Okami – PS2, Wii, PS4

OkamiTitle
Sweet Jesus’ dildo, do you know how exhausting it is to write about every damn game I play? Here’s my latest: Okami. The story of how the great Shinto goddess, Amaterasu, transcends to the corporeal plane to cleanse the evil plaguing us, and chooses a form that immediately gets scolded for dragging her butt across the carpet. Okay, okay. I get that Okami is a pun that both means “great god” and “wolf” in Japanese, and I also get that I’m coming at the game from the perspective of someone who is so much a cat person that you might expect my closet to be lined with white linen hoods with whiskers and double peaks for ears, but still, in a game renowned for it’s beautiful art style, why would Capcom so prominently animate Amaterasu’s sphincter? I guess the trail of flowers that bloom in her wake sprout up less as a result of her divinity and more from the constant spray of Miracle Grow, warning you to watch where you step as you traverse the fields of Nippon.

OkamiOrochi

The first step to solving your drinking problem is for all eight of your heads to admit they have a drinking problem.

The game opens in the most engaging way possible; a 30-minute long epic showdown between the great hero, Nagi, his lupine astral companion, Shiranui, and their arch-nemesis, the octocephaline serpent, Orochi. It’s such an exciting scene that my only real complaint with it is that instead of thrusting the player into a high-stakes tutorial level, they decide to narrate it with still-images in the style of traditional Japanese sumi-e and text that crawls slow enough that even Dick and Jane would get bored, read something else to pass the time, and learn how to discuss the finer points of Herman Melville by the time the cut scene ends. In all fairness, though, by the end of the game the last thing I wanted was yet one more identical boss fight with Orochi. Okami knows it has excellent boss fights and forces you to replay them over and over, much in the same way that the pretty girl who knows she’s pretty will constantly throw you into picking a fight with the manager of the restaurant; in both cases, they know if you leave, you’re not likely to get something quite as attractive on the rebound.

Okami2

Yeah, it’s a beautiful game, but it KNOWS it’s beautiful. Just look at that dog sitting there, watching it.

At the very least, Okami can pacify some of the hardcore jackassery that associates video games with violence. Amaterasu doesn’t level up by fighting monsters. Instead, she earns experience by feeding animals, doing favors for people, and bringing dead things back to life. Pretty much the only thing fighting monsters is good for is looting their corpses for spare change, and since money in Okami is as useful as the brown chunks of ice you kick off your tire wells in the winter, enemies are little more than minor obstacles to dodge as you rocket through the world map. Combat is relatively simple—no matter your level of experience or the amount of skills you purchased, half the time all you have to do is waggle the Wii-mote until carpal tunnel sets in and the battle is as good as won. Most of the weapons and items I collected along the way went unused, and are now probably just gathering dust in the sun goddess’s basement, along with a dozen boxes of ammo from Silent Hill, a small habitat of jinjos from Banjo Kazooie, and an old Triforce that I lost the instruction book for and can’t figure out how it works.

Okami4

Amaterasu teams up with Japanese Popeye

Funny though that I should bring up Zelda, as the game feels very much like a unique take on Nintendo’s tired old formula. Instead of Hyrule, it’s set in a fairy-tale version of Japan. Instead of a Peter Pan cosplayer, it stars a dog that moves forward via the power of foliage flatulence, and instead of collecting a small hardware store full of junk, you carry a magical paintbrush and work on becoming the Van Gough of cell-shaded canines. Before I continue, you may have noted that I played the Wii port of the game, not the original PS2 version. Makes sense, right? A game with a painting mechanic should let you take full control of those natural brush strokes, only possible through the Wii’s motion control. Now let’s just take this game that requires precision technique and put it on a system that emulates the feel of being an epileptic toddler in a 7.2 earthquake.

Okami3

Just your average sun goddess dog flying around on a sword to fight an evil nine-tailed fox. God, I don’t know what they smoke in Japan but I want some.

The celestial brush techniques take the place of Zelda’s items, and had the potential to make the game great, but as it turns out, most of the thirteen techniques you learn are some form of draw-a-circle-around-a-thing or connect-the-thing-to-the-thing. It’s a bit of a letdown to realize you’re going to be granted lightning power, to hope that you’ll get to draw a zig-zag to rain down the wrath of Raijen upon your unsuspecting demon foes, only to realize that all you do is find a source of electricity, then draw a line to what needs to be powered like some sort of divine Shinto electrician. The fact that this is exactly the same as your water power (divine Shinto plumbing) your earth power (Shinto gardening) and your fire power (apparently Amaterasu moonlights in arson), kind of gives the impression that you’re less of a holy being and more of a hardcore DIY-er on a fixer-upper spree through feudal Japan.

