59 – Gothic II

I end up talking about Skyrim a lot, just like I end up talking about Final Fantasy VII a lot, and BioShock a lot, and it’s obvious why: Everybody’s fucking played them. And it’s obvious why everybody’s fucking played them, and, oh, let’s be honest with ourselves, most of these games deserve their position–they do what they do very well and in a way that a lot of people like, and if BioShock isn’t quite as deep as its press releases say it is, it’s deep enough. (We’ll leave the subject of Infinite closed indefinitely.)

Skyrim is one of those games that I love in theory, because let’s face it: I do very well with games where you’re placed in a land and you have to bum around and figure it out and maybe you fight dragons. But Skyrim is an extremely flat and homogenous game. In its effort to be all things to all people, in its efforts to be so large and so sprawling and so massive, the game simply doesn’t have enough tricks up its sleeve. Cast your net at a section of gameplay–dip in and pick a dozen quests and dungeons and maybe every one will be different. Dip in and pick another dozen, and another dozen, and there are going to be a few too many similarities in each packet. Skyrim is the kind of game which doesn’t want to leave any players unsatisfied. Oh, sure, there’s more to do if you’re Cheevo-hunting, and there are enough variants in the quests to make things interesting, but I’m a dungeons guy, I’m an exploration guy, and the dungeons are all samey and the exploration is so brief–it’s traversing rather than discovering.

Gothic II is the kind of game where I had to start over after about ten hours of playing because I squandered a few resources and built my character in an unproductive direction and wanted to do it right this time. In those ten hours I explored a relatively small area–the initial city and the surrounding woodlands–and in the entirety of that time I was able to chart only about two thirds of the entirety of that area and I certainly didn’t feel safe at all. Rather than large, Gothic II is going deep and intimate. There’s shit hidden in different corners, some shortcuts–it’s not as much of an intertwined cartography maze as Dark Souls is, it’s rather a single large island rather than a selection of interconnected areas which loop upon themselves in surprising ways. But it’s a hell of an island.

I find I like games which invite an intimacy with the land, which are based on developing a familiarity with the environment. It’s why I love Might and Magic so much: VARN is a world that you chart and become familiar with and eventually learn to navigate on your own. Same with the Wizardry Cosmic Forge trilogy. It’s why people love Dark Souls and why I loved ICO–hell, it’s why people love Ocarina of Time. I have never been able to have that intimacy with an Elder Scrolls game–although I’ve never played Morrowind which I’m told is one of the finest in the series.

Gothic is doing a great job at balancing some tight reins with an extreme degree of freedom; the monsters are hard, and the point–that your character is, right now, a supreme wuss–gets very strongly made when two flies kick your ass. Combat is sporadic and fixed–there aren’t too many enemies around, but all of them are legitimate threats and every combat feels very meaningful. But skill plays a part as much as your stats; restarting the game, the initial bits were much, much easier because I understand the timing underlining the combat a tiny bit better than when I first played. (Those flies are still really difficult though.) Everything has these really stringent requirements–half of the weapons I’ve picked up require strength 40, strength 80, strength 100 when my 10-hour character only had strength 10 (part of the reason I restarted was because I put some points into the wrong stats.) It’s a game where you chip and chip and chip away and every bit of progress feels like a rush, and the density of stuff and the rarity of stuff and the importance of stuff–finding two arrows and a healing herb has not stopped being a good find–means that every time you find stuff it’s rewarding. Skyrim threw crap at you, it gave you more treasures than you knew what to do with and gave merchants too little gold for you to sell everything and gave you weight requirements that meant you simply couldn’t take everything–and I don’t know about you, but it breaks my heart to have to sort through the items in a chest and have my decisions very easy to make because half of that shit is absolutely useless. Sure, it’s possible that the early game of Gothic requires gold in a way the late game does not, but all I know is that I’ve got to get 1000 gold pieces in order to do one quest, 500 to do another, and a good 200-300 to buy a couple spells I need to buy, and I’ve been scrimping and saving to capture 200.

