Dead Rising

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To me the Xbox 360 will always be the first ‘next generation’ experience, and almost all of that has to do with Dead Rising.  It released shortly after the retail debut of the new Microsoft console and, in my mind, delivered on every promise of the mid 2000s.  It had a sandbox gameplay style that didn’t simply boast about it’s size, polygons or fit and finish.  Oh, it did have those things!  But it also focused on true limitation-breaking innovations.  Dead Rising has a -still- unprecedented level of interactivity with the world.  Almost fucking everything is a weapon, for instance.  I might even go as far to say that the -modern- sandbox game owes a lot, if not everything, to this unconventional hit.

frank seems to…have a few ‘versions’

By now everyone knows who Frank West is.  His shtick is tired after all these years of reboots and remodels, yet the original character holds fast as one of the best every-men to ever every-man.  He was a little husky, pretty sarcastic, kinda cool but most of all he was hairy.  Such lovingly modeled body hair.  One of the great things about Dead Rising is its downright RPG treatment of Frank.  At level one Frank is a borderline bumbling idiot.  He walks SO SLOW and gets grabbed by what feels like every zombie in the mall.  By the end, though, he’s a zombie murdering super machine that literally can’t be stopped.  He’s a god damn super speed ninja train, dropping suplexes and punching through zombie chests like it’s easier than breathing.  I love that!  It’s borderline alarming how fast he walks at level 50.  It’s a nice spin on the classic RPG trope of an innocent young adventurer transforming into a fucking god-slayer on his journey.  It’s not strictly stats with Frank either, though.  His personal metamorphosis from a slick photographer into a hero is endearing.  The guy survives so much insanity that you can’t help but to love him in the end.

Which wouldn’t even be possible if the developers didn’t put a weird level of detail and thoughtfulness into the story.  Just when you think Dead Rising is going to be all hokey winks and nods to zombie films, it slowly turns into it’s own story about politics and corruption.  A lot of games try really hard to pull off a rewarding humor/serious balance and fail.  Metal Gear Solid games toy with this a lot, to some success.  But I feel like there’s something that’s specific to getting zombie stuff just right.  The campy and gory history of zombie films is well-respected…and hard to duplicate.  Somehow Dead Rising did it!  Take for instance the psychopaths.  They’re regular old folks, either mall shop employees or just mall visitors whom the events of the day have had a severe emotional or mental impact on.  Suddenly your standard american hardware store guy is a fucking navy seal extreme hunter who’s merc’ing people and zombies left and right, with a machete no less.  Wacky? Yes, but, also like, kinda realistic?  You can understand how under this most horrible set of circumstances a Vietnam War vet might find himself back on the battlefield and unable to distinguish his awful memories from reality.  The game takes the time necessary to explain why Cliff Hudson lost his shit and the player is treated to a level of sincerity that almost doesn’t really belong in a game of this nature.  Some of the scenarios are goofier than that, but they’re all fun and rewarding in the same way.

Trying to rescue survivors can be equally interesting.  There are living people out there and Frank will hear or see them randomly, stuck in a jewelry shop or locked in a roller coaster car gone haywire.  The methods required to get them back to a safe zone are varied, usually frustrating and horribly difficult.  But god dammit if I don’t want to save every last one of them…even today their situations burn bright in my memory.  The Japanese guys in the book store who require you to hold a translation booklet while you talk to them.  The old couple at the very beginning separated simply by the corner of a building who lovingly embrace when you point out the obvious.  The limping woman wandering across the outdoor park while maniacs in a turreted jeep try to gun her down.  Everyone is traumatized and has a personal little story as to why, apart from the zombie apocalypse of course.

look i promise there’s a really meaningful story, okay

Not that I’m calling the narrative Shakespearean or anything.  There’s just more to it than necessary.  Dead Rising could’ve released with a simple story that just focused on the gore and told a few jokes along the way.  Instead took it far beyond the “get people out of the mall and take the chopper to safety in 3 days”.  Things escalate and the game changes quite a bit.  Special forces get involved and a face to the new threat emerges in the form of a military hard ass (a guy you eventually have a showdown ON TOP OF A TANK with).  Along the way to that ridiculous finish your goals become much more serious: finding a cure for the bite and exposing not only the origin of the outbreak but the corruption that lead to it’s cover-up.

All ON A TIMER no less, a concept I usually hate.  Thankfully Dead Rising found a way to make a ticking clock an asset instead of a limitation.  They did this by not punishing you too strictly for dying or having the timer run out.  If you die without a save Frank starts his journey from the beginning with his levels and experience intact.  Which is sweet because with your upgraded self and the repetition of having to do things multiple times (at least I did…) you can usually breeze back to the point of death much quicker than the previous attempt.  Couple that with your ever-growing knowledge of the mall/locations for favorite weapons and these replays can sometimes feel even more rewarding than the first attempts.  If you do happen to miss out on a timed story mission and are still alive, the case is closed and you can continue bangin’ around Willamette until your chopper arrives in 72 hours, which is kinda cool too.  Replayability is a major selling point in Dead Rising and the manner in which they’ve installed this particular virtue leads players to discover more each time they enter the mall.  I recently replayed the HD re-release on my PS4 and still unearthed new shit despite pouring tons of time into the original.

If you somehow haven’t made it around to Dead Rising yet, I highly recommend it!  It’s a game that blew me away back in 2006 for it’s next gen content in a way that I personally  feel hasn’t ever been duplicated.  Which is weird.  It’s such an interactive game that even its own sequels struggle to emulate the complexity or feel (or graphics).  The weapon selection is incredible, the physics are really impressive and the writing/voice acting quality is surprising.  Oh hey, did I mention there’s a picture taking mode?  Yeah!  It’s pretty fun and not a stupid throwaway function like it is in every game before or after.  Now that I’ve written this I’m actually kind of surprised that very few games were able to capture the essence of what made this game so great.  Where are the copycats?  Maybe Dead Rising is better as lightning in a bottle.

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-LIST UPDATE: DEAD RISING-

1. Vagrant Story

2. Chrono Cross

3. Xenogears

4. Final Fantasy XII

5. Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together

6. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

7. Resident Evil 4

8. Final Fantasy XI

9. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door

10. Mass Effect

11. Dead Rising
DR is probably one of the best action sandbox games I’ve ever played…but…from here on up there are some heavy hitters and a lot of great RPGs.  Not quite a strong enough showing to crack my top ten.  I love this game though.

12. Batman: Arkham Asylum

13. Dynasty Warriors 7

14. Brutal Legend

15. Paper Mario

16. Radiata Stories

17. Kingdom Hearts

18. Dissidia: Final Fantasy

19. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

20. Final Fantasy XIII

21. Final Fantasy XV

22. Dead or Alive Xtreme 2

-NEXT BLAST-

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Final Fantasy XV


A little background on myself first: I really like Final Fantasy.  I’ve beaten basically every entry and they’re all close to my heart in one way or another.  I played both XI and XIV for multiple years each.  A new FF is something I don’t miss out on.  I can be critical of some of them but am mostly complimentary.  My favorites are XII (read my review!), VII, and IX and I think both MMOs are excellent in their own ways.  The NES and SNES games are classics, so I WILL PROBABLY COMPARE XV TO PAST GAMES IN THE SERIES.  I THINK THAT’S APPROPRIATE.  I’M SORRY IF YOU DON’T.  Eventually I will spend many hours writing down my thoughts about all of them and not just because I’m nostalgic but because they are great games.

But this fucking thing has been a fucking chore to write.  Kinda like playing the game itself!  I didn’t like Final Fantasy XV one bit and I really (really) wanted to.  It is an enormous disappointment to me on multiple levels.  I feel beat down and tired, not just from playing but from the exhausting narrative churned over and over for the last six years about this games development.  I don’t get off on compelling boring details of a scorned director moving on from his masterpiece spin-off that spun-off for far too long without progress.  I do care that a NEW director who’s magnum opus is the unbelievably mediocre Type-0 was given the keys to the kingdom and immediately set his phasers to kill anything unique about what he inherited with Versus XIII.  But they did it…right????  It’s a miracle the game even released!!!  We should be thankful!!!

who are these people and where are the bros

When Final Fantasy XV opens, you’re treated to about two seconds of a cutscene and then you’re dropped absolute-zero cold into the open world.  Where’s the introduction area?  Where’s the slow build, tutorial-laden and foundation-placing first few hours that is a hallmark of this series?  Remember Midgar?  Remember Balamb garden and the Ifrit cave?  Remember Zidane and crew’s elaborate stage play hoax to capture a princess?  Remember Zanarkand?  Tabata doesn’t!  There’s absolutely no introduction to any of these characters or anything that’s happening in the world and no history of any of the events that led us seemingly halfway into a conflict before you even boot up the title screen.  Don’t say Kingsglaive either.  That garbage doesn’t count here.  None of the multimedia shit does because those aren’t this.  They’re cash grabs and promotional hype machines that someone thought we were all dumb enough to buy into.  There is literally no reason whatsoever that Kingsglaive shouldn’t be the opening of this game (oh wait…apparently it used to be!).  It is profoundly important to the overall narrative and it’s simply unacceptable that it was maneuvered into becoming a feature film with a separate cast of characters.  The implication that a person needs to watch Kingsglaive before ever booting up FFXV is an insult to the people who spent money on it.

Out of the gate, nothing about Noctis’ crew or world was stimulating to me.  Nothing felt iconic or unique.  Midgar, for instance, is unbelievably memorable in Final Fantasy 7.  FFXV has no Midgar.  And perhaps much of that has to do with the setting itself and where the narrative takes the characters on their journey (spoiler alert: NOWHERE).  The game opens as the bros are broke down in the desert and have to walk to the nearest gas station.  Simply Iconic.  The desert… is… a desert and the gas station is………….. a gas station.  I know this is a fantasy based on reality or whatever but no reasonable human in history can sit around and expect ME, a die-hard FF BOBO, to be blown away by the realistic ‘reinvention’ of my FANTASY series into something that closely mirrors the most boring, unoriginal locales in actual real life.  In fact, I have a Super America just a couple blocks down from me.  In FF7, Midgar was a place people lived and died.  I walked the slums, met the people and heard about their lives.  I witnessed first-hand the depression Shinra’s presence had flooded everything with.  There were ugly places and pretty places.  There were giant magical mako reactors spewing neon colors out into the air and an evil headquarters that ominously lorded over everything from the center of it all.  I spent the first many hours of the game exploring, fighting battles, doing mini-games and learning about the world as it methodically introduced me to key elements that would set everything else in motion.  In FFXV I walked to a Super America and immediately started taking fetch quests from a mechanic in pink lingerie and booty shorts.  So I wandered off into the boring ass desert for about 10 hours finding shiny knickknacks for random people that have zero consequence because the game seemed to want me to.

i have a southern accent for some reason!

