For me, Final Fantasy XIV is an MMO that is so close to amazing, yet so far.

Note: Some of the images to the right are almost certainly considered spoilers, so just be warned.

As if it wasn't obvious Samurai was going to be a new job.
As if it wasn't obvious Samurai was going to be a new job.

I've debated for a long time whether or not to even write anything about Final Fantasy XIV, because at some point you sound like a crazy person for having invested so much of your time into a game that you actually think is kind of fundamentally flawed in a lot of ways. It's like way back when, when Jeff put a seemingly-absurd amount of hours in The Old Republic, yet didn't actually like it very much. I have over 1300 hours of FFXIV clocked on Steam, I had originally played through the story of 2.0, and then some, on the PS3 in 2013, and recently switched to the PS4 version for the entirety of the latest expansion, Stormblood. It's not all that crazy for me to assume my time in the game at this point is beyond 1600 hours.

What truly motivated me to write this blog, which is effectively an airing of grievances with the way the game is made at this point, is that I finally hit my limit on how many times I could read or listen to someone jokingly throw out the line "This is the best time there's ever been to be playing video games, you guys." What I hope started as a joke has instead become an irritating reminder how whole genres of games do not even remotely resemble themselves from a decade ago, and how much that just fucking bums me out. There's "never been a better time to be playing games" says to me "I'm only paying attention to first person shooters, multiplayer games, and open-world Action Adventures, and hey, everything has some color now." I hope you don't mind how the single player career mode of Gran Turismo has been consumed by the always-online virus, or that you didn't like any of those old Sims games, or that you don't need many JRPGs in your life, or that you don't mind Front Mission is now a fucking third person shooter thing, or that you don't care much about RTS games, or that you don't mind micro-transactions, or, more relevant to this blog's point, that you didn't like any MMO from the previous decade. Hell, I just finished all three Borderlands games back-to-back-to-back for another blog entry I've been putting off, and even that series seems like it will inevitably be crammed into the "shared online world" pseudo-singleplayer box in its next go-around.

It's almost like some sort of weird futurist techno-pagan-like attitude where if trends are newer, well then, they must be better. The way entertainment is made is so varied and all over the place, so subjective, it's not like we're talking about the advances of modern medicine, or social political progress. The fact that I like more structured, singleplayer focused Sims games isn't like being a bigot. Me liking old school Gran Turismo career modes as opposed to jumping straight to the fancy shmancy stuff and racing online isn't the video game equivalent of bloodletting. Is it like preferring bunny-eared TV antennae because I want Suikoden back?

Anyway, the point is I liked the Everquests, and FFXIs, and EVE Onlines of the MMO space. Games that asked time, and cooperation, and rewarded people who put in the effort to get better and better, and could punish you if you didn't. Now, of course, Everquest is just a Free to Play museum piece, FFXI is on life support, and EVE lets you straight-up buy their equivalent of experience points. Anything that has survived the years in this genre shies away from anything that would even remotely push someone away. If the game isn't designed for you to play it 45 minutes a day, you can either buy your way up the ladder, or it doesn't really catch on with many people.

I actually really love a lot about Final Fantasy XIV - the core combat, the zone design, the music and story. I feel compelled to play it a lot even when the game itself is completely uninterested in giving me the incentive to do so. But I've been thinking about this a lot lately, because there's a limit to how much I can play a game just for playing the game's sake, and I feel like I may as well get this off my chest. Consider this my list of grievances.

  • The obligatory part where we praise the dev team for salvaging the game in the first place.
The Final Fantasy staples are increasingly here. At least they're pretty.
The Final Fantasy staples are increasingly here. At least they're pretty.

At this point everyone and their mother has heard the beautiful tale of how FFXIV rose from the ashes of its 1.0 release into something that actually, miraculously, resembled a competent game. Under the leadership of Naoki Yoshida (commonly referred to as Yoshi by the playerbase - and how I'll refer to him from hereon) Final Fantasy XIV turned from a laggy mess, with effectively no story, or even really any content to do whatsoever, into a gorgeous, full-featured package. Unlike the leadership before him, Yoshi had keen eyes and ears for listening to fan demands, and sketching out dev work in a way that was manageable, as opposed to biting off more than they could chew.

All of this was well and good for A Realm Reborn's release. Numerous dungeons, released at a regular pace with each major patch. A few story quests in each patch that would gradually lead into the upcoming expansion. One 24-person trilogy of "raid" events over the course of the patch cycles, as well as an 8-person collection of bite sized, ostensibly harder trial encounters. Throughout all of this, the item-level of gear would be gradually raised with each major infusion of content, and you would acquire your gear primarily through accumulating "tomestones" (simply a unique currency) doled out in various amounts by the added instances. All of this, under Yoshi's direction, became a well-oiled machine. This patch is the new raid, and the max item-level gets bumped up by a few tiers. Next patch gets some new trials, and getting new gear becomes a little easier. And then the next patch is the new raid, with new item-levels. So on, and so on. Rinse, and repeat.

What Yoshi managed to establish in 2.0 was an effective foundation for what would hopefully be an ever evolving future for the development of the game. They had done what was considered to be impossible and revived what was effectively a dead game into one that was competently constructed all around, and thriving because of it.

But then they kind of just kept doing that forever.

In the ensuing years, Yoshi and his team had found a formula that worked, and became terrified to ever change it. This is ultimately the core of my problems with FFXIV overall - I've more or less been playing the same game for nearly four years. Yoshi's attitude about the game is oppressively conservative, sticking so close to the tried-and-true, easily-predictable vertical style of gear progression, with no real change in how the content itself is made. It's doubly frustrating that a lot of these critiques fly under the radar because of the borderline hero narrative surrounding him.

  • Vertical vs. Horizontal gear progression, and what that means in practice.
The numbers are slightly bigger. What an accomplishment!
The numbers are slightly bigger. What an accomplishment!

Before I just keep rambling, I should probably give a brief explanation of some terminology here. Obviously, on a grand scale, an MMO is all about gear progression. Or at least it probably should be. There are two schools of thought; "vertical" gear progression, or "horizontal."

Vertical gear progression is basically an incredibly linear approach to how gear is made and released into the wild - there is one best-in-slot set of equipment that will always trump the one before it and renders all other gear useless. It's a one-size-fits-all approach to gear. Horizontal is the other end of the spectrum, with various different kinds of equipment for various different tasks, usually highly specialized, with very few truly "best in slot" options overall. Instead of the Vertical "this number is better, therefore it is better" philosophy, the Horizontal way relies more on enhancing special abilities or attributes, or resistances to one status effect over another - or maybe it grants a double attack 5% of the time - you get the idea. Horizontal gear can be roughly equivalent in a purely defensive sense, but varies wildly for the type of content you're doing.

Final Fantasy XIV is an unabashed follower of the vertical school, with all the downsides that entails. Basically, it's resulted in an incredibly conservative design philosophy that shuns gear rewards in favor of cosmetic bullshit. Whole content systems primarily reward you with glamour items, or emotes, than anything of gameplay worth. For someone like me, that actually enjoys the process of refining my character, FFXIV basically gives me nothing to aspire to. Once I'm using a competitive gear-set, and have seen all the story, I'm basically done. The sense of progression is shallow, and as far as endgame goes, there is barely a game at the end to be played.

To weave this into more topical events, recently a lot of people have been discussing game difficulty, and how it relates to accessibility - Cuphead being a big recent example of this. A common argument directed at people who disagree that some games should be designed to be simpler and more accessible to casual audiences is "Come on you guys, you're just gate-keeping. Just trying to prevent people from having fun with a game even though it takes nothing away from you." In some cases, this is a thing that exists. But the fear that, with time, those things will go from optional side-modes to accommodate for the outlying, less skilled players, and instead that the entire game would be built from the ground up meant for those people instead, is also a real thing. In doing so, the more hardcore crowd that wanted a deeper, more challenging experience would find themselves without a home. This exact thing happened to MMOs, with Final Fantasy XIV being a prime example of a game designed for hardcore players as less than an afterthought. Personally, I think it's revealing how you don't exactly hear "Come on you guys, you're just trying to keep hardcore players from having a side of this game they can enjoy in depth too, even if it takes nothing away from you!" very often. Revealing as in, not at all surprising.

  • Final Fantasy XIV's content systems lack variety and incentive.
There's plenty of superficial side content that doesn't reward you with anything, though.
There's plenty of superficial side content that doesn't reward you with anything, though.

Nearly every problem I take with FFXIV, when examined critically, becomes an infinite regress all winding back to one or two core design choices. From these things, almost every issue springs forth. First being, Square Enix wants the structure of nearly every instanced content system in the game to be as idiot-proof as possible. No dungeon, no raid, and almost no trial fight, features any kind of meaningful optional content, open-ended ways to reach the objective, or dynamic aspects. Each dungeon is a borderline hypnotic experience with how heavily scripted they are, basically all of them following the same pattern of "Trash, trash, trash, boss -> Trash, trash, trash, boss -> Trash, trash, boss" and at no point in this process, even when these are brand new, is any of it a challenge to almost anyone. The big raids feature 24 people, and similarly can't be anything but the straight and narrow.

In fact, my favorite trial event, The Steps of Faith (I love the music so much), is one of the most non-standard encounters in the game - being a long slog against a dragon as it slowly lumbers toward the gates of Ishgard, with you nibbling at its feet all the way - but it was nerfed not long after it was released because it required people to actually effectively coordinate with one another, and this made a lot of people upset. It wasn't helped by the fact that failing forced you to watch the entire battle play out before you could try it again.

This kind of cookie-cutter encounter design for things has effectively led to victory in most content being a foregone conclusion, which doesn't do a whole lot for my personal motivation.

And there are things for which victory certainly isn't a foregone conclusion - Extreme level trial fights and high-tier versions of existing raids (with mostly similar mechanics and visuals, so take that for what you will) are certainly there for you to do - but I just don't have any personal incentive to do them. Unless it's just for the sake of doing it, I guess. Any better gear is just slightly improved versions of existing gear; no special unique attributes exist on them, and visually they're barely different. It's just the numbers bumped up a bit, maybe you get more materia slots, but that's about it, and the gear is only top-tier (to the extent that marginal improvements even deserve that designation) until the next patch comes along and wipes away all that work. That's what "accessibility" means I guess - you're better off not playing very much.

Square Enix certainly tries to alleviate this issue - time and time again they've recognized at least that some people are bored with the same old, same old - but they always miss the mark 90% of the way. It reminds me of an old Lewis Black bit - they just make a hard turn and shoot in the other direction right when you think they understand. Either that, or they're unwilling to face the idea of tweaking certain core ideas that guide the way they design gear so they just stick with what they know, thus undermining the entire damn point.

The closest I personally feel Square has come to designing a content system to my taste was Palace of the Dead. The Palace of the Dead is a system of up to 200 floors you fight through, each with a randomized layout, random enemies, random special effects (both positive & negative), traps littered throughout, and treasure chests, similarly, with random loot. Even random music tracks playing on different floors. PoTD also has an independent leveling system, which separates it dramatically from the rest of the game. Even though it has its structural shortcomings - for instance, even as everything within is mostly randomized, the objectives are all combat based, which is kind of lame - it still manages to be what every other style of content in FFXIV isn't. It's dynamic. Different every time. With random loot you just have to get lucky for, and the main reward of the system (what was then a relatively high level weapon) actually takes some time to acquire.

What is bittersweet about this system, then, is how much it can resemble a microcosm of how little Final Fantasy XIV values investment in its higher-difficulty aspects and quickly becomes irrelevant content in progression terms. The weapon, while pretty looking, was quickly invalidated within a very short period of time like every other piece of gear, and floors 101-200, which was specifically designed to be a tough challenge for pre-made parties where a single death would restart you all the way back to floor 51, rewards you with nothing but a pair of earrings. Non-combat earrings. All that effort, just for the love of the craft.

Visions of a better MMO...
Visions of a better MMO...

Final Fantasy XIV in its modern incarnation has existed for over four years now. In a roughly equivalent amount of time, Final Fantasy XI had three expansions (going from NA release) to XIV's two, with a fucking buffet of content systems to choose from, big or small. From Conquest, BCNMs, Sky, Sea, Dynamis, Besieged, Campaign, Assault, Salvage, Einherjar, Nyzul Isle, ZNMs, and several others I can't even remember off the top of my head. In the years shortly thereafter, that list grew to include Abyssea, Voidwatch, and the Walk of Echoes, and a slew of others that are comparatively more recent (seriously, just the list of things since 2013 is probably about as long - Reives, Skirmish, Delve, Incursion, Vagary, Sinister Reign, Escha, Omen, Unity, Records of Eminence, Hard Mode Battlefields, Ambuscade... I'm leaving things out.). Each of these systems worked different to varying degrees, some with multiple different versions of themselves, and all had unique rewards. Despite the reputation of FFXI as excessively punishing, most of the content was also accessible to at least most people that were willing to commit to playing even just a small amount a day, so long as you had a group. There was always something to be doing that actually had a purpose, and all of that content had legs, years down the road.

FFXIV in comparison has an array of content that looks puny, and short-lived, even taking into account its younger age. It's over four years in now, guys. A few more if you were going to throw in the fact that its 1.0 release was in 2010, but that was a different game altogether, really. The point is, FFXIV has continued to march along with the identical skinny formula of "here's a few dungeons and a few trial fights, and nothing all that mechanically dense." Its two major standalone progression systems, Palace of the Dead and Diadem, are good or terrible, respectively, but even then neither of them break the Vertical Progression mold they have to be forced into to even exist in the first place. You hit a ceiling on what you can be doing incredibly quickly, and even before that ceiling, there's not much of a point. At least the PVP is good - FFXI's was a dumpster fire.

  • The gross inefficiency of it all is the cherry on top, though.
This entire section of the most recent raid has no combat or anything. All that development effort for a zone that has nothing actually in it.
This entire section of the most recent raid has no combat or anything. All that development effort for a zone that has nothing actually in it.

In an original draft of the above, I also mentioned how I felt the game's content is designed in a really inefficient way, but by the time I was finished getting the rest of things off my chest, it had dragged on far too long, and I've noticed blogs formatted with more clearly distinguished sections are more pleasant to read, so I'll make this point quickly on its own before this becomes some sort of crazed manifesto.

Final Fantasy XIV's content is designed inefficiently - what do I mean by that? Simply put, development efficiency is all about a delicate balance for making the most content out of the least amount of work. It's a spectrum of effort that runs from spending months intricately crafting encounters you blow through in five minutes, to just shamelessly re-using things you've already built ad-infinitum because you can bang that shit out really quickly. It's probably best for all involved to hang somewhere in the middle, especially if you're making an MMO.

FFXIV's development team puts all other MMOs to shame in the production department, and it's impossible to complain about that on its own. But this has the unfortunate side effect of spending a ton of time developing content that looks and sounds gorgeous, and at the same time is left behind almost as quickly as it comes. Part of what the Final Fantasy XI team (which at this point I can only assume consists of two dudes and a cat, working out of a closet) has learned to do with less-than-shoestring funding is make a little bit go a long way. They re-use lots of assets and just put simple twists on established gear acquisition systems, but also manage to effectively turn one fight into five by giving the content varying difficulty levels. Or even just taking an old fight and scaling up the numbers to a modern item-level, throwing some touched-up versions of old gear in it, and calling it new. Hell, there's a new ("new") battle content system just released to FFXI, this month, which is effectively a re-skinned Dynamis.

This isn't how I would personally want most of FFXIV to turn into of course, but it gives people more things to do with very little effort. As opposed to the present design philosophy of one dead-easy dungeon they spend months sketching out, modeling, composing new music for, building different combinations of fight mechanics, and slapping in some gear that's basically dead on arrival, it makes a lot more sense, if you care about making your content last longer and/or serve different groups simultaneously, to just tune some numbers on the back-end so people can scale it up or down as they please. Saying that I don't know much about how game development can be difficult would be the understatement of the year, but by the point that you've already built the structure of the encounter, the vast majority of that work is already done. Changing numbers and giving people scaled versions of those dungeons is a fraction of the work that was already spent - it's little more than some napkin math and adjusting on your weekly maintenance if it really comes down to it. Yoshi has often talked about how he borrows popular concepts from other MMOs, like World of Warcraft - but even WoW has dungeons with different difficulties. Not to mention is now going to release Classic servers for those who want a more traditional MMO experience. (That's accessibility.)

The main reason this is so frustrating to me is that they clearly have a fairly large and capable development staff. Yet, so much time is just used making everything look and sound gorgeous instead of giving people more to actually do. I would happily queue for a blank fucking stone room of nothing except some mobs in it, with no new music whatsoever, if it meant I got some cool new gear to use. But clearly I'm not the sort of player they're targetting. That's not going to get them glowing reviews from mainstream publications that pop in at the start of a fancy new expansion and pop out. They get more credit for designing zones meticulously crafted to be beautiful, set against a swelling orchestral score, than for having much to really do in it once you get there.

  • The part where I give constructive input, but none of these things will probably happen.

Constructive criticism is kind of a negotiation in a way. If you don't accept some sort of common premise to begin with, and aren't giving suggestions in good faith, you're never getting anywhere. My husband and I bounced ideas back and forth in the past, and throughout those brainstorming sessions he's always keen to remind me "That sounds fine to me, but that's not the game they're making." Never let it be said that I can't offer solutions if I'm going to bother identifying what I perceive as problems - while also trying to keep them somewhat grounded within the philosophical framework Yoshi and his team are working with. These are just some off the top of my dome.

1. You can keep the tomestone system and everything, but let's not have them as the primary means of gear acquisition anymore.

Tomestones shouldn't be a fucking reward on top of MORE tomestones.
Tomestones shouldn't be a fucking reward on top of MORE tomestones.

Attempting to assuage any other concern I have with the game is pissing in the wind so long as the core problem remains. It's so damn easy to get gear in this game by accruing tomestones through nearly any activity you do, there would be no point in doing any of the fancy new battle content they introduce to the game so long as spending your tomes is all it takes to get 90%+ of the worthwhile gear. Loosening the grip vertical progression has on the neck of FFXIV is simply a must, and not doing so just makes all your content compete with itself, instead of complement each other.

Introducing one thing in the game that gives you tomes along with another content system in the game that, you guessed it, gives you tomes, or a content system that simply gives gear of a roughly identical item-level, just means the two things cannibalize each other and there was barely a point.

I get why the tomestone redemption thing exists. You want people to be able to log in and do bite-sized bits of content that give them things that at least allow them to be competitive. But there's a difference between "competitive to start the endgame" and "good enough that you don't need much else." Keep giving tomestones as rewards - but tome gear should be a basic starting endgame set, not "Well, now that's done." It should get you started on the endgame ladder. Basically, I'm saying there should be an endgame ladder.

2. Give equipment more unique aspects instead of just tuning the same old numbers up.

A random example from XI. Absolutely nothing in XIV has bonuses like this.
A random example from XI. Absolutely nothing in XIV has bonuses like this.

All equipment in FFXIV is, effectively, the same. By that I mean, no piece of gear in this game fundamentally does anything different that any other piece of gear does, it's just that higher level gear has the Vitality stat cranked up a bit more along with secondaries they swap around totally arbitrarily. You'll do a bit more damage, you'll have a bit more HP, and maybe this pair of pants gives you .02% more crit chance than this other pair of pants that gives you .001% more casting speed. No gear is specifically tuned to a job, no gear has ability-enhancing attributes, it's all purely basic stat based, with barely any noticeable effect when in action. If you're looking for a game with good loot, FFXIV isn't it. If it wasn't for the cosmetic aspect (there goes more wasted dev time for something people throw away like tissues) Square would do just as well with a single piece of gear you just continuously upgrade.

Please, for the love of Hydaelyn, change this.

I understand why it's this dead-ass simple - Square Enix is petrified of the way FFXI's obsessive gear-swapping system got totally out of control and also doesn't want to, how dare I ever suggest such a thing, ask the casual player get specific pieces of gear for specific tasks - but we don't have to take this train all the way to crazy town. Just give people some fucking means to specialize, somehow. A helmet that gives +20 points of enmity to all of your actions, a pair of gloves that makes a Scholar's fairy have +2% healing potency, a belt that gives Summoners an extra 5 points of potency on their DoTs. Have some full sets grant you a bonus - you already have the coding for this on some obscure pieces of gear no one uses so I bloody know you're capable of at least that! Or perhaps you could introduce these ability-specific bonuses as materia that drop from various types of content so people can swap them around as they please. Shake this shit up and make one piece of gear stand out from another, and give me a reason to really crave wanting to obtain it. Give people more options.

3. More overworld content so the world feels alive and there's a reason to form lasting groups.

Final Fantasy XIV is so heavily instanced that it's depressing. The zones are damn ghost towns for the most part, even not long after the most recent expansion. The worst part is that Stormblood's zones are some of the best designed areas I've ever seen in an MMO. They're gorgeous and intricate, yet completely void of meaningful content. You could argue it's borderline disrespectful to the developers that so much work goes into crafting these massive, detailed areas, and then once the main scenario moves beyond them there's practically nothing there to do except gathering ever again. It's an MMO! Where's all the content in this supposed living, breathing world, instead of the detached linear setpieces?

This vast beautiful zone with so many nooks and crannies has basically nothing in it.
This vast beautiful zone with so many nooks and crannies has basically nothing in it.

FFXIV has a real problem with server-based communities having almost no reason to exist aside from personality-based groups built from outside influences (like Giant Bomb, or Super Best Friends, or Limit Break Radio, or whatever). There's just no real reason to connect and make lasting relationships with these people because almost nothing incentivizes it.

There are so many places in the various zones that little things could be used to fill it in. Like some sort of system akin to Abyssea or Voidwatch where you could go to specific places in a zone to pop a higher-tier version of a local mob that drops special loot. Assuming of course you don't find the mere concept of rare, unique loot drops to be evil. The pop-items could drop from mobs in the zone, and you could work your way up tier lists à la Abyssea or Escha from FFXI. The only real work you'd have to do to craft this system is build a party-claim system that prevents outside groups from horning in on your action, and after that you can spam out this mechanic all over the game world (efficiency, the word of the day), giving zones so much more to do, and local communities so much more reason to have to band together by themselves.

It would just be nice to zone into a place outside of the hub zones and have more than three or four other people running around. Not to mention more gear options are always better.

4. Refine Palace of the Dead with more variety and meaningful rewards, because it's an amazing proof of concept.

Palace of the Dead is kind of beautiful, particularly for someone like me that gets tickled by, as mentioned, efficiency in game design. Nearly everything about Palace of the Dead is pre-fab, with all those various individual parts mixed and matched together in a way that is never exactly the same each time. PoTD only had a few significant shortcomings, and they're all easily fixed.

I really do love Palace of the Dead. It's right up my alley.
I really do love Palace of the Dead. It's right up my alley.

- More unique objectives per floor. Palace of the Dead is a system that advertises itself as an unpredictable, randomized dungeon crawl, so it's dull after awhile that the way to the next floor is always "Kill x amount of enemies." Non-combat objectives, or even just combat objectives with fewer but more creative mechanics, would really raise the system up in a way that is much less repetitive. FFXI managed this exact kind of content system much more creatively over a decade ago - just sayin'.

- Better gear rewards. A competitively leveled weapon is all well and good, but maybe try future-proofing your content a little bit more than "barely at all." Why not throw in armor to get out of the system as well? Make the PoTD gear all immune to poison or whatever and suddenly you have something actually interesting.

- Please actually care about the higher-difficulty side of the system, and respect those that take it seriously. Floors 101-200 of PoTD are absolutely no joke, the punishment for failing is serious, and to this day I'm not even sure they've ever been completed solo by a single person. The fact that the reward for doing so is basically just a pair of vanity earrings and whatever other random filler loot from the treasure chests is borderline insulting, and just such a great example of how Square Enix doesn't seem to give even half of a fuck about properly making and incentivizing challenging content. I don't understand. Even just a slight variation on the existing gear from the lower level floors would've gone a long way. This is exactly what I meant earlier by saying that addings certain higher level twists and variations on existing gear is a fraction of the work that has already been done, yet can add so much. There's just no good reason not to.

5. Have there be at least some sort of equipment in the game that serves as a long-term task and actually means something.

The Relic weapon is ostensibly the "big gear project you work on for a really long time and turns out to be something special in the end" but this hasn't been true since the original release of the game, frankly. The 2.0 Relic was there at the start, and so everyone naturally wanted to do it, and the challenges for progressing it were actually a meaningful test of committment. But then 3.0 released, and all of that effort on the Relic weapon lasted a few levels into the next expansion, and was tossed aside like everything else in the disposable hellscape that is Vertical Progression. The 3.0 Relic was even worse, being barely-worth doing even from the start, and certainly not nearly worth the time it took, especially as it was obvious by that point Square Enix didn't actually care about making this a lasting achievement. The 4.0 Relic has yet to be introduced due to the content system associated with it seemingly lagging behind schedule, and it's up in the air whether or not it will release for months longer.

A lot is riding on what this turns out to be.
A lot is riding on what this turns out to be.

Almost nothing in the game really requires more than a few hours of work, and certainly no individual quest takes that long, so the existence of a Relic-type piece of equipment, as this long ongoing project, is perfectly fine by me, but Square doesn't seem to grasp either making it fun to do - it isn't - or meaningful for long-term ownership far into the future - it isn't. (In comparison, the Relic weapons of FFXI are still used by people to this day.)

Contrary to those complaints, this is the part where I'm most optimistic some real positive philosophical change could come from. The Stormblood Relic weapon is associated with a new piece of content termed by the community as "Eureka" (named after the area being built for it) and Yoshi has repeatedly described this system as something larger and more structured than anything else of its kind in the game before. It's supposed to be a massive environment where people can form groups on the fly to complete objectives meant for the grander purpose of upgrading your Relic gear, deliberately taking inspiration from older MMOs in more ways than one. I get the sense that many people have pinned their hopes on this system - I know I have - so I want to do nothing except encourage this kind of experimentation and hope it works out well.

Make the Relic weapon a long project, and add Relic armor too while you're at it. An Abyssea-like system attached to it, where you have to join groups on the fly in a giant zone? You're speaking my language. I can only hope it turns out this way, and we'll find out in what seems to be a few months from now. I sincerely hope it's not just a re-skinned Diadem. Not that I have anything against re-skinning content with a slight twist (just look at FFXI), it's just that the Diadem was an example of how Yoshi and his team seem too afraid to really break their molds, and instead have a tendency to release something a little half-baked. Be bold!

6. Eliminate most of the weekly lockouts. They're just dumb.

I don't know why they even bother having different colored tomes except to pretend they're in any way different.
I don't know why they even bother having different colored tomes except to pretend they're in any way different.

