Exploring Effective Storytelling in Two Dimensions With The Cat Lady

catlady

This is the opening paragraph where I explain for the hundredth time the virtues of low budget indie games and how the lack of corporate resources and oversight spurs creativity while offering a low-cost alternative to gamers fed up with endless AAA hype. Yay indie! Alright, now that that’s out of the way, allow me to point out 2012’s delightful British horror game, The Cat Lady, and how it manages to be awesome with a mere two dimensions to its name (what is this, 1987?) when so many larger titles struggle to create an effective horror atmosphere or interesting story.

cat lady gate

Ummmm…is this the line for the Slipknot show?

For one thing, you can’t get around the fact that the game is art. No matter how you look at it, it is at least as much art as it is video game, seamlessly blending themes of personal psychological struggle in with the disturbing violence we horror fans crave, a story of true friendship, sparse but extremely effective mood music, and some unreal hellscape and dream imagery. It’s an unforgettable story that’s amazingly well-told and engrossing in spite of the fact that in terms of gameplay it consists almost entirely of walking back and forth.

Sure you can pick stuff up and look at stuff and use stuff on other stuff, but most of your time as The Cat Lady is spent either standing there listening to dialogue or walking right-to-left or left-to-right with limited animation. And this in the age of Resolutiongate and full 3D open-world environments with crazy physics and explosions and motion capture and hundred hit combos and towering multi-stage monster bosses. How do you stand out as a horror title amongst all that eye-popping awesomeness?

You give them the unexpected. You make something that speaks to people. The Cat Lady had already perfectly fulfilled what Depression Quest aspired to be without all of the unfortunate baggage that ended up coming with that noble attempt at bringing the experience of suffering individuals to gamers in a language they could understand by taking the soul-crushing experience of living with depression and translating it to a video game. But this one has crazed serial killers in it too, making it equal parts personal psychological journey and visceral horror story.

cat lady cutsceneAt one point our middle-aged heroine, Susan Ashworth, wanders across the screen while a song croons “in my head it’s all hell”. The story begins with her attempt at suicide, but she is somehow saved and brought back by a mysterious supernatural woman who tasks her with eliminating a number of “parasites” from the world; people whose very existences are an abomination. But as we get Susan through her first tribulations and back to her flat, we find out bit by bit about her life and experience firsthand the mental state that led her to end her life and continues to make her existence miserable.

The game’s chapters are divided up into a diverse array of tasks; including everything from escaping a mental ward to choosing which one liner to say before ending a deserving bastard’s life to hunting down an out-of-control internet troll, crafting a ghost story to frighten a jerky neighbor, or even simply enjoying coffee and a cigarette. The last one is particularly intriguing because it’s accompanied by two meters. And you know how we gamers love meters. These two represent neither HP nor MP, or even a hyper bar. One is Susan’s level of anxiety, and the other is her satisfaction.

cat lady corpse

Cheerful.

As you walk back and forth accomplishing menial tasks within her apartment, aggravations increase the bad bar and fulfilling goals like eating and showering give you good bar. If you fill the latter first, Susan can finally relax and fall asleep. I had no such luck (thanks to an asshole crow and that dickhead from upstairs) and she collapsed in a heap weeping as her beloved cat looked on and I was sent to the next segment with some disturbing words to think on. “Behind closed doors, I have fallen in love with the razor…”

Eventually, we meet a cheerful (and terminally-ill) girl named Mitzi. The game poetically spells out the contrast between the two women and their individual struggles with depression. Susan -who is immortal until she completes her mission- declares “It feels like all I want is to die, but I have to live” while Mitzi ironically responds that “I feel like I want to live, but I have to die”. Both are tragic victims of inevitability.

In addition to the refreshingly honest portrayal of the tortured and sympathetic heroines, The Cat Lady throws in plenty of classical puzzle-solving in your journey to find and eliminate the cast of nasties that end up in her orbit with some pretty interesting solutions. One dreamscape segment requires you to acquire a lock combination where the 2D presentation becomes an important element when certain background and foreground objects line up as you traverse the screen to put the solution literally in front of your face (although you likely won’t notice it at first). In another drug-induced dream, you are tasked with carving open a giant spider’s heart in a hospital lobby to acquire a narcotic to bribe another patient with. This transfer of physical objects from dream state to “real life” and vice versa is another interesting element giving the player something to think about in terms of where this story is really taking place.

And then, of course, there is the dialogue. While the speech sometimes comes off a bit stilted due to delays between responses, the game does a good job with its characters and in giving players the option to express themselves through dialogue choices, which is always a plus. For example, when confronted by the mysterious woman at the beginning and end who gives you your missions, you can assent to do as your told and agree to the choices she presents, or you can do what I always do: pick the “fuck you” option.

cat lady shotgun

BOOM! You just got Cat Lady’d, grandma.

The “fuck you” option (which doesn’t necessarily contain that combination of words) is always sign of good storytelling to me. After all, when someone gives you a choice between two things you don’t want to do, the right thing to do is probably your own thing. Even if it doesn’t affect the outcome, there’s satisfaction in seeing the aghast reaction of a character you’re supposed to listen to when you tell them to piss off. Sometimes in life you’ve got to appreciate those small opportunities to assert yourself, you know?

The story is full of moments of horror, weirdness, poignancy, and even beauty. Try and think of a game that evokes this combination of feelings for a minute. It’s kind of amazing to run across such a unique title that gets so much done with so little. It’s one thing to make a visual novel with player choices and call it a game, but to combine the storytelling strengths of that medium effectively in a true game where you directly control the character is an elusive experience in modern gaming.

In addition to Susan and Mitzi’s metaphorical journeys through the horrors of their own lives, the antagonists symbolize the inhumanity hiding in plain sight all around us in forms such as authority figures abusing their positions, impotent internet trolls seeking to do harm the only way they can with words, or sometimes just random monsters in human form, unseen until they choose to reveal themselves. These disturbing encounters keep the game from feeling pretentious with plentiful doses of violence, badass vengeance, and grisly imagery to counterbalance the more meditative and surreal qualities of the story.

All in all, I was really impressed that such a low-budget title was able to draw me in the way it did. The Cat Lady represented a several firsts in gaming for me by not only putting me in the shoes of a middle-aged woman and making me feel her hopelessness on a personal level, but by telling a story that works on so many levels and keeping me invested and excited when pretty much all I was really doing was walking back and forth. No jumping, (almost) no shooting; just solving a few puzzles and meeting other people. It was a pretty remarkable experience that I would recommend to any fan of indie games with love for psychological horror.

Gitting Gud: Confessions of a Souls Noob


souls

I remember hearing about the old school challenge of the PS3-exclusive action-RPG Demon’s Souls way back in 2009 and being a little envious since I only had an Xbox 360 at the time. I also remember a couple years later when its spiritual successor, Dark Souls, took the gaming community by storm. The art alone assured that some day, we would cross paths.

The ‘net was filled with people claiming the game’s difficulty made it like banging your head into a wall and brag posts from hardcore gamers mocking their ineptitude. “Git gud, scrub” was a common phrase. This put me in a weird place. As an old school gamer, I’ve been tempered in the fires of titles like Mega Man 2, Battletoads, Ghosts and Goblins, and all sorts of games featuring what I’ve come to refer to as “fuck you difficulty”, but like most gamers I’ve become a bit pampered in recent years.

