Game Reviews -

A friend of mine once told me, “When you find a game you really love, you don’t even think twice about buying downloadable content for it.” Just the possibility of returning to the fantasy that once held you so tightly is enough. I myself have actually never purchased any DLC short of the occasional Rock Band track; no game in the current, network-friendly generation has made me care enough to invest any more for couple new bite sized nuggets. At least, that was until I played Valkyria Chronicles.

As did the vast majority of gamers out there, it seems, I passed over Valkyria Chronicles when it was released on the PS3 last November. It was another Japanese RPG whose name bore too close a resemblance to another, lackluster JRPG and was forgotten before it was even given a chance. What a huge mistake, because without a doubt, Valkyria Chronicles features some damn unique and nostalgic gameplay, and perhaps one of the most well-written, truly mature stories I have ever experienced in the guise of a “game.”

Nuts and bolts time. Did you ever play X-COM: UFO Defense released on the PC in the early ’90s? It was a squad focused, turn-based tactics game that inserted your customized band of soldiers into a variety of combat scenarios, while in between missions you’d collect alien technology, research upgrades, and further refine your troops. For me, my lasting memories of X-COM were the infinite and personal stories I inadvertently created along the way — three men are down and only Stark’s left alive in the building. Her rifle is empty and she has a pistol and a few grenades, yet she somehow flanks the enemy tank and saves the day all by herself! But here’s the best part: that was actually a Valkyria Chronicles anecdote, not X-COM. Although not randomly generated like Mythos’ alien war game, Sega’s 2008 version gives you the same adrenaline high of success, with a few new wrinkles thrown into the mix (an overhead tactical viewpoint, the ability to issue status-changing orders and to call for reinforcements, to name just a few). This Japanese take on a Western classic is not quite perfect, I won’t lie to you. The AI can be as dumb as a box of rocks and their snipers sometimes seem to find their marks waaay too frequently, but this similarity of gameplay just scratches the surface.

Each new hardware cycle, game developers have increasingly powerful hardware at their disposals, most of which is then used to create what appears on the screen. However, as Western developers seem use new hardware to pursue ever more graphic violence and realistic graphics, many Japanese developers (with some notable exceptions) for better or worse are using it to become more stylized, more like fantasy and storybook. Such is the visual design of Valkyria Chronicles, which looks like the gorgeous lovechild of Hayao Miyazaki’s anime and recent games like Eternal Sonata. It succeeds in being both subtle and expressive in its watercolor pastiche, though its style may have erroneously contributed to many an American gamer passing it by. Unlike many games these days, which leave me declaring that Wow, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen graphics this good before!, Valkyria Chronicles’ just work. It’s not that they are unimpressive, they are a purely integrated element of the whole piece, and not once did I find myself either disappointed or disconnecting the visual elements from the rest of the game to say aloud, “Now that’s awesome.” And in some ways, that is in itself pretty impressive in my mind.

Most significantly in Valkyria Chronicles, however, is the story it tells. Now, I’ll admit, I am a sucker for emotion, and enjoy letting my own feelings ride with the tale, so perhaps I am more susceptible than others to investing myself in a good saga. But it’s a negative as well, because of how jarringly I am pulled back to reality when the plotlines reveal their shortcomings. Villains exist with no purpose besides destroying the world; protagonists start out small, then begin charging headlong into danger and emerging without a scratch (because, you know, they’re the heroes). And as is often the case with Japanese anime RPGs detested by many, those heroes are fourteen years old with a couple other plucky teenage sidekicks, lots of giggles, and way more smiles than their situations should allow. These things absolutely kill a game for me; usually I lay them aside one day and never touch them again.

I didn’t do that with Valkyria Chronicles. It tells a serious story of war designed with more than a few striking parallels to World War II. There was a sense of brow-raising irony for me through much of the game that it would include concentration camps and extermination, analogues of good and evil to the Axis and Allied Powers and even nuclear weapons, given that just two generations ago such a story written in Japan would have likely had a very different perspective. The historical scope and thematic sobriety alone, while tinged with slight elements of fantasy, would make this an impressive narrative for a game, but it would not have left any real impact without the quality of its delivery. Every character is voiced realistically and with sincerity. When Lt. Welkin Gunther, the protagonist, cries out and leads a desperate charge, you feel his resolve, and you know there’s more behind the moment than “another battle for Squad 7,” because you’ve seen his uncertainty as a young commander and the people he cares for that his mistakes, your mistakes, stand to lose. See, like the old X-COM, characters in Valkyria Chronicles can die permanently if they fall on the battlefield, and those infinite and personal stories don’t always have happy endings. Good people die in war, X-COM got that part right, but without the emotions and personal struggles behind the characters — a contextual narrative of the kind found in Valkyria Chronicles — a fallen comrade becomes just another empty slot in your roster to be filled.

