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Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Beauty of Villainy

Villains in game media are often portrayed as extremely beautiful. I'm not complaining. Most of them look really cool. But why are scions of evil or misguided intent often portrayed as such handsome, cool, composed individuals? It's the opposite of, say, a Disney villain, who is usually made to be ugly or have some sort of glaring physical flaw or generally off-kilter appearance (there are some exceptions). Japanese RPGs and games that share a similar aesthetic, on the other hand, have their big bads designed so that you're drawn to them. Quite frequently, they look more capable and inviting than even the protagonist. Let's look at some examples.

Xemnas, Kingdom Hearts 2

Sephiroth, Compilation of Final Fantasy VII

Ramirez, Skies of Arcadia

Dhaos, Tales of Phantasia
They're all unnaturally beautiful, oftentimes even more so compared to the heroes, who are already better looking than any real human being.

Why do you think this is a thing in games like this? Aren't we supposed to be rooting against these people? Why give them such a positive trait?

I brought this discussion to the table, and this is what people had to say.

Toxi: Because it's an intentional contrast to take a stereotypically positive physical trait and assign it to an awful person. It subverts audience expectations and highlights how physical appearance has nothing to actually do with someone's moral character.

It's not just seen in JRPGs, it's seen everywhere. Disney's Beauty and the Beast, for example, contrasts Beast, who is physically monstrous but develops a good heart, with Gaston, who is physically attractive but is a complete scumbag. Jadis, the White Witch of Narnia, is incredibly beautiful, and is basically pure evil.

There's an unfortunate trend of femininity in men being perceived as sinister.

For example, this is how Satan looks in The Passion of the Christ.


Often, when comparing the villain and the hero, the villain will be more stereotypically feminine while the hero will be more stereotypically masculine. Guts and Griffith, Simba and Scar, Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, Thor and Loki, Sora and Riku...

John Kowalski: It's almost always that thing about how cannot expect those who have an excess of charisma to have an excess of good morals. Also villains usually have big egos and vanity goes very well with egocentrism.

Elaugaufein: A lot of these villains have passed as or been great heroes of their nation. That generally requires not horrifying children with your appearance.

Brave: I think it has nothing to do with them being villains. JRPG character design usually has this effect.

It is, in part, a matter of perceived subversion. Beauty as a blessing for (or representative of) virtue is an ancient concept, and going against that image similarly old.

PSqueak: So the contrast is huge when they turn into their horrific final forms.

JonnyDBrit: With JRPGs in particular, I'd say its a trend in imitation of wider literature, particularly anime and manga. Several of the most popular and influential series have had villainous figures who either were handsome or became handsome, perhaps even being revealed as the true villain after knocking off an uglier initial villain. And since many JRPGs had their roots in imitating (and even today can still take from, as much as they influence) popular genres and stories, its not hard to see how they picked up those sorts of trends.

Darkly Tranquil: I recall reading a forum thread not long ago (can't remember if it was here or somewhere else) where people where discussing why western games tend not to do very well in Japan, and someone commented that they had read a discussion in a Japanese forum and the comments there were to the effect that Japanese gamers regarded the characters in western games to be too ugly. Presumably this is because there are very different cultural preferences in terms of aesthetics between western and Japanese character representations; where we in the west have the generic beardy white guy, the Japanese have the long haired androgynous pretty boy. One might conclude from this that the Japanese prefer attractiveness in their characters whereas in the west we favour badass looking characters.

Vulcano's assistant: At least for FF and KH, that's part of Nomura's signature. He has made a bunch of games and influenced the whole genre.

What's the origin of it though? What are some old works that have it, like, even older than Berserk?

Griffith, The White Hawk, is a villain from the manga series Berserk. He enraptures many people with his aesthetically appealing appearance.
Toxi: "... On th' other side up rose
BELIAL, in act more graceful and humane;
A fairer person lost not Heav'n; he seemd
For dignity compos'd and high exploit:
But all was false and hollow; though his Tongue
Dropt Manna, and could make the worse appear
The better reason, to perplex and dash
Maturest Counsels: for his thoughts were low;
To vice industrious, but to Nobler deeds
Timorous and slothful: yet he pleas'd the eare..."

~ John Milton, Paradise Lost

SilverArrow20XX: The Lord of the Rings and the Bible. Lucifer was said to be beautiful. Sauron, a fallen angel analogue, was also said to be very beautiful before losing his body.

A depiction of Sauron, from Lord of the Rings, before losing his body.
I think it stems from the idea of charisma being frightening. An evil person who is beautiful and oozes charisma is very dangerous. He can easily get into positions of power through sweet talking and blending in with good people. He can trick good people into helping him commit evil. Eru (lotr God analogue) eventually gets fed up with Sauron's use of charisma for evil and destroys his body, reducing him to the towering super evil looking suit of armor we see in the movie flashbacks.

Other examples include popular culture's depictions of Jack the Ripper, as a charismatic man.

The key thing, I think, is that evil with charisma comes off as more "dangerous" and "intelligent." This is why evil leaders are so often depicted as attractive.

That's my theory, anyway.

SixMachine: It's been in popular culture for a while. It's why people can find Patrick Bateman pretty funny from American Psycho, even though he chops up women, eats them, kills hobos for fun, stomps on puppies, and can't get a reservation at Dorsias.

Also sadly there is a "Bonnie and Clyde"effect on some women, where they get attracted to bad boys. For example, after Charles Manson and Ted Bundy killed people, they got some groupies for some reason. So being evil and charismatic isn't too out there.

NinjamicWZ: So that I can relate to them.

PerfectFlaw: I feel like some of these bad guys would be getting a manicure while summoning a meteor to Earth.

Bonus points for stabbing a beloved main character through the chest while updating his Instagram.

Armoured Priest:


While all of the examples noted above are of male characters, it should be noted that the trope does extend to females, as well. Some noted the cruel yet beautiful White Witch of Narnia, Jadis, as an example, and the concept of evil or misguided beauty most certainly extends to video games. Beatrix from Final Fantasy IX, Jihl Nabaat from Final Fantasy XIII, Windy from Suikoden, and Legretta the Quick from Tales of the Abyss are some examples of female characters who fall into this category.

