Six Great Last-Gen RPGs that I Just Couldn’t Finish

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When it comes to electronic entertainment, role playing games are a breed apart. The genre is essentially a digital translation of the classic pen-and-paper nerd hobby that crosses Tolkien-inspired fantasy with lots of mathematics and perpetual virginity. It’s the nerdiest of nerd pastimes.

I’ve always loved the imagination and character building that’s associated with the pen and paper games, but find the math and social interaction tiresome. That is to say that the increased sophistication video games have afforded to solitary role-playing has been a life-altering. A whole wide world all to myself. Digital bliss.

So I always make it my business to play as many different kinds of RPGs as I can for whatever console(s) I own. I love a good shooter and always keep an eye on the fighting scene as well as keeping on the lookout for anything else that piques my interest, but at the end of the day, I always trend hard toward games with role-playing elements. But here’s the thing about that: most of them are long. Like, REALLY long. Lllllllllloooooooonnnnnnnggggggggggg, if you will. And that’s not mentioning other headaches that spring up from time to time.

Since most of the last generation was a nonstop barrage of quality titles, there were some really great ones that I never got around to finishing, and it continually eats my brain. Sometimes I try to go back and pick up where I left off, and am often sharply reminded that one thing that sets RPG’s apart is the intense dedication it takes to master one. Picking a game you were 50 hours or so deep into after having being away for a few months is not like riding a bike. It’s like forgetting how to swim and being thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool. So here are the five best role playing games from the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 era that I was too lame to beat.

 rpgfinish1Operation Darkness

A real one of a kind tactical RPG exclusive for the Xbox 360 with possibly the best premise (and worst camera) ever. Okay, picture you joining a ragtag squad of anime misfits fighting the Axis in World War II. Now imagine the Nazis are vampires, zombies, and demons and your squad consists of werewolves, Frankenstein’s Monster, Lovecraft’s Re-Animator, a firestarter, and Jack the Ripper, amongst other awesomeness. Werewolves with rocket launchers taking on Panzers should sell you by itself, but as a mix of Penny Dreadful, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Saving Private Ryan with gameplay somewhat similar to Valkyria Chronicles (without the real-time elements) you are just wrong for not having played this game.

The thing about this game is it is gruelingly difficult. I mean that in the best way; permanent character deaths and one-hit kills are around every corner, but the fact that you can’t save mid-battle was what eventually led me to move on. A lot of the 27 main missions can take hours and even if you are in a position to win, one bad turn of luck can take out your re-animator -the only one who can revive casualties- making a restart a good idea. This is a game for the hardcore for sure, and I love it for that, but damn, guys, maybe allow a save or two per mission, yeah?

 rpgfinish2Record of Agarest War

Another tactical RPG, this one of truly epic length; reportedly about 100 hours for just the story. This is a particularly great concept because it’s pretty much five adventures in one. The game takes place over multiple generations, beginning with a typical hero and his party and branching out from there. You see, the ladies in your party are potential love interests and based on your dialogue decisions you can garner favor with each. When you get to the end of your 20 hour or so quest and save the day, you can take a bride. The game then picks up in the next generation with the offspring of your hero and his love as the new protagonist and the cycle begins anew. It’s pretty great.

Considering that each generation after the first has several possibilities for its lead hero depending on the genetic combos, the replayability is significant. It’s a shame the game is so long that only the hardest of the hardcore gamers are going to make it through multiple playthroughs. I was well into the third generation (about 50-60 hours) and I wasn’t really sure about some things regarding story events so I made the mistake of reading some of a FAQ. I saw that I had missed a lot of story content in the past generations because it was dependent on being at a specific place on a specific date and the game itself gives you no indication of these things.

Realizing the missed memories I’d never have with my beloved former comrades, and realizing I’d have to spend the rest of the game with an FAQ in my lap to catch everything I wanted to see, and that’s no way to game. I decided to take a break from the complicated game for a while. When I finished my next title in line and came back, I realized I had no clue what was going on. I’ve currently got the PS3-exclusive sequel sitting on my desk, ready for when I finish with my current title. Wish me luck.

rpgfinish3Resonance of Fate

 If there’s one title on this list that I really should have beaten, it’s this one. It was well-balanced, incredibly unique, great characters, featured probably the best battle system of the last gen hands down, and is apparently not insanely long at a mere 60 hours or so. But, you know, stuff happens. As I recall, this one ran up against a major release (possibly BioWare-related) and got tossed aside before I reached the end. And I just never got back around to it.

Resonance of Fate’s dystopian future is somewhat Final Fantasy-esque, but the combat consists of fast-paced semi-turn-based gun battles that would make John Woo blush. Your trio of heroes dashes and leaps across the arenas raining double-fisted lead and shrapnel death on enemies individually and in badass delta attacks. You also get to mod your weapons to RIDICULOUS levels. Probably more than anything else, this is a must-play for RPG enthusiasts looking for an exciting new approach to RPG combat.

rpgfinish4 The Last Remnant

Square Enix’s attempt at an original new title was sadly hobbled by its Final Fantasy XIII ambitions and is in need of a do-over that it will almost certainly never get. This is a tragedy, because with some more TLC from its dev, this could have possibly been the best JRPG of the decade. It suffered from distractingly delayed texture loading, too few memorable characters, and horrific unbalances, but at its core it had a battle system that I would kill to see catch on. Kind of a cross between Ogre Battle and Kingdom Under Fire with a massively cinematic twist. I remember reading that funding was pulled in mid-development to divert towards FFXIII, resulting in Square releasing a lesser, un-finished game for the 360 that they never even bothered porting to the PS3 as planned and that is just tragic.

The Last Remnant had the exciting, visceral, large scale battles where your party members fought according to their skills and the camera switched to wherever the action was. While this took some of the accustomed interactivity from the player, it still managed to keep even a control freak like me engaged if not riveted. Unfortunately, some of the enemies were just plain cheap and unbalanced.

 I remember towards the end of the first disc (it’s two discs long) I bulled my way through a particularly long and harrowing dungeon to meet an overpowered boss that would turn my own fallen parties against me. And here I was without the items I needed. I found it too much of a pain to even find my way back out of the dungeon and its respawned enemies to get to a store and threw in the towel like a total wuss. I still want to go back and start it over sometime, though. This game deserves another shot.