I speak as if this is my character in the present tense, of course–this is all from that abandoned 10 hour playthrough, again, part of the reason I want to restart is because I want to manage my money better. I’ve loved the density of the world so far, and I’ve been told that it stays that way for the whole game, and I’m so excited to see more on the island and find more stuff out. All of the quests I’ve been given have been very meaningful and different–again, so far–and I just want to be able to play more of it. It’s just an immensely satisfying game in a way that Skyrim never was.

30 — 3 Hours on the Dorgenark

The thing about Rogue Galaxy is it’s almost obscenely of its time. There were a lot of things we knew to be Facts in the mid-00s; one of those Facts was that the more cutscenes in your game, the more Artistic it would be.

The bulk of an RPG involves navigating through menus; in many ways, a traditional JRPG has a lot in common with a spreadsheet. The particular genius of companies like Square was taking those spreadsheets and putting them in gorgeous packages. Final Fantasy VII is an ugly mess today, but at the time, it looked so badass. Final Fantasy VII, the Citizen Kane of videogames, a game which inspired pretty much every game to be a little more like an RPG and which inspired RPGs to become dramatic as shit. Square’s aesthetic has always been extremely operatic, extremely theatrical, and not a little camp; whether influenced by Final Fantasy or whether it’s just a general trend in Japanese media, it doesn’t really matter: To be a fan of RPGs in the mid-00s meant you were, at least to a degree, a fan of melodrama.

And so Rogue Galaxy is frontloaded with sweeping cutscenes all about how protagonist Jasper Rogue wants to free his planet from Occupation but he’s always wanted to go into Space and here are two people looking for a legendary bounty hunter that they confuse for Jaster and there’s a near miss involving tons of sandworms and a crash landing and everything is goddamn adventuresome. But if you want to talk lu-do-nar-ra-tive dis-so-nance, Jaster and his friends are romping around in danger while I, the player, am sitting on the couch doing bong rips. It’s up to you whether or not that’s a problem.

Let’s be honest: I can’t say that the story is particularly great. It’s the kind of teenagery anime fodder that you’re embarrassed to have your 24-year-old roommates catch you watching. Its romance scenes are cheesy, its comedy scenes are a little too goofy…and yet, there’s a charm to the proceedings that makes it all forgiveable. The art’s a lot of it. Level-5 is known for its cel-shading, and Rogue Galaxy is one of those games whose art direction  prevents it from looking dated. No one’s gonna mistake it for a PS3 game, certainly–there’s jaggies all over the place, for example–but it’s a good looking game. The biggest difference between last generation and this generation, for me, has not been polygon counts but the amount of stuff that’s in a typical game environment these days. A lot of PS2 games look extremely empty, but Rogue Galaxy is wonderfully if repetitively detailed. Everything’s bright and colorful, and it’s lush but not garish.

Mostly, though, of everything I am a sucker for, I am a sucker for a well-done skill tree system, and I love Rogue Galaxy’s. Each character has a board with empty spaces on it, into which you place certain items which get repurposed into abilitieswhen you complete groups. It’s a nice and clean system.

I got about 20 hours in the first time I played Rogue Galaxy; I’m roughly 3 in this time. Like most of Level 5’s games, like most RPGs of the time, it’s a huge Pile of Shit To Do–not only are the dungeons sprawling and crawling with monsters, there’s a weapon synthesis system, an item creation system, an insect collection tournament, a billion other optional sidequests. Nearly all of this is optional. We hear talk, sometimes, about Games These Days being afraid to include anything the player might not necessarily see. Stuff costs Money, and why bother spending money on something the player might miss? Rogue Galaxy is the opposite of that to an almost overwhelming degree.

Well, it’s pretty and I enjoy grinding–the battle system is a well-done if standard action RPG button masher–and that’s enough for me for now, at least.

