Crimson Shroud


Crimson Shroud is a small scale 3DS game developed by Yasumi Matsuno (Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy Tactics) during his brief stint at Level-5. Sadly his stint was so brief that all they managed to churn out was this high concept ‘table top’ RPG. It’s also pretty good.  The game takes place on the map of a palace, navigating locations you select with a pointer, moving your character ‘pieces’ as you progress.  Some locations simply offer narrative advancements, while most of them engage you in a fairly standard turn-based battle.

the map of the palace

Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII all set a thematic precedent for what you can expect in Crimson Shroud. Like all of these games Shroud is saturated with complex ideas and familiar themes.  While the scope is clearly much smaller I still think they managed to create an abridged version of the amazing RPGs these creators are known for.  I really enjoyed it and I think it’s safe to say if you’re familiar with the previous works mentioned then Crimson Shroud will make you feel right at home.

Did the gambits from Final Fantasy XII confuse you?  How about the multitudes of unclear stats/abilities/systems from Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together?  The weapon melding from Vagrant Story??  If so, avoid Crimson Shroud.  No-one seemed to think it was appropriate to minimize the complexity to match the miniature size of the game.  It’s saturated with ideas that feel disproportionately complicated compared to the 6-8 hours your’re gonna spend with it.  But this is exactly my thing, and why I keep coming back to it all.  The game within the game.

Since there are no actual character levels, Crimson Shroud forces you to place an unhealthy level of importance on the weapon and item drops you get from the few battles you’ll face.  Take into account that said drops are reliant upon how well you perform in said battles and you find yourself in a situation where you absolutely must be paying attention to every single thing you do.  Accidentally not choose the key item that’s required to advance in chapter-2 from the performance based loot screen after a specific battle?  Well, fight that battle again.  And that’s if you EVEN KNEW WHAT YOU WERE LOOKING FOR IN THE FIRST PLACE, which you won’t because the game never tells you.  All you really get is an extremely vague hint about what you’re looking for and are required at this point in the game to understand the obscure rules to the battling and loot drop systems in the game.  I personally replayed a couple battles simple because I didn’t understand that I was looking for an item to unlock a door, and when the item did drop I didn’t even know what it was.  Looking around for other opinions online I ran into more than a few others sharing a similar experience.  Not a game-breaker by any means, more of a minor complaint.  Trial and error, RNG and a devious GM can all be enjoyable parts of a table top experience.  I chalk a few of these decisions up to the game concept and I find that to be incredibly compelling, if not skillfully implemented.

Giauque – still don’t know how to pronounce this shit

Many Matsuno’isms are healthily intact in Crimson Shroud.  Here’s what to expect:
– Hundreds of different pieces of equipment, items and spell scrolls (character-specific and general) that drop at different rates from different battles.  Similar pieces of equipment can be melded together infinitely to create a stronger versions of that specific item (Falchion + Falchion = Falchion +1, etc.)  You can also meld equipment with spell scrolls, which upon equipping to a character will allow them to use the spell.
– Rare drops that unlock certain chests, doors, areas that are both required and extra.  Methodology for acquiring rare drops usually involves killing specific enemies that may or may not appear during a battle depending on what order you kill your enemies in.
– A robust character stat system that contains all the variety and ambiguity you could ever ask for.  I still don’t know what exactly affects what when it comes to: ATK, DEF, STR, VIT, DEX, AVO, INT, RES.  How to assign your gear and what stats to focus on for each character is a mini-game in and of itself.  You’ll have to work at it, analyze it and through trial and error find what works best (and even then you may not even know exactly what you did to get the results you ended up with).
– Characters have specific skills that you obtain after certain numbers of battles.  This is the closest thing to traditional leveling up in the game.  You will get the chance to choose a new skill after most major battles and after reaching certain numbers of battles.  After two play-throughs, I still don’t think I’ve seen the end of the skills.
– The order at which you progress the game from area to area can alter your experience.  For instance, if you go to one area before another, you may find that things are slightly different that in you were to do them in the opposite order.  There aren’t many opportunities for this in the game, and even when there are it’s subtle.  In chapter-1 if you go to a certain area first there’s a harder battle than if you were to go somewhere else first and there second.
– A New Game+ that’s damn near a whole new game.  No one should really only play this game once.  The second game contains new and stronger items in the chests, new fights and boss fights, new areas, stronger enemies and a real ending to the story.

