Tag Archives: Review

Gone Home review

Samantha Greenbriar's room in Gone Home.

Samantha Greenbriar’s room in Gone Home.

Gone Home invites you to step into an empty house and uncover its stories. It isn’t a game that focuses on battle systems or outlandish weapons. Gone Home asks to player wander around, remain curious, and discover what they can about the lives of Greenbriar family.

 

Gameplay:

You enter the world of Gone Home as Kaitlin Greenbriar. After traveling abroad, she arrives to find that there is no one at the house to greet her. Your first task is to find the spare key and enter the dark home. Once inside you can turn on the lights and wander around, exploring every nook and cranny.

You discover intimate details about your family members by interacting with the environment and rummaging through the items in the house. One item will give you a hint where to look next. Interacting with an important item will open up a journal entry written by your sister. These journal entries are both voice acted and presented as text and can be accessed at any point after finding them. The main mechanic of the game is simple: explore by clicking on various items in the house.

 

Atmosphere:

There is a haunting tone to the game. When you enter the home it is dark, secluded, and silent aside from a thunderstorm raging outside. The game intersperses a quiet score with Riot Grrl songs (played via cassette tapes found within the house).

The place is littered with personal items from the Greenbriar family. Tapes of X-Files episodes, boxes full of copies of your father’s books, Nintendo cartridges, and other items serve to tell the story of the members in the house. The details are more than window dressing; they tell the story.

 

Characters:

While the player is controlling Kaitlin Greenbriar, she is not the focus. Gone Home is primarily the tale of the younger sister, a teenager whose tale you slowly learn through diary entries, letters, and scattered items. You are shown Samantha’s desires, flaws, insecurities, fears, struggles, and triumphs. The intricately designed details make her story feel real. Glow in the dark star stickers above the bed, a couch cushion fort in the living room, and boxes of short stories written in elementary school all inform the player about Samantha.

While Samantha’s life is the focus, the rest of the family is not ignored. You witness details of the parents’ marriage. You get a glimpse of a trauma haunting Kaitlin’s father (a man obsessed with writing stories where the main character changes the past). The details of these tales are fuzzier than that of Samantha’s. The player is left uncertain and making assumptions. But for players who explore the house in detail, those characters have a lot to say despite never being present within the home. The items that are hidden away in drawers act as evidence of the lives of their owners, painting  incomplete but striking pictures of Kaitlin’s parents and her great-uncle.

 

Emotional impact:

At the end of the day, Gone Home is a relatively short game. It can be completed in roughly 4 hours. But this focused experience is a gem. Months after completing this game I still think about the characters and the story. While the player never meets or interacts with Kaitlin’s family members in the house, the details of their lives are abundant. Their tales had me crying more than once.

Gone Home harnesses the power of a well written story. Developer The Fullbright Company created a game that I will not forget for quite some time.

Long Live the Queen – Review (PC)

Long Live the Queen title screen

When I was younger, many of the stories I was told were about princesses. According to those stories, princesses needed rescuing, attended lavish balls wearing elegant dresses, and had to get the guy in order to live happily ever after. None of the stories I was told as a child dealt with the abilities required to rule a kingdom, but Long Live the Queen does. Long Live the Queen is about a princess who must learn how to survive numerous threats and live to be crowned queen.

Elodie is the crown princess of Nova, a land whose influence and power have waned over the years. After her mother’s death, Elodie is taken out of school and brought home to the castle. Her father, Joslyn, is king, but in Nova the queen is the one in charge, so the crown is passed from mother to daughter. Elodie has 40 weeks to her 15th birthday, the day of her coronation. During this time, she has to learn skills that will allow her to rule wisely and will help her survive to her coronation. Many want Elodie to fail, and she is vulnerable during this time before her coronation. Nova has enemies outside and inside its borders, and Elodie never knows when a simple gift could be from an assassin.

Long Live the Queen is a life simulation game from Hanako Games. You are in charge of Elodie’s decisions. She has two classes a week, one in the morning and one in the afternoon; she can participate in one activity on the weekends. At the beginning of the game, Elodie is depressed because she mourns her mother. Her moods impact how fast she can learn certain skills. For example, being depressed gives her a bonus to Expression skills but a penalty to Royal Demeanor skills. Her mood changes depending on what activities you select for her to do on the weekends, and events can impact her mood as well, so you want to keep track of her emotions. If you select a skill and her mood penalizes the progress, then you would have wasted a week.

Mood screen in Long Live the Queen

You shouldn’t select skills for Elodie to learn randomly. Each decision you make influences the story. If you have her learn skills in certain areas, then she might not survive a trip to a friend’s birthday party, attending a tournament, or opening a gift. If Elodie is not skilled in Court Manners, she might inadvertently accept a man’s proposal of marriage. Every choice opens different options and closes others, so a lot of strategy is needed to navigate the intrigue. I ended up taking notes. When Elodie succeeds or fails, bubbles appear to let you know what skills were necessary for an event. The feedback is essential. I would write down what skills were connected to what events so I could improve the next time I played.

I started over many times. Why? Because there are many ways Elodie can die. Until the major events are revealed, a lot of trial and error is required. I got to week 36, confident that I was going to win, but my choices weren’t good enough, and Elodie died again. I eagerly started another game. Not only did I want to figure out how to win, I liked Elodie. She thought she had years before she would have to be queen; she is reluctant, but she understands she has a duty to fulfill. Elodie is in transition from child to adult; she still wants to play with her toys and sneak out of the castle, but she knows spending time at court is a necessary part of her royal education. Willful, playful, sad, angry—Elodie is a fully realized individual, a person I wanted to see succeed and reach her coronation day.

Elodie's Coronet outfit

Long Live the Queen surprised me by how much planning and strategy is essential to get Elodie to her coronation day. Equal parts frustrating and satisfying, the game forces you to seriously consider and contemplate each decision. Save often and take plenty of notes, so Elodie can reach her 15th birthday and hear the Novan people cheer, “Long live the Queen!”

Note: Hanako Games provided a review copy

Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams

The following is a guest post from Mark Filipowich:

Mark Filipowich writes about video games for PopMatters and anywhere else that will take him. He lives in London, Ontario where he is one of the last projectionists in the city that has been trained to work with film. When the world becomes digital he plans to sulk.

A screenshot from Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams with a girl jumping over an enemy.  The background is a beautiful hue of orangish and the trees have twisted arms and claws.

It’s rare that I’ll buy more than five games in the year of their release. When I do play a game while it’s brand new, it’s usually for a review. So when I was offered a chance to play Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, I accepted, not thinking much of it at the time. But when it turned out to be the best game I’d ever had the pleasure of reviewing, I got excited, because I was finally going to be ahead of everyone else.