And in this place called Super America I felt my first pang of something I would later come to realize was anger.  This wasn’t going to be Versus XIII.  Okay, that’s fine.  We didn’t actually know a whole lot of concrete shit about that game anyway.  And I’m not a Versus XIII/Nomura mouth-breathing idiot so that’s not my agenda here.  At this point in my experience I was secretly still apologizing for the game and hoping I could find something arguable to latch onto so that I could feel like I did’t get duped (again) by Square Enix.  Well that ‘something’ never really showed up, as hard and as long as I looked for it.  What the problem is, and it’s very very early on in Final Fantasy XV, is that it feels as though so much was re-arranged and cut that nobody was able to assemble the pieces they wanted to keep back into something that was fun or made sense or respected the player.  A vision of a wildly innovative and ambitious AAA console game that we certainly got glimpses of was robotically taken apart and released as something the new devs knew how to make, a handheld quality game.  The cutscene direction is an abomination, characters literally standing around yapping at each other back and forth, camera set almost exclusively from the waist up.  The combat never really requires you to learn much over time or evolve strategies/characters, as holding ‘attack’ and ‘defend’ is basically enough to get to the credits.  The atmosphere that I think we’re supposed to feel as the player (looming catastrophic war/danger/takeover, sadness at the loss of the main characters HOME TOWN AND FATHER) is a million percent absent in the game and honestly never really explained in earnest.  And those criticisms can’t be as easily lobbed at a handheld effort because, well, there are limitations and we all understand that.  Unfortunately for FFXV, it’s supposed to be the marquee title for the next generation of a franchise and company that basically INVENTED THE FUCKING MODERN RPG.  Nomura seemed to understand that because he took 1000 years to create some super-game that was never, ever, ever, ever going to work.  He finally got his shot at directing a mainline FF and the weight of the series history and future expectations combined with the freedom he somehow earned caused him to get x-zoned to the void.

So, dink around at the gas pumps for as long as you fucking want because the game is devoid of any pacing or structure.  OR start following the story scenario and pound through about 15 chapters in an hour.  You decide!  It’s open world!  You choose how to play!  According to HowLongToBeat FFXV takes an average of 27 hours to complete, which I’m betting is generous if you mainpath like a mofo.  So that’s embarrassing.  I’m currently 54 hours into Persona 5 and all in-game signs seem to be telling me I’m about 40% through it.  Just sayin’.

Gas ‘em up with the greens and let him go Stand back, stand clear as he puts on a show So cute yet fierce, is he from hell? I cannot tell, yet I don’t even want to know So you wanna be a trailblazer? Kickin’ dirt like a hell raiser? Take the reins, but don’t react slow It’s time to feel the force of the chocobo

 

So I did hang out in the first couple chapters for really fucking long.  I was exploring and taking hunts, trying to find the substance.  See what this game was all about.  I was still bright-eyed and bushy tailed.  Slowly I came to realize that the ‘hunts’ are just groups of regular monsters that NPCs are being hassled by, and the Head Chef at the diner??? posts the bills.  This isn’t my beloved FFXII system of hunts (a shame to even comparing the two).  Those were all unique, mid-boss level super-mobs that were harder than your average fare.  Until you got to the later ones, which actually weaved themselves into the story and world and enriched the game itself.  Hunts in FFXII were hard and worth doing, and rewarded you with actual useful things beyond rewarding you with interesting side-stories and fleshed out lore.  The exploration is basically one giant area consisting of about three biomes (being generous).  Traveling by foot is impossibly slow, traveling by car is on the rails, calling for a chocobo  1. costs money and 2. controls unbelievably bad and 3. isn’t that much faster than running and 4. adds basically nothing to the game other than “Look, chocobos! It’s Final Fantasy!”.  Fast travel is the only way to travel effectively in FFXV, which actually isn’t a shame because you’re not missing out on anything except maybe casually listening to iconic FF themes on the car radio and hearing underwhelming banter between the bros.  And it’s not even that effective because of the 3 minute loading screens when you do it.

Speaking of the size of the world and the ‘open’ aspect and MMO nature of the structure, this game definitely doesn’t innovate.  The world design suffers from a very common trope that seems to have plagued this generation of open world games.  It has never before been so evident that the world was built first and the characters and story were pasted onto that.  It is SO big, yet somehow small and limiting.  They didn’t even pretend to achieve the “See that mountain? You can go there!” bullshit.  It’s just all kinds of invisible walls, unreachable scenery and missed potential.  But hey, it’s fuckhuge so I guess there’s that.  Should I mail SE a ruler so they can just get the size comparisons out of the way before anything else stupid happens?

so deep, so meaningful, one cutscene together total, those feels

My problems with the narrative of Final Fantasy XV are numerous.  So numerous that I’m going to have a hard time expressing them all.  When I start playing a video game where characters, less than 30 minutes in, are talking to each other in a manner which indicates they have long been friends and are already in the middle of an adventure I expect to be fucking included somehow.  There are numerous ways this could be accomplished.  Flashbacks!  Character specific side-quests!  CUTSCENES!  Look, I’m not stupid.  I understand that the bros have been bros for a while and are going on a road trip.  Great!  How did they become bros?  Who’s who?  Are they royalty like Noctis?  What’s their relationship to Regis, servants?  Do they know Luna?  Does Noctis know Luna?  Is this an arranged marriage?  Is he excited about it?  Are there political ramifications of this marriage?  Are these really Noctis’ friends or are they bodyguards?  Are they the Kingsglaive?  I never felt included or even educated on the context of the situation.  Also, almost none of these questions are answered fully and the ones that are, just barely are.  Which is incredibly alarming when the mantra of your entire video game universe is a road trip, a thing that universally lends itself to unbelievable opportunities for narrative embellishment.

Noctis is not a silent hero, he has a personality and a story.  I’m nothing like him because I’m a 32 year old married guy with a kid living in Minnesota.  He also doesn’t embody some kind of interesting fantasy for a person like me anymore either.  I’m not 16, I’m not fucking emo and going on a journey to fucking discover myself for 18 millionth time is about the most boring thing I can imagine.  Therefore I stupidly expected that the developers would cast me into something akin to a 5th bro, like I was along for the ride.  Nope!  Noctis is the point of view character.  He’s clearly the only character the game gives two shits about and whom literally everything revolves around.  Because of this not only did I, as the player, feel like I was just watching something happen instead of making it happen, I found it really hard to get invested in him or any of the bros.  This is a subtle thing that I think gets lost in a lot of games.  If you build your game around a silent hero the insinuation is that they’re devoid of just the right amount of personality so you feel like you are that character.  If a game has a voiced character with a personality, I tend to feel that the best approach is to make his/her story NOT a stereotype so even though the player is an observer, they’re at least observing something maybe unique to other things they’ve played.  Chrono Cross is a superb example.  Serge has a name, a home, a family.  People in his village have known him since he was a child.  They speak to him with familiarity right from the get-go.  You wake up in the morning, bang around Arni Village for a bit and talk to anyone and everyone you want to.  He doesn’t say a word, though, and because of that you feel personally involved.  You spend an hour or more seeing these villagers talk to him (me) about their lives and wish him well and whatever else.  You can recruit your first party member, the village dog.  By the time you’re ready to take off you have obtained a feeling of, okay, let’s go out there and start this adventure together.  You, AS THE PLAYER/SERGE, are invested in it all.  As a 32 year old etc etc, that’s a much more compelling scenario for me.  A good example of the opposite would be Squall from FF8, who isn’t silent.  He’s moody, hard to get close to, generally unlikable.  But because of an interesting game design choice we are able to observe his thoughts and feeling privately from every other character in the game.  The thought bubbles that express Squalls thoughts in between dialogue bubbles are a genius implementation of an idea strictly created to get the player invested in in him.  It works really well.  You may hate him, you may not desire to be like him of live the fantasy in his place but god damn is it compelling to hear a characters thoughts.  Instead of that, FFXV decides to go with a camera on the trunk approach and you kinda just sit around and watch as these four dudes do mundane shit out in the desert.

definitely don’t make her a playable character guys

Fuck this, here’s a few quick statements about other things that were disappointing.  The music was average, bummer.  Couple of good songs but very little of what I’ve come to expect from Yoko Shimomura.  The combat is a complete mess.  Attack and dodge, attack and dodge, perform CRAZY COOL TEAM SKILL, attack and dodge, attack and dodge.  The flashiness is a fresh coat of paint covering up a boring battle system.  Not into it at all.  I can’t believe FFXII was WRECKED for being “AUTOMATIC” but this game is somehow mildly heralded as some renaissance for RPG combat (when it has QTE boss fights (((((((final boss fight)))))))).  It’s maybe the easiest game in the series, and absolutely the most mindless.  Having no other party members works great if you focus every attention on the four you have, but alas, you don’t get any other party members AND there’s ZERO focus on anyone but Noctis.  Character story side-quests as paid DLC?  Come on.  You can’t have Gladio disappear for a while, come back with scars and just never EVER talk about it once.  I find that to be really shameful and obvious.  Ruined world scenario after Noctis sleeps for ten years is a, gasp, GREAT IDEA, but then you can’t go anywhere or do anything or see anyone, including story NPCs that are STILL ALIVE AND PRESENT…WHY NOT????  The most interesting thing that could possibly happen in this game and you are literally forced to go straight to the final area without any single option to do anything else.  I guess Tabata never played any of the old games where bad guys actually destroy the world and it’s like a whole new game, that you get to play!  Chapter 13, you all know. Hot garbage, worst segment of a game I’ve played that I can honestly remember.

There were a couple things I thought were kinda cool too.  Dungeons just being out in the world that you can stumble across were awesome.  The dungeons themselves are designed much better than the rest of the game for some reason.  They’re unique and have platforming and puzzles that are absent from everywhere else in the world.  The graphics were at times stunning.  I actually like the train ride second half.  The game felt much more focused and story driven.  The pace was better and it actually felt like there was a structured ramp-up to the final moments.  The linearity provided the game with something that until that moment I didn’t know it needed.  I like that you could change outfits and they were like, dressed up or down versions of their regular outfits.

So, you know how in reviews sometimes a writer will say something like “the game has flaws but they don’t mar the overall experience “?  I’m going the opposite with this one.  This game sucks.  There are some nice touches, a couple good ideas here and there but I kinda feel like some of what I enjoyed was carried over from the original vision.  The good things in this game do nothing to improve the absolutely awful everything else.  They get lost or obscured and it’s not even sad really because that would be admitting there is something here to salvage or build on.  I say move on entirely and start fresh with a new team and a new attitude.  Which they won’t do because the game was a commercial success and a mild critical success, somehow.  I’m gonna go ahead and say that Final Fantasy XV is the worst game in the series to me, a placement I thought XIII had an iron death-grip on.


