Tag Archives: RPG

On… Dragon Quest Heroes

Even if you didn’t know a thing about the Dragon Quest series, and wouldn’t know a JRPG if it hit you in the face with an amnesiac spiky-haired protagonist, Dragon Quest Heroes gives away its Japanese origins with its unwieldy subtitle: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below. It does make sense and has a bit of a poetic charm to it, but it may as well scream ‘I’m a Japanese video game!’ when you open the box.

Dragon Quest Heroes 1
The king spends half the game laughing at things that just aren’t funny.

Heroes is, like Hyrule Warriors before it (and the forthcoming – at the time of writing – Fire Emblem Warriors), a retooling of the Dynasty Warriors games. This is a series that is based around epic battles with hordes of enemies, overpowered attacks, multiple player characters and much mashing of the square button. If that sounds a bit reductive then, well, perhaps that’s because at its heart Dragon Quest Heroes is a very simple game. If you come into this expecting an RPG like The Witcher 3 then you’re going to be disappointed. Which would be a shame since, actually, DQH is pretty damned good.

Although it’s hard to say why.

It certainly isn’t the story. The plotline is serviceable enough, but is filled one-note characters and features a villain so pantomime-esque that he actually has a sinister curly moustache. You never feel any actual tension as it’s painfully obvious what’s going to happen throughout, and the story is obviously there to provide an excuse for the action. It’s fortunate, then, that the actual playing of the game is great fun. The gameplay loop centres around venturing forth into multiple levels and, basically, kicking the crap out of anything that moves. This turns out to be amazing fun.

Controls are straightforward and fluid, with some customisation to allow for a more strategic mode as opposed to the standard button-mashing layout. No matter which you opt for, there’s plenty of special moves to choose from over the multiple characters both available initially and unlockable as the game progresses. These range from standard versions of Dragon Quest staples such as Sizzle or Crack, to Final Fantasy limit break style attacks that see you do such things as transform into dragons, cast energy vortexes or summon sabrecats to attack your enemies.

Dragon Quest Heroes - 2
See? Here he goes again. I never managed to work out what he was laughing at.

The character roster consists of a selection of characters from mainline DQ titles along with some original characters. There are two main player characters, one male, one female. Whilst you can play as both throughout, you choose at the start your primary character and it’s from their perspective that you experience the game (though if you choose to play as Luceus rather than Aurora, you’ve basically stumped for the most annoying character). The main characters play pretty much the same bar some cosmetic differences, but there’s plenty of variety in the other characters. You have tanks such as Doric, ranged warriors such as Bianca, and magic wielders such as Nerys. The game doesn’t force you to play in a particular way so you can adjust your team of four to suit your play style (though arguably some characters are more overpowered than others).

The game looks lovely, too. The Akira Toriyama design motifs of the series are made to look beautiful on the PS4, with beautifully animated character models and special effects that, whilst they do get a bit tired after the hundredth viewing, never cease to impress. Aurally the game provides a treat for fans of the series, with various remixes of familiar tunes along with some decent original compositions. Voice-acting is pretty terrible, although I can’t help feeling that the DQ scripts are best read quietly in your own head anyway.

DQH isn’t without flaws, of course. Aside from the aforementioned storyline, the major problem is the pacing. The main plot funnels you along a pretty linear path and, whilst there are lots of sub-quests, these are all pretty inconsequential until just before the final battle when you get swamped with a heap of character-based side stories (some of which I couldn’t actually get to complete). This really is quite poor as, by that point, I was pretty much ready to finish the game, but felt that I should do the character stories. Sadly they don’t really add up to much or provide much in the way of insight into the characters, and as such they just feel like unnecessary padding.

The mission variety is slim as well, and there are just far too many ‘tower defence’ type quests where you have to stop hordes of enemies from attacking structures or NPCs with health-bars that are too small. These quickly become frustrating, especially when guarding a character who keeps deciding to throw themselves at enemies. Thankfully the game isn’t too difficult, particularly if you do a bit of side-content to keep your character level up, so you shouldn’t find yourself having to repeatedly fight the same battles again and again. Towards the end-game these ‘protect the idiot’ style missions really do become the gaming equivalent of someone scraping their nails across a blackboard, though, and you begin to loathe the prospect of playing another one.

