The Wheel of Dubious RPGs Episode 37-38: Lost Kingdoms II and Final Fantasy Type-0

Lost Kingdoms II

Hi hello it turns out this game I rented like 18 years ago might not actually be that great
Hi hello it turns out this game I rented like 18 years ago might not actually be that great

Developer: From Software

Release Date: May 21, 2003

Time Played: A little more than 90 minutes

Dubiosity: 4 out of 5

Amount I paid for this game: Less than Xenosaga Episode III, but more in terms of a mental toll.

Would I play more? I mean, maybe? I certainly paid too much for this to let it sit on a shelf. Alternatively, anyone interested in buying a secondhand copy of Lost Kingdoms II? I accept Venmo and Paypal.

Upon revisitation, I think I’ve decided that both Lost Kingdoms and its (far rarer and more expensive) sequel are quintessential representations of Early 2000s From Software’s RPG design. Which is my nice way of saying that they’re an interesting idea (action RPG where your attacks are represented as a deck of cards) that does not sustain a full 8-12ish hour game. Even with the improvements of the second game, including the removal of random battles, something resembling a story, and a general quality-of-life upgrade can’t change the fact that it’s a clonky RPG coasting more on novelty than anything else.

As the excellently-named Tara Grimface, I spent the slightly less than two hour introduction of Lost Kingdoms 2 fighting monsters in fairly barren environments. Like my time with the first game late last year, it’s the kind of B-tier (and I mean that in the budgetary term and not the far more nebulous “Star Wars The Force Awakens is a mediocre video game and therefore B-tier” sense of the term) action-RPG that was rife during the PS2 era. There is some level of thought into stuff like deckbuilding and using the brief invincibility window when you play cards to avoid attacks. Make no mistake, the FromSoft-ass Fromsoftness is still here, even if Lost Kingdoms II bothers to explain and expand upon its mechanics far more than its predecessor ever did. While more… comprehensible than King’s Field: The Ancient City, there’s still enough arcane mechanics and strange choices to make it clear who made this.

Unfortunately for my tattered attention span, that wasn’t quite enough to sustain me with Lost Kingdoms II, and given the amount of time it’s taken me to write this particular write-up, you can be assured that it was hard to think of things to say about it. It’s a marked improvement over its predecessor, but it’s still not *all that interesting* once you stare at it long enough. It’s just a tad too stiff and rigid to be a great action RPG. ...I still might play more of it.

Final Fantasy Type-0

Fabula Nova Cardstalis
Fabula Nova Cardstalis

Developer: Square-Enix

Release Date: October 27, 2011 (or March 17, 2015 for the HD version)

Time Played: A little over two hours

Dubiosity: 4 out of 5 (one extra point for legitimately giving me a headache)

Inconsistent HD Textureosity: 5 out of 5

Would I play more? Listen, if ZP can’t play this game when it eventually becomes the subject of a Deep Listens podcast, I’ll take the bullet for him

In retrospect, it’s hard to look at Fabula Nova Crystalis as anything other than an albatross, a curse hung round the neck of the Final Fantasy franchise that more or less dominated its single-player offerings for more than a decade. I’m on record as saying I like XIII-2 and Lightning Returns, but it’s hard to argue for those in the recent shadow of the “actually a great video game” VII Remake. One of the odder ducks to come out of this initiative was Final Fantasy Type-0 (previously known as Agito XIII) a Japan-only PSP game whose translation patch was completed… just days before the HD re-release was announced. I feel like this is definitely the forgotten child of the bunch, and after playing a few hours I was reminded exactly why.

What's that over there? I can't tell because my eyes hurt from how swimmy the camera is.
What's that over there? I can't tell because my eyes hurt from how swimmy the camera is.

And to be clear, the thing most worthy of emphasis in Type-0 isn’t the M-rating, or the part where you’re very much controlling a band of murderous child soldiers who also attend a school (for child soldiers.) It’s the part where it’s a prettied-up version of a Playstation Portable game. There was very much a trend in Japanese portable game design in the late 00s, especially on the PSP to “try and make your game like Monster Hunter” so that it would appeal to the exact demographic of salarymen who have 20 minutes to murder a Rathalos on the Shinkansen before work. As I’ve mentioned before, that sort of focus around a repetitive core loop only works if it’s refined to a razor point… and most games are not as good at it as Monster Hunter. Final Fantasy Type-0 is very much “trying to be a monster hunter” with its structure. Between main missions, you have a certain amount of time to engage in faux-S.Links, attend classes to increase the stats of your FIFTEEN playable characters, research magic, do side missions, etc.

It’s the same problem as Valkyria Chronicles II and Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker, where, divorced from the culture around portable video games in Japan (and with these HD remasters, the concept of portability at all) you’re stuck with an intentionally grindy structure that doesn’t endear itself to longer play sessions. Of course, if Type-0 played well or like… understood why people liked Persona that would be a different story. But it doesn’t! It’s yet another example of Square-Enix trying really, really hard to make a good action RPG with some bootleg-ass sub-Kingdom Hearts action-based menu combat with the added benefit of having a camera that legitimately started to give me motion sickness after only an hour of play. Does it bother explaining like… most of its core mechanics or how any of its 15 characters play? Not really.

At the very least, I’m to understand the story goes in some wild directions, and some of it is apparent from the outset. They really do, uh, start this game with a bunch of war crime and also a chocobo covered in blood. Those kids sure do call this lady “Mother” and have a dogged loyalty to her. Oh, also the crystal erases the memories of the fallen from the minds of these kids so they can be more efficient murderers. I dunno if it’s good storytelling (especially given how not great a lot of the persona bits are) but I at least understand it goes full anime crazy at some point. Maybe something worth coming back to? No? Okay.

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Arcanum and Blue DragonBaldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear

Other Business

Anyway, sorry about taking as long as I did with this write up, but hopefully things should probably be more stable. Now-ish. While I have you here, I'd just like to mention that our Xenosaga Episode 1 podcast series has wrapped up over at Off the Deep End. Might be a tad biased, but it's worth listening to all three episodes if you want to hear us slowly lose our minds trying to understand Monolith Soft's second venture into the world of God, Robots, and Existentialism (the first being Xenogears.) We also have a Kusoge episode done and in the oven, so look forward to our reactions to what might be *The Single Worst Video Game That Will Probably Ever Be Played On A Deep Listens Family of Podcast.*

Similarly, as was promised during my Giant Bomb Community Endurance Run stream, thanks to your generous donations there is now recorded evidence of me playing through the entirety of Tango Gameworks 2014 disasterpiece The Evil Within on my Twitch. I still kinda like it! oh also I played through all of RE6 co-op with a friend because I like to have fun. I guess you could watch that too. I even made a playlist for it on youtube, with the VODs coming over in a steady drip. C'mon. C'monnnnnn.

That'll be it for me. Hopefully I'll be back to your regularly scheduled dubiosity soon.

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The Wheel of Dubious RPGs Episode 35-36: Arcanum and Blue Dragon

Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura

In my restless dreams, I see that game. Arcanum. You promised me it would get good eventually. But it never did. Well, I'm alone here now. Waiting for you to come.
In my restless dreams, I see that game. Arcanum. You promised me it would get good eventually. But it never did. Well, I'm alone here now. Waiting for you to come.

Developer: Troika Games

Release Date: August 22, 2001

Time Played: Around Three Hours

Dubiosity: 4 out of 5

Number of times I’ve played through the opening hours of this game: at least half a dozen.

Would I play more? You know it’s coming. I can’t escape.

I’m back on my decade-long bullshit again, and that bullshit continues to be “Arcanum is my CRPG White Whale.” It’s one of the few remaining games of that late 90s/early 00s “Golden Era” that I’ve never played to completion, and even moreso than the likes of Fallout 2 it’s the one that sticks in my craw the most. As part of getting older, I’ve managed to move past a lot of weird backlog anxiety in my life, much to my own benefit. I’m moderately capable of accepting the fact that I’m never gonna finish certain things, because who has the time and/or attention span to address the giant pile of Media sitting in physical, digital, and mental shelves. That’s fine, and in a lot of ways it’s healthier to accept that fact than always trying to force something.

Arcanum is one of those exceptions. I still firmly believe that *one day* I will give it another honest shot, even if there’s absolutely no guarantee that I’ll ever finish it. Why? Aside from my general affinity towards Troika’s troika of RPGs, in my mind, Arcanum is “Peak CRPG.” Less from a qualitative perspective and more from a position of raw ambition. Much has been said about Arcanum’s terrifyingly open character development system, the numerous background options, and the varying ways those can play off each other. As a fantasy world in the midst of an industrial revolution, a lot of Arcanum plays off the diametrically opposed status of Magick and Technology, and so too can your character diametrically oppose having an enjoyable handful of opening hours depending on the build you start with. I cannot emphasize enough that Arcanum means it when it says you can have a very different play experience depending on how you develop your character, but that shouldn’t always be mistaken for a positive.

Creating a character and then inevitably restarting a few hours in is something to be expected from games of this era. However, Arcanum’s classless, highly variable spread of stats, skills, spells, and tech recipes all being fed from the same pool of points is intimidating even for someone of my caliber. Yeah, sure, you can probably get away with playing a very straightforward fight-man, but if you want to play anything remotely more interesting it’s going to be an experiment in trial-and-error as you find out that things might not quite be as flexible as they initially appear. You might be tempted to make a gunslinger character, given the game’s novel setting, but most of the early game guns are terrible, ammo is scarce, and For the purposes of these streams, I went with a tech character and a throwing build, which is a decent initial start, especially once you start running around with easily-craftable molotov cocktails, but I only knew about that stuff because I’ve started this game a bajillion times and have looked at guides.

To be clear, you *should* play Arcanum with a guide, in the same way you *should* play Arcanum with the unofficial patch. There’s a lot to see, a lot to experience, and a lot of interesting stuff in this game that I’d like to see one day. But I also think it’s fair to say that you have to squint a little (or a lot) to see the kind of game its proponents tout it as, and I’m not just talking about things like the clunky UI, the intimidatingly open structure, or the bad, clusterfuck-y combat that is neither good real-time or turn-based. Arcanum is promise, it is potential, and it is, ultimately… something you’ll probably hear more from me about because I cannot escape that siren song.

Blue Dragon

Throwing one out to all my homies trying to break into the Japanese Game Market with earnest but mediocre attempts
Throwing one out to all my homies trying to break into the Japanese Game Market with earnest but mediocre attempts

Developer: Artoon (with oversight by Mistwalker)

Release Date: August 28, 2007

Time Played: A little less than two hours

Dubiosity: 2 out of 5

DragonQuestosity: Undeniable

Would I play more? NOPE.

I’ll spare you a repetition of my “Hey the late 00s and early 2010s were a rough time for console JRPGs” spiel that accompanied my write up on Enchanted Arms. Instead I’ll say that this period is also a pretty fascinating one, all things being equal. I’m not just saying that because this is also PRIME REAL ESTATE for both my idiot streams and our idiot podcast (I’m saying Eternal Sonata has been discussed with some seriousness) but also because you can see the same kind of weird experimentation and ambitious ideas of the PS1 and PS2 era coming to a head with technical, financial, and design limitations imposed by the shift to HD consoles. Remember how developing Final Fantasy XIII was so expensive for Square that they had to make two drastically different and extremely weird sequels? I sure do! Imagine how much more of a problem that was for developers and games who didn’t have that kind of Final Fantasy money!

Speaking of Final Fantasy, Hironobu Sakaguchi is a man of many talents, such as “being a Champagne King,” “burning giant piles of money to make a movie that almost bankrupted the company” and “creating one of the most beloved video game franchises ever made.” It turns out that imitating his colleague Yuji Horii is not one of them, as Blue Dragon shows. The comparison with Dragon Quest is unavoidable (and I have to imagine intentional?) once you start throwing Akira Toriyama in the mix, and the relative straightforwardness of the storytelling and mechanics seals it. Blue Dragon really wants to be a Dragon Quest sorta thing, with a Final Fantasy-esque job system thrown on top for good measure and a protagonist who said “I won’t give up!” no less than eight times in two hours. It’s weird seeing the amount of production assets, including some very nice-looking cutscenes (3 DVDs worth!) being put into an incredibly… straightforward story? A weirdly paced one, where our initial setup is quickly setup, the group of plucky kids gets their blue stands, and then… JRPG grinding and dungeoneering happen? I dunno man. Once the cutscenes dried up and I could no longer goof on them, I lost interest very quickly.

But actually I think the biggest minus for me here is that Blue Dragon just seems on the competent edge of dull. To reinvoke the comparison I made with Tales of Zestiria, it’s what I thought Dragon Quest was before I played a Dragon Quest game. No amount of generally jamming Nobuo Uematsu soundtrack and tantalizing *job system* prospects can distract from a game that did jack-all to differentiate itself from anything else I’d rather play. With something like Tales I can at least count on the combat being relatively fresh, and with something like Dragon Quest I can expect an aggressive barrage of charm that didn’t quite come through the same way in Blue Dragon. I’m sorry about this one Phil, but I think Lost Odyssey might be the early 360 JRPG that was actually worth them exclusivity dollars. Actually, I take it back. Whatever you paid for this boss theme was worth it.

And that’s it for me this week, but not quite all. You see, during my GB Community Endurance Run stream, we managed to reach the stretch goal to play through the entirety of not one, but TWO of the dubious games I played during those three days of streaming. I’ve already finished Project Snowblind, which is a… baffling disaster, but now the impetus comes to you, dear viewers. Do I stream a playthrough of the “maybe actually totally okay” Hitman Absolution, or do I continue the punishment session and my own tortured relationship with Survival Horror with The Evil Within? VOTE NOW. No seriously, I’m putting up a strawpoll. It’ll be open until the end of the week. You’re welcome.

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Star Ocean III and Anvil of DawnLost Kingdoms II
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The Wheel of Dubious RPGs Episode 33-34: Star Ocean III and Anvil of Dawn.

Before we start, I want to thank everyone who watched and/or donated during my Giant Bomb Community Endurance Run stream. Thanks to your generosity we managed to reach our $15K team goal, and I personally managed to raise more than $680 on my own personal page (which hey, if you feel like making me revisit a previously played dubious RPG you could always donate to reach my goal $800.) I also played through all of Devil May Cry 2 again, which... boy, fuck that whole mess. DMC 2 remains one of the worst games I've played to completion. I also played through all of Project Snowblind, which may or may not end up getting its own little bonus section in the next blog. That game is... a thing.

