Sparky's Update - The Re-Up, and Divinity II

Hey, folks! This week's gaming content is probably going to be a little light, but I'll be talking a little bit about Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga as well as my reasons for deciding to re-subscribe to Whiskey Media. Better call up Kenny Loggins, because you're in the danger zone. Thanks, Archer.

A Half Full Cup

I didn't come into Divinity expecting much. I'd played Divine Divinity six or so years ago, followed shortly by its pseudo-sequel Beyond Divinity. Both were isometric action-RPG's in the vein of Diablo. The first featured some pretty all right questing and looting. Nothing that would blow your mind, and it's since been far surpassed by other Diablo clones (namely Titan Quest and Torchlight), but as a $10 budget title, it was amusing. The second tried out some new, fascinating ideas that never quite translated into a great game. It had you shackled to an evil knight, your lives bound to each other's survival. It was a cool concept, but a frustrating difficulty and dull early gameplay kept it from being a great game. Both are pretty recommendable if you're looking for some Diablo-esque games to tide you over until the real thing.

Forgetting the head-shakingly bizarre naming convention for a minute, let's talk about Divinity II, the most recent game in the series. It has basically rid itself of the 3rd-person isometric trappings and the dual-character gameplay for a generic 3rd-person action-RPG. While it's still a heavily loot-based game with lots and lots of side-quests, it has, for all intents and purposes, become an entirely different beast. The developers have tried for less cartoony graphics, gunning instead for a bland, poor man's Bethesda feel to the visuals. There's this feel permeating the entire game that this is very much a freshmen effort, despite Larian's name being stamped on a few games before this.

The plot is about as weak as I've seen since the days of Metal Dungeon. Seriously, it could have been written by a twelve year old. It's that bad. It's bizarre then that so much of the dialogue involving side quests is witty and straight up funny at times. It hasn't exactly made me bust a gut, but little winks such as a despicable monster correcting my grammar make it pretty bearable. That little bit of charm and sparkle in the dialogue adds up, because you'll be visiting a ton of places. It's too bad the main story stinks, but at least all the little people make it worth it.

The game is big. Really big. Deceptively so, too, like in the vein of Gothic 2 wherein you seemingly had a straight path for the first few hours and then everything and everywhere opens up to you. As a matter of fact, I really got a good Gothic 2-esque vibe from a lot of things in this game. Both are fantasy generica, to be sure, but the gameplay and endlessly explorable worlds give it a rugged charm.

I'm also growing super fond of certain gameplay elements in Divinity II. The mindreading aspect, which allows you to pay experience points to read a person's mind, is a nifty way to circumvent harder quests, find treasure, obtain some side quests, or just have a laugh (two town residents echo "Laurel?" and "Hardy?" at each other in one of my favorite little moments). There are a ton of abilities to learn, some more useful than others, most of which can be selected repeatedly to boost the skill's powers. The base cap is five, but paying a fairly cheap sum to a trainer will allow you to up a skill ten levels. By that point, my Whirlwind ability was mowing down the game's enemies with a fair amount of consistency. The game can be frustratingly difficult at times, but by exploring a different area and leveling up a bit further, no encounter has seemed impossible so far.

I should also mention just how much I enjoy the music. It's not anything grandiose, but it's super catchy and well put together for a generic fantasy game. The game came with the soundtrack, so that's also crazy cool.

I couldn't tell you how far I am into Divinity II - I just got to what I believe to be a significant event in obtaining my "Battle Tower" and my ability to transform into a dragon, but so far, it's been a surprisingly fun game for the $10 I paid for it. This isn't even getting into the second half of the game's package, the expansion Ego Draconis. That's a lot of game for $10.

Those Whiskey Media Types Are Bad News, Man

I re-upped my subscription this week to Whiskey Media. I didn't need to think twice. Though I don't watch a lot of the regular subscriber-exclusive content, I do feel like the purchase was warranted. Here's why!

The Best E3 Coverage - These guys kill it during E3, which is probably my favorite week of gaming in the entire year. I make up snacks and food for the inevitable long hours in front of a computer as I soak up all the little bits of news. For me these last couople of years, there hasn't been any site with better or flat-out funnier coverage than Giant Bomb. It's the moments like the Braid creator taking journalists to task during an open and honest conversation during the Bombcast or the excellent and often hilarious moments from the recaps (Ryan's "Power" moment in the last one still gets a play from me now and again - terrific editing).

The Randomness - I love when an unannounced video is about to start or I see something archived that I missed live, be it from GB, Screened, Tested, or Comic Vine. There's a lot of charm to the idea that something can just be thrown together on the spot for the amusement of the community.

The Classic Segments - I don't know what I did before Quick Looks, but holy crap, are they amazing. Same goes for the rest of Whiskey Media's features that I view regularly, such as the Half-Good series, Norm and Will's latest forays into the tech I wish I had the money to afford, and Comic Vine's excellent occasional video. I'd be lying if I said I didn't wish for more straight-up written reviews from Giant Bomb in particular, but given that it's such a small crew, it's understandable.

The Podcasts - I'm not a regular listener to the GB podcasts, but when I need something to listen to while doing a gaming grind or research, it's invariably the podcast I go with. Part of the fun is that randomness we've already covered, part of it is me silently arguing certain points, and part of it is just the consistent quality.

And that's it for this week. A little short, I know, but next week will bring possibly more on Divnity II as well as my first impressions on one of my most anticipated titles, Jagged Alliance: Back in Action.

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Sparky's Update - War in the North, fantasy novels-to-games

Hey gang! I'm afraid this will probably be a bit of a dull update this week, as I've really been dedicating a lot of time to Forza 4. I did manage to get very close to the ending of War in the North, so I feel like I should talk some more about that game. I didn't go over its strengths very well, so I thought I'd dedicate a little more time to that and to what in particular I'd like to see out of future LOTR games. And while I've been doing a lot of research this week for my writing, I haven't been reading too much for pleasure. That doesn't mean you're not going to get some arbitrary little bit on novels, though, as I plan to continue the fantasy novel-to-game theme by describing a few of my favorite ideas.

Hacking and Slashing

It occurs to me first and foremost that I never did do a great job explaining what exactly War in the North is. I described it as an action-RPG, and while that's certainly the genre it most resembles, I think it merits a better description. You essentially have a group of three characters, each with a certain role to play. Their classes should be familiar to anyone who has played LOTRO, but if you haven't, here's a quick overlook. The dwarf is a champion, meaning he's essentially the fighter/damage dealer of the three. He's also got some tank-like skills, but seems primarily to be focused on dealing out lots and lots of melee damage. His skills reflect that, including a sweeping attack that can nail multiple mobs, a fierce attack against a single opponent, and an aura called War Cry, which essentially boosts the skills of the dwarf and nearby companions. Those attacks can be modified slightly through the skill trees - for example, War Cry can regenerate health over time, help you ignore enemy attacks (incredibly useful), and up the defense and attack power of allies. Each of those abilities can be upgraded several times. The human Ranger is more or less a stealthy ranged killer, with some options to become more warrior-ish with dual wielding. The elf lore-master is the mage of the group, using her spells mostly to heal but also for some nice ranged attacks.

While I haven't played around too much with the loremaster or ranger, I feel I can say that the game does a pretty good job of allowing you a certain range in how you can play your character. Some skills are less useful than others, but with respec potions available from shops early on, it's not really a big deal to go back and change your character when you start earning lots of money. Armor sets and weapons help reflect personal choices in gameplay styles too, as you can slot different gems to armor and weapons to augment your stats or deal certain types of damage. It's all fairly standard stuff in this type of game, but it's rock solid and done well. It really helps that all the armor and weapons appear on your character, and by the end of the game, you get some really neat-looking sets.

