So, August huh? Welp, shit. There goes my summer. I guess I could tell you about video games that I’ve played, or something.
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
One of the reasons I haven’t written as many video game blogs in 2017 (aside from the usual issues of life, school, work, a lack of motivation, etc.) is because I’ve been spending my ever so precious time watching far too much anime. Before this year, I’d probably best describe myself as a “casual” fan of Japanese Cartoons, occasionally dipping my toe into the pool here and there with a small handful of series per year. However, for whatever reason I’ve gone all the way down that dark hole this year and am unlikely to emerge unscathed. I’ve seen suggestive toothbrushing, dubstep body horror, two very different light novel adaptions about some otaku loser getting stuck in a generic fantasy world, and a significant amount of Gintama, to name a few. I might eventually write something about this act of self-ruination as part of one of my end of year blogs, but I’ll spare you the details now lest you come here for all of the hot takes on video games as long as those video games are ancient CRPGs, old Resident Evil, or Fire Emblem.
Okay, I lied. Danganronpa is a visual novel, which is like an anime except with more reading and sometimes you interact with it. It is also not an ancient CRPG, old Resident Evil, or Fire Emblem. I sincerely apologize. It's about 15 anime teens (the decidedly bland main character and a bunch of quirky weirdoes such as “Rich Asshole Guy,” “Mysterious Cool Girl,” “Girl who dresses all Gothic Lolita and speaks with a vaguely French accent,” and “Basically Chie from Persona 4, but she’s obsessed with doughnuts instead of meat”) who are all trapped in Hope’s Peak Academy by an evil robot bear named Monokuma. They are free to stay in the school as long as they want, but the only way to escape is to murder someone and get away with it. To get reductive, it’s the murder game aspect of something like a Battle Royale crossed with the investigation and trial segments of an Ace Attorney and the social interaction of something like Persona. As previously mentioned, I’ve watched a lot of anime recently, and if that premise doesn’t sound like the most anime-ass shit out there, then I don’t know what does.
In a gameplay sense, most of Danganronpa is spent reading through text. Generally you’ll have some time to hang out with the other students for a bit between large story sequences, before someone is inevitably murdered and you proceed to investigation (which consists of clicking on everything and sometimes talking to people) and the class trials. In a seeming attempt to distinguish itself from Phoenix Wright and include “actual gameplay”, the trials are a little more active, dramatically requiring you to shoot “Truth Bullets” (i.e. Evidence) at the statements they contradict while the discussion plays out in real time. Sometimes you need to use one statement to contradict the other. Sometimes you have to shoot around “white noise” that blocks the bullets. Sometimes you have to play hangman or a rhythm game. It’s tolerable, but never feels necessary or engaging, and I’m half-tempted to turn everything down to easy when I play Danganronpa 2 just so I don’t have to deal with it.
Needless distractions aside, the writing and story are what matters in a VN, and in this case I think both of those are solid. There’s a bit of a Lord of the Flies or Werewolf vibe to the entire thing, with an increasingly paranoid cast alternating between trying to cooperate and being at each other's throats. While I ended up correctly guessing most of the mystery behind the cast’s confinement pretty early on, the game still does a good job not telegraphing most of the individual twists and turns. There’s a weird juxtaposition between some of game’s more stereotypically “anime” moments (including a bit where you peek in on the girls when they’re bathing because fanservice) and the unflinching brutality in which it executes its premise. Special shout-out to the ending, which is deliciously ambiguous and messed-up in a way I can fully get behind. It’s pretty good.
But is it great? Honestly, I don’t know about that. Aside from the actual act of playing the game, I have a couple of qualms. It took me around 15 hours to finish, which felt a little padded. The school doesn’t really need to be a fully explorable environment, and I don’t really need the characters to re-summarize information that was just presented 10 minutes ago. Speaking of the characters I… don’t think I liked most of them. Maybe that’s by design, since like half of them end up being murderous sociopaths or intentionally annoying, but only a fraction of the ensemble ever really develops beyond their initial archetype to anywhere interesting. It should also be mentioned that there’s some anime-ass English voice acting. That’s not so much an insult as it is an acknowledgement that there isn’t a whole lot of nuance or subtlety going on alongside the occasional dubious line-read. It was effective enough for me, as someone with a very loose preference for dubs over subs, but it was also enough of a thing that I felt the need to mention it. You have been warned.
Even despite those (mostly) minor gripes however, Danganronpa was definitely a weird thing worth my time, even as it also represents yet another step in my inevitable descent to anime hell. I’ll likely play the second game before the end of the year is through, and I’m interested in seeing how it compares.
