Final Fantasy VII Remake: Profoundly Unsatisfying

I didn’t hate it. That’s not the problem. I mostly enjoyed it. I really enjoyed parts of it. I might give it another run in a year or two, and I think I’m, er, looking forward to the sequel, or the “next episode”, or whatever it is we’re calling this series (sub-series?). It’s just… man. It’s such a weird sensation to mostly have a good time playing a game, but then leave it feeling so negative about the experience. I guess I’ll put Final Fantasy VII Remake on the same little grungy end-table where I keep The Witness and Breath of the Wild.

It kinda does.

There is a major gameplay reason for this negativity, and a major story reason, and I’d like to talk about both. First, though, I think it’s only fair we go through the good stuff. There aren’t any spoilers in this first part.

The Good Stuff

There’s this cheesy, kind of self-indulgent splash screen whenever you boot up Final Fantasy XV which declares the game to be “a Final Fantasy for fans and first-timers”. In 2016 I was like, yeah, that’s one way to categorize the entire population of planet Earth into two mututally-exclusive groups, I suppose! But I kept thinking about that screen this week. Remake sold like absolute gangbusters, and I know some number of people will see that splash screen for the first time, having bought FFXV after having enjoyed Remake, and feeling like they’re getting into something special. There’s a 30-year history a lot of new players are going to tumble down into purely because of this game. I think that’s a tremendous credit. In the coming years more people are going to meet Noct and his bros, and roll their eyes at Ashe’s ridiculous hot pants, and hear the word “disasteriffic”, and sign up for the Four Job Fiesta. That makes me happy.

Before 1997, RPGs were nerdy fantasy stories for basement-dwellers and grognards. Final Fantasy VII made them COOL. There really was a glorious era of exceptional video games swimming in its wake. Eventually the genre changed and shifted and mutated, and nowadays it seems to be largely populated by hyper-candy anime girls and unfocused, impenetrable gameplay systems. They’re games for basement-dwellers of another stripe, is what I mean. And Remake isn’t that. I think it does us all a lot of good if, for the next ten years, developers lean towards Remake and away from Tales of Mediocrity IV-Z: Hyper Legend of Browsing the JRPG Tag on Steam (Waifu Edition).

Remake is the first Final Fantasy game I’ve played in… golly, two decades where none of the game systems felt confusing or vestigial. I understood immediately how equipment and materia worked, and how to upgrade them. The controls all made sense, there were no extraneous meters or counters, I didn’t have to keep looking up what combination of trigger buttons activated each of my six combat modes. Enemy data was clearly presented. I wanted to use all the characters. I actually cared about the treasures I found because they were useful consumables or pieces of equipment, and not vendor trash or digipoop cards or whatever.

(It might actually be that the last Final Fantasy game whose gameplay was this tightly designed was the original Final Fantasy VII. FFVIII had that pointless GF compatibility system no player ever noticed or cared about, and FFIX had limit breaks that only triggered when there was a single wounded goblin left alive, and never in tricky boss fights.)

Square-Enix has been noodling with this idea that you can blend action and menu-based RPG mechanics together since long before there was a Square-Enix. They’ve had… varying levels of success. The primary disconnect in these systems is positioning. In an action game you push the sword button, and your guy swings his sword, and if there’s a dude standing there the dude takes damage. In an RPG you have a sword command on your menu, and you select it, and the game rolls some invisible dice, and if the dice are good, the dude takes damage even if he’s on the other side of the screen. Both conventions work in proper context, but the push-and-pull introduced by trying to blend them makes for frustrating situations. Remember missing monsters in Secret of Mana even though you watched the pixels of your weapon touch the pixels on the monster? Or getting blasted by an AOE super attack in Final Fantasy XIII because your idiots refused to spread out?

Remake largely avoids these problems. There is the occasional positioning or camera snafu inherent to all 3D games. Sometimes you’ll push the gun button and Barret will take a step leftward for no reason and fire a full clip into a wall. But for the most part what we have is a well-grounded action combat system with good gamefeel and clear feedback. Running behind cover really does block the enemy’s laser, even if they roll a crit. Holding the block button really does reduce the damage you take. Picking a melee attack off the menu will cause you to spend resources to punch the air unless there’s actually an enemy nearby. It really feels like you and the bosses are playing by the same set of rules, at least as far as connecting attacks goes.

There are four player characters, and some thought went into making their playstyles unique without having to re-learn how the combat system works. In fact, the difference between characters boils down to “what does the triangle button do?” Cloud uses it to switch between two useful and easily-understood attack modes, Barret uses it to fire a super shot that recharges automatically over time, Tifa unleashes karate combos she can power up manually using meter, and Aerith gets a Mega Buster. Outside of these commands, and the standard attack/block/dodgeroll gameplay that’s so familiar nowadays, everything is selected manually. Your meter fills up as you hit enemies or block damage, and you spend it on casting spells, using items, or doing special weapon attacks.

You control one character and the AI controls the other two. Your AI partners play considerably more slowly than you probably are, so it can feel like their meter isn’t filling as fast. It also feels like enemies will prioritize attacking your controlled character, if possible. This is how the game gently nudges you into changing characters a lot, keeping track of who has meter and who doesn’t, threading commands for one character into the attack animations of another. It feels a bit like how they probably wanted Lightning Returns to play, back in the day.

Stagger is back. Stagger is a mechanic whereby you have to put the enemy into a vulnerable state before you can actually damage it appreciably. This is another system Square-Enix has fiddled with for a while now, and it finally feels like they landed in the sweet spot. Scanning an enemy tells you if an enemy can be staggered and, if so, how to do it. You get a clear visual indicator near the enemy’s health bar telling you when they can be staggered quickly — and here’s the key bit — the stagger bar actually does fill up quickly. A marked improvement over the fiddly mechanics of the FFXIII series, where it could often feel like you were nickle-and-dime-ing enemies to death because they were impossible to knock over properly.

The combat system felt great while I was succeeding, and when I was failing, it provided clear feedback as to why. High marks.

Aesthetically, the game is a dream. Its environments are gorgeous, the UI is clean and efficiently laid out, animations are snappy and fluid. The voice acting sounds very conversational; they took a light touch with the awkward pauses and anime grunts. Many (if not most) of the individual story sequences are quite enjoyable. This game has a lot of cutscenes and I was rarely bored watching them. I loved watching the characters interact, socially and visually.

I loved seeing the materia actually slotted into each character’s weapon during cutscenes.

Remake‘s soundtrack is my favorite OST in years. Modern Final Fantasy soundtracks tend to get a little operatic for my tastes, too much wailing chorus and not enough electric guitar. More than that, though, I appreciated how the music was used. It’s not just a 1:1 remaster of each individual song; rather, the tracks are remixed and blended together as the scene demands. You get lots of played-straight versions of Anxious Heart and Under the Rotting Pizza, sure, but you also get sublime mash-ups like Turks Theme/Let the Battles Begin! as boss music. Plus we get some new earworms, like Hollow Skies, which I’d honestly love to hear a 1997 PlayStation version of.

I had a lot more nice things to say about Remake than I did about the last game I hateliked this much. Let’s slide on down into the dregs.

Just Thought I’d Mention

This game has a lot of cutscenes. I think I said that already. But you may not realize that by “a lot of cutscenes” I meant both “this game has a large number of individual cutscenes” and “a large amount of this game’s runtime is cutscene, by volume”. In a 34 hour game I probably spent a good seven or eight hours just holding the controller and watching the screen.

This usually didn’t bother me. The long story sequences were often very good, and I’m an old hat at Metal Gear Solid, so I have the fortitude for this kind of thing. But judging by the flak MGS gets for that, a lot of players don’t. If you’re familiar with the original FFVII, imagine going through something the length of the unplayable parts of the Kalm flashback sequence maybe ten or twelve times over the course of the game.

What did start to annoy me were the sheer quantity of, let’s call them “banter scenes” which infested every gameplay area. See, Remake doesn’t trust you to explore the map, or even to follow the bright “GO HERE” icon. Instead, every time you flip a switch or enter a new room in a dungeon or encounter area, your characters have to stop and talk about it. Sometimes at great length. You know you have to flip a switch. The game wrangles the controller out of your hand, close-up on Tifa, she says “Hey Cloud, I think I see a switch over there!” Slow pan across the map to the switch. Back to Tifa. “Hmm, looks like we can get there by using that bridge.” Slow pan over to the bridge. Brief rumination about how it looks dangerous/hmm how do we get there/we have no other choice. Slow pan back to the camera-behind-Cloud “ok you can move now” position.

Over and over. Six or seven times per area. For the entire game.

This kind of banter scene is crucial for character development. One of the things everyone remembers fondly about FFXV is how the bros are constantly joking or bickering or exchanging quips. But the game doesn’t stop and force you to listen. Prompto can be whining about how he saw a bug or whatever while Noctis is climbing a ladder or exploring the corners of a dingy room. It’s annoying to see them get this so wrong after they’d already gotten it so right.

All the Gameplay is Ruined, Though

They made two lousy choices when finalizing this combat system that kind of ruin the whole experience.

At any time during combat, you can pause the game and rewind time to just before you triggered the combat. This sounds like a nice quality-of-life feature — it means you can never get a solid, demoralizing Game Over. The other side of that coin, though, is that it gives rise to degenerate strategies. See, you can’t change equipment or materia during combat, and for much of the game you don’t have enough slots to equip all of your possible attack magic. (You can do that, if you want to commit to an almost purely magic build, but I didn’t want to and I imagine most players won’t.)

Each of these three mechanics is fine in isolation, but when you combine them, you get to make a really dumb decision any time you face a reasonably tough monster whose stagger mechanic involves hitting them with a particular element. To wit: you scan the monster and see what it’s weak to. If it likes materia you’re not wearing, it’s almost always faster to just retry the battle, swap out your magic, then re-engage. You even get a rung up on the action economy if you do this, since you don’t need to waste meter on a scan, now.

Decision points are what create depth in games like this, but decisions between two bad options should probably be avoided. I spent a lot of time near the beginning of each area hitting Retry for exactly this reason, and it felt like a dumb exploit every time I did it. But the alternative was slowly chipping away a monster I couldn’t stagger, because I had Wind and not Lightning magic, or whatever. A more elegant solution may have been allowing the player to spend meter to swap one piece of materia. They have to do this anyway, from the main menu, either after they chip the target down or after they select Retry, so we might as well move that menuing into the combat. If I could have stayed in the fight and spent a renewable resource to course-correct I’d have done that instead, and my scan log would not now have so many holes in it.

The other big dumb thing they did, like almost every action game in recent years, is completely flub their difficulty settings. This is particularly frustrating to me because they almost got it very right.

So we have this hybrid combat system. The action elements test your awareness and reflexes; you have to know where you’re standing, where the enemy’s standing, when you should block or dodge, and when it’s safe to run in and strike. I am bad at these kinds of games, and my preference is to scale this sort of difficulty back, if I can. (If it’s a really well-designed game, sometimes I’m motivated to practice the lower difficulties and eventually move up to higher ones.) The RPG elements test your game knowledge and resource management skills; you have this many bobbins, each thing costs some number of bobbins, you want to end the fight with more bobbins than you entered it. I’m pretty good at these kinds of games, and I’m fine with having this sort of difficulty ramped up from the start.

Remake has three difficulty settings available from power on. “Normal” is the hardest one, and is the intended play experience. “Easy” is like Normal except the monsters do less damage (and I believe act less frequently). In fact, Easy is so easy that it essentially trivializes the resource management challenge of the game. If you pick it, you will probably never have to heal during combat, and will end up with a million of every kind of potion. Obviously I don’t want that.

But then there’s “Classic”, which causes your active character to move, block, and dodge on their own. It essentially applies the same AI to your guy as it does to your partners. This tones down (but doesn’t actually trivialize) the reflex challenges of the game, since the AI is pretty smart about blocking small attacks and rolling out of the way of big ones. And they were smart enough to still let you keep control of your hero in Classic mode; you can override the AI at any time by just playing the game normally.

However, Classic forces the enemy difficulty down to Easy levels. Which makes the whole game boring.

I went back and forth between Classic and Normal a lot as I played. I really preferred Classic, and I learned a lot about how the game expects me to engage with monsters by watching how the AI does it, and also because I’m just bad at dodge rolling in general. But I really did want the other half of the combat to have some teeth. That they recognized there were two elements to the system is to their credit, but for some reason they don’t allow me to tweak the difficulty of each element individually. In the areas where I played on Normal I constantly got punished by attacks I didn’t see coming until a fraction of a second too late, and in the areas I played on Classic I just bulldozed everything.

I cannot fathom why they didn’t have Classic/Modern and Easy/Normal toggles I could set independently. The end result is, as good as this combat was, I never felt completely at home in it. The areas I played on Classic were still fun, but it was a very passive kind of fun, similar to zoned-out level grinding in oldschool JRPGs.

This would be such an easy thing to fix in a patch. I hope they do.

What Is This Even

Final Fantasy remakes have run the full scale of quality, but generally they trend toward “excellent”. Dawn of Souls is my preferred way to play Final Fantasy I. The Advance versions of FFV and FFVI are both terrific, and the latter even has some great extra content that feels like it could have been there all along. (We, ah, won’t talk about the Steam versions of those games.) The DS versions of FFIII and FFIV are so good and so different that I consider them to be completely new games. And then of course there’s FFXII: The Zodiac Age, which just may be the crown standard of how to remake an old game you don’t want to re-invent from the ground up.

(I’m really looking forward to seeing how they remaster FFXIII on the PS5, when the time comes. Maybe for my birthday next year, Square-Enix?)

We knew for years that the FFVII remake was going to be different. This is the company’s flagship title, one of the most popular video games of all time, the most singular defining point of this series and of its genre as a whole. It’s understandable they wanted the remake to be the highest possible fidelity, and to feel like something truly unique. Every game in this series has been remade at some point, but FFVII Remake is the first one that was positioned in the market as a mainline entry.

But, uh oh, it’s not actually possible to make a cutting edge super HD game that encompasses the entire scope of a globetrotting adventure, and hasn’t been since the PS2 era. FFXII and FFXV use a lot of shortcuts to try and evoke that same feeling, but don’t actually come close to succeeding, and Remake wasn’t going to, either. So they dropped the bombshell: Remake wasn’t going to be a remake of the whole of FFVII, just the game’s first act: Avalanche’s struggles in Midgar.

We’re going to get all spoiler-y now. Like, really super spoil-y, both for Final Fantasy VII Remake and the original Final Fantasy VII. Don’t scroll past this picture of Aerith riding a giant robot hand if you don’t want to know what happens in these two games.

Hold △: Make a Fist

FFVII‘s first act involves a terrorist group and an authoritarian government going to war with each other. We play as the terrorists, and blow up a bunch of their stuff. Eventually the government concocts a plan to cut us off at the knees, and they succeed, and end up kidnapping one of our own. We break into their HQ to rescue them, and while inside discover some insidious secrets that put our actions so far into a broader context. Everything culminates in a thrilling chase down one of Midgar’s highways, a giant robot explodes, and our heroes regroup just outside the walls. They have here a chance to breathe, to re-assess, and to plan for the future.

This is an excellent place to end Act I of a five act story. It is a godawful place to end a 34-hour video game I payed $60 for.

I was highly critical of this decision long, long before we even knew how Remake was going to play out. Just the announcement was enough to convince me it was a terrible idea. Before the game’s release I was mostly told to “wait and see”, and given vague assurances about how it would probably be fine as long as I shifted my expectations. In the months since its release, most of my criticisms have been brushed aside by folks who have played the game, again, by telling me to adjust my expectations.

My issue, before playing the game, was that no matter how I set my expectations, it seemed like a “Midgar only” game was a bad idea. If I criticized it for not actually being a remake of FFVII, I was told Remake is trying to be its own stand-alone game. If I criticized it as a stand-alone game, I was assured that later episodes would tie it all together. If I criticized it as being a single episode in a larger game, I was told to not really think of them as episodes but rather individual entries in a larger series, as is more common in video games.

I eventually stopped criticizing it because, you know, I hadn’t played the game. It was possible they knew what they were talking about and I didn’t.

But now I’ve played it, and my opinion hasn’t changed. I mean, it changed a little. I enjoyed my time playing, at least. Still, Remake is at best a competent implementation of a really, really garbo idea.

Here’s a hot take: Midgar is not the best part of FFVII. It’s a great start to the story, but the story and gameplay both get much more interesting after you leave. There’s this breathtaking moment outside of Midgar’s walls, some six hours into the game, where you’re placed on the world map for the first time. Midgar is this big black splotch next to you, but it’s only a speck compared to the three enormous continents you now see on the full map. Of course no other area of the game is as large as Midgar was, but that’s not really the point. That six hours was just the first step of your enormous adventure, which is going to span cities and caves and a theme park and a huge icy wasteland and an Escher maze and outer space before it’s all over.

If you really want to take one-sixth of FFVII and get the most bang for your buck, I think the most interesting section is the Huge Materia hunt from disc two. Open in Junon, where Tifa and Barret are held captive, and Sephiroth has just summoned Meteor. Cloud is missing. The world is about to end and two bitter enemies — the Avalanche remnants and the Shinra company — each have their own mutually-exclusive ideas on how to attack the problem. During this slice of the game you get to visit a lot of different locations (one of which, I must emphasize, is outer frikkin’ space), fight the massive WEAPON monsters, score some real victories over Shinra, and solve the mysteries of Cloud’s tragic backstory.

There are reasons to not do this, of course. There’s too much connective tissue hanging off either side of the story if you pull a chunk right out of the middle. Who is Cloud and why do we care why he’s missing? Shinra’s evil, but they seem to have a good idea on how to destroy this catastrophic meteor, so why are we fighting against them? Wait, we’re hinging all our bets on some lady I don’t care about who died in a flashback?

These aren’t insurmountable problems, but they are much harder to write around than just pulling out the first one-sixth instead. And doing so would only barely appease me, and piss off pretty much everyone else. And it still wouldn’t be an actual remake of actual FFVII.

But, okay, they didn’t do that and were never going to. Remake is just the most boring part of FFVII, stretched out to 34 hours and sold to me at full price. Fine. But what actually is it? If my enjoyment of it hinges so much on calibrating my expectations going in, what do those expectations need to be?

FFVII Remake is the first episode in what will be a much larger game.

This was the most popular consensus for most of the time Remake was in development. The first episode of the game was going to take you to the edge of Midgar, and each later episode would have some portion of the game, and the full game would be all the episodes together. The kind of thing Telltale Games used to do before they imploded.

I think this sort of structure would pose a lot of pacing challenges, both in terms of gameplay and in story, but nothing a bit of smart work couldn’t solve. You’d probably have to reduce the game down into a series of stand-alone areas. Maybe episode 2 is the gang figuring out how to infiltrate Junon. Episode 3 could be a contained open world experience, sort of like FFXV, encompassing the important areas of the big continent and ending at the Temple of the Ancients. Carrying on in this way you might finish the game in five or six episodes, assuming you can keep the playerbase interested that long. (And, ah, you can’t. That’s part of the reason Telltale Games imploded.)

I think it’s clear Square-Enix didn’t do this. It might have been reasonable to think this was their intent, while the game was in development, but Remake‘s release day killed the notion entirely. For one, you can’t have a 34-hour “episode”. If we’re thinking six episodes, at 34 hours a piece, and I haven’t mishandled calc.exe recently, that’s like 63 thousand hours. Some poor slob is going to buy the Collector’s Edition Platinum Box at the end of that and nobody will ever see him again.

For another, a multi-episode work implies a strong connection between each entry. Telltale didn’t have to think much about this because, mechanically, your character at the end of one episode is the same as that same character at the start of the next. They just have to import a few booleans to know what sorts of key decisions you made, and that’s good enough.

But in Remake, I ended the game with a nearly full set of maxed materia, a closet full of armaments, 90 mega potions and more than 6000 hit points. If they balanced subsequent episodes around importing characters from the older ones, the numbers would have to be ramped up to absurd levels to keep pace. And if they aren’t, then anyone who imports anything just steamrolls the rest of the content. Old Ultima and Bard’s Tale games did these sorts of imports but it’s folly to think a modern RPG series could.

No, Remake is not just the first chunk of a larger game. You will not start Remake 2 with 6000 hit points.

FFVII Remake is the first game in a much larger series.

The first, much stupider reason this fails is, we already have an FFVII series. It’s already a game which spawned a greater universe of spin-offs and side content. Living in a world where we have an entry in a larger series that is itself two separate series makes my brain hurt.

But, it’s not an unreasonable way to present a video game. In this scenario, we’re to look at Remake as something more along the lines of a modern Tomb Raider or Assassin’s Creed game: it’s the first game in a series of games which, when taken together, complete the overarching narrative of a particular character or setting. In this case, the story of Cloud and Sephiroth and a big-ass meteor and some green glowing rivers.

In a longer series like this, it’s reasonable to expect that my hero will begin each new entry at a beginner power level. I’m not going to play Horizon: Forbidden West and be all butthurt that Aloy is starting over with just a bow and her magic iPod. There are certain contrivances we accept as part of the necessary reality of sequels. I’m not excited for Forbidden West because I want to wtfpwn all the new robot dinosaurs with stuff I earned in Zero Dawn.

No, the reason I’m excited for Forbidden West is because Zero Dawn staged an intriguing setting, introduced a likable character, and told one of my favorite sci-fi stories in a long time. Aloy experiences a full character arc, and so does the world where she lives. The story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is complete. The story is about the things Aloy accomplishes, and the ending implies there is much still left to accomplish — but doesn’t say what. Not yet. Because that’s a story for another time, and another game. There’s a post-credits sequel hook, sure. But the story I played was done and it was satisfying.

I can’t say any of the same things about Remake. If you really squint you might get away with claiming that Barret starts his character arc, but certainly nobody else has one. And Avalanche accomplishes nothing — absolutely nothing — during the game. It’s established early on that the things they think are victories are just traps set by their enemies, and then their enemies win, and then their enemies dick them around, and then their enemies kill 50,000 people, and then their enemies get away.

And then some new enemy shows up out of nowhere, with no proper introduction, and you have no idea who he is or what he wants besides some vague unexplained connection to the hero. He shows up from so far out of left field that Knowledgable Magic Girl has to literally step forward and insist he’s the real threat you should be fighting, and there’s no time to explain why that’s the case, just take her word for it. So you fight him and you don’t win, and he says some forboding stuff, and then he vanishes. The heroes regroup in their take-a-breath scene, roll credits.

