Bravely Default II

The Bravely Default series is derisive. It looks like a kids game, but isn’t. It claims to be a JRPG, but proceeds to slaughter most of the genre’s sacred cows. It harkens back to classic Final Fantasy stories and tropes, but not without a tongue sitting firmly in its cheek most of the time.

I am not interested in debates or trying to understand why Bravely Default does or does not work. I am a huge fan of the series and that includes its latest entry. To me, Bravely Default feels a bit like a computer algorithm took all of the Final Fantasy games I loved as a kid and built both a parody and spiritual successor at the exact same time to all of them.

Let’s instead talk about why that carries over to Bravely Default II.

The Mad Science of Jobs & Subjobs

When it comes to RPGs, but especially JRPGs, I love experimenting. I first experienced this in the most complete sense in Final Fantasy Tactics (FFT). While the Final Fantasy series had long had jobs (if you are unfamiliar, think of classes in most RPGs – things like Fighter, Cleric, or Paladin) which determined the abilities a character had, FFT stepped it up a notch by adding Support Jobs or “subjobs” as well as unlockable traits.

Now, instead of just being a Dragoon (or “Lancer” in FFT) who, to quote Samurai Jack, can “jump good”, you can level up the Samurai job, unlock their Doublehand trait, and be a Dragoon who wields their lance with two-hands as the gaming gods intended. You could also choose a different job as your subjob to augment the abilities naturally available to the Dragoon.

Like its two predecessors, Bravely Default II takes the job/subjob/trait approach but isn’t afraid to let you build weird, powerful, or weak combinations. The whole goal is to experiment. Do you want a dual-wielding tank? It can be built! You do want the abilities of the Swordmaster but don’t want to use any weapons or gear at all like the Monk? Easy to do.

Sure, there are some broken choices (Swordmaster + Freelancer), but there are enough different battles to warrant playing around with all the potential choices to make.

Classic Stories with Meta Twists

Every Bravely Default game uses the classic Final Fantasy tropes of crystals and Heroes of Light. The world is also almost always segregated into key areas of kingdoms more strongly associated with one element over another (Fire, Water, Earth, or Air). Finally, bonus points for any evil empire which is generally associated with advanced technology. To me, these tropes are classic and comforting, but the Bravely series does try and change them up from entry to entry.

Bravely Default II carries on this tradition. Your characters are the Heroes of Light and you are tasked with recovering the four crystals. In times past, these crystals were used to maintain the balance of the elements and keep a greater evil locked away.

Bravely Default II is not the strongest entry in the series in this regard. The themes are less well-defined, though they seem to focus on the corrupting influence of knowledge (and desiring more of it). While these themes are not explored to their fullest, I still enjoyed the justifications we got for the plot, and I liked how the final battle broke the rules of the game to show the extent of what was necessary to overcome the final boss for the game’s true ending.

While Bravely Default games imitate their Final Fantasy forebears in their narrative simplicity, they always manage to find ways to humanize most villains. Here, almost every boss has room for redemption through additional quests and scenes. Though their motives rarely rise above mustache-twirling villainy, the justifications for their actions usually result in touching, albeit brief, stories of woe and despair.

A Few Final Thoughts

  • Revo returns to do the music. Revo did Bravely Default’s soundtrack, which was fantastic. Bravely Default II’s music is almost as good (if not better in some spots).
  • The New Game+ offers a ton of customization. I hope to see BDII catch-on amongst speedrunners.
  • Like Edea before her, Adelle follows the same mold and is fantastic and easily my favorite character.
  • The short-term buffing and debuffing is great and I wish more cooperative or online RPGs embraced buffing and debuffing over crowd control or damage.

God of War (2018)

I preordered God of War, received in timely with its release, played it off-and-on for a few days, and stopped. It wasn’t a bad game. It wasn’t a game I disliked. It just wasn’t what I wanted at the time, nor what I expected. It felt like yet another series turned to the open world dark side. And I love open world games, but I do not love every game being open world.

Thankfully, I finally returned to finish God of War and it wasn’t that open world after all.