-LIST UPDATE: FINAL FANTASY XV-

1. Vagrant Story

2. Chrono Cross

3. Xenogears

4. Final Fantasy XII

5. Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together

6. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

7. Resident Evil 4

8. Final Fantasy XI

9. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door

10. Mass Effect

11. Batman: Arkham Asylum

12. Dynasty Warriors 7

13. Brutal Legend

14. Paper Mario

15. Radiata Stories

16. Kingdom Hearts

17. Dissidia: Final Fantasy

18. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

19. Final Fantasy XIII

20. Final Fantasy XV

21. Dead or Alive Xtreme 2


-NEXT BLAST-

 

Batman: Arkham Asylum

baa-misc01I spent a lot of time writing out this long-winded diatribe about how overrated Batman: Arkham Asylum is and that if you take Batman out of it all you’d have left is a generic action game.  After some thought I’ve come to the conclusion that the game is actually good and my cynicism was getting the best of me.  The story is fun and I love the animated series voice work.  I dislike the Gears of Arkham graphics and character models but I love the actual art work and characters.  I was really torn.  So, I chewed up and spit out my original hate-filled draft and have swallowed my pride to write a much more positive and respectful review of Batman: Arkham Asylum.  I guess it’s a good game.

The pacing is bang on, the RPG Lite elements of building a better Batman are rewarding…all built around a sublime combat system that blurs the line between action game and brawler.

What really sticks out to me about Asylum’s combat is the visual flair and sound mechanical execution.  If you’re anything like me (rigidly formulaic) Arkham Asylum offers you the opportunity to approach every group of thugs the same way.  Jump into the fray, wait for guys to smack you and conveniently counter with slick button presses until they’re all knocked out.  Simple, effective and maybe a bit soulless.  For me, that was nirvana.  The idea that I could almost rhythmically respond to assailants to create this almost dance-like visual presentation of a bunch of guys getting beat up by a superhero is something that appealed to me. Not every game needs to be Tactics Ogre. I don’t mean to call Batman: Arkham Asylum an easy game, per se, but there’s a fluidity to the combat that makes it feel user-friendly.  I believe that its structural simplicity encourages people to try and master it.

100% Legitimate Design.
100% Legitimate Design.

Which I never did and have no interest in.  And that’s fine I think.  Who cares if you want to master it, complete all additional modes and get high scores and be amazing?  The complexity and difficulty is there if you want it, but easy to avoid if you don’t.  The cliche phrase would be ‘easy to learn, hard to master’, right?  Perfect example.  Just because I wasn’t really ever concerned with heading into all the additional battle and stealth arenas to obtain completion  percentages doesn’t mean those modes aren’t worthwhile. They just require a little more effort than ‘press Y to counter’ and as soon as I couldn’t float through a challenge within five tries I put it down. Luckily for me, eschewing additional modes hardly trimmed any fat from the meaty experience that is Arkham Asylum.

Sadly, many write-ups presented the idea that this game was “atmospheric”. The specific time frame in video game history that saw Asylum released made it easy for reviewers to frequently cite this description. With other experiences like BioShock around, we were force-fed the idea that video games were in the midst of some sort of ambient renaissance, suddenly presenting alternate worlds that immersed us just SO FUCKING HARD that we forgot we were ever sitting on our couches staring at a television.  Most of my vitriol about Asylum was born from this short-term memory loss approach that the community took.  Games have given us splendid worlds to explore for decades now.  Asylum is not the first.  And it’s hardly the most atmospheric.  What the fuck does atmospheric even mean?  It was cop-out buzz language that made the average fan think they were wading into ‘games-as-art’ territory, another cringe worthy piece of English that instantly became overused and therefore meaningless.

I battled my own hatred for Arkham’s reviews so desperately that the clear virtues of the game were lost to me…for a long time.  Now, though, I can describe in my own words what I feel the weird atmospheric comments were referring to.  Arkham Asylum’s world is well conceived.  It flows, makes sense and is fun to explore.  There are lots of nooks and crannies, lots of secrets to find and puzzles to solve.  The island is well-populated with interesting set pieces that fit together nicely and the simple but effective ‘unlock new gadget -> unlock new area’ works well and is logically implemented.  Finally, the cute easter eggs sprinkled around complete the setting, making it incredibly recognizable as a Batman experience.  When I think atmosphere…Silent Hill comes to mind, or Demon’s Souls.  Not Batman: Arkham Asylum.

No, I don't recall saying anything about the male body types.
No, I don’t recall saying anything about the male body types.

Out of respect for myself I should point out that I was legitimately disappointed in a couple aspects of the game. The boss fights are dismal, repetitive, lack creativity.  Oh! Another hulked up Bane’oid? Cool. In a related complaint, there’s little variety in the in-game character renders too…does every single NPC in Arkham need to be a beefed of Gears of War superbro?  Some police officers out there (and even Commissioners!) are, like, regular sized dudes.  I get that it’s a video game, I really do.  But you’re reaching by talking about atmosphere and immersion if literally every single male body is the same, even in a video game.  Obviously there aren’t enough heroes or villains, either.  But I’ll let that one go considering this was the first good Batman game in forever and I’m sure it was a bit of a leap for Rocksteady to go from literally nothing to a triple AAA developer working on one of the biggest licenses in the world.

At the end of it all I must say, Arkham Asylum is a really great game.  It effortlessly combines fun combat and an interesting world to move The Dark Knight himself seamlessly into the video game space.  History has shown this to be no easy task, and kudos must be officially presented.  Rocksteady even took a risk or two with the narrative, putting old Brucey in some interesting Scarecrow related content that was pretty unexpected at the time.  My only regret is that I wasn’t able to fully enjoy my first impressions as much as I could’ve if I wasn’t such a cynical asshole.

baa-promo1Click here to see where Batman: Arkham Asylum ranked in my Master List!
and
Why it placed there!

Xenogears


Xenogears came to me unexpectedly when my gaming experiences weren’t nearly as robust as they needed to be.  RPGs were still a relatively new thing to me at the time and I was only just starting to understand what they were all about.  Looking back on it now, Xenogears is probably the last thing that I ever should’ve considered playing.  I seek out this type of alternative experience now but back then I was just looking for the closest thing to what I already knew, Final Fantasy.  What a blessing in disguise.

Truthfully, I never would’ve found it at all if it wasn’t for big Mike on the bus home from eighth grade.  One day he started poppin’ off about some crazy RPG he just had finished called “Zenno-gears”.  Other than the name and a stubborn proclamation that Zennogears was easily the Best RPG Ever Made he wasn’t providing a lot of meaty details.  Intrigued upon his attempt to lend me the game I optimistically obliged…which ended up as maybe the best decision ever.

I was immediately struck by the cool box.

Remember the old days of “Non Final Fantasy Squaresoft RPGs Made By Non Final Fantasy Designers That Don’t Get Hardly Enough Credit”?  They used to be pretty damn good.  Vagrant Story, Chrono Cross…things of that nature.  While you could always depend on Final Fantasy to provide a solid experience, these other games were less chained to convention.  Back then some serious designers took part in what could be described as obscure projects that were really anything but.  When you’re SquareSoft, though,  and you’ve already got your breadwinner it isn’t necessary to market anything else you’re doing.  We still get awkward off brand Square Enix RPGs (Drakengard, Nier) but they aren’t quite what they used to be during those Golden Years.

Xenogears was a product of this PS1 role playing renaissance.  Released in 1998 and riding the heels of the enormously successful Final Fantasy VII, Tetsuya Takahashi’s religiously saturated RPG was not exactly center stage in the popular sphere.  People found it, of course, like my friend on the bus did.  But I wouldn’t say that it was even near the forefront of an already massive catalog of PlayStation RPGs.  The last thing I want to do when I talk about this game is stubbornly proclaim that Xenogears should’ve been a huge hit, or even that a few more people had played it.  The game is just genuinely not made for the general gaming public.  Time to sound like an elitist asshole!  A lot of people don’t have the capacity to appreciate Xenogears.  Yeah, I don’t go there often but there’s no better way to phrase it.

Takahashi and crew were not making a Final Fantasy.  This simple fact allowed these developers to bend the boundaries of convention a bit.  It provided them an arena to express their creativity more freely, and it shows.  The battle system was innovative and complex.  The story was brutally mature in concept, not only in its imagery but in its references and emotional themes as well.  Both the music and art were beyond brilliant and the character sprites rendered over the fully 3d world were beautiful.  You know, there was a lot going on in this obscure RPG from 1998 that I would have loved to see again at some point but non of it really seemed to stick with anyone other than its fans.

|Xenogears’ Battle System|
I can honestly say that Xenogears’ battle system has remained pretty damn unique.  Nothing before it and certainly nothing that followed seemed to even acknowledge that someone had created a turn-based system in an RPG that was actually fun.  Not only were you expected to understand classic RPG mechanics to succeed but you had to wrap your brain around a borderline Street Fighter-esque button combo input.  God forbid one of those wacky JRPGs incorporate some sort of interaction for once.  While the standbys of ‘Magic’ (Arcane or Ether) and ‘Defend’ were ever present the ‘Attack’ option was where the real innovation came through.

The sprite animations are also really fluid and well done.

In essence Xenogears presented a system that recognized a series of button presses as combos that would eventually lead your character to perform a finishing move.  X, Square and Triangle were all assigned basic (but different) attacks that when pressed in certain orders would allow you to perform a special deathblow attack.  While, for example, seven triangles in a row wouldn’t perform a combo you’d still hit the enemy seven times.  Fun, but I always thought the real beauty of the system was actually learning the deathblows.

If you happened to perform a triangle, triangle, X enough times (provided that’s a recognized combo) your character learned that combination and from that point on performs a specific deathblow every time you enter it.  Once a deathblow for a combination is learned you can use it endlessly or move onto spamming the next unlearned combination.  What ends up happening is that you spend most of your random battles trying to learn new deathblows while using the ones you already have on bosses and/or tough fights.  This system performs miracles in terms of making the grind less boring and creating a level of immersion that is damn near impossible with most other RPGs.  It was completely unprecedented for a player to feel like they had that much control over their party member actions or development, even if it was just a fancy elaboration on a simple theme.

|The Story|
Perhaps right now you feel that what I just tried (in vain) to explain is a little complex.  It is…and I’ve found it extremely demoralizing trying to puzzle out even the simplest pieces of this madness for mass consumption.  To my sorrow I should also do my best to explain Xenogears’ STORY in a WAY THAT MAKES SENSE, maybe to a reader who HAS NEVER HEARD OF OR PLAYED THIS GAME.  Luckily, if you break down all of the complicated twists and turns you’ll find that behind all of the perceived insanity is a simple tale of love, or rather, lost love.  It’s a tragic narrative that boils down to a single moment when two men reacted differently to losing the same woman.

Then it gets complicated…Krelian and Lacan begin to weave a history for Fei and company when they react to the tragic sacrifice Sophia makes in order to save many lives during a war, including Lacan’s.  His bitterness towards himself for being too weak save her (or himself) drove him nearly mad and he adopted the persona of Grahf, the Seeker of Power.  He then sought to destroy God himself and the two entities involved in the conflict that took his true love’s life.  Fei’s encounters with Grahf slowly unfurl the twisted tale of that singular tragic event while simultaneously revealing pieces of Fei’s past in the process.  How these two characters relate in the end is absurd, intense and beautiful.

As interesting and deep a character as I’ve ever seen.