All of this amounts to a level of complexity and content that you wouldn’t (and kinda shouldn’t) expect from an $8 downloadable mini-game that’s one fourth of a collection.

I would actually argue that the story and characters here are some of the most interesting to come out of a Yasumi Matsuno game.  Not having any true Ivalice material made Crimson a bit more fresh for me.  I mean, there’s no huge distinction between this and anything else that took place in Ivalice (artistically or thematically) but it’s impressive that they went about crafting an entire world and parts of a greater mythology just for the sake of presenting a more complete story.

deepest lore

The trio of Giauque, Lippi and Frea are compelling antagonists in a story that’s clearly much bigger than the events in Crimson Shroud.  While they do generally fulfill standard heroic archetypes, our main characters are still fleshed out enough to not feel stale.  The dynamic between them as they progress further into this unknown castle just feels genuine somehow.

Much of this is due to the sheer volume and quality of the text and writing.  Alex O. Smith’s localization achieves the typical high standard, effortlessly weaving fantasy elements into realistic intrigue.  The narration takes the form of an overseeing entity, a GM type, who goes to appreciated lengths making sure every detail is dramatically fleshed out.  This goes a long way to help the player visualize the events, as the game engine itself only presents motionless game board pieces for the characters.  This aesthetic (which at first seems like a bummer) is brilliantly presented.  The models didn’t feel lifeless to me.  The character interactions and subtle battle effects did wonders, filling them with life.  In the end it all feels just how I imagine they envisioned it to feel (like a board game), and that’s most definitely a victory for them considering the assets they were working with.

Without the artistic brilliance, depth of storytelling and quality of writing all of this could’ve easily been a boring hack-job of an idea.  Thankfully it comes off more like reading a well-written fantasy novel where you always feel like there’s a wealth of mythology waiting around every corner.  I’ll stay away from spoiling anything story-wise because I think the first ending is more interesting, but I feel confident saying that playing through a second time is a requirement considering it provides a slightly more enhanced version of what is actually transpiring in The Palace of the Rahab.

Based on everything I’ve described here it would be a safe guess to assume this game will can only be enjoyed by a pretty specific crowd with particular tastes.  But I’d actually say Crimson Shroud can reach more than the RPG family.  Since visual novels have exploded in popularity and board games retain their niche, I think a hybrid like this still has a place in a lot of gamers libraries.  The package itself is polished (the music and art are design are both un-fucking-believable), has AAA developer pedigree and the story is well worth hearing.  If YOU’RE ALREADY an RPG fan who hasn’t checked this one out yet, literally no reason not to.  Your time and money are well-rewarded by this secretly cool little experience made by a guy who might not ever freely make a game again.

-LIST UPDATE: CRIMSON SHROUD-

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 

12. Batman: Arkham Asylum

13. Dynasty Warriors 7

14. Brutal Legend

15. Paper Mario

16. Radiata Stories

17. Crimson Shroud
Maybe I am the biggest Matsuno fanboy out there but the miniature size of this game just can’t elevate it into the realm of competition with other, full-sized games…much less big RPGs like Radiata Stories.  It IS better than the worst Zelda game though.

18. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

19. Kingdom Hearts

20. Dissidia: Final Fantasy

21. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

22. Final Fantasy XIII

23. Final Fantasy XV

24. Dead or Alive Xtreme 2

-NEXT BLAST-


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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild


This version of Zelda is definitely not the one you know from recent entries.  It’s an ‘open air’, choose your adventure kind of Zelda.  The narrative starts out as compelling as ever and then abruptly drops your ass out into the wild void of busywork.  The sheer volume of freedom right at the outset is inspiring and unlike anything I’ve played.  It takes your breath away in it’s simplicity.  You walk to a tree or a cliff-face and start climbing not because a tutorial told you to but because you just know you can.  You grab an apple out of said tree because it feels like you should.  It’s intuitive, engaging and awe-inspiring.  It’s the epitome of the silly claim “see that mountain, you can go there”.  And that’s where this game really shines.  Everything feels so effortless at the beginning, in that way that only a game that’s been meticulously and thoughtfully crafted by experts can.  You kinda know that the whole world is a video game constructed by people for you to play because you’re a human with a brain holding a controller but you really feel that you’re simply Link, wandering this ancient Hyrule.  It absolutely encapsulates you.  In these ways, BotW is an unbelievable achievement and success.  Almost every inch of the world is at least somewhat interesting, the controls are wonderful and random exploration turns up almost unlimited rewards.  The feeling this game gives you will carry you extremely far in BotW, maybe forever.

ride like the wind my lovely friend

And what’s so wrong with that?  I mean, as an open world exploration game…nothing.  Those qualities are excellent.  They’re so great in fact, that my personal grievances for this particular Zelda didn’t develop for many hours.  It wasn’t until I finally set my sights on the final battle that my negativity matured into a strong opinion.  I even remember my exact tipping point.  There was a moment of clarity when I realized that, after completing the fourth ‘dungeon’, I just couldn’t bring myself to repeat another session of: 1. unlock a new tower 2. scope out the land and mark interesting locales/shrines I could see and 3. wander generally towards my markers whilst getting distracted every 10 ft and never actually arriving at my goal location.  It became tired, a chore even.  With little to no narrative left to speak of, the force driving my exploration was suddenly absent.  The little quirks and repetitions became more hollow.  The fucking STORMS and RAIN became MORE ANNOYING.  The constantly breaking weapons and seemingly endless korok seeds made me feel like I was running on a treadmill indoors, not taking the final hill as I approached the goal line of a marathon.

Naturally I felt inclined to conquer the last bit of story left, the ever-looming and mysterious Hyrule Castle.  And then I snapped.  Just as I had finished my hour of preparation and began my final hike to the castle…food and equipment all meticulously arranged and at the ready… a lightning storm began.  Poetic?  Not exactly!  The absolute fucking maddening task of OPENING MY FUCKING MENU ONE MORE FUCKING TIME to UN-EQUIP ALL MY METAL SHIT was enough to tweak me.  Could I have slept at an inn?  Sure, why not?  But that was so far beside the point at that particular moment in my Breath of the Wild experience.  Also, that’s simply another rigorously stubborn, time consuming design choice that forces the player into a rigid workaround for the inconvenient crap the game throws at the player.  So I do the menu shit, it’s quicker, and get Link so his ass doesn’t get fucking blasted by lightning and I start running.  Soon enough I run across a cliff that’s my most direct path forward at the moment.  Well, we all know what good climbing in the rain does!  This was my moment.  The things I found novel and interesting at the beginning had now sent me into a rage.  I literally just wanted to get to the end and the game wouldn’t let me.  I felt like I was going to be stuck in fucking Hyrule for another five hours and, in that moment, nothing felt worse.  Of course I made my way through, ignoring the splendor and design of Hyrule castle and quickly ascended to the promised place where I easily ganked the dumbass robo Ganon and his over 9,000 pig form in what is easily the most underwhelming final boss scenario is Zelda history.  Thank god that shit was over.  Turned it off, put the disc back in the case and filed it away for good.

that man

After roughly a hundred hours or so Breath of the Wild taught me a few things.  The most important of which is I don’t ever want to be held hostage by a game.  Which is decidedly different than holding myself hostage, something I frequently do and enjoy.  You like finding these cute little seeds?  Well there’s 900, so good luck.  Shrines are kinda fun right?  There’s not quite 900 but boy it’s sure gonna feel like it after you’re in your 75th one that looks identical to the 74 before and after it!  You want to fully upgrade all of your hearts like every other Zelda game ever?  Don’t spend orbs on your stamina bar then, because you can’t max both.  The game expertly dangles prizes in front of the player only to slide them out of reach every time you get a step closer.  The formula they’ve dreamed up is both maddening and addicting.  It employs a collect-athon mindset in a RPG framework that both seem to be at odds with the open world philosophy.  I can’t continuously be expected to feel engaged with messaging consisting of “the reward is the exploration of the world itself” when I’m on seed 658 and I feel like I’ve checked every area already.  And when you learn that the prize for finding all 900 is a worthless joke item, you feel like you wasted your time.  I wasn’t doing that just to collect seeds assholes.  It isn’t funny.

