Blog-a-TOG

Yesterday, the full spoiler for Whispers of the Old Gods, the newest Hearthstone expansion, was finally released. By the time the set (henceforth TOG) launches, it will have been nearly half a year since the last time new cards have been added to the game — longer than Blizzard supposedly likes, but it was to a purpose. Alongside TOG, Hearthstone will be launching its new rotating format, Standard, which features only the Basic and Classic sets along with the last two years worth of new card releases. This addition will mark the first time that cards have been removed from the pool of legal cards as well as being added, which makes it an exciting time for people like me who enjoy constructed Hearthstone but have found the ubiquity of certain cards, decks, and strategies to be stifling in recent weeks.

The set looks very cool, and the stream that revealed the new cards (which itself is highly recommended viewing) made it look like an absolute blast. I’m absolutely excited to start cracking packs and building in the new format. If there’s anything I’ve learned from following card games for twenty years, though, it’s that people are absolute rubbish about predicting what’s going to be good and bad and how the format will change, so I’m not going to bother with a card-by-card review. You can find those anywhere, and why should my impressions be any more accurate? However, I do see some more general trends in both the set and the recently-announced nerfs to twelve Basic/Classic cards that make me a little wary. I suppose it’s fitting for a set about trying to harness the power of ancient and incomprehensible gods that for every aspect of the set and the new format that I’m excited about, like wishing on a monkey’s paw, there’s a flip side that makes me somewhat wary. So I’m going to talk about those trends instead.

1) There is much less pressure to not get overrun in the early game…

The very first thing I noticed after absorbing the full TOG spoiler was how bad the two-drop creatures are. Only one of them is truly excellent, I feel (Rogue’s Undercity Huckster), and there’s one more that seems fine but only a specific strategy (Beckoner of Evil — more on her and the rest of C’Thun’s gang later).

This is a continuation of a trend that’s been going for almost a year. There really aren’t very many good twos remaining in the format at all. Previously, the class of the neutral twos was Knife Juggler, but it’s getting nerfed, so it becomes more along the line of Sorcerer’s Apprentice or Wild Pyromancer — something that you save so that you can maximize its ability, not necessarily something you throw out on turn two to start the beatdown. Haunted Creeper, the other generically good neutral two, is rotating along with the rest of Curse of Naxxramas. Shielded Minibot, Mad Scientist, Mechwarper, and Nerubian Egg join it in its working retirement in the Wild format. Even useful twos like Gilbin Stalker and Goblin Auto-Barber, which were theoretically powerful but largely pushed out by other options, are leaving.

Of the remaining cards, the best neutral two that doesn’t require either a specific deck or a specific boardstate may well be Flame Juggler, who is only slightly stronger than a vanilla creature. There are a few decent class twos — Totem Golem most notably, but also Darnassus Aspirant and Dark Peddler — but no class has more than one, and some classes don’t have any. Dragon decks can turn to Alexstrasza’s Champion or Wyrmrest Agent, if they’re of the right class. If the body is less important than the value, you can use Loot Hoarder or Jeweled Scarab. A few of the lesser-used cards from The Grand Tournament like Fallen Hero or King’s Elekk might enter the scene. Perhaps old standbys from vanilla Hearthstone like Amani Berserker, Faerie Dragon, or Acidic Swamp Ooze return to widespread use.

The point, though, is that none of those cards have the resilience that make the twos in Wild so difficult to manage. One of the reasons Paladin’s fabled “perfect curve” is so powerful is because it’s so hard to clear any of them with one card, and even if you do, those cards are positioned poorly against the next drop in the chain. A card that beats Shielded Minibot is generally not a card that manages Muster for Battle well, and the cards that beat Muster are in turn poor against Piloted Shredder. If you were not able to effectively interact with your opponent’s board in the early going, you would frequently get tempo-ed right out of the game, as even the powerful area-of-effect sweepers usually left behind some deathrattle or divine shield leavings that allowed your opponent to continue pressuring you, and if your opponent dropped a swing play like Mysterious Challenger or Savannah Highmane or even Defender of Argus while you were still trying to clean up his early junk, you were sunk.

In Standard, this may no longer be the case. Of all the useful twos, the only ones that don’t die one-for-one to a cheap removal spell or the front half of an early weapon are Totem Golem and Wyrmrest Agent, the latter of which requires a specific draw in a specific strategy in a specific class. This is a far cry from Hearthstone previously, where if your opponent coined out a Minibot or a Creeper, even if you had a removal spell or an early creature of your own, it would frequently not be able to trade cleanly. It may once again be possible for a large early creature like an Innervated Yeti or a Circle of Healing-ed Injured Blademaster to rule the roost for a few turns, or for a slower deck to seize back board control with a well-timed sweeper, or to trade cards one-for-one in the early game and then pull ahead later with value cards or combinations. Considering how efficient curve decks were at pressuring slower, value-oriented decks out of the game, this should open up a wider variety of strategies and potential gameplans.

…but games might get a lot longer.

This sounds all well and good, but I’m a firm believer in the idea that some aggro and tempo decks are healthy for the metagame. Without these decks, it encourages players to be greedier and greedier, including more and more late-game bombs, removal, and stall cards. Like a good pitchers’ duel, matches between these decks can be fun in moderation, but if every single game is like that, it becomes boring, no matter how skill-testing it is. If you’ve ever watched a Control Warrior or Freeze Mage mirror, you were likely bored out of your skull — the game these kinds of decks have to play when they encounter each other barely resembles Hearthstone at all.

Aggressive early creatures are necessary to keep these kinds of decks honest and force them to interact. The way to beat them is to constantly pressure their life total, make them use their removal in suboptimal ways, and not give them a chance to make pure value plays, because if they ever stop fighting for the board, they’ve lost. This is much harder to do in the absence of sticky, removal-resilient minions, specifically aggressive twos, that the control deck can’t cleanly remove. It’s an open question right now whether a Standard-legal beatdown, tempo, or midrange deck (aside from Aggro Shaman, which is seemingly in good shape) can consistently break an Ice Block before Alexstrasza comes down, or burst down a Warlock before Reno Jackson restores him to full, or kill the C’Thun player before the big man himself comes down as a 25/25 to wipe their whole board and put them at 9. If they can’t, the environment has a chance to be just as stale as it was when Secret Paladins and Aggro Shamans were at their worst, just from the other direction — and with the added problem that even a loss takes a lot longer to play itself out. If Aggro Shaman gets the god draw against you, you’re dead in six turns. If Freeze Mage gets the god draw against you, you’re still just as dead, but it’s going to take fifteen or twenty turns before you actually take the lethal damage you can’t do anything about.

2) C’Thun is a cool design and an interesting alternate strategy for beginners and budget players…

One of the issues with Hearthstone is that if you’re a new player, or one on a budget, you have essentially one strategy available to you: Play well-statted creatures and attack your opponent with them. This is a decent plan for new players, as the game’s hard enough without throwing Mill and Freeze Mage and Handlock and Patron Warrior at them right out of the gate, but the time between when the player gets bored of simple aggro/midrange creature strategies and the time when they have a big enough collection to explore other possibilities is still too wide. For quite a while, if you were just starting and wanted to try a control deck, you were shit out of luck, because those decks tended to require a boatload of expensive legendary finishers that you were simply not going to be able to get unless you had the luck of the Buddha opening packs. Classes like Warrior and Druid were out of reach for a new player, as too many of their staple cards were epic. The Adventures are a decent compromise here, as each one contains at least one legendary creature who is at least a decent stopgap finisher until you can get your hands on Ragnaros the Firelord or Lord Jaraxxus or Ysera or Tirion Fordring, but even those can take weeks to get if you’re not willing to drop real money on the game.