The game is broken out fairly rhythmically - you go through one large dungeon area, broken up into several smaller pieces, and then you encounter a town or village. Once you get to the town, you can then go back and revisit those dungeons. The mobs become easier (possibly through the generous leveling), there are no minibosses or bosses, and all the chests and breakable objects have been reset. Grinding out levels, when necessary, is ridiculously easy once you get past the first dungeon, and honestly, people, you shouldn't need to grind out levels in this if you're even slightly good at action RPG's. Achievements are doled out handily, and I can only imagine that people could easily S-rank this one in a week or so.

It's too bad then that the game's slavish devotion to sticking to the edge of the trilogy's story hinders it so. You get the feeling that given more freedom to the story and the locations, this game could have been something really remarkable. As it is, it's basically trying to flesh out a story that's already been told in books, movies, video games, and every other possible medium.

The Other Games!

I got into a real Forza 4 kick this week, spending most of my time gaming devoted to polishing off a year and a half in the career mode. I also spent a stupid amount of time designing a few cars. You can find pictures of those cars in my profile's pictures, if you're interested. Really, the only one of particular note is that Hyundai Genesis, which I'm super fond of. Not much more to say. The awesome additions to the cars via DLC has been even better in this game than in Forza 3. I definitely feel like I'm getting my money's worth out of this one.

I've made a few hours progress into Crisis Core, not enough to really warrant much more talk, but I'm still really digging the combat system. I'm not a huge fan of the stifling environments, but maybe the game allows for some exploration of the world later on. Right now, I can only visit a few Midgar areas, which already makes it 1000 times more explorable than FFXIII.

Fantasy Novels that Should Be Games

Here's a fun fact for you - I read a ton of fantasy novels. I've got everything on my shelves from Mallory to Tolkien, Tad Williams to Harry Potter. If it's even remotely decent looking, odds are I'll read it. Here lately, while playing through Lord of the Rings, I've been contemplating what fantasy novels should be made into games. Some of these already have a game or two released, but either they need updates or a new genre. Here's the list:

Tad Williams - Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn:

While I think there are better individual novels on the market today in terms of modern fantasy, I don't think we've seen the collective equal of Tad Williams's Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. It's a huge world, and Williams spends some time getting the reader nicely acquainted with it without going as batshit overboard as Robert Jordan. As a game, it's begging for a Bioware-esque RPG, complete with a big party full of the various races and denizens of Williams' world. The Sitha would make great villains, and you could go either for the main story of the novels themselves or a new one. If and when I make the sci-fi equivalent of this list, expect to see Williams' equally brilliant Otherland series.

Robert Jordan - Wheel of Time (duh)

While we've had countless MUD's and a surprisingly decent PC game based on Jordan's novels, there has yet to really be a definitive game based on his works. I think the world is an MMO company's wet dream waiting to happen, but it would require a monstrous amount of tech behind it, as the world would have to be huge to appease the novels' fans. I'd stick to the events of the novels here, as the story should be hefty enough to support an MMO a decade after its released.

Anne McCaffrey - The Pern World

It's already been a sad year for book lovers with the passing of Anne McCaffrey. But her legacy of countless fantasy novels should live on for quite a bit longer. I can't claim to be the biggest fan of her books, but I can guarantee you I'd play the hell out of the games if they were made right. She invented a charming world with a lot of potential for video games somewhere down the line - not now, not so soon, but definitely somewhere down the line, I think a line of adventure-heavy third person games could definitely work well in this universe. Maybe even a Telltale-esque adventure game? Hmmm.

T.H. White - The Once and Future King

Maybe it's just my inner child, but I really want a big blowout adventure game based on T.H. White's masterpiece. We've seen dozens of Arthurian games, but a sprawling adventure game with three very distinct acts, each with a different mood, could definitely get some playtime on my PC or console.

And that's it for now. Feel free to chime in with your own thoughts on books of any genre you'd like to see made into games. Or just spout random nonsense at me. Your choice!

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Sparky's Update - Lord of the Rings: War in the North

Hey gang! It's probably going to be a quick update this week. I've only been playing two games over the last week: War in the North and Crisis Core. I've barely scratched the surface of Crisis Core, so I will say little of it for right now save that I'm enjoying its mechanics and not at all enjoying its bland story. That might change, as I do dearly love the trappings of Final Fantasy VII and the game is still getting started. But enough of that for now. Let's move on to the game I've really been playing.

Oh, I'll also quickly review Jonathan Maberry's third and final (for now) Pine Deep novel, Bad Moon Rising. Short version? It's one of the best horror novels of the last decade or so.

A Real Mixed Bag

The next few paragraphs are probably going to make it sound like I hate Lord of the Rings: War in the North, but I want to be clear up front - I'm really enjoying the game. It's an addictive, loot-based action-RPG set in Tolkien's Middle Earth. That right there is enough to get me hooked. Each of the three characters has a very specific role, but a lot of wiggle room in his/her skills to make the character feel unique to your particular choice of playstyle. Some of the environments look great, blending a bit of the movies with a bit of what appears to be inspiration from Lord of the Rings Online. That's a good thing - that game was beautiful. The music is superb, as I've come to expect from LOTR games. It seems to be original compositions, though I'm not entirely certain about that. Character models look fantastic, taking likenesses from the movies along with a bevy of characters both original and literary.

So it kind of pains me to have to describe what War in the North does wrong - and holy shit, does it do a TON of it wrong. Some things are apparent right off the bat. While the visuals look great and the enemies and characters have a nice bit of variety to them, you'll notice a massive amount of clipping both from bodies appearing where they're not supposed to (half in walls, running around stuck in an environment item such as a rock, etc.). Given that I rarely care about graphics, this isn't a big deal to me. But that's just the tip of the iceberg, I'm afraid.

Storywise, the game starts with your three protagonists thrust right into the Prancing Pony for a meeting with Aragorn on where you need to go to help distract the Enemy from his business. And that's it - you're given no introduction to the three protagonists. There's little backstory given, save for bits dropped throughout the game's various town locations. There is literally no reason to care about these protagonists and their story whatsoever, and that's maybe the worst thing I can say about any game based on Lord of the Rings. The story insists on interweaving with the events of the novels, a poor decision in my opinion, as Tolkien had notes on thousands of years of Middle Earth lore to draw upon, not to mention the countless possibilities of a story skirting the main story altogether. Instead, they've made a game that insists that you follow the main stories told in Lord of the Rings without actually being any of the great characters involved. You're stuck with three of the blandest, most generic fantasy characters I've seen.

And then there's the core mechanics of the single player game. Let me get this out of the way - the multiplayer is great, if you can find two partners who can help "carry the load," as Samwise said. No complaints there. However, the single player experience is loaded with stunningly bad design decisions. Let me explain in several parts:

1) Character selection is only possible between lengthy action sequences or by returning all the way out to the main menu. This would be fine, except...

2) Switching characters does NOT transfer over items you've given said character, but experience and game progress DOES. I played through most of the first area as the dwarf champion, giving my other characters all sorts of nifty items and equipment, thinking I'd be able to go through later and sort out who would wear what, who would get certain sets, and then selling it all off in a big lump. Didn't work that way at all. The AI controlled characters picked outfits and weapons I'd given them seemingly at random. When I switched over to those characters later, I was horrified to learn that each one carried only his and her stock items, but still had to deal with high level enemies at the exact point I'd left off with the dwarf. Fuuuu-

3) You CANNOT control your AI companions' skill growth or inventories! This is the dumbest part of them all. I could deal with playing the champion the whole game - he's a little damage dealing tank with a nifty buff. What I don't like is not being able to control the focus of the other characters. I need the lady elf to be a healer, which thankfully does seem to be the focus of the AI controlling her. The male ranger is seemingly a bizarre mess of a character when controlled by the AI, split between being a weak archer (I've handed him stronger bows, but I have no way of telling if he's equipped them or not) and a weak dual-wielding glass cannon. Or rather, in his case, glass pea shooter.

