Review: Final Fantasy VII [3/3]+


   VII still deserves to be counted alongside the medium’s greatest games.

Final Fantasy VII is a rare game that demonstrates cohesion between its gameplay and plot that brings a world to life. And the quality with which it presents both to the player makes it excel. There are shortcomings to the genre of these particular games that have justifiably earned the scorn of the gaming community in the years following VII’s release, but VII is able to transcend those issues altogether and raised the bar for what gamer’s should expect from the medium.

Final Fantasy VII starts off with the player controlling Cloud Strife as he joins a terrorist raid on a reactor owned by the Shinra Electric Power Company. Shinra is ostensibly a private company that serves the citizens in Midgar, a city built in two layers and encircled by a number of mako reactors. In reality, Midgar is a massive company town, owned and operated by Shinra. Furthermore, it’s also the largest city in the game’s world and most of the other cities are dependent on Shinra’s mako reactors. Cloud is a mercenary hired by the terrorist group, AVALANCHE, whose mission is to destroy mako reactors, which they claim will eventually destroy the planet.

In addition to providing power, mako energy can be crystallized into gems referred to as materia. Materia grants individuals superhuman abilities to conjure a wide variety of magic when junctioned to equipment. The player utilizes materia extensively to outfit Cloud and other members of his party with the right abilities dispatch their foes. This system adds a layer of gameplay on top of the conventional turn-based combat seen in the series. Characters weren’t people with a predefined set of skills, or specific roles to play, they represented opportunities for the player to build their characters in ways they see best. Materia is also not simply the representation of one particular ability, but a series of skills and abilities that are unlocked with continued use. Junctioning two materia together can also yield entirely new results. Exploring the world, finding new materia and discovering new ways to use materia is an incredibly compelling mechanic and it provides a tangible connection to the game’s world and its chief conflict: how humans exploit their resources to better their lives and become more powerful.

The story of Final Fantasy VII shifts between three different angles throughout the game. The first being Cloud and his relationship with AVALANCHE, his childhood friend Tifa, and former colleague in the military, Sephiroth. The second is Shinra’s dominance over so much of the planet and their goal to discover a “promised land” of mako energy. And lastly, the game will also place a focus on an extinct race of humans called the ancients and an interstellar being named Jenova. While the elements of the story can become muddled together as details are lost in localization, these three narrative focal points keep the plot moving forward in interesting ways that “The Compilation of Final Fantasy VII” doesn’t do justice. It takes some surprising twists and turns and can, at times, fall into anime cliches. But VII’s narrative is capable of nuanced storytelling, and can keep you at the edge of your seat even 15 years after its original release.

The world of Final Fantasy VII seamlessly brings together an expansive world, compelling gameplay, an intriguing plot, and an unforgettable atmosphere driven by a great soundtrack and (even so many years later) charming graphics. It’s a linear experience that provides a sense of continuity between towns and dungeons while simultaneously iterating through its ideas in ways that culminate in a fashion that’s both satisfying and thought provoking. Final Fantasy VII catapulted jRPGs into the western gaming mainstream, and while it brought an intense focus on so many of the genre’s flaws, VII still deserves to be counted alongside the medium’s greatest games.

Rating: 3/3 +

See also: Trailer, Official Site, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at Amazonon PSN, or soon on FinalFantasyVIIPC.com

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Review: Lollipop Chainsaw [2/3]


   Chainsaws, Cheerleaders, and Suda51.

If I had to describe the game in one word, that word would have to be loud. It’s loud in a literal sense, to be sure. Enemies and bosses are always yelling at you about something (especially the game’s first boss, Zed, whose screams become physical attacks) but it’s also loud aesthetically, narratively, and emotionally. I can just picture Suda sitting down and writing a design document, and he has the caps lock key taped down…

THIS GAME IS GOING TO BE ABOUT THIS BLOND CHICK THAT HAS A CHAINSAW WHO IS ALSO A ZOMBIE HUNTER. ALL HER FRIENDS FROM SCHOOL ARE DEAD, BUT SHE DOESN’T CARE. HER BOYFRIEND GETS BITTEN BY A ZOMBIE AND SO SHE HAS TO CUT OFF HIS HEAD (WHICH SHE DOES WITHOUT A SECOND THOUGHT.) RAINBOWS AND SPARKLES.