With TOG, Blizzard made the inspired choice to simply give a free copy of C’Thun, the set’s signature legendary, to anyone who opened a pack of TOG. This was because a good chunk of the set is dedicated to cards who specifically interact with C’Thun, many of them at common and rare, and it was decided that it would be kind of a bullshit move to make players craft a legendary just to interact at the most basic level with one of the set’s most ubiquitous mechanical themes. This decision makes him available to anyone, and it’s not like he requires a lot of expensive support, either — again, most of the cards in his deck are commons and rares, which are relatively easy to get even for beginners.

In addition, C’Thun enables a type of deck which simply cannot be created with the Basic set and a few Classic packs. His deck, regardless of class, requires a concession on the part of the player that they are building towards a longer game plan, rather than taking each individual turn as it comes. When playing with C’Thun, you know he’s going to mess some shit up if you can get him out, so playing a survival game and interfering with your opponent’s game plan become more important than they are with the kinds of basic decks most beginners have access to, which have no greater ambition than to kill their opponent as fast as possible. These lessons are ones that are important to teach players who are just beginning.

At the same time, though, C’Thun isn’t that complicated. Most of his support cards are totally reasonable well-statted minions who pump him either when they come into play, or when you do something that their class does a lot. As such it’s tough to build — or play — a C’Thun deck “wrong”: The novice’s C’Thun deck may not be strictly optimal, but if they play all the common C’Thun minions, two copies of Disciple of C’Thun, and a Skeram Cultist or two, they’ll be able to build a huge C’Thun and turn him loose, and they won’t have to open their wallet or play Face Hunter for six months solid or go infinite in Arena to do it.

…but he may be too inevitable.

And that may well be a problem.

Another issue with Hearthstone is very recent, and that is the genericization of late-game plans for decks that want to go into the late game. Brian Kibler made the observation on stream that Elise Starseeker and her Golden Monkey gimmick, while fun, was almost too good, because there wasn’t really a reason to play any sort of other late-game plan when you could just play her instead. Elise is a lot more effective for the late-game decks because she doesn’t require you to spend your precious deck slots on dedicated late-game cards that might be useless if you draw them too early or if you don’t have control of the board — rather, she lets you play more defensive cards to exhaust your opponent’s resources, then convert any remaining ones into a win condition. There’s not a lot of incentive to go with Control Warrior’s traditional glob of high-value legendaries or a swarm of expensive dragons when you can just do that instead.

C’Thun might have the same issue. When he was first revealed I think that I and a lot of other people underestimated just how easy it would be to get him really huge. If he’s 10/10 or 12/12, he’s a big swing, for sure, but a manageable one. It doesn’t seem like it would be any issue at all to get him to 20/20 and beyond, though, and once he gets there he’s really hard to deal with. The random shots when he enters the field have a fair chance of completely destroying all but the most resilient of boards, and if you don’t have a board — for example, if you got Flamestriked the previous turn and have only one or two creatures to play afterwards — he has a fair chance of just killing you outright. And again, it’s not like there’s a huge opportunity cost to playing him — his support cards are totally reasonable well-statted minions. Priest and Warrior get huge heals attached to minions once C’Thun has been buffed twice or more. (In the aforementioned stream, Frodan has nothing going on for the first several turns of the game but is able to hang around for an absurdly long time just on the basis of the large heals enabled by Twilight Darkmender. That’s a show match between two decks that are both on the C’Thun plan, so it doesn’t necessarily indicate the kind of time C’Thun decks are going to have in the wild, but it does indicate just how tough it’s going to be to bring down a C’Thun player if they build their deck right.) It is tough for me to imagine how a deck that plans to win by grinding out value here and there, like a Midrange Paladin or Mage variant, is going to be able to compete once C’Thun comes to town.

Moreover, even if C’Thun is not the optimal control strategy, he is still going to be omnipresent. I’m predicting that C’Thun is Standard’s version of the Mech deck — everyone has a Mech Mage that they use for grinding quests, and one common strategy if your collection isn’t very large is to just throw the neutral Mech core into whatever class you need to win with and try to grind out a few wins on the basis of pure synergy and tempo. C’Thun might end up the same way — add C’Thun, add C’Thun’s cultists, add removal and class cards, go complete your quests with a deck that might not be amazing, but at least you’re pretty sure isn’t horrible.

Now, I’m not making the argument that C’Thun is unstoppable — there are lots of answers for him, assuming he doesn’t kill you outright. Silence him, destroy him with a kill spell, Hex or Polymorph him, turn his power or toughness to 1, Entomb him, let him do his thing and then throw two Fireballs at his controller, etc. But the fact that he can kill you outright, and can easily crush your board when he doesn’t, and cannot be interacted with prior to him coming down outside of killing his controller (which itself is tougher to do given #1, above), means that he flat beats a lot of decks which are otherwise reasonable and fun. And if you like playing those kinds of decks, you’re shit out of luck, because he’s going to be everywhere, even at low ranks or in casual, just because he’s so easy to build and win with. That might be tough to swallow, once the novelty of machine-gunning down your opponent’s board wears off. The Golden Monkey at least plays out differently every time and can make for wild stories and videos; but C’Thun goes the same way every time: Play out efficient minions, get to ten mana, play C’Thun, erase your opponent’s board, and demand they answer your huge man right now or lose. I could see it getting old.

3) Rotating Curse of Naxxramas and Goblins Vs. Gnomes out of the format removes a lot of the staple cards and forces innovation into the metagame…

The release of Goblins Vs. Gnomes in late 2014 was one of the most interesting times to be a fan of Hearthstone. It seemed like you could turn on any stream or queue into ladder and see an entirely new deck that hadn’t been possible before, and even the existing decks had to greatly adapt to the new cards and new decks entering the meta. So even if you tuned into someone playing boring old Handlock or Midrange Hunter, chances are they were testing a build that only somewhat resembled the decks that came before.

No subsequent release has really recaptured that magic. Blackrock Mountain made a fairly serious error, I feel, by basing the set around synergy but requiring you to have the whole set before you could really build decks around that synergy. (Blackwing Technician comes out Week 2 — the card might be good, but who cares, because it needs Dragons and the good Dragons don’t come out until Week 4.) I remember being annoyed one week because a new wing of BRM had come out but I couldn’t find even one stream using the new cards.

TGT was no better. The set was actually a good deal stronger than its reputation suggests, but it had two major issues. The first was that its major theme, hero powers/inspire, completely bombed in constructed outside of a few cards here and there. After a week or so, you never saw dedicated inspire decks; couldn’t tune into a stream to watch the streamer experiment with a new build. The second, and more serious, was that its good cards (except for Mysterious Challenger) didn’t enable any new decks; they simply supplemented existing ones. Argent Horserider is a good card, but there aren’t Argent Horserider decks — it just goes into the same face decks that have existed since the game’s inception, not so different from Wolfrider in the end. The coolest new card, Justicar Trueheart, enabled exactly zero new decks despite seeing loads of constructed play — it just made Control Warriors and Control Priests harder to kill and gave Midrange Paladin a late-game value tool. Those decks existed before TGT came out, and she didn’t change them, just made them a little stronger in some matchups.

The underlying issue is that the more cards you add, the harder it is for each individual one to make an impact. It’s tough to make a mid-game taunt that people will play instead of Sludge Belcher. It’s tough to make an early drop that people will play instead of Zombie Chow. It’s tough to try and supplant the Minibot/Muster curve with a new one. Blizzard, wary of power creep, largely didn’t try. Instead they tried to open up design space in other ways, and despite some small successes here and there (most notably in the League of Explorers set, with Reno Jackson, Elise Starseeker, and the discover mechanic), they were largely unsuccessful in dislodging the established decks that had had years to refine their lists.

