104 – Baldur’s Gate 2: I Am Getting Tired

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 7.53.33 PMThe Underdark was not so bad this time around. Due to being at higher levels, having better equipment, and a greater familiarity with the engine, I got through Chapter 5 in roughly two days of play. The Beholders gave me little trouble, the Kuo-Toa dungeon was easy, and even the Mind Flayers fell pretty easily.

Honestly, the only problem here is how unnecessary it all was.

I had thought that the structure of Chapter 5 would make more sense in context–that perhaps it would seem more relevant to the larger picture–but your diversions in the Underdark is just that–a diversion. Irenicus has a connection to the Elves, and the Drow in the Underdark are of course at war with the Elves, and that war breaks out in the end–but what strikes me about Chapter 5 is how relatively unconnected to the rest of the game it all is. It’s at least a little more dense than the pirate village, or the Sahaugin City, but it’s a series of fetch quests. You spend your time with the Drow in the Underdark being bossed around from one sidequest to another; the sprawling freedom that is the hallmark of the early stages of Baldur’s Gate 2 is completely gone at this point.

In many ways, the Underdark is pretty important to the lore of the Forgotten Realms; it’s a pretty evocative concept. Underneath the earth, it goes, is a massive series of caverns, of Dark Elf cities, of fantastical and horrifying creatures. In practice, it’s, you know, a big cave with a bunch of enemies. The terror that could be here just doesn’t translate well to the Infinity Engine–there’s a distance in the isometric perspective, a tone in the writing that never really hits fear. The biggest reason for the Bhaalspawn to visit the Underdark is, if I may be cynical, because there’s no other place to fit it in in any of the other games in the franchise. It would honestly have made sense as an Icewind Dale 2 dungeon–it fits that style well, being a combat dungeon with some twists.

Chapter 6, meanwhile, moves as quickly as you like it to. There’s a couple of additional areas which are completely pointless–a couple of enemies, a treasure or two, and a small adventure involving the BG1 character Coran which apparently came at the insistence of an annoying fan on the boards or something–but it really is a “finishing up the loose ends” chapter. A fight with Bodhi the Vampire, and it’s off to Chapter 7 and the endgame, where I am right now. Depending on how long that segment is, I can probably beat the game in one session, maybe two. It’s good: I’m ready for it to end.

Look, Baldur’s Gate 2 is a masterpiece, it’s just too much masterpiece. Had I the opportunity to remake the game, you’d go directly from Athkatla to Spellhold, and after your adventures in Spellhold, you’d go right back to Athkatla for the endgame. The “journey” segments of the game take away from the focus of what you’re doing. It dilutes everything. They’re fun in and of themselves, sure–but what Baldur’s Gate 2 does best is density. The city of Athkatla has gone down in history as one of the great RPG cities; the Drow city of Ust Natha is an afterthought in comparison. There’s obviously the urge, in an RPG, to make a long, sprawling epic, but man, that’s what kills a lot of RPGs. Few people even finish these damn things as it is–they don’t need to be longer. They don’t need to be padded.

At least BG2 is trying to give the sense of a huge world; even if the Underdark doesn’t add anything to the story, even if the Sahaugin City is a side journey, the picaresque feel of the latter half of the game does make the world seem large and vibrant. I’m thinking about Pillars of Eternity which was a legitimately wonderful game, an excellent successor to the Infinity Engine–and one where half of the areas could have been cut, where a lot of the map areas had no encounters beyond a few combats but otherwise simply existed as a way to get between Point A and Point B.

But then again, people complained that Tyranny–a tight, lean game which featured no extraneous areas, no combats for their own sake, no areas simply meant as bridges between two other regions–was too short, so I guess you can’t win with these things.

Next time you hear from me, I’ll be telling you how the final battle with Irenicus went. Wish me luck.

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103 – Regalia: Of Men and Monarchs

The other week, playing Massive Chalice, I found myself frustrated by a lot–the absurd length of the battles, the lack of any connection with the characters, the disconnect between the grand strategy segments and the battle segments, two sections which seemed at war with each other. Regalia: Of Men and Monarchs comes from a lot of the same impulses that Massive Chalice does–a comedic take on a strategy RPG, one which is based around time management–but I’m impressed at how much better it is. And even without the comparison, Regalia is a really good game in its own right so far.