Star Ocean: Till the End of Time

Till the end of time is just the mostJRPG SUBTITLE imaginable
Till the end of time is just the mostJRPG SUBTITLE imaginable

Developer: Tri-Ace

Release Date: Feb 27, 2003

Time Played: A little over four hours

Dubiosity: 1 out of 5

Should’ve played: Star Ocean IV instead, apparently.

Would I play more? Yes, maybe once I work through this pile of Tales games first.

So we’ve reached the first game for this season that I actually feel the need to eat crow on. Star Ocean has always taken space in the back of my mind as one of those B-tier JRPG series that burnt out during the HD era, which made it seem like the prime candidate for some dubious video game streams. For as much as that still seems to be the case, at least if Star Ocean 4 and 5’s reputations are anything to go by, I clearly picked the wrong game, because Star Ocean: Till the End of Time seems a-ok. Whoops. Accidentally put a normal video game on this here wheel.

Listen man I'm not going to play bedroom police or anything, but to be clear this girl absolutely called your parents
Listen man I'm not going to play bedroom police or anything, but to be clear this girl absolutely called your parents "uncle" and "aunt" and you'd have to excuse me if I derived some implications from that.

I’m not going to overstate how good it is, because it seems like a pretty “of its time” PS2-era JRPG, but aside from this game’s infamous ending twist there’s nothing especially “dubious” about Star Ocean III. After the introduction, where extremely JRPG protagonist Fayt Leingod and his girlfriend and/or cousin(???) Sophia escape a dramatic space inciting incident it kinda immediately turns into a Prime Directive episode of Star Trek but JRPG. Listen I’m not the biggest trekkie in the world, but there’s some fun to be had with a good “Don’t let them know you’re a spaceman even though you crashed in the middle of their city on a spaceship” plotline. Throw in a little bit of anime and boy howdy you’ve got an exciting combination right there.

One of the more interesting revelations I learned from this stream is that Tri-Ace was actually founded by key members of the Tales of Phantasia development team, who left Wolf Team after disagreements with Namco. That explains… a lot about how Star Ocean plays, which really does give it the “Hydrox to Tales’ Oreo'' vibe. Of course, Star Ocean went full 3D long before Tales did, which didn’t really introduce free movement until this season’s Tales of Zestiria, but the fundamentals are astoundingly similar. You have basic attacks that can chain together with proper timing (that I didn’t figure out) or cancel into skills (which I did figure out) and could theoretically engage in the kind of combo and juggle hijinks one would expect from this kind of action-RPG. It’s a bit clonk in the way something like Tales of Symphonia (which came out a year later) is a bit clonk, but I could see said combat eventually getting “pretty good.” Admittedly I’m currently playing Tales of Berseria so it all feels like it’s moving in slow motion tbh

By the end of my four hours with this game I had gone from goofing on Les Cousins Dangereaux and making fun of the audio mix to accidentally getting invested. The english voice acting is occasionally, uh, of the early 2000s Toonami ilk (like, seriously, Wendee Lee is there literally just doing her Faye Valentine voice.) and as mentioned before the Matoi Sakuraba soundtrack is just mixed extremely loud. But even knowing what I know about the absolute batshit ending twist of this game (seriously, it’s the only thing I knew about this one before I played it) I cannot in good conscience say it deserves to be in the company of most of what I’ve played here. Congratulations Star Ocean, you instead get to be part of the same designation as… Nox, earning the coveted(?) 1 out of 5 rating. You’re welcome, and I’ll make sure to find a worse video game to make up for it.

Anvil of Dawn

It's extremely weird that New World Computing was involved in this game somehow.
It's extremely weird that New World Computing was involved in this game somehow.

Developer: Dreamforge Intertainment

Release Date: October 31, 1995

Time Played: A little under two hours

Dubiosity: 2 out of 5

Dungeoncrawliosity: Maximum

Would I play more? Potentially.

Coming from the same developer responsible for that surprisingly neat Ravenloft game from last season comes Anvil of Dawn. This is another game that… probably falls more into the “weird and obscure” part of the Wheel rather than the “questionable” part. I’ve said before that I’m vaguely a fan of the “Real-Time, rock-dropping, side-stepping, square-dancing Dungeon Crawler” (or “Like Eye of the Beholder/Dungeon Master” if you’re boring) and Anvil of Dawn sure seems like a pretty middle of the road “one of those.” However, unlike Stonekeep at no point does it involve FMV or puppets, so I think by default it’s a less interesting/dubious title (even if it sure does seem like a *better* dungeon crawler.) It has some pretty good "vibes" with its combination of detailed spritework and pre-rendered backgrounds, as befitting a mid-90s PC game that managed to avoid the trap of early polygonal 3D.

The way dudes will just turn into skeletons when you kill them is very metal, very good.
The way dudes will just turn into skeletons when you kill them is very metal, very good.

Doing this survey of games has more or less cemented that my preferred stance on this sub-sub genre is that these kinds of puzzle-heavy real-time dungeon crawlers are better off being party-based than having a solo character, even if the end result involves a lot more plate juggling. Unless the puzzle solving holds a significant amount of prominence, I think encounters are a lot more interesting with a varied party than they can be with one character. Playing through Grimrock II last year sort of cemented that idea for me, and it’s one of the reasons why I fell off Vaporum before the end (the other being… that game kinda just runs out of steam halfway through?)

To its credit, Anvil of Dawn’s mechanics are pretty straightforward, with more of the emphasis placed on its very… very involved dungeon layouts. I’m not joking when I say that the starting dungeon took the vast majority of my two hours with the game, and it sure did seem like the second dungeon was going to take longer. That was Mento’s problem with this game, if I recall correctly, and it sure does seem like Anvil of Dawn is Maximally one of those dungeon crawlers. Still, it hardly seems like a bad time, and should I ever get on a serious Dungeon Crawler kick (and, I dunno, play Lands of Lore 1 or Eye of the Beholder or something) this is certainly An Option.

I apologize for the non dubiosity of this batch of video games, and I hope to rectify that with some of the quality video games we have coming up next. If you'd like to see my streams of these games or the archives of said streams, consider swinging by my twitch channel. We have fun here, and if you want to spend an hour watching me agonize over character creation in a game I've described as "Peak CRPG" then I highly recommend you tune in sometime this or next week.

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Suikoden IV and Tales of ZestiriaArcanum and Blue Dragon
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ArbitraryWater's 2021 GB Community Endurance Run Poor Life Choices Plan

Hi Hello and welcome to another exciting installment of “ArbitraryWater plays video games in order to incentivize people to donate money towards charitable causes.” Following my Mass Effect Andromeda hijinks from Extra Life and my RPG Ironman Ironman runs from last year, the time has come for me to ramp it up a notch. Not only is this my second Giant Bomb Community Endurance Run, this also marks the one year anniversary of my poor life choices streaming career in general. So of course, I need to do something on-brand. Thus, it is my great pleasure to announce

THE MINIATURE WHEEL OF DUBIOUS CHARITY STREAM GAMES

No Caption Provided

Because why settle for one questionable video game when I could randomly pick from FIVE? That’s right friends, your donations fuel the blood that spin the wheel and grinds my soul into mush (also, you know, helping build schools and improve education in the developing world.) For every $50 American Dollars donated to my Pencils of Promise page by you, the viewers, I will SPIN THE WHEEL and play at least an hour(ish) of one of five dubious video games all tied together with the loose theme of “disappointing successors.” That’s right, our contenders for “what bullshit did I spend far too much time trying to play nicely with OBS” are

  • The Evil Within - Tango Gameworks. Shinji Mikami’s return to the genre he helped create is a messy-as-heck combination of veteran game design and just the worst, most frustrating garbage imaginable. Boy howdy I’m so excited to play through the terrible introductory hours of this game on stream.
  • Blood 2: The Chosen - Monolith Software. Following my playthrough of Blood this year, clearly the next logical step is to play its disappointing sequel. You know how Half Life and SiN were the big flagship shooters of holiday 1998? Blood 2 also came out around then. Maybe a secret pilot episode for The Wheel of Dubious FPSes? (probably not)
  • Mighty No 9 - Inti Creates. The video game that kinda murdered Big Video Game Kickstarter. Will playing it make me cry more than an anime fan on prom night? Fun fact: I never went to Prom.
  • Project Snowblind - Eidos Montreal. The game that was, at one point, going to be Deus Ex 3 before hastily being changed to something unrelated before release. Given that I already streamed a playthrough of Invisible War this year, I honestly wonder how Project Snowblind could top it.
  • Hitman Absolution - IO Interactive. I’m to understand you don’t get Hitman 2016 without Absolution, but that sure doesn’t fill me with excitement. It also tripped my antivirus software for some reason!

Five Games with a $250 goal means each game is guaranteed to get some play. But what would any stream be without dumb gimmicks?

GIMMICKS

You too, Dear Viewer, could force me to subject myself to
You too, Dear Viewer, could force me to subject myself to "one of the worst games I've played to completion." Again. For Charity!

$0: First Round, Totally Vanilla

$50: Vtuber Round. Are you ready for at least an hour of almost nothing but Vtuber talk? I know you are. Want me to stop? THROW MONEY AT CHARITY.

$100: Fire Emblem Round. An inexhaustible supply of pointless knowledge and discussion about the Fire Emblem series, directed entirely at myself and the three people in my chat who have played Thracia 776

$150: Positive Round. Almost nothing but nice things to say about whatever I’m being subjected to.

$200: Open Mic Round. I will sit in an open discord chat room and let YOU nightmare people co-commentate with me. Or chat about whatever. Depending on how this goes this might extend past this round.

$250 (GOAL): Oh, what’s that? What do you mean I’ll run out of games when we reach $250? Guess I’ll just have to play Devil May Cry 2 instead.

Stretch Goals

You could subject me to playing through all of The Evil Within, which is not a great video game, on stream. For Charity!
You could subject me to playing through all of The Evil Within, which is not a great video game, on stream. For Charity!

$350: OVERTIME: what’s that, you want me to stream a few more hours?* Ok. I reserve the right to switch to a “bonus game” as a palette cleanser.

$400: OVERTIME 2: What’s that, you want me to be on the hook for finishing one of the five games (of my choosing) on stream at a later date? Ok.

$500: Let’s Rock Baby! I’ll finish Devil May Cry 2 on stream, which means playing through with both Dante and Lucia. This game is short as hell and it’s quite possible I might finish all of it during the marathon, at which point we’ll switch to a bonus game.

Super Duper Stretch Goals (not exactly expecting to get close to these but hey why not dream big)

$600: OVERTIME 3: I will finish another one of the games on the wheel, on stream, at a later date.

$800: OVERTIME DELUXE: I will revisit one of the games I’ve previously streamed on ANY of my dubious wheels, with a vote to be taken at some point in the future. Is it finally time for the full ArbitraryWater playthrough of Ultima IX?**

$1000: HELP: I will finish all of Devil May Cry 2 on stream as Trish, which requires me to play through the game again with Dante on Hard. So I will have to play this game four times. If it reaches this, you will both have my gratitude and my enmity.

When can I watch these wonderful streams?

Well, I will be streaming all weekend, THIS weekend at twitch.tv/arbitrarywater That’s right; twelve hours, all three days.

Friday, April 9: 3PM PDT- 7PM PDT

Saturday, April 10: 1PM PDT- 5PM PDT

Sunday, April 11: 8 AM PDT - 12PM PDT with an option for overtime*.

*: Depending on how I feel by the end of twelve hours of streaming, I reserve the right to relegate overtime streaming to another day. For better or worse, I have a job that requires me to speak into a microphone for multiple hours, so I’d rather not strain myself if speaking into a microphone is causing issues. Similarly, I reserve the right to end my stream at any time if anything major comes up, but we’ll probably be fine.

**: to be clear I’m also not on the hook for a full playthrough of ANYTHING if we reach this goal. Just another stream. Maybe two, if I’m feeling spicy.

So please, come around this weekend, watch me punish myself, and maybe throw a few bucks towards helping build schools in Guatemala, Ghana, and Laos? I’ll leave my donation page up through the end of the month, so even if I don’t reach everything during the marathon there’s still plenty of time to ensure I end up doing things I will end up regretting later. So, hey, did I mention you can DONATE?

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The Wheel of Dubious RPGs Episode 31-32: Suikoden IV and Tales of Zestiria

Suikoden IV

ArbitraryWater playing a less-beloved installment in a long-dead PS2 franchise? Is it a day ending in -y?
ArbitraryWater playing a less-beloved installment in a long-dead PS2 franchise? Is it a day ending in -y?

Developer: Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo (KCET)

Release Date: August 19, 2004

Time Played: A little over two hours

Dubiosity: 2 out of 5

Random Encounter Rate: 108%

Would I play more? It might eventually happen for the podcast, but I’d be lying if I said I was relishing coming back to this one.

It’s once again totally coincidental that both games in this week’s write-up fit a specific theme, namely “disappointing installment in long-running JRPG franchise.” Gensou Suikoden is a series I’ve always wanted to get into, but haven’t yet found the time and/or willpower to do so. It’s beloved for its ensemble cast, surprisingly nuanced worldbuilding, and the general nostalgic desirability that comes from being a dead-as-hell cult franchise. Now that I am both on a podcast about playing RPGs and own every game in the series (big shout out to @sparky_buzzsaw for selling me his copy of Suikoden V) it seems more than likely that will happen in the relatively near future. Will I be a bad enough dude to stare at character recruitment guides so I don’t miss any of the 108 stars of destiny? You’d better believe your ass I will.

But that’s for the future. Now is Suikoden IV, which is generally considered the “black sheep” of the series. At least, by the people who don’t consider Suikoden III to be the black sheep of the series, but I played that game nine years ago and liked it so it’s not getting covered. It’s the naval one! With the boats! Also it takes place like 150 years before the rest of them, so it’s also a prequel? Anyway, as silent anime protag-kun (whose canon name is the impressively Suikoden-esque Lazlo En Kuldes) you start out your general anime career as a Boat Knight before getting saddled with The Rune of Punishment because your best friend was a cowardly weiner. That’s about as far as I got, but if it’s anything like the rest of the series I bet there’s probably intrigue and JRPG mechanics aplenty. This is definitely another case where the introductory hours might not be a great window into the game as a whole, and there’s absolutely a non-zero chance I might eventually come around on it if/when I give it a serious look.

