The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall (Daggerfall Unity)
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Release Date: August 30, 1996
Time Played: About two hours on stream, messed with it a little more off camera
Dubiosity: The original game is definitely a candidate for the coveted 5 out of 5 Dubiosity rating, but honestly Daggerfall Unity seems like it improves enough to drop that down to a potential 3 or 4.
Number of times I fell through the floor: 0! YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW REVELATORY THIS IS
Would I play more? Yes.
I’ll fully admit that putting Daggerfall on the wheel was entirely an excuse to check out Daggerfall Unity, an ambitious attempt at remaking the entirety of the second Elder Scrolls game with a more modern engine. I have great news: If you wanted, for some ungodly reason, to play Daggerfall in the Year of Our Lord 2020, this would be the way to do it. What if Daggerfall controlled and ran like a modern video game? Or was at a resolution higher than 640x480? What if there were a bunch of small, but significant quality-of-life improvements, and what if the numerous broken-ass technical issues were gone (i.e. Language skills actually working?) What if there was an experimental toggle to make the dungeons a more reasonable size? WHAT IF DAGGERFALL HAD MOD SUPPORT? Are you getting excited? I’m getting excited.
Now, let’s be clear here, it’s still Daggerfall. Even without being in a constant semi-broken state, it’s still this staggeringly ambitious, extremely large game full of a bunch of half-baked ideas and endless swathes of procedurally generated content, all surrounding a massively big world with nothing in it. But if you’re like me, and have a certain amount of affection for Bethesda’s deranged, dungeon-crawling opus, this is like candy. There’s something about this game I really like, and I’m not sure if it’s the part where it doesn’t feel like it was designed for humans, or the part where it’s actually a solid randomly-generated dungeon crawl with all of the absurd power creep you’d expect. Either way, don’t feel like I have a whole lot else to talk about, and if you really cared you could easily play the game yourself. It’s freeware, after all, and so is Daggerfall Unity. They’re updating it constantly, so why not check it out?
Number of times I was murdered by a single wolf: 0
Would I play more? Couldn’t uninstall a game faster.
Sometimes you get a Daggerfall, sometimes you get a… whatever the hell this is. Arcania: Gothic 4 (sometimes just “Arcania” and sometimes “Arcania: A Gothic Tale”) is one of the games I was dreading the most. After the series’ original developer Piranha Bytes and publisher JoWood split up, the former went on to make “Pirate Gothic” while the latter commissioned Spellbound Studios (probably best known for making the original Desperados games) to make a new fourth installment in the Gothic series. It’s, uh, something of a black sheep among the fanbase (at least the ones who acknowledge its existence in the first place,) and after playing it I think I have an inkling why: It’s not a Gothic game. Nor is it particularly interesting as a non-Gothic game.
Let me be clear: I respect those first two Gothic games in equal proportion to how little I want to play either of them. They’re the crown champions of Eurojank RPGs, beloved cult classics and, alas, perhaps a little too European and Janky for my preferences (they’re also slightly too beloved to appear on this wheel, tbh.) They are games with a very distinctive style and open world design ethos, where your nameless hero crawls his way to competence by solving menial tasks after getting murdered by local wildlife and kicked to death by local children. You know, basic German RPG design. If you want a good primer on the appeal of the series, between its strong worldbuilding and uncompromising mechanics, you’d be better off reading Mento’s recent write-ups on Gothic II and its expansion than my own floundering words. They’re games I wouldn’t be opposed to giving another shot one day, but maybe I’ll just wait for the remake of Gothic 1 before I do so.
So, of course, Arcania has none of those things that makes its predecessors special. In what I have to imagine is a targeted dig at Piranha Bytes, the main character of the original three Gothic games has now become a mad king. Said king is responsible for the deaths of the new nameless main character’s friends and family, in one of the more bizarre opening chapters to a video game I’ve played in a while. Make no mistake, Arcania is a janky RPG made on the European continent, filled with weird, awkward dialogue (delivered in English by a bunch of otherwise prolific LA-based VAs who have done much better work elsewhere), weird, awkward combat and weird, awkward graphical glitches. But Gothic it is not, between the straightforward, boring skill tree of incremental percentile improvements, to the seemingly linear environmental progression made for last generation consoles, to the complete lack of me getting my ass kicked by even the most sickly and infirm of wolves. I can’t help but imagine it’s an ill-advised attempt at chasing a larger, more mainstream or console audience, because it was remarkably playable. In this case, I don’t mean that as a compliment. Playable in the sense that I spent my three hours alternating between dodging very slow enemy attacks and clicking rhythmically to kill things.
Was it interesting? No. Not really. I might’ve uncovered something more had I played longer, but at no point during these three hours did I ever feel like I found a “hook” or even a struggle. There’s nothing exciting about a Eurojank RPG that isn’t also recklessly ambitious, and as far as I could tell there was nothing particularly ambitious about Arcania. Games like the first Witcher or Two Worlds are endearing precisely because they reach far higher than their humble budgets (or technical limitations) would call for. This? This was just kind of… there.
Well, as if Karma herself had intervened, my next game is actually the real Gothic 4: Risen. Just for a heads up, the current plan is to play through all the games currently on the wheel before taking a break. I think there’s a non-negligible chance of “The Wheel of Dubious RPGs vol. 2, feat: a bunch more console stuff and CRPGs I overlooked” happening, but for now I’m going to focus on what’s in front of me… which is already frankly terrifying on its own. As always, you can catch my streams on my Twitch channel (no interest in archiving them beyond the 14 day window) and I try to go at least once a week, usually Friday or Saturday.
Until then, just… re-read my 5,000 word Dragon Age Origins write-up, I guess. This whole feature is responsible for that anyway, and you’ll get the sick pleasure of me doing something similar for Dragon Age II once I muster up the willpower to do so.
Don’t say that I don’t commit to the bit. Thanks to my popular streaming/blogging series “The Wheel of Dubious RPGs” I’ve taken what should’ve just been 2-3 two hour streams of Dragon Age II and turned it into an entire thing, starting with a full replay of Dragon Age Origins. For, how am I to scientifically judge the dubiosity of BioWare’s infamous “first*” flop before I decide where I land with its predecessor? This has led to a journey of ups and downs, of joy and sorrow, but most of all “Wow, The Fade is just as bad as I remembered it.” This is a tale of conflict, both within myself, and outwardly, with the game, and even more outwardly, with fan-fixes which keep the game from crashing. This is a tale of generic-ass fantasy, where the demon zombie orc monsters are literally called DARK SPAWN, but a lot of the writing and characterization is mostly on the level. This… is what happens when you try and go back to your nostalgic faves and accidentally decide to write an entire retrospective blog as a way of sorting out one’s feelings.
In all seriousness, this is something I’ve wanted to do for a while and the wheel just provided the perfect opportunity. Dragon Age Origins was a favorite of mine for years, but I’m pretty sure the last time I finished it was back in 2009, and the last time I played a significant amount (i.e. like a dozen-ish hours) was sometime around 2014. I’ve been vocal about my feelings on the decline of BioWare as a developer, but part of that has been an examination of how my own tastes have changed over time and how our collective standards for video game writing have risen since the mid-2000s. Certainly, I’ve been throwing around the “BioWare didn’t get worse, everyone else just got better” thesis for a while, but it’s one of those things where I was never quite sure how true it actually is. Honestly, after finishing the game, I’m still not sure how true it is, even if this experience (alongside being reminded of Mass Effect 3’s… inadequacies, thanks to Mass Alex) has helped clarify the way my views on writing and mechanics have shifted in the last decade.
Thedas, THEDragon Age Setting
Let me just get this out of the way before we talk about anything else: If there’s one, single thing that immediately stuck out to me as far, far worse than it was in my youthful memories, it’s the world of Dragon Age itself. This is one of those things that I think the sequels actually improved upon but as it stands in this game it’s the glum, unappealing no man’s land of high fantasy worldbuilding; an awkward middle-point between D&D’s Forgotten Realms and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. There’s no getting around the giant sword throne-shaped hole in the wall; Dragon Age Origins is heavily inspired by Game of Thrones. Well, at least the books, because the TV series wasn’t happening yet nor had it subsequently ruined itself. All of the knights are called “Ser.” There’s a lot of murder in the name of ruthless politicking. The big innovation of Thedas mostly comes in applying that layer of grime and unpleasantness over a traditional fantasy world, with just a dash of medieval European equivalencies for good measure. That’s not to say there isn’t some interesting lore, but a lot of it is just that, lore.
