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Counter Attack #4: Ranking The E3 2018 Conferences

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E3 2018

Counter Attack is a weekly feature here on Goomba Stomp in which John Cal McCormick casts a bemused eye over the gaming news, the niggling issues plaguing the industry, important moments from gaming’s past, or whatever it is that’s annoying him this week. Today we’ll be ranking each conference from E3 2018 from worst to best, because what would E3 be without arbitrarily declaring which corporation did the best job of peddling their wares?

E3, like Christmas, comes but once a year. And E3, like Christmas, can be a bit of a mixed bag. You never know whether the surprise presents you’re opening are going to be a brand new remote controlled helicopter or another pair of novelty socks. Well, I suppose in that instance you would, unless for some reason your aunt put the same novelty socks she buys you every year in a massive box to throw you off the scent. Who knows? The point of this increasingly laboured analogy is that it’s the unknown that makes E3 so exciting, and it’s the failure to deliver on every single one of our ludicrous expectations that so frequently makes the expo so disappointing for many people. Expectations need to be tempered. Don’t go in expecting Half Life 3 and 4 to be announced back to back, and maybe you can appreciate what does get shown.

That said, 2018 was not a vintage year for E3. Perhaps we’ve just been spoiled in recent years, but this was for my money one of the dullest E3s in many a moon. It wasn’t a car crash by any means, and there were no conferences that came close to, say, Sony’s 2006 presser, and there were no awkward moments on par with Jamie Kennedy’s train-wreck presenting job. But there was certainly no runaway “winner” in terms of the conferences this year, with most being good and bad in different ways. Still, that’s not going to stop us from ranking them from worst to best for your reading pleasure. So let’s talk about how E3 2018 went down, who walked the walked, who talked the talk, and who officially won at trying to get you to buy video games.

Also, we won’t be covering the PC show here. I’m sure Microsoft Word looks great again this year, but I didn’t watch it. If you desperately need to know about Steam, and Minesweeper, and Powerpoint presentations, then we did a rundown and it’s right here.

On with the ranking.

#7 As Always, It’s EA’s Conference Bringing Up The Rear

This bizarre interview with Vince Zampella yielded very little information about Respawn’s upcoming Star Wars game.

Host Andrea Rene did her best to look excited while Electronic Arts paraded the usual array of sports games we see every year, but I wasn’t buying it. I knew she felt dead inside, just like I did watching it. I can’t think of any game that needs to be at E3 less than FIFA. You could do a social experiment where EA do an E3 and they don’t show FIFA, they don’t talk about FIFA, in fact, FIFA might as well be Lord Voldemort – it doesn’t even get mentioned by name on stage under threat of murder. And if this hypothetical, FIFA-less EA conference went down, I guarantee you that FIFA would sell exactly the same number of copies as it always does upon release.

FIFA, Madden, whatever that basketball thing was where the man was throwing the orange ball around – if you’re into them you’re into them and you’re going to buy them, you know you’re going to buy them, and some dude pretending to be having some sort of religious experience because he’s stood six feet away from the Champion’s League trophy isn’t going to change that fact one iota. And I’m not one of those cognac quaffing, french cigarette smoking snoots looking down their nose on sports games. I like FIFA. And, you know, wrestling games. And golf games but only the silly ones like Mario Golf. It’s just that these games simply don’t matter at E3 and only slow the proceedings down. Know your audience. Speaking of which, don’t bother showing off mobile games either.

Away from sports and mobile, EA shed a little light on Respawn’s Star Wars game during a weird and cringey interview with Vince Zampella, and surprise announced a sequel to Unravel, which is the game they published to try and convince gamers that they’re not as awful as everyone says. Then they came out on stage and apologised for being as awful as everyone says. Actually, it wasn’t so much an apology. It was like when Louis CK got fingered for the #MeToo thing, and he kinda acknowledged it was all true and he sucked as a person, but he didn’t quite throw himself on the mercy of the court. A nonpology, I think they called it. Battlefield II was a shitshow, and they’re trying to sort it out. And so it’s good that they’re acknowledging their shortcomings. But hey, here’s some micro-transactions for you in Anthem.

Oh goody. Another always online multiplayer space shooter. We probably need more of those.

I’m finding hard it to get excited about Anthem, by the way. It reminds me of when Bungie took Halo – a series with rich lore and refined first person shooting – took the latter, ditched the former, and turned it into cold, clinical, lifeless, always online, money spinning grindathon Destiny. I played Destiny and enjoyed it in a boring sort of way, but that doesn’t mean I can’t accept what it was. Anthem looks like that, but built on the back of Mass Effect‘s festering corpse rather than Halo‘s. Hopefully, I’m wrong on that one, but either way, one pretty alright looking game wasn’t enough to save this conference from being a lame duck.

I honestly can’t remember a time when EA didn’t have the worst press conference at E3. They’re the undefeated, back to back world heavyweight champions of having the shittest presser on the biggest stage in gaming, and once again I find myself asking, why does EA even need a press conference? Seriously, why do you need a press conference, EA? If they ditched this conference and had Anthem on stage at Xbox or PlayStation it would probably help the game get over since more people would be watching, and I honestly don’t think it would hurt the sales of any of their other games at all. Give it up.

#6 Square Enix’s Best Quality Was Brevity

Square Enix had a lot of exciting things to show at E3 2018.

Square Enix’s conference bests EA’s only – and I mean only – because it was half as long. This was a massive waste of time, and anybody who actually sat and watched it all should legally be able to send an invoice to Square Enix to get a monetary settlement for that time back.

The problem here – and again, I find myself asking, does Square Enix even need a conference for this? – is that they had absolutely nothing to announce, and so it seemed like they were having the press conference because someone had accidentally booked it and they didn’t have the heart to say no to turning up. It was like they remembered on the morning that they had to show something, so they got an office junior to just group a bunch of their old trailers together using Microsoft Movie Maker while the rest of the studio went out for Cosmopolitans. It was a bunch of trailers that we’d already seen – some at other conferences at the same E3 – and precious little in terms of new information.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider looks fine but we’d already seen it. There’s some sort of Final Fantasy XIV and Monster Hunter crossover happening. Final Fantasy VII Remake is just a thing that we now talk about in the same way that we talk about leprechauns and other mythical shit that nobody has laid eyes on but a few nutters swear actually exists. Just Cause is still going after the somewhat botched launch of Just Cause 3, and this time there’s storms and stuff so that looks pretty cool, but again, we’d already seen the trailer.

Kingdom Hearts III has a release date, but until the game is actually physically in my hand, and I’ve opened the box to make sure that there’s not just an IOU inside I won’t believe it’s coming out in January 2019. Also, the Kingdom Hearts III trailer was awful. I thought the sound was just boinked when the trailer was shown the first time at the Microsoft conference, but no, apparently it was designed that way. Also the Gummi Ship is back so I guess that’s something to look forward to. You can’t always sell the sarcasm in prose, so I’m just going to have to spell it out that I fucking hate the Gummi Ship in Kingdom Hearts. And I had no idea who like three quarters of the people were in the trailer. I know that’s my own fault for not playing the 7,000 Kingdom Hearts spin-off games, but I tried one of them once and it was properly shit. Imagine how Xbox One players feel. I felt for sure Square Enix would announce the first two Kingdom Hearts games would be coming to Xbox, but they didn’t. Good luck starting with III. It’ll be like trying to learn Japanese by listening to Mr. Roboto by Styx over and over again for forty hours.

#5 Nintendo’s Near Future Looks Bleak

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate features every single fighter ever to appear in Smash. Let’s list them all one at a time!

This Nintendo Direct – which isn’t a conference, but then if they’re going to show it at E3, why not include it? – was not one for the ages, but if you’re a big Smash Bros. fan then you’ll at least get a kick out of all the stuff they showed off for the latest Nintendo beat ’em up.

First, the non-Smash stuff.

Okay, that’s over with.

Only kidding. But seriously, if you don’t like Smash you’re kinda fucked on Switch this year. Mario Party is coming, and it looks like it makes quite novel use of the Switch itself. That’s fine if you like party games, and you have loads of cool friends who all like to hang out and play Switch together instead of drinking themselves into a blackout at parties like normal people, but it’s in the October big game slot, which is disappointing for anyone hoping for a robust single player experience this year.

There’s DLC coming for Xenoblade Chronicles 2, which is great if you’re still interested in Xenoblade Chronicles. Daemon x Machina is a new Switch game that looks a bit like Zone of the Enders, not because it’s about mech suits blowing each other up but because it looks like a PS2 game. Fortnite is on Switch now, but the most exciting thing about this announcement was that it has its own voice chat system that doesn’t use Nintendo’s fucking dreadful mobile phone app, so maybe other games will follow suit going forward and one day we’ll look back on the app and laugh, like we do with those telephones that you had to manually dial, penny farthing bicycles, and motion controls.

Speaking of motion controls, we got another look at the answer to the question that nobody asked, Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu! and the other one. All jokes aside, the games do look lovely graphically, and perhaps they’ll be fun to play, and revisiting the Kanto region in glorious, beautiful HD is an alluring prospect, but I’d be lying to you if I said that Pokemon‘s first appearance on Switch doesn’t look like a bit of a damp squid to me. I don’t see how replacing the combat of more traditional Pokemon games with an arm waving mechanic like it’s 2007 is really going to make for an entertaining game, but I’m ready to be proven wrong because I love me a Pokemon. Maybe I’ll buy it and get an arm workout. Oh, and by the way, including Mew as an exclusive Pokemon for buying that stupid Pokeball version of Let’s Go! is a dick move. It’s the sort of thing that we’d be up in arms about if it was EA or Activision, but it’s Nintendo so I’m sure we’ll find some way to twist it into a positive.

On the plus side I still haven’t played Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze, Mario + Rabbids, or Xenoblade Chronicles 2, so I’m okay for a while.