Jihl Nabaat, an antagonist from Final Fantasy XIII.
And the trope doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon!

Ardyn Izunia, an enigmatic character from the upcoming Final Fantasy XV, appears to fall into the role of a villain.
I received a lot of good insight into this particular topic. Beautiful villains are one of the more interesting tropes used in media due to the severe contrast between their external appearance and their personalities, so it was nice to get some analysis and opinions on the subject from a variety of different sources.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Twilight Princess: The Nuance of Hyrule

Today's post comes from user Refreshment.01, highlighting the attention to detail in Twilight Princess, the 2006 Gamecube and Wii entry in The Legend of Zelda series. How many of these details were you able to notice while playing the game? Did you, for example, know that Midna speaks in scrambled English?


"ENVIRONMENTS


-Global Lighting and Atmospherics.The game's lighting implementation shades the ground depending on the sun's angle. A good way to see it in work is by standing between two tall structures like in the canyon area after exiting Kakariko. This is one of those hacked and very specific lighting systems we used to see back when hardware wasn't powerful enough to have more realistic realtime lighting and shadows.

By virtue of the above lighting technique, the game creates a very cool black silhouette look for objects, in the opposite face of the setting sun.


Some metal items, like the Gale Boomerang, Sword, or Ball and Chain will glow with different hues during different times of day. At sunset, the glow is of an intense pink/orange. During nighttime, it has a blue tint. In daytime, it is a normal, not so glowy silver look.

There's also rolling cloud projected shadows that shade anything below them. This is most noticeable in Hyrule Field.

Character shadows get subdued when the sky is cloudy, during rain, and get more accentuated when lighting strikes.

-Rain. There are various degrees of rain intensity and in some cases it's accompanied by lightning. There's also an effect in which the rain changes its angle according to the speed Link moves.



-Mist. At the early hours of the day a veil of mist covers the environments. This remains true for all places, save for the desert, where it it wouldn't make sense due to how dry the environment is.


-The mist reacts to the wind's direction and intensity. This is easy to appreciate in a place like Kakariko Village, or in some rooms in the Forest Temple.

-In the desert, during daytime, due to the amount of heat, the distant horizon is involved by haze. The effect is turned off at night, which makes sense, as the temperature gets colder.

-In the desert, during the game sequence to reach Arbiter Grounds, waiting for nightfall reduces the enemy view distance and numbers. The tower guards can't see far away unless Link is very close, and under a light source. Some ground guards are sleeping.

-In daytime, in various places of Faron Woods, it is possible to see sun shafts filtering through the tree canopy. The effect disappears during night.


-In Ordon Ranch, when Link gets possession of a wooden or normal sword, it is possible to attack the goats. This will cause the animal to strike back, knocking him down from Epona.

-In dungeons, the first time a door is opened, debris and dust will fall from its frame. During the same play session, this visual cue will not repeat.

-Zora's Domain. Zora Rider. Why bother with the Clawshot or Wolf Jump when there's no need for Link to go through much effort to reach the top? At the base of the main waterfall, there's a Zora that will offer to take Link to the main hall entrance. Link hops on the Zora's back, and this agile creature will gracefully swim up the waterfall in a few short seconds.

-Peak Province. Upon arrival, this area is covered by a perpetual blizzard that extends from the mountain base up to the Snow Peak Ruins dungeon itself. The blizzard is so dense that it is not possible to witness the passage of time, as celestial bodies are covered by the strong wind and snow. Once Link retrieves the mirror piece, the blizzard subsides, and we are graced with one of the best vistas at the peak's summit.


-Snow Peak Ruins. Another very clever detail is that throughout the mayority of the dungeon, there are no heart drops from enemies or objects. The idea is for Link to use the evolving Yeto soup as his only way of healing.

Snow Peak Ruins' Destruction. This is one of the most interactive and destructible environments in the Zelda series. Once Link gets his hands on the Chain Ball, he can wreck different objects that he couldn't otherwise. Wooden barrels, boxes, chairs, benches, tables, armors, ice walls, etc. There's even a place reminiscent to a church, full of wooden benches everywhere and Chilfos for Link to level.

The Mini Freezars are an enemy that shows of quite well the physics engine. It quite cool (literally) to see multiple of them bouncing around between themselves and the environment.

-Hyrule Castle Town. Once in a while is possible to see a citizen carrying a shopping bag from the store. When Malo takes over the place a lot more people will be carrying bags around.

Different from Ordon or Kakariko, the passing of time doesn't stop when entering Hyrule Castle Town. So it's interesting to watch how the amount of activity and pedestrians varies as the day goes by. Early morning sees some people moving around, noon until night is at peek and after twelve almost no one is around save for the patrolling guards that move around all day.

Agitha's Castle in Hyrule Castle Town. The more bugs Link brings her, the more populated the place becomes. Here's is easy to see the effect the Lamp has over insects. When brought out some flying ones will even latch to it.

-Star Game.This one is quite unique among Zelda's mini games, since it allows for experimentation and trusts the player in figuring things out by themselves. It can be played as soon as reaching the Castle Town in human form, and even without the Clawshot. Upon completing the game one time, a second more difficult round can be played that is supposed to use Double Clawshots to conquer. However, with enough skill this challenge can be overcome with just one. A clever player will figure out by himself that is possible to equip the Iron Boots in conjunction with the Clawshot, making the orb gathering process more efficient. Wining the game will make Link the object of affection of the three lovely ladies that hang outside the tent, chasing him around and dropping hearts when they get excited.

-In Ordon Village, Kakariko and Hyrule Castle Town, these places react adversely to Wolf Link's presence. While in places like Goron Mountain or Zora's Domain, he just seen peacefully without the inhabitants over reacting.

