Friday, June 14, 2024

What Makes a Great RPG? A Discussion

I’m joined today by Roseanna and Joe D. to talk video game RPGs. Our goal today is to discuss why we all love the genre, what we love about it and what we find most (and least) compelling within the genre. - G

Let’s start with some personal history - what was the first RPG that really captured your imagination, and what was your journey from there? 

Roseanna - So I had played various RPGs before - hell, I’d played this series before - but it was lockdown that kicked it off for me. I was on furlough for 12 weeks (which I would extremely not recommend, by the by), and the thing that got me through it was binge-playing first all of Dragon Age then Mass Effect straight through in a… probably unreasonably short time. BioWare in general, but Dragon Age as a series specifically, kind of catalysed my recent love of the RPG. From there, it was just chasing that high - that obsessive, hyperfocused investment in the story and characters that BioWare does so so addictively well.

Joe D. - Weirdly enough, the genre has grabbed hold of me at different points of my life and, as I changed, continued to find new ways to create an aura of adoration. My very first JRPG was a Capcom game called Breath of Fire III. I’d play it whenever at my cousin’s place (it was his game). We were always so excited to advance the story and unlock new genes (stone-like items that transformed the character into different entities). We loved experimenting with the different gene combinations and finding new areas to explore. While a lot of PS1 era kids point to Final Fantasy VII, I was hooked on Breath of Fire III (and Pokemon Blue!). This opened the floodgates for other JRPGs like Grandia, Lunar, and Final Fantasy IX/X. It wasn’t until Dragon Quest VIII that I found another JRPG that recreated that magic that I had found in my youth. It would later be one-upped by the Persona series (Persona 4 Golden/5 specifically).

On the flip side of the globe, in 2007, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion took any potential social life I could have had, lit it aflame, and spread the ashes across a tempestuous ocean. I had tried other western RPGs that I had liked to varying degrees, but nothing as captivating as Oblivion. There was a point during which I literally played for three days straight with no sleep. I wish for a modern day Bethesda remake, but I can only hope.

G - The first RPGs I played were Dungeons & Dragons: Pool of Radianceand Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire. I was young, though - and didn’t have access to any walkthroughs or game guides, so never finished either. Never really got that far, to be honest! So I went back to point-and-click adventure games, real-time strategy and first-person shooters, which were my genres of choice as a child and teenager (even long after point-and-click games went out of fashion, I might add). The idea of the RPG did take, however. 

Fast-forward a dozen years to an older me who read about a new game coming to the Xbox called Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. As you both know, I’m a bit of a Star Wars fanatic, and there hadn’t been a truly great Star Wars game in years - it had been 8 years since Dark Forces and 9 since TIE Fighter. So I was in, regardless of genre.

Knights of the Old Republic is a stunning game, one I replay every few years - and one of the absolute best Star Wars stories told on any medium. That was basically it for me - I was hooked on the genre. From there I continued on to Jade Empire, also a BioWare property, on the Xbox - and played both the original Deus Ex and its sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War, on PC. The 360/PS3 generation brought the Mass Effect Trilogy, which I adored, Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - which is probably my favorite game of all-time. On PC I poured countless hours into Pillars of Eternity and Tyranny, both developed by Obsidian. At this point in my life, RPGs probably account for a good 75% of the games I play.

Let’s talk preferences. Console vs. PC? Turn-based vs. real-time combat? Medieval fantasy vs. science fictional?

Roseanna - PC master race dialing in. We got a Switch a couple of years ago and a PS5 last year, and they’re both great and all (I like the portability of the Switch, especially), but PC first, last and foremost. I’m not even really much of a modder (except for the Sims, which barely counts), so it’s not like I have a good reason for it. Pretty sure keyboard and mouse gave me significant wrist damage a couple of years ago. But they just feel better, and nothing will ever persuade me otherwise.

Ok also the menu wheels in the PS5 version of BG3 made me want to set things on fire. That’s a good reason.

I’m not enormously fussy about combat - there are games I enjoy that do all modes - but I always appreciate the ones that do a good job of difficulty sliders. As someone who wasn’t allowed video games growing up, my twitch skills are uhhh… ropey at best, and I need some heavy handholding. I generally get there in the end, but I like games that aren’t snobby about that, or feel the need to punish me for it.

Joe D - Console peasant here. Super happy with my PlayStation, Nintendo, and Xbox consoles over the years. It’s what I grew up on and never adjusted well to keyboard and mouse for video game input. I can manage with a PC, but I prefer the sticks. Plus, most big JRPGs that I want to play release on consoles first. I built a high-end PC back in the day for schooling/gaming and I never ended up playing games on it. Even my first foray into the MMO world (FFXIV: ARR) I played on my PS3, then PS4 when they released a new version. I fully admit that PCs have superior options and input control, but I like the simplicity of console ecosystems.

As for the type of gameplay/genre, I have no specific preference as long as it’s done well (as you’ll see in my rather varied list below). Give me a space opera, give me epic fantasy, or give me a tale of a bunch of high school kids fighting demons. Turn-based or real-time. I’ll take it all.

Roseanna - actually reading Joe’s thoughts here has reminded me of something - I think to some extent consoles suffer from being much better catered to people who don’t have puny lady hands. I don’t prefer the sticks because I simply cannot reach (well, not comfortably, not easily). The Switch is the exception for me, but I swear half of my problem with the rest is I just can’t react quickly on them if I have to sort of scooch it sideways to hit the menu button or whatever. Whereas I have a relatively dinky keyboard and mouse, and so my miniscule mitts are content.

G - Roseanna, there are some smaller controllers out there, like the PowerA Nano, that are designed for smaller hands. I can’t vouch for their quality (large-handed male gamer here) - but might be worth looking into?

As for me, I’ve always split my time between console and PC. At one point I was 90% PC; at another, 90% console. Now it’s probably 67% console and 33% PC. I think, all things being equal, I prefer sitting on the couch facing a TV. But it really comes down to gameplay mechanics: certain games and genres are just much better suited to a mouse and keyboard. RTS games, for example, don’t make a lot of sense to play with a controller; point-and-click adventure games too.

As far as RPGs go, I tend to prefer playing action RPGs on console, with feet up on on couch and controller in hand - and turn-based RPGs on the PC, where the mouse really comes in handy. Turn-based cRPGs like Shadowrun Returns or Pillars of Eternity are profoundly annoying to play with a controller (or a touch interface). Both great on PC, though!

On the setting question, I guess it depends on when you catch me. I probably prefer science fictional settings by a hair, but my favorite RPGs are fairly evenly split between SF and fantasy. I’m keen to play Disco Elysium, which I understand is a very different type of fantasy RPG.

What are the crucial ingredients, in your opinion, that make an RPG successful? What do you need to get immersed in the game? Conversely, what are things that can drag an RPG down?

Roseanna - I jokingly say that all you need is a fishing minigame and a dating sim. Which is not entirely true, but it does have a nugget of something meaningful at the centre. Basically, I like games with a strong romance angle because those games tend (not always, looking at you Fire Emblem: Pepsi-hair, but generally) to put more investment into creating well-rounded and engaging characters for you to interact with. And that’s what I’m after. I really like dramatic moments with an epic soundtrack behind them, don’t get me wrong, but my angle of interest is always about the people enacting those moments, and interpersonal relationships are the best way to showcase that.

If you start talking to me about a game, chances are I’m going to pretty quickly get onto favourite character/who did you romance. Because it’s what I find most interesting. BG3 really leaned into that - thinking of relatively recent games - and it meant the fomo was intense when I couldn’t play it on my janky, busted up laptop. Which is… most of why we got a PS5, honestly. To allow me to romance - as Adri put it - “the sad fuck-wizard”. It was worth it.

The other crucial ingredient I think is genuinely meaningful choices, where you can see the outcomes of your decisions (even if they’re not earth-shattering). Take Stray Gods, one of my favourite games of 2023, for example. The choices you make determine the style of the music sung by the characters. There’s an immediate on screen/audio outcome of personal decisions, and because this happens throughout the game, at a choice by choice level, the soundtrack I got is going to be wholly different from the next person who plays it, and I love that. It’s that feeling of personal-ness, intimacy almost - the gaming experience being altered by you, tailored to you, as you experience it.

So what drags it down? Flat characters and railroading, obviously. But also games that stray too far away from the core story. RPGs are a great medium of storytelling, and if you get distracted by too many other things on the way, the end product can feel bloated and tangled.