I liked Remake‘s gameplay, but not really enough to justify playing future games in this series, based on what I played in this first entry. And while the story is made up of some really great individual scenes, the whole of it profoundly sucks. I feel like these heroes didn’t resolve anything, didn’t change or learn or grow at all, and don’t really deserve a chance to expound on all the little story teasers strewn throughout the game. If I didn’t already know where this story was going, and who these characters are, I would have zero interest in continuing on their journey with them.

A game needs to have its own identity, and its own message, even if it’s being positioned as the first step in a much larger story. The only identity this game has is, “Be sure to buy the sequel, coming soon!” And from there we spiral down into a discussion about exploitative practices game companies use to vaccuum dollars out of cunsomers and I end up very depressed.

There are two moments in particular I think really betray future titles in the Remake series, if that’s what we’re calling it. The first happens early on when Cloud starts seeing Sephiroth. First of all, blowing the Sephiroth wad so early is a mistake from a pure storytelling standpoint. Part of why the Midgar section of FFVII is so effective is because you can really take it as a story about terrorists vs. government, before the other shoe drops and the stakes get raised. But okay, Sephiroth is perhaps the number one bankable character in this entire franchise, and we’re not going to save him for later. Fine.

But they don’t just sprinkle Sephiroth into the story way too early. They show him ominously turning and walking through a wall of fire. This is one of the most iconic visuals in any video game ever released, but it’s also a key moment in this actual story. The fire is Nibelheim, Cloud and Tifa’s hometown, which Sephiroth has set ablaze. It’s the moment that galvanizes Cloud’s hatred for Sephiroth. Showing it in Midgar, one hour into the game, robs all the emotional impact of its eventual reveal in context much later. It doesn’t serve the story at all, it serves someone on Square-Enix’s board of directors, who probably played FFVII in college, who sent up a memo saying “hey you gotta show sephie walking thru flames cuz that’s cool”.

The other moment happens when Shinra drops the Sector 7 plate in an attempt to squash Avalanche. I was actually very impressed with how Remake handled this scene. Part of the FFVII experience is having a brutally violent event right in the middle which changes the stakes. They’re obviously not going to have Sephiroth kill Aerith in the Shinra Building, though, so the writers tweaked some things so the plate drop would have a similar impact. The build-up is much larger now, for one. Cloud and his gal pals can see the plate engulfed in gunfire and explosions the entire time they’re working their way through the train graveyard. Their cause is urgent and they’re stuck and you can feel their desperation as you play.

Then, the entire sequence is expanded tremendously. In FFVII you just climbed the pillar and fought some Turks, and established that your Avalanche buddies died along the way. In Remake you fight your way up the pillar, then play an interlude as Aerith moving through the scrambling, terrified populace to save Barret’s daughter. The scenes with the Avalanche kids are more drawn-out, and pack more of a punch because of their expanded roles in the game’s plot. (There’s a whole away mission where they drag you off to meet Jessie’s mom and get into a motorcycle chase and fight some Metal Gears that wasn’t in the original.) There’s an interjection into the Turks’ helicopter where they have a brief crisis of conscience about murdering thousands.

Then the dumb thing I hate happens.

After the dumb thing I hate, Cloud and his friends decide to go back into Sector 7 to see if anyone survived, and you experience the aftermath of the plate drop first hand. It’s a really effective scene that segues into a new dungeon area which, in turn, reinforces all the reasons you already have to want to take down Shinra. The plate drop really is the fulcrum of the plot, with a lot of unpacking to do on either side of it.

The dumb thing I hate is a maybe ten second cutaway shot, just after the plate falls and causes obscene destruction. Standing above the city, watching the devastation below, hammering his fists against the ground in rage and grief is… a stuffed cartoon cat.

Who we never see again.

Players familiar with FFVII will know this cat is Cait Sith, a robot operated by Reeve, the only member of Shinra’s upper management with a conscience. In both versions of the story we see Reeve begging the president not to go forward with mass-murder. For these players, this is a cheeky winky-nudge moment. “Oh cool! Cait Sith’s here!” A moment which is tonally inappropriate given the scenes we just saw and are about to see.

For those unfamiliar, it’s a confusing trip to the wiki or one of the subreddits to find out if anyone knows wtf is up with the weird cat.

In FFVII, Cait Sith sort of hops into your party at random upon arrival at the Gold Saucer theme park. He introduces himself as a fortunetelling machine and then insists on barging into the story when the fortune he gives Cloud turns out to be too intriguing to pass up. He’s a goofy character who attacks with dice and megaphones, and unlike every other character you’ve met up to this point, there’s no “Cait Sith required” setpiece in Gold Saucer where you learn more about him.

The twist comes later, when Cait Sith steals an item from the party and delivers it to Shinra, and then reveals he’s been a Shinra spy all along. He also reveals the party can’t dispose of him. If they don’t agree to let the robot spy continue traveling with them, the robot’s operator will be forced to retaliate against Barret’s daughter, who is within their reach.

This is an effective moment of storytelling. The reason it’s such a gut-punch is, after leaving Midgar, it’s easy for the player to start feeling like they’re always a step ahead of Shinra. You infiltrate their parade, stow away on their boat, swipe some materia from one of their defunct reactors, and fly off in a seaplane they wanted to commandeer. Most of the second act of the game is introducing and reinforcing individual character stories, and this “oh crap, Shinra had my number all along” moment is the abrupt end to that. It’s the point in the story where the lollygagging is over and the heroes have to get back on task and actually start handling some heavy stuff.

Of course, the twist only works if you don’t know Cait Sith is from Midgar, and now every player does. The second, smaller twist, when you learn it’s Reeve at the controls, is also spoiled, because there’s only one guy at Shinra who spoke out against the plate drop, and we’ve seen his robot cat crying about it.

Remake is full of little moments like this, where it robs later series entries of their story beats to fluff up the first installment. It’s the over-eager author who has a big basket of worldbuilding notes and he just can’t wait to breadcrumb it all out for you. As the introduction to a series, it’s lousy because it lacks its own identity and tries to make up the difference by touching its nose and giggling, “but just you wait!”

FFVII Remake is a standalone title.

The game already doesn’t work as a standalone title, for reasons I’ve gone into re: the character’s don’t achieve anything. But I think it’s interesting to consider the game from this angle, because if you really wanted to condense the full story of FFVII down into just Midgar, you very easily could. All of the aspects of the original which made it a globetrotting adventure can be boiled down into Midgar if you really wanted to.

You wouldn’t even have to cut any of the characters. In this hypothetical game you’d rescue Red XIII from a research facility much earlier in the plot. Yuffie and her dad are running a materia-thieving operation out of the Sector 3 slums and sending the proceeds back to Wutai, and Yuffie joins your party because she wants to stop the “Wutai is behind the terrorists” propaganda. (Also she wants to steal all your materia lol.) Rocket Town and Gold Saucer can be moved into Midgar’s borders without incident, so Cid and Cait Sith’s storylines are in tact. Shinra activates Vincent as a secret Turks operative after you beat up Reno and Rude too many times, but he switches sides because he’d rather pursue his personal vendetta against Hojo.

The major plot points we need to keep the plot coherent are: Cloud explains the Nibelheim incident; Cloud receives the black materia at the Temple of the Ancients; Sephiroth kills Aerith to stop her from activating Holy; Reunion occurs, causing Cloud to hand the black materia over to Sephiroth; Tifa finds Cloud and helps put him back together; Cloud and co. discover Aerith was successful in activating Holy after all; Cloud and co. topple Shinra and Sephiroth and save the Planet.

This is all stuff that can happen in or around Midgar. The Temple of the Ancients is actually a ruin in a sectioned-off area of Sector 2, and its conduit directly to the Lifestream is why this geographical point was chosen by Shinra to build Midgar upon. A second site accessible from somewhere near the Sector 5 church contains the ruined city of the Ancients, which is why Aerith always felt drawn to the place, and ends up being where she dies. Instead of raiding Shinra sites around the world looking for Huge Materia, we can raid some of the other six reactors instead. Northern Crater is significant to Reunion because it’s where Sephiroth’s body washed up after being thrown into the Lifestream. Instead, let’s have the suction of the eight mako reactors draw him to a point deep beneath the Shinra building, which Shinra accidentally makes accessible when the Sector 7 plate shears a hole into the abandoned cave system there (complete with icicles and whirlwind maze!).

It’s very possible to tell the complete story, in a satisfying way, with all nine characters, and only have to leave Midgar once for the Nibelheim flashback. And I think you could do it inside of 40 hours. (The original did, after all!) A remake along these lines would make The Zodiac Age look like a slapdash effort.

Alas, for what might have been.

FFVII Remake is a companion piece to the original FFVII.

Now we come to it, the only actual reasonable way to consider Remake‘s story at all: it exists alongside the original and soft-requires you to have already played it. As it happens, it’s impossible to actually discuss what happens in Remake without referencing the original FFVII or speculating what future events from FFVII they will or won’t have to change.

The first clue is the biggest one: nobody actually knows what the hell happens at the end of this game. Long before I played it, I read the spoilers and watched the video essays, and clicked the black boxes in my own Discord that people thought I wouldn’t click. There are lots of theories and potential explanations for the last hour or so, but nobody actually knows what happened, and cannot know until more games come out.

Remake pretty faithfully follows all the story beats from FFVII‘s first act. Indeed, I referenced this earlier as a major problem, because the characters don’t actually accomplish anything during the first act. There’s another reason Square-Enix chose to do this, though: they wanted to write in the whispers.

The whispers (colloquially known as “time ghosts” across the Internet) are supernatural beings whose job is to ensure that everything happens the way it’s destined to. Their primary concern seems to be making sure people don’t die before they’re supposed to, or live after they’re supposed to have died. Remake sticks to the established plot so closely in order to make it really stand out when the whispers show up to alter reality if it looks like something out-of-place might happen.

Of course the only way you can know what’s out-of-place is if you’d played FFVII before. Otherwise they’re just random time ghosts.

Whispers show up to make sure Aerith and Cloud don’t get shot by Turks in the church. They show up again to miraculously heal Barret from a fatal stab wound. (Ask me how I know it’s fatal.) They show up again to prevent Wedge from escaping the Shinra Building, after he was supposed to die in the plate catastrophe hours earlier. They’re neither good guys nor bad guys, they’re enforcers.

The final area of the game, which explodes out of Sephiroth’s butt with a gooey metaphysical splat, reveals to us that he wants to destroy the whispers in order to defy destiny. The inferrence is that he wants to do this because he knows his master plan re: summon Meteor is destined to get foiled by Spikehead and Gun-arm and their dumb robot cat. And we do see that the whispers are destroyed; the Remake epilogue shows Biggs waking up in bed, having survived injuries at the plate support tower that were supposed to have killed him.

This does seem to be the only interpretation of Remake that makes any sense, and it only makes sense with the context of already knowing what’s supposed to happen in FFVII. I really shouldn’t have to explain why this is an absolutely awful way to approach a remake.

The speculation from here stretches out in every direction, as fanboys grapple for any explanation their fevered fanfic-writing minds can concoct, but I find them all underwhelming. Did FFVII already happen in a different timeline, and Sephiroth somehow traveled from that world to this one via the Lifestream, and that’s why he knows the future (and maybe also Aerith kinda does too)? I don’t care, because that story is terrible. I don’t want to play the multiverse clones of the guys who already did the adventure. I don’t care about fighting Sephiroth now that I know he can sidestep timelines or whatever. I don’t care if Meteor destroys this reality if there are already other realities out there where that was averted.

The writers would have to be geniuses to resolve this story, and its unmistakable connections to its ancient forebear, in a way that will satisfy me. And I just don’t think they are. I think each successive Remake sequel is going to get more and more confused as they try to detangle themselves even as they run out of clever foreshadow nuggets to drop in.

I won’t even get into this.

Remake is going to inspire a lot of players to go back and experience the original FFVII. I’ve already stated I think that is fantastic. FFVII is one of the all-time greats, and I love thinking of a new generation of people who are going to stamp their feet when Yuffie strands them with no materia, desperately watch the seconds fall off the Emerald WEAPON timer as Knights of Round drags on forever, or play Aerith’s Theme at their wedding.

Some of those people, though, are going to re-visit Remake after their inauguration, and see the Cait Sith scene, and go, “Oh, that’s why the cat king was there. It’s Cait Sith. Huh, kind of dumb that he’s there, actually.” And they’ll be in about the place I am now. And they’ll still have two or three of these games to, er, look forward to.

Thanks for reading the longest thing ever!

Outer Wilds: Thoughts, Spoilers, and Unfair Comparisons

I bought Outer Wilds because people recommended it to me. These were not normal “hey you might like this” recommendations. More than one person who knows my tastes pretty well mentioned they thought this could be one of my all-time favorites. It didn’t happen in conjunction with some other game they knew I’d played, either. Dudes were not all “Oh hey, Brick said he liked Death Stranding, if that’s the case he’ll love this other thing!” I checked online to price the game on Steam and noticed that Limited Run Games were going to be doing a PS4 pressing, and I figured if the game really were as special as all that, it might be nice to have a hard copy. So I pre-ordered then waited like eight months.

It was worth the wait, and I’m glad I will have Outer Wilds‘s physical spine staring at me from my shelf, because this is one I’d like to be reminded to go back to from time to time. A kind of warm, familiar reminder you can only get by glancing at a shelf, and not from, say, a massive digital list of titles in tiny sans-serif font.

Outer Wilds was fantastic, and exactly the sort of game I needed right now. I went into it completely blind, and that’s how you ought to go into it, too. That said, it is not the life-moving incomparable experience I was maybe expecting after close to a year of self-imposed radio silence. I think it would have been okay for someone to tell me what genre the game was in, so that’s what I’m going to tell you: it is an adventure game, in the tradition of Myst, Riven, and Obduction.

I think this is important to say up front, because often when I encounter these “you have to play it completely blind!” games, the advice is trying to preserve some genre-defying new gameplay secret, or is one of those wink-nudge meta storytelling jobbers that’s all the rage these days. Outer Wilds is neither (thank goodness). The reason to go into this one blind is, while it is a fairly conventional adventure game, the breadth and direction of its exploration-based gameplay is quite unique. There are games I can point to and say, “Outer Wilds is kind of like that!” but you’ll have more fun if you don’t know anything about the specifics of what you’re getting into.

One thing I will say, by way of review, is that this game’s controls are very bad. They start out feeling quite cumbersome and a lot of the early game is spent getting used to them. The game is pretty short, so there’s not enough time to really master them over the course of your adventure. Even if there were, this isn’t the type of game that really rewards mechanical mastery. There are arguments to be made that bad controls have a point, and there may even be a smudge of merit to those arguments. I really dislike bad controls, though, and one of the things I love about adventure games is they’re usually designed without reflex challenges. People can play them who are bad at Mario or Doom or whatever. This game departs from the Myst template in that you have to be considerably more “in the moment” than just walking around and engaging with things intellectually; sometimes you have to also be good at playing the video game, and if you’re not, you could end up losing a lot of state.

SPOILERS FOR OUTER WILDS BEGIN NOW

I don’t feel like I want to break down the story in Outer Wilds, although it really was quite good, and the game was quite good at telling it. I also don’t have much to say in the vein of pointing out gameplay problems and possible fixes for those problems, like I usually do. What I want to do instead is contrast Outer Wilds against a few other popular adventure game archetypes to examine 1) what makes Outer Wilds so unique in this field, and 2) why Outer Wilds kind of almost broke as a gameplay concept.

I like to get stuck in adventure games. I love to solve puzzles, and I am incredibly stubborn, and I have a reputation as someone who will stay stuck on a puzzle far, far longer than what is usually considered reasonable. There are heights of euphoria to be had here, in that moment of finally figuring something out you’ve been stuck on forever, that cannot be reached outside this genre. It’s not like banging your head against a boss fight for six hours in Dark Souls, because that’s just a disconnect between designer intent and player skill. And it’s not like that moment where some badly-conveyed gamaplay quirk clicks with you, as happens sometimes in combat-heavy games with lots of fiddly controls. In a well-crafted adventure game, the designer knows you’ll be stuck and probably has a good idea of where, and engages you in a battle of wits. (And observation, and experimentation, and maybe a bit of trudgery. But mostly wits.) When pushing through these kinds of barriers in other games it often feels like a relief. An end to frustration. And I think that’s the difference: in a really well-designed adventure game I don’t get frustrated. I have faith the thing I’m missing is out there, somewhere, and the designer has pointed me at it, if only I can see the sign.

(It’s possible, of course, to lose faith in this process, but Outer Wilds didn’t do that, at least not directly.)

I completed Outer Wilds over the course of five play sessions. Three quite long ones, then one short one to wrap up the story, then one even shorter one to try out a few weird things I thought could get responses. (And did! Much to my delight!) The second of these sessions was actually pretty awful as a gameplay experience. It was seven hours long, and during that time I did not discover anything at all. I didn’t make any progress. The state of my game knowledge at the end of that seven hours was the same as at the start of it. I eventually did think my way through one of my barriers, but the thing I found on the other side also didn’t advance my knowledge of the world at all, so it didn’t feel rewarding.

So I shut the game off that night and spent some time laying in bed thinking about the comparisons I’m about to make.

An adventure game is, in the most abstract, a set of doors you have to unlock. There’s a big door at the end which completes the game, and it’s locked, and the path between your starting location and the big end door is frought with smaller doors with smaller locks. The various subgenres of adventure game differentiate themselves by changing the actual shape and configuration of these doors and locks.

At one extreme you have something like Monkey Island. The doors and locks in this style of game (which sits outside of the general concept of Mystlikes, but is still useful for illustration) are linear and tangible. You can’t open Door A without finding the corresponding Key A, and you can’t reach Door B without first going through Door A. You advance in this game by using the correct object from your inventory on the correct object in the game world. The puzzles usually “make sense” in terms of Monkey Island being a comedy story, which is to say, they kind of suck from a logical real-world interaction point of view. When you get stuck the game is often reduced to just trying every inventory item on every game object. The game tries to prevent this by giving you a lot of inventory objects, but there are never so many of them that this method becomes impossible; the possibility space is never bigger than maybe 30 things. This is boring and stupid but it eventually does work, just by pure chance, and you make progress.

Monkey Island: getting unstuck is BORING but making progress is GUARANTEED.

As you might expect, Outer Wilds is at the opposite end of this spectrum of “how do I get unstuck” and “does getting unstuck help me progress” from Monkey Island, but let’s look at two more data points along the way.

The next step is something like RHEM. The doors and locks in RHEM are usually very literal; they are physical doors locked by physical objects, and you have to move those physical objects in some manner in order to remove the door. There is no physical inventory in RHEM (at least, not in the first game), but you still do collect “keys” for the locks you encounter. Many of the physical locks involve entering combinations, and you learn what the combinations are by finding diagrams or working machines elsewhere in the game world. Once you figure out the proper way to use a machine and you write down what it tells you, identifying the corresponding lock and entering the combination is often trivial. The keys, therefore, are often intangible. If you have good notes from a previous playthrough of RHEM, you can skip a lot of the game because a lot of those “keys” are already “collected”. You can’t skip all of it, though, because there are still actual physical doors, and their movement changes what you can do and where you can go. Getting unstuck in RHEM involves trying every physical combination of pieces you can reach and making sure you see them from all angles. You’re working with the knowledge of where you’re stuck, though, so you have a generally good idea of where you should be applying your efforts. Like Monkey Island, though, getting unstuck always involves moving forward, because it means you can reach a new area, or you’ve gained some new knowledge you can now apply elsewhere, or both.

RHEM: getting unstuck is REASONABLE and making progress is GUARANTEED.

The original Myst would be the next step along this line. Myst has many puzzles but very few of them involve physical motion; they’re almost all knowledge-based doors and locks. The possibility space is too enormous to experiment with, here. Two of the first puzzles in the game involve picking three individual star charts out of a library of millions, or playing the proper sequence of notes on a 36-key piano. Like RHEM, opening any door is trivial once you know how to unlock it. Unlike RHEM, actually reaching a given door is also trivial, since the only things in your way are other doors you’ve already trivially opened. Famously, the big last door in Myst is reachable from the beginning of the game, and you can complete the whole adventure in minutes if you know precisely what to do. Which you will, after a single playthrough. The puzzle areas of Myst are also small and self-contained. Getting unstuck involves interacting with things in that specific area until you figure out what they’re doing and what that means for you. Once you know that, you’re off and running again to the next thing.

Myst: getting unstuck is QUITE REASONABLE and making progress is GUARANTEED.

And now we land at Outer Wilds. By necessity, the game is every bit as open as Myst is. Every inch of the game world has to be reachable inside of just a minute or two, because of the 22-minute cycle that drives the game’s central conflict. There’s no inventory and only two examples of what I’d call a physical lock. If you have your notes from the previous run you can not only go win right away, you can do anything in the game right away. Also, you don’t even have to take the notes yourself; your spaceship does that for you. These notes end up being the keys you collect. Bits of crucial information are scattered across the solar system, and as you begin compiling them, knowledge about how to find new areas or traverse certain obstacles is gained. Once you know how to reach the ocean planet’s core you can travel there whenever you want, but you’ll (probably) never figure it out without helpful clues from elsewhere in the system, several of which are themselves locked behind other knowledge keys from elsewhere.

This ends up being the gameplay loop of Outer Wilds: go explore some new place, stack up all the clues now available to you, sift through the ones that seem to point to other places, go get the clues from there, and then repeat this process until you have the small handful of clues which enable you go open the big door at the end. (Which, again, is something you can do from power on, if you know the exact sequence of actions.)

In my first play session this went really smoothly. There are so many “easy” places to explore that you will spend many hours just stacking up clues and chasing down leads and generally blowing through locks and doors without thinking much about it. At first it seems like there are a dizzying amount of loose story threads, but as you work these start to connect to each other and dwindle down to a single common goal.

The problem with having an “inventory” made up of intangible clues became apparent during my second play session, that gross one in the middle where I batted the game around for seven hours without getting anywhere. See, physically reaching and reading a clue is one way to get through a door in Outer Wilds, but another way is to reach the door first and then experiment with ways to open it. Sometimes the door yeilds and you have an amazing moment of discovery. Sometimes the door remains steadfast and you decide to revisit it later, when you’re really stuck in all directions. I had unlocked many doors without finding their keys, but those keys were still out there, often hidden behind other doors I hadn’t unlocked yet.