The rest of the show was dedicated to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, which looks like the Wii U game with a few tweaks and more fighters, but then what does that matter since they did a stellar job with Smash on Wii U? How much you enjoyed this segment will likely depend on how much you love Smash Bros., but I suspect that even the most dedicated members of the Nintendo Defence Force will concede that this went on for too long. Did we really need to get into the minutia of practically every character in the game, the stages, and the special attacks? Having every Smash fighter ever in one game is rad and all, but seriously, by the end, after listing fighter after fighter after fighter after fighter, it was like that time Chris Jericho read out his list of 1,004 wrestling holds on WCW Nitro. Trim it down, man.

The biggest takeaway from this Nintendo Direct was that 2018 does not look like a fantastic year for Switch. It’s only year two so that’s not exactly unheard of for a console, but after coming out of the blocks with Zelda and Mario in the first year the console was on the market, anyone hoping for Nintendo to keep up that momentum is surely disappointed by what was shown here. There was nary a mention of Metroid Prime 4, nothing about classics coming to Switch, and no update on the roundly mocked online service coming later in the year. This was Smash, Smash, Smash, and if you don’t like Smash, then I hope you’ve got another console under your television to tide you over.

#4 Bethesda Made The Best Of A Bad Job

Oh look, it’s the decomposing corpse of the Fallout series.

Bethesda had a hard job to do and I think they mostly pulled it off, but it was far from perfect. Fallout 76 is a tough sell to a lot of people. Taking a traditionally single player, story driven role playing game series and then trying to convince fans of that series that they should play an always online, multiplayer survival game set in the same universe is not easy. I know, because I’m one of those fans and I was sick in my mouth when I heard the words, “online multiplayer.” Bethesda wisely knew that many of their fans would be up in arms about the direction they’re taking with Fallout 76, and so they addressed the elephant in the room head on, trying to put across exactly what they were going for. While I wouldn’t say this was entirely successful – I can’t say I’m exactly champing at the bit to get blown up and then teabagged by WombRaider69 when I could be questing on my own – but I think they did the best they could with what they have.

The rest of their conference was a mixed bag. Andrew WK turned up for some reason, which I’d usually have no issue with but it was all a bit weird as nobody really knew what was going on, and the crowd didn’t look like they were in the party mood. That whole thing felt like it had time travelled from an E3 ten years ago when celebrity cameos and random gigs were a thing that people thought was a good idea for E3. On the plus side, Rage 2 looked like it might be fun, getting the Watch Dogs 2 treatment of taking a drab shooter and giving it loads of attitude. We’ll see how that pans out. While we’re on, Pete Hines made a great joke about Rage 2 having been announced by “our friends at Walmart” referencing the infamous pre-E3 leak that spoiled a number of surprises, so that was nice.

Wolfenstein Youngblood combines two of my favourite things: fucking Nazis up and the 1980s. Of course, in real life the 1980s fucked most of Britain up and it was actually Germany who wound up far more fiscally prosperous, so who’s laughing now?

I was pretty excited to see a teaser for the next Doom game, Doom Eternal, and while this was little more than an announcement of an announcement – more to come at Quakecon, apparently – it was still a welcome surprise. Wolfenstein is getting a spin-off set in the ’80s which sounds right up my street. I just hope I can listen to I Ran by A Flock of Seagulls while I kick Nazis in the ‘nads. They also spent time talking about mobile games – sigh – announcing that Fallout Shelter is coming to PS4 and Switch, but weirdly they didn’t say Xbox One. I’m not sure if that was a slip of the tongue, or if for some reason Xbox isn’t getting it. They’ve made a mobile Elder Scrolls, too, so if you weren’t already totally pissed off with them spending time making an online Fallout instead of the Fallout you want, this probably put the icing on the cake.

Bethesda finished their conference by winning the 2018 Metroid Prime 4 Award, given to studios who are so concerned that they don’t have enough to show off during their E3 conference that they cobble together a four second video to announce that one day that thing you really want might actually happen, despite having nothing to show for it yet.

Bethesda went for a double whammy here, first announcing a game called Starfield – replete with video of space, and something moving through space, and then a screen that said “Starfield” on it. Woah. Then came The Elder Scrolls VI – the first trailer for the much anticipated next game in the RPG series showed some hills, and you could see a bit of sky, and maybe a mountain, and then the words “Elder Scrolls VI” popped up on screen. Not so much as a fucking subtitle for the Elder Scrolls. I tell you, it takes some fucking balls to finish your E3 conference by announcing two games before the consoles that you’ll be playing them on have even been announced, so I suppose we should at least be impressed, in a way. We’ll have to rename the award for next year. Jesus.

#3 Ubisoft Is Kinda Getting Good At Conference Thing

Beyond Good and Evil 2 looks precisely dick like the cult classic that it’s a sequel to.

Historically, Ubisoft has probably had more cringe on stage than any other publisher at E3. It’s not that they make bad games, it’s just that for some reason they generally fail to highlight the positives of their upcoming video games in a way that doesn’t make me want to staple my own eyelids shut out of embarrassment. The last couple of years have been heading in the right direction, but their conferences always tend to get bogged down in unnecessary details, dragging on for too long, and dampening the mood as a result. While there was still some of that this year, for the most part it was well paced, and what they showed off looked good.

Beyond Good and Evil 2 is one of those games that seems to have been hanging around for years, and having seen some bits and pieces of it I do have to question the logic in making a sequel to a cult classic that looks nothing like said classic. It’ll probably wind up Ubified to the point that it bears no resemblance to the original and becomes just another Ubisoft open world, per centage on maps, tower climbing, collectathon, but at least most of what Ubisoft makes is at least quasi-entertaining, so there’s hope for it even if it likely won’t be what fans want.

They spent too long talking about Trials. We all know how Trials works at this point. You ride bikes over impossible courses, fall off, and everyone laughs. Or at least that’s how I play Trials. Badly. A 30 second trailer would have been enough to sell this. We got a peek at Skull and Bones, which just looks like the piratey bits from Assassin’s Creed IV, but since they were the only thing I liked about Assassin’s Creed IV, and the entire series for that matter, I’m marginally more interested in this than I ought to be. Pirates are awesome, we all know that, and since Sea of Thieves seems to have been about as popular as the clap since launching earlier in the year, maybe this’ll be the pirate ’em up we need.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is already causing a bit of minor controversy because it lets you play as a gay character if you like, and apparently gay people didn’t exist in ancient Greece.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey sadly doesn’t feature an ancient assassin with a magical hat that can possess people, and is actually just another Assassin’s Creed game set in Greece. It’s nice to see we’re back to getting annual Assassin’s Creed games after that lengthy one year hiatus. The Division 2 looks pretty good if you like online multiplayer shooters, which of course, I don’t. There’s also The Crew 2 just in case you want to take the standard Ubisoft open world formula in car form. Oh, and they’ve got an upcoming space shooter called Starlink, and if you buy it on Switch you get Fox McCloud as a bonus character which is rad. If you squint your eyes it’ll be like you’re playing the Star Fox game you wish Nintendo had given us instead of that motion controlled abortion on Wii U.

I can’t say that I was personally thrilled about much of what Ubisoft showed off, but their conference was punchy with little in the way of down time or awkwardness, they did a good job of selling everything, and they actually had some stuff to show off which made a pleasant change from most of the other pressers on this list so far.

#2 Sony Had The Best And Worst Conference Of 2018

If Assassin’s Creed Odyssey having optional homosexual romances is pissing off the dregs of the Internet, then here’s The Last of Us Part II featuring a gay woman protagonist to really rub salt into man-baby wounds.

Honestly, you couldn’t make this up. Sony had wisely announced prior to E3 that rather than having a traditional conference they’d be taking a deeper look at four of their biggest upcoming games, almost certainly because they knew they didn’t have much to show off and they wanted to avoid upsetting their fanbase who now expect every conference to be more explosive than a Bond movie after the superlative pressers in 2015 and 2016. So what they actually did was build a tent to look like the interior of a church – which we later found out was in reference to a location in The Last of Us Part II, but was very confusing at first – and then after showing off ten minutes of the next Naughty Dog game, had a fifteen minute intermission while they moved everybody to the next location for the rest of the show. They had a presenter stalling for time while the audience was on the move, and the whole thing was bizarre, and incredibly awkward.

I’m writing this out now, and it only happened a day ago, and I’m still not convinced I’m not making the whole thing up as part of some sort of acid flashback. Did this actually happen? Have I finally lost my fucking marbles? Answers on a postcard please.

If we were ranking conferences based on the first twenty minutes alone, Sony’s would be the worst since 2006. It was so poorly conceived that you can’t even comprehend how whoever came up with the idea wasn’t immediately popped into a cannon and fired directly into the sea by Sony top brass. Who has fifteen minutes of a conference, then takes a little break, then carries on with the conference? Absolute madness. But as it happens we don’t rank conferences based on the first third alone – we look at the bigger picture – and once the show got going again business really picked up.

First of all, The Last of Us Part II looks incredible. The production values of the game are insane, the animations look to be some of the best ever seen in a video game, and it managed to be sugary sweet and violent as all hell in the space of about four seconds. If you’re not a fan of Naughty Dog’s brand of video game storytelling then it doesn’t look like the next episode of The Last of Us will change that, but for everyone else this is definitely one to watch. After the fantastic The Last of Us gameplay demo we went into the aforementioned studio switcheroo, and the next ten minutes or so were completely bamboozling. Eventually, after wasting our time for long enough, they showed us a trailer for the next Call of Duty, and they announced that Black Ops III would be free on PS Plus immediately. Fair play.

Sony announced that Léa Seydoux has joined the cast of Death Stranding alongside Norman Reedus and Mads Mikkelsen, but offered little when it came to what Death Stranding actually is.

