Scrolls, both new and Elder

A month out from Persona 5 and the funk persists, to the point where it’s unbelievable. I keep bouncing from game to game in search of something that’ll keep my attention for more than a day, and so far I’m coming up empty.

Rather than make any significant progress in parts of my backlog, I’ve just been resorting to comfort games that I’ve played through lots and make for good time sinks. Strategy games like Civilization VI and Master of Orion 2016 help me make a day disappear, and there’s been a frankly absurd amount of Heroes of the Storm played since the 2.0 update. But today I’m going to focus on one in particular that I’ve been returning to: Morrowind.

It’s said that a person’s first Elder Scrolls game is the one that they’ll consider their favourite, mostly because the concept and freedom their worlds offer is at this point completely new to a player. Later games may refine and streamline the process and generally be more “playable”, but their worlds and concepts aren’t original by that point, so it becomes a lot harder to completely lose yourself in it. Generally, those who played Morrowind first (like me) will still say that Morrowind is better to this day, even if most will grudgingly agree that it hasn’t aged gracefully.

Nonetheless, every attempt I’ve made at playing another Elder Scrolls game will at some point see me finally caving and reinstalling Morrowind. It’s been quite a while since that happened; the most recent time I played Skyrim, I went mildly insane on the modding front and found plenty of interesting content and updated mechanics to keep my attention. This time, the lures back to Vvardenfell were twofold: my playthrough of the Skyrim mod Enderal, and the impending release of Elder Scrolls Online’s Morrowind expansion.

In the interest of covering all these games equally, I’ll speak about those two before I go back into recounting my Morrowind adventures. Continue reading “Scrolls, both new and Elder”

Transistor, checking in

I’m typing this from a brand new PC that I only just properly got plugged in and running no more than half an hour ago, biding my time while the slew of standard programs is downloading and installing. Mostly just a small status update rather than any of my usual video game related ramblings.

First off: new PC. It’s been five years since I’ve had a fresh rig, though naturally the computer that I just stashed in the corner a few minutes ago has had numerous upgrades and replacements in those years. Still, the motherboard was effectively fried and I was getting constant black screens as the display drivers died on a regular basis, and multiple attempts to fix it or isolate other parts showed that it was unlikely to be anything else. I could probably have repaired or rebuilt it for cheaper than what I got this new machine for, but after dealing with this problem for literal months, I just wanted peace of mind and for this tech support nightmare to end.

So, the machine that I named Bastion is no more. Moment of silence.

Now, this isn’t an absolutely massive upgrade due to all my tweaks over the years, but this new machine should definitely keep me from having to push or upgrade in order to get newer games running comfortably. I’m probably going to shame the 60 FPS enforcing PC Master Race, but it should be pretty clear that I play games for gameplay and story more than graphics and can usually deal with a few hiccups. Regardless, the specs should get me decently far.

Naturally, I shall name this machine Transistor, since it’s the successor to Bastion even if the systems are slightly different. I’d consider calling it Pyre, but any name that’s fire related for a PC is just asking for trouble.

So with the PC back, I’ll be reinstalling FF14 and then picking and choosing my games as I go from there. Torment will be first up on the list since I didn’t get all that far in it and really need to put some more time and devotion into it. Cosmic Star Heroine just dropped a couple of days ago after a lengthy development cycle, and I’m quite keen to sink my teeth into that. However, I’m not about to start a new JRPG until the big one is finished: Persona 5, which has been both my obsession and my sanity-preserver during this time of technical troubles.

Everything I said about Persona 5 in the previous post still holds true, and I’m now 90 hours in and pushing the final stages of the game at long last. After such a long marathon journey over a comparatively short timeframe, I am now looking forward to the ending and seeing how it all wraps up nicely (if it does), but I will definitely be sad to see it gone. It’s without a doubt the best Persona game to date, and I still think we’ll be talking about in years from now in the same way we do some of the JRPG greats.

