Play more than one campaign from Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and you may start to notice resemblances between the Black Eagles, Blue Lions, and Golden Deer that go beyond those recycled school missions from the first half of the game. While the characters for the most part have very distinct personalities and backgrounds, they also conform to archetypes of sorts, bearing traits in common with counterparts from rival classrooms. Whether they’re the nobility-loving stiff, the meek little mouse, or the ‘fighting solves everything’ obsessed trainer, the personalities of these people are like ingredients, and the multiples have been distributed according to a rough (and effective) formula in order to create three similarly functioning houses full of rich flavor.
Their presence also lets Three Houses properly explore its themes of class, war, and growth no matter which ragtag group players wind up choosing.
The Ambitious Leaders
Though that formula does have variations, it starts off each time with a strong base. Though Edelgard, Dimitri, and Claude at first seem to share few likes and dislikes (other than their professor, of course), they are bound by an overarching ambition that greatly influences the course of events. While the first half of Three Houses is mostly on rails (outside various paralogues), the missions in the second half stem from these ambitions — and/or failures to achieve them. Most of the other characters react to events as if simply along for the ride, but the three house leaders all are strong forces with their own agendas, bent on actively shaping the world they live in — for better or worse.
Whether approving of these three imposing their will upon others (to varying degrees) or not, Three Houses does an admirable job in reserving judgment for the player alone to make.
The classrooms of Garreg Mach are a mix of nobles and commoners, and no matter which house players choose, this intermingling will become a topic of conversation. The two stuffed shirts that most verily stand out are the awesome Ferdinand and the less-awesome Lorenz, but in many ways the pious Mercedes can be included, though her approach is from a different point of view. Those first two guys espouse a philosophy of innate superiority and inferiority, with the former obliged to care for the latter in return for deference. By taking this stand (which is strangely not as off-putting as it sounds, as they they really do seem to want to help people), Three Houses can challenge their ideas via the various commoners they share a class with, such as Dorothea or Leonie. Meanwhile, Mercedes provides contrast as a noble who wishes she wasn’t. Though perhaps written a little too perfect, Mercedes serves as an example of someone who plays the part with utmost generosity and impeccable manners, but longs to be free of the nobility trap.
These discussions are among Three Houses‘ best, and give a peek into how the land of Fódlan has been operating up until now. Many of these characters also have familial pressures that weigh heavily on them — obligations that give no time for personal dreams. Will the wisdom these characters accrue during their debates change how they perceive the world, and possibly alter their plans for the future?
Is there a more entertaining character in Three Houses than Bernadetta? To each their own, but the never-ending string of whimpers, shrieks, squeals, and freak-outs injects so much goofy humor into an otherwise dramatic plot that it seems impossible not to want to see how every single one of her support conversations plays out. However, the timid archer is not the only one who ducks the company of others whenever she gets the chance. Marianne thinks she’ll curse everyone she meets, and Dedue believes that even standing near a Fódlanite could wreck their social standing by virtue of his nationality, and so both choose to avoid all human contact as best they can.
These character types provide two important things: first, they allows each house to develop some truly cruel back stories with which to slowly unveil and surprise classmates whose pesky problems look much tinier in comparison (thus giving them and the player a wider perspective on the world). Second, they give those same classmates an opportunity to draw these shrinking violets out and into the world, to tout the virtues of not only interacting with those around you, but also to see the wonders of nature. Whether it’s a conversation about flowers or witnessing a gorgeous sunset, Bernie, Dedue, and Marianne have some of the most satisfying arcs in the game.
Hey, sometimes the only way to solve a problem is to beat it up, right? The enthusiastic Caspar, gregarious Raphael, and laser-focused Felix all initially fall on the side that might makes right. Their individual reasons and approaches might vary — one hopes to make a name for himself as a knight, one just wants to be in food money for himself and his sister, and one hates the idea of knights, period — but they all endlessly focus on training their bodies to become peerless warriors.
Naturally, this philosophy is exploited to explore the reverse, and this trio is steadily introduced to a string of arguments in favor of both headier and more emotional approaches to things. Caspar is taught to see the consequences of diving into situations headfirst without understanding them, Raphael learns that tactics can also be important in battle, and Felix is forced to admit that he can enjoy both cake and human company. These guys might initially come off as stubborn to some, but they have some of these warmest and fuzziest support conclusions.
