Mass Effect is Amazing

I’ve just finished playing Mass Effect and Mass Effect: 2, and I have a declaration: Mass Effect is the best game I have ever played.

Do I think that Mass Effect is a perfect game? I do not. Do I think it could be improved? Sure I do. But the imperfections don’t prevent Mass Effect from being better than any game I have ever played. It is rough because it is trying things, and the big things it accomplishes make up for the little things it misses.

Now that I’ve established my thesis, a few clarifications: firstly, for the purpose of this review, I’m considering the first two games as a single unit. If I need to refer to a specific installment, I’ll say ME1 or ME2, otherwise assume I’m talking about the series as a whole. Secondly: the main character is Commander Shepard, who is male by default, but can be played as female. Most of my experience is with the female version, so I may throw in some female pronouns. Now that that’s out of the way, onward.

Mass effect combines a mishmash of genre gameplay types to create an experience unlike anything else. It is a game that allows the player a great deal of choice, freedom, and personal investment without taking place in a sandbox. Players proceed through a fairly linear story with a few truly significant decisions, while still feeling like they have ownership of almost every situation. It provides strong, well-written characters and settings, but lets the player shape them. More importantly, it lets players shape their relationship with the world around them.

There are two types of main character you can have in a game: a pre-written protagonist and a freeform player creation. Some characters switch between these roles, depending on the type of gameplay you are currently engaging in: GTA IV’s Niko Bellic is pre-written during many cutscenes, but he’s an escapist freeform blob while roaming the streets. In a lot of modern games, a sprinkling of linear story is periodically layered onto the formless goo of the sandbox, creating a tasty gameplay parfait. This can create a disconnect in characterization between sandbox and storyline portions. When viewed from outside the game, characters appear to behave inconsistently: Dead Rising 2 fans often joke about “concerned dad” Chuck messing around with costumes instead of finding medication for his sick daughter. This disconnect is considered something of a necessary evil, required to provide players with the freedom to play the game their own way. To me, this is a false assumption, which begs the question: if the fun part of the gameplay isn’t in-character, why not change the character so they’re the kind of person who would do fun things?

Mass effect neatly avoids this trap. The fun in Mass Effect comes from things the character logically wants to do: join the Spectres, meet interesting people, and kill them. What’s more, any action Shepard takes feels in-character, because the actions Shepard takes determine her character. Shoot a guy in the leg instead of talking to him? Your Shepard has just become the kind of person who shoots people in the leg, seamlessly, even if she’s been a perfectly reasonable person so far. If you’ve been playing her as a renegade, that dude obviously just messed with the wrong badass If you’ve been playing her as a paragon, she feels like a reasonable person who was simply pushed too far. This naturalness emerges from the variety and intuitiveness of the options Shepard is presented with, as well as the seamless writing that maintains tone no matter what path is chosen. Other games have similar variety of choice, but the excellent voice acting for every line of Shepard’s dialogue makes these conversations seem more real. It makes the game feel more like a movie than a choose-your-own-adventure novel.

The dialogue, social, and relationship aspects of Mass Effect’s gameplay are excellent, but that’s only to be expected from a Bioware RPG. In ME1, the combat portion of the game is adequate and interesting but heavily flawed, while in ME2 it’s streamlined but more generic. Where Mass Effect shines is how it mixes dialogue and face-shooting: whenever I was about to get tired of combat, I’d stumble into a dialogue-wheel plot intersection or a tactical roleplaying decision. Conversely, when I was getting tired of talking, I could usually expect some action right around the corner. It’s this balance that makes the game feel so whole: through the next tunnel could be a room filled dangerous enemies, or a scientist cowering in a corner, waiting to confront you with moral ambiguity. Similarly, a lot of seemingly ordinary conversations have a high probability of erupting into gunfire; if you’re not the talking type, there are plenty of opportunities to shoot first and completely neglect to ever ask questions. These transitions make everything you do feel real, relevant, and in-character.

Unfortunately, sometimes all this great writing hints at more than the game can deliver, content-wise. I often found myself wanting even more interaction than was provided, and when an NPC’s content has been temporarily exhausted, it’s laughably obvious and endlessly picked-apart; ask any ME2 fan about calibrations, and they’ll agree. Still, this is evidence of another thing that makes Mass Effect great: its willingness to do something cool even if the ideal implementation is impossible. The love interests and squad-chemistry character development aren’t perfect – they’re just the best I’ve ever seen, by a wide margin.

