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Monday, September 14, 2020

Spoony's ten most disappointing RPGs

Anyone with a serious interest in gaming has played their share of bad games, and though they may have angered us at first, generally we can usually look back on the experience and get some ironic amusement from the incompetence on display.  Hell, I'm something of a bad games connoisseur by this point - I've honestly gotten more amusement out of fascinating trainwrecks like Hoshi wo Miru Hito or Hunt Down the Freeman than out of many of the good games I've played over the years.  A disappointing game, on the other hand, can be worse in most cases; when you're promised something incredible and what you get delivers well below expectations, and it's not even inept enough to make fun of... well, you're just left without any satisfaction at all and your wallet is $60 lighter for it.  All you can really do at that point is just warn as many people away as you can, cut your losses, and hopefully move on to something better, or at least bad in a more interesting way.  So, that in mind, let's take a look at ten RPGs that I felt were under-performers.

And again, I'm not saying these are the worst RPGs ever made; they're just the ones that personally let me down the most.  So if you're currently penning a whiny screed about how you're dedicating every minute of your life to committing acts of harassment and violence against my entire family until I give these games the fair assessment they 'deserve', as if an objective opinion piece is something that can even possibly exist, let alone be written with a violent lunatic who worships electronic toys pointing a gun at your head... just stop.  Thanks in advance!

10. Suikoden Tierkreis

Shed a Tierkreis for this fallen franchise, then go buy Eiyuden Chronicle when it's released.
Suikoden as a franchise is based on the classic Chinese novel "War of the Marshes", and carries on its epic themes, if not sticking particularly close to its story.  Still, you come to expect a few things after five games - they're all set in a shared world (though separate time periods and geographic regions), the plot in some way centers on the 27 True Runes that govern the world's natural forces, and you build up an army (with 60+ playable characters in each game), staff a castle, and do battle with an evil empire in grandiose war battles.  Tierkreis alludes to these things, certainly, but it discards almost everything that made the gameplay unique and interesting for a generic small-party, turn-based experience that's barely different from any other.  Well, other than some amazingly atrocious voice acting that has every character ramble at least 8 words a second like a Speed Racer cartoon so they can fit it all on a DS game card, with no option to turn it off and spare your ears.  It's always hard to see a series be stripped of its identity for a lame designed-by-committee cashin sequel, but Tierkreis is exactly that, and a disappointing end for an excellent series to boot.  Just another shameful casualty of a once-great company.

9. Grandia Xtreme

Xtreme for the 90s!  Too bad it came out in 2002.
I'm a huge fan of Grandia; the sense of fun, the great characters, and most of all, a kickass combat system that operates on the same principle as Final Fantasy's ATB, but lets you delay or cancel enemy turns with well-timed attacks (though they can do the same to you as well) and, in 3's case, juggle them into the air for massive damage.  Easily a contender for my favorite combat system of all time.  Xtreme was the franchise's attempt to reinvent itself as something of a dungeon crawler, which failed to impress for a few reasons.  First, you get exactly one save point back at town, so if you make a mistake at any point and get taken out by enemies, too bad - you're redoing a few hours of work.  There's a huge leap in difficulty about halfway through the game that can easily screw you over if you're underpowered for it too, and of course the game doesn't bother to warn you of it beforehand so you can gain some levels first.  But the biggest offender is the voice acting. The box proudly proclaims that it features the talents of Mark Hamill, Lisa Loeb and Dean "16 Christmas movies" Cain, and they are easily the best thing about it, even if Mr. Cain sounds drunk during some lines (though if he actually is, I can't blame him given the crappy dialog they have him reading).  But the rest - all uncredited - are utterly putrid, with some of the most god-awful, cringe-inducing line reads I've heard in any medium, let alone gaming.  And no, you can't skip any of the cutscenes they're in, so you're just stuck listening to a bunch of shmucks with all the charisma of a dentist's drill whine on for upwards of 20 minutes at a time.  I love Grandia, but I couldn't even bring myself to finish this one out of pity.  Life's too short; play one of the good Grandias instead.