I love games based around winning a town and developing it; in Regalia, your character finds out he’s the long-lost ruler of a dilapidated kingdom and is charged with restoring it to its former glory. As you adventure along, more people join your kingdom and your party; taking a large influence from the Persona series, you can grow your relationship levels with them. You can explore dungeons, build and upgrade buildings in your town, and make some diplomatic choices involving other kingdoms.

There’s a series of cheevo-style “kingdom quests”–upgrade X number of buildings, explore various dungeons, get your party to certain milestone levels, etc–and every two months of game time you’re charged with completing a number of them–as well as certain specific quests related to the story goals at the moment. The game gets a fairly open-ended feel as a result–it doesn’t matter which kingdom quests you complete, so long as you complete the right number of them, although things are balanced in a way that you ought to dip into each category and you’ll probably need to complete most of them by the end. You’re given just enough time to complete your goals, with a light amount of dicking-around possible–and so it’s a nice balance between freedom and stress. There’s plenty of time to do what you want, but you do need to stay on track.

I like that everything is fairly tightly connected–even beyond the need to complete quests to avoid a game over (the game warns you against missing your deadlines), everything goes back to the battle system that’s the heart of the game. Your relationships with other characters unlock special moves or perks such as increased damage or initiative. Upgrading buildings lets you upgrade relationships further and gives you options for crafting or shopping. Getting your diplomatic levels with other countries gives you new characters. Rather than the battles being a distraction from the grand strategy, the battles are the meat of the game, with everything else serving it.

My biggest problem with Massive Chalice–and, for that matter, X-Com–was that the battles were just too much, too generic. X-Com had a bunch of setpiece battles which were interesting, but most of them–and all of Massive Chalice’s–were sprawling fields with a few too many enemies with “defeat all the enemies” as the only goal. You take your generic units and fight; I know a lot of people developed connections with their pikmin in X-Com, but I never did. Both games, you know, throw in some randomly-chosen names in some random classes, and so I have little more connection to them as I do with my pieces in a chess game.

Regalia, first off, has very small battlefields–they all fit completely on your screen, and all of the enemies are visible at all times. (None of that late-battle hunting around the map to find where the one last enemy is hiding.) Your goals are variable–while, yes, most of them are “defeat all enemies”, which isn’t a bad goal in itself, there’s also “defeat a certain enemy”, “survive for X turns”, and other goals. In addition, every battle has certain challenges–exhortations to use or avoid certain skills, to win the battle with a less-than-full party, to win the battle under a certain number of turns–which give you XP and gold bonuses. Massive Chalice felt like one single battle fought over and over and over and over again, and I got very bored with it. Regalia feels a lot fresher.

(I’m sorry–I really don’t mean to pick on Massive Chalice as much as I am! It’s just the most recent one of these types of games I’ve played, and it was just so bad, and I find the comparison instructive.)

As for the characters, they’re not random at all–they’re storyline characters, and a lot of work is done to make them all mechanically distinct. Your attacks have different areas of effect, do different damage types, have a lot of special effects. Your main, for example, isn’t a high damage dealer, but does a lot to buff other characters. One character is a pyromancer who does heavy damage to enemy groups. Another does decent damage and is able to leap around the battlefield. Another is a tank. The game also works by party level instead of on an individual character basis–you’re not punished for not using a character. I find myself more willing to experiment with party combinations this way, as opposed to games with large rosters of randomly-given characters with permadeath.

I like Regalia’s pile of varied things to do, that I am Making Choices In A Videogame about how to spend my limited time and the best way to complete my kingdom goals. I’m not annoyed by having to fight battles–the battles are, after all, what everything is working towards. I’m enjoying the game’s humor–it treads a line that’s difficult to do. The characters are loud and enthusiastic and they’re spouting off quotes from other RPGs and classic rock songs. That style of humor is either obnoxious in its earnestness or one which hits your interests exactly; I think Regalia is treading the line pretty well. It helps that there’s a solid game it’s hung on–it wears its influences on its sleeve and combines them into something original and fun, instead of hoping that they substitute for actual content. So far, it’s a very good game.

102 – Baldur’s Gate 2: Spellhold And Environs

Screen Shot 2017-11-22 at 9.05.27 AM.pngStructurally, Chapter 4 of Baldur’s Gate falters a little bit. It’s strange to say this after the epic that was Chapter 2–that pile of quests–but Chapter 4 feels very unfocused. If you remember, the chapter is nominally about going to Spellhold to rescue your pal Imoen and confront the evil wizard Irenicus.