And then nobody ended up talking about it. Perhaps it was because Giana’s release was so close to the much lauded Pid, another critically lauded independent 2D platformer, but there has been just about no conversation about Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams at all. Which is a shame, because at $15 of excellent design and novel art direction, it’s a no-brainer for anybody on a budget looking for a satisfying platformer.

The game functions beautifully. There are virtually no bugs or frame rate issues (a marvel for an indie game that looks so good). It’s easy enough to pick up and play for the first time but the difficulty curve scales so quickly that it never gets stale. That said, with no limit on lives, it never becomes unnecessarily punishing. That’s assuming that it’s played with a controller. It was designed with the Xbox 360 controller in mind, so without an adequate substitute, its design feels a lot less smooth. Tracking down a good controller (a plug-and-play attached to a wireless controller will not work, unfortunately) adds another $10-$40 depending on the importance placed on name brand and unused products.

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cinders5

Cinders Review – A Fairy Tale of a Game

Cinders: a young woman with long red hair

Cinders is a visual novel by MoaCube. The game is inspired by the Cinderella fairy tale but it isn’t the story you may know from the Disney movie. With four possible endings, 120 decision points, and over 150,000 words this visual novel spins the tale in a various ways.

 

The developers explained the motivation behind the game on their website

Of all the fairytales, we picked Cinderella because we honestly don’t like it. The protagonist is very passive, and the message seems to be: “be a good girl and learn to take abuse quietly, then maybe you’ll find a rich husband”. We want our Cinders to be clever, active woman who makes her own choices. Even if she goes for the fairytale ending, it should be her decision. We’re using various methods to reinforce this theme.

 

The main character, Cinders, agrees with this premise:

Scene in Cinder's room where she is reading a book and complains, "Who writes these things? And do they really want young women to develop this martyr-like attitude? This is not just nonsense, it's dangerous too."

 

System requirements

I attempted to play this game on a desktop PC and on a little netbook and it ran flawlessly on both. It has both PC and Mac compatible versions and there are demos available from the website.  http://moacube.com/games/cinders/

 

Game play

Cinders is avisual novel with decision points. You experience it through the role of Cinders (the Cinderella-inspired character). She interacts with the world and the player reads the pre-written lines from her and other characters. At decision points you When you chose one of 2-3 options and the story branches to a different section of the visual novel. Based on those choices, you will see different text and one of four different endings, each of which have slight variants dependent on the choices made at those branching points.

 

Choice and endings

I recently finished the game and obtained all 4 possible endings and also played a fifth time to see a variant of one of these endings.  Within the story, the main character of Cinders takes charge of her life at every possible moment. Even if she stays home to clean or follow her step-mother or step-sister’s orders, it is her decision to stay. Making these moments decision points gave them impact.

There is a variety of choices within the story. What will Cinders do when she has a few hours to herself? What about if she has a full day of potential freedom? Does she believe in magic? Does she sympathize with her step-sisters or will she match their cruelty with verbal arguments of her own? Is she looking for love or for escape? The player controls Cinders in a variety of situations, and because of this each play lets them know more about both Cinders and the other characters. The 4 different endings give us a glimpse of possible motivations and life goals for Cinders. Her desires can include romance but are not limited to that and Cinders can end the game romantically unattached and that is not considered a “bad end”.

 

Art

The art of this game is absolutely stunning. Artist Gracjana Zielinska created beautiful background scenes where small pieces are animated. Tree branches wave, flames flicker, and birds fly through the air in the midst of gorgeous still images. Those accents along with the detailed scenes help create the mood for the game.

 

Themes

Cinders deals with the themes of oppression, childhood trauma, and desire. There is little true “evil” within the story. We find out why they step-mother and step-sisters behave with such cruelty. The world is far more complex than a stereotype.

The idea of roles and preconceptions are played out with the character of Madame Ghede. When I first saw the character art for here, I was worried that she would be a portrayed as the stereotype of a voodoo priestess.

Madame Ghede discussing the townspeople, "Those half-wits label anything they don't understand as dangerous."

Unfortunately, I do not know enough about the stereotype to say how well this was shattered or where the game played into problematic depictions. But, I can say the following about her character: her religion/beliefs are never discussed, she explains that the villagers assume that she is a witch so she allows them to think that (using it to her advantage when possible), and she has little patience for people that treat her with fear because they refuse to get to know her. I would love to hear what someone more knowledge about this stereotype than I has to say about this character and her portrayal.

Character depth

Cinders excels at giving its characters depth. By the end of the story, the player knows everyone’s motivations. It is possible to learn a bit of back story on all of the characters and to see them as more than just an “evil step-mother” or Prince looking for love. Understanding the motivations for characters that behave in despicable ways creates an interesting story. The player can choose to covertly use this knowledge to their advantage, to sympathize with those characters, or to call them on their actions. The multiple decision points paired with the character depth make for an interesting tale.

Overall I really enjoyed this game. If you want to play gorgeous a visual novel that gives a Cinderella character much more agency than the original story, then Cinders is a perfect fit. As the developers explain

It’s a story of four women and what made them who they are, inspired by the classic fairytale of Cinderella. A story about balancing freedom and dreams with circumstance and harsh reality; about growing up and finding out the true meaning of independence. Distancing itself from the judgmental simplicity of the original, Cinders tries to explore the more complex nature of oppression, responsibility and innocence.

At times I wish this exploration of complex issues went even further, but this game definitely did exactly as advertised. I recommend Cinders for anyone interested in a deeper retelling of the Cinderella story.

Disclosure: The PC copy of Cinders was given to us for review by MoaCube.

A Jedi Consular; scholars and diplomats with more than a small touch of grace. They can also kill you with their minds. (( A tan skinned woman wearing brown robes and earthtoned ceremonial headgear wielding a blue bladed lightsabre, standing before a verdant forest scene. ))

A Study in Contrasts: Star Wars–The Old Republic

A Jedi Consular; scholars and diplomats with more than a small touch of grace. They can also kill you with their minds. - A tan skinned woman wearing brown robes and earthtoned ceremonial headgear wielding a blue bladed lightsabre, standing before a verdant forest scene.

Edited to Add: This article has been corrected. Thankfully Vette’s shock collar cannot be used to make her love your male character.

Bioware’s The Old Republic has been released to much fanfare and a blitz of publicity, becoming a surprisingly ubiquitous presence in bus shelters and subway adverts, promising the beginning of “Your Saga”  on its release date. With a million subscriptions at this point, at least according to EA, The Old Republic is one of the most popular Western MMOs since the release of WoW.