When you’re stuck in Outer Wilds, it often can help to continue experimenting with whatever you’re stuck with. But it’s just as likely that you won’t grok the solution without finding the key. There’s no strong correlation between where you find a key and where you find the door it unlocks, either; the nature of the game involves clues being left in every corner of All Over The Lovin’ Place. And when you do get stuck, and push against all the locked doors you have left, it becomes increasingly likely that the key you find inside unlocks a door you’e already opened.

Outer Wilds: getting unstuck is ESSENTIALLY UP TO CHANCE and making progress is NOT GUARANTEED.

This happened to me with the anglerfish.

I visited Anglertown before I had seen any of the clues that related to how to get through it. Of course, on my first visit, I got eaten. But I had work to do there, so I flew directly back, and this time I decided to look for clues on the anglerfish themselves. They have big glowy dingle-dangles, and enormous fanged maws, and cold dead eyes. You can actually get a pretty good look at them, since they’re larger than your ship and don’t aggro right away, even when you’re close. Since proximity didn’t trigger getting eaten, and it appeared that they were blind as well, the only other thing that made sense was sound. The only sound you can really make in this game is by blasting your thrusters. I tested this out by pointing my ship directly at an angler’s face while far away, firing slightly, then drifting toward it. The thing didn’t aggro until I’d literally bumped into its butt, and it immediately spun around and ate me, but this time I had a solid idea: if you knew where you were going you could just drift toward your destination without alarming any nearby fish. This got me to where I needed to be, but it felt like a kind of kludge-y solution. It felt like the kind of gameplay you might cobble together when you don’t know the real solution. There was one location in Anglertown I hadn’t reached yet, and it didn’t seem possible to reach it without using my thrusters near a fish, so I reasoned that I had stumbled upon about half of the solution and that I’d come back later once I learned the rest.

In a city elsewhere in the game, some NPCs left a helpful note about Anglertown. As children, in another part of the solar system entirely, they used to play on a huge dead anglerfish skeleton, and they thought the rules of the game they used to play could help them reach the Anglertown location I was trying to get to. So now I had a lead: go back to that area and find the skeleton. The skeleton is in another NPC town and reaching it involved actually learning the layout of the town (which was a non-trivial task!), solving a minor puzzle, then traversing some platforming challenges in a dark maze on a time limit. It took three tries to reach the skeleton (see “bad controls”, above), and when I finally did I learned…

…that anglerfish are blind.

Which I’d already intuited.

The actual solution I was “missing” is that the physics in Anglertown just so happen to “always work out” so you drift past the main gauntlet of them in the final area without firing any thrusters. It doesn’t seem like it should work, but it does, and if your destination in that area were somewhere else, or if the anglers had a different starting configuration, it wouldn’t work at all. So that’s lucky! Once I did it correctly the first time I realized the skeleton clues were saying a little more than just “lol they blind tho”, but decided I still didn’t like the solution because drifting slowly through a large area is dull. (And there’s even a reason this portion of the game needs to be time-consuming, which made sense in retrospect, which also didn’t improve my opinion of the solution.)

There were other areas in the game where I invested a great deal of time and elbow grease just to happen upon a piece of choice info I’d already figured out. As a matter of fact, as the game’s various plot threads and daisy chains begin converging, there seems to be maybe three or four Really Big Clues you need. One of these is a Myst-style combination that unlocks the big door at the end. Another is an incredibly specific clue I imagine completely defies intuition, but the possibility space around the door that clue unlocks is… well, not small but small enough that I could have stumbled upon the rules after an hour or two of playing with them. (And I spent longer than “an hour or two” reaching the Really Big Clue in question.)

The other Really Big Clues were things I figured out by experimenting with the game, sometimes quite early on. The doors that held the clues to these last few things were harder to get through than the doors the Really Big Clues opened, which meant I spent a lot of the second half of my time working on things that… ended up not mattering. So they didn’t feel good to discover, and didn’t help me progress.

This has an effect on the state of euophoria I mentioned. When you take down a tough puzzle in Monkey Island, it’s usually because you brute forced it, but it feels good because you immediately get some funny dialogue and then you progress on to the next thing. In Myst and RHEM the tough puzzles all open new areas, or reveal new information you can’t progress without. That doesn’t always happen in Outer Wilds. Sometimes I cracked a tough puzzle only to keep standing still. The list of stuff I could work on now was the same as the list of stuff I already had, minus the thing I’d just cracked.

I think there’s a lot of merit to this style of information-only progress gating, without constantly falling back on the old standby of writing down combinations to punch into button pads. (Although, there are a few locked one-way doors in Outer Wilds I kind of wish just gave me a combination to open them from the outside, the first time I reached them.) If there are other games like this, I imagine they have the same issue. And it’s a large issue. I mean, no matter how much I praise this game, or how much I enjoyed all the other parts of it — including all the parts outside the scope of this article — there’s a seven-hour black hole in the middle of it where I didn’t learn anything and wasn’t able to apply what I already knew.

It’s the first adventure game I can remember with well-designed puzzles where I did not enjoy getting unstuck. If nothing else, it was a new sensation for me.

I think I may have one more spoileriffic Outer Wilds post in me, where I break down how effective the story was, but we’ll wait and see if Next Week Brickroad wants to write it.

Thank you for reading!

My Custom Villainous Decks (and the rules they break)

Disney Villainous is an asymmetric board game. That means the game contains a variety of characters who play by different sets of rules all at the same time. This might sound insane if you’re not used to the idea, but it’s actually pretty common across all form of competitive games. Consider Street Fighter: one of the rules is “this button does a kick”, and that applies to all characters. However, another rule is “this button sequence makes Ryu do a fireball”, and another is “this other button sequence makes T. Hawk do a command grab.” There are no button sequences that make T. Hawk do a fireball or Ryu do a command grab. The two characters play by different rules, but that’s okay, because the central framework of the game — e.g. the set of core rules that applies to all characters — is robust enough that the game still works.

Another way to think of this: which of the above characters is breaking a rule? The game has rules about the various range of attacks; Ryu’s fireball breaks them by being a projectile that travels across the screen. The game also has rules about avoiding or teching throws; T. Hawk’s command grab breaks them as well. In fact no character in the game follows all the rules. It’s the part of the game’s design that make each character unique. This is something I immediately noticed about Villainous, and after a couple of games I knew I would be playing and thinking about it for a long, long time.

The asymmetry creates another property about the game I really like: it is endlessly expandable. Three expansions have been released so far, with a fourth on the way, each one introducing new villains that break the rules in fun and interesting ways. Even sticking with just the villains in the main box, though, I identified what must have been part of the game’s design doc: “there is a core rule set, but each villain breaks it in one way.”

I mean, each villain breaks it in lots of ways. That’s what cards are in board games; specific instructions on how you’re allowed, for that one play, to break the game’s rules. But each villain also has a special gimmick, something unique to just them, which breaks one of the game’s major rules. Other players are responsible for playing Heroes to your Realm, except for Captain Hook, who can (and probably must) do it himself. Realms have one locked location that becomes unlocked with a certain card, except for Ursula, who toggles back and forth between two locked locations. These deviations became more pronounced with each expansion. The first had a villain building a new kind of deck with cards from his own one. The next had a villain splitting her Fate deck into separate piles. All three in the expansion after that have new kinds of tokens and feelies to track various mechanics.

When I started designing my own custom decks for villains from the Final Fantasy series, I made “each villain breaks one rule” my own cornerstone. This post is a brief summary of the decks I’ve made and the rule each of them breaks. Buckle in for a long read, I’ve been at this for well over a year now, and there’s fourteen of them.

Garland (FFI)

“In Villainous, all cards remain in play, either in a Realm, or a player’s hand, or a deck, or a discard pile.”

Garland breaks this rule by having cards that remove Heroes from the game entirely. As one of the first decks I designed, I didn’t yet have a good handle on the ins and outs of how a well-constructed Villainous deck should look at various levels of development. The first round of feedback for Garland was that the deck felt absurdly powerful, and had a lot of interesting moving parts, but he wasn’t actually winning games. A lot of discussion, testing, observation and many rounds of changes went into getting the Garland deck into a position where it was fun and playable and an actual threat to win.

Part of the puzzle was giving Garland several cards that not only defeat Heroes in his Realm, but removes them from the game entirely. Garland’s Fate deck is as punishing as his villain deck is powerful — it helps give the deck a brutal, unflinching nature, kind of like the mean old NES game it’s based on. When Heroes kept cycling through his Fate discard pile and back into his Realm, Garland had no clean shot at victory. Giving him the ability to strike a fatal blow to the opposition makes him feel even more powerful but gives him an actual chance at the win.

Playing as Garland, it feels incredibly cool to send a Hero packing for good. Playing against Garland, there’s a feeling of horror at the same moment. It’s dark, it’s mean, and it’s exactly what Garland would do.

Sho-gun (FF Legend II)

“In Villainous, every deck breaks a rule.”

Sho-gun’s deck doesn’t break any rules, so that’s the rule it breaks.

I made this more or less as a joke deck, because I thought having a bunch of cards with all Game Boy graphics, based entirely around a quirk in the translation meant to avoid drug references, would be hilarious. The deck is still intended to be viable and I’m sure with some playtesting it will be.

Golbez (FFIV)

“In Villainous, you may only play one card at a time.”

Or two cards, if you’re on a space with two Play a Card buttons. Unless you’re Golbez, then you can play as many cards as you want. Indeed, you have to, on your final turn to win the game. You need to have four special cards in your game, and the Power to play them, and not have your play blocked by one of the Heroes in your Fate deck that can do that. This can be a hefty restriction, since you usually only have a hand of four, and every card you’re holding on to until your last turn is a spot not being put to use for something more useful you can play in the meantime.

Most villains have to discard lots of things they’d rather play, in order to get to the cards that are really important. Golbez still discards a lot of cards, but he also gets to play a lot more if he wants. This has always been one of the easier FF decks to learn and to win with, and this simple rule-break gives Golbez the flavor of a master manipulator who is, indeed, holding all the cards.

Dark King (FF Mystic Quest)

“In Villainous, you can only take one Fate action per turn.”

Fate is very, very strong. For most villains, it’s your only opportunity to complicate another player’s progress. It’s something every villain can do, and it’s something the game is very careful not to restrict. However, it’s also something the game is very careful to police. You can only do it once per turn, because you never have access to more than one Fate button at a time. Lots of villains have cards that grant extra actions, but these cards are always carefully worded to ensure the extra actions aren’t Fate actions.

Dark King begins his first turn by Fating someone. He has to. And he starts every turn that way, for the early game. Eventually this swarm of Fate stops and Dark King moves on to bigger and better things, but he can turn the early game into a real train wreck. In fact, this is the point. In the very early game, players tend to work towards their own goals, only using Fate when the opportunity arises. Nerts to that. Dark King throws monkey wrenches at everyone, throws up speedbumps all over the place, and gives everyone something to think about while he climbs the long ladder up his win condition.

I don’t know whether this breaks the game too much, or not. It’s a relatively new deck, and anything could happen. There’s a weird edge case where, with a potentially self-destructive sequence of actions, Dark King can perform three Fate actions at once. That might need reigning in, or maybe it’s fine as a once-per-game oddity. We’re keeping an eye on it, but it’s a characteristic I’d like the deck to keep into its final state.

Gilgamesh (FFV etc.)

“Rules are dumb, let’s just break all the rules, what’s the worst that could happen.”

Well, the worst that could happen is the deck becomes totally unplayable, or breaks the game in fundamental ways to the point where play cannot continue, or a winner cannot be definitively known, or bees swarm in through all the windows and sting everyone to death. I don’t think Gilgamesh (aka Greg, aka Glorgamorsh, aka Gilgafred, aka @FF5ForFutures) is at that level of tomfoolery, but he might be close.

After his initial introduction in Final Fantasy V, Gilgamesh just started showing up in whatever games he wanted, with no respect for the cosmological rules of whatever universe he happened to pop into. Indeed, he even started showing up retroactively when pre-V games got remade. Sometimes he’s a joke boss, sometimes he’s a sidequest, sometimes he’s a $4.99 DLC adventure, I think at least once he was a summon spell. Gilgamesh doesn’t know the meaning of the word “rules”.

When building this deck, I threw every stupid idea I possibly could into it, with no regard to coherence or reason or swarms of bees. Gilgamesh plays cards to other players’ Realms. His Conditions interrupt their actions. He can perform actions on your board. He can expand his own Realm to five locations. And then he can summon Enkidu to do it all again.

It’s nice to just cut loose and see how many shreds you can reduce everything to, sometimes, and Gilgamesh is exactly the right character to explore those ideas with. I haven’t played this deck myself, and I don’t think it’s gotten a win at my table, so it clearly needs some work. Maybe a lot of work. But it’s important that, at the end of this arduous project, I have one deck that’s just “everything exploded and then we just scraped off the stuff that splattered against the wall”.

Kefka (FFVI)

“In Villainous, each deck has two copies each of two Conditions.”

Conditions are special cards you play on another player’s turn, interrupting for a moment their action to take one of your own. In the Disney decks these Conditions are always named after personality traits the villain possesses — Cowardice, Rage, Opportunist, etc. — there are always two of them, and there are always two copies of each. Card games with lots of turn interrupts can get pretty complicated, so I can definitely see why the designers wanted to keep this aspect pretty simple. With the FF decks I didn’t slavishly adhere to the personality trait naming convention, but I did stick with two Conditions per deck, two copies per Condition.

Except Kefka. Kefka has ten Conditions in his deck. Two of them trigger off other players’ Condition cards. His final card to win the game is a Condition. There’s a sense of lurking dread playing against Kefka. Since much of what he does takes place outside of his turn, you can never quite tell what he’s up to.

If you know my decks, you might think this isn’t the weirdest thing about Kefka’s gameplay. He also splits his Villain decks and discard piles in half, which no other villain does. This sounds like a second broken rule, but it’s actually a logical emergence from the first one. Kefka doesn’t win on his own turn, he wins on yours. He has to put his Realm into a particular state before he can do that, though, so he needs unique ways to hide or play with information. Face down double discard piles is a way Kefka can keep track of his own business while making him tough for everyone else to follow.

I actually really hate playing as this deck, and hopefully it doesn’t need much more refinement. It’s kind of hard to tell if it does. That’s probably how Kefka would want it, all told.

Magus (FF Time Travel Gaiden Superventure)

“In Villainous, each villain has one Objective.”

Magus has two. They’re each of the form “Begin your turn at X location while y action avaiable and z card is played there,” but each of the variables has two possible mutually exclusive values.

At the time I started designing Magus’s deck, with its two Objectives, his gimmick was unique. That was before the second expansion, and the Ratigan deck. Ratigan (from The Great Mouse Detective) also has two Objectives, but they’re handled a little differently from Magus’s. Ratigan always starts with Objective A and then switches to Objective B if a specific thing happens during his game. Magus chooses an Objective at the start, and both he and other players have opportunities to flip it. Because his Objective can turn on a dime, and the two Objectives are mutually exclusive, his deck is packed with lots of odd abilities to help him pivot course.

The balance of this deck feels okay so far, but the intent is for the two Objectives to be equally obtainable from start of game. If one is easier than the other, the deck might become overly predictable. Or maybe that’s okay, because a table’s meta will change as players try to guess and second-guess whether this Magus is going for the easier Objective, or the harder one, or picked the harder one because he assumes you’ll assume he picked the easy one and then flip it on him, or vice-versa. (Assuming one is harder than the other in the first place, which I don’t have good data for yet.)

Magus is a conflicted character who does evil things in dogged pursuit of vengeance brought on by grief and loss. I hope the deck captures that duality.

And yes, Chrono Trigger is a Final Fantasy game as far as I’m concerned.

The Turks (FFVII)

“In Villainous, there is one villain mover.”

I was done making Villainous decks, for real I was. I had designed the eight core decks to the point they were table-playable (e.g. the cards were written and imported into Tabletop Simulator, albeit some without art assets, and in something like a playable state) when I decided to create two more “expansion decks” — Gilgamesh and Magus — rounding everything out at a nice even ten. And that’s where I should have left it, until we started brainstorming one night about what a deck with multiple villain movers might look like. The idea was so tantalizing I had to make another deck for it, and The Turks was a natural fit.

(For the record, each deck started with an idea rather than an actual villain, usually the idea that coalesces from some form of “what if we break this rule?” With the exception of Garland and Golbez, villains I knew I wanted in the collection for personal reasons, I never started with a villain and then went in search of deck mechanics that would fit that villian’s themes. This is why there are no Sephiroth or Kuja decks; none of the ideas I had presented themselves as good fits for those characters.)

The Turks is by far the most complicated deck I’ve made, and all those complications stem from the idea that while most villains are solitary creatures, moving about their Realms and performing actions, The Turks is a group of four. On your turn you select one to move and perform actions. All of the deck’s resulting weirdness stems from that core idea. Each Turk has Personal Actions they can perform in conjunction with the Realm Actions printed on the board, allowing for somewhat customizable action sequences. And they have an extra Company Action, too, which they take collectively, and depends on how many Turks are present in a single location. (This “extra action” concept is explored in a different way in the Dark King deck, which I decided to make after The Turks because I didn’t want an odd number of decks.)

This deck has gotten some heavy play and, while it is the most complex of all the decks, it’s also incredibly fun to work with. There’s so many moving parts and so many permutations of action sequences that it really does feel like you’re playing a group of people cooperating with each other, rather than a single villain pursuing his own goals. Someday Elena will be introduced in Final Fantasy VII Remake 2 or 3 and we’ll have a nice HD render of her character to include on this board.

Ultimecia (FFVIII)

“In Villainous, Realms have at most one locked location.”

Ultimecia has three. She has to unlock them, do some stuff, then lock them back up to win.

This deck first hit the table in a literally unplayable state. I mean it hard locked to the point where the player could not do anything. With a lot of work and testing the deck has landed in a state that is not only playable, and not only winnable, but also somewhat elegant. There were times early in Ultimecia’s development where we played around with changing a lot of the rules for locked locations just for her board, but in the end the only necessary change was this: in addition to the cards that specifically unlock locations, Ultimecia can unlock a location by playing an Ally to it.

Everyone who plays Ultimecia gets into big trouble on their first try. One of the deck’s main characteristics is locking stuff up, but the more you do that the fewer places you have to take actions. The actual order you want to do things is determined by the action symbols in the Realm (whether you need access to Power or Play or Fate buttons might change depending on what villains you’re playing against) and what Heroes you end up seeing, and in which order they appear. There is one powerful “lock EVERYTHING down” card, but it can be pretty obvious you’re planning to play it, if your opponents also know the deck and are paying attention.

Queen Brahne (FFIX)

“In Villainous, Heroes are bad for you.”

The core game already has one villain — Captain Hook — who breaks this rule. And in the wider world of custom Villainous decks, “defeat such-and-such Hero” is a fairly common Objective. (And that’s another blog post unto itself, maybe!) I really like Hook. He’s probably my favorite of the core decks. So I definitely wanted to try making a deck in the same style. In Hook’s case, there’s a Hero he needs to play and several ways to get that Hero out. Other players can Fate Hook and bring the Hero out, too, and in my experience that’s almost always bad for Hook. What I wanted to try was a deck where the Hero starts in play, and can never be removed, but needs to be semi-controlled in order to win.

(The third Villainous expansion introduced Mother Gothel, who works on a similar idea. Between that, and Magus’s double Objectives, and Gigamesh’s Quest structure, I feel at least a little smug about independently designing deck ideas that went on to be good enough to explore in the main game.)

The board ends up feeling like a chase, and that’s intentional. The Queen has to chase the Princess around in order to get certain cards played at certain times. Sometimes you can manipulate the Princess to where you need her, sometimes you have to work with wherever she ended up. My suspicion is that the deck is too hard to win with, but I actually really like it in its current state. Any refinements on the basic Brahne concept are going to be light touches.

Sin (FFX)

“In Villainous, you always have access to the lower row of action symbols.”

Sin has to destroy his own action symbols to win.

Sin is a slow and steady deck. It’s going to win, and no amount of Fate can prevent that, it can only deter the inevitable somewhat. Playing against Sin isn’t about disrupting its Objective, it’s about pushing it back long enough that you can meet your Objective first. (If you’ve played the base game, Prince John has a similar feel.)

There’s really not much more to go into here. The deck has the same “problem” as Ultimecia, in that you can box yourself in by blocking off actions too early, but the solution is to just learn the deck and avoid doing that. Very few refinements were necessary for Sin. It’s a simple, straightforward deck that’s another good candidate to introduce a new player to the expansion.

Shantotto (FFXI ~ A Shantotto Ascension)

“In Villainous, you can hold a card  in your hand as long as you want.”

Shantotto can’t. Some of her cards have a Channeling cost, which is an amount of Power she needs to pay to keep the card in her hand at the end of her turn. This led to a major emergent property of the board that is necessary for honest play: Shantotto always plays with her hand revealed. Other players know what you’re holding. This concept of having no hidden information, not even your own hand, is thematically appropriate for Shantotto. In her game, specifically in the expansion pack this deck is based on, Shantotto tries to be deceptive and to hide things from the player, but is so obviously up to no good that the ultimate betrayal is more or less played for laughs.

This deck currently exists on a razor’s edge. The card Shantotto wants to play to win costs 24 Power. That’s a lot of dosh, so the deck is mostly geared around getting infrastructure in place to get lots of Power very quickly. The card has a Channeling cost of 2, so if Shantotto is holding it but can’t gain at least 3 Power per turn, she’s just spinning her wheels. There do seem to be decent strategies for playing the deck depending on whether you see the winning card in the early, mid, or late game, and I suspect we’re close to the deck’s final state.

It was this time last year I was playing Final Fantasy XI to get art assets for this deck. It was hell. I have scars. (But I still love Shantotto.)

Doctor Cid (FFXII)

“In Villainous, every Realm has multiple Gain Power actions.”

Not Doctor Cid. He gains Power by taking a special action to reshuffle his discard pile back into his deck, and his gameplay is designed around starting with a small deck and making it larger over time. If you’ve played Final Fantasy XII it should be obvious why this is good theming.