It’s not unlike Suda’s previous few games that seek to smack the player in the face with their outrageousness. It’s a very violent and graphic game that’s framed in a semi-cartoonish fashion. It’s everything that juvenile males have come to expect from zombie killing games but it’s all dressed up in girlish stereotypes held by the same juvenile males. While playing the game, your reaction most likely will be “what?” or “Japan.” but Suda has once again woven a tapestry of madness and vulgarity. It feels like the same zany Suda song and dance which is, for myself, getting a bit tired. It is what it is though and sometimes it’s hilarious and other times it is tedious.

What about the game though? There is a solid set of combat mechanics in Lollipop Chainsaw. Juliet, the game’s protagonist, can use several basic actions. She can carve high and low with her chainsaw, she can bash with her cheerleader pom poms, and she can jump or dodge around zombies. The chainsaw feels more like a sword; it is used for cutting through zombies rather than grabbing them and tearing them to shreds. It also takes a fair number of cuts to bring enemies down unless you first make them “groggy” allowing you to decapitate them in one strike.

At the heart of the game is this system: in addition to surviving zombie hordes, you need to destroy them strategically in order to maximize your score. It is by no means a survival horror game. The player is empowered and encouraged to round up enemies and eviscerate them. To aid in this task, Juliet also has a super attack meter, which when filled and used allows her to decapitate zombies without having to make them groggy or sufficiently bring down their health. You can also enlist the aid of your sidekick, Nick (a decapitated head who still lives), which can used as a projectile, a bludgeon, a goodie-dispenser, among other things.

The primary issue I see with this game system though is that while it is about racking up high scores by managing groups of zombies, it takes at least one play-through to unlock what you need to be able to do this effectively. Having a limited move-set also makes the process of learning how to do what’s necessary to get a high score becomes frustrating and tedious. It’s games like this that need cheat codes (man, I miss cheat codes) to get the most out of it.

There are Interesting bits of storytelling scattered about in a sea of stupidity which is the game. Juliet is depicted as an airhead, but as the game progresses you get the sense that she might actually just be a sociopath. She never stops to reflect on what’s actually happened except when it directly is affecting her. At one point, she fights her entire cheerleading squad, kills them, and remarks that what happened was awful, but entirely awesome. She’s a bit creepy and it culminates in her treatment of her boyfriend, Nick.

All in all, Lollipop Chainsaw is a good game that takes some digging to get into. Its presentation and sense of humor has the capacity to be great at times, and dreadful at others. Even being as short as it is, I’m glad it didn’t last any longer. Going back and replaying earlier levels can be rewarding once you have unlocked the appropriate skills. If you’ve enjoyed Suda’s previous games then chances are Chainsaw will be right up your alley, that is unless Suda hasn’t already worn out his welcome with you.

Rating: 2/3

See also: Trailer, Official Site, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it on Amazon
Rent it on Gamefly

Review: Lone Survivor [2/3]


   A reminder of survival horror’s past.

Purchased as a gift for me, Lone Survivor is a game that sets its sights on re-capturing the atmosphere and experience of playing Silent Hill, but in two dimensions. At least, this is what I had heard about the game before I got my hands on it. Being that Silent Hill is one of my very most favorite games, I leapt at the chance to play Lone Survivor, and surprisingly enough it delivers in a way that even Silent Hill fails to anymore.

