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An Introduction to Exalted

Michał

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Hello, readers of Fandomentals. Once upon a time, I introduced you to two tabletop systems that I appreciate. Today, I introduce you to another one, that many heave heard of but found too intimidating to approach. I will endeavor to make it easier.

What is Exalted?

The story of Exalted began in 2001, when White Wolf released its first edition. Today, the game is at its third, which was released roughly two years ago, under the brand of Onyx Path. After a torturous release schedule full of delays, the game is picking up speed again, having just finished a Kickstarter for a supplement. Making it a perfect time for me to tell you about it.

What is Exalted¸ you ask? It’s a game in White Wolf’s, and now Onyx Path’s, Storyteller system. But very different from the products most people associate it with. Exalted is a game of high adventure, of myth and legend, world-shaking heroes, and twisted intrigue. It evokes mythology and fantasy fiction both.

And the characters you play in it are the titular Exalted. Just who are they? To answer that, let me zoom back and tell you about the world of Creation. In the beginning, there was only the chaos of the Wyld. Until the Primordials, world-shaping titans, came and fashioned a flat world held up by five elemental poles from it. Then they created creatures to populate it and gods to take care of this world as they played their games of divinity and altogether treated the world as their plaything.

But the gods didn’t like being the Primordials’ slaves, so they rebelled. Knowing they couldn’t defeat their masters alone, they allied with their least powerful creations: humans. Their reasoning was that the Primordials wouldn’t expect it, and that humans also really wanted them gone. Who, after all, would want to live as a mortal human in a world that exists at the whim of capricious titans?

The gods invested their power in the mortal humans, creating the first Exalted. The Unconquered Sun, the King of Heaven and leader of gods, created Solar Exalted. Luna, the shape-shifting witch-goddess of the moon, created Lunar Exalted. The Five Maidens of Destiny (Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars), caretakers of fate, created the Sidereal Exalted. The Primordial Gaia, seduced by Luna to join the rebellion, had her children, the five Elemental Dragons, imbue their power into bloodlines of mortal heroes, creating the Terrestrial Exalted, or Dragon-Blooded.

Together, the united Exalted Host brought low the titans and wrested Creation from their grasp. Some of them died, while others were made to kneel. The Exalted had them swear oaths of surrender and locked them away in the body of their king, Malfeas, outside Creation, in what would become hell.

Unfortunately, killing a Primordial isn’t the end of it. Those of them who died were too massive in scope and nature to really die. Their passing broke the cycle of reincarnation, creating the Underworld, Creation’s dark mirror. They now forever exist there, mad with pain and longing for oblivion. With their dying breaths, they condemned their killers, inflicting the Great Curse.

The Exalted Host proceeded to lead humanity into a golden age, but it couldn’t last. The excesses of power and the Great Curse gnawed on the minds of the Solar heroes and rulers, driving them to madness and cruelty. So much so that the Unconquered Sun turned his face from the world in disgust.

Eventually, the Sidereals made two prophecies to see what to do about it. The Prophecy of Gold stated that it’s possible to turn the Solars from their destructive path…but there’s no guarantee it would succeed. The Prophecy of Bronze stated that if the Solars are cast down, the world will be diminished but survive.

Those Sidereals who preferred grim certainty over uncertain hope conspired with the Dragon-Blooded to overthrow the Solars, which began in a single massacre people would later call the Usurpation. Most Solars died, as did many of their Lunar consorts and stewards. The Dragon-Blooded remained as the rulers of the world, with Sidereals retreating into Heaven.

Thus ended the Fist Age of humanity. The new rulers of the world created a civilization of the Shogunate, where many noble houses fought for power. But it wouldn’t last, as the Great Contagion, a plague deadly like no other, decimated Creation. In its wake came an invasion of monsters from beyond the world. Creation seemed to stand on the brink, until an officer found and activated the Realm Defence Grid, a geomantic super-weapon that remained from the First Age.

The weapon decimated the invading Fair Folk, and its new wielder called herself the Scarlet Empress, the world’s new overlord. She bent the remnants of the Shogunate to her will and created the Scarlet Empire. She deliberately orchestrated it to be entirely dependent on her and her alone, creating Great Houses from her own children.

And then, she disappeared. No one knows how, why or where, but her empire is crumbling in her absence. The Sun has chosen to turn his face back towards Creation and the Solars are returning. The Age of Sorrows is reaching its tipping point, that will lift it up again or plunge it into the abyss.

That’s for a brief and cursory summary of the history. But you’re probably wondering who all those Exalted are, and what they do, and what stories we can tell with them. Let me begin from the two kinds we can currently play.

The many who are Chosen

Solar Exalted, or the Lawgivers, are the game’s default protagonists, who appear in the core rulebook. They’re the chosen of the Unconquered Sun, returning god-kings who will save or doom Creation with their deeds. The Great Curse still hangs over them, and the power they wield can corrupt even without it. But maybe they will be able to redeem themselves and prove that the Sun was right to turn his face back on Creation.

