The return of the old-school RPG

Oh hey look — Brendan’s talking about RPG’s again. I can’t help it, there’s just too much to be excited about these day. Thanks to things like free 2 play, indie development, and Kickstarter, the gaming industry has seen an influx of fresh, creative minds as well as the return of legendary game creators, able to finally create the worlds they’ve been wanting to for years, but that have been pushed aside in favor of the cash-cow, AAA first person shooters and action games we’ve been buried under for the past couple console generations.

Look I know: RPG’s have been around for ages and have evolved with the times to remain relevant while still providing the types of experiences people have come to expect from the genre…

…err, sort of. I’m a huge fan of the Mass Effect series — arguably the biggest RPG franchise of the current console generation — but it’s not really an RPG. It’s a great, great series — truly — but compared to even some of its contemporaries it’s not much of an RPG. It’s also not the only series shifting away from role playing game’s origins.

While I’m not a big fan of JRPG’s, I can’t deny that the Final Fantasy XIII series (that sounds weird) has been a major departure not only from the roots of past FF games, but from JRPGs in general. And I recently vented my frustration with Blizzard, but it’s worth noting that Diablo III, despite remaining true to much of what’s great about the Diablo series, is missing that “RPG” quality. When I say “RPG’s are coming back,” I mean the old-school, hardcore RPG’s of yore.

Ishar 3

To be fair, there’s still a fair amount of Old-School RPG DNA in some of the biggest games today. Besides the few games still adhering to the old school formulas (Dungeons of Dredmor, The Dark Spire, Etrian Odyssey series), there are several titles that appeal to those who were gaming in the 80’s/90’s, or appreciate their legacy. The Witcher 2 is a great example of a game that balances the cinematic, character-based story of games like Mass Effect, with deep combat, skill systems, and character building of true old-school RPGs; Bethesda’s games offer massive worlds filled with quests, dungeons, and NPCs to create your own story — not to mention games like Fallout 3 and Skyrim prove you can evolve character building without sacrificing depth. And, of course, it wouldn’t be an article about RPGs if I didn’t mention Dark Souls, and it’s predecessor Demon’s Souls: truly hardcore RPGs of the modern era.

But when it comes to real old-school RPGs utilizing the same design of classic titles like Wizardry and Ultima, the industry has been in a bit of a drought. There’s always been a small, cult following around a few underground niche titles, but now there are a few projects brewing that will hopefully usher in a new surge of old-school RPGs.

Legend of Grimrock
Developer: Almost Human
Released: April 11, 2012
Website

We reviewed this game back when it was released earlier this year. It remains one of my favorite indie games of the year. Despite middling reviews from some critics, for many gamers like myself Legend of Grimrock was a great throwback to the dungeon crawlers of the 19980’s/90’s, tweaked and modernized for more accessibility. More importantly, it set the ground work for future sequels, and opened the door for new games in the genre to flourish.

Shaker
Developer: Loot Drop
Estimated Release: January 2014
Kickstarter Page

Being developed by Tom Hall (co-founder of id Software), and Brendan Brathwaite (Wizardry, Train, Dungeons & Dragons), Shaker is currently being funded on Kickstarter. The duo started the studio Loot Drop Games, and together with a highly qualified team, are looking to create a game in the same vein as the classic CRPGs of yore a la Wizardry, Lands of Lore, Ishar, etc.. Personally speaking, this is probably one of the few currently funding Kickstarter projects I’m really, really excited about. Check out their Kickstarter page and please back it! We need more games like this.

Project Eternity
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Estimated Release Date: April 2014
Website

Obsidian games are a studio well known to any RPG fan. Recently, the company was able to fully fund a brand new party-based RPG in the vein of Icewind Dale and Baldur’s Gate. This is another project I’m super excited for, and I’m really happy to see that they exceeded their goal and will be making this game. There is quite an impressive pedigree here, and some of the ideas being talked about remind me a lot of Planescape: Torment, one of my personal favorite games of all time. The success of this project gives me high hopes for the future of the genre.