I struggle to think of a compelling reason why things like high-level tomes are locked to a mere 450 a week. For reference, a single Expert Dungeon roulette, which contrary to its name is nowhere near any kind of "Expert" level of skill, averages like 25-30 minutes, and gives 90. Two and ahalf cumulative hours over a whole week is all it takes. The only explanation I could fathom would be Square Enix predictably momming it up and not wanting casual players with less playtime to feel like they fall behind. Is that what "accessibility" is? I don't know. Maybe they just don't want people to be finished gearing their characters that quickly and stop playing. Regardless of the explanation, making me stop playing is exactly what it achieves, even when I want to play more.

More galling are the weekly loot lockouts on high-level trial fights and 24-person raids. Again, I can understand why this kind of lockout exists from a certain perspective I guess, but for a game that advertises itself on the bullet-point of "You can play all kinds of classes on a single character, and switch your jobs anywhere on the fly!" it seems oppressive and counter-intuitive that you have to choose a single job to get a single piece of gear for, per week. Even when I want to just make-work for myself to keep playing FFXIV and gear up a second or third job, I am unable. So would it be so bad to just move beyond these arbitrary progress gates?

7. Better scaling for lower level content, and more options for the new content too.

I originally wanted to simply say "We should be able to take any old dungeon and scale it up to a modern level and do it that way." I still believe this, but really, the entire way dungeons are scaled, up and down, should probably be completely re-done.

It can honestly be hard for me to focus during these low level duties at this point.
It can honestly be hard for me to focus during these low level duties at this point.

This isn't even about being at max level and wanting to re-experience something like Sastasha but with level 70 enemies instead. What's arguably more important is the fact that the act of playing through those lower level dungeons is miserable, not just for how dull they are years after the fact, but just that some jobs feel like shit to play at lower levels. Without access to a modern, fully-formed rotation that comes from the kit unlocked at higher levels that really makes those jobs comes together, some jobs are literally just hitting Button 1 and Button 2 over and over again for thirty minutes and nothing else. Not to mention other jobs barely have access to the things that make them unique in any way at certain levels.

For lower level content, Yoshi and his team should really just allow people to use all their abilities, regardless of the dungeon they've been scaled down to, and just adjust damage accordingly. The actual gameplay should've suffer so seriously just because I'm doing a low-level dungeon, and it might encourage people to actually go back to older content more because it would feel like crap to actually play.

Beyond that though, I would enjoy it a lot if I had the option of taking a newly released dungeon and playing it on some sort of turbo mode, with a tighter time limit and generally tougher enemies, for a slightly higher reward - even if it was just tomes. Putting a twist on hum-drum content like regular dungeons would be much appreciated.

8. Can we please just have a DPS parser already?

Allow me to recount a brief anecdote from a run of Haukke Manor (normal) from awhile back. One of the party members, I believe he was a DPS, was an inquisitive newbie, and those are always, genuinely, my favorite. It's great to have people ask questions and want to improve their play, so he was working his way through what is one of the first dungeons that really asks classes to properly play their roles. After the first boss, he becomes frustrated and asks "Is there any kind of meter where I can see my DPS?" The answer was, sadly, no.

Requests for a DPS parser have been repeatedly shot down by Yoshi over the years, and the explanation is always, basically, they don't want bad players to feel bad. The bummer is there's really no way of refining and getting better at playing your job, or even really knowing what some rotations are even meant to be, without knowing your DPS numbers. Even if it was something as simple as a Green/Yellow/Red series of lights for how your DPS is going, I would love for this function to exist in the game. For the sake of all those newbies and veterans alike who care about, well, playing the game.

I'm aware it's a longshot, but I had to ask.

You'll notice a theme in the above. Contrary to the cartoonish characterization some people have toward those who want some games to skew in a more challenging and in-depth direction, I'm not advocating for anything that excludes people. In fact, I'm doing the exact opposite. More difficulty options in dungeons, more loot for people to seek, more varied objectives in the content that exists, more things for people to do in a zone, more methods for people to improve at the gameplay, more reasons for people to communicate, etc. Every desire I have for this game is merely for it to have more options. More depth for people to pursue if they choose to. Personally, I feel like that shouldn't be a complicated argument. It takes little to nothing away from the casual player, even if that aspect of the game's audience seems hostile to these things for some reason. The vast majority of these things are additive, and requires comparatively little production. Inclusiveness toward those with different gameplay preferences can and should go both ways.

Please, just give people more meaningful variety.

  • TL;DR - Final Fantasy XIV is a brilliant & beautiful singleplayer game, but a shallow-as-hell MMO.
Some of the cutscenes are really good at eliciting
Some of the cutscenes are really good at eliciting "fuck yeah!" now and then.

I love Final Fantasy XIV when I just kind of pretend this isn't much of an MMO at all. I'll just tell myself it's this singleplayer open-world Action-RPG that just happens to inexplicably be linked up online to other people, that's all, because when I think of FFXIV has an MMO, it's hard for me to think where it excels. It excels at story, of course. Its soundtrack is one of the greatest ones going in video games right now, probably. The fundamentals of the gameplay are super strong - playing a Healer in this game is one of the most satisfying experiences I think there ever has been as far as healing classes go in other games. But all the other people are just kind of incidental to the experience, and as far as a "living, breathing, growing online world" FFXIV more resembles a post-apocalypse where the remaining humans huddle inside certain hubs but barely venture outside.

If "It's like an MMO but where the other people barely matter" sounds appealing to you, I get that. There are plenty of actual single-player games that do the MMO-lite style of gameplay and world presentation, and those are all awesome, so Final Fantasy XIV is the natural progression of playing something like Final Fantasy XII or Xenoblade. But that's kind of the thing that frustrates me - there are other great singleplayer games with MMO-inspired gameplay, but the amount of great MMO experiences are fewer and further between, to put it generously. It's a laundry list of missed opportunities and untapped potential.

Part of why I insisted so much on the pound-for-pound content system comparison earlier in the blog between FFXIV and FFXI is to illustrate how, beyond spurious accusations of "nostalgia!", FFXI was just so much more mechanical and progression-focused on its core gameplay aspects. FFXIV is much less so. Where FFXI insists on a smorgasbord of battle content all with the point of improving your job gear-wise, putting you through shared trials and challenges you have to seek out other people to coordinate through, FFXIV does all the networking for you, barely gives you reason to communicate, and offers more bite-sized content options that all just kind of give you the same old thing. Where in FFXI there is always something to be doing, and always a motivation to log in, in FFXIV the game is content to flat out tell you: No, you're done for this week, go do something else. That's just not what I enjoy from an MMO, and personally it's hard to justify a long-term financial committment to a game that flat out prevents me from progression arbitrarily.

And what even are MMOs anymore? That's an existential question I don't think I have the answer to and trying to find it would add oodles more to an already exorbitant blog post, but I feel like MMOs resemble what Survival Horror (gosh, there's another "Best time to be playing video games ever!" counterpoint all on its own) went through a generation ago. It basically streamlined itself out of existence. Making one little "Wouldn't it just be a little easier if we eliminated this extra step? And made this a little faster?" step at a time, that after a few years of this kind of video-game-natural-selection it no longer resembled its ancestor species much at all. The thing that made MMOs unique, the coordination with other people to accomplish big things you can't do on your own in a shared online space, is increasingly downplayed, perhaps even out of the best of intentions "just to eliminate that extra step." But the long-term consequence of this has been that MMOs just started looking like always-online singleplayer RPGs with very light multiplayer components and much less depth.

I know, believe me!
I know, believe me!

And looking around the general gaming landscape, it kind of feels like everything "big" is mixing and mingling into this kind of weirdly merged-together blob of being a shared online space with light RPG elements. It took so much of my strength to refrain from just using the term "mingleplayer" but that is the weird sort of limbo between the two ends of the spectrum where more and more games seem to occupy.

I guess my point there is, this isn't strictly an MMO phenomenon - it's more of a larger game industry trend that MMOs have been swept up in. The same way I want a more distinctively MMO kind of experience like FFXI, there's someone else out there still upset that Bungie didn't make a more distinctively Halo kind of game and instead made what seems to be the flagship example of this "it's like an MMO, but kind of not" trend. I just like games that go for more of a purer vision, and to see a game come from such prime MMO heritage, having such superb core gameplay, it's frustrating that it actively chooses to not stand out from the crowd more.

There are still some games out there that line up more with my MMO tastes. Old School Runescape honestly gets too little credit and rarely seems spoken of in more critical spaces, but it really does deserve a shout-out even if I feel like it's this weird guilty pleasure for some people. There's nothing guilty about my OSRS pleasure! FFXI still, against all odds, continues and even though the game has changed dramatically from its younger days, it still maintains the core experiences that made it so good - you just have to dig a little deeper to find them than you used to. World of Warcraft Classic is something I'm super happy to see, as well, because if there's any company that could have enough sway to move mainstream gaming tastes back to something slightly more hardcore, it would be Blizzard. Smaller games I'm leaving out are there too, of course - I'm sure there's some Korean MMO fans out there happy to chime in. But I'm digressing.

There are few things more frustrating than being almost there but not quite. That's where I feel like Final Fantasy XIV is. So excellent in many of its individual parts, but put together in a less creative way than I would've preferred, in a way that almost feels like the development team is traumatized from the 1.0 release. I hope in the future Yoshi and his team stop playing it so safe. In the meantime I suppose I'll just keep enjoying the game as a sort-of-singleplayer-but-not-really experience.

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More than one year later, No Man's Sky is a game worth your time.

Note: There are some spoilers for the story of this game in this blog, which is a line I never expected I'd have to say for what this game was before, so that in itself is a positive I guess. Consider yourself warned either way.

It really is good boxart.
It really is good boxart.

You know, expectations are a weird thing. Something that's actually pretty good can wind up disappointing, and conversely, something kinda shitty can seem sort of decent, all depending on what you expected of it before you even touched it.

Sure, you can pull yourself back and remind yourself of the "objective" quality of something, but it's still hard to shake the emotional sentiment inherently tied to what you expected. Humans are weird like that. Going into No Man's Sky's release last year, while it seemed like the entire gaming community's collective hype for No Man's Sky were snowballing out of control, I personally had only a mild interest in whatever it was shaping up to be. It seemed neat, but I've been around this block before; I remember Spore, I remember other disappointments. My husband says I'm too cynical - which is probably true - but it does have the benefit of insulating myself from disappointments in media sometimes, so when No Man's Sky turned out to be a bare bones space-exploring simulator that wasn't even especially good at doing the whole space-exploring thing, let alone not living up to the developer's promises, it was a bummer, but hey, I had plenty of other games in my life. All of that FFXIV wasn't going to play itself. I made a commitment to myself at that point to observe how the game would evolve over the coming year, and check back in when it was a more reasonable price.

Then it wound up crowned as Giant Bomb's Most Disappointing Game of 2016, which must've been an even bigger bummer for Hello Games.

But first? You need the most important bit of context that is key to understanding my perspective on No Man's Sky in 2017: the hyper-specific way I enjoy these sort of "simulation/creative/survival" games. No Man's Sky is essentially a variant on being space Minecraft (which is a really rough and over-used comparison but it gets the point I'm trying to make across) and the way I personally enjoy more sandboxy experiences the most is when those creative, free-form mechanics are used in service of a larger goal.

This has always been my problem with the modern incarnation of the Sims, for instance. I've always thought those early Sims adaptations on the PS2 were killer, and The Sims Bustin' Out is my favorite Sims game. Why? Because it uses the core gameplay of the Sims within a proper structured story progression. You're still playing the Sims, you're still designing homes, progressing a career, making friends, taking care of your Sims needs and eventually starting a family, just like you do in any good Sims game, but you're doing that within the traditional structure of a game. "Repair the house!" And so you use the existing Sims mechanics to clean up and renovate the house over the course of a chapter of gameplay, which you can do however you want, since it is a more "creative" game after-all, you're just doing it within a light structure. Similarly, I actually play Minecraft off and on a lot, because that game, despite being the poster-child for "creative" gameplay, actually has something that sort of resembles an "endgame" with actual "bosses," and it's fun for me to slowly use all the existing loose gameplay mechanics for a bigger eventual purpose. Direct objectives with open-ended gameplay is a great way to keep things fresh while maintaining some sort of structured challenge.

Again, to be very clear, I like and respect "creative" and "sandbox" gameplay, and under no circumstances am I arguing "I just want a clear linear gameplay experience like a normal damn game!" I'm just saying I like those kinds of freeform gameplay not existing just for their own sake. It is not mutually exclusive to have "sandbox" gameplay and also things like a story, or bosses, or an "end" goal. Happily, I feel like more developers are realizing this lately. So when No Man's Sky added a proper storyline, I instantly knew this could hit my weird, hybrid "freeform, but structured" desires.

Searching for some fucking Cave Marrow is what you'll be doing, son.
Searching for some fucking Cave Marrow is what you'll be doing, son.
  • Thanks to multiple content patches, No Man's Sky is a pretty good time - for about 40 hours.

Hello Games has had a bit of an up-and-down reputation with the fanbase of No Man's Sky, and it's hard to argue that roller coaster of sentiment wasn't at least somewhat deserved. The initial release of the game is notorious at this point for what can only be described has chronic over-promising, and some of their expectations (like that, since players were so unlikely to ever run into each other, this wasn't a possibility they evidently needed to plan very seriously for) were absurd. What the game initially released to be is, in retrospect, shockingly thin in terms of content.

The question "But what do you DO in No Man's Sky" achieved near "What is Firewatch"-level meme status, especially around these parts. The answer at first was basically "Well, you fly from system to collect resources to fly to more systems, exploring copy-pasted buildings for basic number puzzles that constantly repeat, and occasionally find monoliths that give you a ponderous, pretentious bit of text that is trying desperately to sound deep to conceal the fact that the game itself isn't, at all." Okay - maybe that came out a little more harshly than I intended, but I stand by my words. There wasn't exactly much of a game to No Man's Sky at first, and even as an exploration game it wasn't much to write home about. The good news is, after a year of constant work, No Man's Sky is finally something that resembles a fully-featured product.

Vehicles are truly indispensable for serious planetary exploration.
Vehicles are truly indispensable for serious planetary exploration.

The Foundation update from last November added base building, farming, recruitable NPCs, teleporters from bases and stations, numerous new kinds of resources, freighters, a bunch of bits and bobs of tech you can build and deploy on the fly, and more. The Pathfinder update from March added multiple planetary vehicles (each with different specializations - like a speedy dune-buggy like thing with little inventory space, up to a massive hulking tank), more base customization, increasing the complexity of ship types, a currency you collect through various means and use at a blueprint trader on every station, online base sharing, giving serious meaning to faction-standing, and yet more. The most recent major update, Atlas Rises in August, introduced crashed freighter sites to dig through, fleshing out the trading system between different system economies, tons of UI improvements and various quality-of-life stuff, the ability to edit planet terrain, ship combat changes, a system of what are essentially stargates, and most important: a decent, relatively lengthy storyline.

There are so many other little things I'm leaving out, too. Low atmosphere flight, different game modes, the ability to see other players (finally!) represented as a Fable-2 style orb, more biome diversity, deployable equipment, more ships, a mission board allowing you to do randomly generated missions for various rewards and new factions, etc.

Low-atmospheric flight is one of those things I wouldn't want to play without.
Low-atmospheric flight is one of those things I wouldn't want to play without.

And sure, at its core, No Man's Sky still has all those original, irritating flaws, and the broad gameplay loop remains incredibly similar, albeit with a lot more added steps. Dialogue with NPCs, along with the various little logic puzzles you find out in the wild, sadly repeat with inexcusable frequency. Stations all look more or less then same with slight changes to a single room. Yet, there is so much more now, that those flaws can be something you just push to the side a little bit. Unlike before, they're not all you have. Not to mention, the music is superb. These things don't carry the game forever, but at least now, you can have fun with No Man's Sky to a comparable length of other games on the market.

  • No Man's Sky is still a bad "forever game." Which is almost unfair. Almost.

At a certain point in my playing of No Man's Sky, it dawned on me; "Holy shit, is nearly everything I'm doing and enjoying not something from the original release?"

Cataloging planetary info thankfully doesn't take so long now with
Cataloging planetary info thankfully doesn't take so long now with "upload all."

It's almost comical how little would be left if you removed everything added in the year after release. Of course, most importantly, a lot of this stuff is fun! Yes, being reductive, much of No Man's Sky can be boiled down to "explore planets to gather the resources you need to explore more planets." Personally, flying to a new system, exploring, harvesting resources, and moving on to a new place is a fine loop, it just needed more. More reasons to be harvesting resources, more people to interact with, and in more ways, good-feeling combat interspersed throughout, and a broader story goal on top of it all. Humans are built to recognize patterns. It's not really fair to criticize a game just because you recognize a gameplay loop. We design clothes in repetitive, easy to understand patterns, music works this way, narrative, broadly, tends to have the same overall structure, and games especially can be boiled down to some variation of "Enter an area, conquer the challenges in that area, be rewarded, and move on to next area. Rinse, repeat."

To be the kind of game No Man's Sky kind of advertised itself as, though, it still needs more. It will probably always need more. On the one hand, it's unfair to complain "this game lacks content to keep me entertained infinitely!" The content systems and variety the game has now is perfectly defensible, I think, compared to most of its peers, with some exceptions. Something I think No Man's Sky could learn from, say, Minecraft for instance, is adding more meaningful combat challenges and combat-focused content that feels good, and worth doing. Minecraft is actually really good about providing "dungeons" and "strongholds" that provide fun rewards and are a great way to put your resources to work, and break the monotony of exploration. Combat mechanics in No Man's Sky are actually incredibly under-utilized. But even still, 30 hours of chill space-adventuring times is worth the $24.99 ask for a used copy at your local Gamestop. (IS THE CHECK IN THE MAIL, GAMESTOP?!) On the other hand, a sprawling, infinite experience is sort of what Hello Games is selling as their vision, here, so they're practically asking for it to be held against them.

Having randomly generated missions is good, but emblematic of a larger problem.
Having randomly generated missions is good, but emblematic of a larger problem.

Creating a game that you can explore for a literal lifetime carries the implication, to me, that there is enough there to make that endeavor, if not worthwhile, at least tempting. Which it just isn't. For a game selling itself on its endless procedural generation of ever-new sights to see, No Man's Sky is actually quite limited in the things you will actually witness.

There are some rare exceptions. Sometimes you'll find a larger settlement than most, maybe you'll come across a creature that is massive and awe inspiring, you might see a planet with truly bizarre flora, but for the most part, once you've seen a weird, randomly generated monstrosity, you've seen them all. There's actually a surprisingly small amount of individual parts that create the flora and fauna of No Man's Sky, which makes wanting to sightsee way less interesting, since I just lose hope of seeing something truly unique.

This is a common failing of procedural generation. Or at least, on relying on it to the extent No Man's Sky does. A design here and there may be accidentally impressive, but there is nothing designed about it. The value of actually hand-crafting animal or structure designs cannot be understated. The lack of well-designed-by-hand content is especially noticeable in the series of little numbers, logic, and language puzzles you'll come across in random structures on planetary surfaces, as well as NPC dialogue in stations, which I've had repeat multiple times on the same station. It's easy to just ignore these problems when you enjoy the game as if its a single player, campaign-focused thing. Afterall, there's nothing wrong with a lot of heavily-similar-but-not-quite-the-same wildlife when you're not looking so close. It's not as if wildlife plays much of a part in the actual gameplay. But if you ever dared to explore the galaxy for hundreds of hours, I hope you have a high tolerance for this "riddle" right here:

Get used to this fucking thing.
Get used to this fucking thing.

  • The storyline recently added through Atlas Rises is pretty good, and maybe the most meta thing ever. Or it's just all in my head.
The fellow travelers you meet along the way are pretty memorable designs.
The fellow travelers you meet along the way are pretty memorable designs.

Thanks to the recent updates, Hello Games has done a good job of giving various mini-objectives in a quest log that actually looks like it came from a real video game. Up until the new story added in Atlas Rises, these are mostly smaller side-narratives from people at your base, or contextual objectives based on your most recently acquired blueprints, but that doesn't mean they don't have value. All of these smaller pieces of interaction with the NPCs you recruit to work, combined with the flavor text summarizing the events in the log that capture your characters perspective on the matter, do a good job of something No Man's Sky up to this point desperately needed: proper world building, fleshing the people and places out more than not at all. Giving it character and more personality.

Exploring can be more meaningful when you're doing it to help someone, or when you really want to build up your awesome greenhouse, or whatever.

Each of your base specialists actually have really endearing personal stories too, with the only major negative being that I would just love so much more of them, instead of feeling so abruptly "over" after a half dozen or so quests for them. The aging Vy'keen warrior. The Gek obsessed with plants. The Korvax, broken from the Convergence, who decides to start his own little mini-convergence with a beacon and a few other bits and bobs - which is honestly adorable and it's a shame how suddenly it's over, with any further interaction with him dead-ending in a repeatable text that may as well say "fuck off, there's nothing more here." Like the rest of No Man's Sky, it's good, but the unique content here runs out a little too soon.

It's hard for me to not see meta-commentary in this, regardless of intent.
It's hard for me to not see meta-commentary in this, regardless of intent.

Atlas Rises however, boasts a major new "main" storyline, which is probably the most impressive addition to the game so far. After jumping to about three different star systems, you'll receive a mysterious transmission, desperately asking to be found. After eventually scanning the location of these signals down you meet a Traveler, one of an enigmatic group of people the normal folk talk about almost in mythical terms, who is ecstatic to finally meet another person. Introducing himself as Artemis, the first major "arc" of the story revolves around trying to meet face-to-face. Except, try as you might, you never seem to find each other. Then, Artemis suspiciously disappears entirely, just as you were getting close.

Continuing this very loose summary, you eventually run into two other fellow travelers - Apollo, a trader type who only seems to care about how rich he could get off the prospect of finally meeting another traveler, and -null-, an odd entity seemingly composed entirely of weird computer parts, who knows far more about the nature of existence in this world than anyone should. -null- reveals later on that Artemis is long-since dead, and you've merely been communicating with fragments of some memories broadcasting from his grave. There is a way to revive him, but it involves placing him in a simulated existence. A simulated existence, it turns out, within the simulated existence you are already inhabiting. All that you are, all that you have interacted with, is an ever-evolving simulated universe, in a series of simulated universes. You can be in the same position as another fellow traveler, but because you're not truly inhabiting the same space, you can't see each other. Sound familiar?

"I wanted to see what the audience playing this game would become."

Part of why I love the story that now exists in No Man's Sky, not strictly in Atlas Rises but also in all the little bits of exposition you receive here and there surrounding the Atlas Rises narrative, is how much it feels like a meta-commentary on the development of the game (the Atlas representing the "developer") and the people playing the game (the travelers) and how the game itself has evolved with those two forces almost in opposition to the other. The simulation that Atlas has created is inherently flawed. It tries, over and over, to reset and re-tool its simulation so it doesn't break itself down, so the people inside of it are satisfied, and yet those pesky travelers, those anomalies, can never leave well enough alone. The Atlas simulation is death by uncanny valley. Nothing ever seems quite right, even to the simulated nobodies populating stations and outposts, and the slightest curiosity exhibited about the nature of their existence seems to cause everything to melt down.

There is not a ton of wild twists and turns to the story of No Man's Sky or anything - it finds its themes, sticks with them, and that's that - which is why I'm so hesitant to talk at length about it despite how much I enjoy it. I personally choose to interpret the story of No Man's Sky, the history and evolution of the Atlas and its mysterious simulations, as an analogue for the evolution of the game itself, which gives it a delightful extra layer I found really fun to read into. Even setting that aside though, which is something that may not have even been intentional, I really think what they've added here is a lot of fun, and is a great central pillar the rest of the game's content can support and grow around. I hope they continue to add narratives like this in the future.

  • In the end, No Man's Sky is a fun, relaxing space-exploration game now, if you have modest expectations.

No Man's Sky is better the further away it develops from its original bare-bones state. Whenever I came across a monolith or a puzzle terminal with the old original text boxes and fonts, it practically felt like an accident or a bug or something, because it feels so unrepresentative of the game as it is in its modern form, yet they remain in the game for whatever reason, so separated from all the other improved aspects of it. Like some old MMO that has had so much new shit bolted onto it over the years, and whenever you wander back into an old zone it feels like you've gone back in time.

Is it so wrong to just want to kill some pirates?
Is it so wrong to just want to kill some pirates?

Something I've picked up in reading discussions on this game in the aftermath of me seeing most of what No Man's Sky has to offer, is that a lot of people, mostly defenders from the earlier days of the game's post-release period when it had been all but abandoned aside from the die-hards, seem to think No Man's Sky is wrong for trying to more fully flesh itself out and become more of a feature-rich game-game. The Time Magazine review last year is headlined with the scorchingly contrarian hot take of "'No Man's Sky' Isn't What You Wanted. Thank God." On that same track, I went back to read Alex's review from last year, and even he seemed to poo-poo the idea of playing No Man's Sky as a "game" and instead that he "loved" it for being more or a pure, isolating exploration experience even if nothing else. While that opinion is slightly more understandable in the immediate aftermath of the game's initial release, personally, I think this opinion has it completely backwards. Not to mention, it's aged poorly as Hello Games has made No Man's Sky not only a dramatically better "game" with more direct objectives, more content variety, and systems in service of other systems that I feel it desperately needed, but also a better exploration experience with absolutely no sacrificing the latter for the former. It can be both.

In comparison to its present form, No Man's Sky's original state is an extraordinarily dull exploration experience, even leaving the whole "traditional video game structure" debate aside. Which, by the way, is the main reason No Man's Sky has improved so dramatically and has experienced a minor boost in popularity in the last month or so. But I digress.

My experience with No Man's Sky is not most peoples' initial experience with the game. Like Brad's time with Mass Effect 3, my experience comes much later, after the developer has taken steps to compensate for the biggest flaws from release. In fact, just over the time of me playing it, Hello Games released multiple patches including even more adjustments to the game, such as giving all ships a Manueverability stat that gives each ship class noticeably different handling, and an "Upload All" button that makes reporting scanned discoveries about a million times less tedious. Every indication is that No Man's Sky will continue to be improved on moving forward.

You'll get pretty tired of talking to these fuckers after awhile.
You'll get pretty tired of talking to these fuckers after awhile.

This is the best possible time there has been to play No Man's Sky, but you should go into it with checked expectations. The way I played No Man's Sky was to slowly go through the Atlas Rises story while doing all the base-building quests I could, crafting anything that seemed interesting to me, talking with all the NPCs along the way, picking up side missions here and there, but never getting obsessed with seeing everything. Because you can't. And honestly? You shouldn't. No Man's Sky can still be a pure exploration experience, but I think I like it most as a tale of simulated existence with each person having a unique version of that path, and as a meta-commentary, through Atlas' repeated failures in maintaining the simulation, on the game's development overall. Then stopping after like 40 hours, just as it's getting tired.