The mere fact that a videogame can have me saying those kinds of things should convince you somewhat of its maturity. I can’t promise the experience would be the same for you, nor is it the best in any one category that the medium has to offer. The “videogames as art” debate is a silly one, but at its heart is a question about a game’s ability to be more than a plaything. Can it make you stop and think about the horrors of war, or have fun and be entertained in ways beyond a psychologically conditioned dopamine rush to the brain?

I know one game that did for me, and it’s DLC comes out later today.

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While I’d love as many as possible to read my little rant, I cannot emphasize more strongly to anyone that has not yet completed Metal Gear Solid 4 in its entirety, or who do not otherwise wish to hear discussion of the game’s ending and plot details, that this editorial contains serious spoilers on all aspects of the game. Please refrain from reading any further if there is anything you would be upset about having revealed about MGS4. If you choose to keep reading anyway, consider yourself warned!

“I initially decided to write this rant (and it began as a rant) during the final hours of the game. My critical thoughts on the title reached a frustrated climax…

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I was tempted to let the post title say it all, but I suppose I should write something as well. Bioshock, for both PC and Xbox 360, closes out my Summer of Adventure with a high explosive shotgun blast to the head, and after quite a mixed bag of games lately, reminds me of just how lofty the bar can go.

In some ways, it’s hard to review a game like Bioshock. The story revolves around an underwater city named Rapture and is based loosely on the concepts of objectivism and pure meritocracy of Ayn Rand (who even receives an in-game homage as the city’s creator, Andrew Ryan). Things begin as an airplane your character is flying in crash lands right in front of a Bathysphere — a Myst-esque transporter that whisks you into the depths. To say much more than that is to risk touching on plot points I’m certain some readers would prefer to discover for themselves. All I will safely say about the story is: it does not disappoint, right up until the end.

Virtually everything else in the game is nearly without peer. The visuals are beautifully varied and logically laid out (unlike so many games), yet for its relatively high PC system specs, runs rather well if you machine is in range. Aurally, Rapture is on par with other PC shooters’ extremely realistic sound effects, but features some harder-to-get-right, excellent voice acting, as well as haunting, period appropriate (if rare) music. As far as gameplay itself, it plays as a standard shooter with above average weapon choices — mostly the usual shooter staples fleshed out with several types of ammunition each and performance upgrades — and an equally realized “magic” system based on genetic modifications called Plasmids.

I could seriously go on for quite a bit longer singing Bioshock’s praises, but sadly the most compelling part, from the way everything from the first moment of dialogue to the Plasmids to the Big Daddies and Little Sisters, the game’s imaginitive and most recognizable inhabitants, ties into that most powerful element of the game: the story. A few fetch quests aside, the plot stays remarkably on track, and what kept me moving forward wasn’t the environments or the freedom to solve problems however I chose (though freezing enemies solid and letting the aerial machine gun sentries I had hacked blow them to bits became my favorite), it was a genuine interest in the outcome. It’s a personal feeling I haven’t felt in a game in a long time.

Maybe it was the first-person perspective. Maybe it was the feeling I got every time I rescued one of the Little Sisters, with Garry Schyman’s score stirring in the background. Whatever it was, it was a deeper level of enjoyment than I have been used to in my videogame hobby, and it comes highly recommended to anyone that reads this.

Score: 9.5 / 10

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Eventually, I just had to put Odin Sphere down.  I’ve played so many games over the summer, some excellent and others just decent, I felt like I could give even a slightly flawed game the benefit of the doubt.  So it’s with a sad heart that I present my first review in my Summer of Adventure of a game I did not finish.  Hopefully, you will understand why. 