2018’s God of War is one of those sequel/reboot things. The Greek Kratos, after slaughtering his way through the Greek Gods in God of War 1-3, returns as an older, gruffer, but milder version of his former self. Now he lives in the forest of Norse mythology alongside his boy, Atreus, after the pair recently lost Faye, Kratos’s offscreen romance and the boys mother. They were tasked by Faye to spread her ashes from the highest peak and that is what they set out to do.

The Norse gods do play a role in the story, but they are mostly absent. In their place is the rich lore of the Nine Realms, cross-realm travel, and some marvelous set pieces using dead giants and the World Serpent, Jormungandr.

Owing to videogames borrowing their names, as a kid, I was fascinating by ancient myths and legends. Games like Final Fantasy extensively reference these figures, most often in the names chosen for their powerful summons. Other games more directly borrow. I enjoyed the original run of God of War games because of my interest in Greek and Roman mythology. I have the same enjoyment with the 2018 version. Norse mythology, by its many contrasts to other pantheons, fascinated me as a kid and still does. God of War plays a bit loose with some of the stories, but does so in an effective way to build its own take.

Having Atreus tag along with Kratos helps. He is a source of both wonder and exposition for the game’s lore. Kratos, being a foreigner, has little to no concept of these new gods and monsters, but Atreus was raised by Faye who has an expansive understanding of her own culture’s cosmology.

Atreus also freshens up the series. He provides a softening for Kratos that, frankly, was necessary after the events of the first trilogy. Kratos softens further over the course of the game as he and his son’s relationship changes and matures. It isn’t a story told as well as Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us, but it is a good attempt. It is also a welcome bit of humanization in a story otherwise revolving around immortals murdering one another (and everything else in the world).

Gameplay-wise, this version of God of War continues the series tradition of having excellent action gameplay. This version is a bit more challenging and focuses on fewer but tougher enemies. It is a welcome change from the more arcadey feel of the originals.

With all that in mind, I ultimately thought this God of War was above average but not great. It is definitely a reset from God of War III which hurt this game for me. There are several repeat enemies and the much of the additional boss fights (the Valkyries) that are unique are also optional. The game’s final fight had a big fight feel in comparison to everything else in the game, but I didn’t realize I was so close to finishing the game and it left me feeling a bit hollow. This God of War sets up the rest of the story, but it suffers for it and doesn’t feel like a totally complete arc on its own from a gameplay standpoint. From a story standpoint, the introduction of Atreus and the arc between he and his father is a fantastic and welcome bit of warm to an otherwise edgy and cold series.

In other words, hurry up and give us God of War: Ragnarok already.

On the Southern Front in #FFXIV

In my latest round of adventuring in Eorzea, I have spent most of my time in Final Fantasy XIV’s Bozjan Southern Front (or Bozjan for short). Bozjan is home to the Blades of Gunnhildr questline where players battle to make and upgrade their Resistance weapon. Resistance weapons are this expansion’s answer to the relic weapons of prior expansions: powerful artifacts upgraded through much effort with unique looks and lots of sparkle.

My Paladin with Excalibur and Aegis, Zodiac Weapons from A Realm Reborn.

Bozjan is essentially a 72-person instance. While there, you progress up the ranks by earning mettle and unlock new areas to adventure. There are exclusive rewards you can purchase via Bozjan Clusters which drop from enemies in the area. You can also participate in FATES (FFXIV’s answer to Public Quests) with other players or queue for special boss fights called Critical Engagements (CE). CEs come in two flavors – 24 and 48-person – and almost always put up a challenge with their intense movement. There are other things too, like one-on-one duels, or completing Castrum Lacus Litore which requires up to 48 people to coordinate an assault on an imperial base.

Castrum Licus Litore looms large over the entire zone.

The Bozjan Southern Front has been a blast. There were some issues with getting people doing Castrum, but that issue was addressed in a recent patch. However, the remainder of the zone has been and continues to entertain me. Owing to its scaling design, I was able to finish leveling three jobs (you can start at level 71) to the game’s current cap at 80 in my pursuit of Rank 15, Bozjan’s current max rank.

There is an entire subsystem called Lost Actions where you unlock and use charge-based actions. I have spent some time with it and I know there is much more I could do. That said, the items used to unlock these actions can be sold on the Market and I am very, very broke. I ship all that I acquire out of Bozjan to turn a quick gil.

