Micro Review: Bioshock 2 [2/4]

Bioshock 2 was a more polished, yet vestigial experience. Gone were the terrible voices of the vending machines, wasted first aid kits caused by mistaken button presses, tedious hacking puzzles, and other rough edges found in the previous game. But the overbearing narrative structure and shallow level design haven’t changed either. What was a novel for Bioshock becomes typical in the second iteration with a big daddy playing as the protagonist. There’s not a great deal for Bioshock 2 to contribute to Rapture at this point, but it serves as a good excuse to venture back into the plasmid playground one more time.

In substance, Bioshock 2 is almost identical to the original. You’ll be listening to many tape recordings, a delusional leader (though this time of a collectivist bent), and have plenty of errands to run for strangers. You’ll need to decide once again whether or not to harvest little sisters for their adam, though there is still little incentive to take it from them. There are now big sisters which will oddly intervene only when you save little sisters, as opposed to when you kill them to harvest their adam.

The character designs were less cartoonish this time around and easier to take as seriously as the game would like you to. There were also some memorable scenes where you venture outside Rapture or shift perspective to other characters.  In those instances the game successfully plays off of, and with your expectations.  It varied the pace of the game in a way that the first should have done, but more would have been welcome in the sequel as well.

The silent protagonist is a common device in first person shooters like this, but when there’s so many conversations silence begins to stick out more and more. Given how little you actually customize the protagonist I don’t understand why he is not given any lines. It would have helped a great deal in engaging the player and smoothing out the game’s story.  There’s not a whole lot more to add. It’s a shameless excuse to extend the shelf life of Bioshock’s game play. Nothing lost, nothing gained. The changes made from the first game are more similar to annual Madden game changes than a full fledged sequel.

Rating: 2/4

See Also: TrailerMore thoughts at Ruminatron5000

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Review: Bioshock [2/4]

Since its release, Bioshock has been something of a big deal. Heaped with praise for its storytelling, imaginative game play, and an environment that’s immersive like no other.  Having missed out on the games over the last few years, these were my impressions of the game. The bar was set too high in my mind, and my experience with Bioshock didn’t square with the hype. There are many good qualities in the rough that have resonated through the gaming community, but I found that it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be either.

The concept of Rapture is wildly imaginative and intriguing. Deep under the ocean are the ruins of a fantastic city led by a man whose vision of free markets ate itself alive. It’s unlike most other worlds captured in video games. Equally impressive were the “plasmids” which give people super-human abilities. They can be combined to create spectacular battle strategies that give Half Life 2’s game play a run for its money. So what exactly went wrong?

My chief complaint lies in the fact that Bioshock reminded me me that games do not always need a story. Stories provide a template for events to occur. Events are a necessary part of a game in signalling progression and providing feedback to the player. Stories aren’t required to provide events, and when stories are used, events should form the dominant part of the equation between the two. Games don’t always tell coherent stories, and that’s acceptable when they are the means to the end of a good game. Final Fantasy IV serves as a good example of this. Bioshock flips the balance of that equation and neglects to utilize its strengths to the fullest.

Instead of letting the world of Rapture speak for itself Bioshock assaults you will dialog and tape recordings from every man woman and child who ever lived there. It was a suffocating.  I know I could have ignored the tapes, but there is still a subset of them that genuinely contributed to the experience. I know this is supposed to be about how Rapture catastrophically failed, but it would have been preferable to have a few survivors left to talk to instead of wading through so many tapes of what they had for lunch last month. That aside, you will still have plenty of people chit-chatting you into oblivion via radio.

Similarly, the level design made little use of the plasmids. You could take advantage of your environment to dispatch enemies more efficiently, but this is never a requirement as you can just as well expend some extra ammo and clear a room all the same. You’re free to come up with creative strategies, but you will only enjoy them for their own sake, and not as part of feedback for completing a challenge. It would have been cool if the game gave you some hints on exploiting these strategies, but Inevitably the level design revolves around a story which mostly involved doing favors for other people. The entire experience ends up blurring together with few milestones that signal real progress. Most confrontations devolve into noisy, chaotic messes instead of well designed challenges.

