We Witched Twice

Hey so remember when I said I was going to run this series? Remember when I was like "hey see you in a month or two?"

Well. Life, as it happens, had other plans. Namely, a bunch of other games came out and somewhere in there I upgraded my video card and look. Look. I love writing, and even writing about Video James, but sometimes finding time is hard, especially when I think November is when I started writing the serialized fiction thing I do, so I didn't actually get back to the Witcher 2 until like, last week? I was halfway into act 2 when I stopped, so I had basically half the game to finish. Once I sat down to do it, the game was suitably fun to allow me to stick with it and finish it off without much fuss. So hey, let's talk a little about the Witcher 2, huh?

The Delivery got Better

Or more accurately, the dialogue got better. Which is to say, they had a budget to hire actual voice talent and probably even do multiple takes of lines! The NPCs sound a lot better, the quality of writing is vastly improved (and there's no weird like, 'we definitely re-wrote and re-recorded this line over skype' moments, at least none that I saw), and even in the year of our Lord two-thousand-nineteen, it's actually pretty gorgeous?

I mean look, it's not going to win a prize in 2019 but that lighting bloom is pretty dope
I mean look, it's not going to win a prize in 2019 but that lighting bloom is pretty dope

The other big change is making the combat twitchier. It's still got a very particular feel to it, which is to say it still wants you to pay attention to the way you're moving and I found that just mashing buttons to attack was less-effective than waiting to the end of an attack animation and chaining it together, but you actually can mash buttons, on a controller even, which is what I preferred to play with (mostly because I have my TV wired up to my PC and I like playing on the couch). I did find the controller to be a little fussy - sometimes I felt like I needed to press a button twice to do stuff like open doors and loot corpses and the like, for example - but it worked when I needed it to, which is to say it worked when I got into big fights with lots of monsters. I did, surprisingly, run into some framerate issues in a couple of the bigger fights, which is either because my PC is old or because the engine wasn't quite up to the task of rendering like twenty dudes all swinging swords around (I'm inclined to think the latter, given the way the Witcher 3 looks and runs on my PC, but who knows? Maybe there was some setting that just kills PCs I left toggled on). The combat though! It's good! Not quite as good as it is in Witcher 3, but still an improvement over Witcher 1 (although I do kind of think that if they'd kept stance-switching in I would've been cool with that).

Some NPCs on a lovely stroll. Nothing else to see here, I promise.
Some NPCs on a lovely stroll. Nothing else to see here, I promise.

Also changed: Potions! They don't last quite as long, generally. Plus, you don't need to find a place to meditate to take them - Geralt can just kneel down and meditate basically anywhere, provided there aren't monsters skittering about. There's still an emphasis on preparation with Witcher 2 - you can still buy books and learn more about monsters to boot - Geralt hasn't remembered everything, apparently - but as reading books to learn about monsters and the rest of the world was one of my favorite parts of Witcher 1, it's good to have it in Witcher 2. The potion making interface is improved, although it's largely unchanged beyond one key detail - it no longer takes time. In fact, nothing Geralt does in the meditation state takes time, which is kind of a bummer if I'm being honest. I liked that brewing potions required you to advance the clock, even if the clock advancing didn't really do much beyond move the locations of NPCs around. Which, hey by the way, the NPCs still move around in Witcher 2 and have their little schedules and all (did I spend a lot of time waking people up from slumber to turn in quests? I SURE DID), which I mean, if they'd taken that out it would have been a bad decision.

The Story is Bigger but the World is Smaller

So here's the thing: the Witcher 1 involves a plot to fuck up a kingdom and establish a sort of survivalist's wet dream, but it's largely a story of revenge. Someone fucked up the Witchers' fortress, and Geralt is going to fuck them up in return. Yes, there's also some stuff about destiny and time travel and all kinds of ill shit, and whether or not the world will end in fire or ice, but Geralt sort of stumbles into saving the day as a consequence of the villains having been complete pricks to him earlier in the game. Also, the world is Giant, at least by the standards of 2007, giving life to an entire city and its surrounding countryside in a way that is incredibly fucking impressive.

Witcher 2 is full to the brim of political intrigue, and while Geralt's involvement in said intrigue is once again sort of down to "this dude got me accused of a crime and so I've got to clear my name," it is not quite as personal as it is in Witcher 1. That the titular Assassin of Kings also happens to be a witcher himself, and seems to know Geralt's whole deal, is important - of course it is - but a lot of what Geralt does is because someone asks him nicely. Or less nicely, but promises to provide Geralt with important information so he does it anyway (and then, depending on how you want to play it, murders them for being kind of a prick about it). It also forces you to take a side - quite literally, as there are literally two separate act twos. That's wild, and from a narrative perspective, it's expansive as all hell. Except...

Also Dandelion is back, and remains kind of a delight
Also Dandelion is back, and remains kind of a delight

Well, except the world itself feels more restricted. There's a lot more walking down narrow paths in Witcher 2 - far fewer big fields where you can wander anywhere - and even the cities you visit feel far more compact. This extends to side quests, of course: there's just not a lot of them! There are a few really excellent ones, but do you ever get shitfaced and steal an old lady's pickles? No you do not (although you do have the option to get blind drunk and wake up with a neck tattoo which, if you don't choose to get it removed by the time the game is over, will show up on Geralt in Witcher 3 if you import your save). The best quests are mostly in act 1, while acts 2 and 3 have maybe one really good sidequest apiece and that's kind of it. There are a lot of monster contracts, and you can uncover some shady doings here and there and either leave them be or Fuck Them Up, but there's much fewer of the weird side-events you could get in Witcher 1. There are also, blessedly, no pin-up cards to collect, although Geralt can of course sleep with numerous folks if you so choose. The sex bits are, surprisingly, Not Awful (Bioware could learn a thing or two), with one in particular being downright romantic. They fit the fiction and the world, is basically what I'm trying to get at, though I don't know, they weren't a big part of the game for me. If you're just playing for sex bits though, might I suggest just watching some porn?

Goddamn the Story is Good Though

This dude: Probably dead if I go the other way!
This dude: Probably dead if I go the other way!

At least, the story I played is good. See, I chose to go with the elves, continuing my Geralt's trend from the first game of kind of relating more to the Scoia'tael than the humans, and hot damn does shit pop off when you do that. I became a dude involved in a fight for Freedom, whatever that means. That it also includes a callback to my favorite Witcher story ever

(it is the one with Borch Three Jackdaws, who fucking rules. That you end up chatting with his daughter about how she's attracted to dwarves which she writes off as "maybe a dragon thing?" is fucking delightful)

and allows for the final (well, depending on how you play it) showdown to feel like it has even more stakes than it already has, is tremendous. I quite simply can't fathom how they could do something similarly cool on the other side of the split (and honestly, some of the things I've heard about the other side of the split's handling of some things sounds like a Big Yikes, though I obviously can't speak to it as I've not played it nor seen it), but I'm kind of curious to go see how it plays out. Apparently there's some pretty Ill Shit that happened as a result of my choice, and I wonder what awful fates await my Scoia'tael friends if I let them run off alone. Probably nothing good!

Damn You Weight Management

I regret to inform you that the inventory still kind of sucks. You no longer have to play tetris, and everything stacks forever, but there's a weight limit and it can eat my entire ass. I spent too much time dropping stuff on the ground so I could pick up other, cooler stuff. By the end I was leaving tons of stuff on the ground because I didn't want to bother with it anymore. It just became something of a bummer by the end, although to be fair by that point I had all the gear I wanted and just wanted to see all the quests and figure out how the story turned out. Gear wasn't a problem, is what I'm saying, but my inclination to hoover up anything that isn't nailed down in games like this proved Troublesome.

So Anyway

In the end, I think Witcher 2 is pretty fucking good, and way more accessible in a way that Witcher 1 just isn't. It provides you with a Geralt who is slightly more competent than in Witcher 1 - which is to say he knows all his signs again, and is able to grab monster parts from most creatures without any fuss (some monster hunting quests will require him to kill a certain amount of monster/read a book about them before he figures out precisely how to solve the problem). You feel more capable, which makes sense because you also have regained some of your memories by now, so hooray for continuity. It was a nice improvement on what they attempted in the first game, and certainly worth the praise heaped upon it back when it released. It's sleeker, and a little friendlier, but without sacrificing too much of the features that made it feel like you were, in fact, a Witcher, out there Witching.

