Unraveling the Jade Cocoon

Sometimes you love a game for what it could have been, instead of what you are playing. I would not be surprised if somebody told me that Jade Cocoon hit its release deadline far too early. It’s one of those RPGs that clocks in at well under 20 hours; brevity isn’t a sin, but it’s not always a virtue.

Ironically, the game is also too long. Lemme explain.

Basically, you go through four dungeons, then repeat three of the dungeons, and then fight the final boss.

The dungeon delving is interrupted by time spent in a village, and with conversations at the end of the dungeons, which is used as an opportunity to enlighten the player about the setting. It’s fascinating stuff, but it stops almost entirely after the fourth dungeon is complete, and only kind of picks up again during the final battle. The dungeons themselves have practically no puzzles; I’ll note here that each dungeon is actually a forest, sometimes mixed with ruins. The challenge is surviving and avoiding monster battles (enemies appear on screen and collision leads to battle) and navigating the increasingly labyrinthine layouts. However, the battles have little complexity to them, and the labyrinths aren’t that difficult to memorize. The selling point of the dungeons (and the game as a whole) is how beautiful they are, even as (of the time of this writing) the PS4 is preparing to roll out. The game’s backgrounds have aged well – it’s just a shame that three of them get rehashed (with color filters) for the last half of the game, by which point the novelty has worn off. And, sadly, the character sprites and, more importantly, monster sprites have not aged nearly as well. The character portraits are still cool, and the game is almost entirely voice-acted (quality, at that), but this isn’t enough to carry the game.

So if I’m bitching about how the game basically doubles its already tiresome length, why do I think the game is too short? Because they could have filled that same time with so much more detail about the world. The setting’s mythology is fascinating, and gives the world and its characters a sense of grandeur. Also, I can’t recall the last time I played an RPG whose setting didn’t remind me of medieval fantasy or sci-fi; this one goes for a tribal forest atmosphere – points for originality. I want to know more about these people, and visit these places they’ve mentioned. I want to know more about the motivations of the characters, and spend more time learning about the people of the village, and what happened in the forests. The game tantalizes the player with snippets throughout the game, even through the ending, that suggest there is so much more going on here, and the player is left wanting. This would be okay if it was meant to be kind of mysterious, or if the story itself was solid despite all the hints of greater detail, but the game’s story is so compressed that it doesn’t work.

I can’t recommend this game to the casual gamer, but RPG fanatics should give it a try some time. The game’s setting and atmosphere have enough originality to set it apart.

My thanks to Naali_314 on the Jade Cocoon message board, who helped me figure out the game’s mechanics, and filled in some details for me.


The Random Arc the Lad Post

There will be spoilers for Arc the lad all over this post. It’s time for me to talk about some of the details of the Arc the Lad series that are really more for the people who have already played the games. The following is an assortment of random thoughts.

Velhart gets the most character development of any character in the third game. Really, he and Tosh are the only characters in all the games with much in the way of character development. Oh, other characters change, but it’s only with them that we really see anything.

Velhart looks less manly than I expected. He’s very, well, effeminate looking. I don’t think it works well with his character concept. The appearance doesn’t evoke the desperate self-esteem issues of the character. He just looks… well, pretty. And in a game where most of the characters have really cool designs, Velhart’s just looks strange. Or maybe the artist just sucks at drawing androgynous guys.

Choko got a bum deal in the third game. Mini-game mascot status isn’t a good sign.

Did Andel’s plan make any sense? I like to think that he was stringing along the heroes the whole time and fully expected he’d need to sacrifice himself at the end. I’m not sure. Some of his actions don’t make much sense in light of that theory.

Seriously, they give you an opportunity to time travel in the second game, and they go back like, what, ten years? Man, I wanted to go back 3,000 years – meet the original Braves.

Chongara. Oh man, that guy gets a bum deal. Emaciated, mentally ill, and I don’t think he’s fully recovered by the end of the third game.

Lutz talks a lot about how awesome his items are. You know what? He sucks. He never really uses items throughout the game. He talks big, and there’s some mini-games where he’s all about that, but… they don’t show a stunning display of confidence.

Do we ever find out what Cheryl’s past is? I guess she was orphaned, but it sounds like she was really hurt by someone.

Poco… oh man, he drove me crazy in the first game, talking about food all the time. Give it a rest, man.

I hate the designs of the four Guardians. They look just terribly ugly. The light guardian looks like some kind of mutated frog. And they never fixed it, in any of the games. Hell, I thought they were going somewhere when the second game featured that really badass looking version of the Fire Guardian. Sadly, no.

“Arc the Lad”. What kind of title is “the Lad”? It’s a terrible title. I wouldn’t want to be known as “the Lad”. And isn’t that what you’d really call a child. I mean, Arc is in his teens in the first game, and he doesn’t come across as especially naïve.

Iga’s temple doesn’t accept women. Why not? I’m surprised he didn’t get more worldly after traveling with female companions for two games.

Okay, you know that cave that Madame Claire’s in? The one that you have to send monsters through? That cave is some BS. “Too dangerous for humans”, right. I’m not going to believe that a few cave bats will slow down the Seven Braves.

