Friday, March 27, 2015

MadCap's Game Reviews - "DeathSpank"

Anyone who's ever read my blog knows that I'm a fan of medieval fantasy RPGs. In fact, I think it's safe to say that it's probably my favorite genre of gaming, thanks in no small part to the likes of Bioware and Bethesda. However, if you remember that I did actually review Cthulhu Saves the World and Rad Raygun, you'll also remember that I love deconstructions of the genre and comedic pokes at some of the more completely ridiculous aspects of them. And they do have completely ridiculous aspects to them. How exactly can a character carry enough weapons to re-wallpaper every room in every castle in the land with the blood of their enemies? How can the player just stand around for hours on end without eating or sleeping? Why exactly are these magical pants slightly better than these other magical pants?

DeathSpank is a game that understands the questions that are now simmering in your head because I just put them there. We are introduced straight away to DeathSpank a man who is what you'd get if you put Zap Brannigan, Bruce Campbell, and Sir Lancelot from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and threw them together in a blender, then froze what remained and smacked it against a wall a few times. It is clear right from the beginning that DeathSpank (and yes, stop laughing, that is his name) is very much of the alignment Lawful coconut and banana sandwich crazy.

He is the stereotypical Paladin type, as I mentioned before, but is very loud and boastful of his accomplishment of increasing bizarreness and the authenticity of which could be questioned highly. He's also "highly charismatic", always speaking in an over the top tone (like the aforementioned Zap) about justice and decency, has a chin one could probably grate cheese on (in the style of Bruce Campbell), and has a complete inability to refuse the call to do some good in the world whilst on his quest.  However, the game takes this as an opportunity to point out that the crazy man in the metal suit with a bunch of different weapons has a few screws loose.

"Ah ha! So this is a parody!" I hear you saying, and indeed it is, in the best way. Like Scream, it has moments of self-referential humor and pointing out how kind of nonsense or ridiculous a certain aspect of something is. DeathSpank himself gets a lot of this, being that he's several gold pieces shy of a full pouch and yet gets to be a walking death tornado whilst on his epic quest to...oh, right, I haven't gotten to the questline yet.

The quest involves DeathSpank, stalwart hero of the land, coming to the land of...well, a seek a mystical artifact known only as "the Artifact". To do this, he must acquire the aid of a Demon Witch who locked it away behind a magic seal (that poor animal), that only she can break. The Witch can only do this with a series of items that must be procured and will no doubt be completely swamped very quickly by side quests given by NPCs as he travels along to complete that quest. As you would expect in such games, your journal will get full very, very quickly. This is largely due to the fact that DeathSpank will accept quests whether you want him to or not, but a large majority is optional. In fact, only a little over thirty are required to beat the main game.

There's also drop in-drop out co-op in the form of the wizard Sparkles, companion to DeathSpank. Unfortunately because my basement is fresh out of people I've kidnapped for harvested their organs on the black market, I didn't have a second body to hold a controller so if you want to dock points from me on that, go right ahead.

DeathSpank himself controls as you'd expect - direction stick to move and each of the letter keys are his attacks. You want to attack an enemy, you run up to them and press the button a melee weapon is assigned to 'til they die. You want to do a ranged attack, you run a little but of a distance away from them and luckily don't have to aim...though you can switch about which particular enemy you're aiming at with the other stick. Most of the time, however, you'll just want to level up your health when the opportunity arises and charge in as a melee fighter.

Why? Justice meter.

Yes, as DeathSpank is the personification of all that's good, righteous, and calorie-free, he has a mode where he is temporarily invincible and deals an insane amount of damage all over, which is particularly good for the flustercuck-y moments. When the bar at the bottom of the screen fills up to maximum, the aforementioned mode can be activated which is abundantly useful when facing a particularly nasty enemy or a crowd of enemies - such as the chickens that DeathSpank is sent to kill in the beginning for their lips.

Yes, chickens have lips. How else would they whistle?

There's also a lockpicking mechanic and by lockpicking mechanic I mean "DeathSpank walks up to it and the player presses a button when prompted and a few seconds of the sound of a wrench twisting some nuts and bolts later the chest opens". It's a nice change from, say, Skyrim's or Oblivion's lockpicking mini-games.

DeathSpank has a backpack in which he carries everything he can't bother to equip. It also comes with a grinder that can turn unwanted items into gold pieces, which is handy when you're stuck three levels down in a dungeon on a quest and have no outhouse in sight to fast-travel back to a shopkeeper...yes, the fast-travel system is through outhouses, ponder that for a moment. He can have up to four different weapons equipped at a time, all of which are binded to whatever button the player chooses for them.

There's no real strategy to them that I discovered, all do some sort of extra damage and so one would imagine the player would need a diverse assortment to content with the various creatures DeathSpank will come across. Not a bad plan, just keep doing that and upgrading to weapons that do more damage.

So, all in all, excellent game and one that made me laugh more than a few times at that. It might not be your thing if you don't enjoy well-done satire (in my opinion, at least), but if you don't mind something that can point and laugh at itself with decent combat, then DeathSpank is definitely a game for you.

DeathSpank is now available from Hothead Games and EA.

