Final Fantasy Record Keeper

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Dr. Mog better crack the whip on this kid!

I used to be able to proudly say I’ve never been caught in the throes of a mobile free to play game. The only ones I had on my phone were mainly for my son that he plays solo or we play together.

Until Final Fantasy Record Keeper became a thing.

Now I can’t stop playing. It’s like Square-Enix wrote us longtime Final Fantasy fans an apology letter that says, “We realize every Final Fantasy game that we’ve put out in the last 10 years has sucked balls. Here, have a kick in the ass with this nostalgia boot.”

Here’s the concept: An annoying new child character who you will remove from the party at the earliest opportunity works in the Royal Archives as a keeper of the paintings that preserve the stories of what we know as Final Fantasies I-XIII. Then bad things happen for reasons unknown, and you get to delve into the paintings to restore the stories and recruit the characters to help you in your quest!

As of writing this blog post, we are now able to relive parts of Final Fantasy I, II, IV, V, VI, VII, and X in North America, with many more to follow. Diving into these paintings to do the missions as they unlock are  basically the main story quests. These are great trips down memory lane, as we get to fight enemies from their corresponding games in 8-bit, with the music we all remember and the characters we know and love. After clearing a dungeon you get a ranking (Mastery awards you with extra loot) and a screenshot accentuating a recap of what is going on in that realm. On top of earning more loot to go towards upgrading your gear and creating/honing abilities, mastering a stage unlocks its elite counterpart. As of right now I don’t think I’ve even cleared half of them yet. Yes, they’re that hard and require that much grinding.

And that’s not all! Record Keeper also incorporates daily dungeons where you can earn extra EXP, Gil, or materials depending on the day of the week. Daily dungeons are offered in easy, normal, or hard difficulties so anyone can partake in them.

But the most exciting features of all are the events. Periodically, events are released that typically allow players to recruit new characters and get useful items. There are two events active as of this writing: Countdown to Sector 7, where you recruit Aerith and grind for magicite shards to turn into Dr. Mog for goodies, and Monster in the Lethe, a trip down FFVI memory lane where we get to recruit Terra! These are timed events, usually around for 1-2 weeks, so you gotta get them while the gettin’s good. If not, you will most likely lose out on your chance to recruit these characters for quite a while.

All F2P games have a gimmick that encourages the player to spend real currency to get ahead in the game. FFRK is no exception, I’ll admit, but at least it doesn’t feel as problematic as, say, Panda Pop. Nor do you have to pay money to get rid of frustrating ads that spam your screen in other F2P games. One highly-sought after item in FFRK is Mythril, It has multiple purposes, but the main thing I use it for is to do rare relic pulls. If you acquire 5 Mythril, you can use them for a shot at acquiring super rare character specific weapons.  So far I only have Wakka’s 5-star weapon, but it immediately transformed him from a punk to a pro. And I haven’t even leveled it up yet! Needless to say, if you’re impatient to get more Mythril (or, like me, frustrated with all the crap you’ve been getting) you can spend real money to gamble some more. I spent $9.99 to get 3 relic pulls, and it got me Wakka’s weapon and a Genji Shield. Totally enough to satiate me… for now.

So, not only is Record Keeper the first F2P game I’ve become addicted to, it’s also the first I’ve spent real money on.

I honestly don’t know how anyone growing up playing these games could NOT like it. Record Keeper is definitely the most addicting FF game I’ve played in years. It has the endearing 8-bit music and sprites, the turn-based system that I miss, and a steady stream of content and grinding that keeps me coming back for more. I can guarantee that as long as DeNa and SquareEnix keep supporting this game, I’ll keep playing it.

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Final Fantasy XV Demo First Impressions

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Feast your eyes on the latest computer-rendered J-pop boy band!

Hubby and I played through the FFXV demo offered with Final Fantasy Type-O a week ago. It supplies hours worth of content to familiarize yourself with and practice the battle system if you’re so inclined. Unsurprisingly, they’ve completely abandoned turn-based battle mechanics for an action-RPG free-for-all open map style. At least FFXIII pretended to be turn based. But, sigh, it seems that SquareEnix aren’t interested in keeping that tradition alive.

As you’ve probably seen in articles or heard in discussions, the cast of playable characters is a sausage party. No tacos allowed. The player controls Noctis, some sort of Prince, and guides around his infuriatingly character trope-filled bro squad. Their outfits are offensive and obnoxious, but not more than the only female character you have meaningful interactions with; she’s a female automobile mechanic who dresses like Megan Fox in her introduction scene in the first Transformers movie. Apparently it’s acceptable in this newest Final Fantasy world for women to show up at work in a GARAGE with their T&A hanging out.

So anyway, we’ve got a prince on the run or something with 4 obnoxious dudes and a broken down car. In order to raise the gil necessary to get it fixed, they decide to chase after a bounty. This particular bounty is on a mean ol’ disfigured, blind in one eye Behemoth. Don’t let his worthless eye and missing horn fool you; he still stomps the floor with these rank amateurs. Then he has the audacity to make you stealth follow him back to his lair.

Yes, you read that correctly: in a demo that, I assume, is supposed to make you WANT to purchase a game upon release, they incorporate a stupid “follow this AI and if it detects you, you have to start over” segment. Are you kidding me?! I kinda wanted to boycott the game more for that than having no good excuse for omitting playable female characters, but then my husband went and pre-ordered it anyway.

Why did he pre-order it?

Not because of the combat system. It’s limited in the demo (when characters level you’re reminded that techniques aren’t available) but you still get a pretty good idea of what it is about. While it isn’t terrible, it is needlessly complicated. It takes a little getting used to, plus the lock on doesn’t really work. The menu says it’s a lock on, but it sort of just moves the camera in the enemy’s general direction. It doesn’t follow them or anything useful like that.

And we’re certainly not in it for the character customization. From the looks of it, the player is only able to control Noctis in combat, and he’s the only character you can equip or do anything with. I don’t think it’s just the demo; I seem to recall reading something about this development decision earlier. If that’s the case, I’m not too crazy about it. We all know how reliable companion AI is in most video games. *Insert eye roll.*

I was at the point where I was getting the similar “Another game with boring, padded map exploration” vibes, about ready to write off FFXV as something not worth more of my time, when this happened:

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Take a close look at his clenched left fist…

Then this happened. Ramuh descended from the heavens to give the Behemoth, (and from the size of it, the entire friggin’ continent) a hefty dose of Apocalypse-style Judgment Bolt. It was enormous and absolutely beautiful. It was the way I envisioned summons should have always been. The most grandiose spectacle I’ve seen in a Final Fantasy game in a long time. After Ramuh had his way with the Behemoth, both of us were staring at the TV in shock, incapable of saying anything besides “Oh my God,” and “That was f***ing awesome.” Having played FF games in their 8-bit glory, this astounded us.

Ramuh’s impressive entrance aside, the demo was so-so. After Inquisition I’m really leery of games with a lot of map wandering. I suppose this means I’ll be playing FFXV for the summons and my franchise loyalty that refuses to die, no matter how many times I try to kill it.

Retro Review: Final Fantasy VII

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I still don’t know how his scrawny arms swing that sword.

This review is months in the making. My friend/co-blogger Sara and I get together about once a week for mommy time and kid play dates. Once upon a time, I discovered she’d never played Final Fantasy VII. As you can imagine, I was shocked and appalled, and told her she had no choice but to play it through with me. Even if it would take months.

And it did.

But it was so worth it.

As most of you probably know, FFVII is almost 20 years old. And boy, does it show. Playing this game again as a jaded adult makes its production flaws and outdated graphics/music even more obvious. The weird, blocky polygons just seem so awkward compared to FFVIII, Chrono Cross, or any other RPG from the Playstation era. FFVII does have some of the most iconic boss battle music EVER (I had to crank it for “One Winged Angel” even though Sephy didn’t survive long enough to blow the universe up on us). But for every catchy song that stands the test of time, there’s another little ditty that makes you feel like your ears are bleeding.

When I say “production flaws,” I guess what I really mean is “terrible translation flaws.” Please speak up in the comments if you disagree, but I find the dialogue really hard to follow and make sense of half the time. This typically results in me scratching my  head and wondering how the characters drew the completely illogical conclusions that they did throughout the course of the game. My friend Sara is the kind of person who asks WAY too many questions. Oftentimes, my only response to her inquiries about what what going on or how things were happening was, “Because reasons. Now shut up and play.” It doesn’t help that some majorly important background information is completely optional and easy to miss (like Vincent’s connection to Sephiroth or Cloud and Zack’s plight.)

