Review: Final Fantasy IX [2/4]

Over the last two years, I’ve been revisiting many of Squaresoft games. Specifically, I’ve replayed Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy Tactics, Chrono Trigger, and now Final Fantasy IX. It’s been an opportunity for me to re-evaluate some of my favorite games with a more critical eye, and I haven’t been disappointed. Final Fantasy IX had made an impression on me ten years ago with its tone and presentation. I enjoyed it this time around as much as I did originally, but I’ve come to appreciate its flaws with more clarity as well.

JRPGs have succeeded by balancing three important elements: characters, world, and plot, but not in a literary sense.  JRPG stories and characters are notoriously convoluted in nature. Characters, world, and story all play central roles in the interactive design of the game though. Characters exist both in a passive, literary context, as well as an interactive one.  Each brings a specific skill set and impetus to explore the game play, and travel to new levels or locations.  Game play itself is developed similarly to the plot of a story, with the introduction of characters, strategies, abilities, as well as how these concepts are layered, paced, and deepened.   Final Fantasy IX tackles each element ambitiously, but has difficulty keeping the audience on the same page.

You enter the game as Zidane Tribal who, along with the Tantalus gang, have been tasked with the job of kidnapping the princess of the medieval  kingdom of Alexandria while disguised as a theater troupe.  Zidane and co. are surprised to discover that the princess is willing to cooperate.  While trying to get out of the Kingdom in one piece they are pursued the princess’s hapless guardian knight Steiner, and incidentally join forces with a young mage named Vivi who had snuck into the castle to watch the play.  The chase leads them aboard an airship, which is subsequently attacked by the queen’s forces, resulting in the airship ultimately crashing into the wilderness.  Zidane, the princess, Steiner, and Vivi are left to survive and to attempt to piece together what exactly is going on.

It’s a story that’s very much in line with past entries of the series, as is the game play.  Each character has distinct set of skills they can learn and use in the turn-based battle system.  Unfortunately, these battles are initiated at random in dungeons and the field, and transition between battle and field mode is incredibly disruptive.  But battles are generally balanced well and are interesting to complete.  Characters learn abilities by acquiring new equipment and using it in battles.  After completing enough battles, the skill will be memorized and that character will no longer have to use that equipment to be able to use the associated skill.  The broader pacing of the game is executed very smoothly, transitioning the audience between dungeons, battle, locations, and cut-sequences in a manner that is perpetually offering new content to explore.

A significant part of the game lies in character management.  The player can enlist four characters at a time in their party.  With limited funds the player must be making decisions on which equipment and abilities to invest in. The process of configuring abilities and equipment requires the player navigate a cryptic system of menus.  It becomes necessary to double check to make sure that the right equipment is placed on the right character, and that they have the correct abilities enabled.  It’s something that the player will learn to deal with after enough time (it’s a 30+ hour game, there’s plenty of time to learn) but it can be frustrating when the game swaps the characters in your party without giving you a chance to de-equip items from those departing characters. Ultimately, when everything is working as expected, Final Fantasy IX’s combat and management system are great motivators for exploring the game’s richly fleshed out and detailed world.

Things start to get hairy after the mid-way point of the game though, when the plot takes a distinct turn for the convoluted.  The problem doesn’t lie with the substance with the story as much as with its execution.  It’s a jarring transition that serves to undermine the immersive quality of the game up to that point.  The elements that are introduced at that point could have been introduced much earlier in the game, but even then it would have still been at odds with the tone and theme of the game.  It’s easy to feel lost and lose motivation to continue, but the game’s conclusion is rewarding despite all of this.  The player should just be ready for a bumpy ride and have a plot FAQ close by.  The majority of the the first half of the game though is Final Fantasy at its best.

Final Fantasy IX rolls up many of the things that have been great about JRPGs and Final Fantasy in the past and conjures a wonderful little world that’s imaginatively presented.  But its concepts suffer from a flawed execution that prevents the game from really building into something more impressive.  The experience at large is quite memorable, yet demanding of the audience’s patience.

Rating: 2/4

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

Buy it at Amazon (also available on PSN)

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Micro Reviews: 2010 Wrap Up

There have been many games I’ve been meaning to review around the end of 2010, and just haven’t been able to sink the time into doing more complete write-ups for them. So I just need to clear the plate and get these out of the way before too much time passes after I had completed them.

