Rebuild of ArbitraryWater 2.22: Sometimes You Can (Not) Go Home Again

This is your yearly reminder that The Temple of Elemental Evil is a fantastically weird, difficult, singular game that I will never stop plugging.
This is your yearly reminder that The Temple of Elemental Evil is a fantastically weird, difficult, singular game that I will never stop plugging.

When I started blogging on this site a decade ago, my original focus was almost entirely on older video games that I had “missed.” While part of this was an attempt to distinguish myself from the other blogging types, it was also an extension of what I was already doing. I spent my early teenage years locked to Nintendo consoles and a desktop computer my parents bought in 2002. While I eventually got a Xbox 360 in 2007, I didn’t exactly have the disposable income to keep up with the current release zeitgeist more than a few times per year. Thus, a lot older PC games, often obtained cheaply or illegally often served to fill that void. It’s why I, someone now in his mid-20s, occasionally seem to have the taste of someone a decade older. It’s also worth mentioning there’s a wide gulf between the kinds of games that were popular during the early 360 era and the kind of games that were popular on the PC in the late 90s/early 00s. Say what you will about the quality of the 360's library, but it didn't have anything resembling most of the PC games I was messing around with.

I’ve now reached the age where a lot of my childhood favorites are inching towards or have passed the 20 year mark. The majority of the Nintendo 64’s catalog is already there, and so are many of those old PC games I was blogging about during the early years of the Giant Bomb forums. I’ve always thought the discussion over whether or not something “holds up” to be sort of reductive, but I also think it’s healthy to examine one’s own nostalgia instead of keeping it locked up in a box of perfect memories. With that in mind, I finally replayed one of my favorite games of all time a few months ago. It was an, uh, interesting experience.

Might and Magic VII, or: “The Curse of Remembrance”

Might and Magic VII, indeed the entire Might and Magic franchise, is arguably just as foundational to my love of Computer Role-Playing games as Knights of the Old Republic and Baldur’s Gate II. Compared to fellow classic RPG counterparts such as Wizardry (which focused on more in-depth party building and ambitious or Ultima (which focused on simulationist elements, storytelling, and characterization) I’d place Might and Magic’s focus as exploration and discovery. While still capturing that very basic dungeon crawler appeal of taking a player-created party of weaklings and turning them into unstoppable juggernauts, from the series beginning it’s always been set in the context of a large, explorable world whose secrets you’d spend most of the game uncovering. Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor was my favorite because it set that exploration and discovery in a smaller, more-focused scale than some of its predecessors. It had more built-in replayability (a thing that mattered when you were young and didn’t have a shameful amount of unplayed games in your Steam library,) with its two story paths and wider variety of classes. Depending on party composition and the path chosen, you could see a much different chunk of the game than someone who went another way.

I'm sure there's a very long German word that describes the feeling of going back to something you used to love and still enjoying it, but also not enjoying it quite as much as you thought you would
I'm sure there's a very long German word that describes the feeling of going back to something you used to love and still enjoying it, but also not enjoying it quite as much as you thought you would

It’s a strange experience, going back to a game that you played to death as a young teenager, but haven’t touched in at least a decade. There’s still a part of it hard-wired in some dark adolescent corner of my brain, alongside random Fire Emblem growth rates, Homestar Runner quotes, and snippets of innumerable questionable-to-bad fantasy novels. How do you approach a game focused on exploration and discovery when you half-remember where everything is? Being a game from 1999, the discrete zones in Might and Magic VII are not especially large, nor are the dungeon puzzles especially taxing. As a result, with some minor glances at a guide, I zoomed through the game in like 20 hours, a sort of slow-motion speedrun. With some strange crystal clarity, I saw the limitations and weaknesses of the game’s design, once unseen or in the background. Earth and Mind magic basically have like two useful spells each. Rangers are kind of bad at everything. You're often better off just buffing everyone to death and mashing the A key than you are going into turn-based mode and planning out your moves.

I know this sounds like some sort of weird paean to lost innocence, but it also means I have no fucking clue how another human being would approach this game fresh in 2019. I mean, I enjoyed myself, I think it’s still a solidly-designed game, but keeping any sort of critical distance to explain it to other people is difficult. Would you, the reader, like Might and Magic VII if you picked it up from GOG, installed the fan patch (bug fixes, QoL improvements, high-resolution and windowed support, etc) and went to town? I honestly don’t know. Probably? It's probably still good? You might be able to delve something out of my comments, but I’m not sure if I can anymore.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way, mind you, it was also how I felt after I played through Ocarina of Time a couple of years ago. Previously one of the games in my “replay every few years” rotation, my most recent playthrough on 3DS felt less like a comfortable return to an old friend and more like a cold mechanical script that I followed without much trouble. How do the dungeons of OoT compare to the other 3D entries? Are the side-quests fun or frustrating? What about Gold Skultilla placement? Hell if I know. Ask this guy. What I do know is that when I do decide to go back and revisit Ocarina of Time, I’m going to play the Master Quest mode. Mirroring the world is a simple, but effective method to disorient, and if you think I remember anything about the remixed dungeons from the time I played through the Gamecube Bonus Disk… I don’t.

I could post some screenshots of the game here, but honestly they're all unflattering. The one constant I can say about Might and Magic VII is that its visuals have aged poorly.
I could post some screenshots of the game here, but honestly they're all unflattering. The one constant I can say about Might and Magic VII is that its visuals have aged poorly.

Back to the main topic of discussion, I need to give full credit where credit is due: the source of my problem is ironically also one of my favorite things about of Might and Magic VII (and the other two games on the same engine.) The difficulty level and your progression through the game are far less tied to the stats of your characters (or your progress in the main questline) than your knowledge of the world and the amount of cash you have on hand at any given moment. Money is more important than experience, because not only do you need to pay to level up, you need to pay for spells, skill training, and equipment. Vaguely knowing how to get that money and spend it in the most efficient way possible means you can break the difficulty curve in short order. Master-level magic, from flight to invisibility to regeneration to shrapmetal, not only make exploration and discovery more convenient, they also allow you to circumvent a lot of areas or sequences that might otherwise cause you problems, either by flying, sneaking past, tanking through, or just plain shotgunning your way to victory. In a world where I didn’t already know exactly how to break things, finding these things out organically would be a huge game changer. It’s also an excellent way of party composition directly impacting player experience. Swap out the pure caster classes (Cleric, Sorcerer) for their hybrid counterparts (Paladin, Archer, Druid) and suddenly you can’t get access to those spells until much later, which might drastically change how you approach certain situations.

For what it's worth, I think I'd probably have a better time replaying Might and Magic VI, because I remember way less of that game.
For what it's worth, I think I'd probably have a better time replaying Might and Magic VI, because I remember way less of that game.

It’s an incredibly flexible game in this way, and I think that’s one of the reasons I played it so much. Compare that to something like Wizardry 8, a game in the same genre from the same era that’s similar on paper. While still you can definitely wander into places you have no business exploring for your own peril and profit and come up with unorthodox party compositions, the aggressive level scaling and deeper, more involved combat means there are rarely any shortcuts from playing the game at the developer’s pace. Knowing where to go to solve quests may save you a few hours of exploration, but at no point are there ever going to be wonderfully incomprehensible 27-minute speedruns of that game. I think Wizardry 8 is quite good, and it’s definitely one of my favorite CRPGs, but it doesn’t nail the exploration and discovery aspects in nearly the same way as Might and Magic.

So… where does this series of ruminations leave me? Physically? Emotionally? Spiritually? “Does it hold up?” I’m not going to throw all of my nostalgic faves to the sidelines over the fear that I’ll ruin them with my broken brain, but it’s made me think about why I choose to revisit old favorites. I don’t think I can deal with investing much in comfortable repetition anymore, at least not outside of my “comfort food” strategy games or speedrunning old Resident Evil games every now and then. Does that make me weird? I see people who are on like their eighth dang rewatch of The Office and I can’t understand that anymore. My time is limited, my tastes are varied, and if I’m going to put a significant amount of time into something I’ve already seen/played/done then I’d hope to get something new or interesting out of it. Make me love it again, make me hate it. Just don’t leave me confused enough to write 1,500+ words about it. Man, I hope any of this made any sense to you, because it almost doesn't to me.

A Corollary: Neon Genesis Evangelion

Hell, I dunno, here's the cover of the N64 Evangelion game
Hell, I dunno, here's the cover of the N64 Evangelion game

I mean, I feel like you could’ve guessed this was coming eventually, given that the title of this blog series is an Evangelion reference. Like Might and Magic, Evangelion occupies a very important, formative spot in my adolescence. If you want to point to the reason why a lot of my favorite anime series are weird, dark, and/or slightly fucked up, watching EVA while being slightly-too-young for it is probably a non-insignificant factor. (no, seriously, I was probably too young for it, especially since the only anime I’d been exposed to prior were series that aired on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block) Like Might and Magic, it’s been about a decade since I last revisited EVA. Unlike Might and Magic, my revisit of Evangelion was an unambiguously positive one.

Thanks to the recent Netflix release and return to the public eye, you’ve probably already had your fill of discussion on everyone’s favorite super fun story about a boy who won’t get into a cool purple robot, so I’ll keep it brief. Rewatching EVA was a much more emotionally draining experience than I was expecting. I’m genuinely shocked by how much of the series seemingly flew over my head when I was younger, but I’m more surprised by how much more it resonated with my current situation as an adult (or everyone’s situation everywhere, honestly.) It’s equal parts brilliant, frustrating, and up its own ass (also occasionally problematic) but it’s also stuck with me in a way that most disposable “flavor of the season” anime series have not. It was a nice reminder that, for as much as time can make some things worse (or… qualitatively indescribable) it can also make things better.

Oh, by the way, I’d just like to say for the record that the Rebuild of Evangelion movies are great. If you want to watch Hideaki Anno throw a bunch of upraised middle fingers at his fans via a series of multi-million dollar films, they're worth your time. Messy? Yeah. Unnecessary? Maybe. But don't write them off.

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Rebuild of ArbitraryWater 1.11: The C stands for (Computer) Role Playing

Kingdom Hearts will be discussed at some point in the near future. But not today.
Kingdom Hearts will be discussed at some point in the near future. But not today.

I’ve decided to keep writing. If nothing else, I’d like to keep in practice and celebrate a decade of me writing stupid internet blogs on Giant Bomb, which is a terrifying thing to fathom. June 29 marked 10 years since I wrote… whatever the hell those adolescent scribbles about Goldeneye were supposed to be about, which I mark as the beginning of my internet writing “career.” Things have changed a lot since then, I’m not exactly as active as I was in 2009 (then again, neither are the Giant Bomb forums) but I do legitimately credit these blogs with helping me improve my writing skills. So, to celebrate this occasion that really only matters to me, I’m going to try and put out some blogs focusing on the kind of self-indulgent topics that I care about and have defined my writing on this website. I know that committing to any sort of serious timetable with my current levels of motivation is a fool’s errand, but you can expect *stuff* over the next few months. Look forward to it.

Let’s Talk About The Last 5 Years of CRPGs

See? I told you things were going to get self-indulgent. As far as I’m concerned, this year’s mostly lukewarm E3 was over before it began with the announcement that Larian Studios is developing Baldur’s Gate III. From a dramatic perspective, this really does feel like the culmination of the “CRPG Renaissance” that started around 2014. That was the year the first wave of big Kickstarter success stories started to come out, including for our purposes I feel like I shouldn’t have to hammer on the point too much, but computer role-playing games as I know them were basically dead by the mid-late 2000s. There are plenty of reasons for that (enough to make a write-up of their own) but my point is that outside of Neverwinter Nights 2 and Dragon Age: Origins, the back half of the previous decade was a barren crater if you liked your higher-budget Role-Playing Games PC-oriented, potentially isometric, and filled with “dice rolls ‘n shit.”

Honestly, dates are fuzzy, genres are fuzzy, but for the purposes of this write-up we’re going to focus on the games from the last 5 years that have explicitly embraced the CRPG label, be it through dense storytelling or dense mechanics, with a decent amount of player customization or control. Similarly, this overview is as much a personal report card as it is an industry one. I’ll be frank: my attention span isn’t what it used to be and I’m not as hardcore of a grognard as I pretend to be. These games are often long, and I don’t quite have the same kind of free time that I did when I spent the better part of a summer playing through Wizardry 8 without the speed hack. Expect some hearsay, introspection, or speculation when it comes to the games I haven’t played.

It’s convenient that a lot of the higher profile games of this revival come from just a small handful of studios, because it means I can clump all of their games together like this:

InXile Entertainment

Games: Wasteland 2, Torment: Tides of Numenera, The Bard’s Tale IV

Before helping start this revival with their Wasteland 2 kickstarter, InXile was best known for being the thing Brian Fargo founded after he left Interplay (In Exile? Get it?) Before W2, their most notable titles were the “comedic” Bard’s Tale revival with Cary Elwes and Hunted: The Demon’s Forge, which I’d generously describe as “The Most Forgettable, Most 2011 Game In Existence.” I haven’t played either, and to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I’m going to.

Wasteland 2 would really like you to remember Fallout 1 and 2 in some sort of vague, non-copyright infringing way
Wasteland 2 would really like you to remember Fallout 1 and 2 in some sort of vague, non-copyright infringing way

I’ll be frank: for one of the heavy hitters of this RPG resurgence, I have yet to really love any of InXile’s output. The highest praise I can give Wasteland 2 is that it’s profoundly okay. It came out right around the time my old laptop was on its last legs, so I only finished around half of it, but I feel like I have a pretty good idea of what that game is (grain of salt, etc etc.) When I mean profoundly decent, I mean I enjoyed my time with it well enough, but have zero interest in actually going back and completing it. While a lot of these games have done the work towards modernizing the experience with varying levels of streamlining and quality-of-life improvements, Wasteland 2… feels like it could’ve come out of the late 90s with all of the positive and negative implications that brings. I could go on about how profoundly unsatisfying it is to watch a bar fill up slowly every time you make a skill check, the vanilla version’s terrible UI, or the giant, Fallout-sized recursive influence problem the game has, but for the most part I think it’s… fine. The combat is XCOM-lite, quests have a surprising number of multiple solutions, and in general I think you’d be fine giving it a look if you were so inclined.

More like Tides of NumaNuma, am I rite?
More like Tides of NumaNuma, am I rite?

My thoughts on Torment: Tides of Numenera are well-documented at this point (see: my blog and the last post of this thread for details) and I stand by them. Planescape Torment was lightning in a bottle and Numenera’s attempt to recapture it doesn’t work. It has all component parts intact, from a verbose script to an intentionally weird and alienating setting, but it doesn’t ever quite come together. It’s a game that’s only become more disappointing in retrospect as I think about it further, and I’d seriously recommend any interested soul just play Planescape Torment already. It’s coming to Switch for heaven’s sake.

Like a lot of Kickstarter games, The Bard’s Tale IV was a technical mess when it first came out. I was not interested in sitting through minute-plus loading times or substandard frame rates, so I kicked that can down the road. Given the release of a “Director’s Cut” in August, I think I’ll reserve judgement for that. I will say as someone who tries to keep himself semi-informed about these sorts of games, it sure does seem like discussion surrounding this one fizzled up immediately.

Obsidian Entertainment

Games: Pillars of Eternity, Tyranny, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire

During the dark times, Obsidian was the perennial clean-up crew for other RPG developers. Never quite given enough time or resources to polish their games, they nonetheless earned a reputation for making thoughtful, ambitious stories in their limited means. They’re responsible for personal favorites like Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer and Fallout: New Vegas, as well as flawed but beloved cult classics such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II and Matt Rorie’s Alpha Protocol. They also made Dungeon Siege III.

