tiistai 27. elokuuta 2013

REVIEW - Soul Blazer | SNES | 1992

GENRE(S): Action / Adventure / RPG
RELEASED: January 31, 1992

Among the first games to be reviewed on this blog was ActRaiser, a SNES cult classic from 1990. In this game, you took on the guise of God himself - localized "Master" in North America - and rose against the monstrous hordes of Satan - localized "Tanzra" - in a clever mix of a city-sim and a straightforward action game. In 1993, the game spawned a simplified all-action sequel shunned by just about every fan of the original. Between these two games, Quintet developed an action-RPG named Soul Blazer, an ActRaiser spin-off and spiritual successor that was to spawn a couple of spiritual successors of its own, ending up regarded the first game in Quintet's unofficial "Gaia trilogy". Soul Blazer is an intriguing and fun game, and frankly, I think it's more of an ActRaiser 2 than that one piece of trash ever was.


King Magridd - under the influence of his malicious, sociopathic and greedy wife - summons a soul-stealing spirit named Deathtoll and literally sells every living creature in the Freil Empire to him in exchange for one gold piece each. The Master sends one of his most trusted allies, an angel known as the Soul Blazer, down on Earth to rebuild the Empire to the way it was and liberate its people from the forces of evil.

Gee, thanks for all your appreciation!
After deciding that the next review was going to be about a 16-bit RPG, I didn't have to look far to find the perfect solution. Soul Blazer is the kind of loose end I've been babbling on about for the last year due to its strong connection to ActRaiser - far stronger than I expected, actually - a game that I've often mentioned as one of the most unique and interesting SNES classics. Also, it will lead me to a pair of some of my favourite non-Square genre games on the SNES. The main difference between Soul Blazer and those two games, as well as ActRaiser, is that I've never actually played this game before. I might've heard its name mentioned a few times when I was a kid, but like I said in the Final Fantasy VII retrospect, it's an Enix game and Enix games went largely unnoticed in these woods since they were considered a second-rate company in comparison to Square - the most ironic thing about it is that there were way more Enix games on the international market than Square games. Being linked to ActRaiser, this game might've garnered in a bit more attention than the usual Enix IP, but that's not much. Soul Blazer is not as unique, interesting or fun as its spiritual predecessor - actually it's most like a cross between that game and a poor man's Legend of Zelda - but it's entertaining in a lot of ways, a fine game to pass a fistful of time with. Basically, everything that ActRaiser 2 wasn't.

Scouting the bottom of the sea.
Soul Blazer wasn't really released at the best time in Europe, either. With the European release postponed as far as early 1994, the game was inevitably deemed obsolete and out of value. I'm so grateful that things have changed in the past 20 years - most people have begun to learn to put things into perspective and appreciate some good games, if not proper gems, they originally rejected for reasons of vanity or initial monetary worth. To put it simply, I just know I'm in for a comfortable experience when I start this game up. Not great, but comfortable. I don't get that from a lot of games nowadays, there's nearly always a creepy feeling of some proportion jolting up my spine. Maybe that's the spice of gaming to some of you folks out there, but I enjoy knowing I'm not wasting my time here before the game's even begun. Well, I think that's enough of the middle-aged gamer's ranting, let's get on with the game.

The graphics are quite good, but nowhere near the Super Nintendo's best, not even in 1992. Once again, there's a strong resemblance to ActRaiser in a different gameplay setting, due to the same, or at least very similar, font used for the HUD, and similar character design. There are lots of different environments, though, it's not just about switching the palette, so I've got to give the level design some credit. I would've expected Yuzo Koshiro's soundtrack, but we've got another composer at work here - Yukihide Takikawa - and even though some of the tunes stand up to the best of ActRaiser (and then some), it's very inconsistent and even uncharacteristic. Repetitive funk doesn't really go well with a genre game, be it closer to Legend of Zelda than a traditional J-RPG or not. "Solitary Island" has still got to be one of my favourite 16-bit tunes ever.

Soul Blazer is indeed a lot like ActRaiser in the most basic sense. You have six kingdoms to save, and there are two different sides to gameplay: going around battle arenas, releasing the captive souls of the kingdom's citizens from monster lairs and sealing them up, and exploring the rebuilt cities and interacting with those citizens to get ahead on your quest. Everything's alive and able to speak in this game, including woodwork, which takes a while to get used to, and saying this makes it easier for me to explain an example that requires you to show a raft (yes, a raft) a bunch of leaves from its home village, so it believes you're with its people and agrees to carry you across a marsh to the next dungeon. Those expecting this game to make some semblance of sense can turn to some other game. It's weird, it's outright retarded at times ("hey, I know I just met you and this is kind of a strange question anyway, but would you like to be my child?"), but I kinda like it that way. The actual gameplay derives a lot from The Legend of Zelda, all three games that were released up 'til that point; the character development system and half of the item managing comes from traditional console RPG.

If there's one less positive word to describe Soul Blazer as a whole, it's "clumsy". For starters, you don't really have a party; the few folks that join you are actually "part of you", starting with a magician that joins you right away. He appears in the form of a blue orb circling around you for the rest of the game. If you want to use magic, you need mana points, which in turn appear in the form of golden orbs yielded by defeated enemies and found in treasure chests. Magic is extremely useful in this game in itself, but using it is a pain. Every time you use a spell against an enemy, you have to make sure that you're facing the enemy you want to blast at, AND that the orb is aligned with the enemy. It's kind of tough to explain, but what this results in, especially in more demanding situations, is a lot of precious magic gone to complete waste and getting your ass kicked by the other potential threats on the screen while you're trying to focus on a single enemy you necessarily cannot reach with your sword. Also, just having any type of item in your inventory isn't enough. If you want to use an item, you need to have it equipped (think Castlevania: Symphony of the Night). With some more weight on it, this concerns ANY type of item; from helpful accessories such as a bracelet to consumable items such as a medical herb. Let's elaborate.

The bosses don't really shine in design, but
God damn, they're hard to beat.
You're in a tough spot, and you decide that you'd be better off equipping a bracelet that nulls half of the damage taken. Even having the bracelet on isn't enough, and you get your ass kicked. You're thinking to yourself: "well, I have an herb in my inventory, it'll save me if my HP falls to zero". It doesn't do shit if it's not equipped, so you die, whether you have it or not. What you need to do on the brink of death is to quickly switch the bracelet to the herb, sacrifice the benefit from the bracelet for your few final ticks of health, and once the herb is used, you need to switch to the bracelet again. A nuisance, to say the least, as well as the fact that the game keeps giving you both useful equipment and consumable items, when you no longer are in desperate need of them. You just completed a dungeon with bridges of fire for its main attraction - for your efforts, you get an armor set that enables you to walk on fire unharmed. Urgh. You will need the special armors later, but usually by that time, their value as protection is long gone, which means more constant menu toggling between armor sets. One more thing about the items: you can't carry any more than one item of any type at a time. Which means that if you have an herb in your inventory, each herb you find is a wasted, rare opportunity. There are few creatures with endless supplies of herbs, and you can return to any of them any time you use up your short supply, but this calls on some serious, unwelcome backtracking.

Deathtoll's an asshole.
To be frank, the game lives on backtracking. Very often you will need the citizens' help to get forward in an outdoor battle arena or a dungeon. Actually, the easiest way to proceed in this game is to die, over and over again, 'cause the monster lairs you've already sealed remain sealed as long as the power's on, and each time you save the game at the nearest Master's shrine - where you're always taken when you die - the sealed lairs are saved as well. Only the respawning enemies - the grind fodder, as I like to call 'em - come back to annoy. The Master's shrine is always within the confines of a safe area, so dying or going back there via a warp point found from two different locations in each level, enables a quick observation of everything that's been going on since you left to battle the last time around and a quick catching up with more or less important NPC's you've saved thus far. Since sealing the most essential monster lairs in each area manipulates the environment even within those areas, shortcuts which go through the dungeons are often created, so backtracking's not THAT much of an issue in the end, at least in comparison how disturbingly long it takes to get used to the quirky magic and item management.

You can get used to all the quirks, and that's a relief, since the game is very hard thanks to its borderline unreasonable bosses who will outright wreck you, every single one of them - well, perhaps one's an exception and it's quite weird that he's actually smack in the middle of the game. Even the first boss is not that easy at all. Of course, Deathtoll himself takes the cake as one of the most frustrating bosses of the era, right alongside Tanzra in the original ActRaiser, as a matter of fact. It's also quite easy to miss some details on "secret" items that'll help you a great deal; I don't really like to call them secrets since I couldn't imagine being able to beat the game without 'em. Anyway, if you're good and quick about it, and are out to accomplish every single task in the game, you'll be done with Soul Blazer in about 15 hours or so.

Even if immensely frustrating and outright stupid at times, Soul Blazer is worth a peek in the vault, the true follow-up to ActRaiser in my books, and a precursor for something perhaps even better than the mother game.

+ Immediately accessible, surprisingly well explained gameplay
+ Adorable in some of its core stupidity
+ Quite a unique story
+ Some extremely good music...

