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On the Quest for Dragons; Choice Making

The third entrant in my Dragon Quest retrospective is, obviously, Dragon Quest 3. Originally released on the NES in 1991, it saw releases on the SNES and Gameboy Advanced, and more recently, iOS and Android. It sold over a million copies on the first day of release in Japan, with over 300 arrests for truancy among students absent from school to purchase the game. With overall sales, over all of the platforms of release, Dragon Quest 3 is cited as the most successful Dragon Quest release ever -- not to mention one of the best selling RPGs in Japan. I guess you could say people really liked this one. I think I did too...

This marks the first time in this on-going retrospective where I was playing a Dragon Quest main series game for the first time. Thinking back, I do not remember exactly why I did not pick this game up back when it was on the NES. I would have for sure been heavy into Final Fantasy, which came out a year earlier. However, I remember reading the Dragon Quest 3 (Warrior, this series will always be Dragon Warrior to me) write-up in Nintendo Power, over and over again. That article covered I think most of the entirety of the game, as I remember reading that the plot eventually took the player back to Alefgard (the kingdom from the first game) towards the end of the game. I knew it had a party system where it was possible to control the makeup of an adventuring party. I even knew about the surprise ending.

Surprise! You’re Erdrick!

I remember having this old TV; I believe it was given to me by my great-grandmother. It sat on this rolling cabinet that was a Xmas present one year. It was some sort of official Nintendo gaming cart that could house games and support the best of viewing CRT televisions. Both the NES and SNES (or SNE-ZZZZ, as they say in Europe) were hooked up at the time, and I had this little switch box that allowed me to switch between the two gaming systems. I had not given up on the old NES, and I played the old games for a good long time before finally retiring it to a shelf in the closet. Yet, the SNES was probably holding my attention, and the thought of owning Dragon Quest 3 probably faded from memory.

Looking back at some timelines though, I think I know what happened; Final Fantasy 2 (4 to the purists) was released. This would have been the time where I would have been sucked into the growing console-based obsession with the “RPGs-on-rails”, so to speak. In my research for these retrospective articles, the early Dragon Quest games were usually pretty open adventures. From what I have read, this is one of the reasons why they were such beloved games. Dragon Quest games were the more “mature” gaming experience, as more particular gamers would say. Final Fantasy games always had a story to tell. Had I managed to get Dragon Quest 3, something might have clicked in my brain-hole a lot earlier than it ever did. Over time, the Final Fantasy series would become the defacto go-to for RPG console gaming. It would be the benchmark for which all other RPGs were graded. I was definitely swept up in the weird visuals and engrossingly, wildly, fantastic tales of the Final Fantasy series. For years, my brain would always consider the Dragon Quest series as this weird memory of a game series that never seemed to find it’s way to the West.

If there was one personality trait I would relate about myself, it is that my brain is never on the same wavelength as reality. My mind is always elsewhere lost in stories and daydreams. At any given moment, I am usually making things up in my head on a minute-to-minute basis to deal with the complexities of reality. Part of a more recent path of self-discovery lent me this notion that I love open-world games. More accurately, I love games that allow for greater choice. As I am often looking to take a step out of reality, a big part of gaming for me has become projecting myself into a game. Making choices about what my hero looks like, or the actions they take are incredibly important to me. While I enjoy a good game with a solid story, games that let me imprint upon them my own brand of enjoyment are the ones that have stuck with me the longest. What I realize now is that I do not hold much affinity to games with a direct story to tell. While I was drawn into games like Final Fantasy 2/4 while growing up, looking back, console RPGs were all about telling a story during the 90’s and early Oughts. I really feel like games became far too focused on forcing their story and concepts upon upon the player allowing for little choice in how the game, or the story for that matter, progressed.

Games forgot that they were games.

Modern games appear to be breaking the mold of trying to emulate movies as a means to convey a story. I feel like the bolstering of the Indie scene has forced game developers to remember that games are about games. Story is a mere component that should accompany great game play; not the other way around.

A prevalent example of where Dragon Quest 3 allows for choice is with the game’s ability to build a party of custom adventurers. One of the more remarkable aspects of Dragon Quest 3 is that the player get to choose if the hero is a male or female. Though I have no real evidence, nor can I recall; given the year of this game’s release, it seems this would be an early first for gaming. More so, it has no effect on the game itself. It allows the player to be who they want to be. Heck, even the modern Bethesda games still have noticeable differences between male and female characters as far as characters go (hint; it's the cliche that men get more strength and women get more agility, but men are strong and women are fast...or something).

