Saturday Summaries 2018-08-25: The Last of The Last Remnant Edition

I was alerted to news the other day that The Last Remnant, an Unreal Engine-based RPG created by Square Enix for Xbox 360 and PC and geared towards western audiences, is to be removed from the Steam store close to its tenth anniversary. Now, this could mean that a remaster is on the way, but it seems odd to not announce that in the same note as the removal of the original. Another possibility is the expiration of a music licensing deal, though The Last Remnant has an original soundtrack so I can't see how this would be the case. At any rate, Square Enix neglected to say why they were delisting the game from Steam - which is definitely the preferable version, as it fixed a lot of issues that plagued the earlier 360 original as well as tweaking the difficulty and adding more recruitable characters - only that it was happening in the first week of September with a customary thanks to the game's fans.

Given its relatively lukewarm critical reception, I don't think Square Enix was particularly proud of the game. However, I'm here to advocate on its behalf, as a flawed RPG with a great deal of ambition and clever ideas. I've included it in countless lists I've devised in the past, because for all its bugs and convoluted mechanics it remains a highly memorable game that happily and frequently took risks and pushed the envelope.

R.I.P., you weirdass game.
R.I.P., you weirdass game.

You can't really talk about The Last Remnant without addressing its combat system. Rather than fight as individuals, each character can join a "union" of five combatants - the slots that don't contain named characters are filled with random grunts - and the player doesn't so much select specific attacks and abilities but give out more ambiguous orders. An order to attack might include a special attack from a character that has one, but could just as easily be a round of normal attacks. Likewise, telling a group to go on the defensive might involve units guarding, but also casting support buffs to minimize damage. In practice it's a little frustrating that you can't always depend on your strongest abilities round after round, but the way the game sets combat up makes it feel more like guiding a real battle, where you only have time for general commands and your subordinates follow the spirit of your orders as best as they can. There's also elaborate rules concerning flanking unions and keeping them locked in melees, which you can use to your advantage to protect vulnerable unions or keep them at a distance from incoming enemy threats. A union of brawlers that can be used to intercept anyone who comes close to your union of spellcasters, for instance, or marching in with a tank union to distract an enemy union so that your heavy hitters can flank them for critical damage. It all starts to feel vaguely like turn-based wargaming before too long, even if the reality's not quite there.

There's also all the game's neat quirks like a final boss that becomes way stronger the more side-questing you do, sidestepping the usual issue of stomping the antagonist in an anti-climactic final battle because you spent so long boosting your team by fighting superbosses and the like, or the way battles have three musical tracks - one for neutral, one for when the enemy has you on the ropes, and one for a reverse situation when you're in control. There's a superboss that only has to touch the ground to fulfil an ancient prophecy for the end of the world, and it's your job to take it out before that happens. There are the remnants themselves - semi-sentient ancient weapons scattered across the world that can either help or hinder the present-day races that attempt to live side-by-side with them - which can sometimes be used by major characters as personal weapons, or are enormous landmarks that lend the game world and its settlements a range of visual variety. There are pivotal story scenes like this (spoiler warning), that can be both badass and heartbreaking. Finally, there's the soundtrack, which I'm hoping isn't the reason for the game's removal because it's one of the best from that generation: a fusion of dramatic orchestral music and fast-paced heavy metal, with great battle tunes like The Gates of Hell, Out of Control, and Reversal.

It's a game that can be difficult to get on its frequency but easy to love, as feisty and bizarre as it is. I tend to have a soft spot for games that overreach, perhaps, as I find innovation - even when it doesn't pan out - infinitely more compelling than a competently-made game that is content to follow the leader. (Though there is something to be said for actually playing the game and grappling with its unintuitive mechanics compared to fondly remembering its big swings for the fences. You could say the same about The Last Remnant that you could Resonance of Fate, and I could not get into the latter at all despite its cult following.)

