Humans Invade You

•August 22, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Last year, XCOM kinda blew up the video game charts by being an unrepentantly brutal, relentlessly intense, well-crafted alien-fighting and/or alien-getting-exploded by simulator. Even I thought it was something special, and I don’t play many strategies games and difficulty scares me.

It didn’t have a very good story, though. Really, the story was pretty much just “aliens are attacking, fight them and probably die trying to fight them”. Even so, the issue is less that the writing was bad and more that they realized that no one was going to play XCOM for the story. And, as far as I know, no one did. Also, there’s the fact that the whole alien invasion schtick was being done to death since at least the 50s. Again, that’s not necessarily a criticism against XCOM so much as merely a statement of fact. Even the best-written alien invasion story is a story that’s been told a thousand times before.

Which brings me to my next point: how awesome it would be if someone ran with what made XCOM great, but shook up the circumstances of the plot. What I propose is a video game with the same hopeless-fight-against-overwhelming-odds theme of XCOM, but put the whole thing in reverse. That is to say, an XCOM where you’re the aliens desperately trying to fend off an invasion of ruthless humans.

If aliens invading Earth is such a tired story, why not tell a story of Earth invading the aliens?

Set the game in the future, establish that humans have 1) developed space travel 2) are ruthlessly expansionistic in regards to said space travel and 3) kind of bastards about it. Taking the XCOM approach of gameplay over story, the plot pretty much writes itself: humans are invading your star system, fight them.

Of course, people don’t usually think of the aliens as technologically inferior to humans, but you could do that easily enough. Make the aliens non-miltaristic, peace-lovers who solve their problems with diplomacy, have them cross paths with the expansionistic, probably xenophobic shoot-at-first-sight humans and go from there. To maintain XCOM’s coalition of different kinds of aliens, just make the aliens some kind of pacifistic multi-ethnic space-republic or something.

Obviously, this is a pretty rough, off-the-cuff remarks that would need refining to actually work in an actual game. But seriously, someone needs to make a human invasion video game.

Triumphant Return

•August 12, 2013 • Leave a Comment

So, it’s been forever since I’ve posted (my bad). But, look, here I am, posting again (hence, the name of this post).

But I’m not the only one who’s come  back after a long absence. A few weeks ago marked the release of Dynasty Warriors 8. Since I’m pretty much the only non-Japanese person who actually likes Dynasty Warriors, this was kind of a big deal for me. I was sufficiently impressed by the game to consider that Dynasty Warriors also made a triumphant return (so, you see, the title of this post refers to two things – I’m ever so brilliant).

That being said, long story short, I think Dynasty Warriors 7 was actually better than 8. Well, not better, so much as more meaningful. Even among the people who like Dynasty Warriors, 6 was a low point in the series. It wasn’t necessarily bad, it just made a bunch of changes that didn’t really make sense and weren’t well received – most characters that the same cloned movesets and a lot of the ones that didn’t got new and often less cool weapons, only a handful of characters had full story modes, the character designs were changed pretty significantly, and the way your attacks worked was different.

Part of the reason that 7 was so impressive was because it undid or fixed a lot of the problems people had with 6. 8 doesn’t really do anything like that. It feels more like Dynasty Warriors 7.5 than anything. It does add a few things and those things add depth to the game (particularly the elemental rock-paper-scissors … element that all weapons have). The characters are also more individual and distinct in gameplay than in 7, but, technically, that got fixed in the DLC and expansions of 7, rather than in 8. There are also less reused battlefields in 8 than 7, which borrowed more than a few from 6 – so it’s got that going for it.

One thing that 8 does that I liked is continuing the use of kingdom-based, rather than character-specific story modes. It provides a better sense of the progression of history (even though everyone still looks like a sexy twenty-something even after they’ve been alive for 80 years of said history) and a more cohesive story-mode. The changes it made from 7 in the story modes is probably the biggest and most meaningful change to the game as a whole. You have the option of choosing from several characters (always at least two and up to, I think, five) at the start of each level. Depending on who you choose, you’ll have different responsibilities in each battle, which doesn’t really change how the battle progresses, but does change your exact role in it – defending a strategic position, or protecting someone important, or launching an ambush, etc, etc.

