Does Final Fantasy Fulfill Its Premises?

Each mainline Final Fantasy game stars a different set of protagonists in a different setting (some of the games, especially the more recent ones, get spin-offs which are direct sequels, but we’re not talking about any of those today). These protagonists often have super cool roles in these settings, things like ecoterrorists, mercenaries, mercenaries but in high school, sky pirates, necromancer priests, and sky pirates again. Sometimes the game actually fulfills the promise of the premise: There is an arc or side quest or something where you get to actually be a mercenary or sky pirate or whatever. Sometimes the protagonists’ cool job is purely an informed attribute, something we never have the chance to actually do in gameplay.

This post is an examination of which Final Fantasy games nail the promise of the premise of its characters and setting and which ones fail. The basic idea is that if the game says “you play as Balthier and he is a sky pirate” then there had better be a part of the game where I do sky piracy. Final Fantasy games are basically never primarily about doing the job the characters already have when they join the party, but if I wasn’t going to do any sky piracy then you should not have included a playable sky pirate. Slightly related, although this one comes up less often, if it seems like the setting revolves around one or a small handful of really cool people or roles, then I had better get to actually do those at some point. Like, it’s fine if we never get to do any sky piracy in a game where there’s a single airship full of sky pirates who serve as antagonists in a specific location and don’t come up before or after, but if the setting is a bunch of floating islands and the main tension of the setting is the Imperial Sky Navy chasing down rebellious sky pirates then I had better get to do some sky piracy even if none of my characters start as sky pirates.

It doesn’t matter if the game has a mandatory plot arc or a skippable side quest that explores the premise, but I do have to make a subjective assessment of whether or not the premise is “fully” explored or not (except sometimes I don’t because the game helps me out by featuring no gameplay relevant to the backstory whatsoever). Also, particularly in later games, each character often has a wildly different backstory and place in the world, so the game might nail some of them and fail others.

Final Fantasy’s cast size expanded much faster than its gameplay diversity, and this was a common trend throughout the JRPG genre at the time, so a lot of this post is basically just deducting points from very old games for not being 15 years ahead of their time (although the later games are contemporaries of the Yakuza series which puts a lot of emphasis on its main plot and still absolutely stuffs itself with all kinds of minigames that evoke experiences which have absolutely nothing to do with being a Yakuza, which was a weird design choice but also lots of fun and proves that this kind of thing is possible in principle). The point here isn’t really to ask whether the assorted dev teams did a good job, though, but rather to ask the question: Do you really get to play as a gambler king in Final Fantasy VI (no)?

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Yakuza: Vacationing In Cool Japan

“Cool Japan” is a tourist marketing and international relations soft power term used by Japan to refer to how they benefit when people from other countries think Japan is cool, so they try to push the Cool Japan image. The idea that Japan is a nerd wonderland where anime and video games are born emerged on its own in the 90s, but it’s since become, like, an officially supported project of the Japanese government. As far as I know, Sega doesn’t work with the Japanese government at all when making the Yakuza games, and I’m positive the government would not have chosen to put so much emphasis on red light districts and organized crime if they were commissioning the game from scratch, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn if Sega, like, accepted grant money in exchange for having a guy from the tourism board be part of the project’s leadership, because the fundamental premise of the Yakuza series is basically that it is a digital vacation to Cool Japan.

Like other digital vacations (principally Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed), a healthy heaping of bad guys in need of violence is dolloped generously across the place you’re vacationing in to give you cool things to do while you’re walking around downtown Tokyo (or, in some of the games, other cities throughout Japan), and the game’s main plot focuses on giving you a reason why all these guys are trying to beat you up while you’re trying to find the arcade. The main plot for these vacation-y type games often grates badly against the vacation vibes, with Far Cry 4 in particular (and from what I recall, Far Cry 5 as well, although I don’t want to commit to that when I haven’t played it in years and never finished it) feeling like its main plot is a completely different game from its open world.

Yakuza skirts around this because it’s called Yakuza, and its setting is not just Tokyo generally, but specifically Kamurocho, a fictionalized version of the Tokyo red light district of Kabukicho. Its main plots are certainly not accurate depictions of the Yakuza, but they do feel like pretty much exactly the kinds of stories I would expect to hear while taking a walking tour advertised as “legends of the Yakuza” through Kabukicho. The stories are embellished to the point where only a very gullible person would take them at face value, but they do have some connection to real history and sub-cultures and they tie themselves heavily to the people and places you’re walking through. They’re not concerned with accuracy, but they are concerned with being here, in the place you are taking the tour, walking the same streets, using the same buildings, and a degree of authenticity is imposed on them by that gimmick.

The game’s side quests (or “substories”) feel even more like stories from a walking tour in that they trigger semi-randomly while you’re walking around and are usually a brief vignette of an interesting thing that might happen in Japan. Some of them are things that would only happen in Japan, and some of them are just an interesting thing that could’ve happened anywhere but actually did happen on the specific street we’re walking on now, so the guide is telling you about it real quick because it’s like a five minute walk from the site of the famous “Empty Lot” that different Yakuza families fought a small war over in the 80s to the office building where Kazuma Kiryu beat up thirty people in what was allegedly an attempt to break up an embezzling scheme within the Tojo Clan of the Yakuza, and the guide needs something to keep those five minutes from dragging too much so they tell you a story about how we’re now walking past the restaurant where Goro Majima pretended to be dating a young woman he had never met because he happened to fit the fairly outlandish appearance she had made up to convince her father that she wasn’t single and she had persuaded Goro to help her keep up the bluff for one night while her father was visiting.