If they’d filled up the time while the audience moved studios with trailers then whole thing would have worked, or you know, just don’t move an entire studio full of people for no fucking reason. But they didn’t, so here we are. Once things finally got moving again we got our first proper look at Ghost of Tsushima, an open world action game set in ancient Japan, and it was a graphical stunner. There were a couple of janky animations, and I feel like it would have looked a little cooler if everyone spoke in Japanese and they subtitled the whole thing, but it certainly looks like one to watch. We finally saw the remake of Resident Evil 2, due for release in January, and the next game from Remedy, Control, which looked interesting, but was mainly notable because Remedy had been acting as a second party developer for Microsoft for years prior to this announcement.

We saw Nioh 2, and the least awful trailer for Kingdom Hearts III of the expo, before seeing a little of Death Stranding – which we saw no gameplay of beyond Normas Reedus walking about, so we still have no idea what the game actually is – and then more footage of Spider-Man which still looks like a superhero game worthy of filling Arkham’s shoes.

Sony has easily the strongest first, second, and third party line-up of games coming in the near future, but the needlessly complicated conference format nearly derailed their messaging here. Yes, try something different if you like, but this was a misfire, and it only managed to avoid descending into farce because the games looked so strong. Perplexing and exhilarating in almost equal measure, Sony managed the seemingly impossible task of having both the best and worst conference of E3 2018, all rolled into one.

#1 Microsoft’s Brisk Conference Looked To The Future

Halo’s importance might have waned over the years, but it’s nice to see the Chief get wheeled out every now and again.

Microsoft had the only legitimately good conference of E3 2018 as far as I’m concerned, but that itself comes with a bunch of caveats that we’ll get to later. First, the good stuff.

Microsoft’s conference was quick and almost perfectly paced. It was, in many ways, like Sony’s 2016 presser which is for my money one of the best we’ve ever seen at E3. It was trailer after trailer after trailer after trailer, with very little in the way of developers waffling on awkwardly, and no celebrity cameos or bizarre transitions. There were no obvious toilet breaks, like how we used to get fifteen minutes of Call of Duty every year, and they didn’t even waste our time by bringing a car out on stage for the inevitable yearly Forza announcement.

Halo Infinite started the show, but so little was shown that it wasn’t clear if this was an actual proper Halo game or some sort of spin-off. It’s apparently a sequel to Halo 5, but I’m guessing it’s way off given how little we actually saw. There was a Life Is Strange spin-off, Devil May Cry 5, and Dying Light 2, as well as the obligitory Forza announcement, and an update on Sea of Thieves. There was five minutes spent talking about Gamepass which was the only real downer of the conference as their big announcement – that games will now install faster – felt like something that should probably be announced in a blog post rather than on stage. I’m sure they all worked real hard on it, but Xbox One’s garbage install times probably don’t need to be highlighted at all at this point. We saw Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and thankfully, they didn’t pretend it’s an exclusive this time around. In fact, they didn’t do their usual trick of pretending loads of games are exclusives when they’re really not, so that was a refreshing change.

Phil Spencer got the honour of delivering what was potentially Xbox’s most important announcement in years.

Towards the end of the presser, Phil Spencer announced that Microsoft has acquired five new first party studios including Ninja Theory. Now, short term, that’s not helping, but if you think this generation isn’t already a bust for Microsoft then I don’t know what to tell you. It’s over. It’s now about damage control with Microsoft in a holding pattern until Xbox Two arrives, and they’ll be hoping not to repeat the same mistakes they made this gen. This announcement was huge in indicating that they’re on the right course, and so while it might not have been as exciting as the games being shown off it was way more important. Microsoft desperately needs to improve their first party output so there’s a reason to pick up an Xbox over a PlayStation, and Phil Spencer knows it. They can’t just keep recycling Halo, Gears, and Forza forever.

While the studios they’ve thrown money at might not look like world beaters at the minute, remember this: when Sony bought Naughty Dog they were famous for Crash Bandicoot, and spent their first few years as a Sony first party studio making Jak & Daxter games. After years of cultivation, they’re now hands down the best studio in the industry, responsible for huge critical successes like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, The Last of Us, and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Guerrilla spent years making drab first person shooter series, Killzone, before ultimately creating one of the best games this generation, Horizon Zero Dawn. And Sucker Punch – famous for the Sly Cooper series, before transitioning to inFAMOUS – are now making open-world samurai ’em up Ghost of Tsushima. Given time, room to experiment, and the right leadership, this could be a huge deal for Microsoft, and is easily the best thing they’ve done this generation. Except maybe killing Kinect.

At the end of the show, they announced a Gears / Funko Pop collaboration which felt a little bit like that time Square Enix announced the Final Fantasy VII port for PS4 on stage at PlayStation Experience. Fortunately they redeemed themselves by quickly announcing a PC Gears game that looks like XCOM, and then Gears of War 5 which, horrendous macho bullshit dialogue aside, looks very much like the Gears game fans are after. When Phil Spencer hit the stage to thank everyone for turning up, the lights cut out mid-sentence and in an incredibly cool just-one-more-thing moment, we saw a trailer for Cyberpunk 2077. It was a fantastic finish to a strong conference.

Regardless of how good it was, most of Microsoft’s press conference was an advertisement for games you can play on your PS4.

If there’s a downside to all of this, and of course there is because the attentive among you will recall I mentioned caveats earlier, it’s that all of the most exciting games that Microsoft showed off here are on PS4. And that’s the difference between the strong PlayStation conferences of yore and this one. Halo and Gears aren’t the exciting properties they once were, and all of the third party games that are coming are on PS4, so while this was a good conference, it wasn’t necessarily a great advert for the Xbox One. If you don’t like Halo, Gears, or Forza and you already own a PS4, there was very little here that would probably convince you to buy an Xbox One, and it’s been that way since the start of the generation.

Still, well done to Microsoft for seriously upping their game, and delivering a quality press conference that entertained from start to finish and gave us plenty to look forward to in the future. Perhaps next year everyone else could arse themselves to turn up and do the same.

Feel free to leave a comment about this week’s Counter Attack in the comments section below. Which conference did you like best from E3 2018? If you want more from Counter Attack then perhaps check out E3’s Ten Most Embarrassing Moments, or The Rise and Fall of SEGA.

John can generally be found wearing Cookie Monster pyjamas with a PlayStation controller in his hands, operating on a diet that consists largely of gin and pizza. His favourite things are Back to the Future, Persona 4 Golden, the soundtrack to Rocky IV, and imagining scenarios in which he's drinking space cocktails with Commander Shepard. You can follow John on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JohnDoesntDance

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8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Patrick Murphy

    June 15, 2018 at 3:18 pm

    I honestly think you nailed it. The entirety of E3 seemed pretty lackluster and boring (and I was there), but if I had to rank the conferences, this is pretty much how I’d do it. If it weren’t for EA and Square just taking up space, I’d easily have Nintendo last. While there may be some okay games coming even if you don’t care about Smash (which I don’t), that Direct seemed really slapped together, with no pizzazz to be found.

    • John Cal McCormick

      June 18, 2018 at 3:16 am

      I think the Direct would have been okay if they’d moved it out of the E3 window. Part of the problem with Nintendo at E3 is they’re so hit and miss because I really think they’re not sure how to do it. The Direct format is fine, but being at E3 conjures certain levels of exception. A Smash Direct in Febraury and everyone is happy. Do one at E3 and it’s a disappointment because people are expecting more.

      • Patrick Murphy

        June 18, 2018 at 8:01 pm

        That’s exactly it – we’re expecting more at E3, and by this time they should know that. You may not always have something great to show, but you can dress the mediocrity up other ways. They’ve done it before, but something seemed very off this time.

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Game Reviews

‘Heave Ho’ Review: Us & Chuck

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Couch co-op is a phrase that’s used pretty infrequently these days. In fact, it seems that couch co-op wasn’t even a phrase at all until it wasn’t the norm anymore. With the modern emphasis on online experiences, the delights of a room full of screaming maniacs stumbling through a party game is largely a lost remnant of generations past. This, however, poses a difficult conundrum to any reviewers unfortunate enough to be unable to fulfill the most vital component for a couch co-op game review: a full couch. Treading in the wobbly footsteps of party classic Mount Your Friends (and clasping at the slippery tentacles of Octodad), Heave Ho is a game fundamentally for social people.

Its premise is a very similar task that involves swinging your wacky avatar’s limbs around, desperately trying to grab hold of any nearby surfaces. The game is more concerned with getting your character to the end of an obstacle course than clambering over your opponents like in Mount Your Friends, and there are a distinctly smaller number of limbs to control (and appendages to laugh at).

Couch co-op is a phrase that’s used pretty infrequently these days. In fact, it seems that couch co-op wasn’t even a phrase at all until it wasn’t the norm anymore. With the modern emphasis on online experiences, the delights of a room full of screaming maniacs stumbling through a party game is largely a lost remnant of generations past. This, however, poses a difficult conundrum to any reviewers unfortunate enough to be unable to fulfill the most vital component for a couch co-op game review: a full couch. Treading in the wobbly footsteps of party classic Mount Your Friends (and clasping at the slippery tentacles of Octodad), Heave Ho is a game fundamentally for social people.

Its premise involves the very similar task of swinging your wacky avatar’s limbs around, desperately trying to grab hold of any nearby surfaces. But Heave Ho is more concerned with getting your character to the end of an obstacle course than clambering over your opponents like in Mount Your Friends, and there is a distinctly smaller number of limbs to control (and appendages to laugh at).

Fingertips count in ‘Heave Ho’

There’s really not much to Heave Ho that warrants more explaining, as expressed via the world’s shortest tutorial at the beginning of the first level. Use the left analog stick for moving both of your character’s arms, press L or ZL for grabbing with the left arm, and press R or ZR for the right; that’s it. At least, that would be it, unless — and this is admittedly a somewhat niche bugbear — you’re a user of the neon red/blue launch Joy-Con, because their colors are flipped on the game’s assistance gloves. You can tell yourself you won’t be affected, but if you’re playing handheld and staring at bright blue and red in your own hands, you’re naturally going to associate those colors with the in-game hands.