Wasteland 2
Developer: InXile Entertainment

Estimated Release Date: Oct. 2013
Website

Before there was Fallout, there was Wasteland. In the wake of the massive success of Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter, Brian Fargo decided to reboot his post-apocalyptic RPG Wasteland, and launched the Wasteland 2 Kickstarter. The project has been fully funded, and work is underway. Check out the video above for a small glimpse of what we can expect from this project. I never got a chance to play the original Wasteland, but as a huge fan of Fallout and Fallout 2 (games directly inspired by Wasteland) the footage has me jonesin for some top-down, post-apocalyptic roleplaying insanity.

Ultima Forever
Developer: Bioware,
Estimated Release Date: Winter 2012
Website

Speaking of well known developers, Bioware is resurrecting one of the oldest and most influencial Role Playing series with Ultima Forever. Essentially a remake of Ultima IV, this new title is going to be entirely free to play (or, as Bioware calls it “Play4Free”) and will be playable on PC, as well as iPad. According to Bioware, the game will feature many of the old mechanics of the Ultima series, while combat will be positional and action-oriented, comparing it to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Definitely on my list of need-to-play games —  I mean c’mon, free Ultima!

That list almost sounds too good to be true. So many great names and developers are behind these projects, and my hopes are high. And these are just classic RPG’s; we’re also seeing the return of point and click adventure games (thanks to Tim Schaefer and Double Fine’s highly successful Kickstarter campaign), mech games (MechWarrior Online, Hawken), turn-based strategy (The Banner Saga, XCOM: Enemy Unknown), and of course Chris Robert’s return to gaming and the long-forgotten space-combat sim with Squardron 42. It’s almost too much to handle! With such bright prospects like these, it’s hard to argue we’re not in a new golden-age of videogames. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a basement to return to.

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The Dark Spire versus Etrian Odyssey II: Hardcore RPG face-off

Blah blah blah Skyrim. Blah blah blah Dark SoulsBlah blah blah Diablo. Blah blah blah Mass Effect.

We’ve probably beaten  it into your heads by now, but here at Power Cords, we like RPGs. Personally speaking I love RPGs; but unlike many gamers (and even some of the writers here at Power Cords), I prefer a specific type of experience from my RPGs. While some pine for loot and others eat up story lines and dialogue, I prefer immersion and exploration.

There are different definitions of exploration. For example, the fantasy setting of The Elder Scrolls series offer massive lands to traverse and are the perfect settings for exploration; while games like Dark Souls, Legend of Grimrock, and Dungeons of Dredmor allow players to explore and experiment with the game mechanics through trial and error (and a fair bit of luck). I love that sort of hands-off design that encourages the player to try new things — even if the ultimately end in failure. as I mentioned earlier this week, I’m still playing Dark Souls for that very reason. Unfortunately, I’ve found myself away from my Xbox — and therefore Dark Souls — this weekend. Not to be melodramatic, but in an effort to stave off the bumming, I took a look at two relatively unknown RPGs for the Nintendo DS with similar design concepts and old-school sensibilities: The Dark Spire and Etrian Odyssey II. 

The Dark Spire

Developed by Success and published by Atlus, The Dark Spire is a dark, dreadfully difficult hardcore dungeon crawler that is essentially a throwback to the CRPGs of yore like Wizardry and A Bard’s Tale. The basic scenario for The Dark Spire revolves around a single, massive tower with several floors to explore. Hidden atop the tower is a sorcerer who has stolen a necklace from the royal family. You create a party of adventurers to scale the tower, defeat the sorcerer, and return the necklace. That’s it.  Some quests and dialogue flesh out the background and setting a bit more, but that’s about it. The story doesn’t get any deeper than that; climbing the tower and scouring each of its floors is a story in itself, and is far more compelling than any hackneyed fantasy tale would be.

