Posts Tagged ‘ Series: Final Fantasy ’

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

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: 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

Buy it at Amazon
Rent it at Gamefly

Review: Dissidia Final Fantasy [1/4]

I last left off with the demo for Dissidia, which I was cautiously optimistic about.  But I should have indulged my cynicism.  Even though Square-Enix managed to do a pretty good job with Crisis Core their efforts with spin-off games are pretty bad.  Dissidia eventually had me fondly thinking back to Ehrgeiz.  So yeah, Dissidia isn’t really an exception to the trend.

Nostalgia/fan-service is half of the reason that this game exists and Square-Enix had a rich universe to pull content and characters from, certainly enough to rival Super Smash Brothers’ cast of characters.  But they can’t just pull anything out of the universe and dump it into a game and expect success.  There are a lot of things that aren’t fantastic about Final Fantasy as well.

Take for instance: melodrama.  In any one Final Fantasy game the amount of melodrama is usually annoying, but tolerable.  In Dissidia, the melodrama of 10 games has been concentrated into one terrible story.  Melodrama supposed to be the over-arching theme of the entire series if you follow Dissidia’s narrative.  Every character is stripped of any context and reduced walking cliches of their former selves.  SE missed the boat with what could have been epic encounters between characters of the different games.

Another gripe I have is with its obsessive reliance on RPG elements.  I know this is a significant part of game play in Final Fantasy, but RPGs have far more substantial campaigns and compelling motivations than to be victorious in Dissidia’s nebulous meta-conflict.  You spend far too much time min/maxing a single character’s stats.  This is another thing from Final Fantasy that would have been better left out of Dissidia.

What I wish SE had done was make a game that better reflected its introduction, which is probably the most exciting portion of the game.  Party building is also one of the most important aspects of RPGs and the Final Fantasy series.  But in Dissidia, you’ll adopt only one character at a time and for most of the game your only interaction with other characters will be either in a couple battles or during the mediocre cut-scenes.  There aren’t really any characters in the Final Fantasy series that are compelling on their own, and they lose a great amount of appeal in Dissidia when they aren’t developed as part of a team.

I don’t want to come off like I hate this game’s guts, but I am sorely disappointed that a game that had so much potential was squandered.  However, the battle system was the biggest surprise of the game for me.  Its high flying three-dimensional battles worked out very well.  Level design and the min/maxing process really dampened its effectiveness though.  You have to grind for levels at times and this ends up feeling like an excuse for the designers to neglect balancing the stages properly.

Dissidia is trying to be two different things at once: a good fighting game, and a tribute of sorts to the Final Fantasy series.  As it’s executed Square-Enix forces these two ideas to oppose one another in a way that dramatically curtailed its success in accomplishing anything.  It’s fighting game components were strongest, and Dissidia should have attempted to capture the novelty of the series as Super Smash Brothers does with Nintendo characters.  It should have scaled back significantly on the melodrama and tribute portions.  If SE wants to do a tribute to the Final Fantasy series they should consider how Nintendo does it with their games.

“Whenever we have to think about the remake,” says producer Eiji Aonuma. “we have to also think about the background, especially what kind of situation, what kind of period and time that previous game was played in, because, be it Ocarina of Time or any other games, whenever they say they want to have a remake on whichever platform, they have some emotional attachment from playing that game at that particular time or environment.  We cannot afford to destroy that kind of emotional attachment.”

Rating: 1/4

Rent it at Gamefly, Buy it at Amazon

See Also: Trailer, My Dissidia Review for Erie Entertainment, Kefka’s opinion on my hope that this would be a good game

Demo Impressions: Dissidia Final Fantasy [2/4]

Since I’ve played many of the games in the Final Fantasy series it seems inevitable that I’ll be taking a peek at circus of fan service that is Dissidia Final Fantasy.  After playing through the demo the game play itself was better than I had expected (which I feared would be just flashy button mashing.)  The amount of damage that your attacks deal is based on your Bravery, which can be raised or lowered with a separate set of attacks.  It adds another dimension to the fighting formula and allows for players to try different battle strategies.

The atmosphere of the game (based on the demo anyway) feels hollow and cold though.  Dissidia is supposed to capitalize on any nostalgia you have for characters in the series but instead it feels like the characters are a collection of cliches of themselves.  It’s essentially Super Smash Brothers with Final Fantasy characters that take themselves too seriously for their own good.  Maybe the actual game will prove me wrong, but that’s my impression from the demo.

Despite the negatives I’m hopeful that the content of the full game will make for a more positive experience than negative one.

See also: Trailer

Rating: ★★☆☆

Review: Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerberus [0/4]

Dirge of Cerberus is a botched attempt at making a super-hero game starring Final Fantasy VII’s Vincent Valentine.  I played through it (being a fan of Final Fantasy VII) and I can’t recall anything positive about of this game.

The game play sure isn’t fun.  It’s what you do to get to the next cut-scene.  (That’s how it was for me anyway.)  It is a third person shooter where you fight the same thing over and over.  Then, you make changes to your weapon that don’t seem to do anything.  Just keep pointing and shooting while trying to make the numbers really big.  The bosses weren’t any more interesting.  I’ve forgotten all of them.

The story does not build on what occurred in FFVII. It awkwardly inserts new background characters, events, and mysteries that were never necessary until Vincent needed to become a super-hero.  Characters that do return really don’t have any reason to be there.  In one instance DoC actually revisits the original game to show that one of the characters actually uploaded himself to the internet before dying so that he can be revived in DoC.

You've got to be kidding me.

I guess this game is seen as fan-service but I don’t think the point of fan service is to make the fan recoil in disgust.  There is also never, ever, ever, any reason to include Gackt‘s music (which plays as you fly through the final boss’s colon,) or Gackt himself as a character in any game.

Note: You might say some of these links are spoilers, but if you are calling something a spoiler then you are implying that a good thing will be ruined.  This is certainly not the case in DoC.  There are no good things about it.  I want to pretend that this never happened.  It molests and abuses whatever good memories I have of Final Fantasy VII.

It’s a high-profile demonstration of the fact that those who created this much-loved universe have lost their understanding of what originally made it so engaging. Edge Magazine Apr 2006, p.91

Final Fantasy is on its way to becoming the Star Wars of video games.

See also: Trailer, Disgust, Don’t take my word on it, Gackt’s “Redemption” (Don’t be fooled, there is no redemption for this game.)

Rating: 0/4

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