It's a shame that most people seem to have abandoned No Man's Sky by this point, since if this was a 20-dollar game just released on the PSN, without all the hype pushed by Sony, and carried by a sixty-dollar price tag with a disc release, the conversation surrounding this game would probably be very different. Again, hype is a weird thing.

All that aside, No Man's Sky has a special quality to it, and even if some design decisions inherently hold it down, I really think if you like science fiction themes, or even just a Minecraft-lite crafting and gathering experience in a sci-fi wrapping, it has earned being worthy of your time. It remains imperfect, but in my book, it's the winner for 2017's "Most Improved."

If-I-Had-To-Give-It-A-Rating-I-Guess: 4 / 5
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Efficiently packaged, low cost, and high calorie. Amalur is the fast food joint of fantasy RPGs.

1100 calories, 1300 mg of sodium, 80g of fat...
1100 calories, 1300 mg of sodium, 80g of fat...

Have you ever experienced a sort of weird, short-lived obsession with a cheap burger joint? You know, similar to how Dan Ryckert is so infatuated with Taco Bell, except instead of it being some sort of permanent way of life, it's a brief two-week stint of you being sort of taken by how this latest fast food place, that for some reason you'd never tried up until now, wasn't all that bad. You go in and for five bucks you're getting a decent bundle of food. It's not until your third or fourth time going that it dawns on you, it's really not that great. The novelty has worn off, and maybe you only dug it so much at first because you were really craving a half-decent sandwich that day and it just so happened to do the trick.

That's sort of like my time Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Last week I found myself kind of bummed out, having just finished up Lords of the Fallen, and thinking to myself "You know, I'd love a nice, simple, fantasy RPG experience that doesn't get on my nerves right about now." A quick browse through my Steam library reveals having picked up Amalur several months ago, which I vaguely recall being on sale at the time for practically pennies. I install it right away, and before I know it, I'm six hours in, mindlessly trudging along through a well-worn, very familiar, high fantasy universe of good vs. evil.

And this is Amalur's greatest, or perhaps most devious, attribute. It's a great example of video game comfort food. Every medium has these things, and everyone has their weaknesses. For some people, a schlocky romance book is a great escape. Or maybe you're into queuing up endless hours of Star Trek: The Next Generation on Netflix and vegging out for an entire Saturday. Kingdoms of Amalur falls perfectly into the category of media that isn't rocking the boat. It's easy to pick up, doesn't ask much of you, is colorful and lighthearted looking, and pleasant enough to waste hours and hours in without realizing it. But by a certain point for me, Amalur's spell broke, and I realized just how much time I was wasting that I could've used on much better games.

  • Kingdoms of Amalur has a great opening bit, but the story gets stuck in a ditch for almost the entire game.
You're literally a science experiment.
You're literally a science experiment.

It's to Amalur's credit that the opening of the game is so effective at setting up the world, where you are now, and where you're going to be heading right from the get-go, or else it might not be so effective at masking what is, underneath, an aggressively generic experience. Let's see if I can sum it up:

The world of Amalur is made up of two very distinct groups of beings: the "young races" and the Fae, which are less like traditional humanoid creatures and are more a manifestation of magic given a humanoid form. They are immortal, more or less, while the young races aren't. A rogue faction of the Fae, called the Tuatha and led by some evil red dude named Gadflow, disrupted the balance of power in their bid to rid Amalur of the mortal races, kicking off a conflict known as the Crystal War that has been raging for roughly a decade, and the young races are slowly losing.

In an effort to turn the tide of the war, the gnomes (which look suspiciously like cliche World of Warcraft-esque dwarves) began a massive Manhattan Project-like experiment to replicate the Tuatha's trump card in the war: their immortality. Called the "Well of Souls" and led by a gnome named Professor Hugues, it attempts to capture the manifestation of people's souls as they die, and reinserting them into their bodies, bringing them back to life. Never has this succeeded, until you.

The Tuatha immediately catch wind of this, seeking to eliminate this existential threat, and the tutorial of you escaping the collapsing Well of Souls ensues. It's an excellent tutorial, as well, making you experiment with every variety of combat style, and the miscellaneous mechanics. After escaping the Well, you're told to head to the nearest town, and you run into a Fateweaver. See, "fate" in this game is a literal thing, everyone's destiny is immutable, and only people sensitive to the force fate can perceive it. So when this Fateweaver realizes he cannot read your fate, its as if you don't exist - like a vampire or something that can't see your own reflection in a mirror. You're an abomination with the power to directly alter fate's weaves. In a way it's reminiscent of Knights of the Old Republic 2, with the main character of that game being basically a mini black hole in the Force. With this power, you could conceivably put an end to the war.

  • Amalur is a perfect example of the important distinction between "lore" and "story."
Spoiler: He has no answers.
Spoiler: He has no answers.

If the above sounds compelling at all to you, you wouldn't be wrong to feel that way. It's actually told really well in the opening cinematic, effectively setting up the universe of Amalur, all of the important players, and why they're doing what they're doing. Where Amalur fails utterly is keeping a consistent pace of interesting events in the story throughout the rest of the main questline. After the revelation of what you are, which is really only in the first hour or so of the game, Amalur stalls in second-gear for hours upon hours, with absolutely no surprises. It's just a lot of going from Point A to Point B, with the initial goal of "dude, we need to figure out what the hell is going on" shifting to "Let's go kill the bad guy!"

This is kind of heartbreaking in a way, because there is so much lore that drenches the game everywhere you look. NPCs are practically walking encyclopedias (which reminds me of Morrowind, in a way) and are happy to give details on every aspect of their surroundings. If you're the type of person that gets off on these minute details, Amalur is right up your alley. You'll find little villages out of the way with their own unique regional problems, such as hordes of spiders, or a plague, and most people involved will give you the whole history of the town, if you ask.

But this is what is, to borrow a meteorological analogy, the difference between climate and weather. In very simple terms, climate is the broader history of the behavior of the atmosphere in a longer time frame, while weather is the short term, day-to-day. The lore of Amalur is lengthy and comprehensive, but the actual moment to moment plot details, and the actions it has you do, are incredibly dull. It's a prime example of a game that can both set up a universe with great lore and history, but actually tell a terrible story.

In fairness to Amalur, there are various faction missions that aren't so bad. When the writing of Amalur hits, it hits a cut above the average game's quality of writing, and it's worth checking out some of the faction stories, but all of the other side missions are boring busywork, usually on the level of "I lost my ring in this cave, can you get it for me?" or "There's a bounty on this bandit." The level of importance to the side missions is also really poorly differentiated, which I noticed in one of the early towns. By completing a side missions there, I was given my own house as a reward. You would think they'd want to make a quest with that kind of important reward stand out from the others.

  • From that last paragraph, I can already hear someone saying "Well Skyrim does the same boring thing though."
Skyrim is more of a goofy RPG playhouse than anything else.
Skyrim is more of a goofy RPG playhouse than anything else.

It's unfortunate Skyrim and Amalur came out so close to one another, because they really shouldn't be compared as much as they were at the time. Bethesda's games are such a fundamentally different style of RPG that they almost exist within a sub-genre unto themselves.

Unlike Amalur, which is a conventional RPG more focused on linearly telling you a story along a certain path, Elder Scrolls games are like hyper-interactive dollhouses for you to play around within. Sure, there are stories preset within them, but there's a reason Skyrim (and Fallout) has such an obsessive modding scene and an entire DLC package dedicated to you Playing House. It's a sandbox first, a focused experience second. In a way, it's an older kind of roleplaying experience, where you are literally, yourself, as the player, playing a role you create in your damn head.

Even though, yes, Skyrim also suffers from similar problems of "go to these caverns and kill these bandits" the world itself is so much more immersive and interesting to be a part of, and feels more alive, than Amalur. Characters in Amalur have very little standout personality, and the amount of interactivity you have with any part of the world is minimal, and even that is generous. Where I would carefully sneak through a cave as a stealthy archer in Skyrim, I would sprint through a cave in Amalur wrecking anything that tries to stop me in just a few seconds, because there's absolutely no incentive to take things slow, think things through, or just generally ever care about what you're doing. Like I said at the beginning - it's fast food. You get in and get out.

  • The combat feels satisfying under ideal conditions, but the game's balance can be broken almost by accident.

Kingdoms of Amalur features a combat system more akin to God of War than most RPGs, which is usually a great deal of fun. It's a fast paced system with a move list, two weapons you can swap between on the fly, blocking, parrying, and a dodge roll that feels pretty good. It's by no means the deepest combat system you're going to find, but it's fast and fluid, and most importantly, the weapons feel good. If you're not going to go for depth or complexity, you better at least make the fighting have a sense of satisfaction.

The camera in this game is going to be right up your ass most of the time.
The camera in this game is going to be right up your ass most of the time.

There's variety, too. Amalur prides itself in you being able to completely respec at a moments notice, for a nominal fee at any Fateweaver throughout the world, allowing you to, at the drop of a hat, completely switch from being a full-on mage, to switching into the Finesse tree and trying out dual-wielding daggers and a bow, or just throwing on heavy armor and being a tank. In fact, there exists incentives in the game to drop points into all three trees at once and embrace being a Jack of All Trades.

One of the most annoying things about the combat, though, and just traveling around the world in general, is the fucking terrible camera this game has. It is aggressively zoomed in behind you, and there is no game-supported method of fixing this at all. Immediately after finishing the tutorial I investigated possibly modding the game to zoom out more, but this seemed to carry the risk of the game randomly crashing all the time, so I just did my best to adjust to the fact that I had very little peripheral vision whatsoever. I can definitely see this being a deal breaker for some people, because it wasn't easy to get used to. It's such a baffling decision to me, because there's no way to play this game for any length of time and not have enemies just lunge at you from completely out of your view, all because you can't just zoom out a little bit. It's like playing a game with a main character who has impaired vision, or something. Amalur refuses to let you have a good view of the action at any time.

The balance of the game is also easily thrown off by doing almost any of the side content, too. If you spend even just a few hours on the side doing some faction missions or helping out a town with their local problems, you're going to find yourself totally outpacing any of the enemies in the area, turning the combat encounters into more of a time wasting nuisance than anything satisfying, so I highly recommend picking a faction or two, only doing what they have to offer, and nothing else. If you're really feeling like nullifying any challenge this game could pose, throw on a few regeneration and physical damage resistance gems into your armor. You're not going to have to heal again until maybe the final bosses.

  • A very big, and very empty, open world.
Only around half of the world is really used all that well, but it could be worse.
Only around half of the world is really used all that well, but it could be worse.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: [Insert game here] feels a little bit like a single player MMO.

Honestly, it's kind of an easy line people break out these days and it isn't always fair, but in Kingdoms of Amalur, it genuinely feels a lot of the time like you're the lone person poking around in the private server for a long-dead MMO. The design of the world, from the way almost all of the areas narrow out as they approach the point where they intersect with another zone like a loading screen should be there, or the way the main story sort of pushes you through all the areas of the world so you get caught up in the side missions along the way. The way that buildings are wildly oversized and yellow exclamation marks are all over the place. It feels so much like how MMO level design works.

I don't really think the "like a single player MMO" description is inherently negative, because there are many games I like which have been the target of that accusation, but Amalur feels like an MMO in all the wrong ways. The world feels quiet and empty. Beelining from one place to another is done in almost complete silence, and the art style, which is very WoW-like, almost cheapens the way the world looks. With the right screenshot this game could pass as one of those crappy browser games in obnoxious webpage ads. Those cartoony night elf girls with gold text above them saying it's the hottest new game around? You know the one.

It doesn't help that the protagonist is such a nobody. The main character displays no emotion, has no real agency, and has no voice. You can pick dialogue options, sure, but otherwise you're just following the orders of NPCs with marks over their head, telling you bluntly to go from one place to the next. It contributes to the overall feeling of complete lifelessness, in a universe that should be brimming with cool places to go and things to see, given the exhaustive setting up in the beginning. I almost feel a little defensive, because the "single player RPG with MMO inspirations" can be, and has been, a lot better than this.

  • At the end of the day, Kingdoms of Amalur can't be considered bad. Just not very good.

See this? That's a plain old, boring ass McDonalds cheeseburger. It's not pretty looking, it's not even all that great, and it's definitely not very nutritious, but it's cheap, and sometimes you just want a damn burger. That's a lot like Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Amalur isn't especially memorable, the story isn't very well told, it looks pretty plain, but if you've played most of the Western fantasy RPGs out there on the market, and you're hankering for a fantasy fix, Amalur is going to hit the spot, at least for a little while.

Just about every town in the game may as well look like this.
Just about every town in the game may as well look like this.

That's sort of the thing about Amalur; none of it is actually bad. Everything about Amalur is varying levels of competent to decent, if a little uninspired, but you can't criticize much of it for being terrible or frustrating. It's an RPG that ticks all the boxes and does all of it just competently enough that it could be satisfying to you if you just happened to be in the right mood for a very basic high-fantasy experience. At no point does the game linger on any one thing for very long, making sure that it's easy to quickly bop from one quest to another and not challenge you or put you off in any way. It's as if this game was grown in a lab to be as inoffensive and plain as possible. It's the very definition of "okay."

Personally speaking though, it's hard to not be a little disappointed after the game busts out of the gate so strongly, and with such a compelling, if not very original, set-up. After trudging along doing uneventful thing after uneventful thing for the vast majority of the game, literally right before entering the final fight of the game Alyn Shir, the female character that has been following along with your journey from the outset, pulls you aside to dump a bunch of plot on you. See, in your previous life, you were a pretty resourceful individual who had discovered the secrets of Gadflow's power, and set out to stop it, with the help of her, your partner. In so doing, you died, but the evil God behind it all imbued you with the power that allowed you to come back to life, knowing you would come back to set her free without all your previous memories. The aforementioned female character took it upon herself to guide you back to this point, but at no point decided to ever let you in on what was actually going on. So instead of peppering these plot revelations throughout the story as the game progressed, it's just a whole lot of nothing until an exposition blowout at the very end.

Earlier I referenced Skyrim as being more than just the sum of its parts. There's great synergy between all the various different elements that make up Skyrim to be a very specific kind of game. Amalur, in contrast, is very what-you-see-is-what-you-get. It's a collection of different elements that are all kind of mashed together under no clear vision, but none of them are bad on their own, so its hard to get too upset about it. If you ever find yourself wanting to play an fantasy RPG, but not wanting to actually think about it very much, then Amalur has your back.

If-I-Had-To-Give-It-A-Rating-I-Guess: 3 / 5
10 Comments

Imitation may be a sincere form of flattery, but sadly it doesn't always mean "good."

The facial markings representing his sins is about the only cool thing about this design.
The facial markings representing his sins is about the only cool thing about this design.

There was recently a decent article over on Waypoint from Patrick about how Dark Souls had not only been a phenomenon, but that it invented an entirely new sub-genre.

As more and more games like Lords or the Fallen come out - or Nioh in the case of the article - and we refer to them as being "Dark Souls clones" or "like Dark Souls" eventually we'll have to accept these games on their own merits and no longer compare them to their originator. In the early days of the PS2, we had a lot of "GTA clones." After Gears of War was the hottest third person shooter around, "Gears-cover system" was a common phrase. "Monster Hunter clone" is another that springs out of Japan from time to time. There is an entire era from the the PS1 to the PS2 where third person, fixed-perspective horror games were "Resident Evil clones." Eventually, the phrases that rely on familiarity with the source material fade, and we accept the game just for being what it is. No one is really calling anything a "GTA clone" anymore. They're just urban open world games now. Or to borrow Patrick's example: We say "first person shooter" now, not "Doom clone."

So for lacking a better term at this point, Lords of the Fallen is a "Soulslike." And that's okay. But so long as we're borrowing phrases, we may as well appropriate another: When you come at the king, you best not miss. Lords of the Fallen is a pretty hard miss.

  • The control fundamentals of this subgenre are already established, and this game fudges them all.

As I've tried to establish above, and in my head before I even began playing, it's perfectly okay to emulate an existing franchise. The act of the imitation, which I don't use as a derogatory word, isn't a bad thing. I don't hold being derivative, alone, against something. Most art is derivative! Games, however, are an inherently more mechanical medium than something more passive like books or film, and so a baseline of control competence is expected right out of the gate. If you're a first person shooter coming out in the year 2017, for instance, your game cannot control worse than Call of Duty. This is just an unwritten rule. The baseline level of competence is already established and it is no longer excusable to come under it. There are plenty of spins on the formula you can have, and plenty of room for improvement, but every year the bar gets raised. Lords of the Fallen's controls come well below this bar.

And for some reason, this helpful view was very common whenever I was set on fire.
And for some reason, this helpful view was very common whenever I was set on fire.

Harkyn, the game's protagonist, moves like he's carrying 120 pounds of luggage. When sprinting, the camera goes into a Gears-esque Rhody Run, causing the camera to bounce and bob around the whole time. Camera control overall is incredibly swimmy, moving at an inconsistent speed and taking half a second or so to actually come to a stop once you finish moving it. And look, the Dark Souls camera has had plenty of criticisms, many of which are legitimate, but the Lords of the Fallen camera is like the difference between playing as Luigi or Mario. One moves at a consistent speed and can make precise, tight movements, and one has a greater top speed but always moves like it's on ice. It also helps that the Dark Souls camera will focus like a laser on what you're locked onto, whereas the Lords of the Fallen camera has a nasty tendency to take what you're locked onto more as a vague suggestion of where it's supposed to be facing.

In general, it's difficult to puzzle out Lords of the Fallen's "rules." Hit detection isn't the greatest here, with many enemies managing to clip you with attacks that very evidently did not actually connect to your body at all. Another constant frustration throughout the game was that the enemies you encounter never seem to play by the same stamina or staggering rules as you do. I played through more or less the entirety of the game with varying combinations of Heavy and Medium armor that kept me under the threshold for the mid-level dodge roll, with plenty of defense and poise, but even the wimpiest of attacks, with plenty of stamina, consistently knocked me out of attack animations. On the flip side, enemies will almost never stagger. You can wail on something physically smaller than you with three solid hits from your axe, and they'll just keep going through the motions, no reaction to your damage at all. It's sloppy all over the place, and just isn't much fun.

  • But to try and play devil's advocate for a moment...
Having normally presented dialogue choices, too, is a smart inclusion.
Having normally presented dialogue choices, too, is a smart inclusion.

There is one little "control" improvement (if you could call it that) over the Souls games that I appreciated: When you knock an enemy down after a backstab, there's no bullshit invincibility frames on its recovery. Backstab it, knock it down, and just slash the shit out of him while its trying to stand up. Because of course, why would it be arbitrarily invincible during this time? Answer me, Dark Souls! Answer me!

I also appreciate the flipping on its head of the checkpoint system, which is neither better nor worse than bonfires, but a nice change of pace. As opposed to respawning the area's enemies when you hit a checkpoint and recover, you'll only regain a limited amount of health points, maintaining your progress through the zone. Until you die, at least. The flow of progression here, then, is to very carefully pick off enemy after enemy at a time, slowly chipping your way through the zone without dying, instead of always doing the whole zone in one attempt. To try and balance this, Lords of the Fallen puts a timer on your dropped experience on death, slowly deteriorating, putting a time pressure on getting back to where you were, but there are several ways to mitigate this, and honestly, since you can bank this experience at any time at a checkpoint, there's much less sacrifice involved. But still, it's a fresh idea that a later game could refine and put to good use.

There is value, too, in having a pre-defined character, presented in a more conventionally told narrative, and dialogue choices that are more in depth than weirdly out of place Yes or No answers like in the Souls games. On the technical side, this game also compresses its data to a mere handful of gigs, unlike the bloated, fifty gig monstrosities of other games this generation that really don't look like they deserve to be so huge. So kudos.

  • It's just a shame that the story kind of sucks, and Lords of the Fallen's world feels so tiny.
The inventory management is weirdly clunky.
The inventory management is weirdly clunky.

What put a bad taste in my mouth pretty much immediately was the naming conventions put to use throughout the game. The demon horde ravaging the tiny little repetitive castle the world the game takes place in are called "Rhogar." Something about this just landed with me as some sort of lame, bland naming style my boring ass would've thought was cool as a fourteen year old, or what an RPG's "random name generator, just hit the Y button for a new name!" would've given you. It's like how Brad names his Souls characters "Floogan." It just smacks as something that isn't really their specialty, if you get what I mean. The random made-up naming of things reminded me a little of Two Worlds, except where Two Worlds is leaning hard into its camp value, this game is trying to be deadly serious.

To be truthful, I don't really understand or remember a whole lot about the story. So far as I can tell, the protagonist Harkyn is an ex-convict who escapes from captivity during a demon invasion with some dude named Kaslo, who I think is supposed to be his friend, but at the same time barely speaks to him? Leading the Rhogar are demonic generals termed "Lords" in service of the God of the demon realm whose name I have already forgotten. Ardyn? Adyr? I think that's it. This is the problem with random-name-generator names. You're tasked with felling the Lords, which leads up to plot revelations that don't have much impact whatsoever, and I think there's a moral choice at the end you can make on which side of this conflict you can ultimately help over the other.

I don't know, man. Sometimes less is more, especially if you're not exactly going to knock it out of the park with what you've got as it is. My level of comprehension with the story wasn't helped by the fact that on two separate occasions when playing Lords of the Fallen, the audio on all voices completely broke.

I was surprised, as well, by how often this game re-uses environments. For the first half of the game, I felt somewhat hopeful, looking forward to the new zones that were to come, but it became very clear that Lords of the Fallen insists you backtrack through zones you've already been in, and cuts off portions of zones with locked doors and arbitrary magic progress blockers instead of creating wholly new places. (And frankly, even what original zones exist are often claustrophobic, indoor spaces with repetitive, maze-like layouts.) In fact, near the end of the game, a random square area functioning more as the Citadel's basement suddenly becomes a boss arena. The two mobs just leap into frame out of nowhere with no explanation and suddenly, bam, re-used zone for a boss fight that has no context. Which is kind of this game in a nutshell.

  • In an alternate reality, when Souls games had long come and gone, Lords of the Fallen might've been special.
Wonder where they got that trophy name from.
Wonder where they got that trophy name from.

Imitating the style of something as closely as Lords of the Fallen does is not without merit, but it has so much more impact in an environment when the audience you're targeting is under-served. I think back to 2009, when Torchlight released to everyone's pleasant surprise, and what a delightful little game that was. Torchlight, like this game in a way, was relatively small in scale and budget, but unlike Lords of the Fallen, it was hitting an audience that was starving for a game so blatantly like Diablo 2. There weren't really many games like that anymore, and even though Diablo 3 was in the works, it was still a ways off, and there was a perfectly opened window of opportunity for a similar style of game to thrive, even if it wasn't some massive, AAA undertaking.

Had Lords of the Fallen released in an era where Soulslikes had fallen on hard times, and that audience was starving for a new, fresh experience in that same vein, all of its faults may have been easier to overlook. Its small scope, it's messy controls, a story that doesn't really hit super well, but is still serviceable enough, etc, would've been minor details in reminding everyone "Hey, there are still people who want games like this!" Instead, though, Lords of the Fallen released just months after Dark Souls 2, and just months before Bloodborne and Scholar of the First Sin released mere days apart.

Maybe if I had been there on Day 1, it might've hit differently with me, especially since 2014 was the Year of Low Expectations, but at this stage, with the subgenre still thriving as it is, I struggle to find ways to recommend this game to people. If you want an experience like this, there are so many miles better options, with superior controls, level design, narratives, and build variety than anything Lords of the Fallen can offer. This game is outclassed by its contemporaries in almost every way. In the present environment, Lords of the Fallen is thoroughly mediocre.

If-I-Had-To-Give-It-A-Rating-I-Guess: 2 / 5

Grow Home.

I've always dreamed of being able to grow plants just by touching them.
I've always dreamed of being able to grow plants just by touching them.

There's very little you could go on at length about with Grow Home, it being developed basically as a neat little experiment in some corner of an office by a handful of bored Ubisoft employees. Clocking in at only a few hours, Grow Home is the perfect kind of palate cleanser after playing through something as drab and frustrating as Lords of the Fallen, as it is anything but drab. It's a 3D platformer with a very simple mission: As a planet exploring robot, your job is to start at the surface of the planet and induce growth on a "Star Flower" so it reaches the upper atmosphere and produces seeds to send back home to Earth.

Presumably Earth at this point is a nightmarish hellhole that desperately needs new plants to continue sustaining life, but it's best not knowing.

  • Grow Home is a colorful and innovative good time, but the wobbly controls are a borderline deal-breaker.

3D platformers seem like they're threatening to make a bit of a comeback in the last year or two, which would be a trend I welcome with open arms. Grow Home is, for the most part, a nice slow-paced platformer; collecting crystals, different items for travel throughout the environment, and ultimately growing the central objective, the Star Flower, way up into the sky. As a bite-sized experience, it's something I had a bunch of fun with for an afternoon, and since I've been progressing through the Giant Bombcasts all the way back from the very beginning, Grow Home is about as perfect a "podcast game" as games come.

Please stop sliding off things. Please stop sliding off things. Please. Stop.
Please stop sliding off things. Please stop sliding off things. Please. Stop.

As heartbreaking as this is for me to say, though, the single thing that holds this game back is simply that BUD, the cute little red robot protagonist, controls like his legs are made of jelly. This is a choice I simply don't understand, because I can't see how giving the player precise, tight controls would've made the experience anything but objectively better. I take no issue with the wall-climbing controls, those can stay just as they are even if they are a bit slow, but simply the act of standing up straight seems to be BUD's greatest nemesis, and any elevation makes him stumble around for his footing like he's completely wasted. I would've been happy to continue exploring Grow Home's fantastic looking environment had I been able to walk around normally, because anytime I'm carefully trying to climb and mantle my way over to a crystal I can clearly see stuck on the ceiling, and stumble and fall at the last moment, negating several minutes of painstaking, struggling effort to get there, it just instantly repels me from ever wanting to do it again.

Grow Home being just a couple hours long to complete the main objective brings things to a stop just as the frustration is beginning to overwhelm the happy fun time, which is for the best. It's a shame, though, because I would be thrilled to spend a dozen hours more in this environment if I had decent control over my movement, and I just don't understand why it has to be this way. But as a proof of concept, Grow Home is a bright and fun afternoon, with a caveat or two.

If-I-Had-To-Give-It-A-Rating-I-Guess: 3½ / 5
11 Comments

A seven-barreled blast of video game blogging fun.

I play games like this so others don't have to.
I play games like this so others don't have to.