Removing cards is really the only solution. There’s no longer a default mid-game taunt, so decks have to experiment with new ones, or go without. There’s no longer a default healing option, so decks have to stretch to include Reno or explore their in-class options. The introduction of Standard looks to be the biggest change to the game it will ever have, as not only do we get a new set to play with, but the sets that previously had to exist under the shadow of the early sets might be able to climb into the sunlight for the first time. It’s almost like there are four new sets, rather than just one. Is it finally time for the Jeweled Scarab or Dragon Consort meta? Only time will tell.

…but doing so causes a lot of the annoying holes in the Basic and Classic set to rear their ugly heads again.

It’s hard to remember after months of Secret Paladin being the scourge of the ladder, but back in vanilla Hearthstone, Paladin was largely agreed to be the worst class. It couldn’t really do anything better than the other classes aside from healing its hero, it had no early game to speak of, and was incredibly reliant on a turn four Truesilver Champion or Consecration turning the game around. Despite the best class legendary and some useful removal tools like Aldor Peacekeeper, Equality, and the aforementioned Consecration, it was rarely played on ladder and almost never in tournaments.

Thing was, though, Blizzard recognized this, so they showed Paladin some love in the first expansions. Shielded Minibot and Muster for Battle gave Paladin early plays that could interact with the board before turn four. Coghammer was a powerful early tool that could be used both on offense and defense. Quartermaster allowed Paladin to quickly rebuild after board wipes. Even cards like Seal of Light and Bolvar Fordragon, which ultimately didn’t pan out, seemed like honest attempts to bring the class up to par.

Now those expansions are gone, and Paladin is back to being bad again, with all its previous weaknesses intact. It no longer has any useful early interactions and is back to hoping that turn four Truesilver or Consecration can correct a bad board. One of my early ideas for a post-TOG Standard deck was a Reno Paladin build, and I started running out of viable choices with ten cards still left to fill in the deck — a far cry from previously, when every single class had enough viable cards that they had to cut reasonable cards when building a Reno deck.

This is the issue with leaving Basic and Classic intact as an evergreen set rather than mixing up its contents the way (say) Magic: the Gathering used to. The Classic set was fun, but it never bothered balancing the classes and had — and still has — lots of holes. Part of the design goal of the early expansions was to fill those holes, and now those sets are gone and the holes are back. Paladin is hardly the only victim here; Priest has it almost as bad, with no early plays and its best sweeper gone. Warlock has no viable spot removal between Mortal Coil and Soulfire at 1 and Syphon Soul at 6. Warrior has no good weapons between Fiery War Axe at 2 and Gorehowl at 7. There is no longer any way to interact with spells, for any class (Counterspell aside, but it’s tough to imagine that card seeing play in the absence of Mad Scientist). Some classes got new healing options to replace Antique Healbot, but others didn’t, and will have to settle for Earthen Ring Farseer and Refreshment Vendor.

It’s good that the format-defining cards are leaving, as it opens up space for new decks to emerge. But a lot of basic tools are leaving as well, cards that the later sets were designed around being present and didn’t think to replace.

The really annoying thing is that this looks to be a permanent issue unless Blizzard bites the bullet and alters the Classic set. Classes like Mage, Warlock, and Hunter have enough of their staple cards in the Classic set that they’ll rarely have to worry about any given rotation gutting their decks. Paladin, Priest, and Shaman, on the other hand, will need to have their inherent Classic weaknesses shored up anew every year if they’re going to be competitive, which is a problem for both Standard and Wild. Every card Paladin receives in an expansion to make up for its poor Classic cards goes on to make Secret Paladin that much more ridiculous in Wild.

And on that note…

4) The Basic/Classic nerfs and the rotation remove some annoying strategies and open up new design space for the developers…

With the TOG patch, Blizzard will be nerfing twelve cards. The goal with most of these nerfs seems to be to weaken burst combo, make large creatures and buffs more difficult to cleanly remove, and to make some cards that were omnipresent in their class more of a choice than a requirement. There was also a smaller class of cards that were nerfed not necessarily because they were too powerful in and of themselves, but because they were preventing other cards from being printed by their very presence. Blade Flurry, it’s generally agreed, got hit with the nerf bat because it was preventing Rogue from getting any good weapons or weapon buffs, and Master of Disguise was slightly weakened in order to remove the possibility of giving infinite stealth to a minion with a strong passive ability. Big Game Hunter, and to a lesser extent silence, meant that large creatures and creature buffs would never be able to establish a foothold in constructed.

Other cards being removed from the format also fit this criteria. Secrets, for example, can only be so powerful as long as Mad Scientist is around to cheat them out. Blizzard must tread cautiously around powerful repeatable spell triggers as long as Spare Parts are easy to attain. Mechs in general have a chance to become absurdly powerful if one or two more good ones are printed, so as long as the current Mech core exists, they never can be. In theory, with the offending cards always either nerfed or on a collision course with Wild eventually, Blizzard can push the envelope with these effects in new and exciting ways.

…but TOG honestly doesn’t make much use of it.

They didn’t, though, at least not in this set. I’m fairly certain that this is a temporary rather than a permanent issue, as I’m convinced that the TOG design, the Standard format, and the Basic/Classic nerfs were not worked on simultaneously. TOG, in particular, seems like it was probably finalized before Standard was a gleam in anyone’s eye, as it looks to be designed around the idea that it would just be thrown into the pool with the rest of the cards the way all the previous sets were. In addition, Blizzard was saying as recently as a few weeks ago that they had not yet finalized what cards would be nerfed or in what way, so it seems unlikely that there was any knowledge of the nerfs during the TOG design process or playtesting except in the most general sense. Telltale signs like Rogue’s nascent deathrattle theme being continued despite the fact that it was largely cut off at the knees with Naxxramas and GVG going, the curious lack of twos and threes for most classes, and the aforementioned missing basic effects indicate that it wasn’t intended to introduce Standard until fairly late in the process, possibly after it was already done. The departure of Mad Scientist opens up design room for Secrets, yet the set contains no Secrets. The weakening of Blade Flurry opens up room for weapons and weapon buffs, but there are no Rogue weapons and the only buff is somewhat unwieldy. This smells like a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, and I suspect that the other two sets of 2016 will be designed with fuller knowledge of the environment they will be slotting into and the tools they need to provide.

That’s all I’ve got on Hearthstone for now. I’m looking forward to Tuesday!

Undertale and Dark Souls: 2015 in Review

Undertale came out last year. It was a little JRPG-styled game for PC, made by one person. Although retro in its graphics and presentation, it was innovative for its option of nonviolence, its subversion of typical JRPG plots, and its use of a bullet-hell influenced battle system. Rave reviews and fanart have swarmed Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube since the game released. For a period, it had the highest Metacritic score of all time (and may still; I haven’t checked recently). A lot of people named it their game of the year. It won GameFAQs annual best game of all time tournament.

I didn’t play it. As time goes by, it becomes increasingly likely that I will never play it.

This is odd, because normally this kind of game would be right up my alley. I love JRPG-style games, and have been stumping for years for more non-Japanese developers to try their hand at it. The hook of the game was interesting to me. I didn’t buy many new games this year for financial reasons, but Undertale is only ten dollars, so I could have easily squeezed it into my budget if I felt like it. And for a while, I thought I would. But I didn’t.

