Blog of the Blood God is a weekly companion feature for Axe of the Blood God. You can find the podcast archives here.
I've done my best to take Kirk's advice and play more Witcher 3 on a higher difficulty level. There's just one problem — I've since been drawn into Massive Chalice, which hasn't left me a lot of time to explore the Northern Kingdoms.
About 200 years have passed in my playthrough of Double Fine's new strategy RPG, which was released on Monday after several months in Early Access, and my feelings have been mixed. I was initially disappointed by the seemingly limited number of classes — basically archer, melee, and grenade thrower — but I've warmed to it as I've built up my kingdom and started unlocking the varying sub-classes. Thus far most of my characters have died of old age before I've really been able to get to know them, but there have been exceptions like my alchemist, who lived just long enough to earn the nickname "The Red" before aging 10 years in one battle and retiring to do research as a scholar. I haven't had any alchemists since.
It's been interesting to my characters be born, grow up, and eventually die of old age, but the problem I have with the structure is that, with a couple exceptions, it's tough to really get to know them before they drop dead. A point in its favor, though — it's kept me engaged enough that I've wanted to keep fast-forwarding through the timeline, little baby icons popping up and trainees coming of age as I progress. It will be interesting to hear that thoughts of its creator, Brad Muir, when he's on the show later this week.
Speaking of which, welcome to Blog of the Blood God, my new companion to Axe of the Blood God. Each week I'll be highlighting RPG news, classic RPGs you might have missed, and whatever else I want to talk about it. Obviously, the format is still evolving, so I'm interested to hear your thoughts in the comments. In the meantime, onward, heroes.
Retro RPG of the Week: Earthbound, which is now 20 years old
Happy birthday, Earthbound. You're just about old enough to drink. Twenty years ago this Friday, Nintendo finally brought Shigesato Itoi's curious RPG to North America, where it was immediately buried in a market that had 32-bit fever and hadn't quite come around to RPGs. Many Americans, including myself, wouldn't become aware of Earthbound until a few years later, when Ness made an unexpected but welcome guest appearance in Super Smash Bros.
Earthbound is more polished than its predecessor, but it has a similar sense of humor. Of the original, Jeremy wrote last year, "By and large, the unique nature of Mother can be chalked up to the creative vision of the driving personality behind its design and story, writer Shigesato Itoi. A prolific and multi-faceted author, Itoi's closest analog in the U.S. would probably be Garrison Keillor — both share a similar warmth, and the likewise share a common appreciation for childhood experiences and nostalgia matched to the ability to good-naturedly skewer such things with the wisdom and cynicism of adulthood."
As a native Minnesota, A Prairie Home Companion was a constant growing up, and the comparison is apt. In Onett, all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average. Also psychic.
Aside from its well-known warmth and sense of humor, Earthbound is well-known for its forward-thinking battle system, in which enemies will simply flee from your presence if you're at a high enough level — an element that Persona would later borrow for its own dungeons. It's regarded as a classic by many RPG fans, but its comparative rarity and lack of distribution in the U.S. has made it obscure as Nintendo franchises go. Thankfully, it's available on the Wii U's Virtual Console, so you won't have to drop $200 for an SNES cartridge to experience this wonderful little adventure. Play it and enjoy, and we'll have a broader discussion next week on the podcast when we highlight it as part of our "Canon of the Blood God" series.
Fallout 4, the least surprising announcement of the year
In the next couple days, Bethesda will be announcing that they will release Fallout 4 in either 2015 or 2016 (I'm banking on the latter). Welcome to the least surprising announcement of the year.
Though Fallout isn't what you would call an "annual franchise," having not appeared since 2010, it's still relatively easy to track its ebbs and flows. With Skyrim approaching four years old, and with Brian Fargo having recently created a sequel to Wasteland, which was a spiritual predecessor to Fallout, the time was right for Bethesda to revisit the series. And so here we are, right on schedule.
When Bethesda first revisited the series back in 2008, they were praised for their vivid rendition of the shattered husk of Washington D.C. and their faithfulness to the dark humor of the original, but criticized for the game's weak story and unsatisfying climax. The combat also wasn't too great, essentially bolting the first-person hack-and-slash combat of Elder Scrolls onto the guns of Fallout, then throwing in the clumsy V.A.T.S system — which made the combat a dice roll and thus rather rote — for good measure.