Reviewing it, like reviewing any MMO, is an undertaking that is necessarily caveated; MMOs, in their very structure, are long games that are unending and built to evolve. MMOs are O. Henry’s New York: “it’ll be a great place if they ever finish it.” Reviews of such are thus works-in-eternal-progress as well. With this in mind, I have to say that I am both deeply enticed by this game, concerned about it, and somewhat hopeful for it. In terms of the game’s gender politics, there are a couple of glaring issues, and a lot of small ones– if there is a theme for the game’s gender problems it’s more a “death by a thousand cuts” situation rather than one that beats you over the head with rank misogyny. Gameplay is smooth, and the MMO presents a polished, even refined title whose cleanness is impressive in a game released just two weeks ago. Despite being a clear WoW clone, it also has several distinctions that go well beyond being mere gimmicks.

TOR is best understood as a game of contrasts, polarities as sharp as the Light/Dark side dyad that its narrative so rigidly adheres to.

Let’s begin with gender.

A Thousand Cuts

True to Knights of the Old Republic and Bioware fashion, women are shown here in a variety of roles: smugglers, senators, spies, assassins, soldiers, officers, police officers, Jedi, Sith, and so on. Satele Shan, descendant of Bastila (a favourite Jedi character of mine from the first KoTOR game) is not only a prominent figure, but is the Grandmaster of the Jedi Order. On the surface we find nominal equality; most of the outfits in the game are fairly gender-neutral and do not suddenly reveal lots of skin when worn on a woman (there are a small number of exceptions I’ve observed thusfar).

Character customisation is also fascinating- you can actually select your body type. From waif, to curvy, to tall and huskily built with muscles, women are given a wider range of body types to choose from than we normally find in such games. Men, similarly, can be skinnier and lither than I’ve often seen them in any video game, another applaudable first for players of male characters who prefer to not be built like a house.

But it is here where the downsides begin, as well. “Curvy” is as far as the slider allows you to go as a woman, while men can cultivate more prodigious girth. Beyond this, we find a range of problems in portrayal of a small sort that begin to add up. As an Imperial Agent you encounter a man who threatens to blow your cover. There are a few ways you can deal with him but one is distinctly gendered- a man Agent can threaten or intimidate him, but if you’re a woman Agent that option is replaced by flirtation/sleeping with him. Meanwhile, Sith Warriors get a companion, Vette, a former slave who comes complete with a shock collar. You can actually use the shock collar to break her. (In a prior version of this article I had said that you could actually shock her into “loving” your character; mercifully this turned out to be untrue and I have since corrected the matter.) To my knowledge this is not possible with male companions- although male slaves do abound in the game as well. The treatment of Twi’lek women- who are most visible in TOR as scantily clad dancers and titillating holograms or neon ads- in Star Wars is a rather interesting topic for another time.

Satele Shan, a dark haired, light skinned woman wearing an earth toned and gold trimmed suit without sleeves.

In my article “The Twenty Millennia Decade” I discussed Star Wars’ unnerving tendency to default to inexplicable patriarchy. TOR persists in this. As a woman Republic Trooper you find people stunned to find a woman in such a position; you can tell them off quite successfully but the fact that this is even positioned as remarkable is very questionable. Yet again we’re talking about a high civilisation, cosmopolitan in the extreme, with many millennia of history. But it’s still exceptional for a woman to be a soldier?

What Bioware actually excels in is presenting a very proto-feminist vision of women’s participation in society where we are shown to be potentially competent at everything but still somewhat tokenised, still just so happening to be fewer in number than our male counterparts. Bioware is good at providing a few feel-good storylines where your woman character or some NPCs overcome misogyny. Wonderful,yes, and I approve of that.  But there is a greater issue beyond this: why is the first principle of presumptive patriarchy itself never questioned?

On a related note, this was the game, one should recall, that a Bioware representative once infamously remarked “had no gays.” This remains borne out. Just as you see in Skyrim, where heterosexuality is completely universal, TOR presents not even one queer relationship, implied or otherwise. For the player, queer relationships have been promised in a future patch, via new companions, but this again feels tokenising. There is no reason the existing companions cannot be queer. Bioware is often lauded, with some justice, as a progressive developer. But this is as much a function of how terrible other developers are as it is a function of Bioware’s own innate liberalism.

People of colour are portrayed well enough, and visibly, and women of colour are included in this- as companions as well as other NPCs. Further, I would even go so far as to say that sex work is portrayed in a somewhat more realistic way here. One quest on Coruscant has you helping a woman who chose to do sex work escape a jealous and abusive boyfriend. But again, presumed patriarchy, etc. etc. The portrayal of women in this game is, overall, reasonably positive if undermined by periodic nonsense that can- depending on how you feel about these things- add up over time. Woman is a way of being human here, except they are straining against an unmarked patriarchy.

Attack of the Clone

Right down to Force spells, rotations, and general feel, this game is a clear analogue of WoW, more than any other MMO I’ve played– which is saying a fair bit as most tend to hew close to the market leader’s form these days. This is not necessarily a demerit, however. WoW’s structure is, in some ways, worth emulating and building on. I have, for now, found it to be a familiar and welcoming style of gameplay that- at last- gives me access to a KotOR with real time combat. I love the play style of my Jedi Consular, the lore that surrounds the class, and the specialisation system that gives each class a wide array of play styles.

If the class abilities and general rhythm of the game (go out, quest, loot, turn in quests, sell swag on the auction house and do crafting) mirror WoW to a T, what TOR is proving to excel at is building on this structure in a few interesting ways. In addition to pantomiming WoW’s successes, it also borrows something brilliant from Lord of the Rings Online: a main quest storyline. Unlike LoTRO, however, the main quest is different for each class. Divided into “Acts,” this storyline system deepens LotRO’s innovation and gives each class a truly unique feel that, in my mind at least, provides a springboard for roleplaying.

Class quests are a double edged sword in this regard. For RP purposes it can be hard to sustain the self-aggrandising plot points in each quest. My Jedi Consular is the only Jedi in the galaxy with a certain power- well, her and every other Consular. On the other hand, used creatively the quests can still lend structure to a dedicated RPer’s character, and can also help situate them in the Old Republic world.

Others have commented that TOR is WoW-meets-Knights of the Old Republic. A WoW-like questing/levelling structure with a KoTOR-like dialogue and morality system. This is, so far as I have seen, very true. On a personal level, I like it. It provides depth, and in borrowing from Bioware’s own pioneering Mass Effect dialogue system, it gives a voice to your character. But it also gives a voice to the game itself, a distinct vibe that takes it past its predecessors and comprises the best example of Bioware’s unique imprint.

Furthermore, companions- in addition to being fleshed out characters- are the nexus of crafting, in a wonderfully innovative system that lends much needed texture and granularity to that WoW-rhythm. While I’m doing game-related chores, I can send my companion off on some mission for a small sum of credits that fetches crafting materials of some kind and raises my crafting skills. The crafts themselves- riotously diverse, from Archaeology to Diplomacy to Underworld Trading- provide players with amusing little diversions and multiple paths to crafted goods. Each player also gets their own spaceship, and I credit the developers with giving each (they are apportioned by class, again) a unique and creative feel.