Secondly, I guess I want my Zelda games to have more story, dungeons, GanonDORF (remember him??) and maybe the FUCKING TRIFORCE than I got in BotW.  A good chunk of the story is told through memories (because Link has amnesia) that are triggered by special locations you have to go out and find.  It’s a great idea in theory.  Everyone will experience the narrative in a slightly different order, some people will see less…some more.  Honestly, the memories were probably my favorite part of the game.  Searching for them based on visual clues with the promise of a narrative reward was, I think, the closest this game gets to being an actual Zelda.  The backstory is interesting, the old heroes are dynamic and the bond they all share (or what little is shown of it) is compelling and heartfelt.  As the memories begin to weave into the present world, it elevates the new characters to a height they wouldn’t be able to achieve on their own.  Because memories are one of the only things in the game that are limited in quantity (there’s only 18!) it gives them a more special feel compared to everything else.  Uncovering one is much more fulfilling than hundreds of korok seeds, making them even duller in comparison.  I wish similar restraint was used in almost every other aspect of the game.

That isn’t to say the story is a home run though.  There’s no real baddie to speak of.  No face to the danger other than a giant monster with no real emotional consequence.  In fact, across the whole game there’s very very little in the way of a personal ultimate objective.  Yeah, Ganon is a big evil spirit monster and the four little versions of him that serve as bosses at the end of the dungeons serve their basic purpose, but Zelda games are built on emotionally driven showdowns.  Instead it seems the game nudges you toward the climax environmentally, fitting the design concept, but not nearly as compelling.  Hyrule castle is covered in black goo and sits in the middle of the world.  Okay, well I guess that’s the objective.  I feel like they were going for a more natural and intuitive approach to suggesting how to tackle their game instead of guiding you along a path.  Sadly, moments like Ganondorf galloping out of Hyrule Castle’s gate on a stormy night and imposing his fucking terror on little kid link in Ocarina aren’t even attempted.  That thirty seconds have more impact on the player and expresses more atmosphere than BotW’s entire geographical world could ever hope to achieve.  After going through four dungeons with nameless mini Ganon clones you knew exactly what you were going face in the castle: a big stupid Ganon that has no impact on anything other than being the biggest monster in the game.

I have many other small complaints…the game suffers from a litany of quality of life missteps that make certain things a chore (that could be fun).  I already mentioned constantly swapping equipment, how about equipment presets for certain environmental situations?  Many things you have to do repeatedly are three clunky menus deep and it just fucking wears a person down.  Ubisoft towers suck…Nintendo should be able to do better.  Rockstar employs a fog of war style map reveal in GTA V, why not copy that?  Weapon durability is fine for a while until it’s not.  The pressure of being in the middle of a tough fight and having your weapon bust is intense the first five hundred times, less so after that.  A recipe catalog would be amazing and should be in there.  My list goes on, honestly.

So, a mixed bag it is.  I like a lot of things about the game and I don’t like a lot of things.  And some of the things I really liked…I started to really not like over time.  By the end, so many things moved into the “not like” category that I ended up with an overall negative opinion brightened a bit by the things I was still really impressed with.  The art style is cool and the world is really inspiring.  I’ll never forget wandering into new areas and the sense of exploration I felt, or the freedom.  This version of Link and Zelda are great and the NPC characters are too.  It just didn’t feel enough like Zelda to me.  I know, I know…it’s okay for things to change and evolve.  Trust me, I get it.  I just prefer my Zeldas to be more Wind Waker and less Metal Gear Solid V.  I want real dungeons, real villains and real triforces.  Maybe on their next attempt they will stick with the majesty of what they created here and plug back in some of the traditional elements that were left out.