I’m glad I eventually had a good idea for a Doctor Cid deck. FFXII was a big hole in the collection for a long time. It’s one of my favorite games in the series, and its primary antagonists Vayne Solidor and Doctor Cid are amongst my favorite villains, so it kind of sucked having decks for the likes of Sin and Queen Brahne, but not one of them. Well, now I do. (And then, to even things back out, I whipped up the joke-y Sho-Gun deck to top it all off.)

This deck is so new it hasn’t been played yet. There are some obvious problems I want to look at and who knows how many non-obvious ones. This is why I like to playtest decks quite a lot before releasing them to the public table.

Ardyn (FFXV)

“In Villainous, you defeat Heroes with Allies.”

Ardyn has no Allies. He must defeat Heroes himself.

This wasn’t a new idea, when I sat down to design Ardyn. Ursula (from the base game) and Evil Queen (from the first expansion) both have alternate ways of dealing with Heroes in their Realm, and it’s a popular design idea across many of the custom decks I’ve looked at. The twist with Ardyn is, instead of simply having alternate Hero-slaying mechanics, he uses the standard Vanquish action to do it with his villain mover, rather than relying on Allies.

To ensure that Heroes were a central mechanic to the deck, this property emerged: Ardyn needs reasons to go into his own Fate deck and play his own Heroes. Once that was in place, his final gimmick — cards that have extra abilities if he possesses the Fate Token — was obvious.

It’s dangerous giving villains the incentive and ability to go into their own Fate decks. If Fate is necessary to advance a villain’s Objective at all, other players may not want to Fate them. There is some debate whether you should fate Captain Hook, for example. (He’s the only villain in the base game that needs to play a certain Hero to win.) We worked very, very hard to carefully word each of Ardyn’s Fate cards so that playing Fate against him is always damaging to him. There should never be a turn where Ardyn gets Fated and then says thank you.

I may or may not do more in-depth looks at these or other Villainous decks on this blog. I’ve definitely been playing and thinking about it a lot over the past year-and-a-half. I do maintain a YouTube playlist where I go in-depth into each deck as it’s released, but even some of that information is obsolete now with further playtesting. (Garland and Golbez both need to be revisited in future videos.) You can check out that playlist, or the Tabletop Simulator mod itself, at these links:

Steam Workshop: https://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=1901065673
YouTube Playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLJaCM0fQ67Zaf3q34bWo5EKho4mNZ9FhA

Thanks for reading!

Shantae and the Seven Sirens

I have a sorta-kinda reputation amongst my viewers for being a huge Shantae fan.

And I am a fan, unquestionably. But not as big a one as people probably expect. I like Shantae. I like the characters, I like the dance magic, I like the corny sense of humor. I like that the games are breezy fun, and don’t aspire to be much beyond that. I like the gameplay, too, despite how sloppy it can be. I grew up in the ’90s, so I especially like how each entry to the series feels like it could be an episode of its own Saturday morning cartoon.

Do you zoomers even know what the phrase “Saturday morning cartoon” means, or why it has different connotations than if I’d just said “cartoon”? If so, you understand a small piece of why the games are special.

But I didn’t like Shantae and the Seven Sirens much. I was bored for most of my time with it, and so I had a lot of time to think. About Shantae as a character, about Shantae as a series. And I’ve concluded that while Seven Sirens is the only one I didn’t really enjoy playing, if I’m being honest, the series as a whole isn’t… great. Good, certainly. Flirting with greatness, at times. But almost always falling short.

A Brief History

I’m going to have to do a lot of work to make that statement make sense. I’ll start with a bit of history. I own a copy of the original Shantae GBC cart. A good friend of mine is a pixel artist by trade, who has a great admiration for the craft that eventually grew to be his career. Way way back in the long-long ago, around the first time Cave Story was the new indie hotness — that’s 2005, not 2010, for you zoomers — this friend recommended the game as being quirky and having really neat pixel animation. I do not know whether he had played it or not. Copies of the game were widely available at the time. I bought mine for $20 and played it on my GameCube’s Game Boy Player and then did not think about it for years.

Back when my YouTube channel was even smaller than it is now, I had a pretty good idea I wanted to be doing gaming commentary videos for a very long time but also realized the stable of NES titles I was actually good at would run thin very quickly. And I wanted to record something that wasn’t already covered to death on YouTube. Shantae seemed like a perfect fit, and it was. I got to showcase a game most people didn’t know existed, and had a crisis of conscience about whether anyone would actually watch fifty-nine videos of me getting lost in swamps and snowbanks. I created two Shantae playlists: one that included every video in the series, and one which only included videos in which I made actual progress, which I dubbed the “Platinum Edition”. (I eventually deleted that nonsense.)

The folks at WayForward watched that series, including Matt Bozon, who co-created the character with his wife Erin. I didn’t know this until several years later when the sequel, Risky’s Revenge, was greenlit for the Nintendo DSi. They plugged my YouTube series on the Risky’s Revenge development blog, which caused a huge influx of viewers to my channel. Matt reached out to me to offer me a download code for the game, but I didn’t have a DSi at the time, and so the company sent me one. It’s in a drawer right now with like 40 other DSes I’ve accumulated since.

Risky’s Revenge includes three corny references to my original video series, which still make me grin every time I pick up the game and replay it.

I really, really like Risky’s Revenge. It’s the only game I’ve ever attempted to seriously speedrun; at one point I managed to climb as high as #5 on the leaderboards. The game is smaller than the other games in the series, by like a lot, a fact which I’ve seen attributed to early DSiWare limitations. But the smaller size makes it feel punchier than the original. Each area is filled with more purpose. One of my most ironclad beliefs about game design is that limitations and restrictions drive creativity rather than stifle it. I realize the game wasn’t WayForward’s ideal Shantae vision, but for me, it was just the right mix of all the components to really shine. The game gets in, does its thing, then gets out without really having space to drip and droop.

Drippiness and droopiness were some of my complaints with the following title, Pirate’s Curse, which WayForward also provided me a copy of. I got to play it a few days before everyone else did, as long as I promised to not spoil the final boss for anyone. That final boss is so terrific I won’t even spoil it here. Really one of the all-time greats. (I did a full write up of the game in an old blog post here: Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse.) Teal deer, the game is fine but not a smash like its predecessor, and it has one really godawful level that I still see sometimes in my darkest and most fevered nightmares. I played through it a second time when the Steam version dropped, but not again since.

Even before Pirate’s Curse came out, WayForward organized a Kickstarter campaign to fund the next game, Half-Genie Hero. I backed the campaign and was not disappointed one bit upon finally getting my hands on it. I’m always wary of HD graphics in platformers, as many developers use the extra pixels as an excuse to cram lots of unnecessary detail on each screen, making them harder to read. Half-Genie Hero did not do this. The game looks fantastic and showcases some truly creative level design. The biggest compliment I can pay the game is that it eschews the Metroidvania structure of the previous titles for a more Mega Man X style level select. This was the perfect move for a series that had never quite gotten the hang of Metroidvania-style level design, but having now played Seven Sirens, I also suspect it again wasn’t WayForward’s ideal vision. That maybe there was some technical limitation why Half-Genie Hero couldn’t be a big connected world. If this is the case, it again just supports my theory that restriction drives tighter, more creative game design. Since it came out, Half-Genie Hero has been my go-to for replaying games in this series.

So now that Seven Sirens is out, that leaves me with two games in the series I really like, one I like with several asterisks, and one I probably won’t play again. And the original, of course, which I haven’t played since I recorded that YouTube series, and which I definitely will never play again. Because it’s not good, and I don’t like it.

Why the Original Shantae is Bad (and Why That Doesn’t Matter)

The original Shantae is a labor of love like no other I know. It’s big and ambitious, but also clearly held together with spackle and stardust. The team that made it was driven and talented, but also clearly working with thin resources. It barely clawed its way onto a dead handheld at the tail end of its lifespan, and even that must have been a herculean effort.

It’s not a terrible game, but it’s far from a good one. My friend who recommended it to me was right about its absolutely charming art style and the wonderful animations, but as time went on I also realized he was willing to overlook large gameplay flaws in his search for beautiful pixel art. Shantae has a lot of flaws, which are on clear display if you watch any of those videos I made which I originally deemed unworthy of the “Platinum Edition”. The world is vast, but it’s also sprawling and hard to navigate. The screen size is tiny and there’s no map, and large areas all made out of the same grey blocks make getting lost inevitable. Shantae moves faster than the screen can keep up with her, but the view doesn’t pan in her direction of travel, so running into monsters you couldn’t possibly see or dropping into pits you couldn’t possibly know were there are just everyday occurrences.

So the game is unpolished and clumsy, and kind of a real chore to play, if you hunker down and go through it. It starts out as good fun but becomes wearying quickly as you realize all the little niggles and irritants are going to be with you for the whole rest of the playthrough. I know it’s getting released on Switch soon, so if that’s going to be your first time playing I guess this is your fair warning. It’s old and stingy and definitely not a showcase of the best the series has to offer. All the charm is there, so if that’s what you like the games for you probably won’t be disappointed, but you are going to die a lot and it won’t be your fault and if you’re anything like me that sort of thing makes you sour.

A year or so ago I recorded a few short serieses I called the “old mean NES games”. This included Castlevania II, Faxanadu, Conquest of the Crystal Palace, and Battle of Olympus. This is about where on the 2D platformer spectrum I’d put the original Shantae. They’re decent, and it’s certainly possible to enjoy them for what they are, but they’re very hard to recommend nowadays because of their jank and rough edges.

But.

Shantae might still be one of the most important games ever made. The late ’90s and early ’00s weren’t a kind time to 2D platformers. The big companies weren’t making them anymore and neither were the small companies. Metroid and Castlevania kept rolling on sheer inertia, but outside of that and a couple of Mega Man X spin-offs the genre was dead, dead, dead. There wasn’t a proper mainline Mario platformer on either the Game Boy Color or Game Boy Advance that wasn’t a port. There wasn’t much of an indie scene to speak of either. If you liked platformers a lot, as I did, Shantae was important because it was bearing a torch no one else wanted to carry. This is what I meant when I said the game was a labor of love “like no other”. Someone in the world, for some reason, stood up and said, you know, we’re gonna make an oldschool platform game. Even though it won’t sell. Even though nobody wants it. Even though we’re not Metroid. We’re gonna make it because we know, in our heart of hearts, that classic 2D platformers are one of the truly timeless video game genres, even if these turdbois with their PlugStations and their Q-Boxes have temporarily forgotten that fact.

Someone said this even before Cave Story. And I can do nothing but salute that sort of dedication.

We are awash with 2D platformers in this golden modern era, more than a man can ever possibly play. And there probably always will be. And to be clear, Shantae was not a herald. It didn’t cause the genre’s return to glory. But in the Dark Ages it was there, alone in the wasteland, carrying the standard.

So Okay, Seven Sirens, Then

The original game was a great release for 2002, for reasons I’ve mentioned, but I have serious doubts it would have cut the mustard if it had been, say, a 1994 Super Nintendo release. Standing alongside Metroid Fusion and Castlevania: Whatever of the Whocares I think the game did fine; if it had stood alongside Mega Man X and Donkey Kong Country and Yoshi’s Island and Sonic & Knuckles and fifty other titles, I think it would have been washed away like so many other long-forgotten platformers of the era.

And this is the problem I kept having with Shantae and the Seven Sirens. In 2020 it’s simply not enough to be a 2D platformer, or even a Metroidvania. Nowadays you have to compete with, just as a sampling, Axiom Verge, Micro Mages, Bloodstained, Guacamelee!, Ori and the Blind Forest, Hollow Knight, Mark of the Ninja, and a thousand others. To even register on the scale, your game has to do something really special.

And Seven Sirens doesn’t. As I reached the end of the game, I realized that I had only bought it because I liked Shantae, and that was really the only reason to play it. Other Shantae fans are the only people I would recommend the game to, but that’s pointless, because other Shantae fans already know about it.

Again, all the charm is on display here, and if that’s what you like most about the series, you probably won’t be disappointed. Alas, charm alone isn’t enough for me anymore. I need the gameplay to sink its talons in deep. This means different things for different genres; for Metroidvania titles, though, it means the first and most consistent thing I’m going to notice is the moveset.

In Seven Sirens Shantae can wall climb. She can air dash. She can ground pound. She can double jump. And that’s… it, as far as general use movement options go. Her moveset is rounded out with two “move through special types of ground” transformations that are functionally identical to each other, and four full-screen “trigger the special onscreen thing” magic spells that are functionally identical to each other. Oh, and her usual repertoire of attack items and potions, which are barely worth mentioning, because the game is so easy anyway that combat just doesn’t matter.

Here’s a hot take: I don’t want combat to matter in my Metroidvania titles. I had to give up on Hollow Knight and, while the original Guacamelee! won me over I wasn’t quite as enamored with Guacamelee! 2: ¿No hemos hecho esto antes? The explore-y bits are what I’m here for. I’m the stubborn jacknose that hundo’d Axiom Verge without a walkthrough, even though it came down to painstakingly drilling individual blocks one at a time and mapping the whole world out by hand on graph paper. I think X-Ray Scopes are for weiners. I want a bunch of trivially-cleared enemies that I don’t have to think about as I plow back and forth through areas I’ve seen a hundred times. I got stuck for hours in Bloodstained and refused to look up the solution even as my Twitch chat was watching and slowly going insane.

(And the solution was dumb, I decided. If it weren’t dumb, I’d have figured it out sooner. Of course.)

So believe me, I don’t want Shantae to nerf the pike ball and limit my potions. Toothless, softball monsters and infinite healing are not why I was bored.

The game world of Seven Sirens is closest to the original Shantae in terms of navigating the world. The screen size is much bigger, and you have a map now, so you won’t get lost or fall into a cheap hole. But you will spend a lot of time in very same-y looking environments, screen after screen of perfectly uniform blue or orange blocks, with just not a lot of interesting things to do.

It really does come back around to that boring moveset. In a Metroidvania game I want to unlock a move that’s so fun I just can’t help but do it everywhere. I want to chain Juan’s uppercuts or fling Ori around like a pinball. All Shantae can do here is jump to the next platform or, if it’s a little too high up, turn into a lizard and climb up to the next platform. Or, if the screen has one of the Special Things on it, you push the matching Special Thing button to unlock it and get some goodies. It’s up to you if you want to stop and fight the monsters or not, but I certainly didn’t.

This has always been at least a minor issue with this series. The first game gets a pass, for being the first, and coming out during the Dark Ages before the pulsating ooze of the Igavanias seeped into the genre. And the second does too, for sticking to punchier, nicer-looking versions of the first game’s abilities. The third tried to innovate by replacing the standard dancing moveset with pirate gear, but the pirate gear was just the bog standard “double jump air dash wall grap slow fall” kit. It worked well enough and some of the gear combined in fun ways, but there were no surprises. Seven Sirens not only has no surprises, it tries to make do with fewer actual movement options than any of its predecessors.

(This is another area where Half-Genie Hero’s level design really wins the day. Because it wasn’t made out of interconnected levels, it could afford to lean way harder on its gimmicks and platforming challenges, giving every location a unique feel. You were hanging from fish hooks, or leaping between magic carpets, or racing a volcanic eruption. That’s not something a Metroidvania can easily do, and one of the reasons I felt moving away from that archetype was good for Shantae.)

There actually was one surprise waiting for me, as I traversed the map: the load times between each area. I have to say I really wasn’t expecting that. I couldn’t swear they’re longer than the ones in Guacamelee! or Bloodstained, but I definitely noticed them a lot more. Maybe the load screens just pack a bigger punch when all you’re doing is switching from blue hallways to brown ones.

Most of what you’re doing, on a moment-to-moment basis, is running fetch quests for NPCs. So-and-so wants the such-and-such, or maybe four or five thingamajigs, and wouldn’t you just be a doll and go gather them all up? Risky’s Revenge did a little of this to squeeze some extra use out of the game’s limited areas. Pirate’s Curse did it to sort of introduce you to each new area as you reached it. But neither of those games were what you’d really call pure big-boy Metroidvanias like Seven Sirens is. And the convention just doesn’t work here. The NPC sends you off to some part of the map, yeah? But I mean, I was going to go there anyway, just as part of my baseline exploration of the world. When I reached a new area I didn’t want to explore at all, because I knew it’d just be wasted time and I’d just have to cover all that ground again once I found the relevant NPC. For reasons I hopefully don’t have to explain in much detail, “I don’t want to explore this new area” isn’t a sensation a player should be having in this genre of game.

The dungeon content from the first three games is back. These are the areas where the level design really comes into sharp focus; small-ish but tightly-designed areas built around a common theme and, later, whatever your new dance move is. Each dungeon has a mini-boss which cheekily advances the game’s story, which is a cute idea I really liked. There is some very light “match three shapes” style puzzle matter to contend with, and then a forgettable boss fight you’ll plow through because you have the super pike ball and infinite healing.

(I think I would really enjoy a batch of Shantae dungeons that went all in on the puzzle design. There was one squid in one of Seven Sirens‘s dungeons that had me stumped for a couple minutes, because I had misunderstood one of my new dance’s interactions. My preference would be for every dungeon to stump me repeatedly, because they were deliberately designed to. I realize this isn’t part of WayForward’s toolbox, but I can’t think of another series that’s making sideview Zelda-style dungeons, so this is a niche Shantae could really occupy, if it wanted.)

What’s missing from the dungeons, much like the moveset, is creativity. You’ll shoot through a cannon maze. Okay, that was kind of fun in previous games, where it was already dropped in from Donkey Kong Country. But we’ve done it before, and Seven Sirens doesn’t do anything new with it. There are red/blue toggle switches that make red/blue platforms appear. There are breakable walls and whippable blocks. There’s… uh… Pac-Man rooms, for some reason, which at first I thought was a great gag, but then the game threw a second and later a third one at me, and I started to wonder if maybe it wasn’t a gag.

There was one dungeon I quite enjoyed, where you’re put on a time limit and given what seems like way more tasks than you can reasonably complete in that limit. But even this was an idea explored already in Risky’s Revenge, so while it was enjoyable, it wasn’t new or surprising.

There is a badge system now, where sometimes monsters will drop equippable doodads you can put on for perks like “climb ropes faster” or “fireballs deal more damage.” But you can ignore this system entirely, because there are purchasable items in the shop that replicate the few badges that are actually useful, and because the only really good badges are the boss ones you have to purchase from NPCs anyway.

Since all the badges are monster drops and all the upgrades and spells are for sale in the shop, that doesn’t leave much to hunt for out in the game world. This is really the meaty center of any Metroidvania: worthwhile upgrades hidden in clever spots. In Seven Sirens these are all either heart pieces, gem caches, or gold nuggets used for buying the rare boss badges. This is a complaint I had about Pirate’s Curse too, where the actually good upgrades were gated only by money, and so the emphasis was on grinding up gems rather than hunting for secrets. It’s just as well, since most of the secrets in Seven Sirens are of the “use every spell on every screen and see what pops out” variety. At a certain point in the game the world becomes populated with tinkerbats poking at walls or digging in the ground. This is a clever way to hide secrets that otherwise wouldn’t be signposted. However, sometimes I couldn’t find a way to interact with them to reveal the secret. This is a pretty strong clue to come back later with a different upgrade, but tinkerbats that are poking at a secret don’t get cleared away once you reveal it. So the post-game clean-up would just be going to every screen with tinkerbats, trying each ability and spell in turn, reloading the screen in between tries, with no way of knowing whether I’d already gotten the thing from that screen already. Needless to say, I didn’t bother with the hundo.

(Sometimes the game does pop a permanent “you found this!” indicator out, but as far as I can tell these are just for an achievement and serve no other purpose.)

I think that about covers everything. Oh, wait, the final boss was really bad. That covers everything.

Who is this game for?

It’s for Shantae fans, duh. The series built up a pretty strong little following with Risky’s Revenge, and WayForward earned every inch of them. Pirate’s Curse was a more modern take on the original game, which I didn’t like as much, but which I’m sure many fans appreciated since the original was so impossible to find by that point. And Half-Genie Hero strikes out in a new direction and shows what WayForward can really do when the creative engine is burning.

What I mean to say is, the first four games all have strong reasons to bring new players into the fold. Seven Sirens feels like the fanbase is now in place, and we know how many units this thing is going to move, and we can kind of just connect the dots and color in the lines. It grabs some good ideas from the older titles and puts them back together in a way that’s new only in the sense that they haven’t been placed in this exact configuration before. You want some of that quality, in a series with five entries, for sure. You don’t want each new sequel to be unrecognizable. (Looking at you, Risk of Rain 2!) But you do want to see at least a few new pieces.

Seven Sirens is a competently-made by-the-numbers Metroidvania title. In 2020, that’s just not enough anymore. What is Shantae’s unique voice in what is no longer a niche genre? I know how Juan, or Ori, or Miriam, or the Salt and Sanctuary guy would answer that question. Maybe in Shantae 6 we’ll get an answer here, too.

Thank you for reading this long post about hair-whip girl!

Super Metroid Rando > Symphony of the Night Rando

Super Metroid is a nonlinear exploration-based platformer from the ’90s. It is one of my favorite games of all time. It has a randomizer which helps to keep the game fresh and interesting, and even after dozens of seeds I’m thirsty for more.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a nonlinear exploration-based platformer from the ’90s. It is one of my favorite games of all time. It has a randomizer which helps to keep the game fresh and interesting, but after only a couple of runs I’ve seen everything it can do and am tired of playing it.

Wait, that doesn’t make any sense.

Randomizers and Gating

One of the ways game randomizers keep things fresh and interesting is by using gating. In the vanilla game you need to kill the Dog Boss to get the Dog Key and open the Dog Door, or whatever. Any progression beyond the Dog Door is locked off until you do this. What a randomizer does is take the Dog Key, Lizard Key, and Ferret Key and puts them into a big sack, then shakes the sack up and redistributes the keys to the Dog Boss, Lizard Boss, and Ferret Boss. The vanilla game usually has you fighting Dog -> Lizard -> Ferret, and there are implications for exploring the game in that intended order. The randomizer has you fighting these three bosses in some arbitrary order, though, depending on what blocks your path to them, so you have to explore things quite a bit differently.

If a game really does only have three gates (Dog/Lizard/Ferret) the rando options aren’t going to be very robust. You go fight whatever boss is available from the start, use the key you get to reach whatever boss it allows you to reach, then use the next key you get to reach whatever boss it allows you to reach, then go win the game. Six total paths and you’ve kind of seen everything the rando can throw at you.

