We try our best to keep things positive, but Tim screws it up in the home stretch. The topic is "New RPG's We (Mostly) Love" and that means Dragon Quest IX, Etrian Odyssey III, Puzzle Quest 2, and DeathSpank. Guess which one we don't love! Plus we premiere a new segment: "Quote of the Week." With Chi Kong Lui, Brad Gallaway, Mike Bracken, and Tim "Spahnk" Spaeth.
Tim Spaeth: How did you spend your summer vacation? We spent ours with role-playing games, because we're cool and awesome. On this week's show, we have Dragon Quest IX, Puzzle Quest II, Ron Gilbert's DeathSpank and a pre-release look at Etrian Odyssey III. All that, plus our quote of the week. It's July 22, 2010. My name is Tim Spaeth, and this is the GameCritics.com podcast.
For the 37th time, it's the world's most beloved podcast as voted on by our families: the GameCritics.com podcast. This week we're talking about some of the hottest, sexiest RPGs on store shelves right now. Let's meet the crew who will be talking about them. Chi Kong Lui, he's the GameCritics owner and founder. What's up, Chi?
Chi Kong Lui: Hey, Tim. How's it going?
Tim Spaeth: Great to be back with you. It's been…three weeks? Three weeks.
Chi Kong Lui: Too long, my friend.
Tim Spaeth: Too long. Yes, indeed. Brad Gallaway is the GameCritics senior editor. What's the haps, B-factor?
Brad Gallaway: Hey, guys. What's going down?
Tim Spaeth: Changed the way I talk in the last three weeks. It's one of many changes you'll be seeing this week. Mike Bracken is the horror geek and the senior editor of looking good. Mike.
Mike Bracken: Yes, I am.
Tim Spaeth: Tell it like it is, brother.
Mike Bracken: All right. Good evening, everyone. Happy to be here on the 37th show, since I'm 37 years old. I got nothing else.
Chi Kong Lui: Nice.
Brad Gallaway: That was a good bit of synchronicity there, though.
Mike Bracken: Wasn't it? Yeah. It's like everything's coming together this week. This is going to be the most amazing show ever.
Tim Spaeth: Numerology ahoy! I love it.
Chi Kong Lui: Putting pressure on us already.
Mike Bracken: Yes.
Tim Spaeth: Actually, I have a birthday coming up in a few days. I'm narrowly behind you, Mike.
Mike Bracken: Aww.
Tim Spaeth: I'll almost be where you are.
Mike Bracken: What day is your birthday?
Tim Spaeth: It's the 20th. July 20th.
Mike Bracken: My dad's is the 23rd. Well, I'll be 38 in October, so you'll only be close for a little bit.
Tim Spaeth: Very well. So I won't be too depressed, then. Well, look, I mentioned RPGs—hot, sexy RPGs. Let me throw some names out: How about Dragon Quest IX, huh? Huh? How about Etrian Odyssey III. Puzzle Quest II? How about DeathSpank?
Tim Spaeth: Yeah. We're going to tell you everything you need to know about all of those games. That's how we've been spending our hiatus, and we'll do that in just a moment. But first, as always, it's our quote of the week.
[Sound of cat meowing loudly]
Mike Bracken: As always.
Tim Spaeth: As always.
Brad Gallaway: As of this week, as always.
Tim Spaeth: As of this week. We've never done it before. Nevertheless, it is, starting now, as always. Now, here's how it works. Here's what this is. I am going to read a gaming-related quote. It might be from a developer; it might be from a critic; a millionaire executive; a lowly forum-poster. It's going to be something timely, something relevant, and each of us will give a rapid-fire opinion on the quote. Think of it as a warm-up, as an ice-breaker to the show to loosen us up.
Now the quote, of course, is chosen by my producer Felipe, who is bringing over a sealed envelope as we speak. Thank you, sir. I have not seen the contents of the envelope; I have no idea what is in it. [sound of envelope opening] I am opening it now.
Mike Bracken: Man, this is good radio.
Tim Spaeth: Yeah.
Chi Kong Lui: Good sound-effects going on.
Tim Spaeth: Practical. Practical, as always.
Mike Bracken: The foley work deserves an Oscar, or whatever they give radio shows.
Tim Spaeth: Here we go. Oh, my. Now, Felipe handwrote this, so forgive me if I can't read it at all, or if it's in another language. Here we are. This week's quote comes from Microsoft general manager Dave McCarthy. How many of you are familiar with Dave McCarthy?
Mike Bracken: Do not know him.
Tim Spaeth: No?
Chi Kong Lui: Nope.
Tim Spaeth: Chi?
Chi Kong Lui: Does not ring a bell.
Tim Spaeth: Brad?
Brad Gallaway: I might've had a beer with him once, although that might be a completely different Dave. It's kind of hazy.
Tim Spaeth: All right. I don't know him, either, so this should be particularly juicy for us. Here is the quotation. He says:
"When we started on this journey, we knew we were creating an entirely new genre of entertainment that would be a continually evolving concept. We're very proud of the 1 vs. 100 team and their accomplishments, and are excited to apply what we've learned to future programming."
Now, I believe this is in reference to the cancellation of the 1 vs. 100 game that was announced a few days ago on the Xbox Live Arcade. If I'm not mistaken, none of you played 1 vs. 100. Is that correct?
Mike Bracken: Correct.
Brad Gallaway: That is correct.
Chi Kong Lui: Yes.
Tim Spaeth: All right. I did, and I enjoyed it very much. So let me ask you this: Does this announcement surprise you? And: Do you think there is a future for appointment gaming, online game shows, or playing games with 100,000 people at once? I would like your opinion on the matter on any of those items. And also, could you tell me why you never tried the game? I'm going to start with Mike Bracken.
Mike Bracken: Oh, I knew it. Uh…
I'll tell you why I never tried the game. It was because I didn't have an Xbox for a long time. I honestly, being someone who was on a game show for two years, it sounded really cool to me because I'm a big trivia dork. So that was my excuse for never trying it. From what I understood, it actually was doing fairly well, so I was surprised they pulled the plug on it. I don't know if that's actually the case, or just what I had heard and was incorrect. But I'm sort of surprised about it. I don't know, though, that there's going to be a future where we're going to see a lot of things like that, where you get people together at a certain time to do this kind of huge gaming thing. But I think there's room for maybe one or two of them out there. That's just my quick take on it.
Tim Spaeth: Um-hm. Um-hm. Yeah, I had forgotten that you were an actual participant on a television game show.
Mike Bracken: Yeah.
Tim Spaeth: I just subconsciously remembered that. That's why I went to you first.
Mike Bracken: They don't call me the Horror Geek for nothing. That was the official title.
Tim Spaeth: There you go. And the kids can see that on the YouTube, right?
Mike Bracken: Yeah. There actually is a YouTube. One of the clips of me losing is actually up on YouTube.
Brad Gallaway: And it was a really easy question, too.
Mike Bracken: Aw, you know. Fuck Child's Play, man. I don't know that fucking stuff. God.
Tim Spaeth: So, Chi. 1 vs 100, why did you never play? And do you think there's a future for this type of game?
Chi Kong Lui: I didn't play it because I game at really odd hours. The idea of scheduling just to play with a bunch of people would never work for my schedule, to begin with. I was surprised to hear about it, because everyone that I'd heard from—mainly you and some other people—just seemed to think it was a pretty good idea. It seemed to be successful just from a cursory view, so I was surprised to hear that it's gone.
Tim Spaeth: Brad, what about you? Other than just in general not liking things that are fun?
Brad Gallaway: I hate fun of all kinds. That was my first reason for not playing it. But actually, it's kind of a twofold reason. I think the first reason is what Chi said: my schedule is really erratic. My day-to-day life does not run from 9 to 5. I'm gone at all hours of the night and day, so I can never schedule anything that would be game-related. Games, to me, are fun and important but they're not of top priority. The idea of actually setting aside time to be online at a specific time, in addition to having a wife, a child, a day job and a night job sometimes, that just did not work for me whatsoever.
