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[CRPGs] A year ago...

jacobkosh

Registered User
Validated User
I love Jade Empire so much but I can never avoid cheesing it when I play. When you debate John Cleese's conquistador in the garden, you can take his musket, Mirabelle, as your trophy, and suddenly all of your non-ghost fights cease to be a problem forever. I won eternal honor in the Imperial Arena by just...shooting the champion in the face over and over again.

Then, in the Lotus Assassin stronghold, you learn the Jade Golem transformation, which lets you turn into a 30-foot-tall invincible behemoth with two giant jade axes. I am torn between admiring the sheer chutzpah of this design choice and also wondering what was being smoked at the time. It completely trivializes the last third of the game, and what ought to be grand, operatic battles against the Emperor and your master turn into roflstomps.

But I don't resent this! It's fun! It's just that from my perspective, the Arena represents the last real challenge in the game, and the remainder of Jade Empire ends up being a bit like a visual novel that you mash buttons to progress through.

What else? Hmm.

- Like everyone else, I keenly feel the absence of Phoenix Gate and the odd things it does to the game's pacing having the final third be nothing but one dungeon after another, but I do kind of wonder what function Phoenix Gate would have served in the narrative. The main story doesn't have any obvious holes in it that an extra hub area could have plugged: on the contrary, it's really pleasantly elegant and aside from one niggling thing (which I will mention below), I can't think of any other questions I would have wanted answered or loose ends that needed addressing. If I had to guess based on absolutely nothing, I would suppose that making a real-time action game, which hadn't really been in Bioware's wheelhouse before, ended up consuming a lot more energy and resources than they had thought, and hard decisions had to be made - but I also suspect that figuring out what to do with the zone made it an easy candidate for the chopping block.

- The one exception to what I just wrote, the one obvious plot hole that's bugged me all these years, is what Sun Li actually intended to do about the Water Dragon. I mean, the Emperor's motivation for ignoring the problem of the dead seems clear, as he thinks this is all part of his apotheosis, but Master Li is keenly aware of the problem from the ground level - he's the one who tells you about it! Even if he's personally not as concerned with the plight of the dead as he wants you to be, presumably the "Glorious Strategist" had a plan, and I'd love to know what it was, but you never really get the chance to ask him.
 

Metaphysician

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The impression I got was that Sun Li's plan was a mix of "I am a superior genius and mystic versus my brother, I can actually do the job properly", and "I am a ruthless bastard, and don't care about screwing with the cycle of life and death". Now, whether this would have actually *worked* long term. . . open question. However, I'm willing to grant that he probably would have been able to make it work. . . to a degree. Whether a sustained stable divine empire that is subverting the rules of the universe and causing damage to the physical and spiritual world is better than one that very rapidly destroys itself? An open question.
 

kenichi-kun

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Validated User
I really loved Jade Empire... it was a great game. I played.... not sure about the name, but the big guy. It was satisfying kickstomping people to death.

The fight vs my 3 doubles was tough, and I had to downgrade the difficulty for that.
 

Phantom Grunweasel

Situation Normal Oll Korrect
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Pillars of Eternity

The product of a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, Pillars of Eternity was designed as a throwback to the isometric, party-based, semi-turn-based, D&D-inspired Infinity Engine RPGs of yore. As a longstanding fan of those games myself, I was intrigued and bought it when it first came out, but it didn't run very well on the laptop I had at the time. A more up-to-date model finally allowed me to play it.

True to its Kickstarter premise, the gameplay of Pillars is designed to feel reassuringly familiar to anyone who's played games such as Baldur's Gate, although it takes the opportunity to add some of its own ideas, and sometimes familiarity can be a false friend (it took me a while to realise that fighters are meat shields and crowd control now, and no longer a party's primary damage dealers). It seems to be taking some inspiration from 4th Edition D&D in a lot of ways - there is an obvious effort to make sure that everyone has something interesting to do in combat, and many powers can be used per encounter, encouraging you to take full use of a character's arsenal of abilities. Beyond the usual classes like rogues or wizards, which work in similar ways to how you'd expect them to, some classes have unique abilities and ways of using them. Chanters, in one of the more inspired integrations of lore and gameplay, recite certain phrases throughout power, each giving certain bonuses or advantages, but also building up to the opportunity to do something more exciting, like summoning creatures. You can compose your own individualized symphony from these options and give it some appropriately epic name. Ciphers, the game's version of psionics (more or less), build up power by inflicting damage; monks by taking it.