So then, what’s the immediately dubious thing about this game anyway? Certainly, it doesn’t look especially amazing for a late-era PS2 title despite having progressive scan support, but I’ll chalk some of that up to the particular quirks of my capture setup. Instead, the clearest and most evident red flag is that the random encounter rate in Suikoden IV is… egregious. As someone who has liked some difficult, decidedly *crunchy* dungeon crawlers and RPGs in my day, there’s a balance to be maintained with games like this, and Suikoden IV does not do that. I sure did spend the majority of these first two hours hitting the “auto” button against packs of ravenous seaweed every three feet while on the open ocean. There are few ways to drain my patience faster, but for what it’s worth there doesn’t seem to be anything else especially concerning about Suikoden IV. I think this might be one that’ll get revisited at some point, so look forward to it.

Tales of Zestiria

Tales of Zestiria: Less Bad than Symphonia 2, but also less hilarious.
Tales of Zestiria: Less Bad than Symphonia 2, but also less hilarious.

Developer: Bandai-Namco

Release Date: January 22, 2015

Time Played: A little over two hours

Dubiosity: 3 out of 5

Borediosity: 5 out of 5

Would I play more? What if I played literally any of the other Tales games I owned instead? Like, any of them.

I’ve oft-described Namco’s Tales series as “Comfort Food JRPGs.” For better or worse, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get with each installment, even if the nuances and particulars vary pretty wildly from game to game. Given that I own like nine of them now, I think I’m definitely coming up on playing through another one… or at least picking my 30 hour Tales of Xillia save from two years ago back up. I think we’re just about due for some more Linear Motion Battles, demon fangs, various air juggles, and speeches about the power of friendship sometime soon. Just… Just not this particular flavor. This Tales tastes like store-brand vanilla.

Tales is a lot like Final Fantasy in that most of the flagship titles have their adherents and defenders, but I don’t exactly see a ton of advocates for Zestiria. In fact, the game did poorly enough to warrant the quick turn-around of the far better-received Berseria only 18 months later. What’s the problem? To sum it up succinctly, Tales of Zestiria is the literal incarnation of what I thought Dragon Quest was before I played one*. Based on those introductory hours (and what people have told me about the rest of the game, tbh) it might just be the dullest and most trope-laden JRPG I’ve seen for a while. My tolerance for anime bullshit is pretty high these days, but this… this is one of the more boring introductions to a video game I’ve played for this feature. Not necessarily hot garbo, per se, but compared to how some of the other flagship Tales games have introduced themselves it was enough to almost make my sleep-deprived self doze off.

There's also the matter of this game setting up Alicia as a major character and then throwing her off to her own paid DLC side-story about a dozen hours in, but a more fervent Tales fan than I might be able to explain that more fully.
There's also the matter of this game setting up Alicia as a major character and then throwing her off to her own paid DLC side-story about a dozen hours in, but a more fervent Tales fan than I might be able to explain that more fully.

There’s some real, uh, quality English VA and localization, complete with a series of Proper Nouns that one of the commenters in my chat said sounded like they came out of a ProZD sketch. THE LORD OF CALAMITY gotta be defeated by THE SHEPARD who uses the power of ARMATIZATION with SERAPHIM. Listen, all you need to know is that Sorey is the super duper pure-of-heart protag-kun with the personality of a limp noodle even by Tales standards. The boy makes Jude from Xillia seem like a font of dynamism by comparison. He, along with his invisible water spirit boyfriend Mikleo and probably a similar group of ragtag invisible people are gonna perform fusion dances and save the world from demons or some shit. Like, you can already write half of it in your head just from my description, right? Admittedly a lot of Tales storytelling is held up by the quality of the supporting cast, who tend to start out fairly trope-y before being fleshed out into full characters. However, the point I’m trying to make is that if this introductory sequence was supposed to sell me on anything, be it the premise or the cast, then it failed miserably. Yuri Lowell is an immediately interesting character. Sorey (which is not pronounced like how Canadians say "sorry" but is instead given a bit of a flourish. Soar-Ay.) is not.

Probably also worth mentioning, that while I didn’t really get in-depth with it in my stream, everything I’ve read about the game’s equipment leveling system sounds like a *real fuckin mess.* It’s wordy and complex enough that I don’t feel like restating it here, but I highly suggest looking up the specifics if you’re interested. It’s one of the more baffling, ass-backwards implementations of a loot system I’ve seen in an RPG of any kind. The other big shift from previous Tales games concerns yet another revamp of the battle system, which I didn’t get far enough with to feel comfortable going on about, other than “hey it’s cool that basic attacks and special attacks are now considered separate artes and can be mixed and matched.” The one interesting thing that Zestiria has going for it is that Sorey (and Rose) are able to fuse with their elemental spirit buddies and go full SSGSS Vegeto (or Gogeta?) up in this business, but I imagine that won’t be for at least a couple more hours of me being bored out of my skull. Anyone who’s played a game in this series before knows that it’s going to be a few hours before you get enough attacks and abilities to do anything other than mashy-mash… and at that point why don’t I just play Berseria? Or hell, even Graces F, which I’ve heard has the best combat and the single dumbest story in a mainline Tales game! That sounds like a challenge to me. Just.... just please don't make me play this game for the podcast, @jeffrud. At least the opening song is a banger.

*: To be perfectly honest, I dunno if I'm gonna be any sort of long-term Dragon Quest stan in the way someone like Tim Rodgers is, but hot damn if DQ XI wasn't the most charming-as-fuck thing. It's just a little too straightforward and not degenerate or weird enough to have totally encapsulated my attention. I'll probably get back to it the next time I'm stuck with just my Switch.

SO that's it for me. At least for this week. Next week might be a little messy with prep for the GIANT BOMB COMMUNITY ENDURANCE RUN, which you can once again look forward to my participation in. More details soon. Wheels are involved.

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Enchanted Arms and King's Field: The Ancient CityStar Ocean: Til' the End of Time
16 Comments

The Wheel of Dubious RPGs Episode 29-30: FromSoftware DOUBLE SPECIAL

Enchanted Arms

A perfectly normal RPG about an anime boy with a doom arm who punches pizza golems
A perfectly normal RPG about an anime boy with a doom arm who punches pizza golems

Developer: FromSoftware

Release Date: August 29, 2006

Time Played: About Two Hours

Dubiosity: 3 out of 5

Problematicosity: Significant???

Would I play more? Yes?

It’s kind of serendipitous that the first two games for Season 2 of the Wheel of Dubious RPGs: “This time I have console stuff I paid too much money for” are both beloved(?) From Software classics(?) To be frank, if I had the capacity and willpower to make a randomizer wheel entirely out of dubious and non-dubious FromSoft games from the 90s to the mid-00s I’d do so, because their games can never be accused of being boring. Playing through Lost Kingdoms last year was a good example of that. That game has one cool, weird concept with its real-time card battle stuff, and it tries to ride that out for like 7-8 hours. It doesn’t quite succeed, but it’s neat that it tries.

Enchanted Arms definitely feels more like a fully-realized video game than Lost Kingdoms, albeit one that still has plenty of signature FromSoft quirk. This is one of the first games to come out of Microsoft’s short-lived attempt to court the Japanese market by throwing money at JRPG developers for exclusivity, and uh… It sure does look like a Playstation 2 game that had its assets hastily retouched and upscaled for 720p. That wasn’t an uncommon thing for games during the transition to HD, but it’s a look I find both ugly and endearing. So what is Enchanted Arms? It’s kinda, uh, Pokemon? But with a combat grid that sorta reminds me of Mega Man Battle Network? There are attacks and positioning and moving around and you can combo things? It seems cool! I sure didn’t need to engage in any nuance or monster building during my time with it, but I can see how Enchanted Arms could be a good time. Eventually.

Makoto is A PROBLEM
Makoto is A PROBLEM

So, hey, moreso than a lot of other kinds of games for this feature, I feel like the introductory hours of a JRPG like this are perhaps not entirely indicative of the full thing. That’s something that might be addressed later down the line, and I’m not opposed to doing follow-up streams of games that catch my interest, such as this one. As Shounen God Hand Imbecile Atsuma and his two friends(?) I managed to skip school, get into a fighting tournament, and then accidentally awaken an ancient evil or something, all within the span of a little more than two hours. There are pizza robots, there is hilariously bad English voice acting, the soundtrack is characteristically eclectic, and there is just the worst/best outfit design. It’s equal parts intriguing and baffling, and I absolutely would not mind seeing more.

Now, to discuss the weird, rainbow-colored elephant in the room, it’s fair to say that Enchanted Arms’ sense of quirk extends into “Problematic” territory. The game itself is fucking weird in a way I can get behind, but the exception is Makoto, one of the three immediate main characters, who such an over-the-top flamboyant gay stereotype that it almost goes into unintentional parody territory. Like, you know how Sylvando in Dragon Quest XI is awesome? Well, what if Sylvando was terrible? And pervasive? It’s a lot, and occasionally a reminder that 2006 was *a long time ago.* It sounds like he doesn’t get any better, either, which is definitely one of those things that puts a damper on my enthusiasm to play more.

Still, if nothing else, Enchanted Arms definitely seems… memorable in a way that might need some future investigation. I haven’t played enough to tell you if it’s good or bad, but it’s absolutely functional and at least mildly dubious in a way that catches my interest. I’m not sure if I want to invest the time to see if this promise bears fruit, especially since it apparently doesn’t start getting “great” until a dozen hours in, but I will never count a revisit out.

King’s Field: The Ancient City

This IS your daddy's dark souls
This IS your daddy's dark souls

Developer: FromSoftware

Release Date: March 25, 2002

Time Played: About 90 minutes

Dubiosity: 4 out of 5

Darksoulsiosity: Notable

Would I play more? Unironically yes.

So hey, King’s Field, huh? I finally played one of those on stream, specifically the last one. It’s kind of impossible to avoid this, so I’ll get it out of the way: King’s Field (and a lot of other early FromSoft RPGs, like Shadow Tower) offer a pretty clear window into how games like the Souls series came to be. The lineage is evident. I’m gonna try and avoid just saying IT LIKE DARK SOUL, however, because I feel like that kinda downplays what King’s Field is actually doing, which is more than just being a proto-Souls game. What is it doing? Confusing and infuriating me, mostly.

Now, for what King’s Field 4 is, at least from my 90 minute punishment session, is that it’s essentially a first person RPG whereupon you strafe around monsters and hit them whenever your stamina bar is at max. It’s weird, atmospheric, and inscrutable, but it’s also a clunk-ass video game even by the standards of the early 2000s. There’s no getting around the fact that it’s a first-person game that hasn’t quite moved on to dual stick control, and instead uses L1 and R1 for strafing. Alongside your character having roughly the turn speed of a forklift, you aren’t exactly moving at a rapid clip, even when sprinting. It’s a… deliberate game, to put it lightly.

It’s a game that I find equal parts intriguing and irritating, but I think it’s something I could get into if I was in the right frame of mind. And maybe staring at a walkthrough or a map. I know that sense of discovery is often something that Souls adherents swear by, but I find this game crosses my personal level of tolerance pretty hard. I dunno if there are game-critical hidden walls the same way there apparently are in the first two Kings Field games, but if I *were* to stream myself playing this, you can rest assured that my only way of doing so is by ruining the magic as much as possible.

And that’s it for this week! In case you haven’t heard, I’m on a podcast now with ZombiePie and JeffRud called OFF THE DEEP END, whereupon we cover a bunch of weird RPGs in-depth. We’re currently playing through Xenosaga Episode 1, and just recorded our second episode on it. That game… it’s a lot. Like, A LOT. Consider giving it a listen, we’re gonna be covering a lot of fun stuff in the future as part of an off-week program for the main Deep Listens podcast. Who knows, I might even stream some of them!

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Matt Rorie's Alpha ProtocolSuikoden IV
7 Comments

The Wheel of Dubious RPGs Episode 28: Alpha Protocol (Season 2 Premiere!)

Alpha Protocol

Uh so hey remember how I didn't like this game 10 years ago? It turns out I still don't much care for it.
Uh so hey remember how I didn't like this game 10 years ago? It turns out I still don't much care for it.

Developer: Obsidian Entertainment

Release Date: May 27, 2010

Time Played: About Nine Hours

Dubiosity: 4 out of 5

With All Apologies to: Matt Rorie

Would I play more? I beat the game. I don’t think I’m gonna play it again anytime soon.

To open Season 2 of everyone’s favorite Streaming/Blogging feature about playing the weird, obscure, and questionable representatives of the RPG genre, I ended up replaying Alpha Protocol. Despite not being the biggest fan of it back when I played it in 2011, over the years I’ve softened on AP, a lot of it having to do with a very rose-tinted view of its ambition and much-vaunted reactivity. There’s a lot of it that sticks out as interesting and unique, especially after BioWare’s reputation took a calamitous drop in the years following. I’ve always wanted to root for Obsidian as the scrappy underdog of RPGs, and for the most part I think that reputation held true right up until the Microsoft acquisition. You might have to squint a little, install a fan fix or two, but outside of Dungeon Siege III I don’t think you could accuse any of their games of being anything less than *interesting*.

To its credit, the timed dialogue prompt is one of those things I wish more games borrowed from this one
To its credit, the timed dialogue prompt is one of those things I wish more games borrowed from this one

Unfortunately, I’m here to say that I was right the first time. For as many interesting ideas as it throws out, Alpha Protocol isn’t a great game. That was sort of the consensus back then, but the bigger surprise in this most recent playthrough was seeing how little of the runtime is comprised by the stuff people remember fondly. Aside from the general tenor of Alpha Protocol very much being influenced by the geopolitics and espionage thrillers of the 2000s, it’s going for a pulpy tone with the writing that I found really hard to deal with. There is a concerted level of snark coming out of any of Michael Thorton’s three conversational styles (square, slimeball, sociopath), as well as most of the supporting cast that feels… maybe a little too much of its era? Basic cable? It’s not as sharp as it seems to think it is, and the embarrassing polar bear rape jokes and eye-rolling characterizations don’t really help either? It has a solid voice cast, outside of Michael’s VA having zero direction beyond a general layer of smarm, so it's mostly not a performance issue. I'm just a little past the kinds of highly pastiche'd espionage fiction archetypes this game traffics in, especially when it comes to the female characters. There are moments for sure, but a lot of them are drowned out

I'm sorry to keep using pictures of Thorton over here, but the amount of douche energy you can have the man radiate is impressive.
I'm sorry to keep using pictures of Thorton over here, but the amount of douche energy you can have the man radiate is impressive.