Then there’s the multitude of typos and grammar issues. I’m a reader (and like to think I’m a writer) so they’re really distracting to people like me. Nothing is more annoying and mood-breaking than reading a typo during a scene that’s supposed to be pulling at my heartstrings. When Aeris dies, Sephiroth hints at Cloud’s true identity, then the screen goes black and he says, “Becauase, Cloud, you are a puppet.” I think that’s the exact typo, but I could be wrong. Anyway, when there’s no music and literally nothing else to look at besides that one sentence, it glares at me like a deer in the headlights. Especially because it makes me chuckle at the misspelling when I’m supposed to be either sad that Aeris got shanked (Yeah right, more like ecstatic she won’t be wedging herself between Cloud and Tifa anymore) or contemplative Sephiroth’s words and what the hell Aeris thought she was accomplishing.

My other favorite typo is the prompt screen during the Battle Arena. When the player is asked if they want to continue to the next round, they have to select “Off course!” instead of “Of course!” I’m still trying to figure out what that means. Off course? As in off-road monster truck driving or something?

Another ongoing laughter-inducer is the really, really bad translated-from Japanese-to-English ebonics. They take multiple (and mostly unsuccessful) jabs at utilizing slang, but Barrett’s dialogue is absolutely hilarious. Couple that with the blatantly obvious stereotypes and you’ve got comedic gold; if you’ve got the same depraved sense of humor my friends and I have, anyway. I don’t know if Japanese culture has many of the same stereotypes against black people as American culture does, but seeing as how they really laid on thick the absentee father/short tempered/completely clueless shticks, I don’t see how it could possibly be a mere coincidence.

Speaking of depraved humor, did I mention we opted out of utilizing the characters’ given names for less… conventional names? Some of them are too dirty to mention, but I strongly suggest playing through the game with Aeris’ name changed to “Some Slut.” Trust me, you won’t regret it. In fact, you’ll probably be taking screenshots of all the great quotes.

While Final Fantasy VII does have a great story (when you can make sense of it) and memorable characters (and by “characters” I mean Sephiroth and stereotypes), the area in which it truly stands the test of time is the battle system. As much as I love Final Fantasy VIII, for example, you’ll never hear me say, “Gee, I loved spending 10 minutes drawing 100 magic spells from enemies whenever I was in a new zone. Drawing magic spells during a super important boss fight totally didn’t detract from the urgency or mood. They should bring that back!” But the materia system is something I bemoan current games for not emulating. The materia and equipment set-ups in this game seem limitless. It encourages the player to experiment and constantly swap materia around. You never know what uber-powerful combinations you’ll find.

You’ll need the materia combos that make you feel invincible if you plan on taking on the Weapons. I can’t say Sara and I participated this time around, but FFVII really takes the cake when it comes to having multiple, challenging boss battles. I took on Ultima Weapon, despite how stupidly annoying chasing it around the world map was. It seriously would fly around aimlessly for over five minutes at a time. I kept purposely bumping into it on the Highwind, hoping the impact would jar it into doing something. Seriously, what a stupid time sink. It’s almost as much of a stupid time sink as reloading the game over and over when your Chocobos don’t make the right Gold Chocobo breeding fodder. There is absolutely no way anyone figured out how to breed a Gold Chocobo on their own unless they had  a whole lot of time on their hands and dumb luck.

As an aside, the Knights of the Round materia made me very grateful Final Fantasy X incorporated the option of turning off summon animations. Holy crap.

I’m going to admit that I’m a bit of a poser. While I’ve played through FFVII 6 or 7 times by now, I haven’t ever killed Ruby Weapon. It’s on my to-do list, really. But with how long it took Sara and I to plow through the plot on a “Three hours a week if we’re lucky” schedule, and sacrificing Dragon Age II time with Steve to do some optional grinding, I figured it wasn’t happening this playthrough either. I’m keeping this save file on my PS3 so Steve and I can kill Emerald and Ruby later when we’re between games, but for now they can continue aimlessly wandering the planet.

What do you guys think? Does FFVII stand the test of time? As someone who has quite a bit of nostalgia attached to it, I’d say so. And the factors that don’t stand the test of time stand in as comic relief even though they weren’t originally intended to be. I posed the same question to Sara, who was experiencing this ground-breaking RPG for the first time, and her response was something like, “Well, it brings a whole new meaning to the ‘length versus girth’ debate.”

Yes, I’m paraphrasing.

Lightning Returns

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Lightning strikes way too many times!

   This month brought the end of the Final Fantasy 13 trilogy that I’m not aware many of us requested! This game is less than a month old, so I won’t touch on plot specifics. How many of us still play JRPGs for their plots, anyway? That’s a whole other beast, for a different post. Instead, this post will be focusing on the gameplay elements of this, well…game.

I imagine creating video game trilogies is a slippery slope, for a variety of reasons. You have to create a cohesive world, a tangible story that spans not just the typical forty hours, but upwards of a hundred, bare minimum. When you’re visiting the same base cast over the course of three games, you could rightfully expect to see considerable growth in the cast. Storytelling aside, however, I think we can expect the same consistency in gameplay elements. I’ve spent extensive time in FF13, I could stomach only one playthrough of 13-2, and am 3/4’s of the way through my Hard playthrough of LR. That being said, this has to be one of the most inconsistent trilogies I’ve ever played.

The battle system had a fair bit of tweaks between 13 and 13-2, but it was still reminiscent of the system that (in my opinion) was a remarkable evolution of the ATB system. Lightning Returns takes things into a wildly different direction by eliminating the rest of the party. With a few exceptions, you tackle the task at hand completely alone, and the Paradigm Shift feature has been replaced by letting the titular Lightning change her outfits and abilities mid-battle. This makes the loss of versatility that a full party would provide a bit less of a sting, and adds a fair bit of customization in giving you (almost) free reign over what parameters and abilities each outfit has. Each garb has, on average, one or two abilities “locked” onto the garb, around which you base the garb’s role. No more Ravager, Saboteur, Commando…you can build a magic-centric role that specializes in debuffs, but has an AoE elemental spell in to boost the Stagger gauge and deal damage. Your melee bruiser can leave a spot available for Deprotect, so he isn’t reliant on another role to optimize his damage. It’s an interesting twist on the battle system, and considering their insistence on limiting you to one character I’d say it works well. I recall statements earlier in the game’s development claiming it eschews the traditional turn-based system in favor of being more action-oriented. I was a bit skeptical when I initially heard this, but when I played the demo I was pleasantly surprised. When I hear “action-oriented RPG”, I think Kingdom Hearts. This game retains most of its ATB system, and despite missing two party members, it retains the structure of its predecessors. It crept toward the realm of ARPGs in a few ways, namely time-based attacks and defenses, and the ability to move in combat. Regarding the former, plenty of RPGs have incorporated timed attacks and defenses into their gameplay; Super Mario RPG and the Shadow Hearts trilogy, to name a few. Regarding the latter, Lightining’s movement speed is so slow that with the exception of a few attacks, the movement aspect does little more than keep all enemies in frame so you can time guards.  You get a select few abilities that displace Lightning in a select direction and can make for some crafty dodges, but the movement aspect sees little use otherwise. I found myself treating the game as its predecessors and disregarding the movement speed due to its slow rate. If I come back to Lightning Returns, I’ll experiment with Fatal Sweep and Evade (displacers) and Sniper’s Gloves (long-distance damage boosting accessory), but the abilities were simply too infrequent to give accolades to the movement system.

Compared to its predecessors, the amount of customization in Lightning Returns absolutely DWARFS the previous two games. Aside from the aforementioned role customization, they imported the cosmetic Adornment system from 13-2. Instead of putting a wind-up knob in a Behemoth’s skull, however, it’s Lightning’s! I’m not sure if that’s better or worse. Some of the adornments mesh very nicely with the myriad of outfits, others will never see the light of day.  The garbs themselves have a surprising degree of color customization, as well. On more than one occasion I found myself changing the outfit colors to match my hat, hair ribbon, or absolutely fetching Tonberry lantern. Lots of fun there, to be quite honest. Aside from a garb’s default colors, you can save three different custom color layouts. You also have a limited amount of customization with passive bonuses on abilities, but I’ll comment on this later.

Now, things are going to get a lot less pretty. The not-so-awesome changes, and the could-have-been-so-much-better changes. The battle system change brought with it a couple of baffling side-effects. Let’s start from the beginning…one character. You control Lightning as she performs her duties leading to the end of the world.  I can understand why you control her alone at the beginning, but as the main quests progress I see little reason why you must engage the rest of your crusade alone. To add insult to injury, the NPCs that could very well be flushing out a party and adding gravity to your quest can be found sitting around their towns, doing absolutely nothing.  When you spend the entirety of the first game banding together against a cruel fate, and the entirety of the second game amassing help from creatures to fight your way through time…why are people just sitting around town letting me do all the work? A little effort here, guys.