The Solars’ themes are excellence and heroism of mythical proportions. They’re the mightiest of Exalted and the rules drive it home. Their abilities manifest themselves through supreme mastery of different skills. A Solar master of combat can rout armies and slay behemoths. A Solar artificer can produce wonders unseen since the end of the First Age. And a Solar orator will inflame passions, sway hearts and minds and empower prophets. Their Exaltation often comes at a moment of glory and victory, but not always. There are many ways in which they can catch the Sun’s gaze and make him think, “there is someone that I want to spread my word in this fallen world.”

Somewhat balancing it is the fact that Solars aren’t established yet, the way other Exalted types are. And the more waves they make, the more likely they are to provoke response from the Realm, even fraught as it is with the impending civil war.

There are things Solars cannot do, though, which mostly fall outside their motifs of supreme human ability and the Sun’s glory. They can’t command the elements, change shape, take flight, or see the future. However, they can make up for some of it with magic artifacts, martial arts, or sorcery. Such sources of power are available to anyone (even some rare mortals), but Solars’ mastery over them is second to none.

Playing a Solar means being a massive fish in a small pond. Their power is immense and they find it very easy to excel in what they focus on or dabble in many skills. Thus, challenges to Solars are often like those we see in superhero stories. It’s not about giving a Solar weapon-master a monster too big, bad, and scary to cut down with their blade, but about giving them challenges they can’t outfight. A Solar king might shine with Sun’s glory with their every word, but there are no Charms for being a just, fair, and wise ruler.

The Solars’ past hangs over them as new ones appear in Creation. They ruled the world once and brought it to the brink of ruin. Can they avoid repeating it? Do they even want to? The Sun can’t and won’t tell them what to do; that goes against the idea of Exaltation. All he does is choose them and let them go to make the world more righteous as they see fit.

The Dragon-Blooded, also known as the Terrestrial Exalted, Princes of the Earth and the Ten-Thousand Dragons are the weakest among them, but reading through their book quickly shows how relative that comparison is. The Dragon-Blooded are still Exalted, still heroes, and Creation quakes in their passage.

The power of the Terrestrials comes from their lineage. The blood of the Dragons is strongest in the Scarlet Dynasty of the Realm, but there are others out there—the nation-state of Lookshy, the cabal of Forest Witches, or many smaller families scattered across the world. Sometimes, the blood manifests in a lone outcaste.

Despite what their name might suggest, they don’t have any draconic elements. Their power expresses itself in form of superior skill, but also elemental themes: fire, air, water, earth, and wood. The last is there as a nod to Chinese traditions, perhaps, but also due to old White Wolf’s deep and abiding love for the number five. Dragon-Blooded are elemental demigods who field the raw force of nature.

Many readers will no doubt think of Avatar: the Last Airbender and Legend of Korra now. Dragon-Blooded predate both of those shows, but their current incarnation in the third edition isn’t shy about drawing inspiration from them. Of course, Dragon-Blooded are far more powerful than benders and directly manipulating the elements is just one of many things they can do.

One of the main settings to play Dragon-Blooded in is the Scarlet Dynasty, the ruling class of the world-strangling empire. The elemental demigods who still keep their boot on much of creation engage in the same politics and dynamics all empires do, but the great power and burning passion of the Exalted drive them to extremes. With the Scarlet Empress gone, the Great Houses vie for power, the satrapies are rebelling, and nothing is certain. The Solars are returning and the Lunar Anathema are ever howling at the gates. And the need to keep the bloodlines strong is as strong as ever.

Another aspect of the Terrestrials is the Immaculate Faith. It’s a religion created by Sidereal Exalted to solidify a Dragon-Blooded mandate over Creation. It posits that the Dragon-Blooded are spiritually superior beings, close to the Five Immaculate Dragons, who represent the pinnacle of all life.

It also declares the Solars and Lulars “Anathema”—demons who stole power from the sun and moon and now possess strong but unvirtuous mortals. The Immaculate Faith is the state religion of the Realm, but it’s present in many other places beyond it. Once, the heirs of the Realm rode out in great Wyld Hunts to slay them. Nowadays the resources they can spare to hunting them down grow scarce.

Playing a Dragon-Blooded means having power over the elements and walking among the people of creation as a hero. You may come from an illustrious lineage or from the teeming masses. Your power is great, but still lesser than that of other Exalts, so the stories it allows are different. If you choose to play a Dragon-Blooded who’s part of the Scarlet Dynasty, you will step into a world of intrigue, politics and burning passion in an empire whose wealth derives from ceaselessly exploiting people fare and wide.

Those are the two kinds of Exalted we can play right now. The next ones we will receive are the Lunar Exalted, Luna’s shapeshifting god-monsters. They were the seconds of Solar Exalted in ages past—consorts, lieutenants, and assassins. But then the Solars died, and Lunars had to flee to the borders of the world from their killers. Since then, many Lunars have fought a ceaseless war against Dragon-Blooded and Sidereals, particularly after the Immaculate Faith branded them Anathema. They’ve found a place for themselves in the world after the Solars’ departure, but the Lawgivers’ return casts doubt on it.