Was Odon ever any good?

What’s my vote for saddest moment in AtL 2? It’s hard to say. I’m going to go with the ending. “We didn’t stop the end of the world. We survived it.” The corpses floating in water was pretty fucked up. A close second is the part where Elc has to kill his best friend. Tosh killing zombie dad isn’t sad – it’s awesome.

At the end of AtL 3, I stopped caring about treasure. I just ran rampant through dungeons because I had the best equipment.

I was hoping for more with Diekbeck. His story in AtL 2 is… eh. I’m glad he gets his own dungeon at the end, but it’s not quite enough.

The reveal at the end of AtL3, about the hunter who rescued Alec was… underwhelming. “Oh, hey, we fought once, and I used to be a hunter and hi, and now we fight, okay, I’m dead, cya x.x”

I regret doing the 1,000 battles in the Arena. Not worth it.

Choko’s asura form is cool, but I wish she could keep using her other special moves. Also, Stimulant is a weird name for transforming.

Why did AtL2 think it was a good idea to still have chests you have to jump to get to? It’s used so rarely that it becomes strange.

Speaking of chests, it wasn’t worth it to pick up chests in the first game.

I do kinda miss the way speed worked in AtL1. Extra turns up the wazoo.

My favorite Chongara outfit is in AtL 2. He looks good in blue and dark glasses. Definitely a costume change for a better.

Really, Elc is astoundingly competent. In the second game, I’m pretty sure he’s a teenager. But he’s cool, collected, confident, and he flies a badass little airship. Hell, he’s driven enough to nearly kill himself trying to catch Arc when he thinks Arc is a villain. I really felt for the guy. And in the third game, he’s even cooler: he’s like a god of fire, slagging anything that stands in his way.

Of course, Alec comes pretty far too. He starts out as a nobody from a little village at the beginning of the game, and by the end he is giving commands to guilds across the world.

But you know who doesn’t develop much? Arc. The guy the series is named after. I mean, the game implies that he’s grown, but we don’t really know much about him other than he wants to do good and he loves Kukuru (which I insist comes out of nowhere).

Shu, combining everything that is good about ninjas and machine guns.

Diekbeck is kind of an ass in the third game. Then again, it’s still better than “I am generic helper bot”, which was his personality in the second game.

Don’t you wish Paundit counted as a first tier cast member?

I’m really uncomfortable with how things leave off with Anriette in the third game. Sure, she’s a stuck-up brat, but I don’t feel like there’s a satisfying moral lesson with her: you can take her with you, in which case she’s a brat who gets what she wants. Or you can leave her behind, and she talks about how it’s her proper place in the world and, well…

Also, the lady at the orphanage, refusing Anriette’s charity. I get that Anriette’s motives for being charitable were questionable, but the caretaker’s response is along the lines of, “it’s not fair to take money we didn’t earn for ourselves”. I get the moral lesson there, but this isn’t the kind of situation where you refuse a handout: you’re living in a postapocalyptic world, in its worst city, trying to care for half a dozen children. I think the childrens’ immediate welfare is the bigger concern.

Coming back to it ten years later, the Arc the Lad Bible (i.e. the 500+ page strategy guide) is not as funny as I remember. The same goes for lots of the writing in Working Designs’ instruction manuals and strategy guides. I mean, it’s all still kinda funny, but it’s not the comedy gold I thought it was when I was younger.

I wish I could reorganize Diekbeck’s skills in the second game. Because they’re tied to units, the game won’t let the player do that.

Despite how creepy Spicy is as a character, I do think the final mission involving him is pretty funny: the triplets thing caught me by surprise.

So what exactly was the weapon that the King of Romalia used in the second game? The third game seems to imply that it was the Dark Lord, but I’m not certain.

Speaking of which, the Dark Lord is… a dead king? Honestly, the series’ ancient mythology is fundamentally important to understanding the nature of the modern world, but it gets glossed over so badly.

I wish the Beast Lord stuff had been tied more into the games’ plot.

Seriously, this is a good example of a game that would have benefitted from at least an in-game journal explaining bits of history about the world that the player might want to know.

I call the villain the dark lord, because subconsciously, I don’t’ want to admit that his name is the Dark One. It’s a terribly stupid name on the level of The Bad Guy.

Remember that plan where Tosh wanted to take the townsfolk north to Gislem? That was a stupid plan. Three reasons: 1) They have to go through a dangerous cave; 2) Gislem is the most dangerous city in the world; 3) there is literally another city just south of them.

I don’t think we ever learned how Yoshua managed to delay the end of the world by 10 years.

I was a little weirded out when I saw Andel’s hair for the first time. I guess I’d always assumed he’d be gray or bald.

I don’t understand why they had to unseal the arc at the end of the first game. Which is important; that was a big deal.

When I got to the house of endless treasures in AtL2, I was surprised to find some treasure chests were empty. I suspect they are filled only if you didn’t import data from AtL1.

I don’t know why the team didn’t fight back at AtL 1. Sure, there were a lot of enemy soldiers there. But they’re the Seven Braves, and they just fought demons. This is the fate of the world we’re talking about.