Hyrule Castle.The Throne Room. The area is surrounded by Pillars. During the Beast vs. Beast fight, the pillars can get destroyed, turning them into debris. The debris remain in the ground as an interactive objects that can be kicked around as the fight progresses.

-Hena's Fishing Hole.

The amount of care put into this area and side attractions in amazing.



  • As many know, the four seasons are replicated. The season affects the type of fish available, as well as its biting habits. Also, the water conditions are affected by time of day, season and weather conditions; it can be clear or murky.
  • Spring: The trees blossom with pink cherry petals that litter the ground. The sky is usually clear with little clouds.
  • Summer: The trees, pasture and grass are of an intense green. There water tends to be crystal clear so is easy to see the bottom of the lake.
  • Autumn: Trees, ground and grass has a brownish hue. Maple like leaves fall everywhere and insects become more common. It also produces the most colorful sunsets seen in the game.
  • Winter: Trees turn white and the ground is covered with a slight frost. The sky tends to get quite cloudy during this season.



There's also a random generated rain in the fishing hole. The Water visibility changes in this climate, so is harder to pin point the fish location.

If you enter Hiza's cabin during the rain and look through the window, she'll comment about the lousy weather, but how it's a good time to go fishing since the fish are more active.

During Autumn, if Link casts the line and leaves the Fishing Pole still, after a few seconds, a dragonfly will pose itself over the pole.

During Spring or Autumn, the petals and leaves that fall from trees will float in the water. The ones that are in the ground or in mid air can be flustered by doing a spin attack.

There's an area of the pond that says "no littering allowed." Fishing near here causes some surprises. Link can potentially fish a variety of garbage like cans, wheels, boots. But also valuable stuff like a money sack or a bottle.

Almost all items inside Hena's cabin can be inspected when watching it in first person, a rather interesting way to interact with something for the Zelda series. The carpet, canoe, fish tank, Roll Goal, multiple pictures, pots. There's even fishing informative comments if you look at the lures and books, which describe "The Legend of the Twilight Loach."

Besides using first person view, the other main way to interact with objects inside Hena's cabin is by using Link's Forward Roll. Almost every object has a reaction animation when Link bangs them. And some of them even cause Hena to react and scold Link in different ways. Forward Roll enough multiple times and she'll get angry, ending up with Link thrown outside and only letting him in again until he apologizes.

CHARACTERS


-Reactionary Hood. Special attention has been paid to this piece of clothing. It reacts to the wind's direction and intensity, or even the explosion of a bomb. In most cases it obeys the law of gravity like when dropping from high places, sinking on the water or when upside down. Though, for some reason, it glitches out when walking on some Goron Ore ceilings in the Mine Dungeon.

Just like the hood, Link's hair and sideburns is affected by the winds direction.

-When getting an item, Link's facial expression changes according to it's relevance.

-Link's facial expression also changes depending of what type of thing he catches with the fishing pole. For example, bracking a new record with a fish catch causes a big smile while catching something like a boot is greated with a marked disappointeent.

-Link's tunic gets wet in three different ways, depending on how much of it's body enters the water. Or if he rolls in a shallow pool of water some times just the torso part of the tunic will gets wet. Also after some seconds in the rain the tunic will dampen.

-Zora Tunic. A very small detail is that Link slips up a "mask" to actually breath underwater with this tunic. Once leaving the water it slips off automatically.

-Failing to land Final Blow will cause a delay since the sword gets stuck in the ground and Links takes some time to get it back.

-When aiming with the bow, Link squint he's eyes.

-Realistic Climbing Debacle. Links climbing animation was deliberately made slow in some surfaces to clearly convey a sense of effort. This is also shown in the animation where he first secures his grip with each hand and pulls himself up. This clearly contrasts with his ladder animation were the ascension is faster and more relaxed.

-When Links subdues a Goron or wins in a sumo match, he froths his hands like he just took out the garbage. Same applies when dropping a goat.

-Developers took the time to add a different animation when Link carries and throws a very heavy object. It's a bit interesting since, save for one big rock in Ordon village, I don't remember any other place where the animation is used.

-Drowning causes an instant Game Over.

-After disturbing a hive, the quickest way to get rid of wasps is to jump into a pool of water or transform into Wolf form.

-Link the chicken or: A commentary on animal abuse. This game breaks the tradition on what reaction happens when disturbing Cuccos. When hitting the creature several times, instead of a Cucco mob pecking Link around, actual control of the Cucco is assumed. My interpretation of what this actually happens is because the developers wanted for the player to be in the abused creature's skin to gain some perspective. This seems plausible, since there's an underlying animalistic theme in the game.

That Wolf Chain. It's interesting to note the amount of care invested in these three small chain links. First, it has a very well done collision box, since it's rare to see any visual artifacts like clipping the ground. It reacts pretty realistically to gravity. The faster the Wolf moves, the more apparent the metal "cling" sound becomes; however, if moving in a pool of water, the chain won't emit any sound.

-When in Wolf form, Midna will open any dungeon door using her shape shifting pony tail.

-There's an easy to miss animation in Wolf form. Get wet and exit the pool of water. If, in the exact moment Wolf Link gets out, he doesn't move, then the Wolf will shake itself to dry up.

-Failing to land a Final Blow in Wolf form causes the animal to bang it's head on the ground and get stunned for a second.

-When in Wolf form, is actually possible to approach a whistling grass patch and use the wolf voice as an instrument. Singing Epona's song will summon her. It's something put in there without much purpose, but easy to miss.

-Another easy to miss ability and very nice attention to detail of the Wolf form is that it doesn't sink in deep snow. On the other hand, Link human form ends up moving even slower than with the Iron Boots equipped.


-Taking a walk through town. Reactions upon entering a town in Wolf form:

When Wolf Link enters Ordon the first time, if seen, Hanch will use a Hawk to attack him, and Russel will chase him out with a lighted torch. When visiting the town again, everyone will run out to their houses.

In Ordon Goat Ranch, Fado runs from Link's beast form, and goats start to attack him. Sometimes, a whole group of goats will gang on him.