I never really got much of a handle on either the monk or the cypher. I recruited the Grieving Mother, the game’s cypher NPC, relatively late in the game and never quite figured out how to use her; likewise the drug-addled monk NPC whom the expansion adds.

I found the difficulty level of the game on a bit of a strange curve. I found the early sections of the game challenging , particularly the Temple of Eothas, the first proper dungeon. At higher levels, however, most encounters became trivially easy, even after I cranked up the difficulty – it simply didn’t feel like a system that scaled well to high-level characters. This lack of challenge was one of the reasons I lost interest by the last section of the game, even though the story itself was becoming more interesting. There were some exceptions. The Baldur’s Gate-style big set piece dragon battles were always tough, as were the archmage battles from the expansion.

The game's world has some interesting elements to it. I liked the sound of Rauatai, the Pacific Islands-inspired kingdom of the Rauatai, and I was initially intrigued by the idea that the game was set in the Dyrwood, a former colony that had comparatively recently cast off ties with the empire that founded it. But a lot of it feels like generic fantasyland, touched up with a bit of fashionable grit and grime. It has elves and dwarves, for instance. Although there are dwarf tribes based on Inuit, dwarves by and large seem to be beardy ale-drinking gold-mining fortress-building short people. Elves are tremendously pleased with themselves, but otherwise elf characters are indistinguishable from humans.

The inclusion of elves in particular feels completely pointless, weary and rote, without even the ‘guilty pleasure’ sense of excitement that even really stale clichés can provide when the writer is sufficiently into them. I get the sense that nobody on the writing team particularly wanted these kinds of standard fantasy races, but didn’t think they could get away with leaving them out.

The game’s story is also undercooked. Your character accidentally becomes a Watcher, somebody who can see and converse with the spirits of the dead and also their past lives (I think? The game doesn’t do a very good job of explaining exactly what a Watcher does and exactly how a Watcher differs from a cypher), seemingly as the result of stumbling upon some kind of bizarre ritual. The game tries to sell you on the idea that your character is going mad as a result of these visions, and furthermore that your only hope is to find the mysterious old man who conducted the ritual and learn how to undo your status as a Watcher.

Now I had some major problems with this as a motivation. In the first place, the game doesn’t really do much to convey the idea that your character is or might be going mad. You meet another, older Watcher who did go mad, and the idea is obviously that learning his story is meant to frighten and motivate you. But the problem is that said Watcher went mad because of a very specific and unusual tangle in his past lives, where he ended up being reborn in succession on opposite sides of a vicious colonial war. It’s an effective story, in a bleak way, but you end up thinking more “Sucks to be that particular guy” than “Oh no! That’s gonna be me in a few months!”

To make matters worse, the expansion has your supposedly time-pressed, going-insane character make at least two weeks-long journeys to a remote part of the Dyrwood for no particularly compelling reason in the middle of all this. Any lingering sense of urgency completely drains away. You obviously have time for a skiing holiday in the White March, so things really can’t seem that bad.

The other reason it’s a poor motivation is that it’s, well, really fucking stupid. You’ve got no particular reason to believe that your Watcher status can just be undone. There’s no indication in the lore that it works that way. And even if it did, why should Thaos, the old man you saw, know anything about it? It’s clear that you becoming a Watcher was an unintentional side-effect of the ritual, he didn’t even know you were there. So when, towards the end, Thaos informs you that actually, no, there’s no way to undo becoming a Watcher, it was very much a case of “YEAH NO SHIT.”

However, the game does work in some more effective hooks. It genuinely shocked me when I first discovered that Waidwen’s Legacy was something carried out and perpetuated by Thaos and his minions. Throughout the game, you see innumerable small-scale tragedies and horrors being enacted as a result of the Legacy. People are suffering all across the Dyrwood, and it’s not because of some mysterious cosmic event or even divine wrath, but part of some human scheme? I couldn’t care less about the Watcher thing, which the game seemed to assume would be my primary motivation, but I became very invested in trying to undo Waidwen’s Legacy.

The game prefers this kind of dark, twisty storytelling, occasionally plunging right into outright Gothic territory. One of my favourite side-quests involves trying to solve a string of disappearances in Defiance Bay. In order to follow their trail, you need to track down and interview their associates. You build up a portrait of who these people were and the kind of grief and loss that their friends and family are feeling.

