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Voltech's blog

9:36 PM on 09.23.2015

No Notion of Good or Bad

I’m one of those strange and possibly terrible people who thinks that The Simpsons is still funny.  In my defense, I don’t think it’s laugh-out-loud or roll-on-the-floor funny, but for me the show has never been that way.  So while I’ll gladly watch some of the newer episodes (warts and all), I can still appreciate the nature of earlier seasons.  Except the earlier versions of Lisa.  Like, was she always so annoying and pretentious?  Discuss.

At any rate, there’s a joke from one episode where Homer becomes the voice of Poochie, the latest and “greatest” addition to the Itchy and Scratchy cartoon.  Naturally, he tries to make a suggestion: whenever Poochie isn’t on-screen, everyone should be asking “Where’s Poochie?”  As one would.  I’ve been thinking about it, because -- not to indulge in megalomania -- I’d hope there’s at least one person here on Dtoid who’s willing to ask “Where’s Voltech?”  And even though it’s not the first time I’ve gone long stretches without a single post, I figured that I should speak up.  Things are different this time around, after all.

I guess I should start by saying that at the very end of July my dad went in to the hospital.  He’d caught pneumonia on a business trip, itself the result of some dehydration.  That wasn’t helped by the fact that he was no stranger to the taste of alcohol, and he’d been a smoker since well before I was born.  So the pneumonia had him laid up in a bed for several weeks, which led to friends and family going in and out regularly to visit him.  He had up days, and he had down days, but for the most part he acted fine.

But the problems went further than that.  As it turned out, he had blood clots in his heart that needed tending to.  More pressingly, the doctors found a mass on his liver -- which I hope I don’t need to go in detail about -- and he wasn’t a candidate for surgery because it had grown too large.  But it wasn’t exactly a death sentence; he got some medicine to help him out on all fronts, and he was ultimately released from the hospital.  Granted he had to be hooked up to oxygen for a good while, and using a wheelchair/walker was recommended (though not required, since he could still walk), but recovery was still plenty feasible.  That’s what it seemed like, at least.

This is where I’d toss out the plot twist, but you guys probably know.  I used way too much past tense.

So yeah.  My dad passed away.  His heart suddenly gave out one evening, and doctors couldn’t resuscitate him -- and even if they could, he had been out long enough to become a vegetable once he woke up.  I’ve never seen a bigger instance of “NOPE” in my life, and I hope I never have to see it again. It’s been rough, to say the least -- on friends, on family, and on me.  I made the mistake of speaking at his memorial service, only to burst into tears mid-speech.  (In retrospect, maybe that was because I subconsciously realized that my on-the-fly speech was terrible and I was flagging out there.)

But I’ll be okay.  I’m okay now -- or at least getting there.  I’ve given thanks to my dad for everything he’s done for me, and no amount of tears is going to change the past, present, or future.  Besides, I still consider myself a lucky person, and not just because I had such a cool dad.  My last words to him were “Call me if you need anything”, and his last words to me were “Thank you”.  Maybe not the best words, but more than good enough.  Plus, even if I didn’t exactly say it in full -- because a mime with a sore throat is a better conversationalist -- I DID manage to give him a birthday present in the form of a post aptly titled “My Dad is the Best in the Universe”.

I’m gonna be okay, eventually.  But that’s not why I’m here today.

I’m not writing this post to say “My dad died, so feel sympathy for me!”  If anything, part of the reason I haven’t tossed anything up here is because I knew I couldn’t do anything before I put something like this up -- and seeing as how I jibba-jabba about video games in a section devoted to jibba-jabba about video games on a website devoted to jibba-jabba about video games, I’m not in the habit of going on and on about my personal life, least of all on a subject that makes people drop what they’re doing to try and make me feel better.  I’ve kind of done that already, but let’s just overlook that for now.

The reason I’m writing this post is because I want to move forward.  I’ve been thinking about my dad, but I’ve also been thinking about myself -- what I want to do, what I need to do, and who I am.  It’s absolutely necessary if I’m going to honor his legacy and prove his prophetic words -- his noble command to “keep the faith” -- as something worth believing in.  And to do that, I need to start again from step one.  Right here, right now.

So here’s the question at hand: why do I keep bitching about video games?

It’s not like I mean to.  Honestly, I prefer talking about video games I like than those that I hate.  I’d rather point out what good games do right than what bad games do wrong -- in theory, at least.  But I guess it’s a whole lot easier to point out problems because…well, there are a lot of them.  I know it seems like nearly every time I come to Dtoid or fire up the ol’ Blogger dashboard, it’s to complain about what this game does wrong, or why this concept is terrible.  And it’s like, “Can’t you enjoy things for once?”  Or “Turn off your brain and go with the flow!”  Or “You just don’t like anything!” 

I take offense to that last one most of all.  There are a lot of things I like beyond the stuff in my stereotyped comfort zone, but my guess -- with the proof to back it up -- is that people would rather read about something negative than something positive, especially if it’s a popular subject.  If I did another post on Devil Survivor 2, which I love, then more people would spend their time wondering what that is instead of diving into discussions of its thematic heft.  If I did another post on Final Fantasy Type-0, which completely falls apart before the halfway point, then people would read on with gusto because Final Fantasy, and any Final Fantasy after FF9 is terrible so let’s all grab our clubs and beat this dead horse.

And that’s how you play the strawman card.

It’s unfortunate that there’s this aura of negativity surrounding the internet, discussions, and even me.  But it’s a necessary evil because, as much as people would like to shrug it off or pretend otherwise, modern-day fiction, across all sorts of mediums, has some serious problems.  What others do, and what I try to do, is point out those problems so that maybe people will see that there is a problem.  Maybe they’ll realize “hey, this isn’t right” and “hey, let’s do something different” and “hey, there are actually other options I never thought of before”.  Maybe they won’t blindly buy into products that blatantly push those problems into our faces.  Maybe we’ll get less of the bad, and more of the good.  Maybe.

But we live in a world that’s far from the ideal.  Yes, we get plenty of good games on a fairly regular basis -- several BioWare games, no shortage of Wii U games, Atlus games, Platinum games, Ratchet and Clank, BioShock, The Witcher 3, Bloodborne, and more.  That’s not even counting the indie games that have shown how creative, high-quality, and outright amazing the medium can be.  Yet those good games don’t always get the respect they deserve, or fade out soon enough.  There are bad eggs out there that raise a bigger stink -- but paradoxically, earn as much money as they do a mindshare.

We live in a world where annualized sequels wring out their last bits of goodwill for a quick buck, all to fund even more sequels with diminishing returns.  Homogenization has turned one game and one franchise after another into the same general game with the slightest tweaks.  Buyouts and closures have forced good men and women out, or under the thumb of big businesses.  Games, franchises, and even genres have been in dire straits for years.  Decisions are made on a regular basis that even a preschooler would take issue with -- least of all those that make dedicated fans froth at the mouth.

Given all that, I’d hope there’s at least some justification for my whining about video games.  I think there’s enough evidence at this point for anyone to either back away from the medium before diving in, or quit outright after years of service.  There are problems out there that affect people, and even if it’s a cause that’s frivolous in the face of the world’s real problems, they’re potent enough to spark thoughts and opinions -- and ultimately, actions.  Thanks to that, I want to take part.  Even if it’s a tiny, pointless effort, I still want to make that effort.  If it’s not for others, then at the very least it’s for me; people just happen to agree with me on occasion.

So the short version of all that is this: I’m super-butthurt by the success of others.  And here’s why.

As you can guess, I’m one of the little guys.  I don’t have a decades-old brand at my beck and call, and I don’t have a multimillion-dollar franchise to my name.  But what I do have are ideas, passion, and dreams.  Well, that, and a decent-sized manuscript…or six.  Like I’ve said before, it’s my mission in life to become a writing hero -- someone who uses his words and stories to put smiles on people’s faces; that goal is more meaningful now than it’s ever been, for obvious reasons.  It’s going to happen someday, even if the process is slow and the going is rough.

Here’s the thing, though: I’m not perfect.  I make mistakes -- and in fact, some of the mistakes I’ve made are so blatantly obvious it’s a wonder I didn’t slap myself the moment I even thought of going through with them.  Notably, some of the mistakes I’ve made -- those related to ideas, concepts, and stories at large -- are things I’ve chided others for.  In fact, blogging and bitching have been an important part of the writing process for me; by seeing what others have done and pointing out what’s good or bad, I can apply that to some of my stuff.  I know what to do, and what not to do. 

I didn’t back then, though -- which would probably explain why I threw out some five hundred thousand words of manuscripts -- several years of work -- and started over.

I’m a better writer now than I was back then, precisely because of all the whining (and occasionally nerding-out) I’ve done online.  I’m still not perfect, though; I have concerns about my subtlety and technique, and I’ve recently discovered how much I spam the word “just”.  But compared to what I used to be, I’m way better.  My characters are stronger, my setting is better-defined, my themes are sharper, my plots are denser, and all things considered, my technique is still several steps above what it was.  So I’m sitting on another five hundred thousand words, have files and queries sent out to eager receivers, and I’m hoping to hear back from them.  Good news, hopefully, instead of more rejections.  Though at this stage, I’d prefer a rejection to weeks, if not months of waiting.

Let the records show, then, that I’m putting in effort to try and make the world (of fiction) a better place.   No telling if what I’ve got is -- to quote Travis Touchdown -- the shit, or just plain shit, but this is something I have to do.  My desire comes from a good place, ultimately, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a dark side to all of it.  Trying to be a creative tour de force is ironclad proof of my conceit and arrogance, which last I checked are the key parts of a terrible person.  It’s something that very nearly requires me to think that I’m the best, and anything that doesn’t suit me is beneath me.

In my defense -- and to reiterate -- there are problems with fiction overall, even beyond the realm of video games.  Honestly, I think video games are running into those problems because fiction itself hasn’t sorted them out; with games as a young medium that’s only semi-recently been capable of putting together a solid narrative, it’s only natural that it struggles with stories.  Granted it also struggles with gameplay from time to time, so it’s not without fault.

But think about it.  Film has been around for…what, more than a hundred years?  There’s been more than enough time to sort out what’s good and what’s bad, so that we can consistently get the good.  Yet here we are with Michael Bay, whose name might as well be a racial slur at this point -- and here we are with another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie on the way, greenlit before the first spent a day in theaters, even though the 2014 outing was…very not great.  And Twilight ended up becoming a cultural phenomenon, despite what looks like an abject hatred of women and men alike and everything related to the concept of “imprinting”.

There are terrible things out there that haven’t just succeeded, but have built empires on the backbone of pandering to base desires and training audiences to stop thinking.  Given that, can you blame me for getting super-butthurt?

The world isn’t the way I want it to be, and I’m tired of it.  I wrote half a million words for the sake of a dream, and then trashed it to write half a million more just to make sure my stuff was good enough and that whatever did get out there deserved to be out there.  My effort will be rewarded someday, but it’s frustrating to know that I share a planet with games, books, movies, and more than act as if they barely have to try -- and then get rewarded anyway.  They have the power when they shouldn’t.  And the only way to fight against that is to gain power.  I have to be more than what I am now, so that the ideal can become real -- for my sake, for my dad’s sake, and for everyone’s sake.

I want to be a writing hero.  But it doesn’t stop with me.  I know that right now, there are people struggling even more than me -- people who have worked harder, lost more, and given up huge parts of themselves for a shot at success.  And I know, instinctively, that there are those who are better than me.  I know there are those who dream harder than I ever could.  So maybe if I succeed -- if I become a hero with the power to make a difference -- then others will see firsthand that they can do the same.  I’ll be the first step, so that others can go even higher.  Even farther.  Someday, I’ll make that happen.  Someday.

So the question now is simple.  What can I do today?

I’m going to keep writing, to put it simply.  This isn’t the last you’ve seen of me here on Dtoid -- and while I won’t commit to a fixed schedule, I will say that more content from me is coming at some point.  I’ve got a backlog of posts I need to get uploaded, but first I need to spruce them up and make sure they’re 100% ready.  Chances are high that they aren’t -- and even if they are, I need to plug in those words, images, and videos step-by-step.  It can be a lengthy process.

With all that said, I have to take time out to make some announcements.  Yes, I’ll be bringing stuff to Dtoid, but my main platform is going to be my personal blog, Cross-Up.  It always has been, and it always will be -- least of all because its dashboard makes uploading stuff a fair bit easier on me.  Plus, I feel more comfortable talking about non-video game stuff there, which happens kind of often (heads up: if you want to see me be positive, marvel when I talk about Gundam Build Fighters, the best anime).  So I’m going to strongly recommend that if you aren’t reading my blog, start doing it now.

The reason for that is twofold.  First off, I said that Cross-Up is going to be my platform, and I meant it.  As you can guess, I’ve seen some setbacks over the past few months -- but I’m not in the mood to call it quits, and I need to work hard if I want to make a difference.  To that end, I have plans to help myself, the blog, and others.  My intent is to make it a platform for others over time, making changes that’ll allow not only for more feedback, but more content.  You know what that means, right?

I’m not going to make any super in-depth promises right now, but yes.  I’ve mulled over a Patreon account/page/system/whatchamajigger for half a year, and I ‘m seriously considering it now.  (Or failing that, I’ll at least gauge interest here.)  If it works as I intend -- barring some research I need to do -- then it’s going to facilitate the platform process that much more effectively.  Those that buy in will presumably be rewarded in some form, and I’ll be rewarded as well.  I won’t just put out more content, but better content.  Maybe I’ll be able to make Oscar-quality videos, even if they’re about video games.  And who knows?  Maybe if it’s an unbridled success, I’ll have the impetus to make a game of my own.  Then I’d really be putting my ass out there.

I have plans, but it might take a bit of time to execute them.  In the meantime, I’ll go by exactly what I said: I’ll keep writing, and keep posting.  I’ll have to start promoting my wares more thoroughly elsewhere on the internet (my first stop is DeviantArt, on account of the stock of files I built up), and let people know that, for starters, I exist.  I’ll see if I can get anything going with Patreon, but at the very least I have a PayPal donation button grafted to the blog.  In the worst-case scenario (?), maybe that’ll be all I need.

In the meantime, though, I guess I need to address you guys (to make up for the fact that I’m badgering for money, support, loyalty, and perhaps even love).  The number one thing that I need is power, but I want that power to be from the fans.  That, of course, means that I need fans -- in which case, what would really help me out is if you guys reading this tell others that I exist -- tell them about my blog, my posts, and (if you dare) me in general.  I’m kind of crap at putting myself out there, but I’d like to think that if people approached me thanks to a job well done, then I could win them over with my thousands and thousands of words.  Nothing would make me happier than being able to build bonds with others, so that together we can make something special happen.  I’m not the only dreamer out there, after all.  We all are.

…So basically, this is a spin on the “like, comment, and subscribe” dance. 

Like I said, I want to move forward.  Even if my dad’s gone, this is no time for fear or despair.  I know what I want to do, as well as what I have to do.  It’s going to take time to fulfill my number one dream, but there are things that I can do right now to make the world -- however small a section of it -- a better place.  I want things to change, but I know now more than ever that I need to be an active participant instead of hiding in the shadows and waiting for the best.  It’s time for me to go on the offensive.

And I hope you guys reading this will go along with me.  I know that some of you have experienced losses before, and I’m sorry for them -- but I also know that they weren’t enough to stop you.  They shouldn’t be enough to stop me, especially if I’m going to make good on my ambitions.  My dad told me to “keep the faith”, and I will.  But in turn, I want to instill that faith in others -- just as he instilled it in me.  So for anyone who made it to the bottom of this page, any page I’ve ever written, or any page I will write?

Thank you.  Now let’s go change the world.

Okay.  So let’s see how many people get the reference in the title without a Google search -- and then I can call them huge nerds for it.


8:26 PM on 08.18.2015

Street Fighter V: Headcanon Edition

Not to play armchair tactician, but there’s a part of me that feels like it’s wrong for Daigo “The Beast” Umehara to play anyone but Ryu.  I’m not about to go doubting his skills or anything -- even if he was in a coma, the guy could play Street Fighter better than I ever could -- but you’d think that a guy who put so much into the franchise as well as embodies the tireless wanderer would have found his soul mate.  But in his recent EVO showings, he’s picked guys like Yun and Evil Ryu.  And I’m pretty much left saying “Is this it?  Has Daigo been corrupted by the power of the Dark Hadou?”

Well, it’s not like he’s turned evil in real life (or has he?!), so he’s free to do as he pleases.  But still, the allure of the character is just too great in Street Fighter IV’s latest -- and probably final -- iteration.  His damage output is incredible, he has nearly all of the tools Ryu has (and then some), and it only takes one hit for him to get started, i.e. melt an enemy’s life bar down to zero.  It’s almost poetic that one EVO had Daigo and his Evil Ryu beaten by John Choi and his normal Ryu, but that didn’t stop The Beast from sticking with the Dark Hadou.

So now I have to wonder: once Street Fighter IV gets phased out and the sequel gains traction, what does that mean for what’s ostensibly the most heinous power in the canon?  Frankly, I’m hoping for a lot.

Okay, I can do without Evil Ryu.  I get what he stands for, and I appreciate it, but I’ve always thought the original Ryu was -- and always will be -- way cooler.  He’s a guy who dropped everything to travel the world in search of good fights and the self-improvement tied to it; his lifestyle isn’t exactly glamorous, but there’s a sense of nobility and romanticism to it.  In that sense, even if SF has never had the most detailed canon, there’s still a canon.  There are still ideas that get communicated in-universe that anyone can at least get a good understanding of. 

But I’d be nuts to pretend like SF’s context and reach out-of-universe didn’t matter.  It’s a game that’s inspired untold millions to become world warriors, even if they have to do so with pads and arcade sticks instead of fists and muscles (or the odd fireball).  The competitions small and large born from the game -- and its offspring, and its contemporaries -- end up giving birth to stories in their own right.  Personal stories, of triumph and defeat, friendships and rivalries, joy and anguish.  Fighting games can let anyone become, if only for a little while, Ryu and all his fellow fighters.  Nothing’s ever going to change that, even if there’s an angry version of him that’s higher up on the tier list.

In a lot of ways, SF doesn’t need a story.  On the other hand, it wouldn’t hurt for Capcom to add one in -- and BOY is there a lot to work with.

I saw Necalli’s reveal with my brother, and the first thing I said was “Check out that Heavenly Sword hair tech.”  I didn’t even know how right I was, because I said that before he popped his V-Trigger.  And then red hair went flying everywhere, and now I wonder if most of the game’s budget went toward that.  Whatever the case, I think Necalli’s a good first step in introducing some new blood into the SF cast, even if he’s close to being “Violent Blanka”.  I don’t intend on playing as him, but he still makes me eager to see the new guys instead of the returning, albeit remixed cast.

Still, what’s got me all amped up isn’t necessarily Necalli, but what he represents.  Before his reveal, producer Yoshinori Ono -- as he often does -- teased with partially-covered screenshots, one of which showed off a red and black aura.  It led some people to believe that Akuma was on his way back in, (in what capacity, we’ve yet to know).  So the implication here is that the new fighter is the owner of a dark and mysterious power, one that corrupts him into the form we know today.  Or forms, as it were; reportedly, one has him as a mad berserker, while the other -- his V-Trigger mode -- makes him brilliant and ruthless.  You’d think it’d be the other way around though, right?  It should, arguably…unless that’s entirely the point.

There’s a joke in The Simpsons where Krusty explains that his addictions and vices have left him a bad place -- that he has to get his fix from moon rocks “just to get up to normal”.  So my guess is that Necalli is a lot like that; without the “mysterious energy” flowing through him, he might as well be a slobbering animal…or an idiot.  One of the most prominent things we’ve heard out of him so far is “Devour-our-our”, which doesn’t sound like the words of a man with his head on straight.  Once he’s powered up, then presumably he can express some sentient thought -- even if that thought is “I’m gonna beat the crap out of you and like it”.

So there are at least two questions that need to be answered right now.  One: What is the “mysterious power” Necalli is tapping into?  Two: Where did it come from?  Asking how or why he can use it is kind of important, but not as much; the wiki explains that the Dark Hadou (or Satsui no Hado, if you prefer) is “a form of ki that is rooted in the darker aspects of the natural human instinct”.  On top of that, using it requires the person to “be so consumed with the desire for winning, or else possess such intense rage, that they are willing to murder”.  A younger Ryu first used it to put that scar on Sagat’s chest, and Akuma is one of the most notable users -- if not addicts -- to the stuff.  But as you can see, it’s clearly had no negative effects on him whatsoever.

Thinking back, I feel like the SF canon has always made a push for these mysterious energies.  The Dark Hadou is the obvious one, but there’s also M. Bison’s Psycho Power, Rose’s Soul Power, and the Tanden and Feng Shui Engines from SFIV (belonging to Seth and Juri, respectively).  Rose’s is the only one among them that comes close to either being a positive force, or used by a good person -- meaning that in general, the moral of the story is that fighters should use their bodies, minds, and spirit to win instead of banking on outside forces.  Sure, you can win with Psycho Power, but at what cost?  So you can be doomed to wear a smile so big it’ll tear your cheeks apart?

The counterpoint to all of this is the Power of Nothingness (Mu no Hadou), discussed on occasion in SFIV and used extensively by Ryu’s master, Gouken.  Like the name implies, it’s a Zen state where the user can tap into the full power of their heart without any corruptive influences or desires.  Apparently, it’s a force that Ken managed to tap into in SFIV’s tie-in movie, and blew off C. Viper’s attacks when even Ryu couldn’t -- because Ken was intent on protecting his family.  It’s more than a little interesting that Ken can and has tapped into the power before Ryu did, even with all of the latter’s training.  The canonicity of that movie is debatable, but there’s a SFIII manga that depicts more or less the same; Ken’s love for his family allowed him to become so strong that he mopped the floor with Ryu. 

I guess the answer lies in the heart of marriage.

