RPG Week: Day 7 – Grabbag Goodies

Final Fantasy VIWith the last day of RPG week 2014, I want to hit a couple of my favorite RPGs that don’t really fit into any of the previous categories I’ve been talking about. There are three series that I want to hit today – Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts and Pokemon – which will wrap up my thoughts on the genre, at least for now. Next week will be pretty busy with Destiny releasing on Tuesday – I plan on having a whole bunch of different topics to talk about over the next couple weeks, hitting all the major parts of the game.

First though, I want to look at the granddaddy of all the console RPGs – Final Fantasy. It wasn’t the first RPG on home consoles, but it took the reins from Dragon Quest, released a year earlier, really setting the template for the genre on the home consoles. The series stretches all the way back to 1987 on the NES and has had a longevity that few series have enjoyed. Players these days might immediately think back to Final Fantasy VII on the PSX as their first experience with the series. To this day I still think that FFVII has one of the very best magic systems I’ve ever used in a game in the materia system. Spells are tied to the individual materia, which has a separate experience level that you raise, which makes the spells that much more powerful. Because the spells aren’t tied to characters, it lets you put the spells on the party members you feel like. Combine that with a strong story, memorable characters and moments that still resonate with gamers years later, and you have a game that has an important spot in the annals of history. That said, it’s not the best game in the franchise – that title belongs to the previous game, Final Fantasy VI. While FFVII might have the more well known villain in Sephiroth bent on destroying the world, it’s Kefka in FFVI that actually succeeds in his plan. To this day gamers still are a little unnerved by that damn Laugh of his. While the games in recent years maybe haven’t been up to the same level (I think FFX was the last really good one) the future is rife with potential, with a number of new games on the horizon.

Kingdom Hearts

Sticking with the Square-Enix games, I want to talk a little bit about their partner series with Disney, Kingdom Hearts. On the surface, it’s a pairing that might seem like it wouldn’t work. The tone between Disney animated movies varies so much, and the general tone across the Final Fantasy series skews more serious. I’ll freely admit that I was skeptical of it at first – it took my friend showing me it in action to convince me. In practice, it works so well it’s almost like they were meant to. Playing more like an action game, since the combat is in real-time, the game feels different enough from Final Fantasy that even with the familiar characters, it manages to form its own identity. Playing through the iconic worlds that the Disney movies take place in opens up all kinds of story telling options. An extra detail that helps ensure that this was going to be a unique and serious game, not a cash in style game, was creating the new enemy Heartless. Instead of just picking typical fantasy or RPG standards, Square-Enix created a brand new enemy and weaving their origin into the story. One thing that I haven’t been a fan of is the focus on side games on handhelds and the continual rerelasing of the older games. The good news is that Kingdom Hearts III is in the works – I would bet on hearing more either at TGS or E3 next year.

Pokémon Red

Finally, I want to talk about the first real RPG series that I think I ever really got into – Pokemon. I was ten when the first two games came out in the States – the perfect age to start playing. I got my first Gameboy that Christmas – a green Gameboy Pocket that I still have, along with a copy of Pokemon Blue. I dug right into the adventure – just really scratching the surface, focused solely on catching all 150 Pokemon. I picked the best Pokemon on the first day, and I still have that guy all these years later – my Venusaur I think has been in my party constantly since day one. Everyone knows about the explosion in popularity the series has enjoyed – and rightfully so. It’s both an accessible game for kids to pick up and start their own Pokemon adventures, bent on catching them all; but at the same time has surprisingly deep RPG elements behind the scenes. IV training, Pokemon natures, all the different mechanics that go into typing, both offense and defense, along with the actual catching of the Pokemon. I’m not one of the players that thinks only the first 151 are the best Pokemon, but I have definitely paid no where near enough attention to the details to really think about competitive battles. To that end, I always love going back and playing the classic Red/Blue games – and ultimately their remakes on the GBA.

And with that, I think I’ve put just about all my thoughts about the biggest RPG franchises out there today. Over the last week, I’ve hit a good variety of games – Western RPGs, JRPGs, High Fantasy, Post-Apocalyptic, Third- and First-Person and even Space RPGs. It’s a genre that is full of limitless stories to tell, and the experiences always are deep and lasting – not to mention they are a good way to spend hours and hours and hours. Looking ahead, we have a real good fall for RPGs ahead of us, with a nice smattering of Shooters thrown into the mix too. It is going to be a wonderful next couple months – it really is a great time to play games.