A lot of the game feels flat solo, but these moments are still great

Upon acknowledgement of the incredibly basic controls, players are promptly (and literally) dropped straight into the level, left to fumble your way around the various objects and pitfalls en route to the goal. Striking a balance between careful, methodical navigation and reckless flinging is the key to success, with the former being more reliable and the latter being a hell of a lot more fun.

Heave Ho does feels a little forced in terms of its attempts at humor; it’s all very noisy, colorful and silly, which is obviously the point, and playing a game where you chuck a gangly anthropomorphic blob around with little-to-no coordination is never going to be the way to get your fill of sophisticated chuckles. I guess goofy wigs and obnoxious voices are funny to some people, but as the game gets harder and the challenges begin to frustrate, the humor is less of a mood lifter and more of an annoyance.

It all looks like fun and games here, but this world is horrific

The strength of a game like this will typically be measured in the number of laughs emanating from a packed living room, but its longevity will always be judged on how it endears as a solo experience. This is even more vital in the absence of online multiplayer, meaning you’re either playing with a house full of mates, or by yourself. I don’t have a house full of mates all that often, so the majority of my time with the game was playing solo, and that really doesn’t feel like the optimum way to get the most out of Heave Ho. The wacky, party-gaming hijinks sharply degenerate into a frustrating, often tedious slog when played alone.

The moments of intense satisfaction when nailing a long swing to a distant platform, or completing a particularly tricky level, shouldn’t be ignored, but they are too often mired by either boredom or anger. Easier levels require very little thought or technique to complete, and late-game ones are rage-inducing. This is exacerbated by the inexplicable decision from the developers to force players to complete all of an area’s levels in one run. There are no checkpoints after individual levels, so if you find yourself at a wall on the final level of a run and need a break from the game, you’re going to have to go back and complete all its preceding levels just to get yourself back.

I ain’t even gotta look!

This is a real mood-killer, and I found myself apathetically averse to trudging back through older levels to merely match the progress of a previous day’s attempts, especially when that previous day ended in frustration anyway. The type of game that Heave Ho is — one that builds itself on rapid-fire, bite-size challenges — just cannot benefit from forcing players into marathon sittings, especially when multiple people are required for optimum enjoyment.

Having online options would help, and it’s baffling as to why couch co-op and online co-op are mutually exclusive in some games. Playing an online game of Worms back on Xbox 360 was one of the most hilarious experiences I’ve had in any multiplayer game, and it’s such a shame to be denied even the potential for this with Heave Ho instead of being left to drag my tired fiancé to the TV for some forced hilarity. It might have been the worst possible litmus test for a party game, but were she writing this review it would have consisted largely of how “stressful,” she found it. I saw a few smiles, but perhaps the game isn’t as inclusive as it tries to present itself.

Two heads are definitely not better than one here

With the fiancé out of the potential player pool, I may bring Heave Ho out at a more receptive social occasion in the future, as the potential for communal hilarity is definitely there, but solo play is definitely not going to be something to engage in again. Perhaps if the necessary quality of life improvements were made — chiefly, being able to swap the colours of the assist gloves around and having a checkpoint after each level — then players might be more inclined to hammer away at it, but unfortunately, it’s likely to be just squirreled away as a potential curiosity rather than a go-to source of fun.

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20 Memorable Moments from Telltale’s ‘The Walking Dead’ Series

To commemorate The Walking Dead game series, we’ll be counting down 20 of the most memorable moments throughout the series.

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Recently rumours have surfaced that Telltale Games will be making a comeback following interest from a pair of investors. After the closure of the studio last year upcoming Telltale titles — such as The Wolf Among Us 2 –– were cancelled indefinitely but this news could mean that a revival of these games may be on the way. Skybound Games have also recently released The Walking Dead: The Telltale Definitive Edition, a collection of all 4 seasons of The Walking Dead game alongside some bonus content such as concept art, music and commentaries. Due to this release, and the newfound hope for Telltale Games, now seems like a good time to reflect on the game that thrust Telltale into the spotlight: The Walking Dead. The series was halfway through its final season when Telltale closed its doors but Skybound Games jumped in to finish off the story of Clementine, the hugely beloved protagonist.

To commemorate The Walking Dead game series, I’ll be counting down 20 of the most memorable moments throughout the series.  A quick side note before we begin: when Telltale first closed down I wrote an article about the top ten moments from Telltale Games in general which included some Walking Dead moments. I will be using the same entries — with a few minor adjustments — if those moments find themselves on this list too, as my opinion has not changed.

*Major spoilers ahead for all 4 seasons of The Walking Dead.*

20. Kenny/Jane Flashback: A New Frontier

In Season Three, Clementine becomes a companion as the player takes on the role of a new character, Javier Garcia. We get some flashbacks as to what happened to Clementine in the gap between seasons two and three. There are multiple endings to season two, so it is the flashbacks that we get from two particular endings that are most memorable. In one ending Clementine can take baby A.J. and go with Kenny and in another she can leave with Jane. If the player leaves with Kenny, the flashback shows Kenny teaching Clementine how to drive. They get into an accident and Kenny is thrown through the windscreen, losing the feeling in his legs. To allow Clementine and A.J to escape, he uses himself as bait for walkers and gets eaten alive. This flashback is memorable for all the wrong reasons. It feels like a rushed and half thought out way of getting rid of Kenny to explain why Clementine is alone. For such a beloved character, it seems so wrong to merely dispose of him in order to wrap up a loose end. This ending for Kenny is an injustice to his character. Memorable doesn’t have to mean good! In the other flashback, Jane, Clementine and A.J return to Howe’s and are living comfortably enough. Jane sends Clementine to do a perimeter sweep but when she returns, she finds that Jane has hung herself. A distraught and confused Clementine finds a positive pregnancy test on the ground. This makes sense for Jane’s character. She was always a somewhat cold lone wolf who was uncomfortable with children. Finding out she was pregnant in a post-apocalyptic world would have been the worst possible outcome. She was a survivor who was willing to do whatever it took to stay alive and to have not one but two helpless babies in her care would not have been an option. There was also a somewhat selfish nature to Jane, so killing herself to avoid her pregnancy, and leaving Clementine and A.J alone, is a believable and fitting end to her story.

19. Clem Leaves to Search for A.J: A New Frontier

At the end of Season Three, Clem decides to venture out alone to search for A.J, the baby from Season Two who she had taken into her care. We see her navigating through walkers, taking them out confidently and with ease. This moment is a good representation of Clementine’s development through the years. Although she still had one more season to go, it was clear at this point just how much she has grown and matured since her introduction in season one. You can’t help but feel a connection with her if you have been playing the game since the beginning and seeing Clementine go it alone with a fierce determination about her made me feel proud of the person she had become.

18. Basement Scene: The Final Season

Something that I wasn’t expecting from The Final Season was a moment that felt like it was ripped straight out of a horror movie. Despite the horror zombie theme running through The Walking Dead series, it plays as an interactive point and click story rather than a horror game. In episode one of The Final Season, Clementine is locked in a basement with a character called Brody who has recently died. Clementine knows that Brody will turn into a walker soon, so she starts looking for a way to escape. The darkness of the basement is lit only by a flashlight which Clem goes to find. As she does, you can see that Brody’s body has gone. As the player maneuvers through the dark, disturbing noises can be heard as Brody slowly turns. It’s all very unsettling so I couldn’t help but feel a little unnerved. The creepiest moment comes when Clementine struggles to get the basement doors open and we then cut to Brody’s perspective as she approaches Clementine from behind. Just as Clem opens the doors, we see Brody’s zombified face appear behind her and drag her back into the dark. Of course, Clem survives the encounter but it is a genuinely scary moment due to the horror and suspense elements being crafted and utilized so well. It was a scene that left me feeling surprised, impressed and freaked out all at once.

17. Clementine’s Parents: Season One

From the beginning of the game, Clementine is certain that her parents are still alive and that she will find them. Voicemails left on Clementine’s house phone tell us that her father has been bitten but her mother’s fate is left ambiguous. Dialogue options allow the player to lie to Clementine but canon dialogue suggests that Lee is certain that they are both gone. This is more than likely the case but Clementine’s boundless optimism in the darkest of situations would give even the most cynical player some hope. When the group get to Savannah, Clementine is kidnapped and the final episode centres on Lee trying to get her back safely before his time runs out. He finally tracks her down in the hotel her parents had been staying and after covering her in walker guts to sneak her past a herd, Lee and Clementine begin their escape through the walker filled streets. As you navigate your way through the walkers, Clementine stops dead in her tracks with a horrified look on her face. We then see what has stopped her: the reanimated corpses of her parents aimlessly wandering the streets. It is in this moment that Clementine’s optimism is quashed. It doesn’t disappear entirely, but it certainly wanes from this point on. It is a turning point for her as a character as she has to stare the harsh reality of this new world in the face. There are no happy endings. There are only cold, hard facts. I myself was shocked by this too, having adopted some of Clementine’s positivity throughout my time playing. But I quickly realized that there was never really any hope for her parents, this was the harsh truth and perhaps I should have made Lee be more honest with Clementine about it from the start. This scene was impressive for the genuine gut punch it delivers as well as for being a pivotal moment for Clementine as a character.

16. The Walker Barn: The Final Season

An interesting new character from The Walking Dead: The Final Season is James, an ex-Whisperer who tries to convince Clementine that the walkers are more than just mindless monsters. When Clementine needs James to help her in the fight against Lilly, he only agrees on the condition that Clementine makes more of an effort to see things his way. To do this, Clem must don James’s walker skin mask and enter a barn full of walkers with the goal of touching the wind chime in the back. She reluctantly does so but when she reaches the wind chime and it starts to ring out, the walkers seem to look on in awe and confusion. James’s argument that there is a semblance of the person that they used to be within the walkers suddenly becomes far more convincing. The player can decide whether Clementine believes James might be right or not, but even if you remain unconvinced, it is hard not to see something vaguely resembling a human reaction when the walkers observe the wind chime. This is the first time in the game series that has suggested that there may be more to the walkers than first meets the eye. This is most likely not the case as Clementine later says, but it is hard not to see the expression in the eyes of the rotting corpses as they listen to the soft chimes. Jared Emerson-Johnson’s simple yet powerful music score for this moment is also one of the best in the entire game.

