2021-Apr-21: The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind -- Might & Magic in a More Actiony Package

This is the 2nd longest post I've written so far. I considered trimming it but you know what? It's fitting for such a massive game.

Morrowind was a game I played as a wee thing and got nowhere. It took forever to get anywhere, it took forever to figure anything out, and the beginning of the game is spattered with frustration and death as your hit rate in combat weaves between 5% and 50% depending on what you're fighting. I typically got far enough to experience Cliff Racers before eventually getting into a situation where I spend 5 minutes missing one with my attacks, barely chew it down with a wisp of health left, take three steps, and get beset by another and die. That's typically when I gave up.

As an adult, having finished some really slow placed games with frustrating bootstrap experiences like the original Might & Magic, Septerra Core, and Inindo, I figured maybe I could get somewhere this time around. I always loved the massive, open world Morrowind promised. I just couldn't play in it because I built wrong, went the wrong places, or wanted to do the wrong things.

This time around I had a short list of grievances I wanted to address, and sought ways to address them before starting off on my adventure. Most of the fixes came in the form of mods that made the game behave more like later TES installments. So yes, I didn't get the true Morrowind experience, but I know that experience. The pain points I sought to fix...

  1. Your base movement speed is glacial for the miles and miles of ground you must traverse in the game.
  2. Starting out, combat is a painful RNG nightmare because of the number of factors that go into chance to hit.
  3. You can't see as much of the amazing world as you should be able to thanks to a claustrophobic view distance.
  4. It's difficult to enjoy the magic system when you need to either constantly rest or chug Magicka potions.

The recipe I concocted to fix these issues, after doing some reading is this: OpenMW with some settings tweaked to push back the fog and load more geometry around me, granting me approximately a quadrupled view distance over vanilla. Then a trio of mods to change numbers without changing any of the actual experience of the game: one to tweak movement speeds, one to provide a small amount of Magicka regeneration, and one to remove hit chance from combat calculations.

Did this fundamentally change the game from the original dev-intended experience? Yes. Did it make it easier? Yes, and far more than I expected it would unfortunately. Do I still feel it was necessary for my enjoyment? Absolutely. If I were to do it again I might instead opt to drop the movement speed and hit-rate mods and instead console hack my Speed to 100 right from the start and my weapon skill to something suitable. I think that'd be less jilting than just throwing out entire combat calculations and setting my movement speed to a flat, higher number.

So that's a thing, but all in all I feel it boosted my experience even if it made things slightly easier than I'd hoped. Gee, that's a lot of preface for this post isn't it? Let me shut up about that and get into the meat of things.

Morrowind was such a big deal when I was a child. It was a huge, beautiful world where the devs bragged that every single object was placed by hand and everything carefully scripted and populated with quests and things to do around every corner. That's.... mostly true, I found. It takes some digging to find that love and care though.

The opening definitely doesn't answer many questions about the plot or setting. You're a prisoner on the mainland, held for some undefined crime, or maybe no crime. Maybe you're a political prisoner. Or maybe you're in protective custody. Who knows? It doesn't matter. I took a soft roleplay approach to my playthrough and decided I was a burglar, spy, and information broker who got wind of the wrong info and tried to sell information on the movement of the Blades. A couple of deft string-pulls later, I'd been framed for a murder. Made it all the more complex when I ended up working for the Blades, but we'll get there shortly.

I went into this with a pretty good idea of what I wanted to be. I'd be a sneak, a vagabond, but not a pickpocket or a killer. I'd be able to go places I wasn't supposed to go and grab things I wasn't supposed to have, but I'd have scruples about taking life especially via dishonorable means like stealth archery or magic, and an aversion to trying to pinch anything directly off a person due to the risk involved. This turned out to work mostly well for my playstyle and the game's limitations. Mostly.

Character creation takes the form of processing as you're released on the coast of Morrowind and left to your own recognizance. You're not really told why, just that the Emperor has pardoned you, and that it is requested you make a delivery to an Imperial agent a town over. The "paperwork" you fill out details your race (which provides your stats, certain skill bonuses and a small creche of abilities you can use natively), five major skills, five minor skills, and a birth-sign (which provides one or two more abilities or stat buffs). That's it, and it's not very well explained what a lot of this even means.

I was able to reverse engineer at least that you leveled Major skills faster and untagged skills slower, and I knew that every level required 10 skill point raises in Major or Minor skills. Also worthy of note is that Morrowind has a soft level scaling in place that adds new foes to the pool of available monsters as you level up. While it's not as dire as Oblivion's scaling system, it does add a small onus to get it right.

Some players advise tagging ten skills you'll never use so you can max your real skills and still be level 1. I find that cheaty. I went with the ten skills I felt would define my rogueish character: Short Blades, Sneak, Security, Acrobatics, Athletics, Light Armor, Speechcraft, Mercantile, Marksmanship (for throwing knives; I was eschewing bows) and Armorer (for sharpening my own blades). For roleplay reasons I rolled this as a Brenton (who is typically known more for magic than thieving). This turned out to be a smart play as it covered weaknesses I wouldn't have covered otherwise, giving me a boost to magic stats and letting me focus on martial ones entirely.

So you're discharged from the Sedya Neen Excise Office and told to eventually drift up to Balmora, about a quarter of the island north of you, and deliver some papers to an Imperial agent therein. You don't have to, and in fact probably should not for some time. Sedya Neen has a few quests right off the bat to ease you into the game and, if you're not modding like me, you'd find the area around Balmora to be quite arduous without some points in a weapon skill under your belt.

Despite being a hole in the wall with about eight buildings, Sedya Neen does well to establish the opening game loop. Every NPC is carefully designed and has things to say about each other, there's a few jobs to be had to get you rolling, and a few things to just stumble onto in the swamps immediately outside town. It starts off this sense of wonder that ends quickly and leaves you venturing forth to find more. Sedya Neen also sits isolated in the interconnected mesh of quests and stories; a unique thing in a world that doesn't hesitate to send to wandering to and fro. The only link elsewhere is the request from the Excise Office to head to Balmora... eventually.

Sedya Neen is positioned on more or less the direct southwest tip of Morrowind. It has the easiest foes and quests and from there, as you move north and east, things get harder. Balmora's a jaunt to the north but closer still are Hla Oad to the north west and Vivec to the east. If you don't want to roll straight into the plot yet you can go wandering and likely accidentally find these. Hla Oad is a hole in the wall fishing village much like Sedya Neen but Vivec... Vivec is a problem.

Vivec is more or less the capital city of Morrowind. It consists of nine massive arcology-like buildings sitting over the ocean, with bridges between them. Each building is a pyramid with four levels and each base level is as big as Sedya Neen itself. When moving at start-of-game speed it can literally take fifteen minutes to walk from one side of Vivec to the other. Nevermind every canton (as they call each building) looks identical and it's almost impossible to find your way the first time. I dislike Vivec strongly, which is a shame because practically every major quest arc sends you there eventually. It's just that big and central to everything. Still, Vivec is a good place to go to get a ton of quests and get involved in guilds.

A side-note here: I played Elder Scrolls Online somewhat recently. I 100%ed the Vvardenfell DLC (Where Morrowind is). Vivec in ESO is a million times more competently arranged and structured, and also lively. Vivec of Morrowind, being an indoor city, has these giant cantons you wander around to look for your door, and the outside is complete desolate and without life. It's so drab and boring compared to the Vivec of ESO. But I digress.

Once you've set forth from Sedya Neen you can do literally everything in the game before starting the main plot. There's dozens of quest arcs to go find, guilds to join, great houses to join and rise in the ranks within, dungeons to just explore of your own accord (though delving in some of them can break future quests-- most of the time the game's good about that however). You can wander in a random direction and just find something to do. However the best approach may be a measured one where you at least see what's on your plate with the main plot.

Balmora is a proper city; not as big and empty as Vivec, not a hole in the wall like Sedya Neen. It's big enough to get confused and lost but not big enough to get bored walking across it. Your contact is in the far corner of the city, and on the way you pass several guilds, the Hlaalu great house chambers, some interestingly named businesses with NPCs inside that can start quests. You might not make it there before you get distracted and that's okay.

When you do make it, however, the main plot quest chain feels like a normal guild quest arc at first. Your contact is a member of the Blades who has a particular interest in the prophecies of the natives of the island. He recruits you as a Novice of the Blades and sends you to gather some information on the prophecies, all the while refusing to tell you anything about why you were sent to Morrowind to report to him. This opening salvo of plot quests seems to be structured more to force you to learn how the various fast travel systems work and take you to some far flung towns to get them on your map and possibly pick up some quests to send you exploring in some new locales.

If you didn't take fast travel from Sedya Neen or Vivec to Balmora, you'll definitely have to learn about it here. The walk to Balmora isn't bad. The walk to some of the places you get sent in the first plot quests, first guild quests for the guilds in Balmora, and house quests is grueling even with my modded experience. Vanilla you just wouldn't make it, especially if you dove right in and are still level 1-3.

After each quest, your contact recommends you go "Reinforce your cover story", which is code for "Go do some other stuff, numpty!". It's good advice. If there's side content you want to do, the best time to do it is "now". That holds true the entire game with one exception I'll get into shortly.