- ...But ultimately inconsistent soundtrack
- Dumb NPC's with bone dry sense of humour (not quite sure if that's an up or down)
- Clumsy item management and magic use, lots of unnecessary menu toggling
- Constant backtracking

< 7.5 >

maanantai 26. elokuuta 2013

REVIEW - DuckTales Remastered | PS3 | 2013

GENRE(S): Platform
RELEASED: August 13, 2013
AVAILABLE ON: PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U
DEVELOPER(S): WayForward Technologies

The first proper review of year four is not of an RPG, but of a highly anticipated remake of one of the greatest 8-bit platformers in history, and also a game that was among the first to be reviewed by me. Launched in the U.S. as early as 1989 and the rest of the world through 1990, Disney's DuckTales for the Nintendo Entertainment System changed the face of the commonly ill-fated licensed game. Based on Disney's most popular primetime cartoon of all time, DuckTales looked awesome, it sounded awesome, it had innovative gameplay partly inspired by Capcom's NES flagship series Mega Man, and the best part of it all is that it hasn't lost one cent of its value. Alongside Super Mario Bros. 3, The Legend of Zelda and Castlevania, DuckTales is a game you expect to find in just about any NES gamer's shelf. Unfortunately and ironically enough, it's not found in mine - none of those games, in fact, not yet. Which makes DuckTales Remastered all the more important of a purchase to me. WayForward and Capcom did a good service here. The only question that remains is: how's the remake and how does it stand up to the original classic?

Bless me bagpipes

Alan Young : Scrooge McDuck
Terence McGovern : Launchpad McQuack
Russi Taylor : Huey / Dewey / Louie / Webby
Brian George : Flintheart Glomgold
June Foray : Magica De Spell
Chris Edgerly : Gyro Gearloose
Eric Bauza : Fenton Crackshell / Gizmoduck
Wendee Lee : Mrs. Beakley
Chuck McCann : Duckworth / Bouncer Beagle / Burger Beagle
Frank Welker : Bubba Duck : Big Time Beagle / Baggy Beagle

Scrooge thwarts yet another money bin raid by the Beagle Boys, to find that they were specifically after a worthless painting. A close examination of the painting reveals the global coordinates of five of the most fabled treasures in the world - hidden on the Amazon, Transylvania, a diamond mine in Africa owned by Scrooge, the Himalayas, and finally, the moon. Scrooge, along with his closest companions, eagerly embarks on a galaxy-wide treasure hunt; as expected, some of his worst enemies are also very interested in the five treasures.

When I was a kid, it felt like everyone except me had a copy of DuckTales. DuckTales was one of my favourite TV shows at that time, I loved the game, but since everyone had it, my mom saw no sense in buying the game, 'cause I had such easy access to it. Well, at least I had Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II, which was based on my absolute favourite show at that time - I think my mom's brain would've imploded out of sheer noise if she didn't buy that one for me. I borrowed DuckTales from my friends countless times. One of them quit borrowing games to me 'cause I tended to keep them for ages, and one of them quit because I made the mistake of borrowing one of his games forward to a kid I didn't even know, and who ended up breaking it. (I asked for my friend's permission to pass the game forward, by the way. He somehow failed to remember it when the cartridge ended up in tiny pieces.) A couple of years later, DuckTales was put up for rental at a recently opened video store, along with 30+ NES games, including the recently released DuckTales 2. I'll tell you, all the money spent on rentals of those two games, plus a few other choice cuts from the NES library, would've been quite enough to buy me my own copy of DuckTales... or about a dozen of them. Hindsight's a bitch.

Some of the best-crafted enemies of their time.
When I picked up a link for a yet-untitled gaming video labelled "exciting news", and discovered that Disney was once again in cahoots with Capcom, and that the two had employed WayForward Technologies for some mystery project, I was thinking something along the lines of another mega-commercial all-star Disney game like the upcoming Disney Infinity. But, when the trailer for a game called DuckTales Remastered popped up instead, I fell to the floor into a pool of my own drool (rhyyyyyyyyme!) and twitched like I was having a heart attack for several minutes before I somehow managed to get back on the seat, actually WATCH the trailer and reflect on the actual sense in a DuckTales remake. Sure, it's a total remake of a game _we_ all loved as kids. But, it's also a game based on a cartoon that was cancelled 23 years ago. Sure, the kids of today know most of these characters and perhaps they're watching some random re-runs on the Disney Channel, but they don't necessarily understand the actual legacy of this ensemble show, and how it was like to take a treasure-hunting trip in Duckburg every Saturday or Sunday morning, how it surpassed _everything_ else in terms of importance. They don't know who Gizmoduck is - to us, he was one of the coolest action heroes on TV. Most importantly, the original DuckTales video game is still one of the best platformers there is, and it's every bit as enjoyable as it ever was - why remake this game, and not some game that could actually benefit from a facelift? ...Do we actually care about any of these things? No. It's DuckTales, and it's back with a vengeance. Literally.

When we're talking about a little facelift, we mean something else. The level design looks exactly the same at first, but some modifications to the layouts have been made to match the developers' original vision - for example, the map of the Amazon is no longer a "cube" shaped like several hard Z's piled up; instead it's a wide, straightforward area, with the Sceptre's resting place clearly separated from the rest of the level to make it feel more like the exhausting hunt for a mythical treasure it's supposed to be. Speaking of the Amazon, there are also some easter eggs - finding which sometimes yields Trophies - referring to some of the stupidities of the original game. Remember that statue that asked you to pay up $300,000 so that you could get to the next screen, even though you could (perhaps unintentionally from the developers' end) continue for free just as well with minimal effort? Keep an eye out for it, the joke's on him this time around. There's no forced switching between levels and you don't need money during gameplay, and those are things I'm really grateful for. The levels themselves might look like some dedicated retro gamer's LittleBigPlanet project - the terrain is very blocky and full of clear seams, which also makes the discovery of secret rooms absolutely effortless. In return for this con, we get gorgeous character animation, magnificent effects, and huge bosses. I mean HUGE, and I don't think "reimagining" is quite big enough of a word to describe their look or their general behaviour. There's practically one single immediately recognizable boss, all the others will surprise the crap out of you... and they all actually have individual motives for their interference. More about how this game explains (some of) the weirdest things, later.

I've been here before.
Since it features a couple of levels that were not in the original game - one of them actually replaces one in the original, and believe it or not, it's a good thing! - there are a couple of new songs on the soundtrack, written by Disney first-timer but all-around veteran Jake Kaufman, a huge fan of the original DuckTales. His appreciation for the original game shows in the precise, heartfelt, yet fresh remixes of the theme songs of old, and the extra arrangements of the Transylvania theme and Moon theme, which play in the final proper boss fight and end credits, respectively. Also during the end credits, players are treated to a cover version of the original DuckTales theme, performed by Disney's in-house talent. A polished version of the theme tune of the original game plays in the title screen. All-around excellent, catchy stuff, hardly mustered by the sands of time at all.

DuckTales Remastered has got to hold some sort of record for the oldest, but none the less supertalented voiceover cast. All the surviving members of the very original DuckTales cast reprise their roles from the cartoon, and even those who've passed have been replaced by incredible talent almost indistinguishable from their predecessors. When I heard that most of the cast would be returning, I thought Alan Young (Scrooge) was going to be the oldest voiceover actor in video game history at the age of 93 - well, I had no idea June Foray (Magica) was still alive and kicking, much less still in the business, and she's friggin' 95! Of course, now that I'm reading about her on IMDb, I can see she's done a lot of voiceover work in the last ten years for both Disney and Warner, for both TV and video games. Here's a tip of my invisible hat to this incredible lady of steel! Not to take anything away from Mr. Young, of course - that old duck's still definitely got it, as Scrooge keeps proclaiming. This new version of the game's taken a lot of crap for its "pointless" story, which constantly interrupts the game - while that might ring true to some extent, it's a pleasure to listen to these professionals go to work.

The story has indeed changed a bit, so all its weird occurrences could be explained a bit better without the developers having to stoop to make changes to them instead. For example, the orange ball-shaped creature you have to fight in the center of the Earth under the African Mines is actually the king of a tribe of underground creatures who are causing Scrooge's employees to flee the mines with the haunting noises they unintentionally make while having their "underground olympics". You might know this storyline and this "king" from before, if you ever watched the show. The giant rat on the Moon is actually a lab rat who takes a bite out of the green cheese you're after and as a result, turns into a hulking monster with enhanced speed. Not to spoil the bosses' backgrounds any further, I'll just spill out that the level taken out is the second trip to Transylvania at the end of the game, which has been replaced with Magica De Spell's home volcano of Vesuvius - at which I think the original flight sequence with both Magica and Glomgold was supposed to take place, it was just never explained. Personally, I dig the story and how surprisingly faithful the game remains to the original in spirit. It's something else I'm deeply bothered by, here, and it's how unreasonable the game is from time to time - the NES game had nothing on how unfair the game can be, especially on the Hard and Extreme difficulty levels.