As with the previous two entries in the retrospective, Dragon Quest 3 was played on an iPhone. Again, I realize there are some elements new to this version of the game, though I did use a guide that denoted the differences. Thus I knew where my gaming experience was different in comparison to had it been played years ago on the NES. In the iOS remake, the first part of the game steps through a morality quiz to determine the main hero’s “Personality”. The personality stat of the hero character determined the growth of statistic. Supposedly the “best” personality, as determined by the players and number crunchers, was a female-only personality of “Sexy”.

Saying that here in 2017 sounds a bit callous. Look, it was the 90’s. Players got to choose if they were a boy or a girl in the game, but if the girl was chosen, objectification was apparently an inevitability. Some progress has been made in modern gaming. Girls can make out now in games and it’s OK. Granted those girls apparently have to be sexy-hot-cool, and usually alien, but progress is progress, right?

In my playthrough, my hero character’s personality, named Pajamas of course, was determined to be “Daydreamer”. This was a decent personality from what I read, and strikingly fitting. After going through all this, the hero’s mom wakes them up and says they have to go see the king. Upon finding the king, he says the hero should be a great adventurer like their father, Ortega (named after a taco sauce; kickass name, and damn if that sauce isn’t tasty). The king sends the hero on their way to adventure; because it is in their blood...apparently. There may have been something in there about finding the hero’s father or defeating an evil power, but everyone seemed really jazzed about the adventuring thing.

However, adventuring is impossible without a trusty band of cohorts! Luckily there was a place in town (and only this town) where one could hire a few saps willing to tag along on the adventure. In this tavern of wonderful recruitment, there was a nice lady who had some pre-rendered characters. Yet, this was a game about choice, right? On the second floor of the tavern is a dude who allows for the assembly of a customized party. Their personalities are randomly generated, as are their base stats. However, it is possible to put some extra points to boost their stats to suit their class.

You see, choosing parties and naming them after friends is pretty much one of my favorite things to do in gaming. I always got a kick out of games that allowed for this capability like; X-COM, X-COM 2...other games that are not X-COM-based games. I like naming my characters after friends, watching how they perform, then chastising the real friend during conversation on how the virtual them just missed a critical attack against an enemy. Its fun; you should try it.

My starting party included; a Pilgrim (cleric), Monk (face-puncher-ass-kicker), and a Merchant (greed is good). The latter two were a bit more unconventional as the monk typically wore pajamas and fought with his fists. The Merchant would find extra gold at the end of battles. A few gold pieces after each fight really did not make huge a difference, but extra gold is always welcome.

This was my party, and it was groovy. Encouragingly the game just sort of let allowed for wanderlust. I was moving from town to town, adventuring as I deemed fit. Occasionally I would need to solve some crisis; like the town who was put to sleep by the nearby fairy town, because a kid from the town eloped with a fairy from the fairy town, and the two killed themselves at the bottom of a dungeon pit so that they could be together forever.

Strangely, the game was filled with a few of these grim “WTF moments”. There were a few points in the game where there would be a town on the left and a town on the right. In excellent fashion, the game did not really care which one was chosen over the other to accomplish first. You know, because freedom is good.

Like its predecessor, as soon as the ship was acquired, the game just sort of lets loose and the game’s direction became aimless. It was also as this point that it was possible to stumble upon a place called Altrades Abbey. At this wonderful little hamlet it was possible to opt to have a character change classes.

Doing so sets the party member roll back to Level One, halve their stats, but keep all the spells the character had learned to that point. This would allow the character to start out as a wizard, get to a cut-off point (in order to change class, the character had to be at least Level 20), and then switch and level as a fighter, thus creating a sort of battlemage. None of this was necessary, but it allowed for a level of customization unparalleled by even some modern standards. However, there was a trick to all this leveling. There are two connected class types in the game; one is the Goof-off, and the Sage. The sort of “cheat code” to the game is to create a “Goof-off” -- a do-nothing class that once level 20 was reached, they could switch into a powerful Sage. A Sage can cast practically every spell in the game, equip most armor and weapons, and was just an all around badass. I eventually had two of these in my party. It was sort of like having an “I Win” button. Now that I think about it; one should have been named “John” and the other “Cena”.