And Yakuza’s open world mechanics emphasize the vacation even more strongly. You recover health by eating food. You can go into convenience stores to buy snacks and the Japanese equivalent of 7/11 hot dogs to carry around for health regeneration mid-battle, and you can also go to various street stalls and sit down restaurants to eat food for a larger health boost at a specific location. The game tracks which menu items you have and haven’t ordered at each shop and encourages you to try them all. The eating animation is exactly the same no matter what you buy, which is a disappointment, but the game struggles as hard as it can to convince you to treat these restaurants not as a way to exchange in-game yen for health, but to instead view them as simulated dining experiences with the restaurant design, the way waiters or stall owners interact with you being reasonably verisimilitudinous, and by building a tracker for 100% completion into the interface for choosing a meal and thus encouraging you to actually look at the menu instead of just hammering the first item over and over until you’re maxed out.

The game has a dozen-odd weird minigames scattered about. There are arcades where you can play games or try to win something from a claw machine, casinos where you can play card games, bars where you can play pool or darts, karaoke places where you can play rhythm games that display all the button prompts for the XBox controller even though mine is Playstation, and people to play traditional Japanese board games like Shogi and Mahjong with.

None of these things have anything to do with being a Yakuza and many of them seem out of place with the personality of the character you’re playing, to the point where part of what makes the main plot and substories feel like things you’re hearing about in a walking tour is that the protagonist of the main plot feels like a totally different person from the easily distracted guy walking around helping little kids get the new Dragon Quest game on release day and playing Shogi with old men on the side of the road. This is probably the biggest weakness of the Yakuza games.

Open world games gravitate somewhat in the direction of being a digital vacation to a place because that’s basically what an open world is, but where the Assassin’s Creed series feels like vacations to periods of history, the Just Cause series feels like vacations to action movies, and the Far Cry series muddies its vacation vibes with main plots that emphasize how the country you have come to is a horrible and depressing place best avoided, Yakuza feels like its actual goal is to be a simulated vacation to a specific Tokyo neighborhood.

The Case of the Golden Idol

It’s hard to say much about the Case of the Golden Idol, because it’s a really good mystery game, so this might be kind of a short post. The basic premise is that you are a disembodied observer investigating a tableau in which someone is about to or has recently died, sometimes accidentally, usually from a murder. You examine the scene for clues and a bunch of words go into a little word inventory, and then you use those words to fill out some mad libs to demonstrate you’ve figured out what happened. The mad libs turn green if you got it exactly right, yellow if just one or two blank spots are wrong, or red if three or more are wrong, so you can’t brute force the solution but if you’ve got exactly one name or murder weapon or whatever out of place, you’ll know that you need to make a small tweak rather than throwing your whole theory out to start from scratch. Because you’re looking at a tableau where everyone has just one or two lines of dialogue from a single moment in time, often step one is finding out who all these bickering assholes even are, and then you can start piecing together who killed who and why.

The game takes place in an 18th century Strangereal-type setting, recognizably similar to the real world but with the exact geography and nations and so forth altered slightly so that it’s not beholden to real history at all. The game takes place in Albion, which is exactly like 18th century England except in that it’s not at all weird that one of the local aristocrats went on an expedition to Lemuria to retrieve the titular golden idol, which is going to be relevant to eleven different untimely deaths for reasons that probably have nothing to do with a curse. The tableaus are only loosely connected at first, but about three or four tableaus in, consistent characters start to emerge and a greater mystery of conspiracy and occultism starts to tie all the murder scenes together.

Mechanically speaking, I found the game to be a very good level of difficulty for mystery solving. Untangling what had happened in several of the tableaus was quite difficult, but I was able to finish the entire game without giving into the temptation to ask for hints. The first tableau is so trivially easy that I don’t even consider it a spoiler to describe: One character is shoving another off a cliff, with the tableau frozen at the moment the victim is plummeting to his death. You rifle through the effects of the characters (which, because you are a disembodied observer in a tableau frozen in time, has no impact on the scene) to find a contract with both their names on it and some clues as to which one’s the doctor and, by process of elimination, which one’s the other guy, and bam, you successfully solved the mystery of who shoved the doctor off the cliff. It was the guy who was shoving the doctor off the cliff. Then in the second tableau it’s straightforward but non-obvious and you’ll probably fall for a red herring before figuring it out, and from the third tableau on things start to get properly challenging. I never felt like I had to resort to cheap game-y tricks like cycling every possible remaining word through a single empty spot or similar, and instead all of the mysteries were solved by examining clues.

Very strongly recommended game, the Case of the Golden Idol is pretty much perfect at being what it is, if you have any interest in a mystery-solving game about 18th century occult murders, then this game absolutely nails it.