Those three design decisions are almost fatal flaws. What I wished I'd known, and you should too if you decide to play through this game (and hey, it is a fun game), is that you should stick with one character throughout the first dungeon. Just go with whoever you've picked, get through the lengthy initial areas, and bam - you have the ability to replay that first area piecemeal. You don't have that option in the middle of the area, but once it's completed, you can redo it, one small chunk at a time. This allows you to not only get a feel for the character, but gets you the loot you'll need to properly equip your characters.

Whew. So yeah. Good game, just some stupid decisions made.

Bad Moon Rising

I talked a little last week about Dead Man's Song, Jonathan Maberry's (and it is Maberry - sorry for the misspelling) second in the Pine Deep trilogy of horror novels. It was a great book with a few glaring problems, well worth a read for anyone desperate (or not) for a real goddamn horror novel. Well, just twelve hours after picking up the third novel in the series, I finished it - and that's not at all an insult to the book's length. It is, without question, the finest horror novel I've read in the last decade.

Bad Moon Rising is almost purely action-driven. The characters have been well established by this point, and while emotions run high in the novel, there's no awkward breaks in the plot for surreal, overly saccharine love scenes as in the last novel. It's a grim novel, full of blood and tears and a whole metric ton of bodies. Yes, it's vampires and werewolves, but unlike those glittery emo kids' novels, this is a man's horror novel, full of blood, gore, and nary a single emo girl in sight.

If there's one problem with Maberry's finest work yet, it's that he uses foreshadowing with all the subtlety of a baseball bat across your forehead. It's an annoyingly bush-league writing trope that reveals the fates of several characters far in advance, and it lessens the impact somewhat. It's not enough to really detract from the novel, but it is worth noting.

And that should do it for this week. I'm going to continue playing through War in the North and Crisis Core, so expect more on those next week. Have a good one, folks.

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Sparky's Update - Assassin's Creed: The Third?

Last week, I discussed how I'd like to see Saints Row evolve, and what needs to be addressed. This week, I'm going to examine Assassin's Creed II as compared to Brotherhood and Revelations. I'll also be discussing my thoughts on Jonathan Mayberry's novel Dead Man's Song.

Slowing Down When You're Ahead

I started playing the Assassin's Creed series with the release of Brotherhood, and was pretty much blown away. If you've played an Assassin's Creed game since or including II, you pretty much know why. The story was rad, the exploration and realization of an ancient Rome was beautifully well crafted, and there was a lot to do besides just the main quest. I had some issues with the combat (still not a fan - more on that later), and after a while, some of the side quests grew a little repetitive, but that was it. And honestly? Playing a game for that long so often, it's bound to start to feel a little repetitive no matter what the game is. I played that game pretty solidly in and out for a month or two. Come this Thanksgiving and Amazon's annual Black Friday Week sales, and I found myself scooping up its sequel, Revelations.

I knew going into Revelations that it was going to be more of the same, and by that point, I was perfectly okay with that. It had been close to eleven months since I had played Brotherhood, and I was eager to jump back into the boots of Ezio and discover who this Altair guy was. The first half of the game was surprisingly bland and narrow in scope. Having traversed the same areas countless times, I started to grow really tired of the game. But then, the latter half of the game - and particularly its story - really started to ramp up. By the time the game's CGI finale had rolled, I was pumped up and ready for even more Assassin's Creed. Luckily for me, my so-called white whale of gaming deals had finally been fished out of the sea.

For the last couple of years, whenever Assassin's Creed II came up for sale, I somehow missed it, through bad timing, a lack of money, or a technical glitch through Amazon or another online vendor. But I had finally nabbed it for a respectable $10, an absolute steal given how much time I've put into the game. I played a few other games and knocked 'em out of the park. Assassin's Creed II came up in my pile of shame, and while at first I was hesitant to play more so soon after Revelations, I realized it was a great opportunity to look at where the series has gone and how much has evolved.

My basic conclusion is this: Assassin's Creed is Ubisoft's early attempt at a Smackdown vs. Raw. You see, I genuinely love the Smackdown vs. Raw series (though I guess it's called WWE xx now), but I'd be hard pressed to tell you that each new one is a technical marvel. Assassin's Creed has become much like that. With each iteration, they've taken the basic formula of Assassin's Creed II and tweaked it just enough to market it as a new game. Oh, and added multiplayer too, which doesn't really factor into these ramblings. I like the multiplayer, don't get me wrong, but I'd never buy a game solely for its multiplayer and I don't feel as I'm the best judge of its evolution or comparison to other incrementally changed games.

Where Assassin's Creed II shines far better than its descendants is in its staggering scope. This is a huge world. The story doesn't quite have the consistency of Brotherhood or the exciting feel of the latter half of Revelations, but on merit of sheer size and the desire to explore, this game trumps them both. From the gray waters of Forli to the remarkably beautiful Florence, I have spent hours just running around, collecting treasure, feathers, and the like. While I had that feeling in both Revelations and Brotherhood, I didn't feel it on the level that I do with II.

In a way, I almost hope Assassin's Creed III becomes a single-player game again. Will that happen? Most likely not. But with the continued diminishing returns on both the gameplay and the worlds, Assassin's Creed III needs to have larger ideas. Do they necessarily need to re-evaluate the series as a whole? No - as a matter of fact, I think they've got one of the most remarkably solid foundations for a series since Gears of War. But the developers and the publishers need to dream big. Bigger than just shoving another one of these out the door in late 2012. Bigger than a small chunk of a city. Bigger than a few incremental combat upgrades.

What definitely needs to be addressed though is the combat. Holy crap, does combat in the series stink. With the refinements made in Revelations, especially with the awesome addition of creating your own grenades, this is obviously something that Ubisoft is at least trying to fix. Honestly, though, it'd probably take massive stretch to entirely change the awkward enemy focusing, the rock-paper-scissors-Spock attacking and defending, and the strange group AI. However, that being said, Revelations and Brotherhood have managed to fix a great many of the UI problems from II, including seemingly random weapon switches, a more responsive weapon select wheel, and the seperation of primary and secondary weapons.

The graphics have remained largely untouched. That's not really a surprise, but it is sort of disappointing. When the series finally jumps ahead to a new protagonist, perhaps the graphics will change to reflect the new surroundings. But as it is, every location save Forli and Venice sort of all start to blend together into one pretty but congealed mass.

All in all, I really have enjoyed each of the games in the series that I've played. I hope Ubisoft decides to put a little more time in between sequels, but since that doesn't appear to be happening, at least I can hope that they'll start making more meaningful upgrades to the system. As it is, I can only recommend these games at discounted prices. For $35, they feel about right. Any more than that, though, and you'd be paying a ridiculous sum of money for what is essentially Assassin's Creed II.2. Or II.3. You get the idea. Really, though, if you're just after the single player experience, you should be fine playing Revelations without playing the others. It might be smaller in scope, but there's enough meat to the gameplay that you'll get the full experience as well as an excellent conclusion to Ezio's story.

A Real Horror Novel? Be Still, My Beating Heart. Well, Not Literally.

