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Saturday, February 27, 2010
 
Top 10 RPGs of the Decade at RPGamers
RPGamer (which as a matter of policy does not touch indie games, alas...) has an article up announcing their picks for the best RPGs of the decade.

The Top RPGs of the Decade at RPGamer

While I don't know if their pick for #1 would be the same as mine (actually, I know it's not), it's definitely become one of my all-time favorite RPGs.

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Thursday, February 11, 2010
 
Mass Effect 2: The Future of RPGs?
I haven't played Mass Effect 2 yet. I haven't even finished Mass Effect 1 yet. It was kinda fun, but didn't really suck me in very much. But the hype surrounding Mass Effect 2 makes it sound like it's a whole new deal! Matthew Erazo of GamerNode writes an article putting Mass Effect 2 on a pretty high pedestal:

Why Mass Effect 2 Is the Future of RPGs

In it, he explains how Mass Effect 2 has corrected all of the mistakes of the RPG genre, which he explains, "is so riddled with cliches and rip-offs that it no longer knows what message or experience it wants to deliver. RPGs are supposed to deliver rich stories, interesting characters, and engaging worlds to explore, yet they are so bogged down by useless micromanagement, xeroxed stories, and boring characters."

Um, yeah. Bad games abound in every genre which have those problems. But I want to see how Mass Effect 2 does this all better than everyone else. This could be worth taking notes on! Let's see what makes Mass Effect 2 so awesome. It sounds like this is something I can't wait to play!

Let's roll and see what the future holds:

#1 - No More Stereotypical Characters!
"Each character in your crew, with the exception of two, are fleshed out and have histories, personalities, and demons. What begins as simple characterization leads to deep conversations about past lives and mistakes. Every time I spoke with a one of my crew, I learned something new or helped with their loyalty mission, which shed even more light on them.Most RPGs don't even approach this kind of character development. They are copies of previous roles, with personalities that are common to their profession."

I'm with ya here, Matthew! But I don't think this is a future / past issue - merely a quality issue which a lot of great RPGs of the past have shared.

Although most don't focus quite so deeply on talking with NPCs repeatedly over time to plumb the depths of their character history. That brings up some scary memories of me being cornered at a game store by some kid who hasn't had a bath in at least a week telling me all about his character. I kept saying, "That's nice," while pretending to be fascinated by those books that were a little closer to the door...

Still, while not unique to Mass Effect 2, it sounds like they did a good job here, to which I will offer a speculative "bravo" based on someone else's review. Awesome.

#2 - Player-Driven Story
"Yet in ME2, you can alter the story based on your choices. You're not bound to any strict storyline. You can choose to gain your crews' loyalty, or you can choose to not care about any of them, just the mission. Yes, there is a base plot here, but you can build your own story with it."

Awesome. Truly open-ended, dynamic player-driven stories! This is one of the goals from my old "What makes a great RPG?" article series. Of course, we've had a lot of games where you could run through basically the same storyline with a significantly different flavor based on choices (for example, the way of the Jedi or the way of the Sith?), and we've had games with big changes to the endings based on choices throughout the game (Fallout, for example). And games where you could really chart your path through the story very differently (Deus Ex). But where you could truly alter the entire story based on your choices? This is something of a holy grail, and I'm glad to hear ME2 finally pulled it off. I wasn't sure it would be done in my lifetime.

#3 - The End of Cutscene Dialogs and Evil Dialog Trees
In ME2,"the dialogue wheel allows for flowing conversation." As far as conventional dialog trees, he says "While this does work if the characters aren't backed by voice actors, when there are abrupt pauses in conversations, it takes you right out of the experience."

Okay - the problems I perceive with dialog trees really has nothing at all to do with whether or not voice actors are involved. Is this much improved over the dialog wheel in Mass Effect 1? While that was an interesting variation on the dialog-tree theme, it was still very much just a dialog tree.

But hey, maybe ME2 is different and they did something really cool with it, as he seems to be talking about something totally different here. Outstanding!

#4 - No More Inventory!
"You never have to keep track of your inventory, or gather tons of loot that will serve no purpose other than to be traded for currency later."

Um... okay. I kinda like loot. Hell, that was pretty much the entire gameplay of Diablo II, and I sank way too many hours into that game than I'd like to admit. It was.... what was that word again? Oh, yeah. "Fun."

But I agree that a game doesn't need to have an inventory system to be a great RPG. I mean, I was a hardcore fan of the dice-and-paper RPG "Champions" (before it became an MMO) way back in the early 80's, and there was really no inventory in that game either. And it rocked. But I more than just hesitate to state that it's anything that should be done away with or evolved away from.

#5 - No More Stats! They Are Bad, Too!
Other RPGs "...are so weighed down by confusing combat systems and the always-imposing thought that you can break your character at anytime. Trying playing through the original Fallout or Fallout 2 without some sort of character guide so you don't make a useless build. Or take a look at Arcanum's character screen. While the game's story, world, and character progression are excellent, there are about 20+ stats that you can build, all of them vague and confusing. You never know which one to really build or where to invest. It's overwhelming and is just not fun at times."

Hey, I didn't use a character guide...

But I agree that staring at a big complicated character creation page without a firm idea of what's in store in the game going forward can be intimidating. I mean, sure, if I was playing old-school D&D, I'd use Charisma as my dump stat, but I don't know about this game...

But hey, it sounds like I may be philosophically in the same ballpark here. You should not be able to "break" your character just because you didn't realize that Underwater Basket Weaving wasn't ever going to be used in the game. I think the stats and character building aspects of a game should be part of the fun! RPGs should help players get over the hump to where the prospect of leveling fills the player with excitement and a sense of empowerment over the plethora of options they have to make their character More Awesome and give them a totally unique approach to tackling the challenges of the game --- all of which should be viable. Neat!

So does Mass Effect 2 manage to accomplish this RPG Nirvana? Let's see:

"Instead of having countless stats which lead to countless ways to break your character, each crew member has around six powers to upgrade."

Oh.

#6 - Fixed Progression!
"There is no loot, and money and experience are set, guaranteeing your steady progression through the game. You'll never encounter a boss that is a higher level than you, forcing you to go and grind to try to level up."

And here I was thinking that having the game auto-scale the encounters to your level was bad. Instead, we auto-scale your level to the encounters.

This is progress?

#7 - In the future, RPGs Will Be First-Person-Shooters!
"And by making combat a straight shooter, you don't have to worry about pumping stats into helping you aim or worrying about mana/energy to use powers. The combat is endemic to your skill, and powers are governed by a simple cooldown, allowing you to focus on the action."

...

Uh...

*blink*

My, look at the time! I just remembered I have some library books I have to return, or something.

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Friday, November 13, 2009
 
Give Innovation a Chance!
So Jeff Vogel sez: "People say they want innovation. But actually give them something different that they have to adjust to and they get all angry and full of nerdrage."

I haven't played Brütal Legend yet (maybe it will arrive under the Christmas Tree for me a few weeks). So I can't speak to the review. But I can definitely speak to the frustration.

There's a quote I love by Howard Aiken: “Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats.” I like to tell this one to indies who get all caught up in secrecy and NDAs around their "game idea."

And truth be told, most innovative / original ideas really ain't all that awesome. The path of innovation is the path of failure. That's the whole point. When you abandon the tried-and-true, you are exploring the space of the untried-and-possibly-untrue. You are entering the realm of the experimental. And if every experiment succeeded, it wouldn't be very experimental now, would it?

But as much as we rip on designers for staying in the safety of their comfort zone, the average player is even worse. Heaven help the poor designer that messes with the "standard" interface for games of a particular type, even with a damned good reason! For people who really enjoy such cutting edge entertainment, we can be real sticks-in-the-mud when it comes to innovation.

I'm no different. I find myself complaining sometimes too, asking, "Why did they do this? Why didn't they just let me do what I've always done in previous games? Why'd they try to 'fix' what wasn't broken?" I guess my knee jerks as quickly as anybody else's. But I believe that I'm at least slightly more generous than the average gamer these days. After all, my love of the hobby was born in the extreme Darwinian Deathmatch days of the arcades, when there were no rules to be broken and every week offered something new, original, and sometimes downright stupid. We played them all.

All I'm saying is that if we gamers claim we want innovation to break us from some of the ruts we find gaming in, we need to put our money where our mouths are. Be willing to try out something different that changes the status quo. And accept the fact that not every innovation is going to come bathed in angelic light - sometimes they'll really stink. But we need to give them the chance.

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Thursday, November 05, 2009
 
Dragon Age: Origins - Hype Overload?
Okay, I do intend to get Dragon Age: Origins. For the PC, of course. That's been in the cards for a long time. I remain a Bioware fan, even if you can see traces of their Borg implants.