They even added a turn-based mode for you RtwP-hating babies out there. Play Pillars II already.
They even added a turn-based mode for you RtwP-hating babies out there. Play Pillars II already.

Pillars of Eternity was my favorite game of 2015 and for the most part I think I stand by that sentiment. There’s a strange divisiveness surrounding both it and its sequel that I’ve never quite been able to parse, because I think both manage to nail the style of the old Infinity Engine games better than anything else, for better or worse. Perhaps it’s the writing? Pillars 1 especially has a very somber, almost melancholy tone that never really lets up, and goes fairly dense with the world-building. It also has that fairly obnoxious early kickstarter thing of having some blatant backer content that sticks out like a sore thumb. I could see that seriousness being sort of overbearing, especially when compared to the very D&D high-fantasy hijinks of Baldur’s Gate. I don’t have much to add about Pillars II, other than I think it’s a marked improvement on both a mechanical and writing front. Well, aside from a lukewarm main quest that goes a little too far up its own lorehole and some companion questlines that never quite feel like they go far enough. One of these days I'll get around to finishing it, once I accept that it's okay to play long video games with a mouse and keyboard, even with a mild chronic RSI.

Tyranny is a game I will continue to maintain never got enough attention. Having the misfortunate timing of coming out the week after the 2016 election with the tagline “Evil Won” probably didn’t help, but an RPG about being middle management in the vast, grinding gears of an unambiguously evil empire is a fun premise when detached from the realities of Our Current Political Situation™. Its combat is worse than Pillars, its RPG elements are watered-down, and it seems blatantly clear that the game was significantly scaled down during development. However, if you like the mild discomfort that comes from picking between a series of morally ambiguous “worse and worser” choices in a shorter form (it took me a little over 20 hours) adventure, I seriously recommend Tyranny. In any case, both it and Pillars II sold somewhat poorly and now you’re never going to get another game like them again because Microsoft sure as hell isn’t going to fund isometric RPGs with that giant paycheck of theirs.

Harebrained Schemes

Games: Shadowrun Returns, Shadowrun Dragonfall, Shadowrun Hong Kong

Maybe I should just literally number out my RPG backlog priorities so I can tackle them in some sort of regimented order instead of keeping them installed in my steam library for time and all eternity.
Maybe I should just literally number out my RPG backlog priorities so I can tackle them in some sort of regimented order instead of keeping them installed in my steam library for time and all eternity.

In addition to their successes with Shadowrun in the CRPG space, Harebrained Schemes also managed to successfully revive Battletech, which is yet another game that I’ll need to play more of one of these days.

I think I’ve gone off about it before, but I just need to reiterate that I find Shadowrun’s entire deal to be… a little hard to take seriously. Even at its best, the entire cyberpunk setting and aesthetic tends towards the cornball. You can only have so many MegaCorps, rain-soaked streets, bad retrofuture slang and mentions of “The Net” before can’t take it seriously. Throwing elves and magic on top compounds that problem, and for as much as I’m normally in favor of the Fantasy/Sci-Fi genre mash-up, Shadowrun’s particular blend is something I can’t help but make fun of. I get it, that’s my problem, but throughout my entire playthrough of Shadowrun Returns, I was eternally, keenly aware that it was a setting that was originally created in the 1980s. I fully understand this is a me problem, but I said upfront that this blog is a personal reflection and not a 100% factual objective reflection of the facts.

Shadowrun Returns itself isn’t anything special. It’s profoundly linear, mechanically simplified, bereft of much character, and generally feels like a proof-of-concept for its toolset and an introduction to the world. I wrote a review of it at the time and feel safe saying it’s something you could easily skip. However, I’m to understand that both Shadowrun Dragonfall and Shadowrun Hong Kong have made good on those concepts and that world in a way that people claim is much better. They’ve both been on my short-list of RPGs to play, and honestly, if you want the most compelling reason I want to check out either, it’s that they’re at a reasonable 20-30 hour length instead of the colossal 50-80 hour mark I’d throw around for most of the other games here.

Larian Studios

Games: Divinity Original Sin, Divinity Original Sin 2

Divinity was 85 hours well spent, but also it was 85 hours.
Divinity was 85 hours well spent, but also it was 85 hours.

I’ve said it vocally multiple times before, but I think Larian Studios has shifted from a developer of charming, if heavily flawed Eurojank (Divine Divinity, Divinity 2, Dragon Commander) to the arguable winners of this current RPG resurgence. They didn’t need to get bought by Microsoft to stay solvent, so clearly they’re doing something right.

I feel like I’ve gone off, at length, about both Divinity: Original Sin games and how much I love both. While Pillars of Eternity might be closer to my heart, there’s also no doubt that Divinity makes a stronger case for this sort of RPG to an audience who isn’t already nostalgic for it. The first game, both in its vanilla and enhanced forms, is undoubtedly flawed. You can win a significant chunk of otherwise solid turn-based tactical combat using the same handful of crowd control abilities from levels 1 to 20. On the other end, the writing maintains an obnoxious level of tongue-in-cheek goofiness that makes it difficult to take seriously. Original Sin II fixes both of these problems, with combat and writing that maintains a stellar level of quality the entire time. If I have to pick a bone with both games, it’s a combination of both of them maybe being about a dozen hours too long, and the itemization being aggressive to the point of almost being exhausting.

And the rest!

Games: Too many to count.

I honestly just want to talk about how good Serpent in the Staglands looks. And how much I should play more than two hours of it.
I honestly just want to talk about how good Serpent in the Staglands looks. And how much I should play more than two hours of it.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the other games from the last few years, and in some ways I think I’m almost doing a disservice by just focusing on the larger-scale, multi-million dollar crowdfunding successes. Unfortunately, my experience with the smaller indie RPGs of recent years is far more limited. I can’t think of much outside of playing through Age of Decadence and finding it… not for me, and putting just enough time into the notorious Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar to ask for a refund from Steam. I still intend to give games like Underrail, Serpent in the Staglands, Lords of Xulima, and Tower of Time a shot eventually, but if I’ve learned anything from my backlog, eventually can be a long time, or sometimes never. Still gonna play Arcanum one day, I swear.

First and foremost on my list is Owlcat Games’ Pathfinder: Kingmaker, based on the adventure path of the same name. If Pillars of Eternity is the streamlined, human-friendly take on the Infinity Engine that makes reasonable adjustments for a computer game, then Kingmaker is the raw unprotected Pen and Paper monstrosity that gives you six characters, a notoriously complicated ruleset, and a punch in the face for good measure. As someone who loves the customizability of Pathfinder in the abstract, but often finds the minutiae obnoxious in actual P&P sessions, Kingmaker gives me the complexity I want, without the part where I constantly need a calculator open to keep track of all of my modifiers. It’s also an adaptation of one of Paizo’s most ambitious official adventure modules, so in addition to having the crunchy dice rolls I so desperately need, it’s also a fairly open, sandbox-y adventure with some kingdom management stuff on top. It’s really great, so… like half of the other recent RPGs on this list, I got sidetracked at some point and haven’t gotten back to it.

HEY GUYS REMEMBER HOW THEY LITERALLY MADE A NEW BALDUR'S GATE IN 2016 AND NO ONE NOTICED
HEY GUYS REMEMBER HOW THEY LITERALLY MADE A NEW BALDUR'S GATE IN 2016 AND NO ONE NOTICED

While Legend of Grimrock is slightly too early to fit onto the convenient 5 year window, its sequel came out in 2014 and thus totally counts for the purposes of this blog. I think both games are admirable, stellar attempts at recreating the Dungeon Master/Eye of the Beholder/Lands of Lore style of real-time, puzzle-heavy, strafe parades. I’m also kinda trash garbage at that exact style of game, and Grimrock 2 had the misfortune of coming out around the time my old computer was well on its way to exploding. It’s in my backlog for a reason, and like everything else in my backlog, I’ll get to it. Someday. Maybe.

Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear is the weirdest fucking shit and I still cannot get over how little anyone talked about it outside of a bunch of idiots angry that it acknowledges the existence of trans people. It's a goddamn Baldur's Gate midquel/reunion special a good 15 years after Throne of Bhaal that tries to bridge between the first and second game from the people responsible for the Enhanced Editions of all the Infinity Engine games. The most insane thing is that it's honestly far more successful at that than it has any right to be.

I could keep going for a while, but I’m already pressing up on 2500 words, which I feel like is a good sign that I should stop. If I missed anything egregious, feel free to let me know. If you agree or disagree with my very hot takes, feel free to let me know. Politely. If you want to point out how few of the games presented in this blog I've actually played to completion... fair enough. Finally, I’d like to thank everyone who’s encouraged or inspired my writing over the last 10 years. I dunno how many of you are left ‘round these parts, but thank you. Oh! And a happy 11th anniversary to Giant Bomb on top of that!

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I played some games containing the word "Shock" and the Number 2 (and other good uses of time and money)

It only took 5 months, but I finally mustered enough willpower to start long-form writing about video games again after a combination of a capstone paper and two back-to-back Game of the Year blogs ruined my desire to throw thousands of words at a screen. I’m sure you’re as excited as I am, so let’s get to it.

Bioshock 2

Hey, remember how they made a sequel to Bioshock? No, not the sky one.
Hey, remember how they made a sequel to Bioshock? No, not the sky one.

As part of my “I should probably play something other than these damn Kingdom Hearts games or I’ll go insane” initiative, I finished Bioshock 2 recently. For a farmed-out sequel to a game that ended fairly conclusively, it’s better than it has any right to be. It meaningfully addresses a lot of the first game’s mechanical shortcomings, with stuff like dual-wielding, a significantly better hacking minigame, and a generally wider set of options for plasmids and tonics. I’m not going to go out here and claim it’s Doom 2016 or anything over here, but that dual-wielding means combat has more of a flow to it and incentivizes more than using electro-bolt and the wrench for a good 75% of encounters.

However, I think it’s fair to say the original Bioshock is not oft heralded for the quality of its gunplay, or really most of the part where you play it, and the same is true for Bioshock 2. It was the quality of the writing, the environmental storytelling, and the philosophical ideas at play. Sure, I could go back and argue those ideas only come off as well as they do because big mainstream video games didn’t exactly care about immersive storytelling or basic philosophical concepts in 2007, but that’s besides the point. I might be the dingus advocating for Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer as the best written game story of 2007, but if we’re talking games people other than me and my CRPG dork friends have heard of, it’s Bioshock. And Mass Effect.

Ryan Amusements, an
Ryan Amusements, an "educational" theme park for children is one of the most inspired parts of this game

Bioshock 2 opts to pick up the pieces of Bioshock’s Underwater Ayn Rand Utopia by saying “What if that, but the opposite?” Sofia Lamb is an inherently less interesting figure than Andrew Ryan, fan-fiction’d into existence as his nemesis who totally existed the entire time. (Fontaine who?) For as contrived as much of the game’s setup is, I don’t begrudge the writers at all. There is effort and there are moments in Bioshock 2’s storytelling, which is why it’s sort of tragic that they’re constrained by being in a direct sequel to a narrative that already exhausted most of its concepts. Even with that excuse, however, saying “Hey, unrestrained collectivism would be pretty bad too!” isn’t a particularly daring stance to take, and the Subject Delta/Eleanor stuff is a weird attempt at putting an emotional core behind the whole thing in a way that doesn’t really work. It all comes together in an experience I’d describe as equal parts competent and unmemorable, which might be the single most damning thing I can say about it. Bioshock Infinite might be a beautiful, somewhat problematic mess in retrospect, but I cannot say any part of it is forgettable.

There is some fantastic, unique art just hanging out in the background of Minerva's Den.
There is some fantastic, unique art just hanging out in the background of Minerva's Den.

If there is an corollary to my thoughts on Bioshock 2, it came in the form of the Minerva’s Den DLC. Much of the team behind Minerva’s Den would go on to make Gone Home and you can see a lot of that in how it’s designed. While there are still combat encounters and an accelerated progression ramp, most of Minerva’s Den’s 2-3 hour runtime is dedicated to telling the small-scale, personal story of a few people in one little corner of Rapture. Not only is it a better-written, more cohesive story than the main game, it feels like a promise of DLC that never truly manifested itself. Outside of something like Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry, I struggle to think of many similar examples in the AAA space, and that’s a shame. Legitimately, if you randomly stumbled into a copy of Bioshock 2 and haven’t done so already, I highly recommend you take a look at Minerva’s Den. It’s worth playing on its own.

System Shock 2

Hey, remember how Bioshock was the spiritual successor to another game?
Hey, remember how Bioshock was the spiritual successor to another game?

For whatever reason, I wasn’t done with convenient audio logs and abandoned environments in my video games. System Shock 2 is arguably far more on-brand for me, a cult classic PC game from the late 90s that I somehow never wrote about when that was my whole thing. It’s a game with a reputation and legacy that almost speaks for itself, spoken of in hushed whispers alongside other Looking Glass games like Ultima Underworld and Thief. While I’d certainly played parts of it before, it’s been something of a white whale for years now, alongside the likes of Arcanum and Morrowind in the pantheon of “Old-ass PC games that I should play more of.” It’s a bit of a surreal experience to come to in 2019, one I think still holds up astoundingly well in spite of its age.

Going into SS2 straight off of Bioshock 2, I think the most striking thing is how immediately recognizable a lot of it is despite being almost 20-years-old. While one can go even further back to the first System Shock or even Ultima Underworld and see the roots of the entire “immersive sim” genre, I find them both a tad archaic, even for my tastes. Meanwhile, if you put System Shock 2 in front of someone who’s played Bioshock (or, even more directly, the excellent Prey 2017) they wouldn’t have much trouble understanding the basics. Almost every single mechanic has a direct analog, and the different levels of the Von Braun are set up in the same way as different areas in Rapture or Talos-1. I spent a lot of time digging through environments crafted to feel “lived in,” listening to audio logs and scrounging through the trash for ammunition or random cans of soda. It’s a comparison that I find impossible to avoid, especially since I’m already so fond of the rest of the Looking Glass/Ion Storm pantheon. I hope you’ll bear with me if I lean into it, rather than pretend my experiences are separate and exist only in a void.

The key difference between System Shock 2 and the games influenced by it is that it comes from the perspective of a PC-ass RPG pretending to be a shooter, rather than a shooter awkwardly pretending to be an RPG. Right off the bat, you’re picking starting stats, skills, and psi powers as part of your choice of military branch and using dice rolls to determine your chance of success when hacking/repairing/modifying. Shooting is less of an exercise in precision and more one of “vaguely pointing your gun in their general direction” with some survival horror-esque ammo management during the early game. It’s not especially restrictive, however. Playing as a Navy (tech) character on the normal, I had more than enough cyber modules by the end of the game to max out pretty much everything I wanted. While some skills are more useful than others none of them feel totally useless, which is more than I can say for some of the other RPGs from this period.

I hope you like swinging that wrench around, because you're going to be doing it a lot during the open hours of the game
I hope you like swinging that wrench around, because you're going to be doing it a lot during the open hours of the game

Given I just made the case above that few played Bioshock for its airless shooting, the same can be said of System Shock 2. The combat isn’t engaging, falling into the awkward no man’s land between shooter and RPG that games like the original Deus Ex or Mass Effect are guilty of, including some fairly aggressive weapon degradation early on. However, I legitimately derived more enjoyment from becoming profoundly overpowered by the end of this game, knocking over most enemies in 2-3 shots with the Assault Rifle or EMP Rifle because my RPG numbers were good, than I did with just about any of Bioshock 2’s tedious little sister protection sequences. That might speak to my impossibly high standards for shooters at this point versus my far more permissive ones for RPG combat, but if you’ve followed me for any serious length of time, you already know that I have an affinity for clunky, weird old shit.