The player takes the role of a character simply referred to as “you” who is trapped in a city abandoned to monsters and a mysterious disease. Daylight never comes and it’s up to You to figure out how to escape while maintaining your health: physical and mental. Where other games have employed this mechanic in as far as maintaining your sanity, Lone Survivor takes emotional well being into account as well. It’s not enough to merely avoid unpleasant scenarios, “You” benefits from small things like watering house plants or cooking a meal. It’s a game that’s as much about defeating despair as it is about survival horror.

The protagonist requires food and rest to survive, and batteries to power your flashlight. Setting out with limited supplies requires the player to carefully consider how far they will explore on any given day, and when they need to return. Following this rhythm in combination with the puzzles that “You” must solve creates an atmosphere of tension. But even when conditions are ideal, there are still an array of creatures which stand in your way. It’s up to the player how they intend to deal with them. Monsters can be destroyed, snuck around, or distracted. The first and last options require use of valuable supplies, whereas the second option isn’t always available to “You.” Having to determine the best course of action adds another layer to the game’s tension.

While it’s possible to exhaust your supplies, more can be acquired by scavenging or (by means which are not explained) by taking pills and going to sleep. These transport the player to dream worlds inhabited by other characters. When “You” wakes up, he now has more supplies, but his mental health will be affected in different ways.

Lone Survivor does an excellent job of creating a world around “You” that’s threatening and all encompassing. Similar to Silent Hill, Lone Survivor does an effective job of creating an artificial sense of claustrophobia that motivates the player to find a way out as quickly as possible. Even in 2D, the monster designs are unsettling and at times almost frightening. Jasper Byrne (the game’s creator) knows the right combination of visual design, sound design, and animation to get under your skin and create a sense of looming danger. It helps that the game’s mysteries are left mostly for the player to speculate on as well. It will provide resolution without answering all of your questions, which is something else I admired about the original Silent Hill.

Really, the only fault I can find with the game is that it is too short to be able to allow the player to fully explore its mechanics. It offers a world that’s going to stick with you after you’re done playing but its qualities as a game aren’t fully realized. It’s Silent Hill in miniaturized form, capturing the classic elements of survival horror and all I can ask of it is for more. It’s tough to justify that sort of game in AAA form, but Lone Survivor demonstrates again that there are great games and great opportunities beyond the AAA realm.

Rating: 2/3

See also: Trailer, Official Site, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it on LoneSurvivor.co.uk

Review: Ziggurat [2/3]


   Alien Freaks.

I’m a little late to the party as far as games on the touch interface go.  But I knew once I did, the first game on my list to play was Ziggurat.  Well, here I am, iPod touch in hand and a fair bit of time spent playing Ziggurat.  The player finds him or her self stranded on top of a mountain above the clouds with alien/skeleton things (freaks?) chasing them from all sides.  The player’s goal is to last as long as possible, but I assume the aliens never stop climbing.  The player is armed with a canon though (one that somehow reminds me of Lazerblast) which gives you a half decent chance at defending yourself.  Shots are charged by touching the lower portion of the screen while aiming and then released to fire.  By timing shots correctly, they will cause a large explosion when they hit a target which may in turn catch other aliens in the blast radius.  Each enemy that’s dispatched also causes another smaller explosion.  And it’s at this point that the strategy starts to get interesting.

As you learn how to control the canon, the goal evolves from surviving for as long as possible to managing the screen for as long as possible.  While the basic enemies slowly hop towards you on the screen, there are several other types that force you to keep on your toes.  Some take much more damage before they are dispatched, while others can strike from the periphery with little warning.  The game is balanced well enough to give you a steady sense of progress as you play it, without making you feel as though you’re being cheated when killed.  The game’s core is solid and enjoyable, but I can’t help but feel it would execute better if I had a controller in my hands.  Given the touch interface, the player is forced to perform the aim and fire verbs simultaneously and thus give up a degree of control.  And for a game that’s all about control, the touch interface is holding it back.  The game is a great value, and a lot of fun to play but it does not reach it’s full potential.