In the spirit of the game’s contradictions, it is a painfully obvious clone of WoW, but one that then distinguishes itself:  not just from WoW, but from every other MMO I’ve seen thusfar. The spaceship, related space combat quests, companion system, and even ‘small’ details like the beauty of the Galaxy Map aboard your ship set to a lovely orchestral theme, the dialogue system, all serve to not only distinguish TOR from its competitors but positively create an atmosphere that can be said to be distinctly TOR. The game has a lot of potential to make its own unique je ne sais quois, an issue many MMOs struggle with. When I did my first space mission, adapting to admittedly loose controls, I felt I’d finally found where The Old Republic truly stands. It touches that precious commodity of uniqueness and holds tight here.

Nar Shaddaa- reminds me a lot of home, actually. A city of permanently lit skyscrapers thronged together, illuminated by a polychromatic melange of adverts and spotlights barely veiled by an evening mist- what's not to like?

Space. Spaaaaaace!

But there is one area where I wish TOR had imitated WoW more assiduously: space. World of Warcraft presents a contiguous world where not every square inch of space is given over to questing and combat. There are lovely little areas that seem almost made for roleplay, that are designed purely for the beauty of it, to lend verisimilitude and breathing space to the world. TOR, thusfar, lacks these. It continues the tradition of making city-worlds like Coruscant feel maddeningly small. TOR is highly utilitarian when it comes to space, providing a small staging area that foregrounds a field of enemies overpopulating space where other kinds of social interaction could occur.

I should emphasise, however, that it is nowhere near as bad as Warhammer was in this respect, with practically the only settlements worth speaking of being the capitals of each faction. TOR does at least have some places to sit down, as it were, and your spaceship itself could be the setting of any number of personally-driven adventures.

It will be interesting to observe, over time, what players will make of their space here in the Star Wars galaxy. Haunts appear to be emerging on the Republic/Imperial fleets- beautifully designed midway points on your intergalactic travel- where there seems to be more room for social space. The spaceports are also breathtaking: it’s hard not to imagine Taris’s eventually hosting more than one guild event.

On the question of beauty, the game can often be breathtaking. It’s just a pity more of it isn’t given to the players’ whims- roleplay and otherwise. But can the game, nevertheless, do a better job of encouraging RP than World of Warcraft or Warhammer? It has that potential, not least in regards to the fact that the class quests provide an excellent skeleton from which you can build a character and a backstory. This marks an intriguing trend in MMOs that I will be discussing more thoroughly in regards to Guild Wars 2: giving your character an actual character via the game design itself. This development heralds, I think, the desire to take the “RP” in MMORPG more seriously than we’ve yet seen. I can hardly say I disapprove.

If nothing else, it provides that much more opportunity for me to be the character I want to see in games like this. Can these new innovations in class-based storylines provide players with more avenues of RP-based resistance? I’m excited to try and find out.

Conclusion

This is, if nothing else, a well oiled, well-functioning game that betrays stunningly few bugs and technical flaws. A remarkable achievement so soon out the gate. The gameplay can become grindy and repetitive, and too much space is lent to level-appropriate combat zones. But the game retains the promise contained in all KotOR games: capturing the spirit of Star Wars in a way George Lucas no longer seems able to. TOR provides, from the start, a fun experience that- so long as one does not completely hate the WoW/EQ structure- should provide at least some worthy diversion. Does it have staying power? It’s too early to say. It may yet degenerate into an overly-expanded raiding game, but for now at least the game seems to have a bright future.

What continues to bother me the most in this polished behemoth is the way gender is portrayed in various, small ways. They come close to realising a post-patriarchal gender order, but ultimately seem to opt for a cliched pantomime of our own world. It’s rather unbecoming of a game like The Old Republic, the sweep of whose ambition is as vast as the galaxy it’s set in. Indeed, TOR represents one of the most significant contenders in the MMO-scape to date, and knowing that such games are built to grow it makes TOR’s present, fairly well polished state all the more impressive. It is my hope that it only becomes moreso, and that it takes women and queer people onwards and upwards with it.

A beautiful Skyrim town with a castle towering in the distance

To the Ends of the Earth: A Review of Elder Scrolls V- Skyrim

My character, Serena, looking out from her balcony in the city of Solitude. Dark eyes, dark lipstick, dark mage's clothing- but a sunny personality!

You could say I found my womanhood on the island of Vvardenfell.

My life has been, in many ways, a master class education in the fact that games are never “just games.” You see, the setting of Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was a key site of my life and my evolution as a transgender woman. In some real ways, my transition began with the realisation that I preferred playing as women in life sims like this. Morrowind’s beautiful, amazing open world was where I learned more about myself than I imagined, as I adventured again and again as a claymore wielding woman bedecked in armour. The world of Tamriel taught me things about myself too numerous to list here. Needless to say, I owe it much and it has a rather special place in my heart, even for its occasional failings.

With that powerful history in mind, I gleefully turned from the eastern realms of Morrowind to the snowswept north, the province of Skyrim, home of the Nord people. This is, at last, a worthy heir to the legacy set forth by Morrowind. 2006‘s Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, unfortunately, did not meet this standard in my eyes. But Skyrim, at long last, meets the very high bar set by Morrowind.

We should begin by talking about how cities and towns speak to the spirit of a game like this.

The Death and Life of Great Tamrielic Cities

Oblivion’s greatest failing was that it lent no soul to its setting: the province of Cyrodiil, the scintilliant heart of Tamriel’s Romanesque Empire. Instead, the Imperial City felt like a large town set in marble. The province itself felt, well, provincial as opposed to cosmopolitan. The expectations set by the numerous in-game books in Morrowind that glowingly described Cyrodiil came to nothing, in the end. Yet, even excepting the size of the cities and towns, their lifeless geometric placement on the map, and their lack of grandeur, there was the soullessness best expressed by the vacant, uncanny valley stares of most of the game’s NPCs.

What Skyrim shows is something that Morrowind should have taught us all too well: Bethesda captures the frontier far better than the metropole. Morrowind’s setting on the island of Vvardenfell was at the very periphery of the Empire’s reach and that fact showed itself beautifully. Skyrim is set in a different periphery but a periphery all the same: a world of the wilds with cloudcapped peaks, vast valleys still fully given over to nature, and rifts hewn over millennia of geological evolution. The sense of being at the edge of the world is pervasive sometimes. It feels real, in other words. You feel as if you stand on a world where things have happened and where things are going to happen- a far cry from Oblivion where there was no ‘there’ there.

A beautiful Skyrim town with a castle towering in the distance.