This category is a little tougher to define, and my first thought was to call it “The Lazies,” but characters like Hilda, Sylvain, and Linhardt do have moments where they apply themselves, whether by charming classmates or analyzing them. Regardless, they all tend to look upon their fellow human beings as specimens to be manipulated or experimented on for personal gain. There are varying degrees of coldness involved — Linhardt is the only one that really comes off as scientific — but each User rarely at first considers the feelings and overall being that they interact with. Hilda finds a weakness to flatter, Sylvain puts on a romantic facade, and Linhardt…well, he doesn’t even hide his robotic nature.
Okay, maybe some of them have some deep-down reasons for this behavior, but it’s still not acceptable. The good news with these potential psychopaths is that over the course of Three Houses they will learn to see how their behavior affects others, and possibly acquire some empathy along the way for these hu-mans. Well, maybe not Linhardt as much as the others, but Spock still managed to be an emotionless good guy, so there’s hope.
There are doubtless many other similarities between the ingredients of each Fire Emblem: Three Houses class, but the above examples represent some of the ones I appreciated the most. The writers have crafted truly unique and engaging characters across the board, and it’s interesting to see how they formed balanced classrooms that can explore similar themes while still feeling distinct. There’s no doubt this factor contributes greatly to making Fire Emblem: Three Houses an incredibly addicting and memorable experience.
The Magic of Nintendo: How Mario and Zelda Connect us to Our Inner Child
Nintendo is special. Many excellent developers depend upon story or progression systems to entice engagement, but not Nintendo. Nintendo games captivate because of their immediate charm. There is no need for a payoff. The games, themselves, are enough: they elicit feelings, hard to find in adulthood. Through intrepid discovery, playful presentation, and unfiltered whimsy, the best of Nintendo connects gamers to their childlike selves.
The heart of any great Nintendo game is discovery and no encounter encapsulates this better than Breath of the Wild’s Eventide Island. First, finding the island requires genuine gumption. Found far from Hyrule’s shore, the island is only clearly visible from other islands, and even then, it’s only a speck in the distance. Reaching the island requires players to brave the open ocean and head towards something … that could be nothing. Then, upon arriving on the beach, a spirit takes all the player’s gear, including clothes and food. Link, literally, is left in his underwear. From there, players must make clever use of Link’s base skills in order to steal enemy weapons and make traps. The scenario creates a marvelous sense of self-sufficiency brought on by one’s own desire to discover. The player comes to the island purely of their own choosing, tackles the sea, and then overcomes obstacles without the aid of their strongest tools. The game turns players into plucky children who are discovering they can take care of themselves.
The intrepidity of Breath of the Wild and other Nintendo greats mirrors the feelings Shigeru Miyamoto, the father of many Nintendo franchises, experienced as a child. “I can still recall the kind of sensation I had when I was in a small river, and I was searching with my hands beneath a rock, and something hit my finger, and I noticed it was a fish,” Miyamoto told the New Yorker. “That’s something that I just can’t express in words. It’s such an unusual situation.” In sequences like Eventide Island, players don’t just understand what Miyamoto describes, they feel it: Apprehension gives way to exhilaration as the unknown becomes a place of play.
Nintendo’s intrepid gameplay is often amplified by playful presentation with Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island being the quintessential example. The game’s visuals, defined by pastel colors and simple hand-drawings, appear crayoned by a child while the celestial chimes that punctuate the jubilant soundtrack evoke shooting stars. The overall effect cannot be understated. It takes the surreal and turns it real, allowing players to interact, tangibly, with imagination.
Even if one removes the presentation and gameplay from Nintendo’s masterpieces, an unabashed creativity remains that bucks norm and convention. The arbiter is fun; reason and logic have no say. For instance, Super Mario Odyssey’s Wooded Kingdom, takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting akin to Nier Automata. Players explore the metal remnants of a civilization that has become a lush home to robotic beings. However, unlike Nier, the dark undertones of the past have no bearing on the game or those who inhabit its universe. The post-apocalyptic setting is just a fun backdrop. It’s as though a bunch of children got together, began playing with toys, and one of the kids brought along his sibling’s adult action figures. There is no attention paid to the context, only unfiltered imagination.
When they’re at their best the creators at Nintendo invite gamers to come and play, like a parent arranging a play date. Pulled along by joyful gameplay that expands in unforeseen ways, players desire to play for the sake of play. It’s a halcyon state of being: No messy thoughts or contradiction, just joy.
‘Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind’: An Utterly Shameless Cash Grab
Coming in at a $40 price point (!!!) Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind offers an 80% recycled campaign, a boss rush mode, and some other trash.