But the down and dirty is that you do, in fact, control one character. Which means one death is the end of the fight, unless you use consumables to revive or valuable EP to Arise. The three different active garbs have varying HP values, so your HP can fluctuate wildly as you switch from garb to garb. The biggest point of confusion is the withdrawal of Cure spells. You have a few quirky ways to restore your health, as well as the standard potions (in limited capacity). You could also opt to use your limited EP to heal, but with the other uses of EP it’s difficult to expend it on healing. In Easy mode, you gradually restore health outside of combat. It is confusing to me that, with the drop to a single character, why they would tear the staple healing spell from your repertoire. You’ll be glad to know that the game is balanced enough that Cure spells aren’t -required-, but it’s yet another omission that ostracizes the game from its predecessors.

Yet another violent jarring from what we’ve been accustomed to, is the time limit. Yes, the elephant in the room.  At first, the time limit put a whole lot of stress and pressure on me; you finally cut the reigns and let me do things by the beat of my own drum, but impose a time limit on me? By its very nature, it discourages exploring the open world they finally incorporated. And to an extent, that’s true…until you learn to abuse an early-gained ability called Chronostasis. This is the reason why it’s so difficult to warrant spending EP on Curaga (unless you’re playing on Easy mode…you’re swimming in excess EP, then). You can chain Chronostasis, yes…but then you’re limiting your EP expenditure to remove an arbitrary time limit, which means you aren’t checking out all the other abilities. I’m almost through the game twice and haven’t touched a handful of the abilities. I’ve only used Army of One on accident. When you put a death counter over the head of the player, a lot of us are going to clutch our EP for “oh crap” moments, even when it’s clear they won’t be needed.  I understand the story’s reason for putting a doomsday clock, but it could have just as easy tackled the day situation the way RPGs have for years; days end when you sleep at an inn, or in this case trigger an ability to return you to the Ark and end the day. The story gets its sense of impending doom, and the gamers wouldn’t have been frustrated and rushed through their first playthrough.

I have two huge grievances with gameplay elements of this game, and I’ve saved them for last. First, the levelling system. Talk about a huge step backward.  FF13 is tied with FF10 for what was, in my opinion, the best levelling system in the series. Customization from the ground up, right down to stat distribution as you level. You can beef up aspects according to what role the party needs at any pending obstacle, it was great. Then, FF13-2 completely gutted and dumbed down the system; it was disappointing, but still bore some resemblance to 13’s Crystarium. Then Lightning Returns came along and completely crapped on any sort of customizable character growth with their 3-point fetch-quest-based level system. Instead of killing monsters to gain points to allocate to stats in different roles, you go buy sunglasses at four PM for someone whose too shy to talk to his crush. Then you get a few HP, a couple points of strength and magic, and move on to foot-racing an eight year old to the train station.  Maybe after that you’re up for fetching a book for a goddamned message board. They call them ‘side quests’, but that insinuates that they are optional. And in a sense, they are…if you’re okay with absolutely zero stat growth, by all means ignore them. But if you want the sense of growing more powerful during your travels, gaining the might needed to overcome increasingly difficult obstacles then, by God, I hope you’re ready to sample food from six different restaurants and become a connoisseur of gourmet foods. Never mind the fact that you killed half a dozen eight hundred pound behemoths getting between towns, that doesn’t mean anything. If you want to increase that magical might, you had better be ready to go plant vegetable seeds! To be clear, I have nothing against quest experience; anything that diversifies how you strengthen your character gives you the option to spice things up a bit. But when the only way to level your stats is to accomplish a handful of bland, uninspired quests, there’s a problem. You discourage grinding, and while I’m all for giving alternatives to grinding for level gaining, just removing it altogether is absurd. The problem leads to an effective stat ceiling, and I’m certain I’m not the only gamer out there who thoroughly enjoys grinding to hilariously overpowered levels and dropping bombs on bosses. FF13 had stat ceilings as well, and I was about as fond of them then as I am now.  The level system was nothing short of a travesty. I suppose it’s just as well, considering grinding would be restricted in the game by way of the new Extinction mechanic. This has its ups and downs; the idea that your systematic killing has a lasting effect is kind of nice. The final specimen of a species is stronger, drops more gil and much better loot, so driving monsters extinct has a certain appeal. Just don’t think too much on the moral implications of what is essentially poaching. The other downside is that as you drive monsters extinct, you drive them extinct. No more farming EP to keep Chronostasis rolling, no more farming specific Abilities on later days, they’re gone until your next playthrough.

While I’m on the subject, allowing players to drive a creature extinct that only drops certain items on later days is pretty cruel. Giving the player no in-game indication that they drop said items later is even more cruel…unless I was mis-reading it, I had items listed on the bestiary page that were greyed out. I assumed I was unlucky and kept farming for said item, until the creature was extinct. I hopped onto a message board, only to find that they only drop those items on Hard mode. Oh, okay then. Two or three EP sources extinct and I had to rely on the internet to tell me what was going on? It seems inconsistent, because I’ve had other greyed out items drop; it was a matter of not yet acquiring the item. That makes sense. I can understand that you want to strong-arm us into a replay, but would it have killed you to leave the item drop spots blank, so I don’t farm them into extinction? Having to budget time and freaking monsters as a resource is bad enough, I’d have liked a bit of consistency in when I’m farming for something you won’t even drop in this game mode.

Speaking of forced replay value, my second biggest gripe is that they took the fun out of levelling; that’s pretty awful, but I soldiered on. In FF13 and FF13-2, you level your characters and their weapons and accessories alongside them. In Lightning Returns, you can upgrade weapons and shields, too! That is, after you’ve already beaten the game. Yes, in New Game +, you unlock the ability to do what you could do right at the beginning of the first and second FF13. In the same game that they absolutely eviscerated a decent level system, they also tore the ability to level your equipment until you’ve already beaten the game once. In a game whose overlying theme is restriction restriction restriction, expecting your players to stick around for a second playing is more than a little presumptuous.

The cons outweigh the pros, but when you get over the disappointment of what it could have been had it kept the strengths of the previous games, it’s mediocre in its own merit. If you’re on the fence, give it a few months; you will definitely see a sharp price drop.

My Ten Favorite Video Games

Here it is, ladies, gents, and everyone in between. My Top Ten! I had a hard enough time choosing ten games to name above all the others that I’ve played, so I did not give them set rankings. Games, like all other art mediums, cannot always be fairly compared to each other due to their stark differences. A critic worth their salt isn’t going to rate an oil painting with the same criteria as an ice sculpture. Therefore, I surely can’t say an action game is better than a puzzle game because the bases for comparison are vastly different, except for the basic fun and immersion factors. What this means for my list is that I tried to get a comprehensive collection from different genres. I could easily (and maybe later do) a 10 favorite RPGs list because that is the genre I play the most of. But I think a more varied list appreciating other game genres is appropriate and more reflective of my gaming experiences. So, without further adieu…

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Super Mario Brothers 2

I love me some old school Mario games, and none so much as this title. It’s a Doki Doki Panic revamp, making it a black sheep in the Mario-verse, but I love it. Whenever I get a hankering to play an old Mario title, it’s almost always SMB2. You get to play as Princess Toadstool, and not the joke Princess Peach in Super Princess Peach who makes the feminazi in me rage. No, Princess Toadstool gets down and dirty with the boys in this game, throwing enemies around and kicking butt without a stupid parasol and PMS freakouts. Oh, and did I mention she can hover? If you cheat with a Game Genie (and oh, cheat I did), you can enter a code which makes her fly for entire levels if you so desire. Ideally, you would choose the most suitable character for each level I guess. But screw that, I only play as Princess!

After all these years, I can still do many levels with my eyes closed (like that level in world 4 where all the Beezos are flying at you, and if you don’t want to get hit you need to do a well executed series of jumps, ducks, and ducking while jumping), and I still remember where all the warp “pots” are. I liked not being on a timer in this game. It gives the player more time to explore and learn the areas. I mean, who didn’t try digging up every single square of sand? Or seeing how long they could bait the Phanto with a key before getting hit? As quirky as the enemy designs were, for the most part I think they’re pretty cool and unique.

I will also never forget my reaction when the Eagle-mouth-doorway-thingy dislodged itself and started trying to attack me! I almost shat myself. It was such a great moment, I only have one other old school game moment that compares, so I guess I’ll do that game next.

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Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening

I like my old school 2D Link adventures. Another black sheep I guess, since it’s pretty much an alternate reality experience with some Super Mario nods thrown in. Its charming in a strange way and a nice change in pace from saving Zelda, Hyrule, and collecting triforce pieces. Instead, Link is stranded on Koholint Island and must traverse 8 dungeons and collect special instruments to escape (Play 8 magical instruments to awaken the Wind Fish? Huh?). How does he know this? A wise owl told him, of course.