Bioshock as a game met a similar fate as Rapture the city: a grand vision that caved in on itself after so long. Burdened with the task of trying to articulate why Randian ethics would fail in practice, Bioshock is constantly distracted from delivering on its potential. Even in it’s attempts to dismantle Randian ethics, Bioshock still managed to miss its target. The game can be completed without having to rely heavily on plasmids (or other adam related attributes.) The reward for harvesting adam from little sisters is negligible.  It’s hardly worth it unless you’re just looking to play around with plasmids as quickly as possible.  In which case, the game’s statement on ethics are probably not all that important to you.

It’s a game that should have directed itself more closely to the style of Castlevania: a game that consists of many interconnected dungeons, with a narrative that mostly leaves the player to put the pieces together for themselves.  Clocking in around 20 hours to complete, Bioshock’s flaws became exhausting.  If it were half as long, with more carefully designed levels, I would enjoy going back and trying different strategies.  As it stands though the ratio of busy work to fun scenarios is frustrating.  My perspective on the game may have been unfairly colored by the expectations I had since the game’s original release, but it’s difficult to ignore the aspects of the game which ended up being self-defeating.

Rating: 2/4

See Also: TrailerMore thoughts at Ruminatron5000

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Review: Limbo [3/4]

I was initially hesitant to pick up Limbo, fearing that it was either going to be A) too short, or B) too artsy-fartsy to be enjoyable.  The bitter after-taste of Braid was lingering in my mind.  I still downloaded the demo and found that the initial level was incredibly nerve-wracking for such a simple looking game.  It was enough to convince me to pay for the full game.  I had known that the player deaths could be gruesome, but Limbo adds a layer to that which is even more unsettling.  The boy controls almost whimsically as you smoothly move through the environments and jump through the air.  Contrasting this with the brutality of the different ways you can die gave those deaths more impact, and the visual contrast of light and dark made it stand out in ways that would go entirely unnoticed in a fully colored and three-dimensional world.

That feeling was stronger during the initial levels of the game but seemed to dissipate later on as the focus shifted more towards puzzles than danger.  The puzzles were clever yet they don’t bring you to the brink of madness as they did with Braid though (which is a good or a bad thing depending on how you felt about Braid).  Platforming elements are mixed into the game’s challenges very well, and I was on my toes from beginning to end.  It doesn’t take a great deal of time to complete, which can make it a tough sell at $15.  But as a result of brevity, it doesn’t overstay its welcome.  There’s no filler in between interesting portions of the game.  And given the choice, I’d rather spend 2 hours enjoying good level design rather than 65 mediocre hours with just a few memorable moments (Final Fantasy XIII still has me irritated in that regard).  Save for a couple of exceptionally tricky puzzles the game flows very well.  It’s easy to just pick up and play from beginning to end.

There is no narrative to the game other than the Xbox Live description and what you can infer from the events and environments of the game.  It can be fun to attach a story to a game, but a half-hearted story is almost not worth telling in the first place.  Instead, Limbo focuses on keeping your interest based on level design.  It would have been helpful to have some sort of introduction to how grabbing and moving objects worked (I’m sad to say that the beginning of the game had me stumped for a good part of 10 minutes) or perhaps a more intuitive way to accomplish that.  There are a couple of other elements that are not immediately obvious, which will lead to a couple frustrating scenarios.  Otherwise, Limbo takes the route that most early console games had to take: game play had to be intuitive and interesting without text or cut scenes moving you along.  And it does a pretty good job of this.  Limiting the narrative elements also kept Limbo from trying to dump a message on the audience, something that usually turns me off to a lot of independent games.

Like Braid, Limbo is an interesting game to have on your virtual shelf.  It’s easy for you, or anyone else that picks up the controller, to jump into a macabre adventure without having to already be immersed in gaming culture or knowledge of gaming genres.  Oddly enough, I can see the game as conversation piece for guests (think like books you’d keep on a coffee table).  You know, if you entertain the kind of guests that aren’t put off by violence and death.  Never the less, it is still more approachable than Braid.  If you’re the only one that’s going to be playing it, then Limbo is not the greatest value at $15.  But based on its merits, it is a good game that’s worth picking up if you’ve got the extra cash.