Okay, so what does all of this have to do with Necalli?  Nothing directly; I can’t imagine the barbaric brawler having a serene state of mind anytime soon, and the other powers are much too specific to apply.  So my theory right now goes one of two ways: either Necalli is a brand-new user of the Dark Hadou, or he’s a user of a new power that’s just similar enough to it that any layman would have the right to be confused.  Personally, I think it’d be really exciting to see him as a user of an earlier version of it -- a sort of proto-Dark Hadou, if you will.  In fact, maybe Necalli is from more than just parts unknown; maybe he’s from some long-bygone era.

Imagine this scenario.  Necalli is a warrior from an ancient tribe, one that put plenty of stock in fighting and strength -- not unlike a whole city’s worth of Ryus.  But somewhere along the line, their lust for battle became corruptive; as a result, people in droves developed and used a new form of ki -- the proto-Dark Hadou -- to gain an advantage over their opponents.  The problem?  Use of it became so widespread that it brought more ruin than it did victory, and Necalli’s people ended up wiping themselves out.  Necalli is the only survivor, preserved partially because his devotion to -- and corruption by -- the proto-Dark Hadou gave him a body and mind perpetually primed for battle.

I say “partially” because there’s any number of villains that would want to probe him and tap his power for themselves.  Shadaloo, S.I.N, and…well, guys like this.

Eagle-eyed fans have noted that some of SFV’s art has teased the return of the Illuminati to the canon, AKA the bunch of baddies whose organization is spearheaded by everyone’s favorite boss, Gill.  (Plus the reveal trailer has Nash with the same jewel in his forehead as Gill and Urien, so there’s that.)  It’s hard to say what this means for the story right now, but based on my headcanon?  The Illuminati found the preserved body of Necalli and want to reverse engineer his body to obtain a new source of power -- especially if the new game is in a post-SF3 world where Gill was presumably killed by a well-placed Shin Shoryuken.  But Necalli was too much for them to handle, and he broke free; now the warrior, despite his addled mind, is out to devour-our-our whatever crosses his path.

So potentially, SFV is a manhunt across the globe to find and beat Necalli before he can do any harm.  And “harm” in this case means more than just beating up Dan.  Remember, his debut trailer had him firing off huge amounts of dark power square into Ken’s face; who says that the guy isn’t radioactive?  What if just by moving around -- by being around -- he can infect others with his power and drive them insane?  What happens when the whole world runs the risk of becoming a home for fight-happy madmen?

I ask this because I still remember Street Fighter X Tekken -- and with it, Pandora.

I’ve always thought there was a HUGE amount of potential in the Pandora power.  Pretty much none of it went tapped, save for some eerily-lavish yet ultimately-wasted promotional vids for the game’s Vita port.  I mean, sure, the gameplay and story integration was interesting enough; commit the heinous act of sacrificing your partner’s life just so you can gain more power and win.  That’s some heavy stuff.  But my understanding of Pandora is that anyone can tap into it whenever the need (such as it is) arises.  Even little Jimmy Xbox can gain superhuman abilities without the need for training or skill.  It’s a dangerous power on a small scale -- so just imagine what it would be like if people could use that on a larger scale.  City-wide, then state-wide, then country-wide, then worldwide -- it’d make for a disaster much bigger and more frightening than any zombie apocalypse, that’s for sure.  Presumably, the people infected couldn’t be beaten with a shot to the head or a sufficiently-deep moat.

The way I see it, SFV is a way to make up for past mistakes.  There’s plenty of stuff it can do with a straight narrative -- which Capcom’s execs have alluded to, if only in response to the story modes in NetherRealms’ games -- but even if they don’t go as far as a multimillion-dollar campaign, it’s the thematic heft that matters here.  All of these powers, Pandora and Necalli’s energy well among them, are shortcuts.  They’re ways for a person to gain and use power, and win at any cost.  That’s in stark contrast to Ryu, Ken, Gouken, and the entire point of SF as a whole.  It’s all about the purity of the fight -- about self-improvement, clear-minded resolve, and a push toward completeness using flung fists as a means of expression. 

There’s a right way to approach a fight, and a wrong way.  Evil Ryu, Akuma, Bison, Juri, Seth, and (potentially) Necalli are all varying examples of that; they teach the same lesson, which to be fair is kind of a drag, but it’s still a worthwhile lesson nonetheless.  (Given some recent news, it might be a more worthwhile lesson than ever.)  In order to preserve the heart of battle, it’s up to some of its greatest champions to resolve the situation before everything and everyone -- street fights included -- become twisted versions of their former selves. 

In that sense, if Ryu’s going to be the story’s main character (and why wouldn’t he be?), then SFV gives him the chance to have some personal stake in the matter.  He knows what the Dark Hadou is like, and I’d bet that as long as he’s in his neutral state, he knows just how wrong it is to tap into that, willingly or otherwise.  So in a way, stopping Necalli becomes something of a responsibility -- both to save the innocents from a fate Ryu narrowly avoids every day, and to try and bring back the pure heart of a warrior from ages past.  On the other hand, there’s still a dark side to Ryu that Necalli is dragging out; if he’s going to pursue the savage striker, then it means he’ll have to engage in battle -- meaning that there’s an inherent selfishness to his altruism. 

In other words?  By doing the right thing and providing Necalli with a shot at redemption, Ryu runs the risk of doing the wrong thing.  And in the end, he might not be able to come back from the brink.

Plot-wise, there would still be a lot of details that need explanation for my hypothetical headcanon version -- how Necalli is traveling the world chief among them.  (Walking and swimming, I guess, however impractical that may be.)  And as others have noted, this is one new character, and probably not even the final boss.   Are there even more fighters affected by the proto-Dark Hadou?  Would anyone really try to chase after him?  If there’s the typical “world tournament spearheaded by a shady benefactor” plot, then how would Necalli enter?  Or would he just show up whenever and wherever?

If it were up to me, I’d axe the tournament angle completely -- either that, or have a tournament start up, but Necalli wrecks everything on day one and puts himself in the competitors’ crosshairs.  Ryu begins his pursuit for the aforementioned reasons, and Ken tags along to help his best bud in his personal quest.  Agents and military forces want him contained, so that gives Chun-Li and Cammy a good reason to give chase (and Guile if he returns…which I’m seriously hoping for). 

Bison wants to harvest Necalli’s power to beef up his Psycho Power, on the grounds that maybe it’ll keep him forever young and/or take care of those wretched gray hairs he’s got; Vega joins in as a Shadaloo figurehead, but maybe he’ll get invested so he can gain eternal youth and beauty.  Nash is a failed experiment by the Illuminati to create a new breed of human, and got thrown in the dumpster -- but in the wake of Necalli’s power, he self-activates and decides to go on the attack.  (Speaking of, Nash could get his own redemptive arc, especially if claims that he’s important to the story ring true.)  Birdie gets involved to…I don’t know, prove he’s a tough guy.  It’d be in character, at least.

The way I see it, there are two things that an expanded SF story can do, especially with this game: it can explore and untangle the mythos with a straight-up story instead of the usual “Character X won the tournament because that’s who you beat Arcade Mode with -- even if that leads to 90% of the game being non-canon”.  On top of that, it can explore ideas and themes using the characters it puts in the players’ hands.  Honestly, I’d be happy if the actual game focused more on the latter.  Would I enjoy learning about the mysteries of Necalli’s corrupted and ruined civilization, and how their obsession gave birth to the Dark Hadou?  Yes and no.  It’d boost the game’s story, but done poorly it runs the risk of spoiling some of the mysticism of the canon.  (See: midichlorians.)

But here’s the thing: SF has endured with a bare-bones story on the strength of its characters -- whether they’re blatant stereotypes or not.  People love Ryu.  People love Ken.  People love Chun-Li, and Cammy, and Bison, and Vega, and Nash, and even Birdie.  And even if that love comes from their fighting ability -- the synergy between player and avatar -- that love could be deepened even further.  Vanilla SFIV gave every character a prologue, and then gave them all another prologue in Super SFIV.  Even if their endings didn’t really matter in the end, there are threads that keep getting woven into the canon.  Capcom’s been taking baby steps toward something grander for years.

So isn’t it time for the world warriors to get the endings, and the journey, they deserve?

People in the real world handle crises in different ways -- but in a world where people can shroud themselves in electricity after watching eels do it, all bets are off.  Seeing the world warriors act and react in response to a corruptive force -- a power that can make the entire world go mad -- would be an amazing treat (if done well).  There’s personal investment for the small-scale emotional moments and epiphanies; there’s a huge level of stakes when even the average postman can turn into a violent berserker.   Spectacle, intelligence, heart -- the potential is all there, gift-wrapped and ready to drop into the hands of players expecting “just another fighting game”.

Historical precedents suggest that I’m probably not going to get the SF I envision -- and rest assured, I can envision a whole lot.  But even if the worst comes to pass -- if somehow Capcom backs down and throws up a couple of pictures before rolling the credits -- then it wouldn’t be so bad.  Disappointing, sure, but it’ll at least be a disappointment on top of a supremely-satisfying game.  (I’ve played a whopping two matches so far via the beta…and it was good).  And besides, they’ve already laid the groundwork.  They’ve given us enough to sink our teeth into, even at this early stage.  So do we really need them to give us a story when we can make our own?  Maybe not.

Maybe for now -- and for years to come -- the possibilities are all we need.

Man.  One of these days, I need to write a revisionist history fanfic of Super Mario Bros.  I know just how to work Bowser Jr. into my theoretical and needlessly-ridiculous canon.    


10:00 PM on 07.29.2015

Splatoon is secretly brilliant.

I wonder how much of Splatoon’s success comes from the proliferation of memes.  I mean, it’s been a top image gallery over on Know Your Meme for months now, and the phrase “you’re a kid now, you’re a squid now” has practically been burned into the DNA of gamers exposed to it.  And then there are the unrelated memes woven into the game thanks to players’ posts; I’ve seen several references to JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and I couldn’t help but “Yeah!” one of them because it featured Joseph Joestar.  I’m a sucker for Stands.

But in the end, I have to wonder: years from now, when those memes have fallen out of style, how will Splatoon hold up?  Honestly, I think it’ll do pretty well.  But it’ll be a while before we forget stuff like this:

As a friendly reminder: Splatoon is a 4-on-4 shooter where the object of the game is to cover the map with as much as your team’s ink color as possible -- in a limited time, of course.  Simple enough, but there are plenty of wrinkles; the end goal is always the same, but how you, your team, and your opponents get there can vary both in the short-term and the long-term.

One of the genre’s cornerstones is scoring headshots -- that is, if you can land a good shot there, it’s almost a guarantee that you can get an instant kill.  As I understand it, that’s in stark contrast to reality; I’m not saying that getting shot in the head isn’t lethal, but it’s as if aiming for the center of mass is supposed to be less ideal -- even though it’s a focal point in real-world gunplay, it’s a larger and simpler target to hit, and it contains plenty of vital organs.   

Whatever the case, the goal of most shooters is to kill as efficiently as possible.  There’s variation depending on the game mode -- Capture the Flag and King of the Hill are popular ones -- but for default modes and what I’d assume are the popular choices?  Pretty focused on gunning down your enemies.

In Splatoon, things are different.  That’s not to say that gunning down your enemies isn’t important, because any scenario where you can force enemies to back off for a while is ideal.  But as far as I know, all that matters is that you land the hits.  Saturate an enemy with enough ink, and they’ll explode in a burst of color.  So those people out there who aren’t the best at aiming for specific body parts (like me)?  They’re in luck. 

And they’re in double-luck because, again, the object of the game isn’t to score the most kills.  What matters above all else is spreading your ink and dominating territories; so, if you can hold down a trigger and/or shoot the broad side of a barn, you’re plenty eligible for Splatoon.  I’d imagine that playing the game can give you skills that carry over into other games, though.  Playing Mass Effect temporarily made me better at Call of Duty, so maybe the same thing will happen again.

The thing that gets to me about Splatoon is that, yes, you can count on the Big N to deliver wholesome family fun (well, usually).  So the rightful assumption is that Nintendo opted to defang the genre with its new entry.  A de-emphasis on killing, a cartoony style, lots of colors, goofy music, and so on.  Here’s the thing, though: by making their game less mature, it ends up being more mature -- or to put it a different way, it keeps the game as a game instead of something more.  Basically, Splatoon is a 100% honest shooter.  What do I mean?  Well, let’s think about some of the competition for a minute.

So Call of Duty and Battlefield?  You play as soldiers fighting for…something, I guess.  Halo?  Super-soldiers fighting against other super-soldiers for some reason.  Destiny?  You play as a Guardian brought in to defend the earth from encroaching darkness -- but when you’re off the clock, I guess you have free reign to shoot other Guardians in the face.  Counter-Strike?  You can play as a terrorist, or a counter-terrorist.  Yes, I know that those are skins you use in multiplayer matches in games with a strong emphasis on multiplayer action.  (Plus, Titanfall and Evolve mix in words and bullets, IIRC.)  But even in those instances, it pays to be mindful of context.

Being a soldier in real life is a serious matter.  Being a soldier in a video game is not -- especially because I have my doubts that a real soldier’s life is represented one-to-one in even the most lavish games full of them.  Contextually, you the soldier is no different from you the player; there’s a disparity between the two breeds.  A game of Battlefield comes close to being a well-trained group of military men on a mission, but it’s just as close to paintball without the colors.

And sure, those other shooters (and more) are all a bunch of make-believe.  It’s a harmless fantasy on the surface; the modern-day context and the audience for these games A) wouldn’t dwell on it as obsessively as I do, thank God, and B) probably want what looks like a mature experience.  Those that played Cops and Robbers as little boys can do that quite literally with Battlefield: Hardline without the risk of grass stains or scraped elbows.  But Cops and Robbers was a context-free game then, and Hardline is a context-free game now…at least it should be, but by design it weaves itself into heavy subjects while also paring down those subjects to basic enjoyment.  To nothing but “shoot those guys”. 

There are almost no pretensions in Splatoon.  You’re a squid-person out to play games.  You’re quite literally playing paintball.  The goal is to get turf so you can get money, buy stuff, and prove how cool you are to a host of judgmental shopkeepers.  Your team is called the “good guys” and the enemy team is called the “bad guys”.  The online matches are even justified in-universe; the “Ink Battles” are the hottest new craze that everyone wants to be a part of -- and again, gives them the chance to prove how cool they are, or just feel the thrill of a good win. 

Even if you never even touch the story mode, that’s all the information you really need.  That’s literally all it takes to make a shooter at once more meaningful and less meaningful -- the proper context needed if you’re going to play a game all about making your opponents’ lives miserable.  No need for any of that fancy-schmancy cognitive dissonance.

Chalk it up as one of those intangibles, but it really does matter in the long run.  In Splatoon, you’re playing as an Inkling who wants fame and fortune, and gains that by taking part in competitive matches.  Simple.  In any number of other shooters, you’re playing as a soldier who’s out to accomplish a mission…which can range from “disarm a bomb” to “kill everyone enough times” to “cart a sheet of fabric back home”. 

Taken out of context, it sounds silly -- yet it doesn’t sound much better either in context or with the understanding of what those roles mean, in-universe or out of it.  Is it really okay to pretend you’re fighting in a war when the very concept is both weighty and reviled?  Frankly, I don’t think it’s a lost cause -- in the end, fun is fun -- but it could be if and when it’s so cheapened and simplified.  Those games can take serious concepts and make them out as fun.  Splatoon takes a fun concept and makes it out as fun.  Can you see the difference?

But enough pretending like I’m on the moral high ground.  My theory is that everyone in Splatoon is secretly a cannibal.

Okay, maybe not everyone -- because I have my doubts that shopkeepers like Sheldon and Crusty Sean could even take a good bite out of someone.  But every time the Inklings open their mouths, they show off some seriously sharp chompers.  TV personalities Callie and Marie casually talk about eating seafood, and both of them wear sushi-style hats.  Chalk this up to headcanon, but are we 100% sure that Inklings that lose an Ink Battle aren’t eaten alive as punishment?

Maybe death has no meaning for these people; they reincarnate endlessly during an Ink Battle, after all.  But it may go further than that; lose a battle and go back to the lobby, and you’re a different color than when you started -- so maybe the losing Inkling got devoured, and you start playing as a substitute.  Or if you win and go back to the lobby, you play as an Inkling who dug your original Inkling’s fresh styles, and adopted his/her outfit to pay tribute.  That’s probably not the case, but hey.  It gets the gears going.

In some ways, that might be what makes Splatoon secretly great -- because even in the absence of an hours-long narrative, I can’t help but feel excited by the game’s world.    Learning more about it?  That’d be preeeeeeeeeeeeeeeetty coooooooooooooooooool.

The story of Splatoon is about as straightforward as you’d expect.  Like I said, the land-faring sea creatures of the game’s world only care about Ink Battles and looking cool.  The tradeoff?  That means they’re taking a pretty laissez-faire approach to having their key source of power, the Great Zapfish, stolen from under their squid-noses.  But if you take your Inkling over to a corner of the map, you’ll be able to dive into a sewer grate and pop up in a new area -- and more importantly, receive your mission.

Right off the bat, you meet the seasoned veteran/bulgy-eyed coot Cap’n Cuttlefish, who explains the problem: the Great Zapfish (along with dozens of other Zapfish) has been taken prisoner by the Octolings.  If you want to stop their shenanigans, you’ll have to don special armor and become Agent 3…as an impromptu stand-in for Agents 1 and 2.  And so begins your campaign, as the sole member of a squid platoon.  A “puid”, if you will.

I feel like there’s a better title in there somewhere, but I can’t come up with anything, so let’s move on.

The actual narrative of the game is bare-bones.  The Great Zapfish is missing, so you have to go out and find it.  The Octarians are causing trouble, so you have to sort it out.  Both are more or less done by campaign’s end.  The biggest wrinkle is that Cuttlefish -- who acts as mission control/a source of hints/your Metal Gear character of choice -- gets kidnapped, which leaves a lot of dead air in the moments that follow.  That’s especially the case, since he goes from a handholding parent to an old guardsman who gives the new generation the respect it deserves…and then gets nabbed.

The radio silence doesn’t last for too long, though.  Agents 1 and 2 (who try their hardest to suggest they’re not Callie and Marie) step in to supply the chatter in turn, just in case the player needs a confidence boost.  To be fair, they actually do get in a good moment at the end when they hijack the broadcast, break out a special song, and push Agent 3 to make a final charge against the last boss.  Speaking of, the last boss is actually really cool; it’s one thing to fight with a giant mech, but another thing entirely to do so while posing as a DJ and firing giant missiles wearing shutter shades.

There’s always going to be a part of me that wishes that Splatoon’s campaign was more substantial.  Okay, sure, Nintendo’s not exactly the company you should turn to for overt stories, but if ever there was a time for a departure, this was it.  I want to see more of this world, not just because it’s different, but because it’s new.  I want to learn more, and know more.  If they make a sequel, then I hope they expand upon what’s already here.  At the very least, offer up more than just a great big plaza disguised as a main menu.

Still, it’s not as if there was zero effort put in to flesh out the Splatoon world.  Notably, there are the Sunken Scrolls -- files you can find scattered throughout the levels that, piece by piece, reveal some of the lore that gives the game its foundation.  The unfortunate side effect of that is that it’s very easy to miss the scrolls, so in a lot of ways the game denies the story to all but the greatest treasure hunters (which I am certainly not).  It’s a shame that some people will miss out on what’s being offered -- because even if the scrolls are a reward for a job well done, they didn’t have to be.

I found enough to not only get a basic understanding of the world, but also pique my interest.  I’ve actually thought about going back through the levels to find the other scrolls; then I remembered that wikis and the internet exist, so I could get what I want without that trifling thing called effort.  The gist of Splatoon’s world is that no matter how it looks now, it’s really (at least) ten thousand years in the future -- and more importantly, it’s built on the remains of an apocalypse.  Rising tides led to humanity’s extinction, while the creatures of the sea evolved and took their place. The tradeoff is that these sea-people have zero tolerance for the waters that once birthed them.  Brutal.

Essentially, there’s nothing left of the old world -- our world -- except for Judd, the cat that calls the winner of each Ink Battle.  He was actually frozen and preserved in the off-chance that he could somehow survive the disaster.  Now he spends his days lazing around and playing tiebreaker to species that care more about mutant paintball than the potential end to their entire civilization.  Reality is a harsh mistress, indeed.

So here’s the thing about Splatoon: remember 2000 words ago when I went on a long and largely-unjustified rant about how most online shooters end up hurting their cause thanks to contextualizing themselves as po-faced yet poorly-realized facsimiles of real conflicts?  This is hard to believe, but that’s actually a big part of the game.  It’s a shooter that exposes the hypocrisy of shooters -- but remarkably, avoids being hypocritical itself.  And the saving race is the game’s greatest strength, even in the absence of a gripping, far-reaching story: CONTEXT.

The Ink Battles that everyone’s crazy about are apparently holdovers from the Turf Wars from the days of old (to the point where that’s the name of the default battle type).  The Inklings and Octarians fought for limited resources and territory in a battle with no clear good guy or bad guy, and the Octarians got the short end of the stick.  So while the Inklings’ Inkopolis stretches from horizon to horizon on the surface, the Octarians got forced underground -- into industrial, rickety domes.  You can actually see that in the single-player levels; setting aside the janky environments and equipment, the skyboxes are quite literally that: bunches of panels arranged together to create pseudo-skies.

The reason for that -- for the entire plot, arguably -- is simple.  The Octarians aren’t just stealing Zapfish to be assholes.  They’re doing it to save their homes.

It’s not as if they’re without fault, though.  The Octarians may be in dire straits, but the ends don’t justify the means; if anything, their actions only help to ensure that there’ll be more conflict between the two races.  You don’t just steal a massive power source -- a living monument fixated a city’s cultural hub -- without drawing some negative attention.  And even if the Inklings take it in stride at first, who’s to say how many problems that could cause down the line?  Who’s to say that the Inklings won’t be drafted to fight in a war, or a deadly operation? 

Who’s to say they wouldn’t actively jump at the chance?  What if, in their eyes, the Ink Battles they love so much were secret indoctrinations -- a way to convince the kiddies that being a soldier is totally radical?  Given that Callie and Marie are in the military’s pocket, what if they’re the lynchpins for a cultural zeitgeist that can flip children into commandoes at a moment’s notice?  What if that was a necessary evil precisely because there could be a war between the Inklings and Octarians at any time -- or more appropriately, a time that’s rapidly approaching because an entire civilization’s quality of life is at stake?