15. Clementine Dreams of Lee: The Final Season

Lee was such an important figure to Clementine as he taught her about survival and saved her life countless times so to see him again was a nice moment in The Final Season. Clementine dreams of Lee the night before she is due to lead an attack on Lilly and her group of raiders. She gets his advice and gives him an update of how things are going. Not only is it cool to see Lee’s updated character model in the new game engine, it is also good for Clementine to have one final moment with him to act as a form of closure to the series as a whole. I definitely felt emotional seeing Lee again, particularly when he comments on how big Clementine has gotten when he sees her at the age she is now. It was a great moment that wrapped up Lee and Clementine’s time together.

14. Duck Gets Bitten: Season One

Duck is one of the more polarising characters from The Walking Dead. Acting as the antithesis to the gentle and mild-mannered Clementine, Duck is the hyperactive, loud and somewhat irritating child of Kenny and Katjaa. Duck is well intentioned but it is difficult to find him anywhere near as likeable as Clementine. However, when it is revealed that he has been bitten by a walker in episode three, it is a sorrowful moment. Duck’s energy depletes more and more as he gets sick before either being put out of his misery by Lee or Kenny, or left to turn (depending on player choice). Kenny’s refusal to acknowledge the truth of Duck’s wound makes the situation all the more emotional. No matter what you thought of Duck, he was an innocent child who didn’t deserve the death he got. Duck’s bite and slow descent into death was memorable in that it showed that the game was very much in the same line as the corresponding comics. No one is safe.  Any man, woman or child can die at any second in this walker infested world.

13. Clementine and Sam: Season Two

A brief but memorable interaction from Season Two of The Walking Dead is Clementine’s time with a stray dog called Sam. She encounters him near an abandoned campsite and though wary of each other initially, the player can choose to interact with Sam in a way that suggests he could be a new companion for Clementine. It all seems to be going well until Clementine finds a can of food. Once she gets it open, the player can choose to offer some to Sam. No matter what they choose to do, Sam snatches the food and tries to eat it all. When Clementine tries to grab it back, Sam attacks her. He clamps his jaw onto her arm and the player must wrestle with the dog to stop him. Clementine kicks Sam just as he goes for her throat and he ends up being impaled on an old tent pole. This moment is  heart-breaking for both Clementine and the player. No matter how the player interacts with him, it is clear that Clementine and Sam like one another and she could have found herself a friend. As Sam lies dying, struggling and unable to move after his impalement, the player chooses whether they will leave Sam to die a slow and painful death or kill him outright to end his suffering. This is the final emotional blow in a scene that is already hard to watch.

12. Omid’s Death: Season Two

Another The Walking Dead scene that was difficult to watch was the opening moment from Season Two. Having lost Lee in the climax of Season One, Clementine becomes the playable character and is left with Omid and a heavily pregnant Christa. After stopping for a break at a gas station bathroom, Clementine makes the mistake of leaving her gun unattended. She ends up held at gunpoint with her own weapon as a teenage scavenger attempts to rob her. When Omid enters the bathroom to try and help Clementine, the shocked robber accidentally shoots him through the heart and kills him. Omid was one of the more likeable characters of Season One, despite being introduced late into the game, so to see him gunned down whilst attempting to protect Clementine is horrible. It is clear that Clementine blames herself for what happened due to leaving her gun to the side — as does Christa — which adds another dimension of sadness to this moment.

11. Katjaa’s Suicide: Season One

One of the most human and heart-breaking deaths in The Walking Dead game is Katjaa, Kenny’s wife and Duck’s mother. When Duck is bitten and on the verge of death, Katjaa and Kenny take him into the woods with the intent of putting him out of his misery. Although we don’t see it, we hear Katjaa suddenly turn the gun on herself. Katjaa was being incredibly strong about the situation and was far more grounded in reality about the situation then Kenny was. However, her sudden decision to take her own life made her character all the more tragic. Her strength faltered for one moment and she couldn’t handle it. Because of that, she made a split second decision. This was incredibly realistic and painful due to the sheer humanity of Katjaa’s thought process and her choice. The fact that it happens off screen and is still able to be so powerful is also testament to Telltale’s skill at constructing meaningful moments within their games.

10. Mariana’s Death: A New Frontier

You will probably notice that I haven’t included many entries from Season Three of The Walking Dead (also known as A New Frontier). It’s the weakest in the series of games and it doesn’t have quite as many iconic moments. However, there is one scene in particular that I always come back to when considering the game series as a whole. One of the faults of the series is, in my opinion, the decision to switch the focus to entirely new characters. Clementine is demoted to a supporting player in A New Frontier as the focus turns to Javier Garcia and his family. The characters aren’t nearly as easy to get emotionally attached to as the characters were in Season One and Season Two. Certain characters seem to act bitter and angry towards Javier no matter what dialogue you choose to use with them, such as Javier’s brother David and his nephew Gabe. Even Clementine seems surlier in this title (I can forgive her for that due to the fact that she is now a hormonal teenager). Despite that, there is one character that is sweeter in nature than the rest: Javier’s niece Mariana. Although the player only spends a small amount of time with her, her intelligence, maturity, creativity and soulful attitude instantly make her likeable. I couldn’t help but feel a connection to her and a desire to protect her, similar to the feeling that I got upon first meeting Clementine. At the end of the first episode, Mariana is suddenly shot through the head whilst retrieving her beloved headphones. It is not only a shock due to the unexpected nature of the moment but also emotional as Mariana is a good character who is still very young. For someone to callously shoot a little girl through the head is horrific, but very much aligned to The Walking Dead’s brutal style. Mariana’s death is similar to that of Duck’s, reminding us that children are certainly not safe from a gruesome death in this new and cruel world.

9. Lilly Returns: The Final Season

Lilly’s exit from The Walking Dead game was left open ended in Season One, no matter whether the player decides to leave her on the side of the road or not. Her return in The Final Season wasn’t a huge surprise due to trailers beforehand confirming her appearance but her relationship with Clementine is one of the more interesting elements. Clementine and Lilly had a good relationship in Season One. Though you don’t get to see much interaction between them, it is clear that Lilly cares for Clementine and wants to protect her as most of the other adults in the group do. In a sweet and familial gesture, Lilly is the one who gives Clementine the hair ties that she uses throughout the series. Things have obviously changed by the time that they meet again. Lilly is the lieutenant of a group of raiders from a haven called the Delta who are in search of soldiers to defend their home as they embark on a war with another group of survivors. This isn’t optional though and Lilly and her crew plan to kidnap those they want to recruit. They purposely travel to Ericson Boarding School to recruit the teenagers living there, having already taken some kids from Ericson beforehand.  It is here that Lilly meets Clementine again. Their meeting isn’t exactly a joyous one. Clementine is thrown to the ground; a boot is firmly planted on her neck and a gun pointed at the back of her head. It isn’t until Clem is kicked in the face that she is turned around and Lilly recognises her. The conversation between the two can differ depending on Lee’s actions in Season One. Lilly is harsh and disrespectful towards those who have died (not remembering Carley/Doug’s name and suggesting that Lee was a bad mentor) but if Lee showed her kindness then she has a slightly softer edge to her. If Clem chooses to acknowledge Lilly and not be aggressive, she will also be a tad more understanding. However, as the game progresses the relationship between the two gets even more strained and Clementine ends up going to war against Lilly with the Ericson kids. Lilly and Clementine’s reunion is very bittersweet. Lilly was always a tough character so a cheerful reunion wasn’t expected, but to see two people who were once like family turn to mortal enemies is saddening. The character development for both Lilly and Clementine that their meeting leads to is also an interesting element, making it one of the more memorable parts of the game series.

8. Lilly Shoots Carley/Doug: Season One

Episode Three of Season One of The Walking Dead is arguably the best episode of the entire series. So much happens in a short space of time and by the end of the episode, things are vastly different from how they started. Halfway through Episode Three, tensions are running high in the group of survivors. Lilly is close to breaking point due to having to watch her father die in brutal fashion in Episode Two.  When one of the group is found to be making a deal with bandits, Lilly is on a mission to find the culprit. As she tries to figure out who it was, she is pushed over the edge and snaps. She shoots Carley/Doug, whoever Lee saved in the first episode, and instantly kills them. The sudden death proved that Telltale weren’t afraid to kill off any of their characters and that everyone was expendable. It also showed how the horrors of the apocalypse can change people and turn them into ruthless killers. Lee is then left to choose whether to abandon Lilly on the side of the road or let her stay with the group, another tough player choice. The shocking murder and aftermath from Lee’s choice made for one of the most gripping episodes of the entire series.

7. Clementine Stitches Her Arm: Season Two

Clementine is shown to be a strong-willed and determined little girl, even from the very beginning of The Walking Dead game, when she was at her youngest. She continued to prove herself to be more than capable of surviving, but this moment in particular shows just how resilient she is. Clementine is left with a large gaping bite wound on her arm after the attack from Sam the dog. The new group she finds is suspicious of her bite so she is locked in a shed. After finding the items she needs to clean her wound and stitch it up, she sets about patching herself up. The player is forced to sew up Clem’s arm with a regular needle and watch as she screams and cries in pain. It’s hard enough to watch, but even harder having to control Clementine as she digs the needle into her flesh and her wound bleeds. Painful in every sense of the word, this moment not only shows that Clementine is more capable than most adults, yet alone an ordinary child, but also that Telltale are able to make their players squirm with a simple press of a button.

