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25 Years Later ‘Mortal Kombat’ – Bloody Brilliance

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October 15th, 1992 is a day that changed the world of fighting games forever. Ed Boon and John Tobias’ Mortal Kombat burst onto the scene amid controversy and quickly cemented its place as the most successful one-on-one fighter from the West. Mortal Kombat has since become a best-selling franchise, numbering ten main entries and several spin-offs and remasters.

What began as a canceled movie tie-in is now one of the three biggest fighting game franchises in the world, competing with Street Fighter and Tekken beyond the Arcades and home consoles. The game’s ludicrous, over-the-top violence and unique brand of humor separated it from the crowd of games grasping at Street Fighter II‘s feet, and instead let it stare into the Capcom blockbuster’s eyes, cackling maniacally. When the fighting began, MK was ruthless and its gore set it apart from everyone else.

Round 1… Fight!

Mortal Kombat stepped into the ring breaking spines and spraying blood. Its brutality earned great aplomb among its fans, but also saw the game get condemned by public figures in most countries — and even banned in Germany. Inevitably, the forbidden fruit syndrome was in full effect, and the game topped everyone’s wish list, despite parents everywhere trying their hardest to say no.

It’s impossible to talk about Mortal Kombat without mentioning Fatalities; the finishing moves are a brand staple, and what makes the kombat mortal. Boon and Tobias liked the satisfaction of dizzying your opponent and getting a free hit, but also thought that it made bouts unfair, so they decided that the opponent who lost the entire duel should be dizzied instead, and the winner could deal a finishing blow. Fatalities allowed it to be truly final. Not only are they a thematic flourish but they’re also a means of communication.

These gruesome finishers let your opponent know you have absolutely destroyed them — that you have actually murdered them and mutilated their corpses. Hailing from a time before voice or text chats, a Fatality told your opponent “I pwned you!” The finality and brutality of them was a gut punch so powerful it ripped through. Kano rips his opponent’s heart out much like Bart Simpson gets his torn from his chest (except literally), while Sub-Zero rips his opponent’s entire spine out of their body along with their head to proudly place above his fireplace; these moves don’t impact the outcome of the fight in any way  except letting you know that your opponent REALLY killed you, that is.

This form of communication truly evolved in Mortal Kombat 2 and 3 with the addition of Animalities, Babalities and Friendlies, but it all began on the original arcade. It was the original “You’re just not good enough yet,” the original “You Died.”

Toasty!

Ed Boon & Co.’s brand of humor cemented its place in the pop culture of the 90s, and has remained a staple in the series to this day. Although most of its best-known jokes started appearing in the series from the second installment, Mortal Kombat‘s core humor lies in its absurdist violence. (Just take a second to consider the level of hatred you would have to feel for someone to literally rip their spine out). It’s the Tom and Jerry or Happy Tree Friends style of using violence for comic effect, and Mortal Kombat feeds off that same carnal amusement. 

The fighters bleed profusely from every hit. They fly ten feet into the air from uppercuts. They literally fight to the death. This isn’t just beef — it’s a forty pound rump steak dripping with fresh blood for you to bathe in. But counter-intuitively, that’s what makes it funny.

Originally the game was intended to star Jean Claude van Damme. However, thanks to JC pulling out, we were blessed with another JC — Johnny Cage, that is. The egocentric, aloof Hollywood star, a dramatization of van Damme, Cage is stylized to look like the actor’s character in Blood Sport, and has a splits crotch-punch as his signature move. This bitter dig ended up being one of the few characters to appear in every game in the series.

The announcer, rumored to be Shao Khan himself, is another long-running joke. His over-enthusiasm and bellowing bass paint him as a maniacal sadist, laughing at the damage the competitors do to each other and taunting them to kill their opponents with the world-famous “Finish [them]!” He barks at the fighters to begin their bouts, and relishes in one-sided flawless victories.

Noob Saibot Wins

The game’s seven playable characters were portrayed by five actors, with Daniel Pesina playing the roles of Johnny Cage, Sub-Zero, Scorpion and Reptile. Furthermore, the three ninja characters were identical sprites with a different dominant color. This palette swap technique soon became a Mortal Kombat trademark. From a technical standpoint, the characters have very slight differences between them, and unlike other fighting games at the time, where characters’ speed and reach vary greatly, MK opted for near-identical templates with a few unique moves.