A game I did play — not all the way through, but some — this year was Dark Souls. I’ve been making tries at Dark Souls (and its predecessor, Demon’s Souls) for years now, without making much headway. The problem is that I’ve never found myself hooked by that game. I boot it up, and I play it for a while, and it’s fine… but once I turn it off and move on to other things, I feel no real urge to start it back up again and continue. But I keep trying at it, every six months or so, just because everyone tells me what a great game it is.

And make no mistake, that is the only reason I keep trying. I had always told myself that I needed to sit down and finish Dark Souls some day just because it was so popular and influential that I needed to know what I felt about it, one way or the other. If I liked it, fine, I could join the crowds singing its praises, and playing the sequels, and being hyped for new games. If I didn’t like it, I needed to know why, so I could defend my controversial opinion. I needed to be able to state clearly and consistently why everyone else was wrong about this series and why I was right. Simply not having an opinion about something that was having such an effect on this hobby I’ve loved since I was a kid was not an option. Like MOBAs and cover shooters and aimless open-world games and every other trend in gaming whose effects I despise, I needed to know why this thing, despite being popular, was in fact bad.

And it wasn’t until Undertale came out, and I began to have the same kind of reactions, that I realized why this was such a stupid thing to do.

One of the big problems with our society presently is that everyone has to have an opinion about everything. There’s no longer any room for people to simply say “I don’t know enough about this, so I don’t have an opinion” or “I do not care about this, so I don’t have an opinion” or “This is not important to me, so I don’t have an opinion.” If something happens, you have to be ready, willing, and able to weigh in on it, regardless of how important it is or how it affects you or how qualified you are to do it. I feel like a lot of the clashes and demagoguery inherent in our system is simply because people feel compelled to stake out their ground and defend it from all intrusions, real or perceived.

And really, who gives a shit if I don’t like Dark Souls? The people who like it are going to go on liking it. Nobody is forcing me to buy them and play them. Even if I ignore every single Souls game and every game that tries to piggyback off the success of Souls, there will still be more games out there than I can ever play. I bought Brandish: The Dark Revenant on sale the other day, and in playing it for two hours, enjoyed myself more than the hours I’ve spent trying to figure out what my opinion is on Souls. I can stick to my own little corner of the gaming universe and be perfectly at peace with the world, Souls or no Souls.

No, the only reason to force myself to have an opinion on Souls is so that I can then present my opinion to others. So I can pick a fight with the people who have a different opinion, or receive validation from the people who agree with me. And dear god, that is so pathetic that I winced just typing it. I turn 30 this year. I’ve got a lot on my plate. I’d like to think my days of looking to beat my chest about my controversial gaming opinions on the internet are behind me. Gaming should be something that makes me happy and fills my down time, not something that I can use as ammo in a pissing contest with the entire world.

As a result of that, I’ve started to shy away from games where merely playing them is an opinion piece. I heard so much about Undertale after it came out, even trying to avoid spoilers, that I could never play it on its own terms. Just like Dark Souls, I’d be affected by people telling me how much I’ll like it, and the specific reasons I’ll like it. I could never get into Dark Souls because I had everyone else who’d ever played the game hanging over my shoulder telling me how to react, ensuring I could never have a genuine, spontaneous reaction to it. And Undertale is all about generating a genuine, spontaneous reaction.

And that’s not even getting into Undertale’s somewhat unique position as a weapon in the obnoxious culture wars that are currently consuming gaming. Don’t get me wrong — this isn’t a South Park-ian “the truth is in the middle” thing. I’ve been very consistent in wanting games and the community that surrounds them to be more open and inclusive, so you won’t catch me trying to denigrate Undertale as “not a real game” or “SJW propaganda” or whatever. But if I play Undertale, and didn’t like it for whatever reason, suddenly I’m allied with that crowd, whether I like it or not. I’d have to constantly preface any criticism of the game with an assurance that I’m not one of those people. You can’t just evaluate Undertale as a game; your opinion of it instead says something about you. And I hate that.

So my New Year’s Resolution for 2016 (at least regarding games) is to play what I want and enjoy myself. If I ever catch myself playing something just so that I can have an opinion, punch myself in the face and load up Hearthstone instead or something. And that means that “touchstones” like Dark Souls and Undertale are not on the agenda.

I live?

Well, I’m back. WordPress has really shit up the interface in the four years(!) I’ve been gone, huh?

The original goal of this place, if you’ll recall (although I couldn’t blame you if you didn’t) was to write every day. I eventually fell out of that habit due to real-life complications, and felt vaguely guilty about it, so it didn’t feel right coming back out of the clear blue sky and picking it back up again. I wish I could say that those real-life complications were all worth it in the end and that I’d since moved to a better place in my life, but I’d be lying — those complications were ultimately much ado about nothing, and I’m roughly back in the same place I was four years ago when I was rambling interminably about game design and writing execrable fiction.

Nor can I say I’m planning on picking the daily schedule back up again, either. Rather, I remembered this place because there was something that’s been on my mind that I wanted to get down somewhere less ephemeral than a rant buried in a forum thread. And to make sure you go ahead and click the ‘X,’ I’ll go ahead and say that it’s about the current state of the Atlanta Braves.

At the end of the 2014 season, the Braves had a major issue. They had a mediocre major league team — not a horrid major league team, as they’d been in the hunt for most of the season and had finished around .500 despite a truly hideous collapse down the stretch. Moreover, they had problems going forward: The farm system was barren, they were set to lose 400 starting pitcher innings due to the loss of Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang to free agency, and the free agency of corner outfielders Justin Upton and Jason Heyward was looming after the 2015. The organization was at a crossroads, and they had to decide which direction to take the team: Make one last try at contention with their current core of talent and pick up the pieces as best they could afterwards; or blow the whole thing up with the idea of piecing together a new core a few years down the line.

They picked the latter. They traded Heyward and Upton for packages of young players, but they didn’t stop there. Evan Gattis, a young slugger they’d brought up in 2014 but who didn’t have a natural position and didn’t hit enough to cover for that, was moved to the Astros. They signed mostly stopgap players in free agency like A.J. Pierzynski, Kelly Johnson, and Jason Grilli — short-term assets who could play out the string and then be shipped out at the deadline for more parts. Then, on the last day of Spring Training, they traded closer Craig Kimbrel, a guy they’d spent the winter swearing up and down they would not move. They got a pretty good pitching prospect for Kimbrel, but the real prize was getting out from under the salary of Melvin Upton, Jr., who had become an albatross.

And here’s the thing: I was fine with all of this.

A lot of other fans were furious with this blatant dismantling of what had been a successful major league team, but I could see the logic to it. The team hadn’t been good enough in 2014, and they had big holes to fill just to keep the team at that level. And even if they managed it, they’d be in big trouble next season when Heyward and Upton walked — they couldn’t afford to sign either player, and even if they could, it was still deck chairs on the Titanic. The team had major issues, and they could solve those issues neither in free agency (because they didn’t have enough money) nor in the trade market (because they didn’t have enough prospects). Tearing down the team and starting over, as much as it hurt, was the right call, I felt, and if you accepted that thesis then the team had done a good job of it. Every evaluator said that the team had done well in picking the prospects it had gotten in return for its major league players, especially with regards to the pitchers it received. In one offseason the team’s farm system had jumped from bottom-of-the-barrel to a top five or ten system.

You could see the plan, if you looked closely. The team would be awful in 2015 and probably 2016; there was no getting around that. But they’d be using that time wisely — evaluating young players, trading short-term assets for long-term ones, taking other teams’ dead money in exchange for premium prospects. Bad money would come off the books and could be reinvested. They’d finish low at the major league level, but receive high draft picks. Then, when the team’s new stadium opened in 2017, they’d have a new core, something that could compete long into the future without the constant patching that the latter years of Frank Wren’s tenure required.