One Last Thing (spoilery as all hell)

Oh yeah, and the fact that you can just... let Letho go? Like, it gives you the setup for a fight, but then Geralt is kind of chill during the conversation, and so is Letho, and you could fight him, or you could just decide that really, what with the massacre that's just happened, and the fact that you just fought a fucking dragon (and, if you're me, what with the fact that Letho thoughtfully went and rescued Triss for me), what if you just skipped that shit. In essence, it kind of gives you the chance to forgive Letho for getting you mixed up in the mess, and you kind of part amiable... well, not friends, but not enemies either. It would be like if at the end of Metal Gear Solid 4, Snake and Ocelot just had a drink and were like "eh, fuck it, let's go bowling."

I liked it quite a bit! I sincerely hope there's similarly cool things in Witcher 3, which obviously I'm like 10 or 12 hours into a new playthrough of, because obviously I needed to play through with an imported Witcher 2 save, come on. I got a shitty tattoo! I want to see what happened to all my friends who, you know, took part in that rebellion with me that one time!

In three years, when I've finally finished Witcher 3 and its expansions, you can look forward to another one of these. Why not?

Coolest character in the game. Just FYI
Coolest character in the game. Just FYI

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We Witched Once

I should start with the normal disclaimers that come with discussing older PC games, which is to say that in spite of all the efforts and polish CD Projekt put into the Enhanced Edition of the Witcher it still crashed on me kind of more than you want a game to crash (particularly because it did not choose to start crashing until chapter 4, when the plot is cooking and maybe if you're me you don't remember to mash that quicksave button as often as you should), and also the sex card collecting thing, which felt weird and gross back in fucking 2007 when the game came out, has managed to age even more poorly! So yeah, forewarned is forearmed, and there's some Issues that you'll need to make your peace with to play it. Hey, on the bright side running the game in administrator mode seemed to stop the crashing problem at least!

Anyway, here's Wonderwall a few thoughts on having finished the first of the Witcher games.

The World is Surprisingly Lively

The dwarves are also kind of great
The dwarves are also kind of great

I know this is kind of old news in 2018, but while the action of the game is centered around one city and a few swamps (we'll get to the swamps later) it's taking place in a surprisingly lively world. It's nothing particularly groundbreaking, but you can pick a pedestrian and follow them along their daily routine, as they wake up, wander about the city doing whatever it is they feel like doing, and then go home when it gets dark to go to sleep. Then you can take all their shit, if you are me and cannot help but steal bread from people (or whatever else isn't nailed down).

It's the sort of stuff that most open world games do now, but the bit that stood out to me the most is probably how the weather will change the routine of some of the people. Merchants and other pedestrians will seek shelter from the downpour (essentially changing their shop locations to somewhere out of the rain), and the ambient dialogue will shift to comment on the weather (my personal favorite line is "my head's getting wet," delivered in the tone of someone who is highly offended by this development. It's endearing). There's a surprising amount of variety to the ambient lines too - yes, by the end I'd heard most of them at least three or four times, but that was 45-50 hours in and, lest we forget, the Witcher was made on something of a small budget. Considering how much they managed to wring out of the Aurora engine, it's something of a miracle. It's a hell of an achievement for 2007, and holds up surprisingly well against other games with that sort of interactivity (looking at you, Skyrim).

I Love Buying Books

And in the game.

Look, the amnesia stuff is some well-worn territory when it comes to RPGs, but I love that Geralt's amnesia extends to his knowledge about how to best combat particular monsters and what useful plants and such are needed for potions. I love this because of the way the game deals with it, which is that Geralt ends up buying books on monsters in order to learn about how to best kill them (also, how to harvest their delicious organs).

This dude is fucking great. Also, a random book I found gave me what I needed to kill a boss that he sent me to.
This dude is fucking great. Also, a random book I found gave me what I needed to kill a boss that he sent me to.

This is also how you learn to make new potions and bombs and stuff, which is precisely how you expect it would go. It also ties into the plot of the narrative in its way - the secrets of Kaer Morhen got fuckin' stolen, and in the time it's taken Geralt to get to the city and start his investigation, copies of what once were proprietary Witcher potion recipies are now just floating around the marketplace. It actually makes sense in the mechanics of the world and hey, that's kind of fucking cool? They soften this mechanic in Witcher 2 and 3, but that also makes a kind of sense, as Geralt's had a whole game's worth of monster hunting experience by the time we get to Witcher 2.

The other thing I like is that every book (not just the ones titled something like "How to kill Wyverns vol. 1") adds to your store of knowledge. It's how you fill out the game's codex, and you can also pick up hints as to how to solve some quests as well. This is extremely my shit, and one of the best parts of the game. I loves me some fucking research, y'all.

God Help me the Writing is Good

There's a lot of talk about the end of the world in this game, some of it delivered by the witch I spared back at the beginning
There's a lot of talk about the end of the world in this game, some of it delivered by the witch I spared back at the beginning

Everything about the elevator pitch of the Witcher, including the visuals, contributes to the idea that it is one in a long line of GRIMDARK FANTASY things that mistake tits and swearing for maturity. Maybe it's a result of years of Game of Thrones clones (which wasn't really a thing back in 2007) but if you come to me today and say "hey we made a mature fantasy game where morality is expressed in shades of grey," I will probably not bother taking a look. Especially if you also put "collect sex cards" as a bullet point on the box.

Like so many things, the marketing for the game potentially did it a disservice (well, what little marketing the game got in the US). At any rate, if you can get past all that nonsense and get into the actual game, you'll be fucking delighted by the quality of the writing (particularly since they went back and retranslated everything for the Enhanced Edition - this means they also re-recorded a lot of things, which is sometimes pretty goddamn obvious, but hey, that gives it a bit of charm). Damn near every quest gets more complicated than it first appears, or leads you to somewhere you didn't expect, or hey, allows you to make friends with a goddamned intelligent ghoul who's just kind of chilling out in a graveyard. Which, if we're being honest, might have been my favorite quest in the whole game.

The main plot is equally good, and manages to provide not just a meditation on what makes a monster, but it's also concerned with legacy in a way that I found fascinating - there's a concern with how the things we say to others can end up coming back to bite us in the ass later, even if what we said and did was done with the best of intentions. I was quite simply stunned with how well the game manages to avoid hitting you over the head with its themes - even if one of those themes is something as cliche as maybe the human race is the real monster, maaaaaaan the execution is incredibly impressive. More importantly, it doesn't make the other side of the equation (the Scoia'tael) out as being saintly. At the same time, they aren't necessarily equal in villainy. You can see how they find themselves in such a desparate position where guerilla warfare seems like the only way out. Equally, even the primary villain is acting in what he believes to be the best interests of the world - like any well-written villain (and real-life villain), he's convinced he's the hero. There's a nuance that's not present in a lot of games. Even Dragon Age, a series of games that I quite enjoy and generally consider to be well-written, has its villains be almost cartoonish in their desire to Fucking Murder Everyone, (and their attempt at nuance in Dragon Age 2 kind of falls into an unfortunate both-sides-are-bad trap that is downright jarring in its suddenness).

The Combat is Weird, but Good? Mostly?

With its Aurora Engine pedigree, and original concept of being a bit like Diablo in terms of gameplay, it's not surprising that the combat isn't particularly mashy. Indeed, it's got a weird rhythm-based mechanic to it that takes some getting used to, but is surprisingly deep. You have to manage your sword choice (steel for humans, silver for monsters) but also your stance and style based on the sort of foe you're fighting. Additionally, the game rewards preparation - consume the right potions, prepare the right bombs, use the right oils on your sword, and you'll breeze through most fights, although some will be a real motherfucker no matter what you do. Also, the early sections leave you with no silver sword, meaning that fights against monsters can be intensly frustrating. Which kind of brings me to the next bit...

