As the dragons finally return to their nests to hibernate and the ghosts don their chains to help remind misers of the meaning of the season, we approach the end of another year. As is tradition, that is time for we at the guild-house to award both quests and questers the ceremonial Scrolls of Honour™. (Chorus of affordable angels)
Scribed upon only the finest vellum in ink taken from a particularly recalcitrant octopus from the Abyssal Depths, they are a testament to skill and imagination and occasional disappointments that mean exactly nothing whatsoever except that I have a column and so I can hand out whatever made-up crap takes my fancy. Lo! We begin!
The Scroll of Strength: The Witcher III
My favourite game of the year? I think so, yes. It’s amazing to think that in just two sequels, CD Projekt Red has gone from being the company responsible for the ambitious but often frustratingly flawed and (initially) barely coherent The Witcher to the absolute top-tier of AAA developers. The Witcher III is proof positive that it’s totally been earned, and then some. Certainly, this one needs no Enhanced Edition.
To be sure, it has its downsides, including a less than satisfying combat scaling curve and far too much reliance on the words “Use your Witcher Senses to…”, but I don’t want to get bogged down in that. Witcher III is the kind of labour of love that we rarely see in the AAA space, where every single person involved seemed to bring both their A-Game and a deep passion for making the best Witcher experience possible. It’s not just a question of the graphics and technology, but its sense of humanity and compassion – a game that will give both an abusive husband and an unfairly condemned young man an equal chance to tell their stories, and show that both deserve at least some measure of sympathy for their personal tragedies. Forgiveness? Perhaps not.
Geralt in particular is a triumph, with everything from the writing to the animation of his eyes underscoring how much he isn’t the stoic, cynical observer he likes to portray himself as, and the quests confident enough to show him as everything from a badass warrior to an old sot drunk-dialing wizards while in drag. The expansion, Hearts of Stone, goes so far as to spend a whole quest mocking him for being dull, in a way that’s only possible when there’s no chance of the audience agreeing.
Over the course of the series, The Witcher has been a masterclass in game evolution, in everything from game mechanics, to how well its female characters have gone from being an industry joke courtesy of the sex cards in the first games to some of the best written around. CD Projekt has said that The Witcher 3 is the end of Geralt’s story, though of late they’ve been murmuring about doing more after the second planned expansion, especially since Cyberpunk isn’t likely for a couple of years still. My bet would be on a standalone Ciri game to see if she can carry a whole sequel, and I’d totally play that. I hope they do shelve Geralt now though. She has so much potential for stories, even after her destiny is concluded, but Geralt? I just don’t think anything can happen to him now that would be bigger than already has, and I like to imagine him getting the retirement his heroics have secretly earned him.
I could rant on for hours about how much I loved The Witcher III, which is all the more impressive because nothing makes you never want to see a game again like having to mainline it for review purposes. But I won’t. I’ll just once again be grateful that it recovered from its wonky start to become something truly special.
Needless to say, I really, really can’t wait for Cyberpunk 2077.
The Scroll of Charisma: Undertale
I’d never heard even of Undertale before it came out. Had missed the Kickstarter, don’t use Tumblr. The first I heard about it was someone on Twitter saying it was worth checking out. I checked it out, and while it’s not quite my favourite game of the year, it’s certainly both up there, and the best surprise in ages.
It’s hard to encapsulate exactly why, at least without spoiling it, but at heart it’s like playing a game of Pass The Parcel where you’re always holding the box as the music stops. Every layer just builds the excitement and usually comes with a bit of candy. The way it tracks your progress between games, and calls you out on doing something like killing a friend to see what happens, then reloading so that it never did. The characters, who start out as one-note jokes and obstacles, only to be fleshed out as you play to the point that even goofy stuff like Sans the pun-loving skeleton’s laziness start to have sinister undertones. The sheer wealth of hidden gags and responses to actions and clever alternative solutions to puzzles. The… oh, but spoilers! So many potential spoilers! Few games have the comfort to undersell themselves this much, so that their secrets can surprise and shine when players stumble across them naturally.