It’s funny, because Splatoon by design didn’t need to have anything.  It could have gotten away with being nothing but a shooter; it would’ve been poorer for it, but what’s here only enhances one’s understanding and intrigue of its universe.  But the most important thing that it does -- the very best thing it does -- is reframe the entire metacontext of shooters.  And it does that by making the inherent disconnection and apathy the player feels toward shooters into the inherent disconnection and apathy the better part of a species feels towards shooters -- if not life in general.

Nobody gives a shit about the missing Great Zapfish, which would be the equivalent of people shrugging off a stolen Hoover Dam.  The squid-kids only care about looking cool and having fun, and they do that by taking serious conflicts and turning them into a simplified, weight-free farce.  It’s not about thought, or deliberation, or any understanding of context; it’s about goofing off with games and forgetting -- if not ignoring -- the problems that are more real to them than any Jimmy Xbox playing a round of CoD with his pals.  In essence, Splatoon is a reflection, if not satire, of a huge subsection of gaming culture.

And that’s awesome.

It’s easy for me to read deeply into Splatoon and find a satire of gamers.  But even if that’s my interpretation of it -- or me projecting like crazy -- that’s not the only interpretation.  I’d say there are plenty of ways to find dark and negative implications in what looks like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon; despite that, there are positive things to be found and appreciated.  Yeah, I think Splatoon is making fun of gamers (and the shooter genre even more so, arguably), but it’s worth remembering what the Inklings are so crazy about: their culture.  Their whole world revolves around defanged warfare, which may very well be a coping mechanism.  If and when there’s a major conflict, they might stand a chance of facing it without a total breakdown of peace, order, or mere piece of mind.

But that’s not all there is to their world.  They’re people who care about things -- superficial things, but those are still things that matter to them.  They’re a reflection of their society, after all; clothes and shoes and hats might be material goods, but they can just as easily symbolize something of importance to a huge swath of people, as they do in real life.  They have music to listen to and blast through the streets.  They have public figures to idolize.  Their architecture may be similar to ours, but they’re still an example of the tastes and evolution of a populace that merely happens to have an alternate squid form.

So yes, Splatoon’s single-player is light.  There’s a lot that hasn’t been fleshed out.  But as it so happens, the world of Splatoon might be one of the most fully-realized we’ve seen in years.

I’m not so star-struck that I’ll say Splatoon is now my favorite game ever, or even in my top ten.  But for what it’s worth?  With the industry in the state it is, it’s a miracle that we could ever get something like this.  What we have here is the foundation for something truly spectacular, and something that continues to evolve until it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Nintendo’s biggest names.  That’s a ways away, I know; honestly, it might be impossible until the Inklings hit their thirtieth birthday. But look at what we have now.  It’s more than just something colorful, and even more than just a new IP.  For all its goofiness and absurdity, Splatoon is a game that makes a statement in a couple of strokes.  With so few words spared, it can say so much -- and as a result, have an impact that’s as true as even the lengthiest treatise.  If that’s not worth celebrating, then I don’t know what is.

There.  Now to start seriously getting into JoJo.  I don’t know much about Muhammad Avdol, but my theory is that my life can only be enriched by learning more about him.

He seems like a good role model.



11:06 PM on 07.21.2015

On The Witcher 3 and Intelligent Games

“The world doesn’t need a hero.  It needs a professional."

You can’t begin to imagine how much that tagline irritates me.  Is it true?  Maybe.  But just hearing it makes me cringe -- like it smacks of the obsession with pessimism and grit that’s held a stranglehold on creative outlets for ages.  Yeah, a professional can do a lot, but a good hero can do even more -- become an enduring symbol that overpowers and outlasts “a job well done”.  Plus, it’s just more interesting; who was it that decided that fiction can never ever have idealism or a lack of realism?  Doesn’t that mean stripping away good possibilities -- a good half of what fiction is all about?

Also, Geralt rubbed me the wrong way at first.  Maybe I’m alone on this, but he feels like the most fanfic-ass, DeviantArt-ass OC the world’s ever seen.  White hair!  A scar!  A dark costume with lots of belts!  Two swords!  A gruff and growly voice!  Unusual eye colors!  He’s a bounty hunter!  He’s the best bounty hunter!  He’s got a dark and troubled past!  He’s different from normal people, which also makes him better!  I know from experience that The Witcher is MUCH better than what I’ve described here, but at a glance?  Boy, it doesn’t do itself any favors; it’s as if it was designed to be industrial strength Voltech repellant.

But it’s fine, though.  If there’s any game I wanted to give a chance -- to open my heart to, and welcome into the depths of my soul (and/or ventricles), it’s this one.

I’ve read the reviews, heard the buzz, and recently took the plunge for myself; I know that The Witcher 3 is a good game.  Plus, I’ve seen bits and pieces of it that tell me, “Holy crap, this is the game we’ve all wanted deep down.”  There’s a part of me that thinks there’s buzz in the first place because of all the steps the devs took to NOT betray and belittle consumers, but either way the impossible has happened: a AAA game managed to live up to the hype.  But even if I’ve only just started -- which reminds me, I need my runback against that werewolf -- it’s done more than live up to those expectations; it’s gone out of its way to offer up thoughtful, meaningful content.

Weighty sidequests.  Decisions that matter.  A fully-realized world.  Actual charisma.  All those things and more are packed in, which is definitely good news.  (Speaking of packed in, the soundtrack is pretty good).  CD Projekt RED has apparently delivered on, well, pretty much everything I could ever want out of a modern-day game.  I don’t need bright colors, optimism, virtue, goofy humor, or Rider Kicks to be satisfied by the stuff I consume; I just need something with depth.  Something I can digest -- and something I want to digest.

In stark contrast to what a lot of games have made people (myself included) do these days, I’m going to assume the best of The Witcher 3 and buy into what’s been said, in the absence of a presumably-impossible 100% run.  For now -- for the sake of an argument -- I’ll believe wholesale that it’s smartly put together with all the trappings of a good adventure.  Good characters, good setting, good plot, good themes, good events, whatever; let’s say for now that it’s all in there.  And let’s say that it’s undeniably in there; anyone who plays it will find objective proof that this is one of the most intelligent, most thought-provoking games ever plopped into a console.  Or computer.  Or rendered in board game form, in the case of perennial masterpiece Guess Who.

Here’s my question, then: why did it take this long?

Let’s think about this for a second.  Video games have been around for, at a bare minimum, thirty years -- longer than that if you want to count pre-Mario titles (which you probably should, all things considered).  And sure, past technology didn’t allow for much besides pixels running through strict design limitations -- we ARE talking about consoles that couldn’t even produce a full range of colors, after all.  But since then, the tech has evolved.  Development has evolved.  Players have evolved.  The medium itself has evolved.  So at this stage, stuff like The Witcher 3 should be the standard, not the exception, right?

In an ideal world, I suppose.  But expecting video games to do that would be like expecting every big dumb blockbuster, vastly-inferior remake, or Michael Bay production to not only be banished from theaters forever, but to suddenly jettison themselves from time itself.  There’s always going to be dumb stuff, and there’s always going to be smart stuff -- yet in the context of video games, I can’t help but find myself wishing that there was more smart stuff.  At this stage, there should be more intelligent products that advance the medium, not just keep devs above water for another day.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been intelligent games, of course.  But by now I’m guessing you already have examples of dumb games as well as smart ones in mind.  I mean, there was that incredibly-niche, often-overlooked title called The Last of Us back in 2013.  And while I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as others did, I can’t help but respect what it tried to do: be about more than killing zombies, and aim to tell an emotional, impactful tale.  So my expectation was that we’d see more of that in the future.  Based on its success, we’d see games that opted to do more.  Be more.

And then 2014 happened.

I don’t know if it was because of the transition to new consoles, but it felt like one developer after another had no idea what the hell they were doing.  I still consider Watch Dogs to be the worst western-born game I’ve played to date, and not just because it tried to tell a story that alternated between cyberpunk thriller, nonsensical revenge fantasy, and whatever you’d call a grown-ass man hacking signs to slap outdated memes onto them. 

It’s not the only one.  Destiny could have been a sprawling and exciting adventure through space, but instead decided to be Borderlands without the humor…or the quality.  I don’t know what Sucker Punch was thinking when they penned Infamous: Second Son, but given that the story practically got pared down to giving the finger to the mean ol’ government -- even though the player kind of proves them right -- I’d have preferred if they didn’t try at all.

I can think of plenty more examples, but games that promise one thing and deliver something significantly dumber isn’t unique to 2014.  Remember how DmC’s hype-men promised that their story would practically reinvent storytelling, and then the final product was an episode of Futurama without a shred of self-awareness?  Remember how Tomb Raider got off to a bad start because it looked like an establishing moment for the new Lara Croft would be saving her from the threat of sexual assault, and then it turned out the real point of debate was just how much it put violence on a pedestal?  Remember almost every single Call of Duty for the past half-decade?

In some ways, it doesn’t matter what effect The Last of Us had on the gaming climate.  Past, present, or future, games are going to stumble on their way to the next level, assuming they even attempt it at all. Even so, that would be totally fine if the gameplay (or any part of the audiovisual aspect) managed to compensate.  In a lot of cases, it isn’t.  A hodgepodge of gunplay and stealth mechanics, the latter of which usually means “go for a backstab when they aren’t looking”; open worlds with nothing to show for millions of man-hours besides virtual chores; combat that would sooner turn they player into a predator than a participant…and ends up sleep-inducing instead of thrilling.

Let’s be honest here.  Modern games have a lot of problems, and they’re going to have problems for a while yet…but I’m actually not all that hung up on it.

It may sound like I’m just writing this post to hitch a ride on the Doom and Gloom Express, but I’m not.  I want to be fair, and even optimistic.   For starters, we all know by now that the AAA games that have (often rightfully) earned so much scorn in the past aren’t the only kids on the block anymore; smaller productions like Bastion, Transistor, The Swapper, Braid, and an armada of other indie games are practically doing the lord’s work.  That’s a given. 

Likewise, it’s not as if the big games are automatically doomed to be dumb; that would be a disservice to stuff like Deus Ex, Red Dead Redemption, and the BioShock games, just to name a few.  And there are even more examples to pull from between those extremes; they might not get the attention they always deserve, but they’re there.  So even if something like, say, Final Fantasy Type-0 turns into a complete shitshow well before the halfway point, it’s hard to devolve into rage for very long when there are plenty of Tales games can, have, or will ease the sting.  (Speaking of which, the newest one's supposedly going to have a female protagonist.  I feel like people should be celebrating that more, but whatever.)

With all of that said, there’s something that’s been on my mind.  Yes, I’m happy that stuff like The Witcher 3 exists, and is getting recognition for a job well done.  It’s my assumption that it’ll show people what a game can be, if not what it should be.  But maybe we’ve been going about it the wrong way.  As in, the desire is in the right place -- well-meaning and admirable as all get out -- but the means to reach that conclusion, and the desire itself, are the real issue.

So here’s what I’m thinking.  With hundreds, and likely thousands of games in our midst, I’d like to make an assertion.  Maybe it’s not about waiting for the game that delivers.  Maybe it’s about realizing that the games we want -- the intelligence we’re hungry for -- are all around us at this very second.  We only have to open our eyes and realize it.   

Remarkably, I’m not just saying that as an S-tier nerd.  Well, not entirely.  Just slightly.  About 44% at the most, I’d say.

Here’s a question that needs to be answered right off the bat: what is it that makes a game “intelligent”?  Is it really just a matter of quality?  On some level, maybe, but it’s easy to argue that that’s just an end result of intelligent design, not a requirement.  Is it the enjoyment factor?  Not really, because that factors in at the end.  Seriousness?  Maturity?  Tackling “real issues”?  It’s hard to get a conclusive answer, I think.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I have a measuring stick of my own.  Basically, a game (any product, really) has to do at least one of four things.  One: offer up a memorable experience that’ll keep me thinking long after I put the controller down.  Two: explore the possibilities set up by that game using the means built-in.  Three: have ideas and themes worth exploring in the first place.  Four: use those skills to draw out an emotional response.  It’s simple stuff, really.

Again, I haven’t played The Witcher 3 enough to know conclusively what sort of content is in it.  (That’ll stay true for a while, because I’m concerned with more devilish matters right now.)  But slogan aside, what I’ve heard and seen so far is intriguing.  It’s not so much about “saving the world” as it is dealing with personal matters -- the ramifications of decisions, and more importantly the bonds shared with people Geralt cares about.  That’s what I want to see (well, that and the game’s efforts to flesh out the world), and it’s what makes me preemptively assume that it makes for an intelligent game.  Speaking of which, I need to figure out what happened to Lena.  I sure hope she lived.

But I digress.  What about everything else?

You know me by now, I hope.  I’m the guy whose entire gimmick is overanalyzing games (which people seem to like for whatever reason).  I’m the one who argued that the latest Donkey Kong game is the harrowing tale of a king forced to reconcile with both his karmic cycle and the duties of an exiled shepherd.  I’ve said in the past that Xenoblade Chronicles is as much about robot-busting as it is dealing with the consequences of scientific one-upmanship.  For God’s sake, I made a Top 10 list of cool female characters -- and argued that Poison deserved a top spot.  Yes, that Poison.

I can pull a lot from even the most unlikely of sources (which would help explain why I’m enamored with Kamen Rider).  Even in an age where developers can’t even get Tetris right, I can still look to the future with high hopes because I can walk away with something gained on a regular basis.  So in a way, it’s not necessarily about waiting for some savior to descend from on high; it’s about being willing to find the good, and the merit, in whatever media we happen to consume.

That’s true of every game, no matter the style.  There’s potential to find intelligent design in any game worth its salt.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a supernova of color like The Wonderful 101, or a grim nightmare world like Bloodborne.  It doesn’t matter if it’s got a straight narrative like Deus Ex, or virtually no narrative like Mario 3D World.  What’s important -- going forward, if not at this very moment -- is that games have to engage people.  That’s been true before, but as tastes evolve and “par for the course” becomes “triple hyper dream cancel bogey”, it’ll have to become truer than ever.

Are games like The Witcher 3 and The Last of Us going to show devs (and the bigwigs controlling them from the shadows) that we want and need games to be more?  Will they offset the dumbness that shows up on a regular basis?  There’s no guarantee, but I sure hope so.  The latter of the two made waves, but even the tiniest ripple takes time to make it anywhere -- so maybe at this very moment, some illustrious dev team is hard at work on a successor.  Same goes for The Witcher 3; the days of being asked to do pointless sidequests may come to an end one day in the future.

It’s because of that prospect that I look forward to what games can be.  I love them, and I want to keep on loving them -- just like anyone with even a slight interest in the medium.  That said, the games industry is built on more than just phantoms toiling away at computers in their decrepit dungeons; the players can decide what reigns supreme, what falls to the wayside, or simply what garners the respect it deserves.

So maybe we’ll hear about how the latest annual installment of that one franchise you hate -- you know, that one -- sold ten million copies on day one.  It’s pretty likely.  But that’s fine for now.  Change will come eventually, but until then?  Find the games that engage you, and engage with them right back.  The way I see it, a relationship like that has to be good for the soul.

Or the brain, ostensibly.  But let’s not go into metaphysics now, or we’ll be here for the next decade.

Also, not to go off on a tangent, but am I the only one who's seriously digging Yennefer, and not just because she's friggin' gorgeous?  Discuss (while I wait with hands clasped in prayer for her to get her own game).



10:16 PM on 06.24.2015

What’s the Best-Looking Game You’ve Ever Seen?

There’s been a lot to talk about since this past E3, but you know what’s piqued my interest the most?  Street Fighter 5.  As I’ve said in the past, the only trailers/footage I’ve grown to trust is what comes from fighting games, because they give the best indication of what the final product will actually be.  That’s not to say that SF5 hasn’t changed since its introductory trailer, but Ryu could throw fireballs then, and he’ll probably be able to throw them in the full version.  No broken promises there, I hope.

There’s been a deluge of info and footage on the game recently thanks to Eventhubs and friends, and right now it’s looking really good.  I mean that from a gameplay perspective, naturally, but even when I watch non-HD, non-60fps videos on YouTube, I still can’t help but think, “Wow, what a good-looking game.”  I think what clinched it for me was seeing Birdie in action; his Super is at once a weaponized joke and a striking display.

So with the stage now set, let’s talk about DEM GRAFFECS -- and prove just how shallow we can all be.

As a guy who’s never put much stock in graphics, I can’t say I’ve ever been too harsh on a game for having weaker visuals.  I mean, one of my favorite games ever is Devil Survivor 2, and you could argue that its graphics are pulled straight from the Game Boy Advance.  Speaking personally, I think that what matters most isn’t so much how something is rendered as much as what is rendered.  Creativity and art design rule the day -- though I guess that the “how” part of it plays a part when it comes to the style of the visuals.  So the comparison breaks down a bit.

If I remember right, one of the big selling points of the Xbox 360’s Eternal Sonata was that it looked beautiful -- that it made amazing use of the then (relatively) new hardware to create an amazing world.  Same goes for the PS3’s Valkyria Chronicles.  Games like those and more had strong visuals that added to the experience; if a game tries to invite players to explore and marvel at a virtual world, then one would hope that they’re visually arresting, right?  Maybe that’s part of the reason why I like BioShock Infinite to this day; its city in the sky might have been full of gun-toting mutant jingoists, but damned if they didn’t know how to spruce up the place.

It’s easy to be down on what it seems like most devs are putting out these days, but it’s not as if we’re doomed to an endless stream of brown and gray.  (See: plenty of Wii U games, plenty of fighting games, and what has to be an incalculable number of indie games.)  I think at this point we’ve all acknowledged that there’s some sort of problem; Cracked has made some handy infographics in the past, after all.  There are a lot of games that look or feel pretty similar to one another, and even if they have top-of-the-line graphics and engines and whatnot, the problem is what they’re trying to show.  In a world where Platinum Games exists, running through an area while things fall apart around you can’t even begin to qualify as spectacle.  But I digress.

Like I said, I put more stock in what gets rendered.  Sure, it’s one thing to make a photorealistic city or a lavishly-rendered weapon, but if I wanted realism -- the definition of which is debatable even at this stage in gaming history -- then I could just run a Google image search.  Conversely, if I want to be wowed by the sprawling, arabesque environments of Xenoblade, the industrialized decay of InFamous, or the nightmarish hellscapes of Bloodborne…well, I could probably also run a Google image search or give DeviantArt a shot, but hey.  You can’t jump around like a ninny in DeviantArt.  Speaking of jumping, let’s go back to where we started with this post and chat about Street Fighter 5.  Or to be more precise, Birdie.

The very second I saw Birdie’s win animation, I thought to myself, “Yep.  I’m probably gonna play this character some.”  (I have my doubts that he’ll be the game’s only grappler, but if my guess is right and my main T. Hawk gets cut, then he’ll be a welcome substitution.)  In all fairness, that extends to pretty much all of Birdie’s animations; he’s grown into a slob -- literally, in this case -- but he’s still a thug who likely cares deeply about looking cool.  He’s not exactly the best at looking cool, mind you, since one of his jumping attacks has him planking in midair; still, I can see the effort and artistry that went into him even at this stage in development.  Also, Chun-Li looks amazing in every sense of the word.

I’m not quite ready to call SF5 an audiovisual masterpiece just yet, but it’s definitely getting there (holy crap, that character select theme).  I want to see more stages, and hear more music.  But more importantly, I want to see those characters -- because that’s what matters most here.  I’m not just saying that in terms of gameplay, though that’s certainly a part of it; I’m saying that because of the game’s ability to convey so much without a single word.  If Birdie’s animations are any indication, people won’t just be playing as the World Warriors.  They’ll feel them.

In a lot of cases, we can’t count on video games to deliver a good story.  Street Fighter as a whole is well among them; there have been baby steps, sure, but as of yet there’s been nothing consistently substantial.  So when it comes to getting a player invested in a character, the only option left is with the gameplay -- with animations and style that conveys practically everything you need to know about a character in minutes, if not seconds.  And it works.  I’ve used Birdie maybe three times total thanks to the PS2’s Street Fighter Alpha Anthology, but I practically know jack crap about him.  Yet after seeing a handful of matches with him in SF5, I feel like I’ve known him for years -- like he’s a weird uncle of mine who’s also British for some reason.

I know that the Chun-Li from SF5 is a vastly-different Chun from SF4; she’s more mature and fiercer, and significantly more serious.  She’s fighting to do justice, not show off or play around.  Same goes for Ryu; he may have the same three moves we’d expect of him, but his brutal attacks prove he’s not just a martial artist, but THE martial artist that’s overflowing with power.  (That HD Denjin!)  Somehow, Bison is a dictator, a menace, and a madman all at once.  Nash is a wellspring of calculated violence hiding behind some well-kept glasses.  Cammy is…well, after seeing Combofiend demo her, I can’t help but agree with the assessment that she’s got a permanent duckface.  But she’s aight.

I’ve always put a lot of stock into characters -- in video games or otherwise -- and SF5 is a pretty good reminder of what it means to be a good-looking game.  I can only begin to imagine how much effort is going into each of the World Warriors, let alone the game itself; still, I can see that it’s paying off.  It doesn’t take much to confirm that the latest installment is a completely different beast from its predecessor, even if you have no idea what a V-Trigger or Critical Art is supposed to be.  Visuals aren’t everything, but they sure as hell can do a lot to leave an impression…which is kinda important in an audiovisual medium.  But I could be wrong.  Maybe.  It’s possible.

I don’t want to play The Generalization Game, since that’s a game I tend to lose.  But in light of SF5, and plenty of other games before/parallel to it, some of the other stuff out there just can’t compare.  I wanted to tap out of the Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate trailer and gameplay mere minutes in -- and actually did when it showed off a carriage sequence that gave me nightmarish flashbacks of Watch Dogs.  As you can guess, I’m sick of set pieces where stuff falls apart around (or falls from under) the main character, because A) it seems like a waste, and B) it’s not nearly as exciting as devs seem to think.  And when the animations practically ignore form for the sake of function -- when it feels like what’s being done on-screen could be done by any old schmuck -- then that’s kind of a problem.  Unless it’s an FPS we’re talking about, but that can create more problems than it solves.  No sense in dwelling on it, though; we live in a world where Guilty Gear Xrd exists, after all.