Krelian on the other hand, a dear friend of Sophia, took the loss differently.  Devastated by her sacrifice, Krelian declared that were there truly a God watching over them Sophia would never have been put in a position to sacrifice herself.  That someone as kind and good as her would be protected.  From that moment on Krelian set out to fill the vacancy in heaven he knew existed, to create God with his own hands.  Sadly, ‘creating God’ required vile acts that split Krelian’s soul asunder.  What remains of this extremely complex character by the climax of our story is difficult to describe.

On top of that there are wonderful character elaborations here that most game creators don’t even have the capacity or nuance to understand.  For instance, Lacan was a painter whose feelings grew for Sophia while he worked on her portrait.  As time went on and the painting neared completion he slowed down fearing the day he would complete it, that sad day he would no longer be able to spend hours examining her beauty and relaying it to canvas.  He ends up not actually finishing because the war comes and steals her away…an even worse fate.

This is about as simple as it gets with Xenogears, because almost everything else is layered upon that concept…that relationship between these characters.  I’ve found that my interpretation of the story is at its most powerful when I begin to relate every event to that core idea.  Yeah there’s crazy shit about religion, lost civilizations, giant robots, Id (most ridiculous and amazing character storyline ever), reincarnation even…but the entire game is anchored by the tragedy of Sophia’s sacrifice and the destruction it wrought on two important characters.  And it is powerful.  When you can finally get to a place with Xenogears where you understand all of the moving parts the depth of the themes really start to shine brilliantly.  In fact, it’s only through two complete playthroughs and a shit ton of reading Perfect Works translations that I can even give a base account of what the hell is even going on.

Xenogears’ story requires an investment and dedication.  Things are not explained to you in any sort of digestible manner, you’re expected to put the time in.  Were the personal rewards not as robust as they are for doing so it wouldn’t be worth the trouble.  But it is.  Never have I encountered in any medium a saga so affecting, so worth it.  As devoted as I am to my Shepard and the reaper invasion or as nostalgic as I am about the Final Fantasy series, none of them carry nearly as much weight or hit me as hard as Xenogears does.  It’s both emotionally and physically devastating to play the whole way through but in the end you feel as though you’ve done more than just played a simple video game.  This is also the reason I find myself slow to recommend Xenogears to any but the most sincere and understanding people.

And the people that do find the courage to commit to this game?  They discover a story filled with maturity that could really only resonate with an adult, a person who has actually experienced shit in their life.  I think Xenogears is the only video game I have ever seen that actually depicts the serious love interests laying in a bed naked having just slept together (and not in that very BioWare overt fan service way).  Or that an extremely manipulative relationship between two other characters would take them to the same place with a much different tone.  Silly, that a game with a love story might actually relay that intensely personal ‘thing’ that every single human being on the face of the earth can identify with: physical attraction, sexual intimacy and taking a relationship to the next level.  I would call it ballsy in any other game but these sequences fit the tone perfectly, implemented in a way not to shock the player (but it is kind of shocking anyway), but to make the characters and situation seem all the more realistic or identifiable.

|The Music|
Yasunori Mitsuda is Xenogears’ composer and it is some of the finest work I’ve ever heard.  In fact, I would have a hard time describing Xenogears as ‘realistic’ and ‘identifiable’ were it not for its soundtrack.  If only songs like these were playing somewhere in the distance in our real lives when epic things happened.  Finding anything that compares to this OST is really hard for me, and I’ve tried.  It’s true that I believe Chrono Cross to have the best music in video games and I will stand by that statement, but Xenogears is special.  I’m hesitant to even list it by comparison because it’s difficult for me to qualify just exactly what it does.  There are honest to god moments in my daily life where a song like “The Treasure Which Cannot be Stolen” will play on random and I will stop what I’m doing because I have to concentrate on not shedding tears in front of my computer screen.  There is a beauty in this soundtrack that very few other things in this world have achieved, a very pure and emotional sentiment that makes you feel as though Mitsuda himself was moved during its creation.

The entire score is extremely heavy, or powerful.  It’s a tone that compliments Xenogears perfectly, a game that is itself very serious and thought provoking.  Tracks like “The One who is Torn Apart” (Id’s theme) express something through subtlety that is hard to find anywhere but here, and it’s something I struggle to describe…so I won’t waste my time.

These songs are two examples from a score that honestly doesn’t have a sour track in it.  While you may find the quantity to be somewhat lacking considering the size of the game, each song has an important quality that does nothing but elevate Xenogears every moment a tune can be heard.

I should be honest, this has been my most difficult game review to write on this blog.  Xenogears really means a lot to me, not only for the way it introduced me to the idea of mature themes in an entertainment medium before I had really developed a taste for it, but kinda just for being what it is.  Not even Takahashi’s own works after Xenogears come anywhere near it.  Every time I play the game I learn something new and my adoration grows, the experience and memory becomes more potent.  This, to me, is the definition of a masterpiece.  A vision.  Something that words simply just cannot describe.  Truly one of the best games ever made…Mike was right, even if he couldn’t tell me why.

Reading back over this I’ve found, not surprisingly, that I haven’t written much at all about the game itself.  Usually when I do these things it’s more of a stream of consciousness effort than a structured outline of points.  I knew Xenogears was going to put me in a weird place for that reason.  When I think about the game the things that come to mind aren’t the menus or the pacing…I don’t even really consider the wonky delivery of the narrative.  Playing this game isn’t always fun, it’s just not.  There are obvious imperfections, I’m not trying to hide that.  In fact, many aspects of this game could be called less than average.  The gear battling is not nearly as robust, fun or interesting as the regular.  The second disc is enough to make a gamer who’s used to Final Fantasy polish throw his copy out the window.  All I have to do, though, to remind myself that this game is special is remember how hard I fought back the tears when I heard the music box version of “Small Two of Pieces” play in Citan’s backyard hut near the beginning of the game.

Or think of the phrase Fei’s Kim.

Or ponder the tragedy that is Ramsus.

Or to know that I’ve experienced something not meant to simply sell the most copies or spawn the most sequels.  That I walked down a path that was someone’s vision and not just a yearly corporate creation advertised in GameStop’s window.  Not only is Xenogears one of a kind, it very well could be described as the last of it.


Click here to see where Xenogears placed in my Master List!

Final Fantasy XIII

Since I will probably spend at least some time in this review comparing Final Fantasy XIII to its predecessors I think it’s only fair to give a short account of my history with the series.  While it’s not completely necessary to scrutinize it based on what the previous games have done as they commonly have different development teams, I do feel strongly that there is a rich history there that cannot be ignored.

Final Fantasy VII was not only my first foray into SquareSoft’s popular RPG franchise… it was my first RPG.  I know how dangerous that statement can be for some people to read.  Worry not, I hardly think Final Fantasy VII is the best RPG ever.  As with all firsts, though, the game had (and still has) an effect on me.  Besides starting an obsessive new interest by introducing me to my first JRPG Final Fantasy VII was a breath of fresh air to a maturing young man that had only seen the likes of Mario and Mega Man.  The darker world, adult themes and epic life-threatening peril that Cloud Strife and his party mates faced was something completely new.  In retrospect Final Fantasy VII was my Japanese culture gateway drug.  Never before had I seen so much spikey hair, disproportionate women and crazy ass giant swords.

What began as a random encounter with a cool looking game coupled with a recommendation from a friend became a serious interest in anime, manga, and more of that same brand of RPG.  Inevitably when I found that I rather enjoyed all of it I wandered back into the Final Fantasy realm for more.  VIII was a stark departure from VII… but I beat it anyway.  IX was an amazing experience that I hardly appreciated at the time… what I’m trying to say is I’ve played and beaten damn near all of them.  In fact I’ve conquered all but one, Final Fantasy VI.  I Don’t think that alone is all that impressive, but it’s important to me and will continue to influence my opinions and reviews for Final Fantasy games as well as any other RPGs.

Alas, things have changed lately and it’s been getting harder to get jacked about a Final Fantasy release.  Series creator and iconic game developer Hironobu Sakaguchi handed Square his resignation papers (aka they handed him termination papers) long ago and apparently inspired many of the other classic FF designers to do the same.  Nobuo Uematsu no longer lends his musical talents to the series, for instance.  The RPG powerhouse known for polish and innovation merged with the RPG powerhouse known for Dragon Quest and everything went bonkers.  B-Team players and new-blood employees now handle arguably the most iconic RPG franchise in the world.  Somewhere in the very back corner of my heart I’d like to just say that it’s not really that big of a deal, that the brand is strong enough to carry on.  Unfortunately for a guy like me, someone who has seen his passion for RPGs slowly develop and mature over time, Final Fantasy XIII just doesn’t have it.

So here we are.  I don’t like Final Fantasy XIII and I’m ready and equipped to give an in-depth explanation as to exactly what it is that has gone missing.  This game will probably get a more thorough review for as low as it’s going to score than any other game on my list and that’s due not only to the level of disappointment I feel but because of my love for the franchise as a whole.  I’m a reasonable enough person to understand that nostalgia manifests sometimes as reality obscuring goggles and that first appearances are misleading, so I won’t sit here and repeatedly proclaim that Final Fantasy XIII DOESN’T STACK UP TO THE SERIES or get really worked up that the villain isn’t silver-haired.  The truth is, FFXIII just isn’t that good of a game or an RPG.  It’s only because of my respect for the brand that I even made it to the credits.

I want to structure this review by creating categories that I personally feel are the most important for an RPG to excel in so that I can be very clear about exactly where I think Final Fantasy XIII fails.  To keep it interesting I’ll also point out an example for comparison from somewhere in the series where that category has stuck out.  Here they are:

Story presentation/Narrative/Character development
Character and World Design
Music
Battle/Character Growth systems

Story Presentation – Narrative – Character Development
There’s a reason that this category is first and that’s because if there’s one thing I’ve learned that RPGs can do better than any other genre or medium it’s tell a story.  It’s pretty common for me to get part way through a game and quit because I just don’t give a shit about what’s happening.  Whether be uninteresting or thoughtless characters, boring cutscenes or bad writing… I won’t hesitate to drop out of a game and never look back.  Eternal Sonata is a great example with its colorful world, interesting battle system and top-notch graphics.  I couldn’t get more than ten hours into it because literally nothing about the story or characters were even remotely interesting.  Quite the opposite is a game like Xenogears, one of my favorites.  The dialogue is long (and sometimes arduous) but wildly interesting.  The characters are obvious cliches but have depth.  The translation can leave you baffled at times but the strength of the narrative overshadows it.  This may be a moot point for a lot of folks but for me it’s the make-or-break element.

The Eidolons come to each character in their biggest time of need.

Unfortunately for Final Fantasy XIII it’s more like ‘break’.  The story in this game is downright horrendous.  In fact, it’s just the template for Final Fantasy X done worse.  You may argue that one of the foundational themes of the entire Final Fantasy series is this government/technology vs. nature, so that rehashing it here isn’t a sin.  You Are Wrong.

