The Witcher 3
I’ll just say it. The Witcher 3 is the best RPG I’ve ever played. Upon considering it for purchase, I knew I would have to come to grips with a few things. One would be the lack of any companions. If done correctly, like a Fire Emblem game, parties can become one of the most valuable assets to any RPG. The concept of a lone fighter can be a dreary experience like after not being able to invest in Skyrim any more after 250 hours or so. I’ve gone even further in the Witcher 3 only to not be finished with it and still have available DLC to play with to boot. The “bigger-than-Skyrim” map also intimidated me a bit because I distinctly remembered scouring Skyrim to sometimes be a bit of a chore while running into same old same old shitty ass dungeons I’ve played before both in the actual sense and design-wise. Not only is Witcher 3 consistently interesting on the gameplay front, but it boasted my favorite RPG story, dialogue, graphics, and cut scenes. I love any game weaving flawless-looking cut scenes into seamless transition to gameplay like Resident Evil 4 did. That asset is huge for me. Combine that with amazing graphics and amazing dialogue and story and you already have a worthy purely cinematic experience to fall in love whilst happening to be interactive as well. You can’t really get any better than that.
What the game has going for it are elements of many RPGs that blend into the overall experience perfectly. Amazing quest variety, great characters, diverse enemies, satisfying progression, and an emotionally investing story all exist here. All of these elements are present in even the most mundane sounding side quests that end up snowballing into something morally compelling and awesome. A missing relative can lead to a crew of menacing exploitative bandits. A similar start may result into a dramatic and or horrifyingly sad transformation of the relative into a monster and you, the monster-slayer (witcher) must hunt down the monster for a price of some sort and may have to make a tough decision with an unpredictable outcome. One favorite was being tasked with finding a particular brand of smelly cheese from this large storage room of cheese that smells and looks funky while possessing magical powers. Some genuine laugh out moments are present with adult humor both subtle and not-so-subtle.
No game has ever achieved enough emotional investment for me to indulge in in any video game whatsoever. I believe this is the standout feature that makes Witcher 3 to me seem that much more palatable. Everything else just seems to enhance the experience that already is this incredible, emotionally charged story. Case in part: the character of the Bloody Baron. He’s a completely morally corrupt asshole warlord. He kills his own troops, he’s a drunken womanizer, he beats his wife, and yet he has the decency to give Ciri (Geralt of Rivia’s (your) surrogate daughter) a place to stay after nursing her back to health and sending on her way. In many ways he is a decent man. He is, in fact, capable of great kindness. He breaks down emotionally in front of Geralt and really makes a case for himself as sympathetic by being seemingly sincere and undeniably charismatic. I would say as a whole he is a minor character in the story as a whole, but he makes a hell of an impact. I could speak volumes of other characters but really I can write a whole diatribe and not even be close to being done so if you like RPGs in the slightest, just please buy the damn game.
Final Fantasy Vlll:
The first RPG I ever played ended being one of the best gaming experiences in my life. Pokemon Red and Blue could not even hold a candle because of the oversaturation of games and a severe lack of any major change in mechanics with every subsequent installment. While Pokemania overtook my peers, I was at risk of becoming an obsessive as well. A friend of mine had Final Fantasy Vlll on a demo disc. (as in a whole disc devoted to demos and not a standalone) and I watched in wide-eyed awe for an hour. The cinematic of amphibious vehicles beaching on shores of Dollet for the siege was at time the coolest thing I had ever see a video game transmit to the gamer. Every encounter with Galbadian soldiers felt like a choreographed battle due to the variety of attacks exhibited by player and enemy. Each flash of electricity and every swipe of the sword looked and sounded different while the battle music gave every encounter an extra kick. The scenery showed enough realism while adding enough sci-fi components to look like something unique. This was even before the GF, Elvoret, or the mechanical spider, X-ATM092, show up. After this feast for the eyes and ears, I was more than ready to play the game.