Fuck you difficulty is properly attained when a game is not only designed to be challenging, but actively tries to make you rage quit by beingdark souls tips unnecessarily frustrating and often downright unfair. As a young child with my entire future ahead of me, I had nothing but time to give these games my all and learned valuable life lessons about perseverance through my countless defeats and glorious victories. But as an adult, I have precious little time to spend stalled against nearly impossible odds. My priorities have shifted from the thrill of overcoming a challenge towards simply enjoying a great story in an interactive medium.

So the problem at hand was how much money do I want to spend on a game that is promised to kick my ass and I will likely never beat? My disposable income is the one thing smaller than my free time. As I wrestled with this question, a Dark Souls sequel came out, then a new generation of consoles, and then finally yet another spiritual successor, Bloodborne, released to critical acclaim, massive sales, and more discussions about what an awesome challenge it was. Clearly it was time for this cowardly lion to hop on this bandwagon.

So I finally downloaded Demon’s Souls and began to play. The tutorial eased me in nice and easy, one combat technique at a time. Time and again, I achieved easy victory. Hell, this game is GREAT! What a fantastic combat system! This isn’t so hard! Holy crap, what am I supposed to do with that giant ogre thing I’m stuck in this hallway and he’s the only way out maybe I can roll around him and nope I’m dead. So this is the kind of game that gives you an impossible fight right at the end of the tutorial just to say “fuck you” (hence “fuck you difficulty”). ‘Kay.

Not only that, but this game that is designed to kill you effortlessly takes half of your max health bar away as punishment for dying. Even when you’re meant to die. So they take an inexperienced player and kill him as part of the story just to make the game twice as hard as they’re trying to learn it. You have to beat the level to get your health bar back to full and the you lose it again as soon as you die on the next level. This is what happens when you let sadists design a video game.

demons souls knightStill, the game seldom gets all that difficult. Like many gaming classics, it’s all about trial and lots of error. If you die, it’s usually because you suck so the simple answer is to….well, get good. Learn ffrom your mistakes. The diversity of weapon configurations, the fluidity of the controls, the constant healing item drops, and the wonder about what could be around the next corner is more than enough to keep a true blue gamer going. Every time you die, you learn and are better prepared for next time. It’s a pretty elegant design, really, and the curve ain’t bad.

But here’s the thing. We modern gaming folk are not only used to checkpoints after every enemy we kill, but we HATE losing our experience. Actually, it’s always been my least favorite thing that can happen in a game since nothing is more rewarding than building up your character. Having that character reduced to his state of a few hours ago with all that work gone is painful to put it mildly. Demon’s Souls punishes you every time you die by stripping you of all of your souls. Souls function as both currency and experience points, meaning if you die, you restart at the beginning with NOTHING. You can reclaim your souls by making it to the place you died and touching the bloodstain you left behind, but when that doesn’t work out the rage can be extreme.

After many hours spent killing and being killed, it dawned on me that my class was all wrong for this game. I chose a thief because I’m a player who enjoys using stealth and finesse, but that shit was not working, largely due to the weakness of ranged combat and the fact that enemies seem to instinctively know you’re there once you get close. I re-rolled a well-rounded royal to give magic a try and found it to be extremely overpowered. But hey, it sure helped me get past that ridiculous fire breathing spider boss thing that pelts you with fireballs as you run down a long hallway and alternately webs you so you can barely move and then fills the whole room with fire when you reach it. HATE that thing.demons souls spider

While cruising the boards, I found that relying on magic is looked down upon. But screw them, man. I’m keeping my souls! And now I could take on those horrific cthulhu things in the prison level that zap you with lightning then pick you up and eat you while you can’t move instead of skulking around hiding from them. That shit gets old. I do wonder why the devs left such an obvious crutch in the game, though. Pity, I suppose.

I read a post that compared Demon’s Souls to a supermodel that kisses you and the punches you right in the mouth. Totally worth it. It definitely earns its reputation as an old school-style challenge, but with awesome new modern gameplay and graphics. And as much as the game kicks my ass, the ability to view my fellow gamers’ deaths in each dungeon by touching their bloodstains has convinced me that my status as a better gamer than they are is not in jeopardy. Man, people suck. Like, suuuuuuuuck.

Probably due to the age of the game, I haven’t yet encountered the joy of other players invading my game to kill me. I’m not sure if this makes me happy or sad. Part of me sees all of those red phantoms of other players’ demises being owned by the weakest enemies and laughs at the thought of them coming at me, but another part of me is visualizing insane gamers with crazy OP builds who have stuck around playing this game for six years farming the stones that allow them to invade the games of noobs just so they can ambush me at the most critical points and leave my hard-earned souls as a stain at their feet before messaging me to mock my weakness.

I definitely see why people love this series. Am I going to beat Demon’s Souls? Hell no. I ain’t got time to git that gud. But having cut my teeth, I can move on to the other games in the series with some confidence now. As cool as the first game was, the exceptional art of Dark Souls should make it an even cooler experience for me, even as it brutalizes me time and again. And I’m sure I’ll give Bloodborne a go too, should I ever manage to come home with a new console. I’ve got plenty of catching up to do on this series, and I plan on catching up.

Four Disappointingly Portable-Only Sequels to Classic Games

portable

The transition from home consoles to portable gaming form isn’t always a good one for a franchise. Generally speaking, when you make a successful console game you want to keep all things intact when you attempt to duplicate that success with a sequel. The memorable gameplay features, characters, and world-building that made the original so great is likely to be revisited, of course, but most of all you want to keep that core audience intact. This requires consistency in the choice of hardware you want to release your game on. But it hasn’t always worked out that way. Sometimes console sequels get released on portable formats, leaving homebody gamers out in the cold.

Maybe a company is trying to coerce gamers into buying their portable system, or the developer wants to work with a smaller budget and less pressure, or maybe there’s just no rationale we can understand as to why anybody would want to take the direct sequel to a game that was a beloved and acclaimed and banish it to inferior hardware typically bought for children to keep them quiet on road trips. These are four follow-ups to classic titles that were surprisingly only available in miniature form.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advancefinal fantasy tactics advance

It’s been almost twenty years since Final Fantasy Tactics was released on the original PlayStation and it’s still the best strategy RPG I’ve ever played. By far. The immense depth of that game is too much for me to get into here, but let’s just say that when I finally broke down and bought a Nintendo DS, I promptly snapped up Nintendo’s pair of portable-only sequels. Thanks to the DS’s backwards compatibility, this meant I could play Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, named after its system of choice, the Game Boy Advance.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the insanity that saw the sequel to one of the PS1’s best games reduced to

pocket-size form for its sequels or what possessed Square to change a perfect game as much as they did by having characters learn skills based on what item they have equipped instead of how the player chooses to spend their experience to develop their characters, among other small annoyances. And having battle referees (or judges, whatever) imposing arbitrary conditions all the time? Who the hell thought that would be fun?

Not that it wasn’t good by portable gaming standards, but a sequel to a game like FFT has lofty expectations to meet. And then there’s the fact that SRPG’s are made up of long, drawn-out, tactical battles that can last over an hour while portable games are typically going to be played in short spurts; on break at work, on public transportation, etc. It’s kind of a pain to have to play these battles in increments with so many conditions to keep track of. This franchise spin-off is clearly not suited to being portable, yet somehow the only releases since the original have been two sequels on the GBA and DS and a re-release of the original titled War of the Lions on the PSP. Things that make you go hmmmm….

valkyria chronicles 2Valkyria Chronicles 2

Whether or not Valkyria Chronicles can be considered a bonafide classic may be up for debate, but as one of the clear standout JRPG’s of the last console generation it’s destined for cult classic status at the least. It’s one of the few games whose sales increased steadily rather than declined over its life cycle due to word of mouth and it was one of the first titles I was excited to play on the PS3. In spite of its initial weak sales, the game inspired anime and manga series as well as adulation from tactical RPG fans worldwide.