It seems almost inconceivable to me that it's been over a year since the last time I sat down and really wrote about a game that I played. I know - I'm hardly some sort of figure of importance or whatever - but I actually find the process of scribbling out my thoughts on something I just completed to be a very therapeutic exercise. I certainly haven't stopped playing games, but for whatever reason, whether it's anxiety being a frustrating distraction as it is for so many people, terrible political news being a frequent nuisance, or more positively, getting married, life just kept me away from really trying to articulate about a game I played.

But when I find myself with spare time, my thoughts on games are chaotic. I look at a pile of screenshots, or notes I've taken (and I take a lot!) and think "Man, wouldn't it be nice to organize these thoughts?" It would be like being able to neatly package up these opinions in a box so I can store them away. It would be like closure.

So here's to 2017, and getting back in the habit of telling others what games my opinionated ass has feelings on. What are some things I've played in these last months? Why, these seven different games, that's what!

Time & Eternity.

My inability to take PS3 screenshots sure shows when I have to use some stock ones, huh.
My inability to take PS3 screenshots sure shows when I have to use some stock ones, huh.

As if the image up top wasn't enough of a tip-off, I spent around 20 hours or so completing a sort of bizarre JRPG called Time & Eternity. I caught wind of it years ago at this point, and even though I don't usually dip my toes into games this weeby, the art style was super striking. In battles and while exploring zones littered around a world map, characters are rendered in really well animated 2D sprites against a polygonal environment. In recent years some fighting games have sort of experimented with a kind of "looks 2D but it's polygons" art style, but Time & Eternity is the only game that specifically renders their game this way and it's more than a little jarring at first - it really should be seen in motion to be fully appreciated. Despite how unconventional it is, I greatly enjoy the way this game looks.

In a happy little coincidence, I played through this game with my husband just days after we had married, because the plot of this game is, ironically, entirely about a marriage ceremony that routinely goes wrong. You're Toki, princess of a country I have frankly already forgotten the name of, set to wed a blue-haired knight (who hits all of the anime tropes of being a horny dork) and it's interrupted by assassins. Your fiance rushes in front of you to protect you from a blade, and you travel back in time six months (time travel is a thing for those of royal blood apparently - pity your parents are inexplicably missing the entire game) with the goal of figuring out who attacked your wedding and putting a stop to it. Each time to think you figure out what's going on, you'll travel back to the present, and some other disaster interrupts the ceremony, necessitating even more gumshoeing on what the fuck just happened.

If that setup sounds appealing at all to you, I won't spoil much more of it. To keep things concise:

  • Time & Eternity suffers a lot by having needless "gamey" side systems and filler to it.

I surprised myself in feeling this way throughout my time with this game, because I am usually the last person that says something like "this would've benefited from being way shorter and story focused." Generally speaking, when you find a critic that says that I'm going to roll my eyes, but Time & Eternity gains nothing from its piles and piles of sidequests, which are almost entirely about killing x amount of monsters, or trekking deep within a zone to talk to a re-textured NPC, or fetching an item from a sparkly blue prompt. While I actually think the combat mechanics are great, and fights are fun to play, two thirds of this game's run time reeks of filler, and it seems obsessed with looking like an RPG at a glance, without having any really meaningful depth.

For instance, there's a decent-sized skill tree for each of the personalities you switch between, but you're not getting most of the skill points for this tree from fighting, you're getting it largely from sidequests that take seconds to complete. The game just throws that currency at you for doing as little as "Go talk to this person in ___ town" just so it looks like there's some deep character building going on. There's a stat screen, but stats don't really matter at all. There's a shop where you can buy new items and gear, but you're doing this at such a rapid pace it's almost comical how often the game throws money at you from quests just so you can immediately spend it on something. An inventory absolutely overflowing with things that really, really don't need to exist. In general it just feels like they began with a small concept, and then started throwing shit at it from a "How to build a modern video game" textbook.

  • The actual combat portions are really fun, separated from the unnecessary window dressing.

Combat has very straightforward mechanics and they're all pretty tight. It's hard to really give a run down on what makes the combat of Time & Eternity satisfying, but it really genuinely is, maintaining speed while also not sacrificing several layers of mechanics and menus to do so. There's dodging, parrying, magic, time-stop abilities, elemental weaknesses to exploit, and all the other usual RPG combat staples you would expect, all managed in real-time. If only other PS3 JRPGs could've managed that - I certainly wouldn't name names or anything.

When I wrote about Xenoblade Chronicles awhile back, I briefly touched on what I felt to be unfair JRPG stereotypes, and I remember @brodehouse jokingly mentioning his stereotype of JRPG combat menus being three different types of EXP and a million different meters and bars to keep track of. The latter at least is pretty dead-on, and it's all I could think about when I watched that stupid time-piece twirling around in the upper right corner during combat that, as far as I can tell, is pretty much pointless.

  • You really just need a moderate-to-high tolerance for anime tropes, though, and I can understand if you don't.
You spend a lot of off-time in town chatting with your friends back at home.
You spend a lot of off-time in town chatting with your friends back at home.

I won't mince words: the characters in this game are kind of unbearable, for the most part. Toki's friends are cliches top to bottom, and her fiance is a sex-obsessed virgin with a propensity for nosebleeds. There's an affection system in this game where you can have romantic "events" and try to give the right answer so as to get rewarded with a risqué image. It's not something that personally offended me or anything, but it's certainly dumb, it's a bummer that games from Japan go this route so often when they have a really cool premise and style, and the bad voice acting doesn't do it any favors.

If you can look past that though, or better yet if this is something you're unironically way into (and I won't judge!), I actually think Time & Eternity is one of those little pleasant surprises. I picked it up on sale for what I remember being eight bucks, and I started with with absolutely terrible expectations when my husband and I were bored and we didn't have a whole lot going on that evening. That it hooked us enough on its cool style and premise to come back and see it all the way to the bittersweet end is a solid achievement. Switch to Japanese voices and ignore the sidequests when you feel fed up with them and Time & Eternity is worth checking out. It's very endearing.

If-I-Had-To-Give-It-A-Rating-I-Guess: 3½ / 5

Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin.

Video game messages can be so uplifting.
Video game messages can be so uplifting.

I originally played Dark Souls 2 on the PS3 when it was first released. It was the pits. The PS3 version is hands-down the worst version of Dark Souls 2 to play, to such an extent that, even when I've had the occasional itch to try it again on a different build, the framerate, loading times, and most importantly, the frequent input lag caused me to bounce off of it before I'd even get to The Last Giant.

Enter Scholar of the First Sin, and twenty bucks. The perfect opportunity to re-experience what I already felt was the weakest of the Souls games (Bloodborne excluded, as I haven't played it). Maybe I would feel differently with remixed levels, balance changes, and that sweet, sweet, 1080p, 60fps.

  • Unfortunately, my opinion hasn't changed a whole lot. Several things still get on my nerves about this game.

Sure, Scholar of the First Sin is a beautiful remastering of the game for what it is. It runs great, loading times are fast, and the game is sharp as hell. If you're going to play Dark Souls 2, then Scholar of the First Sin is no question what you should play. But there are still so many puzzling decisions in this game that frustrate me to this day. Chief among them is Adaptability, the stat determining invincibility frames on dodge-rolls and general agility, which on its own would be a deal-breaker for me. I cannot say it loudly enough: Making your I-frames on rolling determined by a fucking stat is the dumbest fucking thing in the world. Dodging should be a fundamental! It's a basis of the combat system of these games; a central pillar! To get "in tune" with DS2's rolling always throws me off for hours, because the timing is variable depending on the stat. It's already variable depending on your weight. That was enough, why did it need this extra frustrating layer?

Not to mention the other things in this game that grate on my nerves a bit. My favorite class, for instance, is playing a pyromancer, which is just nuked out of the starting classes altogether. Why balance something when you can just erase it from the lineup and force the player to beeline through multiple zones if they want to go heavy on pyromancy for their build? Using estus, also, feels slow as hell compared to its predecessor and successor. How much does this damn thing weigh to lift it up to my mouth? And I don't know what they did to the animation on the characters in this one, but movement just looks like I'm rollerblading around instead of clunking along. Apparently the estus flask is the only thing that has weight.

  • Some areas are actually made worse. But the story is certainly patched up.

At least this place wasn't so tough this time around.
At least this place wasn't so tough this time around.

Generally speaking, the changes made to the areas of Dark Souls 2 are for the better, but a couple of areas, Heide's Tower and Iron Keep most of all, are made far far worse. The former has suddenly become swamped with enemies, and if you make the mistake of defeating the Dragonrider first as I did, the slumbering Heide Knights will begin to patrol the zone, attacking from absurd distances and joining in with other enemies to create total clusterfucks. The latter similarly just feels like they drenched the area in way more enemies for no good reason.

In spite of my fuming on those two zones specifically, I do appreciate how they went out of their way to give the story of Dark Souls 2 more meaning and context than it had previously, having Aldia pop up at various locations, and even join in immediately after defeating Nashandra to create a pretty fun boss rush - I'm actually surprised other Souls-esque games never tried that kind of thing more often. And including all the DLC certainly makes the total package worth your while. So long as you're not as infuriated by the existence of Adaptability as I am.

If-I-Had-To-Give-It-A-Rating-I-Guess: 3 / 5

DOOM.

The auto-screenshot function when getting a trophy doesn't always have ideal timing.
The auto-screenshot function when getting a trophy doesn't always have ideal timing.

What more can be said about Doom that hasn't already been said? It's an exhilarating remake of the original that I had absolutely no expectations for being nearly as good as it was, and I don't even consider myself that much of an FPS guy. It broke my self-imposed rule of never buying a game I had no expectations for just because of the reviews (after my mistake in getting LA Noire on the basis of its own critical acclaim at the time), and I don't regret it for a second. It looks great, it plays great, it sounds great. Doom is just a good fucking time.

Simply being a first-person-shooter these days with levels that are fun to explore on its own would be an utter triumph, as FPS campaigns had, largely, grown stagnant in their "just keep moving forward to the next set-piece" nature, but being a great, simple story and managing to make secrets and resource management fun on top of it all made Doom the most refreshing shooter experience I've had in years and years. There's not even anything more to add - except that everyone who is making an FPS, or re-imagining an old property, should be taking notes. The worst you could say is that it lasts about one level too long.

If-I-Had-To-Give-It-A-Rating-I-Guess: 5 / 5

The Last Remnant.

A combat UI that gives EVE Online a run for its money.
A combat UI that gives EVE Online a run for its money.

Continuing in my tradition of picking up games that I kind of wanted to play, but don't get around to it until much later, I finally completed The Last Remnant several months back; a Square Enix JRPG first released on the Xbox 360 back in 2008. Anyone remember when Microsoft cared about getting into the Japanese market? It was a long time ago, a generation far far away.

  • The story is told well, with a cast of believable, level-headed characters.

You're an 18 year old dude named Rush (of course you are) whose sister is kidnapped at the start of the game by some powerful mysterious group, and it's pretty much immediately implied your sister has some hidden power. See, central to the plot of The Last Remnant are, of course, the objects known as Remnants, which are more or less ancient mystical artifacts from the Gods, used for various purposes from city-state to city-state, controllable only by certain people, from food to entertainment to warfare. Some have been around forever, and others are dug up on the regular by archaeological expeditions, studied by people such as the protagonist's scientist parents. You chase after your sister and find yourself caught in the middle of a dispute between nation states, and are taken into the care of David, the leader of Athlum, who agrees to help you out in finding your sister, partially due to genuine concern, partially due to seeing this as a perfect opportunity to raise the stature of his city-state, which is under the control of a stronger neighboring power.

Please stop pestering me on the world map.
Please stop pestering me on the world map.

Starting from there, and throughout it all, you'll comely across characters that are genuinely likable and believable people, who tend to act with a sense of logic and general good sense as opposed to anime silliness, with motives that are, for the most part, pretty well reasoned. David's circle of advisers are wizened and diverse, and despite his reputation as a young leader, David is an incredibly cautious but politically adept leader. It's just that the protagonist himself is such a grating douche, and his voice and general manner of speaking to everyone he encounters makes him seem like a complete alien to this world. Again, this is just a frustrating reality of game developers/publishers thinking "Well there needs to be an audience surrogate! And make him appeal to the kids! He needs to shorten peoples names and act goofy!"

In spite of this, the narrative of The Last Remnant is largely pretty good, and its a cast of people who I enjoyed adventuring with. It also features some of the most sensible and capable video game parents of any game I've seen. The villains are occasionally silly, including one fellow who I'm convinced speaks French as his first language or something, but all in all the story was surprisingly alright. It's just such a shame that...

  • The combat system has such a great core concept, but is strangled by its restrictiveness.

As opposed to individual party members like a traditional RPG, the units of The Last Remnant are divided into "Unions" comprised of up to four or five members, led by only certain kinds of NPCs but comprised of oodles and oodles of recruitable folks you can pick up through sidequests, adding their stats and skills to the collective pool. Up top is a sliding scale of Morale that determines action damage depending on how well you manage where you're moving and attacking. All of this alone is a cool idea, but how its executed is frustrating to a near game-breaking level: You cannot specifically determine their actions - they will give you a list of possible actions on their own to choose from instead.

Nine times out of ten, the AI is generally intelligent enough to give you an appropriate array of options. If you have healers, or especially if you're led by one, and a party is damaged, then they will heal. If you have a preponderance of magical attackers, you'll get magic-biased lists of commands, and vice versa for melee characters. But many, many times throughout my time with the game, this is just not good enough. I've needed people to heal that straight up were not giving me the option to heal. I've wanted to use what would logically be much smarter actions than what they gave me. I've wanted to use spells instead of their item equivalents. And so on and so on.

Because of the Union AI only triggering certain actions under certain circumstances, perversely, some of the worst situations to be in are when your party is fully healed, because you will be setting up your actions for the turn and just have absolutely no option to heal whatsoever. This leads to a lot of boss fights where you know you're going to be taking severe damage, potentially even losing a Union without healing mid-turn, but since the AI thinks everything is peachy, you're not going to have the option. You can manually turn triggerable skills off from a party list out of battle, but this isn't going to get them to do what you want, and is a far more wonky approach than just letting you choose to heal if that's what you want to do.

  • In general, The Last Remnant is just needlessly esoteric with its mechanics from top to bottom.
Leveling up the various trees of skills for each character is pretty inscrutable.
Leveling up the various trees of skills for each character is pretty inscrutable.

This game has a bizarre method of upgrading your party members equipment. Specifically, that you can't. The AI, instead, will give you a list of demands in town and traveling around the world map, of certain items you need to collect from monsters (and no, buying them does not count!) and when given them, they will automatically upgrade along set paths. Because many of these quests require obscure drops from specific monsters, a lot of time can be wasted trying to get some fucking giant beetle shells from the desert so Torgal can upgrade his swords or whatever.

Amusingly, I spent quite a lot of time searching message boards and wikis trying to get an exact beat on what triggered these upgrade paths, and why sometimes the AI party members appeared to buy items in town on their own, but other times wouldn't, and to this day there really doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. Union members will just sort of upgrade things on their own when they feel like it - and even when you know what to get them and where, you still won't know how many. A wiki open in another tab while playing this game is a welcome friend.

Upgrading skills is an extra layer of complicated, because getting party members with the ability to revive is a bit of a rarity for much of the game, but developing different categories of skills is done by repeated use of said category of skills. As we've already covered, abilities in battle are triggered more or less randomly, so good luck.

  • Two giant caveats aside, The Last Remnant is a perfectly serviceable JRPG.

The Last Remnant is not especially easy, and it's certainly not made any less difficult by finicky party members and how many encounters can sometimes just feel like the roll of a dice. But if you're patient, and can look past these things, and eventually be able to intuit the AI's demands to trigger things you need to trigger, The Last Remnant is enjoyable to see through to the end. It's very clear they run out of money near the end (the story begins more or less sprinting to a conclusion around what feels like it was intended to be two-thirds through) but the characters involved are pretty solid, there are some great individual scenes that actually punch far above this game's weight class, and the OST is worth poking through, if nothing else. It's a mere $10 on Steam, and frequently on sale. I'm sure the 360 version is pennies at this point, too, for that matter.

If-I-Had-To-Give-It-A-Rating-I-Guess: 3 / 5

Dark Souls 3.

I got to play as a pyromancer again though so it's all cool.
I got to play as a pyromancer again though so it's all cool.

Diminishing returns is definitely a real thing with sequels, and Dark Souls 3 is no exception. From that perspective, it's actually very appropriate, and I'm sure very intentional, for the narrative focus of Dark Souls 3 to be about the cycle of Fire nearing the end of the line. What was once a vibrant world has deteriorated and deteriorated over these games, and a great, roaring flame is now a pitiful little ember peeking out from a pile of ashes. The actual quality of the game itself, of course, is not nearly as bad as the narrative's tone.

Much like how Doom was talked to death over the course of last year, I feel like Dark Souls as a series has been talked to death over the course of a generation. Seriously, you know if you like these games or not, and I don't need to explain the general flow of a Souls game - a gameplay loop changed with only minor tuning since Demons Souls. Generally speaking though, I really adore playing Dark Souls 3. It's by far the best choice if, for some bizarre reason, you haven't touched Souls game yet, and I enjoy it a lot more than Dark Souls 2, even if DS2 does get a little unfairly beaten up on by some. Just a little though.

But seriously - Dark Souls 3 is a really well crafted mélange of all of the Souls games, with a nice little tablespoon of extra speed from Bloodborne. They bring the mana bar back without that unbalancing the game, and though there are less individual zones than the other games, they are much, much larger with greater craft in each individual one. Connected together though, I still feel like the game loses something by giving you the ability to teleport from the get-go, and there are too many gimmick fights for my taste, with fights like the Ancient Wyvern and Yhorm the Giant being what are basically just set-pieces and not proper fights. Still though, Dark Souls 3 is just so easy to pick up and play out of all of the Souls games, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

If-I-Had-To-Give-It-A-Rating-I-Guess: 4 / 5

Final Fantasy XV.

I was really hoping this would lead into a Suikoden-style strategic battle, but alas.
I was really hoping this would lead into a Suikoden-style strategic battle, but alas.

When I originally played Final Fantasy XIII, I didn't go into it with especially high hopes. I had seen the previews over the months, and the utterly awful TV commercials, so my expectations were pretty low. I was getting it because it was a new mainline Final Fantasy series, and all the goodwill the series had engendered in me in all my years growing up prior to that point meant that I was always going to be on the hook for getting "the new Final Fantasy game." I will always, for the rest of my life, need to know. Without going on and on too much, because I have hopes of pushing myself through FFXIII again for the purposes of writing about it in depth (I made it about an hour and ahalf in before writing a bunch of angry notes and haven't returned) I really didn't like that game in almost any way, even with low expectations.

After three thousand years of development time, a person would be understood for going into Final Fantasy XV with low expectations as well, but I came out of it unexpectedly forgiving of many of its flaws, with a real appreciation for what it tried to do.

  • Make no mistake: Final Fantasy XV is rough around all the edges, but there's still something special here.

This is not a game with the word "polish" in its vocabulary. That it needed another year of development, minimum, to fully realize all the plans they had in mind for this game is evident just about everywhere you look. Yet, Square Enix has still managed to create their most life-like and down to earth portrayal of a fantasy world yet, with characters that are refreshingly human. It's hard for me to not make direct comparisons, because when going through this game all I could think of was how much this feels like a real place as opposed to Final Fantasy XIII's world of bizarre objects that make no sense. In FFXIII, there is never any clear understanding of how the world functions, of how anyone actually lives there. FFXV's world is all about this goal, of drawing you into a realistic-enough place - hell, there's toilets!

And you know what else is refreshing? Final Fantasy XV throws you directly into a series of tutorials before the game even begins. It doesn't agonizingly draw out this process over the course of hours and hours like other games you could mention, it immediately gets all the busywork out of the way. You want to know how to play the video game? Here you fucking go, it's a tutorial list, now we can get on with the actual game. I'm 100% on board with this approach. Give me a big fat "TUTORIAL" as soon as I hit New Game. You don't need to try and be clever about it and carefully dole that sort of thing out over the first act if it's less intrusive to just get it all out of the way up-front.

  • An open world and side content far more engaging than, say, Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Some of the views in this game are striking.
Some of the views in this game are striking.

It is still somewhat shocking to me how much acclaim Inquisition received after its release. To this day, my most vivid memories of playing through Inquisition are trudging through a new zone of trash-tier busywork just to fill out the map, or collectibles and camp-making that served effectively no purpose. Sidequests were mostly comprised of text boxes with very little production to them at all. Hell, main story progress in Inquisition is arbitrarily gated on the basis of how many of these dull side missions you've completed along the way. Even the traditional Bioware party member banter out in the open leaves much to be desired.

I never really felt this way with Final Fantasy XV at almost any point. Sidequests are given proper introductions by characters with voiced lines and relevant incidental dialogue while in transit to the location with the other guys. There's no "uh oh, this part of the map is empty, we better throw some Oblivion gates here to make the player have something to do!" There really feels like there is so much more care to the non-story related content in this game than you traditionally get, and even though that doesn't suddenly put the game on some sort of Witcher 3 level, it made me appreciate the side content so much more, and so much more willing to do it. Could you argue that Square should've focused more on the main story than giving voiced set-ups to you killing a group of flan, or painstakingly modeling plates of food? (Seriously guys, check out these dumplings.) Sure. But to do this extra mile on non-essential content is always a good thing in itself, and its what separates the "perfectly serviceable" Last Remnants of the world from the Final Fantasies or Personas.

  • I give the main story much more credit than most seem to, and absolutely adore the ending.

Perhaps I'm the odd one in all this - which is perfectly possible - in that I didn't really have a ton of trouble understanding Final Fantasy XV's narrative. It begins simply: You're Prince Noctis, you need to go on a trip with your bros to get married to your childhood friend and form a strong political union with a neighboring state, while you're gone the capital is attacked and laid to ruins. Suddenly it becomes a quest of figuring out what the fuck just happened, and why. The struggle of traveling from place to place, and collecting your rightful powers as King make up much of the playtime, and subtly over the course of the game it becomes clear that the nights are growing longer and longer, and there's something much more sinister going on than bad politics.

A lot of hay has been made out of FFXV allegedly having plot holes or just not having a very good story in general. While I disagree that the main narrative is bad (I actually enjoy it a lot - especially after reading up on little details I missed along the way after completing it) it's true that the game has practically no connective tissue between major events. In a way, it reminded me of Mad Men, in that time can sort of move around in herky-jerky leaps between chapters. You're often given a "Several days later" or "Several hours later" that summarize the events that just happened, or what immediately followed the thing you just did, and it can be frustrating how much more sense it makes in a loading screen paragraph instead of the scene you just watched. The little scenes that would ordinarily transition the major events of the storyboard from one to the other seem completely absent, and don't even begin to mention how hilariously awkward the insertion of cutscenes from Kingsglaive are. The game's narrative actually makes more sense without them.

The final campfire shots absolutely pulled at my heartstrings more than I care to admit.
The final campfire shots absolutely pulled at my heartstrings more than I care to admit.

The reason Final Fantasy XV works better without them is simple, and it's something I see a lot of people not realize: Final Fantasy XV's plot is primarily about being isolated in a crisis, with few people to count on. It's why the plot involves you being stuck with only your best friends, and why the main theme of the game is fucking Stand By Me. A lot of the game's narrative developments can be confusing and out of left field, and this is the interpretation I genuinely believe, because the plot is told from the perspective of Noctis. It is a story through his eyes. What follows in the aftermath of a horrific crisis or natural disaster is chaotic, and not everyone has time to communicate with everyone else. It's a triage process, and people are following their own gameplan. And several little things that seem to confuse people, like the scene chasing Ardyn through the train only for it to turn out that he had switched appearances with Prompto the whole time, is foreshadowed by Ardyn humming the chocobo theme before stepping on the train in the prior scene, and in retrospect, his dialogue during the entire chase. It's, admittedly, probably too subtle for its own good.

And you know what? Games don't fucking stick the landing these days a whole lot when it comes to endings, but Final Fantasy XV super does. For all its faults in being very obviously rushed through Chapters 9-13, and having transparently unfinished sections (such as the other continent), they realized the way to redeem those things was an amazing, and touching, final chapter. The time jump forward to a devastated world where the villain fucking wins all FFVI-style leading into a much awaited reunion with your friends kicks off a truly great final section that doesn't get bogged down in any kind of unnecessary roadblocks in the final stretch as games from this genre often do. Noctic, Prompto, Gladiolus, and Ignis are four of the most truly human characters in a JRPG. Even if nothing else, it is memorable for that.

  • The combat system is disappointingly slashy and dull, however.
The magic crafting system is the lone standout battle mechanic.
The magic crafting system is the lone standout battle mechanic.

I'm going be really blunt about this: The decisions along the way that led to the hack-and-slash, shallow action-ized combat system that Final Fantasy XV has reek of cowardice. Nothing about the combat system of this game feels very authored or inspired, it's just so by-the-numbers. So designed-by-focus-group. Impossible to love for any kind of depth, but difficult to hold a grudge against because it's just so bland. You hold a button to attack and Noctis just attacks. You can't control any party members aside from just barking an order at them once in awhile when a meter fills up, and spicing it up with fancy looking combos from the analog stick don't add much to the experience. It's beautifully animated, for sure, but there's nothing under the surface of this one.

It's incredibly disappointing, not just because I know this series is capable of so much better, but because we've been in an age of experimentation and innovation with JRPG battle systems for years now. Part of why I routinely mention my frustration with JRPG mechanical stereotypes ("IT'S ALL TURN BASED. OH SO IT'S LIKE ESPERS?") is because JRPG combat systems can't be pigeonholed anymore. There exists such phenomenal mechanical variety in the Japanese Role Playing Game genre at large, I question whether or not it could've ever been dismissed as "all the same" even back in the 90s. Persona has shown you can have fast paced and exciting turn-based battles, and hell, if you're looking for a real-time system out of some ideological insistence, Time & Eternity's combat is more engaging. Xenoblade's combat is alright too, go that route! Hell, you're Square Enix, you made the Gambit System from Final Fantasy XII, and that was awesome. Refine that and do that again!

Part of why I keep myself from holding that against the game too much is because I try not to judge a game for what it isn't, and just stick to what it is. This is a philosophical objection, really, and not a criticism of something actually broken or outright bad. Because it's not bad, the battle system of Final Fantasy XV is just pedestrian, and a missed opportunity. Broadly speaking, I enjoyed my time with FFXV. There is a small contingent of people that are calling this game a "flawed masterpiece" in the vein of Metal Gear Solid V. I wouldn't go that far, but had they nailed the battle system, I would probably be singing a different tune. No matter the case, it solidly surpasses expectations.