A Quick Pre-Sequel Rewrite

I’ve already done a rewrite of the climax of the Borderlands Pre-Sequel, but that was a very zoomed out outline of how to make the ending more impactful. During that post, I talked about how the line-by-line writing often fails, so I want to zoom in and do a rewrite of some specific dialogue as an example of exactly what the problem was and how to fix it.

Here’s the situation up to the bit of dialogue we’re looking at: At the start of the Pre-Sequel, you, a band of 1-4 intrepid vault hunters, meet Handsome Jack, your new employer from the Hyperion corporation, on the space station Helios. Unfortunately, it’s under attack from rival corporation Dahl. You escape to the surface of the moon Elpis, but Jack has to stay behind to fire the improvised escape vehicle. He’s trapped on Helios, so you need to get to the moon city Concordia to get the fast travel coordinates for Jack so he can beam down to the city before Dahl’s mercenaries catch him and kill him. Down on the surface of the planet, we discover that Elpis does not have air and get saved from asphyxiation by Janey Springs, a local junk dealer. After the quest that introduces Janey and tutorializes how oxygen works out in the frontier wilderness of the moon, Janey points you at the first bandit clan you’re going to murder in this game, and the curtain rises on our scene, copy/pasted directly from the transcript of the game (although I have removed lines from optional DLC characters, since I only plan on writing for the four characters in the main game in my revision).

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Lilith’s Telepathy Looks Terrible In Borderlands 3

The Borderlands series keeps bouncing around what exactly it looks like when a psion communicates with you telepathically. In the first game, it didn’t even seem like it was supposed to be telepathy, more like Angel (a psion who also has access to some amount of techno-gadgetry and uses the latter to pretend she’s an AI) has hacked into your space phone. Although Angel does first contact you before you get your space phone, but that’s the same scene where she tells you to get off the bus while it’s still in motion, so I’d chalked that up to another writing oversight – Angel’s lines seem to be written and delivered with only a very vague idea of what part of the game they’re going in. But then in Borderlands 2 they retcon that dialogue mistake by having Angel deliver a line word-for-word under Handsome Jack’s instructions, and Jack can’t see what the player is up to.

By Borderlands 3 it’s unambiguous that the effect used is supposed to indicate psion telepathy, because friendly telepath Lilith uses it without access to any of the techno-gadgetry that Angel was using in the first and second games.

Here’s what Angel’s telepathy looks like in the original Borderlands 1:

Continue reading “Lilith’s Telepathy Looks Terrible In Borderlands 3”

Borderlands DLCs

Borderlands 1 DLCs were mostly a transition period in the writing from the original game to the sequel. It’s kind of interesting to watch them go hard on the comedy in the Dr. Ned DLC (the first one) and then pull back a bit for the other three to reach the level they have in Borderlands 2 (although Mad Moxxi, the second DLC, scarcely has any plot or characters to speak of), but there’s not much more to say about it than that. General Knoxx and the Robolution end up being actual plot points in the series going on, but this isn’t a plot recap, it’s a critique, and so far as a critique of those two goes, it’s got Borderlands 2’s writing but Borderlands 1’s gameplay, and I’ve discussed Borderlands 2’s writing in other posts and other people have discussed Borderlands 1’s gameplay enough that I don’t feel the need to rehash it.

And then the Pre-Sequel had a total of three DLC campaigns, two of which were Mad Moxxi style arena DLCs with even less plot or character than the Moxxi DLC for Borderlands 1, and the third was a Claptrap focused campaign. The Claptrap DLC is not bad, although they made the final boss a three-stage mega-boss where both of the final two stages are raid bosses with ludicrously long HP bars that take like 20 minutes to chew through, which really brought the experience down for me. It’s certainly possible to master the arena and boss attacks to the point where you can win a battle of attrition against Shadow-Trap, but the place for such a difficulty spike is not against the Jungian shadow self of the comic relief character.

So that’s the DLCs of Borderlands 1 and the Pre-Sequel, a paragraph each. Borderlands 2 has more meat on its bones, both because it has a total of five campaign DLCs plus five mini-campaign headhunter DLCs, and because the quality of the DLCs actually varies from one another and the main game in a way that I can hopefully wring two thousand words out of to get another post in the queue. Or at least fifteen hundred? I dunno, I like the gameplay of Borderlands and I’m having fun replaying the series through but I’m also struggling to find enough things to say about it to fill in four games’ worth of blog posts.

Borderlands 2’s DLCs follow a similar trajectory to Borderlands 1 DLCs, in that they start off goofing off with stories so crazy that they can only be considered semi-canon even in the Borderlands continuity (Dr. Ned from the first Borderlands 1 DLC is referenced, but nobody ever acts like Old Haven was actually overrun by zombies at any point). The Captain Scarlett DLC is just a treasure hunt with sand pirates, the Mr. Torgue DLC is a parody of professional wrestling, the Sir Hammerlock DLC is…well, I’m not sure what they were going for exactly, but it wasn’t trying to advance any character arcs or set up any sequels. The closest thing to character advancement we get is that Moxxi shows up in the Torgue DLC and is trying to get back into the arena-hosting business after Handsome Jack blew up her last arena between games (Tiny Tina also makes an appearance, but not in a way that changes anything about her character or her relationship with other characters).