The good news is that gamers got two sequels to the charming military strategy game. The bad news is that they were exclusive to the PSP, a system I have yet to hear a single person claim ownership of in real life. The PSP looked awesome, had awesome games and features, and seems to have sold a ton, yet nobody seemed to actually own one. I don’t know how that even works.

Anyways, the tragedy is that there weren’t a ton of amazing console JRPG’s last gen and those of us who weren’t into Sony’s portable gaming venture were deprived of the continuation of one of the best. To this day we wonder why and hope that someday Sony will throw us a bone and consolefy them for us like they’ve done for Final Fantasy: Type-0 and the portable God of War sequels. Fingers crossed.

Metroid II: Return of Samusmetroid 2

There are few moments in old-school gaming more iconic and memorable than the revelation that the badass space bounty hunter Samus Aran was (gasp) a girl. The original Metroid was part of that slew of 8-bit classics that redefined the awesomeness that gaming was capable of along with titles like Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, and several other franchises that stand to this day. But out of that legendary bounty of amazing NES games, two were sequelized via Nintendo’s first foray into handheld gaming, the Game Boy. Tragically, one of those was Metroid.

I’ve got to say, Metroid II was amazing. Maybe even better than its legendary predecessor. Rather than relying primarily on backtracking with new gear to access new areas, the goal was to seek and destroy all metroids in each area before moving on. And the the further you went, the more the titular space jellyfish evolved and mutated into new forms, keeping the combat fresh. I loved this game.

But here was the thing: the Game Boy ran on batteries, Metroid 2 utilized save points that were sometimes few and far between, and a young gamer like myself wasn’t always mindful of such things. There was no battery life indicator on the GB so basically, you knew the batteries were low when the screen started dimming. And a dimming screen does very little to help you find a save point, so for me this awesome game comes with a lot of bad memories of losing hours of progress and exploration, getting headaches squinting at the fading image on the colorless screen while desperately rushing to find a save point before it winked out entirely, and failing. If this had come out on the NES, it’d be standing alongside its predecessor as a definitive classic.

kid icarus myths monstersKid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters

Out of all of those unforgettable NES classics, Kid Icarus is the one that’s always gotten the short shrift. It joins Metroid here as the other 8-bit franchise to be sequelized on the Game Boy, but unlike Samus, Pit’s franchise would not see the light of day again until the 3DS’s Kid Icarus: Uprising in 2012 and we still haven’t seen it return to consoles proper in spite of Pit’s triumphant return in Super Smash Brothers Melee.

All these years later Kid Icarus remains a unique gaming experience with nothing else comparable to it. Nothing except its forgotten sequel, that is. Of Myths and Monsters translated the experience of its predecessor to the small screen with added features like rewards for killing more enemies and the opportunity to win weapon upgrades whereas in the original you had to purchase them at great cost or use a credit card (an innovation that surprisingly never caught on) and spend hours grinding to pay back the debt. Plus it saved after every level passed, which was a massive improvement over the unbearably long passwords of the first game. It would have likely been another hit had it come out on the NES.

It’s a shame when a truly exceptional game gets a sequel that becomes an obscure footnote in gaming history because it was downsized. Sometimes, like with Metroid, it’s a brief stopover and the franchise recovers its prestige and returns to glory on home consoles, but other times it all but condemns the franchise to the sidelines by only making it available on the portable market and gamers miss out on some really promising titles. Not that portable systems don’t need great games too, but I just wish they’d cultivate their own franchises suited to the format like Scribblenauts and Pokemon rather than minimizing games that would be best played while basking in the glow of home television screens.

Unleashing the Beast with Tokyo Jungle

You know where you are? You’re in the jungle, baby. You’re gonna diiiiiieeeeee!” -Axl Rose

You know that feeling when you impulse buy an unheralded low-budget indie game and think to yourself “where has this been all my life?” I had one of those moments after playing the PSN-exclusive release Tokyo Jungle. I mean, come on. A post-apocalyptic nature simulator where you play as one of dozens of species of animals struggling to survive and procreate in the toxic ruins of the biggest city on Earth? Concepts don’t get much more interesting, at least not to a nature geek who spends too much time thinking about dystopian futures and apocalyptic events.

But there’s always the execution to worry about. A great concept does not always a great game make. And there’s only so many things an animal can do, really. To borrow an old Slipknot album title: “Mate. Feed. Kill. Repeat.” pretty much sums it up. But one should never underestimate the power and appeal of Japanese weirdness. I came to fulfill my dreams of becoming one with nature, but I stayed to experience the joys of complete fucking batshit insanity afforded by the randomness of a game in which animals ranging from chicks to cows to goddamn coelurosaurians share the same ruined city.

tokyo jungle lion

Better run and tell Simba his uncle is back, Snoopy.

Did I ever picture myself as the leader of a tribe of Pomeranians engaged in an epic turf battle with the feline forces of evil before? I did not. Weighing the worries of getting fleas from a bunk female with the fear of dying alone and getting a game over before finding a better mate? Not so much. And I never gave much thought to the risks involved with attempting to mark territory under the nose of a pack of hyenas either. Nor could I imagine the terror of being a small sika deer pursued relentlessly by an organized pack of terriers. No, but in this case it was probably karmic payback for all of those baby chicks I kicked so hard they flew off of the screen earlier just ’cause I could. At least now I have another excuse to hate lapdogs.

If nothing else, this game is utterly unique. All of the old-school difficulty of the dreaded and beloved Souls series, but without all off the macho egocentric human bravado. You’re not slaying any massive demons to save the world, you’re just a humble creature trying to get by and pass on your genes until you can unlock the next step up the food chain in a world that desperately wants you to die and will go to extreme lengths to starve, poison, and murder you to bring that inevitable end about. And when you die, you start back at square one like this was an 80’s side-scroller without the extra lives. Tough yet unfair. Classic gaming.

tokyo jungle animalsIt always starts simple enough. It may seem easy to be able to play as a lion in a world of rabbits and gazelle for that first couple dozen years or so, but you’ve presumably earned that right by grinding and conquering as all of those lower beasts to get that power. But how long can you hold onto that king of the jungle crown when your food sources suddenly vanish, your world becomes polluted, and suddenly you’re surrounded by mobs of unfriendly crocodiles, bears, and dilophosaurs that want nothing more than to devour your flesh and absorb your liony strength for their own?

That’s a lot of pressure, man. Maybe you’d rather play as a nice, peaceful herbivore. Plenty of grasses to hide in, you don’t have to chase down your meals, and the meek are supposed to inherit the earth anyways. Plus, the inability to mount a believable offense against the apex predators of the world opens up some interesting tactics. Like when a panther is in your way and you lead it into a pack of wolves and then hide in some foliage and watch the silly carnivores tear each other apart while you slink away, chuckling evily to yourself. Is there something wrong with me that I still find ways to be destructive while playing as harmless species?