Left 4 Dead 2

As was the case with Resident Evil 5, Left 4 Dead 2 is begging for you to play it with friends. Though Left 4 Dead 2 is far more playable by one’s self than RE5 was. In either case, the game excels at keeping  players on their toes. Moving quickly from set piece to set piece, the action is intense to play through, and dramatic to witness. Between the enemy AI and ally AI, the player is given the sense that they are engaged in a chaotic, expansive scenario, rather than just a level in a game. In some levels, the difficulty can tend to spike in a way that really frustrates the pacing. Dialing back the difficulty settings is usually enough to keep the player moving on their way though. Left 4 Dead 2 offers a brand of survival horror that has progressed light years from the tank-like controls and sleep walking zombies of the original Resident Evil.

Rating: 3/4

See also: Trailer, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at Amazon.com, Rent it from Gamefly

Vanquish

Vanquish aims to leave its own unique mark on this generation’s action shooters, which have quickly become some of the most popular console games. Vanquish takes established genre devices (dramatic cut sequences) and game play mechanics (cover based gun play) and injects elements of arcade style twitch action. The player is given a super-suit that enables them to zip around large maps to engage enemies, large and small. However, this twist on the genre feels half-hearted. The super suit relies on an energy meter that steadily depletes whenever you use its rockets, melee attacks, or when bullet-time is enabled. The meter makes it very difficult to use these different abilities in combination, and in fact, the entire meter is depleted after a melee attack is executed. Thus, levels rarely force you to take advantage of these abilities and the game ends up being a sub-par third person action shooter. It has its moments, but neither the game play or presentation are particularly memorable.

Rating: 2/4

See also: Trailer, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at Amazon.com, Rent it from Gamefly

Donkey Kong Country Returns

I did not play a whole lot of SNES games back in the 90s. But one that I did play was Donkey Kong Country. Donkey Kong Country Returns brings the series to the Wii, and sets its sights directly on audiences that played the original games. It attempts to simultaneously evoke a sense of nostalgia while offering a greater challenge to gamers that have been playing platformers for years. DKCR fails on both counts. Part of its original charm lay in just how cool it looked at the time, with pre-rendered 3D graphics. That wow-factor is something that just can’t be recreated at this point. However, the graphical presentation was wrapped around a playground of levels for the audience to explore and enjoy. While the level themes are mostly faithful to their predecessors, the playfulness is frustrated by the game’s elevated challenge. They require a significant amount of memorization and leave little room for error. Small slip-ups early on can dramatically reduce your chances of completing a level, and can take too much time to replay to be truly enjoyable. This would make the game unplayable if it were not for the “Super-Kong” feature which puts the game in auto-pilot. It’s an excuse to make levels mindlessly challenging instead of utilizing thoughtful level design. All DKCR has to offer is a weak sense of nostalgia, which would be served better by just playing the original game instead.

Rating: 0/4

See also: Trailer, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at Amazon.com, Rent it from Gamefly

Micro Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World [2/4]

As I’ve made clear before, beat’em ups are some of my favorite games.  Irrationally so at times.  Scott Pilgrim Versus the World: The Game was on my radar, though I had not seen the movie and only barely knew about the graphic novels.  I ultimately waited for the game to go on sale before actually playing it.  Right off the bat, I was sold.  It nails presentation with convincingly retro graphics and music, without actually feeling like a 15-year-old game.  It really does create a false sense of nostalgia by capturing some of best aspects of the non-interactive elements from older games.

The game play itself is competent for a side-scrolling beat’em up.  Roaming around and exchanging blows with hipster kids can be surprisingly fun.  The player can level up one of four characters at a time as they progress through seven levels.  This is accomplished both by defeating enemies and by shopping for items that will raise your stats and/or experience.  The steady drip feed of new abilities is just enough to consistently renew player engagement.

The flaws of the game are found in its execution.  This is a game that is most fun when played with others, but it lacks an online multi-player mode, as well as drop in/out for local multi-player.  Thus, the game has to be restarted for others to start or stop playing.  This is made even worse by the fact that the game occasionally fails to save your progress (or at least this was my experience), and forces you to replay the last level that was completed before continuing.  And then, sometimes the game will freeze as well.  Your best bet is to sit down just try to beat the game in a single sitting.  It can be a very bipolar experience.  It has the ability to be very entertaining, but it can be totally marred by bugs and balance issues.