See, even derelict spaceships filled with bio-mechanical horrors need restaurants!
See, even derelict spaceships filled with bio-mechanical horrors need restaurants!

Of course, System Shock 2’s greatest strength is in creating a coherent sense of place, tone, and atmosphere with its environments. The graphical fidelity may be worse (though I did install some texture packs that made the whole thing look slightly prettier), but it still manages to make a spooky spacecraft feel believably fantastical and mundane at the same time, which is always 100% my shit with the whole “immersive sim” genre. Sure, there’s horrific alien biomass everywhere, but do you know what else is everywhere? Bathrooms. Personal audio recordings that conveniently have door codes or help you understand what happened. Admittedly, it’s hard to take some of the audio logs seriously when they’re delivered with all the monotone enthusiasm of “some guy from accounting” but the rest of the sound design is top-notch. I don’t find the game especially scary, but there’s something really disturbing about the way the infected enemies beg you to kill them, or the way the voice of the collective alien intelligence echoes in your mind. It’s nothing so striking as Bioshock’s philosophy, Prey’s meta-commentary, or Dishonored’s entire aesthetic, but it executes on a fairly straightforward sci-fi horror premise well.

In what is likely to be a controversial take, I’m less keen on SHODAN. While it’s amusing to know that Irrational literally stole the “The person talking to you on the radio for the first part of the game is the antagonist” twist in Bioshock from itself, there’s something very 90s about an an evil AI continually taunting you with a bunch of vocal distortion. Nah I get it, she’s gonna say the word “insect” a lot and then passive aggressively compliment you for not being dead. Speaking of “very 90s” I think most of the game’s industrial synth soundtrack is effective at creating a sense of dread. However, that won’t stop me from accusing some of its faster-paced tracks of sounding like they’d be more at home during a rave than a game where you’re slowly digging through corpses, managing your inventory, or attempting to listen to audio logs. I’m talking to you, first real music track encountered in the game.

Minor caveats aside, I really enjoyed my 10-ish hours with System Shock 2. It feels foundational and rough around the edges, but coming to it after Bioshock 2 was a little like when I played Demon’s Souls after finishing Dark Souls II. While mechanics have progressed and ideas have matured, the core of the experience is still recognizable and intact. It certainly left a big enough impression to get me to start writing again, and if that isn’t endorsement enough… I dunno, at least play Prey 2017, you Philistine.

Random Endorsement:

I'm not going to write a whole blog about it, but I really liked Danganronpa 2. While you definitely need to play the first one to appreciate the level of balls-out anime crazy its sequel reaches, the number of weird, out-of-context screenshots I have for this game really do speak for themselves
I'm not going to write a whole blog about it, but I really liked Danganronpa 2. While you definitely need to play the first one to appreciate the level of balls-out anime crazy its sequel reaches, the number of weird, out-of-context screenshots I have for this game really do speak for themselves

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ArbitraryWater's Favorite Games of 2018 (that didn't come out in 2018)

Alright y’all, it might be late, but it’s time for the REAL game of the year list. You can take those cowboy simulations, dying cells, and drug tetrises elsewhere. After taking a year off, it’s time to talk about the best games I played in “two thousand eighteen” that did not come out during said calendar year. In some ways, I actually like putting this list together more than the other one. For as much as my playing habits have shifted over the years towards more current stuff, there’s still very much a part of me that enjoys messing around with a varied collection of archaic nonsense. I got my start blogging about old (usually PC) games that I happened upon for the first time. It’s likely no coincidence that the three blogs I managed to put out this year were partially or entirely about random-ass old games from “like 2004, or something.”

These games are in descending order, starting at 10, though honestly don’t take most of the ranking very seriously. At some point, this is more an exhibition of my weird, esoteric backlog habits than anything else.

Personal video game rabbit hole of the year: Doom 64 Retribution (and Doom source ports in general)

I don't think I'd recommend playing this game on an actual Nintendo 64
I don't think I'd recommend playing this game on an actual Nintendo 64

While I’ve certainly played some OG Doom in my life before, I’d never thought to dip my toe into the frankly endless, somewhat terrifying abyss of various Doom mods and source ports. This year changed that, and there was a brief period this summer where messing around with them was basically all the gaming I did. Brutal Doom is, to be perfectly frank, very stupid. It takes what was already a poster child for violent adolescent power fantasy and escalates it to the point of absurdity. As a way of replaying Doom, it’s a lot of fun, and for whatever it loses in purity it makes up for in intensity and a hilarious over-abundance of features. There’s something to be said for mowing through a bunch of imps while dual-wielding SMGs, watching their body parts fly everywhere in a way that feels like it shouldn’t be happening in an engine from 1993.

In similar non-pure experiences, playing Doom 64 via source ports seems like it would be much more enjoyable than playing the actual game with a N64 controller. It’s a strangely designed game that feels surprisingly different from the PC originals, with unique enemy sprites, fake N64 colored lighting, a moody, atmospheric soundtrack, and far more contained maps. It leans a little too close in the direction of “gotcha” teleporting enemy spawns and bullshit puzzle map design than I like, but it was a fun contrast after decapitating pretty much everything in Brutal Doom. I don’t think I’ll play it again, but it might be worth a look if you haven’t seen it before.

AAA Game from a decade ago of the year: Gears of War 2

My brother-in-law and I were looking for games to play together after finishing all of Bungie’s Halo games last year. Deciding upon Microsoft’s other tentpole franchise of the last generation, we… only managed to get through Gears 1 and 2 this year. While I had played it once before, going back to the original Gears of War a dozen years later feels like accidentally stumbling upon a parody of every single “grey and brown dudebro shooter” that became something of a reductive criticism during the 360 and PS3’s lifespan. Even moreso than Halo: Combat Evolved, with its slow pacing and recycled environments, Gears 1 is a slog. It doesn’t so much have a story as it has things that happen. The core shooting is obviously solid, mind you, but it all sort of mushes together from one sequence of waist-high walls to the next.

By contrast, Gears 2 is a pretty marked improvement in every way. While still very grey, brown, and dudebro, there is a lot more variety in its mission design and set-pieces. You’ve got sequences with razor hail, automated turrets, vehicles, and no less than two giant monsters who need to be destroyed from the inside. I cannot take any of its characters or story even remotely seriously for the life of me, but I had a lot more fun and am even vaguely looking forward to Gears 3.

Obscure Bullshit Computer Role-Playing Game of the Year: Wizards and Warriors

Fun Fact: The Box Art is literally the only image of this game on the wiki
Fun Fact: The Box Art is literally the only image of this game on the wiki

This is my list, dammit, and I can put Wizards and Warriors on here if I want to. Of everything, and I mean everything else here, I think this might be the game I’d have the hardest time selling to another person. A CRPG released in 2000 by Heuristic Park (a small team led by D.W. Bradley, who was the lead designer on some of the later Wizardry games) it’s a janky, ugly, decidedly low-budget take on the first-person party-based RPG (or “blobber”) that feels like an interesting cross between the sensibilities of Might and Magic and Wizardry. Like Wizardry, it has a heavy emphasis on deep character progression and (sometimes gratingly obscure) puzzles, while its movement speed and general pacing is arguably closer to the brisker Might and Magic. Even the bizarre pseudo turn-based combat, which I would generously describe as “sort of like SuperHot” feels like a cross between both those influences.

If your eyes are already rolling back into your head after I referenced no less than two dead RPG franchises, that’s okay. Even in its time, it doesn't seem like W&W was much of a hit. It didn’t review especially well, had trouble running on operating systems newer than Windows 2000, and never really obtained the same kind of cult status as contemporaries like Arcanum or Wizardry 8. Finding comprehensive walkthroughs has been… surprisingly difficult, and the number of full, or mostly full playthroughs I could find on YouTube number in the single digits. In some way, it feels like I’ve stumbled upon a new, old game, something that I would’ve written a blog about if it was still 2011 and I didn’t have a remotely modern PC. To be perfectly frank, if I were to recommend a game of this type to someone, it’d still be Might and Magic VII or Wizardry 8, but in the context of finding something new it’s been a pleasant surprise. Maybe I’ll even try to finish it.

The “why didn’t I play this earlier” of the year: Devil May Cry

As a fan of character action games, it’s sort of remarkable that the original Devil May Cry didn’t click for me until this year. In a lot of ways, it feels like a rough proof-of-concept, a scrapped version of Resident Evil 4 turned into its own thing. It lacks the depth of later Devil May Cry games (well, maybe not DMC 2.) and occasionally betrays its age with some of those camera angles and repeating boss fights. Even then, however, I found it to be a pretty good time. The controls are still tight and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. I’m not really planning on replaying it anytime soon, especially with a new DMC on the horizon, but as a historical curiosity it was worth my time.

Obscure Bullshit Fire Emblem of the Year: Tear Ring Saga

Tip to toe, that's definitely a Fire Emblem
Tip to toe, that's definitely a Fire Emblem

Developed by the creator of Fire Emblem after he left Nintendo, and then subject to successful legal action from Nintendo because of its similarities to Fire Emblem, it’s fair to say that Tear Ring Saga might as well be a Fire Emblem in all but name. As “guy with Fire Emblem avatar” I’ve finally started doing my due diligence by playing through it. If you thought Fire Emblem was already a series with little regard for balance, have I got a game for you. Tear Ring Saga makes Genealogy of the Holy War look restrained by comparison, throwing around characters with ridiculous personal weapons left and right. Why does Shigen have a sword that literally revives him when he hits 0 HP? Wait, does that light spell really hit all enemies in a 3x3 space? Why are axes complete ass? Does this map really only have two enemies? Tear Ring Saga feels a little like a ROM hack with all of its esoteric hidden content, but in a lot of ways it also feels like old-school Fire Emblem with the limiters taken off.

Similarly, while main lord Runan’s tale might as well be every other Fire Emblem game ever made (especially the SNES ones, with their “Game of Thrones but anime” proper nouns and politicking) his buddy Holmes is an asshole bow user who goes around doing radical pirate stuff. And if you know anything about me, it’s that I’m very into any game involving radical pirates. If I have a serious problem with the game, it’s that I’ve basically been keeping my eyes stuck on a guide the entire time because of how much optional, missable stuff there is. Similarly, I think the map design is sometimes lacking, being more concerned with looking vaguely plausible than being fun to navigate around. Given that a translation patch for this game’s sequel, Berwick Saga, is finally being worked on, I can’t wait to see what the hell that game brings to the table.

Potential franchise hole of the year: Tales of Symphonia

I’ll just put my blog post here so I don’t have to re-write everything. In summation, Tales of Symphonia was a game I wanted to play for years. When I finally did, it turned out to be right up my alley, and now I’ve gone down a horrible dark hole where I want to play multiple games in the series despite already having a massive backlog and a questionable attention span. Hooray!

Best Bullshit 3D Collectathon Platformer of the year: A Hat in Time

I’ve said it before, but I actually kinda liked Yooka-Laylee in a very guilty pleasure sort of way. For as much as that game felt like it missed the point of what made Banjo-Kazooie and friends memorable in the first place, it filled a very primal need of mine to collect random bullshit and do butt stomps on switches. A Hat in Time, by contrast, aims to capture the feeling of those sorts of games without necessarily attempting to recreate a Nintendo 64 design, warts and all. It has a lot of variety to its various challenges, a goofy sense of humor, and is only a couple of hours long.

Best multiplayer experience of the year: Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege

Not Pictured: that time I played with a friendly Canadian guy doing bong rips over voice chat
Not Pictured: that time I played with a friendly Canadian guy doing bong rips over voice chat

In what might be the most direct effect Giant Bomb actually had on my gaming habits this in 2018, I picked up Rainbow Six Siege partially due to Dan Ryckert’s enthusiasm. When everything clicks into place, it’s the kind of tense, fraught experience that reminds me of when I used to play League of Legends, but concentrated into 5 minute rounds. When it doesn’t click, maybe my team is incompetent or otherwise getting steamrolled… it also reminds me of when I used to play League of Legends. It’s a game of high highs and low lows, and while I sometimes want a more mindless online shooter experience, there’s nothing quite like R6 Siege when I’m actually on the ball.

I am, to put it lightly, pretty terrible at it. I don’t wear a headset as often as I should, I still pick Rook like 75% of the time on defense because his game plan is really simple, and sometimes I just end up getting wasted because I was doing stupid shit or running around without any idea of where to go. It’s okay though, because despite being a game all about communication and map knowledge, it turns out the majority of people playing unranked on PS4 aren’t much better than I am. That’s encouraging, right?

Best Game from Irrational that doesn’t have “Bioshock” in the title, of the year: SWAT 4

I’ll just direct you to the blog post I wrote about SWAT 4, but this game was a pretty big surprise. If you want the case for why I got into R6 Siege in the first place, SWAT 4 probably also had something to do with it. After playing a bunch of Doom, it was nice to try something on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, a slow-paced tactical shooter hung up on procedure. Nothing quite feels as satisfying as flashbanging a room, constantly mashing F to yell at people, then pepper-spraying them when they don't comply. Police work!

2018’s 2017 Game of the Year: Divinity Original Sin 2

I actually used the Definitive Edition as an excuse to give this game another shot, and I'm very glad I did.
I actually used the Definitive Edition as an excuse to give this game another shot, and I'm very glad I did.

I say with all sincerity that Divinity Original Sin 2 is probably the single best thing to come out of the “CRPG Renaissance” of the past few years. Admittedly, I might have a little more personal affinity for Obsidian’s takes on the Infinity Engine, and I’ll shout from the high heavens that Tyranny deserved more attention than it got. However, I think Larian Studios has put forward the strongest case for the kind of systems heavy, mechanics heavy role-playing games in a modern context. If you want involved tactical combat, a staggering variety of viable and flexible characters builds, and the ability to approach quests and combat from a bunch of different angles, it does that incredibly well. Like the last one, it’s probably a dozen hours too long for its own good (as my 60+ hour playtime suggests) but that’s more a problem with my desire to complete all things than anything else.

However, perhaps the biggest improvement of Original Sin 2 over its predecessor is the quality of the writing. While I still can’t claim to care all that much about the world of Rivellon as a setting, the overall quality of prose and dialogue is so much better than the often jokey, weirdly irreverent tone of previous Divinity games. It’s a pretty serious step-up, and I’m very interested in seeing how they manage to follow it up.

Replays of the year: Heroes of Might and Magic III, Dark Souls

It turns out I not only was capable of playing video games that didn’t come out this year, but also capable of playing games that I’ve played before! In particular, I beat the vanilla campaign for Heroes of Might and Magic III for the first time, and found it a pleasant experience. I’ve already talked at length about what that game means to me and defining my tastes, but I will continue to reiterate that Heroes of Might and Magic is pretty good.

Using the fancy-pants remastered version as an excuse, I replayed Dark Souls this year and can confirm that Dark Souls is still pretty great. There’s something to be said for going back to it with all of the acquired knowledge from the rest of the series. In 2011, it was this inscrutable, arcane, niche thing that no one fully understood. Playing it 7 years later, with everything fully documented and no less than 4 other From Software souls games under my belt was a little like doing a victory lap. I hadn’t seen the DLC areas before, and if I might brag for a second, I definitely beat Artorias on my second try. Gotta love that Crystal Soul Spear.