Here’s the thing: for as much as Dragon Age wants you to know it’s set in a grim world where mages are basically walking demon conduits, Elves are second-class citizens, and you the player will have to make HARD CHOICES… it’s not as close to the edge as it thinks. Martin’s work is almost singular in its rawness (rape, murder, and moral compromises aplenty,) and it was the source material for the biggest prestige television show of the last decade. You can blame HBO for putting that out into mainstream popular culture, but Dragon Age is remarkably tame in this modern context. Forget Game of Thrones, we live in a world where The Witcher is now mainstream, and has a blood-and-boob-filled Netflix series of its own. For the most part the hardest DA:O goes is the hilariously copious amounts of blood spatter on everything and a handful of PG-13 sex scenes between two mannequins in their underwear.
The default expression of “serious themes” mostly comes in a nice heaping spoonful of “Fantastical Prejudice,” which is like real prejudice but more contrived and toothless. Elves are treated like garbage, Dwarves have an archaic caste system, and Magi are under the oppressive, controlling yoke of “Definitely not Christianity.” Anything to say about those systems other than that they’re bad, probably? Okay cool. It’s not “fun” enough to be a swashbuckling high fantasy adventure, but it never goes hard enough to actually justify a heavier tone. This is something the sequels actually course corrected a bit, but since I’m just talking about Dragon Age Origins here, I assume I’ll have something to say about that in a later write-up.
The [GREY WARDENS] gotta stop [THE BLIGHT]
Thankfully, I think most of the actual moment-to-moment writing in Dragon Age still holds its own, regardless of my newfound antipathy towards the setting. I could go off about the flimsy framing story that holds the entire thing together, but it’s a framing story. The Grey Wardens having to unite the squabbling factions of Ferelden against The Blight and The Darkspawn is about as paper-thin as Commander Shepard needing to assemble a crack suicide team of scallywags to go against The Collectors, or Revan needing to find four star maps in order to track down the secret Star Forge. There’s definitely a larger critique to be made about “The BioWare Formula,” and the way BioWare has leaned upon the same structure and basic power fantasy tropes for most of its RPGs since KotOR, but I feel like that’s an entire write-up unto itself and beyond my scope right now. I will readily criticize this game for having milquetoast, noncommittal politics despite occasional attempts at bringing in “serious” topics, but you’ll have to forgive me for not going into that stuff harder. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with unapologetic, indulgent power fantasy every once in a while, and for better or worse Dragon Age aims to be an unapologetic power fantasy. Themes may be for eighth grade book reports, but being the coolest, most specialest person and holding the fate of the world in your hands is for the eighth-grader in all of us.
The real meat of Bioware writing has always been the smaller, self-contained storytelling vignettes; the more crucial part of the formula than the frame story itself. The Grey Wardens need allies to stand with them against the blight, and most of them would be more than happy to stand with you as long as you solved this teensy, civilization-shattering problem they’re dealing with atm. Arl Eamon is sick, the Dwarves are in the middle of a succession crisis, the Mage tower has a minor demon kerfuffle, and the Dalish Elves are at odds with some Wurrwulves. Like a lot of Bioware’s games from the era (and now, TBH) a lot of these conflicts can be reduced down to a binary of “meaningful choices” between two diametrically opposed viewpoints. Do you save the mage circle from the demons, or do you purge the entire thing “just in case?” Do you defile the sacred ashes of Lady Not-Jesus just to appease some insane dragon cultists, or do you not do that? Some of these plots are definitely only one step above Knights of the Old Republic’s “Save the Dog versus Kill the Dog” level of extremity, but I don’t want to avoid giving credit where credit is due. Some of the quests are messier than that, like the Dalish/Werewolf beef, which doesn’t really paint anyone in a fantastic light and can be solved in a couple of different ways. That’s the sequence that surprised me the most, because it’s the one I remembered the least, and of the four “main” quests, it’s the best.
It’s just a pity that the best questline in the game, The Landsmeet, is the penultimate one (for reasons I’ll get into later.) After gathering all of your allies, it’s finally time to confront Teryn Loghain and make a play to put Alistair on the throne. While it’s still a mostly linear succession of dungeon crawls and dialogue sequences, there are a lot of different ways this can play out, and it’s the one part where the Game of Thrones-lite politicking actually works. For my part, I executed Loghain and his mustache-twirling goons, then forced a reluctant Alistair and Anora to marry for the good of the kingdom (he whined about it to me afterward). The actual final sequence of the game, where you finally confront the Darkspawn horde, is just an extended combat thing, which is fine, but it mostly feels like an obligation to fight the big demonic zombie dragon once you’ve figured out everything else.
I actually think the single best thing overarching all of Dragon Age Origins’ writing is the way it integrates all of the titular “origins” into the story and into your personal role-playing options, full stop. Some of the story beats are fun, some of the character writing is good, but for my money the best part is your suite of roleplaying options as a player. It’s something I remember being good then, but even now it manages to be impressive. Each of the six character origins is remarked upon in little ways throughout the game but is directly tied into one of the larger sequences you have to go to as part of the main quest. It’s, admittedly, the kind of reactivity that boils down to a handful of contextual lines of dialogue and certain NPCs treating you differently, but it’s consistent enough that the illusion works. I went with the Dwarf Commoner origin, which meant that a large chunk of NPCs in Orzammar treated me like garbage, but also gave my character a built-in motivation to side with the reformist Prince Bhelen (who had taken my character’s sister as his concubine) over the traditionalist Lord Harrowmont. On the other hand, if you were to go with the Dwarf Noble background, your origin would detail the way Bhelen (your brother) is a ruthless tyrannical shitheel, which would give that conflict a very different context. As the last BioWare game before they moved entirely to voiced protagonists, there’s a lot of space for you to express your version of the lone Grey Warden, and the origins bring in a lot of built-in roleplaying fodder to help that. Tell all the human lords that they stink, that their Chantry is dumb, and that you’re gonna help them anyway because you need their dumb asses to fight demon orcs. It’s very good and I appreciate it.
I think the other pillar of a BioWare RPG, alongside the vignetted story structure, is the idea that you the player will bring along a host of interesting and likeable characters on your fun adventures. Among the various BioWare casts, I think Dragon Age Origins fits pretty firmly in the middle of the pack (as seen in the extremely scientific tier list I cobbled together in 5 minutes.) I think everyone is at least okay, helped by some quality voice performances and what I’d consider to be the gold standard of incidental party banter. However, I’d hesitate to call anyone truly loveable. Alistair is just as much of a whiny goober as I remembered (even if you can resolve his personal quest in a way to make him *less* of a whiny goober), but that’s also half the point of his character. Morrigan is fun because she’s a mean bitch, but her sarcasm and judgemental nature applies to pretty much everything the main character does, thus the title of this section. Oh right, did I mention this is a game where everyone has an affection meter? Because this is definitely a game from an era where you tell characters what they want to hear and give them presents so they’ll like you more and potentially get “rewarded” with a sex scene. I’m sure glad I bypassed most of it with the built-in cheat DLC (Feastday Gifts and Pranks) that lets you put everyone’s love meter as high as possible to get those free stat boosts. For the record, I didn’t romance anyone this time around, partially because I have visual novels and hardcore strategy sims if I want to be tricked into liking fictional characters and partially because I didn’t feel particularly attached to any of the four romantic options. Beyond the two mentioned above, Leliana’s dominant personality traits are “French” and “Religious” whereas Zevran reminds me a little too much of Antonio Banderas as Puss in Boots to take seriously.
As for the rest of the cast, they’re all… mostly fine. Well, Oghren is pretty damn one note, and if not for the part where it’s Steve Blum doing his best “constantly drunk” voice I think I’d have written him off entirely. Shale is great, but half of that is because she’s a slightly different take on the “glibly sociopathic” archetype started with HK-47 (also, hey, remember how Shale was totally the “buy this game new or else you have to pay for them” character? Remember how that was a trend?) Wynne is a cool grandma and the best healer by far, but she left my party when I defiled the ashes of The Virgin Mary Jesus Andraste. And then there’s the ostensible “villain” of the game (because a faceless horde of monsters doesn’t really cut it) in Loghain Mac Tir… who you can recruit if you’re into punishing the guy who directly or indirectly caused half of the story’s conflicts by forcing him to hang out with you. I didn’t do that this time around, and while there’s definitely some merit to sparing him once you know what his deal is, it doesn’t really help that he’s portrayed as a paranoid, power-mongering thug for 80% of the game’s runtime. Finally, there’s also the Mabari Warhound, who is both very much a good boy and also not worth bringing in one of your four precious deployment slots when you have literally anyone else. I almost forgot about Sten, but he sure does exist and sure is basically just a Klingon.
