I started playing Chicory recently, and there’s so much to admire about the game. I’d even say it’s a great game, with a totally original core idea: instead of going from zone to zone fighting a bunch of creatures and doing the occasional mind-numbing puzzle, you progress by doing art and coloring in the world. But just as often as people talk about Chicory’s novel core idea or incredible soundtrack, they mention something else. They mention the game’s story, and the inspirational themes, and the inspirational themes it serves to struggling artists or creatives of any kind.
Not content to merely challenge players to overcome some obstacle, it seems like a lot of games these days want additional points for relating with the player, perhaps even addressing their mental health – and they’re often rewarded for doing so. A few years ago Celeste was released to overwhelming praise and an outpouring of comments to the effect that the game was some kind of panacea for depression and self-doubt. And over the last few years, the Game Awards even had a category honoring games about “important” subjects called “Games for Impact”, which is typically filled with indie or smaller-studio selections centered around mental health and identity.
This hasn’t been sitting particularly well with me, but it wasn’t until playing Chicory recently that I feel like I was able to start to articulate why.
The thing is, Chicory (and many games like it) want to talk about my mental health; here, it’s my depression and my self-esteem issues. The problem is, Chicory doesn’t really want to go there, does it? Behind the pretext of a conversation is something else, something more (perhaps unintentionally) insidious. Chicory, like Celeste, wants to sell me a sort of commodified answer to the conversation. It wants to acknowledge my struggles, and present me with what is sees as affirmation that my struggles are real, and that I matter.
OK, that’s fine. But I don’t believe it. And isn’t that the case for most people suffering from some form of depression? Unfortunately, these games don’t offer much in terms of solutions or even tools, and there’s nothing for your to learn if you don’t want to. You can embrace the pixely glow of the Chicory’s commodified inspiration or not. It’s up to you. Perhaps you might even be made to feel like not buying or not liking the game is even like pitting yourself against the ideal version of you who wants to overcome your problems.
By the way – I’m not saying I need, or even want, a game that can truly help address the mental health of its players. That’s what professional help is for. But professional help is expensive, and hard to find. More than a few indie games want to be recognized for helping their players deal with mental health issues that should be handled by a trained professional. But are these games real psychology, or are they just a new wave of cutesy, millennial and zoomerfied self-help?
I’ve long been a fan of the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series, but it wasn’t until recently that I decided to give the mainline games of the series a try. I picked up IV on the 3DS first, finished it, and moved promptly on to the first game (on iOS) and Nocturne for PS2. Ah, Nocturne. Finally, I’m playing the game that will allow me, once and for all, to shed my “casualness”.
Shin Megami Tensei IV was a fascinating, but flawed, experience. The game has a dark post-apocalyptic atmosphere, with creepy synthesizer music and a misanthropic plot. You take the role of a Samuri from a vaguely Christian Kingdom who, along with a few companions, descends upon the remnants of a demon-infested Tokyo through hidden tunnels (Tokyo being destroyed is a main theme that seems to occur in most mainline SMT games). Along the way, you encounter various demons who you can fight, bribe for money, or coerce into joining your ranks.
The mechanics work, and there’s always an element of strategy and luck to every battle. You don’t have to grind levels in SMT IV, but you do have to pay attention to every fight. Just spamming the “attack” button will get you to the game over screen very quickly.
While SMT IV is a ton of fun, it is a bit lacking in plot and character development. As the game progresses, it becomes clear that your companions aren’t really real people as much as they are paragons of certain ideologies. One of your companions is a privileged richboy who hates demons and represents the “law” side of the spectrum. Another of your companions comes from the poorer classes, and thinks Tokyo’s chaotic landscape isn’t so bad. Often, you’ll have to settle disputes between the two, moving the plot along in a specific direction that culminates (predictably) in a showdown between your party and the ultimate good or evil.
That may not be the most original concept, but SMT IV sure is nuanced about it. Whether you choose to align with angels or demons, the game is quick to remind you that your choice might not necessarily be the right one. At one point in the game, you’re cast into a hell of your own doing, a realm made up of the culmination of your own choices (and, trust me, it’s bad no matter who you choose to side with). There’s also a neutral path you can walk, which is probably the most rewarding but also the trickiest to obtain, though somehow I managed it on my first try (without even using a guide).
As it stands, SMT IV is a flawed gem. It’s not the godsend to JRPGs that Persona 3 was, but in an era where most JRPG games are of the cutesy kiddie variety, it stands alone, boasting a mature narrative and very little BS.