This is a province with cities that are not vast, but whose dense size is a better fit for the harsh wintry climate, as if the buildings themselves huddle for warmth. Solitude, the Imperial capital of the province, is built on an amazing rock formation that, as the loading screen reminds you, provides a natural shelter for its harbour against the powerful northern winds. That may seem small, yet it’s a master stroke that Oblivion glaringly lacked. Cities and towns in Skyrim make sense. They are located near resources, near trading lanes, on defensible land or on terrain that provides some other benefit. In other words, cities feel both planned and organic in the way that many real life settlements do. Morrowind had this feeling in spades. Oblivion had a pentagon of towns around the capital.

I dwell so much on these intangibles because they are what make giving over so much of your time to play such a worthwhile affair; they lend the world a sense of reality that enhances the simulation and makes the world simply more fun to run around in. Around each bend is unique terrain that feels less shaped by human hands and more by the forces of wind, erosion, and time.

Everything that needs to be said about this can be said via a comparison of the maps: MorrowindOblivionSkyrim. Skyrim’s map may lack the detail of Vvardenfell’s but it does capture a more realistic and detailed world.

But what of the meat itself?

Woman as a Way of Being Human

Much has been made of the fact that your character is a Dragonborn, a humanoid with dragon blood that gives them the power to use the Voice; words of power that channel great magic. Hence every last one of your friends randomly going FUS ROH DAH! every five minutes. This has become the game’s signature, and as a mechanic it works remarkably well. It adds a layer of reward to the game- you find each word of power carved into walls with other Draconic speech; the ‘learning’ takes place via a beautiful animation set to a chorus that never quite gets old.

Legate Rikke, a stern faced woman wearing Roman-inspired iron armour, exercising her right to bare arms and standing before the red and gold banner of the Empire she serves.

But what makes Elder Scrolls games a breed apart is that the main quest isn’t the only game in town. Skyrim is replete with quests, many of which are stunningly interesting, others more mundane RPG fare that nevertheless can’t help but to take you somewhere pretty. One of my favourite quests early on is helping a single mother and shopkeeper with a problem she’s having: a male bard with an entitlement complex (he even wrote the book on ‘romancing women’ in his particular town) has been pursuing her aggressively despite her continually saying ‘no.’ Your job is to make it clear to him that she doesn’t need a man to get by.

There are literally scores of quests that have this flavouring element to the world, that breathe life into characters.

On that note it’s worth discussing the women of Skyrim at length. There are strong women and weak women; good women, evil women, and everyone in between; women of faith and women of the arcane; vampire women and werewolf women; women in power and women barely getting by; women fighting for the Empire and women fighting in the Stormcloak rebellion that stands in opposition to it; a sharp tongued wizard with a beautifully eloquent darkness about her, and an absent minded professor wizard who lives for magical theory; women who are starstruck romantics, and women who need no man.

In a word, they are human.

What a concept.

There is never room for a lone woman to become a representative archetype as, say, an evil or seductive deceiver simply because there are so many diverse women. The game forces you to stare women’s humanity in the face by lending us as many motivations and personalities as the game’s men.

The very first Imperial captain you come across is a dark skinned woman; countless more women who fight and/or are in positions of power and authority abound in the game. You find women who are most at home with an axe, men who are most at home with a poem, and interestingly a lot of people who are quite at ease with both. Women are not there purely for display while the men do all the thinking and talking. In Solitude, a Nord lieutenant, Legate Rikke, is just as at-ease hunched over a strategy map as her male colleagues.

A woman rocking out with her lute out. In the hearth lit, stone hewn tavern she sings "We drink to our youth, to days come and gone. For the age of aggression is just about done."

The game’s narrative also presents you with political complexity. A volcanic eruption in the neighbouring province of Morrowind set thousands of the native Dark Elves on the long road to other lands in search of greener pastures. Many came to Skyrim where they ended up staying despite the often as not racist reception of the Nords. One book in the game reads like a right wing screed, bemoaning the Dark Elves’ “failure to assimilate” and blaming them for “choosing” to live in ghettos. It all sounds rather familiar and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Bethesda is making some interesting political commentary here. Indeed, this issue is at the heart of the complications that beset your choice to side with the Empire or the Stormcloaks at the beginning of the game.

The Stormcloaks are freedom fighters who seek independence for Skyrim, and yet they are very much a ‘Skyrim for the Nords’ group. The Empire, even for all of its abusive machinations, has little problem with the province’s growing racial diversity. The politics becomes even more complicated, of course, and this is yet another reason I’ve come to enjoy this game. You enter a world already enmeshed in complicated, worldly political theatre as this hero-with-a-destiny. Great events are in motion and the world bristles with gossip, arguments, and songs about it all. Some bards will sing of the Empire’s glorious preservation of order, others will sing a toast to the Stormcloaks and their eponymous leader, Ulfric Stormcloak.

Often as not, as you hear tales of woe, anger, and political ferment you sometimes doubt the side you chose. A remarkable feeling that mirrors the self-doubt that plagues real politics. This is a game that, mercifully, avoids the stark good/evil meta-themes of other high fantasy settings (not that there aren’t a few necromancers needing slaying).

The Crunchy Bits

A primal and particularly Scandinavian sort of beauty dominates this game; I can stand on a mountainside and look into the valley below knowing that I could walk every square metre of that plain. Very few games can say this and it adds a depth to the sweeping breadth of the title’s beauty. But that stylishness also infuses one part of the game’s interface that pleasantly surprised me. At the beginning of the game I lamented the loss of the ability to choose your birthsign. Those constellations were a part of the flavour of the old games, but I fully understood (and approved of) the slimming down of the array of statistics you have to manage. Skyrim’s system is both lightweight and flexible enough to accommodate several playstyles.

But the skill/level-up screen seemed to say to me “I’ll take your constellation and raise you a nebula!” Your skills are displayed as stunningly pretty constellations set in great nebulae that enshroud them under the three main aptitudes: Mage, Rogue, and Warrior.

This is, however, a classless game. You level whatever skills you choose, and unlike in previous TES titles the leveling of any skill contributes to your next level. Previously you chose ‘major’ and ‘minor’ skills from a lengthy list and only if one levelled those particular skills would it count towards your next class level. Gone is this confining system, replaced with something that leaves you more nimble with your talents than ever before. At present I’m playing a wizard with a great talent for thievery and the game fully accommodates this.

The magic system is also significantly improved. Although it remains awkward to change spells in mid combat (a Dragon Age-style system would have greatly benefitted Skyrim), you can now cast a different spell in each hand and the new ‘perks’ system (which operates similarly to WoW talents) enables greater granularity for magic. Dual casting fireball, for example, has a staggering effect which a single-handed cast of the spell will lack. There’s quite a lot to love here.

All that’s missing are Celtic bagpipes in the soundtrack, really. But the soundtrack the game does have is still amazing, and it resurrects almost note for note some of Morrowind’s old themes. Music that had become so synonymous with adventure for me that I sometimes ran the tracks in the background of other RPGs I played when I tired of their more droll music.