But then Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep is all about helping a thirteen-year old girl process the loss of Roland in the main game by way of participating in her D&D campaign, and we see the other characters dealing with it as well. It’s a shockingly good example of a story-driven DLC, in that it has a fun premise that serves as a hook and uses that premise to let the characters decompress from the events leading up to the climax of the main plot. You can see how some of the major characters are processing Roland’s death but if you skip the DLC you’ll still be up to date on all the plot-critical information (i.e. that Roland is dead) in Borderlands 3. I say “shockingly good” because I would not expect the Borderlands series to be this good at it. I’d generally describe the series’ writing as being good enough to serve as a scaffolding for the gameplay and the comedy, and though the comedy only lands about half the time, the gameplay of shooting doods and taking their stuff is reliable enough that I’m happy to play Borderlands games when I want to play a shooter looter. Dragon Keep isn’t a gold standard of writing or anything, but it is much better than that “good enough to let the gameplay win me over” standard that the rest of Borderlands 2 operates on. Go figure.

There is one thing that annoys me about the Tiny Tina DLC: For the first 50%-ish of it Tiny Tina acts like Roland is still alive and that people should wait for him to show up and join the game. Then for most of the second half she has Roland as a character in her game, which she runs to rewrite the events of Roland’s death so that he lives and defeats Handsome Jack with the player. At the climax, Tiny Tina has an outburst where she yells that she knows Roland is dead and she just wants to be able to tell a story where that never happened. This is perfectly realistic, Tiny Tina moves from total denial to retelling a version of events where Roland lives as a way of making peace with his death, but as a narrative thing it means that Tina’s arc only makes sense in retrospect. As it’s happening, she drifts from one coping mechanism to another without any insight into why until the end. The game seems to want us to empathize with Brick, Mordecai, and especially Lilith who don’t know how to address Tina’s denial, but while they’re clearly uncomfortable with, they don’t say anything to Tina about it. It really would’ve benefited from Tina being out of the room at one point (just don’t even worry about why gameplay in a D&D game she’s running continues despite this) so Brick, Mordecai, and Lilith would have a chance to express both their concern and (especially in the case of Lilith, who was closer to Roland than anyone) frustration with Tina’s denial, but also that they’re not sure what to do about it. It would help establish more firmly for the audience that “what the Hell is going on with Tina psychologically right now” is the intended experience and not a failure to communicate a character arc.

But still, getting a nuanced depiction of grief even 80% right is way above the standard for Borderlands writing, so I’m quibbling over details here.

And then the headhunter mini-campaign DLCs released over the course of 2013 and 2014 (after the campaign DLCs, released in 2012 and 2013) weirdly enough follow the same trajectory. Three of them are generic holiday-themed goofing off, one of them involves Moxxi trying to be “the good guys” in a way I guess is a break from previous behavior? But it’s not clear how much of this is meant to be a real character arc (however brief) and how much is just a setup for a Romeo and Juliet story for Valentine’s. The last one, Sir Hammerlock vs. the Son of Crawmerax, actually being an advancement of the plot. That last one has the playable character actually having dialogue (beyond combat barks), advances Mordecai’s character a bit by establishing that he’s raising a replacement for Bloodwing, his pet bird from the first game that got killed in the main plot of Borderlands 2, and also establishes that Lilith thinks the new bird and Mordecai’s relationship with it is adorable. These are minor character beats, but it’s not bad for an hour-long mini-campaign and it’s more than we got out of the other headhunter DLCs.

It’s weird that the DLCs repeat this trajectory of starting off with campaigns that don’t develop the setting or characters much at all and then start to do more character-focused stuff towards the end of the run, not only in both Borderlands 1 and 2, but also resetting between the Borderlands 2 full campaign DLCs and the subsequent run of headhunter mini-campaign DLCs. I don’t know why.

I hadn’t played the Lilith DLC before, since it was released in 2019, seven years after the launch of the base game, as a lead-in to Borderlands 3. It’s, uh…well, it has a lot to do with the characters of Cassius and Vaughn, who are from Tales from the Borderlands according to the internet. Nearly every Vaughn line is a joke and nearly every Vaughn joke is intolerably unfunny. I hear he’s better in Tales, which makes it worse, because it means that there’s an audience who likes this character and here he’s just garbage. Worse, while all the previous DLCs cap out at level 35, this one runs from levels 38-40. If you complete all the DLCs, you’ll probably be in (or even past) the level 38-40 range when you start the Lilith DLC, but your character level makes surprisingly little difference to your power in Borderlands. What really matters is the level and quality of your loot, and the previous DLC’s level 35 enemies drop level 35 guns. This makes the early stages of the Lilith DLC absolute garbage, as your guns are horribly overpowered and Vaughn features heavily.

Things even out a lot once you build up a decent arsenal from drops from the Lilith DLC itself, but the deeper I got into the Lilith DLC, the more obvious it became that the primary purpose of most of this DLC was to serve as an epilogue or even final episode to the Tales game I didn’t play. There’s a side quest where you memorialize Scooter who, wait, what the fuck, Scooter’s dead? I guess Scooter’s dead. Vaughn has some history with this guy Cassius, and we kill Cassius in the Lilith DLC, which, uh. I guess that might’ve had some impact on people who played Tales?