-LIST UPDATE: THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: BREATH OF THE WILD-

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 

12. Batman: Arkham Asylum

13. Dynasty Warriors 7

14. Brutal Legend

15. Paper Mario

16. Radiata Stories

17. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
BotW is an impressive new take on the open world genre with little else going for it.  The story is the worst in the series and the enormous amount of busywork and lolopenworld stuff just isn’t all that acceptable to me, especially coming from a company that has made a name for itself by ignoring modern day gaming tropes and usually inventing their own shit.

18. Kingdom Hearts

19. Dissidia: Final Fantasy

20. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

21. Final Fantasy XIII

22. Final Fantasy XV

23. Dead or Alive Xtreme 2

-NEXT BLAST-

Dead Rising

dr-box-artwork

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.

dr-jessica-mccarney

-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-

lozbotw-expansion-pass-art

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!

Vagrant Story

I can honestly say that Vagrant Story is and forever will be the best video game I have ever played, comfortably unchallenged until the internet comes crashing down in the Robot Wars of 2098.  Vagrant Story is the reason I made this fucking blog in the first place.  It is the exact definition of everything I wish video games were.  I’m not personally setting it above the rest in some arbitrary listing, it did that itself.  And not just a little bit.  Vagrant Story is so far ahead of every other game that it’s not even a speck on the horizon for every single other game to wish it could see.  My personal experience with it was nothing short of life-changing.  When the credits rolled, I was different.  You may scoff at these statements and wonder how a video game can change someone’s life.  I assure you that the only reason you can’t grasp the gravity of what I’m saying is that you haven’t played Vagrant Story.  Not completely your fault I guess…not many people played this masterpiece.

So what makes this game so spectacular?  Did I mention that this is a Yasumi Matsuno game?  That’s a good start…but this review needs some structure before I go on a stream of consciousness rant of adoration and embarrass myself.  Most games can be adequately summed up by examining a standard list of criteria:

Gameplay
Music
Story/Script/Dialogue/Translation
Graphics/Presentation

There are then, I feel, more subtle categories that aren’t game-breakers but can either elevate or subdue the experience in general:

Tightness of controls
Camera
Pacing
Atmosphere/Art Direction
Complexity

It seems to me that most games can hit home runs in some of these areas whilst leaving the others to just get by.  Gears of War: great graphics, stupid story.  ICO and Shadow of the Colossus: great story and atmosphere, bad controls and camera.  There are exceptions to the rule and these examples usually typify what we think of as ‘classics’.  Half-life, for instance, excels in every category.  Zelda would be another.  The main basis for my argument on why Vagrant Story is just that damn good is not only does it drop a nuke on my little theory, it redefines many (if not all) of these categories in the process.  Beyond that, it’s thematically many echelons above other games.  The ideas are realized with such class that it refuses to degrade itself in a pathetic attempt to garner a wider audiences appeal.  I figure the best way to get you to understand is to just go through each category and point shit out.

|Gameplay|
Vagrant Story is an action RPG, but please take any sort of conventional labeling lightly.  As Ashley Riot you’re sent to explore the now crumbling (but once flourishing) city of Lea Monde.  You wander around (fully rendered in 3D, fully rotating camera) and fight enemies that inhabit the environment.  When you press the action button you pull out your weapon.  Press it again and you’ll freeze time and project a green sphere out from your body.  If there are any enemies within your attack sphere you have the ability to engage them.  What’s interesting (and awesome) about this is that depending on what weapon type you are currently wielding the sphere will change in size.  Pole arm? OK the sphere is twice as big as a regular sword’s.  Crossbow?  Bigger than the pole arm’s.  Functionally…not 100% necessary, but nonetheless it’s a logical layer of detail.  Now let’s say you’ve got your sphere out and a skeleton guy is inside it.  At this point a little menu will pop up next to the skeleton allowing you to choose an area of his body to attack.  If you have his full body in range you have the choice of attacking:

How do I shot web?