But before you get to Spellhold there’s a little detour to the pirate town where Spellhold is. There’s a single sidequest, and some light branching–there’s two ways to enter Spellhold and you can pick your favorite, and you get a slightly different introduction to the asylum depending on which you choose. But the entire area feels like an afterthought. It’s a pirate town, yarr, without a lot to do–maybe it’s a final opportunity to pick up some items and prepare your party, if you missed the game’s exhortations to do so at the end of Chapter 3–but mostly, it’s time spent waiting for the real action to start.

And the Spellhold level itself is great–you meet some inmates, briefly, and you have your confrontation. You find Imoen. If Yoshimo is in your party, it’s revealed that he’s working for Irenicus and he’s killed off (to make room for Imoen, I assume), but he wasn’t in mine because why have Yoshimo as your thief when you can have Jan Jansen, turnip-obsessed thief and decent mage? (Yoshimo was in my party the first time around, so I know about his betrayal and stuff, but it is a shame they didn’t figure out a way of getting him into Spellhold to have his scene–I’m curious what’ll happen when I go back to Athkatla to seek him out later.) Irenicus captures you and performs one of his experiments and awakens…something in you. The evil vampire Bodhi appears. Imoen becomes available to join your party again but why have Imoen as your thief/mage when you can have Jan Jansen, turnip-obsessed thief and decent mage? (Sorry, Imoen lovers, I know there’s many more of you than there are of me, but I ain’t apologizing.) And then…there’s an unnecessary dungeon.

It’s not a bad dungeon by any means–it’s got some good puzzles, a couple of decent combats, but for the most part, it’s a dungeon under Spellhold that has a flimsy reason to be there. I suppose there are some Revelations there–it’s revealed that Bodhi is Irenicus’s sister, and you get your first taste of a power called Slayer Form–but it feels like a breather you don’t quite need. And after that dungeon is another quick dungeon–a test concocted by the former director of Spellhold, and so nominally connected to things–and then, only then, can you have your battle with Irenicus that you’ve been waiting the whole game for. He of course teleports away before you finish fighting him, but that’s okay.

And then you’ve got some more light branching–you can either go directly to Chapter 5, or you can take a detour to a Sahaugin city where you do another short couple of quests to determine their ruler. (This was a section I missed the first time around–I took the direct route that time.) It’s fine. It’s all fine–Chapter 4 is a fine chapter. But it’s not a tight chapter like Chapter 3 was. I suppose it’s got a clear goal and motivation–find and escape Spellhold, and if there are some detour adventures along the way, more XP and magic items for me, I guess. And I’m sounding a little more down on it than I am–I enjoyed all of it. I’ve certainly earned a little bit of a right to nitpick, and–Extended Edition content aside–Baldur’s Gate 2 doesn’t deserve more than nitpicking.

I’m going to run into this exact issue with Planescape Torment–in many ways it and BG2 are structured similarly: There’s a long time spent in a dense city in the first half; and a broader, shallower journey in the second half. The effect is of things moving very quickly–you establish a routine, a life, a presence in the city, you get to know it intimately, learn its ins and outs, befriend its people, assimilate into its ways–and then you move. You don’t have the luxury of time to get to know the places in the second half of the game–your quarry is on the move and you’ve got to follow them. It’s a much different mood, and it’s effective at giving that mood–but at the same time, Sigil and Athkatla are what people remember those games for. I don’t think anybody has much nostalgia for that Sahaugin city. I said that Baldur’s Gate 2 was, in some ways, a trial run for Dragon Age 2, and again, while I had my problems with DA2, setting the entirety of the game in Kirkwall makes the game about that city in a way Baldur’s Gate 2 isn’t quite about Athkatla or Planescape Torment isn’t quite about Sigil. I know I’m going to be going back to Athkatla soon, but there isn’t a lot left to do. Maybe I am feeling the beginnings of the end–while I’ve got a while to go, the majority of my journey through Baldur’s Gate 2 is behind me. Nitpicking is the most criticism I can give–it’s a hell of a game.

Off to Chapter 5 and the Underdark, the section that defeated me the first time through. I’ve got a few more levels under my belt, a lot more magic items, and a better handle on the spell system this time through. I won’t let those Mind Flayers get me down.