You could even see the kind of team the Braves wanted to build — it looked, more or less, like the current Royals. Lockdown pitching, one through twelve. A tight defense, led by the greatest defensive player of his generation, to make sure that the team was even harder to score against. And an offense built around batting average and speed, to try and adapt to a game that had been changing. Frank Wren was a GM for the aughts, the Moneyball era, where on-base and power ruled the landscape. But power was down across the league and it seemed like pitchers were throwing harder than ever, so the patient, low-batting average, high-power players Wren favored weren’t as effective as they might have been ten years ago. Common wisdom is that Dan Uggla and Melvin Upton, Jr., collapsed as players, but it may have been the case that the game had simply changed around them; no longer allowed them to exercise their strengths.

The Braves had acquired high-ceiling pitching prospects, like Max Fried, Mike Foltyniewicz, Tyrell Jenkins, and Matt Wisler. The hitters they acquired were scrappy line-drive types — Jace Peterson, Mallex Smith, Rio Ruiz. Even the veterans they’d picked up, though largely past their prime, had been this type of player in their youth — A.J. Pierzynski, Alberto Callaspo, Nick Markakis. It was easy to envision them less as major league assets and more as player-coaches, teaching the young guys the way the Braves wanted them to play.

Losing is never easy, but it’s easier to stomach if you think the organization has a plan. The Braves were awful in 2015, playing to the third-worst record in the league, but I wasn’t as upset as I might have been, because I expected them to be. Honestly, I’d been much more frustrated with the 2014 squad, which had supposed to compete but had ended the season as an afterthought. Moreover, they stuck to the plan. They acquired Bronson Arroyo’s useless contract from the Diamondbacks. Arroyo would never throw a pitch for the Braves, but along with him came highly-touted pitching prospect Touki Toissaint, whom Arizona’s new front office had soured on for no real reason (their GM making the absurd argument that he’d taken a ton of college pitchers in the draft, so he no longer needed the high-ceiling prep prospect his predecessor had taken the previous year). They moved out Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe at the deadline for prospects. They made a bad-contract swap with the Indians, sending out Chris Johnson for Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. Bourn and Swisher were more expensive in the short term, but their contracts were up after 2016, when the Braves would be in position to reinvest the money, while Johnson’s terrible deal persisted for several more years. They even made a big, risky trade that initially shocked me but that I liked upon reflection — trading Alex Wood and Jose Peraza for Cuban import Hector Olivera from the Dodgers, who at thirty was not the kind of young talent rebuilding teams are supposed to be hoarding, but who was undervalued in his way: His contract was absurdly cheap, with most of the money being tied up in a signing bonus that would remain on the Dodgers’ payroll, and he was supposedly nearly major league ready. It seemed like the Braves had managed to pick up a major league slugger at a position of need (third base) who was far cheaper than his talent merited (at least in terms of dollars). Sure, the price in players had been steep, but still less steep than trying to acquire an equivalent known quantity would have been.

So 2015 sucked on the field, but off the field it seemed like things were progressing. The Braves continued hiring highly-regarded scouts and analysts to man the front office. They promoted assistant GM John Coppolella, who had been the mastermind of the rebuild, to the big chair. And then things started to get questionable.

First, reports filtered out of the winter leagues that Hector Olivera, their big deadline pickup, had been moved to the outfield. Now, Olivera hadn’t impressed at third base during his cup of coffee late in 2015, but the front office and coaching staff assured us that this was because of Olivera’s whirlwind year — he’d defected from Cuba, been the center of an offseason bidding war, played at two or three different minor league stops, been traded, and was recuperating from a hamstring injury. You try playing at your best under those conditions, they said. However, they fully believed that after a few weeks in winter ball shaking off the rust and a full, uninterrupted Spring Training, he’d be the guy the Braves expected him to be. But there he was in the outfield, where the Braves had options (not good options, but nevertheless) rather than third base, which had been, is, and promises to be a barren wasteland for the foreseeable future. Olivera’s bat might play in left, but it’s incredibly optimistic to think that he’d be a plus out there. Trading Wood and Peraza for a solution at third base was one thing; trading them for a possibility in corner outfield was quite another.

Then came the trades. Reports trickled out that the Braves were listening on Andrelton Simmons, their young, all-world defensive shortstop. The free agent market for shortstops was so shallow, the argument went, that some team who wasn’t willing to invest in Ian Desmond might overpay for him. Fair enough — there’s no harm in listening. But then, basically the next day, they announced that they’d traded him to the Angels for the Angel shortstop Erick Aybar (who would be a free agent after the season) and two pitching prospects.

Look. I understand that when you’re rebuilding, no one should be off-limits. But Andrelton Simmons is the best defensive player in the world, at a position where you’re light on long-term options. He’s young. He has upside with the bat. He is signed very reasonably for a long time. If your rebuilding organization doesn’t have room in its plans for that guy, who does it have room for? And it’s not like they got blown away — I’ve seen the return repeatedly described as “light,” and the prize of the the deal, lefty Sean Newcomb, walked five per nine at three levels last year and is by no means a sure thing even as pitching prospects go. Moreover, pitching prospects are the organization’s major strength at present. They’ve accumulated a half-dozen promising prospects from other organizations, one of their best prospects remaining from the previous regime (Lucas Sims) is a pitcher, and they took approximate half a billion pitchers during the 2015 draft, including highly-regarded youngsters Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka. You can never have enough pitching, except when you can. So essentially the organization traded one of its most valuable major-league assets to beef up what was already an organizational strength. Coppolella can talk all he wants about how you can’t turn down that deal, but I think you turn it down very easily, and demand position players.

Then they traded Cameron Maybin, who resurrected his career with the Braves in 2015 after being part of the contract-balancing in the Kimbrel deal, for… more pitchers. Relief pitchers, even, including a guy (Ian Krol) who has never been effective at the major league level, and a guy (Gabe Speier) who has a big arm but even at 18 years old was slotted to the bullpen (and has been traded twice before he can drink, just incidentally). Now, I was of the opinion that Maybin should have been traded last summer when his value was at its peak, before he had a chance to revert back to being Cameron Maybin — and I was right. But more pitchers?

I can no longer see the plan. How does this team compete in 2017, the year they’ve been publicly trumpeting as their return to contention? Even if Olivera is the big hitter their scouts identified him as, that leaves Olivera and Freddie Freeman (who they are reportedly shopping!) as the only real hitters on the major league team come 2017. Aybar’s a free agent. Markakis, to the extent that he is presently useful, probably won’t be by then. They’ve still got holes at catcher and third, and uncertainty at second and center. Where is the hitting coming from?

The party line has been that the Braves will be able to move their surplus pitching for hitting, just as they did in the ’90s when John Schuerholtz made an art form of hyping up a pitching prospect, trading him for major league help, then watching him collapse for his new team. But I don’t see it. Quality pitching is more common than it’s been since the ’60s right now, and quality hitting is as rare. Who are these teams that have bats to spare and are willing to cash them in for a pitching package? The Cubs, I guess, but that’s about the end of the list.

Free agency? The list of free agents for 2017 looks like this. It’s a good market if you want a reliever; not so much if you want, oh, basically anything else. The Braves will have money to spend, but who are they spending it on? The corpse of Adrian Beltre?

Promote from within? The Braves’ best hitting prospect is 18 years old. Their second-best hitting prospect… is 18 years old. Third-best is Mallex Smith; he’s major league ready but might end up being a fourth outfielder. Fourth-best… 19. Fifth-best… 17. These guys are exciting, for sure, but they’re also really, really far away, and the road they have to travel is long. Austin Riley might be the best power prospect the Braves have produced since Andruw Jones, but he’s 18 and there are already questions about his weight. If they’re counting on him to man third base when the team is good again, a) they’re going to be waiting a while, and b) he might be a first baseman or DH by then.

