Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Kingdoms of Amalur: Review

 I’ve had somewhat of a rocky start to my relationship with Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. I had played the demo prior to its launch and decided for various reasons that I’d pick it up as soon as it was available. That’s something I typically don’t do these days, but the game showed a lot of promise and had a lot of big names attached to it. R.A. Salvatore had worked on the story. Todd McFarlane had worked on the art. Ken Rolston had worked on the game design itself. I’d say of the three, you’re more likely to not recognize Ken Rolston, but he was previously the designer of Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and IV: Oblivion which is a big deal in video games. This all amounts to high expectations across the board for story, design and game depth. Unfortunately, I fear my own expectations were too high.

Amazing Visuals
I spent the first ten hours or so really disappointed with the story and characters of the game. When I play a role-playing game (RPG) I’m usually pulled through the game by a desire to know what’s going to happen next. This is not so in Amalur.  I often found myself simply not caring what happens next. The story was failing me, and the characters were typically bland and unremarkable. The lore and the story of Amalur are certainly interesting but their method of delivery feels rather forced and boring. I believe it’s because I’m constantly being spoon fed story via exposition, but very rarely just experiencing the story as it unfurls. Many of the story’s segues feel more like a “while you were out” memo, such as coming back from a quest to find the king had been kidnapped and I’m the only one left who can save him. The fact I was not being absorbed into the story the way I hoped led to another question. What was driving me?

Situations like this!
I was getting close to 20 hours on my gruff character modeled after a Viking warrior, and I thinking of starting a new character to begin this ride all over again from scratch as a lithe, stealth assassin. Clearly something was hooking me. Typically when a game is disappointing I can’t wait to just finish and check it off my list of games to beat, or get so bored and discouraged I simply walk away. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning on the other hand had me already thinking of my next character. This is when I knew something out of the ordinary was occurring. I know 10 to 20 hours is a lot to ask of a player these days, but I feel something magical happened to me in that time. While grumbling about how the story needs to feel more involved, I was growing addicted to the unbelievable combat system.

I was forced to admit that I absolutely love Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. I can’t seem to put it down. I find myself playing through, not caring about what happens next in the story, but what kind of awesome battles I may have where I travel next. I’m hoping beyond all hopes that any new Downloadable Content (DLC) provides more character combat abilities and more difficult fights. I found myself thinking early on that this was what the “Fable” series should have been delivering by now, rather than spending time developing hand-holding with ugly NPCs. This kind of fast-paced, timing-is-everything, skill-based combat system is exactly what makes an action-based combat system so much fun. It definitely raises the bar for other games in this action-RPG genre. 

Dodge that spear, man!
Because R.A. Salvatore, Todd McFarlane and Ken Rolston are all accomplished veterans in their fields it was easy to think that I was going to get something as well written as a book, as visually stimulating as a comic, and the depth of gameplay I’d come to expect from Elder Scrolls titles. Instead, I’m forced to remind myself that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is 38 Studio's first game title to hit the public. While they didn’t pitch a perfect game, they have created something that is extremely fun and well put together. I hope that future content for this game adds more depth and particularly difficulty to the late-game combat with many additional combat-centric challenges. I also look forward to see where this series will go in the future and what other kinds of games they may make together. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning nails it when it comes to addictive, deep and fun combat and character customization.


I wanted to take a moment to announce something I started over the weekend. I call it "A Breton in Skyrim" and is a reader-guided adventure of realistic living in the game Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I have a few posts up and leave reader polls to see what Genjo, the Breton, will do next in his life.

He must eat and drink. He must sleep. These rules are enforced by a mod.
He walks most places, meaning he may not get as far as you'd expect in a day's travel.
The final rule is that when his time comes to die, so too will this blog project.

I make no promises about how often I'll update this site, but people seem to be reacting positively to it so I'll try to dedicate some time to it every week. Thank you for checking it out.



Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Music Chain of Memories

I often listen to the soundtrack of Kingdom Hearts and it often causes me to cry. Certain songs of that game effortlessly trigger an emotional response from me and it wasn't until just the other day that I came closer to understanding why its so emotional. I have thought for years that Kingdom Hearts is just a very sad game and the sadness of its story was being recalled by the music. Now I think it goes quite a bit deeper than that and I am surprised that it took me so long to realize it. As I was listening, and responding emotionally, I was thinking about how to write this article. That's how I had this sudden insight to what the game and the music actually mean to me.

