a hovering robot that makes its way across battlefields at will, slashing apart enemies for a surprising amount of time. Her skill trees are pretty diverse. Her first tree concentrates on making her and Deathtrap more durable. The second tree focuses on making Gaige and Deathtrap walking elemental death dealers, particularly when it comes to shock damage. This tree, when taken with bits and pieces of the first tree, makes for some ridiculously awesome heavy weaponry. You can critically kill an enemy, which will unleash an electrical storm that zaps all nearby enemies, which in turn leads to a possibilty of the enemies taking burn damage. You can deal an absurd amount of damage over time.

I can't figure out the last tree, which offers some risk-and-reward gameplay options that just don't seem all that rewarding. You can sacrifice accuracy for gun damage, which might be great for a high-end character with enough badass ranks to offset the accuracy reduction. But the rest of it frankly confuses me and leaves me wondering what it would play like. I'd like to get the character to 50 and try it out. In the meantime, I'm playing with the first two skill trees and having a blast.

Everything Else

-I'm reading through Desert Spear right now, which is a bit of a disappointment after the supeb Warded Man. I can't stand the uninspired desert people of Krasia, and the main protagonists could use someone a bit more grounded to relate to. As it stands, the series isn't terrible, but it needs to take a marked turn in the final novel to really earn its place.

-Halloween is coming up, and with that comes my inevitable decision to watch a trio of horror-related movies. This year, my line-up will be wrestler-centric, with Santa's Slay, They Live, and either Predator or Doom. I might ditch that last movie and watch Ernest Scared Stupid instead, since... well... I can. What?

Thanks for reading. Keep your pimp hands strong!

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Sparky's Update - Brief Thoughts on Borderlands 2

Gentlemen. Ladies. Things of an indiscriminate sexual nature. Today's blog isn't going to tease the pleasure centers of your brain. it's not gonna make you coo or see God or anything like I usually boast, because this is going to be brief. Really brief.

Borderlands 2 is fucking awesome.

If you don't like it or don't want to play it for genuinely good reasons, that's fine. If you're one of the seemingly millions of GB users who piggyback on the meh attitude of one of the staff writers when he writes a less than 5 star review without formulating an opinion of your own, then you know where you can stick it.

I love Giant Bomb. I wouldn't check this site a gazillion times a week if I didn't. But man oh man, I sure do get tired of people confusing douchebag snobbery for genuine intellectual thought. Don't like Borderlands 2 because it's more of the same. Don't like it because you're just tired of first person shooters of all sorts, or don't much care for loot oriented games. But don't hate something because some guy who writes words really well gives you a fucking nerd boner.

This has been a PSA from Sparky Buzzsaw. You may continue on being awesome.

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RPG Retrospective - Quest for Glory

Quest for Glory - RPG Retrospective

The Basics

Oh man.

When I was about six or seven years old, my parents bought a used Tandy 1000 along with a handful of games on these crazy things called disks. Old timey, right? I was fascinated by them. F-19 Stealth Fighter. Leisure Suit Larry 2. Sid Meier's Pirates! All of these would help gaming become a part of my life in a huge way, but none of them held a candle to one other little game from Sierra, the same company responsible for Larry Laffer and Roger Wilco, for Sonny Bonds and King Graham. Quest for Glory wasn't and isn't just a game to me - it forced me to learn. It opened my eyes to fantasy. It led me down the strange, sometimes miserable road that is my addiction to gaming. To this day, I love it. It brings me back to a good part of my childhood, the time I spent poring over dictionaries and learning basic sentence syntax in order to finish the game over and over and over again. It brings me back to the daydreams I'd have about Spielburg, about going to an old Spanish-styled library (now long since demolished) to begin that ardous journey of leaving behind childish books and becoming steeped in Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and T.H. White. It is, indirectly, what led me to become an English major, to continue my love affair with the written word.

And I'm about to tell you not to play it.

Fuck.

Originally released as a text-input game with the title of Hero's Quest: So You Want to Be a Hero, it was retitled to Quest for Glory after Milton Bradley got their panties in a bunch about the name coinciding with their incredibly shitty board game of the same name. Seriously, I own that too - and let me tell you, if you're ever desperate for a poor man's D&D and you look at that crap, just take out your cash and piss on it. It's a better investment. But back to the PC game. Hero's Quest, or Quest for Glory, featured a blonde haired, blue-and-black lovin' nameless hero. You could pick between a Fighter, Mage, or Thief. Your choice of class determined your base stats for a number of skills, such as strength, vitality, climbing, throwing, sneaking, or magic. You were also allocated a certain number of skill points to spend, so while a Fighter might not be able to use magic at the start, by investing some of your points into that skill, you could use it too. These stats would increase throughout the game the more you used them. By sparring with the castle's master-at-arms, you could increase your strength and vitality, for example, while a Thief would increase his stealth by sneaking.

Sounds like an RPG, right? And half of it really is. If you're planning to play the whole series through, investing the time in the first game to boost your stats is a great idea, because the game allowed you to transfer your character over to each new game. Yep, Quest for Glory was porting its main character long before Shepherd ever dragged his ass out of bed. Importing a character into the future games also allowed players to play as a Paladin class, which normally wouldn't be available.

But the skills and classes are only part of what the game was. It was also an adventure game - straight-up, old-school Sierra goodness. There were about eleventy billion ways to die. Sleep outside in the forest? Dead. Try to take on a dagger-tossing ruffian? Dead. Piss off the sheriff's tame ogre buddy? Dead. The game requires you to save constantly, as the trial-and-error difficulty of Sierra adventure games at that time were unkind, if not exactly brutal (they saved the brutality for King's Quest III). In the original version, you'd type in commands such as, "Look at centaur," "order dragon's breath," or "sneak."

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your nostalgia for these things), that's not the version I played for this review. When the world went all point-and-clicky, Sierra remade a couple of its adventure games with updated graphics and interfaces, including Quest for Glory. This version isn't inferior in any way, and in fact, if you're going to play one of the two and are younger than, say, twenty-seven or so and have no experience with text input games, go with the point-and-click version. It's easy to get running when installed straight from GOG.com (you can tweak some minor graphical options with a handy utility included with the games), and has shinier graphics in comparison to its older self.

The Story

Quest for Glory starts with the Hero coming into the valley of Speilburg after a narrowly avoiding an avalanche that has conveniently cut off the only route out of the valley. The Hero learns of Spielburg's many problems, including the missing Baronet and Baroness von Spielburg, the nuisance of the witch Baba Yaga, and an increasingly dangerous bandit problem. He also learns of various other smaller problems and opportunities in the valley, and comes to meet all sorts of various characters and villains throughout.