Joe D - This needs a multifaceted answer because RPGs come in so many shapes, colors, and sizes. I considered “meaningful choices” as my first answer, not necessarily exclusively for story, but for romance or character build options. But then I think of how absorbed I was in some JRPGs like Breath of Fire and Dragon Quest VIII, which didn’t give much player choice at all, it was the story and characters that sucked me in. So then I thought, “it has to have a great story and main character”, but then I remember Oblivion and the thousand hours I spent pickpocketing guards, hoarding cheese wheels, and discovering Cyrodiil’s secrets as my non-speaking orange-haired dark elf. The main story was forgettable (though the guild quests were fantastic). An immersive open world with tons of lore must be the answer! But alas, no.

I think the answer, for me, is this; the RPG must choose where it wishes to excel, whether it be characters (Persona, Witcher, Dragon Age, Mass Effect), world/lore/interactivity (Oblivion, Fallout, CyberPunk 2077), story (Disco Elysium, Final Fantasy), or choice (Mass Effect, Disco Elysium, Baldur’s Gate III). The examples provided may mix, match, and excel on multiple fronts, those are just the prominent facets that I thought of (still waiting on my BG III physical edition, so I haven’t played yet, unfortunately). Also, let’s not forget gameplay systems. A game that’s fun can keep you playing despite some shortcomings. To sum up, I think an RPG should incorporate almost all of these things, pick one or two to excel in, then do a good job on the rest.

I think we see an RPG become a slog when: A) a developer tries to do too much and instead of excelling everywhere, the game just becomes mediocre all around; B) they do excel in the one area they wanted to, but everything else falls to the wayside; or C) as Roseanna said, railroading, (super immersion breaking) and awful characters/uninteresting world/stakes.

G - I agree with that 100%. Pick a lane and then be the best you can be. But there are a few ingredients I don’t think RPGs can live without:

1. A compelling quest

This is a narrative-driven genre, more than any other, so the quest needs to be compelling. When it isn’t, you leave the experience disappointed. No matter how beautiful Starfield is, or how good the gameplay is (and it is excellent), everyone I know who has played the game has found the main quest underwhelming. I honestly found it hard to care.

When I think about the RPGs I truly love, they fall into all of the categories Joe outlines - but what they have in common is that I am fully invested in the hero’s quest. Bethesda games are often more vibes than story, but becoming the Dovakhin in Skyrim is still probably the most compelling moment I’ve ever experienced as a gamer. Becoming Starborn in Starfield? Er…not as much.

2. Memorable side quests, minigames and other secondary content

Going back to Roseanna’s comment about fishing minigames, the secondary content has to be compelling. There are many ways to go about this. Many RPGs have extended side quests and DLC that play almost like short stories or standalone novels set in the same universe and timeline as the main novel series. In others, like AC: Valhalla, side quests are more often like vignettes - but many of these are highly memorable. And anyone who played Skyrim will recall the simple joys of leveling up by making dagger after dagger at the blacksmith shop.

And I absolutely love minigames. Some are actual games within games - Gwent in the Witcher games is best in class for me, but Paazak in the KOTOR series is a lot of fun too. Others are tasks, like hacking in the Deus Ex series, Shadowrun Returns series, Fallout series or in Cyberpunk 2077. Also fishing, though I never know what to do with my fish.

3. Gameplay mechanics

Captain Obvious here, but ultimately a game lives or dies on how fun it is to play. You can have the best story and characters in the world, but if people don’t enjoy playing the game, they’ll go do something else. Even when the core gameplay mechanics are solid, games that rely too heavily on “schlep and fetch” quests, have bad map mechanics or are poorly calibrated in terms of difficulty will struggle to keep my attention. A pet peeve of mine is when you can’t adjust the difficulty settings. I almost always play on normal, as I want games to be challenging but not frustrating - but I appreciate that the option is there. RPGs in particular should be accessible to different types of gamers who want a tailored experience. 

Roseanna - I think I’m going to disagree here - I absolutely will slog through some atrocious clunk for good characters. Case in point, I absolutely hated the Fade section of Dragon Age: Origins. I thought it was clunky, unnecessarily difficult, confusing and just… bad. I have grown to… tolerate… it at least these days, but it never stopped me playing DA:O. Because Alistair was sufficiently babygirl that it was worth it to me.

G - That’s a good point. Though I guess “clunk” is also in the eye of the beholder. A lot of people think the combat in The Witcher 2 is clunky and frustrating, but I loved it - or maybe I tolerated it because I loved the story and world so much. To be honest I can’t really remember. I don’t specifically remember disliking the combat but it’s also been a long time since I last played it. Maybe I only tolerated it!

If you had to pick 6 RPGs to recommend to someone interested in the genre, what would they be - and what would be your one line elevator pitch for each one?

Roseanna - well my first three are all the Dragon Age games, for which my pitch is simply: hot sad men with religious trauma, cheese jokes and an absolute banger of a plot. And hot women who should be lesbians but tragically are not.

1. Dragon Age: Origins

2. Dragon Age 2

3. Dragon Age: Inquisition

(The temptation then is to give you three Mass Effect games (spicy take - not the original three, because I’d cut Mass Effect 2 in favour of Andromeda, and yes, I will fight you), but that is a boring BioWare whitewash, so I will restrain myself.)

4. Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Instead, I’ll say Fire Emblem: Three Houses - a game in which you are press ganged into being a completely unqualified school teacher, and thus decide the fate of three nations, a religion and a whole ass deity as you try to corral a bunch of chaotic privileged school-children into being functional adults. It marries the silliness of the JRPG with some genuinely thoughtful and heart-wrenching politics, character arcs and difficult decisions, and has you fighting characters whom you have to oppose, but with whom you sympathise intensely. It gets people, all the way down.

5. Stray Gods

Then Stray Gods, where you suddenly become the holder of the spirit of a Muse, which gives you the ability to solve interpersonal dramas by having everybody sing it out. You now must use this power to solve a murder. It’s quick, it’s fun, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever played before or since, and the soundtrack was my most-listened to album on Spotify for 2023 by a considerable margin.

6. Stardew Valley

And lastly… well I couldn’t not include my other lockdown addiction, Stardew Valley. It has a fishing mini game (that will make you want to fight god out of frustration) and a romance sim (where all the men are genuinely terrible and yet you can prise them from my cold dead hands), and so it is the perfect game. Also you build a farm or some shit? And then lose 126 hours of your life (and counting) without noticing.

Joe D - This will be a tough one…

1. Persona 3 Reload/4 Golden/5 Royal (pick whichever, though 4 has my favorite characters): Solve a mystery/save the world as a group of high school kids all while maintaining a decent GPA, forming friendships, and making the moves on your crush. Soundtracks are extremely catchy.

2. Disco Elysium: Solve a murder after a drug and booze induced amnesia. Are you more Sherlock Holmes or will you solve your crimes with pure muscle? Will you do it clean, or will you take one more hit? Will you listen to the voices in your head, or ignore them completely? The choices are yours.

3. Dragon Quest VIII/XI (pick either): Akira Toriyama’s art style is evident in every corner of these charming yet dangerous epics that keep you hooked for dozens of hours. Great characters, fun stories, memorable soundtracks.

4. Mass Effect: A galactic threat looms large. Play as Commander Shepard (gender of your choosing) as they recruit unlikely alien and human allies from different star systems. A sci-fi lover’s dream. Also, potential human/alien romance doesn’t hurt.

5. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion or Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Oblivion for better guild quests/overall writing, Skyrim for better gameplay): Explore lore-rich open worlds that capture your desire for a sense of adventure and character build over the course of hundreds of hours. Epic sense of fantastical elements.

6. Cyberpunk 2077: In a race against time, take control of V as she/he attempts to save her consciousness from utter oblivion. Set in a neon-lit, high tech dystopian world; hack enemy electronics, slice them with a katana, or shoot them in the face. Choose how you wish to dispatch your enemies and approach the world. Also, romance.

I mainly chose games that still work well enough, Oblivion and Mass Effect being the most aged gameplay-wise. I think the other Mass Effect games are better from a gameplay perspective, but Mass Effect is the foundation of the series and should be experienced first. Fallout (especially 3 and New Vegas)/Dragon Age (Origins/Inquisition) could easily be swapped in anywhere. I always forget to include Pokemon games as well, as I see them as their own kind of special, but I would happily recommend Heart Gold/Soul Silver as a place to start that series. I just finished Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, an enticing, hearty, highly recommended JRPG. There are so many I’d love to list, but these are a great start for RPGs that are relevant and playable.