Rating: 3/4

See Also: TrailerMore thoughts at Ruminatron5000

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Review: Dante’s Inferno [1/4]

Dante’s Inferno wasn’t unplayable, but the only reason to play it was because it had something to do with The Divine Comedy and it feels a lot like God of War.  After finishing it though I was left wondering “why?”  At it’s best, Dante’s Inferno felt like purgatory: inoffensive yet sad.  And at it’s worst, well, it felt like a little taste of hell itself.

The first thing I’d like to get out of the way is the decision to try and interpret Inferno as a game.  Taking creative liberties is reality when re-interpreting someone else’s work, and it can be done well where the derived work contributes to the ideas of the source material.  Dante’s Inferno feels more like EA riding the legacy of the epic poem like a parasite.  And Visceral wants the game’s audience to be more serious about Dante’s Inferno than Visceral itself was about the poem.  Putting that aside though, it is just a game, and I tried to play it like that.

At first blush, the hook for this game is the exploration of hell.  This is the best feature of the game, but it is poorly executed.  Most of the time it looks like God of War with a hell-themed skin.  It’s enough to make you think “oh hey, I’m in hell” but not enough to think “oh shit, I’m in hell!”  Each level of hell feels an awful lot like all the others, except for instances when it’s a “fire level” as opposed to an “ice level.”  But the differences are superficial the design doesn’t tie very strongly back to the theme of the level.  Many times you’ll travel into the next one and you won’t even notice if you’re not paying attention.  Even the enemies stay the same for almost the entire game.

There are a handful of striking scenes, but even then the game’s efforts at placing the camera at dramatic angles serves only to frustrate the player’s attempts to traverse platforming sections of the game.  The senses of space and motion are crippled when you are viewing action from an angle that lacks a sense of depth, or when the camera zooms out leaving Dante looking like an ant when you’re supposed to be carefully dodging enemy attacks.

The combat mechanics are solid, but enemy and level design leave it sorely under-utilized.  Maybe I should have been playing on a more difficult setting, but if God Hand taught me anything it’s that the difficulty setting shouldn’t turn off how you have to play the game.  I acquired many special moves and power ups, but it didn’t seem to matter.  I could just button mash my way through hell.  That is, until your momentum is brought to a screeching halt by an inane puzzle.  They aren’t as difficult as they are annoying.  The dark lord would have been better off guarding hell with a series of box puzzles than he is leaving minions that Dante can tear in half like an origami swan.

There are no points in the game where you would feel frightened.  Dante’s Inferno should have drawn elements from the survival horror genre to instill fear or dread in the player, but it is blatantly preoccupied with imitating God of War.  No portion of the game rivals Silent Hill: Homecoming’s “hell descent” and concluding boss, Scarlet.  Games that have no intention of being Inferno have more in common with it than Dante’s Inferno does.  So what does that leave in its favor?

The last aspect it could potentially find success in would be narrative.  If fear can’t be instilled though game play then maybe it can be found through characters and narrative.  Don’t hold your breath.  Dante goes to hell to rescue Beatrice, because Beatrice wagered her soul on Dante’s sense of monogamy only to lose.  Why did she need to place a bet in the first place?  Who knows.  And Dante is as easy to identify with as the demons of hell.  When confronted with scythe-armed unbaptized babies, Dante can either punish them for being unbaptized by ripping them in half, or he can baptize the hell out of them by slamming a cross in their face.  Eventually the only motivation left to continue Dante’s quest is to be able to claim you’re the biggest, meanest dude in hell.  Which sounds a lot like trying to be the biggest, meanest dude in all of Greek mythology.

Making a game about exploring hell was a cool idea, but it was all downhill after that.  The design of Hell and it’s demons could be very good at times,  but there’s a lot of potential for Dante’s Inferno that was willfully neglected.  More than likely because EA treats The Divine Comedy like an ATM than a good idea.  But there is still a game that could have been lying inside the ruins of the game that is.

Rating: 1/4

See Also: TrailerMore thoughts at Ruminatron5000

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Review: God Hand [4/4]

When I’m playing a game like Final Fantasy XIII, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, or even Nier, I’m waiting for some sort of payoff.  I invest my time and effort for hours at a time and I’m not exactly enjoying myself.  But I’ve been given little gaming tidbits that if I just stick the game out, I will be rewarded.  God Hand does not do this at all.  It is instantly satisfying.  There is no waiting for a pay off.  No investment is required.  You will be rewarded even before you knew there was a reward to be had, and that’s one of the best types of gaming experiences to be had.