For the latest from the MadCapMunchkin, be sure to follow him on Twitter @MadCapMunchkin.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

MadCap's Pokemon Emerald Nuzlocke Challenge - 20 - "Oh, great...MORE water..."

Water, Water, Everywhere
And so, upon the back of Leviathan, Andrew gleefully defied all that was physics by doing a Dive under the water and hoping his lungs could take it. Of course he did manage to take it, though he found it odd that he was only able to descend and ascend at certain spots in the water. Bizarre enough, but then again this is also a ten year old drug dealer who has defied the laws of both nature and man, so perhaps that gave him a bit of perspective.

Of course, out of all the Dive spots he found several that were nothing but a few squares of nothing and then finally one that actually had room to move about. Eventually, though, he came back to the surface and found his way to Route 126 and a further deepness in the water leading to an underwater cave marked as "Underwater" that basically amounted to...well, a cave underwater...and found his way coming through the top to Sootopolis City. And looky looky indeed, a Gym lying right before him like a tempting mermaid upon the rocks.
Oh, sure. Just patronize me, why don't you?
Nautical puns aside (of which I will attempt not to drown you with), Andrew forewent the pleasure of heading right into the gym to shove his Speed Shoes right up the Gym Leader's rear end and instead headed to that wondrous place of healing and potential clients - the Pokemon Center. However, he instead had some difficulty maneuvering the mountain-y terrain and instead found the Cave of Origins and then was very abruptly and rudely asked to leave by an old man blocking the entrance. Apparently Andrew's reputation as a drug dealing career thief and pirate is finally making people slightly peeved when he's around.

On the opposing side of the spectrum, he found his way into the home of a Karate Master who was kind enough to cough up the TM for Brick Break. In another house, Andrew was asked by a woman whether or not he had any fans, whereupon he merely smirked in his creepy silence and said "No.", which only more strongly reinforced how mental screwed he has become. Also, he eventually figured out you have to go to the other side of the city to reach the Pokemon Center, which struck him as a bit odd.  Apparently Sootopolis is comprised of various super athletic beings and thus Andrew decided that a healthy Shroomish habit was not likely to take root here.

Besides heading into several houses and getting a Wailmer doll from one, Andrew found little of note within the city and thus decided it was time to go crack in Gym Leader Juan's face. And upon sailing to the place in question, he found the door closed.

What? Not locked? Just closed? Every door is closed!

As Andrew pondered the madness of this, I consulted the FAQ and learned that I'd apparently completely skipped a section of where one battles Team Aqua and recovers the sub they stole (or so it appears). Oh, and floor puzzles. Because if there's anything that a game needs, it's floor puzzles.

So I may very well join Andrew in his Lovecraftian insanity when we return with Part 21...which, given the rate of typing these up will likely be in a month or so.


Norris slammed his fists against the desk. "You mean you let her go?!" He demanded.

"Global ordered it." The Petalburg officer merely shrugged. "We didn't have anything on her. She was religious and crazy, but we have no physical evidence linking her to the place."

"That's why we ordered the goddamn 10-13 on her!" Norris roared at him.

"Norris, stop..." Slott started to protest.

"No, I will not stop!" Norris snapped. "She's out there, going around spreading the gospel of her damned sky snake and causing a panic! You bastards let her go and she's completely-"

"Norris! Enough! Heel!" Slott roared back, apparently cowing his partner long enough to get a word in edge-wise. "We've got far more important things to deal with. Like the constant earthquakes going on?"

"People are saying it's Groudon got loose." The officer at the desk dared to pipe up again, getting an angry glare from Norris.

"Forgive me if I don't put a lot of stock in ancient Hoenn legends, Officer." Slott said to fill the void of uncomfortable silence. "I deal in facts, and the fact is that that kid Andrew is still out there and we need to get to him. And that girl is one of our only links."

"You'll have to find another link, Detective. She has her rights." The officer replied sharply, turning back to his paperwork.

"Don't I know it..." Slott muttered as he pulled Norris away, the other man looking as though he were about ready to make the Officer eat the stapler he was putting to use.


Pokemon Emerald is brought to us by Nintendo and GameFreak.

For the latest from the MadCapMunchkin, be sure to follow him on Twitter @MadCapMunchkin.

Monday, March 16, 2015

MadCap's Mad Rantings - "Change the Cover"

Now, let me preface this post with a few things - I do not consider myself an activist. There are causes I support and which I am perfectly willing to send out some e-mails and do some healthy debating about with people who aren't going to go out of their way to scream about how I'm a raging and irredeemable misogynist (I'm not, I hate everyone equally and if you don't like that, tough toenails). However, I don't do blog posts concerning a certain Twitter hashtag for the same reason I don't do posts about my religion or political views: it isn't what I set this blog up for.

I set this up to review video games, movies, comic books, and whatever else happened to suit my fancy at any given time - sometimes even within a set schedule!

I should probably also point out that I'm not a DC fan. I know some of the storylines and characters thanks to cultural osmosis or word of mouth and I've played and view some of the spin-off properties, but the DC comics that you find in my collections will be hand me downs. I'm a Marvel boy (not to be confused with Martin Burns, Vance Astrovik, or Noh-Varr) and I'm damn proud of that fact. You can keep your Batman, I'll take Spider-Man. You can take your Doctor Fate and shove him, Doctor Strange is the Sorcerer Supreme.  You can take Atom, I'll take Hank Pym...err, Scott Lang, I'll take Scott Lang. But you get my point.

