Archive for Rantings

Review – Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord

When I discovered the original Mount & Blade I was really impressed by the sandbox approach it used. You play as one person in a world that continues to move as you do. It’s fundamentally pretty similar to some earlier games – Uncharted Waters, for example, took a similar approach. M&B added an excellent combat system, though – one that was very well suited to keyboard + mouse controls, that incentivized (but didn’t require) a shield and allowed the flexibility of mounted combat. It also brings in a character growth system that extends to companions in your party. While other games might see you becoming a “superman” in a few hours, you never really feel immortal in M&B – mighty, perhaps.

As revisions came in for the original games, new factions and weaponry were added and eventually Mount & Blade: Warband came out. A standalone game that could be considered Mount & Blade II, Warband added more complex politics and a couple of new factions as well as multiplayer. Importantly, though, there was enough of a fanbase and the system was extensible enough that mods were plentiful. Although my favorite was The Last Days, the LOTR mod that still receives updates, there were several fantastic total conversions as well as a lot of smaller mods that extended the “Vanilla” experience.

The “actual” Mount & Blade II, subtitled Bannerlord, isn’t a bad game per se, but it misses the mark a bit on what made Warband so addictive. It seems to focus more on set pieces than sandbox features. Diplomacy is somewhat middling, the “campaign” quest seems tacked on, and while the family and aging system has potential it isn’t particularly exciting due to its extremely slow pace. It may have been more interesting if the “Realistic” death settings were realistic in the least (or allowed for percentage chance of death in combat based on age, for example) – requiring a character to switch characters frequently to inherit the legacy of their predecessors.

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Strange Journey Redux: Synthesis

It’s now been several months since I beat SMT Strange Journey: Redux, making it the second of my resolutions that I managed to beat in 2022. While I’d pat myself on the back for making (reasonably) accurate resolutions, I actually feel a little more like I set myself an unrealistic goal (beat a dungeon-crawler I knew I had failed to beat before) and somehow managed to complete it after more than 6 months of play.

In an unusual move (for me), I actually kept an ongoing journal of my Strange Journey progress. In 11 entries, I broke down the game as I went along, providing commentary (relatively sterile by journaling standards, knowing me) on characters, themes, and mechanics. This entry will serve as a synthesis of those, trying to bring the various impressions around into a single cohesive whole. In the end, I feel disappointed in the game, in part because it opens on such a strong note and in part because it is so different from most Shin Megami Tensei games.

I think that the 11 entries combined form a better, comprehensive view of the game (and more emotional, less analytical content – looking back, I feel they are certainly more interesting to read than this post), but since they were written over the course of 6 months, my views on the game evolved and I didn’t get a chance to “look back” beyond the callbacks to earlier plot points. So here’s something vaguely resembling a review.

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Kongming’s Archives / SOSZ returns

I’ve been on the internet long enough to remember when you dialed into a specific subset of the “internet” and durable websites were rare. In that time I’ve been on a lot of websites, especially forums. We’re now in a place on the internet where the bulk of discussion happens on monolithic sites, and ends up being shallow, combative or generally misunderstood. I’ve always preferred the forum format because it is interactive, generally promotes equality of readership (i.e. it doesn’t bury/surface things quickly like Reddit does) and it is durable (i.e. even a months-old topic can resurface, with all the context intact). Although there are things to like about formats like Reddit or Discord, those kinds of communities tend to be insular and celebrity-focused. That’s if there is any sense of community at all.

When I was bringing videolamer back online early last year, it brought back a wave of nostalgia for how I used to use the internet – rather than refreshing resetera or reddit, monolithic single points of entry for discussion, I used to frequent a half-dozen forums at a time. Discord looped me in to where the communities from some of them are, but there was a hole where Kongming’s Archives (and its forum counterpart, The Scholars of Shen Zhou) used to be. While the Archives are a fantastic resource for fans of Three Kingdoms or related games, the forum (or at least how I used it) is a broader discussion group. I have fond memories of reading discussion on the forum or diving into the officer biographies on KMA going back to the mid-2000s, so seeing it “partially online” was distressing – it has more than 20 years of discussion archived, so the forum itself has become an archive of odds and ends around discussion of Three Kingdoms and related (or tangential) games. I can’t think of anywhere else I would look for discussion of Fantasy Sango / Genso Sangokushi, as one of the more esoteric examples.

Anyway, I was very glad to see Kongming’s Archives and SOSZ have resurfaced. Thanks to James for his work reviving a dedicated, warm community. While I haven’t been an active poster for roughly a decade, I’m excited to see it back up and running. Cheers to those sections of the internet keeping forums alive.


Return of videolamer (again)

A few months ago, I was considering starting up the ol’ blog again, as you can see from a post I made in December.

I was getting a bit frustrated that the mirror of videolamer I set up didn’t have https enabled due to the fact that it was technically hosted at a subdomain, with the site registered separately. After some back and forth with Jay, we have the site fully up and running with https, a new theme, and even got several original writers back together.

I’ll probably be posting less here, and more blog-y things, with more long-form stuff reserved for videolamer.

I’ve also started using backloggery again, but that’s a little less exciting.


SaGa Collection: The Legend of Mystery and the Legend of Stability

I finally picked up the Collection of SaGa AKA the Final Fantasy Legends remasters. As reader(s) of my blog might recall, I’m unreasonably nostalgic about these weird games – to the point of writing an FAQ on one of them around 10 years ago.