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Ain’t gotta lie to kick it, Mao.

 Disgaea 3: The Absence of Justice

Out of all the games on this list, this PS3 exclusive is the one I invested the least in, but I still had a great time with it before it made me want to smash it to bits. Disgaea is yet another tactical RPG, this time from a running series. It takes place in Hell and you play a demon in high school assembling beasties to do beastly things. What sets it apart from most other RPGs is the focus of the story is on comedy, which makes the tone really refreshing. For the first 15-20 hours at least, before you notice most of the jokes are repeating on a loop.

But it definitely wasn’t the repetitive Emeril Lagasse references or the delightfully psychotic (and adorable) princess or the class delinquent (which in Hell, means she’s actually really nice while the honor students are bastards) that turned me off of Disgaea 3. It was repeated random unfairness wiping out hours of progress. You see, the best way to level up in the game (and power up your favorite items) is to explore the randomly generated dungeons inside of the items. Unfortunately, there’s no way to get out except for once every ten battles and no saving is allowed so you rolls your dice and you takes your chances.

This makes for great tension and risk/reward, and I accept that. But after kicking ass for hours and gaining tons of levels and rare loot, being randomly transported to a room full of characters to talk to and having one of them start a fight when everyone in the room is countless levels ahead of you and you can neither damage them nor escape from them as they effortlessly mow you down with ridiculous damage is complete, unadulterated, controller-throwing, fuck you bullshit. Difficult situations is one thing. Literally impossible ones is another. And there’s way too much of that going around for those who dare to explore. Absence of Justice indeed.

rpgfinish6Fallout 3

I had a fight in my head between this and Bethesda’s other amazing game I couldn’t finish, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The reason I went with Fallout was because not finishing Oblivion was a technicality. I poured probably 100 hours into that one doing everything EXCEPT the main story because to progress it, they wanted me to do some boring crap like close a bunch of Oblivion gates in every major city. Do that pointless busywork, or take over the assassin’s guild: gee, I wonder which sounds like more fun? Fallout 3 was an equally awesome game with a much better story, and it had a much more interesting fatal flaw that led me to move on before its time was through.

Like in Elder Scrolls, I took my sweet time getting around to story missions. In this case, it was nothing against the story, but there was just so much to do and explore. Investigating random Republican cannibal communities, committing slaver genocide, engaging in Super Mutant wars, ghoul busting, and defending settlements from invaders was just too much fun. I finally got around to following the story after several dozen hours and I started noticing that I was no longer receiving experience. The hell is this fuckery?

Yeeeeeeaaaaaah, so it turns out that one of the best RPG’s of its era had a really low level cap. You hit level 25, collect your ultimate perk, and that’s it. No more character advancement for you. It seems weird that this would be a dealbreaker for me; so much to do, so much to see, so much fun to be had with slow-motion dismemberment and all that. But somehow, this really bugged me. Although playing an awesome video game should be its own reward, suddenly all of the things I was doing felt pointless. So much so, that I moved on. Call it a casualty of the Skinner Box effect.

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90’s Flashback – EVO: Search for Eden

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Sometimes in entertainment, the best and most creative ideas are the ones you never hear about. The making of a classic is a tricky thing. A lot of circumstances have to come together for creativity and originality to find proper funding and exposure, and even then there’s no guarantee of mainstream success. The forces of business, art, and chance are fickle and as a result some of the best movies, music, books, paintings, and video games are ones we’ll probably never even know existed or at best heard of but never got a chance to get into.

Oh crap, is grandpa Nick gonna tell us another story about the good ol’ days? Yeah, looks like. It’s not like there’s much going on with you next gen folks right now. So for a few weeks, I’m going to remember for us a golden oldie that represented really original thinking in its time and could be devastatingly good if the concepts were applied to present day gaming.evo fish evolve

Either that or we could go back to waiting with baited breath to find out about the minute changes being made for the next Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty games instead. I won’t judge. I know we’re all super excited to get to complaining about the next barely-improved twice-yearly installments of AAA  franchises past their primes, but for now let’s go back in time and look at a game that I’d rather be playing.  Yo, DJ, bring that beast back!

I know remake has been a bit of a dirty word that inspires thoughts of creative bankruptcy, what with Hollywood feverishly remaking every single film foreign and domestic that holds any sort of international name recognition among genre fans and video games rebooting franchises the same way. But sometimes a remake done right can be a really great thing, especially with video games. Taking an older title with a brilliant premise and bringing it into a new decade with better technology and resources to expand upon its core concepts isn’t a bad idea so long as the devs keep in mind what made the original worth bringing back.

At the top of the pile of games I’d love to see brought into the modern era is an obscure 1993 SNES title called EVO: Search for Eden. The story is the story of life itself on this planet and takes the player through billions of years of prehistory starting with life as a tiny sea creature and carries on to the advent of sentience. You want epic; you’ve got it. This game was a beast back in the day, and it has the capacity to be even more so today.

evo snes dinosaur

The real reason dinosaurs went extinct: they couldn’t handle all this swag.

The game featured side-scrolling action/platforming gameplay with RPG elements. Basically, what you did was travel from area to area and weave your way through the food chain, devouring weaker creatures and avoiding stronger ones. Each meal restores health and gives experience. The cool thing here is that you used accumulated experience to evolve your creature from humble to dominant.

 Any part of your beastly avatar’s body from jaws to tail could be modified to augment your base stats or bestow new abilities on you. You could put a horn on your snout for a charge attack, focus on more powerful teeth to improve your bite, add armor to your body, choose to become a two-legged animal instead of four, or even get wings. Each choice had its positive and negative effects on your abilities, so it was really all about building the kind of animal you want to build. Needless to say, the replayability was through the roof.

Funny little aside about life in the early 90’s: I was the only one of my friends allowed to play this game. Why? Because evolution was for devil-worshipers, of course. Laugh all you want, but that was real shit back then. I guess my mom figured time I spent playing evil video games was time I wasn’t lighting matches and cackling menacingly while staring into the flame and went with the less scary of the two. She probably made the right call.