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RPG Week: Day 6 – Fable

FableWith today’s RPG week post, I want to visit a series that I discovered way late, only recently finally playing all three games to conclusion: Fable. When the original Fable came out ten years ago, I was just entering high school and my taste in games was definitely skewed more towards shooters, action-adventure games, and the more traditional JRPGs like Final Fantasy and Pokemon. It wasn’t until I was in college and my gaming tastes had broadened that I finally gave the series a chance by playing my roommates copy of Fable II. Looking back, I really should have jumped in on the series with the first title, as it’s a really fun series of games.

At their core, the Fable games are all about choice – you decide whether you want to play a good or evil hero, based around whether you steal, kill villagers, and what expressions you perform. This would eventually come to be a part of a lot of the major players in the RPG genre in the later part of the 2000’s – Fallout 3/New Vegas, Dragon Age and Mass Effect all have some kind of morality system that affects your main character. The BioWare games make your morality impact your character’s relationships, while the Bethesda games have your morality play a more subdued role. In Fable the morality doesn’t really play a huge role beyond your character’s appearance, along with which specific expressions you can perform. In Fable III it plays into the gameplay a bit more once you become the King of Albion – specifically with how much gold your treasury will have for the endgame (good players have less gold, evil players have more). Beyond that, your characters morality really only impacts how villagers will react to you – in Fable II it’s pretty easy to tell what they think of you, good characters will have a throng of villagers following around you, evil/fearful ones will drive villagers running away.

Fable II

The other core tenet of the Fable series is the trio of abilities that define what makes a “Hero.” The names vary a little depending on which game you’re playing, but in general they boil down to a melee tree (strength), a ranged tree (skill) and a magic tree (will). Each game also varies a little as to how you advance in each tree – Fable and Fable II have you collect specific experience orbs that relate to each tree, then leveling when you have enough points between that specific kind and the general experience orbs; Fable III makes it a bit simpler by just requiring you to use the “Guild Seals” which basically play like experience points, to open chests on the Road to Rule. Because in general you level whatever skills you use the most, it allows the player to customize their hero a bit further than just through their decisions and expressions.

Fable III

As much as I enjoy the series, I think there is a good reason behind why players might overlook it these days, especially compared to the other big RPGs out there. That reason, in a nutshell, is Fable III. The original game is still looked back fondly on, and still plays pretty well – thanks to the Anniversary edition that came out earlier this year; and Fable II did everything that a sequel is supposed to, improving on the core mechanics, fixing some of the issues in the original, while still expanding on the game as a whole. Fable III on the other hand fell into some of the trappings of that idea – it’s a pitfall of any sequel game really. There’s always a chance that developers change the wrong aspects, or overhaul things a little too much. Fable III is a good example – streamlining all the different weapons and spells to a much smaller amount, and at the same time, making every game file have a different random list of weapons of the 50 total took away from some of the depth in the combat system, and added in extra frustration (especially since there’s an achievement to have all 50 weapons). Beyond that, the map in the game is utterly useless – the world isn’t to scale, things are missing, and there’s no indicator of where your character is on the map.The final change that I think really hurt the game was to the expression system. In Fable II you could do any expression, whenever you wanted, directed at a specific NPC or not – even to enemies. In Fable III, the number of expressions is trimmed way down, as is the actual opportunities to do them – you have to be engaged with a single NPC to do them. The game has some parts that play better than the previous game – combat works better for example, but in general, playing Fable III felt way more like a chore than either previous game did. There’s still no word on a proper Fable IV, and I could see the upcoming Fable: Heroes playing a major role in determining if we ever see one. I hope we do, as I do really enjoy the games, and I’d like to see a true return to form on the current gen consoles.

RPG Week: Day 5 – Destiny

DestinyWith today’s post, RPG Week will take a little different turn. Every other game or series I’ve talked about has already had at least one or two games released. Today, in anticipation of next week’s release of Destiny I want to look a bit more at the game – which I know I’ve already done right after the beta finished, but since then Bungie has elaborated a little bit more on a few different aspects of the game.

