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[CRPGs] A year ago...

Phantom Grunweasel

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#1
Or so, I decided to take advantage of a new and gaming-friendly laptop by playing some CRPGs that were (for the most part) new to me. I'm a sucker for a theme, so I decided that my adventures would follow the course of a deeply unlikely and alternative reality-rich world history, as follows:


Jade Empire (ancient China-ish, with magitech)

Pillars of Eternity (Renaissance-ish, with magitech)

Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (Victorian-ish, with steampunk tech)

Shadowrun Returns plus expansions (cyperpunk fantasy)

Fallout (post-apocalyptic sci-fi)

The Mass Effect trilogy (space opera)

Tides of Numenera (post-everything dying earth science fantasy)


Okay, so, they're not all even set on Earth, but I'm nothing if not committed to a gimmick. More importantly, it was an interesting way to look at the state of Western CRPGs in general. A lot of these games draw on the same pool of writers and developers, but it's very interesting to look at the ways that different people have at different times approached the basic problems of the genre (freedom of choice vs. telling a coherent story, for instance); it's kind of fascinating to play the Mass Effect games right after Fallout, for the things they share as much as the many, many ways they diverge.

I mentioned that not all the games are new to me: I'd played Arcanum many times before, and completed Fallout just once before (although I'm very familiar with its sequel). Other than that, I hadn't played any of these games before. I also avoided consulting using any guides or online forums when playing, in an effort to get the full experience.

I wanted to use this thread to discuss these games, our impressions of them, and also some of the things that have struck me about CRPG-writing while playing them, and perhaps issue some capsule reviews.
 

Metaphysician

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#2
Definitely going to follow this thread, since I've played almost every game you mentioned. Only ones I've not played are Mass Effect 3, and the Pillars of Eternity expansion.
 

Phantom Grunweasel

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#3
[worth mentioning now: spoilers for all games mentioned in the OP]

Jade Empire

Seeming the only Bioware RPG that didn't beget a hit franchise, Jade Empire is Bioware's homage to the wuxia genre, and their first attempt at blending their RPG formula with conventions from other genres, in this case the brawler.

The titular Jade Empire is a fantasy version of ancient China, a vast territory connected by a network of rivers and magitech flying machine trade routes and ruled over by the allegedly omniscient and benevolent Emperor. But there's trouble brewing. Something has interfered with the natural processes of reincarnation and the dead aren't being reborn like they should be: instead they're lingering in the world as ghosts. Rumour has it that the dreaded Lotus Assassins, the imperial enforcers, are carrying out a gradual coup and cutting the Emperor off from his people. Meanwhile, YOU, Mr/Ms PC, an orphan of mysterious origins, are the foremost student at a hidden school of martial arts, led by a wise old master, outside an idyllic village in a remote corner of the Empire. You're forced into action one day when the Lotus Assassins descend on your school, killing townspeople and students and capturing your mentor. On your way to rescue him, you'll acquire a band of eccentric allies, develop your fighting prowess, find love, and gradually realise that the fate of the entire Empire may rest on the results of your quest.

In other words, it's an absolutely shameless medley of wuxia and RPG cliches, but it's carried off for the most part with an infectious kind of joy and enthusiasm, with some satisfying and enjoyable twists on the formula. The Emperor, for instance, isn't really unaware of the Lotus Assassins' dirty tricks, in fact he's the one ordering them but he's letting the people think that so that his reputation for benevolence remains untarnished. The most interesting of these twists is the revelation that your mentor is in fact the real villain of the story, using you as a pawn to clear the board of his rivals. The really clever idea there is that, by personally taking charge of every step of your training, he introduced a secret weakness into your style, known to and exploitable only by him, like a programmer secretly writing a 'back door' into their code.

However, the writers' energy seems to flag right after this big twist is revealed, when the game becomes a mostly linear march. The bustling hubs, packed with side-quests and things to do, of the game's first two-thirds get replaced by underworld ruins and palace corridors. Also, it feels like it backed hastily away from what could have been a compelling plot point. Everything in the game's world went wrong because the Emperor and his brothers (one of them being your treacherous mentor) murdered the Water Dragon, the goddess in charge of the wheel of life and without her and her Spirit Monk followers, there's nobody to shepherd the dead through the process of reincarnation. But the Emperor did this to end a drought that was killing the Empire: he used the Water Dragon's stolen body to bring the rain back down on his lands.

At one point, I thought the game might end with a choice: defy the will of Heaven and continue the Emperor's sacrilegious and ghost-disturbing use of the Water Dragon's body in the interests of the Empire, or accept that the Jade Empire and its people must pass away in the interest of life everywhere and restore the Water Dragon, letting the drought take its course (in keeping with wuxia's predilection for often startlingly mournful endings)? But if that was ever on the cards, it never materialises: the drought plotline is seemingly forgotten by the end, the Emperor is portrayed as solely interested in power, and the almost sickeningly happy Open Palm ending sees your character benignly ruling a regenerated Jade Empire.