Lunars have had a difficult history in the game that I won’t bore you with. The current developer team has a vision of them as raw, physical, cunning, and powerful heroes embodying change, towering rage, and themes of predation and symbiosis. Lunars walk the wilds of Creation as rightful masters, stride among barbarian tribes as living gods and rally them to battle against the Realm. They have plenty of reasons to hate it, but not all of them choose to take part in the endless war, preferring to seek their own ends. After all, who can tell a skin-changing moon-hero what to do or where to go? Many Lunars nonetheless look over mortal communities as unseen protectors and trickster mentors.

The Sidereal Exalted, the authors of so much of the right mess I’ve described so far, are the shepherds of Fate. They dwell in Heaven, as their actions during the Usurpation have caused them to disappear from Creation’s eyes. They hold sway over fate and destiny, both predicting it and manipulating it. Theirs is also a master of martial arts not even Solars can match. Sidereal Martial Arts twist fate and resonate with abstract concepts rather than simply different forms of combat.

The Abyssal Exalted are a new arrival on the scene, one whose appearance coincided with that of Solars. That’s because they’re Solar dark mirrors. The forces of the Underworld stole Solar Exaltations on behalf of the undying titans at its centre and twisted them to become Death’s lawgivers in hope of bringing about Creation’s end. But they can’t hope to cage and control Exalted, and the Abyssals are free to do as they please.

The Exigents are a different sort of thing. They’re the Exalted of the smaller and greater gods who dwell in Heaven and in Creation but can’t aspire to the lofty heights of the Sun, Luna, or the Maidens. Any god can petition the Unconquered Sun for Exigence, which is a portion of his divine fire through which a god may invest power into a mortal. Of course, there’s also tales of gods obtaining Exigence through theft or other unsavory means…

Exigence takes a great toll on a god. Creating Exalted isn’t something done lightly. But those gods who are willing and able will receive a champion like few others. Exigents have as much variety as the gods of Creation, which is to say a lot. We have no rules for them yet, but they hold promise for creating our very own, unique Exalted.

There are other Chosen who walk Creation and other worlds, but I’ve gone on about them long enough. What’s the world they inhabit like?

A world of myth and drama

Creation is a flat world amidst churning chaos, and relics of past ages litter its every corner. Mortal cultures of every stripe inhabit it, among gods, Exalts, and stranger beings. The book paints a dizzying variety of mundane and supernatural setting elements, and it’s very refreshing to see a world that incorporates fantastic elements into it from the ground level.

Many settings are afraid to let magic affect things. They paint the usual “European knights and wizards” picture, with magic mostly mattering to the player characters. Not so in Exalted. Solar artificers and sorcerers once created wonders beyond compare, shaping the world to their desires. In their absence, the Dragon-Blooded couldn’t maintain this artifice, which fell into disuse. But now the Solars are back.

Even aside from the works of Exalted, Creation is teeming with magic great and small. Gods, spirits, elemental, demons, sorcerers, and among all of those, humans who seek their own ends, try to change the world or just survive. The world this game paints is very intentionally amoral and might-makes-right. Righteousness is what those powerful enough decide.

I’ve spoken a lot about the Exalted, but gods also warrant mentioning. Creation is full of them, both great and small. The greatest are the Most High: the Sun, Luna, and the Maidens. But the gods run the gamut in power and influence, both in Heaven and on earth. The least of the gods are small deities of rivers, fields, or forests.

But even those least gods have great influence compared to mortal humans. After overthrowing the Primordials, the gods and Exalts created a hierarchy and bureaucracy to bind the gods together. But after the Solars’ disappearance, it has gone into disarray. Now nothing stops gods from extorting, bullying, and abusing mortals. Not unless the mortals have some leverage over them.

Nothing, of course, except Exalted. Many gods are no match for their power, and part of the Immaculate Faith that holds sway in the Realm is assigning every deity its proper place. They will get their share of prayer and devotion, as long as they fulfill their tasks within their spheres of influence. If not, Dragon-Blooded monks of the Immaculate Order wield powerful elemental martial arts, which the Sidereal sifus designed to help them bring unruly spirits to heel.

I’ve gone on about the setting and dramatis personae a lot. What about the mechanics? The rules of the game are hefty and heavy. They’re hard to approach and it helps to start out with mortal characters. Yes, you can play mortals. They lack the sheer might of the Exalted, but they’ve got their own stories to tell and their own impact to make on the world. More importantly, they don’t come with the plethora of superpowers and the rules that adjudicate them.

The Instruments of their glory

What are some mechanical widgets that make Exalted stand out? I’d like to draw your attention to two: combat and social influence.

The designers of the third edition had a problem. How to make combat between demigods enjoyable, and how to make rules that properly reflect such titanic struggles? The previous editions of the game had fallen into the trap of offense overwhelming defense. The Exalted and foes equal to them in strength threw around attacks with such power that they mostly obliterated their targets unless they raised an equally powerful defense.

But that’s not very exciting, is it? From the perspective of the players, if one combatant negates another’s attack, nothing happened. Until someone slips up and becomes a fine red mist. Third edition counters it with initiative. To avoid getting into the nitty-gritty of things, there are two kinds of attack: withering and decisive. Withering attacks steal initiative from enemies and give it to you. Then a decisive attack targets the enemy’s actual health, using your initiative as a damage pool.