Rating: 2/4

See also: Trailer, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at Xbox Live

Micro Review: Kirby’s Epic Yarn [3/4]

I’ve struggled to come up with what I want to say about this game. At first glance, Epic Yarn appears to be a simple game styled for children. They will certainly enjoy it, but that shouldn’t stop adults from enjoying it as well. Kirby’s Adventure is one of the earliest games I’ve playing (almost 18 years ago now.)  I still remember it fondly, and picked up the Game Boy Advance re-release a few years ago.  I had never really played any other Kirby games aside from that (and Kirby’s Pinball), but with all the good reviews for Epic Yarn, I thought it would be a good opportunity to put the Wii to use. My first impression of the game was that I was far too old for it. Epic Yarn makes Kirby’s Adventure look relatively mature in comparison. But the game’s charm is difficult to resist.

The presentation of the game, and the feedback it provides, is pitch perfect. It’s just a lot of fun to bounce around the levels as Kirby. There is no risk of getting a game over, but the tension in trying to avoid game play failure is replaced with the tension over the possibility of failing to meet your own expectations. Every level offers a large number of beads you can collect which collect in a meter in the corner of the screen. If you are hurt by an enemy then all of the beads explode away from Kirby and will disappear after a few seconds if you fail to collect them again. So, the objective of the game isn’t merely to complete it, but to excel with the game mechanics the player is given.  It does an amazingly effective job at just letting you have fun.

The chief complaint that I have with the game is that the challenge can feel shallow after you’ve begun to master the controls. There are definitely sections of the game that make it very hard to hold onto the beads you have accumulated, but it’s difficult not to start imagining how the game would be even more satisfying with levels that offer complex puzzles or challenging acrobatics. As opposed to weak game play being stretched too thin, Epic Yarn offers strong game play that you will wish you had more opportunities to further master.  It’s otherwise well paced between platforming, boss battles, and “vehicle” modes that give Kirby special powers in a way that’s more like earlier Kirby games.

Epic Yarn offers a uniquely cohesive and imaginative experience.  The game’s yarn physics and logic make an absurd sort of sense, and provides instantly satisfying feedback.  It’s sickeningly adorable, and it will make you feel like you should be seven years old while playing. But it’s hard not to get into it.  While it is presented as one of the most laid back games ever made, you will still be nervously clutching the controller as you make your way through levels.  It’s definitely one of the best titles for the Wii this year, and a very memorable game overall.

Rating: 3/4

See also: Trailer, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at Amazon

Rent it at Gamefly

Review: Plants vs. Zombies [4/4]

Once again, I’m well behind in playing Pop Cap’s games.  In this instance, Plants vs. Zombies was release earlier last year, but has been recently ported to the Xbox 360.  I figured this was as good a time as any to try it out; and I haven’t been disappointed.

As with so many video games in this day and age, there are many, many zombies that you need to deal with.  They are coming for you, but you really can’t bother with the whole evacuation thing.  And the board-up-your-house idea is just too much work.  No, instead you will manage a small army of plant friends who will risk their lives to defend you and your property.

The player must arrange plants on a 6×9 grid, but they are limited by two factors.  1) Plants have a cost in sun, which the player must accumulate as it falls from the sky, and by collecting it from sunflowers that can be planted. 2) Plants of any one specific type can only be planted at a certain rate.  Once the player places a sunflower, for instance, they must wait a few seconds before planting another, even if they have enough sunlight to plant it immediately.

There are also level based constraints that must be taken into account as well.  Night levels require the player to plant things that depend less of sunlight.  Pool levels require the player to place water based plants or lily pads which allow for normal plants to be placed on top of them.  And there are levels where there is no soil at all, and a pot of it must be placed on a grid before a plant can be placed there.

Then there are the zombies.  There are probably as many zombies as there are plants (a couple of dozen.)  And whenever a new one is introduced, it usually throws a wrench in your strategy.  However, there is always a way to deal with them, so it always feels like a challenge rather than an obstacle.  Some zombies rely on brute force, others will be able to circumvent your defenses, and many more are just tough to kill.  Between these and the other factors listed above, you have elements that make for very engaging level design.

Game play itself is about balancing all of these factors and juggling between what you’re paying attention to on the screen.  Many times the player will have to ask him or herself: should I use more sun in favor of placing as many of one type of plant as possible; or do I hold back and reserve my sun and the ability to place a plant exactly when and where I need it.  The choice is between planning and responding.  Do you feel comfortable enough anticipating what’s to come, or do you want to deal with it as it happens.  Of course, you always must be paying attention to where sun is, what the status of other plants are, and what other plants you can place.  And the zombies of course.  There are more things going on than the player can keep track of simultaneously, but never so much as to be completely overwhelming.