The other big change is the fact that certain battles allow the opportunity to change the course of history, which affects how later stages of the story mode will unfold – if you save a character from their historical death, they’ll be able to fight in a decisive battle and turn what was historically a crushing defeat into resounding victory (this happens at least once in all four story modes). Ultimately this culminate in an entirely new, ahistorical storyline that ends with a better outcome for your chosen kingdom than mandated by history. This is undeniably a good thing, as every Dynasty Warriors game has been confined to the same period of history and has never diverged for it, this allows for the opportunity to fight battles that we haven’t fought 8 times already.

Incidentally, this is why I think Koei’s best franchise is Warriors Orochi, which, being a purely fantastical story, is allowed to kick history to the curb and go nuts with what happens – like, for example, having Achilles get beat up by Joan of Arc in a modern Japanese metropolis.

My one complaint with this whole aspect of the game is that some of the requirements for the hypothetical conditions are either really vague and impossible to figure out or ludicrously hard to actually do (partly because of the vagueness). Wei’s version of the Battle of Xu Province probably being the worst. On the other hand, some of them are shockingly easy (especially in comparsion to the hair-pulling-out-ly difficult ones) and will probably be accomplished without really trying and can be made even easier by picking the right character before hand – several characters can be easily saved from death just by deciding to play as them and then simply fulfilling the mission objectives.

Still, it’s a Dynasty Warriors game. It’s entirely consistent with the core of the series as has been established 6 times over already (yes, I’m aware 6 and 1 makes 7, not 8, but that’s because the first Dynasty Warriors game was a fighting game; that’s why each release in the series is one number lower in Japan, the first game isn’t considered part of the same series). If you’re adverse to the notion of button-mashing your way to victory (though, especially to fulfill the hypothetical conditions, that’s not early enough on its own), you’re not going to like Dynasty Warriors 8. If, however, you don’t mind something as straightforward as “X,X,X,X,Y, go over here, then over there, X,X,Y, repeat”, you’re probably going to like it. It’s not as much as a leap forward as 7 was, but it does everything that 7 did right and corrects a few of the things it got wrong and at the very least, is wearing a shiny new coat of paint.

Not a Bad Idea

•July 4, 2013 • 1 Comment

Apparently, there’s, like, a Facebook petition to get Nintendo to make Zelda a playable character in a future Zelda game. Rather predictably, it’s sort of devolved into a feminism or feminism-is-terrible thing on the Internet – discussions about the role of women characters in video games tend to do that (see, for example, the debacle surrounding the Sorceress’ breasts in Dragon’s Crown). A lot of people seem to be irrationally hostile to the idea just on principle. Some of the more thought-out comments are decidedly more rationally hostile to the idea based on narrative and gameplay concerns.

As you might tell from the title of this post, I don’t think this is a bad idea, at least not on principle. However, I can see any of a number of ways the decision to have a playable Zelda could fall flat. One of the proposed solutions – and one of the ones take I find most inadequate – is to turn Zelda into Link and Link into Zelda, turning Zelda into the badass hero and Link into the hapless, helpless royal. That, in my opinion, doesn’t really work in making Zelda stand up as her own character. It makes her Link. She wouldn’t be a badass because she’s a badass. She’d be a badass because she’s Link.

To do this right, I feel that Link needs to stay Link, and thus remain and primary protagonist and hero (because that’s what he does, because that’s what the goddesses of Hyrule have divinely decreed that he must do). If Zelda is included as playable, both the narrative and the gameplay around the sections of game that follow her need to play to her own strengths. Link is Courage, that’s why he’s the badass hero. Zelda is Wisdom. That’s why she’s not a warrior, though she can be pretty badass. It’s been repeatedly established that Zelda is magic. Even when she takes on a more active, combat role (i.e. as Tetra of Sheik), she’s assuming an altered form using magic. So, what I’m trying to say here, is that a playable Zelda needs to make use of her magic. Magically turning

What I think would be the best way to pull off a game with a playable Zelda and Link together is to make Zelda’s sections more puzzle-solving oriented and make Link’s more combat-based, though not necessarily exclusively. How this would work in a narrative sense might be that Zelda gets captured (though, there would inevitably be cries of “Zelda got captured again! She’s a weak character! Nintendo hates women!) and Link tries to fight his way into wherever she’s being held while Zelda herself tries to get out of wherever she is. Or having Zelda and Link travel together (which would solve the “Zelda’s been captured!” dilemma) and using Zelda to solve at least some of the puzzles necessary for Link to get through the dungeon to fight the boss and probably even help him fight the boss.