Wow. Put like that, the story of Quest for Glory sounds like Fantasy 101, and I guess it really is. Lori Cole, one half of the design team and a personal hero of mine, has openly stated that she hated the traditional adventure game elements and wanted to design a game with her husband that incorporated RPG elements. It's no surprise then that the game's plot sounds ripped straight out of something you might see in a D&D campaign or from one of the blossoming fantasy writers of the 80's.

While the generalities of the plot are relatively simple, the specifics remain delightful, even today. Baba Yaga is still menacing. Erasmus, the friendly odd wizard accompanied by his pet rat Fenrus, is still smarmy and a bit witty. And the game's best unseen character, Erana, is still eerie and intriguing. She's a long-deceased wizard of sorts, a powerful force for good whose presence still lingers in certain locations scattered throughout the games. The world is still supremely charming, too. The valley of Spielburg is inspired by German folklore, and most of the game's design focuses around that central theme. There are thatched roofs aplenty, so to speak.

This is, then, one part wherein my rose-tinted glasses aren't entirely wrong. Oh, sure, if you dig into your folklore books, you'll come across Baba Yaga and her chicken-legged house, but where the hell have you seen it in gaming before, hmmm?

The Graphical Style

Once upon a time, we used terms like EGA and VGA to describe games like these. Don't ask me what they fucking mean - I've had a cocktail or two and I'm feeling too goddamn lazy to get into the specifics (meaning I can't be bothered to go look them up). But put simply, EGA was uglier while VGA was shinier. Got it? No? Okay. Errr.... Put in movie terms, VGA was The Avengers or The Amazing Spider-Man, while EGA was the late-night Syfy-produced movie of the month. If you still don't get it, fuck off. I'm writing here.

The version I played for this Retrospective was the VGA version, the aforementioned point-and-click version. It was released in 1991, so obviously it's going to be a little aged no matter how much I try to defend it. To be honest, though, the graphics aren't all that terrible for a game produced in that era. Certainly it's on par with everything else Sierra produced, and I personally prefer it to the LucasArts game styles (Sierra's nearest competitor that you'd remember - there were a few other companies like Dynamix, but a graphical comparison between this and Willy Beamish would be one hell of a pointless endeavor).

But we're not talking about how it looked then, are we? We're talking about how it loks today. And as much as I hate to say it, it's just not that good looking anymore. It's like Dame Judi Dench - you look at her, and there's still a sparkle in her eyes, but her time for modeling in Playboy's a bit long gone.

It isn't fair to judge an old RPG by its graphics, but it is fair to judge a game by its graphical stylings and how well those have held up. There are some elements that are surprisingly good. I love the aforementioned Baba Yaga and her hut - they both look good (well, insofar as a magic-slinging hag can look good). The combat animations are a bit problematic and were the only cause for concern for me in getting the game running, but tinkering with the options in the game's utilities fixed this easily enough (I should note I'm running it on Windows 7). Some of the backgrounds and areas look great too, such as my absolute favorite locale, Erana's Peace. It's a small nook wherein... ahhh, you don't care about that - it's just a pleasant looking area.

But it's not all great. There's a dire generic nature to all of this. Even for the time, the graphical inspirations were fairly uninspired. Goblins look precisely how you'd imagine a hackneyed fantasy artist to draw them. The town, while full of colorful characters, lacks any sort of real color itself, save for the tavern. And the forest, which is where you'll be spending a great deal of time as you adventure, is fairly dull. Some sort of originality here would have done leaps and bounds to improve the game's long-term graphical prospects. But keep in mind too that this was a labor of love and an homage of sorts to the RPG's of the day. That doesn't make it easier to approach the game from a modern standpoint, but it's something to chew on if you do decide to play it.

Sound

I don't have any problem with getting the EGA version running with at least sound, which is awesome because I can listen to the original score for this game. I say "score" as though it were an orchestral thing, but as you're probably well aware, back then, it wasn't quite so grandiose. Still, I love hearing that old theme song again, and I've had parts of the music stuck in my head for weeks.

With the VGA update came an updated score, and while it's shinier in some regards, I actually think the EGA score is better. The VGA score feels overproduced, as though they wanted to take advantage of every new bip and boop they could throw in there. It's not awful by any means, but if a game released in 1991 can have an overproduced score, it's this.

There are still some highlights. The theme is still memorable, and Erana's Peace is downright gorgeous. The small bits of sound effects in the game sound pretty good too. I think this is one of those cases where it might be impossible for me to seperate nostalgia from the truth. I want to say that, yeah, the music and sound are fantastic. But I'm sure anyone who didn't play the game back in the day would hear it and shrug.

Quick side-note though - I do still have the score for Quest for Glory V, and while 3/4's of that score is pretty awful, there are some fantastic songs in there to help balance it out. If you're a fan of the series, check it out. I'm going to throw in

Here's the QfG I theme. Tell me what you think, because I'm genuinely curious. Memorable? Overproduced? Too simple for modern tastes?

RPG Cheese

Here's a weird one. Up until this point, the RPG Cheese section has dealt primarily with the problems of a JRPG. Here, we have a game produced in the West. Obviously, then, you won't be hearing me bitch about googly-eyed children saving the world for once. Whew.

Quest for Glory does have some cheese of its own. I can easily look past the game's generic fantasy nature because it was one of the first fantasy worlds I was introduced to, but many newcomers to the series just won't see the appeal of Spielburg. it's fantasy generica, whether I like it or not. There's also a fair amount of grinding to be done if you're looking to continue the series beyond the first installment.

Being also an adventure game, Quest for Glory has some problems that will be unique to it in the Retrospective series. There's a great deal of trial and error, as with any Sierra game of that period. While it's easy for me to remember the solutions to a great many of the puzzles, some of them are a little obtuse and might require the use of a guide. There are several points in the game where, if you haven't completed certain side-quests or obtained certain items, you will fail. Combat in the VGA version isn't quite as cut and dried as the EGA version, and the graphical interface for fights can be a pain. There are a thousand ways to die, and if you're lucky, you'll remember to save, save, save because autosaving was still about a decade off.

All that will sound really minor to old school RPG or adventure game aficionados, but to newcomers, those little things will add up quickly.

Replayabilty

By today's standards, it would be relatively easy to see everything Quest for Glory has to offer if you create your character with the right skills in mind at the start. Create a thief with magic capabilities and grind out strength and vitality, for example, and you'll have an excellent long-term character. But playing a "stock" character can be problematic, as you'll often times be confronted with problems that have no apparent solution with your current character. This really doesn't become a problem until Quest for Glory III and IV (especially the latter), but it's something to keep in mind. The game's fairly brief - I imagine you could probably do a speed run with minimal grinding in a couple of hours tops - but you'd be missing out on everything that made the game special in the first place if you just blitzed through it.