The more gates a game has, the more robust the randomizer can be, and the more potential paths you’ll have to expore as you play through seed after seed. The nuts and bolts of the concept can get a lot more complicated than this, but it serves as a good starting point for these two games. What a rando typically does is looks at all the gates in the game and builds a path from the start (where you have nothing) to the end (where you win) by placing one item at a time, keeping in mind what its already placed and what can be reached after each step. An item placed on your path in this way is said to be “in logic”.

Gates in Super Metroid

What’s in logic in Super Metroid? Let’s break it down to just the mission-critical stuff you absolutely need to beat the game. To get almost anywhere in Super Metroid you need to use different kinds of ammunition to open doors and break blocks. Missiles, Super Missiles, and Power Bombs are required to make any progress in any direction. You also need the Morphing Ball to traverse certain areas and to lay Power Bombs. Even the wackiest seeds are pretty reserved until you have this basic set. For the rest, let’s start at the end and work backwards.

(I’m using a pretty loose definition of “need” here. With glitches you can go “out of logic” and skip gates in a variety of ways, and you can usually configure your rando so this sort of thing is required. I’ll be ignoring glitches for purposes of this text.)

To win the game you must destroy Motherbrain. This requires three Energy Tanks to survive her candy laser. In addition, to kill any boss in Super Metroid, you need either enough ammunition (Missiles/Super Missiles/Power Bombs) to deplete their HP, or the Charge Beam.

To reach Motherbrain you need to destroy the other four major bosses: Kraid, Phantoon, Draygon, and Ridley.

Reaching Kraid and Phantoon requires nothing special beyond the basic set.

Reaching Draygon requires the basic set plus the Gravity Suit to move through Maridia’s water, and the Speed Booster, as there is a hallway filled with speed blocks along the path. Also, the Space Jump is required to get out of Draygon’s room once you’ve killed her.

Reaching Ridley requires all of the above plus the Varia to keep Norfair’s heated rooms from damaging you.

The final list is:

  • 3 Energy Tanks
  • Morphing Ball
  • at least a few Missiles/Super Missiles/Power Bombs
  • either lots of ammo or the Charge Beam
  • Speed Booster
  • Gravity Suit
  • Space Jump
  • Varia

In a rando, once you have everything you need to complete the game, you’re in “Go Mode” because now you can go win.

This is only about half of the possible items in Super Metroid, and depending on your seed other items might be required. For example, there’s one item hidden behind a block destroyed with the Grapple Beam; if one of the above items is located there, the Grapple Beam is in logic and you’ll have to find it. In addition, even items that are out of logic are almost always helpful in your seed; the Hi-Jump Boots are never required, but they make moving around the game world a lot easier.

The keys to making these gates work are: 1) there are lots of items in Super Metroid, and any of them could be something you need; 2) every major item you find expands the list of places you can now check; and 3) once you’re in Go Mode there’s very little left to do except kill the bosses and win.

Super Metroid randos are great exercises in routing, problem solving, and application of game knowledge. It’s not really possible to be bored because, even if you’re in Go Mode, the boss fights don’t take very long and aren’t trivial to win with low item counts. It’s not uncommon for a player in Go Mode to keep looking for items anyway, for more energy and ammo.

Gates in Symphony of the Night

Symphony of the Night is a much larger game than Super Metroid in terms of physical space to explore, number of bosses to face, and the hero’s range of action. Why then is the experience so boring? Let’s break down the game’s logic.

To win the game you must destroy Shaft and Dracula. To open the room where they dwell you need the five Vlad relics: Eye, Ring, Tooth, Rib, and Heart. You also need to be able to physically reach and move around in the Inverted Castle.

To reach the Inverted Castle you must defeat Richter with the Holy Glasses equipped.

To reach Richter you must have some form of flight: Soul of Bat or Gravity Boots plus some “midair item”.

The final list is:

  • Eye of Vlad
  • Ring of Vlad
  • Tooth of Vlad
  • Rib of Vlad
  • Heart of Vlad
  • Holy Glasses
  • some way to fly, either:
    • Soul of Bat or
    • Gravity Boots + a “midair item”

(A “midair item” is anything Alucard can do in the air, including the Leap Stone’s double jump, any weapon with a thrust move usable in the air, or any transformation. Doing any of these things puts him into a midair state that lets him jump repeatedly with the Gravity Boots.)

This is a really tiny list of relics. Depending on your seed and settings, other items may be required. For example, there are some item checks behind a switch in a cave only the Demon Familiar can open. If any of the above items are there, Demon Familiar is in your logic.

But now we start seeing problems.

Unlike Super Metroid, very few of the items in Symphony’s logic actually expand the player’s moveset. The Vlad relics all raise your stats, but nothing is ever gated behind having a high stat. Most relics that do open gates only open one specific gate. The Holy Glasses only get you through the Richter fight; they have no implication on gameplay other than that. Other items, like the Jewel of Open, Merman Statue, and Spike Breaker similarly only serve to open certain rooms but not actually alter the hero’s moveset at all.

Once you can fly, you can go just about anywhere in the castle you want. And once you can get passed Richter, you’re in Go Mode… except you’re not. You’re in “Almost Go Mode”. Flight is the only meaningful way Symphony’s map ever opens up. Once you have it, you really just need to find the last couple Vlad relics and then go win.

Being in “Almost Go Mode” is boring. It’d be boring enough if it were just five arbitrary items you had to seek out that could be anywhere, but it’s actually worse than that. Since there are still lots of “key-and-lock” style relics the game likes to daisy chain them into long strings requiring a lot of backtracking. Your last Vlad item might be behind a grate, which requires Form of Mist, which is behind a spike room, which requires Spike Breaker, which is behind the floodgate, which requires Merman Statue, which is behind some other door locked by some other item that exists only to open that one door.

Early Symphony seeds are pretty fun, since you’re usually fighting through the first few levels with weird equipment you’d never use in the normal game, but even this little bit of randomness is devalued because you have access to all your spells as soon as you have MP to cast them. You very quickly end up with flight, since about 80% of the map is inaccessible without it in some form, and from there it’s Almost Go Mode. You full-clear each area of the castle to identify the areas you’ll need to daisy chain later, then you daisy chain, then you finally go win.

In general…

I’ve played lots of randomizers for lots of games. In general, you reach a point where you just need one more item for Go Mode, and it can be in any of a couple dozen places. In Symphony you reach a point where you need three or five uninteresting items, and they can be in any of a hundred places.

Restricting Checks

Someone will point this out if I don’t, so I guess I’d better. Most of this post has been written under the assumption you’re playing Adventure Mode in the randomizer. This is a mode which means any item (including in-logic progression items) can spawn in any spot where the base game has any kind of equippable item. There’s another mode that limits your in-logic progression to just those locations in the base game which had relics. This reduces the total number of checks by a great deal.

It doesn’t fix the problem, though, because there are so many “useless” relics in Symphony. Most of the relics you can find just aren’t that interesting, by which I mean they don’t open up any new checks. Your checks are still spread out across the entire castle, many of them are still gated behind boring key-and-lock pairs, and many of them only serve as keys to open singular locks.

Not-Adventure Mode also has huge locations in the castle which are always useless. If there’s not a relic in a location, there’s no reason to ever check there. The result is you tend to always check the same areas in the same order, ignoring the same pointless areas each time. You don’t get cool/weird moments like “Oh wow, I actually have to go to Reverse Library this seed!”

What can be done?

Most randos I’ve played launch in a pretty boring state, but get better over time. I think there’s potential for Symphony too. In fact I hope there is, because I love Symphony and a good rando of it will be on my plate for a very long time.

Like everything in life, I think the solution is to steal. Other randos I play regularly have ideas I think would be great additions to Symphony, providing they’re possible to implement and the developer actually has the will to implement them.

Door Rando

VARIA, the Super Metroid randomizer I use, has an excellent option to randomize areas. The game world is broken down into nine large chunks, and the entrances and exits of those chunks lead to random places. For example, the door that usually takes you from Crateria to Tourian might lead to Lower Norfair instead.

What this adds to the rando is a sense of needing to first place all the locations and the connections between them, then actually work your way through the levels in an order you’re probably not used to. It also adds to the list of interesting checks: doors are now on the menu.

In Symphony, red doors lead either to new areas or to warp rooms. There are two castles, each with twelve sections, and each with five warp rooms. There are lots of red doors, some of which are one-way until you pass through them once. Include options to scramble each castle individually, or both together. Now instead of the tired Entrance -> Alchemy Lab -> Marble Gallery -> Outer Wall -> Library path literally every rando seed goes through, you might have to fight through part of a tougher level to get anywhere useful.

The first area of the game (the Entrance) has two red doors accessible immediately (in a door rando, we should remove the one-way wall next to the area warp room), one red door accessible if you can gravity jump or fly, and one red door that’s a one-way exit from another area. With some logic that ensures all areas are accessible and all doors get used, this option alone could make every run unique.

This sort of randomization does devalue the Holy Glasses a little bit. If you scramble the two castles together, it would be possible to reach the Reverse Keep through some other door, and now Richter isn’t a required fight anymore. And it doesn’t do much to solve the problem of some areas not being useful; the Reverse Library is still a dead end and there’s still nothing there.

Incentivized Locations

This was similar to a problem the Final Fantasy rando had early on. In that game, some locations just aren’t useful to visit and people never went to them. You could reasonably finish the rando by going to the same list of locations every time, and avoiding the ones you knew didn’t have anything. They fixed it by slightly expanding the pool of Good Items (which includes your in-logic progression items) and then hand-picking a couple of interesting but seldom-visited locations and flagging them as “there might be a Good Item here”.

Symphony has lots of good candidates for this. Leave in the current Adventure Mode (where anything could be in basically any room) for people who want it, but include this middle ground “Relics and Incentivized Locations” option as an alternative. Good places to incentivize would be behind both gear puzzles, the underwater (or overwater, I guess) cave, the secret elevator in the Outer Wall, the wolf/bat puzzles in the Merman room, the stopwatch clock room in the inverted castle, the Grapes that drop in the Chapel’s confessional, and Richter Belmont’s room. (This isn’t an exhaustive list, just a few examples.)

That last one is important. Because he wouldn’t block progression if you randomize locations, we can keep him in logic by maybe locking a Good Item behind him.

Picking memorable out-of-the-way locations is key, but we should also try to pick locations that are in-character for Symphony as a game. One of the relic locations is in the game’s shop, which I think is a good idea. Keep that as an incentivized location. Also, let’s pick a monster with a really good drop everyone knows about, like the Shmoo, and make it’s common drop an incentivized check. This is well in the spirit of Symphony‘s drop system, shouldn’t be too obnoxious (it only takes a few tries to get Shmoo to drop Ramen in the base game), and makes LCK-up items valuable for this one check.

Other very Symphony-ish spots with incentive potential are the first item that drops out of the Librarian’s chair when you jump into him, or the item you get when the Sword familiar levels up enough. Maybe the second or third item you spawn with a Meal Ticket is hard-coded to be an incentivized location. An excellent idea might be to put an incentivized spot inside pool of items that drop out of candles, which turns the Cube of Zoe into a progression item itself.

(I don’t mean pick one random candle somewhere in the castle, I mean pick one particular candle drop, say Rebound Rock, and replace all of them with the progression item. First time you break a candle with one of these items you get your progression and know you can stop whacking candles. After you get it, future candles will only drop Rebound Rocks.)

These are fun things — or maybe annoying but still distinctly Symphony things — that can open up the possibility space without just making the player run across the whole castle again.

More Item Pools

Right now the Symphony rando only has two pools of items: Relics and Progression Items, and Everything Else. (Actually for the sake of Adventure Mode I think the rando recognizes equippable and non-equippable items as separate things, but for all practical purposes they just make up one big pool of basically trash.) We can leave that in for people who want to keep the searching space huge, but we can also add an option to tighten it up.

I propose three tiers: Good Items (anything that can block progression, minus the Vlad relics, plus a few good pieces of equipment like Duplicator or Dracula Tunic), Boss Items (all non-progression familiars and transformation power-ups, the five Vlad relics, then enough Life Up and Heart Up items to make up the difference), and Everything Else (everything else).

Relic spots and/or incentivized locations as outlined above contain Good Items. Boss Items drop only off of bosses. Everything else is just laying around the castle, including most of the equipment and Life Up items you’ll use.

Fighting bosses in Symphony is already seen as the de-facto major goal of the game, outside of “win the game”. I know when I play vanilla Symphony I like to fight and kill all the bosses at the very least. They already block progression in the sense that they block off certain areas of the castle, so they don’t need to drop progression items. They’re a good spot to hide other power-up items you probably won’t need, but might be nice to have.

The real smart bit here is, once you’re in “Almost Go Mode”, you can stop hunting through every corner of the castle and just start slaughtering bosses. By the time you reach “Almost Go Mode” you’ll probably have half the bosses down anyway, and reducing the search space to just the rest of them makes the boring back half of seeds go more quickly. It also presents a potentially fun routing challenge: “Oh, that’s Almost Go Mode! What’s the best path between here and Dracula that takes me through as many boss rooms as possible to find my last two Vlad items?”

Two bosses should drop Good Items instead: Richter Belmont and the Succubus. The former requires a Good Item to fight properly, so should give a Good Item in return, and the latter gives a Good Item both in the base game and the current rando.

More Doors

If all of the above is implemented, we’ve inadvertantly added another problem. (Turns out randomizers are complicated. Who knew!) If we remove Richter from progression by doing some sort of door shuffle, then you’re in “Almost Go Mode” as soon as you find a door leading to the Black Marble Gallery. This reduces the entire rando to just a boss hunt. This would still be better than the current rando, but most seeds would probably wind up that way.

Currently in the vanilla game there are a few kinds of blockades requiring specific items:

  • bookshelves you can open just by pushing on them,
  • blue doors requiring the Jewel of Open,
  • grates requiring Form of Mist,
  • tight locations too small for Alucard to fight through, such as the hallway outside of Orlok, which require some form of transformation to squeeze through,
  • switches the Demon Familiar can open, and
  • spiked areas requiring the Spike Breaker.

(The latter would have to be solid walls with spikes on both sides, so you couldn’t mist or i-frame through them like you can in the Chapel hallway, and ensure you really do spike-break through them.)

Anywhere in the game that currently has one of these blockades could be randomized to be any of these six, instead. So you wouldn’t know what’s blocking off Orlok’s room (or Akmodan’s room) until you visited there and looked. Now we have a risk/reward decision: if you have lots of key items, you should go look. If you only have one or two, you might get lucky, or it might only give you information so you can backtrack later.

We could arbitrarily add as many of these blockades to the game as we want, but that would be really annoying. A few key locations might be appropriate though. The entrance tunnel to both Succubus areas (especially if the inverted version is incentivized) would be good spots. Maybe the path in the Catacombs leading to Granfaloon/Galamoth. And then the three entrances into the inverted clock room: the far side of each Guardian hallway, and just outside the door leading to Black Wing’s Lair.

Now you’re guaranteed to need at least flight and one other door-opening item from the castle to reach the clock room, instead of only flight. Or at least to find an alternate path through the castle so you can access a door you do have the key for. Or maybe get lucky and just push a bookshelf for two seconds! (You’d still need the Vlad items, but you’re already out boss hunting to find flight and your key, right?)

Enemizer

This all turns Symphony into a better treasure hunt with more interesting gates and more complex logic to explore, but the game is still probably not threatening to most players familiar with it. I like my randos nice and troll-y. What else can we do?

Take a page from Link to the Past and randomize enemy locations. Everywhere the game has an enemy, put a potentially different enemy. This would dramatically change the layout of many rooms in the castle, especially early in the seed before you have Wing Smash. This works really well to spice up Zelda dungeons you’ve cleared a hundred times. It’d work just as well in the Clock Tower. Maybe even better, considering how many Symphony locations follow some template of “just plop a few enemies in the way”.

There should be three levels of this:

1) Shuffle Enemy Types. Each enemy type in the castle is replaced with some other enemy type, and each is used exactly once. The mass of Dark Octupuses in the Reverse Caverns turns into a mass of Stone Roses instead.

2) Shuffle Enemies. Each individual enemy in the castle is replaced by one enemy from elsewhere, preserving their populations. One of the Dark Octupuses can be a Stone Rose, but they can’t all be, because there aren’t enough Stone Roses in the castle to fill the spots.

3) Full Randomization. Each individual enemy in the castle is replaced by one other enemy, with no regard to population. The Dark Octupuses can turn into literally anything, including all Guardians or Blue Venus Weeds or whatever other horrible thing. (This might be sufficiently troll-y that we have to incentivize the location, now!)

A few enemies can’t be randomized in this way, like the gorilla skeleton that breaks the wooden bridge, and probably anything that infinitely spawns (Mermen and Medusa Heads). And we should probably leave Yorick alone too. Homeboy has enough to deal with.

If the Shmoo has an incentivized drop, #3 might be a problem. Maybe run the randomization as normal, then randomly pick five individual enemies in the world and turn them into Shmoos.

Boss Randomization and Scaling

Final Fantasy IV: Free Enterprise does something incredible with bosses: it randomizes their locations and then scales their stats to match the location where you find them. If Odin, an endgame boss that is usually very difficult, rolls into the position where you normally fight the Mist Dragon, the game’s first boss, you get to fight a very weak version of Odin. This makes for some interesting fights, in both directions.

Obviously this would be harder to implement in Symphony. You’d probably need to build a few possible boss pools based on the size of the rooms where you fight them, then shuffle the ones in similarly-sized rooms between each other. This works well on paper at least, because almost every boss room in the game is used twice; Karusamon and Darkwing Bat are both fought in the 1×1 screen room at the end of the Clock Tower.

The scaling could probably play it pretty straight; if Doppelganger10 rolls into Hippogriff’s room, it gets Hippogriff’s stats but keeps Doppel10’s move set. Maybe Galamoth rolls into the Slogra/Gaibon room and you get a silly super-easy version, then later Granfaloon rolls into Galamoth’s room and you get a super grueling match against a pile of zombies.

In actual practice, most of the bosses in Symphony are jokes, except the first two you fight: Slogra/Gaibon and Doppelganger10. These bosses are still jokes (they’re early game bosses) but in some seeds you have to fight them with bad equipment, so you’re required to at least be awake. Fighting a low-level version of Orlok or Medusa might be interesting if only because you actually have to watch their moveset for a change.

We should leave Richter and Succubus out of this, and maybe have a special option to leave Galamoth out as well. I suspect even a low-stat version of Galamoth would be impenetrable if he’s literally blocking all your progression and all you have is a Basilard.

Make Spells Items

The other reason boss fights in most seeds are trivial is Alucard very quickly has enough MP to cast high-damage magic spells which auto-target enemies. Most bosses just have no answer for this. In the vanilla game these were soft-gated behind button combinations a new player wouldn’t know, but everyone playing rando certainly knows them.

Instead of the magic scroll items just being there to show the button combo, let’s have an option to make them unlock the spells instead. You can’t cast Tetra Spirit until you find its scroll, even if you have the MP and know the combo.

I’m thinking three options: Default Spells (you can use them as soon as you have the MP), Boss Items (replace Life-Ups in the Boss Item pool with spell scrolls until they’re all placed), or Everything Else (scrolls are just in the castle somewhere, like most other equipment.)

Three spells in particular — Tetra Spirit, Soul Steal, and Wing Smash — are probably good enough we could mix them in with the Good Items instead. Or maybe that could be a separate option.

Faerie Scroll and Spirit Orb

In the vanilla game, these two relics just display information when you hit enemies, and have no other function. They are mechanically useless. Is there a way to turn them into progression without just arbitrarily making them some new dumb thing? I think the easiest way is to just let the player start with them. Seeing enemy names and damage is pretty basic functionality.

Or maybe we can get creative. If we added in the random blockades above, here’s a seventh: a type of door that only opens when hit by a certain elemental attack. What kind of attack? We don’t know until we hit the door and see what it’s called. (It’d have to be implemented as a solid enemy immune to all damage, like the Stone Skull, or something.) If you find such a door and have the Faerie Scroll, you can attack it and see the phrase “will open if burned”. Then you know to hit it with a fire weapon or attack. If you’re late in the seed and have amassed quite a lot of equipment, you could also just try a bunch of stuff until something works. This kind of check would also reward some esoteric game knowledge about elemental weaknesses that usually isn’t tested at all, and also provides at least a little value to the boatlod of junk the player picks up all over the place.

There might be a way to make one of these doors open in such a way that knowing how much damage you deal per swing is useful. I can’t think of a workable one right now that isn’t stupid, though. Maybe it’s okay we leave one mechanically useless relic in the Good Items pool.

In-game Hints

Many randos offer in-game hints to help point you to important checks. Symphony is such a huge game, with such a big search space, and it’s full of NPC cutscenes people just skip. Let’s have an option that removes those cutscenes and their terrible voice acting, and replaces them with some potentially useful text.

“There’s a Vlad relic above the Entrance.”
“The Floating Catacombs contains a power for your transformation.”
“Nova Skeleton has a powerful sword.”

Lots of these cutscenes are already gated behind progression. The boss fight in the Coliseum, for example, requires some way to get up through the passage into Orlok’s Quarters. Gaining info about where to go — or where not to — would be an especially helpful addition to Adventure Mode, where the player has to otherwise check every room.

In my experience, randos with hint systems tend to involve checking every room anyway, but hey, we have these cutscenes, we might as well do something with them.

Alt Win Condition: Death’s Collection

At the beginning of Symphony, Death steals all your cool items and runs off. (In vanilla this is all the Alucard gear, but in rando it’s some random set of equipment.) Let’s have an alternate win condition where all five Vlad relics are guaranteed to be hidden behind Death’s room in the Cave, but he refuses to fight you unless you’re wearing the exact equipment set he stole at the beginning. If you’re wearing anything else he just scolds you, tells you what you’re missing (but not where it is!) then teleports you out.

If you show up wearing the exact gear he stole, he’ll fight you as normal, but he disables your pause button so you can’t swap out for better gear during the fight.

Since all the Vlad relics are back there, you’re hunting for six random things instead of five. (Weapon, shield, armor, hat, cloak, accessory.) And it guarantees at least one boss fight where you can’t use broken gear or item spam. (Unless you happened to start with broken gear, of course.)