Maybe it’s the subconscious knowledge that I was already going to Hell for playing EVO that’s made me such an irrepressible bastard all these years. Welp, I already played Satan’s favorite video game so I may as well pop some Slayer into my cassette deck and go sacrifice some babies while spray-painting inverted crosses in alleyways. But wait, now it’s the 21st century and the Pope believes in evolution? I’ll bet he’s a closet gamer too. He would totally bless this remake if it happened.

evo gaia

Ironically, the game featured Deist Intelligent Design concepts rather than traditional Darwinism, which is something Christianity would embrace after the whole Creationism thing started seeming unlikely.

 One should never underestimate the 16-bit era from whence many of the greatest games of all time sprang, but when you think about the massive possibilities of this premise, a 2D action-platformer probably wasn’t the extent of this concept’s potential. The game was developed by Almanic, and I’ve never played another of their titles, which doesn’t bode well. However, Enix was the game’s publisher, and I wonder if Square-Enix might still have the rights tucked away somewhere. If so, screw them for not making a new EVO instead of those ridiculous Final Fantasy sequels.

A lot of games these days are making massive, detailed open worlds with AI ecosystems that operate independently of the player. Think about how great that would be to play as a creature in such an ecosystem working your way to the top of the food chain instead of, say, running drugs, hitting things with swords, or running over hookers with stolen cars. An open world EVO on modern systems would be a hell of a showstopper. And that’s not even thinking about the multiplayer possibilities.

So anyone else out there remember this one? And if you don’t, would you not rather be evolving totally awesome and unique creatures instead of trying to make videos of yourself doing 360 no scopes, hunting for exploits, trolling message boards and comments sections, and doing other things gamers do because they’re bored and developers normally can’t be bothered to make something cool and interesting enough to really capture our imaginations anymore?

Pride, Prejudice, and Perversion: A Virtual Trip to Akiba

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My son wasn’t the only one who was blessed by the video game fairy this past holiday season. While the youngest Verboon was rolling in Wii U games and Disney Infinity statues, a Christmas angel delivered unto this grown up gamer a bizarre new PlayStation exclusive that is definitely not for kids by the name of Akiba’s Trip: Undead and Undressed. Some games could be described as the most fun one could have with your clothes on. In this one the fun comes in taking them off. Not like that, though.

akiba's trip body pillow

Commencing waifu body pillow beatdown in 3…2…1…

It may be written as Akiba’s Trip, but one look at the game’s box cover/title screen sheds a little light on the game’s premise. After all, the Akiba in question isn’t a person so it couldn’t very well take a trip. It’s really Akiba Strip. But before I get to the good stuff explaining this twisted little premise, some backstory for the non-otaku among us. Tokyo’s Akihabara district (Akiba for short) is a worldwide Mecca of hardcore geek culture. It’s an area surrounding the Akihabara station that is densely packed with as much electronics, anime and manga culture, video games, maid cafés, and general Japanese pop culture insanity as anybody could ever want.

I remember a few years back when I saw a preview for a Kinect game where you could explore a virtual recreation of Disneyland and get fake hugs from Disney princesses. Being California born and raised, this struck me as really sad because where I come from, trips to Disneyland are an indispensable part of childhood. No way a video game replaces that. After playing Akiba’s Trip, in which you wander a digital recreation of what’s essentially Disneyland for anime geeks, I imagine this is how Japanese otaku feel about lower class loser gai-jin like myself who will most likely never see the Land of the Rising Sun with our own eyes and have to settle for a video game approximation of their nerd Nirvana.

But to be fair, I doubt you get to strip the clothes off of Goofy in Disneyland Adventures or smack Snow White down with cat paw mittens or a rolled up anime poster while cross-dressing. The opening crawl of Akiba’s Trip promises “a little something to offer even the most fetishistic of appetites” and while it may not be quite that perverse (no girls using cups as props, for instance), it’s well off the beaten path of repressed American popular culture, which is exactly why I had to play it. Anything this insane needs a look.

Okay, the game’s premise: Akihabara has been invaded by mysterious vampire-like humanoids feeding on the passion and greed of the nerds who populate it, rendering them listless and inert. The only way to defeat them is to expose their entire body to sunlight. That means if you’re going to fight back against them, their clothing has got to go. Ready, set, strip.

akiba strip

It’s all in the name of public defense, honest.

You play an Akiba resident lured to their doom with a shady job offer promising to pay in rare anime figurines and changed into one of these creatures, known as Synthisters. You’re saved by a typical anime girl in a frilly dress wielding a parasol as a weapon, meet up with your buddies at your hangout game bar, and then set about figuring out how to save your beloved town from the menace along with your whichever girl you play your cards right with.

In most cases, a game where the combat is based around tearing the clothes off of people in public would be the world’s worst idea. Actually, it probably still is. But Akiba’s Trip does a great job of placing its tongue as far into its cheek as possible, making the experience of shopping in virtual Akihabara genuinely fun, keeping away from the pornography that is suggested by the premise, and keeping things equal between genders.

There are at least as many male enemies as female, after your initial playthrough you are able to choose a female avatar if you like, and even the risqué screenshots of the major characters you strip (which you can use as wallpaper for your smartphone menu) are split between male and female characters. Virtual Akiba is populated both by random asshat “playboys” who can be seen being slapped while hitting on random girls and by fujoshi shipping male passersby and pontificating on the finer points of tops and bottoms. That is to say that the game is perverted, but it’s equally perverted, be you man or woman. My kind of progress. It’s worth pointing out that the romances are super tame too, akiba's trip boy love fangirlconsidering.

And I have to say that as a high school kid who used to wish I could hit bullies with a hadoken, I now think it would have been way cooler to strip them naked in public using drunken monkey kung fu or by thrusting my hips at them to make their clothing fly off with telekinesis. But even if you’ve never had fantasies of being Marv in Sin City and telling people “that there is one mighty fine coat you’re wearing” before beating them down and taking it for your own, the story, dialogue, and characters are funny enough to warrant giving the game a shot if you’re nerdy enough even without the awesomeness of free-roaming Akihabara. I mean, who hasn’t wanted to respond to a prissy lady with “well excuuuuuuse me, princess” or hit a villain with “your ideals are bad and you should feel bad” or suggest to a heroine “it’s dangerous to go alone. Take me”? Lame people. That’s who. Go back to your pep rallies and proms, noobs.