Rating: 2/3

See also: Trailer, Official Site, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it on the Apple App Store

Review: Trials Evolution [3/3]


   With Trials, there’s no need to mess with success.

Trials Evolution, at its core, is still the same game as Trials HD: a game about jumping dirt bikes through increasingly challenging levels.  Set against a 2D plane, the player controls the bike’s throttle and forward rotation.  The basic controls are fundamentally no different than that of Excitebike.  What Trials adds to the formula though is a more advanced simulation of dirt bike physics.  Everything from traction, to the position of the rider, the shocks on the bike, and momentum become factors in how you proceed through each leg of each course.  RedLynx knows this, and later courses force the player to be aware of these factors and to master control of them.  It’s a surprisingly satisfying process learning to play the game.  In addition, Trials Evolution has improved it’s online components (though the core of the game is what’s evaluated in the score) and has included an extensive level editor as well.  It’s a great value as far as downloadable titles go and a great game as well.

Rating: 3/3

See also: Trailer, Official Site, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it on Xbox Live

Review: SSX [3/3]

SSX

   SSX: High flying action with staying power. 

Many times, when I play sports games, I find it difficult to evaluate the game apart from the sport it depicts.  I suppose in many instances these are simulations, a genre of games that I don’t have a lot of experience with.  But when it comes to the arcade sub-genre of sports games, I have no trouble.  And SSX falls squarely into that category.  As a game, SSX executes across several layers: runs, character management, and online competition.

At its core, SSX is a game about snowboarding; snowboarding quickly, stylishly, or dangerously.  Players traverse different mountain slopes as though they were snowboarding with jet packs attached to them.  Tricks can be executed while in the air, and completing them grants the player boost time that is stored until they are ready to use it.  Boosting will propel the player’s character even more quickly and can be used to get ahead in races or to hit ramps with an extra burst of speed and hang time.  If the player executes tricks well enough will also fill up a “Tricky” meter, which when full grants infinite boost and access to uber-tricks.  In addition, many of the slopes specific hazards that can only be negotiated with special equipment such as ice picks, oxygen masks, and wing suits.

Each slope differentiates itself from the others well enough that makes each one memorable and worthy of player mastery.  There are always multiple ways to tackle each one, and in virtually all instances the ride is smooth and entertaining.  When everything comes together, tricking your way through the course is satisfying as though you were playing an instrument as part of a band or orchestra that’s playing a great piece of music.  Everything that SSX’s trailers depict is what can be experienced in the game as the player learns how to play it.

Learning to play the game can be accomplished through the single-player campaign which serves as a series of staged goals for the player to follow.  They introduce the player to a series of more and more difficult slopes.  It won’t hold your hand through this process, but leaves you to discover the ways by which you can improve your run times, your scores, and your control as confront the game’s hazards.  In essence, you’re being forced to learn how to play the game well in order to progress.  Of course, the single-player campaign can be entirely dismissed in favor of exploring each one of the mountains freely.

Performing runs in the single-player campaign, as well as in the explore mode will net the player points with which they can unlock more slopes or improve their characters with.  Each character gains levels as they are used, and with new levels come new equipment.  This could have been a point of frustration if the game were balanced in a way that access to better equipment was arbitrary constraint to game play.  But equipment really seems to simply augment and tweak how the characters perform, rather than dictate how they perform.  Customizing each character’s equipment gives the player the chance to tune them in accordance with their preferences.

Where character management really makes a noticeable difference is in competition with other players online.  Your friends will appear as ghosts playing along side you in the level based on their best run.  In addition to modifying a character’s equipment, you can also purchase stat “mods” that can be used while attempting to get the fastest run time or highest score on one slope.  Once you move on to another slope though, the mod expires.  They can be used to increase your ability to quickly perform tricks, adjust your boost speed, or your base speed.  When competing with others online, you may find that you’ve mastered a run, but still fall behind your friends.  The strategic use of points to tweak your character will make or break your performance relative to them and represents a sort of game going on around the game.  How and where can points be invested to give you the best edge among your friends.  It’s a simple system, but it provides the potential for engagement with the game beyond just unlocking and personally mastering the levels.

