Eyes on The Witcher

The Witcher’s become kind of a big name in games.  One of the prime examples when you think of Western RPGs.  It’s a little weird, looking at the first game in the series, and realizing nobody expected that game to be successful.

It makes sense.  A game by a developer that had never done a project from the ground up before that goes deep into the lore of the obscure Polish novel series it’s based on that has never had any presence in the greater market?  Yeah.  That’s not going far.

Except it did!  The first Witcher game is a lot of fun!  And more than that, you can tell it’s made with a lot of love.  A lot of love by people who don’t know perfectly what they’re doing, sure, but that care for the material just oozes out.  The creators are obviously big Witcher nerds.  And more than anything else, they wanted to deliver the feeling of being the Witcher in the Witcher’s world to you.  And it makes for a good time doing so.

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So, to get this going, in this game, you are Geralt, the titular Witcher.  The game takes place shortly after the final novel in the series, in which Geralt, total badass that he is, got killed like a chump by some random farmer with a pitchfork.  Makes things a little awkward that he’s up and walking around here.  It’s awkward for the people in-universe too.  Geralt did, explicitly die there.  Then he came back to life, sans his memory.  This is a plot point.

And there, you come in.  Yeah, typical “amnesiac hero so we have an excuse to explain all the stuff to the newbies” thing, but it feels more natural here than it does in a lot of other properties.  I think the amnesia was better implemented throughout.  You are Geralt.  As a Witcher, your job is to find monsters and witch them.  Usually, there’s people who will pay you to witch specific monsters.  Sometimes, you have to witch people too, in pursuit of your goals, but never for pay.  Also, you get to carry three swords.  At the same time!

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The game’s definitely a lot more plot- and setting- based than it is combat based.  Not that there’s not plenty of combat, it’s just not where the focus is.  It wants you to feel the world of the Witcher.  Which isn’t a happy place to be.  I don’t think it goes full out dark fantasy, but man-eating monsters are a very common occurrence there, people are horrible to each other, and everyone’s survived several different wars in their lifetimes just to get to this point.  The most common enemies you face are either creatures that feed on the dead or are the risen dead themselves.  You spend more time in the grungy underbelly of the host city than any place nice, and even the nice places aren’t that great.   It’s largely typical medieval fantasy, but it’s really interesting to see it from a different perspective, filled to the brim with classic Polish folklore and beasties.  The novels originally were pretty significant for taking the classic fairy tales and giving them dark twists.  They’ve moved well beyond that, and you don’t see those elements directly in this game, but that’ll give you an idea of the level this is on.  I feel like the big strengths of the Witcher’s setting as a whole lie in its subtleties.  It’s not a big super-unique fantasy setting, but it does have some twists on it that show how much thought went into these things.  And it’s kind of neat how much of that world building got carted into this game without being super explicit about it.  I played this game before I ever read any of the books, and it never felt like I was missing out, but now that I’ve read a couple, it interesting to see the little bits they imported without ever bringing real attention to it.  Like, in the novels, the only women that ever wear their hair down are royalty, prostitutes, or sorceresses, all women who are in control of their own occupations and lives.  The game never calls direct attention to it, but they still bring that feature right over.

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The plot is… it’s interesting.  It has some depth to it, although it can be rather simple in points, but it does go in some interesting directions.  It only carries over a handful of characters and one major faction from the novels, but the style of tale it tells fits in with the original stories fairly well.  It is a bit stop and start, though.  Part of that is natural, coming from trying to carry an involved plotline in a somewhat sandbox world, while the rest is just from the plot and game structure not quite matching up.  The Act structure often brings things to a rather abrupt stop and shift, often when the transition is unexpected.  I lost out on both the best weapons in the game because the Act I was in ended without warning before I had all the sidequests I wanted to do done.  In any case, you’ll have long moments of moving slowly, before everything gets moving at a good clip once again.  I won’t call it persistent pacing problems, because it’s always at the player’s control, but you may not always elect to move through the lines as fast as you’d otherwise like.  In any case, it’s a decently ambitious plot, but the Witcher was obviously designed with gameplay progression in mind first, and story delivery second.  Still, it is multi-faceted enough to hold your interest when the plot does arise.  It plays really nicely with Geralt’s amnesia, in a way a lot of games ignore.  By that to mean, it actually addresses it more than twice.  Geralt has explicitly lost things in losing his memory, both becoming more gullible as he doesn’t have his experiences to draw back on, as well as losing track of who he is and his place in the world.  He has multiple conversations with old friends trying to figure out the role of witchers in this world that might be moving past them, and there’s some times where he has to recreate his personality and choose who he wants to be going forward.