You know when the most immediate connection between a game’s title and its meaning is a gameplay mechanic largely invisible to the characters, you have a problem.  While it is certainly possible that some all-powerful “Odin Sphere” becomes a pivotal element of the plot, as far as I could tell from my playing, it just refers to the layout of the game’s every stage.  You see, each area is broken up into smaller stages, each a flat 2D plane, seamlessly connected end-to-end, circular-like.  (And well-drawn as the backdrops may subjectively be, it also makes for some pretty repetitive and generic locales.  –“Ooh, a snowy mountaintop.”  Next stage: “Hey, isn’t this the exact same snowy mountaintop?”– )  It would be like renaming The Legend of Zelda “The Nine Levels Each With A Triforce Piece of Zelda.”

And for the near-universal praise given to the game’s story, I found myself disconnected and bored with the whole thing.  I realize the Valkyrie girl has some severe family issues, her dad is a philandering scumbag (who oddly gets the other half of the game’s title…), and there’s certainly a major war going on.  But in this day of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion‘s endlessly explorable game world and Final Fantasy’s cinematic effulgence, a couple short and disjointed cut scenes peppered with generic dialogue from a few random NPCs just doesn’t cut it for plot development, no matter how well voiced.  Not that the also lauded voice acting is really all that great either.  The actors do well enough, but it doesn’t help the story much, and I haven’t heard that much needless echo effect used in dialogue since Symphony of the Night.

The criticisms aimed by reviewers at Odin Sphere, on the other hand, are absolutely spot on, and probably a little forgiving.  Item management is atrocious — what was the last RPG you played that doesn’t even have a menu screen??  Everything from consumables to cooking to which single accessory you choose to equip is done via a few item rings (think Secret of Mana from 1993, and that game had a menu system as well!), and the 10-12 slots you have in those is all you get until you can afford to stop buying health items and drop insane amounts on extra bags.  Before that point, however, you’ll find yourself in a painful dance of item management from as early as the first full area, having to decide which items to keep and which to abandon.

All this might be excusable if the rest of the game was just a ton of fun, but that’s hardly the case.  When you’re not talking to lifeless NPCs or running in circles jumping up and down, the combat is an entirely single-button affair.  You can jump of course, and glide by double-jumping (one actually interesting innovation), but you have just one attack button, which you can chain into combos by — you guessed it — pressing repeatedly.  Okay, so it’s generic, but what takes the game out of the realm of fun is how they then ruin that combat system:

  • Enemies who just tear holes in you at Normal difficulty (forcing you to fill that limited inventory with whatever health items you can afford to buy or grow);
  • The POW system that forces you not to attack too continuously or Valkyrie-get-woozy and faints;
  • The utterly nonsensical system of levels and stat progression: experience is gained entirely through eating (oh, were that true!), enemies release glowing orbs upon death that can be either absorbed into your weapon (which also gains levels, obviating the need for an actual inventory) or into plants to help them grow into more food (which then gives you experience).  Oh, and you can create items as well through yet another system, alchemy, whose overly complex system of mixtures and the inability to create anything until you acquire its recipe (even if you have the components) just serves to further clutter your small backpack.

In the end, I just found myself sitting back and thinking, “I’m not having any fun with this!”  And to me, that’s the point where you put the game away.  Perhaps some will find it fun, and I’m sure the ability to replay the same plot over and over with different characters from other perspectives just makes the story nigh Shakespearean, but frankly at this point I don’t give a damn.  I didn’t make it that far.

Score: 5.5 / 10

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As I look back on some of the other games I’ve recently played, I leave with this recurring negativity that sometimes game makers miss the forest for the trees.  They try so hard to create drama, play it safe with what works, or do so much with a plot that players cease to understand or care.  And their single-minded focus on crafting something that looks deep ends up in something hollow: fun in its own way, but ultimately unfulfilling.  So imagine my surprise when Nintendo’s quaint and clichéd platformer turns up to beat them all.

Unlike RPGs like Final Fantasy XII, which hold out all the trappings of a traditional dramatic RPG — war and royal scandal and cruel, power-hungry dictators — yet fail to really grab the player, Super Paper Mario is the polar opposite.  Behind its deceptively simplistic visual guise hides genuinely fun gameplay, a storyline with more real human emotion than its high falutin’ cousin, and some of the most clever, humorous dialogue I have ever witnessed.