Long story short: the idea of a playable Zelda isn’t an inherently, automatically bad idea. Problems may arise, however, depending on how exactly it gets implemented. There are certain things about a Zelda game that are necessary to make it a Zelda game, if it loses those, it stops being Zelda. However, the addition of a playable Zelda, done properly, could use those archetypal elements in a new way and make the most novel Zelda game in recent memory.

And, As Promised

•July 2, 2013 • Leave a Comment

And, as promised, a blog post. It’s been a while since I’ve done a post, and even longer since I’ve done a list of things. So here’s a post that’s a list of things. Those things are several of my favourite video game, well, “levels” is probably the most familiar word, but doesn’t necessarily work given that most of these games don’t have the linear, clearly-demarcated level progression. Incidentally, I’ve notice that the hole linear progression of levels has sort of faded from the medium, except in series that are steeped in tradition (Mario and Sonic, for example) or are trying to deliberately invoke the style of the era of the Genesis and Super Nintendo. So, yeah, maybe the best word is something like “areas”, given that there tends to be a fluid connection between them and usually some kind of over-arching over world between them, rather than a definite, linear progression.

So here’s my list:

1. Satorl Marsh – Xenoblade Chronicles

Visiting Satorl during the day, you are confronted with a foggy, dreary landscape filled with ugly frog-monsters, gnarled trees and poisonous swamp. There a couple of fun side-quests to be found, some pretty scenery rising out of the mist and gloom, so it’s not an entirely unbearable place to be. But even the most beautiful poison fog-swamp is still a poison fog-swamp. It’s not exactly the kind of place that belongs in a list of my favourite … places.

But then you go at night, and this happens:

(skip to 4:00)

Several of the areas in Xenoblade have some kind of description including in their in-game names. Satorl’s is “the Shimmering Marsh” (or, according to a different translation “the Phosphorescent Land). During the day, it’s hard to see why. At night, it becomes abundantly, beautifully apparent. Everything starts glowing with a ethereal glow that makes it feel like you’re standing in the middle of an aurora. The in-game justification is that the marsh is permeated with the stuff (which, if I recall correctly is called ether) that makes magic possible in the game world, and it collects, then releases magical energy that makes the swamp glow. Or something. I forget. Also, not important. I really don’t care why happens, just that it’s awesome when it does.

And the music, the soundtrack for Satorl at night is some of the best music in a game filled with awesome and is on my list of favourite game music ever.

2. Sovngarde – Skyrim

Even though the final boss fight in Skyrim is really just another Dragon, it’s still one of my favourite boss fights ever, thanks almost entirely to the atmosphere. Sovngarde is the Elder Scrolls equivalent of Valhalla, which, for the uninitiated is Viking Warrior Heaven. You ascend to Sovngarde (still as a mortal, though hugely badass, character) to fight the final battle with, essentially, the god of the Apocalypse. To gain entrance to Sovngarde’s Hall of Valour, you have to identify yourself to the Hall’s divine doorman, allowing for you to pick one of several awesome boastful declarations. And then you have to duel him. And then you get to hang out with the souls of the ancient heroes of Skyrim. And then you go fight the god of the Apocalypse. And, again, really awesome music plays in the background. It’s the Skyrim main theme, but chanted more slowly and solemnly than on the title screen. And also, there’s a really awesome vortex swirling in the sky.