For the truly masochistic, let’s add yet another type of door — Death’s Door — that can roll into any of the above blockade spots, and only opens if you’ve completed Death’s collection. If that door is in your logic, you have to hunt for eleven arbitrary items instead of just five or six. That’s at least the equivalent of a Link to the Past pedestal seed!

Or maybe I’m dumb!

Any or all of these ideas might be terrible, unworkable, or just plain impossible to implement. I have no idea. I know they work pretty well in other randos, but as with the comparison to Super Metroid what works in other randos might not translate well into Symphony. I do hope the rando continues development, and I do hope one day they get it into a state where I find it fun to play. As it stands, Symphony of the Night Randomizer is going to be a Sometimes Game for me. Even at its worst, it’s still Symphony, which means it’s still pretty good to just dust off and play.

But man, I would love it to be something I play three times a week.

Useful Links

You can try Symphony of the Night Randomizer here: https://sotn.io/

You can try Super Metroid VARIA Randomizer here: https://randommetroidsolver.pythonanywhere.com/

You can try Link to the Past Randomizer here: https://alttpr.com/en

You can try Final Fantasy IV: Free Enterprise here: http://ff4fe.com/

You can try Final Fantasy Randomizer here: http://finalfantasyrandomizer.com/

I will not provide you with ROMs, please don’t ask. Thanks for reading!

The ASMR Hammer

The ASMR Hammer
That Podcast We Did

 
 
00:00 / 1:04:39
 
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Brick & McClain discuss broken PS2s, the flavor of Switch cartridges, the cinnamon challenge, capacitive styluses, the Final Fantasy XIII series, a “book” (?), and Oxenfree.

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Survivor: Island of the Idols, week twelve

Every so often an episode of Survivor hits where, yep, that’s what was going to happen, and the editors have to scramble to make it look like what was going to happen is still a surprise. So it was with this episode. Noura hides Dean’s shoes, Tommy admits in a confessional that he’s not taking Lauren to the final three, Dean wins an idol nullifier at the Island of the Idols, the Immunity Challenge block puzzle spells out “THIS GAME WILL MESS WITH YOUR HEAD”, and there’s yet more whispering at Tribal Council. The important events to note, though, are: 1) Elaine does not find a hidden immunity idol, and 2) Elaine does not win the immunity necklace. So Elaine goes home, despite a tearful appeal at Tribal Council, and everyone knew it was coming because everyone knows it was the right move for everyone left to make.

The finale is tomorrow night, so we’re just about at the end of this weird, entertaining, sometimes frustrating “return to Survivor” journey. The game and the show have both changed a lot since I ducked out way back in… uh… checks archives… oh yeah, South Pacific. I, of course, have some thoughts on the shapes of these changes.

(By the way, I really do draw a distinction between the game of Survivor, which is the thing the contestants play out in Fiji for 39 days, and the show of Survivor, which is what we see for about 630 minutes spread over 13 weeks. Not the least of which is: the show gets italicized, but the game doesn’t.)

One big change, which I have sense mostly confirmed by doing some internet sleuthing: they recruit way fewer players than they used to. Originally the way to get on Survivor was to send an application to CBS, but a few seasons in they started scouting people instead. Apparently that practice has slowed if not stopped. The main reason I quit watching was because there were several seasons in a row with just abysmal players, people who obviously hadn’t seen the show much but who someone at CBS thought would be a “fun character”. This produced a lot of uneven seasons with one in particular, Survivor: Nicaragua being particularly awful. This season, it really feels like everyone loves the game and showed up knowing at least a little bit how they were going to play. I’ve been commenting each week on how classy each contestant’s exit feels, as their torch gets snuffed. They have mostly been classy and respectful. I do think this is an indication of a higher class of player than we’ve gotten in the past, and it made for better viewing here at home.

Another is the absolute flood of immunity idols. You win them at challenges, you get them from Rob and Sandra’s Magic Bungalow Adventure, you find them in the woods. My feeling is that the plethora of idols dillutes the game considerably. Back in Survivor: Samoa when Russel Hantz invented the “just go dig you up an idol, you numpty” strategy, this idol-of-the-week gameplay was an earthquake and it was clear hidden idols would have to be rethought. It seems like CBS landed on “whatever, lots of idols is fun!” I don’t think I like this answer, because it makes the game less predictable. That’s probably why they decided lots and lots of idols was desireable; less predictable television drives higher ratings. But less predictable gameplay means more randomness in the game, and the game moves are what I enjoy first and foremost about Survivor. Seeing a player I realy liked removed because of yet another idol-based game twist, and later seeing another removed because she banked on having an idol that didn’t materialize, both left me a bit sour.

We merge much earlier now than we used to. Traditionally Survivor has merged at ten; this season we merged at thirteen. The game usually doesn’t start “for real” until the merge; before that it’s a team game where your main goal is to win physical challenges. However, I think that’s an important stage of the game, and shortening it maybe wasn’t the best idea. There was a post-merge game twist this season that I really didn’t like, which amounted to “we’re going to pretend we’re still on tribes for this one vote”. To me this illustrates that someone identified the need to postpone the merge for another challenge or two, but implemented it in the clumsiest way possible. I don’t know how common post-merge twists are, now that we merge two episodes earlier than we used to. I don’t think such twists are necessary when we already have a maze of hidden idols that must now be navigated.

Finally, I’d be very curious to learn about the rules concerning Tribal Council. I have never seen so much whispering at Tribal before, let alone full-blown interruption or furious conversation. I feel like this is the kind of thing Probst would never have allowed. More than that, I feel like there’s probably a line int he Survivor rulebook about Tribal Council conduct, which is now stricken out. And, well, I don’t like it. The time for the whispering and furious conversation is out in the game world, kids. Tribal Council is the part of the game that’s most for the viewers. It’s structured, it’s controlled, and it’s mediated. It’s a different and more thoughtful round of the game with somewhat higher stakes. It’s a place where you have to choose your words carefully and — more importantly — you have to let everyone else talk. I don’t know when they decided Tribal Council should devolve into a free-for-all but I hope someone un-strikes a byline or two before next season.

Then we have this sesaon’s unique twist: the eponimous idols, Rob and Sandra. Or, really, just Rob. Sandra’s job this whole season was to nod along with whatever Rob was saying and, sometimes, make a snarky comment at Tribal Council. I was about pulling my hair out this past episode where Rob was giving Dean a lesson in “jury management”. Boston Rob’s jury management sucks! Sandra’s is exceptional! Why did they give all the good lines to the meat-head?

It was pretty clear most of Rob and Sandra’s lines were scripted. I wish they had been allowed to invest themselves more organically. I don’t think they had much of an impact on the game as a whole; most of the people they coached are now gone, two of the people left (three, counting Elaine) have never met them. The real importance of interacting with the idols was to, well, come home with an idol. And there are already too many of those.

I think you could revisit this twist, but increase the role of the idols. Maybe put one on each beach at the start, then the loser of the Day 3 challenge gets both of them, and they stick with the loser thereafter. Don’t introduce the idol challenges until after the merge. After each Tribal Council, have the idols secretly approach whichever player they feel needs the most help. Instead of directing their advice and their advantages randomly, constantly target whoever is currently at the bottom of the game. See if that evens anything out. Then, at the end, allow the idols to cast jury votes. (I’m wondering if they’re already planning to do this one, actually.)

It’s tough to actually rate this season, seeing as how it’s my first time back in many years. I definitely liked it more than Nicaragua and South Pacific, which drove me away from the game. It’s probably also better than Redemption Island, which I enjoyed at the time but don’t remember quite so fondly. It certainly doesn’t hit the highest tier of personal favorites like Cook Islands or Samoa.

To sharpen the point a bit, I’m not a big fan of my escapist entertainment getting too “real talk-y”, and this has been the most real talk-y season of Survivor on record.

Elaine is voted out, and six contestants remain. Six is a weird spot in the game because you can’t really pull off a blindside; the threat of a tie is way too large. Depending on the social dynamics of the tribe, you use this spot for an “easy” vote, whomever is not immune. In this case, Janet has a hidden idol, but Dean has an idol nullifier, so they take the easy shot and then Lauren and Tommy worry about destroying each other at five, when a blindside won’t result in a tie.

Except we’re not at six, because Dan can’t keep his goddamn hands to himself.

I’m… I’m going to talk to just Dan for a minute here. Will you guys excuse me? Thanks.

Dan. Look. I get it. You’re an older guy who grew up in another time, before PC culture and SJW armies and #metoo whatever. Used to be you could innocently touch anyone you wanted — and yes, I do believe you’re doing it innocently — and nobody really minded. At least, nobody said they minded. And you got to live your life blissfully unaware that some of the people you grabbed or snuggled or poked were made uncomfortable by the poking. The world is changing too fast for you and it all feels so unfair. You never got to see the “good touch, bad touch” video I did in 5th grade. Your exposure to women as a Hollywood talent agent has been skewed too far in the direction of people being too terrified to speak up, for fear of what you’d do to their career.

Maybe you’re right. Maybe the current crop of 20- and 30-somethings are too sensitive. Maybe this pendulum will swing back your way someday, and running your fingers through a woman’s hair (or a teenage boy’s hair, in my case) will be socially acceptable again. Maybe the sissies and cucks will lose this culture war and you’ll get to go right on back to being unaware of how uncomfortable you make people. Maybe.

But the people in charge gave you a warning. Whatever your feelings are on what you should be allowed to do with your hands, the powers that be told you to knock it off. And you didn’t. So they threw you out.

According to the news sources I’ve read — gossip rags, mostly, but I don’t think I’d want any higher journalism pointed at Survivor — you claim this time it as an accident. Your hand accidentally touched a female crew member’s leg as he was getting into a boat. Dan? It doesn’t matter. If you’d done it on purpose they should have kicked you out to make good on their warning. If it really was an accident, well, it’s your own fault you got the warning in the first place.

However things shake out, this season of Survivor is forever marred by your behavior. I know you probably never meant to hurt anyone. But you hurt a lot of people anyway, without even trying. You hurt Kellee, for sure, by not listening to her when she asked you to respect her personal boundaries. You hurt Missy and Elizabeth, who used the gross situation you concocted to their advantage, earning them no small amount of ire and harrassment on social media. You hurt your son, who has probably been bragging to everyone in his school about how his dad is on Survivor and he got to go too. You hurt Tommy and Lauren, and Janet and Dean and Noura, who now have to navigate a different endgame than they’d otherwise have had. You hurt the show’s producers and editing team, who has the impossible and inenviable task of mopping up your spills.

And you’ve hurt me, and lots of other Survivor viewers you wanted to tune in for some light escapism and instead got molested by your wandering fingers. Lots of people have quit the show, or at least this season, because of how ugly it got.

I feel sorry for you, Dan, because you’ve demonstrated you can’t learn the simple lessons life was trying to impart on you, here. I’m sure the inevitable lawsuits will demonstrate this even further. I pity you because the more you cry about how you did nothing wrong, the more people aren’t going to believe you, until it descends all the way into scorn and mockery.

At the same time, though, I dislike you intensely. I don’t like saying that about someone I only see playing the goofy island TV game. I doubt any official Survivor source will ever mention you again, and that’s for the best.

So what are the gameplay reprecussions of Dan’s explusion? They are numerous. First, we’re skipping Final Six and going straight to Final Five. That’s pretty huge in and of itself. Second, Dan was part of a particular alliance, which now has to function without him. (This alliance was probably going to fall apart at five anyway, but it’s a much different five now.) Third, the reason Dan was part of an alliance this late in the game was because every remaining player could beat him in the finals. Now Dan won’t be in the final three like he was supposed to be. Tommy, Lauren and Janet’s ideal situation was to sit the final three along with Noura and Dan, neither of which could win. An easy ride. The more realistic situation was some set of Tommy/Lauren/Janet against Dan, which is really just a final two between Tommy/Lauren/Janet. Fourth, the jury is minus one, now. One fewer vote may or may not swing who wins at the end, and the first runner-up will forever ask themselves, “Would I have won, if not for Dan?” Fifth, Dean’s hilarious double-fake legacy advantage, which was set to expire at six, instead expired the moment Probst rolled up on the beach to break the news to everyone. We don’t get to see a stunning payoff to that plotline.

There may be an even bigger reprecussion: the timing of Dan’s expulsion potentially matters. Probst came to camp to deliver the news in the daytime, and reports say the fatal touchy-touchy happened on the way back from a challenge. This might have been the final seven Immunity Challenge — the one Elaine lost to Dean this episode — or it may mean the final six Immunity Challenge, which should have taken place during the finale. If the latter, how on earth do they edit around it? Surely they wouldn’t end one episode on Dan’s expulsion just to open the next with a challenge where he’s present. But they also wouldn’t want a real downer “we had to kick Uncle Touchy off” moment smack dab in the middle of the finale. What a mess.

Who’s gonna win?
I might have this wrong, but I believe Janet’s idol is only supposed to be good for “the next two Tribal Councils”, which means it wasn’t supposed to be valid at final five. It is now, but Dean’s going to snake it with his nullifier, so Janet’s gone next. The alternate play here is to remove either Tommy or Lauren, and then hope Janet isn’t immune at the final four vote. Even if that happens, I’m betting Janet doesn’t win any sort of immunity, though.

Lauren is more likely than Tommy to win a final four immunity. I think speculating what happens here is probably impossible, because Noura might do just about anything. So it really just comes to running down the possible final threes:

  1. Lauren/Noura/Dean = Lauren wins.
  2. Tommy/Noura/Dean = Tommy wins.
  3. Tommy/Lauren/Noura = Tommy wins.

I don’t think a Tommy/Lauren/Dean final is realistic.

Tommy wins more of the cases, but Lauren wins the single most likely case. I think I got all that right? We’ll see on Thursday! Thanks for reading.

Survivor: Island of the Idols, week eleven

NOURA EXPLODED AND NOW WE’RE ALL COVERED IN NOURA JUICE, AAAAAHHHHH!!

Ahem. I get ahead of myself.

This week was the big Friends’n’Family Jamboree, where each contestant is joined on the island by a loved one for ten seconds, then whichever contestant wins the ensuing Reward Challenge gets to eat lunch with them. Every season I’ve seen this happen there’s lots of talk about how the loved ones have an energizing effect, and now they’re ready to go the distance, or whatever-the-heck, but in actual practice it usually doesn’t have much bearing on the gamestate. Tommy and Janet win the challenge, and they choose Dan and Lauren to come along with them on their picnic.

After the challenge, as Karishma watches her husband shuttled away after his seventeen minutes on Fiji, she says something about “putting a wrecking ball to somebody else’s head”. I have no idea what this meant and evidently no one else out there did either.

What actually ended up influencing the game state was the actual division of the players. Lauren and Tommy et al. excuse themselves from the picnic long enough to float the idea of gunning Elaine next, because obviously.

Back at actual camp, though? With an audience of a clearly dumbfounded Karishma, Elaine and Dean? Noura went bananas. Noura identifies that she now realizes she’s at the very bottom of the Lauren/Tommy alliance. She correctly notes that her place in the game involves being dragged along by Lauren/Tommy as a useful idiot vote. Her actual quote, in front of God and Karishma and everybody, is: “In a way I’m the Karishma, but I’m actually enjoyable to be around.” Which, first of all, is absolutely true, and second of all, LOL!

Noura’s rant goes on so long they actually finish playing this season and start filming the next one, and we all turn 50 and survive nuclear war, and long after the colonization of the Superior Galacto-bot Overlords, some say you can still hear her out there carrying on to this very day, amen.

Eventually they decide, screw it. Let’s go looking for immunity idols. So they do that, and Elaine finds one, and she shoves it down in her “redneck pocket.” Which, as a phrase, I’m just going to leave dangling there. Enjoy the mental image if you haven’t scene the episode.

The Immunity Challenge is another endurance test, which quickly dwindled down to Lauren vs. Elaine, and was edited so strongly to look like Lauren would drop out that I figured there was no way she ever would. That is indeed the case, and Lauren is immune. This is bad for Noura’s newly-formed alliance, because they wanted Lauren out next. But okay, no problem, shift gears to Tommy and full steam ahead.

At this point you have Lauren/Tommy/Janet/Dan on one hand, who thinks everyone is still going to fall in line against Karishma. Their plan: split the vote between Karishma and Elaine. They still think they have Noura with them, and of course, Noura promptly goes over to the other side and rats them all out.

(Side note: it seems like they flopped back onto Karishma from Elaine pretty quickly, considering their picnic discussion. I expect what happened was, at the actual picnic, they probably weighed the pros and cons of voting out each of the opposing four, and the editors just picked the Elaine line out of the bucket because they knew she’d find an idol this episode.)

This gives tremendous power to Noura’s alliance. Because the others think they’re splitting their vote, they don’t have to overthink this much; they can literally pick anyone they want, and as long as they all four write down the same name, boom bam done.

Noura overthinks it.

In what has to be the most comical montage I’ve ever seen on Survivor, Dean is desperately trying to explain to Noura how idols and votes work, at one point literally drawing a diagram in the sand. She’s so paranoid that Dean and Elaine begin to fear their advantage in the game is about to fall apart, and laments that being forced to rely on Noura really, really sucks.

Meanwhile, Dean is gone so long trying to explain simple math to Noura that Tommy and his gang start to notice. They also lament at how much it sucks to have to rely on Noura. A lot hinges on what Noura decides to do, and Elaine confides in her confessional that she’s going to be playing her idol.

Noura explode again.

I have never seen a Tribal Council like this before. I honestly and truly thought that this kind of Tribal Council was strictly against Survivor rules.

While Probst is asking Janet some fluff questions about the picnic, Dean leans over to Tommy and whispers, “they want you.” They, in this case, meaning Noura, Karishma and Elaine. I think this is a brilliant move. Everyone came to this Tribal Council worried about what Noura might do, and Dean has already seen her explode once. From his perspective, whatever happens next, he can only benefit.

The whisperng goes from Tommy to Lauren to Dan to Janet, and before long half the tribe is having a rude conversation interrupting all of poor Probst’s probing questions. As I’m sitting there waiting for Probst to break it up, or at least call attention to it, Noura goes pineapple-banana smoothie with ginko biloba supplement. She shouts at Dean, she outs Elaine’s idol, she airs out everyone’s dirty laundry. Immediately, she is painted as a liar in front of The Tommy Gang, and why not? She told them they had their vote, and then they didn’t. From the Idol Bungalow, even Boston Rob and Sandra agree, how many times do you let someone lie to you? Just once. That’s it.

Noura tries to divert focus back to Dean, the actual catalyst of this weird and wonderful moment, but the damage is already done. Dean has had to scrape and scrimp to get this far in the game. He’s had to lie to people, to betray alliances. And, indeed, he’s the one who betrayed Noura just now! Like two minutes ago! But he plays it cool and quiet and none of the arrows hit him. Before long, everyone is arguing and shouting and mostly acting like children. Confusion sets in as Noura’s alliance crumbles. Elaine and Karishma wedge her firmly under the bus. At one point the camera pulls in real close on Dan, who has just been told it has to be Noura, and he responds, “Next? Or tonight?”

Needless to say, Elaine plays her idol. I’m actually a little surprised Noura didn’t reach down and try to strangle somebody with it.

Some votes do land on Noura, but in the end, the biggest pile ends up on Karishma. I typically don’t watch the votes come in because they show that part after scenes for the next episode, and I’d rather not see the teaser. But I imagine Noura put a desperate vote on Karishma, and Elaine and Dean also immediately fell in line.

Then I remembered: Dean has wanted Karishma gone this whole time. After her Hail Mary idol last episode, her head wasn’t even on the block tonight! He pulled a fast one and got exactly what he wanted, and I’m not gonna lie, I think I fell a little bit in love with the guy. In the coming months I expect I’ll read a lot of in-depth play-by-play analyses of every individual move made this season. I don’t know if Dean’s three magic words are going to make a Top 5 Best Plays of All Time listicle. I do know, after Karishma exited, Tommy thanked Dean for saving him.

Kellee, from the juy box, was heard to opine, “These are the dumbest moves!” She’s right, you know. Bringing mopey but easily-controlled Karishma along to the end isn’t any fun, but it’s a safe way to win, and a Tommy/Lauren/Karishma final three was certainly their best bet. Now they have to go back to camp with Janet and Elaine — still everyone’s best friends — and Noura, who is prone to blowing a gasket.

I will give props where they’re due: Karishma’s exit was quick and classy. No bellyaching, no tears, certainly no wrecking balls. Just a quick wave. That’s how I like to see folks leave the game. Maybe someday she’ll get a chance to improve my opinion of her in a comeback season.

Who’s gonna win?
Seven remain in the game. Seven is a crucial spot because it’s one of the last chances to shed someone you really don’t want to sit next to in the finals. You can’t do it at six or four, because of the risk of going to a tie. So Tommy and Lauren have exactly two chances to remove two players who almost certainly beat them at the end: Elaine and Janet.

But they can’t let Noura survive another vote… can they? If she’s not immune you kind of have to take the shot. She will blow everything up given every opportunity. I think a lot of how the game plays out from here hinges on whether Noura wins immunity next episode.

IF NOURA WINS, Tommy and Lauren have a big problem. In this situation they don’t have to worry about Noura’s vote, because they still have four. They have to vote out Janet or Elaine here, hidden idols notwithstanding. But whatever the plans, the disruptive whirlwind of Noura looms large. Dean, in this position, doesn’t have the votes shored up to win the game, but he can move and shake with whichever of Janet or Elaine are still around, and maybe Dan too, to take out Tommy and Lauren and sit final three. If it goes this way I think Elaine is out first, nobody has time to get rid of Janet before the end, and Janet wins hands down.

IF NOURA LOSES, Tommy and Lauren have a big problem. There will be a lot of pressure to cut Noura next, which means they have to let either Elaine or Janet skate by. In this case I don’t think Dean has to do much of anything; final four comes down to Tommy/Lauren/Dean/Dan, Dean makes a play at four with Dan and whichever of Tommy or Lauren isn’t immune, then goes to the finals. I think Dean would rather take Tommy to the end than Lauren, and Tommy wins in this situation.

But there’s still a lot of game left. Maybe Noura sweeps immunity. Maybe she evolves into her final Nourazilla form and eats all the parts of the island that are vegan. Should be fun!