6. A.J. Shoots Marlon: The Final Season

One of the staples of The Final Season of The Walking Dead is the relationship between A.J and Clementine. A.J. was born in Season Two and after the death of his parents, Clementine adopts him as her own and raises him either alone, in Wellington or with Kenny or Jane depending on the player choice. No matter what the player chooses, Clementine is eventually reunited with A.J after he is taken from her by the New Frontier group from Season Three. She has been raising him ever since in a relationship that parallels the one between Clementine and Lee. The player has to be careful in what they say to A.J. as he is always paying attention, again in a similar fashion to how Clementine would take note of Lee’s actions (Clementine will remember that, after all). Being born into the apocalypse with no knowledge of the world before has made A.J tougher and less stable than Clementine was at his age. His decision to kill another human being at the end of the first episode shows just how warped his world view has become. Marlon is the leader of the Ericson Boarding School for Troubled Youths, where Clementine and A.J find themselves after the boarding school kids save them following a car accident. It is revealed at the end of the episode that Marlon has been making deals with bandits, letting them kidnap some of the students in exchange for leaving the others at the school in peace. Clementine confronts Marlon and they engage in a tense standoff with Marlon pointing his gun at Clem. It can end a couple of ways. Clementine can physically overpower Marlon or she can convince him to stand down and drop his weapon. What can’t be changed is A.J’s decision to shoot Marlon in the back of the head despite him surrendering. After he has killed Marlon, A.J. will then say that he did what Clementine told him to and he will repeat the phrase that she said to him earlier in the episode (either “aim for the head”, “don’t hesitate” or “save the last bullet for yourself” depending on player choice). The repercussions of Clementine’s teachings are highlighted here and I certainly started to wonder as to whether I had been teaching A.J the right things after this. In Season One, Clementine only killed when Lee was in mortal danger. This is not the same situation. Marlon had stood down. He had lowered his weapon. He was no longer a threat and yet A.J still found it necessary to kill him. I found myself feeling responsible for A.J.’s decision and that is what I believe makes this moment memorable. To engage the player enough for them to feel guilty on behalf of another character’s action is an impressive feat and Telltale pulls it off perfectly here.

5. The Return of Kenny: Season Two

The first Walking Dead season from Telltale was pretty brutal when it came to the final death count. One of those assumed casualties was Kenny, a lovable, albeit infuriating, character. His annoyance with player character Lee if you didn’t side with him at all times was a cause of frustration for many, but Kenny clearly had a good heart. When his family are taken from him, you can’t help but feel his pain. Although the death of his wife and child is a powerful moment in itself, Kenny’s return in Season Two represents some hope and light in an unforgiving world. Clementine is left entirely alone after the opening of Season Two so having a trusted person come back into her life, one she assumed was dead, is a positive thing for her. It is a far more positive outcome in comparison to her reunion with Lilly. Kenny goes through an interesting character arc as it becomes clear he is still fighting demons. He’s clearly traumatized by what happened to his family. He even seems to have regrets in the way he treated Lee, if the player did not always take his side. Kenny is a flawed but endearing character and his return allows for more character development, as well as giving Clementine a member of her new family back.

4. Clementine Gets Bitten: The Final Season

Toward the end of the last episode of The Final Season, the unthinkable happens: Clementine gets bitten. After an encounter with the brainwashed Minerva on a bridge, Clementine ends up with a massive axe wound on her leg. Unable to move quickly, she and A.J. end up trapped with walkers closing in. A.J. scrambles up a rock and attempts to help Clementine up after him. She isn’t able to move quickly enough and a pursuing walker bites her on the ankle. It is a horrible moment to watch, seeing the character that we have kept safe all this time finally meeting the fate that fans of the series were so afraid of. As Clementine checks her ankle, the player has to slowly open her boot and the tension is palpable as you do so. The music disappears and all you can hear is Clementine’s laboured breathing as she makes the discovery of teeth marks on her already mangled leg. Players who have completed the game know that this isn’t the end of Clementine –more on that later– but to see her grow weaker and weaker as she succumbs to her bite is pretty excruciating. A.J. and Clementine take shelter in a barn where she collapses to the ground, no longer able to move.  She props herself up and instructs A.J. on how to secure the area as walkers attempt to get in. The scene is a direct reflection of the Season One ending, where Lee teaches Clementine to defend herself and helps her escape, whilst he sits on the floor unable to move. It is harrowing to see Clementine succumbing to the same fate as her protector, as she also teaches her ward how to go it alone. The scene makes the story come full circle, with Clementine saying her last goodbyes to A.J. and asking him to kill her as Lee did (players can also decide to tell A.J. to leave her there as with Lee). The strong parallels with Season One symbolise the completion of Clementine’s journey with the player and it is a memorable, and particularly affecting, scene.

3. Lee Gets Bitten: Season One

In Season One, Clementine goes missing at the end of the fourth episode whilst the group is in Savannah looking for a boat to escape. Intent on finding her parents, Clementine puts her trust in a stranger and, of course, it ends badly. As Lee, the player starts searching the house they are holed up in to try and find her. Lee becomes panicked as he spots Clementine’s hat and her radio outside of the fence. As the player reaches down to pick up the radio, a hidden walker lashes out and takes a bite out of Lee’s wrist. I still remember playing this part of the game for the first time years ago. I remember feeling absolute shock as the camera panned down to reveal the bite mark on Lee’s wrist. Lee starts to panic, saying “No!” over and over, and clutching at his wrist. His reaction wasn’t too different from my own. As soon as you realize he has been bitten, you know he is going to die. I had grown attached to Lee’s character as he had brilliant development through the series as well as an interesting arc and back story. Knowing that this was the end for him was so upsetting. Tension and anticipation also make up the scene, with the radio crackling as the player approaches just before Lee picks it up. You can tell something is going to happen, but can’t be sure what. This masterful approach to suspense, combined with the genuinely saddening and emotional moment, and Dave Fennoy’s fantastic voice acting, is what makes Lee’s bite one of the most memorable moments in The Walking Dead series.

2. Clementine is Alive!: The Final Season

After Clementine is bitten, we see A.J swing his axe down before the screen cuts to black. It’s assumed that he has put Clem out of her misery, and we begin playing as A.J. A.J is going about life at Ericson and catching some fish for dinner when he sees Clementine’s hat floating down the river (Clem lost her hat during the attack on Lilly and the raiders). As he carries the hat back to Ericson, Alela Diane’s ‘Take Us Back’ starts to play and some of the other kids join him on the way. This is the same song that plays during the credits of Season One, so it is assumed that this is the end of the game. A.J. has finally found a home and is living out his life with the boarding school kids whilst remembering the teachings that Clem gave him, just as Lee did for Clementine. However, upon his return we see that Clementine is actually alive but now missing a leg. Again, this is a moment that I remember well as I felt such emotion upon playing it. I think I may have audibly cheered. I had shed a tear over Clementine’s faux death — just as I did over Lee — and had resigned myself to the fact that she was gone. Seeing her limp onto screen, crutch in tow, was such a brilliant moment. Of course, if you think about it too much it doesn’t make that much sense. How could A.J, who can’t be more than 6 or 7, have managed to cut off a grown teenager’s leg? The axe he used was also covered in walker blood so surely if Clementine hadn’t bled out, she would have still been infected. How did A.J manage to get Clem back to the school by himself before she died of blood loss?? These are all valid questions which would usually seriously bug me, but I honestly did not care for any of it. All I cared about was that this character, who I had come to love after protecting her and watching her grow up and survive in a new and brutal world, was alive. Clementine has become such a beloved character amongst the gaming community that Skybound were able to save the game from complete cancellation. That wouldn’t have happened if the players hadn’t resonated with her the way that they did. We, as a community, needed the conclusion of her story and, thanks to Skybound, we were able to see her get the ending she deserved. The player’s role of Clementine ends in the barn as the player takes on the role of A.J. in the epilogue as he chats to Clem. Melissa Hutchison gives an impressive and tearful performance as Clem as she asks A.J. if she has done a good job taking care of him after spending so much time running and looking for somewhere to call home. She then hands over her hat to A.J., hanging it up for good, both physically and symbolically. Again, the emotion is potent here as we have experienced everything that Clementine has been through to finally get to this point. She can rest now, even if it is with only one leg. Clementine surviving her bite may not be entirely logical, but if there is anyone who deserves a happy ending (or as happy an ending as you can get from The Walking Dead) it is certainly our sweet pea Clementine. Lee will remember that.

1. Goodbye Lee:  Season One

Having played through Season One of Telltale’s The Walking Dead multiple times, I can say with honesty that I still cry at the ending. Moving, brutal and emotionally crippling, Season One culminates with Lee succumbing to his bite and suffering one of two fates, depending on player choice. Choice one is to be shot in the head by Clementine, the little girl who you’ve given your life to protect. Choice two is to be left to turn into a walker, arguably a fate worse than death. So there are no winners here, no matter what you pick. Lee is an excellent protagonist, his dark past makes him a criminal and this contradicts his role of protector to Clementine. He isn’t perfect. He has made mistakes and continues to do so as you play. But he is believable as a flawed, but ultimately well-meaning, man. A man who sees his opportunity to redeem himself by saving, and taking care of, Clementine. To see him bitten at the end of episode four is a painful moment but watching him deteriorate through episode five, and eventually die, is excruciating. You feel a connection with him, a person struggling to do the right thing and protect those he cares about, despite the end of the world situation. As he and Clementine have a final moment together, it becomes clear that it has all led to this. That you have taught her how to survive, how to behave, but also how to say goodbye. The final words and last goodbye that he and Clementine share are, in my opinion, the most powerful and memorable of any Telltale game. And make sure to keep that hair short.

The Walking Dead: The Telltale Definitive Series is out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and Microsoft Windows.

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‘Final Fantasy VIII’: A Beloved Black Sheep

If the the general operative way to make a sequel to a massive success like Final Fantasy VII would be to give people more of the same, only bigger and better, Squaresoft opted for something of a different approach.

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When Final Fantasy VII emerged on the scene back in 1997, it changed the way gamers looked at, and experienced, JRPGs. With its flashy cutscenes, cool aesthetic and myriad of anime badasses, Final Fantasy VII pulled off the seemingly impossible task of making RPGs cool. It also gave RPGs a breath of fresh air, exposing them to the mainstream and earning them a much bigger slice of the gaming industry. Then came Final Fantasy VIII.