The trials that manifest themselves while traversing the post-apocalyptic Tokyo wasteland are legion, and the stories that result can be made epic by your choice of attire. I forgot to mention that you can totally dress up your animal of choice and make him a bonafide character. The ill-fated tale of my epic quest hunting the dreaded Beagle Boss for the first time with my cat and his merry gang of fraternal feral felines just wouldn’t have been as memorable if the protagonist didn’t have a mohawk and wasn’t wearing a schoolgirl outfit and cat paw gloves over his actual cat paws. It made the decimation of my clan by a single ruthless canine after an awesome run a truly tragic thing to witness and the epic ballad about the confrontation in my head sounds like a verse from “A Boy Named Sue”. This doesn’t happen when I play Assassin’s Creed or Halo.

tokyo jungle outfit

Swag level: dangerously high.

So I get my dream of an open-world nature sim with dozens of animals, it’s got the bonus of being apocalypse-themed, AND I get to play wacky Japanese dress-up and make the whole thing completely absurd? And it’s got an inappropriate-yet-oddly-pleasing EDM soundtrack too? How did this game exist for nearly three years without me playing it? And why haven’t YOU played it? Okay, maybe you’re not a nature-obsessed weirdo who gets a kick out of the idea of dressing up hippos in tuxedos with a beanie, but if you were you’d be either kicking yourself right now or shaking your head at me for being so behind the times, having already unlocked all of the creatures and purchased all of the DLC for yourself long ago.

It’s nice to be reminded that there are still developers out there who want to bring us something fun, simple, new, and slightly insane. Tokyo Jungle is one of those titles that I wish would come along more often and give us some real bang for our buck in a world where season passes for underwhelming AAA games are starting to cost as much or more than the games themselves and continual hype is dulling our sense of wonder at exploring these virtual worlds. Sometimes it’s the little independent titles that slip in under the radar and catch us by surprise that help us recapture those feelings that made us want to be gamers in the first place. It’s a good feeling.

Five Features that Need to be Brought Back for Grand Theft Auto VI

gtafeatures

Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series is arguably the most important gaming franchise of the last two decades and it’s seen a lot of innovative features come and go in that time. From the open-world anarchic action and instant infamy of the original game’s premise of getting points for crimes to the more recent technical marvels and social satire that have continued to push the boundaries of digital entertainment and bad taste, the series has been a lot of places and done a whole lot of things.

By the time we see another proper GTA title, it’ll have been over twenty years since the first game was released, so now seems like a good time to look at past games and some of the more interesting features that have come and gone in that time as the franchise continually evolve and consider which ones would combine into the ultimate GTA experience. Here are my picks for the best non-standard features to combine into the perfect open world crime game.

Character Statsgta san andreas stats

In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, RPG mechanics were introduced for the first time, allowing players to build up their character’s abilities by engaging in activities. You could also build up your social credibility based on the way you dressed and your physical appearance changed based on how much you ate and stayed in shape. You could even learn new fighting styles from various in-game gyms.

Grand Theft Auto V brought the concept back after a conspicuous absence in GTA IV, giving its three characters various strengths and weaknesses and the ability to improve, although with more emphasis on skills and less on appearance. It seems likely that this feature is here to stay, but hopefully the next game in the series will steer character customization back towards more advanced and individualized choices to expand player immersion and consequence rather than just traditional leveling up.

gta 2 reputationReputation

Grand Theft Auto II was my first experience with the franchise and remains one of my favorite games from the original PlayStation era. Its best feature was the ability to accept jobs from several different crime factions and build reputations and relationships with each. With many of the factions being rival gangs, working with one could cause you to lose standing with the others, offering the player the choice between balancing their reputation to attempt to remain in decent standing with all groups or to go all-in with one against the other.

With each faction having its own turf, losing standing with a gang could make the game harder since members would attack you on sight if your rep was too low. But on the other hand, the player could use turf warfare to their advantage by leading pursuing enemies into rival gang territory, instigating a street war in the process. This was what part of what made GTA II such a joy to play. GTA III perpetuated the concept somewhat, but by Vice City rival gangs were dictated primarily by story and recent games eliminated this aspect altogether. I’d say it’s time to bring it back.

Investmentsgta 5 stocks

One of the biggest additions in Vice City was the ability to purchase property and complete missions to improve the profitability of your acquired assets. This was carried over to San Andreas, dropped for GTA IV, and brought back as an afterthought for GTA V. What V had going for it here was a stock market feature allowing players to make investments and even influence their chosen stocks through in-game actions to an extent.

First, the real estate aspect needs to be fleshed out again and made more a more profitable endeavor for the player (preferably something resembling the Fable games) because it wasn’t really worth the time in the last game. Secondly the stock market aspect has a ton of room for improvement so it’d be a shame to see it abandoned in the next game. In-game currency is a necessity and giving players more fun and diverse ways to earn is always a good idea.

gta 4 dateSocial Calls

Grand Theft Auto is renowned for having some of the best-developed open virtual environments in digital entertainment. Every game seems to out-do itself with massive, detailed worlds that consistently set the standard for open world gaming. Grand Theft Auto IV was a major turning point in the series because it went beyond the environments themselves and did a better job than ever of making the world feel inhabited.

With a variety of programming on television, an in-game internet to surf, and a smartphone interface that allowed you to contact anyone at any time, Liberty City was something to be experienced as much as explored. It’s one thing to have a cool place to blow stuff up, but populating the world with characters you could contact and hang out at the locale of your choice was a particularly inspired advancement. GTA V paid some lip service to the feature, but throughout most of the game almost nobody answered their phone, which made the world feel kind of lonely outside of story missions.

San Andreas introduced dating as an activity and it was featured in GTA IV, but V sadly did away with it, leaving the only ways to interact with the opposite sex as prostitution, stripper fondling (although if you fondle one enough, she’ll go home with you), and random acts of violence. Come on, Rockstar. It should at least be possible for a player to respect a woman in-game.

Heistsgta 5 heist

Out of all the features Grand Theft Auto V brought to bear, the most fun was definitely the heists. Previous games had featured heist missions, but V really took it to another level. Assembling a team by juggling competence and cost, building relationships with contacts, and carrying out multi-stage robberies was like pure distilled video game joy. My biggest complaint about the game was that there weren’t more; just a handful of story missions.

It’d be great to see the heist system of the last game expanded on rather than abandoned in the next game. In a perfect world, there’d be plenty of open-world targets with various challenges for you to hit at will and really take advantage of the team-building features.

It’s probably a testament to the enduring excellence of the series that each game gives me countless hours of entertainment from dozens of activities and yet I keep demanding more. Rockstar continues to innovate with each new game and every little wrinkle they add seems to open up even more possibilities to make the Grand Theft Auto franchise even better in the future. It’s still a long ways off, but it will be very interesting to see what old features get revived and revamped and what new features show up when Grand Theft Auto VI rolls around.

Four Times Television Went Full Video Game

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It’s kind of funny when you think about it. We use television to watch television. We also use television to play video games. Is it so outlandish the the two entertainment mediums would occasionally merge into one to deliver joy unto us? Well, yeah, apparently. After all, gaming has been around for decades and aside from occasional references, gags, and insane cautionary tales about terrorist gamers raping women because girls are icky it doesn’t often get a lot of exposure on television.

But now and again, some shows break that mold and give us a full-tilt wonderland of virtual delights, nostalgia, and geeky references to treasure. A few shows have based their entire format around gaming, and others have gone far enough to adopt a video game format for a while. Here are four examples of television series that crossed over to the other side to pay tribute to gaming culture and the people in it just because they could. This is what it’s like when worlds collide.

Video Game References

Teen Titans Go! seemed like a bad idea at the time, taking the popular anime-influenced DC superhero TV series and remaking it into a complete farce while displacing the awesome Green Lantern and Young Justice shows in the process. But it turned out as a really unique and frequently hilarious cartoon series that can be enjoyed at any age.