Frankly, the replaybility is going to be determined by your age and proclivity towards antique games. If you can handle the laundry list of problems I've talked about for newcomers, you might be surprised at how replayable the entire series is. But individually, there's not a whole lot to Quest for Glory that can't be seen the first time through with proper character planning.

Overall Quality, Then and Now

Quest for Glory was and is my favorite game of all time. That's why this section actually hurts to write. Fuck you, Father Time.

If you played Quest for Glory back in '89 or '91, you would have found a lot to love. It was an endearing, witty game with a memorable cast of characters and an incredibly unique blend of adventure and RPG gaming. If you play Quest for Glory in 2012, you won't know what the hell I'm going on about. You can walk into any bookstore (sorry, I mean hop on your Kindle or iPad) and find a fantasy novel for a few bucks that will instantly make this game's story seem juvenile and downright generic. And that adventure/RPG gameplay? If you've played Skyrim, you've seen the gameplay evolved to an incredibly delightful sheen.

I'm actually trying not to get a little misty-eyed here. I recommend that anyone who played this game back in the day, buy it. But if you're younger than that? Go on back to Skyrim. There's nothing for you here.

Total Value Versus Accessibility

For years, the Quest for Glory collection was one of those Holy Grails of gaming. Copies of the disks went for upwards of $150 at one point, and you could barely get those bastards working on a modern computer. Recently, though, GOG.com put out the Quest for Glory collection for a ridiculously cheap price and instantly rendered the on-disc craziness completely moot. You should be able to get all of them running with minimal fuss - my only problem with the EGA version was that I had to run it in a windowed format that made it too small for my vision problems.

As for the value, again, that's going to depend on your age. Keep in mind that for a similar price, you could buy a copy of Morrowind or possibly Oblivion, two games which have modernized the spirit of Quest for Glory, even if it's unintentional. And frankly, unless you're seeking to revisit the ghosts of adventure games past, there's no reason to play this instead of them.

I love Quest for Glory. I always will. it's one of a very, very few games I'd actually call important to my life. But overall, ladies and gentlmen, I can't recommend it to you. I wish you'd play it and enjoy it as much as I do. But I just don't see it happening.

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RPG Retrospective - Star Ocean: First Departure

Star Ocean: First Departure - RPG Retrospective

The Basics

Star Ocean: First Departure intrigued me. It was the first time a version of the original Star Ocean had been made available in the West. More importantly? I had to get my hands on it to see if there were any characters even remotely as irritating as Lymle from its far-flung descendant Star Ocean: The Last Hope. Well, I say descendant, but the remake of Star Ocean and the Last Hope were released... ahhh, screw it. I just freakin' hate Lymle, 'kay? Oh sweet Jesus, she's got me saying it now.

Ahem. Anyways. I've played 'Til the End of Time and The Last Hope pretty extensively, and while I was never a huge fan of their characters, I did love the concept of a star-touring RPG series. First Departure, while nowhere near as grandiose as its console siblings, has some modern trappings. The graphics and sound have been updated, there are anime cutscenes, and from what I've read about the game on Giant Bomb and on various forums, the gameplay has been greatly changed from the original as well. What's here then is a fairly basic package.

First Departure is an action-RPG. You encounter enemies randomly, and you fight them in a breakaway scene, just like most RPGs. The combat is real-time, and is fairly basic. You have one button for regular attacks that can be changed depending on which direction you press the directional pad. You have magic and abilities that drain mana, and there are a handful of higher-powered skills available later in the game that act in much the same way. Your fellow characters are controlled by the AI, though you can switch on the fly to a different character if need be.

Characters level up and obtain a certain amount of skill points, which can then be allocated to a bonanza of different skills. I want to talk more about this later in the Replayability section, so skip ahead to that if you're looking for the game's highest point. There is also equipment to be found, dungeons to explore, and many a monster to be slain.

Pretty standard stuff, right? Well, keep in mind that this is a remake of an SNES RPG. It's easier to forgive the rest of the game that way - but not that easy.

The Story

First Departure starts off with a pretty breezy introduction to its characters. On a fairly medieval-feeling world, Roddick, Millie, and Dorne defend their little village from bandits, monsters, and the like. They're the town's watch, in essence. A neighboring village comes down with a mysterious disease that turns its victims into living stone. While investigating the village and the potential for a cure through an old RPG standby, the mysterious "cures what ails ya" herb, team Roddick encounters the crew of a spaceship. This spaceship crew is also investigating the disease, as it's been sent to the planet by a shady bunch of alien scumbags. Roddick and his merry crew (well, not so merry since Dorne has contracted what I affectionately call stoner's disease) accompany the spaceship crew to help find a cure for the disease, since their blood can somehow help turn the tide in a war between an Earth-based Federation and the shadowy alien figures.

This shit is never really explained again. Ever. It's insanely frustrating, as it starts off with the potential for a pretty good set-up for a story, right?

Well, forget that potential, because for the next twenty hours or so, it's pure tedious hell. In order to stop the virus, the team must jump back in time to track down a king who was apparently the first to contract it. Instead of jumping on the game's potential for starfaring RPG goodness, the player characters are instead sent back to the same planet they've just come from, just hundreds of years in the past. The majority of the game afterwards devolves into what amounts to a giant fetch quest, as you try to gain favor with the various rulers throughout the world to gain access to Asmodeus.

It's here that The First Departure becomes unforgivingly boring. Back in the days of the SNES, this quest must have been huge - and to an extent, it still is. But a huge, sprawling quest doesn't mean a damn thing if what's going on is dull, lifeless, and full of uninteresting characters and places. Roak (the world of the game) has to be one of the least lively worlds I've ever seen in an RPG. There's never a point in this game when I felt even a remote attachment to its characters, plot, or overall world, and it's by far the game's biggest problem. It's a shame, too, because some of the mechanics of First Departure are quite good. There are some purists who are going to jump on my ass for ragging on the story of a game basically from the SNES era, but let me just drop a few names off for you. Chrono Trigger. Link to the Past. Super Metroid. Those games might not have Shakespearean narratives, but you sure as hell fell in love with the stories and characters involved, and they hold up just fine today. The fact is, First Departure does not.

The Graphical Style

This is a remake of a SNES game, and has been updated to include 3D backdrops and more colorful characters. The combat has also apparently been completely redone, and looks pretty decent for a PSP RPG. Truthfully, the graphics... well, they exist. They're not awful by any means, but they never really pop out at you either. The anime cutscenes are kind of awful and I wish they'd done without them, as they add nothing to the game's overall quality. But that said, the battle animations are surprisingly solid and there are some flashy spell/technique effects that work nicely.