For all it does right, the real credit for Super Paper Mario‘s quality goes to Nate Bihldorff’s witty, tongue-in-cheek localization, to which I can hardly imagine the Japanese original can hold a candle.  From the game’s silliest moments, like responding to an computer nerd iguana’s questions poking fun at sci-fi collectors and message board trolls, to its most dramatic, like the tragic reuniting of two lovers long ago parted, the sheer joy of reading the dialogue is the feather in SPM’s cap.  It’s apparent how much care went into breathing piquant life into the cast — Count Bleck speaks in the third-person, with his trademark entry and exit of “BLEEEECK!!!”; his minion, O’Chunks, is a dim-witted Scotsman; his all-business assistant Nastasia is a perfect embodiment of Bill Lumbergh of Office Space.  In Super Paper Mario, characters never die, their game ends.  And when it does, they go to The Underwhere (as opposed to its heavenly counterpart, The Overthere).  It may seem like a kid’s game by sight alone, but any jaded gamer can tell for whom this dialogue was written.

For all that, SPM’s plot itself is probably its biggest weakness.  It knows it’s a game, and the story is mostly there to give Mario and his unlikely companions a reason to visit eight unique worlds of four levels each (you remember, 4-1, 4-2, 4-3, 4-4…).  While the characters may take the story deadly seriously, the saccharine visual style and copious deus ex machina keep you at a safe distance.  Not that it makes the ride any less enjoyable.  By the end of the game, I honestly found myself looking past much of that distraction and genuinely enjoying the character drama — something I found myself entirely unable to do in either of Square-Enix’s recent titles that purport to traffic in emotional storylines.

So what’s there to say about gameplay?  It’s a platforming Mario game, right?  Well, not so much.  Okay, so it’s part of the old Mario RPG / Paper Mario franchise, so it’s Mario with hit points and level ups, right?  Yes, but…
Super Paper Mario sheds much of the RPG elements of its predecessors, keeping only hit/attack points and the experience levels that bring (predefined) upgrades to each.  Entirely gone is the awkward and childlike turn-based combat the series inherited from Squaresoft, replaced with Mario’s tried-and-true platforming… but with a twist.  Mario can flip the 2D plane of the game 90 degrees for limited stretches and move in and out on the world’s z-axis (see screenshot).  That means you can actually go around obstacles and enemies, which generally remain in their 2D form, as well as discover items and nooks that would otherwise be invisible when viewed from the side.  Add to this the small army of helpers Mario acquires on the way — the multi-talented Pixls, which empower Mario with everything from hammers to bombs to the ability to make seen the unseen by pointing the Wii-mote — and by the end you have quite a repertoire at your disposal.  Oh, and did I mention that each of the party’s four interchangeable characters (think SMB2) have unique abilities as well?  It makes me weep for games like Kingdom Hearts II; Sora can attack; Sora can jump and attack; Sora can do a combo of attacks; Sora can do magic and summons and drive forms… all of which are completely unnecessary to advancing the plot or beating the game.

I never expected Nintendo’s cartoony averagely ranked game to be potentially the entertainment highlight of my summer.  Whether my enjoyment will remain intact as the game fades into memory is a valid question, but this is the first game I’ve played in a while where I haven’t emerged from the credit roll with a laundry list of criticisms (as I think my other reviews may reflect).  Super Paper Mario is a deceptively simple game that hides beneath the surface a new twist on platforming, a well done, if ancillary story, and more satirical wit than I’ve been treated to in a long time.

Score: 9 / 10

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Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess was the next A-list title to fall beneath my hammer of Summer of Adventure goodness.  Unlike the previous, Squeenix-made titles, Zelda has always been much more about the gameplay than the underlying story, so the fact that I have already experienced the core storyline involved here many, many times before is of less importance.  What matters here is how it plays.

And man, does it play well.  Wii Sports may be a fine showcase for what the Nintendo Wii can do for non-gamers and physically active playing, but I can’t think of a better example than Zelda for how the Wii’s novel functionality can be harnessed to service the needs of traditional game genres.  Initially, I was disappointed to learn that swinging the Wii-mote to effect Link’s sword attack is merely a static cue for the system — you can swing from above, from the left, from the right, and your elfin protagonist will do the same single attack as if you had only pressed a button.  I can’t fault the Zelda team too much for this, as it was apparently my mistaken belief that the Wii-mote would act as some divine, simplified motion capture device and channel my fearsome fencing tactics onto the screen.  In truth, only when you delicately aim the Wii-mote at the screen as a pointer does it actually track your precise path; in all other cases, the specific form of your movement serves only to signal the console something like, “Hey, he wants Link to attack!”