101 – Baldur’s Gate 2: Both Sides Now

iuDavid Gaider goes to a restaurant and orders a steak. “Would you like fries or a salad with that?” Gaider thinks for a moment and finally says, “Neither. Both sides are equally bad.”

—–

As a nice contrast to the 50 hours spent over a two-week period on Chapter 2, Chapter 3 of Baldur’s Gate 2 took roughly two hours. It’s a tying-up of loose ends and a farewell–for now–to Athkatla. Your contact in the Shadow Thieves–or your vampire friend if you made that choice–gives you a couple of tasks, makes a couple of light revelations, and then offers you a boat to the next part of the game.

It’s, of course, my choice to have the structure of the game be this uneven–you can certainly split up your sidequesting between chapters 2, 3, and 6 as you like; but given that the next couple of chapters are going to be a journey to far-off places that I’d like to be leveled up for, and given that Chapter 6 is largely a bit of “okay, you’re back in the city, let us know when you’re ready for the endgame”, it made sense for me to frontload everything this way.

The feeling is of events moving quickly. You’ve been spending all of this time getting to know the city and the world while your contacts have been searching for info on Imoen and Irenicus, and now they’ve figured out where they are and it’s time for you to move. It’s a little bit of pretense: You can afford to do all of that sidequesting and spend all of those months because there really isn’t anything else you can do but prepare. Now that you have your goal, it’s time to move. I’m not one to take timeframes and chronologies strictly in RPGs–I’m not going to complain that Imoen and Irenicus will wait as long as it takes for you to get around to finding them–but it does feel a little silly to stick around the city when everything you’ve worked for is a boat ride away.

The game could do a better job of making your choice seem like an actual choice, honestly. On the one side, you’ve got a bunch of thieves, yes, but they’re all friendly and helpful to you; on the other hand, you’ve got shady vampires which are somehow working with Irenicus. “The Shadow Thieves haven’t told you everything,” your vampire friend tells you, “and haven’t you noticed that they’re just stringing you along?” And it’s true, once you give them the money they do give you a few quests before finally sending you off. But they do send you off, and their explanations–that they needed to check your references, that they needed to find out some seriously-hidden information, that they needed to hire a trustworthy crew–all pass the sniff test. The Shadow Thieves have done nothing to lose my trust, either as a player or as a character.

The question of Evil in a game like this is a fiddly one. I know a lot of Dungeon Masters refuse to let their players play Evil characters, and even when they do, and in the Baldur’s Gate series, they generally lean that more towards “selfish, nasty, and lazy”. Part of it is, simply, that even a Good-aligned party has to kill a lot of things over the course of the game–you are, after all, a child of the God of Murder–and so killing is just kind of oddly relegated into a grey area where there are a lot of acceptable people to kill, and you’re simply kind of a dick for killing anyone not on the list. In a lot of cases, you’ve got a situation where someone has an item you need–you can either do the quest they ask you to do and get some more XP and treasure, or you can just slaughter them and take it. And who in their right mind would ever pass up XP? Only Dorn in the Enhanced Edition has a quest which forces you to go beyond the pale–I ducked out after accompanying him on a quest to murder everyone at a wedding, which honestly didn’t offend my moral sensibilities as much as it just seemed unnecessary–the rest are just, you know–unpleasant. Edwin is vain and arrogant and happy Dynahier is dead–but that’s about the worst of it. I’m keeping the dwarf Korgan in my party, and even though he’s listed as evil, he’s more accurately just simply an asshole–and a good enough fighter that it doesn’t matter.

And he doesn’t like the vampires!

—–

Bioware would revisit this kind of territory in Dragon Age 2–which also took place largely in a single city and a few environs–with its mages-or-templars focus. In the Dragon Age setting, mages are seen as ticking time bombs waiting to explode and so are heavily guarded by special knights. During the entire game, you’re thrust into situation after situation in which you have to choose between the two, and unlike Baldur’s 2, you’re given a lot more characterization of the two sides. The mages feel restricted and oppressed; the Templars are trying to protect innocent citizens from people who genuinely have destructive power. It’s a nuanced and difficult argument…which loses coherence in the endgame, when both the head templar and the head mage bust out their One Winged Angel forms and rampage. It’s of a piece with Bioshock Infinite which also had two sides whose names I don’t remember accurately but boil down to Racist Cops and People of Color; and if the choice seems obvious to you, don’t worry, Ken Levine has you covered because at one point the leader of the People of Color murders or threatens to murder a child or something. I’m sorry. I don’t remember it well. Bioshock Infinite was not a good game.