I like the old-school look of the characters, and there are some fluid motions that always catch me by surprise. In the buildings themselves, there are some great little touches, like the detail of the furniture or the light through the windows. Had the game more interesting environments to begin with, I think the visual style would have been great for a remake. As it is, it's merely serviceable. Have a look for yourself.

Sound

I genuinely like the score of the game. It's catchy at times. The music is the high point of the game, with plenty of plucky adventuring songs and a decent battle theme that thankfully doesn't grate on the ears. Voiceovers have been added to most of the game's major scenes, which are kind of awful in a generic anime sort of way.

But then, there are the battles. You've heard me whine before about JRPG games having their characters shout out move names ad nauseum. Well, this game does that. Endlessly. I'm purposefully avoding action JRPGs for the next few Retrospectives because I don't think I could stand one more shouted move name in a battle. It's particularly awful in this game as it seems like there's never a break. If you spam the same move three times in a row, you'll hear that move name shouted three times in a row. It's making me doubt the sanity of this RPG Retrospective project, as there are a ton of these games yet to go.

Oh, and sound effects. I kinda like the old-school sound. It's like they took the 16-bit counterparts and said, "Naw, we want just a little bit of that old flavor in here for nostalgia's sake." I can dig that.

RPG Cheese

Other than the aforementioned shouting of actions taken on the battlefield, First Departure is surprisingly light on RPG cheese, especially when compared to its shinier console brethren. None of the characters annoy me. None. Compared to the 3,605 times I wanted to punch something listening to Lymle, that's bliss, baby.

Really, the worst RPG cheese comes from the basic setup of the game's main quest. Having to collect items from each of the rulers of th realm in order to unlock the way to Asmodeus is true RPG cheese at its very core, but I'm giving the game a pass because of its age. At the time of its release, this wasn't hackneyed stuff. Just keep in mind if you go back to play it today, that basic idea will probably bore you to tears.

Replayabilty

The coolest part about First Departure is its skill system. Each character in the game has access to bunches of skill types, and can boost these skill types with points earned through exploration and leveling. Some of these skill types give passive bonuses to stats. Others grant some cool combat bonuses or perks, such as a random chance to warp directly to an enemy or to deflect damage. Others still give characters specific non-combat abilities, like cooking or item crafting. That's the neat part, because it sounds simple right now. It isn't, and it's something I think more games should aspire to.

Say, for example, I make Roddick completely combat focused. In that case, I'd definitely want to make sure he had all the melee combat bonuses I could give him. Each of those skills can be boosted up to ten times, with the cost increasing at various points depending on the character's pre-existing tendencies. Since Roddick's very much combat focused already, his combat bonuses are cheap, and so halfway through the game, I find myself with points to burn. Now, I might decide to up his craftsmanship ability, since I don't have a character that's particularly strong in that area. But what kind of craftsmanship? Do I want him to be able to copy abilities to paper, allowing other characters to use those abilities in battle? Or do I want him to be able to craft equipment and weapons? Upgrading only one skill doesn't necessarily just boost that line of craftsmanship either, as it can affect a whole range of abilities.

Alone, that'd be a neat system - but then you add in party mechanics to the mix. See, if I've got two characters with a focus in one area of craftmanship or cooking or any non-combat ability, then the party can use group abilities. This is a souped-up version of those singular abilities, allowing for higher chances of success and neater items to be crafted. It's complex, but ultimately, it's a fantastically rewarding leveling system. It makes the game infintely replayable if you can get past the rest of the game's problems... which might not be possible, truth be told. Still, if you do find yourself playing First Departure, this is a fantastic diamond in the rough to be found and adds loads of depth to an otherwise simple game.

There are all sorts of secrets to be found in the game, too. I missed out entirely on one secret character. There are plenty of sub-plots if you've got the patience to seek them out, and the dungeons get nicely complex and rewarding by the game's end.

Overall Quality, Then and Now

Given that the remake was released back in 2008, it's not exactly an old game. Still, it IS a remake of a game released in 1998. Unfortunately, it shows. I've mentioned the dated, boring plot and the bland characters. Even factoring in that these things are essentially fourteen years old, it's no excuse. The game would have been interesting then only for its length and RPG mechanics. As it is now, I can only recommend this game be hunted down by those who are either desperate for a JRPG to play or those who have played other Star Ocean games and are looking for a history lesson in where the franchise came from.

There's some merit to be had from the ridiculously complex ability mechanics as described above, and I do think it's worthy of mention solely for that. But one neat gameplay feature does not make a quality title. There's no real heart to this game.

Total Value Versus Accessibility

The game is fairly widely available. Copies on Amazon at the time of this writing were going for as low as $9. Frankly, though, I can't recommend this one. From a purely mechanical standpoint, it's fine. There's nothing really wrong or broken with the game. But the twenty-five or thirty hours you'll sink into it could have been spent playing many other great games from either the SNES or the PSP era. Sorry guys, but this one's a dud.

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RPG Retrospective - Grandia, Pt. 2

Hey folks! Welcome back to the second and final part of my look at Grandia. Thanks for all the comments last week - that was certainly an unexpected and pleasant surprise.

When I left off last week, I said that Grandia was hit-and-miss. I've since finished the game in a couple of marathon sessions. According to the save file, I played for approximately 52 hours, though that's admittedly not a very accurate figure as I often take short breaks with the PS3 on. One of my thoughts from last week, that the story and characters grow better as the game goes on, definitely holds true throughout the rest of the game. There's an exception in the very last part of the game, at the Gaia Core. I don't want to go into many spoilers, but the last boss doesn't have quite the likability of the Garlyle forces and devolves into some pretty tired environmental jibber-jabber.

Anyways, let's get on with the rest of the Retrospective!

RPG Cheese

From last week's Retrospective, this should be the part where I blast Grandia for layering on the JRPG cheese. There are kids fighting to save the world from threats. Apparently, the world's military forces just aren't good enough, you know? In battle, characters shout out move names and squeal with delight each time a battle is won. I should shudder at the eye-rollingly awful early sexual jokes between Feena and Justin.

But here's the odd thing - in Grandia, it all kind of works.

The funniest thing about playing Grandia is how quietly all of its cheesy elements start to fade into the background. Oh, they're still there, but they become part of the irrefutable charm of the game. Some parts are always irritating and awful - anything involving Sue, in particular - but for the most part, the game is never all that obnoxious. Having the protagonists be kids actually helps the plot at several points, as you really get the sense that they're discovering the world alongside of the player. It's kind of a delight to watch these kids grow up a little along the way. Mind you, it's not Tolkien-esque character changes, but for a JRPG of the era, this is delightfully charming.