The bosses have gained a few pounds each.
Now we ain't talking hard, 'cause hard is good. And it remains good as long as you're playing on Normal - the game is truly challenging even on Normal, but at times, even it goes to show what's to come if you're planning to replay the game on Hard. Here's a collective of the game's most treacherous ways. There's a quest in almost each level preceding a trip to the boss' location, like finding the parts of Gizmoduck's suit on the moon instead of just simply Gizmoduck himself; these quests pretty much force you to scout the whole area inside out, which takes a long, long time. You might lose some lives on this trip, and the only extra lives you get in the whole game of Normal are from Mrs. Beakley in her secret rooms, one in each level. Well, be unlucky enough to enter a boss room with just one life left, lose while you're still trying to figure the bastard's complex patterns out, and you're forced to do the whole level all over again. Well, that might've not been surprising, but I'll bet my ass that at least one of the bosses has one attack you simply cannot dodge. Sounds pretty unfair to me. That boss is possible enough to beat if you've got at least the five hearts you had in the original game, which is only possible on Normal, but if you only have three like on Hard (nope, no extras, they've been replaced with treasure!), you're pretty much doomed. I just can't beat him on Hard. Even if I could, I'm not in the mood to replay the whole long-ass level just to get my ass kicked again at a 99,9% certainty; the only faint glimmer of hope for you is that the boss doesn't use that one attack more than one or two times during the whole battle, and that you'll ace the rest. Well, at least extra lives come in quantities on Hard to offer some relief. The final climb in the game is a "bit" trickier than it was before, and it doesn't stop where it did in the original game - it gets much worse after that turning point. This turning point is totally unexpected, it will probably throw you off the ball for a second or two, and you've only got HALF a second to spare if you want to survive that final stage. And once it starts, no mistakes are allowed - it's irrelevant whether you can help a mistake or not. If you've only got one life left at that point, off you go to the beginning - you have to do the whole level all over again, including the boss fight that precedes the final climb of trial and error. I guess the point was to make the player feel good about him/herself after beating the final level and the boss for four or five times before finally having enough luck to survive the ending, but no, it doesn't feel good. Just exhaustingly boring. Oh, and the pogo jump is easier to manage than in the original game - you can have the original setting if you want (just not worth it) - but none the more trustworthy at times. Jumping between mine carts is unreasonably precise - the tiniest error in timing will send you to your doom. Whew, I think that's it; it might sound like I'm terrified of a little bit of challenge, but you can see for yourself that this game has certain spots that are far from a true challenge.

We now know how Scrooge and his allies
are able to breathe on the moon. That leaves just the Beagle Boys.
The Trophies are easy enough to manage - I got 15 out of 20 on my first run - but getting them all is made difficult by having to beat the game on both Hard and Extreme, and if not that, one certain "skill" Trophy that has you pogoing through the Amazon underground tunnel without touching the ground. Call me old-fashioned, but I found returning to the original game for a bit of duck blur much more exciting than starting a second run for Trophies in this game right after the credits, especially since the unlockables are not that exciting at all; there's just concept art, music tracks and useless stuff like that, if you were expecting something fancy like an emulation of the original game. So, do I think DuckTales Remastered stands up to the original? No, but it's good enough.

Good enough, and ultimately irresistible, I guess, but if I may be frank, too expensive. Yeah, sure, look for the original DuckTales on any auction site and the prices go from suspiciously cheap to stinking expensive - at least you know what you get from a digital download, and if it's a bit glitchy (which it is!), don't worry, a patch is surely coming soon to take care of your problems for you. Still, €14.95 will hardly garner in any new DuckTales fans; there are just us old timers who grit their teeth, buy the game and end up with the unanimous conclusion: the original game was better, and much more reasonable even though it was released at the most commonly unreasonable of times.

+ The first round's just filled with excitement for anyone who played the original
+ The nice overhauls to boss and level design
+ Classic music awesomely rearranged, great voice acting...

- ...Although they could've toned down on the interruptions, I concur
- The seams on the terrain and the movement of the camera reveal every "secret" a little too easily
- Turns from hard to utterly unreasonable quite often, especially on the harder difficulty levels
- The steep price
- The crummy unlockables and their high in-game price
- Few deadly glitches

< 7.8 >

sunnuntai 25. elokuuta 2013

The legacy of Final Fantasy VII

In January, I played around with the thought of taking a second look at certain games - ones I've deemed masterpieces, utterly horrible games that for some reason might've deserved a second chance, and perhaps even some games I know to have misjudged in the past. Well, since it's RPG Time! and I'm currently engaged in yet another (and very likely the last) playthrough of my favourite video game in history, I think it's time to look back at perhaps the most popular and influential Japanese role-playing game of all time. 16 years after its original release, Final Fantasy VII has still not been remade. No-one knows why, except the big wigs at Square Enix - they know what's best for us gamers. Or so they say.

My brother always misread this as "Stinking
Staff". It kinda stuck on me, too.
Back in that time, there was no Square Enix. There were only Square, and Enix. Enix was most famous for the Dragon Quest franchise - of which the first two games actually served as great inspiration for the first Final Fantasy game. However, for some reason, most Enix games remained safely tucked on the Japanese market. The last Enix game to be released somewhere else was the fabulous RPG Terranigma, which was one of the last SNES games to be released in Europe. Before that, Illusion of Gaia was the last game to have an international release, and after Terranigma, two years passed before the next Enix game came as far as Europe. As many cult games of the past generations as they have under their belts - Brain Lord, Dragon Quest, ActRaiser, and the original Star Ocean - Enix could never compete with Square outside Japanese borders.

Why is that, exactly? Square wasn't any better in making their products known, and they had plenty of problems to go with the already annoying refusal by North American testers, which translated to us gamers: "the Japanese wanna fuck the world". It was always made Japan's fault if we didn't get those games. Anyway, as an avid reader of a Finnish video game magazine I have mentioned way too many times for my own comfort, I can safely say that even though neither Square or Enix managed to get their products up for international release, Square's games were promoted a hell of a lot more than Enix's. Let's put it this way: both companies had a huge hit in Japan, at the same time: it was Square's game that we were told about, extensively, while Enix's game might've been briefly mentioned. I don't remember reading one single Dragon Quest review, ever, but I damn well remember reviews for both Final Fantasy IV (II) and Final Fantasy VI (III), plus Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest on the side, and we Europeans didn't have the slightest potential to see these games at the time. So you see: I knew this series long before its time. Oh, I might as well mention that Chrono Trigger - a game that was also never released in Europe in its original form - got a six-page review complete with illustrated character profiles, while Illusion of Gaia (Illusion of Time in Europe) got a common two-page commentary with a large font, a lot of screenshots, and just some vague text that could easily be summarized as something like "Enix needs to try harder". I don't remember one Enix game getting over 90 points, and in turn, I don't remember one Square game besides the semi-serious Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest getting under 90 points. As much as I owe that old magazine, I see its errors in judgement clearer and clearer as time goes by, and the more I play horrible games they declared the best in the world, and at least perfectly playable games they declared horrible wastes of time.

Jenova - the root of all evil.
Rewind to 1987. Square had flopped, and done it bad - all the way to the brink of bankruptcy. Writer and designer Hironobu Sakaguchi was a huge fan of Enix's Dragon Quest, and decided that if Square was going down, they were going to do it with style. Contrary to popular belief, the first Final Fantasy game for the Famicom was actually not named such, 'cause Square was sure the game - to which they poured the last of their resources in - would be their swansong, but because of Sakaguchi's personal decision to quit making games if this game was not to succeed. Sakaguchi's epic tale of warriors of light, knights of the dark, dwarves and elves turned out a massive hit in Japan. 400,000 copies were made to help finance a sequel, and exactly a year later, Final Fantasy II hit the shelves - a game that started the tradition of each Final Fantasy game being totally different from the last, but holding on to certain key elements. In the spring of 1990, Final Fantasy III was released, and it combined elements from both previous titles, marking the first of what you might perceive as a true Final Fantasy experience. In November 1991, the next chapter in the Final Fantasy saga was released in North America, and it was called... Final Fantasy II. ...What?!

It took three years for the first Final Fantasy game to make it to North America. It sold quite well, well enough for cult gamers to look forward to a sequel. What most people did not know was that the game already had two sequels, better games at that, but only back in Japan. A fourth game, originally planned as the last NES title in the series, was in works for the then-upcoming SNES system. So, instead of letting North America have their two previous games, Square had their localization team change Final Fantasy IV's name to Final Fantasy II in the U.S.. Get this: they did it so gamers wouldn't feel confused. Short-sighted, much?

Summon magic looked incredible in action, and
it was always exciting to try out a new piece of
Well, the farce certainly didn't end right then and there. Sakaguchi's last Final Fantasy game in the capacity of main designer - Final Fantasy V - was planned for a U.S. release as Final Fantasy III. North American testers eagerly put the game for a spin, and threw it back at Square, claiming that the game was horrible, and not only that, but extremely difficult to understand. After months of both parties trying to settle on an agreement, it was decided that Final Fantasy V would join the ranks of the original Final Fantasy II and III, and remain in Japan. It was at that time the simplified action-RPG Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest was quickly conjured up and sent to the U.S. as consolidation. Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest was also the first Final Fantasy game for a major console to be released in Europe. How about that? Apparently it's so simple that even us Europeans can understand it! Yay! (To be completely frank, off the current record, Final Fantasy V was a great game of its very own kind, and if I was one of those testers, I would've felt pretty fucking embarrassed once the game finally got an international release in some shape or form.)

1994 - the time of Final Fantasy VI. A change was coming, the wind was turning. Final Fantasy VI was the most epic, the biggest game ever seen. And, apparently simple enough, 'cause the U.S. loved it. As if to completely disregard the efforts made with Final Fantasy V, the development team (with Sakaguchi as producer) picked up from where Sakaguchi and his closest cohorts left off in Final Fantasy IV. Traditional fantasy mixed with futuristic and industrial landscapes was to become the series' trademark, as well as individual scenes and features that were made to squeeze all the juice out of the current platform - in this game's case, the famous opera house scene, and the multi-phased final battle against Kefka, who was the first in line of several truly memorable, incoherently evil, criminally insane lead villains in the Final Fantasy franchise. After witnessing the overwhelming response to the game in Japan, the development team was feeling pretty damn good and wanted to explore the game's daring themes even further. But, Nintendo was Nintendo. They had their rules. Renaming the game Final Fantasy III in the U.S. was utterly expected, but what Square did not expect was Nintendo telling them to ease up.