The thing about Bozjan that works best to me is how it feels like a MMO. With the instanced nature of the zone, despite being open and large, it rarely feels empty. People actively chat and ask for groups. FATES and Critical Engagements almost always have plenty of people doing them. It feels alive in a way that other parts of the game don’t always share. And, yes, that feeling will be fleeting as the content cycles through its peak relevance, but for now, it feels fresh and fun.

A group of resistance fighters preparing for a Critical Engagement to begin.

More than that, I love that you can actually see players play in Bozjan. When not participating in a Critical Engagement, you can still watch it from the outside of the ring that keeps only those eligible to fight out. In modern MMOs, too often is everything instanced. It makes for a convenient way of experiencing content as a player, but it largely destroys the experience of seeing content as an onlooker. In EverQuest, I used to sit in a tree outside the Crushbone Castle Throne Room long before I could group with players camping there just to watch and chat. In comparison, modern MMOs are always go-go-go and they rarely leave room to just socialize.

Even more exciting, Bozjan features unique content called duels. With these, players successful at not getting hit in a Critical Engagement can be randomly selected to participate in a special one-on-one fight with a unique enemy. Whilst in a duel, like in CEs, other players can watch, but it is only one person dueling at a time. Most players, including myself, gather around the perimeter when possible to watch and cheer on the participant in chat. I have not dueled myself, but I always enjoy the camaraderie that comes with it.

Some may complain about the grind associated with Bozjan and the Resistance weapon questline, but I think it is the best yet relic weapon implementation. Each step requires a special item to act as currency. Those items can be earned in a number of ways including by random chance from FATES while in Bozjan or a guaranteed chance elsewhere. The guaranteed chance requires players to cycle through older content which has kept older zones often stocked with people grinding for their weapons. It is something FFXIV does best: it keeps older content from ever going away for those experiencing it for the first time. It is a remarkable feat given that every other MMO suffers from similar issues.

My Black Mage with the Final Fantasy judge-inspired armor (sans glove and helmet because I need another week) from recent Bozjan content.

My time in the Southern Front as-is is becoming more limited. I capped my White Mage, Black Mage, and Samurai there, but I have nothing else close enough to 71 to grind out. I have reached the max rank and purchased all of the gear you can earn with Bozjan coins. I still need to farm for Bozjan Clusters to get a mount I’d like to have, but I am feeling less and less pressure to do it. I am considering boosting Astrologian to 70 to grind out since I hate leveling healers solo, but that might wait for another tour in Eorzea.

For now, I am content with all I have accomplished and glad to have done so. The Bozjan Southern Front is, strictly-speaking, optional content. Its sole purpose is to keep people playing whilst the expansion winds down and the path to a new expansion winds up. At that, it succeeds in expert fashion. While I skipped similar content before, this is exactly what I want to see in my MMOs on a broader, more permanent basis. Getting it here, even for a limited time, is most rewarding.

Prisoners of the Ghostland (2021)

Late yesterday, a good friend offered me her ticket for the Sundance Film Festival world premiere of “Prisoners of the Ghostland” later that same evening. The film is directed by Sion Sono, a Japanese director making his English language debut. It stars Nicolas Cage and Sofia Boutella.

My wife and I were immediately game but also hesitant. Neither of us have seen a Sion Sono film, nor could either of us remember the last Nicolas Cage movie we watched. I still intend to see “Mandy” at some point based solely on the recommendation of a pair of wrestlers I like. By no means are we the target audience of this film.

Then again, who is?

“Prisoners of the Ghostland” follows Nicolas Cage as Hero, a captured bank robber. He is forced by the Governor, a man who speaks with a Southern (U.S.) accent (“Aren’t you a cuss?”), to find his missing “adopted granddaughter”. Her name is Bernice (played by Sofia Boutella) and she went missing “up the highway” in a place that may or may not be haunted by ghosts.

To guarantee Hero’s cooperation, the Governor outfits him in a black leather suit with selectively placed explosives. Two of these are placed where his testicles are and will trigger if he tries to sully the Governor’s dear Bernice. There are other gimmicks attached, but they are never the focus of the film.