Jonathan Mayberry's Ghost Road Blues was an excellent debut novel, certainly one of the best in true horror novels in the 2000's. While some of the characters are a little black and white, he's got the fundamentals of what makes a modern horror novel great - lots of action, a sense of dark adventure, and some genuinely frightening and gruesome scenes. It's all too easy in reviews to resort to comparisons, so I'll simply say this. Mayberry has his own voice, but writes his novels in what is becoming the classic modern horror novel fashion. It's sweeping, with a lot of head-hopping, and it's got a great sense of rhythm.

Dead Man's Song, the sequel to that novel, is even better. It's more refined, taking the black and white characters from the first and giving them a little more flavor and color. His antagonists in particular come into their own, becoming frighteningly unstoppable (not literally). And while the good guys have a little glimmer of hope, they take some nasty licks this time around. It doesn't hurt that while the novel is fairly lengthy, it's fast-moving and lean where it needs it. We've been given the basics on these characters in the prior novel, so now it's about the story and the direction, and that's fantastic.

And that's it for this week. I plan on starting in on Lord of the Rings: War in the North sometime in the coming week as well as possibly finishing off Bastion. I may also get a start on Crisis Core, but we'll see.

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Sparky's Update - Saints Row: The Fourth?

Hey gang, welcome to the first normal Sparky's Update in quite some time. It's been a few months, so just as a reminder so you know to click away from this page, this is just another one of those blogs where a random faceless dude blogs about his thoughts on games he's played, thoughts on the industry that everyone and their mother shares, and the occasional thought on books and movies. If you haven't run screaming for the hills, you have been warned.

Today I'm going to primarily be talking about the state of the urban free-world action game known as Saint's Row and what technical improvements I'd like to see in the future. If you don't follow me or are reading this well past the time when I've talked about it, I thoroughly enjoyed Saints Row: The Third. It's definitely among my favorites in the genre, along with its predecessor, GTA: San Andreas, and Red Dead Redemption. I don't feel the need to recap the game's strengths, as by now, you probably know if you're going to like it or not. So instead, I'd like to talk about where I think the series should go and what should be addressed.

The Technical Stuff

Truth be told, the genre has come a long way since the days of the PS2 and Xbox, especially in terms of presentation and delivery of the story. Saints Row: The Third never really changes the basic backbone of its predecessor too much - graphically, it's not much of an improvement save for the cutscenes, and the gameplay is comfortably familiar. You still have three rival gangs, three major allies, and a bunch of activities and shops to keep you occupied when you don't feel the need to play through the main story. So basically, then, it's everything I want in an open-world game of this sort - lots of stuff to do and it's a lot of fun without ever being frustrating. It also has mostly fixed some of the older problems that might not be obvious.

Namely, Saints Row 3 doesn't suffer from a glaring technical problem that has plagued just about every other urban open world game - that of the majority of cars being the same type and/or class of car you've just driven. It was a memory issue in other games that seemingly eliminated the randomness of car generation in order to help process all the information of the world. You'd see a ton of cars just like the one you were either driving or had just abandoned within a short distance. It was jarring. While Saints Row 3 doesn't entirely eliminate that problem, it is noticeably lessened and is a pleasant little upgrade.

The problem isn't entirely alleviated, but it's obvious that with the next generation of consoles, it should be either eliminated or hardly noticeable. With that change, I'd also love to see more varieties of vehicles, including older/newer models of existing cars, varying amounts of body damage (almost all the cars of Saints Row 3 look pristine, albeit sometimes a little dirty), and better car details. The graphical engine of Saints Row is starting to show its age, and that's never quite so apparent as when you're looking at the cars.

One problem that's still inherent to the genre is the empty-street syndrome, wherein you'll sometimes be wandering on foot for long stretches at a time without a seemingly appropriate number of cars on the street. This has been a problem since GTA 3. It's slowly seen some improvements, but we aren't quite at the point where traffic ebb and flow feels natural. Having less traffic at night with more parked cars makes sense, as does heavier traffic during the day, but the current ghost-town feel of the city at sporadic times on foot never quite feels right. That being said, I think pedestrian traffic in the game feels fantastic.

Speaking of being on foot, the last major upgrade I'd like to see is better climbing detection. Some crates, boxes, and fences felt as though they should have been a cakewalk to climb on or over, but the game doesn't quite do a great job of deciding what can be climbed and what can't. This needs to be addressed somehow.

And that's it for the major complaints. Obviously, there are a laundry list of little upgrades. The graphics engine could use a major overhaul. Having a homie drive to a selected map destination while you ride shotgun seems silly, but would make car-to-car combat so much more fun. There were many little glitches, particularly during the Night Blayde mission, that need to be addressed. I would love to see a much bigger variety of stores, even just within the ones offered, as well as the return of the car shops. Activities need better difficulty balancing, and actually, some sort of optional feature that reduces the difficulty, amps up yours and your homies' hit points, and makes your vehicles harder to destroy after MULTIPLE deaths would be a great benefit.

Where I'd Like the Series to Go

This is kind of a misleading title, as it's a catch-all for all sorts of things I'd like to talk about in terms of the series' future.

First, I think the Stilwater and Steelport areas have been played out. By now, the environments all look the same. Instead, maybe move the focus towards a few large city areas joined by large stretches of outdoors areas - imagine San Andreas, but on a larger scale. And speaking of, a larger scale is an absolute must for everything within the series. More stores, more weapons, more characters, and most importantly, more quests would go a long, long way towards increasing replayability.

I'd also like to see implementation of faction favor and disagreement. Rather than the typical three-gang system of the last few Saints Row games, let's see a wider variety of gangs - say, six. Everything you do for one gang might upset another, and vice versa. Buying up property will either help or hurt your relations with gangs, as would criminal actions on their turf.

I also wouldn't be too upset if the next game focused on an entirely new gang, or at least, a new branch of the Saints struggling to make it without their corporate whore brethren. Along the same lines, it'd be great to see a whole laundry list of new protagonists and antagonists, perhaps with a few thrown in for good measure. Now, this is going to sound hypocritical, but perhaps the new game could still star The Boss, as I really think the character has come into his/her own as one of the best protagonists in games. Seriously, the guy had some of the funniest damn lines I've ever heard. So new gang, new characters, but same central protagonist. That make any sense?

What Else I've Been Playing

I wrapped up Uncharted 3 recently, which plays a lot like its predecessor. That's a great thing. There are some superb set pieces, highlighted by the sobering and great desert "level," wherein you find yourself.... oh, never mind. I don't want to spoil it. It's a great game, though I do wish they had kept the money/cheats/unlockables aspect from the first. That would have given me so much more incentive to play it back through.

WWE '12 isn't going to win over the world, but it's a fun, solid wrestling game with some truly inspiring work by the community in the creation of Create-a-Whatever. There is no other game on the market right now where I can have Weird Al Yankovic putting the hurt on Robocop and Spiderman. It's ridiculously good fun, and if you haven't picked up a Smackdown vs. Raw game in a while, this might be one you'd be interested in.

I've also started playing Castleville. Oh, shut up.

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Sparky's Update - Disgaea 4, Episode 10 - A Finale of Sorts

To be honest, saying that this is the end of Disgaea 4 would be misleading. There is an absolute ton of post-game content, including some goofy side missions, the Cave of Ordeals, pirate hunting (and reverse pirating!), and so much more that it's bananas to even think about finishing all of it. But this, readers, marks the end of the main story of Disgaea, and for a time, it'll mark the end of this series of blogs. I fully intend on bringing up what I'm doing in Disgaea 4 in future Sparky's Updates, but I don't believe they'll be nearly the length of these blogs. Thanks for all the support over these ten blogs. I know I've been completely inconsistent on their schedule and am about a month late in delivering the last one, but here it finally is - the so-called end of Disgaea 4.