The Collection itself is about what you would expect. I got the Android version, and the real lure for me was the ability to play in portrait orientation and rearrange the buttons for comfort. The price tag might seem a little high for what it offers – but the fast-forward feature is a godsend (particularly for the second game, and I imagine I will appreciate it on the third also).

The Mobile remake includes button rearrangement, configurable backgrounds and portrait or landscape orientation.

It’s hard to pin down exactly why these games are so cool – there are a few factors I can think of. Both mix “swords and sorcery” with modern guns allowing for a variety of combat approaches, both have unusual (if not super deep, particularly for SaGa series games) advancement mechanics, and both have a variety of settings baked into a single game. They’re also among the few RPGs on their platform, so they also have that going for them. If there’s a single reason for my fascination, it’s probably that they were some of the only games I could put up with for hours on end in a car 20 years ago. But I’m going to pretend it’s the first three things I mentioned.

The first game, in particular, is an opaque mess of mechanics. Humans grow via stat potions, Mutants / Espers grow via weighted random chance at the end of a battle and can also gain/lose abilities at random – there are even system-specific mechanics, as some at GameFAQs seem to have noted different rates and mechanics on GBC versus the grey-brick model Game Boy (as far as I can tell, the Collection of SaGa version is equivalent to the GBC – which is rapid-growth, making Mutants easier to use and much stronger stat-wise, but less reliable ability-wise). Monsters morph by eating meat, which makes them less predictable – and they have less overall growth potential – but they also have a lot better survivability in the game’s long dungeon delves and tower climbs, since they can morph instead of needing an Inn.

The second game, meanwhile, is much more straightforward mechanically. Humans grow quickly, while Mutants grow slower but can get unique abilities that help the party or conserve resources. Notably in contrast to the first game, you can pick which ability a Mutant loses when gaining a new one. Monsters are still meat-based, but Robots (fully equipment-based) are added to the mix. With Robots being the ideal front-line fighter (as they can equip spare shields/armor, and benefit passively from shields unlike other characters), and all other mechanics being – relatively – much more straightforward, Final Fantasy Legend 2 is a more focused and traditional JRPG experience.

The mechanics of each actually tie into the overall atmosphere of the game. Final Fantasy Legend 1 has such a terse plot that it feels almost dreamlike – your characters’ motivation for climbing the tower itself is even left a mystery. The main worlds themselves are drastically different from each other, but in between them there are also side-worlds that are mysterious – like the fish-statue mini-world – and even one side-world (arguably two) where you can solve peoples’ problem for literally no reward. The most fleshed-out side character has perhaps 5 lines of dialogue in the entire game.

Final Fantasy Legend 2, meanwhile, feels more like a “solid” JRPG; the motivations of the main cast are obvious, even if the journey is clearly bigger than they originally planned. Each world is much more grounded than (say) the third world of FFL1, with sky cities and gliders, and even though they have clear themes/motifs, that isn’t all they are and in FFL2 the concepts have room to breathe. For example – in said third world, we have no idea why Byak-ko is hiring soldiers; as far as we can tell, the entire “resistance” is a girl living in a hut. As FFL2’s counter-example, in Edo we see townspeople that deeply crave bananas that the black market provides which sets up Hana’s conflict with Echigoya / the Shogun.

For a long time, I considered Final Fantasy Legend 1 a lot worse than its successor – now that I play them back to back, in short sessions, I found FFL easier to bear and am finding FFL2 harder to bear. Even if it’s likely unintentional – mutants seem to grow much faster than my recollection – FFL requires very little in the way of grinding, even with a two-mutant party (my humans were finding it hard to keep up). FFL2 started off fairly similar, but around the midpoint of the game (Venus’ world) it has become more of a slog despite having two spellcasters (which makes most hard encounters easier). FFL2 definitely has a more standard-JRPG feel, and more interesting mechanics (in FFL I could not rely on any mutant abilities lasting more than a few battles), but the larger set of variations involved creates a bit of a FOMO feel akin to the first few hours of a CRPG (should I have started with a different party? why didn’t I pick a monster?).

For the non-nostalgic, these games are definitely products of their time. The first game is aimless, but each world is small enough that finding where you need to go is easy. The second is focused, but actually – oddly, for a game I used to praise for its brevity – a bit longer than it needs to be? They are both considerably more playable than Final Fantasy, and I could argue for them being more interesting and as playable as Dragon Quest (if perhaps not as historic), but if you have the time and are curious about these odd little games, the Collection is an excellent way to play them.

Final Fantasy Legend 2 does have a DS remake which has been fan translated. I played it shortly after it came out, and beat it. I tried playing it again more recently and I honestly can’t recommend it over the original (you’ll probably find me saying someplace else years ago on this site); the encounters go extremely slowly, and while a fast-forward feature exists it makes it much harder to follow the action than it was on GB, and the game still runs slower. It’s largely faithful in theory (with a few added mechanics that bloat the game a bit), so I guess if you have more time and you love the original I could see playing it. I also feel like the designs in the remake are a little bland.

As a parent to young kids – hence the sporadicness, followed by complete dearth of updates – I’ve found the Collection to be a great counterpoint to the modern, constantly-online mobile game. Its entry point is lower than most mobile remakes for me – as a portrait game that loads up in just 20 seconds, that can be played one-handed.