3. Virmire – Mass Effect

Due to several game-changing decisions and revelations, Virmire is the point where it becomes apparent that Commander Shepard is playing for keeps. It’s suitably (which is to say, hugely) dramatic. It becomes possible to activate the Virmire mission of completing two of the three main missions given to you when the main story starts in earnest. For the sake of the drama, it should be kept for last (and I have a feeling that it was intended to be). If Virmire is the of the four main missions you do, the end-game of Mass Effect becomes one of the best, most dramatic, most satisfying climaxes in video games. It’s hard to screw up the design of a mission that consists of leading two teams of badasses guns blazing into an enemy stronghold then blowing it the hell up. And Bioware kinda knocked it out of the park with Virmire. Though, full disclosure, it’s pretty easy to kill the drama accidentally, because it’s pretty easy to get lost and disoriented.

And, again, the music. It’s probably my favourite track in the game and perfectly captures the intensity and desperation of the mission.

Plus, the mission ends with a nuclear explosion big enough to be seen from orbit.

4. Summer Scramble – Fire Emblem Awakening

I could have easily picked one of the actual stages from the main quest of Awakening, as lot of them (especially towards the end-game) are AWESOME. But I don’t want to spoil anything, as there are several twists, turns and awesome moments that happen that I would probably diminish by spoiling now. Instead, of opted for one of the DLC missions, which isn’t awesome so much as it is hilarious. Awakening is one of the those games that manages to capture both ends of the emotional spectrum, alternating between uproariously hilarious and emotionally devastating. The Summer Scramble is very much the former. Long story short, your team goes to the beach and fights encroaching bandits, while offering their commentary on the situation, bantering with each other and wearing sexy bikinis.

Once again, the music makes it perfect (that’s been happening a lot lately). Much the stage itself, the music isn’t necessarily awesome so much as hilarious. It’s a Carribean-style steel drum version of the main theme with “vocals” consisting of (the Japanese version of) Chrom’s attack quotes and grunts of exertion. And, yeah, it’s pretty funny.

 

There are three Scramble levels, all of which are pretty much just your team going on vacation, then having that vacation interrupted by bad guys, but nevertheless making the best of things and all of which are pretty hilarious. They’re a great way to recover from the drama and emotional impact of the main quest. Some of the conversations between characters manage to be pretty emotional themselves, but that emotion is usually “adorable” rather than “devastating”.

Plus, the Summer Scramble has sexy bikinis.

… By which, of course, I mean, impeccably written character development.

Please stop looking at me like that.

5, Earth Temple – The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword

It’s the music, okay?

Again.

But, seriously, though, it isn’t just the music. It’s the fact that most of the dungeon is completed by navigated rivers of lava by rolling across them on a boulder. It’s as much of a farce as it sounds (in a good way). Also, since most of the dungeon consists of getting around on the boulder, it’s actually pretty light on the combat, which I thought was a welcome change of pace from the traditions of the series (those traditions are still awesome, but it’s nice to do something different every now and then). The dungeon also ends with an Indiana Jones-style “get the treasure and run away from the oncoming boulder” sequence, which is also a farce (in a good way).

6. Big Blue – Super Smash Bros Melee/Brawl

I’m just gonna leave this right here:

But, awesome as that is, that’s not why I love Big Blue so much. I love it because everyone else hates it. Their tears bring me joy.

People tend not to like the moving/scrolling stages and Big Blue is pretty much moving at the speed of sound. As the F-Zero cars? ships? machines? race along, you need to use them as platforms, which is as unpleasant as it sounds. If you miss one of the racing … things and touch the track, you go flying off the screen at the speed of sound as the track continues onwards and you … don’t. The speed of the stage also screw up other things, as items tend to get shunted off screen as soon as they appear and attempting to get an item might lead to you missing your footing and ending up dead.

I have fond memories of playing as Pichu on Big Blue in Melee and going out of my way to be as reckless a troll as I could. I gorged that day on the frustrated tears of my enemies. Essentially, Big Blue is designed to make people angry. And I love that.

 

Pardon My Uneventful Absence

•July 2, 2013 • Leave a Comment

So, yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve posted. That’s largely do to a combination of being actually pretty busy, not having many good ideas to write about and playing way too damn much Skyrim. But I’m still here. The bad news is, I’ll be disappearing again for a couple weeks because I’m going on vacation with my family. The good news is that I’m actually gonna do a post right now.