Reading Roseanna’s response, I didn’t realize people considered Stardew Valley an RPG, I always considered it more of a farm-life sim. Upon reflection, I can see how it can fit in the genre and highly recommend it to anyone who wants to live a cozy farm-life sim/dungeon crawling character in the charming little town of Stardew Valley.

Roseanna - I think whether you consider it an RPG is also somewhat of a reflection of how you play the game? While I do like my nice tidy crops with their nice tidy sprinkler systems, I don’t play Stardew valley for profit optimisation. I’m making friends (and more) in town and using the game to tell a story about someone escaping big city life and what they make of it. So it does somewhat feel RPG-y to me. But I can totally see that you could spend a very fun and profitable time making the peakest efficiency farm, and never really consider an even remotely RPG-y side to it. Genres are fuzzy, even in gaming, and some of it is just what you bring to the table.

Joe D - I agree with you there, the genres definitely get quite fuzzy. Something like the Horizon series is considered an RPG, but some people see it as an action-adventure game with RPG elements. Speaking of Stardew though, I am PUMPED for Haunted Chocolatier. Can’t wait to put a hundred hours into that one.

G - I have not played Stardew Valley yet - though I hear it’s great. Maybe that’s a good one for the Switch? Switch or PC.

So, okay - I know I posed this question, and asked for a list, but I’m struggling to answer it well. But here goes:

1. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

I have never played a game that warps reality like Skyrim. It’s a Bethesda game, so it’s more about immersion than story, but…I also lowkey loved the story? It’s the only Bethesda game where I can say that and truly mean it. But for those 120+ hours or so I lived in that world, dealth with those dragons and - yes - made all those daggers. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to go back and play again, but I’m also scared that I would just marring the perfect gaming experience

2. The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings/Tbe Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt

I’m cheating a bit here, but hear me out. The Witcher 2 is one of my favorite games of all time. I’ve played through it twice and did every possible side quest and task the second time around. It’s also the game that started my subsequent obsession with the Witcherverse - and led to the ultimate conclusion that The Witcher Saga is the best fantasy novel series I’ve ever read. The Witcher 3 is objectively a better game than The Witcher 2, so it should take this spot on my list…but I do want to show Witcher 2 the love it deserves.

So why do I like these games so much? Character, story, lore, worldbuilding, complex and deep gameplay, replayability, decisions that matter, serious politics, a distinct anti-racist perspective, Gwent, some of the best and most meaningful romance I’ve ever encountered in a game.

3. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

As I mentioned before, this is the game that reignited my love for RPGs. I replay it every few years, and even though it’s dated in some ways, KOTOR’s storytelling and unique blend of turn-based and real-time combat is still a lot of fun 2 decades after it came out. Also, in my humble opinion, the single best Star Wars game ever released.

It would be great to see KOTOR and its sequel, the unfinished mess KOTOR 2, remade in full. I’d happily pay for both.

4. Mass Effect 3: Legendary Edition

Like a lot of people, I was frustrated with ME3 on release - the way it forced you to play the (good not great) multiplayer mode to get the good ending, which to be honest I don’t remember if I managed or not. But the Legendary Edition remake (I’d argue it is a remake, Joe) does a fantastic job streamlining the process. Sure the multiplayer mode is no more, but now we have a tighter, more visceral single-player game that - I have to say - beat out the more widely loved ME2 for a place on this list. Gameplay, pace, character development, narrative tension, meaningful choices with major outcomes…ME3 has everything you could want from a mission-based sandbox RPG.

5. Cyberpunk 2077

I waited a year from release to play this one - and am very grateful that I did. CD Projekt Red have patiently worked through the (many) bugs that marred this game at launch and have delivered an absolutely superb narrative experience. You can see the lineage it shares with The Witcher games, but really this feels like a halfway point between the Bethesda and BioWare models - more character- and narrative-driven that your typical Bethesda game, more open and immersive than your typical BioWare game. Gameplay is top notch - and, as Joe mentioned, the relationships (romantic and platonic) are superbly well done.

6. Deus Ex: Human Revolution

I can feel the nerd rage cascading out of every subreddit at the heresy of choosing this 2011 Ubisoft sequel over the original Deus Ex. And it’s true, the original Deus Ex was a landmark game, one that pioneered many gameplay elements that are common today in action RPGs. It is justifiably considered a classic. But try playing it today and…well, let’s just say I didn’t enjoy the experience. Human Revolution, on the other hand, doesn’t really feel dated at all. And it’s a criminally underrated game - one of my favorites from the 360/PS3 era. Great story, great characters and voice acting, a fully-fleshed out and believable cyberpunk world and tight gameplay, where you can choose to focus on combat, stealth or cybernetic implants. Sound familiar? Cyberpunk 2077 owes a great debt to the Deus Ex series.

Honorable Mentions:

Assassins Creed: Valhalla
Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect: Andromeda
Deus Ex

Okay, so now that we’ve covered what we do like, let’s talk about what we don’t. What are your pet peeves when it comes to RPGs?

G - I’ve already mentioned a couple of mine, but here they are:

1. Maps that aren’t functional. There’s no excuse for this in 2024, or even in 2014. Good maps that help you get from point A to point B are a fundamental quality of life improvement that no developer should dismiss or overlook. Bonus points for a good fast travel system that doesn’t disincentivize exploring but cuts down on tedious and pointless wandering. I’m looking at you, Starfield.

2. Cutscenes and dialogue you can’t skip. Some scenes/dialogue are more vital than others and I should be able to choose what I want to see/hear and what I don’t. Further downgrading for games that make you watch unskippable cutscenes right before a particularly challenging boss fight, which you then have to watch again on every subsequent try.

3. Limited save points. I know Soulslike fans see this as a feature not a bug - and to each their own - but for me it’s definitely a bug. My gaming comes in fits and spurts, 30-90 minute intervals rather than long sessions. Being able to quicksave makes gaming doable for me.

4. Choices that should matter but don’t. Again, it’s 2024 - if you present the character with a seemingly meaningful decision, make sure it actually impacts the narrative.

5. Too many “schlep and fetch” quests. For the uninitiated, a “schlep and fetch” quest is one where you have to go from point A to point B in order to obtain an item that you have to bring back to point A (or to someone at point C). It’s okay to have a few of these, but some games have…a lot. Oh hey, look - it’s Starfield!

Joe D - I agree with some of the points that G made, though I differ slightly with some.

1. Too much bloat without a suitable disguise - The Ubisoft open world format that has become prevalent in the industry includes climbing a tower to unlock a portion of the map and unveils nearby quests and objectives. The Horizon games made it interesting with the inclusion of tall necks, but if this type of exploration is in the game, it better be masked by excellent gameplay or complementary lore.

2. Unskippable cutscenes/dialogue - I am okay with the first viewing being unskippable, as that’s the developer’s vision. After that, however, it should be at the player’s discretion.

3. Forced grinding - If a game is unbalanced and the player has an extremely difficult time with a story-related mission and then is forced to grind to level up, I find that frustrating. End game grinding is fine for hardcore players, but story stuff should be challenging without being a slog.

4. Distracting from the story pace - This goes hand in hand with the bloat, but even if the content is good, if it doesn’t feel directly related to the main quest, the pace of the story gets ruined. I’ll sometimes even forget what I was doing until I look at my main story objective.

5. Illusion of choice - As G said, if you’re going to include options, make them impactful. This is why I think one-off RPGs are suited to choice-based gameplay. The more impactful the choices, the harder it will be to make a sequel that meets everyone’s canon. Despite their flaws, this is why I like Quantic Dreams’ games (though they aren’t RPGs).

6. Slow starts - A lot of RPGs can have slow starts, hoping to hook you after ten hours. Sometimes trying to figure out the controls and all of the statistics and abilities can be daunting, especially in a massive game. I’ll spend a lot of time looking at a menu so I don’t spend too much time watching the game over screen, but at the cost of looking at menus and not playing the actual game.

7. Breakable weapons - They are not fun, and I don’t care if the developer wants me to use them all. I find a stick I like, I keep stick, I use stick, I upgrade stick. Thanks Roseanna for reminding me.

Roseanna - Lack of difficulty settings! I am so bad at, for instance, shooting. I need to be able to lower the difficulty settings, at least until I’ve learnt what the heck I’m doing. Give me baby mode, and I’ll work my way up to competence eventually.