There are going to be some snobs who turn their nose up at such things. Usually, I'm one of them. Give me an adult-oriented RPG any day. But you'd have to be a cold-hearted person not to get 40 hours into this game and still think that its Japanese-ness is a negative. Unlike Tales of the Abyss, it's negotiable and even eventually works to its favor when the plot starts to become a little darker.

Replayabilty

The replayability of Grandia is really dependent on one thing - how much you love exploring in an RPG. For the most part, the game is relatively straightforward in where you can go and what you can do. There are a handful of optional dungeons (I missed these due to advancing the plot too far, so be careful about that if you're looking to do a completionist's run-through your first time). The regular dungeons are pretty sprawling, so you'll have plenty to explore your second time through. There's no New Game Plus or similar feature, but for a game of that period, that's not unexpected.

I'd like to revisit it at some point, if just because I think it's ridiculously fun. It's a bread-and-butter RPG, but that bread is a delicious, home-made loaf and the butter has a bit of honey. I'd also really like to see what's up with those secret dungeons, but given my poor track record with optional dungeons in the past, odds are they'd be more of a curious gander than a full-blown runthrough.

Overall Quality, Then and Now

I didn't play Grandia when it came out, unfortunately. If it helps at all, the graphics are about on par with the original Wild ARMs (save for ARMs' fugly combat). The gameplay holds up remarkably well today, as it was crafted on a solid foundation of turn-based combat combined with a pretty nifty gauge for measuring the turns of combatants. The cast of characters isn't quite as memorable as some of its peers, but they're certainly not bad by any stretch of the imagination. Except Sue. Stupid Sue.

Today, you just don't see sprawling RPG's like this outside of something made by Mistwalker. It's sort of a shame, really, because every now and again, this is precisely what I crave from a turn-based RPG - rock solid methodical combat, a great leveling system that rewards experimentation, a colorful world to explore, and characters that seem invested in the adventure as thoroughly as me. Get past the dated looks, graphics whores, and you've got a quality RPG on your hands.

Total Value Versus Accessibility

The game is available on PSN for chump change (around $7), which makes it both highly accessible and cheap. Anyone hankering for a cheap, huge RPG with buckets of charm and only a few minor, skin-deep flaws would do well to pick this one up. For $7, you'll get a ton of gameplay, a few ridiculously cheesy moments, and a warm, friendly game. Modernists might not like it much, but anyone who can appreciate a good, well-aged RPG should definitely pick this one up.

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RPG Retrospective - Grandia, Pt. 1

Grandia - RPG Retrospective

The Basics

When it was announced that Grandia was on PSN's PS classics, I was pretty stoked. I had never played the game, but I remembered it getting fairly great reviews from gaming magazines. I bought it and put it on the back burner for quite some time, and I'm sort of glad I did, as it's the perfect sort of game for this series of blogs. Though there have been multiple entries in the Grandia series, it's never achieved quite the fame of games like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest (at least here in the States).

Playing this game today is sort of a trip in and of itself. It should be said straightaway that this is very much a dated RPG. Now mind you, that's not a criticism, as in fact, I don't mind games with dated natures. But it is a statement through and through about how the game feels, looks, and plays, both for good and bad.

Grandia is a fairly straightforward turn-based RPG. Enemies are visible on the field, and you'll get a traditional breakaway fight scene when you encounter them. Each character on the screen, good or bad, can appear at several different locations on the screen, depending on if it's a normal or surprise encounter. Pretty normal stuff there. Turns are determined by the position of character portraits on a battle gauge - it's similar in theory to Final Fantasy's active battle gauge, but with a slightly different look. When a character's portrait hits a certain mark on that guage, he or she can take several traditional actions, such as a vanilla attack, spells, or using items. Characters will also need to move in range for attacks and spells to be successful, a nice touch given the relative simplicity of the combat. Battles are usually fairly speedy, with the exception being the obvious boss battles.

The game world is huge. After learning the ropes of the combat system, I expected to blow through this game in no time at all. Instead, I found myself exploring town after town, dungeon after dungeon. Exploration is fairly simple. The world is three-dimensional, with characters in 2D. You can rotate the camera to help in exploration, but sometimes, the camera angles are immensely frustrating no matter which way you're facing.

One great thing about the game is the weapon and skill system. Each character has a number of different weapon classes they can use, and they can level up with those weapon types. Skills are learned by meeting requirements. It's not a terribly in-depth system, but it is curiously rewarding in a carrot-on-a-stick fashion. And in regards to experience, although the game definitely can be made easier by extensive grinding, simple exploration of dungeons should provide plenty of opportunities to keep your party at the necessary strength.

Thanks to for pointing out some things I missed in the comments below! You obtain various party members at different areas throughout the game. These characters really help flesh out the story quite a bit more than just Justin and Sue's antics, with the highlights being Feena, the adventuress and Justin's (questionable) love interest, and Gadwin, a gruff mentor to Justin after he enters a new area of the world (to Justin's people).

Also, see Mento's comment below for more on the battle/character gauge. He gives it its proper due.

The Story

Grandia's a real mixed bag when it comes to its story elements. Simply put, it's slightly childish in delivery and execution. The game follows the exploits of a young teenager (really just a kid) named Justin and his sidekick Sue. They're wannabe adventurers, who in trying to escape their normal lives get swept up in a world-spanning plot. It's pretty much cut-and-paste stuff from your RPG 101 textbooks. Justin has a magical stone, passed down to him by his missing adventurer father, which is apparently an artifiact of great power. He must travel to a distant land in order to ascertain its true impact, which apparently couldn't be done in one of the many dungeons Justin visits along the way. Of course not, or else what excuse would we have for wandering the world, visiting tons of villages, and earning lots of loot?

That very basic plot actually becomes a bit more involving. Although Justin and Sue are very much cookie-cutter RPG material at first, their personalities, especially Justin's, become pretty likable. He's a bit of a bull in a china shop when it comes to his adventuring antics, and though I'd hesitate to call the characters he meets endearing, they can be surprisingly delightful at times. If you can last through the intial ten hours or so, the characters begin to evolve and adapt while still maintaining a sense of goodness and childish wonder at the world around them. It's really kind of a pleasant jaunt through the countryside, all told, and once you get the "big reveal" of Justin's stone's power, the plot picks up pace.

The enemies are pretty great, too. The Garlyle forces are appropriately mysterious and menacing, with a fairly diverse cast of characters among their own lot. While most of the waves of generic enemies are forgettable, the boss battles are reasonably tough and fairly colorful.