The second part to why I never played it was, honestly, I don't think that Microsoft did a very good job of explaining it or making it well-known or hyping it. I heard about it when it first came out, and I'm like: "Oh, okay—some kind of game show." But then after that, I never really heard a good explanation of how you got into it, where online you were supposed to go, how it worked. It was like: 1 vs. 100! 1 vs 100!" And it was like all the indie people, all the editors and the writers and the journos knew about it, but I've never talked to anybody who was a normal person—like a Joe Gamer off the street—who knew about it or had played it. Honestly, me, I just didn't investigate on my own, and I feel like Microsoft didn't do a good job of getting the information in my hands. So I wasn't really motivated to go track it down, so I just let it go.
And as far as whether those games have a future, I think that they do. I think most of the editor and review people that I speak to, they all seemed to have spoken about it very highly and they liked it. Obviously, I think there's a market for it. I don't think it'll ever be a main attraction to a console, but it seems to me like a good number of people really looked forward to it and had a good time. I think if Microsoft or whoever offers good enough prizes or makes some kind of good incentive for people to show up, I think that they will. So it may not have been a good fit for me, but from everybody I talked to, it was a good thing. I'm actually surprised it's gone, too.
Tim Spaeth: Yeah. I was very surprised. I think you hit the nail on the head, Brad, and that is once you got into the game, there were lots of incentives to play. They were giving away XBLA games, there were Achievements to be earned. It was just a fun game. It was a great trivia game, and one that actually played very well in groups. It was one of the rare situations that I partied up with people and we answered trivia questions together.
But you're absolutely right in that, has happens so often with Microsoft things, they didn't promote it properly. They didn't market it. You never knew when it was on. Even if you logged on to Xbox Live while the game was happening, you had to get lucky and just happen to go to the part of the Dashboard where it was being advertised to know that it was happening. I think if Microsoft wanted it to be a massive success, it could have been. But they needed to market it. That's how business works; that's how you sell products, and Microsoft failed there.
I would love to see more game shows. I grew up on game shows. I would love a Price is Right, a Family Feud. Let me play it all the time, though. Don't just schedule it during those tiny hours. I think that was the problem with a trivia game: You can't run the trivia game all the time, because you'd run out of questions. My guess is they just didn't have somebody to create enough variety of content and enough new questions for it. So hopefully they will come back and revisit that. My guess is it was just bleeding money and they just decided not to put anything else into it. I will miss it, but I look forward to the future.
Chi Kong Lui: Did they officially say that it just wasn't financially successful?
Tim Spaeth: They did not give a reason.
Mike Bracken: No.
Tim Spaeth: They did not give a reason. It was literally that quote that I read, and that was it. That was it.
Mike Bracken: I'm all aboard for an online Press Your Luck.
Tim Spaeth: Yes! Yes!
Mike Bracken: That's a good idea. I'm all in on that one.
Tim Spaeth: Let's pour one out for the late Peter Tomarkin.
Mike Bracken: Yes.
Tim Spaeth: I named my car after Peter Tomarkin.
Brad Gallaway: Was it Peter or Tomarkin? Or both?
Tim Spaeth: It was the Winkman Class Light Cruiser Tomarkin.
Mike Bracken: [laughing] The Winkman!
Brad Gallaway: Well, while we're talking about game shows and stuff, I think that there's lots of potential for online game shows—especially now that we've got activity being such a big part. I would love to be part of a show where you have contestants and maybe Microsoft or whoever can put up little brief clips of gameplay. You play 30 seconds of Gears to see who can rack up the best score, and then you switch to something else. Kind of like the Omegathon that they host at PAX, where they have ten or 12 games that are all different genres. It's to see who can do the best [at] all of them. I think it's a really interesting idea. I could probably think of a dozen other game show ideas that could be applicable to games, so I certainly think there's a market for it. It's too bad that Microsoft dropped the ball on this one.
Tim Spaeth: Like the old Starcade game show.
Brad Gallaway: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Man. That's way back in the days. I'm sure most people listening to this podcast—all four of them—have never seen that show, ever.
Mike Bracken: Yeah, I think we gained two new listeners after the last show.
Brad Gallaway: Are we up to six now?
Mike Bracken: Yeah. We doubled our audience or something.
Brad Gallaway: Oh, my God. Nice.
Mike Bracken: Yup.
Tim Spaeth: No. I think we had six and went down to four, if memory serves.
Brad Gallaway: That's probably more likely.
Tim Spaeth:. Yeah. The endless hate caused two people to drop, but that's okay. Well, let's end the Quote of the Week segment. I think that worked pretty well: I look forward to doing that on future shows. But now let's move on to our main event: RPG bonanza! All of us, during the time we were away, independently decided to play an RPG, or in some cases, more than one RPG. I thought we would talk a little bit about each RPG and maybe come to some kind of consensus about what makes them great or not great.
Let's start with you, Chi, because you had been playing Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies. If you would, every time you reference the game, please use the complete title: Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies.
Chi Kong Lui: [Laughter] Oh, no! I was already going to start nominating that [as] the worst subtitle of any game ever. I can never remember what the combination of those words are.
Mike Bracken: It doesn't beat Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie. I think that's still the worst.
Tim Spaeth: So, Chi, what is your history with Dragon Quest? How many of these things have you played? Clearly, you enjoy the franchise, because you picked up the latest one. What's your history with Dragon Quest?
Chi Kong Lui: I played the original on the NES when it first came out, and just bought into the whole JRPG thing right from the start. I think I was just at the time wanting a little more of a sophisticated game, and that was just right up the alley. I think I was probably late junior high, maybe early high school. So that really just hit me right at the right time.
I didn't really get into the later parts until later on, when they put them out on the Game Boy. I think I played I, II, III, played V on emulation. I actually haven't played the modern ones. So that's my background.
Tim Spaeth: So what compelled you to pick up episode IX?
Chi Kong Lui: It was just good timing. I was looking for something to get into, and [I am] a big fan of Dragon Quest. Sorry that wasn't a good answer. There's really—
Tim Spaeth: No, no, no. Sometimes that's okay. Sometimes that's why we pick up a game: we just felt like picking it up. When I think of Dragon Quest, I feel like I'm drowning; I feel like I'm suffocating in just this old franchise that hasn't evolved. So as you've played Dragon Quest—and I'm not sure how many hours you've put into it at this point—is it the same old thing? Or is it fresh and new? Or is it some combination of the two?
Chi Kong Lui: That's the interesting thing about Dragon Quest. On paper, when you read out the details of the game, they sound like every other JRPG out there. This one's no different. This one's got maybe a slightly more original take on it—only slightly—in that you play an angel and there's an angel world. I don't remember all the details of what they call the angels and all that other stuff, what the worlds are called. And that's the funny thing about these games: once you get into it, the game mechanics just sort of take over. I just start playing these games because I love the game mechanics, not so much because I'm paying attention to all the little details.
But the weird thing about Dragon Quest is once you start playing it, you just can't stop. I know that we're going to take a lot of heat for this, because we've been beating down on Zelda for so many episodes already, and yet here's Dragon Quest. It's the same thing. On the surface, at least, it would seem to hit some of the same beats. There's the same formula, you go to towns. The only thing different this time is that there's a slightly sort of Quantum Leap-ish type storyline, where you help dead people on their way to Heaven and you get little manna from that. So that's a little bit different, but it hits a lot of the same beats. There's the old copper sword; the old pot lid and shield and all that other stuff. But, yet, for some reason, it doesn't feel boring. It doesn't feel tired, for some reason.
Tim Spaeth: So let's touch on the Zelda comparison. Why do we rip on Zelda and give Dragon Quest a pass? Or are we giving it a pass? What's the difference?
Chi Kong Lui: Well, I think one of the differences right off the bat is Dragon Quest is an RPG. So while some of the details are the same, it's not as predictable. The problem with Zelda is it's just flat-out predictable. And you have to play it one way—the way the game designers set it out for you. So you have to go get the boomerang, get the bomb, and whatever. You can't really deviate in any different order. One thing about Dragon Quest is, even though it hits a lot of the same beats, you can do things in your own way. You don't have to get the copper sword; you don't have to necessarily pick this class.
You can totally customize your party. You get your own character and then three other party members. I was kind of surprised, actually, that you go to town and you just recruit three other characters that you create yourself. It's not like they're other characters that exist in the [world], and other NPCs that are roaming around and you recruit them. You literally just create them from scratch. So right off the bat, there's a different level of investment, just by having that.