The Quest Pathing Can Be Real Bad

That red arrow is as good as it gets, and it probably isn't even pointing to the right thing.
That red arrow is as good as it gets, and it probably isn't even pointing to the right thing.

They can also break in ways you don't expect. I had a quest to give this dude badges taken from bandits (it goes somewhere, I promise), but if you go a step too far in another quest, not only does said dude relocate, but you will forever have the quest marked as being active and in-progress until like, basically the end of the game. If you, like me, enjoy the feeling of seeing quests marked as complete, it will drive you insane to see this quest constantly taunting you. Plus you'll have a bunch of bloody badges you can't do shit with taking up room in your inventory which I'll get to in a minute.

Also some of the monster hunting contracts are pretty prefunctory in design - go bring me six claws from this monster so I know you've killed them, etc., but they also are excellent sources of income so, you know, there's that at least. What's really frustrating is that sometimes you'll find yourself up against a horde of a particular sort of monsters that you've got a contract for, only you forgot to read the right book so you can't harvest the necessary proofs of your murderin'.

It can also really be bad about what you're meant to do next. One in particular involves a guy asking you to find his sister, and the quest gives you zero direction as to where to go or indeed, what to do once you find her. I kind of ended up keeping a walkthrough open and looking over at it when I needed to get past particular parts. The game does offer waypoints, but if the person you're meant to talk to wanders off or changes location, the game does not adjust at all, so it will literally point you in the wrong direction. Like I said, I kept a walkthrough up to get through some of the worse offenders, and blindly stumbled into the solution for others.

Hoo Boy The Inventory Sucks

I mean that says it all, really. You can't pick up weapons without dropping the ones you're using (so you can't sell off your old stuff), and everything else is on a pathetically small grid. Some items stack, but others don't in The Most Frustrating Way, in amounts determined by the game's own weird logic (why does water stack in 7s? Who made that choice?). You can, of course, store stuff in a Resident Evil style item box at inns in order to manage, but it's still a fucking misery. I think I probably spent most of the game throwing away stuff I wanted to sell, or getting collectables for quests that were over but couldn't get rid of (I had like five stacks of Salamandra badges by the end of the game taking up space in my item box and it was infuriating). Rough times, man. Let me tell you about how I got rid of a bunch of quest items that I had no use for at the time only to get a quest for three of them which, as it turns out, I literally never got again - until the next chapter, when I couldn't turn the quest in but was swimming in the fucking things.

It's Still Pretty Good Though

In spite of my frustrations with some of the game (and, one more time, the creepy porn card thing), I think I kind of love the Witcher. It's got moxie, and it remains one of the better RPGs out there. It helps that the sequel improved upon it in basically every way, although the smoke on the street is there's less to do in terms of sidequests and such (I'm not super-far into it yet so I can't say one way or the other). That I was able to import my Witcher 1 save into the Witcher 2 and get some dope fucking armor and also cool swords from the jump was a nice bonus, and surprisingly the game seemed to carry over some of my decisions - particularly where a certain princess was involved, which is cool! I like when things carry over from game to game.

I'm taking my time with Witcher 2, but I'll probably write up some other thoughts on that once I get through. Shockingly, it appears that I'm running the series. Hope y'all like reading another one of these things in like two months or however long it takes me to beat this thing!

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Witchin' for Witchers

A few weeks ago (I think. Time has gotten increasingly difficult to keep track of as we enter the tenth year of 2018) I decided that my launch Xbox One had inexplicably desynced with my controller for the last fucking time and so would pay the price of being resigned to the dustbin of history (at least until I replace my tv and move the old one to the bedroom, and hook it back up to serve as a way to watch movies in bed). So I left work a little early and went down to the local Media Markt, spent €420 (BLAZE IT) and walked out with a brand new Xbox One X (or, as my brother and I refer to it, an Xbonx). Most of my games were installed on an external hard drive, so it didn't especially matter that I had a bunch of games to re-install on what is a decadent 1TB internal hard drive - and so while setting the old standbys to download, I looked over the assorted titles available to me and booted up Dark Souls III to see if the load times and framerate were better - even though, of course, it is not among the Xbox One X Enhanced titles.

Turns out that yeah, the framerate is a lot more stable! So that was nice. I ran around a bit and then decided to check out some other games which did have the Enhanced tag (Monster Hunter World being one of the first games I was concerned with - let me tell you, the faster load times and smoother frame rate is a delight). It was then that I saw the Witcher 3 was also included among the enhanced titles, and, because it happened to be installed on my external drive (and I had some time before Forza Horizon 4 downloaded), I figured I'd check it out.

I have yet to boot up Forza Horizon 4 (before you get worried that I've wasted money on it, I have Game Pass, which has probably saved me like at least €180 by this point).

A Brief History

Seriously, it's not taking home any prizes for its good looks, although I think I've come around on it recently
Seriously, it's not taking home any prizes for its good looks, although I think I've come around on it recently

Way back in 2007 (or thereabouts), I picked up a copy of the Witcher for what was, I assume, not much money because I clearly grabbed it on a whim. Doubtless I'd seen some scuttlebutt praising it as being surprisingly cool, and as someone who couldn't help but be interested in surprisingly cool fantasy RPGs, I picked it up. Later, GoG ran a deal which upgraded it to the Enhanced Edition and also bundled together the Enhanced Edition of the Witcher 2 (I think this was in 2013, because that's when my earliest save is from). Because my mind is broken, and I have to play things in order, I started a game of The Witcher, and then got promptly distracted by.... well, something or other, clearly. Or maybe the fact that even in 2013 the Witcher was not exactly taking home any prizes for graphics turned me off it? Who can say? When the Witcher 3 released in 2015, I went back to the Witcher, probably because I was still sort of determined to run the series in order. That didn't last long, as I also bought a copy of the Witcher 3 for the Xbox One. I then almost immediately bounced off the Witcher 3 - the framerate was less stable than I'd like, and for whatever reason I just... wasn't into it. It doesn't help that dying meant losing a solid like, minute and a half while it loaded up again. I beefed it on the initial fight with the Bloody Baron's men at the crossroads enough that I appear to have just given up.

Later, there was a sale for it on the PC, and I grabbed it because it was cheap, but my computer was a bit old and it didn't quite work as well as I hoped it would - still an improvement over the Xbox version, but not enough to get me to really settle down with it. So I bounced off again. Later I got out of the jam with the Baron's men I was in on the Xbox by just loading an earlier save, but bounced off yet again to play... again, I don't remember. I just remember kind of resigning myself to the games not being for me (and so of course, the books probably weren't for me either). I carried some regret, as I'd definitely spent way too much on a series I couldn't get into, but there you go. My game library is full of games I wanted to like but didn't (I'm looking at you, Ruiner), so one more corpse in the graveyard wasn't gonna kill me. Eventually, I figured, I would delete Witcher 3 off my xbox to make space for something else. I'm glad I didn't!

All-in on Witchering

Hello gorgeous
Hello gorgeous

I don't know exactly what's happened this time around, but popping into the Witcher 3 this time (this is, for those keeping score, my fourth attempt at getting into the game/series) hooked me in the way that I remember Dragon Age Origins hooking me way back when. Suddenly I was getting to bed late because I kept wanting to see one more twist in its surprisingly twisty side-quests, to say nothing of the main plot itself, which has got me wanting to see where things go. More to the point, the few oblique references to the events of the last two games got me to sit down with the goal of getting through the first two games - and, much like with Witcher 3, I've gotten pretty into the first Witcher now, and just hit the halfway point. So now I'm just kind of bouncing between 1 and 3 - my eventual goal is to play the series in order on the PC (my old PC was replaced with one that can actually handle Witcher 3's vistas) while dicking around on the Xbox with the current 3 - the advantage being, of course, that I can see myself doing a second run of the Witcher 3 just to see how things turn out if I do them differently. For example, I definitely got the Baron's wife killed (and then he hanged himself), and I want to find out whether or not I can get a different outcome. At the very least I reckon I ought to be able to keep the wife alive. There's other, larger-scale choices to make too, of course, but time will inevitably tell how everything shakes out. Also, because when I go all-in on something I tend to go all-in, I've been working my way through the books (which hey, those are good books! Certainly they've not worn their welcome out for me the way Game of Thrones did), and I fell down a serious Gwent hole, and uh... I guess I'm actually curious to see how the whole Netflix series shakes out now?