If-I-Had-To-Give-It-A-Rating-I-Guess: 4 / 5

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard.

There's so much Resident Evil on this screen right now.
There's so much Resident Evil on this screen right now.

I really didn't think Capcom had it in them to create a game like this anymore under the Resident Evil name. There's been so much brain-drain from that company over the last years, I really didn't think Capcom had it in them to create a game like this, period. All they seem to do really well these days is Monster Hunter. With Resident Evil 7, I have never been so happy to be wrong about a video game. Resident Evil is another one of those series that I grew up on, playing these games at a probably-far-too-young age, and I've followed the series through good times, and more recently, bad times, but through it all I always carried the torch for Survival Horror. Resident Evil 4 is one of the greatest games of all time, but it wasn't much of a Survival Horror game in comparison to the games that came before it, and once you move beyond 4, any resemblance is more or less gone entirely. By Resident Evil 6, I had basically given up, and things like the Revelations games (though they have their defenders) always seemed like too little, too late. It was like Diet Resident Evil, like the way Square Enix makes their proper traditional JRPGs weird spinoffs or handheld franchises now. For me, they needed to fully commit, and I never expected them to. Then they did.

  • A fantastic example of not just the sub-genre, but the series overall.

This is Resident Evil 7's singular greatest achievement: It is an amazing traditional Survival Horror game in the year 2017, and serves as great visual aid for people who, for whatever bizarre reason, cannot distinguish between Outlast and the original Dead Space. Survival Horror is about a dis-empowered protagonist trapped within a bizarre, claustrophobic environment, true, but it also has combat, and resource/inventory management, and puzzles along the way. It is a very specific mix of elements that make it different from a pure horror-action game, or something like Slenderman.

Best returning character of the year: The Item Box.
Best returning character of the year: The Item Box.

Not just being a shining example of things to do right in the sub-genre, though, Resident Evil 7 is just a damn good Resident Evil game in general. Clearly heavily inspired by Resident Evil 1, you're just a dude that winds up in a creepy estate where some shit has definitely been going down. I always think of a good Resident Evil game as being like big tangled mess of cords. You search for the beginning of a line, and you weave your way through the mess to find the proper way out, and that opens things up to start un-tangling another thread somewhere else. The first half of the game, at least, is like this. Like the original zombies, too, the molded are a very plain looking, generally slow enemy terrifying mainly in its ability to keep marching at you until you blow their heads off. There's even a difficulty in which saves are limited by expendable items.

Kind of like Doom and Dark Souls 3 on this list, this is one of those games where you don't need to describe at length what it is. Resident Evil as a series has existed for over twenty years now, and if you know much about video games, you've probably heard of it by now. Capcom is nothing if not diligent in re-releasing these games on any even remotely successful platform known to man. REmake, Resident Evil: 0, 4, 5, and 6, all exist on the PS4 and Xbox One at low prices, not to mention the previous generation of consoles having even more of them. If a good old-school style Resident Evil game for the modern era sounds appealing to you, you don't need me to tell you that.

  • There are just enough little complaints here and there, however, that drag Resident Evil 7 down just a notch.

You see that screenshot just above this bullet-pointed section, of the item box? Doesn't it look... plain? Something that consistently bummed me out just a little bit throughout the game was the lack of any real design to the menus. They're certainly efficient, they do the job just fine, but they're boring as hell to look at. Older Resident Evil games had far more stylized menus and map screens, they felt like they had a bit more personality. Even the "You Are Dead" screen on game-overs is pretty ho-hum, with a plain grey font. Fellas, it wouldn't kill you to add a little bit more style to your user interface. I appreciate minimalism, and I'm not asking for the menus to explode around the screen like Persona 5, but something a little bit more creative would've been nice.

And in general, I sort of feel like that minor nitpick rears its head in various sections throughout Resident Evil 7. It lacks a certain je ne sais quoi throughout. Keys, for instance, are criminally under-utilized as a tool for secrets and gating progress. For the most part, the keys are pretty optional, frankly, including one door in the basement that is more-or-less pointless to even open at all, and once you leave the main house for good, that silly, quintessentially Resident Evil progress blocker disappears entirely. It bums me out a little not just from a gameplay perspective, but because the game loses a certain tone after that, becoming less mysterious and absurd, and more straightforwardly brooding and combat-focused. It also becomes much more linear, transforming into something less like that ball of tangled cords analogy I mentioned above, and instead more linear. There's not really anymore backtracking, you're pushing forward and just fighting. To be fair, Resident Evil games in the past do become much more combat focused in the ending portions, too, but to be so effectively reminiscent of the old Resident Evil games, evoking the Spencer Estate specifically, the game loses something other games don't have, in favor of something other games have in spades.

In the end, though, those are minor complaints on a game that is really impressive, and it makes me hopeful for Resident Evil again. It's impressive to me that the small complaints I can find have nothing to do with the first-person perspective at all, which meshes better than I ever expected it would have. I enjoy the gameplay perspective so much that I'm actually much less worried about whatever the Resident Evil 2 remake will end up being. It's either going to be an old school perspective like the original, or a first-person perspective in the style of Resident Evil 7. It would be a win-win, for me.

I also haven't been able to get Go Tell Aunt Rhody out of my head since I finished it. A old Southern folk song, doubling as a Japanese kindergarden song, re-imagined by a New Zealand vocalist categorized under "industrial-tinged alternative folk." I can't think of a more inspired choice as far as this game goes.

If-I-Had-To-Give-It-A-Rating-I-Guess: 4½ / 5

So yeah! It feels nice to bundle up my thoughts about games I play through, and in the future I intend to do this somewhat regularly, I hope. With less games in a single blog, going forward, of course. I appreciate anyone that reads through my nonsense. Thanks a bunch.

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Finishing my adventure in Inquisition, and thinking back on Dragon Age.

The mark isn't even on the Inquisitor's right hand. What the fuck.
The mark isn't even on the Inquisitor's right hand. What the fuck.

Disclaimer: I spoil everything because that's how I roll. If you want to read my experiences with Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2, you can check here and here.

I don't know why I find myself so incensed by the Dragon Age series, sometimes.

I've never viewed Dragon Age: Origins as if it were perfect; as if it were Bioware's magnum opus, as so many do. I was never a hard-as-balls PC-style fantasy RPG guy at pretty much any time in my life. Yet I find myself personally invested in Dragon Age, and watching as it has evolved since 2009. Is it because Bioware's identity crisis has been so sad to watch? That has to be why. Watching as the spirit and the structure of the series has so radically evolved from where it started years ago is almost the easiest way to see why so many people have fallen off the Bioware bandwagon, particular since the EA acquisition.

I remember Dragon Age: Origins as something flawed, that I loved perhaps more than it deserves in much the same way I feel about the original Mass Effect. There's issues, a section or two of the game that is a horrible slog (The Fade comes to mind) but overall it is a wonderful introduction to a dark fantasy universe, with a great style, mood, and lore that could be built on in a very similar way to the Mass Effect series over time. But then Dragon Age 2. Never have I personally experienced such a steep decline in a video game series after such a promising first entry. Short, sloppy, and copy-pasted, where each side of the conflict is a psychopath, a creator's pet that doesn't get called out like he deserves, and encounter designs far below its predecessor. Dragon Age went from being this hopeful, awesome thing to being a tragic example of how executive meddling and trying to play to a larger audience can completely tank your series in an instant.

Inquisition was meant to be the make-good. The game where, after Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3, Bioware realized it had one last shot to prove to their long-time fans and supporters, as well as the critical establishment, that they could still bring their A-game. That they had style, grace, and gave good face. It being my first meaty new-console experience on the PS4, I had high hopes.

Beautiful zones don't make up for the fact that they're mostly populated by busywork.

All the areas in Inquisition look super nice.
All the areas in Inquisition look super nice.

The first thing you recognize when you enter the open world is that Dragon Age: Inquisition is gorgeous. Even if nothing more than an a first introduction to a new console, there is worth in Inquisition. Zones, character models, battle effects - from top to bottom Inquisition is one of the better looking games I've seen so far. Who says consoles are shitty? The Emerald Graves in particular is one of the best looking areas I've probably ever seen in a video game period.

All of this wore off within a few hours, though, when I realized how little there was to do of worth in these areas. Most sidequests consist of collecting notes to go read more notes. Reading notes to go kill bandits. Eavesdropping on someone to discover something that's upsetting them so you can go off and be problem-solver-man completely unbeknownst to them ala Mass Effect 3. Fade rifts are an Oblivion-gate level of monotonous, and generally just serve as something that gets in your way. For example, in the Hinterlands, one of the earliest missions in the game is to go talk to a stablemaster so you can procure a supply of horses for the Inquisition. Right by that person's farm is a fade rift surrounded by level 12 monsters that basically make doing a couple of quests in the area almost impossible.

The bland design of the zones continues though. There are very few caves or proper dungeons to be found. Almost no NPCs exist in the world that you can just happen across. There aren't really any dynamic events in the zones to speak of at all, really. Each zone only really has one "major" questline to be done there - mainly serving as your justification for unlocking the area to begin with - but there is so little production value associated with these quests Inquisition does a very poor job selling the events as all that serious. With very few conversations, and 90% of the exposition given in text boxes, it's hard to form much of an attachment to the conflicts. Most of what takes up space on any given map that isn't directly related to the main story are these three things: Closing fade rifts. Collecting shards. Setting up camps. Aside from those, most areas are pretty much empty.

You can send your advisers off on missions, but these are blatant padding.
You can send your advisers off on missions, but these are blatant padding.

What is especially frustrating about the lack of in-depth things to do in the overworld, however, is the fact that there are so many great ideas for sidequest plots on the War Table back at your base. Between Josephine, Leliana, and Cullen, you can send your operatives off on missions to collect resources, build influence, solve disputes, etc, but this is only presented as a text box and a timer. That's it. Instead of collecting shards in the Hinterlands, why not make "Track down the remaining Seekers" a thing that I actually do myself and have any agency in beyond watching a clock tick down.

Even Operations like "Collect resources in the Hinterlands" would've been more useful as a sidequest you get yourself from, I don't know, the alchemist that has his own building at the Inquisition base? You know, the guy that does basically nothing?

Toward the end of the game, I was doing my best to get as many companion quests as possible because, as you do in a Bioware game, you want to get to know your party members and see their personal stories. Cole asks me to obtain an amulet for him that can protect him from mages that seek to do him harm, and after that short cutscene "Operation: Obtain Amulet For Cole available at the table in the War Room" pops up. I'm fucked, because I have hours (!) left on my advisers being all tied up in various operations already. Because there is no personal agency in these sidequests for your own companions beyond initiating a timer in the War Room, I am left with the decision of continuing on to see the ending segments of the game, go waste my time doing busywork I don't want to do just so I can pass the time, or put the game down. That should never be the case.

I was later informed I can skip through the Operation timers by adjusting the PS4's system clock. Shame I didn't know then.

Okay sure, but what about the story?

Corypheus isn't a great villain, and you barely interact with him at all.
Corypheus isn't a great villain, and you barely interact with him at all.

The setup for Inquisition is more or less the fallout of the events of Dragon Age 2. The Templars and Mages conflict has escalated to outright war, and to avoid tearing multiple countries apart, the head of the Chantry, Divine Justinia, gathers a huge peace talk conference in the hope of ending the war and restoring order. Then the whole thing gets blown up, various chains of command are thrown into chaos, and there's a huge rift in the sky. You're the only one with the power to close the rifts that have formed, and you're tasked with figuring out who did this and why, with the hopes of restoring peace to Thedas as Divine Justinia had hoped.

As a premise it's fine. Before long, you run into an ancient Tevinter magister named Corypheus, who seeks to physically enter the Fade with the goal of becoming a God to guide the world into a new, orderly future, as he traveled for ages before realizing all of the Gods have seemingly left us behind. He is the reason a massive rift opened in the sky, and why you have the mark on your hand, and needs to eliminate you for getting in the way.

Here's the rub: Corypheus is boring. Your initial confrontation with him during the destruction of Haven is more or less all you'll get from him throughout Inquisition's runtime, and things never really escalate from there. Final Fantasy XIII gives more screentime to its villains than Inquisition. After this point, you actually spend most of the game easily foiling his plans time and time again. Corypheus isn't exactly a particularly threatening or effective villain to pin your game's main story on. There's honestly so little to say about him because the game does almost nothing with him beyond his stated goals from the beginning.

This camera angle during one of the exposition dumps was unfortunate...
This camera angle during one of the exposition dumps was unfortunate...

Eventually you uncover that he has discovered the secret for effective immortality, but this reveal doesn't really have much weight to it considering that he's been swiftly defeated at every turn and more or less the entire world is against him.

One of the tragedies of this is that once Corypheus enters the picture, the tension on the Mage vs. Templar story gets completely thrown out. All of the build-up - which was the only true highlight of Dragon Age 2 - is thrown under the bus for yet another generic villain who wants to be God. Don't misunderstand me, I'm not one of those "tropes are bad" people, but Corypheus is never fleshed out, and his plan remains roughly the same regardless of all the times the Inquisition beats him. By the end, Corypheus' arc ends with a whimper. The Templar and Mage conflict had real nuance and tension set up for it over the course of two games, but the book is closed on this pretty early in the game.

Companions remain interesting characters and fun to talk to though, in true Bioware style, even if they suffer more here due to the presentation. Determining your affinity with them is vague (this is the frustrating result of all those people that whined about the affection meter from Origins) and it's difficult to determine when they actually have something worthwhile to say - a problem that Mass Effect 2 solved years ago. When they're finally ready to entrust you with a companion mission, these are usually given in the form of War Room Operations as opposed to something you actively go and do with them, with few exceptions. It's a very detached and impersonal way to approach what is supposed to be the culmination of the trust you have built up with these people after your adventure, and I think it would be difficult to spin this as anything other than an inferior approach than Bioware's previous games.

Have all the edges been rounded off Dragon Age over time?

I like Dorian a lot, even if aspects of his character are a little heavy-handed.
I like Dorian a lot, even if aspects of his character are a little heavy-handed.

I noticed something early on during my time with Inquisition: Noticeably less cursing and generally foul language. Then I started thinking "There has been way less blood than I remember. This world is a lot brighter and colorful than I remember Dragon Age being, too. What's up with that?"

It's hard to believe at this point, but back in 2009, Dragon Age: Origins was being advertised with trailers set to Marilyn Manson music and they were playing up how this was going to be a return to dark, dirty fantasy. The crapsack world of Origins largely reflects this, with liberal use of cursing and blood, plain-looking characters who look like they've seen some shit, sprinkled to taste with betrayal. Hostility with your party members was a much bigger deal. Dragon Age at that time was never meant to be pleasant, and definitely not meant to have whimsy.

@oldirtybearon, who I consider a friend of mine on these forums, when we were talking about Inquisition elsewhere, said that he felt like Dragon Age in general has been "Disney-fied." I don't know if I'd go that far with it, but I see why he thinks that. A lot of the shit and mud has been sort of bred out of the series with time. The world is more bright and filled with color, the art-style has undergone a lot of changes since Origins to make everyone look generally prettier, and even though things like "persistent gore" remain an option in the settings, there's not much need for it. Even Morrigan's power-hungry hostility has been tamed to where she's now just kind of a snarky MILF has opposed to being cut-throat. Dragon Age has undergone a serious attitude adjustment since Origins.

These days though, I look back on that Manson trailer, and boy it's fucking cringey. Like, it would make me laugh if a publisher released something like it today beccause it's so over the top and silly sounding - complete with sexy Morrigan to tick all the boxes - that, yes, I see why I wouldn't want to go back. But it is for this reason among others that I can see why a lot of people that probably comprised the core of the Dragon Age fandom in its early days have jumped ship to The Witcher. I'm not entirely unsympathetic. I agree that a lot of the rough edges of this series don't seem to be there anymore, probably out of a desire to chase The Wider Audience, but regardless of the cause it has made the series' personality a bit more generic.

Here's the last thing I'll say about this: Bioware has this thing where they love including some form of social commentary, even if their attempts at this are never, uh, subtle. I liked Dorian just fine in Inquisition, and he was my romantic interest of choice, but Zevran from Origins has always been my favorite character in Dragon Age as a whole because of how matter-of-factly his sexual desires are framed in his introductory conversations:

Zevran: I grew up amongst Antivan whores, men and women both. My introduction to the subject of sex was, shall we say, rather practical.

Clean, easy, adult, all business. When it comes to sex there's no melodrama about his identity. Bioware isn't very good about this most of the time when it comes to the male/male relationships. Kaidan in Mass Effect 3 is the sappiest romance story that young adult literature would say is too cheesy, and the less said about Cortez from the same game, defined almost entirely by weeping over his husband, the better. Dorian runs into this similar issue when you eventually find out his family was literally going to attempt gay conversion therapy via blood magic. It's the sort of thing that elicits "Oh come on, seriously?" In the end Dorian remains a really good character who I hope is in the next game (considering the likelihood of it taking place in Tevinter) but I'd like Bioware to make their gay romances a little less "coming out story."

In the end I genuinely ask: Why do *you* like Dragon Age: Inquisition?

Knight-Enchanter was fun, if OP.
Knight-Enchanter was fun, if OP.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is fine.

In the immediate aftermath of finishing it, I actually thought I was going to say "Yeah, that's a solid 4/5 I guess." After I started thinking about how I would put those thoughts in writing, however, I began to realize that I couldn't possibly justify that. Each time I would tell myself I liked something, a nagging voice in my head would lay out the argument for why it wasn't as good as I thought it was. My boyfriend suggests that makes me too hard on things, and maybe he's right.

Look, Inquisition is technically competent and lovely to look at. The voice acting is some of the best of the series. There is still pleasure in chatting with all your companions, exploring dialogue options, and diving deeper into the Dragon Age universe. This game is at its best when you properly feel like a leader, sitting on your throne judging criminals, solving disputes. Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts - the section wherein you play cloak and dagger at a grand ball in Orlais - is a fantastic segment of this game that I love. I think, in general, the combat of this game isn't as bad as people make it out to be, and let's face it, the combat in Origins wasn't perfect either. Despite the failings of the tactical camera, I began to see what other people see in playing on a higher difficulty. A lot of those fights can be fun, with the right abilities. I think Inquisition is, on the whole, better than Dragon Age 2.

But still, when I think of the main story, I remember a villain that you barely interacted with, and whose agency is utterly undermined by the twist post-credits scene that goes on to render Corypheus as nothing but a pawn on Solas' chessboard. I remember huge open areas filled with sub-MMO-tier side content, most of whom were completely detached from the main narrative. I remember thinking "Man, all of these plots on the War Table that could've been amazing sidequests instead." From any other series, and any other developer, this game might have been a pleasant surprise, but as a flagship game from Bioware, it's fine.

So this is where I ask: Why do a lot of people like this game as much as they do? What am I not seeing? Inquisition won Game of the Year from multiple places, including Polygon, Game Informer (their endorsement includes the line "Everything you do contributes to your progression" like this is a novel concept), and The Game Awards. The PS4 version sits at an 89 on Metacritic. I don't understand. I don't ask this to be snarky, I mean it sincerely, what about the story impressed people? What about the combat impressed people? Was it literally just that it was a chill open-world to run around in that also happened to look really good? Was 2014 that bad, and I've just forgotten? I honestly hope I haven't become this out of touch.

I'm still looking forward to the next Mass Effect. I love that series as a whole too much to let this get me down.

If-I-Had-To-Give-It-A-Rating-I-Guess: 3 / 5 Total Playtime: 50-ish Hours

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So I read "WTF Is Wrong With Video Games?" and wanted to write some things.

Let's find out!
Let's find out!

Keep the conversation as respectful as possible. If you want the book for yourself, here it is on Amazon.

I read a lot of people saying there wasn't much of a point to reading WTF Is Wrong With Video Games? but I've never been the type to take someone else's word as the end of a conversation, not looking into it myself. Video games have been my hobby of choice since I was very young, and I've been fascinated by the evolution of the industry and its public perception ever since. When I saw the buzz circulating around WTF Is... I knew I had to read it for myself, even if only to differentiate myself from the pack of people mindlessly bashing on it just from excerpts.

I wanted to give the book more credit than that.

I decided early on that I would go through each chapter, making highlights and keeping notes, for this purpose. I'll try to keep the amount of excerpts limited, because I do think people who are interested in this topic and have a heroic amount of patience should consider spending the few dollars it takes to breeze through what is a relatively short piece of work, made up of only nine chapters. Phil Owen is, if nothing else, an interesting fellow with a lot of passion. Due to that, I'm going to do my best to make this review more about the content of Owen's arguments, because I don't want this to become personal at all.

Off we go.

Preface.

I only ever wanted one thing from video games: for the act of playing them to be a good experience, and meaningful in a way that is reminiscent of other forms of art that I enjoy. People around me are constantly insisting that games today deliver that. Those people are very, very wrong.

I don't say that out of spite. I want games to be good and effective art, but games are not good or effective art. The accepted current consensus is that games are good enough, and that's brought on a period of rather intense (to me) artistic stagnation. For me to say, then, that games are not good enough is not an insult, but constructive criticism.

As with any sort of criticism, it isn't enough to just say that a thing is a problem. You have to say why it's a problem and, if possible, how it can be fixed. My goal here is to do just that.

I really wanted to start with this because this is the most important thing to keep in mind throughout this entire reading. It is the premise of the whole thing. Phil Owen's stated goal is not just to highlight what he views as problems in the industry and how games are made, but to specifically and constructively offer ideas on how to make it better. This is how WTF Is Wrong With Video Games opens, and so I set my expectations accordingly.

Right away, though, I have questions. "The accepted current consensus is that games are good enough" is a statement that Wikipedia would append with [citation needed]. Who is saying this? Where is this consensus coming from? I don't say this to pick a nit, I'm genuinely curious where Owen gets this idea. The beautiful thing about games is that they are in a constant state of change. Games have changed more, and more rapidly, than movies, television, music, or books, ever have in an equivalent amount of time, or even over generations. New mechanics, new art styles, new storytelling devices, new means of interaction, even whole genres have been invented before my very eyes as I have grown alongside the hobby. And in all this time, I have never seen a "consensus that games are good enough" unless it was from fuddy duddies who looked at Resident Evil 3 and thought "Man, games can't ever look better than this, they may as well pack it up!"

If gamers are anything, they're insatiable. Always demanding new things. More things. Bigger things. Weirder things. The industry often struggles to meet these demands, but for me, it makes video games amazingly varied and creative. But let's get back to Phil Owen's mission statement.

Those four things, plus my generally negative temperament, put me in a unique position as a game journalist. And it put me in the unique position of being equipped and able to write this book. Speaking of which, this is the point where you wonder what exactly I'm going to say. So here's a quick rundown.

I'm going to start by telling you how and why nearly all games are extremely ineffective at being art. Then we'll examine the culture problems that maintain that subpar status quo, both on the industry side and the press and community side. And we'll also discuss how the fucked up American idea of capitalism, especially that of the tech sector, drives all of it.

This is getting pretty broad! How will Phil Owen manage to fit all this in?

Now, there are, of course, limits to my knowledge and so my focus here is actually going to be reasonably narrow. First off, my area of expertise is strictly the industry as it exists in the Western world; my coverage as a journalist has rarely extended to Japanese games, and I've never been to Japan, and few Japanese devs come to American events like E3, the Game Developers Conference or Penny Arcade Expo. From what I've been told, studios over there operate similarly to studios over here and many of the complaints I have about the industry here also apply, but I don't have enough direct knowledge to speak with confidence about the Japanese side of things, nor would it be journalistically sound to do so.

I'm also not going to delve too deeply into the realm of indies because there's far too much variety there to make the sort of grand, sweeping statements I'll be throwing down here.

What is fascinating about WTF Is... is that Phil Owen often displays a level of self-awareness toward the fact that his arguments defeat themselves, and that's a big part of the reason I wanted to dedicate a section of this blog just to the Preface, something that in most other books would be a short and inoffensive bit of nothing. Here, though, it's almost a microcosm of every problem with Owen's arguments. The title of this book is "WTF Is Wrong With Video Games: How a multi-billion dollar creative industry refuses to grow up." and right off the bat Asia is off the table, much of Europe is presumably off the table, and indie games are off the table, because 1. Phil recognizes he lacks any knowledge of the Japanese side of the industry (which is effectively where the core of the industry was birthed) and 2. Phil openly admits the indie space is actually too varied and interesting for his arguments to apply. In other words, if he did include indie games, he knows he would be wrong.

The trouble here is that you can't just remove major portions of the industry when the book advertises itself as being about the entire industry. As a portion of the video game business these days, indie games are no longer flash games on Newgrounds. They're big, they get major press conference spots from all of the console manufacturers, and a very large portion, if not a majority of games on Steam could be considered independent releases. As with many things, the preface of the book is a sneak peek into the fatal flaws of later arguments. Let's keep moving though and get this section out of the way.

These aren't hard and fast rules, though. I am the author here and I'm going to talk about what I want to talk about. But I'm explaining this now so you'll know that when I say things like "most video games are terrible," a sentiment I express a whole lot in these pages, you'll know generally which ones I'm claiming to talk about with some amount of authority.

Please don't assume this is comprehensive, however, even within that specific scope. If I were to go through the entire list of video game garbage I found severely lacking this book would be far too long and nobody would read the whole thing. This is the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one.

Good-natured and productive conversations generally don't begin with deeply negative, conclusive statements. Those end conversations, they don't start them. Still though, let's give it the good college try.

Chapter 1: Art.

The first chapter opens with Owen recounting a story about watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the nature of foreshadowing. Movies work with a specific kind of language and sets of cues, he argues, that make them very deliberate works. Everything you see, Phil says, serves a purpose and that contributes to a tighter product than most video game stories end up having.

In film, we sort of subconsciously pick up on these clues and internalize them, because we've been watching movies for a long time and we understand how they function as art. Movies have a language of their own through which they communicate ideas via every tool at their disposal, whether it be dialogue, facial expressions, lighting, any number of other visual or audio cues or, yes, a sneeze.

...

Video games work quite a bit differently than that most of the time. You won't see all the key elements contained within the full package that is a AAA video game have the meaning that a sneeze will in a movie.

This is probably the most frustrating recurring argument of the book. "Why don't video games function more like movies?" Here, I can play that game too. "Why don't books function more like music?" "Why aren't paintings more like movies?" "Why isn't TV more like Let's Plays?" Is it because, perhaps, that they are different things?

But let's argue on his own terms. What amazes me the most here is that Phil Owen repeatedly deconstructs his own arguments without realizing it (which he will do again in Chapter 2 as soon as it opens) and this is just another example of that. Phil demonstrates here how movies developed over time their own specific language, their own specific metaphors, clues that we intuit, as the means to tell convey their "art", and this is what he terms "movie logic." In what may as well be the same breath, however, he turns to video games and judges them harshly for not living up to film standards.