However, I can appreciate comic book history and DC has little history that is more prominent (again, by cultural osmosis) than the Batman family.  Case in point, Barbara Gordon, PhD. (yes, she has a doctorate) aka the original Batgirl. When people want to talk about positive female icons in comic books, she's a character I point to. The daughter of Commissioner Gordon, she's an excellent fighter and computer genius who worked alongside not only Bruce Wayne as Batman, but also several Robins, some of which she helped to mentor.

And then a tragic event occurred. Flashforward to 1988, when Alan Moore's The Killing Joke went to print.  Now, I hardly think I need to go into an introduction of the Joker, the most iconic symbol of insanity and evil this side of Hannibal Lecter. Needless to say, in Killing Joke, the Joker was looking to deal out some hurt on the Commissioner and Batman. He succeeded in one facet of this by shooting Barbara through his spine, which resulted in her becoming paralyzed from the waist down quite probably for the rest of her life (until recently, but remember, it's comic books). So, you would imagine this would be some kind of a soul-crushing thing that Barbara would never truly recover from, right?

Fuck, no!

Though now bound into a wheelchair, Barbara came roaring back as Oracle, putting to use her earlier computer skills as a hacker par excellence.  As Oracle, she worked to aid the individual members of the Bat Family, the Justice League, and even the Suicide Squad on various missions and has been instrumental in the success of many of their ventures. Basically put, if I didn't make this abundantly clear, Barbara Gordon is pretty awesome. The character is great and she's been able to not only overcome the injury that crippled her but, in a way, rise higher than ever before.

Of course, one would imagine that being so crippled by the Joker did no end of psychological damage to her - indeed, the Bat Family is a collection of people who have more than a few screws loose altogether, though it could be argued that Barbara and possibly Dick Grayson were the most well-adjusted of the bunch.  Still, one would expect her to feel at least a bit of fear at the prospect of facing the man again even if he hadn't crippled her as he had.

Which brings us to the present, 2015, and the "Change the Cover" controversy.

This cover, a variant (for those who don't know, that means not the main) cover for Batgirl #41, depicts the Joker having smeared his traditional lipstick smile over Barbara's face and putting an arm over her shoulder in a menacing manner.  It's chilling and playing right into Barbara's psychological trauma while faced with, again, the man who crippled her.  As it should be. However, due to a great deal of harassment and threats received by artist Rafael Albuquerque the cover was cancelled.

Because it's not as though we can have a villain doing something...y'know...villainous, that's just crazy.

Or is it because it's a woman in peril and we can't have that in spite of the fact that (as I mentioned above) it's a tribute to one of the most shocking and horrifying moments in all of comics, and a physical manifestation of the psychological trauma that Barbara likely suffers from even to this day. It's a part of her character that radical changed her and helped shape her into the character she is now (depending on the writer, I'm sure). So what? We're just supposed to ignore that?

Sure, why not?

In fact, let's ignore a few more things in comic book history.

Bucky Barnes? Never got captured by the Russians and turned into the Winter Soldier. No, he survived the fall from Zemo's rocket and went back to the States a hero, dying of old age peacefully in his bed and surrounded by his friends and family.

Peter Parker? Never lost Uncle Ben. He's perfectly fine and living with Aunt May back in their house in Forest Hills, enjoying his retirement and being all the happier for being alive. Didn't need that traumatic incident to teach him that with great power comes great responsibility.

Jason Todd? Never got beaten to death by the Joker and blown up, eventually becoming Red Hood when Superboy Prime punched reality hard enough to bring him back to life. Never suffered the trauma that followed and was made into anti-villain.

Or hey! Bruce Wayne's parents? They're alive. Apparently bullets only mildly irritate the skin and they're just fine. No worries.

Or is it okay because all four of those characters are men?

Seriously, if you're not convinced, do a little exercise for me. Take the cover above and, in your mind, replace Barbara with Jason Todd. Jason Todd who, as I will remind you, was beaten to near death by the Joker and then blown up.  Not to debate on who had it worse, but I want you to seriously consider if that cover would seem the same to you.

It would? Of course it would. Because ultimately, what the Twitter and Tumblr "activists" have failed to understand is that that cover is not about the oppression of Barbara's about the Joker being a deranged psychopath and the effect that that has had on Barbara as a character. It's a tribute to the 75th anniversary of the Joker as a character and the 25th of the fateful event in The Killing Joke. But we can't have villains being villainous to a woman, because it's not like Barbara has spent several years in the comics being a capable character who can more than handle herself.

And to top it all off, it's a variant cover. I don't know about the normal comic book shop routine, but I have to order my comics online (Thing From Another World has a very nice mailing service) and the only way I can get variant comics is to special order them. So, those people who are making a fuss about all this are making a fuss about a cover that isn't even in common circulation. Was it worth it, Twitter and Tumblr users? Was it worth it to harass and threaten violence against someone because of a creative decision? Because it makes you somewhat uncomfortable?

Was it really?