The point is, I can't remember the last time I suddenly found myself so suddenly in love with a series that I'd bounced off of multiple times. Indeed, I'm not actually sure it's ever happened before - and if not for the idle decision to just check out the enhanced features of my new console, I might have never gotten back into it at all! Obviously, destiny is at work here, right?

I probably should check out Forza Horizon 4 though.

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Dead Man Shuffle

Recently, for a bunch of reasons which probably all have to do with barreling headlong into the uncertainty of moving across the globe for work and adventure and a couple other dumb reasons that I promise I’m okay with having as reasons even if they are dumb, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own inevitable demise and what precisely it is I will leave behind when I go--if indeed I leave behind anything of value at all. The sudden demise of a dude I used to give rides to/play football with in high school over the Christmas holiday combined with the the passing of (David Bowie/Alan Rickman/pick a celebrity they’re fucking dropping like flies this year (but let’s be honest it was David Bowie)) probably contributed a little to it as well, plus it’s winter and everything is kind of dead anyway.

I think the idea of death is damn near impossible to get my head around. The mind rebels at the very idea that this could stop at any moment and then there’s nothing else--like I will cease to be and might not even be aware that I’ve ceased to be, because I won’t be aware of anything ever again, because I’ll be dead and the dead lack awareness. Whatever quirk that gives me consciousness will cease to be, and that will be that. The only thing that will remotely remain of me would be a sprawling online footprint, a couple blogs, some poems and a short story that got published in a college literary magazine once, oh and that porn game I helped write that one time. It’s made me want to have the last word, somehow.

It doesn’t help (or does help) that everything I’ve been playing recently has been super concerned with death, or getting over death, or saying goodbye, or ripping apart time and space to escape death or outrun it just a little longer. Namely, I’ve been playing Life is Strange--sure, I watched a playthrough of it but there’s enough choice in there that I want to experience it for myself--and Oxenfree (have you played Oxenfree? You probably should). I also finally sat down and finished up D4*, which is literally about jumping through time in an effort to bring your dead wife back (as opposed to Life is Strange, which is about jumping through time to keep your (girl)friend alive, or Oxenfree, which teases you with the ability to maybe prevent your brother’s death by jumping through time (also let’s just mention Kentucky Route Zero here, which I haven’t played recently but is very much about loss and regret (which I’ve written about before), and Pathologic, which is about people dying that you simply cannot save)). The game that really started this whole train of thought, however, was Hacknet. You know, the game about Hollywood-style hacking? You against the vast corporate conspiracy, or something like that? Solving a mystery by committing crimes?

Hacking!
Hacking!

See, Hacknet starts with you getting an email from a dead man. The man knows he is dead, because he set up a dead man’s switch--and it’s that mechanism that fascinates me. The Shadowrun reboot’s first campaign begins with the activation of a dead man’s switch, as do probably a million other games and stories set in a cyberpunk future. It’s an easy trope to lean into, and an easy way to give your investigator something to investigate. It also perfectly lines up with the very human desire to want to say goodbye properly, to leave some mark that says we were here--and say the million things we want to say and never get around to saying, of course.

Here’s a true story about me: I got my Master’s degree in Wales, which meant that I did a not-insignificant amount of flying to and from the US for various vacations. I love flying--it’s doing something that should be impossible and I find every takeoff to be exhilarating, even on shitty fucking airlines in shitty fucking uncomfortable airline seats. At the same time, part of me is absolutely fucking terrified every time I fly because it feels like if something goes wrong during a transatlantic flight you’re basically dead, and by “basically” I mean that shit is like guaranteed because who’s going to find your ass in the middle of the goddamn ocean? And yeah, I know all the statistics and it’s super-unlikely and all that but tell that to my irrational anxieties and they’ll tell you to go fuck yourself and then concoct a doomsday scenario.

Anyway in order to make it so I could relax on flights I started to leave an external hard drive with a letter to be read in the event of my demise. Said letter would essentially be an opportunity for me to leave a sort of farewell to the people I most needed to say some kind of final farewell to, and so I was able to relax on flights. Obviously, however, this plan had some flaws--namely there was no guarantee anyone would think to look on my hard drive (a problem solved by hiding a note with instructions in my room). The worse flaw, really, was that I sometimes needed that hard drive with me which defeated the whole damn purpose of the exercise.

Of course now there are services that just do it for you. Some will even do it for free--or at least free for the first two recipients. That obliges you to whittle down the list of people you absolutely must have the last word with to a mere two (I have my two people already in mind, obviously, because I live in the US and so obviously I need to know who to call/text in the event someone decides to try shooting up the office/shopping center/movie theater and I’m barricaded in somewhere waiting to die). These services will email you every month or so, like a worried aunt, until you stop responding. At that point they’ll wait a few more days/weeks and finally assume you’re dead, releasing the email. Google also lets you will your account data to trustees after a set period of inactivity, which is like a dead man’s switch only you’re releasing everything and not just a message (or maybe not? I haven’t looked into it yet myself).

It’s an immensely selfish thing to do, of course. You’re talking about activating something which will go out a solid month after death, when the wound of your absence is just starting to heal up. I think maybe the last thing I’d do, were I near death, would be to turn the damn thing off. But there’s always the urge to say more, and my own anxiety over not having the time to say what I need to say before I disappear from the human experience is, to say the least, sufficient to make the idea of having such a dead man’s switch set up an attractive proposition. It’s the one bit of the future promised in the books I read as a kid that actually exists now (well, also we’re in a terrible cyberpunk surveillance state). A chance to have the last word--and as I’m a chatty bastard, at least to the people I’m close with--isn’t a bad idea.

*IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE: Please god let there be another season of D4. I don’t know how it would possibly ever happen, but please.

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Metal Gear Noir

Not exactly the big city, but bear with me here
Not exactly the big city, but bear with me here

I’ve often expressed the opinion that the third installment in the Metal Gear Solid franchise is the worst installment--an opinion based, admittedly, upon hazy memories of playing the original PS2 version on a small television in my (equally) small dorm room in college. The visuals were muddy, the sound was tinny, and detecting the presence of enemy soldiers was all but impossible given the lack of a Soliton Radar (which is primarily how I’d gotten through the previous two games, although in reality I’d never beaten the second installment solo--my friend and I sat in his basement playing through the game and were suitably baffled by the ending in high school). The (recently concluded, until it’s not) Metal Gear Scanlon series, however, gave me the final burst of motivation needed to go back to the Metal Gear Solid franchise. I picked up the Legacy collection--including MGS1, 2, 3, 4, Peace Walker, and (last but not least) the original MSX games--and began my trip down memory lane.

I’ll probably come back and talk about my return to the first two games at some point--basically, MGS1 holds up better than it has any right to, and MGS2 is far better than it has any right to be (and it has a plot I actually followed the second time around, which I never did before), but it wasn’t until I got to Metal Gear Solid 3 that the series really came together for me (I haven’t started a replay of 4 yet--a game I’ve never actually played all the way through, and indeed before the final episode of Metal Gear Scanlon had never seen the complete ending of; my brother finished the game while I was at work and every other time I’ve seen the game most of the final cutscenes and exposition got skipped through). The gameplay is much improved, and (unlike a fair few other folk I’ve spoken to about the game) I really enjoyed the hunting and camo systems and the overall open feeling of the earlier levels--and the fights against The End and The Boss might be two of my favorite boss fights in any game to date (the fights against Volgin, the Shagohod, the Shagohod’s front section, and the Shagohod’s front section with Volgin on top, however, are uniformly awful--the Volgin fight for being a king bastard, and all the Shagohod fights for being tedious as hell). But that’s getting away from my intended point, here: what I really liked about Metal Gear Solid 3 was its story. Specifically, what I really liked was the way the story of Metal Gear Solid 3 initially presents itself as a Cold War spy thriller, but what it becomes by the end is a classic noir that happens to have a Cold War spy thriller backdrop.