I haven’t had too much time with the game yet, but so far I like what I’ve seen. The art is wonderful — it has a dark, comic-book-ish feel (large hand drawn “BOOM’s” will flash across the screen when a character scores a critical hit). Despite having essentially zero animation, the art still manages to draw you in and create a strong sense of place. The music is also great, often times sounding like Castlevania crossed with the early Elder Scrolls games. But the art is just the surface of the extremely deep game.

In The Dark Spire, you control a 4-man party, exploring grid-based dungeons in first person, a la Legends of Grimrock. Character stats are rolled randomly in the creation process, making each one you create unique from the rest. In terms of gameplay, very little is explained to the player. New items do little to explain how they will affect your characters’ stats, instead requiring trial and error to find out what work best. Certain game mechanics, such as character alignment, praying, quests, or learning new spells, exist without tutorial or explanation. There seems to be quite a bit here that could easily be overlooked if you jump in impatiently; try to mash the A button to get through the random battles, and you’ll quickly find yourself at the game over screen. I’ve even read there are hidden classes that can be unlocked through a class combination system and unlockable races. How do I go about discovering this stuff? No clue, but I look forward to delving into this game to find just how deep these mechanics go.

Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard

Etrian Odyssey is another Atlus joint, this time being both developed and published by the Japanese company (it’s worth noting that Atlus also published Demon’s Souls, of which Dark Souls is the spiritual sequel). EO II is very similar to The Dark Spire: first person dungeon crawling, random monster encounters, minimal story, and interfacing with towns mainly through menu navigation. However, EO II features a few gameplay hooks that set it apart. First is the map system. Instead of slowly uncovering a map as you explore, your tasked with drawing and completing your own via the stylus screen on the DS. This adds another layer of depth to exploration, but also another way for you to completely screw yourself over; draw an incorrect map, and you may jeopardize the success of your quest.

The second change is the class/guild system. In Etrian Odyssey II, the world of Lagaard is filled with guilds of adventurers attempting to uncover ancient secrets about their world. At the outset of your adventure, you create your own guild. You can then fill out your ranks with up to 30 characters. While the stat rolling isn’t random like in The Dark Spire, the number of classes available to you is far greater, each one filling slightly different rolls than the others. You may then select up to 5 of your guild members to join your party and enter the labyrinthine forests of the Yggdrasil tree.

Equipment and stats are more transparent in EO II than The Dark Spire, but the added depth of the class system means you must experiment with class synergy to find effective formations, provide both deeply challenging yet highly rewarding gameplay.

I also really like the art design of the Etrian Odyssey games. It’s almost like an lighter, anime-inspired Dark Souls, and very reminiscent of the Disgaea series. The character portraits and art design makes EO II a very pretty game, despite the majority of the game being handled through static 2D sprites and menus.

Closing thoughts

Both games are excellent examples of hardcore dungeon crawling. Their depth and difficulty scratch the Dark Souls itch — well, as closely they can, at least. I enjoy and appreciate their design philosophies, choosing to let the player explore the game mechanics and dungeons to find their own paths and strategies instead of hand-holding or restricting experimentation. While that can lead to failure and frustration, it also leads to high levels of reward and progression. I haven’t had enough time with the games to say which I prefer over the other but at this point, despite having seemingly more aspects of the gameplay unexplained and hidden initially, I’ve found The Dark Spire more conducive to pick up and play, simply due to the meticulous map drawing of Etrian Odyssey II being a hassle at times (it doesn’t help I’m not playing the games on their original platform *ehem*). That being said, I do find Etrian Odyssey’s class mechanics and presentations slightly more appealing.

The Dark Spire

Despite being very similar in gameplay and design, Etrian Odyseey II and The Dark Spire offer different dungeon crawling experiences: one is a mythical adventure inspired by manga and anime; the other is a dark medieval quest. They’re hard games that require patience, planning, and dedication, but the payoff is immense. If you’re in the market for a heavy duty RPG experience, then both of these games are perfect for you. Personally, I’d recommend both equally; picking one or the other essentially just comes down to aesthetic taste. But hey, why not pick up both? It’s always good to have options. And kudos for Atlus for bringing these and many more excellent RPGs to the states.