There’s so much to like, but at heart, what sells Undertale is its deep and genuine warmth. It’s a game full of monsters that doesn’t really believe in them, not just offering the options to do things like take pacifist routes because people like no-kill paths in games, but to deconstruct how RPGs work and how we approach them. It’s a game that looks simple, but has been incredibly well and thoughtfully designed, to the point that enemy attacks typically represent their personalities rather than just being random mini-games. It’s a game designed not around gold and glory, but family and love, to the point that if this wasn’t one of my favourite games on its own merits, it would have become one just by watching people Let’s Play it on YouTube and listening to them laugh and laugh and laugh. Oh, Sans and Papyrus. I want more merch, immediately.
Also, being nice about Undertale really annoys people who deserve to be annoyed. I’ll accept that some fans have been a touch douchey about it, but if you’re midway through typing something like ‘memetale’, go stick your head in a bucket of stagnant water. I’m thrilled that it’s been as successful as it has, and had an absolute blast both playing it and generally feeling part of something special both in and outside it. If it was just a funny, parody RPG, it’d already be a winner, but that’s just the start. There’s so much more to it, and anyone who argues can – as they say – get dunked on.
The Scroll of Valour: Kickstarter Developers
Consider this one a shared achievement, and to some extent going back into last year. But I think it’s worth taking a moment to generally applaud the developers who have brought back both old franchises and classic styles over the last year or so. While some may have hit the spot better than others, just about everything from Wasteland 2 to Divinity: Original Sin to Serpent in the Staglands to Lords of Xulima to Pillars of Eternity have been at least solid, and typically excellent. This year also saw many returning for a second push, with Divinity: Original Sin getting a huge Enhanced Edition to polish it up and add a ton of new content like full voiceover and rewritten quests that don’t outright tell you what to do, but at least don’t expect you to be psychic.
Not every genre has been so fortunate, with my beloved adventure games in particular having generally done a less than great job of recreating that feeling of being 13 and booting up Day of the Tentacle for the first time, so it’s worth appreciating just how successful RPGs have been. Now. That being said, I do have to counter this to some extent by adding that as fun as the nostalgic trips have been, it is time to start seeing some more new ideas of the kind that made games like Baldur’s Gate and Ultima VII so explosively innovative and exciting back in the day. There’s a whole sack of ideas to steal from, from survival sims to Roguelikes to just generally listening to the guy who says “Isn’t it a bit boring to just get a quest, do the thing, and then go back?”
The cool thing is that the next wave of games does look to be getting more ambitious, with particular stand-outs so far including Divinity: Less Original Sin trying to borrow from tabletop and make party members more than just sacks of equipment and stats, and Numenara’s Crisis system where every battle is an interesting encounter. Fingers crossed that the nostalgia trip is about to become the next step forwards.
The Scroll of Histories: Serpent in the Staglands
There’s been a few RPGs for the more hardcore adventurer this year, including Lords of Xulima and Age of Decadence. This year’s pick though goes to Serpent in the Staglands, an excellent and brutal outing, in which you’re a fallen god travelling through a world more inspired by the likes of Darklands than traditional fantasy CRPGs. It’s not the prettiest game around, and it will stomp your face into a small puddle if you try to play it without not simply reading the rules but sublimating them into a liquid and drinking them in one shot. But, three diamond-tipped axes later, when you finally break into it, it’s a lovely bit of design and a very satisfying quest. Just don’t look up the speed-run on YouTube, because that’s not a way to feel good about yourself.