Tim Spaeth: Mike, you've played a lot of Dragon Quest.
Mike Bracken: Yeah. A lot. [Laughter]
Tim Spaeth: Why do you keep coming back to it, and why are you okay with Dragon Quest being the same, but not [Zelda?]
Chi Kong Lui: Do you agree with my assessment as well?
Mike Bracken: Yeah. I think a lot of things you hit on are very true. The reason I keep coming back to it, I think, is for the same reason I keep coming back to Final Fantasy. For me, they're like the RPG that started my love affair with RPGs. Those two series back on the NES were my introduction to RPGs, because I wasn't a computer gamer or anything like that.
I think part of the reason I'm willing to give Dragon Quest more slack than Zelda is that the things that Dragon Quest repeats are things that are indicative of everything that RPGs repeat. Every RPG follows the town-dungeon-town progression and the same names of weapons, because there's only so many friggin' names you can name swords. Every game's going to have a Bastard Sword or something like that. So I don't mind that so much, but at the same time, I've been a really vocal critic of JRPGs not evolving in any way, and Dragon Quest is certainly not immune from that criticism.
I think my problem, though, with Zelda is that the way it doesn't do anything new is that it literally almost seems to follow the exact same template from game to game. You always go to the dungeon where the boomerang is important. You do these things in a step, and they're always the same steps. Even though the RPGs all have the same town-dungeon-town things and the little quests going on, Zelda is so rigid in the way it goes from game to game in the way you do things, that it just feels somehow more bothersome to me.
And that's not to say…Look, I don't hate Zelda. I have very fond memories, like everyone else my age, of playing the original Zelda on the NES and on the Super Nintendo and all these games, and Ocarina of Time. It's just that I think you're hard on the things you love, and I guess I expect Zelda after all these years…Since it's only one game, not based on anything like an entire genre of games that have expectations and Miyamoto's involved, you would sort of expect it to break out of this mold once in a while.
Dragon Quest is just fun to me because it's the prototypical JRPG. I never go into it expecting it to be anything different than what I've seen in the past. But if that's hypocritical, I guess you could call me on that, but I do think there are subtle differences. And I would also add that I think part of the reason that maybe it doesn't get as much flak in America for this is because only recently have we started to get all the games. We missed a bunch of Dragon Quest games in there for a while.
Chi Kong Lui: Good point.
Mike Bracken: So now you're starting to see people pick up that these games are all basically the same. For a long time, we went from I, II, III, then we didn't get IV, V. There were a couple in there we didn't get, and so now we're finally getting them and you see that. So it might change as time goes forward.
Chi Kong Lui: Let me counter that for one second. I've played most of them, and most JRPGs make me scream running away from them, because I just can't stand them.
It's not purely nostalgia, and I'm not a fanboy or anything like that. Being a critic, you have to be somewhat objective. I'll play these Dragon Quest games, and they just always intrigue me. I think one thing that you hit on, and I don't share the same appreciation for Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy VIII basically turned me off from all Final Fantasys thereafter.
Mike Bracken: It did that for a lot of people.
Chi Kong Lui: So to me, those are far from equals, for starters. But I think you touched on something interesting there, because what you were saying about how Dragon Quest is almost charming in its way in that it doesn't try to change certain things. For example, the swords: they don't try to rename the swords. I think what really drives me up the wall about Final Fantasy is that they try to fake their way through those things. They do try to rename the same things that we know what they are into some fancy other name, and then expect you to think that's innovative. And that's why I can't stand Final Fantasy.
Mike Bracken: Yep.
Chi Kong Lui: And I think Dragon Quest is interesting in that they purposely keep a lot of the things the same. But to give the series a little more credit, they do have little changes here and there—little tiny bits of innovation here and there. But they leave some of the old classic stuff alone and tweak some of the other parts.
Mike Bracken: The other thing I would add to that is, I just think that when it comes to the teams that make the Dragon Quest games, they don't give a shit about changing it. I think they like what they do, and there's an audience for those games that way. You could say the exact same thing about the Zelda teams. Miyamoto, he's like: "This is the kind of game I want to make. This is what it is, and you either like it or you don't." Obviously, in that case, I just expect more from him. You see the way he's innovated in the Mario games and stuff going forward, you kind of wish you'd see that same thing happening with Zelda.
Honestly, though, I just think the Dragon Quest guys, they know that these RPGs have moved forward into all this other stuff. Even if you look at Dragon Quest VIII, it's a pretty game; it's really lovely. But it still plays the same as the original Dragon Quest games, except you don't have to click a menu to open a door anymore. I just think, honestly, that they found this niche where they just want to be the guys who make these traditional, old-school, JRPGs and for some reason, they still work for us. I don't know if that will always be the case, but right now, it does.
Brad Gallaway: Let me ask a question. Let me jump in here for a minute. I don't have a lot of experience with the Dragon Quest series. It's not one that's really captured my attention, so I don't have a lot of knowledge of it. But I'm wondering in reference to all this talk of changing or not changing, even though the mechanics of Dragon Quest, from what I can observe, seem to be basically the same (That sounds confirmed, from what you guys are saying): Is Dragon Quest the kind of game where the structure remains the same, but the story is really what drives people forward?
Because I've heard several people mention Dragon Quest stories as being pretty interesting or as the "real" reason to keep playing them. Do you guys notice that? Because for me, in comparison to something like Zelda, where Zelda's mechanics basically stay the same and the story basically stays the same, too. There's always tweaks an nudges here and there, but when you play a Zelda game, you're not really playing it for the story. You're playing it because you want to get the boomerang or because you like the way the dungeon structure works. But is that true in Dragon Quest? Would you guys say that the stories are what keep you coming back, or what is it? How do the stories play into it?
Chi Kong Lui: Let me answer this, Mike, because it ties back into what you were saying with the Dragon Quest team. The stories are really a stand-out part of it, but they're nothing particularly amazing, either. This is the really hard part to describe, because again, I keep going back to "charming" and these basic words, because they don't try to overtell any story. They stick to very classic archetypes.
Mike Bracken: Archetypes and structure.
Chi Kong Lui: But at the same time, they add just enough. We've talked about this in the past, about how there's certain rules that these guys should follow. I think, for the most part, the Dragon Quest team, they follow those rules and yet have enough of a unique twist. Going back to the team element for a second, I think it cannot be underestimated how big a deal that Yuji Horii and Akira Toriyama have stuck with the series for so long—I think even moreso than Miyamoto has with Zelda. It's like: "What does Miyamoto really do on these games anymore?" He's like an executive guy at this point. He's not really the main guy.
Yuji Horii is still the main guy making these guys, and Akira Toriyama is still designing these games. Here we have one of the most celebrated manga artists of all time…there's something to be said about that. When you have this kind of level of talent just stick with these series. It's sort of like what Mike is saying, but I give a little more credit to it in that, yeah, they sort of found their niche and stick with it. But at the same time, we're also talking about this very high level of creation here. You don't get that by starting from the ground up every single time. You have to stick with it to a certain degree, and I think that's what these guys have done, moreso than Zelda. Like I said, I'm not sure really how involved Miyamoto really is and how many times they've had to hand it off to a different guy and things like that.
Mike Bracken: I almost entirely agree with Chi. I'd just add: The one thing about Dragon Quest stories that appeals to me is that…My complaint with RPGs (JRPGs in particular), is not that they tell the same story over and over, which I have bitched about. But the real complaint there is that these newer games try to tell you the same story, but they try to convince you that it's somehow this new thing when it's really not.
Chi Kong Lui: Right.
Mike Bracken: The Dragon Quest guys will just give you this archetypal, basic story, and they'll add little flourishes and things here and there. But at the end of the day, they're okay with that. You can almost respect them for that, because they're not trying to convince you that this story's some big, profound thing. It's just a little story to get you through the game. I guess that's my problem with modern RPGs, is that they're so friggin' emotionally overwrought. Whereas Dragon Quest never gives you that melodrama feeling so much. There's stories and there are important things that happen into them, but they're still just simple stories and they don't try to convince you that they're fucking rewriting Homer or something like that.