Kingdom Hearts is a collaboration with Square Enix (formerly Squaresoft) and Disney Interactive Studios. It successfully blended elements of the Final Fantasy series with characters and settings from various Disney worlds in an Action-Roleplaying Game experience that was unlike any other game of its time. Sora, the main character, is original to this series, but he is constantly interacting with Disney and Final Fantasy characters who encourage him or fight along side him. The game was released in September 2002 and since then I've played it from start to finish several times - which is indicative of an excellent game in my book. 

Now to understand what I discovered about my connection to the game, you have to understand where I was in my life when I met Sora. September 2002 was the middle of the darkest time in my life. I was in a terribly unhealthy relationship. I had abandoned college and my dreams of studying Japanese because I was young and foolish. I had enlisted in the Air Force and was living in California, far away from my home in Massachusetts where I'd lived for 20 years and far away from Japan where I would have been studying abroad if I had continued my college curriculum. Due to the nature of the relationship I was in, I did not feel I had the freedom to communicate with my friends and family on the phone or by computer. I also did not have the freedom to pursue new friendships with my classmates and fellow service members there in California. I was extremely isolated and lonely. I was depressed, but I didn't know how to handle it. It was in this dark time when I met Sora.
Aladdin was my favorite Disney film growing up.
This first time playing Kingdom Hearts I was outrageously jealous of Sora. This 14 year old kid gets swept out of his humdrum life in Destiny Islands and begins exploring these fantastic worlds with characters I had adored since I was a child. I wanted to fight Jafar alongside Aladdin. I wanted to play mini-games with Pooh and Tigger that revolved around "hunny" and bouncing. I wanted to tree-surf with Tarzan and fly with Peter Pan as we crossed swords with Captain Hook. I wanted to summon Bambi, Simba, Mushu, Tinkerbell, and Genie. I wanted to swim alongside Ariel, whom I had been smitten with since first seeing her and hearing her sing when I was 9 years old. Sora was living this childhood fantasy and I was pretty miserable in my life. Although I was able to live this dream vicariously through Sora, I would have given anything to switch places with him. I wanted an escape from the darkness of my own life.

I'm 31 now, and still a bit jealous of this...
The second time playing Kingdom Hearts was around Christmas of 2005. I had decided to dust off the old keyblade in preparation of Kingdom Hearts II coming out in March 2006. This time was profoundly different than the last. It triggered a nearly opposite reaction, which I believe in part was because I knew the ending that was being foreshadowed, but also due to something a bit closer to my own heart. This time I saw Sora's journey more for what it truly was, and I found I was not at all envious of Sora. In fact, I felt quite sorry for him. You see, Sora and his two closest friends, Riku and Kairi, spent their days on Destiny Islands dreaming of finding an escape to another, more exotic, world but when they finally get their wish their own home is snuffed out by darkness. Everything they had known was cut off from them and they were separated. Sora spends the rest of the game trying to find his friends and restore the Destiny Islands. The purpose of his entire journey is to set things back the way they were after wanting them to change for so long. 

Now, he does meet a wide variety of new friends along the way, and each relationship I believe makes him stronger, but he never gets to stay long and appreciate his new friends because he's so dedicated to finding Riku and Kairi and stopping the darkness from swallowing up more worlds. In this context, I saw that his friendships with the Disney characters were fleeting as he was always forced to move on to get closer to his true goal. Unfortunately this ultimate reunion with Riku and Kairi is marked by sadness as all three are separated again in order to protect the worlds from being consumed by Darkness. It's a very sad story and it's hard not to tear up when saying good-bye to the friends you spent so much time looking for. 

What I discovered is that the music doesn't make me cry because Sora's story is sad. 
It makes me cry because I am Sora. 

You can see the resemblance best in this picture of me circa 2003.
When I play Kingdom Hearts or listen to its music now, it reminds me of how I felt about my life when I first played it. I was like Sora when I left behind the only home I knew, and also like Sora I was completely cut off from that world. There was no going back for either of us - at least not without fighting for it. We could only look forward and face what was ahead of us even though it was often unpleasant or difficult. Even if we could go back, everything about us was changing and different. Sora and I both grew strong and independent through these ordeals. Simply returning home and reuniting with our friends wouldn't erase the things we'd seen or the person we would become due to our various struggles in life. In essence that era of my life was my coming of age story, and in many ways Sora mirrors that time with his own trials against darkness.