A lot of people say that Mass Effect offers the illusion of choice rather than actual choice; this is both true and misleading. Mass effect let me choose how I felt about my companions, and act upon those choices, which caused me to develop stronger connections to my party. It also neatly sidesteps an immersion-breaking trap many other RPGs fall into. Often I’ll be loving the main character in a narrative game, when suddenly they do something I feel is massively out-of-character, or fundamentally stupid. Usually I’ll facepalm and move on, but my rating goes down a few tenths of a point. When the kickass girl I love playing goes for the doofy hunk instead of the sarcastic nerd, I’ll shake my fist impotently at the sky, and curse my unique taste in men. Mass Effect ensures that you will rarely have your immersion shattered in this way. The associated paragon and renegade system also takes the first important step away from reducing all moral choice to Mother Theresa or baby-eating. The choices are less about evil and more about attitude, which makes them feel more valid.
This doesn’t just apply to character development, it’s also a big part of how you interact with the main plot. I’ll give you a spoiler-free example: say Murray is your boss. You can choose to be nice and deferential to him, or rude and disrespectful. This will determine the tenor of your next conversation, and your relationship with him throughout the game. Now, at the end of the game there’s a huge decision: you can either help Murray or get him fired. If you help him, he instantly forgives your past misconduct, while if you get him fired, all that goodwill you’ve built up counts for nothing. You could argue that this means that all those little choices didn’t matter, but the smaller decisions influence who Shepard is, and give the player ownership of Shepard’s decisions, attitude, and identity. Shepard’s personality has more more weight than characters in games where you’re given only a small number of good-or-evil turning-point decisions.

When you do finally encounter the major plot points, with their weighty repercussions, this system is even more powerful. In many games, the plot will throw you into a no-win situation, a trap you see coming a mile away, or an obvious manipulation. Usually you have no choice but to accept your fate and do whatever inadvisable thing the plot railroads you toward, just to get to the next chapter of the story. Mass Effect’s decision system always gives you some sense of agency: the job you have to do may be unpleasant, but you get to do damage control according to your own priorities. The player is always left with the impression that they were the best person for the job, the only person for the job, rather than a pawn in someone else’s game.

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg. I can’t fit everything that makes Mass Effect great into one article, and I’d never stop writing this article if I tried. There’s so much more to be talked about: how the setting is one of the best science fiction universes I’ve ever encountered, how a character whose sole purpose is delivering fast-paced technobabble exposition won my heart, and how Commander Shepard has real weight as a character, despite being made up entirely of player-determined decisions. One article can’t contain every lesson Mass Effect has to teach, so I’m going to be doing a series: expect a new article every week, until I go insane or run out of things to talk about and things to learn.

For now, I’ll close by saying this: Mass Effect may be the best game I’ve ever played, but that doesn’t tell you a lot about it, so I’ll try to boil my praise down to something a little less hyperbolic sounding. Mass Effect toes the perfect line between having writers tell a great story and letting players play an actual game. If dialogue and character have a future in games, Mass Effect embodies one of the best possible futures. It’s a revolutionary evolutionary step in several right directions.

And you should totally play it.

My Mass Effect 2 Romantic Arc

Or: how I stopped worrying and learned to love aliens.

I just finished Mass Effect 2 a few hours ago, and I finished ME1 for the first time  a few short weeks before that. Everything is incredibly fresh in my mind. I’ve never really cared about a romantic arc in a game before, but sitting here, bereft, at the end of the game, it amazes me how much I had invested, how many actual emotions I experienced. And now I’m justifying my actions, and still having… emotions about them. So I decided to write up a summary of my FemShep’s emotional processes in her narrative arc.

Read the rest of this entry »


Day late, dollar short movies, Doug Loves Movies edition, AKA I saw it on a plane.

So I’m on a plane on my way to GDC watching Secretariat.  Stupid movie lured me with a strong female lead  breaking with convention and pushing boundaries and all that. I swear I almost used the word “brassy” there.  Send help.  Also, the livery colors are very difficult to ignore. I can’t look away.