And play I did. For roughly 200 hours. I know some may grin and dance around and say Final Fantasy Vl or Final Fantasy Vll were their definitive Final Fantasy experience with an annoying sense of entitlement. Not me. I even mentioned this to gamers on a forum and the series of replies I generated made me almost able to see their smug faces hiding behind the most prosperous of pretentious answers. “I genuinely feel sorry for you. You poor thing” “You missed out on the RPG genre’s definitive games of the 90s.” “Every aspect (of FF6 and FF7) is clearly superior. Except for the soundtrack lolololol.” Well guess what, pricks? I don’t give a shit! Not only was the whole journey an amazing experience, but it also introduced me to many basic and not-so-basic RPG mechanics that would morph later on down the road. At that point of my life I really couldn’t criticize any game because I had nothing to compare it to. The experience was a case of right place, right time. Those dudes can slobber on their games all they want. As a wise man once said: “That’s just your opinion, man!”
As a nine year old I felt like Final Fantasy Vlll was an extended visual and tonal Disneyworld. I felt captivated by every monster design and character model. I loved Square’s “T-Rexaur” design, the oddly Xenomprph-looking Ruby Dragon, and the beastly Behemoth. Even the non-sequiters like Cactuars and stabby Tonberrys added to the whole mystique of the game. The graphics only added to the appeal. Every summon became a joy to watch. I had no qualms about having to watch them thousands of times without having the option to skip. The majesty of 3D graphics astounded me.
My favorite moment was how Squall and Riona first meet at the SeeD ball. The moment definitely felt Disney-esque but more mature and subtle. If anything setting the moment to nothing but music, crowd background, and no dialogue created something greater than the sum of its parts. Squall and Riona were communicative with their gestures. Squall’s awkward footing and subsequent confidence felt almost like a prophecy of his character development. Riona coaxing something sincere from Squall felt natural rather than false. She held up one finger signifying one dance and kind of made Squall to dance with her in an adorable fashion without coming off as mean. I was captivated. What are FFVlll naysays going to say to that? You can’t hide sincere emotions with irony or sarcasm, man!
I am a huge fan of From Software’s Soul Series, which shouldn’t come off as a surprise considering Bloodborne is a favorite and one of the best RPGs of all time. I love the features uniting the “spinoff” with the Souls games and the ones separating Bloodborne as a unique experience all on its own. Souls are replaced with Blood Echoes (I’ll call them “Blood” for brevity) and the distinction between currencies gives Bloodborne a more macabre edge even though “Souls” creates its own freaky connotation. The movement is much, much faster and I think this is a benefit. With fast movement the combat becomes more up close and visceral. The “Rally” feature adds an added attack heavy layer to combat. Simply attack to gain back lost health within five seconds of being struck by an enemy. The risk/reward system challenges gamers especially with more wrinkles like the “visceral attacks” (aka: critical hits) and left handed guns that act more like a defensive parry than a viable offensive blow. Add in faster bosses while still maintaining that From Software difficulty and diversity and you have one more fantastic addition to the From Software repertoire. That’s just part of the combat.
Bloodborne boasts some of the most satisfying and gut wrenching combat I have ever played. Bloodhounds like me will love it as well as give and receive sadists like me will as well. Speaking of receiving you must be a bit of a masochist to be playing this game because you will die over and over again. People with anger issues had better do what they do prior to a gaming session because I can guarantee this game will test mettle and patience. I’ve experienced it and seen it. Incredibly that’s part of its charm and adds further notoriety to From’s venerable spirit games. That being said despite the difficulty combat is a blast. You have plenty (though not like Souls-plentiful) weapons at your disposal such as swords, hammers, whips, etc. There are more exotic weapons, too, like: rifleswords, beast arms, razor wheels. Each weapon can transform into something more vicious than the base weapon: spinning blades, blood-dripping swords, oversized swords, , twin blades, two handed pole-arms, and so on. A few stagger-inducing guns (pistols, shotguns, cannons) act as defensive weapons for players to set up visceral attacks.
All of this ass kissing I’m giving Bloodborne does not even measure up to what comes next. That atmosphere is simply the best atmosphere I’ve ever experienced in a game. It’s derived by the literature of Bram Stoker (Cainhurst, baby!) and H.P. Lovecraft and basically any 19th Century Gothic book. This must be the case although I’m not sure if Miyazaki mentioned the connection at all. Gravestones lie everywhere. Everywhere. No one designated graveyard for Yharnam, the location of the game, exists anywhere. Sometimes the setting seems so suffused with graves paths are carved to provide people some kind of passage around the teeming stones. Locales include giant cathedrals, snake filled forests, dungeons, poison lakes, and basically any macabre location you can think of. Miyazaki puts his own spin on strong cosmic horror celestial events such as the Pale Moon and the Lovecraftian Cthulu-esque origin of the Great One at the bottom of the madness spreading lake. Madness is prevalent thematically in Bloodborne and so is blood, of course. All NPCs that offer conversation while locked in their homes offer many disquieting things to your hunter including batshit crazy laughter on more than one occasion. This madness derives from the Great One just like a meteor and the titular Cthulu in Lovecraft’s stories.