Case and point: the recent video game episode, in which Robin takes the team to a virtual reality room where he claims to have prepared challenges for each of them. The challenges end up being classic-era video games that could only be truly appreciated by the old schoolers in the audience. Basically, if you know what was waiting for Starfire in the cave at the end of the above clip, you’re good to go.

In addition to the Zelda love, we’re treated to Beast Boy trying his hand at Frogger, Cyborg practicing good driving etiquette in a Spy Hunter spoof, Robin giving himself a concussion bumping coins from bricks in Super Mario Brothers, and Raven becoming one of the ghosts pursuing Pac-Man. I’ve got to give it to the writers, most of the vignettes were pretty inspired. But then again, this is a show that referenced Webster while detailing the Betamax-VHS wars so it’s safe to say that they appreciate a good 80’s reference like few people do these days.

Code Monkeys

Unlike the rest of these shows that only spent an episode as video games, Code Monkeys was designed and styled as an 8-bit video game and probably poured in more 80’s references per capita by itself while it was running on G4 than the rest of the other networks put together.

The plot revolves around intrepid game developers at Gameavision, who make Atari-era games. In one episode, they make a game in which players are tasked with shooting a world leader named Raygun to win Jodie Foster’s love, leading to the actions of one John Hinckley, who you may recall carried out an attempted assassination on a certain world leader named Reagan after watching the film Taxi Driver irl. Except in the show, he was inspired by the game and taken to court in an episode satirizing the insanity of the life imitating violent art argument.

The show’s random flailing humor hasn’t aged particularly well, but then again, neither have a lot of the prevailing attitudes and stereotypes Code Monkeys parodied. Be it dude-bros, corporate shark owners, basement-dwelling RPGers, and socially irresponsible stoners, they’re are still around so what’s a little dated humor between geeks?

Make Love, Not Warcraft

South Park decided not to go retro when they made a video game episode and instead went with the biggest current MMO on the planet. This is arguably the gold standard for episodes of this type as it really captures the silliness of virtual interactions and various headaches associated with multiplayer gaming while brilliantly satirizing the all-too-common hardcore gamer practices of game-breaking and griefing.

The story is about a gamer who becomes too powerful in-game to be controlled and spends all of his time ruining everyone elses’ experiences, chasing out all other players and threatening to end WoW. It’s a pleasing combination of tribute and mockery to gaming as a community with a message that amusingly suggests that the only way to beat an online troll with no life at their own game is to become as they are. But the cost, man. The cost.

Digital Estate Planning

When it was on the air, there was absolutely nothing like Community and it’s likely we’ll never see anything like it again. It was a rare live-action comedy that was unafraid to go anywhere and do anything no matter how geeky and weird, including paintball apocalypse season finales, claymation Christmas specials, D&D sessions, and, of course, a video game episode.

The plot here is that the father of Chevy Chase’s character, Pierce, has died and in his will he demands that Pierce and his friends play a video game to claim his inheritance. The entire cast assumes retro video game form and encounter the estate’s executor, who uses cheat codes to make himself invincible and sets out to steal the inheritance for himself.

In one particularly amusing development, geek auteur and fourth wall smasher Abed exploits the game mechanics and amasses endless in-game wealth, allowing the heroes to triumph and showing that a true gamer doesn’t need cheat codes to bend a game to his will and become unstoppable. Fans of the show have actually gone so far as to make an actual video game based on the episode, making Community‘s entry the king of video game crossovers.

Dyscourse Shows Me Why I Should Never Be in Charge

dyscourse

Fair warning: if any of you are ever stranded on an island with me, you’re probably going to want to take a more active role in decision-making. Don’t look to me to be your Rick Grimes. You’ll almost definitely die. Maybe it’s my curiosity compelling me to keep things interesting rather than safe, some subconscious desire to watch the world burn, my classically supernatural bad luck, or just plain old boring incompetence, but playing this Owlchemy Labs’ indie survival game has shown me that I am not the guy you making the tough call. Best case scenario, you may end up in a Lord of the Flies dystopia being ruled by an inanimate object while I chuckle to myself, but more than likely, you just aren’t going to make it.

BioWare and Telltale are much beloved (and rightly so), but it’s pretty much accepted fact that the vast majority of decisions they give you are heavy on moral drama and personal expression, but low on concrete repercussions. This game demands several playthroughs because each choice you make leads to different outcomes, different situations, and more choices with more different outcomes. Who dies where and when is going to be all your fault. And what Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben never taught him is that great responsibility breeds grave incompetence.

The experience is kind of like a cross between Lost (way back when it was good), Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and Seth McFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West rant. You play as Rita, a barista who wakes up after a plane crash (note to self: do not fly on an airline called Dysast-Air and make sure to check for duct tape on plane’s exterior before boarding if you do) and finds herself stranded with a diverse band of survivors.

After a run-in with some hyper-aggressive beach crustaceans and convincing the resident conspiracy nut Teddy that I was not a bunch of crabs in a human suit I was in. But it was all downhill from there. As a gamer, I consider my first playthrough of a story-based game to be my canon. Subsequent playthroughs for experimentation or perfectionism don’t have that same into-the-unknown quality that makes that initial experience so memorable. So this first game was for all the marbles in my mind. This would show me what I’m made of.dyscourse survivors

Turns out, I’m the kind of person who wouldn’t give a second thought to chasing down and devour a diseased wild boar out of spite for stealing a small bag of pretzels. You never know how you’ll react to a given situation, I guess. But I do love pork. This was probably the first sign that my party wasn’t going to do so well. But hey, I did manage to save on other person.

The crew consists of Rita, Teddy, a cynicism factory named Steve, a country-bred married couple, Jolene and George, and consumate neckbeard gamer, Garrett. Teddy embodies the mainstream media’s attitude towards gamers by pointing out that, “nobody spends that much time alone in the basement without doing something villainous”, but I kind of like Garrett. Anyone who refers to sleeping as replenishing his HP is okay in my book. Further party members can be recruited in the form of a cat and a cracked plastic disc, who you collectively name Disky and immediately begin treating as a person, no questions asked. But who are we to question the sentience of a fellow castaway?

Having established the cast, the object is of course to keep these kooky bastards alive. Good luck with that. Even when you aren’t deliberately eating tainted meat or climbing into leech and snake-infested ponds you’ll probably end up battling a jaguar with a frying pan or getting set on fire and/or struck by lightning. And one thing I noticed is that anyone I fed seemed to die almost immediately in order to maximize the waste. The survivors get to starve because the people who got the food they needed all promptly died from firecracker explosions or jaguar attacks (seriously, FUCK that thing), leaving the remainders too feeble to defend themselves.

By the time you get to the end-game scenario, the game is really after you. Some survivors may be trying to murder the other ones, you may have to sacrifice yourself blowing up a generator to get the attention of potential rescuers, sharks may be circling your raft, and people may be starving to death at this point. My personal favorite outcome so far was settling on the island with his roundliness Lord Disky as the tyrannical leader of our tribe.

dyscourse disky

Sorry about the head on a spike thing, George, but examples need to be made.

It seems like no matter what I do, somebody is dying. And not just because (as Rita points out) the island is actively trying to kill everyone. After several playthroughs, I’m pretty sure there’s a way to get everybody home safe, but I don’t care. Playing god with virtual lives is so much more fun than “winning”.