Most developed character in AtL 2: Gruga.

We Didn’t Start the Fire: The “Arc the Lad” 1-3 Review

So, now I’ve finally beaten Arc the Lad 1-3. What can I say about all of it?

Well, for starters, 3 is a far better game than I’d expected. Judging by all the reviews of the game, I thought it was going to be silly, ugly, and downright unfaithful to the series. I can tell you that none of those things are true.

AtL 3 is relatively lighthearted compared to the second game, but all three games have a different tone. Um… if you can consider “generic” a tone for the first game. Honestly, AtL 1 is the most boring of the three entries. The game really does boil down to “collect the four McGuffins to stop the big bad of a fantasy setting”. Sure, there’s some anacrotech, and the ending is “WTF?!”, but the first game doesn’t really stand out from the sea of JRPGs. It has its highlights, but even Dual Orbs II has its virtue (I decline to suggest there can be more than one good thing about DOII).

The second game is dark. It pulls back the scope to show a world that’s a fusion of fantasy and modern elements; I hesitate to call it steampunk only because the elements often aren’t well integrated. Countries tend to be very modern or very early renaissance fantasy, and there’s not much middle ground. Still, it’s fun to see monks of an ancient order debating how they’re going to stop the nearby militant country’s gigantic train cannon from blasting them from one continent away. Anyway, dark: yes. It’s… well, it’s superficially dark, most of the time. By that, I mean, there’s things like characters making sacrifices, people being turned literally into monsters, zombified family members, and a really fucked up ending. But it’s superficial because the game doesn’t spend a lot of time helping you get to know most of the characters. Oh, everyone has a basic motivation, but most of them boil down to, “save the world because we’re the chosen ones” or “save the world because our friends want to save the world”. The game presents dark material, but doesn’t dwell on it long enough for it to have much of a meaningful impact, and sometimes misses opportunities to show the player some good material that would really reinforce the tone (the time travel to the past segment should have gone back 3,000 years, in my opinion; not… like, 5-10). The game has breadth, but little depth.

So, what I like about AtL 3’s take is that it is a relatively deep game. You encounter the same NPCs repeatedly across the world, in a variety of situations, and watch their stories develop. You see how the ending of the second game has impacted people across the world. The third game even serves as an epilogue for almost every character of the second game, and its treatment of Tosh is one of the game’s highlights. And that’s why it’s not really a silly game; the tone’s different, and lighter, but it never forgets that the first two games happened. If anything, the third game gives meaning to the events of the first two games.

All that said, the game does have its silly moments, but they’re lampshaded.

I also made the observation that I thought the game would be ugly. I mean that literally. For some reason, I thought the game would have crappy 3D graphics. Yes, the graphics are different than the first two games, but they’re still roughly the same style. Maybe a little more realistic, more detained. The graphics in the first two games are a little… square. It’s actually a modestly pretty game, although I do think the tone “gray” is used a little bit too much.

So, wow, I just talked quite a bit about the games’ stories and appearance, but what about the gameplay?

It’s… okay. The games use a tactics-style layout for combat. The nicest thing I can say about their presentation is this: it’s smooth. I’ve never played a tactics game where character actions and movements are this fluid. Especially in the third game, which fixes the delays caused by monster death in the first and (especially) second game. But beside that, the tactics are fairly ho-hum. No cover. No terrain slowdown. No range factors. NO environmental factors. Tactics boil down to “how many enemies can I get in my area effects?” Also, the games like to pretend characters have a lot of different techniques they can use, but it’s not so: many techniques are either inferior in every respect to other techniques, interchangeable with other techniques, or actually less useful than using a normal attack. The series never perfects its combat system (although the third game is by far the best attempt), which is a shame because the system has such good flow.

Gee, what else is there to say? Maybe you want to know about the games’ length? AtL 1, as I’ve said many times, is a very short game. AtL 2, however, is one of the longest games I have played. And AtL 3 is… average. Really, though, AtL 2 is ridiculously long if you want to do everything. It’s maybe an 80 hour game. Is that rightr? It feels long, but maybe it’s just all the oddjobs you can take. Which, honestly, aren’t usually all that interesting.

See, one of the features of AtL 2 and 3 is the Hunters’ Guild, an organization which takes jobs for the common folk to solve their problems, and usually involves adventure. In AtL 2, there are a lot of jobs, but there isn’t much story or personality to them. They’re… jobs. Ya~y! Occasionally, a character has a few lines of dialogue, but it’s sparing. And most of the jobs are “kill [#] of monsters”. AtL 3 is, as it is with many things about the series, better about this than the second game. Most of the jobs feature at least one of the characters chiming in. I don’t want to say that it makes the jobs or the characters feel especially deep, but it does make them more memorable. And I must emphasize, some of the jobs really are amusing: I eagerly anticipated anything with the Rainbow Bridge Gang and their “flashbacks”, and the singing competition had enough effort put into its design that I’m surprised it wasn’t somehow worked into the main plot.