Where Miyazaki deviates from Stoker (yes, even him) and Lovecraft is the obsession (fetish?) with blood. The way bloody crimson spatters everywhere feels more like an artistic flourish of a paintbrush more than obligatory violence. Blood is incorporated into the scenery in the form of rivers, puddles, IV bags, dripping in cave-like areas and so on. Blood frequents heavily in the lore as well. Each faction such as the Vilebloods and the Healing Church have some kind of disturbing way to collect blood from others in the form of taxation or hoarding or otherwise. It’s used as a healing substance in an almost vampire sense because no one is a straight up sucking blood through necks although that can be argued in some cases.
Bloodborne carries, in my opinion, some of if not the greatest enemy designs of all time. As a horror game and a true benchmark of the genre scary enemy design is obligatory and boy does the game deliver. I think I hate Squidward (not his name) the most. This guy is a humanoid figure with a squid-like head who introduces his presence with a nasty squelch before paralyzing you with a laser and reaching out with his head-tentacle to basically suck your brain out via a terrifying animation. Dude burps with satisfaction afterwards and you can’t even get part of your missing brain (aka Insight) back. The boss designs are sometimes majestic and sometimes gross (I’m looking at you, The One Reborn!). The madness inflicted villagers unsettle me because of how close they resemble real humans with the only main difference being the loss of sanity, which is a fear of mine. I especially hate the shrieking women. In fact, the Bloodborne seems to be the king of games that feed on phobias. We have giant snakes, giant blood sack mosquitos, giant spiders, and plenty of other creepy crawlers and a ton of other creepy shit that just doesn’t make any sense.
Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age
Golden Sun, by far, was for me the best Game Boy Advance experience ever. I spent well over one hundred hours with both GBA games. I loved both games to death. They are really two of the same since they are meant to represent one story and I’ll treat them as such. One afternoon when I was 11, my neighbor bought the game and I watched him play on his GBA and my brother and I were so compelled. My neighbor, his brother, and my brother, and myself passed that game around for thirty minute turns for hours. We did that for a few days until we beat it. It was awesome. I think I gravitated to the game partly because of the resemblances to Final Fantasy and other old school RPGs (turn-based, graphic intensive, summons, narrative-heavy). I have to give a special shout out to the graphics, which were by far the best on the Game Boy Advance handheld. The colors were many shaded and vibrant. Every portable game in comparison seemed dull graphic-wise in comparison. This rule of thumb applied to navigation in the world and battles. Character and monster models were realistic for a Game Boy game. Magic attacks had a way of using colored motes of light (not Destiny related!) to surge together and attack enemies and players. With additional scenic variety and cool non-static animations (summons!) the game had even more graphic clout.
The story presented was charming and compelling. The charm comes from the sometimes ultra-cute dialogue, which can shift from appropriately serious to funny to adorable. Comic relief dialogue is relevant to the characters. This applies to characters and how they change via the tone. I was surprised to say the least, and this applies for the actual written portions, which is to say not taken into account how the dialogue is uttered. Spoken dialogue in a GBA game? It’s true! Developers Camelot, instead of adding spoken words, substitute a chattering babble that fits each character. It’s unbelievable! There’s male, female, child, old person, etc. The player can also distinguish tone and pitch and that is also incredible. You can tell if the character is excited, angry, scared, or satisfied. I cannot speak enough for it.
The story itself involves the disruption of Alchemy when two evil Mars Adepts steal three of four Elemental Stars from Mount Alph in an attempt to restore the “Golden Sun” of Alchemy to the Weyard while risking the high potential that the power may destroy the world. Saturos and Menardi, the Mars Adepts, bring friends of the protagonists along as bargaining chips for the Elemental Star left in their possession. The protagonists chase the opposing group to the corners of the world in an attempt to stop them in their effort to restore Alchemy to the world by depositing the Elemental Stars in their corresponding Elemental Lighthouses (Earth, Water, Wind, Fire). It is a bit like Cliché City, but I love it anyway, especially because of the places I traveled to and the people I met.