What somehow eludes him is that all artistic forms have their own language that they have developed over time to convey their message and entice the viewer. Paintings developed their own techniques and stylings that movies and books do not share. Books, music, poetry, TV, comics, they all operate under different standards and practices because they are all different. Various artistic mediums do not all draw from the single "story-telling methods" pool. Video games, too, operate in their own way. Removed from context, many of these art forms seem weird. As per Adrian Chmielarz's review:

Video games have their own language. They use what I call “gaming metaphors”. Tools, conventions, techniques. A health meter is one, and an unlimited pause time before making a difficult choice in Mass Effect is another. Both are not something that exists in real life and makes logical sense, but we understand and can decipher their symbolic and practical value in a video game.

All art forms have their own “metaphors”.

For example, on the surface level, movies are incredibly weird. You watch people as if you were a ghost standing near or even floating above their heads, and yet these people do not seem to be aware of your presence (so-called “camera view/angle”). For some reason, your ghost is able to jump in time and space (so-called “cuts”). And in some scenes, you can clearly hear the music being played by an orchestra, even though there’s no orchestra in the place our ghost is observing (so-called “movie soundtrack”).

Songs are just as weird. Instead of telling a story like a normal person, the singer uses their voice to emulate an instrument that speaks (so-called “singing”). The singer also often repeats themselves (so-called “chorus”). And for some other unexplained reason most songs feature one of the instruments offering a variation of the main melody (so-called “solo”).

And don’t get me started on the books. Why are most of them artificially divided into sections (so-called “chapters”)? Why are they presented in a code we need to decipher, like when we have to understand the difference between a period and ellipsis, a row of three periods (so-called “punctuation marks”)? Why can a detail take a thousand words to describe, when no one does it in real life?

Phil is comparing apples and oranges. He even seems aware that he is comparing apples and oranges. He has demonstrated the cognitive abilities necessary to explain why apples and oranges are not the same. Yet, he still chastises the apple for not being more like the orange.

He continues with a criticism of the shiv-making mechanic from The Last of Us that leads into another gameplay criticism of Gears of War's active reload mechanic.

In fact, the idea of gameplay as instituted by game developers seems more concerned with preventing you from participating in the art. If the gameplay is itself part of the art, then that's fine (and there are some games that you could argue are like that), but endless repetitive shooting or dungeon crawls rarely fit that bill. Instead, the gameplay is merely a substanceless activity that just exists. In other media, we would say that having a large and prominent, totally meaningless component constitutes bad art. In games, we say that's just how it's done. Maybe games are art and maybe they aren't, but if they are, nearly all of them are ineffective at being art.

Ultimately, this is the philosophical difference Phil Owen has with the world of video games. Gameplay, the interactivity that makes video games unique, especially gameplay for its own sake, is "substanceless" and in his view cannot be effective art. Once more he justifies this by saying "In other forms of media, this would be bad." This is a non-argument. It is not "other forms of media." Games are not movies.

Chapter 2: San Andreas.

This chapter could alternatively be titled "Phil Owen argues against his own premise that movies are inherently superior and is too oblivious to realize he's doing it."

It begins with a synopsis of the blockbuster disaster movie "San Andreas" starring The Rock, and breaks it down as a disconnected set of action sequences and obstacles for the main character to overcome. He then says:

All this comes off as checking items off a list. Well, we need some falling skyscrapers in LA, and we need a shot of a big-ass crack in the ground, and we still think baseball is cool and AT& T Park is pretty recognizable so we need to put that in there somewhere , and we need a tsunami, and on and on. There's zero effort to make the absurd sequence of events seem organic, and you can feel it.

Your average big-budget video game is just like that.

Now, I know you're probably thinking "Wait, he just spent the entirety of the first chapter waxing poetic about the superiority of film narrative, and now he's basically admitting that movies share many of these exact flaws, almost like all media has good and bad works" but just wait until the end of this chapter, because it gets more ironic.

Uncharted 3 creative director Amy Hennig has said the development team decided before the story was written that there would be a big set piece on a sinking cruise ship, and this is the sort of thing that very often occurs when you operate this way. The end result is prone to be jarring and disjointed. Hennig seems to be a believer in that system, though, having worked in the industry for a long time.

This is an odd criticism, because many long-time authors will tell you that it's not unusual for them to have specific character moments, twists, or big sequences in mind, and even write them out, long before they're actually integrated into the larger narrative.

This begins a short section where Owen talks about consistency and themes, and how games are, you guessed it, worse than movies. He takes aim at Dead Space.

Glen Schofield, producer on Dead Space and the one who commissioned the pitch demo, said one of the most hilarious things I've ever heard a developer say: "The primary theme of Dead Space is dismemberment." That completely nonsensical statement explains just about everything about the way developers too often think.

Owen presents this as if it is self-evidently absurd, but I fail to see the absurdity. Video games are a primarily interactive medium, so it makes logical sense that many games would build their gameplay from a central theme like, say, dismemberment. This theme informs the gameplay, the monster designs, and even the disconnected way in which the USG Ishimura has to be repaired one segment at a time. It informs, by extension, the entire lore of the monsters you are fighting, and the means by which they are created. Dead Space is arguably one of the strongest video game examples in making the case for developing along a theme that plays to the unique aspects of video games as a medium, yet Owen finds it nonsensical.

It's hilarious because it makes little sense that shooting off a monster's arms would kill it more quickly than any other method,

The above quote is especially peculiar because of what he says less than a page later:

What matters in creating fiction is not to use logic that makes sense in the real world, because that is creatively limiting. What does matter to creating effective fiction is internal consistency: what happens in the story only needs to make sense inside the story.

He's mocking Dead Space for doing something he thinks is silly and unrealistic but says video games shouldn't be constrained by real world logic, only the logic internal to their stories, which Dead Space explicitly does. What is he even saying.

Bringing it back to the opening argument to close out the chapter, he says this about Bioshock Infinite.

The joke, which Levine didn't get, is that he wrote a story that wasn't even really about shooting dudes, and many of the stories we get in video games wouldn't be about shooting dudes if they were adapted directly into other media.

Yeah. Many video game stories wouldn't be a bunch of random action sequences if they were converted to Our Film-making Most Holy. It's not like there exists any nonsensical action set-piece collections in film. Like for instance, the movie this Chapter is based on. Chapter 2 is a very bizarre chapter that repeatedly contradicts itself, and try as I did to straighten it all out, this chapter was as confusing and disorganized as he accuses most video game stories as being.

Chapter 3: Exploitation.

Yet again Phil Owen writes about how films do something this way, and video games do it this other way, and this is bad, on and on. There really isn't much new here that he hasn't already alluded to at length.

Game development is a whimsical and confusing process. You have producers at the top, then technical and creative directors and various tiers of designers and artists and programmers, but what you don't have too often, in AAA especially, is someone who's really in charge. Sure, they claim that the producers and directors are in command, but that doesn't quite mean what it means for a film director or a TV showrunner.

It's worth noting that this is a very idealistic view of how movies and TV shows are made. Much of the time a showrunner or a director answer to a studio or a network in largely the same way game development teams answer to their publishers, and Owen sort of just glosses over the reality that live action entertainment has a heavy technical aspect that goes far beyond the romantic notion of one guy and his camera. There are set designers, mic operators, special effects teams, concept artists, marketers, and more, and all of them must operate in tandem. TV shows and films often have massive teams, and in this way game development and film development isn't terribly different.

The rest of the chapter is mainly Owen arguing that writing in games is more of a collaborative process than writing in movies, and that it's not taken nearly as seriously, with writers in games not being specific writers but rather an "Anybody can write a fucking sentence" attitude. All of this is anecdotal. There's not much more to this chapter, honestly.

Chapter 4: Development.

In this chapter Phil Owen get incensed by semantics.

Film also uses the term "development" to describe a key portion of its creative process. When a film is "in development," it means the powers that be are formulating a plan for production, and this is, ideally, when the screenplay is written. Then you have pre-production, where crew members build sets and make costumes and get everything else ready for filming, as well as prep visual effects (pre-viz); followed by production, when the movie is actually shot; and finally post-production, where behind-the-scenes wizards finalize the visual effects with the live action stuff, audio is retouched and dialogue redubbed, and the film is edited into its releasable form.

Video games, in contrast, only have one stage of production: development. From day one until the team is laid off after the game ships, the game is just "in development."

...

That's why movies have delineated segments of production and plan extensively before production even starts -- they'd prefer to avoid those situations because it’s bad for business.

But the creators of video games are developers. Their job is not to produce games but to develop them. It seems like a meaningless distinction on its face, but it does serve to inform a mindset.

The reason it seems like a meaningless distinction is because it is a meaningless distinction. It's also just outright wrong. Game development absolutely uses these exact same terms and phases of development, but Owen inexplicably just lumps it all together under the umbrella of "development" with absolutely no separation. All in order to make a point that, also, doesn't make any sense. Owen speaks of film development in this chapter as if he believes movies all beautifully fall in place like magic, and any deviation or reshooting spells inevitable disaster, recounting examples like several Exorcist movies. Once again Adrian Chmielarz deconstructs this far more effectively than I would:

And by the way, the iteration process is actually heavily used in movies. Scripts undergo multiple revisions. The point of rehearsals is to increase the quality of delivery. Filming involves multiple takes. Editing takes weeks or even months, and multiple versions of a movie are produced and tested on the audiences.

Back to Owen being contradictory:

Meanwhile, the shooter, as a genre, is as packed full of games as any other, with many studios working under many different publishers that are all intent on doing shooting their own “unique” way. It's awkward and it's wasteful, but only if you think of games as an artistic medium or you don't like throwing money away.

Set aside the fact that this excerpt oozes condescension and think back to the Preface for a moment. In the opening of the book Owen talks about what he perceives as stagnation in the video game space, that there is a consensus that views games as "good enough." Here, Owen is directly arguing that a genre attempting to present a variety of gameplay systems and ideas is "awkward and wasteful" if you "think of games as an artistic medium." Huh? The only way this makes sense is if Owen has a complete and utter disrespect for gameplay to the point that he doesn't even believe it should change, ever, and it's just story ("the art stuff") that matters. Owen here is openly defending creative stagnation in the single most important and differentiating factor of video games, their interactivity, while the premise of the book is that he tires of all games feeling the same.

The chapter ends with Owen recounting how Amy Hennig once explained the important difference in how games and movies are made, and how they can never be the same, by stating that game development is by necessity iterative. That game development is largely about creating a bunch of systems that are unpredictable, and because of this, strict planning in game development is not possible the same way. Owen just dismisses this without any kind of argument, stating matter-of-factly "It's an excuse that belies their true priorities. Software development is what they actually care about, not making art."

Thanks for starting this constructive conversation.

Chapter 5: The American Dream.

In a remarkable swerve, WTF Is Wrong With Video Games suddenly starts talking about the nature of capitalism and the concept of "the American Dream." If there was ever an indication how narrow a perspective this book is written from, this would be the best one, as much of the points made here don't really apply as well outside of the US.

The modern concept of the American Dream -- telling us that we can accomplish anything should we only have the will and put forth the effort to pull it off -- has a strangely evil subtext: should you fail to to do whatever it is that you set out to do, it's on you. Success is being offered up freely to you, and it's entirely up to you whether you take it. The American Dream claims the system is built to facilitate your success, and all failures are individual, not systemic. In other words, if you don't achieve your goals in life, it's because you weren't good enough, or you didn't try hard enough.

Anybody with eyes, ears and/ or half a brain knows this is bullshit, of course. American society has always been rife with inequality and prejudice that prevents individuals who don't fit one ideal or another from finding success, often no matter how hard they might try.

Owen is, of course, right about this. American society has always been messed up, though most societies around the world have always been a little messed up. A lot of the beautiful stories of old about how America is a prosperous land of opportunity, where anyone can make it, are anecdotes at best, and often fabrications at worst. How well this critique can be transposed onto the video game industry, though, is questionable.

The video game industry in the West has fully adopted the rhetoric of the American Dream, and within the relatively small scope of that business it's been quite effective at propping up the status quo. It's an industry run mostly by white people who are mostly men, and they'll keep it that way as long as they can.

This implies a level of malevolence on the part of the game industry that Owen really never offers any proof exists. After some criticizing of Ken Levine (Side note: Phil Owen does not care much for Ken Levine or Amy Hennig) he recounts an anecdote (shocker) that says something utterly untrue:

I once spoke with an executive in the video games industry who described the typical game developer as existing on the autism spectrum, or at least being a pretty anally retentive sort. He didn't say that at as insult -- he included himself as part of that characterization -- but instead to point out the single biggest core problem with the industry as a whole: that the majority of folks involved in it are "cut from the same cloth." He said that in the decades he's worked in games, each new "generation" of developers he’s seen entering the business have been of the same type as those leaving it (and as is the case in any tech business, the population skews young). Everybody is looking at things the same way, and that's why we rarely see any significant creative growth over time.

This is where this book would completely fall apart, had Owen not been wise enough to realize he needed to totally discount independent game development from this book. "The American Dream" is a chapter largely about how there are massive barriers to entering the business that are, in his view, largely put there to keep women and minorities out, but you simply can't pretend to be writing a treatise on the state of the industry without mentioning one of the biggest growing parts of gaming right now: Indies. There is actually increasingly less of a barrier to entry, perhaps less than there has been ever since the days of the fabled garage developer, and it's only getting better for them.

The industry has been incredibly supportive of this trend, with Sony and Microsoft now regularly giving independent developers significant chunks of time on their stages, practically fighting over them. Game journos have a quite close and uncomfortably friendly position with indie devs, too, and they practically get free advertising. This leaves aside the fact that his characterization of the industry as a white-man's game doesn't even apply to Asia or much of Europe.

The Video Game Dream is the means of continuing that cycle by scaring off folks who don't fully buy in to the way the industry does things. To succeed in video games, you have to really, really like video games. You have to be committed to the cause, in a sense, before you even start that quest. And so the issue is that not a certain personality type is drawn to games. The issue is that the ruling hegemony inside is intent on making sure only those they see as being One of Them are welcome.

It's difficult to even know where to begin with an argument that it's a bad thing that the gaming industry be populated with people who like the hobby. Owen expands on these points a bit more in Chapter 8, but it is worth noting how many times he expresses frustration with the expectation that people in the industry should like and respect the medium. I don't even. These arguments border on conspiratorial.

There are plenty of stereotypes pertaining to what a “nerd” looks like, many based in reality: white guy, glasses, shitty clothes, awkward demeanor. We complain about that perspective because it’s obviously not representative of the full scope of people who participate in nerddom. But those are the stereotypes because for a long time that was a pretty apt description for the people around who were openly engaging in nerdy shit. Those people you knew who played Dungeons & Dragons looked like that, and so did pretty much any engineers or scientists you met, and so did your friend who was super into computer shit. And Bill Gates, who was the face of nerdiness for decades, is exactly that.

Video gaming has never been an activity exclusively for the stereotypical nerd, but in the Western world it has largely been the product of those types. And they claim ownership of it and tend to treat anyone who doesn’t fit a certain mold (male and white, in that order, most often) with skepticism. Just ask any woman reporter about that -- there’s no shortage of tales of game developers asking the women interviewing them if they play games. In more casual situations or online, you’ll often see the man-nerds grill women on their knowledge of whatever nerd shit they claim to be fans of. So-called “gamer cred” matters, and if you don’t look like whatever their concept of nerd is at the moment (the stereotypes change but being a man is a constant) they’ll just assume you don’t have any until proven otherwise.

This is a classic example of Phil Owen not realizing how his statements conflict. Paragraph 1: These stereotypes of autistic nerdy guys with shitty clothes being into gaming are largely based in reality, so perpetuating it isn't so bad. Paragraph 2: Perpetuating the stereotype that girls and guys often don't like the same games is totally not based in reality and if someone uses this stereotype, they're evil and trying to keep women out of their club. Stereotypes about straight white men are evidently fine, but stereotypes about girls, even if they too share some basis in reality, are not to be spoken of.

I think questioning someone's "gamer cred" is shitty and you shouldn't do it, and being gay I get a laugh at some awful, stupid stereotypes thrown my way. But I don't think it's fair to pick and choose which stereotypes are okay to talk about and which ones aren't if you're not even going to bother substantiating your argument in any way.

Look, let's just finish this chapter off by all admitting a few things.

  1. This industry has been hard for a lot of women. All of us need to be more mature about sharing this space with a more diverse crowd, but things are getting better, have been getting better for a long time, and most people ain't so bad. Gaming doesn't belong to anyone.
  2. The video game industry is, true to what Owen argues, kind of a nightmare from a labor perspective. As a kid I talked about wanting to be a game developer when I didn't know any better, and as an adult I am fairly thankful I never even took half a step down that path. This industry chews up employees and spits them out, and hopefully, given time, conditions will get better.
  3. Olivia Munn exists.

Chapter 6: Ethics in journalism.

If you had told me before I started reading WTF Is... that the chapter inspired by the-movement-that-must-not-be-named would be kinda alright, and include several portions that were shockingly reasonable, I would not have believed you. That may have something to do with the fact that my expectations for it when I read the chapter title were subterranean, but let's recap a lot of the positives, for a change.

The irony of GG is that the louder it got, the easier it became for a portion of the gaming public the games media could feel totally fine about criticizing or even mocking. Not only is it OK to tell GG folks and their weird ilk things they don't want to hear, but it's almost a mandate at this point among the more left-leaning publications, and those that don't fit that category will just avoid altogether the kinds of topics that set GG off. Considering how regressive GamerGate is, that's been a good thing in some ways, but by dividing us along a very distinct ideological line -- or party lines, even -- the campaign has also managed to do real damage beneath the surface.

The rallying cry for GamerGate for a long time was, "Actually, it's about ethics in game journalism," a phrase that was turned into a meme even while GGers kept saying it over and over. While game journalism definitely has huge ethical issues, the side effect of that infamous phrase being tossed around so much is that any meaningful public discussion of ethics in game journalism was killed dead where it stood. Because GamerGate, the organized group of harassers, wants to talk about ethics, the media refuses to do so on principle. The party line among liberal gamers is that GG is wrong about everything, so we can't even hint that it could be right about something — even if it was right by accident.

At this point I was doing cartwheels. Two paragraphs in a row that I agreed with. Owen spends a lot of this chapter recounting anecdotes of reveal parties, being too friendly with industry insiders, sketch-as-fuck previews, and how there is far too much consensus among big and influential game journos. In this respect I think it's possible that Owen is right by accident, but at least there is some nuanced talk in a book that has thus-far traded very little on nuance.

If I feel like pointing out anything, though, it would be this: Like the rest of WTF Is... Phil Owen spends almost all of this time targeting the AAA side of the industry. When he mentions how those who write about games are schmoozed at events for Alien: Isolation, Homefront: The Revolution, and the critical consensus surrounding Dragon Age: Inquisition, Mass Effect 3, and Bioshock Infinite being too monolithic, he's right. But he's also only really talking about the big-budget segment of the business. That level of being emotionally compromised, too attached, it is a far more common thing these days from the indie devs, who are less flagrant about it (mostly due to lack of cash money to throw such parties, I would imagine) but hang around gaming publications a little too often to have any kind of moral highground on this topic. This is another reason I am disappointed Owen doesn't talk at all about independent game development.

Indie game devs are an elephant in the room when it comes to the ethics conversation and very few people admit it.

Chapter 7: Me.

This chapter is mostly, as you would expect, about Phil Owen the person. Since I don't want to make this about him personally, I'll just include some relevant bits and move on, since there isn't much about his broader arguments about the game industry here anyway.

  • Phil Owen was born in 1987, making him only about three years older than me. This was probably revealed earlier, but who cares.
  • He got his start working as an unpaid intern for IGN's entertainment division (in his words "the section of the company dealing with movies, TV, music, tech and whatever else there is to cover that isn't a video game") in 2010.
  • Out of this, knowing some folks, and a pinch of luck, Owen got a contract writing gig at FileFront, so his writing career with video games is only roughly 5 years old.
  • He was fired from this position in early 2012. He took some time off games writing and began doing freelance work later that year, which is roughly what he has done since.
  • He once got into a bit of a fight with Stephen Totilo over an article he wrote about Shenmue III as a Kotaku guest writer.
  • He really likes Alpha Protocol.

Chapter 8 & 9: Accessibility & Mass Effect.

I combined these two chapters because they sort of go hand-in-hand. First, Owen talks a lot about how he likes to cheat in video games "because I know better than I ever did when I was a child that games are built to occupy your time rather than be art." This is all well and good. Owen recounts examples including Dragon Age: Inquisition as a game with an obnoxious amount of filler side-content that is built more to pad out the length of the game than to really accomplish anything. I can get behind that complaint, having played through games like Xenoblade: Chronicles and found its amount of filler to be very off-putting.

Owen uses this to build to the main point of Chapter 8:

This way of constructing games highlights yet another major problem with the way the industry operates: it is anti-accessibility. The idea that games are definitely art should mean their appeal could be broadened significantly, but that isn't the case.

These arguments, of course, don't make much sense. Throughout this book, Phil oscillates between arguing that gaming is creatively bland and stagnant, yet impenetrable. What's especially odd about this argument is that he uses games like Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect 2 as examples that do it all wrong. Those series are examples of the game industry doing exactly what he prescribes: Diluting the initial appeal of the franchise in order to appeal to a wider audience, which both games were successful at doing, for good or ill. Each game not only streamlined their mechanics substantially to make them more simple to play, both franchises went out of way to appeal to marginalized social groups (in ways that were often cringe-worthy and weird -- See: Steve Cortez) in contrast to the usual white dude heroes.

It should be noted history has often shown that, if your interest is in creating something that sticks true to its principles and really has a core message or point, broadening your brand is the exact opposite way to make impactful "art." It's strange to see someone who values art so dearly openly argue in favor of something that leads to the watering down of the end result. Owen continues this line of argument with a bizarre goalpost:

Publishers probably have some focus groups telling them this is what gamers want, and loud angry internet people are always whining that many games are not long enough. But there’s data that tells a different story. With the prevalence of “achievements” and “trophies” awarded for completing certain tasks in modern games, it’s possible to get an impression of how many actually make it to the ends of games. When you look at achievement and trophy data on Xbox and PlayStation, it seems clear the kinds of time-wasting systems present in most games are decidedly not what even most of the people buying them actually want.

First off, when you look at the data , you'll see that the ideal (in terms of what the folks in the industry hope for) for games is a completion rate in the 40-50 percent range. That's appalling on its own, but we'll let it go for now. What's more illuminating is the completion rates for the longest high-profile games. The Witcher 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition come to mind for being both horrendously lengthy and well-regarded by critics. They also have very low completion rates: 23 percent for Dragon Age and 21 percent for The Witcher as of this writing many months after those games were released.

...

For a business that insists it needs to sell millions of copies of every game it puts out in order to be successful, it's a curious way of doing things.

I have a somewhat unconventional way of determining what people want. It's called "the amount of people that bought it" aka sales figures. GameSpot reports as of late August that The Witcher 3 (another example, by the way, of a series that streamlined and broadened its appeal over the course of its iterations) has sold over six million copies. Inquisition sales numbers have never been disclosed, but EA describes it as "the most successful launch in Bioware's history [based on units sold]." A curious way of doing things indeed.

More to the point, I fail to understand why Owen seems to think that the amount of people who don't play or don't finish a game should have their opinion elevated above that of those who actually do buy and finish those games. Owen derisively refers to this as "the nature of nerddom. Gaming is not for everyone, and the community doesn’t really don't want it to be." but he doesn't really make any point beyond "games should sell to more people, just because." It seems more logical to me that the person who has experience and interest in something is more of an authority than a person who has neither.

WTF Is... trades a lot on comparisons to other media forms, but if this standard was applied to most other media, not much would ever get made at all. How many people only watch a handful of episodes of a TV show compared to the amount of people who finish the whole thing? How many people only listen to a single or two off an album compared to people who listen to the complete work? How many millions of books are bought each year that are never read in their entirety? Owen never bothers to explain why games deserve this higher level of scrutiny.

Finishing up.

I'd like to remind everyone how this book opens.

As with any sort of criticism, it isn't enough to just say that a thing is a problem. You have to say why it's a problem and, if possible, how it can be fixed. My goal here is to do just that.

If that was the mission statement of WTF Is... then it completely failed at living up to it. Phil Owen spends many chapters accusing the video game industry (or rather, a certain part of it) as being bad for a variety of reasons, many of which make little sense, but Owen never gets very specific about why these problems exist, or how to resolve them. This book opens talking about constructive criticism, but constructive is an inherently positive descriptor; it must be specific and something that can realistically be carried out. Owen never breaks down these problems in ways that can be realistically addressed nor does he ever attempt to list possible solutions. Talking about how much you're sick of something but then ending your angry diatribe with "but I'm just trying to raise awareness because I care" doesn't cut it.

For that matter it's questionable whether or not what Owen even lists as problems actually are problems. Most of the book can be summed up as "this isn't how the film industry does things, therefore it is bad." Other supposed problems - such as the idea that it is a bad thing that the video game industry be populated with people who actually like video games, or that games should cater to the interests of those that don't play them - are nonsensical.

Video games is an artistic medium like any other. There are good games and bad games, games that feature big tits or somber tales of death, games that are short and long, minimalistic or heavily cinematic, complex and simple, the list goes on. You can't put video games in a box. The implication underlying the book that video games "need to grow up" is farcical. No one video game speaks for the whole medium any more than any individual singer, TV series, or collection of books can be used to stereotype their respective mediums. That bullshit needs to end. There is nothing inherently immature or inartistic in creating something meant for entertainment.

So WTF is wrong with video games? The way our critics talk about them certainly comes to mind. I've heard plenty of people talk about how they dislike Britney Spears music but never that Britney Spears is tarnishing the very medium of music and must be stopped before the message of her music causes social harm. That sort of thing was probably said by Focus on the Family at one point or another, but I hear that shit about various video games all the time. There's something Owen says in Chapter 7 that is rather telling:

As that sort of company operating with a network of sites, the purpose Break had for building up editorial content on FileFront was not to do journalism, really. It wasn't about serving the public good or pushing a political agenda;

That is Phil Owen's view of journalism in his own words. It says all that needs to be said about why there is so much consternation in the public discussion about video games. When pushing an agenda comes before the pursuit of facts, dialogue about an issue becomes several orders of magnitude more difficult. Just ask the UN.