Defying God

The episode opens with Artina explaining what she recognizes as Fear the Great. Fear is a system put in place by none other than God himself to destroy the world should the level of malice on Earth reach a certain point. It doesn't take long for the party to figure out that the cause for the terrible malice is Judge Nemo. Despite the seemingly insurmountable odds of defying God and destroying Fear the Great, the party saddles up. Flonne declares she cannot take part in the upcoming battles, but she createst a link for the party to appear before Fear the Great. Convenient - and I'm extremely grateful I don't have to listen to her screeching voice anymore. Seriously, imagine a five year old with a screech like nails on a chalkboard, and you'll get an inkling of how annoying Flonne's voicework is.

Now that we've ditched the Love Angel, the party discovers dark, malice-formed versions of monsters. It takes Valvatorez a minute to recognize the voice of Nemo, muttering in pain and anger through all the creatures' voices. The team quickly takes out a great many of the malice-monsters. Slowly throughout the next few battles, Artina reveals the tale of how she knows Judge Nemo.

Four hundred years prior, when Artina and Valvatorez met on their fateful day upon the battlefield and he made his promise to her to never drink blood again until he had frightened her, there was a war going on between two nameless sides. A soldier from one of the sides was wounded and brought to the enemies' camp as a prisoner. There, he was treated by a beautiful and kind woman - Artina. He eventually escaped back to his own side, where he was thought to be a spy and a traitor. He was tortured, his family was persecuted and killed, and he was left once again to the enemies' mercy, where he was also tortured and beaten again. Artina was believed to be a traitor for treating him, and she was killed in front of Nemo. In anguish, he vowed to live his years finding retribution for her.

His rage lasted beyond even his death, and Nemo became a ghost. Although he didn't seek vengeance against the entirety of mankind or demons at first, slowly, as he witnessed the atrocities of man, he came to hate mankind and blame the demons for not doing their duties on Earth by punishing the wicked. His mind cracked, and he became the entity known as Judge Nemo. Artina, who had become an angel upon her death, had stayed with him every day, trying to convince him there was good in the world and to stop his quest for vengeance, but due to his lack of faith, he never saw her.

Back in the present, the party is nearly overwhelmed by the malice-monsters. Fenrich devises a plan to get at the heart of Nemo, by convincing him the angel Artina was there and that she wanted him to stop his madness. Nemo continues to refuse and deny her existence, despite the fact that she slowly starts to get through to him. During one rough battle, Fear the Great and Nemo put up a desperate last stand together as a giant dragon-creature. To the delight of the party (save Fenrich), Valvatorez vows to protect Artina until he keeps his promises to her. The party manages to defeat the malice-monsters yet again, cornering the dragon-monster and forcing him to see Artina for who she truly is. Valvatorez and Artina gently convince him to stop his search for vengeance and retribution, and realizing his madness, Nemo agrees. Before leaving, he says that he and Fear the Great will "disappear."

Realizing that Nemo means to end his existence entirely by taking Fear the Great into the void of nothingness and erase his own soul in the process, Artina and Val agree that they must stop him and make him atone for his sins the hard way - by becoming a Prinny! Truthfully, the story of Nemo and his regretfulness seems to have struck a chord in the party, so saving him and punishing him seem to be the goals in equal measure. They encounter Nemo at the very core of Fear the Great, and inform him that they will save his soul in order to punish him properly as a Prinny. Each demon member of the team cheerfully informs Nemo of the particular nasty things they have in mind for him to do to make up for his sins, and grateful to Valvatorez and Artina, Nemo agrees to be reborn as a Prinny. Before that can happen, Fear the Great mkaes one last grab at Nemo, transforming him into the real final boss of the game - the malice version of Nemo himself.

This was a ridiculously hard battle this time around, due to my self-imposed restriction of "No Valvatorez." The map itself is straightforward - no Geo Blocks or areas, just a beeline to Nemo and about four generic, powerful enemies... at first. Every turn, a new enemy is warped into a random spot until Nemo is defeated. I tried at first to strategize this one, using a warrior and fighter to fend off the normal enemies while my damage-dealing Shaman and Masked Hero blasted Nemo. It worked like crap, and I quickly realized I needed to focus all my characters on killing Nemo as quickly as possible - a task made much more difficult due to his high hit points. Still, though, drawing him in towards the base, chipping away at his HP, and sending out as many characters as possible to deal combinations of damage whittled him down, and soon enough, the battle was won.

Valvatorez asks Emizel to perform his duties as Death and reap Nemo's soul. Emizel is reluctant, having never actually taken a soul before, but eventually cuts down a grateful Nemo and sends him to Hades. The narrator gives a few lines about how the six companions would go on to become legends, and the game ostensibly ends there. Being Disgaea, however, there are all sorts of alternate endings and additional scenes after the credits roll. I won't spoil any of these for you here, because I've gotta leave you with SOME reason to do the quest. Suffice it to say, though, that these add quite a bit to the replayability of the game and I look forward to eventually unlocking them all.

And that's it, really. The credits roll, a couple of scenes play out, and we're dumped right back into the game. There are two options from here - continue playing the current game, which allows you to access a bunch of post-game stuff, or start a New Game+ with everything - and I mean everything - intact. For me, for now, this is the last I'll play of Disgaea 4 for a while, but someday soon, I'll be back for the Cave of Ordeals and the post-game missions.

I genuinely hope you enjoyed this blog series and learned a little bit about what makes Disgaea and an NIS game tick. It's a game that I personally adore, having now spent just over about 50 hours with it. There's really nothing like it on the market (save for its predecessors), and if you're the kind of person who loves an incredibly deep game that requires a ton of grinding, this is exactly the game for you. Even if that doesn't sound appealing, I dare you to try it, and I'll bet you'll be surprised at how much you enjoy it.

Good night, folks, and a very happy New Year.

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Sparky's Update - Disgaea 4, Episode 9

I've got my PS3 on and am downloading a patch for Disgaea 4 as we speak. Hopefully when that's done, I will be able to dive in and finish up this blog series tonight with Episode 10 sending us home. In the meantime, kick back, drink a Pepsi Max (so damn good with rum), and dive in.

Oh, and happy New Year's to everyone. Whether your year was good, bad, or somewhere in between, here's hoping 2012 sees a better year for all of us.

To the Moon, Alice

The party has just learned that the nefarious Judge Nemo has plans to destroy the moon. Incredulous, the party demands an explanation. Nemo explains that this is his Plan B (not the day-after pill, you filthy heathens). He has set up explosive devices on the moon with a little help. The party, as always, vows to stop him. The party argues amongst themselves how they should get to the moon, be it through rocket ship, a badass robot of some sort, or through other means. Fenrich snaps at them all to stop being such idiots, and that he's already arranged for the dimensional guide to create a portal there for them.

On arrival, the party immediately notices that there are all sorts of structures dotting the moon's surface that look like some sort of base. Oh, and Fuka lets out an explosion of breath, not realizing that as a demon, she apparently doesn't need to breathe (look, it's an NIS game, just forget science exists, mmmkay?). The party storms the base, and discovers that Nemo's helpers are aliens. This episode is full of not-so-sly nods to its inspirations, and these aliens, though humanoid in appearance, are obviously directly inspired by the bureaucratically obsessed Vogons of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. They insist that the party must follow all its rules and regulations, including submitting the proper forms to visit the base and its leaders. Of course, the party refuses and takes out some aggression on those alien scumbags.