I haven’t played a proper Dynasty Warriors game, but have seen enough of them and played the likes of Hyrule Warriors to know that Dragon Quest Heroes seems to remove a bit of the strategy from the formula. This is very much an action RPG, with that ‘action’ italicised, embolded, underlined and put inside <blink> tags. You do have to consider the placement of monster minions (friendly creatures you can summon to your side) and how you move around the battlefield, but by and large it’s all about the fighting.

And sometimes, that simplicity is a good thing.

Dragon Quest Heroes isn’t the kind of game that will change your life. It is, however, fun to play and an extremely diverting use of your time.

On… The Witcher 3 DLC

Let’s get this out of the way right from the start: the DLC for The Witcher 3 is the best example of the form I’ve ever seen. There have been some good pieces of add-on content in the past (Mass Effect 2: Lair of the Shadow Broker, ME3: Citadel, Oblivion: Shivering Isles, etc.) but they are all trampled into the Velen mud by what CD Projekt Red have produced here.

Beware if you wish to read further: spoilers for the main Witcher 3 campaign as well as Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine are contained herein.

Released late last year, Hearts of Stone was the first major piece of DLC and features around 10-15 hours worth of content. At first glance it might seem slightly uninspiring, not least of all because there’s no new area to explore. Well, actually that’s a bit of a lie: the expansion does provide new parts of Velen to traipse around in, but there’s no new ‘whole’ map area as such.

What makes HoS so fantastic though is its storyline. Whilst there are, as you would expect, a number of various sub-quests, the main meat of the package concerns Geralt’s encounters with Gaunter O’Dimm. Rather cleverly, this is a character who initially appeared right at the start of the main campaign in a role so subtle that most people (myself included) would have forgotten about it until reminded by the DLC. The character of Gaunter is fascinating – his exact nature never truly revealed, but there are hints enough that he is an incarnation of evil. Your slow re-introduction to him takes place over a series of quests, initially focusing around new character Olgierd von Everec. To begin with, Olgierd seems to be the antagonist, but it soon becomes apparent that instead he’s something of a sympathetic character, drawn too deep into a situation he can no longer control.

HoS in many ways makes for a better campaign than the Wild Hunt itself did: it has the advantage of taking place over a smaller scale, and thus becomes much more involving for the player. Whilst Wild Hunt was very, very good, the need for it to take in the political machinations of Nilfgaard and Redania (amongst others) often lent it a layer of abstraction. HoS has none of this, really, and instead focuses on a small set of characters whose motivations and actions you come to know intimately. Indeed, the most memorable parts of the DLC are perhaps those that deal with the smallest matters. The wedding scene, for instance, wickedly subverts expectations set by the main campaign and external touch-points like Game of Thrones by being pretty much uneventful. Yet it stays with you because of the wonderful character development it employs, plus a fair amount of humour.

By the time HoS ends you have a completely different view of the world it presented than you did when it started, and that’s much to its credit. The character of O’Dimm will stick long in the mind, his cavalier ambivalence and macabre wit making for one of the best villains I think I’ve ever seen in a video game.

Touissant, not in Arizona.
Touissant, not in Arizona.

The second expansion, Blood and Wine, is a different beast. It’s hard to guage the ‘size’ of it, as mileage can vary, but to me it felt a good two-and-half times as big as HoS. This also adds a new map area, the southern duchy of Touissant. A rich, vibrant land with more than a hint of the Mediterranean about it, Touissant is an area vastly different to the war-torn Velen and the beautiful but harsh Skellige.

Due to the nature of the Wild Hunt’s main storyline, Blood and Wine by necessity needs to take place before the former’s conclusion. Thematically, however, the expansion is very much a coda to Geralt’s adventures. I’d suggest, in fact, if you buy the whole game packaged complete with the DLC, that you finish the main story first before tackling this. Not because of any difficulty issues (although the enemies here are tougher than most in the main game), but simply because the story works better.