8. The Witcher and Mass Effect franchises

We purchased over 160 awards from hack gaming rags with the profits we made selling other people's much better games on GOG!
I'm including not just two games under one heading, but two entire series, and for very similar reasons - they both feature interactivity on level with your average screensaver, have lousy boring stories and settings shamelessly derivative of other much better works, star insufferable smug Mary Sues, and spend way too much time trying to convince you that they're "intelligent" and "adult" and "dark" and mostly just come off as condescending, self-indulgent and try-hard, especially when they have to spell out every single thing that ever happens in simple, plain text because their direction is on par with an M. Night Shyamalan movie - embarrassingly inept but all-too-eager to tell you all about how brilliant they are.  Not to mention both companies behind them use empty wokeness as an easy ticket to write off any and all criticism toward their mediocre products as an act of 'bigotry' and get pompous fauxgressives* to endorse their games and tell their followers to buy a few dozen copies apiece.  But what truly gets my goat is how much praise these franchises get for being so "thought provoking and immersive" when they have gameplay and narrative design engineered to be devoid of any thought process whatsoever (click on the glowing NPC to get a quest, then follow the big arrow across miles of empty, noninteractive terrain until you hit the next thing to click on, then do a braindead button-mashing fight, then shuffle those steps and repeat 6-14 more times!  Oo!).  'Characters' are rarely anything more than dispensers of dry exposition or cynical melodrama, and the game itself is fully content to spoon-feed you every single bit of background information via a dry plot dump in an in-game wiki rather than letting anything be expressed through context or subtext - things that always go much further in building a sense of immersion and making the world feel alive and cohesive instead of like a scrapbook of half-finished developer notes.  Heaven forbid you get pulled away from vapid follow-the-dot "quests" and braindead, repetitious combat for even five seconds so you can build a genuine interest in the story and make decisions based on your personal investment in its lore and characters; that would require a focus on quality over quantity and we've got an arbitrary content quota to hit in order to keep our jobs, damn it!  (And no, flat-out telling me that "this decision will change a future event" before I even make it doesn't count, either; it's just a contrived way to force in gravitas you didn't earn beforehand.)  It's painfully obvious when the human element of storytelling, character development and world-building has been tossed aside in favor of committee-based game design whose only goals are to pad out runtime, stuff the game with busywork tied to meaningless "achievements" and give easy talking points to propaganda-mill gaming publications so they can bestow you with cynical accolades for your dishonest and superficial emotional storytelling that only truly exist to generate more sales for you and kickbacks for them.  Especially when the much-hyped consequential choices have no impact other than changing a throwaway line of dialog here and there or giving you a different passage of text in your journal explaining how much of a difference you made but never get to see any actual evidence of.  Or just giving you cheap spank material from one of the game's zillion characters who will have sex with you on demand once you finish their dumb plot blurb; never mind that in an age where every type of porn imaginable is literally a click away on any device in the free world, it's pretty damn hard to justify wasting hours of time on insipid diversions in crappy games just to see two seconds of nip before the camera cuts.  I want good games to play and memorable tales told from a place of passion, not overhyped manipulative shams masquerading as them.

* Those sanctimonious malignant narcissists who love to bray about how everyone else needs to be free-thinking and objective and selfless just like them when all they ever do is belt out smug knee-jerk retorts to their own straw man arguments, instantly stoop to weak character assassination and nitpicking semantics instead of forming any real counterarguments to criticism, thoughtlessly throw one of their own followers under the bus every time they fuck up or get called out for any reason to maintain their all-important illusion of infallibility, and are always suspiciously too busy marathoning Call of Duty and watching Joker at least once a day 'fighting the good fight' to ever actually help anyone in need.  Because their schtick has never for a second been about whether anything they do is genuinely virtuous or benefits anyone beside themselves, it's about how much free money and social media cred and how big a personal militia they can build while doing as little actual work as possible; why do you think they all have Patreons and $20-an-episode podcasts and sponsored YouTube channels and 'huge, world changing projects' they suspiciously never finish or even talk about other than to panhandle? Or why they present themselves as infallible heroes with high morals and values when they routinely violate them without a second thought and then immediately write off their hypocrisy as a "special exception" over and over again?  Or why their response to any perceived slight of them or their hobby horses, no matter how petty, is to whip their followers into a frenzy hoping one of the crazier ones commits some heinous act against their target of ire, at which point they'll just conveniently disavow them to avoid any culpability?  It ain't cuz they're good people, that's for sure!