Eventually, after five or six quests of this, your Blades contact will tell you why you're on Morrowind: The Emperor believes you are the person of prophecy who will save Morrowind from the evils that are currently befalling it. Evils like a plague and a cult to Dagoth Ur: a more or less evil god who is promising to rid Morrowind of outsiders. Outsiders like the Imperial agents; so it benefits the empire if you can do what the prophecy claims. Once you're told that, the main story has truly started.

From there you're sent to every major governmental body on the island to try to get them to recognize you as the person of prophecy. There's seven: three great houses and four native "Ashlander" tribes. Each one sends you on a series of errands, and this segment of the game makes up a good half or more of the main plot. Inconveniently, during this time you're also rather unpopular with practically everyone who hasn't allied with you. Guilds and houses won't do business with you or give you quests, the people of Vivec will outright hate you. It's rather inconvenient for doing side content. Fortunately you get a big fat warning before you start this part of the quest and can pause it indefinitely if you want to play around some.

It's a cool segment though. As you move from group to group, you learn quite a bit about the political tensions on Morrowind and how the people think and act and operate. House Hlaalu is relatively easy to get behind you... if you have the gold to bribe the right people. House Redoran requires you to prove yourself with acts of valor. House Telvanni requires you to just kill any council member who won't back you. One Ashlander tribe is in a state of internal conflict and you have to help the peace-loving side win, another is nomadic and wants to settle down in a region so you must go make it safe for them. They have their own agendas and goals, and hence their own requirements to recognize you.

The purpose of all this? Once you've unified the literal entire island behind you, Lord Vivec, the god-protector of Vivec City, will summon you and reveal to you a way to defeat Dagoth Ur. That's it. All of this is to get Vivec's attention. More amusingly, I believe if you know the plan already you can just go enact it without Vivec's help (though he gives you an artifact that makes it much, much easier). The plan is to gather two legendary weapons and destroy Dagoth Ur's source of power in the volcano in the middle of the island.

Getting the weapons just involves going into two shrines in the middle of the island and finding them. One's just sitting on an altar of sorts within, the other is being carried by probably one of the stronger foes in the game. With both in hand you can move to the dead center of the island, enter Dagoth Ur's shrine, and destroy his source of power to kill him. For all the work you had to do to get Vivec to tell you the plan, executing it is about ten minutes of walking and three ten minute dungeons. Once you talk to Vivec, you're 95% done with the game. Vivec also lifts the pall of distrust between you and literally everyone that appeared when you started the prophecy quests, so if you're one of those people who wants to finish everything before beating the game, that's a good time to do it.

Shockingly, you don't get any credits or anything. You get a cutscene of Azura thanking you and telling you you are now free to do whatever you want, without the sword of Damocles of prophecy over you. That's it. You just walk out of the shrine and back to the game world as if you finished a normal quest. The main plot was never the main focus in an Elder Scrolls game, after all. From what I read, nothing really changes except some classes of diseased enemies disappear, certain weather patterns stop, and certain events that provided no plot value or open any doors can no longer happen (like being ambushed in your sleep by demons).

I ran back to chill with Lord Vivec and see what he had to say about Dagoth Ur being killed. Apparently as a result of smashing the MacGuffin, all the deities on Morrowind were rendered mortal. Vivec was amused at this more than distraught, being one himself.

Like Might & Magic, the plot isn't a lot. You do a lot of errands to get info and ingratiate yourself with the Ashlanders, assault a Dagoth Ur cult base, contract a disease, cure it, then prove yourself to be Fantasy Jesus to a bunch of tribes and houses before going to kill Dagoth Ur. However like Might & Magic, the point isn't the plot but the journey through it, and that journey is dotted with distractions and diversions aplenty.

Something of note is the concept of "Essential" NPCs. In Morrowind you can kill anyone (provided you have the numbers). No NPC is protected, there is no plot armor. You can even pick the lock on the door to Lord Vivec's chambers, stab him, and take his artifact for yourself. In fact, this is a developer intended "back door" if you accidentally render the main plot unfinishable by doing something silly like killing Caius or, more likely, some NPC you're not even aware is essential to the plot until it's too late. Here's how it works:

The entire plot up until meeting Vivec is intended to get you into Vivec's study so you can be told the plan and given Wrathguard, an artifact that'll let you wield the legendary weapons. If you kill a critical NPC and sever the plot thread that gets you here, you can still get in there by picking the lock. You just need a lot of Security skill or a very strong opening spell. Once inside, Vivec is there, but he won't tell you the plan or give you Wrathguard. What you have to do is pickpocket Wrathguard from him or kill him, and the plan is written in a book at the back of the study so you can see what to do even without being directly told. However you can't use Wrathguard without his instruction.

Instead you have to find an NPC that can attune you to the artifact, at the cost of a massive amount of maximum health. This is a black diamond route that you need to reach level 30 or so to even attempt (I finished the game at 24), but it's there if you screw up. If you manage to kill the one NPC that can attune you to Wrathguard? Well then you're probably boned. I heard you can technically wield the weapons without Wrathguard but it causes a ton of damage per second so it's doubtful you'd survive. Maybe in a speedrun.

I found it neat that the devs put in an emergency hatch for if you screw up, kill a critical NPC, and then don't realize it and save. The game flat out tells you, mind, but maybe you're playing Ironman mode or something. Come to think of it, that sounds kind of fun.

So as for my Brenton Vagabond, aside from becoming the hero of prophecy and saving the world, she also got rather involved in the Thieves Guild, stole a whole lot of stuff, and became the Grandmaster of House Hlaalu. The house quests seemed a bit lopsided, really. I'd gone in with the plan to join House Telvanni, but as it turns out you have skill requirements to progress even within the houses, and I didn't have the right kit for it. A shame, I felt my character wasn't cut out for Hlaalu and their Imperial-loyalist politics. Really, Hlaalu seems to be pushed kind of hard just like joining the Blades is (in fact, joining the Blades is mandatory if you don't backdoor the storyline).

The house stories tend to be about infighting and internal politics. A lot of bribery, cloak and dagger stuff. Most of Hlaalu in the path I took was about rooting out corruption in the employ of a lecherous but honorable councilman. It was actually rather easy to rise to the rank of Grandmaster; far easier than the guild quests and main arc. I think I only engaged in a total of nine or ten House Hlaalu quests to get there. I wouldn't have joined any house, but they're how you get player housing. Granted you can just move in to someone else's house, but that introduces other complications like flagging anything you store in there as stolen.

As for Hlaalu being oversold: their seat of power is Balmora, where you put down roots to start the game 95% of the time, their required skills fit pretty well with any martial character while Telvanni requires specific type of magery and Redoran requires knight trope characters, and their plot threads intersect the main plot more often than the others due to their Imperial loyalty. I feel their presentation is a bit lopsided vs the others.

Hlaalu is one of the few times I felt railroaded by the game. Notable others are being forced to kill a Telvanni councilman who refused to support my recognition as the hero of prophecy and there seemingly just being no other option, and being unable to choose to support House Dagoth despite there being hints that maybe you could. All in all I'll take three or four examples of plot fiat forcing my hand through an entire forty hour game.

Other complaints, aside from what I modded to fix? Cliff Racers. Cliff Racers are the blight of Morrowind for certain; so much so that future TES games make reference to a legendary hero who rid Vvardenfell of them in a tongue-in-cheek nod to their overabundance. The overworld has a pretty narrow band of foes to fight as it is, maybe a dozen different types of enemy over most generic biomes in the world and Cliff Racers hold the distinction of being able to fly over obstacles to get to you. As a result they appear far more frequently than is acceptable in some places. As I was heading up to the Dagoth shrine to end the game, I managed to assemble a pack of a dozen of them following me at once.

Stealth is also really jank. Your sneak skill is checked about once a second when sneaking, and one failed sneak will make NPCs notice you. If they're aggressive they'll attack and you can't go back into stealth. If they're not, they'll notice you for awhile then forget about you. Regardless though the failure chance is really high for "One failure means you're under attack". You need magic to supplement your stealth to make it effective, stretching your points even thinner than they would be without.

Finally the leveling system is pretty unintuitive. I explained it a bit above: ten skill points is a level, but in addition you gain stats based on what skills you raise. Every stat can offer you anywhere from +1 to +5 and you can pick three offerings to take each level. These offerings are based on the governing stats of the skills you raise. You need ten points in a stat for +5. That means if you want three +5s in each level, you actually need to gain 30 skill points: 10 in tagged skills to get the level and 20 in untagged skills of the attributes you want. It's kind of tedious and led to me spending a ton of cash on skills I'd never use to guarantee +5s.

That's really about it. It was a very solid experience from beginning to end with a few notable bumps. After Morrowind I'm tempted to roll straight into Oblivion, but I need to do a lot of research into how to mod out its level scaling. I hear that one's a real problem and I have absolutely no qualms about fixing it myself.

2021-Feb-16: Atelier Marie & Atelier Elie or "Makin' Stuff: The Games"

For the most part, when a series has been around since the 90s, it's pretty genre-defining. Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest are the essential RPGs, FIFA and Madden are their essential sports titles, Street Fighter is the essential fighting game. So it's pretty wild to come across a series that's spanned 25 years and find it feel so off-beat and unusual as I did with the Atelier series.