After a while I did figure out a few tricks for brush techniques (draw spirals to activate the wind, rather than loops, and the Z-button helps drawing straight lines, albeit with the practiced grace of a seasoned drunk driver), and the game actually became pretty fun. Boss fights used techniques well, and didn’t hold you to repeating a technique ad nauseum once you’d figured out the trick, even if it did somehow ask you to repeat entire boss fights as though Amaterasu was a transfer student whose transcripts got lost in the mail and had to repeat entire grades on a technicality. The final boss, I though, was exceptionally brilliant, in that it asked me to utilize every single technique I picked up throughout the game, while still giving me a few options to feel like I was fighting creatively. Granted, this doesn’t mean I want to get to the end of a Zelda game and have Gannon checking off my report card to make sure I can bludgeon him just right with my boomerang, fishing pole, and spinner, and to make sure I’m not blowing any flat notes on my spirit flute.

Okami1

Dog.

I enjoyed Okami. Maybe not to the point where I think it deserves to be polished by critics until its steaming dog droppings sparkle like a pearl, but it was pretty good. The game did suffer from pacing, most notably the text speed which said “I have a five-year-old reading level” even while the sexual overtones said “I have a seventeen-year-old’s hormonal lust” to the point where the comically cartoonish women said “I’d jack off to a mannequin I found in the dumpster behind the Gap if one were available.” However, the more people I meet, the more I suspect Okami may have finally nailed the U.S.A. as a target audience.

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Fire Emblem Awakening – 3DS

FEA Marth

Doesn’t quite have the same ring as “Ishmael.” On the other hand, Moby Dick never inspired me to read anything Melville wrote, let alone play an entire series of games.

Oh god…this is what happens when you play too many games from the same franchise. Fire Emblem Awakening plays so much like a rough draft of Fire Emblem Fates, that I seriously considered just posting a draft for my article on Fates and calling it a day. Fortunately for you, I’m so lazy when it comes to blogging that I never revise, and therefore already posted my draft a few weeks back. Even more fortunately, I’m lazy enough to have written two paragraphs, put it aside for several months, and then just gave up when it came time to schedule the post. So here’s a mini-review, more to add a notch in my belt of games on this blog than to actually inform you of anything.

FEA Squares

It’s a good thing the natural world created so many zones of colored tiles for them to work with.

Awakening follows the exploits of the player’s avatar, defautly named Robin, and his/her own personal Batman, Chrom (possibly named after the personal god of Conan. The barbarian, that is, not O’Brien.). Chrom first encounters Robin passed out in a field, having blacked out most of his own personal history, save for his name, the ability to speak English, and a Ph.D.-level education in fantasy medieval tactics. Shortly afterward, an army of zombies from the future shows up. Even in a fantasy world, this is about as commonplace as, say, sentient carrots from outer space slaughtering our millionaire class for the purpose of overhauling our methods for packaging retail items, so their appearance coincidentally creates a job opening for a tactician in Chrom’s armies. Personally, I immediately felt a connection with Robin, not only because I personalized him as my avatar, but also because he set up realistic expectations of what has to happen before someone will fucking give me a job. The first battle with these future zombies, though, proves to be too much to handle even for Robin, and Chrom’s forces have to be bailed out by fucking Trunks from Dragonball Z. What follows is a wacky, zany tale filled with convoluted political intrigue, Dragonball time-travel rules, and an entire army fornicating on the job that doesn’t somehow turn out with more sexual harassment scandals than the American political/entertainment world.

FEA Harassment

That’s sexual harassment, and I don’t have to take it.