Welcome to Gold Saucer, where minigames are
born and where they come to die...
The "Dream Team" - Hironobu Sakaguchi, Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii and famed manga artist Akira Toriyama - had begun work on a time-travelling adventure called Chrono Trigger back in 1992. The game was finally released in 1995, to we-know-what sort of response. Many ideas from early drafts of the game were cleverly set aside to be used in an unnamed project. Around the same time, Nintendo commissioned Square to start development on a 3D Final Fantasy game for the Ultra 64, which was soon to be known as the Nintendo 64. Square tested the Ultra 64's capacity with a battle scene from Final Fantasy VI, remodelled to 3D, and both parties were very pleased with the result. However, Nintendo wouldn't give up cartridge-based technology, while their main competitors Sony and Sega were both using CD-ROM-based technology, making it very hard for Square to do just the kind of game they wanted, and at the very least a game that was relatively just as big as Final Fantasy VI. Also, Nintendo returned many drafts to sender with the only explanation being "You can't do that." The funniest thing about it is that I sincerely doubt the game's most shocking scenes or tabooed subjects were even considered back then. In January 1996, Square did what is still considered one of the most shocking developments in the corporate history of gaming: they severed their ties with Nintendo, and announced that Final Fantasy VII would be exclusive to the Sony PlayStation.

Shocking, but definitely worth it.

...Yes, even the bad ones.
Originally released in Japan on January 31st, 1997, Final Fantasy VII not only changed the face of J-RPG or the face of the industry; it changed everything. First of all, it was the first main series game to be released internationally, by its original title. Since I was very interested in RPG's - at that time, more because of their looks and proportions, not that much because of actual gameplay - I knew some of the confusing history behind the title, but I knew plenty of people of my age who had never heard of Final Fantasy before, and some adults, such as my brother, figured there was no sensical numerical order to the games. He knew some of the confusion behind II/IV and III/VI, but since Final Fantasy V had virtually never been heard of, he might've figured the "VII" for a sales stunt. It's a cool number and all, and it might've had something to do with its year of release. To a lot of folks, Final Fantasy VII was the first ever role-playing game. European console gamers really didn't have much to compare it to; there was only a handful of semi-popular genre games that had been released in Europe up 'til that point. To them, The Legend of Zelda was an RPG.

In spite of the transition to 3D, Final Fantasy VII retained a familiar basic look, but constantly surprised the player with the most fantastic FMV cutscenes of the era, special cinematics in combat such as the use of magic and summoning, its sheer size, and finally, its well-known vulgarity - which has been outdone about a million times over since, but at that time, it was a game you necessarily didn't want your 13-year old son to get infatuated with. Mild language was only the start of it - some of the first tasks in the game were taking part in a terrorist mission that would most definitely cost dozens of innocent lives for a "greater purpose", and saving a young girl from a local mob boss with extreme sex addiction, by dressing yourself up as a girl and attempting to shift the old bastard's attention to yourself. This also included going to a local whorehouse to gain some more accessories for your disguise, including a bra by (strangely enough) taking part in a gay gathering. Later on, in the end of "part one", came the most shocking scene of all: the unavoidable death of a lead character, the most pure- and kind-hearted one at that. Trolls went to ridiculous lengths in spreading rumours how you could resurrect Aerith, and they still do it after all these years - IT IS NOT POSSIBLE. These are the same people who spread rumours about how you could create a Sephiroth clone, and took screenshots to "prove it". They took those screenshots from Cloud's flashbacks and actually thought even a total retard wouldn't notice the difference. But, seeing how active trolls have remained surrounding the myths of the game just goes to prove how popular it still is.

Ominously put, I'd say. The first and last time
the whole team's present.
I've been writing this article for days, progressively in tandem with my current replay of the game, and as I was walking home from work yesterday, I figured I should address something at this opportune gap. Although Aerith's death was a devastating shock, it wasn't the first or last time a party member died in Final Fantasy - only the most memorable and abrupt tragedy, and the only time it has truly affected the rest of the game. Several people died in a game as far back as Final Fantasy II, but all of them were temporary party members who didn't have much significance in the big picture, and after the first two deaths, you realized they were going to be expendable all the way to the end and that they were killed off only so the slot for your fourth member would constantly remain vacant between levels. They even made a "minigame" dedicated to all the dead folk in the Dawn of Souls remake, to be unlocked after you completed the main game. Many more folks "died" in Final Fantasy IV, only to make a (frankly ridiculous) comeback in the end of the game; they were pretty much killed off in various ways - such as having one guy jump off an airship - to make people want to try out the whole huge cast of playable characters before finally getting to choose five of the best for the final battle. Also, even if they had died for real, it seemed that the surviving characters wouldn't have given two shits about it - the original localization made the game feel like the most emotionally hollow game ever.

Still one of my favourite scenes ever. Not a
pleasant one, though.
Fan favourite Galuf died in Final Fantasy V, but he was immediately replaced by his granddaughter Krile, who also inherited her grandfather's experience, abilities and equipment, so it didn't really affect the gameplay all that much, especially at such a late stage of the game... just the storytelling, which Galuf, along with Faris, had saved from extinction up 'til that point. Another fan favourite, Shadow, died in Final Fantasy VI, but it was up to the player to keep him alive and/or along for the ride most of the time anyway, and he actually died during the final scene. Similarly, Tidus and Auron both ceased to be - neither of them were really alive to begin with, so I refuse to say "died" - in Final Fantasy X's climax. Only Tidus made it back in Final Fantasy X-2, which shuffled things up a little too much for the whole story's benefit. The original Cait Sith was crushed by his own will just an hour or two before Aerith's demise in Final Fantasy VII, but he was immediately replaced with an identical copy with the same person still controlling him, and that's exactly it: he was an expendable toy - I still really don't see the purpose behind all that drama that took place, adults feeling sorry for a mere doll. I think that's about it; Aerith disappeared and died - with emphasis on the fact that she was MURDERED, unlike any of the other characters - after the first third of Final Fantasy VII, leaving a permanent gap in the party, as well as the player's psyche. That makes her death unique. Of course, we also have to note that it's been Square's tradition for years to remove the lead character from the fray for a while, sometimes on several occasions, and sometimes, it's strongly speculated that he/she has perished, but that's never been the case. Cloud suffers a breakdown halfway into the second part of the game, leaving the party, and while he does go on a catatonic soul search to discover his true identity, I think the main purpose of this part of the game was to make the player feel helpless and lose direction, like any group when their well-established leader's been taken out.

Gigas - a perfect example of having way more
bark than bite.
Final Fantasy VII was the furthest from a traditional fantasy game than any of the games had ever been. Its setting was timeless, as it took something from our time, something from medieval mythology, and a huge chunk from a dystopian future in which mega-corporations prevail and common man's well-being is utterly secondary; frankly, common man is considered collateral. However, you don't need to analyze the game too much to realize how similar it is to previous Final Fantasy games - the themes are pretty much the same, they were just "updated". In many previous titles, a group of people set out to search for magic crystals. In this game, magic crystals were known as materia, condensed forms of the planet's life energy. A mega-corporation named Shinra was out to suck the planet dry of that energy to build more advanced machines for construction work, public transportation and whatnot, caring very little for any damage they did to the planet itself. An evil empire, right there - complete with standout villains in charge. However, the main villain of the game was someone different: a supersoldier formerly in Shinra's service named Sephiroth. Upon finding that he was yet another one of the company's monstrous genetic experiments he was originally tasked to keep in control, he went on an insane killing spree until he disappeared and was presumably killed. When bodies started hitting the floor with Sephiroth's signature all over them, our main character, Sephiroth's former colleague and close companion Cloud, shifted his group's attention somewhat away from Shinra and on someone he considered the greatest threat the world had ever seen. Besides, it was Sephiroth who was killing most of Shinra on their behalf on his path of purging the imperfect world - in other words, summoning an ancient power from outer space to utterly destroy and "renew" the planet. The plot twisted and turned a lot further than that, and I'm afraid we didn't quite understand all of it.

Shinra, Inc. - a whole group of standout villains.
The original international print of Final Fantasy VII was full of translatory mistakes that deeply confused us, all the more towards the end of the game. Also, since the polygon characters were so rough around the edges, you couldn't make out any expressions or detailed movement that would've given us at least some hint of what they were actually doing, since the text didn't help us much. These are the main reasons why we've asked for a remake for so long. These, as well as the huge graphical overhaul of the game's sequels - the feature film Advent Children and prequel Crisis Core at the forefront due to their remade scenes from the original game - and their much, much better use of the English language, complete with very satisfactory voiceover work. Around the time of the game's 15th anniversary, rumours really started flying about a Final Fantasy VII remake. Square, now Square Enix, with the original main contributors to Final Fantasy VII long gone from the fray, told us that they would not remake Final Fantasy VII until they had made a whole new Final Fantasy game that would hold its own against the classic. (If I'm completely frank: they could just as easily say that hell will freeze over before a Final Fantasy VII remake.) No, we didn't get that friggin' remake; we got something else.