In addition to hilariously random pop culture quotes as dialogue options, how often do you see a game story where the whole cast sits down to binge watch an entire season of anime together in preparation for a cosplay contest? Even funnier is the post-binge discussion in which all praises heaped on the show are qualified with the suffix phrase “except for the last episode”. This kind of nerdbaiting always gives me the warm fuzzies.This is clearly a game built for geeks by geeks, and that’s something you see shockingly little of considering video games are our hobby of choice.

akiba's trip sister pose

I wish my kid sister wanted to practice anime poses with me.

The sequences where you converse with your character’s hikikimori sister (which are apparently some kind of minigame I haven’t figured out) are charming as various visions of geekiness dance around her head and the talks have unpredictable (and adorable) results. Never thought I’d be called “3DPD” by a video game character. Another nice feature is the social media app, Pitter, where you occasionally get to see exchanges between various internet users that are almost a little scary in how closely they match message board culture, right down to a character who compulsively identifies herself as a girl and other members calling her a “trap” (not a transphobic slur in that context, as some sites have reported, but a reference to the classic online bait-and-switch pranking that spawned the term).

Although Akiba’s Trip suffers from a low budget presentation spearheaded by the still-effective visual novel storytelling format in place of animated cutscenes, it’s still a fun open world game if you don’t go in expecting Grand Theft Auto: Japan production values. You have a relatively small area to wander and a short story, but that area is packed with awesome and the game thrives on customization and replayability, featuring dozens of stores to shop in and tons of rare items to hunt and optional quests to complete, some of which are hilarious. Plus there are more features added upon completing each difficulty and a ton of free DLC featuring content from popular video game and manga franchises and even more customization options if you get the upgraded PS4 version. But don’t buy the DLC character swimsuits. That’s just dumb.

akiba's trip rin pose

Japanese pride much, Rin-chan?

There’s a lot of respect shown for the bizarre subculture Akihabara represents woven into the diversity of the cast and the goofy story to counterbalancethe mocking ridiculousness of the whole setup. While the villains declare the otaku community wastes of energy and seek to harvest it for their own use at the cost of emptying the nerd race of the passion that gives their lives meaning, our heroes come from differing backgrounds ranging from successful businesswoman to pop idol to neckbeard loser to old timer but are brought together by a certain ownership of what Akiba represents as a place where you can let your freaky geek flag fly without fear of prejudice.

On top of all the insanity of geek culture satire and tongue-in-cheek perversity, Akiba’s Trip is first and foremost a celebration of otaku culture, good, bad, and ugly. There’s a genuine pride in what the community of Akihabara represents that comes through, even if the idea of a woman dressed as a maid calling you “master” makes you cringe (and in my case, it does) or you find Japan’s pop culture to be bizarre (as pretty much everybody does). After all, Akiba is maybe the one set place in the world where you can be a total weirdo without being judged for it. Just don’t go ripping people’s clothes off outside of the game, yeah?

Rant Time: Could BioWare’s Multiplayer Fail be a Sign of the Gaming Apocalypse?

DAmp

There comes a time when you have to admit that you’re fed up and a game should not have been released in its present state. Last week, I reached that breaking point with BioWare’s latest. After spending a hundred hours on a single playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition leaving behind plenty left to do, I was genuinely excited for some hardcore RPG co-operative multiplayer. After all, Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer was the bee’s knees. What could go wrong?

I should have expected a rough time when the single player campaign had me resetting my console every few hours due to full crashes, among a multitude of other glitches. Plus so much was spent making the game insanely massive, that a lot of the little details that made previous BioWare games such a treat were missing and the game didn’t perform as it should a lot of the time. Still, I had a great time.

When I finally decided to break in the multiplayer, I was at first impressed, than underwhelmed, then impressed again. The amount of content was rather small: a few characters to choose from, several more to unlock, a handful of maps and enemy sets, and a crapton of random loot. The overall setup was like Mass Effect 3, but it lacked the polish. There were good times to be had, but overall, it was never going to be Inquisition’s feature attraction.Dragon Age Inquisition multiplayer characters

Even with the tacked-on feeling, there was a lot to do in terms of leveling up your characters. As I progressed and unlocked cooler characters and more powerful weapons I started getting really excited about my builds and the tactics I could use to bring victory to my crew. After the hectic juggling of my party in the single player quest, it felt pretty good to focus on just one character at a time and work with other players towards the common goals of kicking ass and taking names. The skill trees for each class were well constructed, and since the game’s combat engine is happening, endless hours of grinding was a joy and not a chore. Fun was both afoot and at hand.

As it was, I was playing only a couple hours a night if at all. Maybe once a night I’d get dropped or the game would freeze or something, but it seemed like isolated incidents. Until I realized it was happening as often as it was, that is. Quest-breaking glitches were popping up, robbing me of my precious time, hard-earned virtual currency, and all-important experience points.

You see, to keep losers from bailing on you mid-quest Inquisition only gives you what you’re owed upon completion of the mission. It seems like a good idea, and it is…..so long as your game works like it’s supposed to. You can only get so many isolated sessions interrupted before you notice the pattern, and once I got some more time to really put my nose to the grindstone, I discovered the second most broken multiplayer experience I’ve ever had in all my years gaming.

Dragon Age Inquisition glitch comic

This actually happens pretty much every mission.

Batman: Arkham Origins had an extremely creative and fun multiplayer mode, but I was forced to quit because it was damn near impossible to make it through a match, and sometimes to even find a match. But that was from a first time developer. BioWare did a competent job on their last game’s multiplayer so you’d expect this one to be functional at the least.

But no. During one night of intense multiplayer madness, I finally decided that Dragon Age: Inquisition’s multiplayer is not something I need in my life. At least, not in its current form. In fact, it may be a herald of an incoming video game industry crash. That products of this size are being released at all in this state is something companies like EA should be ashamed of and it could be a matter of time before gamers lose interest if it keeps up.

So what kind of night makes a confirmed Biodrone turn against his favorite dev? Well, picture a multiplayer RPG where leveling up your characters and buying chests packed with random loot is where the fun and advancement come from. Now picture that you spend hours playing the game and the game keeps robbing you of those things after you’ve already put in the work. Even casting aside all of the other bizarre glitches and bugs, this is just unacceptable.