Head
Body
R. Arm
L. Arm
Legs

Attacking a specific area will yield damage and sometimes an area-specific result.  If you attack his weapon arm, his ability to damage you will decrease.  If you attack his legs his movement will decrease, etc.  Alongside each available region is a hit percentage and damage estimate based on how far away you are and what type of armor he’s wearing compared to your aptitude with your current weapon (a very Matsuno thing…that I love).  You will notice differences in soldiers if they are wearing a helmet compared to ones that are not, for instance.  Their damage and hit percentage both will be higher if they aren’t wearing one, indicating more vulnerable areas.  You’ll then immediately swing on your segment of choice when you confirm the attack.  If you hit another button at the point of contact you’ll swing again.  You can attach all sorts of status attacks to the face buttons and once you become more accustomed to the combo system you can achieve strings of up to thirty or more.  I also want to point out that each of the weapon classes that Ashley can use have a different attack animation and timing.  As far as a combat system goes, this one does amazing things in the ways of being accessible at first but growing into something monstrous as the game progresses.  The tactics you will have to employ to best some of the game’s meaner bosses will have you sweating.  Ashley also learns magic and Break Arts, which are more or less special weapon skills that you’ll acquire as you become more learned with a specific weapon type.  Each weapon ends up having three or four total.  The basic combat system in Vagrant Story works incredibly well and as a foundation for future games it would’ve been the beginning of something spectacular.  Can you imagine what a system like this could achieve were it utilized in the current generation of gaming?  Unfortunately this is one trend that didn’t catch on…probably because it’s smart and makes sense.

There is a weapon creation system in this game that is completely out of control.  You can break every single weapon down into two pieces (blade and hilt) and combine any of them together to create a new weapon, which you can then name whatever the hell you want.  There are endless possibilities that I don’t want to waste time discussing because it’s just too complex for most people to appreciate.  If you play it you’ll understand…you’ll also experience the music that plays in the work shops, a thing that I promise will change who you are as a person.

The other aspect of the gameplay would be the exploration.  It’s incredibly fun and rewarding to wander this vacant magical city filled with secrets, branching pathways and mystical enemies.  The size of the game itself is mind-blowing, all things considered, and exploring it is a delight.  Chests are in areas that make sense, like backrooms and storage areas.  You’ll never find a fucking chest sitting out in a street somewhere.  On the contrary, you’ll find stat boosting wines in cellars filled with wood barrels and armor/weapons next to metal workshops.  You’d think that a passing observation but when you look at other games that attempt this level of immersion you can really notice how a small detail like item placement can pull you in or knock you out of said world.    Being that Lea Monde is your typical medieval city you wouldn’t think there would be a huge variety of places to go either, but there is.  You wander down into (previously mentioned) wine cellars and mines dug beneath the city.  You find a city underground that’s moody and filled with ghastly things.  There’s a forest, a cathedral and an endless variety of city streets.  It’s all very real feeling, like it was an actual city at some point in history.  You never stumble into a place that feels like it doesn’t belong, which all goes back to attention to detail and intelligent design.  The layout of the city itself was crafted in such a subtle way that it encourages your mindful wandering but somehow always points you in the right direction.  You’re literally chasing someone through an open city who’s locking doors as they go, and that mechanic is perfectly implemented as an interesting way to progress through the game…never letting you get completely lost or too far off track.  When you meet a door that’s locked with a sigil you don’t have, it’s common sense that you must find another route.

On the technical side, both the controls and the camera work beautifully considering the limitations.  The timing required to continue a combo is a precise science that would just simply not work if the controls weren’t exact.  You will always know that if you missed the timing it’s because you fucked up, not the game.  Vagrant Story just won’t cheat you in that way ever.  How you do and whether or not you succeed is entirely dependent on your skill as a player and your ability to figure out the system presented to you (your success on the final boss is absolutely reliant on you mastering this timing mechanic).  The camera can be rotated 360 degrees with the shoulder buttons and is pulled out just enough so you can see your character and everything you need to see in the environment.  This wouldn’t be worth mentioning but seeing as how this was an original PlayStation game, it’s a big fucking deal.  The next notable Square game to implement anything close to this was Kingdom Hearts (to much less success) on the next generation console.  Hey guys…they had this 3D camera shit figured out in the year 2000.