Once that's over and done with, Fenrich flies off the handle, demanding to know how to shut down the explosives on the moon. The aliens don't give in right away, insisting again that regulations must be followed. Fenrich and the crew make a few threats here and there, and soon enough, the aliens spill the beans. Apparently the moon base has an ignition switch that must be demolished to destabilize the explosives... but if the party does that, they risk destroying the gravity generator or some such and creating a black hole - again, this game kind of ignores centuries of science in favor of... well... weirdness.

The party is at a complete loss as to what to do - risk a black hole and destroy the ignition switch, or let nature run its course and let the moon be destroyed. Fenrich flies into a quiet, sulking rage at himself for not knowing what to do, and the rest of the party mulls over the choice... except for Val. For him, the choice is obvious - take a chance on saving the Earth, of course. He gently chides Fenrich and the rest of the party for even thinking that they shouldn't take a chance like this, and relieved that someone is once again taking the reins, the party agrees that destroying the ignition switch is the best move. The party continues on, finding the ignition switch surprisingly close, and after a quick confrontation with some of the aliens, they destroy it. The party is just about ready to metaphorically pop the champagne bottles and get in the celebrating mood, but Judge Nemo pops up and snickers that they've not won yet, that there is still another ignition switch to go.

The party hunts down this second ignition switch, and in a slightly more difficult battle, they manage to destroy it too. The nefarious Nemo crops up yet again, and tells them a quick little story about how he came to work with the aliens. It seems that the humans were scheduled to be destroyed by a Pan-Galactic Council (see what I mean about Douglas Adams, again?), so Nemo asked them to let him try it his way first, with the demon clones. When that failed, together Nemo and the aliens devised the alternate plan to destroy the moon, which would create tsunamis, global disasters, and the end of mankind. And if that plan was somehow stopped, well, then, a black hole could be created, ending the Earth once and for all.

The team hunts down the base's reactor core, the source of all energy on the moon. Of course, it's being guarded by more alien scumbags, so they've gotta deal with them first. But once that's done, Val and his merry crew take down the reactor, which creates a rumbling earthquake. Uneased and unhinged, the party panics, and Nemo rears his ugly head one again, explaining that they've managed to stop the black hole from being formed. However, in shutting down the moon's power, they've destabilized the gravitational field keeping the moon in its place, and so the moon is now plummeting towards Earth. The only thing that could save the Earth would be for some great force to push it back up into orbit. Naturally, Desco and Fuka assume this means that they've gotta start jumping up and down, which is perhaps my absolute favorite moment in the game - it's just such a silly, childish moment that it's hard not to laugh as they hop up and down with all their might.

In any case, of course that doesn't work. But in a flash of light, a newcomer appears with a piercingly annoying cry about love energy. Enter Flonne, a character first introduced in the original Disgaea and the Lady Archangel to whom Artina/Volcanus is sworn to serve. You don't need to know much, if anything, about Flonne's backstory in Disgaea 4, but essentially, in the original Disgaea, she was sent from the heavens to assassinate an Overlord and winds up joining with the characters in that game to teach the protagonist all about love. In successive games, she plays mostly minor roles in post-game content. So, back on topic, she's essentially an angel of love, a point thoroughly emphasized and shoved down the throat of both the characters and me, the player. Yeeeech.

Flonne has brought with her a secret weapon to help stop the moon from crashing into the Earth. In one of the game's rare actual cutscenes, we see the parts of a giant lady robot quickly assembling, much like an anime Mega-Maid (and if you don't get that reference, FOR SHAME). The robot tries to push the moon up into orbit, but Flonne claims it needs more awe energy, the energy formed when humans pray to the heavens. Val decides that the party must pray, to which Fenrich denies vehemently. He believes that they can do this without prayer, that there must still be some aliens left with the technology to help them instead. Val agrees that it's worth a shot.

Somewhere in the midst of all these happenings, Flonne lets slip Volcanus's true name, Artina (which we've known but the party hasn't entirely confirmed - they've guessed). Judge Nemo doesn't hear it from Flonne or Artina's lips, because he can't hear angels, but in shock, the party repeats Artina's name, to which Judge Nemo is utterly shocked. He knows the name of Artina, and curses the party for saying that she was there, disbeliving that she was there in the room too because he can't see or hear her due to his lack of faith.

We are also shown a snippet of how Fenrich came to be in Val's service, and why Fenrich is so adamant about saving the moon. Fenrich had been critically wounded by an unseen something, but Val saved him. In return, Fenrich offered his eternal servitude to Val. Val tried to dissuade him, claiming that Fenrich should live his life however he wished to. Fenrich states that he wants nothing more than to serve Val for the rest of his days. Val states that so long as the moon shines, Fenrich will serve him, a vow Fenrich is completely happy with. So that's why he's so set on saving the moon. Bleeeeeeargh.

In the final battle, the few aliens left fight against my team, which has seen a few notable changes since the last boss fight. I've reincarnated my two primary mages into different classes in order to try out some different things. I've never really used the Shaman or Masked Hero classes, so I decided I'd give them a go. When humanoid characters reincarnate in Disgaea, they retain the abilities of their former class(es) and can receive stat boosts if they've collected enough Mana from killing enemies (or by gaining mana from other characters as they kill enemies if they are situated correctly in the Senate). My new Shaman, therefore, has some great Fire, Wind, and Star spells while my Masked Hero has Ice and Star abilities to boot. The Shaman class looks interesting in that there are a ton of support abilities to learn, all of which are a low cost in Mana, while the Masked Hero gives my character a nice boost in movement range. I haven't yet experimented much with their new Evilties, which I plan to do once I can boost their Mana, probably post-game. In any case, I've taken some time to level them each to about level 70-ish, which leaves them sort of vulnerable but able to still cast devastating spells, especially with their top-notch equipment.

These two characters pretty much run the gauntlet of this boss fight. I've kept an archer/healer and Volcanus behind them, healing them and supporting them. It isn't much of a fight, as most everything goes down quickly save the boss itself, a Magichanged alien with lots of hit points. Keeping it at range and using a few new nifty debilitating effects from the shaman keeps the battle short and sweet.

After the fight, the party has rounded up the aliens. Apparently, there is nothing they can do to stop the moon's fall, so Fenrich demands they kneel and pray to Mega-Maid... errr... the robot Flonzor X (even the game acknowledges how dumb that name is). Artina and Flonne chide him for that, stating that they can't draw much awe energy from people forced to pray. In a last act of desperation, Desco, Fuka, and Emizel begin to pray, though some with a fair bit of grumbling. That adds a bit of energy to Flonzor X, but not nearly enough... until it receives a big boost from somewhere unseen. A video screen pops up - the boost has come from Axel, Hugo (the former President of the Netherworld), and the masses of the Netherworld itself. Flonzor receives yet another boost of energy, this time coming from the human world, who have received videos of Val and his crew fighting on the moon for them.

But all that energy still isn't enough. In one last fit of desperation, Fenrich begins to pray - not to God, not to Flonzor, but to his faith in Valvatorez. Did I mention these NIS games have a tendency to become cloyingly saccharine at times? Ugh. Anyways, this last boost of energy does it, and Flonzor X is able to push the moon back into its proper orbit. Judge Nemo arrives in a fit of rage, but is incoherent and quickly disappears, seemingly in pain. A cold, dark energy descends upon the Earth and the party. Val describes it as being "dark and confusing," claiming that evil wasn't a good enough word for the feeling. The episode ends as Artina realizes that something she recognizes has been unleashed.