But holy crap, guys... the hype / marketing for this game is off the scale. We're talking near Halo-levels, here. It's been on TV, all over the web - for months. We've been inundated with previews, interviews, press releases, and now reviews.

So is it worth all the hype? I'm interested in hearing what real RPG fans think who have had a chance to play it. While I have some faith in Bioware and I'm sure the game has a great story and is fun to play, it so far has come off sounding pretty generic to me. Yeah, it's pretty tough to make traditional sword-and-sorcery / high fantasy sound fresh and new, but it still happens. Just not here.

So - what's the scoop? What are your first impressions, those of you with more money and time than me? Is it truly heir to the legacy that was Baldur's Gate? And, I ask again - is it worth the hype?

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009
 
Happy Birthday, Dreamcast
I don't play it as often, but I still play it. It was way better than many gave it credit for.

I developed (well, ported) one game for it. The game was horrible, but the machine was pretty awesome.

Happy Birthday, Sega Dreamcast. Released ten years ago today (in North America), 9/9/99.

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009
 
Looking (Again) at Persona 4
Kat Bailey begins to delve into the world of Persona 4 at 1UP.com:

The Monthly Grind: Welcome to Silent Hill East

Here, she focuses on an element that I agree really made the game: the very boringly normal (well, a little exotic for Western fans, but still pretty mundane) setting. Which makes the mystery, creepiness, and out-and-out weird elements really stand out.

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Monday, July 13, 2009
 
Mechwarrior Reborn
Um. Is "Mechgasm" a word? 'Cuz if it is, I think I just had one...

This Video

This interview

Mechwarrior is BACK, baby. I particularly love the tips of the barrels of the Warhammer's PPCs glowing with heat after being fired.

I was a fan of the original Mechwarrior game (in it's EGA glory), and the Mechwarrior 2 series (MW2, Ghost Bear's Legacy, and MW2 Mercenaries) was almost an obsession. (And yes, I have the tabletop game too, plus several of the technical manuals). MW3 was enjoyable, but somehow lacked the punch of the earlier titles, and MW4 was - for me - unplayable.

So am thrilled by the idea of a "reboot." With Jordan Weisman on board, it sounds like they could have a winner on their hands. But all they have now is a proof of concept and some great ideas... so it's not something we'll be finding on store shelves or on Steam anytime soon. They don't even have a publisher yet.

The suggestion of emphasis on four-player cooperative multiplayer has me thrilled. I'm psyched, and I hope this pans out.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009
 
Dungeons & Dragons Online Goes Free
I still don't think I'll go back to play it...

Dungeons & Dragons Online Goes Free to Play

There are a lot of MMOs that have discovered that subscription-based models are difficult to pull off unless you are definitely in the top tier. The advantage is a consistent cash-flow, and probably a lower turnover of users (people are less likely to go inactive if they are paying.... which means they keep playing and paying...) But once people drop out, it's harder to get them back.

I played DDO for about a year, and had some good experiences playing it, but I became increasingly frustrated around level 6 or so. The way they balanced the game was... poor, I felt. We'd get penalized by having someone of a little higher level in our group, yet his extra level wasn't nearly enough to make up for the fact that we had five members in our group instead of six (but no, no bonus XP or treasure or anything for completing dungeons with a sub-optimal party size - nothing to offset the penalty). So over time we found ourselves "under-equipped" for being forced to go through "too easy" dungeons, which made us even less capable of handling the ones that were supposed to be appropriate for our level.

It felt like we were always behind the power-curve. At least it felt that way to me. This wasn't a horrible problem, since we really only played with a particular group of friends so there wasn't the feeling of competition. But it did feel like we ended up doing the same quests over and over again.

They made some changes that made it easier to solo (mainly solo-oriented quests), and continued to pump out some interesting content for the standard, optimal, power-gaming groups, but it seemed like the 'casual,' non-optimal group sized were a little left out. Or simply not planned for. But they did do a pretty good job of making the rogues feel welcome, I thought.

I'm sure the game has changed a ton since then (and now you can get up to level 20, which ought to be significant). And really, it's not a bad game.

We'll see what this means for Dungeons & Dragons Online (or now, "Dungeons & Dragons Online Unlimited"). This could be a last-ditch effort to make the game pay off, or it could be the move that allowed them to hit the jackpot.

What makes things even more convoluted and interesting is that Atari / Cryptic is rumored to be working on a Dungeons & Dragons based MMO of their own... based on Neverwinter Nights. The irony is that the original Neverwinter Nights was an MMO based on the old "Gold Box" D&D games from SSI. Then the title was appropriated for Bioware's excellent stand-alone multiplayer game series (which I devoted way too many hours to). And now it may come full circle as an MMO again.

As for me - I'm looking forward to Champions Online, but I failed to cancel my City of Heroes account before they billed me again, so I've been paying for a game I haven't even played in months. I love the game, but don't have the time to devote to an MMO.

(Hat tip to RPGWatch for being where I first heard about it...)

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009
 
Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption - Only a Week to Install!
So last Wednesday, I tried to install my old copy of Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption. I wanted to take a look at the modeling they did for the architecture in medieval Prague for some ideas. No dice. The installer would just disappear, never to return.

I forgot about it. It didn't work. I complained briefly about it in passing last week. Too bad - I always remembered the level design in Redemption looking pretty good in spite of its low polygon count (mainly because of the lighting and shadowing system that was used for the game, which was ahead of its time).

Then, a week later, I suddenly get a popup complaining that I needed to re-insert the Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption install disc. I hadn't shut my computer off in all that time, and I hadn't hunted down the installer through the task manager. In fact, I had three copies of the installer all playing the Redemption theme music at once.

Bizarre. I don't know if this was an artifact of copy protection, a crappy installer, or what... but nearly a week later, I was finally able to install the game. I spent about an hour playing it - mostly wandering around Prague and the mines and seeing how they made repetitive textures not look so bad. But the game played just fine. It definitely looks dated, but aside from the installer problems, the game works.

So what do you do when an installer goes bad like that? Waiting around a week for an install isn't generally a reasonable solution to play a retro game.

For what it's worth, I always loved Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption. Mechanically, it was only so-so... excessively linear, but the game system was good. As it predated Neverwinter Nights, its storyteller multiplayer stuff was way ahead of its time. Buggy and crashy, but a heck of a lot of fun when it worked. The dialog was purple prose bordering on ultraviolet. But for sheer atmosphere, the game still ranks among the best.

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Monday, May 25, 2009
 
Shareware and the Golden Age of PC Games
Eurogamer has an article about the "golden age" of shareware in the early-to-mid 90's. Very worth reading:

The Shareware Age

Hat tip to Scorpia for the link, and I happen to agree with the Stingered One that they do seem to overstate the influence of shareware on the PC gaming scene. Apparently, all gaming must be console-style action gaming, and the top shareware games of the day definitely helped turn the PC into ... uh... just another console.

But the article really doesn't give enough credit to mainstream developers. About the same time Wolfenstein 3D broke ground on the first-person shooter genre, an amazing 3D action-RPG was hitting store shelves, entitled Ultima Underworld. Wing Commander, also by Origin, is blamed by many designers of ruining PC game development in a similar fashion to how Star Wars "ruined" American cinema. It issued in the era of the blockbuster. Wing Commander, incidentally, predated Doom by about three years.

This "golden age" was also the era that brought us Eye of the Beholder, Falcon 3.0, The Elder Scrolls (influenced by Ultima Underworld, I'm certain), X-Com, Lemmings, Civilization, a whole slew of killer graphic adventure games from Sierra, Legend, and LucasArts (oh, yeah, and Cyan), X-Wing, TIE Fighter, the Star Control series, Stunts, Out of This World, Prince of Persia, SimCity, System Shock, Alone in the Dark (long before the consoles lay claim to the "survivor horror" genre), Ultima VI and Ultima VII (parts I and II), Wizardry 6, Darklands, The Incredible Machine, Syndicate, Red Baron, and a whole ton more that I am no doubt missing here.

I may also note that - unless I missed it - the article missed a major low-tech hits of the shareware scene - Scorched Earth. Gameplay still trumped technology, even then.

Frankly, it was a wonderful era to be a PC gamer, and shareware was just a small (but significant) part of it. Yes, at the time, action games typically played second fiddle to an outstanding array of role-playing games, adventure games, flight simulators, strategy games, and even golf and solitaire. I kinda miss that, actually. But it was far from being in any kind of ghetto. From 1990 - 1995, the PC gaming scene was as vibrant as one could imagine, both with shareware and mainstream gaming.