Music

Ah, yes.  The Music.  There are songs from this game that if they came up on random while I was typing this out, I would probably come close to tearing up.  In an instant I would be transported back to Lea Monde, the scenes from Ashley’s past replaying in clarity.  It’s impossible to write a convincing argument about how good certain music is because people are moved in different ways by it.  The most important thing in video game music, however, is how well it’s sewn into the game itself.  The application of the music in Vagrant Story alone shows the flaw in that statement itself.  It isn’t applied at all.  It’s just there.  It would seem like an insult to say that you don’t even notice the music, but that’s kind of how I feel about it.  Do you notice every blade of grass that’s rendered…or every structural detail carved into the stone walls?  Of course not.  It just exists as a natural piece of the whole.  That is not to say that the music is not exceptionally beautiful or complex…because it is.  So is every rendered blade of grass and stone wall detail.  It is as much or as little as everything else at any given time and supplements every other aspect of the game magically.  Just like certain pieces of dialogue or a beautiful vista, the music will move you in different ways at different times.  The OST is a great listen for this exact reason.  Songs from this game will not only inspire emotion but the feeling of the game in general.  It’ll cause you to remember what the graphics looked like and what characters were saying, because all of these things are related in Vagrant Story.  You won’t just remember a song for being a song, and that’s important to me.  All said and done, Hitoshi Sakimoto created a masterpiece with this score and I would have a hard time naming anything else that was as beautifully implemented or evoked as much emotion as this one does.

Graphics/Presentation

PS1

I guess I would have to say that Vagrant Story has possibly the most impressive graphics on the PlayStation.  A lot of it has to do with the art direction of but the sheer quality and quantity of the presentation as a whole is stifling.  I don’t know half a shit about polygon counts and disc data storage but I usually know what I’m looking at.  Vagrant Story released when 3D gaming was still largely in it’s infancy, and it was doing things that games hadn’t yet accepted as possible.  Of course Mario 64 had blown the fucking lid off the whole damn world with it’s incredible 3D prowess, but in 2000 an entirely 3D game that looked great with a fully functioning camera on the PlayStation just wasn’t commonplace.  Vagrant Story is widely known among people who know as the game that more or less took the PS to it’s limit.  Hell, they’re hesitant today to even try to remake it for the PSP under the Ivalice Alliance tag because of how technically hard it would be.  Are you joking?  They are porting PS2 games to the PSP and doing a damn fine job of it, too.  This game is so fucking enormous and complex that Square has been hesitant to remake a PlayStation game to the PSP, ten years and countless technological advances later.  They instead smartly opted to release it as a PSN title that can be saved onto your PSP directly, and the game is honestly no better for it.  Anyone seen that quote from David Lynch talking about watching films on your cell phone?  Excuse me, on your FUCKING telephone?  I feel somewhat similar about Vagrant Story on the PSP.  GET REAL!

Story/Script/Dialogue/Translation

*I want to premise this whole section of my review by saying that you can more or less read what I wrote in my FFXII review to understand the sort of subtle storytelling Vagrant Story employs.  It utilizes the same mature style of presentation that doesn’t hold your hand or explain everything to you.  It’s a game made for adults by adults that requires you to have the ability to interpret concepts and emotion on your own.  So yeah, no point in going over all that again.*

Vagrant Story shines brightly in all four titles of this category and today should stand as shining examples of how to tell a story in a game.  The dialogue itself was translated from Japanese into Old English thanks to Alexander O. Smith.  His work on Vagrant Story was described as “unparalleled“ and “unprecedented” by his peers and it’s true.  At a time where other much higher budget SquareSoft games were committing atrocious translation errors like “this guy are sick”, Vagrant Story weaved beautiful language together with emotion to flesh out characters the like of which had rarely been seen before or again after.