I am going to be up front with you: this movie was weird. I am not sure that at any point any of it made sense. It seems destined for some kind of cult classic status, but for me (and my wife) there was a lot that did not work.

Despite being Sion Sono’s English language debut, much of the film is also in Japanese. In his introduction of the film, Sono talked about moving the production to Japan so I imagine that had a lot to do with it. Given its bilingual nature, the film constantly feels stuck between worlds which, whilst likely the intention and admittedly a cool way to deliver a specific vibe, does contribute to its overall weirdness.

As such, there are a lot of Japanese extras yelling in English. It contributes a sense of madness to the film. It also leads to almost every character but Nicolas Cage and Sofia Boutella being especially over-the-top. Despite her talents and screen time, Boutella gets almost no lines. Cage gets more screen time but is subdued and often left with little to do by the film’s script.

Now that the negatives are out of the way, let’s talk about the best aspects of “Prisoners of the Ghostland”: its visuals.

From the first second, this is a stunning film to see. There is a strong East-meets-West vibe throughout. Characters are mostly costumed in traditional Japanese garb and the sets feature traditional Japanese architecture, but the fronts of these buildings are setup to resemble the buildings you would see in an American Western. Plus, you get an eclectic mix of samurai and cowboys, a sentence I did not expect to write.

Beyond Samurai Town as described above, the Ghostland sits in stark contrast. It features more muted colors fitting its wasteland vibe. There is junk everywhere (mostly old trucks outlined in flashing lights). Without intending to, the costumes for those in Ghostland give me a similar feel to 1985’s “Return to Oz”. I am unsure why exactly, but there is a sort of junk-meets-acid trip aesthetic that runs through both films.

Visually, “Prisoners of the Ghostland” never bores. The costuming and sets are rich with color when necessary or visual density when color is not needed. The film is also overrun with symbolism. As my wife described it, this is a “show don’t tell” kind of movie, but we both thought to its own detriment.

“Prisoners of the Ghostland” is a hard movie to rate. I feel like I need to see it two or three more times to feel comfortable with any theories I might have about the nature or purpose of its characters and the strange limbo they appear to be stuck in.

At the same time, I question if there is more to it or if this is just a confectionary treat – all sugar-as-style and nothing but empty calories. It lacks enough exposition for someone like me to understand it. The action scenes are too few. There are some fun lines and scenes, but I was mostly glued to its prettiness and trying to unravel whatever the hell was happening.

I doubt I will watch it again, but I may check out more of Sion Sono’s work. He has an interesting eye and I would love to see what he can do in his own language.

When My Dragon Heist Campaign Got Real

5th edition’s Waterdeep: Dragon Heist is the first ever campaign book I used. It was also the first ever D&D campaign I ran as a dungeon master. After a little over a year, the campaign is close to ending so writing a post-mortem must wait. Instead, I wanted to talk about how the story got more real than I expected it too.

Fair warning, there are likely spoilers ahead. Avoid if you are interested in experiencing Dragon Heist without my opinions.

This is not a review of the book, but I learned quickly that I a) did not like it and b) do not like the formatting of D&D campaign books. They are written in a style that makes them more pleasing to read casually which, for me at least, meant it was hard to find critical information. 

For example, the second chapter requires the low level party to suddenly come up with a lot of gold to fix up a tavern/business they are rewarded with at the end of the first chapter. There are apparently moneylender options, but that information is included in the stat block for various NPCs referenced in the back of the book. I realized this only after complaining on the internet to people who thought I was stupid for not having read the entire book cover-to-cover several times prior to beginning the campaign.

The book does outline which villain you should use depending on the season. Since we originally began the campaign in winter, I decided to make it winter in-game too. This let me decorate the city to match a not-quite Christmas aesthetic. However, I wanted to try and introduce all the villains as potential threats and to round out my second chapter.

This led me to introducing Victoro Cassalanter, a duplicitous noble who moonlights as a worshipper of the archdevil Asmodeus along with his wife. One of my players, Tanya, is an orphan who was raised on the streets and grew up in a shanty town within Waterdeep we named ‘Chantier’. In secret, Victoro’s goal was to collect as many unfortunate souls as possible for sacrificing to Asmodeus. Using his wealth and reputation, he decided to “adopt” the poor people of Chantier as his own. With their trust, he lured them one-by-one to his underground temple where he chained them up.