That’s assuming the ending doesn’t let me down horribly… but at present that doesn’t seem quite likely. Currently I’m intending to a full and formal review of the game (probably for GameSkinny), and then do a more in-depth analysis about a few points in the narrative. I also want to talk about the soundtrack and compare it with that of NieR: Automata, plus I want to do a big pros and cons comparison of P5 vs. the Trails of Cold Steel games, which are my other favourite and recent JRPG series. That last one in particular I could talk a great deal about, so please look forward to it I guess.

Time to set up a few downloads over night and crash.

We all wear a mask, metaphorically speaking

Persona 5 is well on track to being the greatest, most genre-defining JRPG ever made.

How’s that for a sensational opening? Still, subjective though it may be, it’s quite close to how I feel on the matter. In the four days I’ve had access to it, the first three of those saw me put in twelve hours of gameplay per day. I didn’t touch any other games during those initial three days save for forcing myself to play a few rounds of Heroes just for variety and to avoid burnout. The burnout wasn’t inflicted by anything about the game, however — I was literally getting physically uncomfortable from being in front of the PS4 for so long, no matter how I arranged myself.

Today, the fourth day, I didn’t play nearly as much of the game by design… instead, I wrote guides on it (and shall shamelessly plug them over on GameSkinny, be sure to check that for more of my work). I also dreamed about it, and woke up with the battle theme stuck in my head. During my other gameplay time, I was talking to people about the game and shooting messages back and forth helping friends who are behind me with it. Now that I’ve finished playing it for the night, I’m here writing about it. So yes, to say I’ve been enjoying it and that it has captivated me are gross understatements.

I went in to Persona 5 with a lot of very high expectations. I’ve liked the Shin Megami Tensei series for as long as I’ve known about it, always enjoying the more strategic and challenging battles on offer over other JRPG series. I loved that they were willing to go to more mature concepts and plots that dabbled in all sorts of mythologies beyond the usual Greek/Roman or Norse ones seen most video games. Persona 4 was one of my favourite games ever, and I’ve followed the series back through its shaky past and into the sea of spinoffs P4 generated.

I was hyped as hell about the announcement for 5 and watched the trailers continue to please me, though never let myself dive too deep into speculation or details because I wanted to experience it for myself. The game came out in Japanese six months ago, and my Japanese friends who played it spoke highly of it. I even had the chance to play the Japanese version for a time, and was absolutely blown away by the sheer stylish look and feel of the game. I waited patiently through delays and worries about translation issues, biding my time.

I don’t know if I’ve had such high expectations for a game before, but it has thoroughly destroyed them and gone beyond them.

At its core, this is still a modern post-P3 Persona game. It still starts you in April and progresses along a calendar system, juggling aspects of time management dating sims for social activities that improve your skills and relationships, then using those to strengthen your Personas for use in a number of otherworldly dungeons. The battle system is your standard turn-based JRPG with the elemental affinity system that the SMT series is known for, which rewards you for playing smartly and utilising even the buffs and status afflictions that many series keep only for tradition and filler. If you’ve played P3 and P4, you won’t find that much that’s brand new here.

What Persona 5 has, then, is polish. Absolutely every facet of this game has been polished until it gleams. Every feature and gameplay element is well thought out and handled well. The design of the locations is fantastically detailed. The soundtrack is phenomenal and diverse, with solid voice acting to back it up (despite some questionable pronunciation of Japanese names at times). More than anything is the constant and consistent visual style, which incorporates everything that the developers have learned from previous games — including Catherine, interestingly — and presents a world that is utterly gorgeous and completely unmistakable. The real world elements blend with the supernatural ones to create a visual spectacle that is unlike anything I’ve seen before.

The most impressive thing for me is the narrative, though, as if often the case with my gaming experiences. Persona 5 is especially striking because everything and everyone involved in the game world is unified under a central theme: Rebellion. Now this isn’t new to the franchise, as P3 had Death and P4 had Truth as the central unifying theme, but neither of them took it to this level.

At the heart of P5’s narrative is this central motif that branches into literally everything around it. You are the Phantom Thieves, a group of outcasts and societal rejects (often for reasons that are either unfair or beyond your control) that have discovered the power of Personas and are now using it to rebel against a corrupt and broken system. The Thieves are the quintessential Robin Hoods, striving to bring justice to a system that has failed its people. They strike against the targets that are abusing their power and causing other people to suffer, whether it be due to abuse, manipulation, theft, and blackmail; even rape and suicide are themes brought into the game quite quickly, and Persona 5 has absolutely no qualms about confronting such mature themes with an equally mature outlook.