Later seen in Fates, Fire Emblem Awakening introduced the series to the philosophy that the family that slays together, stays together. Upon realizing just how many extra battles are available should I choose to play the game less like a military campaign and more like medieval Tinder (which, from experience, is no less brutal than feudal warfare), I decided to play matchmaker and pair up as many characters as possible. Also like Fates, each marriage between characters produces a child for you to press into service like your own personal Khmer Rouge. Still, even without the genocide, to say that marching into combat with an army of adolescents is a morally gray area is like saying we might want to consider the ramifications of exposing food to raw uranium before installing nuclear kitchens in every elementary school in the country. (And yes, I know that in the middle ages, the age of adulthood was 12 and that the leper king of Jerusalem had reached the pinnacle of his military career by 15.) Awakening solves this dilemma (…three years before Fates introduced it) by sending all your children back from the future as fully grown adults. Honestly, the only disappointing thing about this is that while Fates gave you the Lannister/Targaryen incest option to marry your siblings, Awakening passed up a perfectly good Back to the Future vibe by denying moms the chance to woo their sons.

Star Fox Adventures – Game Cube

SFA Shrek Rock

Star Fox meets stone Shrek. Because sure. Why not? At this point, who cares?

Let’s take a break from all the Fire Emblem madness, shall we? Today I’d like to focus on Star Fox Adventure, the black sheep of the Star Fox family. And why not? Fox should get the chance to adventure just like anyone else. Just because he’s some hotshot pilot doesn’t mean he never needs to get out and stretch his furry little, possibly amputated, metal legs. Sure, sure, there’s that whole business of usurping the entirely unrelated “Dinosaur Planet” game, swooping in like some colonial power to slaughter the locals, swipe their resources, and rape their disturbingly sexy fox women to a borderline-pornographic jazz saxophone soundtrack—all in the name of saving them from themselves.

SFA Combat

You go Fox! That’ll teach him to not be able to regulate his internal body temperature!

Usually I take some time to explain the storyline, but as our resident colonial power, Nintendo, demanded the story be drastically rewritten, the Star Fox cannon accepts this story with the poetic grace of a beautiful sixteen-year-old losing her virginity to a hydraulic pile driver. As this was the final game Rare developed before Microsoft purchased them to be slaughtered, then resurrected by their head voodoo priestess, let’s start with their typical formula: begin with a cute, furry, mammalian protagonist, pit them against a villain who is reptilian, green, or otherwise unappealing based on sight or stereotypical representation, and litter the landscape with enough macguffins to draw the wrath of environmental protesters. (For all their stellar reputation, Rare fell into kind of a rut after Goldeneye) From there, replace one of the heroes with Fox McCloud, sleeves ripped off his flight jacket to give him that butch just-out-of-prison look, and sex up the other hero like a prehistoric escort girl with a muzzle (because apparently “the Legend of Zelda meets Jurassic Park” can’t motivate men to action unless we also throw in “the Discovery Channel.”). Throw in some bizarre idea of gravity working backwards as an excuse to fly through space once in a while, and as long as we’re usurping the original game, let’s boot out the primary antagonist at the last minute to wedge in a final boss fight with the space love-child of King Kong and Rafiki from the Lion King using a style of gameplay entirely different from what we’ve played for 99% of the game.

I know this game and Krystal, it’s supposed would-be-hero, served as Anita Sarkeesian’s prime example of how the man-o-centric male-ocracy of video games refuses to view women in any way that prevents them from fast-forwarding to the parts with nudity, but as it turns out, the game was always supposed to have a male protagonist. Krystal, as a cat, was originally assigned a larger, more active role, but she still shared the spotlight with a male tiger named Sabre. Be it Fox or Sabre, however, the story simply feels like it needs to be about Krystal.

SFA Krystal

The pterodactyl is definitely shooting Krystal a look that says, “I’m not getting paid enough to put up with this shit.”

For starters, the game pulls a weak justification of why Fox has to use Krystal’s staff instead of his blaster—General Pepper thinks he needs to learn more subtle ways of solving problems than blasting. You know…mix it up and use blunt trauma to bludgeon the locals to death once in a while. The flight sections are fun and sort of Star Foxy, in a stripped down, take-off-your-shoes-and-step-through-the-machine sort of way, but do you know what would have been fun and made narrative sense? Flying your fire-breathing pterodactyl from place to place. They even pair up Fox with a baby styracosaurus named Tricky. You don’t have to babysit him, which automatically makes him better than Ashley Graham (score one more point for Sarkeesian’s argument), but the relationship he has with Fox displays all the warmth and camaraderie that Link has with his hookshot. He’s there to solve puzzles, giving him the functionality of an item, but at least in Zelda, the boomerang never asks you for food. On the other hand, pair him up with Krystal, who having grown up on Dinsoaur Planet has a clear investment in the culture and the dinosaurs, and Tricky could have been more endearing than that dog that made everyone cry at the end of that Futurama episode.