Another player, our paladin Calen, is the apprentice to the famous hero of Waterdeep, All Knight (a play on All Might from My Hero Academia). All Knight is a dedicated servant of the god of justice, Tyr, and the type to have a key to the city. He also cares little for day-to-day operations of the temple which he leaves entirely to the treasurer, Sir William Austin. Unbeknownst to All Knight, Sir William Austin has been peddling access to the temple’s greatest hero as a means to fill the temple’s coffers with donations which he skims off the top for himself.

As All Knight’s self-appointed agent, Sir Austin quickly becomes allies to the influential Victoro (though he knew nothing of the secret cult he was running). Victoro and his wife want Sir Austin to convince All Knight to name their son as his apprentice. This is a ruse, of course. All Knight is a powerful hero and would count as a “great soul” if sacrificed to Asmodeus. If the Cassalanters can lure him into their own home through the pretense of training their son, they will capture him.

These two fronts of our story collided in a big way. The people of Chantier slowly went missing and All Knight eventually did too. This led to Calen, Tanya, and their friend Ophelia (our third and final player) to investigate and eventually discover the Cassalanter plot beneath their estate. 

At this point, Jarlaxle Baenre had become the bigger threat in regards to the plot-as-written so I wrote a send-off for the Cassalanter story that I hoped would result in a lot of character growth for Calen and Tanya. In an epic moment where they were totally outmatched, All Knight sacrificed much of his life force as an avatar of Tyr and vanquished the cult of Asmodeus along with the Cassalanters while saving the party.

And this is where the story got real.

When I realized how many cult members were present (that I just instagibbed with holy energy) and that they would be a collective of influential Waterdeep nobles and merchants, it dawned on me what a huge story-altering event this was beyond just my Cassalanter plotline. Overnight, a significant number of Waterdeep elite would disappear forever. Jarlaxle, having the inside scoop through a secret agent (the Black Viper, a noble in her own right masquerading as a vigilante thief), seized the moment.

He turned this into a class war.

When I introduced Victoro, I introduced him as the president of the Waterdeep Savings & Loan. I wanted him to be a banker with deep ties to the noble community both above and below the table. When he and so many others died overnight, Jarlaxle used their disappearance to spread rumors that caught fire when combined with the wipeout of Chantier (almost everyone from there was sacrificed to Asmodeus).

In Waterdeep, it quickly became assumed that wealth and power came from Asmodeus alone. Many middle and upper class families retreated into their lavish homes, protected by their guards and mercenaries. The rest of Waterdeep – those forced to fight and scrounge – rose up to protest and eventually rebel against the shadows of evil cast by Jarlaxle’s plot.

The Black Viper had successfully stolen Victoro’s journal. As Esvele Rosznar (and eventually with Jarlaxle pretending to be Rosznar), the Black Viper used her noble name to stoke the flames of hate further by revealing others accused of associating with the Cult of Asmodeus. These names were carefully selected to do the most damage by preying on the emotions of the upset rather than providing evidence of any actual association.

After making her a hero of the people, Jarlaxle killed Rosznar and tied her murder to the city guard. With her death, Waterdeep itself became a warzone overnight.

Now, the party is caught in a fight to gain the Stone of Golorr, a mysterious object that somehow leads to a vault containing embezzled gold and treasures. With the money, Jarlaxle hopes to uplift his city, the city of Luskan, to membership status in the Lord’s Alliance whilst simultaneously tearing down the city most likely to oppose him. All the while, the city guard, the Lord’s Alliance, and the Harpers fight to keep Waterdeep from burning down and hope to repair the relationship between classes that Jarlaxle has disrupted.

A Knowledge Cleric for Innistrad

My first experience dungeon mastering an entire campaign is nearing its end. After more than a year of “Waterdeep: Dragon Heist”, I am ready to get back in the player’s seat for a bit. Thankfully, one of my players and a DM in two other campaigns I played is ready to take back his seat. And, as a huge Magic: The Gathering fan, he wants to take us to Innistrad.