Every few levels, the pace is broken up with mini games which allow the player to narrow their focus.  So instead of having to keep track of everything noted above, the player will be given plants at a regular interval that they only need to place well.  More mini-games are unlocked as the player progresses, allowing for a wide array of game play options that are built on top of a strong foundation.  The Xbox edition of the game also includes competitive and cooperative modes that manage to extend game play even further to encompass playing as the zombies.

Like Peggle before it, Plants vs. Zombies takes a cool game play idea and fully realizes it in the game’s execution.  It is encompassed with an entertaining presentation and catchy music.  And even when you are finished with the main campaign, there are plenty of extra mini-games and challenges that will push you to continue exploring the game, and to refine strategies that you think are already solid.  If you have any inclination to play this game, you won’t regret picking it up.  It offers a game play experience that is more thorough than many of the $60 titles that are out there.

Rating: 4/4

See Also: TrailerMore thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at Amazon, or at XBLA

Rent it at Gamefly

 

Review: Chrono Trigger [3/4]

The label “greatest game of all time” gets tossed around a lot in the gaming community; too often for it to be meaningful, but the sentiment is sincere.  Chrono Trigger is among those games classified as the “greatest of all time.” It is certainly one of the best that the jRPG genre had to offer on the SNES, but what can be said about its merits beyond simply just fond memories of a bygone era in gaming history? Does Chrono Trigger have anything to offer that can’t be provided more effectively by today’s games? I believe it still does. I only played the game for the first time after completing Chrono Cross almost 10 years ago now. It was time in console RPGs when full motion video and complex combat systems dominated the genre. But Chrono Trigger still outshined most of these games and provides a compelling model for the genre today.

Chrono Trigger puts the player in the shoes of a silent protagonist named Crono. He is characterized by the facts that he 1) lives with his mom, 2) likes swords, 3) and he’s excited to be going to the local fair. Life for Crono is turned on its head when he and his brainy friend Lucca accidentally discover that one of her inventions can be used to travel through time. The pair, along with Crono’s new friend Marle, jump from period to period getting into, and out of trouble. It’s a basic formula that you’ve probably seen played out in any number of movies and TV shows that deal with time travel. But eventually, the trio stumble across a post-apocalyptic future. They manage to uncover records of the day that the world ended and uncovered the culprit: a monster named Lavos. Naturally, they feel compelled to try and use time travel to stop this from happening, and the game follows them in their pursuit to save a future which they technically will never live to see.

CT’s game play model is similar to that of Final Fantasy IV’s. For most of the game the player must complete a series of levels with a predetermined party of characters. Each character carries with them a distinct collection of abilities to aid the party in battle. As the player navigates the map they will be confronted by monsters and other enemies which triggers the combat interface. Characters draw their weapons and wait for their action gauge to fill up. Where CT expands on FFIV’s model is in the coordination between characters to create new techniques from innate abilities. The party isn’t just a couple of characters with prescribed roles to play, they represent a unit that has unique abilities for that combination of characters.   The player really does get a sense that they are working together towards a common goal, and aren’t just interchangeable pawns.

The main campaign is a polished, but limited package which the player can take or leave. As far as linear, story driven games go Chrono Trigger is definitely one of the most memorable. Over the space of roughly twenty hours, the player will explore five periods in time and amass up to seven party members. The tone of the story can go from being cute and amusing to surprisingly serious science fiction. It is also a game that is very successful at channeling and twisting the player’s expectations. On its face, it is a simple game, but the depth of its world can push the player’s imagination past what’s immediately on the screen.

The game play mechanics serve the story and characters well, but they are narrow in scope. CT is a very story driven game, and if the player buys into its world and characters (it’s hard not to) then the game play adds a compelling dimension to the experience. If the player doesn’t get hooked, then the game play will be novel, but not worth completing the game for. There are several points in the game that draw heavily from the player’s actions, but when it comes to combat it is more difficult to play a role beyond selecting the composition of the party and which techniques the player sees to be effective. That being said however, the difficulty curve throughout the campaign never requires for the player to “grind” for levels. You only need to grind if you want to unlock more techniques for characters that you have not used regularly in the campaign.