Dungeons and Dragon Age
Okay, so I’ve somehow managed to get this far without getting to the part where you play it, which is weird because I think the actual gameplay parts of Dragon Age are its best and worst aspects. Forget whatever kerfuffles I might have with the “good” to “somewhat hackish” writing and cast of mildly to moderately likeable characters, let’s talk about my wheelhouse, which is of course the dark realm of dice rolls and mechanical analysis. While it’s not without flaws, I think the basic real-time with pause combat of Dragon Age remains solid, aided by one of the better AI scripting systems to help cut down on micromanagement. I played the entire game on “Hard,” which I felt offered a decent challenge and forced me to use many of the tools at my disposal… right up until high levels trivialized all but the most involved fights. Like almost all games with RTwP combat, it can turn into a chaotic mess sometimes, especially in regards to visual clarity. However, it’s more rigid and wooden than other games of its kind, especially when it comes to the way certain abilities take forever to come out, or the overabundance of bad canned animations. Despite that, when everything clicks together it’s still a tactical time, and I think I like it more now than I did then.
For as much as Dragon Age is a throwback to the D&D based Infinity Engine games, it also draws a lot of influence from MMOs for its class and combat design. It’s not quite the rigid Tank-DPS-Support “holy trinity” but it’s darn close sometimes. Neverwinter Nights' abundance of classes and prestige classes this is not, and you’re more or less deciding upon a character’s role by the kind of weapon you give them. Sword and Shield warriors exist to draw aggro and take hits, while going two handed or two weapon fighting involves hitting things hard and hitting things a lot respectively. The two real layers of customization come in your perfunctory secondary skill choices (i.e. maxing out the main character’s persuasion skill and dumping all the crafting stuff on companions) and unlockable subclasses, some of which you can find the manuals for sale, some of which need to be taught to you, and some of which are hidden in the most obtuse places imaginable. In Dragon Age’s streamlined, stripped down class system, Rogues are in an awkward spot. They’re also the only class who can disarm traps and pick locks, but Origins’ approach to locked chests and traps in dungeons feels like something shoved in entirely because it was expected. 90% of the game’s chests contain vendor trash, and I can only think of a few encounters based around traps. Beyond that ability, and a handful of extra secondary skill points, they’re not all that different from Warriors other than their subclasses. This is where the 4 character limit for the party really starts to chafe, especially in light of more recent games like Pathfinder Kingmaker and Pillars of Eternity II, which offer greater levels of complexity but more options on party composition.
Now, here’s the real actual caveat to all of this, and it’s that (just like in D&D) mages are broken and also the most interesting class in terms of build options by a mile. While my Dual Wielding Dwarfman certainly put out a stupid amount of damage as a heavily-armored cuisinart, that’s basically all he was able to do. For that matter, it’s something that one of the other numerous DPS party members can also do almost as well (No seriously, between Oghren, Sten, Shale, Zevran, and Pupper, you have like five different options for melee damage dealers.) Mages might be ostensibly designed around being the glass cannon “powerful but vulnerable” class, but in actuality they’re kind of capable of everything. If you want a tank wizard who can sort of be this game’s half-assed attempt at a sword mage/gish character, there are builds involving the Blood Mage and Arcane Warrior subclasses. If you want to dump heals and buffs forever, Wynne is basically already specced in that direction, but with a handful of skill points she can also drop plenty of damage and crowd control with offensive spells. You only get two mage NPCs, and you might as well bring them both if you can help it, since all mages need to keep their capabilities up is a quick swig of a lyrium potion. Crowd Control forever. Destroy everything. Heal the world. (I didn’t end up doing this, mostly because it turns out Wynne will leave your party if you decide to taint sacred relics, and rather than reload my save I decided to stick with my decision. Excuse me lady, I’m just trying to get mine.) Really, I’d unequivocally recommend you also make the main character a mage if not for the fact that the Magi origin is the most boring one of the six.
Lost in the Fade
The true one and forever eternal sin of Dragon Age Origins is the way it pads its length out to achieve a “CRPG-sized” hour count. I might’ve gotten older and my attention span might be a flaming mess, especially in these unprecedented times, but I am still not opposed to a lengthy, dense RPG. I’m saying that even by the standards of these sorts of games, Dragon Age drags on for an age (or in my case, somewhere around 45 hours doing almost everything but the most trivial fetch quests.) Almost every single sequence lasts at least an hour longer than it needs to, thanks to an endless abundance of trash mob fights (the combat is good, but it sure doesn’t want to be sometimes,) back and forth quest objectives, expository dialogue, and some truly boring dungeon design. For all the things I think Dragon Age does well, dungeons aren’t one of them. When you’re recovering all your health between every encounter and the only penalty for being downed in combat is an easily-removable injury debuff, resource management isn’t an issue, which means all but the most meaningful encounters feel like chaff. Moreover, I’d struggle to name a visually distinct, mechanically interesting dungeon layout, so you’d better believe I’m going to have some things to say when we get to the Dragon Age game that is nothing but visually repetitive dungeon layouts. This lackadaisical pace is something that starts as early as the opening Ostagar portion, and by the time I reached hour 30 I had to stream myself playing to drag myself over the finish line.
Admittedly, half of this complaint has something to do with two particularly infamous sequences, both of which have me seriously questioning if I would ever want to play this game again in an unmodified form. The Fade portion of the Mage Tower is the worse of the two. It’s a 3 hour solo dungeon crawl (this was me following a guide, too) with a bunch of terrible trash mob fights, and some conceptually interesting puzzle solving that goes on for too long through a bunch of visually monotonous environments. For as much as my opinions on this game have shifted in spots, my hatred of this part remains the same, and it remains just as bad as I remembered it being in 2009. On the other hand, the Deep Roads portion of the game is way worse than I remembered; just one long monotonous four-level dungeon with nothing in-between. When the equivalent dungeon crawls in the Brecillian Forest or Frostback Mountains take half as long, it sticks out. If you want to know why it took me so long to finish this game, it’s partially because doing both of these sequences back-to-back sapped a lot of my enthusiasm. Luckily, the back half of my experience was a smoother one, and I guess it’s fortunate that I unintentionally saved the best for last?
Awakening: Tales of the Amaranthine Coast
In the last minute swerve that no one saw coming, I think Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening is better than the main game. Most of Dragon Age’s other DLC comes from an awkward period from when developers didn’t quite know what to do with bite-sized additional content, and it shows. Shale is basically part of the main game, while Warden’s Keep and Return to Ostagar mostly exist as extended side missions with overpowered items and skills as the reward. I didn’t replay the smaller modules, which are either trivial story stuff (Leliana’s Song, Witch Hunt) or “Challenge Map” dungeons (Darkspawn Chronicles, A Tale of Orzammar, Golems of Angmarak.) However, Awakening is a fully-fledged, Throne of Bhaal style post-game expansion that brings all of the high-level ridiculousness you’d expect with the added bonus of actually fixing a lot of my problems with Origins’ full campaign… namely, not overstaying its welcome. In fact, I think parts of it might be too slight for their own good. For something I played once a decade ago and barely remembered, this might be the Shyamalan-esque twist this entire write up has needed.
But seriously, Awakening at least partially addresses many of the problems mentioned above. It adds a bunch of fun quality-of-life improvements to mechanics, such as the addition of stamina potions and runecrafting, alongside a bunch of ridiculous overpowered high-level skills that I wish were retroactively included in the main game. It manages almost as much with its smaller cast of characters in 15 hours than Origins did in 45. It has dungeons that don’t go on forever, a fade sequence that isn’t hot trash, and a more contained, focused plot about cleaning up the aftermath of the giant army of doom and reestablishing the Grey Wardens as a presence in Ferelden. If I have any specific problems with it beyond feeling like I bulldozed through all of the conten, it’s that Awakening is a lot buggier than the main game. Several quests ended up breaking and I permanently lost my main character’s equipment at one point, so I’d seriously recommend installing some fixes if one were to take part. Nonetheless, I’d put Awakening on a level slightly below something like Tyranny, as far as solid examples of what the genre is capable of when it isn’t so concerned with its own hour count.