Horizon: Zero Dawn
It’s a testament to the strength of Horizon’s premise and finely polished gameplay that I still mostly enjoyed it despite the part where I’m more than a little sick of the kind of game it is. I could go on for a while about my disillusionment with the modern AAA open world action game, but I’ll keep it brief because I don’t really think there’s much to be gained by me complaining about how much I never want to climb another damn tower for multiple paragraphs. It’s not a grudge against open worlds, per se, so much as it is my dislike of using open worlds to fill your game with a lot of C-grade filler content, superfluous upgrade systems, and bad mission design. It was around two years ago when Dragon Age Inquisition and Far Cry 4 broke me on a lot of that stuff, and barring a couple of noteworthy exceptions (The Witcher 3) I haven’t fully recovered since. For all of its quality of execution, Horizon doesn’t break that mold. It’s unfortunate that no amount of robo-dinosaurs or quality world-building shifted my perception, but I liked it enough to beeline through the main quest after the halfway mark. That counts for something, right?
You’ll note that I said “premise” and “world-building” when applying praise to this game, rather than “story.” Horizon has a pretty straightforward video game plot told effectively and uplifted by quality writing and voice acting. It’s only when you add in an attention to detail in the post-apocalyptic tribal societies and the bonkers insane exposition dumps explaining the nature of the world that it becomes noteworthy. It’s not exactly Planescape Torment, but for a pulp tale about a bunch of superstitious tribals fighting robot animals it’s far better than it has any right to be. It’s a little disappointing that the best parts of Horizon’s story involve the player spinning Aloy around in circles as you listen to audio logs detailing things that happened centuries prior, but the smaller arcs that make up some of the sidequests and main quest were good enough to keep me interested. It’s also worth praising the simple fact that Horizon sets up and resolves a mostly self-contained plot in one game, with only the briefest flash of sequel bait after the credits. That’s a low bar, and maybe I’m a little cynical. However, I could easily envision an alternate reality where some of this game’s crazier plot revelations are teased out over the course of 2-3 games.
The actual game part of Horizon is… well, it’s basically a better Far Cry. If you still like Far Cry, I bet you’ll enjoy it even more than I did. I mentioned some of my issues with the Ubisoft open world template, why I don’t really feel a huge desire to do things like use Batman detective vision to follow tracks or clear out bandit camps by engaging in rudimentary stealth (or whistling and drawing guards into the bushes one-by-one so I can shank them) over and over again, so I won’t repeat myself. That said, I still enjoyed the combat in Horizon quite a bit when I was walking from main quest waypoint to main quest waypoint. Being a modern video game, it’s not all that difficult on Normal difficulty, but I still had quite a bit of fun engaging in its particular brand of chaos. Shooting the turrets off of some of the more dangerous robots, then using said turrets to blow them up is an incredibly satisfying thing to do, as is aiming a bunch of tearblast arrows at something and watching all of its parts fly off. Sure, if you boil it down you’re using upgradable varieties of three different bows, two grenade launchers, two different things that make tripwires, and a highly inaccurate machine gun, but that also means that there’s no filler in Horizon’s arsenal. Each weapon has a distinct role and can be called upon to do its own variety of stupid thing, be it crowd control, raw DPS, sniping, status effects, and so on. I found some of them more useful than others, but none of them seemed useless. I didn’t really engage in any of the hunting trials, but I got the impression that
I don’t really know what else to say about Horizon. I enjoyed the 15-20ish hours I spent with it but it’s not going to be anywhere near whatever end of year list I’ll write in late December. I came in with a built-in disconnect between my desire to see the story to its end and my desire to run around a mostly empty open world chasing like 18 waypoints, and I think that probably blunted a lot of the criticisms I can make about it. I can’t exactly go after something I didn’t engage in, right? Besides, I’m saving my vitriol for Mass Effect Andromeda, which is probably next on my docket, barring the loss of my sanity or the possible chain of events that ends with me taking the disk out of the PS4, shoving it back in the box, and then putting that box in my closet forever. It’s that, or I pick my Lightning Returns playthrough back up.
It’s been a few years, so I’m due for yelling at you people about how great Temple of Elemental Evil is for the eleventy-thousandth time. If I end up setting Mass Effect on fire because I need a to play a RPG-ass RPG with dice rolls ‘n shit, and Grimoire doesn’t actually come out tomorrow, I’m considering giving ToEE a replay. This is due in part to the emergence of Temple Plus, another fan-mod that fixes and tweaks a bunch of stuff on top of the already obligatory Circle of Eight Modpack (which is basically necessary if you want to play Temple of Elemental Evil in the first place. Seriously, don’t ever play any of Troika’s games without some variety of fix pack.) What makes Temple Plus exciting is that it not only fixes a few of the issues left in the final version of Circle of Eight, but also that it opens the door to a bunch of additional nonsense. They’ve already added most of the Prestige Classes that were in the 3.5 core rulebooks (Assassin, Blackguard, Arcane Archer, etc) and are apparently messing around with other, more complicated stuff (The Archmage class! The possibility of someone modding in Psionics!) therefore inching ever closer to my ideal D&D CRPG. Well, maybe that Pathfinder RPG will fill the void, but until then…