It’s certainly within the realm of possibility that the Braves will have a quality pitching staff by 2017 — they’ve acquired a lot of talented guys, and some of them are bound to work out. If a bunch of them figure it out at once, they could be special. But that’s only half the battle, and I can’t see any road that leads them to a quality lineup by then. And the Braves are making the road longer by trading their tangible major league pieces for more pitching.

Look. The purpose of running a baseball team is not to try and get peak value for every single player in your organization. The purpose is to try and build a winning core, and supplement it with complementary pieces. The Simmons trade strikes me as John Coppolella reading his own press clippings and buying into the idea that he’s the smartest guy in the room. Maybe the Braves did trade him at peak value — I doubt it, but anything’s possible. But if you trade everyone at their peak value, you will never have a good team. What you will have, instead, is roster churn — a collection of assets being moved in and out according to the whims of the market, but never a coherent team. Billy Beane, as sharp a guy as he is, has fallen into this trap numerous times — you can’t read last year’s Josh Donaldson trade as anything other than that.

The reason I was inspired to write this down was because I’ve seen a lot of people make comments to the effect of “Well, rebuilding is hard for the fans, but the front office has a process, and they’re making good moves, and they’ll get there in the end.” As if I don’t understand what rebuilding is all about, and am still just sore about trading homegrown favorites like Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons.

I get rebuilding. I was in favor of rebuilding, in fact. But rebuilding has a purpose. It’s not about showing people how smart you are, or how clever your trades can be, or zigging when people though you’d zag. It’s about taking one step back so you can take two steps forward. The Braves, I fear, have become addicted to taking two steps forward and two steps back, and they’ll never get anywhere on that business plan. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Maybe I’ll start writing blog posts again. I don’t have the time for a daily schedule anymore, but there are still subjects I’m interested in exploring in writing, and it seems a shame to let this place lie fallow just because I couldn’t keep to its original idea. God knows I could write page upon page about Hearthstone alone, these days. Watch this space.

Sonic Colors: Final Thoughts

The thing about Sonic Colors is that I have no idea how good I am at it.

I mean, I beat it and everything. I saw every level and got a bunch of As and Bs for my rankings. But I’m not sure if that’s due to my skill, because for much of the experience it seemed like the game was playing itself. People moan and groan about games like Metal Gear Solid or JRPGs trying to pretend to be movies, but you’ve got something like Sonic Colors which (refreshingly, given this series) has no pretenses in that direction, yet still manages to be an on-rails, autopilot kind of game.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s loads of fun to watch Sonic zip through the levels, and it’s really evocative of the Genesis games, no so much in how they play but in how we envision they played. It’s a kaleidoscopic rollercoaster of a game. However, sometimes it feels like it’s impossible to lose, even if you leave the game for a few minutes to fix up a sandwich. Dying is effectively a non-issue, since there are checkpoints all over the place and each level is only a few minutes long at best. Sonic can homing attack from practically across the screen and it’s trivial to become almost invincible at any moment. The game is actually full of situations that are kind of bullshitty — untelegraphed drops, surprise enemy placement, points of no return, paths and items that are only visible after you can no longer reach them — but because the penalty for failure is so light, it never annoys in a way that a game like Donkey Kong Country Returns sometimes can.

And I’m not sure how I feel about that, honestly. I’m not the sort of super-hardcore gamer who needs constant abuse to feel engaged in his games, and I’m all for games that make the complex seem easy, but Sonic Colors feels content to let me sleepwalk through it, and there’s little satisfaction in conquering such a game. It’s for that reason that I didn’t bother collecting all the little doodads and extras that are part and parcel of the platforming experience these days. In New Super Mario Bros. Wii and DKC Returns, I couldn’t rest until I’d collected every miscellaneous object littered throughout the game, but with Sonic Colors going back for red rings seemed almost like too much trouble.

I bet it would be fun to set aside a week or so and spend it getting S-ranks on every level and collecting all the red rings, but I simply wasn’t in the mood for it right now.

Final Fantasy Tactics is overrated.

I’m not quite done with the game yet, but I am close enough that I’m willing to call it.

A couple of disclaimers that colored my experience with the game, here… First, I am absolutely smack-dab in this game’s target audience. I’m not some guy who bought the game because he liked Final Fantasy VII, nor am I the guy who picks up anything with the Square-Enix logo on it. I love tactical RPGs. I’ve written more words about Fire Emblem than any one man ever should. I put more than a hundred hours into both Final Fantasy Tactics Advance games. I’ve got three more tactical RPGs on the docket after this one. If FFT is aiming for anyone, it’s aiming for me. I love strategy RPGs, I love political fantasy, and I love job systems… How could you go wrong? Frankly, it’s stunning that it took me this long to get to the game.

Secondly, I’ve had people telling me for literally years how great this game is and how none of the sequels measure up. I’ve dropped in on any number of “what is the best Final Fantasy” threads only to have people drop “FFT” like it’s a killing point, and it seems to be more or less universally beloved, while the sequels are more divisive. Given how much I enjoyed the sequels (despite some obvious flaws), I figured this meant I was in for a hell of a time.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I came to the game expecting to be blown away, and I was massively disappointed. Good? Sure. Worth playing? Absolutely. Best FF ever? Clearly better than its sequels? Top ten game ever? No fucking way.

What I think happened here is similar to the original Legend of Zelda, where the original game prominently featured some elements that its progeny, for whatever reason, mostly discarded. The people who were drawn to the original FFT for its ambiguous political plot or extremely flexible job system resented that future games didn’t really follow up on either, and began holding up the original as an example of model game design despite some fairly obvious and fairly severe flaws, in the same way people who think that Zelda should be about unrestricted exploration and punishing combat hold that the original game is the pinnacle of the series. And I understand that sentiment, I really do. But I had more fun with the FFTA games — far more — by any metric you care to use.

When I think of the FFTA games, I think of picking up the game for a few minutes only to play for hours; afternoons or even whole weekends lost to them; experimenting with every class; finding every secret; grinding for the sheer joy of it. When I think of FFT, I think of becoming so beset by frustration or tedium that I frequently had to just set the game aside and play something else for awhile.

Here’s a list of things that I can’t believe actually made it into a retail release of a strategy RPG in this day and age:

