Saturday Summaries 2018-11-10: Versatility vs. Veterancy Edition

I've always considered myself eclectic when it comes to video games, bouncing between multiple genres to take in the wide range of mechanical diversity that this medium commands, but I'm also cognizant that my tastes aren't quite as broad as I'd like to purport. I think this illusion of being a more well-rounded gamer (in several senses) is borne from the time I've spent here, at Giant Bomb. Nobody on staff exhibits my particular range of gaming interests - RPGs, adventure games, puzzle games, platformers, open-world, and maybe the occasional FPS - but I've deluded myself into thinking that's because I play a wider variety of games rather than the truth that they have significant spheres of their own chosen genres which frequently overlap but don't entirely envelop my own. I don't often dabble with MMOs, rhythm games, sports games, online shooters, MOBAs, RTS, or simulation games as often as others working at Giant Bomb - all of which encompass a huge number of new releases that I'm routinely ignoring.

There's also the factor, and this has become more significant as the game industry's grown and we're seeing more and more releases per year, that if you were to stick to a balanced diet of genres you'll never get the full width and breadth of any one of them. There's simply too many games in every genre that, unless you specialize in one or two, you'll unlikely have the time to see them all unless you have an enormous budget for new games and/or only spend a few hours with each. That's especially true of RPGs and their typically gargantuan run-times: even if all I played this year was new RPGs, I don't think I would've found time for them all, and I've spent much of my gaming life this year on other genres too.

Visual novels have been something I've slowly started to incorporate in my playing habits. There's a lot of great ones out there, most I still need to catch up with.
Visual novels have been something I've slowly started to incorporate in my playing habits. There's a lot of great ones out there, most I still need to catch up with.

When Patrick Klepek still worked at Giant Bomb, and I'm sure this is still true to an extent for his time at Kotaku and Waypoint, he made a habit of regularly breaking away from his comfort zone and trying games normally outside his wheelhouse. In the process he discovered Zero Escape, Danganronpa, Persona, and a whole bunch of other eccentric franchises that might initially deter a guy raised on conventional and popular shooters, sports games, and survival horror. I've tried to take on something like that myself with the Indie Game of the Week feature, but even if the Indies I play have atypical mechanics or structures, they all still tend to fall within my triumvirate of "adventure/platformer/RPG" for the most part. With the sheer volume of games coming out every year in the genres and franchises we care about, it's harder to take the time to appreciate what else is out there and test the waters of new genres and games that, in a parallel universe, we might've included among our favorites. There's a tendency for the modern video game audience to become too tribal; not just in the usual console wars sense of where one might fall in the rivalry between Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, but in the familiar genres and worlds we cling to and our lack of time and inclination to expand our horizons. That's evident in how quickly certain types jump to the defense of these habit-forming games when a perceived outsider - such as a professional critic whose job it is to explore the full scope of this medium - is too unable to grasp their nuances with the necessarily small amount of time and mental resources they can afford to spend on them.

At this point, I'm describing about three or four different issues at once, but suffice it to say that a year heavy with RPG releases like this one has me thinking about how much I've become a dilettante of RPGs rather than an expert, despite having played hundreds of them, simply because it - and so many other genres - have become so heavily represented that you'd have to sacrifice too much variety in your playstyle to become an authority in any one field. I'm not sure I'd be willing to do that, and so more and more games I'd otherwise love the chance to play must instead slip between my fingers as I'm forced to prioritize if I still want a wide range of experiences. It does feel harder to call myself an RPG expert when I've yet to play the newest games from the Dragon Quest, Xenoblade, Legend of Heroes, Ys, Ni no Kuni, Mass Effect, Divinity: Original Sin, Valkyria Chronicles, or Yakuza franchises. And those are just the major tentpoles. First-world problems, for sure, but vexing ones all the same.

Just the one blog this week. Tuesday was particularly busy due to Extra Life, and I sort of needed the rest of the week to recover from all the late moderatin' nights I was putting in. My plans were also changed to accommodate another user's blogs, and I flaked on finding something to fill that gap with. Never mind; I'll probably be blogging like a crazyperson come December and the many pieces I want to finish before the year is through. Here's the solo piece for this week:

  • The Indie Game of the Week this time was Rakuen, an adventure game after To The Moon's own heart in more ways than one. Set alternatively in a hospital and a storybook fantasy world, Rakuen has you changing the fortunes of the other patients in your ward by helping out their ersatz fantasy equivalents, learning more about their tragic backstories and hopes and dreams in the process. It's a slow-burn of a game, one filled with more content and puzzles than To The Moon had if classic adventure gameplay is more your jam, and will hit you with so many gut punches you'll think you were Houdini. Worth the look, and I'm sad it took a whole year before I was introduced to it. Really seems like it would've been up Vinny's or Abby's street at least.


Movie: Spy (2015)

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I had some other plans for this week's movie, but the Giant Bomb East team were hyping up this 2015 Paul Feig/Melissa McCarthy spy parody during the first episode of GolDanEye so I figured it was about time to check it out. This is the second of his movies I've seen, the first being the thematically similar The Heat, but from what I can tell they have a tendency to not so much spoof the genre but play around in that space as a vehicle for comedy. That is to say that these movies stick more or less to the conventions of their genres, give or take a few subversions and certain actors gleefully sending up their prior tough guy roles, and do so with a certain amount of dignity and respect for what would normally be a comedic lead prone to broad slapstick.