To be clear I haven't experienced the series much yet. I was aware Atelier Iris existed mainly because a song from its soundtrack was in an old DDR simfile pack I had when I was a kid. That's the extent of it until a friend started playing Atelier Ryza and was streaming it in a small friends only stream for a couple of weeks. I checked it out, it looked neat, I wanted to know more. So I did what I usually do in those situations and go straight to the first installment: Atelier Marie.

Going to the first installment was tricky, though. The early games in the Atelier series weren't localized and the series as a whole doesn't seem to be a very popular target for fan-translators. That said, one version of Atelier Marie did get the translation treatment: the Playstation 2 re-release that comes bundled with its sequel. Perfect, actually. So I grabbed that.

If you're not aware, an atelier (ah-tell-ee-ey, it's French) is an artist's studio. Specifically it's a wide open studio designed for teaching and apprenticeship. Technically the term is limited to visual arts but has been co-opted in fantasy stories to mean a wizardry or alchemy lab, as we have here. The series focuses on alchemists whose main goal and the game's main course of progression is to simply make stuff. The purpose and specific methods of doing so change from game to game, but the game loop focuses heavily on the game's crafting system.

25 years in, Atelier Ryza has deep meaningful crafting and a robust combat system for fighting things while collecting materials but back in 1997 with Atelier Marie, things were really simplistic. You have a menu-based town to interact with people in, a lab to walk around in and interact with things to make stuff, and places to select from a menu to visit to collect materials and fight monsters. That's it. To make up for the lack of interactive depth, Atelier Marie provides an almost visual novel style series of events and choices to let you further the plot in different ways, unlocking different items you can create.

The simplistic version of the game loop is to make items that you can combine into better items, that you can combine into better items, so on and so forth. Along the line you do requests to make cash to pay your expenses, go out to gather materials, fight monsters as an incidental point to get stronger, and raise your relationship scores with NPCs so they trust you with their problems-- which prompts you to research how to solve them in the Academy library, hence learning new recipes. Plot progression comes from solving people's problems by making stuff, though the plot isn't even really required to finish the game.

The game tracks the date and assigns time requirements to everything. Going out to gather materials can take anywhere from the one day to multiple weeks. Creating materials takes time, increasing with the complexity of the item (up to a month for a single item!). All these little time committments add up and the five years you have can zoom by pretty quick. More pressing though are scheduled events that occur with or without you. Every year the Academy has final exams; you can just miss them if you're out in a forest or busy crafting when they roll around. That's just one example.

So really Atelier Marie is something like a crafting system bolted onto Persona's social system. It's more forgiving than Persona but if you want to do everything you're going to need to keep your eye out for signs plastered around town warning of upcoming events and keep your ear open for NPC chatter informing you of what's going on around town. Asking for rumors and gossip and talking to NPCs is the main method you have of revealing new places to go to gather materials, so making a ritual of going out to talk to people every so often is mandatory.

All of this is just supporting scaffolding for the meat of the game though: the item crafting system. Within your atelier is a giant caldron you can interact with to begin crafting. You craft things by smashing other items together. At the start of the game you can only create three items: Red, Green, and Blue Neutralizers which serve as base ingredients for almost every other item in the game. These are made from the most basic of gathered resources you get from the local forest, lake, and mountain.

Every item requires a certain amount of time to create and a certain alchemy level to have a 100% chance to succeed. Below that, you begin dipping into failure chance, which will just cause a small explosion and consume your materials for no gain. If you succeed, you get the item and some alchemy experience. Most items created this way turn around and become reagents in yet another item, forming a complex tree that eventually ends at the end-game major items. Each tier up this tree you go, the items have a higher item level. You can roughly equate item level to how many layers of creation you have to do to get that item. The highest is eight.

In addition to items being reagents in other items, a lot of items can be consumed for healing, MP recovery, status removal, used as attack items in battle, sold to the shop for a small gold profit, turned in at the bar for requests, or given to NPCs who need specific items for plot events. So it's not just a tree of items turning to other items.

A large chunk of the game, in addition to doing plot events to unlock new recipes, is figuring out where to get items needed in those recipes. While some of them are obvious ("Hebel Lake Water" when there exists an area called "Hebel Lake") others are not. You can frequently get recipes involving items you've never seen before, and then have to figure out if those are created from a different recipe or simply gathered somewhere you haven't been yet. Or, in the most extreme cases, gathered under extremely specific circumstances.

All of this weaves together toward the idea of earning an ending at the end of the game's five year plot. There's something like eight possible endings arranged in a hierarchy with requirements for each. You get the highest ending you meet all the requirements for. For the most part these endings require creating an item of a specific tier level, reaching a certain alchemy level, and then a smattering of various plot and NPC relationship requirements. The best ending requires making one of almost every item in the game, including the famed Philosopher Stone at the very top of a complicated dependency tree, as well as saving your best friend from a disease by creating a panacea. Even getting the "Your friend is sick" event requires being in your atelier at a specific time to receive the event interaction; I missed it in my first playthrough.

If you just want a game that's a crafting system and a plot this is it, albeit incredibly basic. I can only really ding it for two things. First, some of the events and item gather requirements are ludicrous. When you're going out to gather materials for 3 weeks at a time, it can be real easy to miss an event and halting your plot progress. Additionally, some of the item requirements are silly, like going to a specific location on one specific day. The second complaint is it is so bare bones. Combat is almost an annoyance to gate access to things behind having the cash to hire strong NPCs, or being strong yourself. Crafting is simple despite that being the core mechanic of the game.

But it's a first pass. It did really well for breaking new ground.

On the same re-relase is Atelier Elie: Marie's sequel. It's much the same. Same engine, same crafting, same town, same NPCs largely, same plot hooks. It starts out more as a continuation of Marie than its own game, but begins to diverge a bit as it gets rolling.

First, Elie has twice as many items as Marie: 200 to Marie's 100. This is pretty necessary as Marie ran into the problem of having to create the same items a lot to progress. Second, you have one fewer year in Elie, though doing extremely well gives you a post-game with two additional years. Third, once you begin establishing yourself in the plot-gather-craft game loop, the headmaster of the Academy shows up and begins teaching you new alchemy techniques; specifically Blend Synthesis and Original Synthesis.

Blend Synthesis is like normal crafting but you can tweak the ratios in the recipe to try to squeeze higher quality out of an item. Quality is a new mechanic that assigns a grade to each item you create. Some items cap out below the A+ or S grade and require blending to push it higher. Quality makes items give you more reputation points when turned in as a request, and impacts their effectiveness if used for healing or in battle. Ultimately it's not super important unless you're using an item for a plot event.

Original Synthesis is where the game suddenly spirals out into factorials. This allows you to just throw materials in a pot and see what comes out. Any materials, any ratio. Most mixes will fail, but a select few will produce new items either early or exclusively. If you know the recipe for an item you can just make it, even items you learn from books later in the game. If you remember recipes from Atelier Marie, most of them even still work! Several items can only be created this way. Fortunately none of them are required for a good ending assuming you get all the recipe unlocks otherwise.

The last change from Atelier Marie is an entire second segment of the world. Through a convoluted series of NPC interactions, you can learn of a caravan that runs back and forth from your kingdom and its familiar gathering zones to a region far to the west which has its own locations, exclusive materials, a superboss, and the key to the best ending in the form of an NPC you must befriend. This entire area is very easy to miss because learning of its existence requires befriending an NPC in town that only shows up once a week. If you miss it, you lose access to about a dozen materials that are required for a ton of crafts.

Visiting this western frontier will eat a month, easily. So really you should only go when well-prepared, get as much out of it as you can, and come back when you have enough stuff to do everything you need. Sadly every time you gather materials, you have to pay to ship them back to your atelier, so it gets pricey in a hurry.

Oh and your caravan gets attacked multiple times each trip, and the fights aren't trivial. If you haven't been fighting stuff to beef up your party, you won't make it.

Vexingly it's this western frontier that's the location of Atelier Elie's one "Strategy Guide" item. As in you likely need a strategy guide to find it. Atelier Marie's was a flower you could only pick on June 18th of each year, by going to the first gathering location in the game. I at least saw no hints of this. Atelier Elie's is a fruit that can only be picked between the 10th of Stepember and the end of the month, and it's a month away on the western shore. Fortunately in Elie's case the item is needed for one trivial synthesis.

But yeah, these games both resist 100% completion oddly.

Base completion of these games is really in the eye of the beholder. I largely considered a playthrough complete if I created the Philosopher Stone in that playthrough. I think that's a fair yardstick for completion. Just learning how to create it seems to require either a really high alchemy level, or doing one of the game's major plot events. I'm unsure which. I did that in both, though I can only say for sure I got the best ending in Elie.

There's definitely a line between good and bad endings. For these two games that line falls largely at "Did you pass your Academy classes?" but even the bad endings have their value. Outside of the flat "you did nothing at all so you fail outright" endings that require deliberate effort to get, the protagonist of each game turns out pretty alright regardless of the ending. There's no real "losing" in Atelier Marie or Elie; there's just not getting the ending you wanted, or not accomplishing what you wanted with the time you have.

There's a third game in this trilogy, but it's been untouched by localization as of yet. I couldn't imagine trying to play one of these in Japanese. Reading is 99% of it. After that there's a gap until Atelier Iris, which is the first game to be officially localized. After that they all have North America releases.

