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How to Not Announce a Game

I’ve said on multiple occasions that I try to stay positive here at Cluttered Mind.  It’s too easy to fall into the trap of becoming negative, and that can lead to cynicism about gaming, and I’ve been down that road before, it’s not fun.  Also, there are those that do the negative aspects much better than I ever can, so I’m not going to try and be Jim Sterling or anyone else.  That said, especially over the past couple of years, the video game industry has been really good at being really shitty about existing.  Gaming half the time feels more like a scam to get my money than a legitimate art form, and even seriously great games or good entries in storied series tend to have something scummy attached to them.  Lootboxes in Overwatch, that will not go away, or paid DLC that patches things that shouldn’t have been in the original game, among many other things.  E3 was this past week, and like every other E3 that’s ever been, there was a lot of shit, a lot of cool stuff and some stuff I’m really looking forward to (also Metal Wolf Chaos, which I think is all three), but then Bethesda announced Elder Scrolls Six with a single, thirty second trailer.  It almost seems like it was done as an assurance than any actual announcement of an existing game.

You ever killed a lich and a dragon on a mountaintop and then learned one of the great Words of Power?  I have.

Copyright Bethesda Softworks

They don’t even have a logo, it’s why I put a Skyrim picture there.  Look, I understand Bethesda’s plan about giving a mention to Elder Scrolls VI, especially considering all of the rumors surrounding the game’s existence.  Just out in the wild, I’ve run into people saying that Zenimax and Bethesda don’t want to compete with Elder Scrolls Online, or that ESO under performing led to a cancellation of the in development of Elder Scrolls VI, but those were all unsubstantiated stuff I picked up on forums and reddit, but that hasn’t stopped actual publications from legitimate sources from publishing actual rumors as news because there is nothing we know.  Even the widely regarded idea that it will take place in the Imperial province of Hammerfell is based entirely on guesswork from thirty seconds of footage.  Some stuff I’ve read go back years, because it’s been six and a half years since Skyrim came out, and when all Bethesda puts out in the Elder Scrolls series is an MMO and a bunch of ports of the last game, it’s hard to know if another game is coming out.  After all, it’s not like we’re going to see Warcraft 4 any time soon, thanks to the success of World of Warcraft.

So, letting the public know that there is a mainline, non MMORPG version of the Elder Scrolls series coming out, and saying so at the biggest gaming event of the year is great for them, but it does very little for the people who are genuinely interested in another game in the series.  If anything, such a simple announcement, with almost no fanfare and done as an attempt to get hopes and expectations up does nothing to actually help out the brand, but only serves to fan the flames of speculation.  This is especially true since Starfield, Bethesda’s newest IP (the first in 25 years apparently), is due out first, and that’s being aimed at the next generation of gaming hardware.  Elder Scrolls VI might not be out until 2020 or 2021, since we don’t even have an idea of when the next set of consoles are coming out.

Here’s the thing, Elder Scrolls is huge.  Like, crazy big.  There’s a reason that Skyrim gets ported to everything that exists, because it has sold 30 million copies.  That’s almost the entire population of California, although I would estimate a few million of those are rebuys, but it was still ridiculously successful back in 2011.  Those gigantic numbers are pretty much unheard of, and the game has become ubiquitous, so it means that there are tons and tons of fans, and even a thirty second trailer for a game is going to push a lot crazy speculation.  If the game doesn’t take place in Valenwood or feature this specific headcanon based on the assassination of Emperor Titus Mede II, people are going to get pissed.  Most of the people who are going to get mad are going to be the minority, they’re always a part of every fandom, but it’s going to be huge by comparison, simply because of the size of the series.

Already, with the announcement, the rumors are getting out of hand, both good and ill.  I’m not suggesting whether or not the game will be good, honestly, it’ll probably be all right provided they don’t try to make it like they did Fallout 4.  Still, it’s a bad way to announce something.


Anthem: Also Why I Hate Destiny

I’ve never actually played Destiny, so that title is a bit misleading, but I’m required to have a title, so I decided to put it up there.  Today was EA’s conference for E3, and there were a few things announced, like Battle Royale for Battlefield V (we knew that) a Jedi Knight game (with no other information beyond “can use a lightsaber and are a Jedi”) and we got a new trailer for Anthem.  It’s a cinematic trailer , with no new gameplay.