Edit: So now, apparently, the decision to pull the cover was because of threats made against people who were criticizing the cover...which just further clouds the issue. So was this just a PR scam by DC? It's sure starting to seem like it, what with the Streisand Effect in full effect. I guess we'll known when Batgirl #41 hits shelves. I won't be buying.

Friday, March 13, 2015

MadCap's Game Reviews - "Final Fantasy Legend II"

From the company that doesn't remotely know the meaning of the world "final" comes a game...not remotely related to the series I just made a joke about.  No, really.  The game was originally called Sa-Ga2: Hihō Densetsu or "The Treasure Legend" in Japan.  However, Square Enix (then Square Soft) saw the popularity of their Final Fantasy series in the United States and decided like any company with a good game going for them to beat it into the ground like a dead horse.  Thus, the "Final Fantasy Legend" games came to America's shore.  And for those of you wondering why I'm reviewing the second one instead of the first when I do indeed have both, here's my review.

Having a completely BS difficulty curve right at the beginning is stupid. Stop doing this, Japan.

I'm happy to say that Final Fantasy Legend II is actually a great deal more fair.  That is to say, you can actually leave your hometown and survive the battle with the first thing you come across. The game begins with a character selection, from which they can choose one of eight different character types - humans, mutants, robots, and a gaggle of monsters - and gender choices for both humans and mutants, but this does little beyond minor stat variations (males tend to have a higher Strength stat, females tend to have a higher Speed, if you're curious).

In the beginning, the player is treated to an opening text crawl. It speaks of MAGI (and yes, it is always spelled MAGI), a symbol of power the legacy of Ancient Gods. And of a new adventure that is about to begin...all of this without explain what MAGI is.  The player is given a piece of it by their father before he flees out of a window - however - and later learns that MAGI are the pieces of a statue of the goddess Isis.  Apparently just one piece has phenomenal cosmic power and can grant that power to others if they so take it - some pieces have even been used by individuals to become New Gods (no, not those New Gods).  These pieces (seventy-seven in all, or so we are told) are apparently very important to keeping balance between the many worlds that are held together by the Celestial Staircase and...

...I've already lost you, haven't I?

Yes, this game might as well be in the Final Fantasy series.  It has little to no connection to what came before, and has a plot that is so convoluted that it actually loops around infinity, going from ridiculous to awesome to just plain stupid very quickly and hitting every stop in between. Here's the worst part: that's still pretty awesome.  The game starts out as what seems to be your basic sword and sorcery tale (barring the fact that you can choose Robot as a playable class), until you go to one of the shops outside of your hometown and can suddenly buy a rocket.

Now, one could argue that it's simply a rocket as in one that gets lit up, not a rocket launcher. Fair assessment, I would agree.  After all, gunpowder in the real world has existed since at least the 9th century.  Given the fact that this world is a seemingly medieval era one and has a Japanese developer (right next door to China, where gunpowder was first discovered), it is entirely possible that when you buy rocket, your character is just carrying fifty fireworks rockets in a leather sack and just using them as weapons against enemies. I could buy that.

...of course, then you're able to buy a chainsaw, and suddenly you can just throw that out the window.

Basically what Square did was this game was drop Dungeons & Dragons, Final Fantasy, science fiction, Western influences, Eastern influences, and pure and simple crack into a blender and hit the "purée" button until we're left with one hell of a mess.  And it is glorious. However, it does get more and more frustrating, especially as you go on.

Much like the early Pokemon games, you have a bag full of items when you collect them and have no descriptor of indicator of what they do. Sure, some of them are self explanatory - like a sword...well, cuts things...and the aforementioned chainsaw cuts things slightly faster. But then there are items like "Stone". What does Stone do? Well, it appears to be a magic spell (yes, can buy spells that can be used by both humans and mutants) that paralyzes, but you really can't be sure about that until you put it to use and that's really not the best idea in combat.

Why? Because, again much like Pokemon, the entire game is an elemental rock-paper-scissors game.

Only you ever really get to learn what enemies are weak and strong to what until, like with items, you're in combat. So you can equip your characters with items for the battles only to find them completely useless and get your entire team slaughtered. Thankfully, there is a feature of the game that allows you to rewind time - upon death, the player characters meet Odin who agrees to revive them so long as they still have the strength to keep going.

Which works pretty well until the player characters kill him.  Spoiler alert.

While this does indeed help by allowing what is essentially unlimited continues, Odin drops the characters right back into the first round of the battle exactly as they were. Hey, All-Father, crazy thought. How 'bout loaning out Mjolnir or that spear you have that literally cannot miss? From a more practical standpoint, if you do get into the situation that I mentioned before it gives you an opportunity to run. Unless you're in a plot-related or boss fight, then you're right screwed and better off just reloading a previous save.

The player has four stats that factor into key facets of the game - Strength, Defense, Agility, and Mana. Strength is the character's ability to deal out some physical hurt with, say, a sword or an axe. Defense keeps them from being hurt, usually having to be supplemented by armor. Agility deals with attack speed in combat as well as damage with ranged weaponry. Mana is spellpower, pure and simple, and Mutants have the highest but don't really excel in any other department.