Two games back to back of Atelier is enough for now though. I'll look at Atelier Iris at some point soon, but not too soon.

2021-Feb-11: Labyrinth of Refrain: The Best Game I Recommend You Never Play

It's been like 8 months since I wrote about anything. The tail end of 2020 was a drag, as I think it was for us all. I've been plugging away at small game projects but nothing really stood out as "I have to write about this!". Well, nothing did until today.

Last night I finished Labyrinth of Refrain: Coven of Dusk. I did more than finish, really. I 100%ed the game. The true end, post-game, all the Apprentice Notes, 100%ed every map. I did it all. It was a lot, and it left me feeling very, very conflicted on its qualities as a game. Ultimately in my giant list of beaten games I gave it a 4 out of 5, but it's a 4 with a very, very big asterisk.

Refrain introduces some interesting mechanics that shake up the standard dungeon crawler experience. First it boasts party sizes of up to 40 and while that's technically true, it doesn't feel like it. You create characters from one of 8 classes, and then assemble them into Covens of up to 8 characters. Only three are in the actual battle, the other five are support characters that contribute some of their skills to the Coven and some additional bonuses dictated by their slot. What each slot does is dictated by which Pact you use to form that Coven. It's all very detailed at the surface.

Once in battle a Coven acts as a unit. If you order a Coven to basic attack, all three members of that Coven will attack. You can also order a Coven to use Donum, which is effectively magic. Donum uses the entire Coven to cast a spell; which Donum you have access to is dictated entirely by the Pact you chose, but its power is dictated by the sum (or perhaps average) of the Donum Power stats of the three main members of that Coven.

So while you can have 40 members of a party (5 Covens, 8 members each), it's more like you have five characters built from quarks of a character, and each quark has its own class and stats. However since you can swap Pacts at any time, this means you have pretty massive party flexibility for any given situation. The best approach honestly is to just build at least three of every class so you can tag in and out the right characters for the right Pacts. That's what I did.

The next interesting mechanic is the ability to see enemies in the dungeon. This is fairly rare outside of FOEs in the Etrian series. Once you get a special ability early in Refrain, though, you can see not just dangerous boss-tier enemies but all enemies wandering the dungeon. They appear as floating black orbs with an eye color determining if they're a normal enemy or an FOE-tier enemy. They chase you when they see you, and can be attacked from behind to enter battle with an advantage; though in Refrain you don't get a strike first. Instead, enemies get a chance to be inflicted with a short-lived stun; some enemies are immune to this so back attacking is far less useful than it is in most JRPGs.

Third, the game is packed full of little QoL mechanics you'd expect from an NIS grind game: movement through the dungeon is extremely fast. Returning to town is extremely fast via a town portal skill you get early in the game and can access at any time. Battles can be sped up immensely by holding B, and auto-battle is fairly robust and easy to invoke for fast grind fights. This turns out to be important considering Refrain has an extremely high rate of encounters, even though you can see them on the map. Most of the dungeons are rooms joined by one tile hallways, where enemies like to roam.

Finally, and where things start to go south, is the gore system. In short, every attack has a chance to dismember the target, causing a stat loss that must be healed at camp. The chance starts fairly small but rises based on your character's karma (which is largely random since killing certain foes raises it and it can't be lowered except in base), level difference, and character's luck. So the factors behind it are very difficult to control. A gore hit can destroy a party member's arms, legs, torso, or head. A limb being lost reduces either speed or attack and max HP by 25%, a body shot drops max HP by 50% and likely tanks defense too, a head gore reduces character max HP by 100%; they die and cannot be revived until repaired.

I would be much happier if the gore system simply did not exist. It's there mainly to punish the player for ignoring luck, ignoring karma (which you can't really control much anyway), or having a high level disadvantage. But this is an NIS game with a rebirth system so running around with a low level but god-tier stats is the norm, so I'm confused about that point. How it usually manifests, then, is immediately having to go back to base and spend money to recover from a gore when one "just happens" at random. More vexing is when you get gored by an attack that does almost no damage. Like how did that even happen?

The gore system gets deliberately exploited by several fights where the enemy will spam full party AOEs (which take FOREVER to resolve since you have 15 party members on the field) with high chances to gore. A good example is an encounter mold in the Necropolis that is five extremely fast enemies that typically go first and all spam full party AOEs that do pitiful damage but will more often than not leave someone gored. The unfortunate thing is they chose to use this specific mechanic on the "Metal slime" enemies of the game too.

Outside of these mechanics, the game is largely a bog standard dungeon crawler. You dive into the dungeon, explore, gather experience and loot, and hunt for the next plot progression point. Then rinse and repeat. Your ability to stay in the dungeon is limited by a combination of likelihood of being gored sending you back, your "Reinforcement" score which is a resource you can use to activate map abilities, and your Mana. Mana is a resource you spend in base for upgrades that you gather from combat and nodes in the dungeon. As it increases your drop chance for loot increases too. However if you reach a mana limit, which is calibrated for the dungeon floor you're on, the game summons a super boss that will more than likely destroy you.

The game is absolutely huge too. Its total dungeon footprint is 32x32x56. It's far bigger than any dungeon crawler I've played. For comparison: Double Dungeons, the TG-16 dungeon crawler I typically hold as a standard for "Needlessly huge dungeon", has a total footprint of about 30,000 tiles. Refrain has 57,000. Unlike Double Dungeons though, Refrain remains varied and fresh the whole way through by having nine stratums, different regions on each floor with different foes, different aesthetics even within the same stratum. I didn't get bored of the dungeon due to its size.

So my only complaint so far is the gore system. Why would I say Refrain is polarizing? Mostly the plot and aesthetics.

Without going into too much, the game as a whole seems to be designed to shock, appall, or turn off the player. This isn't unique within the NIS library, but it's done with a certain panache in Refrain. The main plot more or less opens with child abuse, sexual assault, and grisly, brutal murder. Homosexuality is a common plot point in the game: from one side as a plot onus of love and dedication but from the other as a cheap problematic jab. The stories of some of the more evil characters in the game weave through gay panic, ableism, incest, hedonistic sadism, fetishistic materials, trans/queerphobia... it's all over the place.

The enemies too are all over the place. While most of the foes are your basic JRPG fare like slimes, evil vegetables, trolls, and giant monsters, the game sometimes just decides to throw at you a severed bloody head vomiting black tar, or a literal crap monster. Not to mention the demon mini-boss in a tiny bikini that you can negotiate with to not fight, but in the course of the discussion will reveal they're actually a man as if it were a cheap casual joke or someone's fetish. It rings real hollow within its context.

The plot is not fun. That's the point I'm getting at here. And when the plot gets dark, so too does its general game aesthetic. It's not an experience for someone looking for a happy time. It's a shame too because if you get to the point where all of this garbage starts to be explained, the writing is actually really good. Just... eesh?

Like any NIS game, the final boss isn't the end. If you just roll through the game without looking around once in awhile, you'll miss things. The big missable is the six super bosses needed to reach the post-game and the true ending. These are, as you'd expect, a sharp increase in difficulty from the main experience. While I more or less steamrolled the main game, the super bosses and post-game had me scrambling to turn the difficulty down. I wasn't here for a blisteringly hard experience, after all. I was here to see if the plot actually resolves in a way that doesn't suck.

In truth? I wholeheartedly recommend playing the main game on normal and once you down the final boss and get the neutral end, turning it down to easy for the rest.

The normal end of Refrain is bittersweet; spoilers incoming. You stop the awful bad terrible thing that's going to destroy the world, but you lose the protagonist. I found myself shocked I actually cared because she begins the game as a very, very bad person. But as her reasons for doing what she does are revealed, and she learns about herself, she comes around. By the end I was rooting for her. On top of that, the POV character (a possessed book, I kid you not) disappears, having fulfilled its mission and saved the world. Nah, that end didn't sit well with me. So I did the good ending.

Sadly the good end is largely identical with one change: instead of your book-self disappearing, it's sent into the future where it's revealed one of the plot characters sent it back to the past to try to stop the chain of events that destroyed the world. It worked, but Refrain subscribes to the "divergent timelines" model of temporal mechanics. So in the timeline you left from, the world is still in ruins. So now that you saved one timeline, you have to save your own after all, from a much stronger foe.

The post-game is largely material recycle, but that's okay for a dungeon crawler in my opinion. You move through eight dungeon floors, each one themed after a stratum from the main game. Then after that you fight the final boss from the main game, but in very different form. As one would expect from an NIS game, this fight is a marked increase in difficulty from anything else in the game. It left me grinding to rebirth my entire team twice before I felt ready to tackle it.

Honestly it's not just a marked increase in difficulty. I'd call it kind of BS. This boss has a static attack pattern:

That's it. But it starts with a full party instant kill and status spam... in a DPS race. Rubbish. I ended up reloading until I got a slot machine result I could work with; there's nothing else to do. Some people recommend trying to hit the boss with your own status effects, but they're so unreliable in Refrain. Even hard stuns and silences only have a chance of preventing actions. Truthfully the best call is to build a glass cannon DPS team and grind until it can either nuke the boss before turn 8, or tank the AOE. On easy mode it doesn't take that long, presuming you found the one source of 5 "metal slime" type enemies in the game.