God Hand is just fun to play.  I’ve always enjoyed the action of the Devil May Cry series, and Bayonetta for that matter, but they are polished to a sheen, and you’re not allowed to cramp their style.  But God Hand rushes at you, kicks dirt at your face and dares you to try and be awesome.  The game’s protagonist, Gene, can be very powerful, but most of the time he is a doofus.  With Dante or Bayonetta, you feel like an idiot when you’re beat up by the enemies.  After all, during cut scenes those characters are flawless and untouchable.  When Gene gets punched in the balls, it seems appropriate.  When the player isn’t going to be perfect at a game, it is far more plausible for the protagonist to be a klutz (or just less than perfect.)

That sense of humility (or humiliation) is well placed, considering how challenging the game can be.  Even on easy, you’re going to replay battles, and rethink your strategy.  It also may mean that you never finish it, which is oddly not a bad thing.  If the joy is in the moment, and the moment can be had at any time, then there’s nothing to accomplish in beating the game other than for bragging rights.  Just because you’ve had enough before it’s over doesn’t mean you had a bad time.

The game play itself is founded on roving around levels and beating people up.  A spontaneous sense of humor helps to keep a good sense of pacing.  Even when you’re being beaten over and over, you’ll never have to retrace your steps for very long.  The themes of the levels seem entirely random, and have little to no relevance to the game’s story (what little there is.)  Each level is a small world in and of itself though that presents enough novelty and gaming content to keep the player engaged.  They are entertaining, and the wild variation is reminiscent of games from several generations past which had few options for stories, cut scenes, or characters.

A surprisingly deep combo-design system will keep you coming back for more.  It is satisfying to not only beat the tar out of the game’s enemies, but to come up with your own unique way of doing it.  The player must account for the speed, power, and the side effects of the different types of moves available to link together.  Certain moves will launch enemies in different directions, break their guard, dodge incoming enemy attacks, or only provide entertainment for the player and anyone else looking on.  There are plenty of opportunities to show off to onlookers, and Gene’s super-moves provide some hilarious finales.

God Hand is an incredibly fun game to play, and to progress through.  There’s a great deal of challenge that forces the player to make complete use of the game’s features.  It may appear to be impossible at times, or just plain frustrating, but there’s always a way through the opponents that are thrown in your way.  It’s been out for four to five years now, but you’ll still be able to find it used pretty easily.  If you already enjoy the action and spectacle of Devil May Cry and Bayonetta, then you’ve probably already played God Hand.  If you haven’t, then don’t miss out while you can still find it.

Rating: 4/4

The Game contains scenes of awesome kicks to the groin.

See Also: Trailer, More thoughts at Ruminatron5000

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Review: Nier [2/4]

Nier wasn’t on my radar until very recently when the hamster in my skull started turning those wheels and figured out it was a new Cavia game.  Cavia’s previous games include the Drakengard series, which are some of my favorites.  I might be the only that thinks that, but the blend of character and plot in their games strikes a chord for me.  In that regard, Nier delivers, but in many others Nier struggles.

You begin the game in the modern world; after it has ended.  Covered in either snow or ash, there’s still at least two human that haven’t left the party yet.  A man and his daughter navigate the ruins in search of food.  He’s weak, but with the help of a strange book he is able to decimate the lumbering foes that stalk him, referred to as shades.

Fast forward 1,000 years.  Nier and his daughter Yonah are carrying on mysteriously well for reasons untold, though Yonah still suffers from disease.  The following portion of the game felt like it took 1,000 years to complete as well.  Nier is sent off to do everyone else’s chores.  It seemed like the game had forgotten what it was doing and was wandering about aimlessly.  Every so often it even seems to forget what genre it falls under, sometimes morphing into a SHMUP, other times a platformer, and even a puzzle game.  Combat is basic hack ‘n slash.  It’s not bad, but a more responsive camera and any sort of targeting system would have gone a long way.  Similarly, the leveling system and magic is also very basic.  Don’t go start into Nier expecting an action rpg.  It’s as much an RPG as kool-aid is fruit juice.