  1. Unskippable cutscenes. The localization (in War of the Lions, at least) is superb, but I don’t really need to read it every time I restart a battle.
  2. A complete inability to back out of a battle once it’s been initiated. There’s no retreat option, no forfeit option, no ability to quit back to the menu, no soft reset. I come from a school of strategy-RPG play (no doubt initiated by my upbringing with the Fire Emblem games) where it’s no chore at all to retry a fight over and over until it goes exactly the way I want it to, but FFT offers no means to do this. To restart a fight once it’s been started your only recourse is to quit back to the main PSP menu and reload the game. There are a number of situations in which you haven’t technically lost yet, but you still don’t want to continue (for example, if one of your party members is crystalized), but the game makes you go through the motions of getting a game over before you can try again. This is unspeakably annoying, especially when combined with…
  3. Laughably frequent, and laughably difficult, random encounters. In the FFTA games, random encounters are visible as units running around on the same map as you, and you can avoid them or run from them if you don’t feel like screwing with them. In FFTA, random encounters are truly random, having a chance of occuring whenever you step on a spot on the map that isn’t a town. They’re supposed to have something like a 30% chance of occurring, but in practice it’s more like 80%, so making a journey of any distance usually involves at least three or four fights. If you want to level or build jobs in FFTA there are always a number of quests at your disposal; if you want to level or build jobs in FFT you run circles around the town like it’s 1985 again. The random battles also get progressively more dangerous as the game proceeds and their levels scale to yours, so if you fight too many of them you simultaneously transform the main story into a joke while making the random fights into deadly struggles. But they’re never interesting; it’s always just monsters, who tend to blur together. Unless you’re looking to grind JP fighting random battles is almost never profitable, but you get the impression that the developers wanted it to be 75% of your total playtime. And again, the only way to get out of a random fight if you don’t want to deal with it is to reset the game…
  4. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the game didn’t see fit to send you galivanting across the map at the slightest pretext. Certain towns specialize in certain kinds of equipment, so if you’ve changed classes and need to update your heavy armor or got your weapon rent and need to replace it, it’s back six or seven spaces for you. Away quests require you to send your characters on jobs for weeks at a time, time that can only be passed by wandering the world map and getting into fights. (Oh, and the FFTA games allowed you to finish an away quest at any bar; FFT of course does not do this, forcing you to return to the town you started the quest from.) And one town (which is of course an out-of-the-way backwater which isn’t close to anything) is the hub for the game-spanning sidequest and requires you to return there four or five times throughout Chapters 3 and 4, fighting all the way.
  5. The camera is awful. It’s impossible to keep the action fully on screen at once no matter what angle you set it to. There are a number of maps which are shaped roughly like canyons, with high terrain on either side and a crevasse in the middle; it’s nearly impossible to see what’s going on in the crevasse. This appears to have been accounted for not at all.
  6. Those are all just annoyances; the real problem comes back to the battles. For one thing, you can’t take back moves, which is a staple technique in, oh, pretty much every SRPG ever. Usual strategy is to select a likely square, send your character there, and see if they can do anything profitable there. If they can’t, call them back and send them somewhere else. But no, FFT locks you into a space once you’ve moved there, so if you send a character to a space only to find that they have no good actions from that space (legion were the times I accidentally sent a character to a space diagonal of the one I intended thanks to camera issues), you’re fucked. Don’t cry difficulty or strategy here; FE10 lets you call back moves and it’s way harder and more strategic than FFT just the same. It’s just a poor design decision. But okay, you’ve learned that lesson, and can compensate…
  7. If not for the fact that small details can completely derail your strategies. Certain skills are rendered useless by small height differences. Certain skills are useless anyway except in the most favorable cases. Zodiac compatibility can slash your accuracy or damage unexpectedly, enemy characters will be inexplicably immune to certain techniques, the AI blatantly cheats… it just goes on and on. Essentially the game is punishing you for not already knowing it inside and out but resists your efforts to learn it, since so many of these are corner cases that only come up once in a while.
  8. Certain jobs are worthless. Is there any reason to play an Archer? How about a Dragoon? Or, really, anyone besides a special character? Others, like Orator or Mystic, are so situational it’s difficult to envision carrying their skills over more straightforward abilities. In addition, you have to spend time in a lot of these classes because they’re prerequisites for other, better classes. In FFTA if you needed to run a character through a mediocre class real quick in order to open up another class, you equipped them with a 100 AP weapon and sent them on an away mission. In FFT, you’re stuck actually using that useless class until you’ve got enough JP built up that you can leave it behind.
  9. Moreover, certain skills don’t work the way you’d expect them to. Concentrate makes skills guaranteed to hit, except when it doesn’t. You learn a skill called Brawler that lets every class fight as effectively barehanded as a Monk… but it doesn’t actually, because Monks have a high PA that other classes don’t, so sticking it on a mage to let them get in on the action (a la FFV) doesn’t work.
  10. Balance issues… Brave/Faith is borked, as Faith’s a double-edged sword in a number of respects but there’s no drawback at all (except in a few corner cases) to having a high Brave. This makes physical fighters generally better than mages… except for Arithematicians, who snap the game in half, and not even in a fun way. (I had to stop using my Arithematician simply because she was ruining the game for me.) The CPU continues to use beginner classes like Knights and Archers well into the endgame, so the super-flexible class system is put to waste somewhat because not only will the computer not really use it against you, you don’t even really need to use it to beat the computer.

Now, the game has its merits… It’s got a genuinely interesting story backed by a fantastic localization, with multi-dimensional characters and real depth and weight to its world and plot. There’s a ton going on behind the scenes that is only tangentially related to the main plot, and that’s a level of detail you don’t often get in games. It’s too bad it degenerates into magic rocks and sealed demons by the end, but Matsuno’s games usually do, so…

Its class system also seems better than any of its successors. The major problem with the FFTA games is that subdividing the classes by race limits the amount of potential combinations you can try. (This is especially bad in FFTA2, where the classes are ludicrously specialized and a couple of races only have four.) FFT is a lot more open, both in that any unit can spend time in any class and that skills can be learned in any order (although this tends to homogenize your units, as certain skills just aren’t worth getting, so everyone tends to look the same after a while).

The game’s visual design is also excellent, with lots of lovingly detailed sprites and other small elements that really give the game life. One of my favorite scenes in the game is early on, when Wiegraf is putting the screws to his underling in a windmill while a nameless Thief leans against the wall with his arms crossed. You don’t see spritework like this anymore.

(People tell me the soundtrack is an all-time great, but to be honest I’m having trouble clearly recalling a single tune on it, aside from the astoundingly catchy tutorial theme. And I love Sakimoto!)

Really, in the end FFT is a game that I wish would get an honest-to-god remake (as opposed to the straight port + new stuff which is WotL). I can tell that the core of the game is solid gold, but it’s hampered by all this other stuff to the point where I can’t get at it. Strip out the garbage and the tedious bullshit and fix the balance issues, and then we’d really have something to talk about. Until then, I guess I’ve got another game to wonder about when other people start raving. Onto the list with Zelda 1 and Cave Story with you, I guess.

Tuppence

So obviously the big news last night was that the Phillies traded for Hunter Pence, the best player still on the market. I’m of mixed feelings.

First off, Pence (who was alternatively the Braves’ top target or not on their radar at all, trade season being what it is and all) makes the Phillies appreciably better, and they didn’t need the help. He could have been an asset for the Braves. On that front, it’s a disaster.

On the other hand, though, he’s not an elite hitter, being more of a complementary guy. (Of course, it’s the Phillies, so he’ll probably hit .370 the rest of the way.) And the Phillies paid a very dear price to get him, two of their best prospects plus some other stuff. It’s easy to make the argument that this was an overpay — scarcity made Pence out to be some savior, but he’s not, and bowing to the Astros’ demands in this was probably not the wisest idea. Word is Braves GM Frank Wren is flat-out refusing to include any of the Braves’ top four pitching prospects — Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino, Randall Delgado, and Mike Minor — in any potential deal.

Now, in recent days Wren would be absolutely right to do this. Used to be you had to give up grade-A prospects to get a good player in a deal, but recently we’ve found that this isn’t necessary — if you hold the line, often a team will be forced to make a deal for subpar players (see Gonzalez, Adrian). Why give up these high-ceiling guys if you don’t have to?

I do wonder, though, why Wren insists on keeping all four of these guys. I’m totally on board with naming Teheran untouchable, and it would probably be smart to hang on to Vizcaino too, but Delgado and Minor are the very definition of prospects you trade to help the major league team. They’re good enough to be desirable for another team, but probably not so good that you’ll be kicking yourself three years down the line for having let them get away. And if you’re not going to trade them, what are you going to do with them? Assuming they all make it, there’s not enough room of the major league roster to use all of them, even if some are converted to relief. At the same time, the cupboard for hitters is bare in the Braves’ system right now — Freddie Freeman is the last gasp for position players until Edward Salcedo is ready, which could be years. Eventually you’re going to have to trade a pitcher for offensive help.