The reward for this? Not much. You stop the big bad in the ruined timeline too, but only the witch who created you survived. She's the only person left in the entire world. That's it. That's the true ending. Ugh. That didn't feel worthwhile in the moment. And of course no, you don't get the protagonist back.

So it's not much of a happy ending. There's hope at least. There's some handwavium about the surviving witch being pregnant but wow that raises some questions I'd rather not have answered. The plot has some good points along the way; it was enough to keep me hooked despite the painful gotcha-style gameplay. I was hoping for more payoff though. I don't know how... I guess I was hoping somehow the protagonist from the start would survive.

Refrain, in general... I'd describe it as such: it's the best game I ever played that I turned around and recommended no one else ever play. That sums it up nicely. I enjoyed the mapping, I enjoyed the combat (when I wasn't getting gored). The post-game wasn't worth it. The plot payoff was disappointing. The hard parts were hard because of BS mechanics and not strategic difficulty. The plot is, to overuse a loaded term, problematic as hell. It randomly throws jabs at marginalized groups that don't sit well with me. It sexualizes practically every female cast member in a gross way that only NIS can do (and you can't convince me some of them aren't kids, seriously). It's... a lot.

I'm glad it's over, honestly. I hear there's a sequel coming soon. I don't think I'll be playing it.

2020-Jul-09: Fate in a Nutshell

Another long one spanning an entire series. I should break these up more.

When I was a little kid, WildTangent was a thing. Though they're little more than a game storefront owned by some skeevy megacorp now, back in the early 2000s WildTangent sought to compete with Shockwave with the WildTangent Web Driver. This was a rough first shot at the sort of thing that'd eventually become Unity: a plugin and dev platform that'd allow games to be played in native desktop format as well as within a web browser.

WildTangent developed a few first party titles for their little plugin, providing both web based and desktop variants of some of their software. Most of what they put out was meh. The least meh of them was probably the Fate series: a set of Diablolikes that heavily took notes from the original Diablo and, only much later, Diablo II. At the time these games came out, I didn't have a PC that could run them, but they got my attention. Over time the WildTangent Web Driver fell out of favor and the Fate games were forgotten. At least until the games showed up on Steam.

I decided to go back and give them a shot, since I'd wanted to so badly as a wee little thing.

Fate (2005)

Despite being developed four years after Diablo II, Fate is more or less a re-imagining of the original Diablo. You have a town, a single monolithic dungeon sprawling ever downward, and a series of quests that take you deeper and deeper until you reach the big bad for a final showdown. What sets Fate apart from Diablo, aside from the more colorful and cartoony atmosphere, is that everything in the game is procedurally generated.

The one sprawling dungeon is extremely Diablo in design. It feels like one coherent building's cellar that turns into a cavern that turns into fifteen other things as you progress downward. The entire game takes place in this one massive chasm, aside from your trips to town to re-stock. Unlike Diablo's dungeon though, this one weaves between tilesets almost entirely at random. There's no coherent flow from cellar to caves to hell.

There's no plot aside from "You are a young adventurer out to prove yourself". Your journey's goal is decided at random by the game picking a normal enemy, souping it up in both model size and stats, giving it a posse of boss-tier allies, placing it on a random dungeon floor between 40 and 50, and telling you to go get it. Where Diablo carefully revealed more of the plight of Tristram via the dialogues you had during quests, Fate randomly generates the quests too. Really, once you start the game, there's no reason not to delve down as fast as you can to defeat your white whale of a boss monster.

To actually get strong enough to do that, you'll likely need to quest though. Powering up in Fate consists of the genre-typical experience and randomly generated gear, but also Fame. Fame is a second experience bar, only increased by defeating bosses or finishing quests. As you gain Fame levels, you get skill points, but also higher tiers of gear just require certain Fame tiers; so it's important!

The questing system has some issues though. Townspeople randomly have quests for you, up to five per town trip. When you accept a quest, the appropriate target is generated, so quests can only be taken for levels below the lowest one you've generated (by entering). This means you're ever being pushed downward, ready or not. On higher difficulties, the maximum of three quests per floor is not enough to keep you up with the level curve, so careful adventuring or clever manipulation of the system is required. Furthermore, if you want three quests for a specific floor, be prepared to pop in and out of town 2 or 3 times to get them. It's pretty tedious.

If you find you delved too deep, you can pull this downward push back a bit by backing up to a higher floor, casting Town Portal to reset where your portal is, and restarting the game. Fate will "forget" about the dungeon floors below your portal and let you re-take quests on the intervening floors. This is real tedious to actually do, though. Since enemies that are slain do not respawn, this is your only recourse if you get stuck.

Quests only have a few categories: kill a rare monster, find a dropped item, or kill a pack of normal foes. That's about it. No depth here! Still, this makes for a good tight cycle of "Get quest, go to dungeon, do quest, turn in" that will naturally carry you down through the entire game with no real diversion.

Levels reward you with stat points that are pretty much a copy of Diablo and provide you a Strength, Dexterity, Vitality, and Magic stat boost. Additionally you get skill points, but these don't go into a skill tree like you'd expect from Diablo II. Instead these points go into a Wasteland or Fallout style skill system that allows you to customize a character by making them proficient in specific weapon types, magic types, make them a dual wielder, or proficient with shields. The skill system exists in place of a class system: all characters are adventurers defined by their skill selections. In truth, the best approach is usually to just pump a weapon stat into the stratosphere, stopping to get shield, critical hit, and some support magic.

Spells are learned from scroll drops, like Diablo's spellbook drops. You need a certain amount of Magic to learn a spell, but not cast it. So you can keep a set of gear in your stash to equip to learn spells, then switch back to your dungeon crawling gear. It's kind of a weird system and makes almost moot the Magic stat-- then again, this is fitting to Diablo and Diablo II, where the Magic stat was just as moot. Magic is varied and has a wealth of protective spells, offensive spells, and really useful utility spells. While not required, grabbing a few points in Charm Magic to be able to use the really important dungoneering spells can help smooth over a playthru.

One feature Fate has that is definitely all its own is pets. You have a permanent, unkillable hireling that follows you around automatically attacks enemies. If its HP is reduced to 0 it will "flee", running around randomly in the dungeon and possibly angering other foes. But foes will not attack it while it flees, instead choosing to focus on you. Even when fleeing, the pet is useful in that it has its own backpack, effectively doubling your storage space beyond even what Diablo provided. You can also send the pet back to town to sell items for you-- a feature that'd be far more useful if not for the fact that you have to return to town every floor to turn in quests anyway.

Fate boasts four difficulty levels, which can be chosen right from the start instead of Diablo's need to finish the game to start the next level of loop. However difficulty levels in Fate seem to only manipulate the rate at which the dungeon gets harder. The easiest difficulty keeps the monster levels slightly behind the dungeon floor they're on. Normal keeps them a little above even. The other two difficulty levels have the foes out-scale the dungeon by differing amounts, with the hardest having them roughly double it.

Here's the problem though: this doesn't really matter. You can choose your own difficulty by diving deep, or slowing down and grinding. If you are having too easy of a time, you can just dive down five floors without fighting anything, and the enemies will get harder. All the difficulty level does is force you to be a specific level to finish the game, and remove options for speeding up if you're getting bored. Playing on the easiest level and just skipping floors is a much more customizable experience than slogging on the hardest difficulty.

Upon killing the randomly selected big bad around floor 50 of the dungeon, your quest is done. You can choose to press on, scaling the dungeon up infinitely (or, well, to roughly floor 2,000,000,000). Gear will scale, your levels are practically uncapped, and the enemies will keep getting harder until you're rocket-tagging one-shots with each other. When you've had enough, you can opt to retire. Retiring deletes your character and rolls a new one that starts with extra Fame. The more times you retire, the more Fame you get at the start. You can also hand down a single item to your next of kin, which will gain a 25% buff to all numeric stats on it. After a few generations, a properly chosen item can turn even your piddly new level 1 adventurer into a agent of death.

For reference: the best choice is probably a ring with flat + and +% to stats. I got lucky and managed to find a ring that gave roughly 40% to all four stats. After four generations, it doubles all of the stats on my character, with no stat or level requirement.

There's not much to Fate, and considering it came five years after Diablo II, and year after Sacred, it's pretty disappointing by comparison. However, it's a neat escape in just zoning out and bashing monsters and gaining loot for as long as you want, scaling as high as you want, with no real additional thought to be had.

Mindless fun is still fun, for a time.

Fate: Undiscovered Realms (2008)

Three years after Fate, WildTangent would release this "standalone expansion" as they call it. The same gameplay of Fate is there with almost no modifications at all. However Fate:UR is set in a different region of the world, and gives you access to two dungeons instead of just one. You don't have access to the old area of Grove, but you can import either a powerful character that completed the original Fate, or a fresh descendant ready to start over in Fate:UR. I opted for the latter.

Rather than having a single town, you begin in the Temple of Fate, in a small hub area with two portals: one leading to a jungle town, and another leading to a frozen tundra settlement. Each town then serves as a base of operations to shop and pick up quests before setting off into the town's own individual dungeon with its own tileset and monster set. You can return to the hub at any time to switch over to the other side, and the game will keep track of your town portal and progression individually on each side. Each side has a boss to kill, just like the original Fate.