Worst Game I played to completion this year: Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World

Happy New Year. Don't forget that
Happy New Year. Don't forget that "Courage is the magic that turns dreams into reality."

No other game this year entranced me with its profound stupidity as much as Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World. The closest runner-up was probably getting around to finishing The Evil Within 2 (which, man does that game go some weird places) but even that can’t match the bizarre parade of lazy fanservice and “direct to DVD” level of effort that Dawn of the New World puts forth. You only have two permanent party members to worry about alongside a pokemon-esque monster capture mechanic that barely matters. The combat, while still serviceable, feels way floatier than its forebear. The world map has been replaced with a menu of locations, and the plot… well, it has one. Feel free to read my full blog if you are so inclined, but this was definitely an experience that was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

And that’s it from me, I think. If I’m going to be totally honest, I don’t know if I’m going to end up finishing that anime blog or not. I’m honestly pretty tired of writing stuff after multiple papers for school and these two GOTY blogs, so if I do end up writing it, consider the whole thing a bonus. If I don’t end up writing it, all you need to know is that Fate/Zero is the only great Fate anime, and the seasonal anime rush is for chumps. Oh, and you should watch Hunter x Hunter.

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ArbitraryWater's Favorite Games of 2018 (that came out in 2018)

Boy, 2018, am I right? It’s been a weird rollercoaster for me, with plenty of good stuff and goals accomplished to go alongside the endless nightmare of our current political reality™ and the more personal nightmare of sometimes life sucks.™ For better or worse, I haven’t exactly written as much as I thought I would. I wouldn’t exactly say the Giant Bomb’s blogging community (or the forums in general) is super active these days, so motivating oneself to pump out a 1000+ word internet blog can be difficult. Somehow, my incredulous teardown of Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World was the most successful thing I’ve posted since 2015, which probably says something about something. That said, the less depressing reason I only ended up writing three blogs this year is simply that I’ve been pretty busy between school, work, and various other adult-ish responsibilities. I plan on still doing what I can, when I can, and I hope you’ll join me along the way.

If I’m going to be totally honest, I’ll be glad to see another fresh year of video games. This list was harder to compile than I thought it would be, and I wouldn’t say it’s because I had an overabundance of games to choose from. While I would happily, unabashedly recommend the games on this list, I wouldn’t say anything blew me away quite like the top half of my 2017 list. For better or worse, it seems like many of the standout hits of 2018 were big-ass open world games and tighter, run-based experiences. If you know anything about my gaming trajectory at this point, it’s that I’m pretty tired of big-ass open world games and run-based roguelikelikelikes. Red Dead’s ponderously slow, indulgent animations seem like a pretty big indicator that it’s not my thing, and after my first successful run of Dead Cells (at the 10-hour mark) I kinda lost motivation to keep going.

Thus, my list for 2018 is a pretty eclectic assortment of everything else, and to be perfectly honest I think the ordering is pretty fluid here. You could switch most of this list around and I’d probably tell you that it looks totally fine. All you really need to know is that I think these games are good. Starting from 10 and going down.

The Holiday Backlog Catchup Award for “Game I’m still playing”: Pathfinder Kingmaker

No Caption Provided

Partially because I couldn’t think of a great #10 to round out the list, and partially because I’m really enjoying going through it, I’m going to put Pathfinder Kingmaker on this list. Sure, I’m only like a dozen hours into it and have just barely encountered the kingdom management side of things, but it’s good. When the game launched in September, it was in a decidedly rough state, with multi-gigabyte hotfixes being released weekly to try and address stuff like broken quests, abilities, and inflated enemy stats. In an increasingly common trend, it was something I was going to wait on.

Having decided to jump in a few weeks ago, I’m glad to announce that it seems a lot better on that front. Underneath is a decidedly ambitious attempt at recreating one of the the more ambitious Pathfinder adventure modules. Sure, it’s still occasionally buggy, the ruleset is terrifying in its intricacies, (even as someone who knows it) and the writing can occasionally skew generic, but I’m having a surprisingly great time. Might have more to say about it next year.

Tie: Dragon Ball FighterZ and Under Night In-Birth: Exe Late[st]

GokuGokuGoku
GokuGokuGoku

Man I wish I still had it in me to play fighting games on a regular basis. Between last year’s pleasant discovery of Samurai Shodown V Special and this year’s discovery of “Anime Fighters I’m Capable of Comprehending” I’ve had plenty of games to play during those brief periods when I’m interacting with a friend who also plays fighting games. If I liked the sensation of getting curbstomped online or perfunctory AI battles, these games would likely be higher on this list. Similarly, if I had played Blazblue Cross Tag this year, that sounds like it would’ve been up my alley as well.

While I am still one hundred percent trash garbage at Dragon Ball FighterZ, it’s probably the first Arc System Works fighting game I’ve wanted to get better at. I certainly respect the likes of Blazblue and Guilty Gear, but I’ve always found them impenetrable. Dragon Ball solves this problem with a (mostly) straightforward roster and (mostly) streamlined systems underlying the same kind of 3v3 tag battle insanity of a Mahvel that I’m one hundred percent trash garbage at. Oh, and also it’s Dragon Ball and there are no less than four characters named “Goku” so I’m pretty into that.

By contrast, UNIST is all the trappings of your usual bonkers anime fighter, but for humans. That’s my secret way of saying “You can mash shit out and it’ll probably work” which turns out is my favorite kind of fighting game mechanic. It also has a fun cast of characters who are esoteric enough to feel pretty different from one another without being impossible to pick up and figure out.

Best Left 4 Dead: Warhammer Vermintide 2

No Caption Provided

While partially responsible for the repetitive stress injury in my right arm, Vermintide 2 takes that Left 4 Dead formula of the first game and takes it to a logical next step of “what if there were subclasses and way more kinds of loot” to give the player some motivation to play levels more than once. It worked for me, and I not only sunk around 30 hours into it earlier this year, but also tricked multiple others into also playing. While playing cooperative games on the internet with strangers is always a dicey proposition, my experiences were mostly positive.

While I can’t speak to the game’s current state, it sounds like things have maybe not been supported as well as they should, so I should probably throw that in as a caveat.

Octopath Traveler is also a video game I played.

I wrote a blog about Octopath Traveler that explains my feelings on it in detail, so I’m just going to leave that here if you care. I’m not sure if all of the game’s weird episodic storytelling works, but it worked enough that I willingly played through all eight character’s tales… before reaching the “true” final boss, deciding I didn’t want to grind, and turning the whole damn thing off. So… only about 60 hours.

Everyone is here: Super Smash Bros Ultimate

Smash Ultimate is more Super Smash Bros, and it turns out I’m still into that. I’m fully on board with most of the new characters, as well as Sakurai’s willingness to just shove in more Fire Emblem swordboys to make certain people on the internet very angry. Honestly, I don’t think as much of the single player spirits mode as some other people seem to. It’s neat seeing the various different ways spirits are represented in the game, but it can also be grating to work through a bunch of AI gimmick battles and numerical struggles.

Best game I didn't finish: Pillars of Eternity II Deadfire

No Caption Provided

If not for the part where I didn’t finish it (see: repetitive stress injury putting a damper on long PC gaming sessions) Pillars of Eternity II could’ve been my Game of the Year. It’s a pretty marked improvement from the first game on a lot of fronts, with stuff like multiclassing and subclasses slowly but surely inching toward supplanting Baldur’s Gate II as the king of the CRPG. It’s also that pirate RPG that everyone apparently wants (did you know there are no less than two Pathfinder adventure paths that involve being radical pirates?) and, in general, the prose is a little less purple and wordy than the first game. If Pathfinder Kingmaker is the rough around the edges attempt at directly converting Pen and Paper to computers, than Pillars II is the refined, polished take that says you maybe don’t need to

But, of course, I haven’t finished it. I’m to understand that the main story goes a little up its own lorehole, and some of the companion questlines feel a little sparse. While those may end up being true, I still think Pillars II is the best CRPG to come out this year. Hopefully Obsidian will make another one of these and just nail it, but between this game’s apparently poor sales numbers and the Microsoft acquisition, this could be the last one from them for a while.

Most Hitman: Hitman 2

Hitman 2 is more of the same great Hitman flavor, slightly improved and refined. Given how good Hitman 2016 was, I am more than okay with that. I think the general quality of the maps is better this time around than the last one, and I hope IO gets to make more of them.

Dad of War

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If you want a case for what big budget, AAA video games are still capable of accomplishing, the God of War soft reboot is a pretty good one. While I didn’t enjoy every little bit of Kratos and Son’s journey, it manages to combine the kind of ridiculous, over-the-top spectacle the series is known for with more intimate, emotional moments. I’m sure you’ve heard that like a thousand times at this point, that’s fair. At least I’m not going to tell you about how the game relates to my own experiences of fatherhood, or whatever. But it works. They manage to make a God of War game that confronts the series legacy without betraying it, which is a tricky needle to thread.

Where God of War falters for me is where a lot of big budget AAA video games falter for me. I got over automatic climbing sequences a long time ago, the boss fights feel a little more flashy than interactive, and I don’t necessarily think the game benefits all that much from RPG-esque progression and loot. Like a lot of modern games, throwing in stats feels a boondoggle most of the time, and while you can kinda, sorta make a Kratos that works for your playstyle, by the end of the game you’re still going to have the same abilities as everyone else.

As a result, I didn’t find the post-game content all that compelling, and in fact I think it kinda reveals the shortcomings in the game’s combat. While the attempt at splitting the difference between a more deliberate, souls-y combat and a character action game works for most of the main story, it starts to fall apart in the challenge arenas and the Valkyrie fights. Between some ridiculous enemy patterns in those Muspelheim arenas and the part where Valkyries just sometimes have super armor, it feels less like you’re applying your mastery of the game’s systems and more that you’ve learned to exploit them. Still, I’m not going to drag any game through the mud too hard for the quality of its optional post-credits content. God of War is good and I enjoyed it quite a bit up to that point.

Valkyria Chronicles 4 is at #2, because I felt like it.

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Boy, remember Valkyria Revolution? No you don’t. Don’t be crazy, I’m pretty sure no one played that game. There was definitely a period when I was terrified that was going to be the end of Sega’s premiere “What if World War II, but anime” series, but thankfully Valkyria Chronicles 4 exists and I am better for it. Like Hitman 2, it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but the wheel in this case is Valkyria Chronicles 1, which came out a literal decade ago. In that context, I’m totally okay with VC4 playing it mostly safe, even if I wouldn’t have minded some of the more esoteric classes of the PSP games.

If there is a marked improvement, it’s in the mission design, which feels a lot more resistant to the cheese tactics I employed during my time with the first game. Sure, scouts are still king and I still find engineers borderline-useless, but as a whole the game is a lot better at forcing a variety of tactics from the player. The storytelling is… still very anime, and I’d hesitate to call it “amazing” or anything, but Claude and his crew of doofuses is at the very least more likeable and tolerable than Welkin and Alicia ever were. It has its share of emotional moments that work surprisingly well, which almost compensates for the multiple times I rolled my eyes!

Is this my game of the year? Maybe? Sure. Why not? It was pretty good. To hell with it. This is my Game of the Year: Monster Hunter World

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I *only* put around 70 hours into Monster Hunter World, which seems scant compared to the 370 hours I put into MH4 Ultimate, or even the 120 hours I put into MH Generations. In another sense, it didn’t totally tank my grades and consume my life for a period of multiple months, so that’s actually a good thing. It’s still got all of the things that make Monster Hunter appealing, but with HD graphics and quality-of-life improvements that made it accessible to normal humans! While you could honestly put any of the top half of the list in this spot, let’s just say that this is my game of the year.

Honorable Mentions: Into The Breach, Spyro Reignited Trilogy, Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon

I was obsessed with Into the Breach for the space of about two weeks, and then basically dropped it completely. I think it’s an incredibly well-crafted game that feels like it owes less to turn-based tactics and more to puzzle games. Perhaps unintentionally, It made me come to the realization that I like the chaos and uncertainty of your average grid-based tactics game. I like being able to use random number bullshit to compensate for questionable strategies, and I like being able to use solid strategies to compensate for questionable random number bullshit. Alongside the aforementioned “run-based roguelikelikelike” thing, Into the Breach didn’t really have a ton of staying power for me. It’s good though!

As a Nintendo kid, I still have a soft spot for dumb collectathon 3D platformers, and Spyro is a trilogy of dumb 3D collectathon platformers. It’s a very chill, low-intensity experience and it’s also very, very pretty. Don’t really need to say much more than that.

I really hope the Bloodstained retro demake game doesn’t accidentally end up being better than the actual metroidvania that was kickstarted, but it’s very good. It’s short, sweet, doesn’t overstay its welcome (but still gives the player reasons to replay) and is a kinder, gentler take on those original NES Castlevania games. Also it was $5.

Mention: Battlefield V.

Battlefield V: It Exists!
Battlefield V: It Exists!

I’ve been playing a lot of Battlefield V with friends, because I couldn’t convince them to play Rainbow Six Siege with me, and it was already half off because holy shit video games barely hold their value anymore. When everything is working perfectly, such as when I have a full squad coordinating over voice chat, it’s a pretty fun multiplayer shooter. When I’m playing alone and everyone on my team is running around like a headless chicken and pretending it’s Call of Duty, things are less fun. It’s also occasionally stupid janky, with things like progression not registering, occasionally kicking me from games just because, and the menus being slow, laggy pieces of shit.

But hey, I’ll still play it, because no one wanted to get good at Siege with me. But really, it’s fine.

The backlog award for games I will totally, definitely get around to playing more of in 2019. Just you wait: The Bard’s Tale IV, Battletech, Forza Horizon 4

Like Pathfinder Kingmaker, The Bard’s Tale IV launched in a pretty rough state with technical optimization issues up the ass. Now that it’s benefitted from months of patching, it’s hopefully better on that front. Even if I feel pretty lukewarm on InXile as a whole, the little I played of BT4 seemed like a decently promising little dungeon crawler, so hopefully it will pan out when I eventually give it a look.

Battletech, also known as “The Most Austin Walker game in existence” features both turn-based tactics and giant-ass robots, which are both things I ostensibly am into. Admittedly, I never got an amazing grasp of Battletech’s various systems when I played it earlier this year, but I’m more than willing to give it another earnest shot.

I don’t actually own Forza Horizon 4, but I did get a month of game pass for $1 at one point to play approximately three hours of Sea of Thieves (oddly enough, we did not want to play more after those three hours.) After that mistake was made, the handful of hours I played of Forza Horizon 4 seemed very good. I’m usually not one for simulation racing games, or really racing games in general that don’t involve go-karts or Burnout Paradise, but I will happily make an exception for this.

Well, that was too long. That’s it for me. You can look forward to my other, far more important Old GOTY Blog and possibly something anime related in the near future. Have a good one.

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SWATctopath Traveler (and other dubious uses of time and money)

While the summer slowly creeps to a close, I’ve been slowly creeping my way through a handful of games, as one does when they don't have much of a social life and a fairly large backlog of video games to look at. I could tell you about how I think Dead Cells is pretty good even though I’m sick to death of “run-based games with a similar permanent death structure to the old computer game Rogue and its contemporaries.” That might be something I touch upon near the end of the year, depending on how I feel about it after some more time, so instead how about I talk about the games everyone else isn’t already showering praise upon?

SWAT 4

Police. Crime. Action.
Police. Crime. Action.