The Legacy of the Blight
So… where does this leave me? Torn, unsurprisingly. If you’re wondering how I feel about Dragon Age Origins, I’ve gone back and forth on it multiple times just in the process of writing this. This isn’t a Might and Magic VII situation, where I remembered large chunks of the game well enough to make the act of replaying it feel less like reexperiencing the game and more like rote repetition of memorized steps. I had forgotten many of Dragon Age’s specifics, and I think as a whole the game is both better (playing) and worse (written) than my vague memories suggested. I guess I’ll put it this way: if one were to play this game for the first time today, my first suggestion would be to install a “skip the fade” mod and my second suggestion might be to play a different CRPG first. We’re here, it’s 2020, I might as well acknowledge the presence of other video games.
What do I mean? Origins was a throwback to a style of game that was more or less dead and buried in 2009, a quaint novelty in a world where it’s biggest direct competition from that year was (Wheel of Dubious RPGs contender) Drakensang: The Dark Eye and Spiderweb Software’s Avernum 6. No shade on Germany or Jeff Vogel, but I wouldn’t call either of those titles mainstream. If this game were to have come out three years ago instead of almost eleven, I don’t think it’d compare entirely favorably to the recent wave of stuff from the “CRPG Renaissance.” You might find Pillars of Eternity’s mechanics occasionally unwieldy and its writing verbose and morose, but it does the Baldur’s Gate throwback thing better, and its sequel still has one of my favorite class systems in a class-based RPG. Hell, Larian Studios, the same company responsible for the 2009 eurojank clunker Divinity II: Ego Draconis, is now high profile enough to be working on a video game called Baldur’s Gate III. Even if you didn’t want to go back to the supposed golden age of the late 90s, you are not starved for choice if you want a mechanically dense, well written RPG, nor do you need a decent computer to do so. If you want to play Baldur’s Gate on your Switch, you can, but Divinity Original Sin II works just fine with a controller, Pathfinder Kingmaker is getting a console port with official turn-based support, Wasteland 3 is likely going to launch on Game Pass day one, and even something as quirky and out there as Disco Elysium is eventually coming to everything. You might not like any one of those games, but the abundance of choice is, well, abundant.
The dark, crushing realization of this replay wasn’t that Dragon Age Origins is a bad game, because it isn’t. It’s the realization that it’s a far less special game removed from the context of when it came out; its myriad shortcomings are more obvious in the light of what has come since and its strengths aren’t quite as strong. That’s not something I’d say about Baldur's Gate II, or even Mass Effect 2, even if time has worn away at both. Did I enjoy myself? Yes? Yes. Do I see myself playing Dragon Age Origins again any time soon? No? No. But hey, Awakening was a pleasant surprise, so you bet I’m going to get good and mad about how dirty the future will be for my boy Anders.
I guess now the question is “if this is where you land on the Dragon Age game you remember loving, then where the heck are you going to land on the others?” I have great news: you won’t have to wait too long to find out. I might take a short break, but rest assured that Dragon Age II will be played this year. Look forward to it.
Also… fuck it, might end up playing Inquisition too. No promises though.
In case you were wondering, a summation of my choices:
Saved the Mage’s Circle
Sided with Bhelen over Harrowmont
Destroyed the Anvil of the Void
Managed to save Connor with the help of the Circle
Defiled the Urn of Sacred Ashes so I could get the cool Reaver subclass
Convinced Zathrian to stop being so angry and end the curse on the Werewolves
Forced Alistar and Anora to marry and rule jointly after executing Loghain
Performed the ritual with Morrigan so that no one would die after killing the Archdemon
Defended Amaranthine and let Vigil’s Keep be destroyed
Made a deal with The Architect
*: Just going to say again that I’ve been beating the “Jade Empire is secretly one of the worst Bioware RPGs” drum since 2013 and I’m going to stick by it.
There are two things you should know when it comes to the 2nd edition era of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (1989-2000): THAC0 and hella campaign settings. The former is the routine punch-line of RPG modernists everywhere, a shorthand for mechanical anachronism and weird backwards math (yet somehow still more streamlined than the literal “to hit” table that first edition trafficked in.) The latter is what eventually killed TSR, having split their user base between no less than half a dozen different campaign settings at one point. It’s something Wizards of the Coast has taken great pains to avoid, outside of their recent ventures into one-off setting books based on popular Magic the Gathering sets and also Critical Role.
TSR’s folly is my fortune, however, and their overabundance of weird settings offer a lot of fun, imaginative campaign fuel 20+ years removed from the fact (it also helps that they’re $10 PDFs instead of $50+ boxed sets.) One of these is Ravenloft, a gothic horror setting based around a famous first edition adventure of the same name; expanding the concept of a mist-shrouded land of gothic horror into multiple domains of dread. It’s not my favorite D&D setting, which is still probably Planescape, but there are definitely things to love about Ravenloft’s decidedly pulp approach to spooky draculas. Count Strahd von Zarovich and his domain of Barovia might be the enduring legacy of the adventure and the setting (Curse of Strahd is probably the best and most popular official 5e module, after all) but there’s a lot of fun camp to be had in a setting that’s nothing but the most ridiculously gloomy regions ruled by different evil-but-tortured dreadlords. This one is ruled by a werewolf! This one is ruled by a wolfwere! This one is ruled by Lord Soth from Dragonlance? Sure, why not? It’s basically a giant halloween store of a setting.
On the video game front, however, this era and campaign setting is also the source of the current oldest game on the wheel. There’s no beating around that Strahd’s Possession looks and feels like a game from 1994, a first person blobber stuck between tile-based, sprite-based worlds and free-roaming, fully polygonal ones. It’s running on the same engine as the Forgotten Realms-based Menzoberranzan, and had a sequel in the form of Stone Prophet (which takes place in the “pyramid mummy world” domain of Ravenloft). You don’t need to spend more than 10 minutes watching me stumble around, attempting to line-up the view window and mouse cursor so I can bash the enemies to death in a vague, real-time approximation of D&D combat, to get the idea that it maybe isn’t quite as intuitive as it wants to be. Inventory management is definitely one of those bugbears (the abstract concept, not the large hairy goblinoid of D&D fame) that a lot of older (and newer) RPGs struggle with. Alas, no amount of fun with paper dolls can save me from the slowly-brewing nightmare of being a hoarder with limited slots and no merchant to sell to. To its credit, none of what I’ve complained about here is truly impenetrable in the way a lot of other things I’ve run into are, so much as “mildly to moderately” inconvenient. There’s a solid automap system with plenty of room for taking notes, and I can't say that it's the worst thing I've encountered. Crazy that a game more than 25 years old might have some unintuitive UI, I know. (At this point I might just have to stream a little Might and Magic to show the audience what a well-aged RPG from the early 90s looks like)
However, there’s definitely some ambition and moxie in the way Strahd’s Possession conducts itself, such that I can’t write it off entirely. If it was boring and drab, that would be one thing, but there is enough here that I could see this being an enjoyable spooky romp if approached from the right angle (an angle I'm probably a little too young and impatient to find). As I mentioned before, the original I6 Ravenloft adventure is one of those iconic D&D classic modules, and it’s kind of impressive how much Strahd’s Possession manages to evoke the gloomy gothic atmosphere of Barovia despite looking like blurry pixelated mush a lot of the time. Between some genuinely solid MIDI music, well-written, setting appropriate prose, and an abundance of, uh, well-intentioned voice acting there are some legitimate production values behind it too. The progression of the game’s story seems fairly linear, but there also seemed to be a decent number of optional side ventures and puzzles along for the ride.
It’s just a pity that any positive sentiment I had for the game evaporated around the time I ran into the first real dungeon and had to navigate a monochromatic cave of green and brown, solving some switch and teleporter puzzles only to run into a bone golem capable of paralyzing and murdering my entire party posthaste. I’m sure there’s a way around it, and there’s enough fun spooky atmosphere that I kind of want to see where the rest of the adventure goes. By that point, however, I’d run up to my 2 hour limit and figured I’d be better off just watching a LP on youtube than continuing to bash my head against it. I didn’t hate my time with it, so a B+ for effort, Strahd’s Possession. I think I might just end up reading through the sourcebook again for fun. I almost ended up running a homebrew Ravenloft adventure the last time I did a “vote for your favorite adventure pitch” with my group. Don’t worry though, the next game is Daggerfall, in case you thought I was free from janky mid-90s first-person RPGs.