Not exactly a trench coat, either--but dude's pretty damn hard boiled anyway
Not exactly a trench coat, either--but dude's pretty damn hard boiled anyway

Like all classic noir films, our hero is a smart, self-assured tough guy who is, as it turns out, in over his head, although he’s got no idea this is the case. We’re told up front that John is not just capable, but he’s one of the best soldiers there is--second only to the Boss, you’re led to believe. That this boss of yours--an old friend and comrade--performs an egregious betrayal is what kicks off the central mystery that John spends the whole game trying to solve--namely, why did the Boss do what she did? This is where the narrative shifts a bit to create another noir situation--the guy strong-armed into performing a service for shady people (in this case, the “shady people” are the CIA instead of say, crooked cops or mobsters, but I think the comparison (especially these days) works pretty damn well). Your mission--stop Volgin and kill the Boss--takes priority, but John is haunted by the Boss’ seeming betrayal throughout. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the Boss’ defection has much more driving it than merely Volgin’s Russian escapades--and things start to come together, at least in the sense that so much more is going on than John’s been told--and large-reaching conspiracies being another large part of modern noir, it makes perfect sense that there would be more going on.

By the time we get the full picture of what’s happening, it is far too late for John to do anything about it. The plot was set in motion before the Virtuous Mission even started, with the only wrinkle being the use of the Davy Crockett by Volgin. Like most noir protagonists, John comes out of the experience completely worse for the wear--minus an eye, traumatized by having to fight and kill his mentor, and left with a deep feeling of betrayal at how much of a pawn he’d allowed himself to be. It is often traditional for the protagonists of a noir film to wind up battered and bruised (see: Jack Nicholson’s nose in Chinatown (or really any of the shit that happened in Chinatown)). The difference between the two is that nobody was there to throw their arm around John’s shoulder and encourage him to forget it. Instead, John elects to become a conspiracy-driving mastermind himself--an ultimately doomed mastermind, but a mastermind nonetheless.

James Bond, only without the ability to button up his shirt
James Bond, only without the ability to button up his shirt

Of course, this is all without mentioning EVA, who fits the femme fatale role so perfectly (beautiful, deadly, and of questionable loyalties until the very end) that considering her role is what brought me to the conclusion that MGS 3 is one big noir. EVA relies on her sex appeal to carry out her mission, although she is unable to sway John in what feels much like a mirror of the mostly sexless noir protagonists of cinema--the Maltese Falcon’s Sam Spade in particular sprang to mind for me, but pick your favorite Bogart of choice and odds are he’ll spend a lot of the film rebuffing the advances of the fatale before giving in (which will either lead to his downfall or, in the case of a film like The Big Sleep, the end of the movie and a poorly-revised happy ending deviating from the book that pissed me off to no end).

The other argument you could make would be that this is in fact not a noir but a good old fashioned spy film--and that’s easy to see too, particularly since Kojima has his characters talk about James Bond at least once--but then again, I think there’s a lot of the DNA of noir in spy film, too. I actually toyed with the idea of MGS3 being a Bond film where you play as one of the side characters--maybe even the “Bond girl”--while EVA takes the role of James Bond, but I’m not 100% sold on that interpretation. The noir comparison works a lot better to my mind, although I should be clear that this is only really when it comes to the plot, and not so much the art style--no high-contrast colors here. Still, I like the way the plot fits the structure as it gives an extra bit of weight to the doomed John’s tale--bested, like so many noir protagonists, by forces they never really had a chance of beating in the first place. Forget it, John. It’s Metal Gear.

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Let's You and Me Fight: I wish Rising Thunder Felt Faster

I’m approaching the point where it is entirely possible I have completely lost my goddamn mind, as my fighting game library has expanded further since the last time I checked in a mere two weeks ago—not only did I wind up grabbing Under Night In-Birth, I broke down and grabbed King of Fighters XIII and Yatagaseru, because I figured I was on a roll and might as well keep this train going (it helps that the two of them are like $30 combined). I haven’t spent a ton of time with either, but the little time I’ve spent with KOF has been kind of neat (I am still dicking around with the characters to figure out who I want to focus on—I really like King a lot so far, but who knows where I’ll end up). Plus, KOF’s sprites are gorgeous like woah.

Just look at that. It's GORGEOUS
Just look at that. It's GORGEOUS

Of course, I’ve also been spending a fair amount of time with the newest fighting game to drop recently, which is Rising Thunder. As an admitted novice to this whole fighting games thing (this series started back in May, for reference, so I’ve been focusing on fighting games for the last…four months?), a game like Rising Thunder is aimed directly at me—my execution in most games is solid enough at this point that I can do some basic combos in most of the games I’ve got, but I still run into input errors from time to time (which is partially due to an unfortunate tendency to fall back to mashing when I panic), and Rising Thunder takes input errors out of the equation entirely (well, almost entirely. You can still wind up hitting the wrong button if you aren’t careful (I am not careful)).

So it’s neat, because instead of having to learn the stick motions and such before jumping into trying to learn combos and defensive strategies, you skip directly to the combo/defensive strategy parts. Which means that I’ve been spending plenty of time actually fighting people rather than sitting in the training mode. What I’ve found, unfortunately, is that my heavy anime fighter addiction has caused me to become used to a faster combo system than Rising Thunder seems willing to provide. This isn’t necessarily a knock on Rising Thunder, more of a problem I’ve caused by playing too much goddamn Melty Blood.

I'm tempted to mess around with Chel too
I'm tempted to mess around with Chel too

Or at least that was my initial read—I’ve since gone through and played some other “slower” games (USFIV, with whom Rising Thunder shares a not-insignificant bit of DNA, both Yatagaseru and King of Fighters XIII), and on second glance, I think Rising Thunder just feels sluggish in a way other games don’t. It doesn’t help that I’ve mostly been playing as Vlad (VLAD BEST. RUSSIA BEST) , who lacks any kind of a solid dash—a Looney Toons-esque step—though his jetpack does allow for faster air traversal, the only other option is to lumber slowly forward (and no good backdash option either). It’s possible that if I spend some time with other, not Russian robots, I’ll feel like it’s a little faster than I currently do.

Then again, perhaps that is part of the point of this game—if it is for beginners and experts alike, a slower pace does make the learning curve less steep. It’s a little easier to see what’s going on and exactly how it is you fucked up when you fuck up (I do a lot of fucking up), so there’s a perfectly good reason for it to move the way it does. Unfortunately, it also tends to leave me wanting to play something a little faster—which is basically any game that isn’t Rising Thunder (well, maybe Mortal Kombat X feels slower, but I don’t think so. It’s been a while since I played any MKX).

Bear in mind, this is an alpha—so it’s not like the game is set in stone by any means. They’ll continue to tweak the game engine, and tighten the controls even more, and maybe that sluggishness I’m feeling will disappear. I hope so, because I like just about everything about the game—I just wish it felt a little faster, is all.

I actually streamed a good chunk of me playing Rising Thunder last week, if you want hard photographic evidence of my hideous Vlad game. It's below.

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Let's You and Me Fight: Nostalgia Strikes Back

Apologies for the sudden disappearance—work got busy, and then I found myself distracted by video games for a while, and then work got busy again, and then, you know, video games. I’m attempting to spin things back up here as far as regular content goes, but we’ll have to see.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, a lot of my time has been dumped into various fighting games (also Trackmania). I’ve brought this up before (if not here, certainly on the podcast), but part of what makes fighting games so appealing to me these days is the brevity of an actual match—you’re looking at around five minutes per match, tops—but at the same time I’ve found myself spending entire afternoons just kind of sitting in online play (or, as has been more frequent these days, sitting in training mode). The point being that unlike so many other genres it lends itself to both short and long sessions, and the more time I spend with them, the more I like ‘em. In the last week, I’ve been spending a lot of time with one flavor of fighting game in particular—the anime fighter.

More accurately, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Melty Blood Actress Again.

What the fuck is that?

Okay so, story time.