The premise is pretty simple, the last bastion of humanity is holed up in a single city, where elite super soldiers fight to protect the last vestiges of humanity and hopefully, one day, regain control over the world they once lived in.  It’s a lot like destiny.  There are mentions of gods (probably the progenitor humans), a bunch of monsters to fight, altered humans that have their own cultures and probably diverse enough biologies to be separate people.  The biggest difference, instead of being raised from the dead with space magic like in Destiny, in Anthem, everyone gets Iron Man suits.  Actually, in the trailer, one dude is Genji in his sentai armor, another lady is Iron Man and another dude is in a combination of the Hulkbuster and War Machine armors.  It looks like we, as players, will scrounge around an open world and fight big monsters in a less linear version of Borderlands, while sometimes hanging out with other players.  The story will “continue for years to come” so, don’t expect too much.

I could be totally wrong, it could be an indepth semi-multiplayer RPG with unique mechanics, that utilize the stuff they learned from Mass Effect 3 and Mass Effect Andromeda to create something unique.  A more story focused Diablo III kind of game, only you get to play as your own unique Iron Man.  However, based on what I’ve seen, I kind of doubt it.  I’m not even sure what the characters are, or who I’m playing as, and I’ve watched all of the media  related to Anthem so far.


Copyright Bioware and Electronic Arts

When we first saw Mass Effect, we were introduced to Shepard and the world right away.  We know who we’re playing as, what we’re getting into and what’s going to happen.  It doesn’t spoil anything, like the Reapers or even Saren, but we know what’s going to happen.  Even the Dragon Age Inquisition trailer added more to what we were going to be doing than the Anthem trailer.  It doesn’t reveal that you’re playing as the Inquisitor or anything, but we do know that there’s a war, we see characters that we’re going to play and familiar face Morrigan pops up to explain some stuff about the world.  It’s easy to understand, digestible and makes sense.

Making a good, well crafted single player experience, or even a good story based multiplayer experience, though, is clearly not EA’s goal.  It hasn’t been for over 10 years, but it really seems like now, they want to put the nail in the coffin.  Obviously, players like multiplayer games, and they are easy to monetize, but it does make for a rather sad commentary that one of the largest video game publishers that owns some of the best single player RPG IPs aren’t interested interested in making them.  I mean, I love new games and new IPs, but Anthem doesn’t look at all like a new IP.  It looks like EA got mad that Destiny made a shit load of money, even though everyone in the world seems to hate it.

Then again, I went back to play World of Warcraft again, so what do I know?  We’ll see if I actually stop once I get my class mounts.

I know a lot of people were optimistic after God of War was so successful, selling over 5 million copies, that companies like EA would change course, or at least alter a bit to allow for more single player games, but I’m not.  The big companies aren’t interested in making good games.  They want to suck every penny from their player base as fast as they can, it’s why they’re so intent on forcing loot boxes into every game, it’s why they want to monetize everything, it’s why every game has a bunch of shitty DLC that costs almost as much as the game itself and they want you to buy that DLC when you buy the game, sight unseen.  This is, of course, assuming that the DLC even comes out.  EA has canceled DLC for upcoming games before.  Andromeda comes to mind, and, here’s a secret, Mass Effect Andromeda sold over a million copies.  It didn’t do as well as the original, and it probably didn’t hit 5 or 6 million, or whatever insane number is required to keep the game in production.

I guarantee we’ll see the same with Dragon Age, and it’ll be like this until they find some better way to squeeze all of the money they can out of single player RPGs, too.  Hell, they already did it with Dungeon Keeper.

Final Fantasy Challenge: Final Fantasy IX Part Two: Piece of Cake. I’m an Escape Artist


Copyright Square Enix

War and death.  It’s actually kind of shocking how much violence this game has.  I remember when it came out, it was pitched as kind of a softer game compared to the more gritty and grounded VII and VIII.  There’s a war in VIII, and I guess Sephiroth burns down a town, but neither of them have anything on the destruction of Cleyra.  Like, it was some pretty impressive 2000s PlayStation 1 CGI, too, but watching Odin ride out of the heavens and just blow up the whole damn city was unlike anything I’ve really experienced in a Final Fantasy game.  Outside of, you know, Kefka destroying the world.  Look, I’m not saying it’s the worst thing I’ve seen a villain do in Final Fantasy, I’m saying it’s one of the most visually spectacular examples of destruction depicted in the series that I have seen.