At one point, I decided to see if I could effectively get everybody killed. Rita turned out to be a pretty tough cookie, but I managed to get her to lose an arm to that bastard of jaguar so I’ll give myself partial credit even though she survived. But his brings up the question, what kind of monster would try to kill off the castaways of a downed flight just to see if he could? The same kind that enjoys building high-dive in The Sims and forcing people to jump off of it without bothering to put a pool underneath it or spawned God in Scribblenauts just so I could spawn an atheist and prove that his life was a lie. When he ran off screaming, I gave him a gun and when he tried to kill God, he got smited as I laughed. One of my finer impulses of free-form gaming insanity.

That is to say, the kind you don’t want in charge of your fate. I mean, at one point I was given the choice to toss a dead companion’s body who had died of starvation overboard as sharkbait so I could rescue someone who had fallen off of the raft and I decided a corpse would be better company than Teddy’s paranoid ass. Also, I totally wanted a screenshot of him getting eaten.

dyscourse shark

Lord Disky demands a show.

Games like Dyscourse are doing what indie games do best in showing gamers that you don’t need amazing graphics or ridiculous length to have a great time. The stylized graphics, touches of humor, genuine consequences, and variety of possible situations in a relatively tiny in-game world shown here are enough to make one wonder why we don’t see more developers scale the scope of their games down in favor of something really memorable more often. And frankly, my inner jerk is always itching for more opportunities to torture virtual life forms for my own amusement.

00’s Flashback: Phantom Crash

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Another week, another bout with past gen nostalgia. I played my SNES well into the late 90’s while everybody else had a PlayStation and I didn’t get a PlayStation until the PS2 was about to come out. It wasn’t until the original Xbox was released in 2001 that I finally got to be on the cutting edge of gaming, and there were some pretty great games there to greet me.

With the likes of Halo, Morrowind, and DOA 3 to keep me company, it was a solid first year of gaming for Microsoft’s venture into the console market, but with every new console eventually there comes a drought where you want to play something else and you don’t know what. In the past, when in doubt I’ve often picked up a mecha game. You can always rely on those. Building and tweaking your own death machine and then blowing stuff up is what insane testosterone-fueled dreams are made of.

I have wonderful memories of Mechwarrior, but there haven’t been a lot of mecha sim titles released in the past couple gens in America aside from the Armored Core series. And no, the Dynasty Warriors: Gundam games don’t count. Chromehounds for the 360 was alright, but the experience was ruined by the game I’m going to be reminiscing about today that stands as my favorite example of the genre: Phantom Crash. In it you play a pilot in dystopian Old Tokyo, where mech rumbles are used both as a professional sport and as a creative urban renewal strategy.

phantom crash combat

So why is this obscure and extremely Japanese Xbox-exclusive my enduring gold standard for mecha games? The personality and the strategic chaos. Most mecha games are extremely straightforward: build and upgrade robot, pilot robot, blow shit up with robot, repeat. Phantom Crash did away with the standard military missions in favor of a persistent free-for-all “rumble” tournament format full of colorful characters. Also missing were the plodding pace and emphasis on armour for defense. In this game, you moved at breakneck speed and relied on strategy, finesse, and stealth to maximize the effectiveness of your firepower.

The diversity of the SV’s (Scoot Vehicles) that serve as the combat machines in the game was already a win. Just deciding between the stability of tank treads, the mobility of legs, or the awesomeness factor of hover jets made each machine you built the best kind of dilemma. Finding the perfect balance of firepower, defense, and maneuverability from the parts offered by the various brands in the store to suit your desired gameplay style was a joy in itself even before the satisfaction of combat and earning more currency for upgrades presented itself. Plus there were the AI “animal chips” which were pretty much Cortana in animal avatar form, granting various benefits and providing status updates and advice based on their individual personalities. Fully built SV’s were also available for the less ambitious gamer, but that way lies lameness.

When it was time to deploy, you chose a ranked rumble to test your mettle in and what followed was the most delightful brand of anarchy. You and the other characters were dropped into a massive arena where the aim of the game was to blow everyone else to hell. You got paid for every kill and the object was to make as much money as you could and then get out of there before you got wrecked to minimize repair cost and maximize profit. Every venture into the arena was a new experience and a calculated gamble and like the old song says, you had to “know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, and know when to run”. Once you’d destroyed every other player at least once (they respawned regularly so the arena roster was always full), the champion of the arena would suit up and emerge and if you were the one who took them out, you earned your way to the next rank.

phantom crash pepperIn between rumbles, the player was treated to dialogue from various characters from in and out of the arena scene, including male groupies forming fan clubs around female combatants and other quirky little scenes. In addition to this refreshing addition, the soundtrack to Phantom Crash remains one of my favorites ever. It was a delightful and eclectic mix of moody electronica, industrial, melodic electro-pop, J-rock, punk, futuristic EDM, and even some jazz. And yeah, you could customize your SV’s personal sound system to create your own combat mix from the dozens of choices and buy more in the store. It all added up to a really unique feel that made the game feel like a breath of fresh air.

The combat was fantastic, of course. Not the usual wars of attrition you could expect from most mech sims, this game required situational awareness and skill. The game’s developer, Genki, was actually better known for its racing titles, and they brought that experience to bear to make this a really different kind of experience. With a swarm of SV’s in the arena and plenty of room to operate, it was all about identifying and pursuing your target while evading everybody else’s sites at the same time. Each vehicle had an active camouflage stealth system that could be used to lie in ambush or evade pursuers. So what resulted was a refreshing game of cat and mouse where everyone is both the cat and the mouse, alternately launching themselves into the air and weaving through cover waiting for the stealth system to charge with opponents in hot pursuit and seeking targets of their own to blast.

phantom crash shop

At this point, you’re probably thinking to yourself “sounds like a great online multiplayer game”. Unfortunately, coming out early in the original Xbox’s life cycle, Xbox Live wasn’t quite up and running yet so no multiplayer was available. I consider this to be extremely tragic. Still, even as a single player only game with limited story, Phantom Crash was a blast and extraordinarily well-balanced in its combination of challenge and accessibility in spite of its hardcore approach.

Rumbles were seldom too easy unless you were playing lower ranks and you usually ranked up just as you started becoming comfortable. It stands to reason that fighting the same opponents while you constantly upgraded your SV would see you become overpowered, and I have to admit that when I could finally afford that laser cannon I felt like the god of war one-shotting the other combatants at will. But then when I beat the champ and got to the next rank I found waiting for me a higher grade of machine with comparable armaments and very quickly found myself in a smoking heap rethinking my strategy.

The alternating of frenetic strategic combat and upgrading, reconnoitering, and occasionally entirely rebuilding vehicles while always striving for that next rank made for a really great and addicting game. But being an extremely Japanese game on an extremely American upstart console doomed Phantom Crash to poor sales and cult status. However, a sequel was released for the PS2 after Konami bought the property, the oddly-named S.L.A.I.: Steel Lancer Arena, which I didn’t know existed due partly to said name not resembling the original game in any way. This one featured online multiplayer, but apparently failed to set the world on fire as a Sony exclusive as well, thus sending the promising series to the scrap heap.

Like I said, mecha titles aren’t exactly all the rage these days so the odds of a revival are slim at best, but what goes around comes around and I’m still hoping that somebody out there will remember how fun this game was and endeavor to give us something comparably memorable in the genre at some point in the future.