See if you can spot the dragon some miles in the distance. Beneath an overcast sky Serena's standing on a mountain pass here looking down into a foggy, rocky valley sprinkled with coniferous trees. Every inch of the land in the distance can be explored.

Skyrim is that rarest of games that fully realises the grand sweep of its ambition. The forbidding and harsh beauty of this hardened land is vivid and alive, the people feel more real, and in a vast improvement over Oblivion the spoken dialogue is extremely well done. The landscape is dotted with signs of life, even in this frontier land that is quite far from the (supposedly) glittering centre of the Empire. One finds mills with water wheels and windmills turning, farms with livestock, bandit encampments, small cottages and tiny hamlets mixed in with towns of various sizes, and occasional passersby. There is too much to tell, in many ways. The subplot quests for organisations like the Thieves’ Guild are massive undertakings all on their own which could easily be turned into (good) fantasy movies. You can marry someone of the same sex in Skyrim. You can look at a strategy map on a table and ‘use’ each pin on it to learn a location for your game map. The Dwemer ruins, in all their steampunk glory, are back. On and on it goes.

My greatest hope for this game is not that it becomes Game of the Year. That’s assured. But rather the hope that for some young child out there it plays the same role that Morrowind did in my own life: kicking open the doors of possibility and teaching, in a very real way, the all important lesson that you should be who you choose, and that you ought to be able to push headlong and succeed regardless of who you are. Morrowind was one of the first games that taught me that my sisters could kick ass. Given Skyrim’s lofty heights of achievement, I feel just as assured that it will teach a whole new generation of young people the same thing.

Inclusivity Review: Dragon Age 2

If you have any interest in BioWare’s Dragon Age 2 (and I realize many don’t, after many missteps by both BioWare and EA in this franchise and others), you’ve likely heard the bad by now: entire levels are used over and over to an annoying degree, combat has changed (which will bring people down on either side of the issue–I enjoyed the changes), etc. This review is more in the line of NonCon’s review of Radiant Historia, then, covering aspects other reviews will miss or gloss over in an attempt to only discuss gameplay.

Originally I was going to write this with a frame review in mind, checking my own privilege and examining the game in such a way. As I played the game, that approach started becoming too unwieldy to attempt, however. This review will include spoilers.

Flemeth, right, looks at Zel Hawke. The former is an elderly white woman whose hair is up in horns, and is wearing a studded leather chestpiece that inexplicably has a v-cut to show cleavage. Zel Hawke is a white man in his twenties, wearing a sleeveless, leather chest piece, and has auburn hair with a wind-blown look; tattoo markings are on his cheeks.

Flemeth, right, looks at Zel Hawke. The former is an elderly white woman whose hair is up in horns, and is wearing a studded leather chestpiece that inexplicably has a v-cut to show cleavage. Zel Hawke is a white man in his twenties, wearing a sleeveless, leather chest piece, and has auburn hair with a wind-blown look; tattoo markings are on his cheeks.

To start, I will claim I enjoyed Dragon Age 2, but that does not mean I ignored the areas in which it has problems. There were also moments that made me incredibly happy (such as realizing all the four main love interests were available regardless of the sex I chose to play–a point I’ll address again later). Most of these issues are not ones I will cover in much depth, as they likely need their own posts; I did want to make people aware of them, however.

Trigger warnings for: poor handling of issues with regards to mental disabilities (including violence by and exercised against such people), monosexism as exhibited by players, and oppression of entire peoples; the discussion will also cover sexuality and race.

Ronia Hawke, a black woman with her hair pulled back, stands right as she speak to her sister, Bethany, and brother, Carver. Both have her skin tone, and hair color.

Ronia Hawke, a black woman with her hair pulled back, stands right, her back to us, as she speaks to her sister, Bethany, and brother, Carver. Both have her skin tone, and hair color. The text reads, "Then let's go. Lead on."

Race

Allegra covered the whitewashing of the Champion of Kirkwall already. It remains in game, not just the demo. I can confirm that family members, including the uncle, change when you create a non-white Hawke. The reason the two siblings have black hair, for instance, is to allow for such diversity. The matter is not one of just swapping their skin color, but also changing their faces and hairstyles. I tried this two times, with a black Lady Hawke, and a Latin male Hawke. The results can be seen in some of the screenshots both above and below this paragraph.

Redgren Hawke, a dark-complexioned man with leather armor and white hair and vandyke facial hair. His brother stands to the right, with hair that is black and faintly dread-like. His mother, whose white hair is meant to indicate her age, covers her hands. Bethany stands left, with a black-haired pixie cut.

Redgren Hawke, a dark-complexioned man with leather armor and white hair and vandyke facial hair. His brother stands to the right, with hair that is black and faintly dread-like. His mother, whose white hair is meant to indicate her age, covers her hands. Bethany stands left, with a black-haired pixie cut.

The character creator itself is slightly better than in Origins. It is no longer the case that darker toned characters just look like tanned white people. The options are still not as robust as I would like, so it’s a step forward, but needs more work. The hair options are indicative of gaming as a whole (more directly, they’re weak), which deserves a post on its own. The specific facial features are also limiting (specifically in my mind are the options for eyes).

Kirkwall has people that are not white. The darker skin tones are actually used more often than they were in Origins, though rarely is the darkest used, from what I saw. The people are predominantly white, but as a city that is supposed to also be a accessible via sea, it has some more diversity than Fereldan and Denerim did. In the case of one of your companions, Isabela, it is difficult to say. She is darker in skin tone than most of your other companions, and her treatment by marketing is somewhat worrisome.

Isabela hails from Rivain, which, from talks with her, seems to reference the culture of the Sinti and/or Romani (the game doesn’t go into much detail, so it’s difficult to ascertain). This is the impression I received from both her character design and the references to a darker-skinned people who believed in seers (or hedge witches), which is a cultural stereotype of those two cultures–particularly in fantasy. In the first game, her model appears lighter skinned than in the sequel, but both the lighting in The Pearl, as well as the inaccurate skin tones of that character creator make it hard to clearly distinguish the intent behind her character.

Isabela was used in marketing the game. Both Bitch Magazine and Glamgeekgirl have handled the issue of her ads. In the former, we realize that while she is darker skinned in the game, the marketing lightens her skin considerably. Tied with Glamgirlgeek’s pointing out of the sexist German ad that uses her as an object to sell the game, it becomes increasingly obvious that her skin was lightened so that she would be ‘sexier’ to some notion of a  ’target audience.’ This is not new in advertising, sadly, but it is disappointing that instead of focusing on advertising diversity, they downplayed that in both reducing Isabela’s character to a sex toy rather than as a sexually-assertive and confident woman and whitewashing her for ads.

Zel Hawke in a furred, spiky armor set look down at Anders, a white male mage with blond hair. Anders looks off right.

Zel Hawke in a furred, spiky armor set look down at Anders, a white male mage with blond hair. Anders looks off right.