Final Fantasy XIII goes out of its way to bludgeon you over the head repeatedly with imagery that doesn’t just suggest this common theme, but is LITERALLY depicting it over and over.  A wild wooded area that has mechanical trees and leavesA dangerous ‘natural’ planet (considered the enemy by the general populace of this game) that our characters’ technologically advanced home is a moon to.  The party characters you meet from said planet are tribal’ish looking while the other half of the party is slick, neon colored and full of advanced weaponry.  If I wanted to have this sort of commentary shoved in my face I’d go back to high school sociology class.  Yes, I get that the people on the planet are not actually wild savages and the ‘superior’ people are anything but.  The fact that Final Fantasy XIII touches on these extremely tired themes yet again is abusive enough, but to have the entire plot of the game revolve around it?

And I use the term “plot” loosely here because there is enough familiar territory here to anyone who’s held a controller in their hand to predict almost every big storyline moment.  The ‘gods’ who rule both worlds are not actually benevolent, BUT MALICIOUS BEINGS? WHHAAATTT?  Our party members are unwilling but destined heroes who must potentially give their lives to destroy said gods.  No way!  Someone will have to sacrifice their life to BECOME A MONSTER STRONG ENOUGH TO BEAT THE GOD MONSTER…SOUND FUCKING FAMILIAR? Maybe this character is someone who has done this before unsuccessfully! Barf.

I’m willing to accept a certain amount of these tropes because let’s face it, the JRPG genre is stale as fuck.  But to be subjected to a manipulated copy paste from the same series two games ago?  Not acceptable.  Whelp, might as well toss in borderline amateur voice acting from half of the cast, boring character and world design (colorful neon shit might be bright and stuff, but that doesn’t make it interesting) and lack of significant character depth

Good Final Fantasy series example: IX
The ninth game in the series proved without a shadow of a doubt that you can actually rehash or reuse concepts, make them better and it can be awesome.  Final Fantasy IX is well known to be a historical document on the workings of the franchise so there’s no excuse that XIII can’t figure out how to improve or remix simple ideas.  Every single character in FFIX is the the most obvious cliche: a princess who doesn’t want to be so she runs away, a stout knight who knows only duty, a young and energetic thief who doesn’t know where he came from or where he’s going…the list goes on.  What they did so beautifully in IX was give each of these characters a nonstandard quirk.  Zidane loves to hit on women and Vivi finds out at a certain point that his body may just stop working at any moment, providing him with an existential crisis that ends up as one of the most powerful storylines for a character in the series.

The overall plot itself is the same as always:  The planet faces an unknown and pending doom that our characters end up having to stop.  What IX has that XIII doesn’t in this regard is a face for the chaos.  XIII’s baddies are gods, ones that you meet only a handful of times in the game.  Other than that you battle against the government, monsters and opposing personalities.  And I’m not saying that every game needs to have a definitive ‘final boss’ but it’d be nice to be able to identify the enemy somehow.  Kuja is the manifestation of this idea.  He himself is not the ultimate evil here, but a character within the plot and effects it in ways that not one single person or being in FFXIII does.

———-

Character and World Design
Art direction in video games is really important to me.  I don’t think the general audience gives enough credit to the way an artist can shape the feeling of the game they’re playing.  It’s because of this belief that I not only follow certain directors and producers but also artists.  People like Akihiko Yoshida (Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy XII) and Kunihiko Tanaka (Xenogears/Saga I) are reasons for me to play a game that I might not otherwise be paying much attention to.  Which brings me to the start of my point for Final Fantasy XIII’s art direction.  Tetsuya Nomura is the character designer and that sucks.  This fucking guy has his hands in every Square Enix property since about 2001 and it pisses me off.

Nothing about his designs resonate with me in any way.  To me, his best work was Final Fantasy VII and it has steadily declined since.  I mean… do you really want to make me post a picture of Tidus again?  His particular brand or interpretation of popular teenage style has me shaking my head almost every time I see something new.  Hoodies, excessive belts and zippers just don’t have a place in the Final Fantasy world.  That is of course an opinion, but I didn’t particularly miss all that nonsense in FFXII.

The only thing that I can really get behind in terms of FFXIII’s design is that a couple of the female characters are hot (see first four pictures).  Beyond that the males are just downright stupid looking (see last three pictures) with stupid names and stupid backstories.  My favorite character would have to be Sazh but even his design was stupid.

Oh ya know, just bein' Sazh.

Again I must say that many of the sensibilities apparent in Final Fantasy XIII are in fact just taken from Final Fantasy X and altered slightly.  I could almost see XIII being a spiritual sequel to X in many ways.  Truth is, there seems to be a clear trend that the last three games in this series has been following, not including XII.

One of the things I’ve watched happen that I legitimately HATE is the slow but steady loss of a world map.  I know, I know…  argue all you want that world maps are a relic of the past but I just can’t accept that we’re all okay with not being able to run from town to town (here’s my obligatory mention of FFXIII having no towns, and yes it is incredibly stupid).  In Final Fantasy X the powers that be threw our beloved world map right out the window in favor of a point and click system.  You still had an airship and areas still connected to each other via roads you could travel sometimes… okay, I can stomach that.  Instead of evolving this concept into something even more workable, FFXIII just decided to do away with traveling altogether.

Instead of flying from point to point our characters are subjected to ridiculously long “hallways” of areas that take you from point A to B without any other path, hallways that also double as dungeons.  No going backwards, no revisiting areas, no fucking exploration of ANY KIND WHATSOEVER.  And that would be cool if I was playing an action game that didn’t require grinding for levels or something, but I’m not…I’m playing an RPG from SQUARE FUCKING ENIX in the FINAL FANTASY SERIES.  Which even then would be okay if they implemented some sort of battle system that didn’t require complicated leveling and mountains of experience points, but they didn’t.  You still are required to grind it out and get your characters leveled to points where they have good enough abilities to best the bosses.

Because of these design choices the world itself feels less like a living breathing thing and more of a series of VR missions.  I mean, hey, that lush forest is actually pretty cool but because just two minutes ago I was hanging out in the middle of a super techno cityscape I’m kind of at a loss for where I am or how this fits into the world.  Perhaps if I were to have traveled out on my own, found a forest and wandered into it I would’ve felt less displaced.  The lack of immersion in Final Fantasy XIII is one of my more serious complaints about the game and almost all of it has to do with the way the characters and world were designed and implemented.

The goggles! They do nothing!

For as colorful as Final Fantasy XIII is I couldn’t have been more bored with its design, and I think that’s actually the biggest point here.  I found it difficult to connect to either the characters or the world separately and impossible as a whole entity.  The game is a visual feast and that’s not really an arguable point.  The graphics are extremely impressive at times and I can respect the power of the PS3 when Final Fantasy XIII is spinning around in there but at some point I just have to admit to myself that there are maybe only one or two legitimately interesting things visually going on.  For instance, the lush green forest (not the one with the techno-leaves) is nice.  The enemies were cool and seemed like they fit in.  Everything about it was “Final Fantasy”.  Instead of fully appreciating it by knowing exactly where it was geographically on a map, knowing how I get there…hell, even where I was fucking going it remained visual eye-candy and nothing more.  It really is too bad because the other 85% of the game takes places in retina burning vegas-esque light shows that somehow bore me to death despite being the most vibrant thing I think I’ve ever seen.

Good Final Fantasy series example: VII
Final Fantasy VII to me is a shining example of cohesive design.  It must be hard to make everything in a huge RPG world seems like it fits together but VII did just fine.  I’ve poked fun at the ‘gritty’ or ‘dark’ feel that is used as the template for FFVII in the past but at least everything in the game fits the damn theme.  The characters themselves are from the slums so they don’t look pristine or wear extravagant and complicated clothing.  Some of it is even torn (*gasp*).  The whole world just feels kind of rundown, which not only gives it a good amount of character as a whole but fits a subtle plot point: Shinra has been slowly draining the world and its population of its life force for years.  Simple concept huh?  It just might make sense.  The further you get away from Midgar the cleaner things seem to get.  Places not under the influence of a Mako Reactors are noticeably better off.  It’s just smart world design.  The ability to travel across the world on foot and witness the slow change as I get further away creates a level of immersion that Final Fantasy XIII just simply cannot emulate…but does it even try?

———-

Music
Masashi Hamauzu is Final Fantasy XIII’s composer and he does an okay job.  I don’t think it would be prudent for me to criticize an entire work based on the four or five really annoying songs that repeat ten or so times over the course of the game.  There is some legitimately good music here (as there always is with Final Fantasy), which is why I won’t say that the score is “awful” or “terrible” but it certainly isn’t memorable.  I’m going to classify Hamauzu as a FF “new-blood” based solely on the fact that his discography contains games like Dirge of Cerberus and Musashi: Samurai Legend.  FFXIII follows those in those games footsteps artistically and in feel so I’m going to group them all together as the new generation of Square Enix development.

Music is an important and essential part of presenting a video game.  Without it you can eliminate at least fifty percent of all atmosphere, emotional impact and overall themes you would be trying to convey.  Excellent games like Vagrant Story or Xenogears convey their ideas powerfully due in large part to the fitting musical accompaniment.  The song “My Village is Number One” (fuck yeah) from ‘Gears is a perfect example of using music to embellish an attempted “feel”.  It’s bright and cheery but has a hint of emotionality to it.  This is Fei’s hometown, the place that took him in as a very young child and nurtured him to adulthood.  Yasunori Mitsuda is the master of layering his music to help present something deeper within a scene.

No such depth is present anywhere in the score for Final Fantasy XIII.  You know, maybe Hamauzu needs more time and experience with major projects to get a feel for how to present a cohesive and affecting total work.  I think it’s a bad call to have someone with this little feeling for how a FF soundtrack should be composing for one the most legendary RPG franchises of all time.

Cohesion is missing in this work.  Artistic cohesion is missing, thematic cohesion is missing…naturally the music follows suit.  When I listen to the OST I can’t pin down an overall “feel”.  The one track that I really like, the regular old battle theme, utilizes a violin and it works really well.  Where is a violin in the rest of the songs?  Why isn’t this instrument that’s used so effectively in the ONE SONG YOU HEAR OVER AND OVER used nearly as well (or at all) anywhere else in the OST?  It’s this lack of tying it all together that really tells me that as high quality as the orchestration in this game is, the subtle implementation of a greater theme is missing.

I guess the best way to describe what I’m feeling would be to say that I think Hamauzu is missing a personal style.  I can pinpoint a Yasunori Mitsuda or Hitoshi Sakimoto song within seconds simply because they have identifying instruments or themes.  In time I think Hamauzu could be a wonderful composer, and maybe his coming work on FFXIII-2 will evolve further.  Just don’t have the guy doing a Final Fantasy as his first big gig, ya know?

Also…why wasn’t Takeharu Ishimoto chosen for this game?  He is new’ish and has proven his work to be stellar with amazing soundtracks from games already in the FF franchise (Dissidia and Crisis Core).  That would’ve been a perfect fit, and he’s earned it.

Good Final Fantasy Example: VIII
When I think about Final Fantasy VIII one of the first things that comes to mind is the soundtrack.  I still remember the atmospheric melody that filled the halls as you wandered Balamb Garden, trying to get your bearings at the beginning.  Or the epic, militarily charged theme that accompanied the FMV as you rode your boat towards the shoreline for your first mission.  Had someone made a call to Harry Gregson-Williams?  Talk about music creating fucking memorable experiences.  These were masterpieces that somehow did the unbelieveable and compared to VII’s OST.  While other aspects of Final Fantasy VIII may have fallen short compared to some of the other games in the series the music was damn near the top of the pile.  And it served the game so well.  Also, the Triple Triad theme.