Dungeons: Did you ever play an RPG where there weren’t really any dungeons? Tactics games are often like that and AtL is… kind of an exception. The first game is almost entirely straight-up tactics, but the second and third game have actual dungeons. No random encounters, mind you, and every room with monsters in it features an unavoidable encounter, but they do have treasure chests and save points so… they’re… kinda dungeons? Look, they’re trying here. One of their dungeons is the streets of a city. That’s cool! How many games make you run around an entire city as the dungeon? … what, Vagrant Story? That’s, well, okay, yes, that is one damn fine example. But if we start comparing games to Vagrant Story, there will be nothing but hurt feelings: it’s like being reminded that you’ll never be more than silver medal material. To be fair, I’m going to do an article on the quality of games in general, but that’s for another day.

Not to say that a game needs dungeons to be good. Only that these dungeons are not the puzzle-fests you’d find in Wild Arms or the battles of attrition that make up your average Dragon Quest game. They are visually appealing, and the ruined castle in AtL 2 is spectacular.

Oh, I gotta talk about item management. This changed the most between the three games. See, in the first game, there is an item screen, where every item in the game has an icon. If you’ve found every item in the game, then all but one of those squares is occupied. Characters can equip four items, and that includes what people would traditionally think of as equipment, such as swords. There isn’t traditional equipment in this game: you don’t go to a shop and buy a sword or a pair of boots. It’s a little counterintuitive, but basically this means that Arc, the main character, fights with a sword whether or not you have a sword equipped in an item slot – the item slot sword just modifies his performance in combat, like any other item. It’s a little strange, but effective.

The second game includes traditional weapon and armor selection, although such items can improve as they’re used. The part I want to talk about is the item management: you have a limited number of item slots, and about a third of the way into the game, this will become a nightmare. Every individual healing item occupies its own slot, which tells you something. It becomes burdensome when you get a mind to carry a bunch of individual accessories for preventing different status effects, but you have no idea which ones you’ll need, and you’re also keeping some items because you want to take them to the Combine Shop later (tip: the Combine Shop is useful for pretty much one item – the Romancing Stone), plus there’s those stat boosting items you want to hold onto until you get a certain party member on your team, and you can see how this gets out of hand fast. I shuffled so many items onto extra party members that it got ridiculous. Didn’t help that a lot of items have misleading descriptions. For example, Tosh’s Yukari’s Crest says “causes counterattack”. What does it do? It doubles his attack power every turn (Charge, for those familiar with the game’s terminology). What does that have to do with the description? Practically nothing, but if you sell it, then you got rid of one of the best items in the game.

Side-note: Counterattacking is insane in AtL 2. About a third of the way into the game, you should just assume that any melee attack, from any side, will cause a counter attack. It removes some of the fun of what’s already a vanishingly small tactical challenge in the game.

And this side-note reminds me of something else: monster levels in AtL 2 are equally insane. I don’t know what Max Level is in this game. I know it’s over 150 (although the game can be beaten at 120, maybe 100, maybe less). What’s important is that the monsters scale ridiculously quickly compared to the party. Let’s say that you stick with the same team for the entire game, and you do every hunter mission and wanted monster you come across. You’ll be about level 70 when the monsters are level 90. So yes, expect to grind if you want any hope of beating the final boss. The curve if one of the biggest complaints about the game, and rightly so. Anyway…

The third game, as it does with so many things, improves the item system. There’s an option to leave items behind at an inn, but I never used it because I could carry as many items as I wanted, and they were actually sorted. Huzzah! I will make a brief complaint that the game’s synthesis system, where items are combined, is for the most part unintuitive, so low marks there (combine the Palo Nut + Rune Knife = Palo Knife… of course!).

I’ve got more thoughts on the games, but I’m going to save some of them for another post. For now, I want to say something about the series in general.

Arc the Lad is an interesting project. It’s a series of three games, each with their own story, that are connected to each other. Together, they tell a complete tale, and it’s the best example of video game sequels I’ve ever seen. The characters are consistent between the games, and there are many familiar locales and even NPCs. The stories are connected to each other, and the stories of 2 and 3 are direct consequences of the games that precede them. I won’t give them a perfect grade: I’m still ticked at 3’s excuse for why the lands you visit look so different, but I will say that some serious effort was put into making the games coherent with one another. Together, they take a generic concept presented in the first game, and expand it into something so much richer. So, for all the games’ flaws, there’s some really neat stuff in this series.

I want to say that AtL is the game I’d show somebody if I was introducing them to video game RPGs. It covers a lot of bases, and it does that well. It’s… well, I guess AtL highlights a lot of things I love and hate about RPGs. It tries to hard to do everything well, and it’s impressive, but it doesn’t perfect anything. All its virtues are tagged with a “but…”, and it’s got its own design flaws. That’s really it, then. Arc the Lad is a series of excellent ideas compressed into a game that is merely good.

At Long Last, I have Beaten Arc the Lad 2

Yea~rs ago, I bought Arc the Lad Collection, partially because it was an RPG and I will try out almost anything with those three letters appended to the game’s description (although my tastes are more, m ay I say, refined nowadays). But also because it was released by Working Designs, who I felt could do no wrong (and then I played Vay… but to be fair, I’m not sure anything but a complete remake could save that game).