Now, the good news is that Alpha Protocol’s much-vaunted reactivity is still quite impressive, even if it’s a lot easier to see the strings. The funnel isn’t quite as obvious as Telltale’s various game series, but it’s a lot more evident when you realize exactly how much of the game is exactly the same regardless of the choices you make. Characters might make different comments, story events might play out slightly differently, and the ending can take a few dramatic turns if you basically follow a guide to get super-rare events to happen. The context might be different, some sequences might be easier or harder, there are a few optional boss fights, but you’re doing the same levels regardless. Even with that said, it’s still impressive to see all the ways the pieces can fit together. There was a lot of care put into making the game feel like it's constantly reacting to everything you've done, and if I hadn't soured on the general concept of "Your Choices have Real Consequences" in the aftermath of Mass Effect 3 and Telltale's various games, I think I'd still be enamored with it.

The part where you played AP wasn’t great in 2010 and I’d go as far as to say it’s barely functional in 2021. I’m not going to hammer on it too much because I feel like that’s almost included in its reputation, but it's a poor video game that looks bad, animates awkwardly, and is beset by egregiously bad minigames. Shooting bad, stealth OP, AI bad, pistols OP, bosses bad, etc. There’s enough recorded evidence in the form of my entire playthrough to make that point clear. At best, it’s something to be tolerated, but even when things are functioning like they’re supposed to (which, to be clear, they’re often not) it’s a breadth of ambition curtailed by the realities of budget and game design. And not in a fun, Eurojank sort of way. Two Worlds this isn’t, and I’m sorry to say that if you have fond memories of Alpha Protocol, it might be worth it to keep those memories locked as they are. If you do end up deciding to revisit it (which, given that it was pulled from Steam due to expiring music licenses and Sega not giving a shit, might be more or less difficult depending on where you want to play it) don't say I didn't warn you, but I'm also not closed to the idea that some enjoyment could be derived from it. It just didn't really hit for me.

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT

Thankfully, with that pain out of the way, I am excited to announce THE WHEEL OF DUBIOUS RPGs SEASON 2, back again with another 20* weird, questionable, and obscure examples of the role-playing genre. Not only am I back with some CRPG “classics” that were overlooked in season 1, but also some “high quality” console and Japanese RPGs for the first time! That's right, all the bullshit I spent months planning, all the older PS2 games I have my hands on, all the console streaming solutions I've acquired... lead up to this. You're Welcome.

  1. Beyond Divinity
  2. Underworld Ascendant
  3. Konung
  4. Elder Scrolls Battlespire
  5. Anvil of Dawn
  6. King’s Quest VIII
  7. Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura
  8. Tales of Zestiria
  9. Legend of Dragoon
  10. Siege of Dragonspear
  11. Code Vein
  12. Lost Kingdoms II
  13. Suikoden IV
  14. Final Fantasy Type-0
  15. Shadows Awakening
  16. Enchanted Arms
  17. Star Ocean: Til the End of Time
  18. Blue Dragon
  19. The Last Remnant
  20. King’s Field: The Ancient City

*Titles are subject to change if I can’t get shit to run properly with OBS or my Elgato.

That’s right. It’s back. It’s better than ever(?) and I hope you’ll join me along the way starting next week. Look forward to it. Shadow Hearts write-up soon? Maybe?

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Storm of Zehir and Might and Magic IXEnchanted Arms and King's Field: The Ancient City
19 Comments

ArbitraryWater's Favorite Games of 2020 (that didn't come out in 2020)

Hi Hello and welcome to the true Game of the Year blog; the one that matters. For you see, during my many mythical journeys to escape the real world, I played many a video game that did *not* come out in 2020. In some ways, is this not the true game of the year list, unconcerned with time and space and merely quality? No? Well, in any case, these are games I played a significant amount of during 2020 for the first time and liked enough to cobble together in a vaguely ordered list. Before that though, some things need wrapping up:

THE YEAR OF STRATEGY

2020 was also the YEAR OF STRATEGY, not just because of my hit streaming series “Totally Tactical, Somewhat Strategic” but also because… it was very easy to distract myself from the world plague and the fascism and whatnot with in-depth strategy games. My official Tier List is, as follows:

Top:

1. Greenskin Rework

2. Troubleshooter

3. All the new stuff with AoW Planetfall (Shakarn/Oathbound)

High:

1. WH40K Mechanicus

2. Fantasy General II

3. WH40K DOW II Retribution

4. Phoenix Point

Mid:

1.Wood Elf Rework

2. WH40K Gladius

3. the 40 or so hours I spent replaying King's Bounty: Warriors of the North

Low:

1. Realizing that you cannot play Total War Atilla like Warhammer or else you're gonna have a bad time

2. Gears Tactics

3. Chimera Squad

Need to play more:

Fae Tactics

Thea 2: The Shattering

Berwick Saga

Worst Game(s) I Played To Completion This Year: Onimusha Warlords and Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge

The solution to expanding the appeal of your notoriously difficult video game franchise is of course to add a thousand quick time events.
The solution to expanding the appeal of your notoriously difficult video game franchise is of course to add a thousand quick time events.

Outside of the truly wretched titles experienced during the hit streaming/blogging series The Wheel of Dubious RPGs, I’ve been pretty good about avoiding the things I didn’t like in 2020… with the grand exception of the two titles listed above. To be frank, Onimusha might be one of the more miserable game experiences I had this year, and I finished it in one sitting. You might think I’m exaggerating, but honestly this early PS2 game felt like the malformed, bastard half-step between Resident Evil and Devil May Cry, neither being a great action nor survival horror/adventure game. As someone who likes both character action and survival horror games, it hit the exact sour spot between those two genres… while still being exactly short and evocative enough for me to see it to its conclusion. Its combat is clunky and difficult, but not especially deep, and aside from the infamous “water room” sliding tiles puzzle most of its adventure game elements are straightforward.

I can’t speak to the rest of the franchise, which somehow managed four installments over the PS2’s lifespan, including a Smash Bros-esque spinoff and one inexplicably co-starring Jean Reno, but this is one of those cases where I feel like coming to something outside of its original context was nothing but detrimental. Given my recent ill-considered retro purchases, I’m probably the last person who should be saying this, but there are cases where certain things are better left in the past. I imagine Onimusha was a technically impressive, entirely acceptable showpiece for the new PS2 when it came out in January of 2001… but nah. Nope. Not a fan. At least I accidentally got the speedrun trophy without trying.

Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge, is a more “interesting” case, inasmuch as it’s less of an awful game and more of a band-aid over a gaping wound. If Resident Evil 6 is my personal favorite poster child for everything wrong with AAA video games during the 360/PS3 era, then Ninja Gaiden 3 is now a close second. In a misguided attempt to appeal to a larger (Western) audience, the developers at Team Ninja decided the things Ninja Gaiden really needed were an abundance of cutscenes, quick-time events, and scripted bullshit. The franchise whose core pillars are ninjas, demons, boobs, and some combination of the three, does not, in fact, need a deep and involved storyline that tries to make Ryu Hayabusa feel guilt for murdering a buncha people. Nor is Ninja Gaiden 3’s storyline worth anyone’s time or effort. But hey, if you want another game from the early 2010s starring Troy Baker, where you can shake the Dualshock 3 to make the boobs jiggle, it certainly spends more oxygen on those things than is ever necessary.

Now, I played the “Razor’s Edge” version of the game, which is the “fixed” version that added things like “more than one weapon” and “more than one nimpo” and also, inexplicably, “a handful of levels where you play as Ayane.” With these additions, Ninja Gaiden 3 more closely resembles a worse version of its predecessor (which in turn was a worse version of its predecessor) and at its best it can still be very satisfying to murder hosts of dudes in the excessive, violent fashion that Ryu Hayabusa is known for. I’ve made my pro-Falcon’s Talons and Lunar Staff agenda abundantly clear at this point, and am more than happy to admit that when Razor’s Edge just gives you a dumb combat arena to murder hosts upon hosts of military soldiers, ninjas, and demons it’s still capable of being fun. The problem is, much like RE6, there’s almost always something dumb getting in the way, like a bad boss fight, a bad scripted sequence, an insta-death QTE, whatever. Ninja Gaiden 3 is a reminder that even a solid core combat loop, something that works fine in the context of a survival mode, cannot save a game if the rest of it is poor. So yeah, like Resident Evil 6 I guess.

Visual Novel of the Year: Umineko When they Cry

A perfectly normal story about normal people and no witches whatsoever
A perfectly normal story about normal people and no witches whatsoever

Like most Visual Novels, it’s hard to talk about what makes Umineko so great without getting into deep spoilers. It’s the follow-up to Higurashi: When they Cry, although outside of some references and metatextual stuff you’re not going to miss much. The basic premise is “Wealthy family gathers for their annual conference on a remote island during a hurricane. Witches Ensue.” though to call that the tip of the iceberg is perhaps an understatement. It’s a dense take on the murder mystery (and sometimes horror?) genre that goes some truly anime batshit crazy places, but in a good way. Over the course of its 80+ hour run-time, you’ll know far more than you’d ever want to about the Uroshimiya family, locked room mysteries, and fanbase in-jokes like “tiny bombs” than you’d ever want to. For as much as it leans into being maximally “anime” a lot of the time, it never reduces its characters to tropes, and it doesn’t flinch from some of the grisly and upsetting subject matter it delves into (and, for the most part, manages to handle pretty deftly.)

Sure, the pacing over those eight episodes is occasionally kind of terrible. There are a handful of moments that drag on forever, but I do think the end result is worth it. It’s commitment, and I understand the apprehension of wanting to get into something so long, but unlike Higurashi you don’t have a half-decent anime adaption to fall back on. I highly recommend looking up the 07th mod, which adds in the PS3 portraits and voice acting. You haven't lived until you've heard Beatrice say the words "USHIROMIYA BATLERRRRRR." C’mon, you’re still stuck inside, what else are you going to do with your time?

Replay of the Year: Pillars of Eternity

No Caption Provided

I replayed a decent number of games in 2020, including the original Resident Evil 3 (it’s still “fine”), Dragon Age Origins (which inspired me to write a 5,000 word retrospective) and even Ocarina of Time, sort of. Before we move on, I just wanna say that Master Quest is weird. It does some interesting things with its dungeon remixes, like having you go through Dodongo’s Cavern backwards and forcing you to do things with OOT’s mechanics that are only lightly touched on in the base game. That said, limited by the exact same level geometry as the base game means some of the things that Master Quest does feel very ROM hack-y. Which, fair, it is exactly that, and it’s been a much more interesting revisit in this context. But I’m talking stuff like being able to ignore 80% of the Fire Temple because the boss key is in one of the first few rooms (the rest of the dungeon is mostly just for Skultillas.) As a way to replay Ocarina of Time, it was favorable to playing through a game that is hard-wired into parts of my memory; especially with the 3DS version also mirroring the entire world. As something I’d put among the pantheon of 3D Zelda games? Eh, not so much.

But I digress. After working out my complicated feelings with Dragon Age, I decided to revisit a more recent favorite, my 2015 Game of the Year, Pillars of Eternity. On top of finding out that the review I wrote five years ago is no longer accessible, it turns out I might like the original Pillars of Eternity more than I did back then. It might start slow, and the combat sometimes descends into moderate clusterfuck in a way its sequel is better about, but I will continue to say it’s easily one of my favorite CRPGs. Divinity OS 2 might be the best CRPG of the last decade and a poster child for what the genre is capable of, but my heart will always be with Real Time w/pause.

There’s a pervasive sense of melancholy to Pillars’ world that I appreciate, intertwined with a lot of historically-informed worldbuilding. For as much as it takes its cues from Baldur’s Gate and the rest of the Infinity Engine, that’s probably the biggest difference, and one of the things that seemed to throw people off the most. Well, that and the fact that some of the characters you get early on kinda suck. Part of it might be the person who wrote the original draft of those characters souring my perception, but both Durance and Grieving Mother reflect the worst inclinations of Chris Avellone’s writing style. They’re both overwritten in a game where the best characters are a tad reserved, and they’re both very good at saying very little with a lot of text. Perhaps more interestingly, I finally played The White Forge DLC and it’s… actually very good? It’s a little awkwardly shoved into the main story, difficulty wise, but in terms of RPG expansion content it’s the fun Icewind Dale throwback we all needed, with a lot of good, tough enemy encounters and dungeon design.

I also played through most of Pillars II again, but I don’t have as much to say about it beyond what I said about it in 2018. It’s a better game than the original in a lot of important ways, except maybe the main story, which falls a little limp. Hot damn, it’s pretty, and hot damn it’s got a lot of really good, well-written RPG machinations. Do you like commentary on colonialism? I SURE DO. That’s not sarcastic. I was a history major. Anyway, Pillars is still good, fight me, etc.

Will 2021 be the year I finally get through all of Pathfinder Kingmaker? (probably not. Excited for Wrath of the Righteous though)

Ongoing Game of the Year: Total War: Warhammer II

Total War Warhammer II is very good and I like it a lot if you haven’t noticed. Anyway onto the main list:

10. Best Substitute for a Fourth or Fifth XCOM 2 Playthrough: Phoenix Point

If it sounds like an XCOM, and it kills like an XCOM, and it's from the guy who made XCOM, son, that might be an XCOM.
If it sounds like an XCOM, and it kills like an XCOM, and it's from the guy who made XCOM, son, that might be an XCOM.

Phoenix Point launched in late 2019 in a state that, generously, could be called “hot out of the oven.” A year later, it’s in much better shape, and it’s a lot easier to recommend Julian Gallop’s new take on the franchise he helped create. In practice, it’s something of a middle ground between classic X-COM and nu Firaxis-era XCOM, with the additional gimmick of having manual aiming circles instead of percentile chances to hit. As a result, it’s a tad more finicky and involved compared to the basic flow of Enemy Within and War of the Chosen, but it’s also a lot more precise? There’s a decent amount of strategy in regards to taking targeted shots at vulnerable enemy body parts, and in general it’s not a terrible idea to reserve enough action points after taking a shot to get behind cover. On the overworld map, a lot of it is about juggling affinity from three opposed factions, all of whom have drastically different tech that heavily informs playstyle. New Jericho has bigh guns and heavy armor, Synedrion has precision weaponry and tricky tech shit, and the Disciples of Anu have viruses, mutations, and close-quarters dominance.