So about that ‘young me almost shat myself experience.’ I may have shop lifted, say, a couple of times, from that shopkeeper in the starting town. I don’t suggest you do it. If you do, he KILLS YOU with a LASER next time you go in! Second grade me freaked out and did not play this game again for months. Literally. I could not believe it. What a morality lesson! It didn’t stop me from stealing in real life, but hey, actual WalMart cashiers don’t come at you with laser beam guns. I haven’t tried shoplifting in a Zelda game since, so I don’t know if you get capital punishment for this crime or not in other entries.

Upgrading the wallet, which I always thought was kinda dumb, is absent from this game. I like the weapon and special item selections as well. Collecting seashells was cool and I wanted to get every single one. I definitely ran that poor shovel into the ground. Running into a tree could make rupees or a seashell come out… Oh boy. I definitely ran into every tree too. And, if you poke the sword into a wall and hear a hollow “tink,” then it’ll open up a passageway if you drop a bomb in front of it. I definitely poked every wall possible, too. Thinking back on it, I definitely got my mileage out of that poor Game Boy.

In order to navigate the final dungeon (I.E.- tunnels in the wind fish’s egg) you first needed to use the magnifying glass on the mysterious book in the village’s library that you couldn’t read before. It reveals a series of arrows. So if you get all the way to the final dungeon you’re screwed if you didn’t look at the book and write down the arrows or commit them to memory. I remember carrying around a little slip of paper in my Game Boy travel case with the directional sequence written on it for months. Ah, good times.

If you like the old 2D LoZ games but haven’t played this one, you absolutely need to. It is a very strong entry in the series and shouldn’t be dismissed just because it was on a portable system. To my knowledge, it has been released on Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and you can now download it onto a 3DS via the Nintendo EStore!

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Mega Man VI

I just had to put a Mega Man game on here, and VI is the entry that stole a lot of my childhood (and sanity) from me. Anyone who has played a NES Mega Man title knows the frustrating (and satisfying) feeling of trudging through one of these games. It really can be equated to self-induced torture sometimes. The memorization (which takes lots of repetition for someone like me) and flawless execution required to master some of the levels and bosses in these games is just crazy. And NOTHING matches the feeling of being this close to killing a robot master before dying and having no more lives left. On the plus side, no one will make fun of you for jumping up off the couch and doing a victory dance after finally killing your first Robot Master.

Everything about Megaman VI makes it tower over the other NES entries for me. The levels, the bosses, the music, the weapons, the awesome RUSH goodies. I also love all things Ancient Greek and Greek Mythology. Therefore, Centaur Man is the man. I’m a total dork and still listen to the soundtrack to this game. None of the other Mega Man games can say they’ve earned that level of nostalgia. MMVI is the basis of comparison for all other Mega Man games. You’ll quite often hear me say “That reminds me of such-and-such from VI.” I know I don’t make much sense, since Mega Man VI came after I-V and was criticized as being redundant and lacking originality (a robot master tournament with robots programmed to take over the world? Sounds original to me in a laughable sort of way). I find that criticism a moot point because ALL the Mega Man games up to that point were just rehashing the first game. They all have themed stages with a boss, who, upon defeat, gives up a new weapon that = KILL MODE to a certain boss,  and have final stages you need to traverse after killing all the robot masters. They all have ridiculous excuses for story lines and bosses. And that’s how it should be.

Thanks to the internet and a host of dedicated gamers, replaying Mega Man oldies is less frustrating than the good old days. Robot Master weakness charts are all over the internet. Outside of memorizing frustrating one-hit kills in levels and Robot Master fighting patterns (jump, jump, JUMP ON TOP OF MEGA MAN) the rest of your time is spent playing “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” trying to figure out what each boss’ weakness is. Without the trial and error, you can usually make a chump out of a boss on the first or second attempt… And usually by then you’ll have the level committed to memory like the back of your hand. I realize a lot of gamers would probably pick Megaman II over this one, but it just doesn’t stick with me like VI does. It is harder, not more fun. Besides, charging the Mega Buster is where it’s at.

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Dance Dance Revolution: Max 2

Go on, laugh it up.  Before you totally throw my credibility out the window, let me clarify something here. On my hidden Top Ten agenda, I asked myself “How many times have I or would I replay this game?” If a game can get me to keep coming back for more, it definitely has to be one of my personal favorites. Based on that criteria alone, DDR certainly makes the cut. I have been playing DDR games on and off for over a decade, and I STILL have not mastered every song. I’d say that earns it a metric ton of replayability points. DDR was innovative and creative for its time. And, say what you will about the series, these games got lazy gamers like me off of our arses and sweating like pigs.

The DDR games have changed a little over the years, though the core game play remains the same: Step on the arrows when they reach the top of the screen. Trust me, the execution is more difficult than the concept alludes. However, each entry in the series has different game modes in which you unlock more songs, play modes, or background dancer designs/outfits. I was awfully let down with the PS3 Dance Dance Revolution when I saw it did not have the background dancers. Sure they were silly, but I loved watching Naoki get down with his bad self. There was NO way I was gonna put an EyeCam on top of my TV and stare at my gross, sweaty self. That’s such a teeny bopper “I’m skinny and popular and I’m gonna dance to Britney Spears” marketing gimmick. The DDR games have had to start selling themselves to the mainstream, but I try not to let it bother me too much. I understand they need to sell a certain number of copies to justify making more. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the popular American songs are also the easiest and therefore appealing more to the casual DDR player. But as long as they still include my J-pop and trance beats I shall remain satiated.

I chose Max 2 because it has my favorite song selection (aside from missing “Sakura”), the workout mode works exactly like it should (don’t know why they changed it in the PS3 DDR) and it has some of the most whacked-out fluctuating background designs ever. When I got good enough at “Drifting Away” to start paying attention to what was going on in the background I definitely did a triple-take. It’s trippy, to say the least.

Getting started in the DDR-verse is cheaper than ever nowadays. If you love video games, dance music, and don’t want to go to the gym or track where other people can SEE you trying to sweat off some pounds, buy a copy of the game and a dance pad so you can shake your money maker in the privacy of your own home without a monthly subscription!

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Dead Island

I’ve always loved killing zombies. In the last couple of years I’ve opened up to open exploration games as well. When I explain Dead Island to someone, it is simple: Killing zombies meets open-world exploration RPG, what’s not to love? And there is very little to not love in this game. The developers were jerks and threw in sequences where you have to kill post-apocalyptic gangster opportunists (and I would definitely rank these sections as the game’s weak points) but other than that, and some minor glitches I am hoping will be absent from the sequel, I really have few faults to find with this game. It is absolutely freakin’ awesome. I already wrote a lengthy blog post praising this game, so I won’t bore you with what I’ve already said. All I have to add is that April 23 cannot come soon enough.

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God of War

As I mentioned in my Mega Man VI blurb, I love all things Ancient Greek/Greek Mythology. I also happen to thoroughly enjoy action games and gratuitous violence. The God of War series fits the formula to be considered in my top ten games, and is a shining example of great console exclusives. I have played every God of War release, and am eagerly anticipating the next entry in the series. I’ve partaken in the multiplayer beta for Ascension, which I was skeptical about at first. After spending a couple of nights in the Hercules forum I can say they have done a great job incorporating the GoW battle system and atmosphere in a multiplayer setting.

In these games you play as Kratos, my favorite anti-hero. He is a former Spartan soldier who strives to get revenge on Ares, and later, all of Mount Olympus, and he doesn’t care what he has to do or who he has to kill to achieve his goal. Really, more video games need characters like this. After killing your first handful of innocent civilians you’ll be asking yourself, “Wait, am I the good guy here?” If memory serves, you actually receive red orbs (ability/weapon upgrade currency) for killing them in certain sections.

The pacing in GoW is practically perfect. I don’t like it when games dump fifty abilities on you at the beginning of the game and expect you to be able to learn and execute all of them at once. Nor do I appreciate feeling powerless the entire game, either. In GoW, you will gradually upgrade your magic and life bars via items found in treasure chests (Phoenix Feathers and Gorgon Eyes, respectively) and upgrade your weapons to unlock new abilities for them by opening chests and doing lots of killing! The weapon upgrades make sense and the abilities are usually easy enough to pull off at will. Extra skill is needed for timed parrying, blocking, dodging and counters. Kratos’ chain blades are also one of the coolest weapons ever. Even basic attacks manage to look stylish, and it cuts down on boring running over to the enemy time. There are other weapons besides the chain blades, but they’re hardly worth using until they get significantly beefed up in GoW3.

For all my praising of this series, I will admit I’m not crazy about the super arbitrary puzzles, especially in the first game. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself asking the television, “Who the heck would think to do that?” because I definitely did a couple of times. I also believe, in terms of storyline, the series has run its course. GoW3 was supposed to be the end (and that was after two PSP entries were tacked on) and now there is a new title, Ascension slated for release on March 12. I can’t help but wonder what’s the point… besides milking more money out of consumers, anyway.

