Posts Tagged ‘ Genre: Role Playing ’

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

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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

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Review: Final Fantasy VIII [1/3]

   Taking an ambitious step forward, Final Fantasy VIII ultimately falls flat on its face.

Before there was Final Fantasy XIII for everyone to hate, there was Final Fantasy VIII, a game that helped to renew my interest in the medium and was the target of gamers’ ire for years after its release. Final Fantasy VIII represented a radical departure from the series conventions, even when compared to Final Fantasy VII. At the time, it managed to garner a 90/100 metacritic score. VIII was an ambitious effort that attempted to craft a world of realistic looking people, realistic full motion videos, and a story arc that placed a great deal of emphasis on romance and the mind of the game’s protagonist, Squall Leonhart. How did this game elicit such a bipolar reception? Let’s start at the beginning.

Squall Leonhart, the aforementioned protagonist, is a 17-year-old mercenary in training. He studies at an academy that fosters children and teenagers with the goal of someday shipping them out to clients around the world. It’s a sort of anime-style Hogwarts. VIII takes this opportunity to break you into the game as Squall completes his education. And by “break you into the game,” I mean drown you in menu driven tutorials centering around game mechanics that make little sense. Where VIII deviates from prior games in the series and conventional jRPGs is that your characters are mere vessels for guardian forces: creatures that are equipped to characters that can be summoned during battle. Guardian forces are what the player builds and develops as the game progresses. The characters have levels, stats, and limit breaks but the differences between each of them are superficial. This disconnect between the avatars and the player’s investment is jarring. Guardian forces (GFs) allow characters to collect and use magic as well as utilize special skills and abilities. Magic is collected as expendable items, so if you acquire 6 fire spells you can use fire six times in battle. Spells can also be “junctioned” to the character’s stats (strength, HP, etc.) based upon which GF they have equipped. So when you find 6 fire spells you could augment your strength with them and increase that stat by 6 points (I am making these numbers of up for the sake of simplicity.) It can be difficult to judge when magic should be saved or used and what effect they have in either case.

If you are confused at this point then just be glad I condensed the explanation into a paragraph. The first stretch of the game is difficult to make heads or tails from, but the challenges of VIII are light enough for the player to blindly stumble through relatively unscathed. VIII definitely feels like an experiment of sorts. It is not as tightly designed around its game mechanics as other entries in the series. Squaresoft was clearly interested in trying something new without entirely committing to it. This is by far the worst quality of the game. It is so needlessly complex and impenetrable that it is impossible to meaningfully design levels and challenges for the player to overcome and master. This approach limits the amount of frustration the player experiences as they try to figure out the game mechanics but also robs them of the satisfaction of growing to meet escalating challenges. There is little tension in the game which becomes a blur of min/maxing and hoarding of magic and items. Strategies for effectively playing the game can be devised but are unnecessary. To top it all off, the plot is as nonsensical, if not more nonsensical than the gameplay mechanics. In the span of a week, Squall inexplicably goes from being a student to the leader of the entire academy which, also during the same time span, is tasked with defeating sorceresses across time and space.

Final Fantasy VIII attempts to do so much but still operates in a 16-bit era mindset. This is simultaneously a great flaw and its saving grace. The game system can be grasped and understood. There are opportunities for the player to exploit the system in satisfying and novel ways. And it’s difficult though not impossible to look past some of extremely silly story elements. Final Fantasy VIII still retains the strong game content that the series is known for. There is large world to explore, systems to master, good music to listen to, and vast dungeons to raid. If you can bear with it, VIII is a game that’s capable of keeping you entertained for a good deal of time. And in spite of failed attempts at storytelling and character development, there are still some novel ideas buried in there. Even 12 years later, there are a few moments that still tug at my heart-strings and remind me why I was so invested in the game when it was originally released. It’s not hard to see how gamers of 1999 were so impressed with what Final Fantasy VIII tried to do, but it’s also easy to see how it fails to deliver on its promises.

Rating: 1/3

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

Buy it at Amazon or on PSN

Review: Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together [2/3]


   A deep, yet flawed, game.

Following my play-through of Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions a couple of years back, I was interested in seeing what Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (a remake of an SNES game preceding FF: Tactics original release) would be like. Tactics Ogre has kept me occupied for months on end since its release, which has proven to be a dual-edged sword. There’s a great deal to do in the game’s world and also a great deal that restrains the player from enjoying it.

Let Us Cling Together follows the story of a young man named Denam who, along with his sister Catiua and his friend Vyce, are plotting on how exactly they will participate in the flagging Walister resistance. The Walister are a Valerian minority are being subjected to ethnic cleansing by the Galgistani who have backed the resistance into a corner. Denam, together with his party and a group of knights exiled from their home kingdom, attack Almorica castle in order to free the leader of the resistance.

This sets the stage for the player’s role in the game: to assemble a fighting force that’s capable of establishing independence for the Walister, and defending the greater nation of Valeria from outside foes. This challenge manifests itself in several forms, the most obvious of which is the process of character building and skirmishes. Much like Final Fantasy Tactics, characters are assigned a class that is enhanced as that character participates in battles. Their vital statistics become stronger and they gain access to more powerful abilities.

Crafting a well balanced team is essential to succeed, though the player can expect to be challenged at a more abstract level as well. Denam will continue to assume greater responsibilities as the game progresses and will be faced with morally difficult situations. It is not a scenario where there is no clearly drawn line between “good” and “evil”. Rather, the player must evaluate the pros and cons to each decision and contemplate their own principles.

The game’s plot can take a number of different paths as a result of the player’s decisions. On top of all of this, the player must also be considerate of their team’s loyalty. Every character in the game has a racial affiliation as well as a clan affiliation. Denam’s actions with each of those groups can affect his team’s loyalty to the point that they will abandon him if he severely neglects or offends them. Tactics Ogre provides a layered and nuanced approach to issues surrounding war: logistics, strategy, tactics, and morality.

Though, for all of its thoughtfulness, Tactics Ogre has a tendency to over-engineer its game play. It’s easy for the complexity of the battle system to become overwhelming. Players will more than likely try to tackle one aspect of the system at a time and digest it piece by piece throughout the entire game. I found myself learning something new about it fairly frequently even after completing the main campaign. This lends itself to taking advantage of the game’s “World Tarot” system which allows players to revisit earlier portions of the game.  It also gives me the impression that I missed out on an important aspect of the game play.

Tactics Ogre can discourage the player from experimenting with new character classes if for no other reason than meaning to have to start a character over at level one again. Each character’s level is tied to their assigned class. The class itself gains levels rather than the character. Undoubtedly this is designed to minimize the pain of permanently losing a character. As a result, the penalty of losing a character is transferred to developing new classes, which proves to be far more of a detriment to the experience.  Integrating a swordsman class into my team would mean having to spend a considerable amount of time training that class before they would cease being a liability.  Its also worth noting that the game’s graphics are prisoner to it’s original era.  This doesn’t detract from the game play, but it makes it difficult to appreciate the gravity of it’s themes.

Tactics Ogre offers a unique experience with a message about war that would be difficult to express in any other medium. It requires a great deal of investment from the player, which is welcome in some ways, but entirely frustrating in others. For those willing to learn the ins and outs of the system its a great game that will continue to challenge and reward you well after you finish the campaign.

Rating: 2/3

See Also: TrailerOfficial SiteMore thoughts at Ruminatron5000 
Buy it at AmazonRent it at Gamefly

Further Reading: Let Us Remember Together: A Tactics Ogre Retrospective

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)

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

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Rent it at Gamefly

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

Buy it at Amazon
Rent it at Gamefly