I’ve said before that Final Fantasy IX doesn’t fuck around, and the sheer amount of death and destruction that is depicted on screen by the war is not what I was expecting.  I expected characters to die, I did not expect a man to be burned to death for trying to protect his children by a bunch of black mages.  It’s still a bit late era PlayStation 1 looking, sure, but it doesn’t stop it from being kind of shocking.  I’m not sure what I was expecting when I started this.  I knew that IX dealt with some heavy themes, but I didn’t think I was going to get into this.

The point I’m at now, I have almost all of the characters.  What’s interesting is how much time they’ve spent away from each other.  Even now, roughly halfway through what would be the second disc, I only have four the characters with me, and several have left or gone on their own adventures since.  Steiner and Freya are gone and I’ve been reunited with Quina after thinking they were pretty much dead.  I really like this, because while it does mean the party feels less cohesive now, the fact that each character has their own arcs that they have to do on their own, or away from the rest of the party, means that their bonds grow deeper when they come back to the group proper.  It’s a thing I really liked about Final Fantasy VI, and I like seeing it here.  I really hope I get to see what Freya, Beatrix and Steiner are up to, having, hopefully, gotten away from Queen Brahne.  I guess I still have Amarant and Eiko left to get on my team, now.

Freya is probably my favorite of the two new characters, so I’ll talk about Quina first.  I love the idea of blue magic, but in practice, I’ve always found it to be a gigantic pain in the ass.  I mean, I did kind of spam Big Guard throughout 90% of Final Fantasy VII, but that was pretty much all I used the Enemy Skill Materia for, because getting most of the good stuff required more work than was worth it.  Weakening enemies just enough and hoping Quina will be able to eat them is not very fun.  Worse, I don’t really like Quina.  There is always a mascot sort of character in Final Fantasy games (actually, I think this is the last time the mascot character is playable), and they’re always various kinds of annoying.  Quina is all right.  Her stilted manner of speech does a lot to convey her character (simple, alien and childish, but not stupid) and that’s nice, on paper.  In practice, they’re just sort of annoying, and I don’t know if they are going to add much to the story.  On the flipside, they hit like a truck right now and have a lot more hit points that Garnet and Vivi do, so I’ll take them.

On the other spectrum, Freya is great.  I have a weakness for characters who are driven to protect others (Basch, for example), but she also gets points for not being broody.  Her quest for her boyfriend, her sense of duty, all of these things really push her forward as a character and give her nice motivations.  I do like that she sort of serves as a mirror to Steiner, as they’re both kind of stuffy, Lawful Good types who are more connected to their duty than the people behind that duty.  What’s interesting is that their growth is going in opposite directions.  While Steiner is slowly learning to become his own person, Freya is learning to be less of a loner.  I really hope I get to see them play off of each other.  Originally, I was like “oh great, I finally have a martial character who doesn’t suck,” and while I’m not the biggest fan of Dragoons, I like how her mechanics work and she’s a cool character.  However, now that Steiner is getting some real development, and is becoming much less of a stupid one note joke, I’m kind of glad they’re both here.

Right now, my only complaint about the story is that while it is dark, it does seem like there was a mandate to make sure it didn’t get too “broody.”  There’s very little angst here, even when there should be.  Tons of people die, and the characters do feel bad, they’re not totally cut off, but it’s always in a “we’re going to swallow our sadness and move on, be heroes, grieve later” sort of way.  That’s not strictly accurate, but the game can make that impression at times.  The emotional weight on the players is fine, but it does seem like sometimes the emotional weight on the characters isn’t heavy enough.  I don’t want an overwrought scene where a character struggles with his own guilt over not being able protect a party member and they wind up giving the bad guy the evil macguffin, I just want them to linger perhaps a bit more.

Also, the skill system just means I don’t upgrade enough.  It’s weird, I’m not sure I like it.  I get that it’s trying to get away from over complexity after Junctioning (oh man, there’s a reason why I’m doing VIII second to last), but most of the time I’m equipping items less for their stats, and more for their skills, even if I don’t use the skills very much.  I’m also worried I’m going to have a bunch of skills by the end, and not enough points to use them effectively.  There’s a lot I have to say about that, but I want to make sure I know what I’m talking about.