It’s easy to fall into this very South Park trap–that when you have any controversial issue, there are two sides, both extreme in their opinions and both wrong in their extremeness, and you, the rational player, the only one who’s able to look at both sides and recognize that the true way, the rational way, the right way, lies somewhere in the middle–a very milquetoast centrism which doesn’t believe in getting one’s hands dirty because any upset to the status quo is a bad thing, any change is a bad change. It’s a hilariously, pathetically dated theme–the kind of thinking which looked at Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and said, welp, both sides are equally bad.

In that respect, Shadow Thieves vs. Vampires is, you know, kind of quaint–because the Shadow Thieves might not be the nicest people, but at least they’re not fucking vampires. And there aren’t really any explicit political resonances to the choice–although, to be fair, “a bunch of crooks who, once they get what they want, are willing to help you out a bit” vs. “a bunch of undead monstrous abominations who feed off the blood of the innocent, murdering them and desecrating their corpses” does kind of resemble Democrats vs Republicans. Mods–third party mods–exist which apparently let you make other choices–you can align with the Paladins (which, ugh, fuck Paladins) or with a fellow who gives you a “screw you guys, I’m going home” route (that railroads you back into the plot eventually because I think he’s working with Irenicus or something, I’m just going from skimming TVTropes), but I think I like my two options. Baldur’s Gate 2 comes from the days before we wrung our hands about whether or not we were able to Make A Choice In A Videogame. I mean, of course we’re just navigating pre-written dialogue trees. Of course we’re experiencing content that somebody thought up and wrote. Not everything needs to be, you know, an expression of ultimate freedom. I’m playing a story about a lady who’s the daughter of a murder god. I mean, come on.

Off to Spellhold!

100 – Baldur’s Gate 2: Shut Up And Take My Money

At some point in the middle of collecting my 20k gil for the faction known as the Shadow Thieves, a vampire attempted to give me the opportunity to Make A Choice In A Videogame–for only $15,000, she’d help me on my quest. This is, I believe, intended to be the evil option, but my character is Chaotic Good and so I went with the original offer–last night, before going to bed, I paid my money and entered Chapter 3.

I haven’t done every single sidequest, but–with the help of a handy quest list–I’ve done just about all of them. Oh, there’s plenty to do just stumbling around, and that’s how I handled it the first time I played, but some of the triggers are more obscure than others–going in a certain district with a certain party member in tow, talking to someone with a certain reputation score, things like that. This is not at all a criticism–it’s kind of the opposite. Baldur’s Gate 2 is trying to give the impression of a living, breathing world, and it does a lot to show you that you’re in a city where adventure is around every corner just waiting for you to find it. BG2 is a game where you are rarely bored, where you’re rarely searching for something to do.

And what you get to do is appropriately diverse–along the way, my companions and I investigated a cult, defended a castle, routed a coven of Shadow Druids, infiltrated a thieves’ den, found a home for an orphan, and discovered a shitload of magical items along the way–it’s the kind of quests where each is a little short story, and they do their best to make sure each is interesting, has some kind of twist, or at least some point. This is a team that knows its engine very well–it’s the fourth game in the series, and one coming after the high bar that is Planescape Torment, and it knows very well what the Infinity Engine is capable of.

There is a lot of content, but it doesn’t really feel extraneous. RPGs can feel very padded; for me a lot of it has to do with the dressing around the quests. My lack of passion for Elder Scrolls has to do with how little it engages me; everything boils down to “go to Place and do Thing.” We can’t deny that most RPG quests boil down to, either, “fetch me a Thing” or “kill a Thing”. And while the likes of Skyrim features detailed, intricate lore around everything, its presentation kind of overwhelms the reason you’re doing anything. I’m not questing because I have a connection to the world, to the questgiver, to the dungeon I’m going in–Skyrim is so large and sprawling, its NPCs so numerous, that everything appears to be assembled from a thing of prefab parts and I’m usually looking at Generic NPC #283 rather than a character in the world–what I end up focusing on is the dramatic drumroll accompanying the goal text on my screen, on the big arrow on my compass leading me to my goal. One of the big developments in Skyrim is what’s called the Radiant Quest system. Since Skyrim wants to be something you can play forever, there’s a series of quests which can be infinitely generated according to a framework. “Go to [place] and do [thing]”, an NPC will say, and [place] and [thing] are selected out of a hat from a list, and you can repeat that as many times as you like. It’s questing for questing’s sake.