Speaking of underappreciated, we have a few updates to our regular blog features this week:

  • The Indie Game of the Week was Last Day of June, talking of "Last" games. An atmospheric adventure game about using time travel to undo a great tragedy, and realizing that the past is less malleable than you'd hope. Between its high bloom and saturation, faceless characters, and some kind of impressionist visual filter over everything, the game has a certain dreamlike quality that lends itself well to the magical realism narrative. It didn't exactly run well for me on my PC - few 3D-heavy games do - but if you're into the certain genre of short, minimal-puzzle, narrative-rich adventure game experiences I'd recommend checking it out.
  • Now that the Sega Mega Drive has been put away for the rest of the year, the triumphant Super Nintendo Entertainment System has free reign over the Tuesday slot, along with a new feature to debut next week. SNES Classic Mk. II: Episode XVII: Dream Bream Machine covers HAL's Kirby's Dream Land 3, which was only left off the original SNES Classic because it already had a Kirby game Nintendo liked more, and Umihara Kawase, the bizarre and challenging speedrun-friendly grappling hook platformer that was way ahead of its time.

Addenda

TV: Disenchantment (Season 1)

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I couldn't help but dig into the first season of Netflix's Disenchantment, the new animated series from Matt Groening, with prior The Simpsons alumni Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein as showrunners along with a team of fresh-faced writers and performers. Switching tracks from the sci-fi trappings of Futurama, with which Disenchantment shares an enormous amount of DNA - David X. Cohen produces, the animation studio is still Rough Draft Studios, and it features the voicework of regulars Maurice LaMarche (Kif), John DiMaggio (Bender), Billy West (Fry), David Herman (Scruffy), and Tress MacNeille (Mom, and most of the other female characters) - to a new fantasy universe, in which the rebellious and irresponsible Princess Tiabeanie (or Bean to her friends, voiced by Broad City's Abbi Jacobson) of Dreamland stifles under the strict authority of her father King Zog. She's joined in her misadventures by a wayward elf, Elfo (Nat Faxon), who grows tired of the endless whimsy of his Smurfs-esque home village, and Luci (Eric Andre), a laid-back demon who is meant to be corrupting Bean but isn't in any hurry. The rest of the cast is filled out by Bean's reptilian stepmother Queen Oona, sneaky royal advisor Odval and alchemist Sorcerio, a few recurring knights, and Bunty, Bean's lady-in-waiting. It also features a number of British comedic actors in semi-recurring roles, presumably because their accents are appropriate for the theme.

Honestly, the first season was a little rough in spots. It took a while to figure out that it wasn't going for a joke-filled sitcom structure that The Simpsons and Futurama had; more of a serial dramedy with humorous interludes. The first season is built around the search for an Elixir of Life, something that requires elf's blood (Elfo gets beat up a lot this season) and eventually leads to a quest to recover a specific vial from an ancient civilization. The show doesn't spend every episode on this quest, however; many instead help to establish Bean's role in her kingdom, her budding friendly relationships with Elfo and Luci, some of the side characters (though a handful are content to be joke machines), and the travails of Dreamland itself. The comedy never rises to be as transcendent as Futurama, let alone The Simpsons at its prime, but it usually gets in a few good jokes per episode. The rest of my complaints are just nitpicky stuff, like the way only one scene in five has footstep noises, so the many times where there aren't any makes the show feel sort of unfinished. Like watching that movie trailer where they forgot to add some of the sound channels.

It's heartening to see that Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein - the duo who were also showrunners for The Simpsons during two of its better seasons and had been staff members since the third - finally get another chance at their Mission Hill type of show: one that focuses on young adults attempting to discover themselves and find their own happiness in the occasionally hostile grown-up world of employment, rent, bills, taxes, and other responsibilities (though here it's also hostile in a more literal sense with all the bandits, ogres and dragons). There's definitely room to grow for future seasons, even if the season one finale has a big shake up which promises a different direction for Disenchantment, and I have faith in its high pedigree of writers and actors that this show will eventually fill that Futurama-shaped hole in my heart. As first seasons go, it's certainly not a disaster.