In Kakariko, Talo will give an alert from the highest point of the village, and everyone will take shelter in their homes.

In Hyrule Castle Town, everyone runs for their lives. A phalanx of guards form behind Wolf Link, cowardly chasing him out with spears.

- When engaging in a fight, Epona reacts to enemies raising her two front legs. If this happena when an enemy is near, this will knock him down, giving Link a chance to use a finishing blow.

-Mounting Epona from the back will cause Link to do a quick hop and boost instantly.

- Dismounting Epona while an enemy is around causes Link to do backflip to quickly engage in combat.

-Ganondorf. The man has a very impressive cape, yet as the decisive encounter progresses, the cloth will accumulate more visible tear and damage.

-The Ordon kids are programmed to react to sword or projectile items. They will quickly dodge any incoming agressions.

-TrillCoro's bird runs a shop near Forest temple. There are a various interaction possibilities:

  • Link can steal the items, causing Trill to peck him until the debt is settle.
  • Link can pay less than the value of the item, causing Trill to call him "Cheap."
  • Link can pay more than the item value, causing Trill to call him "Generous young man."
  • Trill also attacks any near by Bokoblins that come close to his store.
  • Trill has a very specific animation that is easy to miss. He can be seen turning on or off the lamp of the shop as day time changes.

-Iza. Destroying the yellow pot in Iza's place will make her angry. Doing it again will cause her to charge Link 10 rupees. It is possible to refuse payment, but she won't let Link ride the canoe until the debt is settle.

-Agitha. This NPC has various special details. First, it has a "one time only" dialogue interaction. She will compare Link to a different type of insect depending of what tunic he's wearing the first time they met. If Link leaves her place with a complete pair of insects of the same species, she' ll get mad and scold Link for hiding something. This is explained by her own claim that she can smell pheromones. Also, she's one of the few characters that have some sort of Majora's Mask level of schedule, as sometimes is possible to see her in Hyrule Field near one of the Castle Town entrance.

-Barns the Fireman. In the Bomb Shop, if Links takes out the Lantern, Barns will bang the counter, dropping a water bucket on Links head.

-The "Courageous" Hyrule Town Guard. There's a very concentrated effort in making the Royal Guard look like a bunch of incompetent tools, be it getting trounced in the Hyrule surrender cinematic or being presented as cowards in the sequence preceding the escort mission. Not to mention their behavior when they see Wolf Link.

-The Postman. Nintendo had some fun with this character, making him appear in the most unexpected places throughout Hyrule, always with a different remark for each place he pops in. He is always shown reading a piece of paper. The actual texture of the letter is readable even in the lower resolution of the original Wii/GC versions. Upon close inspection, it is noticeable that its just an inscription of the Hylian alphabet.


-Fairies. Different from other Zelda games, fairies don't get consumed when Link approaches them with full health. Due to this, is possible to move them around the environment using the Clawshot or the Gale Boomerang.

Letting Link idle (in either form) will cause a Fairy to pose itself on his head. Taking the sword out will cause yet another Fairy to sit in the swords edge.

-Goron Sumo match. The usual thing is to get caught off guard and initiate the "right of passage" sumo match without wearing the Iron Boots, which makes it impossible to win. This is so common that one could assume is the intended way for the game to proceed. But it is totally possible to equip the Iron Boots and defeat Gor Goron in the first match. Really handy knowledge for repeated playthroughs since it saves a little time.

-Some Anthropomorphic type enemy characters, such as Bokoblins or Bublins, run away from bombs when near them.

-Archers are programmed to get some space when fighting Link. So if he gets close they'll run away and shoot an arrow.

-The Bublin Riders. These NPCs typically ride a Bulbo in packs of two. One will be controlling the animal, and the other attacking either with a bow or mace. Taking out the driver will cause the animal to lose control, crashing with obstacles or hitting the ground. In some cases, they can even fly off a cliff. If the rider survives, he will stand up on the Bulbo again, trying to ram Link if he is alone.

-It is actually possible to fish Bomb Fish in Lake Bed Temple, or in some Grottos in Hyrule field. It won't be added to the fishing journal, as it's against the law to catch them, but it will be added to the water bomb count.

-In many places, it is possible to catch Skullfish. These ones also aren't added to the Journal.

ITEMS


-Sign Posts. Like most Zelda games since Ocarina, some sign posts can be sliced in different ways depending on the direction of the sword swing. But in Twilight Princess, Link can pick up the pieces and throw them around. The pieces also float in water.

Throughout Hyrule, there are sign posts textured with actual readable Hylian. Some of them are found in these locations:
In Kakariko, Barn's Bomb shop, the Hotel, and various entrance signs.
In Hyrule Castle Town: the meat, bread, hot spring water and the fancy store ones. Also the hospital, the circus tent and the cafe.
The Mail man Flag reads: "Postman."
The Pedestal at the temple of Time reads: "Master Sword." Then, in various places, there's a generic sign post that reads: "Sign Post of Hyrule." (Editor's note: How creative.)

-Coro's Nasty Soup. A drink of this lovely elixir will deplete Link's health by one heart. But drink this soup when the heart counter reaches one, and all the health will be restored. And it is free of charge.

Yeto's Soups. Yeto Soup evolves the more Link progresses in to the dungeon. From "Simple," to "Good," all the way to "Superb." Not only the healing effects and appearance changes; when looking at the cauldron itself, the number of ingredients and color changes. Another clever touch is that ingredients that go into the soups can be seen throughout the kitchen: garlic, potatoes, carrots and fish. Funny enough, Oocco is tucked away in one part of the Kitchen, makes one wonder if Yeto was thinking on trying something aviary in Yeta's diet.

-Lantern. In Arbiter Grounds, there are small insects that attach to Link and slow down his movement. The light from the Lantern keeps this plague at bay in a perfect concentric circle away from Link.

On the other hand, collectable bugs are attracted to the Lantern's Light. So if by any chance a bug is giving a hard time to grab just take out this item to make thigs more easy.