Scores

The Dark Spire: 4/5

Etrian Odyssey: Heroes of Lagaard: 4/5

Final Fantasy IX – Retro Review

What it is: Final Fantasy IX is the ninth (obviously) main entry in Square-Enix/Squaresoft’s vastly popular Japanese RPG series, Final Fantasy. It was an important game as it marked a return to the series’ true fantasy roots, and was a salute to the then already-long-running series.

Why I dig it: I’m particular when it comes to fantasy. I can buy just about any apocalyptic scenario, and far-future sci-fi tale, and just about any superhero story, but for fantasy, it either works or it doesn’t.

All things considered, I shouldn’t like FFIX — whimsical setting, anthropomorphic animals and 15-year old theives with tails; immeninent, over-the-top magic and a sappy, generic love story at it’s core are all things I can’t stand. It’s almost like a fairytell setting, but for some reason, I love it. It could be the combat, the unique skill system, the great music, or perhaps it’s just the honesty and lack of melodramam and cynicism — things that have seriously marred the series ever since Final Fantasy VII brought in zippers and spikey hair, and filling it with more angst and moodyness than a Hot Topic. It’s truly a “fantasy” setting.

Final fantasy IX has a great — albeit goofy — cast of characters, including the mischievous thief Zidane; young black mage Vivi; adventurous Princess Garnett; and the mysterious dragoon Freya, to name just a few. You meet many characters along the way who all fit the Final Fantasy molds, but as with everything in FFIX, they have a charm and whimsy that characters in other Final Fantasies lack. Then again, it may just be that most of the NPCs are anthropomorphic animals, but who knows.

The story is good, balancing a s story book tale with perilous journey and warring kingdoms. There are some interesting twists, but because of the game’s lighter tone (when compared to games like Final Fantasy VI or VII), some of them don’t pack much of a punch, and for the most part, even when the villian’s plans have been uncovered, there isn’t a strong sense of peril. Still, the character-driven story is more than enough to keep you engaged.

When not reading through lines of dialogue, you’ll find yourself actually playing a game! (not to sound too facetious, but Final Fantasy isn’t exactly an action packed series). The good news is, it’s a good game. The combat is pretty similar to most Active Time battle systems, and features a “trance” meter, which builds throughout encounters, and allows you to perform powerful moves. Some scripted battles will begin with a party member already in trance (usually due to story reasons), giving you a bit of an edge in certain circumstances.

The skill progression in FFIX is probably the most interesting and unique system in the game. Skills and abilities are tied to certain pieces of equipment, meaning you can only have access to the skills your equipment comes with. However, the longer you wear the equipment, the higher a skill is leveled until it is “mastered.” Mastered skills can be used without needed a specific item. The catch here is finding the right balance between stat boosting and skills. You might find an much stronger weapon, but the one you have currently equipped may have a few highly beneficial skills tied to it. Do you wait and level your skills until they are mastered, or take the stat boost and be more effective in general combat? It’s a very fun and deep system, and one that requires a bit more strategy and planning than other skills systems in the Final Fantasy series. Unfortunately, it can also mean you’ll be spending quite a bit of time grinding, but the combat is good enough that having to do so isn’t always a chore.

I’m not as invested in this series as most. I’ve played a few titles here and there, but mostly, it’s not on my radar. That being said, Final Fantasy IX might be my favorite final Fantasy; 7 may be more widely beloved, 6 might have the better story and characters, and 12 might have the better combat, but 9 has an undeniable charm that has drawn me back to it time and time again. As I said, I’m not much of a Japanese RPG fan beyond the few titles I’ve mentioned in this review (and classics like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy Tactics), but for what it’s worth I feel Final Fantasy IX may just be the perfect Final Fantasy to play if you’ve ever been curious in the series or longing to return to the series.

Even thought the main antagonists are a giant clown queen and androngenous male with a visible g-string under his garments.