Until then, remember that I appreciate you taking the time to read this, and that playing Final Fantasy XI in 2020 may be hazardous to your health. See ya. (Dragon Age retrospective soon? Dragon Age retrospective soon.)
Time Played: About 3 ½ hours on stream (I’ve played around 20 on my own time)
Dubiosity: 4 out of 5
Would I play more? Yes.
Should you play more? Maybe?
When I pick the dubious RPGs to put on the wheel for this ill-advised streaming/blogging feature, I’m usually coming from one of two places. The first are games that should be entertaining to watch, either due to the game’s own quality or my own excellent, eSports-grade play. The second are games that I feel the need to show others, in a “you need to see this weird shit” sort of way. While there’s plenty of overlap between those two sentiments (Two Worlds is a pretty good example of something that reflects both) Wizards and Warriors is a pretty hard example of the latter. It’s a game that I’ve wanted to show off for a while now, because it’s a weird, funny thing and feels like another “failed evolutionary branch” of the Wizardry/Might and Magic style first-person party-based “blobber.”
If you were to ask someone to name a title from the late 90s/early 00s “golden age” of Computer Role Playing Games, I don’t think Wizards and Warriors would even crack the top 20. It’s probably one of the most obscure games on the list despite carrying the pedigree of Wizardry V-VII director D.W. Bradley on the front of the box. Sure, it probably doesn’t help that it came out literal days after genre juggernaut and actual best Bioware game Baldur’s Gate II, or that it was notoriously difficult to run on operating systems newer than Windows 2000 (which is the kind of thing that really stifles any sort of cult fanbase.) Or maybe it’s that the game is kind of a janky mess and looks pretty damn ugly even by the standards of the time, which led to a less-than-stellar reception at the time. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it over the likes of Might and Magic VI-VIII or Wizardry 8, which are probably its closest contemporaries.
And yet, I still kinda love what Wizards and Warriors is going for. It’s definitely a lower budget, small-team sort of game and what it loses in polish and quality of life it makes up for in scrappy ambition. If you should know anything about Bradley’s style of RPG design, it’s a heavy emphasis on multiclassing your party members between different professions and a willingness to push the envelope on what is normally considered a pretty conservative subgenre of RPG. Wizards and Warriors is no different on that front. Despite an obvious low budget, everything in the world is represented polygonally, from the individual arrows enemies shoot at you to the equipment showing up on your characters’ (polygonal) paper doll models. Mechanically, the game is trying to thread the needle between the slower, more dense Wizardry series and the faster, more streamlined Might and Magic (in case you need a shorthand between comparing two dead RPG franchises that look the same to an untrained eye, it’s pretty simple: Might and Magic is the one where more than half the games in the series are still surprisingly playable in the year of our lord 2020. Wizardry is the one where the only game I’ve made any headway with is the last one.) The class system is dense enough to go outside the scope of this blog, but essentially there are four base classes that can go into different combinations of eight elite classes (and three “special” classes near the end of the game.) Multiclassing is more or less the name of the game, which means there’s some amount of planning in advance but also an abundance of flexibility in how you want to turn your party into jack-of-all-trades murder machines. If I got further in the game, I’d have more to say about it, but it’s the one thing about W&W that definitely seems head and shoulders above its contemporaries.
It’s hard to remember now, but turn-based combat was quickly going out of fashion among RPGs from this period, and W&W’s solution to this is a janky, half-functional approach I’d describe as “sort of like Superhot????” As long as your characters are moving, combat is basically in real-time for you and your foes, but as soon as they stop moving things proceed in a more-or-less turn-based fashion. It doesn’t quite work as elegantly as that description might suggest and it’s quite frankly exploitable as shit, but it’s also endearing in that way. Sure, Might and Magic’s literal toggle between real-time and turn-based is a more elegant, sensical way of doing this, but does Might and Magic have Elephant Men? I rest my case.
I haven’t even gotten into some of the weird idiosyncrasies that Wizards and Warriors brings in its attempt to both be a hardcore traditional dungeon crawler and also a much more active thing. Gold is held on a per-character basis (you have to press a button to pool it every time), NPCs will remind you of the quests you haven’t done every single time you talk to them, and monsters will randomly spawn at a continual rate to recreate the effect of random encounters. If you want a visual picture of how it actually plays, I highly suggest giving my archives on Twitch a look (once again, no interest in archiving or uploading them elsewhere for the moment, so you’ve got 14 days to check them out) or just checking out one of the few playthroughs on youtube. I fully admit that this game is actually kinda my shit, and I think there’s a genuine “diamond in the rough” quality to W&W. On the other hand, I also fully admit that like half of my excitement for it probably comes from discovering a new old CRPG that I hadn’t played before. I dunno, it’s currently less than $5 on GOG if you really want to give it a look. Maybe it will surprise you. Or maybe you should just pick up the Might and Magic 6-pack instead. World of Xeen? That's a non-dubious RPG right there.
Yo, before we start, just a quick update on the whole Dragon Age II thing: It’s still coming, but I’ve accidentally gotten sucked into Origins and now want to play through the entire thing without a captive audience watching me the entire time. So… because of this, the Dragon Age and Dragon Age II retrospective is now going to be its own separate deal. I’ll stream more when I feel like it, and I’m not planning on playing Inquisition, but this has become a big enough thing to become separate from the wheel. You can expect my thoughts on Origins… eventually. It’s a long game.
Special Distinction: The first game to make me quit during a stream
Would I play it again? Eh.
Dungeon Siege III continues the trend of my tolerance for middling and questionable RPGs halting somewhere around middling and questionable action-RPGs in the vein of Diablo. Not everything can be Nox, I guess. Now, to be fair, there’s nothing particularly offensive about Dungeon Siege III, and indeed it seems like the kind of thing that could be a moderate amount of fun… on a console. With a controller. And probably other people along for the ride. There’s no beating around this one: This is a console-ass PC port, one that somehow managed to miss the train on decent gamepad support despite being a game that was clearly designed for a gamepad in mind. I mean, it works, in the sense that the buttons do things when you push them, but not in the sense of replacing button prompts or having anywhere near a reasonable default button layout. I feel like most games were starting to figure this out by 2011. Not this one!
I picked this one over its predecessors for a few reasons: The first is that Obsidian made it, a company I’d argue is probably responsible for some of the better and more interesting western-developed RPGs of the last 16 years. The second is that, quite frankly, there doesn’t seem to be anything remotely remarkable about Dungeon Siege 1 or 2 beyond their technical accomplishments and Jeremy Soule OSTs. I’m sorry if you were a big fan of either of those games, but this is definitely one of those cases where I’m slightly baffled a franchise got to three installments (four if you count Space Siege), a comic book, and multiple terrible Uwe Boll movies with no real outward “hook” other than being technically competent Diablo-likes with no loading past the initial startup.
Now if my general whinging about the quality of gamepad support and series lineage isn’t particularly exciting, then I have great news: Neither are the opening hours of Dungeon Siege III. It’s fine. Well, that’s not to say that there aren’t ideas. Instead of starting from scratch with a classless hero, you pick between four different set characters, all of whom have two different “stances” they can switch between at a time (I went with the fire lady, who can switch between smacking things with a spear up close and blasting them afar as a fire spirit). Progression and character building is streamlined down to the essentials, with each character having a grand total of nine abilities (three per stance, plus three defensive abilities you can use while blocking) and a couple ways of enhancing those abilities between two binary choices (do you want your sick advancing kick to have a chance of stunning enemies or setting them on fire?) It’s also much more action-oriented, with blocking and dodging very much feeling like a meaningful part of your arsenal. The AI companions who you bring along? Not quite as useful.
In some ways, I can get behind this, and if I wasn’t fumbling around with a keyboard (see, this is what brings it all together) I’d probably be more into the relatively simple, decidedly consolized approach to ARPGs this game has going for it. In a world where these sorts of games are all about the endless treadmill, there’s something… almost novel about one that clearly is a bit more hand-crafted and suited for one or two playthroughs. It’s cute, like a throwback to Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, rather than playing in the same pool as the big kids or indeed even mustering up to the post-Diablo III console port world we now find ourselves in. The only problem is that I need a bigger hook than mechanical competence to draw me in with this sort of loot game in particular. Diablo II manages it through raw nostalgia, while Destiny did it with best-in-class shooting on a console. If I had friends to play with (and, to be quite honest, I didn’t have a repetitive stress injury that makes the particular brand of clicky click actively painful) I’d probably have more love for this style of game, but I could barely get my friends to play Diablo II with me when I was a teenager, and you’d better believe I can’t do it now that we’re all adults. I’m focusing most of my social capital on making people show up for remote D&D games, in any case.