Final Fantasy Challenge: Final Fantasy IX Part 1: Come On Princess, let’s ditch Sir Rustalot and get out of here


Copyright Square Enix

Final Fantasy IX was one of those games that I’ve really always wanted to play, but have never gotten a chance to play more than a few hours.  I’ve gotten to Dagger maybe once or twice, but for the first time every, I’ve gotten to Lindblum and I’ve seen some really cool stuff, and while I haven’t gotten very far, I already like it more than what I did any other PlayStation 1 era Final Fantasy game.

I’ve been meaning to get to this for awhile, but I’ve kind of wanted to chew on the first chunk of the game before I really started to write down my thoughts and feelings.  Then God of War came out and that took up all of my time.  As such, it’s been a bit since I’ve played, and my thoughts are a bit all over the place about this.  Mostly, I’ve been thinking about how good the characters.  At the point where I’m at, I’ve only got Zidaine, Vivi, Dagger and Steiner, and I do like all of them, but they’re a bit basic right now.   I know I’m only about halfway through what was the first disc (I’m playing the PC version), so chances for development are limited right now and I’m making a point of keeping that in mind, but they kind of are a mixed bag.  Garnet and Vivi are great, they’re very interesting and have a lot going on for them right at the beginning.

Vivi might be the best, so far, since his arc is so clear right at the beginning.  A poor little kid, more or less, forced to deal with mortality way too early is a lot to push on a character right at the beginning, but adding the fact that he appears to be so young makes for a really interesting exploration of existentialism.  Final Fantasy delves into existential crises a lot in the games, and my memory seems to remind me that they’re not always the best at it, but when I’m seeing from Vivi is great.  He’s got a lot to question, and a whole lot of angst, but it’s not like Squall.  He’s been shaken, he’s not exactly emotionally mature, but he’s also a kid, and the writers have made a point of writing him like a kid.

Garnet, or Dagger, is probably the next interesting person we’ve got.  The rebellious princess who masterminds her own kidnapping isn’t exactly new, but I do like that she’s got her own agenda going on.  I’m still trying to parse out what it is exactly, but I do know that she’s got her own thing, and she hasn’t exactly shared it with Zidaine or the rest of the party yet.  I get the feeling she knows more about what her mom is up to, or if she doesn’t know, she suspects that Queen Brahne is not a very good person.  Getting the airship blown out of the sky over the city (no doubt killing hundreds of her own subjects) surprised her, but only by the sheer disregard she had for her own subjects.  I’m curious to see where this goes, and the relationship with her mom.

Zidaine is pretty cool.  I mean, he’s a standard JRPG hero, more happy-go-lucky than Cloud or Squall are, but I like that more than a lot of the more angst ridden protagonists that were contemporaneous of the game.  Unfortunately, Zidaine has mostly reacted to the other characters so far.  I know he’s got a story, it’s one of the few spoilers I actually know about this game, but so far he’s only gotten a chance to be charming and nice to all of the characters.  I love that he’s explicitly a self-styled ladies man, but is actually kind of a horny teenager who is more interested in girls being pretty than he is in the girls themselves.  Like, I deal with teenagers, this is how they act, and it’s as hilarious here as it is in real life.  Also, the fact he’s an actor is a nice wrinkle.  I’d like to see if that gets used more than just at the beginning.

Steiner…exists, I guess.  I remember thinking he was funny when I was 14, but that was 18 years ago, we’ll see how it goes from there.  Maybe he gets some development.

The opening scenes of the game were great, for the record.  I liked all the stuff with the Waltzes and the first couple of dungeons, but kidnapping Garnet and jumping between the different characters was very interesting.  It’s not something Final Fantasy has done much before, or since for that matter.  VI does something like that a couple of times, but that’s all I can think of.  I know X, XII and XV don’t do anything like that at all.

While the game is heavily “site-based” I do like that it has moved away from traditional dungeons.  There are a lot of events in these dungeons, too, so it’s less about traveling from one end to the other, but dealing with shit as it pops up.  We’ll see if that keeps up through the rest of the game.  So far, though, even the regular ass ice dungeon had a lot going for it beyond just “get to the end and fight a boss,” even if having to fight a Black Waltz with just Zidaine.  Only game over so far.

Final Fantasy Challenge: Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age Part 3: Venat is a Heretic

This one is a long time coming, mostly because I’ve spent a lot of time taking down marks and elite marks (and maybe playing a bit of Dragon Ball FighterZ), and I haven’t really pushed too far into the story.  However, because I’ve been taking down marks, I’ve seen huge sections of the game I’ve never seen before.  Final Fantasy XII is one of my favorite games of all time, and there are whole sections of the game I’ve more or less glossed over because it was too much work.