Still, Fallout 3 seemed to touch a nerve with fans, and with open-world games being more popular than ever, a true sequel was inevitable. What will be interesting to see is whether Bethesda is willing to stretch out and take some risks with the series that it has made its own. With Skyrim, they were able to build a fantastic world, with dragon fights that were memorable, exciting, and often completely unexpected; but with Fallout, they are playing in someone else's sandbox. Will they shake things up?
At a guess, Bethesda will stick to their established playbook, which has proven itself immensely successful on both PC and console, relying on a new region for color (I'm going to guess Chicago, Boston, or Seattle will serve as the new setting). Then, in six months, we'll all be gleefully posting all the wonderful bug videos that always seem to accompany the Fallout and Elder Scrolls games.
Of course, I could be entirely wrong. They could be making a new tactical RPG.
Why RPGs and MOBAs have more in common than you think
I've been clubbing anyone who will listen over the head about Heroes of the Storm for the past couple weeks now, and while I freely acknowledge that MOBAs aren't what you would call "RPGs," they have some common roots worth highlighting.
As most people know, the MOBA genre got its start with Defense of the Ancients, which was a user-created map for WarCraft III. WarCraft III was primarily an RTS, but it was structured very much like an RPG, its main feature being heroes who would level up over the course of a match and earn certain abilities. Army sizes were intentionally pared down, NPC mobs who yielded gold and XP were introduced, and it became possible to hire mercenary characters and equip special items. RTS fans were ambivalent about the changes, but as an RPG enthusiast, I found them fascinating.
DotA was a distillation of all those elements that also mixed in tower defense concepts. Over time, it split away from WarCraft III, with the latter evolving into a full-blown MMORPG. League of Legends would streamline some of the concepts introduced in DotA, but it was still fundamentally an RPG/tower defense hybrid in which the goal was to grind monsters for XP and build out a character for a specific role in the party. All it was missing was dungeon crawling.
Not surprisingly, most of my friends have moved from MMORPGs to MOBAs, enticed by the opportunity to min-max a character's abilities and damage output without the commitment of weekly raids and level cap grinds. MOBAs lack a true "roleplaying" element, but the genre's overlap with Dungeons & Dragons and World of WarCraft is considerable, far more than that of a Call of a Duty, which borrows concepts like equipment and XP without any of the meaty stat manipulation. And ultimately, that's why I'm playing Heroes of the Storm — it taps into my need to engage with interesting gameplay systems, which constitute the heart of any good RPG.
Your RPG soundtrack of the week
A Quick Thought
In the first episode of Axe of the Blood God, I got Jeremy and Bob together to try and hash out the immortal question — what exactly is an RPG? We came away without a satisfactory answer, and since then the subject has come up again and again, with both readers and contributors weighing in with their thoughts. We're not the only ones, either. Chris Bateman recently completed an interesting three-part series analyzing what he terms "the essence of RPGs."
What the past few weeks has really put into perspective for me, though, is that RPG fans are drawn to roleplaying for reasons as diverse as the genre itself, which can't help impacting their feelings on "what an RPG should be." Lightning Returns did a particularly good job of highlighting those differences. While I happily got lost in its world and enjoyed playing around with the outfit system, longtime fans complained about what they considered a non-sensical story and terrible setting. It's possible for both sets of fans to be right, but in my case, I just don't put that much weight on the story. If it's good, then it's a bonus. But for others, an RPG without a good story isn't an RPG at all. As my partner put it to me, "Why would you want to roleplay a story that's not interesting?"
In the end, everyone knows what they want out of an RPG. I love anything that lets me mess around with party dynamics, ala Pokémon or Etrian Odyssey, while other people would rather soak in the expanses of Witcher 3. My advice would be to put aside those biases and embrace the richness and diversity of the RPG genre for what it is. The best part of my job is that it gets me to play games that I would have never bothered with otherwise, from Dark Souls to Skyrim, many of which have become personal favorites. With games being more readily available than ever, now is the time to pick up Persona 4 Golden, or perhaps Pillars of Eternity. Now is the time to enjoy the richness of the RPG genre for what it is, irrespective of your personal definition. I'll be right there with you.
Happy adventuring, everyone.