Anyway, I started playing AtL before I did these blogs. It’s the archetypical example of why I began blogging in the first place. I could not bring myself to beat this game. This was back in the day when I had over 60 incomplete games sitting on my shelf, because I would get half way through a game, then buy a new game and put down the old one.

As anyone whose played AtL can tell you, it’s a long game. … If you count AtL 1 and 2 as the same game, which you should. If you count AtL 1, 2 and 3 as the same game (which you shouldn’t; 3 is definitely a sequel, and a damn good one at that), then it’s insanely long. What’s funny is how hard it is to explain just how long AtL 2 really is. You see, AtL 1 is not a long game in itself. You can easily beat it in 12 hours; significantly less if you skip all side quests – maybe 20 if you do everything, but that sounds like a stretch unless you count the 1,000 arena battles (in retrospect, I really didn’t need those items).

AtL1 is really just an introduction for AtL2, which picks up the story with a different cast of characters, whom unite with the cast from AtL 1 about a third of the way through the game. From there, they go on to finish what was started in the first game, and it all leads up to one of my favorite game ending quotes since the final boss of Valkyrie Profile‘s insane death scream. I wish I could repeat it here, but it’s a major spoiler.

Anyway, before I started my blog, I tried playing through AtL twice. Yes, twice. And both times, I got up to the point where my party was reunited in AtL2, and then I stopped.

After that, I avoided the game for years, even when I started blogging. Just, I really was not looking forward to playing through the games a third time, and doing the 1,000 arena battles (optional) in AtL 1 again (I repeat, in retrospect, not worth it). So I just sort of puttered around the issue for a while. I played other games, whatever I felt like. Yet still it sat there, in its thick box (the package for AtL is standard Working Design’s fare: as many disks and random omake as they can fit in as large a box as they can convince the producers to make; oh, if only WD had been around for Kickstarter…). I would occasionally glance up at my shelf, and that the AtL bible, a 500+ page full color strategy guide for the first two games. And still I said to myself, “No, this game is insanely long; I’ve played it twice; some day, but not today”.

Then I started playing through games chronologically. I went to Wikipedia, found the oldest RPGs I could, and started playing through them in order. Honestly, many of them suck by today’s standards. I hate to tell this to my fellow long-time gamers, but for every Chrono Trigger, there are five Dual Orb IIs (a game with all the artistic quality of someone’s first RPG Maker project; the one they’re kind of proud of, kind of embarrassed by). But I’m getting off-track.

I get up to the ’90’s, and AtL shows up on the list. And Im saying to myself, “damn, I can’t keep avoiding this”. So I stall. I start playing every other game around the same year, every game at the same year, and every game that’s in the same year category. Until there’s really nothing left to play. And so I sit down for the great project: finally beating Arc the Lad.

Thanks to a poster on GameFAQs, MadJak91 who solely composes the entire expert community on AtL 1 & 2 (he shares the honor with another poster, decoy51, for AtL 3), I was able to gird myself for some of the more draining parts of the game: for you see, this game is long. There are over a hundred jobs to do and wanted monsters to fight; practically all of which are optional. There’s a secret character, Choko, who is perhaps the greatest secret character of all time: not only is she amazing – she gets her own major side quest, including a massive 74 floor dungeon, loaded with goodies; and her back story is interesting too. Then there’s the other optional character (whose not so secret); Diekbeck! Who has a bunch of optional monster romp dungeons for himself, including a special quest for him at the very end of the game. There’s just so much to do in this game, and that’s not even minding the main quest, which is long by RPG standards, not even including AtL1. And then there’s the grinding at the very end. You see, the game is unbalanced. In the last act, monsters’ levels begin scaling ludicrously quickly. Even with doing all the game’s optional quests, I was in my 70s when monsters were in their 90s. The last boss has over 14,000 HP divided between two forms (for reference, the penultimate boss has 2500 HP). He is insanely powerful, and will annihilate your party through sheer attrition unless you either have a good team (Choko or Gruga or cry yourself to tears), an impressive set-up (you didn’t bring the Romancing Stone? Oh, you poor dear…), or high levels (at least level 120… how high do levels go? I have no idea – over 150); also, it helps if you ported your data from AtL1 and did everything you could in that game, or else you will not be quite so prepared. Yes, yes, this is exactly the kind of thing I expect from a game ported over by Working Designs.

The game is awesome in just how long it is; and not just how long – but how important every bit of the plot feels. I remember games like Lufia II, which, despite being awesome, has quests like, “The bridge is out! Well, why don’t you go down into the Ruby Cave and fetch me a ruby while we wait for the plot to work itself out? Thanks. Hey! Now the bridge is back. Huzzah!” There really aren’t any mandatory fetch quests in AtL. I mean, sure, sometimes the game meanders a bit, but it’s hard to think of a quest which didn’t reveal something interesting about the world or involve character development.

So, after many hours of playing, I finally beat it. It’s done. Arc the Lad II was the last great game on my list of games I always wanted to go back and finally beat. And I am happy.