Chi Kong Lui: Sorry, just one final point. Even though it's simple, it's still not dumbed-down or anything like that. It still feels pretty great. Yeah, they're very basic, but at the same time, it still works.
Mike Bracken: Definitely engaging.
Chi Kong Lui: I just don't want to undersell it.
Mike Bracken: No. No, definitely not. There's definitely something to those stories, and they do work. But I think I appreciate them because they're just very honest in what they are.
Chi Kong Lui: True.
Mike Bracken: They're never to convince you that: "We're writing Shakespeare" or something like that. It's like: "This is a story about a kid who's going to join a band of other kids and save the world and that's it." They don't try to dress it up in any fancy way, or anything like that. So I can appreciate that level of honestly.
Tim Spaeth: All right. We do need to move on. I do have one more question for you, Chi. When this game was first announced, there was a bit of fear—outrage—that the series was moving to a handheld. Fear that the series would be regressing in quality. I assume those fears are not founded. Dragon Quest IX is okay on a handheld.
Chi Kong Lui: It looks great for a DS game. It looks great in general, if you ask me. Again, you have Akira Toriyama; you can't go wrong there, really—although none of you guys are Dragon Ball fans, so what are you going to do?
To me, actually, it was perfect when I heard that. Because Dragon Quest has always been the people's champion. They've never tried to create these epic, sprawling universes and CG graphics like in Star Wars: Episode I with a million things falling around in the background. That's so not Dragon Quest. So to me, it was actually perfect when they moved it to the DS. That's a system that's just all about the gameplay, all about the solid stuff. [Aside] "Solid stuff"? What the hell's that mean?
Tim Spaeth: It's all about the solid stuff. I think that's about—
Mike Bracken: —Feces.
Chi Kong Lui: It's not crap; it's not crap.
Tim Spaeth: All right. Well, Chi, thanks so much. Dragon Quest IX on store shelves now for the Nintendo DS. Also for the DS is Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City. Now, it's not out yet, but our own Brad Gallaway has a copy, using whatever Brad Gallaway skills you have to obtain early copies of things. This comes to us from Atlus, so Brad, bam! I assume that's a 9.5 or a 10.
Brad Gallaway: It's up there; it's up there. I don't know—I haven't settled on a number yet, but it's actually really good.
Mike Bracken: We do love Atlus.
Chi Kong Lui: Brad has given Atlus games negative reviews before.
Brad Gallaway: I have; I have. I can't say that whenever an Atlus game comes in, that it's a love-fest. They have some really, really well-done things, and they have some that are maybe not so well-done. But in general, I think it's safe to say that I'm an Atlus fan. I like their style. They've got good people; they know what they're doing, nine times out of ten. You can't fault Atlus.
Mike Bracken: I love Atlus. I'm crazy about them.
Brad Gallaway: Well, you should. Well, you should. I would be surprised if you didn't.
Tim Spaeth: I suspect there are a lot of people listening to this show that show that do not know what—is it "Eetrian" or "Ehtrian?"
Brad Gallaway: I say "Eetrian," but I don't know that there's an official pronunciation. I guess it could go either way.
Tim Spaeth: I think this is probably the least-known franchise that we're talking about on the show. Can you give us a little background on what "Eetrian"-slash-"Ehtrian" Odyssey is all about?
Brad Gallaway: Yeah, absolutely. It's a really old-school redux title. Basically what it is, it's the third in the series, and all three of the games have been pretty fantastic. You start off by creating a party from a number of different classes, and there's no limit. You can pick five fighters, you can pick five mages, you can have a mix. One of the strengths of the game is that there's a lot of freedom for the player to mix and match. They put a lot of control in the player's hands.
But once you create your party, the whole point of the game is to get to the bottom of a giant labyrinth, and there's a number of floors. You just go through. It's like one long dungeon-crawl. Although that may sound like it's off-putting to some people, the genius thing about it is it's like a really new-school interpretation of old-school ideas. If anybody grew up playing really, really old pen-and-paper RPGs, or even some of those old NES games where there were these brutal dungeons and there was no such thing as a map at that time. You'd often find yourself tracking down a piece of graph paper or a legal pad and making a map for yourself, so that you could get through the next level.
Well, that same concept is in Etrian Odyssey, where the top screen is where the action happens, and the bottom screen is a map. To me, this is one of the best implementations of the DS hardware that I've ever seen. It's interesting. I do want to give props to Atlus, because I think out of all the developers and all the games I've played for the DS, I think Atlus capitalizes on the DS more effectively and more logically than anybody else—Nintendo included. So I do want to give props to them.
What you do is, on the bottom screen you have just this map screen and you draw. So every time you take a couple steps in this labyrinth with your characters, you look down at the bottom screen and you draw. You're like: "Okay, well, this was a safe area, so I'm going to mark this 'safe." And then you walk a few more steps and: "Oh, there's a locked door." So you mark this locked door on the bottom screen. It sounds really tedious and: "God! Why would I want to draw my own map? Aren't we past that these days?" But really, there's just something incredibly therapeutic and soothing and really warm and fuzzy about drawing your own map. It just recalls all these really positive feelings.
It's kind of nostalgic, but at the same time, putting that level of control in the player's hands, it gives you ownership of what you're doing. You really plot your own course, and you really feel responsible for finding your way through. The good thing is that if you die—and people often die in Etrian Odyssey, it's very difficult. But when you die, you get to save all your map data, so that the next time you come back, you already know what it was that killed you, trouble spots to avoid and that sort of thing.
So it's a really, really great game. I love it to pieces. I love the different characters. It's one of the high points for me. Customization is king in this game, and although it doesn't sport really fancy graphics (it' on the DS, of course), I do love all the different characters. That's one of the strengths the series has always had. Honestly, the third installment of Etrian Odyssey is, I think, the best. And a large reason for that is, I'm just amazed at how diverse the developers have been in crafting characters.
This time around, you have your standard damage-dealing classes; you've got your tanks and such. But there's also a couple classes that are way out of the blue and just really bizarre, and they work really well. One of my favorite classes right now is the Prince or the Princess (mine's a Princess). It's a teamwork kind of class, where they don't have a lot of attacking power, but they havew a lot of buffs for your team so you can increase your attacking power or defensive power.
But also, it has a class of spells which are healing spells. And rather than being an instant: "I cast a spell; my character is healed," they're contingent on these different qualifications. So if your Prince has full life at the end of a turn, then everybody else in the party gets a life boost. If your Prince survives at the end of the battle, then everybody in your party gets life up. If your Prince is alive as you're walking through the dungeon, every step grants you more life. It's a really portable fountain of rejuvenation for your party, and it's really effective and powerful, and it makes you guard that person more than you probably would with any other class. So it's an interesting spin, and it really makes you think strategically.
Another interesting class is the Farmer, which I think a lot of people who have been reading up on the game have been making fun of or thinking: "What good is a farmer? What does that do?" But the Farmer class is probably the most interesting class. It sucks in combat, but it has so many other really positive peripheral skills, that to start this game out, you really need one. For example, they can find rare items a lot more often, so it helps you get more money from the start. You can up one of their skills to increase everybody's earned experience. They increase the effectiveness of campgrounds when you're in the labyrinth, so when you heal yourself, you get a lot more of a boost from it.
It's really cool. It takes a different viewpoint on the use and implementation of party members, and it really makes the player think strategically about who's in the party and why they're there and what they're doing. So from that perspective, I think Etrian Odyssey is a really brilliantly intelligent game that is really difficult. It's very difficult for a turn-based game. But at the same time, if you think about it and really apply yourself, you're going to really go far. It's really rewarding when you do well, because it's such a difficult game. It's not one that you can just brute-level through and buff your characters up to level 99 and steamroll, because it doesn't work that way. The characters and the enemies are so tough that if you're not doing things smartly, you're just not going to progress. So it's difficult, but it's rewarding.
Tim Spaeth: Let me ask you this, Brad. Many of the things that you just said—the methodical nature of the gameplay, the difficulty, the descending down a single dungeon—reminded me of Shiren the Wanderer, which was a game that you turned me on to earlier this year, and that I enjoyed very much. Now, Etrian is clearly not a Roguelike, but there are similarities there. If somebody dug Shiren, would they also dig this?