However, that work is worth it.  There are so many cool things to do and see in Ivalice that I’m glad I’m finally getting to see it in full 1080p glory.  Most of the sidequests here fall into the Clan Centurio stuff, and what’s interesting is how much cool world building they do.  While some of the Marks and Elite Marks are references to other Final Fantasy games, and a few are just straight up bosses from other Final Fantasy games, it’s interesting to see how well integrated they are into the lore of Ivalice.  The writers really thought through what each monster really means and how they connect, and how very cool a fantasy world Ivalice is.  One of my favorite bits of trivia is that the Bagolys, which are the Final Fantasy XII and XIV equivalent to owlbears, were created by wizards to be aerial troops, and had a level of sentience and sapience that was sapped from them when they weren’t needed, thanks to the invention of airships.  It’s cool, because it ties in with one of the themes of the powerful abusing the powerless, since one of the reason these monsters are out roaming the world is because the kings of eld forgot about them when new, shiny technology showed up.  It’s totally in line with Raithwall bringing peace through nuking the shit out of everyone.


Image Copyright Square Enix

What does impress me is how well they’re able to use the character models to portray different games.  This was one of the first high end Final Fantasy games, and because the PlayStation 2 could only handle so much, and the DVDs could hold only so much space, Final Fantasy XII has a lot of reused character models and palette swaps, and they manage to make them look really good.  Sure, Marlith up there is a bit boring, but she’s really the exception.  Expecting to get something completely unique like XV’s Nagarani on what was really a PS2 game isn’t fair, so I have to commend the art team for doing such a splendid job on giving each mark, enemy and boss a unique look, even if it’s just a palette swap.

Another reason for a lack of updates is that I reached the biggest lull in the story.  Between Judge Bergan and getting to Archades, there’s a huge trek across all of rural Arcadia.  It was pretty fun from a gameplay perspective, since I was constantly switching around PCs and getting into all sorts of trouble via the Clan Centurio side quest, but it also meant the story sort of fell off.  This is one of the places I, personally, have gotten bored at and took a couple of months before soldiering through, and I know it’s where a lot of other people stop at.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of really gorgeous scenery, and it shows the bio-dynamism of the games environments.  The Mosphoran Highwaste is one of the more interesting places in the game, and Phon Coast might be the best beach in Final Fantasy.  There’s so much to see and do, that I didn’t really have a problem skipping out on story, although it wasn’t absent.  We do get a lot of character beats, and while Fran and Penelo remain mostly underdeveloped, Ashe and Balthier do get a lot added to their personal arcs here, which is good since so much was dedicated to Vaan and Basch previously.  Once we get to Archades, things kick back into full gear, even if I did faff around and kill a bunch more Marks for the Hell of it before going into the Great Crystal.


Image Copyright Square Enix

It’s here we learn about the Occuria and Venat and what all of the arc words have been about.  The Occuria might be some of the biggest assholes in Final Fantasy.  Self-styled gods who judge the world of man because the humes, viera, bangaa, nu mou and others don’t do exactly as they ask?  Like, god being evil is sort of a Final Fantasy thing, but generally we get a Kefka situation, where the evil god is a former mortal, or their evil is due to mortals.  Nope, the Occuria are just abusive assholes who feel completely justified in handing magical nukes to whatever bloody handed tyrant they want.

Ashe’s horrified look when they tell her to see revenge in Giruvegan says all that needs to be said about them.  However, the Occuria make for a really interesting take on one of the points this game was trying to make.  One of the things the producer and the writers have said about XII is that they wanted to make the game where the good guys are sort of selfish and the bad guys have noble goals.  It’s contrasted by Rabanastre being an absolute monarchy while Arcadia is democratically elected (uh, sorta), but the Occuria are also an example of this.  Venat is right in his motivation, and his aims are noble, but he, like his allies Vayne and Cid, have fallen into corruption.  Meanwhile, the heroes are somewhat self-motivated, but they’ll get a chance to become selfish by rejecting all of this.  Interestingly, Venat, Vayne and Cid aren’t too different from the Occuria, either.