In my opinion, the "revolution" wasn't about shareware, but two other things: VGA, and the end of the computer wars. While the article suggests that VGA was adopted only slowly, by 1990 it was pretty much the standard even on business computers. At this point, it was in general graphically superior to any game consoles out there, and the DOS-based PC had finally emerged from the clash of competing systems as the clear victor and standard (as "standard" as PCs ever got, which wasn't very...) around which game publishers could build a business.

This isn't to say that Doom didn't pretty much put PC gaming on the map as far as mainstream consciousness is concerned. At the time, consoles had been geared for a more juvenile crowd, and video games were still viewed (even by the console manufacturers themselves) as a pre-adolescent pastime. Doom was starkly adult in nature, with graphic (if pixelated) violence and a darker theme. It was the wake-up call that grown-ups liked games too - and the PC was the only platform that really catered to their needs.

That's changed a bit now, of course. A lot has changed. Though it seems as though the PC has led the way again on the casual gaming front. History repeats itself, I guess.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009
 
Persona 4 and the Amazing Idiot Box
I have finally finished Persona 4. For realz, this time. :) The dang thing concluded with my total time spent barely touching the triple digits. While I can't say I enjoyed every minute of it, on the whole it was a very enjoyable hundred hours. In particular, I was struck by the primary themes of the game, and its use of the television as a metaphor. Warning - this post contains some spoilers. I can't talk about this stuff without some spoilers, but I'll try and keep the details minimal and vague.

Once again, the fusion of RPG with dating sim worked very well together. It has been further enhanced in Persona 4 with the other playable characters having their own abilities enhanced as their bonds of trust improve with the main character. In general, the other characters were much more fleshed-out and believable than in the previous game, and the game mechanics were more varied and interesting (and challenging). I compare how compelling this game (and its predecessor) were for me over the more hyped, much-bigger-budget Final Fantasy XII - which I completely lost interest in after about ten hours of play - and I have to suggest that this is one of the most significant console RPGs to be released in recent years.

The Persona series breaks with jRPG convention on some fronts, but it still clings to type in many ways. Persona 4 has long, barely-interactive cut scenes, limited save locations (but more plentiful than in the last game), lots of grinding, and excruciatingly linear narratives (but at least you can pick and choose between advancing many of those relationship-based stories as you go). Oh, and it cheats. So it's far from flawless.

But in the final scene, as the main character boards the train and I endured some cheesy professions of enduring friendship from his fellow world-saving teenagers, I couldn't help but feel a level of satisfaction in the end I haven't felt with many RPGs, and a desire to return to this world and explore it a bit more. There are people there I care about. Even the annoying, living teddy bear who threatened to be a Jar-Jar Binks at the get-go.

The ("true") ending predictably concludes with the friendships you've forged pulling you back from the brink of doom and despair to become something like Neo from the Matrix, impossible to kill by your godlike arch-foe. In this case - as in the last game - your final showdown isn't against someone that you've grown to hate. Rather, you are fighting a god who feels they are actually acting according to the desires of humanity. You and your companions are standing against the passive tyranny of the majority.

In many ways, the "enemy" in this game is the television, the opiate of the masses. Yes, this is a video game that embraces its own hypocrisy and decries the boob tube. The idiot box serves as the portal into another dimension in this game - a bizarre conceit at first blush, which ends up making perfect sense in light of the theme. In Persona 4, it serves as the portal to the other world, and the proof of mankind's preference for dreams and illusion over harsh reality, and ultimately the instrument of this world's destruction,

On the supernatural "midnight channel," people find artificial connections to others. Their closet voyeurism is rewarded by what seems to be a peek into the soul of recent celebrities. But even this is only a shadow of the real thing - a sliver of their target's secret soul, a caricature portraying not what they truly are, but what the audience wants to see. Sorta like how reality shows are edited to portray participants in a very specific light, consistent with the character the producers want to sell to the audience.

The triumph of the protagonists comes from embracing truth over illusion. First, when in need of rescue and confronting their "shadow" selves, they immediately fail the test and deny that these less savory aspects of their soul are a part of them, a part that they keep hidden behind their public façade. The reinforced lie empowers the shadow to become an independent entity and kill its former host. But when they eventually embrace the truth, the victims become heroes, and their former tormentors - their shadows - become their allies in the form of personas.

Later, the party finds itself in a position to embrace the obvious solution to the mystery, goaded into action by the midnight channel itself and circumstantial evidence. Falling for this trap (which is easier than it sounds, as getting into an argument of right versus wrong can distract the player from the goal - to discover the truth) ends the game on a very unsatisfactory note. The protagonists must continue to dig deeper to learn not only the identity of the true murderer, but ultimately the being responsible.

It's only then that the loose ends start getting tied up. You learn why you (and two others) gained the ability to travel between worlds through the television prior to acquiring a Persona. You find out how the midnight channel came to be, a little more about the nature of the other world, and the goals of the entity that orchestrated the entire deal. And, in the end, you must strip away her own façade - matching that of the legend told to you by Mr. Edoki during the class trip.

(Unfortunately, that "stripping away of the façade" means the game fell into the all-too-common jRPG convention of making you fight a major boss multiple times. Because a single boss fight is too easy - you need to do multiple back-to-back boss battles! With the same dude! Yeah! Okay, I digress. )

Your ultimate victory comes down to choosing truth over illusion, and choosing your own destiny over that of a blanket solution determined by the majority (oooh, hey, insert "big government" rant here... Oh, wait, that's another major digression). The few triumph over the passive will of the many, the fog lifts in the other world revealing that what had been hidden in the hearts of men was actually something beautiful, not horrible.

All-in-all, it's a pretty powerful theme in a well-told story, in spite of the principal character having almost no voice (other than occasionally shouting out the names of his summoned personas).

I still maintain that traditional storytelling, as we've proven to have a difficult time escaping, has at best a shotgun marriage with gameplay. Japanese-style RPGs, in particular, tend to force the combination by simply alternating between the two. We get a half-hour of dramatic exposition, followed by two hours of barely related hacking and slashing, and a little bit of storytelling woven in at the end with the end-level boss exchanging angst-ridden dialog with the main characters as his health meter drops into the next quartile. If anything, the storytelling acts as a reward sequence, like those little cut-scenes every few levels in Pac-Man, writ large. Very large.

But sometimes those game developers can make it work, dang it. Especially when the payoff incorporates those choices that you made throughout the game (in this case, the relationships you maxed out). Persona 4 is rich in solid storytelling, in spite of the complications arising from the medium. The game's powerful theming takes it far beyond the cliché of it's otherwise traditional "Kill the Foozle" climax. You aren't battling an enemy, exactly, but the incarnation of a false belief.

After pleading, posturing, bragging, and declaring your doom, this final boss - the architect of all your troubles is finally brought down. The final words on her lips, before fading with the fog that has clouded a world created by the hearts and imaginations of mankind, are: "Children of men - well done!"

Well done, indeed.

Now if you'll excuse me. I feel a strange compulsion to step away from the television (and video games) and go accomplish something real for a while.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009
 
Coolest Game Trailer Movie of All Time?
The Secret World is an MMO, quite a ways off in the future, which probably means this trailer has near zilch to do with the actual gameplay.

But it's way cool.



Umm... yeah. Roll for surprise, please...

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Thursday, March 12, 2009
 
Now Playing: Persona 4
A couple of weeks ago, I started playing Persona 4. As you may remember, I was really impressed with Persona 3. In an era where the most recent Final Fantasy game felt awfully stale (yet expensively so), Persona 3 showed a surprising amount of innovation. Maybe it's just because I'm not fully caught up on jRPGs lately, but I was impressed.

Interestingly enough, Persona 4 doesn't seem to try to push the graphical bar much. Instead, it is focused on - *GASP* - improving the gameplay, and giving the player more interesting decisions. I'm stunned. Do developers still DO that? That is just so.... 1990's.

Story-wise, it's not quite as compelling as the previous game for me. But the dialog seems slightly better written - though still often erring on the side of cute & silly, when it's not head-scratchingly translated. The storyline isn't quite so dark as Persona 3, which is neither good nor bad. Just different.

Once again, you are a transferring high school student in a new town. Where Persona 3 thrust you into what felt like an existing, secret war that you only barely understood at first, Persona 4 starts with a murder mystery. A TV news anchor, the center of a scandal involving her affair with a political figure (and husband to a famous singer), has fled to the small country town of Inaba - coincidentally, at the same place and time as the player character - to get out of the media limelight. Whereupon, she mysteriously vanishes. On a foggy morning several days later, she turns up dead - hanging upside-down from a TV antenna. A few days later, a high school senior - the girl who discovered the body - disappears. Her body is found during the next big fog in the same way.

During this time, a rumor begins to spread among the youth of Inaba about the "midnight channel." If you stare into a turned-off television at midnight on a rainy night, they say, you will see the face of your soul-mate. An experiment among the player character and his newfound friends reveals that this is a partial truth - it is not the viewer's soul-mate that is found, but the image (initially fuzzy and distorted) of the next person to be kidnapped and murdered.