The best incarnation of series stalwart Cid.
Back to the late 90's again. Few games were as popular as Final Fantasy VII. In school, my fellow students talked about the game as long as it took from Square to brew up Final Fantasy VIII; as I've documented in the past, the arrival of Final Fantasy VIII automatically rendered Final Fantasy VII obsolete and generic to many kids of my age. Me and my brother were in the minority that still preferred Final Fantasy VII, and now, years later, those people who used to worship Final Fantasy VIII to hell and back are wondering what the hell was going through their heads. Well, in case you're still not sure, let me spell it out: GRAPHICS. That's what was going through your heads. Anyway, word of Final Fantasy VII stretched so far that even PC gamers were intrigued. So, Square worked with Eidos Interactive for the first time of many, to port Final Fantasy VII for the PC. This was somewhat of another cult event in the history of gaming, but the PC version of Final Fantasy VII was not received as well as was imagined. It sold well, but it drew much criticism from its high hardware requirements, and quite simply put, people who had their own visions of how an RPG should be - having much more experience from RPG's than us console gamers - did not appreciate Final Fantasy VII's limitations, such as solid save points, linear character development and linear progression up 'til a certain, moderately far point in the storyline. Those high hardware requirements turned out the game's ultimate downfall, though - in just a couple of years, certain sequences in the game, such as the motorcycle and snowboarding minigames, were rendered completely unplayable due to basic PC hardware developing a little too much and fast. These sequences were way too fast to be fully enjoyed, it was like watching the game on fast-forward. Of course, patches were released, but in my experience, they didn't work properly. Until 2012, Final Fantasy VII was still pretty much considered a PlayStation-exclusive.

Time for a little mini-review to wrap this up. In early 2012, the PC version of Final Fantasy VII was re-released as a digital download straight from Square Enix, at the price of ten. This version of the game included some "anniversary bonuses", such as cloud saves and an EXP booster, and it came complete with Achievements. It had also gone under some audiovisual resampling, and harvesting of the problems that plagued the original PC version from a certain point of time forward. It sounded good enough for me to pay for - the next best thing from a remake - but the truth turned out quite different. It seems that being the best game in the world ain't enough.

That last line was perhaps a little misleading, 'cause there's nothing wrong with the game. As a matter of fact, I'm amazed how much kicks I still get out of this old friend after spending most of my life with it. I started playing Final Fantasy VII when I was 13 years old, and it was my second or third real RPG experience. I bought an official strategy guide for the game even though I didn't actually own the game, just because it looked so damn fancy and I loved the game - I wanted to learn to play it better, and through that book, I eventually learned to play RPG's the way they're supposed to be played. I learned one more thing from that book: how to squeeze absolutely everything out of the game. Nowadays you can squeeze everything out of a game in several ways, by several choices. Final Fantasy VII didn't have those choices, it was very linear in that sense - so, after 16 years, I still play the game just as I played it back then. I stay in the same grinding spots, figure goals for myself - such as "I'll stop after everyone's leveled up once each, used their Limit Break once each, or reach 10,000 Gil" - do everything in the exact same order as always, have everyone use the same equipment and materia as always, and use the same dialogue choices as always, because I know the minor consequences and benefits of each action. If I had the chance to really put myself in Cloud's boots, I'd prefer Tifa as the potential girlfriend, but I just think going on a date with Aerith (still localized Aeris in the re-release, by the way) fits the plot better - it's just how it was meant to be. As Commander Shepard or the Grey Warden, you can pretty much line all the pretty girls/boys/Liara up and take your pick, and the game lives by your rules, not vice versa. This freedom of choice was kinda present in Final Fantasy VII, but Aerith was the only date to make some sense out of the three possible options. That's why I set my sights on her, every - single - time. I know the game inside out - when I started the game up (with shaky hands) on the PC, I was certain I would've forgotten a lot of it by now, and indeed I had, some small details, and, with the PC's higher resolution, I found myself focusing on some details wholly new to me. Still, there was no ring rust - like I said, I grew up with this game. It's like riding a bike.

If we're going to review the game, let's go all the way - graphics and sound. Can you hear the evil laughter already? Well, in all seriousness, Final Fantasy VII doesn't look much like anything nowadays, but back in 1997, it was the most beautiful game ever made. Back then, those masses of polygons on pre-rendered (and glitchy) backgrounds was considered realistic and pretty. People gasped at how gorgeous the FMV cutscenes were, when they were actually totally out of proportion (several proportions at that), laggy and didn't feel like they belonged in the game at all. Still, they have retained their very own type of attraction, the old-school attraction, you know. Don't get me wrong - I'm not criticizing the game at all. It's just funny that the PlayStation - although it was clearly the best console of its generation - has the biggest library of once great-looking games that look grainy and outright ugly nowadays, and in turn, the much more polished Nintendo 64 games have begun to look better than they originally did! There are exceptions, including, but not limited to, the two sequels to this game that were released on the original PlayStation - Final Fantasy IX in particular. Even VIII still makes your chest throb during certain scenes, when it comes to purely audiovisual values.

Almost it...
What's funny is that I just laid down most of Final Fantasy's colourful history up 'til Final Fantasy VII, and failed to mention one of the men who made Final Fantasy what it was: Square's former court composer Nobuo Uematsu. I don't really have a favourite Final Fantasy soundtrack, 'cause every single game that Uematsu composed (let's just leave the others out of this discussion) has its fair share of marvellous tunes; if I had to pick a favourite Uematsu soundtrack, it would surprisingly be that of Chrono Trigger, which was _mostly_ his work. However, we're dealing with the Final Fantasy franchise here, and I'm not blindly on this game's side when I say VII has perhaps the greatest collection of songs out of the whole series. This version of the game suffers from some very odd mixing problems, which you can't even tinker with through the launcher or in-game settings, but most of it comes through, and in a strange turn, some individual tracks sound even better than they originally did all due to the actual sound quality. Hell yeah, still loving all the battle music - "Fight On!" suffers the most of all the mixing problems, though - "Bombing Mission", "Listen to the Cries of the Planet", "Turks' Theme", "Crazy Motorcycle"... ah, forget it. You know 'em classics.

Let's skip everything else, I don't feel the need to go over the game's wide variety of pros and the few cons (OK, I'll say it: chocobo breeding). Let's just focus on this re-release. In a word, it's useless. Final Fantasy VII goes for about the same price on Square Enix's website and Steam, as well as the PlayStation Network. Well, the PlayStation version is of course Final Fantasy VII in its purest form, but if you had the choice right now, and you've perhaps never played this game, THEN I would direct you towards this re-release. The reason? Simply put: the somewhat better English translation that helps you understand the plot a bit better without having to dig up the rest of the VII series (it's recommendable though, assuming you like the game and its mythos). Originally, I failed to understand half of what was going on in the end of disc two (PART two in this case), and even many years after learning exactly what's going on through some other source of information, I still don't understand it on the spot. The original localization of the game was just horrible - but then again, in the game's defense (somewhat), pit the translation against Final Fantasy IV's original translation, and you've got yourself a literary masterpiece here.

...and here we go.
But, that's it for the changes. This is still the very same game with some bonuses no self-respecting player ever uses for anything - EXP booster? Come on... you really want to water the game down with such bare unnecessities? 36 Achievements, now that's a sales point. Who wouldn't want to replay Final Fantasy VII with Achievements? Hell, I'm playing a version of the first Final Fantasy game on my smartphone and loving the hell out of it - just because it has a variety of Achievements, the magic of Xbox LIVE games for the Windows Phone. Any Final Fantasy game is automatically just a bump cooler with Achievements or Trophies - that's why I've been able to bear with Final Fantasy XIII for so long, and words aren't enough to describe my mental erection towards the upcoming X-HD collection. Anyway, back to the Achievements of Final Fantasy VII. A lot of them are either random or retarded, or both - but some are nice, and pretty much what I would've come up with myself (I once did a "what if Achievements?"-list for the remake that never came). It's nice to play this game and see the first Achievement light up at the bottom of the screen, in my case about two minutes into it. I go to my Xbox profile - again, my hands shake - to see my favourite title in the world invade the Achievement list. Well, it isn't there - these aren't LIVE Achievements, no Gamerscore for these. These are Square Enix Achievements, which are worth more than Square Enix's name nowadays - not much. Everything you do in this game is trackable on your generic Square Enix profile, which doesn't excite me in the least.

So, let's summarize: higher graphical resolution that might introduce you to some whole new details you might've missed during your years with the game, high-quality sound that however "comes complete" with odd mixing you can't play around with, and decent localization. That's all you get from this particular version of the game - if it's simply the greatest J-RPG ever made you want, you can get it from just about anywhere. A remake of this game is probably never going to happen as much as we'd like it to, and perhaps this really IS the next best thing - but it comes as a far number two.

After all these years, I might've grown a liiiiiittle bit tired of certain aspects of this game - such as the long, half-cinematic sequences, superbosses who you cannot beat with any other strategy than just one single extremely repetitive one, and chocobos in general; it's funny that as ultimate of a Final Fantasy experience the game is, it has the most annoying and in turn, most force-fed chocobo features out of the whole series. (Note: breeding's ten times more annoying on the PC since there's no soft reset like in the PlayStation version.) Still, in its entirety and most of all with its still quick, correct and comfortable tempo, Final Fantasy VII is the most functional and tide-turning Final Fantasy game of them all, and thus, my favourite game in history.

tiistai 13. elokuuta 2013

Back to the future: 2014

Secret of Evermore is just one of the dozens
of games I have wanted to review for ages,
to see if it lives up to its cult fame or
if it's just a mediocre scramble of everything
left over from Square's better known titles.
2014 might be the time.
This is not the entry I spoke of earlier, this is rather the second part of the Year Three update. Like I said, no essential Q&A to be had, but one thing I wanted to address was the future. What can be expected from this blog in 2014? Well, as I kind of hinted earlier, I'm going to focus on RPG's a lot more - not just during this RPG Time!, but generally. I'm also going to primarily focus on retro like I have often promised and honestly aimed to do. Why? Because it's high time that I finally review some individual games that I feel are worthy of a Top 60-sized shot. Yeah, there are still many left. I'm also going to keep tying up those loose ends, both major ones like totally missing parts of marathons, and some odd games that might've come to my attention only recently, or notably different alternative versions of already reviewed titles, notably enough to be worthy of a second look. Come this year's final releases that'll keep me locked in good for a time each - Grand Theft Auto V, Assassin's Creed IV, and the new Batman game (I refuse to say its name, 'cause it makes me chuckle, the game looks and sounds great though!) - some changes will happen. I already have a new retro look in development for the blog, also inspired by fantasy video games of the 80's and 90's. It's not all about RPG's, I'll have you RPG-haters know. There are plenty of old quality games from whole other genres which I have left in the dark for way too long.