Score: 4/5

Pros: Fun story; combat is strategic, but still quick enough that it doesn’t become a bore; great skill/equipment system; returns the series to its roots and avoid the problems that have befallen the latter half of the Final Fantasy catalogue.

Cons: Dated graphics and sound; some pacing issues; saves system is archaic and can be frustrating; often feels more like an interactive story than “role playing” game.

The Legend of Grimrock Review

Down, down, down you go, where you’ll stop—no one knows. In the game Legend of Grimrock you play the role of anywhere from one to four prisoners that are trying their damndest to escape this mountain prison. You start out on level One of the prison and as you progress through the game you go deeper and deeper on to level Two and Three and so on. However you’re not the only people in this dungeon, along the way you’ll find markings on walls and letters on floors as well as creatures that are there to stop you at whatever cost.

When you start the game you’re given the choice to create your own characters or let the game create a party for you to play. You can—but don’t necessarily have to — have four members in your party. However the more the merrier (unless you find a hidden Easter Egg they’ve put in there for some One on Dungeon action.) There are three classes; Fighter, Mage, and the Rogue. And there are four races for you to choose from; Human, Minotaur, Lizardman, and Insectoid. Each Race and class has their own advantages and disadvantages. Some combinations are better than others for instance a Minotaur Mage makes less sense than an Insectoid Mage; however you’d probably love to have a Minotaur Fighter. Granted you can do whatever combinations you’d like. During character creation you can add up to four Prisoners’s and give each multiple Traits, for instance the trait Daemon Ancestor says “Your Great Grandfather had fiery eyes – Resist Fire +25”. And once you’ve chosen your class and race you get to assign skill points to that class’s skill set.

As you go farther and farther down into the mountain prison, you come across more and more dangerous traps, monsters, and more difficult puzzles. If you look hard enough you’ll come across a few secrets on each level as well which can yield wonderful magic items that will be of tremendous help down the road. As you kill monsters like Giant Mushrooms, Frost Raptors, Skeletons, and Troll’s you gain experience and level up. Leveling up allows you to increase your skills to use different abilities and increase your effectiveness in combat. There are thrown weapons and melee weapons; some can reach further than others and each weapon type has specific abilities that coincide with the respective skill. For instance, Maces can ignore armor later and Swords can attack faster.  The way the characters are set up is in a two-by-two square; two members in the front and two in the back. You can change the order around by dragging each of the prisoner’s to a different spot. This allows you to place your “tanks” in the front and let your ranged characters sit in the back and take no damage. However, when a hallway has more than one runoff the side characters are vulnerable as well. A skilled player can adapt to the situation and overcome the adversity! Moving is a matter of turning, strafing, walking backward and forward with the Q, W, E, A, S, D buttons.  If a member of your prison break team dies, there are life crystals throughout the game that will allow you to bring them back to life, so if you lose one or two in a tough fight—have no fear—they’re not gone for good.

One of my favorite aspects of this game is the magic casting. So much so I decided to give it its own paragraph entirely! In most games, magic is something that’s just an innate thing that you’re able to do and you learn spells as you level up. That is not at all how it is in LoG. When you have a mage in your party they start with anywhere from 0-3 spells depending on how many points you put into the different magic schools. As you go along throughout the game however, you’ll find scrolls that show you the runes setup to cast specific spells, and in order to successfully cast the spell you have to have a certain skill level in that school of magic. When I say rune setup I mean, in order to cast spells you have to open the magic menu — whether that’s from your mages hand, staff or orb — and then a set of nine runes shows up and you have to click on the specific runes shown in the scrolls that will allow the spell to be cast. There are no preset spells that you can just click cast, you’ve got to click on the runes each time. This mechanic is wonderful, it gives some sort of old school realism where you’ve got to prepare the spell before casting it, and you’ve got to either read the scroll or have it memorized. All in all, the combat system strikes me as perfect—at least for this game style anyway.