There’s something really strange and slightly hilarious about SWAT 4 being the direct descendant of Police Quest: SWAT, the game responsible for the infamous “slice the pie” moment during one of Vinny and Dave’s old game streams. (Seriously, if you’re a newer premium subscriber and haven’t watched that video, do so immediately. I’ll wait.) I’m not quite sure how SWAT went from being the worst kind of mid-90s FMV adventure game to a tense squad shooter developed by a pre-Bioshock Irrational Games, but I guess if nothing else there’s still a shared obsession with police procedure and “authenticity.” Regardless of how it happened (I guess SWAT 2 is like… a real-time tactics game where you fight a drug cult?) I found myself surprisingly way into SWAT 4’s brand of slightly pedantic, somewhat punishing squad shooting, to the point where I played the entire game and its expansion with a damn mouse and keyboard despite the whole “chronic repetitive stress injury” thing I have going on with my right arm.

It’s fair to say that one of the biggest reasons SWAT 4 appealed to me in the first place is that I haven’t really played anything else like it. The brief heyday of serious tactical shooters was certainly one that passed me by, and for as many sneer quotes as I’ll throw around the word “authentic” I can’t think of many other shooters that force the player into clearly defined rules of engagement and procedure as strictly and emphatically as SWAT. You can't shoot a suspect with a lethal weapon until they aim their weapon at a police officer or hostage, and there's a button semi-dedicated to yelling at people to get on the ground, which I find hilarious but is also a required part of the procedure. That style of high-lethality tactical shooting alongside a scoring system that emphasizes non-lethal engagement and police busywork (zip-tying everyone, collecting loose weapons, reporting status to the TOC) creates a very unique sort of experience, in which moments of careful planning, scouting, and containment are punctuated with instances of violence and chaos as my (bad) plans inevitably went to hell with spectacular and disastrous results. Also, you can subdue people by tasing them or shooting a bunch of pepper spray in their face, which I will fully admit to enjoying more than is possibly healthy or respectable.

Do you want a bank that looks like a bank? SWAT 4 has you covered!
Do you want a bank that looks like a bank? SWAT 4 has you covered!

The other thing that stands out for me are the environments these missions take place in. There’s a certain dedication to mundane realism to SWAT 4’s level design that I really appreciate, including a lot of very good fake advertisements and businesses to look at while you’re clearing out buildings one room at a time. Even when you’re clearing out a tenement occupied by an apocalyptic cult, complete with some Bioshock-ass obvious graffiti on the wall* the layout of the rooms in the building itself feels plausible in a way that reminds me Irrational made this game. A self-contained building or series of buildings in each level admittedly isn’t as ambitious or cohesive as something like Rapture (or, more recently, Talos 1) but they exhibit an attention to immersion and detail that betrays the Looking Glass roots of the development studio.

It’s worth mentioning that, for as much as I will sing its praises and was able to see both the base game and expansion to credits, I am pretty bad at SWAT 4. When we talk about the demise of these sorts of hardcore tactical shooters, a phrase that will often get bandied around is “trial-and-error.” It’s not an entirely invalid criticism in any sort of game where one mistake at the wrong time can mean instant death, but I also have an affinity for weird old stealth bullshit and Dark Souls, which I think means I have a higher-than-average tolerance for that stuff. The AI of the squadmates is generally pretty good, but there are sometimes instances where they’ll throw a grenade at a weird angle, or get shotgunned in the face because something about the situation wasn’t checking the boxes for their rules of engagement. More often than not, however, I think the game is well-designed enough that my failings were often my own stupid fault, because I wasn’t patient, didn’t give great orders to the squad, or straight-up missed an important shot. I’d like to think I figured stuff out over the course of my playthrough (hey, you should probably maybe definitely consider wedging doors shut so people can’t get around you) but I managed to slop my way through on Normal difficulty surprisingly well, sometimes accidentally shooting people when I wasn’t supposed to, or watching as my AI squadmates all bit the dust. I can’t imagine getting anywhere on Impossible (where the required score to pass is 95/100) but the original Rainbow Six this is not. I played like half an hour of that thing out of curiosity and I think it might be a tad too old and intentionally inaccessible for me to want to put any more time into it.

Okay, maybe environmental storytelling is good, actually.
Okay, maybe environmental storytelling is good, actually.

By contrast, I think anyone interested should give SWAT 4 a shot. While I don’t have a ton of interest in the entirely unsurprising “improved realism” mods or jumping through half a dozen hoops to play cooperative multiplayer, it’s one of the more novel and exciting things I’ve played this year (which is as much an indictment of how I feel about some of 2018’s hottest releases as it is a reflection of my own weird playing habits.) Honestly, it feels like I would’ve written a blog about this game 5 or 6 years ago if it was legally available back then, though that might just be the Looking Glass-adjacent nature of the whole thing.

*Just a little tangent, but I think “graffiti as environmental storytelling” is one of those things that I find super corny now. I’ll continue to accept, if sort of smirk at, convenient diaries and audiologs with door codes because video games aren’t made of infinite money, but for whatever reason I find the idea of some poor NPC writing ALL IS LOST in blood to be incredibly hokey and kind of hilarious.

Octopath Traveler

Just 8 entirely unrelated people hanging out and helping each other with their problems.
Just 8 entirely unrelated people hanging out and helping each other with their problems.

60+ hours and 8 completed stories later, I think it’s fair to say I enjoyed my time with Octopath Traveler. That’s probably not a surprise, given my preference toward mechanically dense RPGs is well-known, and there was a period in my life where I’d continually yell that Final Fantasy V was my favorite of the series. It’s why I found Bravely Default as frustrating as I did, because that game was halfway to being the modernized 16 bit RPG successor people wanted. If it had characters who weren’t obnoxious or one-note and didn’t give up around the 2/3rds mark, it probably would’ve been one of my favorite games of the last few years (Bravely Second kinda flew under my radar, and I never got around to playing it.) While I’m not entirely sure on the connection to the Bravely Default team, (I know there was some involvement from them on the Square-Enix side, but the bulk of actual development work was done by (some of) the people responsible for that vampire stripping game) but in a lot of ways Octopath Traveler feels like the modern FF V throwback that I wanted Bravely Default to be, though in other ways it’s… more complicated.

First off, if I haven’t made it evident already, I’m an absolute sucker for in-depth turn-based combat and flexible character building options. With the boost system resembling a less esoteric take on Bravely Default’s turn counting shenanigans, Shin Megami Tensei-esque weakness exploitation, and just a dash of class changing, it’s fair to say that the mechanics and combat in Octopath intersect with all of my Japanese RPG venn diagrams. I wouldn’t call it especially tough, at least if you know what you’re doing, but it’s involved enough that you can’t expect to randomly boost or attack and come out okay. The downside of that is sometimes even mundane random encounters can be a little on the long side, though I’m all for the boss fights being as long and demanding as they are.

I should've probably spent more time talking about how good this game looks, but allow me to reiterate that Octopath Traveler is hella pretty.
I should've probably spent more time talking about how good this game looks, but allow me to reiterate that Octopath Traveler is hella pretty.

Even in the context of it being an intentionally old-school JRPG, Octopath is still a weird game to talk about. Beyond aforementioned turn-based combat, random encounters, etc, I think any given person’s enjoyment of it is almost entirely going to hinge around what they think of its unorthodox structure. While I know the concept of multiple separate stories in a JRPG isn’t a new thing (there are a surprising number of games with a similar idea, but most of them are Japan-only Super Famicom releases) it’s certainly not common. As someone who is occasionally fatigued with the way a lot of RPGs, Western or Japanese, are plotted, I’m very much into the concept of telling a bunch of smaller, more personal stories with lower stakes than your average “save the world from an ancient evil” tale. In practice, I found Octopath’s eight stories to range wildly in quality. While I’d call the prose encompassing all of them to be well-written, or at least well-localized (i.e. tone and characterization are conveyed well, though someone got way too carried away with H’aanit’s Middle English) it’s all in service to earnest, simple stories. I’d say that worked for me half the time, but the other half of the time I was alternating between rolling my eyes at overdone, obvious cliches and tropes (the number of mustache twirling villains who literally go “WAHAHAHAHAHA” is too much) and making depressingly accurate predictions about how any given story was going to proceed. Tressa’s story might as well end with someone saying “The real treasures were the friends we made along the way!” and I think that just about killed me. It probably doesn’t help that I think her VA is trying a little too hard, though I’d say the general quality of the English voice acting is decent, if not outstanding.

I’m of two minds in regards to how Octopath Traveler splits up and structures those eight stories. On one hand, I respect the uncompromising vision of everything being entirely disconnected. One could theoretically play through all four chapters of a single character’s story without ever picking up anyone else. It would be tedious, grindy, and not at all fun, but like fighting Ganon immediately after getting off the plateau in Breath of the Wild, it’s possible. Alongside the way you can perform everyone’s “path action” on almost every NPC, it ties everything together in a systemic, sandbox-y way which fits with the whole diorama aesthetic they have going on.

Here's my hot take: the open, nonlinear structure is sometimes good! Other times it's not so good!
Here's my hot take: the open, nonlinear structure is sometimes good! Other times it's not so good!

On the other hand… I kind of do wish they compromised the entirely open structure for the sake of a more interesting story. That would've led to a different game, with different design decisions along the way, but you know how practically everyone who’s played this game has complained about how little the main characters actually interact with each other? I also have that problem! While you do eventually get party banter once everyone’s chapter 2 starts to roll around, that could be a dozen hours into the game, which makes going through all of the chapter 1s a surreal, disconnected experience, especially if you play through multiple of them in one sitting. You need to do some weird party swapping shenanigans if you want to see all of them, and you don’t even start getting conversations with more than two characters until you finish someone’s chapter 4. The conversations themselves are usually charming, and come off like more contextual Fire Emblem supports or Tales skits, but I wouldn’t say any of them are revelatory.

How much that bothers you is going to be a very subjective thing, though for my part it was hardly a deal breaker. For all my talk of involved combat and inconsistent story quality, I think one of my favorite things about Octopath Traveler is how chill it is. I don’t see the repetitive nature of each chapter (around 15 minutes of story, basic dungeon crawl, boss, story, repeat) as a downside, and it works well in short bursts or marathon sessions with as much exploration and side quests as you want in-between. Despite claims to the contrary, I got enough experience just fighting most of the battles I came across and didn’t need to grind all that much outside of specific optional boss fights and the post-game. It doesn’t hurt that it’s really pretty to look at, and the soundtrack is easily my favorite of the year. I’m trying to drift away from saying “It isn’t for everyone” when I talk about anything encompassed by my eclectic weirdo tastes, because that should be self-evident. Instead, I’m going to say that Octopath Traveler actually worked really well for me in spite of quirks and problems others seem to take greater issue with. It’s pretty good! Maybe you should play it!

Random Endorsement

So, originally I was going to finish this blog last Friday but that endeavor was immediately flushed down the toilet by my discovery of various Doom source ports and mods, specifically Brutal Doom, a mod that indulges in the violent, gory, and stupid parts of the original games and amplifies them exponentially. I know it’s been floating around for a while, but I didn’t own Doom on PC until… like 3 days ago, and in the time since I started writing the Octopath Traveler section and the time I finished it, I beat all 4 episodes of Doom 1 in brutal fashion. I don’t know if I need to do the same for Doom 2 (I think I’d rather play that for the first time in a semi-unmodified capacity) but if you have the means and inclination, you should at least give Brutal Doom a look. It's worth at least 15 minutes for a laugh, while still being an entirely viable excuse to replay Doom again if you are willing to put in the time.

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Tales of Arbitraria 2: Mistakes Were Made

COURAGE IS THE MAGIC THAT TURNS DREAMS INTO REALITY

Top 10 Anime Betrayals
Top 10 Anime Betrayals

I wasn’t expecting things to go this way. Really. All I wanted was something to play with a controller after a repetitive stress injury in my right arm made playing Pillars of Eternity 2 (or anything else with mouse and keyboard) an actively painful experience. I figured, sure, why not try the bad sequel to Tales of Symphonia? Might as well put in a couple hours, get a basic grasp for why the fanbase hates it to death, and move on. But uh, as you might guess, that didn’t happen. For as much as I enjoyed Tales of Symphonia, it wasn’t so revelatory an experience that I’d feel the need to go on some sort of nightmarish journey through every other Tales game*. Sure, I was planning to eventually give Xillia, Vesperia, and Berseria (i.e. the ones I’ve heard generally positive things about) a shot, but the ones with more mixed/ambiguous reception like Graces F, Zestiria, and especially this one were going to be worth an optional glance at best. But, uh, around 30 hours of my life later, here I am. For once, my completion of this game wasn’t entirely the product of self-loathing and morbid curiosity. Tales of Symphonia 2 might be a bad game, but it’s bad and incompetent in the most fascinating of ways.

Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World is a baffling thing. As the first direct sequel to another Tales game, specifically the first Tales game to get any sort of serious cult status over here in the west, it feels like a complete misstep (thus the part where mentioning it on the internet immediately draws the same kind of seething negativity normally reserved for the Star Wars prequels.) It feels like some people at Namco had some ideas for a JRPG, those ideas were tacked onto the idea of a Symphonia sequel, and then that sequel was given to a B-team to make something for the Wii (which, need I remind you, was still pretty hot shit in 2008) while the A-team worked on Vesperia (which came out a few months earlier.) That feels evident in the removal of any sort of overworld map, the number of recycled environments, a less visually striking art style, the somewhat floatier, less-responsive combat, and the inclusion of a Pokemon/SMT-esque monster taming mechanic, which I honestly think is one of those things that proves your JRPG sequel or spinoff has no interesting mechanical ideas. If I may be so bold, however, I don’t think those are really the biggest reasons why Tales of Symphonia 2 has the reputation that it does.

Controversial Opinion: I didn't mind the removal of an overworld. It meant I got through the game more quickly.
Controversial Opinion: I didn't mind the removal of an overworld. It meant I got through the game more quickly.

The closest direct analog I can think of is Final Fantasy X-2, which is not a flattering comparison unless you take delight in the suffering of certain Giant Bomb forum moderators. It’s a direct sequel in a JRPG series without many of them, and taking place after a fairly conclusive ending without a ton of dangling threads. However, while FF X-2 is well remembered for basically running roughshod through the characters, story, tone, and world of the previous game for the sake of making a quick buck and keeping Square afloat, Dawn of the New World comes off as doing the inverse. Rather than actively go out of its way to take a J-POP filled dump on the adventures of Lloyd and friends, the game is afraid of doing anything with those old characters or environments beyond remind the player (me) of a different game I finished a few months ago.

A large portion of Dawn of the New World’s runtime is devoted to our new (idiot) protagonists conveniently bumbling their way through most of the towns and dungeons of the first game for the most basic of reasons and bumping into various members of Symphonia’s main cast (sans Kratos) for what are essentially extended cameo appearances. It’s referential fan service of the least exciting degree, treating the original game with a level of undue reverence and disconnect that prevents this new one from doing anything interesting (or transgressive) with the returning cast and world. Lloyd and his friends have plenty of cumulative screen time, but very little of it is outside the context of their interactions with Emil, Marta, and Tenebrae (who I’ll get to) and reminders of their general state at the end of the last game. As someone who liked (most) of those characters quite a bit, some of those interactions still worked on me, and I was even happy to see the likes of Colette and Regal show up. This is all made even weirder by the notable absence of most of the original game’s English voice cast, which lends a certain bizarre tilt to all of this, as if they’ve been replaced by a bunch of adequately talented doppelgangers.

I can't really emphasize enough how much I hate (and love to hate) this little shit.
I can't really emphasize enough how much I hate (and love to hate) this little shit.