Outside of wandering around and talking your way through situations, most of the gameplay comes through combat.  The combat engine here is really interesting to me.  It’s similar to the Dragon Age games, where all the action you’re seeing on screen are really just visual representations of a bunch of dice rolls going on behind the scenes, and a visual representation that doesn’t always match what’s actually going on.  You’ll see Geralt making some total acrobatic moves on his enemies, completely stun-locking them so they can’t even move, and his HP will still be chipping down bit by bit.

So yeah, the combat engine is interesting, here.  There’s not a lot of performance-based stuff you can do.  Essentially, once you’re in combat, there’s not a lot of choices you can make, and your skills won’t make much of a difference.  You get up to a five-hit combo with proper timing, but the timing is very easy to pull off, to the point that when you’re far enough into the game that enemies start presenting a challenge, you can get the full combo almost by rote.  You can switch styles at a whim, but in almost every situation, there’s a clear ‘best’ style to use, so you don’t get much utility out of that.  You do have some status-inducing bombs you can use to really change the tide of battle and a few spells you can mix up in combat, but other than that and your choices of target prioritization, all the other things you ‘could’ do to affect the outcome of battle take too long to have a meaningful effect. The core of the combat gameplay is going to play out as it plays out once you start the fight, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.

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That’s because the big meat of the combat engine is in preparation.  You may not be able to do much to change the result of a combat encounter after you start the fight, but you’ve got a huge amount of things you can do before it.  From the start, you carry at least two swords, one steel for humans and one silver for monsters (both are for monsters), each of which can be forged and reforged with a variety of buffs and effects.  Each of those swords has three styles, one for heavily armored enemies, one for evasive enemies, and one for groups, that get different moves and effects depending on the choices you make as you level up.  And then you get a huge array of potions and blade oils to add additional temporary effects to you and your weapons.  You can’t just take an unlimited amount of potions, those things are somewhat toxic, and as you take more than a handful Geralt starts feeling the sting from them, so figuring out the most effective combination of the limited amount of potions you can take is vital for success.  The game is really big on having you do the in-universe research on the monsters and situations you’ll encounter and figuring out what you’ll need to counter them.  You have to find books.  Knowing about the monsters clues you into what they’re weak to, what swords and styles are best for them, and gives you extra ingredients for making your concoctions.  Books also contain the recipes for your potions, blade oils, and bombs which prove so vital, and enable you to gather alchemical ingredients in the wild.  The in-combat gameplay is very simple, but the mental work before it is anything but, which lends to a really interesting take on the typical RPG sword and claw business.

I guess I should also talk about one of the more famous/infamous parts of this game.  So, there’s porn in it.  Not like, hardcore porn or anything, but, well, Geralt has a lot of sex.  It’s pretty integral to the lore, a chaste Geralt would be like a virgin James Bond.  In this game, when you have sex with someone, you’re treated to a really tame kissy kissy fade out like you’d see most every other time something like this pops up.  And then you get a beautifully hand-drawn picture popping up that shows you what the character looks like naked.  It’s not an omnipresent thing or anything, and, with a few notable exceptions, you can ignore the sex scenes without missing out on plot or in-game rewards, but this is before the age of bathtub Geralt, so the sexual appeal is pretty one sided.  I’m a pretty sexually open person, so getting to know what a bunch of fictional people’s breasts look like doesn’t bother me at all, but if it’s not to your taste, I can’t fault you at all for not wanting it in your video games.