Literally every notable character in this game, whether part of the Thieves, supporting them, or opposing them ties into this central theme incredibly strongly. The Phantom Thieves are promoting their own sense of justice against modern society, and even while they target the worst, most vile and corrupt creatures, they also end up discussing (and serve as discussion points of) serious conversations about morality and society.

But there’s more. What really makes the Phantom Thieves relatable is, again, the fact that they are outcasts and rejects. Every member has a reason for not being liked or not fitting in with their surroundings, and it’s not just because they’re delinquents or criminals — some are foreign, some are introverted, some feel like they lack purpose within society’s structures, or some have an almost savant-like behaviour that makes it hard to fit in. Beyond that, the Phantom Thieves have Confidants which serve as the Social Links of previous Persona titles, but all of them tie back into this central theme as well. All of them are trying to do the right thing in a society that doesn’t value them, and even as they strive for social reform they find opposition from those who abuse the system for their own gain in twisted manners.

It’s a topic that can very quickly bleed into edgy teenage ideals of “fuck the system” for the sake of a perceived sense of anarchy, yet Persona 5 has thus far managed to steer away from this… which is in itself an incredible accomplishment, because the Thieves are teenagers. But they’re all believable, fully-fleshed out characters and their struggles and situations are fantastic and compelling to watch. And when you realise that it all just keeps threading back into that central theme, it really becomes clear how much of a masterfully written tapestry you’re witnessing.

There are so many ways this could fall into traps and tropes, but it somehow skirts them all. It presents questions about society and humanity, and then rather than bluntly answer them, it chooses to explore both sides and often sees characters on either side discussing them without a real “right” answer. It’s really fascinating to watch people clash with the Thieves, and not even bad guys — some are honestly good people both within and without society that nonetheless question the manner in which they work, discussing concepts such as law and justice and whether or not they should be observed.

But beyond all these grandiose themes and complicated webs… it’s a very human story. You really do end up feeling for the main cast, because they’re not bad people at all, they just for whatever reason don’t fit in. Anybody who has ever been bullied or feels like they’ve been ostracised or discriminated against will probably find something to relate to in the cast. But at its core, these people are just teenagers trying to make their way in a very strange, confusing, and difficult world. It touches on so many struggles we all face, especially in the arguably complicated and increasingly hard times we live in nowadays. And all throughout, it presents it in a very respectful and well thought out manner.

And if you don’t find all that as compelling as I do, well, there’s no questioning how well done all the game mechanics and gameplay systems are. I haven’t even spoken about how the previously pseudo-random dungeons of the Persona series are now replaced by massive and vivid set piece Palaces that the Thieves literally infiltrate and explore in the hopes of stealing the “treasure” within. I’ve even completely glossed over the motif of masks from this post title that the Personas have taken on that also serves as a consistent narrative device. That, I think, will have to wait for a proper write-up later.

To think that I’m still perhaps only halfway through this game… it’s utterly mind blowing. Perhaps now the sensational statement I opened with sounds far more reasonable. But all throughout, I’ve been quietly weighing the merits of Persona 5 against its predecessors, then more classic genre-defining JRPGs like Chrono Trigger or certain Final Fantasy titles, then against my personal favourite stand out JRPGs such as Trails of Cold Steel or Golden Sun. Yet even the most treasured of those that Persona 5 has lovingly built itself upon is struggling to compare.

I’ll close this by sharing a final epiphany I had yesterday. I don’t want to give true judgement on Persona 5 just yet because I keep telling myself “wait and see if it maintains this level of quality and narrative to the very end”. Amazing things and fantastic events occur in the game and I still keep thinking those same things. And then, when saying that same thing, I abruptly felt sad and depressed at the very consideration not that the ending might not live up to it… but that there must be an ending at all.

I don’t want Persona 5 to end. As much as I want to see closure and the resolution of the many plot threads I’m gradually following, I dread the feeling that this sublime experience will one day reach a conclusion. No matter how good or bad it might actually be, the fact that there will be an ending is honestly saddening.