As always, the golden rule is “whatever you do, do it well.”  I have my preferences, obviously, but I know there’s more than one way to do it.  Good designs, good animations, good style, good creative vision, whatever -- the focus on one or the mix of them all can create one amazing product, no question.  And that’s exactly why I’m opening the floor for those of you reading this.  I’ve played my share of games, but my experience is still pretty limited -- so feel free to weigh in with your own shining examples.

The question at hand is the same one from the start: what’s the best-looking game you’ve ever seen?  Why was it the best-looking?  And as a corollary, what does it take for a game to look good for you?  Raw graphical power?  A sense of aesthetics?  Striking animations?  The fabled ten eighty peas?  Feel free to weigh in at your leisure.  Share your opinions and experiences, and show others (or just me) some good-looking games.

Also, don’t mind me, but I’m going to preempt everyone and toss this out there.

Okay, so why isn’t every dev on the planet tapping the PS4 and Xbone to do stuff like THAT?  WHY?!



9:45 PM on 06.09.2015

On Final Fantasy and Lost Empathy

So does anyone here watch The Middle?

I’ve seen some of it, in my quest to fill the hole left by the long-since-finished How I Met Your Mother.  I can’t say I’m in love with The Middle, and I have yet to go out of my way to watch it, but hey.  At least it’s on.  And to the show’s credit, it’s got some juice.  Well, the humor’s kind of hit-or-miss, episodes tend to cram sentimentality and family togetherness into the last couple of minutes, and the kids are increasingly aggravating (typically without the saving grace of being funny), but there’s juice.  Whether it’s on purpose or not, I’d argue that the show’s greatest strength is how well it pushes the theme of apathy.

 The members of the show’s Heck family regularly have to contend with people who couldn’t care less about their problems, beliefs, or even hopes.  The world around them turns regardless, and the people in it would rather go about their business with even tones, cool heads, and even smiles rather than move a single millimeter out of their comfort zones. 

The Hecks live in a world where no one cares about them, and that air of apathy -- the sense that nothing matters but basic, self-serving needs and desires -- regularly affects and even corrupts them.  But luckily, their bonds as a family keep them from going off the deep end.  Even if the world could care less about you, there are people around you that do.  That’s not just where the thematic density lies; the display of (and struggle against) apathy creates some of the show’s best scenarios.

So what does that have to do with Final Fantasy?  Simple.  I would be fine with the franchise in its current state if it intentionally played to something like a theme of apathy.  But it doesn’t -- and that feeds into an even bigger problem.

As you can guess, this is (once again) coming off of me finishing Final Fantasy Type-0 -- and the reactions I’ve seen to it recently.  I don’t want to generalize, but I’m worried that with announcements of a PC port and a console patch, people look at the game and say “The only problems with it are that it has too much motion blur and the camera needs work.”  And I’m just like…really?  That’s what we’re going to focus on?  Those are the biggest issues?  So I guess it’s time for me to play Captain Bringdown, riding in on the S.S. Grievances alongside First Mate Nitpicks. 

I’ll gladly admit that it gets off to a promising start, but by the halfway point playing the game was the rough equivalent of having a gorilla slowly jam one knife at a time into my body.  I’ll refrain from spoilers here (as much as I want to go over the sheer madness of the final chapter), but I’ll say this much: the two “main characters”, Machina Kunagiri and Rem Tokimiya, utterly ruin the game for me.  As in, I have never seen two characters break a story in two so completely and decisively -- almost as if Doctor Doom slipped in a sleeper agent to ruin everything for everyone forever.

I would call Rem a blank slate, but the game would have you believe that she’s a saint whose footsteps give rise to fields of wildflowers.  NPCs fawn over her, she’s the star of most optional cutscenes (inasmuch as a non-entity who stands around looking pretty can be a star), she’s pretty much only there to be pitied vis a vis some terminal illness, and you could simulate most of her dialogue by just going “DERRRRRRRRRP” for five minutes.  Oh, but I guess she’s nice and cute, so it’s fine.  I mean, I always thought characters were supposed to have personalities, conflicts, and arcs, but I guess I was mistaken.

So no, I don’t very much care for Rem, but I have just as many problems -- if not more -- with Machina.  Again, I don’t want to spoil anything here because it would take several thousand more words to explain everything wrong with this guy, but at a base level?  He’s emblematic of a big problem…or at the very least, embodies a pet peeve of mine.  Maybe all of them at once, but let’s take this step by step. 

At the outset, he seems like an okay enough guy -- not exactly leading man material, but he’s concerned about his obviously-unwell friend Rem, and worries as needed.  That’s fine.  But over the course of the game, in no shortage of go-nowhere cutscenes, he goes from concern to outright obsession.  Nearly every moment he’s on-screen, he declares that he’s going to protect Rem.  Or he’s worried about Rem.  All Rem, all the time.

I say “nearly”, of course, because a major part of Machina’s character (sure, let’s call it that) is that before long, he becomes distrustful of Class Zero -- AKA the twelve playable characters, and the cadets acting as their country’s saving grace in a losing war.  He really doesn’t have any reason to, considering the context -- some sleazy official puts the clearly-biased idea in his head, even though Class Zero is saving everyone almost single-handedly -- but it doesn’t matter to him.  All that matters is that Machina wants to protect Rem, and flips the mightiest birds he can to everyone around him.  And then he goes on to make some of the worst, most nonsensical decisions ever committed to a video game.

In my humble opinion, of course.

Now, let me be honest.  If you’ve read some of my stuff before, you likely know that I lean towards more heroic characters.  I put a lot of stock in heroes -- men and women who live by virtues, fight for something near and dear to them, and stand up against the villains that plague their worlds.  That’s my preference, but it’s not my requirement; I can appreciate anti-heroes and less-than-noble characters no matter where they pop up. 

I mean, remember Looper?  Nonsensical time-travel shenanigans aside, I really enjoyed that movie precisely because it steered into the skid; selfish people did selfish things, but the movie was stronger for it.  It was more or less acknowledged that the major players weren’t exactly altruists, so that things could progress with that in mind -- with a whole new set of tools at the crew’s disposal, without something as silly as an audience’s morality messing things up.

But this isn’t necessarily about morality.  It’s about using elements in the best way possible, and the mere fact that Machina (and similarly, Rem) exists is proof that Squeenix didn’t feel like doing that.  Machina doesn’t care about anything but himself and Rem, and even then you could argue that he only cares about the latter because of symbolic weight -- or to put it simply, because she’s a doll he has to protect from the mean ol’ Empire.  He has no loyalty to his superiors.  He has no loyalty to his country.  He doesn’t even have loyalty to Class Zero, his comrades and the genuinely good people trying to keep their home of Rubrum safe -- and Machina as well. 

If that single-mindedness was adequately developed (and didn’t revolve around boneheaded decisions), then it would have made Machina into a better character -- a flawed and maybe even tragic figure whose actions led to a punishing fall from grace.  But in Type-0, his moves, beliefs, and even nature all feel arbitrary, as if they added in drama for drama’s sake.  It’s impossible for me to give an eighth of a damn about a character whose entire premise is built on what might as well be moon-speak, for all the sense it makes.  And then there’s...other stuff.

I'd like to take a moment to remind anyone reading this that the game is supposed to be a serious war drama.

The sad thing about Type-0 is that it came close to being good.  Relatively speaking; it had a better shot than, say, 13-2But it’s as The Spoony One once argued: the recent Final Fantasy installments have all had huge problems deciding who the main character is.  With Type-0, there was a good story just waiting to be told thanks to Ace, the card-slinging, de facto leader of Class Zero.  His character makes sense, his dilemmas are meaningful, and when he’s actually allowed to take the stage (along with the rest of his regularly-ignored cadets) the game reaches its highest points.  Instead, the story chooses to follow Machina and Rem, to the point where they figure prominently on promotional materials.

If we take that at face value, then Squeenix wants players to identify with Machina.  They want us to feel for this character, and his plight.  I could be jumping to conclusions here, but if that was the intent, then it doesn’t particularly sit right with me.  Think about it: is this the character Squeenix wants people to sympathize with?  Or even worse, Machina is who they think people will sympathize with?  Want to follow?  They expect people to love a guy who’s possessive, antagonistic, gullible, insensitive (even to Rem, given how little he actually talks to her), and just plain stupid?

I know it seems like I’m obsessing too much over the story of a video game, and the medium isn’t exactly the place to go for good narratives.  But setting aside the fact that that’s kind of what I do, it’s worth remembering that Type-0 is an RPG.  It’s part of a genre -- and a franchise -- half-built on telling stories.  And while I’ll gladly concede that the game has some genuinely fun gameplay mechanics (when they’re not impeded by poor design choices), it’s hard to keep having fun when your reward for a downed boss is some of the most asinine story beats ever committed to a disc.

I mean, it’s thanks to characters that we get our viewpoint -- our anchor -- to whatever world we’re experiencing.  But thanks to someone like Machina, the view and scope of Type-0’s Orience gets narrowed to the width of the average straw.  What are the four kingdoms like?  What’s the situation with the war?  What are the people all over saying and feeling?  What sort of personal issues and opinions do the cadets of Class Zero have, considering that they’re child soldiers who act as the lynchpin of the war and by extension change history by dint of their nigh-inhuman abilities?  WHO CARES?!  Machina has to protect Rem!  That’s all that matters!  That’s all the justification he needs for anything!

I don’t know what’s worse -- the fact that someone like Machina exists, or the fact that this isn’t the first time Final Fantasy has done this song and dance.

I’ve argued before, and extensively, that The Lightning Saga’s (*dry heaves*) titular heroine is actually a borderline psychopath -- if only by the sheer level of incompetence that went into creating her.  It’s not often that you get a character with such a severe lack of empathy; Aiden Pearce, Kratos, and Alex Mercer combined couldn’t hope to match her.  Remember, Lightning is a character that not only decided on a whim to kill everyone just because it was her supposed mission, but set the majority of the plot in motion because her sister’s effectively-ruined life was a mild inconvenience for her birthday. 

I’m exaggerating, but only a little bit.

Incidentally, Lightning isn’t the only character in her Saga (*spontaneously gains ulcers*) with a severe lack of empathy.  She plays a big part in degrading games like 13-2, but the one who comes to mind right now is the purple-haired villain Caius -- who is almost exactly like Machina.  He’s out to destroy the very concept of time in his game of origin, but he does what he does in an effort to save his Rem, the young seer Yeul.  At no point in the story does he ever stop to think about how his actions might affect others -- which in all fairness is fine for a villain.  But more importantly, he does awful things ostensibly to protect Yeul, yet he never even stops to ask if Yeul wants protection, or just what she wants in general.  He doesn’t care what she thinks or feels, because he’s so convinced that what he’s doing is right for her.

But Yeul’s not the innocent, pure-hearted waif the game pushes her as, either.  First off, she’s an accomplice to Caius’ acts of chronocide throughout pretty much the whole thing.  That might not be so bad if she wasn’t a seer practically hand-picked to “protect the sanctity of the timeline” or whatever -- which she only does to try and ward off the good guys, while letting Caius destroy time because reasons. 

What really gets to me is that Yeul doesn’t express anything even remotely close to an opinion or a desire through the whole game.  She just stands around looking pretty -- in the sense that she’s typically emotionless and rarely says anything besides cryptic moon-speak -- and goes along with plans that ruin reality for reasons never adequately explained.  Also, she (or versions of her) end up dying anyway, sooooooo…way to be, Caius.

Arguably, you could extend the lack of empathy to a lot of characters (good or evil) in what’s been shown of the Fabula Nova Crystallis project so far.  13-2’s Noel might be trying to do the right thing, but he plays white knight to Yeul -- and Serah, similarly -- without any concern as to what she really wants out of life.  More pressingly, the better part of vanilla 13 is spent slaughtering innocent soldiers who are just trying to do protect their home; by and large, the player ends up proving their paranoia-bred aggression right. 

And even though I haven’t played Lightning Returns (I just know my brother’s going to give it to me as a “birthday present” one of these days), I can’t imagine Lightning caring about anyone except for HER version of Rem -- her little sister -- and to pay lip service to her as a savior.  Also, I’m pretty sure a subsection of the plot is about how Lightning loses her emotions, so I have my doubts that she cares about anything that doesn’t directly benefit her.  Because that’s who I want to play as.  Someone with no personality, no charisma, and no concern for her fellow men.  It’s all about those little sisters, baby.  Or a cheap, pandering facsimile of them.

Maybe I’m reaching here, but my theory is that FF in general has had a problem with empathic characters -- to an extent.  It’s easy for me to dump hate on something like The Lightning Saga (*struggles to stay upright as organs detonate*), but even for a guy like me with only a tangential understanding of the other games, it’s not hard to draw some conclusions.  It’s been a while since I played FF7, but I seem to recall Cloud passionately declaring that he doesn’t care about the planet, the people, or anything else; as a soldier, he’s only in it for the money. 

Squall spends a decent chunk of FF8 treating everyone and everything like an inconvenience.  Tidus of FF10 goes on and on about how it’s his story, even though he’s a guest in a world far bigger and weightier than him.  And it’s my understanding that Cecil of FF4 starts out as a dark knight who does (or at least did do) unspeakable crimes.  It’s almost as if the four warriors of Eight-Bit Theater are secretly the perfect representation of FF heroes -- with “heroes” plastered to an asterisk the size of an RV. 

But here’s the thing: in the case of those older titles, it’s actually all right.  In fact, it’s even fairly appreciable.  And that, dear friends, is because in the best-case scenario, those characters had that magical thing known as an arc.

I fully acknowledge that Tidus isn’t exactly the best character, and that his game isn’t exactly the best.  But there are things about it that I can and will defend.  Yes, the star of the Zanarkand Abes is plenty annoying, loud-mouthed, frequently embarrassing, and undeniably selfish.  He’s so busy worrying about himself, his problems, and his issues that he can’t notice the obvious signs that the people (and the world) around him aren’t in the best state.  But at least he makes the effort.  At least he willingly chooses to become entrenched in the world and its customs.  At least he actively supports the people around him, even beyond his love interest Yuna. 

He’s awkward about pretty much everything he does, and he screws up plenty along the way, but he still makes an effort to not be an asshole.  And he actually realizes at the “big reveal” -- that Yuna’s pilgrimage will end in her arguably-pointless death -- that he’s been an asshole.  He figures out that he’s been selfish, and insensitive, and thick-headed, and tries to do better.  Given how his game ends and what he does to resolve the plot, it’s a decently-sized step from the blitzball ace in the opening hours.

Yes, I brought up Cloud and Squall, but I’m guessing you noticed that I didn’t go into much detail about their lack of empathy -- because their games didn’t, either.  It’s supremely easy to label Squall as the quintessential emo teen and progenitor of angst, but it’s plenty easy to defend him.  Setting aside the fact that he has every reason to lose his empathy (what with being made into a child soldier forced to lose his memories over years of training), he makes an effort to reach out to others in line with his persona and beliefs. 

Even if we ignore his romance with Rinoa and the character development it brings, Squall tried to be something more than just a soldier.  He comforted gunslinger comrade Irvine when he was minutes away from botching an assassination attempt.  He gave a rousing speech to his fellow members of SeeD when it looked like all hope was lost.  Hell, you could even argue that he was the only sane man in a world gone mad, and only took up his gunblade so he could sort out its problems.  You know, with the sorceress threatening to wreak havoc and the monsters from the moon that launch their assault on the planet.  (In hindsight, that game was pretty weird.)

It’s the same for Cloud and Cecil, arguably.  With the former, tragedy and a ghost from the past force Cloud to stop caring about just Cloud and do something that matters -- up to and including saving the world, and not just because that’s what you do in a JRPG.  Meanwhile, I was under the impression that half of the point of FF4 was getting Cecil to go on his redemptive arc and journey -- to stop being an emissary of darkness and transform into a noble Paladin.  But who knows?

Whatever the case, the takeaway from all of this is that characters create opportunities.  They don’t have to be static, and they don’t have to be psychopaths.  But they don’t have to be squeaky-clean heroes, either; it’s more than possible (if not preferable) for them to start in one place but end in another, and are often made stronger because of it.  If a character like Machina or Lightning doesn’t have empathy, then it does more than just make them unlikable or incomprehensible; it limits the playing field of the story, and ends up hurting everything in-universe and out of it.  Again, I'm not going to spoil anything (here, at least), but I'll just say this: Class Zero deserved better

BUT the tradeoff is that ignoring that quality -- that lack of empathy -- is just as limiting.  Trying to slot a character like that into the hero position can (and for me, often does) break the entire story, because it’s like trying to twist a screw in with a hammer.  Directly or indirectly, it’s best to own up to a character’s nature rather than pretend like they’re something that they clearly aren’t.  And I say that because I have to make a confession.

One of my favorite TV shows, period, is Everybody Loves Raymond.  I’ve seen practically every episode, and I’ll gladly watch reruns of it without complaint.  It’s a funny show, partly because it owns up to the fact that the Barone family is full of ostensibly-terrible people.  Ray is a selfish, slothful man who puts huge amounts of effort into being even lazier.  His wife Debra becomes more wrathful, bitter, and even unhinged as the show progresses. 

Robert loves playing the martyr, and immediately assumes that little brother Ray is jealous whenever something doesn’t go his way (to project his own corruptive envy on a regular basis).  Frank is a glutton rightfully described as an ogre and a brute.  And Marie might as well be one of the most heinous villains ever committed to fiction, willing and able to exert her control over everyone around her…and she does it with a smile.  As if she doesn’t even know what she does is wrong.

And it’s awesome.

In a way, I suppose what I’m advocating here isn’t so much “have empathic characters” as it is “have self-awareness”.  If your character is an asshole, then fine.  Play to that.  Use the attributes to your advantage.  It’s not a requirement to have an asshole character, by ANY means, but it’s not an instant loss if it does happen.  It can become a boon to those that are willing to mess around with the tools.  For those that aren’t?  For those that would shove “heroes” like Machina in our faces?  Pack up and go home, please.

With all that in mind, there is one more thing I want to say.  Hopefully, I’ve managed to explain well enough how someone can handle a less-than-savory character, and how to avoid it.  But as I said at the start, I put a lot of stock in heroes.  I like the Boy Scout-types, and the paladins, and everything even remotely related to them.  But how do you handle them?  How do you handle guys who are already as good as they can be?

I have a theory.  And with this post down, maybe one day soon I can finally, finally, finally talk about something -- or someone -- I’ve wanted to for at least a year.

But until then?  I don’t know.  We’ll see.  Maybe I’ll go with some weird vampire guy instead.

Don’t worry.  He’s not as cool as you think.



9:43 PM on 04.21.2015

Bayonetta 2 is secretly brilliant.

In the first fifteen seconds of the game, you’re treated to a slow-motion shot of Bayonetta that -- of course -- pans straight down to her crotch.  Barely a minute later, you’re commandeering and piloting an angelic mech to wreak havoc on your foes.  And in one of the earliest cutscenes, she kicks an incoming jet well above a spread of skyscrapers.  Seems like a reasonable start, yes?

Seriously, though.  Chances are you don’t need me to tell you how good Bayo2 is (my personal answer being “absurdly good”).  It’s gotten high marks all over, and proven that the wait was worthwhile.  If not for Nintendo, there would be no Bayo2 -- and now more than ever, I’m glad that the Big N extended a helping hand.  Granted I’m not 100% sure if I like it more than Metal Gear Rising or The Wonderful 101, but that’s a moot point; those three can stand shoulder-to-shoulder as a trinity of awesome games.  I don’t have any problems leaving it at that.

But there’s more to say about Bayo2.  MUCH more.  So let’s get to it…oh, and THE SPOILERS REMAIN CAST!  So, you know, watch out for spoilers.

If you’re reading this, then chances are high that you’re aware of some of the controversies surrounding games and gamers right now.  I’d rather not dwell on it if I can help it, but I will say this: I’m the type who’d prefer to blame the products and not the people who create them.  If there’s a problem with the culture, it’s because there’s been a push (however slight) toward those opinions and conclusions from the media its fans consume.  There’s no one-to-one correlation, mind, but some of the stuff out there can’t possibly be -- for lack of a better word -- enlightening.

Obviously (and hopefully beneficially in the near future), one of those controversies is about how women appear in games.  When you take even the shallowest look at recent fare, it’s hard to say “nope, no problems here” with a straight face.  A lot of people -- rightfully -- shout that games need more female protagonists, but I’d think that they mean we need GOOD leading ladies.  It’s easy to go way, way, WAY off the rails.  Shittiness is gender-neutral.

I don’t think we should underestimate the presence of female characters in general, because if we’re solely counting protagonists, then we exclude heroines like Chun-Li, Elizabeth, Tali’Zorah, Yukiko, and mai waifu Makoto Sako.  Don’t get me wrong, though; coming up with a comprehensive list of female leads shouldn’t be doable in the span of a minute.  Getting that much-needed and very-welcome diversity shouldn’t be this hard.  And it isn’t hard, because the Bayo games -- and the titular character -- make it look easy.

I’ll be honest.  I played the first game, but never got to finish it; other stuff got in the way, and my brother traded it in on the (justifiable) grounds that I’d never touch it again.  So the reason I’ve talked more about, say, Lollipop Chainsaw’s Juliet more than Bayonetta is because even if they’re on the same axis (supra-sexy asskickers!), I feel more comfortable thinking about the nuances of that zombie-slaying cheerleader than the hair-slinging witch because I’ve finished Juliet’s game a while ago.  It’s not that I don’t recognize Bayonetta, though; I just needed time to analyze the character and figure out if she was more than just Sexyhair Q. Crotchsplayer.  And believe it or not, Platinum’s latest has given me a strong answer -- a healthy glimpse into her character.

Believe it or not, she might be more nuanced than we give her credit for.

Well, maybe “nuanced” isn’t the best word to use.  Close enough, though.