But I neither want nor need to be playing a game forever–RPGs are long enough that I don’t need to extend them artificially. I’d rather a game that has a manageable, if extensive, set of things to do where all of them have character, have something surprising, where there’s a few well-designed locations than miles and miles of the same basic stuff. I’d rather have one dungeon that someone sat down and created than a hundred that were assembled out of pre-fab parts.

As to what I haven’t done in Baldur’s Gate 2:

Bonus bosses: There’s two I counted, a red dragon and a lich. I’m going to wait until Chapter 6, when you return to the city, to try these–I could use the extra levels. The lich, in partichular, is guarded by other lichs who I wasn’t able to touch when I faced them. I’ve got a bunch more spells that I can use against them at this point, and probably could make some progress, but why strain myself? He’s been buried for a couple hundred years at this point, he can wait a few more months.

Watcher’s Keep: An entire bonus dungeon released with the Throne of Bhaal expansion. I’ve done a couple of floors of it, and will probably duck into a third while doing Chapter 3–it hasn’t been too difficult so far, mostly puzzley, but since it’s technically an expansion pack dungeon I’m going to wait until then to hit the lower floors.

Fucking Mind Flayers: I’ve found an enclave of Mind Flayers in the sewers and I just can’t get past them. I don’t usually let my companions die when I’m playing IE games–even though resurrection options exist, when a character dies, their stuff falls to the ground in a pile, and I unknowingly lost a bunch of stuff in Planescape Torment this way (including the golden ball which, I’m told, gives you something nice if you bring it to the endgame). I don’t want to take any chances any more, and since I’m happy to abuse the Quicksave function, I immediately reload upon a character’s death. These Mind Flayers have an instant-death attack I don’t know how to counter yet and they keep using it. I know I’m going to have a very large Mind Flayer area somewhere around Chapter 5, and so I figure I’ll get to that point, hone my skills against them, and then go back and take care of their friends when I get back to the city.

Extended Edition content: Beamdog has unfairly gotten a lot of flak for their additional content because it’s apparently SJW-y or something–I don’t find it that way, personally, because I’m an adult–but I don’t really find their NPCs useful or pleasant. Dorn’s quest gave my reputation too much of a hit and forced me to miss out on some stuff with Jaheira. Hexxat’s questline refuses to trigger. Rasaad is decent but Minsc and Korgan are taking up my fighter spots in my party and I don’t want to get rid of either of them. And Neera–

Well, both as a person and as a game character, Neera is pretty obnoxious. She’s a Wild Mage, which means that her spells have a chance of getting a Wild Surge, meaning they could either become really powerful or they could zap all of your party’s gold away or whatever random effect gets rolled from the table. Her writing is–the term I’ve been using is “internetty”, which, it’s not that she’s talking in memes exactly, but she has that kind of blithe quirkiness that annoys me and makes me feel old. And her quest–well, I ducked into it and I already fucked it up. It centers around an enclave of Wild Mages that she’s helped start. Each of the members has their own little quest to do. One of them hands you a jar of cat food. “Find my cats!” he says. (Internet.) “There are 8 of them!” I ignored the quest and got to a Point of No Return section in it, and if the walkthrough I checked is right, I think he and all of the other members of the enclave are going to die as a result, because I didn’t feed all eight (eight! why are there eight! why did Beamdog think I wanted to feed eight fucking cats and not a manageable three or four!) or something, because the [thing] a character asked me to get was right near that Point of No Return and I figured I’d have the opportunity to swing back after doing the major quest goal, because the game insists there’s a nonviolent path through one encounter that I can’t navigate the dialogue tree and don’t feel like it–look, I think I can absolve myself from the Extended Edition content. It’s pretty much the same shit they expected me to do in Siege of Dragonspear, and I just don’t want to do that anymore. There was a rumor going around the other day, since denied, that Beamdog might be working on a Planescape Torment sequel, and man, for a couple of days my blood ran fucking cold.