It’s also more willing to get mean in a way I appreciate, with a lot of missions being about getting in, finishing the objective, and getting out while enemy reinforcements constantly spawn. It’s not quite XCOM 2’s literal mission timers (which I’m also a fan of) but your soldiers also don’t get absurdly, dangerously overpowered in the same way as they can in those games. Instead, enemies get stronger variants as time goes by alongside your own technological advancements. It’s an interesting inversion on the usual XCOM difficulty curve, which tends to start high, before dropping and plateauing around the time you get access to lategame tech. I was genuinely kind of excited when the game started kicking my ass, and even at their most powerful your soldiers are still far more vulnerable and disposable… kinda like in Old X-COM. There’s a reason why they give you up to nine deployment slots. (protip: vehicles are super useful early on)

Where Phoenix Point started to fall down the rankings for your’s truly mostly has to do with structural stuff. The DLC included with the “Year One Edition” is awkwardly integrated and can be easily ignored if you don’t know what’s there. Perhaps more distressing is how much of the mid and late game turns into a game of whack a mole with haven defense and Pandoran lair missions. Like XCOM Enemy Unknown, Phoenix Point uses prefab level layouts instead of the procedurally generated ones of XCOM 2, which means you’ll be seeing a lot of the same maps as time goes on. You do this *a lot* (the easiest way to get resources is by farming Haven Defense missions) and so *a lot* of the later game is doing the same handful of mission types in the same handful of map layouts and… it really started to break me. It’s not like there isn’t variety either, between human enemies and even ancient alien robots. Dunno if the solution is some sort of auto-resolve, or cutting down on the most extraneous stuff, but after a point I just wanted to see it over. Given that it’s on Game Pass, I still highly recommend giving it a shot if you’re interested, but just be warned that it never quite reaches the level of refinement that Firaxis’ own efforts have reached. Still would rather play it than Xenonauts though.

9. Best Missing Link I didn’t know existed: Dino Crisis 2

No, I will not be playing Dino Crisis 3 anytime soon
No, I will not be playing Dino Crisis 3 anytime soon

So, around the same time I played through Onimusha and Ninja Gaiden 3, I also played through both the original Dino Crisis and its sequel. Dino Crisis 1 is an… interesting game, and as Shinji Mikami’s attempt to mix up the formula he popularized with Resident Evil, it has a lot of ideas. I’ll be frank here and say that in this case, interesting does not mean good, and most of Dino Crisis’ best ideas (using laser fences to keep raptors out, branching story decisions that determine gameplay sequences, still heavily emphasizing resource management) are crowded out by most of that game being kinda boring. When you’re not evading and/or shooting various dinosaurs in order to deal with crises, the vast majority of Dino Crisis is spent solving keycard cipher puzzles in extremely grey industrial and laboratory environments. It’s not a particularly great Resident Evil game in that sense, and while I’m glad I finally played it I also don’t think I’m really interested in playing it again.

Dino Crisis 2, on the other hand, is a late-model PS1 game that more-or-less throws any veneer of survival horror out the window in exchange for being rad as shit. It really does feel like an unsung middle step between old and new Resident Evil, complete with a Mercenaries style combo counter for chain-killing dinosaurs, which you can use to upgrade your weapons for better mercenaries-ing. There’s still a puzzle that needs to be solved, sometimes, and environments that need to be navigated, sometimes. There’s a turret sequence, like twice. But mostly, it’s a 5 hour don’t stop for nothing dinosaur blasting party whereupon the Crisis of Dinosaurs is solved not with the worst word puzzles, or even laser fences, but instead a sassy red haired lady (and also some dude named kevin) constantly moving forward and shooting the raptors in their faces. 10/10 would play again.

8. Second Best Time with Da Boyz: Warhammer 40K Dawn of War II: Retribution

WAAAAAGH
WAAAAAGH

Sure, while the Greenskin Rework is the clear and obvious winner of 2020’s Year of Strategy, I can’t not get by without discussing my time with Dawn of War II, which as I’ve been reminded, remains a personal favorite in the RTS genre. Having finally gotten around to playing Retribution, I’m still a big fan of the way DoW II handles its micro-heavy squad tactics, and even the Retribution campaign’s vague backtrack towards being a little more like Dawn of War 1 doesn’t change that. As someone who isn’t great at real-time stuff, it’s the one style of that genre I’ve retained any serious fondness for (well, outside of Total War, which is very much its own thing), and in particular Dawn of War 2’s constant forward momentum and focus is the exact brand I’m looking for. On normal it’s rarely relentless enough to overwhelm my weak-ass sensibilities (“Why isn’t this turn-based? Where’s the pause button to issue commands?”) but for the most part cannot be solved by right-clicking your squad onto whatever enemy is closest in range. Most of the time.

More importantly, you can finally play campaign as a faction that isn’t those damn vanilla, boring-ass Spayce Muhreens. While Retribution’s overall campaign structure is mostly the same regardless of who you pick, it’s kind of delightful to pick the Orks and have them spend the entire campaign barely understanding what’s going on. Honestly, I highly recommend it, and depending on how things go I think I could see myself streaming the original Dawn of War II campaign one of these days. It’s a good time. Pity they never made a sequel.

7. Best Not Actually A Horror Game: F.E.A.R. FIRST ENCOUNTER ASSAULT AND RECON

"We saw The Ring and said what if we made a shooter that sometimes referenced that?" - Some guy at Monolith in 2005, probably.

FEAR is a game that operates on exactly one volume, and that’s loud. It’s a game where you clear out dilapidated urban environments by slow-mo jumpkicking clone soldiers, and every now and then a vaguely spooky thing (that is also loud) will happen. For as much as that gameplay occasionally feels one-note, it’s built on a combat loop that works, and still works well. As one of the last big dedicated PC shooters of the 2000s before everything became made for consoles, it’s a definite artifact of its time, but in a good way? FEAR doesn’t care about turret sequences, or platforming, or really any sort of gameplay variation beyond dealing with squads of heavily armed enemies in mundane looking nighttime environments and blasting them into various forms of red mist. There are some really fun, goofy weapons in FEAR, between akimbo pistols, a high-powered laser rifle that just disintegrates whatever you hit, and a nailgun that pins enemies to walls in a ragdoll physics-y way that reminds you of 2005.

In a modern context it’s easy to see some of the strings that pull FEAR’s much vaunted enemy AI, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to see how enemies react to stuff like your flashlight, or try and flush you out of cover with grenades. More importantly, it’s the kind of hyperkinetic, violent, decently fast shooter that I tend to gravitate toward these days. You can’t exactly go in full DOOM guns blazing, but it’s just as willing to reward aggression as it is holding back, playing defensively, and trying to pick the enemy off at range. There are lean buttons, which is how you know it was made for PC. Is it scary? Hahahahaha no. The real scary part of FEAR is the part where, due to legal reasons, you have to separately download a DirectX fix to make it not stutter all the time assuming you’re running a processor newer than a Pentium IV. But of course, given my travails getting older games to run in 2020 gave me plenty of experience for this one. Maybe I'll give FEAR 2 a look. Third one sounds like a trainwreck, but why not give Project Origin a spin?

6. Best Sequel to a Game that came out in 1995 and only I’m into: Fantasy General II: Invasion

Hey we're into rebooting things from the 90s, right? Well, there you go.
Hey we're into rebooting things from the 90s, right? Well, there you go.

Who asked for a sequel to Fantasy General? You know, Fantasy General, the fantasy-themed Panzer General spinoff that SSI put out back when SSI was still a company? Apparently someone did, because a mere 24 years later a sequel was manifested into existence, courtesy of publisher Slitherine and Germany-based developer Owned by Gravity and… true to its name, it is, in fact, a sequel to Fantasy General. You know, that game that you’ve heard of, definitely got on GOG for free at some point and haven’t played? Well, I’m here to tell you that Fantasy General kicks ass, and its sequel, following up on many of the same concepts of the original, also kicks ass. Like, man, I could go off for a while about how much I like that original FG, and how it’s one of those unsung tactics games that deserves more love. Apparently, given the baffling existence of this sequel, I guess someone in Europe agrees with me.

Fantasy General II is, in some ways, the anti-Troubleshooter. It ignores a large chunk of the last 20 years of strategy games in favor of hyper-focusing on a refined version of the original in the way it operates, without many distractions outside of the hexes in front of you and the dudes to move around those hexes. It’s a lot like the wargames of old in that way, with a series of interlocking rock-paper-scissors relationships between units informing who you should move onto which hex to do what. You’ve got berserker viking men who are the damage dealers, the armored viking ladies for holding chokepoints, archers for arching (also defensive ranged support) giant eagles that drop explosive barrels, artillery trolls just kinda hanging out, skirmishers, etc. It’s can definitely be taken as being a tad simplistic, but it’s just a really solid meat and potatoes sort of strategy game in a time when I needed something like that in my life.

It also helps that the campaign is surprisingly decent on its own, with a lot of hand-crafted scenario design and even the occasional “story decision” that informs which hero characters come and go with your party. It’s not gonna win any awards for storytelling, but at the very least it’s a solid alternative to the more procedural games on this list. Check it out! There's a pretty lengthy demo on steam, if you're interested.

5. Best Deckbuilding Roguelite of the no less than four of those I have played this year: Slay the Spire

"Don't put me in your Magic draft" - me

For as much as I like Monster Train, because I can win more than once in a blue moon, I fully admit that the superior deckbuilding roguelite I played in 2020 is probably still Slay the Spire (Also? Second most played switch game this year after Ring Fit.) Quite frankly, I think it’s a bastard and I think I’m still dumb and bad at deckbuilding, but I’ve managed to beat it enough times to say that it’s at least doable. Perhaps more impressively, there's a lot of thought put into the interplay between the different classes, the relics you acquire, and the enemies you face. Moreso than just about any other game this year, it was the one that led to multiple "oh shit, it's 2 AM" moments for me, after claiming that I'd only do "a few runs."

4. Most Visually Striking Throwback Shooter: Amid Evil

JUST LOOK AT THIS
JUST LOOK AT THIS

I’m on the record as liking fast, hyperkinetic bullshit shooters, and also on the record as liking a lot of these throwback games more than the games they’re actually throwing back to. What, are you seriously going to tell me, in the year of our lord 2021, that the single player campaign for Quake is worth my time? Should I torture myself with Hexen’s nonlinearity? Is Turok surprisingly alright on a PC at an acceptable frame-rate? Is Duke Nukem 3D a depressing relic of a time long past that just so happens to have some neat stuff in it? (there’s a reason why Ion Fury is not on this list and Amid Evil is.) Should I consider playing Blood? What’s a PowerSlave anyway? Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight? Should I just stream myself futzing around with old shooters?

Anyway, Amid Evil distinguishes itself with a bunch of cool, visually striking rasterized 3D models turned into sprites and trippy arcane-ish environments. It’s not quite as creative with its level design as DUSK, nor does it lean on the horror elements, but it’s a beautiful, fast shooter with a bunch of cool and weird Heretic ass magic weapons. The rocket launcher shoots exploding planets! That’s great! It’s fast and colorful and has ray tracing support and now I have a computer that does that stuff, it’s very, very pretty. Sometimes that’s all I want. There’s really not a ton else I can say in that regard? It’s good.

3. Best Tactics Game that Actually Manages to Do Something Other than Imitate Nu XCOM: Warhammer 40K Mechanicus

Everyone say it along with me:
Everyone say it along with me: "For the Omnissiah"

So I think the reason I’ve put Mechanicus here, above everything else involved in the YEAR OF STRATEGY is partially due to novelty and its own scrappy indie cred. Of the approximately fourty-thousand Warhammer 40K games made in the last handful of years, this is the one I’d point to and say “Yes, you should play this one. Also Gladius is neat, I guess.” Also, for once, it’s a game that doesn’t give me a half-shield icon when I’m next to cover. As someone who has been into “shit like this” for a while, it’s definitely more than a little baffling to see exactly how influential XCOM: Enemy Unknown has been for the last eight years of turn-based tactical combat. I am, as constantly mentioned, a generous advocate for XCOM in most of its forms (see: Troubleshooter on the other list) but sometimes I wish tactics devs would be a little more adventurous instead of taking those mechanics as granted.

So, obviously, the game of note this time around is notable entirely because it doesn’t do any of that shit. Warhammer 40K Mechanicus combines turn-based tactical fights with some Darkest Dungeon-esque exploration mechanics, pitting the Martian Techpriests of the Adeptus Mechanicus against the denizens of a Necron tomb world. If that sounds like gobbledygook, all you really need to know is that cyborg priests are fighting robot skeletons for technology and stuff. The longer you explore a Necron tomb, the more its inhabitants awaken, and the more you’ll have to deal with as you delve deeper. Of course… there’s often valuable technology or short-term boosts off the beaten path, with some “choose your own adventure” style dilemmas thrown in for good measure.

As mentioned, Mechanicus is very un-XCOM in how it flows. If you have line of sight and are within range, you’ll always hit barring special circumstances, so it’s not really about dice rolls. Instead, I’d say Mechanicus’ biggest aspect is managing a finite but replenishable shared resource between all of your units, which is required to activate most weapons and abilities. In addition to your techpriests, who can be equipped and leveled up as you see fit (hot tip: maybe don’t have more than one melee character) you can also spend deployment slots on more disposable Mechanicus troops. The Necrons, on the other hand, will just keep coming, and will even revive themselves if you don’t do a double tap. Now, this is the part where I fully admit that Mechanicus does betray itself as a smaller-budget indie thing, but I think it does a lot with the little it has. Yeah, environments tend to repeat, and there isn’t a ton of enemy variety (well outside of the DLC missions where you fight other Mechanicus forces) but it was my strategy game of choice during the early months of the year. To be frank, I think Mechanicus is both more interesting than XCOPS and less bloated than Gears Tactics (which, to be clear, would be a better game if they cut out the side missions.)

Also just wanna shoutout the soundtrack, which is rad. What does futureman robot cult sound like? This, apparently.

2. Best Game I Should’ve Played More of At Release: Legend of Grimrock II

video game is good
video game is good

The secret upside to my Extra Life stream where I played Mass Effect Andromeda was remembering that Legend of Grimrock II is the best Dungeon Master/Eye of the Beholder “real-time rock dropping, square-dancing, side-stepping” game of the modern era. Not that it has much competition, anyway, outside of stuff like Vaporum and Aeon of Sands. For as much as the CRPG genre has flourished in the indie space, I don’t see a ton of dungeon crawlers in this style out there, which makes Grimrock II stick out even more.

