Picking Games Apart, One Title At A Time

Examining Star Ocean 4 Part 2 – Hopeful Beginnings

The most punchable face in the universe.

After the opening cinematic, in which we’re introduced to the newly-formed USTA – the Universal Science and Technology Administration – as well as the SRF, Space Recon Force, we have our first run-in with the slimy piece of flubber known as Deputy Director Shimada.

Everything about this man is designed to repulse, from his looks, to the silly way he moves, his voice and mode of speech, and especially his personality. In a game where the main antagonist is an incomprehensible entity from beyond the void (or whatever), it’s a really good idea to have a human sub-villain for the player to hate first, before the Big Bad is introduced. And boy oh boy does Star Ocean 4 deliver.

Not only is Shimada himself a thoroughly detestable piece of unripe manure, he also has three yes men with him, as if he couldn’t get any nastier. He’s the sort of man who only thinks of himself, doesn’t care about the mission or humanity or the SRF, and is literally only in it for his own personal self-aggrandisement and gain. Bravo, Tri-Ace, this is pretty much the perfect example of a drama first bad guy. (more…)

Examining Star Ocean 4 Part 1 – Sailing the Star Ocean

After SO3, this really was my last hope for the series…

Star Ocean: The Last Hope (henceforth known simply as either Star Ocean 4 or SO4) is probably one of my favourite games of the last console generation. Despite it having a number of pretty serious flaws, not least of which taking place in the same universe as Star Ocean 3 (I’ll have a post on that game soon…), I have an immense fondness for this game.

Maybe it’s the characters, most of whom are varying degrees of fun and interesting, if a little too stereotypical in a Japanese kind of way. Maybe it’s the hugely fun combat. Yes, even the battle trophies, though screw that final (PSN) trophy. Maybe it’s the overall setting and the fact we actually got to spend more time in the ostensible title of the franchise; the star ocean itself. Unlike Star Ocean 3.

In reality it’s all three of those things combined, of course. I’m a big ol’ Japanese RPG nerd in any case and can generally overlook some of the usual issues they have, which I’ll be going into in detail on over the course of this series, but beyond that Star Ocean 4 simply has a really fun gameplay loop combined with a workable story and fun characters I enjoy spending time with. (more…)

Fallout 4’s Central Conceit is a Mess Part 3

Building a new world.

We now have an opening section that is fairly open-ended with regards to player freedom and expression, and an opening quest + faction for the player to engage with. Additionally, our spouse and child are both alive and living in Sanctuary.

With that in mind, I’ll first say this: if you’d rather have them live somewhere else, there’d be nothing stopping you. Simply move them to another settlement and manage it how you please. There’d be a quest a bit later on involving the Vault-Tec faction and your family, but that can effectively take place regardless of where they live at the time.

Beyond that, I see two basic ways to take this from here. First, we go with the same idea as vanilla: Shaun’s been kidnapped early on. This devolves pretty quickly into assumed empathy again and is therefore not the route I’d take, but let’s explore quickly before moving on.

So our kid has been kidnapped for whatever reason, doesn’t matter much for this particular thought exercise, it’s enough that he’s gone. Instead of killing off the spouse as well, we have them be alive and well as I’ve already discussed. What this does is allow us to offload all the ‘SHAAAAAAUN!’ stuff onto the spouse.

The player character then takes the role as defined in the previous posts, exploring and being an ambassador, while simultaneously putting in some of the detective work on finding Shaun, if they like. But the major legwork can then be handled by the spouse, who will pore over documents and reports from Valentine’s agency, and do his/her own research and so on. The player will then have the option of following up new leads or leaving them to the spouse. (more…)

Fallout 4’s Central Conceit is a Mess Part 2

Home sweet home.

Okay, so what we have now is a functional settlement the player can build as they like using the new settlement building features, plus a cast of characters to get to know and care about (rather than generic ‘settlers’).

And a spouse who is alive and living in the same world, with whom the player will be able to interact, getting to know him/her as well as the player’s character knows them so that when everything goes wrong later, you care and have a reason to go looking for them. All good. So let’s continue.

A beneficial side effect of changing the opening like this is the reduction of ludonarrative dissonance. That’s the industry-created term for when the motivations of the player and their character don’t really align. Having a critical mission the player character is desperate to accomplish (finding Shaun) doesn’t really jibe well with the player’s desire to dick about in the wastes for 100+ hours. New Vegas handled this exceptionally well. Fallout 4 did not.