The Scroll of Failure: Raven’s Cry
Raven’s Cry wasn’t so much a game release as a pile of poo dropped from the TopWare anus, and everyone involved should have had their noses rubbed into it as a warning. Lord Walker of Bath covered the reasons back at the start of the year, and while to the developers credit they have been back and fixed it (though I’ve not played the updated version to see how well, because my list of better things to do with my time includes biting my toenails off, wielding one in each hand and having tiny sword-fights), the sheer scale of its original failure warrants a stamp of NEVER FORGET right on its forehead. On the plus side, The Witcher started off little better, so maybe in a couple of sequels, these will be some of the best RPGs around. Y’know. Maybe.
The Scroll of Banishment: Cyberspace
This year, being collected by Shadowrun: Returns for continuing a proud 30 year history of Cyberspace just plain sucking. Stop putting it into games. That includes you, OtherSide when you make System Shock 3, and you, CD Projekt, for Cyberpunk 2077. Cyberspace was a shit idea in the 80s when people wanted to make computers look like they were from the future, and now we’re in that future, it’s just embarrassing for everyone. Just give hackers an iPhone, or if they refuse on moral grounds, Android. But decking into the virtual holomatrix to shoot ICE and crypto-surf the information hyper-highway while wearing a whole cow’s worth of leather? Enough!
Wearing sunglasses indoors continues to be acceptable, if you can pull it off.
The Scroll of Vitality: The Old Republic / Final Fantasy XIV
I’m calling this one a draw, because… well, because I can. First, The Old Republic. I know, I know, I’d not thought about it in ages either. However, it wouldn’t be fair to not be grateful that BioWare has finally done what everyone wanted them to do in the first place, and make it possible to (more or less) just play through the class stories without having to endure one of the most tedious MMOs out there. The Imperial Agent story is the one everyone recommends, and with good reason. I’d also like to highlight the Smuggler, though, because it’s both really well written and wonderfully funny.
Taking the other half is Final Fantasy XIV, which only goes from strength to strength while still being able to justify a subscription fee. Its Gold Saucer addition earlier this year is one of the single coolest things ever added to an MMO, and Heavensward has given the main campaign a real shot in the arm. They’re currently doing a free login campaign for former subscribers that offers four days of free play until the end of the month. Sadly, everyone involved with the payment and account management systems has yet to be taken out and shot repeatedly in the face, as justice demands.
The Scroll of Sadness: Fallout 4
Don’t mistake this for “Fallout 4 is a bad game”, because it’s clearly not that. But, of all the RPGs I was looking forward to this year, this was the one that most landed with both a thump and sad farty sound. And yes, I really was looking forward to it. A lot. Not only do I love the series, New Vegas more than Fallout 3, admittedly, I was really in the mood for a big sprawling RPG that wasn’t fantasy. It didn’t deliver for me.
It’s cliche to say “I really wish Bethesda had done the world and Obsidian had done the writing”, but… yeah. I really wish Bethesda had done the world and Obsidian had done the writing. I soon lost all interest in the quests that were just glorified ways of setting up not particularly good fighting in bombed out buildings, couldn’t get into the boring and poorly implemented story, and while I’ve kept meaning to go back and find the cool stuff that I know is there, somehow every time I load it up I just end up staring for a while and quitting. Most of the fun I had with it was the time spend idly imagining playing as someone like Nick Valentine or Piper, with a reason to go poking around the deep corners of the wasteland. Seriously, what could be cooler than being a slightly dickish journalist finding awesome stories in the dark future? The success of the RPS diaries show that, even if I couldn’t get into the fiction enough to do the RP thing while playing, there was potential there. Certainly more than the concussed hunt for Shaun and battle for part of the Wasteland that’s doing pretty well on its own.
Basically, after clocking up literally hundreds of hours with the previous two, this one lasted me… eleven. Mostly in a couple of sittings desperately trying to find the fun on my mini-map, but only finding cheap-ass supermutants with long-range rocket launchers. That earns one Scroll, both devoted to and awarded with sighs.
The Scroll of Goatse: Eye Of The Beholder III
23RD GLORIOUS UNOPPOSED YEAR!
But hey, there’s 12 more months until next time…