In the beginning, the main character can pick three compatriots to go with them in a manner identical to the selection of the main character. Top tip: Do not pick a robot or a creature.  Three humans and one mutant. Trust me. Pick whichever genders you like, but no robots and no creatures. Robots are good in theory, but upon death they drop in hit points until they're pretty much unusable. Creatures are a whole other mess of crazy. When certain enemies are slain (the combat is turn based, see literally any FF game to see how it's done), they'll drop meat. If you try to feed it to anyone other than a creature, nothing will happen.

If you feed it to a creature, however, that creature will completely change into another type of creature depending on the meat. However, there is no way to know just what each type of meat will turn each type of creature into. It would be very easy to have a Baby Dragon who is very good in combat and massively useful...and then have it turn into a demonic flower that has a weak attack that is completely useless to the situation.  Really, unless you happen to be sifting through a walkthrough online, you're basically playing Russian Roulette every time you eat the meat.

So, with all my complains about this game...why is it still so appealing? Mostly because it preys on that tiny little fragment of the human brain that remains from our caveman ancestors that wants to beat the tar out of people and take their stuff...okay, let me retract that and work it out so it doesn't sound so absolutely horrifying. It's that instinct of an RPGer to hunt down enemies, get their loot, sell the loot you can't use to buy better loot and become stronger. But more than that, it's just fun to have situations like fighting a bunch of samurai in a feudal-Japan themed world and pulling out a chainsaw to clash with their katanas.

Those together make for an enjoyable enough grind. And as final a fantasy as the 600 other games that hold the title...

Final Fantasy Legend II is brought to us by Square Soft (now Square Enix) and is available for the Game Boy.

For the latest from the MadCapMunchkin, follow him on Twitter @MadCapMunchkin.

Friday, March 6, 2015

MadCap's Game Reviews - "100th Review Spectacular!" we are.  One hundred reviews.  1-0-0. I can't believe it, I really can't. When I started doing this way back in 2011, I honestly thought I'd be here some time in 2013 never thought I'd make this far. I've battled the forces of darkness time and again. I've saved the world of Thedas not once, not twice, but three times. I've lost my mind in the jungles of a distant island.  I've marched into Hell itself, and palled around with two of the Four Horsemen.

I've even battled one of the greatest evils that has ever been burned onto a game disc.

And, of course, I've had many other adventures and hopefully I've been engaging and entertaining, as well as at least a little informative. I started this blog for me simply because I didn't find Dragon Age II a satisfying experience as its predecessor and look what I ended up with...a blog floating about on the waves of the internet that nobody actually reads, and just over six hundred followers on Twitter.

...okay, so I really shouldn't be complaining.

Nevertheless, I know there are some out there who are bound to be reading and have been somewhat regularly. To those that do so - thank you very much, I highly appreciate it. This one is for all of you...and for me, as well.  I thought long and hard about what game I would review for my one hundredth. After all, it's a big milestone and just any game wouldn't do. I couldn't just review something I plucked out of the bargain bin or a ROM that I'd been sent or anything of the like. No, I had to come up with something more.  Really dig back into my history as a gamer and bring up something that I could use to push the envelop.  Bring to the table that which I hadn't brought before, and bring you the MadCapMunchkin like you've never seen him before.  Bigger, longer, and uncut...and yes, by this point you've figured out that I'm stalling for dramatic build up.

It's Morrowind!
The Elder Scrolls series is not one that I've done absolutely nothing to hide my love of.  And why should I? It's a great series of western sandbox RPGs that have been the benchmark for how Western RPGs are done in this day and again.  Everyone (including me) will roll their eyes as the constant bugs and glitches that may crop up in their products, but those who love these games love them with good reason.  They're immerse, go on forever, and have graphics that are utterly awe-inspiring.

...with the exception of Oblivion, but we've covered that.

For me, it was a love that started from this game.  Elder Scrolls III:  Morrowind. I remember well, the year was 2003.  I was in middle school - that awkward transition period between a boy and a slightly older boy with peach fuzz facial hair - and my stepfather brought it home, a three disc set that I still have to this day - Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind Game of the Year Edition. I had played games like Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and others of the kind, but this was my first experience with an RPG.  While it's a Western RPG, there are definitely some very not Western Europe Medieval Era influences in so many things in Morrowind.

The designs alone just blew my mind, and opened it right up so I could be exposed to so many things that were completely different from the "norm" I had been thus exposed to.  Realms of fantasy could suddenly be so much more, and I allowed myself to become completely immersed in this strange and wondrous land.  Words cannot describe what Morrowind is, one has to see it for themselves.  By the end of this, however, I hope that I will have your appetite whetted enough to look into it.
Your cell mate. Oh, poor Jiub...

The game begins like every other one of the main Elder Scrolls series does - with the main character in prison.  In this case, it's a prison ship.  We receive narration from Diana of Them-I mean, Azura, the Daedric Prince of Twilight, who tells you that you have been brought by ship to the island of Morrowind.

Instead of facing execution only to be saved by a dragon, or life imprisonment if you don't allow the Emperor to hit on you, your character is actually being pardoned and released. You go through a short tutorial to pick your name, race, birthsign, and class and're free. Besides taking a package to Caius Cosades in Balmora (and there's nothing to make you do that), the main quest isn't remotely restrictive provided you don't kill anyone who's necessary to the plot.