Here’s the setup.  Bayonetta’s out shopping one day when suddenly the city falls prey to an attack from angels -- angels, presumably after the infamous Umbra Witch, and likely set in motion thanks to the unrest between the angels in Paradiso and the demons in Inferno.  Bayo dispatches them, naturally, but the fight goes awry when her demon summoning goes wrong and forces her pal Jeanne to take a mortal blow for her.  Jeanne’s body and soul get separated, and Bayo hatches a plan.  She’ll go straight to hell and retrieve Jeanne’s soul, all too wary of the fact that the clock is ticking.  And there’s the nasty business of a potential war between heaven and hell and a struggle to control chaos itself, but whatevs.

At times it feels like the story is just an excuse to pit Bayo against both angels and demons, and the central plot/rescue arc gets somewhat diluted by having to play escort to the new kid on the block, a much more talkative Wonder Black Loki.  On one hand, their story gets dragged down by amnesia being used again (come on guys, you used that last time!), and it takes a while for the demon side of the war to get in gear.  On the other hand, Bayo and Loki actually get to have some good moments together, and build on both of their characters -- the former more than the latter, naturally.  That’s a good thing, without question; there’s genuine proof that she’s more than just a sexual object.  But I'll get to that.

What’s surprising about Bayo2 is that there was genuine effort put in to try and make the world feel more involved in the proceedings.  As usual, the fate of the world is at stake, but the interesting thing is that the main conflict occurs almost entirely away from human eyes.  Higher powers -- our favorite witch, angels, demons, and the odd-rival or two -- are struggling to either have their plans come to pass, or have their individual missions go the way they want. 

So while my knee-jerk reaction near the endgame was to call out the cast/story for trying to introduce the “evil of human hearts” and “let humanity decide its fate” (because humanity at large is damn near invisible throughout the game), it ultimately works because these higher powers are competing to have their views superimposed on the mundane realm.  Good guys and bad guys alike are more or less gods, so it’s only natural that they’re speaking on behalf of…well, life in general.  So the scale is there, but as-is, Bayo2 keeps the struggle personal.  All things considered, that’s how it should be.

Stepping back a bit, I was honestly shocked -- and even impressed -- by the game’s world.  The expectation is that the story’s nonsense (and it kind of is, in all frankness), but there are dozens of files you can find that flesh out the concepts and conceits of the canon.  Pick up a book floating in a stage, and you can read quick blurbs from adventurer/journalist Luka that’ll tell you plenty of interesting little tidbits.  Granted a fair share of it gets explained in the story, but if you’re not quite sure what the hell these people are babbling about, you’ve got the resource you need.  Or you can just enjoy some flavor text; the enemies you fight get recorded as well, so you can read up on them at your leisure.  Apparently one of them wields a Valiantium Blade.

This bleeds into the gameplay a little, but I can’t ignore just how expansive some of these stages are.  And they’re intricate, for that matter; the visuals and art design alike come together to make for some very impressive locales.  One of the game’s very first areas made me want to forgo combat entirely and just run around to see the sights.  And it’s a good thing, too, because there are plenty of hidden trinkets that’ll help you in a fight.  Portals to special challenges are well among them, but in some cases you have to scour areas to grab pieces of LPs.  If you do, you can put them together and earn a new weapon.  If you don’t…well, you don’t get that weapon.  Ever.  And I suspect you’ll want them, if not need them.

It’s a good thing I missed almost all of the weapons!

Well, enough of that.  Let’s get to what matters. 

There are four important things to note about Bayonetta’s character, so let’s see how fast I can run through them so I can get to the gameplay.  The first and most obvious is…

1) Bayonetta is overflowing with charisma.

You can say a lot about Bayo, whether you like her or not -- but at this stage, I think we can all agree that if there’s one thing she isn’t, it’s bland.  She wouldn’t have two games (and hopefully three someday) to her name if not for her boisterous character -- that spirit and spark that constantly draws the eyes of observers.  Role, dialogue, animations, design, and more come together to scream out loud “everyone, look at me!”  And it works.  And part of the reason for that is…

2) Bayonetta absolutely loves what she does.

It’s very telling when, after reproducing the pose on the box art, the camera zooms in on Bayonetta’s smiling face.  A part of me wants to argue that this game deserves a TENOUTTATEN just for having a character who knows how to smile (and show emotions, and just plain react to shit), but my takeaway is that she’s not doing what she does -- fighting as stylishly as possible -- for efficiency’s sake.  She’s doing it because she’s having fun.  And if she’s having fun, which she so clearly is for a good 75% of the game, then the player’s more likely to.  Given that “having fun” is arguably the whole purpose of, you know, a video game, I’d say that the only way you could have a game like Bayo2 is with a character who’s nine heads tall and feelin’ fine.

But those two facets are surface-level things.  Where’s the nuance?  Where are the hidden depths?  Well, you can chalk it up to interpretation, but if you ask me, there’s more going on to Bayo than being Lady Struttinstein.  Speaking specifically…

3) Bayonetta NEEDS someone to watch and enjoy her.

There’s a scene somewhere in the middle of the game where Loki -- eager to get to the top of Plot Mountain and shove off to heaven -- decides to split up with Bayonetta.  Now, up to that point Bayo’s almost exclusively given Loki guff, give or take the inevitable “resident expert fighter learns to love and appreciate a forced younger charge” routine.  But what’s really striking is that when Loki’s about to leave, Bayo trips over some of her dialogue -- stuttering and coming up with a quick excuse to keep him around.  I pretty much did a double-take, because it seemed so out-of-character.

Except it wasn’t.

One of the files reveals that in order to be an Umbra With, it requires not just inborn potential, but rigorous physical, magical, and likely mental training -- and making pacts with demons, but let’s set that aside for now.  Essentially, everything that Bayo can do in the game isn’t just because “protagonist powers, lol”.  It’s because she worked for it, and she wants people to know it. 

Or to be more precise, she needs people to know it.  Remember, this character does the vast majority of her stunts completely invisible to the naked eye; without anyone to recognize and ravish her, all her bluster doesn’t mean a damn thing…outside of a broken back, considering her standard posture.  Without people watching her, what does she have?  Nothing.  Just an empty world to do stripper poses in.  That’s why she values the people around her, be they brats or bumblers.

I’d go so far as to say the Bayo games break right through the fourth wall.  If she can’t show off to others, then she’ll just show off to you.

But even beyond that, there’s still…

4) Bayonetta isn’t invincible.

I mean that in the obvious sense, i.e. Bayo gets knocked around her fair share of times throughout the game (and let’s not think too hard about how many times the player might get knocked around).  But think about the point I made earlier, and the other points too.  Ask yourself this: what kind of person would someone have to be to actively thrive on getting attention in any way possible, up to and including activating holy machinery by doing a pole dance?  Either a person who SERIOUSLY feels comfortable in her skin, or someone who’s so vulnerable that a good percentage of her act is…well, just an act.

It’s a little sketchy to attribute things like parental abandonment, isolation, and a desperate search for an identity and purpose to one of the few female leads in the modern-day gaming canon, but it’s still plenty possible.  Still, those are arguable aspects of her character -- weaknesses that don’t necessarily make her intolerably weak, but instead make her more human.  As it should be, because A CHARACTER SHOWING WEAKNESS IS NOT A FAILURE STATE.  You can have your badass hero/heroine and give them something more to think about than the next big setpiece. 

I think that part of the reason why amnesia gets used as a plot device again is to help Bayo bond on a deeper level with Loki.  After all, she was suffering (and debatably still does suffer) from amnesia in the first game, to the point where she didn’t even recognize the past version of herself trotting around her ankles.  It’s a basic parallel, but it works.  More to the point, even if the space-time shenanigans of the first game have put Baby Bayo back where she belongs -- at the cost of potentially creating a stable time loop where the girl gets her inspiration -- the little girl is still a part of the woman.  Maybe more than she, or we, care to admit.

Bayo may be a cocky joker, but like the Dante of old there are still things that matter to her -- and maybe even more so than any other action game hero.  Losing Jeanne genuinely shakes her, and with good reason; she’s at risk of losing one of the few people who can stand beside her in terms of power, among many other things.  She acts like the men in her life are an inconvenience at best, but even Enzo the walking punchline gets a little love from her.  It’s a given that she bonds with Loki, and plays the role of big sister, but in turn she ends up playing the loyal, starry-eyed child on more than one occasion -- sometimes trying to be cool, and other times slipping up.  Dropping the façade, but picking it back up before she can get too sentimental.

So in my eyes?  Bayo may earn some scorn and have her detractors (and rightfully; no one forced the devs to push a character with sex woven into her persona just as thoroughly as her hair), but I don’t have any problems saying she’s a legit character.  If only for a moment, we’ve got one leading lady who’s earned and DESERVES respect.

We’re this far in and I haven’t even started on the gameplay.  So let’s do it.

The Bayonetta games forgo the typical “light attack/heavy attack” setup you see in a lot of action games, at least conceptually.  You’ve got jump and shoot buttons, but your primary attacks correspond to Bayo’s arms and legs -- and the weapons you equip to each.  So as soon as you’ve got a healthy collection of weapons, you can (and have to) think about what sort of witch you want to make.  Unless you WANT to lose at the menu screen, of course. 

So what are you after?  Do you want range? Pressure?  Crowd control?  Single-target damage?  Combo potential?  Synergy from weapon-to-weapon (and thus button-to-button)?  The default weapons are solid enough, and there are universal techniques you can buy from the shop, but it’s important to know what you want and what the situation calls for.  You’ll need to be more than just competent to fight the Lumen Sage, a guy who makes Vergil look like a half-crushed snail.

The game’s biggest conceit has to be Witch Time, without question.  Pull one of the triggers and you’ll send Bayo into a dodge animation to get away from whatever’s trying to slaughter you -- BUT if you dodge at just the right time, you’ll temporarily slow down time and earn the right to wail on slowed-down foes.  It’s good that you’ve got tons of offensive options, but the quality of a defensive one is what sets a good action game apart from a bad one. 

The Witch Time system incentivizes (if not forces) the player to pay attention to what’s going on; watching those enemy cues and telegraphs offers up rewards on every level.  Refusal to pay attention leads to certain death…theoretically.  The window for dodging and avoiding damage is pretty lenient -- Witch Time less so, I’d say -- so you can get out of a lot of bad situations if need be.  I suspect that it’s more than possible to cheese your way through some fights just by dodge-spamming.

But if my guess is right, you won’t want to.

So, Bayo2 isn’t exactly what I’d call an easy game, but (at least on the normal difficulty) it isn’t as hard as you’d expect.  That’s a good thing in some cases; my playthrough left me with three deaths total, all from non-combat sequences, so it’s safe to say the game doesn’t punish you just for existing.  On the other hand, there’s a part of me that thinks I shouldn’t have gotten through the game at all.  I’m the panicky sort with the nerves of a drugged-up gerbil, so I’d bet half of my Witch Time activations came from my frantic attempts to get the hell out of trouble.  Couple that with a healthy stock of items, and it can turn fights into battles of attrition instead of skill.

Here’s the thing, though: you can make battles into tests of skill.  Because you’ll want to get good.

This is a game that feels good.  Very good.  Chalk it up to a set of intangibles, but there’s a level of finesse and impact alike that makes for a satisfying game from one fight to the next.  The dodge/Witch Time mechanic is likely the cause.  After all, just think about it; lesser games make the player invincible just ‘cause, as if it’d be impossible for a player to enjoy it if they aren’t effectively invincible.  In Bayo2, however, you’re not invincible -- but with enough skill, you can MAKE yourself invincible.  That’s the clincher.

Once you get into the flow of combat, you DON’T want to get out of it.  But any hits from enemies will jettison you out of the zone you’re bound to enter.  As it should.  Think about it; there’s an insane amount of evidence that paints Bayonetta as this stylish, untouchable beauty who’s an ace at the fine art of ass-kicking.  That can carry over into the gameplay, but only if you earn it. 

And on a deeper level, you’ll want to earn it.  You want to engage in those systems, and create your own beautiful combos, and torture your opponents into oblivion.  If you don’t -- if you get knocked around on a regular basis, or just bank on the same mashed-out combo -- then you don’t feel like the Umbra Witch you’ve been shown.

But when you do engage, everything clicks.  Everything.  It’s surprising how many times I got some momentum going and found my flow -- and it pretty much did turn me into Bayonetta.  I wasn’t scrambling around for my life; I just kept up an unstoppable offense, walloping foes into a dizzy state so I could take the fight to the skies. 

And I didn’t even have to try to spam dodges; I’d seen most of the enemy’s attacks before, and even the slightest twitch told me when and where I needed to dodge.  And I did, and managed to string one period of Witch Time to the next -- without stopping my offense, and without getting my streak broken. 

So arguably, this game will help you achieve enlightenment.  Just for a little while, though.

If I had to point out some drawbacks to the gameplay, then I could (however grudgingly).  For one, there are quite a few sequences where Bayo sprouts wings and has a midair fight -- and while they’re cool as all get out, the tradeoff is that you often lose some of your most vital/trusted techniques. 

On top of that, while the enemy design is really cool -- and I love the reveals for each new enemy -- sometimes their designs aren’t exactly conducive to telling what sort of attack or even limb is coming right at you.  And in usual Platinum tradition, the camera could use some work.  It’s not unworkable, but there are moments where it hampers you.

All things considered, those are just minor complaints.  So let’s round out this post by mentioning something else positive: the challenge stages.

Like I said, there are portals littered throughout the game that you have to find.  Go through one, and you’ll have to clear a fight with some special stipulation -- don’t get hit, beat everyone in the time limit, etc.  But those simple rules are important, because they A) teach you how to play the game, and B) teach you how to play the game better

Clearing some of these challenges doesn’t always come down to pure skill, but an application of knowledge -- as it should be.  Need to keep your combo going?  String some gunshots into the mix (with the added benefit of adjusting the camera on the fly).  Can’t quite beat those enemies in time?  Shave off a few seconds by learning which moves will put Bayo right where she needs to be.

 The challenges expose the depth without saying a single word beyond “okay, do this thing”.  One of the more notable ones is “don’t touch the ground”, and takes place on a set of tall, destructible pillars.  It’s this challenge that teaches you just how much aerial fidelity Bayo has; on top of her double-jump and float, you can use a number of her techniques to go higher or pressure midair foes -- and multiple times. 

On top of that, a challenge like that (and others) can make you say “All right, I’ve blown this challenge twenty times now.  Maybe it’s time to try a new weapon.”  And doing so will open up whole new possibilities for your game plan.  Again, that’s how it should be.  You should be free to experiment, and given the tools needed to craft your own perfect style.  The game definitely deserves praise for offering that freedom.

And it’s that very freedom -- and its style, and its effect, and its quality, and everything else that make the game what it is -- that practically begs for more than one playthrough.  (That’s setting aside the unlockable modes and characters, of course.)  In the same way that Bayo will boot a helpless angel into the torture device du jour, you’ve got more than enough tools -- and more importantly, reason -- to find ways to dominate your foes.  And when you do, you’ll find yourself with a game that rewards you damn near every step of the way.  No doubt about it.

By the way, the end credits feature Bayonetta pole-dancing to the tune of “Moon River” while an old-timey movie filter is superimposed atop the screen.  But you know what?  I ain’t even mad.

All right, so who wants to guess what Bayo's hair will look like in the next game?


11:02 PM on 04.14.2015

Do We Need Final Fantasy Anymore?

But first, a preliminary question: how relevant is Final Fantasy Type-0?

I admit I haven’t been looking around all that much to gauge responses, but my guess -- or maybe fear -- is that people have chosen to ignore Type-0 because, holy crap, a demo of FF15!  And while there’s plenty of allure there, I was personally more interested in an HD re-release of a 2011 PSP game than a vertical, non-contextual, non-indicative slice (in the sense that it’s based on an incomplete form of the final product) of a game that still doesn’t have an ironclad release date despite keeping eager gamers waiting for nearly a whole decade.  But I could be biased.

In any case?  Type-0.  I’ve been trying to clear it, but -- well, I’ll be honest.  The more I play it, the worse it seems to get -- to the point where I’ve declared that it’s practically imploding.  That’s not the best way to describe a new (enough) game.  And worse yet, it’s left me seriously concerned about the franchise as a whole.  As if I wasn’t already.

I should back up and say that I’m not an expert on the franchise.  My first game was FF7, and even then I played it years after its initial release -- exacerbated further because A) I did so with the PC version, and B) I didn’t go through it until years after my brother’s playthrough, itself forced to start from scratch because he was too weak to beat pretty much everything.  But when I did sit down with it (for my own run, and not just grinding on my big bro’s behalf), I enjoyed it.  And I enjoyed FF8, flawed as it may be, if only because of how badly I broke the game.  And I enjoyed FF10, even though -- again -- I didn’t play it until I got a PS2 late in the console’s lifespan.  I don’t even mind the laughing scene.

As you can guess, I never had a PS1, so FF9 was lost on me -- though to be fair, I’ve got the digital (and largely-untouched) version on PS3.  And I don’t think I need to tell you that the MMO offerings saw a big NOPE from me, so I’ve willingly skipped out on FF11 and both versions of FF14.  So basically, that leaves a couple of entries left, at least on the more recent consoles.  I couldn’t get into FF12 because of the quasi-MMO style and the let-the-game-play-for-you Gambit system, so I stayed content with watching my brother play through it.  In retrospect, I wasn’t being fair to it, and I recognize that it might actually be a really good game -- even if I don’t buy into the actual gameplay aspect.

Which brings us to The Lightning Saga.

If you’ve read some of my stuff before, you may know that -- to put it mildly -- I don’t look fondly on The Lightning Saga.  I’d played bad games prior to it, but FF13 was the game that pretty much broke video games for me; it was the game that made me realize that all heroes die someday, and those who can create things can’t be counted on to create good things.  But as bad as 13 was, 13-2 was several dozen times worse; for the life of me I can’t understand how people can say “it’s better than 13” when it gets virtually everything wrong on every level.  I have absolutely no problem declaring it the worst game I’ve ever played, and the only thing that could possibly dethrone it (that I know of) is Lightning Returns.

But damned if Type-0 isn’t doing its best to take the crown.  To be fair, it doesn’t completely fall apart in the first thirty minutes like that other game, and the battle system is usually a lot more fun than it has any right to be.  But even if you ignore some of the issues with the gameplay (which gets harder for me each time I play), once again it’s the story where everything starts to fall apart.  Pacing and tonal issues abound; motivations for actions on a small scale and large make absolutely no sense; it takes ages for the actual plot to kick in, and when it does it falls apart with even a second’s worth of thought.  And on top of all that, I’ve heard that in order to fully understand it, you have to play through at least twice.  Um, what?  I know that you can read books or watch movies again to catch things you missed the first time, but when I can’t understand core concepts of a story the first time through, something has gone wrong.

I wouldn’t be so frustrated with Type-0 if it just gave us a decent set of characters.  It was a fool’s errand to expect as much from modern-day Squeenix, I know; I was basically asking the guys who couldn’t develop one character from a core cast of six to develop a core cast of fourteen.  But I can’t express just how important it is to have good characters in anything, let alone a Final Fantasy game.  At the outset, I could see something special taking form -- the card-wielding Ace being forced to come to terms with the horrors of war and shoulder the burden of loss while stepping up as the leader of Class Zero.  That didn’t happen.  Sure, there are glimpses of it, but Ace slips into the background in exchange for Machina and Rem -- two characters that I swear were ripped wholesale from a different (and even worse) game.

Machina and Rem piss me off so much that I could (and probably will) spend an entire post going on about how awful they are.  Rem’s only defining characteristics are “is sick” and “is nice”, and is pretty much only there to try and force-feed some drama -- even though the devs clearly don’t understand how to make us care about a character to make the drama ring true.  Meanwhile, Machina decides to throw a shit fit for the stupidest reasons I’ve ever seen; at the risk of spoilers, I’ll say that it’s the angst-riddled equivalent of “Old Man Yells at Cloud”.  Between the moments leading up to it and the moments that follow, it’s a complete character assassination -- even though he didn’t have much of a character to begin with.

I just don’t understand the mindset here.  Maybe I’m crazy, but I thought that the key to creating characters was to give them fleshed out personalities, motivations, conflicts, and arcs.  But Squeenix would have you believe that character creation starts and stops with hairstyles and quirks.  (You can’t even count on them to mix up their builds, or even their faces in some instances.)  I would absolutely love to see what kind of person the aggressively-designed Sice is like beyond her looks and a bad attitude, but you have to play for at least a dozen hours before you even hear how to pronounce her name. 

As it stands, Type-0’s name feels more appropriate than you’d guess -- because it feels like so much nothing.  The time I’ve put into the game doesn’t mesh with what the game gives back; that wouldn’t be so bad if I had a good cast to latch onto, but right now it feels like I only like Eight because he punches stuff, or Trey because he’s a know-it-all blabbermouth.  (Though in his defense, he can do stupid amounts of damage in one go.) 

It sure as hell doesn’t feel like I’m fighting in a war, because A) the plot gets jettisoned for disproportionate amounts of time so I can faff around at magic school, and B) with no context or development of the war or the opponents I’m up against, the game feels less like a weighty struggle and more like “go do a mission and beat the bad guys” -- who, if you weren’t aware, are (as far as I know, at this point in the story) part of the Militesi Empire.  Yes, that’s right.  The name of the “evil empire” with the strongest military force is called the Militesi Empire.  Squeenix should have just cut out the middleman and gone with the Baddie-Bad Gun Guys.  Might as well, because I’ve been playing the game almost since release day and I couldn’t begin to tell you who the main villain is -- besides some M. Bison palette swap who I assume will be replaced by some super-warrior or a god.

I really can’t answer a lot of questions you might have about the game.  It’s true that there are two cutscenes upon loading the game that give some backstory, but in the game’s context I couldn’t tell you what Class Zero’s home of Rubrum is like, what the other three countries are like, what possible stake anyone could have in a war (besides manifest destiny, I guess), what sort of damage has been done in the war, what’s being done to resolve it -- besides the stupidest actions possible, or lack thereof -- or even if there’s a war in the first place. 