-Bottles. Pouring bottled water over a pumpkin plant will make another pumpkin sprout.

-Dungeon Maps. Every dungeon map has the name of the place written in actual Hylian.

-Overworld Map. The provinces and places of interest names are written in actual Hylian.


-Fishing Pole. When raised in the air Link's head and gaze will follow the hook position. The same applies to whatever thing he might catch with the rod as it swings around dangling from the line.

When taking the fishing pole out in a windy place, one can notice how the line and the lure react properly to the wind's direction and intensity.

WII REMOTE


-Most items and equipment have a distinctive sound coming from the Wii Remote speaker. Here are some interesting ones:

  • The cork of a bottle. You can actually differentiate between corking and uncorking them.
  • The "Cling" sounds when swinging the Lantern.
  • Midna's laugh, indicating that is possible to Wolf Jump.
  • Both unsheathing and sheathing the sword have distinctive sounds.
  • The swing of the shield bash, Jump Attack, Spin Attack and the normal sword swings have very distinctive "Woosh!" sounds from one another. 
  • The fishing rod's reel clicking sound.
  • The Bob fishing pole's line sound when casting it and the sounds of the lure when leaving the water.
  • The string of the bow or slingshot while pulling them. And another soubds for when they run out of ammunition.
  • The Clawshot has a variety of sounds. A sound for the extension and another for the contraction of the chain. A sound for the expulsion of the hook portion. And by pressing and holding the B button the sound of the Clawshot's hook arming itself."

What an attention to detail! Twilight Princess has recently been re-released in HD on the Wii U, so if you want to revisit the game or experience its highly detailed world for the first time, I would recommend the HD version!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

I will sing you a song, of Birthrights and Love

Spoilers for Birthright and Conquest!


It's been three weeks since Fates came out, and many people are just now finishing up their second path. I myself bought Birthright physically, despite favoring the European aesthetic of Nohr, simply because I had heard it is easier and a better way to introduce oneself to the game. It took me about one week to beat Birthright, whereas Conquest took me a little over a week. I played both games on Hard/Casual. My thoughts on both versions:

Birthright:


+The story is standard Fire Emblem fare, but it has the added flair of fighting against your foster family, which adds an element of drama to the narrative that other FEs don't have. Comically evil villains are nothing new to the series, but you quickly find out that not everyone in Nohr is a crazy, murderous, occultist jerk. It's really just Garon and his underlings. I ended up feeling bad for the people who chose to stay with Nohr, which basically amounted to the siblings and their retainers, many of whom were not at all bad people. It's a decent B grade plot with added zest to it from the familial aspect. Not great, but not bad, either.

+The challenges are a little less interactive and convenient than the world map from Awakening, but not by much. Grinding is still fun if you choose to utilize it, and Birthright gives you plenty of opportunity to grind both levels and supports. Birthright is all about freedom, and this design philosophy seeps into its gameplay. Pair up whoever you want with whoever you want. Go crazy breaking your units. Or don't; it's up to you. Definitive plus for this version of the game.

+From a gameplay perspective, the siblings are insane on Birthright side. Ryoma and Takumi's divine weapons are almost game breakingly good. Ryoma is quite possibly the best unit in any Fire Emblem game. Hinoka works well as a Falcon Knight or a reclasses Spear Fighter. Sakura is the only one who ends up trailing behind her siblings, and even behind other healers in Hoshido, but her family makes up for her shortcomings and then some.

+Asian aesthetic is refreshingly new for the series. I really ended up liking Samurais, Ninjas, and especially Kinshi Knights a lot. And Hoshido has an abundance of spear fighters!! Nephenee's legacy lives on!
Nephenee was the first playable spear fighter in a Fire Emblem game. She was also one of the best units in both games she appeared in. Since then, playable spear fighters have gone AWOL,  until...
They return in Fates! This time, there's a lot of them. Pictured above is Oboro, the first to join your party.
+Leo makes for a great not-so-villain. Xander and his strength are foreshadowed a lot, making him feel like a genuine threat. Loved the way Birthright treated your foster family. There was much more weight to confronting them than there was to confronting your birth family.

+++++++RANGED HEALING STAVES??? AWWWWW YISSSSS

-What's the deal with Corrin being able to turn into a dragon? Does Azura know something? What's up with Azura? The story is fairly self contained, but if you wanted answers to these questions, then you'll have to look elsewhere. The game does not touch on this subplot at all, leaving it as a breadcrumb asking you to please play the other paths. They could have at least dropped some hints.

-Takumi needs to chill out.

-Lots of hamfisted story deaths towards the end. Elise's death, and, to a lesser extent, Xander's, made a relative amount of sense, but the others felt forced. Elise's death showed how stubborn Xander is when it comes to loyalty, highlighting a positive character trait in a negative way. Very interesting to look back on that scene after playing Conquest, where he is a shining beacon of leadership.

-Kaze's Chapter 15 death is total BS. Better hope you have an A Rank!

Conquest:


+AMAZING cast of characters. Not that the Hoshidans are boring, but the Nohrian army is full of colorful, unique people. The supports on Conquest side add layers to the characters that go further than in most Fire Emblem games. For the most part, your army is still the good team, and the struggle with following King Garon and growing up in the impoverished and twisted Kingdom of Nohr lends itself to much more gripping stories for its characters to tell. This is especially apparent in the children characters.

Ignatius was my personal favorite child unit in either route, and one of the most useful from a gameplay perspective. By the end of my game, nobody could touch him.
+Siblings fall into the above category, as well. Their supports are great. Xander and Leo's supports are bound to be interesting no matter who it is they're speaking to. Camilla becomes a more layered character on this route.

+Map design is very creative. Conquest is sold as a classic Fire Emblem, but it really goes a step further than the classic games, adding in a sort of gimmick to every map. You will be forced to think harder while following King Garon. A good 70 or 80% of the maps have an objective completely unique to that map. The uniqueness doesn't end with the map design - you'll end up fighting units with much more specialized skills, such as magic counters, debuffing, and more. A very nice alternative take on the same gameplay mechanics.