———-

Battle and Character Growth systems
I saved these two categories for last because this is where I feel the game was almost unplayably bad.

I don’t even know where to fucking start with the abomination they’re calling a battle system.  Let’s forget for a moment that our classic “jobs” have been renamed moronic shit like Commando and Ravager…I can deal with that.  I’ll put aside for now the summoning that plays out almost identically to Final Fantasy X where you call a beast, it replaces your other two party members and fights until it’s timer or HP runs out (god I hate it now even more than I hated it then).  I am even willing to accept that turn-based battling and loading into fights have returned in full force after Final Fantasy XII proved that altering the formula actually works.

What I simply cannot accept is that Square Enix is going to sit there and fucking pretend that the battle system presented to us in Final Fantasy XIII is something more than it was even in the old days of the SNES.  There is nothing new under the sun, so sayeth the Bible and so sayeth I in reference to this shitty game.  As flashy, quick, cinematic…WHATEVER we’ve been told this fighting is, it is actually anything but.

Example #1: The Auto Battle Function
Just insulting.  I think they’re kind of trying to somehow acknowledge the gambit system from FFXII with this but I’m not sure.  Instead of being awesome like gambits were, now you’re honestly just hitting “x” over and over again without even having to think.  XII was blasted because it supposedly took the strategy out of battling (nothing could be further from the truth) but let’s be honest here, Final Fantasy XIII not only picks the most effective attacks to use it makes the battle menu much slower to use and too complicated to want to figure out.  You’re actually strongly encouraged to just auto-battle every round of every fight with every character.  Fun.  It even figures out the enemy element weakness and then automatically just chooses whatever magic spell is most effective against it.  Are they fucking serious?  I know they want to get new fans, and have the RPG seems less scary and complicated to your average gamer…but COME ON.  So if I want to play legitimately (of course I do) and have any sense that I’m putting thought into anything that’s going on I have to traverse this ridiculously over-stylized menu system under the duress of enemies freely attacking me unapologetically only to find that I’ve used the wrong spell or attack on an unrelenting enemy or group of enemies that have copious amounts of HP.  Which brings me to my next point…

Example #2: The “Break” system
This stupid idea has never worked.  It didn’t work in Xenosaga 2 or 3 and it certainly didn’t work here.  What I’m talking about is that in Final Fantasy XIII every enemy has a meter in addition to their HP that has to be filled up in order to ‘break’ their defenses down.  What this entails is so obtuse that it hurts my cock to even try to explain it.  Essentially what you need to do is assemble a party setup that does physical AND magical damage to an enemy.  A Commando (warrior) will not really increase the break gauge, but will sustain it and keep it from falling back to zero.  A Ravager (mage) is then the party member type that can increase the break gauge.  If you used only commandos the gauge would never go anywhere.  If you used only Ravagers the gauge would sink faster than it takes to hit your enemy again.  Keep in mind that you’re not ever really doing sufficient damage to kill the enemy during this period of breaking, you’re just trying to get the gauge full so you can actually start doing damage to whatever it is you’re fighting (at Square Enix they call this “strategy”).

Once your enemy is broken another timer starts indicating that you have a short period of time where your enemy can actually receive real damage.  I call this the “The Way Every Fight Has Gone In Every RPG Since The Beginning Of Time” phase…and you better hit hard here because if you don’t kill whatever you’re fighting their defenses get re-upped and you start the whole process over again.  Many random encounters will require this method multiple times in one fight for just one enemy.  RANDOM ENCOUNTERS.  Don’t even ask how many the bosses take.

My problem with this system is that it’s just pretending to be different than everything else.  Instead of just being able to use my GOD LIKE super characters to deal a REGULAR enemy damage, I must somehow damage Random Soldier A’s impervious (unexplained and invisible) force field with TRICKERY before I CAN EVEN GET A REAL SHOT IN thus giving me a very short window to do what every FF character does best and whoop some sorry ass weakling’s pathetic ass.  Why does every single creature and human that I come across have to be ‘broken’?  Doesn’t this Lightning chick have extensive military training, super powered weapons and magic handed down literally from GODS?  None of this makes a lick of fucking sense.

Example #3: The Job System
Necessitated by the whacko break system implemented in the fighting, the job system is probably even more stupid.  Despite being very specific in their titles and actions (Commandos hit stuff, Ravagers nuke stuff, Medics heal…etc etc) it’s wildly unclear from the beginning how to go about forming an effective combination of the three in a battle (or actually just two people for a lot of the game).  By the time you do actually figure it all out, which is a while because many of the encounters require completely different setups, you’re then left with something you can’t learn how to do better: Navigate the Menus in a Productive Way.  Because I wanted to do a lot of things manually fighting-wise, I was left to determine the nuances of selecting actions within a battle.  And there are a few.

For one, the menu itself so stylistic and visually important to them that they just had to make the selections fucking spin around.  Spinning action selections that you have to WAIT FOR.  In the many high stress situations I found myself in, life or death situations, knowing what I wanted to do next…I WAITED FOR THE FUCKING ATTACK OPTION TO FUCKING SPIN AROUND WHILE I FURIOUSLY JAMMED ON X TRYING TO SELECT IT. FUCK YOU.  For as fast paced as the games presents itself to you as, the menu options are frustratingly slow.  And it seems like your enemies are just constantly flying off the handle, hitting you a few times before you get your one sequence in.  I sent so much time actually waiting in this game.  Just waiting and waiting for my characters to move and act while just SO MANY GRAPHICS WERE HAPPENING ON SCREEN, but only really causing a small portion of it.  Your input into the madness that you’re witnessing is honestly very minimal…and really spaced out.  Nothing that is actually happening is nearly as fast-paced as it appears.  As your characters progress and you earn yourself more action bars, you will actually find yourself waiting even longer in battle to perform actions.  You can at any point cut off your wait time and perform whatever actions have been queued up and start the bar all over again but it’s not nearly as efficient as waiting it all out and doing everything in large clumps.  Which is because when you perform an action sequence your character has to run over to the enemies, flip their weapon around about a thousand times, jump around like a complete idiot and do some really cinematic shit before your actions can be performed.  So I’d rather just wait until it’s all queued up for five actions rather than see all that nonsense for a single action.

For two, switching between the different party setups is a chore.  It’s easy enough to hit L1 and select whatever Paradigm you want but for some godawful reason the first time you switch your paradigm in every battle you are treated to a sequence showing everyone in the party changing their class.  Every paradigm switch from that point on in the battle is a very quick thing that takes half of the time.  Remember in Final Fantasy X-2 where when you changed your job mid-battle you could watch the character do a little switch-over cutscene, OR YOU COULD SELECT TO SKIP IT because why would you want to watch that more than fucking once.  Well, they’ve apparently lost that sensibility in Final Fantasy XIII and every single first time you do a paradigm shift per battle you half to watch that full switchover.  And it’s not really all that long, honestly, maybe a few seconds.  BUT ENEMIES AREN’T FROZEN DURING THIS IT.  THEY CAN AND WILL HIT YOU.

The one consistent strategy I used to avoid this annoyance was to start every battle with a paradigm setup that I didn’t actually want to use and then immediately switch to the one I DID want to use before anything in the battle could really happen, so I didn’t have to watch the stupid twice-as-long switchover sequence in the middle of something actually threatening.  Thanks a lot guys!  The fact that I even have to come up with this micro strategy and employ it for every battle to rid myself of an absolutely ridiculous design flaw is the strongest testament as to why this game is fucking terrible.  There was just no common sense used anywhere in the creation of this damn game.  It’s all this flashy, self-indulgent and completely HOLLOW development mindset that serves only to dumb down ideas that have worked so well in the past.

I don’t feel the need to say much about the character progression.  The Crystarium or whatever it’s called is just a copy paste from FFX’s (no way!).  No real choice of path, no difference at all really between this and just having an automatic leveling system like in the past.  Again it’s just an elaborate illusion implemented to make you think you’re figuring something out or somehow involved in something complicated.

Too many options here, better start railroading people after this.

Good Final Fantasy Example: XII
Final Fantasy XII is the series’ pinnacle in terms of the battling and leveling, and I’d say a lot of it has to do with the freedom given to the player.  The License Board is an ingenious system that allows the player to develop a character in any which way they please.  Yeah, everyone can easily turn out the same way BUT that choice is up to you…and at least you have a fucking choice, something that is sorely lacking from FFXIII.

Freedom is the key word within the battle system as well.  Because you have the option to form every party member into every possible character type, party setups and strategies are endless.  While some people might like to be pointed (or forced) in a clear direction, FFXII went the opposite way and was better for it.  Character affinities were definitely hinted at (Balthier just doesn’t look right without a fucking gun in his hand) but this was by no means a strict implement, more of a suggestion if you wanted an idea on what characters might do what best.  Brilliant shit man.

———-

I’m hesitant to accuse Tetsuya Nomura of creating or even instigating many of the flaws as he is only named (and has never for a main entry Final Fantasy been listed as anything more than) an artist for this game but his particular brand of design just seeps out of every pore of FFXIII.  The sensibilities apparent in this game are hard not to associate with that of what you can find in Kingdom Hearts.  A lot of it is superficial but attempts to hint at something more meaningful with it’s convoluted plot and transparent character development and relationships.  As much as they wanted me to care when Sazh turned a gun on Vanille to save his son, I just didn’t give a rat’s ass.  The dialogue was just so poorly written and acted.  The characters looked incredibly silly while trying to be serious.  I didn’t have a good feel for where the scene was and what exactly the motivations behind almost every moment were at that point.  I had been given no real reason to care and was naturally distanced from the supposed emotionality of the events taking place.  AND I LIKE SAZH.  This game makes you pretend to even think you might care about anything…you really have to work at it.

If what we’re looking at in Final Fantasy XIII is any indication of where Square Enix wants to take my favorite RPG franchise then I simply will have no more of it, period.  I hated this game.  I just fucking hated it, and it was a goddamn life or death struggle to even get to the end.  But I did and I can feel okay with writing all of that because I know for certain that it is legitimately bad.  Not bad because it wasn’t “Final Fantasy” enough or that I have a hardon for the standbys but because if you take away the Final Fantasy title this game is shit out of ten and everyone would be much more comfortable admitting it.

At least there's something to look forward to in the future.

Click here to see where Final Fantasy XIII ranks in the Master List.

Dynasty Warriors 7

I like Dynasty Warriors.  Yup…and I said it early enough in this write-up for all of you to make a snap judgement about me and my gaming preferences.  I have liked all of them and am well aware that it’s not necessarily a badge of honor for a member of the supposed “hardcore gamer” or “intelligent gamer” sub-group to do so.