This means that you need to build your momentum and position yourself to strike. It also lets powerful attacks go off without actually killing someone. Thus evoking the battles of myth and fiction, where opponents dance and struggle with each other before someone finally lands a decisive blow.

The social influence system addresses another problem. In too many systems, persuasion, diplomacy, and subterfuge boil down to rolling once and figuring it out from there. Or bypass rolling entirely, which is unfair to people who invested mechanical resources into it. With Exalted, another problem is letting the player characters convince anyone to do or think anything just because of how incredibly good they are at the relevant skills.

The game counters it by means of Intimacies. In a general sense, they’re things people believe and hold important to them. Whether they’re relationships to other people, philosophical beliefs, old grudges, ambitions—anything.

You cannot convince anyone of anything or get them to act on your behalf if you don’t attach your attempt to a relevant Intimacy. Likewise, if your attempt runs counter to one, it will be more difficult or outright impossible. But Intimacies can be created and weakened through social influence or simply through events of the game.

For instance, you can’t convince a loyal officer to betray her liege lord, no matter how many dice you throw at the problem. So if you want to do it, you will need to erode her loyalty somehow or appeal to some other Intimacies she holds. For instance, if the officer is a fervent believer in the Immaculate Faith and her liege lord has been consorting with Anathema, you can use that information. And obviously, no one says the consorting with Anathema has to be true.

I hope my rather lengthy introduction has at least sparked an interest in you about Exalted. It really is a special game that deserves some consideration and perusal. And if I’ve managed to do that much, I’ve done a good job.


Images courtesy of Onyx Path

Michał is a natural meddler, driven to take fiction apart and see how it works. In The Fandomentals, he examines fantasy and gaming with a critical, and somewhat cranky, eye.

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Roleplaying Outside Your Comfort Zone

David

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Greetings readers! I’ve returned to write more about tabletop RPGs. Last time, I wrote about the different, non Dungeons and Dragons games you can play. This week, I’ll be writing about roleplaying. Specifically, roleplaying characters you aren’t used to. But before we begin though, I want to make one point very clear:

You do not have to play in any situation that is triggering, or makes you uncomfortable in any way. Your safety and mental health take precedence over everything. It’s important to always keep that in mind. Particularly if you have an enthusiastic group of people around you. You don’t want to disappoint anyone, and you can end up in situations that are upsetting. You are always allowed to stop and a good GM—a good person—will stop and give you time to recover. Keeping this point in mind, let’s start by answering the first question…

What is ‘Roleplaying as different characters’?

What exactly do I mean by roleplaying different characters? At the most basic, it’s playing as a character that doesn’t share your beliefs or personal experiences.

At first blush, that seems simple. After all, most people have never cast a magic fireball spell before, or swung a sword, or talked to a dragon. The trick to playing as someone different comes mostly from the details however. Start with something simple. If you’ve mostly played male characters before, play a female character. Try playing as character from another culture. If you’ve always played wizards or sorcerers, try playing a character that doesn’t use any magic. It’s a small change, but it’s one that can make a big difference, particularly if you’ve never given it much thought before.

Once you’ve taken these small steps, try taking it another step further. If you’ve always played a character who looks out for the little guy, trying playing an aristocrat. Keep in mind that adapting to some roles will be easier than others. Playing someone who can’t use magic is pretty easy. Learning to inhabit the role of a peasant, or (in the case of people used to privilege) an oppressed minority is much harder.

Once you are used to these smaller steps, the next big hurdle is roleplaying in games that are outside your typical choice. There are many different games out there, and some require more in-depth roleplaying then others. And within the ones that require more roleplaying, there are the ones that are unusual enough that roleplaying becomes more challenging. The two biggest examples for me are Dogs in the Vineyard and Eclipse Phase. Both games have very different themes and goals, but they are alike in the way they challenge the player to think outside their typical comfort zone.

A Dog eat Dog world

Dogs in the Vineyard appears at a glance to be a fairly typical tabletop RPG. It’s a Western, but that’s about its only distinctive trait on the surface. It’s once you start looking closer at the details that you see what sets it apart. The first thing is that it’s set in a fantasy version of the LDS territory of Deseret. Fewer showdowns at high noon and closer to early colonial America. And the characters you are playing as? Holy gunslingers.


The game has you playing as itinerant preachers, problem solvers, and exorcists. Called ‘God’s Watchdogs’, they make a circuit around the various small towns and homesteads in the territory, administering various blessings and dealing with problems as the crop up. Sometimes the problems just require you to talk it out. Sometimes it escalates to gun fights. It’s always the player’s choice to escalate, and that adds to the stress of the roleplaying.

The difficulty with roleplaying in this game is that the characters, by their very nature, are religious. And not just religious, but belong to a religion that follows early LDS teachings. Multiple wives, no drinking, etc. For some people, such as myself, the leap is not that difficult. Still uncomfortable, but not that big of a deal. For other people who may have come from more difficult religious upbringings, casting yourself as the enforcer of dogma is a much higher hurdle to clear. But casting yourself in that role can be important. It lets you see what is attractive about it in the first place and maybe do some good from a position of authority.