If that’s how I feel about the game, well… seems safe to say that Persona 5 just might be the greatest, most genre-defining JRPG I’ve ever played then, huh?

I’ll leave you with a piece of the diverse soundtrack, which serves as a reminder of how much I treasure Shoji Meguro’s work as a composer.

Over the Horizon

Contrary to the tone of the post title, I’m actually only over Horizon: Zero Dawn because it’s finished. It was more than strong and compelling enough to drag me away from Torment and ultimately kept me there throughout, being the only game I’ve really worked on for the past two weeks.

I finally completed the game a few hours ago, with just under 70 hours of playtime logged. All major sidequests and plots are completed, all collectibles save world datapoints found, and the only two things I can think of that need doing are retrieving one last Power Cell to get the ultimate armour (I missed it first time through the plot area) and tightening up some of the Hunting Ground times for all the rewards. There’s also knocking over a few target dummies for an achievement. I might go back and do all that in an afternoon, but for now it’s done.

It’s a really good game and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s been well received by most establishments and is quite deserving of those, I feel… even if it’s being a little overshadowed by the insanely high praise that the new Zelda is receiving. From what little I’ve experienced of Zelda, I can say that it’s a great game, but I can’t say yet if it’s deserving of quite all that.

I’ll get to it soon, but having just thrown myself into a huge open world action adventure game regardless of tone and style differences, I need something to break it up so I don’t burn out. As such, I’ll probably divvy up my time between resuming Torment and playing NieR: Automata now that that’s out. There’ll still be a chunk of time dedicated to FF14, I’m sure, though I did finally reach 60 so that grind is slowing somewhat.

Anyway, Horizon. I liked the combat with the machines, having to learn all their parts and weak points to better plan my attack (or else at least strip their armour in order to hit them hard). I liked that the vast majority of options were available to me from the outset, and the skill tree didn’t unlock whole new playstyles so much as slightly improved or gave me alternative approaches in styles of play that I enjoyed. Towards the end, this might have made combat feel a touch same-y, but generally that’s hard to avoid in as long a playtime as I gave it.

The world is absolutely gorgeous, with some great designs and features as well as standout landmarks to keep me interested in exploring and being a part of it. Coupled with the machine designs, and it was a very easy game to get engaged with… and then the plot and characters kept me engaged. It was a very interesting mystery to unravel, digging into the ruins and memories of what is effectively near future for me, but a thousand years in the past for the main characters. They don’t understand the technology and terms that are being presented fully, but I do, so it’s an interesting layer of subtext there for the first half of it. In the second half, the characters have grown to learn enough to be on board with it, but it’s still no less compelling to find out the truth of what happened.

The characters were also very well acted, with the most serious but well-delivered voice work I’ve heard Ashly Burch give. She’s done a bunch of roles, with some quite hit or miss, but this is probably the most subdued and serious character performance she’s given with Aloy, and I think it suited quite well.

Aloy was a very interesting character – curious, quick-witted and intelligent in a world that absolutely doesn’t recognise those traits anymore, yet still possessed of the strength and willpower to stand up in it. There’ll be plenty of character discussions regarding Aloy as a Strong Female Lead Character by a host of publications eventually, I’m sure, so I’ll let them handle it. I’ll just say that I liked her and most of the supporting cast.

What really struck me about the plot and characters was the memories of the past, however – the titular Zero Dawn project that is crucial to the story. I won’t spoil things, but the post-apocalyptic nature of the current world is delved into quite heavily, bringing up the records and memories of the time right before and leading up to the apocalypse. And what an apocalypse – we’re talking complete biosphere destruction and mass extinction of all life on Earth, in remarkable detail and with lots of feeling behind it. It was those little details that made it that much more compelling and drove me to finish and find out what I could of it.

Any complaints I have with the game are mostly minor nitpicks regarding things like animation glitches or poor lip syncing.There’s occasionally repetitive combat towards the late game once you’ve figured out your style of dealing with everything, mostly because you have the means to eschew things like traps and careful setup in favour of rapid firing elemental arrows and exploiting weak points while tearing off all visible components. Still, you have to work to get to that point, and it’s still satisfying to pick apart machines.