I understand, too, the idea that if you want to trade these guys it should be for a superstar. Here’s the problem with that: Superstars don’t get traded. For one, the teams that have them are usually good, and thus are buyers, not sellers. Whenever a superstar is traded there are usually extenuating circumstances, usually involving an attitude problem or money. Either the star is in the final year of his contract and the team wants to get something for him, in which case he’s not worth a top prospect; or the team is in financial trouble and needs to slash payroll (which is very rare — witness the Dodgers, a team for which it’s an open question whether they’ll make payroll each month; you haven’t heard their players mentioned much in trade rumors). In any case, that mythical MVP-caliber bat that puts the Braves over the top is simply not out there right now, and if you wait for him you might find that Mike Minor is in his second year of arbitration by then and not quite so desirable a chit anymore.

So I dunno. I hate the Phillies, but you have to give them credit — every time trade season comes around they identify the best player available and put all their efforts towards landing him. They do this even when they’re the best team in the league by leaps and bounds, which is why they stay the best team in the league by leaps and bounds. (It helps to have money in this endeavor, but still.) The Braves, on the other hand, usually content themselves with being “good enough” and make improvements on the fringes, if there. I’m all for hoarding prospects, but the idea that the Braves will be better than the Phils in five years isn’t all that comforting anymore. The Braves have a chance to win now, and prospects are a renewable resource. I’m not saying gut the farm, but you have to put some effort into improving the team, don’t you?

I’ll hold off on making final judgment until the trade deadline has passed, but the odds of the Braves making any kind of impact deal lessen with each passing hour. Most likely they’ll end up with Coco Crisp or somebody then scratch their heads when the Giants eliminate them in four games again. Sigh.

Is this a kissing book?

One of my… let’s call it a “characteristic”, that’s a neutral enough term… is that when it comes to fiction, I always finish what I start. The reason I have so few played-but-uncompleted games in my collection is that I am constitutionally incapable of setting something aside until I’ve seen the end. Once I’ve put a certain amount of time into something, I feel like I’m owed the end, so I’ll push my way through to the finish.

The drawback here is that quality doesn’t come into play. I have no doubt that if someone had tricked me into reading Twilight or Eragon, I’d have read the whole series by now. Sure it sucks, but I have to know what happens.

The irony of having this characteristic while being unable to finish any of my side projects or keep a consistent blogging schedule is not lost on me, I assure you.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is because I’ve been listening to audiobooks at work over the last several days. Free audiobooks, which should set off warning bells right there. The part of my brain which detects quality is screaming at me to stop, but, well… I’ve come this far, and I’ve got nothing but time on my hands.

I can’t even say that I’m not enjoying them, really. The books tickle the nearly-suppressed part of my subconscious which has an almost childlike infatuation with schlocky airport fantasy. Most of the fantasy I’ve been reading in paper form these days has been of the modern, somewhat nontraditional take on the genre, but this stuff almost wallows in conventions. It’s like I’ve fallen back in time twenty years… and Stockholm Syndrome is taking hold.

One, Murder at Avedon Hill, is a murder mystery, but the author was very obviously weaned on those old SNES RPGs where you had to perform a half-dozen fetch quests before you could get anything accomplished, and so you ended up spending about ten hours just trying to get a bridge fixed by the most roundabout method possible. The book takes a prologue+six chapters before the characters even begin to actively work towards solving the mystery which is the book’s main plot thread. They need a letter of introduction to get into a manor to talk to the lord to convince him to lift a roadblock, but the only person who will write it for them needs a certain kind of moth, which lives in a cave in the wilderness… but only a living moth, which is out of season right now… you get the idea.

I understand the point of all this, of course; it’s a way to set the scene and introduce characters who will be important later on without being too obvious about it. You can’t just line up your major players and have them tell the protagonists who they are and what they do… except the author does that anyway later on, but anyway…

The point I’m driving at here is that fetch quests are effective in games when used well because they’re a method of exposition that allows for player interaction. Instead of just having some asshole tell the player that things are pretty crummy in Shitsville, you contrive some trivial errand that sends the player to Shitsville and they can see just how crummy it is for themselves, and hopefully become more motivated when the time inevitably comes to do something about it. It’s not as effective in literature, where it just feels like padding.

The book’s got other problems as well… there’s the exceedingly irritating perspective-hopping issue I’ve complained about before. It’s got a pretty serious case of the burly detective syndrome, exacerbated by the fact that the two main characters have inexplicably similar-sounding names. It’s also heavy on the infodumping, which would be tolerable if the world did not appear to be stock Tolkeinesque medieval. The mashup between high fantasy and a down-to-earth Law-and-Order police procedural is a strange mix, and one that I’m not entirely sure works particularly well in this case. (I’ve seen it done well, but you kind of have to emphasize the hard-boiled noir aspects of the setting. Placid small-town charm clashes with the tone.) It’s kind of hard to get invested in the search for clues and the grilling of suspects when you have a sneaking suspicion that vampires are behind everything, you know?

The other book… well, I’ll decline to mention the title since I’m about to spoil it rather heavily… has different issues. It’s much better-written than the other, keeping a consistent viewpoint and having fewer noticeable language issues. The major problem here is that its plot twists are all entirely predictable. It’s unbelievably frustrating to work out all the mysteries literally whole books before they come to fruition and having to listen to the characters fumble their way through it. The moment the main female character was first described my immediate thought was “there’s a refrigerator with this woman’s name on it.” It took two full books, but lo and behold. I actually felt bizarrely happy when it finally happened, because it meant I could stop anticipating it every time she stepped out of the main character’s sight. I was fairly certain the author wouldn’t kill her off in sight of the main character, but rather that he would come back from some adventure to find her ripped to shreds or strangled to death with her own hair or something and set him off on a quest of righteous vengeance.

Farewell, [redacted]. You were too good for both this world and this story. But hey, at least in passing you’ll be spared the hokey “revolution against the evil church” plot the book seems to be drifting towards, which is more than you can say for me.

That’s another thing that bothers me about the plot here… The religion here isn’t even secretly evil like most evil churches, it’s obviously evil. It openly condones what amounts to the sacrifice, enslavement, and cannibalism of obviously sentient beings, but what tips people off to the idea that this isn’t A-OK is the revelation that OMG the dragons aren’t really gods!? I dunno, guys, seems like you’d have a bit of resistance even prior to that. It was almost cute watching the book clumsily hint that the high priestess might be evil. Figured it out on first sight, thanks.

The book also does that annoying fantasy thing where it stars nonhumans, and so feels the need to replace the words “man” or “men” (even species-neutral words like “person”) with an equivalent phrase every… single… time. I get that this helps the fantasy flavor, but it’s unbelievably distracting and even a little jarring, since you have to do the mental translation every time it comes up. We already know they’re not speaking English in-universe, so why not extend your translation a bit?

There’s one more that I’ve been listening to off and on, Nina Kimberly the Merciless, which I downloaded just because I was intrigued by the premise (the barbarian hero’s spoiled teenage brat of a daughter trying to follow in his footsteps and live up to his legacy), but I was immediately turned off when the title character’s personality did a complete 180 not two chapters in. She’s supposed to be a fearsome warrior, but hot-tempered and short-sighted. Imagine my surprise when she goes on to lose every fight she participates in and solves most conflicts with level-headed diplomacy. Go figure.

There’s also a clumsy romance which just goes on… and on… and on. I’ll be waiting over here when they’re done giving each other soulful looks across the campfire.

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