But more importantly - the player character discovers, quite by accident, that he has another power - to enter through the TV screeen into this alternate dimension where the "midnight channel" is airing. And to take others with him. The initial experiments are quite amusing, involving smaller TV screens, and an alarming discovery by a distressed friend that there are no bathrooms in this mysterious world. (Though, apparently, there can be bath HOUSES).

Naturally, the alternate world is filled with monstrous, deadly "shadows." Those who are kidnapped and thrown into this world come face-to-face with the darker side of their personality. As the weather changes in the "real world," their dark-side personality - which has the potential to become a magic-using Persona - will turn on their original counterpart and kill them.

Strangely, this alter-ego persona that first appears on the midnight channel - before their "original" disappears. Somebody else (apparently) - with the same power as the player character - is throwing these people into the TV world to kill them.

I'm personally just amused by having the intrepid adventurers meet in the food court of the new mall / department store prior to entering deadly dungeons and facing tons of horrible (or just plain WEIRD) monsters in mortal combat. (They do this because there's a big-screen TV on display in the electronics department that's easier to enter as a group). The adventurers also learn very quickly the importance of concealing their weaponry prior to entering the dungeon when the small-town police department is frantically searching for a serial killer.

Persona 4 is so far taking the "social link" mechanic of Persona 3 to a new level. In particular, you have the ability to improve social links with your fellow team-mates, which not only improves your ability to fuse more powerful Personas, but also gives them additional abilities in combat. In particular, an early improvement is that they may intercept an otherwise mortal blow intended for you. While I'd consider that something that would make more sense with a much higher social link level, it really helps even out the difficulty level - as the game is over when you are "killed," but the other team members are merely knocked unconscious and can be revived.

There also seems to be a lot more things to do outside of adventuring in the dungeons of the TV world. You have more characteristics to improve upon than in the previous game - which seem to have greater impact on what you can do and say. Actions you take - like attending club meetings - may affect your characteristics as well as improving social links (or providing you with extra cash, if you take on a part-time job). At least so far, the choices seem to abound, either regularly scheduled or randomly appearing. And it's never entirely certain where they will lead. One night, I just happened to find something iffy inside the refridgerator. Eating it raised my Courage, but also left me feeling unwell - requiring me to cancel any other evening plans and go straight to bed.

Players also no longer have to cope with long-term fatigue. There are enough other time-management elements to the game that I could see this being an unnecessary and unwanted aspect of the game to manage this time around.

Oh, and this time around, the characters no longer shoot themselves in the head with pistol-like evokers. It's still nowhere close to suitable for younger audiences, although the violence is fairly cartoony and lacking in blood. The language can get harsh, and it deals with adult situations, including (so far) issues of sex, murder, and homosexuality. In spite of being about high school students, it earns its "M" rating.

Again - it's not hooked me in like Persona 3 did, though the characters and story are really staring to grow on me. At least - for now - I'm still able to maintain the discipline to only play it for a few minutes to an hour. Usually.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009
 
Fallout 3: Waste of My Time and Money?
I bought Fallout 3 from Circuit City, which means it was non-refundable. Unfortunately, even with the patch, it crashed repeatedly on my system, and so far always in a particular spot during the introductory sequence - right after finishing the GOAT.

Even after the latest patch.

Thoughts:

#1 - This is a reason people flee to consoles.

#2 - I shoulda spent my money on an indie RPG, instead.

I'm gonna keep trying with it, maybe with some graphics options turned off (though it runs fine on my system... until the point where it crashes). But so far I'm very disappointed.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009
 
Wizardry 8 Part XVI: Return of the Demon Goddess
Continuing my adventures playing the final game of the classic series, Wizardry. Wizardry 8 was originally released in 2001, but I only acquired it recently via E-Bay. So far, I've found it has stood the test of time fairly well. I've been blogging my progress throughout the game (which took a pause during the holiday season), and discussing some notes I've made on the games' design, which many consider to be the last "old-school" style mainstream Western RPG. They just don't make 'em like this anymore... except for the indies.

Once again - I think I'm pretty close to the end of the game, but I'm not quite there yet. But on my way to Ascension Peak and my dark date with destiny, my party took some time to flirt with a topless demon-goddess. We're such a naughty group of adventurers!

When the Rapax Get Bored with Battle, You KNOW It's Gone On Too Long...
If you may remember from my last Wizardry 8 post, I'd just mowed through a hundred Rapax Templars to expose the secret plot of the Rapax King, who had allied with the Dark Savant. This was after killing hundreds more Rapax in the Rift and in their own castle. I'd used this information to get the Umpani and T'Rang to ally with each other, and used that combined intelligence and firepower to blow up the Dark Savant's ship.

Making my way to a previously-discovered path to Ascension Peak for the final showdown, I found that the Rapax had blocked it off with a massive landslide. A bunch of low-level Rapax were patrolling the area, and mocked me with their announcement of how they rocked, I sucked, only they can go to Ascension Peak, nyah-nyah-nyah. I sent them to the Ascension Peak in the sky, and decided to head back to Castle Rapax to see if I could find out how they were planning on making it to the peak after causing the landslide.

Once I got there, it was once again nearly non-stop combat. At one point, I had so many Rapax lined up to fight me (six groups averaging six or seven Rapax each) as they chased me into a dead end that THEY actually got bored with the fight and left.

I'd maneuvered myself around a corner to reduce my exposure to ranged attacks and spells, but the line to beat on me went all the way around yet another corner. As the saying goes, "Out of fight, out of mind..." - or something like that. Anyway, many of the Rapax at the tail end of the mob got bored and wandered off. They didn't go far - once the fight was over, I bumped back into them and the conflict resumed.

I decided I'd like a little more RPC (recruitable PC) help, so I teleported back to Arnika to see if Vi Dominae would like to join us. She said she'd love to, and she always enjoyed getting together with "us guys." That lasted for about ten seconds, until we teleported directly back into the castle. At that point, we discovered that Vi Dominae could really, really gripe and complain in a nearly constant stream. She complained about being there, about always hooking up with losers, etc.

But she was able to materially contribute to the slaughter. She may not have been fighting at her peak, but she proved she was still able to kick some Rapax butt. Eventually, we killed enough Rapax that we could wander about unmolested near the throne room and feast hall area for about three minutes.

Let's Not Bicker and Argue Over Who Killed Who...
As it turns out, while the Templars now hated me along with all the rest of the Rapax, the offer made to me by the demon goddess Al-Sedexus still stood. I wandered into a Rapax Guard above the throne room who did not attack me - instead, he demanded to know who sent me. He snorted at any answer I gave him. I found another door that he was not protecting, however, and wandered through. Eventually I came to a Rapax named Al-Adryian who asked me if I was ready to become initiates in the church of Al-Sedexus or something.

Yeah, sure, why not? I had nothing better to do, except to save the world 'n stuff, but that could wait.

The initiation was no worse than your average frat-hazing. We had to acquire three pieces of clothing, answer three riddles, and kill a bunch of elementals. Oh, and dress one of our party members - the gadgeteer - in said clothing.

And I'm not sure - but I think he had to have sex with the topless demon-goddess in an altar room when we summoned her. I don't know for sure - she slipped us something in our drinks or something, and we all fell asleep to ecstatic sounds from Al-Sedexus the Demon Goddess. Afterwards, we found our poor gadgeteer quivering in the corner in the fetal position, refusing to talk about what had happened while the rest of the group was passed out on the floor for hours.

What's more, he was now under a curse. He couldn't leave the castle and rift area without suffering constant, slow damage. No magic would undo the curse. On the plus side, all the Rapax in the castle decided to let bygones be bygons and no longer attacked me. Nevermind the entire castle was stinking with the smell of hundreds of dead Rapax that had fallen under our blades - now that we'd let the demon-goddess have her way with our poor gadgeteer, all was forgiven.

A little bit of exploration revealed a portal to Ascension Peak! Huzzah! We went through the portal and arrived on the mountain road. All was well.... except for the gadgeteer, who was now taking constant damage.

Payback Time
This wouldn't do. Our gadgeteer has finally gotten to the level (after a flirtation with multi-classing that I wish I'd never tried) where he could use some seriously powerful gadgets a couple of times before passing out from exhaustion. We didn't want to lose him. Besides that, he sucks up some hits in combat that would otherwise hurt our spellcasters. And apparently he makes good bait for demon goddesses. So he's a valued member of the team that we couldn't leave gimped like that.