SFA Scales

My first guess? Check the henhouse.

So the story forces characters with sack-of-flour personalities through so many holes and circuitous twists that if you just add water you’ll likely get a bowl of corkscrew pasta. What about the gameplay? Generally, it feels like Banjo Kazooie going through an edgy, teenage Zelda phase. You still wander around the planet collecting junk like an unemployed geo-cacher, but there’s a slight emphasis on useable items. Rare clearly missed the point of item collecting in Zelda, though. Zelda items are known for their versatility, letting players interact creatively with the game. You can write life hacks with Zelda items: “Did you know you can fight Gannon with nothing but a fishing pole and a jar of rancid marmalade like some deranged dock master?” Zelda games let players live out MacGuyver fantasies, allowing them to access power ups with nothing but a boomerang, an enchanted jock strap, and a lint roller that some fairy gave them after they dropped their tuna sandwich in a fountain. Fox, on the other hand, can’t use an item at all unless there’s some pedestal with a dozen signs pointing at it telling him exactly which item to use. I’ve seriously found more uses for old house keys than the items in Star Fox Adventures.

SFA Peppy

You feeling okay Peppy? You look a little stoned there. You wanna maybe lie down for a minute or two?

So the game isn’t without a certain amount of charm, and if I ever got stuck, Slippy would give me useful hints, thus redeeming him for flying through Star Fox 64 with dead batteries in his laser and a bullseye painted on the back of his arwing. However, while I got through 80% of the game took up about 60% of my play time. Rare filled it with tedious mini-games that were tested as thoroughly as a street-corner prostitute (and not 10% as enjoyable). Let’s see…there were two speeder chases that required me to disable enemies with no guns, no way to accelerate faster than them, and in which every obstacle—including the required ramming of enemy speeders—slowed me down…there was a button-mashing mini-game that required a tube of bengay and melted the button on my controller for the speed they wanted…and there was a Tyrannosaurus that chased me around an arena for an hour, in desperate need of electroshock therapy, but giving no predictable pattern as to when he’d casually walk through the electrodes (thank my ghost fox dad, though, that it wasn’t hungry, and felt perfectly content to croon some dinosaur lounge music every time it saw me).

So in short, I’m not saying that every Star Fox game needs to put me in the pilot seat and tell me to do barrel rolls until I feel like Donkey Kong’s best weapon against Mario. I’m just saying that between Nintendo and Rare, someone screwed up this game to the point that the most memorable thing about it was the air freshener I was supposed to give out at Sam Goody every time someone bought the game. And since no one ever did, I had plenty of those pungent little foxes freshening up my car back in college.

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia – 3DS

FE Cover

The reason you don’t see more reviews on Mega Man games on this site is not because I don’t ever play the games. In fact, I’m a huge fan of Mega Man, especially in those earlier Marvel vs Capcom games. For all the complex combos that characters in fighting games can pull off, I often found it was better just to slide-kick opponents with Mega Man, thus ensuring they never stand long enough to pull off their own complex super-moves (and that my friends give me less social contact than your average plague victim). It’s a well-known (and rarely implemented) concept among game design that you have to make those difficult moves worth it, otherwise players will just do the simplest and easiest moves. On that note, it takes a certain masochistic spirit to keep writing completely new entries when the “find and replace” feature would work perfectly well. Writing new jokes is hard, and in the time I usually spend staring blankly at my computer screen, I could easily learn a new language, clean my house, conduct an extensive and painstaking research project to develop cold fusion and advance humanity to the next era, or—more likely—play another video game. But then I’d have to write about it. That all being said, here’s an entry on Fire Emblem, a game just like every other installment in the series!

FE Celica

There’s a dirty joke in here somewhere, but I’ll be damned if I’m too smitten to find it.