It’s fine that this DLC exists to tie up loose ends from a spin-off game while setting up the third – it’s DLC. This does make me nervous that Borderlands 3 is going to treat Tales as a full game in the series that the audience is expected to be familiar with, especially since Tales apparently killed Scooter, a fairly major NPC from the series. Am I gonna get a third of the way into Borderlands 3 and it’s gonna start exploring the fallout of that one time Janey Springs was kidnapped and converted into a cyber-assassin by the Maliwan corporation and killed her former girlfriend Athena and just sort of expect me to have played the game where all that crazy shit actually happened?

But my major problem with the Lilith DLC is that it acts like Lilith’s leadership of the Crimson Raiders following Roland’s death is in question, and then has her clumsily grow into a role by, uh, making a tactical decision that sacrifices the hub town of Sanctuary and then giving a heroic speech, neither of which are especially Roland-y things to do. The Lilith DLC, both in that it is properly called Commander Lilith and the Battle for Sanctuary and in that it opens and closes with beats from this character arc, is about Lilith growing into the role of leader of the Crimson Raiders. But I never got the feeling that this was ever in question? At the end of Borderlands 2 my impression is that Lilith’s leadership was not at all in dispute, and she certainly doesn’t seem to have any inability to make hard tactical decisions in a hurry (particularly since Sanctuary was fully evacuated when she sacrificed it, so it was a purely sentimental loss to defeat this week’s planet-killing supervillain – it was actually a pretty easy call) nor is there any indication that Lilith’s legitimacy is doubted by the other Crimson Raiders or that she lacks confidence in her ability to lead. And her speech at the end doesn’t really resemble anything Roland ever said.

And if they’d just let Lilith’s presumptive succession of Roland stand without drawing attention to it, they could’ve branded this DLC as a continuation of Tales and it would’ve been way less jarring for all these characters and events I’d never heard of to be getting the spotlight.

Yakuza Zero: Slow Start

I started playing the DLC they released for Borderlands 2 to set up the third game, and oh, wow, you can tell it’s been five years of development Hell since they made the last game. The writing has completely fallen apart and no one seems to have realized that while, yes, most people who’ve finished all the other DLC (and since the GOTY edition has been out for like four years now, that’s probably everyone) will be at level 40 or above, all the other DLC caps out at level 35, so they’ll have level 35 guns, so stocking the new DLC with level 40 baddies makes them insane bullet sponges. And the gun shops are always a few levels behind, so it’s taking forever and a half to find gear appropriate to the 5 level leap the content just took. I still kind of want to play the Borderlands series all back-to-back so I can do a retrospective post for all the games in context of each other, and I’m only one game away from making that happen (assuming we don’t count Tales of the Borderlands, which was generally well-received but I’m in the Borderlands series for the gameplay first, so, uh, that’s just gonna have to be a hole in the review), but I’m definitely mixing in some other games.

And since I’ve got a friend reading some non-fiction about the Yakuza lately, I’ve decided it would be helpful to help him gauge the validity of the book by getting some firsthand experience with a highly accurate, detailed simulation.

Yakuza Zero has a pretty slow start, though. I don’t think it has the same problem that Ubisoft games (especially the Assassin’s Creed series) have where they unnecessarily stack one prologue after another on top of you. They’re trying to set a scene and build a mood and it works, but they do lay some of it on thicker than is necessary.

For example, there’s a conversation between protagonist Kiryu and his Yakuza buddy Nishiki where he talks about how flashy clothes and cars and dropping money on hot young women so they follow you around all helps to make an impression, and keeping up these kinds of appearances is important in the Yakuza. Kiryu has the Bushido vibes going, the stoic enforcer who’s all about skill and loyalty rather than style, all fruit and no flower just like Miyamoto Musashi wrote. But do we need the conversation establishing that to happen while Kiryu and Nishiki are walking to the karaoke bar?

The opening scene where our protagonist Kiryu roughs someone up on behalf of a loan shark is absolutely necessary set up for the inciting incident at the end of this sequence, and the conversation the next morning between Kiryu and Nishiki when they learn that the victim of Kiryu’s violence died in the alleyway is, itself, the inciting incident, but even here you could probably do some line-by-line revision of the dialogue to compress it a little. I don’t normally consider that kind of thing a good use of a writer’s time, but the first chapter (or equivalent, but Yakuzo Zero does literally use chapters) is an exception.

Going line-by-line is something I consider a pretty extreme measure (this kind of thing is, or at least was until recently, considered standard editing in books – but self-publishing has made it clear that even there the audience never cared and it was just an affectation of the agents and editors who served as gatekeepers), but Steam tells me that from booting up the game to the first point where I was in control of Kiryu to just run around a neighborhood having Yakuza adventures was sixty-two minutes. And I wasn’t even out of the prologue at that point, but I was free to take the second half of the prologue at my own pace rather than going cutscene->tutorial->cutscene->tutorial to the point where it’s nearly impossible for me to significantly gain or lose time without intentionally stalling. Once we get into the second half of the prologue, the slower pacing starts to be at least partly my fault, because I like to do things like walk instead of run unless the character I’m playing has some reason (narrative or mechanical) to be in a hurry. Plus, even if you’re technically still in the prologue, you’re still tracking down a loan shark to investigate being set up for murder, which involves going into a building and beating the shit out of a bunch of his enforcers. Not a tutorial, but proper Yakuza gameplay.