Even Fallout 3 handled this better than 4 did, and Fallout 3’s central conceit was terrible. I find it truly remarkable how far Fallout 4 fell even compared to this low benchmark. The worst part, though? Skyrim actually handled this pretty well.

Sure, you’re the Dragonborn and technically supposed to be saving the world, but let’s be honest here, it’s not much of a stretch to have the character think to themselves, ‘nope, too dangerous, I’ll just cock about diving into dungeons instead’ rather than take on goddamn DRAGONS. A task the player and their character can both be happy ignoring the main quest to achieve if they so desire.

Hell, the game even supports this decision to some degree by splitting out the civil war questline and having that be an almost entirely distinct part of the game that has minimal impact on the dragon storyline. Skyrim has many issues, but lodunarrative dissonance is surprisingly low on that list. (more…)

Fallout 4’s Central Conceit is a Mess Part 1

Idyllic. And completely nonsensical.

Fallout 4 has a problem. Actually, that’s a lie, Fallout 4 has many problems, but one of the biggest for me is the initial narrative hook: Nate or Nora’s death, and the search for Shaun, which are handled so incredibly poorly that I’m honestly not sure how any writer could look at them and think ‘yes, this is a good story’.

One of the biggest problems with Fallout 4’s story is the use of assumed empathy. The assumption that people will care just because of x, y, or z thing. Your character has a kid who’s kidnapped! You care about that, right? Of course you do! Or do you? No, not really, because I don’t know these people and I don’t care about them yet, so why should I give the remotest of craps that their kid was taken and one of them was killed?

Sure, the in-game character of Nate or Nora knows their spouse, and has spent a year or so looking after their kid. So they have a stake in the world. But the player does not know these people. You get a total of around 10 minutes with them before Shaun is kidnapped and the spouse is killed. That’s not enough time to learn what they had for breakfast, never mind the kind of people they are, or why we should care about them.

Mass Effect had a similar problem in the third game, centring a lot of the main conflict on the invasion of Earth. But we don’t know anyone on Earth – beyond maybe Anderson – it’s just a random planet of 11 billion people, no different to the Turian or Asari homeworlds. The writers assumed the player would care simply because it’s Earth, and we happen to live on that planet in real life. (more…)

Reconstructing Fallout 3 Part 21: ATOMIC SCIENCE!

Nukuler Attums.

Nukuler Attums.

As promised, this week we talk about the atomic dimwits. Remember when I talked about the ghouls in the DC ruins at both the museum and beneath the White House? And how the Super Mutants would be one of their main trading partners? Let’s add to that.

Thanks to a random discussion at the No Mutants Allowed forums, I had a new idea, one involving an existing – and incredibly stupid as it currently stands – faction: The Church of Atom.

Allow me to start by saying I don’t necessarily think the Church of Atom faction itself is stupid. It’s how they’re portrayed that’s stupid. Especially the likes of their radiation immunity, something that is never explained. Or why they’re so widespread in Fallout 4. Or why they’re automatically hostile (eh, could say the same about most Bethesda factions, I guess, gotta have them targets to shoot).

Anyway, my idea for this faction is thus: they’re a cult who sprang up several decades ago in the Boston Commonwealth area (yes, this will span both 3 and 4, I’ll talk more about them in 4 when I start the Reconstructing series for it). Cults generally worship something, and like in the base games they effectively worship atomic energy.

However, unlike Beth’s dumbass cultists who literally treat it as a religion, I’m thinking something more along the lines of the Followers of the Apocalypse. They’re cult-like, kind of nuts in some ways, have some weird as hell rituals, and certainly treat atomic power with an almost religious fervour and reverence. Okay.

But they’re also made up of people who understand nuclear power and weapons. Scientists, technicians, mechanics, all sorts, alongside regular folk who provide the more basic day to day amenities. In the Boston area they’ll be pretty big and pretty powerful, notably through their understanding of technology.

They’re also a pretty decent sort overall, willing to help people get old tech working and so on (basically the east coast’s answer to the Followers), but are also extremely interested in anything to do with nuclear power. They’ll use energy weapons, be capable of producing fission batteries, microfusion cells, and other useful tech, and generally be a force to be reckoned with.

Moving to the DC region, the Atomists (nice shortening of their name for convenience) have sent out some small expeditionary parties to scout out other areas and determine whether there is anything of value. (more…)

Reconstructing Fallout 3 Part 20: Mutant Mayhem

Ancient Evolved Ninja Mutants: The Secret of the Ooze.