I spent a year abroad in Oxford my third year at college, and while I did not spend as much time playing video games (there were an awful lot of pubs nearby which I was busy devoting my attention to), I did wind up killing a not-insignificant amount of time dicking around on the internet when I should have been writing papers. This was also coming off a summer of working third shift construction, where I wound up casting about on the internet for shit to do on my nights off and, inevitably, spent a lot of time on 4chan, because of course I fucking did. This meant I wound up watching a lot of anime that I wouldn’t have ordinarily watched, because this was also when torrenting became super-prevalent.

The thing about being in another country for school was that the only thing I had to play games on was my laptop: a cheap Gateway (formerly eMachines) which could just barely run World of Warcraft. I’d installed Fallout 2 on it before leaving for school and it was those two games I found myself saddled with for the entire year—that and some games on my trusty DS which I don’t actually recall all that well.

God this pad sucked.
God this pad sucked.

Lord knows why, but when I saw some chatter online about some game called Melty Blood, I became interested enough to check it out—which involved torrenting, finding an English translation patch, and buying a shitty Logitech gamepad which was basically a Dualshock 2 but without the responsiveness of a Dualshock 2 (this was at the prompting of my brother, who assured me it was a quality controller even though it really, really wasn’t).

As it turns out, Melty Blood was a fan game of sorts which spun out of some visual novel or other about vampires, the people who hunt vampires, and the people who fuck vampires, their sister (but don’t worry, she’s not a blood relative!), the maids, and the possessed nun or whatever pretending to be a student. Yes, I know. For whatever reason, the creator of the VN is massively popular, and this particular thing was popular enough that some people made a fighting game and got it inducted into the actual “canon” universe (I think).

This guy. This guy is basically ZATO.
This guy. This guy is basically ZATO.

What Melty Blood really is, of course, is a Guilty Gear clone. Or at least that’s the game it reminds me of the most—right down to an enemy who just sort of hits you with shit that comes out of his vaguely amorphous body—including sharks and a deer that just sort of wanders around hitting you until it goes away (you know, like summoning Eddie in GGXrd). I played either the first or second version (I believe it was ReAct that I grabbed in college) and enjoyed it for what it was—although I couldn’t play other people because I only had the one controller and online support didn’t exist. I went through the story mode, which I actually enjoyed quite a bit—I liked that it branched if you lost, so that instead of having to restart you just got a different story in particular—and got… I won’t say “good,” but at least competent. Then my laptop got stolen that summer and what with one thing and another, I never gave the game much thought again.

Until this year’s EVO, that is.

AnimEVO

It was bouncing around this very website’s EVO post that I saw a familiar name included in the AnimEVO side-tournaments. I was already kind of interested in seeing the latest BlazBlue and vaguely interested in Under Night In-Birth (developed by the Melty Blood people), so I was surprised to see Melty Blood on the list of planned events. I certainly hadn’t thought too hard about the game in the nine years or so it had been since I last played any Melty Blood myself, so I decided I would make some time to check out the tournament and bask in the warm glow of my own nostalgia.

As it turns out, the game’s pretty fun to watch in the same way that most anime fighters are really fun to watch—the combos people pull off look really ridiculous and cool, and as memories of the game came flooding back I made an inquiry in the twitch chat about just how the hell people were still playing this game and, of course, how one could go about getting a copy for themselves, you know, if one were interested.

Google proved to be the answer to the latter question, and a quick browse of a comprehensive pastebin document later I had an installer, a crack, and a translation—just like old times!

FYI, don't play as Sion if you are a beginner. BOY HOWDY.
FYI, don't play as Sion if you are a beginner. BOY HOWDY.

I vaguely remembered dicking around as Sion (the girl with the gun) last time, so I hopped into the story mode and discovered it still hasn’t been translated. Undeterred, I settled for dicking around in the training mode and fighting the AI, which did a handy job of handing my ass to me for a good portion of my time until I remembered most of the mechanics (I have yet to fully wrap my head around the moon system they implemented in this version—they work like grooves in SFIII, but some differences are universal and some are character specific). Eventually I got to the point where I figured some online play couldn’t hurt, so I hopped into a steam group chat set up for this very purpose and found myself a sparring partner.

Said sparring partner proceeded to utterly annihilate me, although he was very nice about it and knew I was completely in the woods re: competent play. It was a lot of fun, at any rate, to see how the various characters played, and the community (such as it is) was all quite helpful and seemed to be Solid Dudes who all pointed me toward some guides and such to pick up some basic combos and whatever.

So that’s what I’ve been doing recently—sitting with training mode open, usually with some other thing going on because the game can be run in a small window, practicing the sort of simple combos that one generally does when one is completely out of practice with the game they played That One Time Nine Years Ago. There’s something about the sprites that I like which I can’t pin down—the somewhat low-resolution look leans a little more on the viewer to fill in the blanks and that works in a way that other older games don’t (not to be too reductive, but the jump from Street Fighter to Street Fighter II is enormous, and even then the jump to Street Fighter III is such that II looks bad by comparison). That and the fact the soundtrack is surprisingly good secures a place in my heart for this game, weird-ass pedigree and all.

SUPER OBVIOUS NOTE ABOUT PIRACY: As a general rule, I try to avoid pirating whenever possible. I like paying people money for the work they do! It’s kind of my thing these days, because I have a job and can afford to do so. If there were literally any legitimate way to get my grubby hands on this game, I would’ve done so. As it is, this particular version (the one with online support and shit) was only ever available in like a boxed anime set that goes for something like $300 goddamn dollars these days, and is super-rare to boot. So I broke my “pay people” rule, although in a gesture of like… soothing my own feelings of guilt I did pick up Under Night In-Birth on Steam afterwards so at least some money went to the devs (I have yet to play any of it, because I’m busy in MB, but still). That doesn’t make it right, of course, and I fully acknowledge I’m a complete fucking hypocrite in this instance.

OTHER EDIT: So here's the thing: I 100% was going to pick up UNIB on Steam after I wrote this, which is why I said I picked it up--only it turns out there's not actually a PC version out? So nevermind. I'll have to pick it up on PS3 or (as is more likely) wait for the PC version to arrive--which I could've sworn was set to happen soon, but a quick google search turned up JACK SHIT, so maybe the PS3 version's in my future after all.

OTHER OTHER EDIT: Yeah, I have UNIEL on PS3 now. Doubtless I will check it out soon enough.

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Let's You and Me Fight: Shadoloo Shadow Labs

My goodness, but it’s been a while. All these video games out there, you know, and so few of them are fighting games (and anyway, I’m not sure how many more fighting games I can realistically take up before I go mad). I had a lot of other things demanding my attention, so I spent just under a week doing very little in the way of fighting at all. In spite of that, it’s been an eventful time since the last installment.

Street Fightin’

I've definitely found that Hugo's pretty easy to beat using Sakura--which is funny considering how often I've lost to him.
I've definitely found that Hugo's pretty easy to beat using Sakura--which is funny considering how often I've lost to him.

Most importantly (or at least, most importantly to me), I’m no longer winless in USFIV—I may have racked up a ridiculous amount of losses in the process, but I made the decision to switch back to Sakura and stuck with her. This paid off in a downright heart-pounding victory over a Chun-Li player, which basically left me feeling so goddamn elated that I nearly called my parents to brag before I realized they’d have no fucking clue what I was talking about (I settled for sending a series of excited texts to my brother, who was polite enough to pretend to care). The funniest part about the win was that I was close to giving up on the game altogether. A series of (frankly humiliating) defeats had left me thinking that maybe the Street Fighter series just wasn’t for me (a note I wrote down at the time posits that maybe “I’ve got some strange enjoyment out of being terrible” and laments a predilection for poor timing and panic). Shortly after that note is one written in an unsteady hand still shaking from adrenaline “Have I found my feet?”

Well, as it turns out I haven’t really found my feet that much. I did manage to string together a series of wins after the first one. This also basically ensured that I will never stop playing as Sakura, as she pulled off my first win and has continued to perform well for me, at least in terms of winning me a couple matches here and there (I think my record is something like 19-81 overall). Yesterday I discovered the match replay functionality and, figuring there wasn’t much reason not to, decided I would upload one of my matches to YouTube so you can all watch it and laugh at how cheap my wins are (I tried to find my original win but with no success—the game only keeps a set amount of matches in its memory before it deletes them, so it’s likely I’ve lost it forever).