When I left home at the age of 20, I thought I was an adult. I decided to leave college, get married, and joining the Air Force among other adult decisions of lesser impact. I realize only more recently that I was not. So Kingdom Hearts is symbolic of my own loss of childhood innocence and ignorance. The game and its music continue to be a subconscious reminder of how I suffered and endured to become the stronger, confident, more adaptable and happier person that I am today. 

I chose to share this story about myself to illustrate how powerful music can be in our lives as well as how deeply one can bond with fictional characters and circumstances. It demonstrates that the best games have a combination of great music, good story-telling, and memorable characters with whom you can identify. These are exactly the types of games I seek out and enjoy most. I'm so shocked to discover just how emotionally invested I am in Kingdom Hearts. I'm grateful that I got to play such a great game and got to know Sora at a time when my entire world was changing so drastically, and I with it. It certainly helped me cope with my own life at that time. I can't promise Kingdom Hearts to have this powerful an effect on everyone, but I can promise that it is a game that may become timeless that everyone interested in gaming should enjoy at one time or another in their life.


Related Links

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Small Town Love

 It dawned on me late in the week that I'd be publishing on Valentine's Day. It would be the first post to land on a themed holiday and I could not simply ignore it. I stopped the presses, so to speak, and began to wrack my brain for video games that demonstrated meaningful relationships or love stories. Love is not an uncommon theme in games and even some of the earliest games hold some of the most endearing relationships for me. I thought to write about one of the most emotional demonstrations of love I could think of in gaming, which is Wander's love for Mono in Shadow of the Colossus. I also thought about Catherine, which is a (truly bizarre) game almost entirely devoted to telling a story about one man's struggle with commitment to his long-term girlfriend. Ultimately, I decided that Valentine's Day was not simply about relationships and love but a celebration of romance itself. The choice then became clear that I'd have to choose a game or series that also celebrates the romance of a relationship.

The "Harvest Moon" series is full of unsung heroes of romance. The first game in the series debuted on Super Nintendo in 1997, and tells the story of a young man who inherits a farm in a run down little farming community and is tasked with getting the old family business fired up and boosting the town's economy. It also involves winning over the town's people by being friendly and helpful and active in the town's festivals. One of the true marks of a successful farm is if you can manage to upgrade your home to be big enough for a family, and win the hearts of one of the local girls to settle down and raise a family. As a farmer/rancher you diligently tend your crops and raise your livestock, but you must leave time in the day to drop in on your best girl and give her flowers or you'll never win her heart.

When I was in college, my roommate's girlfriend (by extension also my roommate) became thoroughly captivated by the game. It was truly heart-warming to return from class and see them sitting together on the couch planting their crops and brushing their cattle. She must have played this game for weeks on end and I'm not sure I recall her ever going to class in that time. I remember my roommate would tease her constantly about dropping out of school so she could become a farmer and pursue her true passions of rustic, small town life. Their interactions and banter were truly cute and the memory stands out much more prominently than my own first experiences playing Harvest Moon.

While the "Harvest Moon" series is not exactly a love story, it is still a striking romantic experience. Aside from giving you a cute window into "a simpler life" on the small town farm, the games simply require intensive amount of wooing that you must do to finally win the heart of your favorite young lady. What could possibly be more romantic than bringing the girl of your dreams a freshly laid egg and a wildflower from the mountains everyday for an entire year? It's sure to win any girl's heart. She'll be delighted to dance with you at the Spring Festival. And when you finally build up the courage to bring her that Blue Feather, she'll warmly accept your proposal.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Old Republic Under Review

Star Wars: The Old Republic has had the most successful launch of any Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMO) that I have ever seen in 10 years of playing around in the genre. There is a lot to like for the hardcore veterans, the casual players, and the single-player role-playing game (RPG) fans. I have personally been playing various MMO since 2003 when I had my first true experience with online game addiction in Final Fantasy XI. Since then I have not been so drawn into a world by its story or compelling characters until now. While The Old Republic (TOR) has launched with its fair share of  bugs, glitches and imbalances I’m not going to spend any time picking those apart, but rather point out what sets this game apart from its contemporaries.

The Old Republic was developed by BioWare (Mass Effect, Dragon Age) and released on December 20, 2011. It has an Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) of Teen meaning the content is suitable for 13 years old and older, but as with any online game the experience is truly dependant on the types of rude or vulgar people you meet (or do not meet) online.