+While it isn't necessarily a total 1:1 recreation of classic FE game design, old mechanics such as visiting houses and limited XP pools are back. Choose where you send your units wisely. Is that far away house worth it? There's only one way to find out... and if it isn't, decide whether the trek there was detrimental enough to be worth resetting.

-I defend Conquest's story whenever I can, because it's not nearly as ridiculous as people make it out to be, but it is a step down from Birthright's story. The confrontation with your birth siblings doesn't have the same emotional appeal that battling your foster family does, because Corrin has no history with them. Sometimes it's downright depressing to see what a bad decision Corrin made when returning to Nohr, no matter how justifiable it seemed at the time.

As to why It's not ridiculous; Corrin makes a choice based on his/her emotions and has to live it with it, despite realizing early on that it was wrong. In a last ditch effort to set things right, he and Azura come up with a contrived solution that feels more like grabbing at straws than anything else. Conquest is not a story about being the good guys. Conquest is a story of desperation, and the consequences of being unable to leave behind the kind family that raised you. It's not one made on morals, but one based on love and emotion. It's a unique take on the "dark side" story, as you and your siblings are still very much good people in a bad environment, and I like that they didn't go the good/evil route with the plot between the two games and instead went for something more nuanced.

I appreciate the different approach to telling a story, and I appreciate how it is more nuanced than simply choosing to be good or evil, but I do think it could have been told better. A for concept, C+ for execution. I do hope Intelligent Systems tries something similar again and learns how to improve.

-Siblings are a total reverse of Birthright side. Camilla starts out as a beast but becomes progressively less useful towards endgame, Leo has better stats but a worse divine weapon leading him to not be as broken as Takumi, and Xander is tankier than Ryoma from a purely defensive standpoint, but his weaker offense and inability to dodge leaves him lacking by comparison. They're still among the strongest characters in their respective route, but they don't shine as brightly as their Birthright counterparts do. Whether this is due to their design or the more challenging nature of Conquest, I don't know; regardless, they seem less useful overall. Although I will admit that Elise is much more useful than Sakura.

-The game is too hard. Hard/Casual will have enemies one shotting your team in the later chapters unless you're super careful. Limited funds and XP are not the only challenge - the maps have tougher objectives, and enemy units are stronger and have a greater arsenal of skills. I would strongly advise not to play hard, or even classic, unless you enjoy a very substantial challenge or are into min/maxing your team. This might be a plus for some, but I think they went a bit too far.

-Azura didn't have her black dress on during most of the game for some reason. She was advertised as such in most marketing material. It would have been a nice touch to differentiate her in either route.

What both games do well:


+Traversal from Hoshido -> Nohr and vice versa: I love how each game has you taking the reverse path. Some maps are shared, but even when they are, the objectives and circumstances are totally different. You get to see parts of Nohr from Birthright side that you don't from Conquest, and vice versa. The final series of maps in particular are very aesthetically pleasing on both routes. Castle Krakenburg is dark and oppressive, and Castle Shirasagi is gorgeous, especially its outdoor maps. A+ for treading the same terrain but giving a completely unique experience either way.

+Gameplay improvements from Awakening: No more same turn reinforcements. No more durability. Enemies can pair up. In my opinion, all changes made were for the better.

+Jakob throws shade as well as he throws shurikens. I love this guy. So glad he's shared between games.

+Corrin's battle animations are super cool. Both of his/her promoted forms also look very cool.

+++Music is insanely good.

What both games do poorly:


-DEEPREALMS. What is this nonsense? It's like they wanted the child system back from Awakening, couldn't figure out how to justify it through the plot, and came up with the laziest excuse ever to explain it. It doesn't feel natural at all. A ten year old would find it forced. A ten year old could come up with the concept of Deeprealms. It made sense in Awakening, with them coming from the future. Not so much here.

-Garon and his lackeys were comically evil, to the point where it was laughable how little reason was given for their behavior besides the fact that they were the bad guys.

-The plot's narrative lacks in comparison to its concept. The idea of choosing a side and fighting against the other is great. The story itself could use some work. Again, I hope IS tries this again and learns from their mistakes.

Bonus:

Sibling rankings

Each sibling plays off of a stereotype or trope, and conveniently for the narrative, has a same age counterpart in their opposing kingdom. Funny how that works out so well, isn't it? Regardless of each sibling coming from the same mold, each one ends up using that mold to create something unique; no Hoshidan sibling feels all that similar to their Nohrian counterpart outside of their most basic similarities, which I found to be a very impressive show of skill on the scriptwriter's part, regarding writing two sets of royal families into the story. Either way, let's take a look at how the game presents the siblings to you.

Stoic older brother:


Xander > Ryoma

Xander has more charisma to his character. He makes some really good speeches in his supports and in some story scenes about what it means to be a good leader and a good person. Ryoma is pretty boring by comparison. He lacks the charm that Xander has. Although, to be fair, Xander becomes much more brazen and unlikeable on Birthright side than Ryoma does on Conquest side. Still, Xander and his struggle with growing up as the future leader of a kingdom in turmoil lends itself to much more captivating narratives than Ryoma's strict bushido warrior personality, which seems to permeate everything that he says and does.

Doting older sister:

Hinoka > Camilla


Camilla is a mentally unstable, creepy mess of a human being. Her sadistic tendencies and sexual overtones added to almost everything that she says are all red flags for someone with a lot of problems, not to mention her unhealthily clingy behavior towards Corrin. Hinoka is a much more level human being, and has the added virtue of having fought her way to greatness just for you. She became the badass that she is to get you back, and treats you well without being a borderline incestual pedophile about it.

Snooty younger brother:

Takumi = Leo


I can't choose between these two. Easily the most nuanced siblings in both paths, both as allies and as enemies. They both have insecurity issues that manifest in different ways, and both of them probably have the most interesting plot related moments when made into your enemy. Takumi has lower lows than Leo, but his insecurity feels like it goes deeper than Leo's does, with his more brazen personality acting as a front to make up for it. Leo plays himself very straightly compared to Takumi. Both excellent takes on the same archetype. Best siblings.