I started up a god-tier Elementalist three times, had great games filled with me being awesome and saving my weak partners (randoms in this game are freakin’ helpless for the most part, I’ve found), and got nothing at all for my troubles. Either the server crapped out, the game itself crashed and froze my console, or worst of all the game didn’t recognize that you’d killed every last enemy and refused to let you move on; almost always near or even after the final battle. That was just an hour and a half trying to get one character though his first mission.

Just prior to that I was playing my glass cannon of a Reaver, smashing through enemies with my two-handed axe like I was mowing lawns. It was awesome. Now I understand why people play as tanks. The power could drive one to madness! Die, weak fiends, DIE! Neither puny mage nor cowardly rogue shall have the glory of the kill whilst I roam the fields of battle! I got her to a pretty high level, but hit the same wall with the game not letting me advance due to its own shittiness. The Elementalist was just the last straw.

Dragon Age Inquisition skill tree

Sure would have been cool to be able to climb that skill tree.

So my last game as a Reaver we had to find a key to the door by defeating all of the enemies. We did the thing, but the door remained locked. We spent almost half an hour backtracking, breaking random objects, talking shit about the game, and eventually trying to kill ourselves. The conversation focused on how shitty a game has to be where it becomes your responsibility to look for ways to commit suicide just to get the experience, gold, and items you’d earned so far in the broken quest.

Standing in fire didn’t help, but I found that if you jumped down a stairwell just right, you could get a little fall damage. So here were the four of us climbing up a stairwell jumping back down over and over again while our characters repeated the same sayings over and over  (as they do every game) so we could get a game over screen and at least be awarded our due. Not really the kind of epic quest we signed up for.

The ultimate insult came when we were nearly dead after several minutes of this ridiculousness and found that we could damage ourselves no further. Seriously, BioWare? There is almost no way to get fall damage in this place and you’re so worried about it that you made dying from it impossible just to make goddamn fucking sure that when your shitty game broke we had no way to collect our earned gold and experience?

lipstick middle finger gif

So after thoroughly expressing our discontent while desperately seeking a way to salvage our adventure, the rest of my party determined to play some Far Cry 4 instead and I was hoping that by starting a new mage character I would feel a little better. We all know how that worked out. A couple hours later, I was done with Dragon Age: Inquisition. It’s been over a week and I’m still butthurt. It was so much fun (when it worked)! So much potential (when it worked)! So many characters to build (when it worked)! It should have been great, and it would have been (had it worked).

So this whole experience has left me pondering what the hell is wrong with the state of the game industry that a respected developer like BioWare can get away with putting out something this broken as a finished product. This is a fairly new thing, releasing half-finished games. You didn’t run into this kind of crap in previous generations. This is all Xbox/PlayStation era. I thought the problem might have been me playing a next-gen game on a last gen console (PS3), but the next-gen message boards seem to bear out that this is a problem there too. The game was released while it was busted on a fundamental level.

I’d love to give it another shot when they patch it, but why should I? I preordered this game and had been awaiting it with baited breath for years. I even cheered when they delayed it because anything that makes the game better is fine by me. But now I have to wonder about what the game would have been like if they hadn’t delayed it. The multiplayer is almost unplayable as it is. I’m sure in the future they’ll have ironed it out and maybe even added in some free DLC, but the likelihood of me gathering myself up to go back to this mess on the chance that it’ll be fixed is unlikely. As a general rule, you get one shot with me before I move on and BioWare blew it. I was playing the game right here and now and it is broken right here and now and my last experience with my most anticipated game of the year by far left a bad taste in my mouth.

fuck you half baked gif

My message to the people who saw this game released too soon. The writers I’m cool with, though.

What the hell happened? Is it the new engine? And why are no sites pointing these things out? Is it because we’re filthy console peasants and nobody cares about us?  It’s EA’s fault, isn’t it? Fuck EA. Really, though, how is it that something like this can even be released in good faith? The faithful fans buy games as soon as they come out and they should be treated to the best that the product can offer them.

The smart gamers are having to wait for Game of the Year editions or sales a year or so down the line to scoop up the patched version and enjoy the game as it should have been enjoyed in the first place (see also: Red Dead Redemption/Fallout: New Vegas). This nonsense has got to stop. Release unfinished games is going to do nothing so much as lower consumer confidence and send us fleeing to Nintendo, piracy, indie developers, and used games.

Our time and our money is valuable and if big game companies are going to pretend that isn’t a fact, then they will eventually see their income dry up. Fair warning. A game industry apocalypse is the only way this ends if screwing your customers remains commonplace. If we can’t count on the companies with the most resources to release dependable finished quality products, they probably won’t be able to depend on us buying them much longer. Sooner or later, we’re going to get sick of it. I’ve just reached that point, and with one of my favorite games of the year, ironically.

Hopefully, this doesn’t become standard procedure, but it kind of feels like it’s starting to. More and more games are being released with massive problems and the industry seems more obsessed with pushing itself further in than pulling itself out of this technical quagmire. BioWare is my favorite game developer and now I can’t even count on them so where does that leave my faith in the industry? Not in a good place. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.

Blog Announcement: Good News and Bad News

Hi, all. I’ve used this blog as a place to dump my past columns writing for Unreality and Gamemoir to collect them all in one spot for convenience and give the fine people of WordPress another chance to discover them. I’ve been pretty happy that a lot of people have found them that way and been kind enough to read, like, and comment on them. Thanks for that. It’s why I still do this after over a decade of site-hopping, reviewing, and general commentating. But my relationship with Unreality concluded as of my last post due to several factors so if you’ve been coming for film, television, literary, and comics commentary I’m afraid there likely won’t be much more of that coming anytime soon. It’s been a really busy time and I’m not seeing the possibility of taking up any more writing assignments. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that I still write for Gamemoir so if the main reason you come here is video games, there will be much, much more of that coming. Due to me not wanting to fill everybody’s inbox with more than they could possibly want to read I’ve limited my posts to three every week or so and writing two new columns a week and having started this blog several months behind I haven’t had much luck catching up to current events. As a result, everything I’ve posted up to this point has been months old. Focusing on on my Gamemoir output means I’ll finally be able to catch up and eventually start posting articles about current events here instead of ancient history. So that’s something.