Octopus…IN SPAAAACE

Eclipse Phase at first blush is nothing like Dogs in the Vineyard. Dogs is a semi-fantasy western. Eclipse Phase is a sci-fi/cyberpunk/trans-humanist setting set in the future. The basic premise of the game is that at some point, humanity evolved by its own hand. Now considered (and called) ‘Transhumanity’, it was practically a golden age, with people able to choose new bodies for themselves. You could avoid hunger, pain and death forever…if you could afford it.

However, ten years before the game proper starts, the earth is devastated by AI known as TITANs, and they infest both people and machines with deadly viruses. They also kidnap tens of thousands of cortical stacks (Which are what consciousness is stored on in this setting when not in a body) before fleeing the solar system. What’s left of transhumanity has broken into dozens of smaller factions, each competing with themselves. The players generally belong to a faction dedicated to quietly eliminating the greatest threats to transhumanity. You can play any number of different ‘types’ of bodies, with different skills and physical abilities. And yes, you can even play as an uplifted Octopus.

The difficulty in roleplaying in this game comes not from real life problems with organized religions, but from futuristic fears and bodily autonomy issues. The viruses that the TITANs created are still around, and can still twist both your mind and body in grotesque ways. Even disregarding that fact, there is a bias in the game against baseline human bodies. As someone who feels very strongly about bodily autonomy, I have a hard time roleplaying in this game. Some of my other friends however, particularly those who identify as transgender, find being able to to play as something other than their current selves a relief. There’s something for everyone.

Keeping the ‘play’ in roleplay

These are just two examples of games that might have more difficult scenarios to roleplay then others. There are dozens of other games out there, and nearly limitless ideas that creative GMs can come up with that might test your ability roleplay. Like I said at the start of the article: You don’t have to play in something that makes you uncomfortable. People play these games to have fun, and your enjoyment and safety is the most important part.

However, if you are comfortable with the game, and it’s just outside the traditional role you cast yourself as…try it out. If you’ve ever been to California Pizza Kitchen, you know they have a guarantee: If you order something new and you hate it they’ll give you your usual, free of charge. It’s the same principle with characters. Do the opposite of what you’d normally do. Roll for random personality traits. And if you hate it? Play what your comfortable with and have the GM save the old character as a NPC. Good luck and happy gaming!


Images courtesy of Lumpley Games and Posthuman Studios

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First Impressions from Deadfire

Michał

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Hello, readers of the Fandomentals. A week ago, I decided to write a recap of my first impressions of Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire, once I bought it on Monday. This turned out not to be the case, as bugs prevented me from playing once I bought it. But now the bugs have been patched…so I’m at least able to write about what I’ve played since Friday. There’s a lot to unpack even in this context. I will avoid any actual spoilers, seeing as plenty of people might want to read it to decide if they want to buy the game.

The game is big in more senses than one

Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire is big in many senses of the word. We’ve got a much larger area to explore than we did in the first game, obviously. And to explore, we need a ship. Which brings with it ship management, finding crew, equipping it… I’ve only scratched that so far, really. I’m still using my first ship with a couple of new cannons. The ship-to-ship combat system is very elaborate, but I can’t say I’ve understood it yet. I’ve only defeated one enemy ship that felt like a tutorial.

The game isn’t quite what I’d call an open world, but closer to it than most “traditional” RPGs. The classic dilemma of following the main storyline or screwing around doing sidequests is certainly there, as is a variety of NPCs to talk to and factions to side with (or against).

But the physical size of the Deadfire Archipelago isn’t all there is to it. Like I expected, multi-classing and subclasses open up so many avenues. Now, of course, our teammates have a limited selection of classes, and only a few of them have subclasses, but it’s still a series of choices as you gather your party.

With so many choices, though, it’s easy to make the wrong one. The game warns you that multi-classing isn’t recommended for new players, and it’s true. Multiclass characters don’t get more abilities than single-class ones – they simply get to pick from a wider variety, in exchange for a slower power growth. It’s the player’s job to make good use of the synergy.

Of course, if you can make good use of it, the effects can be wonderful. Not necessarily powerful, but very fun and satisfying. My main character is a fighter/rogue, specializing as a streetfighter on the rogue side – that means he gets faster and deadlier when he’s flanked, beaten up or both. Setting up situations where that happens and then making sure he doesn’t die is exciting. It really is about trading flexibility for power. A single-class character will pack a punch, but a multi-class one rounds off a party in a different way.

The combat isn’t quite what we’re used to

I can’t say the game has challenged me much so far, though. Or rather, it has been uneven. Most of the time I comfortably defeated all encounters, but then I ran across an area where I had to stay on my toes, use Empower points to refresh my resources and retry the battles. Maybe it was because I was running a somewhat haphazard and sub-optimal team, with two multi-class characters aside from my own character. Or perhaps it was simply a more dangerous area.

Later on, I took on a quest where I couldn’t even scratch the enemies. As it turned out, it was a level 16 quest, with me being level 8. The journal failed to inform me of it as it was supposed to. The faulty difficulty scaling is a known issue that the devs are working on… I hope so is the journal. There is an option to adjust level scaling – I set it to scale only on the main storyline and only upwards.