Combat is organised on a kind of basic rock-paper-scissors format. You have the option of a normal attack, a power attack (slower but more damaging), and a block. A block intercepts a normal attack, a power attack bursts through a block, but a normal attack can interrupt a power attack. In theory, combat should attain a pleasurable rhythm of shifting through attack, block, power attack in time with your opponents. However, it never really worked that way for me. I imagine it worked better on console controls, but it felt awkward on a keyboard. I generally ended up flailing around, pounding the attack key and dodging backwards to avoid my opponents' attacks.

In addition to this, there are also support styles (styles which inflict status ailments on an enemy rather than damage), weapon styles, magic styles (throwing fire, ice, etc.) and transformation styles (assuming the form of an enemy, something I never really experimented with much at all). By hitting an opponent with a support style attack followed immediately by a power attack, a 'combo', you could kill them instantly and gain a power-up, but this was something I rarely attempted: partly because it was awkward to carry out on a keyboard, but also because the only opponents vulnerable to combos were low-level mooks who didn't represent much of a challenge anyway, so it rarely felt like it was worth making the effort. You can also have one NPC ally active at a time (the game doesn't make much effort to justify this particularly ludicrous party limitation): you can either have them fight alongside you (it rarely seemed to make much difference, in my experience), or play a more useful 'support' role, generally regenerating one of your stats or adding to a certain type of damage.

Jade Empire offers six 'off-the-rack' characters. You can also customise your own, although appearance options are very limited. I chose Furious Ming, the Boy with the Dragon Tattoo, a speed-oriented martial artist. As it turned out, Ming's starting martial arts style, Thousand Cuts (quick, light punches), was pretty dire: low damage but also lack of reach. I ended up specialising in weapons and Focus, the special time-slowing technique, but this screwed me over in certain sections. Ghosts are immune to weapons and you need to use magic or martial arts to fight them: I never messed around much with magic and my martial arts style wasn't much good, so the ghost-filled sections were very tedious and irritating to me. I picked up a new martial arts style, Iron Palm, which was more effective but the slow, deliberate approach it took screwed with my preferred 'frantic button-mashing' style and 'impossibly swift warrior' aesthetic. By contrast, the most challenging fight in the game, a classic mirror match scenario against three of your doubles at once, felt like a genuinely rewarding and enjoyable battle, rather than a tedious slog (the final confrontation of the game felt rather like an anti-climax by comparison: it's essentially a race to see who can push the Focus button first).

Jade Empire takes a step which the Mass Effect games would follow, in making this kind of gameplay decision quite separate from the rest of the game. To illustrate what I mean, take a game like Fallout or Arcanum. The character build you decide on will affect a lot more than just how you behave in combat: are you going to be sneaking along back corridors, talking your way through check-points, hacking computers, or just fighting your way through? Conversationally, are you a brilliant inventor, a persuasive smooth talker, or only capable of talking in grunts? Even the Baldur's Gate or Elder Scrolls series occasionally reflect choices like character class in certain side-quests or factions only available to certain kinds of character, or have NPCs comment on your class.

Jade Empire does include some 'social skills', Charm, Intuition, and Intimidation, based on your three main stats but they feel half-hearted at best. Combat will feel quite different depending on whether you're using magic to zap your opponents from a distance or an elegant chain of bullet-time and combos, but the game outside combat won't ever reflect the fact that you're, say, a brawny double-sword wielding no-magic fighter or a cunning shapeshifter adopting the form calculated to breach an opponent's defences, and so a certain level of immersion is lost. There is only one tiny exception to the best of my knowledge: early on, in your home town, you can hear townspeople comment on your particular style (since there's only four styles available to the player at this point, it was presumably easier to write in this early on).

Instead, the main way you'll decide what kind of character you're playing in-story is by choosing between the Open Palm and Closed Fist philosophies. These totally aren't your standard 'good' and 'evil' choice, no no no. They look and feel exactly like that in almost every instance, but Closed Fist, the antithesis to Open Palm altruism, is supposed to represent an emphasis on strength through adversity, the idea that by insisting on protecting and sheltering everyone, you weaken them and rob them of strength and dignity.

Now, that's an interesting idea, especially in CRPGs where by design everyone is just sitting around and waiting for your character to solve all their problems, but as I've already indicated, it's not implemented that way at all. Closed Fist options are almost never about the kind of tough love and stoicism the philosophy is billed as, instead they really are the standard 'brutish bully' option. Reinforcing this, you look more demonic the more of these options you take. Bioware would do a much better job making Renegade a viable and interesting option in Mass Effect.

Graphically, Jade Empire is also in a sort of awkward stage of games development: 3-D still comes at the cost of blocky, unappealing graphics and sluggish animations instead of the charm of the handpainted Baldur's Gate maps.

I've harped on a lot of the game's flaws, but don't misunderstand me: I loved this game, warts and all. Combat can be frustrating but when you settle into its groove, you can also feel like an athletic demi-god of battle. The humour can be laboured and sometimes cringeworthy (the party NPCs Henpecked Hou and Black Whirlwind are two of the most egregious examples) but I'd take its sense of tongue-in-cheek fun over the doom-laden adolescent gloom that often seems like the only alternative for many RPGs. The game's romances are satisfying and it was ahead of its time: it offers a lesbian and a gay romance (something the Mass Effect series didn't feel ready to do until the third game) as well as, notoriously, a polyamorous option for the player who just can't make up their mind. Jade Empire takes a lot of its story beats from wuxia cliches, a lot of its characters from the standard Bioware outlines, and even its big twist seems like something like an attempt to recreate the shock of Knights of the Old Republic's big twist. But jamming all of these things together somehow creates that does feel fresh and new.
 