Now that’s where the narrative elements come in to fill the gap. Well, at least that’s what I was hoping, at least. It has more of it than the average game of this type, to be fair, and there are a decent number of dialogue interactions between all the murdering. However, other than the fun of recognizing how many NPC voices were done by the same handful of (prominent) voice actors (I counted at least three NPCs voiced by Liam O’Brien, two by Laura Bailey, and three by Robin Atkin Downes in the short time I played,) the best I can say about Dungeon Siege III’s writing is that there was clearly some effort involved. I’m just not sure it was necessary. It was directed by George Ziets, who is probably best known among RPG circles as being the lead writer on Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, which depending on the week might secretly be my favorite Obsidian story. Apparently Zeits wrote a 100 page “lore bible” to help flesh out the world of Dungeon Siege, which I can definitely see from the raw number of proper nouns and backstory being thrown out by every character with little context. What’s a Jeyne Kassinder anyway? Apparently not a very good thing, that’s for sure. I can’t speak to how this game’s development went, or what problems it encountered, so I’ll just leave it at the writing not being compelling enough on its own merits, even if it’s probably better than 90% of the games of this type by sheer value of mildly giving a shit.
So yeah, that’s Dungeon Siege III. It seems, uh, fine, but I think I’m done playing this particular kind of game on my dubious RPG wheel. Also, from this point onward, I’m going to reiterate that I’m not particularly interested in recording and archiving my streams at the moment. That means if you want to watch me fumble around and talk about RPGs with the handful of people in my chat, the best way to do so is live or watch the archives on my twitch page within 14 days. At some point this could change, but for now just keep that in mind. I REALLY recommend you take a look at the archives for my Wizards and Warriors stream, because a lot of what I'm going to talk about in regards to that game needs to be seen for yourself.
Dubiosity: 1 out of 5 (I’m like EDGE Magazine, I use the whole scale)
Number of times I made comparisons to the classic 2001 Dreamworks Film Shrek during my streams: 2
Would I play more? Yeah.
Of all the games I’ve played for my cursed wheel of RPGs thus far, Nox is probably the least “dubious” of any of them. It definitely falls into the “weird and novel” end of the spectrum rather than the “disastrous” or “janky” ones, much to my own benefit and much to the detriment of anyone who wanted to watch me suffer live on the internet. For as much as I love Two Worlds’ scrappy ambition and think Rise of the Argonauts might eventually get a full playthrough for sheer curiosity’s sake, Nox is the one game that I can point to and say “This feels like a video game that one could’ve played and enjoyed without any compunctions in the time and context that it came out” Or maybe just “hey, this seems alright”
Because, as it turns out, Nox is actually much more interesting than just “The Command and Conquer people’s attempt to make a Diablo” if you take one look at when it was released, a full five months before Diablo II. While Blizzard North’s Diablo is one of the most influential games of all time, I’d argue Diablo II contributions are what solidified the genre into what it is now, for better or worse calcifying everything afterward in its image. It’s hard to see it now, but multiplayer in Diablo 1 was initially an afterthought, and the game’s structure has as much in common with classical roguelikes and dungeon crawlers as it does with clickers where “the numbers keep going up.” Diablo II is the game that introduced things like “class-specific skills” and was even more precision-tuned towards the loot grind that its predecessor had only partially embraced.
It’s in this 3 ½ year gap between the Diablos that we find Nox, which feels less like an endless parade of ever increasing numbers or insane endgame character builds and more like a failed evolutionary branch of the genre. Yes, like Diablo you pick one of three classes for your t-shirted goober from the real world to inhabit (wait is Nox an Isekai) and click on things until they die, the things it emphasizes could not be more different. It’s an ultra-linear game with hand-crafted levels and encounters (including an emphasis on dungeon traps and hidden secrets) that happen in different orders depending on which class you picked. Loot is present, in a sense, but it also seems hand-placed mostly comes in the form of gold and consumables. You do level up, but there’s no stat allocation. Instead of using the left mouse button to do everything, you hold down the right mouse button to move and click the left to attack and pick stuff up (with ASDFG being your hotbar of spells) which gives the click murdering a slightly more direct feel and cadence. It started to feel a little more in the vein of something like Gauntlet than Grim Dawn, less in terms of wandering mazes and fighting endlessly respawning enemies and more in the sense that you’re constantly moving forward and never stopping while you bulldoze all in your path.
If I have a complaint, it might actually be that the game is too streamlined and straightforward to be called an “RPG” on anything other than the barest technicalities. This is an isometric action game, complete with a jump button to avoid traps and big ol’ magic crystals just hanging out in a dungeon to recover your mana if you’re nearby. The game might also be a little too simple for its own good, with my biggest grand strategy for most of the difficult encounters being “kite the enemies until I can drop 5-10 meteors on them.” Still, it’s something I would hypothetically play again, especially in a multiplayer context, even if it’s not nearly cursed enough to be a recurring part of this feature.
So hey, since the next game is Dragon Age II, easily the highest profile game on “The Wheel,” I’ve decided that it’s time to do something a little different for next week. Instead of going straight to Bioware’s first major misstep*, I thought it would be a good refresher for me (and everyone involved, honestly) if I took some time with Dragon Age Origins beforehand. It’s been more than a decade since Origins came out and almost as long since I’ve done an extensive playthrough, so for the next couple of streams I will be playing an actual good RPG. Well, I hope it’s as good as I remember it being. Probably won’t play through the entire thing (at least not over the internet) but it’s going to be a decent amount. Honestly, I need a pick-me-up before I go back to something like Realms of Arkania III; the 90 minutes I played of it felt disorienting in the state I’m in right now. Also it maybe was a bad idea to start on the third game in a series of notoriously obscure German CRPGs, but that’s what I get for remembering a positive time with it a decade ago.
The thing that always stuck out in regards to the original Two Worlds was the vague notion surrounding its release that it was “the Oblivion-killer,” a moniker mostly earned because it was a big, sprawling, open-world RPG that came out early in the lifespan of the Xbox 360. For as much as I’ll concede Bethesda’s first big mainstream Elder Scrolls game *probably* hasn’t aged as well as I’d like to pretend it has, that’s not an especially flattering comparison. Two Worlds is the textbook case of a “Eurojank” RPG, punching above its budget with all the earnestness and ambition Polish studio Reality Pump could muster. It’s clunky, awkward, has some hilariously bad voice acting, and managed to crash more than once during my brief time with it. It also seems alright.
I’d actually played a decent amount of Two Worlds II before this, which I’d go as far as to say is slightly too good (albeit, still very Eurojank) to be featured on the same wheel as “the game that killed the Ultima franchise, forever” and “Whatever the heck a Thunderscape is.” The first Two Worlds is somehow even rougher around the edges and lacks its sequel’s inventive magic system, leaving me as the requisite nameless protagonist (a ruthless mercenary type doing his best Don LaFontaine impression while also being slightly too concerned about his sister) to solve quests from the most bored villagers in the world while ineffectually whacking packs of wolves and bandits with a stick. Lots and lots of wolves. Nah, I think it fits in pretty well.
I don’t know what the trend is with European-developed RPGs and the disproportionate threat of local wildlife, but I spent the first hour or two getting messed up by packs of wolves, boar, and even the occasional bear or two. Once that initial hump was overcome and I had gotten a few levels and some decent equipment (the itemization was aggressive enough that I’d often be picking up better stuff every few minutes in some areas) I could start to see the rough appeal of Two Worlds forming in front of me. The world seems pretty damn big (if a little sparse, once you get off the road) and I’m not opposed to poking around and questing around the environment until I find areas I’m a high enough level to deal with. The game autosaves every ten minutes and will automatically resurrect you at the nearest shrine when you die, making lost progress a non-issue, even if my time with combat thus far mostly consisted of clicking rapidly and hoping for a critical hit against the small packs of enemies roving the land.