To test the waters a bit, he actually ran us through a two-shot set in Innistrad several months ago. It gave me some time to prep for Dragon Heist and take a much needed break running things. It was an interesting setting. I do not generally go for gothic horror, but I have read “Frankenstein” and seen enough vampire movies to know a thing or too.

Given the overbearing nature of the Church in the Innistrad setting, I thought making my first Cleric would be perfect. I wanted to base him off concepts of guilt, sin, and early Christian theologians as the scientists and philosophers of their day. I also wanted an older character who has experienced the world more through books than direct experiences or social interaction (akin to common Wizard tropes).

The Knowledge Domain was a perfect fit. It gives me all the access to skill proficiencies and languages I could want. It also has plenty flavor to tie into my background. But rather than write out his background outside the game, I thought it might be fun to write it inside the game as something he keeps with him at all times.

On his person, as an admission of his sins, he has the following letter:

To whoever is owed my truth,

I admit without redaction: I have been lying for the last five years. I lied to the Church and to my peers. I used my position, my reputation, and my talent to selfishly get what I wanted most for myself.

May Avacyn look kindly on me for my sins.

It started when the Church denied my request for fieldwork. They claimed it was because they needed me in Thraben and would not risk losing my knowledge. They actually meant that a 39-year old scholar, who never left the library or the city, was not worth the resources.

They were right. I spent my whole life surrounded by books, living comfortably in ivory towers. My mother kept me here to protect me. She left me to explore the Great Library on my own while she worked as a researcher and archivist. But she told me to never leave or else I would die as my father did – ignobly and forgotten.

With her gone too, I remained and have spent my years in study and quiet repose … an old man’s life at a young man’s age.

The Church’s denial was the catalyst I needed. Risking my reputation and my life, I manufactured and planted evidence of one of the greatest discoveries of our age: the Chalice of Life. With an artifact this powerful, I knew the Church would let me out of my duties to the Great Library.

But the Chalice never existed and never will. This note is my recognition of what I have done. I weaved a tale using ancient texts which I translated myself from languages no longer spoken. I destroyed priceless tomes that would contradict my lies. I misled my peers. I attacked the reputations of scholars rightfully onto my deceits.

If you have found this, then I am already dead and judged. I accept Avacyn’s will. I hope you too will find mercy for my transgressions.

In guilt,
Orran Richter

The “Chalice of Life” is an obvious McGuffin. I originally left it blank and suggested to the DM to fill it in however he likes. Whether it exists or not, whether I will find it, etc. are all questions I leave to him and hime alone.

I am excited to play him “sometime soon.”

WB Top 100: Best & Worst So Far, Part 2

After another 25 movies, it is time to look back at the second quarter of this overall list and do some comparisons and ranking. For our previous “Best & Worst”, click here.

As a reminder, here are the 25 movies we watched:

My Top 5

#5: What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962) – “I finally found out, and it was a terrible, horrible, thrilling story.

#4: A Star Is Born (1954) – “I didn’t expect much, but what I got had me tearing up in the end. Always swim with a lifeguard, kids.”

#3: The Dirty Dozen (1967) – “Strangely funny and endearing, this is that every dude movie should dream of being.”

#2: A Face in the Crowd (1957) – “Powerful from beginning to end. This has made me rethink Andy Griffith the actor, a staple of my childhood, and wish more people watched this film for it’s haunting reflection of modern politics.”

#1: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) – “It was hard to pick this over my #2 choice, but Bogart’s descent into madness from his greed will forever stay with me.”

Diane’s Top 5

#5: A Star Is Born (1954) – “Solid movie despite the racist song and missing scenes (included in our version as stills).”

#4: What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962) – “Nice to see two stars channeling their real life hatred in such a productive way.”

#3: The Dirty Dozen (1967) – “I bet my dad watched this movie so many times.”

#2: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) – “Finally, a Bogart movie we actually enjoyed.”

#1: A Face in the Crowd (1957) – “I’ve never watched “The Andy Griffith Show” and now because of this movie I never will be able to.

Our Worst 5 (Combined)

#5 (Combined): Bullitt (1968) – We forgot too much about this boring film to come up with a good quote. Car chase, maybe?