In the 15 year long history of DLC, we have seen some really shameless displays. The notorious horse armor incident of 2006 and a notable day one DLC for the ending game of a trilogy notwithstanding, few companies have had the utter audacity to offer so little content for such a high price point. Enter Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind.
Coming in at a $40 price point (!!!) Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind offers an 80% recycled campaign, a boss rush mode, and some social media nonsense for people who really hate themselves. That’s really it, that’s what you get. Honestly, Square-Enix should be utterly embarrassed by this DLC.
It’s been one year: 365 days, 8760 hours, 525600 minutes, or 31556952 seconds, since the release of Kingdom Hearts III. Let that sink in as you begin the meat of Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind. Think of it as the extended version of a movie you really like… you know, the kind where they add 4 minutes to the 120 minute runtime.
Yes, Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind, really is that cynical. I’m not kidding when I tell you that the game literally starts with an exact cut scene from the base game, and a cut scene that happens to be available from the theater mode of the main game that you’ve already bought if you’re playing this DLC. Yes, the introduction to this new content is… content you’ve already seen.
In fact, that’s kind of the sticking point here: most of what you get for your hard-earned cash is footage you’ve already seen, and battles you’ve already fought, and story you’ve already experienced, just with slight alterations for context. Remember back in the 2000s, when we were super obsessed with prequels? This is like that, except even more egregious.
Generally I’m not so unforgiving as to call a company out for a forthright cash grab, but that’s absolutely what Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind is. There’s just no other way to put it. You might find someone in the marketing department for Square-Enix who would disagree, but being a company that has faced just these sort of allegations for their last two major releases, Square-Enix either doesn’t read the news, or doesn’t care what people think of their products.
Square-Enix was roundly accused of shipping unfinished products in the case of both Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III — their two most high profile releases of the last decade. I personally gave mostly positive reviews of both games for this very website but if you want ammo to suggest that this company is deliberately trading on the nostalgia and passion of its fan base in order to make financial headway, there are few examples you could draw from that are as obvious as this DLC.
Look, maybe you’re a really big Kingdom Hearts fan. Maybe you just really wanted to know what the context was for that cliffhanger ending in Kingdom Hearts III. Maybe you just don’t do much research before you buy something. Or maybe… you just really trust this company for some reason.
Hey, I’m not judging… hell, I bought this DLC for $40 same as anyone else. I oughta be honest that I’m not reviewing Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind as some holier than thou critic, talking down to you from my position of privilege. No, I’m an angry consumer in this particular case. I’m a person who spent enough to replace a flat tire on my car, or buy my family dinner, on a game that is clearly playing off of my love for a franchise, and using it to bilk me out of money in a method that is so clear, and so concise, that those involved in the entire endeavor should be totally embarrassed for their part in the creation, marketing, pricing, and distribution of this expansion.
Yes, fans had their complaints about Kingdom Hearts III. “Where are the hardcore boss battles? Where are the Final Fantasy characters? Where are the secret areas? Where are the hidden plot developments?” Still, to address these particular complaints by hammering a few minutes or seconds here and there into already existing content is truly like spitting in the faces of the people who have built the house you’re living in.
I haven’t sat in the board rooms at Square-Enix and I haven’t been in email chains about the planning of projects at their company but what I can say is that there is something rotten in Denmark if this is what passes for a satisfying piece of content for the wildly devoted fans of a hugely popular franchise in 2020. Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind is literally, truthfully, and succinctly, the worst piece of DLC I’ve ever purchased.
10 Years Later: ‘Mass Effect 2’ is An All-Time Sci-fi Classic
Mass Effect 2 didn’t just nail the formula for a successful sequel, it tied together one of the greatest science fiction tales ever.
Mass Effect launched in 2007 as the boldest science fiction project ever conceived for consoles. The complex mythology, history and the many alien races, each with their own political/religious beliefs offered a depth rarely seen in the medium. Only a game as ambitious as Mass Effect 2 could not only match the pedigree of such a massive project but surpass it in every single way imaginable.
Released 3 years after the original, a full decade ago, Mass Effect 2 set the benchmark for not just sequels but for science fiction gaming as well. Few sequels are able to overcome the weaknesses of their predecessors with such perfect accuracy while also doubling down on what made them good in the first place.
The first task that fell to Bioware was to refine the combat. The original game had more of a strategic angle to it but that strategy meant the game was constantly stopping and starting, stuttering the action and ruining the flow of the game. By streamlining the combat into more of an action RPG experience (emphasis on action), Mass Effect 2 created a much better sense of tension in battle sequences. Aiming, using techniques and issuing orders also flowed more smoothly with these changes.