What makes Grimrock stand head and shoulders above its predecessor? Scale, I think. While Grimrock 1 was a straight floor-to-floor crawl to the bottom, its sequel expands and opens up in a way that’s genuinely impressive. After getting through a handful of opening areas, you’re greeted with several paths forward and only the vaguest of guidance on where to go first. That means if you’re stumped, stuck, or getting murdered in one environment, you can take a step back and poke around somewhere else. There are secrets, weird little puzzles, and straight up cool hidden shit in every corner of the map, and some of it is hidden well enough that discovering it makes me feel like the smartest human alive. The combat is still a whole lotta square dancing, and the game does its best to be surprisingly… demanding, on that front?

In any case, it’s definitely on the backlog shortlist to finish in 2021. Not gonna claim I’m going for all the secrets, but it's at least more likely than some of the longer things out there.

1. 2020’s 2019 Game of the Year (and also 2020’s Game of the Year That Didn’t Come Out in 2020): Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

As good of a #1 pick as anything.
As good of a #1 pick as anything.

Now to be fair I could be pretty generous with most of this list and admit a lot of things on here could probably be rearranged. This is not an order I feel especially strong about, so feel free to adjust the rankings presented herein to suit whatever headcanon you need to get through the day. However, I do want to recognize Bloodstained as being shockingly good despite taking forever to coming out and having its share of development difficulties. In a post-Mighty no 9 world, Koji Igarashi managed to actually make a good Symphony-em-up, and in a lot of ways that’s exactly what I wanted when I played it… at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020. Hey man, it barely missed last year’s list, so it’s gonna make this year’s.

One of my favorite things about Bloodstained, actually, is the way you can break it and become absurdly powerful at your own pace and leisure. If you wanna speedrun, it’s good for that, if you wanna grind out a bunch of overpowered abilities and materials, it’s good for that, and if you wanna solve weird sidequests and cooking recipes, it’s good for that. It’s a kitchen sink mentality to Metroidvania design that I appreciate, even if any one aspect is probably done better elsewhere (note to self: maybe stream Super Metroid? And have people yell at me?) and, perhaps more appreciatively, it’s a video game-ass video game. Sometimes ambition is less exciting than doing something comfortable very well, and in that sense Bloodstained is what I needed at that particular time and place. But also, let’s be real, if repeating games weren’t disqualified the answer would still be Total War Warhammer II.

And that’s it from me, only two weeks late! If Giant Bomb can do their GOTY in mid-January, so can I. Look forward to more dumb hijinks from me in the future, either here, on my twitch channel, and… potentially elsewhere? Things are gonna be exciting.

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ArbitraryWater's Favorite Games of 2020 (that came out in 2020)

Sorry this is a tad late, but between accidentally spending too much time re-ranking the factions of Total War Warhammer II and various Holiday-related hijinks, it took me a bit longer to put this out than I would've liked.

Introduction

I don’t feel like I need to express how bad 2020 was for a lot of reasons, between the world plague and the fascism, and the deep psychological scars that have probably been inflicted because of both. So instead I’ll focus on the positives for this one, because the last thing the internet needs is another lengthy dissertation on how much everything sucks. Video Games! I sure did play a lot of them this year, for some reason. Hell, I played enough games that came out this year to do an obligatory ranked top-10 list of my favorites! But before I get there, I wanna talk about a few miscellaneous things in particular.

I got into Internet Streaming

If you want to know about how much I paid for a copy of Xenosaga Episode III, feel free to check eBay prices and then question my judgement
If you want to know about how much I paid for a copy of Xenosaga Episode III, feel free to check eBay prices and then question my judgement

So hey I’m basically on my way to Ninja-esque Twitch stardom, with the action figures and the blue hair and the questionable takes on twitter. It turns out OBS is surprisingly(?) easy to use, which helped lead to my most significant, and dumbest, coping method during the hellscape that was this year. I started in April for the GB Community Endurance Run, raising like $500 for Direct Relief, which felt pretty good for something that involved dying over and over in the opening hours of Temple of Elemental Evil. Since then, over the course of six months, I struggled with and waxed poetic about no less than 27 dubious RPGs; somehow gaining enough followers to monetize my Twitch profile. That’s right, you there reading at home could use that free monthly sub you get from Amazon Prime and give it to me to help me pay for more rare PS2 games grad school. I won’t write your name on a beer can or anything and I probably won’t show my face, but I’m also not too good to say “what if you gave me money” while I play weird-ass strategy games or 15-year-old JRPGs. I usually stream a few times a week, often in the evening, and it’s something I’m gonna be doing while it continues to make sense. Join me, won’t you?

I got into Vtubers

Okay so here’s the thing about Vtubers. They’re just internet streamers, but with an extra layer of artificiality that comes from having a Live2D avatar of an anime girl and being “in character” to one extent or another. I’m not going to pretend that the industry doesn’t seem partially shady, especially when it comes to the already questionable parasocial dynamics inherent in streaming, and the bigger agencies like HoloLive definitely seem more than a little shady or careless in the way they present their talent. On the other hand, I think it’s kinda great that streamers (especially female ones) can set up an extra barrier where they don’t have to be judged or creeped upon for their appearance. I see you, grasping your cane and shaking it at the sky because it’s new and scary and anime is for perverts, but I’m here to say that “Actually Vtubers are good.” Anyway, between Hololive EN and Giant Bomb this year somehow got me into watching Minecraft streams, which is maybe one of the last things I was expecting. Sure, my youtube algorithm is forever shit, but who cares when you’ve got that Yubi Yubi?

I built a computer

So hey for as much as this year has unsurprisingly sucked shit for numerous reasons, it’s turned around somewhat in the last few months. Part of that entirely has to do with my apparent uncanny knack for obtaining rare consumer products, which is my way of saying “I managed to get a 3060ti” and “I managed to get a Playstation 5.” Do not resent me for this, my wallet already does so. Between these two things I’m thankfully set with video games for the next 3-5ish years, and I’m very excited to not have to mess around with any of it until absolutely necessary. That said? Putting together the computer was a lot easier than I thought it would be. Turns out most modern PC components are idiot proof enough that you can’t put them in the wrong way, so that’s good. Also I’m poor now. Rich in processing power? Sure. Yes. But poor in monetary terms.

And now to my top 10, vaguely ordered video games in a way that I'd probably re-arrange multiple times if given the opportunity, starting at 10 and working our way up.

10. Resident Evil 3

No Caption Provided

In the same way that the original Resident Evil 3 feels a bit slight and lesser compared to the original Resident Evil 2, so too does the RE3 remake feel a bit slight and lesser compared to the RE2 remake. It’s a hyper-linear roller coaster ride of a game, where the titular Nemesis is less of a persistent threat and more of a scripted obstacle to occasionally get blowed up by an especially quippy Jill Valentine. However, for as much as the game feels slight, and reeks of squandered potential, it’s also mostly killer, little filler. It never stops for nothing, which makes it a good speedrun game, and indeed seems made for those kinds of multiple replays. It’s a good time, even for as much as I think $60 was perhaps a little too steep for the type of experience it offered. Like the game it's based on, it's abundantly clear that this was a stopgap side-project on the way to something much larger, but hopefully RE VILLage will be better than Code Veronica, eugh. Have I mentioned that I still rank Code Veronica as the worst old-style RE game? Because I do.

Just know that the weird multiplayer thing, RE:Resistance, does not factor into this at all, and if anything is the opposite of a value add. It’s an interesting idea done poorly, thus kind of cementing the fact that Dead by Daylight is the only good asymmetrical multiplayer thing.

9: Troubleshooter: Abandoned Children

If you're gonna take one thing away from this list, it's not that you should play Hades, a boutique indie game that's already sold over a million copies and you've likely heard of. It's that you should check out weirdo Korean XCOM.
If you're gonna take one thing away from this list, it's not that you should play Hades, a boutique indie game that's already sold over a million copies and you've likely heard of. It's that you should check out weirdo Korean XCOM.

As the obligatory “ArbitraryWater gets excited about a weirdo strategy game that you’ve never heard of” pick for this year, Troubleshooter is basically weirdo bonkers bananas Korean XCOM meets Final Fantasy Tactics. Similar to Eador, a previous pick of mine, it’s a strategy game that very explicitly draws from eighteen other things and somehow manages to balance it out without collapsing under its own weight. Managing a guild of crime-fighting anime teendults involves a lot of different things, it turns out, between various skill layouts, class layouts, item crafting, side missions, etc etc. It’s a lot, but it also parcels out its mechanics slowly enough for you to get a grasp on it before it escalates. I haven’t even seen the monster taming or robot building mechanics yet, 20 hours in, so needless to say it’s a slow burn. There’s even pointless online integration that… hey, it’s neat that they did it?

It helps that the game’s translation is janky in an endearing, rather than frustrating way. It has a lot of storytelling, and while I wouldn’t say it’s *great* storytelling, it is, at the very least, earnest. Which is how I’d characterize Troubleshooter as a whole, actually. Quite frankly, it shouldn’t work as well as it does, burying the player with subsystem under subsystem in a way that barely holds together, but of the many contenders for the YEAR OF STRATEGY gold medal, it’s definitely up there. Genuinely, if anything I’ve written sounds interesting, consider giving it a look. I’ll definitely stream it at some point as well. Really, the only reason it's not higher is because there's still so much of it I haven't seen yet (also it's occasionally clunky and not great at giving feedback, but I'll chalk that up to scrappy indie ambition)

8. Doom Eternal

No Caption Provided

Doom Eternal is great 80% of the time, which is less than Doom 2016, which was great for 100% of the time. However, for as much as I think Marauders suck and the story is a miss, and the last boss is a tedious mess, I cannot deny that Doom Eternal has optimized the combat resource management loop of its predecessor to a laser point, and when everything flows together it’s a lot of fun. I think I’d rather do another Dubious RPG wheel, rather than play the new DLC missions, which apparently throw things like “two marauders” at you, but I don’t regret the time I spent. It's sort of depressing that the sequel to my favorite game of 2016 has fallen so far, but on the other hand I think it was always going to be difficult to follow up that lightning in a bottle quality that its predecessor had going for it.

Besides, we all know that the real hotness these days are retro throwback shooters. This is my yearly reminder that DUSK is awesome and you should play it.

7. Monster Train

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Listen man, I thought I was done with Roguelites and run-based stuff outside of my annual “play Tales of Maj’eyal for a few hours every year.” But it turns out if you pair that shit with deck building you can absolutely trick me into putting dozens of hours into more of them. Monster Train isn’t even the highest ranking “one of those'' for me this year! It just so happens to be a very good fusion of deckbuilding roguelite with tower defense with art that looks like a bad mobile game. It’s not as harsh as Slay the Spire (which may or may not be on a *different* list), as devilishly simple as Dicey Dungeons (which I'ma be honest I'm not sure is grabbing me), or is as stylish as Griftlands (which is still in early access) but it was a very good way for me to spend like 30 hours during the particularly rough periods of this year. There are a lot of fun, weird deck synergies to be had, and perhaps most importantly, I haven’t lost horribly nearly as much as some other deckbuilding roguelikelikes.

Anyway it's on GamePass you cowards, so try it out already.

6. Deep Rock Galactic

Do you like satisfying gameplay loops that are fun and challenging without feeling too repetitive or boring? Than let me tell you about SPACE DWARVES. more fun to play than the Dwarfs in Total Warhammer, that's for sure.
Do you like satisfying gameplay loops that are fun and challenging without feeling too repetitive or boring? Than let me tell you about SPACE DWARVES. more fun to play than the Dwarfs in Total Warhammer, that's for sure.

So hey, I don’t think it’s a particularly controversial statement to say that there were points in this year of 2020 where I didn’t want to think particularly hard about anything. Deep Rock Galactic is the cooperative shooter/miner we all need, and a game that balances the intense horde-management of a Left 4 Dead or Vermintide with chill mining and terrain navigation. It’s procedural in a way that was very calming for me, and the way the four classes synergize together makes coordinating with a team of four a lot of fun. There’s some fun mission variety, and the devs have done great work giving it support, and it was a thing I was able to convince my friends to buy. So 3/3 in my book. ROCK AND STONE.

5. Final Fantasy VII Remake

Hey does it make me basic if I say I also main Cloud in Smash Bros?
Hey does it make me basic if I say I also main Cloud in Smash Bros?

As the obligatory “Game I haven’t finished yet but like enough to put on the list” I’m here to tell you that the remake of Final Fantasy VII is somehow the single best thing that has been done with the franchise for the last decade (outside of the MMO space, at least.) Even as someone without much particular reverence for the original, at least outside of cultural osmosis, I got some secondhand nostalgia vibes from it, as goofy as that sounds. FF VIIR is aware of the original’s significance, but expands upon it in a way that works. Sure, the dialogue is occasionally stilted and awkward, but also the characterizations feel earnest and justified. I mean, hell, they got me to care about Jesse, Biggs, and Wedge, which I wasn’t expecting.

It’s also maybe the first time that Square has managed to actually nail the balance of their more recent brand of plate-spinning action RPG combat (well, I like Lightning Returns, but I’d be lying if I said that game’s combat was *without problems.*) I have no idea if they’ll be able to continue the hot streak in the inevitable part 2 or even FF XVI, but it’s the most… optimistic I’ve been about something from the franchise, and maybe Square-Enix’s japanese output in ages? Other than Kingdom Hearts, of course, which has fully transcended into beautiful madness with the implications of that DLC ending.

4. Black Mesa:

Ohhhhhhh! So that's why people like this game!
Ohhhhhhh! So that's why people like this game!

So hey, you may have forgotten, given that it was in early access for like 4 or 5 years, but Black Mesa technically came out this year! So hey, I’m probably 22 years late to the party on this one, but this Half Life game is actually very good. It’s one of those things where, even knowing I’m playing a highly polished fan remake, I can see immediately why the game made the impact that it did in 1998. Even removed to a modern context, the campaign in Black Mesa is a fun, varied FPS campaign that rarely overstays its welcome. It’s got satisfying weapons, strong atmosphere, and only rarely requires the player to interact with physics to solve puzzles.

That said, Black Mesa rarely overstays its welcome, because the new Xen chapters, which as far as I know were created from scratch, are about twice as long as they should’ve been. I’ve never played much of the original, so I can’t speak to the comparative quality, but I can say that these new sequences are both impressive and excessive in their execution. One gets the impression the devs maybe put a little too much on their own plate for their own good and could’ve used an editor, but even with this caveat Black Mesa is absolutely one of my favorite games of this year.