For a series that I’m to understand often hits and misses based on the strength of its ensemble casts, the surreal way this game treats its returning characters as static objects has the effect of firmly putting the burden of character development on the new dinguses who we’re supposed to like. I won’t dance around: Emil is a garbage boy with a split personality who spends most of the journey alternating between quivering meekness and violent sociopathy (I’d make a joke about cucks and alpha males here, but honestly I’m sort of exhausted with that kind of stuff right now) and Marta is the enthusiastic, adoring love interest whose affection for him starts to unintentionally resemble that of a battered spouse by the end. They’re the kind of bad, adolescent anime cliches that might survive as supporting characters in another, better written Tales game, but since they (alongside the shadow spirit Tenebrae, who is totally okay at his job of being stuffy, offering exposition, and making sardonic quips) are almost entirely in the spotlight, their dumb, bad relationship is given ample screen time to make you roll your eyes and wish you had more characters to play as. This is made even dumber as the original Symphonia cast starts to play a bigger role in the plot and the game desperately tries to integrate those two as “part of the gang.” It, uh, doesn’t work. It’s not the fault of the voice actors either. Johnny Young Bosch and Laura Bailey do their darndest to earn those paychecks by delivering those lines at maximum anime, but hot damn do they have nothing to work with.

Speaking of nothing to work with, Dawn of the New World has a story. It exists. Between the comparison to Final Fantasy X-2, the way returning characters and areas are paraded around for fan service, and the unfortunate main duo, you’d be right in assuming that the plot is both flimsy and profoundly stupid. I don’t need to spend too much time on it because it doesn’t matter beyond being a way to convey the characters from location to location. All you really need to know is that Emil and Marta spend half the game cursing Lloyd because they think he murdered a bunch of people (something any player over the age of 10 would immediately know he didn’t do), there’s some vague motions towards conflict between the worlds that were united at the end of the first game (but barely any of it is shown), MacGuffins are chased after and obtained, the villains are ineffectual and cartoonish, lost memories are revealed, the final boss is a well-intentioned extremist who wants to destroy the world because he’s sad, and of course, “Courage is the magic that turns dreams into reality.” Really, I think that kind of sums it up. It’s the sort of inane, obvious JRPG nonsense phrase that probably sounds better in Japanese, and it’s repeated by the cast ad nauseum because there’s a little too much talking happening at all times.

Don't worry, dear reader. I'm not planning on returning to the heady days of 2013, where I started intentionally seeking bad video games to play for no good reason.
Don't worry, dear reader. I'm not planning on returning to the heady days of 2013, where I started intentionally seeking bad video games to play for no good reason.

It’s understandable if, given the words I’ve written, you’d assume I utterly hated my time with this game. Surprisingly? Not as much as you might think. For one, the combat is still alright despite being objectively worse than Symphonia and only giving you two characters to really develop and mess around with (the returning characters have locked equipment and don’t level up.) Emil eventually gets the ability to juggle foes in the air for absurdly long periods of time, and Marta’s easy, spammable multi-hit combos mean that you can abuse the generous bonus XP granted for high hit totals. The monster mechanics… are at least very low maintenance and can be shoved aside after a certain point. The incredibly linear pacing and lack of world map at least meant that I was never really bogged down. But more importantly, I hope I’ve conveyed how practically everything in Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World feels like a catastrophic misstep or a downgrade. It’s a near-perfect confluence of mistakes that loops around from weird, bad sequel to “academic poster child for everything to not do in a video game sequel.” That’s not to say any sane person should actually play this, no. There are like a bajillion other Tales games one could likely play instead to scratch that itch, and I’m led to believe almost all of them are better than this one. But, buuuuut, as far as my intentional playthrough of a bad RPG for the year is concerned I don’t hate myself and the world around me like I did after Mass Effect Andromeda last year.

* This is not to say that a “I play all of the Tales Games” nightmare scenario/feature is something that couldn’t happen. I’ve watched almost all of the Fate/Stay Night anime series this year for no good reason, so I’m not above this kind of bad decision making. I think these games are pretty fun, and if this is the worst of them then I think I could theoretically tolerate something like Tales of the Abyss’ dipshit protagonist.

Random Endorsement:

This game makes me happy
This game makes me happy

So, in a totally different direction from this whole blog, I’d like to quickly talk about a game I’ve genuinely adored my time with. A Hat in Time is the throwback collectathon platformer that I wanted Yooka-Laylee to be. It’s admittedly a much tighter, smaller, and more structured game compared to the sprawling, directionless levels of Y-L, but what it loses in scope it makes up for in charm and variety. There are only 40 hourglasses (your star/jigsaw equivalent) but each of those hourglasses is behind an unique scenario or part of a platforming challenge hidden in one of the levels. It’s the kind of zero-bullshit, low-filler experience that didn’t insult my time and genuinely delivered on the promise of making an idealized, modernized representation of a type of game from my childhood, rather than (as Yooka-Laylee did) kinda just making a prettier version of a game from 1998. It also helps that the game has tight, responsive controls on top of how good it looks and sounds. Can't really recommend it enough.

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Tales of Arbitraria (and other dubious uses of time and money)

Dad of War will not be the subject of this internet blog. I think it's quite good. Maybe not
Dad of War will not be the subject of this internet blog. I think it's quite good. Maybe not "Game of the Year" good, but absolutely worth a look.

Oh hey. I guess it’s been a while since the last one of these, huh? You can blame a couple of factors for that. The first and most obvious is that, for as much as I’d like it to be otherwise, my amateur blog about video games simply doesn’t demand priority over the myriad other concerns I have to juggle in my life. I’m not going to pretend I’m some sort of fabulously responsible adult with a wife and a salary, but I think it’s fair to say that I can’t quite dedicate the time to both play a bajilliondy games and write 1500 word blogs on them the same way I could 5 years ago.

A less boring/depressing reason for me not writing anything in the last handful of months has to do with most of my dedicated gaming time in 2018 being spent on stuff that wouldn’t make for interesting reading. That’s another way of saying I don’t know if I really need to write a lengthy dissertation on something like the new God of War. It’s a genuinely great game that you probably already know is great, and/or are probably sick of hearing about. I don’t know what else I could say about it other than “I think it has some pacing issues” and “I don’t think I need stats and equipment in my character action games.” I’ll fully admit that novelty plays a certain part in what motivates me to write, which is probably a holdover from when I pretty much exclusively blogged about older games and semi-obscure CRPGs. It’s only fitting then, that my first dumb internet blog for 2018 is a Gamecube RPG from 2004.

Tales of Symphonia

Worth mentioning that I played the PS3 version, which adds some stuff but I guess has some weird technical hangups?
Worth mentioning that I played the PS3 version, which adds some stuff but I guess has some weird technical hangups?

You can likely find years worth of evidence of me saying some variation of “These Tales games really seem like they’d be up my alley” on this very website. I’m partial to RPGs with crunchy mechanics, I like involved combat, and if the last year and a half are anything to go by, I clearly am also a big fan of anime bullshit. After some amount of encouragement from my roommate, I finally bothered to take the plunge on the Tales game that is universally held-up by the fanbase as being one of the “good” ones, and… yeah. Yep. Tales of Symphonia is a good game that I enjoyed my time with. It has problems, but as far as introducing and selling me on Namco’s long-running cash cow, it did its job.

It probably speaks to my narrow JRPG experience that a “traditionally” structured Japanese RPG (complete with overworld map, a linear progression of towns and dungeons, and the inevitable airship equivalent near the halfway mark) managed to actually be novel in its own way. It’s certainly been a bit time since I’ve played something that starts off with plucky group of idiot kids on a fantasy quest to save the world and banish darkness or something. It’s some cliched, adolescent, anime-ass JRPG melodrama that I spent hours making fun of, but it’s at the very least earnest in a way I can respect. Even at the end, when speeches about the power of friendship are made and we learn that fantasy racism is bad, I still was having a pretty good time.

I think a lot of that had less to do with the plot (which ends with our heroes fighting an androgynous angel man from the ancient past who wants to destroy the world because he’s sad or something) and a lot more to do with the strength of Tales of Symphonia’s main cast. On paper, they’re all plucked from the JRPG manual of archetypes, but in execution are often given enough time and complexity to grow into interesting, likeable sorts. They’re not all created equal, and that doesn’t extend to the supporting cast, mind you. Protagonist Lloyd Irving is every bit the exact kind of hot blooded, idealistic dingus these sorts of stories always throw to the forefront, but even he has a coherent, logical character arc where he learns from his mistakes and becomes a better person for it. However, as someone over the age of 14, I found myself gravitating more towards the “adults in the room,” willing to temper Lloyd and Colette’s idiot optimism with a certain level of logic and cynicism. Even someone like Zelos, who initially comes off as a borderline-intolerable ladies man becomes a worthwhile addition to the group once you learn more about him and what his deal is.

Our protagonist in a nutshell. At least he's more interesting than blandly sweet, exceptionally dull Colette.
Our protagonist in a nutshell. At least he's more interesting than blandly sweet, exceptionally dull Colette.

It’s good that I liked the characters, because they manage to hold things up when the game’s pacing and momentum become wretchedly slow. Telling stories in video games is hard, and trying to stretch out a story over the course of dozens of hours can be exceptionally difficult. Symphonia’s story will occasionally give major plot developments barely any breathing room, then follow those up with lengthy diversions or macguffin hunts. The worst example of this might be a false climax right at the end of the game, complete with heroic sacrifices and triumphant speeches before revealing… there’s another 5 hours to go. I wonder if I’d even be complaining about this if I didn’t think the dungeons were on the sloggish side of long. They all traffick in a certain brand of inane, trial-and-error puzzle design that occasionally borders on clever but more often feels like an attempt to take as much time as possible. The only moments that reminded me more that I was playing a game from 2004 were the sheer number of weird, optional, and missable secrets and random bits. Unlike the dungeon design, that’s not an entirely bad thing, since I live in a world with easy access to a strategy guide and YouTube. Zelos gets a title if you have him talk to every single female NPC in the game! Genis gets a title if you don’t use Gels for like 20 hours! There’s a hidden affection rating for each character that determines if you get some optional scenes near the end! That shit is both really dumb and also kinda great! Oh, it’d be a nightmare if I was going for the platinum trophy, but I’m not, so it isn’t.

The combat can occasionally descend into chaotic nonsense, but thankfully you only have to worry about controlling one character.
The combat can occasionally descend into chaotic nonsense, but thankfully you only have to worry about controlling one character.

That leaves the much vaunted bread and butter of the Tales series, the combat (LIMB systems? You’ve got that right, there’s tons about LIMB systems!) Throwing in action-y, fighting game-esque mechanics into real-time RPG combat is basically all of my stupid checkboxes in one thing, so it absolutely makes sense that I enjoyed the hell out of Symphonia’s combat. It maybe takes a little too long to get going, but by the end I was chaining together like 4 attacks and 3 artes to stunlock bosses and was having a lot of fun doing it. It does get less challenging as things go on (Lloyd feels like a win button at points, given how fast his attacks are and how easily they combo together) but that also meant I had plenty of space to experiment and mess around with all of the characters and their abilities. If I have an actual bone to pick, I think Symphonia’s weird 2.5D combat plane feels really janky, especially if you have multiple human players trying to fight different monsters. I know they moved to full 3D pretty quickly afterward, so I guess I’m looking forward to seeing what that looks like.

Yeah, so I guess I should say Tales of Symphonia left a positive enough impression that I’m absolutely interested in seeing what else the series has to offer. While I’ve seen recent JRPGs with better stories (i.e. watching my roommate play through Xenoblade Chronicles 2) and would have probably preferred this one ending 10 hours earlier than it did, I’m all down to add yet another pile of lengthy-ass games to my already depressing RPG backlog. I already own Symphonia’s universally detested sequel and both Xillia games, so I think I’ll end up checking those out sometime before the heat death of the universe. But, uh, Pillars of Eternity 2 comes out on Tuesday, and I’m sorry, but my RPG heart will always be with mouse and keyboard, D&D-ass isometric computer bullshit when push comes to shove.

Random Endorsement:

Hey, perhaps you’ve heard that I like the Heroes of Might and Magic series? Oh, you haven’t? Well, you’re in luck, because I finished the campaign for Heroes of Might and Magic III: The Restoration of Erathia recently, something that I’ve never done despite being “that guy with the Might and Magic avatar” for something like 9 years. It was a good reminder for why Heroes III is often considered the high point of the series (something I might be willing to debate depending on the day of the week) and also helped remind me of some of Heroes III’s minor nitpicky shortcomings, from the uselessness of certain skills (Air Magic is king, Eagle Eye is not) to the AI’s predictable quirks, to the way that offensive magic scales poorly into the late game.

In that vein, I’m giving away a GOG code for this game, partially because I need to start offloading these GOG codes I've acquired over the years and partially because I think this game is good and people should play it. I'm not going to ask for any sort of weird contest, just have at least 100 posts or a Giant Bomb premium membership (so I can tell you're not some weird carpetbagger or key reseller) and leave a comment. I'd prefer if you put some effort into it (maybe commenting about your favorite Tales game or something! Childhood favorites that still hold up? Start an edition war discussion between Pathfinder and D&D 5e?) but I'm not picky. I have a couple of other GOG codes if Heroes isn't your forte. I know all of you are itching at a chance to play Wizardry 8 as we speak.

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ArbitraryWater's Personal Anime Nightmare Hole 2017: This Was a Bad Idea

Alright, so here’s the thing: I’m not doing a “Best of 2017 that didn’t come out in 2017” list. That came about for various reasons, the most obvious being that I didn’t play a ton of noteworthy older games for the first time this year. Aside from Ninja Gaiden Black/Sigma 2 and a handful of visual novels it wasn’t an especially great year for new, old experiences (I still intent to finish Lightning Returns at some point.) I did replay some of my favorites this year, but other than being able to confirm to you that Resident Evil 4 is still great, I’m not all that sure what I can say on that front.

Instead, because I hate myself and don’t have anywhere else to vent, I’ve decided to write up a little summary of the other dumb entertainment garbage I’ve been into this year. Anime. It’s from Japan*! I’ve dabbled for years, watching a handful of series every year whenever I had the inclination (I’ve seen Gurren Lagann, I know what’s up), but it wasn’t until now that I decided to venture beyond casual fandom into a deep, dark nightmare hole that, quite frankly, was both a great and terrible use of my time. I couldn’t tell you why this year was the tipping point, maybe it was simply watching a number of really good series back-to-back that finally made me decide to go further. Maybe it was because a large chunk of my social circle sort of disintegrated as friends graduated or otherwise moved on with their lives. Maybe it was because I played my share of anime-ass video games and figured I might as well continue with the real thing. Who knows? Point is, I watched a shitload of anime this year, and need to talk about it somewhere. However, dedicated anime forums scare me, so I guess the number one source for Naked Cartoon Pussy™ on the web will have to do. That’s what anime is, right?

*I tend to lean more towards the essentialist argument that only stuff from Japan counts as “anime” as far as the dark holes of the internet are concerned. You’re free to say otherwise, just know that while I enjoyed that Netflix Castlevania thing, I didn’t count it as part of the “anime” I watched in 2017.

In any case, I’m not going to give a lengthy dissertation about everything I watched this year, because that would take too long and I don’t feel like going insane. Consider these to be the series I had strong opinions on.

Serial Experiments Lain (Triangle Staff)

There’s some really smart, prescient commentary about the internet and the way it changes human interactions (made even more impressive when you consider that this series was made in 1998) in Serial Experiments Lain, but hot damn if I didn’t spend most of my time watching it in a state of mild-to-moderate confusion. Lain is, to be perfectly blunt, some seriously artsy avant-garde philoso-wankery with a love of symbolism and little regard for coherency. Not everything needs to be accessible, and not everything needs to be for me. I understand that. But also, it would be great if I understood more than like… half of what it was putting down. Definitely seems like the kind of thing that would benefit from a rewatch, and I didn’t… hate it? Yeah. I didn’t hate it.