No, I don't know why the whole thing recorded in slow motion. Yes, my wins really are that cheap.

One thing which I’ve learned, at least, is that it pays to sit back and watch your opponent—as much as I’m a fan of just charging in swinging, my better fights have come when I spend the first round playing slightly more passively, waiting to see what they favor.

I also impulsively decided to try playing Cammy, which went about as well as you’d expect (i.e. I got my ass handed to me).

Teaching my Shadow Poor Fighting Habits

Like the rest of the world, I was super-excited by the announcement of the Shadow Lab. As soon as I heard about it, I knew I’d want to make one of my own, particularly since any advances in AI (even simple-ass videogame AI) fascinate me to no end. So shortly after watching Jeff play around in it on UPF, I fired up Killer Instinct and made myself an AI me.

BEHOLD MY SHADOW BRAIN
BEHOLD MY SHADOW BRAIN

I got absolutely murdered by the Jago you fight initially to program your AI, incidentally. It’s appropriate, because that’s what usually happens when I fight Jago as Sabrewulf (or anyone). I’ve since spent a lot of time challenging the shadows of others and it’s been a hell of a lot of fun. There’s a lot about the shadow system I like—it gives me the ability to fight my brother, for example, even though our schedules don’t always line up—plus it really is shockingly close to fighting a real person (right down to getting teabagged after a loss). Also, as someone who occasionally has connectivity issues (in a perfect world, I would not be forced to use god-awful Comcast internet—but they are the only game in town and their service is fucking dog shit) it is nice to get the “fighting a real person” experience without the “whoops say hi to lag/dropped connections” part.

Also I spent some time dressing up Sabrewulf. Don't judge me.
Also I spent some time dressing up Sabrewulf. Don't judge me.

Oddly enough, I don’t seem to be able to get any statistics about my Shadow’s performance online (I figure he must have been in some fights by now, but I don’t get any statistics beyond the ones I create by fighting shadows myself). There’s no replacement for good old fashioned fighting actual humans, but the shadow system comes incredibly close to it. At this point I’m sure I’ve spent more time fighting shadows than fighting real people, and it’s been a blast. Plus I’m sure it’s all made my shadow even more like my own, awful fighting performance.

Other Stuff

I wound up taking a massive break from MKX—the fighting in KI and USFIV flows so smoothly for me that MKX feels clunky by comparison. I just didn’t want to spend time figuring it out anymore, so I gave it up for a while. My brother has been a little more stubborn about it, and convinced me to give it another try recently, so I went back into it. I read a couple guides on MKX (Sub Zero, specifically) and tried out some of the combos, but the timing on them is unlike anything else I’ve played, and I’m not sure I have the patience to keep banging my head against the wall. It’s hard to muster the urge to get back to the game when I’ve been having so much fun with other (better, if you ask me) games.

Speaking of other games—how about that Street Fighter V news, huh? I can’t help but wonder if they’ve gotten rid of the Z motion in it entirely after hearing Jason talk about how it’s not required for Ryu’s uppercut anymore. I would be more into the idea if I hadn’t gotten to the point where I can actually pull the damn move off consistently, but I think I’m into the idea of a more accessible Street Fighter. It sounds weird to say it, but SFV might be the thing that makes me pick up a PS4? I like the look of it, and while some of the animations still seem a little off (there’s something about Ryu’s fireball that has a little judder to it I can’t quite place), I’m pretty sure they’ll sort that out by the time it launches. I’ll be interested to see what comes out of E3 for it (more character announcements would be nice—I need to be able to play Sakura or I’m screwed).

PS. Please announce Season 3 of KI at E3 and put the KI season 1 and 2 bundle on sale. Thanks.

PPS. If you want to fight my awful Sabrewulf shadow, I'm forddent on XBL.

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Records of a Lost Kingdom

It had been my hope to raise this house into glory, but I fear I have only brought about its ruin.
It had been my hope to raise this house into glory, but I fear I have only brought about its ruin.

I am born, or more accurately created, on the first day of my reign—and there is a giant chalice talking to me. I am an immortal god-king, the product of the blood of the nation’s heroes, and it is my duty to keep the kingdom going long enough for the aforementioned chalice to do its work and save us all. We’re fighting a holding action—the best we can hope for is to slow our defeat in the face of an inevitable foe which brings the ravages of time and decay prematurely into the world. There is, indeed, none of the world outside our borders left—as far as we know, anyway. A vanguard of heroes stands ready to fight at my command, and through these mighty bloodlines the future of our nation—my nation, now—rests assured. Provided, of course, I can manage to keep the kingdom going. Also, I can’t leave the throne, which is kind of a bummer—but I can astral project, which I suppose is almost as good—and I can withdraw inward to allow the years to fly by, should I wish (the chalice promises to wake me for important events).

Memories of happier, more successful times
Memories of happier, more successful times

I am twenty years into my reign before my kingdom suffers its first loss. Perhaps that is what caused me to become so hideously overconfident, trusting that I would always come out ahead. My warriors were strong, and they were smart, and I should’ve paid more attention when the game told me this would not last, because it did not last.

Thirty years into my reign and the first fatalities in battle have occurred. My houses have failed to produce strong heirs (or any heirs, in a few cases, because I grew too attached to some fighters and could not bear to part with them—how could I, after all we’d won together, send them off to marriage and old age? Far better for them to die in battle, I thought—or to only retire after old age prevented adventuring—and then to aid in research, or training of the new generation of fighters). By the time I realize my error, forty years have passed and my ranks are perilously thin. A few early deaths due to the caprices of chance and health, and it seems I’ve got to all but start over.

I have failed to produce a diverse set of houses, it would seem. We are a nation of alchemists and hunters, with no front line troops. I should have focused on a more balanced military when determining who should run things. That would have been the act of a wise ruler, but I clearly have no wisdom. We are too low on heroes to even risk marrying them off to produce more heroes, for what if they fail to produce heirs? I spend too much time—far too much time—having the chalice search for new heroes rather than producing them. Yet these heroes seem more fragile than the champions of old, or perhaps the enemy has grown more powerful.

My fiftieth year is a good one. The heroic houses have produced offspring, and adoption has ensured bloodlines where babies could not. My people are stronger, now, and the next encounter with the Cadence is a resounding victory—as is the one after that. Time, however, refuses to slow down. This generation grows older, and once again I find myself in danger of losing whole bloodlines due to my own mismanagement (or rotten luck when it comes to baby production, even from unions which promise fertility). Still, I grow attached to a few young heroes—attached enough that it absolutely destroys me when a poorly-thrown flask cuts one down in what should have been his prime. The thrower was a member of one of the original houses and should have been great, but instead proved to be an incompetent wretch, incapable of hitting targets. I can’t marry him off, so I send him out to die and feel a vicious sort of satisfaction when he does.

My sagewright’s guild is destroyed and its personnel lost in an explosion in my 80th year, because I trusted them to create useful things and hoped for the best when they approached me about a new project. Soon thereafter, the keep of my oldest bloodline falls to an attack that I did not have the strength to repel. I despair, spending the next few years reeling from the loss and trying to figure out a way to recover. I try to start new bloodlines, maintain the faltering ones, keep moving—but another keep falls in my 90th year, and the heroes I recruit as replacements are almost uniformly sickly. At this point I can expect no more than a few survivors out of every engagement with the Cadence.

I suspected somewhere back in my 70th year that my kingdom was doomed, and that it was my fault for being so foolish in the early years of my reign. The Cadence takes more territory, and my heroes keep dying, and after a hundred years of strife, I feel compelled to call it quits and accept oblivion. I am worn down by frustration at these young heroes and by grief at the loss of some of my best houses. The Chalice continues to tell me that we can continue, that we should not give up until the bitter end, and perhaps that is true. Perhaps I will gain some form of dignity in fighting until all is well and truly lost. I do not know, honestly, which would be worse—to lay down and die now, or to keep fighting in the face of an inevitable defeat, drawing out the end and making that much more painful when the end does come.

Too much has been lost, and too quickly. Doom is upon us.
Too much has been lost, and too quickly. Doom is upon us.