You may lose interest before the plot begins to pick up again.  I almost did.  The two things that kept me going along doing everyone else’s dirty work were: how are 1,000 year old Nier and Yonah still carrying on after the world ended? And the characters that you accumulate along the way (a book, a foul mouth lingerie warrior, and a young boy) who helped to pass the time with spontaneous banter.  This long stretch of tedium seems to serve no other purpose than to introduce you to characters and attempt to endear them to the player.  That objective is accomplished, but there had to be a better way.

Your patience will be rewarded though if you manage to cross the half way point of the game though.  The plot will begin to directly engage you and the characters once more and slowly begins to reveal what has happened over all the years.  It has been noted in other reviews that Nier has a dark story.  The game can get a little carried away on that note.  You’ll begin to worry when anything good starts to happen, because inevitably something terrible is soon to follow.  There are a fair number of genuinely sad or disturbing moments though.  And by the end of the game, Nier will have capitalized on your prior investments.  It’s also worth noting that the soundtrack is very good.  I wish I could say the same thing for the graphics, but this is a less significant point when compared to poor camera control and targeting.

It’s a tremendously sad story, and there are surprisingly novel reasons to play through the game again you’re finished.  Fortunately you will only have to pick up from the middle of the game.  If you have become interested in the game world at that point, you won’t mind the fact that you have to replay half of the game to reveal all of the story.  It’s also after the half way point that the game gives up on trying to blend genres and focuses exclusively on being a hack-and-slash action game.

It requires a great deal of patience, but if you stuck it through Final Fantasy XIII then you’ll have little trouble with Nier.  It’s poorly paced, and the game play could use some serious work, but it’s ultimately an experience that makes a significant impression and will stick with you well after you’re finished.  I’ve played games that have been sad, tragic, or despairing, but Nier may be the first game that, for me, feels genuinely heart breaking.

Rating: 2/4

See also: Trailer, More thoughts at Ruminatron 5000

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Review: Final Fantasy XIII [0/4]

Final Fantasy XIII is a game where nothing happens for long periods of time.  There are things that happen around you, and you may witness something else that happens, but you rarely find yourself participating as part of the game.  It also the very best game in which nothing actually happens.  When you see something happen, it looks incredible.  It might be the best looking game out there.  The designs often come off as garish but the natural environments are very nice to look at and the draw distance will leave you squinting and trying to watch for things going on that are miles and miles away.  In this respect Final Fantasy XIII is like a cross-country road trip: you’ll see some cool looking stuff along the way, but you’re always asking if you’re there yet.  And you never actually get there by the time it’s over.

I don’t disagree with linear game design in principle.  This was a large part of why I enjoyed Modern Warfare 2 so much (as did Square-Enix too apparently.)  I only ask that if you’re going to take away player initiative in then give the player something that’s even better in return.  The game has to at least have a very good story or an engaging game play system.  Modern Warfare 2’s story was based entirely on the spectacle of a fake Russian invasion which was buttressed with solid game play and some awesome in-game events.  Final Fantasy XIII fails to deliver in a similar capacity.  The first 30 hours or so of game play consisted of me waiting to play the second 30 hours of the game.  I was constantly in a state of suspended disbelief.  The earlier E3 trailers for the game showed off so much action, but in reality most battles can be resolved in fewer than 10 button presses.  The beginning of the game’s story also alluded to some of the 20th century’s most notorious crimes against humanity, but the narrative puts blinders on the player so that they focus exclusively on the game’s immediate cast and their constantly reiterated mission to A) defy fate and B) reassure themselves that they can do this (read A. cut and B. dry, even for a Final Fantasy.)  The game is constantly on the verge of being something interesting, and that possibility had me desperately clinging to the hope that the good part was always close.

From a distance the battle system looks fast paced and exciting but upon closer inspection it is on autopilot 95% of the time.  You technically control one character but there is rarely, if ever, a battle scenario where issuing individual commands is a better option than selecting auto battle.  You will initially be under the impression that there is correlation between jamming on the A button and the action that unfolds on the screen.  That might have been fine if this were a six to eight hour game but after that long it feels like the battles play out in slow motion.  The battle system is streamlined in the sense that it isn’t complicated to select the right commands (since the game will do this for you.)  But battles can feel like they are drawn out longer than they need to be just to show off the graphics and animation.  Boss battles can also be incredibly frustrating experiences.  They can take upwards of 15 or 20 minutes each and can really aggravate the game play’s flaws.