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Bayonetta

It was a toss-up between this and Lollipop Chainsaw, but Bayonetta won out due to the superior in-depth battle mechanics and wealth of unlockable goodies that’ll certainly keep gamers coming back for more. Plus, I honestly think Bayonetta paved the way for LC. Aside from having a female protagonist, sexually-laden humor and lots of stylized action sequences, they’re very different so check them both out! While LC deals with a high school girl killing zombies, Bayonetta is, well, a witch who kills angels.

If you like the stylized demon killing in Devil May Cry, you’ll be impressed with the fighting. The games share the same director, Hideki Kamiya, and it shows. But while Dante tries being edgy and hot with his one-liners and falls short, Bayonetta picks up his slack. I laughed out loud all throughout playing this game. The ridiculousness is funny and over the top. If you take all your games with uber seriousness, this gem wasn’t meant for you. I was disappointed near the end when the writers started trying to take themselves seriously. It started loosing credibility to me at that point. The ‘plot’ got ridiculous and didn’t make much sense to me. Hopefully Bayonetta 2 will ride on all the great aspects of the first game: goofy characters, outlandish and fast-paced action, raunchy humor, and awesome enemy designs and take the whole package to the next level.

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Parasite Eve

Reading is another one of my hobbies. When I discovered Squaresoft developed a video game based on an award winning Japanese sci-fi novel, I had to check it out. And, as an added bonus, the main character is a woman– a common theme in my top ten list, you’ll notice before I’m done. If my memory serves, Parasite Eve may even be the first mature-rated game I ever played, but I can’t say for sure. I purchased it at GameStop when I was in high school… way back before they figured out mature movies and video games made us all violent, twisted individuals.

I have to say I really like what Squaresoft did with it. Translating books directly into video games wasn’t as common as it is nowadays and Squaresoft totally pulled it off. The game managed to hold onto the B-movie sci-fi atmosphere while incorporating role-playing and survival game elements. The ongoing tension between the main character, Aya Brea, and the antagonist “Eve,” totally had me reeled in until the game finally explained the precarious bond between them. The “take me seriously” dialogue still sings to my quirky sci-fi loving side. The music is catchy and I still listen to the soundtrack from time to time.

The sexuality rating is largely credited to the “naked” (though she doesn’t have any nipples) and pregnant Eve you fight near the end of the game in an awesome showdown located at the fallen Statue of Liberty. Then, spoilers be damned, you get license to kill her baby. Dead Space and Dante’s Inferno have crossed that bar as well, but PE was definitely my first mutant-baby destroying experience. The Ultimate Being, Eve’s artificially inseminated offspring, is a great example of what a final boss fight should be like in a RPG. He basically morphs… and morphs… and morphs… and morphs again… and even after you dish out a world of pain, he can still one-hit-kill you in the final chase sequence. It’ll have you bashing your head against the wall if you take a wrong turn when the pile of green slime is coming after you, but it is so worth it.

I also love Parasite Eve because it is a solid, rewarding RPG experience that can be completed in less than ten hours. I don’t have all the gaming time I used to have, so this is a great bonus. Plus, if you’re interested in devoting the time, there’s a New Game+ mode so you can keep beefing up your choice gun and armor and tackle the 99 story Chrysler Tower–and earn yourself an alternate boss fight and ending to boot!

In terms of the Parasite Eve fandom, I’ve read the English translation of the novel, watched the subtitled version of the Japanese movie, and played the games. Don’t even waste your time with Parasite Eve 2 and 3. Like a lot of sequels I have gripes with, they tried turning the series into something it wasn’t meant to be. First with PE2 it was trying too hard to be Resident Evil. Then with PE3 it was trying too hard to be, I don’t even know, a fast-paced action game. Or just a bad game, really.

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Xenosaga III: Also Spoke Zarathustra

I’m still a little sore that the Xenosaga series got slashed from the projected five installments down to three. I blame Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Bose, for turning off the core fan base with the absolutely terrible battle system. Which is a pity, because Xenosaga’s strength has always been the story, and Episode II did well in that regard… It was just painful getting from point A to point B.

I’ll admit, the Xeno series isn’t for everyone. The first game in the trilogy, Der Wille Zur Macht, was criticized for the overly generous portions of exposition. Gamers like myself, who played the predecessor Xenogears, knew what we were getting ourselves in for though. For those of you who don’t know what you’re getting yourselves into, try imagining the content of, say, a science fiction fantasy book series that’s about a dozen novels long, each book averaging 700 pages. These books would be overflowing with vast environments, well-written and believable characters. And the plot would be something like showcasing humanity’s struggle to survive alongside cyborgs, realians and clones, all trying to fight off an ‘alien’ threat killing them from another plane of existence.  And none of that includes the even more complicated ‘grander scheme’ going on as well. Throw all of that into a turn-based RPG and you might have a better idea of what Xenosaga is all about.

I really cannot begin to explain the epicness that is the Xenosaga plot. All I can say is that, at times, it seems like you need advanced degrees in religion and philosophy to truly appreciate what these games are doing to your mind. The episode titles are in German, due to heavy borrowing from the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (obviously). There is even a character named Wilhelm in the series, who, well, certainly earns his namesake.

I chose Also Sprach Zarathustra because I found it a harmonious blend of the previous installments. The battle system took the best elements of the first two and created its own beast. Episode III starts off confusing due to the writers trying to wrap up plot points in games cut from production (Namco released a flash video with original scores and dialogue prepared for the cut games in Japanese, and there is a fansub available online titled “The Missing Years,” for anyone interested…) but once it picks up you won’t regret all the time you invested in the series. By the end of Xenogears and the Xenosaga trilogy, the writers had me seriously contemplating pretty much every mystery of the human experience: death, love, religion, sexuality, morality, humanity…. There really are few video games or movies or television shows that I can say the same for. Aside from my last Top Ten entry, this is the only video game that had me bawling once everything was said and done.

Oh, and the musical score is… Wow. The music in all the Xeno games rank high with me, but the soundtrack in Episode III is remarkable.  Yuki Kajiura truly outdid herself with this one.

If I’ve peaked your interest, you can download Xenogears on the Playstation Network for around $10, I believe. It is the Playstation game that inspired the Xenosaga trilogy, and if you like it, you should definitely continue on in the adventure. I’m hard pressed to recommend Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Bose, because the gameplay is tedious and boring. The only thing that got me through were the characters and story: both of which you can read about in Episode III thanks to the Xeno-bible the developers were kind enough to throw in there. Personally, I’m thinking about starting an online petition to get them to make an episode 2.5 so we get to see everything we missed!

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Final Fantasy X

I could have loaded this post with mostly Final Fantasy games, but hundreds of better reviewers have already written everything there is to write about the series. Not to mention that would be pretty boring and best saved for a “Favorite RPGs” post. After a lot of soul-searching I’ve decided upon this pinnacle in the Final Fantasy franchise. In my opinion, FF games rate as either “Before FFX” or “After FFX.” The “Before” games represent the best JRPGs have ever had to offer. “The After,” well, let’s just say something in the magical formula has been missing for quite some time. Final Fantasy X puts the “Final” in Final Fantasy for me.

Final Fantasy X was released when I was in high school. I hadn’t yet saved up the money to buy a PS2, so one of my friends let me borrow his PS2, copy of FFX, and a memory card. I was absolutely hooked. I don’t think my family saw me for two weeks. If I wasn’t at school or work, I was in front of the small TV in my room playing. Completely consumed, I raced through the game because I needed to know what happened next. And when the grand finale came, I cried like a baby; not only because the ending was everything a RPG should have, but because my life now felt empty. I remember collecting myself and aimlessly wandering around the house afterward, unsure of what to do with myself. The empty feeling of returning to reality after completing an exceptional video game or finishing an epic fantasy series always leaves an empty pit in my stomach and tightness in my chest. Final Fantasy X does it to me every time, no matter how often I play it.

It is hard to find many faults in this game. Not only does it feature excellently written characters and dialogue (for the most part), it has an innovative battle system, unique character customization, and a great storyline. Freely swapping characters in and out of battle whenever I want? Yessir! I used to make sure everyone performed an action during each fight to ensure they leveled up equally. It changed everything for me. Turn-based RPGs really should have picked up on it. Staple Fantasy-RPG classes are here as well: White Mage, Thief, Black Mage, etc., but if you put in enough time you can make any character good at anything. Want Auron to pick up the pace? Take him for a trip down Riku’s sphere grid path. Need a backup healer? Throw Lulu down Yuna’s path so she’ll learn some White Magic and get an even higher magic stat!

Final Fantasy X also has Blitzball. Blitzball is the only mini-game (‘mini’ is only an expression at this point) that I fell in love with. FFVII had the Gold Saucer, which I only went back to for the unlockables. FFVIII had Triple Triad (again, only played for the goodies) and FFIX had Tetra Master, which was pointless. Blitzball was rewarding, but it was also FUN. I found myself turning on my PS2 only to play Blitzball. And never did I complain about spending four hours playing just to get a certain item. It was also as customizable as your characters.