Thoughts on Nocturne will be posted in a few weeks.
This year, I started a number of self-improvement projects. With major events like grad school, finding a job, and getting married out of the way, I found that I once again had time to my various hobbies. I started listening to more music; I began actually recording my own music. I started studying Chinese again, and learned new techniques for playing guitar. I began to pay attention to my diet, and joined a gym. Perhaps more than anything, I caught up on TV shows and finished several video games.
It’s been a pretty good year: not too exciting, but not very boring either. Going into next year, I would like spend a little bit less time in front of the TV, and more time on music and language. I would also like to revive this blog.
Somewhere, the purpose of the Tingle Review was lost. Initially, I saw the Review as a purveyor of how I experience culture. As time went on, however, it diminished to this sparse wasteland of lists. I’m hoping to change that in 2015.
Here are a few books, games, and albums that gave me inspiration that I’ll carry into whatever I do next year:
Book – The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
I’ve read a few of Mitchell’s books in the past. This one wasn’t my favorite, but I still really enjoyed the way this book seamlessly wove several different points of view and unique plots around the common thread provided by the main character. Maybe this has been done before and I have simply never read another book like it. Regardless, I found Mitchell’s style to be refreshing, and clever. Increasingly complex worlds and characters are built in a way that feels completely organic.
Book – Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Unfortunately, I haven’t read many of Murakami’s books. This one was great, though. This book perfectly captures the feeling of being isolated by friends, as well as being vindicated by the discovery of new friends. The loneliness Tazaki experiences is inherent in human relationships, even successful ones.
Music – Casualties of Cool by Casualties of Cool
Devin Townsend really outdid himself with this collaboration. Having delved more into acoustic music and ambient music lately, this album came out of the woodwork and knocked me flat with its genre defying style. I know for sure that Townsend’s empty, ambient folk is going to be a huge influence on any music I make on my own.
Game – Mario Kart 8
If for nothing else, for at least reminding me that games can be simple games and still just as fun as the big-budget interactive movies you see on the other next gen consoles.
While the Video Games generally make a pretty expensive hobby, we are now arriving at an economically-friendly period for for gamers. The next generation is on the horizon, and will be here by the holidays. Meanwhile, the current generation is ending, and its games are dropping in price. Now is a rare time, when you can buy a plethora of games which are both inexpensive and relatively recent.
Over the next few months, I’ll be finding whatever time I can to play catch-up ; not on the big name games everyone knows, but on some of the sleeper titles that may have gone unnoticed, and shouldn’t be missed before the next generation arrives.
1st Recommendation: The Last Story
The Last Story is a pretty interesting game. It falls in beside other Japanese Role Playing Games like Lost Odyssey and Blue Dragon in the category of RPGs that are more “Final Fantasy” than the thirteenth installment of the series — but not necessarily better all the same. In the case of TLS, it’s no secret that the game lacks polish.
Uematsu’s soundtrack is lush, and old-school FF director Sakaguchi throws in the kitchen sink: every FF trope and twist seems represented here, with no regard for avoiding cliches. There’s even some new “gotta have” elements thrown in, like a “first person” mode which both aspires to and lacks relevance in equal proportions.
While the game provides a wealth of ideas and puts the player in a myriad of situations, it also lacks consistency, even in the literal sense. The graphics are detailed, almost too much for the Wii, and most levels and towns look like blurry palates of gray. The framerate is awful, too, and ebbing and flowing at various rates.
That, however, is the worst of it. Combat feels gimmicky at first, but is fun if not a bit extravagant. The story and its characters are also surprisingly engaging, if not on their own merit at least in some nostalgic way. And despite technical hurdles and some editorial fluff, The Last Story is just an all-around heartwarming game for fans of the genre. It succeeds where recent bigger names – Star Ocean, Final Fantasy, etc. – have failed completely, in that, for all its flaws, its story and characters manage to engage the player.
After getting past several shortcomings early on, I found that The Last Story was succeeding at pulling me in. The game was reaching me, in that rare way that only the RPGs of the SNES and PSOne era really do. It might fly over the heads of modern gamers, but TLS is a rarity, and no-doubt a rough gem that shouldn’t be missed by people who appreciate the RPG genre.
You should be able to pick it up for $20-30 dollars. That’s a great price, and you’ll be getting a ton of game for it.