So I set a teleport location there in Ascension Peak and decided to go back to Rapax Rift to have a talk with Al-Sedexus. Unfortunately, this required us to go back through the castle, and Vi Dominae left the party immediately. Since I didn't want to clear out my other two portal locations for my other two casters (one goes directly to the inn in Arnika, the other to the Umpani fort), I figured I was on my own for a while.

The Rapax were very gracious and nice to me as I walked through their castle into the rift. Once there, it was only a walk around the corner into Al-Sedexus's temple. The demon goddess was there. I clicked to talk on her, and she told us she'd heard we were planning on leaving her. Since we could only do that feet-first, she immediately attacked us. On her first round, she summoned a bunch of templars to aid her in the fight.

We focused our attacks on her. As tough as the Rapax generally are at over 500 hitpoints each, Al-Sedexus had about twice as many hitpoints. The gal was no pushover, in spite of being armored with nothing more than an occasionally writing snake. In the end, we triumphed and grabbed the bag of goodies she left in her wake. We hadn't yet killed any of the templars, and I decided to experiment by running away rather than fighting them to the bitter end.

Mysteriously, the castle is still quite friendly to us. Apparently killing their demon-goddess isn't all that important to them. So long as I let the templars live, I guess.

With that, I bought and sold some stuff with the blacksmith there at the castle, and teleported out to the Umpani stronghold and to Arnika to pick up supplies (ammunition, mainly) and two of my favorite RPCs - Vi Dominae, and Sparkle the Trynnie Ranger. Upon teleporting back to Ascension Peak, we found Vi Dominae has no problem being with us there. Sparkle, on the other hand, has begun whining. Incessantly. Asking when we could go home. It's like baby-sitting a whiney-but-cute eight-year old.

An eight-year-old who can insta-kill with arrows at a hundred paces.

Design Notes
Faction systems are an interesting thing in RPGs. Wizardry 8 is no exception. From what I can tell, if I'd have killed the six Rapax Templar guards summoned to aid Al-Sedexus in a remote cave temple with nobody watching, I'd have hurt my faction with the Rapax. But by leaving them ALIVE to tell their story of how I came in and killed their goddess and fought with them, my relationship with the Rapax is unharmed.

Does that make any kind of sense?

I'd really love to see an RPG where faction is handled in a realistic, organic fashion. I realize that this would be difficult to pull off, as most combats in RPGs are to the death, and bodies tend to magically vanish over time. And there seems to be an infinite supply of potential opponents in the world, so it's not like anybody might NOTICE that their factional population has dropped significantly since the player characters came to town.

I can see the simulated conversation between randomly generated NPCs now:
"Hey Bob, I've noticed a pretty high turnover in respawns since the group of adventurers started wandering our zone."

"Those guys coming towards us right now?"

"Yeah."

"Interesting observation. Maybe we ought to mention that to someb... ARGH! ICK! My torso! My precious torso!"
Well, okay. Maybe that's not just something you could drop into an existing game - you'd have to build the game around it. It'd be cool, though, huh?

The initiation quest for the Templars was, unfortunately, not the best. Though answering riddles was kinda fun and different (not for this game - there are a lot of riddles - but it's not something you see much of anymore). But otherwise it was pretty much just an ordinary run-the-gauntlet, kill-the-guardian-monsters thing.

The most amusing part of this experience is that I clearly did things out-of-order. Fortunately, it didn't break the game, though it's unclear to me if I could have found my way through the portal without going through the initiation process.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009
 
Wizardry 8 Part XV: Can't We All Just Get Along?
Wizardry 8 was originally published in 2001. It toom me several years to get around to it (and a great deal of effort to finally score a copy from EBay), but I'm now reporting on my adventures in the final game of the classic series. And with this fifteenth installment, I feel I'm getting close to the climax. Close measured in lots of combat.

If You Can't Join 'Em, Beat 'Em...

After some searching, I found an encampment in the wilderness where the Rapax Templars were staying. I was supposed to join these guys - well, the demon-goddess wanted me to do that. Why I'd want to follow the wishes of a bloodthirsty demon-goddess, I don't know. As I got to the encampment, however, the templars there warned me to leave. I'm apparently not yet a member of the club.

What do I do to join the club?

I don't know. And at this point, after fighting through tons of combat in the castle, and figuring that sooner or later I'd need to take these guys on anyway, I decided to see if I could break the game by taking these guys out now.

Unfortunately, the front area was swimming in Templars. Tons. A small army. However, since I'd been fighting those kinds of odds in the castle for days, I could take 'em. Plus, I was close to an exit out of the "zone." Using my l33t "dungeon break-in" skillz honed by years of playing Everquest, I whittled the Rapax down.

Summoned elementals came in very handy. Especially fire elementals, when they weren't distracted into hurling fireballs of their own. The Rapax are all but immune to fire, so fireballs were nearly useless, especially when they'd throw on an Element Shield spell. But the elemental could punch pretty hard, and would ignore the zillions of fireballs these guys would fling.

And yes, they'd fling the fireballs. That many Rapax meant that, at least at first, I could go on a bathroom break when the combat started, and when I returned there'd still be particle systems hurtling across the landscape towards me while my characters patiently waited their turn.

I gamed the system at this point. I'd go in, and MAYBE take down one or two of the Rapax before being forced to flee. Since most of my damage-causing spells would do next to nothing, once the defensive spells and the summon had been fired, I'd concentrate on insanity and Asphyxiation. Once in a blue moon, out of about two dozen Rapax and about six casts of Asphyxiation (a mass instant-death spell), ONE rapax would get unlucky and die outright. It was a terrible waste of spell points for that 0.5% chance of killing an enemy, but since nothing else was having much effect either, I gave it a shot. After all, they weren't exactly dying quickly on us as it was.

Once we'd score a kill or two, things would be looking hairy, and we'd be forced to flee. We'd rest up outside the zone, heal up, get spell points back, cast persistent buffs, and jump back in. The remaining Rapax would likewise be healed and have spell points back. Combat would begin almost instantly when we zoned in. By a strange twist of programming logic, if we'd been forced to abandon an elemental there in mid-combat, the elemental would still be there, saving us the casting of a summon spell at the beginning of the fight.

After spending pretty much an entire night doing this, we finally cleared the entryway enough to proceed further into the encampment. We found the King's tent in short order. Compared to everything else we had fought recently, the king and his two bodyguards were pushovers.

Strange Bedfellows

Several large guard patrols and one remotely-opened gate later, we found a couple of prisoners stuck in cages at the top of a bluff. One was an Umpani named Rodan, and the other was a T'Rang named Drazic. Strangely enough, we got both of them to join our party, and they told us their story. They began as mortal enemies trying to kill each other, even in captivity. But upon learning that the Rapax King was in league with the Dark Savant - making the Savant's allied forces stronger than anyone else on the planet - they realized that their own causes were doomed unless they could band together against a common enemy.

You see, the Umpani reportedly have a gun that is capable of taking out a starship - like the Dark Savant's ship. But the Dark Savant's black ship is cloaked and invisible to Umpani sensors, so they can't find his ship. The T'Rang have a tracking device which - with the help from my visit to the starport in Arnika and a black box recovered from a wreckage in Bayjin - can track the Dark Savant's ship. Rodan and Drazic asked us to take them to their respective leaders to make the case for an alliance between the Umpani and T'Rang. Curiously enough, since I'd been playing both sides, my party was in a prime position to give them aid.

Even better, we had teleport locations set not too far from the Umpani fort and Marten's Bluff, the base for the T'Rang. We portaled out of the Rapax Templar encampment, made our way through the swamp to Marten's Bluff, and met with the T'Rang boss, Z'Ant. He was skeptical, but willing to listen. He gave us an alliance document for the Umpani to sign, and the tracking device.

The Umpani were just as skeptical, but after hearing Rodan and Drazic's story, they also agreed. And gave us access to their "Big Gun."

We made our way to the top of Mount Gigas, and found that the "Big Gun" was actually a missile launcher. With a single missile. While there might be spares in some storage room somewhere, it sure did look like we only had one shot at this. Too bad. It would be nice to aim that sucker at the Rapax Castle. I wonder how many experience points I'd net by blowing up the entire castle filled with infinite Rapax?

We placed the tracking device in the computer at the base of the missile. The missile launcher locked onto the black ship in orbit around the planet, moved into position, and fired.

That black ship, she shur blows up pretty! The distant explosion was clearly visible from the mountain top.

The party launched into a self-congratulatory round of discussion and back-patting, and began speculating whether or not the Dark Savant was actually on the ship when it exploded. The consensus seemed to be that no, life is rarely that kind, and we'd probably meet him when we got to the top of Ascension Peak. Which, everyone tells us, should be our next step.

The end is near! Maybe.