The RPG elements in Two Worlds are rather straightforward: there are four stats and a big ol’ bevy of various skills between combat, utility, magic, and special attacks. You don’t have all of the skills unlocked at the start, but you can learn them from trainers scattered throughout the world. (I remembered from the second game.) Some, like critical strike and lockpick, seemed pretty vital, while some of the special attacks seemed, uh, questionable at best. The game was generous enough with the stat and skill points in my brief time with it that I was already starting to branch out from the melee fighter build I feel like is always a safe choice in these sorts of games. I’m not going to claim it’s the most intuitive or interesting character building system I’ve seen, but at the very least it seems, uh, capable?
Now, aside from wandering sparse forests while engaging in wonton slaughter, the biggest thing that stuck out with Two Worlds was the endearingly bad quality of performances. There’s not a single line of English voice acting in this game that couldn’t have benefitted from another read or five, and it’s magical. There’s only so much mileage I can get out of goofing on VAs who were most likely not native speakers, but it’s a lot more evident because of how talky the script is. There was some thought put into the world of Antaloor, but it’s hard to pay attention to any of it when “tell, don’t show” exposition is often being delivered with all the enthusiasm of someone on Xanax at a funeral (and sometimes too much enthusiasm delivered on exactly the wrong words or syllables in any given sentence.)
So yeah, I guess I mostly enjoyed my time with Two Worlds, even if I think I’d probably have a better time revisiting its sequel. I think this feature has already broken my brain a little, because there were a couple times I thought to myself “I could see myself playing 20-30 hours of this” as I swiped away yet another silver wolf and harvested its heart for alchemy. Meanwhile, my brother is over in the next room playing The Witcher 3 and having a great time as I write this. Have I made a mistake? I played the demo for that Final Fantasy VII Remake. It seems like it could be good? Nah. Nah. We're fine.
Follow me on Twitch if you’d like to see me stream these games and watch archives of my bad choices.
Welcome back to the most horrifying, terrifying, mystifying, thing on the internet to feature a wheel of chaos since that ill-fated Giant Bomb feature where they pretended to play Donkey Kong 64! It's a bit of a short one for today, because it turns out I don't have much to say about
Would I play more? NOOOOPE. It's too competent and not weird enough to be on the wheel, but it's too mediocre to be exciting to play in another context.
Given the era in which it was developed and the continent it was developed on, I had higher expectations for Sacred than a drably competent loot-em-up. I think it might be the first game too boring to deserve a spot on the wheel. Indeed if not for the intervention of a friendly, helpful fan of the game in my chat I probably wouldn’t have gotten past the rather… disastrous frame-rate I was encountering before I downloaded a fix, and it probably wouldn’t have been played at all. And honestly? I think I might’ve preferred that.
It’s probably a little weird to react so strongly to a game like Sacred, which seems like an entirely inoffensive, low-friction, open world-ish refinement of Blizzard North’s staggeringly influential Diablo II, but I think my general level of tolerance for these sorts of games is critically low. I’ve been on the record as finding Diablo III’s ultra-streamlined, mildly banal firehose of loot where “the numbers go up” to be a few steps too close to clickers for my liking, while Path of Exile’s nightmare sphere grid skill tree and endless endgame build variety are both too intimidating and demanding of my time to warrant serious investment. It’s difficult to hook me on this stuff in the best of circumstances, unless you base your endless loot treadmill around a more compelling gameplay loop (see: Monster Hunter, Destiny) or hit the exact right balance for me in terms of skill progression, loot progression, and overall difficulty to catch my interest.
Sacred leans a little closer to the “streamlined” camp of post-Diablo 2 loot-n-scoots, with abilities based around cooldowns instead of mana, and quality-of-life additions like mounts and an auto-loot key, but it doesn’t do anything weird or interesting enough to be truly dubious. Some unorthodox character classes, like a vampire knight, demoness, and two flavors of elf, but those aside there doesn’t really seem to be much of a hook for an enterprising dubiomancer to conjure any entertaining blog or stream fodder from it. For my case, I spent the better part of 90 minutes using the Battle Mage’s basic fireball spell on hordes of goblins, roughly two seconds at a time, occasionally upgrading my armor and weapons and kind of wishing I had put Divine Divinity or Beyond Divinity on here instead. Maybe it would be more fun with a different class and/or with more people along for the ride, but at that point I might as well play something from the same genre that does everything better.
As always, you can follow my dumb antics and watch stream archives on my Twitch page. Still haven't figured out what I want to do with my full recordings once the archives leave twitch, but I don't really want to put a bunch of unedited two hour streams on YouTube.
It’s nice to know that after being pleasantly surprised by Rise of the Argonauts’ mid-budget competence, this feature has already started to live up to its name. I might as well set out a couple more “ground rules” for the wheel while I’m here, because shoving more restrictions on myself is fun!
I am obligated to play any game picked by the wheel for at least two streaming sessions. Thus far, this has leveled out at about four hours, which I feel like is a… mostly fine metric for evaluating these sorts of games? Most RPGs that aren’t Final Fantasy XIII tend to reveal their general mechanics and overall “hand” by then, but if I feel like I need to play more, or the audience demands it, I’ll play more. I certainly wouldn’t want someone to judge an all-time classic like Baldur’s Gate II from its opening hours.
That said, if a game I’ve already played is picked on the wheel, I’m allowed to respin. This should hopefully be more of an emergency measure than anything, but if I find a game particularly dull or… troublesome, I reserve the right to pass over it.
I’m pretty happy with my current wheel roster of “things I already own” but if you have any suggestions for the dubious RPGs in your life, I’d love to hear them. Generally trying to stick to western and PC stuff right now, but I’ve already floated the idea of playing something like Lost Kingdoms so console stuff and JRPGs are definitely not off the table.
That should do it. But before we jump into this week’s game, I feel like it might be worth giving
Some Brief Context
I’d be willing to make the case that Westwood was one of the most versatile developers of the 1990s, between their work on the first two seminal Eye of the Beholder RPGs, more-or-less creating the RTS genre as we know it with Dune II and Command and Conquer, dabbling in a trilogy of lighthearted fantasy point-and-click adventures with Legend of Kyrandia, and even making their own take on Diablo with Nox (coincidentally, also on the wheel.) Even if everything they’ve done hasn’t aged entirely well, their output was varied and interesting enough that they deserve to be known as more than just “The Command and Conquer people.”
We’re not going to talk about any of those today, we’re going to talk about their resident first-person RPG series, Lands of Lore, which was more or less their successor to Eye of the Beholder after parting with the D&D license. The first game in the series, Throne of Chaos, is a colorful, charming “side-stepping rock-dropping puzzle-em-up” RPG in the same vein as EotB, Dungeon Master, and Legend of Grimrock with a heavier bent on presentation and storytelling than you’d normally expect from something in that company. For one, they dragged Patrick Stewart off the set of Star Trek and gave him a giant check to deliver like 10 lines as King Richard Gladstone, who of course is then summarily poisoned after the introduction and no longer capable of talking. (13 years before he did the same for Oblivion, no less!) While I think anyone with a vague interest in these sorts of games would be better served playing Grimrock, its sequel, or Vaporum, the first Lands of Lore deserves mention as one of the more playable games of that type, from that era.
I might end up doing a stream of it, if only because it seems like the series went off in an, uh, interesting direction after the first installment. The second game, Guardians of Destiny, is actually the one that precipitated the move to a single character and fully 3D environments, but I’ve still heard marginally positive things about its branching storyline and goofy characters. Also it includes FMV actors, so it must be pretty “good” on that front as well. That said… there definitely seem to be a lot of similarities between it and our current game, so never say never.
Time Played: About 4 hours (stream archive here, for now)
Dubiosity: 4 out of 5 (an extra point for being a pain in the ass to get running in a window, then another hour of tweaking to play well with my current less-than-optimal streaming setup.)
Number of GameFAQs guides: Just one! That's as many guides as there are for Rise of the Argonauts!
Would I play more? Yeah, probably? But what if I just played the first game or Eye of the Beholder instead?