3. Wasteland 3:

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So you might know this, but I have played a CRPG or two in my life, and I would like to say that Wasteland 3 is the best “one of those” to have come out in 2020. Not that it has much competition outside of the very unfinished Baldur’s Gate 3, mind you, but this is the first RPG from InXile that feels like it’s actually managed to reach its potential. After the ambitious-but-rough Wasteland 2, the disappointing Tides of Numenera, or the profoundly middling Bard’s Tale, it seems pretty clear to me that the Microsoft acquisition only helped Wasteland 3. Not only is it the closest thing you’re ever gonna get to a new classic Fallout game (outside of smaller indie stuff like Underrail and Atom RPG) but it also manages to establish its own identity, with some sharp, clever writing and combat that is “totally fine, for the most part.” Bonus points for only taking me somewhere around the 30 hour mark, which I appreciate as someone who always loves these games in theory but can rarely be arsed to finish them unless I’m on a particular hot streak.

It’s not afraid to get messy, or delve into the unfortunate implications of its world, but does so while also having one of the major factions be a cult of people who worship a Ronald Reagan AI as a god. It’s not quite Tyranny in this respect, but it does its best to make you feel less than great about some of the decisions you have to make along the way while balancing it out with the goofy shit. And for the most part, I think it actually manages to do it. Even if the influx of Microsoft cash pushes them towards more mainstream styles of RPG, I’m looking forward to seeing what InXile does next.

2. Nioh 2:

Expect my... thoughts on Ninja Gaiden 3 Razor's Edgecome the next blog.
Expect my... thoughts on Ninja Gaiden 3 Razor's Edgecome the next blog.

So hey, remember how I liked Nioh a lot? Well the sequel is more of that, and also good. They’ve added like four new types of weapons, a bunch of yokai abilities, and the ability to play as a created character instead of William, but… to be perfectly honest, it’s just kinda that game again. Which works out for me, given that Nioh is easily my favorite non-souls soulslike and fits all of my venn diagrams perfectly. I really don't have much else to say about it other than the problems that were there are still here (late-game loot grind, the story is complete nonsense, there are maybe too many subsystems) but also the parts that are good are still great, and in some cases even better. They added fist weapons in the most recent DLC, and you'd better believe your ass I've been punching things to death with as many moves from Ninja Gaiden 2 as they can legally put in there.

1. Hades

hey, if you gave your mainsteam AAA prestige games about sad dads and angry lesbians a better combat loop maybe they'd make it onto the list next year.
hey, if you gave your mainsteam AAA prestige games about sad dads and angry lesbians a better combat loop maybe they'd make it onto the list next year.

Hades is absolutely one of those games that works as a cohesive whole far better than any of its individual elements would suggest. It’s a solid run-based brawler thing that takes the best elements of both Bastion and Transistor, but with the additional wrinkle of also having a massive, raw abundance of writing and character work. It’s quick, it’s reactive, and has a lot of fun combinations between various boons, weapons, and artifacts. I’m not going to say all the writing lands, but there’s so much of it that it bowls you over with sheer volume. It's more-or-less what you'd expect from SuperGiant at this point, but this is the one that finally feels like it's all come together in a really amazing way.

Now, to be clear, I think I’d probably be willing to put any of the top three games on this list in any order; I don’t feel particularly strongly about Hades being #1. But hey, I figure I might as give Hades its due. It doesn’t exactly have the same long-tail that a lot of other Roguelikes have, but that’s because it’s designed to be seen to the end by just about anyone, which I appreciate.

Game Number Eleven: Calladuty Black Ops Cold War

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I cannot in good conscience put a Call of Duty game on my Top 10, especially given that Cold War is probably a worse game than Modern Warfare was a year ago on numerous counts. But I'd be lying if I said the higher Time to Kill in the multiplayer wasn't working out in my favor, finally allowing my geriatric reflexes more of a chance than MW's multiplayer ever did. Also, to be frank, the campaigns for these games are still bad and feel half a decade out of style, but there's something almost comedic about how tone-deaf committing war crimes for President Reagan feels given what has happened in the last *vague gesticulating.*

Games that might’ve qualified if not for the cutoff date: Demon’s Souls Remake and Astro’s Playroom

So hey I’ve got that PS5 and it good but also it would feel weird to put Demon’s Souls on here knowing that it’s just a very pretty version of a game from 11 years ago that I’ve only put a few hours into. Similarly, Astro’s Playroom is kind of an amazing tech demo, as far as showing off the various quirks and tricks of the DualSense controller while throwing in a bunch of charming-ass Playstation deep cuts along the way. It’s fun and it’s neat and it didn’t cost me anything so kudos to it for that.

Don't worry. The *true* list for 2020 is coming soon. uh. Soon enough.

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ArbitraryWater's 2020 Game of the Year Awards BONUS: Ranking of Warhammers Revised

GOTY 2020 BONUS: Ranking of Warhammers revised

The image you see on your screen is not a simulation. It's something that I did once, god have mercy on me. Yubi Yubi.
The image you see on your screen is not a simulation. It's something that I did once, god have mercy on me. Yubi Yubi.

Hello and welcome to the start of ArbitraryWater’s 2020 Game of the Year Championship Awards. No anime blog this year, because I’ve barely watched any anime in the last handful of months, but just assume that it would be me constantly yelling “Watch Legend of the Galactic Heroes (the original, not the remake) you coward” over and over again while I continue to contemplate ending my VRV subscription.

So instead, before I throw down my very important, very professional, and doubtless very long write ups on my favorite games of 2020, both those that came out this year and those that did not, I thought it was time to continue talking about the game I played the most of this year. Sure, Dead by Daylight is up there, that new Calladuty is alright, and I definitely put some time into Age of Wonders Planetfall, but it turns out I’ve ended 2020 the same way I started 2020: with a bunch of Total War Warhammer II. Since my three-part, Dickens-length (no seriously, it’s like twice as long as the undergrad thesis I wrote to graduate college) rankings in January, things have changed; both the game and my opinions. So, without much adieu, I present my revised rankings of the fifteen factions in Total War Warhammer II… because I’ve had a lot of time on my hands this year.

If you need a refresher on the factions individual mechanics, or just need to hide from family during holiday festivities, consider giving my original ranking blog series a read as a companion piece to this.

15. Warriors of Chaos and 14. Beastmen

Somewhere a chaos lord is crying tears of fire and blood at how boring he is to play. Please save us, Daemons of Chaos
Somewhere a chaos lord is crying tears of fire and blood at how boring he is to play. Please save us, Daemons of Chaos

These two factions remain at the bottom, probably because hordes are boring and also bad. I haven’t really messed with either since my last blog, but that’s the stance I’m gonna stick with. Hey, at least there’s hope for game 3, right? Seems like people were into the way hordes were treated in Total War Troy, so that’s a good sign for the future.

Best Legendary Lord(s): Archaeon the Everchosen and Malagor the Dark Omen are both scary casters who are capable of going in melee alright.

Worst Legendary Lord(s): Sigvald the Magnificent (give Slaanesh’s stupendous, serf-slaying sire some significant support, posthaste!) Kazrak One-Eye (Just super vanilla)

13: Dwarfs

Dropped a whole five spots? That's worthy of a grudgin'
Dropped a whole five spots? That's worthy of a grudgin'

Over time, I’ve come to realize that the Dwarfs, while an effective, straightforward faction, are also not actually all that fun to play as in campaign. Part of that has to do with their fairly limited playstyle, being almost entirely defensive to a fault, but it really doesn’t help that post-Greenskin and Wood Elf rework, they feel increasingly left behind when compared to the other old world factions. The runeforge is nice and all, but it’s just another faction’s mechanic with a slightly different skin. Meanwhile, they sure are a pain in the ass to fight *against* what with the endless lines of hard-to-break infantry. Easy to flank, sure, but even then the stunties take forever to rout.

Here’s hoping the potential introduction of Chaos Dwarfs (which are like Dwarfs but eeeevil) in game 3 gives them some room for differentiation. Heaven knows they need some.

Best Legendary Lord: I mean, still have to go with my man Ungrim Ironfist, the Slayer King. Sure, slayers are a situational-as-hell unit who are very good at doing and taking damage, but also who else am I gonna pick? Grombrindal? PFFFT. (Give Grombrindal an unique start position plz)

Worst Legendary Lord: Bellegar Ironhammer’s 50% upkeep penalty until he captures Karak Eight Peaks more or less means his campaign is a dead sprint to build up a big enough stack to retake it. Just look forward to Skarsnik dropping on you with like three 20 stacks of goblins, which no amount of ghost uncle can really deal with. Like, he’s meant to be a challenge, but he’s not fun.

12: Brettonia

Listen man, it's fun to roll around with an army that's half cavalry, but that sure does make going against armies that are full of spears zero fun.
Listen man, it's fun to roll around with an army that's half cavalry, but that sure does make going against armies that are full of spears zero fun.

Despite dropping a place since January’s rankings I’ve definitely grown to appreciate Brettonia a more in the time since. They’re the most focused faction in the game, but between the chivalry mechanic, knightly vows and the split between peasant/industrial economy, they have more going on than I originally gave credit for. That doesn’t really change the fact that their roster is painfully limited in a way that gives them legitimate problems when dealing with some other factions. Yeah, they’ve got some *very good horses* but yo they sure do struggle against anything with remotely competent anti-large capability. Also I’m bad at cavalry micro.

Best Legendary Lord: Repanse has an interesting start position in both Vortex and Mortal Empires + actually makes Brettonia’s bottom-tier garbage infantry usable. Definitely the closest the game has managed to shore up the faction’s shortcomings.

Worst Legendary Lord: Alberic de Bordealux is probably the worst Legendary Lord in the game right now? While his faction bonuses toward trade are actually very nice, as a combat lord he’s barely better than his generic counterparts and doesn’t have much else to differentiate himself.

11. Norsca

When you wanna burn the world down but don't want to deal with painful horde mechanics
When you wanna burn the world down but don't want to deal with painful horde mechanics

Once you get to this point I’d call all of the following factions at least (moderately) fun to play, and Norsca is no exception. Really, aside from the fact that the chaos wastes are not particularly thrilling as a start location, I’m a big fan of burning the entire world down in the name of the four dark gods and the heavy emphasis on constantly raiding the weak southlands. What holds them back is a lack of variety in start positions or gameplan beyond "razing the entirety of the southlands." Still, the way they're handled with the late-game chaos invasion is a lot of fun. Essentially, you can either come along with Archaeon and burn the world down, or declare yourself the true everchosen and get into a tussle with the regular Warriors of Chaos. Should you emerge triumphant, you'll do so with a frankly ridiculous 75% upkeep reduction, which allows for all the mammoth doomstacks you can possibly imagine. They're fun. All they really need are more lords, start positions

Best Legendary Lord: Given that there are only two of them, I still have to go with Wulfrik over Throgg, both because of the more useful bonuses and more interesting start position, but also because the way Norsca handles confederation means you’re probably going to have both of them regardless. Now, post Wood Elf rework, they have the awkward distinction of having the smallest number of LLs in the game.

10: Wood Elves

All Elves are Assholes but now All Elves are Fun To Play
All Elves are Assholes but now All Elves are Fun To Play

The recent Wood Elf rework is an absolute boon to a faction that was fun to play in battle and equally unfun to play in campaign. Their army is still fun; a mobile, skirmish-heavy, but squishy force backed up with durable treemen and just infinite arrows forever. Now their campaign actually emphasizes the isolationist “Build Tall” style of the Wood Elves, where the focus on protecting and healing forests across the map allows for a wide variety of options. It’s very un-Total War in that way, far less about painting the map and far more about picking and choosing when to get into fights and when to play defensively. If I have a gripe, it’s now that every Wood Elf campaign seems like it’ll be mostly the same because of this, with the big differences being the faction-unique mechanics and which forests you decide to focus on. It's a gripe that's kept me from playing more than one game with them post-rework, but I imagine I'll come back whenever I'm in the mood to murder people for the trees.

Best Legendary Lord: Drycha is the world’s angriest tree, and her unique roster focused around forest spirits (with weaker, magically brainwashed elves) gives her a much different feel than the other WE Lords. She also starts on the eastern edge of the Empire and has to retake the Oak of Ages from the other Wood Elf factions while also freeing her mentor Coeddil. It’s a fun time.

Worst Legendary Lord: Honestly they’re all fine and all kinda overlap. That said, I do have to call out The Sisters’ of Twilight unique Forge of Daith mechanic as being kinda bad. However, given that Creative Assembly has already released a beta patch making it less bad, and they're a duo lord who makes the Eagle Rider Doomstack entirely possible, I can't give them any shit on that front. I guess Orion is kinda whatever now? eh. Hey, they're worth buying as DLC now. That's more than I could say 11 months ago.

9: Lizardmen

All apologies to that guy with the Lizardman avatar. Please sacrifice me on a bloodstained altar to Sotek.
All apologies to that guy with the Lizardman avatar. Please sacrifice me on a bloodstained altar to Sotek.

The lizards are fun, don’t get me wrong, but for a faction with a full six legendary lords they’re probably the Game 2 faction I want to play the least? Dinosaurs backed up by tough but slow (or fast but fragile) infantry? Sure. But their specific mechanics are a tad… lame? The Geomantic web mostly just rewards you for controlling provinces which are adjacent to one another, and they’ve definitely received the shorter end of the DLC stick. Dinosaurs? Very good, as previously mentioned. Slaan Mage Priests are some of the best generic mage lords in the game, and for the most part they’re spread out across the map in a nice way, even if their home continent of Lustria has become a meme.

Best Legendary Lord: Kroq-Gar has a whole -60% upkeep on all basic Saurus infantry in his army, and one of the more secure starting locations in both Eye of the Vortex and Mortal Empires. Basically if you want to ask who a good first playthrough character is but don’t want to play as Tyrion, it’s this guy. Also he can ride a T-Rex.

Worst Legendary Lord: For as much as I love the big dumb alligator, I have to say Nakai the Wanderer because *horde factions are boring.* His twist of being able to gift territory to an allied 3rd party faction is an interesting attempt at making hordes more relevant, but they don’t solve the problem of… you just don’t do that much. Tenhenahuin’s sacrifice mechanic might feel pretty weak and he might have a rough start with only skinks, but at least he can do things.

