Posts Tagged ‘ Play Through: 3rd ’

Review: Final Fantasy VII [3/3]+


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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3/3 +

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

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

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Review: 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

Micro Review: Half Life 2 [3/3]


   Still as much fun as it ever was.

I’m not sure which play-through this was for me, I just remember being reminded that Half Life 2 was a great game, and it still is.  The novelty of the physics puzzles have worn off but that hasn’t done much to damage the pacing of the experience.  HL2 manages to construct an overwhelming atmosphere that always leaves the player wondering “what is going on? I need to know more.”  It all ends rather abruptly and you all but expect a voice to tell you to “tune in next time!”  It was a high point in gaming history, and it’s still quite an enjoyable ride, but I don’t know if I would go as far as to say that, on its own, it’s still a shining example of the what the medium has to offer.

Rating: 3/3

See also: TrailerOfficial SiteMore thoughts at Ruminatron5000

Buy it at AmazonBuy it at SteamRent it at Gamefly

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: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories [0/4]

Fans and critics have been worried that the Silent Hill franchise has become stale after 10 years of games.  At least, that’s a fair assumption to make based on the trend of the metacritic scores for the series.  (Scores are for the Playstation releases of the games.)

  • [86/100] Silent Hill (1999)
  • [89/100] Silent Hill 2 (2001)
  • [85/100] Silent Hill 3 (2003)
  • [76/100] Silent Hill 4 (2004)
  • [78/100] Silent Hill Origins (2007)
  • [71/100] Silent Hill Homecoming (2008)

Konami has seen fit to take the series in a new direction.  Shattered Memories’ developer, Climax, decided to entirely remove central ideas from Silent Hill’s formula in order to force themselves to build something almost completely original.  What exactly has been thrown out?

  • Combat: A big deal has been made about Shattered Memories eliminating the series’ broken combat system altogether in order to focus on pure scares.
  • Violence: Unfortunately it’s hard to scare people if nothing bad will ever happen to them.
  • Supernatural Elements: Supernatural forces have been replaced with “psychological” brow beating to create fear and unease in the player.

The game itself consists of navigating linear areas of Silent Hill. You are periodically required to solve a “puzzle” and every so often you are dropped into the ice covered “nightmare” versions of the town.  There you must attempt to outrun the game’s one and only monster type to solve more “puzzles” and reach the exit.  The reason I put the word puzzle in quotations is because 90% of the time they aren’t puzzles at all.  You run to the area in the room with the white arrow, use the wiimote to access the contents of the container it points to, and voila: you have the key or the answer to exit the room.  They make novel use of the wiimote, but won’t really challenge you.  The other 10% are standard puzzles for the series.  The story unfolds in a series of cut scenes between a therapist and his patient and between Harry and other characters he meets in the town.  Your answers to the therapist’s questions present an indirect interface to branching dialogue.  You’ll say “that’s neat” to yourself as you notice how the town changes based on your answers, but the psychological insights derived by the game aren’t any deeper or specific than your horoscope would be.

The game is mostly interesting if you have a preconceived notion of how the story might play out (based on your experience with the original game.)  You’ll make some key assumptions that are played off of by the game in interesting ways, especially by the ending of the story.  Unfortunately, the story that the game tells can probably be summarized in a paragraph.  The game is mostly about you running: running to your next destination, or running away from the monsters.  Harry is never in any mortal danger though, even in the “nightmare” Silent Hill.  Yes, enemies chase you and scream, but they only seek to tire you out so that they can carry you back to the beginning of the stage.  The game only lasts for about four hours since that’s all the more it will hold your attention before it becomes transparently clear that there’s nothing to see or do.  I played through it four times and it was like I was zoning out waiting for something to happen.  Nothing does until the end.  I didn’t seem to believe it though and I tried again three more times waiting for anything to happen, or trying to find what I missed the first time.

Unfortunately it seems that the baby has been thrown out with the bath water here.  Concepts that were integral to the series have been discarded and were replaced with what amounts to smoke an mirrors.  The critical reception has been more positive than that for Silent Hill: Homecoming (according to metacritic) but I think that the higher scores are more due to the lack of games for the Wii, and the novelty of the game’s controls, and the therapist sessions.  As a long time fan of Silent Hill I can’t help but feel extraordinarily disappointed with this new direction for the series.  Incidentally, Akira Yamaoka (one of Silent Hill’s primary creative forces) has recently left Konami altogether and the prospects for future games does not look good at this point.  I can’t see any reason to justify purchasing this game for anything more than $10.  Even then, you’re still probably better off just renting it if you really want to play this game.

Rating: 0/4

Rent it at Gamefly, Buy it at Amazon

See Also: Trailer, the best part of the game, my Destructoid community blog post, my Erie Entertainment review.

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