Just the thought of finally reviewing some of the best games of my childhood isn't quite enough. The biggest reason for the upcoming change is the console market's transition to the eighth generation, which will happen by the end of the year as I'm sure all of you are well aware. I've never bought a console fresh out of the oven - this time I'll do it, but I'm not completely certain if I'll get any games for it right away. Maybe just one - I'm more interested in how the PlayStation 4 basically works on launch than its gaming properties, 'cause let's face it: they can't do much better, not anymore. Besides, every single game I have great interest for - both "parts" of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Dragon Age: Inquisition and Ubisoft's new bombastic IP Watch_Dogs - is coming out on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. I know some stubborn kids think the "newer" versions of the games are the true ones, and stripped versions are just given to us geezers in a fit of pity. They're going to be the exact same games; OK, the new consoles are sure to have slightly better graphics, a better framerate, all that, but they have the exact same gameplay content, and they play out exactly the same. No reason for me to get all hell bent on starting my PS4 collection right away. Besides, I have principles: I cannot buy Assassin's Creed IV for a Sony console since I have all the other games for the Xbox. As I long as I have a choice in the matter, I'll damn right invoke it. The only game I might be getting for the PS4 instead of the PS3 or 360 is Watch_Dogs, simply since it's a new IP, therefore a good start for a collection, and in its fancy nature a decent showcase of the eighth generation's power, I think, despite coming out on "older" consoles as well. Long story short: some sort of break from totally new games is coming at some point anyway, so let's take advantage of the situation and play some older games for a change. Good ones, too; I have used words like "utterly", "horrible", "unplayable" and "abysmal" way too often lately.

2014 is still months off and a lot of stuff will surely come up, but let's try to hang on to these basic threads of hope for a blog once again becoming what it was primarily meant to be. On to Year Four...

maanantai 12. elokuuta 2013

VGMania: Year Three

Some of them have already been reviewed. Some will still
remain untouched come year four. But some of them will
make the count. During RPG Time!, anything is possible.
Thanks to unexpected hardware and connection problems, I'm a bit late with this update. But, by mere coincidence, this is actually the date I published my first reviews three years ago; I remember spending the first five days pondering whether I had the balls to publish them or not. So, in any case, VGMania is now three years (and five days) old. According to tradition, I will go over what I've done over the past year in numbers, but that's it this time, since there's not enough good and/or diverse Q&A material, and I have a lengthy entry which I need to focus on underway. So, enough jabbering.

Happy birthday, sweet child o' mine.


During this period (August 7th, 2012 - August 12th, 2013), I have reviewed a total of 80 games, which equals to 3 more games than last year, but still only 0,22 reviews per day (ouch!):

7 for the PC

11 for the Nintendo Entertainment System
11 for the Nintendo Game Boy
11 for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System
3 for the Nintendo 64
4 for the Game Boy Color
11 for the Game Boy Advance

4 for the Sega Genesis

1 for the Sony PlayStation
2 for the PlayStation 2
2 for the PlayStation Portable
7 for the PlayStation 3

6 for the Xbox 360

In addition, I have written 2 DLC Guides, raising the total number of reviews written in the last 12 months to 82.


This was a bad year for the PC, as the lowest-rated "game" Mario Teaches Typing got a bombing review of 2.0, and even the highest-rated game The Amazing Spider-Man got only 6.9.
Average: 4.5

The good old NES did a little better, despite getting only two chart-topping reviews - of which the clear winner was (a bit surprisingly on my personal account) The Legend of Zelda, with a rating of 9.1. The lowest-rated game was Godzilla 2: War of the Monsters, with the humble rating of 1.4.
Average: 5.5

The original Game Boy was on display a little more than in earlier years, mostly due to its wide array of Mega Man and Marvel games - but the average rating for the legendary handheld didn't get any better. The highest-rated game was Mega Man IV with 8.8, and the lowest-rated game - by far - was Iron Man / X-O Manowar in Heavy Metal with 1.4.
Average: 6.3

My favourite gaming apparatus of all time - the legendary SNES - suffered some of its worst blows thus far, which means the average sunk to an all-time low, but also finally got one of its best games reviewed. The highest-rated game was, of course, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past with an awesome rating of 9.7. The lowest-rated game was Spider-Man - the most horrible game I suffered during the Marvel marathon - with 2.0.
Average: 5.1

The Nintendo 64 got a decent average as usual, maybe 'cause I tend to review very few N64 games per year, and they're usually important pieces of larger puzzles. That's exactly what happened this year - the highest-rated game was Spider-Man with 8.4, and the lowest-rated game was 007: The World Is Not Enough, with a rating only as bad as 6.0. I promise to dig the N64's darkest depths some time in the future - this can't go on.
Average: 7.5

The Game Boy Color got its very own review section this year, but only four games were actually reviewed, and none of them were exactly great. The highest-rated game was Spider-Man: Return of the Sinister Six - a hat trick in winnings from Spidey - with 7.0, and the lowest-rated game was... drum roll... Spider-Man, with 5.8.
Average: 6.3

The Game Boy Advance was under some major fire the last few months, and I've got to say that without first-party titles or remakes backing it up, I wouldn't have been surprised if the average had went down a notch in the process - but actually it went up. The highest-rated game was 007: Everything or Nothing with 8.0, and the lowest-rated game was The Incredible Hulk with 3.5.
Average: 6.6

If I somewhat promised to purposefully lower the N64's average, I promise to purposefully raise the average for the poor Sega Genesis. Another subpar year for the very first 16-bit mammoth, however somewhat ironically the year of the most positive Genesis review thus far, and with only four games reviewed, the average is actually not that bad at all. Mega Man: The Wily Wars got a high rating of 9.2; in turn, the lowest rating of 4.9 goes to James Bond 007: The Duel.
Average: 6.6

I was struggling to remember the only PlayStation review I did the whole year, and remembering it made me regret I didn't do another one. International Track & Field with its low rating of 4.4 utterly sunk the PlayStation's average after two strong years (9.1 in 2011 and 8.3 in 2012).
Average: 4.4

The two parts of the Ico collection formed this year's PlayStation 2 presentation, so technically, there were no PlayStation 2 reviews at all. However, I'm always trying to look at these games as what they were, so they count. Ico got 8.5 and the critically acclaimed Shadow of the Colossus still didn't scratch my butt gently enough, so it got 7.8 in a "fit of blasphemy".
Average: 8.2

Just as above, the two parts of the God of War Collection Volume II formed this year's PSP presentation - which will very likely be the last. God of War: Chains of Olympus proved to be as full-blooded as they come and got 9.0 - the same rating as God of War and God of War III, mind you, although it's all relative - while God of War: Ghost of Sparta was a bit tired and got only 7.8.
Average: 8.4

On to this generation. PlayStation 3 once again beat Xbox 360 to a near-bloody pulp with a couple of exclusives, but one of them admittedly backfired some, and multi-platform titles did damage on the average. The highest-rated - in this case, DOMINATING - game of the year was The Last of Us, with 9.5 for a conclusive rating. The lowest-rated game was the lackluster Silent Hill HD Collection with 6.5.
Average: 8.1

The thing with the Xbox 360 is, that it doesn't have outright fantastic exclusive games (TRULY exclusive games) which the PS3 has a whole abundance of. Alas, I have found that Xbox 360 games are easier to find and usually cheaper than their PS3 versions, so I end up buying a lot of games for the system, and naturally end up reviewing these versions as well. (To answer one of my mailbox questions right now.) The highest-rated 360 game of the year was The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim with 9.4, and the lowest-rated game was the horrible Xbox LIVE Arcade rendition of the original Track & Field arcade game, with 4.5.
Average: 7.7


tiistai 6. elokuuta 2013

REVIEW - Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch | PS3 | 2011

RELEASED: November 17, 2011
PUBLISHER(S): Level 5, Namco Bandai Games

In 2010, Level 5 collaborated with Studio Ghibli, a famed Japanese animation film studio known for anime classics such as Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro, to create a tactical RPG for the Nintendo DS by the name of Ni no Kuni: Shikkoku no Madōshi. Midway into the game's well-publicized production, Level 5 announced that an PlayStation 3 version of the game was also in the works, up for an international release, and that the two games would have very little in common besides some very basic aspects of the storyline; the PlayStation 3 version, named Wrath of the White Witch, was intended to be a revival of the golden era of Japanese role-playing, the golden era when games like Final Fantasy VII and Chrono Trigger ruled the scene. A truly unique, magical game, which was to feature cutscenes hand-drawn by a team of Ghibli artists; a massive, traditional J-RPG soundtrack by legendary anime composer Joe Hisaishi; finally, an immersive world for the player to explore freely. It's a well-known fact that I'm not a fan of overtly Japanese expression, but Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a game I simply could not pass; I simply had to see if it cashed in on the dozens of promises, especially since its international release was delayed for nearly a year and a half into its launch in Japan. It kicked my old prejudiced ass and came back for seconds. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is awesome.