#4 (Me): Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

#4 (Diane): How the West Was Won (1962)

#3 (Me): Viva Las Vegas (1964)

#3 (Diane): Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

#2 (Me): How the West Was Won (1962)

#2 (Diane): Viva Las Vegas (1964)

#1 (Combined): Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) – “When people think of a musical where women get kidnapped and develop Stockholm Syndrome they usually think of Beauty and the Beast when they should really be thinking about Seven Brides for Seven Brothers“.

Halo Again

I preordered the original Xbox at Gamestop (then EB Games) in the mall. For $500, I got the system and three games. Two of those games were Dead or Alive 3 and Project Gotham Racing. The third? Like almost everyone else, it was a copy of Halo: Combat Evolved, and it changed my gaming life.

I love Halo. Maybe not as much as I did, but I always have a soft spot for it. Whether it was the multiplayer over LAN or over Xbox Live starting with Halo 2, I played games in the series a lot. More than that, I loved the single player. The original Halo felt revolutionary compared to other FPS games I had played. It had vehicles and big open sections. The enemy AI felt somehow more real. I even grew to like Master Chief, despite having little personality, and love Cortana for her snark.

I was a big enough fan to even read a few of the books.

Halo 4 was not a bad game. As 343 Industries first attempt at a new Halo trilogy, it did not upset things too much. I mean, I kind of hated seeing the Forerunners return and the main villain was a snooze, but it was more Halo and that is what I wanted.

However, my love of all things Xbox faded quickly after Halo 4. The Xbox 360 and I had some good times, but I also liked having a gaming PC around. With it, I only needed an Xbox to play Halo and without more Halo, why keep an Xbox?

I skipped the Xbox One entirely. It was the first Xbox system I did not own. When Halo 5: Guardians came out in 2015, it was tempting, but I ultimately opted to keep playing games on my Playstation 4 instead. Ever since though, I wanted to play Halo 5. Me and Halo? We are old friends, and I needed that old friend feeling.

I bought an Xbox Series X at launch. There were no launch titles that sold me. Instead, I bought in entirely on the merits of Xbox Game Pass. It is by far one of the best deals in gaming, and I wanted its convenience in my living room (in addition to the office). I also knew I could play Halo 5 with it.

And I think I hated it.

Halo 5 starts off where Halo 4 left off … I think. There were a bunch of characters I either forgot or was never introduced to. You spend most of the campaign not playing Master Chief. There is a new team – Fireteam Osiris – starring Nathan Fillion as himself along side some other people.

Actually, let me do a brief side rant here first: Nathan Fillion is okay but I hate hearing him everywhere. I am sure there are counterexamples, but he seems to always play the exact same character. Plus, I hate using real actor faces in video games. It somehow makes them feel more fake to me.

I have nothing wrong with any of the actors playing team members in Halo 5, but the fact that they are there on every mission bothered me. This game does not feel like Halo.

I know I am rusty, but I never felt like that bad ass Spartan of old. More often than not, I would get shot down by overwhelming firepower from dumb enemies, and then I would be forced to wait for an AI teammate’s pathing to not break so they could resurrect me.

Rinse and repeat. Die and wait.

If you were the one fan who loved fighting beside the marines in the first Halo and said, “Why can’t this be the entire game?”, then first of all, I hate you. Second, Halo 5 is your fault. In Halo 5, you are only allowed to feel badass in the cutscenes where physics cease to exist. It is cheesy and goofy. Otherwise you will make your AI partners look bad.

The story also sucks. It is hard for me to put a finger on exactly why, but it is the same issue I had with Halo 4 and a similar concern I have with Destiny 1 and 2. Everything is “The <Noun>” and it is supposed to be this grand, epic, universe-spanning idea. Every name, plot point, and story beat sounds like a cheesy game of mad libs and it grates on my nerves.

But, I finished it. That says something. The guns were fine. The vehicles were fine. It was a perfectly average game with the production turned up to eleven. Finishing it has made me less excited for Halo Infinite though. I think the series needs a reboot, not the epic conclusion to a trilogy with no real purpose.