Overall, the Witcher does show a lot of signs of being a freshman game.  Designed pursuing the ideal over execution, the untempered ambition of the piece, and a fair bit of jankiness that experience probably ironed out of the later ones.  For all it’s flaws, it’s a really good game.  It delivers a unique experience, and it’s totally accessible yet becomes even deeper on repeat playthroughs and after having read the books.  It’s grown a little dated, but the game was solid enough to launch a very well regarded franchise and position its company well enough to put together the closest thing Steam has to a competitor.  I enjoyed my time with it, and I look forward to jumping into future games in the series.

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On Shin Megami Tensei

Athena over at AmbiGaming had posed the question recently. What’s a game you love but never talk about? I recently started replaying it again, so it was a pretty easy answer for me. Shin Megami Tensei. I’ve talked about other games in the series, some of them at length, but I don’t really talk about the Super Famicom original all that much. That got me thinking. Well, everything gets me thinking because my brain is just so big from knowing so much stuff, but that got me thinking specifically about this game. Maybe it’s time to correct that whole not talking about this game thing. Let’s talk about Shin Megami Tensei.

You might know the Megami Tensei series. The majority of the releases for the past decade and a half have seen western soils. Outside of the Persona series, they’re not really hitting mainstream attention, but they still draw plenty of their own groups to them. They series as a whole is known for a lot of things. Mixing a lot of recognizable figures from religion, mythology, and folklore, and letting you fight/ally yourself with them. Being really hard. Having God as the big bad guy. Or, back in the old days, being a classic JRPG series that never had a hope of being marketed to America through NOA’s content policies.

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That last one is how I first came across the game. The Megami Tensei series is one of my favorite ones. It was Persona 4 that introduced me to a lot of it, showed me magic and convinced me to dive in deeper, but my introduction to the series actually came years earlier with this game. Back when I was a cub, I had a friend. I know, I know, stem your surprise. Anyways, friend’s older brother was big into import games. Had himself a modded SNES, which seemed super cool and elite until I grew up and learned that all that entailed was knocking out the little tabs in the cartridge holder so that the SFC cartridges fit in the American SNES. As I recall, he had himself a rather sizable collection of Japanese games as well. Friend and I had some good times alternatively watching him play and playing through a bunch of games, including this one, although outside of when he explained things to us, we really had no idea what was going on in game.

Fast forward a couple of years. My family had moved away. Our parents kept in touch, but he and I didn’t. After graduating college, I committed to spending a year as an Americorps volunteer in an economically blighted area in middle of nowhere America. Early on, my mother had sent me a care package. Well, apparently she’d been talking to her friends about it, because my old friend had sent her a couple things to include in there, including the old copy of Shin Megami Tensei. I ended up spending long, long hours with that game, trial and erroring my way through the Japanese text until I finally found a translation guide online and could play it fully. I spent a lot of time with that game. That proved to be a very transitional time in my life, wherein I lost a lot of the old and found a lot of the new, and a lot of my memories about all that have gotten tied up in my thoughts about Shin Megami Tensei.

Artistic works, whether visual arts, movies, books, games, whatever, often end up meaning something to us, moreso than the work itself. Shin Megami Tensei is one of those games to me.  It’s been a constant companion for me, a game I come back to every once in a while just to relive.  It was even the subject of the first LP I ever attempted, although a similar transitional time in my life interrupted that.  Maybe that’ll be one that finds new life here eventually.

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You See Ed. Fallout Chapter 2!

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So when all’s said and done, here’s our guy. Well, girl. See, I really like the idea of naming the character after my fellow webcrawlers, and Athena both called dibs and did a pretty good job of selling me on the glory that is Athena. So we’ll we’re going to be Athena. Sorry, LightningEllen. I am going to do my best not to drag her name through the mud. But, then again, that’s really going to be up to you guys, isn’t it?

I took the liberty of setting her stats based largely on the skills you folk chose. Since you guys made the strong tactical decision of just being born better than everyone else, we ended up with a lot of stat points to play with, here. Yes, we’re Gifted. That’s going to make us slightly weaker at the very beginning of the game, as our increase in stats doesn’t make up for the decrease in skills, but we’ll catch up.