Somewhat related, but “hard” bosses that are just scaled by adding more hit points. And sloggy fights in general. I am not, for the most part, here for the act of fighting, and especially the repetitive bits. I like fights where there’s a trick to it, or a strategy, but once that has been done, if you just have to keep going and going and going… nah, tap out.

And infrequent ability to save. This seems mainly to be a JRPG thing, but the horrible feeling of starting a game and being an hour in, still baffled about where, when and how you might be able to save it, and starting to desperately need the loo, no thanks. Let me pause! Let me save! Let me have a life outside my computer screen, however briefly!

On a totally different note, games that unexpectedly force you to be the bad guy. Part of why Mass Effect 2 really doesn’t work for me is that you go from being the big damn hero of the first game, to suddenly working with the evil corp you’d been fighting previously in the second. There’s no way out of that, it’s just the framing of the game, and your character just sort of… goes along with it. There’s even a bit where one of the characters from the first game shows up and gives you shit for your poor choices (Kaidan, I am so sorry, you were so right), and none of the character dialogue you get really… acknowledges that they have a point. It doesn’t matter that there are a lot of gameplay improvements in ME2, I simply cannot stand working for the outlandishly evil corporation.

What are some RPGs that disappointed you, or which you liked but found frustrating?

G - For 'liked but found frustrating' - and this won’t come as a surprise - it’s Starfield. There is a lot to love about Starfield. It's gorgeous, in the way all Bethesda games are gorgeous. The action gameplay is superb - miles ahead of Fallout 4 or any other game they’ve made. And it's a charming game, the way Elder Scrolls games are charming - hard to put your finger exactly on why, but there’s a distinct “sensawunda” that no one else can replicate exactly.

At the same time, it can be a very frustrating game. The story is barebones and the companion characters range from wooden to extremely irritating. You never feel invested in events the way you do in a BioWare or CD Projekt Red game. There are moments when you just can’t get to a certain planet and there’s no intuitive way to figure out why or how. Also, there are no city maps! I sank the requisite 100+ hours into the game, with no regrets because I did enjoy myself, but I can’t imagine ever wanting to play it again.

As for ‘disappointed,’ I’ll go way back to Knights of the Old Republic 2, a game BioWare farmed out to Obsidian but evidently didn’t give them enough time to work on. It starts off great but then at some point you realize the game isn't finished. There are tons of bugs, missing dialogue, broken missions and other anomalies - and then the last 10 hours of gameplay are just…narrated. It's a full on train wreck.

Joe D - I could probably list a decent bunch here, but we’ll skim down…

Undertale - A friend and I got into a discussion about this game recently. This game did nothing for me. I had seen the reviews and memes and heard so many great things about the game that I had to see it for myself. Once I beat it, I had to search blogs and posts to see what I was missing. Not that I didn’t understand what was going on, but that it felt shallow without creating a compelling character/narrative connection. The ability to do a pacifist run was cool, but I couldn’t tell you much about the game a few years out. It was forgettable.

Skyrim - G may not like this choice, but I want to clarify that I still loved Skyrim overall. I was just disappointed. After falling deeply in love with Oblivion, my anticipation for the sequel was through the roof. While I think that the main quest of Skyrim was better than Oblivion’s (if only slightly), I think the rest of the game was underwhelming in comparison to its predecessor. The combat was in Skyrim better, and the random dragon encounters were cool, but the guild quests were a huge letdown after Oblivion. Also, the game cut back on different build options by narrowing the scope of potential skills. Still a great game. It just kills me that Skyrim is the game the series is known for and has had a billion remakes and updates while Oblivion sits in the corner of a decrepit cellar yearning for just one more taste of sweet, sweet air. Maybe I’m just bitter.

Morrowind - On the other side of Oblivion, yet another highly recommended game, I actually did not like this one at all. This game made me skeptical of Oblivion, as I had tried it beforehand. The game relies on a more and D&D approach to combat, where each swing of your weapon equates to a dice roll, and the lower level you are, the higher the chance you miss. None of this is explained. I started the game, swung at a worm on the ground for a few minutes, died to said worm, shut the game off and returned it. I tried it again after Oblivion (with the knowledge of how the game/combat works) and it was too antiquated for me. It’s too bad because I’ve heard some of its side content is even better than Oblivion.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild - I loved Ocarina of Time in my youth, so I thought maybe I’d like the new direction of Zelda. While I don’t consider it an RPG, that is the category it’s frequently slotted into. I didn’t care for the characters or the gameplay. It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t hold me. Music was great, of course, but the breakable weapons and lack of strong objective didn’t do it for me. “Kill Ganon” wasn’t enticing enough for me.

Recent Pokemon games - Especially the Switch games. The developers don’t realize that a huge chunk of their audience are in their thirties, and yet they continuously dumb down the stories to appeal to younger audiences. I’m not saying that they should make the games fully adult, but keep with the good old days from Black and White. Add a tad of complexity. I feel like I’m playing a game made exclusively for someone under seven. If Pixar can manage it, I’m sure the number one entertainment franchise in the WORLD can do the same.

Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter - I have heard wonderful things about this game in recent days. As stated above, you can see how much of an impact Breath of Fire III had on me as a youth. I also dabbled in BoF II on GBA. When I saw a new Breath of Fire game for PS2, I had to get it (despite my limited funds)! Unfortunately, this game shares a lot of similarities to the rogue-lite genre, which I am into now, but had no idea about back then. Basically, I got nothing close to what I expected, and I think that it strayed just a bit too far from the formula. The jump from turn-based JRPG franchise, to action rogue-lite is quite a leap. I might love it if I were to try it now, but I just remember how disappointed my younger self was.

Roseanna - Well, I’ve already talked about my problems with Mass Effect 2. In general though, I’m quick to drop a game if it’s not working for me, so I don’t have lingering memories of things that I didn’t enjoy, because I didn’t carry on not enjoying them for very long.

The only one recently I can remember that I bounced off quite hard was Persona 3. A number of people have told me to play the series - and I do like JRPGs generally - but I found the fight scaling… frankly nuts. I had to change up the difficulty settings constantly to go between laughably easy fights and massive, grindy, impossible-feeling ones. I ended up just giving up on it after quite a while, which was really frustrating because I had been enjoying the story and the concept.

Otherwise, it tends to be older games I didn’t play when they were fresh, and so the mechanics/graphics/what have you are so old, so clunky that I just can’t immerse myself in them. I tried playing FF… errr… the one with Cloud and Sephiroth? Whichever number that one is. I tried playing it on an emulator on PC, and I simply Could Not. Likewise Planescape: Torment. If I had nostalgia for it? If I had fond memories of playing it when the level of graphics was normal or good? I imagine I would be fine. But it’s really hard to come in with current expectations to older systems, many of which just aren’t as user-friendly as some modern games.

I guess there is one big one, if it counts as an RPG - Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Everyone talked it up a storm. And I did enjoy it at first… but then I sort of fell out of it. It just didn’t manage to keep my attention in the way other Zelda games have, and it stacks and stacks and stacks different skills/tools/subtasks so if you stop playing for a couple of months, the learning curve to come back into it is an absolute cliff. Too hard. Not gonna happen.

G - Roseanna, I feel you on older games. I often romanticize the idea of playing older games but the mechanics are almost always frustrating. I loved Deus Ex when it came out but I find it more or less unplayable now. Same with Fallout and Fallout 2. I do a lot of retro gaming, but I focus mainly on the 2D era (8- and 16-bit) and the skip forward to the PS2/Xbox era. I can’t play most games from 1995-2001.

Okay, final question - say SquareEnix, EA or some other behemoth publisher gives you unlimited funds to create your own RPG. What is the elevator pitch for your concept - in one paragraph?

Roseanna - Magically, I’m getting Bioware under David Gaider, don’t ask me how, but a Bioware RPG set in the world of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series. Necromancy! Talking Cats! Prophecies! Magic spells! Ancient powers beyond the knowledge of man! Sword-wielding librarians! I think it would be amazing. And there’s a lot of potential scope for lore, and places someone could come from in the world to make a difference in a story, and it would bring me such joy and nostalgia.

Joe D - I would happily play that Roseanna! I love the Old Kingdom and think it would have a unique, enticing gameplay loop. They could even create something super cool like an abhorsen attempting to escape the deepest precinct of death and make it a rogue-lite RPG. I would eat that up.