But despite being capable of this kind of writing, the game generally shies away from trying to tug your heart-strings too hard or too directly. The writers seem actively determined to avoid Bioware’s trademark style of larger-than-life characters, dramatic in-party personality conflicts, and of course, romance. The party NPCs are all (with the exception of the baffling Avellone-written Grieving Mother and Durance) pleasant, laidback and low-key, bantering occasionally with each other in an off-hand way. They’re not badly written, by any means, and there’s something to be said for toning down the melodrama, but the fact remains that Bioware NPCs, even at their worst, are always at least memorable and these jokers, by and large, aren’t. Even their side-quests tend to feel murky, inconclusive, and often rather pointless. There is some suggestion, for instance, that Aloth, your wizard NPC, has some kind of dark secret besides his past-life related split personality. Eventually, it turns out that he was once a member of the Leaden Key, the organization behind all the game’s conspiracies. But the revelation just falls so flat, just seems so meaningless. It has nothing like the impact of Yoshimo’s betrayal in Baldur’s Gate 2.

There’s a goofy charm and an energy to Bioware games. For better or worse, they’re not embarrassed about writing wish-fulfilment fantasies like Jade Empire’s menage a trois or Shephard’s action hero moves in the Mass Effect series, and they’re best-known for writing characters that people engage with. Obsidian come across as more austere and more cerebral (although check out this pitch for the game that became Planescape: Torment, with its breathless, hyperbolic references to how powerful the player will feel and how there will be “fiendish babes, human babes, angelic babes, Asian babes, and even undead babes”. Charming).

Perhaps it’s also difficult to write proper emotional connections because of the writers’ commitment to providing you with as wide a range of character types and origins as possible. Most Bioware games provide you with a character with a set place in the world and background story (an orphan raised in a library fortress; a space marine singled out and chosen for a special program; a student of martial arts at a rural school), but in Pillars you can be from a whole range of different races or cultures and belong to one of a number of different organizations. You can also choose aspects of your character (dispositions) in a non-binary way through your dialogue options; stoic or clever or cruel or deceptive or other things.

The trouble is that breadth of this often means a corresponding lack of depth. I played a rogue, for instance, from the game’s Fantasy Italy. Every now and then, this meant that I got a dialogue option saying something that amounted to “I’m from Fantasy Italy.” At other times, the game would forget this altogether, even when it would be relevant.

The dispositions also paradoxically made my character seem more diffuse and less substantial to me. By the end of the game, I’d gained dispositions in several different areas, stoicism and cleverness, so NPCs would comment on both how funny and jolly I was and also how stern and impassive and how it wouldn’t kill me to crack a smile every now and then.

Now you could argue that that people can be more than one thing, and the same person could plausibly be seen by some as a scowling killjoy and others as the life and soul of the party, but it didn’t really work for me.

The game’s big twist is, of course, that the gods are actually human creations, sort of magic AIs designed from Jungian archetypes and created by the mass voluntary self-sacrifice of an entire civilization in order to bring a sense of moral reckoning into a hitherto godless cosmos. I liked this twist a lot. In fact, from the start, I’d been impressed by how Pillars handled religion in general. Eder, for instance, your fighter NPC, is a pious man. This means that, although he’s a devotee of Eothas, he respects all the gods, even those seen as Eothas’ enemies. That would be how a typical polytheistic society would understand piety, but it’s not how religion tends to work in most fantasy settings. The origin of the gods struck me as a compelling twist, bound up in interesting philosophical questions about ethics and justice. It’s also around this point that the long and seemingly pointless build-up about your past life entanglement with Thaos finally pays off.

The trouble is that this big revelation isn’t really all that relevant to the plot. I mean, it’s relevant in a mechanical sort of a way. Thaos wants to bring back the exiled/destroyed queen of the gods, because she was his most reliable ally among them, and he’s been collecting the souls from Waidwen’s Legacy to power her up again. But the resurrection of a dead god by her chosen disciple is just another standard high fantasy plot. The fact that Thaos’ civilization created the gods in the first place is neither really here nor there and Thaos’ motivation is disappointingly prosaic. I couldn’t help but feel a little like the really interesting story to be told was the one you only get bits and pieces of, the story of how the gods came to be created and Thaos began spreading the word in the first place.

