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Everybody's Making Action RPGs

Earlier this week, I was quite optimistic and gung-ho to put some work into my own little pet project.  However, when the weekend arrived, I ended up derailed in ways I did not foresee.

First, I tried replaying Mass Effect 2.  I had seen somebody play it on The Escapist Magazine's twitch channel, thought that looked fun, and decided it was time to finish Mass Effect 3.  Only problem was, I lost my old Mass Effect 2 save, and I'd like to import it.  It seemed like as good excuse as any to  revisit the exciting adventure I had with Commander Shepard the first time!
Unfortunately, for three big reasons, I just could not get back into Mass Effect 2.
  1. It was incompatible with my 21:9 aspect monitor, I couldn't get the ultrawide hacks to work, so I basically ended up having to play it in a borderless window at a more standard aspect.  It looked rather ugly to have my Windows 10 desktop poking out of the sides like that.
  2. I could not settle on a class for the protagonist (Shepard).  I attempted to pick the "best" one, but of course the game is balanced so all six are best in their own way, so the real question is what was "best" for me?  I have no idea; I could probably play them all equally well.  I hate it when there's no right choice.
  3. I dabbled a bit with a few existing characters I had rolled up earlier, and found the combat to be overwhelmingly awkward.  As with the last game, Bioware was trying to marry Gears of War style third person cover based shooting mechanics with a Bioware RPG.  However, the whole thing feels really kludgy and floaty, probably owed to Bioware using an in-house engine.
In fairness, I could probably get used to all of those problems if I wanted to put the effort into it.  However, when my gaming cup runneth over with alternatives to play, it's sort of hard to say I really should be using my precious (dreadfully limited) free time replaying a game I already beat!  Even if the story, exposition, and characters are somewhat timeless, Mass Effect 2 feels dated to me now.

So I thought I would try something more modern.  Back on that twitch channel again, they happened to be playing Final Fantasy XV, and this got me thinking about action RPGs on the consoles.  Then I remembered that I got Xenoblade Chronicles X (a late-2015 release for the Wii U) for Christmas and decided, if I had the time to give Mass Effect 2 a play, I certainly had the time to give that game a try.
What a figure.

It was not quite what I expected.  I had heard that Xenoblade Chronicles was a really deep and complex Japanese action RPG, and that's why it was on my wish list.  However, that was released for the Wii and 3DS, the Wii U game is its spiritual successor!  Whoops, this actually was the wrong game.

Well, a spiritual sequel should work.  Yet, the game was not as smartly interactive as I hoped.  Here is basically what you do in combat:
  • To start a fight, first move around with the analog sticks until your target is roughly in the middle of the screen, then target it by tapping a bumper of the Wii U controller, make sure you have the right one of your two weapons selected with the X button, then open fire with the A button.  It's about as awkward as it sounds, but something console players are used to.
  • Now that combat has started, wait for somebody to use a "Soul Voice."  (In the United States we call that a "battle cry" but I guess their translator never heard of that.) 
  • Sometimes the "Soul Voice" is coming from your character, which pops up an annoying quicktime event that involves mashing the B-button at a precise time.  There is no way to prepare for this, it happens at random because the combat events that trigger it do not do so every time.  When it does, my thumb was probably hovering over the A-button, so I'll likely mash it accidentally.
  • Once one of those soul voices go out, it triggers a condition where applicable active abilities, known as "Battle Arts," are able to be fully effective.  But only briefly, so you have to fumble over the interface to do it in time.  Moving over 4-6 icons with the D-pad and mashing the A button is surprisingly tough to do on a time limit.  The battle arts take a frustratingly long time to recharge.
  • Meanwhile, you're circling a foe in third person perspective, trying to flank the enemy on the best side for your attacks to be the most effective.  Despite looking like an action RPG, you cannot dodge enemy attacks.
The main problem I have is that I am mostly just waiting around for the "Soul Voices" that allow me to use my active abilities.  During that time, the game makes you sit there and auto-attack, the very picture of non-involvement on behalf of the player. 
The game also has some weird multimedia issues.  The graphics are strange in that there's clearly great looking polygons here but sometimes the Wii U engine feels the need to present them with severe jaggies.  If I did not watch a lot of anime, I probably would feel lost among the clearly anime-inspired character and world design but, as it did, everybody sort of feels like a garage kit figure come to life.  The music is a particularly odd mixed bag: during cutscenes it is often stereotypical sci-fi game atmospheric tracks, while walking around "New LA" we're subjected to strange garage rock band music that includes some kind of Eastern beatboxing, and if combat drags on long enough some guy starts busting mad rhymes: shut up, I'm fighting! It is certainly an unusual experience.

That said, despite its faults, Xenoblade Chronicles X is a good addition to the Wii U library.  The depth to the gameplay is appreciated, arbitrary or not.  The loot system is not half bad, and even includes cosmetic costume pieces for the characters.  The best feature for me is that it takes place in a open world, an alien planet, where you are freely allowed to explore, even if you get flattened by natives much higher level than you.  The sum of all its parts feels a lot like a MMORPG in execution, including some online functionality, and that fills a niche on the Wii U game library.

Too bad I am not limited to the Wii U, then.  My quest for a good action RPG to play continued.

I decided to try out one more this weekend.  Diablo III was on sale, and it was time to finally give it a spin.  I don't think I really need to describe the game, as the first game in the series spawned a million clones, and Diablo III is a modernized sequel with a HUGE development budget.  It caught a lot of flak for its always-online DRM, but not enough to get it removed, such is the power of Blizzard.
Despite being released back in 2012, it's still quite gorgeous.  However, the gameplay mechanics are perhaps a little too simple, with only 6 active abilities at a time.  Many players found Torchlight or Grim Dawn to be a more suitable sequel, and I don't blame them.

Diablo III turned out to be a lot easier than expected.   I started up a monk, prioritized the regenerate life stat on my gear, and basically could steamroll everything.  Upped the difficulty to "hard," the enemies still could barely scratch me.  The game does not allow me to up the difficulty further until I hit Act 3.  Apparently Blizzard made this game for casuals, at least until you get past Act 3.

Looking at what really experienced Diablo III players do, it's not a roleplaying game anymore, it's some kind of monster farming simulator.   That is honestly kind of degrading, and does not leave me a whole lot to look forward to despite the fact that Blizzard is still updating this game.  Still, a game this big is like a chapter in gaming history... I should at least complete the campaign once, give the different classes a spin.
I think the problem I am having is that my cup runneth over with choices for action RPGs right now.  In addition to the above, there's also much finer choices like The Witcher 3, Hand Of Fate, Enter The Gungeon, ect.  I am deliberately naming radically different takes to the idea of sticking action and RPG together because that's the point: on this front, I am spoiled for choice.

Ironically, I think I prefer turn-based combat, but I guess I had an itch this weekend, and there was absolutely no shortage of applicable digital scratchers to be had!  For that matter, none of these games are proper virtual world sandboxes, and frankly I think those have raised the bar of roleplaying game significance for me.

All said and done, there was a whole lot of meaningless procrastination this weekend, and I should have spent that time working on my own little pet project instead.  But sometimes, for reasons unknown, I am simply aimless...


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