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Game Reviews: RPG's of 2014

Posted by Saber-Scorpion, 22 February 2015 · 4,064 views

This is a bit different than my usual news post, but hopefully some of you may find it interesting. In case you don't know, I'm a pretty big nut about RPG's - specifically CRPG's, which are role-playing video games for the computer (PC). In 2012, this old nearly-dead game genre saw a renaissance through Kickstarter, a website that allowed game developers to turn to the fans for funding instead of working under the yoke of a publishing company and following its orders. 2014 was the year that some of these Kickstarter dreams finally started to see reality. Since I backed a lot of them, here are my thoughts...

RPG's of 2014 - My Reviews


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My Kickstarter swag: Shadowrun Returns T-shirt and Doc Wagon Card - Divinity: Original Sin box copy (straight from Belgium) - Star Citizen card - Wasteland 2 Collector's Edition Box (with CD's, manual, cloth map, Desert Rangers patch, and miniature)

Well, thanks to Kickstarter, 2014 was quite a year for the tired ol' RPG genre. It finally had more than 2-3 interesting releases! Here are all of the RPG's that I played last year, with my thoughts on each, listed in vague ascending order with my favorite saved for last. Dragon Age: Inquisition is the odd one out, since it was a AAA big-budget production instead of a crowd-funded borderline-indie game, so I didn't rank it with the others.
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#?- Dragon Age: Inquisition:
 Since this game is a AAA big-budget production and had nothing to do with independent crowdfunding efforts, I'm not ranking it alongside these other games. But it did come out in 2014, so here it is. Quick review: it's better than Dragon Age II (which isn't hard to achieve), but not as good as Dragon Age: Origins. If you're a fan of the DA series, you'll enjoy it - if not, it's not going to change your mind. Despite its attempt at "open world" gameplay, it doesn't push the right buttons to serve as a supplement for the Elder Scrolls fan crowd. It's more like an offline MMO with Bioware story missions. The open world feels nice after the cramped linear corridors of DA2, but ultimately all the open-world side-quests are just simple, repetitive MMO style filler content with low story and little to no choices and consequences to be made. To be fair, however, most of this filler content can be avoided - just close a few Oblivion Gates Fade Rifts and you'll quickly have enough Whatever Points to advance to the next story mission. If that sounds like your thing, it's a decent enough game I suppose. But it's still not on par with any of my favorite Bioware games, and that includes the Mass Effect trilogy.
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#4- Wasteland 2: This game was the spark that started the fire for the renaissance of oldschool RPG's on Kickstarter. In 2012, it raised almost 3 million dollars - becoming one of the two most successful Kickstarter projects ever at the time. Did it live up to all the hype?
Ehhh, to put it bluntly: not quite. It's certainly not a bad game, but it's also not a great game in any particular way. It feels distinctly like it was made with a checklist nearby that said: "All the Things those Old School RPG Fans Want", but it's hard to find much evidence of the passion the developers talked about when they said this was the dream game they'd been waiting to make for so many years. The writing is not terribly compelling, with few memorable characters or moments despite repeated attempts at humor (including possibly too many pop-culture references - it could compete with Fallout 2 in this regard), and few choices (as far as I've seen) that force you to think as hard about the consequences as advertised. Instead the focus is on the turn-based combat, which has been polished to a smooth shine at this point thanks to repeated patches, but which is lacking in feature variety compared to some other games, and gets old because you fight so damn much.
Remember how in the old Fallout games you could spend hours wandering around the wasteland towns, talking to NPC's and using your skills on everything in sight? In Wasteland 2, the settlements offer little of interest, and far too many skills are used almost exclusively to open containers, all of which bear the foul curse of randomized loot. All roads lead to more combat, and while I've had fun with a few of the more tactically interesting encounters, killing dudes and collecting loot is not really why I play RPG's - at least it's not why I love oldschool CPRG's, certainly. In the end, I have had such a hard time getting into Wasteland 2 that I still haven't made it out of Arizona and into California, which is supposedly the halfway point in the game. I have played this game for 60 hours, and I haven't even made it halfway through. I've heard California is more compelling than Arizona, to the point that some players have called Arizona one big tutorial zone. But a tutorial zone shouldn't be half the game, or it's understandable that players will get bored.
If I were to simply list all the cool RPG features of Wasteland 2, it would sound great. And it certainly has the potential to be great - all the basic groundwork is there. But not much is done with it. In the end, it feels like a paint-by-the-numbers RPG rather than anything approaching a passionately-made masterpiece. Do I regret backing it on Kickstarter? Nope; I still think it started a movement that has led and will continue to lead to some truly great RPG's. But I'm a little sad that Wasteland 2 itself isn't quite one of them.
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#3- Divinity: Original Sin: This sequel to the Divinity series was already well into development when Larian Studios reached out to Kickstarter for 400,000 dollars - and ended up with 944,282 instead - to expand the content and add more features. Now, I haven't actually played any of the previous Divinity games (I tried Divine Divinity years ago and dismissed it, perhaps undeservedly, as little more than a Diablo clone), so I don't know how D:OS stacks up against them. But compared with the other RPG's I've played - including these Kickstarter ones - it suffers from many of the same problems as Wasteland 2. Namely: the writing is not very compelling and there is way too much emphasis on combat and collecting loot (which, again, is pretty much all randomized - stop doing this, developers!). As the somewhat World-of-Warcraft-ish art style would indicate, the world and story are largely light-hearted and frivolous. That's not to say every RPG needs to be gritty and grimdark - I think I could really enjoy a Discworld-esque comedy RPG as long as it was written well - but D:OS just never offers anything interesting to grip you. The jokes are whimsical and possibly get muddled in translation (I've heard this is "Belgian humor"), and the central narrative actually plays the most overused fantasy clichés completely straight! That's right - your two characters are super-special Chosen Ones saving the entire world from ancient evil. By killing lots of baddies in turn-based combat.