This gives you a slightly greater degree of flexibility by letting you either delve one dungeon on its own, then flip to the other and just destroy it with your powered up hero, or do them together, powering up above the scale of both dungeons as you go. At least on the easiest difficulty. Maybe more strategy would be required on higher difficulties in this case. However, a lot of what would make the two-dungeon approach different is taken away by an enhanced level scaling and a reduction in the number of floors you must traverse in each dungeon to reach the boss to about 25. As a result, doing the two dungeons in parallel produces an experience completely identical to the original Fate.

The hub zone also contains two heroic statues that are missing some of their gear. While exploring the dungeons you'll sometimes get a notification that a missing piece of heroic equipment is on a given floor. There you can defeat a boss to receive the item. These items can sometimes be worth keeping for yourself, but rebuilding the statues to completion reward you with experience and fame and some drops. Also finishing the statues eventually is required to enter the dungeon boss lairs. Ultimately though? The reward isn't worth the trouble, save for actually being able to finish the game.

Once you do defeat both dungeon bosses, a third dungeon is opened and you're told to enter it to seek out Kaos, the actual final boss of the game. Yeah, Fate:UR actually has a real final boss instead of just a random powered up monster. This final leg of the game sucks, frankly. The final delve is 30 to 40 floors, has no quests to make things interesting, and the dungeon starts around where the other dungeons left off. If you're not strong enough to make it to Kaos, you have to go back to the prior dungeons to grind in floors below the boss floor.

Once you reach Kaos though, he's kind of a chump. I kind of just cornered him with the now somewhat ludicrous knockback on my hand-me-down ring and beat him down.

That's really it. Everything in Fate:UR is exactly the same as Fate. Calling it an expansion is probably the most accurate thing you could do even though it is standalone and quite capable of being experienced on its own.

I think if I paid full price for this in 2008 expecting "Fate II", I'd be a little disappointed.

Fate: Traitor Soul (2009)

Just a year after Fate:UR, WildTangent released Fate: Traitor Soul. Fate:TS is simultaneously a more and less different experience than Fate:UR. First, Fate:TS takes place in exactly the same world, dungeons, and quest as Fate:UR. Same Temple of Fate hub, same two towns and dungeons, same final leg to kill Kaos. What Fate:TS does to set itself apart, though, actually improves the experience and ties together the prior games to make a more canonical experience here.

First, the original world of Grove is now accessible. You don't get a big bad to hunt here, but you can engage in the entire quest-delve-loot loop for as deep as you wish. It's entirely optional; you can finish the game without ever touching Grove. This means that aside from experiencing the game that started the series, and getting a final boss to hunt in the Grove dungeon, there's absolutely no reason to play the original Fate if you have Traitor Soul.

Second, Fate:TS introduces the Chamber of Trials: an enhanced scaling dungeon accessible from the hub world. Every 10 or so levels you'll get a quest to reach a specific floor in the Chamber. These can be pretty challenging as it seems that the Chamber carries with it max-difficulty scaling even in the easiest difficulty. This too is fairly optional, though. It's just there as another source of experience and loot if you need it.

Third, there's the rage attack. Every weapon type now has a super attack that consumes stamina on use. These attacks are roughly twice as powerful as normal attacks, ignore miss chance, cannot crit (I think), and are typically AoEs that can hit multiple foes. They give you something to do with weapons besides hold left mouse button, but can also completely invalidate the need for Dexterity since they can't miss. Those points can instead go to Vitality to give you more stamina, and at the same time more health. After a certain point I gave up on actually hitting the enemy entirely and spammed rage attack while chugging stamina potions. It felt cheap; it worked.

Finally, Fate:TS introduces races. If you bring in a generational character from a prior title it'll be a human, but new characters can be one of several races with different appearances and starting stat and skill bonuses.

Of the first three games, Fate:TS is the canonical experience. You have Grove, you have the two dungeons of Fate:UR, and you have the quality of life improvements of Fate:TS like inventory auto-sorting, the new gear slots for capes and earrings, and the expanded spell list, bestiary, and tilesets.

I will admit, after playing Fate:TS, I felt a bit like playing Fate and Fate:UR were a waste of time. Still, it was a fairly enjoyable experience even if 80% of the game was exactly the same as Fate:UR.

Bottom line: if you have access to Fate:TS, skip the prior two games. All their content is folded into this one anyway. If you want to experience the original Fate, the experience is almost identical by booting up Fate:TS, going to Grove, and fighting your way down to floor 50.

Fate: The Cursed King (2011)

By 2011, Diablo III was well on its way and we'd seen beta footage, Sacred 2 had come and gone, Titan Quest and its expansion were in the books, and we'd see the beginnings of Path of Exile. Sadly Fate: The Cursed King didn't implement any of the advancements in the genre we saw therein. Fate:TCK is more of the same, as you'd likely have come to expect if you were a Fate fan. However, Fate:TCK does take place in a different world, with different dungeons, and those dungeons attempt to framework some form of actual progression and plot, which is a first.

The short of it is you're a young adventurer who wandered somewhere they shouldn't, opened a sarcophagus, and released an evil spirit who proceeded to destroy a nearby town and begin terrorizing the surviving villagers. To stop it, you have to rescue a wise hermit who knows the ancient secrets of his imprisonment, find what is more or less the spirit's phylactery, and then a sacred hammer to smash it before delving down the final dungeon to a ritual site to summon the spirit to destroy it.

Okay yeah it ain't much, but it's more than what prior games gave us!

Fate:TCK sports three dungeons, but unlike prior Fate games, the dungeons are explored in series. The first dungeon has a hermit you need to rescue on floor 30, guarded by a boss. Once you free the hermit, you gain access to the second dungeon, which begins with level 30 foes and scales up from there to a treasure you need on, once again, floor 30. Finally the third dungeon starts with level 60 foes and scales up to the final showdown on floor 30.

This works much better than prior installments in many ways, and falls short in others. In theory you'd have access to three dungeons you keep at similar enemy levels, each 30 floors apart, and be able to use all three for grinding if you need a power boost. Sadly, though the dungeons spawn enemies of different difficulties, the actual quest rewards and loot generated is still locked to dungeon floor. This means fighting level 61 enemies on floor 1 of the third dungeon gets you level 1 loot. Largely anyway; item types are fine, their mods are what are nerfed. This means uniques still spawn properly.

In short, this makes the two later dungeons useless for actually leveling up and getting gear. If you get out-scaled by the dungeon, you need to go back to the first dungeon, push to floor 60+ and grind there. It's such a terrible oversight that almost completely destroys any sense of progression and increasing access the game has. Also the jumps in level seem to not take difficulty level into account at all, removing the one thing the difficulty level actually does in the game: control how quickly the enemies scale up.

On the plus side, Fate:TCK brings several new features and quality of life improvements, most of which were lifted straight from Diablo II, perplexingly. The snarky side of me wants to say "it only took them ten years!"

The first major improvement is the ability to hire and outfit mercenaries. I haven't messed with this too much, but you get a couple of randomly generated options when you visit town, and can hire them for a pretty steep rate. They come with no gear and need to be outfitted, and their skills are random. I was quite amused when I saw one that offered dual wield and shield simultaneously. If only dual wielding shields were a thing, I guess.

Next, a vendor in town now identifies all of your items at once for you. Sadly this kind of works counter to the game because now you have less reason to send your pet back to town to sell things for you. You just let your packs fill up until you're forced to return and ID it all then.

Additionally, Fate:TCK implements health globes. This one was lifted from Diablo III, which was in development and sharing early gameplay footage as development was ongoing. The globes start out overpowered but quickly fall in effectiveness until they're almost useless as incoming damage scales up. It's just noteworthy that after being 10 years behind the curve, Fate:TCK actually cribbed a really recent and new mechanic.

Finally, Fate:TCK just cleans up a lot of interface jank. Drops now have more obvious coloring indicating type and rarity, certain items that were previously hard to tell apart now have big obvious color differences, inventories are cleaner and easier to work with, and the quest log lets you track quests for each dungeon separately and flip between pages effortlessly. It's all little stuff, but it was little stuff I was getting real tired of after three Fate games.

One additional feature of Fate:TCK that I can't comment on is some level of Facebook integration to trade hirelings and gear. The feature seems to be stripped from the game at this point. I wouldn't use it anyway, so it's largely immaterial to me, but worthy of mention as something that did exist at some point.

Fate:TCK is definitely the most standalone of the games. It's probably the closest thing to a proper "Fate II" we got, though it plays more like a total conversion mod of Fate:TS, with almost nothing in its core engine or gameplay to set it apart. By 2011, the core Fate engine really felt dated. Again, Diablo III would launch less than a year later!

Still, Fate:TCK continues the "Mindless fun is still fun" mantra that all four games seem to carry on quite well.

Bonus: Torchlight (2009)

After the original Fate, the lead designer was hired by Flagship Studios to develop Mythos. When this ultimately failed, he and several Flagship former employees founded Runic Games and began work on a new diablolike action RPG that would become known as Torchlight.

Torchlight turned out to have a powerhouse of genre development behind it. Travis Baldree, the designer of Fate, had pulled in Max and Erich Schaefer of Blizzard North fame, Matt Uelmen to reprise his musical work on Diablo, and the entire development team behind Mythos. With Baldree at the helm as designer, the resulting product turned out to be very Fate-like in its final incarnation.