The thorough thought process extended to the summons. The summons in Golden Sun are the most brilliant implementation of that specific mechanic I have ever experienced in any game. You collect Djinni in the game, which are these adorable creatures who hold elemental benefits and unleash attacks, status effects, buffs, and nerfs. When spent each Djinni can be junctioned for a summon. The more Djinni in each summon dictates how powerful they are. Summons can be found in caves and other areas while wandering the continent of Weyard. Some summons require more Djinni than others and every time this happens, the animation becomes more epic. The summoning models look superb and so do their accompanying sound and visual effects. Some even have animations (something unheard of for a GBA game!). Later on, in Golden Sun: The Lost Age, some summons can be used across multiple elements, which renders them easier to attain in battle. Make sure to watch the Isis summon is awe! She’s a beast!
Golden Sun bears key resemblances to the Zelda saga believe it or not. Psynergy, the name for magic in the game, can be used not only in battle but also to interact with the environment in numerous puzzle-like formats. Players can push around pillars with the “Move” spell by utilizing a hand to grab and move pillars. Other spells can make climbing vines grow from sprouts, shoot out melting jets of fire, or freeze puddles of water into pillars. Many more options exist. The puzzles increase in difficulty with the addition of more Psynergy spells, but they are never crazy enough to develop serious rage issues. Trust me.
For me a list of amazing RPGs would not be complete without some serious Fallout love. I developed an affair for Fallout 3, but as soon as Fallout 4 came out I left 3 in the dust and hooked up with 4. We’ve been happy ever since. The main appeal for Fallout has always been the melding of setting with gameplay. Both are a result of apocalyptic nuclear destruction. The scenery changes completely and so do the guns that increase your maximum chance of survival. You have some sort of tie to the pre-apocalyptic world as well that figures into the main story arc. I’d say these features are bucked by the crafting system, which is the main new edition. The setting and gameplay, I don’t think, will ever change too much after the edition of 3. I admit the inventory management feature needs to be tweaked a bit but only to match up smoother for the amazing crafting feature.
Crafting weapons is only of the layers comprising the entire system. In order to craft such items many, many more items must be found. Pretty much every scrap in the game world can be looted for a single purpose or two. Basic items are strew everywhere such as wood and metal, but extra digging is required to acquire those special materials that derive from glue, microscopes, fertilizer, cleaner, and so on. Every item can be broken down into its base components and they become what you actually need to be able to craft anything. At first the player mainly has access to pipe guns aka the most ghetto guns in the game. That indeed may be the case, but in my opinion they are among the most fun to craft. These guns are made from rusty pipes, nails, bits of wood, aluminum cans, and they feel basic as hell and yet very fun to shoot. It keeps getting better when the player gains access to more resources and from there you can trick the hell out of your guns. Is your scope to weak? Invest rare resources to make a long-range scope that marks your enemies. Do you want your laser rifle to be more accurate? Change out that single-beam transmitter for a multi-shot one that feels more like a shotgun when you get up close. Legendary weapons are even better, once you find them by killing Legendary enemies, because they have added bonuses such as 25% extra damage or Critical Hit Damage. Even some funky ones exist like “junky” ones that become more deadly the more your drug addition gets out of hand. Armor is treated the same way only with different perks and bonuses, obviously.
Crafting home bases is also one of the other main layers added to the overall Fallout 4 experience. I think the idea of post-apocalyptic homes is important. Having a place to call home after every other home, including yours, end up either completely destroyed or decaying hulks of what they once were. It’s like staking a claim on new land, land that can be called your own after the bombs took it away. You can actually have something entitled to you as an owner in a post-apocalyptic frontier where anything is up for grabs. This is not a half-assed feature. You can either choose to ignore the feature, a feat for Bethesda itself, or invest heavy time into your Sanctuary or subsequent other “territories”(thanks, Preston) that you find. The same kind of crafting mentality applies to building structures as it does weapons and armor. You must have the various common and rare components to set it up. Some great, original town is waiting to be crafted. The options are quite staggering. Turrets can be set up for defense. Alarm bells are struck when the enemy strikes in a raid. Wood and metal residencies are put in place for your inhabitants. Lights can be set up and wired to generators. Such intricacy begs for your indulgence into the system, and of course other methods are available to create your dream post-apocalyptic environment. You are also in charge of your settlers to become self sufficient with food stores and water.