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Fire Emblem: Echoes: Shadows of Valentia differs from its peers in that it has a title that sounds like someone pulled it from a flow chart. Aside from that, its pretty standard fare: a turn-based tactical strategy game that makes me feel just a little bit better for not being able to beat 6th-graders at chess. Play alternates between two characters: Alm and Celica, who are close childhood friends and totally not secret heirs to the thrones of Valentia’s two kingdoms, Rigel and Zofia. Alm’s story starts when Lucas comes to his village looking for recruits for “The Deliverance,” a band of rugged, backwater warriors who totally want to make their enemies squeal like a pig, even if not a damn one of them plays banjo. Alm and his friends sign up, free Zofia on their way to training, and discover that the Deliverance consists of pretty much just three guys, one of whom tenders his resignation after their leader’s decision to turn control of their entire forces over to this random kid who shows up claiming to be the main character. Celica, on the other hand, has a bad dream and decides to follow up on it in the morning, which serves as the impetus for eventually taking down a cult of religious fanatics hell-bent on spreading chaos. The last time I followed up on a bad dream, Anne grunted incoherently, then told me to go back to sleep.

FE Tiles

Even the USMC is taught to distinguish blue tiles from red.

Also unique for a tactical game, players can explore three-dimensional dungeons, complete with RPG tropes like money falling out of grass, characters who feel its easier to obliterate boxes than to simply open the lids, and lots and lots of random enemy encounters. In games where single battles can run upwards of forty minutes, the idea of placing a string of fights between save points sounds about as enjoyable as masturbation with a box of sandpaper instead of tissues. But the game solves this potential tedium grind by nerfing the fuck out of all the enemies. While story battles retain some semblance of the challenge the series is known for, monsters in dungeon battles go down like termite-infested Jenga towers. I got through most battles within two rounds, and regularly finished without enemies having a chance to act at all. I’ve gotten more resistance from targets at archery ranges.

FE Celica 2

When on fire, wave your hands wildly in front of you like sparklers.

Combat does have some interesting mechanics, such as mages casting spells with HP instead of MP. It only makes sense, after all, that someone blasting a lightning bolt from the palm of their hand might inadvertently complete a circuit. This changes strategy more than you’d think. One nice by-product is that you don’t have to slaughter enemy mages—just whittle them down to less HP than it takes to cast their most basic spell. At that point, they’ll just stand on the field and put up less of a fuss than your average soccer fan. Of course, it often feels like enemies exploit this mechanic, supporting a few high-level magic users with a small fleet of high-level healers. But still, you’ll want to stock up on your own spell casters because finally the nerds are busting out of their lockers and coming for the jocks.

FE Dragon

Always be sure to clean out your fire breathing dragon after every use, or this may happen.

But if the mages are overpowered, it’s because they get to memorize a book of spells, while all characters in the game are limited to carrying one item. Oh, they’ll get a default weapon if they don’t have one equipped, but these basic armaments pack all the punch of that broken rock-em-sock-em robot that can’t quite knock the other one’s head off. So if they’ll have to chose between their high-level, blacksmith-modded lightning sword (if they want to stay alive in battle) or a hunk of stale, leftover bread (if they want to stay alive in general). And I’m not actually making that up—leftover bread is an item in the game, and it takes so much effort to carry that your seasoned warrior just doesn’t have the strength to strap on a sword to his belt.

FE Mycen

Sir Mycen. Last name, Men. Tactical genius, though his plans often go awry.

While a good game overall, one major frustration made its presence known from start to finish: extremely low accuracy and extremely high evasion rates. It was as if I recruited my soldiers, warriors or mages, right out of the post-op ward for cataract surgery, shoved them into the dark and had them all start swinging at enemy ninjas with whiffle bats. Personally, I’d rather an attack connect, but deal no damage, than to feel that all my actions are literally wasted…but that’s perhaps my own quirk from having sent out one too many job applications.

Lunar 2 Eternal Blue Complete – PS1

L2 Cover
Well the past few months have definitely proven educational. Here I have a brand-new fantasy novel fine-tuned for readers, ready to go out to agents for the first step in the publication process, and what type of fortune and glory do I discover? I’d have more volunteers to test the stuff fermenting in my cat’s litter box than to read my latest fantasy-adventure epic. I’d say that being an author makes me feel like dating in high school again, but damn…by the time I was seventeen even I met a girl who let me touch her tits. Funny, now that I’m not trying to get laid, I end up getting rejected more often than a drunken hobo with eczema offering women the last swig of his whiskey if they’ll touch his penis. So…here I return to say moderately witty things about video games, where I can at least pretend than the handful of people who have liked random articles are actually regular readers and not just trying to draw traffic to their own blogs.

[sigh…anyone want the last swig of my whiskey in exchange for publishing my book?]