Sexuality

There are four romance options in the base game, and The Exiled Prince DLC offers one more, albeit a chaste romance. Excepting the DLC character Sebastian, all romance options are open to either a male or female Hawke.

I have only experienced one romance as yet, that with Anders, the Grey Warden mage, as a male Hawke and it pleased me. He references a previous same-sex relationship, and while approaching him with flirting in mind, he will stop you and ask if it bothers you that he’s been in a previous relationship as such. This serves as a buffer to any who might complain they ‘accidentally’ fell into a relationship with him, as well as providing context for his character. Anders appeared in the expansion for Origins, and many have argued he never showed an interest in men in the previous game (as if that is in indication of one’s interests).

The fan reaction has been mixed. I have seen people of all sexualities claim this is ‘unrealistic.’ There is the claim that it is ‘lazy,’ but as BioWare has clearly stated, they will not have a same-sex only option. For someone who does call himself gay, this was a compromise I was willing to accept, as it opened up the majority of the the romances to everyone. Much of the debate has derailed into monosexist trains of thought, claiming that it’s impossible for that many people who happen to travel together to be bisexual, or at least open to such. Personally, I do not find it so odd at all, especially as this ignores that both Aveline and Sebastian are clearly shown as heterosexual.

In the case of two of the characters, Merrill and Fenris, their sexualities seem to not be as clear-cut. Anders and Isabela both have clear histories that indicate they are bisexual, but the two elves don’t discuss their past romances or sex lives much at all. Therefore, their sexuality is a bit more subjective in how you play and interpret it. I do not wish to indicate this erases them as bisexual characters, but that this aspect of their lives is not as clearly indicated within the context of a single playthrough of the game.

There is a brothel again this time, and the options do not include the same trans* issues the first game had. There is a range of options, with effeminate men, women who are assertive, women who are bored, men who are gruff, and such. Some of these fall into the stereotypes of the butch male dwarf and effete male elf.

Author’s Edit: Something that occurred to me after this published. I was disappointed when I discovered that stripping my male Hawke of his armor merely placed him in pin-striped pants without a top. Doing the same with Lady Hawke put her in panties and a bra. While much guffawing was done over the awkwardness of the undergarments in Origins, this approach to it seemed a slap in the face.

An image of Kirkwall, black in the distance, with yellow and orange figures grasping their face, clearly in despair. This is during a discussion of the history of slavery in Kirkwall.

An image of Kirkwall, black in the distance, with yellow and orange figures grasping their face, clearly in despair. This is during a discussion of the history of slavery in Kirkwall.

Oppression & Xenophobia

As in Origins, there is slavery, there is the oppression of the elves who live in the ghettos known as the Alienage, the subjugation of mages, and a mixture of xenophobia mixed with intolerance of other religions as exhibited toward the Qunari. These all exist in varying degrees, and the first thing I noticed were the discussions Anders and Fenris had regarding how the oppression of mages was similar to how elves were treated: both stem from the Andrastian religion. It seems to broach intersectionality and fighting against a dominant culture, while showing how minorities can be ignorant of how divisive such a culture can be, further empowering oppression.

Fenris’s own story is that of a former slave whose tattoos were seared into his flesh with lyrium by his former master. His story line does a lot to confront his own feelings, which have placed an understandable hatred for his Danarius, the Tevinter mage who owned and mutilated him. Hawke has the ability to guide him through a process where he forges a new life and/or to directly confront the injustices done to him. Of course, in this game, confrontation means killing Danarius.

The city of Kirkwall has a history of slavery, and while that is addressed in the codices, it seems to only serve as a backdrop in which one can comment on it, or notice how the refugees from Fereldan are treated with disdain. Hawke has a few options to help her fellow refugees when she improves her own status, but it’s not really seen in any measurable effect (in my playthrough of the game so far). In fact, convincing miners to continue going back to a mine so that you can eventually fight the high dragon that will be there results in them all being slaughtered.

The Alienage is not as well explored as in Origins, though issues of interracial relationships are broached a bit more, albeit through one side quest where the question of where a person of mixed races can find acceptance. When elves and humans mate, the child always ends up as human. That oppression is not really addressed,  instead the game focuses on the subjugation of mages (which reads to me as a parallel to the criminalization of  homosexuality in various cultures and decades, but I have a whole post in mind about that as well).

The option does exist to completely eradicate Merrill’s entire Dalish village, which somewhat bothered me, but the quest in which it takes place is complicated with the aforementioned issue of intersectionality, and an ignorance or distrust of certain means (in this case, blood magic, which does not have to equate with being evil, though it does seem that way quite often). The other option is to accept responsibility for Merrill’s actions, and thus be banned from visiting her clan again. The situation requires a more thorough examination than I can provide as of now.

The Qunari’s design has changed so that they are now horned and have a more light-purple/chalky hue to their skin. As they were the only race in Origins who seemed to be non-white by default, this has been a concern of mine for a while. They seem loosely based on the old Ottoman Empire, especially in both their cultural and religious clashes with the rest of Andrastian Thedas (which reads as Christianity). Qunari society is clearly sexist, they devalue individualism (their names are merely their station in life, such as Sten), and they believe in honor given through roles and fulfillment of such.

The second act of the game is dealing with the political tensions of their continued stay in Kirkwall. This can eventually result in one of four ways of dealing with the tension. If Isabela returns the book she stole from them (which she may not do, as she may run off with it), you can either give her up to them and let them leave with her as their prisoner (you later find out she escapes anyway), or fight them for Isabela’s honor. Isabela scoffs at this and demands fighting for her own honor, which the Arishok, the Qunari leader, says is unacceptable, as she is not seen as worthy. If the book is not returned, one has to either duel the Arishok one on one, in accordance to his view of honor, or bring in your entire party to fight.

The entire situation could clearly use a lot more explication and exploration for someone better versed in the such cultural conflicts, especially as it covers both religious and cultural issues. I feel it should be noted the Qunari are constantly portrayed as more technologically advanced than the rest of Thedas, but more adamant about their opposition to magic. A mixed bag from my, admittedly limited, standpoint.

The title screen for Dragon Age 2. Orsino, the elven First Enchanter mage stands left with a staff which sports three dragon heads. Meredith, the Knight Commander of the Templars, stands right, with her sword drawn, and a shield in her left hand.

The title screen for Dragon Age 2, which uses a painting/carving aesthetic. Orsino, the elven First Enchanter mage stands left with a staff which sports three dragon heads. Meredith, the Knight Commander of the Templars, stands right, with her sword drawn, and a shield in her left hand.

Mental Disabilities

The game has a number of persons who are violently insane. Outside of Sandal, who returns from Origins, I did not really find any other instances of people with mental health issues portrayed in anything that could be considered a positive light (and Sandal is up for debate–I cannot speak to it closely).