7. Lunar: Dragon Song

More like Lunar: Dragging Ass.
Lunar is another series I'm a huge fan of, especially the two Playstation 1 remakes.  They're still very much in the old-school camp of design (unsurprising as they're based on games which came out for the Sega CD in the early '90s), but they have a wonderful and sincere storybook charm to them, as well as some great characters, voiceover and high-quality music that really showed off what the CD medium could do for an RPG that cartridges of the time simply couldn't.  Dragon Song was announced as a long-awaited third entry in the series... and what we got was certainly not worth the wait.  While it does look the part at a glance, the gameplay is changed up for the worse, as combat completely removes the tactical element and, indeed, any real strategy at all.  You can no longer actively target enemies in a battle - a character just picks one at random and goes for it.  Party size is cut in half as well, as you can now only control three active characters.  Add in a ton of grinding (you can get either experience or items from battle - never both at once) and a plot that's just a retread of the first game's with worse writing, barely developed characters and no good twists, and you have one of the biggest letdowns of all time.  Another game that killed off a classic series. 

6. Quest 64

Even the title is bland and uninspiring.
A name notorious to anyone who sided with Nintendo once the Playstation / Nintendo 64 rivalry started heating up, but RPG fans in particular.  The Playstation got so many great examples of the genre by 1998 - Parasite Eve, Suikoden, Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics and of course Final Fantasy VII, which was the quintessential game to own in the late '90s.  The Nintendo 64 on the other hand got... this.  An immensely dull 3D RPG with the barest minimum of a plot, no memorable characters whatsoever and gameplay that failed to impress on any level.  The ability to command the four elements is a concept with a lot of potential - imagine if you could reshape the earth to open paths, fly on the wind over obstacles, walk on lava or underwater, and so forth - but the execution was just dull, having you hurl progressively bigger rocks or fireballs or wind blades or water waves at enemies and that's about it.  Even Wizardry VI - a game released eight years before this one - put a few fresh twists on the same idea, so it's especially inexcusable here.  Worse, there's no real balance to it - Water and Earth are the game-dominating forces while Fire and Wind are virtually useless, so there's not even any fun to be had with customizing your playstyle.  Combat itself is just dull and repetitious and grinding is the order of the day as, similar to games like Final Fantasy II, you have to very slowly level up each one of your stats separately.  All it really had going for it was some nice graphics for the time - big, colorful cities, some decently animated characters and vast field areas with none of the infamous "N64 fog" - but that wasn't nearly enough to save it from sheer mediocrity.  Nintendo fans can forgive a lot (and we have), but we never forget when something completely squanders a great concept.  If there's any silver lining at all for those who got suckered into buying Quest, it's that at least Paper Mario and Ogre Battle 64 managed to prevent the platform from becoming a total no-man's-land for quality RPGs.  And at least its Game Boy Color spinoff wasn't bad, even if just because it was a point-for-point copy of the arcade classic Mr. Do!.

5. Final Fantasy X

If you want tired, empty nose thumbing at organized religion, save yourself 50 bucks and browse Tripod for a while. Same self serving bullshit, no false pretense of entertainment attached.
 I strongly considered having Final Fantasy VIII here instead, but after further consideration, I had to go with 10..  8 promised to be an incredible followup to the legendary FF7 with its high quality cutscenes (which suspiciously only showed off the "epic" FMVs in trailers with no context - turns out they didn't have much in the game, either), but when it came time to deliver, it was a disjointed mess of illogical plot points, characters that ranged from forgettable to grating (particularly Rinoa, who is a textbook Mary Sue), a romance with about as much chemistry as oil and water, and gameplay that failed to impress, devolving into little more than tedious grinding, inventory management and limit break spamming.  It was easily the series' lowest point to date.  But it's at least relatively unique (if not well implemented) from a design standpoint, which gives me license to write it off as an experiment gone awry that, thankfully, they've never attempted to replicate.  X, on the other hand, was a total disgrace, especially following on the heels of 7, 9 and Tactics - three of the best games ever made, let alone Final Fantasy titles.  The premise was tired and trite in the nineties, let alone 2002, being yet another take on same disingenuous 'all religions are hopelessly corrupt and every follower thereof is a irredeemable hate filled straw man' propaganda, with only a handful of sanctimonious know-it-all teenagers in a position to take a stand against the hordes of evil theists and save the world from itself  - conveniently enough, the very same demographic every book/manga/anime/game that uses this dumbass premise is marketed to! But of course, the fact that nearly all of the products espousing this view are put on the market by huge corporations run by conservative millionaires and billionaires who also reap the overwhelming majority of the revenue they generate completely eludes them. That or their cultish fanbase is fully aware of the grift and just trying to cash in on it somehow. 