L2 Dance Magic

Jean is going to combat the Goblin King with a little Dance Magic Dance.

So here we go…Lunar 2: Eternal Blue. It figures that a game set on the moon would be totally eclipsed by its predecessor. Lunar: the Silver Star Story Complete, as I’ve said before, is like a magic mushroom trip in video game form: a rush of pretty sounds and colors, creative ideas, a sense that you’re doing something important, and a total euphoria culminating in the feeling that even though it lasts about 26 hours, it ended way too early. Well, fortunately Working Designs found a way to remedy that feeling of disappointment coming down from the final boss fight: requiring an additional five more hours of gameplay to get the good ending!

L2 Ghaleon

…because otherwise everyone’s going to write off the game as a crappy sequel and we won’t get any installment but Dragonsong for the next twenty years.

Quite honestly, I’m on the fence about how to describe that; either it’s like some sort of customer loyalty program throwing in a free tenth dungeon for every nine that I clear, or it’s a Nigerian Prince who ran into some unexpected red tape while trying to wire me my dear Uncle Mtumbo’s inheritance, and just needs me to crawl through a few extra dungeons before that money finally shows up. I think it all comes down to the battle system. In the first game, battles were semi-tactical. The player had to account for enemy formations, weaknesses, and the ranges and zones of their own attacks. MP had to be conserved, but if you played it right you could easily spend your way through battles and still have a little leftover to save for some rainy day boss fight. Most RPG battles tend to be so repetitive they could simulate what it’s like to have autism, but the Silver Star Story takes great pains to avoid that. Eternal Blue, on the other hand…well, you may want to avoid loud noises and watch out for antivaxxers, because Working Designs threw all that careful planning out the window. For most fights, the best option you have is just to mash the attack button like you’re trying to get an elevator door to close.

L2 Lucia

This is why you don’t see a lot of Lunar cosplayers.

I mean, I guess it’s worth playing. I did, after all, play through the bonus dungeons to get the good ending, but honestly when the girl decides to dump the hero in favor of chilling out for a few thousand years on a planet sterilized by a magical nuclear apocalypse…well, it triggers flashbacks from high school, so naturally I’m not too inclined to leave it at that. But my guess is that, while the Silver Star Story was revised and fine-tuned with love and care until it was perfect, Eternal Blue was spit-shined, wrapped in plastic, and hastily chucked on the next truck heading out for Walmart. But hell, what would Working Designs know about revision? It’s only literally what their name means.

L2 Hiro

A hero named Hiro. The most original idea since spelling Dracula’s name backwards.

Also…a general note for creative minds everywhere…stop naming heroes “Hiro.” Yes, the Japanese name sounds an awful lot like the English word “hero.” That being said, it is not insightful, funny or clever to christen your protagonist thusly. It is nothing more than a bad pun. A dad joke. It makes your story less classy than a Carrot Top comedy routine.

Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones – GBA

Fire Emblem - The Sacred Stones-Fantasy Video Game Trope 10023

Ah, yes…the tropes are strong with this one.

Although Fire Emblem is quickly becoming a new favorite series for me, my efforts to charm and amuse you by saying something witty and unique about each game are stymied by the ever-present reality that reviewing individual games in a series is often as productive as reviewing individual chocolates in a bag of M&Ms. That does speak to the strengths of the industry. After all, no one wants to dig into a bag of M&Ms and find twenty chocolates, five skittles, two pennies and a clump of cat litter. Likewise, if Nintendo has established a medieval-fantasy strategy series, it does not behoove them to give players “Fire Emblem: Banjo Simulator.” That’s good for players, but for those of us who write about games, the “if it ain’t broke” approach makes reviews a little difficult to write.

Fire Emblem - The Sacred Stones - scooby doo

Zoinks! Scoob, what say you and I check out the kitchen instead?

It’s a fairly simplistic strategy game that reminds me either of Shining Force on the Sega Genesis or a game of chess played on the back of a speeding jet ski. Characters have classes such as knight, archer, paladin, mage, dancer, or insurance claims adjuster, and march into battle with nothing but their unique stats, a few class-specific characteristics (pegasus knights can fly over mountains, for example), and an assortment of weapons crafted from high-quality candy glass so that they’ll shatter after a handful of uses. Victory goes to whichever army can successfully bludgeon the gate keeper, enemy general, or living daylights out of everyone on the other team.