Funny enough, despite taking more than a real actual hour to get through, this still feels less egregious than Assassin’s Creed prologues that take half as much time or less. I think Yakuza’s getting pretty decadent and a little sloppy with its audience’s patience, but it is using the time to set up its story, establish its characters, and set a tone for the setting. Assassin’s Creed is usually just spinning its wheels, and even the less egregious series like Far Cry and Watch_Dogs tend to spend a lot of time setting up plotlines that it will then ignore for 20+ hours of gameplay. Far Cry 4, for example, takes time out of its intro to introduce a sixteen-year old girl who was born into a position of religious veneration and which resistance leader Sabal plans to marry to cement his rulership after overthrowing Pagan Min, but we basically don’t interact with her at all between the setup and the payoff, so there was no reason to put her intro in the prologue, between us and the full game.

Yakuza Zero spends its prologue on three things: Setting up the murder that Kiryu is framed for, the inciting incident of the main plot, establishing his relationship with Nishiki, a major character, and some combat tutorials that you need to drop on the player before they reach the first real combats chasing down the loan shark at the end of the prologue. You can and should trim down the details of the execution, but all of that needed to be in the game’s opening. Just, not to the point where it takes a full hour to get through.

Borderlands 2 Is Not As Progressive As It Thinks It Is

The original Borderlands game was released in 2009 and seemed to be totally unconcerned with the culture war. Even in DLCs that emphasized the comedic tone, like General Knoxx and Claptrap’s Robolution, they didn’t really make anything of Athena’s defection against the Crimson Lance being some kind of “woman smashing patriarchy” thing, and the Anglosphere’s socialist moment was far enough away that the Robolution was all dunking on straw communists, and even that is perhaps giving it too much credit, since it doesn’t treat communism or socialism as actual targets. It waffles between treating them as obviously ridiculous without engaging with the arguments to portraying Claptrap as too comically inept to pull off the adoption of historical communist slogans from Marx, Lenin, and Guevara that he’s attempting. Despite being nominally about a political revolution/class war, the Robolution doesn’t say anything and doesn’t seem like it ever wanted people to believe it was going to say something.

This is not how Borderlands 2 and the Pre-Sequel were written. Released in 2012 and 2014, when the culture war was brewing but had not yet exploded into Gamergate (or, in the latter case, a few months after it had begun, making it unclear how much of it was written with that specific movement in mind). Borderlands 2 and the Pre-Sequel make a point of being progressive. Sir Hammerlock of Borderlands 2 has an ex-boyfriend casually mentioned in a side quest, and while the ex-boyfriend himself is – being a Borderlands character – a comical caricature, he’s a caricature of an obsessive hunter, not of a gay man. Borderlands 2’s Ellie is an extremely overweight woman with a side quest about body positivity. The Borderlands Pre-Sequel’s Janey Springs is a lesbian, and her last relationship and efforts to start a new one are the subject of two different side quests, plus she hooks up with playable character Athena in a DLC.

And yet Borderlands 2 still has “psycho midgets” as an enemy type, kills one of the two major female characters to raise the stakes going into the third act while damseling the other, and the Pre-Sequel portrays the last surviving female member of the principal cast as being driven to hysterical violence by the death of her boyfriend (although in the main game it’s not at all clear why Lilith has suddenly gone full homicidal tyrant, and the explanation that her boyfriend’s death sent her kill-crazy given in the DLC seems more like an effort to salvage a blatantly out of character portrayal rather than actually thinking Lilith going kill-crazy from her boyfriend’s death was good character development).

I found the presence of “psycho midgets” in a game that goes out of its way to have a body positivity side quest for an extremely plus-sized woman to be the kind of thing that’d be worth a quick tweet if I tweeted, but the break into act three in Borderlands 2 is bizarrely egregious for a story with pretenses to being progressive. This is where we learn that Angel, the allegedly AI companion who pretended to help us in the first half of the game, betrayed the vault hunters to the villains, then immediately heel/face’d back to helping us defeat Handsome Jack but for real this time, is actually Handsome Jack’s abused daughter.

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Rollerdrome

Rollerdrome is a Tony Hawk but you have a shotgun. Strictly speaking you’re on rollerskates instead of a skateboard, which I’m sure makes a big difference if you’re trying to ride these things in actual real life, but game mechanically this is pretty much exactly the same as Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. I can’t totally remember the button inputs from those old games, but to my recollection they might be completely identical. They probably did have to clear out some room on the controller somewhere for weapon switching and shooting guys, though.