This movie is too cute for its own good. Unnecessary flashbacks. Unnecessary, simplistic monologues. Out-of-place hippie nostalgia subplot.  John Malcovich malcoviching a low-grade malcovich, en francais! But it’s charming, somehow.

To some extent, the plainspoken clichés and saccharine aphorisms are simply a product of the setting. As my old friend Adam likes to say about movies set in the mid-century, this story is from “simpler times.” Times before extended, overly specific metaphors, when you could just have your Dad tell you one thing about horse racing early in your life, and ride that nugget of philosophy to the Triple Crown!

Spoiler alert? How many people don’t know the ending to this story, or at least the ending for the horse? Every time a horse wins a few races or looks promising, the world remembers that horseracing exists, and invokes Secretariat. “Could this be the next Secretariat?” Invariably no, no it can’t be. But the chance gets the story retold, and keeps the ending in everyone’s minds.  So why not tell it again, in movie form? People liked that other horse movie, right?

And this movie does a good job of telling the story. It captures a bit of the spirit of the times. It’s also beautifully shot; the heraldry and the grace are what got me looking at the screen and plugging in my headphones in the first place.  Come for the pageantry, stay for the tears.

Recently, there was a This American Life about people who have a weird quirk: they cry at movies on airplanes, and only on airplanes. I find myself getting a bit misty in-flight sometimes, but I’d say that’s more due to the fact that I kick off most trips with a little light insomnia. My tears are at their most jerkable when I’ve not had sleep in quite some time; when I was younger and having four-to-five-day insomaniacal stretches, I’d just watch the History channel and weep openly at stories of people overcoming hardship. Someday I’ll tell you about the woman’s suffrage documentary that nearly killed me. Anyway, that was another important part of the This American life story about the plane crying: not the sufferage, the triumph. The guy said he only cried at happy moments, or moments of victory. Secretariat provides plenty of those, naturally.

Also, I like horses. This movie is full of horse magic. The horse knows. The horse is wise beyond imagining. These are all truths that most American girls carry in their blood, and immediately believe – no matter how much they’re contradicted by actual experience with horses. It’s an easy chord to strike, an easy heartstring to pluck, an easy music metaphor to overextend. At the same time, if there’s one horse in history who came close to living up to that impossible ideal of horsey perfection, it’s this one. It feels perfectly natural to sing his praises.  I’m done now.

This movie hits all the right notes (why am I doing this?!), but it has some serious flaws. You can see the full emotional arc laid out before you right from the starting gun (ok… metaphor appropriateness increasing). Every setback and hardship is a straight-up cinematic cliché, just  as every triumph is pre-ordained by history.  Secretariat is the apotheosis of predictability.

But what do I want from a movie about Secretariat; an InfernoKrusher ending?  As much as I’m in favor of the sublimely unexpected destruction of convention, it would have been a betrayal of the feel-good dream this story offers and this movie provides.

In the end,  Secretariat drew me in with pretty clothes, pretty horses, and pretty sentimentality. Still, all in all, a pretty good movie. You might want to watch it the next time you have horrible insomnia or are on a cross-country flight, preferably both.

The Vampire Pendulum

Post-Twilight we’re experiencing a bit of a backswing on the vampire pendulum. While there are a lot of romantic vampire stories still being marketed to tweens, you now also have the angry counter-movement, with old-school horror fans seeking to re-establish vampires as scary monsters.

The problem is that, in an attempt to make them “scary” again, vampires in this new horror movement are often reduced to growling, slavering, beast-like predators. That’s not what a vampire should be, either. That’s fine for werewolves and zombies, but a vampire is smart and well-put-together. A vampire is entrancing, if not because of attractiveness, then because of an unholy magnetism and a predatory, hypnotic stare. You can have a vampire pouncing on you in the dark from time to time, but mostly they should be graciously inviting you into your home and you should be accepting, despite the fact that you know that it means your doom.

My personal favorite kind of vampire is the one whose charm hides the fact that he is a monster until it is too late, or makes you love him despite the fact that he is a monster, and continues to be one.

A vampire needs to be a monster. It should never be someone who thinks he’s a monster even though he isn’t.