8: Vampire Counts

The Vampire Counts are just fighting for rightful recognition as elector counts of the empire! (and may or may not be trying to resurrect Nagash)
The Vampire Counts are just fighting for rightful recognition as elector counts of the empire! (and may or may not be trying to resurrect Nagash)

Really the only reason the Vampires aren’t higher is because, despite having five legendary lords, they also somehow only have two real start positions. If there were more places to play them instead of spending 90% of the game fighting against the Empire (or Brettonia) and Dwarfs they'd probably be my single favorite old world faction rn, buit alas it is not yet so. Hordes of garbage, chaff-tier infantry to bog down the enemy while solid cavalry, spooky monsters, and the best magic in the game do most of the damage? It’s a GOOD TIME. Who needs range when you can just summon a bunch of expendable zombies onto enemy archers? Who needs, uh, good melee when you can just heal your stupid skeletons forever with invocation of nehek and corpse carts?

Best Legendary Lord: Vlad von Carstein is still my go-to answer, but I also need to give recognition to Heinrich Kemmler for being the weird, creepy necromancer who goes after Brettonia instead of The Empire and summons an undead chaos champion named Krell. I fully admit I’ve tried to imitate his voice for D&D and hurt my throat in the process. Just say no to raspy old man voices.

Worst Legendary Lord: Helman Ghorst is infamously one of the worst lords in the game, giving some decent faction-wide bonuses (20% replenishment, 20% research, and poison attacks for his army isn’t nothing) in exchange for being worse than pretty much all of the other Vampire Count lord choices as an actual combat lord. It’s made even worse for him with the presence of the bloodline vampire lords, all of whom are just as good at magic but way better at fighting and improving armies. Like, I dunno. Give him an unique starting position, maybe some different objectives? Throw him into LustriaBowl, that'd be funny. What do you mean it "wouldn't make sense in the lore?"

7: The Empire

When you're The Holy Roman Empire, but sometimes you have wizards and steam tanks.
When you're The Holy Roman Empire, but sometimes you have wizards and steam tanks.

With some recent changes to both Vampire Count AI and the general buffing of Greenskins post-rework, playing as the Empire has definitely made for a more difficult campaign than it was in January (well, outside of Markus Wulfhart, whose campaign was already among the harder ones for both Vortex and ME.) Their army, flexible and varied as it is (even if their infantry is middling at best tbh) gives a lot of different approaches, and it’s never not fun to just spend the late-game corner camping and blowing the hell out of anything that gets in your way with heavy artillery. They’re the closest to a “standard” Total War faction as you’re going to get, but somehow that doesn’t mean boring.

Best Legendary Lord: No real losers here, but I have to still go with Volkmar the Grim for the flagellants and the goofs. Sure, he should probably get his own unique starting position, like Balthasar Gelt does down south but have you seen that mustache? Or, perhaps more importantly, those battle prayer buffs? No seriously the man rides around on a giant war altar and has Banishment as a bound spell. He’s the most expensive empire lord in multiplayer for a reason.

Worst Legendary Lord: Probably Volkmar, if we’re being entirely serious. Like, yeah, being able to field Flagellants as a viable frontliner unit is very funny, but you’re probably better off just recruiting him as part of a Karl Franz campaign. Much like his counterpart Ghorst, dude needs his own unique start position. The difference is, he’s actually useful in combat. Yeah sure Karl Franz is a little vanilla and Balthasar Gelt has a much rougher start, but one of Volkmar’s legendary items requires you to sack a settlement owned by… Kislev? You know, your ostensible allies in the war against chaos? Great. Genius.

6: Greenskins

Me an da Boyz have been working on a right proper WAAAAGH
Me an da Boyz have been working on a right proper WAAAAGH

The recent Greenskin rework honestly makes them the single most fun old world faction. Between changes to the Waaaagh mechanic that make it scary, rather than pathetic, to scrap upgrades giving them a lot more flexibility, they’re scary now. Azhag now has his own starting position, up north, pitting him more against the Empire and Chaos than other green boys, and all of the other LLs have received their own slate of buffs. Still has one of the more varied, aggressive rosters in the game, even if it's a tad bloated. Glad the Boyz have finally gotten justice.

Best Legendary Lord: Grom the Paunch is da biggest gobbo and follows the trend of WH2’s DLC lords getting ridiculous and silly unique mechanics. In his search for an increasing variety of dishes, Grom can acquire legendary ingredients and cook them to give powerful buffs to his armies. Give regular-ass Goblin Archers exploding arrows? Sure. In his Vortex campaign, you actually need to find most of the recipes before you can burn Athel Loren to the ground, in a special siege battle that might hopefully reflect an improvement of sieges down the line. (In general, siege battles are still the one dull spot in the game)

Worst Legendary Lord: Okay so my actual only real gripe with Grimgor Ironhide is that he’s the vanilla Greenskin lord, but even with buffs to Black Orcs (easily one of the scariest melee infantry in toe-to-toe combat) and his own (greatly improved) lord-killing prowess, he’s just the least interesting one you could pick. Why not pick Wurrzag? C’mon, you know you’re good for it. He dances! He casts from the Big Waaagh spellbook! He rides a piggy! He gives ridiculous buffs to already ridiculous Savage Orcs!

I will also accept Skarsnik of Crooked Moon, whose campaign is still among one of the hardest in the game, even with his vast abundance of buffs. He’s in a somewhat better spot than Bellegar, with lots of tricky options and abilities alongside the buffs from the Greenskin rework, but the dark secret is that you can easily confederate him with Grom in Mortal Empires, get him and all his fun Night Goblin buffs with none of the downsides. I think the three-way “Race for Eight Peaks” is a fun idea, don’t get me wrong, but the rewards for actually capturing the legendary settlement never quite feel worth the toil to get there. That said, I did recently do a Skarsnik campaign... on Normal, and it was a pretty fun time remembering how much easier the game is on Normal.

5: High Elves

The Asur are the most solid all-around faction in the game. Pity that they're also the cops of the Warhammer Fantasy setting.
The Asur are the most solid all-around faction in the game. Pity that they're also the cops of the Warhammer Fantasy setting.

The High Elves can do everything, as long as you’re willing to pay for it. They’re a great starter faction in campaign for that reason, especially given how good that economy is for *most* of their lords, alongside access to almost every lore of magic and a shitload of air support. Since the last blog, they’ve gotten access to Eltharion the Grim, who is basically Elf Batman, and Imrik, who is all about them *Dragons.* They both have interesting start positions in Mortal Empires and help round out the Knife Ears roster to a full 6 lords. You can't go wrong with them.

Best Legendary Lord: Alith Anar starts in a far more precarious position surrounded by Druchii, but compensates by focusing on the sneakier aspects of the Asur roster. He’s got automatic ambush chance, like a Skaven or Beastmen lord, on top of special assassination contracts and enough sniping power to more-or-less erase enemy lords before they show up. He’s probably one of the better Free-LC lords for that reason. You really can’t go wrong with any of them though; all 6 are fun in their own way, except...

Worst Legendary Lord: Tyrion is the lord you pick when you’re still learning the game and is great for that reason. He’s absurdly powerful on his own, gives upkeep reductions to all of the basic-tier High Elf infantry, and starts in a fairly secure part of the map. That’s why he’s boring. Pick Allarielle or Eltharion if you want an interesting Ulthuan campaign and pick Teclis or Imrik if you want to have a (good) bad time.

4: Tomb Kings

Buried Underneath the Sands, Forgotten by Time. They're Back, and Their Economy is Very Bad, so Plz Consider Sacking enemy Settlements
Buried Underneath the Sands, Forgotten by Time. They're Back, and Their Economy is Very Bad, so Plz Consider Sacking enemy Settlements

In retrospect I think the Tomb Kings are Very Good, actually, with their unique army and economic mechanics, alongside the scavenger hunt for the Books of Nagash. If multiplayer balance tiers are any indication, it’s very hip to be Undead, and the Tomb Kings’ heavy emphasis on constructs gives them a different flavor than the slightly more haphazard Vampire Counts. Sure, their unique lore of magic is extremely “eh” and they only have one generic lord type, but what they do offer is novelty in a game that is already abundant with novel approaches to the tried-and-true formula of the Total War series. Tomb Kings are, to some extent, playing a different game from the other factions. Thankfully, it’s a fun one.

Best Legendary Lord: Arkhan the Black gets access to Vampire Count units and also the Lore of Death (which is up there for me in terms of “I’m not great at this game but direct damage spell go brrr") but I've also recently found some affection for Grand Hierophant Khatep, who starts up in Naggarond with very little desert but a lot of annoyed Dark Elves and the occasional Beastman. He has a similar uphill climb, but with a very different set of opponents and abilities. Also his voice acting might be the most *extra* in the game where everyone is already hamming it up to eleven. FOOOOOR THE MORTUARRYYYY CULLLLTTTT

Worst Legendary Lord: If you were to assemble a top 10 list of the hardest campaign starts currently in Mortal Empires, Arkhan would be near the top. His Vortex start tends to be a little more manageable, but he starts surrounded by things that hate him in a more-or-less immediate arms race to the death with Settra, given how vital “painting the map” is for the mummies. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good and fun but also it’s hard and difficult.

3: Dark Elves

Malus Darkblade's campaign is fine, fight me.
Malus Darkblade's campaign is fine, fight me.

The Druchii retain their bronze medal as “The Asshole Elves who are Even more Assholes” mostly because of their offensive yang to the High Elves’ Yin. Their roster is almost as flexible and varied as their kin, but more heavily focused on aggression and big monsters, unsurprisingly. Hydras are cool, horrific sea beasts are cool, elves with scimitars are cool, enslavement economy is cool (wait no.) They’re also the last remaining base-game WH 2 faction with five lords instead of six, which makes it seem like they’ll be the recipient of the final lord pack for the game (you know, assuming that Total War Warhammer III is, as speculated, the Total War game for 2021)

Best Legendary Lord: As far as basic vanilla lords go, Malekith is still the one I’d point to as being both incredibly powerful and also fun. You can’t really go wrong with any of them though. Hellebron requires a constant level of momentum that the others don't, while Lokhir Fellhart has to slug it out in Lustria with only cheap corsairs and Black Ark support in his corner.

Worst Legendary Lord: With some recent buffs, Malus Darkblade’s campaign is less of an uphill nightmare than it used to be, whether you choose to give up Hag Graef or not. So at this point I’ma go with Morathi, who has a far less secure start than some of the other Dark Elf lords and mostly just compensates by spreading Chaos Corruption everywhere. Eh. not a fan. She's honestly fine though.

2: Vampire Coast

Fun fact: despite numerous balance nerfs, the Vampire Coast was, until recently, considered the best faction in the game in regards to competitive multiplayer.
Fun fact: despite numerous balance nerfs, the Vampire Coast was, until recently, considered the best faction in the game in regards to competitive multiplayer.

The Vampire Coast is your gunpowder faction if you like gunpowder and gun lines and pretending you’re still playing Total War Napoleon while everyone else is playing Rome 2. (at least, I assume that metaphor makes sense given how little of either game I've played. At some point some Three Kingdoms and Atilla will be played, I'll say that much.) They’re an interesting contrast to the other two undead factions in that way, but their real strength (aside from their aforementioned “blow them up before they get to you” prowess) is the flexibility of playstyle. Depending on who you pick, they’re either a horde faction who can settle, or a regular faction who can horde, with pirate coves for extra income. Lotta options, lot of play flexibility, and lot of zombies with guns. Who can say no to that?

Best Legendary Lord: Luthor Harkon is one of the more secure LustriaBowl contenders, having that built-in defense that comes with vampiric corruption. Scary hybrid caster/fighter lord who can ride a terrorgheist? Yes. He’s also an insane vampirate, so that’s pretty good too. Count Noctilus is a close second, with his extremely secure start position in the middle of the ocean and bonuses to big monsters, but he’s almost too easy because of it.

Worst Legendary Lord: Cylostra Direfin has the unique distinction of being created whole cloth for Total War Warhammer, and she’s uh. Fine. She starts in the Isthmus of Lustria, stuck between a lizard and elf place, without many natural allies. She’s a decent caster, and can summon ghostly versions of Brettonian cavalry to give her army some mobility, but otherwise she’s just sorta middling.

1: Skaven

Darktide looks like it'll be my jam, but the Vermintide will forever be enshrined in my heart.
Darktide looks like it'll be my jam, but the Vermintide will forever be enshrined in my heart.

No real change on the top 3, but I just wanna say it’s patently absurd how much love the Skaven get with DLC. With the recent release of The Twisted and the Twilight, it seems more apparent than ever that there’s definitely a little bit of favoritism going on with the way Creative Assembly approaches the ratbois. They’re 3/3 on paid DLC lords, and have a roster that is varied enough to the point where you can actually construct viable clan-themed armies out of them, which is just plain silly. They’re still my #1 pick, though here’s hoping that Game 3 will somehow manage to top even this

Best Legendary Lord: Stealing the trophy from Ikit Claw is Throt the Unclean, master mutator of Clan Moulder, who offers a similar unit upgrade mechanic, but for infantry and monsters instead of weapon teams. However, the Clan Moulder Flesh Laboratory is more interesting than the Clan Skryre Forbidden Workshop by virtue of having actual downsides instead of just making everything buh-roken. Put too many mutations on a unit and it might become unstable. Too many instabilities and it might be kinda useless. The good news is you can then recycle it for “growth juice” to spawn more Clan Moulder monster units. Truly the circle of life.

Worst Legendary Lord: Despite some much-needed recent buffs, Tretch Craventail sticks out as the weak link among the six lords of the vermintide. Queek has the race for Eight Peaks, Skrolk has improved plagues, Ikit has ridiculous weapon teams and warpstone nukes, Sknitch has to manage Eshin contracts, and Throt (as mentioned above) has ridiculous mutations. The most Tretch has to offer is an improved version of the Skaven’s “scurry away” ability, and starting with an undercity on the complete opposite side of the map. He’s still better than some of the *worst* lords in the game, and at least has the unique start in Naggarond, but let’s be real here he’s the worst Skaven lord by a mile.

Wrapping things up

Alright, with this accidental novel out of the way I am willing to announce that my Game of the Year blogs proper will probably drop sometime next week. I’ll also be streaming Shadow Hearts for the near future, so if you’re interested in weird horror alt-JRPGs that are old enough to vote, why not swing by, give me a follow or subscription? Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays.

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