Friday, February 3, 2012

Harvesting Fun

After Dragon Age, with its wrist-slittingly bleak outlook on storytelling, I decided to go look for something with sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. And nothing is more like the video game manifestation of a cheery Lesley Gore song than the Harvest Moon series.

Well, actually, I'd never played Harvest Moon itself before. I'm a huge fan of its fantasy cousin Rune Factory, which is in fact a really brilliant fantasy series for the DS (I believe there is a version or two for the Wii as well). But Harvest Moon actually came first, and is a series of farming games. Yep, farming. You play a newcomer to a town, you sow crops and raise livestock--and you also try to befriend and even woo townsfolk and participate in town shenanigans like various festivals. It's a simple simulation but quite addictive. Rune Factory adds dungeon crawling, monster fighting, and item crafting to the table, and as a fantasy gamer I thus prefer this, but Harvest Moon in its simplicity has its appeal, even if its cows and chickens don't look slightly and awesomely demonic.

The particular Harvest Moon game I got is "Tale of Two Towns." I'm led to understand this is a pretty entry level version of the game. Its gameplay is largely as in Rune Factory but without the monster hunting bits. You plant crops, raise animals, fish, scavenge in the wilderness, cook dishes, and chat with people and do quests for them. The gist of the story is that you move into a mountainside area occupied by two towns, who have been bickering for generations. They bicker over which empty farm of theirs you get to occupy, and you have your choice of either (and you can move back and forth between the two); one is better for raising crops and the other is better for raising animals. You have to raise the towns' friendship over time by participating in cooking festivals, which is how the towns "duel" each other. And that's pretty much it.

It's a very slow paced game, and I have a feeling I may not have picked the best example of the series out there, but it's a nice break from dark and dreary RPGs (though I will probably go back and do a replay of Fallout: New Vegas soon, or crack and buy Skyrim even though I said I'd wait until all the DLC came out first). There is a simple pleasure to be had in figuring out growth cycles and how to befriend your animals and learning recipes and so on, plus engage in the difficult matter of how to earn the most profit with what you produce or find (the mechanical goal of the series is to maximize profits, interaction and romance and town plotline aside). The music is decent, the graphics bright and pleasant, with lots of lovely little details painstakingly worked into the background.

It's a Japanese game, and for some reason every Japanese game I've ever played come with a degree of the "Guide Dang It" philosophy (to borrow a phrase from TV Tropes)--you really have to at some point look at a walkthrough to figure out certain things. But such things as they are. Some things in the game could have had a little more thought put into it -- you can have a pet owl that flies you from the top of the mountain to one of the two towns, but no way to quickly get TO the top of the mountain, so the owl is kind of useless (I wish I hadn't bought him). The inventory is waaaay too small... I get inventory management is part of the game's challenge but it's frustratingly so; inventory management is NOT fun and it's the one big thing that detracts from the series (Rune Factory has this problem as well, though Rune Factory 3 was better about it). I think if they put all your tools in a separate inventory that did not take up backpack space, that would be a godsend. The quest system is a little too random--often you receive requests for stuff that you can't possibly achieve (not till much later in the game). But ultimately, there's a lot of fun to be had.

If you like simulations and have a DS, and you're in the mood for a nice quiet game, check it out--or other Harvest Moon games. And if you like Japanese fantasy games, definitely get the Rune Factory series (3 in particular was brilliant--phenomenal story AND you are a WERE-SHEEP. Yes, a were-sheep. How can that not be awesome?). Its next installment is coming out frustratingly only for the 3DS. I may have to give in and trade in my lite for it (but generally, hate the whole 3D mess, so it may not be worth it).

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Dragon Age leaves me wanting to move on from Bioware

I think I'm giving up on Bioware games for awhile. Mind, I've been trying to get away from buying anything published by EA--the company's practices do not endear me to them--but Bioware was always a big kicker. I'm a big fan of Bioware's earlier stuff--I've played the Baldur's Gate series, Neverwinter Nights and all its add-ons, and Knights of the Old Republic. I missed Jade Empire, and I missed Mass Effect and Dragon Age on release because my computer couldn't handle them at the time. But I picked up Dragon Age: Ultimate Edition for cheap on Steam relatively recently, and my delight with catching up with what Bioware was up to (even if still a year or two behind) quickly faded.

What it comes down to is the following:
- Good story moments and interesting choices offset by other moments of feeling utterly railroaded
- God, the awful cutscenes which would pull nonsense like pull your entire party into the center of a room before you got ambushed. What made that especially lazy is that there were wonderfully challenging fights that didn't have to resort to such cheesy cheating tactics. As I've noted elsewhere, if Dragon Age were a TTRPG (well, it is also one, but bear with me), and the GM suddenly picked up my miniature and moved it to a spot to his advantage, I'd grab my mini back from him and shove it up his nose.
- Others have waxed on this more than I, but it DOES feel like I've played this game several times before... with the only significant differences being that it's more gory (whatever) and I like fewer of the characters
- God the bugs. And I got this game late and fully patched, remember.  The one where the game pulls the hideously boring and cliched "you find yourself in a dungeon with none of your stuff" was just so enhanced by the fact that the game actually deleted my belongings permanently. Lovely.
- So much of it is bleak and depressing, without reprieve. I've just come off finishing Awakening, where there is not one but two sidequests which end in you finding someone's lover having committed suicide. What? Why? Why is this necessary? It's not like they were even very interesting sidequests with otherwise rewarding results (okay, one might have been if it wasn't hideously bugged, but still). Not to mention that the whole storyline is that you're pressed into service into an organization where you must either let yourself be murdered or taint yourself with demon blood, the result of with will, guaranteed, doom you to a life of nightmares and eventual insanity and death within a few decades. Lovely. I feel so heroic.
- Not interested in endless "cinematic" dialogues; voice acting isn't that important to me, but they seem to be emphasizing that and other shallow stuff rather than, say, good combat design (see above about the cutscenes). 
- And that's the biggest thing. I play RPGs often, to feel heroic. Grey areas and difficult moral decisions are good, but I want to feel like my player character chose to do good things and good things came of it. I felt often through much of the game like maybe just letting the world end might have been the kindest thing to do. Even trying to play heroic, I didn't feel it. And I often felt the most important choices were taken from me--or not adequate options were offered me.
- There was a point where I kept playing just to see how it ended, not because I was having fun.

TL;DR: I stopped having fun.

Mind, when I say the stuff about depressing and not feeling heroic--the last game I played before this was Fallout: New Vegas. Shiny happy, black and white morality, rainbows and bunnies Fallout: New Vegas. Well, that's how I seem to remember it now, even though I know there was hideous death and brutality and slavery and difficult decisions, but somehow, they made it fun. Dragon Age seems to be about showing how awful and bleak and dark and gory it can be for the sake of being awful and bleak and dark and gory. The Fallout series (I've played all of them but Tactics) is darker and bleaker and gorier, but it isn't the point; it's about how people deal with that and still come out on top. Plus the humor's better, in my opinion. But I digress.

And ultimately, I think I want to step away from Bioware is because when I stop and think about it... when I think about what was the best Bioware game EVER... for me, it was Baldur's Gate 2. Which, by all means, is one of the best computer RPGs of all time, and that's not my opinion, that's fact. :)

But I think they hit their peak early, and I haven't seen much but downhill since. I'm sure Mass Effect has its own good stuff going on, but at this point, I don't think it's worth my money to find out.

Ah well, lots of other good games out there to play. And I look forward to that, certainly.