Ostensibly, the main plot-line concerns a vampiric beast stalking the duchy, murdering a seemingly unconnected group of nobles. As the story builds, though, it touches more obviously on the topics of home, family and belonging. There is a wondrous juxtaposition between the traditional Geralt, perennial outcast, and the homestead vineyard that he acquires and potentially builds up over the course of the expansion. Additionally, whilst the Witcher series has always been in some ways a dark counterpoint to more traditional high-fantasy fare, here the inversions of tropes are laid bare. Towards the end of the expansion’s main story there’s a wonderful segment where Geralt enters a fairytale world, at first glance seeming peaceful before rapidly showing its corrupted side. Seeing Geralt take part in a dark (well, darker I guess) version of Little Red Riding Hood is a complete joy.

BaW is a campaign that deals with endings, of a sort. Whilst none of us can lay claim to living the life of a Witcher, the questions the game asks regarding where we wish to settle, literally and figuratively, are ones we can all empathise with. At its conclusion you feel as if Geralt’s story is complete. Okay – there could be extra adventures put in if needed – but all the pieces of the jigsaw have been put into place.

Narrative aside, BaW astounds as well because of the sheer generosity of the content it offers. At £15.99, the expansion contains more hours of gaming than most standalone, full-price titles. There are sub-quests galore, additions to character development, new gear sets, and so on. Also, it looks absolutely amazing.

I mean, seriously, it's lovely, isn't it?
I mean, seriously, it’s lovely, isn’t it?

All of this gushing probably makes it obvious that I can’t recommend Witcher 3’s DLC sets highly enough. They take everything that was great about the main game and simultaneously condense it whilst expanding on it. The only word of warning I would give is that, given the length of the main campaign and the DLC, it might not be a good idea to attempt it all in one go, for fear of burning out. I took a break of several months between finishing the main game and approaching both DLCs, and at the end of Blood and Wine I did almost wish I’d had an extra hiatus before it. Still, it seems rather petty to complain about having too much.

The addition of Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine probably make The Witcher 3 the best computer RPG ever. I’ll admit it’s not my favourite (Mass Effect and Baldur’s Gate II top it), but as an achievement of narrative, technology and scope it is, quite simple, untouchable.

On… Dragon Age Inquisition DLC

Thanks to the recent EA sale on the PlayStation Store, I’ve just about got around to playing through the major bits of DLC for Dragon Age: Inquisition. I’ve been a big fan of Bioware’s stuff ever since the original Baldur’s Gate, and really enjoyed Inquisition. Okay, it suffered from too much filler and a annoying lack of codas to most of the sub-quests (I lost count of the number of times I picked up a seemingly random item only to find that I’d completed a quest I didn’t even know I was doing), but it seemed a great return to form after the somewhat weak Dragon Age II.

In terms of the DLC, aside from all the various equipment packs that cost about £2.50 and give you weapons with +10 damage versus horse armour or whatever, there are three major expansion packs: Jaws of Hakkon, Descent and Trespasser. In the traditional form, I shall take a brief look at each of them in order. Obviously, there are some spoilers here for the main game and all of the DLC, so avert your eyes if you don’t want to read them.

Some professor bloke in Jaws of Hakkon.
Some professor bloke in Jaws of Hakkon.

Of all the three, Jaws of Hakkon feels the most like content that was cut from the main game. It offers a new area – the Frostback Basin – that I was expecting, given the name, to be a slippy-slidey ice world but is actually a jungle-esque place filled with spiders and treehouse complexes that would make the Yolkfolk proud. The Basin contains a number of sub-quests and, yes, more shards to spot and collect. These can either be used in the Solasan temple in the main game or in a mini-version within the Basin itself, which is quite handy but still doesn’t make jumping around after the sodding things any more fun than it was before. The main questline concerns itself with the Avvar, who I seem to remember vaguely as being some barbarian-esque tribal group. A faction of these chaps/chapettes calling themselves the ‘Jaws of Hakkon’ (presumably because it sounds a bit cool) are causing some trouble-and-strife. Alongside this, an academic from the University of Orlais believes he has found the final resting place of the last leader of the Inquistion, Ameridan. As you might expect, before too long the plot-lines converge and you’re kicking some barbarian butt.