So if you heard mention of Fame levels, pets, and randomly sprawling infinite dungeons and thought "hey that sounds like Torchlight", you wouldn't be wrong!

Torchlight turned out to be everything Fate could be if redesigned from the ground up. The aimless procedural sprawl was replaced with a more deliberate and structured dungeon with a progression of plot quests. The mish-mash of skills often leading to "Dump everything into one weapon" was replaced with a class system and skill trees. Dungeon generation has been polished up and no longer creates maze-like tangles of narrow corridors or giant square rooms with holes. The dungeon generator of Torchlight instead uses hand-built chunks that are snapped together, much like Diablo II.

Torchlight also steps away from the magical high-fantasy world of Fate by providing a slightly grittier steampunk/magicpunk world and darker aesthetic. It's still cartoony and slightly goofy, leaning closer to Fate than Diablo, but lacks the utter saccharine sweetness of Fate's "Child adventurer on a journey" aesthetic. Your character is an adult, your character is some form of warrior, and the stakes of the plot are real and have a body count if you fail.

At its core though, Torchlight is "Fate in a different suit". You have a plot, you have less random and messy questing, but you're still diving to the bottom of a dungeon to slay a big bad. You're still incrementing your progress via retirement, and if you're not ready to retire there's still an infinite dungeon just across the way to chew into until the numbers get mind-boggling huge. The loot generation is almost identical, you're still beholden to a Fame score, and the tools you have access to in town and in dungeon are almost exactly the same.

If you asked me to choose only one Fate game to play, though, it'd be Torchlight. It's a Fate game, and the best of the bunch.

Torchlight II would eschew a lot of Fate's mainstays, bringing a far more modern diablolike experience with an actual open world, act-based plot and progression, and an actual structured endgame aside from "Infinite dungeon, go nuts". However that's a story for another time. Torchlight II is its own game, with few similarities to its predecessor, deserving of its own discussion.

And we don't yet speak of Torchlight III at all.

2020-Jun-26: Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter

I'll be honest here: when I set out to play through the entire BoF series, I had one major goal in mind: to get to Dragon Quarter. I knew it was different and I wasn't really gaining anything by playing the other four first, but I wanted to come in with full context on just how different it was. I feel the journey was enlightening, and besides if I hadn't, I'd never have known how awesome BoF4 is. So anyway, here we are...

Dragon Quarter is not a Breath of Fire game. It's not just "A different RPG with the BoF label", Dragon Quarter defies what it is to be a JRPG entirely. RPGs usually are a matter of time, of comfort, of knowing no matter how hard things get you can go back and gather resources and try again and again as you get stronger. Dragon Quater isn't like that. Dragon Quarter is tension, it's terror, it's feeling your control on not just the fights but the very progress of the game slip as your options dwindle and you draw closer to total defeat. Dragon Quarter is a slow burning psychological horror. To judge it on the expectation that it carry similarities to prior games in the series is to do it a disservice, so we'll just get it out of the way: DQ is not BoF5, and I won't talk about it as such.

Depending on who you ask, DQ takes place in either the far future, or the "Age of Machines" from the BoF3 universe. Largely it's not important, the world and plot are isolated in a vacuum. Any similarities to characters or concepts past or present is coincidental. It's a dystopian hell-hole where humanity is forced to live deep underground after the dragons destroyed the surface. Society is stratified into a strict caste system based on the purity of their lineage and their capability of linking with dragons and assuming within themselves their powers. This purity is represented as a ratio: the alphas of the alphas are 1/4, the infamous dragon quarter.

Ryu is 1/8192, at the bottom of the bottom. Appropriately enough, that's also the physical location where his story begins.

Ryu is a grunt, a dreg, a bottom-ranking mercenary ranger who's sent to do mop-up details of roaming monsters at the very bottom-most levels of the expansive underground complex. Pollution from above is pumped down, making the air toxic, everyone looks gaunt and sickly, quality of life is non-existent. It's bleak, dark, dirty, gritty, and depressing. The entire complex is a melange of brown and grey and flicking florescent lights. Witnessing this world for the first time is physically and emotionally uncomfortable.

On a routine mission, Ryu encounters the skeleton of a dragon in a research center. He hears its voice in his head and passes out. Over the next few hours Ryu begins to discover new powers in himself. Despite his laughably tiny D-Ratio, he'd managed to link with a dragon-- more appropriately: the dragon's spirit chose to link with him. These powers emerge tangibly when he encounters Nina: a sickly even lower ranked girl being kidnapped by a monster. Using his new superhuman strength to rescue her, Ryu decides to find a safe place for Nina, eventually choosing to take her all the way to the surface in the hopes that they could be safe from the horrific, broken civilization of the underground.

Again, DQ doesn't have grandiose machinations of saving the world. Like BoF3 and the party's raison d'etre being just to meet Myria, and BoF4 and the fairly small plotline of Ryu and Fou-Lu preparing for their fated day, DQ takes the small-focus plot of Ryu's quest to save Nina and see the surface. In doing so though, Ryu draws the attention of the world's powerful elite, and is helplessly drawn into their internal politics and eventually all-out battles. After all, this is a society entirely built around the possibility of linking with a dragon-- something thought to be mathematically impossible for a grunt like Ryu; yet here he is.

Along this journey you also meet Lin, who's a gun-wielding rebel who barely talks about herself. She's just as interested in saving Nina as you, though, and joins with you on the trip to the surface. Back story for all three characters is pretty short; Nina probably has the most though she's the mute hero in this one and can't tell it. You see it through flashbacks you earn by getting a higher D-Ratio.

Soon after gathering your trio, your former ranger comrades begin coming after you. Nina was a genetic experiment in using living matter to purify the air, and the powers that be want her back. Eventually you're forced to fight a squad led by your former best friend and it's here that Dragon Quarter's most iconic and horrifying mechanic reveals itself: the D-Counter.

During the fight, Ryu finally channels the power he'd been given in its entirety and transforms into a humanoid dragon. A percentage counter appears in the UI and begins ticking up quickly as you use these new-found dragon powers-- but also slowly just with the passage of time. If it hits 100% you die; there is no way to lower it. Ever. It's closer to a death clock than a counter: you trade time for power.

To put into perspective how taxing this timer is: you may reach 10% on the counter if you never use dragon powers in the entire game, but that is flat out not possible. Using them gives you a practically guaranteed win on any fight, even bosses, at the cost of anywhere from 5% to 20% depending on the difficulty of the boss and your strategy in using the powers. So worst case, you would want to use it maybe four times in the entire game. Any more without knowing what's ahead would be a major risk.

So if this timer inexorably counts up and you die at 100%, do you just softlock if it goes too high to finish? Yes and no. You can absolutely render the game unbeatable, and it's quite easy to do so on a first play. However DQ gives you two options if you've written yourself into a corner: SOL Restore and SOL Restart. SOL is short for "Scenario Overlay", but it's just a backronym for what we all know it stands for.

Restore takes portions of your accrued equipment and power and lets you reload a prior save with them. Your D-Counter returns to what it was but you keep banked experience and items. So if you beat a boss but realize you used way too much power, you can Restore and try again and keep some of your earnings from the aborted win.

However, if you realize way too late that you're spent, and your recent save is too recent to fix it, there's Restart. Restart is the same as Restore, except you start over the entire game. You keep your gear, you keep banked experience, but you start over from level 1. Fortunately DQ is heavily biased toward gear as a factor of toughness, so getting back to where you left off is faster by orders of magnitude.

The SOL system goes hand in hand with the fact that in Dragon Quarter you have limited saves. Each time you want to save, you need a token. There's about ten of them in the entire game. You can, fortunately, put down a soft save any time you want; these let you quit the game but are deleted when you reload.

These systems all combine to create a terrifying experience: you have a unknown amount of "game" left in front of you, a constantly ticking death clock, and limited saves means any death stands to cost you hours of progress. Every fight that starts tilting south brings the agonizing choice of expending your limited and precious D-Counter to get out of trouble, in exchange for further lowering your chances of overall success and eventually being forced to Restart. Conversely, every save point brings the choice of using your limited tokens to save, just in case the next step brings you face to face with a boss too strong to defeat on the first go. It's a constant game of trade-offs and guesswork with the stakes being the loss of your progress entirely.

So that's... different, and terrifying. The systems within Dragon Quarter are also quite unlike anything the BoF series had seen before. Random encounters no longer exist at all. Instead, the world is populated with a limited number of static spawns that are visible in the dark narrow corridors of the complex. These foes will chase you when you draw near, and can be attacked prescriptively by your party leader to gain initiative in combat-- and conversely can strike you to put you at a disadvantage. Battle takes place is a far more tactical system than prior titles, wherein you move your heroes around on the battle field and attack, both using AP that recharges at a set rate per turn.

Each character also has a very specific niche: Ryu is the melee fighter and tank, Nina is a caster and able to place traps on the ground that significantly reduce enemy AP when stepped on, as well as having a chance to inflict crowd control, and Lin is a ranged attacker who specializes in status effect and placement control rather than damage. A perfect synergy of these three would be placing Ryu next to a trap and using Lin to knock enemies into both the trap, and Ryu's reach.