I’ve been pecking away at the game almost exclusively for weeks, and the biggest impression that it’s left on me is that I should give up and play Bloodborne instead.

I expected more out of Type-0, but maybe that was my biggest mistake.  This whole Fabula Nova Crystallis project has been a disaster practically since its announcement, and made promises that no one was prepared to keep.  The first trailer for vanilla 13 made it look like we were in for some of the most action-packed gameplay the world would ever know; cut to the actual release of the game, and the autopilot battle system is just slightly different at its end than it is at its start. 

But there’s more.  FF15 used to be Versus 13, but it’s likely changed so much since the original announcement trailer that I’m about ready to swear off all trailers and info until the final product is in my hands.  And whether you like the games or not, can we at least agree that The Lightning “Saga” was just a retroactive way to recoup losses and stall for time, and not part of some grand design for the benefit of the gaming canon?  (At least I hope to all of the gods that Squeenix doesn’t think they did a good job.)

What I’m getting at here is that even if the FF brand has had debatable quality for ages -- I’ve seen arguments that everything up to FF7, and sometimes even FF6, broke the camel’s back -- it’s hard to look at things and say “Yep, there’s nothing wrong here!”  No matter which game you think was the one that ruined everything forever and ever, the bigger issue here is that there hasn’t been a game yet that’s conclusively repaired the damage done.  Bravely Default and A Realm Reborn may have helped, but the latter’s enhanced by the player-driven actions, and the former was practically treated like an afterthought until Squeenix found out that people actually like games that cut down on the bullshit.

So while it’s true that FF15 has the potential to bring back what’s good about the franchise, I’m incredibly worried.  Even if they haven’t been working on the game non-stop for almost a decade, the company has proven that it doesn’t take much to screw up the promise of a game.  If the long development time does factor in, then it could mean that FF15 is just a hodgepodge of ideas hastily sewn together -- and anyone with a working set of eyes could see the unraveling seams.

Speaking personally?  If it turns out that FF15 ALSO uses the nonsensical l’Cie/fal’Cie system, I’ll be so mad that I’ll snap a goat in half.

I think the important thing to remember is that even if FF15 turns out great, that greatness should have happened a long time ago.  We shouldn’t be at a point where the brand and the company behind it is a joke.  Think about it: even though it’s been bouncing about for decades, the worst anyone can say about the Mario games is that they’re tired of seeing Mario -- but they know that the next release will still be high-quality.  Comparatively, the worst anyone can say about Final Fantasy games is that they’re confusing, nonsensical, melodramatic, emo, angsty, boring, stupid, unengaging…the list goes on.

At this stage, Squeenix has to know that its baby has an image problem, right?  They have to know about the complaints, whether they’re from here or closer to home.  And even if they didn’t, the minds behind it HAVE to know that they haven’t been doing their best, right?  They have to, because they’ve admitted (or at least believe) that they haven’t made a game yet that could top FF7.  So the obvious solution to that is to work on the flaws.  Create an engaging world, with engaging characters, on engaging adventures, and pit them against engaging villains.

So why is it that in 2011, they were still content with substituting nearly everything that could offer up some merit with nonsensical melodrama?  Why is it that a 2011 game pitted beautiful young people against an evil empire -- and a 2015 demo for the next big game has pitted more beautiful young people against another evil empire?

I’ve made the joke that Squeenix makes all of its games in a vacuum.  If they aren’t evolving, they assume that no one else is either -- and they can get away with doing the same old, same old without complaints.  But they don’t exist in a vacuum.  Hundreds of games have come out in the time between the announcement of FF13 and whenever-the-hell FF15 comes out. 

If we had to limit things to the JRPG genre, then we could count stuff like Persona 4, Ni no Kuni, Lost Odyssey, Blue Dragon, Eternal Sonata, Infinite Undiscovery, Star Ocean: The Last Hope, Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story, Valkyria Chronicles, Shin Megami Tensei IV, Tales of Vesperia, Tales of Graces, Tales of Xillia, Tales of Xillia 2, White Knight Chronicles, White Knight Chronicles 2, Devil Survivor, Devil Survivor 2, The World Ends with You, Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance, and of course Bravely Default.

And that’s not even a complete list.

We live in a world where gamers aren’t even remotely spoiled for choice.  The genre and the medium have evolved; the former has shown just how versatile and affecting it can be for players who give it a shot, while the latter has moved in about a dozen different directions at once.  Couple that with changing times, mindsets, and gamers in general, and it’s enough to make anyone wonder why Final Fantasy ever mattered.  In the wake of sporadic releases, debatable quality, and the occasional slap in the face, the franchise has lost its relevance. 

At this stage -- after yet another bungle in the books -- I’m running out of goodwill to give.  So the question I have for all of you is a simple one: do we need Final Fantasy anymore?

Don’t get me wrong.  I would love nothing more than to be proven wrong and forced to grovel at the sight of FF15 rising from the earth like some mystic monolith.  I want the series to do well so video games can get legitimately good stories and gameplay, and not just have a franchise coasting on the name and nostalgia.  But hopes and ideals aren’t guaranteed.  Neither is quality -- because these days, sometimes it feels like that’s the last thing creators think they need to add.  Assuming that they add it at all.

So I guess I’ll go ahead and turn it over to you guys.  Feel free to weigh in on the subject; give me some ideas and perspectives.  Sway me, berate me, vindicate me, whatever; you’ve listened to me, so now I’ll listen to you.  Have an opinion on the state -- and fate -- of Final Fantasy? Then you know what to do.  Fire up those fingers and get typing.

I’ll say this much, though: this probably won’t be the last time you see me talk about Final Fantasy.  My plan is to play through Type-0, no matter how long it takes, and no matter how much it makes my brain want to mash the eject button and launch out of my skull.  Inevitably, that means I’ll probably be tossing up a post on it somewhere down the line.  Because if I don’t express my searing hatred of Machina and Rem, who will?

Whatever the case, thanks for reading.  And as tribute, please accept this non-contextual Kamen Rider clip.

Does it make me a hypocrite to expect others to enjoy something when they have no idea what's going on?  Probably.  But on the other hand, the fact that this is proof of dancing as the ultimate power is all anyone could ever need.


9:35 PM on 03.03.2015

Of Dragon Age and Bunches of Jokers

So not too long ago, I did a post on Xenoblade Chronicles that took a look at its story.  That’s fine and all, but I’m wary of the fact that I didn’t really talk about the gameplay -- which, you know, is kind of important in a video game.  I admit that I was worried about the MMO style at first, and I didn’t quite get the combat system at the outset, but didn’t take long for everything to click.  There’s a reason why people think of it as one of the Wii’s best games.

It’s actually pretty fortunate that Xenoblade is fresh on my mind -- but unfortunately, that means I have to go into “whining about popular games” mode.  In this case?  I’ve been trying my absolute hardest to get into Dragon Age: Inquisition.  And I can’t; I’m under the impression that I’ve been playing the game wrong this whole time, but seeing as how it’s been more than a week since I last touched it, I’m not exactly eager to give it the benefit of the doubt.  Not with Xenoblade and plenty of other games behind me.

It’s because of Xenoblade in particular that I understand something extremely valuable -- something that Dragon Age: Inquisition lacks.  But to be fair, it’s not just a problem with BioWare’s latest; it’s made me wonder if too many games in general are on the wrong track.

My understanding of DA:I’s flow is that in order to earn the right to continue through the story, you have to earn Power from sidequests, of which there are tons.  So circumstantially, playing the way I did up to my stopping point -- building a surplus of Power so the player can proceed uninterrupted -- is possible, but not recommended based on my time with it…and the lack of progress therein.  Weirdly, even if it’s possible to have a continuous stream of sidequests going, it’s felt like the game’s actual plot has a stop-and-go quality to it.  You go to a place, maybe talk to some people, or fight off some baddies, and then it’s over. 

Well, that’s a reductive way of putting it -- it’s about the quality and content of those missions, and there is something to them -- but there have been instances where I found myself asking, “Wait, that’s it?”  My expectation was that (even if I’m at the start of the game), I’d be put into some weighty episodes -- chapters with a definitive start, middle and end.  I’ll admit that I don’t expect a drag-out fight toward a boss in every instance, but so far it just feels like I’ve traveled the land for conversations I’m practically sleeping through.

I don’t expect every scene or every event to go from zero to sixty in seconds flat.  But even then, I’m struggling to keep “it’s only the start of the game” as the primary excuse.  The game’s opening -- from the sight of your avatar wandering a green wasteland to the birth of a world-saving Inquisition -- is solid enough to make me want to keep venturing out.  I went in expecting to get more of that. 

Sure, I probably will at some point, but the “story” stuff so far has felt so insubstantial.  Have I made a difference?  Have I done any good?  Because the most I’ve done so far is find out that everyone who belongs to a named group is arguing and doesn’t want to work together.  And in the interim -- before and after -- the game is bombarding me with sidequests.  I can’t walk for thirty seconds down a road without getting a sidequest, even though I accepted another sidequest prior to it.  There are dozens of little icons on the map begging to be tended to, with miniscule trinkets to be found just ‘cause; it’s to the point where it feels like I’m running through a checklist instead of exploring a brave new world.  A conversation with a damn religious figure fed into her roping me into a fetch quest.

But you know what?  I get it.  I figured out why I have problems with this game, and what it can do to fix them -- if it hasn’t already.  It’s very simple, really.

It all starts with the characters.

I barely even finished a conversation with Sera before I internally screamed “Get in my party right now.”  Her general glee and Deadpool-style rambling set her apart from pretty much everyone I met prior to that point.  It wasn’t necessarily about her injecting some levity into the game (though that helped), but because if nothing else, she was different.  As a character, and no matter her…well, character, she added something new and appreciable to the proceedings.

That’s more than I can say about the starting party.  Chalk this up to The Sidequest Trap keeping me from the downtime to have conversations with my party members (on this, my third file; I did talk to them on previous files, and wasn’t exactly endeared by anyone), but so far I’ve found them less than ideal.  I don’t feel the impetus to go back to the base and talk with Cassandra, or Solus, or Varric, because I feel like I’ve gotten enough of them just by having their non-presences in the party. 

Cassandra is tough and serious.  Solus is calm and rational.  Varric handles the snark.  A part of me wants to keep playing the game just to get these people out of my sight.  And this is coming from someone who gleefully did all of the loyalty missions in Mass Effect 2.  Zaeed wasn’t my favorite character, but I leapt at the chance to run through his little arc.  As soon as I got Sera, I dumped Varric.  I haven’t looked back yet.

The game feels so cold and passionless.  And I know, it’s not fair to say that at this point -- but on the other hand, it didn’t take plenty of other games nearly as long for me to get hooked.  So at this stage, I have to say that Xenoblade did it better.  Gameplay and story alike came together in battles; when Shulk and Reyn fought together, they would talk to each other -- giving each other boosts in confidence and congratulating one another when they landed critical hits.  Shulk set up enemies for a fall, and Reyn knocked them over so they could go to town.  They worked together via chain attacks -- once they had a third party member -- and by the player’s hand they could resurrect one another, pick them up after a nasty fall, or just cheer them up if their performance in battle suffered.  THAT’S TEAM SYNERGY, AND IT’S AWESOME.

Confession time: because I was a clod who didn’t know how the game worked, I only got a small number of the Heart-to-Heart conversations littered throughout -- meaning that I missed a lot of bonding that could have made the game even stronger.  But in my case, I didn’t really need that.  The story did a fine job of selling Team Shulk as a team.  Even if I skipped every cutscene, the gameplay would have been enough to prove that such a disparate cast needed each other.  It’s not just about the power of friendship; it’s about the teamwork needed for a small unit to fight against a horde of mechanical killers.  Cooperation and communication are kind of important -- which is probably true of real life soldiers, but I’ll withhold comment.  Thankfully, life on the battlefield is beyond me.

On top of all that, the combat in Xenoblade is fun on multiple levels.  It’s an audiovisual treat, even with the Wii’s lack of sheer graphical power; setting aside certain amazing tracks, the swirl of swords, lights, shots, and magic keeps the hype strong from the game’s start to its finish.  Plus, the strategic options are exciting, no matter which characters you pick.  It’s entirely possible to make a nigh-unstoppable Reyn -- one that can self-resurrect -- who tanks and builds aggro while readying his one-two combo of Magnum Charge and Sword Drive to deal tens of thousands of damage in one go. 

And while he’s doing that, Shulk goes in with the sneaky hits to the sides and backs of enemies, and putting that Monado of his to good use.  Even Sharla got to be more than just “the healer” -- her massive gun lets her tack on some extra hits, and she can throw in status effects to debilitate foes.  It’s an active system with lots of flourishes, and (if nothing else) lets the game be an exercise in “press buttons to do cool stuff”.  As it should be.

In DA:I?  The combat feels like a fart in the wind.  There’s no feedback when you’re shooting an arrow or firing a magic missile, and certainly not much in the way of visual flair (despite the mage’s staff-twirling shenanigans).  I decided to stick with my archer -- the elven femme Suplex -- on the grounds that I should hang back and employ the tactics the game pushed me towards using, but I don’t see the need for that when my strategy has barely evolved from the first fight. 

I hardly even need to pay attention to what I’m doing, let alone move; most fights I just spend watching the health bar empty.  Frankly, the only way fights feel dynamic is if I lock onto an enemy and move the camera to a cooler position -- and even then it’s no guarantee.

And even with that borderline-useless Tactical Mode (good luck trying to snipe when the mode’s range is fixed!), it feels like my party of four is closed up in different rooms -- on different floors of a skyscraper.  Oh, sure, they (i.e. Suplex) might chime in and say “Cassandra’s in trouble!” or “Solus is hurt!” when the time comes, but we’re effectively fighting in silence. 

I don’t know what my guys are doing when a fight starts, and I can’t bring myself to care as long as they’re doing their class-specific roles and not dying.  I can’t perceive the importance of my party not just because they feel so far away from me; it’s because it doesn’t feel like we’re struggling together, be it with the story or in battle.

Honestly, I can’t help but think of the Tales games -- specifically, Xillia 2.  I’m probably nicer to it than I should be, given that it’s a game that shamelessly hides the main story behind sidequest-bred paywalls.  To its credit, its gameplay is significantly more fun, but in the interim there’s more stuff for a player to sink his or her teeth into.  A huge part of its battle system banks on linking with party members for both passive bonuses and unique combo attacks; even if it didn’t, the team of four still talks to each other on a regular basis mid-fight.

But even out of battle, there’s so much more to help build bonds between characters.  In typical Tales fashion, there are optional skits that have the party members chat it up.  Even if you ignore those, they’ll still speak while you’re out in the field.  And in Xillia 2, their personal sidequests are so pronounced that they have icons signaling them in towns -- not to mention that said sidequests have multiple stages, with cutscenes (in-engine), that offer insights into who they are, and tack on bonus scenes to the main story once you reach the designated point.  All of that helps to establish that the party isn’t just a bunch of jagoffs fighting demons and bandits.  They’re a team.  A family.

I’m not just bringing up Xenoblade and Tales so I can go “herp derp, JRPGS are better!”  Case in point: I like how Mass Effect handled things.  It had a major, overarching plot -- and while it didn’t necessarily go to as great lengths as the average Tales game to establish the whole “we’re a family angle” (not saying that it didn’t, of course), it did strive to have the player form a close personal bond with bunches of walking, talking polygons.  And it succeeded.

It had that “save the universe” plot.  It had sidequests.  But its characters had enough charm and charisma to make you want to take time out to talk to them -- figure out what they were all about.  I wanted to learn more about Miranda besides the amount of stress she puts on the backside of her pants.  I wanted to hang out with Jacob and do cool black guy stuff.  Hell, I’m still reeling from the death of Kaidan, and he must be the most boring of the bunch.  The combat in those games was good enough (invisible sniping and freezing rounds, yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaah), but the characters?  That’s what’ll bring me back for Mass Effect 4.

With DA:I, it feels like -- even at this early stage -- I’ve jumped right over some of the rungs on the ladder, and I’m dropping back to the ground because of it.  I don’t feel like I’m anchored in the world; sure, I’m trying to protect it, but I don’t have a firm grasp of what it is.  Chalk that up to me not spending a lot of time with the earlier DA games, but even if most of the bond was established back then, I should still be able to feel something for this new world.  I should care about the struggle between the mages, the Templars, the Chantry, and the rebels.  But I don’t.

Speaking strictly in story terms?  It seems like the game is aiming for concepts and conditions, but those are the higher-level elements.  Those are what you go for after you lay down the ground floor -- and there’s no element more basic and more vital than the characters.  Sera is the only character introduced so far who made me feel that BioWare magic.  As soon as I met her, I thought to myself, “Hey, things are finally looking up.”

So I guess the question I have to ask is this: can you care about anything before you care about something first?

That sounds like a weird question, I know.  But let me put it this way: it’s been nearly a year since Infamous: Second Son came out, and at this stage I’m inclined to think that I was too hard on it.  I think it’s flawed as all get out, of course; I’m not backing down on that.  But the personal stakes and bonds that main character Delsin Rowe has -- and more importantly, establishes at the outset -- go a long way towards giving the motivation to start caring about everything else that happens.  Whether it’s his brother Reggie or his ailing tribe, there’s someone out there that matters to him, and helps sway his actions. 

I’ll admit that I would have defaulted to the Good Karma path no matter what, but Reggie’s presence -- a big brother and man of the law who’d want to do the right thing even without his badge -- made the choice a lot easier.  Even so, I wanted to bond with him, and I felt the world a little bit more because I had a guy like him alongside me.  So on a personal level, I enjoyed SS; what I didn’t enjoy was how it almost immediately fell apart in terms of its poorly-explored themes of personal freedom vs. security.  Yo, Sucker Punch?  Maybe a superhero game isn’t the best place to try and make a political statement, especially when your game features destruction porn that proves the mean ol’ government right.

It’s just baffling that games keep trying to aim for these high-minded concepts, but don’t have the execution needed to do anything more than say “this is a thing that exists” or “look at how deep and meaningful this game is”.  Watch Dogs tried to be “about something”, but couldn’t even give us one decent character.  DmC tried to be the next stage of video game narratives, but had a plot that could’ve been out-written by an office chair.  Year after year, Call of Duty fails on every front, as if its developers refuse to learn from past mistakes. 

People get attached to characters, first and foremost.  The setting plays into preferences, too, and a strong plot can only be beneficial.  Still, characters create opportunities on a small scale and a large one; putting a hero or heroine through their paces and having them interact with other elements -- other characters, story-specific conflicts, gameplay roadblocks, whatever -- is what allows for interesting stuff to happen.  I’m not saying that I need every character to be a laugh riot, or for every game to take time out for friendship, romance, or good cheer.  All I ask is this: whatever a game decides to do, it has to do it well.  And I’m inclined to say that DA:I doesn’t.

Once more, is it fair to judge the whole game based on a tiny snippet?  No.  But here’s the thing: regardless of the medium, everything needs a hook.  DA:I’s gameplay isn’t nearly enough to provide that hook at its outset (which isn’t as unreasonable a demand as you’d expect), and hasn’t yet, making for a weaker game.  Fortunately, as an RPG it can offer up that hook via its story; unfortunately, that doesn’t really come through.  The beginning is solid, but it’s still just that -- a beginning.  There’s a steep drop-off because the game pretty much tells you to run errands instead of figure out who ripped a hole in the sky.

The thing about DA:I -- and other RPGs, no doubt -- is that it’s built to make the player selfish.  It starts with you being labeled as the chosen one, but it doesn’t stop there.  Everything that happens is more or less in relation to you, and how it affects you.  I can’t imagine Varric and Solus having a conversation with each other, and don’t feel like they enjoy each other’s company during their once-every-hour random chat in transit.  Instead, they can only develop if you’re around, as if they suddenly take the stage. 

You’re pretty much the only one that can solve the world’s problems (as its gofer), but you’re essentially its last sane man/woman who has to tend to the squabbles of enemy factions -- whose conflict, unless you’re entrenched in the lore, doesn’t affect you in the slightest.  Why should you care about the mages or the Templars when you’re just some doof that A) is technically a blank slate, B) was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and C) can only have a history with those factions if you choose it via your backstory -- which you can’t really choose in the first place?

The implication is that the world is under fire, and you and your organization are going to keep the peace -- but the gameplay stands in contradiction to all of that.  The tutorial area’s got some dead bodies, but once you clear that, it’s off to a place called Haven -- and true to its namesake, it’s pretty peaceful.  As is the area around it.  Same goes for The Hinterlands; it’s a forest with outlaws roaming around and pockets of enemies, but huge swaths of it have nothing going on.  You visit a town where you might hear people talking about the “troubled times”, but there’s no visual evidence of it besides arguments between two factions firing jibba-jabba at one another.  And then you can go to the canyons and find -- beyond the occasional demon-spewing rift -- even more nothing.

If there is a threat, it could simply be a thousand years away -- meaning that you’re invited to stroll at your leisure, doing whatever you want, with barely even the concept of immediacy.  You’re free to do what you want -- and by default, what do you want in an RPG?  To get stronger, and learn new skills, and get cool stuff (i.e. loot).  That’s it.  And sure, the prospect of a new level is thrilling, but it’s shallow.  It can’t compare to the prospects of worlds and battles that get your blood going.  Because it can’t compare, it isn’t long before even the thrilling becomes the routine.  When you don’t have that anchor, you just end up floating adrift -- lost in a sea of cold, passionless, non-demanding misadventures.

Now, I’ll be fair.  I feel silly for even thinking it, but just to be safe I’ll go ahead and say it: what I’ve said here is pretty much my opinion.  So I can’t say that (right now) I like DA:I, but that doesn’t mean it’s objectively awful.  It just doesn’t line up with my tastes.  I’m the sort who’ll gladly hold up Reyn Time -- an engaging unity of gameplay and story -- over anything that makes me refer to its core conceit as “The Sidequest Trap”.  So what does that mean for me and DA:I?

We’ll see.  Maybe I will play it some more.  Or, alternatively…

You know, sometimes I can’t help but think that more games could be improved by taking on some mechanics from fighters.  Then again, I’m partial to the mere prospect of a well-placed Phoenix Smasher.