This was before Bethesda had worked out making certain characters essential. Whenever the player manages to kill an NPC that is vital to the plot, a pop up message appears reading:

"With this character's death, the thread of prophecy is severed.
Restore a saved game to restore the weave of fate,
or persist in the doomed world you have created."

Certain characters who aren't essential are marked as such, so not everyone who makes this message pop up is going to prevent the player from completing the Main Quest when they choose to do so. And even if you manage to kill an NPC...there is an alternate route to doing it, but it requires - in the end - far more work in grinding and frustration that in the end, you might as well have towed the line and done in the easy (if longer) way.

Which brings me to how leveling is done.  Along with its immediate successor - Oblivion, Morrowind has the player select a certain amount of skills - in this case, Major and Minor that equal ten each, along with the remaining skills being put as "Miscellaneous" - and upon raising Major or Minor skill ten times, the player receives a level. However, this is where a large flaw in the game's design becomes apparent.  When you level, the game tells you to "rest and meditate on what you've learned" as in Oblivion.  Unlike the next game, however, Morrowind will actually take away your attribute points from level ups if you level up again.

So if you're going to power level, you better know where a usable bed is.

Which brings me to combat, a vital part of leveling up if you choose any weapon skills. Hit detection right out of the gate is somewhere where the game suffers. If you have a melee weapon, you have a better time with it but if you're going for ranged you're going to be in for a really bad time early on. Pro-tip for just about every class - buy up all the Sujamma you can find. It boosts your Strength attribute by fifty points when you drink it, which bumps up your hit ratio (which is based off of Strength), which makes things a lot easier if you can stomach the fifty point drop in Intelligence.  Unless you're playing a mage, you won't have to worry to much.
Nope, no fast travel. Have fun walking (or using the console).

Which, of course, brings me to the magic: It's awful.  That's not a joke, I genuinely find magic in Morrowind to be a disturbingly frightening thing. Even if your skill is high, you stand a chance of spells outright failing.  This makes being a spellcaster at low levels a joke unless you're just going from spells on scrolls or magic items and even then successful spellcasting is based on your appropriate attribute and Luck, so it could still fail at a critical moment. What's worse, the power of some items is also tied to your abilities.  The UESP Wiki claims "Trying to cast a last minute Divine Intervention with a Mysticism skill of 5 will take a lot of luck". This statement is inaccurate.

Try absolutely impossible.

Needless to say, I did not try the magic overmuch. Others have done it and used exploits or just good old grinding to beat the odds with the success ratios, but I lacked the patience and/or desire to break the game. Another gripe I have that they thankfully fixed in later games was that, to do magic, the player must press a button and forgo the use of weapons by sticking their hands out before them as though they're about to do the first step in the Macarena. Then they can cast. Unlike later games, when the player can have a melee weapon equipped and still perform magic.

Now you may be wondering at this point what exactly I've been doing ragging on about a game that I love and have held up before as one of the greatest games I've ever played. So why have I been going on for so long about all the negative features? Why, to get them out of the way as I get to what I actually like about this game - namely...everything I didn't mention before.

The Main Quest alone is epic in scale.  You've been sent to this island by Emperor Uriel Septim with a packet of orders for one Caius Cosades. If and when you take him up on the Main Quest, if you bother to pay attention, you can learn about the very rich and well-developed backstory of the island of Vvardenfell and that of Morrowind as a whole. You learn about the Chimer war hero known as Lord Nerevar, and the terrible trials he had to endure. How he was either - depending on who you ask - betrayed by his friend and advisor Dagoth Ur, or his friends and advisors Vivec, Sotha Sil, and Almalexia and killed.
Complete monster or misunderstood and betrayed?
Either way, the Chimer became the Dunmer because one or possibly both of these groups really, really pissed off Azura. However, thanks to the Heart of Lorkhan - a Trickster deity who, in most lore, tricked or got willing assistance from other deities to create the world - all four of them became gods.  Vivec, Sotha Sil, and Almalexia formed the Tribunal, and are the centerpiece of Morrowind's most popular religion. However, Dagoth Ur continued to live and it was prophesied by Azura that one day, the reincarnation of Nerevar would come to Morrowind and set things right again.

That's right.  You're not just some shmuck on a prison boat. You're Dark Elf Jesus...


There's actually some debate as to whether or not the player character is the Nerevarine or not. But that's all philosophical mumbo jumbo and not really necessary to understand for the enjoyment of the game.  The basic takeaway is that the player must defy the Tribunal, maneuver through the wilds to find the lost tribals in order to be recognized as the Nerevarine, and then make an assault on Dagoth Ur's base in the Red Mountain whilst gathering the tools necessary to defeat him and destroy the Heart of Lorkhan forever.

You get no fast travel (apart from the Silt Striders and the Mages' Guild transporters), you get no quest marker. If you don't know where you're going, you're just going to wander.  And that's okay.  In fact, some of the most fun you're going to have is in wandering about the countryside finding things as you head to your destination. You'll find all sorts of side quests all about the world and, to be honest, you'll want to.  The Main Quest itself, while indeed being the Main Quest is just the tip of the iceberg.  If you just do that, then you've barely touched ten percent of what the game offers in whole.  Luckily, that's why there are more guilds and the Great Houses of Morrowind.