It was at this point that the game gets decently grindy, and sort of meanders in a way that is not for the greatest of engagement. Granted, this was a game I was playing in my spare time while waiting for meetings to start, or at lunch, on an elevator, any spare moment really. What little narrative there was, slips a bit; oh right -- the hero eventually finds out there is a dark archlord named Baramos who has put a curse on the land. Once you beat Baramos, he mentions he was merely an underboss of an even greater evil from the underworld. Somewhere along the way, orbs had to be found; I knew this from random NPCs. However, those NPCs were vague to the point of nigh useless when trying to find these key plot items. I stumbled upon a few, and had to resort to the Internet to find the rest. Finding the orbs, hatches a bird that can be ridden, which allows the hero to reach out of reach areas; in particular, Baramos’ castle.

Defeating Baramos opens a crack in the world that drops the hero and his party down into the Underworld where the dark lord Zoma resides. Also, surprise, the Underworld is Alefgard, trapped in the underworld. As the game takes place a hundred years or so before the first Dragon Warrior game old favorites are abound. Tantegal Castle is there. Charlock castle is where Zoma lives; which will be the home of the Dragonlord ala Dragon Quest 1.

Unfortunately, at this point the game’s leveling arc becomes a slog. This is especially true if a party member had ever been reset to a different class. Strangely, it is almost an excellent and terrible part of the game at how flexible it is with classes. However, changing classes is a lot of work that slows down game progression. I had taken my Pilgrim and turned them into a Sage early on. However, Sages levels two times slower than the of the other classes. My monk in the party became a Rogue; so he was super fighty-fighty-stabby-stab. The poor merchant, however, skipped through about four different classes before I finally settled on having them become a Sage as well. This meant getting a Goof-off to 20, then resetting them to a Sage. This caused the poor guy to somewhat fall behind the rest of the party, but through all of the class changes, the character for fairly versatile and powerful despite being lower level than the rest of the group.

Thus leveling characters required some extra time to push through the game. This was not a real problem for me, as wandering around aimlessly fighting monsters was awesome while I watched TV with my iPhone in-hand. Had I been playing the game otherwise, it would have been a frustrating, tedious mess. This was true too with the last dungeon. It was a dungeon that was simply impossible to tackle at anything less than having three-fourths of the party at Level 40. Otherwise, the game paces itself nicely.

There was recently an article on Kotaku about time wasting games. Dragon Quest games -- either for better or wose -- can be big time wasters. It is hard to determine if Dragon Quest games intentionally mean to waste the time of the player, if the vague clues, and required critical thinking and exploring cause the player to waste time. Obviously, this sort of lends itself well to the mobile platform. I could easily level my party by just clicking a button once, and letting battles play out with little of my attention required. Oddly enough, however, there was also a heavy element of chance hiding behind the games mechanics. This became discouragingly prevalent in two early boss fights; a troll king and the archfiend Baramos himself. I was supposedly at the correct level to tackle these challenges. Yet, the fact that the two bosses can attack twice per round, and have devastating one-shot attacks means that luck was a terribly huge factor in these fights. If a certain combination of attacks occurred, it would undoubtedly incur a party wipe. I just kept hard resetting the game and throwing my band of heroes at these bosses. It came down to just the AI giving me a break with its utter randomness that I beat these bosses.

The one thing I feel Dragon Quest 3 does well -- as all the Dragon Quest games do -- is death. Death does not mean end game. Should the party wipe, the game simply goes back to the last monarch who logged the game save (on the iPhone the game can be saved at any time using a Quick Save feature). The only penalty for death is that the hero is admonished for being defeated, and loses half of the gold on hand. I have always enjoyed games that treat death more as an incapacitation and recognize the hero as heroically indestructible and death is just a minor setback. That is clever.

However, if the entire party does die, a village priest must be spoken to in order to revive the whole of the party. Conversations with the priest have four screens of text every time he resurrects someone. Then a bit of music plays as the party member is revived. Then another field of text. It is a slog that by the time I had to revive a third character, I found myself frustratingly pounding my finger on my iDevice to get through the sequence of events. This sort of extra slogfest comes up a lot in the game. Find a mildly important item; wait a minute as the game plays a short bit of music to commemorate the event. Want to save; slog through three different dialogs. Want to save your game with the king; listen for 6 scrolls of text as the king tells you how much experience it will take to get to the next level.