The Graphical Style

Having played this right after something so graphically stylish as Tales of the Abyss, I was almost stunned by the simplicity of Grandia's graphics. Pretty, she ain't. Everything has a bit of a generic look to it, ranging from the 3D blocky world to the uninspired combat effects. I'm not particularly fond of the character portraits either, but part of that is my bias towards using kids as protagonists in world-saving RPG's.

It's not all terrible. Certain areas, such as Parm, are chock full of little details in the backgrounds. Each of the areas you visit feel fairly distinct. I don't particularly mind the animations. The whole game has a certain sort of character we just don't have in RPG's nowadays, like an ugly friend wrapped up in a brightly colored poncho. I get the sense that, despite its ugliness, the designers really wanted to make this game their own, and worked really hard at what they could and did accomplish.

Here's an early gameplay video that gives a good look at what I'm talking about.

Sound

If it wasn't for the combat, I'd say the sound in this game is pretty good. The music's lively and fairly catchy, with some real high points towards the latter third of the game. Sound effects are fairly sparse by our modern standards, but what's there really adds to the flavor of the game.

But where the sound falls apart is in its battles. Some of the fight sound effects are great, but those are unfortunately the minority. Fights lack any sort of oomph to them. The real annoyance though is in the lines delivered post-battle. Just watch that video above and you'll get an idea of how aggravating they can get. Sue in particular is cringe-worthy.

Part 2?

So on paper, Grandia's sort of hit-and-miss so far. It's colorful, traditional, and has a great deal of charm, but will that be enough? Will its Japanese-ness hurt it or help it? Is it worth your cash? All that and more hopefully next week. Of course, the last time I thought that, my laptop suffered a catastrophe, so here's hoping I didn't jinx it.

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RPG Retrospective - Tales of the Abyss, Pt. 2

This one's been a long time coming, but here are my final thoughts on Tales of the Abyss 3DS. For those who might be new to the blog and this series, my RPG Retrospective is a look at RPG's of prior generations (or, as in this case, ported over to newer consoles/handhelds) to see how well they hold up today. When we left off, things weren't looking great for Tales of the Abyss. Despite some pretty good combat and downright beautiful graphics, the list of annoyances was piling up fast. Will the game pull through in the end, or will it continue with its downward trend? Only reading on (or possibly playing the gam) will tell.

RPG Cheese

This section is devoted briefly to the amount of cheesy RPG cliches you'll find in each game I feature here. Practically a fault of nearly every RPG throughout the years has been certain cliches that pop up time and time again. Other genres have their own, but in a genre wherein you'll likely spend dozens of hours with each game, it's good to know this in advance.

This game is one great big souffle of JRPG cheese. There's nary a trace of manliness or beards to be found on any of the male characters. There's a typical high-pitched annoying little shit that some developer or producer thought was "cute" (I'm calling it the Jar-Jar Binks Effect). There are teenagers fighting wars practicallly single-handed. Every anime character cliche you can think of is here in spades. It can be a little overwhelming at times, but in a sense, this is exactly what some people might want out of a JRPG. It's comfort food for anyone who wants a safe, familiar actiony-JRPG. Personally, I was hoping for a little bit more than that, but to each their own.

I should note here that about halfway through the game, Tales of the Abyss does its damnedest to turn some of the character cliches on their heads. It's not entirely effective, but they do get points for trying. And while I never quite care for the protagonists, they do develop into more fleshed-out, evolving characters as time goes on. Some of the plot elements as well are a little heavier than I expected, a pleasant surprise to say the least. While the political and religious intrigue isn't exactly Shakespearean, it's definitely welcome. Although there is a liberal sprinkling of RPG cheese throughout the individual moments and characters, at least the overall plot genuinely has some great thought behind it and feels quite unique.

Replayabilty

One of the biggest attractions of a great RPG is in its replayabilty. Are there lots of hidden items, fights, or additional goodies to find that could significantly alter a playthrough? Is there a New Game+? Is the story great enough to revisit, or is it hell to trudge through?

One thing I love about the Tales series is that there's a ton of stuff to do and see outside of the main quest. Abyss is no different. To start, the world is huge, with lots of locations and dungeons to explore. There's a fascinating economics system that allows prices of town goods to rise and fall depending on certain subquests as well as your progress through the game. And those subquests? Plentiful, sometimes interesting, sometimes not.

There's a cool feature of the series making a return here called the Grade Shop. Each battle in the game nets you a certain amount of points dependant on how well you do in that battle. Those grade points are tallied up, and upon completion of the game and loading up a cleared save file, you can access the Grade Shop before the new game begins. This allows you to purchase all manner of game altering conditions, such as double gold (or gald) or grade earned. Alternately, you can purchase conditions that allow you to transfer over elements of your old game, such as consumable items or your battle data. The trick is that you're not generally going to be able to purchase everything in your first go-around. It's a neat little feature for those who want more of the game for their buck.

As to whether or not you'd actually want to go back through Abyss is really the question. As mentioned, the overarching story is pretty great, and the game world really does have some great intrigue and places to explore. But if you're at all turned off by anime cliches and some pretty atrociously bad dialogue, replaying this game is going to be hell. Personally, I started up a New Game Plus and I look forward to revisiting the world eventually. I've got many other RPGs on my plate, but I think I can look past the initial character inadequacies and eventually come back to the game for a longer, more thorough exploration of everything Abyss has to offer.

Overall Quality, Then and Now

I didn't play Tales of the Abyss when it was first released on the PS2, but I have played other Tales games before. I think it soundly trumps Tales of Symphonia on all possible levels, and it feels like a natural, evolved version of that game. I don't quite like it as much as I liked Tales of Vesperia (which was released years after Abyss), but I honestly think I prefer Abyss's visual style to Vesperia, which is pretty amazing when you consider that Abyss was a PS2 game and Vesperia was released on modern consoles. There's also something to be said for Abyss's additional content and the way it's more evenly spread out than Vesperia's. However, I'd say Vesperia has the better characters and has far fewer cringe-inducing moments.

As it stands, this is a great handheld game regardless of its brethren. I know most people want something they can pick up and play for just a few moments on their handheld, but if you're looking for something more, something meatier? This is a truly quality game despite it doing its damnedest to annoy the piss out of me.

Total Value Versus Accessibility

Amazon has the game currently listed at $39.99 for the 3DS. I picked up my copy for about ten bucks less than that, but $40 seems like it's been the game's median price since its release. Given that it's a relatively obscure title, I can't imagine the game receiving multiple prints, but I might be wrong. As it stands, $40 is a good entry point for this game. According to the game clock, I put in about 70 hours into it, which equates to a nice hours-to-cost ratio.