The Legend of Grimrock is the best current dungeon crawl/puzzle game I’ve played. When Almost Human sat down to put this game together they did an outstanding job. The combat system is functional and makes complete sense for the setting and style of the game. And the story is pretty compelling, I mean if you were stuck in prison with some experienced adventurers, wouldn’t you want to escape? If you get the chance to snag this game I say go for it. Great price on Steam, for many hours of gameplay.

The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition Review

How often in a role playing game do you actually feel the decisions you make affect the narrative in truly sweeping ways? More often than not, it seems like we’re selecting between two hallways that ultimately lead to the same room, the only difference between the two is that one is painted red and the other blue (when you play the muppet’s party cruise).

In CD Projekt RED’s The Witcher 2, the differences between those hallways would be one is painted red, and the other is a freeway.

The Witcher 2 is unlike many games in the RPG genre for many reasons. The game is set in a rather realistic world, where monsters are rare and truly monstrous, and where casting a powerful magic spell can leave even the most adept sorceress exhausted for days. You take the role of Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher. Witchers are genetically modified humans, able to ingest alchemical potions and utilize magic — things that would lead most normal humans to a gruesome death — and are tasked with hunting down dangerous creatures.

Geralt is suffering from the all-too-common RPG affliction, amnesia, something he’s had twice now over the series’ two games. Geralt is wrongly accused of killing a king for whom he was sworn to protect, after it is discovered the king was assassinated by a fellow witcher. Geralt is let free, under the sole provision he help hunt down the assassin and his cohorts, now known as the “Assassin of Kings.” The assassination couldn’t have come at a worse time — the the land is being torn apart by numerous warring kingdoms and rebel factions.

Each aspect of the game’s scenario comes into play in some form or another in the gameplay in ways that go beyond just plot devices.

For example: Geralt’s amnesia explains his need for a skill tree to expand his combat abilities. The skill tree works just as any other, with players unlocking new skills and bonuses after each level gained. These make a surprising difference in the difficulty of the game, as early on, some of the most basic enemies can kill you if you’re not careful. This does create a rather steep learning curve for the first couple hours of the game, but thankfully with the Enhanced Edition updates, many of the random shifts in difficulty — both harder and easier — have for the most part been eliminated. Still, by the middle of the game I was practically invincible in even the toughest fights.

Geralt’s ability to use potions and alchemy is also a strong point of the gameplay. Geralt is armed with a magic pendant that shows pickable plants and herb, as well as hidden items and secrets. By collecting ingrediants found in the wild, you can bring up a menu where Geralt can meditate, make potions, or take potions. Potions vary wildly in terms of stat bonuses and buffs, and give a much needed leg up in combat. They also come with a toxicity level — the more toxic a potion is, the higher your toxicity level rises. I was usually able to take between 2-4 potions before my toxicity was maxed. It’s both an interesting mechanic, and provide some realism to the RPG trope of potion taking.

You also have special magical abilities, called signs, which can aid you in combat in both offensive and defensive capacities, adding yet another layer onto the combat system. There is even a sign available for use in conversations, which acts as a sort of “Jedi mind trick,” persuading others to see things your way.

The conversations play out a lot like Mass effect or Dragon Age’s would, but without a dialogue wheel informing you of the “good” or “bad” options. In fact, every choice in the game has its own pros and cons, forcing you to listen to what others have to say and weigh your options, instead of simply clicking on the one that matches your alignment. There were many times I sat back in my seat and took several minutes to really think about the choices the game was giving me. They are all wonderfully complex shades of gray, never black and white or simple. While I certainly have my issues with overly-cinematic games and the illusion of control most RPGs give you, in The Witcher 2 I felt my decisions were not only hard to make, but were extremely important. When I went back to see how other options may have turned out, I found that I missed out on entire chunks of the game that other players saw, and vice-versa. It’s one of the few times a game has given you options with real consequences on the story’s path.

The Witcher 2 is beautiful.