It’s inevitable. Soon, people will be catching the Tolkien bug once again, thanks in no small part to this months’ release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I, of course, have never successfully cured myself of the Tolkien bug, so thankfully I have the advantage of being able to help you slice through the orcish hoard of dreadfully mediocre The Lord of the Rings licensed stuff that’s out there. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be taking a renewed look at some of the Tolkien-based stuff I’ve read, watched, and played over the years. This post will focus on one of my favorite topics: videogames.
While few Tolkien licensed games are particularly good, playing them might help those finished with The Silmarillion and TheLord of the Rings Appendices realize why sometimes enough really is enough. I’ll start with the better games, and from there move into more lackluster titles.
Lego LotR isn’t just one of the best Tolkien games out there; it’s also one of the best Lego games out there. Lego LotR features a charming and playful take on Tolkien’s Middle-Earth that is one part platformer and one part sandbox RPG. While the game is best enjoyed with friends, it is also a quality product, and its faithfulness to the movies and appropriate incorporation of humor should please fans of Tolkien and plain-old fans of Lego games alike. Though on the lighthearted side, the game also makes an attempt to flesh out some areas of Middle-Earth not included in the movies.
Lego The Lord of the Rings is really best played with friends. Most of the quests require a team effort, and some of them even launch the players into split-screen mode where (for example) Gandalf and Saruman must duel while Frodo and the Hobbits make their simultaneous escape from the Shire.
Unlike other most Lego games, LotR doesn’t feature a single hub of free-play activity. Instead, areas can simply be revisited on a world map after their completion, giving the game all the towns and sidequests associate with classic RPG’s.
All in all, Lego LotR is a fun game, with tons of replay value, and deserves a spot on everyone LotR fan’s gaming shelf.
As far as I’m aware, you’ll need to dust off your Gamecube if you want to play the best and only recent videogame adaptation of The Hobbit out there. Videogame Hobbit is fun and faithful to the original, if not a bit glitchy (unfortunately, it also came out before consoles got patching). While faithful to the book, players will encounter the occasional bizarre fetch-quest or plot arc that simply contradicts Tolkien’s timeline (like when you have to rescue enslaved dwarves from under a mountain. However, if you’d dismissed as being like some of the other trilogy-centered games that came out for the last generation of consoles, you did not do it proper justice. Thankfully, more than a few sellers are letting it go on Amazon for pretty reasonable prices.
While Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online is without a doubt the most immersive of all Tolkien games, it is also dangerously perilous and can be mentally and financially draining, much like Frodo’s ring-bearer quest.
For the unfamiliar, The Lord of the Rings Online is a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) designed around Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. LotRo stays faithful to Tolkien lore, but also takes its players to those Middle-Earth locations far beyond the scope of Tolkien’s popular works, like those rarely discussed northern regions once populated by great kings. For those better initiated with MMORPG standard operating procedure, LotRo is basically The Lord of the Rings themed World of Warcraft.
MMORPG fans will be please to know that LotRo isn’t an all-out WoW ripoff. The game does introduce several new elements to the online role playing game realm, like the ability to wear outfits over armor, and a fairly in-depth music system. On high graphics levels, LotR looks great, making it something that can easily compete with most of the MMORPG competition currently on the market. Furthermore, hardcore fans are bound to be pleased by the lore and role playing emphasis found on many of the game servers. On paper, LotRo is a “dream come true” for fans of both LotR and MMORPG’s. In reality, it suffers from two major shortcomings: wavering activity levels, and a frustrating “pay to progress” style formula.
The Lord of the Rings Online hooks players with a generous free-to-play system that, for the first 20-30 levels (around 20-30 hrs of gameplay), seems to be all inclusive. There’s a nice mix of “Epic” storyline quests and side quests, which give the player the illusion of a massive, free-to-play world. The problem is, while the storyline quests never end, the side-quests do, which leaves unsubscribed players with a massive—and empty—world to explore, just as they’ve likely grown addicted to the game and attached to their characters.
In theory, players can continue to grind and complete Epic Quests to advance through LotRo’s storyline. In reality, that is too mundane for even the most ardent MMORPG players, and an alternative path must be taken. Turbine offers players several options: Players can subscribe for $9.99 per month, and open up all content included in the original game before the release of expansions, which will take players to level 55 or so. Players can also pay one-time fees to open new locations permanently. Finally, players can grind out in-game “Turbine Points” to open these locations up without paying cash; the only truly free way of playing the game, and by far the most grueling.