Despite this setback, Twilight Princess did a stellar job in following the gameplay style established with Ocarina of Time (and if you didn’t like that, you won’t like this much more), while adding some real diversity to play through use of the Wii remote.  I understand it was originally designed for the Gamecube, and that most or all of the game’s mechanics are faithfully grafted onto the old generation (or well, the reverse is most likely the case), but I found aiming my bow or clawshot with the pointer’s precision to be a joy, and it makes me giddy like a kid at Christmas to think about how good something like Metroid Prime will be.

Also in need of mentioning is the variety and quality of the game design itself.  The levels were all masterfully laid out, and toe very nicely the fine line of challenge but not frustration (most of the time).  If you can look past the macro view that everything in the game is just concocted to give Link nine (or so) dungeons to crawl, each with a main boss and sub-boss, and each with a new gadget to add to your repertoire, you’ll find some of the most inventive and exciting battles I have ever seen, and more ways to use a boomerang than a young boy should be allowed (wait till you see what Zelda does with it!).

On a critical note, while the “mature” visuals made for a markedly darker story, a welcome new direction for the series, it also highlighted some of the less than creative aspects to Twilight Princess.  I love the use and re-use of the classic Zelda theme songs and sound effects, but it can go too far.  The visual style cries out for dramatic voice acting something fierce, and Midna’s babytalk and Link’s overly repeated moans and gasps just dig the knife a little deeper by hinting what might have been.  I think I forgot to mention it before, but this was something Final Fantasy XII did extraordinarily well, and I think I could have enjoyed Twilight Princess‘ plot, which to their credit they did a decent job at making engaging, far more if I wasn’t constantly being reminded that in spite of the visuals, I’m still firmly in Nintendo KiddyLandâ„¢.

I think Nintendo’s strict adherence to its 1980s-established canon, at least in the case of Zelda, is starting to be more of a liability than a benefit, even down to the classic sound effects and synthy music composition.  It doesn’t seem as much so in other franchises like Mario (at least in its Super Paper incarnation), where Nintendo seems to be going in the opposite direction of Zelda — simple graphics and complete mixing-up of the series lore (Mario and Bowser joining forces, etc.).  At some point, I fear Nintendo is going to play the Link-saving-Princess-Zelda theme a little too often, and the storyline will all but completely cease to be at all compelling.

The Zelda games fall on the far outer reaches of the action RPG genre, to the point that the gameplay matters so much more than the story, Nintendo can get away with rehashing the same Triforce/Princess/Ganondorf shtick so much that even the characters in the game have legends about previous titles.  Fortunately for anyone playing Twilight Princess, both are worthwhile and galvanic, even if the puzzles can occasionally frustrate and the story feel a little played.

Score 8.5 / 10

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The second game title in my Summer of Adventure 2007 shares a lot in common with the first — extremely high visual fidelity, unheard of production values, and another clear triumph of style over substance. Kingdom Hearts II attempts to recreate the enchanting fusion of Disney and Final Fantasy universes that made the first title both unique and endearing. And it largely succeeds, by using the exact same formula as its predecessor, nearly to the letter.

After an incomprehensible introduction, KH2 quickly returns to series protagonist Sora’s search for his fellow beach children, Kairi and Riku.  After the start of the first game, his friends were swept away and Sora found himself chosen to bear the mysterious and powerful keyblade, and teaming with Disney mascots Donald and Goofy as they trek from Disney world to world in their quest.  His search took him to exotic Disney locales from films like Hercules, Winnie the Pooh, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and Nightmare Before Christmas.  At the end, he is momentarily reunited with his friends before being separated again and forced to continue his search.

