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Saturday, April 5, 2014

Countdown- Top Ten Worst Mandatory Things in Games (That I Have Played)

It is possible to enjoy something, yet also acknowledge that it has faults. We all have had those moments, even in games we really enjoy, where we just shook our heads and wondered, “What were they thinking?” Hence, I have compiled a list of the top ten worst parts of various games I have played, and with one exception, they are also games that I thoroughly enjoyed, making these moments all the more egregious. For the purposes of this list, the following ten items are all things that were necessary in order to progress in the game, rather than being simply optional content that could be avoided, making them doubly frustrating if they happen to impede you.

10- Roast Mutton (The Hobbit)

Pictured: a bad game.
We're off to a great start!

            Do you know what I’m terrible at? Stealth. So what tends to grind my gears more than anything else in gaming? Mandatory stealth sections. Now, good stealth sections generally have some sort of failsafe option where you can fight your way out if you are caught, or at least present you with multiple options in order to progress. Bad stealth sections, on the other hand, have only one solution, and send you right back to the start should you be caught. Sierra Entertainment’s Hobbit game is guilty of this transgression more than any other game I’ve played, but I picked the chapter Roast Mutton because it happens so early in the game (it’s only Chapter 2), presenting an early roadblock for the sneaking-impaired who just want to “explore caves and carry a sword instead of a walking-stick”. It’s low on this list because The Hobbit was kind of an awful game in general, so Roast Mutton is really only one bad drop in a sea of poor game design choices.

9- Choosing a Path (Shin Megami Tensei IV)


            Moral choice systems have become rather commonplace in games nowadays, but one of the few series to implement them effectively is the Shin Megami Tensei series of role-playing games. Ever morally grey and ambiguous, the mainline SMT games have a knack for putting the player in a compromising position between several extremist philosophies, where they much choose to live with the consequences of which one they end up supporting. The latest entry in the series, SMTIV, continues the series’ traditional Law-Chaos dichotomy, but what makes this game frustrating is that, unlike prior games such as Nocturne, choosing a side isn’t as clear as simply aligning yourself with the proper faction leader. When the time comes to make your final choice, the game looks at Law and Chaos points you have been allocating with each branching decision you have made up until that point, and if you’re too far slanted to one side or the other, then that is where you are stuck, regardless of whether or not you choose differently at this final moment. Theoretically, this makes choosing either Law or Chaos easy (just make the decisions that correspond to each alignment), but this makes going for a Neutral playthrough quite a bit more difficult, and I ended up irrevocably stuck on the Law path my first time through the game (made all the worse by the fact that I disagreed with Jonathan’s philosophy on a fundamental level). Actually, the Neutral path of SMTIV could provide a whole other discussion about artificial game padding… some other time, perhaps.

8- Darkness Beyond Time (Chrono Cross)

            Chrono Cross has picked up an unfairly negative reputation of late, often from people who may not even have played the game (yes, I’m calling you out, RPG snobs! And I am aware of how ironic this is coming from me, thanks for asking). While the game may not live up to the reputation of beloved classic Chrono Trigger, what game really has? Cross is a good game in its own right, with an interesting combat system, complex story, and gorgeous aural and visual presentation. However, it does have a fair share of imperfections, and I for one found the game’s conclusion to be very frustrating. Not from a storytelling standpoint- I actually really like the plot of Chrono Cross and enjoyed how the ending focused on the fate of an important character from Trigger-, but from a pure gameplay standpoint, the final battle with the Devourer of Time is just kind of annoying. Never mind that fact that it’s theoretically possible to not pick up on any of the hints on how to properly complete it, or even miss the Chrono Cross entirely, but the worst part is that fighting and defeating the boss normally will get you the bad ending. In order to get the true ending of Chrono Cross, you need to cast Elements in a specific order and then use the titular artifact, which ends the battle and the game in spectacular fashion, but doing so is rather tricky and seems a little out of left-field after the countless battles up until this point. There are numerous hints to guide the player in the right direction, but it could have been a little bit clearer.

7- Ultimecia’s Castle (Final Fantasy VIII)
          I could go on a long and laborious tangent about Final Fantasy VIII’s Junction/Guardian Force systems, but suffice it to say that they were an interesting piece of gameplay and story integration as well as a convoluted mess of game mechanics. The Junction System might have enabled you to build a party of veritable demigods by the end of the first disc, but it combined with other aspects of the game such as Guardian Force abilities and level scaling also gave FFVIII a somewhat erratic difficulty curve, and nowhere was this more apparent than in Ultimecia’s Castle. Taking away the party’s abilities and forcing them to fight to earn them back was a good idea in theory, but navigating this dungeon is incredibly taxing. The most obnoxious part is switching between multiple parties of three throughout much of the dungeon. This has been seen before in other RPGs (see Kefka’s Tower in Final Fantasy VI), but having to switch GFs and Junctioned spells every time I switched to the other party grew quite aggravating as I attempted to navigate the maze-like confines of the Castle. It provides a decent enough challenge in a game that can be rendered quite easy with the proper setup, but once you get your abilities back it just turns into a lengthy slog. Final Fantasy VIII is a game that tried a lot of new things, and I applaud it for that, but Ultimecia’s Castle is a flat-out tedious final dungeon.  