The title of WTF Is Wrong With Video Games? is really a misnomer in the end, because it openly admits to not covering anything outside of the Western big-budget AAA development space. Yet even then this book wouldn't really be an accurate representation of the industry. WTF Is... is a collection of contradictory arguments from beginning to end, backed up by a mere handful of anecdotes. For a topic that does deserve a deeper conversation, that's pretty unfortunate.

If you're interested, you can find Phil Owen on twitter as @philrowen. He ends the book by pointing this out, so don't blame me.

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When you press a button, something disappointing has to happen.

Hop on over to Origin™ to have a grand old time! Exclusively on Origin™!
Hop on over to Origin™ to have a grand old time! Exclusively on Origin™!

Note: I wrote about playing Dragon Age: Origins awhile back, if you're curious. Also, spoilers. Duh.

Upon realizing the download size for Dragon Age 2 from Origin is only a smidge over 5GB, I knew to set my expectations accordingly. Who hasn't heard something bad about this game by now? Dragon Age 2 is probably the go-to example for the beginning of Bioware's slide in quality over the last few years, and I remember all the coverage surrounding it at the time of its release in March 2011 being pretty gnarly.

Still, when a series hooks you, there's always the impulse the see it through to the end, and Dragon Age: Origins definitely hooked me on its dark fantasy world. Besides, it's still Bioware! I wasn't about to just give up now. Dragon Age 2 being a mere five dollars on an Amazon sale or whatever was all the extra push I needed to finally dive into one of the most controversial releases of the last generation and find out what all the fuss was about myself.

I feel like noting beforehand that Origin is... well, sort of lame. As a game client, it functions, but the lack of some features seems baffling. For instance, Origin has no client-wide screenshot function. How the hell does that happen? As a person that enjoys taking a lot of screenshots, particularly for integrating them into any sort of writing, it's mystifying why one of Steam's best features, and presumably one of its simplest, would go missing for this long. Origin also has had the nasty habit of mixing up my account information for no reason, on more than one occasion mixing around my country of residence (Uh, the United States? It's not rocket science) with random others. Maybe these are nitpicks, but it's a strange series of small issues that make me sort of cock my head at Origin and wonder what it's doing from time to time. Thankfully, however, Dragon Age 2 has a game-level screenshot function, as any game should.

So there I was, all settled in and ready for a Bioware RPG experience like any other good Bioware RPG experience. I was disappointed to find out that Dragon Age 2 plateaus pretty early on.

Dragon Age 2 kicks off nicely, and plays better, but it sort of gets stuck in second gear.

Mage Hawke is much more satisfying to play as than Rogue Warden.
Mage Hawke is much more satisfying to play as than Rogue Warden.

For the first few hours I was actually incredibly optimistic about how I was going to come away from Dragon Age 2. The combat feels so much more satisfying to actually play, for one thing. I'm sympathetic to the sort of strategic, placement-focused combat of Origins, but most of those encounters felt pretty unwieldy and I never really felt like I had a good grasp of the action. On top of that, many of the encounters in Origins felt decidedly unfair; enemies would start in positions that completely surrounded you and one wrong move led to you dying almost immediately.

I can't sit here and pretend that Dragon Age 2's combat is anything close to as difficult. I died far less than Origins, barely had to use potions for most of the game, and the need for a dedicated healer was less pronounced. Having no friendly fire means that you barely need to put any thought into area of effect attacks, but honestly, that wasn't really much fun in Origins to begin with. The addition of the "Quick Heal" and "Quick Mana" buttons get rid of the need to have five different kinds of potions on your hotbar, and it's still useful to pause the action on a regular basis, so the need for thinking ahead hasn't been completely squashed. I especially liked the snappy animations that come to really hard stops at the end of each attack. It's a nice style, and makes it feel like attacks have weight and impact.

Let me be clear, though: The way the enemies literally spawn out of nowhere is some hot bullshit. Dragon Age 2 throws way too much waves of trash mobs at you from out of thin air, and there's way too much combat for the game's own good. There were plenty of times where I was simply left exhausted by the amount of trash combat that was at no point challenging, at no point compelling, and just wanted to finish the damn quest. DA2's combat is a mixed bag, for sure, but in the end I feel like it's more good than bad. The UI, in particular, is leaps and bounds ahead of Origins in both aesthetic and function.

The introduction to the events at Kirkwall are interesting, but don't stay fresh for long.
The introduction to the events at Kirkwall are interesting, but don't stay fresh for long.

Most of the game takes place in Kirkwall, a city in the Free Marches, a confederation of free city-states to the North of Ferelden, with your family having fled the Blight. There are a lot of call backs to the first game, which are nice, such as your family's home having been in Lothering, one of the earliest towns to get destroyed by the Blight in Origins, and running into Flemeth in the game's combat prologue, but these callbacks don't all feel like they belong. Anyway, being refugees, and learning your dirtbag uncle sold away everything your family used to own in Kirkwall, Hawke, a sibling, and Aveline, a solider in service to the former King of Ferelden, are forced into indentured servitude for a year as a way to get into the city and make a new home for themselves.

Then there's a jump in the narrative roughly a year forward in time and everyone's out of indentured servitude, presto-magico!

Kirkwall is an alright setting, as far as RPG settings go. The beginnings of the story are simple and straightforward - establish a home and reputation in this new, unfamiliar setting - and Bioware still has this wonderful effect on me where I just want to listen to every bit of every conversation. Other RPGs are doing this pretty well these days, but nothing has quite the je ne sais quoi of a Bioware conversation tree that makes me react with happiness whenever I click on an NPC and it goes into a conversation. The voice acting is pretty solid, the credits revealing a surprisingly large voice cast that should put any Bethesda game to shame. The problem is that Dragon Age 2 is writing a lot of checks it can't cash. In fact, let's just run down the list.

Act 1 is, in a word, boring. The environments do absolutely nothing to make up for this.

This is the Wounded Coast. You'll be seeing this exact zone a million times.
This is the Wounded Coast. You'll be seeing this exact zone a million times.

The over-arching goal of Act 1 is "collect 50 gold so that you can go on an expedition into the Deep Roads, because you want to get rich." What this means in practice is that you're going to be doing sidequests pretty much entirely for around eight hours or so, perhaps more, depending on how thorough you are. There's some honeymoon period here with going through the various environments for the first time, and being introduced to the internal politics of Kirkwall and its characters, but by and large, very little of this portion of the game is memorable. You're basically just the Kirkwall nanny, helping out random people for no reason and mindlessly trying to collect as much money as possible. There's really no other way to describe what this portion of the game is except as padding.

I'm not really playing around when I say Act 1 is utterly forgettable. I played through this game all within the span of the last week and I've completely forgotten almost anything that happened during it.

The various zones you'll be spending time in don't do much to make up for this repetitive content, either, since Dragon Age 2 has about three or four unique environmental designs. There's "Cave"! Generic craggy coastline! The Deep Roads that you see like three times! The same portions of Darktown over and over again! Dragon Age 2 recycles its zones with such frequency it's sort of pitiful, and the easiest indicator this game did not get the development time that it deserved. Everything seems to happen in these exact same places. How many times do I need to investigate a shady meeting in the Darktown sewers? Why does so much bullshit happen in the same two spots of The Wounded Coast? There's also like one mansion design for all the houses in Kirkwall. There are only so many times you can enter the exact same cave environment, whether it be backwards, forwards, or sideways, before you're sick of it. Bioware should be better than this.

The constant jumping forward in time adds nothing to the story and strains credulity.

Sure, have sex with me, and then don't talk about it FOR THREE YEARS.
Sure, have sex with me, and then don't talk about it FOR THREE YEARS.

On the one hand I guess I understand the desire to create a story that spans years and years, but on the other hand, it takes some real storytelling balls to try and write a years-long epic, and Dragon Age 2 does not pull it off. Throughout the game, time will just randomly jump forward, narrated in the background by Varric and Cassandra, and then continue right where it left off as if almost no time had actually passed. After arriving in Kirkwall, the story moves a year forward in time. At the end of Act 1, the story moves ahead three years in time, and at the end of Act 2, the narrative jumps ahead three more years.

To pull this off, you need to do a convincing job of showing how the people of the city, and the city itself, are really changing and evolving over time. You need to show events moving even without seeing them, to show that the world lives on even without your direct involvement, and each Act needs to be relatively self-contained. If events aren't largely contained within each individual Act, the progression of events becomes nonsensical, progressing super fast in the few days or weeks you're in control of Hawke and then going on ice completely, never moving forward at all, until years ahead in time.

The year between the prologue and Act 1 do this just fine. The jump in time is acceptable here, because nothing really major is actually happening. You need to work your way up the social ladder and secure a safe place for your family, working your ass off. Nothing is really lost in the transition because there's not any major plot threads in the background that inexplicably don't progress until you're back in control. The time jumps between Act 1 and 2, and Act 2 and 3, fail at being convincing for this reason. Numerous plot threads are started in Act 1, such as a murder mystery investigation where numerous women are falling victim to a serial killer, that just abruptly dead-end, only to be picked up against with great urgency in Act 2, as if nothing had happened in between those two points. Several women dying under suspicious circumstances would go completely unnoticed for three years? It would take three years for a single lead to pop up about it?

How that particular plot ends is also terrible. The serial killer abducts, and kills, your mother in some bizarre scheme to rebuild his wife with various female body parts. The fact that there's almost no time dedicated to this story before it comes to this point, and then is so quickly forgotten, is strange. The main character's mother dies and it's barely talked about. Fenris - my romantic interest of choice - shows up to offer a sympathetic line or two and then it's back to investigating the Qunari, or whatever.

Awfully flirty for someone who gets shy for 36 months after fucking me.
Awfully flirty for someone who gets shy for 36 months after fucking me.

Kirkwall never really changes much over the course of the near-decade, either, which is especially weird considering all that actually happens to it. In Act 2 the Qunari launch an all-out assault on the city and most of Kirkwall is suddenly up in flames, but nope, jump three years ahead in time and it's like nothing happened. Fable did a better job, in all three main games, of portraying a growing and changing world over the course of their stories than Dragon Age 2.

Some companion interactions work in all of this, and some don't. Aveline becomes attracted to, and subsequently marries a fellow guardsman through the years that pass, and this is believable, and even cute. It makes sense that many of the companions would build lives of their own, and making companions whose lives don't completely revolve around the main character is an interesting experiment for Bioware. The romances for Hawke, however, don't make much sense so stretched out over that long of a timeframe. Fenris and I fuck, and then time jumps forward three years, and he's all "You know, we never talked about that night between us three years ago." Really? A relationship develops so suddenly and then goes into stasis for three years for no good reason? I just don't buy it. In general, the romantic relationship felt incredibly distant.

What's so sad about the time jumps is that they really weren't even necessary to sell the events of the story. The tension between the mages and the Templars, and the ensuing rebellions against Knight-Commander Meredith could've easily been sold over the course or weeks or months. The decision to make it years only reinforces my pre-existing belief that there was originally supposed to be so much more story here than there actually was in the end.

Act 3 is a choice between psychopaths in an unnecessary sea of blood mages. Also Anders.

Zevran, who beat you with the ugly stick? Also, why are you here?
Zevran, who beat you with the ugly stick? Also, why are you here?

Dragon Age 2 suffers from a lack of real narrative focus until the final Act. The Qunari plotline comes to a sort of half-assed conclusion before being tossed aside and more or less forgotten. King Alistair (should he be the King in your story, I suppose) appears at a point in the story, just to basically say hello before peacing the fuck out. There are too many sections where Hawke spends most of his time collecting lost knickknacks only to turn them in to a reaction of bemusement. There are more callbacks to Origins than there should be, and they feel more like continuity porn than convincing storytelling.

Act 3, however, is when the game finally decided to singularly focus on the plot of the Templars vs. Mage conflict. At first blush I was relieved by this, because I was actually genuinely interested in seeing how that plot would play out, given that the game devotes so much time to setting up this conflict it was giving me blue balls by the end, but the way its told within the context of the game is so contrived. The need for the game to present you with some sort of "now choose a side!" scenes means the writing needs to effectively write both sides as equally valid or flawed, and the writing fails miserably at this, making Meredith out to be a psychopath, and almost every rebel mage you come across evil for no discernible reasons.

Toward the end of Act 3 I'm sent to investigate a meeting of Templars and mages that are sympathetic to each other, working together to take down Meredith so there can be peace in Kirkwall, but when I get there, one of the mages goes nuts and wanted to kill me out of nowhere. It makes no sense at all! It's just a lame way to try and create tension over who you side with. Why did that have to happen? The idea of sympathetic Templars working with mages to reform the system makes so much sense and is such a believable way for the plot to progress, but then it all goes to hell just for the sake of drama. There's a really interesting story here, but it's hamstrung by the need of the game to try and make both sides out to be flawed so that you have a bevy of choices at the end, and the only way Bioware knows how to make either side flawed is to make them homicidal maniacs. I mean, for the love of cock, why are there so many blood mages in this universe? Even the most prominent mage in the story that is standing up to the Templars, First-Enchanter Orsino, decides to become a demon at the end, because hey, gotta have a big dumb boss fight.

That it turns out Knight-Commander Meredith is being possessed by an artifact from the Deep Roads all along is even more of a bummer, because I really enjoyed that character upon introduction. In addition to being voiced by a kick-ass voice actress - the voice of Merlwyb Bloefhiswyn from FFXIV - her cause isn't entirely wrong. Many of the mages you investigate are (somewhat pointlessly) evil, and the Circle serves a good purpose. Then she just goes insane and tries to kill everyone. And then there's Anders...

Anders is literally possessed by a spirit of Justice. Insert social justice joke here.
Anders is literally possessed by a spirit of Justice. Insert social justice joke here.

Anders is written like a creator's pet.

I can't think of any other way to describe it. Throughout Dragon Age 2, Anders expressed a deep hatred of the Templars and a desire to set all Mages free, even going so far as running an underground railroad to help mages escape the clutch of the circle. This is fine so far. Over the course of the game, though, he becomes increasingly hostile and in-your-face over this issue, to the point of being sort of unhinged. This all comes to a head in the final hour of the game when he puts on his terrorist cap, and bombs the Chantry to hell and back, sparking an all-out war.

My frustration with Anders is honestly sort of similar to my teeth-gnashing hatred of Bella Swan from Twilight. Anders' actions are always portrayed as if they are just, and his attitude is rarely smacked down by anyone else. He is routinely portrayed sympathetically even when he is clearly a hypocrite, endangering countless innocent lives to get what he wants. Throughout the game he lectures other mages you meet on how they should know better than to consort with demons, when Anders is an abomination himself. He approaches the world from a deeply privileged position, benefiting from all the knowledge and know-how of the institutions he seeks to dismantle, refusing to understand how solving problems aren't so simple as just erasing the Templars from existence.

What sent me over the edge with Anders is a bit of banter he has with Aveline when you're navigating the ruined streets of Kirkwall. Aveline asks Anders if he will turn himself in for what he's done when the fighting has come to an end. Anders responds dismissively by saying "Oh, I know your commitment to oppression, Aveline." Motherfucker, you just blew up a church for the lulz! Where the fuck do you get off being sarcastic about it, like you've done nothing wrong? My understanding is that Anders was a much better character in Dragon Age: Awakening, which makes me regret not playing through it. Apparently he was written by someone completely different. Go figure.

A largely well constructed shell that needed about 18 more months in the oven.

This is the kind of clusterfuck that the final battles are like.
This is the kind of clusterfuck that the final battles are like.

It is difficult for me to imagine that this is the game that Bioware truly envisioned. A game whose main story content is threadbare, with so little unique assets, and so short a time in development. I don't wish to deify Bioware as a developer here or anything, because they've certainly made tons of mistakes, but I know that they are better than this, and surely they knew it too. The amount of call-backs to the previous game all feel like an attempt to distract you from noticing how thin the main story content of Dragon Age 2 really is.

Even some of the things I enjoyed the most about the game's narrative content, the romance with Fenris being one of them, is really just a revisiting of the first game. An elf, a troubled past as a slave, trained from youth to think like a soldier, dogged by his former slave-masters. It's all awfully similar, down to a line from Fenris about how he grew up around men and women who were "free with their affections." It's a retread of Zevran top to bottom, even written by the same person. Kirkwall never really changes, Hawke's family never feels as important to him as it postures as being, and trudging through the same old zones over and over is tiresome.

Dragon Age 2 is not a complete failure. The combat is more engaging, the UI superior in both fashion and function, and the choice to make Hawke a more defined character, with a more directed backstory and a voice of his own, was an excellent move. Yet I can't shake the feeling, given the ending cutscene, like I just played a prologue to Dragon Age: Inquisition. Like Halo 2 telling me to be continued, that I need to wait for the next game to finish the fight. Hearing from @yummylee on twitter that the "Templars vs. Mages" is largely dropped a third of the way into Inquisition only reinforces my feeling like more story meat was meant to be in this game, but didn't make it due to a rushed production schedule, and was hastily wrapped up in the next.

I don't necessarily regret my time with Dragon Age 2. I want to play Inquisition to see how these stories progress, so it must have been successful on some level, but I am incredibly disappointed. I end on my time with Dragon Age 2 more upset that my only avenue for playing Inquisition at the moment is a last-gen console, but I suspect I only feel that way because Dragon Age 2 seemed so incomplete.

If-I-Had-To-Give-It-A-Rating-I-Guess: 2½ / 5Total Playtime: Around 26 hours.

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Attempting to gain insight into the Cult of Kingdom Hearts. Cue the pop music.

Get ready to behold the emulated PS2 version in all it's weirdly rendered glory.
Get ready to behold the emulated PS2 version in all it's weirdly rendered glory.

Note: There are spoilers, but seriously who cares.

I had to suppress a mild fanboy squeal when loading up Kingdom Hearts the first time for the purposes of this blog; when I saw the "Squaresoft" logo I was reminded this was still the small bit of time left in the aughts before they became Square Enix in 2003. Kingdom Hearts is one of those classic "I should go back and play that" games that have devoted followings and many, perhaps too many, games across various platforms. When I saw the hysterical reactions to the announcement of Kingdom Hearts 3 during Sony's 2013 E3 Press Conference, some of which I'm pretty sure broke the fucking sound barrier, I knew it was only a matter of time until I ended up playing them to see what the fuss was about.

I actually have a black-label release of Kingdom Hearts from back in the day. This was an era where Square was still king, and even though I was never much of a Disney person as a kid, Square had built enough goodwill with me that I was going to give pretty much anything they made a shot. Afterall, this was not long after the years when everything Square touched turned to gold on the Ps1. So, a new RPG from Square? I was there.

It didn't last long with me, though. I didn't know anybody who was all that into it and after playing it for what I can only assume was a few hours of being completely fucking lost, I moved on to something else, hoping to get back to it some other time. That never happened, of course. I went through life preferring the comfort of my turn based RPGs instead, and nothing I ever really saw from the series dragged me back. It didn't help that whenever I did see a Kingdom Hearts fan, they seemed slightly unhinged. It's understandable to be a little judgmental when you're fairly young, right?

So with a fresh pair of grown-up eyes, a bit more patience, and an open mind, I dove into Kingdom Hearts expecting good things. I felt like the first hour of the game or so was a fairly good impression, too, feeling distinctly Square-like. After the tutorializing, though, I was bummed out that Kingdom Hearts became very frustrating, very quickly.

I expected a convoluted story, but Kingdom Hearts doesn't have much of a plot to begin with.

Before we begin I would like to introduce you to the completely nonsensical opening video to Kingdom Hearts, because if I had to deal with it, then so do you.

What, it doesn't make perfect sense to you? I was on board until the bizarrely out of place pop song began playing. Ugh, this game is why AMVs are popular, isn't it?

Aerith lives.
Aerith lives.

Back in 2003, G4 ended up presenting Kingdom Hearts with the "Best Story" award, leading me to wonder if they considered other games that even had stories, if this is what ended up winning. It's not that Kingdom Hearts has a bad story, there's just very little to it. Going into Kingdom Hearts I had heard all sorts of things about how the series is one of the worst examples of incomprehensible JRPG nonsense and well-worn power-of-the-heart tropes, but the story Kingdom Hearts tells isn't very convoluted or bizarre, it's just very thin, which was a bit of a let down.

The game begins with Sora on a series of stain-glass window islands that more or less teach him the basics of CQC, and after that he's on some island that resembles Besaid to such an extent that Tidus and Wakka are even there, for some reason. Kairi and Riku are your childhood friends, and you're all working on a grand plan to venture out and explore other worlds by building a raft of some sort. Look, they're kids. Let them have their imagination. Sora and Riku are all sweet on Kairi, the girl of the group, and after a tedious scavenger hunt, the Heartless attack the island, the world is destroyed, and the three of them are scattered to other worlds. The beginning mission: Find Riku and Kairi. Donald and Goofy are also on a mission, to find you, wielder of the keyblade, as ordered by King Mickey.

The story never really progresses much beyond this premise, though. Riku ends up finding Sora first, and becomes wrought with jealousy that Sora has been having fun with his new friends, pissed that Sora is out saving worlds instead of looking for Kairi... who he already has found. It turns out Kairi lost her heart in the attack on their home island, and Riku is desperately searching for a way to get her out of her effective coma. The conflict between Riku and Sora never really makes much sense, though, because if Riku is pissed that Sora isn't helping save Kairi, why does he deliberately hide information from the person most capable of saving her life, for hours and hours? Whatever.

Belieeeeve in the powerrrr of lovvee.
Belieeeeve in the powerrrr of lovvee.

My real issue with the plot of Kingdom Hearts is that very little of the game's progression actually moves the plot forward in any meaningful way. Out of all the worlds you go to, a very small amount of them ever directly deal with Riku and Kairi, and the Heartless just become this irritating nuisance you need to get rid of, not really presenting themselves as the world-ending threat the game insists that they are until very very late. You eventually find out that Maleficent is kidnapping the "seven maidens of the purest heart" to open a door to "untold wisdom" aka huge evil, but you don't even directly interfere with this plan in any meaningful way. Most of the princesses have already been abducted, and the two you come across along the way are easily snatched away from under your nose. The party doesn't even really seem to be aware that this is a plan until you stumble across them in Hollow Bastion.

The crux of the game's plot is really caring about getting your best friend back and saving her life, but Kairi is in a vegetative state for the vast majority of the game. She's a total non-entity. In fact, none of the characters ever really grow over the course of this journey like I'd hoped they would. Seeing King Mickey at the end of the game was a great "Fuck yeah!" moment that I didn't think it would inspire in me, but it's a bad sign that a Mickey Mouse cameo at the end of the game inspires more emotion than saving the girl who most of the game was about.

I guess what disappointed me the most is that Kingdom Hearts' story is exactly what it says on the tin, no out-of-left-field weirdness included.

Kingdom Hearts' camera approaches game-ruining levels of bad throughout the journey.

Yeah this seems like the appropriate angle to have this conversation, for sure.
Yeah this seems like the appropriate angle to have this conversation, for sure.

I wanted to dive into a run-down of the individual Worlds of Kingdom Hearts and how I felt about them, but I felt like I needed to get out ahead of what will immediately become something of a running theme throughout this writing: The camera of Kingdom Hearts is borderline non-functional. I do not use these words lightly and I don't mean to sound hyperbolic. What ruined my enjoyment of Kingdom Hearts more than anything else was the fact that I had basically no camera control. Not only is camera control mapped, bafflingly, to the L2 and R2 buttons, but the view of the action is zoomed in so closely behind Sora that it's incredibly difficult to have a good grasp on what's happening around you. What makes this even worse is that it's more or less impossible to even nudge the camera in one direction or another when target-locked.

Last year I remember reading a study about how frustration with video game controls is actually one of the contributing factors to increased aggression in people who play video games. Kingdom Hearts is my proof. No matter where I was, what world it was, what enemies I was fighting, I was always pissed off by my inability to control and have a good view of the action. But it's not like the world design was much of a help.

Wonderland.

Confusion ahead.
Confusion ahead.

Wonderland is the first major area that you're introduced to after meeting up with Donald and Goofy, and is what makes it clear that you're going to be gallivanting around a variety of different Disney themed worlds from the beginning of Kingdom Hearts to the end. The Greatest Hits are all here: The rabbit runs around screaming that he's late. Cheshire Cat acts coy and speaks in riddles. The Queen of Hearts repeatedly threatens people with decapitation. You fight card guards. Etc. etc.

What makes Wonderland so frustrating, and such a poor first impression of how the game will progress for the next 15 hours, is that it really explains absolutely nothing of what you need to do, and doing it is a chore. The entire world only actually consists of about four different rooms, which you will constantly backtrack through to get pieces of a puzzle, all while doing platforming that controls like garbage. The platforming demands such precision, with no clear idea of where you're even going, that this was my first clue I was in for a rough ride. I bashed my head against figuring out The Bizarre Room for far too long, and if you screw up some of the platforming in finding the pieces of evidence for Alice's trial, you'll have to go all the way back through the rooms again. The only thing that made this tolerable was save states. To top it all off, nothing really even happens here that's all that interesting, plot-wise. You fight a boss, do what you will later find out is locking a key-hole that seals the world from danger, and you move on, failing in your mission to protect Alice.

The Gummi Ship Interludes.

Far too easy, time wasting, and ugly to boot. The Gummi Ship.
Far too easy, time wasting, and ugly to boot. The Gummi Ship.

I don't even understand why these are here. In between worlds you will have to do a few minutes of ship combat that feel about as enjoyable as the combat portions of a 90s FMV game.

Actually, I take that back, because unlike the Sewer Sharks of the world, the Gummi Ship combat is stupidly easy. In fact, that's probably my main complaint with these sections of the game. Flying between worlds feels slow, targeting is too touchy to have that great of control over the action, and in general Kingdom Hearts never really forces you to upgrade your Gummi Ship to get better at it. I went through the entire game never building a new Gummi Ship and always using the default. I was never punished for this and at no point had trouble flying between worlds. Why create a chain of systems to build new ships when the game is never hard enough that you have to do this? It's a waste of Square's time in addition to mine.

In general the Gummi Ship portions feel like a victim of trying to split the difference between audiences, but I'll ramble about that later.

The Deep Jungle.

Oh hey look you guys. Platforming.
Oh hey look you guys. Platforming.

The world of Tarzan and Jane has one major point in its favor: It's better than Wonderland. This is only achieved by virtue of not having a giant inscrutable puzzle room and instead having outside areas you just sort of run back and forth between. The Deep Jungle trades puzzles for backtracking.

And backtracking this world has in spades. Multiple times after a story-related event would occur, I would run after them, and end up clearing through the world in its entirety once or twice, trying desperately to find where the hell I was supposed to go, only to discover I needed to talk to Jane again to trigger the next event. This is how, it ends up, the entire world will progress. Something happens, you run through all the areas and wind up back at the camp, there's a cutscene, you talk to someone, you run through all the areas and wind up back at the camp, there's a cutscene, you talk to someone, you run through all the areas and wind up back at the camp, there's a cutscene, a boss fight, then you leave.