The world the game takes place in is very gritty and realistic, bringing to mind George R.R. Martin’s A song of Ice and Fire series (a.k.a. Game of Thrones), with all its political intrigue, mature sexual themes, violence, and a setting that feels grounded and relatable. The landscapes look like real places, the people and clothing — even the Elves and Dwarves — look more medieval than fantastical. That realism is boosted by the game’s gorgeous graphics. Truly, it’s one of the most beautiful PC games to come out in several years. Even at the lowest settings, the game’s animations, lighting, and texture rival even the sharpest console titles. The high graphics fidelity only add to The Witcher 2‘s immersiveness. While not entirely open like Besthesda’s RPGs, the world is still massive and filled with things to discover and quests to undertake in each of the game’s 3 acts. I never felt at a loss of things to do, though some quests did randomly fail when I completed others, but with the number you’ll have active at any particular moment, it’s a non-issue.

The Witcher 2 is complex, beautiful, and deep. The story is mature, and despite the  largely cinematic presentation, provides the player with hard choices and real consequences; the combat is layered and dynamic, even if the difficulty is inconsistent. Overall, The Witcher 2 is a prime example of the RPG genre, the PC version is a strong reminder of the power PC games can hold. I very much recommend to any RPG fan, or gamers looking for something a little more mature and grounded, but nontheless fun to play.

Pros: Gorgeous graphics; deep gameplay and combat; the story and setting are much more mature and interesting than most fantasy RPGs; choices are important and never black and white.

Cons: Steep learning curve; inconsistent difficulty; requires powerful machine to run a higher graphical settings; some story elements are cliched or contrived.

Final Thoughts on Mass Effect 3

WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS.

I know, I know. The topic of Mass Effect 3 — the ending specifically — has been beaten into the ground, debated and discussed, hashed out and argued. But let’s talk about it just one more time.

A few weeks ago, I talked about how I felt about the Mass Effect 3 ending in the greater context of story telling in video games. And how it kind of sucks. A couple of weeks later, myself and the rest of the team put our thoughts to rest in an episode of Powercast.

But here we are, nearly eight weeks since Mass Effect 3 was released, and discussions are still simmering in pockets all around the internet. Debates about indoctrination theories, explanations of plot holes, and speculation of the future abound. And ever since Bioware responded to the ending-hate with assurances of expanded ending DLC, the fanbase’s fervor has been reignited.

This is absolutely unprecedented in videogames. Never has a story enthralled players to the point of deeply discussing an ending weeks and months after the game’s release. I’m actually quite  impressed that our favorite entertainment medium has crafted a story which facilitates as much discussion as Lost or Inception. It’s a sign of the medium’s growth and maturation towards something much more rewarding and expressive.

"The work of one man (or woman) results in a shift that leads to change on a massive, galactic scale."

Now, when I offered my two cents on the ending, I said that while I had some big problems with it, overall I was fine. My big issue
stemmed from the lack of control and variety in the endings or how they play out. This opened up the floodgates for why I feel storytelling in videogames needs to change to better converge narrative with gameplay.

To be clear, I still strongly stand by this. In fact, in the time since that post, I’ve found myself seeking out games with more creative or gameplay-driven storylines. In my opinion, Mass Effect still falters in its execution, relying too much on cinematic practices and not enough on gameplay. But in my criticism of Mass Effect’s illusory decision-making, I overlooked something incredibly interesting: Bioware was playing into the constraints of the medium.

By playing into the illusion of choice, Bioware in fact used gaming’s greatest flaw in the Mass Effect 3’s favor. Instead of a cliche “you saved the world” ending, we got three wildly different end-scenarios. I say scenarios because all players saw practically the same cinematic, just different colors or prerendered clips inter-spliced. But all three possible outcomes (and every permutation within them) create wildly different outcomes for the future of the galaxy, Commander Shepard, and your crew. And before you bring up the plot holes or the random Normandy fate, consider this: your relationships with these characters came to a close throughout the entirety of Mass effect 3. The entire game is the ending, not just the last 20 minutes.

“More often than not, videogame endings don’t make us feel anything at all.”

And don’t forget, if indoctrination theory is right, none of this really matters after all.