The way it works is that there are a bunch of guys scattered around a Tony Hawk style skate park, which might be an actual skate park, a mountain ski resort, a shopping mall, an ambiguously desert-y location, whatever. These guys have sniper rifles or rocket launchers or laser gauntlets or various other weapons with extremely well-telegraphed attack wind-ups (the sniper rifles, for example, draw an unmissable laser beam from themselves to you for several seconds before firing). All of these attacks can be dodged by doing a little flip with your do-a-little-flip button, which will cause you to dodge roll if you’re on the ground or grinding a rail and to somersault if you’re in the air. You only get so many i-frames and you can’t do another flip until your first flip is done, so you can’t chain them together for permanent invincibility, which means the challenge of the game comes when you’re being mobbed by enough enemies that the incoming attacks are sufficiently hectic that you might dodge roll away from one and straight into another. This is especially the case when area attacks get introduced late in the game, like the laser gauntlets that sweep across the arena chasing after you or the jetpack guys who spray out a bunch of acid that damages you if you move across it and which persists for several seconds (your i-frames still work on the acid, but your dodge roll doesn’t cover enough ground to get you from one end of the acid to the other, so you’ll still be in it when the i-frames wear off).

You have a variety of guns with which to sort these fellows out, all of which have shared ammunition. Each shot from your dual pistols consumes one pistol bullet, naturally, but a shotgun blast consumes two, a laser bolt consumes either four or eight depending on whether it’s double-charged, and a grenade from your grenade launcher consumes six. You start with twelve, and different weapons are more effective against different enemies, but you will generally have to completely mag dump a specific guy to kill him even if you’re using the optimal weapon.

The rocket launcher fellows, for example, have a shield they can activate that makes them temporarily invincible, but they can’t activate it while flinching. The shotgun, laser, and grenade launcher have enough windup between shots that he can recover from the flinch (which lasts only a split second) and activate his shield, but the dual pistols spam out bullets fast enough to stunlock him. If you mag dump about ten of your twelve pistol bullets into a rocket launcher guy, you can spam him to death before he gets his shield up. The shotgun is better on a damage-per-bullet basis, with a single shotgun slug dealing about three or four times as much as a pistol bullet, but requiring only two pistol bullets’ worth of ammo to fire. The grenade launcher does AoE, and I never really figured out what the laser was for. I think when double-charged it might be the single largest source of one-shot damage, so hypothetically good for when you need a specific guy to die fast no matter how many bullets it costs you to do it, but it was so hard to aim (even with keyboard and mouse) that I never really worked out if that’s true.

Since you often need to completely empty your weapon to kill one guy and there’s like twenty of them spread across the arena, you will need to reload, which you do by performing tricks. The more rad your sick moves, the more ammo you get back. Unlike in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, it’s impossible to wipe out, you will always roll back onto your skates no matter what angle you hit the ground, which means there’s never any points lost because you didn’t stick the landing, which means the game can and does give you the points for the trick mid-air as you complete each 180 degrees of a spin or complete rotation of a flip or whatever, which means you can ride off a quarter pipe with an empty magazine towards a guy with a rocket launcher on a raised platform that’s hard to hit from the ground, do a sweet 720 nose-grab backflip in mid-air, and mag dump your pistols (well, just one, because you’re using the other hand for the nosegrab – this doesn’t seem to affect fire rate at all) into the rocket launcher guy as you’re spinning through the air, firing the bullets as soon as they arrive in your weapons.

What really brings all that together is that you have a time-limited ability to enter slo-mo, which is on a fast recharge, which means you don’t just have to spam out bullets and hope for the best, you can enter slo-mo to aim and fire at a target (and the pistols and shotgun have a built-in aimbot, although the shotgun’s aimbot is pretty short range).

The Tony Hawk inspiration continues in the ten challenges each level has, which include getting a certain high score, collecting some tokens scattered about the arena, doing a specific trick in a specific place, killing a specific enemy with a specific weapon or in a specific way, and so on. The levels are presented in a specific order, but by default you need to not only complete each level in sequence, but also complete enough challenges across all levels to unlock the next few in the sequence. Just completing a level doesn’t automatically complete any challenges, and most challenges don’t require you to complete the level. A challenge to kill one of the polybeam enemies before they’ve teleported once, for example, can be completed in ten seconds if you drop in, skate over to a polybeam next to an exploding barrel, and lob a grenade at the right spot so the polybeam gets caught in both explosions. You still get credit for that challenge even if you go on to get killed or even quit out of the level immediately.

Rollerdrome is quite difficult, but it also has quite good difficulty options. As is the case in many indie games these days, these are labeled as “accessibility,” and every single one of them is a way of making the game easier which is turned off by default. While good difficulty options are definitely an accessibility thing, I do suspect that it’s not good for these games that they start you out on nightmare Hellmurder difficulty and you have to go into the settings menu to find the options to tone it down. There’s sliders to reduce game speed, decrease enemy damage, an option to remove the requirement to complete challenges so all you have to do is beat each level in sequence, and even outright invincibility. The only one I wound up using was removing the challenge requirements, and I don’t know if it’s good or bad that I subsequently accidentally spent four hours longer than I planned to spend on the game to beat the last three levels. Accessibility options don’t prevent you from getting achievements but do disqualify you from leaderboards. A very thorough system that covers everything difficulty options should, my only real complaint is that it should be broken out of the settings menu and given its own spot on the main menu.