Plot wise, the ending was kind of lackluster and not entirely clear on all details. The lead up to the end was still quite enjoyable, however, and prepping for the final battle actually saw you meeting up with just about every character you’d met even in side quests to have them assist you, which was nice. There was also a sequel hook, however, which I’m actively curious to see realised. If this world is to be revisited, I will quite likely be there.

Give Horizon a shot if you have the means, I highly recommend it. Yes, even if you’ve been playing Zelda. It’s good enough and different enough to be worth it.

Now it’s time for me to go hunt entirely different robots… and this time I’m playing the robot! What a twist! NieR: Automata feedback once I get around to it.

All Across the Hydaelyn

Previously I spoke about my thoughts and feelings on WoW, and how they had ultimately lead me to a sense of detachment to the game, whereupon I unsubscribed. Many of the thoughts of disenfranchisement with Warcraft and the world of Azeroth as a whole that I wrote two posts ago are relevant to today’s discussion.

You see, as my feelings for WoW waned, it was FF14 that they started drifting towards.

Now, I didn’t maintain both MMO subscriptions side by side – not because of money, but largely because of time and disinterest. I picked up FF14 on a whim a couple of years ago during one of the periods where WoW was suffering a content drought, and I was remaining on it only to roleplay with friends. Since I wanted something else to fill that void, I went to FF14, and I was quickly swept up in the world that it offered.

I guess my thoughts started to mirror that previous time. It was almost on a whim that I started feeling the urge to load up a month of game time into FF14 and take a spin through it, playing through the patches I missed. I wanted to remake my favourite character from WoW into FF14 so that they’d have a chance to “live on”, so to speak. At first I fought the urge, but after chatting with a close friend about it, we decided to jump back in and check out the game together.

That was a little over a month ago, and she has since absolutely eclipsed my progress and raced ahead at a prodigious rate, eager to devour up every bit of story and worldbuilding the game as offered. And it was that realisation of what we’d been missing during our time in WoW – that sense of world, characters, and connection to the plot and setting that we were finding in FF14 – to finally make the plunge and unsubscribe from WoW without a second thought.

Since then, we’ve been exploring the world of Eorzea, plumbing its locales, and meeting its denizens with a fascination that was quite unexpected. I didn’t even return to the max level character I played on the first time I signed up to FF14; I instead started a new character from scratch and have been proceeding through the entirety of the plot again. Many friends who play the game thought I was mad for doing such a thing, considering the older content unenjoyable and a slog, but I’ve absolutely felt no such thing and have largely enjoyed the experience.

So let’s talk about the gameplay first, then. For this playthrough, I decided I would play an Au Ra lancer/dragoon – not the character I salvaged from WoW, mind you, who is around but not really my focus. This is an entirely new one that I fell in love with.

Generally the gameplay is pretty fun in FF14. There’s sometimes a shortage of quests, but the presence of a main story quest to guide your path and give much more impetus and attachment to your progress and the world helps immensely. If you need to pad that out, there’s a whole slew of activities, such as the Fate world events, the dungeons and trials, the repeatable leve quests, the Palace of the Dead… and even if any of that seems sparse, it continues to open up and give even more options upon hitting Level 50 and reaching all the patch content.

That said, it’s impossible to talk about the game without bringing up the fact that the global cooldown really is quite slow. The average MMORPG will have a base GCD of 1.5 seconds, and usually has classes or stats that can speed that up and make it much faster. By contrast, FF14 has 2.5 seconds. While most classes have an array of abilities that are used off the GCD and are woven into a rotation, it can definitely feel sluggish.

It’s by no means simple for this delay in actions, however. The rotation and spell management of FF14 is utterly absurd (in a good way) with how complex and intricate it can be to play at times. You could combine all the key active abilities of both my active Warrior specs from WoW and assign them to hotkeys, and they’d probably only just rival the BASIC ROTATION I have as a Dragoon… and I’m still not at the level cap yet.