Combos are heavily rewarded. As you utilize skills at the cost of AP, you are able to use more powerful skills in a chain. Each unique skill in a chain increases the power of the combo by 10%, and sometimes allows the use of special moves that require a specific chain of abilities. Later on, this mechanic becomes mandatory as bosses start sporting barriers that must be shattered in one single combo to do any damage to the boss.

As you have infinite AP as long as you take turns in combat, there's no resource to manage regarding magic, and therefore no healing magic. All of your healing comes from items that, while cheap, come from very sparingly placed shops through the world. Overbuying is definitely superior to under-buying lest you end up mid way between shops with no recovery items (as I did twice). However your inventory space is also extremely limited, so completely buying out shops isn't a great play either. It's all a very tightrope balancing act with what feels like major implications for failure.

So I went in determined to not use dragon powers unless I absolutely, positively had no choice. The best way to not run up the meter is to never do anything to raise it, right? That's a good strategy, but there's multiple fights in the game where the difficulty just jumps, massively, and you're practically forced to dragon up. The first of these comes about a quarter of the way into the game where you're forced into a three boss fight gauntlet, first with a room packed with twelve powerful foes, and then a high defense, high damage mech, and finally your former commanding officer who is capable of using the BoF staple skill Last Resort to grow strong enough to one-shot you. If you escape here without using meter on your first playthrough, you're likely a much better gamer than I!

I'd gotten that far with my D-Counter at 10%. I exited that series of battles at 20%, having had to use it to save my party from being splattered by the squad of goons. Up until that point I'd been feeling okay with my grasp of the game and my general power level, but that fight left me nervous, and for good reason. Shortly after I encountered a foe I could not damage, in a locked room. Another 10% down. Then he came back and merged with another monster to create an even more powerful boss. 10% there. Now I'm at 40% at the half way point. Suddenly things aren't looking so comfy.

The writing on the wall was to prepare to Restart. I embraced this as part of the game but pushed on trying to carefully budget the meter. I refused to use it for awhile after this, including coming a whisper from death during an ambush in which Nina was disabled and a swarm of goons flooded the room I was trapped in. I barely escaped, having basically only not died and lost hours of progress by sheer luck; but I saved another 10% on the counter, so I was happy.

The next boss was a major plot event, and a turn of throwing everything I had at him did nothing, so I dragoned up here too. 50%. It wasn't so much that I was at 50% that made me nervous, but that I had gained 40% of that during one sitting. But I hadn't even hit the hard part yet; that was next. This was the warning shot. I was nervous, belaboring every decision I made at this point. I suspected the finale would require a lot of the counter to get by; I began to wonder if I'd already used too much. I was suspecting I'd need to dragon every boss from here on out.

I wasn't far from wrong.

The regents were next: the elite of the underground. Not only are they super powerful bosses in their own right, but they come with a new mechanic, Absolute Defense. I'd alluded to it earlier: a barrier that absorbs all damage until a combo exceeds a certain amount. The first regent had a barrier of 200hp, and that was just under what I was doing with a full power combo. I had to rework my strategy, attacking once every two turns to build up AP, using buffs more often as well. It took me 25 turns but I slowly whittled him down while saving my precious fuel. It cost me a lot of healing items though, and hence a lot of money.

I felt okay. I took one of the regents without resorting to dragon powers. Maybe I'll make it. This had to be the beginning of the end, right?

Immediately past this boss was a point of no return, and a shop. I felt confident and was running low on cash so I held back on buying items. This would turn out to be a mistake as immediately past the shop was yet another point of no return; no going back to the store. At least I saved first; my last Save Token.

Next was Cupid, the second regent. She carried a strategy directly in counter to my own. She had a 250 damage shield, and spent most of her time shoving my attackers backward, forcing them to spend precious AP to run in to attack. I slowly, slowly chewed her down as her pushes started dealing damage and her ally started tearing apart my party. I realized I wouldn't have the healing to finish; I resorted to dragon power and.... did practically no damage due to the shield with my first volley. I panicked and blew 25% to take her down; now at 75%. It felt bad.

I considered reloading my save, but my chat rioted when I opened the menu to do so. I tried to go on, but I was completely out of healing too, leaving my only choices as Restore, use what was left of my meter to get through to the next shop, or try to tough it out. I chose the latter and was rewarded with Vexacion, the third regent boss fight before a chance to rest.

I was tapped out, unable to continue. Dragoning again would put me at close to 90%, and I had no idea how much I had left before me. I was terrified of saving and rendering my save unwinnable-- not that I had a token anyway. I was also trapped in a fight I couldn't win, and dying into a Restore imposes harsh penalties, so I just hard reloaded my save from before Cupid. This time I resolved to do better; back to 50%. I could have used dragon power to win and then Restored, but that deletes all your carried items, and I had a few powerful buff items I wanted to keep. I think I made the right choice.

Knowing how Cupid worked, I tried a different strategy. Before this I was resorting to Dragon Breath, which is woefully inadequate against the shields of the regents. Instead I used Charge: an ability that outright pays 2% off the Counter to double the damage of your attacks this turn. Three charges and a punch oneshot Cupid for the cost of 8%; a far cry better than the 25% I spent last attempt. I was at 60% now. This felt better.

I did the same thing to Vexacion; 70%. I was rewarded with a very obvious "final stretch" door and a final shop and save point, but I had no token. I had to go forward and hope I didn't die again. At this point I felt like I'd cheated the game by not Restarting. It's clearly intended to be a thing, but I hadn't. Careful management of the Counter and reloading when I used too much in a fight kept it low enough that I just deleted two of the final bosses in the game and had room to spare. It wasn't over though.

The next boss attacked me on an elevator. He split into three and if all three targeted the same person they died, no ifs ands or buts. Also you have a time limit: 20 turns to win or game over. After trying to scratch a win out on my own power for two turns I realized I wouldn't make it. I once again unleashed the beast, Charged up, and tried to AoE the trio. It only cut them down by about half, and cost me 15%. 85% now, and not much to show for it. Seeing 85% and the warning flashes of the indicator did little to set me at ease as I exited dragon form and slowly killed this boss with normal attacks. I believe I won on turn 17. Phew.

At this point I was still 400m under the ground, from a starting point of 1200m. I figured I had a third of the game to go; no way I'd make it. Fortunately, the lift I was on travels 300m on its own, leaving me close to the surface. One silent hallway later and I was standing in what looked to be a giant missile silo, with a gate far above: the surface. I'd made it; or had I? One final fight: our old childhood friend turned hunter.

He was actually easy; or seemed it. A barrier of 100 HP, not much health, but pretty powerful attacks. I swarmed him and pounded him as hard as I could, and was actually making headway into winning. I got confident, didn't watch my positioning; he took advantage. Unleashing two top tier AoE spells, he killed Lin and Nina from full in one turn, and left Ryu at 12hp. I'd come 12hp from wiping and being sent back to before Cupid. I screamed. Chat panicked too. But I lived, and was able to stabilize, scatter my team, and finish the fight. Still at 85%. I was going to make it.

The final phase of the final boss requires using dragon form to even hurt it. I knew this was the end. I charged 4 times and attacked, costing 11% in total, placing me at 96% as the boss went down. Having only used dragon powers in the most dire of situations, using all of my skill and strategy to win in the face of impossible odds when clearly I was intended to use the power, I still reached 96%.

It was the most well-deserved feeling victory I'd experienced in years. I managed to beat Dragon Quarter without Restarting or Restoring. Just one hard save reload after a massive mistake.

It's clear this final gauntlet is intended to test if you saved enough Counter. I needed almost 50% to get through it. On a replay I'd likely have better characters and gear and skills and had used even less Counter up until then so it'd be easier. But for a blind playthrough, I came very close to reaching the final boss without enough Counter to actually hurt him. That would have been a disappointing Restart for certain. I wonder how many people fell to that.

For beating the game, you get your D-Ratio raised. It's a game mechanic only as in plot you're still a grunt, a dreg. However certain cutscenes only unlock at certain ratios, and certain doors only open when you've passed certain landmarks. My playthru got me raised from 1/8192 to 1/2048. The best grade is, of course, 1/4. The grading is a factor of loot acquisition, game time, save count, and battle efficiency; Counter doesn't factor. If you finish the game with less than 90%, you left tools in your bag you could have used. You're intended to almost top out.

So after scrimping and saving for most of the game, I beat almost every final boss in the ending gauntlet by turning into a dragon and punching them into a fine red mist. Is this the intended way to play it? I think so. I think you're supposed to use the power far more often, fail, come back after using less, defeat another boss or two, fail again... and eventually win. But really? Outside of the psychological terror, the mechanic is pretty fair. If you know how to make the best use of the powers, you can win any fight in 10% or less, and you shouldn't need it at all most of the time.

I plan to play it at least two more times. I'm in the middle of a run to try to push my D-Ratio up as high as possible, then one more to experience the hidden cutscenes. Maybe I'll get more plot. It was definitely scant in the initial run. As for the end... you're forced to 100%, and beyond. As Ryu lay dying, the dragon linked with him asks him if it was worth it, then departs, leaving him alive as Nina and Lin open the hatch and set foot on the surface world as the first humans to see it in 1000 years.

It's a very sweet ending, very hopeful in a way. A good way to end the series.