I write about how Battle Brothers Builds a Team for RPS. As a Halloween special, I also attempted to get the Dracula’s Revenge achievement in Europa Universalis IV.
This post contains gameplay spoilers for the final sections of Dark Souls and Bloodborne. If you haven’t played either, I highly recommend doing so and reading this after.
I submit the soul of one of Dark Souls’ final few bosses, the Four Kings, to the Lord Vessel. That opens the game’s last area, a long path to the final boss, Lord Gwyn. Dark Souls has a reputation for being difficult which can sometimes be overstated, but I was understandably nervous about the climactic battle in a game packed full of really tough boss fights. From Software even emphasise the magnitude of the fight through level design here, since the whole area slopes towards Gwyn’s chamber which is visible from minutes away. When I arrive at Gwyn though, I’m disappointed. Visually he looks great, the boss arena is wonderful, and his moves are suitably intimidating. He isn’t a badly designed boss like the Bed of Chaos or the Capra Demon, both of which will almost always kill the player once. Instead, my problem is that he’s easy. When Gwyn swings his sword, I can absorb the blow and attack through, literally trading hits with him. I take a more substantial chunk of damage than him, of course, but I also have the ability to heal which Gwyn lacks. Moreover, I’m wearing Havel’s armour, the heaviest in the game so I can afford to take multiple hits before I even think about retreating to heal. He doesn’t even harass me as I drink my Estus, like the giant duo Ornstein & Smough. I’m thrilled when he’s dead initially. I’ve beaten an extremely tough game and concluded one of my best experiences in videogames overall. When I’m watching the credits, though, I’m left to wonder: did I play Dark Souls wrong?
The harshest criticism of Fallout 4 has been from people who feel the game is insufficiently different from Fallout 3 or Skyrim. For anyone who plays singleplayer RPGs with a view to roleplay, though, it is the significant changes which have sabotaged the game. I should define what I mean by ‘roleplay’ since it’s a broad term, and it’s been broadened still further by being used as a descriptor for games like Fallout 4 and Mass Effect which traditionally have little in common with the genre. For me, at least, the defining characteristic of a roleplaying game is the ability to create a unique character who has particular skills and codes of conduct. Then, the game has to allow you within reason to play the character you’ve created, making the decisions they would make. If you want to play as a deranged wastelander in Fallout: New Vegas who thinks she’s a samurai, you can acquire a machete, wear makeshift armour and pick and choose which quests to undertake and which areas to investigate according to your imagined character’s feelings. In Morrowind, you might play an academically-inclined mage by selecting magic skills, joining the Mage’s Guild and choosing disdainful dialogue options with grubby warriors and thieves. These are relatively extreme examples, and merely playing a character who believes the world should be organised in a particular way qualifies (and is equally difficult to do in Fallout 4). For me and others who love to play this way, Fallout 4 is a disappointment. It rigorously circumscribes your role in the post-nuclear wasteland and allows very little player expression in building your character, talking to strangers or exploring the world.
I’ve written already about Shadowrun: Hong Kong, a smartly, often amusingly written RPG with infuriating combat, stealth and hacking. In that post, I failed to mention one persistent frustration I had with the game, namely how it limits what kind of character you can play. I don’t mean in terms of your class or stats or equipment, where the options are robust, but rather your background and attitudes. Where other RPGs (and even earlier Shadowrun games) are vague enough in your background or flexible enough in its detail to allow you to play the character you like, Shadowrun: Hong Kong dictatorially imposes a particular view of who your character is, what their motivations are and where they’ve been. You might call this the Mass Effect approach to player characters except that in that series its limitations are made clear from the start and ultimately BioWare made the writing of Commander Shepard, the player, one of the series’ strengths. Hong Kong vacillates on the question of what kind of character you’re playing, and the game is worse for it. It allows neither the freedom to play your own character nor the useful limitation that comes with players taking on a definite role.
Shadowrun: Hong Kong likely had an excellent script. It is an entertainingly written RPG with particularly vibrant companions in a spectacular setting which blends cyberpunk and fantasy. Its mystery is, conceptually at least, as compelling as its predecessor’s, Shadowrun: Dragonfall. In the translation from script to game, however, Hong Kong has suffered badly. Combat, an unavoidable and crucial part of the game, is at best simplistic and trivial and at worst infuriating. New additions to the series like stealth sections are appallingly barebones. A matrix system revamp was earned by the community when Hong Kong’s Kickstarter raised $700,000: the disastrous result will likely make fans wish the game had earned less so the old system would still be in place.
There are spoilers here for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion’s Dark Brotherhood faction here.
The first half of the Dark Brotherhood questline in TESIV, up to an including ‘The Purification’, and the player’s arc through that organisation is Oblivion’s strongest content. While most of its appeal is certainly down to its quest design (which is, simply, better and far more imaginative than the rote collection or killing quests seen elsewhere), it also distinguishes itself from the rest of the game by thoughtfully constructing a community within the Dark Brotherhood. In a game also featuring a Mages, Fighters and Thieves Guild – not to mention a lengthy Arena career – the Dark Brotherhood, alone, manages to make the player feel a member of an organisation rather than its sole saviour. Other guilds are acceptable vendors of quests, but the Dark Brotherhood exceeds them in one important respect: only there does the player become attached to the group’s NPC members, seek them out for advice and relish interactions in the Sanctuary, the Brotherhood’s headquarters. This is all the more impressive since the Brotherhood stands for the values most alien to most players, worship of an ancient, evil deity and taking pleasure and pride in murder. There is, of course, a dramatic shift in the quest line halfway through, after which it becomes much more of Oblivion’s standard fare, but is first half stands so far above the rest of the game’s content it’s worth examining why, and particularly how the player comes to feel they have joined, in a real sense, a ‘brotherhood.’