I mean, maybe they weren’t really cats–maybe they were interesting magical creatures or something. We’ll never know.

99 – Massive Disap–I mean, Massive Chalice

image1I was all set to make a point about the battles in Massive Chalice taking way too long; I had set a timer and was about the six-minute mark. The battle I was in was not a particularly significant battle: It was one of the bog-standard random battles that happens periodically throughout the game. Every time I moved my heroes, another few enemies appeared–it’s one of those games that hides its enemies behind fog-of-war until you have line of sight.

This battle introduced an enemy type called Cradles. Each of Massive Chalice’s enemies has a little gimmick–some take away XP; some explode, leaving behind poisoned squares; some give themselves a defensive buff after being attacked. The Cradle’s gimmick is that it spits out other enemies, and they also happen to have high HP. Defeating one of them took several rounds, both to cross the featureless level to the area where it is, and a couple of attacks to take it down. Finally, at about the 7 minute mark of my timer, I defeated the thing, whereupon it added three enemies to the already large pile on my screen before it died.

It was at that point that I uninstalled Massive Chalice.

Double Fine is a wall that I keep hitting myself against, getting more and more disappointed every time, and I think a lot of people feel that way. Remasters of Lucasarts classics aside, I’ve never met anybody who’s loved a Double Fine game. There’s something appealing and likeable about them that’s doesn’t really carry through to the quality of their games. All of their stuff of theirs that I’ve played has a really nifty premise, a confidence of voice, an uncontestable stylishness that just tumbles into bullshit. Psychonauts was hilarious and experimental and varied–and was also a collectathon platformer with finicky jumps that became more and more unpleasant to play as it went out. (Ah, for a Psychonauts that had the balls to be a straight up adventure game.) Brutal Legend was–again–hilarious, looked amazing, was an unabashed love letter to heavy metal–that threw too many ideas at the wall and didn’t do any of them well. The Cave was an interesting experiment that begged you to replay it and then bogged you down with repetitiveness. Hack and Slash had some great ideas but was ultimately incomprehensible. Broken Age was beautiful and eerie until it ran out of funding and didn’t release its lackluster second half until everybody had forgotten about it. Spacebase DF-9 was unfinished. Every one of their games I’ve played starts off shiny, full of promise, and then just crumbles.

In my most cynical moments, I want to say that the only thing that Double Fine is really good at is getting funding for their games. They’re that kind of faux indie giant that feels sorry for itself, tramples over the bedroom developers, gets itself on itch.io, and crowds everybody out of Kickstarter. And that would be unfair. Because the employees of Double Fine fucking love games. Every piece of their copious behind-the-scenes media shows a bunch of people who genuinely believe in what they’re doing, who love what they’re doing, who are living the dream.

There’s just always some issue between the idea and the execution. It always falls flat.

Massive Chalice is a turn-based strategy game in the vein of X-Com, a game that I liked but didn’t love. Its premise is that your kingdom is under attack by something-or-other, and that in 300 years you’ll be able to launch your superweapon, so in the meantime you’ve got to manage your kingdom, build up your armies, do your research, and fight some skirmishes until the final battle. It, like X-Com, is an attempt at marrying grand strategy to squad-based tactics. By and large, the grand strategy sections are very good. I love checking research off a tech tree. You appoint people to be the regents of various keeps and you get to marry them off and have babies, and while I’m not one of those creeps who loves Fire Emblem (seriously, if you’ve ever met a Fire Emblem fan, they’ll always go on, in very disturbing terms, about marrying their characters together, and there’s always a faux-veneer of self-awareness about, ha ha, I’m breeding these people together like cattle, but one which quickly falls apart because oh my god they do not shut up about how they’re breeding these people together like cattle) there’s a depth to that. And it’s all tied to a timeline that scrolls through–the UI is really pretty (everything Double Fine does is really pretty)–in a very satisfying way.

The actual battles fucking suck.