Five Disturbing Things I Learned About Romance While Playing Record of Agarest War 2

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They say love is a many splendored thing. At least in America they do. Being a geek, one’s education is simply incomplete without a working knowledge of Japanese pop culture, but sometimes ignorance really is bliss. If we’re judging from film, anime, and video games, Japan may be god-tier in the realms of technology, sublime absurdity, and overpowered final forms but they’ve got a lot to learn about love. Or perhaps we have a lot to learn from them…

Being the (virtually) well-traveled RPG gamer I am, I eventually happened upon Record of Agarest War 2, the PlayStation-exclusive sequel to a game I very much enjoyed. The premise of the series is that you play as a hero who has to choose a waifu from among his destined female adventuring companions -known as “maidens of the pillar”- to bear his child so that they can continue his quest to resurrect a god when they come of age. It’s a pretty great concept, mixing interactive virtual romance with traditional fantasy RPGing over the course of multiple lifetimes. But it’d be even greater if it hadn’t sprung from a culture where romance only has two primary flavors: pristine blushing abstinence and hardcore tentacle rape.

Agarest 2 toes that line as much as it can to keep that T rating, but on occasion, the attempt to have their lolita-complex cake and eat it too swings wildly between genuine sweetness and blatant obscenity. It’s an uncomfortable and clumsy mixture that occasionally ends up more awkward and gross than if they’d just decided to go full Hot Coffee. But still, you learn what you can where you can and I’m always determined to take something away from each and every experience. Here are five things I took away from my time with Record of Agarest War 2.

Grinding for affection” is not as fun as it sounds.agarest 2 affection

One of the game’s functions is “affection levels”, which presumes to measure how each character feels about you and display it in emoticon form. Like most things in this game, it’s a solid concept executed rather clumsily. A character treats you pretty much the same regardless of how they feel about you, trying to kill you while their status indicated they are gaga for you, or being really friendly and pleasant while they supposedly can’t stand the sight of your face. There’s also an obscure team-rating system that rates your party based on affection levels, but the only real reason it matters is wooing your waifu of choice for a stronger child and access to special scenes (we’ll open that can of worms later).

Affection is most notably increased by dialogue choices or by one of the worst minigames ever devised (again: later) but in an odd choice by the developers, you can also slowly increase it by keeping the desired character in your party. It’s kind of dumb because with at least three maidens per generation and only four slots in your battle party, it’s pretty obvious what your party needs to be to maximize affection levels where they count and pursue that insanely elusive “true ending”. So you’ve got this massive bunch of warriors to choose from, but to get done what you need to get done to get the best ending you need to roll with all three maidens in your party whenever possible (which is just about always), leading to the term “grinding for affection”. I prefer the Darling Nikki approach myself.

agarest 2 compatibility fortuneNever let true love stand in the way of a good stat boost.

After some 30 hours spent in a single generation attaining the love of three beautiful women, you get to choose your bride from among them. This is the game’s coolest feature. I really hope some better series steals it sometime. Getting through the adventure learning about the ladies in question and deciding which one you like the best is great fun as all of the choices have their own distinct manners of charm and beauty. But aside from choosing for your hero and yourself, you are also begetting a new generation of hero through your offspring.

Typically, the ladies fall into the tank/rogue/mage categories and you are allowed to cheat by viewing compatibility fortunes at the alchemist’s shop to get a sneak peak at what each choice will look like. So deciding what build you want next time around factors into who you pick as well. So far, so good. But what happens when you’re torn between cold, unfeeling gamer pragmatism and the feelings of your geek heart? Tragedy! That’s what.

The first generation I was torn between the dutiful and beautiful valkyrie princess Victoria and the felicitous feline guardian Felenne. With Felenne starting off intending to kill the protagonist, Weiss, and having the most captivating eyes, I thought it would make a great arc for them to end up together. But along comes Victoria with all of her regal elegance and brilliant genetics. Our child would be an azure-haired BEAST of a tank compared to Felenne’s merely-serviceable speed boost for her mediocre spawn. Sorry, catlady. Perhaps in another playthrough.

The second generation really came down to the wire between the angelic winged goddess Yumil and the gun-toting tsundere vixen Vanessa. Nessie looks like a bad girl Tifa Lockheart, which is acres of win, but dem wings! With Yumi-chan, I could have a winged warrior for a child! How cool is that? Plus, she’s sweet as sugar so no downside. Yet somehow, Vanessa’s son would be statistically better in nearly every area than hers. It made no sense as Yumil was a monster tank while Vanessa served as squad leader thanks to her speed advantage, yet my choice for the next generation was pretty much negated when I saw the stats. The game made the choice for me. I really wanted a hawkman to lead the final gen, but how could I pass up guaranteed genetic superiority in a RPG? You beat yourself again, Agarest 2.

Sometimes a banana is not just a banana.agarest 2 banana fiona aina

Now, about those cutscenes…did I mention this is somehow rated T? In addition to some pretty robust character development amongst your party members and NPC’s in each generation, once you achieve certain objectives such as high affection levels, you get some sexually-tinged sequences as a reward (?). I’m not knocking this as a concept because I’ve been known to enjoy a little sexiness in my life both in-game and out, but I guess I’m still a prude by some standards because some of this stuff is just plain icky. Maybe it’s the shameful lack of exposure to internet fetish videos in my upbringing, but I’m not a guy who considers a woman crawling through “sticky white goo” arousing. And a sheep licking a girl’s hindquarters while she’s stuck in a fence moaning and squealing? Nope. Nothing here but a profound and fatherly sense of disappointment in the developers. Blame my terrible upbringing, I guess.

And then there’s Agarest 2‘s resident darling Fiona. She’s a nigh-immortal elf present from the beginning as a child frozen in time ages ago and then awakened, which is to say technically legal……very technically. Fun fact: European versions of this game were censored due to the fact that Fiona is shown in some pretty compromising positions even before she non-technically comes of age in the game. I’d estimate her visual age for most of the game to be around 11 or 12 so you can see why this may be a problem for some of us. Most of us. Loli girls are an alarmingly typical trope in anime we’ve mostly chosen to ignore because Japan, but normally they aren’t fellating a banana with another girl moaning about how big it is either. That’s the exact definition of “too much, too soon”. You really couldn’t wait until the final gen, guys?

A lot of this is made even ickier by what brought me back to the series; the enhanced visual novel format. Low-budget Japanese games typically use sequences of various static images and voice acting to tell stories in favor of the uber-expensive full-motion cutscenes that populate AAA games. It’s a solid trade-off, and this game upgraded the format to include some animations like breathing character models and other little features to make the characters more lifelike. The characters and their breasts, that is. A lot of ladies who nod and shrug with their bosoms in this game. And that banana scene up there, yeah that one is animated too for maximum cringe. Why must you pervert all of your best features, Agarest 2?

agarest 2 shiatsuSeductive foodplay can get you more action (points).

Mini-game time! We love mingames! Blitzball and Chocobo races! Card games! Wii Sports and Mario Party! Who doesn’t love a good minigame? Well, how about if it was some awful thing that made no sense where you had to keep a woman’s bathwater at a proper temperature by spazzing out the control stick for minutes on end to make her like you more? How does that even work? Say what you want about the ick-factor of the massage minigame, but at least it makes sense. Massages are sexy and they make us feel good. I don’t know that they’d permanently increase our stats all that much, but what the hell; I’m an RPGer and I don’t argue against stat increases as a general rule.

But then we get to the third perverted minigame, the shiatsu. I looked up shiatsu to make sure this was a thing, and it says it’s all about pressure points, stretches, and the like. So why the fuck am I slathering decidedly phallic foods on my potential mate? It says I’m increasing her AP and CP, which let you do more stuff, and break rating. I’ve heard that some folk get turned on by food, but I had no idea it could make you better at life too.