I’ve made the decision to fight to the end. One day the remnants of my kingdom may stand testament to those who fought, or maybe all will be devoured by the rushing tide of decay and ruin that even now sits at my capital’s doorstep. I have served 127 years as ruler of this kingdom. I do not believe I will serve much longer.

Perhaps there is another like me, somewhere. Perhaps they too have a chalice, and immortality, and a chance to stop the Cadence from devouring the entire world. I will never know, because my story ends here, facing down the monsters at the door, unable to even leave the throne.

Damn me for my foolishness. I’ve killed us all.

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Let's You and Me Fight: There Wulf. There Castle.

Before we go any further, I’ve got an important confession to make: I’d intended to keep to my semi-regular schedule of getting these up on Sundays, but I spent the lion’s share of Sunday the same way I spent the lion’s share of Saturday, and indeed the lion’s share of my Friday evening—watching the Combo Breaker tournament on this very website (thanks for allowing me to not have to sit in Twitch chat, Giant Bomb, I appreciate it more than you know). It was a massive bummer to have the streams go down as often as they did (some serious ISP shenanigans apparently went down, and that’s a shame), but whenever the feeds were up it was great to watch a bunch of intensely good players do battle in games which I either own or happen to have an interest in. I particularly enjoyed watching the Killer Instinct and Guilty Gear Xrd finals (I wanted to watch the P4AU finals too, but stream problems prevented it). I will never be on the level that basically any of the participants operated on, but there’s always some knowledge to be gleaned from watching folks play at a high level (like “block sometimes” and “maybe don’t just charge at people all the time”). Also it’s fun to watch and chat with people who know more about fighting games than I do. Some pretty damn good matches happened over the weekend, and the MKX final in particular was intensely exciting.

So obviously I finished watching Combo Breaker footage and got intensely excited about playing some more fighting games—specifically, I got intensely excited about playing more Killer Instinct.

I Gave Iron Galaxy Five Dollars

There was some good Sabrewulf play at Combo Breaker too, for the record
There was some good Sabrewulf play at Combo Breaker too, for the record

Shortly after my last post, some discussion in the comments ensued, and it was recommended to me (thanks, @l1ghtn1n) that I should consider buying either Jago or Sabrewulf, as my previous posts indicated a preference for rushdown characters (which is pretty accurate, since my go-to strategy involves just lumbering forward like a big dumb animal and swinging wildly—there’s a tip for any of you who happen to encounter me in any fighting game). A vague memory of playing a lot of Sabrewulf on the original KI as well as a passing interest in werewolves (I would kill for a Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines type of game, except you get to be a werewolf instead, because vampires are fuckin’ boring) got me to shell out the $5.00 it took to unlock Sabrewulf.

Here’s something I really like about Killer Instinct: It has a nice training mode (not the best training mode, but a nice one) that lays out the basic mechanics and has you essentially do a bunch of crap as Jago. Once the combo system was explained, I had a better idea of what I was doing—and it turns out Sabrewulf’s linkers are insanely easy to pull off. I pulled up the arcade mode and jumped in, setting the AI to I think “medium,” which in my parlance usually means “this will beat the piss out of you,” because as I may have mentioned in the past I’m not very good at fighting games.

I charged in, started a combo, hit a linker, and then… everything slid into place. 16, 24, 32 hit combos, all of them suddenly pounding the absolute shit out of enemies I’d never managed to come close to beating in previous, aborted attempts with Glacius to do anything of note. The system clicked for me, and I fell instantly and irrevocably in love with this fucking game. I haven’t taken the game online yet—I was going to do it over the weekend, but Combo Breaker happened—but it is something I am pretty excited to do. If you happen to see me online and in Killer Instinct (my XBL handle is forddent), feel free to challenge me and, I’m sure, beat my ass like a fucking drum because I’m still pretty shit.

The Quanba and CronusMAX combination, incidentally, continues to work well as a way to have a fightstick on the Xbox One—I leave the stick set to 360 when I use it, and since the adapter isn’t doing any weird-ass macro inputs or anything (because who has time to fuck with all that nonsense, also why would you want to? That whole concept is dumb as hell to me) and just serves as a bridge I haven’t noticed any input lag of any sort—although I struggled a little more to pull of some quarter-circle motions with Jago to start out with, so maybe there was some lag in there after all? I kind of doubt it (it is more likely that I just wasn’t making a smooth enough motion), but more testing will doubtless suss out the truth of the matter.

The Perfect Training Mode

Throwing your head at people is pretty goddamned weird as far as fighting tactics go. Kicking it at people to cause more damage is even weirder.
Throwing your head at people is pretty goddamned weird as far as fighting tactics go. Kicking it at people to cause more damage is even weirder.

I think I mentioned this last week, but I was alerted to a sale on the Humble Bundle store which had Skullgirls on sale for like… three dollars or something like that. I if course grabbed a copy because I’d been considering doing so for a while and three dollars falls well below my threshold for impulse purchasing. I mean shit, you can barely get a drink for three dollars these days.

Anyway I grabbed Skullgirls and jumped right in, although I should be up front and admit that I think I’ve played the least amount of this one—only an hour and a half or so (Steam claims I’ve played like 38 minutes but I think that’s probably not accurate). I’m most impressed with how comprehensive the tutorials in Skullgirls are: they explain a lot of basic fighting game concepts which a beginner might not understand, for example, and have you pulling off combos before you even quite realize you’ve gotten that far.

The MvC team play that Skullgirls seems to rely on is not exactly my cup of tea—I prefer to have my fights as one on one affairs, for the most part—but I went through most of the story mode with Miss Fortune and had a lot of fun with it so far. The story mode’s a little weak—you have some random fights and the occasional story beat, and that’s about it—but it is a decent way to experiment against different matchups with a character, which is all I ever use story mode for anyway (unless we’re talking the story mode for the last two Mortal Kombat games, which are more of a sampler that allows you to figure out which characters you are good with). I’ll probably head back to Skullgirls sooner rather than later, because there were some entertaining SG matchups at Combo Breaker that got me itching to play again.

The Rest of the Stuff

I don't think she even punches, to be honest. Nothing but KICKS
I don't think she even punches, to be honest. Nothing but KICKS

I did some more SFIVU experimentation, and wound up changing characters again—I’ve become attached to Elena, who more than any other character got me close to actually winning a goddamn online match. I’ve had some pretty rotten lag on a couple matches, which is probably because I’ve been trying to find games late on weeknights—certainly when I bother to look for matches on the weekends I’ve had a little more luck. I am still terrible, and I do mean terrible at SFIVU, but I’ve found my footing a little more to the point where I can actually get through most of the arcade mode (when I’m not being interrupted with online match requests, which are pretty frequent if you turn them on) without getting super-stuck, so there’s been a little improvement there.

Persona 4 Arena is probably still the game I’m playing the most of, if only because I really want to get through the story mode—I’ve unlocked all the characters, and just need to knock those out before I get to the bottom of things. It’s a hell of a lot of fun and, like I mentioned last time, almost stupidly easy to pick up and play. I’ve been focusing only on Chie when it comes to online play, and she’s won me more than she’s lost, which is unusual. There’s still a pretty good online community for P4AU, which is a relief, since it’s the game I’m actually decent at.

I have played very little MKX recently, partially because I’ve been focusing on other games, and partially because I am just tired of the terrible online performance (and sure, partially because if I’m gonna play a fighting game on the Xbone, I’m going to hook up my stick and play KI). There was some really exciting action at Combo Breaker that got me thinking about jumping back into it though, so I’ll probably wind up heading back to that soon. Supposedly they’ve tweaked Sub Zero a little so he’s slightly less terrible? That’s an exciting thought. Killer Instinct, though…

Basically, watching the Combo Breaker tournament got me excited to play more fighting games. Next year I might even head down and check the thing out. I considered heading down this year, but for a variety of reasons (mostly involving my inability to plan ahead, so I would’ve been paying to get in like, at the door) I gave it a miss. Chicago’s only an hour-hour and a half drive for me, so it should certainly be worth checking out. Maybe I’ll even register for a tournament and get my ass kicked (probably not though).

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