Chrono Trigger presents a cohesive and compelling experience that has endeared it to a generation of gamers. Built by a “dream team” of developers, producers, composers, and writers from the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest teams, Chrono Trigger is a gem of a game that can still hold it’s own today. Perhaps not with the same luster it did during the SNES era, but it’s still a game that designers would be well served to study. I’ve enjoyed returning back to its world 10 years later, and find it very accommodating even now for a jRPG.

Rating: 3/4

See Also: TrailerMore thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at Amazon

Rent it at Gamefly

Review: Red Dead Redemption [3/4]

If you’ve ever played the iconic Oregon Trail, then chances are that you fondly remember naming characters after your friends, having them become ill with dysentery, burying them with a tombstone reading “Here lies butt face”, shooting buffalo for half an hour, then wrapping up the whole ordeal by wrecking your wagon as you ford a river.

Or maybe that was just me.

In any case, Oregon Trail provided a lot of neat little “what if” scenarios to play around with in your mind. Red Dead Redemption is barking up the same tree. Upon disembarking from the train, I (as John Marston) proceeded to the convenience store where upon hitting what I thought was the “Hi there” button, I ended up hitting the “Pistol whip the sucker” button. The controls were going to be complex, but I knew at that moment that the potential for entertainment was going to be great.

The game is structured passively. John Marston has a destination or a goal, but the audience isn’t prodded or rushed towards it with the same urgency as a game like Bioshock would do. It is very open ended but there’s always a good sense of where you are and what you’re doing as the story progresses. At some points, the game could have used stronger signalling to indicate what the player needs to do to continue the story, but overall the amount of breathing room the player is given is well appreciated.

This breathing room works as well as it does because of the incredible aesthetics of the environment and organic nature of surrounding events and actors. Had the entire story been removed, in favor of free form exploration, RDR would have suffered little for it. The world is rich with detail and realized in a way like few others have. Characters and back story are just icing on the cake.  They are believable (for the most part), voice acted well, and are fairly well written for what they are.

Occasionally, the story is dragged out. The game play revolving around some of these points of the story become exceedingly repetitive and definitely lose their luster by the end of campaign in Mexico. It can end up feeling like game filler that serves only to demonstrate explicitly that there is a beginning, middle and end to the game, but it is unnecessary. The amount of effort required to complete the story’s tasks are more often not worth the rewards that follow.  Plot points are repeated often, and plot development is sporadic.  It wasn’t unpleasant, but easily forgotten.  The world is thoroughly convincing while you are in it, but it’s not a game that sticks with the player afterwards.

RDR’s most memorable moments come the unstructured time spent in between story segments. In addition to many “what if” scenarios (where you may be tempted to create mischief, hunt, or otherwise “get ahead” in the game) there are many times when the game will sporadically challenge the player. Animals can attack, people will try to trick you, or plead for your help. These are mostly optional. There are rewards, but it’s not as if you need to meet a quota to progress through the game. The player can enjoy them for their own merits where and when they see fit, and however they might please. If someone suspicious were to approach you in the wilderness pleading for help, nothing will stop you from drawing a gun and scaring the person off. Or you could wait and see what he wants, and wait to react. And you can take a more vicious course of action and kill the person on the spot, loot their cash, and take off since no one saw you do it.

The world of Red Dead Redemption is immersive in that there’s very little feeling of restriction, as well as many opportunities to explore and interact with the game world. I can’t speak to its historical accuracy, but it is convincing enough to stimulate the player’s imagination about that period. The complexity of the controls is initially daunting. Even just running requires repeated button presses, so it can be easy to become overwhelmed when coordinating between several different actions in quick succession. And when the context of the controls changes (e.g. during duels) you can find yourself fumbling awkwardly to best your opponent. It can really break the momentum of the game.

RDR’s parallels to a game like Oregon Trail lie in both having similar themes (adventures into the wilderness) as well as the freedom for the player to make the story something of their own. RDR’s narrative is clearly defined, but what occurs in between scripted sequences may offer even more on the whole.  It’s a beautiful game to roam around in.  It shares the same calm satisfaction that Shadow of the Colossus exuded.  But it also has the capacity throw you into  danger in the blink of an eye.  The underlying combat mechanics hold up well in making gun fights as immersive as the rest of the game.   If you’ve got any inclination to play a western themed game, or simply enjoy a game with a good sense of spontaneity and freedom, then it is hard to go wrong with Red Dead Redemption.

Rating: 3/4

See Also: TrailerMore thoughts at Ruminatron5000, The Red Dead Redemption Short Film

Buy it at Amazon

Rent it at Gamefly

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