I can say, however, that the turn-based combat is overall much more varied, original, and fun than Wasteland 2's. It does start to get old after a while once you've figured out a good routine, but you keep gaining new abilities to add variety. And the magic system is just a blast. Pick up a barrel full of explosive oil, use a teleport spell to drop it into the middle of the enemy ranks, blast it with a fireball to light the resulting pool of oil ablaze, and then pour rain on top of it to put out the fire so your fighters can rush in. And then you can blast the puddles of water your rain made with lightning to fry and stun everyone standing in them, and cast cold spells to freeze your now-wet enemies. In many ways, combat feels like a sandbox, allowing you to play around with the various toys you are given and try out new things. For example, you can pick up loot chests and put them in your inventory (a good way to save a chest you can't unlock until you level up some more), and then use them as containers. Since every item has weight, you can fill the chest up with all your heaviest items... and then throw it at people to smash them like a 2-ton catapult stone! This requires a lot of strength, of course. But stuff like this is what RPG rule systems are made for. (note: I haven't actually tried the chest thing, just read that it works)
And yet, just like with Wasteland 2... I've yet to finish the game. Just like with Wasteland 2, I've put 60+ hours into it and still don't know if I'm even halfway through. This game has gotten RPG of the Year on some of my favorite RPG sites, but I guess I'm just too much of a story guy, because the frequently-voiced "the story isn't very good" complaint for D:OS is a huge one in my book. There's just not enough compelling me to go onward with long turn-based fight after long turn-based fight, only to be rewarded with a randomized loot chest and rescue a talking sheep or something. I wish the game's robust RPG engine had been used for something more interesting. But if that sounds like your sort of thing, then I highly recommend D:OS.
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#2- The Banner Saga: I'm not gonna say much about this one here because I already wrote a full review for it. It got $723,886 on Kickstarter in 2012, way above its $100,000 goal. It's a relatively simple little game, which plays like a board game with some Oregon Trail segments and a sprinkling of RPG features on top. But the art, music, and atmosphere are all downright excellent, sucking you into this bleak but beautiful dying world, and for me, that's the sort of thing that will compel me to continue playing a video game. The story isn't bad either, with the main problem being that it just starts to get interesting around the time it prematurely ends. Plus it's about Vikings, so it's relevant to my interests. Yeah, I'm biased toward this one, so your mileage may vary. But personally, I played it twice and look forward to the sequel.
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#1- Shadowrun: Dragonfall: The Kickstarter project for Shadowrun Returns was successfully funded for $1,836,447 of its $400,000 goal in 2012. I've already posted a full Shadowrun Returns review here, and a full Shadowrun Dragonfall review here. While the original game was a pretty fun little romp with nice combat, good writing, and great music and atmosphere... it was short and linear and had little replay value for an RPG. Harebrained Schemes promised to improve on all these shortcomings with their promised second campaign set in Berlin, which they titled Dragonfall. And they delivered on all those promises, turning Dragonfall into the best isometric Bioware-esque RPG to come out in many, many years. Unfortunately, they made the mistake of releasing Dragonfall as "DLC" for Shadowrun Returns, causing many to overlook it. So they re-released a standalone "Director's Cut" version later, with expanded missions for many of the companion characters, along with other improvements. If you only buy one RPG from 2014, it should be Shadowrun: Dragonfall - Director's Cut. With well-paced turn-based combat that never drags, snappy cyberpunk writing with a compelling story about interesting characters, and great atmosphere and music that sinks you right into the isometric 2D world... it's easily my favorite of the Kickstarter RPG's of 2014.

What I'm looking forward to in 2015

#4- Age of Decadence: I've been following the development of this Fallout-inspired indie RPG since way before the Kickstarter craze (they never went to Kickstarter) - for so long, in fact, that I know it's wishful thinking to say it will come out in 2015. But hey, I'm looking forward to playing it on whatever Thursday it's finally released.
#3- Torment: Tides of Numenera: Despite inXile failing to highly impress with Wasteland 2, everything about their spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment looks more promising. Just this video is enough to convince me it's worth keeping my hopes up for T:TON.
#2- Shadowrun: Hong Kong: After Dragonfall, I have no reason to doubt that Harebrained Schemes will improve their formula even more and deliver another rock solid RPG campaign. Their new Kickstarter for Hong Kong was successfully funded at $1.2 mil just three days ago. I backed it without hesitation.
#1- Pillars of Eternity: Obsidian's homage to the Infinity Engine games promises to be the exact dream game I wanted to come out of this whole Kickstarter thing. I have so many hopes riding on PoE that the hard part has been keeping them in check. The rather rough-around-the-edges beta helped a little with that, but I'm still mega hyped to start this adventure from the beginning when it drops next month. My fingers are crossed for true greatness.

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