Challenge aside, the combat is much as it was, but not quite. Gone are daily spells, and non-spellcasting classes have more options on average. Spells take longer to fire off. Various penalties and bonuses have been folded into an affliction and inspiration system, though not all. It’s a familiar but subtly different experience. But it certainly engages me more than the first game’s combat did.

Wouldn’t be an Obsidian games without bugs on release

You’ve seen me mention the journal not working properly. And I can’t talk about the game without mentioning the bugs, I’m afraid. I mentioned up there that I couldn’t play it for a while because of them. That was because Eder’s fate after the first game didn’t import properly; he talked about different things that had happened. For those who consider it important, it might have been enough to wait for the patch. Which, thankfully, helped.

Still some stuff remains unfixed. The biggest one I’ve noticed in my own run is companion dispositions and relationships. They progress too quickly – a new companion gave me a chummy speech about how much he likes me after two conversations where I did something he approved of.

No other companions have professed their deep sympathies to me yet… But another thing happened far too quickly. After I recruited Pallegina again, I got to talking to her about gods. As you may remember from the original game, she’s not very fond of them and is vocal about it. This doesn’t sit well with Xoti, a new companion who is a devout priestess. This plays into the game’s new system of inter-party relationships.

Which is all well and good and interesting. Except for how Xoti started yelling at Pallegina, which ended with me having to take sides or trying to reconcile them… after that one conversation. I don’t think it was supposed to go this way, since Xoti’s lines implied that she’d endured Pallegina’s opinions far too long.

This also applies to romance, incidentally, causing some companions to start flirting with the Watcher as soon as they approval rises a bit. This happened to me as well. I won’t tell you with who… I won’t spoil the surprise. But I do hope they patch it soon to make those relationships more organic. I’m still deciding if I want to romance someone or go with the “leave me alone, people, I have enough crap to deal with” option.

Smaller things

There’s some minor things that I like and those I don’t. I love various shortcuts in map navigation. You can resupply your ship from anywhere in a city, and head straight to a particular building when entering a district. A small but handy quality of life feature.

Crafting got even bigger, and thus I can’t be bothered to even read the list of all the consumables I can craft. Weapons and armor can only be enchanted if they’re uniques – each unique weapon has a list of traits you can add to it.

That would be great if there was anything resembling balance between the number of those. But there isn’t; by all accounts, swords, greatswords and sabres outnumber everything else.  I’ve already found three unique swords myself. Reportedly, the number of unique crossbows is one. In the whole game. They’ve blundered into the same mistake the Baldur’s Gate games once did.

The skill list got bigger as well. While I admit it’s hard to keep track of who has which skills and making sure I’ve got it all covered, it’s a much more real choice than it was in the first game. Having multiple people with the same skill is also no longer redundant in dialogues and scripted interactions, with our merry band being able to help us make them.

All in all, I’m having a lot of fun with this game, despite the rough edges. It’s still the traditional RPG gameplay with a new spin, only the spin is even newer. Even if you’d rather wait some more until more patches come out to fix more bugs, I can still recommend Deadfire, based on what I’ve seen so far.


Images courtesy of Obsidian

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Will God of War Change Your Mind on the Series?

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By now gamers have at least heard the hype. God of War has received universal praise not only as a great game, but as a contender for the best game of this current generation of gaming. Having spent nearly all my free time since its release losing myself in this game, I can tell you the hype is real. Whatever you’re reading about the game, it’s true. It’s all true. This is a remarkable game in just about every area. One that caught me completely by surprise.

But you’ve heard all this by now. The better question to ask might be whether this game will change anyone one’s mind on the series. Will this latest God of War draw in gamers who did not like previous games? Will it draw in gamers who never saw reason to give the series a shot?

Well, that’s a complicated answer. There are many reasons to think it would. There also exist reasons to think it won’t.

god of war kratos atreus

Why it Will

Make no mistake, God of War makes many changes to the franchise that somehow manage both to take significant steps forward while also retaining the classic feel of the series. The gameplay is outstanding; it’s deep, diverse, epic, and the Leviathan Axe not only lives up to the legacy of the chain blades, it arguably outdoes them. Kratos loses nearly nothing in translation to the new camera perspective. He is basically every bit as quick, strong, and brutal as he was before.

Where previous games were more iconic for the brutality and spectacle of the gameplay than the actual mechanics, this game actually ups the stakes in the complexity of the combat. The axe gives Kratos a variety of gameplay choices. You can slash up close, throw it from afar, use it to freeze enemies, use it to trip enemies, or use it to pin them to walls. Once it’s thrown, you can use Kratos’s bare hands to shatter enemies or just accumulate stun damage quicker, opening them up to God of War’s signature button-prompt brutal finishers.

Atreus also avoids the fears of adding a companion by operating as an absolute force in combat. While he starts off somewhat limited in his capabilities, by the end of the game he has multiple types of elemental arrows with different effects, grapple moves that open opportunities for Kratos, and melee attacks all his own. His response time to the player’s commands are fantastic. He also avoids the fragility issue forcing players to constantly rescue companions in other games. Atreus is a strength of this game’s combat. With some of the tougher fights, and especially on higher difficulties, he is a necessity to success.