This is all quite enjoyable, though I couldn’t never quite escape the impression that it was something originally planned for the main game but then excised for some reason. It’s a shame as well that the motivations of the Jaws of Hakkon aren’t explained fully; there are some lore documents lying around the final dungeon that go some way towards it, but mostly I felt as if I were fighting a faceless enemy. Still, the penultimate boss fight is a good one, requiring you to think much more about location and placement than normal. For my relatively high-level party (I think I was about level 23 when I started it) playing on standard difficulty, it wasn’t too challenging. There were a couple of random encounters with giants and the local wildlife that caused me some strife, but mostly it was straightforward.

For the few pounds I paid for it, I was happy enough with Jaws of Hakkon. It isn’t essential by any means (though you do get a rather nifty unique ability by playing it, which definitely helps in the later DLC) but worthwhile picking up. Perhaps it was also more enjoyable for me because I’d stopped playing the full game around a year earlier, so wasn’t burned out when I cam e to it.

For those of you who’re interested in seeing me finish off the game’s final boss, there’s an utterly unedited video here:

DLC number two is Descent, and is utterly different in form and scope to Jaws of Hakkon. Rather than being presented with a new overland area, you’re sent off to the Deep Roads to investigate some earthquakes because, well, you’re the Inquisition and that’s how you roll. Those of you reasonably well-versed in Dragon Age-lore will know that the Deep Roads are a former underground empire (but not the underground empire) which is now swarming with hordes of Darkspawn and other unsavoury types.

The marketing for Descent didn’t appeal to me: it sounded a bit too much like a dungeon crawler. In reality, whilst this is true to an extent, it offers so much more. This really did feel like a full extension to the main game, providing a brief new base of operations and new expeditions to carry out. The lack of civilization and the relatively emptiness of the maps (once you’ve cleared out the Darkspawn, at least) does make you feel that you’re treading where no-one has been for a very long time. There’s also a fairly massive addition to the lore of Thedas which you hope will be touched upon in future DA games.

An Emissary, not exactly the most lovely-looking of creatures. It must go through nail-files like nobody's business.
An Emissary, not exactly the most lovely-looking of creatures. It must go through nail-files like nobody’s business.

Descent isn’t perfect. Some people will complain about the linearity, though that didn’t bother me. The ending felt a little undercooked, and – similarly to Hakkon – the enemies you encounter are pretty faceless. You start off fighting Darkspawn, and they don’t have any kind of archdemon or broodmother controlling them that you come across. Along the way you do encounter what I think is a new breed of Darkspawn, the Emissary. These seem to have been modelled on the Architect from Dragon Age Origins: Awakening, but they don’t actually provide any dialogue. Just after the mid-way point of the DLC you find yourself under attack by an mysterious group called the Sha-Brytol. As enemies go they’re quite interesting, what with their rat-a-tat-tat bolt attack and earth-shaking. Unfortunately they don’t have a leader, and you never find out an awful lot about them other than some relatively cryptic allusions in cut-scenes. It’s a shame, really, as there was some potential there for interesting antagonists. Perhaps, though, I’m being a bit hard on Descent in this respect: the problem with the anonymous enemies is one that afflicts the whole series. Even the main Inquisition game had issues in this regard, with Corypheus never feeling to me fully fleshed out.

Some special mention must be given to the fight that occurs halfway through Descent which is the toughest I recall encountering in the whole of the game thus far. With only about two supply caches nearby, you face off against a horde of Darkspawn that will keep regenerating until you defeat a certain set number of enemies. I found it a little annoying that the game didn’t make it clear that you had to go to certain areas of the map to find these enemies. As a result, it took me the best part of 75 minutes to get through the whole thing, and a fight against an Emissary Alpha who kept putting up a heavy-duty magic barrier made me have to drop the difficulty down for the first time in the whole campaign. I just couldn’t face dying and having to do the whole thing again. Maybe if I were more savvy about picking out the right places to attack the right enemies it would’ve been quicker, but first time round it was a massive slog. Fun at first, but after three quarters of an hour it just felt like a war of attrition. Still, it’s an interesting change of pace in the game.