Brad Gallaway: I think they very well might. They are pretty drastically different games in a lot of respects. Etrian is very much a traditional turn-based RPG dungeon-crawl, whereas Shiren is a Roguelike where a lot of the elements in the game are randomized. It's almost based on luck and how well you can use the things that you find as you go down the dungeon. They're different, but I think that the traits that are common are that the player is asked to really engage their brain to a much greater degree than the average RPG, I would say. I don't say that as an insult to RPGs or RPG players—
—but in both those instances…No, I'm serious.
Chi Kong Lui: But you're also right. You could just attack your way through the whole game, basically.
Brad Gallaway: Right, right, right. And I'm basically always right, so that's fine, too. But what I want to say is, like you said, in some games you can just power-level. You sit there, fight the same imps or ogres or whatever for an hour, and you come out and you've got a million gold and 99 characters. It just doesn't work like that. You need to actually think. In Shiren you have to manage your items; you have to really think creatively. You make the best with what you've got, and there's a lot of luck in it, so it's a real fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of thing.
In Etrian, it's a very difficult game, although I will say that I think Etrian III—the one we're talking about now—is much easier than Etrian I or II. Even though they all have been really, really good games, they're really well-known for their brutal difficulty. That's very true. This is the kind of game where you take three steps out from the starting point in the very first dungeon as soon as you put your party together, and you're dead because the enemies just killed you. So it's very, very difficult, but it's easier this time around. I think that the classes give you a much better chance. I think that there's more opportunity to do things in a safe manner without fear of being annihilated, and it is something that really requires you to think.
In general, I'm not really a fan of hard games, but I think that as time goes by, increasing the difficulty while requiring players to think strategically is something that I really am enjoying more and more. I think that we're seeing more and more games that really do it well. There always have been games like that, but just lately it seems to me… Demon's Souls was one that was billed as being extremely difficult, but if you thought about it, you could get through it relatively easily. Shiren is another one. Etrian Odyssey's another one. There's a number of games where you can't just power through it. You can't just turn your brain off, level up and move. You have to actually think, and that's a quality I really admire.
Tim Spaeth: Etrian Odyssey III doesn't hit stores until September 21. Like other Atlus games, are the first two games impossible to find, if people wanted to check this out in advance of picking up number 3? Are they going to have to go on some crazy hunt or pay $300 on eBay?
Brad Gallaway: I think Chi said that he saw them recently. But I've been looking for them lately, and I haven't seen any for a while. So I wouldn't be surprised if they were pretty impossible to find. Atlus games in general, when you go to the older titles, they disappear and they don't really come back. People don't really trade them in, and the print runs are usually pretty small. Etrian Odyssey is one especially that…The GameStops around here, when Etrian II came out, I did the review for that and I went out of curiosity to check to see how many copies came in. At that time, the GameStop near me had two copies. So two copies that never got restocked, you don't have much of a chance to get something there. So I would certainly recommend anybody who's even remotely interested in the game: pre-order it, pick it up, give it a try, and if you don't like it, you can guarantee and sell that thing on eBay, no problem.
Chi Kong Lui: Although on GameStop, the first part is going for $10, so it's not a particularly rare game, in terms of its value.
Brad Gallaway: But did you see it, though? I haven't seen it. It may be priced that low, but I have not seen it. I have not seen it in a long time.
Mike Bracken: I see it every once in a while.
Chi Kong Lui: Well, both part one and two actually show up in GameStop. You know how the really out-of-print games don't even show up when you search on them? But both Etrian Odyssey I and II show up on GameStop, and you can actually do a search for your zip code and see which GameStops have them. So it shouldn't be too hard to find them, actually.
Brad Gallaway: I would disagree. [Laughter] But go ahead and…one of us'll be right.
Chi Kong Lui: All right. Fine. I'll let you know if I find them or not.
Tim Spaeth: It sounds like it's worth looking for. Maybe it'll be easy to find, maybe it won't, but it's worth the hunt. We'll take a break. When we come back from that break, Puzzle Quest II and DeathSpank. Stay with us.
Tim Spaeth: Welcome back. We've got two more hot RPGs to talk about: Puzzle Quest II and DeathSpank. We're going to start with Puzzle Quest II, and for that, we'll turn to Mike. Mike, my first question about this game: Why doesn't Puzzle Quest II have a crappy subtitle like all the other games we're talking about?
Mike Bracken: I think it's because Electric Boogaloo was already taken, Tim. That's just my guess. I don't have any inside skinny on that, but that what my sources tell me: that they really had their hearts set on Electric Boogaloo and it was just gone.
Chi Kong Lui: What's wrong with The Return of Puzzle Quest?
Tim Spaeth: You know, that would've been perfect.
Mike Bracken: That would be pretty good, too. I guess maybe the marketing people just weren't up to snuff. Didn't think of that one. Maybe we should be working in game marketing, obviously.
Tim Spaeth: Clearly. Clearly.
Mike Bracken: Clearly.
Chi Kong Lui: That was more of a joke at you, Tim, for not even throwing that out there.
Tim Spaeth: I thought that was the really obvious joke.
Chi Kong Lui: That's never stopped you before. [Laughter]
Tim Spaeth: That's true.
Brad Gallaway: The really obvious joke would've been: Puzzle Quest II: Not Nearly as Bad as the Game We Just Put Out.
Tim Spaeth: So, technically, Infinite Interactive, the developer on this game, developed nine puzzle games between Puzzle Quest and Puzzle Quest II. So theoretically, this is Puzzle Quest 11, but it is getting the official title. So this is the official successor to Challenge of the Warlords. Mike, what did you think of it?
Mike Bracken: Actually, I'm really mixed about it. I have some things that are in the game that I like a lot, and then I have some things that are a little head-scratching to me. This is the positive show, so I'm going to dwell on the positive things, mostly—especially because I'm always negative.
Brad Gallaway: You? No!
Mike Bracken: Yeah. Me? No! Hunh-unh. Negative? I'm fucking all sunshine and roses 24/7. I didn't spend a lot of time with the original Puzzle Quest. I goofed around with it a little bit and basically said: "Oh, this is neat. It's like Bejeweled with an RPG." But my problem is, I don't really give a fuck about playing Bejeweled at all. It's just not one of those games I'm into. But when the opportunity to play Puzzle Quest II came along, I was like: "Hmm. I should do this, because I didn't really spend any time with the first one or any of the games in the interim. This is a chance to experience it and figure out why everybody's so excited and everything."
So when that opportunity came along, I jumped on it. I've been playing it quite a bit, mixing it up with a little Half-Life 2, because I'm way behind on video game stuff since I got my Xbox back. But off the bat, I will say that for 1400 Microsoft points, it's a lot of fun for that money. What's that work out to? $14 or something crazy like that?
Brad Gallaway: $15, something like that?
Mike Bracken: Yeah. It's like something cheap. And for that money, I would certainly say that this is a really good game. There's a ton of shit to do. There's not a lot of variation in what you do, but it's a lengthy game. I've put probably 15 hours into it already. That's really cool. You're definitely getting your money's worth.
They have changed it since the first game. In this new version, like all good sequels, they've upped everything. What's sort of happened is now you can equip weapons and armor and stuff like that, and they've added these gauntlets. So instead of just making three colors for spell points and stuff, you can actually attack with these weapons you have, or use the shield to get some extra defence going, and stuff like that. But the game still plays the same, basically: you get quests and you go out and point and click your way through boards and encounter enemies. And when you encounter an enemy, it goes to a Bejeweled board, and basically, there are colors and skulls that do damage, and these gauntlet things that will power up your weapon attacks. You have hit points and the enemy has hit points, and it's just a race to knock everybody down to zero first and move on to the next thing.
If you've played the original Puzzle Quest, this is cool, because it definitely ups the ante in terms of gameplay. There's more to do to it. My attitude at first was: "Oh, this is like just playing Bejeweled. But if you look at the game as an RPG where you just play a little bit of Bejeweled once in a while, it's actually pretty cool. It's all your attitude, I guess. For me, it was like: "Yeah, I may not be the biggest Bejeweled fan in the world, but it's actually pretty fun." You're not just making these chains of colors to get points. You're making it to kick the crap out of some lizard person. So I kind of like that.