These various tactics come in handy against an improved variety of enemies. Previous games certainly had a huge variety of different enemies, but your strategy against these enemies didn’t really vary. You used your preferred combo or two and they carried you throughout the game. Some bosses would require more advanced use of combinations, parrying, and environmental usage, but overall you were blasting through the game with the same couple combos.

This game has fewer enemy types on paper, but they necessitate a greater variety of strategy. Some enemies are immune to the axe and require fists or a weapon acquired later. Some are best handled through stun damage. Others require ranged attacks. You have enemies that heal, enemies that turtle behind shields, and enemies that attack fast and viciously. There are enemies that hide underground and can take a long time to defeat if not stopped.

By the end of the game, when all these different enemy types start mixing together, players will need to switch weapons, range, aggressiveness, and use of Atreus, and often from enemy to enemy. For those action fans who wished for more depth in God of War’s gameplay, this delivers and then some. I’m still not sure you can put it on par with the combat of games like Devil May Cry 3 or Bayonetta, but it’s at least closer than it was before.

Then again, I suppose gameplay probably isn’t the reason a gamer didn’t like or care about God of War before. Most likely what turned you off was Kratos and the uber-testosterone coursing through the game. Between the romanticism of insane violence and vengeance, the absurd sex minigames and nudity, and Kratos’s one-note toxic masculinity, the original games definitely don’t appeal to everyone. To be fair, the first game told an effective story (for the time) speaking against the person Kratos had become. That doesn’t change those elements within the game and it sequels, though.

Have no fear, this new God of War shares little in common thematically or even content-wise with its predecessors. The violence is still there, for sure. It is a hack-and-slash action game, after all. Otherwise the themes, characterization, and content almost feel like a direct response to critics of Kratos’s previous adventures.

Kratos himself is an entirely different person. He’s a man running from the horrors of his past and harboring no desire to return to it. A lot of the super-machismo male fantasy suff has been ditched. Violence and death are actively spoken against. There’s very little romanticism of violence, and a central theme of the story is actively speaking against it. Kratos is definitely still an angry man, but one who has seen the horrors of violence and vengeance and wants to avoid them. It’s a direct rebuttal of his former attributes.

The central story revolves around Kratos and Atreus bringing their wife/mother’s ashes to a mountaintop per her final wishes, and as such they spend the game in mourning. The main plot never diverges from this goal. There’s no violent goal here. Kratos aims aren’t about killing. Yes, he kills a lot, but it’s never the reason he seeks to do anything. He avoids killing at crucial moments. God of War gives the series a newfound maturity.

This maturity also extends to God of War’s past of extreme violence and sexualization regarding women. There are no sacrifices, no sex minigames, no bare chests at every turn. In fact there’s no nudity at all that I’ve seen. I know when people heard about the game starting with a dead mother, they worried we’d get the same vengeful fridging that the first game delivered, but that is not the case here.

The story told never strays from this maturity, either.  It maintains a subtlety unexpected of fans of the previous games. The relationship between Kratos and Atreus drives much of the story, and it is a complicated one fraught with emotional complexity. Uncertainty defines the interaction between the two; uncertainty about being a father, uncertainty about Atreus’s worth as a son, uncertainty about their feelings or shared grief. As the plot develops, the secrets Kratos keeps about his past create a friction threatening their relationship.

This parental theme extends to the main villain as well. Parent/child dynamics are the engine beneath God of War’s hood, not the old standby of vengeance. Santa Monica Studios really nailed it here. They tell a mature, complicated story that hits incredibly epic peaks without ever losing the subtle, personal tensions beginning the journey. This is not your old God of War.

Another problem gamers might have had with the previous games was the use of the Greek mythology. While I love them, they didn’t show much respect for the mythology. They just used the settings and characters to tell stories regardless of the source’s characterizations and such. I loved it, but others may have resented such careless use of the myths. Have no fear, God of War treats the Norse pantheon better. Mostly this comes from a greater commitment to the world of Norse mythology through every step of the world.

As an outsider, Kratos is pretty clueless about this new godly realm he inhabits. This gives the game a chance to teach both him and the player about Norse mythology without crossing into lame exposition. Every step of the game is steeped in old tales and visual lessons that make for incredible worldbuilding. Atreus and another companion tell stories related to the scenery or current events. Translated runes tell you about a location. Hidden shrines provide cool history lessons.

God of War really commits itself to a more proper use of Norse mythology. More than the originals ever did.

This creates a believable, lived in setting steeped in history. One that I had a great deal of pleasure exploring. You explore about half of ten realms, and travel along the branches of Yggdrasil. You meet light and dark elves, dwarves, and gods. You travel Skyrim-esque snowy mountains and fiery cliffs dripping with lava. Every realm is unique and colorful. With all the things God of War does right, the worldbuilding is the biggest surprise to me. I’ve never been more interested in the Norse pantheon.

They do switch the characteristics of some of the realms and play with the characteristics of a couple gods, but these are small issues compared to the overall package, and only for those familiar with their myths.