Pokémon Shield

Hi! I played the new Pokémon game, after years and years of never playing any Pokémon games. If all you care about is my favorite monsters from the game, please scroll all the way to the bottom of this gigantic post.

Foreground: Pokémon Trainer Buttons. Background: Lavos.

WTF, why did you play Pokémon?

My Pokémon pedigree is pretty slim. I was in high school when the first game came out, playing big boy RPGs like SaGa Frontier and Xenogears. And while even at that time I had a fondness for Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest, I didn’t have much inclination to invest in what looked like an RPG for babies.

Also, at the time, playing games on a handheld for extended periods of time just… hurt. My hands would cramp up and sometimes I would get headaches by squinting at the screen. I had a Game Boy, but the only RPG I owned for it was Final Fantasy Legend II, and playing it was torture. I knew even an RPG for babies was going to be a considerable time investment, so I skipped Red and Blue. A few generations later, around the time I was playing my Game Boy Advance games on a dinner plate the Gamecube plugged into, I had grown out of my RPGs-or-Bust phase. I was largely tired of the genre, and besides, I already hadn’t played the first, what, eight(?) games?

To someone outside the worldwide phenomenon, it’s actually really hard to keep track. As a kid I didn’t like the idea of buying two versions of the same game, only to be hit by a more definitive third version later. As I crept into adulthood I didn’t like how each new set of games in this series were basically just re-releases of the first game with a new set of monsters. I saw it as a scam, and by the time the DS was out and everyone was referring to the Pokémon releases as “generations” I knew some serious Kool-Aid was involved. Nobody in my immediate social circle played the games, they still didn’t look very appealing to me, and I had zero interest in the card game and the anime and all the weird spinoff stuff.

For the longest time, my only exposure to Pokémon was its infection of Super Smash Bros. I’ve always liked Pikachu and Jigglypuff, and I was mostly able to keep track of the guys that would pop out of poké balls in Smash Bros: Melee, but after that it all just started striking me as silly. I thought the inclusion of a Pokémon Trainer character that cycled between the three iconic first-gen starters was inspired, but I thought the inclusion of sorta objectively-bad character designs like Lucario and Greninja were sipping too hard at flavor-of-the-month. (For the record, I still think that, even having a buddy that swears by Incineroar.)

Not long after I started streaming on Twitch.tv, I started doing “viewer’s choice” weeks. Every so often, after hitting some follower threshhold, I’d let my Twitch chat pick a game. Unsurprisingly, Pokémon was one of the first games picked. I played on emulator and spent most of the game trolling chat by giving my monsters dumb names, insisting on using silly-looking monsters, giving all my stat-up items to Jigglypuff, and generally making mock of the whole situation. For the most part my chat were good sports about the whole thing, and we had a generally good time.

And besides, sometimes the facade slipped. I saw glimpses of what makes this series special, even though I wasn’t taking it seriously. I started to understand how someone could slip hard down the rabbit hole of collecting monsters, generation after generation. My insistence on using Pidgey and Jigglypuff, originally intended at being a middle finger at the fanbase, ended up being why the games have a fanbase. Getting attached to certain monsters, for whatever reason, and fixing them up so they’re viable is the core of the game. When I expressed ditress that Vulpix — declared by me to be the cutest of all pokémon — wasn’t catchable in the version I was playing, chat had my back. They hatched a plan to load up my save state in the Pokémon Blue rom, which would “just work” thanks to how game data flowed between the two versions, just long enough to snag an adorable little fox-fellow and then switch back to Red for the finish line.

Still, I knew I wasn’t the game’s target demographic and I knew none of the sequels were going to change my mind on the subject. I had looked at the rabbit hole but I hadn’t dipped my toe in.

Then, a couple of years ago, a game called World of Final Fantasy came out.


I will admit, when I bought this game I was not expecting Santa Tonberry.

World of What Now?

World of Final Fantasy, released originally on PS4 and later on Switch, is the Final Fantasy version of Pokémon. It’s a game about catching a plethora of adorable little monsters, mostly cribbed from the extensive Final Fantasy mythos. I got the game shortly after it launched and have played it to completion twice. My second playthrough has damn near 100% completion.

In World, you play as two teenagers named Reynn and Lann, and they fight monsters — sorry, “mirages” — by weakening their health level then throwing a magic ball at them. After that they can put the mirage on their head to create a “mirage stack” with all the combined powers and abilities of the component mirages. These powers and abilities are unlocked on a mirage’s individual sphere grid, a la Final Fantasy X.

You catch mirages, then level up your captured mirages, then spend their levels on upgrades in their sphere grid, then synergize them with other mirages in your stacks, all so you can take on bigger and badder mirages. Mirages can evolve forwards, backwards, and even sideways. Some mirages are robots that have slighty different rules. Some mirages are based on NPCs from the story. And all of them pluck at the strings of 30 years’ worth of Final Fantasy nostalgia.

The whole time I was playing and enjoying World, I was completely aware that I was just playing a version of Pokémon. A much better, far deeper version — let’s not mince words — but he core loop of catching/training/combining monsters would have been very familiar if I hadn’t sidestepped the series in high school. I would be very surprised to learn World wasn’t ultimately the product of some Japanese businessman working for Square Enix taking a look at Nintendo’s profits and saying, hey, we need a Pokémon for ourselves.

I bring up World of Final Fantasy chiefly because, as I worked through Pokémon Shield, I had almost the reverse feeling I imagine a lot of Pokémon vets must have had while playing World. Since I had largely approached Pokémon Red as a joke, Pokémon Shield was the first game in its series I was going to be playing by myself and taking somewhat seriously. And the entire time, all 32-ish hours, I kept feeling that World of Final Fantasy had done all this better.


Pikachu vs. Ice Cream

tl;dr

In a nutshell, Pokémon Shield is just Pokémon Red with better graphics. I think it’s a little sad that the gameplay has evolved so little in all that time, and it took another company wanting to ape its success to explore new directions in monster collecting. I realize there are lots of complicated elements at play here, and that we’re dealing with a fanbase that pitches a hissy fit when the slightest changes are made (see “Dexit”, below), but there it is. My one-line review of Shield, as someone who has only played the very first and most recent games in this series, is: they took twenty years and six console generations to land barely an inch from where they started.


Bright Shield, Black Sword

Three things happened which intrigued me about the new Pokémon generation. The first I’ve already outlined: I played World of Final Fantasy, itself largely a modern version of Pokémon, and I was curious to see what the genuine article looked like these days.

Second, while mainline Pokémon is still a handheld exclusive series, the current Nintendo handheld has an HDMI out and controllers that don’t make my hands cramp up and die. For the first time ever, I can play a Pokémon game on my big TV that was actually designed to be seen on my big TV.

And third, this is the first generation of Pokémon I can recall where the two versions seemed… unequal. My feeling as an outsider is they always just pick two related but distinct labels to slap on their games that largely don’t make much difference. Red/Blue. Ruby/Sapphire. Black/White. Ketchup/Mustard. When picking between X and Y, people don’t have much to go on while informing their choice, and so a random choice is as good as any. In actual practice I suspect people comb through leaked monster lists to see which version has better monsters to catch. I’ve also met people who try to figure out which of the two versions is more popular, and getting the other one, to increase their leverage in trading monsters later.

But Sword/Shield strike me as following an inherently different dynamic. Swords are inherently more exciting than shields. Every fantasy hero in history has a magic sword, and every magic sword has a name. Excalibur. Andúril. Grayswandir. Needle. The perception amongst fantasy consumers, of which there is a great overlap of Pokémon players, is that swords are cool and shields are… what you might use in your other hand.

Nintendo’s biggest fantasy series is, of course, The Legend of Zelda. In basically every Zelda game since 1990, unlocking and weilding the Master Sword is one of the high points. With the possible exception of Breath of the Wild, locating the Master Sword is the beginning of the game’s more open, more heroic second act. The Master Sword is so iconic they’re putting the dang thing in Super Mario Maker.

Link’s shield, simply called “Hylian Shield”, is iconic too, but mostly just because there’s a triforce on it. Usually you buy it in a shop somewhere and hope a likelike doesn’t eat it. Big whoop.

As sexy as swords are, though, I’ve always personally liked those few fantasy heroes who are more associated with shields. A shield is protection. It is stoic and unmoving. It’s defense of home, heart, and high ideals. Suikoden II — one of those big boy RPGs I was playing instead of whatever flavor Pokémon was out that year — plays with this idea a lot. The shield hero, your player character, stands resolute against the sword hero, who becomes an engine of bloody destruction. Or consider Thorin Oakenshield, a hero not for leading his people to some great victory, but simply defending them from monsters in the face of annihilation. Or Jon Snow, whose magic sword with the cool name wins countless victories, but his most crucial was won by catching his enemy’s arrows in a muddy and un-named shield that had been discarded on the battlefield.

My point is, the terms “sword” and “shield” carry a lot of baggage that previous Pokémon titles simply don’t. The terms have strong connotations both in fantasy literature and in practical real-world application. Which one you pick can say something about how you might approach a game that is largely about endless battles, in a way that picking a gemstone or a potato chip flavor doesn’t.

Even the Sword logo is more exciting!

My feeling was that most Pokémon players would pick Sword over Shield because of the perceived strength of the weapon over the piece of armor. I also figured there would be some mechanical purpose to this. The version you buy determines which legendary monster you get at the end of the game, and most people perceive swords as being stronger. Or, at least, a “sword” character is probably more fun to play as than a “shield” character. As anyone who has played a tank or a healer in an MMORPG can tell you, the defensive role is necessary but not nearly as popular as the flashier and more visible dps roles.

I can’t find any sales numbers for the individual games, only combined numbers that tell the story of this new Pokémon smashing records left and right, so I don’t know for sure whether my gut was right about this. I do know that one day I was in a store and all they had on the shelf was Pokémon Shield, and that was true two days later at another store when I went to pick up my own copy.


Why people said they were boycotting the most popular Pokémon game ever.

I don’t want to dwell on this “Dexit” “controversy” too much, except to point at it and say it was a thing that happened and then move on. As someone who hasn’t played a game in this series since Red I didn’t much care which monsters would and wouldn’t make the cut. I also don’t like to get too involved in fandoms where whiny toxicity is in greater supply than showering. (Which is to say, any and all fandoms.)

My understanding of what happened is this.

Pokémon Sword/Shield is the highest-fidelity Pokémon title to date. The graphics, sound, and general gamefeel were expected to be a head-and-a-half higher than the previous installment at least. The developers were under a lot of pressure to make the biggest, most beautiful Pokémon game ever, in addition to the usual pressure of introducing a huge amount of new monsters to find and catch.

They squared the circle by cutting more monsters from the overall roster than previous titles had. A quick glance at Bulbapedia reveals that Pokémon Sun/Moon had over 800 monsters when it was all said and done; Sword/Shield have about half that. In other words, chances were pretty good your favorite monsters weren’t in this new one.

Jigglypuff and Pidgey were out. If I were a fanboy, that’d have been my cue to rant and rave.

Many called for boycotts, others made angry YouTube videos. Of course, judging by the sales figures and smashed records, all those nerds went out and bought the game anyway. Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

I feasted on the butthurt for a while, but honestly I didn’t think about Dexit at all as I played. There are way, way, way more monsters in this game than you could conceivably use. I spent huge amounts of time in each area to make sure I “caught them all” only to be surprised later and find out there were tons in each location I had missed.

“Hey, nerd! You missed these nerds down in Nerd Valley!”

(I looked up the roster for World of Final Fantasy, by the way, and it has about half as many mirages as there are monsters in Sword/Shield. It’s an inexact comparison, considering the mirages in World are component pieces in a much larger number of possible mirage stacks. But I still found it interesting.)


The Gameplay Loop

Of the hundreds and hundreds of monsters in Pokémon, you pick six to form a core team. Each monster on your team has four somewhat customizable moves. You pit your team of six against wild monsters and other trainers’ teams in a series of 1v1 battles. Each monster and each move has a “type”, and certain types are weak to and strong to certain other types. Your goal is to build a team that can hit as many type weaknesses as possible, and to pick moves your opponent is weak against without opening your own monster to its own type weaknesses.

That is well north of 95% of everything you need to know to be successful in Pokémon.

I think this is what shocked me most about the game, coming into it from World of Final Fantasy. Enemies in World also have elemental weaknesses, and a big part of the game is mitigating the weak points of one monster by putting another monster with opposing weaknesses in the same stack. A fire monster in your stack makes it more weak to ice, for example, but pairing it with an ice monster mitigates that weakness somewhat, making a stack that is pretty neutral against fire and ice attacks. Or you could double down on the fire monsters, which bolster the strength and selection of fire magic available to your stack. If you’re in a predominantly icy area, what’s the better play? Shore your fire guy’s weakness up with an ice guy’s defense? Or double down to get the big-hitting fire magic in an area where your doubly-bad ice weakness is going to be a liability?

There are a ton of moving pieces to play with when you get passed type weaknesses in World, is the crux. Lots of interesting decision points, lots of risk and rewards. In Pokémon there’s nothing back there but… well… nothing.

Now, fanboys of the series have been telling me for years that there’s a lot more to the Pokémon formula than just type weaknesses. These folks aren’t wrong, but I don’t think they’re right in any way that’s helpful to the most common play experiences. The biggest factor in which monster wins the 1v1 duel is their level, not their type. And high stats can mitigate type weaknesses in both directions; a monster weak to ice but with a high Sp. Defense stat will be able to weather an ice attack just fine, even though it’s “super effective”. Individual moves are also either physical or special, each one targeting a different defensive stat. So sometimes it matters whether your have a physical fire attack or a special one.

The only interesting decision, though, is the type of your attack. You’ll never be fighting against pokémon of a much higher level, and the pokémon you fight have more or less average stats. If you do run into one that can mitigate a physical fire attack, and you don’t have a special one, the fallback position is to just use neutral specials that don’t hit a type weakness but still deal enough damage that you’ll win the fight.

“Hi! My name means ‘dark dark’. I’m weak to Dark.”

If you’re a new player, like I am, there’s still a lot of room to get lost in this system. There are about two dozen types of pokémon, and the types don’t always form clear loops or oppositions. You’re also not told the type of a monster the first time you encounter it, and the game is rigged so a lot of storyline battles have you seeing monsters for the first time. (Indeed, according to Bulbapedia, lots of these encounters are stacked with monsters exclusive to the other version of the game!) You sometimes have to make guesses about what a monster’s type is, and then remember which of the many opposing types to use, and it’s very possible to guess wrong. I was personally a bit miffed when I fought this floaty metal-looking guy called Dusknoir, and only narrowly winning my fight against it, only to catch one later and learn its weakness is Dark attacks.

But guesswork, intuition, and eventually applied game knowledge win out in the end. Any player who is paying even a little attention is going to have a gaggle of overleveled monsters with all types covered by the third or fourth area. From there it’s Steamroll City. Most of the boss encounters are against opponents who use all of one type or another, and you know the type ahead of time. So it’s trivial to roll up and one-shot all their pokémon in a row.

Any mistakes you make are easily smoothed over by the functionally limitless supply of healing and revival items you have at all times; the game showers you with these after every NPC encounter, and they sell for pennies at the convenient Poké Mart. If you’re awake, you will never lose a fight.

On a macro level, the game is linear and structured. You beat the eight themed boss guys one after another, then you go fight the big bad, then you go around the eight themed boss locations again to do some other thing, then you go fight another big bad. Every step of the way has 1v1 bouts where you’re looking for type weaknesses.

Most of the boss fights involve the Dynamax system, where your opponent’s pokémon grows into a giant. I don’t actually think this effects anything. A Dynamax’d monster’s base stats are larger, but stats are secondary to types, so I was still carving through huge amounts of Dynamix’d health bars by hitting type weaknesses. Most Dynamax fights allow you to Dynamax your own pokémon too, so the sense of scale is usually immediately lost.

Most of the nuance of individual moves gets lost, too, each one just becoming a generic version of whatever the attack’s type was. I had a pokémon with two poison-type moves. One applied a damage over time poison effect, the other dealt double damage to a poisoned target. I won a lot of fights with this combo even against monsters without a poison weakness. When Dynamax’d, though, both poison moves just turned into “Max Ooze”, which still did damage but didn’t set up what I thought was a clever combo.

There are two kinds of 2v2 battles in the game. In the first kind, another AI-controlled pokémon trainer fights alongside you, using their own monsters. In my experience these fights always turned into a 1v2 match, since the AI trainer is usually ridiculously stupid and underpowered. In these fights you sometimes get a free round as both enemy monsters target the AI guy instead, but otherwise there’s nothing more to them.

The other form of 2v2 match were the most interesting fights for me by far. In these fights you control both monsters on your side and battle against two opposing monsters. This brings Pokémon more in line with traditional JRPG party combat, which is to say Dragon Quest. It’s nothing special in and of itself but it highlights just how restrictive the more common 1v1 style battles, and therefore most of the rest of the game, actually are.

I think my ideal Pokémon game would have the 2v2 format as the default, allowing you to cart around a team of eight monsters arranged in pairs, with the option to hotswap individual monsters or one pair for another. Maybe have some synergy bonuses if you pair monsters of similar or even opposing types. This actually gets pretty close to what World of Final Fantasy‘s default battle system looks like, though, so I guess I already have that.


World of Pokémon

Pokémon Shield takes place in the Galar region. (I assume Sword does too.) It’s pretty standard JRPG fare: you alternate between moving through monster-filled outdoors areas and safe village areas in your ever-expanding quest to trigger the next plot flag. For the most part I found navigating through the enemy areas to be the most enjoyable part of the game.

My recollection of Pokémon Red was that the enemy areas were linear stretches that all looked and felt the same. There wasn’t much an original Game Boy game could do to have a “fire area” or “ice area”, so the whole journey took part in these narrow stretches of grassy terrain with short cliffs and lots of weeds. Shield mostly follows this trend, but the attention paid to making each area feel distinct really does make all the difference.

Pictured: the entire first “dungeon”.

We’re not into full-on Dungeon Man territory here. You’re still running or biking through stretches of flat terrain, avoiding or navigating weeds depending on your current tolerance for random encounters. But the overworld areas do have little gameplay features that help bolster the sense-of-place a bit. The mountain area has lots of tall ladders and narrow crevices. The dark forest has luminous mushrooms you tap to light the path. The ice area has you riding your magic bike from iceberg to floating iceberg.

My problem here is that these areas are just too short. Each one is barely a few minutes long; if your only goal is to get through them, you might see two or maybe three encounters. Even if you want to explore everything and find every hidden passage and poké ball, the game always heavily skews towards town exploration, cutscenes, and NPC dialogue. Getting this closer to a 1:1 ratio would have been preferable.

There’s two more reasons I’d have liked to see longer areas. First, there is a sicknasty number of new monsters to catch in each new place you visit, more than you can possibly see even if you’re being thorough. Longer areas means you have more chance to see more kinds of monsters. Heck, you could then even justify having sub-areas with a different encounter list. No matter how you slice it you’re going to spend a lot of time just running circles in the patch of weeds closest to the next village. Another screen or two along each route means another monster or two in your Pokédex, and a few dozen circles you don’t have to run.

And second, longer areas means more reasons to re-visit old areas you’ve already cleared. This is an element I remember from Pokémon Red that simply isn’t in Shield. In that game, at key moments, you learned special monster moves that could open paths in more organic ways. Say there’s a huge tree blocking the next area off. Teach one of your guys the Cut move, and now you can get through that tree. And hey, wasn’t there a tree or two in the previous area you should go check out now?

Shield only did this once, with the magic water-skimming bike. I had a good time going back to the few areas that had water paths I could check out, now, but not quite enough to really sate my sense of exploration. Notably, there’s no way to open up new paths at all in the game’s two cave areas, which seem pointless compared to the variety of pathing out on the routes.

I say I wanted “longer” routes, not “larger” ones, because there is one area of the game that is vast indeed: the Wild Area.

“Snake, if you want to crouch, hold the Action Button.”

I’m sure someone out there thinks the Wild Area is Pokémon dabbling in being open world, but I should hope even the most stout Nintendo fanboys can see through such a silly notion. The area really isn’t even that big, though the two times you need to traverse it certainly take longer than any of the other routes.

What makes it feel more expansive is the large number of things to do. There are big sections of tall grass scattered across the landscape, each with a varied list of monsters that can appear in different weather. There are bridges and trees and ruins, and lots of water, and fishing spots too. And a special currency you can only earn and spend here. There are also high level pokémon roaming around you can’t really fight on your first visit, and that you’re not allowed to catch even if you could fight them. Oh, and there are pink holes in the ground where you fight wild Dynamax’d pokémon.

Or you hop on your bike and ride to the next place in three minutes.

Lots of characters implore you to go back to the Wild Area to get stronger and catch more pokémon. And I did spend a lot of time there, over the course of three treks: the first to reach a city in the middle of it, the second to reach another city at the far end of it, and a third to bike across the water to a few previously-unreachable islands.

Other than that, though? And the general novelty of an “open world”? I don’t see the point. There are a lot of monsters to catch, sure, and I did spend a lot of time there on each of my three outings, but the game kept trying to sell me on this idea that it was a central important location to my development and I just wasn’t buying it. I was always able to catch new pokémon on whatever the next route was, after all, who would all be at or around my own team’s level. Revisiting the Wild Area just never felt like it’d be worth my time.

I kept expecting a second Wild Area to open up, maybe at or near the endgame, to justify what must have been a lot of development time on what is kind of being billed as a key game feature. A huge underworld area or a vast untamed jungle — wait, didn’t Red have that already? — filled with more powerful monsters than anywhere else in the game.

As it is, the one Wild Area is all you get. The whole place is surrounded by walls and high cliffs, and no matter where you stand you can always swivel the camera and see the huge cities that sit next to it. It doesn’t feel like a Wild Area. It feels like a damn zoo.

Unlike on the routes, where you’re always a screen or two away from a full heal, out in the Wild Area you will probably run low on resources and have to camp. Camping is a new feature in Shield, from what I can tell, and I expect a lot of players will spend hours and hours there, talking to their monsters and playing with toys and cooking.

I detested the camping screen because I only did it when I needed to heal up, and healing up meant playing the inane cooking minigame. Here’s how it works: first hammer the button, then spin the thing, then you’re done. These two steps take about a full minute each. There’s no skill involved and as far as I can tell there’s no difference between any of the game’s hundreds of different cooking ingredients. You always make curry and it’s always tasty and you always get healed up after eating.