Boon and Tobias have also peppered their games with little signatures. Mortal Kombat hails from the ancient 1990s, before DLC and loot boxes, when games had hidden characters that were unlocked with hard work and cheats. The original hidden character was Reptile, the green ninja. He can be unlocked by winning with two flawless victories and performing a Fatality on the Pit stage. A grueling and obscure test of ability, fighting against Reptile was a reward and a test all at once. This later became a trend with a fourth, grey ninja named Noob Saibot (“Boon Tobias” reversed) being hidden behind similar challenges. Mortal Kombat 4 even made Goro playable!

Up, Up, Down, Down…

Boon and Tobias have made a habit of following the Mortal Kombat rumor mill. They have also made a habit of making rumors come true. (Reptile wasn’t an unlockable character until fans created a rumor that he was.) In fact, it was the 3.0 update that actually gave players the opportunity to not only face him, but select him. This trend saw the additions of Ermac and Animality finishers in later games too.

ERMAC was actually a graphical error message that would pop up in the corner of the screen and make Scorpion’s yellow suit flicker in red (the actual color of the suit used to capture stop motion for the game). The rumor soon was spread that Ermac was the hidden red ninja and could be unlocked. This rumor, however, took another four years to materialize, with Ermac making an appearance in Mortal Kombat 3.

The creators’ curiosity and willingness to oblige the fans not only got the rumor mill turning faster, but was also a huge factor in the game’s popularity. Fans’ dedication and curiosity was always rewarded — if not by initial design, then by redesign as hearsay became common knowledge. Midway catering to its vocal fans inspired loyalty among them for years to come; the community not only grew but, got more imaginative, and the development team followed suit.

Flawless Victory! Kinda.

The game hasn’t aged well; it’s more Macaulay Culkin than Cher. But it’s not just outdated visuals that make Mortal Kombat less accessible today. It’s difficult — difficult in the way that cutting wood with a bread knife is, as the given tools are sub-standard. Yes, every character has roughly the same reach and speed, but input delay makes them feel as if they’ve just about made it to round 12 with a 1990s Mike Tyson. For reference, Street Fighter II made characters feel like 1990s Tyson, and even featured him.

There is no in-game moves list, no “I just want to enjoy the story” difficulty level (although to be fair, there is no story). Add to that the general lack of variety — seven fighters, two bosses, four arenas — and you’d think that by today’s standards there isn’t all that much fun to be had with the original blood-spilling thriller of a fighter.

With the bad comes the good, however. The levels are well-crafted and detailed, such as the Pit, which grants you a thrilling opportunity to uppercut your opponent onto the eagerly awaiting metal spikes, a privilege absent from competitors. The few moves that are there are fun and diverse; it’s not fireballs for everyone, mind. Scorpion has his hook, Sub-Zero his ice, and Johnny Cage his crotch punch. MK offered light-hearted fun altogether absent from the genre until then; juxtapose the fun with the brutal visuals, and you have yourself a pedigree fighting game, a brutal outlet that both embellishes and trivializes death and violence in ways that discourage it rather than the opposite.

The main thing about Mortal Kombat is that even 25 years later, it still oozes personality and bloody brilliance. The game’s success was no accident, and its legacy was not built on Kontroversy alone. In 1992 a star was born, and it has been bleeding all over our screens for a quarter of a macabre century.

A Polish-British Londoner, a part-time Pokémon trainer and a full-time nerd. Living in the dystopian world of 21st Century London, may be prone to cynicism. Only really cheat on the PC with the 3DS. #PraiseTheSun #FemShep #TeamKazuya

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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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‘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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‘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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Game Reviews

‘Creature In The Well’ Review: Dungeon Crawling Pinballing

‘Creature in the Well’ is a unique blend of genres, and an absolute must-try for audiences of both the pinball and puzzle games.

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Creature in the Well Review

A top-down, pinball-inspired, hack-and-slash dungeon crawler? That certainly may be a genre combination never done before. But in reflection to the sciences of chemistry, sometimes grouping elements into a mixture can create something that is definitively unique and distinguishable from its initial ingredients. Creature In The Well is a whole new breed of game design — by blending various genres, developer Flight School has created one of the most distinctive and satisfying puzzle games in recent years. The closest comparison you can probably make is if Hyper Light Drifter collided with a classic pinball cabinet and Breakout.