Fire Emblem - The Sacred Stones-Dragonlance

Laurana, Tasslehoff and Flint will come by to pick it up later.

The story opens on a continent comprised of several kingdoms, one republic, one empire, and zero confusion about who the evil invading power will be based on the Star Wars rule of fantasy clichés. The Empire of Grado starts conquering neighboring kingdoms for no purpose other than to smash their family jewels (literally) in order to set free a long imprisoned demon king. I could make a joke about those motives being so cartoonishly villainous that its like congressmen pitching poor people into piles of burning coal just to speed up global warming, but honestly our current government daily bemoans the lack of trains in this day and age because it reduces the efficiency of tying girls to railroad tracks. Donald Trump is just a handlebar moustache away from being a cartoon villain himself. As for Fire Emblem’s primary antagonist, we get a young prince who can’t decide whether or not he’s possessed by the demon king, controlled by the demon king, or just envious of the hero, so we spend the entire second act of the game chasing around a kid more indecisive than a college student with identity issues who’s on the verge of changing his major for the third time.

Fire Emblem - The Sacred Stones-Lyon Bad-touches Ephraim

Ephraim experiences “bad touch” with his childhood friend.

The Sacred Stones ramps up the difficulty compared to Shadow Dragon by limiting funding and weapons and replacing them with enough enemies to make the Battle of Pelennor Fields look like a fair fight. Unfortunately, the game seems to have made one offset too many. In spite of names like “Steel lance” and “silver sword,” enemy weapons seem to be forged entirely from noodles of varying degree of wetness. From the beginning, I had a character who wouldn’t take damage if he played a round of golf wearing full plate armor in a lightning storm, and he found himself in good company by the end of the game. While it had its moments, especially near the end of the game, several battles felt much like the Battle of Pelennor Fields if Gandalf had arrived at Minas Tirith with a truck full of AK-47s instead of a socially awkward hobbit. At times even it felt as though the true challenge of the game was leveling up. Unlike Shadow Dragon, Sacred Stones did offer chances to fight outside of of the main story campaign, but the game’s algorithm for assigning experience points didn’t seem to follow any pattern of current level, enemy’s level, or effectiveness of actions, but rather seemed more in line with the effects of locking a chimpanzee in a room with a bottle of whiskey and a dart board.

Fire Emblem - The Sacred Stones-Animal House Ending

Sacred Stones retains the series’ traditional Animal House style endings. The good-natured thief is the one who steals a horse…and puts it in the dean’s office.

Death, in real life, is almost as unforgiving as the girls I dated in high school and college. In video games, though, it’s about as debilitating as the check engine light on my car; it’s there, it worries me, but if I can usually go a little farther without completely bursting into flames, it’ll probably go away on its own at some point. Video game death naturally applies to all characters equally, with the exception of Fire Emblem, one character in any given Final Fantasy game, and that thirtieth guy in Contra. It is a rather unique mechanic, I have to say, because the concern for a character you’ve invested time and energy into can really change the game when he suddenly goes the way of your schnauzer who died when you were in fourth grade. The biggest difference, of course, being that you wear out your reset button about as much as you’d normally wear out your B button. Okay, maybe that’s considered cheating by some…in the way that offering to motorboat your female coworkers’ enormous racks might be considered sexual harassment by some…but I prefer to think of it as forcing me to learn the absolute best strategy for the situation. Resetting the game when a character dies. Not the motorboating things.

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Skyrim – PS3, XBox 360, PC

Skyrim

One of countless beautiful images that aren’t actually taken from real gameplay.

Writing this about halfway through my hiatus, it’s probably a good idea to look back and see how productive my break has been. Let’s see…I sent out submissions for my novel and got about three form rejections and a bunch of non-answers…I got fifteen pages into a play and ran out of plot ideas…oh! This one is fun—I regularly spent my days having nine-year-old kids swearing at me like they’ve got one night of shore leave and want to get into a brawl before visiting the whorehouse. No, I wasn’t playing Call of Duty online. I was substitute teaching fourth grade. Yeah, take that, my parents’ generation; a lifetime of video games made me a pacifist, and one semester of being a responsible adult shepherding the minds of our nations future gave me fantasies of having the authority to draw and quarter children. So after a few weeks of “break,” I began slipping into an existential despair void of all meaning and purpose to the point where I imagined I might soon have to fight against the heroes of a Final Fantasy game. So I did the most reasonable thing I could think of; I played Skyrim.