These were annoyances I remember as a kid playing the first two Dragon Quest games. If I am to understand, these same contrivances are in future games simply for the sake of tradition. From the material I have read on the Dragon Quest series, the fan base will cite these contrivances as separating Dragon Quest games from more, “less mature” RPGs. To be candid, these contrivances are why other games do well in the West and the Dragon Quest series suffers with a blemish that they are slogfests bogged in tradition. This might be one of the reasons Final Fantasy overtook DQ as the de facto RPG series here in the West. Innovation, or lack thereof, in friendlier design and breaking down the barrier to entry has allowed other RPGs to flourish here in the West. While this remained popular with a meticulous Japanese culture, these game play choices allowed the glitz and glam of other game series to enamor the Western audience. It is a weird dynamic, of which I feel only modern Western RPGs of recent have managed to find some way to balance. This makes JRPGs the acquired taste that they have become. It is only with recent games like Final Fantasy 15 that traditional JRPGs seem to be break the mold as it were.

This is not to say that Dragon Quest 3 is a bad game. It is a great game for it’s time and I feel it holds up in an almost Indie-hardcore gamer sort of way. I can see why this game is a favorite among fans. The ability to build a party, and alter that party without much loss to the system is a great innovation in gaming. The story a straightforward fantasy adventure that reintegrates the best parts of the series into both story and gameplay. The fact that the main hero of this game ends up having the “title” of Erdrick bestow upon them by the game’s end caps off a great trilogy of games that holds up to the test of time.

As Dragon Quest 3 concludes the Erdrick Trilogy, as it were; it will be interesting to see where the next sequel goes. I have done a little reading, and suffice to say, it sounds intriguing. Having made it this far in my retrospective, I can sense the essence of these games. In their early days, these games were playing to a set of core gaming values that would go unrealized till I dived into more traditional Western RPGs. This is ironic seeing as how I discovered the first of the Dragon Quest series was meant to emulate Western RPGs of the early 80s. If anything, this retrospective is allowing me to better assess my choices in games moving forward. I often deride games that give too much credence to story development over gameplay and game content. It feels shameful to knock story, but looking at games with a more discerning eye allows me determine whether to purchase a new AAA release right away, or wait for a Steam Sale. It feels so good to get back to basics in order to support modern choice-making.

The journey will continue in Dragon Quest 4...

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Come The Year of Jubilee

The nightmare surreal slow motion car wreck that was 2016 is now a part of history. 2017 isn’t exactly getting off to a banner start in most estimations, but the year does hold a tremendous amount of promise for all the gamers and gamettes out there. Unlike the Overwatch dominated post apocalyptic hellscape that was 2016, 2017 looks to be an absolute banner year for games.

A quick scan of the games scheduled to come out this year reveals at least a half dozen games that could be instant contenders for game of the year. With that much firepower coming out this year, here are my Top 5 most anticipated games of 2017.

Honorable Mention - State of Decay 2

What turned out to be a really great Xbox Live/PC game is coming back, and this time its adding the one thing that the original was begging for...CO-OP! I can’t wait to see how the Vorpal Crew handles trying to survive in a zombie apocalypse...

#5 Mass Effect: Andromeda

Like a first love, Mass Effect seems to occupy a unique place in the collective gamer psyche that all at once inspires both unabashed love and unadulterated hate. And like a first love, Mass Effect is often described with a deep sigh of longing and a “It didn’t end well” head shake. That said I think that I, like most gamers, recognize the quality that was Mass Effect, and that despite the ending, the rest of the games were amongst the best ever.

So it is with a sense of both trepidation and hope that I, like I think many also, look on Mass Effect: Andromeda. The folks at Bioware have made what seems to be the right decision by distancing themselves (it takes place in an entirely new galaxy) from the original trilogy of games, and beginning a new story in the already established universe. The trailers released so far show a game definitely keeping in the spirit of Mass Effect, but have added some new and interesting features (jetpacks anyone?). Oh and did we mention...THE MAKO IS BACK!!!