Lands of Lore III is considered the “bad” one in the series, having been rushed out the door a little too early to tepid response. While I have yet to encounter any major game-breaking bugs, it definitely seems like that’s the reputation it’s known for among genre enthusiasts and there were definitely a couple of things that seemed slightly broken. Coming to it fresh, especially having not played more than a few minutes of the second game, it’s a strange beast for an RPG. I’ve always considered Might and Magic to be on the faster, more streamlined (and, I might argue, better-aged) edge of 90s CRPG design, but I think Lands of Lore might have it beat. You control one character in Lands of Lore III, who levels up simultaneously in up to 4 different classes mostly just by using the abilities tied to them (hit things with swords to level up fighter, magic to level up mage, ranged attacks to level up thief, and heal yourself and craft items to level up priest.) The biggest RPG management aspect comes from the worst kind of management: Inventory management. To its credit, it seems like every item in Lands of Lore III has some kind of use, and I could see that stuff having a lot more appeal later in the game, but during my playtime I was mostly just in need of healing items during the brief occasions I wasn’t melting everything I ran into with a couple of sword swings.
The actual source of my consternation with this game comes from level design, a recurring bugbear for me with a lot of these things. It’s hard to explain, but I think Lands of Lore secretly wants to be more of an action game than it is. The first hour of my time was spent stumbling around the small castle town of Gladstone and surrounding woods, doing the initial quests for the 4 guilds and occasionally struggling with both the controls and the terrible map. While you can see the roots of the hidden secrets one would expect from the classic dungeon crawlers of yore, more often than not I was surprised by how the two dungeons I encountered were either depressingly straightforward (like a FPS level) or weirdly, confusingly labyrinthine (like a 90s FPS level.) There just doesn’t seem to be a great coherent structure to the whole thing, and I think if the map was better the problems of navigation would be mostly solved and it would just be a weirdly linear series of dungeons with a city hub tying it together. As it is now, I haven’t run into anything I’d call distinctive or interesting with the way the game has structured itself, outside of making me decide to quit after getting sick of a particularly confusing lava dungeon sequence.
Another source of dubiosity comes from replacing some of the more charming, tongue-in-cheek writing of the earlier games with a bad case of 90s snark. Coppert LeGré, the presumptive hero of our story, is a protagonist of the “intolerable” variety and his constant quippiness and sarcasm suggest losing his soul to demon hounds from between dimensions was the least of his problems. Now he has to venture between realms to collect shards of a magical mirror keeping things together and hopefully find that soul along the way. There’s definitely an appeal to having a protagonist who’s kind of a shithead (not to mention having a familiar who also makes weird quips) but I’m not entirely sure it’s the same kind of appeal the developers were intending.
Now, my general feelings towards Lands of Lore III are that it’s “unspectacular” and hampered by frustrating design choices rather than outright bad, at least from the 4 hours I played. That said, there’s one thing that has me seriously considering playing more, should the wheel pick it again, and it’s apparently that the game gets weird in some of the later areas. While I stopped in the first of five realms, aka: “obligatory lava level” I’m to understand things get more interesting later on. Apparently you go to a realm that’s just an abandoned Brotherhood of NOD base? That sounds bananas in a way I can get behind.
Just a reminder that you can follow my bad choices and find stream archives on my Twitch page, should you desire to watch my experiences firsthand. I'm thinking about putting edited-down versions on youtube somewhere, but I haven't quite figured the specifics of what I want to do yet.
First off, I want to thank anyone who tuned into my Giant Bomb Community Endurance Run streams and/or donated. It was (mostly) a lot of fun and I managed to raise $500 for COVID-19 relief. You can find a playlist of my archived stream here. Unfortunately, I forgot to hit record for part of it, and I still need to do some editing before I upload my day 2 stream, but if you really want to watch multiple hours of me dying horribly in Temple of Elemental Evil, then doing marginally better in Wizardry 8 while talking about the Total War franchise with GB Moderator ZombiePie, you can certainly do that. However, the thing that has actually stuck with me the most is my final stretch goal, also known as:
Like anyone who has had a Steam and GOG account for about a decade, it’s fair to say I have some random-ass shit dwelling in both libraries, most of it gained from earlier years of ill-advised sale purchases. My recent bad quarantine/stimulus check choices aside, (definitely gonna play through those lengthy PS2 JRPGs, just you wait) I’d like to think age, responsibility, and regret have led me to be more disciplined than I was during the dark era of Steam mega-sales with those daily and hourly deals. We live in a civilized age now, where everything is the same price for the duration of the sale and you can refund things. Also, I kinda already bought everything I wanted to buy around 2010-2014
However, the random-ass shit remains, forever entombed in the “hidden” portion of my libraries, never seeing the light of day… until quarantine drove me crazy enough to consider streaming video games on the internet. Despite having less time and less patience for the old and obscure than I used to, the idea of leveraging what I had on hand for the sake of charity sounded like a fun stretch goal. Unfortunately, I’ve accidentally invested too much thought and energy into it now and you’re forced to reap the results. Every week, I will spin the wheel and stream the game chosen by its dark power, and I’ll probably end up writing something up about it if I feel so inclined. I think it’s a fun gimmick for streaming and gives me a consistent concept to follow, which is probably more exciting than just playing something hot and cool and relevant. (also sometimes I will stream things that are hot and cool and relevant)
Now, at this point you’re probably wondering: What constitutes a “dubious” RPG anyway? The metascore? The obscurity? The cult following? Well, in the legendary words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it.” Dubiosity is more than a measure of quality, it’s a measure of being. Not everything currently on the wheel is a burning trash fire, although I have to say I’ve found some choice installments of otherwise beloved RPG franchises that should make for good internet television. I’ve actually been on the record as saying I like some of them (Might and Magic IX might be a blatantly unfinished mess, but it’s still Might and Magic) but my point is that you’re not going to be finding any Fallouts or Baldur’s Gates over here (well, I could play Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel but that just seems like a bad time). I’ve also mostly kept to stuff I already own and can stream on PC, although my copy of Greedfall is on PS4 and I’m more than willing to expand to console stuff and JRPGs if we get to that point.
With that said, here's my little write-up about the first game to make it off the wheel and onto my bad choice computer screen.
Would I play more? Genuinely considering a full playthrough.
It was fortunate that this was the first game the wheel landed on (well, after Soulbringer broke everything and soft-locked my computer) because Rise of the Argonauts was the original inspiration for it in the first place. I wasn’t expecting the wheel to land on it again during my stream yesterday, but so the wheel wills, so it shall be. An action-RPG thrown out in the cold, barren mid-December from a developer more known for their RTS work, Rise of the Argonauts (also known as “The Adventures of Jason and Thicc Hercules”) has sat in my steam library for ages, untouched and unplayed until the wheel fatefully selected it. I have to assume I got it in a humble bundle at some point, because I had zero clue what it was until I actually started playing. It turns out that it’s… cut-rate Greek Mythology Mass Effect? Jason’s gotta get that Golden Fleece, there are three different locations he needs to go to, all while assembling a Bioware-esque team of fellow mythological figures and making dialogue choices that are attuned to four different gods of Olympus (Ares is Renegade, Apollo is Paragon, Athena is Lawful Neutral, and Hermes is clever.) There’s not exactly a huge emphasis on meaningful choices, but there sure is a lot of talking and some of the side quests feel like they come straight out of a mid-2000s Bioware game.
So, here’s the thing: I think this game might be totally alright. Perhaps it’s the skewed curve I’m working with here, but in spite of the obvious budget limitations, bad combat, and extremely 2008 PC port, I was having a genuinely okay time streaming Rise of the Argonauts. It has some neat ideas, like its leveling system being about dedicating your accomplishments to the gods, and thus far I’ve found the writing entirely acceptable by that mid-00s Bioware standard (the VA cast includes a bunch of veteran voice actors, such as Steve Blum, Cam Clarke, and Bioware regular/FemShep herself, Jennifer Hale), even if the occasionally bad line read or the unemotive character models takes me out of it. If nothing else, it only has a two on the dubiosity scale (dubiometer?) because there’s not very much bullshit for me to deal with between the talking, fighting, and occasional random crashes. Equipment is streamlined, leveling is straightforward, and there’s nary a half-assed mechanic or obnoxious subsystem in sight. What you see is what you get, essentially, and I think at this point I might just play more of it regardless of if it pops up again on the wheel or not because my priorities are a mess. Also Mutton Chops Hercules is hilarious and I will never stop goofing on the design they went with.
You can find the archive of my most recent stream on my twitch channel, and I’m intending on recording and archiving all of my streams on Youtube after this point. If you'd like to join in on my bad times, I'm planning on streaming 2-3 times a week for the foreseeable future (I'll figure out a more consistent schedule at some point, but for now following me is probably the easiest way to know when I'm doing stuff)