Ancient Evolved Ninja Mutants: The Secret of the Ooze.

Super Mutants! Regardless of how little sense this faction makes in Fallout 3, they remain the primary antagonistic force in the game for a considerable period until the Enclave shows up. Let’s see how they might be improved and fixed. My first thought was to remove the dumb second generation Vault 87 mutants entirely. But then I decided there is possibly a better way.

Instead, what I’m thinking is this: Marcus originally set out with a large number (comparatively, given there aren’t many left) of fellow mutants in order to find a place to call home. Because we now have our own version of the Silk Road, we can say they travelled with the merchant caravans, providing some additional muscle and protection until they decide to put down roots somewhere.

However, over time a secondary faction arose among the mutants that didn’t feel like sticking around the west coast region. While some mutants integrated into society, the new faction decided it wanted to leave this area behind and make a new life far to the east. (Note, Harold also goes along on this particular journey.)

Eventually, this second faction split entirely and made their way east, continuing on with the caravans. Marcus, the Nightkin, and the other mutants with him settled down at what would become known as Jacobstown, thus neatly tying into the later plot/location in New Vegas. (more…)

World Building: A Look at Star Ocean 3

Love the ancient look with that sepia tone.

Love the ancient look with that sepia tone.

So I’ve been replaying some older games recently, and one of the last was Star Ocean 3: Till the End of Time. Great game in a lot of ways, some nice world building, okay characters, spends far too much time on underdeveloped planets. No major problems there.

But then we reach that ending. You know the one I mean, the last portion of the game where – SPOILER ALERT! – it’s revealed that our world and entire galaxy/universe is just a big old quantum computer simulation and effectively nothing more than a vijda game for a group of 4-dimensional beings on another plane of existence to cock about with.

If you’ve not actually played the game, I’m not joking. That’s really how the game concludes. No real lead-up either, there are hints that something weird is happening in our galaxy, with insanely overpowered creatures destroying entire planets and some weird energy flooding the universe, but the reveal itself falls utterly flat because it happens out of nowhere.

Now, I could talk about the ending itself, how it fails on various narrative and thematic levels, how it could’ve been handled better (or changed entirely), and all manner of other things. But instead I’m going to talk a bit about the world building in this game. Stuff like lore, back story, locations, planets, etc., as those are some of the strongest aspects of this title for me. (more…)

Reconstructing Fallout 3 Part 19: Ever-Clean Pills

A Behemoth chillin’ after some pillin’. Because giving giants drugs is fun.

A Behemoth chillin’ after some pillin’. Because giving giants drugs is fun.

Evergreen Mills, yet another location that could’ve been great but ended up being utterly squandered as usual.

Now, before I get to Evergreen Mills itself, I need to quickly cover one other, uh… I can’t say faction because it’s basically a faction of one, but certainly an important character who’ll have a prominent role in the world, even if he technically wants to remain hidden for the most part.

Remember that ghoul fella living in Northwest Seneca Station? Murphy? The one who wants to improve Jet and make a shitload of caps getting ghouls addicted because regular Jet doesn’t really have the same effect for them? Yeah, him. Let’s improve him and turn that quest into something a little more helpful (or the reverse depending how you decide to play it!). (more…)

The Fallout: New Vegas Amnesia Theory

I appear to have made a grave mistake.

I appear to have made a grave mistake.

I’ve been watching the New Vegas season of Spoiler Warning recently because eh, why not. And in episode 4 they talk about the Courier’s amnesia, at least briefly (around 12:30). This is an interesting topic to me because a lot of people seem to assume the Courier has this affliction when in reality… he/she kind of doesn’t.

It’s clear from dialogue choices later in the game that the Courier doesn’t in fact have amnesia, but it’s pretty easy to see why people might assume they do. For starters, you have dialogue options in the opening area (Goodsprings) that sort of indicate you don’t know the major factions in the region. You also have options to ask about your job, the very one that led you to getting shot in the head.

These speech options aren’t there for the Courier. They’re there for the player’s benefit, in order to inform them as to several important aspects of the outer world and the main story hook (the platinum chip/Benny).

Later on, if you visit… let’s say the caravan in the North Passage before heading off to play Honest Hearts (or the New Reno singer in Novac for a base game example), you’ll get a speech option clearly showing that the Courier in fact has all their faculties intact. There are several situations like this where you can ask questions the Courier could only know if they still have their memory. (more…)