Red Metal had a great idea of maxing out her Agility. Agility’s one of the most useful stats in the game, determining how many action points you get per turn, and your natural armor class i.e. how hard it is for Athena here to end up pummeled. I only set it to 9, however, rather than the max of 10. There’s a reason for this. A reason that’s not going to come to fruition for a long time, at which point I am going to forget to mention that’s why I did this so you won’t know how smart I am, but there’s a reason for it nonetheless. How about you guys just go ahead and think I’m really smart right now.

We’re pumping Intelligence so that we can say smart things about videogames boost our skill points per level back up to normal levels and compensate for the lowered rate we see from being gifted. It also plays into our good talking to people skills, as a higher intelligence opens up more dialogue options. Fun fact, if you have an intelligence of 3 or less, you are not smart enough to hold a normal conversation with people. Makes playing the game a totally different experience. Perception, we’re boosting because I took Mishka’s ‘combat skills’ suggestion as a seconding of Athena’s ‘small guns’ suggestion, so we’re rolling with that. Perception impacts a lot of things, but the most important is our accuracy with ranged weapons, so we’ll need that to, you know, actually hit our enemies. Of course, we’re a Night Person, so our Perception and Intelligence are never actually going to be at 8. They’ll be at 7 during the day, and 9 at night. So when we have the choice, we’re going to want to wait to fight and level up at night, because we’ll get better bonuses then.

Strength theoretically isn’t all that useful since we’re never going to not be shooting people in a fight, but all weapons have a minimum strength requirement or else Athena will be shooting like a stormtrooper.  For small guns, it hits out at 5. Otherwise, the only thing it will impact is how much we can carry. Charisma doesn’t have very many impacts this game, vaguely affecting disposition and prices, but I still figured that since we’re going to be using our speech quite a bit, it’s still handy to have high. I couldn’t bear to have a third stat at 8, so I left it one point short. I left our Endurance subpar, because we need a weakness somewhere to give enemies a chance, and shunted it into Luck. Endurance determines your rate of healing over time, but since we’re a skilled doctor, it’s not so important, your resistances to things you’ll only see a few times in the game, and your hit points. Luck does exactly what it always does every single game it comes up.

So where does this leave us? Athena’s going to be walking out into the wild, rabid wasteland (seriously, they don’t even have Dragon Age out there) able to handle conflicts in a variety of ways. It’s not always going to be the case that we’ll have to the option both to fight and talk our way through, but one of those two will almost always come into play. With our doctor skills, we’ll be able to recover from anything we find on the wastes that doesn’t kill us outright. This is a solid set of skills you’ve started us out with.

And here I was worried that everyone was going to jerk me around by picking Gambling, Outdoorsman, and Throwing for your tagged skills and leaving me with nothing viable to do.

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War Never Changes. Let’s Play Fallout!

War never changes.

Ages ago, they had the War to End All Wars. That was supposed to be the end of it. With that one, we as a species were supposed to end it wiser, safer, saner. With that, we knew the horrors of war, we knew what it did to people, and we knew we wanted no more of it.

Not even thirty years later, we did it again. Ironic, isn’t it? War never changes.

Our species grew with time. We grew in numbers, and we grew in technology. We were smarter, living better lives. You’d think we’d be above it all, after all that. But war never changes. As we grew, so too did our needs. There wasn’t enough to go around. It got to the point where we were making war for the same resource we were consuming in war.

War never changes, but war changes people. Three quarters of the way through the 21st century, October 21st, 2077, war changed the world forever. We don’t know how launched the first bombs. Or who launched the last bombs. Maybe it wasn’t even man at all. Maybe this was the act of an angry God, hitting the reset button on a humanity who by that point was just making war to get what they needed to sustain their war. Whoever it was, it doesn’t really matter by that point. That war came to an end, along with the rest of the world. Nuclear bombs impacting all over the place, both the blasts and the fallout changing it forever, scarring the world in ways few would survive.


At least, that’s what I’ve been told. To be honest, we don’t really know what’s out there. Whether there is anything out there. War never changes, but war hasn’t hit us, these past 84 years. My grandparents were some of the lucky few to make it into a vault. Vault 13, specifically. In Southern California, if that matters to anyone. Safe from the blasts, completely isolated from the outside world, or whatever’s left of it. Here, we had internal conflicts, but things were relatively peaceful. My grandparents lived out the rest of their lives here. My parents were born here, and have lived out their entire lives in the safety of the vault. That was the plan for me as well.