For my concept, I have a few ideas. One of them was a Harry Potter game, but in the turn-based Persona style with social links, and multiple years to master new spells. But I don’t want to give J.K. Rowling money to spew her hatred, so I’d go with plan B; A Game of Thrones inspired massive RPG where your decisions will directly affect who sits on the throne at the end of the game (or if there is one left to sit on). There would be a ton of permutations that make it difficult to attain the throne yourself, but through your choices, characters die and certain events will or won’t take place. Where you place your attributes will directly determine your capabilities. Also, this wouldn’t take place during the books, maybe long after or long before. Every playthrough would be different from the last, and no character is safe. With unlimited resources, we could have as many character animations and cutscenes, even if the majority of players won’t see them all. The house you choose for your character will directly influence the opening of the game (and also the difficulty of attaining the throne, or being throne adjacent). In reality, this project would cost way too much money to exist, but unlimited funds means anything goes. It’s essentially a ton of storylines crammed into one and it would be incredibly satisfying to replay. I’d probably do a Larian/Bioware combo for this one.

I’m honestly coming up with this on the fly as something relatable, as my other ideas are personal, unique IP that I’d have to explain in great detail. I’d also love to see a Brandon Sanderson Cosmere focused game where you can choose your character’s magic system and work within the great game of splinters, shards, and gods. This could also be an amazing MMORPG if done properly, with different magic systems fulfilling different in-game roles.

G - In books I’ve always preferred soft magic over Sanderson’s hard magic approach, but the idea of developing an RPG around hard magic systems, and really operationalizing that within the game, is very intriguing. That sounds like a cRPG to me - where you are using the mouse and full keyboard, but I’ll stop - it’s your idea, afterall, not mine.

For my project, I want to go in a very different direction: an RPP centered entirely on stealth. There is already some precedent for this: the Deus Ex series gives you the choice of whether you want to focus more on stealth or combat (I always use stealth), a few of the Assassin’s Creed games also incentivize stealth gameplay and the Hitman reboot has some light RPG elements. But I want to go a step further - I want to make a game with Splinter Cell’s level of focus on stealth gameplay, but with an interactive story, extensive side quests and where everything is upgradable as you level up. I could see this going either SF or fantasy, but for this exercise we are going SF. I’m now working for CD Projekt Red and this is a direct sequel to Cyberpunk 2077. Would you guys play this or am I crazy?

Joe D - I personally get bored with stealth games, but I like the concept. I love blowing things up or getting into a sword fight, so stealth goes against every instinct I have when playing a game. I enjoy stealth when I get it on the first go, but if I fail and have to redo the same slow mission repeatedly, I get frustrated. That said, I enjoyed the stealth options in Deus Ex: Human Revolution and would love to see expanded options in the next Cyberpunk game. I feel like, if it were a direct sequel, you’d still have to have action based classes to appease people who bought the previous game. If it’s a spinoff, you could get away with a full stealth game. I haven’t played Phantom Liberty yet, but I look forward to getting to it eventually. I think a hard stealth game in the Cyberpunk world would be quite unique, especially with more hacking optimization and CQC cybernetic enhancements.

Would you like to incorporate heat detection, night vision, wall-climbing and the like? What would a fully-stealth Cyberpunk look like to you? I’ve only barely played a bit of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, and never got into Hitman (though I hear good things). Is there a specific mission or mechanic that triggered this concept for you?

G - Yes, exactly - as you level up, you unlock new abilities and can equip new gear. Also, I get why stealth games could get frustrating - I think it’s in part because stealth in “multiple-approaches” games tends to be…well, bad. Even in Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Cyberpunk 2077 it’s still at best just okay.

Hard stealth games like the Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid suffer from another issue: linear gameplay, where you can’t really go around a problem. Sandbox stealth games like Hitman give you more options on how to solve the puzzles. Say your assassination target is holed up in a hotel penthouse - well, you can disguise yourself as a bellhop and take the elevator, disguise yourself as room service and deliver a poisoned meal, sneak up the stairs or snipe the target from a nearby building. And in my RPG, if you find a puzzle too difficult, you can go level up and come back!

In line with Cyberpunk 2077, I’m thinking you can play either as a thief-for-hire or a corporate espionage agent. But I’ll take it a step further than CD Projekt Red and say stories follow separate mission trees up to a critical point where the stories converge, but with each character approaching the final missions with distinct advantages and disadvantages. Maybe the corporate espionage agent has access to better gear but the thief can buy unregulated cybernetic enhancements off the street. Maybe your networks help you accomplish certain tasks more easily, while others are challenging (and this is reversed for the other playable character type). A game like this is probably never going to be made - too niche - but I’d play the hell out of it.

Joe D - If you could allow me to have a speedy stealth character (like a cyber-enhanced ninja), I’d be all about it and would play multiple times to discover the different origin stories and how they play out. I feel that in too many games the origin story is so barebones and doesn't offer much in the way of variation (beside some NPC chatter about the player character’s background and some dialogue choices). Dragon Age: Origins (it’s in the name!) does a good job with this, but it would be intriguing to see that in a sci-fi world like Cyberpunk.

This but upgradable

G - I like it - the speedy cyberninja is in. 

And that's a wrap! Thank you Roseanna and Joe D for joining me today, and thanks to all of you who took the time to read our long-form thoughts. 


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a Feather founder/administrator, since 2012.

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Recap: The Acolyte Episode 3 — Destiny

In this episode, we get the tragic backstory of Osha and Mae, as well as a look at brand-new Force witches and the complicated nature of Jedi youngling recruiting.

After two episodes of characters reckoning with the past, we finally get a chance to view the origin story of all the trauma. Osha and Mae are playing outside the bounds of their settlement on Brendok, and casually using the Force — which we learn they call "the Thread" — to play. 

Shortly a stern Zabrak woman named Mother Koril comes to claim them home. A quick aside about Zabraks: Darth Maul is perhaps the most famous one, and the species is known for their intense face markings and head horns. 

And look, I know this woman obviously cares for these kids, but she is just SO damn scary looking from a physical perspective. Zabraks unfortunately look caricatured devils in our culture. It's wild to think that a child would run up to one for comfort after skinning their knee or falling off their bike. OK, rant over.

Behind a tree, like the classic meme of Anthony Adams rubbing his hands together, is a young Master Sol watching the girls. So, the Jedi are on this planet scoping out...something.  

Intro the Coven

Back at the settlement, we get introduced to an isolated society of all women, sort of a Star Wars Themiskyra, it seems, with members performing tasks and chores in a bustling environment. 

Then, we get to meet one of my favorite new Star Wars characters to come along in a long time — Mother Aniseya. Jodie-Turner Smith really knocks it out of the park with her performance, showcasing strength, intelligence, and incredible allure as the leader of this secret coven of witches. 

Star Wars, of course, is no stranger to powerful and isolated force witches (Mother Talzin and her Dathomiri Nightsisters), but it's fun to get a different version that may or may not be connected.

Back safely inside the fortress, Koril explains to Aniseya that Osha ventured outside again, and that there were no signs of the visiting Jedi (wrong). There's a brief moment of intimacy here between the two women — are they lovers? It's unclear.  Aniseya tries to assuage Koril's fear of discovery, but Koril restates an important fact: the twins aren't normal children. It appears that there's something special about them beyond just being witches. 

Special children — this is a theme that goes back to The Phantom Menace, and it's not the only tieback we'll see in this episode.

A Force by Any Other Name

"All living things are connected by the same thread," Mother Aniseya promulgates in the next scene. "A thread woven through all of existence." She states that some call this energy, the Force, but for her coven, it's not a power to be wielded as a weapon. For them, it's more about connection with other living things. 

This is lovely, and honestly it's not far from the more mystical aspects of the Force that we learned from Yoda. "Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter."

Sure, the Jedi try not to use the Force for attacking, but they're still warriors who often must kill enemies using it. They're space cops, after all. 

The twins this evening will be attending an event called the Ascension, which appears to be a sort of initiation ceremony for their powers. Osha in particular is apprehensive about the event, as she's not sure that she actually wants to become a witch. Mae, on the other hand, wants nothing more, and consistently pressures her sister to aspire to the same fate.

"The galaxy is not a place that welcomes women like us. Witches who have the abilities we do," Mother Aniseya tells them. Of all the ways that the Star Wars Universe is different from ours, it appears that this fear of powerful women still holds true. This adds an absolutely fascinating element to the world-building that I really really liked.  