Cute younger sister:

Sakura > Elise


Elise can be a bit bratty at times. Sakura, on the other hand, is truly the sweetest girl. Elise has more of a presence whenever she's on screen, but Sakura has more depth to her character. She struggles with not being as courageous and bold as her siblings, feels guilty for not having a history with Corrin, and is constantly trying to better herself and be nice to everyone that she meets. Elise is pretty one note by comparison. I like them both, though - it's hard to dislike either of them.

Overall, I slightly, slightly prefer Birthright to Conquest, but I ended up loving them both. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses. Tomorrow, Revelations is released in the west for those of us who weren't lucky enough to nab the special edition of the game, so I greatly look forward to seeing how it compares to the two main routes!

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Metal Gear Solid: The Great Paradigm Shift

Tonight's post comes from user DevilFox. The Metal Gear Solid series is one of the most beloved, well known, and successful series in the video game world, lauded for its heavy anti-nuclear themes, real world settings, political commentary, memorable characters, and long, intricate story segments that draw much inspiration from Hollywood. The first three games are widely considered to be masterpieces of game design and game storytelling, especially considering the era in which they were released. The next three mainline games are still critically acclaimed and praised by fans, but it's hard to deny that the tone and presentation of the games changed in between Snake Eater and Guns of the Patriots. Devilfox gives a brief analysis as to why this might be, and what felt "off" about the later games in the series.

Warning: Spoilers for all games follow!

Kojima, Fukushima, Murata and whatever happened to MGS after Snake Eater


"I think it's time to have a topic about this argument since it pops up "once in a while" (read: as in every MGS topic). The thing is, even the most hardcore fans cannot deny that something changed in MGS after Snake Eater (or Portable Ops): themes, storytelling, even the style of the cinematics and the representation of women, the fiction stuff and so on. All these changes, somehow, match with Fukushima’s departure from Kojima Productions, which brings me here asking you: what happened? Was Fukushima the key for the classic MGS, or did Kojima just chang style all of a sudden? Let's share what we know, and our opinion on the matter.

First, quick background:

Hideo Kojima: you know him. MGS creator, credited as Game Designer, Screenwriter, Director and Producer (plus more roles…) for almost all the games. Basically the face you picture when someone mentions MGS.

Tomokazu Fukushima: he’s a writer until the early years of MGS4 (see the first trailer) and then he left in 2006. You can see him credited as Writer, Setting Design Assistant, Scripter (codec), Camera Setting, etc.

Shuyo Murata is the other important writer. He technically started on the team with MGS2, but it looks like MGS4 is the real starting point for him as MGS writer.

Personally, I noticed that after MGS Portable Ops...

1) THE THEME OF ANTI AMERICANISM TOOK A BACK SEAT

This is probably one of the most evident things that happened, since it basically changed what the Patriots were meant to be, a very core element of MGS lore. I also think that the original meaning was something that Fukushima wanted more than Kojima, simply because... well, because Kojima changed it. This article, The Decline of Anti-Americanism in Metal Gear, perfectly explains my opinion on the matter. In particular, this piece (from MGS2 Grand Game Plan, page 37):
The evil in MGS2 is the American government. However, this does not refer to Americans in general, nor to any particular persons, but to the festering discharge that has built-up within the democratic state of America over the years. The intention is not to defame any race, state or ethnicity, but rather to look at the ‘monster’ that the country’s political structure has created. It is an intangible entity yet at the same time a massive menace to the world.
and Fukushima's profile in MGS2 make me believe there was a strong vision for something else than what, later, has become. (extra: Kojima had more style with his profile, though)

2) THE SAGA EMBRACED (THE WORST OF) HOLLYWOOD

Yep: MGS4... but it's not alone. While I understand, and even agree to certain extent, that MGS4 wasn't developed under the most positive light, I just can't ignore what I've seen. I can't even pretend this bad attitude was over after MGS4 because it's not true. I'm talking about...

  • Weird (to say the least) cinematics and... logic?

Since I enjoy video editing sometimes, this one pisses me off quite a bit. Cinematics became dumber and dumber with each game, but if I think that up to MGS3 they were somehow stylish (Eva's stunts on the bike excluded), while they were not simple as I would like them to be, I can't say the same for the sequels. I mean, they were still believable.




Then, with MGS4 they reached a drastic point: even ignoring the "comedy" clips (see: Meryl and Akiba), there are a lot of weird choices. We also started to see pointless slow motions (MGSV is full of them, below a couple of examples), lens flares everywhere, and some truly ugly animations (why the Frogs move and scream like that)? To me, it seems like "making sense" wasn't a priority anymore. MGSV is the apotheosis of this: See for example Skull Face, who could've killed Venom like 3 times and avoid all the troubles. Sad, because all the cinematics are great looking.




I'm not considering The Twin Snakes, because we all know that game doesn't exist.

  • Hiring of actors and models.
Not that important, but was it necessary? It started with MGS4, I think. The B&B Unit is based on real life models (Scarlett Chorvat, Mieko Rye, Lyndall Javis and Yumi Kikuchi). Then, of course, there is Kiefer Sutherland as Venom, and Stefanie Joosten as Quiet. I don't think they achieved a great result with any of them, and I wonder if that money could've been spent better.

3) WOMEN'S DEPICTION GOT WORSE

This has been discussed extensively on GAF recently, starting from here. We moved from good or decent female characters, meaning they were either strong, smart or both, independent, well written with a good background and something to add to the plot, to some kind of talking puppets... sometimes, not even talking.

I put in the first group characters such as The Boss, Naomi (MGS1), Olga, Meryl, Mei Ling (MGS1), Emma, Eva, Sniper Wolf and Para Medic.