The best thing to do its thing since Final Fantasy X

Adam Wilson : Oliver
Lauren Mote : Esther / Myrtle
Louis Tamone : Swaine
Steffan Rhodri : Drippy
Jennifer Bryden : Cassiopeia
Brian Protheroe : Shadar
Jo Wyatt : Allie / Alicia
Lily Burgering : Pea
Alexander Morton : Old Father Oak
Colin McFarlane : Rashaad / Rusty Cartwright

Single mother Allie dies rescuing her son Oliver's life. Oliver's tears of sorrow bring life to a doll given to him by his mother, which reveals its identity as Drippy, a fairy spellbound until the day he would come in strong emotional contact with "the pure-hearted one", a great wizard and prophesied savior of his world, which has been ravaged by the Dark Djinn Shadar. The grief-stricken Oliver initially refuses Drippy's invitation to adventure, but accepts the task after hearing that Allie's soul mate and Shadar's arch nemesis, the Great Sage Alicia, might still be alive, and finding her might be the key to bringing Allie back.

Although the issue's a big ol' red cloth for me, let's just drop how Japanese the game is. I have spent the golden majority of my years as a gamer with several Final Fantasy games - especially VII, IX and X - Chrono Trigger, and from the less obvious and less marketed end: Golden Sun, Illusion of Gaia, and finally, Namco's Tales series, which could in principle be seen as a spiritual predecessor to this game. Let's look at what has happened to the J-RPG in the last seven years: in reality, it has ceased to exist, after countless failures and if I might say so, (almost) completely useless adaptation of the Western style.

We're here.
Square Enix have totally destroyed Final Fantasy. They're desperately trying to make long-time fans merely ACCEPT whatever crap they're brewing up from leftover ideas, and won't listen to 'em at all: we want a Final Fantasy VII remake, we'll probably never get anything besides the useless 2012 re-release of the PC version. We want at least a good, solid Final Fantasy game with a compelling story: we get a horrible MMO which is up for a complete reimagining next month, and sequels upon sequels to a single Final Fantasy game that was bad to begin with. Not much of a game, at that - more like a movie that forced you to grind for hours upon hours and WATCH boring battles so you could WATCH your team kick the final boss' ass. You pressed one action button just to keep yourself awake, that's exactly what it was. Since Square Enix has pretty much been the monopoly of J-RPG since the two companies merged, it's a bad omen for them to totally lose control of their flagship. As for the rest of the Square Enix RPG's that have been released in the few recent years, they have a) not mattered much, b) outright sucked, c) never been released internationally, or d) all of the above.

Meanwhile, Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi's Mistwalker is dishing out perfectly enjoyable, if not fantastic RPG's, but no one really takes notice except truly dedicated fans of a certain age. After all these years, all the solid proof that they've lost their edge, and all the solid proof that this edge is very present in indie games that don't have millions of dollars worth of advertising on their side, it's still the Square Enix logo that makes the game. Some people believe it's because of Square Enix's financial dominance over the scene that the international release of Ni no Kuni was laid so far off from its release in Japan. The developers firmly stand behind their statement that it was always coming to the U.S. and Europe, which leads us to believe that it was the heavy translatory work that had to be made for the game, all of its features and collector's paraphernalia that took so much time from the wholly independent Level 5 to accomplish. That's why the DS game never made it this far. Words can't express how glad I am that the PlayStation 3 game did. I'm telling you right now: if you ever enjoyed the golden era of J-RPG, I think you'll find a lot to love in Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.

I'm definitely not an anime fan, but I'm also not too thick-headed of a hater to not acknowledge Ni no Kuni's technological achievements. The graphics are simply gorgeous; the cutscenes are completely hand-drawn and animated in a traditional anime style, and the in-game graphics really aren't all that different, although the polygon outlines show up in close-ups to reveal the truth; they're also a bit more colourful. The more I play games with cel-shaded graphics, the more I like the style! Besides, making the game look like a storybook come to life is a refreshing throwback to the 16-bit era of J-RPG in itself. I couldn't imagine this game with trendy, wholly polygon-based graphics or realistic human characters. Ni no Kuni might therefore be the first traditional anime I've ever liked without the slightest hope that it would look different. When it comes to Ni no Kuni's look, I don't cruelly think of it as a spawn of an artform I truly despise, more like a faithful graphical update to a game like the original Tales of Phantasia. That's a huge compliment, in case you're wondering. While the voiceover track constantly lingers on the brink of crossing my personal limit of endurance due to the main characters being so outright DUMB in the core sense of the word (less voiceover and more text towards the end, by the way), the symphonic soundtrack performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and written by Joe Hisaishi - who's somewhat of a legend in the anime circuit - is simply awesome. Not since Final Fantasy VI have I enjoyed a world map theme this much, and just like "Terra" in that game, it turns out somewhat of a common theme song for the whole game.

Bedlam at the beach!
Speaking of the world map, and Final Fantasy at that, I honestly don't remember the last game that allowed me to explore the world myself and didn't simply lay a list of hotspots to choose from before me. Might've been Final Fantasy IX. That was a long while ago and I can't tell you how happy I am right now. However, Ni no Kuni's world is not that big and you'll set foot in all of the major three kingdoms within the first ten hours of the story; considering the (near) old-school length of the game, it's not hard to figure out that you'll be doing a whole lot of backtracking. Actually, there's very likely a sidequest or two waiting to be nailed somewhere in the world after each main objective, whether you just reached a major destination or beat a boss. If you're into some heavy sidequesting - you'll simply have to adapt if you're not - you'll be glad to know that you won't have to walk to get around all that long. Various types of transport become available on the go, including a fast travel system with the small fee of one mana point.

At several points of the storyline, as well as some sidequests, you'll have to pay a quick visit to Oliver's home world, which is as close to "real world" as you can get in a J-RPG. Everyone in the other world has a soulmate, a "doppelganger" back in the real world, so if helping someone out isn't possible in the other world, dealing with their troubles in the real world might do the trick. Since there's not anything to do in Oliver's hometown besides running these quick errands every once in a while, and maybe engage in a boss fight if you're lucky, I don't really enjoy these sequences - it's always an awkward pause to a good flow. Besides, what I said about the characters being dumb as boots, real people are even dumber and extremely annoying. Seriously, it takes hours before the characters realize the most obvious things. What the characters treat as an epic surprise, a dramatic turn of events that was meant to blow your mind and your morning coffee out of your ears, you'll shrug off with a well-cooked "no shit" and be glad that "mystery" is over and dealt with.

Since we're already discussing the characters here, let's get one thing straight: it's only the quantity of stoopid pills they popped before the start of this adventure that's the problem. I'm surprised how strong I perceive the story as, and even more surprised of my acceptance of the most important cast being comprised of kids. Oliver's the most potentially annoying one (can anyone say "Ha Ri Po Ta"?), but he has the severe personality issues of every J-RPG lead character I know to deal with later on in the story, and it's a treat to watch his coming of age and constantly decreasing use of his "Jeepers!" exclamation. Esther's the mandatory girlfriend material, someone who is always there to take note of Oliver's fits of despair and remind him of the destiny that is his alone. The thief Swaine's the sharpest pencil in the box, although that's not much of a compliment - he's older and wiser than the lead duo, though probably the least mature one of the three. Needless to say, he's my favourite character out of the playable ones; there are more, but they show up uncharacteristically late, and thus don't have as strong of a build-up as this aforementioned trio.

My favourite characters in the whole game would have to be Drippy and the supposed lead villain, the Dark Djinn Shadar. Drippy's probably the least fair fairy I've ever seen, and always there to crack an honestly good joke in a hilarious Welsh accent to ease the mood as long as the voiceover track lasts. Shadar is built from the ground up as a truly malicious character, who's kept responsible for every single evil in the world. When he speaks, the player listens, and when you finally get to face off with him, you'll be dishing out some genuine hate instead of thinking what to eat after you've dealt with this final spot of mud on your shoe. I'd go out on a limb and boldly claim we haven't seen a J-RPG villain quite like Shadar in over 15 years, let alone in any game that has any sort of voiceovers; that gravelly voice is one of his strongest qualities. However, anyone who's played these games knows damn well that fighting Shadar isn't the end; but unlike in many games of yore, anyone who's paid any attention to the hours leading into this epic fight knows it too. The alpha villain is not just some god or alien or some other formless entity popping out of the purest blue, but another character properly built up - the mere title of the game should tell you something.

Fancy a game of slots at the undead casino?
Back to things to do in the field: sidequests. During act one out of two in the game - the much longer one - Oliver is tasked with restoring people's hearts to the way they were before Shadar's dark magic came along. The whole heart-thing pours over from the storyline to the sidequests - it's like Kingdom Hearts all over again, as everyone's babbling on about hearts, not worried about the player's BRAINS at all. So these people have lost their basic good emotions and qualities, such as enthusiasm, belief, courage, love and whatnot. The way this works is that you find someone with an abundance of one of these qualities to share, store a piece of their hearts in your locket, and deliver it to one in need. Simple - almost too simple to carry on for so many hours without any radical developments. Well, sometimes there's a boss fight against someone who has had his heart SERIOUSLY broken, but that never happens during a sidequest. There are various types of errands for you to embark on, but I don't blame you if you feel you're getting bombarded with these matters of the heart. You should do them all at once if you're planning on completing the game to the hilt, because from a certain point onward, you cannot take the heart-related errands on anymore, nor can you finish any you started before. Just a heads-up from someone who forgot to finish one...