Again, for those few of you who are interested, here’s me finally managing to defeat the Emissary Alpha:

Finally, Trespasser. I know I’ve said it already but, please, if you don’t want any spoilers for the main game as well as the DLC please immediately avert your eyes or smear them with jam so you can’t read on.

Some Elven ruins in Trespasser.
Some Elven ruins in Trespasser. They like their trees and green magic stuff.

Unlike the other two expansions, Trespasser only becomes available after the main storyline has been completed. Starting the DLC fast-forwards the timeline by about two years and removes you from Skyhold and any content you haven’t yet completed. As per the strongly-worded warning the game gives you, once you start Trespasser there is no going back. At the start you are taken to the Winter Palace in Orlais, which looks very palace-y but not, it must be said, all that wintery. The palace is playing host to the Exalted Council hosted by Divine Victoria (who I believe is either Cassandra or Leliana, depending on your choices in the main game) who are convening to discuss the future of the Inquisition. Now that the threat of Corypheus and the breaches have subsided, people across southern Thedas are beginning to question why the Inquisition still exists and why they have so many swords and other metal pointy things. I found this element of the story to be quite interesting, because it’s not often in a game that you get to see what happens after the happy ending. It always struck me as a tad odd how the great nation-states of Thedas just seemed to very quickly accept the resurrection and growth of the Inquisition during the main storyline, so it was good to see that, once the dust had settled, people were expressing their displeasure.

It’s not long however before the Council is thrown into disarray by the arrival of a distinctly-dead Qunari. A quick bit of trellis-climbing by the Inquisitor later reveals that the Qunari had arrived in the Winter Palace by means of an eluvian, those Elven magic-transporting-mirror-things seen towards the end of the main game. Without much concern or forward-planning, the Inquisitor dashes through the eluvian and ends up in some mysterious Elven ruins.

Throughout the main beats of the story, it also becomes clear that the Anchor (better known as the green swirly mark thing on the Inquisitor’s hand) is starting to become more troublesome. Again, this is quite neat as the main game never really dealt fully with the question of the long-term effects to the Inquisitor of having a big magical boil in their hand. This bleeds into the gameplay as well, since the increasing instability of the mark coupled with its exposure to ancient Elven magic causes you to gain access to some rather nifty additional abilities and increased focus gain. Part of me suspects that this is to help lower-level players get through some of the battles in the DLC’s campaign. By the time I got to play it at the maximum level 27 it was challenging in places but nothing too harsh, especially in comparison to some of the big battles in Descent. I’m not sure how it scales, but I can imagine if you were a few levels lower it could be quite hard-going.

Of course, the main allure of Trespasser is that it promises to finally bring some closure to the ‘oh-my-word’ rug-pulling teaser at the end of the main game, where it was revealed that Solas was actually Elven trickster god Fen’Harel. The Inquisition remains oblivious to this, and it isn’t until almost the end that it is revealed to them. In honesty, it did strike me as somewhat unbelievable that despite being continually called ‘Agents of Fen’Harel’ but the Qunari, nobody in the Inquisition had made the connection to Solas, particularly given that most of the Elven ruins that are explored contain murals paintings in exactly the same idiom as he decorated Skyhold. It’s a shame that you don’t actually stumble upon Solas himself until the very end, but it does at least make for a rather interesting narrative dichotomy where you as the player know you’re chasing after him for the entire campaign whilst the player characters don’t.

Trespasser is a fitting end for Inquisition, and – probably in response to the furore that exploded around the release of Mass Effect 3 – provides conclusions of sorts for all the games characters. It very much marks the ending of the Inquisitor’s story, at least in terms of adventuring. As a result this truly feels like a ‘proper’ expansion to the game. Whilst it may not be as big as ‘real’ expansion packs (such as Dragon Age Origins Awakening) used to be, it offers sufficient additional story, location and characters to be a thoroughly worthwhile purchase. It also provides hints as to where the series might go next, and a number of the decisions you make in the DLC will presumably have some impact on future plays.