That sounds nice, but there’s a really big problem. Turbine’s The Lord of the Rings Online is an ever-dwindling community that relies on increasingly expensive expansion packages to make profits. So, think of it this way: while $10-20 bucks and lots of free time can get you through 50 percent of the game within a few months, getting to the endgame requires you purchase quest packs and expansions beyond the original game content which can cost much, much more. The latest expansion pack, Riders of Rohan, cost around $50 for its cheapest version, and so far Turbine has only taken us halfway to Mordor. In the long run, who knows what it’s going to cost to get your character to Sauron’s Black Gates?.
Think of it this way: I’d estimate that you can play the first 33 percent of The Lord of the Rings Online for free. You can play the second 33 percent for $10-30 bucks, depending how often you play and how much time you’re willing to put into it. But, the last 33 percent is going to cost you upwards of $100 to finish, and the expansions are only getting more expensive and less expansive as they’re released. You might want to ask yourself from the outset: is it really worth it?
At its early stages, The Lord of the Rings Online is fun and full of life, populated by level 20 freebies who do little outside role playing in Bree’s Prancing Pony. But, from there, LotRo changes into something else; something that reminds me of kids with expensive toys and no-one else to play with. If you’re that kid and love The Lord of the Rings, feel free to buy your own road to Mordor. If you’re not, be prepared to be disappointed when Turbine’s Middle-Earth turns out to be little more than a glorified Facebook game.
The Lord of the Rings: War in the North
Remembergames like Champions of Norath and Baulder’s Gate: Dark Alliance? There were fun games marred by repetitive gameplay and bland story-telling. Well, Snowblind, the creator of those games, is back, and they’ve brought War in the North with them. And surprise! it is a fun game marred by repetitive gameplay and bland story-telling.
Most reviewers scored this game around a 5-6, but I think for Tolkien fans it warrants at least a 7-8. WitN puts you in control of a supplementary fellowship of Man, Elf, and Dwarf as they go on a distraction mission taking out Sauron’s forces in–you guessed it!-the Northern echelon’s of Middle-Earth.
While revering of Tolkien’s work, this game fails to exhibit the necessary imagination and take the necessary creative chances required to truly bring Middle-Earth’s uncharted territories to life. Despite the cool premise, Snowblind’s North is a generic and uninspired land, void of any real LotR magic. Cleaving off goblin heads is fun for awhile, but it does start to get tiresome. So does the story of the game, which uses the same basic formula as the premise for every level. As the player, you’re always looking for someone or something that’s just behind a swarm of enemy cantonments. And, when you beat the level boss and he comes back to life bigger and stronger than ever, the eagles are always there to safe you.
Rinse, wash, repeat. That is War in the North, really.
The Lord of the Rings: Conquest
On the previous generation of gaming consoles, there were a handful of surprisingly good Star Wars games called Battlefront. These games were kinda like third-person shooters, but also a little bit like the Dynasty Warriors series in the sense that they allowed players to take part in epic battles of huge numbers. They were cool because, while they had some issues, they were among the first games bring battles on the massive war scale to consoles.
The Lord of the Rings: Conquest is like Battlefront, only themed around Middle-Earth. Unfortunately, it’s not as good as the Battlefront games.
I’m not sure what the problem is with Conquest, but it’s just not as fun. Part of it, I think, is the emphasis on melee combat: melee was never a strong point of the Battlefront games, but that was OK, since you spent most of your time playing as a rifle-bearing storm trooper or rebel gunner. It was easier to mask lackluster melee combat, because it didn’t happen as much. With Conquest, this isn’t true, and the flaws of melee are put on display.
Another problem is that Battlefront’s mass-scale format just isn’t that impressive on the current generation. Huge, map spanning battles were really cool on the PS2, but they hold no inherent virtue that makes them so on the current generation of consoles. That’s probably why there haven’t really been any battlefront games on the 360 or PS3, and also why Conquest just doesn’t deliver.
Well, that’s it for now. The list is by no means complete, but these selections do represent some of the more recent LotR themed games to have come out. Some of these games are good, while others are bad, but most are mediocre in their own ways. If you really want a good fantasy experience on consoles, you’re best bet is just to play Skyrim. It’s the only great game that brings together Men, Elves, and Orcs out there, really. And the new expansion DLC, Dragonborn, is out today.