If the the general operative way to make a sequel to a massive success like Final Fantasy VII would be to give people more of the same, only bigger and better, Squaresoft opted for something of a different approach. In fact, Final Fantasy VIII was so wildly different from its predecessor that it wouldn’t be stretch to call them polar opposites.

Where FFVII took place in a world that was dark, moody and foreboding, FFVIII was bright, colorful and drenched in sunlight. Where VII began in the desolate slums of a fascist, dystopian nightmare, VIII opened in the sort of beautifully-rendered, futuristic facility that would be right at home in paradise. Though Final Fantasy VI  and VII were separated by an entire hardware generation, there similar venues of dark steampunk and darker cyberpunk make them far more comparable in terms of their look and feel then VII and VIII.

Final Fantasy VIII

Beautiful scenes like this would be wildly out of place in Final Fantasy VIII’s predecessors.

The characters were just as distinctly different. There were no caped monster men or gun-armed maniacs here, just 6 high school students of relatively similar age, build and disposition. From the magic system to the way experience was garnered, from the way that weapons were upgraded to the method with which players earned money, Final Fantasy VIII re-did literally everything VII had built, right from the ground up.

This comparison goes a long way toward explaining Final Fantasy VIII and its strangely disjointed place in the series. Where VI, VII, IX and are all fondly and widely remembered, VIII is more stridently beloved by a small group of loyalists. Despite its strong reviews and fantastic salesFinal Fantasy VIII found itself slipping further and further from the series’ limelight as the years passed by.

Now, however, with the release of Final Fantasy VIII Remastered, the black sheep of the mainline Final Fantasy franchise has gained a new lease on life. As one of the last of the golden age titles in the series to finally reach a mass market rerelease, FFVIII finally has a chance to redeem itself from years of teasing and jibes about its confounding junction system and endlessly plot-twisting time compression storyline.

Final Fantasy VIII

Despite the games often sunny disposition, scenes of nail-biting suspense were often just around the corner.

Getting down to brass tacks, there was indeed a LOT to learn from the outset. Critics of the game are absolutely right in one respect: this game is complicated. If that weren’t readily apparent, the seemingly never-ending stream of tutorials that unfold over the course of the games first 10 hours oughta clue you in real quick. How to junction a GF, how to draw magic, how to junction magic, how to switch junctions, etc. You’ll be reading the word junction so much, you’ll think you’re watching an educational special.

With that said, though, once you’d finally mastered the many idiosyncratic elements of the junction system, you’d never felt more powerful in your life. Junctioning Ultima to strength, Full-Life to HP, and casting some Aura magic could make short work of just about any threat the game threw at you, and that’s just one of dozens of strategies that the malleable junction system provided players with. As Quistis points out early on, junctioning a status effect like blind or sleep to your elemental attack attribute could render seemingly insurmountable enemies relatively harmless in one fell stroke.

Of course, the complex nature of such a system could not be overstated. If anyone were to read this who hadn’t played the game, I’m sure it would come across as absolute jibberish. That’s part of the charm of Final Fantasy VIII though: like many a beloved cult classic, this game is as uncompromising and unabashedly against the grain as a sequel we might get from the likes of David Lynch.

Few JRPGs are peppered with as much colorfully silly levity as Final Fantasy VIII.

The same goes for the magic system. While drawing magic from draw points and enemies is initially confusing, the amount of freedom it gives the player to stock up on spells and utilize them for a myriad of purposes was utterly earth-shattering. The fact that entire GFs (Guardian Forces) could be missed just because the player forgot to check the draw options on a particular boss was the kind of kick in the general genital region that made a game like Final Fantasy VIII worth going back to at least once more after completion.

Upgrading weapons with collected materials was also very different. No more just buying the next awesome sword from a new vendor, the player would instead need to find a Weapons Monthly issue for the information on the upgrade, and then mine the respective materials needed to improve their weapon. Finally, the SeeD salary system ranked and evaluated the player as they made their way through the game. No more earning a shower of gil just for offing a few enemies, if you weren’t representing the SeeDs and Gardens in an optimal fashion, your pay would suffer as a result.

Outside of gameplay, these wild 180 degree turns continued in Final Fantasy VIII‘s plotline.  Following the hard science fiction bent of the story of FFVIII could be a task in and of itself. A game that ostensibly begins with high school mercenaries being dispatched to aid rogue organizations around the world eventually evolves into an endless battle across space and time with a sorceress from the future. Meanwhile, some of the most seemingly important plot points in the game, such as Squall’s parentage, or the party’s connection with Laguna and company, are resolved only in the background. Players looking to piece together the many disparate elements of this story will have to put on their Dark Souls helmets and do a bit of individual exploration if they want answers.

The keyart for the game, presented after the opening cinematic, immediately makes the focus of Final Fantasy VIII clear.

The way the game focused on love as an essential motivation is also unique to the series. Though there had been love stories in Final Fantasy games prior to this, they never offered this much depth and emotion. Essentially the central character arc of the game, that of Squall Leonhart, is that of a damaged, emotionally bereft man opening up and learning to love again after suffering loss in the form of childhood traumas. The importance of this focus cannot be overstated. Final Fantasy VIII is a love story first and foremost, and anyone who might doubt that prospect need look no further than the keyart that accompanies the title sequence.

This focus on love, and its healing power, offers Squall perhaps the most fascinating character arc of any in the Final Fantasy franchise. Ostensibly a cold, apathetic loner at the outset, Squall transforms over the course of the story into a man who’s willing to throw caution to the wind if it means saving his friends or his love. Take, for example, the sequence toward the end of the game wherein Squall hurtles himself into the depths of space to save Rinoa, with absolutely no plan on how he might make his return. His love is so important to who he is, and what it has made him, that he would rather die than let it go.

The defining moment for this character, Squall, is unimaginable to players who first meet him sulking and brooding his way through the little monologue snippets that play in his mind. Even in the middle of the story, he opts to send Zell to save Rinoa from a potentially fatal fall, only going himself when there appears to be no other option. This gradual arc from stoic and closed off to open and supportive is still fascinating over 20 years later, and one of the key charms of Final Fantasy VIII.

The heartfelt love story between Squall and Rinoa remains one of the games greatest strengths all these years later.

Back in the fold and better than ever after 2 decades, Final Fantasy VIII Remastered has given the beloved black sheep of the Final Fantasy family a new lease on life, and a second chance to redefine its legacy. Whether it’s your first time venturing into this mad little piece of fiction or you’re coming back for the 10th replay, there’s never been a better, or more convenient, way to experience this one of a kind story.

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Games

‘Dragon Quest’: A One of a Kind RPG

Even as time moves further away from May 27, 1986, Dragon Quest doesn’t feel dated. It certainly shows its age, but it has an elegance that only the best of games can boast. Even today, Dragon Quest is one of a kind. 

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The original Dragon Quest on the NES can be an incredibly difficult game to revisit. As the game that more or less set the foundation for all future JRPGs, Dragon Quest naturally feels primitive in comparison. Grinding is an outright necessity, there are next to no boss fights, and dungeons emphasize maze-like exploration over puzzle solving. The game’s initial Japanese release even used a password system to maintain progress. It wouldn’t be until the game was localized as Dragon Warrior in the west where it would gain a proper save system. In spite of all this, the first Dragon Quest has a certain charm unlike anything else on the NES. 

Dragon Quest, plain and simple, isn’t like other RPGs— even of its era. Combat has little depth beyond “attack and sometimes heal;” there’s no party system with the player instead exploring the world entirely on their own; and virtually every single area on the world map is open to the player as soon as they start the game. Dragon Quest doesn’t follow traditional JRPG rules, but there were no set rules on how to make a Famicom RPG in 1986. That Dragon Quest opts for a smaller scoped solo adventure allows players to better immerse themselves into the role of the Hero, if nothing else. 

Which is something Dragon Quest pulls off better than both The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy. Even though players can name him, Link has a distinct enough design where he truly does feel like his own character. On the flipside, while the Warriors of Light are genuine blank slates, the fact they function as a group of four instead of a single character means that NPCs never directly speak to the player— only the party. 

Dragon Quest (Famicom)

With Dragon Quest, however, the Hero is a blank slate who’s roped into dialogue at virtually every turn. NPCs aren’t monologuing into thin air, they’re talking to the player. The player is railroaded into saving the princess, but they can choose to side with the final boss at the end of the game for no reason other than pure curiosity. The story’s only real main arc revolves around the player proving their lineage as the descendant of a legendary hero. Dragon Quest caters itself towards the player’s experience in every sense. 

This is a detail that translates right into the main script and helps give Alefgard a real personality. The King explicitly mentions his disappointment with the Hero when he dies in combat. The same characters who praise the hero for being Erdrick’s descendant lambast him if players dare speak to them without proof. The Hero physically needs to carry the princess back to the castle after rescuing her, but there’s unique dialogue after defeating the final boss while still holding her. 

In many ways, these little distinctions are necessary for Dragon Quest to thrive. As an RPG, it’s far too simple for its own good. While Sleep does end up adding a layer of strategy to mid-game combat, the majority of the game will be spent mashing the Attack command at enemies. Not only because spells are best saved for when needed, but because of how important a role grinding plays. At the same time, it’s not as if Dragon Quest’s constant grinding is inherently a bad thing. 


Dragon Quest (Mobile)

While yes, grinding is more often than not a way to pad out a game with filler, there’s a therapeutic quality to grinding in Dragon Quest. It’s low maintenance with just enough thrills where it can be quite a zen experience. It’s certainly time consuming, but it’s time spent grounding the player in Alefgard. Given how small the map is, it’s more than likely for players to gain an intimate understanding of the overworld in a single playthrough. Usually, RPG overworlds are large enough where most won’t even humor learning the overall geography, but Dragon Quest makes it simple.