In summary, I’ve been pretty pleased with the DLC for Inquisition all in all. If I had to pick a personal favourite I’d go for Descent, which is odd as that’s the one I thought I’d like the least. Having said that, if you’re only going to buy one of them you probably need to go for Trespasser, since that’s the one that adds the most to the overall narrative and provides the coda to the whole game. A great effort by Bioware all together, though. Hurry up Dragon Age 4…

On… Why I Got Fed Up With Destiny

There are three questions that I pretend people always ask me:

  1. Is that all your own hair?
  2. What do you have against shoes?
  3. Why did you stop playing Destiny?

And my answers would be: 1) mostly, though some of my chest hair has been donated via a Kickstarter; 2) I think the world would be a simpler place had we all got hobbit-style feet; and 3) well, it’s complicated.

A big silver ball thing. Yesterday.
A big silver ball thing. Yesterday.

As an RPG-fan who has devoted hour upon hour of my presumably-finite life-span to increasing numbers, you would think that Destiny would be a pretty good fit for me. And so did I. I pre-ordered it, played it at launch, got so far into it and then, well, just stopped. Normally I like to at least get to the end of a campaign before sticking the disc back in the case and putting into the dusty archives. I’ve made it through most of the Final Fantasies (except 12 and 13, but I’m getting to them (probably)), completed Baldur’s Gate II about eight times, and even spent at least one donkey’s year doing the same thing again and again in Mad Max (the game). But yet, Destiny just turned me off.

Maybe it was the prospect of that Paul McCartney song that I still haven’t heard, but more likely I think it was the tediously slow nature of the post-level-20 endgame. I’ve got nothing against grinding; I must have walked the equivalent of 100,000 miles around in circles in JRPGs in the hope of triggering a random battle. There always seemed a point to it, though, and an achievable target that wasn’t reliant on luck. You know in Final Fantasy IV, for instance, that if you wander around a field for long enough and fight enough pixellated monsters that you’re going to level up. Eventually you’ll get enough experience points that your stats will increase by some minuscule amount and you’ll become stronger. Destiny never seemed to offer that once you’d hit level 20; the whole ‘light points’ business never made much sense to me and it seemed an overly abstract way of providing progression. Being reliant on receiving engrams which seem to be very sporadic in how they’re dished out seemed to me that it wasn’t an adequate way of rewarding the investment I was putting into the game.

I think as I’ve got older, I’ve become more and more intolerant of things like this, where games don’t respect my time. The Ubisoft habit of filling open worlds with hordes of collectables is bad enough, but at least generally they’re optional. I don’t need to collect all the feathers in Assassin’s Creed II to get better at the game, though I might get some better armour or weaponry, or a little cutscene if I do so. Destiny, by virtue of the fact that it’s an MMO shooter where the main rewards from it are by playing against other people, was essentially forcing me into sinking a lot of time for potentially no reward.

And then there’s the story, or, rather, there isn’t. Bungie obviously made an effort to set up the background lore, what with all that business of humanity’s golden age and the giant pinball in the sky. Unfortunately the game itself contains so little in the way of narrative drive that it may as well dispense altogether with it and just tell you to go somewhere and shoot something. Which wouldn’t actually be that bad since the shooting mechanics are great and, heck, at least it’d be honest.

A lot of comments were made about Peter Dinkledge’s somewhat muted performance as Ghost – from whom most of the plot points are delivered. He’s since been patched out and replaced Ministry of Truth style by Nolan North, but I’ve not played it since so can’t comment on much of an improvement this is. In fairness to Dinkledge, it must be hard to deliver with any conviction lines that wouldn’t seem out of place in a bad episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

“Well, Peter, you’ll be playing some kind of ill-defined floaty robot thing that can somehow resurrect people but yet still takes twenty minutes to hack some computer terminal whilst your Guardian single-handedly faces off waves of identikit bad guys. Oh, and there are wizards on the Moon.”


So… That’s why I stopped playing Destiny. Although I’ll probably still buy the sequel because, well, I have issues.

On… the Infinity Engine and Abstraction

As with a lot of gamers my age, I suffer from the first-world problem of having a massive backlog of things to play through. Every month the list of games I own that I’ve either never played or barely scratched the surface of gets bigger and bigger. As problems go, it’s not a bad one to have and, of course, is all really of my own making.

