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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 something like Hoshi wo Miru Hito 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 fun to make fun of... well, you're just left without any satisfaction at all and your wallet is $60 lighter for it.  So, that in mind, let's take a look at ten RPGs that I felt were under-performers.

10. Suikoden Tierkreis

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 alost 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

I'm a huge fan of Grandia; so much so that I've listed all three mainline games in the series on my Top 100 games list.  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.  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.  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

I'm including not just two games under one heading, but two entire series, and for very similar reasons - they're both aggressively dull, shamelessly derivative of other much better works, and spend way too much time trying to convince you that they're "adult" and "dark" and as a result mostly just come off as juvenile and try-hard.  But what truly gets my goat is how much praise they get for being so "open and immersive" when they're strictly linear, completely one-note in design and content to spoon-feed you virtually every bit of backstory and characterization in flat exposition via an external plot dump codex rather than let you directly experience any of it and judge for yourself.   Heaven forbid you get pulled away from tedious follow-the-dot "quests" and repetitious combat for even five seconds so you can become invested in the underlying narrative and choose a path based on your investment in its world and characters, right?  Not that it matters much because your choices make virtually no impact in the long run other than changing a throwaway line here and there; the script for the whole series is already in the can and you're not derailing our hack writer's vision, damn it!

7. Lunar: Dragon Song

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 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.  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, much less interesting characters and no good twists, and you have one of the biggest letdowns of all time. 

6. Quest 64

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 - Parasite Eve, Suikoden, Breath of Fire 3 and 4, Wild Arms 1 and 2, SaGa Frontier, and of course Final Fantasy VII, which was the quintessential game to own at the time.  The Nintendo 64 got... this.  A mediocre 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 an interesting concept - imagine if you could reshape the earth to open paths, fly over obstacles, walk on lava, and so forth - but the execution was just dull, having you hurl progressively bigger rocks or fireballs or wind blades 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 and vast field areas with none of the infamous "N64 fog" - but that wasn't nearly enough to save it.  Nintendo fans can forgive a lot (and we have), but we never forget when something sucks.  

5. Final Fantasy VIII/X

Another two-fer, and once again, I consider them equally bad for the same reasons.  VII was absolutely the game of its day, and while I think it has some faults, it does hold up amazingly well overall.  8 promised to be an incredible followup with its high quality cutscenes (which suspiciously only showed off the "epic" parts in trailers with no context - turns out they didn't have much in the game, either).  But when it came time to deliver, VIII was a disjointed mess of illogical plot points, characters that ranged from forgettable to grating (particularly Rinoa, who is a textbook Mary Sue) and gameplay that failed to impress, devolving into little more than tedious grinding and limit break spamming.  I thought for sure that would be the series' lowest point, but X proved me quite wrong once again.  Not only was it even worse from a writing perspective, but the gameplay was reduced to a mockery of the series and everything it stood for.  Aggressively linear, laden with busywork, 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 characters are somehow even worse than in 8, going from irritating to reprehensible in a hurry; it's pretty bad when I have more sympathy for the alleged villains than for the protagonists, who just act out of petulant defiance with no plan whatsoever but still pull out a victory in the end because of moronic writing 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 he never gets a chance to apologize to anyone he's hurt until its too late.  That's 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, I'm not even going to waste my time on this garbage." 

4. The 3rd Birthday

Parasite Eve may not be one of Square's most highly-regarded games, but I enjoyed it quite a bit 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 and horror, and that made it a lot of fun.  I didn't like the sequel quite as much, which went more into traditional survival horror with its fixed camera angles, tank controls and generally slower pace, but it was still a decent game for what it was.  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 science fiction or 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 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 got put on leave by the higher-ups and taken out for a few rounds of chemical castration, because... damn.

3. The Fabula Nova Crystallis Final Fantasy games

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 interrupt 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 repetitive 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.  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 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 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 one 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 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.

2. Fallout 4 

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 good 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 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, 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.

1. Persona 5

This one hits especially hard because I'm a big fan of Persona 3 and 4; in fact, I named them the two best games on the Playstation 2 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 by-the-numbers 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 without going all-in and committing murder.  But if you're going to go down the spurned anti-hero route, then commit to it - don't turn it around after chapter 1 and play the protagonists as infallible heroes who are completely in the right when they're being just as cowardly and underhanded as the people they're targeting.  What, we're supposed to root for them just because this all started as an act of revenge they had a personal stake in and now they're moving up to every corrupt asshole they hear about on the internet?  Sorry, but that just takes all the fun out of the concept; you're no longer a group of relatable antiheroes, you're just thugs for hire getting off on your newfound fame and attention.  Especially since the game dares to insinuate that anyone who says they're doing something wrong is "just as bad" and deserves only more of the same scorn and punishment they're already doling out to every rando they hear about online.  Any chance I had of sympathizing with them after that went straight out the window, especially 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 dopey 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 just views everyone around him as his personal slaves!  That's clever, right?!"  This isn't smart storytelling, it's a bad Saturday morning cartoon at best and a Sonichu comic at worst.  I couldn't even bring myself to finish the game because after weeks of being immersed in this juvenile crap with no end in sight, I simply didn't care anymore.  And given how many assholes I've seen online fancying themselves "Phantom Thieves" and forming their own rings dedicated to stalking, harassing and doxxing people under cover of anonymity, I'm sure it's just a matter of time until this game inspires some real life violence too. So if you're wondering why I haven't bought one of Atlus's games in over four years and may never do so again, there's your answer.  Persona 5 definitely won't be the last in the series, especially not with Sega calling the shots now, but to me, it's the end of a once-great franchise.