We learn that the coven was exiled and on the brink of extinction — but that they were blessed with the gift of life (in the form of the twins). This explains why there are only two children in the camp of adult women, and why they're so lovingly cared for by the community. 

Mandatory Jedi Conscription

At the Ascension ceremony for the girls, four Jedi barge and interrupt, claiming that only their order are allowed to train children who are Force-sensitive. We've known about younglings since the prequel films, but I've never really stopped to think about how these kids are identified and obtained. 

I think I always presumed that parents willingly and lovingly volunteered their kids for this training (kind of like how talented soccer kids in Europe get identified early and put on specific paths). Never in my wildest dreams did I think that the Jedi had the power to prevent others from training Force-sensitive youth.

Adding this to the canon adds another layer of complexity to the lore of the Jedi that also began with the prequels. In the O.T., the Jedi, all but extinct, are almost deified as the perfect warrior saints of a bygone era. 

In the prequels, we learn that they were in fact not perfect, and that they were headstrong, willfully ignorant at times, and occasionally problematic. 

A Power Some Consider to Be Unnatural

When the Jedi demand to know where the twins came from, Mother Aniseya states that "they have no father." Flashback to Shmi saying the same thing to Qui-Gon Jinn when he inquired about Anakin's lineage. 

This simple statement presents a whole host of new questions for the episode and Star Wars at large. Here's just a few I have:
  • Are the twins some sort of Chosen Ones?
  • Will Darth Plagueis eventually learn this power from them?
  • Does this kind of thing (immaculate conception) happen a lot in the Star Wars universe?
  • Is this implication that the twins are chosen obviate Anakin's chosen-ness?
We learn that Mother Koril carried the twins, but Aniseya admits to "creating them." Curious, indeed.

An Unexpected Tragedy

Mother Aniseya agrees to send her down for testing the next, ostensibly as a ruse as they plan to attack them. But we learn that Osha desperately wants to become a Jedi — before they even arrive, she's been sketching the Jedi insignia in her notebook, perhaps a nod to her incipient prophetic Force abilities.

With the Jedi, she gets a blood test (man, it's been a long time since anyone's talked about midichlorians, but I kinda dig it. It's like physical proof someone has Jedi powers). She attempts to purposefully fail the guessing test, but they see right through the ruse. It's clear she's drawn to another destiny than that of her sister, much to Mae's anger. 

When Osha returns home, Mae is distraught and locks her in her room so she can't leave with the Jedi. She starts a fire carelessly, and it eventually consumes the fortress. 

She is rescued by Master Sol, and though the exact details aren't shown, all of the witches are dead as they escape through the flames. Did the witches attack the Jedi or vice versa? Signs seem to point to the former, considering the guilt that Torbin felt when he chose to die by suicide.

Osha witnesses Mae seemingly die as she falls into the fire during the evacuation, a tragedy that will split the twins apart for the next 16 years. As we learned in the first two episodes, she doesn't. I imagine in the next few episodes we'll learn Mae's fate, as well as that of the mysterious dark figure who trained her. 


The Math

Baseline score: 8

Bonuses: Jodie Turner-Smith as Mother Aniseya, the leader of a coven of powerful Force witches, absolutely knocks it out of the park; connecting this coven to Darth Plagueis the Wise is mind-blowing

Proto Gonk droid count: None sadly 

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, new NoaF contributor and lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She loves nautical fiction, Vidalia onions, and growing corn and giving them pun names like Anacorn Skywalker. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

First Contact Project: Mass Effect Andromeda

The unfairly maligned fourth installation in a much beloved series.

My love of the Bioware game is... not a small one. We shall not dwell on the number of hours I have played in the Dragon Age franchise, mainly because it's threatening to include the word "thousand" and that would be... well it would be something. But that and Mass Effect are my comfort games. They got me through furlough and lockdown with a modicum of sanity retained, and they just hold a very deep, dear place in my heart.

But somehow, I have never played Mass Effect: Andromeda. Well, I say somehow. Until approximately mid-March, the reason for that was clear - I had never had a machine capable of running it. And so, naturally, the first thing I did once I acquired one was to download it with a swiftness hitherto unwitnessed in the realms of man. But I was cautious. You see, I've heard things about Andromeda (hereafter ME:A because typing is effort). Not... good things. It is the awkward ginger stepchild of the franchise, at the bottom of every ranking, beloved of none, though I had never seen a clear reason why. It was just not as beloved, and so I went in concerned that it simply could not live up to the legacy of the previous games.

In my opinion, not only did it do so, but it bested them. It is, without a doubt, for me, the best Mass Effect game in existence, and there exists clear water in between it and the rest.

But I'm going to come back to that. I want instead to examine first why I think it is not beloved, why I think it is unfairly maligned, and what that says about the franchise and the fandom more broadly, and perhaps why coming to it at a number of years removed might have helped my appreciation of it.

Simply put, I think the problem is that it's not a game about Commander Shepard. Maybe that's too simplistic, but it makes sense. For the whole of the original trilogy, you play as this legendary, badass hero, as she* becomes even more legendary and badass, you see her through a galaxy-wide crisis, through death and beyond, as she holds in the balance the future of every analogue and digital life form in the Milky Way. She is the soul and centre of the trilogy, no matter how compelling are her companions, and so the game is her. Can Mass Effect be Mass Effect without Shepard? Maybe for a lot of the fandom the answer to that was a resounding "no". It doesn't matter that the ending(s) of the original trilogy leave us in a place where creating a genuine sequel story would be nigh on impossible, with some incredibly complicated and wide-reaching world-state variations to try to account for. The heart wants what the heart wants, and if that was more Shepard badassing about the galaxy saving worlds and cutting through red tape, then anything else won't do, no matter what logic tells you.

And I think this is a deeply unfair expectation for ME:A to come in to. It can be understandable and unfair at the same time. It is what it is.

They went in knowing they couldn't fit something in to follow on from that trilogy, so they didn't try. They decided to wipe the slate entirely fresh - literally move to a new galaxy - and leave their connection point to the existing story where things still weren't resolved. We still have connections, snippets of links to known places, people and things, but those connections are trailing into the past, and we enter a fresh gamestate, in a fresh setting, unfettered by the player's previous decisions. It's the best they could have realistically done with the corner they had painted themselves into, and I think it's a shame that player reception didn't accept that.

But it didn't, so here we are. It meant I went in with extremely low expectations, which were met, exceeded and then fully blown out of the water. Why? Because this was a game that, for me, totally got what Mass Effect could be good at, and leaned into it, while making the best use of the updated game mechanics and system design that wasn't around when the first game came into being. It adapted the heart of the feeling of the first game - the exploration, the relationships, the badassery, the building up of a legend of a person, and made it fresh. How could I not love that?

 That being said, the game it most reminds me of is Dragon Age: Inquistion. And I mean, it's Bioware, right? They're all paddling in the same pool. But it's a Mass Effect story in a map/quest/structure environment that feels so similar to what Inquisition does with its multi-area stuff, its camp exploration, and its supplementary off-screen missions that get you tangible rewards. And I love that. I think it's a game shape that really works, so why wouldn't they do it? They both have the same problem - there's a point when you're about half way through the game where you have a lot of open quests and no real drive to pick any single one over another - but on the whole, they both work really well as a vehicle for telling good stories. Not just a single story, though of course there's one that takes priority, but a bunch of interlocking stories, about different people, different cultures and different places, and put you in a position to steer those stories in the direction you want, and to fit an overarching theme on top of it, as well as giving a lot of space for additional personal storytelling.

There's so much space in the Andromeda galaxy in the game to imagine stories. There's so much potential. That's what the world after Mass Effect 3 no longer had, and that's what it needed. All of this untapped narrative potentiality for players to map their thoughts onto, and characters to fill it with and move around. Characters that felt deep and real.

I personally did not like Mass Effect 2 (because I did not want to be on team Bad Guy), but it is an incredibly character-focussed game. Your companions have depth, and have their own stories that you are a part of, but not the whole of. You help them, you may steer their decisions, but you are not their world, mostly. It's the standout part of ME2, for me. And Andromeda gets this, and gives it in spades. They still have the loyalty mission mechanic (good, yes, correct), and if anything have expanded it, so each companion quest is a big, multi-step affair. You spend real time with these people, learning who they are and what they care about, and it is wonderful.