I began Pillars with a sense of excitement at the exploration ahead of me. I can’t say that it let me down in that respect – there are things to explore, many subquests to follow, interesting decisions to be made, fun character types to try out and powers to use in combat. But somehow, my excitement petered out over the course of the game. This world seems fundamentally drab and uninviting, the dialogue doesn’t pop, you don’t form much of a bond with the characters. I wouldn’t mind playing it again. I’d like to try out different types of character, perhaps a double-handed sword-wielding cypher or something. I enjoyed it enough that I plan on getting the sequel at some point. But of perhaps all the games I’ve mentioned in my opening post, and for everything it does right, I think it felt like the least memorable.
 

prototype00

Registered User
Validated User
Small point, even though the game doesn’t clearly point it out I guess. Being a Watcher is regarded as ambivalent to actually a very positive thing by most NPCs. What main character is trying to do is resolve his Awakening to a past life which untreated, apparently, leads to Maerwald type madness. In fact you meet another Watcher that isnt awakened.
 
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Reveen

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Validated User
Pillars really didn't grab me mostly because I didn't feel any stakes or driving conflict to propel me forward in the story. The main quest is established mostly as a mystery, but not the active "shit's going down and you need to get to the bottom of this right now" like in games like Deus Ex and Vampire Bloodlines. It was more of a passive mystery that requires just the fact that it's mystery alone and the fantasy concepts behind it to grab your interest, which doesn't work for me. Also, I liked most of the companions, but again it's a very passive chill kind of like that didn't drive me to want to find out what their dealio is.

It's definitely and well made effort in creating it's own detailed and nuanced fantasy world and has a lot of interesting side quest content. But I need more than a fantasy world to make me want to play a game, I need a sense of clear sense of goals and stakes and dangerous consequences lurking behind the main plot to make me keep playing a long term story driven RPG for long. This is why I really liked Tyranny. It tells you what you're doing, why you're doing it, and threatens to kill you if you don't. My kind of RPG.

It's just a shame the story just kinda petered out halfway through.
 
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Trilobite

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I began Pillars with a sense of excitement at the exploration ahead of me. I can’t say that it let me down in that respect – there are things to explore, many subquests to follow, interesting decisions to be made, fun character types to try out and powers to use in combat. But somehow, my excitement petered out over the course of the game. This world seems fundamentally drab and uninviting, the dialogue doesn’t pop, you don’t form much of a bond with the characters. I wouldn’t mind playing it again. I’d like to try out different types of character, perhaps a double-handed sword-wielding cypher or something. I enjoyed it enough that I plan on getting the sequel at some point. But of perhaps all the games I’ve mentioned in my opening post, and for everything it does right, I think it felt like the least memorable.
I'm with you on that. I'll probably pick up the expansions if I can ever get both of them for <=$10 total and I'm keeping an eye on how the sequel gets reviewed, but the stuff I enjoyed about PoE when I played it was largely swamped by a bunch of things I didn't connect with at all. And honestly, I hate real-time-with-pause, so as much as I liked how interesting their combat system was (and it's very interesting!), I never enjoyed having to actually use it.

Oddly, I really enjoyed Durance as a character, which I gather puts me very much in the minority. Turns out I'm happy to really dislike a party member as a person and to have to put up with a lot of backtalk from them, just as long as their contribution to the overall story is interesting. Durance cleared that bar by a lot for me.
 

Argent

aka Jerry Sköld
Validated User
I also found it kind of unintentionally hilarious that the fact that the gods were themselves created is somehow supposed to be this great OH NO THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING moment when it really just made me go "Huh, that´s neat". They still check every mark of what gods actually do in this setting, they are still as powerful... but somehow this is the thing that is supposed to nearly break your brain. I feel like whoever wrote that has a very strong internalised assumption of what constitutes a god and just assumed that everyone else would feel the same way about it.
 

Houlio

Gauche
Validated User
I've found Pillars to be one of the games that's a lot more fun to think about and talk about with friends than to actually play. The setting has a lot of interesting and unique elements to it, but it is also filled with tons and tons of apparently useless baggage from being a fantasy setting. In a way that wasn't that different for me from playing ME1, I often enjoyed reading the descriptions of things and the codex to playing many sections of the game. The gameplay itself I wasn't overly fond of, and the fights seemed to become trivial by the end of Act 1 for me. That said, I still generally enjoyed playing the game if only to explore what there was to explore in the world. Perhaps my biggest gripe with the game is that the setting is packed full of content, but very little of it is even cursorily explored. Generally though, I found Pillars enjoyable in spite of itself.
 
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