The second group includes

  • Naomi (MGS4) and her pointless cleavage.
  • Mei Ling (MGS4) as above, this time it's about her butt. The briefing before Haven's attack is just embarassing.
  • B&B Unit. They couldn't be less interesting than they are.
  • Paz and C├Ęcile. All I remember is them dressed with a bikini. The're so weakly characterized that if it wasn't for the final twist, we could take them out of the game and lose nothing.
  • Female Skulls, perfectly dressed for battle (with a bikini).
  • Quiet. Or should I say, her body.

Basically, we haven't have a good or interesting new female character since Portable Ops.

4) YEAH! SCIENCE BITCH! AKA "We need to explain this!"

After MGS3, someone believed it was absolutely necessary to explain everything they had introduced as fictional stuff, which was a key part of a good MGS, with the good old science. So it began: nanomachines, AI, the Wolbachia bacteria. No more Vampires or photosynthetic old men, no more fiction, everything must be explained, possibly even retroactively and if we can't, well, who cares!

Guys, I hate this. It killed a good part of the charm MGS had. I like to believe Fortune was able to deviate those missiles without that chip simply because she strongly believed she could. I liked to believe the Cobra Unit wasn't some kind of freaks born out of a bottle, but the incarnation of the emotions a Naked Snake had to defeat in order to become the legendary, feared Big Boss we knew.
And it's not about science alone. The "we need to explain this" attitude involved characters too, and it ruined them all! Big Boss, Liquid, Mantis, Kaz... I can only save Campbell.

The way Big Boss became a pawn in particular disappoints me. I loved him until Portable Ops included, when he realized his purpose. Starting with Peace Walker, though, Kaz takes the lead even if it's behind the scenes: literally everything is his idea, and he's the one who tells Big Boss what to do all the time. This is not how I picture a legendary leader.

5) SOMEONE STOP CARING ABOUT LORE AND CONSISTENCY

There's a general lost of interest towards some details, such as technology. It's evident that MGS Peace Walker and MGSV both feature some awesome tech that not only isn't real, which is ok, but it's also more advanced than the tech we find in the MG positioned later in the timeline. It's not a big deal for some, but I truly appreciated the effort with MGS3 and MGS Portable Ops to adapt MGS formula to a different era with older technology.

Then we have some retcons, that took a more serious weight with MGS4. Some are not that important, but some others (Big Boss saving Frank and Naomi, Big Boss and Zero motifs..) definitely are. I think a writer should've more respect for such things.

6) IDEAS THAT DIDN'T WORK ANYMORE

Kojima has always been a master of not delivering. Even MGS3 should've been different, way more deep, but they achieved a masterpiece nonetheless. With MGS4 he did it again: "no place to hide", "different allies", "you can decide to kill or not to kill". Guess what, none of that worked or mattered.

I believe that in order to achieve an emotional impact, you need good writing as support. Off the top of my head I can think of two similar situations that worked before Portable Ops, and didn't work later:

  • Raiden and Venom

The "you think you're playing as someone else" trick didn't work with Venom for a number of reasons, with the most important being probably the emptiness of this character that made impossible for me to care about him, let alone link to him. In addition, MGS2 was smart enough to actually show Solid Snake in the game, so you could see him from the outside, from the eyes of Raiden, and appreciate the hero as the others in that world did.


Venom is nothing and no one. I mean, the idea of him being an avatar for the player is nice, but that's it, an idea. Take him out of MGS universe and nothing changes, he's there for the sake of the final twist. Maybe with better pace, better performance and more real Big Boss somewhere, it could've worked... shame.

  • Meaningful kills: The Boss and Diamond Dogs

How do you achieve a meaningful kill? If you want the player to feel something when he presses a button, you better work on your writing to make him care, but also on lighting, scenario etc. to make the moment unique. It's definitely not easy, but with The Boss, they did their best. I'm sure we all agree on this.

I didn't feel a thing during the "Shining Lights, Even in Death" mission for the same reason above: there was no proper build up. Who are these guys if not resources for my Mother Base? Did I ever talk to them? Are they people, or are they faceless puppets? If I'm supposed to be Venom, then I'm supposed to feel like him... but I didn't. The cinematics were nothing short of amazing, really, kudos for that, but again, the idea didn't work. It wasn't well thought out, because that single shot I took on The Boss had more impact than the two magazines emptied on my soldiers.

So, final thoughts. I believe Kojima really grew tired of a lot of stuff. He desperately wanted to try something else, but he was never allowed to, nor did he have the courage to leave for whatever reason, like other professionals of his era did. Consequently, he started to care less and less, thanks to the press that, quite honestly, praises everything he does regardless of its quality. I mean, look at MGSV, and Quiet in particular.

I also believe Fukushima was a great help for him, and yes, the key for a good MGS, as I personally learned to like it. I picture him as the guy that was able to make order and sense of Kojima's crazy mind, the one that made ideas actually work, a role that Murata apparently has never been able to cover, maybe even due to Kojima's increasing decisional power over the years (which could be the reason Fukushima left, although we'll never know).

Finally, I must confess that with MGSV being such a huge disappointment, I've questioned Kojima's talent as a developer. He can be great, especially as a game designer, but I think he should be more modest, honest (all the lies before MGSV, why?) and stop trying to prove himself as the master auteur of the gaming world because there are devs out there that are doing things better and more efficiently. I mean, if even Cage realized he needs more writers in the team, it can't be too hard for Kojima to take a couple of steps back, right?"

I don't necessarily agree with everything DevilFox has to say, such as questioning Kojima's talent and the concept of the Venom twist, but he makes a lot of valid points. The games after MGS3 lack a sense of cohesion and restraint that the first three do, and one can't help but wonder if this is due to a change in the team members, the internal workings of Konami as a company, or both. Perhaps we'll never know, as Kojima has now moved on from Konami in a not-official-but-obvious-that-he-was-forced-out manner and begun work on a new game with his own studio.


Maybe the truth will come to light years from now, but until then, we can only speculate.

Side note: It may be a divisive opinion, but I love when series try to explain things scientifically. Especially a series like MGS, which feels relatively rooted in the real world. But, I digress.