And almost necessary considering how much backtracking there can be. To its credit, though, it’s the good kind of backtracking dictated more or less by players. Although moving further and further away from the starting castle triggers stronger enemies to appear, the player really can go just about anywhere right at the beginning of the game. Enemies will massacre them with little to no effort, but it’s not difficult to find the three major relics in any order. It’s even possible to hold off saving the princess until the very end of the game. 

This is also to say nothing of what Dragon Quest offers from a pure gameplay experience. While battles are incredibly simple, stat numbers are grounded to the point where every little point of damage makes a difference. There’s a thrill to underestimating an Axe Knight, barely surviving, and then landing a critical hit that kills him in one swoop. The occasional Goldman and Metal Slime go a long way in adding a level of excitement to the Dragon Quest grind. If it’s going to be mandatory, why shouldn’t it be potentially interesting?

Dragon Quest (Super Famicom)

Battles are made even better by Dragon Quest’s dynamic first person perspective. Upon entering a random battle, a new in-game window pops up depicting an enemy with a lush background behind them. Toriyama’s art design is already a massive boon to the game’s aesthetic, but depicting backgrounds in-battle helps better present Alefgard as an actual, living world— something very few NES RPGs went through the effort of doing. 

Even dungeons manage to be compelling in their simplicity. Players need to rely on torches early on to see anything inside of caves. The fact that light slowly dims over time can force players to rush for the exit as darkness creeps in around them. Dragon Quest is a game that’s more than comfortable leaving players to rot in a pitch black dungeon. It’s an RPG that emphasized the importance of preparation without needing to make it a constant game mechanic. 

Healing magic ends up replacing herbs, Radiant makes torches useless, and Return ensures that players never need to waste an inventory slot on a Warp Wing. At the same time, healing magic is the most reliable way to heal so players might want to stock up on torches and Warp Wings anyways just to save MP. There isn’t much depth at play, but a fair bit of thought does go into the moment to moment gameplay. 

At its core, Dragon Quest is a game that never out-stays its welcome. It’ll be a challenging title for fans of the genre to experience, but it’s one that can take players back to 1986, when Final Fantasy was still an entire year away and the JRPG genre was in its infancy. Dragon Quest doesn’t humor the player, but emotionally involves them in the world of the game. Even as time moves further away May 27, 1986, Dragon Quest doesn’t feel dated. It certainly shows its age, but it has an elegance that only the best of games can boast. Even today, Dragon Quest is one of a kind. 

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Games

‘Mages of Mystralia’ and the Fear of the Bigger Fish

‘Mages of Mystralia’ challenges notion of the magic user as an Other, tasking players with determining the truth of its world for themselves.

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Magic as a misunderstood disaster engine is pretty routine with our fantasy worldbuilding friends. Identifying cosmically gifted individuals as something Other exists within the narratives of the fantastic as everything from plot-relevant physical division (like the Circle in Dragon Age) to garden-variety bigotry (like the witch-boy in Overlord II, for the six people that remember that absolute unit of a tale). Some characters think magic is dangerous, others just think it’s cheating, but almost without exception the magic users of any established world are treated like people who walk into work with blood and gooey bits on their hands; maybe there’s a perfectly reasonable, innocent, non-murder explanation, but the safe bet is to assume they started their day by throwing unsuspecting virgins into equally unsuspecting volcanoes.

Which is fair, since Mages of Mystralia begins with the red-haired Zia yeeting out of the town of Greyleaf after accidentally setting her entire house on fire. Because Zia, obviously, is a mage, and in Mystralia, this is a very big problem.

Mages of Mystralia house

In the Before Time [crashing thunder], there were Mage Kings, kings that were mages, and kings that had magic (the poison specifically for Kuzco, Kuzco’s poison). Those possessing this gift were whisked away from their tiny, little villages and raised in the castle to be heirs and guardians and suspicious viziers. Then the goblins came and started wrecking shop, and one squirrelly moron named Aetius (first — and probably last — of his name) went looking for the Celestial Magic that you’re uber-super-not supposed to touch. He touched it, kept touching it, went crazy, and set the country on fire, ruining magery for everybody else. A slightly less squirrelly dude called the Marquis (the only one to survive stopping Aetius), then took over and made magery and anybody who practices it illegal. All the existing mages were killed or banished, and new mages, if they were found, were nixed on the spot.

Making unchangeable personal qualities illegal doesn’t solve things, however, because once every decade magic wakes up in somebody anyway — and this time, that person is Zia. So, the magic wakes up, sets her house on fire, and the citizens of Greyleaf take it upon themselves to throw her out since the Marquis is far away and doesn’t care about them anymore.

And so, the adventure begins.

After getting booted, Zia makes her way to the mage village of Haven, and on the way finds this objectively evil book in what looks like an abandoned altar…pillar…gateway…thing. It’s been here for a hot minute before she picks it up; it starts talking to her and teaching spells that her magery mentor (named Mentor) tells her a few minutes later she shouldn’t have yet, but he’s sure it’s fine.

This is objectively evil book — it has a smoky black speech bubble and everything — teaches spells and gives all kinds of historical context for the places Zia goes while looking for ways to keep a solar eclipse from ending the world. In particular, he says something that encapsulates the theme of Mages of Mystralia: the word “spellcraft.” Zia corrects him and says, “You mean magery.” He responds: “Magery is a word used by people who are afraid of the Marquis and his men. Spellcraft better describes what mages do. You should call things by their real name.

The book isn’t the only one to talk about this. At the very beginning of the game, Mentor is sitting on a log in front of a safe house in the woods, saying that he’s going to start teaching Zia spellcraft — and then immediately corrects himself to “magery,” because Zia hears “spellcraft” and kind of loses her mind. “Fine, magery, then if that word scares you less.”

“Spellcraft” is a heavily stigmatized word in the universe of Mages of Mystralia, and the different ways in which the book and Mentor react to it are important. Mentor resigns himself to Zia’s fear of it, while the objectively evil book is actively combating this attitude. These characters represent the two ways one can approach this kind of total exile. Mentor is from the older generation, the ones who saw the fall of the mage kings and who almost definitely knew mages who died in the initial purge. He is jaded and irritable, and twice in the first twenty minutes says to Zia, “Life is so easy, is it not?” when she gets antsy about using her magic.

The book, however, is older. The book represents a time when having mage-kings and actively roaming mage-guardians worked, letting players know that this system isn’t inherently flawed. Mage-kings used to be the reason people could walk freely in the valley at all; under the Marquis, the goblins run totally wild, and all the roads in and out of everywhere are unsafe. The book is calling things by their “real names,” as he remembers them, and wants to know why the modern language has shellacked all this new jargon over the truth. (Side-note, I have literally no reason to believe this evil book is male, but anyway…)

So, the objectively evil spellbook is thus far the only Socratic character in the story (which is fine, as you don’t need more than one). The purpose of a Socratic character is to be the voice of dissent in a story-world with which an audience is unfamiliar. While the book’s questions are rarely overt, his casual observations and concerns about the state of the world as it is and the world as he once knew it imply a hoard of information players don’t have — like the old quarry having flooded itself out of practical use in “[his] time,” and the seal table thing in the mage town of Haven having once been in the castle — and this inspires the player to ask questions of their own — like whether Celestial magic is truly an evil thing. It’s easy to fall into the bad-fantasy-novel trap of having everything a character tells you about the history of the land be the complete and unadulterated, non-propagandized truth; the book is our anchor against this type of narrative complacency.

The book functions as Zia’s anchor as well; alone, she wouldn’t think to ask these questions. The people she meets who know she’s a mage — and who fear her because of it — believe that magic is dangerous, and to keep themselves safe, the Valley just can’t have any magic in it at all. Zia was raised by these people; she grew up believing the same thing. Now that Zia is in the thick of it, she has to look further into it; but they don’t, because they are satisfied with the answers they already have. Their terror of mages stems from physical insecurity and an unwillingness to trust people with inherently more power over the world than they’ll ever possess, even in theory. The fastest way to solve that problem at the time was to get rid of the offending power. That way, their ‘side’ (non-mages) would be the biggest fish in the ocean. There would be nothing left — in theory — capable of scaring them.

The turning point of Mages of Mystralia happens when the Marquis dies in the most suspicious fire ever. The Chancellor says, “A mage did it” and decides to find all the ones they let go the first time in order to kill them properly now. The first place to be attacked is Zia’s home village, Greyleaf.

This incident is the turning point not because it’s where the status quo gets paved over, but because public opinion begins to turn in Zia’s favor. The Marquis is dead, and the Chancellor — who was the voice of the Marquis and a man in whom the public had great trust — is becoming as dangerous as mages had ever been. Aetius had to be stopped not because of his Celestial magic, but because he was using it to burn villages to the ground; now the Chancellor is doing the exact same thing. The only difference is the Chancellor is using the army instead of magic.

The most eye-opening thing Zia learns, however, is that the fear of mages was not entirely organic, but orchestrated by a single person. The Chancellor, we discover, is a mage. His goal is to exact revenge on the mages of Haven who exiled him for trying to master magic he was not ready for — Celestial magic, just like Aetius. Does this mean, then, that mages are evil? If the last two people to burn down the Valley were mages, surely magic must be the problem. Yet it is not, precisely because Zia also a mage. If both the hero and the villain are mages, the only difference between them is who they are as people.

Mages of Mystralia is Zia’s journey — not only to love her new self, but in learning that, to quote The Blacklist of all things: “the line of good and evil runs through us all,” and the world is never as simple as we think. Mages aren’t inherently evil, and non-mages aren’t inherently good. We are presented with mages who are good and mages who are evil; we are shown people who fear the player, and people who do not. The Chancellor is a mage who hurts people; Zia, Mentor, and everyone in Haven are mages who save them. The world is full of evidence to something, but whatever that might be, Zia and the book have to find out what’s really true for themselves.

“You will not always find the answers you seek,” says the Enchanter in Haven, “but you will always grow stronger, seeking them.”

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