That'd be bad enough on its own, but the gameplay pushed it past the point of no return, reducing a high profile RPG franchise to a mockery of the genre and everything it once stood for.  Dumbed down, aggressively linear, laden with cheap busywork to pad out runtime, and a "free form" leveling system that was anything but.  Characters were all but forced into one linear upgrade path or, if they branched off, just ended up being mediocre at two or three different things and therefore completely useless (or, in Kimahri's case, trapped in a tiny portion of the grid for a third of the game and underleveled for the rest as a result).  The protagonists are somehow even more grating than in 8, going from irritating to reprehensible in a hurry; it's pretty bad when I have more sympathy for the straw man 'villains' than for the protagonists, who just act out of petulant, amoral defiance with no plan whatsoever but still pull out a flawless victory in the end because of a moronic deus ex machina on par with an after school special.  The only silver lining in the whole mess was Jecht, who was honestly a well done tragic villain; he goes from an abusive drunkard to being revered as Spira's hero to finding out he was a pawn to bring about the world's ultimate end, and his only chance to redeem himself is to set himself up for defeat at his spurned kid's hand.  That's brilliant and honestly pretty heartbreaking, especially since you see every step of his journey throughout the game and get to know him pretty well as a result.  If only he were in a better script...

And before someone asks: No, I have never played X-2.  I have no intention of doing so either. I took one look at that opening FMV where they turn Yuna and Rikku into the Spice Girls and immediately said "Nope, not even going to waste my time on this garbage". 

4. The Fabula Nova Crystallis Final Fantasy games

Unfabulous Nauseous Crustiness
I didn't bother with Final Fantasy XIII for a long while, in large part because I'd heard absolutely nothing good from anyone who played it.  That's honestly pretty impressive by Final Fantasy standards; if even 8 and 10's most fervent defenders had no positive words for 13, could Square really have fallen that far?  Well, I finally gave the games a try about a year back, and I have to say that yes, they really did.  XIII is an utter embarrassment, taking every lousy underdeveloped character and scrap of sloppy and cringe-worthy writing from previous Final Fantasies and multiplying it a hundred times over.  Gameplay is about the most dumbed-down I've ever seen in any game ever, let alone an RPG; it ostensibly goes for an "action movie feel", but in practice all this means is that you're watching a repetitive cutscene where you occasionally have to press a button to use a potion or shift "paradigms" to block an attack or heal an ally.  Most aren't even well-staged, just having both characters stand a few feet apart and throw the same few looping attack animations like any other game in the series, which really undermines the whole 'cinematic' angle.  There is virtually no exploration whatsoever, with the entire experience just consisting of a linear hallway peppered with fights for a full seventy-five percent of the game; hell, even X let you free-roam a bit and interact with NPCs and objects,or find some hidden goodies in out-of-the-way niches. XIII-2 tried to salvage the concept with more dynamic setpieces and a somewhat more open design, but it was far too little, too late, because the game was still a confused, terribly written mess and no more fun to endure.  Type-0 was a mediocre action game that attempted to add in real-time strategy elements but had no memorable characters (they're all named after numbers for crying out loud) or story to its name, and one would hope that would finally push Square into abandoning the franchise for good.  But alas, they revved the engine up for one final insult with Lightning Returns, a game that encapsulated every single bad thing about the previous games and then some, and put it all on a time limit so that you're constantly reminded of how much of your finite existence you're wasting on this wretched crap.  If there's any silver lining at all to this catastrophe of a subseries, it's that it finally pushed Square to hand over the reigns to a competent director and writing team and turn out a flawed, but much better take on the "cinematic Final Fantasy" concept with XV.