My Jedi Consular, Shikari, with Nadia (Companion)
TOR is the first MMO in quite a long time to captivate my attention so effectively and it has done so in two easy steps. First, it has 8 compelling stories that all lightly intertwine and put you into some archetype roles you would expect to encounter in the Star Wars universe. BioWare will be the first to tell you that they made this game with storytelling in mind and I agree that as a story-lover they have done quite a good job. Second, the Companion system allows you to automatically recruit 5 crew members to your team and the interesting personalities and subsequent development by getting to know these characters will have you feeling reluctant to leave them behind when forced to choose one to adventure with you. These two story-telling mechanics help solve a large issue in keeping subscriptions in MMOs which is an attachment to your character. Someone playing World of Warcraft, for example, might have 7 years of dedicated work put into their character or characters and after a brief tour of Star Wars may be more invested in his previous work. That risk still exists, but TOR does a good job of getting you very wrapped around your character and the companions by involving them in a complex story and with their unique personalities. It is a good attempt to pull a player in emotionally and sever ties to old characters that are not quite as engaging.

My Jedi Knight, Kyru, with T7 (Companion)
TOR also manages to feel like a complete package with promise of more to come. One of the biggest problems with new launch title MMO games is they have to compete with some very well established titles that have had over 7 years of live updates and game changes based on customer feedback. There is so much to do in those games that new games may burn up all their content within a few months and those old games with plenty to do look mighty inviting. That risk also still exists for TOR, but they have managed to launch a game that feels like a full game - it does have, after all, 8 storylines to play through to get a full scope of what’s happening in the galaxy. It has essentially packaged 8 full-length single-player RPG games into one, plus the ability to play with your friends which is quite optional. Every story is able to be done solo or in a group, with group content being provided incrementally along the way for additional rewards and challenges. That is why from any avid RPG lover’s point of view, TOR may be quite welcoming, and for any MMO veteran’s point of view give you plenty of things to do while you wait for new content to arrive on your primary or favorite characters.

Once you finish your Prologue around Level 10, you are free to progress via questing, Player versus Player (PvP) arena content called Warzones, or group raiding called Flashpoints. They each provide unique rewards for your playstyle: quests often provide gear upgrades for your Companions who help you solo through the story of the game, PvP will reward you with gear that will better suit you to a future of PvP playing, and Flashpoints give some of the best Player versus Environment (PvE) gear in the game for tackling increasingly harder group challenges as you progress through the game. All of these areas could use and will receive work over time, but as they came at launch they are very well designed and implemented. I have enjoyed exploring all of the above content on a single character’s journey to the level cap of 50. 

Flying into Battle
The final thing of note is the space battles and that is a point of contention. At a certain point in your characters’ personal stories they will receive access to a ship that they will use to navigate the galaxy (a truly romantic experience on your first playthrough). They can also engage in space battles sanctioned by their allegiance’s command head quarters. Some players feel the battles should have been more like they were in Star Wars: Galaxies, the MMO predecessor to TOR (that I did not have the pleasure of playing) which as I understand it was a bit more along the lines of playing Star Wars: X-Wing or Star Wars: TIE Fighter. However, as it stands now, it is a moderately challenging rail shooter - meaning your ship is guided along a set course and you move about the screen dodging and weaving and shooting enemies “down” (a relative term that often does not apply in space combat). I truly enjoy it this way because it reminds me of my younger days playing Star Fox and Star Fox 64 and honestly is one of the most well developed “mini-games” I’ve ever seen in a role-playing game, much less an MMO. Unfortunately, in its current state it does lack multiplayer options so you won’t be flying side by side with your friends, nor will they be mounting your gun turrets like Luke Skywalker on the Millenium Falcon. You also won’t be targeting enemy players of the opposing faction. While I would welcome the upgrade to a more 3-dimentional space flight/dog fighting simulator, all I would really need is to add more “massive multiplayer” to this mini-game and I think it would truly shine even on rails, as it were. 

Star Wars: The Old Republic is a great experience for anyone who loves the Star Wars universe or role-playing games in general. It is fully voice-acted which breathes life into all your character interactions and is widely unprecedented in the MMO market on this scale. The story-telling is what will keep me coming back for more and keep me hopeful for more of its kind in future expansions and patches. This attention to character and story is what has earned it the TOP Gaming Seal of Approval and will be my MMO of choice for quite some time to come, I believe. Though it has a tried and true foundation based mostly on EverQuest and World of Warcraft, it comes with enough fresh new twists on a somewhat stagnant genre to really set it apart and keep it alive.

Related Links
Official Site - http://www.swtor.com/