McCarthy's character Susan Cooper is a middle-aged CIA analyst tethered to a handsome, debonair, but not particularly respectful secret agent fittingly called Bradley Fine (Jude Law, one of many British ringers in this cast), working as his remote support and information gatherer back at CIA HQ. Fine's sudden demise while on a case has Cooper impulsively volunteering for field work, something she's technically been cleared for but never actually undertaken, in order to avenge him and finish his mission. From there the movie gets a little loose with its structure, as she follows Fine's killer - the brilliantly withering Rose Byrne - and tries to unravel a plot full of double agents and mysterious assassins with her occasional side-kick played by awkward British comedy icon Miranda Hart, which I believe is her first and only role in a major US movie.

The movie can be a little meandering as a result, but a lot of time it serves to maneuver McCarthy into a position where she can demonstrate her comedic talents. Notably, she decides to shift her cover from oblivious tourist to tough-guy underworld bodyguard just so she could let expletives fly and conjure up some really brutal verbal putdowns, which she also used to great effect in The Heat. There's a lot of "big person fall down" physical comedy too, but it's underscored by sequences where Cooper actually holds her own in fistfights and shoot-outs, proving that she's more than adept for spy work and was almost certainly deliberately sidelined by Bradley Fine so she wouldn't rise past him. There's also the wildcard presence of Jason Statham's perpetually apoplectic agent Rick Ford, given to detailing his own Chuck-Norris-meme-level exploits and playing up his unusually invincible image cultivated by batshit action movies like The Transporter and Crank. It's clear he's having a lot of fun, as is Law as a negging bounder, Peter Serafinowicz as a lascivious Italian CIA contact, Allison Janney as Cooper's no-nonsense CIA boss, and Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson as a fictional version of himself that's perhaps a little less badass than a certain other fictional version of himself that was obsessed with bejewelled skulls. That sense of fun, plus some great lines and performances, makes it a better comedy than most in recent years, even if it can be a bit overlong and rudderless and prone to a tag-team nature of cast members suddenly appearing and disappearing at various points in the movie.

Game: Tales of Berseria

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I feel like I'm approaching endgame with this one. Barring some substantial post-game content, which I might just save for a NG+ run (I feel like I've talked about how Tales does NG+ well several times in the past), it's looking like the story is coming to a head and I might just see it through and move onto the handful of larger games I want to see before GOTY season shows up.

We've already spoken about: the combat; the versatile difficulty settings; the Expeditions mode; the Dire Foes and Code Red Monsters; the setting and story, but only briefly enough to avoid spoilers; and its item skill mastery system borrowed from Final Fantasy IX and others like it. I'll go into the characters in more depth when I finally update my "Tales of Tiers" list (which also needs Zestiria's band of uninteresting nobodies). Maybe this time I'll get away from the nitty-gritty mechanics stuff and talk more generally about the game's tone and themes.

Tales of Berseria is, I feel, the Star Wars prequel trilogy to Zestiria's original trilogy. Zestiria has a typical story of a world on the brink of ruination and a hero emerging to finally halt the tide of darkness sweeping the land. What Berseria and the prequel trilogy asks is: How did the world get so messed up to begin with? The player's six-person party is a gaggle of monstrous misfits - a daemon, a daemon who eats daemons, a pirate with "the Reaper's curse", a witch, and essentially two captives from the "good guy" exorcist organization of the world - and the game frequently takes the time to delve into its lead character's PTSD and the dehumanizing affect it's had on her psyche.

Another of the major recurring themes is the bond between siblings: Velvet's brother's death is the most profound event of her life and is frequently the focus of the game's story, as is her relationship with the malakhim which she impulsively named after her deceased brother due to their strong resemblance, but there's also a sympathetic brother/sister pair of recurring bosses, Rokurou's vicious rivalry with his overachieving and cruel brother, Eizen's tender but deliberately estranged relationship with his sister (Zestiria's Edna), and even only child and goodie-goodie Eleanor eventually forms a sisterly bond with Velvet - one marked alternatively with subtle affection and open hostility. I feel like the game runs through every permutation of the relationship two siblings might have, fraught or loving or somewhere in-between, and it supersedes most any other familial or romantic connection that might exist between its characters.

The story's been a lot darker and more interesting than many Tales games of late, going all the way back to Vesperia's "the ends justify the means" protagonist Yuri Lowell, and now that I'm close enough to the end that I'm getting a procession of big twists and the tying up of plot threads, I'm appreciating just how layered and messed up the game is. It's easy to lose sight of that if you spend way too much time grinding and farming rare equipment drops as I have, though that isn't to say that the game's meat and potatoes combat isn't compelling by its own merits. I'm still loving that I was discovering new things about the game past the mid-point - for one, I mentioned geoboards last week, and while they're simply a means to move around the map faster, you also have to find the activation point semi-hidden on every map, and some level design is now built around finding this point and using the geoboard's unique ability to cross gaps as part of the progression - and I'll be sad to see it end. Sad and relieved too, as I've still got more games to play before that aforementioned GOTY season begins. I've never been one to rush a game I've been enjoying, but my current GOTY list is looking pathetically small right now...

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