I went ahead and did the awful bath thing for the affection boosts, although I think I may have permanently damaged my hand (not like that), and the massage deal wasn’t so bad even though the game is in Japanese so I had no idea what the girls were squealing at me as I digitally fondled them, but I really had to draw the line at rubbing bananas, sausages, dildo mushrooms, and goddamn ham hocks on my party members to cover their bodies in grease and juices for incremental boosts. I reject that gameplay feature. And yes, young Fiona is available for these….except in Europe. This bizarre food fetish stuff surfaces repeatedly throughout each generation in the game. Somebody must be into it, but I don’t really rate on that scale. They can have it.

Personality doesn’t matter.agarest 2 eva schwarz

To be honest, I kind of enjoyed this game. As ass-backwards as it is at times and as maddeningly inscrutable and downright unfriendly to its players as it can be, it’s a defiantly hardcore RPG in a casual world and I respect that, pedo-pandering or no pedo-pandering. And hey, a lot of the characters are genuinely charming. As long as you don’t mind that the main heroes aren’t among them, that’s a plus. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more unlovable trio of protagonists in any three games put together. And you can throw in your ever-present guide Eva too to make it an even four. But if we’re being honest, real life success seems to rain down primarily on such people. It just took a ridiculous fantasy RPG to help point it out to me.

The first generation’s hero, Weiss, is introduced slaying a god for I can’t remember what reason. HE doesn’t even remember. The guy’s not a bastard, but he is quite literally the most soulless, bland thing I’ve ever seen on my television screen. And I’ve seen Kanye West sing. His son Schwarz (insert Spaceballs joke here) is anther problem altogether; that guy makes you want to punch him in the face in his very first appearance. Knowing his fate is to mate with a maiden of the pillars and packing enough daddy issues to fuel the nu-metal scene for decades, he declares The only reason I agreed to take on that son of a bitch’s mission is so I can get my hands on those whores.” Wow. Just……wow. The final generation’s hero Grey isn’t all that boring or bastardly, but he looks and acts like he just stepped off of the grittiest street in Westeros. I have to wonder what kind of surrogate mother/sister Fiona is that these kids turn out so messed up on her watch? Must be all the banana sex.

The funny thing about Agarest 2 is after all of the perverse scenes, questionable minigames, and Schwartz’s repeated indications that he prefers his sex non-consensual, the marriage/consumation scenes that end each generation are actually really touching and sweet. And each time all I could think was “this guy so does not deserve her”. Sure, that’s kind of like real life, but is it too much to ask to play as a fictional hero with a little personality when these wonderful girls are all supposed to fall for him if only to give us nerds some ill-gotten vicarious hope?

The ironic thing about this game that is so aggressively targeted at men is that nearly all the female characters are these great, fleshed-out, badass, charming people and the men are almost uniformly shitty and/or bland. As far as I can see, this is a world that should be a sapphic paradise populated primarily by great Amazonian societies while the male barbarians live in huts in the woods and leer from afar, having been banished from civilization. Maybe Agarest 3 will get it right. Or maybe they’ll add a bukake minigame instead and you’ll have to shake the controller furiously to increase your heroine’s debuff resistance. Time will tell.

00’s Flashback: Valkyrie Profile

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I felt pretty old when 90’s music started showing up on classic rock radio, and thinking back on some of my favorite games, I’m starting to realize that the games I feel like I played just the other day are already generations gone. It’s enough to make me nostalgic for all the good ol’ days that have happened since the original good ol’ days. Like the 80s and 90s before them, the 00s were a time of spectacular growth in the video game industry. So much growth, in fact, that another crash was expected at the time. But with so much quality on the market, the exact opposite ended up happening and business boomed and has continued to boom ever since. After Nintendo took control of the market in the 80’s and maintained dominance for much of the 90s, Sony knocked them off the mountaintop with the PlayStation and its unspeakably vast variety of quality games, and by 2000, we had a new king.

What really set the PlayStation apart from other consoles at the time was the sheer size and scope of its library. A lot of gamers have favorites on the N64 and the Sega Saturn, but PS owners can go on for days. So many unique and groundbreaking titles were coming out right up to the end. And that’s where we find Valkyrie Profile; an underrated gem released very late in the console’s life cycle. In fact, the PlayStation 2 had been out for months by the time it saw North American release in 2000. This is possibly the reason the franchise never caught on and it’s a crying shame, because this is the kind of innovative JRPG that others should be taking lessons from.

Valkyrie Profile successfully combined several elements into a seamless and original creation and threw in some really fresh ideas that made it a joy to play through multiple times. Playing as the titular Valkyrie Lenneth, the player is able to fly around an open world and listen Superman Returns-style for the death cries of mortal warriors. As a Valkyrie, it’s your job to locate the souls of valiant warriors and recruit them for the armies of Valhalla, currently engaged in Ragnarok, the final war. When you locate a village or dungeon containing a potential recruit, the game takes on a 2D-platforming form where you explore on foot.

Once you recruit your chosen combatants, you can place them in your combat party and equip them as you see fit. Experience and equipment distribution are important because in this game, you don’t just hold onto your party members for your own use. You’re training them to prepare them for war in Asgard. At the end of each story chapter, you get a request for troops and a list of criteria the gods are looking for. You choose which warriors to send off to Valhalla, and you are actually given updates and rewarded according to their performance. This was the coolest part because I’ve never seen another game do anything like it before or since and it demands multiple playthroughs.

This feature made Valkyrie Profile a true classic in my mind. The ability to choose how to manage your limited time for each chapter, the diverse cast of mythological warriors with their own tragic stories and personalities, and the ability to decide their fates with your actions while altering the course of a distant war made this story feel extremely epic and personal at the same time. Getting your followers’ report cards and reading about their exploits and victories gave a kind of pride that was unique to this title.

On top of all that, the combat was an innovative blast too. With each character in the party assigned to a face button, you could time their attacks together as combos to break enemies’ guards and juggle the hell out of them in real time, leading up to an epic finisher if you did it just right.

The freedom, exploration, characters, cool aesthetics, Norse mythological setting, and flat out fun and unique gameplay made this one of the best RPG’s of the PlayStation era, but it’s never really gotten its due. Subsequent attempts to branch the franchise out with an enhanced PSP port, Lenneth, and prequels on the PS2 and Nintendo DS have met with positive critical response, but only modest success. Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria and Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume both diverged from the original game and the latter even cast the player as a mortal on a quest to kill Lenneth. Great games to be sure, but I have to say I’d really love to get back to the original concept that made the first game so special.

It’s officially been a full console generation without a new installment and it may be time to worry. The series was developed by tri-Ace and published by Enix so once again I’m left wondering why Square Enix is sitting on an exceptional franchise and letting it rot away while beating gamers over the head with Final Fantasy and watering down their biggest franchise with quantity over quality. Not to tell them how to run their business, but I’m a lifelong FF devotee and I haven’t bought their last few games. Just sayin’.

It’s always a bummer when something original, innovative, and exciting fades into obscurity while lesser franchises take over the market with yearly releases and constant massive marketing pushes. I keep seeing the influence of Valkyrie Profile in other games, such as the character Tsubaki Yayoi in BlazBlue and in the overly convoluted battle system of Record of Agarest War 2, but they’re nothing like the real thing, baby. It’s time for Square to brush the dust off of Lenneth’s armour and get her flying again, or at least put the first two games up for download on PSN so a new generation of gamers can discover them because it’s a bit sad that at the dawn of a new generation of consoles I’m thinking about the good ol’ days.