8:35 PM on 02.19.2015

Im Really Feeling [Meditations on Science and Warfare]!

So Super Smash Bros. is threatening to make me hate Shulk.

Some bad experiences made me realize that he’s one of my least favorite characters to go up against.  I’m not about to claim that he’s god-tier, but he’s got enormous range and respectable power even without his buffs.  And his counter is a real problem; when you’ve got online players tossing out YOLO Falcon Punches, it means Shulk gets a high-powered attack that sweeps a huge chunk of the field and wrecks everyone nearby.

For me, Shulk ruins everything.  Consistently.  Well, maybe not as much as Lucina, but enough to make me groan whenever a Shulk pops up in a match.  It’s pretty unfortunate, because his game of origin is utterly amazing -- as you probably know by now, making this post at large redundant.  But with a sequel and a 3DS edition on the way -- and in an effort to talk about something positive instead of just going WAAAH WAAAH VIDEOGAMES MAKE ME SAAAAAAAAD -- here’s a chance to get in deep with one of the Wii’s finest.

Now.  Let me say this to start: SPOILERS INCOMING.  And now that that’s out of the way, listen to this song. 

I’d argue that “You Will Know Our Names” is one of the key songs of Xenoblade Chronicles; that is, it carries within a four-minute loop the spirit and thrust of the story.  This is something that I mulled over for a while, trying to find just the right word to sum up the experience (besides the obvious, “good”).  I wanted to get all the characters and ideas and world under one umbrella. 

And I went through a few potential choices.  Discovery was one of them, and probably the strongest contender.  Revenge might have worked as well.  But I think there’s one word that not only encapsulates the game, but elevates it into something truly memorable -- and it’s as clear as the song of a thousand party wipeouts.

The spirit of Xenoblade Chronicles is triumph.  In what capacity?  Well, I’ll get to that.  But for now, let’s move on to the star of the show.

Compared to plenty of other leads, Shulk is different.  For starters, he’s actually a scientist, or at the very least an engineering student; that’s something you don’t see very often in games in general, let alone a JRPG.  He’s made it his mission to figure out the secrets of the Monado, a massive red blade that’s one of the only weapons that actually works on the Mechon -- the robotic invaders that harass and threaten the human race. 

He’s -- usually -- a calm, thoughtful person that asks the questions nobody else will, all in an effort to better humanity’s lot in life.  He tends to get absorbed in his work, but he’s not without his humanity -- or the awkwardness that ensues whenever he’s brought out of his shell.  He’s the type of person that’s fascinated by the world of Xenoblade -- as he should be, considering that the game takes place on a pair of colonized Gundams.

The hidden benefit to having Shulk be a man of science -- at least as much of a “man of science” one can be while atom-smashing robots with a laser sword -- is that science itself becomes a pervasive theme.  And indeed, there are a lot of different aspects to science even outside of the context of the game.  But for the sake of argument, let’s pare it down to some basic ideas:

1) Science is an understanding of facts about our world.

2) Science is an effort to understand the mechanics of our world.

3) Science is an application of processes and facts to alter our world.

Science -- the search for and application of knowledge -- is what helps one grow and even survive…and of course, helps them compete with or even surpass others.  Remember, the Space Race was a thing that happened once upon a time, bringing with it not only rivalry and a frenzied rush to see the stars, but no shortage of other benefits -- some abstract, some tangible.  The key word here, for better or worse, is progress

The entirety of Xenoblade’s plot hinges on an arms race between Shulk and his party (and by extension the other biological races living on the Bionis, AKA Nature Gundam) and the robots that want to kill and harvest the humans (making a home on Robot Gundam, redundant as that sounds).  Pretty much every event in this game is a goal post that just gets higher and higher the more you play.

At the start, Shulk and friends are struggling against one nasty Mechon; find a way to beat him -- albeit through cheap tactics -- and suddenly it’s revealed that he was just part of a mass-produced line, and you’re very nearly swarmed by a dozen more.  Of course, before game’s end you’re able to take on the same model of enemy without too much difficulty, but that’s only because the real challengers just keep ramping up their power and their stakes.  Each elite is such a massive leap in power and ability that you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d switched to the wrong file in the middle of a play session. 

The lynchpin of the heroes’ efforts and hopes is, of course, the Monado.  Shulk may be a smart guy, but if he’s out to win the arms race, he needs time, facilities, and resources that the gang just doesn’t have.  (And even if he did, he’d be dragging the story to a sloth’s pace).  It’s explained that the Monado, for all its mysteries, works on a simple principle: it’s the manifestation of willpower that allows its wielder to change his future as he sees fit -- assuming he’s up to the task, of course.

Over the course of the game Shulk learns new skills with the Monado that help him overcome new challenges, allowing the heroes to keep on competing in the arms race.  The basic ability is the Monado Buster, which turns the sword into a giant glowing robot-swatter; that’s eventually followed up by a party buff that lets them fight robots, a shield ability that protects them from certain attacks, a speed boost that…boosts speed, a debuffing Genmu Zero, and a big whompin’ area of effect attack.  (And as I learned right before fighting the last boss, you can unlock even more Monado abilities.  That’s what I get for playing without a guide, I guess.)

What I find extremely interesting about this whole Monado business is that for the longest time, it’s the one getting the credit for the team’s victories, not Shulk.  The dialogue reflects this repeatedly; when there’s a job well done, it’s not Shulk that’ll get the credit, but the Monado.  “Thanks to the Monado, we managed to pull that one off,” someone might say.  Or maybe “As long as we got the Monado, there’s no way we’ll lose!” 

The sad thing is that they’re absolutely right -- they ARE only winning and surviving because they’ve got the Monado. Everyone -- even Shulk -- is putting all their faith into a weapon far beyond their understanding, but they know there’s nothing they can do about it.  They’ve become dependent on the weapon -- on the tool, a piece of technology and nothing more, in order to eke out even a basic existence.

And what’s even MORE interesting is that it’s not just Team Shulk who’s putting all their faith in their technology.  Team Robot is doing the exact same thing.  As it turns out, the Mechon that you’ve been going up against for the entire game are just the foot soldiers of Egil, part of the Machina race -- which is to the Mechonis what humans are to the Bionis.  In a nutshell, his plan is to have all life on Bionis erased as a means to steal away the life energy the Bionis is using to sustain itself and reawaken (among other things, but I’ll get to that). 

So basically, all the technology employed by the bad guys is an effort on Team Robot’s part to win the arms race and the war at large.  And because of it, you can start to see the price one might pay for devoting themselves too passionately to a cause, especially to technology, and double-especially to tools of warfare.  Team Robot is the literal embodiment of discarded humanity, showing what could happen if war and destruction (and in Egil’s case, revenge for past slights) become all that matter to a person.  And it’s no accident; Shulk himself very nearly loses his humanity for the sake of his mission and his revenge, entrusting his very being to a weapon nobody knows a damn thing about besides “it’s red” and “it breaks robots”.

(Now that's a YOLO attack.)

Virtually every playable character (except the little fuzzball Riki, maybe) and dozens of NPCs have every reason to want revenge against the Mechon.  Shulk wants revenge because a Mechon attack leaves Fiona KIA -- and with Fiona being Dunban’s sister, the war veteran is looking to bust some mechs to compensate.  Reyn is a friend of Fiora and Shulk, and he’s eager to get some payback after Mechon ransack the trio’s beloved Colony 9. 

Sharla wants revenge because of what the Mechon did to Colony 6, along with her lover Gadolt meeting a grisly fate by their hands.  Melia wants revenge because…well, Melia has any number of reasons to hate the world and everyone in it, but let’s just say it’s because her dad bites it in a Mechon attack and leave it at that.  Maybe the reason these people can become so comfortable with one another is because they all seriously fuckin’ hate robots.

But once again, as the lead character Shulk steps in to change the nature of the story -- and he doesn’t even need to swing the Monado to do so.  In fact, if he DID swing the Monado, he’d just be making things worse.  A big reveal of this game is that the Mechon -- at least those that are important enough to the plot have faces -- are forcibly piloted by abducted humans, with Shulk’s main squeeze Fiora being one of the prime candidates. 

As soon as Shulk finds out the truth, suddenly revenge doesn’t become as captivating an idea; he starts to realize the implications of any rash actions (something that he, in fact, has to teach Dunban before he can make a big mistake).  It’s easy to assume that Shulk is forced to a halt because of the reveal that Fiora is alive, if turned into a cyborg against her will.  On the other hand, I think the idea goes a few steps further.  And to explain what I mean, I’ll have to invoke the specter of a very obscure franchise.

In all fairness, the only campaign I’ve played is the one in Black Ops 2 -- and even then not to completion, as I wisely decided to leave the suffering to my brother -- but apparently, one of the main complaints about the games is that you’re just expected to shoot the enemy without any thought or consideration of who they are.  They’re just Russians, or terrorists, or “brown people”.  It’s dehumanization -- and really, you can’t blame the devs for it.

It’s a lot easier to hate or kill someone when you don’t know who they are or what they’re all about.  It’s better to imagine them as faceless.  But by giving enemies in Xenoblade a face -- and standing in contradiction to everything the cast knows -- it’s a way to make them stop dead in their tracks.  It’s information that changes the way the fight plays out, especially for Shulk and his Monado-brandishing antics. 

Stuff like this makes me wonder: could it be that Xenoblade isn’t as much a fantastic romp across worlds as it is an allegory about the threat of our obsession and dependence on technology?  Or if not that, then an allegory about the nature of war and the corruptive effect of competition rather than cooperation?  I mean, sure, the party of six (and eventually seven once Cyber-Fiora joins the fight) is working by themselves for the most part, but that’s only because they’re a sort of “advance guard”.

It isn’t long before they’ve got every sentient species on the Bionis banding together for the sake of waging war against the Mechon.  Hell, the game STARTS with a battle the year before the game’s main events are set in motion.  Who’s to say that Xenoblade isn’t just one big war story taking place atop a pair of Gundams?

There’s no way that the undercurrents of thought in this game were an accident.  The devs had something to say here, even if they didn’t say it quite as loudly as the theme of revenge or the wonders of the adventure proper.  No, what’s on display in this game has to be a calculated effort -- loud enough to get a point across, but soft enough to keep everything moving at a brisk and almost-cheery pace.  Well, usually.  Some parts are more padded than others. 

In any case, what’s in the game gets conveyed by all the characters; they’ll stop to consider things and lament over the occasional sour turn of events, but there’s never the wall-to-wall angst that most people expect out of JRPGs.  Nor is there stupid-ass conflict between characters over trivial matters.  These people are acting as friends and comrades, but they’re also acting like adults and thinkers; even Reyn, the guy who’s supposed to be the lunkhead of the group, is just as mentally and emotionally developed as the rest.  He knows what’s going on, even if he’s too eager to spew meme-tastic lines.

But like I said, the real draw of this game -- the spirit that defines it and transforms so many of its elements -- is triumph.  And indeed, triumph is bursting out of every orifice.

The game is constantly trying to top itself in terms of what it can throw at the cast, up to and including pitting your team against an enemy that’s likely the size of an actual Gundam.  Not to mention that the Monado isn’t the be-all and end-all weapon; time and time again, the Mechon find ways to suppress, outmaneuver, or outright shut down the Monado and leave Team Shulk scrabbling for a reprieve. 

You know they’re going to succeed eventually, but the game -- again, as it should -- puts up a convincing illusion of struggle and hopelessness.  Time and time again I found myself thinking, “Oh man, how am I going to beat THAT?”  Especially because, this being a video game, I couldn’t finish it without beating THAT.  But eventually, it reaches a point where it just gets downright ludicrous.

Going to the REAL villain of the game from the fight that preceded it -- the guy with his own personal Gundam that can pilot the Robot Gundam to destroy Nature Gundam, mind -- is like a kid who just got his first tricycle being forced to race in the Indy 500.  Let me see if I can explain this succinctly, and have it make sense even for those who’d need about seventy hours’ worth of play time to even begin to understand the context.

*deep breath*

It turns out that Shulk has been dead for more than a decade but because he came in contact with the Monado he ended up becoming the retainer of of Zanza, the ascended being and effectively god who, along with Meyneth -- who resides in Cyber-Fiora for a large portion of the game -- created the world of Xenoblade and is virtually the embodiment of the Bionis, and plans to absorb all life on the Bionis to start the world over, all while simultaneously enacting his plan of destroying the Mechonis and everything on it -- something he’s more than capable of doing by virtue of not only having virtually all of the powers of the Monado, but after a clash with Meyneth/Fiora, ends up wielding TWO SOUPED-UP MONADOS at his leisure -- and ultimately Shulk is left for dead, the gang is stripped of its only viable weapon, they’re betrayed by the people they trust the most, an entire race is transformed into Zanza’s killing squad of antibodies, the Mechonis gets wrecked, Meyneth is lost, and within minutes Zanza’s forces are knocking on your door.


You know, usually in fiction, it’s not very often where you’re left thinking “There’s no way they can beat that!”  If there really was no way, then the story would be over and it’d jump straight to the Bad End.  Of course they’re going to get out of it.  Of course they’ll win.  That’s what it means to be a hero in a story -- overcoming the odds with skill and strength of heart.

But this game does things differently.  I don’t think there’s ever been a game that not only managed to strip the characters of their hope, but also strip ME of my hope.  After watching the string of cutscenes that revealed the truth, I felt something I hadn’t before from a game: it made me sick.  Physically ill.  I honestly didn’t believe that there was a way for Team Shulk to win, especially since Shulk himself had been shot in the back and left a lifeless husk.  There was just no way to make a comeback.  And without that feeling of hope, that ability to bring about the happy ending I’d expected of the game -- a privilege I’d taken for granted in any given game -- I felt like giving up.

I didn’t, of course.  I still had a game to finish.

(I love this screenshot.   What is that pose even supposed to be?)

If there’s one major problem I have with Xenoblade’s story, it’s that it falls on the old “Hey, guys!  Let’s go kill God!” shtick.  (Or if not God, then the religious figure du jour.)  I mean, haven’t gamers done that enough?  Haven’t games in general done that enough?  It seems like such a cop out to make God or the pope a main villain, especially when so much of Xenoblade was about a struggle between opposing yet largely-equal forces.  It’d be like having the Cold War come to an end because a new group came to earth riding on Voltron.  So in a lot of ways, it’s something that threatens to break the war motif in two. 

On the other hand, having the gang decide to take on God and win supports the idea of changing fate that’s so obvious I feel silly even mentioning it.  The game is a blend of mundane concepts and fantastic elements, after all, and as such it’s hard to heap too much hate on matters of deicide.  I’d argue that the game could have stopped after the final fight with Egil -- making sure to weave some of those plot twists toward him, of course -- but for what it’s worth, I suppose Zanza’ inclusion isn’t exactly a deal breaker.  There’s been worse.

Besides, the endgame reveal shows that Zanza isn’t exactly the god he’s made out to be; like Team Shulk and Team Robot, he’s a victim of the obsession with technology, only taken to an even further extreme.  Turns out Zanza was actually a scientist named Klaus who, once an experiment goes wrong, destroys his world and has to create a new one alongside Meyneth.  (Side note: having beaten Xenosaga but not Xenogears, I’d like to think that XB is an extension of XS, wherein Klaus’ efforts pick up on Shion’s efforts in her game to try and find a solution to the end of the universe.) 

So basically, Klaus becomes so enraptured by what he’s wrought that he ends up forgetting who he is and what he stands for.  And more importantly, he’s the sort of person who believes that as long as he’s got the tech -- the power, be it from godhood or ownership of the Monados -- he can do whatever he wants.  He’s right, and everyone else is wrong.

Except he isn’t.  The thing that Shulk’s trying to prove -- that the game’s trying to prove -- isn’t just a matter of technological might making right.  It’s the intent behind it.  The willpower.  That willpower is what creates the drive to make those machines in the first place.  It’s the drive to create the means to change one’s fate.  Instruments that facilitate change, and make it easier, sure -- but in the end, they’re just tools.  Corny as it may sound, the real power comes not from within --and with it, even the lowliest of men can bring about true triumph.

So.  At the end of the day, what else is there to say about Xenoblade?

I know it’s good.  Others know it’s good.  Hopefully by reading this post, you know it’s good.  It’s common opinion -- if not fact -- that this is one of the Wii’s greatest games.  It’s got more than enough content, creativity, depth, and even deviousness to satisfy any given player.  If for some reason you haven’t played this game -- or even watched a playthrough on YouTube -- you owe it to yourself to do so.  This game is something special.

It took me well over a year of on-again, off-again sessions to clear it.  And I enjoyed virtually every second of it.  It felt complete.  Thoughtful.  Bursting with energy, but restrained by wisdom and focus.  In an industry full of misguided efforts, shenanigans, and all-out disappointments, to get a game this complete and well-crafted is a triumph.

So, what else is there to say?  Well, I can think of one thing, at least.

Thank you.



11:29 PM on 02.05.2015

A Blithering Post on Power and Respect

So if you’re reading this, I’m going to assume that you’ve been using the internet long enough to have heard the phrase “strong female character” -- and if you’ve been on even longer than that, then you’ll have seen rebuttals of the phrase so biting that you’d think they were straight outta Ace Attorney.  You’d think that given those arguments, the rest of this post would be about how video games need more strong female characters.    And you’re half-right.  All things considered, is there ever a time when we SHOULDN’T be asking for that?  Besides, you know, when it consistently happens in fiction?

But let me step back a bit.  Yes, women need better representation in fiction, including -- if not especially in -- video games.  It’d help if they appeared more often, but at this stage I’d take quality over quantity if it came down to it.  But you know what?  Male characters need better representation, too.  No matter the gender, any given hero or heroine could stand to get a boost in quality.  It’s more obvious with the ladies, yes, but I don’t think my demands are unreasonable.

Well, usually.  Maybe.  Possibly?  Well, whatever.  Let's get back to strong characters.

If you’ve read some of my stuff before, you probably know that I’ve grown weary of the whole power fantasy aspect of video games.  That’s not a recent development; I’ve felt that way for years now.  It seems like a stupid-ass thing to whine about, considering that it’s hard to divorce games from the power fantasy/wish fulfillment/escapism aspect, but it’s not impossible. 

Games have either thrown them out entirely (Shadow of the Colossus), or created scenarios where the aspect is less obvious (any given Zelda, but let’s go with Majora’s Mask in honor of the remake).  And then there are those that turn that power into a core conceit, gameplay-wise and/or story-wise; Okami is my go-to example, but I could make a pretty strong argument about The Wonderful 101.  Don’t worry, I promise I’ll talk about it in-depth someday.

At this stage in the game (ha), I don’t think it’s wrong to hope for more -- especially when the standard-fare stuff has started showing some serious signs of age.  We’ve getting close to the limit of what we can do (or enjoy) when games are just about one-sided displays of power and strength.  A game like Street Fighter where you test your skills against an opponent who’s as good as or better than you?  That’s cool.  A game like Assassin’s Creed where you stand in a circle and counter everyone into oblivion?  Not so cool. 

A game like Resogun where your life is on the line every second as you struggle to save the last humans?  Awesome.  A game like Resident Evil 6 where you can power-bomb mutants and give zombies elbow drops?  Awesome in theory, but in practice it’s one of the biggest tonal inconsistencies ever committed to a disc.  A game like Mass Effect where your words are as important (if not more so) than your bullets?  Sick.  A game like Watch Dogs where a number of your actions tangibly make the lives of others worse, directly and indirectly?  Makes me sick.

The exception to the rule is that if you’re going to make a game that puts a huge emphasis on power, it has to be so unbelievably thrilling that no one would even bother thinking critically.  But since not every developer can be Platinum Games (and even then, I wouldn’t write off the rest of what their titles offer), we’re stuck with games that try to impress us with sheer displays of power, but end up falling short.  Call it a misappropriation if you will, or shortsightedness if you prefer; I’d prefer to imagine that creators can’t break out of modern-day conventions because -- executive meddling aside -- they haven’t considered the possibilities available.  And there ARE possibilities.  You don’t need me to tell you that.

“Voltech, you hot dog-munching fool!” you bellow as I muse on the proper temperature needed to cook said wieners.  “Enough of your eagerness to go on complaint-filled tangents!  If you don’t have a point to make, then my time is better spent elsewhere on the internet!”  And to that I say, calm down.  Before you leave a comment (or just leave in general), I need you to understand where I’m coming from on this.  Games and power are almost always going to go hand-in-hand, but that level can be controlled.  The reason I’m so concerned about them is because that power has a distorting effect.  Its context informs the content built around them, and that’s not always for the best.

So let me ask another question: do we like the characters we like because of their perceivable strength?

I’m sure I’ve said this before in some capacity, but I’ll say it here again: a character’s worth is NOT tied to how much harm they can bring to others.  The lines get blurred because generally speaking, video games express themselves via combat (among other things, like exploration); so by the logic of some games, a character who contributes nothing to combat might as well be an NPC or a damsel in distress -- the ultimate failure state, right?  I mean, just think of BioShock Infinite; to this day I can’t help but wonder what people would think of Elizabeth if she didn’t toss items to Booker or screw with reality for the player’s benefit.  Would people still love her?  I would, but that’s because I’m weird.  (Yukiko's my favorite Persona 4 character.  Draw from that what you will.) 

I’m generalizing, of course.  I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this, you’re not so gauche as to think less of a character because he/she isn’t some battle-hardened brawler.  But my concern is that there’s a perception where “power = quality”.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be a belief held by real people, even if that’s incredibly likely.  It doesn’t even have to be a mindset that creators hold in their hearts during production.  No, it’s all about the perception -- the idea that “strength = a good character”.  It’s a nebulous cloud that hangs over every medium, not just video games; because of that, there’s potential for a product and its particulars to get distorted.

The common theory is that when people ask for, say, “strong female characters”, they’re actually asking for well-written female characters -- ladies with depth, agency, variety, and more.  I agree with that, and I’d say that you could apply the sentiment to every character, regardless of gender.  That in mind, I’d like to both redefine and broaden the concept.  What matters most, I think, is that a character -- through whatever means necessary -- starts off as or becomes (or stays as) one who can earn something of immeasurable importance from the audience: respect.  It’s easy enough to earn some praise by making a character do something “badass”, but that strikes me as something of a shortcut.