They talk a lot about history returning to the hands of man.  They’re referring to the Occuria and their interference in mortal history, and the way they say it, they mean all man, from king to commoner.  However, in practice, they don’t mean that at all.  Bergan pretty much straight up says he wants to tear down the Occurian tyranny specifically to raise of Vayne’s, and while Vayne portrays himself, and probably believes himself, to be a man of the people and a just ruler, he is actually just as much a tyrant as the Occuria.

Final Fantasy Challenge: Final Fantasy XII the Zodiac Age Part 2: He shall defy the will of the gods, and see the reigns of history in the hands of man

I was originally going to go with a Basch quote about bearing any shame if it meant he could save even one person from the horrors of war, but I really feel like this quote from Judge Bergan, one of the few actual bit players in the game, fits this point in the game better.  I’m about at the halfway point, on my way to Archades, and I’ve reached about the most heart-rending part of the game, where Bergan tears through the refugee camp at Mt. Bur-Omisace all for the purpose of striking against the gods.

That quote up there is sort of the major theme of the game.  I’m not going to get too much into spoilers, but this is the Final Fantasy I’ve played more than most, so I know what he’s talking about and while I don’t want to give anything away, his quest is sort of noble.  It’s interesting, though, to see the lengths to which Vayne, through people like Bergan and Cid, are willing to go through to succeed at a goal that may be noble, but their methods are just brutal.  If the gods are as bad as they’re saying they are, is murdering the clergy that serves them and burning the refugees they’re trying to help actually doing anything about it?


Copyright Square Enix

One of the major themes of this game is power and its use.  Remember, the back story of this game is pretty much “what if King Arthur actually had nukes?” so the bad guys having a potentially noble goal, but are willing to murder innocent people who are just tangentially, if unwittingly, opposed to that goal is something that this game is going to explore.  The first time I played this game, it seemed like a pretty cruel thing for the empire to do, and it was carried out by this actual crazy person.  It’s a great scene, because it’s a scene that shows what Empire, or at least Vayne, is capable of, but it’s also so full of foreshadowing and really lays out the themes of the game.

Everything about this game explores power, and it ties in with the game.  The Espers I have to get are the same Lucavi demons from Final Fantasy Tactics (literally the same, Tactics takes place in the, or possibly an alternate, future), and their story, too, is similar to that of mine.  At the same time, the MacGuffin in this game are also literal magical nukes, that may or may not be made out of the souls of the dead.   To have one of the bad guy show up and exposit about it makes for a great scene, and it underscores what makes this game so damn good.

So, I’m about halfway or so though the game.  I’m on my way to Archades, and I’m going to take a break from the story to take out a few of the Elite Marks and do some sidequests.  I said before that I’m worried about playing VII and VIII because of how all of the sidequests introduce some sort of minigame (or a terrible trading card game), but I’m really glad that this game just has me use the mechanics of the game.  Mostly all I need to do is talk to a guy and get a quest, which has me fight some kick ass monster.  I guess it’s a little limited, and I know that’s why the Playstation era games decided to add those minigames, but it’s refreshing to not have to learn a completely different set of mechanics just because of one damn fight.

There are a few gimmick fights in this.  I fought some magnet monster (who I forgot to steal from again!)  that was a little weird, but it was just a cool mechanic.  It helped I wasn’t wearing a shit ton of heavy armor, so the magnet abilities, which would put a Slow-like mechanic on a guy wearing Heavy Armor, didn’t have a huge impact on me, but the fight was still challenging enough that it kind of pushed me.  It’s not as punishing as the original, and I like that, but it still requires me to work hard at the game and try to do my best.

I’ve also managed to reach a point in the game where I have two license boards, and I’m starting to get Epsers and level three Quickenings, which actually have an impact on what abilities I can get.  So, for example, because I gave Basch the Esper Mateus, he was able to get some high end White Magic, that he wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise.  The way the dual license board system works, along with the unique Espers and Quickenings, is actually pretty cool because it means my build still has a bit of differences, even with the pre-defined classes.

I’m enjoying the game more than I’ve ever enjoyed it.  The Zodiac Age is much, much improved over the original.  I had some serious gameplay issues with the original, but overlooked them because I love the stories and characters, as well as the themes it explores and the gorgeous art direction.  Now, it’s actually even more fun to play, because it smoothes over a lot of the rough edges.  Elder Wyrm was still a huge pain in the ass, with its goddamn Treant adds and Sporefall ability.  I maintain it’s the hardest boss of the main campaign because of where it is, but I’m glad I made it through on my first try, rather than having to smash my head against the wall and grind and grind and grind to make sure I have enough experience to beat him through attrition.  Thanks to the revised mechanics, I felt I was able to win more through strategy, and then shifting tactics during the battle, than just having more hitpoints and spells than he had times to hit me in the face with his fucking Sporefall.