  • For instance, if you figure out that another paradigm would work better at a later point in the battle you have no option to change your paradigm deck.  Why shouldn’t I be able to change the character roles on an individual basis in real-time? Paradigms are randomized when the party changes, which can end up happening when a pre-boss cut scene takes place.  In many instances you will begin the boss fight without having a chance to even prepare your paradigm configuration.  Only after you die or restart the battle will the game think to give you a chance to pick your strategy.
  • If your party leader dies then the battle has to start over.  There is no difference between the party leader and any other party member other than they have to wait for you to tell them to act.  Even if your other characters have the ability to revive the team leader they’ll never have the chance.  Why shouldn’t I be able to switch team leaders on the fly?
  • If you’re winning, but not winning quickly enough, each boss has the ability to cast doom on your party leader (which will kill you if you don’t beat the enemy before a timer runs out) and demand that you try again if you can’t pick up the pace.  It’s the cheapest move I’ve seen a game make in a long time and a total cop-out in the its design.

These are annoying during three-minute battles, but when they cause you to lose a battle after you’re already sunk ten minutes into it is infuriating to start a battle over because of something incidental.  This is made doubly bad when the game caps how far you can build your characters at any given point in the game.  Forcing you to play a game on rails is fun if a game takes you some place entertaining, but I don’t care much for Final Fantasy XIII’s approach of butting my head into the wall a few times before making it around a corner.

Unfortunately the story is also told in excruciating slow motion.  It’s not that much more absurd than anything else Final Fantasy has attempted to do in the past, but there is much less of it contained in the 60+ hour adventure.  The first 25 hours can be summarized in the space of a paragraph.  FFXIII beats around the narrative bush in the most glorified fashion possible and loses its luster after six to eight hours.  Flaws could be glossed over and moved away from quickly in past entries, but XIII just dwells on them and hopes flashy cut scenes will distract you.  As others have described, you will grow to hate a large portion of the team.  I wanted to wring some of their necks while yelling “GET ON WITH IT ALREADY!”

I also find myself agreeing with much of Tim Roger’s assessment of the game. (Search for the line “A recent story on Kotaku.com supports our hypothesis.”  (Yes, I have read the whole thing.  All 18,000 words of it.))  I don’t believe that there was a cohesive vision of what this game was supposed to be.  I can say for myself that there wasn’t very much about the game that felt cohesive.  Final Fantasy has been pigeonholed into being the most beautiful game possible for a given platform at the time of each game’s release.  That task has become exponentially more difficult with each new generation of games consoles. Even Square Enix appears to admit this to a certain degree.  It’s been no secret that creating jRPG in the HD era is incredibly resource intensive, and even when limiting themselves to creating what’s essentially an on-rails RPG they still have difficulty.  Final Fantasy XIII is a game with enough content for 20 hours that is stretched to be 60 hours+.

I’m not inclined to write off my negative feelings as the result of outgrowing the Final Fantasy series.  Over the last two years or so I’ve spent just as much time playing through Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy VI, and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII as I have Final Fantasy XIII.  I enjoyed these games far more than I did XIII, and I’d like to expand on why that is with a separate post.

What it comes down to in my mind is that XIII forces you to give up control of the game in favor of an inferior experience.  Its graphics are impressive but I don’t gain anything more from them than I would watching Advent Children several dozen times.  There’s a lot to be said for player initiative in linear games which XIII entirely neglects.  Instead you are sent careening through the bowels of a game that slowly digests your hopes that soon you’d be playing something better.  Maybe I’ll have a come to Dr. Kaufman moment later and find a reason to give the game a higher score.  For now though I just can’t.  It sits in the hall of shame with Dirge of Cerberus.  Meanwhile I’ll pretend that Lost Odyssey was the real Final Fantasy XIII.

Bonus: An alternative perspective of XIII’s story.

Rating: 0/4

See Also: Trailer

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