And they have taken this whole Bejeweled element to another level, too, because now instead of just fighting this way, doors are not able to be opened, so you have to go onto a Bejeweled board and make matches to make these little door icons and then make the door icons chain to do damage to the door in a certain number of turns to get it open. Of if there's a pile of treasure, you go to a board that has different icons on it, and you have to make chains of them. If you make so many, it gives you rare item chests, and if you make a chain of that, you get the rare item. But while you're doing it, it's also closing up the board level by level, so you're going to lose a lot of stuff, too. You have to really think about it.
It's pretty cool. But again, if you like to play Bejeweled, it's really awesome. If you're sort of not maybe so much into Bejeweled, it's a little tougher sell [laughter], because it's really just a lot of playing Bejeweled over and over and over. But the one thing that I really want to say about the game that I appreciate the most is that I think it's really cool the way these guys have bridged the gap.
RPGs are a niche genre for hardcore gamers, for the most part, and Bejeweled is definitely not a hardcore game [laughter] or a niche genre. So they've done this thing where they've put these two different kinds of games together into one and bridged the gap. I could almost get my mother to play this game. She likes her Bejeweled, she doesn't have a clue about a turn-based RPG, but she would understand this. So I think it's really cool that they've done that.All in all, I'm pretty impressed with the game. It's not my favorite game of the year, but it's definitely fun and I've had a good time with it.
Tim Spaeth: There was a point in the original Puzzle Quest—I would say roughly halfway through—where you as the player outlevel the enemies to such a degree that you're effectively invincible. You can't lose, and the role-playing essentially becomes irrelevant, because you're so incredibly powerful. How is the difficulty curve here? Do you find yourself losing matches? Are you winning?
Mike Bracken: No. Actually, I have not outleveled the enemies yet. I've had points where I've lost matches. The funny thing about it is, I chose to play a barbarian and I kind of regret that. I should've picked the rogue or something. It seems like it might've been a little more fun, interesting. The barbarian does get some spells and stuff, but I just don't find them very exciting. But it seems like a lot of things I fight have more hit points than me. It's definitely not been super hard or anything like that, but there is a certain element of luck involved with the board.
I've noticed either I suck at Bejeweled or something, because I only get a lot of, you make three and that's the end of your turn. If you make four or more, you get an extra turn. So I'll make three, and the computer will go on these runs of seven turns in a row, where they make four somehow. Everything just falls right into place for them, and they're pounding the shit out of you for seven turns, basically. But it is interesting, because it's one of those weird games where you can be down fucking 50 hit points below the guy you're fighting, and yet somehow you can still eke out a victory. I find that kind of interesting. But I haven't run into that point yet where I'm just an invincible god. I'm hoping it's coming, though, because I like that.
Brad Gallaway: And who doesn't, really?
Mike Bracken: Yeah. That's why I play RPGs: so I can build little gods and just crush everything in my path.
Tim Spaeth: Brad or Chi, did either of you try the demo or pick this up?
Brad Gallaway: I played the first one. I played the hell out of the first one. I really love the first Puzzle Quest [unknown], and my wife is playing Puzzle Quest II right now. I've been watching over her shoulder. I don't have any hands-on experience, but watching it, I'm like: "Oh, looks okay." It didn't look like a disaster like the last Puzzle Quest game, Puzzle Quest: Galactrix which is just painful beyond belief to play. So it looks definitely like a good thing, and I will certainly play it. But it didn't seem like enough of a new spin on the thing to make me want to jump into it right away. Chi?
Chi Kong Lui: Nah, I haven't played it.
Tim Spaeth: I did try the demo, and it plays great. I don't think it was different enough to…I wasn't compelled to purchase it. I found the new overworld interface to be a little klugey: walking from NPC to NPC. There were too many button presses. You had to press a button three times to get to the person you needed to talk to, and I just found that [pause] just inconvenient. But maybe I just wasn't used to it at that point.
Mike Bracken: Yeah, the overworld map is a little odd—especially it'll show you which path to go through. It'll give you a lighted questionamrk on the way you're supposed to go. You can do that, but you'll miss a bunch of crap along the way, so I like to wander off the path. I try not to pay attention to it. But yeah, it is a weird overworld map, the way you sort of just click your way through it and everything. But for a $15 game, I'm not going to complain about that, I guess. It just seems like one of those things that's like, I'm just really more concerned with the core gameplay and that's pretty fun. I'm happy with it, actually.
Tim Spaeth: And my last question for you, Mike: The NPCs have yellow exclamation marks over their heads.
Mike Bracken: Yes, they do.
Tim Spaeth: Did it get that World of Warcraft itch?
Mike Bracken: [Laughter] Yes, it did. That just took me back to all those hours in WoW. [Laughter]
Tim Spaeth: Cataclysm. Cataclysm!
Mike Bracken: Oh, it's not happening. It's not happening. No chance.
Tim Spaeth: Yeah, we'll see.
Mike Bracken: No chance.
Tim Spaeth: We will see, sir.
Mike Bracken: Uninstalled.
Tim Spaeth: Uninstalled. Oh, it can always be downloaded again.
Mike Bracken: Oh, no.
Chi Kong Lui: Did you erase the save files after you uninstalled it?
Mike Bracken: Everything on it is off my computer, so yeah. Not happening. [Laughter]
Tim Spaeth: It's all in the cloud, man. It's all in the cloud.
Mike Bracken: I was saying the other day, I should just sell my fucking account so there's no danger at all. But there isn't anyway. [Laughter]
Tim Spaeth: Well, Puzzle Quest II available now on the Nintendo DS, Xbox 360, XBLA, iPhone. (You can get this on your iPhone, folks) as well as Windows. So last but not least, it comes to me, and comes to DeathSpank. Now, in the game, they pronounce it "Death Spank," but clearly that was an error of the voice actor.
Mike Bracken: Clearly.
Tim Spaeth: But just because that's how everybody knows the game, I will refer to it as "Death Spank."
Mike Bracken: Isn't that kind of like how in Final Fantasy XII they keep calling the marquis the "marqwiss" or whatever it is? They totally butcher that word every fucking time they say it in that game, and I'm like: "How the hell does Square release a multi-million dollar game and nobody knew how to fucking pronounce the word "marquis"?
Chi Kong Lui: That is hilarious.
Mike Bracken: Ugh! Sorry to derail you, Tim.
Tim Spaeth: No, no. No, no. Not at all. DeathSpank. This is a hack-and-slash action RPG. It's available for the Xbox Live Arcade, as well as PlayStation Network. It's $15; it's just out this past week. In terms of gameplay, very similar to other console hack-and-slash games: Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, X-Men: Legends, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, though the clear predecessor of this game is Diablo. It is structured very, very much like Diablo II.
Visually, the game resembles…I actually initially thought of Animal Crossing, with that sort of curved horizon, that curved environment, cell-shaded, has some Windwaker, has some Okami. It looks great. It's actually gorgeous for a $15 downloadable title. It looks wonderful. You play as DeathSpank. He has been tasked with obtaining something called the Artefact. We don't really know what the Artefact is, but everybody seems to want it and in the game, it has been obtained by an evil prince. You are tasked to getting it back.
DeathSpank himself, something of a dim-witted, bombastic, headstrong fellow, kind of in the vein of the Tick. He really reminded me of the Tick. He sounds like the Tick; he acts like the Tick, with a little Ron Burgundy mixed in.
Mike Bracken: And Bruce Campbell.
Tim Spaeth: And Bruce Campbell. Yes, indeed. He is, in fact, a cliché of many, many different characters. The hook here is supposedly the writing and the loot. Frankly, I found both of those hooks to be wanting. I was pretty disappointed in this game, actually. The designer here is Ron Gilbert. He is best known for his work on the classic LucasArts adventure games, including the first two Monkey Islands. That's probably what he's best known for. He's something of a legend; he's something of an icon, although he's disappeared for the past few years. I think he last consulted on the Penny Arcade role-playing games. But, so, you hear "Ron Gilbert," there are high expectations. Kind of like Tim Schaffer: High expectations. Although not really delivering here, much like Tim Schaffer hasn't really delivered so much.