In keeping with Wonderland, nothing really happens here that advances the plot in any way either. You learn nothing about the main characters, nothing about the nature of the Heartless, and nothing about your friends.

Agrabah.

The music here is really good, though.
The music here is really good, though.

The world of Aladdin is where things finally clicked in my head about what Kingdom Hearts is. I had been in denial about it up to this point, but it was impossible to ignore the reality that this game is really half-RPG, half-shitty kiddy platformer ripped out of the late 90s. Gameplay wise, the crux of Agrabah involves running around the city portions looking for switches to open doors, which you will only really find by (sensing a common theme yet?) blindly running around the areas looking for anything interactable until you stumble upon the solution.

The underground portion of Agrabaha, the ruins, are among my least favorite sections in the game. Falling off the platforms causes you to fall into the waterway at the bottom, and climb all the way back up. I'm still not clear on exactly how I unlocked the boss area. You sort of have to poke at different things in the waterway until a pillar of some sort is destroyed, and this somehow shakes the boss room door open.

On the plus side, Agrabah is where you finally learn what the evil plan even is. Maleficent is collecting the seven princess of pure heart to "unlock the door" to the Heartless dimension, or whatever. This is why Alice mysteriously disappeared, and why Jasmine suffers the same fate. It's also the first world that finally nails the style. The music, world design, and enemy design all play together really well, and even though much of the world is backwards and confusing, it at least has more than about five different rooms to it. So kudos.

Monstro.

I really dug the look of being inside Monstro, but ultimately there's not much memorable about it.
I really dug the look of being inside Monstro, but ultimately there's not much memorable about it.

Monstro manages to be the least frustrating world to complete, with little to no necessary platforming or unlock-this-thing-to-get-to-this-place puzzles. Consequently it is also the shortest; I completed it in what felt like twenty minutes, but in reality was probably barely over a half-hour or so.

This world is all about rescuing Pinocchio, who has ran off with Riku for seemingly no reason, as Riku exposes the fact that he's working for Maleficent because of stupid jealousy reasons. Sora is off playing hero and allegedly not taking the matter of finding Kairi seriously enough - whom Riku has already found; she's a vegetable due to having lost her heart - and antagonizes Sora over.. something. To be honest, it's not all that important.

I try to keep pretty lengthy notes as I play through the games I care enough to write about, and my notes from Monstro consist of about two sentences. You fight a weird parasite in Monstro's stomach and then you move on. Ain't much to it.

Atlantica.

Hope you like the Under the Sea theme, because it's going to drill into your ears.
Hope you like the Under the Sea theme, because it's going to drill into your ears.

"Okay guys, I have a great idea. Let's take the bad camera controls and simplistic combat, right? Then we put the player underwater for an entire world, adding an extra layer of bullshit with descend/ascend buttons, and slow everything way down so it's harder to actually hit things. Do I get a raise now or what?"

Atlantica is the underwater level, and like any underwater level, it feels awful to control. Yet, because Kingdom Hearts loves to throw in bad platforming all over the place, it has the accidental benefit of having none of those sections. Also, in a pleasant concession to the fact that even the developers know finding your way through Atlantica would be a hellish nightmare, there are direction markers placed throughout the environment that guide you back to the palace, so you actually have a general idea of where you're going. The downsides of this world are obvious, however. Combat is sluggish and hard to control, and prompts don't always appear due to issues with being on the same plane as the object. There is also a point where the game actually decides to tell you what to do next - something of a rarity for Kingdom Hearts - but actually manages to confuse you even more. Ariel tells you to ride the dolphin, as it can lead you through powerful currents you otherwise can't swim through, but the first dolphin you encounter actually doesn't take you anywhere. It just flings you around in circles. You actually have to go to a different area and ride that dolphin. Why is the first one even there in the first place?

The Ursula boss fights take the cake, however. Ursula's second form is incredibly difficult, and the bad swimming controls are partially responsible for this. Timing on her attacks is very tight, and you must stay in constant motion or she will hit you with electricity. She has an attack that sucks you in, which you can swim out of, but you have to move Sora to face in a direction away from her. What's the problem? In high-speed swimming mode, you can only barely turn Sora, so unless you're already facing away from Ursula's mouth, you're likely to just swim right into her on accident, because there's also no real camera control for this fight if you're locked on. Afterwards you seal the keyhole and move on, like always, learning very little in terms of story in the process.

Halloween Town.

So where's the party at?
So where's the party at?

I don't have much reverence for The Nightmare Before Christmas, but even I can appreciate how much style this world has. The music the great, the characters are alright, and there's very little confusion about what you're supposed to be doing.

Halloween Town's main faults come from its boss fights, that are too long and tedious. The two final boss fights are Oogie Boogie, the first form of which takes place around a giant roulette table. Oogie Boogie throws objects and enemies at you from up top, and you have to land on the appropriate buttons on the wheel to raise the platform to where the boss is, but you can only really get a few hits in before getting knocked back down to the wheel and having to repeat the process, and even when you know what you're doing you will often over-shoot and miss Oogie Boogie's platform altogether. It takes far, far too long.

His second form turns him into a giant that you have to climb on top of and destroy various darkness... nodes of some sort all over his body. This also takes far too long, because you have to stop in the middle of the action and go into first person view - an inclusion that you know is always a good sign that the developers know their default view is inadequate - to have any idea where the circles of darkness even are. This fight combines some of Kingdom Hearts' worst elements: the bad camera, bad platforming, and unclear instructions. Like most of the other worlds, nothing about Halloween Town contributes to the over-arching narrative or builds Sora as a character at all.

Neverland.

Who wouldn't enjoy fighting from this perspective?
Who wouldn't enjoy fighting from this perspective?

The camera angles are at their very worst in Neverland, which takes place primarily on Captain Hook's ship. The areas in the ship are so tiny, and there are so many ladders and posts scattered throughout the environment, it's virtually impossible for the camera to not get stuck on the level geometry, and you may as well forget even trying to manually control the damn thing. It'll just snap back to whatever place it feels like it should be in whenever you hit a wall.

Neverland in general feels like a wasted opportunity. Neverland is a much more vast world than Kingdom Hearts would lead unknowing individuals to believe, and sticking the whole world onto a pirate ship is really disappointing, considering all there is in the Neverland canon. You don't even get the defining-fucking-attribute of being in Neverland, the ability to fly, until the final boss fight of the zone.

Nothing about Neverland is all that bad, necessarily, aside from aforementioned camera issues and a particularly stubborn ladder that Sora will constantly try to immediately jump off of for some stupid reason, but the whole thing sort of encapsulates my biggest problem with Kingdom Hearts: It doesn't make good use of the amazing things in the Disney library. The concept of Kingdom Hearts is amazing, but levels like Neverland make me feel like so much of it has been squandered. I would've much rather Square built original levels if this is the best that they can do with the source material, which leads me to...

Hollow Bastion.

Hollow Bastion is an unexpected blast.
Hollow Bastion is an unexpected blast.

In my mind it is no coincidence that my favorite area of the game is not an existing Disney creation. Hollow Bastion has haunting music that isn't aping from an existing Disney style and is a huge, sprawling zone, actually feeling like it was designed to be a proper video game area instead of shoehorning in half-baked Disney fanservice. With less camera issues due to the larger environments, puzzles that feel satisfying to figure out instead of seeming convoluted, and incredibly satisfying boss fights, the area is genuinely a lot of fun.

Really, the only negative point for the zone would be that you have to run through the whole thing again after completing it the first time, and that some of the late-game enemies, particularly the aerial ones, can be difficult to fight due to ledges.

The boss fights here are all fun, but the fight against Keyblade-Riku is a real test of skill that the rest of the game doesn't come near. All of your abilities are tested in a one-on-one fight, no summons, nothing cheap, in a wide open area so the camera is a non-issue. In a weird way it gave me a Dark Souls feel, with the need to predict his attacks, dodge roll, and read his patterns. No other fight in Kingdom Hearts comes close to feeling like an accomplishment the way this one does. I just doubt any child had a very fun time with it.

End of the World.

Behold the end of Kingdom Hearts: A long, boring combat slog.
Behold the end of Kingdom Hearts: A long, boring combat slog.

Honestly? The less said about this area the better. First of all, I don't understand why it's even called "End of the World" since you travel to several different worlds in what I assume is a great big universe. It should've been called "End of Worlds." Oh well.

If there was a single level that showcased the weakness of Kingdom Hearts' combat systems, End of the World would be it. According to the IGN Wiki Guide to this level, there are no less than twelve bosses you have to fight. Most of the Ansem fights are great fun, only a notch or two below Keyblade-Riku, but the rest? They're pretty dull mash fests. Along the way you'll also deal with several forced encounters with trash mobs, which is only more annoying than the rest of the game because Kingdom Hearts is usually pretty good about not forcing combat with random enemies against your will. It just led to me spamming Thunder spells a lot.

I would like to call attention to one of the areas in the middle of the world, though, because it's sort of odd. There's a series of cliffs and platforms that lead to the penultimate area of the game. What makes this so peculiar is that it's a series of platforms leading downwards. Meaning the entire area can just be bypassed by looking down at where the Bright Glowing Light of Obvious Progression is and just leaping down to it and gliding right over. It's a strange choice. I don't think anyone bothered informing Square Enix that platforming sections don't really work as well when you're going straight downwards. At least the final boss is fun.

I liked the combat overall, but didn't like much of the interface. Or lack thereof.

The skill system is basic, but there's really nothing wrong with that.
The skill system is basic, but there's really nothing wrong with that.

A lot of people decry the combat system of Kingdom Hearts for being too mashy and unsatisfying. It's hard to deny the fact that it's mashy in the sort of swarm encounters that the final areas of the game absolutely drown in. Yet, for a game aimed at kids, the combat had more depth than it needed to have, and I can appreciate it. The Keyblades and various equipment make two completely different styles of play very feasible, as either a mage or melee oriented character, and even though the initial skill choices at the beginning of the game are deliberately vague, when you do know what your choices affect, it does allow for very different progression from one playthrough to another.

Spells, summons, a proper skill system; Kingdom Hearts has what it needs to be a legit RPG. It's all passable.

What makes the combat of Kingdom Hearts frustrating, camera aside, is that the AI of Donald and Goofy basically make giving them items totally pointless. They'll just blow them at their first opportunity, often at the exact same time, and there isn't much of a way to control their actions. There's some sort of button to get their attention, but it's unclear what it even does, and it certainly doesn't affect item usage. This problem would be less annoying if you could open the menu mid-combat, but you can't do that, which is a choice I just don't like. I understand the desire to tune the combat encounters, but this could be accomplished in other ways. Some late-game combat encounters go on for a very long time, and you can't even open the character menu to equip new abilities during a fight if you level up. It makes more sense to only equip Donald and Goofy with items prior to boss fights, but there's no way to know a boss is coming, and since you can't open the menu in a fight... you see the conundrum there.

BUT WHAT ARE ITS STATS. THIS IS IMPORTANT INFORMATION.
BUT WHAT ARE ITS STATS. THIS IS IMPORTANT INFORMATION.

One minor, but easily avoidable problem is also that the descriptions in the item store are utterly useless. Weapon descriptions may as well just say "It's designed as a weapon! Could be useful!" for all that they include. It's bizarre to me that you have no idea how powerful they are until you buy them, and money is at a bit of a premium in Kingdom Hearts for the majority of the game. I ended up wasting 2800 munny on a weapon that just popped up for Goofy, only to find out it was weaker than what he had equipped. There's no reason this problem should exist!

Oftentimes when quality of life complaints are made about older games, people are quick to pipe up with "Well you're being unfair, judging these games by the standard of today instead of the standard of when it was released." Being released in 2002 does not excuse Kingdom Hearts from having poor tooltips and crappy camera controls. A mini-map would've also been very helpful, and I hear Kingdom Hearts 2 solved that problem. So for that, good on 'em. I just really hope they zoomed out the camera, as well.

I come away from Kingdom Hearts not knowing what audience it's meant for.

Mightier than the Ultima Weapon? I have my doubts.
Mightier than the Ultima Weapon? I have my doubts.

I get the sense that part of the reason I feel the story suffers so much is that it's trying to split the difference between two audiences. On the one hand: traditional Final Fantasy fans. I mean, this game has Final Fantasy splooged all over it. Various characters, item names, spells, and abilities. Traverse Town is littered with Moogles. The storytelling delivery is even so Final Fantasy for the era that it hurts. The flashback scenes of Sora's childhood with kid-Riku in the cave may as well have been ripped directly from Final Fantasy VII with Cloud's inner monologues, or FFX's scenes with the child Fayth. Yet on the other hand, you have kids that clearly aren't going to understand these references or narrative devices. The game is rated E for fuck's sake. Not even E 10+, straight-up E. A four-year-old could buy this game.

This splitting-the-difference feeling fits with my issues toward the gameplay as well. The Gummi Ship is a perfect example. There exists a system where you can build various Gummi ships with parts you collect throughout the game, and blueprints you can collect to build others, but there's never any push made upon the player to do this, as if the game doesn't want to be too hard because it might alienate the kids. Yet, by not sufficiently creating a demand to build powerful ships, there's no reason for the player to supply them. The end result is a series of gameplay mechanics effectively invalidated. Another example: When escaping Agrabah, you're riding on the Magic Carpet while speeding out of a collapsing cavern. Think of it a lot like the jet ski sequence from the ending of Resident Evil 4. Except, in this case, I quickly realized that it didn't seem like I could lose, so I just stopped steering or controlling the character in any way. I survived with plenty of health to spare.

And the platforming, why does that exist, except that it was 2002 and we were still fresh out of the era where kids games were almost obligated to be colorful platformers? Kingdom Hearts would've been made better if it focused on being an RPG instead of including random gameplay elements to try and please all ages, or at the very least, given you the glide ability up-front, which eases the frustration.

While these aspects of the game feel dumbed down and made easy for the kids, other elements seem unfairly difficult to the young 'uns. The Ursula fights, and the end-game boss fights are legitimately quite hard, several orders of magnitude harder than most bosses. I'm not sure I really believe that the Keyblade-Riku fight was even possible for someone under the age of 10. I doubt a child would discover much of the game's optional content, either. The Curaga spell, which is very useful for the end-game even if you're skilled at the combat to begin with, requires you track down Aerith in the library of Hollow Bastion after you no longer have any reason to go there, and talk to her multiple times. Kingdom Hearts oscillates between being easy to the point of making its own gameplay sequences obsolete, and difficult to the point of being a barrier to entry for kids to complete. Who was it made for?

Kingdom Hearts is beautiful, even today, and cleans up nicely. Its combat is passable, its story is not worthless, even if stretched pretty thin. Its music is fantastic. I don't mean to be completely dismissive of what this game is. With better camera controls, some HUD improvements, ramping up the challenge of certain parts, ditching the platforming... etc, I might've even considered it pretty good. But these complaints add up, and playing it can be aggravating on a level that "But it was 2002" doesn't excuse.

I end up falling somewhere in the middle, and more than a little puzzled that this is the game that spawned millions of sales and a deeply devoted following. Yet after all of this, I'm still curious to play more of the series to see where it goes. I suppose that is to Kingdom Hearts' credit, if nothing else.

If-I-Had-To-Give-It-A-Rating-I-Guess: 2½ / 5Total Playtime: Around 25 hours.
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A man who never eats pork buns is never a whole man.

There's not a lot of unusual artistic styles in box art design these days.
There's not a lot of unusual artistic styles in box art design these days.

At what point in time did we stop thinking about games like this as "Grand Theft Auto Clones"? It's something I've been thinking about after finishing Sleeping Dogs. I remember in the ensuing years after Grand Theft Auto 3 came out, the phrase "GTA Clone" was everywhere, applied to virtually any game that emulated the kind of open world crime game that GTA was. Some of the most notable victims of this label would be the True Crime games, the Mafia series, or perhaps most known, Saints Row. But when I think back to those games, I don't remember them being particularly bad. In terms of world design they may have been drawing obvious inspiration from Grand Theft Auto, and they certainly won't be remembered as classics, but it didn't mean they were terrible.

The reason I bring this up is because Sleeping Dogs doesn't really do anything especially innovative or new with the sub-genre of the open world crime game. While it does add its own unique, and beautifully realized setting, and other new systems and touches, this is still just an evolution of the GTA formula from years ago. Again, I stress that I don't mean this as a bad thing, or to take away from anything Sleeping Dogs achieves. Yet, no one really thinks about these games as "clones" anymore. Had this game came out 5 years before it did, I could easily see it being saddled with that label, remembered as "one of the better GTA clones." Somewhere along the line, though, we stopped thinking of these games like that, and the term became a relic of generations-past so quietly that I didn't notice.

Any fan of Giant Bomb for any length of time will recognize this game. Though I don't exactly have the discipline to finish many of the open world crime games - I probably haven't finished a Grand Theft Auto since 3 - I've wanted to dive into Sleeping Dogs for a long time, so when a Humble Bundle came along with it included several months back, I snatched it up. I was especially looking for a nice, well-constructed 10-15 hour romp after playing so many RPGs. Front Mission 4, Xenoblade, Valkyria Chronicles 2; all of these games are, if nothing else, pretty lengthy. I needed to decompress. So when scrolling down my Steam library, it caught my eye yet again. A really good, well-constructed 10-15 hour romp is exactly what I got.

Differentiation in this genre can be hard, but Sleeping Dogs stands out in several ways.

I don't even have an especially powerful PC and this game is still gorgeous in motion.
I don't even have an especially powerful PC and this game is still gorgeous in motion.

When Activision canned what was then-known as an upcoming True Crime game, they did so with the rationale that the game simply was, in their view, not going to be competitive in what was already an immensely competitive genre. In retrospect this seems completely nuts, to me. We'll never be able to completely know exactly what special sauce Square Enix added to the mix when they rescued the game from the dumpster, but Sleeping Dogs has one of the most well-realized depictions of an Asian setting I can think of, and certainly the most beautiful depiction of Hong Kong in video games.

One of the biggest criticisms I feel like Grand Theft Auto has come under is that in style those games don't have the flair for doing different settings the way they did in the generations previous. Each one felt like it had something different, whether it was in time, or place, or tone. Where GTA III was an amazing step in its own right, Vice City was a coke-addled 80s Miami fever dream, San Andreas was a boyz-in-the-hood trip of 90s gangsta rap, and GTA IV was a sobering, serious tone that reeled everything back in, GTA V was... present day California, more or less. I never got the chance to play much of it (and I'm probably one of the very few, at this point, since it sold eight hundred bajillion copies) but the setting and tone of the story never really stood out much in the way the past games had. Ultimately, the setting is perhaps the largest part of what makes an open world game feel interesting, as the mechanics shared between them feel so same-y. Sleeping Dogs' Hong Kong feels amazing and fresh in the same way I felt about Vice City, this world that no one was doing this well, this perfect recreation of this place and time, I felt immersed in a way that I hadn't expected this stupid-looking game to be.

Part of what helps that, of course, is the characters and voice acting; the VA genuinely being some of the best I've ever had the pleasure of listening to in a video game. It's hard to describe exactly what this game does differently. Perhaps its the collection of various accents, the way there are so many different distinct voices for all of the characters instead of several repeat actors, a problem that plagues Bethesda games more than any other. Perhaps its the surprisingly well used celebrity talent that lifts it up a notch. Regardless, Sleeping Dogs' characters just feel so much more real than most games I've played, and how much I enjoyed listening to them was a pleasant surprise.

The gun combat, on the other hand, is not as good.
The gun combat, on the other hand, is not as good.

The hand-to-hand combat, too, makes Sleeping Dogs stand out among its peers. Double nice for me is that, since I've never played the Arkham games at all, the whole thing was more or less new to me. Still though, I can't help but feel like the credit that goes to that series for practically inventing that style of countering into chain attacks feel overblown. I digress. Fighting groups of gangsters, learning new moves at the martial arts school, it feels good in a way that no other open world game of this type has managed.

There were plenty other little touches throughout the game that I enjoyed. The direction markers in-world that display where you need to be going made car travel the least confusing of any games I've played from this genre, and the way they're marked with different colors depending on the type of objective you're going to is one of those "You really didn't have to do that, but it's nice that you did" things. The tutorial on gun combat is also a neat setpiece - and coincidentally probably the only time I actually thoroughly enjoyed the gunplay - doubling as a CSI-like crime scene reenactment. It's those stylistic touches they didn't have to do that I'll end up remembering.

So what was wrong with Activision, eh?

I cared more about the overall story, and the characters therein, than I thought I would.

Though it's a well-worn scenario, Wei Shen is really a phenomenal character.
Though it's a well-worn scenario, Wei Shen is really a phenomenal character.

What I enjoyed most of all throughout the story, and sadly what it doesn't really make good on in the end, is how so many of the characters are initially painted as sympathetic, internally conflicted figures. Wei, chief among them, has a kinship with the people he has gone undercover to infiltrate, making him far and away the best person for the job, but also the most likely to grow dangerously attached. He does, of course, and this can be seen from a mile away, but even though that can be immediately guessed, his story along the way is touching.

Sent undercover to bring down the Triad organization known as the Sun On Yee, by boss cop Pendrew and Wei's handler Raymond, things predictably spiral out of control as Triad bosses come and go, people are slaughtered, the chairman of the Sun On Yee is killed, and outright war erupts. For most of the game, though, it's not some sort of balls-to-the-wall war through the streets. (Which is good, because when the game does reach that point, it suffers tremendously, but more on that later.) Wei mostly spends his time making contacts, weaseling his way up the ladder, and protecting Jackie, a childhood friend. On the side, you'll deal with Inspector Teng, a female cop who doesn't appreciate you rampaging through her city, and your bosses, who repeatedly berate you for disobeying orders and caring too much about your newfound Triad connections.

"Broken Nose" Jiang is another one of my favorite characters. It's a bummer you don't spend much time with her in the end.

I don't care for just giving long-winded plot summaries, and it's a game you should really experience for yourself, so I'll just say that the popular image of this game as being purely stupid-fun lulled me into a false sense of what this game's tone really was, in a way I really enjoyed. After a scene in which Jackie kills someone who was about to hurt Wei, Jackie spends most of the car ride back freaking out, unable to get a grip after what just happened. He deliriously rambles about the look in the man's eyes, the feeling in the pit of his stomach, how he never expected things to escalate as far as they did. Wei responds by telling him, in a way that you suspect is trying to convince himself as much as Jackie, the feelings go away with time if you just stop thinking about it. Later, in the next mission you do with Jackie, he's still fucked up about it, and only wants to do less dangerous, low-key missions. He starts talking about what he wants his future to be, and soon realizes he wants out as quickly as he got in. Perhaps to some, this character evolution is rote, but they still had impact for me.

Pendrew begins as an interesting, complex character, and then the game ruins him.
Pendrew begins as an interesting, complex character, and then the game ruins him.

It's frustrating that the plot doesn't maintain that level of quality, because the characters that are good are so good, and it's because I ended up caring so much about the story that I was so upset when the last couple hours fuck things up so hard. Everything is about building up to a Sun On Yee election, and then shit goes sideways, Jackie is killed, you're outed as a cop, and suddenly everything you've spent hours building up to, everything you've been interacting with these characters about, stops mattering. It's just a bunch of fight scenes, you find out Pendrew screwed you from behind the scenes by outing your cover and killing Uncle Po himself, and the game kind of abruptly ends with Pendrew going to jail and Jiang leaving you in peace. Then credits. I cannot overstate how abrupt and unsatisfying the ending of the game really is. It's basically just a bunch of incredibly short cutscenes awkwardly stitched together. It feels so detached from the rest of the narrative.

What is arguably most disappointing, though, is how all moral greyness is robbed from Pendrew's character and he's turned into a cartoonishly selfish villain and literal murderer. Why? Pendrew starts the game as a character who bends rules and even though he is a dick from time to time, his motivations are largely sympathetic and his overall goal is hard to argue with. When he bickers with Raymond about Wei being the right person for the job, he's not wrong. When he lectures Wei about getting too attached, he's not wrong. But then the story removes any of this and morphs him into a sociopath. There's no longer any conflict about is he good or bad, is he right or wrong. Perhaps what is most egregious about this, though, is that it was totally unnecessary. The story could've had a perfectly satisfying conclusion without dealing with Pendrew in any way whatsoever. Very little about the game is concerned with dealing with Pendrew, so for the ending to suddenly swerve into that was just shitty. At least these are better complaints to level against Sleeping Dogs than talking about "ludonarrative dissonance."

Sleeping Dogs doesn't really break any new ground, but is still far above average.

Yakuza does karaoke minigames better, but hey, I can't argue with the inclusion.
Yakuza does karaoke minigames better, but hey, I can't argue with the inclusion.

I know a lot of people like to champion this game as being one of the best open world games of the last generation, but part of me feels like that's a hard argument to make. The actual contents of Sleeping Dogs' mission design can be fairly repetitive, and are largely standard for the genre. Tailing missions. Racing missions. Shoot-out-the-window-while-my-homie-drives missions. These missions are what they are, they are executed well enough, there's nothing offensive about them, but what makes Sleeping Dogs special is not any of these things.

What makes Sleeping Dogs special is that it can include a lot of the standard mechanics of open world games, but wrap them in a gorgeous and unique setting, while lifting some of the best trappings of other games and including them for flavor. Stunt-position hijacking is, while not unique, a great addition to a game of this type. Environmental special attacks have been in a plethora of other games, but are delightfully brutal and make each encounter feel less same-y. Parkour is nice, but Assassin's Creed has this in spades. The way you can sort of strafe from side to side in a vehicle like you're playing with bumper cars is a silly contrivance, but is incredibly fun and minimizes the frustration that car chases in other games typically have. It can be easy to nitpick Sleeping Dogs, but if last year's Game of the Year Awards from various publications proved anything, it's that a game can be considered one of the best of all time by doing little more than finding the right concoction of expected mechanics with only a little bit new added to the pot. There's nothing wrong with that. Games are supposed to be fun, and Sleeping Dogs is loads of fun.

But where Shadow of Mordor adds a stand-out system on top of its bog-standard mechanical formulas, Sleeping Dogs is merely doing things you are probably already familiar with, and just doing them really well. This is why I can't really consider this game anything other than solidly above average. And that's okay! The story may falter, and some mission types (including, sadly, the relationship missions) are utterly forgettable, but the act of playing Sleeping Dogs is never a hassle. The music is good, the fighting is satisfying, the characters are deceptively interesting, and Hong Kong has never been more fun. Sometimes that's all you need. That, and a little bit of corny music.

If-I-Had-To-Give-It-A-Rating-I-Guess: 4 / 5

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