Hopefully you’re a gamer and just gave a little “yay” or something, and maybe at some point in the future I’ll find the time to write some original content or recommendations about other media that I enjoy. We’ll see. Either way, I appreciate you taking the time to read this and I’m always open to requests if anybody wants to encourage me to continue writing about non-video game related stuff in the future. After all, if you want to read it, I’d like to write it. It’s kind of the whole point of this thing.

Thanks,

Nick

 

 

 

The Five Best Short Films from The ABC’s of Death

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Last week saw the release of the The ABC’s of Death 2, and with the first streaming on Netflix I figured now might be the time to give this fascinating concept some love. For those not into underground horror, the premise of this series is that each feature consists of 26 short films assigned to different directors from around the world, each titled according to a letter of the alphabet. 

That’s two films which have bequeathed to us a total of 52 bite-size slices of horror in the last few years, so I thought it might be worth our while to take a look at some of the best offerings.With such a massive number of shorts, it’s safe to say that the results are mixed. Each director was given complete artistic freedom, which is to say that the films run the gamut from utterly nonsensical to terrifying and disturbing to absolutely hilarious to just gross.

There’s gore, irony, animation, wit, brutality, and bizarre sexuality on display in addition to just about anything else you can imagine. These are five of the most memorable and enjoyable segments for me from two of the most unique horror presentations of recent years. Naturally, they will be in alphabetical order. There are some pretty extreme visuals in some of these if you aren’t horror fanatics, so proceed with caution, 

E is for Exterminate

I’m a little biased with this pick because I’m intensely arachnophobic but seeing that there are ironically very, very few legitimately scary spider films out there, this one has got to be included. It was directed by horror sweetheart Angela Bettis, who starred in the excellent May and has remained a mainstay in Lucky McKee’s films since. Iterestingly, McKee starred in Bettis’ only other directing credit, Roman.

A lot of killer spider stories have a keen and basic misunderstanding of arachnophobia. They think that making spiders giant or having a million of them is what’s scary. Not even. What’s scary about spiders is the ease with which they can hide from us. A black widow only needs about an inch of shadow to be nearlyinvisible and their ability to get literally anywhere makes them a nightmare. I once walked face-first into one that was spinning a web in my hallway one night when the light had burnt out. I can’t even feel safe in my own goddamn home.

Anyways, E for Exterminate does a great job illustrating what we arachnophobes can’t stop thinking about: that if these small creatures ever gained intelligence, they could probably wipe us out. The protagonist in the film fails in his attempt to kill the offending spider, and it gets back at him by biting him nightly on the face as he sleeps. If that doesn’t send a shiver up your spine good for you, badass. But the kicker here comes when tiny spiderlings begin crawling from his ear where the arachnid has apparently been laying its eggs as well. Can…….can they really do that? [runs for q-tip]

F is for Fart

Now it’s time to get plain damn wierd. This segment was brought to us by modern Japanese grindhouse kingpin Noboru Iguchi, who specializes in pushing his country’s native brand of exploitationist absurdism to its utmost extreme. His other films include such insanity as The Machine Girl, Robo-Geisha, and Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl and it’s pretty safe to say they aren’t for everyone. They are, however, for me. People take themselves way too seriously. This is the one film out of all of the where I called the director before they were credited onscreen. Nobody else would ever make this film.

I’ve heard a lot of atheist philosophy, buy F is for Fart is the first one to use the femine social stigma against flatulence as its basis. The story of forbidden love between teacher and student is interrupted by an apocalyptic eruption of poisonous gas, which causes our heroine to decide that if she has to die in that way she wants to spend her last moments suffocating on the eruptions from her beloved sensei’s delicate derriere and pass beyond the boundaries of good taste together with her.

This is definiely a love it or hate it film, but you will have a strong opinion about it, whether it’s abject disgust, hilarity, or just complete and utter confusion. The classical music accompaniment really sets the tone here. Iguchi is contrasting the profound with the moronic -the sacred with the profane, if you like- and using this theme to make a personal statement about his own unusual approach to the film medium. And why shouldn’t we embrace the taboo, explore the cleverness of stupidity for its own sake, or find enjoyment in the disgusting? Yet somehow this isn’t even the most bizarre or obscene Japanese entry in the first ABC’s of Death. Not even close.

M is for Masticate

Probably more than any other segment in the films, this one shows how simple it can be to make an awesome short film. Great entertainment can be as simple as clever timing, presentation, and proper utilization of the almighty kicker. In a little over two minutes you get horror, gore, comedy, and then the overwhelming urge to yell “TOO SOON!” while laughing in response to the extremely unexpected reference to a real life event.

The choice of music is as excellent as it is unexpected too. It preps the viewer for the laugh to come by setting the tone in spite of the horrific imagery and the use of slow motion and sudden shift from slo-mo psychedelic surrealism to real time and real sound as the bullet makes contact is fantastic.

Anyone with a great idea and a little skill could make a film like this with minimal effort. The beauty is in the simplicity. M is for Masticate feels a lot longer than it is because it frankly packs more genuine style and entertainment value in its under two and a half minute running time than some two hour comediesI’ve seen in their entirety. It was directed by Robert Boocheck, a former intern of Sam Raimi’s with a few obscure titles to his name who won a contest with this entry to have it included in The ABC’s of Death 2.

U is for Utopia

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Sci-fi legend HG Wells wrote in his thoughtfully self-indulgent novel A Modern Utopia that “there is only one sane and logical thing to be done with a really inferior race, and that is to exterminate it”. I don’t have any explanation why this out of all the films isn’t available for viewing on the internet so I guess I’m giving the synopsis of this short film’s homage to the proposed ideal of an ideal society.

The film opens with shots of beautiful, elegant, impeccably dressed people shopping in a shiny, happy pristine world. We then are introduced to a neckbearded fellow awkwardly making his way through the population center, bumbling about as he goes. The pretty people stop, stare, and pull out their smartphones, which scan the disruptive intruder, setting off an alarm. The masses part as a mobile lawenforcement coffin makes it way to the site of the disruption, pops open, pulls the loser inside, and incinerates him on the spot to the applause of the masses. Perfect world: achieved.