Number 5: Horizon Zero Dawn


Copyright Guerrilla Games and Sony Interactive Entertainment

This kind of got spoiled yesterday when I talked about why this game got in the top 5 and Neir: Automata didn’t.  Part of the reason Horizon Zero Dawn got up in the Top 5 is because it’s a new IP, and that’s a big deal.  While this year has been great,  most of the major releases have been sequels or major parts of existing franchises.  Even Neir is the sequel to a game that Square Enix released in 2010, even if no one played it, and it’s sort of a part of the Drakengard series.  Horizon, though, is the biggest new IP in years.  Not only is it a great game with a somewhat unique premise, it also manages to be a complete game and doesn’t try to sell me a sequel just because I beat the game, so that helps.

Horizon Zero Dawn takes place way into the future in the ruins of the United States after a robotic apocalypse.  The player plays Aloy, a girl exiled from her tribe at birth for an unknown reason, who goes on an adventure to solve the mystery of what caused civilization to collapse and to save her tribe, as well as others, from another potential apocalypse.  Even though it’s a pretty standard hero’s journey, it’s well told and does a good job of utilizing the medium.  Horizon Zero Dawn is a game that really tries to solve the major issues with storytelling in open world RPGs by trying to tie all of the side quests, and the main story quests, either into the overall narrative or into the themes of the game, which is a really good thing games like this have problems with.

I liked Witcher 3 and Skyrim and a bunch of other open world RPGs, but none of them had the writing that Horizon Zero Dawn has.  There’s a certain focus on character and theme that most games in this genre don’t have.  Aloy is a fully realized character, as are her allies and many of her enemies.  Sure, the bad guys are a bit one note, but they do feel like real people grasping desperately for power.  The game takes place in a near Renaissance-level society (with some Roman trappings for flavor), so the bad guys, even those that aren’t very well developed do feel like they fit within the setting.  That’s good, but the game does much better with the heroes, which feel like real people.  They have flaws and foibles, make bad decisions and sometimes even piss each other off in ways that real friends can wind up doing.  It’s not a thing we see in most RPGs.  The interaction between the characters isn’t quite on the level of the boys from Final Fantasy XV, but the friendships and relationships in this are written as if they were real.

Writing isn’t the only thing it does well, of course.  It’s a great game to play.  One of the biggest issues I’ve had with open world games is that they tend to be too big.  Tons and tons of things to do, sure, but very little of it is interesting.  That’s not the case here.  Outside of the requisite Assassin’s Creed style pointless colectibles and one series of sidequests (which were good, I just didn’t like them) I did literally everything I could in the game.  There were some things I did just because they were challenging and sort of felt like I was making the world a better place.

The gameplay takes a little bit to get used to, which is probably the biggest flaw of the game.  It’s hard to aim, at first, and Aloy feels somewhat underpowered despite what the cutscenes after the tutorial seem to indicate.  It’s because there is a lot of depth to how combat works, with different weapons doing different things, and contributing to encounters in different ways, but the game doesn’t have the best conveyence in explaining that a sharpshot bow is different from a war bow which is different from a hunting bow and why all three of them are kind of needed to be equipped at the same time.  Once I got that, though, the game felt great.  There was so much to do, each type of machine was unique and had a different approach to combat, and the story and sidequests were compelling enough to keep me playing, once I got over the hump.  Once I did get over that hump, I found there was a lot to see and a lot of ways to approach each type of machine.  The game is sold as a sort of Monster Hunter with Robots, where I can shoot weapons off of the robots and use those weapons to kill robots, and once I got that, everything clicked.  I felt like an unstoppable goddess of war when I played, taking down machines several stories tall with nothing but a bow and some weird arrows.

Ultimately, it sort of pales in a world where Breath of the Wild came out a month later.  It has its advantages over the new Zelda title, but the fact I can’t climb everywhere or explore as much as I can in the new Zelda does knock it down a few pegs, as well.  On the other hand, it has much better writing and characterization than anything else in the genre, giving it a serious leg up.  There need to be more new IPs like this,  more RPGs that focus on character over plot and more games that are willing to experiment and go in depth with combat.