That said, the hours you put into Abyss won't mean a damn thing if you don't enjoy them. While the game might initially discourage players with its stubborn adherence to both JRPG and anime cliches, in the end, I'd say the game is worth a look at the very least. I enjoyed it and thought it was one of the best handheld RPG's I've played. Even if you don't enjoy the action-RPG genre, you might at least have some fun inventing a drinking game for every time some random, eye-rollinglyJapanese moment occurs.

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Quick Update

Hey gang, just letting you know that my laptop has been out of commission and in for repairs over the last few weeks. I will be online over the next few days, but will be lurking only. I expect to be fully back and blogging/commenting/creating general mayhem in a few weeks. Until then, keep it classy.

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RPG Retrospective - Tales of the Abyss

Tales of the Abyss - RPG Retrospective

The Basics

I don't have much of a history with the Tales series. I originally played Tales of Symphonia during a brief period of time when I owned a Gamecube, but didn't play it to completion. I have thoroughly played and enjoyed Tales of Vesperia on the 360, but I wouldn't exactly say I was an expert at it. They were both enjoyable action-RPG's, with some distinct Japanese-ness to their style and plot along with some great-looking anime-styled graphics.

Tales of the Abyss is very similar to those two titles. Having originally been released on the PS2, it saw a re-release on the 3DS recently, which is the system I've been using to play it. Put simply, the Tales series has changed very little in its iterations, which can be both good and bad.

If you've never heard of or played the series, Tales of... features party-based combat in a real-time action RPG field. Enemies are seen on the field, and as such, can usually be avoided or fought as the player wishes. The screen then shifts into a combat field, wherein you control a character in real-time. Combat in Tales games usually revolves around building chains of attacks through regular strikes and your teammates' Artes (essentially magic or abilities). When not in combat, the game is very much a huge, sprawling JRPG epic, containing all manner of towns, countries, dungeons, and other areas to explore.

The characters are anime-inspired, as are the environments and general story elements. Small scenes (called skits) between party members play out at different moments by pressing the start button when prompted. These skits play out through static pictures and written text, and can add surprising layers of depth to the individual characters. It seems like a small thing, but when you're playing a game as huge as this, it's neat to have some smaller moments with the party's thoughts.

The Story

I'm honestly not sure how close I am to finishing Tales of the Abyss, but I'm about twenty-five hours into it and it still feels as though I've got a great deal more to experience. That said, the story in Tales of the Abyss starts off as a convoluted mess. The main character, Luke, is a bratty, antagonistic, mouthy punk. He's the nephew to a powerful lord, and has been restricted to staying inside a manor due to being kidnapped years ago by a neighboring country. Luke has no memory of life before the kidnapping. Thus, he is also fairly ignorant of the world around him, which gives the game plenty of excuses to explain arbitrary details about the world.

And that's part of this game's problem. In the initial five or six hours, the game pretty much defines the term "info dump." In rapid succession, Luke's trainer is attacked by a mysterious woman, so Luke defends his trainer.. A flash of light appears, and Luke and the woman (called Tear) are whisked away to a neighboring country by some sort of pillar of magic. Instead of tearing apart the snobbish kid, Tear feels a great deal of guilt about what has transpired and agrees to escort Luke home.

Tear and Luke get arrested by a group of individuals trying to formulate peace between the two rival nations. Led by Jade, an effiminate master warrior, this group is escorting Ion, the head of some group called the Order of Lorelai, in an attempt to broker peace. The ship is attacked by individuals called the God-Generals, who appear to be great forces of evil in the service of Maestro Mohs.

All of this sound overly complicated to any of you? Literally all of this is presented to the player in mere hours. None of the organizations are explained in any great detail. Characters come and go so rapidly that it's hard to keep track of who is who, who serves what, and what the hell any of these organizations and countries stand for. It's a blur of information. The game does get better about slowing things down and explaining the plot details a little more thoroughly, but holy shit, that initial five hour period or so is dense.

The characters themselves range from bland to mind-bleedingly irritating. Luke has some pretty funny moments of douchebaggery. An annoying creature called Mieu comes into his service early on, and Luke finds time around every other minute or so to heap abuse upon him. While I'm finding Luke to be annoyingly whiny, I'll admit to laughing when he punts the screeching Mieu a good country mile during one cutscene. But that's all that's likable about Luke. He never comes across as anything more than a brat, and when the plot starts trying to make him likable and relatable, the damage has been done.

Mieu is the absolute worst, though. He's a little rabbit-ish creature called a cheagle, and I have no idea if he's supposed to be either comic relief, the adorable pet, or the character everyone in the world was meant to hate. Anytime I can predict a Mieu scene coming up, I turn the sound all the way off. He's that annoying.

The Graphical Style

Good grief, this game looks good. The visuals have this hand-drawn cartoonish appeal to them. But interestingly, the color palette almost seems to be centered around pastels. You wouldn't think that'd look good, but oh holy crap, does it ever. Everything has this soft, appealing feel to it, giving the entire game's aesthetic this warm, fuzzy blanket feel to it. The style holds up remarkably well too, as do most Tales games. The characters look good, are animated very fluidly, and there's a lot of emotion packed into the in-engine cutscenes.

Combat looks great, too. The Artes have plenty of visual flair, there's a lot of punch to attacks, and there's a respectable amount of enemy types, so it's fairly light on palette-swapping enemies. The towns look good too, with plenty of distinctive places to visit and a very lived-in feel to everything. This is a world someone very lovingly crafted, and the art team realized it. The characters can look a little generic, but for the most part, they're fine.

If I have one complaint, it's with the font size, but that's more a problem with me playing it on a 3DS than anything else. Still, a slightly bolder font for text would have gone a long ways.

I tried to find a Youtube video that could show both some overworld exploration, a town, and some combat to show you the beautiful graphics, but many spoil essential plot points. Instead, here's a video of some combat, which will show you some of that delightful color palette and the visual effects of the combat.

Sound

This is really a mixed bag. The score is pretty good, but heavily inspired by anime, which means you'll get some neat orchestral moments ruined by J-pop-like beats and moments. At its best, the music is unobtrusive. At worst, it's mildly irritating. It never strays too far into great or bad territory. The characters are much the same way. If you've seen any anime or anime-inspired game, you'll know what I mean when I say it's merely tolerable. There's about as much actual emotion put into the voicework as, say, an early 90's cartoon. That's not to say that it's bad - it's just merely serviceable.

What really grabs my goat though is the incessant shouting in combat. You'll here the same phrases over and over, and in a game of this length, that's really not good. Characters do that stupidly irritating Japanese thing where they shout whatever move they're using. Every. Single. Time. It's easily the worst part of the Tales series as a whole, and here, it's no better.