Bounty hunts are exactly the same as in Final Fantasy XII - you go to a shop dealing with this kind of stuff, called Swift Solutions, from where you'll find a collective of the available errands as well, and take on all which is available, and which you have the balls for. You go out into the field and search the map for an outstanding enemy, and you'll even get a chance to save just before you face off with him. When you're done, you need to go back to Swift to claim the bounty, which is precious loot toppled with a whole bunch of merit stamps. ...Merit stamps? What do I look like, a freakin' boy scout?!

Merit stamps are the reason to go out to break your limbs with both the sidequests and the bounty hunts. Every time you fill out a stamp card (10 stamps), you'll get a point to claim a merit award with. These awards start out as useless as you can imagine ("look, now you can press O to jump, doesn't make any difference at all but it's FUN!") but there are some epic ones to be claimed later assuming you've got the mandatory epic amount of points to exchange. These make enemies drop more valuable items (and more often), enable you to restore HP while walking, and give you several minor advantages on the field as well as in battle.

Did I fail to mention you have your own
dragon? How silly of me: you have your
own dragon.
Again, I'm jumping ahead of what I should've dealt with a lot earlier, but alchemy's my next target. Although this is an old-fashioned game, I think no RPG would survive nowadays without a lil' bit of crafting on the side. As it's been in RPG's for years, shops turn out pretty useless once you learn the ways of alchemy and start to get weapons, armour and accessories from treasure chests. Besides, the shops in Ni no Kuni never restock their wares, and again, you run out of new wares to peruse not too far into the game. Talking to every single NPC in the game is not very sensical at first, but once you take alchemy lessons, you should talk to everyone 'cause some of them might give up some alchemy formulae; even the bad ones count, and they always give you more than one. You can always try to do it your own or consult the alchemy section of your Wizard's Companion book for some extras - these COULD automatically be added to the list of formulae, but nah, the game wants you to do it the hard way... - but mixing items to no avail of course destroys the items, and the more of a rare find an item is in this game, the more useful it is. So, just keep digging up those instructions. Do not touch Mix & Match without the Wizard's Companion as your aid.

Finally, I will tell you about familiars. "Finally", because they're such an important part of this here experience, and the reason I delayed discussing them for so long is that combat goes both ways. It hobbles on a thin line of being the strongest and weakest suit of this game, and besides, how it plays out screams out "Pokémon" so loud that if I wasn't certain this game was going to rock, I would've given up on it at a very early stage. I'm glad I didn't. Every regular enemy you meet on this small-world-sized round trip is called a Familiar. Familiars also (literally) grow on trees and you get your first Familiar by conjuring the little bastard up from your own heart, but after picking up Esther, you can tame and enlist the aid of any regular, consenting enemy. You can recruit up to three Familiars per party member - the rest of them go to the reserves, and when those reserves are full, they continue on to the Familiar Retreat, a common storage you can browse at any solid save point to build a supergroup of your own choice. Every playable character has his/her own variety of favourite species, which somewhat boosts their Familiars' talent, and there are also a couple of must-haves by default due to their potential physical prowess and/or magical talent on high levels, but most of the choice is all yours. Oh, and that first one you get? Keep him. Use him. It pays off a little TOO well. It's not quite as simple as my friend said, but he has a point: that the Familiar system would have a lot of potential if it was not just the one Familiar you absolutely needed. You need others, most definitely, as combat can be quite tricky despite its simple beginnings - and not in a wholly good way, I'm afraid.

At best, you have 12 characters in your active combat squad. The three Familiars of each character share their host's HP, MP and status ailments such as Blind or Confuse, and vice versa, but you can set everyone up with different equipment that makes a difference for them alone, or grants a tactical advantage for the whole row - for example, a sword that replenishes HP (for everyone in the row) with each strike. You can switch characters any time - switching characters, choosing tactics and choosing items are the only tasks that stop time during battles. Let's go over the pros first: basically, Ni no Kuni has the most exciting and dynamic battle system I have seen in any RPG in a long time. Although it all begins as a mash-'til-you-top-or-drop kinda game, it soon becomes evident that you'll need other advantages than physical power, such as aptitude for tactical defense, or a knack for quickly spotting the enemy's weak elemental spot and exploiting that, and very soon, all of these three core capabilities together. Especially boss fights can be fun, once you get over the worst quirks. Nothing's more rewarding than successfully defending yourself from the boss' most devastating attack, watching him get exhausted over attempting to kick your ass with it, pick up a golden gem and let it rip with a Super-Charged counterattack that has a good chance of finishing up a low-level boss for good at once, a minute into the fight.

Shadar's awesome when he speaks.
Well, the cons... first of all, if you're planning to keep it all together and become a master at this, I can tell you right now that's not possible, 'cause so much in Ni no Kuni depends on luck and undivided focus. The combat menu is a bitch to navigate and not every Familiar has a basic skill such as Defend. If you want to gain the perks that come with successful defense, you need to quickly switch to the host or a Familiar capable of defending, and hope that the enemy loads the attack for half a more second. Usually, he doesn't, and this kind of hectic menu toggling destroys a good, concentrated flow, but that's far from the worst problem. The first of these problems is, that the characters you're not in control of at the moment tend to do the strangest things. They do what you tell them to do in the Tactics menu (a one-time deal, until you decide to change them, luckily)... as long as their MP lasts. That's not too long, I'm afraid. If you're counting on one person and his/her Familiars to heal the party, be wary that his/her MP might run out in record time into a boss fight, as his/her Familiars will use the most devastating magic (in other words, the most consuming magic) against enemies as long as everyone in the party's moderately fine. They can't use items by themselves, you need to be there to make that order - which is good, of course, but they also can't defend themselves. The only way to get them on auto-defense is to make them all defend at once, leaving you to do battle alone. There's no middle road. Finally, the worst problem of them all is, that your attacks - be they physical, magical, even Super-Charged - can be interrupted by anything, at any time. Another party member's actions, the enemy's actions, even a fucking tutorial by Drippy. As awesome as Drippy is, during combat the little pipsqueak WILL get on your nerves sooner or later, and he's dishing out those tutorials right up 'til the end of the game. Let's put it this way: you're fighting the final boss, your ass is sailing a sea of sweat, you get a Super-Charged gem that you've been after for the last ten minutes and the ensuing attack would spell an end for the boss. You load up the Super-Charged attack (also called the Miracle Move, by the way), and... in comes Drippy, telling you about the boss' weaknesses, a joke about how big and strong they are and all that shit. Back to the normal screen, and your Super-Charged attack is gone with the wind. Thanks. Thanks a bunch. No, you can't turn Drippy's hints off, if you're wondering. Luckily this hint system is the only crap you can't get accustomed to. Oh, and there's also this one bit where you have to translate some ancient language into English. It lures you to carefully consult the chart on the spot to decrypt the puzzle. Well, just guess what Drippy does after you've gone to lengths to translate the text? He outright tells you what it says. Of course he does.

Speedrunning's never been my thing. I've never seen the point in it. I've heard of people who've blasted through this game in 40 hours or less - which is the length of just about any fairly recent Western game without their add-ons - and I consider that speedrunning, 'cause even if it was perfectly possible, you won't get this game's magic in that time. Hell, I was probably merely finishing up with the first act at the 40-hour mark. I'm the (right) kind of RPG gamer that tries to do everything - even I lost interest in sidequesting towards the end, especially since I couldn't do the heart-restoring quests anymore, and still I ended up with a little over 60 hours of play time when the credits rolled. As you might've guessed, and will be absolutely certain of when you reach the final hallway to the epic series of final bosses, the end is actually not the end. There's plenty of post-completion content for you to enjoy if you're still interested; minigames, errands, bounties, superbosses, you name it. Aaaaaand, since this is a PlayStation 3 game, there's still a whole lot of Trophies waiting for you to claim them after the story ends; actually there are quite a few of them that are simply not possible to grab during the storyline. Although it's not as big as J-RPG's used to be, the game has other ways of offering bang for your buck.

Two games of this generation have been delivered to us at the exact right time: Dead Space and Ni no Kuni. Two completely different games that have breathed new life into and cashed in on what their quick descriptions used to stand for. But, Ni no Kuni does not only represent the resurrection of true J-RPG, it's also a wonderful game, one of the PlayStation 3's best exclusives at that. I might be a little less prejudiced about anime from now on... then again, I might not. Heh. Anyway, it's out on sale - get it.

+ What is it, in a nutshell? The truest J-RPG in ten years, that's what
+ Gorgeous graphics and massive sound
+ A small, yet immersive world map you're absolutely free to explore how you see fit...
+ ...And it comes with secrets...
+ ...And lots of sidequests and bounty hunts to take on
+ A good story with exciting twists, and surprisingly good characters...

- ...They're "a bit" on the dumb side, though
- Drippy's tutorials and hints might well drive you insane
- The otherwise dynamic combat system has its disadvantages, such as rude interruptions by the enemies as well as your own group, disfunctional A.I., and all-around hectic pace kind of similar to the combat system in Final Fantasy X-2
- The constant backtracking and especially the mandated trips to the "real world" will certainly piss off some people; as all of us die-hard gamers are well aware, real world is boring :)

< 9.3 >