So that’s a lot of words to basically say “here’s a dozen gameplay systems that don’t matter because it’s all about types”. I enjoyed my time playing Shield, but there is just no meat in this stew. It tastes good going down but doesn’t fill you up, and it’s surrounded on all sides by heartier meals you will remember for much longer.


A wild “WELL ACTUALLY” appeared!

People are going to yell at me for calling Shield (and all other Pokémon games, by extension) overly simplistic without mentioning online competitive play. So I’m going to mention it and then move on.

I have not played any online vs. matches and never will. Doing so would be completely pointless without a L100 team at the very least, and I have no desire to grind that long. (My over-leveled endgame team is only about L72.) Even if I did, I don’t much like competitive games.

Ha ha ha ha ha! Oooh, man. Oh wait, you’re serious. HA HA HA HA HA!!

That a game can be played between humans, each trying to win, does not necessitate that game be deep or complex. Each year in Gloucester a bunch of people compete to see who can catch a big wheel of cheese that’s rolled down a hill. I don’t doubt for a minute that some people take this very seriously. Many people have been injured by falling down the hill after the cheese, or by the cheese itself as it crashes or bounces unexpectedly. There are certainly people who train all year for the big cheese-chase. For some people it will be the only moment of glory in their lives. People visit from all over to compete and to cheer and I’m sure its the high point of many folks’ year.

But it’s still just rolling cheese down a hill, yeah?


It’s 👏 For 👏 Little 👏 Kids!

Pokémon Shield‘s story is boring and stupid. This game talks at you a lot for how much actual development occurs over the course of the game.

The first knee-jerk might be something like, “Who cares about story in a Pokémon game?” And the answer is: Nintendo does. (Or technically GameFreak I guess, but also yeah, Nintendo cares an awful lot.) Someone created these characters and this world and wrote reams and reams of exposition. There’s an ancient legend to discover and some characters have motivations and even change sides during the plot. Someone cares a whole awful lot that this game feel like it’s telling a story.

But oh my god does it suck.

Let’s start with the most common defense: that it’s a game for kids. That’s true, of course. One helpful Twitterer I saw even punctuated the point with a clapping hands emoji, so you know they were super serious. The story is for little kids so if you’re an adult that didn’t enjoy it, well, you weren’t the target demo.

I don’t buy this logic and I never have. I think it does a disservice to children to imply they can’t handle or wouldn’t like better stories. It leads to a lot of companies shoveling just the worst kinds of boring dreck because they believe kids will like any terrible thing they poop out. I hesitate to even use qualifiers like “more complex” here, because my issue with Shield‘s story isn’t that it’s simple, but that it’s stupid. I would implore anyone clapping their hands to the “IT’S FOR KIDS” mantra to watch a few Pixar movies, or Avatar: The Last Airbender, or read some Harry Potter, and see how the masters craft stories for children that still hit basic narrative goals like “rising and falling action” and “has conflict” and “character motivations make sense.”

The story of Pokémon Shield is as follows: your player character lives next door to the current Bestest Pokémon Champion, and his little brother is your best friend. One day the champ visits home and gives each of you a pokémon of your very own, so you decide to enter the Pokémon League. This involves fighting at the eight gyms throughout Galar and then competing in a big tournament in the capital city.

Meanwhile, the sponsor of the tournament is doing some… nonspecific… bad(?) thing that’s connected to an ancient myth where two legendary pokémon protected Galar from a giant Dynamax’d monster in an event called the Darkest Day. The sponsor guy accidentally(??) summons the big monster, so you and your friend and the champion guy beat it up.

At this point two more bad guys(?) show up with a second evil plot to make a bunch of pokémon Dynamax against their will. They plan to end with the legendaries who helped beat the big endgame monster. (The big endgame monster, by the way, currently resides in a poké ball in your party, and your Mum likes it, and your other pokémon will play with it and you can make it eat curry and every other dumb thing.) You succeed at saving whatever legendary is on the box you bought, while the other one gets pokénapped. By the time the bad guys realize they’ve lost control of the situation, you and your friend team up to calm the “bad” legendary down… and that’s it. You have one last battle with your friend and are then nudged on to an endless battle tower and (presumably) online vs. play.

The characters and the writing, by the way, are fine. I enjoyed the cast. You meet lots of people, and while they’re mostly just colorful cliché machines, I never actively hated any of them. There are some fun interactions and you sort of do get a sense of what you’re all working towards, in the end.

What people mean by “the story doesn’t matter” is that, in a Pokémon game, the gameplay loop of catching and leveling monsters is what it’s really all about. This is true of every video game. I always say great gameplay can carry a blah story, while a great story can’t save a game with blah gameplay. Shield‘s gameplay isn’t great, but it definitely isn’t blah. It was enough to carry the experience for me, and I expect it’ll be the draw for most players.

That being said, it would have been close to trivial to give this game an actually compelling story, and a version of this game with a compelling story would have been improved dramatically over what we actually got.

The problem isn’t really that it’s boring (although it was boring), it’s that story beats and worldbuilding notes don’t withstand even basic levels of scrutiny. It only takes two seconds to think about what happens in the game and realize there’s no way it could possibly happen that way.

That’s really the difference between “good” and “bad” For-Kids media. A good story, whether made for kids or not, can stand up to some basic questions. Maybe not intense frame-counter-grognard-with-a-youtube-channel-and-a-chip-on-his-shoulder questions, but basic stuff about surface-level logic.

Stuff like… why are you the only pokémon trainer in the world who actually plays to win? Using a variety of pokémon with moves of all different types is the obvious best strategy, but everyone you meet either uses a small amount of monsters or all monsters of the same type. The gym leaders are supposed to be some of the best trainers in the business, but my preteen trainer with no experience destroyed most of them with a single move, then destroyed them again later in the same way at the tournament.

No, yeah, throw out the goddamn sheep again, I’m sure it’ll work great this time.

Or… why has nobody ever pieced together the legend of the Darkest Day before now? Your professor friend figures out the specifics of Galar’s biggest mystery by visiting every village and speculating about what the mural or statue or whatever in each one means. She looks at the artwork, thinks about it for a second, then declares what it must mean in the context of the other artwork she’s seen. Has nobody ever done this before? Nobody’s ridden the train from one side of the region to the other to visit all, what, six or seven landmarks? Wikipedia doesn’t exist in Galar?

You don’t even need explanations for these things, just acknowledgements. Maybe most people only have aptitude for one or two types of pokémon, and that’s why your character (and the current champion) are special. This is how it already works in practice, just have an NPC or two point it out along the way.

I know a compelling Pokémon story is possible, because I watched Detective Pikachu and it was thoroughy enjoyable. But they didn’t bother to try with Shield and I think that’s a shame.


Muh Bois

I think that about covers everything I could possibly say about Pokémon Shield. I enjoyed the gentle romp and will probably revisit the game in a couple years, maybe when the next generation comes out, using different monsters or maybe trying a challenge run. I look forward to the GDQ marathon where they run Shield and I actually care about the annual Pokémon run for a change.

In closing, I’ll leave you with my team. I didn’t give any of my monsters nicknames because pokémon already have super silly names as-is.

“Just put your balls in the machine, and then…”

Cinderace was my starter. My recollection from Red was that I put my starter (I think Squirtle, or whatever Squirtle evolves into) in a box partway through the game, and I was expecting to do that here, but Cinderace was consistently one of my strongest fighters for the entire game. It was rare to find an opponent faster than he was, and I got him a held item that increases the power of fire attacks very early on. So many monsters in this game seem weak to fire. Cinderace solo’d two of the gyms and shut down my stupid rival and his stupid Wooloo every time they popped up. I considered throwing him away when I saw how derpy his second-level evolution looked, but the final form is the Trix rabbit on bath salts and I’m into that.

Noctowl ended up being my best generalist. HOOTS the Pidgey(ot(to)) was a pretty big part of Brickroad Pokémon lore, so when I met a new(?) pokémon named Hoothoot I knew I had to have him. I think the one I captured was actually a Dynamax fight from the Wild Area. Anyway, Noctowl ended up with Flying, Fairy, Psychic, and Steel attacks, making him a pretty good bet against lots of random fiddly types I couldn’t remember the weaknesses for. Chances were good I could cycle in Noctowl and land something in a couple of tries, especially after I gave him an item that damages anyone who lands an attack on him.

Roserade was my secret MVP. He’s also one of only two pokémon I evolved using an item. (The other was an Eevee, because I remembered how Eevees work from my time with Red.) Lots of pokémon need items to evolve, but I didn’t feel like rubbing my entire inventory against the entire catalog. The game will show you if an item you’re selecting works on a pokémon in your current team, though, so Roserade got evolved in the end. His Toxic/Venoshock combo was super good against anything I knew wouldn’t resist poison, and its Giga Drain attack gave it mad staying power against some of the stronger gym leaders. Oh, and if you punch it, you get poisoned by that too, so sometimes I didn’t even have to use Toxic. Roserade delivered the final blow against most of the endgame fights. I love the idea that one of the fiercest pokémon on my team looks like it has cupcakes for hands.

Drednaw is the very goodest boi. He had pretty great HP and defense stats, so I could count on him lasting a few rounds if I needed to spot-heal. Water also seems to have as many damage applications as fire, although for most of the game I had other water options available. I eventually gave him False Swipe, so he could help me capture low-level pokémon in areas I missed the first time. (False Swipe is a move that can never kill an opponent, allowing you to weaken it without killing it, something that’s basically impossible if the opponent is ten or more levels lower than you.)

Beartic started life as a teddy bear with a big snot dangle, and was the first ice-type whose character design I didn’t hate. (The other main ice types I’d found were a vanilla ice cream cone and a penguin with an ice cube for a head. Pass.) Beartic has an ice move that always critical hits, and eventually learned a move called Superpower that has an insane attack rating to go with his insane Attack stat. He was a good meat shield to put out first in some battles where I wasn’t confident about the types my opponent would use. Also the game says he’s “quirky” by nature, which I like to think means he does abstract fingerpaints with those huge claws of his.

Pikachu rounds out my team, but I actually didn’t have a sixth for most of the game. I used it mainly as a rotating guest slot for whatever I happened to get in each area, and spent some time trying to find a use for lots of monsters I thought looked kind of cool. For a while I used the not-really-final-boss pokémon in my sixth slot, you know, the one that was going to destroy Galar or whatever, but it was pretty underwhelming and stupid looking. I actually thought Pikachu might be Sword-only, since I fought against a trainer who had one but never found any myself. Turns out it’s just a kind of rare encounter. (The same area is lousy with Eevees, I had two of those.) As soon as my pokédex confirmed I could go back and catch one, I cycled Drednaw and his False Swipe to my top slot and the rest is history.


Thank you for reading all my dumb bad opinions about Pokémon!

Survivor: Island of the Idols, week ten

I see now why Survivor used to skip Thanksgiving week. Yesterday was the first chance I had to sit down and watch the episode! Sorry about the delay.

This week was a Karishma episode, and it highlights probably the thing that frustrates me most about Karishma as a player. When she’s up, she’s 100% certified Grade-A hot shit. She brags and preens, and puts down other players, and snaps her fingers, and cocks her neck back and forth. When she’s down, she’s depressed and mopey, always on the verge of quitting, crying and whining and blaming everyone else for her lot in life.

Spun another way, Karishma takes all the credit for her successes and none of the blame for her failures. This is noteworthy because in one of her darker moments she even admits to knowing she’s a “goat”; she knows she’s being dragged along to the end by better players who want an easy doubleyoo in the finals.

I generally hold the opinion that, by definition, the best player of Survivor is the player that wins. Losing the game means there’s some aspect of it you didn’t play well, and at the end of the day the only metric that matters is jurty votes for. In Survivor parlance, “deserve” is a dirty word.

On the other hand, I’ve seen a lot of players get absolutely jacked by game twists they couldn’t have possibly forseen or planned for. Jamal is in that boat, for sure; his game came to an end because he touched a thing in a tree. Elizabeth probably counts too, and oh yeah by the way, spoilers.

I recall watching a man named Matt on Survivor: Redemption Island. In that season, the big twist was being voted out didn’t mean being voted off. You instead were sent to Redemption Island, where your fate in the game was linked to your ability to win challenges. Matt was sent there early, something like Day 3, and blitzed every challenge they threw at him. At the merge (so, Day 17 or so) Matt re-entered the game and was voted out immediately. He continued to blitz Redemption Island until the very last challenge (circa Day 38, maybe), where he lost unceremoniously.

Matt’s story was unique because, if he had won the one and only challenge he lost, and re-entered the game right at the finish line, and then managed to also win that final immunity challenge… he would have won the game without ever having played Survivor. At the time I was mostly bemused by Matt’s antics, but looking back I think I would have been a little upset. It turns out I-the-viewer don’t like the idea of someone who wins without playing.

(I’m still on Survivor social media blackout, but during one early sojourn through the subreddit I learned that the winner of season 38, Edge of Extinction, was a sort of Matt-lite. And yes, people were upset.)

This brings us to the conundrum of Karishma. Let me first give her some legit kudos: she’s on Survivor and she’s toughing it out, which is more than you could say about me or any other Armchair Warrior out there. However her story ends, by the end of it she’ll forever be a piece of Survivor lore and I’ll just be a guy with a blog nobody reads. But from what I can tell, this woman is a terrible player by any metric I know. I’m not upset that it honestly looks like she might make final three, and sit in the final Tribal Council. I’m upset that, if and when that happens, she will smugly think it was all her doing.

Let’s look at two boneheaded Karishma moments that had her feeling like Queen Big Shit. You’ll recall last episode, where Noura yelled at her for lazing around camp, and Karishma was CRUELLY AND UNJUSTLY BULLIED to go do the chore of picking up coconuts. Instead, she found a hidden Immunity Idol. She praised her resourcefulness without taking a moment to reflect that, holy crap, if she had continued to lounge around in the hammock all day, and Noura had gone to do the chore herself, that it’s Noura with a necklace, and not poor put-upon Karishma.

I guess when you luck into finding an idol you weren’t motivated to go look for in the first place, you don’t think too hard about how you’re going to use it. Once the Lumuwaku tribe, spearheaded by Dean and his distaste for the “Goat Army” he sees on the hirozone, decides Karishma is next to go, she resolves to play the idol and save herself.

The actual votes get a little complicated, but they strongly support my thesis that Karishma is a terrible player, and I want to give another player props before getting into the whole sordid story.

A boat arrives and tells Lumuwaku they have to send one player to the Island of the Idols. Lauren immediately speaks up. At this point in the game, enough players have gone there and come back with advantages that much of the exile stigma has been washed away. (Karishma pouts that she didn’t get to go, and blames Lauren for being loud and pushy, and thinks the reason she didn’t get picked is because her tribemates hate her. In reality, her tribemates won’t even know she wanted to go until they see this episode’s confessionals.)

Rob and Sandra describe the next Immunity Challenge to Lauren in some detail. It’s another endurance weight-balancing challenge, but this time, there’s a sit-out clause. If you’re confident in your place in the game, you can sit out and eat instead. If Lauren correctly identifies the winner of the challenge, she wins an Immunity Necklace.

Lauren wisely doesn’t bite right away, so Rob sweetens the deal by letting her pick two players. This is enough of a window for Lauren to work through the problem.

There are nine players, Lauren has to pick two. Blind chance, that’s nearly 1-in-4 odds. She knows she can sit out, and she knows her closest ally Tommy will sit out also. That’s nearly 1-in-3.

She knows Dan is complacent and comfortable, and that he’ll want to eat. And she knows Noura is a vegan, and isn’t down on some bacon and pancakes. So she’ll play. She also knows Elizabeth is worst off, from a gamestate perspective, and so will play no matter what. Her plan: peg Noura or Elizabeth to win, let Tommy in on the plan, and then work hard on getting as many other tribemates to sit out as possible.

This is already a great plan, but Lauren delivers a masterstroke: she tells the rest of the tribe that she decided the challenge would be eat-or-play. By framing the eat-or-play decision as her reward from the Island of the Idols, she makes the situation seem rarer than it actually is. And by going into details about all the yummy vittles on offer, she gets practically the whole tribe salivating.

Karishma, Elizabeth and Noura all decide to play, and Karishma couldn’t beat flabby sarcastic me in a challenge, let alone a yoga-obsessed health nut and an Olympic athlete. I took great delight in her dropping out first and having to sit the bench watching everyone else eat pancakes. I took even more delight in her little woe-is-me speech, and then even more when Probst didn’t ignore the still ongoing challenge to throw a little pity party for her.

Noura won the challenge and then displayed some actual growth as a person by trying to stay in as long as possible to give her tribemates more time to eat. (You’ll recall she stupidly stepped down from the previous endurance challenge, when further rewards were on the line.) I haven’t been Noura’s biggest cheerleader this season, but this does in fact show her eyes are open and generally pointed in the right direction.

The Karishma Vote.

Tommy wants Elizabeth gone next, because she’s a threat to sweep immunity and because she was gunning for him back when her allies were still in the game. Dean wants Karishma gone instead, because of his aversion to goats. After some hemming and hawing, and some reading of lips, the tribe settles on Karishma.

Dan tells (read: lies to) Karishma, saying the plan is to split the vote between Elizabeth and Janet. Karishma correctly intuits this isn’t true, and resolves to play her idol to protect herself. She is, in fact, one of three players to drop an idol tonight. First Dean plays a fake version of the fake legacy advantage given to him by Jamal (he’s hoping the other players will see it’s fake and assume he doesn’t still have the “real” one, then blindside them with it later, and god I hope that happens). Then Karishma plays her idol, much to everyone’s amazement. This shocks Lauren into playing her own necklace, since she knows whomever Karishma voted for is now leaving, and doesn’t want to risk it being her.

Seven votes Karishma, all thrown away. One vote Janet. One vote Elizabeth. Probst calls a re-vote, with Janet and Elizabeth sitting out, and Elizabeth goes home unanimously. (At least, I presume unanimously, as no Janet votes were shown. Usually, they show as many votes as possible to preserve tension as long as they can.)

Karishma loves that she’s still in the game, and thinks she played it beautifully. But I think she’s a bonehead, and here’s why.

First off, I wasn’t sure where where the Janet vote had come from. I usually skip the tail end of each episode, where the freshly-ejected player gives their exit interview while all the votes are shown on camera, but this week they only showed us the results of the anti-Elizabeth re-vote, so that wasn’t much help. Sometimes we get to see a vote or two against as they’re being cast, but that didn’t happen this episode. Not wanting to break my blackout oath, I checked Wikipedia, which sometimes have voting breakdowns. This revealed that the Janet vote came from Karishma.

(The only Elizabeth vote in the first draft came from Dan, which is itself interesting, but I don’t know what to make of it yet.)

So I’m working under the assumption Karishma thought it was going to be a landslide, and didn’t purposely force a tie. Here’s her position right now: she’s still in the game, she’s patting herself on the back, she’s on Cloud 9. But that’s going to come crashing back down when she gets back to camp, everyone likes her even less now, and she doesn’t have her idol anymore.

Playing an idol to squeak past one super important vote is fine — that’s sort of what Lauren did this episode. Playing an idol to squeak past one vote with no plan to follow up afterwards doesn’t actually accomplish anything. If I could ask Karishma a question, it’d be something like… what next?

If Karishma were an actually good player, she would have done a lot of legwork before Tribal Council. Just off the top of my head, she should immediately know Elizabeth and Janet are in danger, because that’s what Dan told her. Appraoch Elizabeth and Janet individually, show them the idol, and tell them, “Get on board with me, or one of you goes home tonight, and I don’t care which one.”

A really good player would go on to then slap together a makeshift alliance of four or maybe five, perhaps by swaying Dan or Noura, perhaps by selling “we need to break up Lauren and Tommy”. But we’re taking baby steps here.

In this hypothetical, Janet and Elizabeth need to start scrambling. They let the goose out about Karishma’s supposed idol. Does she have one? Who knows? Several players searched her bag but didn’t find it earlier. Maybe she doesn’t? Do we risk it? Are Elizabeth and Janet just trying to save themselves? Karishma could confirm or deny as much of this as she wants, in whatever direction she wants.

Maybe Lauren and Tommy see a united Karishma/Elizabeth/Janet vote. They still have six, but that’s not enough to split against an opposing alliance of three. They know Karishma will play an idol if she has one (or do they know that?). If they hit Karishma as planned, they lose one of their own instead — probably Noura. (Which makes Noura prime to flip! And Noura is prone to flipping! So maybe it’s 5-4 instead of 6-3?) If they hit Elizabeth instead (which Tommy wants to do, so it’s not much of a stretch), Karishma (maybe?) skates by with an idol still in her armpit.

The point is there’s lots of ways this could have gone. Karishma, when that guy whose name you can’t spell on that HBO show based on those books you didn’t read said “chaos is a ladder”, this is what he meant. You could have used your idol to punch some serious holes in the anti-you alliance. Instead, you quietly bought yourself three more days.

Which, I guess, brings us back around to that dirty word: “deserve”. Does Karishma deserve to win this season, if she wins? In this same season when stronger players were eliminated by unfair post-merge twists, or mis-application of #MeToo? I want to say yes. I have to say yes. Because saying no means this game is broken beyond recognition, and coming back to watch it again has been a mistake.

Who’s gonna win?
For all my bellyaching, I honestly think Karishma has no shot at the prize. Lasting long enough to get to the final three is just Step One; you then have to sit against the jury. And I simply don’t see this jury giving Karishma any votes. Jurors traditionally vote either based on strategy (e.g., they look at who played the best game and vote accordingly) or on spite (e.g., they vote for whichever finalist they hated the least). I think Karishma loses both of those votes against any of the seven people still in the game with her.

I’m sticking with Tommy, with a side-order of Lauren. I think Lauren might catch a little blowback from the jury regarding The Dan Situation, and everyone just watched her “waste” an idol. Also, I think an important future move for both these players is to try and make it look like the other one orchestrated an Elaine vote… which brings me to Elaine.

I’m also going to be watching Elaine very, very intensely going forward. She’s still the person everyone loves, and the time is fast approaching when all of those players need to be out of the game if you hope to win. I think Elaine wins against any of the remaining players… but I don’t think they’ll let her live that long. If I were Tommy or Lauren, I’d be having a hell of a talk with my ally about how much we’re willing to risk our long gameplan on that final four Immunity Challenge.