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Top Books I Read in 2011

I didn't include non-game related stuff in my Awards Extravaganza, so I thought I'd include my other favorite hobby here. I didn't read a great many releases from 2011, but I did go through a great many quality books this year and I feel they should be mentioned. Just like with my games, there is a clear-cut winner for my Book of the Year, but by no means should that be taken that the others were somehow inferior or shouldn't be read. I think all of these books are excellent.

The Wise Man's Fear - Patrick Rothfuss

Without question, this was my favorite book of 2011 and the finest modern fantasy novel since Tad Williams's Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. The second in the Kingkiller series, this book takes the great groundwork laid out by its predecessor and improves upon it in every way. As Kvothe's alternately sad and sweet tale continues to unfold, I am more and more hooked. It is the story of a very clever, crafty student who stumbles through relationships as easily as he masterfully takes charge of his own fate as a magician, musician, and a warrior, and it is powerfully enchanting stuff.

The First Law trilogy - Joe Abercrombie

It took me a while to get into The First Law novels. At first, I was frustrated with Abercrombie's abrupt, straightforward storytelling. He trims a lot of descriptions down to their very barest essentials, leaving a world that I want to know more about but am left with only the barest of details. However, what the reader is left with is a tight, grim account of anti-heroes trying their best to save the world. The trilogy really pays off in its last novel, spinning on its head everything I thought I knew and understood about who these characters were and where they were heading. The last half of the third novel is perhaps the single most grim triumph of the so-called "good guys" I've ever seen. If you're like me and you hesitate to finish this series based on the first half of the first novel, trust in Abercrombie and stick with it. It turns into a pretty neat read.

The Handsome Man's Guide to Being Handsome - Kevin Shively

This was a Christmas gift from my awesomely awesome brother. I literally read it in two sittings - it's that damn funny and engaging. It's precisely what it sounds like - a comedic look at being handsome, from the fella that runs the comedy blog If you're looking for something straight-up funny to read, this is highly recommended. There's a chapter devoted to the description and identification of crazy women that is classic and had me about in tears.

The Way of Kings - Brandon Sanderson

This year saw me catch up on a lot of Brandon Sanderson's novels, namely the Mistborn trilogy and this one. I wasn't a fan of the Mistborn trilogy, but The Way of Kings is a markedly better book than those. It is sprawling in the vein of the very best in fantasy novels, has a few great characters, and best of all, he doesn't become overly engrossed or detailed in the inane specifics of his magic system. He has a lovingly crafted world here, and I really look forward to seeing what he does with it in the future.

Red Seas Under Red Skies - Scott Lynch

I freakin' love Scott Lynch's novels. Red Seas does an admirable job of carrying the torch from The Lies of Locke Lamora, and while it never is quite as good as that remarkable novel, it is still fantastically good. I said in a review on Goodreads that there's this deception of swashbuckling and a feel-good vibe throughout the first two-thirds of the novel that is slowly, horrifically cast off by the time the novel is finished. Lynch is a master of that sinking void, wherein I try as a reader to claw at the remains of that feel-good nature as he slowly, deliberately pulls me into that pit of sadness by its end. It is full of the same wit and banter that permeated the first novel, with an added feel that the two protagonists have now grown up, insofar as these two gentlemen bastards can grow up. I cannot wait for the third novel.

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Sparky's Update - Disgaea 4, Episode 8

Since I needed to kill some time and had writer's block, I decided to get another one of these out to you all. Hopefully, I'll be able to finish up the last two episodes remaining sometime soon. Like... errr... before 2013? Hopefully? Bear with me on this one. A lot of plot points are addressed rapidly in the game, so I'm going to try to make it as readable as possible.

Judge Nemo, Ahoy!

This episode picks up right after the last one ends. The gang is still in President (now ex-President) Hugo's office, stunned by the news that the Netherworld has been secretly run by a human, the apparent secret leader of the entire human race. Their clamoring disbelief is brought to a halt by a voice in several of their heads. Frightened, Desco claims that the voice sounds evil, but Fuka says it just sounds like an old pervert. The invisible man makes his grand entrance, during which Val concurs with Fuka that anyone invisible and spying on them deserves to be called a pervert (a strange little joke that makes sporadic weak appearances). The man is the human who has been pulling President Hugo's strings. He claims that he has long since cast off his name and identity, as he despises the humans and demons alike. He decides that the party can call him Judge Nemo.

So there you have it - the grand evil boss of Disgaea 4 is a dude named Nemo. Moving on... Nemo declares himself beyond humanity, that he is, in fact, a Judge of their very existence. What this means isn't quite clear yet, but it's obvious he's insane.

Val and his merry crew decide that they're going to show Nemo and the humans a thing or two. First, though, there's a bit of housekeeping and character development to do. Fuka and Emizel argue about how the next President should be chosen. Annoyed, Val declares that the job of President is "first come, first serve." With that, our old buddy Warden Axel swoops in from nowhere and claims the title for his own. He explains that this entire time, his intentions have been to remake the Netherworld into "his colors," as he puts it, claiming that he only sucked up to the Corrupterment in order to strike at them when the time was right... but that his acting skills had been so convincing that he'd even managed to convince himself that he was a suck-up and an evil, cowardly tool of the Corrupterment. Nonchalantly, Valvatorez grants him the title of the 62nd Netherworld president, just like that.

Fuka vows that she'll become the leader of the human world. Fenrich mockingly asks Emizel if he wouldn't rather hide out with his daddy, which causes Emizel to flash back on a conversation he had with his father shortly after their confrontation. Hugo apologized to Emizel for being nothing more than a puppet, claiming that his only intent in Emizel's troubles were to get him out of the way so he didn't suffer for Hugo's mistakes. Emizel forgave his father and vowed to continue on to confront Hugo and take revenge for his actions against Hugo.

The party makes the jump to the Human World, teleporting to an area controlled by Judge Nemo. Several robot-like creatures confront the party. Both Desco and Fuka recognize the creatures as works of their father. Shocked, Fuka believes that Desco must have been the creature that attacked and killed her in her father's lab. Desco refuses, but throughout most of the rest of the episode, Fuka has little to say to Desco, doubting that the creature is telling the truth.

After defeating the bio-suit robots, Judge Nemo then introduces the creatures he's been working on - perfected clones of demons, even more powerful than their Netherworld versions. He has taken the demons given to him by Hugo and cloned their DNA. The team rips through them pretty easily (not many of the fights from this point on until the very last battle are too difficult), and they try to talk down Judge Nemo. Val questions why Nemo has so much hate for the humans. to which Nemo responds vehemently. He also accuses of the demons of neglecting their duties, that some sort of event in his past would have been much different if demons had done their part. Volcanus tries to talk to Nemo, but he ignores her completely, as though he doesn't even hear her. Shocked after this confrontation, Volcanus explains that he couldn't hear her because he had lost his faith. Something horrific must have happened to him in his past, but the party pushes on and doesn't dwell on this quite yet.

Meanwhile, Desco has continually tried to convince Fuka that she wasn't evil or to blame for Fuka's misfortunes. Fuka silently tries to pity Desco, but can't quite believe her. At least, not until they run into... Fuka's father and Desco's creator. It turns out he's been in cahoots with Judge Nemo, who has been funding the seemingly mad scientist's work and helping him with demon specimens. Her father recognizes Fuka, but only seems mildly surprised to see her, wondering why she wasn't in Hell. Steaming pissed, Fuka demands to know why her father would assume she'd been in Hell, to which her father has the best line in the game, "Well, you're not really that sort of person!"