Metaphysician

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#4
In addition to the flaws with the Open Palm/Closed Fist system, I think the biggest weakness of the game is simply that its too short. Or, more precisely, it feels like it was supposed to be longer, with at least one or two more major areas. I don't know whether there is any evidence to support the idea that areas were cut in the design or development stage, though.

It did definitely make me wish we got more RPGs set in places other than Generic Fantasy Land ( European or Japanese Edition ).
 

Phantom Grunweasel

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#5
In addition to the flaws with the Open Palm/Closed Fist system, I think the biggest weakness of the game is simply that its too short. Or, more precisely, it feels like it was supposed to be longer, with at least one or two more major areas. I don't know whether there is any evidence to support the idea that areas were cut in the design or development stage, though.
Yes, I remember being quite intrigued at the start of the game by the description of Phoenix Gate, the great port to the east, and thinking that the narrative would eventually head there, but I was disappointed. Making the Underworld more of a 'hub' type area, with more NPCs and side-quests, would also have worked for me: it's actually quite a long section of the game, but it feels very linear and... well, I know 'lifeless' sounds like an appropriate quality for the land of the dead, but it doesn't work that well for a computer game and actually quite a lot of crazy stuff happens in the Chinese underworld.
 

Metaphysician

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#6
If I had to make a guess, Kang the Mad was probably added to make for a shortcut to the Imperial Capital. He feels a little off and separate from so much other stuff, almost as much as the divine shopkeeper.
 

Trilobite

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#7
At one point, I thought the game might end with a choice: defy the will of Heaven and continue the Emperor's sacrilegious and ghost-disturbing use of the Water Dragon's body in the interests of the Empire, or accept that the Jade Empire and its people must pass away in the interest of life everywhere and restore the Water Dragon, letting the drought take its course (in keeping with wuxia's predilection for often startlingly mournful endings)? But if that was ever on the cards, it never materialises: the drought plotline is seemingly forgotten by the end, the Emperor is portrayed as solely interested in power, and the almost sickeningly happy Open Palm ending sees your character benignly ruling a regenerated Jade Empire.
Speaking of which, anyone who hasn't seen the Closed Fist ending, it might be the most genuinely cruel and evil material Bioware ever wrote. It makes you feel like the world's biggest bastard, not once, but TWICE before it's all over.

Also worth seeing: the ending where your former master tells you to give up...and you do. For all its (many) flaws, it's clear that there were a lot of people who put a lot of love into their work on that game.
 

Phantom Grunweasel

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#8
Also worth seeing: the ending where your former master tells you to give up...and you do. For all its (many) flaws, it's clear that there were a lot of people who put a lot of love into their work on that game.
I get the impression that the Jade Empire team felt the same way about wuxia movies as the original Mass Effect team (of which more as we get to it) felt about space age sci-fi: they fucking loved that shit. It's hard not to enjoy yourself when the developers are putting so much affection and energy in. Like the tea house brawl in Tien's Landing: it's not a big plot point or a tough fight, it's just a bunch of bored sailors picking a fight and could appear in any CRPG, but it's set up and staged like one of the tea house fight scenes in Come Drink with Me or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with one sailor leaping down on to and breaking a table, then giving you the option of improvising weaponry from the shattered remains. It's impossible to keep the smile off your face playing through a scene like that.


One thing I only touched on lightly is the fact that Jade Empire never got any sequels and, Bioware having gone through some personnel changes since then, does it ever seem likely to. I kind of want to avoid being the guy who responds to something fun by saying "Now I want MORE! JUST LIKE IT!" - it feels like that kind of attitude just makes it harder to actually enjoy stories, games, and experiences in and of themselves. Story-wise, Jade Empire also certainly doesn't need a sequel. But... I can't help imagining a sequel to Jade Empire that kept and built on the rich setting and that zest for the genre and sense of fun, but improved and expanded the gameplay and graphics.
 

StreetBushido

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#9
Having played all the listed games, I look forward to following this thread.

It's been a long, long time since I played Jade Empire, but I remember enjoying it. It was something fresh and new!

Also, I remember playing as Furious Ming as well, and that I really put a lot of energy into Thousand Cuts. To me, it was a really effective fighting style, at least once it got a bunch of upgrades.

A problem I had with the game was actually the overabundance of techniques and styles. You had martial art styles, magic and weapons. And all of these could be upgraded. Feeling overwhelmed by all of this, I just doubled down on upgrading Thousand Cuts. I think I also upgraded the dual-wielding weapon style.

Finally, did you know that John Cleese is in the game? He's the "european" foreigner that's shooting people with his rifle. If you defeat him you can even get the rifle for yourself!
 
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