People should know that Ron Gilbert did not write the majority of the dialogue in this game—it was another guy named Sean Howard, so if you were hoping to get actual Ron Gilbert dialogue, you may think you're getting it, but you're actually not. Although Sean Howard does a really good job of aping Ron Gilbert's style, with the exception of the humor. This game really thinks that it's funny, but it's, frankly, not all that funny.
It's occasionally clever, but the real problem with the dialogue is that there's just too much of it. When you start this game, the characters are just talking and talking and talking, and what you really want to get to is the hack-and-slash and the looting. It really feels…like I said, it's overwritten, it feels like it's trying too hard to impress. The dialogue is peppered with dated pop culture references. Within the first two minutes, DeathSpank says: "Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?" which is a 21-year-old reference to the first Batman movie. It's like: "Really? That's the most current pop culture reference we could think of here?"
All the dialogue is delivered by voice actors. The voice acting is fine, but the problem is, all of the dialogue is simultaneously displayed on the screen in text boxes. So by the time you've heard the joke, you've already read the joke. Eventually I found myself just hitting the B button to get through the dialogue. Once I got into about my third hour of play, I just stopped reading the dialogue altogether, because it just wasn't interesting me. The story is just a generic fantasy-comedy story. It's not special in any way, shape or form. So the writing is a failure. What about the loot? Frankly, also a failure.
Brad Gallaway: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. I'm not disagreeing with anything you're saying, Tim, but I got to say: I thought this was the love show.
Mike Bracken: What happened to the love, man? It's gone.
Tim Spaeth: Well, I said it looked good. I said the game looked beautiful.
Some love there, right? I thought I was going to love this game; I really did. I felt very confident when we were putting the love RPG show together that I was going to like this game, and it just failed on almost every level. As far as the loot goes, there's very little variety in the loot. As you gain more powerful loot, you don't really feel any more powerful, which was not the case in all of the other loot games that I love: Borderlands or Too Human or Diablo or World of Warcraft or, most recently, Torchlight.
Really, as you collect loot, the enemies in the areas that you're going to…They don't scale with you, but as you complete quests you go to new areas where the enemies are harder, and you just hit them with your sword. You're not really gaining any new, special powers. You're just hitting a level ten enemy, then a level 12 enemy, then a level 15 enemy.
Here's the biggest problem with the loot: collecting the loot. Loot drops off of enemies onto the playfield, and you pick it up just by walking over it. The only way you know what you have picked up is if you look in the upper left-hand corner of your screen. The loot you pick up, the name, fades in and fades out very quickly. Now, if you happen to be looking up there, you can see that you've picked up an item.
But if you're in a particularly heated battle and you're fighting, say, 15 spiders or 15 chickens at once, you may end up picking up three, four, five different items and have no idea that you picked them up. You won't even know that you acquired loot until you happen to go to the inventory screen. That may be five minutes later, which defeats the entire purpose of a loot game. The idea behind a loot game is: You slaughter an enemy, you see the object on the playfield, you see the name, you see the color, it's a purple Epic—bam! You feel great about it.
And say what you will about Too Human, but Too Human nailed the loot game. When something awesome dropped, it was colored differently, a magnificent fanfare played, and you got excited about it.
DeathSpank, not the case. You may pick up the best item in the game and not even know it. And that is a failure of a loot game. Inventory is screwed up. The whole idea behind loot is you compare what you have equipped to what you've picked up. As far back as Final Fantasy games, 20 years ago, when you hover over an item, it tells you: "Your strength will increase by this much, your magic will increase by this much if you equip this item."
Not so in DeathSpank. It will tell you: "This item is Strength 150," but you have to remember that, hover over the item that you have equipped, and say: "Oh, well that's Strength 120," and then do the math in your head. Which isn't hard, but it's incredibly inconvenient and annoying when every RPG and every loot game has been doing it differently for 20 years. It's a huge step backwards. Like I said, the loot is generally pretty boring. There aren't that many unique weapons in the game. There's a Chicken Cannon that shoots chickens. That's, you know, something.
But there are various things like that. I will give the game credit for naming loot interestingly. It's kind of clever. For example, one of the first weapons you pick up is a Broad Sword; later, you get a Broader Sword; and later you get the Broadest Sword. That's kind of clever. I like it. I'm going to give them credit for that.
So, look. I'm going to try to say a couple good things about it. Ron Gilbert's adventure game history definitely comes through here. While many of the quests are of the "kill ten rats" variety, there are a handful of adventure game-style quests. You do have an inventory in the game, and you can combine items together, much as you could in the old LucasArts adventures. So, for example, there's one quest-giver who needs you to bring her red horns. Well, there are demons that drop white horns, and then in another part of the game world, there are cherries that can be pulled off of trees. If you go into your inventory, you can grind the cherries into a dye and then apply it to the white horns. They become red horns. It's a very classic Sierra and LucasArts style puzzle. They're few and far between, but when they come up, they're actually kind of fun and a really nice change of pace from just the complete tedium of this game.
For those who are worried about those kinds of puzzles, they have a hint system. In the world, you can pick up fortune cookies and you open those fortune cookies which act as hints for the different quests. The more hints you open up, the more specific the solution becomes, to the point where it will just straight-up tell you: "This is what you need to do next."
It's not a bad game. It's not a horrible game, but it's a very hollow game. It's a very tedious game. The first hour of the game is really no different from the fifth hour of the game. There's not a lot of thinking to be done; it really feels like you're just going through the motions, mindlessly hitting Block and Attack and Block and Attack. Not recommended. Certainly not worth $15, and I do regret the purchase.
Now, Mike, I know you played the demo. Brad, I know you played the demo. Am I wrong? Or do you guys agree with me?
Brad Gallaway: I would say you just confirmed what I was afraid of. I saw this game at PAX last year and I was looking at it. I'm like: "Why the hell is everybody so excited for this?" Just taking a look at it, and honestly, I didn't know who Ron Gilbert was. I didn't play those games. I didn't have a strong PC background, because my family never really had a computer for a long time. And when I heard "Ron Gilbert," I'm like: "Well, who the hell's Ron Gilbert? I don't have clue." So the name wasn't a draw for me, and just looking at the gameplay, I was like: "This looks really dull and bland and brown and boring, and I don't know why everybody's excited."
But I gave it a chance, and then all the sudden, people are like: "Oh, my God! It's out! It's out!" I tried the demo, and it's like: "Who cares?" The writing felt really dull and flat to me. I didn't laugh at any of the obviously over-the-top, trying so hard to be funny that they're straining to be funny jokes, and the obligatory bacon mention in the first two minutes. I was like: "Okay. This seems like you guys really want to be artful and clever, but you're just not."
I got to say, starting off the game with this kill-a-bunch-of-chickens quest was a real big turn-off. And then seeing that the character had four weapons to start with…even though that seems like kind of a good idea. He had, what? A crossbow; an axe; a sword and something else. Isn't that right? You start the game with four different things. It was like: "Why am I starting with that? Shouldn't you offer me the choice? Shouldn't it be a high point of the game that I get to pick what kind of weapon I want?" It just was hitting all the wrong notes for me, and I was like: "There's no way I'm dropping $15 on this." Hearing you talk about it, I'm certainly glad I didn't. Mike, what would you think?
Mike Bracken: Yeah. Hearing Tim talk about it confirmed my worst fears. I played through the demo twice. It gives you 20 minutes to play it or something like that. There's a timer on it. I felt the same way. I thought, visually, it was really pretty. It starts you out in that first area where the witch is, and everything's purple and dark and really over-artsy and just really neat-looking. And then suddenly you get past that area, and it just looks like every other fucking action RPG you've ever played, basically. DeathSpank as a character, definitely the humor really tries too hard. I like to call him "Ron Jilbear," because everybody's a hockey player where I'm from.
I thought: If somebody had made that joke in the game, it would've been funnier than any of the jokes I actually saw. Which is a sad testament to how not-funny the game is in spots. What really bugged me about it, though, is I didn't like the combat at all. I just found myself just fucking using the crossbow over and over and over. Running in to melee-fight anything was just not fun and a real pain in the ass.
A good hack-and-slash game, you should be able to run into a horde of enemies and fucking slaughter them with your sword or hammer or whatever you have, your axe. But in this game, it just doesn't feel right. It's just clunky and so it was more interesting to me to stand back and plink things with 45 bow-shots instead.