But let me drop some knowledge on you quick:  Dynasty Warriors 7 is fucking awesome and I don’t give half a shit that the series has progressed in a sloth-like manner for the last six billion iterations.  The characters are amazing.  The story of The Three Kingdoms is supersaturated with intense *insert epic adjective here* shit.  The gameplay is tight and the amount of content is massive.  These are inarguable statements that make DW7 to be in the very least a pretty damn good game.  Yeah, the generic rock music usually blows (7 actually has some decent tracks) and the voice acting is horrid as a rule but these are minor (and stupid) complaints that people repeatedly level against the series as a whole.

Still, DW7 has taken many steps in the right direction.  I have liked previous games in the series quite a bit but the seventh version easily takes the cake.

You are truly a Hero of the Three Kingdoms
If you’re sitting under your rock unaware that this ridiculous warring era in Chinese history exists…where three kingdoms formed under charismatic and visionary leaders battled for supremacy, then I just did you a huge favor.  Go do some research and you’ll find that the books (yes, actual books) are extremely interesting accounts of BAT SHIT CRAZY heroes who actually shaped China’s past.  It just begged to be made into a video game, so Koei and Omega Force jumped to it some time ago and (long story short) Dynasty Warriors came to be.  I latched onto the game initially because it seemed like an awesome idea to take one guy or gal into a battlefield and end up killing like 2,000 enemy troo00bs in one battle.  Speaking specifically on the story presentation, DW7 is by far the most cinematic.  It is thoughtfully directed in a way where the narrative takes the forefront and it’s implementation takes a much higher priority than in the past (which I like).  You don’t have the option to choose which character to play as in the story mode, and forcing you to play as pertinent characters in the timeline presents you with a much more cohesive and powerful chronicling of events.  People will always be in the right place at the right time, there’s no taking Lu Bu deep into the Jin Dynasty era here.  I didn’t know how I felt about that at first but after a full playthrough it was clear that this is the best way.

Xiahou Dun. Video game character and REAL PERSON.

My first foray into Warriors hooked me for the what will be the rest of my life.  Not only were you some awesome warrior who could single-handedly slay hundreds, thousands, (millions?) in large-scale battles BUT YOU WERE ACTUALLY A REAL PERSON FROM HISTORY.  Each character, I came to find, had a backstory that was as ridiculous as it was deep.  “Who is Xiahou Dun?” you might ask yourself.  No big deal, he’s just some psycho general, right hand man of Cao Cao who once tore an arrow that had pierced his eyeball in battle OUT and then ATE THE FUCKING EYEBALL.  FUCK YOU.  Most who know understand that Romance of the Three Kingdoms is at least part fantasy and many of these nutty things may not have ever happened.  But what if they did?

What this all meant to me was and still is pretty profound.  Can you think of any other game with a premise even remotely similar?  If even half of what this book/game says is true then the men and women in it are simply the most badass people to ever live, period.  And Dynasty Warriors gives you the ability to play as them, go through the battles they went through and follow their path through the war.  This touch of reality offers a weight to this unrealistic series that would have no chance of immersing the player as much without it.  And that weight is one of the beauties of DW7 for me.  I feel much more attached to what is going on, which if we want to be completely honest is literally insane most of the time.  But that gravity is there, enriching your experience that much more.  I get to be Xiahou Dun.  I get to take part in historical battles taken video game form and march with the armies of Wei.  That itself, without taking any more time to explain, is plenty.

Conquest Mode…huh? JESUS
I touched on the amount of content in Dynasty Warriors 7 earlier and that was no idle comment.  You are, without a doubt, getting your sixty dollars worth with this title.  Take a picture of that sentence folks because you may never hear me say that again about a modern video game.  Dynasty Warriors seems to still be clinging to an idea that a game payed sixty bucks for should have enough shit to do in it to last you a good 60-70 hours.  How odd.  For some reason Koei decided to, like, make a game that has a ton of stuff to do.  There are now four main factions, each with an in-depth and lengthy story mode.  At any point you could also partake in a new mode aptly named Conquest.  What you do there is fight across tiles that make up the whole of China like a game board.  Each tile represents a battle (actually some represent multiple battles).  That leaves the player with, hmm, maybe around fifty seven twaztrillion to complete in total.  Each tile battle has a specific reward that a victory will grant you.  This is mainly how one would go about obtaining the majority of items, mounts, weapons and characters.  Fucking sweet.

He has probably come to destroy us. I mean, look at the way he's walking. Also do not pursue (again, the way he's walking is important).

Now keep in mind this is in ADDITION to the MAIN STORY.  The story and conquest modes are two SEPARATE entities.  So not only do I get to fight through the Three Kingdoms Era as each faction separately (which is itself a 20 hour+ endeavor), but I get to then choose whatever character I want and CONQUER FUCKING CHINA ALONE?  Hi.  What’s up.  See ya.

Now, if you’re anything like me you’ll be at least mildly interested in the history as well.  Within the menus you will find everything ranging from character and faction descriptions to dates, places and even non-playable character information.  This most recent entry in particular is information translated to video game almost literally.  You could spend a hefty amount of time just browsing the encyclopedia there, which of course gives the game even more weight.  It happens pretty frequently that I’ll read about a non-playable character that’s somewhat important that I will actually run across in certain battles, named but dressed as just a generic captain.  What this tells me is that Koei is faithful to the information and has made it a priority to make sure the details are in place.  Integrity, who knew?  These types of things coupled with the ingame conquest mode quiz that proposes legitimately hard questions (and tons of them) are indications that there’s a lot of care given to this franchise.  Yeah it’s their breadwinner and headlining game series, but for them to treat each iteration with such production value and attention to detail is admirable.

You know what, go right ahead and level your complaints against this game and Dynasty Warriors as a franchise.  Here’s the hard shit right in your face: Nothing in the industry does what Dynasty Warriors does.  There just isn’t anything comparable, period.  It is by far the best in the genre, always has been and always will be.  Copycats have arisen over time and disappeared just as quickly.  Anyone remember Drakengard?  Me either.  Ninety-Nine Nights?  Hog shit.  If DW isn’t your thing, cool.  I respect that, but don’t sit around with a holier than thou attitude complaining that all you do is “press one button over and over again.”  If this was such a simple formula why can’t any other companies even come close to emulating it?  If you crave this particular brand of action there is simply one place to go and that’s Dynasty Warriors.  In my world, it’s better to be the clear best of a small group than in the middle of a large one.  That puts Dynasty Warriors 7 on an island all by itself and that’s tough to do in any medium.


Click here to see where Dynasty Warriors 7 ranks in the Master List!

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together

Lately I’m finding myself less and less excited for almost everything that’s announced in the video game universe.  As “cool” as it is to go against popular trends, that’s not really my intent.  I just happen to really dislike first person shooters, hyper violent action games and sandbox titles.  It doesn’t help that more emphasis has been placed on sequels or remakes as of late…so it’s nice to witness a company doing something right with an existing property.  Or just one in particular, Tactics Ogre.  And that’s saying quite a bit considering the company at hand here is Square Enix.  They have made it their fucking business lately to whore out every single property they currently own, much to my dismay and their monetary benefit.  There was once a time when I loved SquareSoft, a consistent provider of RPG works of the highest quality.  They used to employ an abundance of creative game designers that lead the industry in not only genre sales but progressive ideas.

Such days are gone of course, and many of the masterpieces of which I speak were the offspring of a single development team.  Yasumi Matsuno and Co. were steady providers of the most rich RPG experiences: Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story…Final Fantasy XII.  After Mr. Matsuno’s seemingly bitter exit from Square’s employee roster I was worried that I may never see further works of one of this industries most brilliant designers.  I was wrong, in a way.  Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together for the PSP is an inspired and thoughtful re-release of the original game of the same name.  At the helm, none other than its original team…Yasumi Matsuno and friends.  As to the how and why Square finally decided to revive this long dead Quest franchise…I have no clue.  What’s important here is that it happened, and it happened in the right way.  No embarrassing half-assed spin offs or shitty sequels made by new blood.  This is Tactics Ogre to its core.  And that’s entirely because of the decision to bring the team proper back.  If only every franchise resurrection were handled so delicately.  Of course, the source material was already a Matsuno game (work of fine art), but that’s besides the point.  Matsuno, Minagawa, Yoshida and Sakimoto were back to work and that’s a good thing.

If you’re feeling a positive vibe, that maybe I like this game a lot…your impression is valid.  Tactics Ogre is special.  My expectations were no less than perfection and the team already responsible for 2 of my top 5 games of all time delivered.  I never actually made my way around to the original version, so this remake was something I highly anticipated.  It’s hard to draw a comparison that equals a level that this new version brings with it.  Imagine if David Lynch were to come out of hiding and somehow be given full control over a Twin Peaks remake or continuation, with every single cast member in place.  That’s what Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together is to me.

Hey Mid-Boss, check out what a real strategy game looks like

But the game itself is more than just a nostalgic look back at ‘the good old days’ or a reminder that Yasumi Matsuno still exists.  It is legitimately superb and brings with it some game design philosophies that shouldn’t be ignored.  But what Matsuno game doesn’t?  Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together is more than just a study on how to make a great video game, it’s a post doctorate level education on the past, present and should be future on the fundamental concept of creating a video game.  I will not shy away from proclaiming that every single developer in the gaming industry has at least something to learn from TO, and that’s just as much a compliment to its development team as it is a shot at everyone else out there.  Including Nintendo and Valve or any other company you believe to be top tier.  I have long stood atop my soap box preaching about the brilliance of Yasumi Matsuno’s various visions and Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together gives me another reason to never step down.

Instead of delving into specifics about the battling or strategy like many fans of this genre are want to do, it makes more sense in my mind to explain just what sets Tactics Ogre apart from every other tactical RPG.  Let’s face it, I could probably shit out a tactical RPG that was no different from anything else we’ve seen a hundred times.  You take turns, you move over squares…people die (usually permanently) and it’s all just filled to the brim with “strategy”.  No, I don’t give a shit about Disgaea.  Couldn’t care less for Saiyuki: Journey West or ANY OF THAT.  If the RPG genre is stale then the Tactical RPG genre is fucking 100 year old Ritz crackers.  In fact…I wouldn’t even call myself a strategy RPG fan.  I’ve tried them all to some extent and have come away wholly unimpressed.  Final Fantasy Tactics and now Tactics Ogre are the only ones that have resonated with me in some way.

And that’s because Matsuno games do almost everything better than other similar games.  There are always strong, deep and sympathetic characters.  Sakimoto and Iwata’s music is brilliant.  Complexity is always a focal point.  Matsuno games have the most content I’ve ever seen.  The team’s superb writing and translation efforts, of which Alexander O. Smith is usually affiliated, create exceptional storytelling.  The visuals are consistently top-notch.  You can apply these statements to all of his works and easily justify them, which is why these games stand above and beyond their genre peers.  Despite being completely different in almost every aspect gameplay-wise, Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy XII and the two Tactics are without a doubt the absolute best games in their specific categories because of the consistent design philosophy.

Which side of Vyce will you see?