Code Geass (Sunrise)

If I was 14 or 15 and I watched Code Geass when it was relevant, I think it’d be one of my favorite anime series of all time. Watching it now, as an adult, I can’t help but admire its ambitions, even if they don’t always pan out incredibly well. It’s a show trying to be all things for all people, between deep and involved international intrigue, ridiculous strategy porn, giant robot fights, abundant fanservice, yaoi bait, ultra-tropey anime high school antics, and not especially subtle commentary on George W. Bush-era American foreign policy. If that sounds like a lot of things to juggle, you’d be right. I found a certain amount of ironic appreciation in Code Geass’ share of exceptionally stupid anime bullshit, but that still doesn’t really excuse the part where a lot of the high school stuff feels pandering and pointless to the extreme. When the show hits, like in the moral/philosophical dynamic between the ruthlessly utilitarian Lelouch and the Lawful Stupid, honorable to a fault Suzaku, it hits hard. But boy, does it whiff on a lot of that stuff, especially with some of the plot points in the second season.

At least it ends incredibly well, so you know, definitely not something that could be cocked up with an entirely unnecessary continuation almost 10 years after the fact. Oh wait.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (Kyoto Animation)

I might as well get all of these older heavy hitters out of the way first, right? I liked Haruhi enough to buy the damn series and movie on Blu Ray, and that’s even including the part where a large chunk of the second season is maybe the single most insulting thing I’ve watched all year. (Holy shit, Endless Eight is SO BAD). The weird supernatural/sci-fi antics of the SOS Brigade are intensely likeable, and the show gets a lot of mileage out of the group dynamic between the characters as they all attempt to keep a 16-year-old girl who might be God from accidentally rewriting the universe by playing along with her crazy schemes. Also at one point there was a pretty direct reference to Phoenix Wright and I was grinning like an idiot for the entire scene. I understand why it was as popular as it was, and that makes it more unfortunate that a good 1/5th of it is borderline unwatchable. NO SERIOUSLY THEY LITERALLY MADE THE SAME EPISODE 8 TIMES IN A ROW WITH SLIGHT VARIATIONS BUT ENTIRELY NEW ANIMATION WHYYYYYYYYYY.

At the very least, the movie helps make up for some of that sting. It’s a little slow, maybe twenty minutes too long, but it adds a surprising amount of pathos and poignancy to what is otherwise a pretty lighthearted series. It’s also Kyoto Animation on a movie budget, which is to say that it looks very good.

Ghost Stories (Studio Pierrot)

Honestly, I was half-tempted to just put “ADV Films” in the parentheses, because of how much Ghost Stories is defined by its crazy-ass English dub. Essentially given free reign to do whatever the hell they wanted as long as they kept names and basic plot details intact, the dub team at ADV created what is basically a proto-abridged series, filled with as many random-ass jokes and circa 2006 pop-culture references as possible. It’s a slow build of insanity, one that starts by playing things mostly straight with a handful of goofs here and ends with constant f-bombs and a bunch of flagrantly offensive jokes that, quite frankly, probably wouldn’t fly super well today. I highly recommend it.

Monogatari Series (Studio SHAFT)

Actually, maybe I should've used this one instead.

I don’t think I’ve ever liked something as much as the Monogatari series while also being completely unable to recommend it to anyone who hasn't already made the same poor choices that I have. Part of that comes from the part where it’s borderline inexplicable (Like, it’s sort of a supernatural show, but one with a bunch of weird, mundane conversations? And it’s intentionally kinda confusing? And super horny?) and the second part comes from how it’s maybe one of the most self-indulgent, trashy things I’ve ever watched. No other anime this year made me feel more like a deviant sex pervert than the infamous toothbrushing scene in Nisemonogatari, which is impressive given that a lot of Nisemonogatari feels (and was written) like a parade of author Nisioisin’s very specific fetishes. While that particular bit is kind of the worst, it’s not like the rest of the series cuts down on some of the loli and incest stuff that I find genuinely repulsive. It’s one thing to have fanservice in a show that very much has things to say about sex and relationships, even if a lot of that stuff is indulgent to an extreme. It’s another to make me want to take a damn shower every time (ostensible protagonist, ex-vampire, and occasional blood geyser) Koyomi Araragi “comedically” molests a character who looks like she’s 10 as part of a running joke. That might actually be the worst, considering you can’t show that stuff to your friends out-of-context to mess with them the same way you can with the toothbrush scene.

I’m not excusing that stuff, and I would not blame anyone for being put off by it (It’s had the knock-on effect of making me unfazed by all but the most egregious of fanservice in anything I watched moving forward) but I really like everything else that Monogatari has going for it. Namely, the part where it’s just really fucking weird. And I’m not talking “weird” in a “Lol anime is weird! panty shots and giant robots amirite?” sense, but weird on a fundamental level where I cannot for the life of me say there’s anything else out there quite like it. There’s a whole episode that’s more-or-less the protagonist and his girlfriend engaged in the single most awkward car ride imaginable and it’s somehow my favorite thing. The dialogue has a hypnotic, surreal quality to it; rich in wordplay, shit-talking, and subtext. It’s honestly the closest thing to an undubbable anime I’ve ever seen and even with subtitles it definitely felt like some of the nuance was going over my head, but in another way that’s fun because of how distinctly Japanese the entire experience is. That’s not to say it’s all immuto toothbrushes, weird cinematography, and untranslatable puns. It’s also kind of a deconstruction of harem anime tropes (albeit one that wants to have its cake and eat it too?) And sometimes it’s genuinely sweet, or gets into really heavy shit about love, learning not to hate yourself, and growing up as a person. I’m not even getting into the part where the entire series is chronologically out of order, in a way that works to its benefit but is also occasionally frustrating and more than a little confusing. But yeah, I kinda love it even though it thoroughly earns the all-encompassing label of “problematic” and I basically can’t recommend it to anyone. I think that makes me a trash person, but I hope I’ve at least been able to express a sliver of… whatever the hell it is I feel for this series. I watched most of it back in January, and it’s still managed to stick with me through all of these months.

Special mention should be given to Kizumonogatari, which despite having zero real justification for being split into three one-hour films instead of one 3 hour film, has perhaps some of the most striking animation I’ve ever seen in my entire damn life. It’s not as straight-up beautiful as something like Your Name is, but after hearing that these films were apparently in development hell for something like 8 years, I went “Oh, that makes perfect sense.”

Boy, those were more words than I thought I’d have to say. Oh right, in case you were wondering, best girl is Hanekawa. FIGHT ME.

Gintama (Sunrise and Bandai-Namco Pictures)

I decided I had room for one long-running shonen series this year, and I ended up going with Gintama. 340+ episodes later and… that wasn’t a bad choice actually. Sure, the amount of time it takes for Gintama to get through its awkward early episodes and “actually get good” is longer than some of the other series on this list, but the great thing about it is that once it becomes good, it stays consistently good for its entire run. To be fair, Gintama isn’t so much a shonen action series as it is a comedy series that occasionally takes itself seriously. I don’t imagine its sense of humor will be to everyone’s taste (It relies a lot on the traditional Japanese comedy setup of “Character does something crazy, straight man reacts”) and I’m not going to pretend that some of the obscure anime or Japanese pop-culture references didn’t fly over my head, but man does it have excellent comedic timing. It’s a mix of crude/juvenile humor, parodies, character quirks, and outright trolling that worked incredibly well for me. I can rattle off multiple mini-arcs off the top of my head, from the one where everyone fights over JUMP popularity poll rankings to the arc where they go inside the Robo Maid and it's nothing but Dragon Quest references. Hell, even the serious and semi-serious arcs work, which might be the craziest thing of all.

Still, it's an investment, and I wouldn't blame anyone for being scared away from the episode count. Despite being a comedy, Gintama also loves the hell out of continuity, with minor characters and running jokes being called back on a regular basis, sometimes years worth of episodes later. Part of the reason you still have to watch (or at least skim through) the first handful of episodes is because they introduce a lot of the core cast, and while they aren't particularly funny, they do give a pretty good indication of Gintama's style of humor. If nothing else, you can at least rest assured that there won't be much more, as it seems like the final arc is going to air this year.

Robotics;Notes (Production I.G.)

As a fan of the Steins;Gate, I’ve always been curious about the other installments in the “Science Adventure/Unnecessary Semicolon” series of visual novels. Unfortunately, only a handful of them have been officially translated into English, and I’ve heard less than great things about the anime adaptations of stuff like Chaos;Head. However, at the urging of one @zombiepie, I watched Robotics;Notes, a story that asks the fun question: “What if a bunch of Japanese High School students actually tried to build a Giant Robot?” If the entirety of the anime had been aimed at addressing that subject, I’d be able to recommend it without reservations. It has a likeable cast of characters, some fun talk about both persistence and failure, and a handful of crazy, incredibly resonant scenes that, quite frankly, made me need to take a walk outside after witnessing them. AND THEN IT THROWS THAT ALL AWAY.

Actually, let me backup for a sec. I was told to watch “The first 16 episodes of Robotics;Notes” and continue at my own peril. Unlike Steins;Gate, which brings in its crazy underlying conspiracy almost from the beginning and has a fairly even split between “dicking around with time travel” and “trying to undo the horrific consequences of dicking around with time travel” the underlying conspiracy in Robotics;Notes is almost a B-Plot. When said conspiracy comes to the forefront, it is revealed to be: A. Super Dumb, and B. Almost entirely irrelevant to the previous 16 episodes worth of character development and emotional build-up. And then there’s a dumb giant robot fight and it’s all mildly disappointing. Still, those first 16 episodes? Pretty great!

Konosuba (Studio Deen)

You know, despite hearing that Issekai is a very hot thing these days, the only way I’ve actually experienced the current fixation on “Some Otaku Loser gets stuck in a fantasy-ish world clearly inspired by old RPGs” is through parody and subversion. Konosuba is probably one of the funniest anime series I’ve watched, thanks to a likeable cast of complete idiots and an incredibly strong sense of comedic timing. It's very sitcom-ish in its structure, with a lot of the humor being driven by the characters putting themselves into dumb situations over and over again and bouncing off one another. Humor is always going to be mad subjective, but given this show's popularity on the internetosphere, I'm guessing it's worked pretty well for most anime people.

Re: ZERO (White Fox)

Re: ZERO makes for a fun comparison to Konosuba, if only because they might as well have the exact same setup and vastly different results. Re:Zero takes the “repeat a time loop until you break through it” concept to the logical extreme. Namely, one of profound suffering. It’s okay, because ostensible protagonist Natsuki Subaru is kind of a white knighting dingbat who you don’t feel too terrible about every time he dies in an awful, horrible way, but not detestable enough that you aren’t rooting for him to ditch Emilia and hook up with Rem, who is clearly such a better choice, man he’s the worst triumph. Honestly, it's probably the most concentrated, potent version of "break the main character" I've seen, and should be commended for how far it goes in that direction.

It's kinda unfortunate that all of that suffering doesn't add up to a whole lot in the end. While I don't think we need to worry too much about there being another season, the actual conclusion to this one is "And then they fight a Moon Whale and save the day" and it kinda feels disconnected from the setup of the main plot. Not to mention, it all goes a little too smoothly for a show about putting Subaru through as much horrible shit as possible. Ah well, if the people who have read the light novels are to be believed, there's plenty more of that coming his way.

Re: CREATORS (Studio TROYCA)

It looks like the intro has been scrubbed from Youtube, so you'll have to suffice with just the music.

Re: Creators has the interesting distinction of being the one series that had me actively angry after I finished watching it. Not since Metal Gear Solid 4 have I said “Oh, piss off” to my screen multiple times during a conclusion, and if you know my feelings on MGS4 that’s not a great comparison. Certainly, if Robotics;Notes is any indication, there’s still plenty of merit to be found in something even if it doesn’t nail the ending, and that’s true. But maaaaaaaaaan does Re:Creators’ last arc try way too hard to be *smart* at the cost of being entertaining or satisfying. It’s a show that has a lot to say about why people write stories, the relationship between a creator and their work, and how things are “accepted” by a wide audience, often doing so via non-infringing versions of iconic characters or archetypes (seriously, the kid in the giant robot might as well be Shinji Ikari) interacting with each other and their creators. Sometimes with violence. If that sounds like a rad premise, that’s because it is, and for most of the series run it manages to balance between high-minded commentary and “Hey, what if an off-brand JoJo’s character fought an off-brand version of Saber from Fate and some sort of hard-boiled cyber-detective? Wouldn’t that be cool?” (the answer is “yes”) I’m even willing to forgive those early episodes, despite a plague of exposition that sometimes infects entire episodes with scenes of people just sitting around and talking.

And then the climax happens and it’s baaaaaaad. Not just because the previously mysterious villain is revealed to be plain overpowered and boring, thus removing any tension from the multi-episode battle, but also because the show has the gall to use a deus ex machina to beat her and openly acknowledges it. It’s infuriating, and I wish it wasn’t (legally) restricted to Amazon’s Anime Strike service so I could badger people into watching it in order to validate my opinions. At least Made In Abyss was worth the free trial. I could’ve written a whole thing about that, but honestly everyone and their dad has already talked that show up and I tend to agree with most of it. You should watch Made in Abyss. Also watch Re:Creators so you can understand what the hell I’m talking about.

Mob Psycho 100 (Studio Bones)

Mob Psycho 100 is raaaaaaaaad. Okay. That's really all I wanted to say. This blog is already long enough. You should watch Mob Psycho 100.

Some other things I wanted to mention, in short summary:

Cowboy Bebop: I don’t need to write a damn paragraph to tell you that Cowboy Bebop is really, really good. It’s maybe one of the few series I could genuinely recommend to people who aren’t already weird anime nerds.

Your Name: A beautiful, wonderful film that people much more eloquent than me have already ruminated on. I bought it on Blu-Ray pretty much immediately after it came out and then forced members of my family to watch it.

Dragon Ball Super: I eventually fell off of DBS after getting sick of its lethargic pacing. It’s not bad by any means, but maybe I’ll just watch that Boku no Hero Academia the kids are all into these days if I want my shonen battle fix.

Watamote: A fun, light anime about a high school girl comedically trying to overcome crippling social anxiety! As someone who posts a lot on internet forums, some of the situations the protagonist found herself in hit surprisingly close to home. It’s also pretty funny.

Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid: Another one of the hot series this year. Honestly, I found it cloyingly sweet in a way that didn’t work for me. Call me a heartless bastard if you wish.

Toradora!: However, I’m not entirely heartless, since I found Toradora to be a surprisingly sweet little romantic comedy thing. I watched it dubbed and thought said dub was quite good.

Parasyte: The Maxim. A pretty fantastic horror anime that I highly recommend to those who aren’t squeamish.

Geez, did you read through all of that? Why would you do such a thing? Anyways, I think I’ll end by giving a vague suggestion of what’s probably on the docket for Anime Nightmare Hole 2018, barring any surprise seasonal hits that I watch to keep up with the zeitgeist and all the cool kids. Violet Evergarden? That’s a thing people are excited for, right? The trailers look very pretty.

  • Nichijou
  • As much of the Fate/Stay Night series as I can watch without going mad (I’m like 7 episodes into the 2006 Studio DEEN adaption and the answer might be “Not that much”)
  • That JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure thing all the memes are about
  • Mushishi
  • Hunter x Hunter
  • My Hero Academia
  • Uh, Cardcaptor Sakura? Maybe?