3. Fallout 4 

I guess you could say Bethesda fell out of step with long time series fans.
Most long-time Fallout fans will tell you that 3 was the beginning of the end for the series, and I suppose it was in a way.  However, I still maintain that it's a good game - while far from perfect, it at least made a good attempt at capturing the bleak, yet wryly humorous tone of Fallout.  It also told a good tale of bringing hope to a desolate wasteland and was relatively fun to play, even if most of the DLC add-ons were just a big "meh"; so if not a great Fallout, it was at least a decent game on its own merits.  Fallout 4, on the other hand, is the epitome of a cynical cashin.  Not only does it shamelessly retread plot elements wholesale from earlier games, but it completely loses the series' identity, depth and sense of humor in favor of being geared toward endless randomly-generated quests and powergaming.  It reeks of being designed-by-committee in every respect, as the rest of its gameplay is a soulless hodgepodge of elements engineered solely to make a profitable game - not a good one.  "Minecraft is the most popular game of all time, put a town-building element in our game, quick!  Call of Duty and Battlefield let you customize weapons and those are big sellers, let's do that too!  Mass Effect had that dialog wheel and lazily written bisexual romance scenes that everyone liked, let's add that in!  Diablo and Torchlight and a zillion popular mobile games have legendary monsters and loot that gives you superpowers and scales with difficulty and people like that, add that in too!"  They couldn't even be bothered to optimize the game properly, either; even with an i7, an SSD, a GTX 2060 and 32 gigs of RAM it still runs like garbage, with constant framerate drops, stuttering and dragging load times.  Between this and Fallout 76, which is the same thing just with terrible online functionality forced in, I can safely say that Fallout has passed the point of no return and just become another cynical cash cow by an apathetic company whose only concern is appeasing its investors.  Farewell, old friend; you were one of the best.

2. The 3rd Birthday

I didn't even get any ice cream or cake. Worst third birthday ever.
Parasite Eve may not be one of Square's most highly-regarded franchises, but I enjoyed it for what it was - a creative turn on the freshly popular survival horror genre.  Rather than being slow-paced and built around evading danger and puzzle solving, though, it opted more for a movie-like presentation, with an action-driven combat system and some enjoyably over-the-top setpieces (like battling a boss on a carriage drawn by two burning horses).  It was just the right blend of silliness, action, RPG and horror, and that made it a lot of fun despite some awkward balance and an overall short runtime.  The sequel went much more into traditional survival horror with its fixed camera angles, tank controls and generally slower pace and lacked the over-the-top appeal of the first as a result, but arguably had stronger gameplay overall.  However, it also had a strange, disjointed mess of a story that didn't really go anywhere, which made it a game I didn't enjoy as much.  But whether you're more a fan of the first or the second game, 3rd Birthday is nothing short of a mockery, reimagining the whole thing as a bland tactical shooter with ridiculously durable bullet sponge enemies every step of the way.  Terribly-designed ones, at that; they're all just ugly, incomprehensible knotted wads of flesh with no logical design whatsoever, and if not for the game actively telling you, I'd have no idea what any of them are meant to resemble at all.  The plot is a mess too, doing away entirely with any semblance of grounded science fiction or body horror and diving straight into Timecube territory with alternate timelines and dimensions, mind-swapping, slapdash anti-god themes and plot holes the size of China.  But the worst thing of all is Ada's character, who is reduced to an empty sex object with no personality whatsoever, with clothes constantly being destroyed in combat until she's near-naked (which doesn't even make sense given the body-hopping premise) and more shower scenes than your average hentai series.  And it only gets creepier once you hit the plot twist and discover that they've been sexualizing a twelve-year-old for the entire game.  I sincerely hope whoever was responsible for that twist got put on leave by the higher-ups and taken out for a few rounds of chemical castration, because... damn.