The Guilds operate very much as they do in Oblivion and Skyrim. You have a Fighters', and Mages', and a Thieves' which all are pretty much exactly what they say on the tin.  However, the Fighters' and the Thieves' guilds are at odds with one another due to the former guild being puppets of the Cammona Tong crime syndicate, a pro-Morrowind group that hates Imperial interference in their homeland, which the Thieves' Guild is largely made up of. The Mages' Guild is heavily Imperial, which puts them into (sort of, but not really) direct opposition to House Telvanni, one of the three Great Houses of Morrowind that's heavily isolationist and...

Okay, there's a lot of different dynamics and politics involved in the game, but that's also what makes it interesting. There's a great deal more depth to things than there appears to be at first glance. Who you decide to side with will have an effect on people in both your chosen guild and opposing guilds and how they respond to you, which could make some quests easier or more difficult. There's also something important to note, while there is actually a work around to be able to be both the Fighters' and Thieves' guilds, there is no legitimate way to be in two different Great Houses at once.
[Actual Photograph of the Nerevarine...seems legit]

And to be honest, I really like that.  I also like that you do actually have to level up your skills in order to advance in your respective guilds.  Something that both Oblivion and Skyrim abandon, likely due to complaints. We do play these games to divorce ourselves from reality for a time, but the fact is that the armor-clad warrior (no matter how cunning he may be) isn't going to become the head of the Thieves' Guild or the Dark Brotherhood by any stretch of the imagination. So it makes sense that you not only have a limited selection once you've chosen certain guilds, but also that you actually do have to be skilled enough to earn your place.

Compare to Oblivion, where I had one character that I managed to complete the Mages' Guild quest line at fourth level and with no difficulty uppage as you might expect.  Really would call into question the competence of those who were, before that point, in charge of the place.

It also encourages multiple playthroughs.  Well played, Bethesda. Well played.

And I could go on about the relationships between the Great Houses as well as those between the various Guilds, but that would be a whole other review in itself. The basic takeaway from it all is that there's so much more depth and complexity than in Oblivion or Skyrim because you can't have it all.  You have to make choices and deal with the consequences of said choices. You are literally shaping the landscape of this country, for good or ill.

And yes, you are shaping the landscape by the end of the Main Quest because you have not only killed an insane god, but also have proof positive that Morrowind's main religion is nothing more than a hollow lie.  I'm sure this will in no way cause the people of Morrowind to go into crisis and very likely lead to the complete and utter collapse of the one major religion in the region due to the fact that it's what a majority of the Dunmer people have been raised to believe and will in no way cause them all to spiral into misery and despair.

Nice job, moron.

Lastly to note, the game is largely text-based and is sadly the last game in the series to do so. The dialogue menu with most NPCs bring up dozens of different options depending on your location and quests, and it really enriches the world more than the few blurbs spat out by Oblivion or Skyrim's NPCs. It really says a lot when lines upon lines of text is more enriching and immersive to the player than six different voice actors who are speaking their hearts out giving the same eight or nine lines over and over and over again. Also, there's none that creepy fixed-eye contact from Oblivion.  Gold star.

Summing up, I have spoken quite often about games that have shaped me into a gamer - my preferences and playstyles and the like - from my childhood. I first played this game in 2003, as I said before. I'd sit and I'd watch him play and I'd play myself and we're discuss quests and strategies and the like.  Between the two of us (and admittedly, he got a lot more mileage out of it than I did at the time), we maybe only scratched a good fifteen, twenty percent of the game in total. There is so much to this game to be found and so much to still be enjoyed. Even now, I find new things about it that I never of knew before. It's a game that opened my eyes to a whole new world. It's a game

It's the game that made me want to be a gamer.  And thirteen years later, it's still as good as when I first put it into the PC.

Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is now available from Bethesda for Xbox and PC.

For the latest from the MadCapMunchkin, be sure to follow him on Twitter @MadCapMunchkin.

A special thanks go out to all my readers. You made this possible. Thank you!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Madcap's Reel Thoughts - "Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme" (2007)

Just before the era when someone put Sherlock Holmes into the suit of Iron Man (and also Sherlock Holmes), Marvel had not yet cut the mustard with a film adaptation. Sure, both the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises were doing exceedingly at the box office (well, until this year for the latter franchise, anyway), but Marvel had yet to be making it's own revenue stream completely independent of two production companies who haven't had an original idea since cancelling Firefly or the Playstation, respectively.  However, in the animated arena...they also weren't heavily ahead in the animated arena, either.  But we've covered some of that.

What we haven't yet covered is Doctor Stephen Strange, Sorcerer Supreme. He's one of the oldest Marvel characters, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Stephen's story is that of a brilliant neurosurgeon who becomes egotistical and callous because of his great talent until he is met with a terrible accident that severs the nerves in his hands - completely destroying his fine motor skills and ending his career as a surgeon forever.  Desperate for a cure, he tries everything, and eventually finds his way to Tibet.  In the temple of a sorcerer known only as the Ancient One, Stephen saves the sorcerer from his evil apprentice and recommits himself to a higher purpose as the defender of every soul in his dimension from cosmic horrors we know not of.