Playing Games Chronologically

Recently, I’ve been on a kick of playing through the history of RPGs chronologically. I’ve culled my list from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_role-playing_video_games. Basically, I go year by year, checking out every video game’s wikipedia entry. If I like how it sounds, I try out the game. If I don’t love it within the first half hour, I’m done with it.

I’m up to the late ’90’s, and so far… not a whole lot of good games. Mind you, that’s partially because I’ve already played through a lot of good old school games, and so the cream of the crop is already diminished. However, I’ve checked out dozens of games, and honestly? Most just don’t age well. A lot of them trudge along with tired old plots that were old when the game was new, or are so simplistic by today’s standards that they’re snoozers; many don’t add a strong touch of creativity that would breathe some life into the simplicity of the game, and so I’m generally not impressed. The same goes for battle mechanics, which are often sluggish, antiquated, and simplistic. And then there’s the interface: graphics really do matter. They’re how you convey a good part of the game’s atmosphere. Part of it’s due to the limitations of early games; but also part of it is a lack of creativity.

I have found some good games, but my progression through the list is making me more eager for modern games.

Currently playing Arc the Lad. Just beat the first game (and yes, I really did do the Arena… again, all thousand battles. So glad I could do that by rote while doing more important stuff). On to the second one, which is massively better than the first.

Aetherial Mundanity – “Mass Effect” 1, 2, and 3 Review

About a year ago, one of my friends told me that Mass Effect is the best RPG he has ever played. Actually, he might have said “best video game”, but it would be about the same to me. Anyway, I put some stock into his opinion because we have somewhat similar tastes and he has played a decent selection of RPGs. Then again, he also told me that Dragon Age was in his top three games at the time. Anyone whose kept up with my blog knows I do not hold Dragon Age in nearly such vaunted opinion. So, I did not keep my hopes up for Mass Effect.

My history with western RPGs is sparse compared to my experience with JRPGs. I was never part of the trend of playing the older games, like Ultima and Wizardry. Some games are just so dated that I would never get around to playing through them unless stuck on a desert island. And even then, I might find a new appreciation for building sand castles.

I’ve had some recent experience with WRPGs; Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Dragon Age, Fallout 3, Planescape: Torment. Generally speaking, I like what I’ve played. It hasn’t blown me out of the water, and I have not sworn off JRPGs; WRPGs are just another category of game I like. So, that’s where I stand coming in to Mass Effect.

Mass Effect is good. I like the game. And when I say “the game”, I mean the trilogy. I will acknowledge the differences between the games, but taken as a unit, I like the game.

Boy oh boy. As I write this, people cannot shut up about the story. I’ll try not to get wrapped up in the controversy.

So, at it’s heart, the game’s plot is: every 50,000 years, an omnipotent machine army destroys all spacefaring sentient life in the galaxy. You play the role of Commander Shepard, a human with the resources and the drive to uncover their plan and unite the galaxy against them. Good set-up for an epic confrontation. Bonus points for making the main character a person in a position of power; as a Commander, he wields a lot of experience and authority. Plus, his ascension to Spectre rank gives him more actual authority to do what needs be done. I usually felt like Shepard deserved to be in control of the situation; if anything, sometimes I felt like he deserved to be more in control.

Actually, that became a bit of a problem later in the game. Sometimes I felt like the other characters were being spiteful for the sake of being spiteful. The Council is incredibly unhelpful, and no amount of explaining it away will really change the feeling that they are truly bullheaded. I mean, I could understand, until Shepard saved their lives. After sacrificing the human fleet to save three lives, I expect some deference.

Did my choices really matter? In the grand scheme of things, no. If I consider the game’s ending to be the benchmark for how my choices mattered, then my choices mattered nothing at all. The game has three endings, which are basically the same, and which are really predicated only on one decision Shepard makes at the very end. The ending is also just about five minutes long and deals with the game in very broad strokes. It is an interesting ending, but not an excellent one. Ironically, I am not sure what I would add to the ending as-is. Getting into details might just diminish the ending’s mood. Plus, given that the mass relays are destroyed, the future is looking bleak. I thought a montage might be in order, showing what happened to everybody. But, given the situation, it would be pretty depressing. There’s not a whole lot of room for their stories to continue on a grand scale. That feeds into a general problem I have with the ending. It’s an okay ending. I just wish it was something else. Maybe if the mass relays hadn’t been destroyed. I get the symbolism, but it limits the scope of the galaxy.

Back to the plot itself. I like the characters. We get a lot of opportunity to learn more about all of Shepard’s traveling companions. And for a stand-in protagonist, Shepard is very well-developed. The game has a good meeting between the player controlling Shepard’s actions and the character having independent thought. The dialogue system is a fair representation of this: the player decides what idea Shepard means to convey, but Shepard chooses the actual dialogue.

Choices. Oh, the choices. Did they ever matter? I’m going to work my way backwards on this one. The endings, like I said, are not substantially different. You could play the game two completely different ways and, in the end, those decisions have no impact on the ending; just the final choice. And, although that final choice makes some difference, the difference, again, is insubstantial.

S, what about the third game itself? Well, I’ll tell you that the decisions you make in the third game have a pretty big impact on how the third game itself develops. The fate of the Geth and the Quarians depend on what you do. Mordin’s life is in your hands. So is Wrex’s.The game itself can play out a lot of different ways. So, I was happy about that.