Movie: The Meg (2018)

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The Meg might've been more of a disaster, though. A book adaptation, the movie has more in common with Jurassic Park than Jaws - while exploring a new area beneath the Marianas Trench, which is revealed to have a "thermocline" layer of super cold hydrogen sulphide gas at its base, a group of scientists accidentally incur the wrath of an 80-foot prehistoric shark (the titular Carcharocles megalodon) which is able to follow their exploratory seacraft back up through the inhospitable layer of gas and wreak havoc in the western Pacific Ocean.

What's odd about the movie is just how artificial it seems, and not in the sense that the sets are wobbly or the special effects resemble something from a student project (in both areas, the movie does fine). It's in how the project was a joint effort between American and Chinese studios, the latter being a very lucrative market for the movie industry right now, which at least has lead to the positive change of more Asian actors in major Hollywood roles but overall results in movies that feel dichotomous with the distinct ways the two regions of the world handle filmmaking. It's also in how it has a PG-13 rating, which feels ridiculous for the type of movie it is - that is, a monster movie that preys on our fears of what might dwell in the open sea and is often rife with cruel fates for the hapless bystanders (or byswimmers) involved - for a lot of mostly bloodless chomping and a relatively low body count with its ensemble cast. When you have a big team of disposable scientists and engineers in a movie like this, it's almost expected that you'll dramatically lose them all one at a time. You know Jason Statham, who plays a deep sea rescue expert, isn't going to fall into the shark's mouth, and neither is the cute kid or the love interest, but the rest - Ruby Rose as the architect of the Mana One aquatic laboratory, Cliff Curtis as the security expert, Rainn Wilson as the insensitive billionaire investor, Page Kennedy as the comic relief who presumably does something on the station - all have "shark chum" written all over them. Or at least, you would think so. Definitely a bit toothless, as it were.

However, I wouldn't say it was a terrible movie. Just sort of immaterial in the grand scheme of things. It lacks the tension of Jaws, the silly misanthrophy of Deep Blue Sea, the chills of Deep Rising, or whatever ironic appreciation value the Sharknado movies supposedly coast on. It takes itself and its premise seriously enough, barring the occasional munching of a Zorbing guy or a whale suddenly getting bitten in half, and while it's not bad it ended up occupying a slot in my brain that will be quickly replaced by something else. Maybe one to stick on Netflix while nursing a hangover, though I wouldn't recommend investing more effort than that.

Game: Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire

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I haven't played too much of PoE 2 yet; I've had quite a journey just getting my old Pillars of Eternity completion save file back so I could import it. I apparently didn't retain it on the Steam Cloud service, so I had to boot up my old creaky desktop (which works fine, making me wonder why I replaced it with this laptop in the first place) to recover the files just to find out that the game addresses imported characters the same relatively minor way Mass Effect 2 does - that is, you're still rebuilding your protagonist from scratch with no equipment and back to level 1, but the world at least remembers the decisions you made and subtly changes the story to match. The game also lets you craft your own PoE playthrough via an interactive menu of decisions you could've made - ones that affect the core plot, the state of various side-quests, and how much you bothered to help your recruitable party members in their own personal missions. You can see the effects these choices had when you're playing, as NPC lines and player responses have a little icon next to them to indicate that they exist because of your PoE playthrough.

What little I've seen of Deadfire's plot concerns the sudden awakening of the immense adra statue beneath Caed Nua - your home base for much of Pillars of Eternity - which caused the deaths of everything in the vicinity (including yourself, sorta) and the complete destruction of the settlement in question. The immense statue - which turns out to be possessed by the God of Light, Eothas - then strided off to the southeast towards the Deadfire Archipelago: a region that so far feels like a cross between the South Pacific and the West Indies. The remaining Caed Nua residents, including your previous companion Eder, have spent what's left of the castle's resources on a fast boat, and is following the giant as best they can. That's when you suddenly dramatic reawaken, having been recruited by Berath, the God of Death, to keep tabs on what Eothas is up to in exchange for your life.