A vampire can be a monster without self-consciousness. He can be a monster who thinks what he’s doing isn’t especially monstrous. Finally, he can be someone who is a monster, feels bad about it, but still acts monstrously despite it. But he has to be a monster. Dracula is the first kind. The vampires in Terry Pratchett’s Carpe Jugulum are the second. The vampire in Let the Right One In is the third. Those were all pretty different takes on vampirism, but without sparkles or snarling.

There’s a common thread that runs through the most neutered and shiny of modern vampires: they don’t actually require human blood to survive. Anything that absolutely must have human blood to survive is monstrous to humanity, even if it is only a parasite that does not kill. Listen to people’s reactions when they talk about bedbugs, if you don’t believe me. If you remove the “human” part from the whole blood equation, you’ve essentially just created a powerful carnivore. It’s the cannibalistic aspect that’s monstrous, the blood aspect just allows the cannibalism to be sneakier, and more refined. And, as I said before, that’s part of it too. When you have a vampire just ripping people apart, they might as well be a werewolf.

My three rules for proper vampires* are as follows:

1. Must require human blood to survive

2. This must be a substantial amount, more than a single human can provide.

3. The consequences for not getting enough must be dire.

Please make a note of it.

*I’m also very strongly in favor of being burned by the light and needing to be invited in, but I think the rules above allow for some creative playing around while still letting them be monsters. Being able to create Renfield-style servants is also nicely creepy.

Smell like a monster

I thought this meme had reached its crescendo and there was no more good to come from it. I was wrong.

Sesame Stree Old Spice Parody

(I’m tempted to make that Sesame Street version of the Old Spice jingle into a ringtone. It makes me happy every time I hear it.)

Misty Nightstalking

My house is on a little hill in a big river valley.  It’s a misty night, the mist pooling in the lower parts of my yard, making my house an island in a ghostly sea.  The moon is full tonight, and right now it is bright, close, and almost directly overhead.

I go outside, and the light of the moon far overpowers the light streaming from a few windows in my house. Shadows are deep and sharp, but the full light is bright enough that I can see the tracks left by my footsteps in the dew-soaked grass. The forest that surrounds me is mostly oaks and maples, and it makes a thicker darkness than the mixed piney woods where I grew up. I’d go for a longer walk, but I haven’t spent enough time exploring in the daylight to unerringly navigate the darkness under the trees.

The full moon makes the mist thicker and more visible, so that the landscape appears to fade into a pale grey with the distance, rather than running up against the wall of dark trees on the other side of the valley.  I wander further downhill as my yard slopes toward a small stream, half expecting the mist to obscure my vision. Mist doesn’t really work that way, though, and as I walk downward the mist retreats before me, only to form again behind me, leaving me alone in a little bubble of clarity.

So it’s very beautiful outside tonight, and it reminds me why I do love the country, despite its associated inconveniences.

Poetic musings aside, It says a lot about my default frame of reference that, upon stepping through my door to behold all this, I thought, “Wow, someone really turned down the draw distance on the world.”

Day Late Dollar Short Movie Reviews: Machete

Since my college days during the advent of internet movie reviews, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have that job. I like movies, I like talking about things, and I can and do enjoy  movies of just about every genre. Now that I have this here blog, I figured I’d finally get around to writing some – the problem being that I now seldom see movies when they come out and reviews matter. That’s why I’ve titled this feature “Day Late Dollar Short Movie Reviews.” Movie news you probably can’t use!

A few days ago my brother told me he was going to see Machete. If he hadn’t I probably would have forgotten it was even out.  I loved the Grindhouse trailer, I’m generally a bit fan of the ‘sploitation revival, and when I heard they were making a full movie I was ridiculously gleeful, but that anticipation faded in the intervening months.

Machete is a movie where Danny Trejo kills a lot of people, primarily with the titular machete (though there’s more variety in his methods than the title implies). There are some hot women in it. If that’s all you want, you won’t be disappointed. The violence in Machete is super mega over-the-top; the problem is that the rest of the movie can’t seem to keep up the same pace. There are long stretches where it starts to take itself far too seriously, and instead of a ‘sploitational romp it feels like a mediocre action drama. Most of these interminable interludes contain Jessica Alba. Read the rest of this entry »

Cosplay Catalogue

Well I promised a writeup of the buttonneering experience, but a series of trips in rapid succession using the same luggage means… I’ve misplaced my button haul. So until I uncover it in the process of cleaning, you get a quick contemplation of another aspect of conventions (though not PAX, for me, specifically, so far.) (That was a lot of conditionals.)