Design Lessons Learned

While combat remains tedious, the plot was really kicking into high gear at this point. I HOPE that I have not ruined my game by taking the brute-force approach to dealing with the Rapax Templar encampment. ideally - as is apparently the case in many parts of the game - both approaches should be equally valid.

This is good RPG design. In fact, I'd go so far as to say this is how things SHOULD be, in all RPGs. Yes, I mean you, you delightfully linear plot-heavy Japanese-style console RPGs!

If I recall correctly, Richard "Lord British" Garriott once said that he'd make sure there was always at least one good way to achieve any goal in the Ultima series, but that he wouldn't go out of his way to prevent other approaches from working. If the players figured out a clever alternative, he was fine with that.

While a few more recent games have seemed to at least give nods to this idea (The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines come to mind, and I suspect Fallout 3 falls into this category as well), it is too often missing in many modern RPGs. While I've not played it yet, Shamus Young has recently excoriated Fable 2's plot for gross negligence in this reguard, forcing the player into some really bizarre, idiotic, needlessly complicated and punishing paths to accomplish what appears to be otherwise straightforward goals.

And even Oblivion seemed ... well, oblivious... to the fact that I'd accomplished one Thieves' Guild quest without actually killing anyone as I was assumed to have done. Those blind monks never even knew I was there, dang it!

Part of the problem, I suspect, is the script-based approach to handling "quests" or missions. I'm struggling with the same issues in Frayed Knights. To make things interesting, the entire sub-story and path to accomplish the quest is scripted out in advance, and any alternative approaches have to be similarly designed, tested, debugged, re-written, polished, and perfected.

But is this really necessary? Couldn't the Lord British approach still be applied to modern games? So you've got the glittery orb quest item stuck in some room. Is it really necessary to dictate how the player obtains the orb? Must all events and approaches be deliberately scripted into the game, or is it possible to set up a more generic event system and let things proceed more as a simulation? Would it be just as exciting? Just as interesting?

Yet even as I say this, I loved the hand-scripted resolution to the subplot where I acquired an alliance between the Umpani and T'Rang, and nuked the Black Ship. I'm a junkie for hand-crafted, well-designed plot and story development.

I'm sure I chose the most tedious, least interesting path to freeing the two prisoners, so would I be wrong in criticizing the game for allowing such tedious gameplay? Wouldn't I have enjoyed the game more following the nicely-scripted path?

Is there a happy medium between these two extremes?

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Thursday, February 05, 2009
 
Wizardry 8 Part XIV: Storming the Castle
I've had a bit of a hiatus, and I apologize. More on that in the next installment. For those still interested, here's a bit of a summary of my continued explorations of the "old-school" RPG, Wizardry 8. It's a fairly hard-to-find title these days, as the publisher has long since ceased to exist as anything more than a legal entity. But their memory lives on... as do game CDs on a PC.

The Demon Goddess
I made a lot of progress since Part XIII - and somehow thought I'd blogged it all, but evidently I had failed to do so. My bad. And now I have to go from memory.

We used the beckoning stone to summon a gargoyle named El Dorado. He exploded nicely under our combined firepower. Following that, we made our way to the demon-goddess Al-Sedexus. She seemed to debate a bit about what to do with us, but then gave us a quest set our faction so that we would no longer be attacked by Rapax Templars. Go us.

A bit more hunting led us to the courtyard of Castle Rapax.

Storming the Castle
The courtyard started out okay. There were archers along the wall which rained arrows down on us and were hard to kill. That was annoying. Pushing forward a bit more resulted in us getting surrounded by Rapax and attacked by an ever-increasing throng of Rapax.

The main floor of the castle was largely the same story - infuriatingly long combats. Rapax are minotaur-looking beasts which have some of the most infuriatingly boring combat in the known universe. They are - tough. Very tough. Most magic barely touches them. They hit like a ton of bricks. They have hundreds of hit points. And I usually end up fighting them a couple dozen at a time. I blow through most of my magic in each combat. Usually the best spells are buffs, heals, and insanity spells - since if even one or two Rapax berserkers go nuts and begin wailing on their comrades for a couple of rounds, It can shave precious minutes off of an hour-long fight.

The only thing interesting the Rapax have going for them is that they have classes. Which means you have some spellcasters going at it. This usually means putting up an element shield in the first round, as I'll be sitting through about six to eight fireballs every round, plus the occasional Crush.

After literally hours of practically non-stop combat, I made my way to the upper floors. I embarrassed the prince, who I caught in his harem. He fled, and sicced his concubines on me.

Yes, his concubines.

Eventually, sheer tedium and frustration made me flee to the upper floors which were much more interesting - though I had left some halls of the main floor unexplored. The upper halls and the cellar had a lot of interesting things going on, and most of the Rapax were not hostile to me. I guess they were aligned with the templars.

An adventure-game-esque sequence followed. I found myself going through a zoo, hitting the cellar and jail areas, participating in a barroom brawl, discovering that the Rapax King and Queen seemed to be running counter to each others' purposes (in fact, it looks like the King was trying to arrange the death of his dear wife... I do not know whether or not he succeeded). After finding a lot of secret portals and bizarre items with strange uses, I managed to open up a teleporter near the King's chamber that opened up a portal to the inside of the Dark Savant's tower back in Arnika.

Dah Bomb
Among other things, the Dark Savant's tower houses a bomb capable of destroying the entire world. For such a big deal, the tower was kind of a let-down. There wasn't much there - just robots serving the Dark Savant, and a combination lock to deactivate the bomb.

At this point, I teleported back to the Rapax Castle, and fought a few gazillion more Rapax, before getting bored and leaving back the way I came.

Reflecting on Design
The castle sequence is a major set-piece to the game, but it is fatally flawed on the main floor by some really tedious combat - not unlike Rapax Rift and the Bayjin Shallows. The designers wisely set it up so that the upper levels (and cellar) were not nearly so bad - but it does make you wonder how you could slaughter something like 400 Rapax on the main floor (and how does the castle HOLD that many???) and almost nobody bats an eye about it one floor up.

But I really did enjoy myself a lot on the upper floor. The combats were few but a little more interesting (the zoo animals were largely creatures I'd fought before, but at least they broke up the monotony a bit). And the locations and notes gave a lot of clues as to what had been going on for the last few years. It helped make the world come alive.

The Savant Tower was something of a letdown. Here's a hint to game designers: When you introduce something early in the game that's clearly a major goal for later, you really ought to put some more effort into making it cool. Visually, it was cool, but from a gameplay perspective, there wasn't much to do there. Unless I totally overlooked something.

I have already whined enough about how boring the Rapax are to fight. But this illustrates something about enemy design at which I have personally failed many times in the past. It is EASY to make a bigger, tougher, harder opponent. Beef up their armor and hitpoints, throw in a solid claw / claw/ bite attack (an old-school D&D reference), crank the magic resistance up to 11, and viola! A super-challenging monster!

And a super-boring one, too. Oh, sure, if used sparingly, they can be fun, and even interesting in their own way. But ultimately, what makes enemies interesting to a player are the same things that make them nightmarish for a programmer - unique behaviors and abilities (or combinations of the same).

If you look at some of the most popular (and feared) monsters in Dungeons & Dragons, they usually fall into this category. Dragons are not only ultra-tough, but also have the classic breath weapon and flying ability (and, often, spells, an aura of fear, and other special abilities). Mind Flayers with their uber-nasty psionic blast and the whole brain-eating thing. Beholders with their ray-shooting eye stalks (and the anti-magic cone from their primary eye). Vampires and specters with the level-draining ability. Medusas (yes, in D&D, Medusa is an entire race, not just an entity) with the gaze that turns adventurers into stone. Mummies with their mummy-rot and fear aura. Dopplegangers who can assume the form and behavior of friends. Harpies with their charm powers. And various kinds of demons with their spell resistance and other special abilities.

Those special abilities are what makes them interesting. Wizardry 8 is no exception. The psionic abilities of the Rynjin were infuriating, but it made them stand out... except for the fact that practically everything in the Bayjin area was also psionic. Nessie - I still haven't taken HER down yet. But she was not boring. Creatures that swallow my party members whole are rare, scary, but definitely not boring.

Giving the Rapax some character classes and abilities in Wizardry 8 was definitely a step in the right direction. Frankly, after killing hundreds of these things in a row, they'd be getting pretty tiresome no matter how cool their design. Persona 3 did a great job of doling out strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities amongst opponents - and the expansion did an even better job of putting them together in interesting combinations that took some (minor) tactical planning to work through. And those still got pretty boring after a while.

So take my criticism with a grain of salt - or a small Siberian salt mine...