I've explored one island so far and levelled up twice, so I'm getting a decent sense of what the game will be like this time around. For one, there's no longer a keep-building feature - Caed Nua got blown the eff up, as previously stated - but rather you're spending excess money and resources on your ship, the Defiant (no, not that one). That also means finding crew members for crucial roles like navigator and helmsman, upgrading cannons, sails and the hull, and ensuring that it has plenty of resources and food for the voyages ahead. It feels very Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag or Skies of Arcadia, which is not a bad thing at all, and I'm wondering what the ship combat will be like once I reach that point. (Right now the Defiant is a wreck on a distant beach, and I'm required to complete a task for the local governor before it can be repaired.) The combat feels streamlined - you can toggle an AI that incorporates abilities with cooldowns for the sake of expediency, or simply set it to auto-attack until you intervene with specific instructions - yet still includes complex things like attacks of opportunity for moving out of "engagement" (what the game calls it when a melee combatant is focused on one target) and having spells/equipment that can counter the effects of certain enemy attacks. It feels like the health system has been changed too: it used to be that you'd have two separate health bars, a small one for your active health where you'd be KO'd if it bottomed out during a battle, and then a larger health bar that accumulated all the damage you'd taken since you last rested and acted more like a barometer of how close to death (and thus in need of a rest) you were. I've yet to have a character fall unconscious during a battle, but I've noticed that you can incur "injuries": negative status effects from failing to notice a trap, for instance, that requires a rest before they go away. However, the second larger health bar seems to have gone, which suggests that PoE 2 has a different system for penalizing those who fall in battle but no ill consequences if you're all still standing at the end - a system I much prefer to the older cycle of healing everyone back to full HP after every battle.

Because the game is so lore-dense, you can mouseover certain keywords to get a blurb on the subject. It's really handy for those of us who have sieve-like memories when it comes to game-specific jargon.
Because the game is so lore-dense, you can mouseover certain keywords to get a blurb on the subject. It's really handy for those of us who have sieve-like memories when it comes to game-specific jargon.

I don't doubt PoE 2 will start to feel like the old, complicated RPGs of the Infinity Engine era before too long. I've recruited a couple of characters so far and have that same dilemma I did in PoE 1's early-game where I could either wait to fill out the rest of my party slots with other pre-generated characters with their own dialogue and side-stories, or grab a couple of custom-made hirelings from the in-game character creator found in taverns and inns in the meantime. I appreciated that the game gives you some limited choices as to the classes of established story characters - Eder has the stats for a fighter or a rogue or a multi-class hybrid, so you can choose which one you want when you hire him if you're looking for a specific party build. (Curiously, both my current party members - Xoti and Eder - are both big fans of Eothas, despite the fact he killed me and everyone else at Caed Nua when he awoke. A future source of friction, I think.) Oh, and I really like the new map system where you move across the overworld in real-time hitting nodes which could be separate locations to visit or simply a pile of resources or a small menu-driven "choose your adventure" instance similar to those found in Torment: Tides of Numenera.

I'll have more to say about Pillars of Eternity 2 in future editions of Saturday Summaries, as I imagine it'll be a game that will take a while to complete if it's anything like the first. I like games that have a ship as your home base - while Suikoden IV was very average, I was a huge fan of Skies of Arcadia and the Mass Effect trilogy, both of which helped make their respective crafts feel like another member of the party - even if it is weirding me out just how similar the Pillars of Eternity overarching plot resembles that of Risen, which also took to pirating and archipelagos for its first sequel and also involved gigantic titans tearing the world asunder. Still, this seems to be an exceptionally well-made RPG so far and I'm excited to see more of it. I'm just happy I was able to run it on my PC - the minimum required specs suggested a different story.

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