Aside from Xenosaga, I don’t think any games match up to Final Fantasy X‘s storyline in my eyes. While I appreciate Kefka (and I’ve been saying it’s about time for another megalomaniac villain), Sephiroth, and FFVIII‘s sorceresses, none of their “save the world from this villain” plots spoke to me like in FFX. In FFX, you are disillusioned throughout most of the game, believing as the rest of Spira believes. Mankind’s punishment is Sin, and the only brief restitution comes in 10 year periods known as “The Calm” after a summoner sacrifices their life for the greater good. However, you eventually learn that it is all an impressively constructed lie. As it turns out, “Sin” itself isn’t the true enemy, ‘god’ is, and the entire system was developed as a means of controlling the populace through false hope and lies– Hey, whaddya know? I just summarized my opinion on organized religion.

In all seriousness, experiencing this turn of events and the ensuing heartbreak between Yuna (who lost her father to said falsehoods and had devoted her entire life to the cause and was prepared to become a martyr for it) and Tidus (we won’t get into his entire story right now) really tied the knot for me and no other Final Fantasy tale quite matches it. It was a close call between this and Final Fantasy VII, but saving mankind from the shackles of their religion won out over saving the world from a demented biological experiment baby with mommy issues in the end. Saving ‘the world’ is done all the time, it was nice doing something different for a change.

And there you have it everyone, let the trolling wars begin! (Heyyy… look at all the great PS2 exclusives in this list~)

Retro Review: Breath of Fire 2

Breath of FIre 2

A couple of months ago, my gaming partner and I decided to pick up Breath of Fire 2. We played Breath of Fire 3, a completely amazing RPG, and made the mistake of thinking that its predecessor would be, I don’t know… enjoyable? Or at the very least a good, nostalgic SNES RPG romp.

Well, it’s not. BoF2 is not fun. Nor is it hardly tolerable. In order to try and make sense of how utterly terrible it is, try conceptualizing a JRPG lovechild between a self-mutilating masochist who can’t figure out which direction to slice their wrist and a 15-year old who thinks they know how to write but can’t even get a positive review on fanfiction.net.

We almost rage quit. Multiple times. This game is so terrible, even my gaming partner who has impressive fortitude and patience when it comes to video games had to consign to putting the classic controller down and taking deep, healing breaths.  Instead of quitting (because that would permanently injure our gamer pride) we took therapy breaks with Lollipop Chainsaw and movies.  There are so many flaws (both technically and conceptually), that it is hard to believe BoF2 even made it through any sort of review process before getting put on the market. At times I felt like the developers wanted me to break my face with the controller and damn them to an eternity of  anal penetration with cumbersome, pointy objects. I have a hard time thinking clearly through my rage when it comes to BoF2. I think the best way to go about this opinion piece is to list everything that makes this game the worst RPG I’ve ever forced myself to play.

1.) CONSTANT PARTY RAPING- When I use the term “party raping,” I mean instances when you have, say, 7 characters to choose from but the game keeps forcing certain party members down your throat. In most RPGs, it happens due to plot purposes. Final Fantasy XIII would be a recent example of having your party forcibly shuffled around for 50-75% of the game because of what is going on with the story. It is to be expected once in a while in a lot of these types of games. Sometimes you are strong-armed into playing one character solo. Again, it is common. BoF2 does this, but does it dishonestly and stupidly.

In terms of plot related party raping (and yes, there are other methods I’ll cover in my next complaint) the two most annoying occurrences were doing solo boss fights with Sten and, later on, Nina. As Sten, you have to go to his hometown and rescue the other party members who end up getting captured. He was immediately pit against a boss who got two turns to his one. Well actually, the bosses’ one turn=two actions, so really, four attacks to Sten’s one attack.  We hadn’t used Sten unless forced to at that point (he’s a monkey with boring abilities and the way he joined the party was just… tacky), so he was a little under-geared and under-leveled. You’d think common sense would dictate that, hey, if they’re going to force a solo boss fight upon a character the player may not have been using up to that point, they’d give the player access to either the other party’s inventory or an equipment store to buy upgrades, right?

Well, such was not the case. You also can’t leave the town. All you get is access to a two floor dungeon with a couple marginal equipment upgrades. And the fights in the dungeon were also a much higher difficultly than they should have been! One lonely monkey vs. a group of three mobs that enjoy “Slamming” him for more hit points than he even has before getting a turn= a very frustrating two hours trying to level up to kill the boss.  And that’s not all! Let’s make him traverse a dungeon all on his own after the boss fight with no heal spell or reliable way to run from even more random fights that can knock you out before you can say “This is f***ing BS!” And I don’t want to hear “Just run away,” because it doesn’t work, or “Use a ‘Smoke’ item,” because if it does decrease the encounter rate, it isn’t by a significant amount.

Something similar happens later on in the game when you have to use Nina, a mage, solo. Her boss fight was laughable after the stupid dungeon they make her go through by herself. We died, repeatedly, and kept popping back up where the rest of the party were offering to help, but just stood there, watching Nina come in and out after every death. It’s not like it would’ve made sense to put enemies with noticeable magic weaknesses in a dungeon when you are ONLY controlling a mage. Yeah, magic is all-around crappy in this game. Another gripe of mine.

I’d prefer the game MAKE me use characters, even if I have no interest in them,  than let me think I actually could choose how to set up my party and punish me for not having the foresight to swap crappy characters in and out to soak up experience (not that there’s a decent way to do so). God forbid they give non-active party members partial experience, or scale the solo boss fights dependent on your level, or supply you with a reliable way to buff the character up before throwing them into their obnoxious solo endeavors.

2.) CONSTANT WORLD MAP BACKTRACKING- The yokel who decided walking back and forth across the world map three dozen times before giving the player access to a Warp spell and without even updating the random encounters needs some lengthy doses of Chinese water torture. I’ll come clean here: one of my RPG pet peeves is being forced to walk by foot across already-explored territory while entering random encounters that offer trivial rewards. BORING! BoF2 took this, coincided it with my party raping frustrations, and showed me a whole new level of rage.

Every character has a different ability they can perform on the world map. You must put that person in the lead, hit the corresponding button, and something different will happen depending on who you’re controlling. In order to access certain areas on the world map, you must have certain people in the party to proceed. See where I’m going with this? So, say you hate Jean because you think he is an insufferable tool and is completely ineffective in battle (which isn’t too far from the truth) but you have to keep letting him in your party because, being a frog and all, he is the only one who can swim to certain spots. Now imagine you spent 15 minutes crossing the world map to get where you wanted to go only to find out you need to turn back around and change your party lineup because you have to put Jean in your party. And then, assuming you go back to the nearest dragon statue to change your party (Dragon statues are the only way to swap active characters and with the ridiculous amount of time spent changing party members there really should have been more of them) and get back on track, you make five more minutes of progress only to find out you need a different party member! But hey, by now Jean will be level 14 and know Warp, so he won’t be quite so useless until you get Bleu. This is what I mean by not being honest about forcing party members down your throat. You don’t even get the decency of a suggestion that it might be a good idea to put so-and-so in the party for the next plot area most of the time.

Just when I thought this was all going to be alleviated once we were able to fly, the game spit in my face again. In order to fly across the world map, you still have to have a certain party member present. Which means, even when finding good item/experience grinding locations, you’re not necessarily going to have the ideal party you want leveling up. And there is no dragon statue to be found on these isolated grinding islands. Tell me how that makes any sense at all.

These frustrations could have easily been avoided if the game would just let you change party members from the main menu. Backtracking would also be less painful if you could run away from fights. The “Run” option uses everyone’s turn and doesn’t like to work most of the time. Even when you are level 25 and trying to escape level 1 Slimes. This is not an exaggeration. I cannot fathom why there is NO character with an escape ability, or a consumable item. Even if it wasn’t 100% I’d take it, because at least the other characters could whittle away at the enemy’s HP. As it stands, you’ll fail running away from a pointless fight three times, then give up and kill the enemy anyway because it seems to be less time consuming. And if you’re fighting a higher level enemy and your life depends on it, don’t depend on getting away alive. You will die and wish you could kill the stupid characters in real life because they “Won’t Run” from fights they can’t win.

So yeah, the developers managed to combine three of my major peeves into one hellish experience:  Constant party raping while walking back and forth across the world map fifty times and fighting the same level 1 slimes over and over again.

3.) BAD TRANSLATIONS- Don’t get me wrong, I like quirky and funny dialogue gaffes as much as the next JRPG player. They tend to have a certain charm to them. Legend of Dragoon is an example of how they can be funny but also tolerable. In BoF2, they are crippling. Debilitating. No one who has a third grader’s understanding of the English language proofread this before giving it the go ahead.  Punctuation and grammar are afterthoughts. When you try to unite your shamans, “No” means “Yes” and “Yes” means “No.” I went around and around the same conversation before I realized that when I was telling her I didn’t want a shaman explanation, I actually had to tell her I did want one, even though I didn’t, I just wanted to do the damn uniting already.