Skyrim Bear

Fuck you, bear.

For those of you unfamiliar with the game, saying, “I need to devote time to my writing” and then popping in The Elder Scrolls V is a lot like those girls in high school who told me, “I’m not ready for a relationship right now” before diving tits-first into bed with some douchebag who’s favorite brand of cigarettes are “found on the side of the roads.”

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Yep. A hundred plus hours of beautiful scenery, which sadly is more than we’ll ever see in the real world.

Skyrim expands on the world of Tamriel, taking players to the far northern province. The country is split into several holdings, each ruled by a jarl, proud, stately noblemen and women dedicated to preserving law and order in a bountiful world with a necromancer for every corpse and a clan of bandits for every shopkeeper, and where 95% of the castles, outposts and other government infrastructure have been abandoned and fallen into disrepair. Personally, it doesn’t seem like having such a large and thriving criminal population would work well in a feudalist, capitalist or communist society, but Skyrim operates on a quest-based economy where everyone has an item they need retrieved, a cavern they need explored, or a foe they need slaughtered. Hey, it’s not my place to ask why all these vindictive spelunkers have misplaced their shit. My biggest concern is whether or not the potions I found in these ancient tombs have passed their shelf-life. You know, considering the completely dysfunctional nature of my idealized fantasy worlds, it’s a wonder I don’t vote Republican. I mean, there are so many thousand-year-old monsters awakening from their slumber to unravel the fabric of existence that you’d think Skyrim was the United States Senate.

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Yeah, a flying mammoth looks weird, but I guarantee that at least two or three NPCs have a prophecy about it.

Anyway, you play as the Dragonborn, the legendary warrior with the soul of a dragon who will save the world from a magical apocalypse caused by Alduin, the king of the dragons. At least, that’s what the game told me. Fulfilling my role as the archenemy of dragonkind, I once encountered a drake fighting two bears. I killed both bears to catch its attention, but the dragon immediately took off after a deer like a cat chasing a laser pointer. Not to be ignored, I chased down my ancient enemy, only to find him about five minutes later, a short distance from the deer corpse, completely absorbed in mortal combat with a mudcrab. But honestly, who hasn’t turned aside from their ultimate destiny in favor of a seafood buffet? Still, I have to wonder how many times I get ignored for something that crawled out from under a rock before the “it’s like dating in high school” joke gets old, and I have to ask some serious questions about my life.

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Me versus the true dragonborn.

The game follows Western RPG format, meaning it tries to simulate the experience of tabletop gaming without all the pesky social aspects and no way to interact with the game but for a selection of one to three dialogue options thus robbing you of any creative thought or character personality. But if you’re fine playing a character with a personality as vivid and dynamic as a bucket of rocks, there are plenty of skills to practice. In particular, I played as a mage this time, something I rarely do. I might advise against this in the future. I played through the game once as an archer and remember that around level 30 or so, my arrows could tear through bandits like hollow-point shots from a .50 caliber Desert Eagle punching through 2-ply toilet paper. As a mage, though, you’re given an arsenal of spells that do a pre-determined amount of damage despite your level, which is more like trying to punch through a concrete wall using nothing but your forehead and a jar of aspirin. I’m not saying you can’t get by using only the basic skills, but you don’t see a lot of fourth grade music students learn to play a diseased recorder that’s been inside more kids than the combined clergy of the Catholic Church and end up playing for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

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Wait…this isn’t a Skyrim screenshot. This is a picture of me cleaning out my basement here in Duluth.

I thought playing a mage might solve a few problems for me. Carrying around weapons and armor had always severely limited my inventory—a severe problem in a game full of more junk than an old lady’s attic. But not only did I still end up spending more time on inventory management than when I worked as a clerk at Sam Goody, I ended up repeating simple battles for hours on end because I came armed with what amounted to a taser with a dead battery and armor that wouldn’t protect me from a pan of bacon sizzling in the next room. But somehow, I still managed to work my way up to the Archmage of the College of Winterhold, a sweet package that gave me Indiana-Jones-amounts of time off for the purpose of adventuring, and absolutely no responsibilities to teach, help anyone, or maintain the day-to-day operations of the college (so basically, like a regular college administration job). Meh. It looks better on a resume than “substitute teacher” and “hobbyist video game writer with delusions that he’s funny.”