Most Anticipated Games in 2021

There are currently 18 games on my wishlist. Some of those are carry overs from previous years, but a few are games I am looking forward to in 2021. I thought I would share a few thoughts about the ones I am most excited to play:

Nebuchadnezzar and/or Pharaoh: A New Era (PC)

One of my all-time favorite games as a kid was the Sierra Studios classic, Pharaoh. To me, the classic city-builder starts and ends with Pharaoh and similar titles. I have played plenty of quality city-builders since, but revisited Pharaoh with a more modern design is high on my wishlist.

Enter Nebuchadnezzar and, or perhaps ‘or’, Pharaoh: A New Era. The former is an indie game designed by two-people to mimic, but not copy, the original Pharaoh. The latter is a full graphical remaster of the original.

I say “and/or” because I am unsure I need both in my life. I was shocked to learn that we were getting not one but two versions of the classic game in 2021. While Nebuchadnezzar may do enough to set itself apart, perhaps I yearn more for something as close to the original as possible? Then again, maybe I am just looking at a game I once loved through the veil of nostalgia.

I am excited to find out.

Hollow Knight: Silksong (PS5)

Hollow Knight was a surprise hit for me. It was one of the first games where I realized that, when designed correctly, I could enjoy challenge. I spent a great deal of time on the game’s optional content, defeating the Path of Pain platforming section and the game’s optional Nightmare King boss.

More than the challenge, I loved Hollow Knight for its setting, style, and overall vibe. I want more of it. I want Hollow Knight: Silksong.

Honorable Mentions

  • Halo: Infinite (Xbox) – I have yet to play Halo 5. I doubt the series is as good as it was, but I am still a big fan and still in need of more quality FPS games.
  • Bravely Default II (Switch) – I absolutely devoured both of the other games in this series. I intend on doing the exact same with this one.
  • Horizon Forbidden West (Playstation) – The first Horizon was an all-time great. A bigger, better, bolder version could be even greater. More than just fighting robot dinosaurs, I was taken aback by how much I loved the game’s story. Ever since, I have wanted to see more of that world and that is what I am hoping we get.

Sports Story (Switch)

I never expected to love Golf Story. I bought it for the Nintendo Switch partially on a whim and partially because mini-golf in videogame form is almost always entertaining. I remember starting the game up when I was home sick one day. I had let the game sit for months after buying it on some discount.

I did not put it down again until I finished.

Golf Story is a fun, irreverent kind of game. Its the sort of story you only get in videogames, and the kind of gameplay you only get in a game that doesn’t take things too seriously. It was funny, endearing, and a joy to play.

When the sequel was announced, it instantly became a must own title for me. Though it may not live up to the original, if it comes close, it will still be a great game. We missed learning more about it in 2020, but I am hoping we will not miss seeing it this year.

What games are you more excited to play in 2021?

Alabama Snake (2020)

“Alabama Snake” is a 2020 documentary film on HBO. It presents Appalachian folklore and religious beliefs through the lens of true crime (with a healthy dose of horror too). The story focuses on a Pentecostal minister convicted of attempted murder of his wife. The weapon of choice?

Snakes. Lots of ’em.

The first half was a bit strange. I kept expecting a true crime experience, but that is not “Alabama Snake”. The details of the case are glossed over quickly. Instead, this is a film about faith that tries to balance believing in those who believe while also taking a critical look at their beliefs from an outsider’s perspective.

I have never been to this part of Alabama (the film focuses on true events in the northeast of the state), but growing up, I had heard of snake handlers in relation to Christianity. There was often an air of disbelief, shame, or wonder when they came up. I, perhaps thankfully, never experienced their particular brand of religious service first hand.

“Alabama Snake” works because it presents the story according to its subjects. We get versions of the truth from both the accused (the aforementioned minister) and his wife. Unlike most true crime documentaries, however, both stories are equally weird. Albeit it seems likely that the minister was correctly convicted, tales of him being demon-possessed by his wife (in the literal sense) do little to aid the truth.

I would recommend watching it for the last 30 seconds alone (where our shared reality undercuts the reality the convicted minister has constructed for himself in comedic fashion).

Score: 1.50 from me and 1.25 from my wife.