More Wizardry 8 Play-Through Entries:
Part I: So a Samuari, a Valkyrie, and a Bishop Walk Into a Bar...
Part II: Running the Gauntlet
Part III: Vi Domina Tricks
Part IV: Arnika Bank - No Safer Than Under the Mattress
Part V: In Fear of Little Naked Winged Women
Part VI: Old-School Goes Old-School
Part VII: Ratts!
Part VIII: Dances With Rhinos
Part IX: My Duplicity Has a Price
Part X: Missing Men and Mutant Frogs
Part XI: Swimming With the Psi-Sharks
Part XII: Desperately Seeking Marten
Part XIII: Lucky Thirteen, Unlucky Rapax
Part XIV: Storming the Castle

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009
 
Dueling Publishers
It's old news that Hellgate: London kinda flopped, that developer Flagship Studios has disappeared in all but name, and that the game that was supposed to be kind of an "MMORPG Lite" thing has been scheduled to cease operations (shutting down Western servers) at the end of this month.

Enter the Korean publisher, Hanbitsoft, which has announced not only that the game will be "free to play" on their servers, but that they are coming out with a patch soon (developed by San Francisco - based developer Redbana U.S. Studio).

HanbitSoft maintains that it owns the IP rights to the game worldwide (including the engine and source code), and operational rights in Asia (excluding Japan). Namco Bandai & EA maintain U.S. and European publishing rights, and have been very quick to dismiss any rumors that there is a remote chance of U.S. servers becoming operational ever again. The game is dead and soon-to-be-buried as far as they are concerned.

Officially, HanbitSoft's updates and servers are for Asia only. Unofficially... well, they deliberately announced a press release about the new servers and updates during the final week of the U.S. and European servers... in English.

From the perspective of a casually interested outsider, it seems as though there's a bit of a war of words going on between the publishers. And I can't say I'm too surprised by HanbitSoft's position. They probably paid a good deal of money for this business opportunity. If I were them, I, too, would absolutely refuse to have my investment's success or failure dictated by a third party.

Why won't Namco Bandai and EA sell their rights to HanbitSoft, since they have obviously already declared things a loss and moved on? I would guess that this has been discussed, but for some reason no deal is pending. Maybe Hellgate: London was worth more to them as a tax writeoff than they'd get selling it to HanbitSoft.

Or maybe some kind of deal is pending. Or will be worked out once HanbitSoft has figured out a way to actually make money on their investment.

Or maybe HanbitSoft is taking advantage of the fact that it's a world economy, and that Western players WILL log into their Asian servers with the new, updated community services - which no doubt include additional ways of monetizing the free gaming experience. This could be a very tricky way to win some dollars, euros, and yen without having to pay for the publishing rights in those parts of the world.

Hey, if nobody ELSE is gonna be running a server next week...

I never bought or played Hellgate: London, as much as I am a fan of Bill Roper in principle. :) But I find this story to be pretty dang interesting from a games biz perspective. It'll be fascinating to see how things fall out.

Hellgate: London to Continue as Free-To-Play Title

Hellgate: London Official Update from HanbitSoft

More on Hellgate: London's EU / US / Asia complex worldwide rights issues

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Monday, January 19, 2009
 
Thoughts on Persona 3 FES: The Answer
This weekend, I finished the "expansion" campaign to Persona 3 FES, subtitled "The Answer."

It takes place on March 31st, a few days after the conclusion of the original campaign ("The Journey"). The original characters (well, those that survived from the original group) have been packing up the dormitory and are preparing to leave the next day, after having one last going-their-separate-ways party. Unfortunately, moving day never arrives, as the group finds themselves trapped in the dormitory in a magical time-loop that keeps repeating March 31st over and over again. Oh, and they get attacked by a robot, Metis, of a similar make and model as Aigis, but apparently manufactured with the "emotion upgrade" pre-installed and turned to "annoying kid sister" levels.

What they learn is that a place called "The Abyss of Time" - a counterpart to Tartarus - did not fade away when Tartarus did. And now it's stocked with a ton of shadows and a mysterious dark figure, and has connected (very deliberately) with a previously unknown basement in the dormitory building. Naturally, the secret to breaking out of the Groundhog Day style time loop will require them delving deep into the Abyss of Time, kicking a lot of shadow butt, and emoting in some anime-style cut-scenes.

Gameplay Commentary

This weird plot setup removes a lot of elements from the previous game:

#1 - Time ceases to be a factor in exploring. Nobody ever gets tired (that I could tell) in the dungeon explorations of the "Abyss of Time" (the counterpart to Tartarus that has opened up beneath the dorms - for a very particular reason). While it sounds liberating, I found that it really made the game less interesting. You are pretty much wandering through randomly-generated dungeons all the friggin' time, without the other activities of the day to break things up.

#2 - There are no social links - as you are stuck in the dorm rooms with your old companions (and Metis), so there's not really any new relationships to be had. Unsurprisingly, though, the theme of the expansion is on relationships - and friendship. And foreshadows in the beginning a bloody battle royale coming up between these stalwart companions...

#3 - There's really no place to GO other than the Abyss of Time, the Velvet Room (Aigis can now go there), and (eventually) certain shops in Paulownia mall in the past.

There are some other changes to make the game more challenging than the original. There is no longer the ability to register Personas, so a fusion or a discard removes the Persona forever (or until you find / fuse a new version). On the other hand, you are no longer restricted from the top-level personas (or beyond!) by social link. You no longer get nihil weapons that you can fuse with personas to create new weaponry.

In the dungeon, most of the shadows are similar to those found in the original campaign - the bizarrely abstract entities based upon the major arcana of the Tarot. But they do have some nasty additions, particularly with the bosses and red-level shadows. For one thing, many of the tougher shadows no longer have weaknesses, making it harder to get free attacks (or all-out attacks) in. They also combine shadows with complimentory abilities (and opposite weaknesses) - so half of the enemies may be weak to frost attacks, but the other half are actually healed (or reflect) frost attacks.

The bosses are frequently encountered in groups with nasty combos. For example, one boss encounter consisted of three enemies: One with powerful attacks that targeted the entire party, one with the power to put up an "attack mirror" style effect which reflected physical attack damage back on the attacker, and a third opponent who had the ability to cast "enrage" on the party to force them to make blind physical attacks (and kill themselves on the attack mirror effect).

Story Commentary

While it is a lot more challenging than the original, the gameplay changes make The Answer little more than a traditional dungeon crawl. With a linear story tacked on at certain stages.

At least the story is interesting - "The Answer" as suggested in the title is supposed to be about Aigis's quest for an answer in herself as to the meaning of life - particularly for her, as "life" in a man-made machine is questionable at best.

Aigis is sort of a Frankenstein's monster with a (potentially) happier ending - one who was accepted by members of humanity rather than rejected. She's less filled with homicidal tendencies and self-loathing, but she mounts cannons on her arms. Definitely an improvement over Frankenstein's creation. Her story is closer to Pinocchio territory. But she is still a very angsty construction, who at the beginning of the game wishes for a return to her original, emotionless, purely mechanical state. Her self-will has brought her grief, and she seeks to put an end to it. The crisis snaps her out of it, and she finds herself a new "guest" of the Velvet Room. Igor and Elizabeth challenge her to make the same discovery as their previous guest - to discover her own answer to the meaning of her unique existance.

But I suspect that part of the title came from the ending of the original campaign, "The Journey." After the final boss was destroyed and the game gave you a chance to explore a (potentially) lengthy denoument, the conclusion left me saying, "WTF?!?!?" If I was a character in the game, a big blue question-mark would have appeared over my head. In a way, this expansion was the answer to explain the ending of the original release.

And it takes its own sweet time getting around to it.

For people like me who are a little thick, it does this by hitting us over the head with the whole Christ allegory thing. But I like to think of it being more of a case of it being presented very weakly in the original campaign.

One thing I did appreciate was the focus at the beginning of the expansion on practical needs: Trapped in the dormitory, the day-old sushi from the party wouldn't last long. Part of the group immediately begins a search for supplies necessary for survival. Once the connection to the Paulownia Mall of the past is established, this minor subplot is resolved. I guess Mitsuru can grab cash from an off-screen ATM or something so they can live on Ding-Dongs (or weird Japanese junk food) from the drugstore.

The Paulownia Mall thing kinda annoyed me - there was so much that could have been explored with a doorway into a limited area in the past, but it was really just an matter of "convenience." I would have liked them to have left messages for their past selves or silly things like that. There was so much wasted potential for some really interesting time paradoxes. Could Mitsuru have contacted her father and warned him about a particular upcoming betrayal?

Overall Thoughts

While I felt the storyline was a satisfying conclusion to the two campaigns, the problem was that there (A) just wasn't enough of it, and (B) was little-to-no player choice in how it unfolds. While the dungeon crawls and evolution of your personas were well under your personal control, the story was simply a series of fixed cutscenes and some dialog options doled out at certain milestones. Most of it was cryptic and incomplete - an obvious case of story being spread too thin across the campaign.