Vincenzo Natali of Splice and Cube fame is responsible for this nice slice of dark social satire. The idea of a perfect society is something that has fascinated scholars and philosophers, but it’s obviously something that can’t be achieved if for no other reason than every single person has a different idea of what that entails. Making something perfect for one group of people requires ether enslavement or elimination of opposing groups of people, which hardly meets any sane moral definition of ideal.

What makes this entry so fascinating is the way it takes a giant sanctimonious dump on the ideals of those among us who think the world would be a better place if we were all held to their lofty standards. Everybody doesn’t meet somebody’s standards, but very few of them deserve extermination, which is the only practical way to remove them from the social equation. Sorry, idealists.

X is for XXL

This poignant and disturbing tale of modern body image is brilliant and probably hits extremely close to home for a lot of overweight people. It’s hard to watch, but part of that is because it rings so true. Even the internet’s ever-shouting “social justice” community has had a hard time coming down on the right side of what has become one of the last bastions of acceptable social abuse: body shaming.

This short film features a day in the life of an overweight woman surrounded by media featuring female perfection in bikinis smiling and encouraging her to do as she does while strangers in public loudly mock and discuss her appearance. Now, anyone who even knows the meaning of the word “psychology” has got to be aware that certain people deal with stress and depression by attempting to balancing the negative emotions with the physical pleasure they receive from food. This makes the abuse part of the self-fulfilling cycle of obesity for many people.

In X is for XXL, the protagonist finally reaches her breaking point and begins attacking her own body, hacking off parts of herself with the image of the slim, sexy, smiling model on TV flashing before her eyes. It seems extreme, but in abusing or judging a person for their current size, are we not encouraging the concept? We are literally asking another human being to reduce themselves to meet our personal preference whether by surgery or by diet and exercise. Self-mutilation is not as far off from that conceptually as we might like to think.

French director Xavier Gens has made a name for himself in the horror community with Frontier(s) and The Divide, and he’s broken into mainstream Hollywood with his film adaptation of the Hitman video game series, but this short film is my favorite thing he’s done so far. Combining effective horror with such savage, literal, and spot-on social commentary is pretty rare, and doing it in so short a run time is exceptional.

There’s obviously plenty more where that came from, but those are my favorites from the first two ABC’s of Death collections. It wasn’t a very easy narrowing-down process. Feel free to let me know which ones you think I should have included.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Fictional Character Death

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Death is something that’s ever-present in our lives, but nobody likes to talk about it in real life. That’s why we have fiction. It’s kind of ironic that so many of us spend our finite lives watching unreal characters live and die, but we love it. Some of the most memorable moments in pop culture revolve around the deaths of beloved characters, deaths of minor characters are used to set plots in motion, body counts are racked up for our amusement; any way you look at it, death is big business in the entertainment industry.

But as with most things, there are right ways and wrong ways to go about it. Barring black comedies or big dumb action flicks, death is usually meant to be taken extremely seriously in a story. Nobody wants their favorite hero or their adorable love interest to bite the dust, but sometimes sacrifices have to be made to make a tale truly memorable. Here are some right and wrong ways to bring that about. I’m going to use a lot of specific examples here so beware of spoilers.

Do: Make it Count

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Noble sacrifices and tragic losses have always been staples of storytelling drama. Nothing galvanizes an audience like a protagonist who has his or her happiness ripped from them by some villainous piece of crap who killed their loved ones and left them with nothing but a thirst for vengeance. And nothing gets the feels going like a noble character giving their life for their comrades or a character in the depths of despair taking their own life. It’s all very cliché, but it’s still damn effective.

Death should always have a purpose in a story. If you don’t feel it, it’s just filler. I still remember watching Godzilla: King of Monsters as a child and seeing the scientist that created the deadly weapon used to take the apocalyptic monster down choose to die with the beast rather than risk the possibility that his knowledge could be used in warfare. And watching the original Gojira decades later as an adult, that same gesture still gets me, even more so because in the Japanese version there are so many added character wrinkles.

Likewise in war films, killing shouldn’t just something you do because you can. It’s a horrific and ugly thing that scars and taints every soul it touches. We can watch Rambo mow down the dirty commies or whatever all day without blinking, but watching a scared recruit go crazy in boot camp and kill his sergeant and then himself, or the intense suffering of Nazi concentration camps; that’s memorable. Remember that red dress in Schindler’s List? Yeah, you do.

And I don’t think I’ll ever get over Tara’s fate in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television show. So shocking and so senseless, but absolute dramatic gold. A wonderful character dying purely from the stupidity of a desperate wannabe villain utterly changed the dynamic of that story in drastic ways, and sometimes that can be a really great thing.

Don’t: Take it Back

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Look at that smug, punchable bastard.

While death in a story is often used for drama and tension, a lot of folks use it as a cheap trick. They want to have their cake and eat it too so they feed you the drama and then go “PSYCH!” This is just plain bullshit. The worst recent offender I can think of is The Dark Knight Rises in which they make a huge to-do about the titular hero sacrificing himself to save his city complete with corny-as-hell statue to commemorate and then have his butler spot him alive and well hiding out in Italy. It was so awful, out of character, and just plain lame that fans of the film had to put forth the theory that it was really a dream, like an Inception crossover I guess. Christian Bale had other ideas. Sorry, folks, it really was that bad.

Another story that pulled this to maddening effect was in the video game Uncharted: Drake’s Deception. In that one, you’re exploring the fabled lost city Ubar pursuing your bad guy and suddenly a sniper bullet takes out your beloved companion of three games, Sully. This was genuinely shocking. After tearing after the dicks who shot him in a rage, you run into your recently lost pal; lol/jk, it was just a hallucination. Oh, so you were just dicking me around, Uncharted 3? Screw you too.

Do: Use it to Ratchet Up the Tension

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Leaf on the wind, spike through the chest.

The old rules were that heroes have to survive because good triumphs over evil and everything is gonna be alright. The problem with that is rules are boring and predictable. Can Batman and Robin escape King Tut’s elaborate unsupervised deathtrap? Tune in next week same Bat-time, same Bat-channel! Bitch, please. Nobody is dying. Except in the comics, where the Joker famously beat Robin with a crowbar and blew his flamboyant ass to hell. If you always know that everyone is getting out of the danger in one piece, there’s no legitimate tension. Somebody has got to go. And now every time Joker shows up in a Batman comic, you subconsciously expect horrible things.