In the sequel, you will visit exotic Disney locales from films like Hercules, Winnie the Pooh, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and Nightmare Before Christmas as Sora fights with Donald and Goofy, using the keyblade in his search for Kairi and Riku (sound familiar?).  My biggest gripe with the game is not, however, its almost lazy concept recycling to set up yet another game; it’s the story writers’ attempt to pass off confusion, obscurity, and faux complexity as any kind of real plot depth.  This time around, in addition to the myriad of Disney-branded villains, Sora & co. have to contend with the “mysterious” Organization XIII.  Its members are unknown, its intentions are mysterious, and its relevance to any real story the game might have is almost nil.  The antagonistic concept from the first title — Disney villains are summoning violent creatures called Heartless to steal people’s hearts — is twisted and mashed to such a degree that not only do you cease to understand the point, you may well cease to care.  Now, in addition to the Heartless, there are Nobodies, who seem to serve little purpose but make for slightly greater enemy variety.  Apparently, whenever a Heartless is created, so is a Nobody.  Organization XIII is made up of Nobodies whose plan is to use Sora’s unique (?) ability to destroy Heartless (which the Organization itself creates?  how does that work?), which then release hearts into the sky (wait, I thought they were Heartless!)  and ultimately collect them for nefarious and titular purposes.  It’s all needlessly complicated, to a point that I think even many of the characters, including Organization XIII members, cease to be able to keep track.

Having seen what poor translations can do to story comprehension in games like Final Fantasy Tactics, I’d like to think perhaps KH2 has an amazing and deep story just waiting to get out.  But, like most current Square-Enix titles, the localization is superb, and the game’s plot is truly weak and not written with any eye to lasting meaning.  I like to think its planning went like…

  1. Talk about friendship a lot
  2. Talk about hearts a lot
  3. Talk about light and darkness a lot
  4. Throw in a bunch of meaningless but beloved Disney and FF characters
  5. Profit!!

The frenetic action of the original game has also been tweaked for this iteration, and the results are  more or less the same.  Much of the combat system, such as Summons, Limits, and some of the transformations in Sora’s Drive Form, is entirely unnecessary to succeed in battle, and so is ultimately just wasted.  And since so much of it (including merely healing yourself) consumes every ounce of Sora’s Magic instantly, players are actually discouraged from making much use of them.  For my part, I found Sora to be a perfectly effective killing machine in his normal form with a powerful keyblade and occasional healing spell, and progressed through 95% of the game with that setup only (and that’s on Proud/Hard mode). 

It seems like Square-Enix builds their games in committees.  They have dedicated teams working on separate aspects of a game, who meet once a week or so to discuss progress and ultimately integration.  Thus you have endless number of pointless sidequests and subsidiary systems, summon spells, item synthesizing, the Gummi ship system, and the list goes on.  Each is mildly compelling in its own right, but without any real incentive to invest time — the game is almost easy to complete without the need for any of the above — who but the obsessive completionist really cares?

And to just beat a dead horse a bit further, will we ever see the day when stories about friendship, light and darkness, and the depth of one’s heart go a little further than prepubescent boys facing pseudo-complicated adversity, for the sole purpose of exploiting decades of dearly beloved (and heavily copyrighted) franchises?  I know it’s possible — I’ve seen real sincerity and feeling in television shows like Firely, and films like Spirited Away.  There were even real messages behind many of the franchises, both Disney and Squaresoft, unceremoniously plundered for their character likenesses and skeleton plots, but they are virtually non-existent in their KH forms.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed playing Kingdom Hearts II a great deal.  As a mindless game, it largely succeeds in every area.  But the developer shoulders a challenge when it creates a storyline on so many archetypal themes and allusionary depth of character.  Where a television show like Firefly left me feeling enriched and hungering for more, KH2 left me tired of caring about its plot, and a little glad it’s all over.

Score: 7 / 10

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What do you get when you combine the director and musical composer of Vagrant Story with the budget and scope of Square’s flagship franchise? You get a polished, compelling mish-mash that possesses neither the clear intrigue and individual focus of VS nor the standard-setting gameplay and thematic overtones that came to define FF. But hot damn it looks good!

It’s possible FFXII was doomed for me from the beginning. Still bitter from the Final Fantasy that wasn’t (XI), the idea of setting the next game in the universe of a series spinoff, replacing the head job and composer, both new to the series and inferior to the original men, was just asking me to nit-pick the final product to death. Even so, despite an initially negative reaction and what I believe are some serious shortcomings, I came to enjoy it quite a bit.

There is a great deal that FFXII does right. Towering above all is the visual presentation, with level design and graphical complexity, prerendered and in-game, so breathtaking it makes you want to cry. It’s all the more impressive that such a visual feast is served through the seven year old PS2 hardware. If the game’s other aspects matched its exquisite vistas and mind-bending layouts, it would certainly be one of the greatest games of all time.