Until recently. Our enclosed, self-sustaining vault suddenly became not so self-sustaining. Our water chip, which was a vital part of the machine that recycled and purified Vault 13’s water, broke. It couldn’t be repaired. We had no replacement. Our cisterns hold months and months of water, but we still had another 120 years before it’d be safe to leave the vault and rehabitate the world. Our water would not last. We’d need a replacement.

Ed was the first to be sent out into the world, seeking salvation. He was a hard, hard man, a survivor, and one who kept up his skills and his edge even in a world that didn’t need them anymore. He was also the single closest person to me in the entirety of Vault 13. Months passed, and we didn’t hear from him again. Then, we sent out Talius. A bit of a somber fellow, but one who was gifted, showing a high level of competence at nearly everything he did. Again, months passed, and we never heard from him again.

It’s time to send someone else out, in search of a new water chip. We only have 150 days of water left. Things are getting desperate. And now, it’s my turn.

A part of me worries. Ed was one of the baddest men I knew, and he’s still vanished, like something’s happened to him. I’ve got the skills. My life, such as it is, has prepared me far beyond the cushy, soften bodies and minds of some of my fellows, but even so, not know what’s out there, aside from that its still in the aftershocks of nuclear bombardment, it’s fearsome.

It doesn’t matter. I have to go. The overseer is not giving me a choice in the matter, however much I want one. I have to find out what’s happened to Ed. I have to save our water supply.

Maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe the 84 years has been enough for most of the Fallout to pass over. Maybe the total bombardment has left whatever remains to wise, fearful, and sparse to pose any real danger. Maybe the world outside is now just as peaceful as the world inside.

War never changes.

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Mark Danced Crazy for the Persona 1 Retrospective!

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I knew it. I freakin’ knew it. I suppose some part of me has known it all along. I’ve got something that makes me different. Something that makes me unique. And no, it’s not my incredible good looks. Although that does fit the bill, too. I’ve got a power, something no one else has. Right now, I’m just not sure what to do with it. Maybe I’ll be a superhero, using it to make the world a better place. Then again, I don’t think there’s much call for a superhero with the power to make developers release more games by writing huge amounts of words about a series.

Don’t give my that look. Once might have been a coincidence. Yes, you could easily write off the fact that I started writing a retrospective series about Saints Row, only for Saints Row IV to release, as mere happenstance. Twice, though, that creates a pattern. The very month I posted my introduction for the Persona Retrospective, Atlus announced the next games in the series. Not just one game, either. Four new Persona games, all as a result of me putting my powers to good use. World, you are welcome.

Of course, that does mean that I actually need to retrospect these games, for the magic to work. Which should be easy enough. The Persona series is one of my absolute favorites. All the games in the series are strong, except for… the first… one… euuuuuuuuuugh.

Now I’m not sure it’s worth it.

Some background information here. I wasn’t kidding when I said the Persona series is special to me. Years ago, I was just about ready to give up on JRPGs altogether, when I found my way to Persona 4. I was blown away by it, falling in love with its world and characters, finding myself completely immersed in its strategic gameplay several steps above what most JRPGs were offering, and being incredibly drawn in by the games characters. I love that game so much, I’d marry it if US law would let me. Those bigots. That game still remains the best JRPG I’ve played, and has a strong position as one of my favorite games. Working backwards from there was a joy as well. Persona 3 had its odd gameplay choices, but the story and characterization were both very strong and the game itself was quite fun to play. Persona 2 showed me an odd style of gameplay I never would have thought worked, but they actually managed to make a great offering out of it.

Then came Revelations: Persona, which managed to insult me on a personal level.

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And no, it wasn’t the bad translation that did it. It wasn’t the old school design, the weird experimentations, or the excuse plot, although those certainly didn’t help. No, I can trace the piece that enraged me so much back to one specific moment.