On the other hand, my decisions from Mass Effect 1 and 2 had almost no substantial impact on the events of ME3. This is a problem because the previous two games, ME2 in particular, had me sweating over some decisions, excited about how they would cause the third game to play out. But the most substantial difference was whether Eve lives and the numbers on the war asset board; and I don’t really care whether a fleet is worth 50 or 100 points; that’s not much story to me. Anyway, destroyed the genophage cure? Well, they found a way to quickly get it up and running again anyway. Did you convert all the Heretic geth to the side of the “good” geth? All the geth ally with the Reapers anyway. Cerebus has its hands on some serious Reaper technology whether or not you destroyed the Collector base. The list goes on. I felt like I could have skipped ME2 and the story would be practically the same, except I would not be buddy-buddy with the cast of ME2. And I never did get anything for letting the Alliance experiment on that guy’s wife from the beginning of ME1.

So, Mass Effect 2. That’s a game where I felt like I was making a lot of really important decisions that would affect ME3. But none of them really did matter. Even Arrival. In a way, it would be better if I did not play Arrival. Then I would not have had to doom tens of thousands to death to prevent the Reapers’ early arrival. They just would not come that early. Whee…

And ME1? Well, in both ME1 and 2, I felt like I had a lot of different paths through the games. It all ends the same, though. That’s what bothers me in general about the games. I know games have limited memory and design teams need to spend a lot of time to work on completely different branches. But, in principle, I am waiting for a game where the game can branch and does not end up anywhere near the same place for its ending based on the path you choose. The closest I have seen are in Planescape: Torment and Vanguard Bandits, which give the players extremely different paths or endings based on choices.

Wow, I am not sure what else I want to say about the story. I twas epic. Big fights. Lots of emotional drama. Loved the voice acting. The music score is amazing. I felt like there was a lot of history behind the setting. Characters were often complex and moral decisions often times felt significant. I sometimes struggled between options that felt equally right. The game works in symbolism, love, hatred, revenge, sadness, humor, intrigue, war, horror, and lots of other things. This is a robust game. So, the story: I like it. There are a lot of flaws with it’s ultimate choice progression, but I think it’s a good story beyond that. The failure of the choice progression is a major flaw because it retroactively makes the games worse: choices that the player thought were significant ultimately were insignificant. If I play through the games again, I will be incurious about many of the alternate decisions I could have made because I know what the result is: the same.

Mentioned this already, but worth repeating. I love the game’s sound track. Beautifully orchestrated, fitting for every scene. My favorite song is from the third game: “Leaving Earth”, which gives a powerful feeling of hopelessness and impending doom.

Pre~tty. I play an actually new video game once every two or three years, so I get to see an impressive graphics jump. I was still painfully aware of some flaws at times, but they were not a big deal. In the first game, the planets your land rover crosses a variety of landscapes that do not have much texturing to them. The second game has a big problem with objects passing through other solid objects. In the third game, I could still tell that some things were just too smooth, but it was an improvement over the previous couple games. Overall, the graphics started out great and only improved with each iteration.

I could compare this game to Planescape: Torment for letting the party resolve some events non-violently, but really? You spend a lot of time fighting. Particularly in the third game, where enemies start coming in waves. I began feeling like I wasn’t a clever tactician; I felt more like a rampaging machine of death. I eschewed strategy for endless sweeps of Biotic Charge + Nova, repeat. A lot of that could be because of my strategy, but I do not think either of the first two games had enemies with repeating spawn points that I could camp.

Well, how about some nice things to say about combat? I actually think it improved between games. I much prefer the faster pace of combat in the second and third games. Character classes felt increasingly dissimilar from each other. Despite having the largest set of skills, I do not think the first game did a particularly good job of making the Soldier feel truly distinct from the Vanguard. Instead, I played most of the game feeling like the Vanguard was a poor substitute for the soldier. That could just be from the way I built my Vanguard, but it was not until the second game, where I got Biotic Charge, that I felt like the Vanguard stood out.

Other Thoughts
This actually is one of the finest games I have played. I like the main character’s personality and motivations. The supporting cast is colorful, especially the people who join Shepard’s squad. I really got to know a lot of characters fairly well. The combat was smooth and engaging… well, until the third game, when it all fell apart (Biotic Charge->Nova->Biotic Charge-Nova->Biotic Charge…). It is a pretty game with some depth to its world.

But is it really philosophic? Do we learn anything? I mean, does it have that feel that some really great books and movies have? Or even other games, like Planescape: Torment managed? Mm… I guess that is where it falls apart in the very end. The game feels like a movie for much of it; and it feels like a serious endeavor. It wants to be more than just a game; it wants to be artistic. And, I know, games can be art – but not many go out of their way to capture the cinematic artistic feel (somehow, that sounds way too fancy when I type it out). This one does. And so, it succeeds at that for most of the story, but falters at the very end. So, like any movie or book that would be judged by the merits of its plot strength and its ending, I gotta say that it is good, but has some significant flaws. Maybe that’s because EA influenced the third game when they bought Bioware. Maybe it’s because the writer for the first two games was not the same writer for the third. Maybe they just really did not know how they wanted to wrap up everything, tie it all together. They didn’t do a bad job; I’ve certainly seen bigger plot holes in other media. I guess what makes the flaws significant here is this: this is one of the most high profile video games of all time, and it takes a lot of chances. In many ways, those chances pay off. But it falters here and there. That is just going to happen. Now, that does mean the game isn’t perfect. But it is still also in the lofty realms of deeper storytelling that I have rarely seen in video games. And that is why I like Mass Effect.