Another major change was the removal of the Mako, an exploratory rover the player drove around alien planets with. While a novel idea, the Mako often lead to aimless wandering as the player sought out resources on the many planets of Mass Effect. Instead of driving to their destination, players were now warped directly to the area they would be exploring. Resource collection was overhauled as a result.
While few players will talk about the thrill of spinning a globe around and aiming a reticle in order to collect resources in Mass Effect 2, the simple speed by which this process was streamlined offered a hefty margin of improvement over the original game. Resources that might have taken a half-hour to collect in the first game could now be found in 1/10 of that time. Resource collection, while a vital part of the game, was never meant to be the time sink it was in the original Mass Effect, and by speeding up this process, Mass Effect 2 allowed players to get back to the meat of the game: doing missions and exploring the galaxy.
Of course, these aren’t necessarily the most significant changes that players will recall from their time with Mass Effect 2. The story and character roster were also expanded considerably from the first game, and these are without a doubt the biggest improvements that this sequel is able to mount.
While Mass Effect had seven playable characters, Mass Effect 2 expanded that to twelve. Not only was the amount of characters an improvement, though, the quality of the characters on offer was also much stronger this time around. A full nine new characters were introduced for players to utilize in combat, strategize with and get to know throughout the game. Among them were badass assassin Thane Krios, dangerous convict Jack, morally dubious Miranda Lawson, and hivemind robot Legion.
In fact, the cast of Mass Effect 2 is so good that it has rightfully become a benchmark for the creation of a compelling cast of characters in RPGs, and video games, in general. The sheer diversity on display in the looks, personalities and movesets allowed for the cast is awe-inspiring, and this is without even considering the trump card that Mass Effect 2 flashed throughout the experience of playing the game.
The monumental suicide mission to raid the Collectors’ base and save humanity is the impetus for the entire plot of Mass Effect 2, and the reason for which the player is recruiting the baddest mother fuckers from all over the galaxy in hopes of success. It isn’t just a suicide mission in name either, many, or even all, of the cast can die during the completion of this mission, adding a layer of suspense and finality to the final stage of Mass Effect 2 that few other games can match.
To this end, players were encouraged to get to know their crew through loyalty missions specific to each cast member. By undertaking these optional missions and completing them in a way that would impress or endear themselves to the character in question, players were able to ascertain the unquestioned respect and loyalty of that character, ensuring they wouldn’t go rogue during the final mission.
Still, even passing these prerequisites with flying colors wasn’t a guarantee for success. Players also had to pay attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the characters when assigning tasks and making split-second decisions. Who you would leave to recon an area, repair a piece of equipment, or lock down a path, could make the difference as to who was going to survive the mission. Further complicating things, the characters you wanted to take with you to final branches of the mission might be the very people best suited for these earlier tasks.
“Mass Effect 2 isn’t just one of the greatest science fiction games of all time, but one of the best science fiction experiences in any medium, full stop”.
Getting everyone out alive is a truly Machiavellian task, requiring either a guide or multiple playthroughs in order to get it precisely right. To that end, my feeling is that it’s better to go at it honestly the first time around, dealing with the requisite losses that this experience entails. After all, it isn’t really a suicide mission without a couple of casualties right? Even with all of my preparations and foresight, I lost Tali and Legion in the final mission, but for the fate of the human race, these losses were an acceptable cost.
Even outside the strength of this fantastic cast and the monumental undertaking of planning and executing this final mission, there were other key characters and elements introduced as well. The Illusive Man, voiced by the great Martin Sheen, emerged as a necessary evil, saving Commander Shepard from death but asking morally complex decisions to be made as the cost of doing business. The relationship with, and the choices the player makes, in regard to The Illusive Man have far-reaching consequences for the remainder of the series, and as he emerged to become a primary antagonist in the final game of the trilogy, the considerations to be made were vast and insidious by their very definition.
With so many factors working in its favor, Mass Effect 2 is the rare game that is so perfectly designed that both its predecessor and sequel suffer by comparison as a result. While the improvements of ME2 make it hard to go back to the original game, the scope and ambition of an entire cast that could be alive or dead at the end of the journey also neutered the third game, causing many of the best characters in the trilogy to be excised from the final leg of the trip.
Truly, Mass Effect 2 isn’t just one of the greatest science fiction games of all time, but one of the best science fiction experiences in any medium, full stop. Like The Empire Strikes Back before it, Mass Effect 2 is the best exemplar of its universe and what makes it compelling and worthwhile in general.
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