18

Wizardry 6 continues to be wonderful, if extremely claustrophobic. It’s part and parcel of the greyness–a beach looks like a mountain looks like a tomb and all of them are stone walls closing you in. I’ve gotten to the River Styx, which features blue water tiles instead of grey floor tiles, and it’s almost a completely different game. As I’ve said: The game exists not as software but as a combination of itself, the maps I’m drawing, and my imagination, and it’s interested in being brutal, which I’m loving–it respects the fuck out of me as a player. CF something like Skyward Sword which is Very Proud Of You For Figuring Out How To Open A Chest And Gives You Fanfare Every Time. I think it’s quite possible that Nintendo thinks its audience is mentally disabled. CF Dark Souls which doesn’t give a fuck whether you beat it or not and which is considered one of the finest games of this generation. Makes you think.

But brutality, lovely as it is, needs to be tempered every so often, and solely to give myself a break for an evening after a particularly tough bit of maze, I broke open that Might and Magic pack I bought from GOG. There are, I believe, 9 separate games in the pack–M&M 1-9, the fangame Swords of Xeen, and something called Crusaders of Might and Magic which I have been told is a bit of a letdown.

I’d played one of the M&M games years ago as a kid–it came with our new computer–and I remember playing it but not getting very far, mostly because I was 10 and I was too lazy for it. I was attempting to get through it without mapping, which worked hilariously, and I wasn’t used to such an open game as it was. Breaking open the seal on the six-pack–games 1-6 are sold together on GOG with the rest separately outside of bundle sales–I played the first, found it too punishingly old school for my mood–it’s not very different from what I’m dealing with with Wizardry. I’ll get to it later. Might and Magic 2 turns out to be the game I’d played all those years ago–I remembered it immediately from the title screen–but again, very old-school, and the draw distance is a little annoying.

I’d really been interested in World of Xeen (M&M 4&5), but I played 3 and it immediately hooked me.

Well…not immediately. It took a little while to figure out how to fight and how to explore, but boy howdy!

There is precious little in the way of setup. In the intro, the series antagonist appears and babbles some threats at you, and then the next thing you know you’re in a town and given pretty free reign. Opening your journal, you’ll get some notes about Moose Rats attacking the town, and dealing with that will probably be the first major quest that you do, but beyond that, the game doesn’t really care. Eventually a set of goals appear–the bulk of the game appears to be collecting a series of macguffins for three kings representing the various alignments, and then you get to pick which one you think is the best–but the structure of the game is plain and simple adventuring. You dick around towns, buying stuff and finding quests; you dick around the map, finding secrets and fighting monsters; you dick around dungeons, finding treasure and navigating mazes. Some of these get you closer to the endgame; the rest just give you treasure or fun little experiences.

I’ve just described Skyrim, essentially. Skyrim, like Final Fantasy VII before it, is such a product of its era, so representative of The State Of Gaming At The Time that it can be used as representative example of What Gaming Was Like in 2011. Skyrim is a more elaborate Dickaround Game, featuring many many more quests and many many more square miles and many many more enemies–

Well, no, because this is one of the first reasons I disliked Skyrim–there’s no fucking monsters. There’s a couple of ones, but for the most part you’re fighting wild animals and generic bandits. By Hour 10, you’ve pretty much seen all of the basics of what the game has to offer, in monster design and environment design and character design and puzzle design. Skyrim is less fast food and less a buffet and more a gigantic tub of gruel that you’re allowed to eat as much or as little as you want. The more you play Skyrim, the blander it gets.

I think there’s a point of diminishing returns, especially when you’ve got such a big budget game like Skyrim that’s so desperately terrified that someone’s not going to like it. Skyrim is made not for the person who is going to drop hundreds and hundreds of hours on it but for someone who’s going to spend maybe 20 on it. The philosophy seems to work like this: That 20 hours can be picked up pretty much anywhere in the game and will be fairly representative of what the game has to offer. If you drop a hundred hours on it, you’ve seen those 20 hours five separate times. Dwemer Ruins may be interesting the first few times, and if you’ve only seen a couple you’ll probably enjoy it; by the time you’ve hit the dozenth, well, everything kind of blurs. Spread this over the towns. Over the overworld. Over the battles. Over the spells. After a distressingly short period of time, Skyrim forgets to include new content, and you’ve got 80-100 hours left to go.