With that, I will wish you all a happy new year, and maybe not post this one to the forums. Fun fact, this is actually longer than my Game of the Year blog. Bury me in my sins.

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ArbitraryWater's Favorite Games of 2017 that came out in 2017

Video games! They came out this year! Honestly, I could probably switch some of these around and still be totally fine! Screw the preamble, descending order, let’s GOOOOOOOOOOO!

10. Most Surprisingly Good Game from a franchise I had all but written off: Resident Evil 7 Biohazard

Never not my favorite thing about this game
Never not my favorite thing about this game

I make no secret that I’m a Resident Evil 6 apologist. Oh, don’t get me wrong, that game is a damn trainwreck, but like a trainwreck I cannot help but be fascinated by it. The aggressively bad, QTE-filled set pieces, the ridiculous, self-serious story that cannot help but have an explosion every 5 minutes, the surprisingly alright shooting that doesn’t know if it wants to be a Japanese action game or a straight clone of its western counterparts, all of it is an amazing test case of everything wrong with big-budget AAA video games circa 2012. That said, I would be lying if I thought that the series would ever recover from it. Revelations 2’s low budget Last of Us imitation didn’t exactly put my hopes up.

And yet, Resident Evil 7 exists, and somehow manages to nail the essence of what a Resident Evil game used to be before it got all shooty shoot. Ammo conservation! Inventory management! Dumb, esoteric puzzles! Honestly, I think my biggest problem with the game is that it doesn’t go far enough in that direction for my liking (as a lunatic who will swear up and down that tank controls and fixed camera angles are just fine.) The puzzles are brain-dead, the Baker estate is quite small, and the game itself is actually super short (It took me about 7 hours to beat it my first time around, and the current speedrun world record is at about 90 minutes, including cutscenes.) Throw in a fairly underwhelming last area and RE7 moves from “Exactly what I wanted” to “Excellent foundation.” But what a foundation it is! They made a new Resident Evil game y’all, and it was actually good.

9. Best Comfort Food: Etrian Odyssey V Beyond the Myth

Etrian Odyssey V is more Etrian Odyssey, no more and no less. As a fan of Atlus’ old-school dungeon crawling franchise, I was just happy that they finally made a completely new installment after two remakes, a Mystery Dungeon spinoff, and a middling Persona crossover. I will be frank: I don’t think Etrian Odyssey V is as good as IV, which had an overworld map and somewhat more flexible character development, but V’s race skills and forced specialization allow for plenty of its own weird and crazy party compositions, backed up by some neat quality-of-life changes and maps that manage to be challenging without being frustrating slogs. I don’t really know what else to say; it’s a good, well-made “one of those” and that’s all I really wanted.

8. The anime hell award: Doki Doki Literature Club

Sister, you have no idea.
Sister, you have no idea.

I’m often not one for short, concise “experiences” as part of my end-of-year video game lists, and I’m also someone who thinks that most visual novels (even ones that I like) are only *barely* definiable as video games in the first place. Doki Doki Literature Club managed to overcome both of those prejudices by being one of the most batshit crazy things I’ve seen in a long time and got to me in a way that I did not expect. I cannot speak to your own reaction, but I highly recommend you give it a look if you have the inclination. It’s not for everyone, and the warnings at the beginning are NOT A JOKE, but even if you haven’t gone down both the VN and Anime nightmare holes this year like I did, it still might be worth the 2-3 hours of your time it takes to reach the conclusion.

On a related note, I was thinking about writing an anime blog in the next week because I need to vent somewhere about that. Is that a bad idea? I think that’s a bad idea. Maybe look forward to that.

7. The “Obligatory Fire Emblem Game” award for being a game in the Fire Emblem series, but not that shit mobile game or that okay Musou one: Fire Emblem Echoes Shadows of Valentia

Fire Emblem Echoes benefits greatly from keeping most of the original Fire Emblem Gaiden’s weird mechanics intact, with only a slight amount of modernization and quality-of-life improvements to fill the 25 year gap. It’s a weirdly refreshing change of pace from the waifu-pairing, stat-optimizing emphases of Awakening and Fates, even if the map design doesn’t quite hold up as well and the post-game dungeon seems designed to persuade you to buy the $45 season pass.

However, the thing that surprisingly got me the most about Shadows of Valentia was its quality of its presentation. As you can tell from my avatar, I think the art style is fantastic, and the addition of full, surprisingly good voice acting adds a lot to what is otherwise a fairly standard Fire Emblem JRPG plot. That might be relative in the face of Fire Emblem Fates’ absolutely DIRE storytelling, but it’s also a good example of the way high production values and a quality localization (courtesy of “friends of the site” 8-4) can elevate what is otherwise straightforward material.

6. Best Styyyyyle. If it doesn’t win on Giant Bomb, at least let it win here: Persona 5

I hope you're all ready for another 5 years worth of good-to-mediocre spinoffs before Persona 6 comes out.
I hope you're all ready for another 5 years worth of good-to-mediocre spinoffs before Persona 6 comes out.

I think I'm increasingly realizing that what I want out of the modern JRPG genre is mostly just "Shin Megami Tensei spinoffs", "Etrian Odyssey", and "The ideas behind Bravely Default put into a better game." As something that meets one of those criteria, I enjoyed the hell out of Persona 5. It’s a stylish, bombastic game with an amazing soundtrack, some clear mechanical improvements over its forebears and arguably the best social links in the entire series. Its story isn’t without problems, and it definitely feels like some of the lines could’ve used another localization pass, but a lot of that was acceptable in the face of what is otherwise an excellent installment in the series. Makoto best girl.

5.The “I like turn-based combat and grids ‘n shit” award: XCOM 2 War of the Chosen

War of the Chosen is a marked improvement over XCOM 2, which was itself a marked improvement over Enemy Within, which was a marked improvement over Enemy Unknown (which was a marked improvement over not having a good modern XCOM). It does this by… mostly just adding a bunch of shit. Almost like it’s an expansion, or something. The 3 new classes are a lot of fun, as are the abandoned city missions and the interference of the Chosen themselves, who like to teleport in to cock up whatever mission you have running at the time. It’s honestly a little much to juggle at times, but once I got a handle on everything it became my favorite strategy experience of the year.

4. Best Sad Existential Robots: Nier Automata

It’s actually kind of heartening to see this game has gotten big enough to facilitate a backlash. You didn’t see any of that shit when the first Nier was coming out, and that game somehow seems way crazier and way less fun to play than this one!

Nier is, like a large chunk of the games on this list, not for everyone. It’s bonkers crazy existential anime storytelling that plays with the format in a way that few other games do, and it doesn’t bother showing its full hand until actual tens of hours into the story. Along the way, there’s some fun but repetitive combat, weird bullet hell portions, and a very, very good soundtrack. I get why some of those things wouldn’t resonate with people, but they absolutely did for me.

3. Most Looking Glass: Prey

Not to be confused with the game about Native Americans in space
Not to be confused with the game about Native Americans in space

Even moreso than most of the stuff on my list (which I think adequately reflects my eclectic weirdo tastes) I think Prey is the kind of game that works for a very specific audience. I can’t imagine anyone coming in expecting a shooter, or even a successor to Bioshock (which is a shooter wrapped up in a philosophy 101 lecture on Objectivism) would necessarily have a great time with it. I don’t mean that to sound elitist, rather I’m saying that Prey is weirdly niche for a big budget AAA video game and I kind of love that. In other words, it’s probably the closest thing you’re going to see to a new System Shock game until Night Dive releases their remake of System Shock 1 (or Otherside releases System Shock 3. Whichever one happens first)

The combat might be a bit messy, the story’s meta-meta conceits might be a turn-off (I kinda loved that too), but in terms of “giant, cohesive location for you to scrounge around, picking up every piece of garbage and sometimes an audio log” I cannot think of a game that does it better than Prey, including Arkane’s own Dishonored series. There was clearly an obsessive amount of thought put into the design and layout of Talos 1, and the game benefits greatly from its relative mundanity in a way that Rapture and Columbia’s amusement park designs never could. Also you can navigate areas by turning into a stupid coffee cup and then slipping through small gaps. It’s great.

2. Alright, you should’ve expected this: Super Mario Odyssey

Honestly, how much do I really need to say about Super Mario Odyssey? It’s a joyful, gleeful example of Nintendo’s first party development putting on their A-Game and making a fine-tuned gameplay loop of quality platforming, exploration, and possessing the bodies of your enemies. No, seriously, it's a new Mario game and it's amazing.

1. My Game of the Year: Nioh

I almost forgot to mention that at one point you get to fight the ghost of Oda Nobunaga because this game's conception of Japanese History is nuuuuuts.
I almost forgot to mention that at one point you get to fight the ghost of Oda Nobunaga because this game's conception of Japanese History is nuuuuuts.

At this point, I think you can probably notice a trend in my Game of the Year picks in that they are either: A. Dense RPGs/Strategy Games or B. High Intensity Action Games. Nioh falls into the latter category with ease, and is probably one of the most satisfying action games I’ve played in a long time. While it owes plenty to Dark Souls, there’s also a lot of Ninja Gaiden DNA in Nioh, and both of those things together work incredibly well once you get a handle on mechanics like stance changing and the ki pulse. Adding to an already impressive skill ceiling, there’s a lot of variety between the 7 different weapon types (two of which were added in DLC!) and two different forms of magic that I really appreciate. It’s not quite Dark Souls II levels of crazy build variety, but I’d imagine there’s enough out there for anyone to find what works for them. Much like DOOM last year, I enjoyed the mechanics in Nioh enough to power through and earn the Platinum trophy, which is something I’ve only attempted to do with one other Souls-ish game (I’d totally have gotten the Bloodborne platinum if not for the stupid chalice dungeon where your health is cut in half.)

If the game has a noteworthy flaw, it’s that the main story is probably a tad too long and the late-game is a tad grindy. The additional DLC chapters are all pretty great and meaningful, but the way they’re scaled means that you either have to fight stronger, more durable versions of the same enemies from the last 20 hours, or play through early game chapters on Way of the Strong (the New Game + equivalent) until your numbers are high enough to not lose large chunks of your health on an errant hit. These are ultimately drops in the bucket though, because I still ended up playing Nioh for a good 80+ hours and will probably play a little bit more before I’m totally done. It’s an impressive start to a series that I hope will continue onward into the future.

Alright, with that out of the way, Special Acheivement Awards:

Game Number Eleven: Wolfenstein II The New Colossus

Wolfenstein II was on an early draft of this list, but after some consideration it got bumped off for the simple reason that I don’t think I ever really enjoyed the act of *playing* it. Oh, don’t get me wrong, Wolfenstien II’s story goes for insane pulpiness in a way that needs to be seen to be believed. However, the parts in-between the cutscenes, when I was attempting to use bad, rudimentary stealth to sneak my way through a bunch of grey Nazi bases before getting discovered and immediately losing half my health, were not so great. It also ends on a fairly muted cliffhanger, one that screams “Come back in 2-3 years!” which underwhelmed me a bit. Still absolutely worth your time if you’re interested.

Honorable Mentions: PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Dishonored: Death of the Outsider.

Like a lot of people on the internet, I was pretty hot on PUBG for a decent period of time, with its ultra-tense shooting and looting offering some of the highest highs I’ve ever had playing a multiplayer game. Buuuuuuuuuuuut I also got my fill after a little more than 30 hours. I think a lot of it for me comes down to how much of those 30+ hours was spent wandering around for 20 minutes before getting shot in the back by someone I never saw. I’m sure the solution to that issue would be to “git gud” but I have enough other things on my plate that I’m fine with leaving things then and there.

Honestly, if I wasn’t absolutely sick to death of the modern open-world action-adventure game format, I’d probably have loved Horizon. As it stands for me, it’s an incredibly well-made “one of those” that makes up in execution what it loses in originality. But yeah, after a certain point I decided to start beelining my way through the main quest because I could not give less of a shit about any of the side activities. Robot dinosaurs are cool and all, but cleaning out bandit camps sure isn’t.

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider is more Dishonored, even if it’s pretty middle-of-the-road Dishonored. Aside from a pretty great bank heist mission with a lot of different possible approaches and opportunities, most of the maps are only so-so, made a bit less exciting by Billie Lurk’s powerful but boring ability set. That didn’t stop me from happily sneaking through the game, mashing F5 and surgically choking out every guard I came upon, but it did do a really good job of reminding me how much I liked Dishonored 2.

Guiltiest Backlog Additions: The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild and Divinity Original Sin 2

Yeah, so I know what I'm doing over the break
Yeah, so I know what I'm doing over the break

I’ve played a fair amount of both games, but not enough to have felt comfortable putting them on the final list. In Zelda’s case, I’m not entirely sure it’d make it onto the list in the first place (I really like the shrines, but I find the actual overworld exploration to be… a little dull) but Divinity Original Sin 2 is absolutely something that could’ve made it if it kept up a similar level of quality to the initial 30 hours I spent with it (before being distracted by other things.) I’ll probably give both more time during this holiday break, but I didn’t want to put off making this list until then.

Worst Game I Played to Completion This Year: Mass Effect Andromeda

I don’t think it’s fair to call Mass Effect Andromeda “Most Disappointing” because I had adjusted my expectations well before I started playing it. That didn’t stop it from being a depressing wreck, mind you, but more that I more-or-less knew exactly what I was getting into and still managed to be underwhelmed. You can read the blog I wrote if you want details, but Andromeda’s hackish, C-tier sci-fi writing and uninspired open world design were the last straw for me and Bioware, and I think I’m probably done with them for good.

Most Disappointing Game: Torment Tides of Numenera

Between this and Wasteland 2, I think I'll be pretty wary of backing any more of InXile's games. Which would be great to say if I hadn't already backed their next two games.
Between this and Wasteland 2, I think I'll be pretty wary of backing any more of InXile's games. Which would be great to say if I hadn't already backed their next two games.

Unlike Mass Effect Andromeda, I don’t think Tides of Numenera is a bad game, but I do think it’s not anywhere near as good as its cited influence, Planescape Torment. I don’t envy any developer trying to recapture something as singular and iconic, but that doesn’t stop ToN from feeling like a manufactured simulacrum of Planescape, with a lot of dense prose, an alienating world, and attempts at deep philosophical questions. I could get really granular in explaining why it doesn’t work as well, but I’ll suffice by saying that the prose is a little too purple for my tastes, the world is so alien that it’s hard to feel grounded at all, and the actual philosophical underpinnings behind “What does one life matter?” aren’t nearly as interesting or relevant as Planescape’s “What can change the nature of a man?” It has its share of good bits too, but among the pantheon of recent old-school RPG revivals, I think it falls short of both its modern counterparts and its classic influences.

Old Game of the Year: Ninja Gaiden Black

I’m not doing an old games list, for various reasons (i.e. I didn’t play enough of them this year, probably because I was too busy watching anime.) but of the few old games I played through to completion this year, Ninja Gaiden Black stands out as a fantastic, exceptionally cruel action game that was immensely satisfying to complete. Its difficulty was even more pronounced after I played through Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 and kinda breezed through it. While still mechanically tight and a lot of fun to play, I almost felt like I was cheating by comparison. I think I’m still probably on the Devil May Cry side of the Japanese Character Action Game fence, but given how few of those are actually coming out anymore, I’m more than willing to take Ninja Gaiden along for a ride.

And I think this is it for me this year. I don’t need an outro either, thanks for reading!

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