And whoever thought up Mieu deserves to be shot. It's almost as annoying as Limle from Star Ocean: The Last Hope.

Part 2?

All this sounds sort of bleak, I know. I don't know when the second and final part of Abyss's retrospective will be let loose, but I suspect a few points in the game's favor when I look at such things as my overall enjoyment and the value of the game. Because, despite everything I have said here today, Tales of the Abyss is actually pretty good. Maybe not great, but there are plenty of redeeming qualities to it that might turn things around for the game. Until then, I hope you've enjoyed reading.

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Sparky's Update - Kingdoms of Amalur, Jolly Rover revisited

After a week's hiatus, it's the return of the only gaming update ribbed for her pleasure. Yeah, you know it and you love it. It's Sparky's Update.

I'm super exhausted and frazzled this week. I'm running on about two hours of sleep and several cups of tea, so this update is going to be relatively short and probably incoherent. Er... more incoherent than normal, I suppose. The Retrospective is on a longer hiatus - I've only just hardly scratched the surface of Tales of the Abyss. I can tell you this much though - that is without question the prettiest handheld game I've ever played. Also? The hero? Kind of a dick.

Today, though, I'm going to drop some final thoughts on Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and Jolly Rover. Now, longtime readers might remember I've mentioned Jolly Rover before. I decided to go back through it due to Steam achievements being added and for my own desire to play through a traditional point-and-clicker again. Why I didn't play one of the many other adventure games still on my Pile of Shame, I have no idea.

Anyways, on with it.

Oh God, Make the Good Man Stop

I need to preface everything I'm about to say about Kingdoms of Amalur with a statement - I really liked it as a whole and think it's one hell of a fine start to a new IP. There. Now that I've said that, you're about to read a hell of a lot of complaints.

It's not that Kingdoms of Amalur is bad in any regard. It really isn't. The combat and leveling mechanics are straight-up awesome. Being able to respec my character at the drop of a meager handful of gold means I can constantly try new playstyles and tactics. The world is straight-up gorgeous, for the most part. It's a colorful, vast world with lots of neat little touches. There's a ton of quests and NPC's to interact with as well, which is great - in theory. But somewhere around the midpoint of the game, I realized Kingdoms of Amalur had lost a great deal of its charm.

I don't want to say that there's too much - that's not quite entirely right. I actually love the sheer amount of quests and places to visit. But there's never a really great reason to see those quests through. Most of the quests feel drab and cliched in nature and in writing. There are a few exceptions, most notably those quests dealing with the Summer Fae, a group of ancient magical beings who have lived, died, and been reborn as specific characters in roles they must fulfill in their lifetime. Except that with world events happening the way they are, the Summer Fae are slowly fading, much like the elves of Tolkien's fantasy. These quests are given early in the game, and show some tantalizing promise of things to come... except that the rest of the game never quite lives up to those particular quests.

Some quests do offer up some neat, tangible rewards in the form of Twists of Fate, which are essentially permanent bonuses to your character's stats in such things as damage taken or received, resistances to magic, and damage to specific types of creatures. Sadly, though, the quest lines offering these neat rewards are very, very few. You can also scope out lorestones scattered throughout the various regions for more permanent stat boosts. The lorestones also offer up some backstory for the world, but none of it is very intriguing.

It's super frustrating that of the hundreds of quests (and I do mean hundreds), there are only ten or so that offer these permanent rewards. The experience given for quests is nice, and sometimes you're given a decent piece of equipment, but in a game where new weapons and armor are always a few levels away, it seems sort of pointless to worry over finishing every last quest. And speaking of armor sets, there's a disappointing lack of variety in the designs offered. For each character class, there are a handful of general styles of armor with slight variations in color. What's there looks really good, but I wish more time had been put into variations of costumes for characters.

The quests not only point out the limited scope of working with someone like R.A. Salvatore (who makes his bread and butter writing generic-ass fantasy, and it shows here), but the limited creativeness of RPG sidequests in general. You'll fetch. You'll kill X monster for hapless villagers aplenty. I don't really know what the solution here is, but holy hell, someone needs to find it soon. Mini-games of some sort, certainly - but not the same three or four mini-games repeated endlessly.

Simply put, a game as good as Kingdoms of Amalur deserves content worthy of its breadth and scope. I am genuinely excited to see what Curt Schilling's company is up to next.

Good Ol' Guilty Pleasures

I'm an unabashed adventure game fan. If games were food, adventure games would be my comfort food. Sam and mac & cheese, to make a bad pun. And this week, I've needed a bit of gaming comfort food. That need was nicely met by Jolly Rover, a modern point-and-click RPG with the backbone of games like Monkey Island.

Actually, Jolly Rover pretty much is a complete and total homage to the first two Monkey Island games, and that's not a bad thing. The visuals have a nice, clean id-90's adventure game flavor to them, with 2D cartoon graphics and basic animations. The gameplay is ripped straight from the mid-90's too, but with the addition of a neat little hint system to help more modern gamers who might not be familiar with moon logic (thanks, ArbitraryWater, for reminding me of the term). Sometimes it devolves into a bit of a pixel hunt, which is highly annoying. For those not familiar with the term, old adventure games often had you scanning for minutia in order to find items to interact with. That's front and center in several parts of the game, unfortunately, but the game is ridiculously good about holding your hand when you want it and pointing you in the right direction.

The game's inspirations don't just come from its mechanics or looks, either. The game follows James Gaius Rover, who seeks reperations for the pirating of his ship. Along the way, he must fight and join up with pirates, fall in with a piratey woman, and fend off voodoo-powered beings. Sound familiar, LucasArts fans? It should. It's never as sharp or funny as the Monkey Island games, but it's charming in its own right. In any case, it was just what the doctor ordered this week, and since I hadn't played the game through with achievements, it made for a nice distraction.

Other Crapola

-I've finished up my run on YA novels. In the past couple of months, I've read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (well written, but ultimately flawed as he shoves his own atheistic agenda down the readers' throats) and the Hunger Games trilogy (fluffy mind candy with a surprisingly solid finale and a whole lotta annoying YA love triangle bullshit). I've gotta catch up on some research (namely, the Life in a Medieval... series), and then.... well, I'm not sure. Something definitely not YA.

-Finished up the first season of Game of Thrones. The TV show draws to mind a complete reflection of my thoughts on the novels. I like Tyrion and most of the Stark stuff, and speed my way through the Targaryen stuff. Good stuff, though. Very shiny. Sean Bean is one of my favorite actors, so it's cool to see him in such a high-profile TV role.

And that's it for this week. Thanks as always for reading. Now enjoy the sweet, sweet dulcets of Mark Wahlberg.

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