As I said: They all take too long. The grand strategy is where my heart is; every time a battle pops up, it feels like an interruption. They all take place in generic, procgen areas that are too large and have too many enemies hidden in the corners. And they are all exactly the same. Oh, sure, there’s different enemy types–as I said, they all have their gimmicks–but every single one i encountered is a simple, defeat all of the enemies. X-Com had the decency to sprinkle some bespoke setpieces at particular moments, ones which represented major parts of the storyline. Which felt like accomplishments. I know it’s one of my personal bugbears, being down on procgen, but I can see the use of it, when it keeps a game being surprising, it can add to some nice tension. In Massive Chalice, the effect is a flatness–there’s no major strategic difference from battle to battle. There’s some different wallpaper to the environments, but otherwise, you’re just going to be fighting a smattering of too-many enemies in a featureless, boring set of corridors forever. Were the battlefields half the size, were there a third as many enemies, it might be a pretty good game–the battles being quick things you duck into for a minute or two. But every one seems to go on long past the point of being interesting. It all feels like padding.

Massive Chalice has made me aware of the passage of time. As the years go on in the game, people are born, and people die–both in battle and of old age. The baby born in your keep grows up and becomes a fighter so quickly. The scholars you have researching will die of old age. And what it has impressed upon me is this lesson: Life is way too fucking short to waste on the same fucking battles over and over again.

98 – Baldur’s Gate 2: True (And False) Companions

The Baldur’s Gate games have a huge roster; BG1 boasts 25 (29 in the Extended Edition) companions who can join your journey. Baldur’s Gate 2 has only 16–21 in the EE–and makes up for the lack by giving them all more focus, dialogue, and quests. A few of your companions had things to do, all of which were on strict time limits: Montaron and Xzar need you to get to Nashkel, Kivan needs you to complete Chapter 4 hours before you’re ready to get there, Minsc wants you to rescue Dynahier. If you don’t do what they ask, they’ll leave your party forever. There’s also some characters who come in pairs–once you rescue Dynahier, she and Minsc are joined at the hip, and Jaheira will not join your party unless Khalid is there, which is a shame because Khalid sucks.

But for the most part, your characters are a bunch of barks and incidental dialogue. Baldur’s 2 greatly expands all of their roles. Some characters will refuse to be in the same party as one with opposite alignment, and they’ll even fight each other to the death. Characters can be romanced–as I said, BG2 is Bioware becoming Bioware. (I hate romance subquests, but that’s another story.) And many of the characters have personal quests, ones that are much more detailed than those in the first game.

And Baldur’s Gate 2 is very happy to let you fuck those quests up or otherwise kick the characters out permanently.

Anomen, an irritating fighter/cleric who’s desperate to become a knight, gets charged with avenging the murder of his sister. Complete the quest, and he’ll not get that knighthood and his alignment will change. Keldorn, a Paladin, finds out his wife, lonely from his insistence on going on adventures, is seeking affections from another man; you can encourage him to leave the party for good in order to spend more time at home. Dorn, one of the Extended Edition’s terrible characters, asks you to help out with a series of assassinations, damaging your reputation every time until you finally get sick of him and he leaves in a huff. Jaheira, a Harper and friend of your foster fathers, sees your low reputation from all that time spent with Dorn and leaves rather than vouch for you at a kangaroo court, shutting you out of some later quests with her.

This is what we call “true role-playing”, and it’s a kind that I know upsets some people. All of the mutual exclusivity in party members means it’s difficult or impossible to do an optimal route. Most people consider games with branching paths to have only one “real” route, and anything else is a fuckup. This is a big reason why you’ve never made a choice in a videogame: If games were to let you, why, you might not like the results. Best to have one basic route through, and maybe some light, cosmetic things here and there.

But I find Baldur’s Gate 2’s philosophy to be much more interesting, although, yes, it is slightly disconcerting at times. The game figures there’s so much of itself that you’re still going to have a satisfying amount to eat no matter what. There’s some quests you’re going to simply miss–the triggers for the companion quests, for example, depend on having a party member around for a certain amount of days, or taking one to a certain area–and if you get a bad ending or someone leaves for good, well, that’s life. There’s still more to do, and there’s still other people around you haven’t offended. Maybe your reputation is just so low that you’ve got to fill up your party with Hexxat and Viconia and Edwin and you’ll just run with it.

Losing Jaheira does sting a bit, though.

I earned my 20k gold, spent most of it on spells and supplies, and earned it again. Now I’ve gotten my stronghold–due to class choices, it’s the same exact stronghold (Nalia’s) as I got my first time through, which is kind of a shame–and am exploring the wilderness areas outside of Athkatla. Which by no means means I’ve finished everything I’d like to do in the city. Like I said. There’s so much to do in this game. I am a busy Bhaalspawn.