Ahem. Anyway: Cosplay.

Cosplay has kind of a weird place in my heart. It’s the one part of conventioneering where the traditional social values (hotness of girls) overwhelm the geeky ones (game knowledge, pop culturability.) That said, there’s nothing like dressing up like your favorite character to say “I’m here, I’m totally dedicated to this cause, and I’m throwing away any pretense of camouflage.”

Five years and twenty pounds ago I used to cosplay a lot. Esteemed translator and anime celebrity Richard “pocky” Kim once stopped me in the hallway to take a photo of me in a Shion Uzuki costume, exclaiming that there weren’t enough cute girls with glasses in video games. (This was before the tragedy of Xenosaga II where they gave her contacts… something I have obviously still not forgiven.) I cosplayed Tohru Honda before Fruits Basket was cool. I did a double act with a friend as Flonne and Etna. And, of course, my first real costume was All-Purpose Cultural Cat-Girl Nuku Nuku. Oh no! My secret origin has been revealed.

A few days ago I was cleaning out the giant uninsulated attic-closet at my parents house and I found a bag with pretty much all my old cosplay costumes in it. I’m not going to lie, I tried a few of them on. They mostly fit, but the tunic I made for Flonne was constructed to try to hide my chest; it works, but it also makes me look like a baked potato. The Nuku Nuku skirt still fits, which may be an omen.

Anyway, in recent years I’ve started a lot of costumes but I haven’t finished any of them. A significant reason for that is the consistent divide between how I think I’ll look in a costume and how I actually look. Still, Finding all those old costumes made me remember how much I enjoyed it. I’ve had a few ideas brewing for future conventions, PAX in particular. Maybe it’s time to start that project. Get excited and make things, as the kids say. It would be a good source for updates, illustrated with mediocre Droid photos, at least until I find my digital camera. Have you noticed that losing things is a theme with me? I moved a few months ago and I’m currently working on reorganizing my parent’s house, so the theme is likely to consider. I guess it just makes things more of an adventure.

Adventures are also a theme.


I’m going to try to dash off a quick PAX post before I’m off on my next adventure. Of course my cabin-in-the-woods weekend of tabletop gaming and general geekery would be scheduled the week after PAX. At least it keeps me from getting the post-PAX blues.

If you came here because of my PAX buttons, welcome! We’ll see if the delusion that I may now have an invisible audience motivates me to write more often.

This was my second PAX prime, and it somewhat mirrored my first: outside parties and events the night before and after, then panels panels panels. I supplemented this rotation with some good old fashioned mutha-f’ing Participation, and that was the sweetest treat of all.

First I’d like to talk about rooming at PAX. So far I have roomed with strangers every single PAX and it has always been awesome and rewarding. I’d recommend it to almost anyone: it’s a good jumping-off point for meeting new people and you’ll find you form a sort of ad-hoc adventuring party with those people. This year was no exception: I met a few nice Guild Wars maniacs, a couple of friendly Hufflepuffs and a gentlemanly Ravenclaw. That brings me to the second bit of organized geekery where I met many awesome people: The Third Annual Triwizard Drinking Tournament. It’s pretty much what it sounds like – a Harry-Potter-themed pubcrawl the night before the con. I’ve never gotten back from one of these before 2am though, so plan your Friday around caffeine and lingering drunkenness.

My next extra-curricular was the Cookie Brigade: a charity-slash-community outreach project that gives away cookies and accepts donations for Child’s Play (a charity that provides video games for sick children in hospitals). The Cookie Brigade is a lot of fun, but it is also WORK. Lugging around a basket of cookies all day leaves you with one less hand for everything and one more thing to drop or misplace. Also, when I was “on duty” for cookie brigade I didn’t find myself being caught up in random conversations with the people I was reaching out to as much. I was always handing out cookies, taking money, then moving on to the next group. This wasn’t necessarily bad – actually it was a great way to spend line time. When I got in line for an event I’d have people hold my space while I went on duty and walk the line – finding a lot of appreciative people who had often skipped a meal to secure their ideal place near the front. After brigading all of Friday I cleared out my remaining stash on Saturday and took the rest of the day off. I’d meant to do more on Sunday but they were out of cookies by then. Next year I plan on baking and distributing – the organizers were super-helpful, but meeting up with them was slightly complicated and if I’m my own supply next year I can be a lot more flexible and productive.