Add in to that the many mechanics and targeting circles of doom that you’ll inevitably run into during dungeons and advanced content, and it can often feel like you’re doing an intricate dance from safe floor space to safe floor space all while spinning plates to maintain a relatively optimal damage rotation (or else survive/ensure survival for tanks and healers). The patterns of bosses can be a little more rigid than they are in WoW at times, but it’s definitely not a pushover of a system to bend to your will.

With all that said, it’s definitely my love of the world and the characters that have drawn me back and held me to FF14. If anything, it’s reminding me that WoW has been missing the character factor for multiple expansions now, save for a couple of exceptions. Too much has become about the player characters being more and more badass, more accomplished in the story, and beating increasingly unrealistic levels of foes in WoW. It’s gotten stale, honestly, and it only gets worse when the characters I used to love are basically window dressing on the story of the player character, lacking any real semblance of depth.

Again, there are exceptions. I felt sad when Varian died in Legion, for example, because I’d grown to respect him over the years. However, that’s also tempered by the fact that I hated him and considered him an awful character upon his first introduction, and it took many years to get to that point. He’s one of the better examples, however.

Most of the other named characters have been presented or written so poorly that I’ve come to hate them – Malfurion and Tyrande spring to mind, as does the path Illidan is treading in Legion. Characters that I do like are either extremely minor and often forgotten, or else are shoved aside because the writers decide to focus on something else. Remember Wrathion? I do, but it seems Blizzard doesn’t.

It’s handled slightly differently in FF14. See, it places the player character in the main spot of the story as the fabled Warrior of Light, certainly. But it doesn’t do so at the expense of the rest of the cast. They all have their skills, strengths, and abilities that you don’t, and will often appear to aid you when you need it. They have defined personalities that grow and expand as the story progresses.

And the story does progress. Things happen, characters are hurt or killed, and the world must adapt and carry on. Regardless of what you save the world from as the Warrior of Light, you can’t save everyone in it from everything all the time, and FF14 isn’t afraid to remind you of that. But if you’re willing to let yourself experience the narrative, it really is quite an enjoyable undertaking.

My friend and I have had a lot of fun just swapping tales and recounting our adventures to each other, adapting them to our characters both new and old. We’ve got our favourites among the NPCs and joke about them all. We’ve found ways to thread our own narrative through the existing one to expand on it and gives our characters purpose that isn’t just “fabled hero”, just for our own amusement.

But more than that, all this effort has helped us feel connected to the world of Hydaelyn and the realm of Eorzea more than I expected to from my whim of returning. Just a month ago I was bored of WoW and contemplating being done with MMORPGs for a good long stretch. Now, I’m focusing much of my gaming time into FF14 and following information about the upcoming Stormblood expansion with renewed vigor that I really didn’t expect.

It’s that attachment to a world and its characters that, as much if not more so than gameplay, has drawn me to video games. It was what kept me playing WoW long after the game stopped interesting me, this feeling of investment and attachment to my characters.

That investment need not just be repeatedly being told of how I am the hero, I am the conqueror, I am the general of the garrison, I am the strongest living warrior on Azeroth and eschewing all likeable character traits in the supporting cast because of this. I think that’s something the WoW writers have forgotten after Mists of Pandaria, but it’s been an increasing issue even throughout and before that.

Admittedly, maybe some of it is multiple years spent within Azeroth. But throughout that time, I spent so long investing myself in aspects of the lore and story while chasing up all the little details, only to end up feeling horribly disappointed and frustrated. There’s none of that disappointment in FF14 so far – simply delight, and a keen interest in seeing more.

In case you’re wondering, the reason I unsubbed from FF14 the first time was actually because I ran out of additional story to pursue. I was active after the Heavensward launch and played all of the available content in 3.0 save some higher difficulty things. In addition, my Free Company that I was RPing in started to experience drama and split apart, which further drove me away from guild politics and open RP on my return to WoW. So, ultimately, while I wanted to return eventually I simply never got around to it, with most of my interest leaning towards other games.

Perhaps it’s for the best that I didn’t come back sooner, because now I have plenty to occupy me with, and the promise of even more just in the horizon. It’s a good time to be back in Eorzea… truly, I missed it.