Item descriptions tend to be pointless or unintelligible. When hovering over a sword, the description says, “Is a sharp blade.” …Ya don’t say? A sword is sharp, huh? My gamer senses are telling me the blade is sharp, thanks. What I really want to know is if it has any special properties or elemental attributes. But whatever. One of the accessory descriptions says “Erase the spell.” Um, pardon? I mean, I had all kinds of guesses about what that might mean, but I’d like to think I deserve a little better idea of what I’m getting myself into before putting the thing on. It really should’ve said, “Periodically nullifies magical damage” but something tells me that’s a bit complicated, given the translator’s ineptitude. I’ve also  read conflicting reports online about whether the “Collar” accessory increases or decreases the encounter rate.  Personally, I found my encounter rate to be consistently high no matter what I did.

Want proof no one bothered to read the crap they were putting in this game? Check this out. Anyone who knows Japanese language stereotypes knows that “r” comes out as “l” when they speak English . Well, if you decide to go fishing, the small menu that pops up asks you if you want to equip a “lod.” Seems like they didn’t bother checking on whether “lod” was actually a word in the English language or not. I even typed “lod” into dictionary.com and all I got was a poor translation of a town in Israel. In case you can’t wrap your head around this, when you want to fish and the game gives you the option to “Equip lod/bait” they actually mean ROD. As in FISHING ROD. Not one English speaking person read this, or perhaps they didn’t care to point out the glaring error because even if the game had glorious English it would still stuck. But I still think the morons who thought this was a passable translation should have been laughed out of Capcom after having a fishing “lod” shoved up their buttholes.

All this translation ridiculousness aside, the biggest problem I have with it all is feeling lost most of the time because I couldn’t make heads nor tails out of what the NPCs were trying to tell me, which leads me to my next main complaint…

4.) LACK OF DIRECTION/POOR PLOT- I’ll give the bad translation some of the credit for this. You really can’t expect to play this game for story purposes because when it isn’t being a stereotypical JRPG, it is a convoluted mess of strange sentences and bizarre roadblocks. I hope I’m not forgetting anything, because I’m going to give you a series of events we had to do in order to advance the plot: Recruited a new party member in order to talk to a tree, tried talking to the tree, but he needed a “Dream Pillow” in order to recall something important… we went to where the “Dream Pillow” was located, but none of the citizens would speak with us because we didn’t have some fancy instrument. As it so happened, Monkey Sten knew where to get one so we went to his hometown and proceeded with the solo crap I complained about earlier to get the flute or whatever it was called, went back to the town where the “Dream Pillow” was, then we had to go find some secluded old man and bring him there. THEN we had to return to where we JUST picked up the old man to get an item he needed from his apprentice so we could go INSIDE the fat ruler of “Dream Pillow” town and kill her demonic fat cells. They then gave us the “Dream Pillow,” we went back to the forest and after all that work the absent-minded ancient tree told us the demons were killing the forest.

DA FUQ JUST HAPPENED?!

Saved a queen by turning into microscopic lipid destroyers and clearing out her colon? Un-freaking-believable. All to get a dream pillow from a forgetful tree who doesn’t have a HEAD to rest on said pillow… To be told meany demons were killing his tree friends. I have to say, for my first video game liposuction procedure, it was underwhelming. Ten hours of pointless running around doing completely random fetch quests, and the only hints towards a grander, overarching scheme were demonic fat cells and tree killers.

I don’t always ask to have my hand held throughout an entire game. I know that, especially in older RPGs, there will be times when the game doesn’t give me much to go on moving forward. Sometimes you just have to explore a little bit, talk to NPCs, or follow an old hint. BoF2 doesn’t bother to give the courtesy of even a vague shrug in the right direction most of the time. No cardinal directions, no “check out the mountains,” no “talk to the people here,” no nothing. Most of the time, you’ll complete a dungeon and then sit there, scratching your head, wondering where you’re supposed to go next.

At one point, an NPC said “Go learn about St. Eva.” Which, by the way, is an abbreviation for St. Evan. Everything in this game is abbreviated, which is totally annoying, by the way.  What on earth do you suppose that means? “Go learn about St. Eva.” It means that you have to go to a church and talk to a priest about 20 times until you’ve donated a small fortune. Apparently after you donate a certain amount of money, you get a free bible for your troubles! The priest doesn’t even hint that he’s going to teach you about St. Eva or give you a lifelong donor prize or anything, either. It is all totally random, and I don’t know who would stand there and donate a ton of their hard earned money for no reason. Without the wonderful internet, we would have literally spent hours wandering around between almost every major dungeon and town trying to figure out what the game wanted us to do next.

We also missed the boat on a lot of cool things we could do. Mostly because we had no idea about any of the people we could recruit or things we could do with the TownShip. The first NPC we spoke to who wanted to join our TownShip caught us by surprise. We let him join our cause, of course, but it was to our detriment. It’s one of those systems where there are only a certain amount of people who perform different tasks (carpenter, armory, fishing, etc.) that you can recruit. So if there are two armor sales people and you invite one of them into your town, you’ll screw yourself out of the best armor if you pick the wrong one.  There’s no tutorial or anything about all of this stuff, so you happen upon NPCs and tell them the wrong thing and hate yourself later for it.

Oh, and you can also make the TownShip fly! A flying headquarters, something every RPG needs! Final Fantasy already had the lockdown on the airship thing at this point in time, so it was a unique idea. Well, you need a certain NPC for this as well. Except this NPC can be killed. And boy, did we kill this NPC good. It’s a boss fight, and a boss fight that doesn’t think to give any indication that killing him might be a bad idea. No awkward dialogue, no Game Over if you kill him. Things continue on as normal. If my memory serves correctly, he was begging us to kill him. Should’ve known better than to trust anything a character in this damn game says. By killing him we ALSO ruined our chances of getting the good ending.

So after all that work, we ended up with the bad ending and had to youtube the good ending. In my opinion, the bad ending is more fitting… The good ending is a bit cheesy. But it is frustrating that in a game where the player can unintentionally screw themselves over so much, there is no option to save on a different save file at the dragon statues. And, like I said, no indications or hints or tutorials or anything.

5.) SHAMANS- The shaman uniting system was this game’s one chance at not totally sucking, but they managed to botch that too! The concept is pretty neat. Aside from Ryu and Bleu, all the other characters can unite with shamans you find throughout the game. If you chose the right shaman/s for each character, they transform, get great stat bonuses and a new ability. Katt turns into a hot cat chick, Rand turns into a lame pink pokemon, and Jean turns into a Battletoad-reminiscent mech. And there IS a tutorial for this, which you’ll accidentally sit through when you don’t want to because the shaman granny thinks “No” means “Yes.” Finding all the shamans does take some backtracking and exploration, so use a walkthrough. The problem is this: If a united character is killed OR knocked down to critical health they lose the shaman buff. And the enemies all somehow know. In the final dungeon, our party consisted of Ryu, Bleu, Rand and Katt, which means only half of our characters had shaman buffs. Without fail the enemies would spam death on Rand and Katt. Or they would take turns “Slamming” Katt, thus knocking her into the danger HP zone and removing her shaman buffs. Rand was even wearing the DmndBR (which means “Diamond Bracelet” for those who don’t speak RPG Abbreviations) and still fell to the Death spell even though that particular piece of equipment is supposed to prevent against it. When you lose the shaman buff, the only way to retrieve it is to return to your TownShip. Since we never got the TownShip to fly, we effectively had to return to the beginning of the game every single time. Needless to say, this resulted in a frustrating back-and-forth with the final dungeon where the mobs spammed Death and trying to run away from fights was pointless.

Even MORE frustrating is when your shaman buffs suddenly disappear after certain cut scenes. And yes, over halfway through the final dungeon there is one of these particular scenes. The game did us the favor of shuffling our party around and giving us back our characters WITHOUT the shamans they definitely had up until that point. It was almost like they wanted us hating the final boss fight, too. The final boss fights were as expected, not too easy but not too difficult, and the laughable plot almost made traversing the dungeon multiple times worth it. There’s really no reason or excuse for randomly losing the shaman buffs we intentionally tried so hard to keep so we could have them during the final boss fight. Okay, maybe there IS one excuse: the developers really didn’t want anyone to potentially have fun while playing this game.