6- The Star Destroyer QTE (Star Wars: The Force Unleashed)


        Quick-time events, or QTEs, have become a staple of the hack-and-slash/action genre during the last console generation. These cinematic sequences of timed button presses are usually intended to highlight the gory aftermath of a battle or showcase a particularly cinematic moment. The latter was likely the intent with Star Wars: The Force Unleashed’s Star Destroyer sequence, which was heavily featured in promotional material for the game. Starkiller being powerful enough with the Force to rip a Star Destroyer from the sky and bring it crashing into a planet’s surface is an impressive concept, but the reality leaves much to be desired. Not only is the sequence repeatedly interrupted by incoming waves of TIE Fighters (which appear more frequently on higher difficulties), but the game’s button prompts are actually incorrect, instructing the player to do the opposite of what actually needs to be performed. Why this was never fixed, I do not know.

5- Tower of Babel (Xenogears)


            You know what can be fun? Platforming. What isn’t fun, however, is platforming using two-dimensional sprites that are navigating a three-dimensional environment from an overhead perspective. Unfortunately for Squaresoft’s ambitious PS1 RPG Xenogears (which I quite enjoyed for its complex and rewarding storyline, as well as the excellent music), the Tower of Babel requires such traversal methods, resulting in many a plummet to the entrance and an uphill battle through continued random battles as you attempt to reach the place where you fell. Xenogears is kind of a clunky game when you get right down to it, and time hasn’t done the Tower of Babel any favors. It’s a testament to the overall strength of the game’s narrative that so many people are willing to attempt the climb.

4- Cloister of Trials (Final Fantasy X)


            Final Fantasy X is the game that I credit with introducing me to the wonders of console RPGs, and remains one of my favorite games in the series. But like many others, it has its flaws, and easily the worse part of this otherwise excellent game (aside from freaking Blitzball), in my not-so-humble opinion, are the Sphere Puzzles found within each Cloister of Trials. The Cloisters must be entered at each temple along Yuna’s pilgrimage, but all that the Trials amount to are a whole lot of annoying block and switch puzzles that are, quite simply, no fun at all. The Macalania and Bevelle temples are easily the worst offenders in terms of complexity, but the worst thing about the Cloisters is that, if you want to get the Aeon Anima later in the game you need to complete each Puzzle and find a special Destruction Sphere within each one. Good luck doing that without a walkthrough your first time through.

3- Atlantica (Kingdom Hearts)


            When sitting down to play through the Atlantica portion of Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix, I looked over at my roommate and told him, “Get out now, there’s going to be blood and swearing and anger.” I wasn’t too far from the mark, either, because Atlantica is easily the most frustrating section of the original Kingdom Hearts, if not the entire series. KH1’s level design lacked some direction for the player, and Atlantica is possibly the worst offender in this department- the path going forward is initially pointed out by trident-shaped markers on walls, but eventually becomes much more convoluted as more and more backtracking is required. Not to mention, if you enter some areas from the wrong angle, you will be unable to see where you are going because the camera will get stuck and the swimming controls are terrible. I was torn between the original and Kingdom Hearts II’s iteration, but at least in KH2 you can skip it.

2- The City in the Sky (Twilight Princess)


            Twilight Princess features some of the best dungeons in the Zelda series, but the game hits an unfortunate low point with the City in the Sky, the area which houses the final Mirror Shard. I could lament the nonsensical layout of the place, or the grating music, but what makes the City in the Sky stick out in my mind is that, for some reason, in the Gamecube version Oocca’s warp function wouldn’t work in this dungeon- I could warp back to the entrance, but not back to where I left. This meant having to backtrack through the same areas constantly if I needed to take a break, requiring me to beat the entire place in one sitting during subsequent playthroughs. An exciting boss fight and useful dungeon item (the Double Clawshots) do provide some moments of enjoyment, but I will always remember the City in the Sky as one of the most aggravating locales I’ve ever had the misfortune of adventuring in.

And so, we come to the top spot, the worst moment I’ve ever had to struggle through in order to complete a game. And I have chosen a part from one of my favorite new IPs of the last console generation, a capable Zelda clone with God of War-style combat and comic book aesthetics…

1- The Black Throne (Darksiders)

            Yeah, I really, really liked the Darksiders games in spite of their flaws, and I really do hope that somebody will pick up the rights to make a third title. However, even I will not defend the final hours of the original Darksiders, which needlessly drag out the experience in the most tedious way possible. After delivering the Hearts of the Chosen to Samael (which served as the main quest structure for the game), War is able to progress to the Destroyer’s Spire, which by all rights should be an incredible final dungeon… but instead resorts to the tired gameplay trope of ‘redirect the beams of light’, and squanders one of Darksiders’ best ideas, which is the incorporation of the Portal Gun (“Void Walker”) in a Zelda-esque puzzle dungeon. Not only does the dungeon take forever, not only does it require you to fight the same miniboss three times, not only is the collision detection for the portals spotty, and not only is the dungeon boss the most anticlimactic, piss-easy boss fight in the entire game… but to add insult to injury, you have to backtrack through all the previous zones to complete a lazy fetch quest before the final boss fight. This whole last section feels tacked on when compared to the rest of the game, which other than a very combat-heavy opening was superbly paced. I have fond memories of the original Darksiders, but rest assured- the Black Throne is not among them.

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