SSX doesn’t exactly push the boundaries of the genre or medium, but it exhibits all of the qualities of being an excellent game that will keep you playing for quite a while.  When so many other games are striving to bring you a cinematic, complex experiences, SSX is here to remind you of all the simple joys of playing games.

Rating: 3/3

See also: Trailer, Official Site, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at Amazon
Rent it at Gamefly

Review: Dark Souls [3/3]

Dark Souls
   Dark Souls: bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase “love/hate relationship.”

It’s very difficult to judge Dark Souls.  I’ve thrown down the controller and cursed this game on more than one occasion but I also kept going back to it.  It’s built from the ground up to be the bane of casual gamers as well as core gamers that have gotten used to games that make every effort to keep the player from ever being inconvenienced.  I will readily admit that I fall into the latter category.  Dark Souls is infuriating to complete, but I did complete it out of curiosity, self loathing, and the support of my girlfriend who, God bless her, had taken it upon herself to master this game.

Like many other contemporary RPGs, the player designs a character who is set loose in a vast world to conquer.  Lordran will not be conquered so easily though.  Luckily for the player, your character is virtually immortal.  Any time he or she dies, they are instantly transported back to a bonfire, minus any experience points they have earned.

The player must be able to make their way between pairs of bonfires without dying in order to progress in the game.  The player is given a finite number of estus flasks to restore their health along the way.  These flasks can be replaced at bonfires, but doing so will revive all of the enemies that had previously been killed.  Restoring flasks before reaching the next bonfire essentially means starting that leg of the journey over, but it ensures that you hold onto your experience points if you don’t think you’ll survive to see the following bonfire.  If you do die then you will have one chance to return to the location where your character was killed in order to retrieve those points.  Die again and they are forfeited.

At the end of each realm, the final bonfire will be guarded by a boss monster.  So if it weren’t difficult enough to survive the journey there, the player is expected to demonstrate mastery by being able to defeat intimidating creatures worthy of myth and legend using however many flasks you have left.  Nothing short of mastery of the game’s systems will allow you to proceed.  Lordran is a treacherous world that prides itself on tricking and killing you for making small mistakes.  There are no two ways about it, Dark Souls is one of the most challenging and frustrating games of this generation.  So why should anyone bother with it when there are so many other quality games that aren’t as taxing to play?  Because it is an incredibly deep game.  While cheap deaths are frustrating, there are always other ways to approach situations.  This encourages player master of the game’s mechanics which are rewarding in their own right.  For instance, learning how to parry or backstab will grant you the ability to do two or three times as much damage in one attack.

Dark Souls also creates a sense of tension that is unrivaled.  The environment of risk, reward, and value is unique and compelling.  I would have been disgusted with the game if it weren’t plainly evident how much effort went into building the world of Lordran and the game’s mechanics.  Dark Souls also deserves credit for the subtlety it uses in telling its story.  The cast is endearing and the events surrounding the game and its plot are incredible but, aside from the narrated intro, all of this emerges naturally and spontaneously from the world.  It’s easy to get lost in this game.

It is also worth noting that the game’s multiplayer component is seemlessly integrated into the single player campaign.  During the time that the player has returned to a human state (through use of expendable items) they can summon other players into their game or invade other player’s games with the goal of killing those players and stealing their humanity.  This can happen to yourself at any point while your human as well.  You’re forced to learn to watch your back any time you try to take advantages of being human.  The only way to avoid this is to disconnect from the internet entirely.

Dark Souls is far from perfect and I still despise some of its tricks and traps, but it’s a great game by virtue of its positive qualities completely outweighing the negative ones.  It’s not for everyone but it deserves respect for what it accomplishes.

Rating: 3/3

See also: Trailer, Official Site, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at Amazon
Rent it at Gamefly