Happy Accident

•June 2, 2013 • Leave a Comment

The first game I played for my 3DS was Samurai Warriors Chronicles. It was a pretty good game and nicely established for me what he 3DS was capable of both graphically and gameplay wise. I also happen to think that it’s actually one of the better Warriors games, given that it has one, unified story that spans the entire course of historical events covered by the game. Of course, this makes the experience kind of implausible given that you’re in control of the same one character starting in the 1540s (I think) and ending in 1615. By the last level, your character should be, like, 80 years old, yet still looks just as much like a 16-year-old as s/he (you can choose your character’s gender, which is another decision choice that I approved of) did in the first level. Another feature of the game I liked was that after each level you had an opportunity to talk with other characters to improve your relationship with them. That actually may have been my favourite part of the game, even though its consequences on the game are negligible. But it did help me care more about the other characters.

But I’m starting to digress from what I wanted to say. I choose to use the female player character, mostly because I though she looked better than the male one. And then I named her Tsubame, because that’s the one female Japanese name I can remember off the top of my head. As it happens, Tsubame means swallow (the bird, not the action) – I was aware of that, but it didn’t really factor into my decision. As it also happens, one of the music tracks in the game is called Flying Swallow. It’s a particularly badass song that tends to play in important, high-drama moments. I only learned this after I gave my character a name that means swallow. I had inadvertently given my character her own utterly fitting, entirely accident theme music. It couldn’t have gone any better if I’d been trying to do that deliberately.

Another unintentional, but kind of awesome element that got added to the game by virtue of my choosing the female character had to do with the character relationship conversations that I talked about earlier. Explaining this will requite another fairly lengthy digression, so bear with me. Towards the end game (by the time the events of the plot reach about the year 1600), you are faced with the choice of joining either the Western or Eastern Army. Long story short, they’re the two sides that fought to finish the political unification of Japan. I won’t bore you with a long, detailed account of the historical events and people. If you’re curious, look up the Sengoku Period on Wikipedia and start from there.

Historically, the Western Army lost several decisive battles and were ultimately defeated by the Eastern Army, which laid the foundation for the political order of Japan for the next 200 years. Even if you side with the Western Army in the game, you still lose those battles and most of the Western Army leaders die. Where this gets interesting in the game, especially with the female character, is that you have a chance after each of the in-game representations of those battles to say your final farewells to the other leaders of the Western Army as lose and retreat. The way the whole things play out, with your general desperately pleading with you to run and save yourself and leave him because he doesn’t want you to die, with a strangely romantic subtext. It’s like the general is bravely sacrificing himself to save the woman he loves. It made the whole thing surprisingly emotional and tragic.

The Obvious Solution

•May 29, 2013 • Leave a Comment

In the Poetic Edda – which is one of the main collections/sources of Norse mythology- there’s a story called the Lokasenna, which means “Loki’s Quarrel” and consists largely, which is to say, solely, of Loki crashing a party the other gods are having and then systematically making fun of all of them. Basically, he starts sassing one of the other gods, at which point another god will come to their defence and/or tell Loki to sit down and shut up, and which point Loki will move onto sassing that god.

Even accounting for the differences in styles of humour, it’s actually pretty funny, and pretty filthy. Most of the jokes and insults are sex things. My favourite part is when Loki insults Odin by pointing out that Odin practices witchcraft (which had connotations of womanliness, effeminacy and deviance in Old Norse society), which leads to him calling Odin a pervert. Odin’s response is to counter that Loki is, in fact, the real pervert, as Loki was the one who once turned into a female horse and got himself impregnated by a male horse and then proceeded to have that horse’s baby (it’s a long story).

The whole story kinda plays out like one big filthy, filthy joke. The punchline happens when Thor comes to the party and threatens to knock Loki’s head off with his hammer if he doesn’t get his sorry ass gone. So, yeah, you can’t really out-smartass the god of smartassery, but you can threaten him with physical violence.

Threats of physical violence and/or actual physical violence tend to be Thor’s modus operandi in Norse mythology. Which is probably to be expected given that Thor is not a particularly smart god and also because he has a hammer. And magic goats.

 
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