At one point Hawke is asked to apprehend a criminal hiding in the outskirts of Kirkwall. Going there will reveal the criminal is a man who is a serial killer of elven girls. Talking to him reveals a man who hears voices, considered them demons, was told they were not by mages, and refuses to believe he is anything but plagued by demons (which should sound familiar in our own ways of communicating about issues concerning sanity). The way to deal with him is to either kill him (he begs to be killed) or return him to the authorities. There is no option for actually helping him, beyond hiding him away so his politically engaged father can continue his career, or outright killing him. His begging to be killed speaks to larger issues of our society not willing to  make room that allows many other options.

Toward the end of the second act, Hawke’s mother is abducted by a serial killer whom the player has been tracking since the first act. He has been recreating his wife, and animated her using blood magic. Hawke’s mother has the face of the man’s deceased wife. Again, the only way to deal with him is to kill him.

Again, during the same act, Varric has a personal quest that involves finding his brother, who abandoned Varric and Hawke to die in the Deep Roads. He has gone violently crazy as well, though his is the result of an item he picked up in the Deep Roads. Quite honestly, the ‘item of power makes person lose sanity’ trope is tired and as it usually results in violence from both the person who has the item, as well as to stop the violence, it is really growing problematic.

The same item is then given to Meredith, the game’s end antagonist. Her reasoning for ending up as the antagonist is perfectly reasonable in the game’s plot–as a Templar of the Chantry, she wishes to provide security at the cost of mages’ freedom. Instead of continuing that thread, she has bought the item that Varric’s brother had, forged it into a sword, and she is actually insane, which is apparently what informs her decisions. It is a Chekov’s gun that never needed to be in place, and it casts her in a final villainous light not because of her actions (which, again, could be done without resorting to her having to be insane), but because of the supposed illness that has now affected her. It was a poorly implemented plot decision that undercut both the story, as well as being ignorant toward actual issues with mental disabilities.

End

These are just the issues I have seen in my first playthrough, which lasted fifty-eight hours. Naturally, I could have missed some issues due to not seeing them, as well as being ignorant due to my own privileges. Therefore, I’d like to ask of others to speak up about other issues they have seen handled positively, negatively, or perhaps in an ambivalent manner.

Reviewing Inclusiveness – Radiant Historia

I think I want to try a different kind of review. I want to review how progressive a particular game is, and that alone. I could do a full review, but there are plenty of other places where you can read about the story, the music, the graphics, the gameplay, etc. The Border House is about inclusiveness and progressiveness, so that’s what I’m going to judge. First up on the list? Radiant Historia, which is fresh enough in my mind that I can accurately talk about it, and also gives me some talking points. Some spoilers, but I’ll be as vague as I possibly can be when discussing them.

A man in red armed with a shield in the foreground, alongside a woman and a shorter man, both with surprised looks on their faces. In the background, there are partial images of a heavily armored man with a spear, a blond woman with earrings, a young girl with pointed ears, and a man with a white beard.

 

The Good

  • While a woman does die in the very beginning of the game, a man dies in the same incident alongside her. Stocke, the main character, would have also died were it not for plot happening. There are a couple of good character deaths later on, but they happen to men.
  • Raynie, the first woman in your party, starts off as a more fighter based character and wields a spear, the same weapon type that the strongest physical character in the game uses. She also gets to use the same heavy armor that the protagonist and the strongest physical attacker use. In contrast, the first man in your party who isn’t the protagonist, Marco, starts off as your healer.
  • While Stocke does try to discourage some of the women in the game from accompanying him on his quest, it’s never about their gender. In these instances, it is about either the political importance of the character or the character’s age. Additionally, every time it comes up he concedes and allows them to come with. His reasoning for not wanting people with him is also established early on. In fact, I can’t recall any lines that equated fighting ability to a particular gender, though it’s possible a few slipped by me.
  • Every woman in your party isn’t a potential love interest. This is kind of an obvious thing, but far too often jRPGs have every woman fighting over the main character, while wRPGs let male characters romance every woman. Having women who have romances with other characters, or reasons for not romancing the main character, is nice.
  • The most useful party member in the entire game is the little girl, easily doing double the damage or more than any of the other party members, regardless of the gender of those characters.
  • One of the women in the game, Field Marshal Viola, is described as being one of the toughest people in the military, as well as being very charismatic and skilled at battlefield tactics. From what I recall, she’s also not primarily a caster, instead wielding a sword, however she’s never in your party so I honestly can’t say one way or the other for sure.

 

The Bad

  • The armor type for the princess is a dress based on the in-game text, and an ornately armored blouse based on the character art. The former is bad because this character is involved in combat, she can buy some pants or something more suited to fighting. The latter would be pretty cool, but is instead just awful because her legs aren’t remotely protected. I can’t even tell if she’s wearing leggings or not, though I assume she is. Raynie’s outfit is a bit revealing as well, but not quite that bad. Granted, in both examples you can’t really see it in the in-game character portraits, but it’s still ridiculous.

 

Woman in an ornate, armored blouse wielding what appears to be a flintlock rifle. She wears a cap, and boots, but her legs are almost completely visible, though she seems to have some somewhat opaque leggings on.

  • The women who aren’t Raynie are the primary damage dealing casters of the game, and one of them is also the best healer in the game. Raynie eventually becomes more of a caster, but isn’t as good at it as the more feminine women in your party. At the same time, her physical abilities aren’t as good as two of the masculine men in your party. She falls into a kinda-sorta-useful middle ground. To be fair, Marco eventually becomes a similar character, as he gets a couple physical abilities, but that hardly excuses it.
  • Most all of the antagonists are men, and the woman antagonist is never fought directly. You defeat her by defeating her (male) soldiers.
  • Every character that is not the King of Cygnus is white. This could be explained on the basis that the country you start in is Europe based, while Cygnus is supposed to be a desert country, but since the king is the only one with a character portrait I can’t really judge whether that’s the case or not. If I can’t tell, I’m not going to try to excuse it.
  • Unsurprisingly, there are no bi, gay, or transgender characters.
  • The epilogue has one woman waiting for the man she loves to return home safe and sound. It’s the sort of cliché “I’ll wait as long as it takes,” nonsense you’d expect of such a plot element.
  • The closest thing to a non-dominant race of people is, as usual, anthropomorphic and laden with the standard “tribal” themes, like some members of the race being shamans and all the villages being in forests or jungles. (Other example to prove my point: Warcraft)

There’s some good and some bad about Radiant Historia. Judging its progressiveness/inclusiveness it wouldn’t be hard to name games that do better, but at the same time it’s even easier to name games that do worse, especially within that particular genre. It’s a mixed bag, but for the genre I’d say it does more right than I expected. I came away from the experience more or less happy with this aspect of the game, though the more critical will (rightfully) find much at fault with the problems I listed.