Anyway, it’s because of this that I’ve only just got around to seriously sitting down and playing Pillars of Eternity. This is a Kickstarter-funded RPG by Obsidian and is a call-back to the old Infinity Engine games of the late ’90s/very early 2000s.

And, well, it’s pretty damn great.

Some pillars.
Some pillars.

Back in my not-so-fevered youth I played all of the mainstream IE games, from the original Baldur’s Gate through to Icewind Dale II, and PoE certainly looks the part. Crucially, despite looking like a game built on the same technology as Baldur’s Gate, it’s been refined with just enough ‘modern’ functionality that it feels like a substantial improvement. Yes, okay, at the end of the day you’re still moving character models around pre-rendered backgrounds in an isometric view, but Obsidian have done a very good job and adding things that were missing before. For instance, you can now zoom in and watch virtual dice roll up close, and there are visual highlights for area-of-effect spells.

In some ways I guess it seems a bit odd that you would really want to create a new game in an engine first created before Tony Blair was prime minister. I can’t really see many people wanting to make games using Doom technology. What it shows is the amount of esteem that those original games are still held in. Part of the reason for this is that they were good games to start off with: well-written, deep and detailed. Another factor, though, is that they were abstract enough that they are still playable today and, in many ways, that abstraction improves the relationship players have with the games. To be honest, Baldur’s Gate looked dated back in 1998. By that point games had moved into the 3D era and, games such as Daggerfall had two years since shown how immersive a first-person RPG could be. Yet there was something about the Infinity Engine and the way it showed you the world that made you feel more involved. The limited viewpoint, combined with the detail that the pre-rendered environments could offer (particularly in comparison to 3D games of the time) worked wonderfully. In the absence of much provided by the game, your brain had to ‘fill in the gaps’, which generally speaking it’s a lot better at doing than people give it credit for. It seems to me the same effect that made 8-bit games so immersive despite the fact that no matter how good the art style, the graphics were inherently poor.

If anything, the creators of PoE have gone further in this abstraction than was ever done with the older games, perhaps with the notable exception of Planescape Torment. Dialogue is interspersed with character descriptions, and numerous in-game events are dealt with via a textual options accompanied by a static line drawing. It sounds lazy, but in actuality – providing you have a decent enough imagination – works fantastically well. Certainly, given the limited budget it’s a lot better than you would have got had they aimed for a more graphic-intensive depiction.

I’m not too far into the game yet, having barely made it through the first few locations, so I don’t want to pass judgement too early. Thus far I am very much enjoying it, although it doesn’t quite seem on a par with how good I remember Baldur’s Gate II being. That may just be rose-tinted nostalgia clouding my opinions, though. I’ll try and continue to add my thoughts here as I progress (assuming I don’t get distracted by anything else).

Persona 4 – The long road to victory

Last week I finally managed to complete Persona 4 Golden after almost 90 hours of playtime. Not consecutive playtime, I hasten to add; I think that would’ve resulted in me ending up with my face splattered to the Vita’s wondrous HD screen, slumped in a foul pile of my own faecal matter. It’s probably taken around two months of ‘real-time’ to make my way through the storyline. As such, this must rank up there with some of the very few games I’ve wasted this much of my life on (other notable examples include Final Fantasy VIISkyrim and Frontier: Elite II). Whether or not this has been an effective use of my time on Earth is a debate for another day, but nevertheless it was a thoroughly enjoyable not-quite-four-days.

But, you know, it really shouldn’t have been. I’d never played a Persona game before, but have invested enough hours in JRPGs to know what I should be expecting, and that’s pretty much exactly what I got. Except… Except… Well, it’s a bit hard to describe, but the game has a certain something about it that draws you in. I’m just not sure what it is. If you judged the individual components of the game on their own merits, there’s nothing particularly staggering that stands out. The story is interesting enough, even if dogged by typical JRPG twists and turns that generally you can see coming about a hundred miles away. I mean, really, did anyone think that Nanako wouldn’t get kidnapped, and didn’t guess almost straightaway that Adachi was the murderer? Ah, maybe I’ve watched too many episodes of Columbo.