Reaping the Reapers

Thane might be ill, but he still kicks ass. One of the coolest fight scenes in the game series.

I don’t like Kai Leng. I guess that’s the point. However, he is borderline Mary Sue. He has a fancy name, wears all black, dresses like a ninja, fights with a sword, poses a lot, can use biotics too, and he is in a position of power. On the other hand, he can be defeated, he’s in his 30s (not, like 18 and somehow this good), and his exploits still fall short of being haxx. He really is just damned skilled. That said, I hate that he can make himself invincible in fights.

Thane dies. Heh, I always kind of hoped somehow he would survive. But no. It’s a somber, but peaceful, moment.

Is it just me or does Conrad look really old now?

This picture nearly makes me vomit. I hate everything about Banshees. They’re hideous. They teleport. They have massive amounts of health. They have an “I Win” button for melee. Hate, hate, hate.

All the stuff I did in Mass Effect 2 to affect the geth and the quarians? Meaningless, whee! The Geth all hook up with the Reapers no matter what. Boy, don’t I feel silly for mulling over what turned out to be an inconsequential series of decisions?

“I fight for the humans.” Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Commander Shepard is, in fact, Tron.

Learning the truth about the Geth’s origins was interesting. It wasn’t a lot of really surprising stuff, but it did fill in a lot of the little details that Quarian history forgot.

In the battle of Reaper versus Shepard, who will win? Man or Machine? Man, of course. With machine power.

I let the Geth transcend. I figured, what’s the harm in it all? They want to be individuals so badly, I say let them.

I don’t know why I like this picture so much. Maybe it’s just funny to see Shepard being totally depressed. I mean, he looks really freakin’ sad. We are screwed if he doesn’t cheer up. That’s how sad he looks.

Miranda is a dick. This is her father being biotically shoved off a balcony by Miranda, after I gave my word that he would be spared. I know there’s lots of horrible people in Mass Effect, but I just really don’t like Miranda. “I’m so perfect. It’s so horrible. Daddy used to keep me locked up in a mansion. That makes it alright to kill him.”

The final assault is one of the coolest moments in video game history. Shepard, racing toward the beam of light, trying to get on board the citadel so he can stop everything; laser blasts tearing apart troops and convoys. Everything’s going to hell and he has just got to make it, he has gotta!

And then he gets blasted.

It’s not a pretty sight. The screen goes red. Everything is faded out and slow. Shepard’s armor is gone. All he has is a sidearm he can barely lift. And then…

Marauder Shields.
The final boss…

Not gonna lie. He killed me the first time. That is the only time I died since the beginning of the game.

Maybe Shepard should have just stayed down, eh? What’s with all the corpses? They talk like they’re building something else here; like another Reaper, but how would that work exactly?

The Illusive Man really needs to take a look in a mirror. Look how much his body has changed since the last time we saw him on Thessia. Ugh…

Wish I had a maxed out paragon score for this scene. Didn’t get the ultimate option. Didn’t change much, but would have been nice to see.

I just now noticed this. Look at the Illusive Man’s eyes in this picture. They’re human. In the end, he broke free of the Reapers’ control.

Meet god. Okay, he’s not technically god, but he’s the one behind the Reapers.

So, ready for some BS? Okay, other sites have gone into this in better detail than I will here. But basically? The Reapers come every 50,000 years to destroy sentient life because if they don’t, sentient life will be destroyed by machines. So… the machines are destroying organics to prevent the organics from being destroyed by machines? That makes no sense. What’s worse, we have proof that it doesn’t have to end that way. After all, Shepard got the Quarians and the Geth to work together. EDI is an AI who is cooperative, helpful. Heck, she’s in love with Joker and the feeling is mutual. So, everything we know from most recent memory shows that god here is just bitching. Maybe he really does have a good point. We’ll never know; there certainly isn’t time for a question and answer session.

As you can see by this picture, I chose the green ending. Thank goodness. It’s my favorite color.

I’m amazed at how similar the endings to the game are. The game has an excellent build-up. Maybe the ending itself isn’t bad; I do not want to debate that right now. However, the fact that all three of the endings are so similar really bothers me.

And we end with Joker and EDI together, now a pair of synthesized organic-mechanic people. I’m not really sure what that means in a technical sense, though. I mean, how is it different from being a cyborg? What is the fundamental conceit of mechanical design? … Eh, just enjoy the pretty picture.

And we end on the scene of an old man telling a young boy about the story of “the Shepard”.

The End.

Coming up next. My review of the Mass Effect series.