Doctor Strange is one of the oldest and most powerful characters in the Marvel universe (y'know, when World War Hulk isn't nerfing him to hell and back). This is the guy who battles Cthulhu on a regular basis...and kicks his ass handily. So, one would think that a very, very big threat would be needed for him to contend with.  Well, as this is an origin story, we don't really have him on the level of fighting the primordial beasts from before the beginning of time.

I'll go ahead and say it, this movie is really good. I mean, really good.  If Marvel isn't following this movie as a blueprint for when he makes his Marvel Cinematic Universe appearance in 2016 (where they will be putting Sherlock Holems in the cloak of Doctor Strange), then they better have something more awesome - because this story has it all.  It gives more motivation and backstory for Stephen, we see very palpably in a montage the struggle he faces in having his fine motor skills callously taken from him, and we feel the triumph when he rises to a higher purpose under the Ancient One's tutelage.

The film begins with Stephen Strange (Bryce Johnson) as a cold, callous neurosurgeon living in New York and refusing to take any cases that don't get him either a substantial payout or high recognition for his craft.  Eventually, he is brought a case of a child with strange brain activity  as well as the comatose state of several others with the same condition...and is witness to the girl's nightmare of a face wreathed in flames, upon which he - understandably freaked out - refuses the case and leaves.  Then comes his terrible accident, where - in this version - he loses control of his car upon seeing apparitions of the children.  As stated above, the nerves in his hands are damage - he will never be able to so much as hold a scalpel again.

However, the good doctor refuses to take this lying down and we get a short montage of him speaking with various specialists - who all say that there's nothing they can do - coupled with others speaking of how his wealth and his lines of credit are no longer good, as we see him sinking deeper and deeper into despair. Even to the point of preparing himself to jump off a bridge...until a mysterious man by the name of Wong (Paul Nakauchi) comes to him with one last potential cure, hidden away deep in Tibet...

The entire sequence is quite intense and you really do feel for Stephen as he sinks deeper and deeper into misery. It also doesn't take up half the film, because they know the audience wants to get to the good stuff, and the film does deliver on that.
Talk to the hand!
From there, Stephen goes to Tibet and the temple of the Ancient One (Michael Yama) where he hopes to find a cure and instead...finds something greater. I have to say the voice acting is very good, particularly the always talented Kevin Michael Richardson voicing Baron Mordo - the Ancient One's former apprentice and Stephen's main rival. The animation is very well done and, indeed, heartbreakingly beautiful with some of the landscapes (mostly in Tibet, most of the "city" scenes are passable).The character designs all look pretty good, even the tertiary characters.  And yes, there are some side characters who were not in the original - apprentices of the Ancient One who are basically there just to be killed off by Mordo when he turns evil (spoiler alert).

Now seems like a good enough time to mention some of the backstory, so here we go: Stephen had a little sister who needed surgery for...a brain something something...and she died on the operating table when he took the case after several other surgeons refused to do it.  In the original comics, this was kind of the case with his sister - then named Donna - who died of a cramp while swimming, though I don't know if that lore has been touched upon in recent years.  This is represented in the film by a large, stone wall that Stephen is set to break down every day, only for it to be built back up again the next day.

From there...well, I've given you half the plot...the rest, you'll have to watch the film for.  Needless to say, it's a fun ride that gives just enough to get new viewers invested without bogging them down over the heavier concepts that Doctor Strange's mythos brings to the table.  There's only one mention of Agamotto - indirectly, via the Eye of Agamotto - and none of the Vishanti or the other powers that Stephen and other sorcerers call upon for power. Magic is also explained from a more scientific angle - the Ancient One no doubt trying to speak to Stephen's experience as a surgeon - while still retaining the fact that it's, well, magic.

I actually prefer this, particular in light of how Thor took the route of "magic is science that we don't understand yet". That's fine, though it's a bit more difficult to say that with Doctor Strange, who is clearly not using some form of technology beyond some artifacts (like the aforementioned Eye). So I take it as "magic is science that we don't understand tip, you aren't going to understand it on this level. Ever."
" got real ugly..."
But, as stated before, this movie is good and yet could have done a lot worse with the they did in the 1970s. That's a train wreck for another time, however.  The only thing I can really say that is a bit of a disappointment is the ending, in which Stephen defeats Dormammu (Johnathan Adams) way too easily. Then again, Dormammu - the fiendish overlord of the Dark Dimension who has plots within plots within plots to gain dominion over all life - isn't really given much time to shine before he's defeated, and I'd hoped perhaps that he might get some more time in a sequel or the like. Here, he only speaks about four lines, has a rather dull plan and gets defeated in a really rather deus ex machina way.

A far cry from the Stephen Strange in the comics, who bound Dormammu to the Dark Dimension by knowing how to manipulate the Dread Lord's twisted sense of ethics.

Still, this film does achieve what it sets out to do - and does it well overall beyond a few minor complaints I have with it.  It's a more than adequate and enjoyable ride of not quite ninety minutes, and a good introduction to anyone who is more than a little curious about Doctor Strange before his big movie comes out in 2016, but doesn't want to be completely swamped.

Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme is now available from MLG Productions and Lions Gate on DVD and on Netflix Instant Streaming.

For the latest from the MadCapMunchkin, be sure to follow him on Twitter @MadCapMunchkin.