For me, the “destruction” ending is the most plausible for my story, but that’s because I like the indoctrination theory. For others, synthesis may be ideal, and others still, control. There’s a choice there, and when you look at the ending from the point of view that “these people saved billions of years of life,” the fate of Commander Shepard and a few dozen crewmates ultimately becomes null in vastness of the universe.

And yet, extraordinarily powerful.

The work of one man (or woman) results in a shift that leads to change on a massive, galactic scale. NONE of us will ever cause such change. In that way, Commander Shepard makes quite possibly the most important decision ever posited to a videogame character: the cosmic fate of all organic life. While many have taken away the idea that the ending seems to say “nothing matters in the end,” I believe the opposite. Everything matters. Every choice creates a slightly different path which could lead to radically different outcomes for the three possible scenarios. We, as Shepard, are literally changing the face of the cosmos.

Carl Sagan would be proud.

Don’t get me wrong here: I wasn’t happy at the end, far from it in fact. I was sad. Whether or not Shepard lives or dies, there is massive, soul-crushing loss on such a large and unfathomable scale. But I like that the end didn’t make me happy. That doesn’t happen often in videogames. More often than not, videogame endings don’t make us feel anything at all.

"We, as Shepard, are literally changing the face of the cosmos."

Mass Effect 3 made us feel. We saw many of our favorite characters die, and watched as worlds were lost, and hope eroded. In spite all the positive change you bring to the galaxy, the loss of beloved characters is immediate and harsh. It’s not easy knowing that we can’t get a happy ending, but knowing the power our decisions wield in the face of such unfathomable odds is inspiring. And if it’s indoctrination theory, the door opens for innumerable possible outcomes each player could find for themselves. I love that idea. So much so in fact, I almost wish the expanded DLC wasn’t coming. I’ve decided my own ending, I don’t need Bioware to tell me how it all ends.

Sure, there are issues with the ending outside of just the choices and outcomes. And I don’t dig the reliance on cinematic tropes. But plot holes and space-magic aside, the ending of Mass Effect works. It makes sense thematically within the series and tone of the final game. Did I want a happier ending? I’m not sure. A part of me wants to say yes, but I know I wouldn’t be satisfied with that either. It’s an ending to a great story and series, nothing was going to be ideal. But no matter how dark it was, or how upset it made people, the ending sparked debates which have lasted weeks, and created an opportunity for personal interpretation usually reserved for literature and film, proof the stories in our medium are growing up. That’s an exciting and inspiring thought.

The Secret World

“Imagine if every myth, conspiracy theory and urban legend was true. Imagine a world where you can become anything you want to be, without restrictions such as classes or levels. This is the premise for The Secret World, Funcom’s upcoming massively multiplayer online game set in the modern-day real world.” – TheSecretWorld.com

I’ve been keeping my eye on this game ever since I heard about it a year and a half ago and my wait is finally about to come to an end on June 19th. The developers at Funcom had the brilliant idea of releasing a freeform MMORPG, where there are no levels and no classes. Anyone can do anything they want, and can even change what their characters are at any point in time. The game looks promising to say the least.

 

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Star Wars: The Old Republic, Endgame Review

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We brought you a review of SWTOR a few months ago, but we had yet to really experience much of the end game content. Well, now we’re making up for that. Our newest writer, Evan Reedy, has his review on the end game content of SWTOR. Be sure to let us know how you feel about the SWTOR endgame in the comments, and give Evan a warm welcome!

After having played through Star Wars the Old Republic (SWTOR) from Apprentice to Darth, I’ve encountered many different mechanics within the game that I love, hate and am intrigued by. While leveling you get to experience the quests, the skills, the flashpoints and the story of each individual class molded by wonderful voice acting. However that’s only part of the game.

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Skyrim is unleashed!

–By Power Cords crew

It's here!

Hey guys!

I’m sure you’re all well aware of this, but FINALLY Skyrim is here! If things seem a little quiet from us today, it’s because The Power Cords crew are busy roaming through the wilderness, as I’m sure many of you are as well.  Continue reading “Skyrim is unleashed!”