Joss Whedon has a talent for this. In Serenity he offed multiple characters from the beloved Firefly crew and when death was closing in around the balance and our heroes prepared for their last stand, I really believed it. Better, I felt it. William Faulkner decreed that “in writing, you must kill your darlings” and that’s true, and not only in the metaphorical sense it was intended. If you take something or someone you love and sacrifice it for the good of the story, you get drama and audience investment.

Don’t: Trivialize It

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Sorry, everyone. You totally missed it.

Obviously, death should mean something; it’s the most universally feared aspect of life. If you overuse it, you kill the drama; repetition equals comedy. Take a look at slasher films. Not exactly the most respected genre of cinema, but a successful one. How many college kids have cheered and laughed as Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers stalked and massacred copulating teens? Or how about your Stallones or Schwarzeneggers mowing down generic baddies and offering glib one-liners? Good times to be sure, but it’s not the stuff high art is made of. It makes for stories you forget by the time the popcorn is done.

The final season of True Blood killed a primary character off-screen and I spent most the rest of the season trying to figure out what the hell they were thinking. I figured Tara’s mother may have done it and lied and they were saving the revelation for later, but nope. And this after they already killed her and brought her back to life as a vampire. They just didn’t care enough about the character or the audience at that point to bother showing Sookie’s best friend’s final moments. And if they don’t care, how am I supposed to?

Comic books are notorious for making death trivial in addition to constant character resurrections, and are even worse because they usually broadcast the deaths of major characters months in advance so there’s not even any shock value in it. It’s just a blatant cynical attempt to manufacture a sales spike. Then, usually in time for the next movie featuring the character comes out, they’re back just like that and carry on like nothing happened. The Simpsons has done this as well, making a game out of letting the audience guess which minor character will meet their end. The show is satirical, but the way they handle the deaths is often sad, making for an uncomfortable mix of tragedy and comedy.

Do: Make the Audience Feel the Loss

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Remember when this was amazing graphics?

When a character dies, it should be a sad thing, assuming that character isn’t a serial murderer or rapist or a Justin Beiber stand-in or something. If you don’t care about a character’s fate, how are you even invested? Everyone who played Final Fantasy VII back in the day remembers it as the first video game to make grown men cry. When your party’s healer and protagonist’s love interest gets shish-kabobed by the villain, you felt that shit. It was so shocking, it almost didn’t even seem real because video games just did not do that. Players spent years insisting there was some secret way to bring her back. The game rubbed it in by giving you items that were meant to be equipped by that character. But nope. That time, dead was dead, but we never stopped looking. That’s how you do it.

The Walking Dead has proven adept in every medium. The comics have always revolved around nasty demises for its characters, and you feel every one. The image of Glenn’s head being smashed into mush with a baseball bat isn’t leaving me anytime soon. The television show mixes it up with the characters and one of its defining moments was after half a season spent searching for Sophia, the lost little girl shows up as part of a zombie horde that was stuck in a barn right under their noses the whole time. And Telltale Games’ video game series is possibly the best of all. Between choosing which character has to die to a sudden, unavoidable bloody end for a love interest just as things were getting interesting to the heart-rending finale of the first season, there are just way too many gut-wrenching moments to recount here.

Don’t: Tack on a Happy/Dark Ending that Ruins the Story’s Integrity

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Oh look, everybody important to the hero is alive….how boring.

In Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds, there’s a scene where the protagonist’s shithead of a son runs off to be stupid or something right into a nuclear explosion. It was probably best for everyone. The hero got his dramatic loss, the audience didn’t have to listen to the kid bitch anymore. Win-win. Now I find it hard to believe that the same guy that made the aforementioned Schindler’s List decided to end a classic story about murderous aliens by miraculously resurrecting a character that nobody missed even a little bit in the last scene for an unearned happy ending to a genocide story. Lose-lose.

On the other end of the spectrum is The Mist, in which a father spends literally the entire movie defending his son from all sorts of danger to escape into the titular mysterious monster-infested fog only to drive off into the middle of nowhere and kill him and the other survivors. Is this the same character? How? It’s probably the biggest “f*** you, audience” ending in the history of cinema and so out of whack with everything that came before it that it pretty much refused to allow me to take the film seriously, although I had been enjoying it very much right up to that point. Night of the Living Dead and I Am Legend (the book, not the movie); now that’s how you earn a dark ending. You can’t just tack one on for shock value.

Do: Shock Us

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Euphy-chaaaaan!

Some of the most memorable moments from fiction have come from killing off lead characters or from having those characters do unspeakable things. Stories like Hex, which killed the star early in the second season without warning or A Game of Thrones, which set up Ned Stark as the hero only to have him become a victim of his own magnanimity and lose his head for the trouble, create tragedy gold this way by utterly defying audience expectations.

When we don’t see something coming, the impact is so much more memorable. The depths that Walter White sank to over the course of Breaking Bad, Frank Underwood’s spontaneous act of murder in House of Cards, and the hero of the popular anime Code Geass gunning down the angelic princess that was his childhood friend are the kinds of moments that make for unforgettable fiction. Unexpected brutality that makes us question the people we were rooting for is an increasingly effective tool for making an audience think beyond good and evil, and how we get true art.

Don’t: Overdo It

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Yes, that is a marker for each death.

But like I said before, repetition equals comedy. While the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire and the respective opening season of Game of Thrones were an instant hit partly by the willingness to go there, after a while the constant death and then occasional resurrections and fake-outs became a running joke. It’s one thing to slowly kill off your cast, but when you bring in characters who bring the dead back to life and the like, it starts to become eye-rolling because the author is tempted to kill everyone (or pretend to) just to bring them back and again we’re having our cake and eating it too. Death is meaningless if it can be undone on a whim.

Kill ‘em all, but don’t let God sort ‘em out. You’re the author; that’s your job. Dealing with death is an important part of drama and as a plot device it’s not going anywhere. Just do us a favor and do it right, ‘kay?