Those are my main gripes with this game, but there are definitely more. Aside from Death and buff spells, magic is pretty crappy in this game. Angel, a “Holy” spell, doesn’t hurt undead enemies, and this applies to pretty much all of the elemental weaknesses you’d think would exist. The inventory management system is a mess: items that should stack on their own don’t. You have to go into your inventory and “Clean” your mess of items which should happen automatically, in my opinion. There don’t seem to be items that fully heal a character’s AP, and one of the only satisfying high-damage moves is Ryu’s G. Dragon spell, which uses all of his AP. So unless you want to spend turns giving him 4 WFruits, you only get to use the spell once per fight. I mean, really, what kind of RPG doesn’t have an item to fully heal a character’s magic pool? You don’t get the satisfaction of seeing high numbers very often. As I mentioned before, even if Katt had her shaman buff her HP still wasn’t high enough to withstand two enemy crits in a row. The only high damage outputting moves we found were Ryu’s Dragon spells, Jean’s “Chop” (which failed the second time we tried to use it so we didn’t bother), and Katt’s “Keep” ability with an Atk-Up boost. No matter how much time we spend experience, we never really felt like we were getting ahead of the enemies.  The game also likes to switch around your party set-up, but it’s not like that means anything, because enemies commonly ignore the character you put in the front because you want them to soak up most of the damage. Rand, who has great healing spells, and Bleu, who is a flat-out mage, both had more HP than the main character. Not bad, but a little confusing.

Oh, and this game has NO stealing. Big letdown. Especially since there’s a depressingly low number of accessories in this game, it’d be nice to be able to steal accessories and equipment from bosses.

If, despite everything I’ve just said, you insist on letting this game play you, I will make a couple of suggestions. Play an emulated version with fan translations. Really, die hard fans do so much better with walkthroughs than the people who get paid to do them. And I KNOW in this case, it is impossible for their translating to be any worse than the official version. Plus, with an emulator, you can take advantage of save states and save yourself some frustrations. My other suggestion is to hug a good walkthrough. It’ll save you from a lot of the troubles we had. But honestly, if I was given an ultimatum that I either had to play this game again or shove hot pokers underneath my toenails, I’m pretty sure I would choose the latter.

Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy

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I really enjoy music.

I’m no musician by any means. I played the flute for about a decade, so I can read sheet music and I performed in school concert band. Admittedly, my knowledge is limited, but I can still appreciate instrumental music. I also spend a lot of time listening to music. My commute to work is about 45 minutes three days a week, and an hour and a half two days a week. That’s a lot of idle time to fill with nothing but driving and sound. I have a 16 gig iPod, and while it isn’t full yet, it does harbor an impressive array of sound files. I’m sure I don’t rival many out there, but my music library has reached over 8,000 files and it is daunting when I don’t know what sort of music I’m in the mood to listen to.

Out of those 8,000 plus songs, a great portion of them are instrumental; mostly soundtracks to my favorite video games, television shows, and movies. I have plenty of Japanese composers whose names reappear on my playlists: Yasunori Mitsuda, Yoko Kanno, and Yoko Shimomura to name a few, yet none come close to trumping Nobuo Uematsu. The Final Fantasy games, and his accompanying compositions, fill me with happy nostalgia. As the games have been around for 25 years, and I discovered them while in junior high, I associate them with my tumultuous adolescence. Video games are still a great method of escapism for me, but you know how it is, everything is multiplied by twenty-fold when you’re an awkward teenager in a demanding world. Nowadays, when I listen to Nobuo’s music highlighting JRPGs at their finest I am brought back to lovable characters, immersive fantasy worlds, turn-based boss battles, and ending credit scores. When I saw online that the Distant Worlds: music from Final Fantasy orchestra was playing only an hour and a half away from my house, and that the man himself would be in attendance, I knew I absolutely had to go.
By the time I was ready to purchase the tickets, the VIP ones were sold out. They include meet-and-greets with Uematsu. At $150 a pop, they weren’t really in my budget, anyway. It’ll give me something to look forward to for next time. I had mezzanine seats in a sold-out theater. Sitting away from the stage did not detract at all from the experience. We had a perfect view of the stage, and the quality of the sound was just as crisp. Plus, the enormous interactive screen couldn’t be missed a mile away.

For those of you who are not familiar with the Distant Worlds tour, it is considered an interactive Final Fantasy experience. While the orchestra plays memorable songs from a variety of Final Fantasy soundtracks, slideshows and videos representing said games play on a gigantic screen behind them. All in all, I felt like I was in gamer heaven.

Given that my show was on December 8th, my ‘spend money on me’ bank was running low thanks to the holidays. I had to be more frugal at the merchandise counter than I wanted. I opted for a T-shirt because I don’t have any Final Fantasy related shirts right now and I always need clothes. I didn’t buy a program, so I am going by memory with the set list here. This is the list of songs, not in order, that I had the pleasure of witnessing live:

Final Fantasy I, II & III: Medley including the Final Fantasy Prelude and Overture
Final Fantasy IV: Theme of Love
Final Fantasy V: Dear Friends
Final Fantasy VI: Opera & Terra’s Theme
Final Fantasy VII: Opening-Bombing Mission, Aeris’ Theme, and One-Winged Angel
Final Fantasy VIII: The Man With a Machine Gun
Final Fantasy IX: Vamo Alla Flamenco, A Place I’ll Return To Someday & Melodies of Life medley
Final Fantasy X: To Zanarkand (orchestrated), Suteki Da Ne
Final Fantasy XI: Ronfaure
Final Fantasy XII: Kiss Me Goodbye
Final Fantasy XIII: Blinded By Light
Final Fantasy Series: Chocobo Medley

With a few glaring exceptions, I enjoy listening to most of Uematsu’s work. And while I don’t particularly dislike any of the songs they chose to play, I think a few of their selections are songs that definitely could have been replaced by more memorable tracks. I’m sure all Final Fantasy fans in attendance had their own ideal set list in mind while making the trek to the theater and waiting in line. I tried to keep my mind open, because there is a huge music library to select from, and they can only play so many songs during one show and their selections also depend on what is available to them. For example; they performed Dear Friends (the most underwhelming part of the show, in my opinion) and Vamo Alla Flamenco because there was a guitarist in attendance. Their guest vocalist for the ballads was Susan Calloway. I really liked her voice. In fact, I definitely liked her singing better than the artist who originally performed Suteki Da Ne (I think Riki’s voice is too high-pitched). The English translation wasn’t too awkward and I thought it was done well. My main gripe is song selection: I’m still dumbfounded they did not perform Eyes On Me with her, but did the boring ballad from Final Fantasy XII. Okay, I’ll admit my bias on this one because XII definitely ranks on the bottom of the favorite Final Fantasy meter for me, but still.

The operatic vocalists performed well, too. The Opera section of the concert was lengthy and fun. The audience burst into fits of laughter as multiple videos played on the screen, all in HD SNES graphics of sprites dancing. I’m sure we were all thinking the same thing: Man, those old-school graphics sure look ridiculous now, but they were the bee’s knees and new games just… don’t match up. Watching the evolution of gaming design and graphics on the enormous screen paired with timeless music tickled my nostalgic-gamer-self.

All in all, the guest performers were great and performed the music well. The lack of a choir was the biggest letdown. This cut out a lot of my potential favorites from being performed, like Liberi Fatali, Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec, Esper Battle (FFXII), to name a few. One-Winged Angel was an audience participation number. They fooled us by running the credits while performing the closing piece, Terra. Arnie Roth said it was their closing number, the orchestra and vocalists took their bows, and we were all ready to go. Then in his closing speech, he was like, “Well, in this sold-out venue I bet we could pull this off, so let’s practice. We’re going to put the lyrics up on the screen, but you only really need to know one word, right?” and the orchestra began playing. It was fun, but I still want to hear it performed by a choir. After browsing the program highlights beforehand I anticipated not getting to hear Liberi Fatali or One-Winged Angel performed properly. Something else to look forward to for next time. They must’ve known they needed to play One-Winged Angel if they didn’t want to face an angry mob after the show.

I would have liked to hear more upbeat songs thrown into the mix. Including One-Winged Angel, there were only three battle themes. I found that to be a bit of a pity, because boss and battle theme songs tend to be the most memorable. Blinded By Light was wonderful. Man With a Machine Gun, not so much, especially considering that there are so many other wonderful songs from Final Fantasy VIII they could have played. It was my first Final Fantasy experience and I am partial to it. But for every slight disappointment, I was doubly impressed. The orchestrated Final Fantasy X songs brought tears to my eyes, and the Final Fantasy VII opening playing with the game’s FMV was incredible.

I don’t want to give too much away in case you’re reading this and considering going. The solidarity and enjoyment saturating a room full of like-minded gamers, hopefully sprinkled with some outgoing cosplayers (we saw some Galbadian soldiers, Reno, Terra, Prishe and a moogle) adds to the experience. I had a really great time, and can’t wait to go to another. If you’re a Final Fantasy fanboy or fangirl, it’s more than worth the ticket price to be in the same room as Nobuo Uematsu and reliving your life one Final Fantasy game at a time.