Musically, Final Fantasy has always been a standard. Although you can argue the quality of Uematsu’s work of late, even FFX, on which he only partially collaborated, had its share of standout pieces. Hitoshi Sakimoto helmed FFXII’s composition, and he did about as well as his previous works. That is to say, if you preferred the glissando strings and roaming harmonies of Vagrant Story, Breath of Fire V, or Final Fantasy Tactics to Uematsu’s simpler melodic structure, you won’t be disappointed in the least. But for those that can still hum the original FF theme, Prelude, or any of the myriad of character themes that have made the Final Fantasy series an aural powerhouse over the years, you may come away from his latest work as I did – pleased overall, but a bit disappointed. The quality of composition is high, but like many film scores, it’s just present, not memorable. This approach works for some games (and movies), but for a series that almost singlehandedly opened the door to game music as a subgenre, the change is almost too stark. All of that said, I did like the music, just in a different way.

Speaking of changes, by far the largest is the battle system, an ever-evolving piece of Final Fantasy. FFXII jettisons the old system almost entirely, including random battles, static positions, and even the need to individually instruct your party members. Instead it feels like a modified MMO control style, with a twist to allow you command over three party members. The Gambit system lets you preprogram orders for your characters for everything from whom and when to attack, to what status buffs to maintain. This makes combat almost automatic, and without much difficulty reduces the player to simply driving around auto-piloted killing machines (you can still enter commands manually, but you quicky get broken of that in all but special circumstances). There is a notable feeling of accomplishment from maintaining and tweaking your party’s gambits, but in trade for a large dose of passivity. In the end, it just wasn’t quite as fun or engaging as previous installments.

What really let me down was the most critical part of any RPG: its story. The political intrigue of the main über-plot was engrossing enough, if a little dry (Is the princess alive? Will she reclaim her throne? Will the Archadian Empire succeed in drawing Rosaria into a conflict by asserting its dominion over the Kingdom of Dalmasca?). But the main problem lies in piss poor character development. Most of the characters, including Vaan the aspiring sky pirate, Penelo the poor young wench, and Basch the dishonored soldier, get 99% of their development in their introduction, after which they mindlessly follow the party for the rest of the game. The only playable character to really have any depth is Ashe, and that’s primarily because the entire fucking game revolves around her!

Other games in the series have suffered the same problem to lesser degrees. Tifa didn’t have much point beyond breasts, and Zell was about as tag along as they come. But no other game in the series has done so little with its cast after setting them up. While the plot of FFXII itself is passable, the characters themselves are all just faceless retainers in Ashe’s entourage (oh, we find out Balthier has an interesting dad but it never becomes part of the story, and Fran has a segment where we find out the sexy rabbit Viera people are in bizarre tune with nature).

An excellent example of character development done right in a game with a medium-to-large cast is the last great (IMO) game of the series, Final Fantasy X. Every character has an arc, a journey they themselves go on. They may all be going with Yuna on her quest to defeat Sin, but they have their own stories as well. In XII, Vaan has no story – from the start he wants to become a sky pirate. That’s it. I won’t spoil whether he succeeds or not, but it’s the only thing we know of his character from beginning to end.

All this ranting makes the game sound bad… It’s not. It was a lot of fun, and a good story if you pretend it only really consists of one or two characters.

Score: 8.5 / 10

1 Comment

Stay away from Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria. Stay far, far away.

Just to be up front in the interest of full disclosure, I am NOT qualified to review this entire game. My play time clocked in at just over one hour, so for all I know every complaint I have may resolve itself by the end. But a) I highly doubt that, and b) it couldn’t possibly fix itself enough to be worth the pain of more of what that first hour was.

First off, the characters/setting. This is the one area I think might improve as the player becomes accustomed (read: as rigor mortis sets in). Maybe it is my just coming from a simple RPG with easygoing characters and infinitely better plot pacing, but dropping me into a random town with some wench playing host to a Norse god of some kind who is already apparently well on her quest to get somewhere to do something with Odin and Valhalla and her einherjar is not a way to ease a player into the game fiction. In fact, it holds me at arm’s length, not understanding more that 10% of what is going on, and after an hour of wallowing through it and not being given a reason to care, my motivation to do so evaporates.