Hey wait where are you going...come back…

Well now that I’ve lost everyone except the one diehard Mako fan out there (No I will not read your Mako fan fiction Keith!) I can honestly say that I can be counted amongst the many who are willingly opening their hearts back up to this franchise. But I do not go blindly into this endeavour, I will have the same sense of caution most people have when entering a motel hot tub. Chances are it’s going to be fun and you’ll probably enjoy it. Then again there is always the off chance that the thing hasn’t been cleaned since Midwest Life’s last sales conference (and we all know how nasty those people are, especially Petersen). Next thing you know you’re jumping right out of that jacuz feeling betrayed, dirty, and ashamed. Here’s to hoping that this hot tub has been cleaned.

#4 The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

The last time I was eagerly anticipating a Nintendo game Bush had just been inaugurated...and no it wasn't that was his Dad. Not since the days of the SNES have Nintendo and I been on really great terms. Granted I have been loving the hell out of my 3DS lately, but overall history shows that I’ve never been what you could call a, “Nintendo Guy”. And yet here I am, over 2 decades on from the Super Mario Bros. 3 hysteria, hotly anticipating a Nintendo game.

All the Nintendo Switch talk aside, Breath of the Wild looks like the killerest of killer apps to launch the system. The graphics look like a watercolor painting come to life, and the open world setting looks to open up a whole new arena of possibilities for the Zelda franchise. If all of its promise holds, I can definitely see myself spending hours playing this game (and yes, some will inevitably be spent on the least give Nintendo some credit for truth in advertising).

#3 Ghost Recon: Wildlands

Ok so this one is a bit of a cheat as technically I have already played this game in the Closed Beta. That said, my review of the Beta made clear that I was left jonesing hard for the full game. That’s what I am anticipating; full access to the map, vehicles, and guns that make Wildlands open world so exciting.

And yes, those of you who follow the Vorpal Crew, are probably asking “But you’ve been on Wildlands since E3 2015, why isn’t this #1 on your list?” Well to that I say “Don’t tell me how to live my life Keith! And NO! I will not read your Mako fan fic...GOD!” Moving on!

#2 Red Dead Redemption 2

Oh Rockstar, why won’t you come to life and be my lady? Probably because you’d be way way out of my league, what with your years of polish and development. In all seriousness though Red Dead Redemption looks to be another shining example of why Rockstar is in my opinion the undisputed king of amazing game experiences. With every new release they always seem to strive to better everything they’ve done before. To imagine they've improved on the first Red Dead is saying a lot considering how nearly transcendent the first game was. The brief trailer released late last year has left us with but a tantalizing sliver of the potential this game has. Add to that an expected multiplayer component, and it would seem that 2017 might be the year the Vorpal Crew rides high in the saddle across the Old West.

#1 Unnamed Assassin’s Creed

Wait, what? “But Rob, they haven’t announced a new Assassin’s Creed game for this year.” And to that I answer, “Damn it Keith, you’re always fuckin’ naysaying (and also you invent something like inward singing...and for the last time I don’t want to read your Mako fan fic! I don’t care that it has Fem Shep!)

After the release debacle of Unity, Ubisoft made clear that they’d be taking some time off the AC train after the release of Syndicate in 2015. 2016 turned out to be the first year since 2008 without a new Assassin’s Creed game released. Considering Ubisoft’s track record, plus their understandable desire to make money, I highly doubt that we will see another New Years Rockin’ Eve without a new Assassin’s Creed game being released. Looking back on the announcement history of the previous games, I wouldn’t be surprised if the new game is announced any day now, with a release set for the end of the year.

Now it is with a small bit of consternation that I hotly anticipate this new AC game. What news has emerged about the game, and at this time nothing has been confirmed, points to a game that is a marked departure from all of the previous games in the series. Reportedly called Assassin’s Creed: Empire, the new game is said to take place in ancient Egypt and pulls its design elements heavily from The Witcher 3. There is even speculation that this game will launch another trilogy of games ala the Ezio trilogy, with the following two games taking place in ancient Greece and ancient Rome. Though I’m not opposed to the game going off in new directions, I really hope that it remains true to its roots and maintains the same elements that have made all the previous games such a joy to play. The fast paced action and unique historical settings are what cemented it as my favorite game series.

Well my watch says it's two minutes to midnight (MAIDEN!!!...alright I’ll give you that one Keith) so it’s about time for me to wrap up. If I have a wish for 2017 it is that the games actually match the promise and potential that they have. I hope at the end of the year I’m able to sit debating which of these games is my game of the year, and I can close my eyes on December 31st and say “Truly, this was a year for games…”

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