Gameplay-wise, the world is pretty small with not really all that much to do. The dungeons aren’t procedurally generated, but may as well be for all the interesting features they have; bar a few exceptions, each floor in a dungeon has little in the way of objectives bar getting to the next one, and it’s hard to tell the difference between one and the next. The combat is pretty basic, too. The Persona system itself is interesting and quite deep, but the tactics you have to employ in the battles themselves are simplistic. Hey, it’s an ice-based monster! Best use fire, then.

And yet… there’s something about the way it all clicks together. Maybe it’s the characters, maybe it’s the fact that you get involved so much in their lives over the course of the game’s virtual year. Maybe it’s the charm of the presentation, the gusto with which everything hits you in the face. Whatever it is, the game is immensely fun to play. So, go on, play it. And, do yourself a favour, play the Vita version rather than the PS2 original, as it’s the perfect type of game to play on the move.

Persona 4: It's nuts, in a good way.
Persona 4: It’s nuts, in a good way.

Dragon Age II – this time it’s pretty much the same.

Dragon Age II Boxart
Dragon Age II Boxart

Title: Dragon Age II
Format: XBox 360
Release date: 2011
Obtained: 2011
Place of purchase: Amazon
Price: £40
Completed?: Yes

The recent announcement of Dragon Age III: Inquisition (which I’m really hoping has a cameo appearance by Cardinals Biggles and/or Fang) has made me think about the previous games in the series. In a typically contrary and hey-look-at-me-aren’t-I-just-so-amazingly-unpredictable manner, I’ll look at the second game first.

Since its release in early 2011, DAII has come in for a certain amount of flak for, amongst other things, its combat system, storyline, excessive reuse of locations, and lack of companion customisation. Well, let’s have a quick look at each of those points…

The infamous quote about ‘something awesome happening every time you press a button’ kind of sums up what people think is wrong with the combat system. Fans of the original were, I think, rather annoyed by the lack of tactics involved in the fighting. My feeling is that the developers tried to make the game more action-oriented but yet still maintain the same rough basic mechanics of the original. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work all that well: what you end up with is a bit of a halfway-house that is neither purely action based enough to be exciting, and not tactical enough to provide any great depth. At the end of the day, you’ll probably find that combat for the most part consists of hitting the same action buttons over and over again until something dies, either onscreen in or inside you.

The storyline, on the other hand, I thought was actually pretty good. It uses the unreliable narrator device which is common enough in literature and in movies, but seldom seen in games. I think perhaps what disappointed people was that, unlike the original which, despite it multiple layers, is at heart a good-guys-versus-bad-guys quest to save the world, DAII has a much more narrowly-focused and political story. There are no great archdemons to destroy, and no massive plots to overthrow monarchies; what there is instead is a subtle series of story points that gradually build up to reveal the tensions that underpin the society of the fictional world. For the most part the story is quite atypical for a mainstream RPG, and pretty clever in places. Although I must point out that the bit where the main character Hawke’s mother is kidnapped and then has her head cut off and sewn onto the body of some Frankenstein’s monster-esque creature by a crazy mage is, quite possibly, the most utterly stupid bit of storytelling I’ve ever come across (and I’ve watched several episodes of Charmed).

As for reuse of locations, well, yes, it does get a bit repetitive and it would have been nice to see some other places. I actually quite like the fact that we get to see Kirkwall over a period of a number of years; what I was disappointed with is how little it changes. The characters change and the situation changes, but the market district at the end of the game is pretty much identical to the market district at the end of the game. Maybe something could have been painted in the meantime?

And finally, the companions: yeah, there isn’t an awful lot you can do with them, especially in comparison to Origins. But, on the plus side, it removes a lot of boring inventory management and does mean that your NPC partners are all pretty unique in what they do. The characters themselves are a bit of an odd bunch, and I have to admit to only really liking one or two of them, but perhaps that’s the point…

So, Dragon Age II, then: yes, it’s true, you were not as good as your predecessor in many ways but, you know what? You weren’t as bad as a lot of people made you out to be, either.