-Strong, deep and sympathetic characters-
Let Us Cling Together might be the best example of this statement out of every Matsuno designed game.  Denam is an interesting hero and not necessarily because of the choices he makes in the game or the way he acts, but because of the world he was born into.  In fact, it’s impossible to nail this character down to specifics because you as a player make all the hard choices from beginning to end.  He could either be a stalwart believer in the law and carry on with his assigned duties, or a chaotic hero whose choices shape the world to his own vision.  What’s interesting about him and the way his progression is handled is that no matter where you end up taking him every player starts in the same place and ends, more or less, in the same place.  He knows he wants to fight in the war.  He believes in the decisions he makes, good or bad (are there even ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in this game?..not really).  He is strong-willed, competent and driven to a goal.  Almost every single one of these statements is in stark contrast to the RPG genres typical “hero”.  He doesn’t waver on decisions, he makes them and takes action.  He doesn’t have spikey hair or a huge sword.  There’s no “I don’t want to fight.  Oh shit, someone close to me just died.  OK I’ll fight now!” that permeates JRPGs like a sickness.  Denam’s motivation comes long before the first screen of game you ever see, and that’s an interesting device that drives the plot and our main character forward in a realistic way.  He has an established personality and orientation in the world before you even take control of him…and that’s a good thing.  I’m getting really tired of witnessing every teenagers maturation moment in the middle of a video game.  It’s extremely unrealistic for me to connect, for instance, to a character like Cloud Strife that in the span of one day of soul-searching completely reshapes his ideals and suddenly becomes motivated.  People just don’t change that drastically.  And that’s why I love Denam.  He’s the same basic guy on the last day of his journey that he was when he took his first step into battle, yet hardened and slowly molded into your champion by what he’s seen.  Does any non-Matsuno game employ anything near this level character integrity?  Did anyone get the sense that Cloud Strife was subtly shaped by the events that he endured?  That he grew in not-completely obvious ways at any point from A to Z?  No.  He was emo and indecisive/reluctant, then suddenly The World’s Greatest Hero after a single pivotal moment.  And maybe that’s not the mark that Final Fantasy VII was aiming to hit.  Perhaps the idea was precisely to show without a shadow of doubt that THIS CHARACTER HAS CHANGED IN IMPORTANT WAYS.  An approach that is directed at young people, to be sure.  Thankfully, Matsuno and crew create games for mature adults than can read into the suggestive and not just the obvious.

And all that for just one character.  To be honest, the other story and party characters might be even more developed and interesting than Denam.  Vyce is the complicated Delita’esque best friend whose path splits off from yours depending on an early decision you make.  Catiua’s (Denam’s sister) tale and relationship to her brother are both wrought with tragedy and filled with hope depending on the current situation.  There are just too many amazing examples to even continue this sad attempt at explaining the depth of Tactics Ogre’s characterization.  The bottom line is Matsuno games have a way of gripping you with its characters and that’s not at all by accident.

-Sakimoto and Iwata’s music is brilliant-
These two guys have dual-composed some of my favorite video game soundtracks of all time and certainly not by accident.  Sakimoto has earned himself a level of musical pedigree that is mostly unchallenged by most of the industries musicians.  I don’t think it would be inappropriate to mention him in the same breath as Yasunori Mitsuda or Nobuo Uematsu.  I would probably put Mitsuda atop the list with Sakimoto’s works coming in second.

But about Tactics Ogre.  If there are two things I feel Sakimoto’s music is consistently really good at, it’s a sense of the large scale (powerful or epic), and atmospheric or emotional music that plays into the feeling of whatever is happening on the screen.  Vagrant Story, FFT and FFXII all have plenty of specific examples that could illustrate this idea, but Tactics Ogre as a game seems to almost be built with these concepts in mind.  Which shouldn’t really be a shock because of the way all of Sakimoto’s work flows through the games he composes for.  If you are fighting a large scale battle the music represents that almost too faithfully, filling you the player with an added layer of intensity.  Quiet and emotional moments are supplemented by affecting melodies.  The music box moments with Lancelot come to the forefront of my mind here.  Just as poignant are the darker themes that accompany scenes filled with treachery and crooked plotting.  While you could classify music as characterization at times, what with all of the character specific themes most games have, Tactics Ogre’s seems more like a significant piece of the design of the game itself.

And that’s really no surprise either.  Something I’ve always appreciated about Matsuno and Sakimoto’s approach towards game music is that they DO consider it a pivotal part of the design.  I won’t sit here and pretend that I know a single thing about how they make their games but the proof is in the pudding, so to speak.  I can’t think of a single moment in any Matsuno game where the music and game itself feel separated, like many games to me often do.  My assessment is supported by the neat little descriptions of each track in the music section of the menu in Tactics Ogre.  A common theme in those statements is one of trying to reflect mood in the music itself.  They really do their best to supplement what’s happening on screen, not overpower it with overbearing “themes” that almost hit you over the head with their bluntness.  Another classic OST.

1. Get out your Ph.D 2. Try to explain what's happening here

-Complexity is always a focal point-
I guess some might argue that simplicity has more potential to make a game fun.  And games are supposed to be fun, right?  It’s difficult for me to associate the word “fun” with Yasumi Matsuno’s games, probably because of how complex they are…so I won’t present it as such.  Spending almost as much time in a party menu as you would in a battle might not seem like a good time to everyone, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I’ve always been more apt to bust out Risk than Sorry or even Monopoly.  Tactics Ogre presents you with the idea that you need to spend a significant amount of time preparing your characters throughout the entire game, and it’s far from straightforward.

Setting aside the simplest decision of which job to assign your characters to (we all know and love the classic formula of tank, damage dealer, healer) you’re left with more variables than one person should ever be expected to keep track of.  Here’s a starter list of the things you can be expected to manage:

– Each job class has a unique list of abilities to choose from as your earn ability points.  Some of them can be used by other classes, though.  Oh yeah…you only get 10 ability slots total, forcing you to prioritize precisely what your character’s strengths will be.  My Denam Ninja could be drastically different than yours, for instance.

– New characters added through the story will not necessarily start at level 1 (like FFT) but if they bring a new job with them that you want to use…it will be at 1.  Getting that character up to speed, especially later in the game, is definitely a task.  And you will want to use those new jobs because they’re cool and strong.

– There are what seems like a twazbillion characters.  And they, again, are all COOL and STRONG.  Choosing who to boot out of your current party to make room is heart wrenching.  You’ll never use more than 12 people in a fight, which might seem like a lot, but considering just how many characters there are to recruit…it’s still a difficult decision.

– There are many types of magic, all with strengths/weaknesses and unique spell sets.  If you don’t care to asses the nuances of each you may just blindly pick an element or two to have your mage specialize in, but the nuances are still there to figure out if you wish.  Giving one mage a bunch of different elements would be an option were it not for the 10 ability slot limitation.

– Equipment and stats are a doozy.  There are many factors to consider.  Elemental and physical defense and attack.  And then every other stat you’ve ever seen before.  There’s a wonderful optimize system (optimize defense, optimize attack… etc) but if you’re anything like me you’ll want to equip most items manually to see the affected stats individually…which takes time.

– Rare item drops.  Get your masters, bro.

And this isn’t even touching on the battling, storyline decisions to make (and their ramifications), the World Tarot, allegiances, recruitment…hopefully you’re starting to get the point.  What this all means is that Tactics Ogre is a game more ready to bend towards the players will, and that’s unique considering the strength of its narrative.  I understand that this mentality may not resonate with all players and sometimes I just want to play Dynasty Warriors and kill 1,000 guys by pressing one button over and over, but it is no bad thing to challenge yourself mentally.  I applaud Matsuno’s games for giving me the chance to put more thought into a video game than anyone really seems to want to.

The most broken job class in the game: Archer

-Matsuno games have the most content I’ve ever seen-
I won’t spend too much time here wasting my breath trying to explain just how much fucking content Tactics Ogre has.  There are probably more rare drop items total than what you can buy in the item shop total.  There’s the Palace of the Dead.  The fucking strategy guide doesn’t even have the locations of all of the rare drops for fuck’s sake.  It reminds me of the mention in the FFXII guide where the developers admitted that they weren’t 100% sure of everything that was actually in that game.  Fucking psycho shit.  The World Tarot allows you to travel back in time and replay any battle in the game, choose a different path and follow it to the end without sacrificing anything to recruit the boatload of secret characters.  It’s all cumulative.  Talk about the ultimate New Game+.

-The team’s superb writing and translation efforts (of which Alexander O. Smith is usually affiliated) create exceptional storytelling-
I guess I won’t say too much here either.  If you’re reading this you’ve probably been through my Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII reviews, which detail at length the kind of storytelling you can expect in TO.  The translation (or re-translation for the new version) is probably one of the best I have ever seen period.  There are subtleties everywhere, nuanced character distinctions in their speech and animations…the list goes on.  And the story is itself is spectacular, touching on all the similar themes you’ve come to know and love from Matsuno’s previous works.

-The visuals are consistently top-notch-
I suppose I might have to argue this one a bit considering all 14 year olds think about graphics is how shiny and brown they are.  Yes, TO is a SNES game.  No, the graphics haven’t really be revamped in any significant way, but that’s why I used the term “visuals” in this category title…not “graphics”.  If you just started playing video games post PlayStation 2/Xbox then much of what I’m about to say will be lost on you.  Then again, if you’re one of those people there’s literally zero chance that you’d ever play or appreciate Tactics Ogre.  Oh well!

Yoshida's artwork is absolutely stunning...and sexy

Sprite work is a funny thing.  In many occasions I find sprites and 2d models to be more attractive than 3d models.  I think Super Mario World has better graphics than Mass Effect, for instance.  If you’re pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ down then you won’t have a problem with me saying I also think Tactics Ogre has better visuals than Gears of War 3.  It’s the implementation, artistic styling and cohesive design of the graphics that affect how a game looks…not how many polygons or what resolution a game runs at!  For fuck’s sake man.

Every weapon in Tactics Ogre is individually rendered.  Every character has little visual quirks to them even though most of them are the EXACT SAME MODEL.  Every battleground is ridiculously varied.  The sprite work in Tactics Ogre is so superbly filled with character that it makes me want to vomit rainbows.  Matsuno’s team has this weird ability to endear us as players to these little nothing sprites as if they were family members, and it’s hard for me to put my finger on precisely how.  Final Fantasy Tactics is the same way.

Because of this I would say that Tactics Ogre for the PSP is one of the most visually impressive games I’ve ever seen.  The game world really comes to life through smart use of a world map, perfect sprite animations and subtle character design differences (as subtle as the color of a shirt being different yet that character “feeling” utterly different).

I know of at least one person who bought a PSP just to play Tactics Ogre without having played a single second of it beforehand.  That’s a good way to describe how I feel about a new Matsuno property.  If he announces that his next game as a newly crowned developer for Level-5 is on the 3DS (which he did) I will go buy one for that game alone.  If playing Tactics Ogre has done anything for me it has proved that Yasumi Matsuno is THE elite designer in the industry.  He has simply never made a game anything less than absolutely amazing.  As hard as I tried to describe at length how good Let Us Cling Together is, the only real way for you to understand what I’m talking about is to go play it yourself.  Please do.

Click here to see where Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together ranks in my Master List