Judge Nemo asks if "it" is ready. Apparently, "it" is, so Judge Nemo bids the group farewell and wishes them luck against the true final boss. Fuka's father gleefully introduces the party to Des X, the ultimate final weapon. Fuka realizes that Desco hadn't been the one to kill her, that it had been this monster instead. Des X appears to be just a color swap of Desco, a fact actually mentioned by the party (this is one reason I love NIS games). Des X attacks the party and defeated. Des X shouts at Fuka, claiming that Fuka's father was HER father, hers alone. Fuming, Fuka snaps and goes berserk on Des X, leading Des X to grow larger. A second fight with Des X ensues, and she is defeated again.

Afterwards, Fuka angrily confronts her father, demanding to know why he'd spend his time creating demon clones and monsters like Desco and Des X. Bewildered, he and Desco claim that it's simply what his wife wanted - for Fuka's father to grant Fuka's wish. And what wish was that, dear reader? Why, Fuka at age five or so wanted a little sister. Fuka and Desco realize that they were meant to be half sisters all along and that Des X just had some magnficent daddy issues. Whew. Glad that's resolved.

Oh, wait, no, it's not. Fuka snaps again at her father, wanting to know why he'd create something like Desco instead of something normal. Bewildered again, he responds that it too had been part of Fuka's wish - that she had wished for her sister to be a perfect specimen to aid her in ruling the world! Fuka nervously laughs this off, but no one in the party is fooled. Guess good old Fuka wasn't quite the kind and gentle soul after all, eh?

After all these shenanigans, Judge Nemo shows up and throws a hissy fit. He claims that though his clones had been defeated, the war wasn't over yet. In fact, he had used the time to plant charges all over the place. To what end? Why, Judge Nemo's ultimate master plan is to blow up... the moon!

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Sparky's Update - Disgaea 4, Episode 7

Just in time for Christmas, here's another episode from Disgaea 4, brought to you from the guy who looks like he ate Santa Claus. Hope you all have a very merry Christmas and a great New Year.

The Tyrant of Sardines vs. El Presidente

This can be a rough series of battles if you haven't leveled up a diverse team. I found that out the hard way during my first playthrough, as I had concentrated on pretty much only leveling up Valvatorez, Fenrich, and Fuka at that time. Thankfully, each level that you've beat can be replayed as often as you'd like, so hitting up 5-2 a few times with some mages and a couple of warriors helped tremendously, as did the addition of Volcanus's healing and gun skills. Since all character data transfers over through each playthrough, the second go-around was much, much easier, and for a bit of a challenge, I decided not to use Val, who is currently hovering right under level 300 while most of the rest of my team is between level 50-100.

The episode starts with Fenrich and Val declaring that this will be the final push, that they are finally about to face off against President Hugo. We are given a brief reminder of each main character's motivation in battling or meeting with the President. Here's a quick recap:

Valvatorez - Wants answers for the orders of the prinny executions and kidnappings, as well as finding out why the Netherworld has become so neglected.

Fenrich - Keeps his true motivations close to his chest, but claims total obedience for Val, and only wants to see him regain his true power.

Fuka - Wants to become the President in order to stop injustices against prinnies (which she technically should be, if it wasn't for the shortage of prinny outfits)

Desco - Wants to defeat the President on her way to becoming a Final Boss.

Volcanus - Is looking to collect the money leaked to the Netherworld and owed to the heavens.

Emizel - Wants to confront his father to show him he's no longer weak.

Get all that? Good.

Fenrich wishes to assassinate the President quietly, sneaking in under cover without facing down the massive armies of the Corruptorment. Val has none of that nonsense, stating that there would be no honor in that, and the Netherworld would never recognize or follow a new leader if they committed such vile acts. Val and his band of followers are met by the thundering approach of 600,000 demons guarding the President and the Corruptorment. When Fuka and Desco express their fear, Val tells them to buck up, claiming each of them would only have to take 100,000 apiece. The companions are strangely comforted by this and put on brave faces. At the last moment, Val's prinnies show up and inform him and Fenrich that they have amassed an army of their own from each area Val has conquered. Well, that's a relief, eh kids?

Val and his crew plow through a few minions of the Netherworld, coming face to face with the Three Brutes of the Netherworld, led by the Thunder Emperor Psylos. Emizel, ever the slightly cowardly and awed, claims that their power is unrivalled in the Netherworld. So, of course, the team makes short work of them and their bodyguard cronies. Fenrich and Val muse on the meaning of the weakness of the Brutes and the demons in general, coming to no clear conclusion other than something is amiss.

In a quiet moment out of the blue, Desco asks Fuka if she'd ever like to see her father again. Fuka responds flippantly that her father neglected her in favor of his research, and she wanted nothing to do with him. Disgaea isn't exactly subtle in its foreshadowing, but then again, the game is meant to lightly mock most anime and RPG tropes, so take that with a grain of salt.

The gang encounters more bizarrely named groups of high-level bosses, including the Four Devas and the Seven Yakshas. Emizel's growing amazement and proclamations of their insane powers (the Seven Yakshas are supposedly able to send the universe into nothingness in seven days) are met with complete indifference by most of the others, as the demons seem to have lost a ton of their original power. With the last group (the Yakshas) defeated, the group finally makes it to the office of the President.

Hugo and Val greet each other as old enemies, having fought a battle previously that lasted days on end with no clear victor. Hugo shows Valv a grudging amount of respect, but can't believe that he has become a lowly Prinny Instructor. He asks each member of the team what their reasons for fighting are, and laughs in disbelief at the inconsistency of the group. Val claims that his newfound power comes from camraderie, to which Hugo becomes even more incredulous. He transforms into a demon, and the supposed "last battle" is on!

This battle was pretty damn difficult at first, and even on my second playthrough with my B-list characters doing the fighting, it was still fairly tough. I had upped the enemy difficulty a hair or two to match my party's level (thereabouts - it's not an exact science in this game, especially when you can have levels up to 9999). Hugo is aided by magic users and samurai, all of whom can deal hefty amounts of damage quickly. I send out my two primary magic users first, to soften up the forward-most enemies for my warriors to polish off. I also send out a support crew to throw back the magic-users, as they're too valuable to lose right away (which they would have, as they had low amounts of HP). The samurai fall pretty easily, though I do end up losing a fighter in the initial round. After that, things got much rougher. I made the mistake of huddling my troops together to get healed by Volcanus and another healing mage. Another warrior was killed quickly by the enemy magic users, and Hugo advanced slowly upon my party.

Eschewing my planned strategy, I threw my warriors straight at the magic users, bringing them down quickly but inefficiently. My magic users advanced back up a short ways, out of range of Hugo, but also unable to do much. My healers went back into the base panel, and I brought out more big damage dealers, this time in the form of fist-equipped fighters. Hugo killed my initial warriors pretty fast after that, but not before they'd managed to chip his health down to about two-thirds. The other fighters advanced, one on each side, as did the magic users. After that, it was elementary - a couple of Giga Stars, some flashy punch skills, and boom - Hugo was down.

After the battle, Val is disappointed in Hugo, thinking that the battle would have been much more drawn out. He warns the others that Hugo must be about to begin the first of three inevitable final boss transformations, and the team prepares themselves. But Hugo tells Val that this was it, that he had no more power left. The humans had stopped feeding the Netherworld what he calls "fear energy." Due to scientific advancements, demons can't scare humans the way they used to, and so the fear energy that the Netherworld thrives upon was cut off. In order to save the Netherworld, Hugo had struck a deal with a human leader, giving him mastery over the Netherworld as well as test subjects for experimentation in exchange for a bare amount of fear energy. Val and his crew realize that their fight isn't quite over.

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