Speaking of incomprehensible messes, the terrible introduction of the combat system just made me want to put a gun in my mouth. Battles seem to want to be real time, with free movement and attack ranges, but then have Action Points and enemies that wait for you to begin moving, usually indicia of a turn-based system. And when you finally do begin your attacks, they just consist of mashing a single action button per character, probably with the goal of having characters attack in a certain order for increased damage (not that the game cares to explain that). A friend of mine loved to [ignorantly] disparage console RPGs as not requiring much more strategy than “Hitting ‘Fight’ over and over again.” With games like this, sometimes I agree… And after complaining about Enchanted Arms’ amusingly slow way of introducing players to the various game mechanics, scrolling through pages of text and dozens of arbitrary tutorial instructions ultimately just made me stop caring.

I’m sure there is a great deal more strategy to the game’s combat system than I give it credit here — positioning yourself for attack, hitting specific parts, going for the leader, etc. The fact of the matter is, all games are trying to imitate real life in some way, and battle systems use artificial systems in an attempt to codify various aspects of real world “strategy.” So no game is immune from that. But where this game fails is in its oversimplicity in some areas, needless complexity in others, and terrible way of introducing the player to it all.

Add in the frustratingly 8-bit game world out of combat, which exists, near as I can tell, entirely in two dimensions with the player running, using enemies as platforms, and solving random jump puzzles. Rubbing salt in the wound is the visual gorgeousness of the world, one of the only areas of the game with which I have zero problem. Too bad it’s just mere window dressing on gameplay that could have been done in the mid-1980s.

Score: 3.5 / 10

[2] Comments

Say what you want about Ubisoft’s Enchanted Arms, it doesn’t try to pretend it’s something that it’s not. It’s a story-driven, turn-based Japanese RPG for the Xbox 360 that doesn’t break new ground in its admittedly niche genre. It takes production shortcuts left and right, has a soundtrack with only a scant handful of songs worth a second listen, and features a plot so linear you’d be tempted to call Final Fantasy open-ended. And it’s great!

The original Xbox, God rest its soul, suffered from a painful lack of quality support from the Land of the Rising Sun, which isn’t all that hard to understand when you consider how poorly the system sold there. Microsoft seems determined to remedy that with the 360, and the creation of Enchanted Arms probably arose directly out of that desire. While many aspects of the game — the static character portrait dialogue and limited, grid-based battle system — could have been done on any system since the Super Nintendo, its graphics inside and out of combat are like nothing any other console on the market even approaches. For as many corners as may have been cut in terms of side quests and barebones cutscenes, you’d be hard pressed to tell by its visuals that put everything before it, including any Final Fantasy or Xenosaga game, to shame. While the Playstation 3 (and the overbudgeted Square-Enix titles it will bring) will change all that, its Xbox Live access and rewarding Achievement integration, together with [currently] peerless graphical delivery and a compelling (if simplistic) storyline make it, in my opinion, the first step of this venerable console RPG genre into the latest generation of videogames.

It’s certainly not a perfect game, of course. Its characters, focusing on the dim-witted, young protagonist Atsuma and his quest to save the world and solve the mystery of his seemingly all-powerful right arm, are almost intentionally clichéd. Square did the ambitious hero, spunky princess with her stolid retainer, and bratty tomboy schtick and have long since moved on to exhausting the other combinations of the apparently only ten or so Japanese RPG character traits (see Cloud the ambitious loner, Zidane the bratty thief, Cecil the mournful retainer; Squall the UNambitious emo, rinse and repeat). However, Enchanted Arms does get props for the first openly homosexual, flaming and sexually in-your-face transvestite I ever recall seeing in a game, though to call just adding another painful stereotype to the mix a blessing is up for debate. Likewise, character development is a simple “collect SP points, spend on relevant stats” bag, and the Golem creation is more than a little reminiscent of the 108 Stars from the Suikoden series (both in its variety and the frequent uselessness it produces). Combat takes place on a mirrored 4 x 3 grid and its direct vs. ranged, counter-the-opposing element attacks are nothing fans of the genre haven’t seen before, but it manages to stay engaging and challenging enough till the very end.

With the notable exceptions of its stunning presentation and thorough Xbox Live support (for a single player RPG), Enchanted Arms adds very little new to the traditional console RPG. But in a niche genre increasingly populated with entries that seem to change things just for novelty rather than utility, this game delivers an excellent, “old school” gaming experience far more worthwhile and entertaining than today’s jaded critics give it credit.

Score: 7 / 10

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