And, of course, you can romance some of them. Unlike the recently-released Baldur's Gate 3 (and previous Bioware release Dragon Age 2), Mass Effect: Andromeda does not let you romance indiscriminately - all of your romanceable companions have their own sexuality and preferences, and not all of them will line up with who you are. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I do think it makes characters more diverse and well-rounded if they represent a variety of different sexualities - it forms a part of who they are, and if it is integrated into their story, all the better. But on the other hand... there's always such a small cast. You functionally limit people quite severely by doing this. If someone is playing say... a gay man, and you have only two male characters who are receptive to male advances (in this case, one pan, one gay)... well, that player has to hope he likes one of them. I got some veeeryyyy awkward dialogue when my female protagonist hit on the male engineer, let me tell you. It's a tricky balance to find, and for me, I think the Andromeda cast is just that little bit too small to pull it off well. You want to give players options. Full pansexual chaos gives you those options. Luckily, at least for me, there were characters I liked well enough and who were willing to date a woman, so it worked out. But that won't be true for everyone. 

The romance is also... a little on the weak side. There's just not a huge amount of content to it, outside of romance specific missions and a few snippets of dialogue here and there, which feels like something of a shame, given how characterful the rest of the story and missions are.

But it's a small price to pay. The story, for the most part, really does work, and there are some genuinely dramatic and moving moments throughout. The key antagonists of the story are worked in pretty early and pretty well, and the way they fit into the wider story of the world makes really good sense. There's also a strong thread of alliance-building throughout, which I really appreciated - there's a lot of options to be respectful and collegiate with the existing inhabitants of Andromeda, and to defer to them on matters of leadership and who gets to go where. Does it entirely erase the colonial vibes of the premise? Well... no. But neither does it go full bore space empire, which I quite appreciate. Baby steps, I guess.

It is something of a shift away from the previous Mass Effect games that your character has a lot more options to start both as a rule follower and as being diplomatic in the face of conflict. Even the upper left bluest of Shepards is something of a maverick (derogatory) in that regard, and I appreciate being given the option to at least try solving problems without shooting someone in the face. It's a shooter game, so it's going to come to that eventually, but it's nice to be able to say you did your best first, y'know?

I don't want to bog this review down too much with nitty gritty, but I do also think that this is the mechanically smoothest of the Mass Effect games, which again, I appreciate. I felt much more at home in skill selection and utilisation than I have in any of the others, even if the tutorial stuff at the start didn't entirely bring me up to speed on everything. It's slightly annoying that you can only use three abilities in any given fight, rather than the slightly bigger number I'd have expected, but once you get used to it - and with how well some of them combo - it works really well, and they do their best to make it easy to switch out between the abilities between fights, and create specific builds for specific purposes that you can port in. Unlike previous games, you have complete free licence to select abilities from any of the different skill trees, though you do benefit from concentration in allowing you to get to higher level options sooner, and with levelling up of certain skillsets. They're managed a good balance between simplicity, functionality and badassery, and once you get going, it feels really good.

Also you have a jet pack. The jetpack is great.

Is it a perfect game? Of course not. I'd have liked more character dialogue between each other, I think the pacing could have been better (though some of that was down to my own playstyle), and I think the difficulty scaling towards the end of the game isn't... great. The last couple of fights were epic in story scale, but surprisingly easy for my very high level party, in a way that made them less satisfying than they could have been. I ideally want to just scrape through the final boss fight, or maybe die once and then triumph on the second go. If I'm breezing straight through it... well, it's not my superlative skill at videogaming, let me tell you.

But honestly? I don't care. I had an absolutely great time with it, packed in 83 hours of play time for a relatively completionist run, fell in love with several characters, hated at least one location with the burning fire of my heart, jetpacked and biotic-zoomed my way across the maps with gleeful abandon and fully just felt like I was playing a Mass Effect game again. Also Jaal is an absolute sweetheart and Indira Varma voices two - two! - characters. What more could I want?

So did coming in later to this game help in my enjoyment of it? I expect it did. Tempers had long since cooled, and the grumbling was sufficiently distant that I had forgotten the substance of most of it, only the vibe, which was much easier dispelled by a fun playing experience. But truly, I cannot imagine not loving this game, even had I played it the year it came out. It does too many things I love, has too many characters in it who work well together, has such a smoother set of mechanics... I simply cannot see that the lack of a Shepard, the lack of further closure on that story, would manage to hold me back from falling for it. It's a good game that deserved better. 

*I played as FemShep throughout, and assigning her any pronouns but these sounds weird to me.


The Math

Highlights: genuinely excellent characters with great interpersonal dynamics, 

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat.

Film Review: Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person

We can sometimes feel broken, until we meet someone whose broken pieces fit ours perfectly

I promise you, a very brief tangent about Doctor Who is relevant here.

Last week, Doctor Who aired the episode "Rogue," where the Doctor meets a charming bounty hunter at a posh gala ball. As part of the plan they devise to lure out the Monster of the Week, the two men dance in public view of the easily scandalizable guests. Commenting on this scene in her video review of this episode, Jessie Earl praised the scriptwriters' choice to have queer characters take control of the dynamic of marginalization and weaponize it in their own favor. Coming up with a way to turn an element of your oppression into a tool you can wield against your oppressors is greatly empowering.

I was reminded of that interpretation while watching the Canadian dark comedy film Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person.

Our protagonist is Sasha, a vampire girl who cannot hunt for victims because she's unusually empathetic for her kind. She absolutely needs human blood to survive, but watching her fellow vampires kill for their meals has always been too shocking to imitate. The way of life that defines her family feels cruel to her, and for her entire life she's depended on her parents' supply of human blood. However, when her parents decide that she's old enough to feed herself, she faces a serious dilemma: how can she avoid starvation when she can't bring herself to kill anyone?

This premise is very interesting at the literal level, but it's even more so when one reads the emotional currents that course underneath. Sasha's family situation is heavily coded with the signifiers of transgenerational abuse. Remove the vampire trappings of the movie, and what remains plain in sight is that matter-of-fact cruelty has been normalized at her home, and her parents actively pressure her to reproduce the same cruelty. Her principled refusal to comply and her determination to find a way to live without more violence resemble the inner process survivors of emotional abuse undergo when they decide to break the cycle.

Her yearning to define herself in her own terms finds its outlet when she meets Paul, a depressed teenager whose experience with intense bullying has driven him to suicidal intent. Again, at the literal level, there's plenty of morbid humor to extract from the absurd encounter of an obligate predator and an all too willing victim. But in terms of emotional content, what's going on here is the forging of a mutually supportive bond between two abuse survivors who discover that their respective weaknesses can make each other stronger. To refer back to Jessie Earl's video, the specific ways they've been mistreated happen to equip them to be each other's best support.

In trauma recovery it's common to hear the refrain "Hurt people hurt people." But hurt people can also empathize with the hurt that others have gone through. To be clear, the movie's plot is not aspirational. No abused person should have to rely on the coping strategies that emerge from living in permanent crisis mode. But it's a positive change when they find that they can. The close friendship that forms between Sasha and Paul is an extremely anomalous solution to extremely anomalous circumstances. He gives her a way she can satisfy her needs without becoming a monster like her parents, and she gives him a way to find purpose outside of the harmful environment he's been so far limited to.

Spoiler alert: Paul's journey doesn't result in suicide. At the end of every "I don't want to live" is an asterisk that points to the footnote "… like this." The director-writer duo of Ariane Louis-Seize and Christine Doyon evidently understand this point. It takes a very delicate touch to make a story about suicidal depression that manages to be funny without being insensitive, frank without being sensationalist, uplifting without being naïve. It can sound outlandish to call a movie about centenarian bloodsuckers realistic and relatable, but these characters' struggles reflect many real problems that occur in toxic families and negligent schools.

The ingredient that helps this recipe achieve the right flavor is the impressive casting for the two lead roles. Sara Montpetit as teen vampire Sasha conveys a rugged vulnerability that underscores her character's desperate need for acceptance while maintaining an anxiously practiced distance from the ever-present threat that she poses to every human being she meets. Félix-Antoine Bénard as high schooler and part-time worker Paul is the sweetest incarnation of self-destructive self-defense. His daily life is a continuous string of "What did I ever do to you?" that he deals with by preferring to do nothing to anyone. He's a sort of mirror to Sasha: the two of them are loath to harm those around them, but while the supposedly well-meaning but ultimately unreliable adults in Sasha's life fear that she won't cause harm, the supposedly well-meaning but ultimately unreliable adults in Paul's life fear that he will.

Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person makes a potent argument for rejecting inherited patterns of abuse. Behind the acerbic comedy of a family of people-eating fiends, you'll find a compelling demonstration that the way you've been taught to relate to others doesn't have to be the way you stay stuck in. It doesn't matter how lowly you may think of yourself; even a bored, long-lived, unnatural monstrosity can learn new tricks.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Recap: The Acolyte Episodes 1 & 2 — Lost / Found and Revenge / Justice

The latest Star Wars TV series kicks off with a bang chronicling the adventures of Jedi 100 years before the Skywalker era. 

It's been a long time since we've had a Skywalker-less Star Wars TV show. In fact, it's been nearly two years since the epic and extraordinary Andor.

With The Acolyte, we get our first glimpse of the High Republic, a time of peace of stability in the galaxy with few (if any) of our favorite characters. Yoda is definitely alive during this epoch, but it remains to be seen whether he'll make an appearance. Star Wars shows do love their easter eggs (though often times it's blurry distinction between a knowing wink and just blatant fan service — looking at you, Boba Fett-riding-a-rancor).

Episode 1

Carrie Anne Moss Was Born to Play a Jedi

The first episode opens with a mysterious cloaked figure asking for the local Jedi, then proceeding to pick a fight with Master Indara, who's played by none Carrie-Anne Moss (Trinity from the Matrix movies). Moss was absolutely born to play a Jedi, as she oozes effortless cool, calm, and zen-like wisdom. 

Mae (the unidentified, force-using attacker) cites "unfinished business" as they begin fighting. The stunt choreography is stellar, and it's fascinating to see a Jedi ward off steel edge weapons. That is, until Indara succumbs to one planted right in the chest. 

I refuse to believe that they'd only have Carrie-Anne Moss play a bad-ass Jedi for just a few minutes, so I hope that she'll be shown in flashbacks in future episodes. It's clear that Mae has a vendetta against Jedi, so we'll have to eventually learn the reason for her vengeance. 

This Is Getting Out of Hand. Now, There Are Two of Them!

Across the galaxy, a woman who looks identical to Mae wakes up on a spaceship clutching her chest — was she dreaming about the events that just took place? It's unclear. Her name is Osha and she's a meknek, a spaceship mechanic on a Trade Federation cruiser. Turns out she's a former Jedi who left the order, which becomes clear when two Jedi arrive unannounced to speak with her. 

But these aren't the stolid, over serious, and brown-robed Jedi from Attack of the Clones, though. During this era, their uniforms are white and gold, and they wear their lightsabers in leather holsters. They seem, for all intents and purposes, more like space cops than a mystical order of warriors. Like NCIS: Coruscant.

This new Jedi, a serious and stilted man named Yord, is a former colleague of Osha, and he's here to confront her about the murder of Indara. The suspect in the crime matches Osha's description, but it's clear that Osha has an alibi (on the ship working and not across the galaxy, girl has an alibi). Despite this, they take her into custody because they suspect her of betraying the order. 

Take Me Down to the Coruscant City

At the Jedi Temple, Master Sol (played by famed Korean actor Lee Jung-jae of Squid Game fame) is teaching younglings about the nature of the Force. Some things never change, and I shall never tire of seeing tiny baby alien versions of young Jedi. After class is dismissed, he speaks with Vernestra Rwoh, a Mirialan Jedi that hardcore Star Wars fans may recognize from the High Republic comics and novels.

She informs him of Indara's death, and that the suspect is one of his former students. He seems skeptical of Osha's alleged crime, and it's touching to see him appear so emotional. In contrast, the Jedi we know and love from the original trilogy and prequels are near-monastic in their devotion to being unattached to human connections. 

Master Sol sets off to see about this situation with his current Padawan Jecki Lon (who is a delightfully precocious and capable student). Meanwhile, on the prison ship transporting Osha to Coruscant, there's a mutiny by hardened and very weird space criminals (the whole scene is super entertaining, especially the strange fleshlike, alien-mouth cover). She declines to participate and crash lands on a frozen planet (thankfully not Hoth — it seems like we're foregoing the monoclime planets that dot the Star Wars galaxy). 

Osha is approached by a child, and she chases after her. We're not sure if this is a real or a dream, but it turns out she's talking to her twin sister (as a child) on her home planet of Brendok. 

From this premonition, she learns that Mae is still alive in fact, and that Mae killed Indara. We also learn that Osha used to be Sol's Padawan — he rescued her from a fire as a child. And he was certain that Mae died there. The backstory is slowly building, but there's so much we still don't know. Fortunately, Sol and Yord arrive to rescue her, and they believe that she's innocent. 

A Red Lightsaber

The final scene we see Mae walking up to a mysterious figure at a distance wielding a red lightsaber and wearing some sort of helmet, and he challenges her to kill a Jedi without a weapon. She, it seems, is the acolyte of the show's title. 

But who is this man?!!? In The Phantom Menace, everyone's favorite conehead Ki-Adi-Mundi says that the Sith have been extinct for a millenium. So who's this new guy? We'll have to see. 

Episode 2

One of the coolest things so far about The Acolyte is that we get a look into the regional offices of Jedi across the galaxy (more evidence that Jedi are cops). This episode opens with Mae blasting her way into a temple on a remote planet and attempting to murder Jedi Master Torbin, who's hovering in a meditative state. She can't break through his force field, however, and flees. This sort of transcendental meditation is impressive, and the kind of bad-ass Jedi power I've always wondered about. 

Good Twin / Bad Twin

Master Sol informs Coruscant that Mae (the evil twin) is the one killing Jedi, and he learns that she's taken another victim on a different planet. She's working with a crook named Qimir (incredibly played by everyone's favorite Floridian from The Good Place, Manny Jacinto) to concoct a poison to kill the meditative monk.

Sol and Osha discuss what's going on while traveling en route to the latest crime, and they come to terms with the fact that Mae may be alive. It's got to be hell on both of the dealing with the trauma of their joint past, as well as the truth that a long lost sibling is now alive and possibly evil.

And evil she may be, but there's possibly a reason. Mae returns to the meditative Jedi and offers him the chance of either confessing a crime to the Council or killing himself via poision — and he selects the poison. Is this a confession of guilt? As more time passes, we learn more hints that maybe Mae isn't acting out of pocket, that maybe her vengeance is earned. 

After Mae flees the scene, Osha approaches Qimir pretending to be Mae so she can learn what's going on. It's here that we see what a great actor Amanda Stenberg is — she portrays both characters so well and so differently so when she pretends to be one playing another, it's so clear that it's not the truth. (Fun fact: Stenberg had her breakout performance as Rue in the Hunger Games.)

Qimir feigns innocence but gives up Mae, claiming that he just gunruns for Hutts and provides supplies to criminals. Apart from that, he doesn't seem to know much, but what he does know for sure that Mae wants revenge on four Jedi. She's gotten two already, which means that now we're in a time crunch as she's only got Kelnacca and Sol left. 

Master Sol manages to confront Mae, and they have a fairly epic fight. Truly, the fight choreo continues to be super entertaining. He outfights and outsmarts her, though, in a scene that almost feels like something from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Sol demands to know who's training her, but we don't learn. That's the million dollar question these days, and I can't WAIT to find out, too. He's apparently taken great pains to hide his true identity, even from Mae as Sol force probes her mind. He shocks her by informing her that Osha is in fact alive, and she seems aghast. What happened to these sisters?

She flees, but we know that she has two targets left — including Kelnacca on Khofar.


Kelnacca, we learn, is a Wookiee Jedi, and it's absolutely incredible. Everyone knows Wookiees are fantastic, brute-strength warriors. But when you combine mystical Force powers? How would they not be unstoppable! When we see Kelnacca in action taking out some raiders, it's jaw dropping. He uses the Force to pull the attacker's weapons then literally rips the metal guns in two.

Next week we'll see him in a more epic battle, I imagine. Can't wait! These two episodes have definitely introduced more questions than answers, but I think it's setting us up for something awesome. 


The Math

Baseline score: Both get a solid 8.

Bonuses: This is a brand-new glimpse of a different Star Wars era than most of us are used to, and it's fun; You don't know have to be a big fan or know any easter eggs to enjoy the story.

Proto Gonk droid count:

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, new NoaF contributor and lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She loves nautical fiction, Vidalia onions, and growing corn and giving them pun names like Anacorn Skywalker.