The biggest part of the game that Bungie has talked about after the beta has been the Raids. Going into the beta, I think we all had in mind MMO raids, with large groups of players tackling huge dungeons crawling with high levels enemies culminating in a fight against a massive boss. After playing the game though I think it became pretty apparent that with the gameplay mechanics in place in Destiny, raids most likely weren’t going to be structured that way. During these last couple months, Bungie has laid out more clearly what we can expect from the raids, while still keeping a lot of the actual details under wraps. What we do know is that there is only one raid built into the base game, as Bungie expects the Vault of Glass to keep players busy for a while. We also know that Bungie has the raids designed to be played by a party of six players, requiring strong teamwork and communication. There won’t be any matchmaking for raids, instead you’ll need to have the party already set up before actually starting the raid. The other major bit of info that I don’t think has been talked enough about is that there is no real direction during the raid. One thing that I thought Bungie did very well in the beta was the waypoint system – having the ability to bring up the Ghosts and have your objective marker continually updated was a real nice detail. Going into a huge cavern dungeon with no objective marker and all the exploration being done as a group adds a lot to the raid I think. Instead of blindly following the marker through the dungeon, all of the action is dependent on the players. That means that navigation and combat both are dictated by your group of players – which is I’m sure why Bungie wants you to go in with a full party of friends.

Destiny Moon Concept Art

We’ve also got a bit more details regarding locations that we’ll get to play starting next week. This is actually one part of the game where I’m a little torn – on one hand, I don’t want Bungie to hit all their ideas in one game, but I would love to see more planets make their way into the game. As it stands right now, only Earth, the Moon, Venus and Mars play into the game – strikes, missions and exploration that is. Mercury will appear in a Crucible map, but the outer half of the solar system remains hidden in shadow. I don’t think it’s a big stretch of the imagination at all to think that Destiny will become a new franchise for Bungie and Activision, so having such a big section of our solar system to explore in the future is probably a better way of approaching it, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see teases of those outer planets in either DLC or entries in the Grimoire. Another cool thing that Bungie just announced today was a website (destinyplanetview.com) that is a partnership with Google, basically applying Google’s street view to the worlds in Destiny. It’s a great way to let fans like me who are impatiently waiting this last week get a look at some of the environments, including ones we didn’t get to play in the beta. It’s a cool little bit of extra marketing, not that I would say this game needs any extra marketing, but this is a specific way of going about that I think fans are more apt to go to.

RPG Week: Day 4 – Borderlands

BorderlandsThe week of RPGs continues into September, today I want to talk about another really awesome series that I’ve been a huge fan of for a few years now, the Borderlands games. I missed the first game at launch, but was able to pick up the Game of the Year edition back in 2010 and really enjoyed the game, and was also able to get my roommates at college to buy the game so we could play together.

At their core, the Borderlands games are actually a little tough to define – they are both solid RPGs and at the same time, the shooter elements are a major focus. It’s a pretty even split between the two genres, but I think that they are best defined as RPGs. Leveling your characters, building your skills just the right way, and grinding out the best loot to tackle the raid bosses all play into making them more akin to an RPG than any shooter.

The other integral part in any RPG is strong characters – while the story telling in the series isn’t the most robust or in depth around, each of the player characters has a totally different feel. In the original game, the four characters hit the major pillars in RPG games – a long range nuker (Mordecai), a tank (Brick), a ganker (Lilith), and a support (Roland). The second game brings in a bit more versatility in the characters, mainly in the skill trees. While the action abilities have some ties to the original – Axton and Salvador in particular have very similar skills to Roland and Brick. And while Maya’s Phaselock is way different in execution than Lilith’s Phasewalk, the in-universe explanations are the same; while Zer0 and Mordecai have the basic idea behind their abilities, a single powerful attack (Mordecai has Bloodwing, Zer0 has his Decepti0n) that can be upgraded to allow for multiple attacks. With Borderlands 2 though they also have added in two extra DLC characters that have much more in depth skills – Gaige’s Anarchy stacks and Kreig’s Bloodlust stacks. From what we’ve learned about the upcoming Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel the new characters have very similar ideas, with a lot more variety in the skill trees that add in lots of different gameplay options.