Even if you play it bereft of context, the game’s still not very good. The dungeon design is horrible, the gameplay is overcomplicated, and the whole experience just shows a weird lack of thought. Still, I was firmly a Persona fan by the time I reached this game, so I was determined to stick it out and fully experience where the series got its roots. I did this for 30+ hours, finally reaching the final dungeon. The way dungeons were designed, you only ever got a save point/refresh station at the start. I had made use of those, then took my trek towards the final boss. I spent hours doing so, navigating the maze, the enemies, the various hazards, and managed to make it to the last floor. Just before I reached the boss, however, I was attacked by a new group of enemies. A group that quickly wiped out my party, save for my main character. Every enemy in this game has strengths and weaknesses, and those are a complete mystery until you’ve beaten them once. Fearful that any of my attacks could be reflected and kill me, I attempted to run. And failed. I tried again. And failed. I kept trying to run for seriously fifteen minutes, to no avail. My resistances were set up to where none of the enemies could damage me. However, not knowing what attacks they might reflect, I couldn’t safely strike out myself, without possibly ending my own life inadvertently. So I kept trying to run, but it wouldn’t let me go, no matter what I did. Finally, I tried casting a spell. Of course, it reflected and killed me in one blow. Back to the loading screen for me. Of course, with the way the game’s set up, the last save point was at the start of the dungeon, three to four hours earlier. All that work, all that time, wasted because the game refused to let me run and did not point more than one save point in that hours-long dungeon.

I immediately threw that game back on the shelf and never touched it for years. Not even after it got rereleased for the PSP. Not even when people tried to tell me it was a lot more lenient with the save points. Even when I had the PSP remake bought for me, I still never bother playing more than a token amount of it.

Eventually, I stopped being so bitter and gave it an honest try again. Still, some resentment lingers to this day.

So hey, there’s a note to start a good retrospective on, huh?

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Snap Judgments: Bravely Default

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I don’t buy a lot of new games when they’ve just been released. I’m both too cheap to pay the launch MSRP, and patient enough to wait until I can get them in the sub-$20 range. So, I figured that on the rare occasion I happen to get a game when it’s still relatively new, I should do something to celebrate. Something…. bloglike.

Such was the case when I recently picked up Bravely Default. 3DS games don’t drop in price quite like most do, so when I was lucky enough to find the game at a significant discount, I jumped on it. I just knew, in playing it, that I’d have to put together a post, so I could be just like those cool kids who play all the new games and finally get invited to parties again. Unfortunately, well… some of you long-time readers, who we’re totally going to pretend I have, may have noticed that posts have slowed down the past couple months as life started taking my lunch money and beating me up after school. That hasn’t stopped being a thing that happens, so unfortunately, I haven’t had the time to play much.

I could just wait until I’ve beat the game to do something with it, but by that time, all the bloggers with such things as “disposable income” and “free time” and “merely average levels of beauty” will have beaten the game to death. Instead, we’re going to jump on this bandwagon right as it’s rolling by. No plan, no context, no real format, we’re just laying ideas on the page as soon as they come up. So, without further ado, here are just some random thoughts of the first two hours of the new 3DS epic, Bravely Default.

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The Hybrid Heaven Review Nobody Expected

Hey guys, got a bit of a problem here.  You might have noticed that posts have dropped off a bit in frequency, the past couple months.  There’s been a couple of factors going into that and they’re all coming to a head now.  I recently found out that my job has more of a time limit attached to it than anyone thought, and I’ve really been focusing on the whole trying to stay employed so I can afford all my fancy hair products thing.  Also, the post I’ve been working on looks like it’s going to be taking a while to finish up.  Yet another big, wordy one.

I’m really not wanting to leave the blog in the lurch, but I didn’t have a post to go.  I figured I’d settle on a compromise.  I’ve been writing things for a few years, much of which has ended up in some corner of the internet or another, but I do have some stuff from years past that never found an outlet.  Seeing as this stuff’s survived transfers through at least two computers, I figured it’d be fair to give it a home, and help me get some content up in the leaner times.

To start with, here’s a review I wrote circa 2008, on a lesser known N64 RPG, Hybrid Heaven.  I make no claims to its accuracy, quality, or the not-being-a-wankerness of my writing.  This is something I did when I was still very early to the world of having people read the stuff I just write for fun, and trust me, a lot of my material back then even makes me cringe now.  Anyways, here’s hoping you enjoy!

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