Think of it this way: do we need every president to be a frontline fighter or war hero to take a seat in the Oval Office?  No, of course not.  Granted it wouldn’t hurt the cause (a good number of presidents have been war vets), but in most cases, presidents are chosen because the majority of voters perceive them as the right person for the job.  Their intelligence.  Their charisma.  Their courage.  Their composure.  Their decisiveness.  Their assertiveness.  All those things and more feed into the respect that earns them the keys to the White House.  Characters -- video game or otherwise -- are more or less on the same axis.  If given a chance to express themselves, they can make an argument for your love.  For your respect.  And they don’t have to hit a single man. 

I know that video games don’t exactly have processes that lend themselves to creating good characters.  From what I’ve heard, the story (such as it is) is only there to glue together levels and assets that have pretty much already been made.  That’s kind of a problem, but for now it can’t be helped.  Still, I’d like to imagine that at some point, the games industry will reach a point where the large-scale creation process will get a lot easier, and devs can work in different angles and directions. 

Imagine booting up a game for the first time, and you immediately understand that everything in it was built around scenarios custom-made for a unique character, instead of slotting a character into standard conventions.  Games small and large have done that before, but if that happened on a wider scale and/or more frequently, just think of what sort of stuff we could get.  Not all of them would be perfect, but they’d at least be different.

Here’s a hypothetical game for you.  You play as Emily, a sweet -- if awkward -- young lady who just wants everyone to get along…and who accidentally destroyed the world.  But as she comes to, she discovers that it’s not just her world that’s gone; it’s every world, across every dimension.  She winds up in a concrete version of the Akashic records, and reasons that she can use the data stored within the mystic library to reconstruct the world. 

The trick, however, is that she’s not the only one in the library.  Every other Emily from every other alternate dimension is there as well -- and some of them aren’t so willing to use the library for altruistic purposes.  It’s up to you to figure out how to bring back your world, whether that means cooperating or clashing with the other Emilies.  And, you know, the materialized, vengeful embodiments of the lost worlds’ vestiges.

But basically, she’s got no choice but to face herself -- in both abstract and literal terms.  As one should.

That’s a pretty nebulous premise, I know.  I can think of ways to put that stuff into a semi-cohesive (if smaller-scale) game, but you get the idea, right?  Games can define themselves via their systems.  That much is obvious.  But we can make those systems based on the natures and tool sets of characters…which is also obvious.  What can they do?  What do they want to do?  What will they become?  What were they before?  Who are they?  Those are all questions that anything with characters -- i.e. too many fictional products to count, finished or not -- can answer.  That can be done with combat or displays of power, in all fairness, but that’s not the only way.  That should be the ketchup on top of the hot dog.

Now, I’ll be honest.  I’ve been trying to link the gameplay and stories into a cohesive unit (if only in theory) with this post.  But as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m doing so with a strong lean towards stories.  Characters can be -- if not are -- the starting point for any product.  Almost inevitably, that’s what people are going to latch onto first.  I understand that for now, there’s a certain level of futility in asking for more out of our developer overlords gathered atop mountain summits that stroke the stars.  And I understand that if we’re hungry for good stories, we’re better off reading books first and playing games second.  Or third.  Or fourth.  Or fifth.

Here’s the thing, though: we’ve reached a point where no one can claim that “the story doesn’t matter in games”.  Nintendo foresaw years ago that at some point, better hardware and graphics wouldn’t be enough to win favor.  It’s looking as if the Big N bet on the wrong horse with alternate control schemes, but there’s a point to be made in there.  The PS4 and XB1 haven’t been tapped to their fullest yet, but given the sheer number of games that have fallen apart in every department except graphics, it’s safe to say that there needs to be a change.  Thrilling gameplay can offer that, no question…and it would be fine if we could get away from the conventions plaguing damn near everything these days.  So one possible avenue is to make games with -- gasp -- better stories.  A good story can save less-than-original gameplay, after all.

But you don’t need me to sell you on the importance of a good story and good characters, and here’s why.  If “the story doesn’t matter in games”, then answer me this: why is it that more and more games are trying to give us narratives and create cinematic experiences?  How can the story not matter when games like Tomb Raider, DmC, The Last of Us, God of War, Infamous, BioShock, Dead Space, Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creed, Destiny, The Evil Within, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Bayonetta, Killzone, Guilty Gear, Transistor, Braid, Shadow of Mordor, and even Call of Duty at least try to tell a competent story?  And even that’s not a complete list?  And even THAT’S ignoring the armada of games half-built on telling stories?

Look.  There’s always going to be a place for games that put the emphasis on action and button-presses over everything else.  I understand that, and appreciate it.  Likewise, there is a place for games that put power in the hands of players -- but that’s a tool that needs to be used responsibly.  With skill.  It can’t be the go-to in every situation, and it sure as hell can’t be the only thing a game is built on.  So let it be known that, contrary to popular belief, there is a method to my madness; I like games that give me control over a central character that’s respectable, not just powerful.  And because I’m playing as such a character, I can create an intimate connection that’s hard to match in other mediums.  Reading a story about a deer trying to survive?  That ain’t bad.  Playing as a deer trying to survive?  S-tier stuff.

I don’t expect anyone reading this to suddenly drop everything and start making a game based on one rambling-ass post.  I’m not even begging that you take my words to heart, and assume that what I’ve said here is “how it should be”.  But what I’m hoping for is that I’ve at least given you a chance to appreciate games in a different light.  Not just to divorce quality from power, but to think back on the stuff you like, understand why you like it, and enjoy it even more because it’s not just a love based on intangibles.  This post may be full of my ideas, but I hope that it’s a post that gets the gears in your head going -- makes you eager to reminisce and realize things instead of assuming the worst of an industry in flux.  After all, hope never dies.

So, take what I’ve said here as you will.  Agree, disagree, whatever.  But if nothing else, I hope you’ll do me a favor: if you can, think of one of your favorite video game characters and talk a bit about why that’s the case in the comments.  Do you know why you like them?  Can you explain why?  I’m eager to hear it, whether it’s from fondness based on respect or just admiration of their power.  I’m guessing that you would’ve done that already even if I didn’t ask, but I just thought I’d make that more explicit.

And that’s about all I’ve got to say for now.  Thanks for reading, and here’s to 2015 -- a brand new year for video games. 

And Persona 5.  It’s gonna be so awesome, you guys.


8:27 PM on 01.29.2015

Why I Love Pikmin 3

This is usually the part where I go on a multi-paragraph tangent to set up “context”, but let’s not dilly-dally this time.  So, let me say this to start: SPACE IS AWESOME.  There may still be plenty of mysteries left here on Earth, but the stars are the premiere source of adventure in both fiction and real life.  Anything could be out there, but the one surefire thing is the potential for exploration. 

Space can scratch that itch, and take us to whole new places.  Admittedly, that adventure is only possible with some hyper-rigorous training and skill in real life (a sobering truth for six-year-old Voltech), but a good story can compensate with ease.  And of course, the same thing applies to a good game.

Which brings us to Pikmin 3 -- the game you should have played already if you love games.  And/or space.

Here’s the skinny.  The planet Koppai is in the middle of a food shortage, and in a desperate attempt to survive, expeditions are led to the far reaches of space.  That puts you in control of three explorers: the dorky yet good-natured Alph, sharp-tongued botanist Brittany, and macho captain Charlie.  Well, in theory, at least; as Pikmin games tend to go, the touchdown on new soil goes awry and leaves the crew separated.  You start off as Alph, and -- with the help of the native Pikmin you meet early on -- your adventure amidst the worst (and best) nature has to offer begins.

Still, there’s an important wrinkle to the story and gameplay alike.  See, the three explorers only have a finite level of resources -- which is to say, they’re low on food.  With each completed day in Pikmin 3, the team (be it one, two, or three members) consumes one stock of food -- or juice in this case -- from their reserves.  So keeping the game going is made possible by finding fruit in the field; you can apparently go back to an earlier point in your journey if you put yourself in an unwinnable situation, but the point still stands.  If you don’t keep finding food, your team will die of starvation.

Sooooooo...Pikmin 3: rated E for Everlasting Nightmares.

You can think of the game’s plot as a three-pronged mission.  Obviously, the immediate objective is to keep gathering fruit so your crew stays alive.  But on top of that, Alph and the others will have to keep scouring the land for clues on Olimar’s whereabouts -- because the way things are looking, the only way they’ll be able to return home is if they get some of his parts/data. 

And of course, there’s the whole reason the crew blasted off in the first place: they need to find a solution to the hunger crisis.  Given how the game plays out, I’m guessing that if the crew’s going to save their home, they’ll have to be saved by the plot find some hidden bonanza that’ll offer up sustenance on a global scale.

In any case, I’m actually kind of surprised by how much I like the story -- and the characters, more than anything.  Nintendo’s not usually the one you think of when it comes to sprawling tales (remember the Other M debacle?), and while what’s here is…slight, more or less, it’s full of charm.  Alph is the straight-laced smart guy of the group, but he’s dedicated to the captain to a feverish degree, to the point where he tried to copy his hairstyle. 

Brittany’s very goal-oriented, and while she’s just as curious about this alien planet as Alph (maybe more so), several of her lines imply she has been -- or is -- considering mutiny.  Captain Charlie’s a macho, macho man with plenty of confidence and bravado…which lets him shrug off getting carted off by a flying monster minutes after touching down on the planet’s surface.  They sell themselves with their dialogues in the field, but what I really appreciate is how you can have them talk to one another before starting a new day.  Party synergy is simply the best.

If for some reason you’ve never known how Pikmin works -- in which case I wonder why you’re even here -- here’s a rundown.  You play as an explorer and take command of the planet’s indigenous creatures, the Pikmin -- bipedal plant-men of varying properties, but with furious loyalty and the work ethic of the average assembly line.  You can travel around with a squad of up to a hundred of them, so they’ll fight on your behalf, clear obstacles, and cart resources back to the home base centered on your ship. 

In exchange, you’ll give the Pikmin commands and keep their numbers strong by feeding their Onion (their personal ship) pellets and downed enemies.  Pull the seeds that pop out from the ground, and you’ve got more soldiers.  Or leave them in the Onion and build up a reserve in case something goes wrong.  Chances are that you’ll need some reserves, especially if a Beady Long Legs catches you unaware.

Man, I hate those guys and all their kind.  The bastards are like death incarnate.

The big wrinkle in the gameplay is that you’ll be controlling all three explorers simultaneously -- or maybe “asynchronously” is the word I’m looking for.  While Alph, Brittany, and Charlie all play identically (as far as I know), each one is capable of taking control of a fragmented Pikmin team to complete separate objectives.  So if you want Alph to hang back and harvest pellets while Brittany tends to a wall and Charlie builds a bridge, then you can do that.  In fact, that’s pretty much how the game will play, even before you fully reunite the team; multi-tasking ensures that you get the most done in a single day.

It’s worth noting, though, that you’ll have to use your explorers to clear certain obstacles -- to the point where you can’t progress in some early areas until you’ve got a team of three.  You can forcibly separate them by tossing your other two teammates as you would any other Pikmin, and toss some Pikmin to them so they can continue on the other end.  To be fair, that mechanic was a part of Pikmin 2 with the Olimar/Louie duo, but it’s nice to see that it’s back again and taken to the next step…even if that next step was just “the same, but more.”

I was thinking about calling Pikmin 3 “industrious”, but now I’m not so sure if that fits.  Sure, when you’ve got all your pieces moving, you’re a hundred-three-man machine.  But being industrious implies being surrounded by and dependent on technology -- and while you do make use of it (in-universe and out of it), the emphasis is on nature.  And as it stands, that might be the secret to the game’s quality; even if you don’t exactly get to go from planet to planet, or use space as much more than a safe haven (in-universe) and a level select screen (out of it), it’s still the game that makes you into an explorer.  An adventurer.  A player who can walk away with some REAL experiences, not just the buzzword version thrown around these days.

It’d be downright silly to call Pikmin 3 an open-world game, because even if its areas are surprisingly large (I constantly find myself thinking, “Wait, you mean there’s MORE?!”), they’re self-contained stages with challenges and obstacles to call their own.  Still, that’s something that helps keep the focus; you go out in search of fruit, figure out what needs to be done, and do it with your Pikmin squad.  Considering that the explorers are technically no bigger than a quarter, the levels aren’t just window dressing; they’re puzzles to be solved, even if they are broken into dozens of spread-out micro-challenges.

It’s true that there are deadly creatures you have to deal with in your quest for fruit -- including story-advancing boss battles -- but there’s a de-emphasis on combat in general.  The game puts more focus on nature, and treats that as the enemy instead of some alien horror.  Really, that’s how it should be; generally speaking, beating enemies comes down to “throw Pikmin at it until it stops breathing”. 

And technically that’s true for a lot of the obstacles in the field, but there are still plenty of things you have to manage and plan out and solve on the fly.  That’s a form of conflict you don’t see every day in games; you can’t beat nature, especially in Pikmin 3.  Instead, you have to maneuver through it.  You have to be wary of it.  You have to make use of it, and even change it -- however slightly -- so that it suits your fancy.

It’s a conceit that works wonders for the gameplay.  You’re discovering new things on a regular basis, whether it’s a new obstacle to overcome or a new sight to be beheld as you fill in an area’s map.  It should go without saying that the environments are beautiful, but the world feels alive in more ways than just “Yo, check all this nature, bro”. 

I think this is the game that best sells Nintendo’s design philosophy -- or to be more precise, its intentions with the Wii U GamePad.  As always, it’s not detrimental to gameplay, or the player’s hands; it’s true that it’s larger and weightier than the average controller, but it has yet to hamper my ability to play any given title.  More to the point, it adds more than it takes away, especially in Pikmin 3

The most common use, for me at least, is to use the touch screen to send a B-team Pikmin squad to a different area while the A-team (under my command) went somewhere else.  Coordinated attack patterns, and all that -- the perfect way to solve a puzzle or position my forces without the hassle of sifting through menus and button presses.  (It certainly helps that the action is paused whenever you get ready to do it, or when you’re just checking the GamePad map.)

There’s some additional stuff, of course.  If you’re looking for more in-depth stats and data, you can check all that on the touch screen just as you would the map.  You’ll be able to find info on the enemies you’ve faced, tips on getting the most out of your Pikmin, and info from Olimar, just to name a few things.  On top of that, every now and then -- i.e. in story moments -- you’ll be asked to look at the touch screen to receive messages from your teammates or your ship.  So if you’re talking to Brittany (as much as one can) via the GamePad, Alph will be doing the same in-game on his “KopPad”, AKA his all-purpose explorer’s tool.  It’s a cute little touch that helps the player synergize with the game.

The more I think about it, the more I realize Pikmin 3 has a hidden element that can really resonate: being able to take pictures in-game.  At first I didn’t think much of it, and just showed some friends that you can take Pikmin selfies with the GamePad as your camera (however strange it may feel).  But now I realize that it’s part of the mindset.  It’s not just about taking selfies; it’s about making the player feel even more like an explorer, and even more like a part of some strange alien world.  But you can claim ownership of tiny slices of it -- turn the sights you see into digitized memories.

Take away the conflict in this game and what do you have?  A straight-up expedition.  An adventure.  And guess who’s holding the scrapbook?

That really is the best way to play it.  Alph, Brittany, and Charlie have a reason to be on that planet: to find a way to survive, to escape, and ensure that their planet survives in kind.  That’s their mission -- but it’s not yours.  Even if you can identify with them and synergize with them, you don’t have any reason to care about the fate of their world.  You’re only there as an observer -- as a way to have fun.  It sounds selfish, but really, even the best, most engrossing video games have that as their core conceit.

But Pikmin 3 makes true on its understood promise.  The player wants an experience, so it provides.  It gives you an opportunity to explore, and learn, and discover new things, and -- maybe most of all -- see mundane, everyday things in a whole new light.  Why else would you be able to see grapes rendered lovingly in HD with full camera control as computers scan each piece?  Why would there be an entire subsection of the menu dedicated to analyzing beasts and fruits alike, and have it be awesome?

Hey, can you tell I love this game yet?

I suppose for completion’s sake I should talk about the combat.  Like I said, you can resolve a lot of conflicts just by throwing enough Pikmin at an enemy -- so with that in mind, you can play the button-mashing card and nobody would fault you.  A big change from the other Pikmin games is that (as far as I know) you can’t move your soldiers around with just the right stick.  It’s a strange choice, and while it does feel like a loss sometimes, it’s not a game-breaking one.  You can still toss out and call back Pikmin, and one of the most notable additions is the ability to dodge roll your entire squad to escape from trouble.  Makes me wonder if someone on the dev team is a fan of Kingdom Hearts 1.

What this means is that battles are chaotic as all get out -- in a good way, and a bad one.  It’s good in the sense that, in a lot of cases, you can’t just sit around and hammer that button; you have to stay mobile, bobbing and weaving as you avoid enemy attacks and pick up Pikmin that get tossed around (or worse).  Couple that with the need to take advantage of specific Pikmin abilities at times, AND targeting certain body parts/sides, and there are some strategic wrinkles to combat.  One of the early bosses has you taking on an armored worm, meaning that you have to toss heavy-hitting Rock Pikmin to shatter its shell pieces, and throw damage-dealing Red Pikmin at the soft spots you uncover.  Don’t expect said boss to make that easy for you, though.

Still, I’m not a hundred percent sold on some of the underlying mechanics.  In normal situations -- in a fight and out of it -- you have to manually aim Pikmin to where you want to throw them, as shown by a bright reticle and trajectory arc.  It works, for sure, but at times it doesn’t exactly feel the most precise; that lack of precision -- and the general need to aim -- is the last thing you want when you’ve got some massive beast trying to chew you up like a doggy treat. 

You can make things a lot easier on yourself by using a lock-on feature, but at times it felt as if I had to switch between lock-on and lock-off in order to get the exact tosses I wanted.  It could be that I just need to adjust to the learning curve, and that’s where the skill in the game comes on.  Even if that’s true, though, is Pikmin 3 really the sort of game where you’d want a learning curve to the controls? 

Still, I’m not about to dock metaphorical points at this stage.  Even if there are flaws, what I’m concerned with most right now is the core concept.  It’s the design philosophy that the game is built around -- and excels at selling that philosophy to the player.

Here’s the interesting bit.  When you find files out there in the field, you won’t just get tips from Olimar; you’ll find his personal logs, detailing his expedition of the planet.  I know it’s hard to imagine Olimar as anything more than a silent protagonist -- he has a whopping zero voice clips in Smash Bros. Brawl -- but the logs show just what sort of person he is, at least right now.  He’s a die-hard treasure hunter, and there’s a level of fervor to his words that suggest maybe, just maybe, he’s gone off the rails.  He’s willing to brave the risks of the planet for the sake of some new trinkets…which might be a problem because as far as I can tell, there aren’t any salvageable treasures in Pikmin 3.

It seems strange to make Olimar’s side story a straight-up retread of Pikmin 2 -- that is, until you realize that it’s a way for Pikmin 3 to completely disown the philosophy of Pikmin 2.  Taken as-is, Pikmin 3 can be interpreted as a way to completely refute the loot-fests spread throughout the gaming canon.

Am I reaching here?  Probably.  But hear me out.  Destiny (or its marketing at least) promised us the stars, but in the end it boils down to “shoot aliens and get loot”.  It’s a disservice to the extreme amount of effort and resources from an army of artists and programmers.  Worse yet, it railroads players even without sticking them in some endless hallway or set of corridors; the only thing that matters, however subtly, is getting better stuff so you can…get better stuff again.  And again.  And again.

The stuff in games needs to matter again.  It needs to do more than just make players go through the motions -- and that’s what Pikmin 3 strives for.  Olimar’s story is there to remind players that they’re not on that planet just for glory; they’re on a mission, and a dangerous one full of traps and terrors.  If you screw around, you will die.  The “loot” in this case isn’t something you can use as a symbol of prestige; at most, you can find utilities that give you more HP or the aforementioned dodge roll.  You’re using that loot to stay alive, and earn the right to continue your perilous journey -- a journey that may very well put your explorers’ home on the line.

All of that makes Pikmin 3 sound like some harrowing, desperate struggle.  It is, but that’s only one side of the coin.  The intent with this game, no doubt, is to make that expedition into something fantastic; the weight of danger, failure, and doom are there to make the positives shine that much brighter.  You can discover some horrible monsters, but there’s absolutely nothing stopping you from finding glistening fruit, and hear the delight of your explorers as they wonder how it tastes. 

There’s nothing stopping you from appreciating a gentle snowfall as you toss your soldiers back and forth across a shifting creek.  There’s nothing stopping you from listening to the chants of your Pikmin squad as you trot amongst towering foliage, with the sun beaming overhead, as you uncover new and yet-unexplored territories on the map.  And meeting a new color of Pikmin for the first time may as well be its own reward.

You’re not adventuring for the loot.  You’re looting for the adventure.  And that right there is the secret brilliance of Pikmin 3.

Frankly, I’m surprised a game like this even exists.  Against all odds, it’s the game I’ve more or less been asking for since I realized, “Hey, maybe focusing a game around bland, run-of-the-mill murder is pretty dumb.”  This one game has given me more than plenty of other games in the past few years, almost without trying.  Obviously, it’s given me a more exciting world than Destiny.  But it’s given me more frightening moments than The Evil Within.  It’s gotten me to care more about its cast than Infamous: Second Son.  I’d bet that if it had hacking, it’d do it better than Watch Dogs -- but I suppose it’ll have to settle for being better than Watch Dogs in every other conceivable way.

I’m not so star-struck as to say that Pikmin 3 is the greatest game I’ve ever played.  But taken as-is?  It’s thoughtful, rewarding, enticing, surprising, and most of all fun.  It’s a game that can say a few words once every hour or so and still stay full of meaning -- all while letting you dig in your heels and put your leaf-headed soldiers to work.  Given all that, it’s hard for me to walk away unsatisfied.  And I’m hoping that if you decide to pick it up, you’ll feel the same way.

Because, as discussed, SPACE IS AWESOME.


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