I also buttoneered this year. Another event/clan/group/game from the PAX forums, buttoneers make custom button and trade them with outer buttoneers. My design was something that jumped in my head the moment I heard about buttoneers: The Nintendo Power #1 game tip of all time – Talk to Everyone. It’s something I learned at the first PAX – everyone is awesome, and the worst thing they can say to you is “I’m busy right now.” There were a lot of awesome designs, and I think I’ll be doing a more in-depth article later about both the plethora of buttons I acquired and the philosophy behind my own buttons. Long story short: huge success.

Finally, my last and favorite project: the Reverse Signing for Wil Wheaton. Some one-post-wonder who I never got to formally thank made a suggestion on the PA forums: since Wil was doing fewer signings this year, we’d all sign random things for him to show our appreciation. The flaw in that plan was the potential volume of total gifts: if everyone signed a poster or a D&D module things might get out of hand. I refined the idea slightly by purchasing a Moleskine notebook and having people write notes to Wil inside it. All throughout the weekend, at parties and in lines, I’d ask people if they wanted to leave a note to Wil. Some places people looked at me like I’d grown another head, other places it was like they’d been waiting for someone to ask them this for a long time. As a group, though, Wil’s fans were the nicest people I talked to the entire con.

Doing this signing also necessitated I find a way to actually talk to Wil. I planned on going to the last signing on Sunday and got there reasonably early. I immediately asked if anyone there wanted to sign the book and the response was very nearly overwhelming: almost everything had something. I slowly watched as the book took on a life of its own, drifting through the line, each person explaining to the person next to them what it was for. It was a sort of crazy con magic. Eventually the line was capped – nobody else would be allowed in. At that point I started to offer the book to people cut off from the line. Several gratefully signed it. One guy asked if anyone could take his dice bag to Wil… he’d just purchased his first dice bag because of the D&D podcasts. I didn’t have anything to be signed (that wasn’t the point) so I decided to take pity on him and take his pouch.

Soon the line dwindled down. I’d actually moved toward the back with my book, so I was now second to last in line. I approached him with the dice bag I’d accepted and explained the story behind it. As he was signing it, I presented him with the book and told its tale. As he opened it his reaction was overwhelming. “Oh my god, this is the nicest thing.” He turned its pages with, dare I say, reverence? My first thought was “Hooray!” My second thought was “no… I didn’t put enough work into it for this. I just… I just talked to people. I have to do it again, better.” I did get a hug though. I’m not made of humility, after all.

As soon as I was out of the line someone asked me “was that the Reverse Signing book? Oh man, I wanted to sign that.” With that I decided to start another project, so that everyone who didn’t get a chance could sign it again this year. I’ve given myself a new mission, imprecisely defined as it may be.

And that was the essence of my PAX this year. More details and anecdotes to come after I return from the wilds of Pennsylvania this weekend.

Nier so far

I’m on another one of my extended nomadic trips. Am I the only one who takes these? When freed from the bounds of reason by summer, vacation, or fate I slip the chains of longitude and embark upon a…

What? I was supposed to be talking about a game here? Right right, I forgot.

I had a roommate, once. His name was Adam. He showed me that there were JRPGs beyond Final Fantasy, games like Shadow Hearts, Suikoden, and Breath of Fire.  So when I went to visit him and he wanted me to play a new game I was intrigued. The game was Nier, and he praised it more highly than any other current generation RPG. I was already passingly familiar with Nier, my favorite humor boys having done their respective things to it. I expected a weird, grim, post apocalyptic world that transitioned suddenly into a fantasy and town maintenance RPG. That’s sort of what I got, but there is some important information you need about this game, right now:

Bookpunching people is AWESOME.