For a game named after its location, Skyrim itself isn’t the kind of place you’re ever going to navigate by memory because it’s simply too big. The map is good for giving you an idea of what direction you need to go in–although the arrow, taking the place of the guy who owns the game who’s watching you play, makes a need for orienteering almost COMPLETELY nonexistent–but it’s not going to help you remember where anything is beyond a few landmarks. There was that meh article going around a little while ago about whether or not Skyrim is “impressionistic”–which is a concept I can’t necessarily disagree with. I don’t really remember explicit Events or Dungeons or anything from the game–I remember mountains, and giant spiders, and cheevos popping up.

By contrast, Might and Magic 3, colorful, vibrant Might and Magic 3, where all the enemy designs are goofy and cool and I’ve seen more so far than in Oblivion and Skyrim put together, although I may be exaggerating, gives you a lot more in the way of engagement for the world you’re saving. It’s a lot smaller, for one. I’ve mapped out the first island already, although I certainly haven’t done all of its secrets–and based on a map I glimpsed at, there’s maybe five or six major ones. With the automap skill–which you can learn within the first few minutes of play–mapping islands becomes a fairly easy experience, monsters aside. Finding all of the Stuff in Skyrim is impossible and absolutely unrewarding. Each secret you discover in M&M is a larger percentage of the whole. Some more initial direction and focus might not be a bad thing–apparently World of Xeen addresses that as well–but given the game’s focus on random questing over an intricate storyline, that’s not a problem. You’ll figure out quickly enough if monsters are too strong for you, and if there’s a riddle you can’t solve, well, enough of the game is optional and there’s enough stuff to do that you can always come back to it later.

Coming back to it later: Are there any dungeons in Skyrim that are too difficult for the moment you find them that you have to put them aside? I never found one. The game is constant progress, constant conquering, and it’s absolutely lame.

Now, particularly when the dungeons are concerned–M&M is in first-person although it’s constructed like a classic RPG with squares representing entrances to towns and dungeons–there is a notion of Completed. You finish a dungeon, you’re done with it; you never need to come back. Once you’ve solved a town’s dungeon–there’s usually only one–the towns are only good for supplies and leveling up. As far as supplies go, you sell a LOT more than you buy–there are enough good treasures in the dungeons that I don’t spend much money in the stores. Leveling up is done by trainers, and that each town has a different level cap for how high they can train you is one of the main reasons to spend time in any other town. In ANY case, each town has a portal that, once you’ve discovered the password, allows you to quick travel between them.

Contrast this to Wizardry 6, one huge dungeon, which is crossed and recrossed, sometimes because you missed something but other times because you’ve found a key to unlock a door. The game, like Dark Souls, is a complete whole–my maps are becoming multi-page for each floor and every single one lines up EXACTLY with the floors above and below–and the better you know it, the more shortcuts you’ll discover. Keeping the game in your head is practically a survival tactic. Because I’m making my own maps, keeping the game in my head is extremely easy; I have a very strong working knowledge of that first continent in M&M3, but beyond that I need to look at the automap a lot. (And the automap cannot scroll; I hope THAT is something they fix in the fourth game as well but I’ll find out soon enough.)

But given the self-contained nature of the dungeons and towns, keeping the entire game in your head isn’t necessary, and frankly it’s nice. Might and Magic 3 is certainly more difficult and sophisticated than Skyrim–heh, think about that, Skyrim as an unsophisticated game, and you know what, it is–but compared to Wizardry 6 it’s a fun romp.

Okay, fun romp over, time to break out the graph paper again.