Acquiring a New Beat

Creature in the Well tasks the final remaining BOT-C unit in a mysterious world to venture into the desert mountain that lies in wait next to the imprisoned city of Mirage, a land captured by a deadly sandstorm. Inside the mountain rests an ancient facility in need of power; but there’s also a fearsome creature who stuck in a state of despair. It is the bot’s job to reboot the machine, stop the monster, and save the city of Mirage from the never-ending storm that shrouds the land.

Creature in the Well hub

Although it may sound like a hack-and-slash dungeon crawler, Creature In The Well is not a test of strength against all odds; it’s a quest of knowledge that utilizes timed actions. The BOT-C unit is not on a bloodlust to its goal; it’s in a fight for survival through various puzzles that demonstrate adaptability. The game is a test against the active mind.

After obtaining a sword and learning quicker means of movement through dashing, it would be easy to assume that fighting comes next. However, the reality of the situation is that the BOT-C unit’s sword and secondary weapon are never swung directly at an opponent — not once throughout the entire journey. Instead, weapons are used as flippers in a sort of active pinball game, continuously knocking around orbs of energy at various machines that will grant voltage. This energy must be spent to open hydraulic doors throughout each dungeon that block progress, but it can also be used to upgrade the BOT-C unit’s gear via a blacksmith, or to find upgrades secretly scattered behind different pathways. The more thoroughly a dungeon is explored, the more voltage there is to claim from conquering puzzles of higher difficulty.

The environment then ends up becoming the greatest threat, as there are no true enemies to wield weapons against. A variety of projectiles can cause damage, forcing players to move around. Well-placed shots and timely swings are the keys to progression, and the only way of reaching the endgame. Adapting and using creative ways to solve puzzles is the foundation of Creature In The Well. Mastering Breakout and Pong-like movements for multiple projectiles at the same time is the recipe for success.

Creature In The Well makes magnificent use of the Unreal Engine, showcasing a nightly overcast atmosphere with a bleak, dark color palette, but it also manages to remain bright and colorful thanks to the illuminating projectile lights and flashy animations. This ultimately amounts to a game that is not only satisfying to play, but satisfying to watch. It’s a distinct art style that is welcoming to the eyes rather than a confusingly chaotic bunch of unrecognizable firefights.

Repetition Recognition

Creature in the Well urges players to progressively think smarter as they traverse the eight vastly different dungeons. Each puzzle room slowly improves upon the last, as the game consistently and smartly reuses mechanics while introducing new gimmicks to accommodate the metronome-action movements. These gimmicks can range from the way in which energy orbs damage to adding new obstacles like electrical flooring or spiraling death traps.

Puzzles can progressively become more and more challenging, but most are either not mandatory or don’t need to be completed immediately, as there are branching paths and enough energy to skip some roadblocks. This ultimately comes off as a negative or positive aspect depending on the individual player, as puzzle difficulty drastically changes depending on the order in which dungeons are played. Creature In The Well’s lack of a recommended dungeon order might make you work harder in the early-game, which results in a rather carefree late-game that sees you blasting through puzzles with ease — or vice versa.

On the other hand, this gives the player breathing room, allowing them to experiment with routes and return to previous challenges. Skipping or leaving puzzles unsolved lessens opportunities for rewards, so a handy in-game map system allows players to keep track of exactly where they have not completed rooms on designated paths. An unyielding challenge can become an underwhelming enigma with proper dedication and practice. That said, although the endgame can become less challenging than the beginning, the pinball-inspired mechanics are so entertaining that a decline in difficulty never truly becomes an issue. Creature in the Well is never a slog to play through, even when revisiting old dungeons in the latter half of the game.

All of these dungeons conclude with thrilling matchups with the main power sources, as well as the creature who lives beneath the land. Creature In The Well does not have what many would consider traditional dungeon crawler boss fights, but simply sticks to a its puzzle gameplay and challenges players with a larger and more complex version. These battles involve the creature, who extends its arms from beneath the dark abyss in an attempt to attack you.

Embrace The Storm

Creature In The Well is a captivating case of a fresh experiment gone right. Flight School took risks in attempting to dabble in multiple genres at once that seemingly don’t correlate to each other. Yet, the end result is a fascinating concept built on the gorgeously-used Unreal Engine, with the potential to be further expanded upon. Albeit short, the journey to delve into the deepest parts of the mountain to solve new high-speed kinetic puzzles while avoiding a mysterious, calamitous creature never grows stale over the 5-7 hour journey. It is by far the most distinct ‘break the mold’ type game to be released this year, and an absolute must-try for audiences of both the pinball and puzzle game genres.

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