Borderlands PreSequel

The other major draw about the Borderlands series comes from the fact that they are built to played as a four-player team. Much like the Diablo games, playing in a party makes the game not only more fun, but also more challenging. The characters all have skills and upgrades that are designed with co-op in mind, skills that might offer damage buffs, accuracy buffs or crit damage buffs, and in the second game the variety in the weapons and other items further increases the focus on co-op. I still think that the between the two games, the changes made are a perfect example of a developer taking the feedback from fans and critics to heart, and changing only the things they needed to, while keeping the core features intact.

The pedigree for the series has been at a high level ever since the first game came out, garnering multiple Game of the Year awards, for both entries, as well as producing solid, extensive DLC packages. While there are a couple other games this fall that might have a bit higher profile like Destiny and Call of Duty, the upcoming Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel I think will also be a pretty big player in the market, especially considering it’s coming out for last gen consoles. The instal base is already there, so the market should react accordingly. Plus you can play as Claptrap – which might be the best selling point for a game ever.

Claptrap

RPG Week: Day Two – Fallout

Fallout 3 CoverYesterday I talked a lot about Bethesda’s high fantasy RPG series of games, The Elder Scrolls. Today I want to talk about their other major series, which they picked up the license for from Interplay back in 2004 – Fallout. Bethesda owns the rights to the series, but they actually haven’t developed the two games that they’ve published since buying the rights; they developed Fallout 3, but Fallout: New Vegas was developed by Obsidian Entertainment, a studio made up from developers from Black Isle Studios, the studio that created the franchise.

My big point from talking about Elder Scrolls was that I think the time is right for Bethesda to make a move toward some kind of a multiplayer setting in a traditional entry in the franchise. I really think it would work with the Elder Scrolls, but when it comes to Fallout games, I think that the traditional, solitary character wandering around the Wasteland works best with the world that Fallout is set in. The Elder Scrolls games take place in a world that is vibrant and alive, full of people living their lives. On the contrary, Fallout games are set in a world that has all but given up on civilization – friendly settlements are few and far between, most survivors will shoot on sight, and the world is a burned out shell of what it used to be. To that effect, I think playing through the game as a solitary wanderer works best within that frame.

Instead, I think that the most important aspect that Bethesda needs to look at for Fallout 4 is the actual setting. There was a Kotaku report at the end of last year that said that Fallout 4 would be set in the greater Boston area, but there hasn’t been any official word confirming that yet. The further we get from that report, the more likely it is that the setting might have changed. Since we didn’t get any mention of the game at E3 this year, I really wouldn’t expect to hear a ton of concrete info until next year’s show. Which means we have a long time to speculate and postulate about where we could be exploring next. If the Kotaku report is accurate and we are going to be in the Boston area, then I think that’s not actually a bad decision. It’s a different look from either of the previous games – Fallout 3 had the Capital Wasteland, which featured a mixture of urban and rural environments, and Fallout: New Vegas had the Mojave Wasteland, a massive expanse of desert, littered with small settlements of survivors and raiders trying to make their way into the big city of New Vegas. A game set in Massachusetts, you would get a good mix of both city environments with Boston, and at the same time you have the potential for coastal environments, as well as the great forests of the Northeast, or what remains of them. Not only is there a variety of areas to explore, but it’s also an area that hasn’t been explored in the franchise; not only an area that’s filled with history that is ripe for the Fallout treatment.

Fallout: New Vegas

Another area that I’m looking forward to seeing get the next-gen upgrade is the visuals. After going back to play Oblivion the last week or so, it really struck me just how much better the new Skyrim engine looks, and of course both Fallout games use the same engine as Oblivion. Anyone that played those games is well aware of the graphical issues, physical glitches, and of course the dated appearance. New Vegas in particular was plagued with extraordinarily long load times. Now I know no game is truly perfect, but moving up even to the Skyrim engine would do so much for the series. Since we’re talking at this point about an Xbox One/PS4 game, I would expect a bigger jump, both graphically, and in-game mechanics. One thing that I don’t expect to change in-game is the V.A.T.S. system. The V.A.T.S. mechanic gives the game a little bit more of an old-school RPG feel, taking the combat back into a semi-turnbased system.

Bethesda has the potential to really dominate the RPG world in the next couple years, after Destiny and Dragon Age Inquisition run their course; if they wanted to, they could potentially release a new Fallout and Elder Scrolls game within a couple years of each other. With both series’ high degree of respect, it’s not a huge reach to think they would both be sure fire hits.