Commander Grissom: Where did he go?
Jan Rosencrantz: Through the wood, he says. You will follow him?
Commander Grissom: I must avenge the foul murder of my brother, Duane.
Jan Rosencrantz: Of course you must. But be wary, your foe is strong.
Commander Grissom: God is stronger.

FUCKING BOOM.


The story itself covers themes of history, magic, religion, politics, family, war, memories and redemption, but somehow manages to entwine them together so thoughtfully that the lines that separate them are blurred.  I would absolutely love to simply describe what this game is about.  It’s a journey that takes you many places but stays realistically within the boundaries of itself.  It never preaches at you, it’s not some sort of contrived commentary on the real world like it so easily could have been based on the subject matter.  It poses real philosophical questions and puts the characters into dark situations that invoke deeper personal inquiry.  Our antagonists aren’t ‘evil’ and our heroes certainly are not saints.  Our man Ashley is on a revealing road of discovery that has a purpose…a true purpose, and when and how he gets there is the entrancing tale us players take with him.  I will absolutely never forget the moments leading up to and the ending of this game.  Because of the excellent pacing and storytelling you could just feel yourself getting closer to the end.  The events were increasing in potency, as were the boss fights.  When you find Sydney lying bloody in the candle-lit room at the top of the cathedral, you just know.  You know everything, and you can feel it.  This story was coming to and end and you knew it.  The two-stage final boss fight is separated by one of the most effective cutscenes in a video game.  Top it off with a superb ending and credit sequence that embodies everything about the game, music…characters, story and you are left pondering the bomb that just went off in your life.

In concept and execution Vagrant Story is unmatched.  It should have been the pillar with which to build a new day for gaming.  We look at Gears of War and Resident Evil and Grand Theft Auto as games are ‘hardcore’ and ‘mature’ but in reality these games are just simply made to cater to what the fourteen year-olds that comprise the majority of Xbox Live think is ‘cool‘.  In one magical moment sometime in the year 2000 a little known, somewhat obscure team from the RPG powerhouse of the world were able to create their dream project without the shackles of popular ideas.  Long before Bioshock “invented” atmosphere and plot in video games and years before every single fucking game in every single genre adopted RPG elements, there stood Vagrant Story.  Before the concept of DLC and trilogies destroyed ‘complete’ games on the day of release (why put it in there NOW when we can just release it later FOR MORE MONEY) Vagrant Story was an encapsulated experience that offered what now would be ten games worth of content…and an ending that didn’t leave shamelessly leave itself open to a sequel.  It was released and then almost immediately lost forever into obscurity.  Sure it was critically acclaimed.  Sure it eventually became a greatest hits, but so does every fucking Square game.  Thinking on what it could have taught us about how to make games is almost a depressing idea.  Most of the progressive ideas about it were not really shunned, but not credited as the advances they really were.  We can only dream of what ’mature’ today would’ve meant had the lessons shown to us by Vagrant Story were accepted as ideal.  Imagine a video game world where adult themes meant real philosophical dilemma and not naked girls, mindless murder or reiterating junior high sociology class.  Sadly, its greatest achievements are also its biggest downfall, there was no real way to market it and the weaker-willed player would just accept it as some harsh, cold and distant concept which wasn’t worth the pain of enduring.  Too obscure…or too hard.  Vagrant Story is the exact definition of what the term ‘ahead of its time’ means.

Ashley spends his entire journey traveling through Lea Monde only to find that at the middle stands a beautiful cathedral towering above the rest.  It was the centerpiece, the spirit of the city.  Its purpose and luster was now lost to time and wear, but deep within it still held the secrets and the splendor of the past.  Under a coat of dust lay something more stunning, more radiant than all that surrounds it.  Sad and old, cold and dark.  Forgotten, but full of mystery and magic.  He must explore this place and he must explore himself.  At the top of the cathedral he would find the end of his story… but more importantly, answers.
Click here to see where Vagrant Story placed in my Master List!