The bookpunch, as Unskippable dubbed it, is a magic attack that you get very early in the game. It’s represented prominently in the game’s opening cutscene, and for good reason:  it feels powerful, it’s an awesome-looking effect, and it’s the most tactically interesting ability I’ve discovered so far. You’re running around with a book hovering behind you from which all your spells emanate. You’ve got a magic bar that refills at a decent rate, and one bookpunch uses about half of your mana bar. A simple press of the trigger and a giant red ghost hand emerges from your book to punch the CRAP out of the ground about a meter in front of you. This means that the best way to deploy this ability is to let enemies get really close, almost in melee range, before knocking them back or, in some cases, simply annihilating them. When it works it feels crafty, risky and good, and it works almost all of the time.

I got so good at using this ability that Adam was shouting at me to stop; warning me that I’d be sorry when I came to a section of the game where I had to melee things again, He might be right about that but screw it. That’s tomorrow, this is today, and I’m a bookpuncher for life.

Ok, I’ve sufficiently covered joy of bookpunching, but what it the game actually like?

You start off with an opening cutscene in the not-too-distant future, but after a few short scenes and sample combats you flash forward to a post-apocalyptic, post-technological society, a la Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Always Coming Home.” You live in an idyllic little town (filled with silly, mostly meaningless little sidequests) with your sick daughter. Eventually you discover a magic talking book that may have the power to cure her if you can unlock its sealed verses. So you travel to other towns and villages and fight monsters in search of these verses. Pretty standard RPG plot.

This is an action RPG, and the combat system is a fun and nerve-wracking. The four face buttons and four triggers have different functions, jump, attack, block, magic, other magic, dodge, special. Pretty standard fare, but the variety of magical attacks, all of which serve very different strategic functions, is interesting.  I’m also bad enough at the game to make combat exciting, but it’s not that inherently difficult. Dungeons are simple but interesting in general, except for one dungeon that is the definition of frustration. The sidequests are largely of the kill, fetch and fedex style. I like them, but my roommate says he’s angry at their uselessness and wishes he hadn’t bothered with them on his playthrough. They are rather simplistic and trivial, but I liked the idea that, beyond fighting monsters and trying to save your daughter in classic RPG fashion, you are also the nice old man who does odd jobs. And since there are monsters pretty much everywhere, it makes sense that some shopkeep in town would need you to go to the next city over on a supply trip.

This game has two major minigames, fishing and cultivation. I like minigames, but the fishing in this game is a frustrating trial. Take it from someone who did every fishing-related thing in Ocarina of Time, someone who fish-raced with the best of them in Dark Cloud 2, someone who has maxxed out fishing in World of Warcraft several times: the fishing is terrible. If I get the game home where I can play it without Adam shouting at me, I might do some of the fishing-related quests just for completion, but in really fishing is the worst job in this game. I haven’t started the agriculture minigame yet, but it relies on plants growing in real time, and if you don’t gather them at the appropriate time they wilt and you lose everything. I’m interested in seeing how exactly it plays out.

So far the writing in the game is pretty good. Nier is convincingly concerned for his daughter, and the paternal motivation is a refreshing change of pace from the romantic or politically-motivated plotlines of most RPGs. The characters have fun banter that is often voice-acted and can be triggered by something as mundane as quest acceptance or as major as defeating a storyline boss.

The game’s art direction and atmosphere are a major draw. Something about the world makes me keep wanting to come back. There are some games where it is difficult to explain the appeal, but somehow the whole picture just makes it hard to walk away. Nier is one of those games. That said, I’m not sure if I’ll play the game when I go home: $60 is a little too dear for a new game when I have a lot of unplayed ones sitting around, and the text would likely be unreadable on anything but a decent-sized HDTV. That’s a trend in games I find really frustrating, but it seems pretty unavoidable in current generation RPGs.

In short, Nier is refreshing in many ways, pretty fun, and very engaging. If you’re looking for a JRPG that doesn’t feature a socially-dysfunctional emo git or overly naive, fresh-faced moron as the main character this is one of your best modern options. It also apparently takes only 40-50 hours to play through the main storyline and get most of the endings, if you don’t do all of the sidequests and minigames.

Unfortunately, watching me play has made Adam want to play more, so my chances of making significant further progress now is slim. Still, what I played has me interested enough that I might just make a purchase if Nier goes down in price or I go up in wealth.