1. Persona 5

A bunch of adult-spurned, personality deprived teens terrorize 'evil' people in anonymity under orders from a meme cat. No wonder this game appeals so much to the 4chan/Reddit/Kiwi Farms generation.
This one hits especially hard because I'm a big fan of Persona 3 and 4; in fact, I named them two of the best RPGs of the previous decades for their strong characters, heavy atmosphere and unique and well-crafted combination of gameplay styles.  So, with 5 skipping an entire console generation and spending over five years in development, it was easily going to be the best one yet, right?  ...Unfortunately, no.  What came out was a lazy retreaded followup that would have been completely forgettable were it not actively insulting my intelligence every step of the way.  At first I believed it was going to take a much darker route than 3 and 4, with the protagonists taking the role of avengers and getting back at a society they perceived as corrupt in a way that was essentially untraceable; sort of the same premise as Deathnote but stopping short of mass murder.  But if you're going to go down the spurned revenge-seeking antihero route, then commit to it - don't turn it around after chapter 1 and play the protagonists as infallible supermen who are completely in the right when they're being just as cowardly and underhanded as the people they're targeting, especially when the two previous games never even came close to portraying their protagonists as some kind of infallible gods-among-men.  Hell, 3 was about facing the sins of the past (theirs or not) before they grew too great to contain and 4 was about accepting one's hidden feelings and changing for the better before it literally destroyed them while tracking down a killer. 5 seems to be just the opposite, with the protagonists never once turning the magnifying glass on themselves and instead ironing out the flaws they perceive in everyone but themselves by any force they deem necessary.  What, we're supposed to root for them just because their little crusade all started as an act of revenge they had a personal stake in and now they're moving up to every crooked asshole they hear about on the internet out?  Sorry, but that just takes all the fun out of the concept; you're no longer a group of avenging antiheroes, you're just narcissistic thugs for hire getting off on your newfound fame and attention while never sparing a thought for any negative consequences you might be unleashing as you do so.  Especially since the game never shows any, even daring to insinuate that anyone who says what they're doing is in any way wrong is "just as bad" as any of the high profile rapists or con-men or scammers they target and they deserve the exact same "justice" our heroes are dishing out. Any chance I had of empathizing with them after that went straight out the window, moreso because none of them have any real personality beyond a basic archetype - the pretentious artist, the shallow fashionista, the dumb jock, the quirky hacker, et cetera (and of course, a braindead cartoon meme cat who offers inane commentary on literally everything and whom the 'hero' obeys unquestionably because hur hur 4chan).  I cant even take the villains seriously when they're portrayed as one-dimensional caricatures with no humanity whatsoever, and their exaggerated "shadow" versions just take it even further into farce. "A guy in an organized crime racket who literally views random people as ATM machines!  The art thief who mugs more than a Batman villain and manifests as a stolen painting you get to deface!  The abusive rapist gym teacher literally just views everyone around him as his personal slaves!  That's clever, right?!"  This isn't high-concept storytelling, it's a bad Saturday morning cartoon at best and a Sonichu comic at worst.  Shit, when Psychonauts did this exact same premise over a decade prior, even they knew to play the sillier imagery for laughs and to keep the central message about helping people overcome their traumas rather than making it all about petty self-gratification.  When a game's plot is just a by-the-numbers retread of two much smarter games, only one side of the central conflict is full of smug self-righteous douchebags and the other is a bunch of mustache-twirling straw men they effortlessly knock down while the masses cheer them on, with anyone who doesn't support them getting shamed or discreetly 'disappeared' with no negative consequences for our 'heroes' whatsoever, it doesn't make for a very engaging or thought-provoking experience; shocking, I know.  And given how many sociopathic assholes I've seen online literally worshipping this game, fancying themselves "Phantom Thieves" and forming their own rings dedicated to plotting out disturbingly detailed revenge schemes against people they hate and stalking, harassing and doxxing anyone who speaks out against them or their new religion, I'm sure it's just a matter of time until Persona 5 inspires some real life violence too.  So if you're wondering why I couldn't even bring myself to finish the game and haven't bought another of Atlus's games in over four years, there's your answer.  Persona 5 definitely won't be the last in the series, especially not with Sega calling the shots now, but it's a game I find morally repulsive and horridly depressing, and that's why it tops this list.