Rollerdrome has some kind of corporate greed, police militarization, celebrities with political opinions kinda plot happening in the background. It’s not really fleshed out enough to be worth following, but leaving it vague was a good idea on the Rollerdrome devs’ part. Sure, it would’ve been nice to have some frame story about skate-murdering for police reform or whatever, but in order to do so properly would require adding things that would’ve required other things to be removed, just due to finite time and resources. Like, you’d want to have confrontations with rival Rollerdrome athletes, and while such a Rollerdrome duel sounds really cool, it probably wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as the spidertank boss fights we actually got, where you have to skate up the legs of the tank and use the quarter-pipe at its back to get above it so you can shoot its weakspot with a grenade launcher. The spidertank is a piece of the skate park that walks around shooting missiles at you, while a rival Rollerdrome competitor is just a regular enemy who moves around (half your guns have a built-in aimbot so you can use them while doing flips and shit, so a moving target will make almost no difference mechanically) and probably has way too much health.

Rollerdrome is Tony Hawk with guns, and it’s really, really good at being exactly that and not anything else.

The Forest Abandoned Its Coolest Ideas

In the Forest, you are a dude with a survivalist TV show who gets in a real plane wreck on an island off the coast of Canada that’s overrun by cannibal mutants because of some Lovecraftian science project gone wrong. The island causes lots of plane wrecks and yet no one’s put up some kind of advisory to stop flying over it because of all the electrical interference caused by the Lovecraftian science going on. It does have an explanation why you in particular are special, though: Your survival skills allow you to do survival craft-y basebuilding stuff that other survivors could not, which gives you a fighting chance where everyone else has basically got to join the cannibal mutants and succumb to cannibal mutation or else die, either at the hands of the cannibals or the elements. The game makes use of this premise in at least one nifty way, where the first time or two you black out, you awaken in a cannibal camp in their creepy victim storage cave and have a chance to escape.

If you read my April Humble Choice post, you know this game went into Regrets. I took a stab at playing it back before I was trying to get through my backlog and ultimately gave up before finishing it. That was a common enough thing back then (I started doing the backlog for a reason), and I put it on the backlog and even kept it there through a few revisions. But every time I look at it and consider playing it as my next main game after finishing Borderlands: the Pre-Sequel, I hesitate. I hesitate for two reasons.

First, the game is hard enough that you have to reload saves multiple times to build up enough skill to win. I’m already about half-ish way through this process – in my previous playthrough I’d gotten far enough to confront, but not reliably defeat, the elite mutant bad guys who have like seven legs and stuff, and the only thing harder than those is the end bosses. So it’s not like the skill cliff is insurmountable, but I have to keep reloading saves in a way that isn’t very immersive, which runs deeply counter to what I want from a game that simulates dragging chopped down logs back to your camp in a sledge to build a wall.

Second, while the game initially wanted to have finite enemies, they never actually implemented this, and enemies respawn indefinitely. Caveat: Enemies do eventually run out, but the respawns are reset if you load a saved game, which basically eradicates this as a usable feature for everyone who isn’t marathoning a multiplayer instance of the game in shifts over the course of an entire weekend. That sounds like fun, but come on, the logistics are never going to be practical, so if that’s what the devs meant by “finite enemies” then they’re basically lying. My assumption isn’t that they were lying, though, but that they were planning on having finite enemies in a practical sense but never got around to implementing the feature properly, and the version we got is a vestigial remnant of an abortive attempt to do so.

Part of the game’s mechanics is that if mutant patrols detect you (including if you kill them), they start to figure out where you are and will amass an army to wipe out your base. Combined with a finite number of mutants, you have an asymmetric game where you are playing as one particularly dangerous fellow whose limbs are in the optimal configuration and knows how to build booby traps, and the mutants have tremendous but finite numbers and can overwhelm you in a straight fight, so you have to be all sneaky and such, picking them off one by one. But they never actually implemented finite mutants, so you still have to abandon bases as you get chased around the map, but you can never win the war in the other direction, you just have to deal with mutant spawns for the whole game, and if they find your base in the corner of the map where your current objective is, you have to do the tedious work of luring them to some other part of the map before you can get back to your main objective. Weirdly enough, the vast majority of enemies in caves stay dead, even though the Lovecraftian science causing the mutations is located down there, so if there was anywhere it made sense to be continuously restocking on mutants, it would be the caves, not the surface.

Third, and this is a much more minor complaint, but the game has a big emphasis on exploring cave networks, and originally all the underground cave networks were supposed to be linked together, making it possible to cross the map underground. This got dropped, and in the actual game there’s about a dozen cave entrances and about eight fully separate cave networks, with only a handful having multiple entrances. This isn’t really a huge deal, but it would’ve been neat.

Fourth, and similarly to third this is a more minor issue but it is just one more cool thing that never happened, there was originally planned to be a mechanic where decreasing sanity would unlock the ability to make creepy heads-on-pikes style trophies that would deter small mutant patrols from the area, but they never got the unlock prerequisites working so now you can make the heads-on-pikes the second you get out of the plane wreckage. It does at least interact with the whole “mutants scout for your base” thing, although without the ability to thin mutant numbers, I find that mechanic more annoying than cool.

Remove all that, and what do you have? Yet another survival craft-y game that only stands out because of some particularly creepy enemies. Do I want to sink 20 or even 10 hours into that? Not really. I really want to play a guerilla campaign against the mutants, but that feature never made it, and I really shouldn’t be spending time playing a game that at one point planned to be something I would’ve enjoyed.