Tim Spaeth: I was going to add something to the combat. You're absolutely right, and it's not just that you can't run into a group of enemies. As you go through the game, blocking becomes much more important. You have to get into a rhythm of block, attack, block, attack. If you don't block, you're dead. You have to block.
Mike Bracken: A good hack-and-slash, you should never have to block in.
Brad Gallaway: I was thinking the exact same thing. [Laughter]
Mike Bracken: Yeah. You should never have to block in a hack-and-slash. That just defeats the whole fucking purpose of that genre.
Brad Gallaway: It should be for boss characters, maybe. Maybe block a big dragon.
Mike Bracken: Yeah. But to wander into a horde of just regular peon enemies, I should never have to fucking block. I should do so much damage that I should just be slaughtering things left and right.
Tim Spaeth: Absolutely. And what happens is, the enemies bunch on you to the point where it is impossible to block everyone. The animation is all piled up on top of each other, so even if you try to block, you can't, because you can't see what's going on. What I would recommend to anybody who is planning to go the distance in this game is drop the difficulty down to Easy. Which I eventually did, because the game becomes just too much of a chore to not do that. And then you'll find that you can rush into groups and get pretty far with just spamming the Attack button. But again, it becomes really unsatisfying.
There's also no real impact to the melee. In a good hack-and-slash, you punch somebody, you feel it. There's a good hit; there's rumble in the controller, and that's just not here. You're just watching the animation. There's a real disconnect between what you're doing on the controller and what you're seeing on the screen, almost as though there's a slight lag. That seemed odd to me as well. But, yeah. It's just a complete misfire. And no co-op.
Mike Bracken: Yeah. That's what really made me…I had talked about this game with Tim before it came out, and I was like: "Oh, are you going to play this?" because I was interested in it, and it was one of these games I was looking forward to, because I love loot-whoring and hack-and-slashing and all that stuff. And so I'm looking at it, and it's like: "Oh, this looks like it would be great to do online co-op." Of course, it doesn't have it, because I never in my fucking life ever want to play online co-op anything with anyone, except the one time a game came along that I would actually want to do it, [and] that's not a feature.
I just wanted to add: I'm totally with you on the loot system. It's horrible that you can't tell if something's an improvement over what you have. This is 2010. I shouldn't have to fucking do that. That's like Final Fantasy I crap, if that. Ridiculous. So far, this for me is shaping up to be…I don't want to say it's the disappointment of the year, because I haven't played the whole game. But just from the demo it was definitely a bit of a let-down. But it is definitely a disappointment. I expected a lot more from this than what I got, and I couldn't really see spending $15 on it right now.
Tim Spaeth: Don't do it. Don't. Do not spend $15 on this game. If you're even slightly interested, wait for a sale, but you will have buyer's remorse. So, yeah. So much for being positive, but it was this or Final Fantasy XIII and, believe me, if it was Final Fantasy XIII, we'd all be feeling suicidal right now. So be happy I went with DeathSpank.
So, there we go. So that's our four games. Any final thoughts or conclusions that you would like to make before I wrap this party up? I will point to you, Chi Kong Lui. Any final thoughts? Not to put you on the spot, Chi. Now, this can be final thoughts about RPGs, or it can just be final thoughts about life in general. If you would like to make a statement about LeBron James, you may do so at this time. The floor is yours.
Chi Kong Lui: Nah, I'll spare you that pain. I don't want to bring any more negative energy to this.
Mike Bracken: Yeah. We were doing so well, Tim.
Chi Kong Lui: Yeah.
Brad Gallaway: [unknown], you guys. I was going to say I was really proud of us. I think that we heard people's feedback from the show. They thought we were too negative. We decided to make the responsive choice and give people what they wanted. At the same time, I'm really proud that we were not able to get through that, and we had to get negative again.
Mike Bracken: We just can't do a whole hour of not being assholes. This is as close as we're probably ever going to get.
Brad Gallaway: Yeah, yeah. If this isn't a positive show for you, you'd better just stop listening now.
Mike Bracken: Yeah. It's time to bail.
Tim Spaeth: I could've tried to spin Picross 3D as an RPG.
Mike Bracken: [Laughter] An RPG.
Chi Kong Lui: [Laughter]
Tim Spaeth: Then it would've been just gushing with love, but I couldn't find an angle to make Picross an RPG, alas. So there you go. I think you're right, Brad. I think we took that feedback and did a great job crafting an experience that hopefully people will enjoy and cherish for the weeks to come. Mike, any final thoughts?
Mike Bracken: I just wanted to say that it was just great to be positive for a week until Tim totally derailed us at the end. I do still love him.
Brad Gallaway: I do want to say that it was Tim. It was Tim that derailed us and not me, and not Mike.
Mike Bracken: Yeah. It wasn't me.
Chi Kong Lui: Yeah.
Mike Bracken: Yeah. It's always Brad and me, for the most part, and then Tim is usually our shining, happy little star.
Chi Kong Lui: Right.
Mike Bracken: And yet, this week, we all role-reversed.
Chi Kong Lui: Exactly. I was thinking the same words: role-reversals.
Tim Spaeth: I didn't use phrases like: "Every level is like unwrapping a present." I didn't use the word "whimsy."
Mike Bracken: Oh, no. I had these in the show notes I had crafted beforehand, words we were going to hear tonight: "Mind-blowingly awesome," "changed my outlook on life," "gave me hope for the future." All this stuff, and none of it turned up in DeathSpank. I'm really bummed about that.
Chi Kong Lui: I do have two words for Dragon Quest IX. I want to call it "artfully streamlined." That's how I would describe it.
Tim Spaeth: Hmm.
Mike Bracken: Wow.
Tim Spaeth: I like that. I like that. Yeah, I will say of everybody who spoke tonight, I think Chi probably did the best job of convincing me to pick that game up.
Mike Bracken: Yeah.
Tim Spaeth: I kind of already decided: "Not going to pick up Puzzle Quest. Etrian Odyssey kind of intimidates me, but Dragon Quest IX, I think you've sold me.
Chi Kong Lui: Great. Yeah, I was feeling like we were underselling it and I just felt bad about that.
Tim Spaeth: No. No.
Chi Kong Lui: We didn't even get into any of the gameplay details. But it wasn't necessary, at the end of the day. It would be too off-topic, in some ways.
Mike Bracken: It's a JRPG. You kind of know.
Chi Kong Lui: Exactly. I don't want to pretend like it isn't, because it is. But then I would start sounding like a fanboy if I tried to start talking about how: "Oh, yeah, the cloud system is really innovative." Yeah, fuck, no. It is what it is. We've said it. [Laughter]
Mike Bracken: It was really innovative back in Final Fantasy V.
Chi Kong Lui: [Laughter] Right, right.
Tim Spaeth: Well, let's formally wrap this up, then. To our audience: if you have comments on this episode, leave them at GameCritics.com and while you're there, check out our forums, reviews, et cetera. Let me remind you also that the GameCritics.com podcast is available through iTunes and Zune.
If you subscribe at either the Music Store or the Marketplace, leave us a review. It's only through your kindness that we can achieve the celebrity we crave. So please, write us some kind words. Thank you so much to everyone for listening, and coming back after our E3 episode. My thanks to Chi, and Brad and Mike. On behalf of the entire GameCritics.com family, I'm Tim Spaeth. Good night, and bonne chance.
But then a friend introduced her to the seedy underworld of the Mario brothers and she spent her saved-up birthday and Christmas money to buy a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Her mom didn't like the Nintendo at first, but The Legend of Zelda changed her mind. (When Tera got Zelda II: The Adventure of Link one Christmas, she suspected it was as much for her mother as for her).
Though she graduated from Agnes Scott College in 2002 and recently learned how to find the movie theater restroom by herself, Tera still loves video games. Far from being a brain-rotting waste of time, they've helped her practice spatial skills and discover new passions. Her love of games like Kid Icarus and The Battle of Olympus led to a degree in Classical Languages and Literatures. She thinks games have a place in discussions on disability and other cultural issues, and is excited to work with the like-minded staff at GameCritics.com.