The dungeon crawling had already gotten old in The Journey, and while they made it more challenging in this expansion, outside of the boss fights it still felt like a repeat of the same grinding done before. Same monsters, same cards, same items... only this time, without the daytime activities to break up the grind as soon as it becomes monotonous. Fortunately, the boss fights were far more interesting from a mechanics perspective. The arena fights near the end were challenging, and gave me the pleasure of beating the crap out of the other principle characters in the game.

I praised Persona 3 - the original campaign - for its bold outside-the-box expansions on gameplay and stryline. The expansion - while interesting and challenging - expands on the most boring and pedestrian aspects of the original. I can understand the desire for a "cheap and dirty" expansion - particularly when the "complete" FES edition only costs $30 new at retail. And parts of it were a lot of fun, and I did enjoy the new story and expansion on the events of the original. It just felt like I had to plow through an awful lot of filler to get there.

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Friday, January 09, 2009
 
Persona 3 versus Wizardry 8
Harry asked in the comments a previous post if I would rate my experience with the console RPG Persona 3 FES as above or below that of the classic (but aging) computer RPG Wizardry 8 - which is still incomplete (though I did play it a little tonight).

The two games are only barely in the same genre. Apples and watermelons, here. But for the sake of argument (because I do so love a good argument), I thought I would offer a point-by-point comparison of the two, so you can draw your own conclusions. So here goes:

Style
Wizardry 8: Classic party-based Western RPG. They don't come any more classic.
Persona 3: Party-based "Japanese" style RPG, mixed with elements of dating sims, Pokemon, Japanese anime shows that even die-hard fans are too embarassed to dub for a U.S. release, and whatever else the designers could come up with during their week-long session around a bong.
Winner: Neither. Come on, uber-stalwart-old-school or freaky-weird-innovation... do you really think I'd pick one over the other?

Combat Duration
Wizardry 8: Bring a sack lunch to each one, especially later in the game.
Persona 3: Ranges from trivial speed-bumps to appropriate length. Boss battles reasonably long and dramatic. Final boss battle requires you to call in sick for the next week, and you may want to and make sure your console is hooked up to a UPS in case of a power outage.
Winner: I'm gonna go with Persona 3, here. I'd actually call the battles "too short" for the most part, but it's better to err on that side than on the side of "too long," which Wiz 8 does even with the monster speed-up patch.

Best Robot Companion Combat Quote Pop-Culture Reference
Wizardry 8: "Exterminate!"
Persona 3: "Hasta La Vista!"
Winner: As a Doctor Who fan, I'm gonna have to go with Wizardry on this one.

Epicly Cool Settings
Wizardry 8: While it's a more traditional sword & sorcery world, it mixes science fiction elements, some very well thought-out races, history, and an entire city set inside a giant tree.
Persona 3: The game is so heavily dominated by the Japanese setting and culture (from school schedules to New Years in Kimonos at the local shrine) that they didn't bother to hide it when they localized it - which is a treat for Western audiences. The weird Twilight Zone-esque circumstances with the flow of time is just out there.
Winner: I might feel differently if I lived in Japan, but I'm gonna give the point to Persona 3 on this one. Just barely.

Sheer Quantity of Controversial Material
Wizardry 8: Ummm..... you have some pretty chunky deaths, as enemies tend to explode on expiration. Some mild profanity, I think...
Persona 3: Profanity. A shower scene (suggestive, but reveals nothing). The summoning of demons and angels from Catholic / traditional Christian theology. Lots of occult references (especially the tarot). Children being crucified. Half-naked personas. Personas with extremely suggestive anatomical features. Multiple references to inappropriate teacher / student relationships. A rather phallic persona (in the expansion). Oh, yeah, and a whole game about kids shooting themelves in the head.
Winner: Duh! Whether that makes Persona 3 a winner or a loser is subject to personal taste and belief-systems.

Best Use of Sex As A Weapon During a Boss Battle
Wizardry 8: You douse a horrible-looking rapax mannequin with sexy rapax perfume, and use it as bait for a devious and deadly trap. When the assassin breaks cover in hopes for a romantic interlude in the middle of hostile territory, you squish him. Or I guess you could fight him directly.
Persona 3
: The "Lovers" Arcana boss teleports you and Yukari into a hotel room, with Yukari in the shower, both of you afflicted with a foggy memory while it tries to convince you to give in to your desire. Unfortunately, being noble and resisting temptation just gets you slapped anyway, with a warning from Yukari to never mention anything about it to anyone.
Winner
: As icky as the very thought of Rapax Love might be, Wizardy 8 wins handily due to its being a dynamic, truly interactive puzzle sequence rather than a cutscene with circular dialog choices.

Least Tedious Monster Grinding
Wizardry 8: The more powerful you get, the more powerful and numerous (and, generally, tediuous) the monsters get. So there's really no point in leveling up. Unfortunately, its hard to avoid, as there are fights whenever you are trying to get from point A to point B. Even in town in some places.
Persona 3: The bosses keep getting harder, and arrive on a schedule. It's up to YOU to keep up with them. But you can choose not to go to Tartarus if you feel ready to deal with the upcoming boss, and the non-boss fights are not too difficult to flee and avoid entirely.
Winner: Persona 3, hands-down.

Goofiest Ally
Wizardry 8: Hmmm.... Madras, the Trynnie gadgeteer?
Persona 3: Koromaru, the wonder-dog who wields a dagger in his fangs and summons Cerberus. At least he's less annoying than Ken.
Winner: Persona 3 loses here by winning.

Most Interesting Non-Combat Activities
Wizardry 8: A great amount of gathering, exploring, puzzle-solving, and conversing is possible. Building faction, questing for craft items, and
Persona 3: Plenty of fairly lame "quests" from Elizabeth, breeding and improving personas, building relationships, and making yourself more desirable to the opposite sex. Oh, and overstaying your welcome in a hot springs pool, and participating in "Operation Babe Hunt."
Winner: A tie, actually. Persona 3 has a broad scope of repetitive activities you perform regularly, plus some unique activities in certain parts of the game. Wizardry 8 has less of a scope of regular, repeatable non-combat activities, but ultimately has a lot more unique activities, quests, and things to discover - plus a lot more interesting adventure-game style puzzles.

Most Fun Boss Encounter
Wizardry 8: You have to defeat a mutant frog that swallows party members whole in order to rescue a kidnapped comrade.
Persona 3: Though I never played this part, I've seen the videos on YouTube of fighting Elizabeth, the "secret" Persona 3 boss. She is a butt-kicker of godlike power that puts Death to shame. So why didn't she save the world? Besides the fact that she's definitely twisted.
Winner: Brekek the mutant frog of Wizardry 8. Simply because the storyline leading up to him is immensely amusing. And he's a mutant frog.

Most Challenging Sub-Quest
Wizardry 8: So far, trying to rescue Glumph from Bayjin, by way of the Gigas Underwater Caves and the Bayjin Shallows. Rescuing him is easy, surviving the trip both ways is hard.
Persona 3: Trying to max out the social links for all three women (and a robot!) from the same dorm. I finished the game barely getting Fukka to talk to me again at school (at only social link level 5-ish), and then probably only because the world was supposed to end the that week.
Winner: Persona 3. Because there's no apparent option to "just be friends." Those sick designers.

Best Opportunity To Impersonate Deity
Wizardry 8: The party gets to become gods.
Persona 3: The main character gets to become a Christ allegory.
Winner: I want to get to decide who lives and who dies. Wizardry 8 ftw!

Most Unrealistic Inventory Item
Wizardry 8: A Port-O-Potty. Made from a porthole and a hinged pot with a lid, it casts a Noxious Fumes spell in the hands of a gadgeteer.
Persona 3: Bikinis and French maid uniforms which grant better armor protection than bulletproof vests.
Winner: Tie. A delicious, insane, wonderful tie.

Overall Winner:
Since a big part of the reason Wizardry 8 is incomplete is Persona 3, if you held a gun to my head and forced me to pick which game I enjoyed more, I'd probably have to go with Persona 3 - probably because of the characters and story. But if that gun was instead an evoker, I'd summon Chi-You and go all Vorpal Blade on you!

However, compared to the 'expansion' for Persona 3 FES ("The Answer"), Wizardry 8 is far and away the better game. The Answer, at least for me (so far), is pretty much the most boring mechanics of the game (the monster grinding) with most of the cool parts from the original campaign ("The Journey") ripped out. Its story isn't much on its own, but it's intriguing as a tie-in to the original.

I could also note here that I got Mass Effect at about the same time as Persona 3 FES, and it has hardly been touched. Technologically, it is vastly superior to either game, but so far it has not left me too thrilled.

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