Overall this is a mature, well-created package that somehow manages to take the best parts of the old games and improve upon a lot of things people disliked. I expect a lot of people who lacked interest in the series will love this one. It’s very much the Resident Evil 4 of the God of War franchise. Just without falling apart at the end like RE4 did.

god of war kratos yell

Why it Won’t Change Your Mind

Unfortunately, there are reasons it may not. Some of these continue old problems, while others are a twist on the old problems, and might be enough to invalidate changes I previously mentioned.

First off is the violence level. I stand by the story not glorifying violence. The gameplay, not so much. God of War very much continues the same visceral violence in its action that made its predecessors famous. Kratos dismembers and decapitates and cleaves in half just like always. In many ways the game has the same issue as a game like Uncharted, where the gameplay’s level of killing doesn’t match the character’s supposed attitude toward killing.

Now, Kratos isn’t meant to be a charismatic good guy like Nathan Drake, but for someone who spends most of the game speaking against violence and killing, he sure does a lot of it. I don’t think the game does anything at all to portray the gameplay violence as anything except cool. There are trophies for each specific method of brutally ending the enemies in front of you.

And sorry to rat myself out here, but it is cool. It’s freaking fun, but others may like it even less than before because of the contradiction of story and gameplay. At least he’s fighting monsters rather than other human beings.

When it comes to Kratos, for all his change in demeanor, he is still a pretty gruff, macho depiction of your typical toxic masculinity. He’s a rough guy who doesn’t show his emotions and can kill things with brutal efficiency. He goes to great lengths to hide his emotions. This isn’t a negative so much as a consistent continuity. There’s no reason Kratos should change completely from the violent asshole of the original games to someone softer and open about his feelings. His portrayal here makes perfect sense with where he should be.

However, many gamers who didn’t relate at all to Kratos may still find it impossible to relate to him. That’s fine. Kratos very much appeals to a certain kind of gamer. Santa Monica Studios did a great job making him a more appealing character, but Kratos will never appeal to everyone.

There’s also the huge issue of the woman inspiring the journey Kratos and Atreus undertake. That is to say, we don’t know anything about her until the final moments of the game. Even then she’s the literal stereotype of the Idealized Mother/Wife. You have no idea what she looks like, no idea how she feels about anything, and even the little tidbits we learn about her past actions treats her more like a symbol than a person.

She really differs little in concept from the dead wife and daughter who inspire Kratos to take vengeance on Ares in the first God of War. So if you weren’t interested in watching a grieving Kratos murder things because of a dead wife the first time, you might not be this time.

It sucks to have this woman who is so central to the plot receive no personality or traits unrelated to being a mother or wife. Anything would have done. The game’s finale eventually reveals some of her motives and life, but it’s a bit too little, too late. The best you hope is that these motives are expanded upon in the next game so she can be more of a character. There is good reason to think that happens, thankfully.

And unfortunately, she represents a larger issue God of War has with women. It’s true they fixed the problems previous games had with immature sex and nudity, but they took the Mass Effect 2 approach to fixing these problems. Namely, they cut damn near all female content altogether. There’s one woman in the entire game. I suppose you can technically solve a problem by eliminating almost all content related to that problem.

(Now, there are 8 hidden Valkyrie fights, and obviously the Valkyries are women. However, I can’t really count optional boss fights as real representation.)

Now, this is a bit of a nitpick. I admit that. The one active woman in the game is a really good, really complicated character. Easily the best in the entire franchise, unless I’m unforgivably forgetting someone. She stars in many of the game’s best scenes and never stops being fascinating. Also, the cast is remarkably small so one female protagonist isn’t some huge offense when there’s only one adult male protagonist and his son.

Still, between only having one living woman and one dead woman who is basically the idealized version of Rose Quartz probably won’t do much to bring in gamers dissatisfied with the representation of women in the other games. Now maybe I just don’t know Norse mythology well, but surely they could have fit more women into the game? Or at least given them lore focus like other characters receive? So many gods, elves, giants, dwarves, and other characters feature in the discovered lore throughout the game. Why not use more of those to mention the Norse goddesses?

Again, this whole issue may unfortunately not be much an issue to many gamers, but for some they’ll find it difficult to care if they didn’t before.  This God of War vastly improved on the games before it, though. I need to make that clear. I can’t say it improved  enough to bring in the audience who disliked the previous games. Kratos still isn’t appealing to feminist sensibilities in any way.

Final Verdict

Overall, I’d expect a lot of people to see the improvements this God of War made over its predecessors and, at the very least, want to try the game. It improves in almost every area. I could complain about the number of boss fights, but that would fall under “reasons you liked previous games but not this one.”

The only question here is really whether it improved enough, not whether it improved at all. And it didn’t just improve, it improved astoundingly. It completely eliminated some of the worst complaints about the previous games in the series. This is a new God of War for a new era of gaming. One that is at least worth a shot.

If you like action games, give this a play.

Maybe you despised Kratos, or the misogyny, or the mistreatment of Greek mythology in previous games. Maybe the gameplay didn’t thrill you like other games of the ilk. Every single one of these issues has been addressed. Maybe you still won’t like Kratos that much. Maybe you’ll grumble about another dead wife with no personality of her own. Maybe it still glorifies violence more than you’d like. I still think every gamer owes it to themselves to try this game.

You have to at least try what is arguably the best game of this generation.


Images Courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment

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